The Highland Bride’s Tale (Preview)
“Bend over and take it, lass!” a deep voice ordered someone, tearing into the stillness of the castle. Eilidh Barclay shrunk against the cold stone wall and hissed for how thinly cad she was. Tracing her fingers along the wall, she backed away from the door from where the command had come.
A familiar female voice gave a tinkling giggle followed by a string of intense moaning. The sounds churned disgust from deep inside Eilidh. Clamping her hands over her mouth, she hurried her steps toward the flickering light at the end of the castle’s hallway. She had only meant to reach the kitchens, urged forward by her grumbling belly.
Resuming her hunt, she stayed close to the shadows, trusting her nose. Surely, that was bannock she smelled on the air. If she were lucky, there would be some lying leftover on the kitchen tables.
She remembered just recently serving her baby brother bannock and soup, and her heart squeezed in her chest. He had crossed his little arms and pursed his lips with determined stubbornness. No matter how much Eilidh had prodded, begged, and cajoled, he had refused to touch the food. But Eilidh had known a trick that had always made him eat a bite or two—she would break the bread in half and take a gulp of the soup. Nathair would flash his toothless smile and clap his little hands. Then, he would take a bite too.
Eilidh relished reliving memories and tales in her head. Her imagination was boundless. While trying to put Nathair to sleep, she would often tell wild stories about powerful Lairds and their adventures. Her brother had listened intently, barely batting his dark lashes as she spun her yarns, frequently clapping in delight as another evil brigand was brought to his knees. Many nights, they had slept entwined in each other’s arms, Eilidh exhausted from her story, her brother long worn out.
As she rounded the last corner before the kitchens, closest to the door from which the delicious aromas were spilling, a soft but keening cry echoed in her mind.
Her entire body froze at the memory, and she felt colder than the hurling winter winds rattling the castle’s windows. A pounding began behind her eyes, growing hotter until tears burned there. The cry came again in her head, a baby’s voice, followed by the frantic hushing sounds of a guardian.
Eilidh had awoken two nights ago with her body hotter than fire. It had been one of those storytelling nights. Her brother was curled up against her, teeth clattering and skin paler than death.
Alarmed, she had sprung up and run to the locked room in the house. Her mother’s moans could be heard through the door. That night, she disregarded her mother’s strict instruction not to interrupt her when she was with a guest.
“Maither!” Eilidh pounded on the door. “Maither please, it’s Nathair! I dinnae ken what’s wrong! He’s burnin’ up!”
She hit harder against the door, bruising her knuckles. It was her mother, Isla, who kept their money safe. Without payment, the healer wouldn’t even look at Eilidh. She didn’t care if it was as dark as a blackened pot outside; she’d rush to the healer’s house in an instant.
The door had remained shut, and after a minute, the passionate groans resumed.
She had dashed back to Nathair, whose eyes had begun to roll back in his head. She had ripped off a piece of her gown, drenched it in water, squeezed it out and covered his burning forehead, wrapping him tightly in the covers of his cot. His shivering had worsened, and he was now thrashing his head from side to side, babbling.
Eilidh yanked him off the bed and headed for her mother’s chambers again. She pounded on the door, yelling until her voice grew hoarse.
An eternity later, the door creaked open. Eilidh was met by her mother’s disheveled strawberry blonde hair and infuriated dark eyes. It was as though Eilidh was looking into a mirror, casting herself twenty years into the future.
Before she could open her mouth, she knew Nathair had passed. His thrashing had ceased, his body stiff as a rock. Her mother’s cries stung her ears like poison. She walked away, leaving Nathair by her feet. They were both aware that her mother had never truly cared for her son. She saw him as a blunder, made with a man whose purse held nothing but air.
Her mother had learned to tolerate Eilidh’s presence, but Nathair was only an obstacle in her grand scheme of ensnaring a rich Laird. With it, she thought to live in all the luxurious comfort she craved. Her children had been an inconvenience.
