Highland Brides of Skye Book 1
by Tarah Scott and April Holthaus
Genre: Historical Romance
When a return trip home from a clan meeting ends in a bloodbath, Laird Caeleb MacLeod begins his search for the clansman who betrayed them. Little does he know he need look no further than his bed.
As the housekeeper for Laird Caeleb MacLeod, Gwendolyn is in a position to learn many things important to her master, Malcom Donald, captain to the Donald laird. Now she must choose between destroying the man she loves and saving the sister being held hostage by Malcolm.
PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED AS TREASURES OF SKYE
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Not one man remained on the battlefield. Not even the dead.
After nearly a fortnight away from home, and a three-day-long battle, they were going home. But this was not a day to rejoice. Seventy of the two hundred MacLeod warriors who’d fought would be brought to their final resting place within Dunvegan’s chapel cemetery. Another thirty-five would be buried at their respective homes, scattered across MacLeod land.
“It’ll take a week to bury them,” Tommen muttered as he rode alongside Caeleb.
Caeleb’s chest tightened. A week of unbridled sorrow.
The taste of defeat rose like bile, and for the thousandth time he envisioned the missive Tommen had delivered to him only hours before the Donalds attacked.
The Donalds plan to attack Laird MacLeod on his return from MacKinnon territory.
No one had seen this friend. The message, discovered on a table in the great hall, had plagued Caeleb since Tommen met him and his men with another hundred and fifty warriors only hours before the attack. Who was this friend—how did they have such easy access to Dunvegan—and how had they known the Donalds would attack?
In the two years since Caeleb had been laird, he’d stood ready to defend the MacLeods against the Donalds—just as the MacKenzies did and even the MacKinnons, for they were allied with the MacKenzies here on Skye, and the Donalds hated them for it. The discord between the Donalds and the other clans had existed since before Caeleb’s birth. But, in his arrogance, he’d thought he could avoid an all-out war with the Donalds.
Damn ye, Kaden, he silently cursed his cousin. Kaden was to have taken his father’s place as chief, but when the old chief had hanged Kaden’s brother for treason, Kaden had disappeared, forcing Caeleb to step in as laird.
“I should have sent for more men to meet us,” Tommen said, his tone flat.
“They wouldnae reached us in time.”
“Nae,” Caeleb cut in. “Ye did the right thing. You couldn’t leave Dunvegan unprotected.”
“Even another fifty men would have turned the tide in our favor,” Tommen whispered.
“They outnumbered us, and we sent them running with their tails between their legs,” Caeleb said.
Tommen looked at him. “At what cost?”
Caeleb’s gut twisted when another cart filled with the dead rumbled past. At what cost, indeed? Bodies lay stacked like logs on a pyre, covered by plaids. His heart lurched at recognition of the unruly, dark red hair visible beneath three larger bodies.
God help him. The boy was but sixteen. Caeleb had ridden to a pre-arranged meeting with the MacKinnon chief. Royce had accompanied them to visit his sister in Pitmorth. None of them had expected to see battle on the journey home.
“It matters not how long it takes to bury them,” he murmured. “We will give them a Christian burial, one and all.”
“They will not stop,” Tommen said.
Caeleb fixed his gaze on the cart bearing their dead. “I will stop them.”
At last, the towers of Dunvegan Castle came into view. The silence that had fallen upon them since leaving the battlefield had grown so heavy, Caeleb nearly bowed under the weight. Even the injured hadn’t uttered so much as a moan. They understood too well their good fortune. They would live another day to right recent wrongs. Another day to cry, to love, and even forgive. To fight, if the need arose. And the need would arise.
They reached the village, Caeleb in the lead, the dead between him and the remaining warriors. Many villagers ran out to greet them. Cries of joy and wails of sorrow filled the air. Hugs, kisses, and tears were shared amongst the returning warriors. Caeleb envisioned Royce, and he couldn’t help but scan the crowd for the boy’s mother. To his shame, he was relieved not to see her. He would visit her, but not today.
Caeleb continued up the hill to the castle, Tommen at his side, the warriors who resided in the castle close behind.
“When we arrive, close the gates,” Caeleb told Tommen. “Spread it about that we want to secure the castle against attack.”
“That isnae the case?” Tommen asked.
“Aye, it is. But, just as important, I want to know who comes and goes. Pick a dozen of our most trusted men. Gregory, Angus, Jonathan and Henry can lead them. Send them immediately to patrol the borders. They are to tell no one they are going. Ground the monks’ birds. I don’t want a single hawk leaving the falconry until we find out who this friend is. I will talk with Jon. No horses leave the stables without your or my say so, and put a watch on the boats.
