The Highlander's English Woman - Excerpt

One man’s traitor is another man’s hero.

Laura Reynolds and long-time friend of Jamie Maxwell Collins are in love. She adores his playful sense of humor, caring nature as well as his strong sense of honor. They have known each other from the time Jamie trained with her older brother at their home on the English side of Scottish border. Jamie has become an excellent soldier except he won’t fight and while she knows him well, she has no idea why.

Jamie Maxwell Collins lives on the Scottish side of the border. Carefree and open, he hides a dark secret so powerful it could destroy his family and those he cares for. He can’t involve Laura in this deception. He mustn’t give her hope for a future together. Instead, he ends their relationship.

While visiting Jamie’s uncle, Laura stumbles upon Jamie’s secret, but has nowhere to turn. The only person with the answer, her brother is gone, killed on a Welsh battlefield. In her heart of hearts she knows Jamie is innocent. Their relationship in tatters and with no hope of reconciliation, she plays a deadly game to find a way to exonerate Jamie even though it means agreeing to a political marriage. She has no idea the entire game has been orchestrated by her future husband, Jamie’s greatest enemy.

The Highlander's English Woman - Excerpt

Chapter One

A dour faced James Maxwell Collins, in full regalia, rode atop his destrier, sixteen of his best men with him. They cantered through the forest, the metal tack on their mounts’ harnesses tapped out a rhythmic beat. Jamie breathed in the heady aroma of damp leather, musty moss, and fallen leaves. The rain-drenched landscape turned the rutted trail into mud and forced his column onto higher ground. Just as well. While he preferred to take his time and walk the woods between his home at Cumgour and his Reynold cousin’s at Glen Kirk Castle at the edge of the Northumberland Forest, today he chose a more dangerous and faster route. His men would suffer bad weather no matter which track they took, and speed was of the essence.

Richard Reynolds was dead, killed on a Welsh battlefield serving his English king. The idea of him gone was still unreal. Richard was too young, too brave, too good to leave this world. His loss came in waves of awareness. Jamie would never see his friend again.

For eighteen months Jamie and his men served The Maxwell, Lord Herbert, his father’s older brother at Caerlaverock Castle.

Everyone was stunned when the news of Richard’s death arrived. His small group left immediately, and after three days of hard riding, reached Cumgour and stopped long enough to change horses.

Lord Wesley and Lady Darla buried their only son before news had reached Caerlaverock. No time for Jamie to say a final good-bye to the man he knew from childhood, a distant relative and closer friend.

“No other person could represent me better,” The Maxwell said.

“Why? Because I’m fourth in line to lead the clan?”

His uncle’s laugh was low and throaty. “You’re not only a distant relative like me. You fostered with Wesley and are close to the family. I would go, however, with my obligations to the Parliament in Scone, the uproar here concerning spoiled grain and this… this ghost, I can’t possibly leave now. People and their superstitions drive me senseless, but I must stay. Instead of going with me, you’ll go for me. I can’t send a better man.”

 “I completed my year of service six months ago. After delivering your message, I’d like to return to my Cumgour and farm my land.” Jamie was tired of asking. It had gotten him nowhere. He was still here. But he kept asking.

“The harvest is over. There’s no pressing need for you to return.” No pressing need. His family. His life. He was a farmer, not a warrior. He let out a deep breath. He would keep reminding The Maxwell his service duty was completed until he released him.

“I don’t blame you for wanting to return home, but not now. Not with our problems with the grain and now this damned ghost. Go to Wesley and Darla while I go to Parliament. You’ll have to return to me in a week.” The Maxwell held up his hand to ward off Jamie’s objections. “That will give you one day with family and I’m sorry you can’t stay longer. Once this problem is solved, you can return home and be a farmer, although it is a waste of a good fighting man.” The Maxwell relaxed, an affectionate smile spread across his face. “You’ve served me well and earned your farm.”

The Maxwell let out a long breath. “Too bad you can’t bring Darla to us when you return. With her special gifts, she would put this ghost to rest.”

Magic. He didn’t believe in spells and charms, but he would believe in the devil himself if that would help make things right at Caerlaverock so he could go home.

He and his men came through the forest onto the Marsh, a few yards from the English border. He slowed his horse to a walk.

“Sean, I’ll take four men and go on. You and the others wait here. We’ll be back by morning.” His captain inclined his head and signaled his troop to move on.

