The MacGregor Lairds Book 4
William MacGregor will lie, spy, and happily die to protect his clan from their greatest enemy. But when he kidnaps the wrong woman, he triggers the very events he’d been working so hard to prevent. And puts everyone in danger.
Rose Thatcher will do anything to protect her lady and return them both safely to English soil. But the damn Highlander who snatched her off the docks has done nothing but get in her way. She’d love to ditch the bastard, but if they want to save their respective loved ones, they are going to have to stay together.
Somewhere along the grueling journey to Scotland, their constant bickering turns into something more. Something worth fighting for. But how can an English lady’s maid, who longs for the safe, comfortable life she had in London, find love with a Highlander who can’t wait to wipe England’s dust off his feet? If they can’t defeat the enemy they accidentally led home, they might not live long enough to find out.
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Scottish Highlands 1667
Rose Thatcher’s eyes scanned the horizon, looking for any signs of a dead body. So far, no luck. Not that she hoped he was dead. But considering the bullheaded fool had already been wounded when he’d led a pack of their enemies out into the wilderness, it seemed more than likely. She ignored the rush of sadness and regret the thought of William MacGregor’s demise brought her. It was nothing but guilt stemming from the clod’s somewhat noble sacrifice.
Young Rob, the groom her mistress’s kinsman had insisted on sending with her, rode silently beside her, though she could almost feel him working up the courage to complain again. They were several hours from Glenlyon and Kirkenroch, homes of the MacGregor lairds. Rob didn’t think that William could have traveled so far, wounded as he was. Rose knew better. William was as stubborn as they come. He wouldn’t have upped and died close to home. No. He would have crawled to his hiding place on his hands and knees, if necessary, just to make life more inconvenient for her.
That might be a little unfair. Then again, he’d done worse.
“Miss,” Rob said. “I think if we havena found him yet…”
“We’ll find him,” she said, as she’d said every time he’d uttered the same nonsense.
She had to find him. She owed him.
He’d saved her life more than once. True, her life wouldn’t have been in danger if he hadn’t kidnapped her in the first place. But she had to grudgingly admit that once he’d realized his mistake, he’d done everything he could to keep her safe.
So. She would find him. Save him. Bring him home. And then they could go their separate ways.
She wouldn’t allow herself to think of any other outcome. Not finding him, or finding him dead—that hurt too much to contemplate.
Finding him, saving him, and then walking away… Would that hurt even more?
She kicked her horse into a trot, trying to banish all thoughts from her mind. It seemed no matter how this search ended, she would be in the same boat.
Damn William. She cursed the day he’d ever laid eyes on her.
Dover, England, Three Weeks Earlier
Rose sucked in a deep breath, her nose wrinkling against the stench of fish and unwashed bodies. The docks were bustling with activity, even so early in the morning. Under normal circumstances, she might have been fascinated to watch the comings and goings of the sailors, fishmongers, dockworkers, and other strange people who frequented the docks. But today was not a normal day.
She handed her mistress, Lady Alice Chivers, her carrying case with a sense of foreboding that twisted her stomach into knots.
“Are you sure this is what you want to do, my lady? It’s not too late to turn back.”
Lady Alice gave her a fond smile. “Of course, I’m sure! I’m finally free. And in a few more minutes, I’ll be safely aboard the ship and on the way to my new life. Safe and sound. You worry far too much, Rose.”
In her opinion, Lady Alice didn’t worry enough. She was far from safe and sound.
“But, my lady, what if Mr. MacGregor doesn’t appear? What if he changed his plans and is sailing on a different ship? Or not sailing at all? Are you sure you can trust him?”
Lady Alice’s smile faltered for a split second. “Of course I can trust him. He and his ilk are all about their honor. He wouldn’t lie to a lady. Not with the information I am holding over him, in any case. If he goes back on his word, I’ll betray him to the authorities as an associate of the Highland Highwayman and have him arrested.”
“Would you really?”
Lady Alice rolled her eyes. “Of course not. But he doesn’t know that.”
