The Thief

The Thief (Borderland Brides, book 2)
Published by Escape Publishing (Harlequin Enterprises Australia)
Release date: 08/05/2015
ISBN:
9780857992567

 

Chapter 1

Clan Elliot Lands
Scottish Border, November 1402

Only a soul touched by madness would venture out on a bitter night such as this.

Or a man determined to guard what was his.

Lachlan drew a long, shoulder-lifting breath. The ice blanketing his fur mantle crackled, breaking the quiet. He slowly exhaled and a puff of frosty air clouded his view of the snow-encrusted north field and the herd of slumbering cattle within. The filthy ice water swelling about his feet seeped through the toughened hide of his leather boots and sucked the heat from his toes. Thank Christ dawn was near, and with it, another to stand guard during the daylight spell.

Trust the accursed thieves not to strike this night. In the four weeks since he’d traded the warmth of his bed to spend the dark hours in bone-chilling misery, not a single beast had been lifted. Numbed fingers flexed around the hilt of his dirk. He was furious, but also intrigued. Whoever had fixed their eye on stealing his cattle was either the poorest thief raiding the Borders, or their wits were addled. Why else risk a noose about their neck for only two beasts each time? The wretches must be caught and punished.

‘Laird!’

Lachlan whipped about at the faint call to see his man Duff riding up the icy drifts toward him. Slipping free of the stark birch wood, Lachlan ran to meet him, the sting of every footfall shooting life up into his bloodless legs.

‘Thieves, Duff?’

‘Aye, laird,’ his clansman said, drawing his mount to a halt and leaping to the ground.

‘Where?’ Lachlan stepped closer and grasped the reins. His chilled blood heated as his excitement swelled.

‘Came from the east, left the same way.’

‘How many?’ Lachlan threw himself into Duff’s saddle. Damned English, no doubt.

‘Just the one.’

Lachlan stilled and looked down at Duff. ‘One?’

‘Aye. Lundy’s after him now.’

‘How many cattle lost?’

‘Nae cattle, laird. Just your horse.’

‘Good Christ.’ Sensing his frustration, his borrowed mount shifted beneath him. Lachlan unclenched his jaw and forced his lower limbs to relax. ‘Return home and tell the day guards to start their watch now.’

‘Aye, laird,’ Duff called, as Lachlan whirled the horse about and cut across to the east.

Poor light and the lack of fresh snow had left the ground hard-packed and slippery. The garron he rode proved his worth, skirting hidden rocks and hollows and clusters of naked, jutting branches. Lachlan searched the shadowed landscape ahead. Nothing. Had Lundy caught the thieving bastard already? The bloody cur had stolen De Brus. Stolen his horse from the five his men had left sheltered in the crude hut they called a shieling.

With Lachlan’s lands at the edge of the Scottish border and the direction the thief had come and gone, it was likely he was English. Clan Elliot had fought for and defended these lands for nigh on a hundred years and while Lachlan had the strength to draw breath, he’d continue to defend what was his.

Feeling the dagger tucked into the band at his waist, he smiled. His cheeks stung at the shift in expression, but even the bite of the chill air couldn’t lessen the rising anticipation at the thought of capturing his prey. Lachlan hoped Lundy hadn’t caught the thief yet. He relished dealing with the reiving scum himself.

Movement to the left caught his eye. He narrowed his gaze to scan the white-capped boulders strewn between ghost-like shrubs. A dark shape flickered and then disappeared. With a twitch of his fingers, he turned his mount north and forged a path up the slope to higher ground. He drew the pony to a halt and dismounted. He stroked the garron’s neck reassuringly, crouched low and made his way to the ridge’s edge. Screened by a clump of frosted alders, he peered down into the shallow valley.

A lone figure slowly made his way up the narrow trail, passing directly below Lachlan’s hiding place. Lachlan studied the heavily garbed form and the ancient mount he rode, before his attention came to rest on the horse trailing behind.

As if sensing his master’s presence, De Brus stopped, lifted his small head and flicked his ears. The coarse, thin rope circling his neck drew taut as the horse stood his ground.

The rider turned and looked back at De Brus.

A grim smile tilted the corners of Lachlan’s mouth. An extra carrot for your efforts, De Brus, me lad. He crept to the edge of the ridge, drew a lungful of air and launched himself at the thieving cur.

His chest collided with the wool-clad form, and he locked his arms about the well-padded figure, bracing himself for the fall. His right side struck the hard-packed ground like a mighty blow from a smithy’s hammer. Air exploded from his lungs. Keeping a tight hold on his captive, Lachlan straddled the thief’s hips. Fists pounded his upper body.

‘Be still, you thieving spawn.’

Thump, thump, thump.

Gritting his teeth, Lachlan drew back his fisted right hand, fixed upon the place he’d hit to stun, and froze.

