About the book
Love and evil grow from the same roots…
Elise Ferguson has been in unrequited love with the son of the Laird, Logan Dunsmore, ever since she could remember, certain that her feelings won't ever be returned. When she meets a charming Highlander, she dares to fall...to her damnation.
Trying to gather the courage to confess his feelings to the only woman he ever loved, Logan Dunsmore, son of the Laird of Grahame, might be a little too late. For she goes missing, apparently of her own free will. He vows to bring her back, or die trying.
Their love has been a secret to both of them for years...
But now their cowardice meets their downfall. They are forced to play a game of cat and mouse, and Elise’s abduction is the bait. In his desperation to find her, Logan is walking into a trap years in the making...
Elise tried to struggle against the ropes, but it was no use as they dug harshly into her skin. She’d only tightened them further with her fighting.
“I’ll tie them loosely, lass. I dinnae want to hurt yer poor, lovely skin,” the dark-haired man had said as he tied the knot earlier that night. His thumb rubbed too gently over the thin skin of her wrist, where Elise could feel her pulse beating so fast it left her breathless.
His gentleness was entirely at odds with the situation. He was kind, yet he was kidnapping her. He had tied her up, ensuring she would not escape, but he still called her “lovely” and “bonny.” It was enough to make Elise’s head spin. Indeed, it had been doing that since the moment they met.
He had taken her hands and helped her onto the saddle, arranging her skirts so they would not wrinkle while on horseback. His touch was reverent, as though she were made of porcelain. Since they had first met that day in the woods, he had treated her the same.
Well, Elise did feel fragile, especially now, an hour into the journey. She was alone, and there was no one coming to save her. The dark-haired man had made sure of that.
Elise was not used to silent journeys on horseback. When she and Logan rode together, they spent the whole time joking, laughing, goading each other on to race faster, until they were spent. Then they’d slow to a walk that allowed them to tell stories and reminisce.
This ride was nothing like that. The man had stopped talking the moment the horses began to move. Now the silence hung in the air between them, so tangible that Elise could almost taste it.
The silence was driving her quite mad. Without words, her mind was racing with thoughts that did nothing to quell the anxiety turning her empty stomach sour.
Will Logan notice I’m gone before it is too late? Will Faither give him the note? Och, why dinnae I bring the dirk Logan gifted to me last Yuletide? Is that a sword I see glintin’ from his side, or just a trick of the light?
The only question with an answer Elise could reach was the last. After much squinting in the dark, she confirmed with a gulp that yes, that was a sword glinting from the man’s belt.
That was all that Logan’s fighting lessons had been good for in the end—recognizing a sword in the dark. He’d even spent a whole day teaching her how to clandestinely fish a dirk out of her boot without being seen. And here was the time for that lesson to finally bear fruit—but where was her dirk now? Not here.
She’d held it with shaking hands, torn by indecision. The kidnapper’s warning echoed in her mind, then and now: “If ye try anythin’ funny, it’ll only end badly for yer dearest love.” He’d sneered at that, as though the concept of love was fully ludicrous. “I’m guessin’ ye dinnae want that.”
Regardless, Elise had been seconds away from slipping the dirk into the top band of her stocking when she had noticed the time on the clock. She had spent so long penning the letter, trying to get the wording exactly right, that she had left no time for trickery.
In the end, the dirk had stayed where she usually kept it. It was tucked under her cot, where it could be of no use to anyone, least of all herself.
I’m such an eejit. I dinnae even deserve Logan’s help, for all that I’m prayin’ for it.
Logan had always protected her. Or rather, they had protected each other from the time they were children. Born eleven months and three days apart, Logan had been Elise’s best friend for as long as she could remember.
They’d been everything to each other, especially as they were both only children. They played together, laughed together, and got into all the scrapes and scrabbles that normal children do. If anyone thought it was odd that a boy and a girl should play so, there was never a comment made.
They were also tutored together until the age of fifteen. Because of this, Elise had never mastered the usual accomplishments of a castle-born woman. She could not draw very well, played no instruments, and her needlework could make any seamstress weep with frustration.
But she could ride a horse better than half the soldiers in the castle, read maps, and orient herself anywhere in a fifteen-mile radius. She knew Latin and Greek, both written and spoken, and could name every single inciting event of the last four hundred years of Scottish history.
Elise and Logan were inextricably tied, even after they grew into adulthood. They ate dinner together most nights, saw each other at least three times per day, and lived only a floor apart. Logan’s chambers were directly above hers, so Elise always knew when his anxieties were resulting in sleepless nights.
I wonder how he’s sleepin’ now. If he’s sleepin’. Daes he ken yet that I’m gone?
Yes, he knew. He must. She and Logan knew each other as well as they knew themselves. They were each other’s hearts, each other’s souls, and one does not lack notice when their soul is stolen.
Elise’s heart clenched. She needed Logan, and he needed her. They were each the balance to the other. He kept her from danger, extricated her from social situations when she felt trapped or ostracized. In turn, she protected him from himself and from the anxiety and the weight of being a Laird’s son.
Logan was her best friend, and Elise felt an ache deep in her chest at the idea that she might never see him again, and that their last interaction was one of anger and distress.
I shouldnae have talked to him the way that I did. He dinnae deserve it, and now, those might be the last words I ever say. The last thing he’ll remember o’ me.
With every step her horse took, she was being taken further and further away from everyone and everything she had ever loved or known. And she didn’t even know where she was going.
The man had made sure of that by taking her just when the moon would normally rise, except there was no moon tonight, only clouds that obscured any path in front of them.
Elise might know the area around Grahame Castle well, but that was only in the sunlight. She had never been able to see well in the dark, ever since she was a child. All she could make out now was the glint of the man’s sword, and even that was barely more than a faint grey in the cloudy night.
Had he known all of this, somehow? She couldn’t remember telling him, not during any of the conversations they had over the preceding week, but then, the time they spent together was mostly a blur of heady feelings and fluttering tummies.
She had liked him so much. So much that she had thought that she could finally move on from those other feelings, the ones she could never express.
I’m a damn foolish lass.
She had trusted him, and she had let her feelings for him overwhelm those that were far more long-standing and deep-seated. Perhaps she’d even encouraged it, desperate to escape from the purgatory of her heart.
