Scot of Lust – Extended Epilogue

Even a character, a scene, or anything. You could say no if nothing bothered you.
Something you liked, a specific scene, a character's quality, some detail that caught your eye.
Something you noticed, frustrated you, left you confused, etc.

One month later, Mackintosh Castle

It was a cloudy day, the air turning sharp with chill, but no one in the clan seemed to mind when the wine flowed freely and the great hall was filled with people and laughter, everyone gathered there to celebrate Dunn’s and Elayne’s wedding. The crowd was merry, as it always was when it was time to feast, but the most important thing to Evander was that his brother was happy.

It had been a while since he had seen Dunn smile so sincerely. Though his brother was always cheerful, Evander had been concerned, at times, that a big part of it was a performance he was putting on for other people’s sake. Now he could tell it was real. With Elayne by his side, Dunn was truly happy.

Evander wasn’t so lucky himself. He sat at the table along with the merry couple, his betrothed sitting quietly by his side.

He and Enna had not spoken a single word to each other that entire evening. Evander couldn’t claim that he had made any effort to speak with her, of course, as ever since his betrothal to her had been announced, he had done his best to avoid her. On the other hand, she hadn’t made any effort either and so they ended up sitting side by side that evening, both of them in complete silence unless they were speaking to someone else. Not that she was a bad or boring lass, he just… didn’t care.

Still, this marriage was for the best. He wasn’t as lucky as his brothers, who had all found love. The only woman he had ever loved had broken his heart a long time ago and since then, Evander hadn’t even entertained the idea of trying to find someone else. In fact, it was better if he didn’t love his betrothed, he thought. The last thing he needed was feelings clouding his judgement. Enna, for all her spiritedness and stubbornness, was a good woman from a good family. That was all Evander needed—someone who would be a solid, positive presence in his life. And of course, it didn’t hurt that her family had land, riches, and influence. In the end, that was what mattered the most.

His brothers had married for love. He was going to marry to bring a valuable ally to his clan.

“Shall we dance?”

It was the first words Enna had spoken to him that day and Evander slowly turned to look at her, unable to keep the surprise from showing on his features. He didn’t know what it was that Enna was trying to achieve—every other couple in the family was dancing, that much was true, but that didn’t mean they had to join them.

Besides, Enna could hardly look at him for more than a few moments. It was his appearance, he knew; those tattoos on his skin that she found too menacing, too disturbing. It was unfortunate for her, since she would have to put up with looking at him for the rest of her life, but Evander couldn’t really bring himself to care. Enna was a beautiful woman, there was no doubt about that, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have to make his own sacrifices for this marriage.

“I dinnae dance,” said Evander, turning his gaze back to the crowd. Though he couldn’t see Enna’s expression, he was certain she was anything but pleased. The very air around him seemed to get colder and he couldn’t help but shudder, no matter how momentarily.

“Ye could make an exception,” Enna said and there was a strain to her voice, as though she was trying her best to remain polite, to keep up the appearances. Evander himself wasn’t as concerned with such things, though he wasn’t going to start a fight in the middle of the feast.

“Why?” he asked, this time turning to pin her with his gaze. He wasn’t surprised to see that Enna held it, never once averting her eyes. “What does it matter if we dance?”

“It is better than sittin’ here in silence,” she said. “It is only a dance. Perhaps ye will even enjoy it.”

Evander was quick to shake his head. “I doubt that. I never enjoyed dancin’. If ye wish tae dance, I am sure ye can find another partner.”

Enna scoffed, looking at Evander in disbelief for a few moments, before she pushed herself off her chair and left the table. From the other side of it, Evander caught Alec’s gaze, his brother’s disappointment palpable between them.

He had been the one to insist Evander didn’t have to marry Enna, but now he wanted him to act like a good husband. He knew his brother understood this was nothing but a marriage of convenience, as he had told Evander time and time again there were other options, that the future of the clan didn’t depend on this alliance and so he didn’t need to secure it. Why was he so insistent, then, on trying to get them to act like a proper couple?

With a sigh, Evander also made to leave the table. He needed some fresh air, some space to breathe away from all those people, and so he weaved his way through the crowd and stepped out into the courtyard. The sounds from the feast spilled outside through the windows, but it was quieter there, with no one but a few guards and a few guests milling about the grounds, either alone or with company, trying to find a secluded place.

He didn’t go very far. He only lingered by the door, taking a few breaths of the crisp night air, his mind slowly emptying. His fate truly wasn’t so bad. There were worse things than marrying someone he didn’t love. At least this way, he was certain his heart would never break again. Enna didn’t have the power to hurt him.

His thoughts began to drift to May, as they often did when he thought about his marriage. There was a time he was convinced he would marry her, the girl of his dreams. There was a time he had wanted nothing more than to call her his wife, but that time was long gone now, like she was.

She had made her choice. She had left him and even if Evander could do something to bring her back, he never would. He wouldn’t stoop so low as to beg or scheme. As much as it pained him to think about it—and it certainly did, the mere thought of it like a knife to the gut—May simply didn’t love him. Perhaps she never had or perhaps her feelings had faded with time.

Perhaps his would, too, in the future.

Until then he was cursed to think of her every time he saw Enna. Though they neither looked nor sounded alike, simply looking at his betrothed reminded Evander of May, and perhaps that was why he could not bear to be around her. The ache in his chest was too strong. The void inside him only kept growing.

Where are ye now, May? What life are ye livin’?

Evander didn’t know nor did he want to find out. He had been perfectly clear that no one was to say a single word about May in his presence, and so far, for the past ten years, everyone seemed to be following his request. Perhaps they didn’t talk about her at all or even knew anything about her life. Perhaps he was the only one still clinging to the past.

Then Evander heard a familiar pair of footsteps, and he turned around to see Dunn approaching, two cups of wine in his hands. He passed one to Evander who took it gratefully, draining half its contents in one gulp.

“Are ye all right, braither?” Dunn asked. Though he tried to mask it behind a teasing smile, Evander could tell he was worried.

He didn’t want him to worry. This was his big day.

“I am perfectly fine,” he assured him. “What are ye doin’ here? Shouldnae ye be with yer wife?”

“Me wife is schemin’ with Catreena,” Dunn said with a wary sigh. “I can only imagine what our dear sister is tellin’ her about me.”

“Only the best, I’m sure,” said Evander, truly smiling for the first time that night. “If ye dinnae pull Elayne away, Catreena will speak tae her fer the rest o’ the night.”

“Ach, we cannae have that,” Dunn said. “I’ll distract Elayne while ye distract Catreena.”

It was nothing but a thinly-veiled ploy to get Evander back inside, to get him out of his own head. Evander could tell, but he still followed Dunn, huffing out a laugh at his brother’s antics. There he was, at his own wedding, trying to cheer Evander up because he couldn’t go a single day without letting the past swallow him like a tide.

Back inside, the crowds sang and danced. Enna was among them, finally enjoying herself. With any luck, she would manage to build a home there, even if Evander couldn’t give her his love.

With any luck, they could even be friends in the end.


The End.

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One month earlier, Dunmaglass

The air was warm on Elayne’s skin, the breeze only a momentary relief as she rode with her guards through the forest. It was high summer and late in the morning, so the sun had shone relentlessly on them as they travelled down the path from Macgillivray Castle to her aunt’s cottage.

We should have left sooner. It’s so hot today!

The cottage was only half a day’s ride away, but Elayne felt as though she had been travelling for an eternity, the air uncharacteristically still, even for a July morning. It was better than travelling any other day of the past week, though, which they had all spent in the castle, keeping dry from the endless rain.

“We should have brought ye a carriage, me lady,” said one of her guards, Craig. He had been Elayne’s guard ever since she could remember, and was one of the people who raised her, along with her wet nurses and governess. All these years later, his skin had wrinkled and his brown hair was almost completely grey, but he still resembled the young man Elayne had once known.

Most of all, he still fussed over her as if she were a child.

“I’m fine, Craig,” Elayne assured him. “I can handle a half day’s ride.”

“I suppose it’s a good thing ye’re dressed simply,” her other guard, Lachlan, said. Unlike Craig, Lachlan was a young man, broad and tall, tasked with her protection for the first time. “Though ye resemble a maid in these garments.”

“There are many brigands in these parts,” said Elayne. “It’s wiser tae dress simply than tae attract attention.”

Craig had been the one to suggest it in the first place, so that it would not be immediately obvious that she was a noble-born girl. She hoped that if a brigand saw her like this, he wouldn’t be able to tell she was Elayne Macgillivray, daughter of Laird Lewis Macgillivray.

Of course, the plan would only work if the brigands didn’t recognize her especially if they didn’t question why a maid would travel with two guards. Though Craig and Lachlan were similarly dressed, both in simple clothes so as to look like companions, there was an air about them that anyone who had been around guards for enough time would recognize.

It was something that kept nagging Elayne, for she had the growing suspicion that someone was watching them. While they were still close to the castle, she hadn’t suspected anything, but as they rode deeper and deeper into the forest, she could swear there were eyes on her, watching her every move. Neither Craig nor Lachlan seemed concerned at all, though, and Elayne didn’t want to ask them to stop for no reason. They weren’t too far from the cottage now; sooner rather than later, her paranoia would be silenced.

She was simply glad to be out of the castle while Laird McCoy was visiting. The mere thought of him, of his hands somehow always finding their way on her body no matter how much she tried to keep her distance, nauseated her. It didn’t matter that he was handsome. It was true that his features were far from revolting, but his character more than made up for it. He was the cruelest man she knew, more so even than her father, and the ten years that separated them were very obvious when they stood side by side. Next to him, Elayne still resembled a child.

As they rode through the forest, they soon reached the part of the journey where they could hear the trickling of water from the nearby river. Elayne had always hated hearing it, but there was no other road leading to her aunt’s cottage. If she followed the river all the way back up the valley, she would reach the lake where she had almost drowned as a child, if her mother hadn’t saved her, drowning herself—the lake that made her father hate her, unable to forgive her for her mother’s death. Elayne couldn’t forgive herself either.

