Scent of a Highland Lass (Preview)

Chapter One

“Allow me to help ye stand up, faither,” Gawain Maclachlan said, offering his arm to his father. Laird Maclachlan had been head of the clan keep for dozens of years, and the harsh Highland winters had finally caught up with him. He seemed old beyond his years, and rheumatism knotted his bones.

Sighing in frustration, he waved his younger son’s assistance away and stood up from the desk where he had been writing scrolls and signing parchments all day. He had to use the edge of the great wooden table to haul himself up, but the look on his face after he accomplished it held a certain sense of triumph.

He felt for his walking cane perched at one side of a richly carved mahogany bureau and grasped its knob firmly.

At the other end of the extensive library where Laird Maclachlan conducted all his business, and clan affairs sat his eldest son, Caillen–a gentle smile on his face as he watched his father fight to stand up and walk across the room with his staunch determination.

The auld man hasnae forgotten his proud bearing and fighting disposition in all the long years I’ve been away. But time has not been kind to poor Faither. Perhaps that’s why I found that messenger waiting at me last port of call.

Caillen said nothing out loud, however. After years of dealing with perilous interactions and crooked seafarers, he had learned to observe first and only speak and act later.

“Ye should change that cumbersome and stiff wooden chair on which ye sit all day, Faither, for a more comfortable one,” Gawain insisted, “I can organize a nice velvet cushioned invalid chair for ye. I’ve heard they can be propelled forward on small wooden wheels. Then ye wouldnae have to walk at all!”

Poor Gawain. Always somehow managing to put his foot in it. He does nae have the wisdom to see Faither would rather fall down than accept help–at least when it comes to his physical abilities. If I’m correct, he wants to talk to us about running the keep. Faither was always as shrewd as he could hold, and if he’s too sick to oversee the castle, that means me adventuring days will have to be put on hold for now.

“Leave yer wittering for the womenfolk, Gawain!” Laird Maclachlan shouted, “I’ll nae have an invalid chair as if I were some self-indulgent Sassenach weakling!”

Caillen gave another small smile as his father hobbled to a library chaise and threw himself down on it.

Laird Maclachlan was in one of his more irascible moods. Caillen admired his younger brother’s ability to take the verbal abuse their father dealt out with such a sanguine attitude. When their father lashed out at him with a particularly bad-tempered command, the only thing that betrayed Gawain’s hidden anger or embarrassment–Caillen was not sure which–– was a slight flushing of his cheeks.

Me brither should play cards. He has such good control over his feelings it would take a masterful reader of reactions to see if Gawain was bluffing or secretly holding a winning hand.

The two young men waited for their father to vent his spleen as he settled himself into the comfortable chaise and then gave him their attention.

“The reason I have called ye both here to attend the banquet feast is because I’m nae longer fit to oversee the management of the castle keep or press our advantage further afield,” Laird Maclachlan paused and waited to see if his sons would react to what he had just said. They said nothing, and the old man did not expect there to be any comment. He had reared his sons to be silent observers and only act once they had all the facts.

Satisfied, he continued, “To this end, I have decided to appoint a proxy to rule the clan in me stead ‘til such a time as I feel better or….”

Laird Maclachlan left his final words unsaid. Some days he felt healthier, especially when the local healer whipped him up a concoction with poppy seeds as one of the ingredients, but on others, the pain in his bones made him yearn for the grave.

He looked at the two men opposite him and felt a surge of pride and affection. True to the unforgiving nature of the misty Highland mountains where he had lived all his life, Laird Maclachlan had striven to stay calm as all but two of his late wife’s bairns survived into adulthood. But these two surviving offspring were everything a father could wish for.

Caillen, now with eight-and-twenty years under his belt, was tall and strong, looking more like a battle-hardened Highlander than the free-spirited adventurer he really was. He was handsome enough to have made a maiden sigh from the time he was old enough to shave, but he had settled for having a long-term courtship with a gentlewoman from a nearby lodge. They had been fast friends growing up together, attending the same dances, hunting and hawking amidst the hills, drinking tea in a merry group when the lass visited the keep with her mother. It seemed only natural they would fall into an easy-going relationship over the years, with the tacit understanding marriage was waiting for them somewhere in the future.

