Callum MacAlister has been awarded lands by the king for his service in battle against Scotland’s enemies, but now Callum must find a way to overcome Robert Lister who has claimed the lands as his. On his way to his new castle, Callum is set upon and wounded by roadmen who would have killed Callum if not for Lilli Hardy who helps him hide in her father’s croft on Tollis Hill.
With her brother’s child under her protection, Lilli MacGregor hides out as Lilli Hardy as she tries to outrun the men of Archibald Campbell who wish to kill her brother, Edward’s, baby. As if she hadn’t problems enough of her own, she finds herself with the wounded new laird. Lilli nurses him back to health and tries not to succumb to the feelings he awakens in her. But his advances are the least of her problems as more men coming looking for not just her, but the nobleman who threatens to steal her heart.
They came out of the fog and rain like furies from hell; the strike of iron shod hooves against the roadbed drowning the deep roll of thunder. Lightning crackled around them, briefly illuminating their dark forms, revealing flying manes and billowing capes as they bent low over their mounts. Two riders, only two. One called to his sleek steed, urging it to a faster pace.
Where were the others? There must be others.
Shuddering with dread, Lilli crouched in the cart, knowing there was no escape. They’d found her—these deadly ruthless men who would claim her life and that of the small babe hidden within the straw. She stiffened her shoulders. There would be no mercy. Stoically, she waited for the swing of a claymore that would take her life.
But the riders galloped by without a glance in her direction. Stunned, she watched them disappear into the shrouding mist. They weren’t hunting her after all. She listened to the hoof beats fade and drew a shaky breath in the heavy silence that followed. They were gone.
Suddenly she was ashamed of her momentary lapse into such cowardly fear. She’d thought she was past such weaknesses. Now she was flooded with a monumental and unreasoning anger. What right had anyone to hound her so, taking even her dignity? She shook her fists at the gray wall of mist that hid the departing riders.
“Fools!” she called after them. “You’ll lame your fine horseflesh on these muddy roads. Then where’ll you be? Walking on your two legs like the rest of us.” She heard the absurdity of her words and fell silent. She and Rose were alive. That was what counted.
Thunder rumbled, sullen and indifferent and built to a crescendo as a large group of riders approached. She plunked down on the wooden seat, gripping the sides of the swaying cart and bit her lip as if to hold back any challenge she might be tempted to fling at them. The riders plunged past in relentless pursuit of the two who had gone before. Terror plucked at her again. She knew what it was like to be hunted with such single-minded purpose. She pitied the first riders should they be caught.
The skittish horse snorted in a panic and lunged to one side, claiming her immediate attention.
“Whoa, Doire!” She sawed at the reins even as she felt the wheels lurch sideways. The cart listed, dangerously close to tipping over as it slid into the narrow ditch pulling the horse with it. Doire squealed in pain and struggled vainly to haul herself back onto the road. Her muscles trembled with fatigue and her eyes rolled with terror as the sky was rent with jagged flashes of light.
“Steady, Doire,” The girl clambered down into the oozing mud and slogged forward to calm the mare.
A glance up and down the road revealed no hope of rescue. The gray curtain of rain closed them into a shadowy nether world devoid of all human contact. Her shoulders sagged with weariness and grief. The journey had been long, dogged by terror and the tormenting memory of all that had transpired behind her.
It had rained at the hanging fields and every step of their flight since. At first she’d been grateful for the cover the rain and mist provided against those who hunted them, but now she longed for the warmth of the sun. Battered by the downpour, her strength sapped by the cold, she feared she couldn’t go on. But she must, for Rose if for no one else.
In her makeshift bed, the baby helplessly mewed her need for nourishment. The girl heard the cry but could do nothing for the bairn’s needs. Worriedly, she peered at the tiny bundle of precious humanity.
“There, Rose, and we’ll be at the croft soon,” she whispered, her words a prayer torn from stiff lips. “I know you’re hungry, but hunger will not kill you this night, not as quickly as some things might.
“I’ll protect you, Rose. I give you my word and my life. I’ll not let anything happen to you.” But she’d made that promise before to Jane and failure lay like a millstone around her neck. Rain slid down her cheeks, and she knew the wetness was not tears for she’d shed all she had. Instead, she contemplated what she must do to protect herself and Rose.
“Will ye show us no mercy?” she whispered to the leaden sky and realized she’d dropped into her Highland brogue. There was no one to hear her lapse except God, and she wasn’t sure even He had. Her only answer from that direction was a brief flash of lightning and a distant roll of thunder.
“Ach, it’s up to you, Lilli MacGregor,” she muttered. “There’ll be no knight in shiny armor come along to rescue you and yours. You’ll have to help yourself.” She slogged forward to check Doire’s lame foot once more.
“Come on, Doire, I’m depending on you now.” She tugged on the bit, but the tired horse resisted, shaking her head.
“Poor old Doire. We’ve come to a bad end,” she crooned comfortingly. “If I abandon the cart, can you bear your weight and that of the babe’s? If so, we’ll walk to the farm.”
Since the horse had not yet learned to speak and the decision was Lilli’s alone to make, she fumbled with the harnesses. She didn’t hear the riders until they rose up out of the darkening mist like shadowed ghosts.
“Aigh! You startled me.” She edged back and glowered at the men.
“I’m sorry, lass,” a deep voice answered. “I had no wish to frighten you.”
“I said you startled me. You didn’t frighten me,” she answered tartly.
The rider was a nobleman if his elegant clothes were any indication of his rank. His cloak was of lustrous wool that made her long for its certain warmth. His horse sported a blanket fine enough for any man’s bed, even a nobleman’s.
