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Highland Barbarian, Page 2

Ruth Ryan Langan

  Meredith’s gaze searched wildly about the sanctuary until she spied both her sisters unharmed. Megan had taken refuge behind the altar, where she was frantically searching for a weapon. Brenna lay on the floor, where she had been roughly pushed aside by Gareth MacKenzie.

  “Fool!” the man at the window ledge shouted. “This feud was to have ended. But one among you has seen fit to carry it on. Now shall you all rue the day you crossed Brice Campbell. The lady’s blood is on your hands.”

  Before Meredith could move, the man soared through the air, dangling from a rope, and caught her up with one arm.

  Looking into her face, Brice Campbell felt for a moment as if all the air had been crushed from his lungs. Her hair, lush and dark, intertwined with ivy and wildflowers, fell to below her waist. The scent of wildflowers surrounded her like a spring meadow. Her skin was as flawless as fine porcelain. Her lips were pursed as if to issue a protest. Her eyes, as green as the Highland hills, were wide with fear. She blinked, and he watched them darken with sudden fury.

  He stared at her heaving breasts, modestly covered by a gown of pristine white. The cloth was so soft, so fragile, it could have been spun by angels. His fingers tingled as he pulled her to him.

  Meredith felt hands as strong as iron lift her as effortlessly as if she were a leaf. Cradled against his massive chest she felt his muscles strain as he pulled both their weights against the rope. Together they swung through the air and landed on the stone window ledge. As he set her on her feet she felt herself slipping. Her hands reached out for him, clutching blindly at his mantle. But before she could utter a cry he was holding her firmly against him.

  “Touch one weapon and you shall watch the lady die by my hand,” he called to the assembly.

  Meredith felt the anger ripple through him, though he strove to control it. Through narrowed lids he studied the crowd below until, content that no one would offer further resistance, he turned. Still clutching her to him Brice grasped the rope and leaped through the open window. He landed on the ground and in one swift movement scooped Meredith up into his arms and climbed onto the broad back of a horse.

  His men backed from the cathedral, then scrambled onto their horses. Before the people inside could even begin to get to their feet, the horses were galloping toward the hills. Once there, they disappeared into the rising mists, into the forests, into the feared Highlands.

  Held in Brice Campbell’s arms, Meredith felt her heartbeat keeping time to the pounding rhythm of the horses’ hooves.

  The man who held her captive was the strongest, most fearsome man she had ever seen. In the morning light his skin was ruddy. His hair held the hint of sun in the dark, burnished curls that kissed his wide, unwrinkled brow. The muscles of his arms were as thick and hard as twisted ropes. She stared, fascinated, as he urged his mount forward, holding her against his chest as effortlessly as a child holds a kitten. But it was his eyes that captured her gaze. Dark, piercing eyes that fastened on hers and held her gaze when she yearned to turn away.

  “So, my lady. It seems you’ve been made a widow before you were even given the chance to savor the MacKenzie charm. A pity that you’ll spend your wedding night in a hovel in the Highlands.”

  Meredith bit her lip and lowered her head so that this barbarian would not see her terror. She had just been stolen by a savage. A Highland savage. And if even half the stories she’d heard about the Campbells were true, she would never see her beloved Borderland or countrymen again.

  Chapter Two

  A faint rosy glow spread across the horizon. The hills were washed with pale light.

  All through the day and night they had ridden, and when darkness cloaked the hills and forests, Meredith had sensed the change in the landscape. They had been climbing steadily from the beginning of their journey. The terrain was littered with rocky crags and steep pinnacles and frigid waters. The surefooted animals picked their way over the obstacles with the skill of those born in the Highlands.

  Now, with the dawn light breaking through the mist, Meredith had her first glimpse of the Highlands. Though close to exhaustion she could not fail to be moved by the glens and fells, the rushing streams and waterfalls. The wild, primitive beauty of the land thrilled and terrified her. Like the man who held her, mile after mile, in his arms. Splendid. Frightening.

