Her Broken Highlander (Preview)
“Ye look like momma.” Amelia knelt to make herself eye level with the little red-haired sprite that was her oldest nephew, Angus.
“Do I? Well, that is because I’m her sister. Do you know what that means?”
“That means yer my auntie.” The boy placed his hands on his hips and nodded with authority. He was proud of himself at figuring the family connection, and Amelia’s heart constricted. It had been too long she had been separated from her older sister Ella, and now she was an aunt to not only Angus, but little Nicholas, and a new baby on the way. She looked back at her sweet sister, sitting quietly with her embroidery by the window. The soft rays of morning sunlight giving the room its light. Amelia let out a sigh.
“You don’t seem content this morning, Amy,” Ella said, giving Amelia a look of concern. Ella was the only one who ever called her Amy, and over the last four years, she had missed the endearment. After their mother had died, it was Ella who took care of them, kept them clean and fed and out of the way of their father.
“I think I am?” Amelia crossed the room and sat at her sister’s feet. Ella placed a hand on her sister’s golden hair. As Amelia looked up at her, she realized how similar in their youth, they would have looked to the Highlanders around them, both with golden hair and ice-blue eyes. They stood at similar heights. And even though Ella was a few years her senior, the time spent apart had aged Amelia. They could have been mistaken for twins. Except that in her pregnancy Ella’s hair had grown darker by a shade or two, and her face had rounded a little
Amelia loved looking upon her sister. When they parted, it was under extreme duress. Amelia has spent the time they were apart hating their father for what he did to Ella, and what he tried to do to her. The lies he told were unforgivable. Thankfully for them both, he died only two months after Ella left, his lifestyle of drinking, gambling, and excess finally taking its toll.
Unfortunately, his death bed confessions to Amelia she was forced to carry alone, at least until she could prove them true. At first, she had wanted to rush to Scotland and find Ella, tell her what father had said, but she had quickly decided she needed to solve the mystery herself. She’d known it was what was best, especially now, seeing Ella happily married, settled, and with children of her own. Amelia would wait until she had more answers before she would do anything to take the smile of contentment from her sister’s lips.
“You’ve promised to tell me of home and your travels; where have you been since father’s death?”
“Did you not get my letters?”
“Aye, I did, but I don’t understand. You seem much changed. After Father’s death, you traveled to Ireland, Wales, and Paris, yet your letters seemed vague. No talk of fashion or theater, simply descriptions of landscape and emotional pleas. I know Father’s death must have been hard for you, but did you not enjoy your travels?” Amelia knew it would be difficult to fool her sister. In truth, she had not been to any of the places she had described in her letters, not knowing the letters would even reach her sister until she had received word that she had married a highland laird.
“I didn’t know if you would truly get my letters. My travels were fine, it was nice to see more of our world, but nothing is better than being here with you now and seeing you so well.” The relief she’d felt knowing Ella was safe, and the man their father sold her to was dead had made her sloppy in her correspondence. Yet, she wasn’t ready to confess she had been in Scotland the whole time. Instead, she used descriptions of far-away places she had found in a book to create a ruse that she had been traveling before finally coming to see Ella for herself. She had hoped to have proof, definitive proof, but her time in Scotland so far had come to nothing. She only had one lead left, and she needed an introduction from her sister’s husband, Lucas MacGille, Laird of Cadney, to achieve it. She wasn’t ready yet to ask, and she did miss Ella so very much. For now, she would simply bide her time and enjoy her sister’s company. Mayhap after the babe was born and Ella was healed, they could speak of what Amelia knew.
“Well, I am so happy to have you here, as well. And just wait until tonight’s feast. Lucas’ brother, Gavin, sister Milly and her husband, Nathan, laird of our neighboring clan Mackenzie, will be here as well to meet you and celebrate. It will be the most wonderful time. I know you will adore Milly as I do.”
“I look forward to it. Meanwhile, you should rest, Ella. You look tired.” Amelia couldn’t help but see the dark circles around her sister’s eyes.
