About the book
A beautiful secret that will get them both killed…
After her father’s death, Miss Daisy Maxwell’s family is left deserted and in dire need of funds. Which is why she finds herself working as a maid for a Scottish Laird...a scandalous position for an Englishwoman.
Angus Murdoch’s life was turned upside down after a fire, set by the enemy clan, burned down half his castle. Many lives were lost; but the fire sealed away one of his biggest secrets…One he would guard with his own life.
As their forbidden romance blooms, Daisy and Angus have to combat not only the distrust between them, but also ghosts of the past...When Daisy learns about Angus’ secret, the world around her crumbles; and a mystery unravels around those who were long thought dead.
MacGregor Castle, Scotland
Daisy Maxwell had never expected to find herself in such a situation. She was carrying a bucket of slops up a flight of slippery steps from the kitchens of MacGregor Castle, a gloomy baronial pile deep in the misty Scottish glens. The housekeeper, Aoife Mulligan, was barking instructions at her, and Daisy felt thoroughly confused.
“And on Thursdays ye take the back stairs, because the Laird likes to ride out on a Thursday and it wouldnae do well for a scullery maid to meet him,” she said, turning to Daisy who nodded.
“Thursday, the back stairs, yes,” she replied, trying to remember what the first set of instructions the housekeeper had given her had been.
It was something about the fireplace in the great hall, though she could not remember if she was meant to lay it or to sweep it or to leave it. She had never imagined that the life of a scullery maid could be so demanding. It was not long since Daisy had had no such concerns, nor had she ever dreamed she would do so.
Her father had been Baron Maxwell of Dithby, a fine estate south of the Scottish border, and Daisy had grown up amid the aristocracy, wanting for nothing and knowing herself privileged. All of that had changed when her father’s death some months previously had brought financial ruin to the family.
“Keep up, Lass, ye shall have to climb these stairs two dozen times a day, ye shall soon move faster,” Aoife said, hurrying Daisy up a flight of steps, which wound their way up through a tower at the side of the keep.
“Is the Laird a good man? I have not seen him yet,” Daisy asked, and Aoife turned to her and tutted.
“’Tis nae for us to speak of the Laird. We are his servants and we do nae indulge in idle gossip,” she said.
Aoife was a plump woman, almost as round as she was tall, with rosy cheeks and a starched bonnet pulled down over her mousey gray hair. Daisy found her quite amusing, though there was no doubt that the housekeeper intended for her to work hard.
“I am only interested to know who my employer is,” she replied, as they came to the top of the steps.
“The Laird is… a good man,” she said, and Daisy wondered what the truth really was.
She knew nothing of Scotland, and it seemed that her mother had brought her and her brothers and sister to its remotest corner. It was all very different to England and for a moment she thought wistfully of the life she had once lived. Certainly, she had never imagined she would find herself scrubbing steps in the castle of a Scottish Laird. She pictured him, glancing at a portrait which hung on the wall of the gallery they had just emerged into. It was hung with similar paintings, long-dead ancestors of the present Laird, the Clan having inhabited the castle for many hundreds of years.
“Will I ever see him?” she asked, picturing the Laird as a mysterious recluse, perhaps only coming out at night to ride through the glen on horseback.
The thought sent a shiver running through her, though it may have simply been the draft, which seemed to find its way constantly beneath the gaps in the windows and beneath the doors. It was winter and a permanent mist seemed to cling to the castle which lay on the shores of a great loch, beneath high mountains, covered with impenetrable forests. Daisy felt as though she had come to the very ends of the earth; it was exciting, but also strange and mysterious, a life wholly different from what she had known before.
“Ye will see him, but ye will nae speak to him. Remember yer place, Lass. Where was it ye said ye had come from again?” Aoife asked, leading her along the gallery, past the imposing portraits staring down.
“The north of England,” Daisy replied.
“Strange, it seems a long way to come to learn smithyin’ for the lad,” the housekeeper replied.
Daisy had told Aoife that her family had moved to Scotland so that her twin brother Harry could learn the art of the blacksmith. It was a feeble story, but others had believed it, and few questions had been asked in the village, for her brother really was quite keen on the idea of being a blacksmith, now that his previous life of leisure was denied for him.
“I could be a smithy,” he had said, watching the village blacksmith at work, and their mother had agreed that when he was old enough, he could be apprenticed there.
“Well, Scottish blacksmiths are known for their great skill,” Daisy replied, and the housekeeper nodded.
“Aye, ‘tis true enough,” she said, pausing outside a door at the end of the gallery.