  After his first murmured phrases, he had spoken not a word to her. At times he had called out to his men in the darkness. They had shouted their responses. Some of the men cursed. More than a few curses had come from his own lips when his mount stumbled, or when tree branches scratched and clawed. Meredith trembled in fear at the depth of passion in the man. He was quick to anger, she realized. Would he be as quick to strike out at others? At her?

  A few of their curses had him chuckling, low and deep in his throat. That sound caused strange feelings to curl deep inside her. Feelings that were most unsettling. He was a rough, unlettered man, born and bred for cruelty and killing, she reminded herself. Not the kind of man to cause a ripple of feelings in her.

  She heard the change in his tone when turrets could be seen rising above the mist. “At last. We are home.”

  Home. She had a sudden desire to weep. Would she ever see her beloved home again? Or would she be condemned to die in this strange wilderness?

  As they topped a rise Meredith stared at the sprawling structure of stone, standing between two towering peaks. Though not as heavily fortified as the Border castles, for they were constantly being attacked by the English, it was a solid fortress surrounded by wooded hills. What was more, it was luxurious, even opulent.

  In her mind she had pictured these rough people living in hovels. Had her captor not said as much? But the roofs she saw among the trees were of solid, sturdy houses. A few even resembled the English manor houses.

  The sound of voices could be heard in the forest. The voices of women and children coming to greet their men. The distant sound of hounds baying.

  While she watched, the men saluted their leader and veered off the path toward their own homes. Women laughed and children shouted as they were lifted in brawny arms and hugged fiercely. Within minutes horses and riders had disappeared into the forest, leaving Meredith and Brice Campbell in a small enclosed courtyard that led to the castle’s entrance.

  Half a dozen hounds surrounded their horse, leaping and baying as their master called each name.

  The door was thrown open. The first one through the doorway was a thin youth with fiery hair spilling about a wide forehead. A sprinkle of freckles danced across an impish, upturned nose. His arms and legs were as thin as a girl’s, though the beginnings of muscles could be seen beneath the clinging sleeves of his saffron shirt. His sparkling blue eyes filled with joy at the sight of Brice.

  Servants hurried out to catch the reins of the lord’s horse as he dismounted.

  The lad threw himself into Brice’s arms. “You’ve been away so long I was beginning to fret.”

  “Over me, Jamie lad?” Brice tousled his hair and wrapped him in a great bear hug. “You know better. I’ll always return to Kinloch House.”

  “Aye,” the lad said with feeling. “And I’ll always be here waiting.”

  “Until you’re old enough to ride with me,” Brice muttered with a grin. “Which will be soon from the looks of you.” He held the lad a little away from him and studied him with a critical eye. “You’ve grown at least an inch since I left.”

  The lad laughed, then glanced shyly toward the vision in white who sat astride Brice’s horse.

  Seeing the direction of his glance, Brice reached up. Meredith was hauled roughly from the saddle and handed over to a bewildered serving wench who stared mutely at her master’s captive.

  “Take the woman to my chambers. I will deal with her later.”

  Meredith shivered at his tone. Her mind whirled as she was whisked inside and herded up great stone steps. She had a brisk impression of tapestries and banners lining the walls of the staircase before she was usher
ed into a chamber on the second floor.

  “There’s fresh water, my lady,” the timid servant said. “And I’ll fetch warm clothes if my lord approves.” She backed from the room and closed the door.

  This was obviously a man’s private domain. The furniture was massive, like the man who lived here. A log burned in the fireplace and Meredith hurried to stand in front of it. She had been chilled clear through to the bone. The gauzy gown intended for her wedding had offered little protection from the cold. And though the warmth of her captor’s body had offered some protection, she had been buffeted by the raw elements. Perhaps, she thought, she would prefer death by freezing to whatever torment Brice Campbell had in mind.

  What did he have in mind for her?

  Meredith turned, keeping her back to the fire while studying the sitting chamber. The walls were hung with tapestries and furs. The cold stone floors had been softened with fur throws, as were the chairs and settles.

