In Bed with her Highland Enemy (Preview)
Nairn Castle, Scotland, 1637
Skye took a moment to check her reflection in the glass one last time before going downstairs to meet her father. She smiled at what she saw, satisfied that her appearance would be acceptable to him. Her long black hair, so often unruly, was pulled tidily away from her face in braids, arranged around the crown of her head, with some curls still allowed to cascade down her back. Her turquoise dress fitted her slender form perfectly, and the color beautifully complemented her green eyes. At her throat, she wore the delicate jeweled necklace that her father had generously given her for her birthday gift a month ago.
Twenty-two! How could she be twenty-two already? Her happy childhood in the castle had flown by since her father, the Nairn Laird, had adopted her. He had found her lying unconscious by the burning ruins of the croft house after her mother had been so cruelly murdered by that terrible man. Astonished at the cruelty of the attack and distressed by her hopeless predicament, he had carried her back to his home and brought her up as his own child, with love and affection shown to her every day of her life, from that day on.
She pushed the awful memories of her mother’s murder aside, smoothed her hair a final time, then made her way along the long, dark corridor of the castle towards the stairs and down the stone steps. The candles that hung on chandeliers from the ceiling cast long shadows on the walls. If it wasn’t her home and as familiar to her as her own hand, it might have been a little spooky.
As she approached the great hall, where she knew her father would be waiting, she mused as to what he wished to discuss with her. Of course, it was normal for her to join him for dinner, and she did so every day unless he was away hunting or attending to business. But this morning, he had told her that he had something very specific he wanted to talk with her about, and he had urged her to be prompt. It was an affectionate jibe – often, she got distracted by whatever she was doing and ended up hurrying into the hall shamefully late, much to the amusement of the servants.
She had her suspicions; she was twenty-two, after all, and it was high time she was wed. She felt no great enthusiasm towards marriage for herself; she wasn’t sure she liked the idea of being told what to do by her husband. But she knew that it was her duty as the daughter of a laird to make a good match, be a faithful wife, and produce heirs. Although she dreaded leaving all those she loved behind, she would always do whatever she could to please her father. She just hoped that he had chosen an honorable, decent man for her.
When she entered the hall, her father was already sitting at the long table. He stood up and beckoned her to him.
“Ah, there ye are, lass. On time fer once!” He smiled and pulled her into an embrace, dropping a soft kiss on the top of her head.
Skye breathed in his familiar smell, a comforting mix of pine trees and fresh air, and thanked her lucky stars for the thousandth time that he had found her when he did. Otherwise, what would have become of her? She shuddered at the thought. She promised herself at that very moment that whatever his proposal, she would try her best to accept it with grace.
“Father,” she said softly once they were seated at the table. “What was it ye wanted tae tell me?”
“Well, lass, I think ye ken, in yer heart, what it’s tae be,” he chuckled, pouring her a small goblet of wine. “Yer tae be wed, at last!”
“I’ll do yer bidding, father; surely I will, but who’s th’ man tae be?”
She was curious, and nervous too. If she were to be married, she would have to leave her home here with her father, where she’d been so happy for many years, and move far away to a place where she would live among strangers. But there were other reasons to be anxious too. She knew that some of the duties of a wife were not pleasant – she’d had hushed conversations with her ladies about it whenever anyone was about to be married. It was something women just had to endure, she knew, and it could lead to the blessing of a baby, but it wasn’t a prospect she relished, not one bit.
Her father leaned back in his chair. “It’s tae be Balgair, o’ the MacMortan clan. Yer marriage tae him will seal the peace between our clans. ‘Tis an honorable thing fer ye, lass.”
Skye took in a sharp breath. “The MacMortan clan?”
“Aye, Balgair is tae be th’ laird when his father’s dead and gone. So you’ll be the wife of a great man, me lass, and never was there a finer lady tae be it!” He raised his goblet. “Drink wi’ me, to clinch it! Ye’ll do as I command?” He looked her in the eye. He would be gentle, she knew, but he would also be disappointed if she made a fuss.
“I will,” she said quietly, raising her goblet and taking a sip.
The MacMortans! It couldn’t be! She could hardly believe what she was hearing. She clenched her fists under the table and tried to listen as her father told her all about the pact between the two clans and how her marriage to Balgair was to signify the end of their long-running disputes. It was to mark a new beginning of peace and prosperity.
She tried to focus on his words, but her mind wandered. A sneaking feeling of terror crept over her, and her heart pounded as the reality of the situation dawned on her. The MacMortans were her most bitter enemies, and she hated them with every fiber of her being. They were responsible for the deepest grief of her life. And now, her father was commanding her to marry one of them!
