Betrothed to her Highland Enemy (Preview)
Siorrachd Chromba, Scotland 1631
The strings of the longbow tensed, but despite the strain, the arms that held it remained steady. Then, the release!
The arrow soared through the air and found its mark at the heart of the target. Maister Risteard laughed his approval as he clapped a paw of a hand down upon Chloe’s back, causing her to stumble forward under its weight.
“Ne’er ‘ave I seen a better shot! Lass, you be the best archer this clan has e’er seen,” he declared. A contented smile spread across his marred features. He was a tower of a man, with arms and legs like the branches of an oak. His face was long, his jaw square, his face half disfigured from the flames of a battle fought when she was a girl. A battle that haunted her now.
“Aye. If only my Da thought that as well,” Chloe replied solemnly as she looked at the one person she could call a friend in all the world. Others stayed near because they wanted to be close to the laird’s daughter, his only surviving child.
Maister Risteard chuckled. “I ne’er met a man who wanted his daughter to be a warrior. It’s his job to protect and defend, not hers.” He squeezed Chloe’s shoulder lightly. “If daughters were made to be warriors, then what would be the reasonin’ for havin’ sons? We could all just ‘ave daughters an’ ‘ave the prettiest armies this side o’ the world.”
Her expression fell. She knew he meant well, but Maister Risteard’s response only confirmed what she already knew well. In Clan MacLagain, women were little valued except for their ability to bear children and for their pretty faces. She turned from him.
“Lass,” he called from behind her. His tone was sympathetic.
It made Chloe feel all the worse.
“You canna blame yer Da for not seein’ you as more than you are. He’s always had one thought, and one thought alone for you, bonnie lass. E’er, since you were a girl. That is to bring peace to these lands after more than three decades of feudin’. You canna make yer mark in battle, but you can in peace. Be the angel of peace that this clan needs. Yer Maw was that God rest her soul, and you be her daughter.”
Her dark emerald eyes filled with resolve. Her chin raised, and she painted a smile on her face, as was her norm. There wasn’t a day that Chloe didn’t act out the façade of happiness. She knew nothing else.
“Aye, that I can Maister Risteard. That, I can.”
He looked at her knowingly. “Enough archery for the day?”
She nodded and passed the bow to him. “Aye.”
“You best go indoors, lass, me thinks yer Da may want you by now. You know how he feels ‘bout me trainin’ you.”
She nodded. They both were aware that her father hated the fact that Maister Risteard entertained her interest in weaponry. Her father wanted nothing more than to see her indoors with needle and thread, waiting for her wedding day.
Chloe’s future was decided the day her father, Goraidh MacLagain, failed to conquer Breathnach Castle and Clan Bochanan. It was the last battle between two clans that, for the sake of a woman, had fought each other for so long.
Everyone knew the story. Doilidh Cearrach was the daughter of the Laird of Ùige and betrothed to Isaac, Chloe’s ancestor. A fortnight before their wedding, she was stolen away by Ailean Bochanan and wed a sennight later. It was an embarrassment to the MacLagain Clan, and the grudge of it lasted through the years and still burned beneath the surface now. There had been many battles to reclaim her, and many more skirmishes as each side took offense of the other… until now. Chloe’s life was paying the price for peace.
“I will see you at supper Maister Risteard. Be sure to keep yer time. Cook will not be holdin’ back a meal to please you. No matter how honeyed yer words.”
He chuckled. “I will keep to my time.”
Choinnich Castle lay sixty miles northeast of castle Breathnach. Home of the MacLagains since 1364, when they claimed the land from Clan Seaghach, it was the only home Chloe had ever known.
She walked across the grounds, her mind even further away than her new home. Chloe often wondered if it were her resemblance to her late mother, her namesake, which repulsed her father. Never had he shown her love or any form of affection. He clothed and fed her, but not more.
Tendrils of dark red hair danced about her face as the wind picked up from the east. Chloe brushed them aside with an errant hand but kept her eyes upon the earth beneath her.
