Pledged to the Highlander’s Heart Preview

A Historical Scottish Romance Novel

About the book

It is both a blessing and a curse when you love someone to death…

Mary Webster’s work at the orphanage is one of the most fulfilling ones she has ever done. She loves the children, and hates that the founder obviously doesn’t care for them, as he has stopped sending them money. So, she writes him a very scathing letter…

Laird Eugene O’Donnell lost his brother at a young age. Without his parents or his family to support him, he had to try hard to earn his reputation. He founded an orphanage, to honor his lost brother, but someone has sabotaged it well…

She thinks he is insufferable, and he thinks she is lying about the money. But the children bring them together, and Mary realizes Eugene is not the enemy, but the love of her life. When the ghosts of his past awaken, Eugene learns the hard way that nobody is really dead until you kill them…


Chapter One


MacCallum Castle, Cawdor, Scotland


“Who wrote this?” Eugene pushed away from his writing desk and stood to his feet. The chair clattered down to the floor, making the young man on the opposite side of the room flinch in alarm. Eugene almost crumpled the letter between his long fingers, feeling the flimsy paper bend beneath his muscle.

How dare some lass write such a thing to me?

He felt the darkness in the room swell within him, making his chest puff out larger. It usually made others around him cower, if his title wasn’t enough to do that already.

His leather boots struck the floorboards of the castle room repeatedly as he paced across it, back and forth, scarcely able to believe the letter he was reading. “Ye are certain about this?” He snapped his eyes up to the footman who had delivered it.

The young man stood fidgeting in the doorway, holding the old oak door open with one foot as he wrung his hands nervously.

“Aye, me Laird,” the lad said, nodding as he spoke. “It came straight from the orphanage in Inverness. This very mornin’. Will there be a reply?”

“Nae yet. Go, please,” Eugene asked, begging to be in peace. The lad bowed and hurried off, letting the door close behind him.

Unable to understand the anger in the letter, he paced back behind the desk, turning to face the window. Peering out beyond glass that was latticed with lead, Eugene looked out to the land of his clan.

Even from his position, he could see the town of Cawdor beside the castle was becoming prosperous, with more houses built every month, and the merchants’ markets growing on such a scale that they brought wondrous things with them to trade that made the townspeople’s eyebrows raise. Items such as tobacco, and pungent spices known as turmeric, more golden than the sun.

“Everywhere is doin’ well. That is why this makes nay sense,” Eugene said to himself, unable to keep the fury out of his voice.

When he had become Laird, investing in the towns was not the only thing he did. He also set up an orphanage in Inverness, designed to help those children who had lost their parents to the rebellions or any other tragedy that may have befallen them. He sent considerable sums every week to the orphanage.

Aye, so why would someone send this letter?

He snapped the letter up again, bending back the cheap paper and broken wax seal to read the words.

‘To Laird Eugene O’Donnell, of the MacCallum Clan,

I suppose most letters that arrive on your doorstep open with flattering you. Perhaps your usual correspondents will say something designed to improve their own position by praising you excessively, but forgive me, I cannot waste time on such nonsense, especially when I have no flattery to offer.

The O’Donnell Orphanage in Inverness is suffering because of your lack of care. I can only presume you live under a misapprehension, that a group of thirty children can live off dust and dregs of water. I beg of you, my Laird, for whatever reason you have cut the funds to the orphanage, undo this tragic error.

I have to watch these poor children suffer every day. I have to watch the pain in their faces as they ask me for something to eat, when I have nothing to give them in return.

I do not suppose the Laird of a Clan has much time for worrying about a place as small as ours. I imagine we are but a blot on one of the great maps and charts in your study, but that blot covers people’s lives. These children’s lives!

I appeal to you, in fact, I implore you on my knees to help these children. Pray, send a man of yours if you doubt me. Send someone who can report to you loyally, for anyone who comes to visit us here will see the state that we are living in.

Yours etcetera,

Miss Mary Webster.

“Who would dare write such a thing to me! They would cross me in such a way?” Eugene muttered, then lowered the letter again. “This must have been written by some bampot who has little to do with the accounts. What can they ken about it?”

Yet even as Eugene finished his spiel, with the fury still burning in his stomach, doubts began to creep in. He could not deny that the letter was written in such a way that it suggested the writer was well educated, and clearly no fool at all.

The turn of phrases suggested an English lady had written it. There was something of confidence in the words too, for she had been right. Whenever Eugene received a letter, it opened and closed with false flowery or flattering language, from people who merely wished to ingratiate themselves with a Laird. Miss Mary Webster had not bothered with such nonsense. She was willing to risk the wrath of a Laird to make her point.

“Brave indeed,” Eugene said as he lowered the letter another time, looking out to the town beyond the windows.

Whatever the case, he could not let this matter lie. For one thing, this letter deserved a reply, especially when it was so ill founded.

Eugene spun round in his room, tossing the letter onto his desk waywardly, and began searching through the bound parchments of his accounts, looking for one in particular.

“Alpin!” Eugene called his steward’s name as his hands grew more and more frantic, searching desperately for the right accounts. “Alpin?” he called again.

A few seconds later, there were harried footsteps, and the steward appeared in the doorway, pushing open the heavy oak door and stepping over the threshold.

