About the book
She never wanted him, but she ended up needing him more than anyone else…
Ava Pearson’s only wish in life is to be a writer. A wish that seems doomed to remain unfulfilled as her parents are adamant about seeing her married. So when a Ceilidh is thrown for the Laird to find a wife, she does the only thing she can: escapes through the backdoor...only to land face-first in the arms of a very handsome, mysterious Highlander.
Laird Magnus Bain needs to get married. And his mother has provided the best of the Highlands to choose from. But he brings his own contestant: the same woman who told him she would never marry him.
The competition is harsh and the means the contestants will employ are even harsher, but Ava and Magnus’ feelings are strong. Yet as if a curse has been placed upon them, the more their relationship progresses, the weirder things happen. With someone seemingly determined to eliminate all competition, Ava knows deep in her heart that she is next.
Ava Pearson stood by one of the ornate pillars that supported the roof of the grand hall, arms crossed over her chest and gaze glued to the floor. In front of her, the room was a dizzying swirl of colors as the other young women, all dressed in their finest, most vibrant attire, danced with a delight that she couldn’t bring herself to feel.
The simple truth was that she didn’t want to be there. The only reason why she was standing aside instead of dancing with the other girls, like she had been doing for the better part of the hour, was because her parents, the Laird and Lady of Cunningham, were too busy socializing to pester her about joining the dance once more.
And just as the thought crossed her mind, Ava saw her mother, Astrid, yank on her father’s sleeve and point at her with a sour look on her face. Ava didn’t have time to hide her disdain for the entire affair, let alone join the dance once more, before they both marched up to her.
“What are ye doin’, standin’ aside?” her mother demanded, hands on her hips as she berated Ava. She leaned closer to her, glancing around as if to see if anyone was watching, before she spoke again. “Ye ken why we are here. How will ye attract a husband if ye daenae try?”
“I daenae wish to dance like a fool all night simply to attract a husband, Maither!” Ava said, and her mother promptly hushed her, before she pulled her even further aside, to the other corner of the room.
“Ye’re two-and-twenty years of age,” her mother hissed. “I’d say that it’s time that ye do. And Ava… what better opportunity for ye to find someone than this ceilidh?”
“I think I’m still verra young,” Ava said with a defiant tilt of her head. “Besides, I have nae a single chance of Laird McPhee noticin’ me.”
“Ye daenae ken that,” her mother said, though she didn’t even try to hide the fact that it was an outright lie. The Laird of the McPhee Clan was bound to choose a woman from an equally powerful clan, not someone like Ava. “But even if he doesnae, someone else surely will! Look at all the fine gentlemen in this room!”
With a sigh, her mother plastered a smile on her lips as she took her daughter’s hands in her own. “Please, Ava, at least try. Talk to some of them. Dance. Have some fun! This isnae a punishment.”
Ava knew that her mother meant well. It wasn’t her love for her that she questioned, but rather her insistence that she knew best. “Ye ken that I daenae wish to marry,” she reminded her. “Why must ye force me?”
“Because that is what’s proper for a young woman,” her mother reminded her. “I was married long before yer age. Go now… go and dance with the others.”
With that, her mother turned on her heels and joined her father once more. Ava breathed a sigh of relief, but she knew that as long as she was in that room, there would be no respite, neither from her parents nor from the entire affair.
At least for a few moments, Ava had to escape, even if that escape was only to get some fresh air before returning to the hall. A brief relief was better than none.
There must be a way to get to the gardens from here.
Ava glanced around the room, careful to not make eye contact with anyone. The last thing that she wanted was for one of the gentlemen to view it as an invitation and saunter up to her, asking for a dance. When she spotted a door among all the windows that lined the far wall, she knew that it would lead her to freedom.
The only problem was that she had to make it there undetected and undeterred.
