About the book
Their love was a durable fire, in the mind ever burning…
Punished by her brother for refusing to marry a man twice her age, Isabella Dellendine is sent to live with her aunt near the Scottish border. A situation almost as agonizing as her father’s death.
Severely wounded and with war raging around him, Duncan Goreidh, Laird of Brynkirk, has but one choice if he wants to survive: to disguise himself as a British soldier. Rescued at the last minute by an old English lady, his plans to flee home are ruined when he meets her irresistible niece.
Their love is forbidden, but their meeting was not a coincidence.
With Isabella’s presence turning his own flesh and blood against him, Duncan finds himself short of allies. And ways to protect her. An old vendetta started by his kin returns from the grave to haunt them, and it comes with a price. For whose fault is it, when you invite death into your own house?
“Pardon me!” Isabella Dellendine exclaimed. She was sure that she had not heard her brother right. It was either that, or her brother had lost his God-given mind. “I’m to do what?”
“Stop acting obtuse, sister,” Ralf sneered. “It does not suit you. I said, and as my word is law in this house, you will marry Lord Lofter. After all, aren’t married ties better bonds to conduct business with?”
Isabella’s golden eyes narrowed, “Your business doings are not any affairs of mine. I will not marry that Baron,” she spun to leave but her brother grabbed her arm tightly and her head snapped back to him. “Let me go.”
“You are too headstrong, sister,” Ralf snapped, his golden eyes glowing like a snake ready to strike. “Father gave you too much latitude to do what you wanted. He should have made your marriage betrothal long ago. You are nearly twenty now. I know women who marry at the age of sixteen. And yes, my business does affect your affairs. How do you think you can live in such luxury? Father’s investments are drying up, I have to find some way to keep this estate afloat and you marrying Lofter is it.”
“Let me go,” Isabella ordered again. “I don’t care if the man is richer than Midas himself, I will not marry him. He is three times my age and is rumored to have more women than an Arabian harem. He listens to no one but himself.”
“About that,” Ralf jerked her arm, “do not try to give the man advice on his business when you know nothing about it ever again. Lord Lofter had a right to overrule you. Father was wrong when he spoke of business with you in the room. He spoiled you and gave you airs that you have no right to have. A woman lets men speak without interruption. But you don’t know that, do you?”
Yanking her arm out of his slightly loosened grip, Isabella looked at her brother, five years her senior, with pity, “A woman is not a dog you can order around, Brother, but you don’t know that, do you? I will not marry him.”
“You will marry him. Do you hear me, Sister? Your foolishness will not ruin all my plans. I could force you, you know. I don’t need your approval or so-called permission to marry you off. I could just bring the priest here and then my hands are washed off from you.”
“If you dare do that Father would strike you from the grave,” Isabella said tightly.
“But…” Ralf grated, “I will have you come to know the meaning of sense and duty. On the morrow, I will send you to Aunt Matilda. She will knock some sense into you!”
Not giving her brother another look, she spun and hastened to her room, the curtain of her waist-length dark brown hair fluttering behind her. She shoved the door closed, grabbed the back of a chair with both hands and swallowed down the urge to scream her frustration.
Who was this man she termed her brother? Ralf had become a man she did not know. With his neighbors and friends he was a delight but when it came to her, he was a terror. Never having a kind word or a kind look, he always snapped, scoffed or ordered her around. There were days when she wished their father had taken her to the grave with him than allow her to live under her brother’s controlling hand.
She bit her lip tightly as her eyes clenched. Tears burned behind her eyes but she would never let them fall. The touch of a wet nose to her thigh, made her open her eyes to see her dog, Bandit, an Irish wolfhound nosing at her dress.
The huge golden-haired dog that was as high as her waist, came to her. His large, soulful brown eyes were looking up at her with pure love. If only that same emotion came from her brother. She went to sit on the edge of her bed and Bandit came with her. Fondling his ears, she remembered the day she had found him.
She was six and playing with her favorite rag doll in a garden while her mother pruned some rose bushes. Her mother had called her over to see a flower but as she went to her side, something dragged her doll away. She spun to see a large puppy with the doll in his fangs and gnawing at it while looking at her with large innocent eyes. What other name could she have given him but Bandit? Thirteen years later, he was still by her side.
“Did you hear that, Bandit, my brother is sending me away to get some sense knocked into me, all because I won’t marry the man he wants me to marry,” Isabella sighed and combed her hands through his soft fur. “I might be dependent on him but I will not bow to what he wants and force myself to suffer for what I do not want. He is an angry man who has been jealous of me all my life. I want to hate him but I cannot,” she sighed, “why... he is still my brother.”