That was how, after her brother’s death, Eilidh had found herself in the Graham clan’s castle… where mother was pleasuring yet another man.
Eilidh glanced down at her shaking hands. Two chilly nights ago, she had lost the most precious person in her life. He had died, cradled in her arms. And now here she was, hunting for food in the dead of the night like a rat.
Her knees trembled, and she made no effort to hold herself up as she slid down the wall, wracked by silent sobs.
She drew her legs up and wrapped her arms around them tightly. She lowered her head to her knees and shuddered in her gown, wishing her mother’s black hatred and crushing guilt away. Nothing could change the fact that she had failed her brother.
A hand tugged on the back of Eilidh’s hair, yanking her head up. She gave a shocked gasp at the mountain of a man grinning down at her.
The flickering firelight cast shadows on the right side of his face, and it made him appear more sinister. She recognized Laird MacAdam, swaying on his heels and stinking of the strong ale he had shared with Laird Graham and his men earlier.
She yanked herself away. “Laird MacAdam,” she greeted with a small bow, through gritted teeth.
“Ye’re the lass that spilled ale over me earlier,” he answered and belched, rubbing his potbelly.
Eilidh turned a dark shade of red, “I apologize, milaird. ‘Twas mighty clumsy of me.” She remembered him positioning his foot right in her path, making her trip.
“Aye,” he agreed and drew closer to her, pushing her back to the wall. “Ye should apologize properly, lass.” He pressed his lips to her left cheek.
Eilidh forced back a dry retch. She reminded herself that the Laird was a guest of clan Graham, and that at MacAdam’s behest, they could have her head—her mother’s, too.
She thought for the right words. “Milaird,” she started, stepping out of his hold, “I can bring yer food in the mornin’. ‘Tis late now, so the kitchens might be locked.” She cringed at her frail voice and stupid idea.
His large paws grappled her left upper arm and yanked her to his broad chest. Eilidh bit back a scream. Certain of the Laird’s intent, her heart hammered.
His fingers dug into the sleeves of her dress. She squirmed and made to leap away, but he grabbed a fistful of her hair and held her in place.
Desperation clawed at her. She knew no one in the castle but her mother, and Isla was otherwise occupied. Eilidh had helped in the kitchens earlier with the hope of being offered a few morsels of food. But after the incident of the spilled ale, she had been sent away with nothing—no food, and less friends.
There was no one to save her from the brute.
“Ye dinnae enjoy me touch?” he growled into her ear, causing goosebumps to appear on her skin. He forced her to look at him. “Because ye’re a bonnie lass, ye think ye’re a lady. Is that right?”
He laughed, a deep mocking sound that embarrassed her until her toes curled in her boots.
“Come with me,” he wheezed, pain ricocheting through her as he tugged her forward by her hair. “Ye’re goin’ to apologize properly in me chambers.”
“Milaird, p-please! I ken ye deserve better. I cannae please ye, in… in that manner.” Her voice rose with desperation as they neared his rooms.
“Ye just need to lie there, wee lass…”
He yanked harder, but the pain of having her hair pulled was the least of her concerns. It hadn’t been that long ago that she had turned five-and-ten. How could she lay with a man old enough to be her grandfather? How could she lay with any man at all at her age?
She couldn’t do it. She wouldn’t let a man turn her into a replica of her mother. It was bad enough that they shared the same cursed features. She angled her elbow and pounced on the Laird’s ribs. He let go of her with a pained yelp. Eilidh swayed on her feet, dizzy from the sudden release. The Laird then struck her across the face.
Eilidh saw stars. She stumbled and collided into the wall, but forced herself to remain standing.
“How dare a filthy thing like ye lay ye hands on me!” he roared, storming over to her.
She was paralyzed by cold fear. She trembled as she realized she was truly doomed. He raised his fist to strike her again, but she blocked him with her arm. It angered him even more. He slapped her arm away so hard that she barked in pain.
