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Judith E French

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HIGHLAND MOON
“All of you is very . . . very . . . nice,” she said.
He chuckled and nuzzled her throat. “And what do ye like best about me?”
“I like your thighs—I mean your eyes.” She giggled. “You have eyes like a fallen angel.” His hand dropped to the bodice of her gown. She could feel the heat of his palm through the layers of clothing. And suddenly it was hard to breathe.
He’s beautiful,
she thought,
the most beautiful man I’ve ever known.
A lock of his hair fell forward, and she caught it between her teeth and tugged gently.
“Dinna begin what ye canna finish,” he said.
“Don’t go,” she begged. “I want you here with me . . . I want you . . .”
A hunger deep within her cried to be filled.
Just once,
she thought,
I want to know what it’s like to be loved by a man like this.
Books by Judith E. French
 
 
MOONFEATHER
 
HIGHLAND MOON
 
 
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
Highland Moon
Judith E. French
eKENSINGTON
Kensington Publishing Corp.
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
For Colleen, with all my love
Prologue
London, England
February 2, 1723
 
T
orrents of rain poured from the gray skies and soaked Ross Campbell’s feathered bonnet and his
breacan-feile,
the full belted plaid that swathed his tall, broad-shouldered frame from his chin to the tops of his high fringed Shawnee moccasins. The icy wind raised gooseflesh on his sinewy, scarred arms and drove needles of freezing rain down the back of his neck. He swore a foul Gaelic oath and reined his mount closer to an overhanging building, hoping to shield the stallion from the force of the storm.
The big horse flattened his ears against his head and turned into the wind. Snorting, he bared his teeth and raised one iron-clad hoof to paw impatiently at the slippery, mud-covered cobblestones. Muscles rippled beneath the stallion’s sleek black hide as he arched his powerful neck and shook his sweeping mane and tail.
Ross swore again in English and peered into the deluge. The figure of a man appeared through the mist at the entrance to an alley. Ross transferred his reins to his left hand and smoothly drew his broadsword with his right.
“Colonial?” The man’s voice was thin and so heavily accented with London street cant, Ross could hardly understand him.
“Aye.” The stallion wheeled to face the man on foot, gave a fierce squeal, and reared on his hind legs. Ross threw his weight forward and tightened his knees around the animal’s sides. The horse’s front hooves struck the stones, and he danced sideways, fighting the bit.
The Londoner darted forward and held out a scrap of paper. Ross clenched the stallion’s reins in his teeth and grabbed the missive. Without another word, the messenger turned and ran.
Sheathing his sword, Ross again took the reins in his right hand. He spoke soothingly to the agitated horse as he unfolded the damp paper and tried to make out the scrawled words.
Noon. Saint
was clear enough. The ink had smeared on the third word. Ross struggled with the unfamiliar handwriting.
M-a-r.
Was the next letter a
y
or a
g
? The next few letters were nothing more than a blot, but . . . “Saint Mary . . . Saint Mary-le-Wood.” Ross grinned wolfishly. “Saint Mary-le-Wood.” He leaned forward in the saddle and clicked to his horse. He had the hour and the church. Now, all he needed was the lady.
Chapter 1
As long as the moon shall rise,
As long as the rivers shall flow,
As long as the sun shall shine,
As long as the grass shall grow.
Native American promise
The Church of Mary-le-Wood
London, England
February 2, 1723
 
A
nne Fielding Scarbrough, the Marchioness of Scarbrough, stood wet and utterly miserable before the church altar. Her gold and silver chine silk gown was water soaked and splashed with mud; her eyes were red and swollen from weeping, and her right cheekbone bore a purplish-green bruise that paint and powder could not hide.
Her stepfather, Lord Langstone, stood unsmiling on her left, gripping her arm as though he thought she would pick up her skirts and fly over top of the assembled guests to freedom. Her mother, Barbara, sat in the first row, splendid in her cherry-colored Watteau gown and red jeweled high-heeled slippers. Barbara’s blond hair was curled and twisted into a fashion statement, her hands heavy with rings. Not a drop of water marred her coiffure or her satin gown. Trust Mother to look her best, Anne thought, but then she’s not been locked in a tower for five months or dragged through the rainy streets to her wedding in an open carriage.