  She needed a weapon with which to defend herself. Sooner or later Brice Campbell would discover that he had killed the wrong man. She would be useless to him. And he would be forced to dispose of her. When that time came she would have to be prepared to fight to the death.

  She moved about the room, searching for anything that might be used as a weapon. When she found nothing she entered the bedchamber. The flames of the fireplace cast the room in a soft glow.

  A rough-hewn frame of logs supported a huge bed littered with pallets of down and fur. Meredith’s gaze fastened on a shelf above the bed where a dozen swords and daggers lay strewn about.

  She studied the weapons and selected a small dagger that would fit beneath the waistband of a gown. Clutching it to her, she ran a finger gingerly along the blade and was pleased to find it honed to perfection.

  She glanced down at her waist. The filmy confection she was wearing could hardly conceal a weapon. She would have to hide the dagger until more suitable clothes were given her.

  Kneeling beside the bed Meredith began searching among the linens for a place to hide her treasure. Her fingers encountered the softness of fur. She closed her eyes a moment, resting her cheek against the velvety smoothness. How drained she was. There had been so little time to rest in the past few days. First there had been her father’s death and burial, and then the marriage plans. Marriage. She felt tears sting her lids. There had been no time to grieve for her father or for her husband of less than a minute. She pressed her cheek to the soft bed coverings and choked back a sob.

  Though she was an excellent horsewoman, she had spent too many hours of the day and night in the saddle. Her muscles protested. How she yearned to rest her aching body. Oh for a few moments of respite from the fear that lay like a hard knot in the pit of her stomach. She sighed. A minute longer, and then she would get to her feet. She must be prepared when the barbarian came for her. She would rest only a short time. She could not afford to let down her guard. Against her will her lids flickered, then closed. With one hand holding the dagger, the other curled into a fist at her side, she slept.

  ~ ~ ~

  Brice finished the last of the mutton and washed it down with a tankard of ale. His hunger abated, he leaned back and stretched out toward the warmth of the fire. The dogs at his feet stirred, snatching up the scraps he tossed them, then settled back down to drowse.

  He was in a foul mood. Now that he had eaten his fill, he would have to give some thought to the woman.

  If he was cold, the woman had to be much colder. The thin gown had afforded her no protection from the chill of the night. But she had brazenly rejected his offer of a warm cloak. What arrogance. He felt the beginning of a grudging admission of respect before brushing it aside. What foolishness.

  She was a most unusual woman. Not once had she cried or complained. And not once, when they had made brief stops, had she climbed from his horse and demanded a moment of privacy.

  A bride and a widow within minutes. And yet she had not shed a tear. Remarkable.

  What was he to do with her? His hand atop the table clenched and unclenched. It had not been part of his plan to steal the woman. In fact, it bothered him more than he cared to admit. But the fool who had defied him and fired the arrow would have to bear the guilt. The terms had been clearly stated. One among the MacKenzie clan had no conscience.

  Across the table Jamie MacDonald watched in silence. He had learned to hold his tongue when Brice was in one of his black moods. Jamie did not see Brice’s bouts of temper as a flaw. Any man who carried the weight of responsibilities that Brice Campbell carried had every right to moments of doubt. If someone had suggested that Jamie was turning a blind eye to Brice’s faults, he would have fought them to the death. He adored Brice Campbell. His devotion to the man was absolute.

  Brice looked up as the door was thrown open. The dogs rushed to the door and sniffed, eager to greet the visitors who carried a familiar scent. Angus Gordon, Brice’s most trusted friend, burst into the room. Behind him strode Holden Mackay, whose clan had recently joined forces with the Campbells in the feud with the MacKenzies.

  One look at Angus’s stormy features told Brice that something was very wrong.

  “You’ve killed the wrong man, Brice.”

  “What are you saying? You saw him fall at the altar, Angus. It was Gareth MacKenzie.”

  “Nay, Brice. ’Twas his younger brother, Desmond. Holden and I stayed behind to learn the name of the one who had fired the arrow at you.”

  “And did you?”

