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The Guardian
Highland Heroes – Book One

They ordered her to seduce him and cast him aside. He was commanded to protect her. No one told them to fall in love. They discovered that on their own. Now each can't live without the other but together they risk certain death.

A Highlander's duty

A summons from court could be a dangerous thing especially for Graham MacCoinnich. He says what he thinks, and his clan's treasonous rumblings coupled with their risky alliances cast both kith and kin in a dubious light. But King William's order turns out to be anything but dire. Surprising? Yes. Enticing? Without a doubt. The exquisite Lady Mercy Claxton, most cherished goddaughter of the king, requires a protective escort through Scotland and Graham is happy to offer his services.

Escaping the sins of the father

Since the untimely death of her mother, Lady Mercy Claxton has feverishly searched for a way to escape her father, the Duke of Edsbury's political games before one of his plots ensnares her either in an unsavory arranged marriage—or worse, the same humiliations he forced upon her mother. A trip through the Highlands is just the ploy for her to seek sanctuary at Iona Abbey. Or at least, it was until Mercy's father twisted her plan into a political coup to erase his gambling debts and bolster his diminishing status at court. And if Mercy doesn't comply and do his bidding? She'll be shackled with the same deplorable fate her mother never escaped.

A dangerous pretense

Graham has never claimed to be a gentleman, but he's the Highlander Mercy needs. Especially when she tells him her father ordered Graham's seduction with the caveat that she then cast him aside and claim foul play to validate an attack on his clan in feigned defense of her honor. Her trusting desperation touches Graham's heart. Graham's gentle protectiveness touches Mercy's soul. Never one to admit defeat, Graham devises the perfect solution. They'll create a show of feigned romance for the benefit of the duke's spies until Mercy reaches safe harbor at the abbey. There's just one problem Graham and Mercy fail to take into account. Pretending to love is risky. It has a tendency to become all too real.

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excerpt

Chapter One 

 

Kensington Palace
Early spring 1693

Graham MacCoinnich eyed his surroundings, rubbing his hands together with slow, purposeful movements. Several grim outcomes had come to mind since receiving the strange summons from the crown. This situation had not been among them.

Graham shifted in place and pulled in a deep breath, hissing it out between clenched teeth as he stole another veiled glance around the small but opulent chamber—unoccupied except for himself. An ill-feeling permeated the air of what appeared to be a private library of the palace. Bookshelves lined each wall, laden not only with books but also all manner of useless baubles and trinkets, the likes of which Graham had never seen. Luxurious chairs and couches sat in clusters of twos and threes, crowding every available space. Tables littered with gilded boxes and cut-glass decanters filled to their stoppers highlighted the cozy arrangements of gaudy furniture.

Graham wet his lips. He wouldn't turn away a drink about now. A bead of sweat trickled down his spine and settled in the crack of his arse. He didn't care for this place a damn bit. A chamber made for secrets. Dark. Ominous. The room reeked of deception.

He shifted positions again, turning with as nonchalant an air as he could muster. Places such as these always held spy holes, riddled with them, in fact. Someone watched him. He'd bet a barrel of fine MacCoinnich whisky on it. The king's personal guard had escorted him here with a rudeness that had come close to forcing him to teach the man better manners. Graham had managed to refrain. Barely. He still itched to put the insolent bastard in his place. But he wouldn't dare. It was too great a risk. After all, he was a Scot in the heart of hostile soil. For his own sake and the sake of his brother Alexander's new clan and young family, he'd behave. At least for now.

A quiet click to his right made him turn. A gold-inlaid, paneled door swung open.

“Come this instant, daughter. His Highness will join us presently. Your maid can fetch your journal later. We've greater matters at hand than the whereabouts of your silly sketches, and I will not be humiliated by running after my progeny like an incompetent nursemaid.” A tall man, once broad across the shoulders but now stooped with age, held tight to the hand of a fetching young woman. He yanked her forward with a rude, impatient jerk.

“Papa! I beg you—”

“This instant, Mercy! Heed me now. Not another word, do you understand me?”

