In this scene, our intrepid heroine Emmaline Marlowe is about to wed the laird of the Hepburn clan when her betrothed's sworn enemy Highlander Jamie Sinclair comes bursting into the abbey on horseback...
Emma turned back to her bridegroom, squaring her shoulders. Despite what the onlookers might believe, she had no intention of weeping or swooning. She had always prided herself on being made of sterner stuff than that. If she must marry this earl to secure the future and fortunes of her family, then marry him she would. And she would strive to be the best wife and countess his wealth—and title—could buy.
Emma was opening her mouth—fully prepared to promise to love, cherish and obey her bridegroom, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, till death did them part—when the double doors of iron-banded oak at the rear of the abbey came crashing open, letting in a blast of wintry air and a dozen armed men.
The abbey erupted in a chorus of startled shrieks and gasps. The men fanned out among the pews, their unshaven faces grim with determination, their pistols held at the ready to quell any sign of resistance.
Instead of fear, Emma felt a ridiculous flare of hope ignite in her heart.
As the initial outcry subsided, Ian Hepburn boldly stepped into the center aisle of the abbey, placing himself between the forbidding mouths of the intruders' weapons and his great-uncle. "What is the meaning of this?" he shouted, his clipped tones ringing from the vaulted ceiling. "Have you savages no respect for the house of the Lord?"
"And which lord would that be?" a man responded in a Scots burr so deep and rich it sent an involuntary shiver down Emma's spine. "The one who formed these mountains with His own hands or the one who believes he was born with the right to rule them?"
She gasped along with everyone else as the owner of that voice rode a towering black horse right through the doorway of the abbey. A shocked murmur went up as the wedding guests shrank back into their pews, their avid gazes reflecting equal parts fear and fascination. Oddly enough, Emma's gaze wasn't transfixed by the magnificent beast with its gleaming barreled chest and flowing ebony mane but by the man straddling the steed's imposing back.
Thick sable wings of hair framed his sun-bronzed face, presenting a startling contrast to the frosty green of his eyes. Despite the chill of the day, he wore only a green and black woolen kilt, a pair of lace-up boots, and a sleeveless vest of beaten brown leather that exposed his broad, smooth chest to the elements. He handled the beast as if he'd been born to the saddle, his powerful shoulders and well-muscled forearms barely showing a strain as he guided the horse right up the aisle, forcing Ian to stumble backward or be trampled by the animal's deadly hooves.
From beside her, Emma heard the earl hiss, "Sinclair!"
She turned to find her elderly groom's face suffused with color and twisted with hatred. Judging by the ripe, purple vein pulsing in his temple, he might not survive the wedding, much less the wedding night.
"Forgive me for interrupting such a tender moment," the intruder said without so much as a trace of remorse as he reined his mount to a prancing halt halfway down the aisle. "Surely you didn't think I could resist dropping by to pay my respects on such a momentous occasion. My invitation must have been lost in the post."
The earl shook one palsied fist at him. "The only invitation any Sinclair is likely to receive from me is a writ of arrest from the magistrate and a date with the hangman."
In reaction to the threat, the man simply arched one bemused eyebrow. "I had such high hopes that the next time I darkened the door of this abbey, it would be for your funeral, not another wedding. But you always have been a randy auld goat. I should have known you couldn't resist buying another bride to warm your bed."
For the first time since he'd muscled his way into the abbey, the stranger's mocking gaze flicked toward her. Even that brief glance was enough to bring a flush stinging to Emma's fair cheeks. Especially since his words held the undeniable and damning ring of truth.
This time it was almost a relief when Ian Hepburn once again sought to impose himself between them. "You may mock us and pretend to be avenging your ancestors as you always do," he said, a sneer curling his upper lip, "but everyone on this mountain knows that the Sinclairs have never been anything more than common cutthroats and thieves. If you and your ruffians have come to divest my uncle's guests of their jewels and purses, then why don't you bloody well get on with it and stop wasting your breath and our time?"
With surprising strength, Emma's groom shoved his way past her, nearly sending her sprawling. "I don't need my nephew to fight my battles. I'm not afraid of an insolent whelp like you, Jamie Sinclair," he snarled, marching right past his nephew with one bony fist still upraised. "Do your worst!"
"Oh, I haven't come for you, auld mon." A lazy smile curved the intruder's lips as he drew a gleaming black pistol from the waistband of his kilt and pointed it at the snowy white bodice of Emma's gown. "I've come for your bride."