About the book
He would move mountains for her, but he did something harder: betray everything he knew.
As Lady Lorraine Aiton quickly realizes, there's something exhilarating about attending a Royal Reeling without anyone knowing. Her plan to keep her identity a secret is foiled when she meets an enigmatic Highlander, who ends up being her heavenly sin on Earth.
Niall MacGregor, son of the Laird of Cameron, always thought social calls to be boring and unsurprising. Until the night he finds himself dancing with the alluring daughter of his clan’s worst enemy.
Irresistibly drawn to each other, Lorraine and Niall are torn between their duty to their clans and each other. But someone knows. And someone always tells. A letter arrives, declaring war between their clans. With sword in hand and his life hanging by a thread, Niall’s heart shatters when he sees Lorraine, in the middle of the battleground...
The weather outside Maxwell Castle was ghastly. The rain lashed against the window shutters, hurled by a wind that roared in over the wild heathland. Thunder rumbled across the granite-gray sky, rolling and echoing through the rolling vales and tors, sending animals scampering for shelter. The day was young, but the Highlands were cast in a stormy evening dimness.
Inside Maxwell Castle, the effect of the gale buffeting the thick walls of the castle was to create an atmosphere of extreme coziness. All the fires had been lit in the main halls, bed chambers, and sitting rooms, beeswax tapers glowed in the main corridors, and the smell of cooking wafted through the entire place, due to the kitchen windows being battened down.
Lorraine Aiton, daughter of the Laird of the Maxwell clan, padded down the corridor that led from the cavernous entrance hall.
I love a tempest. I love the feeling of protection you get from these thick walls. The way they steadfastly refuse to let the weather in, no matter how hard it pounds its fists on the stone.
Though she was prone to shyness amongst strangers, Lorraine bid good day to every maid or footman that she came across. She was a kind young woman, with captivating green eyes, auburn hair, and a mouth disposed to smiling. She also had a curvy figure that attracted quite the amount of admiring glances from the young men of the town—had she but known it, or been inclined to care about such things.
“Good mornin’, Faither,” she said, as she entered the Laird’s private study.
A large, pine log fire was burning in the stone hearth, warming the room and bathing it in a comfortable orange glow. It was the room in which Henry Aiton, Laird of Clan Maxwell, spent the majority of his time. He took his breakfast and luncheon in it, and could usually be found sitting at his desk long after midnight.
The Laird did not even look up from the pile of papers scattered across his huge, crouching cherry wood desk. In fact, he did not show in any way that he had noticed the arrival of his only child. He was grumbling and muttering to himself as he perused a letter in one hand, a half-eaten bannock forgotten in his other.
Another day. Another foul mood by the looks of it.
“Faither?” she tried again, standing by the fire and warming her hands.
“Yes, yes, good mornin’ tae ye, daughter!” the Laird snapped. He still did not spare her a glance from whatever it was that he was reading.
Lorraine took no offense at this. Her father had always been a crotchety man, but his moods had become blacker still after the passing of his wife more than a decade before. What with the constant pressures of being Laird, it had been a long time since she had heard him laugh.
Or seen him so much as smile, come to think of it.
Lorraine chuckled quietly to herself, left the fire, and strode around behind the imposing desk and gave her father a soft kiss on his bald pate.
Her father gave a noncommittal grunt, which was about as much as anyone could expect to get out of him when he was going through his papers, and Lorraine smiled.
“What is it that’s botherin’ ye this mornin’ then, Faither?” she asked him, her eyes scanning with little interest over the correspondence scattered over the desktop.
“Ach!” he exclaimed, in the way that only a true-blooded Scotsman could. “What is ever the matter? Those beggars from across the border are up tae their old tricks again!”
“The Cameron clan?” Lorraine asked, though she knew from her father’s agitation what the answer would be.
“O’ course the blasted Cameron clan!” the Laird said, vehemently. “It’ll be a fine day when I awake and am nae informed that Balgair McGregor and those reprobates that follow him have nae been tryin’ tae muscle in me lands! Good God, but the man tries me patience!”
Henry crashed his fist down on the desk in frustration. Unfortunately, it was the fist still clutching the bannock. Biscuit crumbs cascaded across the surface of his desk.
“Ach! Even the mere mention of the man’s name does nothin’ but cause me grief!”
Lorraine sighed inwardly. This feud that her father alluded to—whilst not being as old as the hills—had been being fought over them for as long as Lorraine could remember.
The Maxwell and Cameron clans had been at each other’s throats for generations. Lorraine knew for certain that squabbles, fights, and full-blown wars had been fought by the two clans in her father’s grandfather’s day. The Highland borderlands that divided the two clans were some of the most fiercely contested lands in all of the Scottish Highlands.
But why? There are only a scattering of crofters making a living out on those hills. Their taxes would not make years and years of bloody conflict worth the Lairds’ while, surely?
She had asked this question to herself many times growing up. Then, one day, about four years previously when she had just turned six-and-ten, she realized what the answer was—why the Lairds continued to fight each other over this strip of windswept heath.
Pride. Men and their stubborn pride…
“Faither,” she asked, musingly, before she could get a hold on her sense, “why is it that we fight the Cameron clan so? Would it nae be easier tae just split the lands between the two o’ ye?”
She regretted starting the sentences even before the last word had passed her lips.
Her father swelled like a grouse ruffling its feathers.
“Oh, aye,” he said in a scathing tone. “I’ll just be the Maxwell Laird tae submit tae those beggars across the border, will I? Give in, after me faither and grandfaither afore him fought all their lives tae keep the land that’s rightfully ours? Is that what ye’d have me dae, lass?”