Elise had let the dark-haired man take her heart and mind completely, eclipsing everything else. Before she knew it, there was even strain between herself and Logan.
It was her own fault. She’d lied to him, hidden the man as her little secret. She didn’t want Logan to know of the feelings she’d developed or the complex turmoil of her feelings towards Logan himself. She didn’t want to hurt him.
I dinnae want tae hurt meself.
Elise could see now how stupid she had been. The first secret she ever kept from her best friend—well, almost. She’d allowed herself to lose her composure, her mind even, and now look at her.
The journey trundled on, and Elise’s anxiety only mounted.
“Please, where are ye takin’ me?” Elise asked after what felt like hours more had passed. It was so cold that she was shivering under her thick wool gown.
She could feel the goose pimples prickling her skin. The sturdy gown offered some protection from the chill of the autumn weather, but without a shawl or wool blanket to cover her, it was barely enough to keep her warm once the sun went down. He had not let her bring either, saying she must leave all her possessions behind.
In every direction Elise looked, all she saw was a charcoal grey. She could barely make out the ground beneath her, let alone anything on the horizon. She was completely lost and at the mercy of this man—where she’d placed herself.
“Ye’ll see, lass,” the man said smoothly back, a lilt to his voice that had been absent these last few hours. He sounded almost mirthful.
Two days ago, this little tone would have brought a smile to Elise’s face. She had thought him so full of good humor and cheer. Now, however, she saw the truth underneath, and it made her recoil in fear. Whatever was pleasing him so much would surely not warrant the same reaction from her.
How could I ever think he could replace Logan in me affections? Even for a moment?
“Please,” she tried once more, trying to sound as desperate and pitiful as possible.
Elise hated to play the weak female. If she were going to get through this, she would need all the strength she possessed. But she knew he preferred her because she was meek and shy. He had told her as much the second time they met. She could still hear it echoing now.
“I like yer shy, quiet ways, lass. That’s what draws us together.”
She had to play to his preferences if only to convince him to stop soon. Her throat was parched, her stomach growled, and every shiver that wracked through her body made her feel that much weaker. She needed food, water, and another layer of something warm, or else she worried what might become of her.
What he might leave of her when it was over.
“Please. Tell me where we’re goin’. I’m fierce cold an’ hungry. I dinnae eat before we left,” she begged, letting her voice break on that last word. A sob came out of her mouth as well, sounding like a moan, one that she had buried deep into her belly for hours now.
Elise was jolted forward seconds after she spoke, nearly falling over the horse’s head and onto the ground. She was only saved by the firm grip her boots had in the stirrups, and it took all her strength to pull herself back down. Her thighs were quaking when she sat back down.
She heard rather than saw the man jump off his horse. His footfalls were quick against the earth, and then he was next to her, his hand on her leg. The warmth of his skin seeped through her stockings. It would have felt good, comforting, were the hand attached to anyone else.
But because it was his, a man who had betrayed her trust and affection, she shivered, trying to keep the grimace off her face as his poisonous warmth burned her skin. It wouldn’t help her right now, to look disgusted at her captor. For better or worse, he held her life in his grasp.
“I told ye, lass. We’re off to a nearby village. We’ll bed down at an inn an’ I’ll get a good, hot meal in yer belly,” he said, moving his hand to her stomach. Elise felt the muscles there tighten, trying to keep him from making contact with her flesh through the fabric.
“For now, though, take this. It’ll keep ye warm,” he said, his voice lowering as he leaned toward her, a blanket in his hands.
Elise could smell whiskey on him and wondered whether he had been drinking from a flask while they rode. She only ever drank whiskey on special occasions, but right now, she would have gulped down a bottle of it just for the warmth and the temporary filling of her belly.
He moved closer to her until his head was nearly touching her chest as he wrapped the blanket around her shoulders. Elise didn’t realize she was leaning away from him until it was too late, and her bottom began to slip on the slick saddle.
The blanket slipped off her shoulders, landing with a splat in the mud, and she let out an involuntary yelp as she slid backward after it. His strong grip caught her, almost angrily.
He yanked her upright, his grip on her arm bruising. He did not stop when she was righted, however. He continued to draw her in until his other arm was around her waist, and her chest was against his shoulder.
She could feel his hot breath, sweet and peaty against her ear, as he whispered, “I promise ye, lass, ye’ll like what comes next. I’ve missed ye, ye ken. We must make up for lost time now.”
She suppressed a scream as he placed a kiss on her forehead, his lips dry and chapped against her skin, before shoving her back into the saddle with such force that she nearly fell over once more.
Eventually, after he walked away and jumped back onto his horse, Elise felt a tug of the rope on her wrists. Her horse began to move, not stopping until she could feel not only his heat but that of the horse in front of them.
He must have shortened the rope. He cannae trust me enough to keep even a few feet between us.
“I want to keep ye close, ye ken. I will nae lose ye again,” the man said, as though he had read her thoughts.
Elise was confused. She did not know his meaning, but she could well guess the expression on his face as he spoke.
Hungry. Cunning. A wolf anticipating his first delicious bite.
How had she ever thought that face attractive? How had she ever thought it could possibly compare to that face which she had known and loved her whole life?
Elise suppressed a scream as the horses started forward, their pace slower this time. It seemed that the man wanted to drag out her torture for as long as possible. He’d have her desperate for food, warmth, and light, so desperate she would do anything to get them.
She’d do anything he asked.
Oh, Logan. Forgive me.
“Come on, Elise, focus!” Logan Dunsmore, son of the current Laird of Grahame, growled. The seriousness was a bit of a jest, but he held some serious irritation just below the surface.
He needed her to take this seriously. Logan wanted Elise to master this, for her own protection if nothing else. Yet despite his ribbing, she would not do it. For her, this was just another game between them, something fun to pass the time.
“Och, Logan! I’m fierce tired. Cannae we take a break? Me arms are nae used to all this exertion,” Elise panted as she dropped her sword-carrying arm to the side and let the weapon trail on the ground. Logan winced at the small scratches it left on the old stone floor.
He rolled his eyes. “We both ken that is nae true. I’ve seen ye with yer baking. That kneadin’ has given ye arms as strong as any man’s an’ twice as intimidatin’. The only weakness is up here,” he said, walking toward her and placing his index finger on her forehead.
