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Wicked Highland Wishes (Highland Vows 2) by Julie Johnstone (1)

Prologue

Isle of Mull, Scotland

Duart Castle

1354

Bridgette MacLean was beginning to suspect that God had erred when he had made her a girl. Standing in the courtyard of her home, she tapped her foot as she watched her brother, Alex, laird of the MacLean Clan, ride out of the keep. A dozen of his men followed, including the MacLeod laird and his three younger brothers.

“This is a girl’s fate in life,” she grumbled. “Staying behind while the men have all the merriment. They leave to hunt while we”—she poked herself in the chest—“are ordered to remain at the castle because clot-heid men suppose all girls are helpless creatures. Oh, but men are so braw,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “I’m a better shot at sixteen than half the men out there hunting!” She kicked the ground in frustration. A puff of dirt rose up, causing a cloud of dust to swirl around her feet.

“Ye’re nae usually in the habit of talking to yerself, lass,” came the jovial voice of Father Ferguson from behind her.

A blush heated her cheeks as she turned to face the portly, older man. Amused, faded blue eyes met her stare. Father Ferguson raised his bushy gray eyebrows expectantly, and Bridgette cleared her throat.

“I’m nae, ’tis true enough,” she admitted. She inclined her head the direction in which Alex had ridden off. “Alex refused to listen to me any longer, so I was left to grumble to myself.”

Father Ferguson chuckled a deep belly laugh that made Bridgette smile despite her ire. “What’s vexing ye, lass?”

She quirked her mouth, unsure if she should tell him. She didn’t particularly feel like being lectured, and Father Ferguson truly loved to lecture. Yet, the priest was the best man to help her resolve her doubts about God. “I fear God dunnae ken what he was doing when he made me.”

Father Ferguson’s mouth dropped open.

“Never ye mind,” Bridgette rushed out. “I’m being a clot-heid.”

“Nay, lass. Ye surprised me, ’tis all. What’s put such a thought in yer head?”

She took a deep, shuddering breath. “Alex will nae let me hunt with him and the men. He says I’m a woman, and God dunnae fashion women to do such things.” When the priest looked as though he was going to agree with her brother, she went on. “Ye always say God has a divine purpose for each of us,” she said, her tone accusatory.

Father Ferguson gave her a wary look. “Aye, I do.”

“Well God gave me perfect aim with an arrow.” An excited grin pulled at her lips. Why had she not thought of this argument sooner? It was brilliant, and she was fairly certain it was true. “At only fifteen years, he’s made me—a mere woman—a better shot than most grown men.” Father Ferguson backed up a step, as if her words might cause them both to be struck by a bolt of lightning, but she continued. “If God has given me this gift, is it nae a sin nae to use it? Who am I, or even my brother, the great, mighty laird that he is”—she struggled to keep the sarcasm out of her voice—“to refute our Creator’s intention for me?” She was panting with the newfound righteous indignation coursing through her.

“Well I—” Father Ferguson started, but she was far too incensed to allow him to continue.

Words the priest had once proclaimed came to her in a flash. “Ye said we must always abide by what the Lord wants for us.”

Father Ferguson’s shoulders slumped. “Aye, lass,” he grumbled. “I did.”

Triumph flared in her chest. Setting her hands on her hips, she swooped in to finish her argument. “Then, unless ye mean to tell me now that God made an error when he gave me my gift, I should do all in my power to use it.”

The priest gave her a beleaguered look. “God dunnae make errors.”

Impulsively, she rose up on her tiptoes and kissed the priest’s warm, chubby cheek. “Excellent!” she exclaimed and turned away to run to her bedchamber and fetch her bow and arrows.

“Where are ye going, lass?”

She had one foot inside the castle door, but she turned around and looked at the priest. “To hunt, of course!”

Father Ferguson’s eyes grew wide, and he shook his head. “The laird will nae like that.”

“The laird,” she retorted boldly, “will be committing a sin if he denies me my right to do as God wishes me to do. I may be a great many things, but I’m nae a sinner.”

Father Ferguson looked at her dubiously.

“Nae much of one, anyway,” she corrected, her cheeks flaming.

The priest threw up his hands in defeat, and a giggle escaped her as she dashed into the castle, to her bedchamber, and back outside. She was relieved to find Father Ferguson had not stayed to try to stop her. Knowing the priest as she did, he’d probably gone to fetch one of the councilmen to convince her to stay, but the stout priest was slow, and she’d be well away before he returned.