Lorraine put a placating hand on her father’s shoulder.
“Nay, nay,” she said, “it just strikes me that splittin’ the land might serve the people better than constantly scrappin’ over it.”
“Ye want me tae give that fool McGregor half me lands—half yer lands?” the Laird scoffed.
“Ye could see it as takin’ half o’ his land, if that would make ye feel better?” Lorraine suggested quietly.
Her father snorted derisively. It was the closest he ever came to expressing any sort of amusement.
“Ah, lass,” he said, “ye’ve a soft, womanly heart beatin’ in yer breast. I doubt ye’d understand just why what ye’re suggestin’ is complete lunacy.”
“Faither,” she said, perhaps a bit unwisely, “the lands that our two clans have fought and argued over fer more than four generations change hands monthly sometimes! Some o’ the crofters have tae pay taxes tae a different Laird every month. Would it nae be shrewder tae split those monies, too? Half the bannock, regular and often, is surely better than sometimes goin’ altogether hungry some months?”
Her father turned slowly in his chair. He fixed her with the same green eyes that she herself had. His thick, wiry eyebrows were drawn down in a scowl.
“Ye’re missin’ the point, lass,” he said. “The bannock is ours. Just because a man, and his cursed forebears, have had the almighty gall tae continuously try and steal the bannock from us, doesnae mean that we should split it wi’ him!”
Foolishly, Lorraine went to open her mouth again, but her father held up a warning finger.
“Enough, lass. Dinnae try me, nae this mornin’.”
Lorraine sighed. She nodded submissively. Then she said, “What in particular have they done this mornin’ then?”
Her father looked at her warily. Then he growled, “Some o’ their men rode over our lands and set afire tae a couple of old shepherd huts.”
“There were nay injuries or the like?” Lorraine asked.
“Nay, there were nay folk out there at this time o’ year. They would have been put up tae it by McGregor. Just a wee reminder fer me that he had nae been cowed. That he still wants what is ours.”
That had been imprudent. Those same shepherd’s huts had probably once been under The Cameron’s dominion—maybe as recently as the previous week, what with the amount of changing of hands the land did in that part of the world.
“What will ye dae?” Lorraine asked.
“Ach, what dae we always have tae dae in response tae somethin’ like this?” the Laird said, his eyes narrowing.
Lorraine picked up a bannock from a plate set at her father’s elbow and smeared it with butter and honey. Being her father’s only child—only surviving family member, as her mother was gone—Lorraine had always been able to get away with taking minor liberties. Stealing some of her father’s breakfast was one of them.
She strolled around the room, thinking idly what she might get up to that day, what with the weather being so particularly awful.
A book, perhaps? Or maybe some needlework in front of the fire, with a nice warm mug of cider and me staghound, Sona, at me feet.
She finished the bannock, brushed the crumbs from her hands and walked back around the desk to give her father another kiss on the head before she departed.
“Try tae take some time away from war,” she said. “There must be more tae life than this constant fightin’.”
The Laird gave another one of his noncommittal grunts that showed he had heard but not listened to a word of what she had just said.
Such a shame; that two great men should waste their lives locked in constant conflict. I wonder if The Cameron is a similar man to me faither?
She kissed her father’s shiny bald head.
I wonder if me mither would have been able tae make him see sense?
Lorraine was just about to take her leave, when one of the letters amidst the higgledy-piggledy sprawl of correspondence on the Laird’s desk caught her eye.
“What’s this?” she asked, reaching towards it.
Her father only glanced up briefly from his reading, saw what she was looking at, and made an impatient sound that somehow communicated that the letter was of little consequence.
Lorraine picked it up. It was written on expensive, thick paper and sealed with wax and ribbon—a message from another Laird, then. She flipped open the crisply folded missive and let her eyes run down the beautifully penned, flowing script.
“Faither,” she said, when she had got to the bottom of the communication, “this is a letter from Laird Grant.”
“Aye, I ken it, lass.”
“He’s hostin’ a Royal Reeling!”
Her father’s lack of concern or enthusiasm, whilst not surprising, still grated upon Lorraine’s nerves.
A Royal Reeling! I havenae been tae such an affair fer—well, fer years! When is it tae be held…?
Her eyes ran swiftly back down the letter.
“It’s this evenin’!” she gasped.
“Aye, aye, so it is,” the Laird said. He picked up his sea eagle quill, dipped it into his ink pot, and scribbled a note in a ledger.
“And ye dinnae think tae tell me?” Lorraine asked.
Her father looked up with an ill-tempered sigh.
“Nae that I’m obliged tae tell ye anythin’, should I nae choose tae do so,” he said, “but why is it that ye’d think I’d tell ye about this particular bit o’ nonsense?”
Lorraine blushed at the rebuke. “Well—it’s just that—well, I thought ye’d invite me tae come with ye is all?” she stammered.
“That I might,” her father said. “But seein’ as I dinnae intend tae appear at this event meself, I did nae think I need concern yer pretty head with it.”
Lorraine blinked. Her stomach fell. Her heart, swollen with happiness at the thought of attending a Royal Reeling, seemed to deflate like a punctured pig’s bladder in her chest.
“Ye dinnae mean tae go?” she asked.
“I dinnae,” said the Laird, jotting something down in his ledger.
Lorraine was not a stupid young woman. She was the daughter of a Highland Laird, and as such, had learned a thing or two in her twenty years about the art of diplomacy.
