A Pledge of Passion to the Highlander Preview

About the book


Some beasts have the most angelic face of them all...

Faced with her family's impending financial catastrophe, Roseann Gibson, daughter of the Baron of Croilton, must make a terrifying decision: witness her family's downfall or tutor a Laird's brother.

When his men return from patrolling the border, Domhnall MacBeathag, Laird of Greum Dubh, becomes certain that nothing will ever be the same. And it's all thanks to the beautiful English lady, who presents herself as a tutor.

When news of Scottish villages ransacked by British soldiers reaches their ears, their fragile happiness crumbles.

An old agreement signed in Scottish blood comes into effect and Domhnall has but a single, heartbreaking choice: if he wants to save his people from certain doom, he must marry a lady.

A lady who is not Roseann...

Prologue


The English-Scottish border, 1354


She was in trouble. Her father had warned her. Her mother had pleaded with her. But she had ignored them both, and now she was dealing with the consequences of her rash actions.

“I cannae work it out,” said the large man, gazing at her, with an almost stupefied expression on his face. “What is a grand English lass like ye doing travelin’ with only a wee milksop of a lad for a guard?”

Why, indeed, thought Roseann darkly. She glanced at young Nigel, to see how he was taking the rough Scot’s criticism of his figure. The woodcutter’s son’s face had flushed a painful hue of red, and she saw that he was struggling to find the words to cope with this sudden, unexpected course of events.

She cast her eyes fearfully over the rest of the men who had waylaid them almost as soon as they had crossed the border from England into Scotland. A ragged band of Scottish blackguards, she thought. They were filthy and mud smeared, their hair lank with grease. They were all wearing a wraparound cloak of the same pattern, looped haphazardly around their tunics.

The men brandished whatever they could get their hands on. Some carried pitchforks, but others had regular swords. The bright sunlight caught the metal, momentarily blinding her view.

Another fearsome-looking man, with a mane of fiery red hair and bushy beard, growled. “Why are ye askin’ questions, Fearghas?” He carefully spat on the ground, so that it landed at the tip of Roseann’s left foot. “English vermin, that’s what they are! Let’s deal with them and be on our way!”

The man named Fearghas turned to slowly stare at his compatriot. His face didn’t change. But suddenly, he had him by the scruff of the neck, raising him into the air, high enough that his feet dangled helplessly beneath him. Roseann watched with horror as the man started to choke, spittle flying out of his mouth.

“Are ye finished?” growled Fearghas quietly. “I didnae ask ye to speak! Who is leader here, MacTavish?”

“Ye are,” spat the man. “For the love of God, let me down!”

Fearghas lowered him, pushing him so violently he staggered backward, landing on the ground with a thud. The other men laughed. MacTavish flushed a beetroot red and struggled to regain his composure.

“Now,” rapped Fearghas, turning back to her. “Yer name, lass, and yer business. What are ye doing this side of the border?”

Roseann took a deep breath. She didn’t know what to tell them. Were these blackguards intent on killing them both? But Fearghas gazed at her intently, at least pretending that he was willing to listen to her.

“My name is Roseann Gibson,” she replied, in an as imperious voice as she could muster. “I am the daughter of the Baron of Croilton…”

“Croilton?” Fearghas scratched his head. “I have heard of him. He owns land and title on the other side of Berwick.” He kept gazing at her. “A lot of land, which yields little, and he has been sellin’ off in smaller lots, year by year.”

Roseann flushed. “It is true, my father has been forced to sell off some land, but he is an honorable and good man…”

Fearghas guffawed. “I wouldnae ken or care about the character of the man, lassie. What concerns me is what your business is here in Scotland…my lady.” The last words were delivered contemptuously.

Roseann’s flush deepened. The man was making fun of her; he was playing with her, reminding her how vulnerable she was, standing here on a windswept Scottish moor in the middle of nowhere. The fact that she was the daughter of a baron, and his social superior, obviously meant nothing to him.

She shouldn’t have been surprised. The battles for control of the English-Scottish borderlands had been raging for many years now, and there didn’t seem to be any end in sight to them. It was a dangerous thing for anybody to cross these borders, let alone an English lady traveling with only a woodcutter’s son for protection.

Were these men rogues? She had heard of the marauding gangs, both Scottish and English, raiding the countryside on both sides of the border, causing mayhem and destruction. After what had just happened with the renegade English soldiers, she had thought they were her rescuers. Were these men working with them? Had she stumbled into a trap?

She had never been more frightened in her life. But she was the daughter of a baron; she mustn’t let this ruffian intimidate her.

She tried to quell the tremble in her voice as she announced, “I am traveling to take up a tutor’s position.” She paused. “A position at Coirecrag, with the Laird of Greum Dubh. Have you heard of the place or the Laird?”

A titter went through the men, moving like a wave. Fearghas turned and glared at them. Looking a little shamefaced, they stopped immediately.

“Coirecrag, ye say? The Laird of Greum Dubh?” His voice was mild.

Roseann nodded. “Yes. He is expecting me.” She raised her chin. “I demand safe passage. I demand that you let me and my companion pass freely and delay us no longer.”

Fearghas scratched his straggly brown beard. “Ye are a fiery one, are ye not? But ye see, my lady, there are spies all along these borderlands. I cannae let an English lassie pass freely.” He nodded decisively. “Bind them. Make sure they cannae even move a muscle.”

Roseann gasped. Two men sprung forward and grabbed them both before she could react. The young woodcutter’s son struggled helplessly, but it was like watching a sapling trying to withstand a storm. The Scottish blackguards were too large and too strong.

Coarse rope was tied so tightly around her wrists that she cried out in pain. The men didn’t react at all. She was pushed forward and made to walk. Two other men secured her horses. Well and truly, she was a prisoner.

She should have listened to her parents.  And now she was surely being marched to her death.


Chapter One


Roseann stumbled wearily onwards. They had been walking for miles across this wild landscape. They had traversed valleys and hills, but it was all starting to blend a little. The same colors of muted green and dull brown seemed to typify this part of lowland Scotland.

