Wee Williams Woman | Chapter 7 of 7

Author: Suzan Tisdale | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1313 Views | Add a Review

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Twenty-Seven

As promised, Rowan enlisted Selina’s advice and help in preparing for his wedding to Arline. Selina was in charge of making a very grand and enchanting dress for his bride and acted as a liaison of sorts between Arline and Mrs. Fritz.

Rowan spent as much time as he could with Arline. Diligently, he made certain she did not leave her bed. He made certain she ate and rested and followed all of Ora’s instructions without question or complaint. At least he attempted to get her to follow them without complaint. After days of being abed, Arline began to grow irritable and plead with him to at least allow her to stand.

He found pacifying her with kisses both enjoyable and easy. He began to wonder if she complained merely to receive his kisses. He decided it didn’t matter for he looked forward to those stolen moments, filled with promise of what would soon be their wedding night.

Arline was growing more bold in showing her affection. Rowan supposed Ora had helped in that regard, especially after he discussed Arline’s reticence and misguided notions as they pertained to a woman’s wifely duty. He would be forever in Ora’s debt.

Lily was beside herself with joy when Rowan and Arline sat her down to share the news with her. She squealed with delight and danced about the room. In singsong fashion, she joyfully exclaimed to anyone who would listen that she was going to have a new mamma. She was also looking forward to having a wee brother or sister and was disappointed to learn that one would not be delivered to her on the wedding day. Nine months can seem like an eternity to a four-year-old child.

It had snowed yet again, but thankfully, this time it was not as fierce as the first snowstorm of the season. Large, fluffy white flakes fell majestically to the ground. Per Arline’s request, and the offered bribe of a kiss, Rowan took Lily and the other children out to play. The little ones thoroughly enjoyed catching snowflakes on their tongues and throwing snowballs at Rowan.

Arline watched from the bedchamber window after Ora helped her to a chair. With blankets and furs draped around her, the fire blazing to ward off the cold, Arline smiled as she watched Rowan chasing the children, helping them to build a snowman, and feigning grievous injury when they pelted him with snowballs.

Arline could not remember ever feeling so much at peace. All was right in her world and it was only going to get better. She rose each morn, to find Rowan and Lily sleeping on the pallet next to the bed. An overwhelming sense of joy would come over her when she thought on the fact that all of her dreams were coming true.

Rowan brought the children inside, handing all but his own off to their waiting mothers. He helped Lily into dry clothes and warm woolens before taking her back to the gathering room where she could enjoy the hot cider and sweet cakes Mrs. Fitz had waiting for them.

An undercurrent of excitement was beginning to build around the keep. Rowan was doing his best to keep the promises he had made to God by practicing patience and kindness.

Most of his people were excited about the upcoming wedding, especially the women folk. They were all a buzz and a twitter over the first wedding to be held inside these walls since Rowan’s last.

Life, he thought as he watched his daughter sipping cider and chattering happily to her friends about the fact that she, too, would soon have a mother, was perfect. His heart swelled with pride, with love and adoration, not just for his daughter, his future bride, or his clan, but for everything in his life.

Christmastide was just four days away and Arline’s birthday fell on the morrow. The gift he had arranged for her had not yet arrived and he began to worry over it as it should have arrived days ago. Hopefully all was well and he would be able to present Arline with a token of his love very soon.

They’d be married two days after Hogmanay and that day could not arrive soon enough for either of their liking. Soon, he’d be counting down the hours instead of the days.

Rowan, Lily, and the other children were all huddled around the fire, the excitement of Christmastide taking up the majority of their young conversations. The children were looking forward to the feast and the Yule log, but most of all, they could hardly wait for the games they would play.

Selina entered the room with Arline’s wedding dress in her arms. Arline had chosen the color, a soft, pale yellow, as well as the design. Rowan had asked for a lower neckline than Arline felt comfortable wearing. He hoped that Selina had responded to his request and not his future bride’s.

“Good day to ye, Rowan!” Selina said as she approached. “I was just headin’ up to show Arline the finished dress. I added the silver and gold thread like ye asked,” she told him. “But if she doesna like it, ye will have to answer to her!”

Rowan laughed in agreement. “Do no’ fash yerself. I am certain she’ll love what ye’ve done.” And if she didn’t he could easily placate her with more kisses.

He left Lily with the children and was heading up the stairs with Selina when Thomas entered from out of doors. “Rowan!” he shouted over the din of the chattering children and rushed excitedly to the stairs.

Rowan directed Selina to go ahead and to tell Arline he’d be along shortly. “What be the problem, Thomas?” Rowan asked as he climbed back down the stairs.

Thomas waited patiently at the bottom before he answered. He leaned in and whispered to Rowan, “The gift ye ordered fer Lady Arline?” he began. “’Tis arrived!”

Rowan let out a happy cry and slapped Thomas on the back. If Arline was at all upset with the added embellishments to her dress, the gift he was about to give her would give him at least ten years worth of getting out of any troubles.

“I do no’ understand why I must wear the blindfold, Rowan,” Arline with clear frustration. She sat blindfolded, in a large comfortable chair next to the fire. Rowan had wrapped not one, but two furs around her, professing his worry over her catching a chill.

“Wheesht, now,” Rowan said. “I told ye, ’tis a surprise.”

“Well I hope its more yellow silk to add to me dress, ye devil! The neckline is beyond scandalous!”

As she sat and waited, she pondered the beautiful yellow gown. Afraid to try it on just yet, for fear her healing wound might ooze even the tiniest amount of blood on it, the gown hung on a hook in Rowan’s dressing room. It was beautiful, even if the neckline was far too revealing. The gold and silver threads that Selina had added to the neck, sleeves and hem were perfect. Arline loved the way they sparkled in the candlelight and hoped that Rowan would find her to his liking when she wore it.

Moments passed when she heard a rustling of skirts, slippers and boots alike padding across the floor. She also heard a rush of whispers and Lily’s giggle. For the life of her, she could not understand what surprise Rowan had for her that would require so many people to attend.

Rowan came and knelt beside her. She only knew it was him for he had whispered in her ear that he hoped she liked her early birthday gift and mayhap it would earn him a kiss. She burned crimson, placed her fingers over her mouth to hide her smile and hoped no one in the room had heard him.

“I ken how much ye like to draw,” Rowan said excitedly. “So I had some supplies brought to ye fer yer birthday. I sent fer them weeks ago and they’ve just arrived by special delivery.”

A blindfold and a room full of people to witness him giving her drawing supplies? Would he arrange a three-day feast, bards, jugglers and acrobats if he gave her a broach? As he untied the blindfold, she was convinced he was tetched and was just about to tell him so when she opened her eyes.

She gasped, covered her mouth with her hands, in utter shock and disbelief. The tears flowed as instantly as they formed and for a moment, she could not move or speak.

“Morralyn! Geraldine!” she cried out her sisters’ names. They rushed to her, fell to their knees and hugged her.

They were here! With her! She cried, bewildered, elated, and confused. They cried right along with her.

They all began talking at once, professing how glad they were to see each other after all this time. “Och! Ye are a sight fer sore eyes!” Morralyn cried as she held Arline’s face in her hands. Geraldine was too overcome with tears to speak but nodded her head in agreement.

Selina stepped forward offering the women handkerchiefs. “I’m so verra happy fer ye, Lady Arline! Yer sisters as well!”

Arline thanked her, handed a handkerchief to each sister. Her joy was overwhelming and she could not stop the tears from flowing. She looked around the room for the man responsible. He was standing in the corner, next to Thomas. Thomas was smiling, enjoying the spectacle as it played out before him.

Rowan was smiling too, that beautiful, gleaming smile. He was leaning against the wall with his arms crossed over his green tunic. She could not find the words to express how happy she was at this moment. Were she at all able to jump up, she would run to him and fling her arms around his neck and smother him with kisses. As it was, her two equally happy sisters had her pinned to the chair.

Arline mouthed a “thank you” to Rowan, along with a warm smile. He simply nodded his head.

“How did ye do this? Why did ye no’ tell me?” she asked him.

“I knew how much ye missed yer sisters. So I sent fer them weeks ago.” He left out the part of how he had thought to use them as an inducement to getting her to stay here. He rationalized that it no longer mattered. Morralyn and Geraldine were here and his future wife was overcome with joy. That was all that mattered.

“Aye,” Morralyn said happily. “He sent fer us weeks ago. Two verra braw young men!” she laughed aloud. “They told us ye were here, and finally away from that awful fool yer da forced ye to marry. Rowan offered us the same safe haven as he offered ye. And now it appears as if he’s offered ye even more!”

Arline and Geraldine giggled along with Morralyn. “I am so verra happy that ye agreed!”

“Did ye see the two handsome men he sent?” Morralyn asked with a smile. “’Twas impossible to tell them no to anythin’!”

Arline’s face burned red. “Morralyn!” She knew all too well what Morralyn meant by that statement. Her sister hadn’t been raised by a very prim and proper maid, like Arline had. Therefore she hadn’t had the guidance on being a lady, even though Arline had tried countless times over the years.

“What?” Morralyn asked, pretending not to have any good idea why Arline would be embarrassed or feel the need to chastise her. “I’ve been tellin’ ye fer years that life be too short, Arline. And all that nonsense that Minnie put in yer head was goin’ to lead ye to a verra dull and unhappy life.” She glanced over her shoulder to look at Rowan, smiled and wiggled her eyebrows at him before turning back to Arline. “And I swear if ye heed Minnie’s advice and no’ me own, I’ll be forced to use the good sense and feminine wiles God gave me and make that man of yers verra, verra happy.”

Arline burst out laughing. She knew Morralyn’s threat held no truth to it. Morralyn would never do anything to hurt Arline, but she was not above speaking her mind or making threats to get her point across.

“Ye needn’t worry, Morralyn. I’ve recently learned that most of Minnie’s advice was not exactly true.”

Morralyn rolled her eyes. “Most? Not exactly true? Och! The woman was tetched I tell ye, full of shi--”

Geraldine stopped Morralyn before she could embarrass herself or Arline further. “Morralyn!” she scolded in a whisper. “We’re no’ in a tavern. We be in fine company. Watch yer tongue!”

“I’d rather watch Eldon’s tongue!” Morralyn said with a laugh.

“Morralyn!” Arline and Geraldine exclaimed in unison.

Arline leaned in to her sisters. “Who is Eldon?”

“Och! He was one of the verra braw men yer Rowan sent us!”

Arline sat back and place a hand on her chest. She hoped Morralyn hadn’t done anything that would make Rowan regret his offer.

“Do no’ fash yerself, Arline,” Morralyn said. “I’ve done nothin’ to be ashamed of.”

“That’s because ye have no shame!” Geraldine said, adding a curt nod for emphasis.

“Yer right! I don’t!”

It was next to impossible to insult Morralyn. Geraldine however, had softer skin. She wore her heart on her sleeve was generous to a fault, but not completely above jesting or engaging in more tawdry conversation. However, Geraldine knew there was a proper time and place for such things.

Rowan stood quietly observing the three sisters. While they all shared the same father, they each had different mothers. No one could tell by looking at them, however, that they shared any bloodlines.

Morralyn was a very tiny yet buxom woman, with long golden blond hair and big hazel eyes. Geraldine was more than a head taller than Morralyn, even though she was a good three years younger. Geraldine had dark brown hair and hazel eyes that leaned toward green, and like Arline, she was as thin as a tree sapling.

They chatted away excitedly, reliving the events of the past year. Morralyn and Geraldine had grown increasingly worried for Arline’s safety after they stopped receiving letters from her. They had learned of the annulment and were preparing to leave the little cottage where Arline had hidden them, fearful that Orthanach would find them.

Rowan listened intently. The more he learned of the three women’s father, the less he liked the man. Arline was nothing more than a bargaining tool, a means for him to amass more wealth. Her younger sisters meant nothing to him other than as a means to control Arline.

Rowan swore to himself that when Orthanach learned of the wedding -- and he had no doubt that he would -- he would do everything within his power to keep the man away from these three women.

The three women were soon lost in stories of their childhood, memories of better days and worse. Rowan saw that the world around them fell away and nothing mattered but each other. He quietly ushered Thomas, Lily, Selina, and Ora out of the room. He would have refreshments sent to the room and allow them time to reacquaint themselves with each other.

Silently, he slipped out of the room, the sounds of giggling women following him out. He could not help but feel a bit triumphant. He’d done the right thing.

Twenty-Eight

Christmastide came and went peacefully, without attack or interruption. The clan’s children enjoyed their feast, the stories that were told and the games that were played. It was one of the better Christmastides that Rowan could recall.

Arline could not remember ever enjoying a Christmastide like Clan Graham’s. Her father had never believed in celebrating much of anything. No Yule logs had ever burned at their keep. Greenery had never been displayed, no feasts, no music, no games. She had enjoyed them later in life, with Carlich. But the Lindsay festivities were smaller, more intimate affairs.

Rowan had carried Arline down the stairs and placed her in a big chair next to the fireplace so that she could enjoy and participate in the festivities. Her sisters were never far away from her side, though Rowan did take note that Morralyn and Thomas had disappeared for more than an hour. When the two had returned, Thomas wore a smile that Rowan could never remember seeing on the man’s face. Morralyn looked proud and happy. He pretended not to notice.

