Conquered By A Highlander
Book#4 in the Children of the Mist series
Captivated by desire...
BOUND BY DUTY
Colin MacGregor was born to fight-for his beliefs, his king, and his family's honor. After years away from his beloved Scotland, he yearns to return to its lush, green hills-and he can, after he completes one final mission for the king. Sent to infiltrate a traitor's home, Colin is determined to expose the treasonous plot and triumph on the battlefield . . . until he meets a sensual lass who tempts him towards other pursuits . . . .
BETRAYED BY PASSION
Lady Gillian Dearly is no stranger to temptation. Cast out of her family for bearing an illegitimate child, she's now the ward of a barbarian conspiring against the king. Her only desire: freedom for her son and for herself at any cost, even if it means making a deal with the devil. Yet when a mysterious Highlander appears in their midst, his braw strength and smoldering gaze give her hope for a future beyond the castle walls-and promise a desire unlike any she's ever known. But passion comes at a price . . .
CONQUERED BY A HIGHLANDER is nominated for Best Scottish Set Historical of 2012 by RT Book Reviews!
CONQUERED BY A HIGHLANDER is chosen by the editors at Amazon as one of the BEST BOOKS OF 2012 so far!
"Rich, evocative historical detail and enthralling characters fill the pages of this fast-paced tale. Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"The final book in Quinn’s Children of the Mist series is Scottish romance at its best: captivating, tender and sensual with characters readers care about. While fascinating as a romance, it also delivers a message about moral courage. Definitely a keeper." 4 1/2 Stars TOP PICK from RT Book Reviews!
"This story is unforgettable and an absolute keeper. Do not miss it!" 5 Blue Ribbons from
“Hand over that bag and I won’t run you through.”
Colin MacGregor smiled behind his hood and slowed his mount to a leisurely cantor. He wasn’t far from his destination, a league or two at best. He could smell the sea on the crisp morning air. It put him in a good mood, inclining him toward mercy to his present company. “I should warn ye,” he called out to the man hurrying to keep up with him on foot. “Ye’re the seventh thief who thought to rob me this day. The six before ye are already dead.” His smile, slight as it was, remained intact as he turned in his saddle. “I’ll grant ye a moment to reconsider yer course.”
The thief chuckled and continued on foolishly. “I’ll take the horse too.”
“Will ye now?” Colin brought his mount to a full stop and swept his hood off his head. “I’d like to see ye give it a try. Only, be quick about it. I’d like to reach Dartmouth before they break fast. I’m hungry fer a decent meal.”
The thief did not oblige but jammed two fingers into his mouth and whistled instead. From beyond the trees five more men appeared, each eyeing Colin with snarls while they pointed their weapons at him.
“One of yer companions seems to be missing,” Colin pointed out, glancing about briefly before returning his steady gaze to the leader.
The thief surveyed his small troupe, then, realizing Colin was correct—but not catching what it meant—shouted for the sixth robber to quit pissing and get ready to fight.
’Twas unnecessary really, as Colin shot the man dead when he emerged from behind a tree, the thief’s own pistol in one hand and the laces of his breeches in the other. Two other men carried pistols but they didn’t get the chance to fire them, or even aim, in the time it took Colin to shoot one with a second pistol he kept tucked in his boot and to fling a short sword at the other, catching him in the center of his throat. The leader watched in horror as three of his comrades fell all in the space of a few breaths. When Colin leaped from his horse, the four remaining thugs shared a fearful look between them and then, realizing his pistols would have to be reloaded before he could use them again, drew their blades and attacked.
The men were poorly lacking in any kind of skill, which didn’t surprise Colin in the least. He could have shown them mercy, as he had to their leader, but he was a warrior, not a priest. He’d known he was being followed since entering Devon. He’d known how many men were tailing him and where they would likely make their move. ’Twas no astounding feat he possessed to be aware of such things. ’Twas what any well-trained soldier should know.
And Colin had been training for battle since before he could remember. The desire to conquer set fire to his veins since the day he was old enough to hold a blade in his hand. He was born to fight, and as he grew older, he grew more ready and eager to go to war for a cause he believed in. The Stuart throne had become that cause. The Catholic king James Stuart, to be exact, kin by marriage to the MacGregors of Skye. A man who had gained Colin’s friendship, loyalty, and finally his respect when James first took the throne three years ago. But the king had become a tyrant lately and Colin had grown more uncertain if his liege was any less guilty and unfit to rule the kingdom than his enemy William of Orange was.