Elise swiped his arm away, and the force with which she did so proved his point.
“Hald yer wheest,” she said. Her tone was annoyed, but she wore a wry smile as she walked away toward the table where one of the servants had placed a carafe of water.
Logan wasn’t a fool, though. He kept his eyes on her and was therefore prepared when she spun around and lunged at him.
He knew Elise’s body so well, knew every tic of her movements. As well as he knew his own, even. She could not surprise him, not after all these years.
Logan met her lunge with one of his own, and they parried back and forth for a few moments, the clashing of their weapons echoing through the large, empty room.
Elise did not predict his lunges and strikes like a more experienced swordswoman would, but she was passable. Despite her whining, she had learned a thing or two from him over these last few weeks of practicing. A few more sessions and she would be able to defend herself, should the need arise.
Aye, by God above, I hope that’s never the case.
Logan had decided to teach her the art of sword-fighting after observing her in yet another uncomfortable situation at the harvest dinner a few weeks ago.
She had been huddled in a corner with one of the butcher’s sons, who was prattling some nonsense in her ear. Logan had seen the way Elise was gripping her glass of wine, her knuckles white, and known she was uncomfortable. But she hadn’t extricated herself. She couldn’t.
For all that Elise was fiery and full of wit around him, she was shy and quiet with most men. It filled their depraved minds with thoughts of a meek, biddable lass for their beds.
Elise was neither of these things in Logan’s eyes, but what she was, was unable to speak up for herself. Years of being schooled by her parents and tutors in the proper way for a councilman’s daughter to act had made her so.
It was one of the downsides of her father being so high in the castle’s council. The expectations on Nathair Ferguson’s daughter were nearly as high as those of the Laird’s son.
An’ that is nae a small feat.
Logan had helplessly watched as Elise had internalized those lessons of decorum. They dictated her every interaction with anyone outside her close circle. She was polite to a fault and would entertain someone’s company long after it became tedious.
She wouldn’t dismiss them, not even the louts. She would never state it, but Logan knew she held a deep-seated fear of a rumor spreading that she was harsh, unfeeling, or that her privilege had made her mind and manners go toxic.
Logan thanked God that she spent so much time at the castle, for it allowed him to look out for her. She’d needed him, especially that harvest night. Neither of them harbored any illusions on the butcher boy's intentions.
He had stalked straight over to her, made up some excuse about Mrs. Ferguson needing to speak to her, and dragged her away. It was his job to help her escape people, especially men, who wasted her time and made a mockery of her.
But I cannae always be there. There might come a day when she must fend for herself, an’ then, the sword can take me place.
It was highly unlikely that anyone would ever bother Elise so much that she would need to resort to weaponry. The castle was a bastion of peace amidst the turmoil of the rest of the country. Still, Logan needed to know she could take care of herself in his absence. It was the only way he could sleep at night.
“What are ye thinkin’ about that has ye scowlin’ so?” Elise asked, coming toward Logan and smoothing the wrinkles in his brow with her deft fingers. This was something she had done since they were young. Logan had always been an anxious boy, feeling the weight of the lairdship and his family’s legacy heavy on his shoulders from early on.
But Elise had been there since the beginning as well, and she knew just how to calm him down, just how to ease the worries constantly polluting his mind. One touch from her hand, and for a few moments, calm settled over him. She was the only one who had that effect on him, and he cherished it. Cherished her.
“Nothin’, Lissy. Nothin’ except hunger, an’ that’s remedied easy enough,” he lied, offering her his arm as he led them out of the cold, draughty practice room and towards the heart of the castle, where Logan knew a roaring fire and cold meats and cheese awaited them.
A booming, happy voice greeted them as they arrived. “There ye are, mo grá! Was wonderin’ if perhaps ye’d finally given Logan the trouncing he deserved, an’ were tendin’ to his wounds,” Elise’s father, Nathair, said as they entered the hall.
“Och, she did indeed. I think I’m on me deathbed,” Logan said, affecting a sudden, severe limp and clutching his chest in mock pain. “She’s bested me at last.”
Nathair laughed heartily at Logan’s joke, but when Logan looked toward his own father, he was greeted by the same scowl that always graced the older man’s face.
“Ye’d do well to make sure she doesn’ae best ye, Logan. We cannae have the future Laird wounded. Ye’re meant to be a beacon o’ hope to all who see ye. A reminder that the Grahame legacy will carry on in perpetuity, no matter what happens with those Sassenachs across the border.”
Logan glanced at Elise and saw her wince in sympathy for him as she took a seat between her parents. He bit down a retort to his father and took his own spot at the table next to him, imagining he could feel the cold waves of fury coming off the man.
Murdock Dunsmore, Laird of Grahame, was a serious, middle-aged man whose face rarely turned up in a smile. Years of navigating the conflict with the English had worn him down, as had the sudden death of Logan’s mother, Elspeth, two years ago.
Since his mother died, Logan rarely saw his father smile, and though he knew the man loved and cared for him, Logan also knew his father wished he would take his place in the castle more seriously.
I wish ye could see that I dae, Faither. Even if it is nae the way ye expect.
Seeing Elspeth die had reminded the Laird of his own mortality, and now, he took every opportunity to remind Logan of it as well. As though Logan did not already know that his future was to be Laird upon his father’s death. He never forgot that fact.
Logan felt a kick at his shin, a surprisingly hard hit that made him grunt in surprise and pain.
“Ye all right, Logan?” his father asked, looking at him curiously.
“Aye, Faither. I’m fine,” Logan said, then turned his gaze to the owner of the foot that had just bruised his leg.
Elise was giving him what he called her kind smile, a small upturn of her lips that nonetheless made her eyes bright and her cheeks pink. It was the smile she gave him whenever she knew he was in pain, and in desperate need of cheering up in an environment when bantering and joking would not be tolerated.
Logan reached over with his own foot and slowly pressed down on her boot, letting her know he could see her and was thankful.
She passed him the basket of bannocks, and they started to eat.
“Och, but this stew is wonderful! It’s grown so cold lately, and I’ve been cravin’ somethin’ to warm me up. I think I’m gettin’ too old to be crouchin’ in that garden all day,” Elise’s mother, Freya Ferguson, said.
