By Paula Quinn
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Tristan MacGregor is famed throughout the Highlands as a silver-tonged seducer and an unrepentant rogue. Bold and charming, he’s dallied with many women, yet none as mysterious as the lass he steals a kiss from at king’s court. Little does he know this beauty is one of his clan’s greatest enemies.
PASSION THAT CAN’T BE DENIED
Isobel Fergusson has despised the bloodthirsty MacGregors ever since they murdered her father. She’s horrified to learn that the handsome stranger she kissed is of this clan. But Tristan means to possess her at any cost and Isobel’s body turns traitor at his touch. Can a man she’s sworn to hate be the only one she can ever love?
Also by Paula Quinn
Lord of Desire
Lord of Temptation
Lord of Seduction
Laird of the Mist
A Highlander Never Surrenders
Ravished by a Highlander
The Prodigal Son
GLEN ORCHY, SCOTLAND
Well, we all know that Tristan would have won the competition if not for what happened. No one can outrun him." Robert Campbell, Eleventh Earl of Argyll, turned to his nephew sitting beside him, smiled, and winked.
Sitting across from them in the earl's private solar, Callum MacGregor growled in agreement. "Aye, that's why the bastard Fergusson tripped him and provoked a fight. It should be his nose broken instead of my son's."
"I did manage to land a solid punch to his jaw, faither," Tristan defended. "Besides, it doesna' pain me anymore." He lifted his finger to his wounded nose. It still hurt like hell, but MacGregors did not whine or weep about broken bones. " 'Tis Alex Fergusson's honor that will be more difficult to repair."
"Well spoken," his uncle commended, patting him on the shoulder. "You have the blood of knights in you and will grow to be a man of honor."
Tristan swelled with pride.
"I like the way it crooks slightly at the bridge." Kate MacGregor set down her embroidery to aim her most loving smile at her son. "Now you look even more like your uncle. Does he not, Anne?"
Robert's bonnie wife looked up from her needle and agreed. "He's just as pretty. Even with the blackened eyes."
Tristan blushed and then pushed his shoulder into his sister when she laughed at him.
"I fear the boy's nose would need to suffer a few more breaks before it resembles mine." Robert Campbell picked up his nephew's hand, curled it into a fist, and then covered it with his own. "Remember, blocking is as important as the speed of your punch."
Sipping his ale by the fire, Graham Grant, closest friend to the MacGregors and the Campbells of Argyll, kicked the tip of his boot into the MacGregor Chief's ankle. "Callum, ye're not allowing Robbie to instruct yer son in the art of hand-to-hand combat, are ye?"
"Doubting my skill," Robert said smoothly, "only proves that you are a poor teacher, Graham."
"I admit yer skills have improved vastly under my training over the years," Graham replied playfully. "But had I been teaching Tristan, young Alex Fergusson would be missing a few teeth right now and mayhap an appendage or two."
Robert smiled and looked down at Tristan while the warriors around them all agreed that the troublesome Fergusson lad would someday find himself impaled on someone's blade—preferably Tristan's.
"Remember also"—he leaned down so that only Tristan could hear him—"that there are many moments in a man's life when the choices he makes will decide his destiny."
Tristan nodded. He understood that while warrior blood ran through his veins, it was not always necessary to do the most possible damage to his opponent—the fact that his father did not always agree with that sentiment sometimes made Tristan wish that the earl was his father instead of the Chief. He thought about his choice to fight Alex after he had picked himself off the floor. He wasn't expecting the boy's fist to fly as fast as it did. All he remembered after Alex hit him was the taste of blood in his mouth and his and Alex's fathers shouting at each other. After that, his mother would not let him compete in the rest of the games—three of which he knew he could have won. He'd changed his destiny all right, and come home with nothing but a bloody nose.
The sudden crash at the door brought the men in the solar to their feet. The shouts from beyond it drew their hands to the hilts of their swords.
"MacGregor!" Someone outside the keep roared. "Come out and face me, if ye have the courage! Ye will not insult me and my kin and live another night!"
Tristan barely heard his father ordering the women and children above stairs. He watched, all color draining from his face, as Graham and his uncle went to the door. It was Alex Fergusson's father out there. Had he come to kill his father over a child's fight?