She had less than a sennight before she was expected to leave her home, and was conflicted by the prospect. Breathnach and Clan Bochanan held fears in itself. She was hated in their midst, the daughter of the man who lay siege to their castle and led to the death of their matriarch. How could they greet her with anything but revile? Worse, there was her betrothed.
Chloe was not ignorant of Alastair Bochanan’s existence. She knew of him most of her life, though they had never met. She was eight when her father lost his fight to claim their land, and her life became recompense for that failure. He promised her hand, at a time to be determined, by which the newly brokered peace would be solidified. Eleven years she had escaped the fulfillment of that vow, but no longer.
She climbed the small mound that lay outside the walls of the castle, where a large oak stood tall and proud. Her wool dress itched. She scratched her thigh and lowered herself onto the soft grass beneath the tree’s boughs.
Chloe pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. She rested her chin upon her forearm as a long sigh left her lips. There was nowhere to turn and nowhere to run. She could not disgrace Clan MacLagain, nor could she cause more conflict between the clans. She was trapped.
Nineteen-years-old, she had never seen anything beyond Choinnich. While her father had taken her brothers with him wherever he went, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and London, he had never taken her anywhere. Chloe stayed at home with her nurse and learned to find amusement with the tasks the young men of the clan occupied themselves with. Swordsmanship and riding, she learned but never mastered as she did the bow. Maister Risteard had laughed at her the first day she tried to lift the six-foot bow-frame that towered above her. It still did, but it made no difference in her proficiency with it.
If skill with a bow could not win her father’s heart, perhaps her obedience would.
The hall was full that night. Most of the clan was back from abroad. A number had been warranted by the Privy Council to fight against Spain some years before, but now their duty was fulfilled, and they were returned home. It was a fitting time to celebrate, and it made Chloe’s heart glad to see the smiling faces of the kin whose loved ones had returned safely to them. Chloe sat on the dais, at the high table, beside her father and her uncle. Maister Risteard sat to her far right.
The fire blazed in the large hearth, and the smell of the meal filled the air with its delicious aroma. The minstrels stood along the back wall playing their instruments. The six long tables that lined the borders of the hall were at their capacity with family and guests. The servants darted from one place to another, replenishing the liquid spirits of all present. There was ale, beer, and wine in abundance.
There was little conversation to be had for Chloe. She sat in her seat and was ever the observer of those around her. She noted the exuberance in her father’s expression. She’d never seen him so happy in all her days. She wondered at the cause but knew better than to ask. Her questions were not something her father believed needed to be answered.
Trays of fruit were served, quinces, grapes, apples, and plums, followed by hotch-potch. Chloe plucked her favorite fruits from the platter and proceeded to eat them quietly as the maid served the soup. She gave her father and uncle a glance from time-to-time, curiosity getting the better of her.
The meat came next, lamb, solen goose in gannet, and roasted rabbit. She tore the lamb from the bone and popped it into her mouth. It was succulent, slow-roasted over the fire for hours until perfectly done. She adored lamb, it was her favorite meat, and she ate it as often as it was to be had. Clootie dumplings, tarts, and cranachan closed the meal. Chloe was full when it was over, and satisfaction was written on the faces of everyone around her. She was so contented that she missed when her father got to his feet. It was the sound of his booming voice calling for quiet that caught her attention.
“My fellow MacLagains. Tonight we celebrate the safe return of our kin to their ancestral home.”
The room erupted in cheers. Chloe clapped.
“For too lang my brothers ‘ave been away, but nay more. Ye ‘ave returned, and we are grateful for ye. Let this night be the first o’ many celebrations in this hall where kin be reconciled.”
Her father turned to her and smiled and continued. “Aye, a place of reconciliation, for that is what is to come.”
Chloe’s brow furrowed. Her father turned to their guests.
