The Kingdom of Ce, Pictland
Elise, Princess Clodrah of Circinn, stood by the side of the queen of Ce and watched her cousin, Aila, ride into the distance. She tried to quell the bubbling resentment for not being allowed to accompany Aila to Dal Riada but couldn’t quite manage it.
She needed to travel to Dal Riada, land of the cursed Scots. It was the only way she would discover if her dearest friend Droston was still alive.
Was he held hostage in the royal stronghold of Dunadd? Or had he, along with so many other noble Picts, been slaughtered in the massacre that had claimed the life of the king of Ce?
The pit of her stomach churned. Droston, whom she loved like a brother, couldn’t be dead. He was alive and it was up to her to find a way to secure his release.
Because nobody else would.
Aila and her husband Connor MacKenzie disappeared with their band of warriors into the mist-swathed glen. Elise felt the queen give a barely discernible shiver. Elise glanced at her and saw the stricken look in her aunt’s eyes, the brief tremble of her lower lip.
“Come,” the queen said, no hint of her inner turmoil clouding her voice, and she abruptly turned and headed back to the palace. Elise’sgrandmother gripped her fingers as if she would never let her go, and Elise smothered a sigh.
She knew why she had been forbidden to accompany Aila into Dal Riada. It had little to do with the wishes of Elise’s absent husband, Ferelei mac Uurguist, and everything to do with her aunt and her grandmother not wishing to lose another of their kin.
“But Aila will be back soon,” Finella, not yet eleven, said, staring at the rigid back of her mother. She turned to Elise and curled her fingers around her arm. “Won’t she, Elise? Before her babe is born? She promised.”
“Yes, of course she will.” But even as Elise comforted her small cousin, she wondered at the truth of her words. Would that Scots’ devil, MacAlpin, allow Aila to leave his realm after she willingly entered Dal Riada again?
From the corner of her eye, she saw the warriors Connor had instructed to remain behind in Ce. Officially they were here as protection since so many of their own warriors were held hostage in Dal Riada. But it did not matter how Connor tried to sweeten the situation with half-truths and platitudes. Their presence served as a constant reminder that their treacherous king sought utter domination across the land.
As the warriors bowed their heads in recognition of the women’s royal status, the glimmering of an idea began to form. Before the massacre, Pict and visiting Scot had mingled freely. Liaisons had bloomed and tears had been shed from several noblewomen at the Scots’ departure.
But that had been months ago, in the spring. Before the bloodied alliance to join Pict and Scot against their common enemy, the Viking. Before MacAlpin had gone back on his word.
Before Aila had taken Connor as her husband.
During this last week, relations had been strained. The Scots were their enemy. How could they be anything else? And yet Aila, the eldest princess Devorgilla of Ce, had fallen in love and married a Scot. A Scot who had disobeyed his king by bringing Aila back to her homeland.
For that, the queen welcomed Connor MacKenzie and, to a lesser degree, his personal band of warriors. They were of the enemy, and yet were not responsible for the murder of the king of Ce. Extending a cautious friendship would not be seen as treason.
Aila had known nothing of Droston’s fate. And because Elise had been so certain she was to accompany her cousin into Dal Riada she hadn’t thought to question Connor on the matter.
But surely one of these Scots would know? Or at the very least, possess the means to discover the truth. Now that a Scot held such a powerful position in Ce, messengers would be sent at regular intervals between Ce and Dal Riada. She was under no illusion that a message from her, a minor princess of the neighboring kingdom of Circinn, would even reach its destination. A Scot messenger would not bother. And no messenger from Ce would travel into Dal Riada without the queen’s personal authority.
Heart thudding, Elise surreptitiously shifted her focus from the queen to the crowd that lined the path back to the palace. She would place her faith in her beloved goddess, Bride, and befriend the warrior whose glance she snared. It wasn’t as if any of them were strangers. Before the upstart MacAlpin’s betrayal, she had enjoyed their company, had flirted with them just as her fellow noblewomen had. Circumstances had changed and the fragile tendrils of trust had shattered, yet fundamentally, nothing about these warriors had altered. She knew, as did her grandmother, that none of the Scots in Ce had known anything of their king’s true plans.
Drawn by an invisible thread—except she knew it was the benevolent power of her goddess guiding her—Elise looked up.
Eyes so dark they appeared black bored into her. Eyes that held no respect for her status, no regret for the way his people had so brutally betrayed hers. Eyes that held nothing but undisguised contempt.
