God Save the Highlander (Preview)
Lady Seonaid of the Urquhart lands was her father’s daughter. A curiously obvious phrase but poignant, nonetheless. Where her mother had been a lady of quiet substance and ethereal gentility, Seonaid seemed impervious to the inheritance of such softer traits. Instead, the servants, caregivers, and general friends of the Urquhart lairdship would say over and again how she was ‘her father’s daughter.’ Her head was too full of rational sense for a woman, they would say. And her heart was that of a broody mare when her nose was tweaked out of joint. Her sense of clarity and stubborn determination were tempered only by her upbringing as a fine lady. Her tutorship ensured that her spirit grew into an aloof dignity, over shrewish passion.
And yet, before her father—he who she resembled so much in the idiosyncrasies of her expressions—the delicacy of her lessons evaporated from her features, and the warm streak of rebellion was allowed to shine through.
“Please reconsider, Faither,” she pleaded as Laird Fraser stormed the corridors of his castle.
His pace was insistent—efficient for a man of his waning years. Yet, the laird of Urquhart had ne’er ceased his proficiency for the sake of a pausing breath. To keep up with him, Seonaid was forced to speed up her steps, taking her skirts in hand.
“Ye have spoken thusly fer a month, daughter,” the Laird said, barely looking up from the fastening of his cloak that he was attaching into place beneath his chin. His jaw still held the firm line of his own commitments, even as he aged into his sixth decade. “Whilst I applaud yer tenacity, what makes ye believe that I would change my mind when it is arranged that he is tae arrive even this night?”
“The very fact that he is!” Seonaid attempted to argue. Her breath came a little short with the speed of her steps, and she felt her wayward locks falling about her face and shoulders. She could hear how her maid Lila would huff over the time it would take the reset the curls into place. “The advent of his arrival has made yer daughter desperate, Faither…,” she taunted, attempting to dart around him as he walked and lend pleading eyes to her testimony. He had never been able to refuse such an expression when she was young. “I have hopes that yer compassion wouldnae see yer daughter’s fears left without satisfaction?”
Finally, her father drew to a halt. He stood in the stone archway that led from the western wing of their estate down into the courtyard beyond. Despite the lateness of the year, the sun was still bright and cast a warmth across half of his face. The shadows of his nose and hat distorted his expressions, but Seonaid did not need God’s light to witness her father as the man that he truly was beneath the disfigurement. She had been memorising the rise of his brow and the lines of his mouth since she was but an idolising child.
Fraser reached out to take a portion of Seonaid’s hair in his palm. His thumb came down to rub against the softness of her locks. It was a gesture of affection repeated throughout her childhood and brought a loving nostalgia to her heart. She smiled, her chest rising in the optimism of victory.
Her father loved her so. He would not condemn her to become the wife of Laird Eoin MacBain. Such a fate was too cruel for one loved such as she.
But her hopes were dashed as a sigh drifted from her father, his gaze already looking out into the stony square for the steed his squire was preparing. And she knew, at that moment, that she had lost her final chance of altering his mind. His thoughts were already miles away, upon his duties.
“Seonaid, ye are most cherished. And I urge ye tae consider that I dinnae make this agreement with Laird Eoin lightly. The lad is of fine means—richer than ourselves even, and his lands are fertile with lush profit and potential. He is one of the youngest lairds tae hold such a seat and, from my understanding, is a braw lad.”
His hand moved from Seonaid’s hair to her chin and tipped her features to look up at him. Her dark lashes lifted, the shadows they cast upon her cheeks shifting in the sunshine. Her father’s gaze was strong, intelligent, and so compassionate that the rage in Seonaid’s heart could not help but be quelled.
“Dinnae ye trust, my sweet Lassie, that I ha’ but chosen the very finest of mates for my only child? This feast will mark the beginnings of yer life as a wife, and the end of yer time as my daughter. I ask that ye grant me this final respect… before ye are nae longer mine tae offer it.”
The elegant line of Seonaid’s neck was forced to rise and fall as she swallowed down her sense of injustice. Her father had asked little of her, in all her life, and now he simply wished for her to make a profitable match. Her father had no knowledge that his choice was the single man she held the most distaste for above all others.
“Och, Faither,” she submitted, her lips lifting into a shaky smile that she fought to hold true. She took a long and steadying breath. “I trust ye. I shall endeavour tae welcome Laird Eoin.”