The scarlet-cheeked beauty careened to a bouncing halt as her alarmed gaze fell on Graham. Her chin jerked to a prideful angle but her full lips quivered, and her slender throat flexed as she struggled to recover a calm, gracious appearance.

Graham's heart went out to the lass for suffering such an embarrassment at the hands of her brute-of-a-father. He stepped forward with a warning glare at the man and lifted his fists to a more noticeable level. The old bastard best amend his behavior or rue the day he stepped into the presence of a MacCoinnich. Women were precious and meant to be treated with respect.

The lady's father made a weak attempt of jutting out his chin but took a half step back and cleared his throat.

Good. The old fool understood the warning.Graham shifted his attention back to the sweet lass peering out from behind her father.

A rare vision. She had hair black as obsidian and skin fairer than any ivory Graham had ever seen. And those eyes. Fathomless. Curved as though smiling and colored the rich hue of a well-aged whisky reflecting the torchlight. A man could get trapped in those eyes, completely ensnared with the promise of discovering the rest of the lady's charms.

Graham wrenched himself free of her spell. Such a dalliance could prove dangerous. Not only was she a Sassenach but more than likely a noble judging from the looks of her father and her regal, genteel demeanor. The situation begged careful handling. He made a polite nod toward the beguiling lass and stepped between her and her intolerable father. “M'lady. Graham MacCoinnich at your service.”

The lass curtsied and dropped her gaze with a coy turning of her head, but Graham didn't miss the glances she stole at him through those long, dark lashes. Aye. A fine, rare beauty, this one was.

Her father edged his way back in front of her. “Duke of Edsbury, sir.” The man growled out the words in a low, huffing tone that said the name should impress Graham.

It didn't.

“Sir.” Graham gave the duke that much politeness but no more ‘til the man proved he deserved it. He'd march straight through hell's gates before he called the man milord.

Lord Edsbury's eyes narrowed the slightest bit and the crease between his twin thatches of bushy gray brows deepened. He stood taller, his spine stiffening into as challenging a stance as the man could muster. He might have been a worthy adversary at one time, a courageous lion, strong, and noble. But now the man moved with the hitched gait of one battling the ill health of overindulgence and advancing years.

“Papa.” The word floated through the air as soft as a whisper, slipped between the two men, and hovered like a spirit.

The duke recovered his composure. The required shroud of polite court manners fell across him like a veil of mist tumbling down a mountain. He turned and took his daughter's hand, pulling her out from behind him to stand at his side. “Allow me to introduce you to my daughter, Lady Mercy Rowena Claxton.”

“Honored to meet ye, m'lady.” Graham graced her with a smile intended as a calming gesture and a truce. After all, it wasn't the woman's fault her father was an arrogant arse—and an English one at that. “Might I call ye Lady Mercy?”

“You may.” Lady Mercy curtsied again and held out her hand, lowering her gaze as she waited for him to take it.

Take it he did. Graham relished the opportunity to graze his mouth across the softness of her long, delicate fingers. He knew well enough it was considered ungentlemanly to press his lips to the lady's skin rather than hover above her fine hand, but he'd never been accused of being a gentleman nor possessed the desire of gaining the title. 

He took pride in his brazenness, breathing in her enticing fragrance as he drew a step closer. The earthy florals of a heather-filled glen paired with the intoxicating sweetness of a nervous young woman floated around her. What a treasure she was—sadly, a Sassenach, aye, but a treasure to be won and enjoyed, nonetheless.

She rewarded him with a deeper blush across her high cheekbones and an endearing gasp as she slipped her hand out of his grasp and tucked it to her middle.

“Damned, ill-bred Scot. I would expect no less.”

Graham turned and laughed in Edsbury's face. “Aye, man. A Scot doesna leave a woman guessing after his intentions. They ken verra well when they're wanted.” He returned his attention to the lady. As much as he enjoyed tormenting her pompous father, he wished the dear lass no unease. “Forgive me if I've offended ye, m'lady. I assure ye 'twas no' my intent at all.”

Lady Mercy fluttered his words away with a gracious wave. “No offense taken, sir.” With a modest lowering of her gaze, she retreated to a corner.

