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Highland Defender by Johnstone, Julie (1)

Chapter One

1302

Central England

Laird Angus MacLorh lived by three rules: put king above self, protect his family at all costs, and never become entangled with a lass again. He appreciated lasses as much as any man did, but he had no desire, nor place in his life, for the soft emotions an attachment to a woman would bring. He’d allowed a weakness for a woman to rule his head and heart once, and his poor judgment had resulted in his father’s death. It didn’t matter that Angus had been a mere nineteen summers and he’d thought less with the head on his shoulders than the one between his legs; he should have realized what was happening. His gut had warned him, and he’d chosen to ignore his instincts. That one foolish decision had changed not only his life but those of his mother, siblings, and his entire clan.

He didn’t let himself forget it. Ever. Even if he wanted to, which he didn’t, guilt had become his shadow. He awoke to it every day, and it followed him with silent footsteps. At night, shame haunted his dreams. He’d become accustomed to the heavy feeling that pressed upon his heart, mind, and soul. In fact, he’d decided long ago that it was best to nurture the guilt, lest he ever meet a lass that made him want to forget again. As laird, he could not allow himself to be distracted by a woman and fail in his duties to his clan ever again. Especially with that devil Edward, the King of England, systematically and brutally subjugating the Scottish people in an attempt to steal Scotland’s empty throne. Now, more than ever before, Angus could not falter.

“Angus, did ye hear me, man?” Robbie growled from Angus’s right. Black eyebrows arched questioningly over Robert the Bruce’s probing dark eyes as the Scot stared at him.

Angus paused on the pebbled path that led from the great hall of the Palace of Westminster through the gardens and into the woods. Rocks crunched underfoot when he turned to face his longtime friend and if his instincts were correct, which they always were, the future King of Scotland. The question in Angus’s mind was not if Robbie would one day sit upon the throne; it was when the Scot would fill the void left when the damnable English king had driven John Balliol, Scotland’s most recent ruler from power. Angus’s surety of that eventuality, as well as the fact that he literally owed Robbie his life after he had saved Angus years before, was why he’d agreed to come to England, into the very heart of their enemy’s domain, and pretend to submit to King Edward as his liege lord. The vile thought of actually bending the knee to the wishful usurper made Angus’s chest tighten.

A cool breeze stirred, and a shaft of sunlight momentarily fought its way through the thick clouds gathered overhead. Robbie cleared his throat, and Angus forced himself to concentrate on his friend. “Nay, I did nae hear ye.”

Robbie arched his eyebrows a fraction higher, and irritation scratched at Angus’s insides. He prided himself in always being focused, always paying attention, and remembering every detail, and he decided then and there that it was Robbie’s fault that Angus’s attention was so strained.

Angus motioned toward his friend’s eyebrows. “Dunnae give me that look,” he grumbled.

“What look?” Robbie asked, his eyebrows arching still higher.

“This one,” Angus snapped and arched his own eyebrows. He had known Robbie since they were very young and had trained to be warriors together. Long ago, they had even formed a small group of tight friends they called the Renegades. These men fought for Scotland’s freedom, and they knew one another better than they knew their own brothers, so Angus understood well what Robbie’s gestures meant. “Ye see what I’m doing!” He tapped hard by his right eye. “I ken ye do.” Robbie’s thick brows immediately lowered, and Angus continued, his annoyance ticking in time with his heartbeat. “I may nae have heard ye just now, but I heard ye last night when ye announced yer plan for me.” Angus still could not believe that Robbie expected him to take some helpless lass Angus did not know or trust with him to Ettrick Forest to warn Robbie’s men they were in danger.

“I did nae ever say Elizabeth’s cousin Lillianna is helpless, nor did I announce what ye were to do.” Robbie’s eyebrows dipped together in a scowl. “I conveyed what I wish ye to do.”

Angus snorted. “Ye did nae have to say the lass is helpless. It’s in yer tone. And ye conveying what ye wish is the same as an order. Ye will be my king one day, and ye ken well I live to serve king above self.” He waved a hand at a pesky bee buzzing around his head.