Instead of railing at her father, and trying to coerce him into going, she decided to try the subtle approach.
“Perhaps ye’re right,” she said, tossing the letter unconcernedly back onto his desk. “Might be a waste of yer time.”
She made as if to leave, then turned as if a thought had just sprung to her mind.
“It’s nae often that Lairds hold such events as these, Faither,” she said.
“Nay, I s’pose nae,” her father said, only half-listening to her as he made a few more notes with his sea eagle quill.
“Are ye sure it might nae be a savvy idea to go along?”
“Savvy? Savvy how?” the Laird said, scratching his chin absently.
“Well, chances are, Lairds and representatives o’ the other nearby clans will be present. Alliances will be bein’ strengthened and forged. I ken what ye’re all like when ye get together and the whisky is flowin’.”
The laird looked up at this, a glimmer of suspicion in his penetrative green eyes. “Dae ye ken that, daughter? And how’s that, may I ask?”
Lorraine tried not to look away.
“I’ve spied a couple o’ times when ye’ve had the clan chiefs here,” she said airily.
Her father snorted again.
“I ken what those devils are like, dinnae ye worry about that. The friendships that clan Maxwell have are nae the sort that can be broken by a few of the Lairds gettin’ a bit pished, lass. Dinnae worry yer head about it.”
Lorraine bit her lip, her mask of casual indifference slipping.
“So, ye definitely will nae be goin’?”
“Nay, lass. I will nae.”
Throwing caution to the winds, Lorraine sat herself on the edge of her father’s desk, like she used to as a young girl, and said, “As ye wish it, Faither. I’ll be sure tae pass yer greetin’s on tae the other Lairds.”
Henry set his quill aside with the finality of a landslide. Then he looked up from his notebook, a look of sardonic confusion across his weathered face.
“I fail tae take yer meaning, lass,” he said. “How will ye dae that?”
“Pass on me greetin’s?”
“Well,” she said, “if ye’ve no objection, I thought that I might go along all the same…”
“Ah, I see.”
“That’d be all right, wouldn’t it, Faither?”
Please let it be all right.
The Laird of the Maxwell clan exhaled heavily through his nose.
“Nay,” he said. “It wouldnae be fine, Lorraine.”
Lorraine’s heart sunk into her shoes.
“But, Faither, what possible harm could there come of it?” she tried.
“What harm? What harm?” the Laird said. “Use yer noggin, lass. Ye said afore that delegates from the surroundin’ clans will be there—that includes the Cameron clan.”
Her father bristled. “So? So, they might think it a bonnie opportunity tae snatch ye away and ransom ye or some such!”
Lorraine threw up her hands. “Faither! They’re nae goin’ tae try anythin’ of the sort. Nae in another Laird’s castle! That’d breach every rule o’ hospitality that the Highland clans live by!”
The Laird’s jaw was clenched. Lorraine would not have been surprised if she’d been able to hear his teeth grinding from where she stood on the other side of the large desk.
“If there were ever a bunch o’ bandits capable o’ breachin’ the rules of hospitality, McGregor and his bunch would be the ones tae do it.”
“Nay, lass!” her father said, getting suddenly to his feet and seeming to grow larger in the flickering light of the fire. Outside, the storm continued to howl. “I say nay, and nay is what I mean! Ye’ll nae be goin’ tae that damned Royal Reelin’, and there’s an end to it.”
For a moment, Lorraine stood with her fists balled, staring at the man. Green eyes gazed into green eyes.
Then, she spun on her heel with a furious, “Gah!” of frustration, and stalked from the room.
That man! So caught up in orderin’ attacks on the Cameron clan that he’s forgettin’ tae live his life! Well, I’ll nae be tarred wi’ that same brush, thank ye! I’ll attend that Royal Reelin’, no matter what he says…
Lorraine was not a woman who allowed the mere wishes of her father—be he a Laird or not—to get in the way of doing something that she had her heart set on doing. After she had left her father, she went hunting the castle to find her maid, Sheila.
She found Sheila out the back of the scullery, her sleeves rolled up to the elbows, arms immersed in a huge vat of hot water as she carefully cleaned some clothes. She was chattering happily with a couple of the other maids who were busy doing the same thing.
“Sheila,” Lorraine said, in a tone that brooked no argument, “I need ye. Now.”
“Aye, Miss Aiton,” Sheila said.
A few moments later and the two of them were up in Lorraine’s spacious chambers. Sheila stood with her hands clasped in front of her, whilst Lorraine settled herself on the arm of a heavy carved armchair. Out on the moors, the wind continued to batter the heather this way and that, though it sounded to Lorraine as if it was losing some of its venom.
I hope that it blows itself out by tonight.
“Now, Sheila, I’m goin’ tae need ye tae dae me quite a service this evenin’,” Lorraine said. “If ye’re willin’.”
“Ye ken that I’m more than willin’ tae help her with anythin’ she might require,” Sheila said, sincerely.
The smile that lit Lorraine’s face at these words quickly dimmed. “Aye, well, dinnae say that until I’ve told ye what I require ye tae dae.”
Sheila was only a few years older than Lorraine—twenty-three or so—and the two girls had basically been raised in the castle together. They had got up to no end of mischief when they were little, but when Lorraine’s mother had died, the divide between those above and those below stairs had become somehow more apparent.
“I need yer help in gettin’ tae a Royal Reelin’, Sheila,” Lorraine said.
Sheila clapped her hands enthusiastically. “Oh, ye lucky thing! Where is it?”