“What is happenin’, me Laird?” the steward asked, watching open-mouthed as Eugene scattered paperwork.

“I need to send someone to the orphanage at Inverness.”

“As ye wish, me Laird, who?” the steward said. He dropped to his knees and began to pick up the parchments, scurrying to collect them as quickly as possible.

Eugene paused as he found what he was looking for, peeling back the bound covers to see the accounts of what he sent to the orphanage every month.

It hardly took long to add up what he had been sending this last year alone. It was an obscene amount! Enough to care for a grand household. Purchasing food for thirty children should hardly be problematic.

“She must be tryin’ to wheedle more money out of me,” Eugene mumbled, tightening his fingers in anger, so much so that the knuckles of his large hands turned white.

“What was that?” Alpin said, standing to his feet as he placed some of the errant papers on the desk.

“On second thoughts, I have a better idea…” Eugene said, looking up from the accounts. “I will go to visit the orphanage in Inverness.”

“Ye? But…me Laird, it is such a busy time,” the steward said, his manner abruptly frantic. “What of our council meetin’s? The farmin’ tenants review is next week too, and the tournament begins on Monday. All yer soldiers fightin’ in competition.”

“They will be glad of the delay to train more,” Eugene said, waving his hand away. “The council doesnae have anythin’ serious to discuss, and ye and I both ken ye can do the farmin’ tenants review. Ye ken more about them than I do,” he said, watching as the steward looked bashful, his pale skin blushing with the praise. “I trust ye to handle the matter whilst I am away.”

“Very well, me Laird, how long will ye be gone?” the steward asked.

Eugene hesitated before answering, picking up the loose letter he had discarded on the desk with thought. He passed a finger over the signature at the bottom.

Miss Mary Webster.

Who was she? Why was she trying to get more money out of him? The account books showed the headmaster of the orphanage was Mr. Vincent Morrison, so she certainly did not have much power.

“I should think it will only take a day or two to resolve the matter,” Eugene said decisively as he lifted his chin away from the letter. “I need to tell them they willnae be gettin’ any more money out of me.”

***

“Mary? Is there any bread left?”

“Well…” Mary paused before saying any more. She was standing in the kitchen of the orphanage, searching in the cupboards with desperate eyes. When the first cupboard she opened was empty, she pulled out a rickety chair and stood on the seat, praying it wouldn’t collapse beneath her weight, then used her greater height to open more cupboards in the kitchen.

“That was an ominous sound,” Theodora said behind her.

Mary groaned in emphasis as she looked back at Theodora. For the size of the orphanage, the kitchen was an ample space, but it lacked anything to stock it. Behind Theodora was a great stone hearth where they usually did their cooking. In front of her, was a deep mahogany table that they used as a worktop. Above their heads, herbs were hung from the ceiling, drying off. At the far end on similar iron hooks, there were two pheasants that needed plucking.

Pheasants that had been caught by less than honorable means by their other worker, Peter, not that Mary was complaining. It could well be the only meat these children ate for a week.

“Anything, sister?” Theodora asked with hope. Mary had to look away from Theodora’s pleading green eyes. That shade of green was a trait they shared, though at this moment there was such hope in her sister’s eyes, that Mary couldn’t face to see it any longer.

She looked in the last of the cupboards, where she found one small cob of bread.

“Ah! Perhaps there is something…” She reached for the cob and took it down, finding it heavy between her fingers. “Wait.” She turned on the chair until she was facing her sister then tapped her knuckles against the bread. The dull hollow sound it made through the kitchen prompted Theodora to grimace. “As stale and as hard as these old brick walls.”

Mary jumped down off the chair and tossed the bread onto the mahogany table. They both winced at the hollowed-out sound.

“This is becoming unbearable,” Theodora said, placing her palms over her cheeks and hanging her head. “Young Tommie is complaining of stomachache now. I cannot watch these children starve, Mary.”

“I know, neither can I,” Mary said, placing her hands on her hips and hanging her head forward too. Theodora was close to tears, but Mary refused to allow herself to cry. She would cry alone, away from everyone’s eyes, when she was locked in her room at night. For the moment, she had to keep herself together and show strength.

I always must. For Theodora’s sake, and for the children.

The door to the kitchen creaked open, and both sisters turned their heads to see two of the children poking their heads through the open door. They had been playing in the garden and had mud stains on their clothes.

“Miss Mary?” the elder called, resting his chin on the head of his younger brother.

“Laurie, Jacob,” Mary said, affecting a big smile. “How is the garden? Have you caught those butterflies yet?”

“Look!” Jacob said, running into the kitchen and holding out his palms.

“Oh my,” Mary said, giggling as she looked down at his muddied palm. There were a handful of small caterpillars sat between the grains of his palms. “Well done, you found baby butterflies.”

“Baby butterflies?” Jacob repeated with a frown that screwed up his nose. “Nay, what does that mean?”

“It means,” Mary said, sinking down onto her knees as Laurie came to join his brother, so she could talk to them on their level. “That if we put these little caterpillars back where you found them, then someday soon, they will turn into beautiful butterflies.”

“They daenae look bonnie right now,” Laurie said shaking his head until his fair hair shook around his ears. “They look ugly.”

