About the book
Soft as a wind chime, her voice caused his caged soul to tremble...
Aspiring bard Isobel Williams has been the black sheep of the family for years. Resolved to show her worth, she longs for the opportunity to prove them wrong. An opportunity that arises when she receives an invitation to sing for the Laird. Even if she hates him with every fiber of her being.
Being the Laird of a powerful clan is not easy, but Ryen Harper is determined to succeed. A feat that proves difficult when all his servants start falling ill one after the other. Especially when the sudden sickness coincides with the arrival of the most infuriatingly alluring bard he has ever seen.
Yet the realization of their feelings marks the first death. Torn between his duty to his people and saving Isobel from horrendous suffering, Ryen strives to face an adversary he can’t see or touch. An enemy who kills with a coward’s sword…
Scottish Highlands, 1630
“Laird, we swear fealty to ye and the McIntosh Clan upon pain of death.” The new laird of McIntosh Clan looked out at his warriors, kilted in red and green, their dirks clutched tightly and proudly in their fists as they put their arms to their hearts and bowed their heads.
Ryen Harper felt nothing. It was to be a momentous occasion when he became Laird, but now it had been thrust upon him both quickly and far too early for his liking by the cruel hand of fate. He had not been prepared for his father’s death nor his mother’s soon after.
He stood tall looking out at his men and the crowd beyond. He knew the words all too well, and they came to him, even though the emotion was lost that was to linger behind them.
He lifted his tankard of ale to the crowd and said to the men’s bowed heads, “And I vow to ye me protection while ye are under McIntosh colors and McIntosh lands. Do not betray, for the consequences will be dire.”
The men lifted their heads, and the whole busy room of people lifted their cups high and cheered for the new Laird’s position. They had already spent the day paying their respects to his late mother, and since she had fallen ill soon after his father had died, there had been no time to perform the Lairdship ceremony.
Ryen brought the cup to his lips and drank deeply, hopeful that he could even partially remove the pain of loss that threatened to split him in two. Now, he had a clan to lead. However, he resolved to do one thing as his first order of business: get mind-numbingly drunk.
The feast continued, and as he sat down, his sister Mary leaned toward him, her reddish-brown hair glinting in the torchlight.
“Brother, Faither and Maither would be proud of ye. Faither always kenned that ye would be a good leader.”
Ryen grumbled and leaned forward to the pewter pitcher of ale and poured himself another hearty tankard. In a moment, a servant came by to refill the pitcher. At least as Laird, his cup would always remain full.
“Is that so? I doubt our Faither planned on dyin’ so early and leavin’ me with such a mess.”
“Ryen, how can ye say such a thing? He is barely cold in his grave and Maither dead only days ago.”
Ryen could hear sadness in his sister’s voice, but instead of saying anything, he merely placed a large, rough hand on hers. She calmed. His other hand still gripped his tankard and he took another long drink, wishing and praying for oblivion.
“My first plan is to get drunk, and then do it again. I daenae wish to wake from me stupor for two days at least.”
Mary sighed and pulled her hand away from his. “And what of Lily? Ye at least enjoy carin’ for yer own niece, even if ye want nothin’ to do with Clan matters.”
Ryen could see his sister was crossing her arms out of the corner of his eye. He kept his gaze ahead though, watching the most important members of his Clan and Castle eating, drinking, talking. No one else had to shoulder such a responsibility. They could eat and drink in peace with no dark shadows lingering in their minds.
“It is nae that I want nothin’ to do with them. It is just that I dinnae expect it. I was nae ready.”
Mary gripped his arm and used her other hand to pull his bearded face toward her. She looked deeply into his brown eyes.
“Brother, let me tell ye somethin’.” Ryen’s heart clenched as he realized what he had just done.
Mary’s voice was firm. “Ye cannae expect death. It comes whenever it wishes. The world is a cruel mistress, and life has dealt us a harsh blow. First, with me husband, lost in a battle, and now our parents. We cannae sit around forever, questionin’ why things happened, or else we would never get anythin’ done. So I suggest, ye forget doin’ that, but…” she paused, and he could see a smile curl at the corners of her lips, “ye would do well to get drunk tonight. It does help to ease the pain a bit.”
She let him go, and Ryen took a deep breath from his seat at the head of the room. “It feels like Maither is nae gone, ye ken,” he smiled weakly. “For ye are just like her. Scoldin’, keepin’ me in line, forcin’ me to get me head out of me own arse.”
Mary laughed aloud even though tears were beginning to brim in her eyes. “Ye are a good man, brother. Ye gave me and Lily a new beginnin’. We are back home, and we are safe and loved. There is hope. I ken it. We will do this.” She gripped onto his hand. “Ye will be a wonderful Laird.”
He doubted that very much.
“Well,” she grinned, “ye will have to start by nae bein’ such a philanderer, takin’ woman after woman to yer bed, simply because ye are the best warrior in all of the McIntosh Clan. Now yer head will most likely be enlarged due to yer position.” She rolled her eyes.
Ryen drank again. A nice bedding after a bout of drinking would certainly do the trick to ease the hollowness he felt inside. It had always worked before whenever he was doubting himself or feeling like he wasn’t prepared to be as good of a laird as his father, and he could do it again. What was the harm?
“I daenae think that will happen, sister. Is a Laird nae supposed to be the seducer of women? The charmer of the land as well as the best in battle?”
Mary slapped his arm lightly. “Ye will certainly be Faither to many children if ye did that,” she said with a grim voice. “I would much prefer ye find a lovely woman who ye could give yer heart to and spend a life together. That was what I hoped for.”
Ryen opened his mouth to say something, but she interrupted him. “Nay, let me speak. It is what I hoped for and I had it. Even if it was a brief time, it was the most beautiful experience. Daenae close yer heart to it.”
Ryen nodded. She had long given him this speech, but he still couldn’t understand it. A life spent with one person? He wasn’t sure that he could stand anyone for that long. He only loved a very small group of people, and with his parents dead, the group was very small indeed.
He stood up. “I think I have had enough of talk of the future. Our focus should be the evenin’. Ye told me yerself, sister, that I should drink meself into a stupor. Ye are welcome to do so as well.”
