Enchanting the Highland Rose (Preview)

Chapter One

Northumbria, 1320

Laila was in the stables. She had seen the rain clouds gathering and hurried to ensure her horse was prepared for the turn in the weather. The horse was fine, of course, safely stabled and enclosed from the elements, but Laila knew that he hated the rain, and so she always paid him a visit before it fell.

Her chestnut hair fell loosely around her shoulders and across her brow, stopping just short of her dark, intense eyes. Freckles adorned her nose and upper cheeks, and her dimples appeared at the mere thought of a smile.

“Come now, it’s all fine, my friend,” she said to the horse, running her hands over his snout. “It’s just a bit of rain.” And on cue, the drops began to patter against the roof. Unlike the castle’s meeting hall, the stable did leak, and a few buckets had been appropriately positioned to catch the stray drops. The horse looked back at her without amusement.

“Well, I can’t make it stop,” she said, staring right back into his eyes. “So, you will just have to endure.” The horse replied with a disapproving snort. “I’ll be back for you later,” she said. “Stay safe then, don’t get spooked.”

Laila knew she was late. The dinner bell had rung some time ago, but she didn’t have much of a mind for being timely. Who was there other than her grumbling father? She hated to listen to his whining, especially as he continued to drink, but still, she knew that he was terribly lonely, and so she put up with it.

Of course, she loved him as her father, but of late, he had become so dreadfully sullen that she found him often difficult to bear. It wasn’t her fault that he had no money and lived out in the middle of nowhere; he had accomplished that all on his own. Still, the longer she delayed dinner, the sullener he would be.

Laila threw her woolen hood up over her head and peered out of the stables but took a sudden pause. Her eyes followed the stretching beams that held up the thatch roof, past the rows of wooden stalls, to the far end of the stable building. There, past the piles of leather straps and riding equipment, her brothers’ horses were standing, looking quite bedraggled, and she felt her heart give a jump of excitement. They were back! Suddenly, she cursed herself for being late, and she hustled out into the castle yard.

She glanced hurriedly up at the walls as she dashed through the yard, frowning a bit as the rain splashed down. The castle was in horrible shape, anyone could see it, and Laila hated to see the slow degradation of her home. The banners lapped lazily in the northern breeze, wet from the sporadic rains, and slapped against the worn stone that had stood for near on a century. The woodwork along the walls was sagging from the weather, and clumps of moss clung to various crenelations in the roofing.

It had never been the grandest of castles, and Laila knew it. It was just another round stone tower with a circular wall put up by the conquerors two hundred years before and then improved upon in the century following as the region became increasingly dangerous. The outer wall had gotten larger, and more buildings had cropped up within, but still, the original stone tower stood at the center, never overshadowed.

Yet still, the castle stood against the winds and rains of England’s far North, looking out tentatively from the hilltop at the small surrounding valley. As the rain pattered down in its unending torrent, Laila knew her father would be pacing the hall, glancing up at the ceiling to ensure it wasn’t leaking and waiting for her arrival with a grumble.

The rain was dismal, and it had already turned much of the yard to muck. The castle residents had already taken shelter, save a few of the ill-equipped guardsmen lingering beneath the gate, and so she strode hurriedly through the empty space, kicking up mud behind her as she tried to hold her garments above the sludge, largely to no avail, until she burst into the hall.

“There she is!” Matthew exclaimed, leaping up from the bench on the far side of the table.

“I did not know you were back!” Laila exclaimed, taking Jacob into an embrace. “Forgive me; I would have come sooner.”

“There is nothing to forgive,” Jacob replied, stepping back so that Matthew could have his hug. Then he added with a grin, “Though you do smell something of the stables.”

“How have you faired, little sister?” Matthew asked after embracing her briefly. “Still playing stablemaster, is it?”

Her two brothers were fine lads, with full heads of hair, though the younger had always struggled to put up a proper beard. They were fit, having been trained with sword and lance since they were young, and they did not yet have lands of their own where they could sit and grow fat like their father. Jacob, the younger, had a splash of freckles that matched her own, with murky green eyes, while Matthew had the brown eyes and square jaw of a picture-perfect man-at-arms.

The light in the hall was dim as the hearth choked on dwindling firewood, and the candles did their utmost to illuminate the small stretches of the wall they were mounted upon. Laila finished welcoming her brothers and turned her attention to the head of the table. Their father sat there, slouched in his wooden seat, one hand on his cup and the other resting lazily on his armrest. He was older now, the wrinkles reaching up to wrap around his cheeks beneath his deep hazel eyes, his graying hair tied back but still, a loose strand or two hung carefree down and about his temples.

