“I read it in one sitting because I could not put it down.” ~ Amazon Reviewer
A respectable Highland lady goes in search of a scoundrel..
Rife with danger and wicked salaciousness, Lady Elora Brodie had never walked the narrow roads and alleyways of Edinburgh’s shipyards, nor had she ever imagined she would, especially after nightfall.
“My lady, forgive me but I fear for yer safety,” the head of her guard said in a low voice at her side. “Do not think yer title will save ye here.”
“Declan, no one knows who I am, nor will they, allowing ye stop calling me my lady,” she hissed in reply.
“’Tis not too late to turn back.”
She stopped in her tracks and looked her loyal warrior straight on. The silver at his temples shone in the lantern light as did the worry in his gaze. “My mind is made up. I will not be persuaded from my chosen course.”
Declan’s gaze scanned the Heavens. “There’s no moon nor any stars to be seen. ‘Tis a bad omen.”
She cocked a brow at him. “’Tis dry at least, which I believe is a good omen, considering that it has done naught but rain these last two days.”
“Or…mayhap ‘tis only the calm before the storm.”
She took a deep breath to quiet her frustration. “Declan, ye’ve been more of a da to me than my father ever was in life. I love ye, and I love how much ye care. But I will command ye back to the livery if ye cannot accept why I’ve come here.”
His eyes flashed wide. “Ye wouldn’t wander these streets alone, surrounded as we are by thieves and beggars and whores?” His voice had risen to mirror his concern.
“Wheest,” she hissed. “Remember, we do not wish to draw attention our way.”
She pressed her lavender-scented handkerchief to her nose, trying, with no avail, to mask the pungent scent of low-tide, dead fish, and other odors she dared not consider long enough to identify. Lantern and torch fire illuminated the motley assortment of people milling about near the docks in varying stages of intoxication. Her surroundings were unnerving, to say the least, but her humble clothing bolstered her confidence. She wore an unadorned dark-green tunic and a simple black cloak, both of which she had borrowed from her maid, Mary. Even Elora’s waist-length golden curls had been coaxed into two thick plaits down her back rather than the intricate style and veils that she typically wore. More than that, riding for two days in the rain had left her garments splattered with mud, allowing her to hope that she truly did appear as common as any of the women passing by.
“Ye’re a handsome one, aren’t ye?”
Elora turned to see who spoke. Her eyes widened when she saw a woman with unbound black hair that fell in ragged waves to her waist pursing her brightly painted lips at Declan. “I’ll treat ye right,” she crooned, fluttering her lashes.
Elora cringed inwardly as she looked at the woman whose bosom was barely covered by the deep cut of her tunic, over which her tattered surcote was cinched tight to accentuate her ample curves.
Well, mayhap, Elora hoped, she didn’t look that common.
Declan cleared his throat. “Move along,” he replied firmly.
With a shrug, the woman sauntered away, continuing her search for a man to fill her bed and subsequently her purse. Despite her easy laughter, Elora could sense the woman’s desperation. In fact, everywhere she turned, she glimpsed regret and grief sadly pushing through smiles meant to hide the pain of the down-trodden and broken-hearted.
Pulling her cloak tighter about her shoulders, Elora forced her gaze back to the roadside where she scanned the businesses lining the narrow, muddy streets. There was a sailmaker and a smithy, both boarded up for the night. Farther down, she spied an apothecary, which was also closed, but in front of the locked entry stood a boy with no more than ten and two years. He had tangled dark hair, a dirty face, and was selling hot pig’s feet.
“My—,” Declan began but corrected himself by calling her by her given name. “Elora, now that ye’ve seen this place, surely ye wish to leave and find a comfortable inn. On the morrow, we can seek out the guilds and find a merchant or another tradesman.”
Squaring her shoulders, she shook her head firmly in reply. She was very aware of the fact that she did not have the captain’s approval, only his protection. Her steward also did not support her decision, but it mattered naught. After all, she was lady of Castle Bròn. She made her own choices, which was exactly the intended goal of her current mission—to maintain control of her own life.