Several of his younger men tripped over themselves to spend time with Geraldine. They fought over who would bring her mulled wine or sweet cakes. They nearly came to blows over who would have the first dance with her. Rowan came to her rescue by dancing with her first, much to Arline’s delight and gratitude. Geraldine was an exceptionally quiet young lass, quite bonny and sweet. He could well understand the younger men wanting to spend time with her.

There were moments throughout the day and night when Arline would touch his arm and with tear-filled eyes express her gratitude. His heart swelled with pride for having made her so happy.

Arline was healing quite nicely and had been moved into Kate’s auld room. At first, she had protested, explaining that it didn’t feel quite right to have her move into Kate’s room. Rowan explained that Kate would have wanted it this way. Besides, it was only temporary. Once he and Arline were married, she’d not be spending much time in her own room. He fully intended on holding her prisoner in his, at least until they were much, much older. Eighty or ninety sounded appropriate.

Clan Graham was all a flutter with the excitement of Rowan and Arline’s upcoming wedding. Guests began to filter in the day before Hogmanay. The first to arrive were his friends, Nial and Bree McKee, along with their four wee ones.

Bree and Arline became instant friends while Lily fell instantly in love with seven-year-old Jamie. When Arline tucked Lily into her bed that night, Lily professed that she would marry Jamie McKee some day for he was not like the other boys. “He gave me his sweet cake!” Lily informed Arline. “Robert never gives me his sweet cake, even when I ask politely. Jamie gave it to me without me even askin’!”

Arline didn’t have the heart to tell her that Jamie had just been getting over a stomach ailment. She’d not crush the dreams of a four-year-old little girl.

More guests filed in on the following day. Nora and Wee William of the Clan MacDougall, along with their six children and Nora’s beautiful fifteen-year-old sister, Elise, arrived in the late morn. Elise was positively stunning, with her long strawberry blond hair and vivid, bright blue eyes and the younger lads immediately took notice.

Her brother-in-law, Wee William, stood nearly seven feet tall. Arline remembered him from her journey to Stirling when she helped to keep his chief and friend from hanging. He hadn’t changed much. He was still the biggest man she’d ever laid eyes on. His brown hair was beginning to gray at the temples. He had a few more wrinkles around his eyes. Still, he was a most formidable man. All he need do was cast a stern glance at any young man who happened to come within ten feet of his young sister-in-law.

Part of Arline felt sorry for the young lass. She’d never be allowed to have any fun as long as her large brother-in-law was around. The other part of her envied Elise. Arline wished she had been blessed with someone like that, so protective and caring, when she was that age.

She supposed her life now would be decidedly different had she not experienced all that she had. There was also a very strong possibility that she would not now be just a few short days away from marrying Rowan.

Findley and Maggy McKenna, auld friends of Rowan’s, arrived late in the evening with a small army made up entirely of children. Arline could not hide her surprise when Rowan informed her that Findley and Maggy hadn’t brought all of their children, just the youngest seven. They had three older boys, all married, who had stayed behind to watch after their keep.

Duncan and Aishlinn McKenna arrived the following day, along with their four children -- three boys and a girl. Duncan was now the chief of Clan MacDougall. Angus had retired the past year.

“Angus and Isobel send ye their best wishes,” Duncan told Rowan and Arline as they stood before the fire in the grand gathering room.

“They would have loved to have come, but Angus broke his leg a few weeks ago. He was chasin’ our wee ones in the courtyard and slipped on the ice. He was mighty angry that he could no’ travel here, but Isobel would no’ let him out of bed,” Duncan told Rowan as they drank tankards of ale.

Rowan laughed aloud. “Och! ’Tis good to ken that Isobel is still in charge of the auld man!”

Duncan agreed. “Aye. Angus may have been the chief of the clan for all these years, but we all ken the truth. Isobel was Angus’ chief!”

Before the day was out, Áit na Síochána was near to bursting with clan chiefs, their wives and children, as well as the warriors who helped escort them here. Arline had never witnessed so many people under one roof. She fretted over each and every one of them.

Although she was recovering quite nicely, Rowan still fussed over her. He’d not allow her to take the stairs without assistance. He would insist that she take frequent naps so that she’d not wear herself out before their big day. While Arline reveled in his attentiveness, there were moments when his constant hovering annoyed her. She knew his intentions came from his adoration of her and that he only worried because he cared a great deal for her. Still, there were moments when she wished he would give her just a few moments alone.

The eve of Hogmanay arrived and the excitement level inside the keep was palpable. Lily followed Jamie McKee around like a puppy. As the oldest, with two little brothers and a wee sister, Jamie had much experience with smaller children. He was kind and patient and didn’t seemed at all annoyed that Lily followed him everywhere.

Arline had not left the keep in weeks. She wanted to attend the bonfire that had been set up in the pasture to the east of the keep. Rowan adamantly refused to allow it.

“Ye are a stubborn man, Rowan Graham!” Arline told him. “I have healed verra well. Ye worry over me like I’m a babe takin’ me first steps!”

“I’ll no’ have ye sufferin’ a relapse or getting’ a chill,” he told her quite sternly. “We be getting’ married in two days and I wish no’ to spend me weddin’ night carin’ fer a sick wife.”

Arline pursed her lips together, placed her hands on her hips, and stared him directly in the eye. “There’ll be no weddin’ night if ye keep on like this. Either ye stop and allow me to enjoy the bonfire and the first footer, or ye can marry someone else!”

Back and forth they went until Rowan finally relented. “Fine! Ye can go to the bonfire, but ye must be seated and wrapped in furs.”

Arline retorted. “I’ll run around the fire naked if I have the desire!”

The image of Arline running around a large bonfire, naked, with her auburn locks flowing behind her, brought his argument to an abrupt halt. The images he conjured up, with the flickering fire casting shadows all over her fine body, made his groin ache. He was beginning to wonder if he’d be able to keep from tossing her in his bed and making passionate love to her before their wedding day.

He gave her a curt nod, spun on his heels and left the room to avoid further temptation. As he stepped outside to cool off, he wondered if she knew the effect she had on him.

Her skill at kissing had improved a great deal over the past weeks. She was also becoming bolder, touching his chest, kissing his neck, rubbing his back as they lost themselves in those stolen moments. It took great effort on his part to break away from those kisses. Sleep became less frequent as he lay in bed each night, knowing she was just a few steps away.

He walked around the courtyard for a long while, trying to get his mind to quit its adamant focus on his upcoming wedding night. When he realized neither his mind or his manhood were going to give up any time soon, he let loose a heavy sigh, and fell face first into the deep snow. ’Twas either that or turn around, head up the stairs, and lock himself away in his room with Arline.

Twenty-Nine

Rowan and Arline’s wedding day arrived bringing with it crisp blue skies painted with an abundance of feathery white clouds. The sun shone brightly and made the snow look as though it had been sprinkled with diamond dust. The brilliance and luster was almost painful to look at for long. 

Icicles that hung from the roofs of the keep, the towers and barns, began to melt as well, dripping frigid water on anyone who passed under them. The children were warned to stay clear for several of them had crashed to the ground.

The keep was alive with the laughter of children and people calling out instructions as they prepared the keep and the chapel for the wedding.

Rowan was glad this would be the last day he would ever have to knock on Arline’s door. He stood outside her bedchamber, waiting impatiently for someone to give him permission to enter. Morralyn opened the door a crack, peered out and smiled up at him.

“Good morn, Rowan. What can I do fer ye?” she asked playfully.

“I’d like a moment with Arline.” He flashed Morralyn a smile.

“She’s no’ here. I heard she ran off with some young buck from a neighboring clan,” Morralyn said with a most serious expression. “I’d be glad to stand in fer her if ye want.”

He heard Arline chastise her sister from within the bedchamber. “Morralyn! Stop that now and let him in!”

Rowan chuckled at the tiny Morralyn as she giggled and allowed him entry.

Arline was sitting in front of a dressing table facing him, surrounded by Geraldine, Selina, Maggy and Bree. They were all fussing over her hair and discussing how she should wear it.

“I say wear it up,” Maggy said as she stood with her hands on her hips.

“Nay,” Rowan said softly. “I’d prefer to see it down.”

Maggy and Bree giggled at the sight of him. He looked like a wolf about to pounce on an unsuspecting rabbit. “Och! All ye Highlanders are the same,” Bree said cheerfully. “Ye love to see yer women with their hair down and spread across the sheets!”

The women all laughed in unison, save for Arline. Her beautiful face turned nearly as red as her hair. Rowan had grown to enjoy her innocence and the way she blushed so easily. He also enjoyed the way she rolled her eyes and stood her ground. He could not think of one thing that he did not adore about this woman who had stolen his heart.

“I’d like a moment with Arline, please.” He directed his statement to the women surrounding his bride, but his eyes never left Arline’s.

“Och! Alone? In her bedchamber? What would people say?” Selina said, pretending to be offended. “What of yer lady’s honor, Rowan?”

“I don’t give a damn what people say. And I can assure ye, her honor will be safe.”

Arline’s attendants all left the room, casting words of advice to Arline. “Do no’ let him get ye in the bed until he’s said I do!” Morralyn called out over her shoulder.

Geraldine giggled at her older sister. “Morralyn be right!”

Moments later, they were finally alone. Rowan closed the door before going to Arline. “Ye look lovely this day,” he told her.

She blushed at his compliment. “Thank ye, kindly, good man.” Arline thought her future husband looked rather lovely himself. He wore a white tunic over black trews. His ever-present broadsword strapped at his waist and a knife tucked into each boot. His beard was growing in quite nicely. Mayhap being alone with him was not the best idea, for she knew she’d not be able to resist him, I do’s or no.

“I wanted to give ye something special,” Rowan said as he reached into the pouch he wore on his belt. “’Twas me mother’s.”

He held out his hand to display a beautiful necklace. Dangling from the gold chain was a large emerald surrounded by tiny diamonds.

“Och!” Arline exclaimed as she jumped to her feet. “Ye mean to give that to me?”

Rowan smiled warmly at her. “Aye, I do. I ken me mum would want fer ye to have it. It belonged to her mum.”

Arline ran a gentle finger across the emerald. She’d never before owned such a beautiful piece of jewelry. She thought of her mother then and all the beautiful pieces she had owned before her death. Her father had sold every last bit of it, not saving back even the smallest piece for Arline.

For the first time in a very long time, her heart felt heavy. She was just a child when her mother died. Arline could barely remember what she looked like, only bits and pieces. She knew her mother had auburn hair, darker even than her own. Her mother had been a warm, loving woman. Arline was certain that her mother would have been very proud of how well she had turned out.

“Ye look far away, lass,” Rowan whispered as he touched her chin with a gentle finger. “Do ye no’ like it?”

“Nay! ’Tis beautiful!” she said as she took the necklace from him and held it to her chest. “I was just thinkin’ of me mum.”

Rowan could well understand for he missed his own mother. He’d die before he ever admitted it to a soul, but, he did. “Ye wish she was here this day.”

“Aye, I do.” Arline smiled fondly. “She would have liked ye.”

“Och!” he said with a smile. “Everyone likes me!”

Arline rolled her eyes at him. “The women like ye well enough. But fer the life of me, I dunnae why!”

He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her in for a long, passionate kiss. Arline wore the same expression of surprise and delight as she did each time he kissed her. “But ye are the only woman that has me heart.”

Arline tilted her head slightly and looked up into his dark brown eyes. It was the closest he had come to professing he loved her since his proposal. “I do?” she asked.

His eyes narrowed to slits as his brows furrowed. “Of course ye do! I wouldna have asked fer yer hand if ye hadn’t stolen me heart.”

“Oh,” she said softly. When put that way, it made perfectly good sense. Rowan was best at showing his affection and adoration. The fact that Morralyn and Geraldine were here was evidence enough.

“And ye?” Rowan asked, still frowning. “Have I won yer heart?”

Was he daft? “Of course ye have!” she exclaimed. “All of me heart ye foolish man!”

It dawned on her then that she had not expressed to him what was in her own heart. She suddenly felt quite foolish. She sat down on the seat in front of the dressing table and took his hand. “Rowan, I need ye to ken what is in me heart.”

Rowan nodded and knelt before her. “I think I ken, but I’d take great delight in hearin’ ye say it.”

She smiled at him, clutched the necklace to her chest again and gave his hand a gentle squeeze. “Well, I do no’ want yer head to swell anymore than it already is,” she began playfully. “I think it goes without sayin’ that ye are a most handsome man.”

He gave her chin a slight chuck with his fingers. “Aye, that goes without sayin’.” He said it just to see her roll her eyes at him. Why he found that so pleasing and enjoyable, he could not begin to explain to anyone.

“And yer tetched!” she told him firmly.

“That goes without sayin’ as well.”

She let out an exasperated sigh. “What I be tryin’ to tell ye is that aye, I do find ye quite handsome. But my feelin’s fer ye go much deeper than that. Yer kind, honorable, sometimes funny, and ye are a most generous man. Ye don’t just give things,” she held up the necklace as evidence. “Ye give yer time, yer friendship, yer council. Ye are a good man, Rowan Graham. A good, decent, honorable man. I love how ye are with Lily, with yer people. But most of all, I love how ye are with me. I feel safe with ye. I ken that I am safe with ye as is me heart. I can trust ye and ye are one of the verra few men I can say that about.” She took a deep breath before continuing on. “I love ye Rowan Graham, with all me heart. I wanted ye to ken that before we went to the alter.”

