The Highland Chief by Amy Jarecki

Book 4 of the Lords of the Highlands Series

He is the last man she would ever marry . . .

After being unceremoniously jilted by her betrothed, Lady Mairi MacKenzie is humiliated and heartbroken—but she’s not desperate. As the daughter of an earl, she won’t give her hand to just anyone, and she definitely isn’t swayed by a last-minute proposal from Laird Duncan MacRae. The powerful clan chieftain may be disarmingly handsome and charming, but he’s not a nobleman. Mairi doesn’t want his pity or his charity—even though his dark smoldering gaze makes her melt with desire.

She is the only woman he could ever love . . .

 Dunn may be a battle-hardened clansman, but he’s always had a soft spot for Mairi. For years, she tormented him with flirtation—only to reject him. But he’s not giving up. When Mairi is attacked by redcoats, Dunn goes after the woman he loves. Through brute strength and fierce action, he will protect her life at any cost. But to win her heart, he will have to show her the tenderness in his own.

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Good gracious, convincing Mr. MacRae that she was completely competent to use a razor had all but taken an act of God. Of course Mairi had used a razor before—once. She’d shaved her brother Alasdair’s face. She’d been twelve at the time and he seventeen, but she hadn’t nicked him. Not even one single time.

While the Highlander sat on a log by the lagoon, she expertly lathered his face with a cake of soap she’d found in the saddlebags. “At least it hasn’t rained today,” she said, trying to sound exuberant. Mr. MacRae was always so serious; he needed to be surrounded by cheerful people—at least that was Mairi’s conclusion. Besides, she was feeling much better about her own lot as of late—mayhap because she’d put it out of her mind. Her spirits were a hundred times more pleasant than the creeping, evil, horrible melancholy she’d endured only days past.

“Agreed,” he said. “Though I don’t expect the fine weather to last.”

“Whyever not?”

He raised his eyelashes and met her gaze, making Mairi’s insides flit about like moths to a flame. She leaned in to study his lashes more closely. Dark brown, they were thicker than hers and longer. Perhaps they were what made his eyes always look so intense. With a shift of his expression, he glared at her, arching his bold brows. “Are you planning to use that blade, or just stare at my bonny face?”

“Ah.” Snapping her gaze away, she tapped her fingers to her lips. “I was just noticing your eyelashes.”

“What about them?” he asked, sounding gruff, but Mairi discounted acrimony. In fact, she was quite certain he was not as coarse as he let on.

“They’re lovelier than mine.” She raised the razor.

He frowned, making a deep crease between his eyebrows.

After taking a clean swipe, she wiped away the foam on a cloth. “Why do you always frown after I pay you a compliment?”

“I don’t frown.”

“You just did.”

“No, m’lady. I did not frown.”

Pursing her lips, she took another swipe, this one faster and harder. “I beg your pardon, but when I said your eyelashes were bonnier than mine, you frowned whether you realize it or not…and you have done it many, many times in the past.” Mairi thought back. “You did the same when I said I wasn’t ready to return home as of yet.”

“Hogwash.”

His response made heat flash across the back of her neck. He was deliberately denying his own expressions. Why? Why would he do that? Furiously, she shaved his face with quick flicks of her wrist.

He always spoke the truth about other matters. She knew this to be true by reputation and by experience, but something was preventing him from being honest with himself. If only they did have a mirror. The next time the corners of his mouth pulled down and those eyes grew dark as coal she would shove it in front of his face and show him exactly what he looked like.

Sighing, she stood back and examined her handiwork. “I need to push up your nose to reach your mustache.”

He nodded. “Very well.”

“How is the knock on your head?” she asked, gently nudging up the end of his nose.

“Barely ken ’tis there.” He winked. “With a head as hard as mine, it is difficult for a man like me to notice such things.” Now he was feeding her chaff.

She giggled. Truly, she’d behaved badly. Though he had as well. “I’m glad you’re not afflicted with a headache.”

He thumped his skull. “She’ll come good in a day or two, mark me.”

Finished with shaving, Mairi set the razor down and examined the wound, now starting to scab over. “There’s a knot and a purple bruise.”

“I reckoned there would be.” He grabbed the cloth and wiped his face. “How do I look? Passable for a visit to court?”

“Aye, you are.” She eyed him. “Are you planning a trip to London?”

“Not anytime soon. Never again if it were up to me.”

“Then why go at all?”

He tossed the cloth aside. “Sooner or later Seaforth will call upon me and I’ll have no recourse but to ride alongside him and ensure he eludes trouble.”

“Does His Lordship find trouble often?”

“Aye, he does. And he never seems to mind having me clean up the messes he leaves behind.”

Numb tingling spread across Mairi’s skin. Within the blink of an eye, the horrors from the day Seaforth broke their engagement returned full force. Tears welled in her eyes as she shook her head and backed away. That’s right. Mr. MacRae cleaned up the Earl of Seaforth’s blunders, just as he’d attempted to do by offering for her hand. She drew her palm over her mouth to stifle a sob. “You may try, sir. But you cannot always make up for Seaforth’s indiscretions.” Before she crumpled into a weeping heap, Mairi spun on her heel and ran for the cave.

Dear God, why had she been so dimwitted to think the laird might actually care for her? Why did she allow herself to feel happiness? Every time her heart fluttered with a modicum of joy, she ended up humiliating herself. For the love of God, the man frowned all the time. He groused all the time. The only reason MacRae had saved her was because it was his sworn duty to protect MacKenzie kin.

She was such a fool to think otherwise. Da was right. Her father needed to make an alliance with a noble family. That’s what she’d been bred for. She may as well face it. If she ever married, which was growing more doubtful by the day, it would be to a man of her father’s choosing. A man who would further her family’s interests. A nobleman who had connections in London, who wore fine silk and velvet doublets and couldn’t grow a full beard in two days if his life depended upon it.

She plopped onto the fur chair and buried her face in her hands. Her future husband would never consider hiding out in the Highlands in a cave. A man as refined as he would carry a sword only for show. His army would do all the fighting for him.

“Mairi,” Dunn whispered right beside her, though she hadn’t heard him come inside.

She turned away. “Leave me be.”

“I cannot do that.” He kneeled, raised his hand and, after a moment’s hesitation, caressed her hair.

Holy Mother, his touch felt so undeniably soothing, Mairi craved for his hand to linger. If only he cared for her, for Mairi MacKenzie, the redheaded lass whom he’d rescued from the grip of dastards. “Please. I cannot bear to have you touch me when you are not truly fond of me.”

“What did you say?”

She looked up through bleary eyes. “You heard me. You said yourself, you clean up Seaforth’s blunders.” She thumped her chest. Hard. “Well, I’m his latest mistake, am I not? He all but left me standing alone at the altar.”

“Good heavens, Mairi, you are not his blunder. Have I not been clear on that?” Reaching over, he pulled her to his breast and cradled her head against his powerful chest. His heart beat a strong rhythm while he smoothed a big gentle hand up and down her spine.

The wonderfulness of his succor was almost too painful to bear.

“You’re the bonniest, most vibrant rose in the Highlands, Mairi MacKenzie.”

“I’m not.”

“You are, and do ye ken what else?”

She shook her head while her daft sobs turned to hiccups.

“You’re right. I do frown when you pay me a compliment.”

“You see? Why do you do it?”

His hand stilled against her back, his body tensed. “Because I’m afraid you’ll reject me once more. Such a rejection I could never again bear.”