“Hush, Mither, ye’re barely three-and-forty. Granny was collectin’ herbs an’ tendin’ to the garden until well into her seventies, an’ I expect ye’ll be the exact same,” said Elise, rolling her eyes at her mother as she took a sip of her soup.
“Aye, but Granny had grandchildren to keep her young. I have nae been likewise blessed,” Freya told Elise. She said it in a dramatic tone, but Logan did not miss a spark of mischievous challenge in her gaze.
This caused Elise to roll her eyes even harder. Comments like this from her parents had been occurring with increasing frequency over the last few months. It was clear the Fergusons wanted to see their daughter married, but Elise had yet to find someone suitable.
Of this, Logan was glad. He hated to think of Elise marrying anyone. He wanted her to stay here in the castle, so they could always be together. He did not want to lose her, but neither did he have any claim on her.
Because ye’re a damn fool, Logan Dunsmore.
He had tried, over the years, to tell her how he felt. Or at least, he had prepared himself to try. But whenever the time came to actually say the words, “Elise, I love ye. Will ye be mine?” they had always gotten stuck in his throat.
Part of his hesitation was that he did not want to ruin things between them. Other than Tormod McCallin, one of the castle’s soldiers, Elise was his oldest and dearest friend. Professing his love for her brought with it the chance that she would reject him, and in doing so, ruin the only truly good thing in his life.
But since they were children, he’d loved her. It was as simple and as heartbreakingly complicated as that. Her almond-shaped blue eyes, her soft lips, the way her dark brown hair shone against her pale skin. Everything about her was beautiful. She was perfect.
But ye cannae just tell her. Ye’re a coward, Logan. A coward.
Beside him, Logan’s father cleared his throat pointedly, drawing him out of his daydream.
Logan looked up to find everyone at the table, staring at him.
“Sorry? Was lost in me own thoughts,” he said with a sheepish, apologetic smile.
His father frowned at him, and Logan could almost hear the thoughts running through the man’s head, about his son’s nonchalance, and penchant for wild notions.
“Elise was just jestin’, sayin’ in return for the sword-fightin’ lessons, perhaps she ought to teach ye to make bread,” Nathair told him, sweeping to the rescue as he’d done many times before. “An’ I was havin’ meself a good wee laugh because I cannae imagine the Laird’s son ever steppin’ foot in the kitchen to do anything other than stealin’ Cook’s black bread!”
“I dinnae think I’ve ever seen Cook let a man so much as stir a spoon in that kitchen o’ hers. I reckon she’d faint with surprise was she to see such a strong, strappin’ young man stride in there,” Freya agreed with a giggle.
“Well then, that’s all the more reason. She needs a good shakin’ up, does our Cook,” Elise said, leaning in close and lowering her voice as she spoke.
The castle cook, whose name was Marian but who everyone simply called Cook at her behest, was ornery on a good day. On a bad day, flour, soup, and boiling hot potatoes could be seen flying through the kitchen as she terrorized any and all in her path.
She would have been let go long ago, were it not for the fact that she made the most delicious and beautiful meals for miles around. She could take nothing more than flour, eggs, and butter and make a pie crust so soft and flaky one almost did not want to break its top for fear of ruining its beauty.
Meat in her hands turned into roasts, the likes of which brought men to their knees. She might have had a temper to rival any drunken red-haired Scotsman, but she more than made up for it with what she served to the castle’s people day in and day out.
“I’ll have ye ken Cook loves me. I dinnae have to steal the black bread. She makes an extra just for me. I’ve charmed her. In me company, she turns from a lion into a lamb,” Logan said mock-haughtily.
Everyone at the table laughed. Logan knew that they were all remembering last Yuletide when Logan had snuck into the kitchen for fresh shortbread and had been threatened within an inch of his life.
“Dinnae she threaten to truss you like a roasting pig?” Elise asked with sparkling eyes.
Logan broke into a smile. “Aye, so she did. And that’s why I shall never go into that kitchen to bake bread, nae for all the boastin’ rights in the world. Cook has her domain, an’ I think it best if we leave her to it.”
The rest of the meal was filled with similar jokes and jesting, though Murdock did not participate, but only observed.
When the plates had been cleared, they all retired to the fire, folding themselves into deep, cushioned chairs to enjoy their glasses of port and baked apples.
When Murdock’s attention was elsewhere, Nathair said in a low voice, “What dae ye think o’ comin’ with me to visit the tenants tomorrow, Logan? I’ve got a few behind on their rent, an’ I’m nae inclined to tell yer faither if I can help it. Mayhap ye could help me negotiate?” The councilman took a sip of port, watching Logan carefully.
Logan immediately sat up straight and leaned in toward Nathair. He couldn’t help the grin of excitement that spread across his face as he said, “O’ course, Nathair. I’d be happy to.”
This was exactly what Logan wanted to do with his days. He wanted to be out meeting the people over whom he would one day govern. He wanted to understand their plights, know what they needed from their Laird.
His father had long ago stopped taking such an interest in his people. Any true drive he had for the position of Laird had died with Logan’s mother. Murdock had been a good man once, but now he was just a broken one.
Now, the Laird conducted all his business from behind a desk in his study, or at the head of the council table. And he expected Logan to do the same. For all that his father wanted him to get involved in the lairdship’s business, all he wanted was for Logan to sit in meetings and silently observe and take ample notes.
But Logan was not a man who appreciated pure observation. He wanted to do things, take action. He wanted to meet people, see their land, understand the way things worked, through his own eyes. He didn’t think that a good government could come out of just discussions at a wooden table once a week. It needed to come from interaction with the people.
Logan was heartened to see that Nathair understood this. Though he was his father’s leading councilman, he was not bound to the way his father did things. He did things his own way. It was for this, among many other reasons, that Logan admired Nathair Ferguson so.
“Meet me at the gate at eight then, an’ nae a minute later. An’ make sure ye’ve got a good bit o’ porridge in yer belly. We’ll be ridin’ most o’ the day, an’ we will nae stop for lunch,” Nathair said, eyeing Logan’s belly, which was famous for its ability to consume mass quantities of food and stay flat as a plank.