The chamber that she had lived in from childhood to now, once so warm and inviting, felt like a cold prison. In all respects, it was fitting for the daughter of a wealthy merchant. The bed was big and heaped with soft quilts and blankets. There was a large hearth on one wall made with the finest marble, brought all the way from Greece.
She stood and went to her balcony. Bandit, of course, was on her heels. On the wide balcony, she rested her hands on the balustrade and looked out. The wind picked up and blew the salty sea air into her face. Her eyes skimmed over the tall tips of the trees retrieving her home and the edges of a town. Further along, she saw the deep blue spans of the sea and was looking directly at the bobbing white sails of merchant ships.
Their home was in Sunderland, a trading port for anything from salt and coal to teak wood from Italy and sweets from France. It was where her father had put down his roots for his business and where it had grown strong enough for the name Dellendine to be known far and wide.
Her keen eyes spotted a few wharf hands unloading cargo from a docked ship but she knew that while the wharf was busy, the town beyond was empty. Three weeks ago, men from the capital had come to the town, conscripting all men who were able to go and fight in Scotland. Men of all ages, sons, and brothers, uncles and nephews were all scraped up and carted off to war. Isabella had a very profound feeling that many who had gone would not return.
“Ralf should have gone with them,” she muttered angrily under her breath.
She turned her back to the sight and looked at the chamber with dull, impassive eyes. This room, this house, this town was all she knew. Rarely had she traveled farther than the boundaries of Sunderland. Once she could remember going to Newcastle but her memory blurred when she tried to picture anything from there.
She did not know places; she did not know the company of women or the camaraderie of friends, and surely, she did not know men. Now, she was going to be forced to marry a man she did not know and who she knew would never respect her. Mayhap her father had done her a disservice by protecting her from the cruelties of the real world, the harshness of life by giving her all she needed when she had wanted it.
Despite not knowing much about men, images of her knight in shining armor were still able to dance through her head, flitting away as soon as they did come. She thought of a ruggedly handsome, strong man, able and fit, with the fortitude of a warrior. A man with a kind heart, a shrewd mind, and a gentle touch. A man that could make her laugh, a man that would care for her if she was rich or poor, clothed in silk or dressed in rags.
“Where would I meet a man like that...does he even exist?” She shook her head, only to whisper, “I’m going to die alone...fantasies are just that...fantasies.”
Bandit nosed at her again and she heard him whimper. Smiling tiredly, Isabella scratched under his muzzle, “If you were a man, you’d be perfect.”
Someone knocked and she called out, “Enter.”
Anna, one of the household maids, came in, “Miss, I’ve been instructed to help you pack for your journey.”
Her eyebrows darted up. Ralf was being serious about her going to her Aunt Matilda all the way up north. Her aunt lived in England, in Cumbria, but near the borders, a scant stone’s throw away from the infamous Gretna, the crossing to Scotland. Her home had no name or village as it was nestled in the middle of nowhere, bookended by two lochs and a dirt road.
Why her aunt had chosen to live near what her brother called a land of savages, she did not know exactly but was beginning to suspect why. To get away from this chaos of friends she thought were family. Familiarity did breed contempt after all.
A part of her had thought her brother had been jesting, doing his best to scare her into bowing into his will, but now she knew she should never have entertained that thought. Ralf never went back on his words.
Going into the chamber she nodded, “Right, I think my lightest trunk will do, and take my winter gowns. That far up in the hills will be cold.”
Isabella went to her chest of drawers and tugged the top out. Reaching in, she pulled out her coveted pendant of Isabelle of France, the daughter of Louis the Eighth of France and Blanche of Castile. A privileged woman who had lived a life of pureness. It was one of the last gifts her mother had bestowed on her before she had died and it was the one Isabella cherished the most.
Slipping the rawhide thong over her head, she moved her hair from under it and slipped the pendant into her chest. She went to her bookshelf and from the few, took out a handwritten collection of Arthurian Tales, then another one that held a translated rendition of The Book of the City of Ladies a treatise of famous women written by Cristina de Pizan. She took both and slipped them into a satchel with some writing paper and her favorite quills.
She was taking her combs and brushes when another person came to her door. “Miss Dellendine, are you finished packing?”
A little confused, Isabella said, “Almost, why?”
“His Lordships says you are to leave tonight,” the servant replied, swallowing nervously. “He says he does not want to let you stay the night then see that you have fled during it.”
“He said what?” Isabella gawked then her chest tightened with anger. That’s just like him, going behind my back, trying to get rid of me, and middle of the night too. He knows the way is dangerous in the daylight, how worse can it be at night? Her laugh was low and bitter. “Well he can come and tell me himself or I am not stepping a foot out of this home until dawn.”