  At Brice’s arched brow Angus nodded. “Gareth MacKenzie. He would be the only one fool enough to continue the feud after you had announced it over.” His tone lowered. “Holden tried but could not get to him. There were too many MacKenzie men. And the kirk was crowded with women and children.”

  For a moment Brice could only stare from one man to the other. Suddenly scraping back his chair, he raced up the stairs toward his chambers with Jamie, Angus, Holden and the hounds on his heels.

  “Woman.” The door was slammed against the wall, the sound reverberating along the hallways of the castle. He gazed about the empty room. “Do not try to hide from me.”

  In quick strides he crossed to the bedchamber and kicked in the door. Jamie, Angus and Holden remained in the doorway, watching, listening.

  The dogs circled the figure by the bed.

  In that one instant before her head came up, Brice saw her kneeling beside the bed, her hair spilled forward like a veil. He could read her confusion when her lids flickered and lifted. Eyes as green as the shimmering Highland lochs watched him as he strode toward her. By the time he reached her she was on her feet, prepared to meet her fate.

  The dogs growled low in their throats. But not one of them made a move toward the woman. They would wait, forever if necessary, until their master gave them the signal to attack.

  In her hand was a dagger. A very small, very sharp dagger. Though Meredith’s heart pounded painfully in her chest, her hand remained steady.

  It was a giant who faced her. A giant whose rough clothes and speech sent terror racing through her. He stood, feet apart, hands on hips. On his face was a scowl that gave him such a fierce look she wanted to flee. But though her heart was nearly bursting, she reminded herself that she was now the MacAlpin. The MacAlpin was no coward. Meredith lifted her chin a fraction and met his look with one of defiance.

  He saw the look. Even in his anger he admired her for it. There were not many in this land who could face Brice Campbell without flinching, be they man or woman.

  The dagger? Though he had no doubt that he could best this small female in a battle, it irritated him that she would dare to draw a weapon against him.

  “Put it down.”

  Her eyes widened at the icy command.

  “If I am forced to disarm you, my lady, I assure you I will not be gentle.”

  She stared at the muscles of his arms, then lifted her gaze to the challenge in his dark eyes. For a moment longer she held the knife. Then slowly, with no cha
nge in her expression, she let it drop from her fingers. It fell to the floor and lay there among the furs, glinting in the light of the fire.

  “Your bridegroom,” he said, watching her through narrowed eyes. “Was he not Gareth MacKenzie?”

  She wanted to hurt him as he had hurt her. She wanted to twist the knife, while he writhed in pain. If not the dagger, then the words that could cut as surely as any blade.

  A half smile touched her lips. “Nay, my lord. It was not.”

  His eyes narrowed fractionally. Damn the woman. She was enjoying his confusion. “The man I killed. Who was he?”

  “Gareth’s brother, Desmond.”

  She saw the way his lips pressed together. A little muscle began working at the side of his jaw.

  “You lie, woman. Why would the younger brother be allowed to wed before the eldest?”

  Especially to one as lovely as the woman standing before him. For the first time Brice allowed himself to see, really see, the woman he had captured. With that wild mane of hair falling in tangles to below her waist and that gown of gossamer snow revealing a lush young body ripe for the picking, she was stunning.

  “Because Gareth knew that I would never consent to be his wife. He offered Desmond instead.”

  “Consent?” Brice Campbell threw back his head and laughed. “And why would he need the consent of a mere girl? Why did he not go to your father and offer for you like a man?”

  “I need the consent of no man,” she said in a haughty manner that had him lifting an eyebrow in surprise. “Now that you have killed my father, I am the MacAlpin, heir to my father’s land and protector of his people.”

  “I killed your father?” Brice took a menacing step closer and saw the way she watched him with the wariness of a doe in the forest. “Who accuses me of such treachery?”

  “Gareth MacKenzie.”

  He clamped his mouth shut on the curse that rose to his lips. “At least the lie was spoken by one who does not matter to me.”

  “He matters so little,” she said with a look of fury, “that you invaded the sanctity of the kirk to try and kill him.”

  At her sarcasm Brice felt his temper rising. But just as quickly, her next words had him feeling contrite.