In truth, they weren’t in Scotland for that reason. Her father had been in debt. Considerable debt. And the only choice that Daisy’s mother had was to sell Dithby Manor and settle the creditors with the proceeds. The family had been left with nothing save their dignity, and the scandal of such an ancient family spiraling into poverty had been too much for Daisy’s mother to take.
Daisy, her twin brother Harry, younger brother Hector and sister Delia, found themselves divested of the privileges they had once enjoyed and their mother had spirited them away far north into Scotland, where she had hoped they would start a new life.
But despite her loss of privileges and the obvious anguish which their sad situation now caused, Daisy had been determined to do all she could to help make ends meet. They had arrived in the village of Rutherglen, a small settlement surrounding the castle of the MacGregor Clan, a place where they hoped their scandal would not follow them. Daisy had sought work at the Castle, and it was for that reason that she now found herself following Aoife and trying desperately to remember everything she was telling her. “And up here, well ye do nae need to know about up here,” Aoife said, glancing nervously at the door.
It was large, made of oak, strongly built, studded with iron and with an enormous lock and handle. Daisy looked at it curiously. She imagined that Aoife was about to tell her she would be polishing it every morning, for the lock itself was gleaming.
“Where does this lead to?” Daisy asked, and the housekeeper turned and fixed her with a solemn gaze.
“It goes naywhere, Lass. Naywhere ye would wish to go, at least,” she said.
To prohibit a place is to make it immediately more attractive, and Daisy’s interest was sparked. She gazed at the lock, wondering what could be so precious as to be so strongly guarded. The Castle was a maze, and she knew that there were dungeons and cellars beneath it, a great network of underground rooms. But this door led further into the keep and surely opened up into one of the wings she could see from the courtyard.
“But what is behind there?” she asked, and Aoife raised her eyebrows.
“Is it usual for English lasses to ask so many questions? Ye do nae need to know that, Lass. All ye need to know is that ye stay out of the west wing of the Castle. That is all, do ye hear me?” she asked, and Daisy nodded.
“Stay out of the west wing of the Castle, yes, I will,” Daisy replied, her curiosity aroused, and she glanced back at the door, as Aoife led her down another corridor, leading to the Laird’s apartments.
“I will never be able to find my way around,” Daisy said, setting down her bucket to catch her breath.
Aoife had been pointing out where her duties would lie, and Daisy was wondering if there were enough hours in the day to accomplish all the myriad tasks which seemed to come with the title of scullery maid. Still, she was grateful for the job and eager to assist her mother in whatever way she could. She would sleep at the Castle on certain nights, going home to her mother, brothers, and sister on Monday, which was to be her day off.
“Ye will soon get used to it, Lass. I have worked for this family my entire life, though I admit there are still places in this castle I have nae been to,” the housekeeper replied.
“Like the west wing?” Daisy asked, hoping perhaps to discover something more about what lay behind the locked door.
“The Laird trusts me well enough to allow me to go behind the door,” Aoife said, somewhat haughtily.
Daisy was about to reply when a door up ahead opened and a man, dressed in nothing more than a pair of breeches emerged. He was handsome, tall and well built, his arms and chest defined by muscles, and a scar running down his side. His face had a brooding look to it, the merest hint of a beard across his chin, his black hair streaked back. Daisy blushed, unable to take her eyes from him. She felt indecent to see him so attired, but still her eyes ran across his body, taking in every definition, imagining how his arms might feel wrapped around her, as Aoife let out an exclamation.
“Aoife, I told ye I was nae to be disturbed,” the man said, and the housekeeper apologized.
“My Laird, forgive me, I was merely showin’ this lass over the Castle. The new scullery maid. I had thought ye were out ridin’ at this hour. Forgive me,” she said, in a groveling voice.
“’Tis nay matter, though perhaps yer new scullery maid is offended by the sight of a man so little dressed,” he said, his eyes meeting those of Daisy, as she blushed an even deeper shade of red.
“No, My Laird,” she said, and he laughed.
“An English lass? Well, well, well, where do ye find them, Aoife?” he asked, and with a final glance at Daisy, he strode off along the corridor, shaking his head and smiling.
“It seems ye have met the Laird, after all,” Aoife said, tutting to herself.
But Daisy could only watch the retreating figure in awe, her heart racing at the sight of his bare torso, and thinking how different he was from the drab, dull Englishmen of her youth.
Angus MacGregor was bored. He had been sitting poring over ledgers and accounts for much of the afternoon. The repairs to the Castle had taken all his reserves, and there was barely anything left of the Clan’s inheritance. He sighed, pouring himself another dram of whisky from the decanter which sat next to him and leaning back in his chair.