“As you know, my daughter is to wed the future Laird of Finley…”
His words were interrupted by the protests of their kin. They banged their metal cups against the table to further voice their displeasure. It made Chloe’s heart falter. If they felt so adamantly about her marriage, the Bochanans could only be worse. Her father raised his hand and silenced their griping.
“Quiet! They’ll be naught of that ‘ere. We can ill afford to lose another clansman to war with the Bochanan’s. We ‘ave lost too many, or need I remind you of Grannd and Mata… my sons lost to the Bochanan blades these eleven years past?”
The room was silent.
Chloe’s brothers had gone with their father to take the keep at Breathnach that fateful night. It was their death that stopped her clan’s attack, as her brother’s bodies were thrown from one of the high windows of the keep. Mata fell trying to ascend the stairs to the bedchambers. Grannd, when he murdered the Bochanan matriarch. Their death so shocked their father that he could no longer see a reason to fight.
“My sons were lost, and now my daughter, to keep any of you from losing yer children. The Bochanan are more skilled, and their hearts as cold as a frozen lake. They would ne’er stop.” He turned to her. “But for the warmth of a woman.”
Chloe’s heart seized in her chest.
“It were a woman that caused this feud, and a woman shall end it. Lift yer drinks and stand for my daughter, the one who brings peace to our lands and our clan.”
She sat stunned as every man and woman in the room stood at attention, their eyes all cast upon her. She saw the unhappy resolve of her male kin and the sympathetic nods of the women. They did not envy her fate. She was doing what the men had not, winning against the Bochanans, and she was doing what the other women had…sacrificing. How many husbands and sons had been lost to battle? How many bloodlines ended because of hatred? It could not continue. She was their only hope.
Chloe trembled as she got to her feet before them. Her throat was dry, and a lump had formed as she raised her cup.
“My kin,” she said hoarsely. She cleared her throat. “I raise my hand to you. Ye ‘ave lost much in this feud. What I do is little. Tonight, I honor you with my toast and vow. I will do all for you.”
“Glad news, lassie,” her father called. His smile brightened. “Let the music play. Be merry! For, three days hence, my daughter will go forth to Breathnach Castle and seal the fates of us all!”
Chloe’s breath hitched.
The MacLagain woman was on her way, set to arrive at any moment. Alastair wasn’t happy about it.
A marriage between himself and Chloe MacLagain was not one of his choosing. It was a decision made by lairds when his voice of opposition had no strength against the grief of his father’s heart.
It did not help the guilt in his own.
Alastair was no longer a young man, but a hearty soul of twenty-nine, yet he still felt the pain of that night as keenly as if it were but an hour ago. The look on his mother’s face. Her last words to him forever burned into his memory. It was his fault she died. If he had been a better fighter, a better man, she would have lived, and he would not be marrying the enemy now, but a woman of his choosing.
Frustration filled his bones and there was but one way to quell it.
Finley Forest was fifty miles of woodland that spanned the east beyond the castle. It was the hunting grounds of dozens of Bochanans before him and Alastair’s favorite escape.
There was something about the wood that made him feel at peace. He would go there and walk for hours, listening to the stillness and the odd bird. He had learned the power of herbs in that wood. It was the place his mother took him as a boy to teach him the things she had learned when she was a girl. Wall Rue helped with coughs and ailments of the lungs, also swelling and purifying the blood. Poultices of Royal Fern treated intestinal blockages and helped with bruising. Field Scabious was used in ointments for skin disorders. He knew them all. Thanks to her.
Today, however, Alastair was not collecting roots or leaves for the physician. He was hiding.
Alastair concealed himself amidst the trees, his footsteps barely heard above the sounds of the wood. Aspens dotted the hill, the ground covered in soft tufts of silver-green grass. He plucked a few wild cherries from a nearby bush and tossed them into his mouth. The sweetness delighted his taste buds. He grabbed a few more. They would be his only food until he returned to Breathnach with his quarry.