Anne unconsciously fingered her antique gold necklace as she stared at the shriveled clergyman in his musty crow-black robes. His wrinkled face showed no trace of Christian charity. His bleary, colorless eyes were filmed with cataracts, his thin lips drawn down at the corners of his mouth. Did he know she was being forced into this marriage? Would he care if he did?
To her right stood her betrothed, Baron Murrane. Stubbornly, Anne would not look at him. She could smell the damp wool of his cloak; she could feel his small blue eyes boring into her, but she’d not give him the satisfaction of meeting his cold gaze. Colonel Fitzhugh Murrane . . . the butcher of Sheriffmuir. He was twice her age and as heartless as a Tyburn hangman. She’d had her choice of suitors. Dozens of men, young and old, rich and poor, had courted her since Lord Scarbrough had passed on, leaving her a rich widow. Any of them would have suited her better than Fitzhugh Murrane.
Anne’s chest felt tight, and her head was pounding. She swallowed the lump in her throat and blinked back tears. She would not shame herself by losing control in front of all these people, and if she started to cry, she knew she wouldn’t be able to stop. She glanced down at her hands. The nails she’d always been so vain about were bitten to the quick. She tucked them out of sight under her lace-covered prayer book.
Murrane’s heavy hand closed about her shoulder and pushed her roughly to her knees. Bewildered, Anne looked up at the minister. He scowled at her and continued his droning litany. His words seemed nothing more than a jumble of meaningless chant.
Anne fixed her gaze on the floor and tried to keep her teeth from chattering. She was cold . . . so cold. She didn’t want to be here. She didn’t want this crude soldier for a husband . . . but no one seemed to care. What was it Barbara had said?
You’re making much of nothing. Marry the man Langstone’s chosen for you. Murrane may be only a baron, but he’s strong enough to protect you and your fortune. Give him use of your body, and when he walks out the door, take a lover. It’s what I always did.
Anne was vaguely aware that her stepfather had released her arm and moved away. His footsteps on the stone tiles echoed in her ears. Murrane coughed and cleared his throat. Behind her, she heard the rustle of petticoats and the shuffling of shoes. It’s happening, she thought. I’m taking marriage vows for the second time, and I’ve never known a man’s love. Never known passion except in a dusty book of poetry. Sensible, meek, shy Anne. Better I had been a feather-heeled jade like my mother. At least I would have known the joys of bedding a man of my own choosing. The fingers of her left hand tightened around her amulet. If only it were magic, she wished. If only—
“Anne!” Murrane leaned close, and she caught a whiff of smoked mackerel on his breath. “Answer!”
She blinked. What?
“Do you, Anne, take this man to be your lawful husband?” the cleric repeated.
She pursed her lips.
Murrane’s hand dropped to her elbow, and his gloved fingers dug into her flesh until she winced with pain. “Answer,” he growled.
She drew in a ragged breath. Tears blurred her vision. “What?” she murmured dumbly.
Murrane swore softly.
“Ah-hemm.” The minister sniffed in disgust. “Do you, Anne—” he repeated.
“She does, she does,” the bridegroom flared.
The cleric ignored him. “Do you, Anne, take this man to—”
The roar of a flintlock rocked the church. Women screamed. Murrane let go of Anne’s arm and whirled about, scrambling to his feet. Anne turned to see a howling wild man on a giant black horse charging down the center aisle directly at her. The rider’s long black hair fanned out around him from under a feathered Scots bonnet, and his black eyes flamed like the coal pits of hell.
Murrane reached for his sword, swearing a foul soldier’s oath when his hand came up empty. He darted off to the left out of Anne’s line of vision. The minister heaved his Bible toward the terrible apparition, tried to run, and tripped on his own robes. He toppled backward and lay thrashing about on the floor with his feet tangled in Anne’s gown.