She grinned as she strode across the courtyard, nodding dismissively to the guards. One opened his mouth to speak—likely to try to stop her—but she narrowed her eyes and shook her head at him. His face turned red as he clamped his mouth shut and turned his head away. Emboldened by her second triumph of the day, she straightened her shoulders and marched through the entrance between the high walls that enclosed the courtyard like the future warrior maiden she knew she was.

She carefully picked her way down the steep embankment upon which her home sat, and she hummed to herself. It was nice to have confirmation that she did not need to change, despite her brother demanding she do so last night. Her steps faltered a bit when she imagined how angry Alex would be that she had disobeyed him. Not only had he plainly denied her request to hunt but with the fighting between their clan and the MacKinnon clan these last few months, Alex had given strict orders that no women were to leave castle grounds without a male escort.

She made a derisive noise from deep in her throat as she strode across the grassy, rolling land that led to the woods in the distance.

Let some MacKinnon try to put his hands on me. I’ll shoot him straight between the eyes.

Today she would prove to her brother that she could take care of herself as well as any of his men could. Once she did that, surely he’d finally allow her to go on hunts and train with his archers. Maybe he would even teach her how to wield a sword. It wasn’t as if she was asking to be an archer—not yet, anyway. She knew well it would be difficult, if possible at all, to convince her brother she was truly equal to his men and that he should let her fight in battles, but she could train with them. She could teach others to be better archers and become a contributing member of the clan. No longer would she be the burden her brother was left to watch over since their parents had died.

The best way she knew to show her brother and his men that she was capable was to track and kill her own wild boar, just as Alex, his men, and the MacLeods were out trying to do now. For six winters she’d been begging to participate in the Winter Wild Boar Hunt, and for six years she’d been unreasonably denied. This was going to be the winter that she won the hunt. Then let her brother try to tell her that her place was in the kitchens.

Pulling the hood of her cloak up to cut the wind, she hastened her steps over the sharp rocks. As she moved down the old familiar paths, she pushed branches out of the way while also scanning the area for signs of the wild boar. She knew her brother and his party were headed for the shores of Loch na Keal. He was certain he would find one of the beasts there. Though the triangular loch gave way to the sea, it was surrounded on two sides by steep cliffs, while leading into the loch was a great plain of flatland. Many crofters had been built there, and Alex was certain it was where the boar had come from and where it would return. If her brother had listened to her, however, he would know that she’d spotted a boar last week in the woods near their castle. But Alex had refused to heed her.

She’d prove she was right.

She walked along a stream for a long spell, crossing it at one point by jumping from rock to rock. In the distance, the woods were a thick, green outline against the sky. By the time she reached the edge of the tall trees, she was warm from the walk and loosened her hold on her cloak.

The muscles of her legs burned as she climbed the gentle hills, and the wind whistled in her ear as rain drizzled down from the suddenly cloudy sky. She climbed over and around stones, scraping her hands as she went, and passed several small waterfalls that hummed in her ears. Heather swirled in the air, and every time she took a deep breath it filled her lungs and left a sweet taste in her mouth. The path she tread was worn, and it led her up a hill into a thick blanket of trees.

She followed the trail deep into the cover of the forest, where the trees blocked out the little bit of sun in the sky and caused shadows to grow around her. The temperature was cooler in the woods, and she pulled her cloak tight around her once again. The normal calls of birds talking died away, replaced with a quiet that sent a shiver down her spine.

She wasn’t easily scared, but there had been talk all her life of these woods being haunted. She glanced all around, seeing nothing suspicious, yet the sense that something was watching her blossomed in her belly and made gooseflesh rise up on her arms and legs. Though she had yet to see the boar, she withdrew her bow, almost instantly feeling better with it in her hands. Dead leaves crunched under her feet as she walked, and she paused where the path split in two. She tried to recollect which way she’d seen the boar, and she thought she heard the distinct sound of another crunch. But she was no longer moving.

She drew her bow back in the same instant that she sucked in a sharp breath. Swinging around, her entire body grew rigid at the thought of what she might face, yet the path was empty. She stared into the dancing shadows and had the oddest feeling that someone was staring back.

“Show yerself, ye coward.”

Her voice echoed around her, seeming overly loud in the utter silence. She drew in four, long, measured breaths to calm herself, yet the hairs on the back of her neck prickled, and her stomach clenched. “Quit being so scairt,” she admonished herself. “Ye’re alone, ye wee clot-heid.”

With that reproach, she swung back around and nearly screamed. A man with the height of a tree and the width of a thick trunk stared down at her. He smiled, displaying a mouth full of rotten teeth. The skin over his cheekbones and nose was stretched thin, as if there was hardly enough of it to cover his bones. His nose had a crooked twist to it, and a bone that protruded up under the tight skin, making it appear white in the spot where the sharp bone was. A wave of disgust rolled through her.

