Heart of a Scot Book 4
He only meant to rescue her…instead, she saved him from himself.
He has no heart…
Since the tragic deaths of his wife and children, Liam Mackay, Baron Penderhaven has fortified himself behind a carefully erected wall of indifference and aloofness. There, he doesn’t have to feel anything. He’s as dedicated to the prosperity and success of his feudal barony as he is to avoiding social gatherings and marriage-minded women. That is, until he unhesitatingly risks his life to save the alluring Emeline LeClaire, and the temptress utterly thwarts his well laid plans.
She has no hope…
Illegitimate and orphaned, Emeline LeClaire has lived in servitude to her strict spinster aunt her entire life. With no prospects, Emeline expects she’ll follow in her aunt’s footsteps and reluctantly settle into a lifetime of drudgery as a seamstress. Only, when she becomes the target of hired assassins and the riveting, oh so, tantalizing Highlander Liam MacKay charges to her aide, she realizes she cannot settle for mediocre. She wants him, and sets out to heal his wounded soul and claim his broken heart.
After a flash flood strands them in a hunting lodge for several days, Liam and Emeline can no longer deny their mutual attraction. Even though he vows to find the man who wants her dead, he cannot relinquish his heart to her. The organ shattered years ago, leaving him an empty shell, incapable of feeling. Can Emeline tear down the barriers he’s erected and convince him to accept her love, or will the past that haunts him separate them forever?
This riveting Scottish historical by a USA Today bestselling author will have you sitting on the edge of your seat and reaching for the tissues! You won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough to find out what happens to Liam and Emeline next as their tender romance blossoms.
If you enjoy reading Highlander love stories brimming with mystery and suspense, a dash of humor, and gripping emotion then you’ll adore Collette Cameron’s mesmerizing HEART OF A SCOT Series. Buy TO WOO A HIGHLAND WARRIOR and settle into your favorite reading nook for a rousing Highland adventure you can’t put down.
Though this book can easily be read as a stand-alone, most readers prefer to read the series in order.
Release Date: February 25, 2020
Early September 1720
A hair-raising scream rent the late afternoon’s soggy air, wrenching Liam MacKay, Baron of Penderhaven, from his melancholy musings. He snorted in derision. When, in these past five years, weren’t his reflections melancholic? Macabre even?
Astride Deri—so named for the gelding’s metallic-shaded coat—he reflexively clasped the dirk at his waist as the pulverizing wind caught the merest wisp of another frantic cry. Pulling his spine straighter, all of his senses acutely alert, he squinted through the deluge pelting him and methodically scrutinized the surrounding woodlands.
From whence had the shout come?
Close by, for certain.
Eyes narrowed, he scratched his beard and made a thorough, circular study of the area once more. The tangy scent of sodden earth and the sharp, almost pungent, odor of the shrewish tempest met his flared nostrils.
With the furious squall buffeting the thrashing trees and the torrential rain hammering the drenched ground—not to mention the periodic deafening booms of thunder hard on the heels of each lightning streak illuminating the heavens—he couldn’t quite discern the person’s location or gender. Another incandescent purplish flash divided the bruise-colored sky, immediately followed by an earth-shaking explosion in the firmaments.
God’s teeth, what a gale.
In his one and thirty years, he didn’t recall a more sudden or violent thunderstorm. The ground was still hard and arid from an unusually warm summer, and water gushed down the craggy hillside eager to reach the riotous, brown river below.
More than once, Deri had slid on the slick slope. If there’d been lodgings to be had this past hour, Liam would’ve sought its refuge straightaway.
Traveling in this sorry weather was stupid, plain-and-simple. But halting and risking the elements might prove worse with the trees snapping like kindling all around Liam. Unrelenting stinging rain pellets lashed his face, giving no hint of reprieve anytime soon either.
For the past three hours, the powerful thunderstorm raging overhead had battered the Highlands. Which explained why he’d chosen to ride beneath the flailing branches above rather than chance the open road a few hundred yards away.
Quite simply, there was far less risk of lightning striking him amongst the trees than upon the unprotected track paralleling the river. However, in these woodlands, a much greater risk of being taken down by a falling tree existed.
Odin’s teeth. Damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. A no-win situation. Caught between the coals and the cookpot.
Head angled as he strained to hear above the storm, he pushed his saturated hair off his forehead. Another terrified shriek—definitely feminine—echoed through the Scots pine forest, curdling his blood and raising his nape hair as well as causing his horse to sidestep and snort nervously.