A long, dark braid clung to a smooth, delicate jaw line.

Thump, thump.

Damn! He captured the flailing fists in one hand, while his other hand shot down and plucked the shapeless woollen cap from the head thrashing from side to side. The figure beneath him tensed and then went still. Unblinking pools of deepest brown stared up at him. Lachlan stared back. Her eyes were rimmed by clusters of dark lashes, giving her the look of a startled doe. Her nose was small; her slightly parted lips were full and pink, tinged with blue.

The thieving beauty suddenly bucked and wriggled beneath him. Leaning forward, Lachlan stretched her hands high over her head. His chest brushed hers. Certain parts of the body beneath him began to materialise in his mind. The soft mounds hidden from view by a thick layer of clothing. The slender hips trapped by his weight, and what lay mere inches below.

She went still again.

The wrists he held suddenly seemed fragile, bird-like. He noted again the silky curve of the jaw that would have shattered beneath his fist.

‘God Almighty. I almost hit you.’ His gut turned. ‘Are you hurt?’

His captive thief stared up at him wide-eyed, but said not a word. Short, sharp breaths escaped her parted lips.

‘Answer me,’ he said through clenched teeth.

Silence. He finally had the only woman in Christendom who could hold her tongue under him and … Damn! He was likely crushing her. Shifting so his weight rested on his knees and releasing her wrists, Lachlan rocked to his feet. He shoved her cap into the band at his waist, then grabbed fistfuls of her damp woollen cloak and set her on her feet.

She staggered and he tightened his hold. Small hands breached the opening of his mantle to shove against him. Despite the layers of clothing he wore, his stomach muscles clenched. He let her go, but stood his ground, studying her eyes. She shivered.

Alertness lingered in the brown depths, hinting at wariness rather than fear.

‘Your name,’ he said. He loosened the leather cord at his throat and lifted the fur from his shoulders. Holding the garment up as an offering, he stepped toward her. She stepped back. Did she shake her head to refuse his mantle or was she trembling from the cold?

‘This will warm you,’ he said, moving closer. He swirled the fur to one side, preparing to drape it about her. Too late a glint of steel flashed in her hand. Pain ripped through his upper arm.

Hell’s fire. With an indrawn breath, he stopped and stared at his slashed sleeve and the gash beneath. Blood welled, spilling over and dripping down to his elbow.

Ignoring the sticky warmth, Lachlan turned and glared at the woman he’d underestimated. Her head slowly shook from side to side as she backed away from him, still brandishing her weapon—his dirk. When he’d set her on her feet, the little thief had stolen his blasted knife.

Lachlan gave her his best laird’s glare. She tilted her chin and glared back.

The sound of galloping hooves echoed behind him. Wiser now, Lachlan refused to take his eyes off the bloodthirsty wench.

‘You caught the thief, laird.’

‘In a manner of speaking,’ Lachlan said recognising Lundy’s voice. Lachlan continued to watch the knife-wielding woman. Her gaze darted between Lachlan and his clansman.

‘You’re bleeding, laird,’ Lundy said from beside him.

‘Aye. A token from our thief.’

The woman looked from Lachlan’s face to his arm, and then to the drops of blood staining the ice near his feet. All trace of colour leached from her elfin face and her huge brown eyes looked into his. The clatter of steel sounded as his dirk dropped from her hand to the frozen ground.

‘Ah, Christ,’ Lachlan muttered, lunging forward to catch her.

***

‘Have you lost your touch with the lasses, laird?’ Iona, the Elliots’ ancient healer, cackled at her own wit and drove her needle into the torn flesh of his arm.

Lachlan flinched, then sipped his ale as the bite of the needle subsided.

Lundy, Duff, Adair, and Callum sat across from him at the laird’s table, doing a poor job of hiding their mirth as they shovelled steaming porridge into their mouths.

‘How is our thief?’ he asked, ignoring Iona’s question, and his smirking clansmen. After riding back to the keep with the senseless wench in his arms, he’d carried her up to the spare chamber they used for uninvited guests. Sadly, Castle Redheugh didn’t have a dungeon.

‘She’s a lively one,’ Iona said. ‘Made a fuss when the women stripped off her sodden clothes.’

Lachlan flinched again as Iona sewed another stitch. ‘Was she injured in any way?’

‘Not that I could see,’ Iona said, tying off the next stitch.

Relief swept through him that the woman—thief—was unharmed.

‘The she-devil did fall at his feet,’ Lundy said. Lachlan smiled at his clansman’s support. ‘Right after she cut him,’ Lundy added.

‘With his own knife,’ Iona said, cackling anew.

Lachlan frowned at Lundy and said, ‘Are you done yet, old woman?’