It had been hard getting the message to Caillen he was needed back home. The only way of contacting him was to deliver a note to a certain wine merchant in the port of Marseilles, the bustling coastal town from where Caillen launched most of his expeditions. That had been over eight full moons before, and his errant eldest son had only returned three days ago.

He had sauntered into the great hall and casually looked around him, as though inspecting some seedy Atlantic crossing inn where he was forced to spend the night. One of the footmen had instinctively reached for a pole axe mounted on the wall before recognizing the Laird’s heir.

Caillen had a foreign air about him, one that promised danger, adventure, and escape. He had thrown his saddlebags onto the stone floor and turned to greet the footman with the same irrepressible grin he’d had as a naughty boy.

“Greetings and well met, McKinney! Where’s me auld faither? Or is he still to be found forever holed up in the library with his papers?”

When the startled man had returned his greeting and made so bold as to welcome the young master back to the keep, he was heartily slapped on the back and passed a gold sovereign.

“Here’s a small memento of me time in the West Indies. Dinnae gamble it all away at once!”

And on those words, Caillen had picked up his saddlebags and made his way to the library.

When the door banged open after a brief knock, Laird Maclachlan’s eyes had nearly started from his head in shock. His heir’s tumbling brown locks were held back from his face in a knot, and his skin was as burnished as a heathen’s!

“Losh! Me son! Why dinnae ye send a messenger ahead to warn us? And why have ye tied yer hair back in a knot? Ye…ye look like a washerwoman!”

Caillen gave a loud shout of laughter as he went to kneel before his father and then stand up to hug him where he sat behind his writing desk, “Faither, scissors are scarce on board a ship. ‘Tis far easier to grow the hair and then knot it up behind the head, tying it back with a leather thong. All the pirates and brigands do it, and I’m sure it saves them much time in the mornings, as does nae shaving.”

Saying these words, Caillen rubbed his neat beard with one hand, a rueful grin making up for any cockiness his father might construe from his reply.

Laird Maclachlan was too happy to take umbrage at Caillen’s appearance or what he said. He rang the bell-rope that hung down next to his chair and ordered the footman to make up his son’s bedchamber.

Now, with both his sons sitting across from him, he was able to compare their characters and appearances in more detail. It was not so much they had no family resemblance whatsoever, in fact, far from it. It was just that they had chosen such different pathways in life; it had left an indelible mark on each of them.

Since the time he left his wet nurse and joined his older brother in the nursery, Gawain had been studious. Fond of reading a book quietly indoors while his elder brother rode around the countryside. He had always been better at learning what the tutor taught them and remembering important details. Caillen had taken every chance he could to leave his books behind and rush off to sail or fish on the loch. Gawain had tried to cover for his brother’s truancy at first, but as the years passed, he gave up and simply told the truth when an irate teacher or parent asked him. His excuse to Caillen, who would enter their bedchamber later on with a smarting backside and angry frown, was that his elder brother should buckle down and learn his lessons before getting into more trouble.

But it was something Caillen had found impossible to do. In his fifteenth year, Caillen had run away, joined a ship’s crew, and sailed across the Atlantic. His parents, recognizing his wild, indomitable, Highland spirit, had accepted his predilection for adventure and allowed him free reign to roam.

Gawain had stayed at the castle keep during his brother’s long absences, happy to draw up night watch schedules and work as his father’s steward. It was a role Laird Maclachlan hoped he would maintain in the years to come. When Caillen was Laird, he could use his young brother’s skills as estate manager and castle warden.

Gawain’s path in life had shaped his appearance and attitude fully as much as it had changed Caillen’s. Gawain was slim and lithe, a body made for rushing from one side of the castle to the other. Today, in the library, he wore a full-skirted brocade coat, stylishly embroidered, and breeches with silk hose. His chestnut brown hair was unpowdered, and he tied it back with a single black riband. Gawain’s skin was pale, throwing his riveting blue eyes into stark contrast with the rest of him. Ladies would write Gawain off as a mere younger son of no importance until he fixed that startling ice-blue stare in their direction. Then young women would flap their fans and giggle coquettishly as he walked past.