Tommen nodded, and they fell silent again. Moments later, they passed through the gate. Tommen and the other warriors stopped for the throng that had gathered to welcome them home, but Caeleb urged his horse toward the stables. The hum of voices grew quieter as he left the courtyard behind.
Jon, the stable master, emerged from the stables when he neared. “‘Tis good to have ye safely home, laird,” he said as Caeleb brought his horse to a halt beside him.
Caeleb swung his leg over the animal’s hindquarters and stepped from the saddle. Jon took the reins Caeleb handed him and said nothing about the battle as he ran a gentle hand along the horse’s neck. But Caeleb knew the question on the tongue of every MacLeod: how had a peaceful visit to the MacKinnons turned into a war?
“I imagine all of Dunvegan knows that someone warned us about the attack,” Caeleb said.
Jon grunted. “And probably half the MacLeod clan by now.”
“That will make it harder to catch the traitor.”
“Ye are sure they’re a traitor?” Jon asked.
Caeleb released a breath. “I am no’ sure of anything. But this friend is privy to the Donalds’ goings on. Who among the MacLeods can say that?”
Jon’s frown deepened. “I admit, ‘tis strange.”
Caeleb agreed and he didn’t like strange.
“I suggest a feast tonight to honor our fallen,” Jon said.
Caeleb started to disagree.
“Dinnae be so quick to say no,” Jon said. “Our fallen should be honored, their stories of valor shared. Our friend will feel safer if he thinks we aren’t focused on him.”
Caeleb placed a hand on Jon’s shoulder. “As always, ye are right”
Minutes later, Caeleb pushed open the door into the castle’s kitchens. He stopped short when two maids carrying a large bucket of water bumped into him. They cried out as the bucket cracked against the stone floor. The bustle in the room halted. Water splashed his boots and snaked along the stones’ mortar seams.
“Forgive us.” Moira, the eldest of the girls, hurried to the counter where another servant stood, her fingers wrapped around the bread dough she’d been kneading on the flour-strewn table. Moira grabbed two cloths and returned to where Ana remained unmoving.
As one, the servants resumed their work when Moira and Ana knelt and began soaking up water. Caeleb sidestepped the two maids and scanned the room. Gwen wasn’t among the women. He glanced toward the small hallway leading to the scullery. Might she be there?
“Where is Gwen?” he asked.
Moira paused and looked up at him. “I havenae seen her since she went away.”
“Away?” he blurted. His heart began to pound. “Where did she go?”
The room again fell silent.
“She went to visit Lana MacLeod in Eldaum,” said the maid working the bread dough.
Eldaum. That was a day’s ride. Fear lanced through him. She’d left him.
From the corner of his eye, Caeleb glimpsed a small figure emerge from the scullery. She halted just inside the kitchen.
Tendrils had escaped her long auburn braid. It took every ounce of will not to yank her into his arms and crush her close.
“Morning, laird,” she said in a cool voice that gave away none of the intimacy they shared as lovers. “ ‘Tis good to have ye safely home.”
“You have been away,” was all he could manage.
She nodded. “Lana MacLeod fell sick after the birth of her latest child. I took food for her and stayed with her for a day.”
He wanted to demand why the women in Lana’s village couldn’t have tended to her, why Gwen had ridden half a day’s journey to help the woman, why she had refused his offer of marriage half a dozen times. The questions only died in his throat.
Instead, he said, “Tonight, I wish to have a feast for the men.” It felt like years since he’d last touched her.
She nodded again. “I will see to it. Will there be anything else?”
He noted a slight flush in her cheeks. “I am in need of a bath,” he said. “Please have water heated for my tub.”
“Right away,” she said, but didn’t move.
His heart thudded. Had she missed him as much as he’d missed her? Guilt stabbed. He still had a chance at love while those being buried didn’t.
Highland Brides of Skye Book 2
Kaden MacLeod has chosen a solitary life in a cabin on the shore of Loch Haven. But a woman’s scream during a raging snowstorm sends him racing to rescue Helena from the frigid waters of the frozen loch. When he learns that this beautiful young woman is about to commit the same crime for which his father, Laird MacLeod, hung Kaden’s younger brother, he’ll stop at nothing to prevent her from facing a similar fate.