Navigating the room was like walking through a minefield. Ava tried to stick to the walls, away from the dancing crowd, but even that didn’t discourage the most opportunistic of the men. Most of them offered a smile and a hand, others blocked her way, asking for a dance, but it was only when she had almost reached the other side of the room that one of them refused to move.
“Dougal MacAra,” the man said, with an air that suggested Ava should recognize the name. “May I have this dance?”
Ava looked at the man, at his straw-colored hair and strong jaw, and gave him a smile. “Nay.”
Just as she was about to maneuver around him, though, Dougal stopped her, his own smile widening. “Just one dance?”
“Forgive me,” Ava said, in the sweet way that her mother had taught her. “I’m afraid I cannae right now. Perhaps later.”
The hand on her forearm as she tried to leave was gentle, but Ava didn’t appreciate it. Though she knew that there was nothing Dougal could do to her in front of all those people, the mere knowledge that he could and would continue to stop her from leaving, provoked a sense in her that she was cornered and caged. Her pulse quickened and her eyes narrowed as she looked at him, yanking her arm out of his grip.
And everything her mother had taught her about the way she behaved was pushed out of her mind, replaced by what she had learned from dealing with her brothers.
“It seems to me that ye have much to learn about how ye treat a lady,” Ava told him, placing her hands on her hips in a way that would later remind her of her mother, much to her chagrin. “I said that I willnae dance with ye and I daenae like to repeat meself. Now if ye’ll excuse me, I’d verra much like to go.”
Without waiting for a reply from the man, Ava pushed past him, not daring to glance behind her shoulder to see if he was following. Not for the first time, she wished that she had been born a man.
As she continued to walk, though, she noticed that no one was following her, and she breathed a sigh of relief. At least in the gardens, she would have some peace and quiet for a while.
As she turned to step outside, her gaze fell on a man, and to say that he was perhaps the only man in that room who wasn’t enjoying himself would be an understatement. It seemed to Ava as though he hated being in that castle more than she did. His dark eyes were narrowed and the frown on his face was only accentuated by the shadows that the dim candlelight cast on him.
Nay wonder nay one wishes to dance with him. I certainly wouldnae.
But when the man turned his face, their gazes locking, Ava couldn’t help but avert her eyes quickly, as though she had been caught doing something she shouldn’t have. His sudden acknowledgement of her presence made her flinch, and she rushed out of the room, into the safety of the gardens.
Once there, Ava felt like she could breathe once more. She drew the crisp, evening air into her lungs, and the night smelled of pine and roses out there.
If there was one thing that she liked about McPhee Castle, that was how beautiful it was. The Castle stood near a loch that glittered in the moonlight, and from where she stood, she could see the sprawling hills that surrounded the valley.
The best part of it all was the quiet. Though she could still hear the unmistakable sounds of the feast behind her, the further she walked away from the door, the more she could enjoy the silence. It was a calm night, though dark and cloudy, and it seemed fitting to Ava that she would enjoy it alone.
“What are ye doin’ out here?”
The sudden sound of a voice behind her startled Ava, and she whipped her head around to see the very same man who had been scowling in the great hall. Now it seemed to her that his scowl was directed at her, and she froze, not knowing what to say to him.
Who even is he? I ken what I’m doin’ out here. What is he doin’ out here?
As the man approached her, Ava began to take a few steps backward, putting some distance between them. Her eyes glanced at the windows of the Castle, and she wondered if anyone would hear her.
And then opened her mouth to scream.
Magnus couldn’t imagine what other man could be in such bad spirits as he was while attending a feast that was all for him. Everyone had come to the ceilidh for him, all those beautiful women and their families traveling for days just so that he would choose one of them.
The problem was that he didn’t want any of them, or at least he didn’t feel strongly either way. He was happy being a single man, and he would be even happier if he had found true love, but it seemed as though his time was up. But his family had made it clear that he should marry now that he was the new Laird of the McPhee Clan, and so there he was, watching the crowd for anyone that could be a good candidate.
