About the book
Either a secret or a sin, she was his to hold, forever...
Lady Penelope Warren firmly believes there is nothing worse than living with parents that hate you. That is until the day she learns that she is to marry a Laird she despises.
When a fire destroys half his Castle, Rodrick Finterson, Laird of Durmont, realizes that he has but one choice if he is to save his clan from annihilation: accept an arranged marriage to a loathed but inexplicably bewitching Sassenach.
With more and more skirmishes breaking out at the border, their budding flame is put to the test. On the way to a neighboring clan to form an alliance, an ambush rains steel and fire on Rodrick’s party. But a single realization makes his blood run cold. The ambush is but a diversion and the enemy means to destroy him from within. Starting with Penelope...
“Me Laird, wake up! Wake up!”
Rodrick was awakened by Ewan, one of his servants shaking him violently. And as he came to his senses, finally able to shake off the cobwebs of sleep, he was overcome by the powerful odor of smoke. He looked up at Ewan in alarm.
“What is happenin’?” he demanded.
“The castle is burnin’, Me Laird.”
“Bleedin’ hell,” Rodrick grumbled.
He threw off his bedcovers with a growl and quickly pulled on his breeches under his nightshirt, and then his boots.
“Show me,” he ordered.
Ewan led him out of his bedchamber and the smell of smoke was even thicker in the hallway. Rodrick looked up one side of the corridor and down the other. Wisps of smoke filled the air around him but he could not see any flames.
“Tis the east wing of the castle that burns, Me Laird,” Ewan said.
Rodrick gave him a nod and together, they sprinted through the castle, emerging through a door and into the cool night air, and he breathed deeply, relieved to be out of the smoke-filled hallways. The sky above them was overcast but offered no rain. Silently cursing his luck, Rodrick ran toward the eastern wing of Durmont Castle, the ancestral home of his family and the Durmont Clan’s seat of power.
He stood and watched as the flames rose from the roof of the castle, the eastern wing fully engulfed. Bright orange flames shot high into the darkness of the nighttime sky, casting the area around the eastern wing in light as bright as the sun at noon. Rodrick stood a good distance from the conflagration but even still, he felt the heat radiating from it. He was half afraid that if he moved any closer, he would be singed by it.
A column of smoke, thick and black, rose high into the air and Rodrick felt his stomach clench. He knew if they did not put this fire out soon, the only home he’d ever known would be reduced to a pile of charred wood, cracked stone, and ash.
“You lads there, form a line to the river,” he shouted and pointed at a group of the household servants who were clustered around, watching the blaze. “Grab some buckets’n pass them up the line. Hurry now. Do it quickly.”
The men scurried to obey Rodrick’s commands as he turned to Ewan who stood close to him, an expression of shock mixed with fear on his face. Ewan was one of his youngest servants, having seen just six-and-ten summers so far. His father was the castle’s blacksmith and his mother worked in the kitchens. They were good people who raised a good lad.
“I need ye to keep yer head about ye, lad,” Rodrick said. “Can ye do that for me?”
“Aye, Me Laird,” he said. “I can do that.”
“Good,” Rodrick nodded. “I need ye to run down to the village. Wake everyone. Tell ‘em to grab buckets or whatever’ll hold water’n get up here. Tell them tis on me orders.”
“Aye, Me Laird,” Ewan said.
He turned and ran off into the night, leaving Rodrick there to organize the fire party and to hope the rest of the Clan arrived before the entire castle burned to the ground. His stomach churning, Rodrick ran to the line and started helping haul buckets up from the river as the fire blazed on.
* * *
The sun was high in the sky before the fire was finally put out. Rodrick sat on a tree stump at the edge of the forest that surrounded Durmont Castle on three sides, feeling stunned. Feeling numb. He looked at the section of the building that had been destroyed. The mortar between the stones had cracked and the walls had fallen in. The wooden beams that held the roof up had turned to ash, and everything inside was gone. He watched the thin tendrils of smoke rising from the rubble and scrubbed his face with his hands.
“At least it was contained to the east wing.”
Rodrick looked up to see his uncle, Hector, standing beside him. Rodrick had been so lost in his thoughts he hadn’t heard the older man walk up. Hector surveyed the damage, a small frown pulling his lips downward.
“And at least ‘twas only storage rooms that burned up,” he noted. “Nothing lost in the fire cannae be replaced.”