Disbelief clutched low in her gut. Denial tumbled through her panicked mind. Not him.
There was a mistake. Of all the Scots warriors left in Ce, how had her glance fallen upon the only one she could scarcely stand to look at, never mind anything else? Even during the spring, before the darkness had descended over Pictland, she’d been unable to speak to him as she had spoken to all the others.
With rising desperation, she attempted to drag her gaze from his, but she was locked in a mutually distasteful enchantment with the glowering warrior. Every step she took brought her closer to where he stood. There was no deference in his stance despite the approach of her queen.
Why couldn’t she break eye contact? Her stomach lurched, reminding her of the time she had been thrown from her horse as a child, and goddess help her but her palms were sweaty. And still Cameron MacNeil glowered at her, as though he blamed her personally for the fact he had been one of those ordered to remain behind in Ce while his compatriots returned to Dal Riada.
They drew level. She dredged up every particle of pride she possessed to stop herself from wilting beneath that condemning glare. Condemnation he had no right directing her way.
Still his expression didn’t alter. In her peripheral vision, she saw his fingers caress the hilt of his sword, but it was his dark eyes and his granite hard features that filled her mind and imprinted upon her brain.
With a sense of horror, she realized she was still staring, despite having passed him, and with shaming effort, she forced her attention back to reality. Her ragged breath echoed in her ears. The painful staccato of her heart thudded against her ribs. Her legs were oddly weak and a distressing whirlpool of sensation ignited between her thighs.
But most of all, despite how she was no longer looking in his direction, she was acutely aware that Cameron MacNeil had not taken his burning gaze from her.
Cam’s fingers tightened on the hilt of his broadsword as he watched the royal party enter the palace gates. Except it wasn’t the royal party he watched. It was Princess Elise, with her golden hair, blue eyes and haughty demeanor every time she deigned to glance his way.
It was clear she considered her filthy Pictish blood superior to his.
“Christ, Cam,” Ross MacIntosh hissed. He hadn’t even realized the other man had approached. “Why don’t you draw your sword and impale the queen? It would scarcely be less subtle.”
Cam loosened his grip on his hilt and shot Ross an irritated glare.
“I have no quarrel with the queen.” He knew he sounded as though he meant the opposite, and yet his words were true. Six months ago—hell, as little as three months ago—such a remark would never have entered his mind, much less passed his lips.
But the killing of the nine Pictish nobles in MacAlpin’s war chamber had shaken the foundations of his belief. To be sure, there were now nine less Picts in the country, which could only be a good thing. But the circumstances gnawed at his guts, an uneasy suspicion that, despite official word to the contrary, the Picts had been ruthlessly ambushed by his own king.
“Her personal guard think otherwise.” Ross sounded grim and Cam dragged his thoughts back to the present and the apparent insult he had directed against the Pictish queen. “Did you not see the way they looked at you? The situation’s bad enough without you making things worse.”
“I’ll not make things worse, MacIntosh,” Cam ground the words between his teeth. “And neither will I apologize for not going around with an imbecilic grin on my face like fucking MacGregor.”
Ross glanced across the dispersing crowd to where Stuart MacGregor was engaged in charming a witless serving maid to doubtless part her thighs. As if to validate his thought, Stuart looped his arm around the girl’s shoulders and led her in the direction of the town inn.
“At least he doesn’t go around antagonizing the natives.” Ross folded his arms and glowered at Cam. “When was the last time you had a woman?”
“None of your fucking business.”
“It’s my business to keep the peace here in Ce. By my calculations, it’s been more than three months since you’ve had a fuck. And by God, Cam, it shows.”
Instinctively, Cam’s hand fisted and only with the greatest effort did he manage to keep from smashing Ross’s jaw. Three months? Was MacIntosh keeping a tally of every warrior’s conquests? Or just his?
Three months? More like fucking five.
The harsh realization of how long it had been since he’d enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh ripped through his groin, stirring his lust and bringing to mind a golden-haired, blue-eyed Pictish princess. The image was so visceral his cock hardened and his glare intensified because a heathen Pict was the last female on God’s earth he’d ever take.
“You’re wrong.” The words were a low growl but Ross failed to heed the warning.