She fell, landing roughly. The man walking two paces behind her laughed nastily. She glared up at him.

“If you have quite finished,” she whispered fiercely, “I am need of assistance…”

“Help the lassie up, Colum,” ordered Fearghas. “If we daenae start makin’ better time, we will be forced to camp out tonight.” He paused. “And I’m sick of the sight of all yer hangdog faces, lads! Tonight, all I want is a dram and a bonnie lass to warm my bed, ye ken?”

The men laughed raucously. Colum unceremoniously hoisted Roseann to her feet, and they were on their way again. Roseann sighed. Her feet were aching, and she wanted nothing better than a warm bed, too. But she knew that the likelihood of that was slim. She would either be thrown into some foul dungeon, or this was going to be the last night of her life.

Tears stung her eyes as she gazed over the barren landscape. She had been a fool. A stupid, reckless fool, to have done this. She was never going to see her beloved home or her family again. She was destined to die alone in a foreign land, inhabited by coarse, murderous people. Barbarians.

A single tear coursed down her face, but with her hands bound, she couldn’t even wipe it away. She felt its warm wetness trickle into her mouth.

She thought longingly of her home and all the people she left behind—the only home that she had ever known and her desperate quest to save it. The quest that had led her here to this awful point in time.

 ***

It had been a month prior that her world had slowly started to change. Only one phase of the moon that had led her inexorably down this path to this moment.

She vividly remembered that night. She was sitting in the dining room at Loughton Hall, her ancestral home, which lay just five miles from the border town of Berwick-on-Tweed. Father was frowning as he absently devoured a joint of mutton. Mother was picking like a bird at her own food with a faraway expression on her face. Neither had spoken for the entire meal.

Her father suddenly threw the joint across the table, his face creased into lines of disgust. “That it has come to this,” he muttered, staring at the offending meat. “We eat the worst mutton that the peasants would not deign to pick up! Only twelve month ago, there was swan and suckling pig at this table…”

Her mother sighed heavily. “It does not do to dwell on such things, my dear husband. It is only a rough spell, I am sure of it.” She bit her lip. “The Lord has sent this trial to test our strength. Tomorrow, I shall pray in the chapel, and make a donation to the abbey.”

Lord Croilton rolled his eyes. “With what, my dear wife? We have no more coin left. All your prayers and donations do nothing, anyway!”

Roseann gaped at her parents. It was slowly dawning on her that this wasn’t just a bad phase that they were going through. That things were serious at Loughton Hall, and they were getting worse.

She had known, of course, that her world was changing. But it had happened so gradually, so slowly, that she hadn’t seen the forest for the trees.

It started when her Latin and music tutors had been dismissed without fanfare. Her father had told her that she didn’t need them, anyway; she was more learned than most noble ladies her age or older. She hadn’t complained – she knew that what her father said was right. Most ladies were ignorant, not even schooled in their letters. The fact that her father had even educated her beyond what was expected for a lady of her position was enough, wasn’t it?

But it hadn’t just been the loss of her tutors. She had seen her parents arguing in rooms. Once, she had eavesdropped just outside the door. Her father was lamenting that he must sell off parts of the land, the vast estate that Loughton Hall resided upon. Servants had started to be dismissed, too. Now, they were down to a skeletal kitchen staff. Her old nursemaid, Elaine, was gone, as was Mary, her personal maiden. Centuries-old tapestries and paintings had started disappearing off walls, leaving behind dusty imprints.

She had convinced herself that it would get better. It must get better. This was their ancestral home. The possibility that it might not always be that way had never occurred to her.

It was occurring to her now, as she watched the pinched, anxious faces of her parents.

“How bad is it, Father?” she asked in a quiet voice.

Lord Croilton sighed. “You should not concern yourself with it, Roseann,” he said quietly. “It is not a burden I want to place on my only daughter’s shoulders.”

She leaned across the great expanse of table between them. “Father, you may burden me with it.” She paused. “I am old enough. A young woman now, past her teen years. You have educated me well. I can take whatever truth that you tell me.”

His eyes softened as he gazed at her. “A beautiful, accomplished young woman. I am so very proud to call you daughter, my dear Roseann.” A shadow passed over his face. “It is not good, my daughter. I have tried; the Lord only knows how hard I have tried. But it seems that if our fortunes do not change, we shall be forced to sell Loughton Hall and all the land attached to it.”

Roseann gasped. “Surely, it has not come to that, dear Father?”

Her mother, Lady Croilton, looked pained. “Indeed, it has, Roseann,” she said quietly. “Selling off the land in allotments is not enough to cover our debts…”

“Debts?” Roseann whispered. “What debts are these?”

A shadow passed over her father’s face. “It was your uncle,” he replied. “My own brother. He gambled, in large amounts, in London, using the deeds to Loughton Hall as collateral on more than one occasion. I had no knowledge of what he was doing; he took them secretly.” He sighed deeply. “And now, the chickens have come home to roost. With Henry’s death, they are all demanding their money… and it is my responsibility to come up with it.”

Roseann blanched. She had only seen her feckless Uncle Henry a handful of times in her life. He had been handsome and charming, but degenerate. He had died two years ago, under suspicious circumstances in a hovel in a bad area of London.

She took a deep breath. “What of Nicholas’s army salary?” Nicholas was her older brother and heir to Loughton Hall. He was currently a soldier in the English army stationed in the borderlands somewhere. They had not seen or heard from him in months.

“Nicholas is a loyal and dutiful son,” said her father. “He sends most of his salary to us. But it is still not enough…”

Roseann sighed. This was indeed troubling, more troubling than she ever imagined. She just didn’t know what to do.

At that moment, Graves, their loyal manservant, entered the room. “My lord. Some traveling bards have come and wish to entertain. What would you like me to tell them?”

“Send them away, of course,” said Lord Croilton bitterly, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I have no coin to pay them.”

“Father,” Roseann said quietly. “They do not demand much, and I have a little, from what Aunt Margery gave me on my recent birthday.” She took a deep breath. “Perhaps we should let the bards entertain us for the evening. It will distract us, at least.”