Anne froze, facing certain death under the flying hooves of the madman’s horse without uttering a sound. She stared helplessly as the marauder gave another spine-chilling whoop and threw something into the far front corner of the church. The object exploded in midair with a cloud of smoke and fire. The wedding guests panicked and began to scramble for the doors.
Anne didn’t move. She watched as horse and rider thundered down on her. Her heart was pounding erratically, her knees were locked, and her muscles felt as though they were made of whey. She willed her lips to offer a dying prayer, but her tongue seemed glued to the top of her mouth.
For an instant it seemed to Anne that everything was happening in slow motion. She could taste the fear in her mouth . . . She could smell the acrid scent of black powder . . . She could hear the shrieks of the frightened cleric . . . She was acutely aware of the cold, hard stones beneath her knees. And most of all, she was conscious of the colors around her: the ebony hide and the startling white of the horse’s eyes and bared teeth; the intense blue and green of the horseman’s plaid; the flurry of scarlet, azure, and gold finery of the fleeing crowd.
In the last seconds before the black horse reached her, Anne found the strength to stand. I’ll not meet my end on my knees, she thought, raising her chin in a hopeless show of defiance.
A heartbeat before she would have been crushed under the animal’s hooves, the rider yanked back on the reins and the stallion reared, pawing the air above her head. The madman’s heathen black eyes stared into hers. “Be you Anne?” he demanded in a deep steely voice.
“Yes,” she squeaked.
“Then it’s ye I seek.” He wheeled the big horse and leaned from the saddle to snatch her up in his arm.
“No!” she cried. Realization struck home as he dragged her up in front of him. Belly down across the horse’s withers, her skirts and hoops askew, she kicked and screamed and lashed out with balled fists.
Laughing, her abductor pinned her in place with one hand while he drew his sword with the other. The blade flashed over her head, and her ears rang as sword struck sword. She caught a glimpse of Murrane’s angry face before the mad Scot threw another bomb. Anne clenched her eyes shut and buried her face in the horse’s hide.
“Hii-yii-yii-yiee!” the horseman screamed.
Anne felt the stallion’s muscles tense and then explode beneath her. She gasped as the wind was knocked out of her by the force of the plunging animal. Iron-shod hooves thundered across the stone floor and down the aisle out of the church. Someone shouted, and Anne felt the horse rise into the air. She opened her eyes to see the top of a man’s head as they flew over him. The stallion landed running. Rain and wind tore at her hair and exposed skin as they galloped wildly down the street with a yelling mob in hot pursuit.
“Let me go!” she cried in desperation. Her captor’s only reply was another burst of savage laughter.
Men and women scattered before them. Anne lifted her head to see a wagon full of hay blocking the intersection. She gave a frightened squeal and covered her face with her hands. When she looked again, the wagon was gone, but she wasn’t certain if they’d gone around it, over it, or under it.
“Hold tight, hinney,” her kidnapper ordered. His voice held a strange accent, one she couldn’t place.
“Please,” she moaned. “I’m not—”
“Not now, woman!” She heard the grate of steel as he drew his sword and hacked his way past two city watchmen wielding oak staffs. The horse gave a quick burst of speed, then stopped so suddenly her stomach lurched.
Anne knew she was going to be sick. She gagged and choked, but nothing came up. She felt as though she were being jolted in two.
The Scot backed the big horse into a deserted coal yard and shoved the gate shut. In a flash, he was out of the saddle and lifting her down. She dropped to her knees in the mud and was sick again. This time she choked up a mouthful of bitter liquid.
“Hist now, hinney,” he said gently. “’Tis sorry I be for your discomfort, but there was no time to make things easier for you.”
She wiped her face with the back of her hand, and it came away streaked with paint and powder. Her hair had come loose from its pins and hung around her face like a dockside trollop’s. Slow, hot anger pushed back her awful fear, and she turned her head and glared at him through the pouring rain. “If it’s ransom you want, I can pay it,” she spat, “but if you mean to kill me, have the decency to do it now before I drown!”