Rose frowned, and Lady Alice laughed and pulled her into a smothering embrace. “Oh, you dear thing. Don’t worry so! Everything is going according to plan. We’ve made it all the way here, and I’ll be onboard and out to sea before anyone realizes I’m gone. I can’t wait to see the look on Mr. MacGregor’s face when he finds me on the ship.”
Rose didn’t share her lady’s enthusiasm, but there was no stopping Lady Alice once she got a notion in her head.
“My lady, if you insist on doing this, please let me accompany you. My place is with you.”
“My dear, sweet Rose. I would love nothing more than to bring you with me. But I have need of you here. And I know how much you would hate Scotland,” she said, patting Rose’s cheek.
She wasn’t wrong. If Rose had her way, she’d never step foot out of London. She’d certainly never travel to the remote and barbaric Highlands of Scotland. The thought of her mistress doing so filled her with dread and sorrow. But if Lady Alice were going, then Rose wanted to be at her side. No matter where that took her.
But she would obey her mistress’s orders.
“Now, you remember what you are to do, yes?” Lady Alice asked.
Rose nodded. “Once the ship is out of sight, I’m to go back to the inn and wait in your chamber. If anyone should come looking for you, I’m to say that you aren’t feeling well and would like your meals sent to the room and to turn away all visitors for as long as possible. Tomorrow, I will tell your parents that I discovered you missing and give them the note you left in your room.”
“Excellent.” Lady Alice beamed at her and then glanced back at the ship. “All right, then. I suppose I should be going. The sun will rise soon, and I wish to be firmly ensconced in my quarters before Mr. MacGregor arrives.”
“My lady…” Rose tried again, but Lady Alice shushed her and pulled her into another hug.
“Thank you for all your help, Rose.” She kissed her on the cheek and cupped her face in her hands. “You have always been more than a maid to me. You are my true, dear friend, and I shall miss you terribly.”
She crushed her in another embrace and then released her and marched toward the ship with a jaunty bounce in her step. To Lady Alice, she was about to embark on a wondrous adventure. To Rose, her lady was making the worst mistake of her life.
She could only pray that all went according to plan and that her mistress would be safe. But the crushing weight in the pit of her stomach made her fear what the future would bring.
William MacGregor helped his cousin Philip unload the supplies from the wagon, but his attention remained on the bustling activity around them. The docks teemed with people from all walks of life. It would be easy for a spy to slip in among them. Someone who might recognize Philip as one of the MacGregors of Glenlyon. Who might pass that information along to their greatest enemy, Fergus Campbell. Or Ramsay, as he now called himself.
William had spent the better part of a year in enemy territory, doing what he could to keep his kin and clan safe. He would feel much better once Philip was safely aboard the ship and on his way back to Scotland.
William climbed back into the wagon while Philip handed the last box to the waiting sailor on the dock.
“That seems to be the last of it,” Philip said, patting the horse’s neck.
Will looked down at him. “Are ye sure ye dinna need anything else for the journey? The Lady Elizabet left quite a few belongings. I’m sure I could get her maid to retrieve a few more things.”
“Nay. We dinna want to draw too much attention to ourselves. And we’re already bringing more than they requested. Dinna forget, I’m going to have to find a way to transport all of this once we reach port.”
Philip glanced around the bustling dock and then back at Will with unmistakable concern creasing his brow. William scowled.
“I’ll be fine, Philip,” he said. “I’m not the same green boy that I once was.”
“I ken that well enough, lad. If I didna think ye could handle yerself, I’d not send ye back to be our eyes and ears in Ramsay’s ranks. But just because I trust ye doesna mean I’m happy with sending ye to spy on the devil himself.”
William bit his tongue and tried to keep his impatience from erupting. He’d been riding raids with Philip and John, their cousin, better known as the Highland Highwayman in these parts, for years. But now that John was an outlaw in exile with the Lady Elizabet, the highwayman’s crew had disbanded. Most of the men had gone on to seek other employment, both legal and not so legal.
William had managed to secure a position with Ramsay, the man who was responsible for John’s arrest and ultimate exile. And who had vowed revenge on the men he considered responsible for his own downfall. Will’s position in Ramsay’s ranks had already afforded them much needed information on Ramsay’s plans. He had been quiet lately, but Will had no doubt the moment Ramsay discovered John and Elizabet’s whereabouts, he’d attack. And Will needed to be in place to send warning to his kin. So, as much as he appreciated his cousin’s concern, it exasperated him. They’d always seen Will as a young, impetuous bungler. He’d hoped what he’d managed to accomplish with Ramsay’s men had gone a long way to erase that perception.