Her mother brightened. “Oh, William, please say yes! For I know I am in need of distraction.” She gazed at her daughter. “That is very kind of you, Roseann.”

Lord Croilton sighed heavily, turning back to the manservant. “Well, you have heard my daughter, Graves. Send the bards into the parlor, and we shall make merry tonight.”

***

They had settled down in the parlor, awaiting the bards. The candles had flared haphazardly in their sticks, hissing as the wax burned lower. Roseann noticed, not for the first time, that the room was chillier than normal. She glanced at the fire. It was burning low, hardly emitting any heat at all. She knew that it was because her mother was trying to economize. Heating all the rooms in such a large house was hard.

She wrapped her cloak tighter around herself, trying not to shake. She didn’t want her parents to notice and feel bad. All of this was hard enough on them.

The door suddenly opened, and a man and a woman walked slowly into the room. The woman had long auburn hair and was carrying a harp. The man was large and bulky, with sandy hair that reached his shoulders. Neither glanced at the occupants until they were standing in front of them.

“My lord,” boomed the man, bowing low with a flourish. “My ladies! It is our pleasure to entertain ye tonight.” He rose, gazing at them.

Roseann smiled. The man had a soft Scottish burr to his voice. She heard it from time to time, living in the borderlands, but she had only entered the country that was so close to her own on a handful of occasions in her life. Father was always mindful of her safety, and with all the skirmishes along the border in recent years, she knew that he was not being overly protective.

“You have traveled far?” asked Lady Croilton.

“Aye, my lady,” replied the woman. “We have just come from the highlands. But we were lucky to spend some time at our home, just over the Scottish border, before we crossed yesterday.”

“And where is that?” asked Lord Croilton.

“The lands of the Laird of Greum Dubh,” replied the man. “Ye ken the town of Keelieock? Our Laird lives close to there, at his grand castle called Coirecrag.”

Lord Croilton nodded. “I have heard of the Laird of Greum Dubh,” he said slowly. “An elderly man who rules his land wisely…”

“Nay, my lord, that is my Laird’s father ye think of,” replied the man. “He died over a year ago, God rest his soul. The current Laird is his oldest son, Domhnall MacBeathag.”

Lord Croilton sighed. “I am sad to hear of the late Laird’s passing. Is your new Laird as fair and wise as the last?”

“Ach, aye, he is, lord,” said the woman, beaming. “He was always a bonnie lad! His people all love him, and he always does what is best for us, ye ken.”

“I am pleased to hear it,” said Lord Croilton. “So, the lands are yielding well? The tenants are all happy?”

Roseann smiled. Her father always grilled travelers who passed through Loughton Hall about their lords or lairds. He liked to hear how different people managed their lands and estates. Roseann suddenly realized that part of it was probably looking for new ways to manage his own.

“Aye, very happy,” said the man. “The lands of Greum Dubh are bountiful. The people havenae been blighted with famine or bad crops for many a good year…”

“And our Laird is fair,” cut in the woman, nodding eagerly. “Like his own faither. The Laird travels all his villages and officiates at most. He is so busy, the servants at Coirecrag laugh that they rarely see him.”

“He is an only child?” asked Lady Croilton in her soft voice.

“He has one younger brother,” replied the man. “Only twelve years. The lad’s name is Cormac.” He paused. “He is running a bit wild, ye ken. The Laird is so busy, he doesnae have time to see to him…”

“The Laird knows, Iain,” cut in the woman. “He has sent out word, far and wide, to find a tutor for the wee laddie.”

The man nodded. “Aye, he has, Ailis. But there’s nae been any takers. It seems that there are not many learned folk out there in need of a job, despite the generous salary the Laird is offering.”

Lord Croilton smiled. “How much is your Laird offering for the tutor?”

“Ten pounds a month,” breathed the woman. “Pund Scottis, ye ken. If I was learned, I would be scrambling for the position! I havenae ever set eyes on such an amount…”

“Your Laird obviously does not have money worries,” said Lord Croilton, a touch sourly.

They talked on, but Roseann was no longer listening. She was thinking about the wealthy Laird of Greum Dubh, who was offering a salary above and beyond what any tutor could normally expect. A salary that was so high the tutor might only have to do it for a small amount of time to make some serious coin.

He must love his brother. And he must value education. What would it be like, living in such a wealthy and generous household, even if it was in Scotland?

Her mind turned over furiously, as the bards performed, the man singing traditional songs while the woman accompanied him on the harp. She kept thinking as they recited poems and told stories. By the time they had finished, and the fire had almost burned out, she had made up her mind.

***

The man named Iain, the bard, looked shocked when she took him aside afterward, talking in a low voice so that her parents couldn’t hear.

“Your Laird,” she whispered. “Is he really offering such a salary for a tutor?”

He nodded warily. “He is, my lady.”

“And he cannot find a tutor, even though he has searched far and wide?”

The man shook his head. “He has been searching for over a month now.” He paused. “I daenae think many Scots have the learnin’ he requires. He wants the lad to learn Latin, among other things, which is why he has now widened the search to England…”

Roseann glanced over her shoulder. Her parents were busy chatting to Ailis, the woman, and weren’t even looking at her.

“Can you send word to your Laird, that I am willing to take the position?” she asked quickly. “I have the learning required. I am well versed in Latin and music. I even know astrology and philosophy.”

Iain, the bard, looked amazed. “How is that so, lady? I havenae heard of any lass, either Scots or English, to have such learning.”

Roseann smiled quickly. “You may thank my father. He is a most enlightened man in those areas. He wanted his daughter to have an equal education to his son.” She paused, staring at him intently. “You will inform your Laird?”

He nodded slowly. “If you wish, my lady, I can tell him myself. Ailis and I are headin’ back home within a fortnight.” He frowned. “But, what of your good faither and mother? Do you not have to consult with them before you make such a decision?”

Roseann breathed out, slowly. “I will take care of all of that. Just inform your Laird to expect me within three weeks. It is Coirecrag, on the lands of Greum Dubh, is it not?”