A warm smile came to Rowan’s face. His brown eyes twinkled with delight and mayhap a bit of amusement. “Arline, I find ye a most beautiful woman. Ye too are kind, honorable and generous. I love how ye are with Lily. She adores ye, as do I. Ye are a good mum to her and I ken that ye will make me a good wife. But more than that, we shall be good together. Partners in all things.”

He leaned in and gave her a tender kiss. “I canna say when I fell in love with ye, but I did. ’Twas gradual to be certain. I knew it, without a doubt, before ye were even injured and I be sorry that I didna tell ye sooner. So I’ll tell ye now. I love ye, with all that I am. I love everythin’ about ye. I’ll love ye ’til I draw me last breath.”

His honest and heartfelt declaration brought instant tears to her eyes. She leaned into him and placed her palm gently against his cheek. “Of course ye do! What’s no’ to love about me?”

They shared another kiss, longer, more passionate than was respectable. Had they not been interrupted by the women returning to help Arline ready for the wedding, they would not have stopped.

Rowan left the room in search of a snowdrift. He had to douse the raging fire of desire and lust.

Thirty

Extra men had been stationed around the keep, in the off chance that whomever had attacked weeks ago would make another attempt. Men from the MacDougall, McKee, and McKenna clans had volunteered to assist. Rowan and Thomas felt confident that should anything happen this day, they would have plenty of men to aid them.

Frederick, Daniel and the others still had not returned. That was Rowan’s only worry this day. He had shared his concerns with Nial, Duncan, Findley and Wee William that morning. They agreed that he should have received some kind of word from them by now. After the ceremony, Rowan would send a group of his men out to search for the others.

Rowan left Thomas in charge of the wall. No one was to enter unless Thomas knew them. There would be no exceptions to this rule.

The wedding was set to start at noon. Hundreds of people milled about the courtyard taking in the sun while they waited for the festivities to begin. Squeals of laughter rang through the yard as the children chased each other or Red John’s puppies.

Wee William did his best to keep Findley McKenna’s son, Liam, away from Elise. The boy had apparently taken a liking to the young lass and Wee William did not like it. His wife, Nora, a beautiful woman with long dark hair and gray blue eyes quietly informed her husband that he was making an ass of himself. “Let the girl be!” she told him as she hooked her arm through his. “Elise is a smart girl, William. Ye can trust her to do right.”

William glared at Liam who was walking next to Elise. “Aye, I ken I can trust Elise. Its Findley’s boy I worry about! If Liam is anythin’ like Findley, then ye should worry as well, wife!”

Nora laughed at her husband. “Nay, I shan’t, William. Now, if Liam was more like ye? Then I’d worry!”

“I warn ye, if he so much as lays a hand on Elise,” Wee William began, “I’ll kill him.”

Nora laughed again at her husband’s worry over her sister. “Elise can take care of herself. Between ye and John, she’s learned to use her mind, her words, a sword and her fists. She can handle herself, William. Stop fashin’ and let us find a place where ye can remind me why I married ye to begin with.”

William could not pass by the opportunity to spend a few quiet moments alone with his wife. In order that he could tend to his wife without worry, he sent his children to watch over Elise. He’d learned over the years that it was quite difficult for anything romantic to take place when you had six sets of eyes staring at you.

Thomas was called to the gate an hour before the wedding was to begin. “They say they be here to claim the rest of Lady Beatrice’s belongin’s,” one of the younger guards informed Thomas as he stepped up to the battlements.

Thomas leaned over and looked down. There were two men in a wagon. They looked to be in their early thirties. The one holding the reins, had dark hair and a slight build. The other one, the one he thought he recognized, was very large with short cut blond hair. Taking no chances, he called down to them. “Who be ye?”

The men looked up, shielded their eyes from the blaring son. “I be Edward, from near Kirkaidy,” the large blond yelled up at Thomas. “Lady Beatrice sent us to retrieve things she left behind.”

Thomas thought it odd that they would appear this day of all days.

“I have a letter if ye need to see it,” Edward called up. “We’d a been here sooner, but we were stopped by snow east of here. Our wagon was buried.”

That made some amount of sense. Still, he did not want to take any chances. The wagon was empty, save for a rolled up bit of tarp. He supposed he could allow them entry, but under guard at all times.

Thomas turned to the young man beside him. “Allow them entry. I’ll post a guard on them. Make sure ye check the wagon before they leave.”

The young guard gave the order for the gate to be opened. Thomas left the wall to find a man who could keep a watchful eye on the two men.

“I’ve brought ye tea, me lady,” Bridgett bustled into the room carrying a tray. “Rowan’s orders, ye ken. He says he doesna want ye fallin’ over durin’ the ceremony, from lack of food or drink.”

Arline smiled at the young girl. She was glad Bridgett no longer looked at her with contempt-filled eyes. “Thank ye, kindly Bridgett.” Arline said as she stood up and walked through the sea of women.

“Och!” Bridgett declared. “I’ve only brought three cups!”

“Do no’ worry it, Bridgett,” Arline said. “Three is plenty.”

Bridgett had been fussing over the tea tray and not paying attention to Arline. Her mouth fell open when she turned and saw Arline.

“Ye are beautiful, me lady!”

Arline was stunning in her goldenrod gown. The gold and silver threads scattered along the hemline, bodice, and sleeves glistened in the sun that streamed in through the window. Her hair flowed down her back in long waves. Bree had affixed little pearls throughout Arline’s hair. Maggy had draped a beautiful gold belt around Arline’s slender waist. Across her shoulder was a length of Graham plaid, fastened with a beautiful broach.

Arline smiled happily. “Thank ye, kindly, Bridgett.”

Bridgett gave a curtsy and left the room full of women.

“She speaks the truth,” Maggy said. “Ye are quite beautiful!”

Arline blushed slightly and gave her a murmured thank you. She looked at her sisters. “I think ye look beautiful as well!”

Morralyn wore a light blue dress, simple in its design, but it looked rather regal on Morralyn. Geraldine wore a burgundy silk skirt with a matching over jacket, a loan from Maggy. Arline was so very proud of both her sisters and extremely glad to have them here to share in her special day.

“Let us go below stairs,” Bree suggested. “Give Arline and her sisters a few minutes alone.”

Arline thanked Bree, Maggy and Selina, giving each woman a hug as they left the room.

After the door closed behind them, Arline went to her sisters. She took one of their hands in hers and gave a squeeze. “I be so happy that yer here!” Her eyes began to fill with tears.

“I be glad that yer marryin’ a fine man like Rowan, and not some eejit Orthanach chose for ye!” Morralyn quipped.

Arline threw her head back and laughed. “I be as well!”

She pulled them to sit around the small table and poured each of them a cup of tea. “This will be the last cup of tea I have as an unmarried woman!” Arline jested.

Morralyn raised her cup for a toast. “To braw Highlanders who like to bare their knees!”

They drank the tea and slammed the cups down as if they’d just toasted with fine whisky.

“Blech!” Morralyn and Geraldine said in unison.

“Do they no’ ken how to make a good cup of tea?” Geraldine asked.

Arline had to agree. “Och! I don’t usually touch the stuff, fer ’tis awful. But, they seem to fancy it here.”

“I’d rather have whisky,” Morralyn said as she winced. “Even Scots whisky.”

“Aye,” Geraldine agreed with a smile. She stood, looking quite devious as she pulled a silver flask from her skirt. “I think I can help with that!”

Both Arline and Morralyn were surprised. Geraldine was never one to tipple, at least not that Arline was aware. And for her to have a flask in her skirt? ’Twas most unusual.

“Och! Do no’ look at me like that,” Geraldine said as she poured generous amounts of whisky in each of their cups. “Ye act like I’ve never touched the stuff.”

“But yer always the good girl,” Morralyn said as she lifted her cup and inhaled.

Geraldine giggled and sat back down. “That’s just what Domnal told me last night!”

Arline nearly choked on her whisky. “Geraldine!”

Geraldine rolled her eyes and smiled at her sisters. “I am a good young woman. I do no’ flaunt meself about like Morralyn does.” She looked over the rim of her cup at the two of them. “Ye probably think I am still a virgin too!”

It was Morralyn’s turn to choke. “Geraldine!” she exclaimed. “Tell me ’tisn’t so!”

Geraldine simply smiled and sipped on her whisky. “There is much ye dunnae about me, Morralyn. Like I said, I am the quiet one. It makes things much more fun, fer people do no’ expect such things from me.”

They sipped on their whisky and talked as they waited for time to pass by. Soon, Thomas would come to escort them to the chapel. Selina would wait until the last possible minute to dress Lily for the child had a way of finding dirt and trouble.

Morralyn yawned and gave her head a shake. “I fear I’m growing quite tired. Whisky usually lifts me spirits.”

Geraldine agreed with a nod and a yawn. “While I don’t drink as much as ye, I’ve tippled enough whisky in me day. Mayhap ’tis all the excitement of the past days catchin’ up with us.”

Arline began to grow quite tired as well. As she yawned, something niggled at the back of her mind and she could not quite put her finger to it.

Her head began to feel odd, fuzzy, as if she hadn’t slept in days. Moments later, her arms felt heavy and her legs felt as though they were no longer attached to her body.

Her heart began to race as she realized what was happening.

She tried to call out for help, tried to stand, to move toward the door. It seemed so far away, out of reach. She fell forward as she stumbled out of the chair.

“The tea,” she sputtered. “The bloody damned tea.”

Beatrice and Joan had been lurking in the hallway. Beatrice had disguised herself as a kitchen maid. Her hair was wound in a braid under a white kerchief and she wore a plain, gray woolen gown. Joan wore much the same get up, complete with a white apron.

They had been waiting rather impatiently outside Arline’s bedchamber. They had watching carefully from the end of the hallway in hopes that they could get Arline alone. Beatrice nearly squealed with delight when she saw three women leave the bedchamber. They would have to think of something to get Arline’s sisters out of the way.

Joan had slunk her way down the hall and listened outside the door. She heard a loud thump, like someone falling to the floor. She held her breath in anticipation of a great commotion to come from within the bedchamber. When nothing happened, she carefully opened the door and peered in.

Arline lay on her side on the floor. Her two sisters were passed out in chairs with their heads slumped forward. Joan waved for Beatrice to hurry inside.

“They all three drank the tea!” Beatrice said excitedly. “Hurry, now. Go get Edward and Tom.”

Joan hurried from the room and Beatrice barred the door behind her. She turned around and stared down at Arline. It was quite difficult for Beatrice to not let out a happy squeal. Things were going as she had planned them.

She strolled around Arline’s sleeping form, a victorious smile painted on her face. “Ye may be an honorable woman, Lady Arline. But yer a damned fool! I’m sorry, me lady, but I canna allow ye to marry Rowan. It wasn’t in my plans, ye ken.”

There was far too much at stake to allow Arline to marry Rowan. Beatrice had no strong affection for the man, but still, he was an integral part to gaining everything that she had ever wanted and desired.

Joan quickly returned with Edward and Tom. Beatrice unbarred the door and quickly ushered them in. The men carried Morralyn and Geraldine to Arline’s dressing room and set them in the dark corner. When they returned, they set about rolling Arline into one of the large carpets. Edward hoisted Arline up and over his shoulder while Tom grabbed a trunk from the dressing room.

Beatrice gave a quick perusal to make certain no one could detect what was really inside the rolled up carpet. Once she was satisfied, she gave a nod of her head. “Quickly now, to the wagon. They’re all too busy to notice anythin’, but be careful! Remember, there be a reward fer ye after ye get to Edinburgh.”

Edward and Tom gave a curt nod and left Beatrice and Joan alone in the room.

Beatrice turned to Joan and smiled. “’Tis time fer me to go marry Rowan Graham!”

Thomas thought it only slightly odd that Arline had not waited for him to escort her to the chapel. He supposed she was tired of waiting and much too excited to start the ceremony.

He met her as she came down the stairs, alone. She wore a beautiful, blue gossamer gown that trailed several feet behind her. A heavy veil was draped completely over her head, covering her face in its entirety and he wondered how she could see. Women’s fashions were not something he paid much attention to.

“Are ye ready, lass?” Thomas asked as he offered her his arm.

All that he received was an excited nod as she placed her hand on his arm.

Thomas led her out of the keep and to the chapel. “I ken that I wasna too keen on the idea of Rowan marryin’ ye, lass. I’m glad I took me time and came to know ye. Yer a fine woman fer him. Ye make him verra happy. And I be verra proud to be escortin’ ye to him this day.”

He heard a sniffle and watched as a hand lifted to wipe a tear.

“Och!” Thomas smiled down at her and patted her hand. “I didna mean to make ye cry! But I reckon women more easily show their feelin’s then men.”

They walked the rest of the way in silence. Thomas could feel Arline tremble ever so slightly. He supposed she was nervous as well as excited. Domnal greeted them at the door of the chapel.

“Are ye ready, me lady?” Domnal asked with a smile.

