About the book
He offered to protect her from everything...even if it’s from himself…
After the death of her husband, the Laird of Fulton, Ivy Muir’s future is uncertain. When they name her Lairdess, she has to rise to the occasion of her duty. But when she meets the handsome English guard that will protect her, she falls desperately in love…
Henry McCabe, a deserter of the English army, has taken to guard and protect a Scottish clan. Henry is infatuated with the intriguing lass he met at a tavern, who turns out to be his Lady. So, Henry vows to protect her...forever.
Their love is forbidden and it threatens the position of Ivy. Everyone wants Ivy out of the picture, and Henry can protect her only from so many people...When their secret is revealed, Ivy is helpless: should she remain bound to her duty, or live free in her love?
Thunder rumbled over the misty moors like an omen of ill wishes. Undisturbed by the frigid wind or the sound, Ivy stood on the terrace off her bedchamber. The rain swirled and swooped about her in wild torrents that whipped her ebony black curls about her face and caused her cloak to thrash about her ankles.
The clouds rolled over the lazy slopes of the mountains in the distance and flowed into the valley below. Ivy kept her eyes on the horizon despite the rain stinging her eyes. Her chest tightened as she heard the knock on the door. A brilliant streak of light flickered between the clouds like sprites as the door creaked open.
Ivy glanced over her shoulder to find Aiden, her most trusted adviser at the threshold. His wild white hair flowed about his wrinkled face as he stepped into the chamber. Aiden moved with purpose with his fingers entangled into each other before him. The slope of his wrinkles and the bow of his thin lips spoke volumes.
“Aiden, what word have ye brought to me at this hour?” she asked with an arched eyebrow. Her grip around the railing tightened as a lump formed in her throat. She knew there was only one reason for him to come to her at such a late hour.
“Laird Ewan is dead.”
Ivy bobbed her head and scratched at the stone under her fingers. It had only been five years since she married Ewan Muir, the Laird of Fulton Keep, but even during that time, the Laird never possessed her heart. Grief mingled with regret as she swallowed hard. “Are ye certain?”
Aiden moved closer to her, peeling his fingers apart to stretch out his hands toward her.
“Aye,” he said. His eyes remained locked on her. “ Laird Ewan is gone and ye must come wit’ me. The Council is in an uproar and we must squash all rumors now.”
The railing was like an anchor, grounding Ivy to the moment. She knew the moment she let go, her life would be swept up into a current of politics and survival. She inhaled a deep breath and mustered all her strength to pry her fingers off the fence.
“Tell me, M’Lady,” Aiden said as his hand trembled when he reached for her. “When was the last time the Laird visited ye?”
Ivy pressed her cupid lips taut and shook her head. “’Twas more than a fortnight ago. Before he–”
“And still nae signs,” Aiden said more of a statement than a question. Ivy shook her head and pressed her hands on her barren belly.
Aiden’s lips curled up into a smile, but no flush of red touched his cheeks. “Matters nae,” he said waving his hand in the air and tilted his head. His eyes softened as he scooped his hand under Ivy’s elbow and drew her into the warmth of the estate.
Ivy’s body shivered as she entered the chamber. She couldn’t remember how long she had been out in the cold, but her fingers were as numb as her legs weary.
“Come M’Lady, it’s custom for the wife, nae matter how estranged, to view the Laird and pay respects before he is taken away.”
Ivy nodded and followed Aiden out of her bedchamber. Her heart teetered on the precipice of anger and grief. She could feel the hot tears swelling in her eyes as she fought them from spilling over. Although she had lived in Fulton Keep for years, the place never seemed like home, and she couldn’t deny the fact that a part of her was glad the Laird had passed. It wasn’t as if he was cruel to her, just distant. Ewan never graced her with his presence save for the occasional marital obligations to produce an heir. But with the Laird’s demise, her fate was now uncertain. Unable to produce an heir during their marriage, Ivy wasn’t certain where she would land once she fell.
Aiden guided Ivy down the hall as the servants and guards stole glimpses of her as she moved past them. Their cold, judgmental eyes bore into her like dirks.
“Ye ken I can only hold off the other Councilmen for so long,” Aiden whispered as they descended the stairs of the west wing only to scramble to the east staircase where the Laird’s bedchamber was located.
“Aye, and what are they wantin’?” Ivy‘s feet grew heavy with each step that brought her closer to her husband’s chamber.
“Rumors have already started, M’Lady. There are a handful that wishes to see ye as Chieftess of Fulton Clan and others who think it best ye marry.”
“Chieftess?” Ivy gasped before regaining her composure. Never in the depths of her being had she wished for such a thing. She was not brought to Fulton Keep to become the clan leader, only a mother.
The color from Aiden’s face drained like the brown murky water that pools at River Rule during the winter.
“’Tis rumors,” Aiden hissed. “Chances are they’ll have ye remarry and soon. Yer still young enough to have bairns and the sooner ye secure the Clan wit’ an heir the better everyone will feel.”
“I will nae be passed about from one man to another like a cow to be milked.”
Aiden stopped at the top of the stairs and grabbed Ivy by the shoulders. There was a spark in his eyes that startled Ivy and his lips twitched.
“Aye, I think nae,” Aiden said with a shrug. “But brace yerself, M’Lady. The road ahead is misty and the path yer on will nae be easy.”
Ivy clamped her mouth shut and nodded. She drew her shoulders back as murmurs drifted down the hallway catching their attention. Ivy looked around Aiden to find several people swarming the Laird’s bedchamber.