She knew she was putting the poor woman in a hard position. Ralf had been known to lose his temper and throw whatever he had near him at those who irritated him. He had never put a hand on anyone but she was acutely aware that Ralf thought servants were replaceable. He easily dismissed one and hired another when the slightest thing irked him.
Striding past the servant, Isabella went to her brother's study, the large room he had inherited from their father. She was going to make him look her in the eyes and tell her himself and not hide behind a proxy. Getting to the lower level, she pushed the door in and strode in, Ralf was shuffling some papers.
“I’m leaving tonight?”
“Yes,” Ralf’s eyes flicked up to her then down back to his papers dismissively. “I remember when you were younger you would sneak to the attic and no one would find you for hours. You tend to trick people, Sister dear. I am not going to let you jeopardize my dealing with the Baron, by conveniently disappearing on me.”
Her hand clenched by her side so hard that her nails nearly cut into her palms. “So, my happiness is of no importance to you, is it? Not if you can lobby gold into your coffers, find more buyers and monopolize the countryside. All you care about is making your name known from here to London. I am nothing more to you than a pawn.”
“And the hundreds of soldiers he will give me to guard our shared holdings, don’t ever forget that,” Ralf said easily. “Finish packing, you’ll need to be off before supper if you have the fleeting chance to get there before dawn or midnight when the wolves come out.”
“I’ll throw myself at them to escape you,” Isabella said through gritted teeth.
He looked up, met her gaze and steepled his hand under his chin. “You will do no such thing and being mauled by a wolf is a horrible way to die. Even if the men I send with you did fall under their attack, I know you wouldn’t. Do you think that I don’t know about your secret sword and archery lessons, sister? Do you presume me to be daft? I know you can shoot an arrow straighter than most men and handle a sword as if it was a quill,” his laugh was scornful. “Even more reason to sell you to a warlord, mayhap you can teach his men a thing or two. Now, get out of my sight and get ready to leave. You have…” he looked out the window, “a very short window of time till sundown.”
Her jaw was so stiff that her face went numb. She huffed through her nose and spun, going back to her room. Inside, she went to her fireplace and tugged out a brick.
Kneeling, she tugged out a pair of daggers she had paid a village smithy to secretly make and strapped one to her thigh. The other, she slipped into her satchel. Then she took out a pouch of gold coins that she had saved over the years and slipped that into her inner pocket. With her trunk filled and ready, she slipped her traveling coat over her head and flicked the hood up.
Downstairs she passed by Ralf without a look and right into the waiting carriage. He slammed the door shut then spoke to the driver and the guard, who sat beside him, “Shoot to kill anything or anyone that poses a threat to her. Get her to my aunt’s house without a scratch, understood?” Ralf then looked at her and Isabella dared to believe that he actually cared for her before he ended, “She has much worth to me alive, than all of you, she is going to be a bride to a powerful man after all.”
“Yes, My Lord,” the driver said and the guard added his own affirmation.
Facing ahead, Isabella did not look at her traitorous brother. “Take care of Bandit,” was all she said. If Ralf thought she was going to come back to him as a subservient woman, he was fooling himself.
“I’d die than come back to a life of servitude,” Isabella said. “And if that is what it takes—”
His feet were about to fail him but even when he tottered, tripped and fell, Duncan just kept walking. Guided by the meager light coming from the thin sickle of the moon, he kept going, pushing farther south, as far from the war-torn, blood-coated battlefield as he could get. His dark blue eyes kept flicking up to the moon then back to the ground. The battle on the waters of the Sark River had been won, many had died but the battle had been won.
About a mile ago—or probably five—he had dropped his sword, as his wounded arm was getting numb. The tight band he had wrapped around his injured thigh was making him hurt, as the more he moved the more his skin was abraded and spots of fresh blood began to dot the cloth. Dirt coated his skin from his many falls, his blood and those of the others he had slain covered him with grime, and the English trousers he had on were rubbing him wrong.
The smell of the salt marshes was constantly in his nose as he used the rivers to guide his way. He had probably crossed into England territory already but he did not know, nor did he care. He just had to get away for a while and heal.
I must find shelter, I must heal—
Those words were his mantra as he walked, holding his injured arm to his chest. He could hardly concentrate on the rocky road before him as his mind was back on the ten-hour battle he had just miraculously survived. The English bastards had swarmed them, thousands upon thousands and he and his fellow Scots, decidedly of a lesser number than the English, had marched against them.
