Healing a Highland Heart (Preview)
His shoulder ached. The improvised bandage he’d tied around it was stained red, but Iain MacLeod ignored it, just as he ignored the stiff soreness of his tired limbs, old and new bruises, and the aching grittiness of his eyes. The MacLeod Clan had won the most recent battle against Clan Douglas, but it was little comfort. The feud continued, consuming the time, energy, and attention he’d rather spend with Sabine.
With a groan, Iain clambered down off his horse, eyeing the wooded copse not far ahead. According to previous reports, several men, MacLeod and Douglas warriors alike, had entered the woods, and he hoped to find survivors, one in particular in fact.
Torquil McNab, his childhood friend and closest companion. Torquil had been leading one of the advance parties, but he hadn’t returned with the rest of his men to the castle, and Iain had been looking for him ever since he’d confirmed he wasn’t in the healer’s cottage.
He hoped to find his friend alive, though he was most likely badly injured. He dreaded the prospect of discovering his body being carried over his saddle and returned home for a proper burial.
His feet thumped into the churned-up earth, causing the amulet on his chest to clink softly against the studs of his armor. Iain lifted the pendant to his face in prayer for Torquil’s safety, then tucked it safely behind his armor once more.
He tied off his horse’s reins at the edge of the copse and moved forward, scanning the woods for movement. A rustle to his left made him spin just as a warrior in the Douglas Clan tartan lurched out of the trees toward him.
Iain blocked the first swipe of the man’s weapon, dodged the second, then knocked the weapon aside with his shield before delivering a blow of his own that cut across the man’s abdomen, dropping him like a stone. He swiped at the blood speckling his face and continued forward.
Just then, a woman’s piercing scream shattered the quiet of the copse and sent him racing forward, aches forgotten in a new surge of energy.
He stumbled out of the copse onto a bend in the road and stopped cold, too startled to think.
A woman lay at the edge of the road, leaning against a tree as she cried out again. She was beautiful, with long blonde hair and wide, dark eyes. Only she was heavy with child, gasping and covered with sweat and dirt.
He shook himself and started forward, annoyed at his distraction and for thinking of another woman’s looks when he had a bride waiting for him at home.
The woman screamed again, and her wide eyes found his, pleading for help as she tried to curl around her swollen belly. Iain sheathed his sword and moved closer. “Lass? Are ye well?”
“Help me.” Her voice was breathless. “Please, help me…AHHHH!” She writhed on the dirt. “Please…”
Contractions rippled across her belly, and she cried out again.
Iain crouched beside her, swallowing hard. “What happened?”
“Babe’s nae due…nae for a month or more. I… I was…I was traveling…the pains started, but…I was thinking…I could make it home… or tae the healer. But it was worsening… and I… I couldnae… couldnae make it…” She cried out under a renewed contraction. “I… please… help me…”
Another contraction, and she shrieked. Iain started, his heart pounding.
“I dinnae ken… I dinnae ken a thing about childbirth!” Apprehension made his mouth dry.
His injured shoulder meant he could not carry her, and he couldn’t even lift her onto his horse, assuming the animal didn’t bolt at the sound of her screams.
He couldn’t get her to the healer. Which meant he could either abandon her or help her to the best of his ability.
His mind raced, trying to remember what he might need. I need tae get water, clean cloths, something tae clean…something tae cut the cord, and…and what else?
He couldn’t think of anything else.
On his horse, he had water in a skin, he also had a knife he hadn’t used in battle to cut the cord. But he didn’t have any cloths or a way to clean everything. His mind raced, trying to come up with any way to get them.
He couldn’t leave her alone, not long enough to get the healer. And even if he could, the healer was busy tending the wounded warriors from the battle.
He felt out of his depth, more bewildered and terrified than even his first battle had made him feel.
The woman screamed again, and a flood of liquid soaked her skirt. Iain jolted back. “What the devil…”
“I think…my water…is broken…”
Iain felt his stomach lurch. “I dinnae ken what tae do!” He crouched beside her. “What do I do?”
He’d never seen childbirth, much less helped with one. Birthing chambers were the sole domain of women and always had been.
The woman screamed again, and Iain swallowed hard. “My name is Iain. What’s yers?”