“Och, thank ye, kind brother. So if we are to maintain the festivities, why do we nae ask Hendrick for a song or a poem?”
Ryen nodded. “Aye, it appears the man has brought his bard family.” Ryen stopped a servant and asked them to bring Hendrick to him.
He returned to sitting and waiting, speaking to Mary while Hendrick approached, and when he turned to face them, he wasn’t sure if it was the ale making him dizzy or the fact that whoever Hendrick, his bard, had brought with him was the most stunning creature he had ever beheld.
“Laird,” young dark-haired Hendrick bowed his head, “I have brought me family here, or at least some of them to meet ye. We bring our condolences on the loss of yer Maither.”
Hendrick was always a grim sort of fellow, and he looked even grimmer now. While Ryen tried to right himself, he tried to keep his gaze on Hendrick’s boring face, instead of the vision of loveliness that stood next to him.
Clearing his throat, he replied, “Thank ye. Me Sister and I both thank ye.”
Hendrick bowed again. “This is me Faither, Thomas Williams, and me sister, Isobel.” Hendrick gestured to his father with reverence, but waved a hand in Isobel’s direction and introduced her in a bored voice.
Ryen was surprised. How could one dismiss so anyone as bonny as that?
“Laird,” she and her father said together.
“Our condolences, Laird,” the father said solemnly, bowing again.
Isobel said, “It is good to meet ye at long last. Me brother has told me much about his time here.”
As she spoke, Ryen realized he was most definitely feeling the effects of his alcohol, for her voice sounded so melodious that he could feel each note of it tingle pleasantly over his body. Besides the voice, the loveliness of her face and figure was almost too much to bear. She was rather short, but that did not mean she was not shapely in all of the right and most tantalizing places.
Her blonde hair was like gold, and it was braided around the crown of her head. Her brown eyes were sharp and lively, and when she smiled with her greeting, Ryen noticed a dimple on her right cheek.
He felt an elbow jab into his side. “Och!” he said looking at his sister who stared back at him with wide eyes and gesturing her head softly to those in front of them. He realized then that he had not spoken in quite a long time.
“Och, aye,” Ryen collected himself clumsily. “I am glad that he has enjoyed himself. That is why I called ye here, Hendrick. Please favor us with a song or poem. I think me Maither would have appreciated such a gesture.”
“Of course, Laird. I shall begin right away.”
Hendrick bowed his head and grabbed at his sister’s arm to pull her away. She glanced up at Ryen for a moment, gave him a small smile and left with her father to sit down. Ryen felt like he was in a daze as he retreated back to his seat and Hendrick began to sing one of the old funeral songs that his father had the bard sing at his grandfather’s funeral.
As Hendrick’s song wove through the crowd, putting all of its listeners into a lovely trance, helped also by warm wine and ale, Ryen allowed his mind to wander. He couldn’t help but let his gaze creep over to where Isobel was sitting. He stared at her as she looked up at Hendrick, her eyes wide.
She must think something of that serious brother of hers. But she is lovely. Nearly transfixing.
He kept filling his tankard as Hendrick moved to a new song, and Mary leaned into him to whisper, “I would suggest nae makin’ that lass as one of yer conquests. She seems too sweet to be that sort of woman.”
Ryen scoffed at her. “What? The sort of woman who should be charmed by me?”
“Exactly. Let her be. Look at her. Why she is quite a proud little sister.”
I am looking at her.
He had noticed women before. All the time in fact. But there was something different about her. She radiated a sort of purity and freshness that intrigued him, more so than perhaps it should for it led to dangerous thoughts and ideas that were most certainly not pure.
His intention was to be reckless that evening and drink himself into a stupor. Why not speak to the bonny lass who was looking at her brother the way he wished she might look at him?
Hendrick was eventually finished with his song, and the buzz of the room returned to normal. Servants were moving about, replacing plates of meat and hot bread, and filling casks of wine and pitchers of ale. And to his delight, Hendrick and his father moved to go speak to another group of men on the other side of the room. Isobel was at last alone.
He nearly jumped up from his chair, and ignoring Mary’s questioning look, he walked toward her on the far side of his great hall, under the flickering shadows of the torches, the heat and conversation from the rest of the hall to his side.
When he reached her, she stood up hastily and put her hand to a strand of hair that had fallen loose from her ear.
“Laird McIntosh,” she said, a little breathless.
Ryen smiled. He was used to making women breathless, and he felt smug that he had done the same to this one.
“Lass, why have yer brother and Faither left ye on yer own?”
“They have met an old friend, I believe. A bard from a neighboring clan.”
“They do nae wish ye to accompany them?”
She shook her head. “Nay,” she said with a weak smile, “why should they?”
Because ye are lovely and perfect.
“Well, have ye never been to McIntosh Castle before? I must confess that I have never seen ye, if ye have. I would have remembered ye.”
He gazed at her, and he could feel his whole body thrumming with heat and desire.
She blushed. “Och, nay, I have nae, but I was most looking forward to seein’ it today.” She blushed even deeper. “Och, do forgive me, Laird. I ken that it is nae a pleasant day to think about such things.”
“Nay, it is nae, but I say that we should attempt to make it pleasant in some way. Is there some part of the Castle that ye wish to see?”
Isobel’s brown eyes sparkled. “I would very much like to see from high up and look down at the village under the stars. I have never been high before, and I have always seen the Castle from afar, wonderin’ what it would be like.”
“Then see it we will.”
Ryen downed the last of his ale, feeling delightfully warm and at ease. Thoughts of his mother being buried in the ground that day did not even attempt to enter his mind. Here he was, ready to forget everything. He clasped onto her wrist and began to pull her to a side door away from the crowd.
“Laird McIntosh!” Isobel said sharply, but she said nothing more, and Ryen grinned, knowing that for certain the rest of the party was looking their way wondering what on earth their new laird was doing.
He was sure that Mary was back at the table clicking her tongue in disapproval. Well, Mary would have nothing to worry about. He had no plans to despoil the lass. Well, not yet at least.
When they reached the stone steps, he slid his large hand around hers and they walked up and up, twisting around and around the stone walls until his mind grew a little fuzzier. The ale was doing its work credibly.