"Tristan, go!" his father commanded, but Tristan could not move. He could barely breathe. This was his fault. The men were going to fight; his father could possibly die because of him. He reached out his hand, as if to stop his father when he strode toward the door. "Dinna' leave." He wanted to shout it, but the plea broke through his lips as quietly as a whisper. He was only ten and four. They wouldn't listen to him.
"Show yer face, Fergusson!" Callum shouted, pushing past his brother-in-law and his best friend and swinging open the heavy door. "Show yer face and I'll tell ye once again that ye're the son of a pig!"
More shouting ensued, but his mother pulling on his arm distracted Tristan. As he was led away to a room above stairs, he looked over his shoulder in time to see Graham and his uncle leave the keep behind his father.
"I should be with them." Tristan's eldest brother tried to push past their mother, but she blocked the door with her body and held up her hand to stop him.
"Your father will be fine, Rob. Sit down with your brothers. Please, my son."
Och, God, let him be fine, Tristan prayed. He felt sick to his stomach and a wee bit dizzy as wave after wave of fear engulfed him. His sister was crying in Lady Anne's lap. The sound of her weeping made Tristan want to run from the room and dash outside. Would Alex's father go back home if he apologized? He would do anything… anything to make the pain in his head, his guts, his heart go away. If anything were to befall his father…
A mournful roar pierced his gloom and stilled every other sound in the room. Graham's wife paled and drew her sword. "I'm going down there." Without waiting for anyone's approval, she pulled on the door and ran for the stairs. Her cries an instant later sent terror through the keep and into the hearts of everyone she left behind.
Tristan was not the first one to leave the room. When he stepped out of it, though, he wished he had remained and bolted the door, never to come out again. He had been afraid for his father's life. It hadn't occurred to him that someone else might die. And never, never him.
"They are goin' to die fer this!" he heard his father cry from somewhere deep in his chest. "They are all goin' to die."
Tristan descended the stairs so slowly it felt as if he wasn't really moving at all. Everything felt… unreal. It had to be. That could not be his uncle's limp body being set on the floor by his father's trembling hands, an arrow jutting from his chest. Robert Campbell could not be dead. He was too strong, too courageous and honorable to be struck down under cover of night, over a choice a child had made to fight. Too numb to cry just yet and too filled with despair and guilt to do anything but stand frozen in that terrible moment, he watched his mother and Anne fall to their knees, their anguished wails filling every corner of Campbell Keep.
The man he loved more than anyone in the world had been shot in the heart and was gone in a moment. A moment that altered the course of so many lives. Most of all, those of Tristan and the lass who would someday heal him.
Arrogant imbecile!" Isobel Fergusson pushed through the heavy wooden doors and entered Whitehall Palace's enormous privy garden with a dozen venomous oaths spilling from her lips. Finally, eleven years since her mother had died and ten since her father had left his seven children orphans, the full weight of taking care of her family had taken its toll on her. Her brother Alex was going to get them all killed. Oh, why had they come to England? And damnation, if they had to attend the Duke of York's coronation, it should be Patrick, her eldest brother and heir to their late father, the Fergusson Chieftain, here with her and not Alex. They were only supposed to stay for a sennight or two, but when the future king invited all his guests to remain at Whitehall for another month, Alex had accepted. She kicked a small rock out of her path and swore again. How could she have raised such an imprudent, thoughtless bratling?
It wasn't that Isobel was impervious to the lure of Whitehall's luxurious feathered mattresses, its grand galleries with vaulted ceilings where even the softest whispers uttered by elegant lords and ladies, powdered to look like living, breathing statues, echoed. It was all quite… unusual and beguiling in a queer sort of way. But Alex had accepted knowing the MacGregors of Skye were here! Oh, how could he? Had he forgotten the hatred between their clans? Or the trail of dead Fergusson Chieftains left by a devil bent on revenge a decade ago?
"Dear God," she beseeched, stopping at a large stone sundial in the center of the garden, "give me strength and my witless brother wisdom before he starts another war!"