“Easy, lad. Shh.” He hugged his knees to the gelding’s sides, giving him a reassuring pat on the neck. Whoever the woman was, he couldn’t ignore her terrified cries. He stroked the horse again. “Dinna fash yerself, my friend.”
“Unhand me, vous monstre!”
Monster and in French to boot?
“Help! Help! Mon Dieu. Somebody, help us, S’il vous plait.” The last broke on a ragged sob barely audible above the thunder reverberating violently in the angry pewter sky.
What in Odin’s toes was a French woman doing in this isolated stretch of the Highlands, in this godawful weather, and screaming for help? To be fair, the storm had developed quite suddenly, and the nearest inn was miles away.
Nonetheless, his warrior’s instinct pinged an urgent warning.
And the Frenchwoman had said, “us.” Meaning more than one person was in some sort of danger. Hell, anyone outside in this hell-fired gale was in peril.
“Mon Dieu, non. Non.” The plaintive wail broke through a pause in the storm’s tumult.
Desperate. Defeated. Disbelieving.
Swearing a steady stream of expletives beneath his breath, Liam reined Deri in the direction of the heart-rending plea and put his heels to the horse’s sides. At once, the steed surged forward, pounding toward God only knew what. Liam erupted through the towering trees, momentarily taken aback at the bazaar scene before him.
A traveling coach angled across the middle of the mucky road, its door flung wide open. Two men, legs splayed and their bearing menacing, stood near the front of the vehicle. The coachmen?
A pair of dripping-wet women huddled together a few feet away, the taller with her arm wrapped protectively around the smaller woman’s shoulders. Even from where he’d exited the woodlands, he couldn’t miss the diminutive woman’s violent quaking.
One driver gleefully brandished a pair of blunderbusses.
Christ on the cross.
What in the bloody hell went on here? A robbery? It didn’t make sense. Why drive the ladies to this godforsaken spot? Especially in this rabid weather?
The fiend straightened his arm, aiming a weapon at the younger woman. “Say yer prayers, lass. ’Tis time to meet yer maker.”
Not if Liam could help it.
Wrenching his dirk from his belt, he released a warrior’s ferocious battle shout. Another peal of thunder split the turbulent shrapnel sky, muffling the bellow. He vaulted from the saddle. But before his feet hit the ground, the man, still grinning maniacally, pulled the trigger.
“Non!” The skinny older woman threw herself in front of the other equally slender lady.
The taller female caught her companion in her arms, the momentum from the gunshot propelling them to the muddy ground.
“Nae! Nae! Naaee! Aunt Jeneva!” the woman cried hoarsely, hunched over her immobile aunt, patting her face. “Och, my God, ye unconscionable monster. I think…ye’ve killed her.”
Even as Liam surged across the remaining distance, the scunner’s face contorted into a devious smirk, and he calmly leveled the other pistol at her head.
Proud and gloriously defiant, the lass lifted her chin, her saturated bronze tresses spilling over the plain dark blue cloak covering her shoulders and spine. Such bravery in the face of terrifying peril could only be admired, and Liam’s warrior’s heart applauded her courage.
An instant later, an uncomfortable jolt speared his breast.
He recognized her.
She’d been at the cèilidh hosted by Graeme Kennedy a few weeks ago. And also, at that ludicrous masked ball in Edinburgh Mother had insisted he escort his sister, Kendra, too.
“Why? Why are ye doin’ this?” she shakily asked, her delicate, stricken face streaked with tears and rain. “We’ve nae money or jewels. Nothin’ of value. We’re simple seamstresses.”
The wind whipping his hair, the coachman shrugged casually, as if they discussed the petulant weather. He hastily sliced his companion a sly, side-eyed look. “We’ve been paid handsomely to dispose of ye.”
Her mouth went slack, and a confused line appeared between her brows. “Ye must have the wrong person. I’m nae a threat to anyone. Neither was my aunt. We have nae enemies. Ye’ve made a horrendous mistake.”
“Nae. ’Tis nae mistake.” He grinned, exposing time-yellowed teeth and wobbled the gun’s muzzle up and down. “We made absolutely sure of yer identity, Miss Emeline Toinette Jeneva LeClaire, didna we, Hamish?”