Were circumstances different, he'd take great pleasure in getting to know this lass better—despite her being a danger. The strange summons from the crown returned to the forefront of his thoughts and all levity left him. He turned back to the duke. “I assume your presence here means ye have a meeting with the king as well?”

Edsbury gave him an unsettling scowl, one that made Graham wish he could read the man's mind. “His Highness will be with us anon. Bentinck, Lord Portland, assured me of such.”

“Bentinck?” Graham wasn't familiar with the name.

“The Earl of Portland. His Highness's Groom of the Stole.” Edsbury gave a haughty sniff and looked at Graham as though he should be envious of the man chosen to wipe the king's arse after His Majesty took a shite.

King William's entrance cut off the less than complimentary retort burning on Graham's tongue.

“Your Highness.” Edsbury bowed long and low, and Lady Mercy rushed to give the perfect, gracious curtsy.

Graham made the required respectful bow, then straightened and met King William's gaze.

The royal known for his heartless scheming and tenacity looked worn, far older than his forty-some-odd years of age.  His Majesty appeared travel weary and ready for a drink and it was no wonder. The king wintered but a few short months in Whitehall or Kensington, traveling the remainder of the year and entrusting the everyday duties of ruling the kingdom to his wife, Queen Mary. He had proven himself more interested in the expansion of his empire and the battlefield rather than in the running of the kingdom. It was a rare occurrence for him to darken the doors of his own palace for more than a few days during the spring or summer months.

King William didn't speak for a long moment. Just stood there. Motionless, except for the occasional shifting of his impeccably arranged long brown curls whenever he took in a breath. He peered at Graham, studying him as though weighing his merits to decide if he was lacking. After what most would consider an overlong stare bordering on rudeness, His Highness pursed his thin lips and gave a slow, imperious nod. He moved to sit in a luxurious chair situated on a raised platform near the entrance. With a lazy turn of his head, he shifted his focus to the almost invisible young lord standing beside his chair like a well-trained dog waiting for his master's command. “Pray tell, is there a reason our glass is bereft of port?”

The thin lordling's eyes flared wide with alarm, then he sprang into action, snapping his fingers at the pair of servants flanking the king's private entrance to the room.

The older of the servants bowed and bobbed as he hurried to snatch a decanter from the cabinet beside His Majesty's chair. “Sincerest apologies, m'lord, but Her Highness—”

Before the young, attending lord could administer a more severe reprimand, King William held up a bejeweled hand.

“We are well aware of Her Majesty's position on sobriety, but as you should know, if you wish to continue in our service, when we are present at the palace, it is our command and our rule. Not the Queen's inclinations.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Still bobbing and bowing as he scurried to fill more glasses, the addled servant waved his counterpart forward and gave a jerking nod toward Graham, the duke, and Lady Mercy.

King William took a slow sip from his glass, all the while continuing to study Graham.

Graham clenched his teeth harder and lifted his chin. Royal or not, he would not give the man the satisfaction of a Scot cowering at his feet. The ominous echo of a ticking clock filled the room. Graham felt the minutes of his life slipping away, and the feeling shattered his ability to curb his impatience. Time to end this waste of time. “Your summons appeared urgent.” He gave a stiff nod. “How might I be of service to His Majesty?”

The king's gaze slid from Graham to Edsbury. “The Duke of Edsbury is in need of your service, and it is our most adamant wish you see fit to accept the task.” A sincere smile wiped the weariness from the king's long, drawn face as his attention settled on Lady Mercy. “Edsbury and his daughter, the lovely Lady Mercy, are our particular favorites here at court.” With an affectionate tilting of his head in her direction, King William extended his hand and wiggled his fingers. “Come to us, child.”

With the barest rustling of her full skirts, Lady Mercy hurried to the king and knelt at his feet, placing her fingertips up beneath his. She bowed her head, pressing a kiss over the jewel-encrusted rings sparkling across his knuckles. “My king,” she murmured as she lifted her face to his and gifted the king with a reverent, adoring smile.

Graham studied the king as His Majesty gazed down at the lass, fully expecting to witness the signs of a lascivious royal sizing up his next mistress. But such lust was not there. Surprising. A genuine fondness filled the king's face. He gave Lady Mercy the adoring look one would expect from a benevolent guardian toward a most beloved charge.