She paused a moment, then gave a nod. Domnal opened the door a slight cracked, poked his head inside. He gave a nod to the priest before opening the door all the way.

Thomas cleared his throat, patted Arline’s hand again and guided her inside.

Lily was waiting with Selina just inside the doorway.

Selina knew the moment she saw Arline that something was wrong. She stepped forward, her brow knitted. “Me lady,” she whispered. “What happened to yer dress?”

Beatrice had to think quickly for some reasonable explanation and could only pray that Selina would not recognize her voice. “Tea.” She whispered her reply.

Selina’s face paled. “Och!” she exclaimed. “Ye spilled tea on it?”

Beatrice nodded her reply.

“Ye poor thing!”

Lily stepped forward and pulled on Beatrice’s dress. “I kept me dress clean, Arline!” she told her proudly.

It took a great deal of effort not to shoo the child away. Beatrice had never been fond of children and was even less fond of this one. She hated how Rowan constantly fawned over the child, bragged about how smart she was, how beautiful she was. Doing her best not to give herself away, she gave Lily a pat on her head before looking down the aisle.

There he was. The man she’d soon be married to. She was not worried over what he’d do once he found out he had married her instead of the insipid Lady Arline. By the time he realized what had happened it would be far too late for him to undo it.

She stood taller, thrust her shoulders back and raised her chin. Lily was chatting on about something, but Beatrice ignored her. Besides, it was nearly impossible to understand a thing that came out of the child’s mouth, what with her lisp and inability to pronounce her r’s and l’s.

She took a deep breath and urged Thomas forward, quite ready to become Rowan Graham’s wife.

The moment he set eyes on his bride, the hair on the back of his raised and his skin prickled. His stomach tightened and he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that something was horribly wrong.

He forced a smile and leaned in to speak with Findley. “Do no’ give on that something is wrong, Findley. But I tell ye, that is no’ me bride,” he whispered. “Spread the word to the men.”

Findley feigned a happy smile as he patted Rowan on the back. “What do ye mean that be no’ yer bride?”

“That is no’ Arline,” he whispered.

“How do ye ken?”

“That woman has a bosom. In case ye haven’t noticed, Arline is tall and quite slender.” Rowan’s stomach began to churn with anger. “And where be her sisters? They were to walk in front of her.”

Findley looked up, still smiling, and studied the woman. Figuring that Rowan would know better than anyone if the woman was his bride or not, he turned to whisper in Duncan’s ear. Within moments, word was spread amongst the men standing next to Findley as well as those stationed around the chapel.

To the untrained eye, Rowan was nothing more than an excited groom. He waited at the altar with a broad smile plastered to his face. His insides however, were one big knot of anger and worry. He scanned the faces of the guests as Thomas began to walk the woman down the aisle. He recognized many of the faces. Not wanting to cause alarm or worse yet an all out brawl, he remained mute. Who knew if this woman had any accomplices or not? If she did, and Rowan moved too quickly, lives could be at stake.

Thomas detected something wrong in Rowan’s countenance. He also took note of the whispers between the men. Something was wrong, he just did not know yet what it was. He would wait for a signal from Rowan before he acted.

Playing the part of beaming groom, Rowan smiled as he took her hand from Thomas. “Thank ye kindly, Thomas, fer bringin’ me bride to me.”

Thomas nodded and stepped to the side. Rowan took his bride the last few steps toward the altar and stood quietly before the priest.

Rowan leaned in and whispered in the woman’s ear.

“If ye so much as move a muscle, I shall thrust me blade into yer side.”

She tensed ever so slightly and Rowan could feel her tremble. If the woman made any kind of gesture, instigated any trouble amongst the crowd, he would do as he had promised. If she had the courage to look at him, she would see the sincerity and the fury in his eyes. If anything had happened to Arline, he’d have no problems killing the woman standing beside him.

“Where the bloody hell is Arline, Beatrice?”

 As soon as she was next to him and he smelled the cloying sent of roses, Rowan knew who was hidden behind the heavy veil. He never cared for the scent of roses. The only woman he ever knew to wear it was Lady Beatrice.

The question of how she gained entry could wait for later. For now, he had to find out where Arline was and if Beatrice had men in waiting to attack.

“Do ye have men in the pews?”

She refused to answer, refused to move.

“Beatrice, I swear to ye that I will ring yer bloody neck if ye do no’ answer me. Do ye have men here?”

The priest leaned forward with a look of concern on his face. “Be there a problem, Rowan?” he asked.

Rowan looked up and smiled. “Nothin’ we canna handle, father.”

“Yer a bloody bastard,” Beatrice seethed. Damn him, damn him, damn him! “Aye, I have fifty men in the pews and five hundred more waitin’ beyond the walls to attack.”

He smiled and looked over his shoulder. One look at the faces behind him and he knew she lied. Mayhap one or two, but not fifty.

He turned back to the priest. “Me bride and I need a moment alone, father. She doesna feel at all well.”

Rowan yanked on Beatrice’s arm and led her away from the altar toward the priest’s office. Findley followed while Duncan remained behind. Whispers erupted through the crowd, curious as to why the bride and groom suddenly left before the ceremony had even begun.

Wee William left his spot in the front row to come speak with Duncan. “What the bloody hell is wrong?” he asked.

Duncan put a hand on Wee William’s shoulder and drew him down so that he could tell him. The rest of the men began to spread out through the crowd, waiting, watching each person for the slightest sign of trouble.

When Duncan finished explaining the situation as he knew it, Wee William rose to his full height. “Damn.”

Thirty-One

Within quarter of an hour, Rowan had the information he needed. He hadn’t learned it from Beatrice but from her maid, Joan who had promised to tell him all that she knew only if Rowan would keep Beatrice from killing her.

He left Wee William behind to help guard the keep. Findley, Duncan, Thomas along with twenty-five of Rowan’s best men, thundered behind him as he led the way out of the keep.

Rowan knew he was in pursuit of a wagon, driven by two paid men. The same wagon that Beatrice and Joan had hidden themselves in, in a false bottom, to gain entry. Beatrice was taken to the dungeon and he did not care one wit if Arline thought it too cruel a punishment. Beatrice was lucky he hadn’t ordered her to hang.

He also knew that Joan had slipped the sleeping potion into Arline’s tea. He hadn’t bothered to ask why for it simply did not matter. If he found Arline alive and unharmed, he would ask Beatrice the whys of it later. If she was harmed, Beatrice would not live long enough to answer any questions.

The wagon was easy enough to follow for it left tracks in the snow and mud. Still, the men who had smuggled Arline out of the keep had at least a one hour head start. Rowan prayed that the two men who drove the wagon weren’t stupid enough to do anything to harm Arline.

Many heads would roll this day. As soon as he got Arline back.

Fury simmered, just at the edge. If the men in the wagon felt the need to defend themselves, they’d not have long to live. Part of him hoped that the fools would try something stupid, just so he’d have the excuse to gut them.

Arline was having the oddest dream. She was being jostled about, like onions in a bowl. ’Twas an odd dream for a woman to have on her wedding day.

She felt groggy, disoriented, and quite nauseous. Her tongue, thick and dry, stuck to the roof of her mouth. An incessant throbbing in her head made her wonder if she hadn’t drunk too much at her wedding feast.

She tried to shake the fog from her head, but felt resistance. She tried lifting her hands to rub her throbbing temples, but something barred their movement. Were her hands tied?

Panic set in. Through the fog, her memory started to come back. She’d been in her room with Morralyn and Geraldine. They had just drunk a toast to something tawdry…then she remembered. She’d been drugged!

Bloody hell! She tried moving but soon realized her hands weren’t tied. She was bundled up in something. She wriggled and tried to kick her feet, but met more resistance. She was bound in something, from head to toe. Breathing became more difficult as the panic welled.

Good sense finally took over. It warned that she would smother if she did not remain calm. It was not an easy feat to tamp down the fear.

She was jostled once again and the force of it rolled her to her back. Although sound was muffled, she could very well deduce that she was in a wagon. Drugged and being taken away from the keep, from Rowan and Lily.

Anger and determination soon replaced the fear and panic. Angry that whoever had drugged her was stealing her away to God only knew where. And fully determined not to allow it to happen.

She stopped her struggle to think and to feel what she could with her hands and feet. If she could just get her hands on the seam, hold tightly to it, she might be able to unroll herself from the carpet. She knew it was a thick carpet, not a tapestry, for it felt far too heavy and too smooth to be anything else. More likely than not, it was the same carpet that had covered the floor near her bed.

Carefully, she felt around with fingertips and toes, but came up empty. The wagon hit another bump of some sort. The jolt took her rolling again, on to her stomach. Mustering her strength, she wriggled until she was on her side. That made breathing much easier.

Focused intently on maneuvering her way out of the carpet, the wagon came to an unexpected halt. She wasn’t sure if she should feel relieved or more terrified. Either they had reached their destination or Rowan had found her. Please dear lord, let it be Rowan!

She lay still and strained her ears to listen. The carpet blocked out nearly all sound. Everything was muffled and disjointed. Her heart pounded against her breast as she tried to think of what to do next.

It felt as though hours had passed before she felt someone tugging on the carpet. She was being pulled along the bottom of the wagon in great tugs. Please, please, please be Rowan!

She was lifted out of the wagon and laid on the ground. At least they hadn’t tossed her into a loch or a river! A small miracle, but now there was hope of getting out of this alive.

A moment later, the carpet was being tugged again, and she soon felt herself being rolled out of it, all the while praying that it was Rowan, and not her captors. In a flash, she decided to run like the devil the moment she was free of the carpet. She’d only stop if she heard Rowan’s voice.

Another tug and roll and she was free! The bright sunshine stung her eyes as she rolled to her stomach, pushed herself to her feet and took to flight!

Or at least she had tried to. She hadn’t taken three steps when large arms encircled her waist and pulled her off her feet.

“Wheesht, me lady!”

She recognized that voice. It did not belong to Rowan or any of his men. Fear enveloped her clear to her toes. Why on earth was he here and why had he taken her?

Rowan and his men pounded across the countryside, following the wagon tracks. He could not help but feel that he would soon find the wagon and the men who had taken his Arline. They’d been riding for nearly an hour, hell-bent for leather, chasing down the whoresons. A wagon could not travel as fast or cover as much ground as a man on horseback, especially a man like Rowan Graham. With unwavering determination to get his bride back, he urged his horse on. Mud and slush kicked up with each thundering step his mount took, splattering his boots and legs, and occasionally, his face.

Sweat blended with mud, fury with agonizing worry over Arline. He had to get her back, he could not lose her, not now, not after all they had gone through.

They continued to follow the road as it wound its way north and west. His dread and fury grew exponentially with each gut wrenching moment that passed by without coming upon the wagon.

Joan had told them that the men were taking Arline to the ruins of an auld kirk that lay near Loch Rannoch. Once they were there, they were to kill her and leave her body for the scavengers and wolves.

The tracks headed in that direction. Rowan prayed that the men would do as they’d been instructed and not decide to kill her sooner. He swore that if he found her alive, he’d never allow her a moment alone. She’d be under constant guard, four men surrounding her at all times when she was not with him. He would spend every waking moment protecting her.

Soon, they came upon a bend in the road. Not far ahead was the wagon they had been searching for. It was stopped in the middle of the road and he could not see anyone. Not the driver, his accomplice nor Arline. His heart plummeted to his feet, his dread crashing around him.

They raced toward the wagon. Rowan slid from his horse before it had even stopped. He rushed forward with his sword drawn. He saw the empty carpet lying on the ground, quickly inspected it for signs of blood. Nothing.

Findley and Duncan had soon approached, with swords at the ready. They walked to the front of the wagon. Fresh blood covered the seat and the floor.

“Rowan!” Duncan called out as he began to scan the forest.

Rowan rushed to the front of the wagon and followed Findley’s gaze. “Blood?” he asked.

“Aye, and lots of it.” Findley answered.

Rowan ordered the men to fan out and search for Arline and what might be left of the two men. Rowan was encased in dread and fear as he tried to figure out what had happened.

With Beatrice’s help, two men had stolen Arline away from the keep. Now the two men were missing and so was Arline. Had she somehow managed to kill the two men, then flee?

A warning niggled at the back of his mind. It was his fervent hope that she had somehow managed to stab the two men. Mayhap she had only wounded them and they were now chasing her through the woods.

“Rowan! Here!” a voice called out not far from where he stood.

He, Findley and Duncan followed the voice. They soon came upon one of Rowan’s men. He was looking down at the ground.

Rowan braced himself for the worst and followed the man’s gaze.

He’d found the drivers.

Their throats had been cut and they’d been tossed on atop the other on the ground. Rowan knew that Arline did not possess the strength to carry the men this far from the road. He surveyed the ground and found no signs they had been drug. They’d been carried.

He crouched low, looking for some sign, something, anything to guide him on what he should do next. He found a pair of boot prints in the snow. They led to the two men, then away, back toward the wagon.

Rowan led his friends and men back to the wagon where they immediately began to look for more signs. Duncan found a set of boot prints, similar to those they’d discovered in the woods. He also found a set of hoof prints.

“Looks like one man, one horse,” Duncan said as he studied the tracks. “They look verra fresh and run to the east. I do no’ think we’re far behind them.”