Picking her way carefully down the muddy roads, she forced her attention away from the respectable businesses to the taverns and brothels, all of which looked the same to her…raucous dens where only the basest of pleasures could find satisfaction.
“Choose one,” she muttered to herself, but she knew why she delayed in making her choice.
She was afraid.
Steeling her shoulders, she tilted her chin. This was not her first taste of fear nor would it be her last. Seizing her courage, she took another deep breath and picked a tavern at random.
“The Ship,” she declared, looking pointedly at the drinking house across the way where a wooden sign carved with a square-masted cog hung.
Declan opened his mouth as if to try to persuade her once more from her current course, but then he sighed and shook his head. At length, he said, “As ye wish, my lady.”
Forcing one foot in front of the other, she approached the slatted door. Just as she reached for the handle, it flung wide. Stepping back quickly, she barely missed being struck in the face by the wood. Raucous laughter and music filtered out on the heels of an old man with wizened cheeks. He stumbled drunkenly into the night. Teetering to the left, he collided into Elora. She gasped, feeling her feet slide out from under her in the slick mud, but Declan seized her arm to keep her upright.
“Where’s my ship?” the man slurred, meeting Elora’s gaze. Then a slow smile spread across his face, revealing the few remaining teeth he still possessed. “Ye’re a pretty bit of skirt.”
“Move along,” Declan snapped at the old sailor.
Eyes wide, the old man looked up at Declan and nodded, then stumbled backward. When he had crossed the road, Declan whirled to face her, his face etched with concern. “I beg ye to reconsider yer plan. ‘Tis too dangerous!”
“The risk is necessary,” she shot back. Then she smoothed her hands down her simple tunic and adjusted her cloak about her shoulders. Certainly, she acknowledged the risks she took. Still, whatever ill she faced in that moment or the days to follow could never compare to the lifetime of unhappiness she was fighting like hell to overcome.
Her plan, although perilous, was simple enough. She needed to hire a man—but not just any man. She had a list of criteria, all of which had to be met.
She needed a man who could be bought, who was not overly concerned with his mortal soul, and who was not without connections. He needn’t be a laird or a laird’s son, but mayhap a laird’s nephew or even an ill-favored cousin. Certainly, such a man may prove difficult to find, but she did not doubt that with persistence and courage, she would complete her mission.
“Trust me, Declan. I know what I’m doing.”
She scanned the road ahead and set her gaze on a tavern called, The Devil’s Bridge.
Once again, she drew a deep breath, then marched across the road, determined to enter the bawdy establishment regardless of what obstacles she met along the way.
Declan reached the door first. “Please, my lady. Allow me to at least make a quick scan of the room.”
Singing, raucous laughter, and raised voices carried outside. She raised her brow at him. “Listen to the din. Ye know very well what it will be like behind that door, and no amount of inspection is going to make ye feel better about me going inside or my purpose for doing so.”
Declan’s lips pressed together in a grim line. She could almost feel the rebuttals reverberating on the tip of his tongue, but he swallowed his refusals, and instead dipped his head, acknowledging her authority. “Aye, my lady.”
Opening the door, he began to step out of the way, but then he stopped and turned on her. His wide shoulders filled the doorway, blocking her entry. Uncharacteristically, he seized her by the arms. “Ye needn’t fear Laird Mackintosh’s coming. Yer warriors would consider it an honor to die in battle for ye if need be.”
She shook her head. “No one is going to die. Now, step aside.”
His nostrils flared. She knew it pained Declan, but he did as she bade.
Men crowded around tables, calling out to each other over games of dice. Victors raised their tankards high, sloshing ale on the floor and table tops while losers cursed and guzzled their cups to soothe the sting of an ill-fated roll. Everywhere, women moved among the tables, serving ale and bowls of pottage, or they perched on men’s laps, locked in passionate embraces. Breasts were fondled. Skirts pushed past their knees. Elora gulped. Took another deep breath and squared her shoulders.
It was now or never…
“For the last time, Elora,” Declan pleaded in a hushed voice. “A place like this will be crawling with the most disreputable men.”
“Good,” she said with false confidence as she stepped inside. “Because I am not looking for a reputable man.”