“Ha…Ha…Hazel,” she panted the words, face screwed up in distress.
“What can I do for ye? I dinnae have any cloths, and naething tae clean the ground, and my waters with my horse….” He flinched as Hazel screamed again.
“Give me something…tae hold, and…ye’ll need tae lift…lift my skirt…tae see if the babe is coming…”
Iain wrenched off his tartan sash and baldric, leaving his sword sheath in the dirt. He folded the sash behind her head and handed her the belt. She grabbed it in a white-knuckled grip. Then he bent, swallowing hard.
It felt wrong to be looking at a woman’s most intimate area when the woman was not his betrothed. He had the desire to cover her up instead, and it took all his will not to turn away.
Hazel screamed again, writhing against the ground as her voice cracked into a higher key. Iain fought the urge to cover his ears as she screamed, shuddering at the sound.
He had heard dying men who sounded less tortured than this lass.
Hazel screamed again, and suddenly, it was too much. He bolted to his feet. “I’ll be back.”
He ran for his horse, moving faster than he’d ever moved in his life. Once the reins were free, he slapped the horse to get it moving.
Hazel was where he had left her. The horse stomped and made distressed noises. Iain soothed the beast, then returned to Hazel’s side.
It only took a few minutes to break off two long branches, which he secured to the saddle with some leather ties in his saddle pack. He handed Hazel the water skin and took the sash, winding it about the poles to make a rough seat before tearing his sleeves to make a rough harness for himself.
He returned to Hazel’s side. “Here now. If ye can work with me, I’ll be getting ye tae the healer, for certain sure she can aid ye more than I. Can ye grip the poles?”
Together, they got Hazel onto the rough seat, and she gripped the poles like a blacksmith’s tongs on hot steel. Iain shoved his sword into his belt, looped the straps of the makeshift harness over his head, and hauled himself to his feet.
His shoulder screamed, but the makeshift pallet held together as he urged the horse into a walk.
Hazel moaned, clutching the poles as the makeshift support swayed. Iain grimaced in sympathy. “Dinnae fret. It’s nae far tae the healers.” He cast about for something else to say. “Where’s the bairn’s father?”
“Off fighting. I was going tae visit my sister. I dinnae…dinnae get much chance…with all the feuding.”
“And sure, ye were never traveling alone!”
“Nae…alone. But the men with me…they’re gone.”
He wondered if they’d been wounded, killed, or simply driven off by the warriors, and whether it had been his own men or Douglas clan soldiers who had done the deed. “And what clan are ye then, Hazel?” If she had a tartan on her, she’d lost it, so far as he had seen.
Macintosh. He’d heard they were allies by marriage to the Douglas clan, though he’d only heard that they weren’t actively involved in the feuding. The laird’s only son had perished some years ago when he’d been a lad, and the lack of an heir to the clan kept Laird Macintosh from the battlefield.
Hazel moaned again, curling around her swollen belly as another contraction hit, hands white-knuckled on the poles. Iain winced in sympathy. “Well, Hazel Macintosh, yer fair lucky I found ye. And I cannae do more than apologize for the rough ride, but at least ye’ll have a Healer’s care and nae my clumsy fumbling tae help see yer babe intae the world.”
“Aye, ‘tis the truth, but the ride…’tis better than trying…tae walk. And I cannae… cannae say…I would have…been able tae…ride yer great…huge beastie o’ a… a horse, either.” Hazel panted as the spasm eased, her golden hair sticking to her face, damp with sweat.
Iain shook his head, attempting to lighten her mood. “Here now. That ‘great huge beastie’ is a good horse I’ll have ye ken. And ye cannae say he isnae helpful. Certain sure, I’d nae be able tae carry ye without him.”
One dark eye peered at him, levity sparkling through despite her pained expression. “Are ye saying I’m a heavy lass, good Sir?”
Iain smiled back. “Nae at all. I’m saying I’ve a wounded shoulder, and I’m sorely tired, and nae in good enough condition tae be carrying even such a lovely feather-light maiden such as yerself.”
“Ye’ve a silver tongue, and yer likely a fair rogue, you are. I ken…well enough…what the weight is…having been…carrying the babe… for these many months.” Hazel breathed through another contraction, and Iain heaved a sigh of relief as the healer’s hut came into view.