It was a dull, dreich day, the sort of day best suited to a fire and a song. Angus pushed the ledger aside, unable to summon enthusiasm for the lists of figures, all of which presented a bleak picture, as bleak as that which he could see from the window of his parlor. The view stretched along the loch, though anything beyond was shrouded in mist, rolling down the mountains. The wind had whipped the waters up into a frenzy and Angus was glad of the fire, and the candles which burned around the room to dispel the gloom.
Presently, there came a knock at the door and Aoife, his loyal housekeeper, entered, bearing a tray of food. She set it down and nodded to him, for she never spoke unless she was spoken to. He took a deep breath and rapped his fingers upon the desk, slamming the ledger shut and rising to his feet with an air of frustration.
“Cowards, damn cowards,” he said, bringing his fist down hard upon the desk.
“The Steeles?” she asked, and he nodded.
“Aye, the Steeles. And look what they have left us with? Debts, a half-ruined castle, and–” he began, not wishing to say the words, but pointing vaguely in the direction of the Castle’s west wing.
“But ye have done so much to rebuild, the Clan is stronger thanks to ye,” Aoife replied.
“Aye, but what is to stop them from burnin’ it again? What will come next? We burned their houses, they burned our castle, we retaliate and so it will always be,” he replied, picking up a piece of bread from the tray.
“There is always hope, My Laird. Do nae be despondent. Only yesterday ye told me that all was nae lost,” Aoife replied.
Angus laughed, taking up a leg of chicken and tearing a strip from it with his teeth.
“Do nae listen to me, Aoife. I have been miserable ever since this dreich fell upon us. Endless days of mist and murk, I have nae seen the mountains for days,” he complained, slumping back down into a chair by the fire.
“Perhaps ye would feel better if ye visited the west wing tonight, My Laird. I know she would like to see ye,” Aoife said, and Angus nodded.
“Aye, I shall go tonight. Once ‘tis dark. There are too many people around now. Will ye tell her I am comin’ to see her?” he asked, and the housekeeper nodded.
“Aye, My Laird, yer word is law,” she replied, and Angus smiled.
“And what of yer new scullery maid. Where did ye find an English lass in these remote glens?” he asked, thinking back to his encounter with the pretty young girl earlier that day.
“She is a strange creature. She came to the kitchen door just the other day, askin’ for work. She told me that her twin brother wishes to be a blacksmith and that her mother had upped sticks and brought the family north. We needed a scullery maid after Elena ran off with that stable boy, and so I told her she could have the job. Time will tell if she is any good at it. By the look of her hands, she had nae seen a day of work in her life,” Aoife replied.
Angus nodded. He was not particularly interested in scullery maids, though there was no denying that this one was particularly pretty.
“Aye, well, if she cannae do the work then ye must show her, Aoife, ye know this castle and its ways better than anyone else,” he said, and Aoife nodded.
“Aye, My Laird, I must return to my duties now,” she said, nodding to him as she closed the door behind her.
Angus tore another strip of chicken, chewing it ponderously, as he gazed into the fire. Aoife was right, visiting the west wing that evening would be a welcome distraction, and closing his eyes, he allowed himself a moment to imagine what life might have been, had not that awful fire destroyed so much.
It felt strange to be sleeping below stairs. At Dithby Manor, Daisy had had a fine set of chambers looking out over the garden and a maid to help her with her hair and preparations for bed. Another had laid out clothes for the morning, and another had brought hot water for her to wash.
Now, she found herself in a tiny garret, lit only by a foul-smelling tallow wax candle, which spluttered in the draft. There was a bed and a washstand, two blankets and a window high up, which let in a dreadful draft, the wind howling around the walls of the Castle.
She had eaten a meager dinner with the other servants huddled around a long trestle table in the kitchen. Aoife ate separately, and Daisy had found that she had little in common with the motley collection of men and women who worked in service for the Laird. They had eaten a watery soup and stale bread, their talk base and ignorant.
But Daisy was not to be cowed by their taunts and having refused the offer of a game of dice, she had taken her candle and gone to bed, and was lying cold and shivering, wrapped in the blankets, listening to the wind. Having been used to far grander fare on the table at Dithby Manor, she was still feeling hungry, her stomach gnawing, and a thirst upon her lips. With a sigh, she sat up, the candle now burning low, and knowing that she would soon be plunged into darkness, she got up and pulled on her shawl, intending to make her way to the kitchen in search of something to eat and drink.
The Castle was dark, the corridors and passageways lit only by dimly burning torches. Strange noises sounded on every side, the ancient walls creaking and buckling as the wind howled outside. It was raining, too, and she could hear the pitter patter against the windows. She thought of her mother, brothers, and sister in the little cottage in the village and looked forward to returning there as soon as she could.