The Scottish generals, knowing the location as easily as they knew the back of their hands, had used the wet marshland to their advantage, resulting in their resounding victory. He could still remember seeing the English flee east and west, some trying to swim to safety but only drowning themselves or making their bodies targets for slaughter in the process.
He tripped on a root but managed to catch himself. Bracing his hand to his chest, he gulped in deep ragged breaths of salty air. He felt as if he had been walking the full length and breadth of the earth twice over. His feet were aching, his body was past exhausted but his mind would not let him rest until he found shelter.
As he breathed, he remembered the moment he had nearly lost it all. While the battle had been raging, he and his fellow Scots had gotten an upper hand on the English. They did not know the terrain; they did not know how to walk in marshy land and certainly not how to fight in it. When they had fled, he had been a part of the band to chase after them and cut them down. It had gone well…until the tide had turned.
The English began to rebound with a fierceness he knew came from that innate need to preserve one’s life. He had become overpowered but he had not given in. His enemies had cut him off from his people but he was not going to be taken prisoner, and kept fighting.
Suddenly, a large band from the Scottish forces had overpowered the Englishmen from behind. Knowing their lives were in peril, they had abandoned trying to capture him and ran. While he, wounded in his arm and leg, and knowing that staying in the melee would guarantee him death, had done the same.
He was not proud of it but in pure survival mode he had found a dead English soldier a way out of the battlefield, stripped him of his uniform and put it on. Then found a copse of trees to rest and wait. If the English found him, his uniform would save him, and if he ran into Scots, he could easily explain his position and that would save him. It was a flimsy plan but he was going to use it until he found something better.
The battle had simmered down but his body felt leaden and unable to move. He stayed put until dusk fell and only then did he manage to get up and walk. As he did, he realized that he had strayed from the river course but he did not care. Up ahead of him was a building and as he neared it, he could hear the lowing of a cow and the nickering of a horse inside.
Another building, not too far off had light in the window and he realized he had stumbled onto someone’s homestead. He looked back to the barn and though he did not dare go inside, he allowed himself to drink from the outside trough.
The cool water burned his parched throat even worse than the gritty dryness that had lodged there before. He kept drinking though and when his stomach was filled, he pressed his back to the wall and sank down under the hanging eave. His eyes fluttered and he got glimpses of the stars before his eyes closed. His head, covered with dark hair that was matted with sweat and dried blood, rested on the rough wood behind him.
I’ll just rest for a moment…just a few moments…
But his total exhaustion, throbbing feet, dull pain, and wounds forced him into a deep fatigued-laden sleep. His head dropped to his chest even while his good hand braced his injured arm to his chest. A knee was pulled up while his injured one lay flat and soon he was dead to the world.
A tinny scream had him launching out of his sleep but the scream was gone. His head began to flash, looking around widely for the source but his eyes were still unfocused. He did take a moment to close his eyes and forced them to focus. When he opened them, he saw a lass, standing about ten feet away from him, her face white with fright and her hand covering her mouth.
He did not move, in case she thought he would be a threat. She came near and he could see long locks of her hair falling over her shoulder and then a curtain swishing behind her back. He got a glimpse of golden eyes before she came two steps closer, then turned and ran.
Duncan tried to get up but his injured leg felt dead, his head was pounding and even as he braced his elbow on the wall to give him some leverage, he felt his head spinning and had to sink back down. He pressed the heels of his good hand to his eyes and breathed in deeply.
His whole body was throbbing in dull pain and his leg was numb. He briefly feared that he might have caught an infection and his leg might be cut off. His chest was laboring with each breath, his head felt like it was lifted off and was somewhere on the moon. Every part of him felt weak and he had no strength.
The lass came back with three more people, two men and another woman, and he heard her say. “…saw he was English…he must have escaped from the battle…he needs help…can we—”
His vision went black and his body went cold, he was hovering in the gray area between consciousness and unconsciousness and was bouncing between them. He could not see but he heard their voices. He then felt two sets of hands taking him and lifting him up. His vision came back and he saw trees passing by…a water well…another shed. That was until he was carried under a threshold and then into a warm home.
His vision blacked out again and stayed that way until he was rested on a soft bed. He felt his back being braced while the top of his tattered English uniform was taken off his back. He felt his trousers being pulled off and hoped the lass or the other woman was not in the room as the only thing underneath them was his sporran.
He did not know if the English had undergarments like his but he had just a mere moment to fear they would notice it before he went fully unconscious. Blessed blackness enveloped his body and his sleep was deep.
It was the sound of voices, whispers actually, that brought him back to the land of the living. He did not move his head and forced his eyelids to keep still. Little by little the most recent memories came back to him. The images from the battle, his almost abduction by the English, his long trek away from the battleground and now…he knew he was in an English house.