“It’s the babe, I know she will be here soon. I can feel it in my bones.”
“Aye, this one will be a girl. I don’t know how to explain it, but I feel it. She is carrying different, and I have been sicker with her than with the boys.”
Amelia smiled. “Then, all the more reason for you to rest. I will leave you and walk along the bailey. The men are practicing, and I do so enjoy watching the highlanders maneuver.” She gave her sister a sly wink.
“Maybe, little sister, it is time for you to think about settling down and getting with a bairn or two of your own.” Amelia couldn’t help but smile at her proper English sister’s easy adoption of certain Scottish words, like bairn. But she would not be swayed. When she thought of her future, she always saw the face of one man. A foolish notion and no matter how hard she tried to forget her mind would not allow her to banish his image. A prisoner from long ago who had risked everything to save her life. It had happened so fast, and he was beaten for it. She never knew his name, and he was most likely dead now, left to rot at the end of a hangman’s noose. Just the same, his emerald green eyes would haunt her for the rest of her life.
“I’m not sure I have the temperament or the mind to be such a good mother or wife. For now, I will leave that duty up to you, sister.”
“Aye, for now then. But you’ll see, Amy, one day, when you least expect it, the man of your dreams will come, and you too will be swept away.”
Amelia smiled. If only, she thought. If only.
Nothing put Gavin in a better mood than coming over the rise of boulders that separated MacKenzie land from MacGille land. The shimmering blue of Loch Cadney played off the waning autumn light. He was home. When Milly told him there was to be a feast to honor Ella’s newly come sister, he had jumped at the chance to head home. For the last year, he had been traveling abroad, chasing a bounty for the magistrate in Edinburgh, and he was ready for a spell of relaxation.
The only reason he’d stopped at MacKenzie Keep first was to see his sister’s new bairn. He loved being an uncle and spoiling his nephews, and now niece was the best part of his travels. Of course, this new babe was only a year old, but she was still able to be spoiled. He had a special toy fish made in Ullapool the last he was there. It rattled and made noise that the young lass seemed to adore.
Coming up on the MacGille Keep, Gavin was filled with lightness. He knew he would have to leave again soon, but he relished his time home.
“What dae ye ken of this sister of our Ella’s?” Milly asked as they came over the last hilly rise.
“Nothin’ more than ye, I suppose. After th’ father died, Ella said she went traveling, France mayhap? But do we MacGilles need a reason for a clan feast?” He pinched his sister’s full cheek much like he had in their youth. Not only was Milly his twin, but she’d also been the only one who had trusted that Gavin had survived the battle of Dunkeld some four years back, and she’d never stopped looking for him. He loved her fiercely and owed her his life.
“Aye, ’tis all I ken as well, but if she be anything like Ella, we will love her just the same, I suppose.” Gavin smiled at his sister’s kind heart. He never wanted the war and pain he had suffered to touch her. He knew she’d moved heaven and earth to save him, and he would repay her by never allowing her to see the demons that still haunted his every waking moment.
“I suppose then, Milly, ye are right.” He kicked his horse’s flanks to gain speed, the last meadow before the gates to the castle was his favorite ride. The wind always seemed at his back and the air crisp.
“Gavin, wait…” he heard Milly on the wind, but he knew she wouldn’t follow him. She hadn’t told anyone yet, but she was again with child. A twin knows these things about his sister, and she wouldn’t risk the health of the babe or her husband, Nathan’s worry over a frivolous horse ride.
* * *
The festive mood of the keep was contagious. Gavin looked around the great hall. Tapestries woven in the greens, blues, reds, and golds of his family’s plaid hung above the great hearths on either side of the hall. The candles had all been lit, giving off a bright, warm light that illuminated the faces of his friends and loved ones.
Plates filled with a wide assortment of meats, pies, and puddings graced every hand he saw. The great hall at Cadney was different from other clan meeting halls of the great Highland families. There was no elevated table where the laird and family sat, looking down upon their people as if royalty. Instead, Lucas, as laird, their father, and their father’s father before him had chosen to eat level with and among the rest of the clan.