“I suppose they do,” Mary said with a giggle.

“Can we eat them?” Jacob asked.

“No!” Mary and Theodora said at the same time. “No, dearest,” Mary said, adopting a calmer tone when the boys flinched. “It’s best that we let these caterpillars go. I’ll find you something to eat.” She patted Jacob’s head as she stood to her feet and turned to Theodora with a silent pleading gaze. Her sister nodded, knowing full well what she was soundlessly asking.

“Come on, boys,” Theodora said with a cheerful tone she put on. She sniffed one last time, pushing away her want to cry, as she came forward to take the boys’ hands. “Let’s go put these caterpillars back, then we’ll find the others and have some breakfast.”

As the door closed behind them, leaving Mary in silence, she spun round, staring at the empty shelves.

“Breakfast? What breakfast will that be?” she asked herself angrily. The pheasants weren’t yet prepared, so that was not an option. She plodded around the room, feeling that anger growing with every step she took.

It had been three days since she sent a letter to Laird O’Donnell, asking why he had cut their funding. She’d written it in a rage, and most certainly regretted the words she had chosen, but she couldn’t help feeling even angrier now that her hasty letter hadn’t produced a single result.

Does that Laird not have a heart? Is he happy to see us all starve?

She turned to a cupboarded pantry and pulled back the doors, peering inside. With a sigh of relief, she found something they could eat. Under a muslin cloth, there were small white Bannock cakes. They were getting a little crusty, but they were perfectly edible.

She began to break up the cakes into smaller pieces, spreading them out across the thirty pewter plates they had. Then she separated the larger parts between three other plates, designed for her, Theodora, and Peter to use. Yet…it did not look right.

Mary bit her lip seeing how little some of the children had and quickly made a decision. She pulled the Bannock cake off her own plate and tore it up to share between the children instead.

Another day without breakfast. You would think I would be used to the idea.

Yet her stomach groaned in complaint regardless.

“Miss Mary?” a voice made Mary spin round, to see Peter standing in the open door. “Daenae tell me ye arenae havin’ breakfast again.” With black hair and an aquiline nose, he was a striking figure. When he had a severe expression, Mary thought he could be a little too stern, yet Theodora’s presence always seemed to soften that expression.

Not that Theodora has noticed his attentions to her.

“I have no choice, Peter,” Mary said, picking up her plate and putting it away on the far side of the kitchen.

“But, Miss Mary –”

“Could you get the children to come in please to collect their breakfast?” she asked kindly. It was plain he knew full well what she was doing, trying to push on and forget the conversation. He smiled a little and nodded.

“Aye, of course. I will fetch them now. Later today I need to go into the market,” he said, gesturing to the empty cupboards.

“Thank you,” Mary said and reached into the pocket of her belted arisaid, pulling out the few coins that Mr. Morrison had given her the day before. “Here, take this.” She passed the coins into Peter’s hands.

“Och,” he mumbled as he counted out the little change. “It’s gettin’ worse, Miss Mary.”

“I know.”

They shared a sad sort of smile. As Peter turned to fetch the children, Mary looked away, catching her reflection that was warped and morphed by a copper cooking bowl placed high on a shelf.

Those green eyes wouldn’t settle today, constantly looking back and forth, but it was the brown curly hair that showed in particular the wildness of her mind, for the hair was just as unkempt and unbidden as she felt. The brown locks fell in a mass of curls, escaping from its updo so that there were lots of loose tendrils around her shoulders. She pushed some of the curls back behind her ears, wishing she could take control of that wildness. Yet she couldn’t, it was as out of control as her situation seemed to be.

A bell rang elsewhere in the orphanage.

Who could that be?

Mary hurried out of the kitchen and down the long corridor toward the door. Usually when the bell rang, it was Mr. Morrison coming back from his trips, but he wasn’t due back yet. As she pulled back the slatted front door, she found a stranger standing on the front step.

He was looking intently at the building, with his chin turned upwards. Long black hair fell past his chin, framing a handsome face. The hair Mary longed to run a hand through, playing with the tendrils. There were high cheek bones, a long nose, and a strong jawline. It was the height that took Mary by surprise the most. Tall and athletic, with his arms clothed beneath a tight shirt, and his torso wrapped in a waistcoat with plaid thrown over his shoulder, he cut a dashing figure. The broad shoulders too took her gaze, letting her eyes dance along them for a few minutes. She could rather imagine dancing with such a man, clinging onto those shoulders.

The more Mary looked, the more breathless she became, startled to see that handsome face. As his eyes slipped down to Mary’s, she felt a jolt in her stomach. It wasn’t a jolt she had felt before. She shifted on her feet, realizing what the feeling was.

Attraction… Then she shook off the thought, knowing she hardly had time in her life to deal with such a feeling.

“Who are you?” she asked instead.

 


Chapter Two


“Aye, and a good day to ye too,” Eugene said, crossing his arms over his chest. His tart words seemed to startle the young lady before him, who widened her eyes. They were amazingly green, looking at him with wonder.

“Good day,” she said hurriedly, then matched his stance, folding her arms too. The way in which she copied him, lifting her chin just as high tempted him to smile.

Aye, there is spirit here… He rather liked it. Neither of them said anything for a minute, they both merely stared at one another.