“Go and pay yer respects,” Aiden said as he stepped aside. Ivy swallowed the lump in her throat and took a step forward. Aiden’s fingers curled around her arm stopping her. She gaped at his hand before drawing her eyes to his face.
“But Ivy, donnae give them reason to suspect ye for this,” Aiden warned.
“Why would they?” she asked with her eyebrows arched.
“Rumors dear child, rumors will wedge their way into the hearts and minds of men, pollutin’ them. If ye have any grief for the Laird, show it and hold nothin’ back. For this moment will define yer fate. Do ye understand?”
Ivy nodded as Aiden released his grip from her.
“M’Lady,” the men whispered and lowered their heads as they parted to allow her entrance into the room. A foul smell lingered in the room that nearly knocked her back. All eyes fell on her. She held her breath as she spied the large wooden posts of the Laird’s bed and the black curtains that draped around the bed shrouding him from prying eyes.
“The Laird is at peace now.” Ivy clenched her jaw as her body tensed. Her eyes shifted away from the bed and moved to the origin of the voice. Standing at the foot of the bed was a lanky man with a round belly. Seeing the man in the dark cloak with a large wooden cross dangling down to his stomach stole the warmth off her. His slanted, puffy eyes and high forehead that mingled with his receding hairline sent a jolt throughout her.
“I do hope so,” Ivy said as she detoured from heading straight to the bed to greet the Faither first as Aiden’s words haunted her.
“If ye have any grief for the Laird, show it and hold nothin’ back. For this moment will define yer fate. Do ye understand?”
Ivy stumbled as her foot caught the hem of her dress and fell forward. Immediately she found herself in the arms of Father McCain. The menace in his gaze tipped the scales within Ivy and tears swelled in her eyes. Her lip trembled as she pulled herself upright and cleared her throat.
“Forgive me, Faither.” Ivy’s voice broke as she spoke. Her eyes dropped to the floor and her hands twitched.
“At peace, Child,” McCain said as he placed his hand on her shoulder. The heat from his palm ran through her cold bones.
Ivy turned as slowly to face the bed. Every muscle in her body tightened as she chewed her lower lip and drew her eyes to the black curtains. McCain stepped toward the bed and pulled back the dark shroud.
With one glimpse at the old, frail man tucked carefully under the sheets, Ivy’s stomach twisted as her legs buckled from under her. She threw her hands to her face as the tears she had tried so hard to conceal dripped into the palms of her hands.
“The world will be a darker place without him here.” Ivy choked on the words as if they were dry bread being forced into her mouth.
“Come, M’Lady,” McCain said as Ivy caught a glimpse of his shadow shifting. His fingers curled under her arms and he hoisted her to her feet. She had never been in love with the Laird but understood the gravity of the situation. Without the Laird, she was no longer protected. She was a widow now and fear tangled its fierce claws into her chest, squeezing out the air from her lungs.
“I–” Ivy wanted to say she was sorry, but she wasn’t certain what she was sorry for. The words mangled in her mind like they were being raked across the sharp rocks of the moors as she clung to McCain.
“Rest easy, M’Lady,” he said as he walked to the door. “The Laird’s sufferin’ has passed.”
“Aye.” Ivy wiped the tears from her cheeks. But she knew her suffering was only just beginning.
“Lady Muir?” Aiden’s voice rose above the murmurs and hushed sorrows. Ivy lifted her head up to see her mentor’s face lingering past the crowd gathered at the doorway. He gave her a sharp nod and rolled his shoulders back. The crowd parted allowing McCain to help Ivy into Aiden’s arms.
“She needs rest,” McCain said as Ivy slipped into Aiden’s arms and released another bout of tears.
“Fetch Sheina,” Aiden said to another as he held Ivy close to his chest and walked her back to the hallway and away from the other mourners who had come to see the Laird.
“Aye, right way, Lord,” came the response. Ivy noticed the shift of light to dark as a servant scrambled ahead of them and rushed down the hallway.
Aiden and Ivy moved slowly down the steps. Each step took more strength than what Ivy had as she leaned against Aiden to keep upright.
“Was that the Laird?” Ivy asked as she glanced up to catch Aiden’s eyes.
He nodded. “Aye, it was.”
“What happens now? What is to become of me?”
“Donnae worry about such things,” Aiden said rubbing her arm. “For now, all ye can do is wait. The Council will decide what becomes of ye, and until they do, ye must rest.”
Ivy nodded as her attention shifted to the bottom of the steps where several men gathered at the base of the steps. The faces where familiar to her. She had seen the men about the Keep and meeting with the Laird. Now, it seemed they looked to her for guidance.
“Pay no heed to them,” Aiden reassured.
“M’Lady!” Sheina’s voice shrilled as the maid scrambled up the steps. Ivy gasped as she watched Sheina trip over the lip of the step and crashed hard onto the wooden stairs.
“’Tis fine, I’m fine, no damage done,” Sheina said reassuringly as she shot back up and dusted her hands on her skirt.
“So it’s true then?” Sheina asked and Ivy knew her servant wasn’t talking to her.
“It is,” Aiden answered. “But much more needs to be done. Take the Lady back to her chambers and wait for me word. There are matters that need to be addressed and the Lady needs rest.”
“Of course,” Sheina said as Aiden passed Ivy to her servant.
“Take heart, M’Lady,” Aiden said as he stepped back from her. “For not all is lost.”
“Come now, let’s get ye cleaned up.” Sheina brushed Ivy’s wild black hair from her face.
“Take me to the River,” Ivy said. “I cannae be cooped up in me chamber right now.”
“But the Lord’s wishes,” Sheina mumbled.