“Move out of my way,” she commanded in as firm a voice as she could manage. When he didn’t budge, she pulled back the string of her bow. “Move now, or I’ll shoot ye between yer beady brown eyes.”

“Ye can try,” he answered, his voice deep and abrasive. “But ye’ll find it hard without a bow.”

“What foolishness do ye—”

The sentence died on her lips as someone grabbed her arm from behind, jerked it upward and caused the bow to snap and the arrow to fly toward the sky. She made a grab for her bow, but it was snatched out of her hands before she could get a firm grip. The weapon left a slit in her hand as it slid away from her. Dismay filled her as the arrow landed uselessly some distance away. The realization that she had been rendered weaponless caused her heart to explode, unleashing fear in her chest. She gulped it back, swung around to face her other enemy, and felt her knees weaken when she beheld the angular, grim face of Hugh MacKinnon, cousin to the MacKinnon laird and her brother’s greatest enemy. The fool was trying to steal Alex’s land.

When Bridgette’s gaze locked with Hugh’s, he lunged for her, and she stumbled backward, barely out of his reach. Outrunning them was her only chance. She turned to dash through the thicket of trees, and just as she made it to the hill and started to climb, Hugh clasped her by the waist and yanked her down the hill again. She threw her head back, and it connected with something hard. Hugh released her, and she lurched forward, tripping and going down on her knees.

He grabbed her by the leg and tugged her belly-first over gnarled tree roots and twigs before she was flipped over. He loomed over her, his greasy hair swinging on either side of his face. She bucked upward, but he knocked her back to the ground with one palm, then pinned her to the earth with a knee over her legs and his hands on her shoulders.

“Yer brother took land from us, and now I’m going to take from him. Yer innocence is the first thing I’ll be taking.”

As Hugh lowered his face to hers and kissed her, invading her mouth, Bridgette let out a muffled scream of pure rage and disgust. When he pulled back with a chuckle, his face still very near hers, she didn’t hesitate. She drove her forehead into his, their skulls cracking loudly and sending a stab of sharp pain down the sides of her face. Hugh fell off her and to the side, where he sat cradling his head.

She scrambled up to run, and just as she was about to make her escape, a fearful war cry rent the air. Lachlan MacLeod came charging through the woods wielding his arrow and wearing an expression of menace that stole her breath and froze her in awe.

At the terror-filled scream of a woman, Lachlan MacLeod had abandoned his hunt for the wild boar and made his way quickly toward the sounds of distress. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected to find, but as he charged into the thick woods and spotted Bridgette MacLean, eyes wide, with two large men closing in on her, he had to shake off his shock at finding her out of the castle.

Dismissing the surprise from his mind, he charged toward the men, raising his sword high.

He met his first opponent blade to blade, and the clash of steel echoed in his ears. He advanced swiftly, bringing his foe’s blade low and exposing his belly. Lachlan was swifter and stronger than his enemy. As the man struggled to lift his sword, Lachlan knocked it out of the man’s hands, caught it with his foot, and propelled it into the air so he could grasp it. The man gaped at Lachlan with fearful eyes.

“Away with ye,” Lachlan snarled, giving the man a slice across the chest that drew blood but was not fatal. “The next strike will fell ye if ye remain here.”

As the man scurried away, Lachlan sensed movement behind him.

“Lachlan!” Bridgette screamed.

He swung around and stilled at the sight of Hugh MacKinnon holding Bridgette, who was fighting like a rabid dog, in front of him like a human shield. Hugh’s show of cowardice surprised Lachlan, but Bridgette’s fiery resistance did not. The appearance of the scruffy girl he remembered from the last visit he and his brothers had made to the MacLean hold two winters ago may have been gone and replaced by a beautiful young woman, but inwardly Bridgette still appeared to be unlike any other. She had a will to match any man’s and an almost palpable dislike for her role as a woman. Lachlan searched Bridgette’s face to see if she was frightened and was pleased when rage-filled eyes met his.

“Ye’re a coward to use a lass as a shield, Hugh,” Lachlan said to draw the man’s attention as much as to give himself time to decide how to strike.

“I’m wise, nae a coward,” the man snarled.

“Dispense with yer talking, will ye?” Bridgette demanded, her blazing green gaze piercing Lachlan. With that command, she suddenly drove her foot backward and up into Hugh’s groin, causing him to howl in pain and release her.