Then he saw a woman sneaking out of the back door of the room. She was a petite woman, with long, dark hair that framed her face, but what drew Magnus’ gaze to her were those green eyes, which were clouded by panic. Before he could approach her, though, she left the room, heading to the gardens, and Magnus was left wondering whether he should follow her or not.
Nay one will miss me if I do. I doubt that anyone even kens I’m here.
It had been a while since any family had come to introduce their daughter to him, and everyone else seemed to be too busy dancing and enjoying themselves to notice him slip out of the room. Besides, he felt the need to know what was wrong with that woman. He would hate for something to happen to one of his guests, and so he felt the need to protect her.
With a decisive sigh, Magnus left the room and headed out into the gardens. The first thing that he noticed was the silhouette of the woman in the moonlight, and once again, he saw that she was startled, backing away from him.
“It’s all right,” he assured her, and just as she had opened her mouth, she snapped it closed once more. “I only came here to see if ye’re well. Ye seemed to be… well, spooked in there.”
The woman didn’t reply. She seemed to be frozen in place, and so Magnus took one more step toward her, and this time, she didn’t flinch. From where he stood, he could see the green of her eyes once more and it pleased him.
She was a beautiful woman, there was no doubt about it. But Magnus was certain that she hadn’t been introduced to him that night, or he would remember her.
She isnae from a big clan, then.
The woman laughed, and this time, it was Magnus’ turn to be startled. Her laugh was cut short, though, and then she waved her hands wildly in the air, as though she was gesturing at something Magnus couldn’t see.
“Aye, I suppose ye can say that I was spooked,” she told him. “There are just so many people in there, so many men who think that—”
The woman stopped herself mid-sentence, much to Magnus’ amusement. Whether she realized that he was the Laird of the Clan or if she just remembered her manners, he didn’t know, but he found her interesting regardless.
What kind of lass has the nerve to speak like that to a man she doesnae ken?
“It’s all right,” Magnus said once more, and this time, he closed the distance between them, offering an arm that she took, though quite reluctantly. She still seemed to be on the verge of panic, and so he began to lead her around the snaking paths of the gardens, trying to get her mind off whatever had caused all that anxiety. “What’s yer name?”
“Ava,” the woman said. “Ava Pearson.”
“I’m pleased to make yer acquaintance, Ava Pearson,” Magnus said, and though he didn’t divulge that information, he tried to figure out who her family was. “Why are ye so agitated if I may be so forward?”
Ava gave Magnus a hesitant look, but when he smiled at her, she visibly relaxed, if only a little. “It’s silly, really,” she told him. “It’s nay important.”
“If ye’re as agitated as ye look, I’d say that it’s verra important, Ava Pearson,” Magnus pointed out. “I willna push ye to tell me, but perhaps ye’ll feel better if ye do.”
Ava gave him a curious look, then, one that Magnus answered with yet another smile. “Why do ye care if I feel better? Ye daenae ken me.”
“Perhaps I wish to,” Magnus said, and it was the truth. Out of all the women at the feast, Ava was the only one who had held his attention for longer than a few minutes, and he already felt drawn to her. He liked that her manners weren’t artificial, like everyone else’s—even though he had begun to suspect that Ava had no idea who he was.
I wonder if she, too, will change once she finds out.
It was Ava’s turn to smile, and Magnus reveled in the way that her cheeks flushed a deep red at his confession. “Well… it’s just that there are too many people in that room,” she said. “And they’re all tryin’ their best to impress a man!”
“And ye’re nay tryin’ to impress him?” Magnus asked. “The Laird?”
Ava scoffed at that, shaking her head. “Me? Nay, nay, the day I pretend that I’m someone else just to impress a man will be the day that I wish to die. Even if that man is a Laird… it makes nay difference to me. In fact, I’d verra much rather nay be chosen by the Laird. I am sure I would hate bein’ married to him.”
