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Michelle Willingham

Claimed by the Highland Warrior

Claimed by the Highland Warrior

Bram MacKinloch spent seven years in captivity, dreaming of revenge...

Series: The MacKinloch Clan - Book #1


Click here to read Chapter 1

Bram Kinloch couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten or slept. The numbness consumed him, and all he could do now was keep going. He’d been imprisoned in the darkness for so many years, he’d forgotten what the sun felt like upon his skin. It blinded him, forcing him to keep his gaze fixed upon the ground. 

God’s bones, he couldn’t even remember how long he’d been running. Exhaustion had blotted away the visions until he didn’t know how many English soldiers were pursuing him or where they were now. He’d stayed clear of the valley, keeping to the hills and the fir trees that would hide him from view. 

His clothing and hair were soaked after he’d swum through a river to mask his scent from the dogs. 

Had there been dogs? He couldn’t remember anymore. Shadows blurred his mind, until he didn’t know reality from the nightmares. 

Keep going, he ordered himself. Don’t stop. Not now. 

His footing slipped as he crossed the top of the hill, and he stumbled to the ground. Before he rose, he listened hard for the sound of his pursuers.

Nothing. Silence stretched across the Highlands with only the sound of birds and insects breaking the stillness. He clenched at the grass, using it to regain his balance. After he stood, he turned in a slow circle in all directions. From the top of the hill, he could see no one. Only the vast expanse of craggy green mountains and the clouded sky above him.

Freedom.

He drank in the sight, savoring the open air and the land that he’d missed these past seven years. Though he was far from home, these mountains were known to him, like old friends.

Bram steadied his breathing, taking a moment to rest. He should have been grateful that he’d broken free of his prison, but guilt held him captive now. His brother Callum was still locked away in that godforsaken place. 

Let him be alive, Bram prayed. Let it not be too late. If he had to sell his own soul, he’d get Callum out. Especially after the price he’d paid for his own freedom.

He started moving west, toward Ballaloch. If he kept up his pace, it was possible to reach the fortress within the hour. He hadn’t been there in years, not since he was sixteen. The MacPhersons would grant him shelter, but would they remember or even recognize him? 

Cold emptiness filled him, and he rubbed at his scarred wrists. The days without any rest had taken their toll, causing his hands to shake. What he wouldn’t give for a dreamless night, one where his mind no longer tormented him.

But one dream held steady, of the woman he’d thought about each night over the past seven years. 

Nairna. 

Despite the nightmares of his imprisonment, he’d kept her image fixed in his mind. Her green eyes, the brown hair that fell to her waist. The way she’d smiled at him, as if he were the only man she’d ever wanted.

A restless sense of regret pulled at him, as he wondered what had happened to her over the years. Had she grown to hate him? Or had she forgotten him? She would be different now. Changed, like he was. 

After so many years lost, he didn’t expect her to feel anything toward him. And though he’d never wanted to leave her behind, Fate had dragged him down a different path. 

He reached to finger the edge of his tunic, touching the familiar stone that he’d kept hidden within a seam. Over the years, he’d nearly worn the small stone flat. Nairna had given him the token on the night he’d left to fight against the Sassenach. So many times, he’d clenched the stone during his imprisonment, as if he could reach out to her.

Her image had kept him from falling into madness, like an angel holding him back from hellfire. She’d given him a reason to live. A reason to fight.

Regret lowered his spirits, for it was unrealistic to imagine that she’d waited for him. After seven years, likely she would have put their memories in the past. 

Unless she still loved him. 

The thought was a thread of hope, one that kept him moving forward. He was close to the MacPherson stronghold now and could take shelter with them for the night. 

He imagined holding Nairna in his arms, breathing in the soft scent of her skin. Tasting her lips and forcing back the painful memories. He could lose himself in her, and none of the past would matter. 

As he crossed down into the valley, he saw Ballaloch, nestled between the hills like a gleaming pearl. Bram sat down on the grass, staring at the stronghold. 

And then, behind him, he heard the sound of horses.

God above. He struggled to his feet, his heart pounding. When he glanced behind him, he saw the glint of chainmail armor and soldiers. 

No. The thought was a vicious command to himself. He couldn’t let himself be taken captive. Not again. Not after so many years of being a slave.