Lachlan admired the expertly placed maneuver for one brief moment before he darted to Hugh’s side and sent his sword down into the burly man’s foot, gave it a twist, and then jerked it out. Hugh drew his own sword upward, and when he did, Lachlan rammed the hilt of his dagger into the man’s nose. A crack resounded in the air, and Hugh let out a howl as he doubled over in pain, dropping his sword. Lachlan quickly knocked him over the head with the hilt of his sword and watched with pleasure as Hugh crumpled to the ground in a forced sleep.

Bridgette stepped to Lachlan’s side, staring at Hugh for a long spell. Clucking her tongue, she bent down, picked up the man’s sword with some effort, and dragged it away from him. When she turned back to Lachlan, he was surprised at the accusatory, angry look she gave him. “Ye should have let me gut him. ’Twas my right. But I kinnae gut a defenseless man.”

“Is it nae traditional to thank a man who saves yer life?” Lachlan asked, half-amused at her anger and half-curious at her reaction.

A scowl swept across her face. “Och!” She pressed her lips together. “I escaped him myself, if ye did nae notice,” she snapped.

With a shake of his head, Lachlan kneeled down, took out his rope, and secured Hugh’s hands and feet before he stood once more. “What I noticed is that he had ye in his clutches until I appeared.”

She narrowed her eyes. “I’d already escaped him once, but when ye charged into the woods screaming like a loon, ye distracted me and he got his filthy hands on me once again.”

“I saved ye,” he insisted, though he felt sure she could have saved herself as she claimed. But the lovely, mutinous look her face took on when she argued did make it rather entertaining to keep goading her.

She snorted. “Ye men are all so cocky. I saved myself,” she repeated.

“If that’s what ye wish to believe,” he teased.

Bridgette blew out an irritated breath. “What shall we do with him?” She nodded toward Hugh.

Lachlan thought for a moment, glancing toward the woods that led to the castle. “I’m nae going to carry him on my horse back to yer brother. Alex can come for him.” When she didn’t respond, he turned to her.

She was bent over collecting her bow and arrows, but when she stood, she did not look at him. She sheathed her weapon and kept her face turned away, but he could see her pulse beating rapidly against the alabaster skin of her delicate neck. “I suppose I dunnae need to ask if ye’re fine,” he said, even as an uneasy feeling that he’d not reached her soon enough rose in him.

“Nay, ye dunnae need to fash yerself about me,” she replied, still not looking at him.

Lachlan frowned. Her voice had a tremor in it that had not been there moments before. “Bridgette?”

“Away with ye,” she demanded, wrapping her arms around her waist. “I’ll walk back to the castle alone.”

His gut clenched. Had he been too late? Had she been defiled? Fresh rage enveloped him. “Bridgette, did Hugh take ye?” he asked, bending down to retrieve his dagger, which he may well need to use to gut the man.

She wrenched her gaze to his. The tears that swam in her green eyes made his chest tighten. He was never without easy banter for a lass, especially a beautiful one like the woman Bridgette undeniably now was, even if she was only but fifteen, yet he found himself unable to think of the proper words for innocence lost.

He struggled for a moment, then blurted, “I’ll cut his heart out for ye.”

Bridgette MacLean, who he’d known since she had toddled around in a nappy but had never seen cry, burst into tears.

Lachlan shook off his disbelief, quickly drew her to his side, and slid his arm around her shaking shoulders. While she wept, he led her to a rock some distance away from Hugh, gently guided her down, and then sat beside her. He held her and ran a soothing hand through her hair. “I’m sorry I did nae hear ye sooner, lass. Dunnae cry. All will be well. Nae a soul need ken yer innocence has been stolen.”

She pulled back from him and gave him a look of amazement. “Lachlan MacLeod,” she mumbled through fresh sobs, “that’s the most foolish thing I’ve ever heard ye say, and I’ve heard ye say many a clot-heid things.” She sniffed loudly and swiped at the tears coursing down her cheeks. “Any man with sense would ken if his new wife’s innocence was gone. I ken enough about relations between men and women to ken that.”

Lachlan felt his neck turn hot and his lips pinch together into a frown. “And just how do ye ken about relations between men and women when ye’re nae married?” he demanded, knowing her brother would not be pleased if she had given away her charms willingly. Lachlan tugged a hand through his hair. She was not even his sister and he wasn’t pleased to hear this news. But he had known her all her life, and he had thought her the sort of lass who would only give her body to her husband.

“Are ye married?” she growled, standing and marching away.

“Ye ken I’m nae,” he retorted, hurrying to follow her.

“Aye, I do. Yet I’d hazard my life that ye ken about relations between men and women.” She gave him a contemptuous look. “How can that be, Lachlan MacLeod?”

“Och! Ye ken very well it’s different for men than for women.”