Robbie flashed a smile, revealing just how aware he was that Angus would submit to what was asked of him. There was too much at stake. When Robbie’s ailing father finally passed, Robbie would rise up, throwing off the cloak of feigned submission to Edward that Robbie’s father had long demanded. And when that happened, Robbie would lead Scotland to freedom and take his place as the rightful King of Scotland. Angus had to do what he could to help.

Robbie set a hand on Angus’s shoulder. “Ye know I’d nae ever ask ye to do something without fully considering it first. Ye trust me, aye?”

Angus clenched his teeth on the urge to immediately respond. He did trust Robbie—implicitly. Yet he also believed that, in this instance, the Scot was being led more by his desire for Elizabeth de Burgh than logical reasoning. Angus blew out a frustrated breath. He’d made his concern clear to Robbie last night, so there was nothing more to say. Except…

God’s teeth! The need to state his opinion again was too much to keep inside. He may later regret the anger he would likely incur from Robbie, but Angus would never forgive himself if he kept his silence now and Robbie died because of it—or he did. He preferred to be aboveground as long as possible.

Though only green trees surrounded them on the path to the garden, Angus leaned closer, ever aware that just because they had been careful when coming out here this day, enemies could well be lurking.

“I came here to guard yer back from our enemies, and now ye demand I leave ye unprotected with a too-bonny lass working her spell on ye.”

Robbie frowned. “I asked. I did nae demand. And Elizabeth is nae ban-druidh.”

“Who said she was a witch?” Angus asked. “She is beautiful and has captured ye in her web—”

“Elizabeth is nae a spider, either,” Robbie protested.

Angus smirked. “That remains to be seen.” He swatted at the bee again, and this time he got it, smacking it between his palms. He flicked the dead bee off his hand. “She is a distraction, much like that bee I just killed.”

“Are ye suggesting I kill her?” Robbie asked, laughing.

Angus frowned at his friend, who was clearly—and dangerously—enamored of the goddaughter of the King of England, their mortal enemy. “Ye ken I believe it is a mistake to trust the word of the de Burgh lass in regard to most anything, and certainly when it comes to what her godfather will do. But it is my duty to protect ye, and I ken well ye will ride to Ettrick Forest yerself to warn yer men that Edward is coming for them if I dunnae go, and I kinnae allow that. If one of us has to ride into an ambush, better me than ye.”

“Ye are nae riding into an ambush, ye stubborn Scot!” Robbie hissed. “If ye had been listening a moment ago, I made this point to ye as ye scowled and stalked ahead. Do ye think Elizabeth would send her beloved cousin with ye if ye were being sent to yer death? She would nae chance Lillianna’s life.”

Angus turned on his heel and continued his trek down the path, shoving branches out of his way as he went. Behind him, Robbie’s footfalls resounded and Angus’s need to make Robbie listen grew. “How the devil do I ken what Elizabeth de Burgh would chance? And for that matter, how the hell do ye?” Angus demanded, feeling his anger rise. He huffed as he strode ahead, straight through a spider web that he’d failed to see. God’s teeth! Robbie being distracted by the de Burgh lass was even affecting Angus! It was as if it were seeping into him.

He gritted his teeth. “We have been at this court less than a month, and from yer own lips to mine, the lass admitted she was ordered by her godfather and father to seduce ye for information.” Angus paused long enough to glance over his shoulder and catch a glare from Robbie. Assured that his friend was listening, Angus turned and continued walking. “For all I ken, sending her cousin—whom she claims needs to be taken from here to protect her from Lady Elizabeth’s father—is yet another lie, another layer of the king’s plan against ye, against us.” He thumped his chest for emphasis.

“’Tis nae a lie,” Robbie said, his voice hard.

“Ye desire the de Burgh wench,” Angus accused.

“Aye, I do desire her,” Robbie agreed. “But I’m nae controlled by my desires any more than ye are.”

Angus stiffened. His friend had shot an arrow intended to make Angus question himself, and doubt flooded him for a breath. Was he allowing his own guilt from the past to color what he saw of the current situation? Or maybe he simply could see the danger more clearly than Robbie because he did not lust after the de Burgh lass as Robbie did. If Angus were a wagering man, he’d bet it was the latter.

“Ye must pledge to me that ye will see Lillianna to safety after ye have warned the men in Ettrick Forest,” Robbie said.

