Forbidden Night with the Highlander
â€˜My daughter is…not like other women.’
Rhys de Laurent eyed the Scottish chief, Alastair MacKinnon, wondering what the man meant by that statement.
There was a pained look upon the MacKinnon’s face, but Rhys waited for the chief to continue. When there came nothing further, he prompted, â€˜Is she shrewish or is her face marked by pox?’
Alastair shook his head. â€˜Nay, she is fair of face. But you’ll ken what I mean when you marry her. She is different.’
Rhys was not eager to claim the Scottish bride promised to him since her birth. He had travelled north for nearly a fortnight to Eiloch, Scotland, and he had no desire to live in this godforsaken land, half a world away from his family.
But he had come here for the sake of duty and obligation. He was a man who honoured family promises, though he was not certain he would go through with the marriage as of yet.
Truthfully, he was here for his younger brother’s sake. Warrick had no land of his own, due to an estrangement with their father. These lands in Scotland would give his brother a place to live in peace, and Warrick could help to defend the fortress when it was necessary. It might be that his brother could marry the bride, if he could coerce the young woman’s father into changing the agreement.
The MacKinnon lands held value, and in the midst of unrest between the Normans and the Scots, Rhys knew his responsibilities. His father had made an alliance that depended on this marriage.
But he was uneasy about wedding a woman he had never seen before.
â€˜I want to meet with my bride before I agree to the formal betrothal,’ he told the chief. â€˜Both of us deserve that much.’
A tight expression crossed Alastair’s face. â€˜That would no’ be wise. Lianna has said she willna marry a Norman.’
Rhys wasn’t surprised to hear it. â€˜Which is why we should meet and get to know one another. She may change her mind, once we are acquainted.’ And he could discover if his brother might be a more suitable match.
But the chief was already shaking his head. â€˜Nay, if she sees you as a Norman, she’ll do everything she can to avoid the marriage. Better if you should dress like a Highlander and let her ken who you are as a man. You would find her more appealing.’ The Scot eyed him carefully. â€˜Unless you are too proud to wear our clothing.’
Rhys considered the matter. The chief was right that Lianna MacKinnon would judge him as an outsider, no matter what he said or did. Fear would govern her opinion, and that was no foundation for a marriage. But he was uneasy about the deception. â€˜I don’t like the idea of lying to my bride.’
â€˜You need not give your name,’ Alastair said. â€˜Trust me when I say that Lianna will soften at kindness. And then you may see her warm heart.’ The Scot studied him carefully. â€˜I’ve heard a great deal about you, Rhys de Laurent. Most say you are a fair man, respected as a leader. I would never give my daughter into your hands, did I not believe it.’
He gave no reaction to the flattery, for he knew Alastair had no choice but to uphold the arrangement. If Rhys did not accept Lianna as his bride, then he had the right to take Eiloch back again and place Norman soldiers in command of the fortress. His own father, Edward de Laurent, could have done so a generation earlier, but out of respect for his mother, Margaret, he had not. Although she was Norman, she had loved her second husband, Fergus MacKinnon, and had spent many happy years in Scotland, as if it were her sanctuary.
Alastair motioned for one of his men to come forward, and murmured an order in Gaelic. Rhys understood every word, for he had learned the Scottish tongue at a young age. His grandmother had insisted upon it, for the MacKinnons would never accept him as their leader otherwise.
The servant disappeared to obey, and then Alastair turned back. â€˜I think you will be pleased with my daughter as your bride, once you ken the sort of woman she is and understand her ways.’
Rhys met the man’s gaze. â€˜I will judge her for myself.’
Alastair nodded. â€˜She rides out to the coast every day for her noontide meal. You will meet her at the dolmen, but I caution you not to let her ken who you are. At least, not yet.’
His servant returned with a shirt and trews similar to those the chief wore. Alastair held out the garments and said, â€˜Wear this. And I’ll bid you luck with Lianna.’
Rhys took the clothing and asked, â€˜How do I know she will be there?’
Alastair sighed. â€˜My daughter is a woman with ingrained habits. She has taken her meal by the dolmen every day for the past year. Believe me when I have no doubt you will see her.’
Rhys wasn’t certain what to make of that, but he inclined his head. â€˜So be it.’