“Aye, I will,” Logan said, already imagining the large bowl of porridge he would consume, topped with honey and dried brambles. His stomach growled audibly.
Nathair guffawed, nearly spitting out his mouthful of the port. “Och, but ye make me laugh, Logan,” he said, shaking his head.
Logan smiled and leaned back into his chair, about to close his eyes and let his food settle before he went on a mission to find more. But just before his lids shut, he heard a tinkling laugh. A laugh that he would recognize anywhere.
Turning around, he saw Elise, her eyes closed and her cheeks full of mirth, her head tipped back as she laughed. And across from her was Logan’s father, also, bizarrely, lost in glee.
Logan shook his head, marveling at his friend. Even after all these years, sometimes her loveliness still surprised him. The way the light caught her dark brown hair, turning it amber and deepest, darkest red.
The flush of her cheeks when she laughed, the few freckles dotting her nose visible in the firelight. She was most beautiful when she laughed, Logan knew. But seeing her make his father laugh as well, as hard a task as any Logan could think of, made him love her that little bit more.
If only I could tell her.
Elise tipped her head up to the sky and let the sun’s rays warm her cheeks. It was an unusually warm day for late October, and she could feel the sun following her through the sparse, leafless trees as she continued down the dirt road.
After some deliberation upon waking this morning, she had decided to take a walk to the village. Her only other options for entertainment were helping her mother in the castle garden, sneaking into the kitchen to make bread dough while Cook was overseeing the smoking of some trout, or reading.
And while Elise loved being in the garden with her mother, she did not think she could bear it. Not after the biting comment that her mother had made the night before about her childlessness.
Dae I have nae other use in her eyes?
Elise loved her mother dearly, but she was growing tired of the comments about her need to find a man to marry and give her bairns. She knew that as soon as they started pruning the flowering baby’s breath plants, the comments would ensue once more.
Sometimes Elise wondered whether her mother had planted that flower specifically so she could wrangle her into conversations about her future.
The kitchen was, therefore, a better option, but she was still smarting from the last time Cook had caught her fermenting bread dough in a corner near one of the ovens. It was something she had learned from the town baker, who himself had learned about it from his mother, a traveling woman before she settled down with his Scottish father.
“Cook, people have been daein’ this for hundreds of years! It is perfectly safe and perfectly clean. All it does is add a wee bit more flavor tae the bread,” Elise had said, not realizing her mistake until a hush had settled over the kitchen.
“Aye, so ye dinnae think me bread has much flavor, is that it, lass? Well, I’ll ensure ye’re not subjected to its blandness next time I serve yer meal,” Cook had thundered, punctuating her words with a loaf thrown directly at Elise’s head.
Elise had caught the loaf, grabbed her dough and fled the kitchen, and had not returned to it since.
Now Elise was forced to do her bread baking in a makeshift oven over the hearth in her room. It was a source of great mirth to the maid that attended her, and one of great consternation to herself. She just wanted her own kitchen, where she could bake her bread in peace.
But so long as she was unwed, she would remain an inhabitant of her father’s house. And truthfully, as much as she desired freedom, Elise did not want to leave the castle grounds. It was home, and Logan was here.
The thought of leaving Logan kept her back more than anything. He was her family, more so than even her parents. She just wished it did not always feel so stifling.
Even in the library, she was not safe. Lately, some of the castle soldiers had taken to interrupting her in there, poking their heads in just when she was at the height of the adventure in whatever novel had taken her fancy.
She knew they meant no harm, but it was nigh unbearable. They would talk to her, joke with her, and, if Elise was not mistaken, flirt with her, entirely ruining any chance she had of enjoying her literature.
And so today she was going to town, where she could walk about freely. She was going to peek into a few shops, perhaps buy herself a new hair ribbon or a sweet roll from the bakery. Perhaps while she was there, she could ask the baker how best to achieve the perfect cracked crust using her oven.
The walk to the village took half an hour, and during that time, Elise let her mind rest, focusing on the sound of the crows cawing in the trees, the soft brush of her worn but still sturdy boots against the earth. They were three years old, a gift from Elspeth before she’d died, and still as comfortable as that first day.
She set her mind to the smells, too, that musky sweetness of decaying leaves covering the ground, and the freshness laced beneath it created by recent rain and the mud resulting from it. Elise was so lost in the sensations of the world surrounding her that she did not hear the man approaching her until he was nearly at her side.
“Excuse me, Miss?” he asked, and Elise jumped, her eyes flying open and a spark of fright making her clench every muscle in her body.
Where did he come from?!
Looking around, she could see no one else nearby. They were all alone, surrounded on both sides by trees. It was at least another ten minutes’ walk to the village.
A feeling of unease crept through her as she began to take steps backward along the path, her legs tensing in preparation for a run.
But the man, seeing that she was in obvious distress, held both of his hands out, palms open.
“Forgive me, Miss. I meant ye nae harm. I simply saw ye walkin’ along the path, an’ thought it better to say good day than to ignore ye.” She looked closer, taking in his dark hair and bashful expression, and felt a little embarrassed that she’d been so shocked a moment before. “Seemed the proper thing to do, with a highborn Lady such as yerself,” he added, bowing slightly at her.
Elise was confused. How did the man know her to be highborn? She had purposefully put on her most humble clothing, for she did not like to dress in finery when going to the village. She did not want to flaunt her good fortune to those who were not blessed with the same.
Nae need tae be suspicious. Faither is a councilman, an’ well-liked among the villagers. He must recognize me as Nathair Ferguson’s daughter.
She took a good look at the man before her, wondering if she could place him among the many villagers her father had spoken of in his tales.
He was incredibly tall, his height reaching a full two heads higher than hers, and his body was corded with muscle. His arms were tightly encased in the linen fabric of his shirt, almost as though they were about to burst the seams, and she could see strength in the veins of his hands as they rested at his sides.
His kilt was a dark green and red plaid that complimented his skin, which looked golden in the sunlight. No doubt he was so dark because of outdoor labor, a sign of his low birth, and yet Elise could not look away from him. He seemed almost to glow before her.
The sunlight turned the dark, ebony black of his hair a brighter shade, replete with purple and auburn highlights she knew must normally be hidden. Those same highlights turned his eyes an even more brilliant green, like that of grass after a soft summer rain.