As painful as the memory of that day was, she didn’t try to cover the sound of the water by talking—she never did. She deserved to remember, to have those memories re-emerge every time she passed by the river, though it could hardly make up for what she had done.

There was something else that pulled her out of her thoughts, though: a sudden sound, loud and clear, which had all three of them looking over their shoulders to locate its source. Suddenly, four men appeared out of the thick greenery of the forest, two behind them and two in front of them, short, gleaming daggers ready in their hands.

“Brigands!” Craig shouted as he jumped off his horse. Neither he nor Lachlan carried a sword, but they both had multiple blades hidden on them, and Elayne knew those men, though they outnumbered them, would be no match for her and her guards.

Her own dirk was strapped to her leg and she grabbed it, ready to jump off her horse and fight. Before she could, though, one of the men approached her, spooking her horse so much that it bucked and tried to kick at him. The horse missed, and Elayne tightened her hold on it, trying desperately to hold on, but when it bucked again, it threw her off its back and fled down the path.

Elayne landed on the ground with a thud and a groan, rolling just as she made impact to avoid the worst of the injury. She could only hope her mare would stop somewhere nearby and that she would be able to retrieve her once it was all over.

I must recover fast. I cannae stay like this.

It would be a death sentence, staying on the ground. One of those brigands would soon find her and kill her. Still, breathing seemed impossible, the air knocked out of her lungs after she had hit the ground, her ribs and her arms aching with the aftermath of her fall. She could hardly draw in any air, let alone stand.

In the chaos, a pair of hands grabbed her and dragged her into the bushes that lined the road. Elayne screamed, but one of those hands quickly muffled her protests, keeping her quiet. In the distance, she saw Craig and Lachlan surrounded by the four men, fighting a losing fight.

This is it… this is how we all die.

“Are ye alright?” asked a soft, quiet voice. “Did ye get hurt?”

For a moment, Elayne froze, not expecting the man to sound concerned. Why would he care if she had been hurt? Perhaps he needed her to be unharmed in order to negotiate with her father, but the concern in his tone didn’t match the kind of concern he would have for his bounty.

It didn’t matter, though. What mattered was that he had released her, and Elayne could finally push herself to her feet and swing her fist, barely missing him when he managed to duck just in time.

That didn’t matter either. She had her blade. Even if she had to fight all of them herself, she would.

Raising her blade, she took a step closer to the young man, but he only backtracked, raising his hands in surrender. Surely, it couldn’t be that easy; he was only trying to lull her into a false sense of security before he attacked.

For the first time, Elayne gave herself a few seconds to take in his features: hair so blond it seemed almost white, a strong jaw, a slightly crooked nose. And then there were those eyes, icy blue, a jagged scar running over them both, from temple to temple.

He was a big man, tall and broad, his frame much bigger than Elayne’s. In some ways, it was an advantage for her. Everyone assumed her to be fragile, short and lithe as she was, so they underestimated her. She may not have had as much brute strength as this man, but she knew her way around a knife and she was faster than any bulky soldier.

“Calm down, lass,” the man said, still backtracking and trying to put some space between them. “I willnae hurt ye, I promise. I’m nae one o’ them.”

Elayne didn’t believe him straight away. It would be foolish to do so. But the more she looked at him, the more she realized everything about this man was different, from his clothes to the heavy sword he carried around his waist. Slowly, she lowered her blade and at the same time, the man lowered his hands.

“Stay here,” he told her quietly and, as he walked past her, he pressed his finger against his lips, asking her to be quiet. Elayne watched him draw his sword out of its sheath and slowly sneak out of the bushes, suddenly attacking the brigands and taking them by surprise.

By then, both Craig and Lachlan lay still on the ground and Elayne had to swallow down the bile that threatened to rise up her throat. Could they be dead? There was no blood that she could see, but that meant nothing. Perhaps it was only because their bodies and the greenery obscured her view.

She couldn’t allow herself to believe they were dead, not even for a moment. She couldn’t have two more deaths on her hands.

Instead, Elayne watched the mysterious man as he fought off the brigands. He had an advantage with the sword, but he also knew how to use it, his movements elegant and practiced. It was almost like a dance, his feet light as he jumped and slid around the four brigands, his arms strong as he brought down his sword. It was then that Elayne was certain he was no brigand. He was nothing like those men who had attacked her and her guards. This man had been trained to fight.

It didn’t take him long to kill the four men single-handedly. By the end of it, he was covered in their blood, some of his own trickling into the mix where the brigands had managed to wound him. The men had collapsed around him and he stood in the middle of them, drawing in slow, ragged breaths for a few moments. She should have been scared of him, terrified even… But she wasn’t, not at all. When he had composed himself, he walked over to Craig and Lachlan, and Elayne rushed out of the bushes, her dirk in her hand once more.

“Dinnae touch them,” she growled, and the man flinched, not expecting such a reaction.

“I only wished tae see if they’re alive,” he said. He watched Elayne carefully as he slowly made his way towards Craig and pressed his fingers against his neck, where he could feel his pulse, and the relief that washed over his features was palpable.

Elayne didn’t know, though, if it came from finding him alive or dead. Just in case, she stood there, ready to strike.

The man walked over to Lachlan and did the same, before approaching Elayne once more. “They’re alive. They should wake soon.”

It was Elayne’s turn to be relieved, her shoulders finally dropping as she allowed herself to relax a little. If this stranger wanted to hurt her, he would have already done so, she figured, so letting her guard down didn’t seem like a bad idea.

The man was close to her before she knew it, his fingers poking and prodding at her head and her arms as Elayne stood there, at a loss for words. He seemed to have no problem touching a woman he didn’t know, but then again, he probably thought Elayne was a maid, not a noble girl who wasn’t used to anyone’s touch.

“Ye’re nae injured, are ye?” he asked her. “Does anythin’ hurt?”

“Nay,” said Elayne. The only thing that hurt was her chest, her heart beating so fast she feared she would collapse, sending all the blood in her body to her face. “I’m alright. Thank ye… they could have killed us if ye hadnae come.”

“I’m always glad tae help a damsel,” said the man, grinning from ear to ear. The gesture deformed his scar even more, but Elayne was surprised to find out she didn’t mind it at all. There was something alluring about it and it did nothing to detract from his beauty. “Though I cannae say ye were so much in distress. Ye fight well.”

Though Elayne could fight, she could hardly take a compliment, and she lowered her gaze as her cheeks burned, trying to hide the blush. When she spoke again, she chose a safer topic.

“Ye’re nae from these parts, are ye?” she asked. She would know if he was. “What’s yer name?”

“Dunn,” said the man. “An’ nay… I was passin’ through when I saw ye were all in danger.”

“Dunn,” Elayne repeated, trying out the name. It suited him, she thought. “What clan dae ye belong tae?”

Dunn only smiled at her question and then busied himself with his sword, cleaning it and tucking it safely back in its sheath. She wasn’t going to get an answer, it seemed.

“Shall I accompany ye tae yer destination?” Dunn asked after a short stretch of silence. He looked over his shoulder at Craig and Lachlan and Elayne followed his gaze to see them stirring. “Yer guards are already awake.”

“They’re… they’re nae me guards,” Elayne said. “Only me travellin’ companions.”

Dunn gave her a slightly amused look. Still, he didn’t try to correct her, and that convinced Elayne he could see right through their disguises. “Yer companions, then. They’re wakin’.”

Glancing between Dunn and her guards, Elayne shook her head. “We’ll be fine. Thank ye. It’s only half an hour’s ride from here.”

“Very well,” said Dunn. He had pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and was dabbing at the blood on his face. When he tucked it back in, he leaned closer and pressed his lips against Elayne’s into a soft kiss before she could do anything to resist.

A gasp escaped her, her eyes slipping shut. It was the barest brush of lips, but it was more than Elayne had ever experienced before, so even that simple, tender gesture stole her breath away.

When she opened her eyes again, Dunn was gone, and Craig and Lachlan were pushing themselves off the ground, brushing the dirt off their clothes.

Looking over at Elayne, Craig asked, “What happened?”

Elayne looked at him, then at the bodies on the ground. Then, she looked at the space Dunn had occupied only moments before, now entirely empty.

“I dinnae ken.”

Chapter One

Present, The Seven Stars Inn

The smell of ale and wine permeated the air around Elayne. The inn was small, the only one in the village, so she had no other options if she wanted to be inside during the storm.

I should have listened tae me aunt an’ stayed with her at her cottage.

It would have surely been preferable to this, even if it would have delayed her return home, but when she had left her aunt’s home, she had had good reason.

Once again, she read the letter she held in her hands, the paper crumpled from the number of times she had folded and unfolded it, clutching it tightly between her fingers. It had arrived at her aunt’s cottage right before Elayne had left, a warning from her best friend Isobel that her father had planned her marriage to Laird McCoy in her absence.

I cannae believe he would dae such a thing.

Only, the more she thought about it, the more plausible it became. Her father wanted to rid himself of her and gain as much land as he could, and what better way to do that than marry her off to Laird McCoy? That way, both men would get what they wanted—her father would have his lands and he would never have to see Elayne again, and Laird McCoy could finally force her into his bed without anyone else objecting to it.

But even fer me faither, this is too much.

Elayne slammed her hands onto the sticky table, the cup of ale in front of her almost tipping over before she steadied it. She took a few long gulps, though she had already had too much to drink. At the beginning of the night, she had come down from her room to have one cup but now she had already drained three and was well on her way through the fourth. She couldn’t think of any other way to drown her sorrows or steel herself for the conversation she was going to have with her father.

She would refuse to marry McCoy. She would do anything in her power to prevent this wedding from happening or she would die trying.

But what can I dae? Me faither will never allow me tae say nay.

Maybe death really was her only other choice and compared to marrying Laird McCoy, it seemed like the better option.