I dinnae ken it safe to speak. If I do, they will ken I’m a Scot, they might hold a deep hatred for me people. Until I ken who and what I am, I ken it's best to keep silent.
“We know that our people lost,” a woman’s voice said and her tone was tight. “He must have run for his life, Isabella.”
“I know,” another female said, perhaps this was Isabella. Her voice was soft and melodic, “And he is heavily injured. Have we sent for the physician already, Aunt?”
Isabella…what a lovely name, a Queenly name. With a name like that, beauty must come by default.
“We have but this far into the woods, Mr. Portman will have a warm time coming in,” the aunt replied. Again, Duncan sensed a harshness in the woman but why? “He is coming from Longtown so it will take a while.”
Duncan felt a hand tug the sheet over his chest a little higher. “Anywhere nearer?”
“The only other place is in Gretna,” the aunt replied. “And that is foolish to even think about. Why would I invite a Scot into my home when they just killed thousands of our men? He needs better care than what we have given him. Homemade salves are better than nothing but we need true medical help, Isabella.”
How she said the word Scot…she hates me people…
As they continued to speak, he heard no mention of a male presence in the house. That was a bit strange. Was the aunt a widow and her niece unattached? He kept pretending to sleep when he heard the niece say, “He’s very handsome, Aunt. He probably has a wife and children waiting for him at home. I can see that as the reason to run for one’s life.”
Duncan held in a snort. Wife waiting for me at home…I wish.
“Should he be sleeping for so long?” the niece, Isabella asked, this time he felt her hand smooth his hair from his forehead. A soft scent of rosewater filled his nose as she came near. He even felt the heat from her body, “I know he is injured but…is that normal?”
“I can’t tell,” her aunt replied, her tone grave. “Perhaps there is some internal injury we did not see. But Isabella,” and here, her voice changed to admonishing, “why were you out so early? I had expected to find you in your bed, not coming from the backyard with grass stains on your coat. You just arrived last night.”
“I apologize Aunt but it is not in me to sleep past dawn,” Isabella softly explained, “I was still upset about Ralf’s deceitful actions so I decided to walk it out. I promise I won’t do it again.”
“You better not. If this soldier could make it here, what’s to say others wouldn’t? And some of them might have…evil intentions, they could easily take you away,” the aunt said in one strict, admonishing breath. “But what is done is done, stay here, Isabella, I’ll go make us some nettle tea. If he wakes up, call me immediately.”
He heard the scrape of the chair and the soft padding of feet out the door. With the aunt gone, Duncan decided it was time to wake up. He shifted his head to the side once and twice, then opened his eyes. His lids were heavier than he had expected them to be but the moment his gaze met the lass’ golden ones—a hue that literally stole his breath away—Duncan felt his heart grip. Instantly, he knew he was in trouble.
The lass did not move but her eyes widened. The world seemed to narrow in on them, excluding all who existed, leaving just the two of them.
“Who are you?” she whispered.
Duncan thought of what to say. This was an English house, a home where the people that hated his kin lived. He needed an ally in this house until he was strong enough to leave and this lass was his best option. If he was proven wrong and this English lass, like the rest of her kin and country, hated him and his people, he could count it as that he had signed his death warrant.
“I’m nay who ye ken I am, lass,” he whispered. “I’m nae English, but I am nay yer enemy either.”
At the sound of his voice—not his voice, but his accent— her mouth slipped open and she yanked herself away from him, making him drop his hand. Then, they both heard footsteps coming toward them. The aunt came in, bearing two cups of tea and when she saw him awake, she tripped over her feet. Isabella rushed to help her over to a chair and she moved, Duncan saw the lovely curtain of hair flow with her.
Isabella looked at him and then at her aunt. “Yes, Aunt Matilda, I was shocked too but he…” she looked at him again before swallowing, “he cannot speak, Aunt. I saw him try but he couldn't. Do you think that perhaps an injury to his head could have caused it?”
“It’s possible,” Aunt Matilda said as she sat. Her skin was tanned perhaps because she was so close to the lowlands of Scotland, with dark hair like her niece, but her eyes were pale green-blue that had a hint of coldness to them. Her face also had soft lines of age and deep tiredness embedded in it. Clad in a dark, somber dress she sat with her hands cupping her tea. “The physician should be here soon. Isabella, you have not had any rest coming from Sunderland, you should go try to sleep.”
Isabella turned those spellbinding eyes on him. “But Aunt—”
“No, Isabella,” Aunt Matilda ordered in a no-nonsense tone, her face going hard with her authority. “You have had less than three hours rest. You came here past midnight and woke up before dawn, when you found him. It is past midday now, and you need to go and rest.”