“I donnae care what Aiden wishes right now. Take me to the River. I want to see it once more before the Council decides me fate. If I am to be banished, then I want to remember that place.”
“Hush, the Council would never do that to ye.”
“Are ye sure? I was brought here to make bairns for the Laird and I failed. Who’s to say they willnae cast me out now?”
“We must wait for Lord Aiden,” Sheina said trying to infuse hope into Ivy. “Ye cannae ken what the future holds. Have faith M’Lady. All is nae as dreary as it seems.”
I cannae help but wonder how the Lady will take the news. Perhaps she will cry. If she does, I’ll be there to swoop her into my arms and comfort her. I’ll hold her tight to me chest and stroke me fingers through her curly locks. I’ll breathe in her perfume and it will be me that comforts her–
No, I ken. When the Councilmen name me their Laird, I’ll request she be My Lady to rule beside me. Surely she’ll see that arrangement as suitable alternative to bein’ cast out of the Keep. After all, I highly doubt she’ll say no to me again once I am Laird. She’ll be my subject then and have to agree wit’ me.
Elrod sat beside the small, crackling fire digging the tip of his dirk into his thumb nail to dig the dirt out. The fire light flickered and danced about as it heated but a small section of the stone cavern. The light cast long menacing shadows of the Councilmen that surrounded him and distorted their shadows making them bend into unusual shapes and sizes. He pulled in a quick shallow breath and held it as the echo of footsteps bounced down the narrow corridor. The drumming of his heart filled his ears as his body tensed.
She’s comin’. Aye, she’s almost here. Does she feel the charge of electricity as I do? Does she ken what’s in store for her?
A part of him wanted to leap to his feet and rush to the opening to get a glimpse of Ivy as she came down, but he knew better than to make a fool of himself in such a way. He remained planted on the stone he had layered with soft fur to dampen the chill and waited.
“What is this place?”
The air Elrod had stored in his chest ached to be released as he heard her soft voice behind him. His jaw tightened as the smell of violet and heather penetrated the room. The very scent emanating from her was enough to make Elrod rise to his feet. Every nerve within him cried to run toward her, to be the one she first saw, but he mustered all his strength to fight the impulses.
“M’Lady, this is the Nook,” Aiden said a bit too cheerfully for Elrod’s taste.
Why they allow that man to roam about the Keep is beyond me. And why have a meetin’ here? This is for the Laird of the Clan. Perhaps it is to show Ivy all that she is missin’. Or perhaps it’s to honor the late Laird’s wishes that she ken about this place.
Suppose a quiet place away from pryin’ eyes is best when she blubbers about. Donnae want to have rumors tossed about like wheat that Lady Muir is weak after all she’s done for this Clan and its people. Dignity. The Council wants her restrained.
“Lady Muir, welcome.” Elrod glanced over his shoulder to find Layton, a thick-chested man with his long peppered-gray hair flowing around his shoulders like seaweed. Elrod knew Layton was the best warrior the Fulton Clan ever made. He was strong and brave, with a mind as sharp as the broadsword dangling from Layton’s side. Elrod kept his eyes locked on the war chief as he bowed to her like the trees on the moors when the wind blew too fiercely.
“Layton,” Ivy said dipping her head to him. “What is goin’ on?”
“All in good time, Lass,” Layton said and Elrod could have sworn the tanned leather-skinned man had a smirk on his lips as he leaned down to kiss her hand. “Come, make yerself at home.”
Elrod turned his head and watched as Ivy’s eyes widened. Elrod’s lips twitched as Ivy took in the smooth stone walls that climbed up to the ceiling. He studied her as she ran her fingers over the mossy rocks that looked like steps carved out of the gravels that held the cavern walls up before her eyes drifted to the sparkling blue pool at the center of the cavern. He remembered the first time he was brought to this place. It had been seven years prior to this very day when the Laird escorted him to this place.
“They call it the Belly of the Fairies,” Ewan said to Elrod. “Only a few brave souls have ventured into this realm of mystery and enchantment. See the tunnels,” Ewan pointed to his left as Elrod tried to peer into the shadows.
“There are several routes that will lead ye to this place,” Ewan said. “But ye must be mindful. There are only a few that will lead ye out.”
“Which ones lead out?” Elrod asked as he took in the majestic sapphire blue waters that pooled at the base of the cavern.
“Follow the water,” Ewan said. “It’ll lead ye to the Loch and Rule River. From there, ‘tis easy enough to find yer way back to the Keep.”
“Why ye showin’ me this place?” Elrod asked without taking his eyes off the crystal clear waters.
“To see if yer worthy of the position I wish to grant ye. Drink from the waters below and stay a moment. We’ll wait for the others.”
“Others?” Elrod said as he crawled over the stone steps to reach the water’s edge. Dunking his hand into the pool, he drew a scoop of the icy liquid into his hand and sipped on it to ease his parched throat.
“Aye, the Council. They’ll be here soon enough.”
“Now that we are all here,” Layton’s gruff voice pulled Elrod from his thoughts. Elrod rose and turned to face Ivy. The smile that was on her face vanished the instant her eyes met his.
“We have an announcement,” Layton continued as he glanced at the ten other men in the cavern.
“Lady Muir,” Aiden said as he guided her to the water’s edge. “Yer parched. Take a moment and wet yer whistle. The announcement can wait a moment. Donnae ye all agree?”
The murmur of approval echoed and bounced around and seemed to drift through the labyrinth of tunnels that forked out into different parts of the cavern. All eyes were on Ivy as she scooped a handful of the water and sipped on it. A hush fell over the group and Elrod wasn’t surprised that every single person, except him held their breath in anticipation of what was to come.