That indecision was what had led him on his journey home to Camlochlin before embarking upon this latest task: to end the threat of the Dutch prince once and for all.
He’d enjoyed his trip home more than he’d expected and suspected that the memory of the visit sparked the thread of compassion he felt now, for he made a quick end of his attackers.
Then again, he was damned hungry.
He wiped his blade on the fallen leader’s tunic, then sheathed it and leaped back into his saddle. The dead were no longer his concern…or the concern of any other decent man traveling this road.
Setting his course straight ahead, he returned his hood to his head and his thoughts to his purpose of stopping Prince William from taking the throne.
A general in James’s Royal Army, Colin had taken the lives of many in the past three years, though few of his enemies died on the battlefield. His victories were mostly silent, purely political ones that required the sharp edge of his mind, as well as his blade. He honed each with equal diligence. He’d traded in his warrior blood and become the king’s assassin, sent to mete out justice to the guilty.
There was no one guiltier than the man who’d once ordered the massacre of an abbey full of nuns. A self-righteous, falsely pious prince who not only planned the demise of every Catholic in the kingdom, but also schemed against his wife’s own father. Aye, no matter what doubts Colin was beginning to harbor toward his king, he would see his task through to completion. He would have his war.
Rubbing his growling belly, he watched the sheer fortress wall of Dartmouth Castle rise over the rocky cliff tops in the distance. The round battlemented tower and high lookout turret appeared to pierce the charcoal clouds. A gloomy sense of isolation began seeping through his mantle along with the briny scent of the Dart estuary rolling in from the southwest. He didn’t mind being alone. In fact, he preferred it over the feigned niceties of court.
A cool trickle snaked down his back, but he resisted the urge to shiver.
He wasn’t just the king’s executioner, he was a spy. And a damned good one. He was about to change his identity, including his religion, his moral code, and his entire past, in order to fit in with his enemies and learn their secrets. He wouldn’t let his nerves get the better of him. He never did.
This wasn’t the first time he would be living as Colin Campbell of Breadalbane, cousin to the Campbells of Glen Orchy. The information he had gathered at various tables from France to Scotland about secret correspondences between England and William in Holland had all led back to Geoffrey Dearly, Earl of Devon and lord of Dartmouth.
Approaching along the cliffs, Colin took in the structure before him. Dartmouth was more of a fort than an actual castle. Built in the fourteenth century to guard the mouth of the estuary, it lay deep within Protestant territory and ’twas a good enough place to land an army of ships if a certain Dutch prince wished to invade England.
This was it, Colin was sure of it, the last time he would have to sit in the company of his enemies and speak like them, laugh with them. If he was correct about Devon’s alliance with Prince William—and Colin was certain he was correct—the earl was going to need every available sword for hire when he betrayed the king. Fortunate for him, the deadliest mercenary ever to wield a blade or fire a pistol was about to land on his doorstep.
He scanned the gun tower and surrounding gun platforms adjoining the round tower to the square. Pity, there were no fearsome-looking guardsmen patrolling the walls. He ached for a decent fight when the time finally came. He would become them, befriend them, and then butcher them in battle.
A movement high atop the turret caught his eye, and as he focused on what it was, his thoughts of victory scattered to the four winds.
’Twas a lass, her long flaxen tresses and flowing white gown snapping against the bracing wind as she stepped up onto the edge of the crenellated wall. Was she a woman about to leap to the jagged rocks below or an angel readying to take flight? He waited, his heart beating more wildly in his chest than it had in years, to see what the answer would be. If she was a woman, he could do nothing to save her if she fell. He had seen death, had caused much with his own blade, but he had never been witness to someone taking her own life. Why would she? What in hell was so terrible that hurling herself over the edge was a better alternative?
When she bent her knees, his heart stalled in his chest.
Damned fool. He couldn’t catch her.
But she didn’t jump. Instead, she nestled herself into the groove of a merlon. He watched her, unnoticed while she wrapped her arms around her knees and set her chin toward the estuary. She reminded him of a painting he’d seen in King Louis’s court, of a woman looking out toward the sea, waiting for her beloved to return to her. Something about this lass above him stirred him in the pit of his gut. Was she waiting for someone? Mayhap a guardsman from Devon’s garrison? She looked small and utterly alone surrounded by stone, water, and the vast sky behind her. Who was she?