“Aye, that we did,” his compatriot agreed, returning his friend’s sneaky sidelong glance. “Such a fancy name. So ladylike. I still say we ought to sample the bonnie lass, Walter. Nae one will ever ken, and it seems such a waste no’ to. How often do we get to sink our wicks into a lady? A pretty one, too, even if she is a skinny rickle-a-bones lass.”
Over Liam’s dead body would they lay so much as a finger upon her.
Eyes rounding in comprehension, she blanched and cast a frantic glance to either side.
“Ye have a good point, my friend.” Walter licked his fat lips, his lewd gaze lingering on the gentle swells the cloak hid. “A verra good point. He didna say we couldna, did he? He only said to make sure she didna return to Edinburgh alive.”
Who, exactly, was the he they referred to?
This was no random robbery then. It was an assassination. Liam didn’t have time to ponder why, however, for the scoundrels were intent on ravishing the remaining woman before disposing of her as ordered.
All at once, the rotter became aware of Liam bearing down upon him—looking no doubt like a wrathful, bearded demon straight from the bowels of hell. His features contorting in fear and fury, the attacker staggered backward a step and veered the gun’s muzzle’ toward Liam.
“Ye’ll meet yer maker today, ye devil’s spawn,” Liam vowed in a guttural growl.
At a full sprint, he threw the dirk. Satisfaction flooded him as the blade lodged to the hilt in the blackguard’s throat, and a stream of crimson gushed forth.
His eyes wide and surprised, the blunderbusses tumbled from the bounder’s hands. Clutching his neck and making weird gurgling noises, he folded to his knees, then, ever-so-slowly slumped forward.
Slapping a hand over her mouth, Emeline LeClaire choked on a gasp and speedily averted her attention from the grisly scene.
Yanking an evil-looking knife from his boot, the other churl crouched into a defensive position. He brandished the knife with the ease of someone accustomed to handling a blade.
Precisely, who were these miscreants?
Liam would vow playing the part of coachmen wasn’t their typical employment. It didn’t matter. They’d breathe their last today.
He whipped his tartan around his arm. Using the plaid as a shield, he lowered his shoulders and barreled into the smaller man, slamming him into the coach with a sickening crunch.
The driver shrieked in pain and terror as Liam caught his neck in the crook of his elbow and with one violent twist, broke the would-be-murder and rapist’s neck. He crumpled to the ground, his lifeless eyes glazing over. He’d not be attacking any more defenseless women.
Liam mightn’t ever want to marry again, but he’d never mistreat a woman or stand by and watch another do so either. Breathing harsh and his heart yet hammering an erratic drumbeat behind his ribs, he retrieved his dirk, a gift from his da for his sixteenth birthday. After wiping the blade clean on one of the dead men’s coat, he slipped the knife into his belt.
“Aunt Jeneva.” Her voice and expression anguished, Miss LeClaire rocked her ashen-faced aunt in her arms. Scarlet stained the older woman’s unmoving chest and Miss LeClaire’s gloves. “I’m sorry, Aunt, so verra sorry,” she choked around her inconsolable weeping. “Ye wouldna be here if I hadna insisted we visit Berget,” she moaned, her voice breaking.
Hurrying to her side, Liam squatted and put two fingers to the limp woman’s neck, checking for a pulse. Dead. Lips pressed tight, he scanned the area, ensuring nobody else skulked about. “Lass, is there anyone else with ye?”
She dragged her watery gaze upward, her thick-lashed brandy-colored eyes glazed and out-of-focus pools. The sprinkling of cinnamon-colored freckles stood out starkly on her high cheekbones and impertinent turned-up nose. She blinked sluggishly before her attention slid to the men, and a violent shudder racked her.
Shifting slightly, he maneuvered to partially block her gruesome view. The wind caught his plaid and slapped it against his thigh. The ferocious storm yet seethed around them, but she appeared to have retreated into her own hellish world.
“Lass?” He touched his fingertips to one shoulder.
“Nae.” She swallowed, shaking her head then biting her plump lower lip. “Nae one.” Her voice was as lifeless as the woman draped across her lap.
“I’m Liam MacKay,” he said softly, in the soothing tone he used to speak to an unbroken horse. No need to mention he was also a baron. “I saw ye at Graeme Kennedy’s gatherin’ in August.” He hadn’t spoken to her and in doing so now, he violated rule number one: Stay clear of innocent lasses.
Her expression, utterly lost and devastated, she didn’t respond.