If not into her life, then at least into her faither’s household.
She had but one hope for her future as a maiden, and that was Laird Eoin himself. A rake and a debaucher, Eoin’s conquests were the subject of many rumours floating on the winds of the highlands. Such whispers came like a heated breeze from the MacBain lands to the north and ensnared the imaginations of innocent girls and voracious women alike. Eoin MacBain was a tempest of violence and scandal, with an insatiable appetite for the chastity of young maids and the blood of his enemies.
He was the last person in all the world that Seonaid would ever wish to pledge to ‘honour and obey.’
But, surely, a wife at his hearth and dining table was the last thing that such a wild devil of a man would wish for?
Seonaid held on to the naive ambition that perhaps Laird Eoin’s heels were as deep into the ground as her own over their future union. Mayhap, she would have only to look at his face that eve and see the same regret and resentment over their unity. If there was an extraneous force that was leading him towards the doom of matrimony, then, perhaps, she could aid him in changing his circumstances for the better, supporting him in securing his future as a wanton bachelor, and her own as a free agent once more.
No philanderer wished for a wife, calling him home from the beds of his lovers. Seonaid’s last hope was that she would be able to convince Laird Eoin of this. To free them both from an intertwined life that would see them both miserable.
Harbouring this secret, last desire for liberty deep within her heart, Seonaid permitted her father a kiss to her cheek and then saw him off upon his journey. Her wave from the doorway was slight, and her gaze was loving, as he rode his steed from their grounds. His destination was not far, and he would return in time for the festivities of that night.
Glancing up at the sky, Seonaid recognised the edge of chill in the sun’s rays as the winter rapidly drew close, and she felt a shiver run over her skin. The sun approached its zenith above, and she shook off the rising tightness of apprehension, low in her belly. She had just under six hours until the party from Clan MacBain was to attend them. Less than half a day to form her persuasions and choose the words that would most assuredly send her future husband returning back to his lands.
Without her, and her broken heart, being dragged behind.
“Are ye sure about this?”
There was no title in Jamie’s words, no address of formality. The break with propriety was ignored by all present.
“As sure as one can ever be in such things.” Eoin hedged as he glanced across at his friend.
The two of them sat on their mounts, at the head of their own entourage of a half dozen men, atop a rise of long grass and thistle-strewn bracken. A mile or so above the little township that was their destination, the wind rolled and blew. Despite sitting next to one another, the two men were forced to raise their voices as the air caught at their clothes and rushed in their ears. Eoin felt the tips of his own burn pink with the chill, and his eyes narrowed against the cold.
“And ye are confident of yer… choice?” Jamie pressed, choosing his words with care.
Whilst their conversation was quickly snatched to the bluster that tugged at the manes of their steeds and set Eoin’s kilt flapping against the side of his leg, Jamie was cautious not to appear reproachful before Eoin’s men. Whilst he possessed the unique position of naked friendship with the laird, unhindered by the formalities of privilege, Jamie had always been heedful of Eoin’s reputation.
“Ye ken the girl?” Eoin asked, one dark brow rising in interest. His lips curled at one side, an amused implication on his features.
It was rare for Jamie to take an interest in any female besides his dog, Freya. Residing back at the MacBain estate, the bitch was a beautiful animal, wearing her mongrel colouring with as much pride as Jamie wore his.
“Only by reputation,” Jamie admitted. His gaze winced against the wind, but Eoin knew him well enough to see the shine of mirth in his narrowed eyes. “I wish only tae be assured that ye’re prepared for such a skirmish, brither. A riled woman is worse than any northern barbarian.”
Raised by a female of stern repute and sturdy disposition, Jamie’s warnings rang with the truth of experience. Growing up on the grounds of the MacBain family estate, Jamie’s parentage had been in the form of a single, caring aunt—a woman that had served as a maid to Eoin’s family. The boys had grown up together, more brothers than simple companions, and found solace in one another’s heritage. Where Jamie’s past was as murky as the dark locks of his hair, Eoin’s had been privileged to the point of brittle disconnect; ever the heir and never the son. Neither could ever decide which suffrage was worse: the lack of true parents or the emotional absence of those physically present.