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He knew the answer. The ambush of his clansmen four months ago by the Donalds.
But the men were no longer his men. His cousin Caeleb had taken Kaden’s place as leader of the MacLeod clan two years ago. Which is why returning had been foolish. He was no longer a member of the MacLeod clan—much less their leader. Never again would he stand with the men he’d grown up with or fight alongside them. Especially those who’d died at the hands of the Donald dogs.
Anger flared, as it did too easily these days. Had Jacob MacKinnon betrayed them to the Donalds? Did Caeleb suspect the MacKinnon? Why hadn’t Caeleb retaliated? The questions bounced off the inside of Kaden’s skull. So many questions and too few answers. None of it was his business anymore. He’d given up the right to demand answers the day he’d betrayed his brother.
Curse his father for hanging his youngest son, Kaden’s only brother. Curse this damn feud that had embroiled the clans of Skye for an entire generation. And curse this bloody storm. Once the story ended, he would leave. Isn’t that what he did best? Leave, when things became difficult?
A fierce down-draft blasted through the chimney, causing the fire to dance wildly on the logs. Kaden released the curtain and turned back toward the room. His gaze caught on the sparse stack of logs stacked in the corner. The wood wouldn’t last the night.
Kaden grabbed his boots from near the hearth and sat on the bench. He laced them, donned his fur, then piled on more fur to cover his head and neck. Like a large beastly bear, he pushed open the door and stepped outside.
He waded through knee-high snow around the building to the shed in the back. He pulled the cart from within the shed, then slung the rope over his shoulder and continued toward the trees. Thankfully, his brother had long ago replaced the cart’s wheels with wooden slats.
With care, Kaden kept between the frozen shore of Loch Haven and tree line of the forest as he pulled the cart to where he’d stacked a load of wood. The remaining wood in the cottage was the last of that which he’d stacked near the shed. He reached a tall, snow-covered mound and dug through to the logs, then filled the cart. At last, the cart full, Kaden grabbed the rope and began to retrace his steps. His teeth chattered, and his nose had long ago turned numb. A rumble, then a woman’s shriek broke the eerie silence. Kaden stopped. A woman? Out here? Impossible. Another scream was followed by a loud splash of water.
Kaden dropped the rope, then ploughed through the snow like a battering ram against the knee-high wall of snow between him and the loch. An instant later, he spotted the break in the white surface of the snow-covered loch. His heart lurched. It might already be too late.
He halted at the cluster of saplings that marked the water’s edge, dropped to his knees, then onto his belly. Snow collapsed in around him. He fanned his hands out around him, as if swimming, and shoved aside the snow as he wiggled onto the ice. Twice, he looked up over the snow to ensure he was on course, snorting out snow when it filled his nose.
The snow abruptly opened up to the break and he thought for one horrible instant he would slide into the dark water. He threw his hand out and caught his palm on the edge of the broken ice. His legs swung to the side, but then halted. Kaden plunged his arm into the frigid water. Cold pierced bone-deep. His fingers closed around an arm. He dragged the woman up onto the ice and shimmied back toward the shore. God’s Teeth, her soaked fur cloak and thick skirts made her weigh as much as an ox. They reached the shore and he dragged her off the ice, his breath coming in labored gasps.
Kaden shoved onto his knees and was startled when he glimpsed the woman’s curves. When he’d grasped her thin arm, he thought her a young girl. He pressed two fingers to the pulse point at the neck and cursed. No heartbeat. He placed an ear against her chest. Through the thick fabric of her bodice, a faint heartbeat thumped against his ear. He whipped off his coat and quickly wrapped her in the coat. Stinging cold whipped across the exposed flesh of his neck. He lifted her limp body in his arms and started back toward the croft. By the time he reached the cottage he was shivering.
He unclasped her cloak and let it drop to the floor, then hoisted her over his shoulder and threw back the blankets. Kaden started to lay her on the bed, then stopped. Her dress would soak the blankets. He had to remove the dress. Kaden hesitated, then shook off his worry. Her anger was preferable to her death. He slid her down into his arms, sat on the bed, then fumbled with the laces of her bodice. He cursed. His large fingers couldn’t grasp the tiny, wet knots. He pulled his dagger from its sheath and cut the tight lacing. Her bodice expanded. He slid the knife back into its sheath, shimmied the skirt up her thighs then, careful to keep his gaze on her face, dragged the dress up and over her head.