Rodrick nodded absently as he looked at his latest piece of misfortune. It was true though. Rodrick knew it could have been much worse. The fire was indeed limited to a wing of the castle that was unoccupied except for boxes, excess furniture, and old ghosts. With a castle as large as Durmont and not enough bodies to fill it all, Rodrick had shut down the east wing long ago. It seemed superfluous and foolish to keep it open.
“Aye. That’s true,” he said. “Tis almost like somebody kenned that.”
Hector cocked his head curiously as he looked at him. It was a gesture common to his father and whenever Hector did that, it never failed to remind Rodrick of the man. It made him miss the old man and his mother badly. His mother and father had died in his sixteenth summer, murdered by thieves in the night. Cowards who skulked about in the dark, looking to steal that which was not theirs—including the lives of his parents.
And although Hector helped guide and shape him in those early days, Rodrick often felt that he had been left to figure out how to be the Clan’s laird on his own. He relied on the lessons his father and his army of tutors had instilled in him early on, but he still felt woefully unprepared and unsuited for the task when his parents died and he ascended to the Laird’s seat.
It was a responsibility he was not close to being ready for but he’d had no choice. He was the rightful Laird of Clan Durmont and had to grow up quickly, learning how to be the Laird. Hector had tried to help where he could, offering what guidance he could and insights he had. But he always told Rodrick that he was not cut out for the responsibility of being the laird. He knew nothing about leading the Clan, since it was his brother—Rodrick’s father—who had been groomed for the job from an early age.
With Hector not much of a use to him in terms of learning how to be a Laird, Rodrick had to learn on his own. He’d made many mistakes early on but to his credit, they were mistakes he had learned from. And now that he was in his twenty-seventh year, Rodrick liked to think he was better suited to be the sort of laird his father had wanted, and expected, him to be.
“What are ye sayin’?” Hector asked. “Ye ken this was done on purpose then?”
Rodrick sighed and kicked at a rock near his boot. “I’m exhausted, Uncle Hector,” he said. “I daenae ken what I’m sayin’ right now.”
“Tis fair. Understandable,” he nodded. “But the people’re are goin’ to need ye to be strong. They’re goin’ to need ye to keep yer head about ye, lad.”
“Aye,” Rodrick said. “I ken. I always have to keep me head about me for the people.”
A wry smile touched his lips. “Tis part of the job, son,” he said. “Like it or nae.”
“I’m the Laird. For better or for worse,” Rodrick said, echoing words his father had said to him long ago.
The sound of beams being hammered, stone hauled to the rafters, and men shouting at one another as they labored filled the air around him. Rodrick stood in the same spot he had the night of the fire and looked at the skeleton of what would be the new eastern wing of Durmont Castle. The frame was going up nicely and much progress had been made to rebuild what had been lost the night the fire had swept through.
Rodrick had determined that he would use more stone and less wood in the rebuild, hopefully reducing the chances of it being burned to the ground again. In time, he planned to rebuild most all of Durmont Castle that way. Bit by bit and piece by piece, he planned to make his home a stone fortress impervious to fire. Events over the past year seemed to have made it a necessity more than anything.
“Well, look at that,” came the voice behind him. “Before ye ken it, ye’ll have a whole castle. And then ye’ll be a proper Laird again, eh?”
Rodrick grinned but knowing the voice so well, he didn’t bother turning around. Jaimie Keyfore, his oldest and most trusted friend, stepped up beside him.
Jaimie was a physically imposing man and had appointed himself to lead Rodrick’s personal guard—which was a squad of one. Rodrick didn’t believe in keeping an armed contingent around his person all the time. Durmont Castle had a standing garrison of soldiers and he felt that was all that was necessary. He’d told Jaimie time and time again that he did not need somebody to mind him. But he never listened. Eventually, Rodrick gave up and gave him a proper tunic with his family’s crest emblazoned upon it.
It didn’t happen often, but he would inevitably have to meet with nobles from neighboring lands and he didn’t want to feel embarrassed by a large man in ill-fitting and often dirty, tattered clothing watching his back. He was the Laird and as such, was expected to maintain a certain image. At least, that was one of the few lessons he’d gleaned from the few lessons his father gave him about being the Laird.
“Aye. Tis comin’ along nicely,” Rodrick replied. “Now let’s hope there are nae any mysterious accidents before it’s done.”
Jaimie nodded soberly. “Aye. Fingers crossed.”
A rueful smile touched Rodrick’s lips. His luck had been rotten of late and he wasn’t sure even crossing his fingers would help at that point. Things had been so bad, he would have sworn he was cursed if he’d believed in the supernatural. It had taken a little time to come around, but he had come to believe that his problems had a far more earthly origin.
