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The Guardian Maeve Greyson

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The Warrior – Book Two – Highland Heroes

The seer predicted a union of necessity. A marriage foreseen to save a man’s life and heal a woman’s soul.

Death by boredom is the only fate Duncan MacCoinnich fears. Years as a mercenary fed him the adventure he needed, but now the dull routines of his brother’s keep are starving him for excitement. So, he offers his services to the ruthless smuggling lord, the MacDonald of Skye and all is set—until the woman screams.

Independence and adventure are all Tilda Mackenzie wants, a tall order for the only child of the chieftain of Clan Mackenzie. Her duty is to marry and secure an alliance. But she’d rather work at her father’s side, helping him build their smuggling empire and outmaneuver the bloody MacDonalds. She’s fearless and canny and takes pride in bending her will to no man—until the day the soldiers decide she needs humbling.

Tilda’s rescue has Duncan headed for the gallows even though she claims him to be her husband to refute the accusations. Both of them wished for adventure. But adventures can weary a soul especially when deadly enemies appear in unexpected places. That’s when wishes change to prayers for nothing more than the safety and love found in each other’s arms.

Take care with what ye wish. And word such wishes wisely. For when ye receive what ye want, ye might discover it a curse instead.

Adventure, treachery, and romance abound in this second book of the Highland Heroes Series from bestselling author Maeve Greyson.

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Chapter One

Northwest Highlands, Scotland
Outside the town of Inverness
Spring, 1694


The very word sent crackling anticipation through him.

Duncan MacCoinnich worked the worn, leather reins between his fingers, hungering for this latest adventure like a man starved. Aye, this would be quite the change not only from fighting as a warrior for hire but also from helping his brother, Alexander, adapt to his new role as chieftain of the newly formed Clan MacCoinnich.

Lord Almighty, Duncan had never realized how stifling the everyday tasks of leading a clan and keep could be. Whilst he loved his brother and swore fealty to him without question, he was more than glad to bid all a fond farewell and set about seeking his own fortune. Adventure. Intrigue. Excitement. Aye, that’s what made a man’s blood pump and kept his heart beating strong and true.

He resettled his arse in the saddle and glanced around. The peaceful, wooded glade this side of Inverness stood in direct contrast with the heightened suspense churning inside him. Whilst he felt certain he had the wit to excel at smuggling, he had to admit, he had much to learn about the intricacies of procuring goods and eluding the ever-watchful excisemen.

No matter. He forced the worry away with a roll of his shoulders. Tenseness had set in, no doubt brought on by the long journey from Skye and his impatience to get to Inverness. The exciting unknown that lay ahead had him wound tighter than a bow string. Aye, but that was the sheer beauty of it. The pleasure. The reward. He urged his mount to go faster. He would reach Inverness by late afternoon. At last, this newest quest was about to begin.

Sern MacDonald waited for him in Inverness. He was a good man. Smart. Fearless. Canny. Duncan couldn’t find a better teacher for the ways and hows of the fine art of smuggling, and he liked the man. The MacDonald of Skye had promised a healthy return on this investment of time, even paid him a generous sum in advance. With so much gold weighing down his pockets, the future looked promising indeed.

His empty stomach growled. He took a deep swig from his half-empty waterskin and did his best to drown the gnawing reminder he hadn’t stopped for a meal in a while. Another gurgle sounded from his middle, his angry wame complaining about receiving nothing more than water. Duncan belched and made himself a promise. First order of business upon reaching Inverness, locate the best pub, down several pints, and have a good meal—in that order.

A woman’s scream shattered the stillness of the afternoon.

Duncan yanked his mount to a halt. Senses alert, he scanned the woods for the source of the sound.

Curses ripped through the trees, pinpointing the woman’s location.

Spurring his mount off the hard-packed dirt road, he charged around the trees, pounding toward the sound of the distressed lass.

She screamed again, closer this time and to the right, an angry, keening sob of hopelessness drowned out by laughter—loud male laughter. Sounded like several men. Urgency drove him forward. Up ahead, he spied an opening in the trees. A flash of familiar red. British uniforms. The sight triggered the deepest of Duncan’s battle instincts. He hated the English. Raucous jeers and shouts echoed in tandem with the woman’s sobs.