At the top, he took one of the torches from the wall and led the way to another side door which opened onto a small balcony. He pushed the torch into its setting on the outside wall.
“This is the place I go to when the busyness of below gets too much. It is good it is a windless night, or else we might have been in total darkness.”
That does not sound so bad.
Isobel let go of his hand and walked forward slowly until her palms grazed the top of the gray stone wall, and he could hear her gasp.
“It is more beautiful than I could have imagined,” she said softly, tenderly.
Ryen moved beside her. He knew that he should not stand so close, but he could not help it. Her energy was addictive. He wanted to be near to it, to be a part of it.
He looked up to see a lovely blanket of stars swirling around them and down below, dots of fires scattered to the west, the village that was the closest to the Castle.
“Ye are from there, lass?”
“Aye,” she said, her eyes fixed on the fires and the stars, while his remained fixed upon her.
“And so ye have taken yer first adventure away from home.”
“Aye, but I hope to have many adventures one day. Movin’ here and there, never stoppin’ for too long. I have wanted to see new places for as long as I can remember.”
She still did not look at him, even though he willed it to be so.
He nodded. “That sounds very enticin’, indeed. I think I should like that.”
Isobel turned to him at long last. She smiled. “Do ye really think so? Even a laird such as ye with so much at his disposal?”
He chuckled at her endearing innocence. “Aye, lass. I would like that very much. For to travel is to be free, is it nae? Even a Laird wishes his freedom, for he can be chained to his position, his people, his purpose.”
His hands clenched the edge of the rough stone wall, and he felt his expression grow grim. He looked down in surprise to see Isobel lightly touching his hand.
When he glanced down into her eyes, they were kind and warm. “It cannae be so bad as that, Laird.”
Ryen fell into her gaze, the light of the moon casting a lovely glow on her skin. She was turned to him, so open and her words so touching, that he leaned forward and kissed her, his lips touching hers gently.
The pleasant buzz of ale was nothing compared to this. Her scent, her taste. His lips moved to deepen the kiss, but instead he received a sharp push on his shoulders as well as a slap across the face.
When he pulled back with a grunt of pain, he saw Isobel’s eyes widen, and her cheeks blush. “Laird McIntosh,” she touched her hand to her lips. “I am nae that kind of woman,” she said, her eyes narrowing in anger.
Ryen blinked in surprise. Never before had anyone aside from Mary spoken to him with such disregard for his position. Nor had any woman ever before rejected his advances. They usually enjoyed them and welcomed them!
“What did ye think, lass? It was just a kiss. Nothin’ more.”
“Och, really? Ye were tryin’ to take me to bed! That must be why ye brought me here. Good night to ye, Laird.”
“Go, lass! I daenae want to spend any more time with a simperin’ female who tempts a man and then pushes him away the next moment.”
Isobel gasped, and Ryen winced a little at her angry, hurt expression, but then she left through the door, and he could hear her hurried footsteps rush away down the stairs.
Ryen leaned his head down onto the wall, feeling guilt wash over him. “Damn it.”
The evening had grown darker still. The only solution was…
Four Years Later...
“Another one?” Ryen paled as his housekeeper Mrs. Dale informed him that yet another of those in his Castle had fallen ill. “Who is it now, Mrs. Dale?”
She licked her lips and swallowed, and he could see her hand clutching to her stomach. “It is Hendrick, Laird, the bard. Just this morning, he fainted in the servant’s room, and the men had to carry him to his own bed. I have sent for the healer to see to him.”
Ryen rubbed a hand through his beard, sighing. “I see. We will need to send for a new bard, then.”
Mrs. Dale nodded, her gray hair trembling at her temples. “Is it wise, Laird, when so many have fallen ill?”
He considered this. “Well, there is the feast coming up. We need a bard to take Hendrick’s place at that time.”
She nodded again. “Aye, I will send for a new bard and tell the family of Hendrick’s illness.”
“Uncle Ryen!” Ryen turned to see a bright-eyed, red-haired Lily run toward his desk from the doorway, her arms opened wide. He immediately stood up and gathered her into his arms.
“Thank ye, Mrs. Dale. I meant only to ask ye to send Lily to me. Ye may go.” Mrs. Dale smiled at the young girl.
“Of course. Thank ye, Laird.”
After the housekeeper left, Ryan sat down in a chair by his fireplace which took up one wall of his study, placing Lily in his lap.
“Now, tell me, have ye done yer lessons today? Or am I to force ye to listen to the tutor?”
Five-year-old Lily giggled and leaned forward to grasp Ryen around the neck.
“The lessons are too hard, Uncle. I daenae like them.”
He laughed, unable to resist his niece’s sweet voice. “Ye ken, I never liked them very much meself, but I was better for it in the end.”
Lily pulled back, her blue eyes wide with awe. “What does that mean?”
“It means it made me smarter and better as ye will become too.”
Lily grumbled, and Ryen kissed her on the cheek. “But before ye are back to yer lessons, why do ye nae come with me? We can go to see the horses in the stable or pick flowers or whatever it is ye wish.”
Lily grinned and held onto his hand as they stood up. “Pick flowers!” she called out, and jumping alongside him.
They walked out of his study and down the stone steps to the main door. He often liked to keep it open in the warmer weather, and so its thick oaken doors stood wide, fresh spring air coming through.
He also held some small hope that the breeze might bring health and vitality back to the Castle. Poor Lily was with him so much because her mother, Mary, had taken ill weeks ago and still had not recovered. He was afraid that she would die and Lily would lose both her parents in the span of a few years and he would lose the another member of his immediate family.
As they wandered through the grass, no one would know that Lily was going through a difficult time. Her smile was always showing, and she rushed forward into the meadow outside the Castle, grasping at bloom after bloom, placing them into her hand.
“Why pick flowers so much, dear Lily?” he asked as he walked next to her, placing a pat on her head, listening to the sweet sound of morning birdsong.
He had become like a father to her now, and he could not bear the thought of Lily becoming sick as well. Had he been wise to ask for a new bard?
“Because flowers are the best things in the world, Uncle. They smell good, and they remind me of happy things.”
Ryen had not often been moved to tears since the death of his own parents four years ago, but now, Lily had struck at the heart. Who could have known a five-year-old could say such poignant things?