Magnus couldn’t help but pull back to look at her, blinking in surprise. What was so wrong with him that repulsed her so much, he wondered, and prompted her to reject him so blatantly?
“Are ye surprised?” Ava asked him before Magnus could say anything. “I have nay problem with the Laird himself. I daenae ken the man. Ι just daenae wish to get married at all.”
“Why nay?” Magnus asked, his curiosity piqued.
“Because I daenae wish to answer to a husband. I want me freedom.”
“I am surprised,” Magnus admitted. He hadn’t met a single person in his life who didn’t want to get married, at least at some point in the future. Ava seemed to have no desire for it, though, and he couldn’t help but think that it was odd. “And what do ye wish to do if ye daenae wish to marry?”
Ava hesitated then, a small smile spreading over her lips. She glanced at Magnus shyly, pulling her bottom lip between her teeth, a sight that left him breathless for a moment.
“Promise me that ye willnae laugh if I tell ye.”
With a frown, Magnus shook his head. “I willnae,” he said. “Why would I?”
“Because what I wish to do isnae somethin’ that lasses do,” Ava admitted. “I’ve never told anyone outside me family… I … nay, I cannae tell ye.”
“I promise ye, I willnae laugh at ye,” Magnus assured her in the sincerest tone that he could muster. “Ye have me word.”
“All right,” she said in the end. “I wish to experience everythin’ that I can. I wish to be free. I daenae want to do what a man tells me to do or to be trapped in a loveless marriage. Perhaps one day, I will fall in love, and then I’ll want to marry, but I daenae want to marry just because I’m old enough or for an alliance.”
Though it was surprising, Magnus certainly didn’t laugh. “I think that’s noble,” he said. After all, he, too, wanted to marry for love. He may not have had the same strong desire for it as Ava, but he wished that he’d have the option.
Who is this lass?
If there was one thing that Magnus knew for certain, that was that he couldn’t let that girl leave without courting her first. He had already made up his mind. He would invite her and her mother to stay, along with the other girls that his own mother was certain to choose.
It wasn’t just Ava’s beauty that drew Magnus to her from the start, though her beauty was apparent, accentuated by the dress that hugged her curves and the corset that encircled her small waist. And if he was honest, he would have to admit that the rise and fall of her chest as she breathed attracted his gaze more often than it should.
But it was her intelligence and her spark that had already convinced him that Ava was the most suitable of all the women for him. He felt as though he had found a kindred spirit, and that was more than he thought he could find at that ceilidh.
Of course, he hadn’t forgotten what Ava had just told him: she didn’t want to get married. But Magnus knew what he wanted and he was determined to get it.
The look that Ava gave him was one of infinite gratitude, and Magnus wondered if anyone had listened to her before, truly listened. He doubted it. His own family could often be overbearing. He could hardly imagine what it was like to be a woman, especially one with such strong and unusual opinions.
“Noble, hmm?” she asked, giving him another smile that made his breath hitch in his throat. “That’s nice of ye to say, but ye daenae have to lie to me. I ken that ye think it’s crazy. Everybody does.”
“I daenae think it’s crazy,” Magnus said. “Well… perhaps it is, but what does it matter? It’s what ye want, and if ye can have it, then ye should. Too many of us do things that they daenae want to do just because we think we must.”
Ava gave Magnus a cryptic glance, but then she simply nodded in agreement. “Ye’re right,” she said. “And thank ye for listenin’ to me. It’s nice to talk to someone who understands.”
“Perhaps ye should marry me,” Magnus said, giving her a teasing grin.
Ava scowled at him, but it was too adorable to bother Magnus. “Somethin’ tells me that ye couldnae handle me as yer wife.”
That drew a laugh out of him, and Magnus took a step closer to her, raising a curious eyebrow. “Is that what ye really think?” he asked, his voice dropping to a low whisper. “Do I look like I couldnae handle a lass like ye?”