A movement to her right drew her attention to a row of tall bronze statues gleaming in the sun. When one of them moved, Isobel startled back and bumped her hip against the sundial.
He wasn't a statue at all, but a man—though his face could have been crafted by the same artist who had created the masterpieces lining the garden. Isobel took in every inch of him as he stepped out from behind the golden likeness of an archangel, wings paused forever in flight as it landed on its pedestal. He wore the garb of an Englishman, but without all the finery… or the wig. His hair hung loose to his shoulders in shades of rich chestnut and sun-streaked gold, almost the same blend coloring his eyes. He wore a cream-colored linen shirt belted to flare over his lean hips. The ruffled collar hung open at his throat, giving him more a roguish appearance than a noble one. He was tall and lithe, with long, muscular legs encased in snug-fitting breeches and dull black boots. His steps were light but deliberate as he moved toward her.
"I didna' mean to startle ye." The musical pitch of his voice branded him Scottish, mayhap even a Highlander.
"I thought ye were my sister. I am infinitely grateful that I was mistaken." His smile was utterly guileless, save for the flash of a playful dimple in one cheek, and as warm and inviting as the heavenly body perched behind him. But the way his eyes changed from brown to simmering gold, like a hawk's that spotted its prey, hinted of something far more primitive beyond his rakish charm.
For a moment that went completely out of her control, Isobel could not move as she took in the full measure of his striking countenance. Save for the slight bend at the bridge, his nose was classically cut, residing above a mouth fashioned to strip a woman of all her defenses, including reasonable thought.
She took a step around the sundial, instinctively keeping her distance from a force that befuddled her logic and tightened her breath.
Damnation, she had to say something before he thought her exactly what she was—exactly what any other woman with two working eyes in her head was when she saw him—a doddering fool. With a tilt of her chin that suggested she was a fool for no man, she flicked her deep auburn braid over her shoulder and said, "Yer sister thinks ye are an arrogant imbecile, also?"
"Aye," he answered with a grin that was all innocence and innately seductive at the same time. "That, and much worse."
As if to prove his statement true, a movement beyond the statue caught Isobel's attention. She looked in time to spy a glimpse of sapphire blue skirts and flaxen curls rushing back toward the palace.
"My guess," Isobel muttered, peering around his back to watch the lady's departure, "is that yer sister is likely correct."
"She most certainly is," he agreed, not bothering to look behind him. The cadence of his voice deepened with his smile. "But I'm no' completely irredeemable."
Rather than argue the point with such an obvious rogue when she should be thinking of a way to convince Alex to leave with her and Cameron, Isobel quirked a dubious brow at him and turned to leave. "As difficult as that is to believe, sir, I will have to take ye at yer word. Good day."
Her breath quickened an instant later when the stranger appeared at her side and leaned down toward her ear.
"Or ye could spend the afternoon with me and find oot fer yerself."
His nearness permeated the air around her with heat and the familiar scent of heather. He was definitely a Highlander, mayhap a Gordon or of the Donaldson clan, though he wore no plaid. She thought to ask his name, but decided against it. He might consider her interest in him an acceptance of his offer. She could not afford to allow her senses to be addled by a whole afternoon spent with him when her family's safety was at stake.
"Thank ye, m'lord, but I have matters to think on." She quickened her pace, but he would not be so easily dismissed.
"Do these matters have to do with the witless brother ye were prayin' fer?"
"Why?" Isobel asked, trying to sound unaffected by his boldness in following her. "Are ye worried he might have usurped yer title?"
She was completely unprepared for his laughter, or for the way it rang through her veins, coarse and carefree. A dozen other men would have scowled at her accusation, though she meant it only to show her lack of interest, but this charismatic stranger found it humorous. She liked that he had enough confidence to laugh, even at himself.
"Why must brothers be so difficult?" she conceded with a smile and began to walk with him. "Truly, if there is a title of witless brother, he has already taken it." She felt a tad bit guilty about speaking so about Alex with a man she didn't even know, but perhaps not knowing him made it easier. She needed someone to talk to about her dilemma. No, what she truly needed was a moment or two just spent not thinking about it. This man made her smile, and she hadn't done that all morning.