He hadn’t remembered her name until the dead man said it, but Liam did recall her costume at the ball. A rather hideous shepherdess ensemble, complete with a ridiculous bonnet and staff—not that anyone had introduced them.
In general, Liam shunned women.
To be precise, he avoided unwed, marriageable lasses like the plague or pox. Snared once already in that unholy trap, he’d no intention of ever falling into that viper’s pit or finding himself in a compromising position again. Kendra and her progeny could bloody-well inherit the feudal barony.
Familiar grief cramped his lungs, the ache blooming in his chest and stealing his breath.
Nae. No’ now.
Except, damn his eyes, he’d also broken rule number two in the past five minutes: Never, ever, be alone with an unmarried woman. Widows didn’t count, and he’d found them most accommodating over the years.
“Ye’re Emeline?” He knew her name, but forcing her to focus on something besides her dead aunt cradled in her arms was paramount,
“Aye, Emeline LeClaire,” came her monotone response. “I remember ye.” Her wary doe-eyed gaze slashed to the strip of puckered flesh, marring his right cheek. “I’ve wondered several times how ye came by yer scar.”
Not exactly the stuff of conversations, especially between strangers.
Kristin’s doing, the night she’d tried to kill him. But he wasn’t about to reveal that to a woman and one he didn’t know. Again, his chest constricted, and he fought the helplessness the dreaded memories stirred.
Lightning lashed across the gloomy sky. Several more jagged flashes followed in quick succession, accompanied by resounding, earth-shaking crashes. Could the thunderstorm possibly be growing worse? Just then, the rain turned to hail. The cherry-sized pellets pummeled them like miniature cannonballs. Thunder exploded, roll after furious forceful roll, across the sky.
A peculiar rumbling echoed in the distance. Glowering, Liam glanced upriver.
What was he to do with this woman? Or the three dead people, for that matter?
Undecided, he sighed, plowing a hand through his soaking hair. He could tie Deri to the rear of the vehicle and drive the coach himself. At least Miss LeClaire would be out of this damnable weather.
He’d leave the assassins here. But he wasn’t keen on placing the dead aunt inside the coach with the lass or securing her corpse with the luggage either. Besides, the miry road would make for painfully slow travel. What was more, he had no desire to endure the beastly weather perched atop the conveyance and a potential target for a lightning bolt.
Eyes oddly vacant and shoulders slumped in misery and grief, Miss LeClaire shivered. Tears careened down her wan cheeks, but she made no sound. Her silent agony tore at his consternation. Kristin had been a screamer.
He scowled again, frustration beating an irritating staccato down his spine.
It would take hours to reach shelter by coach. At least two hours on horseback, too. However, Deri could make the hunting lodge—the only accommodations within twenty miles—and wholly inaccessible by any sort of traveling vehicle. In fact, when stocking the lodge—more a small cabin than grandiose accommodations—he used pack horses to carry the supplies.
As he stood upright, Liam eyed the mucky road then the rising river with a practiced eye.
So much for making it home by nightfall.
This thunderstorm made reaching Eytone Hall impossible. He released the team before returning to Emeline. It would be cruel to leave them harnessed in this weather. God only knew how long it would be before someone could return for them. Days mayhap.
At once, the pair dashed toward the haven the woods provided. Smart animals.
“I’m goin’ to put yer aunt inside the coach,” he gently told Miss LeClaire. “I’ll send my men for her as soon as the wynds are passable again.”
Uncertainty and a hint of fragility in her gaze, she searched his eyes. Even sopping wet and strain etched across her face, he couldn’t help but notice her refined features. He was still a healthy young man in the prime of his life, after all.
High cheekbones, a dainty, slightly upturned nose, almost too full lips, and unusual treacle-colored eyes, much too big for her face, met his perusal. Fingers curled into the fabric of her gray and burgundy traveling gown, she gave a stiff, barely discernable nod before presenting her rather aristocratic profile.
He sighed in relief that she hadn’t fought him on the matter. He’d have moved her aunt, with or without her consent, but he’d wasn’t keen to rile her temper.
Over four hellish years of marriage had provided him a lifetime’s worth of shrewish female behavior. The result was he had minimal patience for petulance, histrionics, and most especially, female wiles.
Emeline leaned down and kissed her aunt’s forehead. “I’m so verra sorry,” she whispered brokenly before signaling Liam with a slight flexing of her eyes she was ready for him to take the dead woman.