Instead of their childhood traumas weighing heavy and dark upon their spirits, the friendship that the boys had formed over the years had been consolation enough to lift both of their hearts. A mother’s love was replaced with learning to bake at Aunt Ellen’s little hearth. A father’s pride was switched for fictional games of battle and hunting across the grounds. Eoin had held Jamie as a brother-in-arms, as stick swords became metal lancers and broom handles became steeds.
After so long, formalities and titles only served the purpose of ringing hollow, a tool of false mockery, which was why Eoin felt no offence over the man beside him, nor irritation over his taunting of what awaited him down the road.
Little more than a stony path, carved from the wayward flora by the passage of frequent travel, the lane that led them down into the shallow valley below was bound for Eoin’s future.
The lands of Urquhart, nestled in the dale between the Beinn Nurrem and Cairn Toum, boasted a small but perfect province. Along the rising slopes of its protective, sister hills were speckles of white. Far off livestock, rams, and goats glinted in the dying sunlight, like threadbare heather over the vale. At its core, the township grew in the natural crevice and grooves of its motherland, lanes and homes breeching woodland and heath where the inclines stretched into flatland. When the slopes rose, fighting back against the thriving humans, the town retreated, drawn to its centre and hugging the edges of the hillside. At its southern boundary, the dark expanse of Loch Gairn stretched towards the horizon, bleeding into the wavy shapes of far-off knolls. On its bank rested a castle. Small in size, it was dwarfed to a state of tiny by the titans of nature that cradled it on all sides—a small but homely realm.
Here lay Laird Fraser. A paternal benefactor to his people and lands. A man of fine repute and generous nature that cared for nothing as he did his only child.
Eoin’s gelding shifted beneath his weight, disturbed perhaps by the very thought of the woman he was due to marry. The animal, it would seem, shared in Jamie’s apprehension, but Eoin felt only amusement.
Such unnecessary concerns over a single female.
Whilst it had been years since he had last seen the Laird Fraser’s daughter, her name conjured hazy images of dark hair and flashing eyes. She had been young when they last met, still yet to form into the woman she must now be. But her features had been bold, her chin set at a stubborn and courageous angle. His memory had retained the briefest of impressions of spirit and highland might. Back then, maturity and the ensuing dignity had yet to restrain her childish abandon.
Eoin found himself mildly curious as to how the last eight years might have seen little Seonaid blossom.
“God has yet tae make a woman I cannae handle,” Eoin reassured his friend. His declaration was one of arrogance. He shook his head, a rueful smile upon his face as he kicked his horse back into motion. “Laird Fraser’s daughter willnae be different.”
Seonaid had chosen her attire for dinner with fastidious care. Whilst she had no desire to arouse Laird Eoin to thoughts of romantic intent with too pretty a gown, it did her quest no favours to dress in a manner befitting a servant either. If she was to convince the Laird of the MacBain lands that her presence at his side would bring him more trials than joy, she could not be seen as easy to ignore.
A burr must dig deep if it was worth the effort of removal.
The raiment she had chosen, after much deliberation, was a dress of burgundy red. The linen was of fine make and had been fitted to her shape only a month before. It was wide in the neckline and rippled into wide skirts around her feet. She had fastened a braided belt of black leather about her hips, and Lila had piled her hair atop her head, but she wore no other effects. No powders graced the smooth alabaster of her skin, and she refused to pinch her cheeks to see them rouge. She wore no jewellery, nor silks.
Seonaid peered critically at herself in the long sheet of silver. Her distorted reflection stared back as she attempted to perfect a look of polite severity. She would not shame her father by treating the visiting Laird as an unwanted trespasser. But nor did she wish him the reception of a welcomed guest.
An expression of cool civility was key.
“What are ye doing, Mistress?”
Lila had returned to the chamber, white blossoms in hand. A woman of few years for a lady’s maid, Lila was young and learned slowly. But she held a kind heart, was inquisitive, and adored Seonaid. Her conversation was easy enough, and she was incredibly dexterous after aiding in her mother’s occupation as a seamstress since her babe years.
Seonaid smiled at her wobbly reflection, watching as the girl approached with the snowy flowers between her fingers. She was reaching towards Seonaid’s curled hair.
“Nae a thing,” Seonaid answered her, moving away from the servant’s touch. “Nae flowers today, Lila, please. My nose has been itching all afternoon.”