“So, faither,” Caillen said, shifting his muscular body around on the stiff chaise, trying to get comfortable, “why the urgency if only to appoint a proxy? If I’m gone, Gawain can oversee the running of the castle, and when I’m here, I can do it. I have a fair idea about how things should go on. Nae much has changed,” after saying these words, Caillen saw the expression on his father’s face shift, and he continued, “or have things changed?”

Laird Maclachlan searched for the right words, “I dinnae want to sound like a hysterical auld woman, lads, but I have absolute proof there’s a spy in the castle. They must have access to me papers, messengers, and sometimes I even think they must have access to me thoughts!”

Both young men pricked up their ears when their father said this. Indeed, the Laird was a shrewd and calculating man; if he had reason to believe there was a spy operating in the castle, it was more than a suspicion,–it was a fact.

Caillen leaned forward and placed his hands on his knees to prop up his chin. Gawain stared keenly at his father, his senses finely tuned to filter and process the information the Laird was about to share.

“For some time now, Clan Maclachlan has been the only bastion against the insidious southward spread of Clan Sutherland. As ye ken, their southern lands abut our northern boundary. Ye might nae ken this; however, there used to be two small clans,-the MacLeods and the Lewises-settled in between. Throughout the years, the Sutherlands have gobbled up both smaller clans, either through marriage, raiding, or plain auld bullying tactics, and now they encroach on our land.”

Caillen was interested in strategic land-grabs, having observed it first-hand in the New World, “The solution is simple, faither, and staring ye in the face as I say these words: settle yer differences with a betrothal. Gawain here would make the ideal husband.”

His younger brother reddened at these words, saying, “I’ll thank ye to nae use me as a bargaining chip in yer negotiations!”

Caillen shrugged, “ ‘Twas said as a compliment, brither, nae in jest. Has nae Laird Sutherland got a daughter of marriageable age?”

Laird Maclachlan nodded, “Aye, but those knaves will have nae one inch of me lands, whether stolen or through betrothal, while they play such dirty tricks. And besides, nae one has been able to get near Donal Sutherland for years to make a proposal for his daughter’s hand. He never leaves his chambers.”

The old Laird sighed and regained his composure, “Someone is feeding me enemies information about clan business and telling them all me negotiations with me allies, and I need ye here, Caillen, to ferret out who it is. Gawain will fill ye in on all the details–now get yerselves upstairs and prepare for the banquet feast.”

Gawain rose up and bowed before his father, “Ye didnae say who would be acting as Laird in yer place, Faither?”

Laird Maclachlan smacked his forehead with his hand, “Of course! Caillen, ye are now Laird of Maclachlan Castle an’ Keep. Look after it well.”


Chapter Two

The two brothers walked out of the library after bowing themselves from their father’s presence. Now they were free to express their feelings without experiencing the old Laird’s wrath, they began to talk at the same time.

“I dinnae think I can stand being stuck here for months on end, even if it gives faither the chance to regain his health in peace!” thus said Caillen.

“Ye think he would ken I run the castle better than someone who’s never been here for more than one month straight in the last thirteen years!” Gawain announced simultaneously.

As they made their way to the west wing tower where Caillen had set up his chambers, it was Gawain who found it hardest to suppress his outrage at the sudden change in his fortune. He grumbled about how he should be the one to bring the Sutherlands to heel, and if he were appointed head of the clan, he could guarantee the spy would be found or stopped immediately.

Caillen heard out his brother’s complaints in silence. As reluctant as he was to take up the reins of Lairdship, there was a small part of him that relished the challenge leadership of the clan would bring him. It could be an adventure all of its own. Add a nefarious infiltrator to the equation, and he was sure things could even get a little interesting around the castle.

Gawain, noticing his brother’s careful observation of what he was saying, stopped talking mid-sentence, and turned to his brother with a rueful grin on his face, “Thank ye for hearing me out in patience, Caillen. I only protest because I have a good system going here, and dinnae wish to waste me days explaining it all to ye.”

Caillen nodded, “Have nae fear, Gawain, I’m a quick study. It comes from all those years of cheating off yer notes in the schoolroom! I am happy ye’re here to guide me through it. Do ye think the auld man has become obsessed an’ distrustful, or do ye think there’s something to this spying nonsense?”