“Walk with me,” Rodrick said.
Jaimie fell into step beside him and together, they followed the path down to the banks of the river. The day was clear and bright. The sun shone down on them, warming their faces and making the surface of the river glitter like a pool of molten gold. A cool breeze blew downriver, stirring the bushes and the branches of the tress pressed close to the banks on either side of them.
Side by side, they stood at the water’s edge. Rodrick bent down and scooped up a handful of small stones and got back up. He picked out one flat, smooth stone, reared his arm back, and then threw it. He watched the stone as it skipped across the surface of the river.
“Three skips,” Jaimie said. “Nae bad for a man who throws like a six-year-old girl.”
Rodrick chuckled. “If ye can do better, let’s see it then.”
Jaimie wound up and hurled his stone—skipping it four times before it disappeared below the surface of the water. Rodrick grinned and shook his head as Jaimie turned to him, a smug, self-satisfied grin on his face.
“I daenae suppose I need to say it?” he chirped. “That once again, I’m the greatest ever?”
“Nay. I’ll say it for ye,” Rodrick said, flashing him a grin. “Ye’re nae half bad—for a seven-year-old girl with one arm.”
They laughed together as Jaimie punched him playfully in the shoulder. They had been skipping stones like this, competing with one another, since they were lads. Rodrick’s life had gotten so complicated since then and he always found a great deal of solace and comfort in simple things like this. It might be considered childish and immature and perhaps beneath the station of a Laird, but it helped alleviate the pressure and stress that afflicted him on a daily basis.
“So what’s got ye vexed?” Jaimie asked.
“What makes ye ken I’m vexed?”
“Because I’ve kent ye since we were boys,” he said. “I can tell when somethin’s botherin’ ye. I’m nae a bleedin’ bampot and I can read ye like a book.”
Rodrick laughed and shook his head. “Aye. But the next book ye read’ll be yer first.”
Jaimie laughed and punched him affectionately on the shoulder then skipped another rock as Rodrick tried to gather his thoughts. It was an idea that had slowly been gathering steam in his head for a little while now. It had taken root the night of the fire and was now blossoming into something else.
But he hadn’t shared it with anybody yet. Partly because he knew how it might sound, but mostly because he had nothing in the way of evidence to support his thoughts. But if there was somebody who would understand and not think he’d gone mad, it would be Jaimie.
“Are ye gonnae tell me?” Jaimie asked, a note of amusement in his voice. “Or are ya goin’ to make me guess?”
“Tis the fire,” Rodrick finally said. “Tis just the latest problem we’ve had lately.”
Jaimie nodded. “Aye. Tis been a string of bad luck.”
“Aye. Tis what it looks like,” Rodrick said. “Unless luck had nothin’ to do with it.”
“What do ye mean?”
“I ken somebody’s sabotagin’ me, Jaimie,” he said. “I ken somebody’s stagin’ these unfortunate accidents.”
Jaimie pursed his lips and looked back out at the river. Rodrick could see his mind churning and knew he would be blunt and honest. If Jaimie thought he had gone mad, Rodrick knew he would tell him. And he appreciated that sort of candor he got from his friend. It seemed like something that was in terribly short supply in his life.
As the Laird of the largest, wealthiest clan in all of Scotland, he often felt he was surrounded by those who said only what they thought he wanted to hear. Those who sought to appease him rather than challenge him. But Rodrick was somebody who preferred the truth above all. He could accept his mistakes and failures. He learned from them and they made him a better leader. A better man.
But too many believed he wanted to only hear when he was right or did well. There were too many who tried to curry favor with him by telling him it wasn’t raining when he was already wet. But that wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted people like Jaimie who would challenge him and give him the truth rather than those who would pour honey in his ear in the hopes he would favor them.
“Sabotagin’ ye, huh?” Jaimie asked.
Rodrick nodded. “Aye. First the crops in the south fields were destroyed. Then the storehouse with the grain burned,” he recounted. “Then the well collapsed, and now the castle burns. Tis too much bad luck to be natural.”
“Possibly,” Jaimie said, “but sometimes, it really is just bad luck.”
Rodrick pursed his lips. “That’s true. But there was nobody in the east wing of the castle. Tis been closed off for years,” he said. “So how’d a fire start in a wing that’s been closed off and nobody’s been?”
