HIGHLAND RUSE Preview Read

*Note: This is missing the prologue available in the books that explains how Delilah became a Mercenary Maiden*

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Cumbria, England

June 1607

 

There were two coaches in front of the remote inn, one for a noble lady and one for her imposter.

Delilah being the imposter.

There were similarities between the women, of course, or Delilah would never have been hired. They had matching curvy, petite figures presently clad in maroon traveling dresses, and the same shade of honey brown hair. At a rapid glance, once might assume them to be the same woman.

But the gems on Lady Elizabeth’s gown were genuine, hard and glinting.

And those on Delilah’s were paste—a shoddy comparison when placed next to the stunning original.

Like Delilah herself.

A paste decoy of a fine woman.

Lady Elizabeth glanced around the common room of the inn with an element of uncertainty. The light of dawn had only just begun to press against the dingy windows, and the soft tallow candles steeped the air with fetid, greasy smoke.

They were just within England, hanging on the border of Scotland—the perfect location to trade routes with Lady Elizabeth prior to her journey into Scotland for her wedding to Laird MacKenzie.

Elizabeth’s dark brown gaze met Delilah’s. “You look very similar to me.” Lady Elizabeth had a dainty, almost songlike voice. Her cheeks tinged pink, and her gaze flicked to Sylvi before darting back to Delilah.

Sylvi watched the noble woman with an unflinching stare, her arms crossed over her narrow chest and her stance strong and stolid like that of a soldier. She seldom wore dresses anymore, opting instead for leather trews and a black leine. Her multitude of braids had been twisted back into a splayed mass of blonde, which hung down her back like the feathers of a commander’s helmet.

Still though, she’d kept the black ribbon tied at her neck. Only now Delilah knew the reason for the uncharacteristic feminine adornment.

Many men found themselves intimidated by Sylvi’s appearance. The subtle glances Lady Elizabeth slid toward Sylvi indicated the noble woman was absolutely terrified.

Delilah stepped forward in an effort to put the other woman at ease. “We do look indeed similar. I am glad to aid you in ensuring your safe travels to meet your betrothed.”

A delicate smile teased the corners of Lady Elizabeth’s mouth. “I do appreciate the risk you take on my behalf.”

Delilah nodded. For truly she was putting herself at risk. It was not every day she allowed herself to be led into a potential trap where she might be kidnapped.

Dangerous, yes, but Delilah could not quell the skip of excitement in her veins. Finally, after nearly four long years of combat training and weapons mastery, after countless plots uncovered and thwarted, and many successful assignments, she was being given the opportunity to operate entirely on her own.

Without Sylvi there to ensure all went according to plan.

The hard set of Sylvi’s face indicated how she felt about being excluded from the mission.

There was far more for Delilah to think on now than Sylvi’s attitude toward the circumstances. Like ensuring Lady Elizabeth made it safely to Edirdovar Castle, and the man who sought her harm was brought to justice.

Lady Elizabeth pulled a velvet sachet from a bag at her waist. “This is from my father. He said you are to receive only half now and half upon the notification not only of my safe delivery, but also my successful marriage.”

She thrust it toward Delilah, and the muffled clink of coins sounded within. Delilah took the small bag and hefted its considerable weight toward Sylvi, who caught it midair with a deft snatch.

“My father also has several requests he’d like known,” Lady Elizabeth said. “He does not want Laird MacKenzie to be aware of any of this.”

Sylvi stepped toward the door. “We’ve already been informed of his wishes.”

“He wants them reiterated regardless.” Lady Elizabeth’s voice took on a more authoritative tone. “He does not trust the Scottish, but does not want my marriage to be compromised. Laird MacKenzie is not to know of this.”

Delilah’s stomach twisted for the woman. Clearly her father thought little of the man she intended to marry, but was still sending her. Not that Delilah’s own father would have done any different had she been fortunate enough to secure an advantageous marriage.

Gilded though Lady Elizabeth’s life might be, she spent it in a cage and was being passed from one jailor to another.

All the refinement in the world was not worth such captivity.