Gawain thought hard before replying, “Nay, he’s right. There’s probably someone out to harm the clan. I think the problem is faither commits all his transactions to paper, and while ‘tis good for record-keeping, it plays right into a spy’s hands.”

“Well, that’s the first thing I’m going to change then,” Caillen replied with a smile.

“The clan fields and grazing hills are emptied of cattle overnight, and our allies prefer sending their soldiers to train with the Sutherlands.”

Caillen frowned when he heard this; allies and cattle were the lifeblood of any clan.

“Let us vow to find this person who is damaging our clan and causing faither such distress,” he said with a grimace, “but even when we do find the spy, I think me traveling days should be put on hold for a while. This lairdship game looks set on being very time-consuming!”

And on these words, Caillen gave his younger brother a friendly pat on the back and entered his chambers to ready himself for the feast.

His personal attendant was waiting for him inside. An old woolen plaid was laid out on the bed, and next to it, a clean white cambric shirt. Caillen eyed the old plaid askance,

“Losh, Gilby, why didnae ye remind me in Edinburgh to purchase a new plaid? I cannae make a good impression at the feast wearing that rag. Where did ye dig it up from?”

Gilbert Gilby had traveled with Caillen on all of his voyages and knew him to be more comfortable in leather trews and a sleeveless jerkin, especially when they were sailing in the tropics. Now, he knew his master would have to change the way he dressed drastically-unless he planned on being mistaken for a pirate by the local folk.

He chuckled, “I found this Maclachlan plaid in that auld trunk in the corner, master. It was bundled up under some dried lavender to keep the moths at bay. I held it over some steamin’ hot water, and most of the creases have fallen out, and I can pin it nicely, so the pleats look as precise as a yardstick. No one will suspect a thing. Besides, we wouldnae have been able to have a new plaid made for ye in Edinburgh–the Laird’s tartan must be handmade in the land of his forebears.”

Even after all these reassurances, Caillen could not but help look at the bedraggled length of plaid askance. He was tempted to go and borrow one from his brother but then realized their different heights would make the kilt sit too high on his knees, and the one thing worse than an old plaid in Caillen’s opinion was one that was too short.

Sighing in resignation, he went to the washstand and used the water and soap. After splashing his body and wiping himself down with a rough towel, he flung his wet hair back over his shoulders and casually checked his face in the looking glass on the wall. Gilby was standing by with a tortoiseshell comb and handed it to Caillen when he held out his hand. A few comb strokes through his wet wavy brown hair, and he was able to tie it back tightly with a leather thong. He looped the leather cord around his tied hair until it came together into a tight bundle at the back of his head. As a courtesy to the occasion, Caillen drew the comb through his short beard a few times before handing it back to Gilby.

Next, Caillen pulled the cambric shirt over his head and then said through gritted teeth, “Do yer best with the plaid, Gilby,” raising his arms out to the side, which enabled the man to attach the kilt in place.

Gilby had been busy, pleating and pinning the plaid where it lay on the bed. There were many yards of fabric, but it had been reduced to a manageable length by the time Caillen’s helper began to attach it around his slim waist with a leather belt. Even Caillen had to admit when Gilby had finished, the kilt was the perfect length and passably presentable-except for one thing.

“Gilby, can ye detect the smell of lavender on me, by any chance?” Caillen was tempted to lift the edge of the plaid up to his nose to inhale the material but trusted his assistant to tell him the truth instead.

Gilby, aware of the incongruity of bending down to sniff the kilt, decided to reassure his master from where he was standing, “Ye’re imagining it, sir. The smell must be coming from the trunk. I will close the lid, and ye will see the fragrance will disappear of its own accord.” He pinned the Maclachlan great kilt over Caillen’s shoulders and stuck a gold pin with the family crest on its head through both fabrics, which attached the plaid to the shirt.

“Come now, sir,” Gilby said encouragingly, hoping to get Caillen out of the door before the aroma of lavender became too obvious, “they must all be waiting for ye downstairs.”

Caillen, after giving one more suspicious sniff at the great kilt, realized the truth in what Gilby was saying and left. He did not want to keep his father waiting if the old man was standing up to greet the guests. He ran down the ancient stone stairs that wound around the west wing tower and entered the great hall. It was thronging with guests; some were being housed at the castle itself, having traveled many miles to attend the banquet, other guests were important burghers and tradesmen from the nearby towns and villages.