When he heard Ava’s breath hitch, he knew that he had caught her attention. He could tell from the way her lips parted as she looked at him, tongue darting out to wet them as though her mouth had suddenly gone dry.
But she quickly seemed to recover, putting her hands on her hips. “I daenae ken. Can ye?”
It was just as much of challenge as Magnus needed to be driven crazy by that woman, and he had half a mind to kiss her right then and there. But before he could do anything brash and stupid, Ava laughed, shaking her head.
“I’m sure that ye’re very popular with the lasses around here,” she said. “The Laird should be careful… maybe they’ll all end up fallin’ for ye instead.”
With that, Ava flung herself into Magnus’ arms, giving him a tight hug. Too surprised to reciprocate, Magnus stood there, frozen, as Ava pulled back. There was a blinding grin on her face when she looked at Magnus, and he couldn’t help but smile back.
“I should head back inside,” she said. “But thank ye, again. I mean it. Thank ye for listenin’.”
“Any time,” Magnus said, giving her a small bow as she retreated into the great hall of the Castle.
Magnus stood there for a few moments, watching her walk away from him. She truly was something else, different than any of the women he had met that night, and he couldn’t get the thought of her out of his head.
He hoped that he wouldn’t have to, and that she would accept his invitation to stay.
With a last look at his garments, his hands smoothing out his jacket, Magnus headed back inside, as well. It was time, after all, for him to address his guests, and he was certain that his mother was already looking for him.
Once he was inside, he headed straight for the main table, the one that stood at the end of the room, where his mother and the rest of his family sat. Taking his cup of wine in his hand, he turned to look at the guests, who were slowly turning their attention to him.
“Thank ye for comin’,” Magnus said, addressing the crowd, and his voice echoed in the room, making the last few of the guests turn to face him. “Thank ye to every family for bringin’ yer lovely daughters, and thank ye, ladies, for bein’ so gracious as to grace us all with yer presence. I daenae have much to tell ye other than to urge ye to enjoy the feast.”
With that, Magnus raised his cup in a toast that was mimicked by the guests. And just as he began to smile, his gaze fell on Ava.
The stunned, petrified look on her face confirmed for Magnus that she hadn’t realized that she was talking to the Laird of the Clan. Once again, her cheeks were flushed in that way that made Magnus’ heart beat faster in his chest, and though she looked mortified, Magnus found it endearing.
He only hoped that now that she knew who he was, her manners wouldn’t completely change into something that her family would consider more acceptable. He wanted to know the real Ava, not the one who was hidden behind fake pleasantries and a carefully constructed façade of obedience.
So, he smiled at her, tilting his head to the side and winking as he toasted her.
The familiar voice came from behind her and the first thing that Ava saw was the shocked face of her mother. When she turned, Laird McPhee stood there, along with his own mother, Rhea, and Ava scrambled to give him a curtsy, he returned a bow.
“Me Laird,” Ava said, feeling the words tumbling out of her mouth before she could stop herself. “I must ask ye to forgive me about what happened earlier—”
“Earlier?” both mothers asked in unison.
“I dinnae recognize ye, but I ken that it’s nay an excuse,” Ava continued.
“Please, there is nothin’ to apologize for,” Magnus assured her, waving a hand dismissively. “I asked ye, and ye replied. I appreciate honesty, whether ye kent who I was or nay.”
Ava could do nothing but stare at the Laird in surprise, and so did the other two women. It seemed like he wasn’t mad, after all, and Ava could hardly believe that.
He’s certainly an odd man… but verra kind.
“Well, I came to ask ye both if ye would accept me invitation to stay here for a while,” the Laird said. “A few more ladies will be stayin’ with their mothers, and I wanted to extend the invitation to ye, as well.”
He wants me to stay? And he’s askin’ me himself?
When Ava looked at her mother, they both had the same surprise etched on their faces. They knew that only the women whom the Laird would consider as potential wives would be invited to stay, and neither of them knew why she was one of them.