It was surrounded by wounded warriors, the healer and her assistant darting back and forth between them like busy ants, administering bandages and medicine and words of wisdom as needed, while the worst were carted into hastily erected tents.
Iain helped Hazel out of the makeshift carrying pallet, then freed himself and moved to intercept the healer, Maude.
Maude looked exhausted, but her eyes were bright and clear as she listened to him. He’d scarcely finished his explanation before she bustled over to Hazel. Seconds later, she stepped back and, to Iain’s surprise, grabbed him by the arm and hauled him closer. “She’s advanced in labor. Help her intae the second tent… it’s the most room for ye and get her on a clean pallet. I’ll send a lass around with water and cloths for the babe. Watch her for the babe crowning—that is, emerging from between her legs – bathe her forehead, help her as she asks, and dinnae concern yerself with aught else. If the babe comes afore I can return tae ye, cut the cord, tie it off, and see she delivers the afterbirth clean, then wash the babe, wrap it in cloths, and give it tae her.”
Iain stared at her, wide-eyed. “Ye cannae mean…”
“I’m short-handed, and there are men dying on the field, ye great child.” Maude gave him a push toward Hazel. “The mother does most o’ the work in childbirth, and she’s strong and healthy, the babe coming right way intae the world by the feel, so even a man like ye can manage. So ye’ll be seeing tae her, while I tend the patients who need me.”
Before he was quite certain how it had happened, Iain kneeled at the end of a pallet in one tent, a bowl of water and a basket of cloths by his elbow, with Hazel panting and straining in front, skirt discarded and a blanket tossed over her upraised knees.
One of Maude’s helpers passed him. “Wash yer hands afore ye touch her again.”
Time passed, though Iain couldn’t say how much. He bathed Hazel’s forehead and gave her water when she asked, wincing when she screamed and praying the bairn to come quickly.
Finally, as the light was starting to deepen in the late afternoon, he thought he saw movement between Hazel’s legs. He shifted the blanket to look closer.
Hazel spat at him. “Dinnae touch me, ye misbegotten pig.” Iain jolted in surprise at the vehemence in her hoarse tones.
A healer’s apprentice bandaging a warrior who’d lost a hand nearby spoke up. “Dinnae listen tae her. Women always curse the men in childbirth. ‘Tis natural. Did ye see something?”
Iain swallowed hard and looked closer. “Aye. I think…I think I see the head.” Panic gripped him, making him feel like a callow youth half his age. “What…what do I do?”
“Ignore her shouting and put yer hands between her legs tae catch the babe as she pushes it free. And dinnae let her kick yer teeth in, for I’ve seen women try when the birthing pangs are on them.”
Iain swallowed again and leaned in, wedging his good shoulder against her knee for safety’s sake, his eyes pinned to the small bulge of the baby’s head as he tried not to think about what else he was looking at.
He was no stranger to a woman’s body, but it still felt awkward and inappropriate.
Hazel screamed, body strained, and a bit more of the babe emerged. Iain slid his hands under it, feeling awkward and terrified he might injure the tiny body.
Another scream, another round of straining, and then the babe came free, all but falling into his palms. Iain snatched at the child, cradling it close out of instinct as he moved away from Hazel’s knees. The child lay in his arms, red and wrinkled and still, so still, and panic spiked at his heart.
He was on the verge of screaming for Maude when the healer appeared, took the bairn from his arms, and delivered a smart tap to the tiny buttocks.
The tiny figure drew in a soft, gurgling breath and cried. Iain exhaled in relief.
The relief was short-lived. Maude examined the tiny body for a moment, then handed the child back to him. Iain was too stunned to even protest as she set the slight form into his hands. “A girl, small but healthy enough. Cut the cord and bathe her, as I told you, then give her tae her mother.” And with that, she turned and bustled away.
Iain stared at the newborn in his arms. She was so small, so fragile. He felt like he might break her, and she weighed less than his armor. Less than his saddle bag, even!
Maude’s instructions…cut the cord, she had said. Iain fumbled for his knife and looped the thin pink tube over two fingers. It felt warm and slippery, and his stomach churned, bringing forth the image of men, gut slashed on the battlefield. He banished the images, forcing his hand to steady as he slid the sharp blade under the loop and cut the cord.