“Now, which way is it?” she thought to herself, knowing she had gone upstairs to her garret, though along several different corridors first.
Every turn she took seemed to bring with it more confusion, and eventually she paused, sighing, as she admitted to herself that she was lost. Every door looked the same, and with her candle close to guttering, Daisy knew she would soon be completely at a loss where to go. She had come to a door now, with a large handle and metal studs. It looked like the one down in the kitchen, behind which Aoife had shown her a corridor leading to a long corridor.
“Perhaps I am there,” she said out loud, her words echoing eerily around, and taking up the handle she turned it and opened the door.
The door gave way into another passageway, bearing no resemblance to that of the kitchen, but Daisy stepped through, just as her candle gutted fully. She was plunged into darkness, and groped her way along, imagining that she could see a shaft of light at the far end of the passageway. Several times she caught her foot on a piece of furniture or fell into a suit of armor, so that her progress was slow, the shaft of light seeming to dim as she approached.
It turned out to be a window, the shaft of light coming from the moon, which was at times concealed behind a cloud, only to reappear and light the way. Standing in the shaft of light, Daisy could see a long corridor ahead, with doors on either side, and the outlines of what she hoped were more suits of armor, for in the gloom they appeared terribly real.
“What am I to do?” she thought to herself, wondering if it was best to retrace her steps and return to bed, hoping that Aoife would not catch her.
But as she turned to pick her way back along the passageway, the nearest door opened, a flicker of candlelight emerging into the corridor, and to her horror, Daisy saw it was the Laird who emerged.
“Goodnight, Angus, thank ye for comin’ to see me,” a woman’s voice called out.
“I will visit ye tomorrow, ye have cheered my heart,” he replied.
Daisy shrank back into the shadows, but as she did so, she backed into a suit or armor, which went crashing to the ground, the din echoing all around, and causing Angus to let out an angry cry.
“Oh!” Daisy exclaimed, falling awkwardly to the floor.
“Who goes there? Who is spyin’ on me? An enemy? Show yerself and if ye be a Steele, then prepare to fight,” he cried out, as Daisy tried desperately to get up.
“Please, I am sorry,” she called out.
And he stepped forward, holding the candle aloft and looking down at her angrily.
“What is the meanin’ of this?” he demanded. “Ye are the new scullery maid, are ye nae?”
Daisy nodded, feeling her cheeks flush red with embarrassment. It was not the impression she wished to give, and she realized she must have somehow stumbled into the forbidden west wing of the Castle.
“I got lost, My Laird, I did not mean to. The Castle is so big, and I still have not found my way about. I was looking for the kitchen. I was hungry, you see, and thirsty, too, for the dinner was not what… well, I could not find it. And then–” she began, garbling her words, as she struggled to her feet.
He looked her up and down curiously, the expression on his face turning from anger to amusement.
“Then ye have found it a foolish folly, Lass,” he said, and she nodded.
“It will not happen again, I promise you. I saw nothing and know nothing, I assure you,” she gabbled, wishing only to return to bed and forget her mistake.
“Aye, it will nae happen again, Lass, I assure ye,” he began, eyeing her up and down in the candlelight.
She felt embarrassed to be standing there in front of him like that, dressed in a simple gown and wrapped in a shawl. He was the Laird, and to him she was merely a scullery maid, though once the two of them would have been equals. Thoughts of other men she had known flashed across her mind, men who thought themselves suitors, but had been quick to disassociate themselves from her when it was learned that her fortune was gone.
“Please, how do I get back to the kitchen, I only want a drink of water, perhaps a little morsel to eat,” she said, and he laughed, catching hold of her arm, and pulling her toward him.
“Strange, very strange. Ye are nothin’ like any scullery maid I have ever known. Far prettier,” he said, bringing his face down close to hers.
Daisy’s heart skipped a beat. There was something of a thrill about meeting him in this way, and she could no longer tell if he was angry or merely bemused. It was difficult to tell, and she gazed back at him, picturing him as he was before, in nothing but his breeches. Now, he was wearing an open shirt, revealing the hair on his chest, and another scar she had not noticed earlier, which ran jaggedly along the base of his neck.
“I really did not mean to find myself here tonight,” she said, and he nodded.
“Aye, a mistake can be forgiven, but do nae make a habit of wanderin’ the corridors of this castle at night. Ye never know who ye might find lurkin’ in the shadows,” he whispered, smiling at her, as he led her back down the corridor.
“I have never known a place like this before,” she said, feeling herself relax a little in his presence.