Ever since her mother’s death, all those years ago, she’d racked her brain to remember more details of what had happened. She desperately wanted to know who was responsible for the killing, so she could plan some way to avenge her mother’s brutal and senseless murder. A few years previously, at a wedding party of one of her father’s distant relations, she’d seen that same plaid that her mother’s murderer had been wearing on the fateful day of her death. It was the MacMortan plaid. Her father was marrying her into the clan of the man who had murdered her mother.
“Laird Lucas, he’s a good man,” her father was saying, and although she had been barely listening to him, she suddenly began to take notice. Balgair’s father was Laird Lucas! She remembered that moment before she’d passed out into unconsciousness when she’d heard the gruff voice saying, “my Laird!” So, the man who murdered her mother must be Balgair’s father?
“And his brother, Malcolm. I met him when we went a’ huntin’. He’s also a good man. They’ll look after ye, lass,” he went on, taking another mouthful of his meat as if nothing significant had just crossed his lips.
There was a brother too, of course! Skye inwardly cursed herself that she’d never paid much attention to what her father told her about other clans and the disputes he had to deal with. A sick feeling entered her stomach. It dawned on her slowly that the man who killed her mother could either be Laird Lucas or his brother Malcolm. The realization left her breathless. She shuddered at the thought of having to go and live amongst these people. She would spend her days with the monsters who had taken her mother from her when she was so young and vulnerable.
Then suddenly, she remembered the flower mark she’d seen on the man’s arm before he’d hit her and sent her crashing to the ground. A plan began to fall into place in her mind. She could discover who it was! She just had to find a way of seeing which man had the mark on his arm, then she would know at long last who killed her mother! The thought both thrilled and terrified her. She would be within the deepest heart of her enemies’ clan, and that gave her a sense of power.
As she pieced these things together in her mind, her mood grew darker, and her father took notice at last and ended his monologue.
“Lass, I ken ye’ll be nervous, ‘tis natural,” he said kindly. “But just be a good wife and do what he tells ye, and try tae please him, and all will be well. Then soon ye’ll have a bairn or two tae love and keep ye busy!”
She shuddered again but then remembered her duty. “Aye, I’m just a wee bit nervous; that’s all, father,” she smiled modestly. It wouldn’t do to allow her father to know what she was planning.
“There’s one more thing, lass,” her father said, serious again. “Ye must nae tell ‘em yer adopted. It must be a secret. Fer the alliance tae work, they must believe yer a noble lady, born ‘n’ bred. De ye ken why that’s so important?”
“Aye,” she nodded seriously. Her heritage had always been a closely guarded secret. The fact that her mother had been a peasant woman, and her father had been goodness-only-knows-who, was not something that could ever be shared with the MacMortans. They must continue to believe that she was of noble birth and that her hand in marriage was a great prize to be had and of great political importance.
No one would ever guess from watching Skye and her father together that she wasn’t his natural child, as he was so affectionate and tender towards her. As she looked across the table at his kind face, weathered now and wrinkled from long days out in the open hunting and visiting his tenants and his hair turning white at the temples, she felt a strong jolt of love for him.
“I understand, Father,” she repeated, keen to reassure him. She would make this marriage work so that she could finally find out the truth.
After their meal was finished, she pleaded fatigue and a headache and returned to her room. She sent her maid away, wanting to be alone. She paced the floor. Her mind was buzzing with this new development and the momentous impact it was to have on her life.
She’d known for a long time that one of the MacMortans had killed her mother. But it had always seemed like a distant thought. Any chance of revenge was always far out of reach while she lived with her father and led such a sheltered existence.
But now, these people would be within her reach! That beast of a man who had murdered her mother so cruelly – soon, she would share a dinner table with him, whoever he was. What would my mother say, she wondered? Of course, her mother would want to be avenged! Her life had been stolen away, and now Skye had a chance for justice.
And what of Balgair? What would he be like? She could barely imagine spending her life with any man, being with him every day and sharing his life and his bed, sitting down with him for every meal. Would he be funny and interesting? Or dull and boring? Would he be rough or gentle on their wedding night?
It didn’t matter, really, she thought to herself, approaching the window and gazing out into the black night. The moon shone brightly in the sky, illuminating the forest that surrounded her father’s castle. It was another clear night and cold.
She sighed. Balgair could be the most handsome, charming man ever to walk the earth, and she knew she could never love him. For how could she love a man whose kin had murdered her mother?
She shivered and pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders. A love match wasn’t her destiny. She would obey her father, and maybe their marriage would bring peace between the clans. But she knew that she could never be at peace herself until her mother was avenged.
She walked over to the mirror and began to unbraid her hair, letting it fall around her shoulders again, the candlelight catching her curls and making them shine. She looked at herself square in the glass. She made a solemn vow to herself, there and then. She would find a way, once she was living in the heart of the clan, to identify her mother’s killer. She would seek her revenge for the pain that she had lived with all these years.