“Here… move away, and I’ll see tae the mother while ye see tae the babe.” The healer’s apprentice from before came and kneeled next to him. Iain nodded and stumbled to his feet, staring at the tiny body in his arms as he tried to remember what Maude had told him.
Wash the babe? No. She’d said something about tying off the cord. Iain had stuffed the ties into his sash earlier, and now he clumsily pulled one free and looped it around the cord, tying it tight as he recalled some newborns he’d seen.
He washed the babe carefully, as cautiously as he could handle fine silk, terrified with every move that he might bruise or even severely injure the tot. The infant fretted and fussed in his arms, crying weakly as he ran the wet cloth over her.
She was… magnificent. Small, red, and helpless, but beautiful with her little hands, not even large enough to wrap fully around his finger, and her little feet, so small he could hold both of them in his hand and still have grip to spare. And her blue eyes, unfocused and adorable, as she blinked at him.
Finally, the babe was washed and swaddled, and he turned back to Hazel.
The healer’s apprentice had washed her, cleaned up the pallet, and brought clean clothes. He had been so preoccupied with the babe that he hadn’t noticed.
Hazel smiled at him with weary eyes and held out her arms. Iain bent and surrendered the infant to her mother’s grasp, watching as the tiny child snuggled into her mother’s chest with a soft sound.
His heart ached at the sight, and a pang of longing went through him, a desire to have a babe of his own and a sense of regret that the first child he held was not, in fact, his.
After a long moment, he forced himself to turn away. Hazel had a husband, and the child had a father. Meanwhile, he still needed to find Torquil, and then he needed to return to MacLeod Castle and report to his father.
Someday, when the feud was over and the fighting was done, there would be time for him to hold and love a child of his own.
Douglas Castle, 1 Year Later
Hazel blinked her tired eyes, watching her daughter sleep. She was at peace for the first time in days.
The fever that had plagued her daughter had finally broken, aided by the weak willow bark tea she’d made and a soothing poultice her sister Norah had suggested. The hectic flush to Mairi’s cheeks had faded, leaving the toddler cool to the touch and sleeping quietly.
Hazel reached out and brushed back a lock of the soft blond hair, marveling as she always did at her daughter’s strength. Mairi made a soft sound and turned toward her hand, chubby little fists clinging to the blanket Hazel had given her.
She was such a sweet little child. Even sick, she cried very little, and when she was well, she was a bright, cheerful little angel, toddling about the nursery and babbling the few words she knew as she played.
It’s a shame her father despised her because she was a girl child and never looked at her except to curse in his drunken rages. Hazel grimaced, rubbing her wrist as she remembered how Malcolm had reacted the last time he saw his daughter.
She’d needed bruise poultices for a week after that night, and her wrist still ached sometimes as though Malcolm had broken the bone or slightly disjointed it.
Laird Malcolm Douglas was a violent brute of a man, especially in his drunken rages. How such a foul, mean-tempered man had produced an angel like Mairi, Hazel did not know.
She sighed and set the thought aside. As foul-tempered and cruel Malcolm might be, he was better than his younger brother, Roderick Douglas. The man had caught her alone twice and tried to force himself on her, even though she was Malcolm’s wife, and what Malcolm would do if he even suspected she was unfaithful, even if the breach of marriage vows was not her fault.
A beating would have been the least of it. Roderick had only laughed when she said so.
A knock at the door disrupted her thoughts, and she looked up as her younger sister stepped into the room.
Norah was blond, as she was, with the dark hazel eyes that ran through their clan. Younger by two years, she was a bright and outspoken lass and the only person in the world that Hazel had ever been able to confide in.
The only person who had given her an ounce of affection since her brother’s death so many years ago.
Norah approached the crib, smiling as she saw Mairi’s face. “Is she sleeping then?”
“Yes. The fever finally broke, and she’s been quiet for the past hour.” Hazel rose and stretched. “Tis good she’s better…I was afraid o’ what might happen if she took a turn for the worse. Certainly, her father would have harsh words for me if she came tae harm or ill, nae matter that he hates that she’s a lass instead o’ an heir.”