He was beautiful, to be sure. She had not seen a man so handsome since…well, since she had last laid eyes on Logan the night before.
Both o’ them have green eyes, but the color is so different from one tae the other. Logan’s are like spring grass. This man’s eyes are like dark jewels.
Logan’s face was dear, but it was familiar to her. She knew every crease and crinkle of his smiles and frowns. But this man—he was a surprise. She did not know him, could not anticipate him. That intrigued her, perhaps more than it ought to.
“Good day to ye, then, sir,” she said politely, nodding at him as she took a step closer, the tension going out of her muscles. Something in him, a softness to his eyes, or perhaps the friendly smile curling his lips, made her inclined to trust him. The urge to run away evaporated, and she found herself standing at ease before him.
“Are ye on yer way to the village, lass?” he asked, clasping his arms behind his back and nodding in the direction in front of them, where sunlight dappled the leaf-strewn road.
“Aye. Aye, I am indeed.”
“Well then, would ye mind very much if I escorted ye? I’m on the way there meself, an’ I cannae think o’ a better way to spend the journey than in the company of a bonny lass such as yerself.”
Elise blushed mightily at the compliment; it was rare that anyone called her beautiful so plainly. She knew she was bonny, knew it from the way the soldiers looked at her sometimes, but it was rare to hear it stated bluntly, and by a man who stirred flutters in her stomach like this one with his strange eyes.
It was one of her most fervent desires, to hear those words from Logan’s mouth, but her friend did not seem inclined to share such a sentiment.
Perhaps because he doesn’ae think ye bonny at all. Nae in the way ye’d like, at any rate.
“Aye, I suppose I could find that agreeable,” she said, brushing thoughts of Logan and what he did or did not think of her away. Instead, she focused on a man who did think her beautiful, a man who had her cheeks darkening a deeper shade of pink as she began to walk past him.
The man fell into step beside her, and she could smell heather and musk on him, a tantalizing combination that made her want to breathe in deep, to close her eyes and fill her lungs with it the way she had just moments ago with the smells of autumn.
Elise had never thought much about the way men smelled—or rather, she had thought they smelled like men, sweat and whiskey, and grass. She did not realize she could be so attuned, so attracted, to their scent.
“I’m Elise,” she prompted after a few minutes of walking. “An’ ye are?”
“Me name is Jay, lass. I should o’ told ye that from the first, but I was so distracted by yer beauty I found meself a mite forgetful,” he said, grinning as though they were sharing a secret.
“Oh. Er,” Elise said, feeling bashful at his open, complimentary nature. “Thank ye kindly.”
“Do they call ye Lissy?” he asked.
Elise’s heart jumped at the nickname, for it made her think of Logan again. Lissy was his special name for her, one that was just between the two of them. And though she found herself wanting to share things with this stranger, she would not share that. It was far too personal. She wanted it to remain between her and Logan.
“Nay, but they call me Elly,” she lied. She knew of other women called Elly and had always liked the name. It was youthful and fun, two things she was feeling at the moment, in the company of Jay.
“Well then, so shall I,” he said, smiling at her. His expression was so open and honest, brightening his entire face. It made her feel slightly weak at the knees to see it, and Elise found herself having to look away to keep her composure.
As they continued to walk, Jay asked her about what brought her to town.
“Oh, this an’ that. I’ll visit the baker, an’ perhaps the dressmaker. Get meself a sweet bun an’ a ribbon. I am mostly going to spend time on me own,” she said, not realizing until she had already spoken that her words might seem antisocial.
But before she could rush to cover her mistake, Jay had laughed and said, “Dinnae worry, lass. I can well ken what ye mean. I, too, sometimes find meself in need o’ escape. That is also what’s brought me to town today. Escape from me family, an’ the work on the farm,” he said.
“So ye an’ yer family are farmers?” she asked.
“Aye, so we are. Farmin’ tatties for generations now. The main harvest is over, but there’s always work tae be done on a farm, an’ I was gettin’ mighty sick o’ toilin’ with me brothers. Sometimes they drive me mad, I tell ye. So I offered to go to town, to buy some cloth for mantles an’ other little things such as we need for winter.”
“I can imagine. I sometimes help me mither in her garden, an’ while I ken it is nae the same as farmin’ all year round, it is enough to make me want to get away,” she said, chuckling a little.
“Well then, we have somethin’ in common,” Jay said conspiratorially.
Elise could feel warmth fluttering in her belly, and she found herself more excited than she had been in some time. Here she was, walking with a handsome man into town on a beautiful day, no complexity about it.
She had not had particularly high hopes for the morning—all she wanted was to get away from the castle—but now, she wondered whether this might be a day she would remember for some time to come.
Jay accompanied her to the baker’s, where she bought two buns, one for each of them. She could see that Raibert, the baker, was eyeing her strangely, having never seen her in the company of any man but Logan. She avoided his gaze, feeling awkward, and unable to explain herself.
An’ besides. I have nothin’ tae explain. Logan is nae me husband.
But that line of thought felt uncomfortable, so she banished it entirely.
She grew more at ease as she entered the seamstress’ shop, where she helped Jay choose the best and most affordable cloth for his family’s cloaks, and he, in turn, chose a ribbon that he said perfectly matched the blush in her bonny cheeks.
As they left the shop, Jay placed his hand on the small of Elise’s back, and she could feel the heat of his touch through the thick wool of her gown. It was an odd sensation that she had only ever felt with Logan. She could not say if she liked it coming from another man.
Elise did not have time to decide, however, for she could see Logan and her father in the distance, riding through the fields on their way to visit another tenant.
For most of the day, she had succeeded in keeping Logan from her thoughts. But now that she could see him in the distance, see the way his blond hair was whipping in the wind, she was filled with shame. While Logan was helping her father, she had been gallivanting with a stranger, playing the role of a nonchalant, high-born woman with no cares or worries.
Elise had enjoyed the illusion that only Jay mattered and how he made her feel. Just a glimpse of that straw-blond hair, though, brought her back to reality.
The truth was that, however much Jay or any man might make her blush and tingle, it would never match how Logan affected her. He was her love, and only him.
Except that ye have nae claim tae him, ye eejit. Ye’ve never said a word.