Angus scowled. It was bad enough Robbie was demanding that Angus leave him unprotected here in this den of manipulative liars, but to ask him to take even more time to see some half-Irish, half-Scottish, English-loyal lass to safety he was not positive she needed? It was crucial to return to Robbie’s side where he could protect him. Anything else was foolish. Yet Robbie was asking him not to.

Angus swallowed the desire to refute Robbie. King above self. “I’ll take the lass,” he said, stopping and facing Robbie. “As I said, I ken if I dunnae, ye will attempt to, which would likely either get ye killed or destroy the illusion we’ve worked to create that ye are here to submit to Edward.”

Robbie winked. “Verra astute of ye, Angus.”

“Tell me of the lass,” Angus said with a sigh. “If I’m to travel with her for the sennight it will take to reach Ettrick Forest, I need to ken more about her.”

Robbie shrugged as he motioned for them to start walking again. Angus nodded, and they continued on. “Ye already know she’s Elizabeth’s cousin,” Robbie said. “She’s like a sister and verra important to her.”

Therefore the lass had become important to Robbie…

Angus did not like it one bit. Robbie was convinced Elizabeth de Burgh was not conspiring against him with her godfather simply because she had admitted to Robbie that she was supposed to be learning his secrets. But that could actually be a plot to make herself seem innocent. Angus would not condemn her or her cousin of duplicity in his mind yet. He was not a heartless brute, after all. He’d wait for the solid evidence he was fairly certain would be forthcoming, and when it arrived…

“What else can ye tell me of her?” Angus asked, winding down the narrowing path to where they would rendezvous with the de Burgh lass and her cousin.

“Her mother was a MacLeod,” Robbie said.

“A MacLeod?” Angus frowned. “I thought I’d heard years ago that de Burgh had a bastard daughter, one not with his wife, who was the daughter of the MacLeod laird.”

“Nay,” Robbie responded. “That was a lie Elizabeth’s father and uncle concocted because they believe in the legend of the daughters of the MacLeod lairds. They conspired to keep Lillianna’s identity secret until they could use her. Ye know of the legend, aye?”

Angus snorted as he continued to walk and swiped at another spiderweb that had just hit his face. “I ken a bit about the foolish legend. All in the Highlands do.”

“Ye do nae believe it?” Robbie asked.

“Of course nae.” Angus scoffed. “Saying that MacLeod lasses born to the lairds of the clan—and any daughters they bear—become seers when they find true love is fae nonsense. It was likely made up by a bunch of drunken warriors watching a lovely lass dance a hundred years ago. I believe in things I can see, touch, and taste.”

“Like a woman in yer arms,” Robbie said with a chuckle.

“Oh aye. I believe I have a warm, willing lass in my arms when I can see her, taste her, and touch her, but that dunnae mean I can trust her.”

“Ye’re a cynic,” Robbie said.

Angus shrugged. “If being a cynic allows me to do my duty as laird, then aye, I’m a cynic.”

“What of the part of the legend about the lost magical Brooch of Lagothmier? Do ye believe in that? Ye can see and touch a brooch, after all.”

Angus guffawed at the mere thought of a magical brooch. Honestly, he’d never paid much heed when people spoke of the legend so he did not know all the details, but even if he did, it would not make him a believer.

“I’ll take that as a nay,” Robbie said.

“That is how ye should take it,” Angus said. “I kinnae believe that ye would give credence to such nonsense as a story of a fairy falling in love with a mortal MacLeod laird and then being forced by her fae father to leave the MacLeod and their newborn lass to return to the fae world.” Angus rolled his eyes. “And then she supposedly gave a magical brooch to her infant daughter?” He stopped and glanced over his shoulder to smirk at Robbie. “I thought ye more rational than that.”

“Ye can mock,” Robbie said, frowning, “but the legend makes sense.”

“It’s nonsense,” Angus shot back, feeling ridiculous even arguing about it.

Robbie moved to thump Angus on the head, but Angus caught his friend’s hand easily and laughed. Robbie yanked his hand away and scowled. “The original fairy Lagothmier did give a magical brooch to her infant daughter,” Robbie said. “She did so to protect her and so the lass could defend her clan after Lagothmier’s father ordered her to leave her MacLeod lover.”

This was preposterous. “Robbie,” Angus started.

