The Highlander’s Wilful Captive – Excerpt
Argyll, Scotland – October 1746
Crouching for cover in the long bracken, Rory drank in the sweet Highland air greedily. The guards had put up more resistance then he had expected, but at last he was free. Bracing himself to make a run for the belt of trees some way off, he stilled. Two horses were approaching from the south, without doubt heading for Inverary Castle, in whose dungeons he had until moments earlier been held prisoner. A horse would give him the boost he needed to put the necessary distance between himself and his captors. Two to one, good odds. He spotted the stout limb of a huge chestnut tree overhanging the rough track and decided in favour of attack.
His brogue-clad feet made barely a sound as he loped swiftly towards his target. Rory unpinned his filleadh mór, the large plaid which enveloped the top half of his muscular frame, and placed it safely at the foot of the tree before climbing stealthily to a vantage point. As the two riders neared, he saw that one was a woman. The other looked to be a servant. He grinned. Child’s play!
He could see from their dress that they were Lowlanders, and moneyed at that, judging from the woman’s riding habit, which was of fine dark green wool, trimmed and braided. Her voice, soft and musical, carried towards him in the stillness of the morning. “I fear we are arriving betimes,” she was saying, casting an anxious glance at the weak sun still lying low over the hills skirting the eastern shore of Loch Fyne.
“We should have waited at the inn as you were bid,” the servant, a surly man of indeterminate years replied. “’Tis not proper to be arriving in this manner without an escort, and on the Sabbath too. Your mother will be sore angry if she ever finds out.”
Jessica Cunninghame tossed her head dismissively. “The list of things my mother does not consider right or proper would fill one of my father’s ledgers. For goodness sake John, I am come on this visit to escape the constraints of my life, however fleetingly, pray do not remind me of them. And do stop looking so thrawn, does not this vista take your breath away?”
Until now, Jessica had never been permitted to venture beyond the flat lowland plains which connected her parent’s large town house in Glasgow with their country estate to the east of the city. She had been immediately smitten by the rugged grandeur of the wild open spaces and increasingly high mountains they had passed on their journey north. Autumn colours blanketed the landscape, a rich tapestry woven in gold, purple and myriad shades of russet.
“Come John,” she coaxed, “even you must admit that this view is spectacular. And look, over there must be the site of the Duke’s new castle. My father says it will be one of the finest homes in all of Scotland when it’s finished.” But John, who preferred the bustle of the docks and the warehouses where Jessica’s father, one of Glasgow’s richest tobacco merchants, carried out his trade, merely harrumphed.
As they approached Rory’s hiding place Jessica’s horse whinnied nervously. Captivated by the reflection of the hills on the glassy waters of the deep loch however, she remained oblivious of his looming presence.
Overhead, Rory adjusted his position on the branch so that he was directly above the servant’s horse. He noticed fleetingly that the woman was both young and a beauty before he grasped the branch firmly in his hands and swung at the servant, catching him a knock-out blow to the temple which sent him flying onto the ground as Rory himself dropped effortlessly into the empty saddle.
One minute she was communing contentedly with nature, the next it was as if some vengeful god had descended from the heavens. Jessica had a fleeting impression of solid bulk, naked thigh and fierce brown eyes under a tangle of dark gold hair. Her heart in her throat, escape was her only coherent thought, fear her only emotion. She dug her spurs into her horse’s flank and prepared to flee for the sanctuary of the castle.
But it was too late. Her horse reared. A strong hand grabbed the bit in an implacable grip and the animal was brought to a skittering, skidding standstill. The reins were wrested from her. Jessica clung to the pommel, breathing hard. Her hat, with its jaunty little feather, was gone. Her hair had come loose from its pins to fall heavily down her back. She was shaking uncontrollably.
Think Jessica! Focus! The savage had dismounted and tethered the horses to a sapling. Two strong hands reached up and hauled her unceremoniously from the saddle. She could see the tightening cords of his sinewy wrists as she struggled frantically. Beating her fists against the solid wall of his chest was like throwing feathers at a rock. As she took a deep breath and prepared to scream she heard him curse in what must be his native Gaelic.
A hand was clamped roughly over her mouth. Warm. Shockingly intimate. His voice, low and husky and unmistakably threatening. “If you make another sound, it will be your last.”
She was pressed hard against him, clamped fast to his body. She had never been so close to a man. Her distracted senses noticed how different were his contours. How hard he was where she was soft. She could feel his heart beating, maddeningly slow and steady through the thin cambric of his open-necked shirt, while hers was pounding fast enough to make her feel faint. This is no time for a fit of the vapours, Jessica.
She could smell him. Heat and sweat and man. The scent of untamed will. A distillation of the elements surrounding them, as if the landscape had borne him, created this fierce being from rock and earth and fire and water. It made her shiver in a way that was not just fear.
Struggling to breathe through his muffling hand, Jessica looked up beseechingly, meeting eyes not simply brown but as vivid as the colours of the autumn moorland. Hard high cheekbones. A tangle of waving hair reaching almost to his shoulders. A sculpted mouth held a firm line above a strong jaw as he looked implacably down at her. She was frightened, but instinct told her not to be intimidated. She met his look unflinchingly.
Faced with wide-spaced green eyes obviously terrified and equally determined not to show it, Rory took stock of his captive. Intent only on preventing her from raising the alarm, he had forgotten that fleeting impression of beauty. Raven-black hair in a thick braid falling almost to her waist. Skin like the petals of a rare woodland orchid, of a creaminess which competed with the pearls which were tied with pink ribbon to her ears. A slender form. He moved his hand from her tiny waist down to the gentle curve of her bottom, and felt a stirring in his loins.