Twelve of Jamie’s men peeled away and rode toward the cliff where a dry cave would provide shelter while they waited. Jamie was sensitive to Wesley and the situation. Tensions at the border were high and he was a Scotsman on English soil. A larger traveling party could be... misinterpreted.

Jamie and his remaining four men navigated across Bells Burn, the stream separating Scotland and England, then headed up a rocky pass through the dense Northumberland Forest.

Richard had been one of the best soldiers he knew. Intuitive, resourceful, and loyal. No one could stop him. Jamie gave a bitter laugh. He understood his friend’s capability better than most, as many times as they sparred when boys. Neither one held anything back. Every bout ended the same, no matter the winner, with laughter and a draft of Wesley’s fine ale.

What did that matter now? Richard lay cold in the ground. Jamie blew out a strangled breath around the knot in his chest. At least Richard hadn’t been left to rot on some forgotten battlefield as so many others. For all the man’s faults, Bryce Mitchell did the decent thing and brought Richard home.

He snapped a low hanging branch as he passed, wishing he held the neck of the man who killed Richard. Over and over again, Jamie berated himself. He should have been with Richard, protected his back. Except his allegiance lay with Scotland, not the English or their king. Jamie pulled his wool around him to ward off the building breeze, and adjusted the Maxwell crest. At least the light drizzle that added to his misery had ended. His small party trudged on.

He stopped at the forest’s edge. Glen Kirk Castle beckoned tall and welcoming across the broad meadow. He stole a glance to his right. The stone wall of Glen Kirk’s cemetery was a few yards away.

A numbness blanketed him. He was no stranger to death. He let out a deep breath. The reality of this final good-bye tore at him. He pulled the reins to the right and nudged his horse forward.

At the cemetery wall, he dismounted, his back to the gate. He steeled himself, turned on his heel, and walked into the sacred ground. Richard’s newly dug grave overshadowed the others, demanded his attention. A small smile played on his lips. Just like Richard to be in control.

Jamie weaved through old gravestones and finally stopped at Richard’s side. Silence. The rustling of dried leaves caught in a sudden gust skidded across hard stones. Silent and still, he looked down at the grave. His chest heaved as he worked to ease the knot in his throat. One deep breath, then another.

“I’m angry at you for even going to Wales. I’m angry at you for not taking care.” His chin quivered, his eyes dampened. After a few moments of silence, he blew out a painful hot breath and knelt next to his friend. “But more than that, I’m angry at you for dying,” he said, his voice fading to a whisper.

He laid his hand on the damp flower petals that covered the grave. “Rest in peace, my friend. Know that I will care for your family as I would my own.” He pulled the Maxwell crest he wore with pride from his wool and buried the amulet with Richard, next to a charm Lisbeth must have added to his grave. “On my honor as a Maxwell, so do I swear.”

Forged by grief and tempered with love, Jamie rose with a new sense of purpose. He walked to his men and mounted his horse. The five turned and rode in silence toward Glen Kirk.

Jamie gave a signal to the tower guard, then trotted across the field and through the gate. The hollow clop of their horses’ hooves on wet cobblestones echoed through an empty bailey. No rousing greetings. A somber mood permeated the grounds. Even the castle dogs that ran to greet him stayed in the barn. If not for three horses equipped for a long journey tied nearby, he would have thought Glen Kirk was deserted. Jamie dismounted. The stable boy took his horse’s reins.

“Jamie. The guard told me you arrived.” Lord Wesley’s captain came out of the gatehouse.

“Gareth.” His somber mood lightened at the sight of his old mentor.

Weathered with thinning salt and pepper hair, he remained tall and straight, his eyes clear and wise. This was the old warrior who instructed young squires in soldiering. Five aspiring knights trained together. Richard, Jamie, Bryce Mitchell and his cousins, Reeve and Harmon Gaulter. They practiced and battled while Richard’s sisters, Laura and Lisbeth, cheered them on. That was before Bryce’s taunting created a rift between the two of them that became intolerable.

Jamie gave Gareth his hand. The old soldier threw his other arm around him and pulled him close.

“You’ve been away too long. I must be getting old. I actually miss you and your rowdy ways.” Gareth shook his head. “I sent a message warning the village women that you’re back. Now that I think of it, I may have done you a favor.”

A flush rushed up Jamie’s neck. “It’s a burden I have to bear. They seem to be drawn to my... many attributes and who am I to disagree?” The fact he and Richard listened attentively, especially to women who always appeared to be around them, left them both with reputations. Jamie had the advantage of not being the Lord’s son and well, perhaps he did more than listen on occasion, but not as indiscriminately as everyone would believe.