She bit her lower lip, refusing to give him the pleasure of seeing her cry. He lunged for her gown’s sleeves, but Eilidh deflected, deciding to make a run for it.
Before she took a step, he drew her back with a fistful of her gown. Eilidh heard the rip in the thin material, leaving one of her breasts exposed to the night’s air.
When he saw her, the Laird grunted like a bull. With one hand, he grasped her wrists and reached for a cold, hardened nipple. Eilidh curled her back, tucking her trembling flesh away from his grasp. He tightened his grip on her arms, closing in on the spot where he had struck her first.
“Dinnae touch me!” she cried. She kneed at his groin and missed. He struggled with the other part of her dress, growing more excited, more agitated. Eilidh worked to release her hands, but her efforts were futile.
She jerked her legs in wild kicks, fighting for release. He brought his mouth close to kiss her, but she bit down hard on his lip and he yowled. Blood trickled down his jaw, disappearing into his bushy beard. She saw in his eyes that he was tired of her struggling.
Suddenly, he hoisted her over his shoulder. Terrified, she opened her mouth and let out a blood-curdling scream, viciously scratching at his back, at anywhere her fingers could reach.
The Graham men took their rest in the other wing of the keep, and the guards who were supposed to be patrolling the halls had been all wearied from the earlier feast. Her voice bounced around the empty halls. Frustrated tears streamed down her cheeks.
“Who goes there?”
The Laird continued barreling down the hall, not caring about the voice. Eilidh screamed, “Help! Help me please! He’s goin’ to kill me!”
There was no sound for a moment, at which point her hope died in her chest. Then, heavy footsteps stomped toward them. They drew closer, and Laird MacAdam took up a run.
“Laird MacAdam?!” she heard from the end of the hallway.
It was the youngest Graham son. The one who had offered her a shy smile at the feast. He was taller than the other two sons, with long blond hair and fierce green eyes.
“Drop the lass this instant!” he commanded.
The Laird turned around. “Lad, who do ye think ye’re talkin’ to?”
Eilidh stopped thrashing as he reared up to them. “The lass doesnae want to be with ye. Let her down.”
MacAdam grinned. “Have ye gone ravin’ mad, Caelan?”
Eilidh felt him tugging on her waist, refusing to let her go.
“I dinnae ken how ye act in yer clan… but here, we dinnae force lasses to do our biddin’. Put her down!”
Suddenly, the laird flung her away, and Eilidh landed hard on the ground. She struggled to gather the shards of her clothes around her exposed body. She heard swords being drawn from their scabbards. Caelan had wrested MacAdam’s sword from him in two swift movements, and his weapon was now pressed against the man’s neck.
“Ye have nae shame,” Caelan spat. He shoved the Laird back and MacAdam staggered into the wall still shouting threats. Caelan dropped to Eilidh and asked, “Can ye walk?”
She nodded feebly. Her hip ached where the Laird had thrown her. Caelan extended his hand. “Let me take ye to the healer.” Eilidh wanted to object. Her mother had warned her not to do anything that would draw attention to them. They were less than guests in the keep.
“Ye dinnae have to worry about payment. The clan healer will treat ye,” he added softly. Eilidh took his hand, and he helped her up. She swayed on her feet, but he caught her before she could fall. His eyes creased with concern.
“I… Can I carry ye?” he stammered.
Eilidh, confused by his kindness, took the first step. An involuntary whimper escaped her. Caelan muttered a curse and lifted her into his arms.
“Ye will pay for this, lad!” MacAdam yelled before slumping away.
Caelan led her from the guest wing, past the kitchens, and out into the courtyard. Her head had begun to throb, and she could no longer keep her eyes open. She gave into the dark, still mistrustful of the stranger that had saved her.
Caelan stayed by the girl’s side till the day broke. Her face had been marred by large, purple bruises that hadn’t been there when he had seen her the evening of the feast. Once more, he fought the desire to pay a violent visit to Laird MacAdam at his keep. His urge was abated only by the fact that his father and brothers had been swift in their justice.