“Your final destination will be Killearnan,” Elizabeth continued. “If you are attacked, try to keep the assailant alive and bring him with you. However, do not do so quickly. I will need at least two and a half months to ensure my arrival and safe marriage to Laird MacKenzie before we can announce any traitors. Again, my father does not wish Laird MacKenzie to know of these plans until after the marriage.”

Of course. By then he couldn’t reject Lady Elizabeth in sheer spite of her father. Though Delilah had never met the man personally, she found him deplorable.

Lady Elizabeth pursed her lips.

“Is that all?” Sylvi asked.

Lady Elizabeth’s chest swelled with a deep breath. “There’s one more thing. My father says…” Her proud demeanor faltered slightly. “He says to remind you the servants he sent to travel with you are…expendable.” The final word left her lips as though it were sour.

Sylvi snorted. “Of course.” Without another word, she turned from the room and left, doubtless to ensure Liv was fully prepared to assume the role of lady’s maid for Lady Elizabeth on her alternate route.

Delilah shifted to follow Sylvi when Lady Elizabeth darted forward. Her delicate hand curled like a vise around Delilah’s arm.

“I have another request,” Lady Elizabeth said in a breathy voice. “From me.”

Her cheeks were bright and her dark gaze dropped to where she still gripped Delilah. She released the captive arm with a gasp.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered and tried to smooth the wrinkled silk with trembling fingers.

Delilah lowered her arm. “Your request?”

“I don’t agree with my father.” The words tumbled from her mouth in a frantic whisper. “Please try to ensure the people traveling with your coach remain unharmed, especially Leasa. She is—”

“It’s time.” The words were followed by the jangle of a multitude of bracelets. Isabel peeked her head through the doorway, her red hair veiled beneath a scarf and her eyes lined with thick kohl.

“Thank you, Isabel.”

Delilah gave a single nod to Lady Elizabeth, whose look of quiet relief warmed her. It was good to protect a woman who cared for more than just herself, who thought of those below her.

Within minutes, Lady Elizabeth was placed in her coach with Liv, one of the other spies in Sylvi’s retinue. Liv wore the simple gown of a lady’s maid, and her gleaming copper hair was plaited into a smooth braid. Liv’s petite gray cat, whom she insisted on bringing wherever she went, lay curled contentedly in Lady Elizabeth’s lap.

Lady Elizabeth would be safe.

Delilah climbed into her own coach beside a woman with brown hair. The maid was comely enough, save for an extraordinarily strong jaw, which made her appear more handsome than beautiful.

A nervous smile flitted across the woman’s features. “I’m Leasa.”

“And I’m Lady Elizabeth,” Delilah said gently. The less the maid knew of her, the better. She knew only that the real Lady Elizabeth traveled a different route. She knew not of Delilah’s skills or ultimate intentions.

“Oh, yes, of course.” The maid’s gaze dropped away with a shy dip of her head.

The cabin smelled of freshly cut lumber with an acrid hint of lacquer. The coach had recently been constructed, no doubt for this purpose.

Delilah settled herself on the velvet cushion and shifted to ease the squeezing tension of her over-laced bodice. While it might be beautiful, it would be uncomfortable for travel.

Leasa pressed her lips together and turned toward the open window where the sun was beginning to break between the trees in a ball of golden light. Just beyond the forest, the curved stone wall rose and fell with the swelling hills, like the limp body of a snake laid out over the lush land.

Leasa’s shoulders shook slightly, and she gave a wet snuffle.

Expendable.

Delilah knew how very painful being expendable could be.

Without warning, the coach lurched forward. Delilah braced her feet against the narrow bench opposite her to keep from shooting forward while Leasa tucked herself deeper into the thin cushions. A whimpering sob emerged from her throat.

Delilah slid her bodice dagger from where it had been sheathed flush against the busk of her bodice. The blade was narrow and sharp, as perfectly concealed as it was lethal. It was also one of the many Delilah had on her person, all courtesy of Percy, who also created all the potions and ingenious accessories which kept them all safe.

Before she could allow herself to regret the action, she held the dagger toward Leasa’s balled up fists.

The maid turned a watery brown gaze on Delilah and sniffed. “What’s that for?”

