Authors: Sabrina York
“Good morning, all,” she breezed as she sat next to her daughter, dropping a kiss on Isobel's soft white curls. Isobel, glutting herself with cakes, ignored her. Susana didn't seem to notice. “What a lovely day!” she gusted.
Hannah fixed a stern expression on her face. “Isobel was shooting in the garden again.” It was probably bad form to tattle and indeed Isobel glowered at her, but something had to be said. Someone could be skewered.
Susana beamed at her daughter. “Excellent. Did you hit anything?” she asked.
“She almost hit me,” Hannah grumbled, but they both pretended not to hear.
“I almost hit a rabbit.”
“Ach, my wee warrior. You'll get it next time.”
Isobel grinned. The devil's dimples rippled. She probably would get it next time.
“I wouldna mind some rabbit stew,” Papa murmured, and Hannah frowned at him. One should not be inciting a child to mayhem.
Then again, Isobel required little encouragement.
Hannah considered renewing her objections to being barraged with arrows before breakfast but decided it was pointless. Also, it reminded her she'd not yet had breakfast. Her stomach growled at the thought. She made her way to the sideboard, attempting to find some sustenance that had not yet been licked. She settled on eggs and a nice slice of beef.
As she was finishing up, Lana drifted into the room. She paused in a shaft of sunlight and her body, willowy and lithe, was imbued with an angelic glow. The rays danced off her golden curls.
It was probably beneath Hannah to entertain that lance of envy; she tried to ignore it, but it was a trial to do so. Between the two of them, her sisters often made Hannah feelÂ â¦ inadequate.
But then Lana smiled at her and her discontent dissolved. Lana had a magical smile, a calming, soothing spirit that made every person in her presence feel embraced. Lana was a special soul, with a special gift, and although Hannah couldn't claim to understand it, she did her best to support her sister'sÂ â¦ eccentricities. “Good morning,” she said softly as she made her way to the buffet and piled her plate high with bacon.
Hannah wished she could eat a plate of bacon, but she lacked Lana's svelte physique. If Hannah ate what she wanted, she would probably have to be rolled from the room.
That in itself was terribly unfair. Life often was.
Upon second thought, Hannah selected a cakeâthough it had probably been lickedâand turned back to the table.
Papa gored her with a gaze sharper than any arrow. “A new offer has come, girlie.”
She endeavored not to wince. A sense of dread clogged her throat.
She always hated when new offers arrived, as each was more depressing than the last. As a general rule, her suitors were less than inspiring. Dirlot had a forest of sprouting ear hair, Olrig was a rather squatty sort, with a distinct waddle to his walk, and Brims was eighty if he was a day. He also had a rather alarming propensity for hacking up phlegm.
Not that she minded phlegm, but, as a rule, not in her soup.
“Ooh,” Susana cooed, buttering a bannock. “Who is it this time?” She sent Hannah a minxish grin. And why not? Susana knew she was safe. As she was a widow, there was no pressure for her to marry. None at all.
“Stafford again?” Lana asked with a frown.
“I hope not.” Hannah shuddered at the memory of Niall's kiss; aside from the fact that he had tried to overpower her, he kissed like a trout. She couldn't imagine living with him, much less kissing him again. She did hope for a husband she wanted to kiss on occasion. Especially now that she knew what a kiss could be likeâ
The memory of a bold, harsh face surfaced. Prickling with annoyance, she forced all thoughts of that magnificent, infuriating man away and focused on the conversation. Or tried to, at least.
“It is from Dunnet.” Why her father chortled she had no clue.
“Dunnet?” Susana pierced her poached egg. She was fond of piercing things. The yolk bubbled up and oozed out and she sighed as she watched it flow. And then her brow wrinkled. “The boozy old fart?” Her grin at Hannah was evil. “Quite in keeping with your retinue.”
Hannah forbore from sticking out her tongue, but barely.
“That was the uncle.” Papa's lip curled. “Never liked that man. He died, oh, several years back. Got himself drunk one night and tumbled from the castle battlements. This is
.” This he said as though it
something. “He's a good man. Not much for words, but a good man.” He waggled his brows at Hannah. “You would suit. Of all the barons, he is one of the few who have spoken out against these damned Improvements.”
“I doona know how they can call them Improvements,” Lana gusted. “Evicting tenants and importing sheep?”
Isobel nodded, nibbling her cake. “Sheep are stupid.”
“Aye, they are.” Hannah couldn't help but agree. “But political beliefs canna be the sole standard by which I choose a husband.”
Susana narrowed her eyes. “
there a standard by which you choose a husband? Because from what I can tell you have rejected them allÂ â¦ summarily.”
“Hardly summarily.” Hannah bristled. “I am being
For some reason, Lana found this amusing. Her laugh rippled through the room.
Hannah frowned at her. “What's so funny?”
“You,” Lana said. “Describing yourself as prudent.”
“I'm always prudent.”
Snortsâa quartet of themârounded the table.
“You're impulsive,” Susana proclaimed.