Rage spurred Duncan onward. He drew a pistol and leaned forward in the saddle, hugging low against his horse as he slowed, easing through the trees. He promised himself by all that was holy, by the time he finished, a deeper red, a bloody red, would shade the bastards’ coats.

Three redcoats surrounded the girl. Two of them crouched on either side of the lass, squatting atop the ropes they had lashed across her to hold her tight to the forest floor. Her chemise and bodice were torn; and her skirts were shoved up around her waist. The third bastard towered above her, standing at her feet. Wide as he was tall, the scoundrel looked the filthiest sort, especially in His Majesty’s uniform. With his trews shoved down around his knees, he staggered to the space between the lass’s ankles whilst the other two guffawed at him and shouted lewd suggestions.

“Enough!” Duncan yelled. His agile mount cleared through the last cluster of trees and burst into the clearing.

All three soldiers jerked about. As natural as breathing, Duncan took aim, and fired.

The man standing gaped at Duncan. He clawed at his chest as a red stain spread across the grubby, white cloth of his shirt. The blackguard’s head sagged to one side. His shoulders crumpled as he collapsed across the girl.

She shrieked, struggling in vain to shift out from under him. The two soldiers on either side of her, shook themselves free of their shocked stupor, then scrambled back, arms and legs digging in the dirt in their effort to escape.

“Bloody hell!” one shouted. “She ain’t worth this!”

“The bloodiest of hells for the lot of ye!” Duncan shook the woods with a guttural battle cry as he shoved his spent pistol into the holster on his saddle and pulled its mate free of his belt. He fired, clipping the second soldier as the man dove into the bushes. Ammunition spent, the third man escaped without injury. Duncan’s rage burned hot and fierce as the fool disappeared into a patch of thick undergrowth running alongside a ravine.

Duncan leapt from his horse and gave chase, determined to kill them both for the girl’s sake. Bloody Sassenachs, thought they could take whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, however they wanted. He’d witnessed their brutality before. He’d send all three to kneel in judgement before their Maker.

He waded into the bushes, hacking away at the leaves and smaller branches with his sword. Both men had disappeared faster than a pair of frightened rabbits.

Duncan gave a hard look around the area. Nothing caught his attention but dancing leaves and the gentle soughing of the wind through the trees. “Show yerselves.” Teeth clenched, sword at the ready, he turned in a slow circle, scanning the ground for signs. Damned if the arse worms hadn’t managed to slip away.

Determined to find them, he strode into the ditch, slashing his way forward through the tangle of vines, grasses, and knotted bushes. Senses attuned to the slightest noise, he watched for the faintest movement or signs that would reveal his prey.

Erratic shuffling through the leaf mold caught Duncan’s attention. He veered to the right, chasing the sound, straining to keep focused. He spotted blood splattered across ferns clustered at the base of an oak. Good. The man he had wounded was bleeding. With any luck, the devil would bleed to death.

Cries for help came from the woods behind him. The lass. He stared at the way the men might have gone, then looked back where he knew the poor woman still lay trapped. The thrill of the hunt warred with the responsibility of taking proper care of the girl. He growled out his frustration. Perhaps the escaped soldiers would cross his path again someday; and he’d mete out justice then. Best get back to the lass.

Jaw set, he sheathed his sword. He didn’t relish the unpleasantness of the task ahead. Who knew what the poor woman had endured or what her state of mind might be? He needed to get her to a healer or someone to help her. She had to have home or kin nearby.

He tromped through the woods, heading first to his horse. He removed his sword from the scabbard at his side and sheathed it to his saddle. No sense scaring the poor woman with such a weapon. He retrieved an extra tunic from his saddle bag, then unbelted his kilt. He shook it off his body and yanked on a pair of trews. The woman would need the warmth of his plaid and the covering of it. Such a simple gesture might offer the poor lass a little peace of mind. He’d dealt with brutalized women such as her before. Their handling took the utmost care.

As he eased his way into the clearing, Duncan held up the kilt in one hand and the tunic in the other. “I have coverings for ye, lass. Ye’re safe now. I swear, I willna hurt ye.” Tossing the garments to the ground beside her, he grabbed hold of the massive corpse across her and yanked the fool away. “Bloody bastard.” Duncan dragged the scoundrel to the edge of the clearing and dumped him.

Gaze roaming wildly, the girl screamed and tried to roll away, yanking at the ropes binding her arms and legs. She coughed as the noose around her neck tightened. Her face turned red. The veins in her throat bulged as she wheezed and fought for air.