“I wasnae worried. I ken yer a fair healer, even if ye dinnae ken it yerself.” Norah stroked Mairi’s cheek. “I was more worried ye’d work yerself intae a collapse, tending her all hours o’ the day and night as ye were. And afraid I’d have tae return afore she was well.”
“I’ll nae deny it’s been a blessing having ye here. And I wish ye didnae have tae return so soon, for three weeks seems nae enough time when we only see each other once a year.” Hazel sighed and drew her sister close.
“Aye. I wish mother and father would see reason.” Norah grimaced, staring out the window toward their family lands. “Leaving ye here with that beast o’ a man…”
“At least Malcolm’s off fighting and nae here now. And in any case, ye cannae blame mother and father. If I’d only watched Keith a bit better.”
“Keith was a growing lad, and too adventurous by half, with the way father indulged him as the heir. And even were it not so, I’ve seen the cliff Keith fell from, and I’m certain sure his death wasnae yer fault.” Norah’s scowl deepened. “I’ve told ye a hundred times.”
“And we both ken I was tae be watching Keith, while mother and father were away. I was tae have care o’ him, and he fell from the cliffs above the lake and intae the rocks.”
“That might be…but I’ve said afore, and I’ll say again–I’ve seen the cliffs where he was found and the lads from the Keep playing among them. And certain sure, there’s lads twice the age Keith was when he fell couldnae scale those cliffs tae the point he supposedly fell from. Aye, and twice the size tae. He couldnae have gotten tae that outcropping with nae help, and if he could, he wouldnae have been clumsy enough tae go over the edge tae the rocks.”
Norah’s jaw set in a stubborn scowl. “I’ve said afore, and I’ll say again, Hazel…I’m certain our brother was sent tae his death, and it was nae accident and nae fault o’ yours. And I’ll keep saying it until Mother and Father listen tae me.”
“Ye ken that willnae happen. And there’s nae proving it if yer right or wrong, and father is like Malcolm.” Hazel felt her throat tighten with sorrow and hurt. “He’ll nae forgive he that he has nae heir, and there’s nae words in the world that will change his mind. And mother is the same, for Keith was her darling, her bonny boy.”
“Even so, ‘tis nae right, how they treat ye. And tae give ye in marriage to a brute like Malcolm Douglas…even for alliance, twas a terrible choice tae make, and I cannae think there was any good in father’s head when he thought o’ it.” Norah tossed her head. “And now, we’re in a feud with Clan MacLeod, o’ all things, and a fine position tae be in, when they’re allied with Cabduh, Grant, and MacGille clans, and Rose clan sworn not tae move against them.”
“Even so, ‘tis done. And nae matter what ye think, and what I feel, ‘tis Laird Malcolm Douglas who’s my husband and the father of my child. So, there’s nae sense making a fuss, nor making trouble.” Hazel found a small, tired smile to offer Norah. “And tis far better that it be Malcolm, rather than his brother, and fair glad I am that father’s never taken tae mind tae bind the clans twice over by giving ye in marriage tae that beast!”
“I’d run away and cry asylum from MacLeod first. Or even run away tae live among the English, afore I consent to such a marriage. And I’d be trying tae persuade ye tae come with me, so I would.” Norah tossed her head again, eyes sparkling defiantly.
A sudden commotion in the courtyard made both turn toward the windows. From above, Hazel spotted a tangle of riders, one man bearing the standard of the Laird Douglas. Her heart sank. Malcolm was home.
She could only pray that he was too tired to seek her out or that he was fresh from victory and in too good a mood to fly into one of his usual rages.
For all she hated the idea of Malcolm having a victory. His rages after a defeat were far worse than even his drunken brutishness. Malcolm’s cruelty was worse than any beast when his pride was stung.
She and Norah stood waiting, clutching each other’s hands as they watched the swirling activity below. With another man, Hazel might have gone to greet him, but she’d long since learned better with Malcolm. The longer she was out of his sight, the better.
Rapid footsteps echoed in the corridor, and Hazel turned, heart in her throat as the door burst open and a maid scurried inside, eyes wide. “What news?”
“The warriors are home, my lady.” The maid ducked her head. “And Laird Roderick Douglas is demanding tae see ye.”
Hazel felt like she’d been punched in the gut and left with ice where her heart should be. She hated Malcolm, despised him and loathed being married to him, but… “Laird Roderick? What is the meaning of such words? Where is my husband? ‘Tis his name, the title belongs tae.”