Nathan Campbell scanned the crowded tavern from where he sat at a corner table. The room stretched out in front of him. The bar was just to his left, and beyond that he could see the stairs leading to the upper level. Across the room to the right, he had a clear view of the doorway; that is, until a comely pair of nearly bare breasts appeared in front of him. Shifting his gaze higher, he locked eyes with a serving wench. She licked her lips suggestively before setting a tankard of ale in front of him.
“Here ye are, lover,” she crooned in a husky voice full of longing.
Slowly, seductively, she slid onto the bench beside him. Her full lips pressed against his neck. Then she nibbled her way teasingly to his ear while her hand moved slowly up his bare thigh under the folds of his plaid. His body responded to her touch, lengthening, hardening. With her other hand, she cupped his cheek and boldly kissed him. Tasting sweetness on her tongue, he deepened their kiss, pulling her onto his lap, but he kept his gaze trained on the door. Her breaths quickened. She twisted the fabric of his tunic in her fists as she moaned and squirmed. Skillfully, he stroked her breasts, rubbing her nipples through her threadbare tunic, which grew taut beneath his touch. Arching her back, she pressed her bountiful curves against him.
“Take me upstairs,” she begged softly in his ear. “Please, Nathan.”
With a simple shake of his head, he seized her lips again, kissing her to silence her pleas. He did not intend to leave the room; at least, not until his business was complete. Ever vigilant, he continued to watch the door for his newest prize, despite the pleasing wench doing everything within her power to distract him.
He stiffened when the door swung wide. Anticipating the arrival of a so-called giant named Bowie—with massive shoulders, shorn blond curls and a jagged scar running from his right eye to his hard, square jaw—Nathan pulled his lips free and angled his head so that he gazed sidelong at the door. But a man of reasonable height and dark hair filled the entryway, oddly with his back to the room. He appeared to be conversing with someone still outside.
Tensing, Nathan shifted the barmaid off his lap.
She pouted in protest. “There isn’t a woman in this room who will take care of ye like I will.”
“I’m not waiting for a woman,” he replied absently, keeping his gaze trained on the door.
“Good,” she crooned. He could hear the smile in her voice before she nuzzled her face into his neck and stroked her hand slowly, possessively down his hard length.
Despite her tender administrations, he straightened in his seat when the man stepped aside and a stunning woman walked into The Devil’s Bridge. Her golden hair shimmered in the glow of candlelight. Her features were delicate, her neck long and slender, but it was her bearing that captured his interest. She stood tall, her back poker straight while she scanned the room, her expression impassive. The authority in her stance and the attentiveness of her guard belied her simple garb. Her emotionless gaze passed his corner of the room and they locked eyes. She held his gaze for a stony moment, then turned away and continued her perusal of the busy tavern.
Intrigued, Nathan continued to watch her, and he wasn’t alone. Several of the men in the room were neglecting their tankards and the warm, willing women in their arms to marvel at the newcomer’s beauty. But despite her apparent charms, no one approached her. Certainly, the seasoned warrior at her side was, in part, to blame, but Nathan believed her stern bearing was the true reason. She was aloof and completely unreadable—at least, at first glance. What no one else might have noticed was her fisted hands. Her white knuckles revealed either the anger or trepidation she so skillfully masked behind her cool façade.
After several moments, her guard leaned close and said something for her ears alone. She gave the slightest nod of her head in acknowledgement. Then she lifted the hem of her mud-splattered tunic and glided across the room to an open table in the corner opposite his own.
He couldn’t help but smile when, for the first time since entering the drinking house, her face clearly revealed her thoughts. Like any arrogant and haughty lady might do, she wrinkled her nose at the overturned tankard on the table in disgust. In a flash, her guard snatched up the remains of the table’s former occupants and hastened the empty vessels to the bar. Meanwhile, the woman, who he had no doubt was of noble birth, removed a handkerchief from her sleeve and used it to wipe the bench before she sat down, causing Nathan’s smile to widen.