By daylight, MacAdam had been forced out of his chambers. His protests had driven their clansmen out into the courtyard, and they all watched as Caelan’s brothers resisted MacAdam’s men and banned him from the clan’s lands. His father forbade the Laird from ever returning.
When inquiries had been made about who the girl was, one of the kitchen maids identified another woman as her mother. However, the mother had disappeared before the brothers could get to her, leaving the girl all on her own. The healer had administered a sleeping potion to her and had advised Caelan to let her rest.
He admired the girl—he was intrigued by her. She had held off the Laird, fighting with all her might. He had not failed to notice the blood on MacAdam’s face from where she must have struck him. She was brave, beyond words.
He thanked God for prompting him to patrol the halls of the eastern wing before he had turned in for the night.
By midday, the girl had yet to wake, so Caelan left her side to tend to his duties. His brothers spoke endlessly about the depraved Laird MacAdam—especially Arran, who had argued that MacAdam should have been castrated. The Graham clan had taken it as a personal slight that one of their women had been mistreated so badly under their roof.
It was all the assurance Caelan had needed. With his brothers’ backing, MacAdam wouldn’t dare return. It took a special kind of brute to take advantage of a young girl.
When he had completed the last of his tasks that morning, he returned to his chambers. He had never taken care of the sick, unless horses counted, and he was almost certain they didn’t. He imagined the girl wouldn’t appreciate having an apple dangled in front of her nose.
It didn’t help that she was a pretty girl, either. Girls liked to giggle when he passed, and he always managed to stumble on his own feet when they did. Aside from his mother, he had never been friends with a woman; he was clueless as to what they liked.
Caelan breathed out a curse and briefly considered letting the healer keep her company until she was well enough to leave. After all, he was Laird Graham’s son. It wasn’t his place to worry about such things. He had already saved her, and that should have been enough. But something kept nagging at him.
He could see the dark, lonely sadness in her eyes. The total lack of trust. He couldn’t abandon her. His gaze was drawn to the shelf beside his bed. He had a collection of books, some of which were storybooks. Everyone enjoyed those. Except for Arran, who thought sitting around, being forced to read a book was the most painful punishment of all.
Caelan gathered three tomes and walked out of his room, darting into the courtyard. His cloak billowed behind him as he quickened his steps against the biting air. The healer opened the door to the infirmary with a welcoming smile.
“The lass is awake,” he said
“Thank ye, Oliver. Ye’ve done well.”
“Fed her too, sire. Some stew with the best turnip an’ lamb.”
“Sire… is she… is she your betrothed?”
Caelan raised a brow at him. The healer paused at the threshold to the room and regarded him with his curious eyes.
“Ye see, sire, ye faither made an enemy out of MacAdam by banishing him. I only wondered if the lass is o’ noble blood, or yer betrothed, at the very least. The people are wondering if this will affect the clan in any way. Pardon my asking, sire, but they are fearful that she was nae worth the trouble.”
Caelan’s brows drew together. “Are ye saying she should have been left to Laird MacAdam?”
The healer cleared his throat and stumbled back. “It is nae… that is nae what I meant.”
“Then, pray tell, what dae ye mean?” Caelan advanced on him.
The man gulped. “Naething, sire. Naething at all. Let me take ye to her.”
Caelan wore a cold smile. “Dae so.”
The girl sat on a stool in the room, gazing out into the gardens. Her wheat-colored hair was braided, but tendrils of it framed her bruised face. Caelan noticed how stiffly she held her body and wished more than anything that he had been able to reclaim her honor from MacAdam.
He rapped on the open door, and she jumped up, almost falling off the stool. Caelan forced himself to stay where he was until she stood. What little of her skin had been left unharmed was colored pink as she blushed.
“Thank ye, sire…”
Shuffling on his feet, Caelan waved off her thanks.