‘Aye.’ She pulled tight on the final stitch and bent low to sever the thread with her few remaining teeth. ‘Slap this on the wound before you find your bed.’

Lachlan took the clay pot of salve she thrust at him. ‘My thanks, Iona.’

‘Nae need to thank me for patching you up, lad,’ she said, gathering her tools and herbs. ‘But if you’re wanting advice about snaring a woman, you know where to find me. It’s been too long for a young, able lad as yourse—

‘Did the wench speak?’ Lachlan said, cutting her off.

‘Nae.’ The furrows and ruts on her wrinkled face deepened until her small dark eyes were almost lost in the folds. ‘Not a word,’ she said, tilting her head to one side as if she too found the thief’s silence odd.

‘Nae matter,’ he said, thrusting the image of their mysterious guest from his mind. ‘My thanks, again.’

Iona nodded and shuffled her way to the spiral stone staircase. Lachlan gestured to one of the young servants to aid the healer’s ascent. The hunched old woman was too stubborn to ask for assistance. Light from the flaming torches washed over her silver-white hair, reminding Lachlan of how she’d looked when he’d been a lad. Reminding him how swiftly time slipped by. Reminding him that time waited for no man.

Lachlan drained the last of his ale, and turned his thoughts to a concern that had robbed him of sleep for almost a year. Now he’d caught the thief, he’d run out of reasons to delay. He needed to marry. He’d come close last winter’s end, but close wasn’t good enough.

Lachlan scanned the hall. Dawn had barely come and gone, but more than the usual number of his people were up and about, no doubt due to his return from sentry duty, carrying his prize. Some clansmen slumbered on, while others began their chores. These were his people. His responsibility.

Murdoch, Castle Redheugh’s steward, emerged from the kitchens with a fresh jug of ale. Spying the empty wooden bowls on the table, he summoned a maid to clear them away, and topped up the six empty cups.

‘Where is Caelan?’ Lachlan asked.

‘He’s on his way from the stable,’ Murdoch replied.

‘Sit, Murdoch,’ Lachlan said. ‘We’ll fill the lad in when he arrives.’

Lachlan lifted his ale and took a long swig. He lowered his cup and met each man’s gaze before leaning forward, resting his bare forearms on the worn timber surface. The five men, sharing the halo of light from the torches in the sconces behind him, waited expectantly.

‘I know four of you are eager to find your beds,’ Lachlan said quietly. ‘God willing, this won’t take long.’

Lundy, Duff, Dair and Cal, his companions and best swordsmen, straightened where they sat. Murdoch gave a slight nod, the glint in his faded blue eyes spoke of his awareness regarding the subject Lachlan was about to broach, and his approval. Though Lachlan didn’t need his steward’s recognition, he respected the seasoned Borderer’s opinion.

‘The reason I’ve asked for your counsel is it’s time I married.’ Lachlan toyed with the cup in his hands as he waited for a reaction.

‘Who’s the lucky lass?’ Duff asked.

‘I haven’t decided yet.’

Dair’s fair brows lifted in mischief. ‘So you want our help in choosing a bride?’

‘Aye.’

Lundy winked at Cal, leaned forward and said, ‘What do you find most appealing about women, laird?’

Lachlan smiled at the question. ‘I find everything about women appealing.’

Grins wreathed his friends’ faces. Having accompanied Lachlan to the surrounding villages and towns for a bout of womanly comfort on more than one occasion, the four were well aware of his preferences in women. Murdoch tried to hide his knowing smile.

Downing the rest of his ale, Lachlan set the empty cup on the wooden table with a thud. ‘But it isn’t just a woman I’m looking for.’ His lips tightened. ‘I need a wife.’

If his plan to wed Jeanne Irvine had succeeded—

‘Pity the Irvine lass married another,’ Murdoch said, as if reading his mind.

Lachlan nodded. ‘An alliance with the Irvine’s would have been ideal. They could have watched our backs, granting us more time to harass the English.’

‘Ah! You want that kind of wife,’ Lundy said.

‘Aye.’ Lachlan accepted the refilled cup pushed toward him as Caelan approached and took his seat beside him. ‘Marrying the daughter of one of our neighbours will strengthen our position on the border.’

‘With Jeanne Irvine out, that narrows your choice to either the Armstrongs or the English,’ Cal said thoughtfully.

‘We all know I’d rather be strung up by my entrails than wed an Englishwoman,’ Lachlan said.

‘You seem to favour William’s young wife well enough,’ Murdoch said, pushing Caelan’s cup toward him.

Lachlan’s mind filled with the recent memory of attending William Kirkpatrick’s wedding. His friend had appeared content for the first time in many years, and Lachlan had no doubt the change had everything to do with the Englishwoman with red-gold hair who Will had married. Witnessing Will’s marriage had reminded him of his own need to wed. But that’s where any similarities ended. Will had chosen to marry. Lachlan had given his word.