I will be sweet and charming, she thought to herself, smiling at her reflection in the mirror. I will fool them all, and then I will find out the truth.
Balgair squeezed his muscular thighs around his horse, gave her a softly encouraging kick with one booted heel, and felt her respond quickly, increasing her pace to a gallop. They flew across the meadow together, the wind whipping his long red hair about his face and the rain pelting in his eyes.
It might have seemed bleak to any onlooker in that remote landscape, but Balgair was euphoric as he raced across the plains towards home. He wasn’t racing in order to be on time for his father’s summons, far from it. He was racing for the pure joy of it, his body at one with his horse, the rhythmic pounding of her hooves on the wet ground matching the furious beating of his heart. He whooped with glee as they charged across the hillside. He knew he would never tire of this thrill, even when he was an old man.
And he would never tire of that other kind of thrill either, he thought to himself with a wry smile, slowing the horse to a trot as they dropped down onto the gravel path that led towards the castle gates. He thought back to his tryst with Flora that afternoon, in the quiet, delicious darkness of the hayloft at her father’s farm, with the rain pounding on the roof. Her soft body yielding to his as she lay underneath him while he took his pleasure. She had moaned at all the right times and had done just as he’d told her. She was a good lass, Flora was, and he trusted her to be discreet. There were always women around ready to surrender their virtue to the man who was to be the laird. And who was he to deny them the opportunity?
The pleasant thoughts began to fade as he jumped off his horse, his boots splashing onto the wet ground. He led her into the stable and handed the reins over to the stable boy, who was ready and waiting to rub her down and give her some food.
“Ye have the bran mash ready, lad?” he asked the boy brusquely, who nodded and scurried away to prepare it.
“Good lass, that ye are,” he said, rubbing her soft nose fondly. She gave a gentle whinny in return. Her name was Adaira, a beautiful chestnut mare, feisty and temperamental for any other rider but good as gold for him. His brother Ruadh had always said he was too soft with animals. He sighed. He still missed his brother every day. The moment when Ruadh had been killed at his side on that fateful day was the worst moment of Balgair’s life.
He crossed the courtyard, a sense of dread mixed with irritation beginning to fill him as he entered the castle and took the stairs two at a time to reach his chamber, where he hoped there would be hot water waiting for him. He knew he was in desperate need of a wash. This summons from his father – it would be yet another match, yet another bride to be pushed upon him, that much he knew. He was to be the laird; there was no escaping that reality. But for as long as he possibly could, he would resist his father’s attempts to tie him down to a wife. Why settle down when there were pleasures to be had, such as those he’d partaken of this afternoon, with the pliant and willing Flora, her flaxen hair spread out across the hay as she looked up at him adoringly, her soft flesh melting under his touch.
He shook his head briefly, trying to shake away the thought of her. It was no good. Eventually, he would have to go along with it, he knew, but until then, he wanted to have as much fun as possible. There was a world of pleasure out there, and he intended to taste every last drop of it.
“And what time dae ye call this, lad?” roared his uncle Malcolm as he strode into the hall a while later, dressed in his plaid, as was more appropriate to appear in his father’s presence.
Laird Lucas, his father, stood by the fire, tankard of ale in hand, and looked up as he entered, a frown upon his normally benign face. “Balgair, lad, it willnae do, this! I must talk wi’ ye. Take a cup of ale wi’ me.”
He handed him a cup, and Balgair took it gratefully and drank deeply.
“Easy now, boy,” Malcolm said from across the fireside, its flames casting their light on his shock of cropped red hair, making it almost glow in the otherwise gloomy hall.
Balgair scowled back at his uncle; Malcolm was just trying to spoil his fun, as usual. He would drink as much as he pleased, regardless of his tutting. Life was for living, after all.
He turned to his father. “I dinnae mean to be out fer so long, father,” he said, trying to be conciliatory. Frustrated as he often was with his father’s plans for his future, he didn’t want to upset him needlessly.
Lucas paused, then smiled at his son. “Lad, I have found ye a wife,” Lucas announced. Balgair could see the trepidation in his eyes as he waited for his son’s reaction.
“Aye, another one!” Malcolm muttered, taking another swig of ale and glaring into the fire. “Brother, I keep telling ye, he’s no’ ready. Still a feckless wee brat, he is!”
Balgair rolled his eyes. He was used to Malcolm’s jibes and insults. Another bride, indeed! He’d managed to get out of the last few entanglements by behaving in a sufficiently boorish way to send the ladies and their fathers running for the hills. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep it up, though. He knew his parents’ marriage had been a happy one, up until his mother’s death. Maybe he could be happy too? He just couldn’t imagine it for himself.