He motioned for the books he had brought and grunted, “Do ye like stories?”
Maybe it was because the light was low, but he thought he saw her rich, dark eyes twinkle. They were hemmed by curled lashes that immediately swept down when he looked at her.
“Set yerself down, then,” he said, wondering why his voice was gruff.
That night, and for several others to follow, he read to her as her injuries healed. Selfishly, he had enjoyed every moment of it. So much so that he didn’t want her to leave.
And so, when she was fully recovered, he inquired about her family. It was then that he found out that she had no one. His lips formed the words before he could stop them. “Would ye like to work as a maid in the castle? Ye’ll get your pay—”
But he hadn’t been able to finish his proposal before she laced her arms around him and agreed.
* * *
The whore’s child appeared to be thriving at the Graham keep. He had watched her like a hungry hawk for a month. Every time she laughed, it riled him up further.
The spawn’s resemblance to the mother was uncanny. In a few years, she would be the picture of the woman who had ruined him. He had searched for her and found the daughter instead. If the whore heard of the maid’s horrible death, surely she would come out of hiding and fall into his trap.
After they had ruined his life, she did not deserve any happiness. None of them did. At every turn, the youngest Graham son shadowed her, thwarting his attempts. It was only a matter of time before she ran out of luck.
From his shadowed spot beneath the stairs, he watched her enter the kitchens, smiling like she always was. She had a freckled maid with her, the one who always smelled like spirits. As he watched her, a new excitement ripped through his body. There really was no need to rush. More than the end of her life, he craved to see all of her dreams die—to see the girl’s happiness fade from her eyes.
With careful plotting, he could shatter her dreams until she wanted to die—if he could outlive his fury. Out she came again, this time carrying a tray of food. She was headed to the chambers of Yvaine Graham, the ailing Lady of the keep, unaccompanied. It took all of his willpower to remain hidden in the shadows.
He would savor the delayed gratification when he got to watch the blood gush from her veins. For now, he would bide his time until a plan formed in his mind. He swallowed his revulsion and turned away.
The maid could stay alive.
Six years later…
Caelan refilled his brothers’ glasses. Evan raised his and toasted, “To long life!”
“Aye!” his brothers chorused and clinked glasses. The three men downed their drinks. Evan quickly reached for the bottle and poured himself another, gulping it down while Arran and Caelan nursed their empty glasses. Then, he reached for his fourth, causing Arran to clear his throat and exchange a worried look with Caelan.
“At the rate ye’re goin’, ye’ll not last the night.”
Evan offered them an obstinate look before refilling, but he only took a sip and returned the glass to the table. Arran averted his gaze. Caelan’s sadness was mirrored in both—hanging over their heads like a dead weight.
“What dae ye think he’s doin’ now?” Caelan asked to break the silence.
“Yelling at fools to bring his wine,” Arran replied with a forced laugh.
“Aye, Faither did enjoy his drink,” Evan agreed, but he couldn’t quite manage a smile.
“Ye ken he hated lounging around. He willnae understand why we have to gather every year.”
Caelan would have preferred not to have the memorial at all. Since Evan’s wedding, he had let go of some of the guilt he felt over their father’s death. It was on the memorial’s eve that he relapsed into the sad drunk he had become. The brothers insisted that it preserved their father’s memory.
Arran said, “He died like he would’ve wanted. On the battlefield. I want to go out like that too.”
Evan gave him a sharp look. “By yer son’s hands, like our faither?”
“Better me son—better ye—than some scoundrel,” Arran persisted, holding Evan’s guilt-ridden gaze.
“He wanted ye to do it, Evan. It was his dying wish,” Caelan reminded him. Evan shook his head, then his shoulders sagged in a defeated shrug.
After asking Evan to put a sword through his heart, their father’s next announcement had sent Caelan into spiraling confusion. That day, his world had crashed down around him.
While he had struggled for breath and blood surged through his armor, his father had gasped, “Ye’re not me true bairn, Caelan.”