Eugene was finding it incredibly difficult to tear his eyes away and order his mind, for he was somewhat blindsided. The lady before him had plum-tinged brown hair, with an almost deep purple hue in the strong sunlight of the day. The hair was mad, falling out of its updo in corkscrew curls. Eugene had a flash in his mind, this idea of running his fingers through those curls, and wrapping the tendrils around his palm.

“We do not get strangers here, Sir,” her words brought him out of his daze. He stood a little straighter, paying attention to her words. “If you are here to see Mr. Morrison, I am afraid he is away and is not due back until tomorrow.” She reached for the door, about to close it on him.

He smiled at the audacity – she was about to close a door on a Laird, and she had no idea!

“I am nae here to see Mr. Morrison,” he said, lifting his voice. The strength in his voice made her whip her head back round to look at him. He paused again, still staring at her. He couldn’t deny she was beautiful, with soft cheeks, a slender neck and green eyes so bold that they could have been painted by an artist. That beauty was not helping things. “I am here to see Miss Mary Webster.”

The corner of her lips tilted up a little. Eugene found his eyes darting down to that movement and lingering on those lips for a while. He felt something carnal stirring inside of him, urging him to take a step toward her.

As Laird, he had hardly been without ladies by his side, and some had even tempted him enough to spend a night or two with them, but he’d never had this immediate attraction before. He did not believe in love at first sight, but whatever this was…it was strong indeed.

Aye, it must be lust, of a different kind.

“Then you have found her,” she said, her English accent ringing strong.

Eugene’s lips parted in amazement. When he had read her letter, he had assumed she would be some old spinster, who had nothing better to do than try and trick him out of more money. He hardly thought she would be a young woman! Least of all a young beauty who had clear signs of being a hard worker, with her blouse sleeves beneath her arisaid rolled up to her elbows, and a dryness to her hands.

“Ye are Miss Mary Webster?” he said in amazement, shaking his head.

“You doubt me?” she asked, lifting a solitary eyebrow.

“Ye are bold indeed, Miss Webster,” he said, trying to hide his smile though it did little use. “Most daenae speak so in front of me.”

“Ha! My apologies,” she said, in clear playfulness. “Are you a man that is used to having people curtsy to ye? I would curtsy, but my legs are sore from work.” Her mischief made him smile all the more. “You still have not told me who you are, Sir?”

“Ye sent a letter askin’ for help,” he said.

“Ah, then you work for the Laird,” she said, stumbling back in surprise and placing a hand to her chest.

“I have shocked ye?” he said, tilting his head to the side. He was intrigued that she hadn’t considered for one second that he could be the Laird.

“From what I have heard of the Laird, he occupies himself with counting out his money more than anything else,” she said offhandedly. Eugene opened his mouth, ready to spurn her, so offended by her comment, but she continued to speak. “I cannot deny I am amazed he sent anyone after all, but credit where it is due. I am glad he sent someone. Come in, Sir.” She pushed the door open wider and turned away. “You can report back to the Laird how these children live.”

He had to hurry to catch up with her. Her heeled shoes clicked along the floorboards that creaked beneath her feet, suggesting an urgency.

He glanced back down the front step before closing the door and blocking out the busy streets of Inverness. He was rather glad he had insisted on his guards taking a break to see their families. Alpin had requested he leave with his usual guard, but Eugene was certain no harm could come to him at an orphanage, so had given them some time off. He was pleased with their absence now, for he did not want to be ogling Miss Webster whilst his guards watched on.

He hurried after her, down the corridor, finding his eyes slipping from the wildness of her hair to the arisaid she was wearing. For an English lady, she seemed to have adopted the Scottish fashion, wearing a gown that was patchworked in places, and belted around her slender waist, showing off the contrast between that waist and the curve of her hips. Eugene practically growled with pleasure at the sight.

What is wrong with me? Ye bampot, are ye nay longer in control of yer mind!?

“I suppose a tour is in order,” Miss Webster said, calling back over her shoulder toward him. “We’ll leave the kitchen to last as the children are currently having their breakfast.”

“Aye, I see ye can afford food then. Yer letter suggested ye couldnae.” He couldn’t hold back the harshness of his tone, for he was incredibly confused, feeling this mutual attraction to her and this fury. Why was she trying to dupe him out of more money?

At the sharpness in his voice, Miss Webster abruptly stopped walking, so much so that he nearly collided with her back. The result was he had to put a hand to her back, stopping the collision. She jumped away, as if he had burned her with that touch. She didn’t say anything at first, though she glanced down at his hand and back up to his face, her cheeks blushing.

Ah…ye arenae immune to me either, I can see. He had seen enough ladies flutter around him to know when someone was attracted. That blush was the first sign.

“Do stale Bannock cakes count as a good breakfast to your mind, Sir?” she asked, lifting her chin higher. “Let me show you how much they are eating, but we’ll be quiet so they do not know we are here.”

She turned in the corridor and urged him toward a door, opening it just a gap so that Eugene could peer through. His eyes danced across the room, startled to see that the children didn’t even have a whole cake to themselves. They were torn up into pieces and spread amongst them. He stepped back, allowing her to close the door again.