Jaimie blew out a long breath and tossed another rock across the river as he thought. The calamities the Clan, and Rodrick personally, had faced over the last year could all have very reasonable explanations. But to Rodrick, having that many troubles befall them in such a short span of time defied logic.
It just doesn’ae seem feasible or reasonable.
“And yer sure none of the household servants were sneakin’ into the east wing?” Jaimie asked. “Maybe knocked over a candle or somethin’?”
Rodrick shook his head. “Tis possible, I suppose,” he said. “But I questioned ‘em all and none of ‘em would fess up to it. And I dinnae ken any of them were lyin’ to me either.”
“So who’s behind it then?” Jaimie asked. “Do ye have any suspects yet?”
Rodrick sighed and shook his head. “Nay. That’s why I’m so vexed,” he said. “I daenae ken who’d want to do this to me. Or why.”
“What can I do?”
“I need ye to look into it for me. I need ye to ask around and see what ye can find. But do it quietly,” Rodrick said and then added with a grin. “And if ye find nothin’ and I’m wrong, I’ll have somebody sacrifice a bull or somethin’ to clear whatever curse is hangin’ over me head.”
There was nobody Rodrick trusted more to investigate what had happened in a fair and unbiased way. If Jaimie came back to him and said there was nothing to it and it truly was nothing more than bad luck, Rodrick would accept it as truth. But if he came back with a name, they would then figure out how to best respond to what Rodrick could only describe as an attack upon his Clan and upon himself personally.
“Aye. I’ll look into it. Ye have me word,” Jaimie said. “And if there’s anythin’ to it, I’ll find it.”
Rodrick nodded. “I ken ye will.”
Rodrick leaned back in his chair and looked out the window. Night was falling and the dying light of the day was pressed to the leaded glass panes. From the solar windows, he could see the skeletal framework of the eastern wing of the castle and felt the familiar churning in his stomach. Having had to rebuild and replace the things that had been destroyed was expensive and had nearly run his coffers dry.
Losing all of the crops in the southern fields as well as the grain in the storehouse had been costly. And he did not have a way to replace the money that had been lost already. Rodrick was facing financial ruin if he did not find a way to bring a significant amount of money into his treasury. If he could not fill his coffers, he was going to be in very serious trouble very soon. Although his Clan was the largest and the most prosperous in Scotland, he still needed to bring in money to maintain his wealth.
He sighed heavily and picked up the sheaf of parchment. Rodrick ran the tip of his finger along the crest pressed into the wax that sealed the parchment shut. It was a griffin—a creature of legend with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle—holding a shield in its claws that bore an axe and three stars.
“House Warren,” he muttered to himself, “with yet another invitation to join their family.”
Over the last six months, Rodrick had received half-a-dozen missives from Viscount Ferguson and Viscountess Annabelle Warren, the patriarch and matriarch of the House. Knowing he was without a bride, they had been pursuing him relentlessly, seemingly desperate to make a match between him and their daughter, Penelope. It was a match Rodrick had been resisting, not interested in an English bride.
But the situation was changing and things were growing bleaker by the day. If he did not find a way to solidify and put his own house in order, the future for his family, and for his Clan, was very much in doubt.
I will have nay choice but to begin sellin’ off me Clan’s lands. It’ll force me people out of their homes and eventually, the Clan will dissolve altogether. I will have squandered everythin’ me family’s been buildin’ for generations.
Rodrick’s thoughts were grim and in the silence of his personal chambers, they echoed through his head with the force of a shout. The fire in the hearth crackled and popped and he watched red-hot sparks float up into the chimney. The shadows cast by the flames flickered and writhed eerily upon the walls, somehow looking ominous and sinister, like some dark beast was trying to slither its way into this world.
Rodrick drained the last of his brandy, set the glass down, then picked up the sealed parchment. He cracked the wax seal and unrolled it. Light and shadow flickered across the page as he read words that, while not precisely the same, were more than familiar to him by now.
Greetings, Laird Finterson
I trust this missive finds you well. As I have written to you on previous occasions, I desire to meet with you to discuss a potential pairing with our daughter, Penelope, who would make a very fine match for a man of your standing.
Of course, a betrothal to Penelope would include a very handsome dowry, the terms of which we can discuss in person. I do believe though, you would find her dowry more than adequate and in light of your current…difficulties…I am certain they would help.
Please contact me at your earliest convenience so we may discuss a time to meet and discuss terms.
Yours Sincerely, Ferguson Warren, Viscount of Clemenstone.