Robbie waved a hand at him. “Let me finish. When Lagothmier broke the rules of the fae world and fell in love with a mortal, her father—the king—ordered her to leave her daughter.”

Robbie gave Angus an expectant look, so Angus said an obligatory, “Aye,” though he felt like a clot-heid doing so.

Robbie gave a satisfied nod. “When Lagothmier realized she had no choice but to do as he commanded, she gave her brooch—the heart of her power—to her daughter. The brooch could be used by anyone the fae loved to tell the future if they possessed it.” Lagothmier’s father was furious because he believed the MacLeod had only wanted to wed his daughter to use her.”

Again, Robbie gave Angus an expectant look, and Angus dutifully replied, “Naturally.”

Robbie took a deep breath, and impatience filled Angus. “Lagothmier’s father thought he saw what his daughter had failed to: men were evil and power hungry, and would go to great lengths to possess the brooch and the women who wielded the power.”

“Do ye personally ken the fae king?” Angus joked.

“Nay, but my three times great-grandfather knew the MacLeod laird. He was a good man. Lagothmier’s father was wrong.”

Angus had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing. He understood that Robbie must have heard this story a hundred times growing up, and likely from his grandfather, whom Robbie had adored.

“So,” Robbie continued, “the fae king did two things: he limited the powers of the brooch while also punishing his daughter for her foolishness by cursing her descendants. The brooch would no longer give the gift of sight to any but the fae who wore it. And the female descendants would only come into their powers when they fell in love. But if that love was destroyed by a betrayal from their beloved, the lass would lose her gift and only see the future when she wore the brooch.”

“Ye talk as if ye were there a hundred years ago, Robbie. Ye sound ridiculous.”

“What is ridiculous,” Robbie said with a scowl, “is to dismiss something because it seems impossible. If that’s yer attitude, ye should dismiss the possibility that I might one day be king.”

Angus threw his hands up. Robbie chose to believe in impossible things because of his own difficult situation, but the difference was that, with Robbie, there was no magic involved, just determination.

“Convince me, then,” Angus said, deciding it was best to let his friend finish the story.

Robbie nodded. “My father said he once saw the Brooch of Lagothmier on Lillianna de Burgh’s mother, Kara, when the woman was nae more than fourteen summers. This was before it was lost, ye see.”

“Well, obviously,” Angus said, half snickering at Robbie’s entrancement with his fanciful story.

Robbie’s eyes narrowed. “My father said the brooch swirled in the middle like a storm and that Kara MacLeod—she was nae a de Burgh at the time—touched my father and told him he would win a great battle the next day. And he did.”

Robbie’s story intrigued Angus but not enough for him to abandon reason and embrace the nonsensical idea that Lillianna de Burgh would have the power to see the future if she fell in love or miraculously obtained the magical Brooch of Lagothmier. Not to mention Robbie’s father was a known liar.

Angus blew out a breath, thinking how to debunk his friend’s fantastical belief without angering him. “If that legend were true, the conniving King Edward and Lady Elizabeth’s father, would be searching high and low for the Brooch of Lagothmier. They’d want to find it and force the lass Lillianna to wear it, so she could inform them of what’s to come—battles, ambushes, everything.”

“They probably did search for it and could nae find it,” Robbie said, his face growing serious. “Which is another verra good reason to aid Lillianna in fleeing to Scotland. Then if they do find it, they kinnae use her to win the war.”

“Let us pretend ye’re correct,” Angus said, always one to think things through completely before dismissing them. “Her father would nae have ever allowed her out of his control if she had the potential to be a seer.”

“He would if she had nae fallen in love or if he thought she would nae ever get her powers for some reason. Especially with the brooch lost.”

That did make sense, but…

“Why reveal her identity now? Or when did they reveal it?” Angus asked, realizing he actually did not know.

“Who the lass really is was made known a year ago. I do nae know the answer to yer other question: I can nae read King Edward’s or de Burgh’s minds. If I could, we would be in control of Scotland already, not playing the part of traitors to our country.”

“Ye have a good point,” Angus admitted.