He tore down the hillside, his legs shaking. But his weak body betrayed him, his knees surrendering as he fell to the ground. 

The stronghold was right there. Right within his reach. 

Anguish ripped through him as he fought to rise, to make his legs move. 

But even when he managed to run, they overtook him with their horses, dragging him up. Gloved hands took him by the shoulders, and as he fought, they dropped a hood over his head, blinding him.

Then they struck him down and all fell into darkness.

***

“Something’s wrong, Jenny,” Nairna MacPherson muttered to her maid. She stared outside her window into the inner bailey. Four horsemen had arrived through the barbican gate, their leader dressed in chainmail armor and a conical helm. “Soldiers are here, but I don’t know why.” 

“Probably Harkirk’s men, come to demand more silver from your father,” Jenny answered, closing the trunk. “But don’t be fretting. It’s his worry, not yours.”

Nairna turned away from the window, her mind stewing. “He shouldn’t have to bribe them. It’s not right.” 

Robert Fitzroy, the Baron of Harkirk, had set up his garrison west of her father’s fortress, a year after the Scottish defeat at Falkirk. There were hundreds of English outposts all across the Highlands with more emerging every year. 

Her father had given the baron his allegiance and his coins, simply to safeguard his clan from attack. 

Blood-sucking leeches. It had to stop.

“I’m going to see why they’re here.” Nairna started to move towards the door, but Jenny stepped in her way.

The old woman’s brown eyes softened with sympathy. “We’re going back to Callendon this day, Nairna. I don’t think you’re wanting to start a disagreement with Hamish before ye return.”

The arrow of disapproval struck its intended target. Her shoulders lowered, and she wished there were something she could do to help her father. They were bleeding him dry, and she loathed the thought of what he’d done for his clan’s safety.

But Ballaloch was no longer her home. Neither was Callendon, though she’d lived there for the past four years while she’d been married to the chief of the MacDonnell clan. 

Iver was dead now. And though she understood that she could do nothing to change her fate, it hurt to know that she was mistress of nothing, mother of no one. 

It felt like there was no place that she truly belonged. Not in her father’s home. Not in her husband’s home. 

“I won’t interfere,” she promised Jenny. “I just want to see why the Sassenach are here now. Da has already paid the bribes due for this quarter.”

“Nairna,” Jenny warned. “Your responsibilities are at Callendon. Not here.”

But that wasn’t true. Iver’s son and his wife had already taken control of the estate. Nairna was an afterthought, the widow left behind. No one of importance.

The unsettled feeling of helplessness rooted deep inside. Loneliness spread across her heart with the fervent wish that she could be useful to someone. She wanted a home and a family, a place where she wouldn’t be a shadow.

“I’ll listen to what they’re saying,” she said slowly, feigning a calmness she didn’t feel. “And I might try to reason with Da.”

Her maid grumbled, but followed her below stairs. “Take Angus with ye,” she advised. 

Nairna didn’t care about a guard, but Angus MacPherson, a thick-chested man with arms the size of broad tree limbs, shadowed her path when she crossed the Hall.

Outside, she blinked at the morning sunlight and saw the English soldiers standing within the inner bailey. Across one of the horses lay the covered body of a man. 

Her heart seized at the sight, and she hurried closer. Was it a MacPherson they’d found?

Their leader was addressing Hamish, saying, “We caught this man wandering not far from Ballaloch. One of yours, I suppose.” The soldier’s mouth curled in a thin smile.

Nairna’s hand gripped the dagger at her waist. Her father’s face was expressionless as he stared at the soldiers. “Is he alive?”

The man gave a nod, motioning for the other soldier to bring the body closer. They had covered their captive’s face with a hood.

“How much is a man’s life worth to you?” the Sassenach asked. “Fifteen shillings, perhaps?”

“Who is he?” Hamish asked softly, sending a silent signal to his steward. Whatever price he named, she knew her father would pay it. But she couldn’t even tell if their prisoner was alive.

“Twenty shillings,” their leader continued. He ordered his men to lift the captive from the horse and hold him. The prisoner couldn’t stand upright, and from his torn clothing, Nairna didn’t recognize the man. His face was covered with a dark hood, obscuring his features. The dark hair falling about his shoulders was their only clue to his identity.