He nodded. “Aye, it is. My Laird will be overjoyed! And he is a fair and noble man, lady. He will treat ye well. Ye will want for nothing at Coirecrag.”

Roseann’s heart started to beat a little faster. She would tell Father and Mother about it—at the right moment. She was sure they would understand once they realized just how much coin she could earn. All of that coin would go into saving Loughton Hall, after all. The only reason she was even contemplating it was that she could not bear the thought of losing her beloved home.

Scotlandand a Laird…named Domhnall MacBeathag.

It was like staring into the mists of a crystal ball and seeing her future entire.

***

Roseann sniffed now, staring stonily ahead. There was no point in crying over spilled milk. It had all started to go wrong as soon as they had crossed the border.

First, they had been waylaid by a group of renegade English soldiers. The Scots that they were currently with had seemed like their rescuers, to start with. That was until they had slaughtered the soldiers and raised their weapons at them, demanding to know who they were, and where they were traveling.

Her parents had not wanted her to go. They had begged her and pleaded with her, but she was adamant. This was the only way that they could get the coin they needed to save Loughton Hall. Eventually, they had agreed, reluctantly. The only guard that they could afford to accompany her was the woodcutter’s son, Nigel.

What else could I have done, she thought desperately. It’s not as if anyone would marry me now. My prospects on that front are gone. No man wants an impoverished lady for a wife, no matter how accomplished.

A slow mist started to gather over the land. Roseann glanced around nervously. It was starting to get dark; already, shadows were spreading across the ground. Dusk was here. She shivered in fear.

And that was when she saw it, hovering in the distance. It appeared to be floating on the mist, as if it was drawing her nearer, second by second.

She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, for she had simply no idea if the imposing dark castle she saw in the distance held friend or foe.


Chapter Two


Domhnall MacBeathag slowly swirled the ale in the bottom of his mug, staring into the liquid. He was bone-tired, so tired his whole body ached with it. It had been a long, boring day, traveling to various outlying villages of his lands.

He drained the mug then stood up, staring out the castle window. He had officiated between two farmers, who each claimed that the bleating calf tethered two feet away was his. That had taken a while. The only way he had resolved it, in the end, was after he had questioned their wives. One of the women had cried under questioning, blurting out that her husband was a liar, and had stolen the calf under cover of darkness.

Perhaps I should have ruled like King Solomon, he thought darkly, scratching his chin. Perhaps I should have threatened to cut the calf in two to see who truly valued it, as that great king did with the baby that two women claimed was their child.

He poured another ale and drained the mug quickly. It never ceased to amaze him, how painstakingly boring adjudicating in villages and the castle was. He had watched his own father do it, skilfully, year after year. Alaisdair MacBeathag was always calm, and fair, and never showed impatience or frustration. He had been a model of what a great Laird was.

He sighed deeply. He wanted to reach for the ale jug again, but he knew it wasn’t a good idea. He had to be up at first light again, and he knew that if his mind was fogged by the ale, it would be a slow, agonizing day. He was so tired he could almost climb the stairs to his chambers now. He knew he would crash hard, but it wasn’t even dark yet. He should wait until the moon had risen in the sky, at least.

There was a soft knock on the door. He turned around, sighing again.

“Come in,” he commanded.

A middle-aged woman entered. “Laird,” she breathed. “Yer wee laddie wanted to see ye before he retires for the night. He has said his prayers.”

Domhnall smiled. “Aye, of course. Send Cormac in.”

The woman nodded, calling from the door. The next moment, a boy of twelve years ran into the room, almost tripping over his long, lanky legs in the process.

Domhnall’s smile widened. Cormac had grown at least three inches in the last year; he was like a fast-growing sapling. He stared at the lad’s spiky red hair that refused to be tamed, no matter how much spit Mairead his nursemaid, applied to it. Cormac’s face was milky pale, with a smattering of light brown freckles across the bridge of his nose.

Cormac grinned, now rushing to his brother, almost knocking him over.

“Steady there, laddie!” said Domhnall affectionately. “Ye have more energy than a highland wildcat! Ye have to go to bed and sleep soon.”

Cormac’s blue eyes dimmed a bit. “Must I, Domhnall? It is so boring! Why cannae I sit up with ye?”

Domhnall rumpled the boy’s hair. “Ye cannae and ye ken it! Besides, I am tuckered out myself, and wouldnae be good company, laddie.”

Cormac gazed at him steadily. “Can I come with ye tomorrow?” His face was sober. “It is so boring, staying around the castle with Mairead! I am not a child anymore, ye ken!”

Domhnall shook his head. “Nay, I am sorry laddie, but ye cannae. I must travel to a house on the coast.” He paused. “I have heard there is an old learned man there, who I might be able to persuade to become yer tutor…”

Cormac’s blue eyes flashed. “Nae that again! I am too old for that, as well…”

“Nay, yer not,” said Domhnall, a set look on his face. “I promised Faither that I would see to yer education…”

“Why do I need one?” persisted the boy stubbornly. “Why can’t I be a warrior, like ye?”

Domhnall sighed heavily. How could he explain to his little brother that his dearest wish was that he could have had an education? That the reason that he was pursuing this was not because of their late father, but rather a determination that his brother would be a better Laird one day than he could ever be?

He sighed again. The lad wouldn’t understand, of course. All that Cormac valued was physical activities. He was already skilled at swordplay and wrestled well. He went hunting and hawking on the vast lands around Coirecrag. And he was a quick archer, almost better than he was.

But to be a Laird, you couldn’t just be strong and skilled in those things. You needed wisdom, too. You needed to be able to use your mind in ways that you never expected to. You had to be King Solomon and William Wallace all rolled into one.

And that was where education came into the picture.

Domhnall stared at his little brother. The lad was growing wild. They had lost their father just the year before, and Cormac couldn’t even remember their mother, who had died when he was just two years old. They were both orphans now. Although he had to admit he was a bit old to be considered an orphan anymore, he would never see his twenties again.