It was a poor excuse, but sweet Lila was ill-educated and left with little option but to believe her charge. The blooms were set to one side.
“Are ye nervous, Mistress?” Lila asked. She peered at Seonaid with an ambivalent look of unsure trepidation and quiet envy. To the young girl of modest upbringing, the life of a laird’s daughter was perhaps a world of great fascination.
Seonaid could afford to be honest, for her anxieties were real, if not for the reason that Lila might assume. There were no flutters of first love in her belly, nor hopeful curiosities for her awaiting courtship. Her concerns were more specific. She was attuned to a single conversation that would decide her fate.
Och, God, what if she could nae convince the man that a union between them would only bring sorrow?
Setting aside her fears, for the moment, Seonaid moved to her bed where she might sit upon the satin sheets. She lifted a foot as Lila busied about with the laces of her shoes. Simple, little creations of soft hide, they slipped onto her feet with a precision that served as a testament to their talented creator and turned her long toes almost dainty.
“I saw the MacBain party arrive whilst I was fetching the flowers,” Lila offered, her voice a little breathless. Her fingers mastered the laces of the shoe into an intricate pattern across Seonaid’s stockinged foot. “I was surprised by the laird’s youth. He is so braw, if it is not too bold to say!”
Seonaid felt a wrinkle of annoyance flicker over her skin, but it came not from Lila’s boldness. Instead, it was the sort of frustration that sparked when an unhappy fact was confirmed by a third party. It did not matter the confidence with which ye already held the truth. To hear such sentiments from an individual, hitherto a stranger to the topic, made it all the more maddening. And, for Seonaid, the flattering aesthetic of Laird Eoin prickled at a long-festering wound.
As Lila accepted her mistress’ silence for propriety and saw to her other foot, Seonaid allowed her mind to drift and was lost to thoughts of the past. Memories of long before her last, painful encounter with Laird Eoin were rosy and welcome for the most part. But the longer she ruminated upon them, the more that they were tainted by later events, tinged with an underlying bitterness of which she could not let go.
Laird Eoin of the MacBain clan had always been a fine-featured child. She remembered, upon solstices and festivals that drew the noble families of the north together, how he had favoured the fair lines and pretty symmetry of his mother over the more angular and aggressive features of his father, the laird. A pleasant boy, Eoin had spent more of his childhood years with the daughters of the clans over their sons. His manner was sweet, and his sense of compassion strong. His games of heroics and charm were innocent and forged bonds of genuine affection between him and the future women of court. His sole form of masculine companionship had forever been the boy that would become his steward—the dark-haired Jamie.
With his gentile manner and soft features, Eoin had, by the time he reached his transition years, won over females of all ages. It was then that things had begun to change.
As the boy became the man, the muted curves of his face and the lilting shape of his nose grew strong. His features turned harder, his expressions sharper… his body broke into a race against gravity. By the time of that final, fateful summer solstice—the one that Seonaid could recall in such infinite and painful detail—Laird Eoin was over six feet tall and broad in the shoulder. His beauty had morphed into dark, sexual masculinity that bore him well. His preference for company had not changed since his youth. His arm always graced with a woman, and yet his interests now extended beyond the boundaries of gameplay and friendship.
If one was to claim a reputation as gospel truth, there was not a noble’s daughter or sister who had not become entangled with Laird Eoin’s roaming hands and wandering heart. Lacking in the commitment that would see him loyal to a single woman, his attentions were said to be as shallow as his affections. They were slippery, falling through devoted feminine fingers with the passing of each moon and the turning of every tide.
No woman could hold him. And yet, he was cruel enough to inspire the hope of such impossibilities with every heated glance he bestowed.
Seonaid would have liked to claim that she had been immune. To stand in pride and arrogance and declare herself the sole female harbour of tranquillity in the sea of simpering devotion. But even she had fallen to the quick smiles and easy charm of the son of Laird MacBain.
Six summers behind Eoin, Seonaid had been little more than a footnote in the childish games of the nobility. Trailing after the older children, she recalled feeling special for the sheer privilege of being included. Such a deep affection for those hazy memories had later become entangled with adult emotions. By her fourteenth year, she was as devoted as Laird Eoin’s flurry of coquettes.
To her true and everlasting shame, Seonaid’s heart had fallen to a courtship that was not even her own.