“Ye have my deepest condolences for yer loss, lass.” It was hard enough to lose a loved one but to witness their murder— “I’ll keep ye safe until ye reach yer home.”
Och, mon, shut yer damned wheesht. She’s nae yer responsibility. Dinna make promises ye canna keep or that might lead to misunderstandin’s of a romantic nature.
He booted his recriminations to the roiling river. He was simply helping an unfortunate lass in desperate circumstances. Nothing more. Common decency demanded he do so.
Once he’d wrapped the dead woman in her cloak and placed her in the vehicle, he dragged the coachmen beneath the conveyance. Someone might recognize them, and that could lead to the person who hired them to kill Miss LeClaire.
At least he knew their names. Hamish and Walter. Two verra common Scots names. Nevertheless, that proved very fortunate and might help a great deal.
It was too soon to ask her who had cause to wish her dead, but it was a conversation they’d have to have. Either with Liam or the authorities. Probably both. Except, she’d claimed she had no enemies. None she kens about.
He swiped his forearm across his brow, not that the gesture brought any reprieve. As if he weren’t bloody uncomfortable enough, a combination of sweat and rain ran in irritating rivulets down his forehead and temples. Into his eyes, too. The salty sweat stung, further obscuring his visibility.
He strode to Miss LeClaire and, hands on his hips, regarded her forlorn form. She hadn’t moved. Likely shock had set in. Just what he needed—an incapacitated female miles from the nearest town and anyone who might aid them.
Hells clanging bells. Now he was breaking rule number three: Never offer assistance to an unwed female.
A dark stain marred the ground before her, and for the first time, he noticed the crimson smeared across her chest. Pray God, it was her aunt’s and not hers. He knew next to nothing about tending wounds.
The earsplitting roaring grew louder. Alarm bludgeoned Liam as he finally comprehended what the unearthly rumble meant. Shite! Giving a shrill whistle, he summoned Deri. He grasped Emeline’s arms, pulling her unceremoniously to her feet. Peering into her blank umber eyes, he gave her a sharp shake.
“Lass! Flash flood!”
Every ounce of color drained from her already wan face. She gasped, jerking her attention behind him to the river.
“God above,” she choked out, her voice thin with terror.
Deri trotted to Liam and tossed his head.
Liam brusquely lifted her onto the destrier, legs astride, and grabbed the reins. “Scoot back,” he yelled, leaping into the saddle. “Hold on tight.” He kicked Deri hard. “Go, lad! Go!”
The horse needed no encouragement. Deri bolted up the incline as the wall of fulminating water tumbled down the riverbed, sucking anything unfortunate enough to be in its path into the brownish-black, undulating mass. Leaning low, Liam urged the straining horse upward, away from the frothing, churning, deadly tumult.
Not a hair’s breadth between them, Miss LeClaire clung to him, her wet head pressed into his back, her hands fisted together at his middle. Violent shudders shook her as her breasts scuffed his spine. Her breathing came in harsh little pants in between what, he suspected, might be supplications to The Almighty. Good. They needed all the help they could muster, divine or otherwise.
What seemed like hours later—in reality, only a mere handful of minutes had crawled passed—the gelding, at last, crested the hill. His sides heaving, he snorted and jerked his head up and down.
“I ken, laddie. I ken. Ye did verra well.” Liam ran a hand down the horse’s lathered neck. The poor beast needed a reprieve from this devilish tempest, too. “Ye saved our lives, ye did.”
He relaxed a fraction as he dismounted then turned to survey the heaving, unforgiving waters. Had they been even five minutes later, the flood would’ve caught them, too.
Of the coach, there was no sign. Likely, the three corpses would never be found either. At least not in identifiable condition. He’d not voice that unpleasant truth, however. The knowledge might prove more than Miss LeClaire could bear in her fragile state.
“Are ye all right, lass?” He glanced over his shoulder.
As all right as any woman who found herself in this dreadful situation might be. Despite the seriousness, he couldn’t help but admire her long, milky white legs, bared to just above the thigh.
He wasn’t dead, for God’s sake. Nor a monk. Just a man who deliberately steered clear of innocent maidens.
Face pale as death, she raised her head, that umber-tined owlish gaze round and uncertain. Her pale pink lips parted. “I…” The next instant, her eyes rolled back into her head.
Arms outstretched and uttering an oath, Liam lurched toward his horse and caught her limp form.