She glanced at the second horseman who lay across his saddle horn, his fingers twined in his mount’s mane as if he were afraid he might fall. Her lips tightened.
“So you got away? Well, you’ve no need to stop here. They may come back. Your shenanigans have caused me enough mischief this day.” She indicated her stuck cart.
“‘Tis sorry I am, lass. I’m Callum MacAlister, Laird of the Tarbert MacAlisters. My guardsman and I are in need of your help.” He spoke forcefully, although for a moment, his voice grew ragged.
“You and your foolish friends put my cart in the ditch, then you come begging for my help?” She glared at him incredulously. “You should not drink if you can’t hold your ale.”
“They’re no friends of mine.”
“Aye, you’ve angered them against you.”
“Nor are we drunk. We…my guardsman is wounded. Can you give us shelter until the rain lets up, perhaps help tend his wounds?”
“You’re wounded?” She studied the two men. “Why were they chasing you?”
“‘Tis a long story, and as you said yourself, they may come back in search of us. Can you give us shelter while I tend the lad’s wounds?”
“None!” Lilli’s words were curt, and she saw his lips tighten in anger.
His eyes, dark and demanding, stood out beneath the thatch of black hair the pounding rain had molded to his broad brow.
“I can’t even help myself,” she continued and wondered why she bothered to explain. He was no better than a nobleman who, no doubt, never thought of anyone’s needs save his own. “My horse is lame!” She clamped her lips together in frustration, certain they’d simply ride on when they saw she could give no aid.
Callum MacAlister glanced at the cart stuck fast in the mud and the shivering mare.
“It seems we need each other,” he said finally and dismounted awkwardly, using only one arm. He cradled the other arm against his chest. “We’ll use my horses to pull the cart back on the road.”
“Ach, you’d put your fine horses to pulling a farm cart?” Her expression clearly marked her dismay.
“It must be done. My guardsman can’t ride any farther. How far is your croft?” His tone was peremptory, and although she wished to deny him any information or co-operation, common sense told her it was best to aid him, else they’d all drown in a sea of mud.
“I’m not certain.” Realizing how lame this sounded, she rushed on. “I’ve lost my direction in the rain. I believe ‘tis but a mile or two down this road and up yonder Tollis Hill.” She raised her voice to be heard above the beating rain.
The rider glanced up the road where she pointed. “Can we cut across the moor?”
She hesitated, unsure how much to divulge. “Aye.”
“We’ll do that then and stay clear of the road, lest my pursuers return. Help me get Toby into the cart.” He turned away, obviously expecting her to follow his instructions. She opened her mouth to protest but remained silent when she saw the streaks of red that marred the handsome cloak. He glanced over his shoulder.
“You’ll drown if you don’t close your mouth,” he muttered, and she sensed a moment of humor in his words before he turned to the second mount and pulled his companion from the saddle.
“Easy, lad, I have you,” he said, cradling the slightly built youth against his side. “Can you walk a bit, Toby?”
The lad’s head wobbled in answer, but he made no effort on his own behalf. Callum half carried him to the cart, staggering a bit under the burden. Pausing, he drew a ragged breath and looked at Lilli.
“Will you not help me to get him into the cart, lass?” he demanded sharply.
Moved by his obvious concern for the boy who was only a guardsman, she sprang forward to help. They settled the boy on the wet hay, but their efforts wakened the babe who protested with a thin cry.
Callum looked up in surprise. “You’ve a wee bairn?”
“What would bring you out with a bairn on a day like this?” he asked reprovingly.
“My own business.” She glared at him through the battering rain.
“I’ve no intent to offend you,” he said wearily. “Let’s put the babe here at Toby’s side. ‘Twill keep it warmer.” Taking off his heavy cloak, he settled it over the injured boy and the baby. Toby moaned.
“You’ll be safe and warm soon now, lad,” Callum said. “With your wounds tended and some hot gruel in you.”
Without his cloak, Lily could see he was tall and well made. The cloth of his jacket strained across broad shoulders and was saturated with blood.
“You’re wounded,” she said, stepping close to tend him, but he brushed her aside.
“‘Tis nothing,” he said curtly and harnessed his fine horses to the cart.
She pinched her lips together in vexation at herself more than him. She’d had enough of men like him and their fancy, high-handed ways. Hadn’t she nearly lost her life to the insane pursuits of one such man? She thought of Jane and Edward and hardened her resolve. She had Rose to think of now. Nonetheless, habit pushed her forward to lend a hand with the horses.
“‘Tis surprised I am that you know so much of horses and carts.” She couldn’t resist the jibe.
“Aye? Why’s that, lass?” Seemingly occupied with the worn leather, he’d paid her little attention.
“Are you not a nobleman? I’m certain you’ve had stable boys to do such common work. Likely all you know about your horse is its speed so you can place a wager.”
“Aye, I have my coat of arms, and I’ve had stable boys to care for my steeds, but I’ve never shied from a decent day’s work.”
He urged the horses forward so they soon had the cart back on the muddy road and her lame mare tied off at the rear. She stood gaping at his efficiency.
He slogged forward to tower over her. “Why would you think I wager on horses or drink too much? You know nothing about me?”
His deep voice rumbled in her ear breaking her spell. Her lips tightened.
“Every nobleman I’ve observed has.” Her delicate nose tipped upward in unspoken disapproval.
“And you’ve observed many a nobleman, have you?”
Blood suffused her cheeks at his question. “Enough to know the nature of your kind,” she snapped.
The sound of his laughter shocked her. How could he laugh when they were in danger?