Lord Munro MacLawry crept forward and down, his bare knees digging into the soft, mossy ground beneath him. The chill breeze lifted the black hair off his brow; he’d hiked halfway around the valley to keep the wind in his face. The black and white and red plaid of his kilt was worn and muted even before he’d taken to crawling through the mud and brambles, because he wasn’t fool enough to wear his dress kilt on a hunt.
Of course he might’ve worn trousers and had something covering his knees, but he wasn’t a damned Englishman. He wasn’t hunting for sport, and he wasn’t trying to show off for any damned Sassanach lords and ladies who thought working up a sweat was gauche. He wanted some bloody venison for dinner, and with the current chaos at Glengask Castle, the simplest way to get it would be to bring it to the table himself.
As he crested the low rise he paused, stretching out flat to listen to the wind in the pines, the loons calling from the reeds on the west bank of Loch Shinaig a half mile to his right. The rain had held off for most of the morning, but with the clouds piling up against the mountains he’d be in for it any time now. It was a lovely morning, all in all – not the calm, clear days the Sassannach south of Hadrian’s Wall preferred, but a cold, wet, wild Highlands come hither morning.
Whether the rain held off or not he likely only had another hour or two to remain in the valley. After that, the Marquis of Glengask would be turning out half the household to track down his youngest brother. That was even more certain than the coming storm.
Simply by going out alone he’d violated at least half a dozen of his brother Ranulf’s – and thereby clan MacLawry’s – rules. Munro allowed himself a grim smile. Hell, aside from being out in the wilds alone, he hadn’t bothered to tell anyone else where he was going, he hadn’t brought a groom or one of Ranulf’s deer hounds with him, he hadn’t worn a warm coat, he hadn’t stayed within sight of Glengask Castle, and… He counted on his fingers. Well, at least five violations, anyway. This had the makings of a grand morning, whatever the weather.
Too many damned rules, and as far as he was concerned, too many people willing to follow them without question. Aye, he understood the reasoning behind them – rivalries with other clans, bandits, poachers, the unpredictability of the Highlands terrain and weather – but at twenty-seven years of age he’d put himself through much worse. Intentionally. Bedding two sisters beneath the same roof, tossing tree trunks that weighed nearly as much as he did, and participating in some rather ungodly brawls didn’t even scratch the surface.
With a slight grin that left the taste of dirt in his mouth, Munro edged forward again, creeping below the level of the tumbled boulders and low, wind-bent bushes until he caught sight of the red deer he’d been pursuing since daybreak. A lone stag, from the size of his rack the lad looked to be a year or two past his prime. Likely he’d been overthrown by some younger buck and now decided he preferred the bachelor life, anyway.
Well, Munro could certainly sympathize with that. Over the past year and a half both of his older brothers and his younger sister had gone and married, leaving him the sole unattached MacLawry sibling. It was all sugar and roses enough to rot his teeth, and then seven months after the first marriage the tide of bairns had begun to arrive. One each, with another due in a few weeks and – unless he was mistaken, a fifth was getting itself ready to debut in the spring. Evidently his generation of MacLawrys was extremely fertile.
And he was happy for the lot of them. More than happy. But while he had nothing against being Uncle Munro and having babies leak all over him, that was as close as he wanted to get to being a parent – because of what that meant. One lass only, for the rest of his life? What sort of nonsense was that? Keeping low despite his height, he edged within rifle range of the stag.
For St. Andrew’s sake, he was the youngest of three lads, with one male heir already born to the marquis. He had no bloodline for which he was responsible, no need to produce a son to keep his title, and whatever his siblings might have begun hinting, he meant to continue enjoying himself until his important parts wore out and fell off.
Munro eased his rifle into position, closing one eye to gaze down the iron sights. He was perfectly happy spending his nights with whomever he wished and his days doing whatever he pleased. For the buck, though, not having a herd to help him watch for enemies meant ending up as a tasty roast on a MacLawry banquet table. The deer lowered its head to graze, and Munro let out his breath, then curled his finger around the trigger.
Sharp as thunder the shot echoed down the length of the valley and back again. For a moment it sounded like an entire regiment of lobster backs had opened fire. The buck dropped where it stood.