Thin and unappealing in her youth, Seonaid had yet to garner her feminine shape until later in life. Plagued with blemishes to her skin and hair that was more wild than wanton, Seonaid had been an invisible entity to a man who seemed willing to conquer all but her. His smiles and his charm had been numerous but never in her direction. Yet, she had fallen for them all the same.
Pushing away the feelings of a silly girl, Seonaid refused to allow history to unfold further in her mind. The conclusion of her sad, little, first love was no surprise to anyone and needed no further lamentation. As with all women in Laird Eoin’s life, her heart had been broken, and she had moved on.
Seonaid held no sentimentality for her girlish affections that were long past.
Yet, they were significant to be borne and remembered. For Eoin, now laird of clan MacBain had neither grown nor changed. Tales of his rakish pleasures and darker delights still spread like a contagion throughout the nobility, whispered on bated breath. Only now, they were transfused with the sensual passions of adult adure.
And this was to be the man to whom she would pledge her loyalty? To love, honour, and obey? The man to whom she would give herself and bear his children? With all the bodies that the Laird had claimed for his own, would he even know her as an individual? Would he witness her skin as the gift that it was, not merely a single, nameless conquest of many? What sort of marriage could a man like that give to her?
Did he even know the meaning of the word fidelity?
Such fears had swirled in her mind for upwards of four weeks, a dark fog of nervous misgiving. Her stomach rolled, and her heart bled at the barest notion of such a man standing at her side. To marry Laird Eoin was to be made a cuckold. And whilst a fourteen-year-old girl of lonely wanting might have stooped to such shame, the woman that she had become would not hear of it.
Seonaid of Urquhart would not be diminished for any man.
The style of the interior of the Urquhart estate was to be expected from its external visage. Where power and strength were a necessary veneer to the building, shields and artwork were staged in pride of place. Where Laird Fraser’s position as a laird was of less consequence—in rooms of private communion or corridors of practicality—comfort and efficiency were praised as more significant.
Upon entry to the household, Eoin found himself warming to the distinctive lines drawn in earnest about the castle. As his arrival was seen to, and he was led from courtyard to foyer, to dining hall, his approval only grew. The steward that guided him to greet the laird himself was slim and regal in his bearing, but his eyes were kind. And Eoin could witness the same similar human details in the decor of the house as the servants that tended to it. In the courtyard outside, the shield of clan Urquhart had been crafted in fine golds and polished to a high shine. Whilst it was the dominant feature of the display, hung above the double wooden doors, beneath it sat large barrels of evergreen fauna and bright purple heather. The plants were native to this area. Not a show of luxury and wealthy import but a connection to the life and value of the lands in which they lived. In the foyer, this same balance was shown in the fine artistry of the rugs and runners. And yet, the walls remained bare but of hewn stone. No paint or varnish had been splashed across the castle’s proud skeleton.
Now, standing in a doorway opened to welcome him and his party, Eoin could appreciate the natural warmth of the dining furniture and large hearth. The chandeliers and candle brackets were finely crafted, but the candles looked locally sourced. The tapestries were fine and expensive, whilst the windows were clear glass, uncoloured. The family of Urquhart was noble but no less real for their position of status.
Eoin felt the dispensation of false pride to be infinitely refreshing.
With the realisation that his future would be tied to a family of substance over shine, Eoin’s manner was open and rather genuine when he greeted Laird Fraser.
Older than Eoin by a good three decades, Fraser was a man who had aged with fine distinction. With more grey in his hair than black, the aging of his locks served only to see them match his eyes. The deep charcoal of such a stare—like the waters of the northern sea during a storm—was focused, if a little dulled at the edges by the lateness of the hour. Eoin had watched as his mother had always grown tired with the sinking of the sun, her bed more tempting in earlier hours with each passing year. Despite such fatigue, however, Fraser’s handshake was firm, and his features were sharply defined. He possessed wrinkles, but no slack to his face, and his back had not stooped with the pressures of his prolonged existence. Instead, he was almost lively as he greeted Eoin with cheerful abandon.
“Laird Eoin, ye are most welcome in my home. I hope that yer journey was not too arduous and that our food and warmth here are a worthy reward for yer trials.”