“Mayhap they revealed her identity hoping to draw out whoever has the brooch. Or mayhap they revealed her identity hoping a man would capture her heart, and they’d nae need the brooch.” Robbie paused, brow furrowed in thought. “Though the last part of the legend does say that if the lass is betrayed by love, she will lose her seer powers. That is why the brooch is imperative if the lass is nae in love or feels betrayed.”

“I dunnae believe,” Angus declared, having listened patiently to it all and now deciding he could most definitely dismiss the legend.

“It dunnae matter,” Robbie retorted. “The brooch is lost, and Elizabeth says that Lillianna is verra wary of men and their intentions.”

“What does the lass look like?” Angus asked. It was probable that there were many foolish men who’d likely tried to capture her heart simply because they believed in the legend. She could look like a toad and the English fools would still want her.

He could only imagine how they’d react if she was bonny…

Robbie shrugged. “I can nae say for certain.”

“What do ye mean ye kinnae say for certain?” Angus asked incredulously. “Are ye so besotted with Lady Elizabeth that ye kinnae even recall what her cousin looks like?”

Robbie scowled at Angus for a moment before answering. “Nay. I told ye, Lillianna has been kept in the dungeon since she and Elizabeth arrived at the Palace of Westminster. This is how Elizabeth’s father has controlled her and forced her to do his bidding. He threatened to kill Lillianna if Elizabeth did nae submit to his wishes.”

“He’d nae kill her if he truly believed in the legend,” Angus pointed out.

“He would if he thought there was nae any hope of her getting her powers,” Robbie said. “As for what she looks like, I have nae met her in person, and the only time I’ve ever seen her was from a distance in Ireland. So nay, I can nae say what she looks like. I think she has brown hair.”

“Well, if she did nae make any impression on ye that means she is nae especially bonny, and that is just fine with me.”

Robbie chuckled as they rounded a turn in the path. “When will ye let go of yer foolish rule about lasses?”

“Nae ever,” Angus replied, ducking a particularly low-hanging branch.

“Ye realize how foolish it is to cling to the belief that an attachment to a lass will make ye repeat yer past, do ye nae?”

“It’s nae foolish,” Angus grumbled. “It’s wise.” If he’d never allowed himself to become distracted by Isla Belfaine, he would have battled beside his father rather than having gone to meet Isla in the woods when he’d thought she was in danger.

“Do ye nae get lonely?” Robbie asked, his voice pitching oddly.

“Nay,” Angus said. “Do ye?”

“Aye, since I met Elizabeth. She makes me feel the loneliness because I wish to be with her,” Robbie said to Angus’s dismay. He feared Elizabeth de Burgh was going to lead Robbie straight to his downfall, but Angus held his tongue and allowed Robbie to talk. “Ye will feel the loneliness, too, when ye meet a lass who ye can nae resist. And I do nae mean one who simply stirs yer desire. When ye meet a lass who tightens yer chest, that’s the lass ye should fear.”

“And do ye fear Elizabeth?” Angus asked carefully, thinking briefly of Isla. She had not tightened his chest, but she’d tightened his manly parts. He’d thought that love, and perhaps it had been, just not so very deep. And that meant anything greater would be even more trouble.

“I did,” Robbie admitted, voice low. “Now I fear that I kinnae be without her. Can it be stopped, ye think?” His voice was so earnest that Angus knew for certain they were no longer speaking of him, which he was heartily glad for.

“It can,” Angus said, though in honesty, he had never personally tried to stop feelings for a lass he was enamored of, quite simply because he’d not allowed himself to become attached to anyone since Isla. He did not yearn for the women he joined with in any way but raw desire, which was why he allowed himself the pleasure of the moment. “Keep yer guard up always. Vow it to me.”

“I do nae believe I need to,” Robbie replied.

“Christ, man!” Angus exploded. Robbie was their best hope to unite the nobles under one man who would one day lead Scotland as their king. Robbie was honorable and would be a good king, and Angus could not believe his friend would be so foolish as to risk a woman—even one as lovely as Elizabeth de Burgh—jeopardizing all they had worked for.

Angus glanced up to the sky as he kept walking. “I swear, if ye’re nae careful, she will be yer ruin. God, make him use his eyes,” he muttered.

“I am using them,” Robbie grumbled, “which is why I can see ye’re about to run into a branch.”