Mairead coughed. Domhnall stared at her. He knew that the nursemaid was discreetly trying to hurry him up. He guessed that she was looking forward to her own jug of ale after she had put her young charge to bed.

“Sleep well, Cormac,” he said. “I shall come and see ye before I leave in the mornin’, I promise.”

The boy scowled, but he didn’t protest. Domhnall ruffled his hair again and pushed him gently towards the door.

He walked to the window, again, staring out over the familiar hills and valleys of his home. Tomorrow was another day, as his good lady mother used to say. Tomorrow he would see to it that he finally secured a tutor for Cormac. He had been searching for well over a month now, in England as well as Scotland, but it had proved fruitless.

There was another knock on the door, and Brighde, one of the serving wenches, entered swiftly.

“Another jug of ale, Laird?” she asked in her soft voice.

Domhnall gazed at the young woman, noticing for the first time how pretty she was. Brighde’s hair was long and fair and as straight as a curtain. She was also long-limbed and wide-eyed. He felt a sudden stirring in his loins. It had been a long time since he had bedded a woman; he was usually so exhausted these days, that sleep was the only thing on his mind.

Brighde’s smile widened slightly as if she suddenly sensed where her Laird’s mind had headed. “Or anything else ye might like?” she asked, her blue eyes glowing.

Domhnall considered the possibility. It would be easy – too easy – to take her and be damned with the consequences.  But she was a household servant, and he didn’t want her getting too attached to him. He had been burned that way, a few times, in his foolish youth. And he had no desire to sire a tribe of bastard bairns, the way some Lairds did.

Much safer, then, to ignore it, and go to bed alone.

“That is all for the night, Brighde,” he said. “Thank ye.”

The maid curtseyed, leaving. Restlessly, he turned back to the window. He suddenly felt lonelier than ever.

He could send for his men and drink until they were in their cups. That would stave it off for a little while. He had done that many times in his foolish youth, as well.

He took a deep breath. No, he was the Laird, now. Time to put away childish things. His father had warned him that it was lonely at the top. He had never realized just how lonely it would be…

Suddenly, he gasped, his eyes narrowing. Was that a band of travelers coming up over the hill towards Coirecrag? Who on earth was approaching the castle at almost nightfall? He wasn’t expecting anyone.

Quickly, he strode to the door. The guards needed to be alerted to the travelers if they hadn’t already discerned them. It paid to be cautious in these troubled times.

***

Domhnall watched keenly as the party straggled into the great hall. He had told the guards to take them here, straight away, even before food and drink were offered. He needed to find out who they were and if they were a threat to Coirecrag, immediately.

Abruptly, he broke into a wide grin, standing up. He recognized the leader of the group, a large man with wild brown hair and beard. He also could see clearly now what pattern they wore.

“By the saints! Fearghas Grannda!” He walked quickly to the man who had stopped walking and was staring at him. “I havenae set eyes on yer ugly gob in a good long while!”

The man grinned, too. “My Laird. It’s good to see yer too, laddie.” His eyes swept over the room. “Even better to be under cover, at long last. We’ve been sleepin’ out for nigh on a month now and are missing a few home comforts…”

Domhnall nodded, his eyes automatically scanning the rest of the party. He recognized most of the men who were all from villages on his lands and had served at Coirecrag from time to time. They were a motley bunch, and they stank to high heaven. It was obvious they had been sleeping rough for a long time.

His eyes trailed to the back of the men. He frowned. Two people were loitering behind the main group, looking uncertain and frightened. They were in shadow, but he saw that they were a youth and a young woman. Their hands were bound tightly with coarse rope in front of them.

Domhnall’s eyes narrowed, and he turned to Fearghas.

“Ye have prisoners?” he asked quietly. “Who are they?”

Fearghas lowered his voice. “I dinnae ken, Laird. I found them crossing the border. They were being…harassed by a bad bunch of English soldiers…”

Domhnall’s eyebrows raised. “There aren’t any good bunches of English soldiers, in my opinion.”

Fearghas nodded. “Ye ken well, Laird.” He paused. “The lassie claims that she was headin’ here. That ye ken her, and why she was travelin’ to ye.”

Domhnall turned his head quickly, staring at the bedraggled pair at the rear of the group.

“Bring them forward,” he called. “Bring the prisoners to me.”

Two men did his bidding, grabbing the pair and pushing them forward. They stumbled, and the woman turned angry eyes to the man behind her, hissing something that he couldn’t hear.

A spitfire, he thought. She didn’t like being manhandled, that was certain.

Suddenly, they were out of the shadows and before him. The light from the low hanging ceiling candelabra illuminated their faces clearly.

His eyes widened as he stared at the woman.

She was bonnie. So beautiful, that even her dirty and torn gown and the smears of mud on her face couldn’t hope to diminish it.

His eyes trailed over her, taking in every inch, from the top of her head to the tip of her toes. She had long, curly dark hair, which was wringing wet; the rain had almost turned it into ringlets.

She was of goodly height, neither petite nor overly tall. The rain had soaked her kirtle, too, making it cling to her figure so that he could clearly see her curves. An ample bosom, small waist, and womanly hips. With difficulty, he tore his eyes away from her form, concentrating on her face.

Beautiful, he thought, in wonder. She had a pale, unblemished complexion, wide-sweeping cheekbones, and large amber eyes, which she turned upwards towards him, now, fixing them on him so that they flashed like rare gems in the candlelight.

“You are the Laird?” she said in a cut-glass English accent.

He suppressed the surprise that reared up in his chest at hearing her speak. What was an English woman – no, an English lady – doing here, bedraggled, soaking wet, and looking like she was so tired she might keel over at any given moment?

He bowed slightly. “I am, good lady. Domhnall MacBeathag, the Laird of Greum Dubh. Ye have come to Coirecrag castle…”

Her large amber eyes widened dramatically at his words. “You are the Laird of Greum Dubh? I am at Coirecrag castle? But that is…. wonderful!” Her face was suddenly illuminated with joy, chasing away her weariness. “You are expecting me! I am Roseann Gibson, the tutor…”

“What?” His voice was sharp. “I am sorry to say, lady, that I have never heard yer name before. How do ye even ken that I am seeking a tutor for my brother?”