Beside her, he bent to pick up a rock and threw it into a small pond a few feet ahead of them. "And what has yer brother done that is so terrible?"
"He refuses to leave Whitehall and go home."
Isobel cut him a sidelong glance and found him smiling back at her. "Ye do not understand."
He raised a dark brow and waited for her to continue.
"All right then, if ye must know, our most hated enemies have recently arrived to pay homage to the king. My brother is cocky and prideful. If we remain here, he is likely to insult them and bring the barbarians down on our heads once again."
He nodded, leading her around the pool. "Now I see yer point more clearly. But why is it yer problem to ponder?" he asked, turning to her. "Where is yer faither that his son should make decisions that put his kin in jeopardy?"
"He is dead," Isobel told him, her eyes going hard on the palace doors and the beasts that strolled somewhere within. "Killed by these same enemies. I swear if I could get just one of them alone, I would slice open his throat and sing him back to the devil who spawned him."
She was a bit surprised to find both sympathy and amusement softening the man's features when she looked at him.
"It sounds to me like yer enemies have more to fear from ye, than ye do from them, lass."
Isobel shook her head. "I am not foolhardy like my brother. Our enemies have left us alone, and I wish it to stay that way."
"Wise," he said, and Isobel was glad she had told him. He agreed that she was correct in wanting to leave. "I could speak to him fer ye if ye'd like, mayhap talk some sense into him."
Isobel couldn't help shining her smile on him full force. He seemed to be listening in on her thoughts. She needed help and she was willing at this point to take it from anyone, even a stranger. "That is most kind of ye, but I could not impose—"
"Ye are no' imposin'. I wish to help ye if I can."
She stopped walking and looked up at him when he paused at her side. "Ye do not even know me. Why do ye want to help me?"
His dimple deepened, along with the honeyed hue of his eyes. " 'Tis what I do best."
After he stole kisses and whatever else from ladies behind statues in gardens? He was crafty, this one, but immensely likable. "How verra gallant of ye."
He bowed slightly and crooked his mouth at her, setting her heart racing. "Ye see? There is hope fer me yet."
"Not according to yer sister, and she knows ye best."
"What would ye like to know?" He offered her his arm, and this time she accepted.
"I only have a moment or two…"
"Och, then ye'd best make yer question a good one."
She tapped her finger to her chin while they walked the vast lawns. "Verra well, I have it. Why does yer sister think ye are an arrogant imbecile… among other things?"
"Verra good," he commended her with a somewhat worrisome crease dipping his dark brow. "Ye're clever and bonnie."
She narrowed her eyes on him and cut him a knowing smile. "So are ye." She almost gasped at her own boldness, but his disarming candor made her feel at ease.
"How am I supposed to answer yer query truthfully after ye called me bonnie? Pick a different question."
She laughed, and it felt wonderful. "No. The same question. Answer, please."
"Hell, let's see then. Well, she thinks I am always reckless."
"Nae, I am simply less concerned with every consequence."
"Then ye are reckless indeed."
He nodded and held up a finger. "But no' always. I said less concerned, no' unconcerned."
She gave him the point, enjoying his shrewd banter. "Are ye less concerned or unconcerned with the consequences for a lady's reputation if she flees back inside a palace with her curls drooping against her flushed cheeks?"
He turned around slightly, as if just now remembering the one he had hidden behind the sculpture. "If she is eager to put her reputation in my hands after one day of knowin' her," he said, settling his gaze on Isobel again, "then I would be more inclined to be less concerned."
"I see. Well, ye are honest, at least."
"Go on," he teased. "I would much rather listen to ye list my virtues than tell ye my faults."
"Are there many more then?"
"That depends on who ye ask."
"I think in this instance I would prefer to make my own judgments."
"That is refreshin' to hear." He looked surprised and so sincerely relieved that for a moment Isobel wondered just how troublesome this man truly was.