“Of course we accept!” her mother said, before Ava could even consider it. It was so unexpected that she didn’t know how to feel. On the one hand, she had made it clear, to herself and to the Laird, that she had no desire to marry. On the other, the Laird intrigued her. She wanted to know more about him. She wanted to understand him.
“Brilliant,” the Laird said, giving Ava a soft smile. “If ye’ll excuse me, it seems that me dear maither wishes for me to talk to everyone in the room, so I’ll have to take me leave.”
“Magnus!” his mother said in mock horror, laughing at her son’s words as the two walked away, leaving Ava and her mother to stare after them.
The moment they were out of earshot, Ava’s mother turned to her, grabbing her by the shoulders.
“I daenae ken what ye did, but bless ye, Bairn!” she said, pulling her into a crushing embrace. “I cannae believe that the Laird himself came here to invite ye! Oh, do ye ken what this means? He must favor ye! His maither was the one who asked every other girl, but he came here to ask ye.”
Ava had to admit that it was strange, especially after the way that she had spoken to him. Then again, he had said that he appreciated her honesty.
“I dinnae do anythin’, Maither,” she said. “He simply saw me in the gardens and we spoke for a few moments.”
“Then ye must have said somethin’ that impressed him!” her mother insisted. “Daenae be so humble! I’m sure that ye impressed him with yer beauty and yer intellect and with everythin’ that is so, so unique about ye, mo nighean donn.”
As much as she wanted to, Ava could hardly argue with that. It truly seemed like she had impressed the Laird, despite thinking of herself as terribly and irreparably rude.
“I must tell yer faither at once,” she said, and before Ava could say anything else, she was gone. Ava looked around, and she noticed for the first time that the Laird’s personal invitation had attracted many stares from the other families in the room. It made her cower, not knowing how to navigate her newfound notoriety.
The end of the night came soon, a little too soon for Ava’s liking, and it was time for her to say goodbye to her brothers and father. She had never been anywhere without them, and she already missed them, especially Samuel and Keegan. The three of them had always been inseparable, and Ava wished that they could stay with her.
But the invitations had been clear: only mothers and daughters would stay. And so, Ava hugged her father and her brothers before they jumped in their carriage to make the journey home.
When Ava awoke the following morning, it took her a few moments to remember where she was. Her surroundings were unfamiliar at first, and then she realized that she had not returned home after the feast.
Because the Laird wants me here.
She had had so much time to think once she had been shown to her chamber, but it had made no difference. Even as she stayed awake for hours, thinking about the Laird and the invitation, she couldn’t make sense of it. Her clan wasn’t even that wealthy or powerful. Surely, someone like Laird McPhee would be after a more advantageous marriage.
Her mind was a whirlwind of concerns, and Ava couldn’t push them away, no matter how much she tried. The knock on her door caught her attention, though, and she froze as the door opened.
“It’s time for breakfast, me Lady,” said a maid, a young girl with freckled cheeks and bright eyes. “I came to fetch ye and help ye with yer preparations.”
Ava wasn’t used to having maids dress her and do her hair. She did everything herself—not very satisfactorily, according to her mother—and she never bothered to put much effort into it.
But now I’ll be in the presence of the Laird. I should look respectable, I suppose.
Ava stood from the bed and dressed with the help of the maid. Ever since she had first stepped into her chamber, she couldn’t help but marvel at how elegantly and luxuriously decorated the chamber was. The bed itself was spacious, heavy mahogany draped with the finest linen. The walls were a rich blue, and the vanity and dresser the same, ornate wood as the bed.
And there were so many candles, more than Ava would keep in her own room. She couldn’t imagine having to light them all every evening and extinguish all the flames at night. But as long as she stayed at McPhee Castle, it seemed that she wouldn’t have to do any such tasks.