Lianna MacKinnon prided herself on order, keeping everything in its place. Her bedchamber had not a speck of dust upon the wooden floor, and every corner of the coverlet was tucked beneath the mattress. She ran a finger along the edge of a small table and found that it was spotless, just as it should be. The sight of the chamber filled her with satisfaction, and she felt a sense of contentment knowing that, at least within this place, she could control the life she lived.
A knock sounded at the door, and her maid Orna opened it without waiting to be invited inside. â€˜I’ve news for you, Lady Lianna. The Norman and his men are meeting with your father this morn.’
A cold sweat broke out upon Lianna’s brow. Though the men had sent word of their impending arrival at Eiloch, she could not bear to think of it. The idea of marrying a stranger was a disruption she didn’t want to face. Though she had been promised to Rhys de Laurent since birth, she would do anything to avoid the marriage. And now, that moment was here.
Lianna’s gaze flickered towardtowardsto the dirt tracks the older woman had brought into the chamber. She moved towards the broom resting on the opposite wall, feeling the desperate urge to clean the floor.
â€˜He will not be my husband, Orna.’ Lianna began sweeping up the dirt her maid had tracked in, forming a small pile as she moved towards the door. The older woman likely hadn’t noticed it at all, given her failing eyesight.
â€˜I will find a way out of this betrothal.’
She refused to believe that anything else would happen. Over the years, she had saved every spare silver coin, planning to bribe Rhys de Laurent into abandoning this marriage. She had never bought gowns or ribbons, preferring to keep herself plain and save the coins for something far more valuable–her freedom.
Her maid frowned. â€˜It may not be possible, my lady.’
Lianna found a rag and knelt down to wipe up the mud, cleaning the floor until it was spotless. â€˜It will be.’ It had to be. For the idea of surrendering herself to a strange man was impossible. Rhys had been born and raised in England and knew nothing of their ways. He would not even be able to speak their language.
Her insides twisted up in knots at the thought of wedding a stranger-or worse, sharing his bed and bearing him children. Fear gripped her at the thought. Her father had accepted it as a necessary arrangement, but she would not give up so easily.
â€˜When Rhys de Laurent hears my proposal, he will gladly return to England without me. My father will remain the chief of Eiloch, and everything will return to the way it was.’ Lianna clung to that idea, for it was the only future she wanted to imagine. She wanted her life to remain steady, in an ordered pattern, without straying from its path.
Then she squared her shoulders and informed Orna, â€˜It is time for my daily ride.’
Today, more than ever, she needed to travel along the coast. The speed of the horse and the wind upon her face would help her to forget about the future pressing her into a corner.
â€˜And what if the chief summons you to meet your husband?’ Orna asked. â€˜You must be here if he does.’
Lianna shuddered at the thought of being displayed before the Norman like a prized sheep. â€˜I am not married yet.’ She reached for her shoes that lay against the far wall, walking barefoot across her clean floor. â€˜I must go.’
â€˜Please, don’t be making trouble for your father, Lianna. You must marry Rhys de Laurent and bear a son. Only then can we stay here, God willing.’ Her maid risked a glance at the door. â€˜If you make him angry, the Norman lord will send us away, and we’ll have nowhere to live.’
Lianna opened the door and paused. â€˜Don’t be afraid, Orna. I will find a way to avoid this marriage and keep Eiloch in my father’s hands. No one will take over our lands, I promise you.’ Even if it took every last coin she possessed, she would bribe the man.
Her maid eyed Lianna as if she were uncertain. â€˜Should you not try to be the wife he wants?’
No. She would not even consider such a thing. With a half-smile, she admitted, â€˜Orna, I ken what I am. No man finds me appealing, and if my own kinsman do not care for me, why should this one be any different?’
She adjusted her woollen brat to cover her fiery red hair. It was difficult to tame, but she combed it seventy-seven times every morn. And she would do the same when she returned from her ride. â€˜I will be back by this afternoon.’
Her maid’s expression held doubt, but she said nothing. Lianna strode past the woman, carrying her shoes. She walked barefoot through the large gathering space, past her older brother and his men. SÃan’s face curved in a knowing smile, and he lifted his hand in greeting. She nodded to her brother, feeling her cheeks redden as she overheard one of the men mutter, Thanks be, none of us has to wed her now.