“Nae far. At the Laird of Grant’s castle.”
Sheila’s smooth and amiable face creased into a frown as she realized what Lorraine had just said.
“Why is it that ye need help getting’ there?” she asked. “Surely, ye’re just ridin’ with yer faither?”
Lorraine shook her head. “He’s nae goin’.”
The maid’s eyes widened. “And ye’re goin’ tae go anyway?” She grinned in an impressed sort of manner. “Ye’re mad, Miss Aiton!”
Lorraine grinned back, though she was filled with trepidation at going against her father’s wishes, and launched into her plan. The explanation was short and to the point. When she had finished, the look of frank consternation on Sheila’s face was far from encouraging.
“Miss Aiton,” the maid said, “there is much in that plan o’ yers that might go very badly awry!”
“Aye, perhaps there is at that,” Lorraine said, “but let’s nae focus on that, eh?”
She took a deep breath. Time was wearing on and she wanted to make sure that everything was as sorted as it could be before they put her plan into action.
“Sheila,” she said, “are ye still acquainted with Donald Gunn, the footman?”
Sheila blushed prettily from under her maid’s cap.
“Aye, Miss Aiton, that I am.”
Lorraine squeezed Sheila’s arm and beamed. “I’m so happy fer ye!” she gushed. She genuinely meant it, too. Sheila had been as close to a best friend as she had ever known. She was a lovely young woman and deserved to be as happy as she could be.
“Thank ye, Miss Aiton,” Sheila said.
“There’s an understandin’ betwixt ye?” Lorraine asked.
“We’ve neither of us said it—not official like—but aye, we mean tae marry when we’ve the money.”
“Well, if all things go smoothly this evenin’, I will dae me upmost tae furnish ye with all the coin I can!”
“That’s very kind o’ ye, Miss Aiton.”
Lorraine waved this away. “Now, speakin’ of Donald, I’ll need ye tae fill him in on this little plan o’ mine. Tell him that I’ll need him tae be waitin’ outside the kitchen door just afore dinner is tae be served. Get him tae bring round one o’ the covered carts from the stables.”
Sheila nodded her head, her mouth pressed into a thin line of resolve.
“Are ye sure ye want tae help me wi’ this, Sheila?” Lorraine asked her friend.
The maid turned her steely, clear gray eyes on Lorraine. “I’ll help ye, Miss Aiton, it’s what friends are for.”
Later that evening, a hooded and cloaked figure darted out of the backdoors of the Maxwell Castle kitchens and hurried to the waiting cart. Donald Gunn, one of the castle footmen, waited by the tailgate and helped the figure into the back of the empty two-horse cart, pulling the cover down carefully so that the figure was concealed.
I’m doin’ it! I’m really doin’ it! Is there any thrill tae match the exhilaration o’ crossin’ the point o’ nay return?
The cart gave a jerk, and Lorraine’s stomach leapt.
We’re off! I hope Sheila will be all right.
Sheila was currently upstairs in Lorraine’s bed. The plan had been a simple one—Lorraine thinking that the more complicated the scheme, the more likely that something would go wrong.
Lorraine’s father had been closeted in his office for most of the day, as was usual for the Laird. She had avoided him—which had not been hard—but towards the end of the afternoon she had wandered by his study to inform him that she was not feeling too well. She was careful to make sure that the Laird definitely heard her, before she walked off.
Lorraine knew that, just at that moment, her father would be going to check on her before dinner. As gruff as the man was, Lorraine was still his only child. She knew that he would be poking his head around her bedchamber door to ascertain whether or not she would be coming down to the hall for dinner.
Sheila, Lorraine hoped, would be in Lorraine’s bed, the covers pulled up around her ears, her face to the wall, only her auburn hair—which was as similar a shade as Lorraine’s as made no difference—visible from under the blankets. The shutters would be drawn, the only source of light that of the smoldering fire, which Sheila was going to let die down.
Please let that be enough tae fool the cursory glance that me faither is likely tae give the scene. Please, God!
If he approached the bed, or in any way tried to communicate with Sheila, the ruse would be up. Lorraine shivered to think of the potential wrath that her father would bring down upon her and Sheila’s head were he to find out that his daughter had tried to deceive him.
Lorraine tried to clear her mind of all the potential mishaps that might occur.
Besides, I am past the point of nay return now. Whatever happens now, must happen. So, why nae enjoy the thought that, very soon, I will arrive at the Laird of Grant’s residence and spend the night reelin’ and dancin’!
She touched the beautiful gown that she was wearing under the rough travelling cloak. She would leave the cloak with Donald. It was one of her mother’s gowns, one that had been altered a year ago for her. Its green color perfectly matched the color of Lorraine’s eyes. She had thought it auspicious to wear it, as if her mother was watching over her and keeping her safe from misfortune.
The cart trundled steadily out of town, up into the hills and out into the fresh evening air. The storm had blown itself out. The night was full of stars and promise.
Niall McGregor sat and watched as the dancers swirled and spun about the floor. The shadows they cast, from the torches set in their brackets all along the walls, danced along with them. The music soared and reverberated around the great banquet hall of the Laird of Grant, supplemented by the pounding of the dancer’s shoes on the flagged stone.
Niall ran a hand through his sandy blond hair, rubbed thoughtfully at his stubby jaw.
Why I had to accompany me faither tonight I’ll never ken. The man’s full o’ advice, but never have I seen nor met a man more loathe tae take any.