Angus jerked his gaze down, ducked the branch, and then came to a shuddering stop. Five paces away, where the gardens met the woods, stood a lass. She was surrounded by lush green foliage from the garden on either side and at her back was the towering woods. She stood under the golden sunbeams, and she was the bonniest lass he’d ever seen. She had hair the color of a leaf turned by the changing season. It was not simply brown, as Robbie had said. Long, thick strands of copper, gold, and mahogany veiled her face on one side and tumbled over her slight shoulders on the other to nestle against her chest.

His fingers twitched with the sudden urge to know how the slide of those locks upon his skin would feel. He curled both hands into fists, desire beating within him. High cheekbones and skin like snow framed eyes the color of fresh moss. He hissed in a breath, arrested by her eyes, not for the brilliance of the color but the wariness shining from them. Her gaze was narrowed like a skittish barn cat who’d been attacked by a vicious dog and was ever watchful—and fully expectant—of another assault. Dark shadows cushioned her eyes as if she’d not slept in days.

His protective instinct stirred to life, along with a flare of caution. He turned to Robbie and lowered his voice to ensure the women would not hear him. “Nae only are ye sending me on a fool’s errand with the lass, but she’s surely descended from Aphrodite herself.”

Robbie clapped him on the shoulder. “I give ye a fortnight. Nay, make that two—ye’re stubborn.”

Angus grinned. “Two fortnights for what?”

“’Til yer chest is tight.”

“Bah,” Angus growled in return. He shrugged Robbie’s hand off and stopped in front of the lass with whom Angus was soon to be saddled.

“Robert,” Lady Elizabeth said in greeting, before looking to Angus. “This is my cousin Lillianna. I put her in your care.”

Lady Elizabeth’s words rang in his ears: in your care. Those three simple words bound him to the lass for better or worse until he saw her to safety. As he stared into the lovely lass’s guarded gaze, he found himself thinking of the distrust of men Robbie had mentioned. It was likely best for both of them that men made her wary. They could travel together without her wishing to get to know him.

“It’s normal to make your greeting when you are introduced, Angus,” Lady Elizabeth chided with amusement.

“Pleased to meet ye,” he said, hearing the gruffness of his own tone.

The lass flinched, and guilt stirred within him. God’s teeth, he didn’t want to scare her; he simply didn’t care to become involved overly much. Yet he supposed he could manage to be polite. But what the devil did one say in making polite conversation?

He scanned his mind, trying to remember. These days, whenever he spoke with a lass it was because it was clear they both had joining on their mind, and that was all. Polite conversation was not needed. He tried to think of something to say, but her lush body only brought to mind words he could never utter. Then he recalled where he was to eventually take her, and he nearly exhaled with relief that he had a topic to speak on.

“I’m told yer mother was a MacLeod,” he blurted.

Her eyes narrowed with obvious wariness, and he realized she must be thinking of the legend surrounding her and the men who likely had tried to woo her because of it. Though, even without the legend, she was the sort of woman who would lure men with her beauty.

Best to ease her fears directly, he decided. “I dunnae hold stock in the ridiculous legend surrounding ye, so ye need nae fear I’ll want ye.”

“Angus!” Robbie and Lady Elizabeth said as one. The lass, however, cracked a smile, though her gaze kept its distrustful glimmer.

He winced. That had not come out correctly at all. One look at her was all it took for desire to spark within him. But he had no time on this mission to sate his desires, and he did not think her one who would be willing to have a romp in the hay and nothing more.

“How refreshing,” she said, reaching up and tucking a lock of hair behind her right ear. A dark-purple bruise marred her creamy skin.

He recognized the mark of a lass hit by a man. “Who struck ye, lass?” he demanded, his mind turning with ways to repay the offender with a lesson he’d never forget.

She stared at him for a long moment with her large, suspicious gaze, and then she tilted her chin up in a defiant gesture. “Stephen. He does believe in the legend and thought seducing me and bedding me would capture my heart. I did not wish to oblige, so I fought him.”

The lass’s sarcastic bravado showed a strength of spirit. She may have been beaten, but she had not been broken. Admiration tightened his chest, and he rubbed absently at it, catching Robbie’s gaze on him. The smirk on his friend’s face made Angus immediately recall their earlier conversation. All he could do was scowl.

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