She didn’t know which of them had spoken but pretended that she hadn’t heard the barb. Holding her shoulders back, she glanced up at her brother, only to see him cuff Eachann MacKinnon. Though she appreciated his defence, Lianna was well aware that the men were laughing at her. She ignored them and put on her shoes before she walked down the stairs outside and stepped into the mud.
They thought it strange that she kept to her habits, leaving every day at the same hour to go riding. Each day, always the same. But she liked having the same pattern. It was comforting to know what she would do every day.
SÃan lived his life from one hour to the next, never thinking beyond what happened today. His confident manner sometimes bordered on arrogance, but Lianna found that it was easier to quietly clean up the disorder her brother left behind than to defy him.
Her father’s house was larger than the others, a tower fortification built of wood and stone. The dwelling could hold twenty men, with three smaller chambers on the second floor. Beyond that, several crofters lived in thatched homes set in a semicircle.
Lianna spied her horse already waiting for her near the stables, and a kitchen boy hurried out to meet her. He held out the wrapped bundle of food, and she took it, knowing what was inside. One piece of bread, one hunk of cheese, and a small jug of ale–just as always. She thanked him and secured the bundle beside her saddle before mounting her mare.
As she rode past the crofters’ homes, she studied each one carefully for signs of neglect. Though SÃan did not want her to interfere in the people’s lives, it was a necessary means of occupying her time. She knew which families had enough food stored for the winter and which crofters would face hardship. She prided herself in knowing the women who would give birth to new babies, and the names of the elderly folk who had died. Then she told SÃan, and her brother made arrangements for the families. It gave her a sense of pride to know that she could take care of the others–even if they believed SÃan was responsible for their welfare. She needed no accolades for her work, so it mattered not what the others thought.
Once she reached the open valley, Lianna urged her horse to go faster. The wind tore through her red hair, and she lifted her face high, reveling in the sensation. She gloried in the freedom, feeling the joy in having this moment alone.
As they drew closer to the coast, she slowed the pace of her mare, turning in the direction of the dolmen. The stone altar had been there for hundreds of years-perhaps even a thousand-and she often wondered about the Druids who had placed it there.
Each day, she took her noon meal at the dolmen, so she would not have to dine with the others and hear their talk. She preferred the solitude and welcomed it.
But this morning, she saw a man standing beside the stone. Her smile faded, and a sense of unrest thrummed within her veins, for he was not supposed to be here. Who was he? For a moment, she wondered if he was Norman, but then dismissed the idea, given his attire.
Although she knew every member of her own clan and of the MacKinloch clan who dwelled nearby, she had never seen this man before. And yet…it almost seemed that he had been waiting for her.
She slowed her horse to a walk, wondering what to do. The man’s brown hair was cut short, and his beard held stubble, as if he had shaved it a sennight ago. But it was his eyes that drew her in. They were the dark blue of the sea, with an almost savage beauty in them.
She nodded to him and was startled when he raised a hand in greeting. Every instinct warned her to leave, to abandon the dolmen and go back home. But instead, she drew her horse to a halt and stared at the man.
Keep riding, her instincts warned. He is a stranger.
â€˜A good afternoon to you, lass. It’s a beautiful place here.’ Though he spoke Gaelic, his voice held an unfamiliar accent. Was he from Aberdeen or even Oban? It was difficult to tell. She frowned, wondering who he was. Lianna knew every man, woman, and child in the region-but not him. It bothered her so deeply, she drew her horse closer, to see if she could determine his identity from his features.
Her heartbeat quickened at the sight of him, and her mouth grew dry. His face captivated her attention, drawing her closer. There was a faint scar upon his throat, and his expression was hardened, like a man accustomed to battle. Everything about the man spoke of a leader, for he carried his confidence like a weapon.
He wore a saffron lÃ©ine, trews, and a brat woven in the MacKinloch colours of blue and green. And yet, she knew he was not of that neighbouring clan. Curiosity roiled up within her, and she was torn about whether to return to her father’s house. That would be the sensible thing to do.
But she didn’t dare move. The long shirt was ill-fitting, straining against his muscular chest. Beneath it, she spied powerful thighs clad in the trews.