“I swear you’re taller than a tree. And here I worried you would be the runt of the litter. There must be Viking blood in your family line.” Gareth eyed him from his toes to his head. “You’re bigger than the others.” He placed his hands on either shoulder as if measuring the expanse. “And you’re definitely the broadest of the three. Yes, you turned out well, for the runt.” Months of absence melted away as they renewed their easy camaraderie.

“You think I’m brawn, you should see my wee sister,” Jamie teased slipping into a burr that sent Gareth into peals of laughter.

“You forget I know your wee sister. She may be five feet and a slip of a thing, but she certainly knows how to keep you in your place. It amazes me to watch how she tames you.”

Gareth glanced toward the Keep and the smile faded from his face. “In truth, I’m glad you are here. They can use your company.”

“I wish I returned for happier reasons rather than this untimely duty.” Jamie started for the Keep. “You coming along?”

“Not right now. I’m here to see Alex Stelton and his men off. You go on. I’ll settle your men at the barracks.” Jamie nodded and made his way across the bailey.

“Good day, Ann.” The housekeeper held the door wide when he reached the top step. “Still as beautiful as ever.”

“You save your sweet talk for those ninnies who don’t know any better.” Ann’s severe expression didn’t fool him. Her attitude was the same one she used when as boys he and Richard filched freshly baked tarts off her cooling rack.

“Sweet Ann, you’re the only one for me.” He raised his eyebrows in an over exaggerated ardent expression and clutched a hand to his heart.

The housekeeper swatted his arm and chuckled. He bent and kissed her forehead.

“How are they?” Jamie took on a somber tone and glanced toward the hall as he removed his cloak and gloves, then gave both to her.

“As good as one can expect. The family will be glad you’re here. You go on. You know the way.” Ann padded off.

He stepped to the entrance of the great hall, a place as familiar and comfortable as his own. Servants on the far side of the room busily prepared the raised dais table for the afternoon meal. Trestle tables and benches were pulled away from walls and ready for others in the castle. The family sat at the hearth, their favorite gathering place.

Large silk tapestries hung on whitewashed stone walls. A few depicted battles and others portrayed gardens. The familiar wall hangings added color and warmth to the room. The sideboard, dressed with linens, displayed silver plate. Family banners dangled from the rafters. A fire roared behind the grate, and above the fireplace hung the family crest. The hall was warm, comfortable, and filled with the aroma of lavender and spice, but none of that dispelled the melancholy.

Darla’s head turned toward him. She sprang from her chair, ran to Jamie and hugged him close. A handsome woman, her hair had turned a glistening snow white since last they saw each other. Her face lit up in a smile, although it didn’t hide the stress of the last few days.

“Jamie, I’m glad you are here.”

“I was with Herbert when news arrived or I would have been here sooner. He’s sorry for your loss. We all are.”

She gave him a weak smile and patted his arm. Darla’s tear-swollen eyes said it all and he grieved even more. He offered her his arm and escorted her back to Lord Wesley, their daughter, Laura, and a gentleman who sat with them. Stelton, he assumed.

“Do you know Alex Stelton?” Darla sat next to Wesley and laid her hand on his. “His mother and I are friends at court.”

Alex put down his tankard and rose.

Jamie nodded. Yes, he knew Stelton. He had only seen him from afar, but he was one you didn’t forget. Richard told him Stelton was one of the English king’s favorite knights. Shorter than Jamie, which was nothing out of the ordinary. Stelton had dark, wavy hair with a lock that fell over his forehead. His eyes, a silver-blue held vast knowledge and understanding. The words just and honorable came to mind.

“You’re not leaving?” Darla asked Alex.

“I must be on my way. I’ve overstayed my welcome and have drunk too much of Wesley’s ale.”

Wesley let out a rusty laugh. Alex inclined his head to Darla and her daughter and approached Jamie. “We meet at last. I’m sorry it’s under these circumstances. Richard spoke of you often and with great respect. Many will miss him. My family and I included.” Alex said.

“Richard told me much about you and your six brothers, how, as boys you terrorized Edward’s court with your games and antics. There was a time I resented not being English.” Yes, he could see what Richard admired in this man.

“Someday we will have to sit, drink Wesley’s ale, and talk of Richard. I’m sure we both have stories to keep us up until morning,” Alex said.