Rowan ground his jaws together and wound his hands into fists. He found himself in the same position he was in just a few short hours ago. Someone had taken Arline and he had no bloody idea who or why.

“Mount up!” Rowan barked as he headed to his horse.

He’d get her back, one way or another.

They had not been riding long when she figured out that he had lied to her when he said he was taking her back to Áit na Síochána. They were travelling in the opposite direction. He had lied. He wasn’t taking her home.

At first, she thought she could trust him, for he was one of the shadow men. He had killed the two men who had taken her and promised that he was there to help her. “I’ll take ye home, me lady,” he had promised with a smile.

In hindsight, she should have inquired as to which home. They were heading toward Blackthorn lands. Certainly, he could not mean to take her there.

Her arms were wrapped around his waist as she rode behind him. Her wedding dress had not been designed for travel and did little to keep out the cold. The hem was now ruined, wet from all the mud and slush the horse kicked up as they travelled through the woods.

She knew the further they rode away from Áit na Síochána, the less chance Rowan had of finding her. In her heart she knew he had figured out she was missing. He loved her and he would come for her, of that, she had no doubt.

In order to survive whatever lay ahead of her, she knew she must feign ignorance and trust. She decided to play along and at the same time, try to gain some information as to why Archie had supposedly come to her rescue only to end up lying to her.

“Archie,” she said as she adjust her rump. “How did ye come to find me?”

“I was at Áit na Síochána, watchin’ over ye as is me sworn duty. When we learned ye’d been taken, I set off before the others to find ye.”

She did not believe him. “I see,” she murmured. “Where exactly are we goin’ now? I do no’ think Áit na Síochána, is in this direction.”

“I didn’t say I was takin’ ye back to Áit na Síochána, me lady.”

She sat upright. “But ye said ye were taken me home.” Familiar panic began to rise and she hoped he had not detected it.

“Aye, I did.”

She was growing frustrated with his elusive answers. “But me home is Áit na Síochána.”

She felt him grow tense. He hunched his shoulder and cracked his neck. “It was yer home, me lady. I fear I canna take ye back there.”

“Why not?” Even she detected the fear in her own voice.

“I canna let ye marry Rowan Graham. I ken that is what ye want, but I canna let ye do that.”

“Please, Archie, explain to me why ye canna allow it?”

“I need ye to marry another.”

Her mouth opened in surprise. “Marry another? I do no’ understand, Archie.”

He let out a frustrated breath. “Yer da waits no’ far from here. We have another that ye must marry and we need ye to do it fer Scotland.”

What the bloody hell did he mean by that? “Marry someone fer the good of Scotland?”

He responded with a nod. “I be sorry, me lady, but we’ve no’ other choice. Ye need to marry the man we’ve chosen fer yet.”

“We?” she asked indignantly. “Who is we?

He remained silent for a time. “How much do ye ken of yer last two marriages?”

She told him she didn’t understand his question.

“Yer marriage to Carlich turned out to be quite fortuitous for Robert Stewart. When yer da learned how helpful ye’d been at rootin’ out two of the traitors, he came to Robert with an offer. In exchange for a substantial amount of coin, he’d work with Robert to arrange another marriage with another suspected traitor.”

Her blood ran cold and the hairs on her neck rose.

“We long suspected Lombard de Sotuhans. We had been workin’ a verra long time to prove he was funneling money to the small group of men who want to bring Scotland to her knees and see England rein over her. We believed ye’d be a verra good distraction for de Sotuhans. Ye could keep him busy while we sought the information we needed.”

Robert Stewart had betrayed her. He had sworn that he would always protect her, had given her a letter to use if ever she were in trouble and the shadow men could not be found. In the end, he had betrayed her trust. The knowledge left her chilled to the bone.

“But the fool died before we could get ye to him.”

Where on earth would she be at this moment if the man had not died?

“We had also long suspected the elder Blackthorn as well. I was the one that suggested to Garrick that he add the stipulation of no bairns to the contract. It was the only way to get him to agree. If he hadn’t, ye’d a been married to his da.”

Another small miracle. Though Garrick’s father was not as mean and heartless as his son, the thought of being married to him made her ill.

“So I’ve been nothin’ more than an unwitting spy?” she spoke into his back.

He answered with stone silence.

She was nothing more than a pawn to be used by Robert Stewart and her father. She had grown up knowing her father did not care about her happiness. But she had trusted Robert Stewart. His betrayal of her trust left a bitter taste in her mouth.

“Me lady, I ken that ye love Rowan. He’s a good man,” Archie said as he looked over his shoulder at her. “But the marriage has already been arranged. We’ve three men left that we suspect of workin’ with the English.”

“Bah!” Arline cried out. “Do ye expect me to marry all three?”

“Nay, me lady. We hope that ye’ll be able to get the information we need from Phillip Randall. If yer successful, ye’ll be rewarded with a home of yer own, anywhere ye wish to live. ’Tis fer the good of Scotland that ye must do this. Mayhap, Rowan will wait fer ye and ye can marry him in the future.”

She knew he was trying to appeal to her sense of honor and loyalty. He was also dangling a bit of hope in front of her nose. But wait to marry Rowan? She made a decision then and there. Slowly, she let her arms go slack and she slid from the horse.

Wait to marry Rowan? Not bloody likely!

Rowan and his men raced across the glen and followed the tracks into another dense thicket of woods. There, they were forced to slow their pace, which sent Rowan’s anger to new heights. When doubt as to Arline’s safety and well-being crept in, he pushed them away. He could not think of her injured, harmed, or dead. When he did, his heart would sink with the weight of heartache he had not felt since Kate’s death.

There was not as much deep snow in this part of the forest for it was protected under the wide canopy of evergreen trees. The trees themselves were blanketed with snow, but the ground was more mud and slush than anything else.

The men walked for a time and eventually picked up the tracks again. They had turned in a northwesterly direction. Looking up at the sun taking its late afternoon descent, Rowan mumbled a curse and started for his horse. He had to find her before nightfall. Without lanterns or torches, ’twould be next to impossible to follow their tracks.

Rowan was just about to mount his horse again when Findley held up his hand. “Listen!” he said in a sharp whisper.

Rowan strained his ears. For a moment, all he could hear was the breeze as it tickled the evergreens. Moments later, he thought he heard a shout coming from up ahead. His heart pounded as he climbed onto his horse and urged he and his men forward.

There was a possibility that it was nothing more than a farmer out searching for an errant cow. His heart raced as they made their way through the evergreens. Please, God, let it be Arline and let her be well.

She ran from Archie as if he were the devil. With the hem of her dress clutched tightly in one hand, she tore through the trees and brush. An overwhelming sense of deja vu fell over her. She’d fled through trees and thick underbrush months ago to get away from Garrick’s men. Now she fled to get away from a man sworn to protect her.

Arline did not worry that he’d kill her if he caught her. Nay, she was far too important to the ridiculous scheme her father had concocted.

She didn’t necessarily run in hopes of freedom. Nay, it was nothing more than a means to delay what was most likely the inevitable. If she could find a decent place to hide, she could wait until Rowan found her. That was her sole goal at running; to stall, to find Rowan the time he’d need to find her.

She ignored his calls for her to stop. Dipping under low hanging branches, crashing through bare bushes, she ran in zigzag fashion in hopes of confusing him with her tracks.

Not knowing if he remained on his horse or had left it to chase her on foot, she continued to run as fast as her legs would carry her. The cold snow and slush stung her slippered feet, the branches scratched at her dress. Still, she pushed forward.

Not far ahead she saw a large felled tree. She ran around it, stopped long enough to see if it would make a good hiding place. It had fallen over a good sized dip in the land. If she could wriggle her way under it, she could hide from Archie.

His voice was growing nearer as he called out for her to come back. Not very likely!

“Ye’ll freeze to death, me lady!” Archie’s voice rang through the trees. “I canna allow ye to die! Come back and we’ll start a fire!”

She’d rather freeze to death than return to Archie and subsequently her father. She ran around a few evergreens and backtracked to the log. Panting, covered in sweat, she dug her way through the slush. There was not much room, but enough that should anyone walk by they could not see her. She lay on her side with her back pressed against the cold earth and prayed.

Rowan did not know who it was that was yelling. He could barely make out what the man was shouting. But it was enough that he could ascertain the man was yelling for Arline.

Rowan and the others dismounted, leaving their horses where they stood. Not one man made a sound as Rowan waved directions for them to fan out. Rowan and Findley carefully made their way through the band of evergreens while the rest of the men spread out.

The man’s shouting drew nearer and became clearer.

“Damn it, Arline! I need ye to come back!”

Rowan and Findley gave each other a curious glance as they stilled themselves to listen further. Hope rose with the realization that Arline was alive!

“I swear if ye do no’ come back, I’ll kill Rowan meself!”

Rowan stiffened. Whoever this stranger was, he knew Arline well enough to call her by her first name and to threaten her with Rowan’s life. Rowan sent a silent prayer that Arline would not cower to the man’s threats.

Rowan nodded at Findley and pointed him to wind his way around to the east, while Rowan set off for the west. His goal was to surround the man and bring him down before he could find Arline.

As stealthy as cat-o-mountains surrounding unsuspecting prey, Rowan and Findley spread out, careful to listen for Arline as well as the stranger.

Arline heard Archie’s footfalls as he approached her hiding place. She watched as his booted feet stomped through the slush as he passed by. Holding her breath, her body stiffening with fear as he continued to call out his threats.

“I swear it, Arline! By God I swear I’ll kill him! If ye want to see Rowan live, ye’ll come back now!”

Arline was confident that that would not happen. Rowan was a warrior who could take care of himself. She’d not let Archie’s threats make her fearful.

She closed her eyes and tried to take in slow breaths as she listened to Archie continue his tirade.

“And after I kill Rowan? I will kill his daughter!”

Her heart leapt to her throat. Lily. Lily could not defend herself. She was but a babe! What if Archie grew weary of chasing Arline and returned to the keep? He was supposed to be a protector, not a killer, of innocents!

Archie’s first and only allegiance was to Scotland. His sole purpose in life was to ensure Scotland remained free. If that meant killing an innocent child, then so be it. Scotland was bigger than any one person.

Bile rose, she chased it back and swallowed. If anything happened to Lily, she could never forgive herself. Rowan would never be the same.

She was not given the opportunity to weigh her options or devise any further plans of escape or keeping Lily safe. A large hand reached into her tiny hiding spot, grabbed her by her hair and yanked her out.

She did not go without a fight. Kicking, screaming, clawing, she fought against Archie.

“Settle yerself down!” he barked, grabbing her arms and hoisting her to her feet.

She saw it then, plainly, without question or doubt. Sheer, unadulterated anger and determination stared back at her through hazel eyes. In that instant, she knew, Archie would do whatever he must to get her to her father, to secure Scotland’s future.

“I swear, I’ll kill every last person that ye love, if you do no’ listen to me!” Squeezing her arms, he shook her violently.

To her soul, she believed him.

Giving her a good yank, he pulled her along, back to where he’d left his horse. “Do no’ even think of runnin’ away again, me lady. I’ll no’ look fer ye again. I’ll go straight back to Áit na Síochána.

She was too angry to cry. Believing that if she could slow down their pace, Rowan would be able to find her and put an end to this mess. “I’m of an age!” she spat at him. “I no longer have to heed me da’s bidding!”

Archie stopped, spun her around and grabbed her arms again. “’Tisn’t yer da’s bidding, but mine! Ye do this because it be the right thing to do.” His voice was low, menacing. It sent shivers running up and down Arline’s spine.

He had tried appealing to her sense of honor and loyalty, had threatened to kill everyone she loved. Now, he flung her own words at her, wielding them like a weapon.

As she struggled against his tight hold, she thought she caught the flicker of movement out of the corner of her eyes. Fervently, she prayed it was not her father’s men.

“Have I no’ already given enough fer yer country?” She growled. “Ye ferget, I am from Ireland, no’ Scotland! My first fealty is to my own home country!”

“Ye gave up Ireland when ye married Carlich, ye foolish woman!”

Her struggling only made him angrier, still, she persisted in her attempt to stall him. As she struggled, she saw the flicker again and it was drawing closer. “I’ll no agree to it, Archie! I will no’ do it!”

“Och!” he threw his head back in frustration and yelled. “Why? Why must ye be so damned foolish?”

Arline could see and feel his fury bubbling to the surface. Spittle formed in the corner of his mouth. She began to fear he’d have no compunction about killing her.

Enraged and furious, he tossed her to the ground and with drew his dirk. Arline’s eyes widened in terror. He was no longer her sworn protector, but a man hell bent on a mission.

“I should simply slice yer throat!” His voice echoed through the forest. He grabbed her by the hair and lifted her head as he placed the dirk against her throat.

“Nay!” she scratched out pleadingly. “Archie, do no’ do this!”

Something flashed in his eyes. His lips pursed together. He appeared to be mulling over his options when the sound of a twig snapping behind him drew his attention away from her.

Findley and Rowan were standing not ten feet away, with broadswords drawn and expressions of complete determination alight on both their faces.

“Step away from her, and I’ll let ye live.” Rowan’s voice was as cold and firm as the blade of steel he held in his hand.