The joy faded on her face, replaced with uncertainty. “The bards did not inform you that I was coming to take up the position?”

Slowly, he shook his head, mystified. “Are ye speakin’ about Iain and Ailis, the wanderin’ bards, that journey up and down the isle?”

She nodded slowly, biting her lip. “Iain told me about the position, and that they were coming here. He told me that he would tell you that he had found you the tutor at long last, and to expect me within a month. He said that you were having great difficulty with it…”

He sighed deeply. “Iain and Ailis have not been seen on my lands in that time, lady. Perhaps they were waylaid somewhere – it can happen to travelers who are always on the road.”

“Well.” She took a deep breath. “This is rather awkward then! I am so confused that I simply do not know how to proceed.” Her amber eyes suddenly flashed dangerously. “And I am not impressed at all with how your men have treated me and my traveling companion! They bound our wrists, forced us to journey on foot, and even when I told them who I was and where I was going, did not inform me who they were!”

She glared at Fearghas, who was standing impassively, legs apart, his hands behind his back. His dark eyes flickered slightly at her words, but he didn’t respond.

Domhnall stiffened. “My men were only doing what is expected of them. They have no idea who ye are, lady, nor what yer intentions are, ye ken.” He paused. “I only have yer word for who ye are. It is a strange thing indeed, for an English lady to be travelin’ with only a raw lad for companion in the borderlands…”

“Are you accusing me of lying?” she gasped. “Why would I lie? There could be no other reason for me coming here! I thought that you were expecting me!”

“I’ve never heard of ye,” he growled. “Ye could be anyone! I have put the word out that I am searching for a tutor, and for all I know, ye are an English spy who is using it as a cover to get under my roof!”

She flinched, as if he had struck her. He suppressed the urge to comfort her. She looked so vulnerable and so offended. He took a deep breath, fighting it down. He didn’t know this woman from Eve. She was English, traveling with only a youth as a guard in a very well-known dangerous area. It made no sense why a well brought up English lady would be so reckless as to journey in such a manner, especially when she had no guarantee that she had even secured her position at Coirecrag.

His eyes narrowed. No, her story was flimsy, to say the least. There were many holes in it. He couldn’t verify anything she said; the bards that she spoke of had not been seen for quite a while.

He took a deep breath. “Ye shall be my guest at Coirecrag, for the meantime, while I look into what ye say…”

Her amber eyes shone with sudden tears. “Guest? You mean prisoner?”

He sighed deeply. “I shall not throw ye in a dungeon, lady. Ye shall be offered the hospitality of the castle… under guard, of course.”

The tears that had been threatening suddenly spilled down her face, turning her amber eyes almost orange, but she raised her chin, staring at him defiantly.

“I demand that you release me,” she said, her voice high and thready. “I want to go home! I do not want to stay another day in this godforsaken country!”

His face darkened. “Be careful what ye say, lady. This is our country, and we dinnae take insults to it lightly.” He took a deep breath, trying to quell his anger. “I shall send for the servants to clean ye up and see ye settled for the night.” He turned away dismissively. “Take her and her companion into the kitchen and see they are fed, to start with.”

“Aye, Laird,” said Fearghas, grabbing her. “The men could do with some victuals, as well.” He turned to the others. “Now, lads, let’s get us some grub and ale!”

Domhnall watched the men turn to leave. Fearghas pushed the woman forward. A sudden stab of anger tore through him. For some strange reason, he didn’t want to see her manhandled. It was all he could do not to rush forward and punch the man for daring to lay a hand on her.

She is English. She may be an English spy. What does it matter how she is treated?

But somehow, in some strange way, it did matter. It mattered quite a bit.


Chapter Three


Domhnall leaned forward in his chair, staring hard at the two people who were sitting opposite him. He had waylaid them as soon as he had seen them walking through the castle gates.

Iain and Ailis, the wandering bards. They appeared tired; he had sent for ale and bread so that they could sup, while he questioned them.

“A long journey, then?” he asked, filling their mugs himself. He didn’t want any of the servants in here, listening, so that the kitchen was filled with any more gossip.

Iain accepted the mug gratefully. “Aye, it was, Laird. We have come all the way from lands near Glasgow…”

“An unexpected opportunity,” piped up Ailis, smiling, as she sipped her ale. “We wouldnae have gone there, expect we heard that the Laird was needing storytellers for a large group he was entertainin’…”

Domhnall nodded. “Aye, ye cannot stare down opportunity!” He took a long sip of his own ale, carefully placing the mug down on the table. “Ye are always welcome back at Coirecrag, as ye well ken. But I must confess there is another reason I am waylaying ye both.”

The two bards gazed at him expectantly, nodding.

Domhnall took a deep breath. “I have a visitor,” he said carefully. “An unexpected visitor, who claims acquaintance with ye both. An English lady. Her name is Roseann Gibson, and she claims to be from an estate just over the English border, near Berwick.”

Iain and Ailis both looked astonished. The woman turned to Iain quickly, glaring at him.

“I told ye!” she hissed. “But ye wouldnae listen to me! I told ye that we should have come straight here, as ye told her we would!”

Iain looked a little shamefaced. “How was I to ken she would act on her rash plan? She is a lady! I thought she would forget all about it…”

Domhnall leaned forward, feeling his heartbeat quicken slightly.

“Ye ken the lady?” he asked quietly. “Ye ken why she has journeyed here?”

Iain slowly nodded, his face flushed. “We do, Laird. I dinnae ken her well, but we performed at her house, well on a month ago.” He took a deep breath. “We told the household where we hailed from, and how the Laird was searchin’ far and wide for a tutor for his brother…”

Domhnall nodded. “And she wanted to take up the position?”

“She did.” Iain shook his head. “It shocked me when she said so. A grand English lady! But when Ailis and I talked about it afterwards, we understood why she was so desperate.” He paused. “The house is going to rack and ruin, Laird. The servants told us the family are in trouble in some way. They have been selling off portions of their land and possessions. It was the lure of the great coin ye are offerin’ that made the lady think that she could help her family.”