Superstitious old fools.
Ivy rose and wiped her hand on her skirt before turning to face the group of men before her. Elrod couldn’t help but notice her steel-blue eyes never fell to his face. She avoided him as if he were a shadow with a dark secret. He slipped his dirk into the sheath at his calf and arched an eyebrow.
“Now then,” Aiden said turning to the others. “Seems we have important business to attend to.”
“Aye,” came the response as Aiden stretched out his hand to Ivy to help her up the stony steps.
“I still donnae ken what this is all about. Did Ewan ken of this place?” Ivy asked searching for the answer in the faces of the Councilmen.
“He did,” Layton said.
“He called it the Belly of the Fairies,” Elrod chimed in before Layton could say another word. Ivy didn’t turn to look at him but kept her gaze locked on Layton.
In due time ye wonnae be able to ignore me so. Enjoy it while ye can.
“Why is it then ye’ve brought me here?”
Aiden stepped closer to her and grasped both her hands into his. There was a sparkle lurking in the old man’s gaze that shook Elrod to his core. “We’ve come to a decision about who the next Laird and Chief of Clan Fulton will be. We thought it only appropriate for ye to be here.”
“I donnae understand,” Ivy said studying the faces around her.
Poor lass is goin’ to cry. Now’s me chance.
Elrod slipped between the pudgy Norwick and lanky, but stout Alfred, two Councilmen he’d known for years who were in favor of him being Laird. He stood within arm’s reach of Ivy waiting for the moment she’d faint into his arms.
“The water from this spring is believed to be sacred,” Layton huffed. “If ye believe such mythical nonsense. Only those trustworthy can drink without turning to stone, or so they say.” Layton said as he rolled his eyes. “That’s why they brought ye here, Lass. To test your merit.”
“Did my husband ken of this place?” Ivy asked.
“Aye, his faither brought him down to see it and he was tested just as we are testin’ ye now.”
Layton’s eyes held the same spark as Aiden’s. A chill gripped Elrod’s heart causing his blood to run cold. For the first time since arriving in the cave, Elrod noticed the others never held his gaze or spoke with him. The men around him were stiff like sentinels and the tension in the air was thick as the fog on the mountains.
“To the matter of Lairdship,” Aiden said as he glanced to the other men, and kept his gaze off Elrod.
This is my moment. The Council will tell Ivy she is to leave, and announce my promotion to Laird. Then, I will sweep in and ask for the Lady’s hand so that she will stay here. It’s perfect.
The Councilmen gave a swift nod before Aiden turned his attention back to Ivy. Elrod’s chest squeezed as if the air was being pulled out of his lungs. His hands twitched with anticipation as his jaw flexed. “We are namin’ you the Chieftess of Clan Fulton. Yer to be the new Lady of Fulton Keep.”
Ivy stumbled back. Her face was blank as the words she was registering were the same Elrod was trying to wrap his head around.
They had no intentions of makin’ me Laird. I am just a witness.
“My Lords,” Elrod said clearing his throat and stumbling forward. “Is that a wise choice? It is tradition that a male should run the Keep after all, there is turmoil in the south and the Laird should be one prepared to send men out to defend the borders. Nae to say, Lady Muir couldnae handle such a task, the laws have stated that a male heir is to take precedence should the Laird die. And seein’ as how her Lady and the late Laird Muir have nae heirs, another should be chosen.”
“We’ve made our decision.” Layton shifted to Elrod. A lump formed in Elrod’s throat as he noticed the murderous intentions brewing in Layton’s eyes.
“Of course, I was merely statin’ that such a thin’ is frowned on and in nae way follows tradition.” Elrod bent his voice and spoke as if honey dripped from his lips. With Layton twice his size, there was no way for Elrod to challenge such a thing in such a place.
“Is it now? By whom? Ye? Are ye sayin’ now yer voice should count for more than just one vote?” Layton snapped back at Elrod.
“Lady Muir,” Aiden said shaking his head and paying no heed to the scrap between Elrod and Layton. “Do ye accept the position? Do ye want to be the Chieftess of Fulton Keep?”
Ivy pulled in a heavy breath and gazed up.
Say nae, and proclaim me the Laird. We both ken I do a far better job at runnin’ the Keep than ye ever could.
She wonnae do it. If anythin’ she’ll pick another adviser. If she chooses Layton, I’ll be out on me arse before the sun sets and then how will I get what I deserve?
Six years kissin’ arse. Six years bendin’ over to a Laird too soft to rule and now they want to hand it over to this lass? Nae, I cannae allow that. Nae now, nae ever.
“Tell me, Gentlemen, why did ye cast yer vote for me?” Ivy asked.
Layton dropped to his knee and dipped his head. “Ye ken I was Ewan’s best mate for years. He and I played on the moors together, and fought side by side. His request was for me to tend to ye M’Lady, and after he passed.” Layton quickly crossed himself and kissed her fingers before continuing. “I never made a vow to be yer servant. I do that now, M’Lady. Ye are kindhearted, and faithful. Ye have cared for the Clan like they were yer own bairns. I see it only fittin’ that ye continue yer work to make Clan Fulton all it can be.”
“Please, Layton, rise, you ken I donnae like to see ye bend the knee. But you are one vote and there are twelve of you,” Ivy looked to the others and as her eyes rested on Elrod; his cold stone heart cracked.
How does a single look seem to break my resolve every time?
“Is this how you all feel?” she asked holding Elrod’s gaze. A part of Elrod wanted to scream and protest, but he found himself weak against her tender eyes. They looked as if they had been plucked out of the very pool at his feet and given to her.