“Explain to him, Edsbury,” King William said as he kept his pleased countenance fixed on Lady Mercy. He took tight hold of her hand, steadying her as she seated herself on the small, upholstered stool beside his chair. “Your loveliness is a welcome balm to our weary soul, my dear. A welcome balm, indeed.”

With a graceful nod, Lady Mercy lowered her gaze. “You are most kind, Your Majesty.”

His patience thinning even more with this royal parlor game, Graham turned to the duke. “The task?”

Edsbury's jaw flexed. He took a fortifying sip of the dark liquid in his glass, then scowled down at the port as he swirled it in a slow, methodical circle. “Lady Mercy has a great interest in the flora and fauna of Scotland. The Highlands, in particular.” He leveled an even sterner scowl on Graham. “My late wife's influence, I fear. I blame her for the indulgence of my daughter regarding such. And with both my wife and my son's untimely deaths, Lady Mercy appears to need a distraction from her grief or there will be no peace in my household.” He snorted, then coughed as though his words left a detestable taste in his mouth.

“Ye have my condolences, sir.” Graham considered the man a rude cur, but he'd not be heartless toward him. 'Twas a raw thing to outlive a wife and a child. He'd witnessed such when cousin Ian had lost his wife and unborn child in the attack at Glencoe. “My genuine condolences, sir,” he stressed.

Edsbury responded with a stiff nod.

“May they ever rest in peace.” Graham raised his glass to Lady Mercy, holding it high as he gave her a respectful bow before downing the contents.

The duke responded to Graham's kind words with another jerking nod, then turned away, settling a long, studious glare upon his daughter still seated beside the king. He drained his glass, accepted another from a servant, then turned back to Graham. “It is Lady Mercy's wish to compile a book, an enhanced journal of sorts, cataloging the plants and animals of the Highlands. She wishes to dedicate it to her mother and brother since they were both avid lovers of nature.”

“And she has our blessing,” King William interjected with a look that dared Graham to argue. “We have vowed to see this journal properly published and added to all our libraries across the kingdom.” The king gave Graham a menacing smile. “Hear this and mark our words when we say Lady Mercy has our royal sanction for this venture. We are certain you understand our meaning, do you not?”

“Oh aye, Your Majesty,” Graham hedged. “Your meaning is quite clear.”

Clear as a murky fog floating above the bogs.Whatever they were about to ask was an order, not a request. That part, he understood. But what were they asking? Had he been summoned here merely to describe the Highlands to a fetching Sassenach noble who more than likely had never set foot past Hadrian's Wall? What a waste of his time. Beguiling lass or not, he was no storyteller or some foppish bard. Why the hell had they chosen him? Time to sort this foolishness out. “What exactly is the task? I'm no' so much for telling stories of my beloved Highlands. My time is better spent patrolling them, ye ken?”

“I require a guide, Master MacCoinnich.”

So, Lady Mercy could speak something other than the demure murmurings of a highborn lass seeking favor at court. Graham heard an underlying strength in her sultry tone and something more, something he couldn't quite put his finger on, but it drew him in just the same. Determined, she was. Aye, that was it. She might play the part of a shy lass but he'd lay odds the woman was sly and unpredictable as the wind. A thrilling, ominous shiver, a shudder of expectation shot through him. He relished a challenge.

“A guide, m'lady?” Graham took a step closer, noting the king's sharp-eyed perusal as he did so. “Surely, ye dinna mean to travel through the Highlands to make your wee book.”

“That is exactly what she means to do,” Edsbury said as he positioned himself closer to the king and his daughter, behaving as though he'd be an impenetrable barrier should Graham decide to attack. “And to do so safely, she needs someone who will not only guide her through the Highlands but also protect her.” He widened his tensed, defensive stance and glared at Graham with red-veined nostrils flaring as though he smelled a stench. “Your reputation as a mercenary precedes you, sir. Are you not for hire?”