“Wise words, me love. Ye are smart to gather them to remind yerself of goodness.”
He stood watch on the edge of the meadow as she danced around after a butterfly. She was like a little faerie wandering about in a magical field, surrounded by sunlight. Could she cast a healing spell over the Castle?
Ryen crossed his arms. Despite the merry scene before him, his expression grew grim. What was he going to do about this illness? The old healer who resided in the rooms below the Castle had no idea what was causing it. The man merely treated the symptoms. To be fair, old Gowan was going blind and a little bit senile, and so perhaps his ideas were not as accurate as they once were.
He called Lily back to him after another ten minutes, and the two walked back to the Castle so that Lily could finish her lessons. She danced away with the tutor clutching her hand, and even though it was a few moments of sunshine, reality had come crashing down upon him again as soon as Lily left his presence.
Servants hustled by him, carrying pitchers and basins filled with steaming water along with clean, white cloth. Mary. He hadn’t gone to visit her yet that day, and he wasn’t certain that he wanted to. To see his sister in such dire straits was too much to bear, not when he had a clan to control, neighboring clans to defend against and fight, crops to grow, cattle and sheep to raise, and more besides. It never seemed to end. It was just as difficult as he had imagined when he’d been sworn in as Laird four years before.
“Laird Ryen,” he heard Mrs. Dale’s voice again, but this time it was soft and calming. “Would ye like some tea?” As a child, whenever he was ill, it was Mrs. Dale’s voice who had come through his fevers.
“Aye, Mrs. Dale. I will take it in me study.”
“Well, I have been assured that the bard is on his way. I thought ye might like to have tea with him to discuss their responsibilities, especially for the upcoming harvest feast.”
“Aye, of course. Send him to the study when he arrives. There will be plenty of room there for tea.”
She left with a bow, and Ryen reluctantly returned to his room, removed his coat and threw it over one of the chairs. It was too warm now for thick plaids and mantles anyway. The winter sometimes lingered there for so long in the northern part of Scotland, it made one forget.
He sat behind his desk and looked at the long list of people already come down with the illness just within his Castle walls. Mary, many of the servants and stable boys, and now Hendrick Williams. He dipped his pen into the nearby ink bottle and scrawled out the name. The list had now reached twenty people.
Just even the thought of serious, stoic Hendrick made him think of that fateful night four years ago when Ryen had kissed the bard’s beautiful sister, hoping for some relief from the cruelty of grief. Instead, he was met with a pair of flaming eyes, an acid tongue and a sharp slap. He had not seen her since, even though it was a pity, for he had not bedded another woman like her since.
Ryen stared at the names for a long time, wondering if that would somehow help him to understand why they were all falling ill, and why not everyone was falling ill. It made no sense. Would he or Lily soon be next?
He started from his scrutiny of the names when Mrs. Dale knocked and opened the door. “The new bard, Laird,” she said and motioned to the figure next to her. He frowned at Mrs. Dale’s nervous face.
Mrs. Dale moved out of the way and left the room, and Ryen dropped the paper and pen from his hands. It was none other than Hendrick’s sister, one Isobel Williams, even lovelier than before.
“Faither, why can I nae go to offer meself to his Lairdship? I have nae Laird or other clansmen to bind meself to, and me brothers are all busy with their own positions.” Isobel and her father had just had word from the Castle that Hendrick was ill, and that they were looking for a bard. Instantly, Isobel had offered her services, and the messenger went away to take the news to the Castle.
Thomas Williams looked up at his youngest, Isobel, and her sweet, earnest face. Isobel watched her father with wide eyes, hoping that this time, he would let her do something bigger than just a few times singing here and there around the surrounding villages.
He grumbled. “What if ye demean yerself, lass?”
She crossed her arms. “What does that mean, Faither? Ye have taught me to be a bard, and so a bard is what I shall do and how I shall act.”
He paused again, narrowing his eyes at her. “Ye could never be as good a bard as the men of this family. That is plain enough. Women cannae be good bards. They always have other ideas in their minds. They can never seem to do what they’re told.”
Isobel rolled her eyes and sighed, tired of this same conversation they’d been having for years. But even though the content had been the same, and she’d heard those words time and time again, it didn’t make the sting any less harsh.
“What does that have to do with anythin’? I am merely takin’ the place of me brother until he is well again.”
And perhaps getting a chance to prove meself to ye, Faither. And everyone who continues to doubt me.
He nodded curtly. “Fine, then. But just until yer brother is well. I am certain the Laird will want him back when that happens.”
Isobel nodded and looked away, fearful that her Faither could see the tears in her eyes. Why did she still let the lack of faith he and her brothers had in her bother her? It was not as if it was anything new. Sometimes she wondered why he had bothered to teach her anything at all, if he didn’t think her worthy of the position.
“Thank ye, Faither. I will send word to ye when I find out about Hendrick’s condition.”
“Aye,” he said from his seat at the table, looking at the food before him. “Do that. God be with ye, lass.”
Feeling like she was released from prison, Isobel rushed to her room to collect all of her belongings, and fled out the front door, barely giving her father a second look. She would walk to the Castle with her leather satchel over her shoulder and hopefully never look back.
She kept the Castle in her sights as she thought about four years ago, and how she had looked down over her village and been kissed by the Laird himself. She smirked, remembering how she’d pushed him away in her angry innocence, fearful he had hopes of taking her to his bed and slapped him.
The proud laird had reacted poorly, and that image of him acting like a spoiled child who didn’t receive the toy they wanted would remain forever in her thoughts. She knew she was walking right back into the Castle of that same Laird, and she would have to speak to him again.
“No matter,” she said to herself as she traversed up the green hill and through the flowered meadow toward the large Castle Gate. “He will most certainly nae remember me. He was drunk, and he has had many a woman since then, I am certain. He shall pay me nay mind.”
She kept that thought to console her eager nerves as she approached the gate. Before she entered, she removed her tartan cap from her bag and placed it on her head, the sign of a bard. Surprisingly, the gate was open, even if there were guards standing nearby, the McIntosh colors spread over their chests and worn at their waists. Tentatively, she walked inside, looking about her.