She should go back inside and see to her brothers, but damnation, she was enjoying herself. What harm could come from just walking together? It wasn't as if she was going to let him kiss her behind the next structure they came to, although she could certainly understand why some stately, normally stuffy ladies at court would cast away their reputations for a few stolen moments with him. The more she looked at him, the more irresistible he became. She wasn't certain if it was his quicksilver smile or the way his eyes took in every nuance of her face when he gave her his full attention that beguiled her good sense. At the moment, she didn't care. She liked the way he looked at her, as if she was more than a mother, a nursemaid, and a cook to her brood of brothers. Not that she minded being those things. She loved her family more than anyone else in the world, but it was nice to forget her duties for a little while, especially knowing now that he would help her with Alex.
"What aboot ye?" he asked as they approached the west gate. "What would yer brother say aboot ye?"
"That depends on which brother ye ask." She smiled, thinking of the ones she'd left at home with Patrick. "I have six." She rolled her eyes heavenward and nodded in agreement when he gave her horrified look. "The three youngest would likely complain that I give them too many chores to do, but it would be untrue, for they play much more than they tend to them. Cam might tell ye I am too soft, while Patrick thinks me as stubborn as our bull."
"Yer bull?" he asked, slanting her a wry grin. "Is there one in particular that ye remind him of?"
"We have only the one, but he is all we need, since we have only two cows." She was sorry she had told him the moment after she spoke when his smile faded just a little. She could tell by his clothes that he was not poor. Would he look down his nose at her because she was?
"It must be difficult fer yer mother raisin' all those sons with so few cattle to bring in any coin," he said, proving that he was no more concerned with their stations than he was about kissing ladies in public.
"My mother died giving birth to Tamas."
He stopped her as they came to a long stone bench at the gate wall. "Ye raised them all on yer own then?"
"Patrick and I did. We still do. Tamas is only ten and one. There have been difficult times, but wonderful ones, as well." She smiled at him when he offered her a seat before he gained his.
"Have ye gone hungry?" The concern in his expression was quite endearing now that she knew "what he did best."
"Put away yer shining armor, knight. There is no need to offer up yer aid. Patrick has always made certain there is enough food on the table."
His charismatic grin returned and flashed across her gaze, convincing her once and for all that no woman in all of Scotland or England could likely resist him. "Armor is too cumbersome a suit to don. Besides, mine would be rather rusty."
"It can be polished."
She wasn't prepared for the way his eyes went soft on her or for the sudden silence that followed. "That is true," he said after a long moment that made her breath stall in her chest. " 'Tis odd ye would speak of such things to me."
"No one else has, I presume."
They shared the same arcane smile between them before he answered. "My uncle used to speak of knights and their chivalrous deeds all the time. I have no' been reminded of his tales in a verra long time."
"Ye know the story of Arthur Pendragon then?"
"Of course. Would ye like me to tell it to ye?"
She really shouldn't. Alex and Cameron were probably already looking for her. "I would."
The few moments Isobel had intended to spend with her handsome stranger turned into hours, but it was only when the sun began its descent that she realized how long she had been gone. "I must go. My brothers are probably sick with worry."
"Meet with me tomorrow." He grasped her hand as she rose from the bench and turned to go. "In the garden by the stone dial."
She shook her head, acutely aware of his fingers leaving hers as she backed away. "I shouldn't. I do not even know what ye are called."
"Tristan," he told her.
She smiled playfully, feeling more lighthearted than she had in months… years. "I do not know the tale of that knight," she called out as the distance between them grew. "But ye may call me Guenevere."
"Nae," he laughed. "Iseult was Tristan's lady."
Turning back toward the palace, Isobel's smile widened. "Even better."
Tristan watched her leave, enjoying the sway of her hips as she grew smaller in the distance. Who the hell was she? A Lowlander for certain. Briefly, he wondered which clan she belonged to. Despite the faded saffron of her gown and the fact that she had only one bull, she'd been invited to the coronation, so she couldn't be a peasant. Whoever she was, he found her utterly delightful. He was certain he'd never seen eyes as green or as wide as hers when he appeared from behind the statue and startled her. She wasn't as beautiful as some of the other women at court, but Tristan found the spray of freckles across her unpowdered nose and the blaze of her temper when she spoke about singing her enemy to hell quite beguiling.
- On Sale
- Sep 1, 2010
- Page Count
- 384 pages