Arline’s relief at seeing Rowan was short lived. She lay between the two men, afraid to utter a sound or move the tiniest of muscles. Archie snatched her hair up again and yanked her to her feet. She groaned and tried to pry her hair from his hands. He yanked harder and pressed the dirk against her throat again. “Rowan, I swear I’ll kill her if ye do no’ leave us be.”

Rowan cocked his head slightly. “Ye’ll be dead before she hits the ground.”

“If he doesna kill ye, then I will,” came a voice from behind. Archie spun around to see Duncan just a few steps away from him, with his sword drawn.

“Let her go, and ye’ll live.” Rowan repeated. “Harm her, and ye are as good as dead.”

Archie pulled Arline closer, using her as a shield, pressing her firmly against his chest. He wrapped one arm around her neck while he pressed the dirk against her throat. Taking careful steps backward, he was dragging Arline along with him. His breathing became jagged and harsh, like an animal caught in a trap.

“Ye dunna understand!” he yelled at Rowan. “This is fer Scotland! Fer her freedom!”

“Ye put too much faith in one person,” Rowan said. “What can she do that hundreds of others have no’ tried or done before her? Why is she so bloody important?”

Archie paused, still clutching a very terrified Arline to his chest. “He’s right, Archie!” she squeaked out. “Ye can find another to help ye.”

He cocked his head to get a better look at her. His expression told her he thought she was insane. “Another? Nay! Ye be the only one we can trust. Ye be the only one with a sense of duty and honor!”

He began dragging her away again. “I canna be the only woman in all of Scotland, Archie! I canna be the only one who can do what ye ask!”

“Shut up!” he howled at her. “Shut up!”

He jerked harder, increasing the pressure of his arm. If he did not stop, he’d either end up strangling her or breaking her neck. She looked to Rowan who followed them step for step. His eyes told of steadfast resolve to see her through this alive and unharmed. It bolstered her spirits and gave her hope. She made a split decision, one that she hoped would not cause Rowan’s death, or her own.

Pretending to faint, she let her entire body go limp. Archie fought to keep her on her feet, but with one arm holding the dirk and the other around her upper chest, he was hard pressed to manage it.

He howled in frustration and let loose his hold on her. Arline fell to the ground in a heap, while Rowan, Duncan and Findley sprang into action.

Archie continued his retreat. Unsheathing his broadsword, he held it outward with one hand, the dirk in the other. Waving them back and forth and the three men approached.

“If Scotland falls, I’ll make sure the whole world kens it to be yer fault, Rowan Graham!”

“If Scotland falls, it will no’ be because of me or Arline. It will be because cowards and traitors,” Rowan said as he pursued Archie.

Once Arline heard the men walking away, she pushed herself up to her feet. Though she no longer feared for her own safety, she did fear for Rowan’s. Of the men surrounding Archie, Rowan was the closest.

 “That is what we are tryin’ to avoid, ye fool!”

“I be no more a fool than ye, if ye think one slip of a woman can save Scotland.”

She didn’t take it as a personal affront. Arline knew Rowan was simply trying to get matters under control.

Archie lunged forward, toward Rowan. Rowan saw it coming and jumped sideways. The blade of Archie’s sword barely missed Rowan’s abdomen. Too stunned and terrified to move, Arline could only stand by and watch, utterly helpless to do anything.

Findley took note of Arline’s distress. Uncertain if she would fall to pieces or do something foolish and attempt to intercede on Rowan’s behalf, Findley went to her side. With one hand on her shoulder and one on her elbow, he stood beside her and tried to offer her some reassurance.

“Rowan’s good with his sword, me lady. Ye needn’t worry.”

Arline thought his statement one of the most ridiculous that she had heard of late. Do not worry? How could she not?

“Lad, ye do no’ want to do this,” Rowan told Archie. “Put yer sword away and ye can live.”

Incensed, Archie refused to back down. “Nay! I shall no’! Ye dunna understand what yer up against, Rowan. ’Tis something much bigger than either of us. Let me take Arline and ye can go on about yer life!” Rowan met Archie’s sword as he swung it sideways, successfully blocking his shot.

There was not much room in the tiny clearing amongst the evergreen trees. Soon, the perimeter was surrounded with Rowan’s men. They would not interfere or act on his behalf unless it was absolutely necessary. This was a fight that Rowan had to battle alone.

Rowan made no attempts to swing or thrust. Archie was too angry, too infuriated to battle well. His movements were jerky, choppy, and Rowan knew he would soon wear out and tire. All Rowan need do was take a defensive stance, block the unbalanced and erratic thrusts, jabs, and swings.

Archie grew more frustrated with each swing that missed his intended target. He was coming apart at the seams, losing control; something shadow men never did. He tried channeling his anger, controlling it. He was slipping and he knew it.

Hope was quickly replaced with despair. He was surrounded by Graham men. Good, decent men who were loyal to Scotland, but they were first loyal to Rowan, which in his mind made them just as dangerous as the traitors he sought. He needed more men to help him fight Rowan and the men of Clan Graham. If he could just get to his horse, he could go to the camp where Arline’s father awaited them. In little time, he could have at least fifty men at his disposal, men who would fight tooth and nail to get Arline back.

As he contemplated his next move, turning in circles, thrusting his sword wildly, Rowan stumbled over a large rock and fell backward, landing on his back.

Archie took no time in making his move. He lifted his sword high above his head, ready to plunge it into Rowan’s chest. The only way to get Arline to agree to marry anyone was to kill Rowan Graham.

Duncan acted swiftly before Archie could bring his sword down. Flinging his knife through the air, it landed exactly where he had aimed: left of the breastbone, straight into his heart. Archie fell to his knees, still holding his broadsword high above his head.

Rowan rolled away before Archie fell forward, plunging the knife in even further. The sickening sound of blood as it gurgled in his throat and sputtered from his mouth made Arline turn into Findley’s chest and cover her ears with her hands.

Duncan immediately came to Rowan’s side, extended his arm and helped him to his feet.

Rowan let out a big breath of air, shook his head and thanked his friend. “Thank ye, kindly Duncan,” he said as the color finally returned to his face. “I thought fer certain I was dead!”

Duncan gave him a firm slap on his back. “No man should die on his weddin’ day!”

Rowan gave him a quick nod before he rushed to Arline. He pulled her away from Findley and held her close, rubbing her back, and offering soothing words of comfort.

“Wheesht, lass, I be well. ’Tis over.”

Arline knew it wasn’t over. It would never be over until she settled matters with her father once and for all.

Someone offered a cloak to Rowan who carefully wrapped it around Arline’s shoulders. “Come, let us go home,” he said as he kissed her cheek.

More than anything, she wanted to return to Áit na Síochána. She wanted to marry Rowan and begin a life with him. Fearful that her father or one of the shadow men would eventually interfere with that plan, Arline shook her head.

“Nay, Rowan,” she said firmly. “There is one more matter we must deal with before we go home.”

Thirty-Two

Arline sat on Rowan’s lap as they headed to her father’s encampment. With his arms protectively folded around her, Arline explained matters as best she could and as she knew them. The more Rowan learned, the more furious he became. Grinding his teeth together, he remained silent as he listened to her tell her tale, beginning with the events that took place more than seven years ago.

She left nothing out. She told him about Robert Stewart, the letter in Carlich’s box, the shadow men; everything was laid bare before him.

He was proud of his wife. Aye, they weren’t married in the biblical sense just yet -- he hoped to have that issue resolved completely before the sun rose on the morrow -- but still, he thought of her as his wife. Although she’d been through much these past seven years, had been married to two suspected traitors to Scotland, had been beaten, nearly killed by an arrow, drugged and taken from her home, she still held on to her dignity and pride. She hadn’t fallen to pieces, hadn’t cowered in fear. Nay, she faced it full on, as brave as any warrior he knew.

And she was about to face one of the main sources of her fear. She’d not back down from her father. She’d not cry or plead or beg.

The more she talked, the more indomitable she became. Rowan was quite glad to have her as an ally and soon, as his wife.

Her father’s encampment was not far from where Archie lost his life. He was housed in a small clearing, scattered with tents and fires. A quick survey told Rowan that Arline’s father had mayhap only twenty men with him. Most of them looked barely old enough to have sprouted chest hair.

 Rowan stopped near a group of lads sitting around a fire. “Where is Orthanach Fitzgerald?”

 Three sets of fearful and confused eyes stared back at him. Only one lad moved. He raised and arm and pointed toward a group of larger tents. “He’s in the big one at the end,” the lad answered nervously.

Apparently Orthanach had not felt it necessary to bring men or soldiers instead of inexperienced lads, who didn’t even bother to inquire as to who he was or what he was doing here.

That could prove a fatal assumption on his part.

Rowan clicked his tongue and urged his horse forward. They passed a few more young men, all with the same confused looks on their faces as the lad who had directed him toward Orthanach’s tent.

Rowan brought his horse to a stop, swung a leg over and lowered himself down. His men followed suit, each of them keeping a watchful eye on their surroundings. Rowan lifted Arline down from the horse and took her hand in his.

He did not stop to ask her if she was certain she wanted to face her father. Her green eyes flickered with purpose. She would do this and he would stand beside her while she did it.

Rowan held the tent flap open while Arline ducked inside. He followed in behind her, but remained back a few steps, with his hand on the hilt of his sword.

The tent was large. A full-sized bed stood off to the right. Finely upholstered chairs sat around a large round table. Carpets adorned the floors while tapestries hung on the walls. Dozens of lit candles, some in silver candlesticks, others in large candelabras, were scattered about the room. Ostentatious was the first word that came to Rowan’s mind.

Orthanach Fitzgerald sat behind a long table in an ornately carved chair. His booted feet were propped up on the table as he held a document in his long slender fingers.

He had short-cropped light brown hair that had grayed at his temples. His nose seemed far too large for his hollow-cheeked face. Dull blue-gray eyes looked up, first at Arline then at Rowan.

Orthanach made no effort to stand. He carefully laid the document down, twined his fingers together and rested them on his belly.

“Arline.”

There was no warmth in his voice, no sign of fatherly affection.

Arline refused to offer him a curtsy as was due his station and title. She was not going to beat around the bush.

“I’ve been told ye arranged yet another marriage fer me.”

He gave a barely perceptible nod of his.

“I’m here to tell ye that that won’t be happenin’.”

He breathed in deeply through his nostrils and let it out slowly. “What’s done is done. We leave on the morrow, fer Edinburgh where ye will marry Phillip Randall.”

Arline did not so much as bat an eye. She did not flinch or move or otherwise act afraid or frail. She stood her ground. “Nay, I shan’t.”

“Arline, do no’ give me any grief over this. The arrangements have been made, the bride price paid. Ye shall go to Edinburgh and ye shall marry Phillip Randall.”

Arline walked forward, placed her palms on the top of his desk and leaned in. “Nay. I shan’t. I will no longer be yer pawn. I will no longer cower and bend to yer will. I am of an age where I can decide who I want or do no’ want to marry.”

Orthanach was about to speak when a small commotion began just outside the entry to the tent. Rowan lifted the flap and stepped aside.

Findley came in, bearing Archie’s lifeless body over his shoulder. “Where do ye want, this Rowan?”

Rowan motioned toward the desk. Orthanach shot to his feet as he watched Findley give a curt nod to Rowan. He walked toward Orthanach and Arline, went to the side of the desk, and with a slight heave, he tossed Archie’s body off his shoulder. It landed with a thud in a heap next to the desk.

Findley gave a slight nod and cast a smug grin at Orthanach and quit the tent.

Arline stood with her hands crossed over her chest and glared at her father. “I believe ye ken who that is?” she asked, giving a nod toward the dead body at her father’s feet.

Orthanach was speechless. He looked dumbfounded as he stared at Arline.

“I ken him as well. Or did.”

Orthanach looked down at Archie. He was visibly shaken and pale when he turned his attention back to Arline.

“Hear me, and hear me now,” Arline began. Her tone was serious, firm, unyielding. “Ye will never contact me or me sisters. Ever. Ye shall leave the three of us in peace. No more barterin’ fer marriages. No more bargains with Robert Stewart. I’ll never be yer pawn again.” She took a breath as she leaned forward to look him in the eye. “Ye will never threaten me, me sisters, me husband, me daughter, or any future children I may have. Ye shall never send the shadow men fer me or mine. Fer I swear if ye do, I will run me blade through yer heart, just like I did Archie’s.”

Orthanach didn’t need to know who actually plunged the blade through Archie’s heart. It was enough to keep him guessing, fearful, and understanding that she meant every word she spoke.

Orthanach leaned over the desk, placing his hands palms down on top of it. “Ye wouldna dare,” he challenged her.

In the span of two heartbeats, Arline drew the dirk Rowan had given her and thrust it through her father’s right hand until it hit wood.

 For several long moments, he was too stunned to speak. He looked disbelievingly at the knife sticking through the top of his hand. Blood trickled from it.

Arline held on to the hilt and leaned in closer, her nose almost touching his. “That will be yer only warnin’. Heed me words or ye’ll no’ live to regret the day ye didn’t.”

Using both hands, she removed the knife from his hand, turned and walked away.