The maid swallowed hard, and Hazel saw the same despair and fear in her eyes that she felt in her heart. “Laird Malcolm Douglas was slain, my lady. Mayhap the field o’ battle, mayhap else wise, for there’s rumor o’ an assassin sent by the MacLeods, but Laird Malcolm Douglas is dead. The title falls tae his only surviving male kin, Laird Roderick.”
Malcolm dead, and Roderick, Laird of Clan Douglas. Her Laird.
Her life, her fate, and that of her darling Mairi were in the hands of Roderick Douglas. A man three times worse than his elder brother had been, with a streak of cruelty that would make the Fair Folk of the worst sort claim him as their own, and a calculating cunning far more dangerous than any of Malcolm’s drunken rages could ever be.
Please, let this be a nightmare. It cannae be true. It cannae.
But Norah was there, staring at her with terrified, despairing eyes, and the maid had a pale face as she looked down at the floor. Outside, Clan Douglas standards were being matched with black pennants of mourning for the death of a laird.
She was awake, and the nightmare was real.
Hazel swallowed hard, then bent her head. “Tell Laird Roderick I will be there in a moment.” The words made her sick to say, but she spoke them anyway, fighting to keep her voice steady.
The maid left. Hazel looked at her daughter, sleeping peacefully with no idea how their world had been upended. Then she straightened her shoulders, went to the basin on the side table and washed her face, and smoothed her hair, before brushing the worst of the wrinkles from her skirt. “Watch Mairi for me, please, Norah.”
Her sister nodded. Hazel took one last look at her daughter, said a prayer to whatever entity might exist, served as guardian for troubled souls in fear of their lives, and went to meet her fate and her new Laird.
He’s still too pale…I wonder if the healers can get him tae some sun, or mayhap do something else tae put color in his cheeks.
Iain MacLeod frowned as he studied his father, Liam, sleep. He was resting peacefully, a welcome change from the sometimes-fevered dreams and confused meanderings he experienced.
Liam MacLeod had once been a robust and sturdy warrior, his reddish dark gold hair thick and shining, his muscles firm and powerful, capable of lifting a sword and commanding the clan in battle. Months of illness had wasted the mighty sinews and taken the weight off his frame, turning his hair white and lining his face with wrinkles.
He could no longer breathe well nor walk for long distances. He was too weak to lift his sword, sometimes too weak to even rise from his bed. He ate little and complained of exhaustion after short periods of movement. They’d summoned healers from every clan they were on speaking terms with, and let the entire Highlands know of their need, but no healer yet had done anything for Liam, save to make him comfortable and care for him in his infirmity.
His illness had left Iain the leader of his clan in all but name, and yet, Iain balked at assuming the title. He’d told the Clan Elders that he refused to take the coronet and standard of the laird until his father breathed his last. Which, Iain hoped, would be a long time to come.
As if responding to his thoughts, his father stirred, breathing deeper before his eyes flickered open. “Iain?”
Iain settled close to him, perched on the edge of the bed. “Good morn, Father.”
“Good morn.” Liam shifted, and Iain helped him sit up. “What is the time?”
“Candlemark or so past the morning meal. I’ll have a servant bring ye a tray.” Iain smoothed the blankets over his father’s lap. “How are ye feeling?”
“How am I always feeling?” Liam scowled tiredly at the blanket. “I’ve scarcely woken, and already I’m feeling as though I’ve been in the yard with a dozen men for training.” He grimaced. “And I was thinking ye’d be halfway tae Cabduh Castle by now.”
“I’d nae leave ‘afore speaking tae ye, and ‘tis nae so long a ride. I’ll be on the road soon enough with Torquil, but I wasnae thinking tae leave ‘afore noon. Twill still gives me plenty o’ time tae make tae Cabduh Castle.”
“Mayhap, but I dinnae want ye tae be cutting yer visit short, nae on my account. I ken yer passing fond o’ Iris and Tristan.” Liam’s eyes were tired already.
“Aye, I’m passing fond o’ them, and Torquil and Tristan like tae talk. But we’ll have time enough, and I cannae be too long away with the feud.” he smiled softly at his father.