“No.” Ross sounded smugly sure of himself. “You ignored all offers the last time we were in Ce, and then as soon as we returned to Dal Riada, we were dispatched to Northumbria. I don’t recall you engaging in any liaisons before we accompanied Connor back to Ce.”
MacIntosh had forgotten that, before their first mission into Ce, they had been fighting the Vikings on the Isle of Iona. There were no women Cam would bed there, either.
Not that he intended to remind Ross of that fact.
“Unlike some,” Cam deliberately glanced in Stuart MacGregor’s direction, although the man had now disappeared. “I don’t parade my conquests for public consumption.”
Ross grunted. He obviously didn’t believe a word Cam said.
“God only knows how long we’ll be stationed here. Find a willing maid and take the edge off, MacNeil, before you combust. I doubt any of us will be welcomed in the noblewomen’s beds again, but there are plenty of others to choose from.”
Plenty of Picts to choose from. And therefore, no choice at all.
Elise’s hauntingly beautiful face swam into his mind, her blue eyes deceptively innocent, her smile an invitation from hell itself. Elise, who three months ago had charmed and bedded half the Scots warriors in Ce, Stuart MacGregor included, but had scarcely acknowledged Cam’s existence.
Elise, the damned Pictish princess, who invaded his nightly erotic fantasies and left him sweating and infuriated and unimaginably frustrated.
Aye, there were plenty of Pictish women who had made it clear they were available for illicit liaisons. The death of their king, the upheaval in the land, appeared not to interfere with their lust for a tumble.
But he had no interest in fucking a Pict. They were the enemy, no matter how this alliance professed otherwise, and they would remain his enemy until death claimed his soul.
And MacIntosh was wrong. Cam had seen the furtive glances the noblewomen had given the Scots during this last week. Their men were held hostage in Dal Riada, and the Scots offered fresh blood and energetic bed-sport. The liaisons with the nobility would recommence. Not as they had before, out of deference to their widowed queen, but that would only add to the Picts’ love of intrigue.
He looked toward the royal palace. It was nothing more than a glorified hill fort, but there was no doubt as to its magnificent strategic position. The view of the surrounding Highlands was unparalleled. And because of the alliance, because Connor MacKenzie had somehow, despite his lack of royal blood, managed to wed the princess of Ce, this land was now under tacit Scots rule.
In one respect, MacIntosh was right. They could be stationed here for months before being recalled to Dal Riada. He would die before confessing aloud, but he ached for the release only a woman could provide. And there was no Scot woman within two weeks ride of Ce.
The crowd had dispersed. MacIntosh had vanished. The Highland wind molded his plaid to his thighs, his shirt to his chest, as he stared at the distant mountains, their peaks obscured by clouds.
Endless nights stretched before him, tormented by visions of a golden-haired temptress. A woman he despised by virtue of her birth and heritage. A heathen. And yet he couldn’t dislodge her from his mind.
The famed Scots charm had bypassed him. He couldn’t flatter and tell the pretty lies women loved to hear. He was not a master of the flirtatious arts he knew the princess found so irresistible.
What the hell was he thinking?
He was not a Pictish barbarian whose actions were led by his cock. No matter how despicably he desired Elise, he would never act upon it.
Not that she’d accept him, even if he offered.
His jaw clenched. He had no intention of offering, no intention of being rebuffed. Let her resume her liaison with MacGregor or sample one of the other Scots. Her merchant husband was still absent. She would soon search out another lover with whom to pass the time.
He didn’t give a shit who she fucked.
With effort, he dragged his gaze from the distant mountains. He resented being left behind in Ce but knew it was a deliberate act on Connor’s part. To test him. To see if he could curb his temper and cool his hatred of the Picts for an extended time, as any warrior worthy of the name could do.
Let Connor test him. He’d not disgrace the honor of his fellow warriors or himself. But he was in the heart of Pictland. Tenuous peace pervaded the land. The opportunity to hunt down the man who had raped his younger sister nine years ago was too potent to ignore.
Personal vengeance had no place in this new alliance between their peoples. Connor MacKenzie and Ross MacIntosh would force a blood oath from him to abandon retribution if they discovered the magnitude of his obsession for justice that still scorched his soul.
But MacKenzie was on his way back to Dal Riada. And MacIntosh would never know. Cam wouldn’t ask questions, wouldn’t draw attention to his quest. But while his fellow Scots indulged in fornicating with the enemy, he would hunt down and destroy Ferelei mac Uurguist.