She glared at him. “Oh, I ken it, for certain. It’s hardly fair. And nae that it’s any of yer concern, but my mother told me afore she passed what happened between a man and a woman once they were married.”

The knots in his shoulders loosened, and he smiled. “Well then, that’s good.” When she started to climb the hill, a rip showed in the shoulder of her gown and he remembered his original question. “So were ye crying over yer lost innocence, lass?” he asked in the most delicate tone he could manage.

“Och, nay,” she replied, waving a hand at him. “I’d have carved out Hugh’s heart myself if he’d taken my innocence.” She quirked her mouth. “Though Alex may well decide to carve it out anyway when he hears of this.” She gave a parting glance toward where they had left the man tied and continued on.

The last of what troubled him eased away, yet he was confused. “Then why the tears? Were ye scairt?”

“Of course nae, ye eedjit!” she snapped and faced him. The tears that had dried up filled her large eyes once again. She blinked and her russet lashes fanned her cheeks, causing tears to leak out of her eyes and slide down her face.

Lachlan watched as they trailed over the slope of her high cheekbones, fighting the urge to wipe them away. They trickled to her chin, and he could resist no longer. He brushed a finger over one cheek and then the other, meaning only to comfort her, yet when he touched her, desire stirred within him. He jerked his hand away, cursing his body for responding to his friend’s sister like that. Bridgette was not a willing and experienced lass with whom to dally. Beyond that, she was too young.

He folded his arms across his chest, where he’d keep them no matter what. “If ye were nae scairt and yer innocence was nae stolen, then why are ye crying?”

She raised her gaze to his, her brows dipping together and a frown coming to her face. “I hardly ken why,” she mumbled. They stood in silence for a short time and then she spoke again. “I suppose ’tis because I never imagined my first kiss—and certainly nae like this. I presumed it would happen only when I married.”

“Why nae till then? Ye’re certainly bonny.” It had always been his habit to speak plainly, but he saw by the widening of her eyes and the parting of her mouth that he likely should have kept his thoughts to himself.

Pink infused her cheeks, but her gaze held his. “Because I am odd. I wish to fight in battles.”

He nodded. Her brother had often lamented Bridgette’s desire to be treated as a man, and giving it thought now, Lachlan could recall her pleading to be trained to use a sword and her brother refusing her. “So,” he said, choosing his words with care, “ye believe that a woman who wishes to fight battles is undesirable to men?”

Her cheeks turned a deeper shade of pink and traveled swiftly to her neck. “Aye.”

“Ye’re desirable,” he assured her, though it was surely foolish for him to do so.

She stared at him as if he’d just sprouted wings, and then a smile twitched at her lips. “Ye’re verra kind,” she murmured and started to look away.

He caught her chin, then cursed himself for breaking his promise not to touch her, yet he did not release her. “I’m nae being kind. I’m being truthful.” God’s bones, his tongue was spouting words his brain knew better than to release.

Her eyes widened again, and her tongue darted out to lick her full upper lip and then lower lip. “I feel foolish,” she blurted, her blush turning the tips of her ears red. “I’d nae dreamed of being kissed, but now that I have been, I’m sore that my first kiss was so awful, and that will be a memory I keep always. And that is why I was blubbering. I dunnae usually cry. ’Tis weak.”

“I vow to ye,” he said, his voice coming out rougher than he’d meant it to. The desire coursing through him was affecting every part of him. “Ye will receive a kiss someday that will destroy the memory of the one just forced upon ye.”

“I dunnae see how. I’ll nae have a great love. I’ll marry because the men will clamor for my hand so as to make an alliance with my brother.”

He stared at her in wonder. She truly had no notion of her loveliness, nor how enticing her spirited behavior.

“I can taste his sourness,” she continued as she started walking ahead, her hips gently swaying and making his desire grow hotter. She let out a disgruntled sigh. “His kiss was rough,” she said with a shiver.

Ah, God above! The thought in his head now was one that he was certain he should ignore, yet how could he let her only memory of being kissed be such a terrible one when God alone knew when she’d make the next memory. He could not. One simple kiss would harm neither of them. One kiss, done well, would show her what she had to look forward to with a good and honorable man.

“Bridgette.” He clenched his jaw on his husky tone and strove harder to beat back the desire that was battering him. He cleared his throat. “Bridgette,” he tried again, pleased with his now-strong tone. “I’d like to kiss ye to give ye a better memory.”

She stopped and turned to him, doubt flickering in her gaze. She was going to need some convincing, which made him want to laugh. His thoughts were normally sinfully wicked for the lasses, and they all responded eagerly; now that his intentions were pure, he was met with resistance. Determination hardened his resolve. He had to sway her. He was certain it would help her.