“You.” Delilah offered with a smile. “We’ll be fine.”

While she couldn’t promise to care for the woman without going into detail, she could at least offer the comfort of reassurance and self-protection.

A tiny smile crept over Leasa’s face in return, and she accepted the dagger with the pinch of her fingers, holding it as though it might bite.

“Thank you.” She placed the blade held awkwardly in her lap, but the sobs ceased and the two fell into companionable silence.

Delilah let her body rock in time with the coach and gazed out to where the forest sped by on the opposite side of the window. The long stone wall was all but obscured by the close trees.

Soon they would be in Scotland, and then the real anticipation would begin.

Would one of Laird MacKenzie’s enemies truly seek to harm them?

Would they be attacked with the intent to murder, or would they be held for ransom?

What if the assailants attempted to rape them?

Delilah threaded her hand into her pocket, past the large hole where it had never been sewn together, and to the dagger she had strapped to her thigh. She curled her fingers around the hilt to remind herself of its presence.

There would be no murder and no rape. Not on her guard. And if someone tried to abduct them, they would find themselves in quite the opposite situation, with her leading them captive to Inverness.

They would be safe.

All they had to do was wait.

#

Kaid MacLeod had been waiting for a moment of weakness. He’d been vigilant, unrelenting.

And he’d been rewarded.

Seumas MacKenzie had a weakness.

The setting sun cast a red pallor on the mud-spattered road, turning puddles to blood.

Elizabeth Seymour was supposed to have been on this trail the previous day. Certainly there’d been enough talk near Kenmore about her impending visit these last several weeks. He’d have to be deaf and blind to miss the rumors of the lady’s intended path of travel.

Being so far from all the gossip now would allow him enough distance to take a different trail, to lose anyone following them, and get her to Ardvreck Castle undetected.

Only the coach was late.

At the very latest, it should have graced the path by noon. But it was significantly past noon, and still the coach had not shown, despite the recent bout of good weather.

His stomach tightened against the unease of her delay.

“I dinna think she’s coming tonight.” Donnan appeared beside Kaid with a stealth most found unsettling. “Tomorrow, perhaps.” He rubbed the back of his neck and gave an exaggerated grimace. “This business of kidnapping lasses—it’s no’ sitting with me verra well.”

Kaid let his gaze wander back to the stillness of the puddles. “If I had to choose between seeing more of our clan slaughtered or kidnapping an English noble’s brat, I’ll take my chances with the brat.”

A hollow clattering sounded in the distance. Kaid’s body went taut with anticipation. His fist curled around the hilt of his blade until the fine leather wrapping burned against his palm.

But though his body was still, his heart galloped into a frenzy.

“We’ll no’ hurt her.” Though he’d said it as a statement, Kaid knew Donnan was asking for confirmation.

The world began to sway around Kaid, and the request rankled. “MacKenzie’s men killed our children and raped our women, and ye’re worried about a single lass?”

He forced his gaze forward once more, focused on the puddles.

Not a good idea, not when they were so much like blood.

Sweat prickled at his brow and palms.

No. Not now.

“We’re no’ MacKenzie.” Donnan’s voice sounded distant. “And with all the coin spent around the last few villages in preparation for Lady Elizabeth’s arrival, she’s obviously loved.”

Kaid’s throat pinched tight, and his breath became so difficult to draw that his lips tingled. “She’s obviously well valued,” Kaid corrected. “There’s a difference.”

Though he couldn’t see the coach yet, its rattling became easy to discern. Donnan straightened and drew his sword.

With a quick nod, Donnan darted across the narrow path and disappeared into the forest on the opposite side.

The hollow wooden clattering grew louder, closer. Close enough for Kaid to make out the sucking steps of the horses.

Images flashed in his head in rapid succession, mingling with the white spots in his vision.

His people lying dead in the mud, staring at nothing, blood covering their bodies, the ground, their faces.

His hands.

Kaid’s mouth filled with saliva, and the world spun around him.

Blood everywhere.

Not now.

He clenched his teeth and blinked as hard as his lids would allow.

He was stronger than this, damn it.