Ivy’s lips turned up at the corners and she did not flinch or remove her gaze from Elrod. She held him there as if she were an enchantress casting a spell on him and bore deep into the secret parts of his soul. Elrod turned his head to the side and kicked at the peddles.
“Then I shall be honored to be yer Lady,” Ivy said. Elrod’s body tingled the moment she dropped her gaze from him. His lungs burned from lack of air as he bit his tongue.
“Tomorrow night,” Aiden said, “we shall have a gathering and every knee will bend to you M’Lady. Every voice will proclaim ye Lady Fulton.”
Tomorrow night? They had this planned all along? They never intended to make me Laird.
Rage boiled within him and tasted like a charred drumstick left on the spike. Elrod chewed on his thoughts as Ivy bowed and turned to leave.
This is nae possible. A woman as Laird? It’s never been done. Those damn fools. Well, this must be stopped. If there is nae one at the ceremony tomorrow to pledge their allegiance to her, then the Lairdship could still be mine. Nothing a few coins wonnae fix.
Mark me words, Lady Muir, yer time as Chieftess will be short. I will nae have ye take what rightfully belongs to me.
“This is splendid news,” Ivy said as she glared at Sheina.
“What? It’s what ye wanted isnae?”
Ivy settled back into the tub and moaned as Sheina dug her fingers into Ivy’s tense shoulders relieving the stress from her neck. Ivy closed her eyes and shook her head.
“Nay.” Her hand shot out of the bath water to clap Sheina’s hand. A flash of pain coursed through Ivy’s neck and shoulders and screamed down her spine.
“Sorry.” Sheina gasped easing her grip on Ivy’s shoulders. “I didnae mean to go so hard.”
“Sorry, M’Lady, it’s just… this is the first time ever a woman will be in charge. I shouldnae have let it get me so excited. Somethin’ like this has never been done. Even me husband says so. But it’s clear that all those hours ye spent helpin’ in the village and care for the people paid off.”
“I would have done it either way. 'Tis my duty. Even if Ew… he was still here. But now what is goin’ to happen to those people when there is nae one to care for them?”
“True. There’s nay one here who would take care of them. Lord kens the Councilmen surely wouldnae do such things. Donnae ye see?” Sheina dropped her hands and moving around the wooden tub to gaze into Ivy’s eyes. “Now ye can help everyone. Nae just the widows and the sick. Nae just the bairns and elderly. Yer job now is to care for every man, woman, and child for ye’ve just been name Chieftess of Fulton Clan.”
“It willnae be official till the Gatherin’ tomorrow. That’s when the Councilmen will see who turns up. If the people donnae show up for the event and bend the knee, they’ll find someone else for certain.”
“Well then, M’Lady, ye should ensure yer people are wit’ ye, nae?” Sheina said with a playful grin.
“How am I to do that pray tell? It’s nae like I can go to the village and announce to everyone what tomorrow holds.” Ivy shook her head.
“Aye,” Sheina said dipping her hand into the tub to retrieve the cloth to finish washing Ivy. “Gossip runs faster than the Rule River. Chances are people are already talkin’ about it and preparin’ for what’s to come.”
“I donnae want the Council’s decision to divide my husband’s clan.”
“Forgive me, M’Lady, but the ship has sailed a long time ago.”
Ivy shot up out of the water and cocked her head. “What do ye mean by that?”
Sheina pressed her lips together and shook her head. “Best we get ye out now. Cannae stay too long in the bath at this temperature. Ye’ll catch a cold.”
“Sheina,” Ivy reached out for her and grabbed her maid’s hand. “What did you mean the Clan is divided? When did this happen?”
Sheina’s eyes dropped. She rose to collect the robe draped over the chair and held it up for Ivy to slip into. Reluctantly, Ivy rose out of the wooden tub and slipped her arms into the heavy garment. With great care, Ivy stepped out of the tub with Sheina’s help and walked to the window.
“What is it yer nae tellin’ me?” Ivy asked as she ran her fingers through her wet hair before wringing the water out of her curls.
“Nothin’,” Sheina said as she looked at everything from the ceiling to the walls and back to the floor. She studied everything but her.
“Yer a bad liar, ye ken that?”
“Perhaps M’Lady, ye should go and see for yerself where the people’s loyalties lie.”
“Yer suggestin’ I go the village? Tonight? And how pray tell can I do that? Nearly everyone kens me. They’ve seen me about the Keep and in the village.”
Sheina snatched Ivy’s hands more aggressively than expected. “Aye, yer right it, was a foolish thought.”
Ivy’s lips pulled up at the corners as she studied Sheina. “Maybe nae.”
Ivy pulled Sheina close to her and glanced to the window. Sheina’s head tilted as Ivy stared at their reflection.
“Tell me what ye see in the window,” Ivy said with her smile growing.
“Look a bit closer.” Ivy reached up and pinched Sheina’s chin to keep her from losing the reflection as the soft orange light of day slowly faded to the rusty pink.
“I bet I could dress as ye and nae one will ken it was really me,” Ivy said.
“Ye think that is a good idea?” Sheina said as Ivy removed her hand from her face and turned Sheina about to examine the size of her clothes.
“We’re practically the same size,” Ivy said. “And yer right. People have seen me in the village and the Keep. But all they’ve ever seen is me in fine clothes. They’ll never suspect I’m Lady Muir if I wear your clothes and wear a cloak.”
“Ye want to dress like a maid?” Sheina giggled. “Oh that would be a sight for certain. But yer too pretty and have far different manners than those in the village.”