Caelan couldn’t process what he had heard for a long time. His brothers, who wore the same puzzled expressions, tried to coax more words from the dying man, but he refused to say anything else before taking his last breath.
Evan dropped his sword and left the arena, feeling the weight of what he had been asked to do. Caelan and Arran stayed close to their oldest brother, putting their father’s revelation on hold for the time being. In the months to follow, Caelan had worked up the courage to ask his mother the truth who was bereaved and spent most of her days locked away in her chambers. Evan was even more ill in his mourning, having not a thing to say, but Arran never questioned Caelan nor treated him differently.
Yet, all Caelan felt was different. He’d begun to notice differences between himself and the other two Graham sons. For starters, his green eyes. Nobody in the family had his eyes. Arran and Evan had stockier builds and wide, flat faces. Caelan possessed fuller lips, a narrow, pointed nose, and prominent cheekbones. He was also taller.
Those details, which he had previously overlooked, kept him awake at night. Arran assured him that their father’s memory had been tainted by his death and that he didn’t know what he was saying. Caelan, however, was consumed by a desire for certainty. He couldn’t move forward without it.
One night, after a bountiful harvest and successful trade meeting with English merchants, he had asked to speak with his mother.
She waved him in, but her smile had died when she saw his face. Caelan didn’t have to ask before she confirmed his worst fear. It was true: he was not a Graham. He inquired about his real father and she’d burst into tears.
Years later, while drinking with his brothers, he still worried that he had a lot more to prove—to earn his place in the family. They had given him a worthy noble name, secured his status, and bestowed upon him the best that life had to offer. His father had treated him the same as his trueborn sons. He owed it to the former Laird to be irreproachable. No… to become legendary.
So he agreed to marry. His marriage would create a powerful alliance with another clan, and he would fight to the death to protect them all.
“How is your special lass, Caelan? Still reading sweet stories to her?” Arran’s sarcasm cut into his thoughts, especially when he realized of whom he spoke.
He blinked. When had they gotten to the topic of Eilidh? “Er… I… I dinnae ken. How should I ken? She works in the kitchens. I dinnae see her every day! And I only read her stories all those years ago because she was ailing. Ach! How is it that ye went from talking about Faither to a maid?”
His protests were no contest for the hot blush on his cheeks. Arran guffawed into his glass. Even Evan laughed at his distress.
“Trying to avoid the topic again, are ye? Ye must do something about the lass,” Evan urged. “I caught Brandon staring at her the other day. Willnae be long before some fool marries her.”
Caelan always knew Brandon was failing in his duty to guard the gates. Now he knew why. It was no wonder a spy had almost wormed his way into their castle the week before. He had been staring at lasses.
“I dinnae care if they do. She’s a bonnie lass, I admit. And she is free to be with whomever she wants.”
“Ah,” Arran said, his eyes twinkling.
“I cannae understand why you insist on ignorin’ her. We need a strong lass like her to be part of our family.”
Arran saluted Evan with his glass. “Aye. Wee thing stood her ground against MacAdam all those years ago, lest ye forget. She’s not ordinary, I tell ye. If ye dinnae want her, I might try me luck…”
All on their own, Caelan’s fists clenched so tightly that his nails dug into his palms. He managed to keep his breathing regular.
“Ye can,” he muttered, grabbing his glass and downing its contents. He hated the knowing smirks on his brothers’ faces. “I’ll be retiring now,” he stood.
“What? The bottle has nae dipped halfway—”
“I have much to dae afore sleeping,” he muttered.
Caelan gathered the shreds of his dignity and strode out of Evan’s study. Knowing that behind him, the two men cackled at his expense.
Like bairns, the both of ye, he thought.
Caelan avoided his brothers the next morning, winding his way through the castle to the stables. To clear his mind, he needed to feel the wind on his face. He adored the stables behind the keep, which overlooked the hills whose tops were snow-covered and dotted with green. In those Highlands, the clan would hunt, fight, and trade.
