A Clan MacLerie Novella
James Murray, heir to the powerful and influential Murray chieftain of Perth, was honor-bound to marry the woman his father had chosen. . . and negotiated for him. Determined to carry out his duties, he ignored all the warnings signs during their journey back to MacLerie lands in the west with his betrothed. And James could ignore the questionable birth of his fiancée and the clear fact that she bore soft feelings towards her guard. It mattered not. . . . until it did. For try as he might to accept a future with his arranged bride, he instead found the perfect woman for him was her best friend.
Elizabeth MacLerie had found no hardship in serving as companion to her friend and cousin Ciara Robertson. She was excited to leave her village and accompany Ciara on the journey to meet and return home with Ciara and her betrothed. . . .until she meets him. James is completely wrong for Ciara, but as the days pass Elizabeth realizes she is falling in love with him.
For honor’s sake, they must both abide by the contracts between the two clans, but James cannot marry Ciara and destroy both their lives. Rather than be forced into the contracted marriage he takes the bold and dangerous step of running away with Elizabeth. On their own, on the run from two angry chieftains and without friends or family, James and Elizabeth must discover the depth and strength of their new love.
But will love be enough to keep them together when so many plot to separate them forever?
This story was previously published in the Harlequin anthology HIGHLANDERS in 2013 and is now republished by the author through Luckenbooth Press.
ISBN ebook – 978-1-949425-11-6 ISBN print – 978-1-949425-13-01-949425-13-0
Realizing that he cannot marry his betrothed, James Murray approached the woman he does love with a proposal—a dangerous one and one that will change their lives. . . .
Jamie pulled her into his arms and kissed her until they both lost their breath. Sliding his hand around until it rested on her buttocks, he pressed her against his body...and the very evident proof of the growing passion between them. She should push him away, but she gave in to the scandalous way he made her feel, rubbing her hips against his strong body. Then, he leaned away, cupping her face in his hands.
“My heart is yours, my sweet Elizabeth,” he whispered. His words, his pledge of love, only served to tear her own heart in pieces.
“But, you cannot...we cannot...” He shook his head and kissed her to stop her words. Then he gazed at her once more.
She froze, blinking several times at the unbelievable words he’d uttered. They were a denial of all they lived by, and she could not get her mind to accept such a thing. As though he understood she could not conceive of such a thing, he repeated them.
“Marry me, Elizabeth. Be my wife.”
The moment spun out between them as her heart warred with her mind, even as her heart tried to hope. It could not.
“James, it is worse than folly to think on such things that can never, never be. It is cruel and not something I would expect from you,” she accused. Pulling free, she turned so that he could not see the torment that must be visible in her eyes. “You are betrothed to another and not free to make such an offer.” No matter how much she wanted him to do so.
“And if I were free? Would you marry me then?”
“Do not ask something like this, James.” He strode to her and gathered her in his arms.
“I want to know. Would you?”
It took only a moment to give her answer—the word had been on her tongue since she’d fallen in love with him and only awaited the right time to say it. In spite of the sheer folly and incredible danger of it, the time was now.
“Aye. I would.” Saying the words did not lighten the burden on her heart. Instead guilt assailed her for her betrayal of her friend and her duty to her family. “But, it cannot be. It would be best if we ended this now.” She took the first step away from him, from the love he offered, and back toward the life she would lead without him.
A clean break, one that began at this moment and extended for the rest of her life would be the only way to salvage her honor and her heart. She would decline Ciara’s offer to move with her to Perthshire and be her companion. Since Elizabeth suspected that Ciara had recognized the attraction between her and James, most likely she would not even have to make up some excuse. Her friend would not force her to create a lie to cover the uncomfortable and unforgivable truth between them.
Elizabeth forced one foot to move in front of the other, intent on leaving him now, but his grasp from behind her prevented her from doing so.
“I cannot marry her, not for family nor for honor, when I love you,” he said softly. His breath tickled her ear as he spoke. And the words warmed her heart, no matter that he spoke of something that could not be. “I plan to break the betrothal and want you to come with me...away from here.”
She faced him and stared into his eyes, trying to determine if his intent was true. All she could see was love shining there.
But Ciara was the bold one. Ciara was the taker of risks, the one to challenge the way things were done and did things that only men did. Not her. Not Elizabeth. With but one exception, one she had learned a dear lesson from, she followed the rules, she did as she was told. How could she agree to something that would break all the rules and would tear apart her family and loyalties?
“Come with you? Your parents will never allow you to do that.”
“I am not asking them. Though if you agree to my proposal, you take to husband a man who can claim little more than what he carries and who can promise nothing but the love in his heart.”
“Jamie...” she whispered, so tempted to accept his offer. “I canna...we canna...do this.” She could remember no one who had betrayed the laird and not lived to regret it. Worse, they would not be the only targets of the earl’s fury—his clan and her family would bear it, too. “The laird would...” She could not even think of what Connor MacLerie was capable of doing in retribution for such a public act against his honor. Against his plans.
“Elizabeth, ‘tis a simple matter now for me. With your consent, we will leave this night, once the keep and village have settled in.”
“This very night, Jamie?” Elizabeth worried her teeth over her lip and shook her head. “‘Tis so soon.”
“If you have any hesitation, any reason you do not wish to come away with me and be my wife, say it now. I have spent my whole life living for my family’s plans and will not continue it now if you will be mine.” He smiled then, a slight lift of the corners of his mouth that made it a sad one. “Aye, it must be this night.”
She was torn. Torn between accepting his love and forswearing it. Torn between being bold and courageous and being unable to claim the love, and life, he offered. Torn between always being the one to follow the rules and mores and the one to challenge them. Ciara would know what to do. Ciara would...
Instead of answering him with words, she took hold of his shoulders, drew him nearer and kissed him. She knew the moment he understood for that kiss changed to become one of claiming and accepting and a promise. Jamie’s strong arms surrounded her and she melded against his body, opening herself to his mouth and his hands. When his palm covered her breast, she moaned against his mouth and shivered in anticipation. He turned his mouth, slanting his lips and taking hers.
Her body remembered the excitement and thrill of passion and blossomed under his touch. Elizabeth arched against him. Sliding her arms around him, she clutched at the back of his jacket and pressed herself tighter to him. His body roared to life at their embrace and she felt the proof of his arousal against her belly. Heat pooled between her legs and her breathing labored as desire for him burned in her blood. When his thumb flicked over the tightened tip of her breast, she wanted to sink to the ground and pull him on top of her.
“Elizabeth,” he whispered against her mouth. He kissed her lips and cheeks and then her forehead. Tangling his hands in her hair, he smiled at her as he leaned in to taste her one last time before stepping back and releasing her. “I will make all the arrangements. Go about your day as you planned.”
“When will we leave?” she asked, gathering the loosened hair back into a braid. Her body ached for more of him, but this was not the time.
“After the meal in the keep. It will be short and simple fare since there are preparations for the morrow underway.” A shadow of guilt flitted across his gaze and was gone in a moment. “Pack only what you will need for a few days and meet me here.”
“Ciara has asked me to stay with her this night,” she whispered, trying to keep the guilt that assuaged her own heart from showing. Or from stopping their plans.
Jamie smiled at her. “I am certain you can come up with some explanation.” He lifted her hand to his mouth. “Now, we must go about our duties for the rest of the day.”
Then he said the words that sealed their plan in her heart.
“You have made me the happiest of men, Elizabeth. Your love gives me the courage to claim you as my own.”
His lips touched hers in a gentle kiss, one over much too soon.