Eyes tightly closed, he grimaced at the press of her soft flesh against his fingers and cursed the pulse of his cock as he twisted and laid her on the bed. Kaden opened his eyes, glimpsed creamy white breasts in the instant before he yanked the blanket over her. Quickly, he covered her with several more blankets, then shed his furs and added enough logs to the fire that the room would soon be as warm as a midsummer’s day. He draped her dress and cloak across the bench near the hearth, then returned to the bed.
Her eyes remained closed. With a feathery touch, Kaden swept her long copper-colored hair from her face, then touched her cheek. Still too cold for his liking, and she’d begun to shiver. She shifted and her arm slipped from the bed and dangled over the side. Kaden grasped her wrist and noticed several dark purple and blue bruises along her forearm. Checking her other arm, he found the flesh also marred with bruises. He made a tight fist and noted how his fingers were aligned. Glancing back at the bruises, there was no doubt the bruises were made by a man’s fist. Anger shot through him. Only the worse sort of whoreson hit women. Maybe that man was the reason she’d been alone and on foot in a snowstorm. That took courage. Or desperation.
Kaden gently tucked both arms beneath the blanket, then rose and pulled sage and honey from a cupboard. He filled a small cauldron with water, then set it on the table. He retrieved his mother’s journal from the night table and settled in front of the fire.
As the night wore on, his eyes grew heavy, but he forced himself to stay awake and checked on the lass twice before his gaze caught on the stack of wood. He sighed. He’d left the cart full of wood on the path.
Highland Brides of Skye Book 3
After an attack on his betrothed’s carriage leaves only Lady Allison alive, Jacob is determined to find her would-be killers.
Linnae Donald is a lowly serving girl. How is she supposed to tell Laird MacKenzie that the granddaughter he’s mistaken her for died when their carriage was attacked?
She can’t break a dying man’s heart. Neither can she do what Jacob MacKinnon asks and help him prevent a war by pretending to be Lady Alison…and marrying him.
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The women had stripped her, washed her, and put her between warm sheets naked. She lay, the covers clutched to her neck, and eventually began to sweat in the warm room. How long before Jacob would come? She knew wedding celebrations could last into the wee hours of the night. Twice, she nodded off and jarred awake at sounds she believed she’d imagined.
A shout caused her to jump. More shouts followed, mingled with laughter. The men approached.
Would they all burst into the room?
Would they insist upon witnessing the consummation of the marriage?
She had heard of such happenings.
Linnae began to tremble. The voices grew closer. When they reached the door, she scooted back and sat up against the headboard, the covers up over her shoulders.
The door burst open and she tensed at sight of a dozen rowdy men pushing through the doorway with Jacob in the lead.
He whirled and shouted, “Back, lads, or I will have you whipped, one and all.”
Raucous laughter followed, along with shouts of, “There she is,” and “She’s ready for you, Jacob,” and, “If he’s too drunk to satisfy ye, lass, I can take his place.”
Jacob shoved the two closest men and they fell back into the crowd. He slammed the door, threw his weight against the wood, and shoved the bolt into place.
The door groaned against the weight of the men and a myriad of shouts and threats ensued. Jacob turned, met her gaze, and grinned. “You must forgive them. They drank too much wine and ale.”
She nodded but could find no words.
His expression gentled. “I imagine the lasses left you in a state desirable to me, but perhaps not so desirable for you.”
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, a man will always delight in finding a beautiful naked woman in his bed. But the woman may not care to be that naked woman.”
“I am your wife. It is my duty to submit.”
He grimaced. “A woman--particularly a naked woman in a man’s bed--should not be there because she must submit.”
“But it is a wife’s duty,” she said.
“So the priests teach,” he said. “But, Linnae, do ye no’ think that mutual liking will make for better lovemaking?”
Lovemaking? Her stomach did a flip. She hadn’t thought of it in that light. How had she thought of it? As she’d said: duty.
“You’re clearly terrified,” he said.
“Terrified?” she blurted. “I am not terrified.”
“Lass, you are clutching that sheet as if ye expect me to eat you alive.”
That wasn’t far from the truth. But her pride was pricked and she threw back the sheet and leapt to her feet.
His brows shot up. ”Ye have nothing to prove, lass. You didnae expect to be married. I’m willing to give you time to adjust to your new state.”
Her cheeks flamed, but she said, “You promised me if we wed, it would be a real marriage—you swore before God and witnesses that I was your wife.”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Are you challenging my word?”
Linnae lifted her chin. “I am.”
“A man can’t let such a challenge go unanswered.”
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