“Did ye grow up on a farm in England? A hovel of some sort?” he asked, and she shook her head.
Dithby Manor was a large manor, but built in a logical way, with two wings jutting out north and south from a central hallway. It was impossible to get lost there, though here she could barely remember her way from one staircase to another. The Castle was vast, and every turn seemed to reveal something new.
“I shall have to have words with Aoife. She had clearly nae explained the importance of this door to ye,” he said, as they came to the large oak door which Daisy had earlier found open.
“Please, My Laird, she did explain. Do not be angry with her on my account. I merely took a wrong turning and found the door open,” she said, and he nodded.
“Aye, well, be more careful which doors ye open in the future. Ye may get a nasty surprise,” he replied, and she nodded, swallowing hard, trying not to tremble.
There was something strange about his words, and she wondered what mystery she had come so close to discovering. It aroused her curiosity, and despite her fear, there was something thrilling about having been caught. The thought of her new life had seemed so bleak, but here was a mystery to ponder, and the Laird himself was at its heart.
“How do I get back to the kitchens?” she asked, and he looked her up and down, running his tongue over his lips.
“It will be difficult for ye to return there without a candle, Lass. If I merely point the way, then ye shall soon find yerself in the darkness, for my chambers are above and yers are below,” he said, closing the large oak door behind them and turning an enormous key in the lock.
He pocketed the key and tried the door, which remained firmly shut. Seemingly satisfied, he beckoned her to follow him, leading her along the corridor and down a flight of steps she had not noticed before. They spiraled downward, ending in another corridor, which he told her would lead her straight to the kitchens.
“I assure you this will not happen again,” she said, gazing up at him, as he held the candle aloft for her to see by.
“Did I scare ye tonight?” he asked, and she shook her head, even though in truth she had been quite terrified at the thought of what he might do.
“I do not scare easily,” she said, trying to steady her voice.
He looked at her with a searching gaze. It sent a shiver running through her, and she wondered what he would say if he knew the truth. Who was the woman whom he had visited that evening, the woman who had called out a farewell? Was she some secret lover locked away in the west wing? Or perhaps an enemy, kept there under lock and key, one who despite herself had fallen in love with him.
“Ye are very sure of yerself for a scullery maid, and yer manner of speech is… unusual,” he said.
“Are you not used to Englishwomen?” she asked, and he shook his head.
“An Englishwoman so far north is a surprise, that much is certain. But nae an unpleasant one. Off ye go and remember what I said about the west wing. If I catch ye there again I shall nae be so forgivin’ as I have been this night,” he said, and Daisy nodded.
“It will not happen again,” she replied, and with a last glance, she hurried off along the corridor to the door at the far end.
He remained standing at the bottom of the stairs, guiding her with the light of the candle, but when she reached the door, he turned and was gone, leaving her in darkness. She breathed a sigh of relief, opening the kitchen door and finding herself face to face with Aoife.
“And where have ye been, Lass? Sneakin’ around the Castle at this time? What do ye think ye were doing out of bed?” she demanded, fixing Daisy with a stern look.
Dressed in her nightgown and a bonnet, holding a candle in her hand, she looked quite comical, and Daisy tried not to laugh, as she glanced back down the corridor for any sign of the Laird.
“I was only coming to the kitchen for a cup of water,” she said, which was of course entirely truthful.
“And why did ye nae take the stairs over there? ‘Tis only a moment to yer garret,” Aoife replied.
“I got lost,” Daisy said, once more speaking entirely truthfully.
“Then get yer drink and go back to bed,” the housekeeper replied, closing the door, and locking it behind them.
Daisy hurried to a bucket drawn from the well by the stove, taking up a cup and splashing it into the water. It was cool and refreshing, and she followed Aoife back up the stairway she should have taken, bidding her goodnight, and returning to her room.
But as she lay down to sleep, pulling the blankets tightly around her, Daisy could not help but think more about all that she had seen and heard that night, and of her encounter with the Laird. She had been curious about the west wing, but now the mystery had grown deeper, and she was resolved to discover the truth, come what may.
The Laird, too, intrigued her, and she pictured his face, turning from anger to bemusement. It was as though he was playing with her, teasing her, despite his chastisement. She could not fully understand him, though she knew he viewed her merely as a scullery maid and nothing more.