When the maid had finished dressing her and fixing her hair, Ava looked at herself in the mirror, smoothing her hands over the red fabric. Then, she followed the girl to the room where she and the other women would be having their breakfast.
Just before she reached the door, Ava spotted her mother rushing down the stairs to join them, a big smile on her face. “Ava!” she called, waving an excited hand, and Ava dismissed the maid that had been trailing her all morning. “Isnae this Castle just the most beautiful place ye’ve seen?”
“It’s verra nice, Maither,” Ava admitted. She had been dragged to several feasts throughout the years, all of them in different castles, but none of them could compare to this one.
As the doors to the breakfast room opened, Ava grabbed her mother’s hand. A part of her was terrified; she always seemed to say the wrong thing, and she was certain that she would end up embarrassing her mother somehow. Ava herself didn’t get embarrassed often, but she didn’t want to put her mother in a difficult spot.
As she walked into the room, Ava noticed that some of the other girls and their mothers were already there, sitting at a long table laid with all sorts of delicacies, from bowls of humble porridge and plates of bannocks to fresh fruit and sweets. At the head of the table sat Rhea Bain, the Laird’s mother, and when she saw them, she stood, gesturing at the two empty seats on her right.
Ava glanced at her mother, only to find that she was as shocked as well at the woman’s invitation. The family didn’t cease to surprise them both.
The two of them approached the table, Ava on wobbly knees. She could already feel everyone’s gaze on her, and as she sat between her mother and another girl, she could only keep her eyes on her lap.
The voice came from her right, and Ava turned to see a young girl, with dirty-blonde hair, blue eyes and rosy cheeks. She looked sweet as a pie and too young to be there.
But her words were like running water, melodic and pleasant, and a breath of fresh air for Ava. She had been so worried about everything that she hadn’t even considered the possibility of making new friends.
“I am Ciara Gallagher,” the girl continued. “And that’s Marley McDougal and Elspeth McMahon.”
Ava followed Ciara’s gaze as she introduced the other young women, who sat farther away from them. Ava knew that there were more who had been invited to stay, but none of them had shown up to breakfast yet.
“Ava Pearson,” she told her, responding to Ciara’s sweet smile with one of her own. “I’m verra pleased to meet ye… verra pleased.”
Ciara laughed at the evident relief in Ava’s voice. “Did ye think that we’d have to fight to the death, like gladiators?”
The notion that a dozen or so girls would be physically fighting for the affections of the Laird drew a laugh out of Ava, and she shook her head. She had already started to enjoy Ciara’s company, and she wondered if all the girls were as nice as her.
As they talked and got to know more about each other, Ava couldn’t help but ask her a question that had been on her mind ever since she had first laid eyes on her.
“Ciara… are ye nay a wee too young to be here?”
“I turned eight-and-ten three months ago,” Ciara said. “I’m in nay rush to marry, but me maither and faither wanted me to attend, just in case. They said that ye never ken when ye’ll capture someone’s eye.”
“And ye did,” Ava pointed out. “Ye’re here.”
“Och aye, but I think we all ken who the Laird really wants,” Ciara said, giving her a conspiratorial smile. “We all saw him invite ye personally.”
“I’m sure it was nothin’,” Ava said, waving a hand dismissively. There seemed to be a relief in Ciara’s gaze, though, one that told Ava that she, too, didn’t want to get married. She could hardly blame her; she was still so young. “Well… can ye keep a secret?”
That seemed to capture Ciara’s attention, and she nodded, leaning closer to Ava.
“I daenae wish to get married, either,” she whispered to her.
Ava found Ciara’s look of surprise hilarious, and she couldn’t hold back a laugh. “Ye daenae wish to get married?” Ciara hissed. “Why?”
Ava glanced around them, ensuring that no one else was listening in to their conversation. “I have never told anyone but me family this, but… I wish to be a writer,” she said. “If a man can do it, I’m sure I can do it, too.”