“What crime is there in caring for one’s horse?” Laila replied, taking down her hood. The rain had still found her face on her dash through the yard, and her hair clung to her forehead.

“A lady should not be late,” her father grumbled from the head of the table, “nor should she play with horses.”

“So, I have heard,” Laila said back.

“Come and sit, children; there are things we must discuss,” her father said with a frown, waving his hand to the servants, signaling to bring up the food.

“I worried for you every day, as always,” Laila said to her brothers, sliding onto the bench beside Jacob. “One hears such dreadful reports of the border.”

“It will take more than a few ragged Scotsmen to scare us,” Matthew said with a laugh. “The danger, I’m sure, is exaggerated.”

“There are bandits to be sure, raiders and the like,” Jacob added, “but they are oft to go running when they see English horse appear on a hill.”

“In any event, I am glad to see you both home safely,” Laila said.

The servants came in with a large dish of roasted fowl, accompanied by a basket of bread and a bowl of vegetables. Ceramic plates were set out with cutlery, and everyone began helping themselves to portions of the food while more wine was poured. When they were all seated with food and drink before them, their father raised his cup and announced a toast.

“My sons,” Edward said. “Welcome back from the frontier.”

“And it is good to be back, Father,” Matthew said, “I am glad we outran this dreaded rain.”

“What is it with you and a bit of rain?” Jacob scoffed, taking up his own cup. “Matthew is afraid of the weather. How can you expect him to lead your men when he fears getting his prized hair all wet, Father?”

“You are strong and bold against the elements now that you are indoors, Jacob. Do I have that right?” Matthew laughed back. “And were you not the one who nearly fell from his horse when we crossed that creek?”

“It was not my fault, but the mare’s,” Jacob replied, rolling his eyes. “As I have already said, time and time again.”

“But you will have to remind me many more times over,” Matthew said back. “For the memory is too fond for me to ever relinquish.”

“It was a sight, wasn’t it,” Jacob said with a smirk, and the two brothers broke out into a low chuckle.

“Tell me of the border,” their father went on. “Was there any action?” Laila frowned as yet another conversation between the men unfolded, leaving her sitting in silence. Why would they wait for her to arrive if she was not to be a part of anything? It was so typical of her father, she thought, and so she sipped her wine discreetly while the men of her family kept rambling on.

“Nothing to speak of,” Matthew said, turning on the bench as if he were still atop his horse. “We saw no Scotsmen.”

“Scotsmen with swords, rather,” Jacob corrected. “The shepherds still take liberties with their grazing.”

“We ran them off, of course,” Matthew interjected. “But no raiders still, not since the spring.”

“I should think you taught them to steer clear,” Edward said with a grin. “If only you had been old enough to fight the Scots in wartime. We may have prevailed!”

“There will always be another war,” Jacob said, gazing down into his cup. “Fear not on that account.”

“I count on it,” Matthew said, taking a drink, then he turned his attention to the food before him.

Matthew began spooning large quantities of vegetables onto his pieces of bread, topping them off with a piece of fowl, and rapidly feasting, while Jacob did much of the same. However, Edward’s father was more conservative and made small piles of everything on his plate before assembling it by hand and taking small bites.

Laila was disappointed that there was no cheese, and since she was not very hungry, she contented herself to a few small bites of fowl here and there accompanied by a bit of bread. She was more interested in the wine, which she had filled whenever her father’s head was turned down into his plate. They ate mostly in silence for a time, as was common, until her brothers had mangled most of the fowl and the bread, and her father sat back, contented.

“Now, you must listen,” Edward said, adjusting himself to be more comfortable. He sat back, his belly bulging a bit, but kept one hand on his cup of wine. “For serious matters are before us.”

“Well, do go on, Father,” Matthew said, shifting to look at him. “You have kept us in suspense.”

“It is no secret that our family is deeply indebted,” Edward began, his frown deepening. “The wars still leave us humbled, financially. I spent a great deal of money fighting the Scots, to it seems no avail. Now, I cannot keep men at arms nor care for the castle’s upkeep. This is not a secret.”

“We have all been well aware, Father, of the sacrifices you made to fight the Scots,” Matthew said tentatively. Laila felt the discomfort in the air. It was not like her father to openly discuss his failings as a lord, and she could not help but feel a shred of dread creeping up through her gut.

“The loans, as you may know, are owed to Lord Hamilton, who seems to be only lord in all the Kingdom who profited off of our King’s failed invasion.”

“Moneylenders,” Jacob sneered. “What have they ever done save cause suffering.”

“And he did not even fight,” Matthew added. “A true coward.”