An older woman approached her with a smile, looking behind her as people often did, wondering who it was that was actually visiting them. “Can I assist ye, Miss?”
Isobel swallowed nervously, but as she exhaled, she steeled herself. “Aye, I am Hendrick’s sister, Isobel. I am here to take his place.”
“Take his pla—?” The woman looked her up and down. “Ye mean to see how he fares?”
“Aye, of course, but I mean to act as bard until he is well again.”
The woman stared at her, her mouth open. “Ye mean to work as bard for the Laird McIntosh?”
“Aye,” Isobel said with some irritation, “may I speak with him?”
“The Laird or yer brother?”
“The Laird, if ye please. I can explain it all to him. I have good references, and a list of names that he may send letters to, to ask about me skills, if there is any doubt.” Isobel tried not to sigh too loudly with indignation. She was used to receiving doubtful looks from men, but to be so assessed and judged by her own sex made the insult far worse.
The woman touched the bodice of her gown as if to smooth it, and Isobel didn’t know why, for it was hard and unable to wrinkle.
“I see. Well, lass, I am Mrs. Dale, the housekeeper. I shall take ye to him and we will see what he says. I suppose I should have been told differently when I sent a servant out to ask for a bard. I never expected a woman to come.”
Isobel said nothing but tried to keep her smile bright and her chin high as she followed Mrs. Dale through the Castle’s hall and up the stairs to a dark wooden doorway.
Mrs. Dale glanced at her worriedly for a moment before she knocked on the door and entered. Isobel couldn’t see behind the gray-haired woman, so she took a calming breath as she was introduced, hoping that the sight of Laird McIntosh would not send her heart into a furious flutter as it did the day she’d first seen him.
The day she’d met him when he was drunk, yet so incredibly handsome, he was practically irresistible. And then he’d shown his true colors and thinking that he was owed everything that he desired.
Mrs. Dale moved out of the way and left the room with a bow, and Isobel had the strange feeling of kinship to Daniel in the lions’ den as she stepped forward. She lifted her eyes to the Laird, and he dropped whatever he was holding in his hand and looked about as shocked as if she was standing in front of him naked. He stood up, his eyebrows slowly furrowing into confusion.
“Isobel,” he said softly, and to her surprise, the name sounded gentle on his lips. So he had not forgotten her as she’d hoped, or perhaps more expected.
Clearing her throat, she stepped forward and bowed her head. “Laird McIntosh, we meet again. I am very sorry to hear of me brother’s illness. I appreciate the message ye sent to me family’s home. How does he fare?”
“Ye may see him if ye like,” Ryen said warily. “I assume that is the real reason ye have come.”
He smiled a little smugly, and Isobel was angry that her body reacted to him so fully. Now that he was standing in his linen shirt, she could see the lines of his strong body, grown even more masculine and strong since last she’d seen him. The linen shirt did little to hide what lay underneath it.
His hair was thick and curly, and he had a reddish-brown beard clipped close to his face. It was his eyes, however, which threatened to unnerve her. They were dark brown and watched her as if they knew everything about her in one glance. She feared that he would see just how much his physical beauty affected her.
She straightened her shoulders, ready to fight yet again against the onslaught of comments about her sex.
“Nay, I am here to act as bard.”
“Bard?” He laughed lightly, and Isobel crossed her arms, feeling an old rage fill her breast.
“Aye. Bard. I am a trained bard, efficient and useful, and if ye require references, I have them aplenty. Ye will ken that the Williams family are the most sought-after bards in the country.” She lifted her chin even higher, wishing with all her might that she could look down upon the proudest, most insulting Laird she had ever met.
Well, the only Laird she’d ever met. As a woman, she had been unable to find permanent positions in more prestigious places, and so her customers had mainly been merely wealthy or in need of a bard’s services for one evening.
Unfortunately, looking down on him was not possible for he was at least a head or more taller than her. He wandered around the side of his desk and then sat on the front edge of it, his arms crossed, looking at her sternly.
“A woman to be a bard? Who has ever heard of such a thing?”
Isobel gritted her teeth. Really the man was too much. “Ye ken Mary MacLeod, certainly, the most famous woman bard of our time. Song maker of Skye and Berneray.”
He nodded, but his expression didn’t change. “Ye are still the same, I see,” he said. “Proud and arrogant, thinkin’ that ye are perfection itself and that everyone wants somethin’ from ye.”
Isobel opened her eyes wide. The breath was pushed out of her lungs, her shock was so strong. How dare he? How could she even call him Laird? Rage, hot and fiery, coursed through her every vein. She crossed her arms even tighter under her breasts, fearful that she might explode at the rate the anger was flowing through her.
“And I see that ye are also still the same. Rude, ill-mannered, and thinkin’ that too many people are beneath yer notice, despite the fact that ye are nae worthy to hold yer title.”
After her words coursed through the air, they seemed to hang heavily upon his head. His face turned cold, and Isobel wondered if she had just ruined the only chance she had to prove her skills and free herself from her family’s lack of confidence in her.
Who did the lass think she was? Ryen stared at her stiff expression, anger and indignation setting fire to his mind at her words. Not worthy to hold his title? He moved his hands from his chest and both of them gripped the side of his desk tightly. He wasn’t sure whether to throw her out or send her off for execution. Neither seemed enough to punish her for what she had just said.
She had just reached into his heart, pulled it out for both of them to see, and then stomped on it. He was not worthy, he knew it well, but to hear Isobel say it aloud, such disgust in her voice as she did so, made him feel about as small as humanly possible.
Intermixed with his fury, he could also sense his whole body standing up at attention with her arrival, and he hated himself for it. She was intoxicating, and with the way her own anger had lit up her face, her light-brown eyes sparkled with fire.
Damn her to Hell, he thought she was even more enticing now that time had added a womanliness to her, her curves more distinct and even more luscious if it were possible. Even though she’d attempted to fashion herself in the style of bard with tartan, belt, and cap, there was no denying what curves lay underneath her guise. And with her arms set tightly around her pushing up under her breasts, he could see just how full they were.
He swallowed, trying to keep the lust from whirling up inside of him. How could he lust after a woman who irked him so? Especially now that she had said such things to him? The guilt of the past rushed out of his mind replaced with fresh, warm hatred which pulsated anew in his heart.