A warning tingle rippled through the hairs on the back of Graham's neck. The same instinctive alarm he always felt when danger neared. He'd best choose his words with care. He felt it clear to the marrow of his bones. With the king involved, if he failed at this, Alexander's clan could be endangered. King William had sworn to cleanse the Highlands of treasonous rumblings, and his edict played well into the hands of those seeking political gain and also wishing to settle old scores. The murdered MacDonalds of Glencoe lay restless in their graves as a testament to that.

Graham forced himself to appear a damned sight more relaxed than he felt. He even managed a congenial demeanor to go along with his polite half-bow. “Aye. I am a soldier for hire.” He gave King William a look he prayed the royal would understand. “For the right price and the right reasons.”

King William rewarded him with a smug but thoughtful smile, one, gold-ringed finger twitching with a slow rhythmic tap atop the gilded lion's head carved into the arm of his chair. “Your loyalty is so noted by us, sir.”

Lady Mercy rose from her seat beside the king, so graceful and lithe in the sumptuous yardage of her silk gown she seemed to float across the floor, suspended in the folds of rich purple framing her coloring to perfection. She eased closer to Graham, hands clasped in front of her in an almost pious pose. With a shy incline of her head, she flashed him a smile that Graham felt sure was meant to beguile him. “I would be most grateful if you would agree to this duty. My father assures me you shall be well paid for your services.”

“Gold coin,” Edsbury said, spitting out the words as though it was a struggle to say them. “As much as you can lift. Bags, of course. Both hands.”

“Quite a sum.” The generous offer made Graham even more wary. Was it truly that important to Edsbury and the king that the charming Lady Mercy be indulged and allowed to make her wee book rather than just disposing of the lass by marrying her off for political gain? There was more here, more than what had been said; damned if he could figure out what it was.

“Then you will agree?” Lady Mercy blessed him with a genuine smile and a look that stirred him in places better left unstirred by an English lass who was clearly a favorite to the king—especially if they were to be traveling through the Highlands. Alone.

Alone? Nay. Surely not. Graham cleared his throat and huffed away Lady Mercy's enamoring spell, shifting his attention back to Edsbury. “I need more details. How many will be in our party? I assume the lady has her own retinue accompanying her?” Royals traveled with herds of servants to see to their every need. If he was both guide and guard to all concerned, he needed to know the number.

“Myself and my maid,” Lady Mercy said after a quick glance back at her father. “And a few servants to handle the horses and wagons, of course.”

“And one of our own personal guards,” King William added with a warning, narrow-eyed glare. “After all, parts of the Highlands are quite uncivilized. A lone man, even one with your rumored skills, could do little against a band of highwaymen.”

Graham knew damn good and well why the king was sending one of his own. The man would be a bloody spy. If the king was so worried about highwaymen outnumbering him, he had a better solution. “My brothers, Duncan and Sutherland, might be available to join us.” He turned to Edsbury and grinned. “Of course, they'll be wanting their own payment of gold.”

The duke opened his mouth to speak, but King William cut him off. “We find your terms acceptable.” He paused, gave Edsbury a hard look, then continued. “However, one of our personal guards shall still accompany you. We will not negotiate that point.”

Three Scots against one red-coated Sassenach? Aye, that would do. Fair laughable odds it was and a great deal more acceptable. Graham settled his focus back on the lovely Lady Mercy, searching her expression for signs of guile or deceit. More was at stake here than the spoiled daughter of a duke getting her way. But what was it? Could the lass really just wish for a grand tour through the Highlands to honor her mother and brother? And why was the king so intent on accommodating the girl and her father? Graham understood the concept of favorites at court; but this...this was more than a little odd.

“Will you agree, sir?” Lady Mercy asked, looking like a child begging for sweets.

“Aye, m'lady. I agree to the terms set forth today.” Graham accepted with a curt bow, then turned to Edsbury and the king. “My brothers can be here within a few days. All I need do is send for them. When shall I tell them we plan to leave?”

Edsbury sniffed and turned aside, glancing at the king before giving Graham a dismissive nod. “All shall be set in motion as soon as your brothers arrive.”

“Do have them make haste,” King William intoned. “We have little patience for waiting.”

A warning. Graham acknowledged it with a bow, clenching his teeth to keep from saying more than he should as he turned and left the room.