Battle-hardened warrior Dirk MacLerie isn't who everyone thinks he is. He's Dirk MacKay, heir apparent to the MacKay chiefdom and Dunnakeil Castle on the far north coast of Scotland. When he returns home after a long absence, will his clan know him and will the duplicitous enemy who tried to murder him twelve years ago kill him in truth this time?
Lady Isobel MacKenzie is a beautiful young widow betrothed to yet another Highland chief by her brother's order. But when her future brother-in-law accosts her and threatens to kill her, she is forced to flee into a Highland snowstorm. When she runs into a rugged and imposing man she thought dead, she wonders if he will turn her over to her enemy or take her to safety.
Dirk remembers the enchanting, dark-eyed Isobel from when he was a lad, but now she is bound to another man by legal contract—an important detail she would prefer to forget. She wishes to choose her own husband and has her sights set on Dirk. But he would never steal another man's bride… would he? The tantalizing lady fires up his passions, testing his willpower and honor at every turn, even as some of his own treacherous clansmen plot his downfall.
Gusts of chill wind flung icy snowflakes into Dirk's eyes. After several days travel on galleys up the west coast, he and Rebbie had disembarked at Ullapool. With the strong winds, it had been unsafe to sail further north. Then, they had traveled north on horseback.
'Twas slow going on a narrow footpath through the rugged countryside. He glanced up at the Assynt Mountains surrounding them, their rocky peaks hidden in the low-hanging clouds. Snow blanketed even the lowest slopes in white.
"Is the weather always so inviting here?" Rebbie called out several feet behind him.
Turning in his saddle, Dirk glanced back and smirked. Rebbie had become spoiled in the temperate Scottish Lowlands and England. Snowflakes littered his friend's dark hair. Breath fogged from his mount's nose.
Of course, Rebbie had insisted on bringing his manservant, George Sweeny. He'd wanted to bring two servants but Dirk had to say no. It would've been more difficult for a large entourage to secure passage on a galley.
"I was thinking you were a Highlander," Dirk called.
"I am, indeed. But from much further south."
"Use the mantle's cowl." The plaids and mantles Lachlan had given them had come in handy. The wool over his head would catch the water from the melting snow and hold in the warmth from his body heat. Beneath that, Dirk wore a piece of metal-studded leather armor—because one couldn't be too careful in the Highlands—and a belted wool plaid over his trews.
Rebbie generally dressed like a Lowlander. But now they both had on several layers of clothing, both Highland and Lowland.
Evening was upon them and the temperature was dropping. They needed to reach Munrick Castle before nightfall. The MacKays and MacLeods had ever been allies, most of the time, anyway. He hoped the chief would provide them shelter for the night.
No doubt word had circulated through neighboring clans that the MacKay heir had died several years ago and a younger brother was set to inherit. Dirk wasn't yet sure how he would explain that he was indeed alive.
During his twelve year absence, he'd forgotten exactly how forbidding the weather in the Assynt region could be. If anything, MacKay Country, on the north coast was even harsher.
The trail through the Highlands only handled single file horses and foot traffic. He inhaled the bitter peat smoke trailing from nearby crofters' cottages. What he wouldn't give right now to be sitting beside one of those smoldering fires. The smoke scent blended with the damp air off the nearby bog and frost-bitten plants created a scent that reminded Dirk of his childhood.
When he was a lad, he had visited this area a few times with his father as they had dealings with the MacLeods. Generally, they got on well, but most Highland clans were canny enough not to trust another clan with one hundred percent conviction.
A movement out ahead caught Dirk's attention. What was that? Not a red deer. He thought he'd seen a flash of plaid. The trail turned uphill and passed through low-growing gorse bushes. Someone was hiding behind that boulder.
Dirk stopped and turned. "Rebbie," he said low. "Someone's lurking up ahead."
Rebbie nodded. They both quietly dismounted and withdrew their swords.
"Hold the horses," Rebbie murmured to George. "But if they come out fighting, give us a hand."
George nodded. "Aye, m'laird."
With the wind blowing constantly, Dirk could hear naught above it.
"Who's there?" he called out. "I'm a MacKay, just passing through."
No response. The knave was still hiding. Might be more than one of them. Was this an ambush by highwaymen or desperate outlaws?
