Adanel stiffened at the sound of the deep baritone voice. Ruadh, he had said. There was only one reason the McTiernay would call her the color red. He had seen her...or at least her cursed hair. How long had he been watching her? He had stared in her direction for several seconds. The man must have known she was there and had just feigned looking away. Adanel clenched her jaw and shook her head, suspecting that was exactly what had happened. The not-so-noble McTiernay soldier had been toying with her and now expected to have a conversation.
"Arrogant goat," she muttered, uncaring if he heard. When he did not respond, Adanel shouted, "If you knew I was here, then why did you not leave?" She paused, hoping to hear him beg his pardon or at the very least the sounds of him swimming back to his side of the loch.
"I thought you might be as curious as I am as to who else visits this remote place for a swim."
Adanel could hear the smirk on his face in his aggravatingly chipper tone. "I think my hiding makes it more than obvious I am not curious about you at all and prefer to bathe alone."
"Ah, but I caught you staring."
"If you had truly seen me, you would know that I was not staring as you put it, but merely shocked at your unexpected arrival. If I had been looking in your direction, it was just to see who was behind my bad luck of having a lovely afternoon ruined." It was a complete fabrication. She had been staring and she had been curious, but she had not wanted to meet him. Adanel prayed that he took her strongly worded hint to quickly decide to leave.
* * *
A satisfied smile curved Dugan's lips. His ruadh had spirit. As a commander of the Torridon McTiernays, he found that women usually either fawned all over him, eager to agree to anything he said or suggested, or cowered from him, afraid to learn if all the stories their mother had told them about the battle-worn soldier were true. Most were.
Nearly six years ago, when he had first come to these harsh lands, he had been the leader of a small but deadly group of soldiers who had made a name for themselves fighting in the war for Scotland's freedom. Known for his congenial temperament and deadly arm, Dugan had been one of two possibilities as a potential laird of the lands south of Loch Torridon. Many of the small clans that had littered the area had lost their lairds in battles against the English. The resulting lawlessness had made their small numbers even smaller. Without leadership, they had become nomadic, scavenging cattle and whatever else they could carry, creating problems for the larger clans in the area.
Someone had needed to take control and Dugan was seen as a neutral choice. He was affable, trusted by the local clansmen, wicked with a sword, and most of all—someone whom each nearby powerful laird thought he could manipulate. In the end, however, he had lacked one very important thing, an army.
Dugan had led a small group, but did not have either the financial means or the men Cole McTiernay had. Unsurprisingly, none of the larger clans wanted to shift a significant amount of their men and funds to an unproven leader. Still, they liked him and used their influence to press Cole into naming Dugan as one of his commanders.
Dugan had grudgingly accepted, believing the position was nothing but a temporary consolation prize and that either he or Cole would quickly decide he should move on. But it was not long before he realized that the older lairds had been correct in the decision to choose Cole over him, with or without an army. Leading a band of soldiers was considerably different than overseeing a clan, something Cole had experience doing during the times his eldest brother Conor, the McTiernay chief, traveled.
As weeks turned into months, Dugan had been surprised to find how much he grew to respect the often surly McTiernay as well as his other two commanders. Donald, Cole's best friend and someone he had known and fought alongside for years, had been named the commander of his elite guard. Jaime Ruadh, another McTiernay with whom Cole had a long history, had been placed in charge of Cole's sizable army, making it one of the largest and most fearsome in the Highlands. Dugan had been given the unusual role of liaison between Cole—who was merely rude on his good days—and the rest of the clan.
At first, Dugan had thought the position ludicrous, created in name only as an appeasement for not being named laird. But it was not long before he understood just how important liaison duties were to not just Cole, but to the motley clan as a whole. Outside of the soldiers, if someone had an issue, problem, question, or need, they came to him. His lack of leadership experience had meant he made mistakes, but Cole had proven to be an excellent laird and eventual friend, standing by him and providing input only when needed or asked. Now, years later, Dugan possessed the confidence he once lacked. And hearing this redhead admonish him, he was once again reminded of another reason why he stayed as McTiernay commander—he loved the perks, especially when it came to women. They loved him and he had done his best to make them all feel loved in return.
After six years of riding these hills and visiting the McTiernay farms that spotted the valley near this area, he had thought to have met all the pretty women under his purview. Most—married or not—had made it their mission to meet him. He could not count how many mothers had paraded their daughters in front of him in the hopes that she would be the one to convince him to settle down and make a binding commitment. As a result, Dugan would have wagered there was not a woman around whom he had not met. It certainly had been a long time since he had seen a fresh face. But he had definitely spied one today.
This excerpt ends on page 15 of the paperback edition.