“I promise I’ll be fine,” William said, looking down at Philip with fond exasperation.
“Aye, ye will,” Philip said with a smile. “I’ve trained ye well. And ye’ve done a grand job keeping us apprised of Ramsay’s actions. But that doesna mean I willna worry. Are ye sure ye wouldna rather accompany me to Glenlyon? I could use yer help.”
Will smiled at Philip’s obvious play on his sense of loyalty, pleading for help he didn’t need.
“Stop worrying so, Cousin,” William said. “I ken where to find ye if I need ye. Ye’re the one I’m worried about.”
“And why is that?”
William smiled with a wicked twinkle in his eye. “Lady Alice doesna seem the type to give up so easily.”
Philip snorted, though he glanced back at the road leading to the docks with a wary eye. “Aye. Lady Elizabet’s adventures seem to have put the ridiculous notion in Lady Alice’s head that running away with outlaws is the best way to escape an unwanted marriage.”
“And telling her otherwise didna work so well, I take it, since ye’ve not stopped watching the roads for her since we arrived.”
Philip shook his head. “I’d have better luck talking to the stone wall in the castle privy.”
William laughed, though he, too, kept searching the road. “Perhaps yer words made a dent, after all. It doesna look as if the lady is coming.”
“Canna say I’m surprised,” Philip said with a half smile. “I’ve no doubt she tried. She seems a thick-heided goat, that one. But the lady was daft to think she’d be able to make it one day away from her pampered existence. Let alone navigate the road to Dover by herself. Still, we canna be too careful of Ramsay’s men. He’d do anything to get to John and the Lady Elizabet. And he kens well enough how she felt about Lady Alice. I’ve no doubt she’s been watched, which means there’s a good chance he’s seen my face, as well. Take care, laddie. Careful or no, we may have been spotted together by someone who’d report it.”
“Dinna fash, Cousin. I’ll be well.”
A bell sounded on the ship, and a sailor hollered down the gangplank to him.
“You’d best board, sir, if you’re coming!”
“On my way.” Philip turned to look at Will one last time and gave his thigh a pat. “Godspeed to ye then, young William.”
“And to you, Cousin.”
Philip nodded and hurried up the gangplank just as the sailors pulled it aboard. He stood at the deck and waved goodbye to William as the boat pulled out to sea.
Will waved back, though his gaze darted around the crowds gathered on the docks. And lingered on one person in particular.
He frowned as he watched the young woman. She seemed nervous. She, too, watched the ship Philip had just boarded as it sailed out to sea, but she seemed more interested in what was going on around her. Her hands were knotted in her skirts tight enough he could see her white knuckles from where he sat, and her gaze darted about as though she were watching a cat playing with a mouse.
What was she up to? The state of her clothing suggested she came from a comfortable home. Not the wife of a sailor or dockworker then. And not someone who frequented the docks, judging by her nervousness. And she seemed overly concerned with both the ship that had just departed and those who were on the docks watching it. As if she were looking for someone.
Tension settled in his gut, and he gritted his teeth. As far as he was aware, Ramsay didn’t have anyone watching the ships for signs of the MacGregors. But that didn’t mean he hadn’t caught wind of Philip being in town. And if that were the case, he might have sent someone to follow him. Someone who might seem innocent, who would never be recognized as a spy.
Though if he’d wanted to send someone who would go unnoticed, he should have chosen a different woman. The one slowly making her way up the docks was far too beautiful to blend into a crowd. Her auburn hair shone with tones of red and gold in the early morning sun, and she carried herself with a confident elegance that stood out in the crowd of ruffians on the dock, despite her nervousness.
He didn’t know who she was, but it was obvious she didn’t belong there. And he needed to find out why she was there. If she was a spy for Ramsay, one he didn’t know about, then Will needed to make sure she didn’t betray Philip’s presence on that ship. Which meant he and his mystery woman needed to have a little chat.