It was more than a banquet to greet the newly appointed acting Laird and welcome him home. The feast had been held to show everyone the Maclachlan clan was bigger and more influential than ever before. Caillen eyes swept over the brightly dressed crowd of merrymakers, noticing every face and making a mental note of every absentee. Whoever missed the feast would have their loyalties checked.

Gawain came to stand by him.

“Who’s the auld gent standing next to faither with his back to us?” Caillen asked.

“I was with him when the guests first started arriving because ye were so late. Take a guess who’s standing next to him now?” Gawain said with a grin.

Caillen stared across the hall with narrowed eyes, trying hard to get a better view of the bluff faced man standing next to his father. When the gentleman turned, presenting his profile, he was immediately recognizable as Chieftain MacIntosh, Mairi MacIntosh’s father. The two old men had their heads close together, and Caillen had a hunch they were discussing the Sutherlands. MacIntosh land was also dangerously close to the encroaching Sutherland clan.

It has been over two years since Caillen had visited the MacIntosh lodge, and he knew he must stop by and greet Mairi within the next few days. They no longer sent one another letters, and Caillen had long since given up looking for Mairi’s missives at every one of his ports of call, but he remembered his old childhood friend fondly and felt a looming a sense of obligation to finalize some sort of betrothal with her.

Why! Mairi must be every day five and twenty years old now! I suppose I should set a date for our wedding. Yet one more boring duty I must attend to while I’m on land and bound to look after the castle.

Gawain was watching his brother closely from out of the corner of his eye, “Aye, brither, I see where yer gaze has settled, and wonder if auld Chieftain MacIntosh is still keen for ye and Mairi to make a match of it? The maiden is getting on in years and still has to find a husband.”

Determined not to be drawn into a speculative conversation with his brother about marriage, Caillen shrugged, saying,

“Mairi was always a bright and comely girl, and that would not change over the course of years. Any man who chose her as his wife would be content.”

Gawain stepped back, a little confused by his brother’s lukewarm praise,

“Never tell me ye’re nae longer interested in yer auld flame, Caillen? Has some dark-eyed heathen lady from across the seas caught yer fancy instead?”

Caillen held up one hand in a noncommittal gesture,

“In truth, brither, the dark beauty of women from foreign lands is, indeed, more to me taste. But here am I back in the Highlands, and perfectly content to settle for a Highland lassie. Sultry brown eyes and raven black hair will have to exist in me dreams from henceforth.”

“Och,” Gawain scoffed at his brother’s reluctance, “one kiss will bring all yer auld feelings for Mairi flooding back and make those exotic beauties in foreign lands fade from yer memory. Mairi’s bedchamber is over in the east wing turret – ye ken the one with the twisted bronze ring handle? Go and wait in the chamber, and I will tell Mairi to meet ye there anon. I’ll tell her ye brought her a length of brocade back from yer last trip and wish to make her a present of it. Then ye get to kiss a girl who’s grateful and desperate for a kiss after so long waiting for yer return. What say ye?”

Caillen liked the sound of his brother’s plan very much. He smiled, gave Gawain a conspiratorial look, and made his way to the east wing. His imagination ran wild as he climbed the stairs up to the bedchamber. He envisioned the door opening, Mairi stepping inside, and then sweeping the unsuspecting maiden into his arms. In his mind, Mairi would be pantingly eager for his touch and give no resistance to him pushing her onto the bed where they would spend many enjoyable hours exploring one another’s bodies and proving their attraction for each other again and again. By the time Caillen entered the bedchamber, he was eager for Mairi to come inside and melt into his embrace. He went to sit on a trunk pushed against the wall of the darkened room and passed the time thinking about how wonderful it would feel to hold a soft, scented maiden close to him after many months of traveling.

Hearing the heavy bronze door ring turn and the latch lift, Caillen stood to one side of the room, waiting to pounce on Mairi as she came in. The chamber was dark, the only light provided by moon rays pouring in through the narrow turret window slits. Caillen realized he would have struggled to find a more romantic setting for his first kiss with Mairi as the new Laird of Maclachlan Castle.

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