Domhnall’s lips thinned. Roseann Gibson had not told him that when he had questioned her. Not the first time nor the second. All that she had said was where she was from and that she had journeyed in good faith to take up the position of tutor in his household.

He sighed. It was three days since she had so unexpectedly landed on his doorstep. Three days, in which he had avoided her as much as he could, except when he questioned her. Somehow, he instinctively knew that if he spent too much time in her company, he would start to soften towards her. He knew the power of a beautiful woman, and he felt hers surrounding her like an aura. Almost like a halo.

He couldn’t afford to soften towards her. He had his duty towards all his people. She might be a snake in the garden—a bonnie snake, but a snake, nonetheless.

“So, her family are in trouble?” he asked slowly. “Real trouble?”

Iain nodded. “Aye, it seems that way, Laird. They are in danger of losin’ their grand house and all their lands.”

“Why?” he asked. “Is her faither a dobber?”

Iain shook his head. “Lord Croilton is no fool, Laird. He is a pleasant man, and he obviously loves his family. He loves his daughter. He educated her above and beyond what any lady could expect.”

“She is learned, then?” Domhnall sounded dubious. “The English usually dinnae let their ladies do anything besides needlework and tapestry!”

“Aye, Laird,” said Ailis. “The servants told me she ken Latin, astrology, philosophy…and she is a skilled musician on the harp. Ye wouldnae ken it from looking at her, would ye?”

Domhnall shook his head, pondering this remarkable woman. An English lady who was learned, as well as beautiful. A woman who was so desperate to save her home that she had set out on a dangerous journey with only a callow youth as guard across the borderlands, to come to a place she had never seen, and take up a position she didn’t even know was hers.

He let out a silent breath. Roseann Gibson was no English spy. Roseann Gibson was exactly who she had always claimed to be.

And he had treated her like a prisoner. A well-tended prisoner, who had the run of the castle, but a prisoner, nonetheless.

No wonder she always glared at him with a wounded look in those amazing amber eyes. But how was he to know? He reassured himself he had followed the proper procedure to protect his home and his people.

He felt his heart beat faster still. He still needed a tutor. In all the surprise of her arrival, he had never journeyed to see the old man on the coast, who he had been convinced would take the job. Cormac still needed someone to fill his mind with wisdom, so he could one day be a great Laird, if that was his destiny.

He stood up quickly. “Welcome home, wanderers, and thank ye for yer honesty. I will leave ye to rest now.” He paused. “I have something that I must do before it is too late.”

***

Roseann walked slowly down the darkened corridor towards the narrow, winding staircase that would lead her back to the chambers that she had been staying in ever since she had arrived at Coirecrag castle.

With a sigh, she glanced behind at the guard, who was her shadow. A tall, bulky man named MacCain, who watched her like a hawk as she aimlessly wandered the hallways and courtyard of this castle. The only place that he didn’t follow her was the privy, and he stood outside when she was bathing, at least.

Thank the Lord for small mercies.

It had been three days since she had come here. Three days, in which she had barely seen the Laird, Domhnall MacBeathag, since the night he had so unfairly accused her of being an English spy. He had questioned her twice since, but only briefly. She couldn’t help but notice he seemed desperate to get out of her company, leaving as quickly as he could.

Her lip curled slightly. What does he think I am going to do? Lunge at him across the room, brandishing a hidden dagger, and kill him?

She felt her neck stain with sudden heat, traveling upwards until her face was fully flushed. He was a barbarian.  She had thought that she was journeying to the home of a cultured, civilized man, but he was just a coarse Scottish Laird… albeit a very handsome one.

As she climbed the narrow stairwell, she thought about him. She had known immediately that he was the Laird, as soon as they had entered the room, on that first night. Domhnall MacBeathag had a presence about him. It wasn’t just his commanding height nor his arresting deep red hair, which fell in waves to his shoulders. His dark green eyes, the color of moss, had almost pinned her to the spot as he questioned her, demanding that she answer him.

She hesitated when she reached the top of the stairs, loitering there. She didn’t really want to return to her chambers and spend the afternoon alone, the hours stretched ahead of her, with nothing to fill them. She had no occupation here, not even some needlework, to focus her mind. She was so restless and bored; it was driving her mad.

She gazed back down the stairwell. She couldn’t go back down there – she had already spent over an hour wandering the grounds, as the castle folk stared at her suspiciously. She had wandered the outer courtyard, where pigs and horses grazed, and past the stables, bakehouse, and brewery. When she had neared the small stone chapel, she had knelt a while, praying before a large statue of the Virgin Mary.

My Lady, Mother of God. Please help me find a way back to my home. Please, do not let me remain a prisoner in this strange place in a strange land.

But the Mother of God hadn’t answered her. The statue had merely stood there, as it always did. Eventually, she had left the chapel and tried to ignore the tears that were always threatening.

I have to be strong. I have to show them that they will not break me.

Roseann turned, now, staring down a long corridor that led in a different direction to her chambers. She hadn’t gone down that way before, and it would at least kill some time.

She set off, determined to explore the hall, her eyes flickering to the rich tapestries which lined the walls. Coirecrag was dripping in wealth; she had carefully noted the fineness of the furniture and ornaments. This part of Scotland was doing well, she thought. Or was it that the Lairds who had always ruled Greum Dubh were careful, intelligent men?

She kept walking, contemplating it. It wasn’t just the richness of the castle; the food here was splendid, too. She had glanced into the well-stocked kitchens and seen the staff preparing all manner of food. There was game like venison but also duck, goose, and pheasant. She had even seen salmon, pike, and herring. It was a far cry from the kitchens at Loughton Hall, where Ellen, their one remaining cook, tried desperately to make the cheapest cuts of meat edible.

Her eyes narrowed. No, it is just luck that this castle is so rich, rather than good management. The Laird is a barbarian.

She bit her lip. He must be to keep her prisoner like this, mustn’t he?