“Coward or not,” Edward said, clearing his throat, “he has become one of the richest men in the Kingdom. Richer than the King, some say, and these years later, that debt is coming due. You know that the rents we collect from this poor valley are nowhere near enough to cover the sum.”

“Father, did you not already sell our southern estates to repay most of the loans?” Laila said. “Is that not why we now live here?”

“The sale of those lands covered only half of the sum,” Edward said begrudgingly. “And as such, I now feel a fool for selling them. But all is as God wills it, so in that, I must find comfort.”

“Funny how God wills a coward to be so rich,” Jacob sneered.

“And lewd,” Matthew added. “I remember meeting him as a boy at York.”

“I too, remember,” Laila said, shuddering at the memory. She was just a girl at the time, but she had never seen a more grotesque man, and his swollen face still left quite the impression. “He is most foul.”

“I am truly sorry, my dear, that you should think so,” Edward said, letting out a long sigh.

“How do you mean?” Laila asked, her eyes sharp and her nerves spiking. She was no stranger to the world she lived in.

“Lord Hamilton and I have come to an agreement,” Edward said, his fingers dancing nervously along the rim of his cup. The fire popped in the ensuing silence before he began again.

“And what is the nature of this agreement?” Laila asked, staring at him pointedly. She felt she already knew the answer, but still, she demanded it be drug forth from his unwilling lips.

“Our debts will be absolved upon his and your union in matrimony,” Edward finally spat out. “It is high time you were married in any right, and this match will bring us both honor and prestige, as well as solvency.”

“As well as rid you of your debts!” Laila spat back.

Our debts!” Edward insisted, his grasp tightening around the wine cup.

The hall settled into a silent state of shock for a time. Laila stared incredulously at her father, feeling the fumes of hatred and rebellion steeping from the forge in her belly. Her brothers exchanged baffled looks. Then it all broke at once.

“Father, you can’t!” Jacob protested.

“This is extortion!” Matthew cried.

“I will not!” Laila challenged, standing abruptly at the table.

“This is not a discussion!” her father bellowed.

“It very well is!” Laila parried. “I am not a thing to be sold! Least of all to that villain of a man!”

“That is precisely what you are!” Edward shouted back. “I have given you more liberty than perhaps any other lady in this Kingdom, and this is how you repay me? Obstinance? Refusal? You should be proud to do this duty for your family!”

“Father, truly he is wretched,” Jacob added. “I can think of ten better matches, both in age and temperance.”

“What of the Earl of Devon?” Matthew pleaded. “Long has he had an eye for Laila.”

“It has already been agreed to!” Edward shouted again, thumping his cup against the table. “I will not renege on a bargain, leastwise one so advantageous!”

“It is not for me!” Laila said. She felt her face growing hot with rage. If only her mother was still alive to speak sense into the old, bitter man.

“Why must you think only of yourself?” Edward said his face twisting. “Have you no care for your family and our house? You disgrace yourself!”

“Father, it is you who disgrace yourself,” Jacob said, standing beside Laila. “To bow to this twisted moneylender of a lord. How can you give our sister to such a creature?”

“This is the way of things, damnit!” Edward bellowed once again. “I will not be challenged! My word is law in these lands, and the law will be followed!”

“I—” Laila wanted to scream further, to let loose her rage and fire upon the whole of the hall, but she could not find the words. She was lost, baffled, and angry, and so without another word, she turned and fled from the hall into the pouring rain, the doors flapping open behind her.

“Laila, wait!” Jacob called out and followed her into the rain after casting a sideways glare toward their father.

“As the oldest, you must see the reason in this,” Edward growled at Matthew as the rain washed into the hall with the wind. “We all knew she would marry eventually.”

“Not to a monster,” Matthew said back, rising solemnly from the table.

“Go then on and see to them,” Edward replied. “She will come around.”

“See to yourself,” Matthew said back and marched out into the yard to find his siblings.

“Is that how you would talk to your father?” Edward called after him, but soon the sound of the wind and the rain drowned out everything else.


Chapter Two

Scotland, 1320

The dull sparring swords clanged together with grinding rings as the Scotsmen traded blows. They were quite the pair to behold, both tall and strapping in every sense of the word, and clearly brothers, but the taller of the two had piercing green eyes and wore his red mane down in the wind, letting it blow all about his sculpted shoulders as he hefted the blunted blade.

“Ye’re gettin’ slow there, brither,” the taller one called, leaning back into a defensive stance.

“Nay,” the other huffed, adjusting his grip. “Me thinks ye’re just faster. I hinna lost me edge.”