Bridgette blinked and stared into Lachlan’s green eyes as they held hers. She had often dreamed of battles but never of being kissed. But she had fancied herself in love with Lachlan for near a sennight when she was but eight summers and he had rescued her dog after it had fallen into a ravine. The infatuation had been quickly forgotten when Lachlan’s family had departed from their visit and she had taken it into her head to become a warrior. All her thoughts had been for that, and no man had caused her to ponder anything different—nothing more intimate and female—until now.

She had to admit, now that she was presented with the opportunity to kiss Lachlan, she found herself eager. Lachlan was, after all, a fierce, honorable Scot, whom she had long admired and who also happened to be very pleasing to look upon. Muscle carved every part of his powerful body, but the easy smile he often wore tempered the ferocious picture he presented. Even so, she had doubts that a kiss from him—or any man—could wipe away the memory replaying in her mind.

“I dunnae think—”

Lachlan set a calloused finger gently to Bridgette’s lips, and a slow smile spread across his face. “Let me be the one to do the thinking for a spell.”

She snorted at that, even as her heart pounded. “How many lasses have ye said that to?”

To her dismay, he cocked his head and appeared to be thinking, but then a chuckle rumbled from him. “Nae a one. Ye’re the first lass who’s ever hesitated when I asked to kiss them.”

She smacked him on the chest. “It’s sinful to be so proud, ye ken?”

He caught her small hand with his big one and pressed it to his heart. The thump against her fingertips made them tingle. At least she thought that’s what it was. Her mind felt a tad fuzzy as his open stare bore into her. “I ken it’s sinful,” he said, his voice velvety and strong. “I’ll repent later. Now let me help ye.”

“A kiss kinnae have that much power, Lachlan Mac—”

His mouth covered hers, stealing the last of her protests and all of her doubts.

She eagerly let the words go, consumed by the searing heat of his kiss and the way her own body flamed in response to his demanding mastery. The peculiar pulsing at the juncture of her thighs and the tightening of her insides, which felt much like the string of her bow when she pulled it taut, made her moan and wiggle closer to him. A low growl emanated from him before his hand delved into her hair and he tugged her nearer. His tongue traced her upper and lower lips, then slipped between the two to explore her mouth. She welcomed him, tasting his saltiness and the slick slide of his tongue against hers.

He retreated slightly, and she groaned in disappointment only to be silenced by his lips once again taking hers with a savage intensity that made her blood roar in her ears, sing through her body, and pound in her head. Aching, unrelenting need consumed her as she moved her hands up the hard planes of his chest to cling to his shoulders. Her wounded hand pained her a bit, but she ignored it. Under her fingertips, his muscles bunched and twitched, as if her touch filled him with as much yearning as his did her.

Feeling emboldened, she pressed her chest against his, and the contact of his hard body to her soft one yanked a hiss from her and a guttural cry from him. Her eyes flew open as he shoved her away, panting. They didn’t speak but stood unmoving in the shadows, their short, sharp breaths filling the silence between them. After a time, Lachlan gave her a probing look. “Do ye think ye’ll forget the other kiss now?”

She stared at the rugged yet gentle warrior. The concern swimming in his eyes made her body tremble. The only thing she’d remember about this day was him and the way he had just made her feel, yet she could not say that. The man surely already knew too well how he affected women.

She tossed her hair over her shoulder as she started to walk back to the castle. “Aye, yer kiss was pleasing enough that I’ll nae remember the other. What about ye? Was my kiss pleasing enough that ye’ll forget the thousands that came before mine?” Her heartbeat stilled as she waited for his response.

His gaze met hers and held her prisoner. “Aye,” he said, his voice breaking with huskiness. “But Bridgette—”

“Nay,” she said, not wanting him to ruin the moment. “I ken what ye’re going to say.”

He arched an eyebrow at her. “Do ye now? Ye’re a seer, then, are ye?”

“Of course I’m nae a seer,” she grumbled, though she firmly believed in them and their powers. “I dunnae need to be a seer to ken that ye all think of me as a young girl with odd ideas.”

He frowned. “That’s nae what I was thinking. I was recalling how yer brother intends to wed ye to the Campbell laird’s son when ye reach eighteen years.”

She pursed her lips. “He’ll nae proceed with it when the time comes. He vowed to our mother on her deathbed to let me choose my husband.”

“Three years is a long time,” he replied before reaching out and surprising her by tucking a few strands of her loose hair behind her ear. She stilled as he trailed his fingers to her cheek and brushed them across her skin. An almost wistful expression came to his face. Her breath caught in her chest. Was he going to ask her to consider him in the future?

