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       The Rogue: A Highland Guard Novella (The Highland Guard), p.1

           Monica McCarty
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The Rogue: A Highland Guard Novella (The Highland Guard)


  THE ROGUE

  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

  THE ROGUE Copyright © 2016

  Buccaneer Press LLC

  Excerpt from THE GHOST Pocket Books

  © 2016 Monica McCarty

  Cover Design: © Carrie D. Divine/Seductive Designs

  Photo copyright: Model Sttuart Reardon

  © Photographer Clauddio Harris

  Photo copyright: Background with castle

  © Jan Kranendonk/Depositphotos.com

  Photo copyright: Background with rocks

  © Brendan Howard/Depositphotos.com

  Photo copyright: Sky

  © sundraw (Alexander Shadrin)/Depositphotos.com

  This is a work of fiction. References to real people of dpg, events, establishments, organization, or locales are intended only to provide a sense of authenticity, and are used fictitiously. All other characters, and all incidents and dialogue, are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.

  All rights reserved. No part of this novel may be reproduced without prior written permission from the publisher, except for brief quotations for purposes of review.

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  THE ROGUE

  What’s not to love? Not only is Sir Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, one of the most important and wealthiest men in the kingdom, he’s charming, devastatingly handsome, and the favored nephew of King Robert the Bruce. Even so, when Isabel “Izzie” Stewart meets the vaunted knight, she’s glad he’s her cousin’s soon-to-be betrothed and not hers. He takes himself far too seriously, to her mind, and seems to be acting out the role of the “perfect” knight. In her experience, men who are too good to be true usually are. But when Izzie starts to wonder whether her first impressions might have been wrong, she discovers a complex, compelling man who is far from perfect and more seductive than she ever imagined.

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  A huge thanks to Jami Alden for reading this so quickly and for being the greatest beta reader ever. Thanks also to Carrie at Seductive Designs for the gorgeous cover, Ellie at Love N. Books for helping to facilitate the great photo for the cover, and the amazing Stuart Reardon—a model I’d be happy to have on any of my books. On the production side, a huge thanks to Shona McCarthy for her always excellent copyediting, Anne Victory and Crystalle for their eagle-eyed “oops” detecting, Lisa Rogers for the e-book formatting, and Isobel Carr for the print formatting.

  To my daughter, Maxine, who is now old enough

  to appreciate this cover.

  CHAPTER ONE

  Edinburgh, Scotland, March 1314

  I’m going to kill her.

  How she was going to pay her cousin back for this was all Isabel Stewart could think of as she rode away from Holyrood Abbey beside Sir Too-Good-To-Be-True. Good gracious, an hour—God forbid two—of listening to whatever puffery Sir Thomas Randolph thought she wanted to hear was too much to be borne, even in the name of friendship.

  Not that the esteemed knight looked very interested in charming or impressing her at the moment. A covert glance from under her lashes at her distinctly grim-looking companion told her that he wasn’t any happier being forced into her company than she was his. The try-not-to-fall-in-love-with-me grin that was perpetually plastered on his face was nowhere to be seen.

  Dislike was probably too strong of a word for it, but when Izzie arrived in Edinburgh four days ago and met the man her cousin hoped to marry, he and Izzie hadn’t exactly taken to one another. It was probably Izzie’s fault. She hadn’t been able to hide her amusement at his grandiose greeting. But good grief, she’d felt as though she was watching a player upon a stage act out the most perfect, romantic fantasy of the handsome knight in shining armor riding in on his magnificent charger and kneeling before his lady fair. It had been too much to take.

  Clearly, Randolph (despite his new title of Earl of Moray, everyone called him Randolph) hadn’t seen the humor in the situation and had taken definite umbrage at her reaction—if that rigid back, stony jaw, and icy gaze meant anything. He might be perfect, and she had to admit his face came exceedingly close, but he seemed to know it and took himself far too seriously for her liking.