Nairna drew closer to her father, lowering her voice. “He’s not one of ours.”

The soldiers gripped their captive by his shoulders, and another jerked the captive’s head backwards, baring his throat.

“Twenty-five shillings,” The Sassenach demanded, unsheathing a dagger. “His life belongs to you, MacPherson, if you want it.” He rested the blade at the prisoner’s throat, and at the touch of the metal against skin, the prisoner’s hands suddenly clenched into fists. He struggled to escape the soldiers’ grip, twisting and fighting. 

He was alive.

Nairna’s pulse raced as she stared at the unknown man. Her hands began shaking, for she knew the soldiers would show no mercy to the stranger. They were truly going to execute him, right in the middle of the bailey. And there was no way to know if their captive was a MacPherson or one of their enemies.

“Thirty shillings,” came her father’s voice, reaching for a small purse that his steward had brought. 

Their leader smiled, catching the purse as it was tossed at him. The soldiers shoved the prisoner to the ground, but after he struck the earth, he didn’t rise. 

“Go back to Lord Harkirk,” Hamish commanded. 

The Sassenach mounted his horse, rejoining the others as he fingered the purse. “I wondered if you were going to let him die. I would have killed him, you know. One less Scot.” He tossed the bag of coins, his thin smile stretching. 

Angus moved from behind Nairna, his hand grasping a spear in a silent threat. Other MacPherson fighters circled the English soldiers, but they had already begun their departure.

Nairna couldn’t quite catch her breath at her father’s blatant bribery. Thirty shillings. She felt as if the wind had been knocked from her lungs. He’d handed it over without a second thought.

Though she didn’t speak, her father eyed her. “A man’s life is more important than coins.”

“I know it.” Nairna gripped her hands together, trying to contain her agitation. “But what will you do when they come back, demanding more? Will you continue to pay Lord Harkirk until they’ve seized Ballaloch and made prisoners of our people?” 

Her father strode over to the fallen body of the prisoner. “We’re alive, Nairna. Our clan is one of the few left untouched. And by God, if I have to spend every last coin to ensure their safety, I will do so. Is that clear?”

She swallowed hard as Hamish rolled the man over, easing him up. “You shouldn’t have to bribe them. It’s not right.”

There was no difference between the English soldiers and cheating merchants, as far as Nairna was concerned. Men took advantage, whenever it was allowed. She knelt down beside her father, trying to calm her roiling emotions. 

“Well, lad, let’s see who you are,” Hamish said, pulling off the hood.

Nairna’s heart stopped when she saw the prisoner’s face. 

For it was Bram MacKinloch. The husband she hadn’t seen since the day she’d married him, seven years ago.

***

Pale moonlight illuminated the room, and Bram opened his eyes. Every muscle in his body ached, and he swallowed hard. Thirsty. So thirsty.

“Bram,” came a soft voice. “Are you awake?” 

He turned toward the sound and wondered if he was dead. He had to be, for he knew that voice. It was Nairna, the woman he’d dreamed of for so long. 

She moved closer and lit an oil lamp to illuminate the darkness. The amber glow revealed her features, and he stared at her, afraid the vision would fade away if he blinked. 

Her mouth was soft, her cheekbones well-formed like the beautiful woman she’d become. Her long brown hair fell freely across her shoulders. 

God above, he wanted to touch her. Just to know that she was real. 

Longing swelled through him, mingled with bittersweet regret. His hand was shaking when he reached out her. As if asking forgiveness, he stroked her palm, wishing things could have been different.

She didn’t pull away. Instead, her hand curled around his, her face filled with confusion. “I can’t believe you’re alive.”

He sat up, and she moved beside him. With her hand clasped in his, he moved to touch her hair. The light scent of flowers and grass seemed to emanate from her, and he leaned closer, drinking in the sight of Nairna.

She didn’t pull away. And God help him, he needed her right now. He didn’t ask permission, but instead took her mouth in a demanding kiss, for she was the hope and life he’d needed for so long. 

***

Nairna’s heart was beating so fast, she hardly knew what to do. She tasted the heady danger within his kiss, of a man who didn’t care about all the lost years. Bram had never been much for talking, and without words, he told her how much he’d missed her.