His brown eyes wandered disinterestedly around the cavernous hall. It was packed with people. Along each long side of the great, rectangular space, two lengthy trestle tables stretched. They were piled high with all sorts of delicacies.
The man certainly kens how tae impress. Judging by the girth o’ the good Laird he’s also fairly adamant on samplin’ everythin’ that he lays out.
Niall knew that the Laird of Grant owned some of the finest hunting estates in the Highlands and had been specializing in food for many years, but even he had not been prepared for the elaborate displays of roasted swans, stuffed peacocks, and myriad other delicious delights.
He could see the overly rotund figure of his host now, talking animatedly with his father, Balgair McGregor. The Laird of the Cameron clan held a goblet of wine in his hand and the leg of what looked like a goose, in the other. He was gesturing around with it as he told some tale or other, and after a moment, the Laird of Grant burst out laughing, setting his multiple chins to wobbling.
I am not made fer such diplomatic back-slappin’ as this. The Lord kens that I want tae make me faither proud, but all this coddlin’ of other men’s prides…
He shook his head. Went back to staring about the room.
Niall did not know it, but there were plenty of eyes on him. Young ladies—those of marrying age, or close to it—eyed him speculatively from over the rims of glasses and horn cups. He was one of the most eligible unmarried young men in the Scottish Highlands, heir to the Cameron lairdship and the many hundreds of acres that went with it.
He also, though he wasn’t aware of the reputation, was considered to be one of the most handsome Scottish highborn. A square jaw, thick blond hair, and deep brown eyes were set off by a muscular physique crafted through a love of the outdoors—of hunting, tracking, riding, and archery.
Many a girl had tried to catch his eye, and many had been politely yet firmly rebuffed by the young Highlander. It was, as he told them as courteously as he could, not that he was uninterested in the idea of marriage, but that his most pressing concern was to learn how to be the best Laird he could be for the sake of the Cameron clan.
But is me faither really that man?
It was a secret thought—one that stayed deep in his heart of hearts and would never see the light of day—but one that he thought more and more, the longer he spent learning from the way his father conducted his business.
Seems foolhardy, to prolong the conflict with the Maxwell clan. Why not end the fightin’, so that both clans can stop pourin’ their resources into this long war?
Niall took a sip of the good, dark ale that he had in his ox-horn cup and gazed about him.
The same people, talkin’ the same old talk. I wonder if faither expects me tae help him in his quest tae recruit a few new supporters in his fight against the Maxwells. That’s why he’s here, tae strengthen his alliances against our neighbors.
The idea of wrangling help from other clans so that the Camerons might continue the same bitter struggle they had been fighting for years and years seemed somewhat ridiculous to Niall. He had hoped that, one day, his children might rule a land that was surrounded by friends.
His eyes continued to wander idly through the throng of well-dressed men and women, all adorned in their best and most impressive finery.
Suddenly, his eyes were arrested by the appearance of a new woman. Someone that he was sure he had never laid eyes on before, despite having been to more banquets and hunts and dinners all over the Highlands in the last year than he cared to remember.
She’s bonnie as the first day o’ Spring. Bonnie as the hills in the mornin’! Bonnie as the dawn mists over the lochs in summer time.
He was certain that he had never laid eyes on this woman. Was sure that, if he had, her face would have been engraved into his memory.
And what a face!
Her hair was like the leaves of a copper beach in autumn, the fair skin of her cheeks and nose dashed with a smattering of freckles, and her eyes a luminous, captivating jade.
“Who are ye?” Niall whispered to himself.
As if in answer to his question—though there was no possible way that she could have heard him over the din of the music and dancers, as they flowed and bounded around the great hall—the woman looked up.
Their eyes locked. Niall felt a frisson pass through him. His breath caught in his throat.
Then a crowd of conversing guests walked in front of him, breaking the shared gaze between himself and the lovely stranger.
“What the—” Niall said, getting to his feet.
However, when the gaggle of guests had drifted away, the beautiful woman had disappeared, dissolved into the mass of people surrounding the dance floor.
Niall cast about him, his eyes wide and wild. A fellow guest, red in the face from the reeling and dressed in a freshly sewn kilt, came up and tried to start talking to him about whether the Camerons had any trouble with eagles picking off the early spring lambs. Niall said something—he wasn’t quite sure what—and left the man standing dumbly.
“Where are ye?” he muttered. “Where have ye gone, lass?”
He moved through the colorful throng, making excuses as he passed acquaintances that he’d already made, sidestepping attempts that men and women made at trying to snare him into conversation.
He stalked along the edge of the dance floor, politely averting his gaze when some young woman or other attempted to catch his eye and make him her partner for a song.
A green gown. Green eyes. Who is she?
And then, turning in place like a top, he saw her.
She was standing by the back wall. She held a glass of wine in her hand and was observing the dancing with rapt attention. A small smile played over her slightly crooked lips. Her eyes sparkled with joy at the sight of the whirling, swirling dancers. Her foot tapped along to the beat of the drum.
Niall felt as if he could have stood there and watched her, simply enjoying the moment, for a long time.
Why don’t ye talk tae the girl, ye wally? She will nae bite ye.
He carried on watching her, however. Caught like a deer that’s been startled by a watering-hole by a hunter. Frozen. Unsure whether to come or go.
He looked down at his attire, making sure that his shirt and plaid and kilt were free from any stains, crumbs, or spillages. He seemed to be unscathed. He ran his fingers through his hair yet again. Cupped his hand and breathed into it.
Well, ye breath smells a wee bit beery, but probably fresher than most o’ these lads.