“Any excuse to drink Wesley’s ale. Have you been able to get his recipe?” Jamie tilted his head toward Alex and whispered in a conspiratorial tone. Alex’s eyes lit with laughter.

“No, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t try while I was here.” Alex took his great coat off a bench and put it on. “It was good to meet you.”

“Keep the wind at your back,” Jamie said.

With a respectful nod goodbye, Alex left the hall.

Jamie turned to the family sitting around the hearth. Wesley slouched in his chair staring at the fire, grief still raw on his face. He had aged over the year. His gray hair thinned, his eyes rimmed red and dulled with pain.

“He’s been like this since we buried... the burial.” Laura, Richard’s sister, was next to him. “Father tires easily and stays locked up inside himself. Mother is the sole person who can reach him, although I have hope. Alex did make him laugh.”

Jamie’s focus turned to Laura, the younger of the two sisters. Laura and Lisbeth were alike from their slender, petite size bodies, long auburn hair, and large green eyes with a fan of thick lashes. The sisters may be similar in appearance, however, not in temperament. Lisbeth was the deep thinker. Laura was head strong and outspoken, the feistier defiant sister.

“How are you and Lisbeth faring?” He gazed back at Wesley.

“It’s a challenge keeping everyone’s spirits up. At times, I succeed.” She shrugged. “Other times, I fail miserably. Lisbeth stayed at the Keep for a while then left for the hunting lodge to be alone.”

Jamie turned to her. Her drawn ashen face disturbed him.

“The rain has stopped. Would you care to take some fresh air in the garden?” Jamie presented his arm. Laura answered by looping her arm through his and drew him out the door.

He went willingly. Her warmth chased away any lingering chill from his journey. She’s Richard’s little sister, a warning voice whispered in his head. He took a breath and led her to the garden door.

“I understand you’re skeptical of Lisbeth’s gift, but she told me she saw Richard’s death before Bryce carried... brought Richard home. Now, she blames herself for not taking action.” Laura sighed heavily. “Everyone blames themselves. Father shouldn’t have let him go, not that he could stop Richard. Mother should have seen this coming, not that she could. And Lisbeth...”

“I understand all too well. I berated myself for not being with him, protecting his back.” They reached the stone porch.

Formal gardens sprawled before them with raised flower beds, neat hedges, and bare trellises waiting for next year’s roses. He waited with her in silence, willing her his strength.

“Is it wise for Lisbeth to be alone?” Jamie finally asked, and gazed past the lawn to the well-worn path on the other side of the garden gate.

“She’s not unaccompanied. John escorted her to the hunting lodge at Ann’s request, over Lisbeth’s heated protest.” She turned to him. “I haven’t thanked you for coming to us. I know The Maxwell has his demands and travel is a hardship.”

He stilled her trembling hand. Her brows creased in pain over eyes that stared off without seeing. He waited.

“I find it difficult to comprehend we’ll not see Richard again.” Laura’s voice choked and she shrugged with resignation despite tears that threatened at the edges of her eye.

“Me as well,” Jamie said. He had the same thoughts.

“How long are you staying with us?” Her question was reasonable but he dreaded answering.

“I return to Caerlaverock tomorrow.” He took a deep breath and saw a momentary flash of disappointment in her eyes.

“Then we best return to the others. They’ll want to spend time with you, too.” They moved on toward the hall.

“I have no words, nothing to say to comfort you.” He could barely get the words out.

“Your presence is enough.”

He held back a nervous smile. He visited to give the family comfort. Instead, she comforted him.

“How are my Maxwell cousins?” Laura asked. Jamie guided her toward the great hall.

“They are well when I last saw them.”

“You’ll let me know your decision, Wesley.”

Jamie brought Laura to a halt. An exasperated male voice drifted out of the great hall.

“I want to make the announcement as soon as possible. With Richard gone and Glen Kirk so close to the Scottish border, you need someone strong to hold back the devils.” Lord Bryce Mitchell of Ravencroft, the manse next to Glen Kirk, stood with Wesley and Darla.

Standing at the great hall entrance, Jamie stiffened when Laura’s pulse skittered into a panic beneath his fingertips. Jamie’s free hand covered hers until the beat settled into a normal rhythm. If Bryce couldn’t feel sympathetic toward the family, couldn’t he at least curb his speech?

“You didn’t waste any time getting here.” The rude remark directed toward Jamie raised his temper even more. Bryce’s baiting tactics hadn’t changed since they served Wesley as squires. Bryce wasn’t foolish to pick a fight with him, at least not here.