“Aye. The feud….” Liam made another face. “And I wish ye’d nae be involved in the fighting so often, when ye’ve nae a wife, nor an heir tae follow ye…and yer my only heir.”
Iain ignored the twisting of his heart with the ease of long practice. “I dinnae see combat overmuch. The borders are stable enough at the moment. And ye ken why I’m nae eager tae be trying tae find a new bride.”
His father’s expression twisted with sorrow. “I ken, lad, but ye need a lady. If ye dinnae have an heir when I pass…”
“That willnae happen for a good long while, Father.” Iain swallowed hard, then rose. “I’ll leave ye tae rest until yer breakfast arrives. Hopefully, the food and whatever the healer gives ye this morning will help ye feel more yerself.”
Liam snorted, but his eyes were already drooping, despite the short time he’d been awake. Iain watched until his eyelids closed. Only then did he move to the door and quietly stepped into the corridor.
He went to the kitchens to alert the cooks that his father was ready to break his fast and the healer’s quarters to let them know they needed to see him if any medicines were prescribed with his morning meal.
That done, he turned toward his rooms. He’d planned a liaison before he left, and he could feel the familiar urges tightening his loins and making him restless. One of the servant girls had recognized his needs and offered to soothe them, and he’d agreed. Why shouldn’t he?
So different from a little over a year ago, when he wouldn’t have looked twice at a woman other than his betrothed. When all he’d wanted was the marriage his father had spoken of and a bairn of his own, like the little girl he’d once held. But those dreams had died with his beloved, slain by a Douglas raiding party on a journey to the MacLeod family seat.
Helga McKinnon had been a sweet, beautiful girl and the sunshine in his life, and the day the riders had brought her lifeless body to the funeral pyre had been one of the worst of his life. He’d sworn two oaths that day.
Vengeance on Clan Douglas for the death of his beloved. And for himself, he vowed he’d never take another as his wife.
A bedmate–aye, he’d have those willingly enough, for he was a man with a man’s needs and desires–but a wife, never.
Iain turned into the corridor to the family wing and stopped, unsurprised by the figure waiting for him. He’d told Torquil they’d leave after the noon meal, but it wasn’t surprising that his friend had sought him out.
Torquil McNab was his brother in all but blood and the second reason hatred burned hot in his heart for Clan Douglas. Just thinking of the memory was enough to make him sick.
After the babe had been born and the healer had released him, he resumed searching for Torquil. And found him in a small ravine far off the road, just before the sky became too dark to search any longer. And just as well he had, for Torquil would not have survived the night had he not.
He’d scarcely recognized his childhood friend, with the blood covering his face and his shield arm a shattered, broken ruin of a limb. By the time he’d carried his friend from the ditch, fever had already set in, blood loss making his heart beat sluggishly, and illness and pain wracking body and mind alike.
Torquil had recovered, but many fear-filled days of waiting had passed before his fever had broken and the infection had been fully drawn from his blood. And he would forever bear the reminders of that battle in the long scar that cut across his face from brow to chin, and his left arm, which had never fully healed.
Torquil would always be weaker on that side, and he knew it, and felt the injury keenly.
Iain was aware of it and knew that he might have lost his brother to despair had it not been for Tristan Cabduh, who had heard from his wife Iris about Torquil’s injuries and made a special trip to see the wounded warrior in his darkest hours.
Tristan knew well what it was like to suffer from a permanent injury with his knee, which had been maimed forever at the battle of Dunkeld and left him with a permanent limp. The day he’d arrived, he’d taken Torquil aside.
Iain had never heard what had passed between the two men, for that had been when his own father had first begun falling ill and not long before the murder of his betrothed. Whatever it was, Tristan and Torquil had formed a friendship second only to Torquil’s bond with him.
Shortly thereafter, Torquil had returned to the training yard, learning ways to work around his wounded arm and practicing against all comers until he was the equal of any who cared to challenge him. Only Tristan and Iain sparred seriously with him unless their close friends and kinsmen joined them.
For that, and for the sake of his cousin Iris, Iain blessed the day Tristan Cabduh had stumbled into his cousin’s life and eventually became part of kith and kin.
Torquil gestured for his attention, and Iain stopped. “Aye? Is there something needing me?”