It was probably true. The night was progressing; the dancing getting wilder, the music louder, the talk more boisterous.
Come, lad, are ye a man, or are ye a mouse?
He set his jaw, straightened his plaid, and walked around the dance floor, trying to act casual and not to stare too much at the vision of womanly loveliness who he was making for.
Before he knew it, Niall was standing before her.
The green eyes alighted on him, brought him to bay like the hounds halt the fox. The crooked lips parted in a smile.
“Do ye mind if I stand by ye?” Niall asked the young woman.
“Nay, I dinnae mind at all.”
Niall came and stood next to her, leaning against the stone wall with his arms crossed and watching the merry dancers.
After a minute he said, “What’s yer name, miss?”
There was another pause. Then Niall nodded towards the men and women reeling.
“Will ye dance, Lorraine?”
The woman gave him an appraising look from under long lashes. “Aye,” she said, after a moment, “I’ll dance. The question is, will I dance with ye?”
The man that Lorraine found herself reeling around the dance floor with really was very handsome. He was tall, broad in chest and shoulder, and his arms were knotted with muscle. He also had a pleasant face, a face on which the emotions were not hidden—a face that Lorraine instinctively felt she could trust.
“So,” she said breathlessly, as they spun to face each other. “What’s yer name?”
They spun away from each other again.
Lorraine could not stop smiling. She loved to dance. Loved to see everyone around her having such a grand time. Her eyes went back to her dance partner, Niall.
Aye, he’s fine tae look at, but the real test is in the speakin’.
They danced for quite some time, until the two of them were hot and breathless and could dance no more.
“Come!” Niall said, taking her hand. “Would ye dae me the honor of lettin’ me fetch ye a drink? Then maybe we can sit in the garden and cool off a wee bit.”
Lorraine laughed. “Aye,” she said, “that sounds grand.”
A little while later and they were sitting in the ornate gardens of the Laird of Grant’s castle. Torches had been set around a path that led through the damp and fragrant flower gardens, but Lorraine and Niall sat upon a stone bench, nursing their cups of ale and talking.
“So, I must ask, Lorraine,” Niall said. “How is it that I find ye without either chaperone or husband?”
“What makes ye think that I haven’t just been able to give a chaperone or husband the slip, eh?” Lorraine replied, shooting him a cheeky grin.
Niall laughed. “Well, it wouldnae surprise me,” he said.
“What I mean, is that it wouldnae surprise me tae learn that ye’re fightin’ off suitors with a stick,” Niall clarified.
Lorraine blushed. Heat shot through her chest at the realization that this man was trying to court her.
This lad is…intoxicating. Where did he spring from?
“I havenae seen ye on me travels,” Niall said.
Lorraine looked up at him. “Ye travel a lot, dae ye?”
“Aye, a fair bit as of late.”
“Me faither wants me tae learn the, ah, family trade—I s’pose is the word—at his hand.”
Lorraine looked up into Niall’s pleasant face, into the deep brown eyes—at the bottom of which seemed to glimmer a little doubt.
“What is it that yer faither would have ye learn?” she asked.
Niall looked down at her, a slight frown lining his otherwise smooth brow. “If ye dinnae mind, perhaps we could nae talk of such things as family or duty tonight?”
Lorraine smiled at him and nodded. She knew exactly how the young man felt.
“Aye,” she said, “let’s not mar this evenin’ with talk of what awaits us on the morrow.”
Niall held up his cup towards her. “Agreed. Let’s—fer tonight at least—shut out the world. It’s a hard thing, to live in the moment and forget about what happened today and what might happen tomorrow.”
Lorraine bumped her cup into the cup proffered by the smiling Niall.
“Aye,” she said, “tis a hard thing. But let us try.”
Both of them drank. Their eyes never left each other as they each took a long swallow of the good, dark ale. Jade eyes locked on brown.
Out in the darkness of the torch-lit gardens there came some muted talking. There was a giggle and a rustle, as if a pair of people were making fine use of the cover of some bush or other to do some more vigorous courting than was, perhaps, advisable.
“Besides,” Niall said, “there’s even more interestin’ and delicate matters tae discuss.”
Lorraine felt the heat rise in her neck, the beginnings of a flush that threatened to creep up her throat and suffuse her face.
He didn’t strike me as such a forward man, if his mind is wandering where I think it might be…
“I have a very personal and important question I’m just burnin’ tae ask ye, Lorraine,” Niall said.
“Well, ask—ask away, then,” Lorraine replied. She was naturally shy, but she thought that if ever there was a night on which she should be brave and bold, this was it.
“Where in the world,” Niall said, leaning forward so that his face was only half a foot or so from Lorraine’s own, “did ye learn to reel like that?”
Lorraine let out a great, relieved breath, which was modulated with a laugh. “Oh me goodness!” she said.
Niall leaned back from her. His face was alight with amiable mischief. He was smiling delightedly.
“Oh me goodness,” Lorraine said again, and lapsed, quite unexpectedly, into a fit of uncontrollable giggles.
She saw Niall watching her through the tears of mirth that popped into her eyes, wondering whether he would think her a little bit mad.
To her delight, his eyes were shining, and after a moment, he too started to laugh softly to himself. They sat there, caught up in that special kind of merriment that seems to spring straight from the inside and bypass the brain.
Eventually, as if on cue, they subsided into a gasping silence.
“I’m—I’m sorry,” Niall said to her, wiping a tear of mirth from the corner of his eye. “But, I couldn’ae resist! Ye did nae strike me as the sort o’ lass tae be easily flustered.”