There was no one for Elayne to even turn to. Under any other circumstances, she would have asked Craig for help or at least advice, but he and Lachlan hadn’t made it to the inn yet. Perhaps the storm had delayed them as they were returning to the cottage to bring her back home or perhaps they had made it there and decided to spend the night, like Elayne had, under a roof before resuming their travel the following morning.

Elayne would leave with or without them. She knew the woods well and she could take care of herself, so going back home shouldn’t be an issue. The matter of her wedding couldn’t wait.

As she drained her fourth cup of ale, she glimpsed a large figure from the corner of her eye. The man sat down on the chair next to her and Elayne braced herself for an argument or maybe even a fight. She was in no mood to act like the nice noble girl she had been brought up to be that night. If he refused to leave her alone, he would find himself in a lot of trouble.

“Find yer own table,” Elayne said, hearing herself as she slurred her words. For the first time that night, she realized she was a little tipsy, but she was certain her nausea wasn’t from the alcohol. It was from the thought that upon returning to the castle, she would see Laird McCoy and he would once again put his hands on her, thinking he was more entitled than ever to her body.

“Is this how ye speak tae the man who saved yer life?”

It was a strangely familiar voice and Elayne turned to look at the man next to her, only to find it was none other than Dunn. Her mouth fell open as she stared at him, suddenly appearing next to her in the same way he had disappeared a month prior. In the dim light of the inn, he looked even more mysterious, like a phantom instead of a person. His features, those blue eyes and his pale hair, made him seem otherworldly.

“Dunn,” she gasped, still unable to believe he was there. “What are ye doin’ here?”

“Here at yer table or here in the area?”

“Both,” said Elayne. “Either.”

“Ye seemed very sad, so I wanted tae see if ye wished tae have company,” said Dunn. It didn’t surprise Elayne that he remained quiet regarding the reason of his presence in the area. “I never expected tae see ye again.”

“Neither did I.” Elayne certainly needed more ale now. In the half-light of the room, she gazed at him more openly than she would have had she been sober, letting her eyes trail over his features before they settled on the scar across his eyes.

“Daes it frighten ye?”

Elayne was too busy staring at Dunn to understand what he meant, and she made a questioning sound, frowning at him.

Dunn laughed softly. “The scar,” he said. “Daes it frighten ye?”

“Ach… nay,” said Elayne. “Why would it frighten me?”

“It has frightened many.”

A scar was hardly enough to frighten Elayne, especially when it was attached to such a handsome man. Ever since that day in the forest, she had been unable to stop thinking about him, about that kiss he had given her, replaying it in her mind again and again.

“How did it happen?” she asked, just to keep him talking.

“In a vicious fight,” Dunn said. “I was almost blinded.”

It would have been a shame, Elayne thought, if something had happened to those beautiful eyes. She could get lost in them, staring at them forever, but even in her drunken state she could tell it would be odd if she continued to stare like that. Clearing her throat, she sat up a little straighter, trying to fight off the dizziness that came with the movement.

“So, here ye are… an’ ye willnae even tell me the reason,” she said after a short silence that stretched between them. “I promise ye, I willnae tell anyone. I have nae one tae tell.”

For a moment, Dunn seemed conflicted. He looked over his shoulders at the people around them, the inn so crowded that no one was paying them any mind. Still, he was reluctant, keeping quiet.

“What could be such a big secret?” asked Elayne. “Ye cannae simply tell me naething now!”

Dunn huffed out a laugh, shrugging a shoulder. “Very well,” he said, leaning closer to speak quietly to Elayne. “I am here as a scout. There are rumors there will be a war led by Clan Macgillivray. I’m here tae gather information but, I dinnae ken. I’ve been here fer months an’ nae one seems tae ken anythin’ about a war. The villagers are as clueless as ever.”

A war? What war could there be?

Elayne had heard nothing about a war. These were times of peace and her father had strong alliances with other clans. Why would he risk going to war? What else could he possibly want?

“Perhaps the rumors are false,” was all she could say.

“Perhaps,” said Dunn. “But I doubt it. There are many outside these parts who are talkin’ about it. If I could somehow enter the castle, then maybe I would find out what is happenin’, but I have nae hope o’ achievin’ that. I will never be able tae enter the castle walls.”

Perhaps her betrothal to Laird McCoy had something to do with this. Elayne wasn’t willing to dismiss this as nothing but rumors just yet. Knowing her father, it wouldn’t surprise her to find out that he had, after all, been planning to start a war in search of more power and more land. Those were the only two things that kept him going since her mother’s death, the only two things he craved in life.

“Well, I certainly, havenae heard anythin’ in the castle,” Elayne said with a small shrug. “But perhaps yer right. I wouldnae ken.”

“Ye live in the castle?” Dunn asked. “Are ye a maid there?”

Elayne frowned, wondering why he would ask that, but then she realized that the only two times they had met, she had been dressed in those clothes, the ones she had worn specifically for her trip. What else would he assume other than her being a maid? She certainly looked the part—she had made sure of it. But he hadn’t seemed convinced about her denial, when he had mentioned her travelling with guards the previous time, they had met.

“Somethin’ like that,” she said, not wanting to reveal the truth. She trusted Dunn, as he had saved her life, but that didn’t mean she was about to reveal her true identity to him. Danger still lurked everywhere around Elayne and she was unwilling to take any risks.

Just as she was about to speak again, a serving wench came by their table, refilling their cups. She lingered there a little too long, smiling coyly at Dunn, and he smiled back at her, raising his cup in a toast. As she left, she kept looking over her shoulder at him, much to Elayne’s amusement.

“Ye’re popular with the lasses, then?” she asked, raising a curious eyebrow. In response, Dunn only laughed, saying nothing on the matter, but it was obvious when Elayne began to look. A lot of women in the inn had their sights on him, watching him through the crowd.

For a while, Elayne busied herself with her cup, spinning it in her hands. Even though a silence fell between them, Dunn seemed in no hurry to leave, so she took a few sips, enjoying the lull in the conversation. It was comfortable, oddly enough. They didn’t need to fill the silence.

Still, there was a nagging thought in Elayne’s mind and in the end, she couldn’t help but ask, “How dae ye think a lass can escape an unwanted marriage?”

The question took Dunn by surprise. He turned to face Elayne fully, though he didn’t seem at all confused by it. “I see, is that why ye’re so sad, then?”

Elayne nodded wordlessly. How could she be anything but devastated when she knew she would be forced into a marriage with such a terrible man? Growing up, she had thought her wedding would be a joyous moment, that her father would find her the perfect match, but that was before her mother’s death. It was before he changed, before grief had turned him into a monster.

“Well, I suppose the only way tae escape it is tae marry someone else, dinnae ye think?” Dunn said after a few moments of deep thought. “Yer family is arrangin’ the marriage fer ye?”

“Aye,” said Elayne, but Dunn’s suggestion had already distracted her. How could she marry someone else? Where would she even find a man to marry her on such short notice?

But then an idea bloomed into her head. She looked at Dunn, taking in his handsome features, the kind smile, the warmth in his eyes that one wouldn’t expect from such an icy color. So far, he had been nothing but helpful to her, going as far as to save her life from those brigands. When he had seen her in the inn and realized she was upset, he had gone over to talk to her.

And, of course, he was a man. A handsome one, even.

“Dunn,” Elayne said, leaning a little closer to close the distance between them. “Are ye betrothed tae someone?”

“Nay,” Dunn said with a small frown, this time confused by her question.

This is excellent. He is precisely what I need.

“Perfect! Then ye could pretend tae be wedded tae me!”

Laughing, Dunn shook his head as if this was a joke. But then he saw how serious and how excited Elayne was and his smile slowly dropped.

“Ye cannae mean it.”

“O’ course I mean it,” said Elayne. “This is the perfect solution. I can escape this marriage an’ ye can come tae the castle. This is what ye needed, is it nae?”

Dunn sputtered for a few moments, at a loss for words. When he spoke, his voice was higher than his usual baritone. “Ye’re insane! I cannae pretend tae be yer husband! Ye dinnae even ken anythin’ about me. I could be insane. I could try tae murder ye.”

“If ye wished tae murder me, ye would have already done it,” Elayne pointed out. “Or ye would have let the brigands kill me. Either way, ye didnae. Ye saved me life, ye didnae try tae take advantage o’ me nor did ye rob me. Ye have proven tae me that ye’re a good man.”

“I absolutely willnae dae this,” Dunn insisted, already leaning away from Elayne. Before he could get too far, though, she grabbed his arm and stopped him, looking him straight in the eye.

“The castle,” she reminded him. “Ye said ye need the information.”

With a sigh, Dunn looked around as if he expected someone to rescue him from this conversation. The more he considered it, though, the more he relaxed in Elayne’s grip, until he was fully sitting back in his seat.

“Why would ye wish tae help me?” he asked.

“We’d be helpin’ each other,” Elayne reminded him. “I am nae doin’ this without gettin’ somethin’ in return. An’ it’s best fer everyone if there isnae a war. The clan is weak… a war would be madness.”

If anything, Elayne needed him more than Dunn needed her, but he didn’t have to know that. If the clan truly went to war, Elayne was certain they would lose. The previous wars had left them weakened, many of their soldiers gone in battle.

Still, despite the promise of help, Dunn was reluctant to agree. “Are ye tryin’ tae trick me?”

Elayne shook her head. “Nay. I promise ye. I will dae anythin’ ye ask. The only thing I willnae dae is allow ye tae touch me. Ye must understand that I have nae desire tae wed an’ this will only be a fake marriage, so if ye think I will fall intae bed with ye, ye should tell me now so I can find someone else.”

Dunn laughed, loud and delighted, as if Elayne’s warning amused him. “Ye didnae complain when I kissed ye.”

It was Elayne’s turn to sputter, throwing her hands up in exasperation. How presumptuous of him to think she had enjoyed that kiss! She had, of course, enjoyed it, but that was beside the point as far as she was concerned.