Regardless, there would never be anyone else, not for as long as she lived. Elise felt a fool for pretending she could feel something for another, a fool for falling prey to a few kind words and a head of dark hair and shining green eyes.
“Can I escort ye back to the castle, lass?” Jay asked.
Elise shook her head, mourning the loss of the illusion for good. “Nay. I must leave ye here. I have a few things to be daein’, and I must hurry,” she said, looking uncomfortably down at her muddied boots.
She heard Jay laugh softly to himself, and when she raised her eyes, it was to see him smiling at her pityingly. It felt as though he knew she was lying and felt sorry she felt the need to do so.
But how could he? What is there tae suspect?
Jay’s voice was gentle as he responded. “Well then, Elly, thank ye for spendin’ yer day with me. I hope we might meet again.” He kissed her hand lightly but did not linger improperly. “Seeing yer lovely face was surely the best thing that’s happened to me in quite some time.”
Elise hated how good the words made her feel, how his lips brought a flush to her skin, and how she was trapped and would never be able to act upon any of it.
She muttered a rushed farewell and then practically ran down the road, not stopping to look back once until she had reached the castle. When she did, at last, Jay was long gone.
In some ways, it was a relief. She did not need some childish infatuation ruining the very complicated feelings in her heart.
But in another way, she wished only to see those curious emerald eyes once more, guilt be damned.
Logan was having trouble focusing. His mind was torn in two directions, and neither of them led back to the council meeting he was currently supposed to be observing.
Instead, his quill idled over his paper, his thoughts only on Elise. She had looked strange at dinner the night before, her cheeks more flushed than usual, and her demeanor quieter. She talked little and laughed even less. She even denied his request to join him for a game of cards after dinner in his chambers.
This, more than anything else, shocked him, for it was nearly a tradition now for them to play a few times each week. Elise almost always beat him. Logan always pretended shock and consternation, but in truth, he loved being soundly trounced by his best friend. When Elise played cards, she grew serious and cunning in a way she never was normally.
Games brought out her inner ferocity, making her blue eyes bright and her wit sharp. Logan loved to see her this way, and he had sorely missed her last night. Though they saw each other often, it was rare that they were truly alone.
In all honesty, he relied upon and relished those times with her. He was sure that someday soon, he might take one of those opportunities to finally work up the courage to tell her what he felt.
Something ye’ve been tryin’ to do for years wi’ little success, mind.
He scowled at his traitorous inner voice. It was true that there were many a night when he had opened his door to Elise with a fluttering stomach and a fast-beating heart, rehearsing what he would say to her.
He’d come closest three weeks ago during a particularly competitive game of maw, but just as he got the words, “Lissy, I—” out of his mouth, she had won a trick, and his words had been lost amidst shouts of glee and victory. By the time she calmed down and asked what he wanted, his nerve had failed him. He had not quite built his courage up again since then.
Logan knew, however, that it would be on one of those nights that he finally did it. Playing cards alone together in the late night, with only the candles illuminating them, was the perfect setting for an amorous confession.
After the boost in his confidence given by riding with Nathair yesterday, he’d hoped that perhaps he could finally get over his fears and tell Elise he loved her.
But when Elise had been so taciturn the night before, so unlike the woman he knew and loved, he had grown worried.
What if this was a sign that she was tired of him? Or, worse, if she really did love him and was sick of waiting for him to tell her how he felt? What if she had found another?
An’ why nae? She’s a beauty, and ye’ve never been the only one tae notice.
The surge of rage he felt at the idea of Elise falling for another man surprised him. A sudden burst of heat filled his chest, and his fists curled of their own volition, until his hands were as rocks under the table, squeezing his quill so tight he was surprised it did not break in half.
Taking a deep breath, he pushed his fears out of his mind and tried to focus on the meeting. His father’s councilmen were talking about recruiting more soldiers to man the gates, and whether a purchase of more horses might also be prudent. It was interesting, but not enough to hold Logan’s attention, and his mind once again drifted.
This time, however, it did not turn immediately to Elise. Instead, he reminisced on the day he had spent with Nathair. It had been one of the best days Logan had in quite some time.
It was the first time in nearly two years that Logan had felt useful.
He had felt like he was actually learning something about being a Laird and taking care of the people of Grahame Castle, instead of sitting in on yet another tiresome meeting like this one.
He and Nathair had talked with over fifty people the day before. More than a third were behind on their rent. The reasons ranged from a sickness in the family, resulting in a loss of labor, to a bad harvest of wheat, to a highwayman robbing the head of the household at sword-point.
Logan had looked at Nathair as he listened to each tenant’s problems and noticed the compassion in the man’s eyes. In every instance, Nathair had been able to negotiate with the families, ensuring the castle would eventually get their rent, which Logan knew was what was most important to his father.
The Laird’s son was impressed and inspired by how Nathair managed to do this without negatively affecting the tenants’ livelihood and welfare. Money may be the priority for the Laird, but it wasn’t for his head councilman—nor was it for Logan.
Logan had found himself wishing, and not for the first time, that Nathair was his father. He was a good man, a kind man, and seemed to know much more about how to talk and handle people and problems than did his father as of late.
O’ course, he’d be as good as me faither, if I were to stop me whimperin’ an’ just ask for Elise’s hand.
Logan nearly groaned. There she was again.
She had been taking up his mind since he was no older than three-and-ten, when he had looked over at her one day and realized she was not just a girl, not just his friend, but also someone beautiful beyond belief.
He could picture it perfectly now, her dark hair a bird’s nest of a mess, her skin and gown dripping wet, with much laughter in her blue eyes. Freya had gone mad when she’d come inside in such a state.
“Logan! Ye’re nae doing it right. Ye have to wrap ye arms around yer chest before ye roll down. That’s how ye get all the way down quickest,” she’d bossed him playfully, using her own hands to move him in position to roll down Eubh’s Crest, a hill near the castle.
He’d turned to jokingly tell her off for ordering him around, and it was then that he was lost. At that moment, Logan had seen the way the sun glinted off her hair, turning its normal dark brown into a thousand shades of copper, gold, rich brown, and ruby red.
He had seen, too, the flecks of amber in her blue eyes, the exact same color of the gem in the necklace his mother always wore around her neck.