Blood spilled out and ran down his arm as he lifted it to his chest. “Ye stabbed me! Yer own father!” he cried out in shock and pain.

Arline stopped and turned back to him. “Remember, that was yer only warnin’. Ye’ll no’ get a second.”

She took Rowan’s hand and hurried from the tent. She didn’t want her father to watch as the blood drained from her face. She didn’t want him to see how ill she’d become.

Rowan climbed on to his horse, extended an arm to Arline and lifted her up. He wrapped his arms around her and without speaking, he took her away from the encampment.

Night had fallen but Arline begged Rowan not to make camp for the night. She wanted to go home, back to Áit na Síochána. She wanted to wrap Lily in her arms and hold her. She wanted to marry Rowan before dawn, and fall asleep in his arms.

A sense of peace, a kind of comforting peace she was not accustomed to, draped itself around her. Arline knew that her father was neither dumb enough or brave enough to test her promise. She was certain he would never bother her, her sisters or her family ever again.

She rested her head against Rowan’s chest and wrapped her arms around his waist. How wonderful it would be to fall asleep like this each night, and wake to him each morn. She could barely wait to return home, to marry him, to start a new life and, hopefully, to bear him a few dozen children.

Much time passed before Rowan spoke. “So when we return to our keep, do ye wish to sleep?”

Arline nuzzled her cheek sleepily against his chest. “Nay, I do no’ want to sleep. I want to find the priest, say our I do’s, and begin our weddin’ night. Or weddin’ day, dependin’ on how fast ye can get us home.”

“Good, good,” Rowan said. “And yer fully prepared to do yer wifely duty?” he asked playfully.

Arline sighed contentedly. “Well, here’s the thing about that, Rowan. I’ve been talking to Ora, and a few of the women folk, ye ken. I’m told that I canna get with child if I just do me duty. Ye have to pleasure me in all sorts of ways, and many, many times. So if it’s children ye be wantin’, it seems ye have a husbandly duty to perform.”

He threw his head back and laughed. “A husbandly duty, ye say?”

“Aye,” she said with a yawn. “And ’tis a duty, I’m told, that ye must perform several times a day. Do ye think yer up fer that?”

Rowan kissed the top of her head and gave her a hug. “Aye, I suppose, if I’m to be a good husband to ye, I’m willin’ to make such a sacrifice.”

Arline giggled at his jest.

“Well, ’twould be the right thing to do.

Thirty-Three

It had not been the wedding they had planned for the past three weeks. The pews were not filled to bursting with friends and family, the sun was not shining brightly, and Thomas did not walk her down the aisle. Most of Áit na Síochána was fast asleep at this late hour.

They didn’t take the time to wash away the mud and muck or even change their clothes. Arline did wear her goldenrod yellow dress even though it was tattered, torn, and otherwise ruined.

Findley sought out the priest, rousted him from a deep sleep and brought him to the gathering room.

“’Twas a verra fine weddin’ feast we had, Rowan,” the priest informed him. “’Twould have been better were the bride and groom able to join us.”

Rowan and Arline were glad to learn that a good time was had by so many and that they had been missed. It would have been a shame to have all the food Mrs. Fitz had prepared go to waste.

Findley and Duncan stood up with Rowan, while the rest of the men acted as witnesses. Arline refused to wake her sisters. She would fill them in on all the details later.

 Opting for a much shorter ceremony that what had been planned, it took very little time for them to become formally man and wife. When the priest finally gave permission for Rowan to kiss his bride, he scooped her into his arms and rushed her up to his room. He had husbandly duties to perform.

They discovered Lily, fast asleep in the middle of his bed when they stepped into his chamber. A candle burned on the table in the corner. Arline smiled down at the little one, her eyes alight with relief.

After making certain Lily was well and safe -- and Arline had draped an extra blanket over her stepdaughter -- she and Rowan slipped through the door to Arline’s chamber.

On all those cold, lonely nights when Rowan imagined how it would be with Arline when they were finally able to consummate their marriage, he had envisioned taking his sweet time, savoring every moment, delighting her with long, languishing kisses and warm, soft caresses. He had planned this moment as they had planned their wedding. Carefully. Meticulously. With great thought and care.

His bride apparently had other ideas. As soon as he closed the door behind them, Arline leapt at him like a cat-o-mountain. All thoughts of slow, artfully crafted and strategically placed kisses were rapidly tossed to the side. Along with his dirty tunic, trews, and mud covered boots.

No fire had been set in the fireplace. He found they didn’t need it. Arline’s smoldering desire was enough to keep him warm for hours.

Arline had stripped him to complete nakedness in a matter of moments, much like an experienced mum preparing to toss her mud-covered wee one into a tub. But she didn’t toss Rowan into a tub. Instead, she pushed flat on his back, sideways on her bed. His calves dangled over the edge, his arms spread over his head.

“Lass, do ye no’ want to slow down a bit and enjoy the moment?” he asked as she smothered his faces with hungry kisses.

She made no effort to stop the kisses or to slow her pace. “I be’ enjoyin’ meself!” she told him excitedly.

He chuckled, then flinched when she pressed a kiss on his sensitive skin, right below his belly button. “As ye wish, me lady,” he said with a dutiful air as she worked her way back up to his face. He lay there and took her kisses and ministrations like a man.

She plied him with frenzied, borderline desperate kisses, explored his face, his neck, shoulders and chest with her hands and lips. She worked her way up and down his body for a time as she straddled his abdomen.

He could finally take no more. He pushed her up gently and began to slowly lift her dress over her head. Apparently he hadn’t moved fast enough, for she took over, removed dress and chemise in one fluid motion and tossed them somewhere over her head.

“I love ye, Rowan Graham,” she whispered as she pressed another kiss against his chest.

“I love ye, me lady wife.”

Arline had waited many years, through three previous husbands, to finally have a wedding night. She wasn’t about to waste a single moment of it to propriety or misinformed notions. Had things gone as planned yesterday, she might have thought how to take her time and allow Rowan the lead.

Waiting be damned. She was finally married to a man who truly wanted to be married to her. She loved him, and he her. They could take their time later. At the moment, she was a desperate woman, sitting atop the most magnificent man she had ever had the pleasure of knowing, and she happened to be married to him.

Later, much later, and by bright candlelight as Ora had suggested, she would take her time to explore every square inch of his gloriously perfect body.

Rowan wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her down against his chest. His skin was hot, the hair of his chest tickled against her bare breasts. She took great delight in his heavy breathing and found she had no need to ask if she were doing things properly. In one fluid motion, without breaking their passionate kiss, Rowan rolled her over to her back.

The urgent need for more swelled and rose in each touch, each kiss, each frantic breath they took. Minnie be damned! This was sumptuous, heavenly, wondrous -- Och! It hurt like bloody hell!

She sucked in a deep breath and held it, closed her eyes tightly, and prayed. Prayed for the pain to pass, prayed that Ora was right and Minnie was wrong, that the pain would be brief and not as bad as some made it out to be.

“Arline,” Rowan said, halting, lifting himself up onto his forearms. “I be sorry.”

She could not move, did not wish to move, could not speak. Slowly, the pain faded, and she let out the breath she had been holding. Relief washed over her. It had hurt like the devil, but it had subsided.

“We can stop,” Rowan began.

Arline stopped him from finishing his sentence. “If ye stop now, I’ll kill ye.”

He chuckled and began again. Slowly this time, methodically, with restrained passion and lustful purpose.

The wickedly pleasurable feelings Ora had told her of soon made themselves known. Arline felt it grow, gradually at first. Like filling a sack with grain until it reached the point of bursting. She matched him thrust for thrust, breath for breath, kiss for kiss until the sensation overpowered her ability to think, to do anything but feel.

And feel she did. Suspended on the precipice of something unknown, as if she were about to embark on an adventure to find the lost mines of King Solomon, the sack of grain burst and Solomon’s mines were found.

Bright, crashing, explosive, wondrous, she found what she had sought. Apparently, her husband had found it too, for he shuddered, said her name repeatedly in a harried yet seductive tone, before he collapsed against her.

For a moment, Rowan felt as thought his ballocks had imploded. It was nearly impossible to get his breathing under control. And his heart? It was currently making a grand attempt to pound its way out of his chest.

He had never experienced a moment in time like the one he’d just shared with Arline. It wasn’t so much the sweet joinin’ of a man and woman. Nay, ’twas a frenzied, feverish, sweaty thing they’d done.

Dawn came and went as Arline slept in the crook of Rowan’s arms. Their first moments together as husband and wife were quite remarkable.

They slept for only a few hours before Rowan woke, ready again to experience all that his wife had to offer. He took wicked delight in pleasing his wife. Repeatedly, just as any good and dutiful husband would do.

Epilogue

It was very late in the afternoon when they woke. Rowan was fully prepared to do his husbandly duty again, when Thomas knocked on the door. Rowan cursed and Arline wished the man to the devil.

“Frederick and Daniel have returned, Rowan.” Thomas spoke through the closed door.

Arline agreed that the interruption was an important one. They dressed quickly with Rowan promising to return as soon as he could. Arline smiled, kissed him sweetly and informed him she would check on Lily.

Rowan met his men in his library. They not only looked road weary but battle worn as well. He poured Frederick and Daniel each a cup of whisky before sitting on the edge of his desk to listen to their tale.

“Garrick Blackthorn is dead,” Frederick said before he downed the entire contents of his cup. He held the empty cup out and Rowan refilled it.

“Our information was correct. There were three hundred men waitin’ to attack. They were no’ as well trained as ours, but they were ruthless bastards just the same. As we suspected, they were paid mercenaries. It seemed Beatrice has an abundance of coin.”

“So it was Beatrice who hired them?” Rowan asked with more than just a hint of surprise. After the fiasco of yesterday, when she had sabotaged his wedding to Arline, nothing should surprise him.

Daniel nodded his head in agreement. “It did no’ take much convincin’ to get them to change their minds, just as we hoped. They were verra tired of waitin’ fer orders.” He drank down his whisky in one big gulp. Rowan refilled his cup, sat back and waited for them to go on.

“Och! They’d been caught in that horrible snowstorm. They lost fifteen men before all was said and done,” Frederick took a sip of his whisky and took a chair. He was worn out, tired, and bedraggled. It had been a very long few weeks.

“They were frozen, near starved to death,” Daniel said as he took his own seat. He looked just as worn out as Frederick.

“So convincin’ them not to attack us was easy,” Frederick said. He let out a tired sigh. “So we offered what we could. We stayed with them fer a few days, hunted and brought them fresh meat, fer which they were verra grateful. They’re Lowlanders and no’ used to all this snow, ye ken. They be tired of fightin’ the English and fightin’ with each other.”

Rowan crossed his arms over his chest. The Lowlands had been decimated by the Black Plague. They were in a constant state of anarchy and chaos. He could well understand why their swords had been so easily purchased.

“So after we got their bellies full and did a wee bit o’ negotiatin’, we set off fer Blackthorn lands. It took us six days to reach it, what with all the snow,” Frederick explained. He took another sip of the warm whisky and began to finally relax. “It took us less than eight hours to fell the Blackthorn keep. We killed every last one of the bastards. We didna harm the women folk though.”

Daniel snorted and nodded his head. “Garrick Blackthorn was a coward. He hid behind his woman’s skirts. Used her as a shield. We didna mean for any harm to come to her, Rowan. But ’twas in the heat of battle, ye ken.”

“Aye,” Frederick added. “Arrows were flyin’. Daniel was hot on Garrick’s heals when his woman came runnin’ out of his keep, wavin’ her arms, screamin’. Garrick grabbed her and held her in front of him, like she was a target. It couldna be helped. The arrow pierced through her heart and into his gut. It took a few hours, but he eventually died. Bled to death. Slowly.”

They sat in contemplative silence for a long moment. Rowan had always known Garrick to be a coward, but to use his own woman as a shield? ’Twas unforgivable. Then he reminded himself that it was English blood that ran through Garrick’s veins. Still, ’twas a piss poor excuse fer such cowardly behavior.

“’Twas odd though, Rowan,” Frederick said. “Before he grabbed his woman, he was screamin’ at the top of his lungs that he would avenge his mother’s death. He was wavin’ his sword but no’ usin’ it. I dunnae what that was about.”

Rowan grimaced. He knew all too well what Garrick referred to. “Garrick Blackthorn blames me father fer his mother’s death.”

Daniel and Frederick looked up at Rowan with knitted brows.

Rowan took a quick breath in and let it out before explaining himself. “Ye see, his mum died in childbed, along with her bairn.”

Frederick quirked a curious brow. “And what exactly did Andrew have to do with that?”

“Nothin’,” Rowan answered. “Garrick’s father was tetched. A wretched man to begin with. He was neither kind nor loyal to her, ye ken. He bed many a woman before and after he married. She caught him in bed with one of his women one day. It broke her heart.”

“And how do ye ken this?” Daniel asked.

“Doreen Blackthorn and me mum were verra good friends. When Doreen found her husband in bed with another woman, she and Garrick came to stay here fer a time. After a few months, she returned to her husband. She carried another man’s babe.”

Frederick and Daniel stared at Rowan in utter disbelief. “Ye canna mean yer da--”

Rowan shook his head. “Nay, ’twasn’t me da’s babe she carried. ’Twas Thomas’.”