“I only allowed it because ye saved me life,” she said indignantly. “I willnae allow it again.”

Dunn gave her a lopsided grin, one Elayne was certain was popular with women, but she was determined not to be swayed by his charms. This was nothing but a business transaction. As Dunn considered it silently, Elayne tapped her fingers impatiently on the table, the tapping rhythm of them drowned out by the voices in the inn.

“Alright,” Dunn said eventually with a decisive nod, before he reached for Elayne’s arm to pull her closer—too close for her liking. “Ye have a deal. But I promise ye, by the end o’ this, ye’ll be beggin’ fer a kiss.”


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“Alistair, I need…I need you.”

Alistair knew, at that moment, that he had lost the war against his desire. The lass could not possibly know the import of what she was saying. “You do not know what you are asking for,” he said. It was a last-ditch attempt to save her from his passion.

“I do,” Jane said, looking at him. There was defiance in her gaze. “I do.”

His resolve broke.

He kissed her with all the longing that he felt, and she responded ardently. But then he noticed that she was withdrawn.

That was more than a little disappointing. “Where is your mind, lass?” he asked.

“I was thinking about…clothes,” Jane returned.

“Clothes? You are thinking about clothes when I am kissing you? Perhaps you want me to stop?”

He made to leave, but she reached for his kilt. That was more than enough to restore his fervor. “Indecent thoughts indeed,” he murmured against her lips. “You wanted this from the start.” He undid it himself, and watched her look down, her face dimming in worry.

“It worries you.” Alistair said into her ear while he pulled down her dress so her breasts were exposed. “It should not. I will be very, very gentle with you. Do not think at all. Only feel.” Jane nodded at his reassurance, and he smiled reassuringly at her.

“You are beautiful, Jane,” Alistair said, his eyes on her breast. “Beautiful.” He bent down and captured one nipple in his mouth. It was soft, plump, perfect in his mouth. A moan escaped Jane, and she clutched at his head.

His lips moved to the other breast as he pulled her slip down. And then he carried her to his bed. He kissed a path from her breasts to her belly to the tangle of curls at the apex of her thighs. Jane started. She sat up and tried to push him away, but he did not move.

From between her legs, he looked directly into her eyes. At the first flick of his tongue, Jane keened. She locked her legs together, so that Alistair was trapped between them, and she clamped her hands over her mouth.

She burst into tears when she reached her climax.

Alistair felt his member strain.

Jane hid her face in his bed, but Alistair would not allow that. “Why are you hiding your pleasure, my lass?” he asked.

“The others… in the castle…they’ll hear.”

Alistair chuckled. “They can hear nothing. And if they could, what would it matter? I am told that our attraction is blatant.”

“Oh,” Jane said. “And of course they fault you for bedding an English miss.”

He silenced her with a kiss. “Jane,” he said, after he pulled away from her. His fingers insinuated themselves between her legs. He stroked her, and, through hooded lids, watched her.

“Jane,” he said again, more insistently this time.


“When we are together, nothing else matters. The castle, the matters of state. England and Scotland. There is you.” He brought the hand between her legs up and sucked on his thumb. This made Jane’s breath catch. He returned the hand and continued the stroking. “And there is me. Do you understand?”

“Y-yes.” Jane whispered breathlessly.

“What did I say, my sweet? Tell me.” His thumb was faster now, and he could see that she was struggling to form words.

“That there is only you and me!” she squeaked in one desperate breath.

“Good girl.” Alistair said, just as Jane shook in release.

He waited for her shocks to subside. There was a satisfied smile on his face.

“Sweetling,” he whispered in her ears, “this will hurt you a little.”

“I know,” Jane said, and squeezed her eyes shut.

“No, look at me,” Alistair instructed. He could not have her tense, for that would make for an uncomfortable first time. “I would never cause you pain intentionally, Jane,” he said earnestly.

Jane nodded and said she knew.

Alistair bot her nipples. He entered her slowly, his eyes fixed on her face. When he pushed past her maidenhead, she winced, but otherwise, she was calm. He began to move slowly, giving her time to adjust. Slowly, Jane began to move with him, and this satisfied Alistair greatly. She did not hide her pleasure this time.

When he was about to join her in release, he swiftly pulled out of her and spent himself on the floor. When he returned to her, she was smiling shyly. “Is that…is that what makes babies?”

“I hereby make a rule in my bed,” he announced, making a show of pouncing on her so that she squealed and rolled to the other side of the bed. “There shall be only loving. We shall reserve talking for the fields or the dinner table or the forest. And maybe the bath chamber.” He paused. “No, there shall be no talking in the bath chamber, either.”

Jane giggled. “Surely you do not mean that. So I cannot talk to you in the hallway, or in the kitchen, or by the lake?”

“The thought of us meeting in the kitchen is quite wild,” Alistair said. “You are a captive, and I am the laird.”

“Very well,” she said. “I make a rule in your bed, too.”

Alistair chuckled. “You cannot do that. It is my bed.”

“But in this moment, we are sharing it. Which makes it my bed, too.”

“Typical Englishwoman. Wanting to take things not belonging to you.”

Jane frowned.

Alistair sat up and said earnestly, “That was a joke, Jane. Purely a joke. You must believe me. Of course you can have rules in my bed.”

Jane said nothing still.

“Sweetling,” Alistair coaxed. He took a love bite of her shoulder and whispered sweet nothings in her ear. Jane squirmed against him, and when he looked in her eyes the light had returned to them.

“My first rule,” Jane said, doing her best to sound like a king, “is that there shall be no mention of the English-Scottish war.”

“A most wise choice, my liege,” Alistair said. “Will you be making any more rules today?

“Do not rush me, Ser Alistair!” she snapped.

“Never, never!” Alistair exclaimed, putting on a rather pitiful show of being subservient. Jane burst into laughter and Alistair watched her, a look of delight on his face. “I do hope the next rule you make is that I can ravish you as much as I want,” he said, his fingers tracing the outline of her lips.

Jane seemed to think about that for a moment, “You know what, Ser Alistair?” she said.

“What, my lady?” Alistair asked with a grin.

Jane grinned and locked her hands behind his neck. And Alistair decided that there was nothing quite like it, having Jane happy in his bed. “That might very well be my next rule.”


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Clan Fletcher Lands, 1349

If there was something a Fletcher man excelled at besides snuffing out his enemies in battle, it was hunting.

Alistair, laird of the Fletcher clan, was flanked by Keith, his best friend, and Douglas, one of his most trusted warriors. Douglas’s ten-year-old son, sat in front of Douglas on the horse. This was the first time that the boy would accompany them. They were a little distance from Castle Fletcher. Their destination was the woods, which lay just beyond the formidable hill that they were just now descending.

When they got to the bottom of the hill, Tasgall exclaimed in wonder. He then looked at Alistair and Keith. “I am sorry,” he said.

“What fer?” Alistair asked.

“Talking,” Tasgall returned. “Pa says that if you must be quiet on a hunt, so ye dinnae scare the game away.”

Alistair smiled kindly at the boy. “Is that what he said?” he asked. “Well, there is nothing to fear, Tasgall, fer the game we seek is in the woods, and we are not yet there. Also, I dinnae think yer father follows his own rules. On hunts, he is the most talkative.” There was a tilting lint in his eye.

“Nay, I am nae,” Douglas said, addressing his son. “Lad, I am quiet as a mouse and more focused than an ant bringing fruit tae its colony.”

“And more dutiful than a beehive’s workers too?” Keith prompted. “I could never tire of reciting a lot of things that you clearly arenae!”

Douglas chuckled. “A lad is out with his faither. Dinnae spread lies against him.”

“I still think that ye are the best warrior there is, even though ye arenae quiet as a mouse or more focused than an ant or more dutiful than a beehive’s workers,” Tasgall said earnestly.

Alistair and Keith made sounds of mock emotion. “There’s a fine lad,” Keith said. “Supporting his papa no matter what. A better vision I have never seen.”

“Oh, stop it, Keith!” Douglas bellowed, but there was mirth in his voice. “Dinnae listen tae him, lad,” he said to Tasgall.

“You’d better listen tae me, lad,” Keith said. “I am old enough tae be yer faither.”

“Nay, ye’re nae,” Alistair and Douglas said in unison. “But if ye keep at the rate ye are going, ye will have a son of yer own soon.”

“By keeping at the rate he is going, Pa,” Tasgall said, “dae ye mean that Uncle Keith is making very serious plans tae marry?”

“Yes,” Douglas said quickly. Keith howled in laughter. “I am careful,” he said, “in me making of very serious plans tae marry.” He turned to Alistair. “Besides, ‘tis the laird that needs tae find a bride soon.”

“I am aware of my duties,” Alistair said. “But I shall take me time in choosing the right woman.”

“You must accept, however, that ye have lost yer way with women. There is only so much women can take before they give up. This year alone, didnae about twenty women vie fer yer hand? I remember almost all of them: offering tae cook specially fer ye in the kitchens, regaling ye with stories about the fecundity that runs in their families, risking shame just tae show ye their…” He looked at Tasgall. “Ample proportions? And there was that one that shot an arrow almost better than ye and walked like a strapping lad. She challenged ye tae a swordfight thinking that it would arouse ye, I remember.”

“Ah, yes, Caitlin, I believe she was called,” Alistair said. “A very manly sort. But a formidable opponent – fer a lass.”

“Did her manliness stop ye from… engaging in activities with her?” Keith asked.

“Quite simply, aye,” Alistair replied.

“Ah,” Keith said, “but nae with certain of the others, I am sure.” He winked at Alistair. “Fiona, fer example. She had the most-” He looked at Tasgall. “She had the most generous proportions that I have ever seen on a woman. And she giggled whenever yerur eyes met hers. Ye cannae deny it.”

“I have had me fun with women, and now I have more important things tae think about,” Alistair returned.

“Me maither says marriage is about finding yer one true love,” Tasgall said.