“Then show me how to be a villager,” Ivy said grinning.
“And what am I to say when yer called for the feast tonight?”
“I’m certain ye’ll be able to think of somethin’. Tell them I’m restin’ or I’m nae feelin’ well. Say me cycle has begun. That is sure to send any man runnin’ out the door.”
“Aye, I am, now go fetch me some clothes. I’ll leave at twilight.”
Sheina bowed and turned to leave. Ivy’s heart fluttered in her chest as she stared out the window toward Eildon Hill and played with the sapphire ring about her finger.
I ken, it’s a wild idea to go out of the Keep at night and wit’ out an escort none the less. But how else am I to ken which way the people lean?
A rough tap the door startled Ivy and she turned about swiftly, eyes wide and heart fluttering like the drums. The door pushed open and Sheina’s bright smile settled Ivy’s nerves.
“Here ye are M’Lady,” Sheina said draping the pile of clothes over the chair in the corner of the room.
“And ye spoke to nae one about our plans?”
“Nae a soul,” Sheina said with a giddy grin that made Ivy’s lips pull back. “Aye, now quickly help me dress.”
Ivy glanced into the window again once all the garments were in place. Her reflection wasn’t one she expected to look back at her. The soft, smooth fabrics she had been so accustomed to had all been replaced with scratchy wool. Ivy raked her nails over her hips and back trying to relieve the itching from the undyed linen. It didn’t help that the tunic was heavier than she imagined and the corset fit looser around her bosom than she had liked.
“Ye look perfect,” Sheina squealed. “Now to do somethin’ about that hair.”
“Are ye always this uncomfortable?” Ivy asked trying to ignore the way the clothes rubbed against her body and how they hung on her.
“Ye’ll get used to it.” Sheina pulled Ivy to the chair and sat her down. Ivy tapped her heel on the hardwood floor trying to calm her nerves as Sheina twisted her hair up and secured it tightly. “After all, ye wear the corset too tight and it draws unwanted attention if ye ken what I mean. But havin’ it loose and the men will think yer tired.”
“I am tired,” Ivy said.
“Well, then it works does it nae?” Sheina said tugging on Ivy’s hair. “There, M’Lady, yer all set,” Sheina stepped back, admiring her work.
“Are ye done?” Ivy asked as she lifted her hand up to soothe the pain in her scalp.
“Why ye donnae even look yerself.”
Ivy’s heart pounded in her ears as she rose. She stole shallow gulps of air as she turned her attention to the reflection in the window. Her mouth parted and the very warmth of her blood turned icy. She was amazed by how different she looked.
“Is that me?”
“Aye,” Sheina said clapping her hands. “Nae one will recognize ye now, M’Lady. Oh, one more thin’,” Sheina said as she scrambled to pull a small bag out from under her hip.
“What’s this?” Ivy asked as she took the bag from Sheina.
“Money,” Sheina said as she pressed her brow down. “Ye’ll need it in the village.”
“Do ye? Because ye never seem to use any of it here in the Keep.” Sheina helped Ivy secure it under her belt to keep it from prying eyes.
“Thank ye,” Ivy mumbled as she spun around, hoping to find some resemblance of her former self, but found none.
“Aye, now ye look the part. But I think it’s best ye leave that wit’ me, M’Lady,” Sheina said, glancing to Ivy’s hand. Ivy looked down to find herself fiddling absentmindedly with her ring. “The folk in the village will strip it from ye first chance they get. Or, they’ll recognize it and call ye a thief wit’ the way ye look.”
Hesitantly, Ivy played with the ring debating to take it or leave it on. As she began to tug it off her finger but she quickly stopped. She had sworn never to remove it unless handing it down to her barren and yet, she knew Sheina was right.
“I’ll turn it about,” Ivy said twisting the jewel around into her palm. “There, now nae one will ken.”
“Then it looks like yer set to go,” Sheina said as she grabbed Ivy by the shoulders. “Ye can do this. I ken it. Just keep yer head down till ye get past the guards at the gate. And keep the arisaid over yer head as a hood to cloak yerself. The winds can pick up on the moors at night.”
“Thank ye, Sheina, truly. Now go, and keep yer mouth shut about this,” Ivy ordered. “I’ll back before dawn.”
“M’Lady.” Sheina’s voice faded as Ivy slipped out of the room and scurried down the hallway. She clung to the stone walls as the sound of guards filled the narrow corridor. Her heart fluttered and dropped like she was on a wild horse she couldn’t control. Each step she took, her body responded with tremors until she was through the main hall and slipped into the study without anyone seeing.
She rushed to the back of the room and peeled back the tapestry revealing a secret door. A smile played on her lips as she pried the door open and stepped into the void.
The sound of her footsteps bounced through the narrow passage until she was out of the tunnel. The River Rule flowed before her. Her heart jumped as she glanced over her shoulder and peered down the long narrow pathway to find no one coming for her.
Just two miles to town. I’ve come this far, cannae go back now.
The succulent smell of roasted chicken with a hint of rosemary drifted and danced on the wind as Ivy made her way down the soggy street. She sniffed at the air and followed the scent as her stomach rumbled and twisted.
Why did I have to leave before I ate?
Ivy continued down the path until she found the source of the smell. The large stone building roared with the sounds of laughter and cheers spilling out of the open door. She hesitated at the threshold and drew in a deep breath before tugging the arisaid from her head and stepping into the tavern.
The smell of the roasted chicken filled every nook. Tables were lined against the sides as patrons were served a portion of the pork roasting over the fire in the back. Large wooden barrels were stacked at the back of the room and women bustled about the room offering drinks and food to anyone with money to pay for it.