Torquil shook his head. “Naething that I’m aware of. I was just after checking with ye on when we’ll be leaving for Cabduh.”
First his father, now Torquil. Iain wondered if there were some events he’d forgotten about or some news he’d not yet heard about Tristan and Iris. If not, their determination to get him out of the castle for a few days was irritating.
Still, he forced himself to keep the emotion from his face. “I was planning tae leave after the noon meal. But if yer worried about being on the road too late or something else, we can leave sooner. I’ll just need tae be stopping by my quarters tae attend tae a few things ‘afore we go.”
Torquil snorted. “Attend tae a few things? Like the lass I saw wandering in there and shutting the door behind her? Sheila, the kitchen maid, was it?”
“Might be. And ‘tis nae business o’ yers what I attend tae in my private chambers.” Iain rolled his shoulders.
“And how long will ye be sleeping with this one? Ye’ve near slept with half the maids in the castle over the past year.” Torquil’s expression was faintly disapproving.
“And what o’ it? It’s nae as if I’ve my virtue, nor aye theirs, tae be thinking o’. Clan Douglas saw tae that, well enough.” The old familiar bitterness welled up within him. “There’s nae one I’m promised tae, and nae one tae be faithful tae, nae since I sent my love onto the afterlife, and god rest her soul.” He let a bitter smile tug up one corner of his mouth. “I dinnae accept favors from any who have their troth plighted tae another, and I’m fair enough tae them, and clear with what I want. What else is there tae consider?”
“Yer reputation. Certain sure ye’ll need a lady tae give ye an heir at some point, and what lady will have ye, if ye insist on sleeping with every maid ye can ‘afore then? What lady will have a man who’s a reputation for wenching, and light o’ loves – and a different one every month at that?” Torquil’s expression showed genuine concern, and Iain squashed a flare of sullen rage.
“There will be lasses enough who are pleased enough tae have the title o’ Lady o’ the Clan, with father a widower as he is. And so long as ‘tis a lady who’s discreet and willing tae be sure she gives the clan an heir first, then the rest willnae matter,” Iain shrugged dismissively. “And why should it? We both ken that it’ll be an alliance marriage and a matter o’ setting father’s mind at ease when we go tae war with Douglas in truth after he’s well, or a matter o’ setting the Elders mind at ease if I have tae take the laird’s torc in the near seasons. I’m nae likely tae love again, and there’s nae reason the lady, whoever she happens tae be, should have tae do without a loving partner o’ her own, so we’ll neither o’ us be over concerned about the fidelity o’ the other.”
Torquil winced, clear disbelief and sorrow in his gaze. “Iain. Ye cannae give up on finding a lady tae claim yer heart again.”
“I can, and ye and I both ken the truth.” His throat felt tight. “The love o’ my life is dead, and there’ll be nae other woman I feel that way about.”
Torquil looked as if he might say something else, but after a moment, he thought better of it. Resignation crossed his face, and he nodded. “I’ll ask for saddle bags tae be packed with some food for both o’ us, and I’ll meet ye in the courtyard when ye’ve finished attending tae yer business in yer quarters.”
“Aye. Sounds like a plan.” Iain clapped him on the shoulder. “I dinnae think it’ll take tae long.”
Torquil snorted. “Make it long enough tae be worth the lass’s time if yer set on this new habit o’ yers.”
Iain smirked. “Dinnae fret about that. It’ll be nae problem.” He clapped Torquil on the shoulder again and returned to his quarters.
He’d scarcely closed the door when a slim figure rose out of the welter of blankets on his bed, an enticing smile on her face. “My Laird? Ye wished tae…see me?” The blanket held modestly over her chest slipped artfully down an inch.
Iain grinned, working his feet out of his boots and his belt free of its buckle. “Aye…I did indeed.”
Once fully undressed, Iain moved toward the bed and Sheila held her arms invitingly. Iain grinned as he joined her.
Let Torquil disapprove. Lighthearted and brief liaisons in bed were safer by far for the women he invited to his bed and his life. His desires could be satisfied, and no one would be harmed for loving him.
Someday, he’d wed a woman quietly for an alliance and a legitimate heir—a mutual agreement for no other purpose. Everyone would be satisfied, and that would be enough for him. It would have to be.
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