“A wise woman she is, is yer maither,” Keith said. “That is the only reason I dinnae fear fer yer future, dear lad. The only wisdom yer faither knows is the wisdom of crashing a skull with his club.”

Douglas and Alistair burst into laughter.

“But,” Keith said, “on this matter, yer maither is blinded by her whims. She believes in love tae a degree that exceeds the advisable level. As a matter of fact, there is no advisable level tae believing in love. Nay one should believe in it. The end.”

“You’ll nae speak ill of me wife,” Douglas said.

“I speak nay ill of me sister,” Keith returned, giving Douglas a proprietary look that said ‘she was me sister afore she became yer wife’. “I only speak the truth.” They had gotten to the forest’s edge now. “Ah,” Keith remarked, taking a sniff of the air. “Game. Waiting tae be caught and killed.”

“Dinnae be so dark, Keith,” Alistair said.

“As ye command, me laird.” He turned to Tasgall. “Ye must be quiet now. Especially when ye sight game. We must have none of that blathering that ye assaulted our ears with on the way.”

Tasgall gasped. “But it was ye who did most of the talking on our way here, Uncle Keith!” he protested.

“Keep the untruths in your belly and focus, lad,” Keith hissed. Tasgall turned to look at his father. Douglas smoothed a hand over his chest to indicate to his son to calm down, but there was a smile on his face. This was simply his brother-in-law’s nature.

Keith listened for a while, but his ears caught nothing interesting. “Ye can talk as much as ye want tae, there’s nay game on this side of the forest,” he said to Tasgall with a sigh. “Did I ever tell ye that the men on our side of the family, except me, can never grow hair on their head as soon as they turn twelve years old?”

Tasgall looked at his father in horror.

“He is only jesting,” Douglas assured. “Yer uncle loves tae jest…”

Alistair heard the sound of footsteps. His eyebrow arched. He wandered away from the group in the direction of the sound. They led him to a lake. The rays of the sun glimmered on the water like pure crystals. At the lake’s bank, he saw an old lady with a wooden bucket. He swallowed his disappointment. He had no idea what he had expected to see, but it was surely not this. Her clothes were well-worn, and her hair was white as the driven snow. He had never seen hair that white before. He turned to go.


He turned swiftly. His eyes fixed themselves on the woman. But she did not look at him. She continued at her task of filling the bucket up as though she had not just called his name. “Ye are the laird of the land,” she said. “I saw ye in a dream just last night.” She looked up and Alistair inhaled sharply. How could he not have guessed? She was the witch of the Highlands, believed to be real by most, thought to be an old wives’ tale by others, but feared by all.

“What dae ye seek outside yer cottage?” Alistair asked.

The woman chuckled. “Ye have never visited me tae find out about yer future and ye must. Great leaders take advantage of divinity instead of hiding from it. ‘Tis the only way ye can have the advantage in life.”

“I make me own advantages,” Alistair said.

The woman cackled, exposing toothless gums. “Of course, Alistair. As brave and ambitious as yer faither.”

“Ye ken naething of me faither,” Alistair said, fighting to keep his voice even. It was Highlander law to leave the witch alone, but some adventurous souls sometimes visited her with gifts in exchange for a reading. His father had had to deal with such cases: a swordsmith, for example, had attempted to kill his neighbor because the witch had told him that it was the neighbor who would cause his death. Just as his father had been about to give judgment, the neighbor had begun to laugh at the seeming absurdity of him causing someone else’s death. The man who had consulted the witch had, in one deft movement, pried a warrior’s sword from its sheath and decapitated his neighbor. Two days later, he had been put to death, for that was the law.

Alistair had found ways to explain it away, for he did not want to believe that the witch’s words had come true. But there was a part of him that knew that they had.

“Dinnae ye want tae ken yer future, dear laird?” the witch asked him.

“I have nay interest in doing so,” Alistair responded.

“Well, I insist,” the witch said matter-of-factly. “Ye will meet the woman ye are destined tae fall in love with a year from now. She is the opposite of everything that ye would expect, or want, in a soulmate, but she truly matches ye in all the ways that truly matter.”

Alistair burst into laughter. “Why would I marry a Highland lass that is the opposite of what I want?”

The witch grinned at him, and if he were a man of a weaker constitution, a chill might have run down his spine. “Who said anything about a Highland lass?” she asked.

Alistair heard Keith and Douglas calling him and he turned to look behind him. He then turned back to the lake, but the witch was gone. Keith, Douglas, and Tasgall made their way to him.

“Me laird, why did ye decide tae disappear in the middle of the forest?” Douglas asked.

“I thought I saw something,” Alistair replied. “A deer. And since ye and Douglas were busy discussing like two little lasses, I decided tae go after it meself.”

Douglas and Keith laughed. “Your braither is the one acting like a little girl,” Keith said, “hiding secrets and skipping the hunt all the time.”

“Alistair chuckled, for Keith was not wrong. “What me brother does with his free time is his problem. It is probably a lass. Kenning him, it will be over soon and we will be our merry little trioagain.”

“Frio,” Tasgall said suddenly.


“Frio. I want to come on all your hunts from now on. It is either this or being forced to mind the castle with Maither. So, we will be a frio. A trio is a group of three people. But when the laird’s brother joins us, we will be four. A frio.”

Alistair, Douglas and Keith burst into laughter.

As they made their way back to the original path, Alistair’s mirth gave way to worry.

What if the witch was right?


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Twelve years later…

There was nothing but green as far as the eyes could see, save the brown of tree trunks in the far-off distance and the white of the daisies even farther than that. The sun, white in its glory, sent down its warm rays.

Two girls were seated on the grass, one eleven and the other seven. Their legs were crossed into little capital letter M’s in front of them. Their fingers were linked and they were leaning into each other so their foreheads were touching. They were cousins twice over: children of Alistair and Jane, and Ramsay and Eleonor.

“Try harder, Isla,” the younger one said.

“I am doing the best I can, Davina!” the older one replied.

“Dae you see anything?” Davina said. “Because I think I can.”

Isla opened her eyes and pulled away by an inch. “Really?!” she exclaimed excitedly. “What dae ye see? What am I thinking now?”

“Shh,” Davina said, and brought Isla’s head back to its former position. Both girls closed their eyes. “Ye cannae move away or it won’t work,” she said.

“Okay,” Isla whispered. “Tell me what ye see.”

“I see…” Davina started, her voice low and mysterious. “I see… something green.”

“Something green?” Isla whispered.

“Yes,” Davina replied. “Ye are thinking about something brown. I am trying to see what it is exactly. Is it the green of the new dress that Aunt Eleonor finished sewing fer ye yesterday? Is it the green of the grass that surrounds us? Or could it be…hmm.”

“What?” Isla said. “What?!”

“Could you perhaps be thinking of the green snake close tae yer left leg?”

Isla shrieked and jumped up. She vigorously shook her limbs and then inspected the area around her feet. There was nothing there. Davina burst into laughter. Isla frowned. “It’s not funny!” she declared. “I’ve told ye tae stop playing tricks on me!”

“But how can I stop when ye fall fer them so hilariously?” Davina asked, holding her belly. “Ye weren’t even thinking of a green snake and so how could I have seen one?”

“Anyone would be scared if they heard there was a snake their them!” Isla declared.

Davina shook her head. “A green snake? Not me. I would have been excited. I would have put it in me little jar and fed it grasshoppers and termites until its stomach hurt. Then I would make it me pet and name it Fiona. I want it to be a girl snake. I dinnae like boys, and so I dinnae think I would like a boy snake. Haven’t ye ever wanted a pet, Isla?”

Isla shook her head. “Never. Pets scare me. They’re small but ye never ken what they can dae if they just decided tae be bad one day.”

Davina rolled her eyes and stood up. “What harm could a pet snail dae, fer example?”

“Well,” Isla said, and went into deep thought. “I presume it could escape the house ye’ve made fer it and drag its slobber all over yer favorite dresses.”

“Drag its slobber all over me favorite dresses,” Davina repeated. “And ye think that is scary? Not hilarious?”

“Yes,” Isla said. “Leave me alone. We should head back. All this talk of green snakes has ruined the play. I dinnae even think that it is real. Ye cannae read anyone’s mind by just putting yer forehead tae theirs.”

“Ye’ve got it all wrong, Isla!” Davina cut a small blade of grass and put it in her mouth.

“That is disgusting,” Isla said. “Ye would never dae that if adults were watching.”

“Correct,” Davina said. “Anyway, of course ye cannae read anyone’s mind just by joining foreheads. That was just fer fun. Ye can read yer sister’s mind, though. Because ye love each other and dae everything together.”

“We are cousins, Davina!”

“It is the same thing,” Davina said. “It doesnae matter-” She stopped suddenly, for she had just sighted a man walking toward them out of the corner of her eye. She had never seen him before, so she was sure he was not from their clan. He was wearing English clothes, the likes of which her mother, with her very limited drawing skills, had illustrated to teach Davina about her own side of the family.’

Isla, having sighted the man too, took Davina’s hand and began to fidget. “Let’s run,” she whispered to her cousin.

“Why?” Davina asked. “We are not supposed tae run from anything. A Scottish lass should be, above everything, brave and kind. Or have you forgotten what Aunt Catrina has told us?”

“Yes, but…” Isla said. Beginning to fidget. “He doesnae look kind. Nae kind at all.”

“If ye run from people that are nae kind, they’ll think you’re scared of them and become even unkinder.”

“Davina, that doesnae make sense!”

“Hush, he’s here.”

The man stood before them, big and bulky, blocking the sun. He looked like someone who had rolled in the dirt for a considerable amount of time. His clothes were torn in places. His eyes were small and stern. He appraised them, head to toe and back to head, for all of four seconds. Isla edged closer to Davina and squeezed her hand.

“Who are you?” the man asked finally.

“Me faither says I cannae talk tae strangers,” Davina said, her chin jutted in the man’s direction.

“Is that so?” the man asked.