Gavin’s head started to spin. He welcomed the laughing and general cheer of his clan, but as a man who spent most of his time alone, it was also a touch overwhelming. He moved along the perimeter of the wall, keeping his hand on the firm, cool stone. He knew that in a few moments, the spinning would cease, and he would back to himself. He just needed to remember to keep his breathing even.
Movement in a darkened corner caught his eye — a flash of golden hair, the gentle glide of a blue skirt quickly rounding a corner. Gavin had dreamed about hair that precise shade of sun-kissed for four long years. He knew what he saw couldn’t be real, yet he was still drawn to follow, quickly leaving the great hall in pursuit of the apparition, for that was the only explanation.
“It cannae be,” he whispered to himself as the ghost paused in front of a portrait of him and his brother as youths. She looked up, and Gavin caught her in delicate profile. It indeed was she — the woman from Perth. The woman who he’d risked everything to save, and who had tried to save him in return. The spinning returned as Gavin quickly approached the woman. Wrapping his hand around her wrist, he yanked her against him. She let out a quick breath and looked up at him with the same ice blue stare that he saw whenever he needed to ground himself. She had been his angel, his solace, and he hadn’t known her name, or that she ever existed in the first place. Many nights in that damn prison he had convinced himself he’d dreamed her up to stay sane. A sheen of sweat beaded against his brow. His heart raced. She was here, alive, in the flesh, in his home.
“Amelia…” her name left his lips in a rush of hot air. “How th’ devil is it possible?”
“It’s you,” she whispered.
“’ Tis I, an’ ’tis also ye, but how? I didnae think ye were real?” She reached up and touched his face, running her finger along the scar that started above his left eye and traveled down his cheek. The scar from an Englishman’s boot on the day he’d last seen her. He closed his eyes and leaned into her touch. She was the calm against the storm that raged inside him.
“You’re alive, and here of all places.” It seemed neither of them could speak in full sentences. It was as if all time stopped. Gavin took a lock of her hair in his hand and twirled it, threading it through each finger, lifting it and watching in awe as the soft tendrils fell to her bare, pale shoulders.
“For nigh on four years, I dreamed of ye, lass. Of yer hair, yer eyes, of what I would say tae ye if I ever lucked intae seeing ye again. Now yer in front of me, an’ I’m at a loss, except tae say it’s ye.”
“I thought for sure the guards would’ve killed you.” She tried to look away, but Gavin placed his free hand on her chin, forcing her to look at him. He saw the pain in her eyes.
“They tried, lass, but it seems I’m a hard bastard tae kill.” He smiled, lowering his voice.
“I tried to find you, but they wouldn’t allow me to follow, and I didn’t know your name.”
“Aye, my name…” he began when they both turned to see Ella rushing toward them.
“Amy, there you are,” she said breathlessly. Gavin quickly moved back a step and let go of Amelia’s wrist; the moment between them broken with the intrusion of his sister-in-law. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” She glanced at Gavin and cocked an eyebrow.
Amy, he thought. He had heard that name before. Milly had told him the name of Ella’s sister. That meant Amelia — his Amelia, was — shite. He looked back and forth between the two women. The resemblance was there, he saw it clearly now.
“Actually, Gavin, I’ve been looking for you as well. I wanted to introduce you to my sister, Amelia Pearson, but affectionately known to family and me as Amy.”
Sister? It would’ve only taken the weight of a feather to knock Gavin on his arse.
“Gavin MacGille, at yer service, lass.” He gave her a courtly bow, his green eyes glinting in the candlelight.
Amelia’s brave Highlander was actually in front of her, in the flesh! Before her sister appeared, she was almost certain he was going to kiss her, and she surprised herself at how desperate she was to feel his lips on her own.
He was here, in Cadney, his home, speaking and bowing as if this was an everyday, formal introduction that was commonplace. He seemed to recover quickly from the shock of seeing her and learning she was Ella’s sister, but she was not as lucky. She was reeling, he was a MacGille, as in her sister’s husband’s brother? It was impossible.