Eugene froze, staring at her expression. She didn’t seem to be lying to him. There was passion and honesty in that voice.

Somethin’ is nae right here.

“I see you are not convinced,” she scoffed at his reaction.

“I just daenae understand,” he said, running a hand through his dark hair in stress. He paused when he saw the way her eyes followed this action, apparently fascinated by the movement. He lowered the hand again, until she looked to his eyes, then he lifted his eyebrows, showing he had noticed exactly what she had done. “Am I distractin’ ye, Miss Webster?”

Her lips parted in amazement. His gaze shot down to those lips. They were pale pink, full too. What he would give to know what a kiss from those lips could feel like.

“I am not distracted, Sir,” she said, so quick that her words were running together. “You said you did not understand something?”

“The Laird sends money here every week.” He rather liked the fact she didn’t yet know who he was and wanted to keep it that way for a little longer yet. He feared when she did know, she would start curtsying and being deferential after all. He didn’t want that; he preferred the way she was now. “How can that money nae be enough?”

“Let me show you,” Miss Webster said, turning away and beckoning him to follow. She pushed through a door to their left first. It stuck halfway, jamming across the floorboards before Miss Webster shoved a shoulder against it, forcing it open.

As he followed her into the room, his feet fell still and his arms fell out of their crossed position, looking around the room in surprise. There was barely any furniture in it at all. It was a spacious room. Eugene had purchased the house himself many years ago when the orphanage was set up, and he could remember it being full of furniture at the time, but it was mostly gone. There was one settee left, a couple of rickety chairs, and an empty fire.

“The windows do not shut,” Miss Webster said, walking across the room and gesturing to the glass. “Fortunately, as it is summer, it is warm here in the evenings, but in the winter, it is unbearable, and as you can see –” she gestured to the empty fire grate and the pail where coal should have been sat beside it “– we cannot afford coal at present.”

“I…” Eugene pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to collect his thoughts as he looked away from Miss Webster. This attraction to her was not helping his logic. In fact, it was clouding his mind. Was it possible she had hidden all of their things to pretend they were a poor household before his arrival?

Nay, that is impossible. I sent nay word that I was comin’.

“Shall we continue on?” she said and pointed to another open doorway. They walked through, with Eugene rushing to follow behind her. “This used to be our dining room.”

“Used to be?” he asked, gesturing to where a table used to be. “Where is the table?” He spun in the middle of the room, amazed at its emptiness.

“We sold it last week,” she said, walking around him. “We needed new shoes for the children.”

“Shoes? A table like that should have afforded many pairs of shoes.”

“We have thirty children, Sir. That is many shoes.” Her words made him flick his head back toward her, realizing how right she was. “This can also be an unpleasant place to eat,” she said, pointing toward a crack in the ceiling and chamber pots that had been placed beneath it on the floor. “It leaks when it is raining.”

Eugene felt his confidence slip away completely. No…none of this was a lie. The house was in disrepair, that was evident enough to see! Yet that didn’t explain what all his money was being used for.

“Shall we see the children’s rooms next?” she said, striding out of the door. He had to practically jog to keep up with her, for she was moving so fast.

“Wait, what role do ye have here, Miss Webster?” he asked, following her up the stairs. The old staircase was a spiral one, built of wood and creaking beneath their feet.

“I came here three years ago to volunteer and help with the children.”

“Ye are English? It is a long distance to come.”

“Sometimes a long distance away is exactly what is needed,” she said, not turning to look back at him on the stairs. The words made him hesitate, curious as to her meaning, before he followed her again. His eyes couldn’t stay high for long. That attraction was unabating. He kept glancing down at the curves visible through her arisaid skirt. When they reached the top of the staircase and she turned round, his gaze slipped to the small hint of cleavage visible in the opening of her blouse. “Ah-em…”

Her sound made him snap his gaze up to see her widened eyes.

“Am I distracting you, Sir?” she said with a small smile, repeating the exact same words he had said to her earlier.

“Ye have nay idea how much.” He confessed, watching as her lips parted.

“Then focus, Sir, on the matter at hand.” Her wit pulled a laugh from him as she turned away and wandered down the hallway. “You’ll see the cracks in the walls here,” she gestured to some cracking, then she pushed open a door to a room.

Eugene stepped in first, feeling his mouth go dry at the squalid sight before him.

“M-Miss Webster…” he stammered, hating what he was seeing. “How many children sleep in this room?”

“Four,” she said softly. “The room next door has mold. It is not safe for them to sleep there anymore.”

Eugene nodded wordlessly as he looked around. The bedding was old, though perfectly clean and clearly well cared for. What shocked him was how closely together the beds were pushed in order to get enough into the small space. There were toys in the middle of the floorboards too, but they were hardly in the best of conditions.

There was a small ornate horse on wheels, but one of the legs was missing. There was a tiny marionette theatre too, though the puppet strings were broken, and the colors were faded.

“How long has it been in this state?” Eugene asked, feeling the world slip away beneath him. He had set up this orphanage for a very particular reason, to right the wrongs that some of his own childhood suffered, to give children the love that they deserved, yet these children were suffering something Eugene had never faced himself. Poverty.

“It has grown steadily worse this last year,” Miss Webster said, moving to his side. “There are rumors that your Laird prefers to spend money on things like tournaments and banquets instead.”