Looking between them again, Isabella sighed and stood to kiss her aunt on her cheek. “I understand, Aunt. I’ll help you with supper when I wake.”
She left but lingered at the doorway to look over her shoulder at him. He felt his heart throb extra hard when she finally slipped away. He closed his eyes but he could feel the aunt’s eyes on him.
Isabella…what have ye done to me?
Her footsteps were slow as Isabella walked away from the room. She had not wanted to go but her aunt had ordered her to and it made sense. She had risen early that morning as her body did not allow her to sleep past dawn and had gone to take a walk in the early day. It was not safe as she did not know the place but she had to do something to get the lingering stains of anger in her body out.
She still had not come to the reality that Ralf had sent her away like an unwanted child being shuffled between distant relatives. The cold English—or was it Scottish—air was making it clear to her when she had seen the man, bloodied from head to toe, lying against the barn’s wall.
Immediately, she recognized the English army uniform, and thinking he was a dead man, had screamed but had never expected his eyes to open. After clapping her hands over her mouth in shock, she still doubted her eyes. She was seeing a man with a head of thick hair the color of a raven’s wing, loose and tangled about his shoulders.
When she had run for help and her aunt and two of her yard hands had followed them into the room the men had laid him in. She had left when the men stripped him of his shirt and cleaned off the splatters of blood from his body but when she came back, she had seen his body and felt her stomach tightening.
He was tall, possibly past six feet with a body that was honed to perfection by years and years of training. His face sported a slightly crooked nose perhaps broken from a fight, noble cheekbones, thin firm lips, and some days’ worth of stubble on his square jaw. No English man she had ever seen—though she did not know many—had a physique like that.
Then, he had opened his eyes and she had seen a hue of unfathomable blue that rivaled any precious gem. If that had not been enough, he had spoken and his voice had threads of—she was not even sure what to call it—wrap around her heart. His highland voice was so soft, lyrical, and entrancing she had felt mesmerized. He was a Scot in an Englishman’s uniform. That was a mystery she wanted to solve as soon as possible.
Isabella took the wooden corridors toward the main staircase. Her aunt’s house was plain, a soft whitewash over the bare stones but nothing else. There were no paintings, no tapestries, and no ornaments at all, except the many plain wooden crosses, nailed to the walls.
A thin dark strip of carpet was the only thing between her feet and the cold stones. In the main rooms, fresh rushes were on the floor but lines of dark English carpet were laid in the corridors. Her aunt’s house was a balanced mix of Scottish culture and her English blood.
The rooms were sparsely furnished, with only the bare essentials; a bed topped with straw mats, a chest and a footstool. The walls were bare and though Isabella wanted to shy away from the issue staring her in her face, she was forced to admit that the bareness of the house spoke volumes of her aunt’s loneliness.
She took the stairs to the room her aunt had given her last night. She did not really want to rest as the mysterious man in her aunt’s guest room had her mind spinning like a carriage wheel but she was not going to disobey her aunt. As she was about to disrobe, someone knocked and she went to open it.
A young woman, probably a few years older than her, with dark hair and light blue eyes, dressed in servant browns curtseyed. “Good day, Miss, I am Agnes Polver, Miss Dellendine’s maid. She sent me to check if you needed anything.”
“That’s very sweet of her but I don’t need anything right now,” Isabella said with a smile. “I’ll surely call on you if I need anything.”
Another curtsy, “Good day then, Miss.”
Closing the door, Isabella disrobed, put on her night shift and braided her hair into one thick rope. Sliding under the covers, she turned to her side and examined the hand the Scot had held. She could still feel his touch, warm and callused with a soft strength to it. But what really made her shiver was his eyes.
Blue, deep blue like the lochs that surrounded her aunt’s property on both sides. Never had she seen a man like him, but then again, she did not know men in general. What she did know was that no Englishman could walk near him when it came to looks or bearing. The man was injured but she hoped to see him back to his full fitness as soon as possible. She had a feeling that he would be magnificent.
“A king resurrected from the old times…” she said while plucking at the sheets, “a warrior…fierce but gentle.”
She had not believed herself to be tired but laying down on the soft bed had her drifting off. The journey from her coastal home had taken longer than expected and as her brother had almost accurately predicted, she had gotten at her aunt’s some hours to dawn. Thankfully, no wolves.
Her sleep was light but long enough to have her walking up in the afternoon. Blinking awake, the first thought that sprang to Isabella’s mind was the Scot and if the physician had come. Dressing quickly, she hurried to the man’s room and but then hesitated while her hand rested on the latch.