She stopped suddenly, causing her constant shadow MacCain to almost collide with her. She stepped back absently, barely noticing him. She had heard laughter in the distance—the laughter of a child.

She pressed on, determined to reach the entrance to a room.  A boy of about twelve years was sitting at a desk, glaring at a chessboard, which was laid out in front of him, the pieces ready and waiting.

“Mairead!” he hollered. “I have set up the board! I am waiting!”

Roseann smiled. The boy was obviously eager to start his game, almost fidgeting in his chair, but whoever he was calling for didn’t answer. Suddenly, he spotted her, turning his head quickly, his blue eyes flickering in surprise.

“Who are ye?” he asked directly.

Roseann’s smile widened. “My name is Roseann Gibson. Who are you?”

The boy’s mouth fell open. “How cannae ye not ken who I am? And why do ye speak with an English accent?”

Roseann stepped into the room. “Well, I am English, so that is why I talk the way I do.” She studied him carefully. “I think that I do know who you are. Are you Cormac MacBeathag? The younger brother of the Laird?”

He grinned, standing up. Roseann was surprised at how tall he was for his age, but then, she knew that boys often went through a sudden growth spurt. Her own brother Nicholas had grown out of his clothes in only one year at that age; her mother had laughingly said she would have to put an iron on his head to arrest his growth, or else he would send them to rack and ruin, with all the new clothes they constantly had to make for him.

This boy was tall and lanky, with long gangly legs, reminding her of a colt. He also had spiky red hair that grew in all directions, a smattering of freckles across his nose, and a very direct gaze.

“Aye, I am Cormac,” he said, studying her openly. “Ye are bonnie! Are ye visiting my brother?”

Roseann suppressed a smile. This boy obviously had no idea who she was, which was surprising. She would have thought that gossip about her would have spread to him.

“Thank you, Cormac,” she said. “Yes, I am visiting…for a little while.” It was kind of the truth, wasn’t it?

He kept studying her. “Do ye play chess?” he asked suddenly. “I am waiting for Mairead, but she has forgotten all about it, and I am so bored I am ready to throw myself out the window!”

Roseann laughed. “I play, but are you ready to lose?”

He looked stunned, almost affronted. “I play chess very well! Sit down, and I will show ye just how well I do.”

Roseann laughed harder. “Very well, then. Let us play!”

She walked over, sitting down at the table, opposite where he had just been sitting. The boy grinned again, sitting down, already staring at the board, absorbed in the contemplation of his first move.

***

Domhnall climbed the narrow stairwell leading to the chambers that he had given to the English lady. He had searched for her around the courtyard, but after questioning various people, he had realized she wasn’t walking the castle.

“I saw her leave the chapel,” a kitchen hand had said, scratching his head. “But not where she went after that, Laird.”

He took a deep breath as he approached the chamber door, feeling his heart start to beat faster. For some strange reason, he felt almost nervous about speaking to her.

I will have to eat humble pie. She will not let me get away with it easily, that I thought her an English spy and kept her a prisoner in the castle.

He knocked on the chamber door. There was no answer, nor could he hear the thud of approaching footsteps. He slowly turned the door handle and entered the room.

She wasn’t in there. He cast his eyes around the space automatically. Three gowns were hanging on a hook in the corner, freshly pressed; they must be the ones he had ordered be brought to her. She had claimed that she had lost her own clothing trunk during her skirmish with the English soldiers before his own men had waylaid her.

He studied the gowns intently. They were simple, the type that a kitchen maid might wear; he knew that she would be used to far grander ones. The gown she had been wearing the night that she had arrived had been of a rich material and design, even though it had been ripped and muddied in her travels.

His heart beat a little faster as he walked towards the gowns. He lifted a sleeve of one, picturing her inside it. As simple as it was, it would show off a woman’s body. Her body.

He dropped the gown as if it had burned him. What was he doing, mooning over a woman’s dress, like a lusty lad? He was distracting himself. If she wasn’t in here, and nowhere else in the castle, where on earth was she?

He strode out of the room. He had told MacCain not to take his eyes off her, and yet she was now missing… his heart clenched. There was simply no way that she could have escaped the castle, was there? He had guards everywhere, apart from the fact MacCain was her shadow.

Where was she?

He stopped abruptly, straining his ears. He could hear voices, talking and laughing, down the next hallway. The hallway that led to his younger brother Cormac’s chambers. A woman’s voice, as well as the boy’s. He could tell by the tone that the feminine voice didn’t belong to Mairead.

He strode quickly down the hallway; his heart was thumping harder. When he got to the doorway, he stopped abruptly again, taking in the scene.

Cormac was sitting at his small desk; his head bent over his chessboard. And sitting opposite him, her hand poised to pick up one of Cormac’s bishops was Roseann Gibson.

Her face was flushed with laughter, and as she moved forward towards the board, her long, curly dark hair shimmied down her back, like skeins of silk. His eyes flickered around the room. MacCain was sitting in an armchair opposite, peeling an apple with a small knife.

Suddenly, Roseann saw him. She stood up so quickly that she knocked the chessboard. The pieces tumbled to the ground, scattering everywhere.

“Lady,” he said slowly, gazing at her. “I am sorry I have disturbed yer game…”

She didn’t answer, nor did she smile. She just kept staring at him, a little fearfully. His chest tightened. It would take some work to earn her trust, after how he had treated her. And yet, she had been playing chess with his little brother, obviously enjoying herself, despite the dire circumstances that she found herself in.

One thought popped into his head. She is a rare woman.

He took a deep breath. “Lady, I need to speak with ye.” He hesitated, staring at Cormac, who was watching the exchange with wide, confused eyes. “Privately, if ye will. Will ye follow me to my study, where we can speak freely?”

She looked rebellious, and for a moment, he thought that she would refuse him outright. But then, she sighed, tossing her long, thick mane of dark hair over one shoulder.

She curtseyed, a touch mockingly. “Laird. If you lead the way, I will follow.”

He turned, his face burning. Why did he suddenly feel like the lady had turned the tables, well and truly?

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