Ivy’s eyes drifted to the stairs that led to the terrace and the people gathered around the railing chatting and laughing at the dancers flaying about in the middle of the room. In the dark corner, Ivy spotted the narrow bar with only a few chairs and a man pouring drinks from the barrel he had just tapped.
This is lovely. Why had I never come here before?
“Will ye be dinin’ alone, Miss?” Ivy spun around on her heels to find a blond-haired lass standing behind her with a wooden pitcher. The girl’s shoulders dropped as her eyebrow arched. “If yer lookin’ to pillage our customers ye can leave.”
“Yer nae a whore?” she asked as her face dropped from confusion.
“Nay, that I am nae.”
“Well then, do ye have any coin? We donnae offer charity here.”
“Of course,” Ivy said patting her hip where she had stashed a bag of coins.
I’ll have to thank Sheina properly for that.
“Right this way then,” the girl said with a nudge of her head at the bar. “I would have ye sit at the tables, but there’s sort of a gatherin’ goin’ on tonight and they aren’t too keen on an outsider sittin’ wit’ them at the moment.”
“What kind of gatherin’?”
“Just a few men recallin’ the good ole days, Miss,” the girl said as she maneuvered and squeezed by two heavy-set men who had been pulled to dance. “Best nae to bother them though.”
Ivy’s mind drifted to Ewan. She could recall several times she had found him with Layton in the study discussing things that were as he put it “out of her realm”. But Ivy knew better than to interfere with such things. It always seemed their mood would shift faster than the winds on a winter morning.
“Here ye go, Miss,” the girl said as a man stumbled over to them and tapped the blond-haired girl on the shoulder.
“Be wit’ in a moment,” she grumbled.
“What’s in the pitcher? Is it as dandy as ye are?” the man’s voice slurred as Ivy noticed his body wobbling like a broken mast as sea and his hair looked like matted seaweed.
“Go sit down, ye drunken fool, I’ll be wit’ ye in a moment.”
“Is he all right?” Ivy asked watching the man stumble back to his seat.
“Aye, he’ll be all right. He got into the whiskey earlier tonight. Wonnae be surprised to find him face down by the time I reach him. Now, have a sit, Miss, me Faither will take mighty fine care of ye.”
“Thank ye.” Ivy pulled the wooden stool back from the bar and sat. Her eyes lingered on the scruffy haired man and just as the woman said, he smacked his head on the wooden table and didn’t move.
The mangled conversations were drowned by the violins and the sounds of laughter. A part of her expected the men to be rowdy and distressed. After all, it had only been last year when every life was poised for the hangman’s noose. Or at least those who didn’t submit to the whims of King Charles II. But since the King’s departure from Scottish soil, the people were merrier. Ivy couldn’t help but beam once again as she turned in her seat and unfastened the brooch that kept her arisaid pinned at the dip of her collarbone.
“What’ll ye have, Lass?”
Ivy glanced up to find an old man with no front teeth and a huge grin standing on the other side of the bar. She wanted to pinch her nose from the stench that rolled off him. For a moment she wondered if he had been rolling around in the manure outside before coming in.
“Mead and I’ll take some of that chicken as well,” Ivy said with a faint smile as she tried to mask her disgust. A part of her hoped the food wouldn’t taste as bad as the old man smelled. But she was committed now and her stomach couldn’t go without food any longer.
“Ye got money for me? As me daughter said–”
“Aye,” Ivy interrupted him so as not to have him breath on her any longer than necessary. She pulled the bag of coin from under the belt and dropped it on the bar. His eyes widened as he heard the jingle of the coins within the bag. Without another word, the man turned and drew a mug from under the bar and place it under the barrel. The liquid poured into the cup and frothed at the top like a cloud. With a huge smile, he placed the mug in front of her and snatched the bag of coins before Ivy could stop him.
“That’ll about cover it,” he said emptying the purse before handing it back to her. “Irene, a hearty plate for the Miss here.”
“Aye,” Irene said as Ivy turned in her seat to find a woman rotating the pork on the skewer stop and carve into the pork. Juices dripped into the fire causing the flames to dance about and lick the rest of the meat remaining.
“Here ye go, Deary,” Irene said placing the slab of meat with a bit of cheese and a small roll before her. Ivy’s stomach gnawed at her.
“Enjoy.” Ivy waited till the woman had gone back to her post before she snatched the bread off the plate and chomped down on the roll. It was stale and bland and she removed the hard bit from her mouth immediately.
Please let the roasted chicken be better than this.
Ivy pulled a pinch of the chicken away from the bone and sniffed it. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes allowing the aroma to fill her nose. Before she could place the bite in her mouth, she fell forward causing the plate to slide away from her and crash behind the bar.
“What the–” She drove her elbow backward into the obstructive thing pinning her to her seat.
“Ow,” a male’s voice moaned and just as swiftly as he had careened into her, he was gone.
“Go on, Henry, say it again, I dare ye,” another said before Ivy jumped to the side to find two men wrestling beside her. Her heart jumped to her throat as she snatched the mug of mead and jerked away from them.
A tall man with beady eyes and a thick beard didn’t give the Henry a chance to say anything before he rammed his fist into Henry’s face. Blood trickled from Henry’s nose as he crumbled to the floor with a ‘thud’. Cheers broke out as the bearded man stepped back and watched his victim struggle to get onto his feet.
“What is goin’ on here?” Ivy demanded as she scowled at both men.
“What’s it to ye, Lass?” the bearded man said as he shook the pain out of his hand.