“Make sure when the time comes ye choose yer husband wisely,” he said, his tone impassive.

Disappointment sliced through her, making her feel foolish. She knew that up until the kiss of moments before, Lachlan had thought of her as no more than Alex’s bothersome sister. Perhaps he still thought of her that way. And in truth, before he’d kissed her, she had not really thought of him since her brief infatuation long ago had faded. Well, she had noticed he was handsome since then. And she had thought he was honorable, albeit slightly dangerous. Now she knew he was both of those things, but he also had a caring heart and he seemed to understand her in a way no one else ever had. That last bit of newfound knowledge drew her to him. Well, that and the extraordinary kiss. She didn’t think any kiss from any other man would ever compare to his. But as Lachlan had said, three years was a long time. Still…

“What sort of man would ye say I’d need to pick?”

“One who will always put ye first,” he said, matter-of-fact, before clamping a hand on her shoulder and pushing her to the ground.

“What are ye doing?” she demanded.

His answer was to cut his gaze to her while withdrawing his bow and arrow. “Killing the wild boar to win the hunt.”

Bridgette sucked in a sharp breath. “That’s what I had intended to do. I came to the woods to kill the boar and finally prove to my brother that women can be equal to men.”

She expected him to scoff at her. Instead, he used his bow to motion to hers before quickly aiming at the boar again. “Then be quick about it.”

Her jaw dropped open at his invitation. “Ye’re going to let me take the shot?”

He chuckled as he stole a quick glance at her. “Nae if ye dunnae hurry.”

She quickly withdrew her bow and arrow, readied the shot, and fired. Her arrow whistled through the air before piercing the boar in the head. He went down with a thud. Grinning, she turned to Lachlan, who had already stood and held out his hand to help her up. She set her hand in his, the contact making her stomach clench. He pulled her to a stand and then released her. When he started to walk toward the boar, she grabbed his arm. He turned to her, eyebrows raised in question.

“Why did ye let me have yer shot? she asked. “Ye’ll lose the contest now.” The winner received a nice purse of coin, but more importantly, the victor would receive great respect.

He unsheathed his dagger and then looked at her. “Do ye happen to have rope? I used all of mine on Hugh.”

She nodded. “I’m always ready.”

“I dunnae doubt that,” he said on a chuckle and took the rope she handed to him. “I let ye have the shot because I judged it of greater importance for ye to prove to yerself and yer brother what I suspected was so than for me to win the contest.”

For the second time in a brief span, her lips parted in shock. “Ye mean to say that ye suspected I was equal to ye men?”

He offered a grin that made her dizzy. “I may be arrogant, but I’m nae a clot-heid. In truth,” he continued as he strode toward the boar, “I like to think I’m a wee bit smarter than most men.” He glanced back at her and winked. “At least when it comes to the lasses. And I learned long ago to have sufficient regard for lasses.”

She pursed her lips. “Which of the many lasses that ye have joined with taught ye that?”

“My mother taught me that,” he shot back in a chiding tone, “with a few smacks to the head and by beating me soundly in sword-to-sword combat when I was fifteen.”

“Yer mother was a warrior?” She could not keep the surprise from her tone.

He nodded as he tied the boar’s legs together. “She was a fierce one who defended her father’s castle and his life by picking up his sword and killing his enemies when he was too injured to do so. Ye made me think of my mother when ye told me ye wanted to be seen as an equal.” He stood and faced her. “Come then. Let’s find the others.”

She nodded, followed Lachlan to the horse he had tied some distance away, and swung up behind him.

“Hold tight,” he ordered.

She circled her hands around his waist, feeling the hardness of his body. Her insides turned like swirling water. She’d long heard the whispers that the high, sweet singing of the fairies floated on the wind the day Lachlan had been born. People—well, lasses—said he’d been blessed by the fairies. She’d scoffed at that, but now, as she stared at his broad back and thick burnished hair tied at the nape of his neck, she wondered if it was true. She wanted to reach up, let loose his hair, and slide her fingers into it. Oh, she was wicked! He had to have some sort of magic within him because he had captured her heart with a kiss. Now all she had to do was capture his.

Lachlan had watched Bridgette from a distance throughout the feast to celebrate her victory, considering if he should go talk to her. Had he imagined her response to his kiss? He didn’t think he had, yet she’d not looked at him once all night. In truth, it almost seemed she was avoiding his gaze. Just as the thought filled his mind, his younger brother Graham sat down next to him at the same instant Bridgette’s gaze turned Lachlan’s way.

The hum of voices around him disappeared as his eyes clung to hers, analyzing her reaction. Her lashes didn’t lower to conceal a thing. Yearning—he was almost certain—smoldered in her bright-green eyes. Intent on learning the truth, he stood, but Graham’s hand clamped on Lachlan’s arm.