  Which was ironic since in the four days that she’d known him, she doubted she’d heard one real thought come out of his mouth. He had a distinct knack for saying just the right thing—or rather what he thought you wanted to hear—which was undeniably charming, but again made her feel as though she was watching a performance. A magnificent performance without a doubt, but a performance all the same.

  Still, there was something undeniably captivating about his larger-than-life personality and brash arrogance, and just like everyone else, she couldn’t help watching him. Sir Thomas Randolph was a great hero in the making—a man who would become legend—and everyone knew it.

  So why was Randolph taking Izzie to see the rock formations known as Samson’s Ribs in the park next to Holyrood Abbey, and not her cousin Elizabeth, to whom he was all but engaged? Good question! And one Izzie intended to have her cousin answer as soon as she returned.

  Izzie suspected it had something to do with Elizabeth’s handsome childhood friend, Thom MacGowan. But her cousin better figure out which of the two Thomases she wanted—preferably before Izzie had to cover for her again. One uncomfortable ride through the park was more than enough.

  At least they weren’t alone, although it felt like it. As the favored nephew of King Robert the Bruce, Sir Thomas Randolph was one of the most important, wealthiest men in the kingdom, and the retinue of men around him reflected that. Though there were probably three score of men-at-arms in his service, only a handful had accompanied them today. The men, however, were riding at a discreet distance behind them.

  Apparently, they hadn’t been informed of the change in plans, she thought with a wry smile. It was no longer the romantic ride and midday meal in a basket that Sir Thomas had intended with her cousin. Still, Izzie had no doubt that most of the women at court—including many of the married ones—would give their eyeteeth to be in her position. And she would gladly switch positions with any one of them. The awkward silence was unbearable.

  But what could they talk about? They didn’t have anything in common. She frowned. Except for music. She wasn’t surprised that he sang—what self-respecting knight in shining armor couldn’t sing a chanson de geste about some chivalrous tale?—rather, she’d been surprised by the depth of his skill and the attention he’d obviously given to the study.

  It seemed a safe enough place to start. They had to talk about something, for goodness sake. And preferably something that wasn’t going to make his spine stiffen and that formidable jaw of his turn to stone, which she seemed to have a unique ability to do every time she opened her mouth. She wasn’t purposefully trying to antagonize him; it just sort of happened.

  With a heavy sigh, she looked over at him. She would have blinked a few times, but from experience she knew it wouldn’t dull the effect any. He really was startlingly magnificent to look at—the dark, glossy hair, the brilliant hazel eyes that sometimes looked green, and the refined, arrogantly handsome features that were it not for the strong jaw, once-broken nose, a few thin battle-scars, and fiercely proud expression on his face, might have verged on prettiness. He was built rather magnificently as well, with the broad shoulders and the powerful chest and muscular arms of a man who’d probably had a sword in his hand since he could walk. But it was his mouth that undoubtedly made women lose their heads
. It was pure sin with a sensual twist—when it wasn’t pressed into a thin line around her, that is.

  Simply gorgeous, she thought to herself in the same way that one might admire a fine jewel or decorative artwork—from afar. It certainly wasn’t something she wanted for herself. Her cousin Elizabeth would have her hands full with him. From what she heard, Sir Thomas was a very popular man at court with the ladies. They loved him.

  It wasn’t hard to see why. “What’s not to love?” her cousin liked to jest. He was rich, handsome, and charming. Seemingly too good to be true. Which in Izzie’s experience meant that he likely was. Despite his surface charm and gallantry, she sensed something cold underneath—as if emotion was something Randolph might play at as well. He could put on a good show, but she wagered very little really touched him.