“What on earth would possess ye to strike another man like that? Nae to mention ruin my meal. Just look at the mess ye’ve made. Yer goin’ to pay for that.”
“Ye think so?” the bearded man said stepping up to Ivy. There was no denying the fact that the man was far taller than she was and could knock her unconscious in an instant. But she glared at him like he was a child who needed scolding.
“Aye, I do.”
“And what gives ye the authority to be ordin’ me around lass?” he growled.
“Lady Muir gives me that authority.”
“Did ye hear that lads?” he chuckled as he turned around to the others and received corresponding cheers. “Lady Muir gives her authority. Well, Lass, if ye havenae noticed, the Lady isnae here right now, now is she?”
Ivy chomped down on her tongue as her jaw flexed. Heat washed away the cold chills that pummeled her senses and she stepped closer to him.
“Perhaps nae, but by the look of yer brooch ye serve her do ye nae?” Ivy asked. “Yer one of the guards that are to swear allegiance to her at the Gatherin’. If I were ye, I’d walk away now before I tell M’Lady all about this incident. I donnae think she’ll be too keen on a lad like ye bein’ apart of her guard.”
“Yer tellin’ me ye ken the Lady personally then?”
“Aye, I do.”
“It seems best to do as the Lass says, Charles,” Henry said as he rubbed his jaw. “Lest ye want to explain to yer wife why yer out of work and wit’ her all day long.”
Charles’ lips disappeared into his beard as he pressed his lips into a tight line. His left eye twitched a moment before he stepped back.
“What makes ye think I’ll give a woman my oath?” Charles growled. “Nae woman should be in charge of Fulton Clan. That position belongs to a man.”
“So says ye, good thin’ the Councilmen see it otherwise,” Ivy snapped as Charles tightened his fists. For a moment Ivy thought she could hear his teeth grinding as he shook his head.
“Best watch yerself, Lass,” Charles said leaning into her. “Lady Muir might nae be so popular as ye’d like her to be. Would hate to see a woman of yer,” his eyes roamed down Ivy’s body causing her skin to crawl, “assets be put out of a job. Then again, ye might find more coin in yer purse than what the Keep offers if ye switch professions.”
“It’s one thing to insult me,” the man to Ivy’s right said as he hung onto the bar for support. “But I will nae let you speak in such a manner to a lady.”
“Havenae ye had enough, Henry? I’ve knocked ye down once, I can do it again.”
Ivy stepped between the men and glared at Charles. “Nae, ye will nae.”
“Aye that lass is right, be gone wit’ ye,” the bartender said throwing his arms up. “Ye’ve made a mess of the place as it is. Be gone wit’ ye.”
Charles shook his head as his lip twitched. “I’ll see ye again, Lass. Mark me words.”
“Nae doubt ye will,” Ivy said as she crossed her arms over her chest. Charles turned on his heel and stormed off taking most of the men with him. Ivy exhaled and glanced over to Henry. She cocked her head as he flashed her a hypnotic smile.
“Mind tellin’ me what that was all about?” Ivy asked as she righted the barstools and sat down with her mead in hand.
“Would if I could. You see Charles tends to hear things sometimes.” Henry tapped his fingertip to his temple. “Happens more often when he drinks.”
“So yer tellin’ me ye didnae deserve the beatin’ he gave ye?”
Henry shrugged and took the seat beside Ivy. “I probably did… I’m Henry by the way.”
“Yer nae a Scot are ye? Yet ye sort of sound like one,” Ivy said as she extended her hand to him.
“Picked up on that, did you? And here I thought I was doing so well,” Henry said as he reached over the bar and plucked a towel off the rack. Ivy watched as Henry dipped the tip of the towel into the water and dabbed his face. She couldn’t help but notice his thin lips, covered with a light beard. His nose was pointed at the tip, but it was his eyes she found most intriguing. They were almond shaped and dark brown which only made his sandy-blond hair stand out.
She watched his broad shoulders drop as he exhaled. Henry turned his head and looked at her with a gleam in his eyes.
“You look upset,” he said. “If it’s the blood, I can assure you, I’ll be fine come morning.”
Ivy shifted her eyes from him and found her face flushed with heat she couldn’t explain. It was as if she had been locked in the coldest part of the Keep for weeks and only now was able to feel the warmth of the sun on her face.
“’Tis nae the blood,” Ivy answered as she tried to find her voice.
“Are you blushing?” he asked.
“Nay,” she said. “Must be the mead or lack of food. I was about to eat after all.”
Henry settled back into his seat and nodded. “Sorry about that. I would say I’d buy you another plate, but you don’t want to eat that anyway.”
“Why nae?” Ivy asked daring to steal another glimpse at him.
Henry leaned in closer to her. She could feel his body heat warming the side of her arm as his hot breath tickled her ear as he spoke. “The food here isn’t very good. It may look appetizing, but trust me when I say it’s not worth it the next day.”
Ivy couldn’t help but smile as he moved away from her. Her heart fluttered as she grabbed her mug and drew a swig from it.
“Best stick with the mead. Besides it’s cheaper.”
“How’s yer lip?” Ivy asked.
“It’ll heal,” he said. “By and by, ye never gave me yer name.”
“Well, I donnae think ye’ve earned it,” Ivy said with a smirk.
“What if I bought you another mead? Would that be enough to entice the maid of Lady Muir to give me her name?”
“And what makes ye think I’m the Lady’s maid?”
Henry dabbed the cloth to his lips once more and arched his eyebrow. His thin lips curled up at the corners as Ivy held her breath.
He cannae recognize me… can he?
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