There was something of a mystery about him too, and she wondered what secrets lay waiting to be discovered. Had there been a lust in his eyes? A desire for more? Daisy knew men found her attractive, and she allowed her mind to wander, imagining what would happen if the Laird of the MacGregors fell under her charms–
Life as a scullery maid was hard. Each day, Daisy would wake early with the sound of Aoife hammering upon her door. She would get up and begin her chores, which seemed chiefly to involve carrying buckets of water up and down the stairways, scrubbing this and that, before returning to the kitchen for fresh water, so that she might go to scrub again. It was not the life she had envisioned, but every day she reminded herself that she was doing it for her mother, brothers, and sister.
Daisy missed them terribly, particularly her brother, who, as her twin, she had always been close to. They looked nothing alike, but had been born on the same day, two-and-twenty years ago, though Daisy was a few moments older. As children, they had always attracted attention, and Harry had always been protective of her. As the eldest son, it was he who had lost most from their father’s debts, denied his title and the wealth that had been rightfully his.
Despite all this, Daisy was determined to make the most of it and she went about her work with diligence, albeit sometimes clumsily and forgetfully. She was simply not used to the work and Aoife would scold her, as the other servants looked on with contempt.
“Ye call this a shine on the silverware? Do it again, Lass. I want to see my face in it,” Aoife had said one morning, after Daisy had spent two hours rubbing a candelabra.
She sighed and picked up her cloth as the housekeeper left the room. A shaft of sunlight was coming through the window, and finally the weather had taken a turn. From the Castle the loch and mountains stretched out majestically before her, framed by the forests which grew on all sides. The sunlight was dancing on the water, and Daisy sat staring out of the window, longing for some respite from her work.
“Ah, the little wanderer at work, I had been thinkin’ about ye,” a voice from the doorway said.
Daisy was startled and dropped the candelabra with a crash to the floor.
“Oh, My Laird, I am sorry, I did not realize you would come in. I will leave,” she spluttered, snatching up the candelabra and jumping to her feet.
“Perhaps I do nae want ye to leave,” he said, blocking the door as he looked her up and down and smiled.
Daisy felt her cheeks flush red. She had seen the Laird from a distance in the past days, talking earnestly with other clansmen or issuing instructions to Aoife, but she had avoided him, fearful of chastisement over her foolishness in entering the west wing and being discovered.
“I must see to my duties,” she said, and he nodded.
“Aoife works ye hard, I am sure. But let me see yer hands,” he said, and Daisy felt a shiver run through her.
“Why do you want to see my hands?” she asked, and he laughed.
“Am I nae yer Laird? Hold out yer hands, Lass,” he instructed, and trembling, Daisy held them out.
Her hands were soft and delicate, ill-suited to the work she was undertaking, and he took hold of them and nodded, smiling at her as he did so.
“Hardly the hands of a scullery maid,” he said, causing her to blush further.
“But I am a scullery maid,” she said, and he nodded.
“Aye, so ye say, but a scullery maid can have her interests, ye know,” he replied.
She wondered again what he would say if he knew the truth. Why was he so interested in her now? Her heart was beating faster as he turned her hands over to examine her palms.
“I am really nothing special,” she said, and he shook his head.
“I can decide that for myself, Lass. Such soft hands and such a delicate complexion,” he said, looking her straight in the eye.
“And another thing, Daisy, this morning I found… oh, My Laird, forgive me,” Aoife exclaimed.
She had come bursting into the room, unaware that the Laird was talking to Daisy. He let go of Daisy’s hands and stepped back, turning to the housekeeper with a nod.
“Carry on, Aoife. I was merely interested to know more about yer new scullery maid,” he said, glancing back at Daisy with a smile.
“And I am sure she was only too willin’ to talk about herself rather than do her work,” Aoife replied.
The Laird made no reply, leaving the room, as the housekeeper glared at Daisy and tutted.
“I did not realize he would come in,” Daisy said.
“Really, Lass, ye shouldnae speak to the Laird,” she exclaimed.
“But he spoke to me,” Daisy protested.
She had not courted the Laird’s attentions, but it seemed that for whatever reason, she had them. There had been something in the way he had looked at her, a lustful gaze, a thought that she could not rid herself of. It was exciting to feel his attentions upon her, even if he did not know the truth of who she was.
“Aye, be wary of the Laird, for ye wouldnae be the first pretty lass he has spoken to in that way,” Aoife replied, looking at Daisy with a stern expression.
Daisy thought back to the woman’s voice in the west wing, again wondering if Laird had a lover, or even a bride, one he kept locked away out of sight.
“Has the Laird ever–?” she began, but the housekeeper shushed her.
“That is nae a suitable question for a scullery maid. Now get on with yer polishin’, Lass. I want to see everythin’ in this room sparkle by the time I return,” she said, and without another word she left, slamming the door behind her.