Duncan rushed to her side, tossed his kilt and spare tunic across her, then drew his sgian dhu from its sheath in his boot. “I mean ye no harm, lass, I swear it. Still yerself, afore ye strangle.”

He slashed through the ties, hoping by doing such that the one around her throat would gain some slack. It didn’t work. If he didn’t hurry, she’d soon be dead. He dug his fingers under the one tied tight around her throat. If he cut her, he cut her, he had to get her free. He sliced through the last of the frayed rope and yanked it away, flinching as he saw the burn the binding had left around her neck. The poor lass would carry that mark for a while.

Curling into a tight ball around the kilt and tunic, she rolled to her knees and scrambled to take cover in the bushes. As she moved, she shot a terrified look back at Duncan.

He held up both hands and backed away to the edge of the clearing, heart aching for the poor woman and all she must have endured. The girl couldn’t be in her right mind and understandably so. At the moment,  she didn’t know who she could trust or not.

“I willna hurt ye, lass,” he said in a soft, coaxing tone, lowering himself to a kneeling position whilst keeping both his hands where she could see them if she bothered to look. “I am alone. No others travel with me, so ye dinna have to worry. I shall sit right here until ye feel ready to tell me where I can take ye to get ye some aid.”

Her sobs grew softer behind the wall of trembling leaves.

Duncan glanced around the clearing. Where had the bastards taken hold of her? Had they kidnapped her and brought her here to defile her? Where were their horses? This clearing wasn’t that far from Inverness but was certainly too far for three drunken sods to carry away a strong lassie without being noticed. He wished he could search the area for their mounts, but he’d promised the girl he’d stay put. He couldn’t break his word, not even over something as small as that. To her, his word meant all the difference between trusting him or not.

“My name is Duncan,” he called out. “Duncan MacCoinnich at yer service, m’lady.” He looked around the woods and tried his damnedest to come up with something to say to put the woman at ease. “My brother is chieftain to Clan MacCoinnich. Alexander MacCoinnich be his name. He married Catriona Neal. Do ye ken the keep and the small clan what was once the Neal stronghold over on Ben Nevis? 'Tis Clan MacCoinnich now. They raise the finest horses.” Horses. Shite. What the hell was he thinking? Why in God's good name would the poor, bedeviled girl care about horses?

Duncan huffed out a frustrated breath. He didn’t fare well with the calming of poor frightened lasses. Charming them? Aye—at least, most the time. What else might he say to put her at ease and get her to trust him?

The screen of leaves ceased trembling. Either she was listening to everything he said, or she had fainted dead away. Duncan feared it was the latter. “What be yer name, lass?”

A sharpness poked hard between his shoulder blades, encouraging him to arch his back and lift his hands. He risked a glance back, regretting that decision as the steel jabbed harder. “Lass?”

“Tilda Mackenzie,” came her weak whisper. “Hold ye fast for now, aye?” the girl’s voice rasped worse than a rusty hinge. With all her screaming and the damage to her throat, ’twas little wonder she could speak at all.

“Tilda Mackenzie,” Duncan repeated, taking great care not to move nor look back at her again. “'Tis my honor to meet ye, Mistress Tilda Mackenzie. Such a fine, courageous lassie. I only regret that I didna find ye sooner and save ye from such vile distress. I swear I regret it sorely.”

“Ye may call me Tilda,” she whispered. “Did ye kill the other two rogues?”

Duncan considered lying and telling her yes to save her from worrying, but it had been his experience that such untruths always came back and bit him in the arse. “Nay, Mistress Mackenzie. The bastards slipped away. I fear I failed ye on that count, m’lady.”

“My name is Tilda, ye ken? Not milady.At least ye killed the one,” she said as she stepped out into the open. She took up a stance in front of him, wearing his tunic pulled down over her ripped clothing and his kilt wrapped around her shoulders. A dagger in one hand, she clutched her chest with the other, keeping his plaid tight around her. “For that task, I thank ye and owe ye greatly.”

Still keeping his hands aloft and well in sight, Duncan rose to his feet and gave her a polite nod. “Ye owe me nothing, m’lady. No gentleman would turn his back on a woman in such distress.”