Lorraine slapped him on the arm—then wondered whether or not this would be constituted as appropriate behavior.
And I find that I don’t much care!
“Clearly, we dinnae ken each other that well just yet.”
Niall got to his feet, knocking back the last of his ale and setting his cup on the stone bench.
“Ye’re leavin’?” she blurted out.
The handsome Highlander looked down at her, his smile still playing around the corners of his mouth. “Nay, I’m nae leavin’,” he said. “I was just wonderin’ whether ye’d dae give me the pleasure o’ escortin’ ye around these fine gardens?”
He held out his hand to Lorraine.
Lorraine looked at the proffered hand, then up at the man it belonged to.
It’s been a wild night already. What have ye tae lose in takin’ a walk with this gracious young man?
Lorraine took his hand and they strolled out into the shadows of the garden. About them the night was still and calm. The Highlands seemed at peace now that the storm that had raged through the day had run its course. The countryside slumbered like a fretting child who, after tossing and turning all day, had finally fallen into a dreamless sleep.
“It’s very peaceful,” Lorraine said.
“Aye,” Niall agreed, “it is. Makes a nice change.”
“From yer everyday troubles?”
“I feel we must lead quite similar lives,” Lorraine said, as they walked through a tunnel of purple clematis, “tae both nae wish tae talk of them. Tae pretend, just fer a night, that we’re different people.”
“Maybe,” Niall asked, opening a small, wrought-iron gate for her and stepping aside, “we will find out exactly how similar, one day.”
They walked out into an open space in the garden, a lawn in the center of which was an ornate pond. Torches flickered like orange tongues around the circular space. At that moment, the moon decided to reveal itself, sliding out from the fluffy embrace of the cloud it had been taking cover behind. The lawn was flooded with a pale silver light, the pond reflecting the light of the moon like a silver mirror.
“A perfect moment,” Niall said from behind Lorraine, though whether he spoke to her or to himself he was not sure.
A couple of Goosander ducks floated in tranquil content on the pond, heads tucked under their wings as they dozed.
“Dae ye ken, I was meant tae attend this gatherin’ with me faither,” Lorraine said. “But he ended up nae wantin’ tae come. And dae ye ken? I’ve had as nice a time here—on me own and with ye—as I can remember havin’ in a long time.”
They watched the ducks on the pond.
How nice it must be tae sleep so peacefully, with nae a care in the world.
Niall placed a hand on Lorraine’s shoulder, turned her gently and irresistibly. She rotated and stared up into his open and affable face. His blond hair was slightly mussed from where he habitually ran his fingers through it. The individual hairs along his jaw were picked out in the glare of the moon.
“I’ve had a wonderful time here tae, Lorraine. With ye,” the tall young man said.
They shared a look that last only a heartbeat or so, but seemed to stretch to eternity and back. It was a look that opened up a secret hole between the two of them and filled it with a host of words and feelings that they didn’t dare openly speak.
Who is she exactly? Where is she from? They all seem like irrelevant questions just at this moment.
Above them the stars moved slowly and steadily in their courses. Back, in the direction of the castle, there was the sound of a loud and long applause. Then a bagpipe let out a prolonged note that touched something inside of Niall.
“Come,” he said. “Let us go and take another turn around the dance floor.”
“Ye want me tae show ye what I’m really made of?” Lorraine asked him.
The two of them walked back through the gardens, towards the castle.
“Are ye tellin’ me that ye can dance even finer than ye’ve already done?” Niall asked from behind her.
Lorraine smiled a smile that could only be seen by the moon and the stars and the flowers they walked past. He was watching the curvaceous young woman moving through the shadows of the garden, quite as captivated as any moth was by a flame.
“Oh, aye,” she said, “I’ve barely found me stride yet.” She glanced over her shoulder, one green eye flashing in the silver light of the moon. “I hope I’ve nae warn ye out already.”
They spent the rest of the evening in the great hall. The time that they did not spend reeling they spent sitting on the periphery of the dance floor, gaining their breath so that they could go again. They ate and drank and laughed, telling stories and sharing dreams.
Never have I found such enjoyment at one o’ these gatherin’s.
There were a few times when other young men approached—either to ask for a dance with Lorraine, or to speak of political matters with Niall—but so obviously were the two of them engrossed in each other’s company that interrupters soon drifted off.
Niall felt that, as pleasant as the dancing and the music, the wine and the food, and the bustle and babble of the guests was, it was all decoration to the excellent time he was having with Lorraine.
She makes me laugh, that’s what’s so captivatin’ about the lass. I can nae remember the last time I just sat and laughed with a person…
It was true. Of everything that Niall had ever come to associate with socializing with the opposite sex, humor had never featured too predominantly. Always, the chief considerations had been to family, upbringing, land, and money. Looks had, of course, played a role, but the idea that a sense of humor could be so important had simply never occurred to him.
They chatted about everything and nothing, of trivial things, of hopes and dreams, and things they’d done as children. In all the words they exchanged, though, they never strayed onto their day-to-day lives or what they had to go home to.
“Lairds, Ladies and Gentlemen!” a footman with a ringing baritone voice cried, cutting across a story that Niall was in the middle of telling Lorraine. “Yer host, the Laird of Grant, would like tae thank ye all fer attendin’ this wee gatherin’ of his. He hopes that ye’ve all had a splendid time!”