Simply reading the words made Rodrick’s stomach roil. His first instinct was to crumple up the piece of paper and throw it into the hearth and let the fire consume it. But he stayed his hand and dropped the letter onto the top of his desk instead.
He refilled his glass of brandy and picked it up as he leaned back in his seat, staring into the flames crackling in the hearth. Feeling the warmth from the fire seeping into his bones, he took a long swallow. The last thing he wanted to do was betroth himself to this Penelope girl. Rodrick found the idea of wedding himself to somebody he did not know or have the slightest bit of affection for completely repugnant.
Might as well wed meself to some good Ainglish livestock instead.
On the other hand, Rodrick knew that the dowry he could command would be substantial. It would no doubt pay to finish rebuilding the eastern wing of the castle as well as put some money into his very-depleted coffers.
Also, having an iron-clad alliance with a prominent English lord like Viscount Clemenstone might not be a bad idea. That sort of alliance could benefit them both and at the moment, Rodrick knew he could use an ally that was both militarily and financially solid.
He hated to admit it but as the Laird of Scotland’s largest clan, a marriage alliance to an English lord would not only benefit him and his Clan, but his country as a whole. With an English noblewoman as his bride, it could help put an end to the fighting and wars that sprouted up on a nearly regular basis. Perhaps if the two countries were wedded together through Rodrick and this Penelope, he could help secure peace and a security for the people that Scotland had been unable to enjoy for a very long time.
And all it will cost is me bleedin’ soul.
Rodrick rolled his eyes and silently chastised himself for being so dramatic. He knew that many marriages were arranged for the sole purpose of building alliances and achieving peace and security for a people. And he knew that some of those arranged marriages were wildly successful and the couple that was married eventually fell in love. Rodrick should know, he was the product of such an arrangement.
“What’s got ye so troubled, lad?”
Rodrick looked to the doorway to see his uncle leaning against the wall. Hector had a home down in the village but was at Durmont Castle more days than he wasn’t. He said he liked being within the walls of the keep because it made him feel closer to his brother, Rodrick’s father. It was a sentiment Rodrick knew well. The solar he was sitting in belonged to his father and he often thought he could feel his presence there.
He looked to the painting of his parents his father had commissioned a few years before they died and smiled. Of course his father was still there. But although he was still with Rodrick, his father could not help him with his current dilemma. That problem was unfortunately, all his to deal with.
“Just tryin’ to make a decision about me future,” Rodrick finally said.
Hector pursed his lips then walked into the solar and dropped into the chair that sat in front of his desk. Rodrick poured him a glass of whiskey and pushed it toward him then topped off his own glass and sat back. Hector raised his glass to him then took a drink and nodded as the liquid hit his tongue.
“That is good,” he said.
“Brought in from Ireland.”
Rodrick nodded. “Aye. They make good whiskey there, they do.”
Hector took another drink and studied him closely. “So what is this big decision yer wrestlin’ with, lad?”
Rodrick sighed. “Whether to accept the match proposed by Ferguson Warren, Viscount of Clemenstone or nae.”
Hector looked taken aback and studied him closely for a moment. A log in the hearth split with a loud crack sending a shower of glowing sparks upward.
“Who does he want to match ye with?” Hector finally asked.
“His daughter, Penelope.”
Hector screwed up his face and thought about it for a moment. His uncle traveled extensively through Scotland and England and knew a great many people. Rodrick hoped that he knew of the Warrens and could tell him what kind of people they were, but more importantly, what sort of woman their daughter was. But he shook his head, obviously coming up empty.
“I daenae ken the Warrens,” he finally admitted. “I’m afraid I cannae give ye any insight on them, lad.”
“Tis all right, Uncle,” Rodrick said. “I daenae ken that I have much of a choice in the matter anyway.”
“We always have a choice.”
Rodrick held his glass up to the fire, studying the amber colored liquid as a small frown pulled the corners of his mouth downward. With a heavy sigh, he set the glass down on the desk and sat back in his seat.
“The coffers are nearly bone dry, Uncle,” he said. “Marryin’ this Warren lass will bring in some money we desperately need.”
“Things are that bad, are they?”
Rodrick nodded. “After losin’ the crops and the grain, a storehouse, and now part of the castle—aye, things’re bad.”
“Tis a streak of bad luck,” Hector replied. “It’ll pass’n you’ll be flush again before ye ken it.”
“This streak of bad luck’s been draggin’ on for near a year now,” Rodrick retorted. “And tis gettin’ more expensive every time somethin’ happens. Marryin’ the Warren girl will end those problems. As far as the money goes anyway.”