Was she ready to see him again? More importantly, was it worth angering her aunt if she got caught? Her aunt held onto every rule of propriety made from the dawn of mankind, and a principal one was that no unmarried woman should ever be in the presence of an unmarried man unchaperoned.
But…I have to see how he’s doing…
She pressed her ear to the door to listen in first then took in a deep breath and pushed the door in. The windows were shuttered and the man was asleep on the bed. She had come the wrong time and she began to backtrack out when his quiet voice came, “Nay…please come in.”
She softly closed the door and took two steps closer to him. He was still topless and the sheet was resting on the jut of his hip-bones. Isabella bit a section of her inner lip. Her eyes skimmed up his ribbed stomach up to the broad spans of his upper chest. She saw a fresh bandage on his upper arm and realized the physician had come and gone. She came to the edge of his bed, but no further, “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” he said, “much better, thanks to yer aunt’s generosity.”
His voice pulled her and her knees rested on the edge of his bed, his head canted to the side, arresting her again with those eyes. He didn’t even have to reach out to her to have her sitting on the edge. Isabella felt like she was watching herself from afar. Having grown up mostly in solitude she was a bit cautious of most people, now she was getting close to a man she did not know and worse, he was a Scot; from the country that was in war with hers.
“Aunt Matilda is a generous person,” Isabella agreed. “But don’t you ever dare take her kindness for granted or you’ll see another side of her.”
“Is she yer mother’s sister or yer faither’s?” He asked.
“Father’s,” Isabella replied. “But she moved away to here, to Cumbria, a long time ago, a year after I was born really,” pausing Isabella looked around. “I don’t know why she came all the way out here but I do know she’s lonely.”
“And ye came out here to be with her,” he said.
Not really, but you don’t have to know that, “Yes,” she replied. “You have me at a disadvantage, you know who we are but I don’t know anything about you.”
“Really…” his smile was slow, crooked and utterly charming, “me name’s Duncan, and I—”
They both heard footsteps coming toward them and she shot a panicked look to Duncan who shut up immediately. Isabella shot up and stepped away from the bed just as the door pushed in and Aunt Matilda’s strict voice snapped. “Isabella, what are you doing here?!”
She turned to her aunt, trying to keep her voice calm, “I just came to see how he’s doing, Aunt.”
“Well, you should not be here, and you know that!” Aunt Matilda said while reaching out to grab her hand. “Go to my room, I’ll speak with you there!”
Nodding, Isabella ducked her head and left the room without a look back. She did not look back when she heard her aunt say something inside the room. Her voice was muffled but the tone was direct and straightforward. Isabella didn’t need to hear what she was saying to know her aunt was delivering a warning.
She hurried to her aunt’s room, passing Agnes, the maid, on her way. She met the woman’s contemplative look for a moment but could only nod before she made her way up the stairs and to the last room on the floor. Entering the room, she began to pace knowing that she had earned herself an earful from her aunt.
All I can do is stick to the truth.
Her pacing stopped and she found a chair to sit. Her eyes moved to a large window and she drank in the lovely sight she saw far off. The window was faced to the north, toward Scotland and its majestic mountains rising into mist far off. Those must be the Highlands.
She rose and went to the window, looking. As the house was nestled in a wide plain, she saw miles and miles of flat land, some of it broken by tiny hills and knolls along the way. Her eyes were tracing over the thick forests clothing the lands as they crept up the mountainsides when her aunt came into the room.
“I do not ever want to see you back in that man’s room alone, do you hear me, Isabella,” Aunt Matilda ordered. “It is not good for a woman of your innocence to be with a man we know nothing of.”
Wrong, I know something about him, his name is Duncan.
“Aunt, please, I was only—”
Matilda raised her hand up sharply, as was her gaze. “I do not care what you went there for, it is not safe and I will not have you go there on your own anymore.” Matilda said as she gestured for Isabella to sit, which she did, “There’s another issue I want to talk to you about.”
Not sure what that was about, Isabella clasped her hands on her lap and nodded. “Starting from tomorrow, you are to wake up early and pray with me. I’ll need your help cleaning the house and attending various needs, but that is not all. Isabella, you are a young girl and I know you don’t know what is best for you yet. I’ve been told Ralf has arranged a most fortunate marriage for you and if you don’t accept it you might, not might, you will end up alone and with no money or prospects.”
Irritation bubbled in Isabella’s chest but she swallowed her anger, “I assume he also told you that the man he had engaged me to or rather sold me off to, is three times my age and is rumored to have had a slew of women and bastard children before, but all are suddenly missing?”