There was a round of polite clapping for their host, which Lorraine and Niall joined in with. A few of the Lairds seated at the back of the hall, who were feeling extremely genial thanks to copious amounts of the Laird of Grant’s whisky, tried to get a rousing chorus of, ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ started up, but were quickly hushed.
“This,” continued the footman, in his ringing voice, “will be the last reel of this evenin’. Afterwards, please feel free to stay and drink and eat whilst yer carriages are made ready.”
“Oh me goodness!” Lorraine said, springing to her feet.
“What is it?” asked Niall.
Dinnae tell me that she must leave now. I wouldnae mind if the moon were tae get stuck in the sky and this night continue fer a whole week—though by the end of it me legs might be worn tae stubs from the reelin’.
“I’m sorry, Niall, but I’m goin’ tae have tae take me leave of ye,” Lorraine said in a rush.
Getting home was suddenly, it seemed to Niall, of paramount importance to her. Had she not also had as lovely an evening as he had? He knew that she had disregarded her father’s orders and snuck out of her bedchamber so she could attend the Royal Reeling. She had told him that almost straight away. That frank admission had ensured his interest, as well as his complete admiration, for the unassuming, beautiful woman.
Perhaps, she thinks that tae have as fine a time as we’ve had together, the world will demand payment in some form? Perhaps, in the form of her disappearance bein’ discovered by her faither, should she press her luck and stay out much longer.
“Ye have tae go right this moment, dae ye?” Niall asked.
“Aye, I dae,” Lorraine said. She turned and started to make her way quickly through the crowd. Everyone was seemingly up on their feet now, intent on enjoying the last reel. Niall did not even have time to open his mouth to say anything before she had been swallowed by the crowd.
He sat dumbly for a few moments, staring into the air, into the space she had so recently vacated.
I wish tae write tae her.
He blinked. The thought had bubbled up to the surface of his mind out of nowhere. Supplied, perhaps, by his soul.
I shall write tae her.
He bounded to his feet. So abruptly, that he almost knocked a passing serving man flying.
God above, man! Ye cannae write tae the lass if all ye have is her first name!
He started moving through the hall in the direction that Lorraine had gone, heading for the exit. He was about a head taller than the majority of the people in the hall, but this did not help him much.
Auburn hair was plentiful in the Highlands of Scotland, and as far as recognizing a gown went, Niall was about as terrible at that as most other men. His broad, strapping physique helped him somewhat, but a Royal Reeling was not the sort of place one could simply toss people out of the way if they were dawdling.
Eventually, he managed to make his way into the great entrance hall of the castle, but there was still no sign of his quarry. He walked briskly out of the front doors, past the glittering ornamental suits of armor, and into the night.
Carriages were drawn up, their drivers waiting for their masters, but there was no sign of Lorraine.
A strange hopelessness tugged at Niall’s insides. He racked his brains desperately.
The back door, ye fool! She told ye that’s where she had her man drop her off!
Niall, not worrying about what the waiting carriage drivers might think, sprinted around the side of the castle. He leapt over a clipped box hedge, crashed through some sort of wicker sculpture that he saw too late, and ran around the corner of the bailey. He found a path and followed it. It took him around into the less well-kept herb and vegetable gardens that must have backed onto the kitchen. Ahead there was a gate that led out into a lane.
Trotting down the lane was a cart.
Lorraine sat in the back of it.
“Wait!” Niall yelled, striding forward. He caught his foot in some sort of basket and fell with a curse.
“Wait!” he cried again. “I dinnae ken yer name! What’s yer last name, so that I might send ye a letter or ride tae see ye?”
He pulled and kicked at the basket or whatever it was that had him round the calf, but only managed to get his other leg caught in it.
Then Lorraine’s voice floated back to him on the still, cold night air.
“Me name,” she said, “is Aiton! Lorraine Aiton! Of the Maxwell clan!”
And then she was gone, swallowed by the dark.
Niall lay back on his elbows, stunned. He had been kicked in the guts by a horse before, and this sensation of breathless shock was very much akin to that. He felt as if he had been dumped upside down, turned inside out. He had heard of the capriciousness of Fate before, but this—this was madness!
Impossible… Impossible… It’s completely impossible!
Absently, he kicked himself free of the foraging basket that had ensnared him.
“Nay,” he said, still prone next to one of the raised vegetable beds. “Nay, nay, nay, nay, that cannae be.”
Course it can, though, ye dullard! She’s a highborn lady. She came tae this blasted Royal Reelin’. She fitted in wi’ the crowd as if she’d been minglin’ with them her whole life.
Slowly, he got to his feet, heedless of the mud that stained his clean kilt and new kilt hose.
“Of all the clans in all the Highlands,” he groaned, rubbing distractedly at his jaw. “Why did she have tae be a member o’ the Maxwells?!”
Yer faither will never understand this. He’ll never let ye speak to this lass if he finds out who she is. As far as he’s concerned, Lorraine is the enemy.
“Lorraine Aiton. Of the Maxwell Clan.”
He said the words aloud, hoping that they would ignite some sort of reflex hatred and disgust inside of himself for the young woman he had such a wonderful evening with.
Instead, he recalled the smile on her face as they reeled together. Remembered the sound of her laugh, free of pretense and pure as anything he’d ever heard. Felt again her breath on his cheek as they’d sat on the stone bench together.
I have tae see her again. I have tae ken if she’s really as bad as the Maxwells are supposed tae be. I have tae see her again.
“But how dae I make that happen?”
Did you like this preview? Please, don't forget to leave me a comment below!
Want to read how the story ends?
Highlander's Forbidden Siren is live on Amazon now!