“Tae answer yer question would be tae talk tae ye,” Davina said. “And I have told ye that I cannae dae that.” She turned to Isla. “Let’s go.”

“Don’t move,” the man ordered. Something in the quality of his voice rooted both girls to the spot.

“You,” the man said and pointed at Davina, “come here.”

Davina shook her head. “Ye cannae tell me what tae dae.”

The man’s movement was swift. He dragged Davina away from Isla’s hold as though she weighed nothing.

“Davina!” Isla cried. Davina stomped on the man’s boots and attempted to dig her teeth into his side, but he was faster. With one hand, he swung her over his shoulder. She pounded on his back, but if he felt it, he made no indication that he did.

“You,” the man said, facing Isla, who was trembling in the breeze, “run home and tell your clan that the debt that they owe the Duke of Lancaster shall be paid.”


Both couples stood right outside the castle. The horses were ready. The warriors were waiting. Ramsay was holding Eleonor’s hand as he whispered into her ears. Jane and Alistair were locked in an embrace. Jane pulled away and put her hands on her belly. She was six months gone. When Isla, accompanied by Donald, the warrior whose responsibility it was to watch the girls, returned with the news, Jane had nearly fainted. On hearing the message that the abductors had asked her to relay, her eyes had widened in horror.

She had known that the Duke would have his revenge, and because of this, Alistair and Ramsay had taken extra care to fortify the castle, but days had turned into weeks and weeks into months, and it had appeared that the Duke had chosen to busy himself with other things. It had taken eleven whole years for him to fight back. And he had chosen the little girl as the object of his revenge. An innocent in all this. Anytime she thought about it, it made her throat tight. Her little girl, among Englishmen who hated her for her mixed parentage. It was enough to make any mother delirious with worry.

Alistair and his warriors would get her darling Davina back. They had swung into action immediately. Alistair was every inch as worried as Jane, but he did not show it. “Save our daughter, Alistair,” Jane said, her eyes pleading.

Alistair nodded and planted a kiss on her forehead. He then got on his horse. Ramsay bent to hug Isla. Since her return and conveyance of the abductor’s message, she had become reticent, only speaking when spoken to. Her parents – as well as Alistair and Jane – had reassured her that it was not her fault that her cousin and best friend had been taken, but guilt bore heavily on the little girl. Ramsay then kissed his wife goodbye and mounted his horse.

Nearby, Catrina hugged Tasgall. Now 22 years old, he was a sturdy young man with a formidable physique. He towered over his mother, who was pulling away from him with pride. Her eyes strayed to her husband’s, and his reflected the emotion in hers. He, too, was proud of the man that his son had become. Following the end of the war, there had been no battles to fight, and this would be Tasgall’s first mission as a warrior of Clan Fletcher.

Tasgall made to mount his horse, but he was stopped by a tap on the arm. It was Isla. Her shy blue eyes could barely meet his. “May I kiss yer cheek?” she asked.

“Of course,” Tasgall said, and presented his right cheek. Isla planted a peck on it and stepped quickly away.

All the warriors had mounted their horses, and it was time to leave. Alistair raised his arm, and brought his horse to a fast trot away from the castle. The other warriors followed.


The End.

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Taken by the Highland Brute (Preview)


1350, Second War of Scottish Independence
Marsh Residence, England

Jane Marsh liked to believe that she was a good person. She tried, as much as she could, to steer clear of any situation that might test this goodness, but so far she had not had great luck doing so.

Jane seemed to attract problems. So, over the years, she’d perfected the art of inventing stories just to escape whatever situation she found herself trapped in.

Today was no different. Her sister’s engagement dinner was the perfect excuse. If she got caught eavesdropping at her father’s study, she would simply say that she had come to inform him that the table had been set. Its plausibility would depend on her ability to keep a straight face while she was saying it. And to maintain it while her father threw verbal daggers, which had grown ineffectual from overuse, afterwards. Still, she’d best not get caught.

From inside, she could hear Commander Edward Pierce, one of the guests of the celebration, regale her father with tales of his valor. His voice was loud, almost theatrical. He had a way of saying things like he was the main actor in a play riddled with soliloquys, always emphasizing his own qualities. Now, however, he was speaking to her father about the war with Clan Fletcher.

That caught her attention.

Just two weeks ago, her uncle Howard had been slaughtered in a battle with the clan and Jane had been disconsolate, for he had been more of a father to her than her real one had ever been. He’d listened to her and brought her gifts. He’d praised her beauty and given her a sense of belonging. When, as a child, she’d told him that she hated her eyes because green eyes were only for cats, he’d carried her on his lap and said, “Then I am the biggest of cats, Jane. I am a lion!” He’d made a marvelous imitation of a roar and encouraged her to do the same.

“What does that make you?” he’d asked afterwards.

“A lion, too!” she’d giggled. And then she roared again.

“Smart girl. Just like your mother was.”

And now he was gone.

Jane had mourned for a week. She had barely eaten, and she had not stepped out of her room. It was Eleonor who had broken her out of her despondent spell by informing her that she was engaged to be married.

Her father’s voice, in contrast to the commander’s, was steely and firm. It carried authority. She knew it well: it was the voice that played in her subconscious when she did things badly.

Oh, look at what you have done now.

You cannot get anything done right.

Stupid, just stupid.

“I suppose congratulations are in order, Commander Pierce,” her father said. “A win against those savages is a win for all of England.”

“True, true,” Commander Pierce said. “I am starving. I declare, I am parched. Could I ask you to ring for a servant, Marsh? A few sips of wine before the festivities will do us good. Better yet, I shall go and find a servant myself.”

“Yes, of course,” her father said, and she heard the shuffling of feet. She swiftly gathered her skirts, moved away from the door and fled down the hall to her sister’s room. Her abode was an austere affair, with lifeless walls and cold halls. She’d lived all her years in it and it still did not feel like home. The wood, though fastidiously polished by the maids, was rotten in places. The stone, though scrubbed, needed replacing. She’d once suggested that the curtains be changed, and the windows be left open in summertime and her father had looked at her as though she had an unnamable, untamable disease and walked away.

Oh, to leave here and go someplace else where she could have a say, where she could choose her own room and decorate it any way she wanted! In this sense, Eleonor was lucky. Soon, she would be the mistress of her home, a hallowed duchess, with the ability to dictate the house’s curtains and linens and rugs. Jane was truly happy for her, but she would miss her sorely. She loved her most in the whole world, and with her uncle Howard gone, living here would become doubly hard. She swallowed that despondent thought, pasted a smile on her face, and entered her sister’s room.

“I do believe that at least the bride should be present at the engagement dinner,” she said, closing the door behind her. Eleonor was standing by the window, her back to Jane. At twenty, Eleonor was almost a head shorter than her younger sister. She had the straightest black hair and the darkest black eyes that Jane had ever seen, in contrast to Jane’s green ones, so similar to her uncle’s eyes. Often, when they were children, Jane would look in the mirror and imagine that it was Eleonor’s black eyes that stared back at her.

“Oh, you chose the oxblood dress,” Jane said, as she walked to Eleonor’s bed. It was a beautiful, blooming affair of cotton with tiny lace trimmings on the bodice and the miniature cape. Unlike Jane, Eleanor had a lean figure. The kind that was favored in paintings and sculptures. Jane, on the other hand, was fuller in front and behind. Her proportions made her self-conscious, as her father had always insinuated that it was an indication of indiscretion. It was one of the many reasons for which Eleonor was their father’s favorite. Not that it bothered Jane: she was glad that their father treated at least one of them well.

“It is the prettier of the two, like I said before,” Jane said. “It fits you well. I cannot believe that you considered the black one in the first place. Black is such an inauspicious color for an engagement dinner.”

“You sound like a superstitious Scot,” Eleonor replied without turning. Jane smiled. “Sir Edward Pierce is in Father’s office, as usual. You would think the man did not have a home of his own. He is regaling Father with the details of his recent victory over Clan Fletcher.”

She sat on the bed, careful to spread her skirts out first. This habit, as well as other habits surrounding grace and poise, were not borne of the need to be ladylike but the fear of not being so. When she was twelve, her father had called her a harridan that belonged in the wild with fellow creatures simply because she had come down for supper with her hair improperly combed. There were at least seven men, her father’s friends, around. They had laughed boisterously as she ran up the stairs, tears streaming down her face.

“I suppose I should feel happy, somewhat. It is justice, in a way, even though it was at the hand of the commander and not Father,” she continued now. “But it does not change the fact that Uncle Howard is gone, Eleonor.” A wave of sadness washed over her again.

Commander Edward’s victory against clan Fletcher, in the grand scheme of things, meant nothing. It could not bring her uncle back. More so, she knew that the commander would present it as some sort of gift, something she must be thankful for. He was a slippery man in his late forties that put one in mind of a fox. He always smelled of smoke and something else, something slightly malevolent. And then there was that theatre-talk. That infernal theatre-talk. His presence was disconcerting, and several times, Jane had had to evade him, for his attentions were… peculiar. He seemed determined to share the same space as she. Over the years, he had taken an uncommon interest in her. He paid her compliments that always managed to seem a little insulting. He would be at the engagement dinner, an event best suited, in Jane’s opinion, to only close family.

“The Commander does nothing for free. He is never driven by a sense of duty or responsibility or loyalty. I am sure that this victory of his is just a way to get close to the duke, so that he can inundate him with requests for favors. Defeating clan Fletcher cannot bring our uncle back.” Jane said. “If he were here, he would corner me and ask if I was interested in getting married, as well. He would promise to facilitate any match of my choosing. He always wanted to make me happy.”

Eleonor’s response was a sigh.

“Eleonor?” Jane said, frowning. “Are you alright?”

Eleonor shook her head. Jane’s eyebrow went up. She gathered her skirts and walked to her sister. She took her hand and looked into her eyes. Her face was drawn and sad. “What is the problem, Eleonor dear? What ails you? Your engagement, is it? The duke?”