A better question was what the hell did he care who she was. He didn’t. ’Twas the most vital part of this duty he was born to carry out, what made him better at it than anyone else. He attached himself to no one. Mercy could get him, or worse, the king, killed. He didn’t need friends, since the men he’d been sitting with over the past three years had been traitors to the throne and could never be trusted.
What he felt in his belly were hunger pangs.
Pulling his hood back over his head, he looked at the lass one last time. She dipped her head, catching his movement. When she scrambled to her feet, he clenched his jaw to keep himself from calling out. Thankfully, she stepped back down off the wall and disappeared.
Left with nothing but the passing memory of her, Colin returned his thoughts to the duty at hand and cantered his horse through the yard of St. Petroc’s Church, where a dozen or so of Devon’s men were loitering and looking bored until they saw him.
Dismounting, he pushed back his hood and held up his hands as the men raced toward him.
“Stranger.” One stepped out from among the rest. He was tall and broad shouldered in his stained military coat. His dark, oily hair fell over gray, bloodshot eyes, which hardened on Colin first, and then on the swords dangling from both sides of Colin’s hips beneath his wind-tossed mantle. “What brings you to Dartmouth?”
“I seek an audience with the earl.”
The man’s gaze settled on the flash of a dagger hidden within the folds of Colin’s open vest and the pistol tucked under his belt. “You carry many weapons.” He dipped his gaze to Colin’s leather boots next, where more daggers and his second pistol peaked out, and licked his lips, which had apparently gone rather dry.
“The roads are perilous,” Colin explained with a slight crook of his lips, still keeping his hands up. This ill-prepared soldier was afraid of him…and that made him dangerous.
“So is straying into a place you don’t belong,” the speaker countered, reaching around his belly to the hilt of his sheathed sword. “Who are you and what do you want with the earl?”
“I’d prefer to tell that to yer highest in command.”
“Well,” the soldier said, puffing up his chest, “I’m Lieutenant Gilbert de Atre, and you’ll tell it to me or you’ll hop onto that paltry mare you rode in on and leave while you still can.”
Colin knew hundreds of men just like this one. He’d seen that same challenging smirk dozens of times before. He wasn’t sure what it was about him that made some men want to test him. Mayhap ’twas his weapons and the way he carried them, or the cool, composed indifference of his expression. He feared little and it intimidated less formidable men. Usually he ignored such bravado, especially when his task was to make nice and fit in. This time though, he had to fit in to an army, not at a noble’s table. He would need to earn their respect before they trusted him. Colin didn’t mind having to fight to prove himself. In fact, he looked forward to it. A test of his skill would provide an excellent opportunity to learn what he was up against, and also to show these men that he would be an asset to their company. He would go easy on them all, of course. No reason to reveal too soon what they were up against.
His expression remained impassive, save for the spark of something feral in his eyes when he glanced at his horse and then back at de Atre. “I take offense to ye insulting my horse, Lieutenant.”
“Then do something about it,” de Atre laughed, exposing a row of yellow teeth. “But first, remove all them daggers and pistols you have hidden on you. I don’t trust any Scot with two hands.”
Stripping himself of his extra weapons, Colin promised himself that de Atre would be among the first to feel his blade the instant he revealed his true purpose for coming here.
“Come, stray, let us see what you’ve got. But be warned, I’ve sent all your brothers back to their mothers castrated and broken.”
Colin’s lip curled as he readied his blade. “Not my brothers, ye haven’t.”
His metal flashed as it came up, blocking de Atre’s next strike above his head. He parried another hit, and then another, scraping the edge of his blade down de Atre’s. Pushing off, he stepped back, loosened his shoulders, and rolled his wrist. The blade danced with fluid grace beneath the sun, casting a flicker of doubt in de Atre’s eyes.
He tightened his stance, as if suffering from a bout of nerves at what he was facing. De Atre advanced and swung wide. Colin avoided the slice to his belly with a step to his left. He ducked at a swipe to his neck and parried a number of rather tedious strikes to his knees. After a few moments, it became clear that he could fight the lieutenant while he was half-asleep. He suppressed the urge to yawn, thinking about what kind of beds were given to the garrison soldiers. Hay would be a welcome reprieve from the hard, cold ground he’d been sleeping on for the past se’nnight.
A spot of bright military blue and white lace crossed his vision and he followed it while he blocked another blow. The captain of the garrison caught his gaze across the crowded courtyard and held it a moment before ordering both men to cease.
“You there,” he called an instant later. “Come forward.”