Gripping his sword, Dirk sneaked along the trail, trying to avoid kicking loose stones. Rebbie followed a few feet behind.
The wind picked up, whistling through the gorse branches and stinging his face. Good. This would cover any sounds they made, especially since they were downwind of whoever lay in wait between the bushes and rocks. If he could sneak up on them, he could gain the upper hand.
If they were members of the MacLeod Clan, he'd have to assure them he was a MacKay ally. He prayed there hadn't been any clan feuds since he'd last been here. His uncle hadn't mentioned any in his missive, but then his message had been brief and to the point.
Each step took Dirk closer and closer to their hiding place. He held his basket-hilt broadsword at the ready, fully aware two or more men could leap out at any moment.
At last, he reached their hidey-hole and stole around the side of the boulder. Naught but snow-covered heather and low-growing plants greeted him.
Damnation, where had they gone?
He crept forward, down an incline and around a bush. There, two forms in drab plaid huddled, one standing upright, back pressed against a giant boulder, and the other crouched.
Dirk froze, as did the two strangers.
A lass? Dark fierce eyes met his from beneath a cowl, but the face was definitely female and so was the clothing—a long arisaid. Despite her bulky and voluminous clothes, he could tell her shoulders were slender. Her eyes narrowed, and her stance was defensive. He glanced down at her hands, partially hidden in the folds of her skirts, but he did not miss the glint of a dagger clutched in one fist.
His gaze darted to the other figure. Also a woman, but a few years older.
"What the devil?" Rebbie muttered, coming up beside him.
"What are the two of you doing out in this weather?" Dirk asked in Gaelic, his tone harsher than he'd intended. Were they mad? Gloaming was approaching, and the snow and wind would only worsen.
"Leave us be," the lass said, her voice strong.
He exchanged a confused glance with Rebbie. He was surely wondering the same thing Dirk was. Why were they here, far from the nearest village, croft or castle?
"'Tis not safe for two women to be wandering about. Do you not ken of the outlaws and thieves in these parts?" At least there had been twelve years ago, and he doubted things had changed much.
"We're not troubling you, and we have no need of your help. Not much further and we'll reach our destination." The glint of her dagger taunted and irritated him. Undoubtedly, she was afraid of them.
Dirk returned his broadsword to its scabbard. "And where would that destination be? It's been a long while since we passed through a village." And even longer since they'd left the keep they'd stayed in the night before.
"'Tis none of your concern."
Ah. So the lass had an impertinent mouth on her. Even more interesting, she had the speech of the Highland aristocracy, the dialect of somewhere south of here, but Western Highlands for a certainty. He nodded. "Well, I cannot leave you out here in the elements. I'll take you and your companion to Munrick Castle. The MacLeods will help you."
"Nay," she snapped and turned about, helping her friend—or her maid—rise to her feet. "Leave us. We are well."
"We mean you no harm, m'lady." He watched for her reaction to the title.
"I thank you for the offer of assistance, but we have no need of it."
She didn't notice the title, so clearly she was used to being called lady. Aside from that, her speech spoke volumes about her social station. And her status meant he definitely couldn't leave her unprotected in a snowstorm. She would not be as accustomed to the elements as a hardier crofter maid might be. Was she some chief's daughter who'd run away?
"Which clan are you from?" he asked.
"Does that matter?"
"Aye." He always liked to know who he was dealing with. Helping her would no doubt have repercussions.
The shape of her lips and the curve of her jaw line gave Dirk a sense of déjà vu. Though he could tell her eyes were dark, he could not see the shape clearly beneath the cowl and curtain of her dark brown hair. Had he seen her somewhere before?
"Are you a MacLeod? A MacKay?" he asked. Those were the two main clans in the area. But if she was from somewhere further south, as her dialect indicated, no telling which clan she'd come from.
"Nay," she said. Why the devil wouldn't she reveal her clan name at least?
"Are you running from someone?"
She froze, staring at him wide-eyed. That was it. Who was she running from and why?
A sharp gust of wind grabbed her cowl and flung it back, revealing more of her face and long dark hair.
Indeed, she was familiar. Was she someone he'd met during his youth? The familiarity niggled at the back of his mind, tormenting him.
"I've seen you before," he said.