  “Look,” she said now, trying to hide her amusement. The situation was ridiculous, but she knew better than to think that he would see the humor. “I know this isn’t the day either of us had planned, but we might as well make the best of it. I’m sure we can find something to talk about to pass the time.” She was aware that she didn’t actually sound too sure, which, if the arch of his brow meant anything, he seemed to be aware of as well. “Perhaps you might tell me about your musical training,” she added hastily, recalling the surprisingly passionate exchange they’d had about music the other day. “Where did you learn to sing like that? You had the nuns spellbound yesterday.”

  He held her gaze a little too long, as if he were trying to figure out some ulterior meaning to her words. Eventually he let the brow drop. It was a bit like lowering a shield. “Only the nuns, Lady Isabel?”

  She tried not to flush, knowing full well that he might have caught her staring once or twice. But she was stunned, not mesmerized—there was a difference. Pretending she didn’t know to what he was referring, she said, “Perhaps a few of the patients as well.”

  She sobered. There had been one young girl in particular—probably no older then fourteen—who had looked at him as if he were an angel descended from the very heavens that would be claiming her soon. He’d been the perfect, gallant knight, sitting by her bed and making her laugh with his stories—much to the admiration of everyone around. Izzie couldn’t help but wonder whether that was why he’d done it. She sensed that appearances mattered to Sir Thomas Randolph. He was one of the greatest knights in the kingdom and everyone had to see it.

  Their eyes met for an instant, and from the shadow that crossed his face, she wondered if he were remembering the girl, too. But that wasn’t likely. There were few noblemen who would trouble themselves with a poor, dying peasant girl, and certainly not ones who had been charged by the king with the difficult task of taking Edinburgh Castle from the English. Randolph was so busy commanding the siege of the important castle, he barely had time for the woman he was supposed to be courting for marriage.

  Not that her cousin was any better. Elizabeth’s head was so turned by the handsome Thom MacGowan that so far Izzie had ended up talking to Randolph more than her cousin had.

  Apparently, thinking that he’d made his point, which in a way she conceded he had, he let the matter of catching her staring drop. “The village school attached to the church where I grew up,” he said, answering her original question. “In addition to Latin grammar, the priest also instructed us in music. I proved a far more proficient student at the latter.”

  She grinned, feigning shock. “Do you mean there is actually something in which you do not excel, my lord?”

  The words were out before she could take them back. Anyone else would have heard them for the teasing jest that they were. But Sir Thomas Randolph was deaf to teasing—and humor.

  His face darkened, and she saw the telltale tic appear at his jaw.

  Oh no, she’d done it again.

  She sighed. Oh well. So much for finding something safe to talk about.

  Randolph stared at the young woman riding beside him and tried to contain his irritation. But if he were a dog, his hackles would be rising. Hell, they’d be standing all the way on end.

  What was it about Lady Isabel Stewart that made him feel as if a nettle had worked its way under his plaid and wouldn’t stop poking? There was nothing outwardly in her appearance to give an indication of trouble. Fair-haired and blue-eyed, with pretty enough, finely boned features, she was so serene-looking her likeness would not have seemed out of place on a church wall.

  Too bad her temperament didn’t match.

  From the first moment they’d met, he sensed that she was amused by him—and not in the way he was used to amusing women. Nay, it was almost as if she was laughing at him. Which was ridiculous. Women didn’t laugh at him. They smiled, flirted, and occasionally simpered, but they definitely didn’t laugh. They might bat their eyes, but they sure as hell didn’t roll them, as he could swear he’d seen her do more than once.

  What the Devil was wrong with the lass?

  She didn’t even look at him the way other women did. He hadn’t noticed the difference until meeting her had made it clear. Unawareness. That’s what it was, and he didn’t like it. Especially as he could hardly make the same claim toward her. He was oddly attracted to her, which under the circumstances, only increased his annoyance. He was about to ask her extremely beautiful and would-make-him-a-perfect-wife cousin to marry him, for Christ’s sake. He shouldn’t be thinking of ways to make Isabel—“Izzie” as her family called her—aware of him. Plenty of women were aware of him; he didn’t need another.