“Och,” he said at least, finding his words. “Rudeness doesnae seem to be just me own flaw, with words like that which have just left yer mouth. And in front of yer own Laird.”
He thought for a moment that a flicker of regret passed over her face like a shadow, but it was gone in an instant.
Instead, she asked, “Will ye take me as bard, or nae? Ye must only give me one chance to prove meself, regardless of the words that I have spoken. I can guarantee that ye willnae be disappointed.”
He smirked wickedly. “Is that so?” He could not resist the chance to prove her wrong. “Ye are that confident in yer own skills?”
She nodded. He stood up and began to move around her in a circle, his intention to make her afraid, but deep down he knew that he wanted to be near her, his body’s interest growing ever stronger.
She nodded, if a little bit less emphatically than before. “Aye, I am. And once me brother is well, ye are free to send me back again, since I am here only as his replacement.”
He chuckled. “Och, thank ye so much, lass, for givin’ me permission to hire me own staff. How benevolent of ye.” If he was not mistaken, Isobel gulped nervously, and he smiled, knowing that he was getting to her.
She said nothing else as he made his turn around her, and when he was behind her, he could see the golden hair that had so struck him four years ago, laying down her back, free and wavy. He closed his eyes as a scent of freshness reached his nose.
Bloody Hell, is she a witch? For she has cast a spell upon me.
He kept his eyes closed for a moment, breathed in another breath of her, and then tried to steady himself as he returned to the edge of the desk.
“Fine,” he said at long last, crossed his arms, subconsciously attempting to keep himself from lunging at the woman, so tempting was she. “I will humor ye, lass. Stay with us for a time, prove yerself, and when I find ye unsatisfactory, then I will ask ye to leave.”
Isobel stiffened, and he could see her eyes narrow at him. My, but she was a bold one. She replied, “Ye mean, ‘if’, Laird.”
He shook his head with a smug smile. “Nay, lass. I mean when.”
Isobel seemed to shake with anger, and he felt satisfied. “Well, shall I show ye where yer brother is stayin’? Ye can speak to him, then, and tell him me decision. I am certain he will nae like it.”
“Well, he has nay choice in the matter, but I am certain that a servant can show me where he stays.”
“Nay,” Ryen said abruptly, wondering for a moment why a servant should not take her. Even though she had hurt him so incredibly, he wasn’t yet ready to be out of her enchanting presence. It was almost like a drug. “Nay,” he grinned, “I would like to see his face when ye tell him. Besides,” he grew serious, “it is important that I see for meself just what this illness is all about.”
He walked out of the study before her, leading the way. He feared that if she got too close, he might push her against any of the walls of his Castle and make rough, passionate love to her.
I must be goin’ mad! I shall tell Orla to come and visit me tonight. I need to slake me lust, for it is makin’ me lose focus.
“What do ye mean, the illness? Is it nae just somethin’ normal that comes around every season?”
Ryen shook his head from in front of her, and then realized that he should not be sharing so openly the problems of the Castle. The position of the clan was always in limbo, for other clans were always attempting to take on more to grow their power. He would not let it be spread that the members of his own Castle were becoming ill and weak and by association, the laird as well.
“It is nothin’. Pay me nay mind.”
“That is very agreeable to me. I will do just that.”
Ryen grimaced. Why did he agree to go with her to her brother’s room?
As Isobel walked behind him, she kept clutching her hands together tightly, and her palms became so wet they could barely hold one another. How could she have said such a horrible thing to the man who was in control of her clan and had agreed to allow her to stay? Ryen Harper was an arrogant arse, certainly, but did she have to be so harsh and rude?
She closed her eyes for a moment, feeling the brunt of her own chastisement. Since when had she ever spoken to someone like that? She wished that she could speak to her father or brothers that way, when they poked fun at her skills or the way she dreamed of something much more for her life.
Instead with them, she was as meek as a mouse, while with the Clan Laird, she was as ferocious as a lion. Why did he bring out such a horrible side to her? Now, they had to spend even more time together as they walked through the Castle to find her brother, and she had to feel the heat from his body, watch the movement of his muscles as he walked, and dream idly about the way he might look without the shirt on which tucked tightly into his belt.
The journey to her brother’s room was seemingly endless. She remembered the largeness of the great hall from her first visit, and how it had stunned and awed her in the night with its bright lights making shadows on the stone walls, and the vast size of the space, each long wooden table piled high with food.
Now they passed beyond it, down and down the sets of steps. She got peeks of light as they walked through the stairwell whenever they passed by the window arrow slits, and then they ended in a long, dark hallway, with doors on either side, unlit torches set against each doorway.
Isobel could hear muffled groans from inside, and she felt a wave of pity for her rather-serious brother, even if he was not as she wished he would be. Without another word, Ryen knocked and opened the door, and Isobel pushed inside, bumping against his side with her shoulder.
“Hendrick,” she said softly, and knelt down by his side. He looked far worse than she’d expected. His face was sweaty and his hands were on his stomach.
“Isobel,” he groaned, “what are ye doin’ here?”
She shook her head and laid a hand on the moist skin of his arm. “I am here to help ye. I will take the position of bard until ye are rested enough to resume yer duties.”
“What?” Hendrick replied, and he tried to sit up, his eyes wide with fear. Gently, Isobel pushed him down. “Ye cannae do this. What will the Laird think of a woman takin’ up such a role?”
Isobel wanted to shake her brother and scream. Even when he was so ill he could barely lift himself up, he was still concerned about her abilities as a woman. Ryen stepped forward from his place in the shadowy corner, and Hendrick turned his feverish gaze to him.
“The Laird thinks that she will be given a chance, however slight. There is nae time to find another suitable bard, for I ken that yer family is the highest recommended.”
Isobel was too surprised to say anything. She glanced up at him briefly, and he looked rather imperious looking down at her brother.
Has he just fought for my side?
“Has the healer been to see ye, brother?”
“Aye, he has.” Hendrick took a labored breath. “I have been given a few tinctures, and he has tried to bleed me to some degree. Nothin’ has worked yet.”