“Call me Tilda, ye ken?” Her bottom lip, split and bloody, quivered as she hitched in a sharp breath. Her eyes, a rare turquoise color, were magnified and rendered all the more startling by her tears. “'Tis my displeasure to inform ye that gentlemen are few in this part of Scotland. Or at least, that has been my experience of late.” She wavered to one side, stumbling as though about to fall.

Duncan reached out to catch her.

“Dinna touch me!” She reeled to one side, holding her blade at the ready.

He took a step back and motioned toward his horse. “I have water. Not verra much but some. Pray let me fetch it for ye, aye?”

The lass looked about to faint. Her dark hair, more than likely once pulled back in a braided bun but now ragged, hung down across one of her shoulders. His tunic, too large for her small frame, reached to the hem of her skirts that peeped out from under the edges of his plaid. A swelling bruise was forming high on one of her cheeks, and the raw mark around her throat was oozing blood. She needed comforting before they set off to find help.

“Water, lass,” he repeated in the gentlest tone he could manage. “Rest yerself on this stump whilst I fetch it for ye, aye?”

Her troubled gaze shifted to the dead man. “Nay. Dinna leave me here.”

He held out his hand, “Then come, Lady Tilda.”

Her attention pulled away from the corpse and shifted to Duncan’s extended hand. Her entire body shook. Duncan prayed she’d find the faith to accept his help. “Just…Tilda, aye?”

“Aye.” He nodded, waiting for her to take his hand. “Tilda.”

She kept the weapon hugged to her chest whilst she slid her other hand into his. “Yer name again?” she whispered as she eased closer.

“Duncan.” He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “Duncan MacCoinnich at yer service.”
Slow and easy, he led her to his horse. “And this fine lad is Rab.”

At the sound of his name, the dappled gray shire tossed his head and grumbled out a friendly whicker. Rab nudged his nose into Duncan’s hand, snuffling for a treat.

“Big horse,” Tilda said in a quivering tone that sounded more filled with admiration than alarm. Her eyes flared as she took in Rab’s immense size.

“Aye, he is that, but ye’ll nay find a finer, gentler lad.” A quiet chuckle escaped him as he patted the horse’s side. “At least, until I need him to be otherwise. He can be a fearsome warhorse.” Duncan drew down the almost empty water skin and held it out to Tilda. “Forgive me, lass. It’s verra little, but even a little might help yer throat.”

She accepted the bag with a trembling nod, flinching as the mouthpiece bumped the split in her lip. She took several sips, then handed it back to Duncan. “I thank ye.” Her voice sounded some better.

“Can ye ride?” Duncan couldn’t fathom the woman’s potential injuries and was not about to ask such a delicate question when she had just now stopped looking at him as though he were a wolf about to eat her. But he needed to know.

“Aye.” Tilda lifted her chin and attempted to stand taller. The top of her head almost reached his shoulder. “Ye saved my maidenhead, if that’s yer concern, and I thank God Almighty for ye getting here when ye did. 'Tis true, they rough-handled me something fierce, but they failed to complete their evil intent.”

“I am glad of it.” And thankful she felt safe enough to share that information with him. It would make securing help for her that much easier. “Where can I take ye? I fear I dinna know this area of the Highlands as well as I know my own.”

She pulled his kilt tighter about her and stared down at the ground. “My father had urgent business in Inverness. Brought me with him because Angus, our clan solicitor, was down with the ague and couldna travel.” She made a twitching shrug of a shoulder. “Numbers and such come easy to me, and Angus says I know the law almost as well as he.” She shook her head and shivered. “Angus says I argue good, too,” she whispered. “The White Lion. We always stay there whilst in Inverness. It belongs to our clan. Take me to The White Lion.”

An uneasy prickling stung the hairs on the back of his neck. Duncan swiped his hand across his nape to rid himself of the feeling. A clan lawyer. A tavern owned by the clan. Urgent business in Inverness. All this information lent itself to Tilda possessing some status within Clan Mackenzie, a dangerous, powerful clan in its own right. She sounded as though she held the rank of ladyship whether she wished such a title or not. “Who is yer father, lass?”

“Lord Matheson Mackenzie, 4th Earl of Wrath.” Tilda gave him a determined yet tremulous smile, the first smile she’d managed since her horrendous ordeal. “Chieftain to Clan Mackenzie.”

The very man the MacDonald of Skye had warned Duncan to be certain to avoid while in this part of the Highlands.