“Again!” the shorter brother, and older it might be added, attacked with speed, driving at his massive brother with furious jabs, but they were knocked away with ease.

“Come on, Gavin!” the taller brother bellowed. “Ye taught me how tae swing a sword, and now ye cannae stand against me!”

“Ye got taller, Kyle,” Gavin laughed back, catching a bit of his breath.

“Aye, and ye got married.”

“There’s nay shame in putting me prowess intae the bedchamber,” Gavin said, grinning.

“Is that where it went?” Kyle joked, and again they went to blows, the swords striking in the cool morning mists that roved through the castle yard. “I’m in a bedchamber more than ye, and I can still fight!”

“Ah, but wae different women!” Gavin cried back. “Ye dinnae have tae try so hard!”

“Is that so?” Kyle asked, smirking. They both shed sweat that caught in the light as the morning sun began to cut through the mists.

“Is that why yer maid left?” Gavin prodded, circling up for another attack. “Nay enough prowess?”

“Ye ken there was nay’thing between us,” Kyle retorted. “Her husband’s only just came back frae France.”

“Tell that tae him, then!” Gavin laughed out, attacking again, but was once again easily beaten back. The pair withdrew a few paces to the edge of the practice square and broke for a rest.

“Ah, ye’ll see one day,” Gavin said, resting his hands atop the hilt of the practice sword. “One day, a lass will steal yer heart away.”

“Ha!” Kyle laughed, pulling his wild hair back behind his ears and resting the practice sword atop his shoulder. “If ye say so. Dinnae mistake me, brither, yer wife and son are beautiful, but ye ken I like tae feel the eyes o’ a woman, tea be free in me pursuits.”

“Ye’re a dog, brither,” Gavin said, walking slowly to stand beside him. “We’ll see how lang that lasts, eh?” They stood in a moment of silence, catching their breath on the edge of the training square, letting the morning mists burn off all around them as the sun became increasingly bright. “I’m gannae clean up,” Gavin said at last. “Good match.”

“Good fer me, nay fer ye,” Kyle said back. The brothers shared a smile, then Gavin went off toward the tower.

Kyle stowed the practice swords on the rack beside the square and wiped his forehead free of sweat. It was a fine enough morning in McGowan castle, and Kyle made a quick hustle up the walls to take in the view. The castle stood out on a hilltop, with her central tower standing proudly inside the curtain walls. The lowlands stretched out around them, with mountains in the distance sloping gracefully upwards into the highlands.

The McGowan banner flew proudly in the strong breeze, and Kyle’s hair was immediately caught again in the wind. Never had the castle stood so strong and proud, refitted and repaired with the spoils of war. People had begun their daily bustle in the yard, tending to livestock and orchards, moving between the kitchens and their hovels. The men at arms were at practice and patrolling the parapets, and Kyle nodded to one as he passed him on the battlements.

He drank in the smell of the new day, feeling the sun beat down on his face as the last of the morning mists were banished. The sound of masons and smiths floated up from below, and Kyle grinned to think of the steel taking shape into swords. He loved to fight, and he damned good at it, but he had never had the chance to test his mettle in a real fight. He had been too young when the King of England had invaded, and the Bruce had thrown them back at Bannockburn. Bloody Bannockburn. Now he was ready for a fight, but there were none to be had.

Kyle loved his brother, who was the Laird after the death of their father. He loved his nephew and his sister-in-law, and he loved his home, but still, he was restless. He often stood upon the wall and dreamt of riding off into the fields, perhaps sailing to France or Lothringia, Sweden or Leon, Italy or Sicily. There was always someone who would hire a fearsome Scotsmen as a mercenary. He wasn’t sure what it was he craved but sitting stagnant certainly wasn’t it. There was such an allure of adventure out there in the word, and yet he had never seen any of it.

Kyle watched the road that led to the castle from the South. There were a handful of peasants steering their carts toward the market, and Kyle wondered if they carried anything exciting. It was unlikely. The carts held produce from the local farms nine times out of ten, but it was always fun to dream.

Kyle decided to take a leisurely stroll. There was not much else he could do, even if he wanted to. It was one of the hidden curses of his pleasant, peaceful home. Now that the war was done, there was no danger, but there was also nothing to do, save swing a practice sword for hours at a time. That, and hunt, of course.

Kyle walked down from the walls and nodded to the various guardsmen he passed as he went toward the gate. He often found himself in better discourse with the common soldiers of the castle than with even his own brother.

“G’day, me Laird,” a particularly gruff-looking soldier said, bobbing his head as Kyle moved past him. But the man’s voice gave Kyle pause, and he drew up alongside the guard near some of the hog pens, where a few of the common folk worked to wrangle the squealing animals.