Isobel nodded sadly. “Well, I will speak to him meself.” Hendrick again tried to sit up, but she gently pushed him down again. She rather liked this position of power she suddenly held, and she stood up, her hands on her hips.
“I will be back later, brother. Ye must take time to rest.”
He groaned and turned away, and Isobel and Ryen left the room.
His frown had deepened. “I daenae ken what this illness is. It frustrates me so.”
Isobel tried to keep her surprise from her face. Had he just asked her opinion? She shook her head, “I daenae ken either. However, I do wish to speak to the healer of the Castle. Is Hendrick the only one with the illness?”
She looked at him as they walked up the steps again. She thought for a moment that she saw an expression of indecision, but instead he nodded his head. “Aye, the only one.”
“Hm…well I shall give it some thought, but first—”
Now that they were returned to the great hall, Mrs. Dale approached them. “Laird, the tea is prepared for ye and the…bard.” She pointed toward a small side hallway.
Ryen seemed to squirm uncomfortably at the mention of it. “Och, aye, thank ye, Mrs. Dale. But I have some business to attend to. Will ye give Miss Isobel the tea, and then explain to her where she will be stayin’? Introduce her to the other servants.”
Mrs. Dale opened her mouth, but then nodded. “Of course, Laird.”
Ryen nodded and turned to leave. He paused, speaking over his shoulder. “Ye can prove yerself tonight, lass. Ye will sing at dinner for us.”
“Me niece and I.”
Then, he walked off, and Isobel was looking after him, wondering at what a curiosity Laird McIntosh was.
“Come, Miss Isobel, I will show ye the way.”
Isobel nodded and allowed herself to be led down to the Castle’s kitchen.
“I thought I might have found ye here, Laird.”
Ryen turned at the sound of his friend and second’s voice, Bram. Bram was tall and bearded as well, but he had a wilder look to him, his red hair unkempt, while Ryen preferred to keep his beard cut close.
“So ye have. Ye can always find me up here when there are things to think of.”
Bram moved alongside Ryen and placed his elbows on the battlement stone. “Ye find it soothin’ I suppose, to be so high above it all, with only the wind and birds for company.”
“Aye,” Ryen smiled. “I find there are many troubles of late.”
“Care to share them with me?” Ryen smirked. Bram was the sort of person who people often found themselves pouring their hearts out to, even though he was a brawny and fierce warrior, nearly the best in the entire clan, aside from Ryen himself.
“I willnae burden ye overmuch, lad. But it does concern me about me sister’s health.”
“Of course. I heard that Hendrick has now fallen ill.”
“Aye,” Ryen said, dark thoughts taking shape in his mind.
“I also heard somethin’ else interestin’.”
“Och?” Ryen turned to him, afraid that there would be more news about illness or even death.
“That ye have hired a bard to replace him, and it is in fact a woman.”
Ryen chuckled. “Word certainly spreads like wildfire in a Laird’s Castle.”
“There is little else for the servants to think of,” Bram laughed. “Besides, it is very interesting news indeed.”
“She is Hendrick’s sister. I saw her once before at me Maither’s funeral feast, four years ago. Before ye came to the Castle. I had forgotten about her,” he lied.
“I have only had a glimpse, but she is very bonny indeed. I think it would take me a few more years to forget such a face.”
I as well.
But he was not certain that any amount of years would remove her image from his mind or the memory of the way her lips felt against his in the very spot he stood.
“Ye are bold. I wonder what Laird Stuart will think about this. Ye ken already that he is eager to find any way to weaken ye here in the eyes of yer Clan.”
Ryen sighed. “Of course he is. But he fails to realize just how weak he is. Even though he is an adult, his body itself is like a child’s, barely strong enough to lift a sword.”
Bram chuckled. “Aye, I daenae think that he would relish a duel with any of the men here at Clan McIntosh. But I should tell ye,” Bram winced a little. “The young brat Laird has asked for another meetin’ with ye. His messenger came while ye were up here, and I was sent to find ye.”
Groaning, Ryen stood up. “Must I? I feel as if I could deal with practically everything except the bane of this man’s conversation.”
“Well, let me ken what message ye would like to send him back. I have already sent his messenger packin’. The young thing was trembling so much so, he could barely speak as he passed through the gate, the guards lookin’ at him so menacingly.”
Ryen laughed, rubbing the back of his neck, hoping it would help release some of the tension there. “That is entertainment enough for now. I will write a message today and give it to ye to take to him.”
“Good,” Bram said, standing up and brushing his hands together. He was about to leave when Ryen stopped him.
“Join us for the evenin’ meal tonight. We will test the new bard’s skills.”
“Och?” Bram said, intrigued. “I will be there. I have never witnessed a female bard before. Should be interestin’.”
“And add more to our party. I will need more people to help me to tell her that she is nae suitable for the job, and it will cure her of her thoughts of importance.”
Bram smirked. “I am also curious to meet this lass. She sounds fiery.”
Ye daenae even ken.
“Until then, Bram.”
“Aye, Laird. Until then.”
Once Bram left, Ryen returned to his spot, leaning over the wall, his eyes scanning the village and long green fields below. He enjoyed the peace of the spot, for it gave him time alone to think and to vent his own troubles to the wind. However, he was there that day for a very specific purpose. To avoid Isobel for as long as possible.
He knew that he’d intended to have tea with the new bard to explain the duties, but once he knew it was her, and once he saw how he came to her rescue against Hendrick’s disbelief, he had to refuse. Why had he fought against his male bard to preserve the feelings of his new female one?
He told himself at first that he only responded to Hendrick because he did not like the man using his name and attaching beliefs to it. He wanted to speak for himself. Yet at the sight of Isobel’s eyes when she looked at him, so full of surprise, and if he was accurate, full of gratitude, he nearly stumbled back into the corner. Had he really done such a thing?
Well, it didn’t matter. He would leave her be until she was acting as his bard. It was dangerous to spend more time with her, especially if he had to be close, for he knew that during her time at the Castle, his lust for her would only grow, and he had to see sense.
With another breath of cool, fresh air, Ryen left the battlement for his chambers, and there he would linger until it was time for dinner that evening.
