Rescued by Her Highland Warrior
Glen Arrin, Scotland
“She means to rid you of your child, my lady.” Her maid SÃla whispered in her ear, glancing down at the goblet on the table. “Do not drink any cup she gives to you.”
Celeste de Laurent, Lady of Eiloch, kept her face expressionless, though the danger was real. Now that her husband was dead, his younger brother Lionel stood to inherit.
But only if she did not bear a child.
His wife, Lady Rowena, meant to ensure that nothing would threaten her husband’s inheritance. The goblet was likely laced with herbs to force her to miscarry, if she were pregnant.
“Leave us,” Rowena commanded. The maid obeyed, but cast another warning look toward Celeste. There was no doubt that the matron would stop at nothing to ensure that her family won control of the lands.
The cup held a spiced wine, and Celeste toyed with the goblet, tracing her finger along the silver rim. But she heeded her maid’s warning and did not drink.
“You would do well to leave Eiloch,” Rowena said, her face placid with a soft smile. “Remarry someone else and give my husband the lands that are rightfully his.”
“I have no wish to remarry.” Celeste straightened in her seat, staring down at the dark wine. “I will remain here, as is my right.”
“Why would you stay where you are not wanted?” Her gaze centered upon Celeste’s waist. “You may be entitled to one-third of Lord Eiloch’s property, by law. But that does not mean you must dwell here, within these walls.” Her smile turned menacing. “There are other places within our property, where you could go.”
Other, less desirable places, she didn’t say. But Celeste knew the woman would do anything in her power to be rid of her.
“I may be carrying Edmon’s heir,” Celeste said, refusing to back down. “Until I know for certain, you have no rights at all.” The threat of a pregnancy was all she had left to defend her. Once word had come of Edmon’s death, they had descended upon Eiloch like a swarm of locusts. A son would keep all of them safe. Her hands went to her womb, silently praying that she had quickened with her husband’s seed.
“Try to remain here, and I’ll see to it that your life is a misery,” Rowena warned. “You’ll get nothing from us, and you’ll live on the edges of our lands, among the crofters.” She moved in closer, her eyes dark with intent. “It will be just like your life, before you wed Edmon. Or have you forgotten?”
Celeste pretended as if she had not heard Rowena’s threats. But even so, a chill ran through her blood, remembering the years of hunger, and how she and her sister had huddled together for warmth in the winter nights.
She gripped the goblet, as if she could absorb strength from the silver. “No, I haven’t forgotten.” She’d chosen this marriage to escape the memories.
“Edmon never should have married a woman like you. You know nothing of what it means to be lady of a castle.”
She didn’t deny it. During her brief marriage, she’d tried to learn, but the complexities of governing the people and managing the rents had overwhelmed her. Edmon should have wed a rich Norman heiress, one who would have brought land and gold to his coffers. Instead, he’d chosen her, the daughter of a lowborn Scot.
Edmon had desired her, and she’d shamelessly used her appearance to bind him into marriage. Their marriage had been her means of escaping the poverty of her childhood, a way of keeping her sister safe.
And now, she had nothing.
“You carry no child within your womb,” Rowena predicted. “And within a fortnight, we’ll know the truth.”
“Within a fortnight, you and your husband will be gone from here,” Celeste countered. “For I do carry a child.”
“You could not possibly know that.” Rowena poured herself a goblet of wine. “And when it is proven that you are not breeding, your sister will leave with you.”
Celeste wasn’t at all certain Rowena was allowed to force her from the castle, by law. But she would not put it past the woman to try.
“You would not want Melisandre to suffer, would you?”
Celeste stiffened at the threat. Her little sister was hardly more than three and ten. “She’s just a girl.”
“She is. And if you insist upon staying here, she will endure the same fate as you.” Rowena’s calm expression revealed no remorse whatsoever.
Melisandre was the only family Celeste had left, and she could let no one threaten her. Iron resolution stiffened her backbone, and she understood now, that everything depended upon her bearing a child. A child meant sanctuary, a means of protecting those she loved. It meant keeping her home at Eiloch and being rid of Lionel and Rowena.
But almost as soon as she envisioned the faint hope, a cramping sensation began in her womb. It was a harbinger of her menses, and in her mind, she envisioned Rowena’s threats coming to pass.
God help her. If anyone learned of this, they would lose everything.
“Drink,” Rowena bade her, raising her own cup. But Celeste stood from her chair, rising to her full height. She had little time left, but she intended to use every moment of it.
“Leave my solar,” she demanded. “I wish to be alone.”
“One fortnight,” Rowena said quietly. “That is all the time we will grant you.” She rose from her own seat, eyeing her. “And do not think to hide it when you bleed. My maids will know.”