Hector nodded and drained the last of his glass. “Aye. It would at that,” he said. “But it’d bring on a whole host of new problems.”
“What do ye mean, Uncle?”
Hector got to his feet then perched on the edge of Rodrick’s desk and poured himself another glass of brandy. Hector looked down into his glass, giving himself a minute to compose his thoughts. Finally, he looked up and met Rodrick’s gaze.
“Arranged marriages can be difficult,” he said. “Ye daenae ken that sort of problems that come up when ye marry some lass ye daenae ken. Yer values may nae align. Ye may just nae like each other for whatever reason.”
“I ken all that, Uncle. I’ve been sittin’ here thinkin’ about it all night,” Rodrick said. “But tis a fact that if I daenae do somethin’, the entire Clan is gonna be in trouble.”
“There’re a lot of things ye can do to help the Clan.”
Hector stood and walked over to the hearth. He stared down into the flames as he leaned against the mantle, his face pinched with concentration. But even from where he sat, Rodrick could see that his uncle was having no more success in coming up with ways to begin bringing in revenue than he had.
“I just daenae want to see ye unhappy, lad,” Hector finally said without turning around. “I dinnae want to see ye stuck with a woman ye dinnae like or want.”
“Me Faither always said that to be the Laird meant ye had to make sacrifices for the good of the Clan.”
A wry smile touched Hector’s lips. “I dinnae ken he meant sacrificing yer happiness,” he said. “I dinnae ken he’d want to see ye marry somebody ye dinnae love.”
“I ken he’d rather see that than the destruction of the Clan.”
Hector’s lips compressed into a tight line and he nodded. Hector knew he was right in that his father put the Clan above all else—including his own happiness. Not that he had to face decisions like that very often.
When Rodrick’s father was the Laird, the Clan experienced a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity. But ever since Rodrick took over for his father, he felt that everything was falling to pieces and he was destroying everything his family had been building for generations.
“Just ken about it, lad,” Hector said. “Arranged marriages are difficult.”
“Me folks’ marriage was arranged,” Rodrick offered. “And that seemed to work out well for them. And for the Clan.”
Hector nodded. “Aye. But yer Faither had the advantage of kennin’ yer Maither before they wed,” he said. “They kent each other for years. So ‘twas nae like they were strangers. Which this Penelope is to ye.”
Rodrick sighed as he scrubbed his face with his hands, his frustration beginning to bubble over inside of him. He did not know what he was going to do. He had few options as it was and the ones he did have were not good. But at least he could do right by the family who had come before him and had built this land he enjoyed. At least he could do right by the Clan. To Rodrick, that was his duty as the Laird, to always do right by the Clan.
“Daen’ae do anything rash, lad. Take the night. Sleep on it,” Hector said. “Mebbe when ye wake in the morn, things’ll seem different. Or mebbe ye’ll have found another way. Mebbe one that doesn’ae chain ye to a life of unhappiness.”
Hector set his empty glass on Rodrick’s desk and strode out of the room, closing the door behind him, leaving him alone with his thoughts. As Rodrick leaned back in his chair, sipping his brandy, and staring into the fire, his mind whirled with questions. And he had no answers to any of them.
He did not want to marry a woman he did not know. But as he looked up at the portrait of his mother and father, he could almost hear his father’s voice echoing through his mind. It told him that to be the Laird was to make sacrifices. To always be willing to do right by the people and make sure that above all else, they were taken care of. After all, he said, if there were no people, or the people hated you, what are you even the Laird of?
With a deep, heavy sigh that came from the depths of his soul, Rodrick drained the last of his brandy and set the glass down. He pulled out a sheet of parchment and a quill. He frowned as he uncapped the inkwell and dipped his quill into it, then put it to the page quickly, before he could talk himself out of it.
Greetings, Viscount Clemenstone…
“I do not wish to dine with them tonight,” Penelope huffed.
She folded her arms over her chest and leaned against the wall, looking down at the courtyard below. She spent a good amount of time in the courtyard, moving among bushes that flowered in a rainbow of colors. The floral aroma of the garden was heavenly and she loved nothing more than sitting among the bushes and small trees reading her books.
Ordinarily, all of the colors and watching the butterflies float among the bushes lifted her spirits. But as she stood at her window, looking down at her little heavenly garden, she found no sense of solace. No comfort. There was nothing but the cold sense of dread that roiled in her stomach like a nest of greasy snakes.