“And finally, this is Charlie, the cook. She has recently arrived here, but we all agree, that she is very competent.” Mrs. Dale was touching the shoulder of the rather rotund, red-faced and gray-haired Charlie, and Isobel grinned in greeting.
“Good to meet everyone.”
“Aye, I hope ye enjoyed the sweet cakes at tea this afternoon, Miss Isobel.”
Isobel thought back to how she was pushed into having tea alone in an empty room when Ryen had left her to do other work. Well, that was good enough for her. She would most certainly try her best to avoid him as well.
“Aye, they were lovely. Like little puffs of air, Charlie.”
“Good,” Charlie dried her hands on her dirty apron.
“The Laird has asked that Miss Isobel sing at dinner tonight, so be sure to prepare enough of the meal for her tonight as well.”
“Of course!” Charlie grinned, and Isobel could see that one of her teeth was chipped on the one side. “There will be more than enough food. I have never heard of a female bard before,” she said, and Isobel wasn’t sure if there was scorn or interest in the older woman’s voice.
“Och, there are many who can say the same, I am afraid,” Isobel said. “But I hope to prove to the Laird this evenin’ that I am more than up for the task.”
“I am certain ye will be wonderful, lass.” Charlie patted her lightly on the arm, and Isobel was touched by the kind gesture. Her own mother had died many years before, and she found that she missed the little physical comforts that only a mother can provide.
Mrs. Dale cleared her throat. “Come, Miss Isobel. I will show ye to yer room, and then ye will be called down to dinner in another hour or so.”
Isobel felt a rush of excitement. This was the moment. She knew that she could prove to Laird McIntosh that she was worthy if he could just hear her sing. She waved goodbye to Charlie as she followed Mrs. Dale out of the sweltering kitchen and to the long, dark corridor that connected to it.
“These are the servants’ rooms, and as ye are also employed here, ye will be among us.” She stood in front of one of the rooms and unlocked the heavy wooden door with an iron key.
Isobel nodded her understanding. “Thank ye, Mrs. Dale.”
The older woman turned to leave, and Isobel said, “I hope that ye will also be able to listen this evenin’, Mrs. Dale. I should like to convince ye too that I truly am a bard.”
The older woman blushed but then smiled widely. “I will be listenin’ for certain, young lass. I wish ye luck in front of the Laird. He is a good man. Saddened and hardened a bit but good.”
Isobel smiled but said nothing, knowing that she didn’t believe a single word of what the housekeeper said. Ryen Harper was not good. He was a beast without manners.
When she entered her own private chamber, she placed her bag down and sat on the small straw mattress, covered over in a well-worn white sheet. “This will have to do,” she said to herself as her eyes moved over the room. “But it is mine.”
That gave her the greatest of pleasures. No father, no brothers, no one else to tell her what to do in this space. Rummaging in her bag, she pulled out a comb, and pulled it through her long, golden hair as she paced around the tiny space, singing a few lines here and there, trying to plan what she might sing first. She was nervous, for she could feel her blood raging, and a ringing in her ears, but why should she not be?
She was about to perform for her own laird’s clan, the grandest place she had ever sung before. As she combed her hair into silky smooth waves, she made a decision with herself. If he truly did not like her voice, then she would finally admit defeat and give up on the life as a bard.
But if he did enjoy it, then she would take it as a sign that she was meant for this life, the life of travel, excitement, and the thrill of performance.
She sent up a prayer and then said to herself, “Ye can do this, Isobel. It is in yer blood. Nay matter what anyone else says.” She laid the comb down and began to pace back and forth in the room, trying to recall the words to the song she planned to sing. It was an old Gaelic tune that the Laird would certainly recognize.
She hoped that by using the old song, she could pluck at his heartstrings, for while it was not overly sad, it contained the bittersweet reminder of loss. Grinning to herself, she washed her face in the water basin, and then straightened her skirts and bodice and cap, hopeful that all would be well.
Hearing a quiet knock on the door, Isobel opened it. “It is time, Miss Isobel. Are ye ready to sing for the Laird?”
“Aye, Mrs. Dale. I am ready.”
She closed the door behind her and followed after the older woman, holding her hands tightly together. So long had she waited for such a moment that it didn’t seem real. Everything she had done in the past year had been to prepare for such a time as this.
Closing her eyes, mouthing the words to herself in preparation, Isobel kept her steps steady, and followed Mrs. Dale up from the dark, low place of the servants’ quarters back to the large open room of the hall where she was thrown back again into the memory of four years’ prior. So young she had been then, so naïve to the ways of men.
Now, even though she still had had not much experience with men, she knew of their hard hearts and stubborn minds and their ways of thinking about women that kept her in a box for all her life. As she approached, she spotted the arrogant, mysterious Laird, sitting at the head of his long table, with a rather large, bearded man and a small child looking on. Who was the child?
She had not heard that the Laird had married in the last four years. In fact, she had heard from many that he was quite the skirt-snatcher. Could it be a child from one of his lovers? Her mind was pondering over it as Mrs. Dale left her there in front of the small group, her back to the large fire that was burning in the giant stone hearth.
Isobel could see food on the table, and she could feel herself yearn for it. Food had been troublesome over the past several months, as she had wanted to provide for herself, and her brothers expected her to help provide her father’s meals as well, now that he was too old to work any longer. They also expected her to take full care of her father, as the woman of the family, and the fact that they expected her to contribute financially was only because she had begged them to be able to work on her own instead of staying home. None of her jobs had really paid handsomely enough to support herself and her father very well, while her brothers kept their high wages to themselves contentedly.
All the family responsibilities had fallen to her, but now she was free. She would be able to afford many things if she pleased the Laird, and while she still needed to send money home to their father, she would be able to give him a handsome amount. She closed her eyes, attempting to calm herself.
“Will ye begin, Bard? Or are we to wait a lengthy amount of time until we can hear this voice ye claim to be so mellifluous?” Ryen leaned back, crossing his arms, a smug look on his face.
The other man at the table grinned but said nothing, and the little girl simply looked at her with lovely blue eyes. Isobel was not accustomed to being so looked at. Bards were meant simply to be heard, and one did not have to look at them to enjoy their music. No matter. She took a breath and moved into her song, keeping her eyes on Laird McIntosh.
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