As if sensing his amusement, she turned and, once more, met his gaze. With her flaxen hair and flawless white skin, she was as beautiful as freshly fallen snow on the moors and equally as cold. Her eyes showed no warmth. Her movements were controlled and stiff. She was more a finely made statue than a flesh and blood woman in Nathan’s eyes.
A gust of wind blew through the tavern as the door once more swung wide, drawing his gaze. In walked a massive man whose hair, size, and scar puckering the skin on his cheek fit the description of the thieving murderer Nathan and his men had been hired to capture.
“’Tis about time,” Nathan said before downing the rest of his ale. Then he kissed the warm, red-blooded wench at his side. Sliding out from behind the table, he cracked his knuckles.
“Bowie Mackenzie,” he called, thundering across the room to confront the much larger man.
Silence fell over the tavern.
“Who wants to know?” Bowie replied, crossing his thick arms over his muscular chest.
Nathan took a piece of parchment from his sporran. “Laird Cumming wants a word with ye, and he’s paid me a small fortune to make certain he has his chance.” Nathan held the paper up showing Bowie the Cumming’s seal.
A slow smile stretched across Bowie’s face, still handsome, despite the thick red line marring one side. “Think ye that I will just surrender and let ye take me?”
Nathan smiled. “A man can hope.”
The smile vanished from Bowie’s face. “Ye’d best start praying instead.”
The giant withdrew the sword strapped to his back. An instant later, the tavern’s revelers scurried back, knocking over chairs and tables in their haste to escape the sudden fray.
“Amen,” Nathan replied, his voice deadly soft.
With a growl, Bowie attacked. Nathan ducked beneath the might of the giant’s first swing, then charged forward, keeping low, and drove his shoulder into Bowie who stumbled back but kept his footing. Again, Bowie thrust his sword at Nathan who sidestepped, avoiding the assault before striking out with his fist and catching Bowie in the nose. A satisfying snap rent the air. Bowie growled as blood gushed from his nostrils. He charged at Nathan, swinging his blade. Nathan ducked and caught Bowie in the jaw with a left hook, followed by a swift punch to the gut. Then he barreled into the larger man, knocking him to the ground. Sprawled on top of the accused criminal, no sooner did Nathan ready his fist to strike Bowie again, than the tips of three swords appeared, all poised a breath away from Bowie’s throat.
“Ye weren’t supposed to attack until we returned,” Caleb, Nathan’s partner, snapped.
Nathan shrugged up at his scowling friend. “Ye were late.”
Caleb’s dark brow furrowed over his clear blue eyes. “We brought our horses to the livery. Ye knew we would not be long.”
Nathan lifted his shoulders. “Aye, but he arrived, which means ye were late.” Nathan climbed to his feet and looked down at the man whose bloodied face was twisted in rage.
“Laird Cumming is a liar. I stole nothing and killed no one,” Bowie snarled, lifting his head and shoulders as if to rise.
“Don’t move or I’ll slit yer throat,” Caleb said, pressing his blade harder against the wanted-man’s throat.
Nathan grabbed two coils of rope from Caleb’s satchel and tied Bowie’s hands together and then his feet. He stared down at the giant whose handsome features had suddenly softened, and for a moment, Nathan saw what lived inside Bowie—fear and hope.
His gaze sought Nathan’s. “I’m innocent,” he said in a low voice.
Every wanted-man who Nathan had tracked down all made the same claim. “That is for ye and Laird Cumming to work out. My part in this is done.” Nathan turned to the other two members of his band of thief-takers. “Bring him to the sheriff and give him this,” he said, handing over the sealed orders to William, an older man of few words with a long gray beard and only one eye.
After William tucked the square of parchment into his sporran, Nathan shifted his gaze to Thomas, who, at just ten and six, was the newest and youngest member of their gang. “After he is secured, then ride north to Cumming territory. But remember, do not tell the laird where Bowie is being held until he has paid in full.”
“Aye,” Thomas replied, eagerly nodding his flaxen head. “We will accept payment. Then we’ll ride to the next village and hire a messenger to tell the laird where he can find his prize.”
Nathan nodded in approval. “Be careful. Trust no one.”
When Thomas and William had seized Bowie by the arms and began dragging him out into the street, Nathan turned to Caleb. “I’m ready for another ale.”