Eleonor’s face grew even darker. “Oh, Eleonor!” Jane exclaimed. “I know he is much older, and that every girl would prefer someone well… more… animated. But he is a duke. We must look at the bright side. What he lacks in youth, he will make up for in wealth. You’ll be mistress of all his houses. You’ll have servants to mind you and you’ll be among top society! You will attend occasions that the king himself will be present at. You’ll live away from the strife of this infernal war. Really, Eleonor, it won’t be that bad, you’ll see.”

Eleonor said nothing. “And… and if you’re worried about the duke himself,” Jane continued, “I know he is not handsome. But he has an eleven-year-old daughter who adores him. That is a good sign. If he is a good father, he will be a good husband, no?

She shook her head, and then her face crumpled, and she began to weep. The tears took Jane by surprise. Eleonor reached for her, and Jane held her and rubbed her back, while she whispered sounds of encouragement. When Eleonor pulled away, her eyes were watery, and her hair was mussed. “Jane…”

“Yes, Eleonor?”

“I… need you.”

“I am here, darling. Please talk to me, Eleonor.”

“I… I… I am in love.”

This came as a shock to Jane, but she smiled and said, “To feel love is a wonderful thing, Eleonor! Remember, when we were girls, we would talk about falling hopelessly in love and having our lovers love us back and…” She trailed off, realizing the import of her sister’s declaration. She knew it was almost impossible for the answer to her next question to be in the affirmative, but still, she could hope. “Is it… is it the duke, Eleonor? Please, tell me you meant the duke.”

The look of despondence morphed into one of irritation. It was gone in a second, however. “Of course it is not the duke,” Eleonor said.

“Right,” Jane said, and tucked a tendril of hair behind Eleonor’s ear. “With whom, then?”

“I cannot tell you, I am sorry,” Eleonor said.

“But you tell me everything!” Jane exclaimed. “Will you then hide something as important as this from me?”

“It is not that I do not want to tell you,” Eleonor said, “But I cannot, Jane. I really cannot. You must believe me.”

Jane sighed. “Why is that, Eleonor?”

“Because,” Eleonor sniffled, “because he has abandoned me.”

Jane’s eyes grew wide. “What? He is a rake, I am sure. A blind one, no less. What man could abandon you? You are kind and beautiful and brilliant. He does not deserve you. Not at all. Oh, come, Eleonor, it is alright, it is alright.” She made to take Eleonor in her arms, but her sister shook her head and burst into tears.

Jane tried to hug her again, but Eleonor refused. She folded her arms around her middle and rocked herself. When she looked at Jane again, her eyes were red. “I have made a mistake. A huge mistake.”

“No.” Jane said. “You have done nothing wrong. It is he who-”

“I am with child.”

A weight dropped in Jane’s stomach. Her mouth turned bitter. Her eyes widened. “What?”

Eleonor nodded, her face crumpling again.

It took quite a few moments for Jane to process this. She knew nothing of pregnancy, save what she had read about in books. Her mother had died at Jane’s birth, and so she had no one to ask about ‘womanly’ things. A tragedy indeed because she was supremely curious about everything. The books she had read on the human anatomy had been a little vague, but not vague enough that she did not know what it took to be pregnant. She was a little shocked, truth be told, that her sister, the saintly Eleonor, had done it. She looked at her sister’s belly and then her gaze moved to her face. “Oh, Eleonor,” she said simply. Eleonor jumped into her arms and sobbed, her tears flowing into Jane’s hair. “What will I do, Jane? I am ruined!”

“Don’t say that,” Jane cautioned, squeezing her sister’s hands lightly. “There is a way to remedy this. We only need to figure out how.” She paused, deep in thought. And then she said, “Whatever the solution is, we must hide the pregnancy, Eleonor. Father must never know.”

“But how will he not know? You cannot hide a lot from Father, Jane; you know this.”

“I mean this only as a temporary measure, Eleonor. You do not wish to go through with the marriage, I suppose?”

“No,” Eleonor said. “I have thought about it a lot. Getting married seems the easiest choice to make, I know. Just like Maribeth. And yet I cannot bring myself to do it.”

“That is if she truly did it,” Jane added. Maribeth was a childhood friend of Eleonor’s whose baby was born seven months after her wedding. Eleonor knew that Maribeth was in fact intimate with her childhood sweetheart, Benjamin, a weak, flighty sort, but she did not insinuate anything at the child’s birth one year ago. Maribeth responded to the gossip with disgust and told everyone who cared to know that some babies did in fact show up earlier than they were meant to, complete with hair and fingernails. Her husband was a simple man who was besotted with her, and the baby was male, and so there were no consequences as such. Eleonor knew, however, that it wouldn’t be the same for her.

“Alright,” Jane said. added. “How far gone are you?”

Eleonor did the math in her head. “About two months.”

Jane felt the air leave her lungs in a whoosh. But she plastered a smile on her face and said, “Well, we just need to delay the wedding until we figure out what to do. We must come up with a plan. A very good one.”

Eleonor nodded.

“Oh, but will you not tell me who the father is? Where is he? Perhaps we can send him a message. He could be instrumental in our-”

Eleonor said, looking at her hands. “He is gone, Jane. Gone. We were planning to run away together-” Jane’s eyes widened at this. Eleonor sighed and continued, but after I told him about the pregnancy, he just… disappeared. I went, several times to our usual meeting spot. Nothing. He left me. Oh, Jane, I am so- “

Jane held a finger over her sister’s lips. With her other hand, she pointed to her ear. Both girls listened… and then heard retreating footsteps. Jane shot off the bed and opened the door. The steps were fast, and Jane followed them swiftly down the hall. She knew who it was, and the thought left a knot in her stomach. For only one person that she knew smelt so strongly of smoke. She searched all the rooms on this floor, opening them, sticking her neck in, only to close them and bolt to the next. At last, she was at the end of the hall, where only one room remained.

Her father’s office.

She entered it without thinking.

Two pairs of eyes turned to look at her. There was no element of warmth in either of them. “Don’t hang at the door, Jane,” her father said, “Enter.”

She swallowed and urged her feet to move. She stood before them. Her eyes went from the commander to her father. There was a look of pure maliciousness in Commander Pierce’s eyes. It was as though she had done him some great wrong, and, mentally, she went over the conversation that he had eavesdropped on. It did not concern him. It was nothing against him. He had no interest whatsoever. She’d run after him solely because she knew that he could not be trusted to keep his mouth shut. He took every opportunity that appeared to offer future leverage. He would scheme, plot, and grovel if need be. This played out even in the course of his dealings with… the Duke of Lancaster.

Jane’s eyes widened. Commander Pierce, in the anticipation of a favor, could tell the duke that the woman he wished to marry was not just merely bereft of virginity, but pregnant by another man. It would mean nothing to Commander Pierce that he was friends with their father or an admirer -the term used loosely- of Jane.

Jane could not let that happen to sweet Eleonor!

Her gaze moved to her father. He was looking at her, his gaze steady. He wasn’t angry.

He was furious.

“Father, I-”

“You what, Jane?”

Jane’s heart began to beat fast. There was a thundering in her ears. She tried to calm herself, tried to make her words even when she said, “I do not know what the commander has told you-”

“That I am harboring whoredom,” her father replied with vitriol. “The commander has told me that here, in my house, I have been living with girls that are intent on bringing shame to me, despite my feeding them, clothing them, catering to their every whim and fancy. Despite my toil, I have bred committers and coverers of fornication.”

Later on, she would mull over how flawed his speech was, for he had never catered to their whims and fancies. Even Eleonor, whom he clearly loved more, could not make requests of him without first weighing the consequences.

Now, she rushed to Eleonor’s defense: “Father, it was a mistake. Truly. She did not know!”

“Silence!” her father thundered. “You wish to make me the laughingstock of every English troop that hears it. My name, dragged through slime. All because of you. Everywhere that evil is mentioned, you are bound to be tied to it.”


“It was you who encouraged her to sin. You are a sinner, and that is not enough. You want to drag everyone that you can into the mire with you. You introduced your sister to sin, and now that it has sprouted into a bastard you seek to hide it.”



Every word he said compressed her until she was deflated. But then, if one thought about it critically, Jane had nothing to feel guilty about. She was a virgin, so how could her father accuse her of sin?

“Why did you not bring it to my attention as soon as you knew of it? Why did you choose to hide it instead?”

Jane was silent.

“You fancy yourself a loyal sister, do you not? That is very well. A loyal sister is to be desired, after all. Loyalty goes with sacrifice, does it not?” He looked Jane in the eye, and she shuddered. “So my dear girl, you will sacrifice yourself for the sake of this family.”

Chapter One

A week later

Jane stared at all her belongings in the entire world. They fit into two cases. That was all she had come to possess in her eighteen years on earth. She looked out of the window, at the daises and bluebonnets that bloomed in the square garden downstairs. They were the only beautiful thing about the castle. They had been her mother’s, she’d been told. Her father had kept them for sentimental reasons. Beyond the garden was a field that stretched on as far as the eye could see. She and Eleonor were seldom allowed to go into town, and so almost all their memories were of this castle. She had always wanted to be free of it, and now she would be.

Only, she was stepping into a brand of captivity perhaps even worse than this one. Ever since that day in her father’s office, Commander Pierce had looked at her as though she were property, as though she were conquered land. He’d had the effrontery to put a hand on her waist as he led her out of her father’s office after the deal had been struck. If her father had seen it, he had made no indication of it.

Jane had always thought that she would marry for love, that she would meet a man who understood her and cherished her more than anything in the world. They would have a little house on the countryside. She would fill it with color: saffron walls and curtains the color of the sky and freshly picked flowers for every table.

Instead, her hand was given in exchange for the commander’s silence. She was nothing more than the girls she’d heard about, whose fathers gave them out for drink or cows. Inside, she was quaking. She would do this all over again if it meant that her sister’s secret was safe. Still, Jane was filled with despair.