He kissed her as though he couldn’t get enough, as though she were everything he needed. And in spite of everything, she found herself kissing him back. 

God above, she’d never expected this. Not in a thousand years. It was as if she were seeing a spirit, and when he bent to take her lips again, he convinced her that he was indeed made of flesh and blood.

A tangled knot of emotions warred inside her. She gripped his lean shoulders, unable to stop the tears. She’d grieved for him, raged against the injustice of losing him. And when she’d finally accepted the dull ache of loss, Fate made a mockery of her grief by returning him. 

She was torn between happiness that he was here, and her guilt of betrayal. She’d married someone else. And though Iver was dead and there was no shame in kissing Bram, it felt strange.

His mouth moved against her cheek, along the line of her jaw. A spiral of desire tightened within her breasts at his reverent mouth, spearing down between her thighs. And when his body covered hers, she felt his heated arousal pressing against her.

“Nairna,” he whispered, as if she were an answered prayer. 

His voice was husky, a deep bass note that rumbled against her throat. Her skin flushed while a warmth pooled within her body. 

She didn’t know where these feelings were coming from, but they terrified her. Her husband Iver had never touched her like this, and the unfamiliarity made her wary. Every part of her body warmed with embarrassment and confusion. She found herself wanting Bram to touch her more, to explore the desire he’d kindled. 

But that was wrong, wasn’t it? Caught between past and present, she didn’t know whether to trust her body or her mind. Nairna closed her eyes, struggling to think. 

Bram’s palm moved down her cheek, stroking her in a caress that evoked the feelings she’d tried to bury. His face was harrowed, as though he’d seen things he shouldn’t have. And he’d grown so terribly thin.

“Bram, where have you been all this time?”

He didn’t answer at first. His hands framed her face, as if he were trying to learn her features. She covered his hands with hers, staring into his eyes. Willing him to tell her the truth.

Then he touched his forehead to hers. “I was a prisoner at Cairnross.” 

She’d heard of the English Earl and his cruelty. Her heart bled at the thought of Bram enduring captivity for so long, in such a place.

“I thought you were dead,” she managed. “It’s hard for me to believe you’re back.”

He touched her as if he were afraid she might disappear. His roughened palms abraded her skin, his fingers trembling. “I thought you would have married another by now. That you’d found someone else.”

I did, she nearly said but stopped herself, not wanting to hurt him. She’d married Iver, desperately wanting a home and a family of her own. But now, it shamed her to think of what she’d done. It made her feel like she’d committed adultery, though she knew that wasn’t true.

Her cheeks grew hot, and she didn’t know how to tell him about the marriage. A tear spilled down her cheek, but whether it was from grief or joy, she couldn’t tell. 

Bram’s thumb brushed it away, and his hands moved down her shoulders, resting upon her waist. He drew her into his arms, his hands caressing her back. “You’ve grown into a woman since I saw you last.” 

Nairna’s skin prickled, her nipples tightening against the rough wool of her gown. A latent fire seemed to rise up from within her, burning her flesh with need. His mouth bent to her throat, and she bit back a shuddering breath at the kindled sensations. His thumbs caressed lazy circles over her spine.

But when his hands moved to the upper curve of her breasts, she panicked.

“Bram, wait.” She stood up, pushing him away. “I need to know what’s happened since you—“

“Tomorrow,” he whispered. 

He looked wild, his eyes blazing with fierce need. His dark brown hair was unkempt, falling well below his shoulders. He reminded her of a savage tribesman, one who had come to claim his woman at last.

For a long moment, he stared at her, as if he didn’t know what to do next. Before she could voice another question, he sat up from her bed and moved to the door. He turned back again, his hand resting against the door frame. For a breathless moment, he studied her, as if making a decision. 

Then he left, without a word of explanation.

Summary:

Scottish Highlander Bram MacKinloch spent seven years in captivity, dreaming of revenge against his enemies and holding his beloved wife in his arms again.

Nairna is stunned when she sees Bram again, for her husband is no longer the boy she fell in love with—instead, he’s a powerful man with a hunger that kindles her wildest desires.

She tries to comfort him from the brutal nightmares of his past, but more than all else, she fears what will happen to their marriage if Bram learns of her own secrets . . .

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