He looked away, taking the stony path up to the stables. His stallion neighed in excitement as Caelan came into view. He reached into his satchel for the apples and carrots he had snuck from the kitchens, and offered him a ruby-red apple.
“Up for a ride?” he asked, stroking his long, black mane. The stallion whinnied, as though he thought his question was pointless.
“Mornin’ to ye, sire,” the stable hands said as they filed in. Caelan saddled his horse and rode away. He thought to go through the courtyard and the main gates to ensure that all was well before leaving. He also needed to have a few words with Brandon.
Just as he turned the corner, a small boy tripped on a stone before him and crashed to the ground. Caelan held his horse, meaning to help the squalling bairn. A lass ran from the door, her expression tinged with worry and concern.
Caelan’s stomach flipped at the sight of her. He wanted to believe it was hunger.
She fell to her knees and eased the boy into a sitting position. Her slender fingers parted the thick curtain of her blond hair to peer at his grazed knees.
Caelan looked away, stunned. He could only stand there and watch as she cared for the child, gently brushing the boy’s hair away from his eyes. Caelan’s breath caught as he noticed an exposed ankle.
Clearly, he was going mad.
“Eilidh! Did ye find him?”
Caelan snapped his head around, recognizing the voice. It was Cook. She was a rotund woman who sometimes forgot her place and treated Caelan and his brothers like her immature sons. Judging from the matching hair, the lad was her relative.
“Och, but I’ve looked everywhere for him! Ye troublesome bairn!” Cook exclaimed and gifted the crying lad a healthy knock to the head.
When Eilidh’s eyes turned dark, Caelan recalled she had lost a brother, but whatever she had wanted to say was cut short.
“Sire!” Cook cried. “Mornin’! Fine day for a ride, eh?”
He gave her a nod and a smile. “Mornin’ to ye, Cook.”
Eilidh hurried to her feet, dusting of her skirts. A smile bloomed on her pink lips.
“Go ahead,” Cook said before Eilidh could speak, “I’ll take this one inside. His mother owes him a lashing.”
Eilidh frowned but said nothing as Cook disappeared into the keep with the bairn in her arms. She walked over to him and said, “I finished the book, sire. I must say, I never thought a lass could be so… daring. And vicious.”
It took a moment for Caelan to compose himself. He filled the time by sliding off his mount.
“She was scorned, I reckon,” he replied. “Tis what happens when ye slight a lass.”
Eilidh tittered. “But she had her entire family killed over a squabble!”
“Heartbreak is nae a squabble. Remember… they banished her lover, only for her to discover that he was in cahoots with the villains all along, that he intended to steal her fortune! Can ye blame her?”
“Och, but he did so only to feed innocent women and children,” she returned, vehemently playing with her hair.
Caelan caught himself smiling at the fierceness in her eyes. “Ye’re right about the children, but the women mocked her loss, ye ken.”
She huffed an indignant breath. “Nae…”
“If ye agree with me,” he lilted, “I’ll give you another book tonight.”
She opened and closed her mouth, then narrowed her eyes. “More extortion, I see. ‘Tis below ye, sire, to dangle books before me and expect me nae to jump for them.”
Caelan appeared quite pleased at his own genius. “Do ye want the books or nae?”
She crossed her arms and nodded. “Ten books!”
“An’ then what?”
She flicked her hair over her shoulder. “An’ then if I get them, maybe I’ll agree with ye. Until then, have a nice ride… sire.”
She bowed politely and sashayed inside. Caelan’s lips were so wide for his smile that they hurt his cheeks. Before he wiped away his grin, the clansmen in the courtyard cast him curious glances.
A fool was what he was. When it came to her, he knew he shouldn’t encourage his longing—it was futile. But he couldn’t resist her allure.
Caelan jumped back on his horse and rode hard to the hills, hoping to forget about her.
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