Ever since she’d told Eleonor what the price for the Commander’s silence was, her sister had withdrawn in what Jane knew was shame and regret. Jane had tried to reach out to her, to reassure her and ease some of her guilt. But she had stayed away, locked in her room, as the life within her grew and grew. Till now, Jane had no idea how the dilemma would be resolved, but she was sure that their father was hatching a plan that would make himself come out on top.

One of the maids entered the room, her steps slow and sorrowful. Her hands were clutched together in front of her. “’Tis time, my lady,” she said. Jane nodded and stepped away from the window. The maid took one case, and another came and took the other. Jane looked around the room and sighed. As she went through the door, her hand lingered on a cold wall. She went to Eleonor’s room and knocked at the door. “Eleonor? Darling? It is time for me to join the commander in Scotland. My cases are packed. They have been taken downstairs. I cannot leave without a goodbye from you. Please.”

She heard nothing, at first, and then she heard the sound of sobbing. “Oh, Eleonor, you cannot do this to me and yourself. Please unlock the door. If we part like this, I shan’t be able to bear it. Eleonor.”

“She simply does not want to see you,” her father said, materializing from around the corner. “She has realized the harm that loving you does to people. And now she must preserve herself from further harm. You must leave immediately.”

Shortly after the commander had found out about Eleonor’s pregnancy, he’d had to return to Scotland to join his countrymen in solidifying the English position on Scottish land. His regiment was camped in an abandoned castle at Loch Lomond. Jane had never heard a good tale about Scotland. To hear everyone tell it, it was a land of illiterate savages who worshipped wood and stone and vehemently refused the efforts of the English to bring them civilization. To crown it all, there was a war going on. Commander Pierce had promised to send two soldiers of his to guide her safely through, but that did not inspire a lot of confidence in Jane. She had met their commander. And weren’t men reflections of their leaders?

“Yes, Father, I will leave,” Jane said. “I just need to say goodbye.” Her throat caught. She turned to Eleanor’s door and banged on it. “I just want to say goodbye, Eleonor.”

Nothing, except the sobs.

“Come on now,” her father said. “You must leave at once.” He took her arm and steered her in the direction of the stairs. They both descended them, and when they got outside, there were tears in Jane’s eyes. Her cases were in the carriage, and a small group of her father’s serfs had gathered around to bid her goodbye. The gardener who tended her mother’s flowers made a way for himself and presented her with a beautiful bunch of white daises. His hair was grey and wild. His shirt had patches in it. His breeches were caked with mud. And yet the open-toothed smile that he gave her as he pressed the flowers into her hands almost broke her.

Your mother would have wanted you to have them,” he said. “She would be so proud of how beautiful and… and brave you have become.”

“Oh,” Jane said, her voice shaking. A fat tear rolled down her right cheek and she quickly wiped it away with her free hand and smiled. “Thank… thank you.”

“Back to work!” her father thundered. Throughout their interaction, he’d hovered by the door, but now it appeared he could not take more of this. They dispersed speedily, and Jane felt as though a part of herself had left her.

“What are you waiting for, then? Get in!” he bellowed at her. She got in the carriage. She had seen that Commander Pierce had assigned two guards to her carriage. They sat up front with the rider, with unsmiling faces and menacing muskets.

“All set, Mr. Marsh?” the rider enquired.

“Yes,” her father replied. “Carry on.”

Jane stared up at the castle with longing. If only Eleonor would just come down and-

“Wait!” she suddenly heard. She whipped her head around. Eleonor was running down the steps. Jane threw open the carriage door and stepped out. Her sister enveloped her in a powerful embrace. When they pulled away, there were tears in their eyes. Eleonor looked like a shadow of herself. Her eyes were sunken. Her hair, which she took great pride in, was tangled. Her skin was sallow. “Oh, Eleonor!” Jane exclaimed. “You mustn’t carry on so. You must be strong. For yourself. For us. For the baby.”

Eleonor nodded and smiled through her tears. “Sometimes I think you were actually meant to be the older sister, but you just dragged your feet, as always, and let me come first.”

Jane laughed.

“You are so wise,” Eleonor said, tucking a tendril of hair behind Jane’s ear. “And brave. And kind. And selfless. I do not deserve you.”


“I owe you everything, Jane. Everything. I will never be able to thank you enough. I am sorry for hiding away like a coward. All the hours we could have spent together… Oh, I have been such a fool.”

“No,” Jane said. “Do not be hard on yourself. Please.”

“I shall visit you as soon as I can. Whether it’s in Scotland or on the surface of the sun. I will find you, Jane. I love you.”

“I love you, Eleonor.” They embraced again.

The coachman snorted. “I don’t mean to interrupt, but time is against us. We must be on our way.”

“Let her go, Eleonor,” their father said. Eleonor obliged, but not before pressing a piece of parchment into Jane’s hands. She gave her a look which made Jane quickly slip it down the sleeve of her gown.

“Read it on your journey,” she whispered. “May Mother’s spirit guide you.”

Jane nodded and got back on the carriage. She shifted the bunch of flowers, so she had more room and turned to her family. “Goodbye, Eleonor.”

Eleonor smiled sadly and waved. “Goodbye, Jane.”

“Goodbye, Father.”

Jane’s father did not even bother to say it back. He turned away and began to walk up the stairs. The carriage began to move. Her last memory of the castle was of her sister waving, her tangled hair billowing in the breeze.


Jane felt a lump form in her throat. She looked outside the carriage, at the green vegetation that they drove past. She could count the number of times she had left the Marsh residence. They were almost always at her Uncle Howard’s prompting. Uncle Howard was not here to hold her hand as he did when she was a child. She was headed for enemy territory, where her only relative would be a man she did not care for.

That was an understatement. She loathed the Commander.

She tried to tame the emotions that were welling up inside her. Her thoughts went far and wide until she developed a headache, and then she fell asleep. When she woke up, she stared out to see that the sun was beginning to set. She dried her tears quickly and unfolded the paper that Eleonor had pressed into her hand. It was Eleonor’s curved handwriting, the rounded R’s, the I’s with what looked like tear drops on top, the G’s and Y’s that invaded the line of words beneath them. And before even reading the letter, Jane knew that she would cherish it forever. Keeping it was, in a way, keeping a part of Eleonor.

She began to read:

My dearest Jane,

I have not the words with which to express how sorry I am for the outturn of events. I have known Father to be callous, but to claim that this last action of his did not shake me to my bones would be to lie. I hate him for what he made you do. And, more importantly, I hate myself for the part I played in it. If I had exercised more discretion, you would not be in this situation.

I am very sorry, Jane. I do hope that one day, you shall find it in your heart to forgive me.

“There is nothing to forgive you for,” Jane whispered to herself, and she continued to read.

I know you are disappointed in me already, and so what harm could a little more disappointment do? I am sorry. I am a wretch, trying to make jokes in this situation. But Jane, I must tell you: The father of my child is Scottish. I know your eyes will grow wide when you read this.

Eleonor was right: Jane’s eyes did go wide.

His name is Ramsay. He has blond hair and blue eyes. He is from a Scottish clan around the border. That is all I know about him.

Do you remember the storm that destroyed all our crop and made Father near-delirious for a week? Recall that I went riding that day. We had no idea that a storm was coming. When I returned, you were sick with worry. You asked how I had managed to weather it out and return. Well, it was Ramsay who saved me, Jane. I was riding through the border when it began. He took me into his his arms and on his horse and then, from there, to a makeshift tent where he had set up camp. Oh, no man had ever been as sweet to me as he was! He gave me the very clothes on his back. He had a broth made for me. He sang me to sleep. We lay together afterward. And it was the most magical thing.

I fell in love with him, Jane. It did not matter that he was a Scot in that moment. We met secretly for a while after that day and when I told him that I was pregnant, he was happy, Jane: truly, he was. There is no way to feign such joy. We planned to run away the next day, but I went to where we had agreed to meet, and he was not there.

Please do not judge me, Sister. I know that we and the Scottish are sworn enemies. But Ramsay was not at all like the Scottish were described to us. He was kind and loyal and very decent, and he looked at me like I was the sun itself. At least, that is what I thought. I see now that I am a fool for trusting him. For he left without any explanation.

Oh Jane, I have caused you so much trouble already, and I would never ask anything more of you if I had a choice. But Jane, do you think you could find it in your heart to try to find him? Please try. He did not tell me his clan for fear of putting me in danger. I know that no one else can find him. You are brave and adventurous and brilliant. Please tell Ramsay of the condition I have found myself in with the duke. Tell him that if he has any of the love he claimed to have for me, he must rescue me from my impending fate, if not for my sake, then for the sake of our child.

Please save me.

Love, Eleonor.

Jane folded the paper carefully and put it beside her on a chair. She removed the neckpiece that her uncle Howard had bought her on her sixteenth birthday. With it, she anchored the paper to the chair.

She then sighed.

It was a huge task that her sister had entrusted her with. She would be new in Scotland. She had no one to help her carry out this assignment. If the attitude he had portrayed before them all these years was anything to go by, she knew that Commander Pierce would not let her simply walk the length and breadth of the country. He seemed the type that did not allow things that he thought he owned out of his sight.

The thought filled her with fear. Her fear transformed into pure terror when she remembered that she would have to perform wifely duties. She had avoided thinking about it this past week in the oblivion that time and space afforded her, but she did not have that luxury anymore.

She had to face her reality.

And it was a grim one indeed.

She looked outside the window and was struck by the freedom of the trees that the carriage whizzed past. They grew as much as soil and sunlight and rain allowed them. No one laide claim to them. She would never have that kind of freedom. Something suddenly caught her eye and her head whipped to the left. There, on the low vegetation, was what appeared to be a boy on a horse. She blinked.

And he was gone.

She could not have imagined it. She inched closer to the window and looked outside it. There was nothing but grass in every direction as far as her eyes could see. She took her eyes away from the window and stared instead at her hands.

Her fate was worse than prison itself.


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