It was a damned fine shot – but he hadn’t made it. His rifle still held ready, Munro opened both eyes to follow the thin, white trail of gun smoke back to the tumble of rough rocks on his left. For a long moment nothing moved, and if not for the dead buck in the clearing he could almost think he’d imagined the shot, that it had been thunder to join the deepening drizzle.
As still as he held himself, his heart pounded. Another few seconds and it might have been him down in the clearing, ripe for a shot between the shoulder blades. Both he and his middle brother, Arran, had been shot before, and it wasn’t an experience he cared to repeat on someone else’s whim.
Finally one of the boulders shifted, becoming a gray blanket that stayed low to the ground and edged forward. The end of a musket protruded from beneath the wool, but if not for an occasional glimpse of boot or hand, it might have been a wild Highlands spirit gliding among the trees and rocks.
Down in England a commoner who killed a deer on a lord’s land could be thrown into prison for poaching. Up here he might lose a hand for it. But in MacLawry territory his brother Ranulf, the Marquis of Glengask, generally allowed anyone who lived on his vast lands to hunt for food.
At the same time, this end of the valley was well known to be the MacLawry siblings’ favorite hunting grounds. And it was too damned close to the castle for anyone but the immediate family to be shooting at things. The most unusual thing about Munro being there this morning was that he’d come alone. But he’d done it before, and never encountered anyone. Hell, after eighteen months of a truce with the Campbells, a man should be able to go hunting on his own – whether Ranulf approved of the idea or not.
As a MacLawry he would be within his rights to claim the stag for himself, but that seemed supremely unsporting. From the glimpses he had of the gun, it was a muzzle-loader – which meant that if the lad had missed, he wouldn’t have had time to reload before the deer fled. That had definitely been a shot worthy of a Highlander.
The blanket sank down again beside the animal, and Munro started to his feet, ready to call out both his approval and a warning not to shoot. When the lad rolled up the blanket and shoved it into a satchel, though, Munro frowned and dropped to the ground again.
The hunter wore rough trousers and a plain white shirt, work boots, and a wool coat that had definitely seen better days, topped off by a ragged straw hat that drooped on both sides. But that wasn’t what caught Munro’s attention. Rather, it was the long red hair pulled back into a wild mare’s tail that trailed down between the poacher’s shoulders, and a glimpse of pale, delicate-looking cheek. The lad was a lass.
Quickly and efficiently she butchered the deer, and between the ragged coat and the meat slung over her shoulder Munro couldn’t make out any more details of physique. But now that she was out from under the blanket, watching her walk, seeing how she shifted her weight to carry the musket and satchel, she couldn’t be anything but a she.
Munro rose to a crouch again as the lass headed toward the west end of the valley and the rugged gorge beyond. His brother, Arran, set between himself and Ranulf in age, had several times accused him of being uninterested in puzzles and mysteries unless he could put the result on a plate and eat it. A crack shot, trousers, long red hair and tits, though, added up to a puzzle that interested him.
Keeping well back and under cover, he followed the oddly-clothed lass out of the valley. Aye, he was a big man, tall and broad-shouldered as a mountain and all muscle if he said so himself, but he damned well knew how to move quietly when the circumstances called for it. Any stranger who thought it a bonny idea to hunt in MacLawry territory – nearly within rifle-shot range of Glengask Castle – well, that was a circumstance in itself, without adding a lass into the equation.
The MacLawrys had been taking in the cotters of other clans for years, practically since the damned Highland Clearances had begun, but as a matter of safety he or one of his brothers had either met each of the refugees and shaken hands or had arranged for a trusted MacLawry chieftain to do so – and to make certain a fisherman was a fisherman, and not some assassin from clan Campbell or Buchanan or Fraser or elsewhere. It wouldn’t do to have any troublemakers looking for a way to slip in close to the family and begin another clan war.
Most frequently over the past eighteen months arranging the greetings and seeing the newcomers settled in had fallen to him, alone; Ranulf and Arran had been otherwise occupied with going to London, falling in love, and marrying. He didn’t recall meeting or even hearing about a woman in trousers, though, and he was fairly certain he wouldn’t have forgotten such a thing.