Alastair stalked the woodland for his opponent, the master of the woods and the king of all prey. There was a red hart often in those woods, and he aimed to find him.
He did not hunt with dogs. Alastair enjoyed the challenge of stalking his prey alone, and not wearing them with a hound’s chase. He needed no company either. Alastair was a solitary man for most of his life, but it was made worse after his mother’s death. He did not wish to be near others, even though he was to be laird and master of them all.
There must be a better choice than I. A man who can lead and defend Breathnach and the clan. I am not he.
His cynical thoughts were nothing new. He never believed he could. His mother’s death confirmed it.
Eleven years he had done all he could to avoid this. However, his reluctance to move toward the lairdship, and take his rightful place amongst his people, had forced his father’s hand and thus ended his freedom. That morning his father had announced to him and Lucas that his bride would arrive that day.
His father had known for weeks that she was coming, but had kept her arrival a secret from him, no doubt to prevent him from finding an excuse to escape. It was all a plan, a carefully orchestrated plot by his father and the Laird of Vargas to ensure their desires were fulfilled and their treaty finalized
I canna marry her. I dinna want t’.
The crack of a twig caused his senses to ignite. It was close.
Alastair’s hand raised, his bow ready, as he held his breath and waited for him to appear.
Come ye. My arra be waitin’ for ye.
His brown eyes spied him between the trees. A ten hart, just what he’d been looking for. Alastair fixed his gaze upon the deer. He looked back with large, dark eyes… hunter and prey.
A twitch of his ear and Alastair’s hand released, his arrow flying through the trees and finding its mark in the deer’s heart. It was a quick death, the kind that any should desire. Alastair drew his knife and ran towards it.
He knelt beside the carcass and ran his hand over the soft pelt. How many had he killed in his life? How many had eaten because of it? It mattered naught. What was a meal to making decisions for their future good?
Alastair’s fist tightened.
Ye can feed ‘em, but can ye lead ‘em?
His heart sank at the word… the truth. He was no laird. No matter what his father believed, Alastair knew otherwise. He was not the only one. His kinsmen did not believe in him, and why should they? What had he ever shown of leadership or lairdship? Naught.
When the council was called together, and his father sought to make plans for the clan’s future, Alastair never commented. He had nothing to add, no advice, no ideas. His mind was blank. He did not know what was best for his people. He barely knew what was good for himself.
“Ye canna do this.”
Ye ‘ave to. What other choice be there?
Alastair placed the blade against the animal’s flesh and began to cut. He would clean it there and bring home the rest.
He did his best to focus on the task at hand, but it was difficult. He knew that there was a chance that when he returned, that his bride might already be waiting for him. He wanted to push that event as far away as possible. He wanted to forget the name Chloe MacLagain, or the reason why she had to be there. He wanted to forget the responsibility he had to a people who did not want him, and who he did not think he could be of any use to.
If Ualan had lived, ye would not be ‘ere. Ye’d be livin’ yer life free of the pressures of the lairdship. It would be him ready to take yer Da’s place.
Alastair rarely thought of the son who died long before his birth. His mother had been his father’s second wife. The first had lasted but a year before her death, but during their short union, they had produced a son – Ualan. He was six when Alastair was born, and eight when he died. A sickness of the lung had claimed the child his father loved most, and from that day, his Da had turned all his hopes and dreams for Clan Bochanan on him. He was the hope his father had lost. It was why he pushed Alastair so.
And the reason he had lost even more. Ye canna be Ualan. Ye canna even be Lucas, yer younger brother has more skills to lead this clan than ye. It were better if he became laird in yer stead. After all, it was he who killed yer Maw’s murderer. Him who fought back the MacLagain blaggards and saved ye and the lassies from death. He be a better man than ye, Alastair Bochanan. Ye doesna deserve to hold the name.
It was a bleak day when they set out from Choinnich. The sky was overcast and rumbled like boulders down a mountain. Yet no rain fell. It was as if the sky was voicing her pain at leaving home for the last time, but like the clouds, not a drop fell from her eyes.