“Ye are wrong,” Eugene said, surprised by the vehemency in his own voice, though he flinched a little at the accusation. He had a tournament this next week set to begin, but it was hardly the point of his being.

“Am I?” Miss Webster asked, gesturing around the room with an open hand. “Take another look and tell me that again.” She walked out of the room, and Eugene went to follow her, panicked by the whole situation.

“Miss Webster, wait,” he called to her, ready to tell her who he really was.

“You can tell your Laird what you see here, Sir –”

“There’s somethin’ ye must ken first.”

“What is that?” She spun back around and placed a hand on the banister rail above the stairs. The crack of the wood was heard by them both, though Miss Webster had already leaned too much on it to stop herself from falling. The banister fell away as she began to topple over.

Eugene darted toward her, taking one of her arms and looping his other arm around her waist, pulling her back from the edge and rearing away. The wood of the broken banister clattered far beneath them on the ground floor, as Miss Webster fell against him.

Eugene was all too aware of the curves pressed against his chest. Her slender palms were resting on his waistcoat, her cheeks reddening as she looked up, panting breathlessly at the near miss. With each breath she took, the top of her chest rose and fell, tempting him with the press of her cleavage against him.

“I…” She struggled to say, glancing back behind her at the broken banister, then looking to him. She was so close that he could have leaned down  and stolen one of those kisses he had been thinking of from her pale pink lips. “Thank you,” she said softly. “That could have been…”

“Daenae dwell on the thought,” he assured her, thinking just how horrible it could have been if one of the children had leaned on that spot. There could have been an awful accident!

He clutched all the tighter at Miss Webster, keeping her close against him.

“You should probably let me go now, Sir,” she whispered, though she made no move to step out of his arm. She stayed exactly where she was, with her hands resting on his chest.

“As ye wish,” he whispered back, yet neither of them moved. He glanced down to her lips, just as she did his. The heat was like nothing Eugene had felt before, creeping up his neck and along his arms, urging him to bring her that bit closer. Then she moved.

He loosened his arm, allowing her to step out from him.

“I’ll need to get that fixed,” she said distractedly, looking at the banister.

“I will sort it,” he said with confidence.

“You will?” she said, looking back to him with clear surprise.

“It is me responsibility to do so,” he said, turning and walking back across the landing.

“Yours?” she asked. “The Laird has given you that responsibility, has he?”

“He dinnae need to,” he said, hesitating at the top of the stairs until she turned and looked at him, flicking that plum brown hair around her ears. “I ken what he thinks.”

“How can you?” she said, frowning and scrunching up her small sloping nose.

“Because I am Laird Eugene O’Donnell,” he said, flashing her a smile.



Chapter Three


“I beg your pardon?” Mary said, certain she had heard the stranger before her wrong. She reached out, as though to use the banister beside her to support her in surprise, then remembered it had broken and snatched her hand away again.

“I am the Laird,” the stranger said. “I thank ye for yer letter, Miss Webster. It was most…to the point,” he said wryly. Mary grimaced, realizing just how bold she had been with a Laird of the clan! “Shall we go see the children now?” He started walking down the stairs. Mary struggled to follow him at first, reeling from the information.

Mary, you must be the greatest imbecile there has ever been. She chided herself as she walked across the landing, thinking over everything that had just happened with the Laird. Not only had she insulted the Laird, to his face, but she had fallen into his arms, and…

She covered her face in embarrassment, thinking of the way she had looked to his lips, wondering what it could be like to kiss the dark-haired stranger. That attraction she had felt when she had first opened the door had only grown the more that she spoke with him. The heat in the conversation and the fire in his countenance made everything so intense.

“I cannot believe this,” she whispered to herself as she followed the Laird down the stairs. When they reached the bottom he turned back to her, with a mischievous smile in place.

“I hope ye are nae goin’ to change character now, Miss Webster. I would hate to see a lady so spirited start curtsyin’ and treatin’ me with deference I clearly am nae due.”

What did that mean?

“This way to the kitchen, isnae it?” he said, pointing down the corridor. “I think I remember the way from when I bought the house.”

“Yes, it is,” she said, her lips opening and parting in wonder. As he walked away, her gaze slipped down him, going from that handsome face to the muscular figure that the waistcoat, plaid, and shirt were molded to. The heat that bloomed across her skin at the sight snapped her back to her senses. “Wait!” she called after him. “I mean, wait, my Laird,” she said, watching as he turned back round to her with a teasing smile.

“Aye? Ye have somethin’ to say?”

“If you are the Laird, you can tell me why this is happening, then?” she said, walking slowly toward him, letting each strike of her heel on the floorboards echo between them. “Why is it we are living in such a state?”

“I wish I kenned,” he said, keeping his voice low.

“You are not sending us enough money!”

“I send ye plenty of money,” he said, staring her down as she reached the spot in front of him. She supposed she should be a little frightened by such a tall man, a Laird no less, standing so high above her, yet she wasn’t. She was strangely excited by the idea, remembering the thrill of him catching her and stopping her from falling a few minutes ago. “What did ye mean in yer letter? When ye said I had cut the fundin’?”

