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How does a woman explain to her betrothed that she murdered her first husband?

Shipwrecked in the Scottish Highlands, American heiress Elise Kingston quietly plans revenge for the deaths of her daughter and the brother who sacrificed his life to save her.

When Marcus MacGregor, Marquess of Ashlund, returns to his Highland home to discover a stunning American woman has been taken in by his clan, his attraction is instant and he resolves to make her his--no matter what secret she's keeping.

Elise is shocked by her need for Marcus and, too late, discovers that her feelings make him a target of her enemy--a man powerful enough to destroy even a Scottish nobleman.


Scottish Highlands

Spring 1826

England lay far behind him, though not far enough. Never far enough. Marcus breathed deep of the crisp spring air. The scents of pine and heather filled his nostrils. Highland air. None sweeter existed. His horse nickered as if in agreement, and Marcus brushed a hand along the chestnut's shoulder.

"It is good to be home," Erin spoke beside him.

Grunts of agreement went up from the six other men riding in the company, and Marcus answered, "Aye," despite the regret of leaving his son in the hands of the Sassenach.

He surveyed the wooded land before him—MacGregor land. Bought with Ashlund gold, held by MacGregor might, and rich with the blood of his ancestors.

"If King George has his way," Erin said, "your father will follow the Duchess of Sutherland's example and lease this land to the English."

Marcus jerked his attention onto the young man. Erin's broad grin reached from ear to ear, nearly touching the edges of his thick mane of dark hair. The lad read him too easily.

"These roads are riddled with enough thieves," Marcus said with a mock scowl. His horse shifted, muscles bunching with the effort of cresting the hill they ascended. "My father is no more likely to give an inch to the English than I am to give up the treasure I have tucked away in these hills."

"What?" Erin turned to his comrades. "I told you he hid Ashlund gold without telling us." Marcus bit back a laugh when the lad looked at him and added, "Lord Phillip still complains highwaymen stole his daughter's dowry while on the way to Edinburgh." He gave Marcus a comical look that said you know nothing of that, do you?

"Lord Allerton broke the engagement after highwaymen stole the dowry," put in another of the men. "Said Lord Phillip meant to cheat him."

"Lord Allerton is likely the thief," Marcus said. "The gold was the better part of the bargain."

"Lord Phillip's daughter is an attractive sort," Erin mused. "Much like bread pudding. Sturdy, with just the right jiggle."

A round of guffaws went up and one aging warrior cuffed Erin across the back of his neck. They gained the hill and Marcus's laughter died at sight of the figure hurrying across the open field below. He gave an abrupt signal for silence. The men obeyed and only the chirping of spring birds filled the air.


* * * *


"Tavis," Elise snapped, finally within hearing range of the boy and his sister, "this time you've gone too far and have endangered your sister by leaving the castle."

His attention remained fixed on the thickening woods at the bottom of the hill and her frustration gave way to concern. They were only minutes from the village—a bare half an hour from the keep and safely on MacGregor land—but the boy had intended to go farther—much farther. He had just turned fourteen, old enough to carry out the resolve to find the men who had murdered his father, and too young to understand the danger.

Bonnie tugged on her cloak and Elise looked down at her. The little girl grinned and pointed to the wildflowers surrounding them. Elise smiled, then shoved back the hood of her cloak. Bonnie squatted to pick the flowers. Elise's heart wrenched. If only their father still lived. He would teach Tavis a lesson. Of course, if Shamus still lived, Tavis wouldn't be hunting for murderers.

Those men were guilty of killing an innocent, yet no effort had been made to bring them to justice. The disquiet that always hovered close to the surface caused a nervous tremor to ripple through her stomach. While Shamus's murderers would likely never go before a judge, if Price found her, his version of justice would be in the form of a noose around her neck for the crime of defending herself against a man who had tried to kill her—twice.

Any doubts about her stepfather's part in Amelia's death had been dispelled a month after arriving at Brahan Seer when she read a recent edition of the London Sunday Times brought by relatives for Michael MacGregor. She found no mention of the Amelia's sinking. Instead, a ten thousand pound reward for information leading to the whereabouts of her body was printed in the announcements section.

Reward? Bounty is what it was.

The advertisement gave the appearance that Price was living up to his obligations as President of Landen Shipping. But she knew he intended she reach Boston dead—and reach Boston she would, for without her body, he would have to wait five years before taking control of her fifty-one percent of Landen Shipping. She intended to slip the noose over his head first.

Elise caught sight of her trembling fingers, and her stomach heaved with the memory of Amelia's body sliding noiselessly from the ship into the ocean. She choked back despair. If she had suspected that Robert had been poisoning her daughter even a few months earlier—


Elise jerked at Bonnie's squeal. The girl stood with a handful of flowers extended toward her. Elise brushed her fingers across the white petals of the stitchwort and the lavender butterwort. She was a fool to involve herself with the people here, but when Shamus was murdered she been unable to remain withdrawn.

"Riders," Tavis said.

Elise tensed. "Where?"

"There." Tavis pointed into the trees.

She leaned forward and traced the line of his arm with her gaze. A horse's rump slipped out of sight into the denser forest. Goose bumps raced across her arms.

Elise straightened and yanked Bonnie into her arms "It will be dark soon—" Tavis faced her and she stopped short when his gaze focused on something behind her.