  But it didn’t stop him from imagining how satisfying it would be to see those big, laughing blue eyes darken with arousal and those pink lips, always set in a wry grin, part with a gasp of pleasure.

  It wasn’t just her unawareness riling his irritation this time, however. Unknowingly she’d struck a tender spot. Learning hadn’t come easy to him. “Not all of us are born to be clerks or churchmen.” With a long, meaningful look, he couldn’t resist adding, “Indeed there are other things in which I do excel that ensure priesthood will never be in my future.”

  When she took his meaning, he was rewarded with a sharp intake of breath that if not a hint of passion, was close enough for him to imagine it could be. Viscerally. He felt it run through him in a hot buzz as if a lightning bolt had been set at the base of his spine.

  Their eyes met, and in her shock, he wondered if maybe she wasn’t quite as unaware as he thought.

  But just as he was about chastise himself for acting like an arse by baiting her—inappropriately—to salve his pride, she did it again. She laughed and gave a half roll of her eyes. “So I’ve heard.”

  Damn her. At least if she were haughty, condescending, or judgmental, he’d have cause to be so irritated. But it was partly the good humor with which she imparted her indifference that annoyed him. She might have been a distant aunt, teasing him for being incorrigible.

  But she wasn’t his aunt, damn it. She was the twenty-two-year-old unmarried daughter of the great patriot hero John Stewart of Bonkyll, who’d died leading his archers beside William Wallace at Falkirk sixteen years ago. She was also cousin to both the Lord of Douglas and the current Steward of Scotland. In other words, she was just the kind of well-connected young noblewoman who usually tried to impress him.

  But she didn’t seem to care what he thought, and he knew it wasn’t because he was nearly engaged to her cousin. Nay, she’d simply sized him up and found him somehow wanting. Him. Wanting! And that irritated him to no end.

  She was a young woman at court for the first time, and he was one of the most important knights in the kingdom. It was unnatural, blast it.

  What did he need to do to impress her, slay a dragon? Hell, that probably wouldn’t even do it. She was remarkably unimpressible.

  Why the hell was he even thinking about this? It was probably the novelty of having a young woman not interested in him. Aye, that must be it.

  Still, he couldn’t resist prodding her a little. “I’d tell you not to believe everythi
ng you hear, but in this case…” He shrugged with a wicked smile.

  To which she was completely immune. His comment merely elicited another eye roll and an adorably twitching mouth. “I’m sure everything you do is perfect, my lord.”

  He pulled on the reins, and swung around his horse to face her. “What the Devil is that supposed to mean?”

  She didn’t seem taken aback by his anger at all. Rather the opposite as a matter of fact. The lass was entirely too self-possessed for one so young. It was disconcerting, and he didn’t like it.

  She stopped her own horse and turned to face him, shaking her head with a wry smile and something of an “Are you kidding me?” expression on her face. “Come now, my lord, is that not what I’m supposed to think? Sir Thomas Randolph, the perfect, quintessential knight: handsome, charming, chivalrous to the core, whose prowess on the battlefield is only equaled by his prowess in the bedchamber?”

  Randolph’s mouth might have gaped. She’d shocked him speechless. Now, admittedly he’d been suggesting that very thing, but for her to come out and actually say it was different. It made him feel almost… embarrassed. Hell, he was embarrassed.

  How did she do this, damn it? How did she so easily turn the tables on him when he was the aggrieved party? Wasn’t he?

  Bloody hell.

  He would have dragged his fingers through his hair if he wasn’t wearing a helm. “It isn’t like that.”

  She smiled, clearly amused. “Isn’t it? But no matter, my lord. I did not mean to offend you. I think it’s just that we don’t share the same sense of humor.”

  That was an understatement.

  She tilted her head, her mouth in a bit of a frown. “Do you ever laugh, my lord?”

  “Of course.” All the women found him quite witty. All except her, that is. He laughed with them… didn’t he?

 
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