Ella looked at Amelia with a curious gaze. Even though they had been apart for so long, her sister could still easily recognize when something was amiss with Amelia. And staring at the man who had haunted her dreams since that fateful day in Perth was definitely amiss. She fought against the wave of nausea that overcame her.
“It’s a pleasure, sir.” Her voice was barely above a whisper as she worked to regain herself. She was transfixed by his emerald eyes; they were the deep green of a grassy meadow after a fresh rain, yet still held warning in their heat filled gaze.
Tanned skin elegantly covered flawlessly honed cheekbones — the only imperfection Gavin’s face held was the scar that marred his perfect face. His scar. Just moments ago, she had run her hand along its groove, feeling her way to redemption; not entirely believing he was real. But he was — the scar and the injury that caused it was entirely her fault.
“I hope I wasn’t interrupting anything. How happy I am that you two had chanced a meeting. What was it that you were discussing so intently away from the rest of us?” Ella’s pointed question managed to break the remainder of any spell between them.
“Not at all!”
“Nay.” They spoke at the same time, and Amelia thought a little too suddenly for Ella to believe them.
“The lass and I were discussing th’ history of Cadney, and how our ancestors had limited resources, an’ had tae bring the stone up with their bare hands.” Amelia looked at Gavin, and he gave her a sly wink. A flush of heat went through her.
“Ahh, yes,” Ella replied. “Cadney has a wonderful history. I didn’t realize you would be so interested in it, Amy?”
“Oh, Ella, it’s truly fascinating. My travels have given me a great appreciation for history in all its forms.”
“Well, almost four years around England and France will do that to a lady, I suppose. However, we should be getting back to the feast. Lucas will worry,” Ella said, patting her growing belly. Amelia gave Gavin a quick glance; she could see question and mirth fighting each other in his gaze. Of course, he knew nothing about her so he couldn’t possibly know she was lying, but he knew enough to know she was in Scotland four years ago, not traipsing through France. She prayed he would remain silent, at least until she could get him alone again to explain.
* * *
The feast was a glorious affair, and despite her misgivings, she couldn’t help but enjoy herself, all the while unable to stop herself from seeking out Gavin wherever he roamed through the great hall. She was interested in getting him alone, but he was constantly in the company of either his brother, Lucas, or his brother-in-law, Nathan MacKenzie, who Amelia learned had only married their sister, Milly, a little over a year ago, and was incredibly smitten with his wife.
The way he fawned over Milly sent a warm, electric feeling through Amelia, and she had to admit to herself she longed to be treated thus. In England, it would be almost inappropriate for a man of such high rank to be seen in public fondling and constantly touching his wife, yet Amelia was surprised to see these highland men seemed to care not for stodgy English traditions. They had no problem letting the world at large know they were attracted to their mates and would dote on them.
She wondered if Gavin had a woman. She couldn’t imagine he didn’t, and something told her should he wed he would show his wife the same deference and affection as the other men. Her cheeks reddened at the thought of it being her. Silly girl, she thought. She had no claim on the Highlander. Lost in her own thoughts, she hadn’t noticed the group had made its way across the hall toward her.
“I find ye much different than yer sister.” Amelia turned to see the most beautiful woman she had ever laid eyes on, who happened to share the same green eyes she found so intoxicating in Gavin and long red hair, also much like his.
“You must be Milly,” she replied. “I’ve heard many good things about you.” She gave the woman a slight curtsy. She wasn’t sure of the proper greeting for a lady married to a laird, but a curtsy should suffice. She was shocked when the woman laughed and drew her into a tight embrace.
“Nay, dinnae bow tae th’ likes of me. We’re family. Yer quite bonny, Ella dinnae say her sister was as beautiful as she.”
Amelia blushed again. “Ella said I would like you, and she was right.” The women laughed.
“Dinnae mind my wife, she is overly friendly,” the woman’s tall, dark husband came over, wrapping his arms around Milly’s waist.