Frederick whistled while Daniel just stared at Rowan, completely surprised by this bit of news.

“Doreen refused to tell who the babe belonged to. Garrick’s da blamed mine. From that point on, Garrick blamed me da fer his mum’s death when he should have blamed his own father.”

It was a tragedy any way one chose to look at it. Rowan poured himself a cup of whisky and sipped it slowly.

“Did we lose any of our own?” he asked.

“Nay, a few injuries, but nothin’ the lads canna survive.”

“And the others?”

“We’re findin’ places fer them in the barracks, the men’s solar above stairs. Anywhere we can tuck them into. We’re watchin’ them closely. But I think they’ll work out well among us. They be verra grateful fer a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs.”

Rowan nodded and contemplated the situation. In a few short hours, he had married and his clan had doubled in size.

They had a rough road ahead of them. It might not be easy for the newcomers to acclimate themselves to Clan Graham ways, but he was hopeful that over time they would come to appreciate all that his clan had to offer.

“I’ll speak with them on the morrow,” Rowan told them. “After the noonin meal, assemble them in the courtyard.” He tossed back the rest of his whisky and set the cup down.

They sat in quiet contemplation for a time, each man mulling over the events of the past months. Daniel finally asked what was to come of Lady Beatrice.

“While I would personally like to see her hang, Arline will have none of it. I plan to write the sheriff in Edinburgh and I will press charges against her. Until the sheriff comes fer her, the wench can rot in the dungeon fer all I care.”

“Have ye asked why she done it?” Frederick asked, curious to know what would drive a woman to such lengths.

“I dunnae, yet, but I’ve sent fer Thomas. Mayhap he has the answer to that question.”

They enjoyed another cup of whisky and discussed the new men. Daniel and Frederick each was of the opinion that most of the men were of good character. A few however, would require being watched very closely.

Thomas appeared some time later, looking rather stunned.

“Beatrice was of no help at all,” Thomas said as Rowan handed him a cup of whisky. “But Joan was full of verra useful information.” He took a long drink before turning one of the chairs that sat in front of Rowan’s desk around to face the other men.

“Beatrice is -- or was -- Garrick Blackthorn’s sister, born on the other side of the blanket, ye ken. No’ a real lady by birth.” He paused to take a glance at the three surprised faces staring back at him. “Aye, I about fell off me stool when I learned it! Apparently, Garrick promised that if she could get ye,” he pointed to Rowan with a nod and his cup, “to marry her, Garrick would formally recognize her as his sister. The plan was fer her to marry ye, then kill ye off. Once ye were dead, then Beatrice would hand everything over to Garrick, take the title she’s apparently wanted fer years, along with a good deal of coin. Takin’ Lily was a way fer them to find out if ye had as much in gold as they hoped ye did.”

Thomas sat back and watched the men absorbing the news. It was, in deed, a stunning bit of information.

“Apparently, Beatrice is just as ruthless as her brother. Joan was afeared fer her life, ye ken. I saw the bruises and marks Beatrice inflicted,” he took another drink in hopes it would wash away the bitter taste left in his mouth from what he had witnessed.

“Well,” Rowan said, sounding both perturbed and relieved as he stood to his feet. “I hope the sheriff can come up with a punishment befitting all Beatrice’s crimes.”

Rowan had had his fill of intrigue, mysteries, and bad news. He wanted to go back to his room, climb into his bed, and make love to his wife again.

He tossed back the last of his whisky and placed the cup on his desk. He turned to look at Frederick and Daniel.

“The two of ye go and bathe, get some rest. I have a feelin’ the next few months willna be easy.”

Frederick and Daniel stood, stretched their long arms and worked the kinks out of their backs.

“I hear congratulations be in order,” Frederick said with a smile. “I hear the lass said aye and that ye were married last eve.”

“Aye, she did and we were. In fact, ye be interruptin me husbandly duties. I must hurry back to me wife, now.”

Frederick and Daniel chuckled. “Has she got ye by the shorthairs already?”

Rowan flashed them a smile. “Nay, lads. By me heart.”

It was well after the midnight hour when Rowan left his contented and satisfied wife asleep in their bed. Quietly, he donned his tunic, trews, and boots, wrapped his cloak about his shoulders and left their room. He made his way down quietly down the stairs. Silently, he passed by Thomas who had fallen asleep by the fire in the gathering room. He grabbed a candle from the mantle before opening the large wooden door that led outside.

A rush of cold air swept in, bringing with it a bit of snow. The cold night air bit at his bare face and tickled the flame of the candle. Carefully, he closed the door behind him. He held one hand in front of the flame so that the night air would not extinguish it.

 Stars twinkled against the midnight sky as he crossed the courtyard and made his way to the empty kirk. His pace was quick, purposeful. He did not want to be away from Arline for too long, but there was something he needed to do.

He quickly stepped inside the dark and empty kirk and made his way to the altar. He set his candle down and knelt before God. His heart was a blended mixture of joy and sorrow, contentment and the remnants of guilt. Much time passed as he thanked God for keeping Arline, his men, and his people safe. He thanked Him for bringing Arline into his life and asked that God guide him and help him to be a good husband to her.

Slowly, he raised his head and looked upward, toward Heaven. “I’ve come to say goodbye to ye, Kate. I loved ye, with all me heart and I do miss ye. I am keepin’ the promise I made to ye. I ken it was a long time comin’, fer I was too much a coward to let ye memories go. I kept me heart to ye as long as I could, Kate. I ken ye didna want me to do that, but it was so hard lettin’ ye go.” He tried to choke back the tears, but ’twas impossible. They fell down his cheeks, leaving trails along his neck and dripping onto the collar of his cloak.

“Lily is a good girl, Kate, much like ye,” he wiped his face on his arm and tried to regain some composure. “She loves Arline. ’Tisn’t how I pictured our lives bein’, livin’ without ye in it.” He took a deep, cleansing breath. “I ken in me heart that ’twas ye that sent Arline to Lily and to me. Arline is like ye in many ways. She’s kind, she’s fierce, and she’s verra good to us. I love her, Kate, verra much. She’s good fer me.”

He wiped away more tears as he sat quietly, breathing in deeply. He did not want to return to Arline with tears running down his face. He doubted he would be able to explain it to her in any way that would make sense.

“So, I’ve come to say goodbye, Kate.” He hung his head, not knowing what else he could say. He hoped Kate was looking down at him now, listening to him. Mayhap she could look into his heart and understand all that he was feeling, better than he could say it.

“Ye needn’t say goodbye to her.”

The voice came from behind him, startling him out of his quiet reverie. His heart lodged in his throat when he spun around to see Arline standing there. She shivered in the cold, wearing only her chemise and her cloak.

“Arline,” he exclaimed as he searched for something intelligent to say to her.

Arline walked to him, opened her arms wide and wrapped them around his torso. “Rowan, please, do no’ say goodbye to Kate. She be Lily’s mum. Lily needs to ken that she was important to ye. Ye canna forget her.”

Rowan rested his chin on the top of Arline’s head. The love he felt for her grew by leaps and bounds as one moment passed to the next. Until a few months ago, he would not have believed such a love could exist.

“I do no’ intend to ferget her, or let Lily ferget her.” He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “It was just me way of lettin’ Kate ken that I’ve fulfilled the promises I made to her. I promised her I’d no’ keep me heart to meself, that I’d love another someday. I just wanted a moment to let her know.”

Arline hugged him tighter. “She kens, Rowan. She kens.”

They stayed in the kirk for a while longer, each of them kneeling in prayer, thankful that God had brought them together. When they were done, Rowan took his wife’s hand and led her back into the keep and up to their room.

In the early morning hours before dawn, they expressed their love for one another in a slow, tender and gentle joining of their bodies, their hearts and souls. Arline fell asleep in the crook of her husband’s arm, knowing for the first time in her life what it felt like to love and be loved unconditionally.

Prologue Frederick’s Queen

Scotland, Summer 1355

For years, Aggie McLaren had been well aware that her father was insane. Aye, that they were now on their way to see Rowan Graham to ask for his help in finding her a husband was all the proof anyone needed.

Mermadak McLaren was dying. Aggie had known for weeks now. She had overheard the conversation between her father and the healer. He had a disease of the lungs and not much time left. Mayhap, a year at best. Aggie hadn’t needed a healer to tell her what she had suspected for weeks. His coughing fits had increased, he wheezed whenever he took a breath and he was beginning to lose weight. Death seemed inevitable.

If her father would simply die and not worry over finding her a husband, she might begin to see a glimmer of hope for her future. But the arrogant, selfish man refused to die without leaving someone at the helm of his clan.

’Twas why they were on this hopeless trek. Aggie was his only child and being a female, she could not inherit nor could she take over a chief of Clan McLaren. She knew it wasn’t kindness of heart or worry over his only child’s future that motivated him. She knew it was his greed.

Her father’s selfishness, his mean streak, would not allow him to simply appoint a successor. Nay, he wanted a young man he could mold into his own image. He wanted someone ruthless and unhindered by common standards of morality or decency to take over the reins. He wanted someone who could be just as brutal as himself.

Since he did not trust anyone within his own clan to carry on his legacy, somewhere in the twisted regions of his mind, he concluded that a husband for Aggie was the only route to take.

As they rode across the glen, she sat behind Donnel, her father’s first lieutenant, forced to hold on to the smelly man. A shudder of revulsion trickled down her back. Donnel was as mean as her father.

Aggie learned long ago not to ask if her life could possibly get any worse, for when she did, “worse” would inevitably appear.

A husband, she mused.

By anyone’s standards, she was an old maid, long in the tooth at three and twenty. No one in his right mind would want to take her as a wife.

Any man who would agree to such a union would have to be as tetched as her da. Or just as old, mayhap older. With her luck, he’d be just as mean and vicious as her father. Aggie knew there was no hope at finding a decent man. Decent men simply did not exist. Her proof lay in her encounters with harsh, callous, brutal men over the years.

There had been a time, long ago, when she had been considered pretty. She used to laugh and sing, when her father was not around, of course. She had possessed a free spirit then, a fondness for life, a zest for living. That innocent, carefree little girl no longer existed. She died ten years ago.

Now, Aggie was defective, damaged. With her scarred face, the slight limp left from an injury inflicted years ago, she could no longer be considered pretty. She no longer laughed, or sang. She didn’t even speak.

It wasn’t that she couldn’t speak. Nay, she was fully capable. But her father detested the sound of her voice. “Yer voice makes me ears bleed!” He needed to tell her that only once. Self-preservation had forced her into her false state of muteness.

They’d be at Rowan Graham’s keep very soon. If there was a God -- for years now she had questioned His existence -- He would open up the earth and allow it to swallow her whole. Any attempts to reason with Mermadak, even if he would allow her to speak, would be ignored.

To speak, to voice her opinion, to share her thoughts would mean a beating. And Mermadak McLaren had never shown any mercy when inflicting punishments. She had the scares to prove it. Nay, it was best to remain quiet. Aye, the beating would come later when he realized no man would be able to look past her defects or her scars. The last man her father had tried to betroth her to had backed out when he saw her for the first time. History oft repeats itself and Aggie had no doubt it would again. No man would want her.

Mayhap she could try running away again. She was older and wiser now. She would make certain Mermadak was truly passed out from too much drink. She would take little Ailrig -- her heart felt heavy when she thought of the sweet child. Through no fault of his own the boy had been born a bastard. Aggie’s mother, God rest her soul, had brought him to live amongst their clan. Her mother could not formally adopt the babe. Mermadak would never have allowed it. Still, she gave him a home, and, together with Aggie, lots of love.

When Ailrig was three, Lila McLaren had died. ’Twas then that everything began to fall apart. Mermadak grew meaner by the day and not because he missed his wife. Truth be told, he had never really care much for Lila. But she was the only person who seemed to be able to rein in that temper of his. With no voice of reason, with no one there to temper his anger, Mermadak did as he pleased and became the man he was today -- vicious, cruel, hateful and greedy.

Aggie had long ago resigned herself to the fact that she would never marry. She possessed too many scars. Many of them ran much deeper than those left on her skin. A sane man wouldn’t want someone like her, what with all her defects and imperfections.

Still, her father was hell bent on trying to find her a husband.

Set for release in the spring of 2014

About the Author

Suzan lives in the Midwest with her verra handsome carpenter husband and the last of their four children: a 15 year old, 6'3", built-like-a-line-backer son. They currently accept monetary donations to offset the cost of feeding him and keeping him in shoes. She also has three perfect grandchildren.

Suzan has no pets, save for the aforementioned son and husband. Living where they do, she figures the domesticated deer who believe her gardens are planted strictly for their enjoyment is plenty. Though, if she lived on ten or more wooded acres she would have a Redbone Coonhound that she would name Rufus. She'd also like to be a size 12 again, but doesn't foresee either of those things happening at anytime in the near future.

"Some say my writing is an obsession. I prefer to think of it as a passion."

Books in her Clan MacDougall Series:

Laiden's Daughter

Findley's Lass

Wee William's Woman

McKenna's Honor

You may keep up to date with Suzan at:

Amazon Author Page

Facebook Fan Page

Suzan's Blog

[email protected]

Comments

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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