She couldn’t think of one single word to say. Her brain could have been filled up with straw, so empty it was.
â€˜You needn’t be afraid of me,’ he said. â€˜I came at your father’s invitation.’
Only then did she realise that she was gripping the hilt of her dagger. She eyed the Highlander, wondering if he was any threat to her. Her brother had taught her to defend herself, and she would not hesitate, if it were necessary. Yet somehow, she believed this man when he’d said she shouldn’t be afraid. He hadn’t moved at all, treating her like a wild horse, ready to bolt.
She shook away her idle thoughts. â€˜Are you a visitor, then?’
He inclined his head. â€˜I’ve come for the wedding.’
With effort, she concealed her dismay. He was one of the MacKinloch guests, then. Perhaps distant kin to her mother. Lianna studied him a moment, feeling as if she ought to know who he was. But he looked like none of the clansmen.
She could almost imagine what her brother would say to her. Ride back to our home at once. You cannot speak to a stranger alone. If he were here, SÃan would seize the reins of her horse and force her to go back.
Was it wrong to steal just another look at the man before she left? She hesitated, but before she could turn back, he smiled at her. Without understanding why, the very breath in her lungs seemed to catch.
Men didn’t smile at her. Not ever. More often they rolled their eyes at her or let out an exasperated sigh while her brother made excuses.
Lianna glanced behind her, in case there was someone else approaching. But no, she was alone.
He was easily the most handsome man she’d ever seen. And he was smiling at her, wasn’t he? That was something indeed. But only because he did not realise that she was the bride.
Lianna knew she should leave, but it bothered her to abandon her plans. Every day at this time, she took her meal at the dolmen. It gave her an hour to sit by the sea and dream. Her life formed a pattern with each day ordered into precise pieces. She knew when she would awaken, when she would work, when she would eat, and when she would sleep.
But it felt as if someone had shaken her life into pieces just now, shattering it with the impending presence of the Norman she was meant to wed. And now with this man.
His very presence had interrupted her noon meal. This was her place, not his. He ought to be the one to leave. And perhaps if she could convince him to go, so she could return to her moments of peace.
â€˜If you have come in search of the MacKinnon chief, he is back at Eiloch.’ She pointed towards the road by which she had traveled. â€˜Follow the path, and you will find our house. My father will grant you hospitality.’
She expected him to nod and obey her command. Instead, he appeared to have little interest in departing. She noticed, then, that he had no horse. Had he stabled it elsewhere?
â€˜You seem eager to be rid of me,’ he remarked.
Lianna stopped herself before she nodded in agreement. Instead, she asked, â€˜What is your name?’
The Highlander leaned against the dolmen, staring out at the clear sky and the blue sea. A thin mist of clouds rimmed the horizon in the distance, and the sun lit the ripples of water in a pool of fire. â€˜You may call me Gavin MacAllister.’
A MacAllister? That didn’t seem right at all. â€˜Then why are you wearing the MacKinloch colours?’
His mouth twisted. â€˜I had to borrow clothing when my daft horse tossed me into the mud.’ His gaze fixed upon her face. â€˜I suppose you must be Lianna MacKinnon, the bride.’
â€˜I am. Unfortunately.’ She made no effort to hide her reluctance and patted her horse’s back. Likely he had guessed her identity after she’d revealed that her father was the chief.
â€˜Then you do not look forward to your wedding?’
She made a face. â€˜Not at all. How would you like to be forced into marriage with a stranger? He could be cruel. Nay, I’ve no wish to be married.’
â€˜And what if he is a good man?’ Gavin prompted.
â€˜He is a Norman. And he will want me to change everything-my home, my clothing…everything about myself.’ She shuddered at the thought. â€˜I want to stay here with my family. And…they need me here.’
She didn’t know why she was confiding all of this to a stranger and changed the subject. â€˜What of you? You said you came to Eiloch for the wedding?’ Lianna unfastened her bundle of food and spread it upon the stone dolmen between them. Though she only had a little to share, she would not eat without offering him what she had. She broke off a piece of the bread and held it out to him. He reached for it and caught her palm in his.
Lianna froze when his thumb grazed her skin. Heat swelled up inside her, and she could not understand how this man could have such an effect upon her.