Caleb frowned. “My guess is that ye’ve had too many cups as it is.”
Nathan flashed a smile, clamping his hand on Caleb’s shoulder. “As usual, my friend, ye’ve guessed wrong.”
Caleb sat down across from him and raked a hand through his long, dark hair. “Ye should have waited.”
Nathan waved his hand to show his lack of concern. “I did what I had to. I wasn’t going to risk losing a purse like what Laird Cumming is willing to pay for Bowie.”
“No amount of coin is worth dying for. Anyway, we’ve amassed enough wealth to live like kings for the rest of our days.” Caleb set his sword on the table, and moved to sit down, but then his eyes flashed wide. “Do ye have some kind of death wish? Ye didn’t even have yer sword,” he said accusingly, picking up Nathan’s blade where he had left it on the bench. “I thought that he disarmed ye.”
Nathan felt a soft body press against his. He shifted in his seat and met warm eyes. The serving wench had returned, but this time, she brought two other lasses with her. “I was handling him,” Nathan said absently as he allowed the women to settle on the benches. Straightaway, two nestled next to him and the other turned her attention to Caleb.
Caleb shook his head, seemingly unaware of the pretty dark-eyed lass nuzzling up close to him. “Ye may not care whether ye live or die, but some of us would prefer that ye lived.”
“What are ye going on about? Ye worry too much,” Nathan said before taking a long draught of ale. Then he raised his tankard. “Come, let us celebrate.”
Caleb lifted his shoulders. “But what are we to celebrate? Yer near demise.”
Nathan scoffed. “I had him bested.”
“Ye take too many risks. When will it be enough?”
Nathan shrugged. “Only fools are satisfied,” he drawled before downing the last of his ale.
Then he felt the pull of someone’s gaze. He looked across the room and once again locked eyes with the lady who had arrived just before Bowie. Instantly, she shifted her gaze away from his, her attention now, at least in appearance, on the other corner of the room. But the slight pinking of her cheeks made him believe she was embarrassed for having been caught staring at him. The sight of her hair shimmering in the candlelight and the haughty angle of her chin renewed his interest.
Everything about her bespoke of restraint, from her straight back, to her hands folded demurely in her lap, to her expressionless beauty. He continued to stare at her profile, wondering, once again, who she was and why a lady would come into The Devil’s Bridge dressed as a commoner.
Then, to his surprise, she slowly shifted her gaze back to his, but this time, she did not look away. Her keen eyes and temptingly full lips were framed by a perfect oval face. He raised his tankard in greeting, but the maid on his left noticed the direction of his attention and cupped his cheek to redirect his gaze at her.
“I will do anything for ye, Nathan. Whatever yer heart desires.”
Not to be outdone, the maid on his right boldly stroked her hand under his plaid. “As will I.”
He kissed each woman in turn, slowly, tenderly. Then he leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes, inviting the numbness of drink to dull his thoughts while the distraction of the nameless, faceless women with roaming hands and soft lips made him forget it all—the highborn beauty in the corner, the look of innocent hope in Bowie’s gaze, the truth of Caleb’s warning, and the demons that never gave his soul reprieve.
Elora’s heart had pounded while she watched the two men fight, believing for certain that the man who had attacked the giant was going to meet a quick death. After all, not only was he significantly smaller but he had also been unarmed.
She gazed over at the thief-taker who had returned to his table in the corner opposite her own. His appearance was striking. He had black hair, compelling deep-set eyes, and a strong jaw shadowed by rakish stubble. She watched as one of the serving maids leaned over the table seductively while setting another ale in front of him. His generous lips curved, lifting on one side in a sexy sideways smile that, to her own surprise, made Elora’s breath catch.
Apparently, like every other woman in the room vying for his attention, she was not unaffected by his startling appeal.
In fact, she could hardly tear her gaze away from the lustful display taking place before her very eyes. The two women flanking his sides were beautiful despite their painted faces and common dress. Each freely explored his body while he drank his ale.