“Now, now, let’s nae pout about it,” Gemma said. “They’ve a special meal planned for ye, from what I heard.”
“Why?” Penelope sneered. “They ignore me most of the time so why would they be holding a special dinner in my honor?”
“Mebbe they realize how neglectful of ye they’ve been, and—”
Penelope’s bark of laughter cut her off, leaving Gemma to look at her with a puzzled expression on her face. Ordinarily, her mother and father took their meals in their salon, leaving her to fend for herself. She sometimes dined in the kitchens with the household servants, she sometimes had her meals brought to her chambers, and she sometimes did not eat at all. Not that the always watchful Gemma ever let her get away with that too often.
“You know my Mother and Father, Gemma,” Penelope said. “You know they do not give much thought or care to how neglectful of me they have been.”
Gemma frowned, knowing Penelope was right. Her mother and father had nurtured a resentment for her since the day she was born. As if it was her fault that she was born a girl. Or that her mother had not been able to conceive again. She knew they had always wanted a son to carry on the family name and build upon the legacy wrought by the Viscount of Clemenstone.
But Penelope felt that she had paid the price for their failure to produce a male heir. And it was a price she had been paying for her entire life.
“I still hold out hope they're jest trying to do somethin’ nice for ye,” Gemma said hopefully.
“I think—no, I know—that is hope wasted,” she replied. “But it is very sweet of you to believe they have better angels guiding them.”
Gemma had come into her service when they were both young. She was an Irish girl around the same age, whose mother worked in the kitchens. It was one of the very few kind gestures her mother ever made to her, insisting on Gemma becoming Penelope’s lady’s maid to give her a friend, confidante, and playmate. It was only later that Penelope realized it was also keep her out of her mother’s hair.
But it did not matter. She and Gemma had grown up together and had grown very close over the years. She was Penelope’s best friend and the one person in this life she felt able to depend on. She was certainly the only person in this world she trusted.
“I like to believe everybody’s got better angels guidin’ them,” she said in her thick Irish brogue. “I like to see the best in everybody.”
“I know you do,” Penelope said, “and that’s one of the things I love most about you.”
Gemma gave her a soft smile and walked over, wrapping her in a tight embrace. Gemma was a tall, thin woman. She had hair that was the color of spun gold and eyes that sparkled like freshly cut sapphires. She was a beautiful girl who had many men in the household servants who lusted after her. But rather than let that go to her head, she was a sweet, kind, and compassionate girl who cared more for others than for herself.
“I just hate that your parents make you feel this way,” Gemma said as she let go and took a step back.
Penelope shrugged. “It is the way it has always been. At this point, I am certain it is the way it will always be,” she replied with a note of bitterness in her voice. “Had I been born a man, it would all be different. A son is all they ever wanted.”
Gemma said nothing but took Penelope’s hand and gave it a squeeze. Penelope knew she had gone on this diatribe with Gemma before and knew that nothing would ever change. She would forever be the daughter her mother and father never wanted. But Gemma was kind and patient, and always listened when she needed to get the poison that was her anger and bitterness, out of her system.
“I am sorry,” Penelope said. “I know I go on sometimes.”
Gemma waved her off. “I’m your friend, Penelope,” she said. “If you can’t talk to me, who can you talk to?”
“I appreciate you.”
“And I you,” she replied with a smile. “Now, let’s find ye a nice gown for supper tonight.”
Penelope rolled her eyes. “If we must.”
* * *
Supper was to be served in the formal dining room and Penelope had been required to dress for the occasion. She had never enjoyed eating there as it felt as if she were being weighed and judged on all sides.
The hall itself was made of wood and was richly appointed. And on the walls hung the commissioned portraits of the family’s forebears. It was a collection of high-born men who stared out from their canvases imperiously, silently commanding the ages through eyes that would never close to the world again.
It was as if generations of her family stared down at her from those portraits, silently judging her, knowing she represented the last of their line and that when the portrait of her father was commissioned and hung, there would be no more Warrens to paint. Penelope felt their judgment and felt as if they hated her for it. Just as her mother and father did.
As if any of that is my fault. I did not ask to be born a woman. I did not ask to be born at all!
Gemma had selected for her a dark-green gown of silk with the black sash and high collar. The sleeves fell to her wrists with black ruffles at the ends, and had black threaded scrollwork up to her shoulders. It was one of Penelope’s favorite gowns and usually never failed to make her feel pretty and feel good. As she looked at her mother and father though, the good feelings she had quickly faded.