As for the local lasses, he was well acquainted with most of them. Very well acquainted. There were a handful of redheads, but she wasn’t one of them. It behooved him, then, for the sake of his family’s safety, to figure out who she was and from where. He’d already seen the evidence that she was a dead shot with a musket.
Big, heavy plops of rain had him soaked to the skin by the time they reached the narrowing, higher end of Gleann Tàirnich, and amid the thick trees and house-sized boulders along the side of the valley he had to close the distance between them to keep her in sight. He expected her to continue on to one of the small clusters of cotters’ huts that had sprung up between the foothills and the river. Instead, though, she headed toward the lowest part of the valley, winding her way along what he realized had once been a road. Now it was barely more than a rutted carpet of wet leaves and fallen branches. Abruptly even that ended, and with no visible effort she hopped over a low stone wall and vanished.
As Munro reached the broken wall he stopped, crouching to gaze beyond the tumbled, moss-covered stones at the ruins beyond. Haldane Abbey had stood at the head of Gleann Tàirnich for nearly four hundred years, and it hadn’t been occupied for the past hundred or so. It sat empty because a hard winter’s snow had collapsed the entire back of the building, and the rest of it hadn’t been worth the expense of renovating.
Regardless of that, it seemed that Haldane wasn’t empty, any longer. Leaking, dreary, dangerously unstable, and reputedly haunted by at least three former residents and a hound, Haldane remained free of the influx of refugees from the Campbells, the MacDonalds, and the Gerdens and Stuarts. In fact, none had even been tempted to settle within its sight.
The redhead could be one of the specters, he supposed, except that as far as he knew spirits didn’t kill and butcher deers, nor did the female ghosties wear trousers. Haldane was a MacLawry house on MacLawry land, and if he wanted to he could simply march up and demand to know who was trespassing. That was how he normally would proceed; hell, his siblings didn’t call him Bear just because of his broad shoulders. Unless he cared to spend the rest of his day staring at tumbled walls, though, he needed either to advance or retreat.
Metal clicked behind him. Halfway to his feet, Munro froze. Damnation.
“This is my place,” a female brogue came low and steady from behind the weapon. “No one was here, and I claimed it. So ye go away, big man, and save yerself some trouble.”
And there he was, like a boy caught with his kilt up. His brothers would be laughing their arses off. “I’ll agree ye’re a fine shot, lass, but do ye ken ye can handle me all by yer lonesome? And I didnae see ye reload.”
“Then make yer move and we’ll discover how observant ye are,” she returned. “I said I dunnae want trouble. I left ye near half the stag, so walk back doon the way ye came and go claim it before the rats and wildcats and foxes take it from ye.”
Shooting a charging man was nothing like taking down a buck unawares – and that was if she’d even managed to stuff a ball down the old muzzle-loader while she made her way down the valley. At the same time, it was a bit disconcerting that she’d known precisely where he was since she’d brought down the deer. He hadn’t suspected that anyone was within a mile of him until she’d fired. Slowly he rose, straightening his knees and keeping the rifle in his right hand pointed toward the ground. Neither this moment nor a quarter of a deer was worth either of them dying over.
“I’ll go,” he agreed, taking two long steps away from her. Then he stopped, took a breath, and turned around to face her.
He could count the number of men who’d bested him in hunting or battle on one finger – well, on no fingers, because no man had ever done so. As of this morning, he could no longer make that claim about females. His gaze was somewhat obscured by the musket aimed steadily at the center of his chest and by the ancient hat pulled low over her eyes, but he could see enough that he would know her again. Wet scarlet hair hung across her face and escaped from the long mare’s tail draped over one shoulder. A straight nose, cheeks streaked with dirt and rainwater, lips that might have been full and sensuous if they weren’t clenched together hard enough to blanch any color from them, she looked to be in her early twenties, if that.
“That’s enough gawking fer ye, àluinn. Away with ye. Dunnae come back. I reckon there’s enough ground in the Highlands that ye can avoid this wee bit of it.”