‘Lynelle is the exception,’ Lachlan said. ‘And she’s Will’s wife, not mine,’ he added with a grin.

‘That leaves the wild Armstrongs then,’ Duff said.

Caelan lowered his cup. ‘Or you could wed Irvine’s younger daughter.’

Lachlan turned and looked at his brother. Caelan was his only kin, and until Lachlan married and sired a son, his only heir.

Caelan’s fair hair, the same as his own, stuck up at all angles, but his dark eyes were serious.

‘Lennox didn’t mention having another daughter.’

Caelan shrugged. ‘All I know is I saw her in the Irvine stable last winter while you were hunting her sister in Irvine Hall.’

Lachlan ignored the word ‘hunting’ and cocked a brow at the five men struggling to contain their laughter.

His attention settled on Caelan once more. ‘How do you know she was Lennox Irvine’s daughter? Did you speak with her?’

Caelan shook his head. ‘One of the stable lads pointed her out and said who she was, but I didn’t speak with her.’

Lachlan stared at his brother. The news intrigued and annoyed him. He hadn’t known a second daughter existed. Unless she was too young to marry.

‘What age would you guess her to be?’ Lachlan asked.

Caelan shrugged, again. ‘You’d know better than I.’

Lachlan frowned at his brother. ‘How so?’

‘She’s the lass you carried home this morn after you caught her stealing your horse.’

Lachlan slowly straightened in his chair. ‘Are you saying the woman locked in the chamber upstairs is Irvine’s younger daughter?’

‘Aye.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Aye.’

Lachlan sank back into his seat, his mind stirring with promise.

‘Is she old enough to marry?’ Murdoch asked.

It took little effort for Lachlan to recall the thief’s bonny face. ‘I believe so,’ he replied. ‘At a guess I’d say she’d be close to eighteen summers.’ Around ten years younger than Lachlan’s twenty-seven summers, but definitely old enough to wed. He turned to Caelan. ‘Did the stable lad say her name?’

Caelan frowned in thought.

‘If she’s Irvine’s daughter,’ Cal said, ‘Why was she stealing your horse?’

Lachlan met Cal’s questioning gaze. ‘Good question.’

‘Perhaps she’s shy and was seeking an introduction,’ Adair said, straight-faced.

‘And perhaps you’ll swear off women for the next year, Dair,’ Lundy said.

A moment of silence passed before a chorus of masculine laughter filled the Great Hall, drawing many a smiling eye their way.

Once their merriment eased, Lachlan said, ‘I’d like to know if she’s the one who stole Elliot cattle as well as stealing De Brus.’

‘Kenzie. The stable lad called her Kenzie,’ Caelan suddenly said.

‘Kenzie.’ Lachlan tested the name on his tongue. ‘My thanks, brother. You’ve done well.’

Caelan gave a pleased smile.

‘Could be Old Lennox didn’t offer the younger one, ‘cause she’s his bastard daughter,’ Murdoch said.

‘Aye,’ Lachlan nodded slowly as he glanced at each of his companions, and then looked at his steward. ‘But it would be best to make sure,’ he added, and then drained his cup. Lachlan’s chair scraped against the stone floor as he stood. ‘Get some sleep, lads. We leave for Irvine Keep at noon.’

‘Does lads include me?’ Caelan asked, his tone edged with excitement.

‘Aye. You’ve given me hope that I’ll not be bound to one of the Armstrong’s wild daughters.’ Lachlan shuddered.

Caelan’s smile stretched from ear to ear. The other men chuckled.

‘I trust you will keep the peace here when we go?’ Lachlan said to Murdoch.

‘Aye,’ the older man said. ‘Anything you want done with our “guest”?’

Lachlan peered at his tended wound. ‘Keep an eye on her, feed her, but be certain nothing sharp is left within her reach. I’ll deal with our thief when I return. I’ll know more then.’

Murdoch gave a brisk nod.

Lachlan lifted the pot of salve off the table and strode to the stairs. The weariness that had plagued him lessened with every step he climbed. He knew the cause. With the smell of damp wool filling his nostrils, he paused on the landing outside his chamber. He plucked the woollen cap from his waistband and turned to stare at the solid oak door further along the corridor, wondering if snaring a bride was really going to be so easy. Pushing his doubts aside, he tucked her cap back into his waistband and changed his line of thought. Would Kenzie Irvine swoon at the sight of his naked chest, as she had at seeing his blood?

A slow smile tugged at his lips. There was only one way to find out.

 

Excerpt from The Thief (Borderland Brides, book 2). If you enjoyed this excerpt, you’ll love the book! Available for purchase:

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