Her father was a tall, robust man with thick arms and shoulders. He was broad through the chest, had green eyes, and nary a hair on his head. But made up for it with a thick, but neatly trimmed mustache and beard.
Her mother was almost his exact opposite. Tall and thin, she was a severe-looking woman, but still had generous curves. She had flawless, pale skin, thick and flowing dark hair, and eyes a shade of blue that rivaled the sky. She was a beautiful woman and if it meant she would look like her mother as she aged, Penelope would not be displeased.
“You look lovely this evening, Penelope,” her father said stiffly.
“Thank you, Father,” she replied. “You are both looking well.”
Penelope sat across from her mother and her father sat at the head of the table. Each had a glass of wine in front of them but the plates remained empty as they waited for the servants to bring out the food. Other than the snap and pop of the fire raging in the oversized hearth behind her mother, the chamber was silent. It was filled though, with a tension that burned as hot as the heat from the fire.
Penelope cut her eyes between them as they exchanged a look with each other, some silent communication passing between them. It made Penelope feel even more awkward and uneasy than before. It was as if they were discussing her behind her back—and yet right in front of her at the same time.
She cleared her throat. “May I ask what this supper is about?” she asked, her voice wavering slightly. “Why am I here?”
Her mother looked at her, a stricken look on her face. “Do we need a reason to have supper with our daughter?”
“Need? No,” she replied. “But we dine together so infrequently, I assumed there was a reason.”
What she said was true. It had been quite literally months since the last time they’d dined together in that very chamber. And that had only been because a neighboring Baron had come by. They wanted to put on a good show and make him think they had a strong family. Once the Baron had left, they had returned to normal and they went on pretending she did not exist.
Her father cleared his throat. “Well, there was something we wished to speak to you about—”
“But we thought it best to wait until after we have eaten,” her mother chimed in.
The knot in Penelope’s stomach tightened so hard, she thought she might be sick. She had no idea what her mother and father wanted to talk to her about but the announcement carried a sense of dread along with it that settled down upon her shoulders. It pressed down on her, nearly crushing her. In that moment, she wanted to be anywhere but where she was.
There were many days she wished she had been born a commoner. She had found herself so often wishing that she could switch lives with Gemma, if only for a day. The loneliness and bitterness she felt about her life was overwhelming and made her want to reject it all and run far away.
“If it is all the same to you, I would prefer if we get it out of the way beforehand,” Penelope said meekly. “Whatever it is you must tell me—”
“We will wait until after a civilized supper,” her father cut her off.
“Was I in any way unclear, Penelope?”
“Good, then we will hear no more of it until the appropriate time.”
Penelope let out a soft sigh and looked to her mother, hoping for even the slightest spark of support or sympathy. She got neither. Her mother never even bothered to look at her. It was all Penelope could do to not break down and cry right there. The churning she felt in her belly was almost too much to bear and although she felt like fleeing from the dining hall, she forced herself to remain where she was, knowing the punishment for such stubbornness would be severe.
“Oh, lovely,” her mother said as the servants marched into the dining hall.
Edna, the eldest of the scullery maids of the household gave Penelope a small, secret smile. Edna had always treated her with great kindness and did small things like slip her an extra honey cake or offer a kind word when she was feeling down. Edna saw how she was treated and though she would never speak a word against Penelope’s mother and father, she did not approve and did her best to let her know that she was not alone.
Despite the churning in her belly and the sense of doom that hovered over her like the Sword of Damocles, Penelope’s stomach growled as the food was wheeled out on carts. The servants laid out the meal—roasted pheasant in a brandy glaze, fried bacon and potato hash, boiled carrots and peas, warm rolls slathered in butter with a dash of sugar, and a salad of spinach leaves with turnip and tomato with a tangy dressing lightly drizzled over the top.
Once the food had been laid out, the servants all retreated, leaving Penelope alone with her mother and father once more. Her father raised his glass of wine, as did her mother. Drawing in a short breath and letting it out, Penelope raised hers in a shaky hand.
“To new beginnings,” he said cryptically.
“New beginnings, Father?” Penelope asked.
“That is what I said,” he replied. “Now, let us enjoy this fine meal before it gets cold.”
Her mother flashed Penelope a smile that did not reach her eyes. It was feral and reminded her of the way an owl might look at a plump field mouse before it descended and scooped the creature up in its mighty talons.
Penelope shuddered and gave them both a shaky smile before turning to her food.
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