“Ye’ll be the laird when I’m gone, ‘tis true, lad! I ken ye dinnae want it, and ye wish Ruadh were still wi’ us tae take it from ye, but I cannae help that, so ye must be wed. And I’ve found ye a bonny lass,” Lucas went on. “And I willnae have any arguin’, this time! Yer weddin’ will seal a pact between our two clans and bring peace, and an end tae all this bloodshed!”
Balgair looked up suddenly, his heart skipping a beat. “A Nairn? Ye want me tae wed a Nairn?”
“Aye, lad, Skye Nairn. She’s a beauty and ripe fer marriage. She could make ye happy, lad,” Lucas said firmly.
Malcolm, glowering at the fire, grunted. “He doesnae deserve a beauty!”
“Father, I willnae marry a lass from the clan as killed me brother!” Balgair burst out, unable to hold back his feelings. He paced angrily up and down the room, his mind racing and the blood coursing through his veins. How could he marry a woman from the family who had taken Ruadh from them?
He remembered it like it was yesterday, every single detail. They’d been out hunting together one day when a group of masked men bearing the Nairn standard had ambushed them from behind a clump of trees in the forest, rushing out with spears. Balgair had tried to save his brother, but they’d been too quick for him, attacking his brother with terrifying speed and leaving him for dead on the ground. Then they’d retreated in cowardly haste once the wicked deed was done. He would never forgive them, never, he swore to himself.
Balgair stopped pacing and stood in front of his father, looking at him square on, defiance all over his face. “Why a Nairn, father, when they are our most mortal enemies?” he demanded.
“Balgair, ye willnae beat me on this one,” Lucas said gently. “Sit yerself down; let me explain it tae ye.”
Balgair collapsed into a chair by the fire, the warmth of the flames adding to the flush of his face, his color already raised with the fury burning through him.
“Lad, let me tell ye how it is,” Lucas began. “We’ve been at war now with the Nairns for too many years. All those battles and skirmishes, too many of our lads have been lost, including yer brother, ‘tis true. And now we must try for peace. We need tae get back tae the land, get back tae our women. If there’s no food to eat from the land, then what’s the point of fightin’ on? I ken that ye cannae forget what happened to yer brother, and it pricks my heart wi’ pain every day too, but we must move on, look to the future o’ the clans. The fighting must end, and a marriage is a sure way to make that come tae pass.”
Balgair sat and listened, preparing himself for yet another of his father’s lectures, with Malcolm standing over him too. This yearning for peace with the Nairns was a new development, but the demand for him to wed was not.
“We need some bairns, ye ken?” Lucas went on. “The next lairds after ye and I are long gone! ‘Tis clear to me that ye don’t want tae be the laird. I see it every day in yer face. But ‘tis nothing to be done about it, lad. You’re my son and ‘tis your duty. Aye, we all miss Ruadh, but we need tae look tae th’ future, not what’s gone before. And Skye, she’s a fine lass and strong. She’ll make ye happy. I’m sure o’ it. Come now, lad, ye must dae this. ‘Tis yer duty, as the heir to the lairdship, to set an example and to be wed. No more o’ this gallivanting about. I willnae stand for any more arguin’,” he repeated firmly. “Yer to be wed, and that’s that.” He had barely raised his voice, but Balgair knew he was defeated, at least for now.
Balgair drained his tankard and reached across to the jug to fill it again. “I’ll dae it, father,” he grunted, then stalked out of the room, heading for the safety of his own chambers. Pausing for a moment, he turned back, grabbed the jug from the small table by the fire, then turned on his heel and left the hall, cursing under his breath as he went. The jug was still half full of the strong, dark ale, and he craved the oblivion it could bring.
He stormed down the corridor and took a sharp turn, then up a narrow staircase to the roof of the castle. The night was freezing, and he pulled his plaid around him, shivering. He needed air, though, to clear his head. He needed to feel the night breeze on his face and smell the scent of the pine trees in the air. He slumped down on the ground, leaning against a stone wall, and took another deep drink.
He sighed. It was hopeless, he knew. His father would keep lecturing him about how he must take responsibility for his future and keep on pushing him to take a wife. It was inevitable that he would have to marry. His father had been happy as a devoted husband, according to all his sentimental stories, but Balgair couldn’t imagine himself in that role, with all his freedom gone forever.
And a Nairn? It added insult to the injury. How could he love her, beautiful though she may be? Her kin had killed his brother, and he could never forget that. No, no matter what his father said about peace between the clans, he would do everything he could to delay this marriage, or better still, prevent it from happening at all. He would try to put the girl off, try to convince her that he could not in good conscience marry her. There was no other option. It was going to be enough of a sacrifice when the time came, giving up all his pleasures to settle down with a wife and taking on all the onerous responsibilities of being the laird-in-waiting. But for his sworn enemy? He’d fight it with everything he had left.
He slumped back and took another drink, gazing at the moon above him. If only his brother were here, he thought, despair filling his heart.
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