“I don’t mind in the least, my laird,” she replied, and it was true. She loved the exuberance of Ella’s new family. It warmed her heart. If only Amelia had brought with her good news for the completion of their own little family, imagine how much more joy the room would handle. Weariness came over her, and she felt a sudden need to leave the loud festivities.
“Please, pray excuse me. I seem to need a touch of fresh air.”
* * *
Gavin watched as Amelia made her excuses with Nathan and Milly and left the main hall, headed for outside. His eyes were drawn to Amelia the whole evening, unable to focus on anything else. What twisted fate would bring her here? Why did Ella think she had been in England and France when Gavin knew for certain she had been in Scotland? Why could he not keep his body from responding to the lass even from across the room?
“Brother, what has ye so distracted?” Lucas was always watching, much like Gavin.
“Nay, Lucas. ’Tis nothing.”
“Does this nothing, as ye say, happen have golden hair and call my wife sister?” he nodded in the direction where Amelia had just been standing. Most of the time, Gavin appreciated his older brother’s keen eye, but in this instance, he wished the laird could keep his thoughts to himself.
Gavin moved to follow her out of the keep, barely hearing Lucas’ warning behind him. “She’s not a lass tae be trifled with, brother.”
He kept his distance. Lucas had no idea what the mere presence of the lass was doing to him. He wanted to trust her, she had been the anchor of his tortured mind for so long, but his years in battle and prison taught him to trust no one at first glance. His instincts are what kept him alive, and right now, his instincts were telling him to find out more.
He watched her walk along the edge of the keep walls, her hand ungloved and running along the wall as if to keep her way in the darkness. His memory of her from four years past did no real justice to her true beauty. It wasn’t simply that she was bonny to set eyes on, though she was lovely enough. It was more of a way of movement, a grace that pulled at the very core of him. She looked up just as the green and red flashes of light of the northern sky skated across their view. Gavin heard her sharp intake of breath.
“We call ‘em Na Fir Chlis,” he said, coming forward from the shadows. “Or in English, th’ Nimble Men.” She turned and offered him a weak smile.
“Tell me about them.”
“When we were lads, my Da told Lucas an’ me when the green lights appeared in the sky, a clan of nimble warrior men were fighting a great battle against evil.” He reached down and picked up a small, smooth stone from a small pile stacked against the wall. It was dark and flecked with spots of red, barely visible in the moonlight. He handed the stone to Amelia. “As the blood of their enemies spilled and fell upon the earth, our soft, highland rock would absorb their blood, and whatever lad found the bloodstone would have luck all the year-long. When the battle above was over, and the nimble men had won, the red lights would begin to dance across the night sky. These were the ladies who loved the warriors, welcoming them home from a good and fair fight. We call them the merry dancers.”
“I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.”
“Nor have I,” he replied, but he wasn’t looking at the sky, and in the soft, pale moonlight, he could see her cheeks warm with a blush that only served to make her more beautiful. He reached out and ran his fingers down her cheek, lured by an unseen force to touch her. She sighed and leaned into his palm. “What are ye doin’ here, lass, and why did ye lie tae Ella about how long ye’ve been in Scotland?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Can ye not try tae explain it?” Amelia let out a deep sigh. He couldn’t explain to himself why, but her trust was important. More than her trust in him, he also wanted to know if he could trust her. That is was more than a physical reaction that bound him to her.
“I’m looking for a baby. Well, not a baby any longer, most likely a young man now. I know he is somewhere in the Highlands, but I’m not sure where. I’ve been searching for over four years.”
Gavin didn’t know what he was expecting her to say, but it certainly wasn’t what escaped her lips. A young man? Surely, she was too young to have borne a child that would be older than a lad now?
“I doona mean tae question ye, lass. But whose bairn would it be?” She looked up at him, and in the moonlight, he saw the depth of emotion in her eyes.
“My mother’s.” Gavin held back his surprise. He didn’t know much about Ella, Amelia, and their family, but he knew their mother had died in childbirth many years earlier. The babe was also said to have died. A son.