Daisy smiled to herself. She had enjoyed her brief encounter with the Laird, and she wondered what might have been had they not been interrupted. The thought of his touch sent a shiver running through her and she imagined him holding her, taking her in his arms and kissing her. But the mystery of the woman’s voice lingered, and Daisy could not help but feel a pull to know the truth. Who was she? And why was the Laird so anxious to keep her secret?
Angus had ridden out that morning – the first cloudless day in weeks. The mists could hang in the glens for days at a time, bringing with them a damp chill which cut through to the bone. But on a clear day, when the sun was high, and the waters of the loch shimmered, there was nowhere he would rather be.
That winter had been exceptionally harsh, and snow lay on the mountain tops, blocking the passes and almost cutting off the glen surrounding the Castle, so that Angus had little to do but ride and hunt, sit before a fire, or tell stories with his clansmen.
That day, he had ridden far along the loch side, visiting the high crofts which clung to the moorland above the glen, where the crofters had welcomed him with whisky and the warmth of their hearth. There, they had told him that the threat from their rivals, the Steele Clan, was growing and that even in the harshness of the winter, they had seen the enemy riding out across the moorland.
“Do ye think they are preparin’ to attack us, My Laird?” one of the crofters had asked, and Angus had been able to offer little reassurance.
The Steeles were growing in strength and number, bold enough to have mounted a raid upon the Castle a year ago which had caused terrible fire and a tragedy which Angus could barely bear to speak of. He wanted revenge, but his own clan was weary of war, weakened by years of conflict, and he knew that an all-out war would only lead to defeat.
“The Steeles are ruthless men, we must be on our guard. We know well enough what they are capable of. Be vigilant,” he had told them, before riding back toward the Castle.
Still, there was something to divert him from his troubles with the Steeles, and that was the pretty new scullery maid who had something of an air of mystery about her. Angus did not make a habit of fraternizing with the servants, but there was something about this one – Daisy was her name – that intrigued him. He had enjoyed taking her hands in his, seeing the blush rising on her face, and his mind had wandered further on his ride, wondering if perhaps their next encounter might lead to something more.
As he arrived back at the Castle, Aoife was waiting for him in the courtyard, and she hurried over as Angus leaped down from his horse. There was an anxious look upon her face, and she beckoned him away from the stable boy who had come to tend the horse, glancing anxiously up at the west wing, and shaking her head.
“Is there somethin’ wrong, Aoife?” he asked, and she clutched her hands together.
“’Tis the mistress, My Laird. She grew terribly upset this mornin’ when I took her breakfast to her. There was such sadness in her voice, she is in turmoil. Will ye nae go to her?” the housekeeper asked, and Angus nodded.
She was prone to such outbursts. It was hardly surprising given all that she had endured, and the only way to calm her was for Angus to visit and reassure her. Now, he hurried off across the courtyard and into the keep, climbing the stairs to the west wing two at a time. Taking out his key, he unlocked the great oak door, closing it behind him and locking it, lest anyone should follow.
He had been foolish the other night, leaving the door open for the scullery maid to find her way through. Only he and Aoife knew of the secret in the west wing. It would not do for the rest of the Clan to know that she was still alive, for she was scarred and disfigured, caught in the fire set by the Steele Clan and believed dead by all. It had been her choice to lock herself away, unable to bear the thought of anyone seeing her again.
“Emilie?” he called out, pausing outside the door to her chamber.
He knocked gently, listening for the sounds of movement inside.
“Angus? Is that ye?” came the reply, and he opened the door, his eyes adjusting to the dim gloom.
The shutters were closed across the window, and candles burned in alcoves, casting a flickering light. A fire was kindled in the hearth, just as it always was, and she was sitting in a chair with her back to him. She always wore a veil over her face, like that of someone in mourning, and it was rare that he ever saw her face, so sorrowful was she as to its appearance.
“Aoife told me ye were upset, Lass,” he said, and she rose from her chair.
In her long dress and veil, she looked almost ghost like, silhouetted in the gloom. It saddened him to see her like that. Before the fire, she had been so full of life, so happy and hopeful. But all of that had changed, and now she was but a shadow of her former self. Still alive, but dead to the world. It was generally believed that she had perished in the fire and according to her wishes, Angus did nothing to dispel that belief.
“I am always so, but today that sorrow seems insurmountable,” she replied, and Angus stepped forward to embrace her.
“If only ye would show yerself. Take off that veil and let the light in. I do nae care what ye look like, I love ye,” Angus said, his arms around her, as she began to weep.
“And what of the rest of the world, Angus? What would they say if they saw me? No, I am destined to remain here forever, locked in this wing,” she replied, sobbing as she spoke.