This woman was MacKenzie’s only weakness, the one chink in his armor—the only way to defeat him without sacrificing more MacLeod lives.

Kaid let the air hiss through his teeth, shoved out with the force of his raw determination.

Bold yellow livery showed like a challenge through the layer of leaves. He focused on them until his vision cleared enough to count.

Six. There were six of them. He needed them out of the way so he could get to her.

This woman wasn’t just MacKenzie’s betrothed. She was the bartering tool to negotiate peace with MacKenzie and quite possibly the one thing he needed to get back into his clan’s good graces, to be accepted into the fold again. To have a sense of belonging once more.

Kaid’s footing was sure against the wet forest floor, and for that, he was grateful. The weakness had passed.

He let the heavy coach jostle past them before he leapt from the bush and caught the rear soldier by the throat while Donnan tackled the one on the left. Both were knocked unconscious before they hit the ground. The two guards heading the front of the coach wheeled around to face them and charged.

The powerful chest of the guard’s brown horse blocked Kaid’s view, but he did not move from his position. Not until Donnan had taken on one man, leaving only one remaining.

Kaid waited until the last possible second before he swung to the side and propelled his weight from a tree root. The guard tried to twist around, but Kaid was faster. He locked his arm around the man’s neck and pulled. His body tensed with resistance, but it did not last under the pressure Kaid applied to his throat.

The man’s horse continued into the depths of the forest. With any luck, villagers would stumble upon the treasure and put the beast to good use.

Kaid eased the man to the muddy floor and pulled the length of rope from his waist to bind their captives by their ankles and wrists. A quick glance over Kaid’s shoulder confirmed Donnan did likewise.

Not that Kaid was against killing, but the guards were merely doing a job. Unlike the thieves they usually hunted.

He left Donnan to complete the task of binding the guards together and approached the stationary coach. The coachman sat in the hard, wood seat and stared wide-eyed. A man not even worth the fight.

Kaid nodded toward Donnan. “Have him tie ye up and ye’ll stay safe. Try to run and we’ll kill ye.”

The man nodded and slid from the coach, obediently making his way toward Donnan.

A woman’s high-pitched whisper sounded from inside the coach. “Are they going to kill us?”

Kaid’s gut gave an uneasy wrench. He didn’t like this business of kidnapping women either, but he had little choice. MacKenzie needed to be stopped, and if this were the only way, so be it. Besides, he had no intention of injuring anyone.

Kaid stalked toward the coach, hand on his blade in case a guard had been stationed within. A sob sounded from the coach, and Donnan frowned where he knelt beside the man he was tying up.

Donnan had been instructed to knot the rope loose enough for the men to eventually wriggle free. The location Kaid had chosen was at least two days’ walk on foot to the next village. Plenty of time for them to disappear and have no one on their tail.

He grasped the flimsy handle of the coach door and pulled. It opened at the slightest pressure, and a scream pierced the cramped space, pulling his attention to the brunette who stared at him in horror. She glanced at the woman who sat opposite her before turning to him once more. Her mouth fell open so wide, her back teeth were visible, and she let loose another shriek.

The other woman, the one dressed in fine velvet and jewels, gaped at him. While her face remained smooth, her body was pressed hard against the noble, velvet cushion she sat upon. The lass looked as had been described: light brown hair and brown eyes.

A red and gold crest stood out proudly above the window emblazoned with a set of gilded wings. The unmistakable Seymour crest.

This…this was the woman he sought. The one who would be his leverage over MacKenzie.

The key to his clan’s freedom.

***

Praise for Highland Ruse:

Fans of swashbuckling, high-drama adventure and romance are sure to revel in the second entry in the Mercenary Maidens series. With an empowered heroine and tormented hero, a high degree of sensuality and a fast-moving plot, readers are sure to be satisfied from beginning to end. The added mystery and contemporary theme of addiction enhance the story so it truly resonates with readers.” -RT Reviews

 

Highland Ruse comes out on Tuesday, November 14th. You can find buy/pre-order links for all your favorite retailers here: http://www.madelinemartin.com/book/highland-ruse/

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