And there had been her chest, blossomed with new womanhood in a way he’d never noticed before under her crossed arm. There had been her waist, no longer up and down like a board, but curving in and then out in a way that gave her a new figure. A woman’s figure.
And there were her lips, plump and full and laughing, which for the first time he had the mad desire to kiss. A desire that had never once faded since.
Eleven years had passed since that day. Logan was a grown man, without the excitable nature of an adolescent, but he still wanted her just the same. More, even.
He dreamed about it almost every night. Dreamed about how he would press his lips to hers, softly at first, then with more pressure. How his tongue would part that pale pink mouth, exploring it at last. How both of them would be lost in a kiss that forwent any thought of time or meaning.
And then he would run his hands down her waist and feel its dip. He’d slowly work his way up, kissing her all the while, and then his hands would find her bosom, and she would lean into him as he gave her pleasure and took his own.
Damn it. Damn it all.
Because it was just a dream, and that he had not acted was the fault of nobody but his own self.
Elise was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He had thought it that day, and he still thought it now. She drove him to distraction—that much was clear if the evidence now standing to attention under the desk was anything to go by.
His trews-tightening fantasy was, however, sadly cut short by a throat-clearing at the table. Logan looked up from his misbehaving lap to find every member of the council staring at him.
They dinnae notice me trews, dae they?
“Lost in dreamland again, son?” his father said, his tone as biting as ever.
“Nay, Faither,” Logan said, sitting up and clandestinely adjusting himself. He thanked God above that he had grown out of blushing as a lad, for his cheeks would surely be as red as claret wine right now. “I was…”
“Pondering the change in the rental structure we discussed yesterday?” Nathair filled in, sending Logan an understanding smile.
Logan raised an eyebrow at Nathair, wondering just what the man was up to, and received a wink and a smile of encouragement in response.
“Go on. Tell them,” Nathair mouthed.
Logan nearly laughed, feeling relief flood through him. Nathair was helping him twice over, not only saving him from a lecture by his father about paying attention, but also giving him a chance to share the idea he had come up with the day before. An idea he had been hesitant to share since he was supposed to maintain silence at these meetings.
But I dinnae have to stay silent if a councilman invites me to speak, surely? Even Faither cannae argue wi’ that.
Logan reminded himself to thank Nathair for his help later and sat straighter in his seat as he said, “Aye, indeed I was, Sir Ferguson. Yesterday, when I was visiting the tenants…” he began.
To his surprise and joy, he was rewarded with his father’s full attention. For once, it was not accompanied by a frown.
Nathair watched Logan as he began to speak about the plan, and pride filled his heart. The boy was clear and confident as he spoke about what they had seen and heard on their trip to the tenants. It did Nathair’s heart good to see the lad so passionate.
It was clear that Logan wanted to be a good Laird and take care of his people, and to carry on the Grahame legacy. But Nathair knew the only reason that Logan was able to speak so freely now was that he had been invited to do so.
If Nathair hadn’t spoken, Logan would have stayed silent the entire meeting, depriving the council of his ideas, and his father of a chance to see the man his son had become.
Nathair had been one of Murdock’s closest friends and confidantes for years, well before he had ever ascended to his current position on the castle council. He cared for his friend deeply, and he could see that every day he rose with the sun, he was in pain. Without his wife, Elspeth, Murdock was half a man. Elspeth had been the one to truly light the fire in Murdock, to encourage him to look after his people on days when the lairdship became too much.
She supported Murdock in every way, and with her gone, it was clear the Laird was beginning to drown in his own sorrows and worries.
His foremost concern these days was that of his mortality. Murdock was scared that because he had lost Elspeth, his time was coming as well. He wanted Logan to be ready to take over as Laird, but he was going about it the wrong way.
Rather than teaching the lad through action, which was where he excelled, Murdock expected Logan to learn the same way he had, through observation and study. It was as though he did not understand his son at all.
It cut Nathair to see this, for it caused such discord between father and son. Murdock only grew harsher on Logan as it became more apparent that his son was different from him. In turn, this made Logan all the more anxious. He had always been a nervous lad, but losing his mother and becoming the sharpening stone for his father’s biting words had not helped matters.
Elise seemed to be the only person to truly understand Logan, to understand how to calm and quiet him when his mind was too loud with worry. Logan needed her now more than ever.
They ought to be married by now, the pair o’ fools. If only both were nae so quiet an’ stubborn with their feelin’s.
Elise and Logan were nearing one-and-twenty and two-and-twenty, respectively. To his knowledge, they had not so much as kissed. It pained him to see the love so plain in their eyes and yet kept so secret from each other.
When Nathair first met Freya, he had asked her to marry him, even before he had asked her father for permission. He had known deep in his bones that his life would not be right unless she were his wife, and he made it so.
Why hasnae Logan done the same? Why hasnae me daughter dropped her hints? Or is he just that oblivious?
It baffled Nathair, and he wondered whether it might not be time to speak to the lad. He doubted Murdock was able to speak on such romantic matters. No doubt it would further break the man’s heart, reminding him of what he had lost.
Nay, I must do this meself. For the sake of both Elise and Logan’s happiness, an’ me own continued sanity.
“Well,” Murdock said, and Nathair looked up to see his friend smiling, something that was a rare occurrence indeed.
Nathair looked over at Logan and saw him sporting a grin of baffled surprise.
“Thank ye, Logan. That is…certainly somethin’ tae consider.”
This, from Murdock, was high praise, the equivalent of jumps and cheers from anyone else. Logan’s bemused grin turned into a full beam, his eyes alight with the rare approval of his father.
“I think it’s a fine idea, as well, Grahame,” Seamus Donoghue, one of the other council members, said, and more nods of agreement moved about the room.
With every nod, Nathair could see Logan brightening further, sitting up that much straighter in his chair as his ideas were well received.
Good. The boy needs some confidence.
The meeting ended with everyone agreeing to meet in a few days’ time to begin the process of restructuring the rents. And if Nathair was not mistaken, he saw Murdock walk up to his son and give him a clap on the back and a few muttered words of encouragement.
It was an uplifting sight that sent Nathair away with a smile on his face, the first time his friend had made him grin in quite some time.
There was hope yet. He knew it.
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