Colin flicked his gaze to the captain, taking in polished black boots, crisp breeches, and a clean military coat adorned in lace. He was older than the lieutenant, mayhap in his fortieth year, clean-shaven and lithe of build.
“I am Captain George Gates,” he said when Colin reached him.
“Captain.” Colin met his level gaze.
“Your name?” the captain asked, scrutinizing him with narrowed eyes the same way his lieutenant had, but with interest rather than challenge.
“Colin Campbell of Breadalbane.”
“What do you want here?”
“I wish to offer my sword to yer lord.”
Gates arched his brow at him. “Why?”
“Because my cousin the future Earl of Argyll assured me that Lord Devon would soon need more men to guard his castle.”
“Did he?” the captain asked with skepticism narrowing his eyes. “What else did Argyll tell you?”
Almost everything Colin needed to know. The Dutch prince had begun to assemble an expeditionary force against the king. But he wouldn’t attack without penned invitations from England’s most eminent noblemen inviting him to invade. According to Argyll, Dartmouth was to be the host of the invading Dutch army, and Lord Devon, the man arranging it all. Colin’s task was to discover who among King James’s vassals signed their names to the invitation, when the prince meant to invade, how many men he would bring with him, and then to kill them all. His glorious war.
Colin almost couldn’t help smiling slightly at the thought. “He told me why.”
Gates’s subtle reaction was exactly what Colin expected. A hint of surprise that a mercenary would know a prince’s intentions, and then a nod of acceptance because the only way he could know it was if a prominent ally such as Duncan Campbell of Argyll had told him.
“Very well,” the captain said. “I’ll take you to the earl. If you wish to fight for him, let him decide if you are worthy.”
“My thanks,” Colin offered. He retrieved his daggers, ignored the glare de Atre flung at him, and then followed his escort toward the entrance in the square tower.
At the doors, Gates stopped and turned to him. “So that we are clear on this: I did not train or choose my lieutenant. If you are here for any other purpose than the one you claim, I will personally remove your head.”
He waited until Colin nodded that he understood and then led him inside. The ground floor was smaller inside than it appeared from outdoors. The narrow windows afforded little light and were used mainly as gun ports; there were seven that Colin could count from his position.
“Gillian!” The thunderous shout reverberated through the long halls, scattering servants every which way. “Gillian!” the voice bellowed again, followed this time by the pounding of boots down the stairs. “Answer when I call for you, bitch! Ranulf! Where are my musicians, my wine?”
Colin looked up at the tall, lanky nobleman stomping toward them. His dark, perfect ringlets bounced around the shoulders of his crisp justacorps. His complexion was pale, as if painted, but not. His dark gray eyes darted about the hall before coming to rest on Colin.
“Who are you?”
“My lord Devon,” Captain Gates stepped forward, “this is Colin—”
“Captain Gates.” The earl shifted his haughty gaze to the captain, his interest in the mercenary standing in his hall already gone. “Where is my cousin? I’ve been calling for her. Your duty is to guard her. Why are you not with her and bringing her to me?”
“She was asleep when I left her, my lord.”
“Well, wake her up! And her bastard with her! No reason that brat should sleep all day.”
Captain Gates offered him a brisk nod, then started toward the stairs.
“There is no need to fetch me, my good captain,” came a soft voice from the top of the stairs.
Colin watched the woman descend, her pale, wheaten waves falling lightly over her white, flowing gown. ’Twas the woman from the battlements.
She didn’t look at him. Her eyes, like twin blue seas, churned with a frosty glitter as she set them on the earl.
“I hope my lord will forgive me for sleeping while he bellowed for me.”
Colin was tempted to smile at her. Her ability to speak such a humbling falsehood and sound so convincing while doing it impressed him. The truth lay in her eyes if one but looked.
“I won’t show you mercy next time, Gillian,” he promised, gloating at her surrender. “Now make haste and bring me some wine from the cellar.” He lifted his manicured fingers and snapped at his captain. “Go with her, Gates, and make certain she doesn’t dally or it will cost you a month’s wage.”
Lord Devon watched them leave the hall on their errand, and then settled his gaze on a serving girl on her way to some chore. He snatched her arm as she passed him and yanked her into his arms.
“What are you still doing here?” he demanded, lifting his mouth from her neck when he saw Colin. “Who are you?”
Verra likely yer worst enemy. Colin granted his host his most practiced bow. “I am the man who will lead yer army to victory.