â€˜I came because my family wanted to build an alliance with your clan.’
Her mind began reeling through the names of all the MacAllisters she knew. There was a clan to the south, and it might be that he was kin to Rourke MacAllister. She was about to ask him when he interrupted.
â€˜I am sorry you are being forced into this marriage,’ he said, still holding her palm. â€˜I ken what it is to live a life where others make decisions and there is naught you can do.’
â€˜But there is something I can do,’ she said, pulling her hand back. With effort, she steadied her breathing and forced herself to eat a bite of bread. â€˜I have been saving coins for years. I will offer Rhys de Laurent all that I have in return for my freedom. We can go on as we did before.’
He gave her a sidelong look. â€˜Is he not wealthy, this Norman suitor of yours?’
She didn’t like to think of that. â€˜I suppose. But surely, he would rather have the silver than an unwilling bride. And I doubt he would want me, either.’
â€˜You are a beautiful woman,’ he countered. â€˜Of course he would want you.’
Though his words were kind, she did not believe them. â€˜The Norman will see what everyone else sees. A plain woman who would make a terrible wife to any man.’
He surprised her when he laughed. â€˜Why would you say that, Lianna?’
The use of her name felt intimate, and she suddenly grew more aware of this man. Why did he tangle her emotions into such knots? Was it because she had never held a conversation with such a handsome Highlander? Or was it because he actually seemed to listen to her?
â€˜I ken the sort of woman I am,’ she said. To distract him from the question, she shared half her cheese with him. Then when they had finished, she folded up the cloth into perfect lines.
â€˜If you’re wanting to go and see my father, follow the road as it leads west.’ She pointed out the direction in which she had come. â€˜He will find a place for you to stay.’
Rhys had no intention of leaving Lianna MacKinnon behind. She was a complicated woman, and he was beginning to see what her father had meant. Everything about her spoke of an ordered life. Even the way she folded the linen cloth was precise.
It was clear that she despised change in any form, and the urge came over him to ruffle her calm exterior and find out if more lay beneath the surface.
A light rain began to fall, and she raised her green and brown brat to cover her hair, clearly waiting for him to go. The rain did not appear to bother her at all.
â€˜It’s raining,’ he pointed out. â€˜Do you not wish to take shelter?’
â€˜I am used to it.’ Nodding towards the road, she prompted him again, â€˜Take the path, and you will see our home. It isn’t far.’
There was no denying that she wanted him to depart. But he answered, â€˜Where I am from, we do not leave women unprotected.’
Lianna revealed the dagger tucked into her waist. â€˜I am not unprotected. And if you had threatened me in any way, I would have gutted you.’ She spoke the words quietly, and was startled to see him smile.
â€˜Good.’ He stared at her a moment and then said, â€˜I suppose if you do not wish to go, then I will stand guard over you.’
â€˜There’s no one here,’ she pointed out. â€˜What would you guard me from? If there were any danger, I could scream, and half my clan would come running.’
He ignored her claim and pointed to the dolmen. â€˜You could take shelter beneath the stone. It will keep you dry for a little while.’
She laughed at his claim. â€˜I would not fit inside such a small space.’ The humour in her brown eyes warmed him, and he found that he rather liked her. She kept a tight control over her life, and it might be interesting to loosen those bonds. Rhys could not deny that this woman intrigued him.
He understood now, why her father had warned him not to reveal his true identity. In this moment, he could learn more about her without his Norman heritage overshadowing him. They could get acquainted as man and woman.
â€˜Are you certain you do not wish to find another shelter?’ he offered.
She shook her head. â€˜There isn’t time. I usually visit with the crofters after I finish my meal. I should go now.’
But he caught her hand again and held it a moment. The rain spattered on her skin, and he stared at the droplets upon her lips. He wanted to know if she felt any sort of attraction towards him. The need was strong, and he wanted to unravel this woman, to see what lay beneath the surface.
And so, he decided to give her pieces of the truth. Let her make of them what she would.
â€˜I didn’t only come here to make an alliance,’ he murmured. â€˜Or as a wedding guest.’
She closed her eyes but did not pull her hand away. Instead, it seemed that she was entranced spellbound in the same way he was. â€˜Why did you come?’
â€˜I came for you, Lianna MacKinnon.’