She screwed up her nose, confused by his words.

“You have sent us a fifth of the money we usually receive this year,” she said. It was as though she had slapped him, for he reeled away on the backs of his heels and crossed a hand over his face. “You look in pain.”

“I am,” he said the words harshly, darting his head back to look at her. “I have sent ye more money this year than I did last year.”

“You cannot have…” Though she trailed off, staring at the sincerity in his face. He didn’t seem to be lying. What good could come from lying at this point regardless? “I do not understand.”

“Neither do I.” The Laird looked away, gesturing in the direction of the kitchen. “Please, show me the children. I must see it all for meself.”

She strode forward with a curious gaze that lingered on him for a moment, before placing a hand on the doorknob.

“Ye are starin’ at me, Miss Webster. It’s as though ye are strugglin’ as much to stop lookin’ at me, as I am strugglin’ nae to look at ye,” he said with a small smirk.

“You think too highly of yourself,” she said with a tease. He laughed softly at her jest. The sound surprised her, for it was deep and rumbled, making that same jolt in her chest return. She turned away, unsettled by the power he seemed to have over her by doing the simplest of things, like laughing.

Mary opened the door into the kitchen, looking around the room in search of Theodora. Some of the children were still finishing their breakfast, whereas the others had left through the open door that led into the garden and were currently running madly around it. Some of the girls were doing cartwheels, whereas a few boys were playing with mud, throwing it at each other.

“Theodora?” Mary called to her sister as she turned away from washing up the pewter plates.

“Yes?” she said, then froze, her eyes slipping past Mary and going straight to the Laird. “We have a visitor?”

“We do,” Mary said, glancing back at him. He shook his head, almost imperceptibly, as if to plead with her not to reveal who he was really was just yet. “One of the banister’s has broken upstairs,” she said instead. “Best to not let the children go up there until I have managed to fix it.”

“Oh no,” Theodora said, sighing and dropping one of the pewter plates into the bowl of water. “Mary, we sent the last of the money with Mr. Kendrick to the market!”

“I know,” Mary said, glancing back to the Laird who was frowning. “We will think of something.”

“I’ll see to it,” the Laird said with feeling. Mary almost argued with him, but she resisted. She highly doubted a Laird was going to be willing to get on his hands and knees to fix the problem. With a little luck, he had some money on him that he could use to pay for the new materials.

“Miss Mary?” a small voice called to her. Mary turned away to see one of the youngest girls approaching her.

“Yes, Kitty?” Mary said with a smile, crouching down. Kitty was just three years old, one of their youngest children, with light brown hair that fell straight to her shoulders, and a toy horse that stayed permanently looped through her arm.

“I’m hungry, Miss Mary,” Kitty said.

“Ah…what happened to your cake?” Mary said, looking back to the table.

“Laurie ate it.”

“Laurie,” Mary said with a sharper tone, looking across the room. He clearly heard his name for he stood bolt straight and then darted out into the garden.

“I’ll tell him,” Theodora said, drying her hands on a nearby cloth before she hurried out of the kitchen. Mary was very aware of the Laird watching on, but she didn’t know what to do for the best. Telling the boy off seemed foolhardy when he probably stole it out of hunger, yet this was unfair on Kitty too.

“Stay here, Kitty, I’ll find something for you.” Mary pushed Kitty back toward the table. As Mary stood, the Laird stepped nearer to her. She tried not to blush anymore at that closeness, though the feeling of his breath on her neck made her temperature rise.

“Do ye have any more food here?” he asked in a worried tone.

“We shall see,” she said, looking away from the empty plates.

“Did ye have any food this mornin’?” The Laird’s perceptive question made Mary dart her eyes toward him, finding him staring at her with that intense gaze again. Being so close to him, she could see the glacial blue color, like clear waters on a sunny day.

“Yes,” she said shakily.

“That’s a lie, isnae it?” he said, to which she saw no point in arguing with him. He reached out to her, as if he would take her hand, but she couldn’t let him touch her right now. The last touch they had shared had made her mind obsess with the idea of what it would be like to kiss him. She didn’t need that obsession right now.

“I need to find some more food.”

***

Eugene could barely take this anymore. As Miss Webster stepped away from him, he stared around the kitchen at the empty shelves and the two lone pheasants that hung from the ceiling. To say it was sparse was an understatement. Two of the children at the table, both under the age of ten, were doing their best to mop up the crumps from their pewter plates with their fingers. The sight made something in Eugene’s stomach curdle with sadness.

This wasnae what I pictured for this place.

There was a tug on Eugene’s trews. He looked down to see a small boy had approached him, with red hair so dark, it was the color of russet leaves in autumn. He had a pile of small rocks in his hands and was looking up to Eugene with a smile, despite the fact he looked a little scrawny from hunger.

“Me name’s Isaac. What’s yers?” the boy said with a strong accent of the clan. Eugene smiled despite his worry.

“Ye can call me Eugene,” he said and held out his hand to the little boy. Isaac took the proffered hand with excitement, shifting the rocks to his other palm first. He stood a little taller, looking mightily proud to be shaking hands.

“Would ye like to play?” Isaac asked, gesturing to his rocks.

“What’s the game?” Eugene said, bending down until he was resting on one knee so he could look the boy in the eye.