And she continued to dictate terms to him, even if she had called him handsome. Hm. “I reckon I could avoid ye,” he agreed, keeping a careful eye on her as he resumed his retreat. “Whether I will or nae, well, that’s another question, isnae?”
“Aye. Come test me again, big man. I’ll nae be so polite, next time.”
If this was her being polite, seeing her rude would be quite the spectacle. He continued backing away, moving slowly enough that she would hopefully understand that he damned well wasn’t frightened of her. This merely happened to be one of the few occasions where it seemed preferable to avoid bloodshed. He was out here on his own, after all.
Even so, he was tempted. How difficult would it be to circle around behind the estate and show the redhead just what it meant to turn a weapon on a MacLawry? She wouldn’t boast about besting him after that, he reckoned. Munro paused at the bend of the rutted path, then took a breath and continued away from the pile. Aye, he could scare the wits out of her, make a few threats, but for once he decided on restraint. She’d truly surprised him, and if anything, that deserved more of a response than some fist shaking. It would never do if she ran off before he figured out who she was.
Once he’d put Haldane out of sight behind him, he turned his back on the place and retraced his steps to the stag. With the rain only a lone fox had found the carcass, and that wee beastie fled at the sight of him. It was about time something showed him the damned respect he was due.
After he finished the butchering work she’d begun, Munro slung the deer over his shoulder and made his way to Loch Shinaig and then north along its west bank until Glengask came into view beyond the meadow at the top of the rise. Trudging around the side of the sprawl to the kitchen entrance, he kicked at the door until Timothy, one of the footmen, pulled it open.
“I’ve brought supper,” Munro grunted, shoving past the servant and stalking into the kitchen. The cook, Mrs. Forrest, hurriedly cleared off a table and he dropped the animal onto it.
“Where’s the back half?”
The middle MacLawry brother, Arran, stepped down into the kitchen. Wonderful. If Arran was there, then his wife Mary and their bairn Mòrag would be, as well. Generally he was pleased to see the lot of them, but today he would have preferred a few damned minutes to himself. “I got hungry,” he returned.
“Ye must’ve, if ye’re eating venison straight off the hoof.”
With a snort Munro moved around his brother to wash up in the large kitchen sink and then head for the main part of the house. He would damned well tie himself to a stake and set fire to it before he would admit that a lass had outshot him with a fifty-year-old musket and then ambushed him. He’d never hear the end of it. Ever.
Arran, who could scent trouble better than a hound, followed him. “Ye didnae go oot alone, did ye, Bear? Ye know ye shouldnae.”
“If I’d wanted company I would’ve taken one of the dogs. Owen, bath. Hot,” he said, as the head footman emerged from the morning room.
“Aye, Laird Bear. I’ll see to yer rifle fer ye.”
Munro handed it over, keeping the muzzle pointed well down. “It’s loaded,” he cautioned.
“So ye clubbed the deer to death before ye ate it?” Arran pursued.
“Ye keep telling me it’s dangerous oot of doors, so I reloaded. And if ye must know, I crossed paths with an old lass and her three grandbabies. I gave them a good supper.” Munro halted to face his brother. “Is there anything else ye want to know aboot my morning?”
Arran lifted both palms in a gesture of surrender. “Nae. I dunnae want my head knocked off my shoulders. Come play billiards with me and Lachlan when ye’ve washed the blood off ye.”
“Lach’s here, as well? And Winnie, I suppose. And wee Connor.”
“Aye. And my Mary and Mòrag. Is that a problem fer ye, bràthair?”
Munro shook himself. “Nae. If I’d known the MacLawry army was here, I would’ve killed a bigger buck.”
“Or nae have eaten half of it on the way home.” Arran chuckled, clapping him on the shoulder.
“Aye. Go away. I’ll be down in a bit.”
He’d grown up in a large, loud household, and the only difference two wee lads and a lass, his nephews and niece, had made was that the MacLawrys – and in Lachlan and Winnie’s case, the MacTiers – could now see a future that a few years ago they hadn’t truly been able to imagine.
“Comb yer damned mane while ye’re at it. Get yerself civilized so ye dunnae frighten the wee ones.”