Her words clearly shocked her aunt, but the expression vanished from her face quickly, “Nevertheless, he is the best fitting for your hand.”
“And my brother’s coffers,” Isabella rebutted. “He is only doing this for money, Aunt, money, soldiers, and acclaim. He does not care about me or what I want. He’s always been that way, Aunt, if you don’t know this before but Ralf has always been selfish. He looks out only for himself.”
Matilda’s look was patient, “And what do you want, Isabella?”
“In my family,” Isabella asked cautiously, “or in my marriage?”
“Both, but let me see if I can take a guess at what you want in a husband,” Matilda replied while tucking her legs under her chair. “The prospective husband you’ll want is a strong man, old enough to be responsible but young enough to be fun and loving. You want someone with strong family ties but independent enough to defend you against any slurs his family might throw against you. You want someone handsome, a bit mysterious, caring, loving, wealthy, good tempered, and educated, but he is completely fictional.”
Isabella had been following her aunt, checking off those points on her mental checklist as Matilda had gone down them, until those last words. She jerked away, feeling as if her aunt had just slapped her in her face.
“A man like that does not exist, Isabella.” Matilda continued calmly, “No man has all those aspects. You’ll find some with some and others with others, no one has them all. You will have to sacrifice what you want with what you will need and the three of them are: safety in a fixed home, financial security, and peace of mind.”
“What about love?” Isabella asked after a moment of silence. “Should not that be important too?”
“For those who find it, yes,” Matilda said and something flashed through her eyes before Isabella could catch it. “But for those who do not, we take safety before all others. You have to pick and choose the most important things.”
“Love is important to me,” Isabella said. “I might be foolish in saying this, Aunt, but if he loves me, I’ll go with him, poor or rich. As for my family, I just wish that…” she sighed and looked to the window as dull pain and sorrow bubbled up in her heart, “I wish father or even mother was alive to stop all this madness.”
“But they aren’t!” Aunt Matilda snapped. “Isabella, one day you will have to leave all these ideals behind and start looking at the reality before you have to face the cold hard truth all alone.” Again, Isabella saw something flash across her face but her expression grew cold and uninviting.
“Aunt—” Isabella’s words were cut off by a knock on the door. Aunt Matilda looked up and gave permission to enter. Soon after, Agnes came in.
She curtseyed, with her eyes down, “Pardon me for the interruption, Miss Dellendine, but the man we’ve rescued is awake. What should I prepare for him?”
“Something easy,” Isabella blurted out even when she saw her aunt was about to speak, “like stew or soup.” She then slid cautious eyes to her aunt before she amended. “I don’t think he would be able to eat harder things now that he is injured.”
Agnes nodded but looked to her mistress for confirmation as all trained servants would do and Aunt Matilda nodded, “She’s right, Agnes. soup or broth will be best.”
“And for the both of you?” Agnes asked. “We have some venison smoking in the smokehouse, would you like that?”
“Bake some sweet beets and use what is left of the carrots too,” Aunt Matilda added. “Thank you, Agnes.”
The maid bopped out a curtsy and left, closing the door behind her. Isabella looked to her aunt, “Lovely woman, where did you find her?”
Turning back from the door, Aunt Matilda said. “Actually, she found me. She doesn’t speak much of her past but I assume like most of the girls around here, she is an orphan or something of the sort. She’s a hard worker and does things efficiently. But back to the issue at hand, you need to consider your future and not an image of the future, marry this man.”
“Aunt,” Isabella said calmly. “I will think about it, but I will not promise you that I will marry him.” She rose. “If you will excuse me, I have some unpacking to finish.”
“You may go,” Aunt Matilda said as she reached for a book at a nearby table. “But no more going to see that man alone, understood?”
“Yes, Aunt,” Isabella replied as she left. Though tempted, she did not dare go see Duncan but kept straight to her rooms where she did finish packing out the few things she had carried. Then, she took one of her poetry books and curled up on her bed. She read words about undying love and devotion that tied two souls together for the rest of their lives. “I will surely avenge your death and thus extinguish the great sorrow and anger which are burning up my heart as I see you lifeless before me…”
This was the type of relationship Isabella wanted with the man who was to be her husband, a bond that would give her such a deep love that her dedication would continue after death. Her mind strayed to Duncan, and again, she wondered if he was married. Surely, a man as handsome as he, must have a wife or even a lover.
The questions came one after another. Who was he truly? Where had he come from? Was he one of the fighters in the war? If not, why had he had an English soldier’s uniform on? He did say that he was not an enemy to her, but weren’t all Scots enemies to her people? Had she, by being merciful, allowed someone dangerous into her aunt’s house?
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