“We see who can throw them the furthest,” the boy said with excitement. “I usually win,” he lifted his chin a little higher with pride in his accomplishments. “I bet I could beat ye!”

“Ha! Now ye have set me a challenge,” Eugene said playfully. “I shall have to accept any challenge given to me, but…” he paused before finishing, glancing back to see Miss Webster pull out what appeared to be a small chunk of cheese from a muslin cloth. She presented it to the girl, Kitty, who looked delighted with her small morsel. “There are some things I must attend to first. How about I come play with ye in a bit?”

“Aye, I’ll hold ye to that!” the boy said with eagerness before turning round and running out of the door, with other boys on his heels. Eugene laughed softly at the innocence of it all before he stood to his feet and looked back to Miss Webster. She was staring at him with wonder in her eyes, and a smile on her cheeks.

“That is the first full smile ye have given me yet, Miss Webster,” he said, walking toward her.

“You surprised me, my Laird,” she said, nodding her head out of the door to where Isaac had run off. “That was a kind thing to do.”

“I am nae a monster,” Eugene whispered. “Despite what rumors ye may have heard of me.”

Miss Webster lowered her eyes a little, with a pinkness spreading across her cheeks. That blush this time seemed to be from embarrassment, rather than how near they stood together. He still loved the sight. In danger of finding his eyes wandering over the enchanting Miss Webster another time, he turned away and looked down at Kitty, who was sat on the edge of the bench pressed against the kitchen table, munching on her piece of cheese.

“Are ye still hungry, Kitty?” he asked. She looked up nodded, chewing her cheese. “Then let’s see what we can do.” He started searching in his pockets. He’d left his main bag in the hallway when he had come in, but he had put some things in his pockets for the journey to Inverness. He took out a small bundle that was wrapped in cloth and proffered it toward Kitty.

The girl looked first to Miss Webster, clearly checking it was all right to accept it.

“Go on. He’s a friend,” Miss Webster said. The words did something to Eugene, and he looked up to her, smiling a little. “What?” she said innocently.

“I have a feelin’ ye wanted to call me many other things before ye met me.”

She smiled mischievously and crossed her arms.

“I might still do so yet.”

He laughed as he turned his eyes back down to Kitty.

“It’s fruit cake. I’m sure ye’ll like it.”

Hearing this, she immediately took the bundle and opened it up, her blue eyes going wide at the sight of so much cake.

“Thank ye! Thank ye!” she said quickly. “Miss Mary, shall I share?”

“Yes, I think it for the best,” Miss Webster said sweetly.

Kitty jumped down from the bench and ran outside, heading after all her friends. As the last child left in the kitchen, they were all outside waiting for her, leaving Eugene alone with Miss Webster. Eugene followed Kitty, just until he reached the doorway and leaned against the frame, watching as she sat down on the small patch of lawn and presented the cake to the other children as though it were gold. They all dug in, delighting on the morsels.

“You are not at all as I pictured you would be.”

Eugene turned round to find Miss Webster was staring at him, biting her pink lips. He felt that same stirring inside his stomach, yearning to cross the room and take one of those kisses he was thinking of.

“What did ye think I would be? A penny pincher holed up in me castle?”

“Old too,” she said. “And much uglier.” Eugene laughed, unable to stop himself. Usually, ladies tiptoed around him, being as polite and courteous as possible. This much bolder kind of conversation was rare indeed, and he loved it.

“Somethin’ tells me from the way ye look at me, ye daenae think me that ugly,” he said, teasing her back. She shook her head and blushed again, bringing more laughter from him.

She walked toward him, standing in the doorway so that they were both leaning on opposite sides of the doorframe, looking at one another. Her position brought them close together, so near that it would have been easy for Eugene to slip his arm around her waist. He tingled at the thought of feeling her in his arms another time.

“So, you have had your tour, and you have seen the children,” she said, gesturing to the children who were all happily playing, despite the difficulties of gathering a breakfast. “What will you do now?” she said.

“I have nay wish to leave yet, if that is what ye mean,” he said. “The situation is too grave, and the company is too interestin’ to persuade me to go.” His flirtation made her look at him with one raised eyebrow. She had done the same thing before, making him trace the movement with his gaze.

“Do ladies usually fall for your words, my Laird?”

“I daenae say anythin’ I never mean, Miss Webster,” he said with sincerity, though she shook her head.

“So, what will you do? If you intend to stay a little longer.”

“Watch me. Ye’ll see what I will do, and I intend to find out who has taken the money, Miss Webster. Nay matter what it takes to discover the truth.”

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  • I have enjoyed the preview of Pledged to the Highlander’s Heart. Mary and Eugene are such strong characters and I foresee a wonderful romance on the making.

  • A lovely sweet story that tugs at your heart strings. A great hero, a lovely heroine and a love story that fulfills their wishes. A great read!

  • I cannot wait to buy this book and read it in it’s entirety! I have really enjoyed what I have read so far. Than you!

  • Your book sounds amazing and I can’t wait for it to come available. Really love your books. Keep well stay safe and God bless.

  • I simply adored this review. I hope to be able to read the finished product. For someone to steal from children, it’s to horrible to think about. This Laird has already stolen my heart.

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