It had been a long time. Six months incarcerated in the dank squalor of the Campbell dungeons. A month or more following the Prince into battle before that. He had not permitted himself to think of aught but escape. Had forgotten how delightful was the feel of soft curves and tender skin. Under his filleadh beg, the small plaid he wore pleated and belted as a kilt, he felt himself hardening as an unwelcome gust of desire surged like a lightning bolt through his blood. Rory grimaced. It was excruciatingly untimely.
Pressed tight against him, Jessica could not help but realise the direction her captor’s thoughts had taken. Awareness stretched like a too-tight knot in her stomach. She strained against his grip.
“If I take my hand away do I have your word you’ll not scream,” he asked in his low growl.
Thinking only of the need to detach herself from his disturbing presence she nodded her reluctant assent, finding herself dumped unceremoniously onto the verge at the side of the rough track. Fuming impotently, she watched her assailant deal efficiently and ruthlessly with poor John, binding him with leather cut from the reins of one of the horses, forming a gag with her servant’s own necktie, before rolling him into the high fern which bordered the track.
As he worked Jessica glimpsed his legs, disturbingly bare above his hose, thigh muscles rippling as his kilt swung out behind him. The material of his shirt was thin, moulded to his shape with the sweat of his exertions. The open neck showed a strong throat, a v-shaped notch of bare chest. She was fairly certain that under his belted plaid he wore nothing at all!
When he turned back towards her, Jessica scrabbled to her feet glowering, summoning every single scrap of her considerable will power to her aid. “Don’t come any closer,” she hissed in a voice which should at the very least have stopped the barbarian in his tracks.
The Highlander merely quirked an eyebrow and stood directly in front of her. Close. Too close. Appraising her slowly from head to toe, like a merchant making an inventory of goods he had acquired. Her hackles rose. Impudent swine! “You want my horses I expect. Take them then, though I warn you ‘tis a hanging offence.”
He shrugged. “To my knowledge they can hang a man only once.” His voice had the low musical lilt of the Gael.
“So you are wanted already? Cattle rustling, I have no doubt,” Jessica said scornfully.
He looked unaccountably amused at this. White teeth glinted as his mouth curled into a half smile. “You think me a common thief?”
“An obvious conclusion to draw. You would be wise not to add to your list of crimes. I am kin to the Duchess of Argyll. She is expecting me.”
“You’re a Campbell?” His voice hardened. No trace of amusement now in his narrow-eyed look.
“If you must know, my name is Jessica Cunninghame. The Duchess is my mother’s cousin, I am no kin of the Duke.”
“That is still something,” he said thoughtfully, “her husband will not want any harm to come to you.”
“Exactly,” Jessica said with relief. “So you’ll let me go then?”
Rory shook his head. “On the contrary. You are coming with me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, you cannot have considered the consequences. I don’t know who you are or why you’re here but I…”
“Rory Macleod,” he interrupted her, “of the Isle of Heronsay, but more lately from the dungeons of your good cousin’s castle, where I’ve been held captive since April.”
The date could mean only one thing. “Culloden,” Jessica said slowly as realisation dawned. “You’re a Jacobite. One of the Pretender’s men.”
“Aye, and proud of it,” Rory confirmed, the bleakness of the memories hardening his face into granite-hewn planes. “Nigh on six months I’ve been festering in that dank hole awaiting my fate. God knows what carnage I’ll find when I get back to my kinfolk. I must cross some dangerous country to get there too. Campbell country. You, Miss Jessica Cunninghame, will make my chances of success rather more certain.”
“You’ll fare much faster alone,” she protested.
“Perhaps, but why take the chance? If I’m unlucky enough to encounter your mother’s kin, they will think twice about trying to stop me, seeing yourself between us.” He busied himself, adjusting the girths of John’s horse and freeing her own with a smack to its rump.
“Please,” Jessica said finally, though the word did not come easy to her.
Anxious to be away, Rory was pinning his filleadh mór back into place over his shoulder, but the strange mixture of desperation and contempt in her voice made him pause. “You need not fear for your life. I’m a Macleod, not a Campbell,” he said scornfully. “You’ll take no hurt from me.”
“If you let me go now, I’ll take no hurt at all,” she countered.
Rory hesitated. Her servant gave a muffled groan. The full danger of his situation came flooding back to him. He could not risk recapture, for hanging would most certainly follow. “I promise to have you returned safe once I am home,” he compromised.
“Why didn’t you say so before,” she said scornfully. “I need have no fear, with the promise of a thieving traitor to rely on.” Too much Jessica, she realised as the steel bands of his hands tightened again around her arms. Fury set his eyes ablaze like the yellow broom on the moor.
“I am a Macleod of Heronsay,” he said proudly through gritted teeth. “You have my word. I will not break it.” Without waiting for a reply, he grabbed her wrists, tying them together in front of her with the remainder of her own horse’s reins. “And if I hear any more from you there’ll be a gag for that vicious tongue too,” he warned her as he threw her onto the saddle, forcing her to balance astride.
Automatically checking his belt for his dirk, the long thin knife he always kept there, Rory cursed when he remembered it had been confiscated at the castle. He reached into his left stocking for his sgian dubh, the little black knife he’d kept hidden during captivity, and placed it in his belt instead. Casting an anxious look around him, he checked the position of the sun over the still waters of the loch, and leapt athletically onto the horse behind Jessica.
With luck, his absence would not be noted for some hours, but he would fain be gone as far from here as possible, for his hostage’s disappearance would of a surety be noticed sooner. Digging his heels into the horse’s flanks, and wrapping one arm securely round the slender waist of the woman in front of him, Rory pointed the horse homewards and urged it into a gallop.