When they trained, Bryce took aim at him whenever possible, most often urged on by Reeve. Richard and the girls rallied to his defense, but Bryce’s intolerance of Jamie’s Scottish background stayed near the surface.

Bryce gasped for air, seething after having lost a foot race to him.

“You’re nothing. A filthy Scot beggar. Go back to your tribe of mongrels. You’re not fit to be here.” Bryce pushed him hard.

Jamie didn’t go down. Not satisfied, Bryce rushed at him again, this time with fists. Jamie ducked and backed off. Bryce kept up the assault.

Jamie didn’t care for bullies or being baited by them. He wouldn’t fight.

“Here, here Bryce. That’s enough.” Richard grabbed his friend’s arm but Bryce shook him off. Reeve pulled Richard back.

“Enjoy the spectacle. It’s time he learned his place,” Reeve said.

“Stay out of this,” Bryce screamed at Richard, then turned to Jamie. “Fight, or are you a puny coward, too?”

Jamie said nothing. He held his fists at his side and stepped back again.

The fight started in the yard, progressed to the field, and finished near the pond. A small group of people followed and urged Jamie to defend himself.

The next punch caught the Scotsman in the chest. He didn’t flinch.

“You should be lying on the ground by now. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Jamie pulled up his arms to protect his face as best he could against the onslaught of punches. He didn’t retaliate.

His face cut and bloodied, he still didn’t strike back.

“Fight, damn you,” Bryce shouted and followed with a quick barrage of solid body punches.

He held his position and didn’t fight back.

In a close clinch, Bryce muttered for Jamie’s ear only. Jamie pushed his tormentor away. Years of restraint from insults and attacks disappeared with the maliciously whispered words.

Bryce threw his punch. Jamie caught the left jab in his palm mid-strike. Alarm and panic flashed in Bryce’s eyes. The bully stared at Jamie’s hand holding his fist.

Jamie almost tore Bryce’s arm out of its socket as he pushed it aside and set his stance, one foot in front of the other.

For a moment Jamie thought to stop the madness, but the idea quickly died. Bryce had no idea what he let loose.

Before Bryce threw his next punch, Jamie exploded with a rapid cannon volley of left jabs at Bryce’s jaw. Stunned, Bryce dropped his defenses.

Jamie’s right cross burst from his shoulder as he shifted from his back leg to his front, throwing all his weight into the swing. He caught Bryce squarely in the face. Blood exploded in an arc of fine spray as Bryce’s head snapped back. Droplets flew, the warm blood spattered across Jamie’s face.

Bryce’s head came forward. Jamie followed with a left uppercut and caught him under his chin. The solid strike lifted Bryce into the air, then sent him to the ground. To everyone’s amazement, Bryce laid unconscious at Jamie’s feet. No one said a word as he stood panting over the prone figure. Every ounce of him wanted to drag Bryce on his feet for another round. Instead, he marched away.

“If you’ll excuse me. I look forward to calling on you soon, Laura. Tomorrow?” Bryce looked down his nose at Jamie. “For now, I’m sure the family would like to be alone. Come, Collins.” Bryce sounded as if he ordered his dog to heel.

“How considerate to understand our family’s need for time together. All our family.” Laura stressed the word all and tightened her hold on Jamie. “As for tomorrow? I regret I’m not seeing callers. I’m sure you understand.”

Bryce’s eyes widened at Laura’s cut. The man gave a curt nod, slapped his riding gloves against his thigh and marched out. His footsteps thundered down the hall.

Jamie ignored the retreating figure. “I can speak for myself.”

“I’m well aware you can take care of yourself. I had no intention of addressing your leaving as much as responding to his request for an audience.”

He smiled and inclined his head. Definitely the feistier sister, but he did enjoy Bryce’s discomfort at her cut.

“What was Bryce doing here? I passed him in the hall. He didn’t appear pleased,” Lisbeth asked as she entered. “Jamie. Ann told me you arrived.” She smiled and pecked him on his cheek.

“Bryce came to extend condolences from his family to your father and me.” Darla fussed over Wesley.

“The nerve of the man—”

“Now, now, Wesley. This is not the first time Bryce made the request. Let’s not dwell on that. We’ll find a solution.” Darla gestured to the table. “Ann laid out our meal. I’m sure Jamie is hungry after a long ride. Besides, I’m eager for news from Caerlaverock.”

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