“I thought the bairn didnae make it through th’ birth?”
“That’s what we were always told. When Ella left, Father had already been ill, we didn’t know. On his deathbed, he confessed that the baby survived and wasn’t his. It was guilt he carried with him that forced the confession. He was so angry at mother for straying from their marriage that he couldn’t stand the thought of raising a son that wasn’t his. He would rather have people think the baby died as well.” She wiped a tear from her cheek. Gavin understood she wasn’t sparing the emotion for her dead father, but rather her mother and the poor babe.
“What made ye think the babe lived in Scotland?”
“Father didn’t reveal much, but he said the baby’s true father was a bastard, a stable master he’d hired to work the horses. In his words, he sent the baby back to Scotland to be raised by his heathen sire. Our maid, Gwen, she remembered the man saying he was from the Highlands; he wore a plaid of blue and yellow. I didn’t know where to start, but eventually, as you know, I made it to Perth.” The mention of Perth made Gavin tense. His heart began to race, any mention of his time in the gaol caused an involuntary response in him. He hoped Amelia didn’t notice the change. As he struggled to control himself, he focused on the gold of her hair as it glinted in the moonlight.
That’s right, Gav, just keep breathin’. In an’ out, He paused to gather himself before speaking again.
“And what happened in Perth?”
“In Perth, before we met, I found out about a baby who was given to a highland laird named Cabduh, who took the child in. But the trail went cold. It seems no one much likes to discuss the Cabduh clan, which is curious.” She looked perplexed and then waved her hand as if banishing an errant thought away. Gavin found everything about her movements fascinating but hearing the name Cabduh gave him pause.
“What then, lass?”
“Then everything happened with the prisoners and the horses.” She took a deep breath, before continuing and Gavin followed suit. That day burned into his memory, and it seemed hers, as well. “That’s when I stopped looking for the child while I tried to find you, with no luck. I needed to leave Perth and resume my search. I thought the best way for me to learn more was to come deeper into the Highlands. I worked as a maid in several inns, learning everything I could. I tried to find out more, but I’m an English woman, alone in a place that doesn’t care much for the English. Not surprisingly, the trail went cold. Eventually, I ended up close to Cadney.”
“Why would ye not tell Ella all of this? Surely she would understand and help?”
“I didn’t want to worry or plague her. She is so happy. It’s best she doesn’t learn any of this until I find the boy. Until I have proof that this all wasn’t just another manipulation by our father.” Amelia stepped away from him then, and Gavin found he missed the warmth of her body near his.
There was only hurt and disappointment in her future on this path, and he wanted to protect her from it. Even if the child survived, which he doubted. If she continued to search, and that search led her to Cabduh, there would be nothing but danger for her there. No one hated the English more than Laird Cabduh, and he wasn’t in his right mind. Gavin needed to discourage her.
“’Tis a fool’s errand, lass. Even if the lad lives, he was raised a Scot, he’ll nay want anythin’ tae do with ye.”
“Don’t you see, I have to try. Not for me, but for Ella. Our mother and brother’s deaths hit her harder than she would ever let on. I’m her sister, I know. If somehow I could find him, bring him into our family, she would be happy.” Gavin grabbed Amelia’s arm, noting how delicate her bare skin was against the roughness of his hands as he pulled her into his arms.
“Ahhh, lass, but don’t ye see. Ella’s already happy. She doesnae need anythin’ more. She has Lucas, the bairns, and now ye.”
“You’re wrong. She needs this!”
“Is it possible, lass, that ye need this?”
Amelia shook her head in defiance of what Gavin knew was the truth. Amelia needed to find her lost brother. She needed to complete her family to be complete herself. Something in that vulnerability struck Gavin to his core. He looked into her eyes, not surprised to find them shimmering with unshed tears. He brought his hands up to place gently behind her head. Threading her soft hair into his hand, he drew her close and gently brought her mouth to his.
He wanted to reassure her. She was not alone. She could find happiness.
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