“A writer…” Ciara repeated with a dreamy sigh, “that sounds so marvelous. I wish that I could do somethin’ like that, too.”
“Well… I daenae ken if I can do it,” Ava said with a small shrug. “Me family doesnae want me to do anythin’ related to writin’. They daenae even want to hear about it. But if ye daenae want to marry, then ye shouldnae have to.”
Ciara looked at Ava, her eyes wise beyond their years. “I wish that were true.”
For the rest of the breakfast, Ava kept looking at the door, wondering when the Laird would appear. It soon became apparent to her, though, that he wouldn’t be joining them.
He invited us all here only to have his maither entertain us while he’s doin’ Lord kens what? And I thought I was the rude one!
It was only proper that, as their host, the Laird would come to see them or at least greet them for the morning. Ava could understand sitting in the back of a room, trying to avoid dancing at all costs—she had done the same. What she couldn’t understand was why they were even there if the Laird wasn’t interested in getting to know them all and making a decision.
She had no intention of spending more than a few nights away from her home.
Turning back to face Ciara, Ava leaned close to her once more, whispering. “Where is Laird McPhee?” she asked. “Did he come to greet ye at all?”
Ciara shook her head. “Nay,” she said. “I havenae seen him since last night, and even then, I only saw him for a few moments.”
Ava hummed, glancing at the empty seat at the other end of the table. The more she looked at it, the more it angered her.
In that moment, Ava decided that after breakfast was over, she would personally track down the Laird and give him a piece of her mind. It was only fitting, she thought, that he heard how she felt about the entire ordeal, and that she would be the one to tell him about it. All the other girls were too nice, too polite, too shy to confront him, but not Ava. She had been rude to him once, and she could do it again.
After all, if he truly appreciated her honesty, as he had said the previous night, then there was no reason for him to be offended by what she had to say to him.
The rest of the women began to appear, two at a time, and Ava and Ciara, along with the rest of the girls, made the necessary introductions. Ava could hardly remember any of the names afterward, though, focused as she was on her plan. She waited patiently until the breakfast was over, and just as Lady McPhee began to speak, she whispered to Ciara, “I’ll return shortly. Make up an excuse for me, will ye?”
Before Ciara had time to reply, Ava slipped away from the crowd and out of the room, finding herself in an empty corridor. She looked around, wondering where the Laird could be, and began to think that perhaps her plan wasn’t as sound as she had first thought.
With a sigh, she began to walk around the Castle. With any luck, she thought, she would eventually bump into the Laird one way or another, and if anyone found her snooping around, then she could simply say that she was lost.
And she was lost. She had no idea where she was. The Castle was massive, with winding staircases and long corridors lined with doors and torches. The only way in which she could orient herself was by looking out of the window and seeing what part of the scenery sprawled before her.
Of course, that didn’t help, since she didn’t know where the Laird was in the first place.
Just as Ava was about to turn around a corner, she heard footsteps approaching, and she quickly ducked behind a door. When she looked behind her, the chamber was thankfully empty, and nothing more than an unused study, it seemed.
The footsteps and the voices of the two girls—maids, she thought—soon faded. Slipping out of the room, Ava checked the corridor for any other presence, but found none. And so, she continued to tiptoe around the Castle, going up a staircase and through another long corridor, until she heard a familiar voice coming from behind a door.
“Och, they’re all bonnie but—”
Ava stopped listening after that. She didn’t want to hear whatever the Laird had to say about her and the other girls, because it clearly wasn’t anything good. Her rage overflowed inside her, demanding release, blinding her to anything else other than the fact that the Laird was right there, behind that door. She felt flustered, the blood rushing to her head and reddening her cheeks with her anger, and her hand moved to grasp the doorknob before she could think any better of it.
And then she threw the door wide open.
Did you like this preview? Please, don't forget to leave me a comment below!
Want to read how the story ends?
Chosen for the Highlander's Pleasure is live on Amazon now!