“Did ye hear me?” Graham asked.

Distracted, Lachlan shook his head but glanced down at his brother. “Nay. Can this wait?”

“A lass has my heart,” Graham announced.

Lachlan frowned, torn between the wish to go to Bridgette and the desire to stay and speak with his brother, who rarely sought him out for advice or confidences. He glanced across the room to where Bridgette had stood, but she had moved away and was speaking with his older brother Iain. Lachlan looked down at his brother who stared up at him with a face full of expectancy.

Family first, he thought, sitting once more.

“What lass has yer heart?” he asked.

Graham offered a grin. “Bridgette MacLean. I’m going to marry her someday.”

Before Lachlan could control his astonishment enough to gather his wits and form a reply, Bridgette’s voice rose in anger over the dull roar in the great hall. Silence suddenly fell, and Lachlan glanced to where she stood facing her brother.

Forgetting Graham for the moment, Lachlan stood and made his way across the great hall to the men gathered around her and Alex.

Her head was tilted back to look up at Alex, and Lachlan could see the beat of her heart under the creamy skin of her neck. One look at her hard expression and fiery eyes told him she was angry, and a protective instinct, greater than any he’d known before, flared in him.

“It was nae luck that I killed the boar!” she snapped.

Alex stared down at her with unconcealed disbelief. “’Twas luck,” he replied with the obstinacy of a leader who was not used to being questioned. “I’ll nae chance ye being killed by allowing ye to hunt with us again. Yer request is denied.”

Frustration flashed across Bridgette’s face. “But Alex—”

“Nay!” her brother interrupted in a sharp, unyielding tone.

Bridgette’s gaze circled the men around her, and Lachlan suspected she was searching for help from her clansmen. No one stepped forward, though Lachlan was certain the men knew she was the superior archer. It was not his place as he was not part of her clan and she was not his woman, yet he found himself moving toward her as if pulled by some invisible thread.

He stepped to her side and faced her brother. “I was with her, ye ken.”

Alex nodded, his gaze wary yet not closed to hearing what Lachlan had to say.

“It was nae luck. Yer sister is a better shot than any man I’ve ever seen. Ye’d be a fool nae to allow her to hunt with ye and yer men.”

“Lachlan,” Alex spoke, his voice tinged with anger. “Ye overstep.”

“Perchance I do,” Lachlan agreed. “But I’d rather overstep than stand by and watch an injustice.”

Alex’s gaze narrowed, but a hint of amusement danced in his eyes. “Are ye saying I’m serving my sister an injustice?”

“Aye. Her shot was nae luck. If there was a woman in our clan that could shoot as yer sister can, I’m certain Iain would allow her to hunt,” Lachlan said, flicking his gaze to his brother and hoping he’d not misjudged.

“Lachlan speaks the truth,” Iain said.

Alex nodded thoughtfully. “So be it.” He glanced to Bridgette. “Ye may hunt with us.”

Bridgette flew into her brother’s arms and gave him a fierce hug. “Thank ye, Alex!”

Her brother returned Bridgette’s hug, then set her away and pinned Lachlan with an unblinking stare. “If anything should ever happen to my sister on a hunt, I’ll nae forget that ye’re the one who convinced me to allow this.”

“I’ll nae forget, either!” Bridgette said happily as she gave her brother a reproachful look.

Alex turned away with a snort, and the men who were gathered around disbanded, but Lachlan stood unmoving, as did Bridgette. They stared at each other for a long spell, and the air between them felt as it did right before a lightning storm—charged with a great tension. She moved toward him, and he felt an eagerness akin to the anticipation of a great battle. It built within him as she paused so near that her heather scent swirled around him.

“Do ye like to dance?” she asked.

It was only then that he realized the minstrels were singing and playing the lute and that people had started to dance. He was about to tell her that he’d like to dance with her when Graham came up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder. His eyes locked with Lachlan’s and pleaded. Lachlan swallowed and called upon the will that had seen him through many battles and tournaments. Deliberately, he set his awareness of her and his newfound desire for her aside.

“I dunnae dance.” He looked past her to Graham. He heard Graham’s earlier admission in his head, and he recalled in a flash the countless times he’d hoped his relationship with his brother would improve. Now was his chance to make that happen. “But Graham dances,” he said simply.

With that, he offered a hasty incline of his head and turned to depart the great hall. Family first, he repeated to himself as he strode out of the room, all the while fighting the desire to turn back to Bridgette, take her in his arms, and think only of himself and the yearning that was spreading through him like a fast-growing vine.