“’Tis yer choice, Lass. I do nae force ye to remain here. But… well, it would be a strange thing for the Clan if ye were to return. The superstitious among them would say that ye are a ghost returned from the grave,” he replied, and she gave a weak laugh.
“And they would be right, for I am only a shadow of my former self. Oh, Angus, there is little joy in life when these four walls are my world,” she said, sighing and sinking back down into her chair by the fire.
“Why do ye wear the veil when I am here?” he asked, and she shook her head.
“Because I am frightened of catchin’ sight of my reflection, somehow,” she replied.
“But there are nay mirrors here, nay chance of ye ever seein’ yerself in that way,” he said.
“I could see myself in yer eyes,” she said, and Angus nodded, reaching out and taking her by the hand, upon which she wore a glove, so that every part of her body was covered.
“Ye are safe here, ye will always be safe,” he said.
“But I do nae want to be safe. I want to be free. I want what every other person has, and yet I am denied it by cruel fate,” she replied.
On days like this, there was no reasoning with her, so he sat a while longer, trying his best to reassure her. On the night of the fire, he had searched desperately for her, finally finding her lying injured in the courtyard, the flames raging all around her. She had been carried to safety by someone. He had never known the identity of that person, nor had she remembered. But ever since then, she had remained hidden in the west wing, attended to by Aoife, her memory fading from the Clan, her empty grave forgotten in the burial ground near the kirk.
“I shall come to see ye tomorrow if ye would like me to?” he said, when they had talked a while longer.
“I would like that,” she replied, and put his arms around her and kissed her through her veil.
“Dearest Emilie, one day I pray that ye will come back to me,” he whispered.
As he closed the door to the west wing and locked it behind him, he breathed a deep sigh. The burden of his duty was taking its toll, and he would gladly have given it up. He felt as though his enemies pressed in from every side, waiting for the moment of his weakness in which to strike. How he longed to escape and to unburden himself of his troubles.
He had just pocketed the key, when the sound of footsteps on the stairs caused him to look up. Someone was singing to themselves, and Angus was about to chastise them, when none other than the scullery maid appeared into the gallery, carrying a bucket of soapy water. When she noticed him, she almost dropped the bucket, her face flushing with embarrassment, as he looked at her with interest.
“Are ye lost again?” he asked, and she shook her head.
“Forgive me, My Laird, I did not realize you would be here,” she said, and he smiled at her, for she was a welcome distraction from his troubles.
“The door is locked, so ye shall nae get lost so easily,” he said, and she blushed an even deeper shade of red.
Sunlight was streaming through the windows, a contrast to the gloomy chambers of the west wing, and in the light, Daisy appeared even prettier than in their previous encounters. She seemed embarrassed, shy even, and they stood for a moment in silence.
“I must see to my duties,” she said, but he shook his head.
“Yer duty is to me, and I am the one standin’ here. Stay and talk a while, ye have still nae told me the truth,” he said.
The more he had thought about Daisy, the more she had intrigued him. He knew no other Englishwomen, and certainly none that had crossed the border and fled so far north. The story about her brother wishing to learn the art of a blacksmith might have fooled Aoife, but it was a tall tale when blacksmiths were two a penny all the way to Edinburgh. There was something about her, something more than met the eye.
“The truth, My Laird?” she asked, and he nodded.
“Tell me about yer family. Why did yer mother bring ye here? Were ye runnin’ away from somethin’ or someone?” he asked, watching for her response.
“No, but my brother–” she began, and he laughed.
“Why would yer brother come here to learn how to be a blacksmith? ‘Tis nonsense,” he exclaimed.
Daisy turned her face away from him, but he reached out and put his hand upon her arm, causing her to startle.
“I miss them very much,” she said, a note of sorrow in her voice, and he nodded.
“They are only in the village, why nae walk down and see them? ‘Tis nae far,” he said, and at these words her eyes brightened.
“But Aoife says I must earn my time away from the Castle. There are always duties to see to, fresh tasks to complete. It is never ending,” she said, her face falling as quickly as it had brightened.
“But Aoife works for me, too, Lass. If I say that ye may go then ye may go,” he replied, and she stared at him wide eyed, before darting forward and kissing him upon the cheek.
It was so unexpected that he was quite taken aback, though he could not deny that the sensation was a pleasant one.
“Oh, goodness me, I am so sorry. I was just–” she exclaimed, and he smiled.
“’Tis quite all right, Lass, I rather liked it,” he replied, leaning forward to kiss her back.
Did you like this preview? Please, don't forget to leave me a comment below!
Want to read how the story ends?
Burning for the Highlander is live on Amazon now!