Only when the woman was gone did Celeste breathe easier. Her insides were cramping again, and she slumped down in her chair, wondering what she would do when the truth came to pass. She felt certain that there was no child at all. Fear iced through her, while she wondered how she could protect her sister.
There was no time to find another husband or to hire someone to give them shelter. Their home was located deep in the mountains of northern Scotland, and there were no abbeys or convents to grant them sanctuary. She tried to think of a thousand different solutions, but only one would solve their problem quickly.
The word was a fervent need, encircling her mind. There had to be a child somehow. Wildly, she seized upon the realization that it need not be Edmon’s. No one would know if it was given by another man.
You can’t, her conscience railed. How could she think to lie with a man, simply to conceive a babe?
But then, how could she abandon Melisandre, bringing her sister back into poverty? Winter would be upon them within a few more months, and she didn’t want to imagine being cold or hungry again. Then, too, her sister was sweet and softhearted, dreaming of the day when she would wed a nobleman. Edmon had promised he would arrange a betrothal when she came of age.
If it were left in Lionel’s hands, it would never happen. With no dowry or marriage settlement, her gentle sister would have no husband at all. At least, not one with property or wealth.
And if their fates rested with Rowena, they would starve.
Choose a man to be your lover, came the voice of desperation. Conceive a child and it will mend all your problems.
Celeste lowered her face in her hands, holding back the tears. How could she even consider it? Aye, she’d lain beneath her husband and allowed him to touch her freely as was his right. But to lie with someone else, to tempt him as Eve had, that was far different.
She wasn’t sensual or sly enough to seduce a man. And if it were to happen here, everyone would know.
Leave, the insidious voice suggested. Take a lover of your choice and return.
Her cheeks burned at the thought. How could she even imagine it? She’d lain with no man except her husband.
But you wanted another, her heart reminded her. And he wanted you.
Once, that had been true, years ago. She’d been torn between two men . . . one that was the logical choice. And one that was her heart’s choice.
Even now, she wondered what had happened to Dougal MacKinloch. She’d never forgiven herself for leaving him. And although she’d buried the pain, she feared that seeing him again would only reawaken the loss.
You did what you had to, her conscience reminded her. For Melisandre.
The slight creak of the door caught her attention, and her sister entered the room. Melisandre was too thin, her face almost hollow. She’d grown so tall in the past year, she hadn’t had time to fill out. There were no curves on her body, and her fair hair was braided back so tightly, it made her blue eyes stand out.
“My clothes were taken,” Melisandre murmured, her voice barely audible. “Lady Rowena said-sh-she said I would not need them.” Crossing her arms over the bronze silk she’d outgrown a year ago, her sister bit her lip. “Is it true, Celeste? Will they send us away?”
“I won’t let that happen.” She opened her arms, and Melisandre came into her embrace. Though her sister was nearly as tall as she was, she seemed far younger today, more vulnerable.
“She gave my gowns to her daughter,” her sister confessed. “I didn’t know what to do, and I could not stop them.”
“You were right to come to me,” she said, hugging Melisandre. The need to protect her sister was stronger than her humiliation. But she had precious little time left, and she would not allow Melisandre to become a victim. “Tell SÃla that I have need of her.” Her maid would help her to make the necessary arrangements for traveling.
Celeste could save both of them, so long as she put aside her misgivings and took a lover. Preferably someone she would never see again.
But she could not relinquish the memory of Dougal. Nor the way he’d stared at her, as if she were his reason for breathing. She wanted to look into his dark eyes again and see the love he’d once felt. To go back to the years lost between them and lose herself in his arms.
He was her best hope now. Her only hope.
“Everything will be all right,” she promised her sister. “But I need to leave for a short while. We must seek help, and I intend to speak with some of the Scottish chiefs.”
“They aren’t our allies,” Melisandre warned.
“No, but I will ask. In the meantime, I want you to remain here, and stay close to SÃla.” She trusted her maid to keep her sister safe.
“What about Lady Rowena? She might try to send me away.” Her sister’s face whitened at the thought. Though it was a real danger, Celeste strongly believed that if she left Eiloch, they would ignore Melisandre until she was found.
“Rowena is more worried about any son I might bear,” she reassured her sister. “I won’t be gone longer than a fortnight. Just try to stay out of her way, as best you can.”
When the cramping shifted again, she felt the tell-tale presence of bleeding. She was not with child. But she would do anything in her power to get help, whether that meant taking a lover or finding someone to protect them.
And when it was done, she and Melisandre would be safe.
From the book Rescued by Her Highland Warrior
Copyright Â© 2013 by Michelle Willingham
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