And that was the rub. Today with the rain and blood soaking into his shirt, with a mysterious lass leveling a musket a him, returning to bairns and wives at Glengask all seemed so…domestic. Two years ago the MacLawrys had been the strongest, fiercest, most progress-minded clan in the Highlands. This morning, though, he could swear he’d heard Ranulf singing to his seven-month-old son and heir, William. Ranulf, whose glare had caused more than one man to piss himself.
At least Munro had been able to go out hunting, however poorly that had ended. The rest of them, though, were definitely not about to frighten any stray Gerdenses or Campbells into surrendering. Not any longer. Not with bairns tucked against their breasts, wives on their arms, and lullabies on their lips.
After he’d bathed and changed into a clean kilt and shirt and his old boots, he went and tracked down Ranulf. The head of clan MacLawry leaned against the doorframe of the nursery, gazing at the loud, crawling chaos of babies and their mamas inside. And damn it all, he was smiling.
The marquis straightened, turning to face him. “That was good of ye, to give over half the buck to the widow woman. They’ve more need of it than we do.”
Of course Ranulf would have heard the tale already. There wasn’t much that happened in the Highlands without his knowledge. “I—“
“And the next time ye go off by yerself to hunt, I’ll set my hounds after ye.” He indicated the two large deerhounds lying close to the wall in the hallway and likely attempting to escape the notice of the babies. “Peace with the Campbells or nae, ye’d still be a prize kill fer some.”
Munro nodded. He could argue the point, but he would lose. It was easier to simply agree and then ignore the warning. “I went by Haldane Abbey,” he said, instead of conceding. “The whole south wing’s gone now.”
“I havenae even thought aboot the abbey fer years.” The marquis tilted his head. “What sent ye that far south on foot?”
“Ye didnae give it over to anyone, did ye? Some cotter and his kin? I thought I saw footprints aboot it. Old ones, but it made me curious.”
“Nae. I’d nae risk anyone there, even fer a single night.” Ranulf gazed at him. “Do ye ken it means trouble?”
Bloody wonderful. The last thing he wanted was to send lads out there to hear from the trouser lass that she’d already leveled a gun on him. “I think it’s more likely some of the village lads looking fer spirits over the summer. We used to do it.” He shrugged. “The next time I head oot that way I’ll take a closer look to be certain.”
“The next time ye head oot that way with Debny or some of the other lads to keep ye company,” Ranulf amended, squatting to pick up a black-haired bairn crawling for the dogs. “Dunnae take unnecessary risks, bràthair. I’m nae jesting with ye.”
For a moment Munro divided his attention between the Marquis of Glengask and his seven-month-old son. The next marquis, the next head of clan MacLawry, presently trying to eat his father’s fine white shirt. “It seems to me, bràthair,” he returned, reaching out to run a forefinger carefully along the wee bairn’s ear, “that I’m the only MacLawry who can take risks, these days. And ye need a man who can.”
“Ye ken that’s true, Ran. Ye may be civilized now, but the Highlands arenae. I dunnae mean to fling myself off a cliff, but I’m nae domesticated. And if I choose to go oot hunting from time to time, I’m seven-and-twenty. I reckon that’s old enough to be able to decide fer myself what I’m willing to risk.”
The marquis eyed him. “Then perhaps it’s time I find ye a wife to settle ye doon.”
“Hm.” Tired with being threatened today, Munro turned on his heel. “I suggest ye dunnae, if ye ever want to see me again. If I want a wife, I’ll find one fer myself.”
“Havenae ye already bedded every unmarried lass in the Highlands?” his brother asked. “Nae a one’s caught yer attention?”
“I’ve bedded barely three-quarters of ‘em.” And that wasn’t even counting the redhead in the trousers. “A night’s fun, aye, but a lifetime? Ye’re giving me the shivers.”
“Times are changing, Bear. Ye need to change, as well, or ye’ll find yerself left behind.”
Given the alternative, being left behind didn’t sound so terrible. At any rate, not having a wife and bairns left him free to scout Haldane Abbey again. The trouser lass had called it her place, which said to him that she’d settled in there. He therefore had a fair suspicion he’d be seeing her again, and that the next time he did so, he wouldn’t be the one caught unawares.
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