Nurse Taggart stood beside her. The weeping woman was sniffling and wiping her nose in the sleeve of her dress. “Oh, lass,” she cried. “I’ll miss you so. I’ve nursed you since you were a wee bairn. I ne’er thought to see you leave these halls under such circumstances.”
“Aye, nor I. I thought my Da would prolong it fore’er, or forget the notion entirely. I s’pose I was foolin’ myself that I could escape this.”
The older woman brushed a strand of red hair from Chloe’s face. Nurse Taggart was a squat woman with rosy cheeks and a wide smile that always caused her eyes to disappear in a squint.
Chloe met her gaze.
“You were the most beautiful bairn e’er I nursed,” she said sweetly.
I loved you, like my own. I still do.”
“But like me, ye ‘ave no say in what happens to me,” Chloe replied. She folded her mother’s dress neatly and placed it atop those already in her trunk. It was the one thing of her mother’s that belonged to her. Her father had all that was hers removed from the castle, not long after her death. It was Nurse Taggart who saved the dress as a memorial of the mistress she served most of her life.
The nurse waddled to her side. “I remember when yer Maither made this,” she said as she touched the garment. “With her own hands, she crafted it. I sat and watched her do it. I marveled at the skill of her hands.”
“I wish I was more like her,” Chloe replied. “Perhaps…”
Nurse Taggart took her hand. “Ye are like her, lass. The best parts of her. Ye ‘ave skill. Maybe not for sewing, but yer hands do well at e’er ye put them to. It may not be counted to some as anythin’ of worth, but in my eyes, there is greatness in you.”
Chloe fought tears at the kind words. She squeezed the other woman’s hand lightly. “Ye ‘ave been the only maither I know,” she said. “I don’t think I e’er thank you for it. Always bein’ there for me. Comfortin’ me when my Da turned me away.”
“Where else were you to go?” the other woman replied. “I ‘ave nursed you, swaddled you, and saw you grow into a beautiful, fine lady. It matters not what anyone else thinks of you.” She released Chloe’s hand to hold her face in her palms. “You are more than a means to an end. Any man who gets you for a wife gets a great thing. Don’t you let yer Da, that Bochanan man or anyone else e’er make you feel otherwise.”
She kissed Chloe’s cheek and hugged her tight as they both wept their silent goodbyes, for there would be no time or them once they set out. If only every conversation in her life could be filled with such love and kindness. Alas, such there were not to be.
“You will do as he tells you,” her father stated firmly. “Whate’er it is.”
Chloe’s eyes remained downcast. “Aye,” she said softly. In her heart, she protested. How could she do what he said? She had no idea of the man’s character. What if he were a barbarian in nature? In truth, she had little hope in Alastair, for marriage and definitely not for love, though she would never utter such things aloud.
There was little for her to say on the miles of the journey. Her father monopolized the conversation, as was his right. He was the laird, the author of her fate, and she had no choice in the matter. Whatever he said was law. So he thought.
Nurse Taggart sat quietly beside her and listened to every word. She was to attend Chloe in her new home. She was the only other MacLagain allowed to reside under Breathnach’s roof. Chloe was glad for it.
In the three days since her vow to her kin, Chloe had come to realize a painful truth. There was naught in the world that she could do to ever gain her father’s love… not even giving up her life to a man who would surely hate her. She could not bear the idea of a life without love at the hands of a man who had more power and control than her father. What would become of her under his roof? What would she be forced to endure? The thoughts were torturous, and she was not built for it.
A thought came to her then, one that had grown and matured in her mind. A plan of escape. She would fulfill her promise. She would marry the man she had been given to, but she would propose to him an offer she was sure he would accept. An offer that would free them both.
If you liked the preview, you can get the whole book here
If you want to be always up to date with my new releases, click and...
Follow me on BookBub