The words were flowery, holding the formal education of one of Fraser’s standing. But, like with his choices of home furnishings, Fraser’s message was genuine, and his feelings well-meant. There was no deception or false modesty in his sentiments.
“Nae bother at all,” Eoin assured him, his gaze sweeping the room. Besides he, Jamie, the steward, and Fraser himself, the dining chamber was empty. Yet the table had been set for over two dozen. He raised a brow to his host. “Was our arrival earlier than expected?”
Fraser’s next words belied the intelligence that lurked behind his congenial ease.
“Nae a’tall. But I gave strict protocol for the additions to our party to attend an hour after yerselves. Whilst I am eager to celebrate the joining of our families, I thought that such a betrothal should first be established in private before its public declaration.”
Eoin glanced at Jamie, whose lower lip extended. The corners of his mouth turned down in an expression that suggested mildly surprising respect for such empathy. They had made all of the arrangements for this unity through letters, and Eoin was more than satisfied with the bargain struck. Yet, it was true that such a momentous decision was better clarified in person and without an expectant audience already in tow.
Before Eoin could make such a comment, however, Fraser’s eyes were drawn from his face to his shoulder and beyond. A look of love and pride misted across the man’s features like a warm fog, and Eoin could only assume that the lady of the house had now graced them with her presence.
Widowed and with only a single child, there was but one whom the laird could look at like that.
“Daughter, ye join us….”
With a steadying breath that Eoin was startled to need, he turned to lay eyes upon the woman determined to be his wife.
Standing in the towering arch of the doorway, Seonaid of Urquhart held a presence that would not see her diminished by the architecture that framed her. Tall for a woman, she stood at perhaps only four inches his inferior, and yet she seemed upon equal footing.
Even from the distance of half a room.
Summoned by her father’s outstretched hand, Seonaid moved towards them with a gait of easy confidence. Her skirts shifted about her person in a way that emphasised the sway of her hips, and her shoulders were drawn back. As she looked towards Eoin, her chin rose, and her eyes flashed. Their colour, honeyed in tone and hot by nature, reminded him obscurely of a bottle he had once seen in his father’s keeping…
When he was younger, his father had kept a particular bottle of spirits in his study. Eoin remembered it because old Laird MacBain had regularly produced it with an air of significance. Instead of rendering the bottle green or brown in tone, the crafter of such a piece had been finely skilled. He had, by some magic, extracted the colour from the material and created the piece as if it were made from the panes of a window, entirely clear. The whiskey kept within had been sacred, but his father had offered him a glimpse of the liquid whenever he had made some form of achievement, promising the tastes of future manhood. From his recalled position, standing upon the woven rug of burnt and umber tones in his father’s study, Eoin had watched the way that the flames in the hearth had shone through the spirit, setting it alight.
It had glowed.
It was that glow that he saw in Seonaid’s brown eyes. And he was loathe to admit that such a pretty hue, framed with lengths of black lash, struck him quite dumb for a moment.
Apparently less awestruck by their inaugural meeting than he, the Lady Urquhart descended into an elegant curtsey that was somehow graceful and strong in the same breath. As she rose, those dark lashes lifted, and her eyes stared up into his. Her lower stature seemed to labour no hesitation upon her stare. She watched him as a hawk did another, careful and considering.
“My Laird…,” she greeted. “I am glad for yer arrival and hope ye find our home to yer liking.”
Her voice was deep and husky but most assuredly feminine. Such roughness was hardly unattractive, however, for Eoin knew the appeal of a breathless tone filled with the soft rumble of sleep. Most women suffered the affliction when they woke up in the morning, too languid to be considerate of etiquette and too satisfied to care for ladylike manners.
In idle curiosity, Eoin wondered how the already sensual-sounding Lady Seonaid might speak to him across a pillow in the early hours of dawn.
As if she sensed his thoughts, or perhaps saw the heat in his gaze, the lady adhered to her father. A beseeching glance saw the man begin conversation, urging Eoin’s focus away from the woman of the hour. Eoin was content to speak with the man, discussing politics and trade. They spoke easily of the management of staff and provinces in their entirety. Of his mother’s command over the MacBain estate and Laird Fraser’s health. All such topics were permissible and engaging, but they could not hold Eoin’s full attention for longer than a few minutes apiece. His gaze continued to find its way back to the young woman that was so different from the young girl he half-remembered.
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