Elise looked over her shoulder. Half a dozen riders emerged from the forest across the meadow. She started. Good Lord, what had possessed her to leave Brahan Seer without a pistol? She was as big a fool as Tavis and without the excuse of youth. She slid Bonnie to the ground as the warriors approached. They halted fifteen feet away. Elise edged Bonnie behind her when one of the men urged his horse closer. Her pulse jumped. Was it possible to become accustomed to the size of these Highland men?

She flushed at the spectacle of his open shirt but couldn't stop her gaze from sliding along the velvety dark hair that trailed downward and tapered off behind a white lawn shirt negligently tucked into his kilt. The large sword strapped to his hip broke the fascination.

How many had perished at the point of that weapon?

The hard muscles of his chest and arms gave evidence—many.

The man directed a clipped sentence in Gaelic to Tavis. The boy started past her, but she caught his arm. The men wore the red and green plaide of her benefactors the MacGregors, but were strangers.

"What do you want?" She cursed the curt demand that had bypassed good sense in favor of a willing tongue.

Except for a flicker of surprise across the man's face, he sat unmoving.

Elise winced inwardly, remembering her American accent, but said in a clear voice, "I asked what you want."

Leather groaned when he leaned forward on his saddle. He shifted the reins to the hand resting in casual indolence on his leg and replied in English, "I asked the boy why he is unarmed outside the castle with two females."

Caught off guard by the deep vibrancy of his soft burr, her heart skipped a beat. "We don't need weapons on MacGregor land." She kept her tone unhurried.

"The MacGregor's reach extends as far as the solitude of this glen?" he asked.

"We are only fifteen minutes from the village," she said. "But his reach is well beyond this place."

"He is great, indeed," the warrior said.

"You know him?"

"I do."

She lifted Bonnie. "Then you know he would wreak vengeance on any who dared harm his own."

"Aye," the man answered. "The MacGregor would hunt them down like dogs. Only," he paused, "how would he know who to hunt?"

She gave him a disgusted look. "I tracked these children. You think he cannot track you?"

"A fine point," he agreed.

"Good." She took a step forward. "Now, we will be getting home."

"Aye, you should be getting home." He urged his horse to intercept. Elise set Bonnie down, shoving her in Tavis's direction. "And," the man went on, "we will take you." The warriors closed in around them. "The lad will ride with Erin. Give the little one to Kyle, and you," his eyes came back hard on Elise, "will ride with me."

The heat in his gaze sent a flush through her, but her ire piqued. "We do not accept favors from strangers."

His gaze unexpectedly deepened.

She stilled. What the devil? Was that amusement on his face?

"We are not strangers," he said. There was no mistaking the laughter in his eyes now. "Are we, Tavis?" His gaze shifted to the boy.

"Nay," he replied with a shy smile. "No' strangers at all, laird."

"You know this man?" Elise asked.

"He is the laird's son."

"Marcus!" Bonnie cried, peeking from behind Elise's skirts.

Elise looked at him. Marcus? This was the son Cameron had spoken of with such affection these past months? It suddenly seemed comical that she had doubted Cameron's stories of his son's exploits on the battlefield. She had believed the aging chief's stories were exaggerations, but the giant of a man before her was clearly capable of every feat with which his father had credited him.

Prodded by the revelation, she discerned the resemblance between father and son. Though grey sprinkled Cameron's hair, the two shared the same unruly, dark hair, the same build… and… "You have his eyes," she said.

He chuckled.

Heat flooded her cheeks. She pulled Bonnie into her arms. "You might have said who you were." She gave him an assessing look. "Only that wouldn't have been half as much fun. Who will take the child?"

His gaze fixed on the hand she had wrapped around Bonnie and the small burn scar that remained as a testament of her folly. His attention broke when a voice from behind her said in a thick brogue, "'Tis me ye be looking for, lass." She turned to a weathered warrior who urged his mount forward.

Elise handed Bonnie up to him. Stepping back, she bumped into the large body of a horse. Before she could move, an arm encircled her from behind, pulling her upward across hard thighs. A tremor shot through her. She hadn't been this close to a man's body since—since those first months of her seven-year marriage.

Panic seized her in a quick, hard rush. The trees blurred as her mind plunged backward in time to the touch of the man who had promised till death do them part. Her husband's gentle hand on their wedding night splintered into his violent grip the night he'd tried to murder her—the movement of thighs beneath her buttocks broke the trance as Marcus MacGregor spurred his horse into motion. His arms tightened around her and she held her breath, praying he couldn't hear her thudding heart.

The ambling movement of the bulky horse lifted her from Marcus's lap. She clutched at his shirt. Her knuckles brushed his bare chest and she jerked back as if singed by hot coals. Her body lifted again with the horse's next step and she instinctively threw her arms around Marcus's forearm. His hold tightened as rich laughter rumbled through his chest.

"Do not worry, lass. Upon pain of death, I swear, you will not slip from my arms until your feet touch down at Brahan Seer."

Elise grimaced, then straightened in an effort to shift from the sword hilt digging into her back.

"What's wrong?" He leaned her back in his arms and gazed down at her.

She stared. Robert had never looked so—she sat upright. "I've simply never ridden a horse in this manner."

"There are many ways to ride a horse, lass," he said softly.

Elise snapped her gaze to his face, then jerked back when her lips nearly brushed his. She felt herself slip and clutched at his free arm even as the arm around her crushed her closer. Her breasts pressed against his chest where his shirt lay open. Heat penetrated her bodice, hardening her nipples. A surprising warmth sparked between her legs. She caught sight of his smile an instant before she dropped her gaze.




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