What piqued her curiosity was that he neither truly engaged their advances nor did he push them away—as if it mattered not whether they stayed or gave their affection to someone else. His manner was careless, in the way he drank and passively allowed the women the use of his body.
She sucked in a sharp breath when he suddenly looked up and they locked eyes. Her face burned. Her heart raced, keeping her from meeting his gaze. The feeling unnerved her to her core. Her composure seldom wavered. Even when she was terrified, she was usually able to hide her fear from the world.
She scanned the tavern, pretending to be too occupied to notice the thief-taker’s scrutiny. At length, her heart quieted and she felt confident that she was once again the master of her emotions. Still feeling his gaze, she turned in his direction. They locked eyes, once again, and this time she held his gaze while she judged what sort of man he truly was.
One thing she knew for certain…He was fearless.
Attacking the armed criminal he had called Bowie, with naught but his fists and lesser brawn certainly supported her belief, but it was not why she had made this assessment of his character.
It was in his eyes.
There was something distant in his gaze, even though his stare seemed to penetrate her very soul. It was as if he was not wholly there, as if he was someplace else, or even nowhere else. He raised his glass to her. She dipped her head slightly in greeting, but one of the women at his side scowled at her before forcing his gaze to meet hers.
A sweet, reassuring smile curved his lips as he cupped the woman’s cheek and kissed her with the tenderness of an attentive lover. When he drew away, the woman’s face held an almost reverent glow as if she had been anointed rather than simply appeased. He then turned and showed the other woman the same fleeting devotion. When both women renewed their impassioned advances, he took another long draught of ale before leaning his head back against the wall. Then he closed his eyes.
Elora knew at that moment that she, along with everything and everyone else, had been dismissed from his mind.
Meanwhile, he had only just begun to take root in her own thoughts.
She leaned close to Declan. “Speak with the barkeep. Find out everything ye can about that man,” she said, looking pointedly at the dark-haired stranger.
“Aye, my lady,” Declan replied. Then he stood and crossed to the bar while she continued to study the corner table opposite her own.
Elora watched fascinated by the fervor of the lusty women’s actions and, in contrast, his passive response. Certainly, drink was to blame for his sluggish movements, but she was certain there was more to his disinterest.
A peal of feminine laughter drew her gaze to his companion who was also fine to look upon with dark hair and broad shoulders. In contrast, he had barely touched his cup and was giving his full attention to the young woman at his side. He whispered something in her ear, making her blush. Clearly, he could take what he wanted, but instead, he wooed her unnecessarily. In fact, Elora did not doubt that the brunette would welcome the gorgeous man freely into her arms, her bed, and her heart.
“My lady,” Declan said, drawing her gaze. He slid back onto the bench across from her. “His name is Nathan Campbell. His companion is called Caleb but no one can tell me his surname. Nathan and his companions pass through here from time to time. They are thief-takers, as I’m sure ye’ve guessed, and apparently rather successful ones at that.”
Elora looked over at Nathan, whose head was still back and his eyes closed.
“Is he of the southern Campbells?” she asked brightly, her mind fixed on the clan’s great size and wealth.
“Nay, he hails from the north and is the chieftain’s third son, although he is not in the laird’s favor.”
Her eyes widened. The laird’s third son—his connections were better than she had dared hope. She chewed her bottom lip while she continued to study him. Despite her outer calm, her heart raced. He met her minimal requirements…He was a thief-taker, which meant he could be bought. Judging by his indulgent nature and recklessness, he was not overly concerned with his mortal soul, and he was a chieftain’s son.
She turned to her guard. “I have made my choice.” She nodded in Nathan’s direction. “He’s the one.”
“The thief-taker? Nay, my lady! They’re no better than criminals.”
Ignoring Declan’s protests, she continued. “I must speak with him, but not here. There are too many ears. Arrange for a room upstairs. Then ask him to come to me.”
After Declan begrudgingly left to speak to the barkeep, Elora looked across the room. Nathan was still leaning against the wall with his eyes closed. She smiled, thinking that if he only knew what she was about to ask him, he would sober right up.
“To us,” she said quietly and lifted her tankard to toast the man who she was certain could save her from a life of emptiness and misery.