“Te yerself as well,” Kyle said, grinning. “Did ye wake fine enough today? Last night wa a bit o’ a romper.”

“Aye,” the guard said, returning the smile. “We had a fair bit.”

“There are some would say we had a dram tae many,” Kyle replied, scraping the bottom of his boot against one of the fence posts on the hog pen.

“Well, they wouldn’t be true Scotsmen,” the guard said back, then he paused to scrounge up a wad of spit from the back of his throat and hack it down into the muck.

“I’m off tae the loch,” Kyle said. “Tae freshen. Will ye join me?”

“I cannae, Laird,” the guard said. “Me wife’ll be expectin’ me shortly enough. But I will gladly join ye on the morrow’s hunt.”

“Well, that is Good enough fer me,” Kyle said, standing straight. “Then I shall see ye on the morrow, Domnal,” and he clapped the old acquaintance on the shoulder.

“‘Til the morrow, Laird,” Domnal replied, nodding gruffly. Kyle turned to resume his stroll, but first, he glanced back.

“Ye ken me brither is the Laird,” Kyle added as he turned. “There is nay need tae call me such.”

“Old habits die hard,” Domnal said back.

“But I’ve never been the laird,” Kyle said, raising his eyebrow.

“Bugger off then,” Domnal said in response, and the two shared a breakout smile. They had known each other for some time. When Domnal had come back from the war, Kyle, just a young boy then, drank up his stories with fascination. As he had grown, Domnal had shown him how to swing a sword, at least at first, and they often hunted together.

“On the morrow then,” Kyle said, then he clicked his tongue and turned back toward the gate. He was excited about the hunt the next day. About once a month, or as often as he could muster, he would ride out with a few guardsmen and spend most of the day tracking game through the slopping hills and forests that lay about McGowan castle.

It was his preferred way to spend time in that peacetime lull. He had been raised in a time of war, but now that he was old enough to fight, and fight he could, there was no war to be found. Only the rare band of outlaws in the countryside, though they had learned several years ago that the pastures about McGowan castle were well guarded, and they had all drifted South and Eastward. In short, Kyle was terribly bored.

He walked through the gate, dodging one of the merchant carts rumbling into market, and hooked right along the outside of the wall. His strong legs carried him up and down along the bottom of the wall’s skirt until he came to a familiar rocky path that led him down toward the loch.

Kyle bounded over the loose rocks and followed the winding footpath as it curved steeply downwards into the valley, quickly leaving the sight of the castle behind as the jagged walls of stone obscured it from vision. He could smell the water wafting up through the cut, and he eagerly climbed the rest of the way down.

The loch was calm that morning, and Kyle smiled to himself as he stopped on the rocky shore, watching the ripples wash gently up against the large chunks of stone that had fallen from the valley walls over the years. It was a narrow body of water, stretching out before him and then curving out of view as it reached its long finger toward the distant sea.

Kyle quickly disrobed, tossing his garments into a loose pile out of reach from the tide, and stepped cautiously toward the water’s edge. He had known a stray stone with an edge beneath the water to cut a man’s foot, his own foot, and though he was a headstrong bull of a Scotsman, he still remembered that moment as a boy and as such always trod carefully when bathing.

He kept moving into the loch, letting the chilly northern water rise up to his chest, feeling all his muscles drawing tight and taking in a sharp breath while his nipples stiffened in the light breeze. He drew a long breath in through his nose, held it, and plunged his head beneath the surface, rearing up a second later and bellowing out,

“Haaa! Ha! Bloody freezing!” he heard his cry echo off the valley walls, and the cold water from his lion’s mane ran down the crease between his muscular shoulder blades. He stood for a moment longer, letting his echo dissipate, and suddenly felt a familiar pang of loneliness as he looked around and saw not a soul.

Something was missing, and Kyle was never more acutely aware of that fact than when he stood alone in the frigid water, shouting out to just himself. He lingered on the feeling for just a moment, but never one to be introspective, he quickly shoved the feeling away as he always did, trying his utmost to banish it entirely from his mind. The only thing he wanted to think about was the hunt in the morning, but that was a whole day away.


If you liked the preview, you can get the whole book here

  • This already has the making for an entertaining and emotional story. I can’t wait to continue reading this book.

  • Looking forward to reading the whole story. Love a good romance between a hunky Scot and a English lass. Can’t wait.

  • Two lost souls with an uncertain future. I can’t wait to see how Kyle and Laila’s story evolves. Super start that has me hooked!

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