Authors: Suzanne Enoch
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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 had been 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 allânot 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'sâand thereby clan MacLawry'sârules. 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 deerhounds with him, he hadn't worn a warm coat, he hadn't stayed within sight of Glengask Castle, andÂ â¦ 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 themârivalries with other clans, bandits, poachers, the unpredictability of the Highlands terrain and weatherâbut 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 andâunless 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 parentâbecause 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 Saint 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 lobsterbacks had opened fire. The buck dropped where it stood.
It was a damned fine shotâbut 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 ownâwhether 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-loaderâwhich 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 a 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 territoryânearly within rifle-shot range of Glengask Castleâwell, that was a circumstance in itself, without adding a lass to 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 soâand 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 TÃ irnich, 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 center of the canyon, 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.