His deep laugh was a rumble above the rain. “Nay, lady. Ye need have no fear of me. I’ll not harm a hair on your head.” He grinned. “And I want no ransom, although I admit my fortune could use it. My name is Ross Campbell. I’ve come from your sweetheart, and I’m sworn to deliver ye to him safe and sound.”
She staggered to her feet. “What?”
“Your betrothed. He hired me to rescue you.”
“You tried to cut my betrothed’s head off with your sword in the church,” she accused.
“Not him,” Ross said. “Your true sweetheart, Bruce Sutherland.”
Anne tried not to dissolve into hysteria. “There’s been some . . . some mistake,” she said between chattering teeth. “I don’t have . . . have . . . a sweetheart, and if I did, it wouldn’t be Bruce . . . Bruce Sutherland. I’ve never met the man.”
“Ye know each other well enough, I vow. There’s nay need to be coy with me. Bruce told me all.” Ross untied a second plaid from a waterproof bag behind his saddle. “Wrap this around ye.” He draped it over her shoulders. “We must make a run for the city gate. Ye’ll need to get rid of those hoops an’ such.”
“Get rid of . . . of my . . .” Anne clutched at the thick wool and backed away. Mud oozed over the tops of her jeweled slippers, but she was so cold and wet it didn’t matter. She was at the mercy of a madman. “Please,” she reasoned. “I can pay you. I’m rich. If you’ll just take me to my house—”
“Don’t make a fuss, hinney, and cover your head, do. Your hair’s all elf-locks. Fair to say, ye look like a drowned partridge. I’ve no wish to deliver ye to your love frozen solid.”
“I told you, I don’t know any Bruce Sutherland. You’ve made a mistake.” Her words were carefully enunciated, as though she were speaking to a slow child. “I can pay whatever you ask, but I can’t go with you.”
He grinned. “Ye mean I’ve taken the wrong bride.”
She nodded. “It appears so.”
“Ah, I see the right of it now. There was another Anne at the church. I overlooked her and picked you.”
“Yes, that . . . that must be what happened.”
He pulled off his Scots bonnet and wrung the water out of it. “Do ye know many colonials, m’lady?”
Her eyes widened in bewilderment. “No,” she admitted. “
I . . . I
know none at all.”
“Good. I was afraid you’d met a flock of clod-skulled Yankees and had a bad impression of Americans.” He shook out his bonnet and put the soggy hat with its dripping wet feathers back over his drenched mane of night-black hair. He set one moccasined foot on a bag of coal, folded his arms over his massive chest, and stared at her with the arrogance of a landless German prince. “I’m half Scot, half Delaware Indian, and half wolverine,” he proclaimed. “I can outride, outshoot, and outdance any mother’s son on this little island. I’ve got the fastest horse and the most gall you’ve ever laid those bonny gray eyes on. Women have called me rogue, but they’ve never called me stupid.”
Anne blinked. She felt light-headed, as though she was going to faint.
“What I’m trying to tell ye, hinney, is that my daddy never raised no fools. Ye make a poor liar. You’re Bruce Sutherland’s Anne, right enough. You’ve doubtless taken a long look at that rich bastard back at the church and changed your mind about who ye want to wed. But that’s not my affair. Ye can take that up with Bruce when I deliver ye to him.” He glanced up at the downpour and grimaced. “The weather’s against us, mistress. We’d best ride and take our chances with the storm.”
“God’s wounds!” she cried. “Are you so thick you cannot realize what you’ve done? I don’t know who you’re looking for, but I’m Lady Scarbrough. I’m a marchioness. You’re in very big trouble, Master Ross, very big trouble indeed.”
He grinned again, and Anne’s breath caught in her throat. There was something very dangerous about that smile.
“Will they hang me, do ye think?”
“After they draw and quarter you!”
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