Lana patted Hannah's hand. “Impetuous.”
“Reckless.” This from her niece, in a warble.
Hannah grimaced. “
The demon grinned widely.
Papa gusted a dramatic sigh. “Think on it, lass. Dunnet has profitable lands and a strong following. Practically an army of warriors at his beck and call. Even the Marquess of Stafford would hesitate to stand up to him. And he's a robust, hearty lad. Not decrepit like the others. You would make fine sons together.”
“I've never even met him.”
“You've probably seen him. He was at Barrogill.” For some reason, Papa's eyes glinted.
It sent a prickle up her nape. “He was?”
“Aye. He won the caber toss. Verra impressive, that.”
“He-heÂ â¦ wonâ¦?” Hannah's pulse throbbed; her mind whirled. Heat crept up her cheeks as the image of
Surely it couldn't be
And why was it suddenly so difficult to breathe?
Susana shot her a sharp look. Her lips quirked. “Dunnet, eh? Is he tall, with dark curls? Broad shoulders and fine muscled legs?”
Hannah could have throttled her.
“The one with the scar?”
The vision of
face filled Hannah's mind, as though it had been burned there.
A scar? Aye. He'd had one.
It had done nothing but make him more savagely attractive.
Papa's eyes lit up. “Aye. That's the man. Did you see him?”
See him? She'd
And then he'd rejected her. He'd stormed away without so much as a word. Every time she remembered it, her humiliation grew. And nowÂ â¦ Now he was offering for her?
Her breakfast churned in her belly.
She knew why.
Though her kiss had clearly revolted him, he'd somehow discovered she came with a fat dowry and decided he wanted her after all. Apparently, the enticement of Reay lands was far too strong to resist. Certainly strong enough to compel a man to take a bluestocking antidote he couldn't bear to kiss into his marriage bed.
Fury rose and roiled. And there, twined with it, a ribbon of pain. “I am not marrying that man.” Hannah hadn't intended to blurt the declaration; she opened her mouth and it spilled forth as though forced out by the pressure welling in her chest.
The disappointment in her father's eyes gouged at her. “You're going to have to choose one of them, lass. I'm not gonna live forever and the vultures are circling.”
“Of course you're going to live forever,” Susana said, patting his hand.
He ignored her. “Hannah. My wee lass. You're going to have to choose one.” This he murmured softly in a thready, tired voice.
Hannah's heart thumped once and then went still at the bone-weary expression on his face. “Papa. Are youÂ â¦ all right?”
“Strong as a bear.” A gruff boast. “But time is running out.” He squeezed her hand with an intensity that frightened her. “Promise me you will choose soon.” A whisper.
Ah, merciful heavens.
The hardest words she'd ever spoken. But the best, perhaps, for the worry faded from his brow and he smiled around the table. “Good. Good. Now, what are your plans for today, my girls?”
“I'm going shooting,” Isobel chirped.
“Hopefully not in the library,” Hannah murmured.
Susana sent her a befuddled glance but didn't comment. “I'm planning to work with Torquil in the apiary.”
Hannah wrinkled her nose. She loved honey, but bees had an unfortunate habit of stinging. “Do be careful.”
Susana waved her hand. “I'm always careful.”
A boldfaced lie.
“I fancy a walk in the woods.” Lana winked at Isobel. “Please try not to shoot me.”
Isobel grinned. “I shall
“And you, Hannah?” Papa asked. “What mischief will you be up to?”
Nothing as adventurous as mischief. “A ride, I think.”
Isobel blew out a breath and Susana chuckled. “There's a surprise.”
“Beelzebub needs exercise. The grooms were too frightened to ride him while we were away.”
“Small wonder.” Papa's brows rumpled. “That beast is a menace.”
“He's magnificent.” He was. And she'd missed him. In fact, she was itching for a ride. Hannah stood and kissed her father on the top of his head. “Have a wonderful day, Papa,” she said as she breezed from the room.
“T'will be a wonderful day indeed when you choose a husband!” he called after her.
Hannah sighed. As always, it was best to let him have the final word.
As she made her way to the stables, she resolved to enjoy her ride, even if that meant
thinking about her suitors, not even once.
And Alexander, Laird of Dunnet, was the last thing on her mind. Really. He was.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Beelzebub chomped at the bit as Hannah approached to greet him. “Hello, my darling,” she cooed. He tossed his head and showered her with a wet spray. “Impatient, are ye?” He truly was a magnificent stallion, all glossy black from tip to tail, and aye, he was something of a terror, at least to those who didn't understand him.
Hannah adored him. He was wild and unrestrained and he ran like the wind. She never felt more glorious, never freer, than when she was on his back.
“My lady.” Rory tugged at his forelock. “He's ready and waiting.”
“Thank you, Rory. Did he give you much trouble?”
The groom's blush was telling. She tried not to chuckle as she led the beast to the mounting block.
“Would you like an escort?” Rory asked, his brow wrinkling with concern as he watched her mount. He knew better than to offer to help.
She shot him a grin as she settled into the saddle. He asked each time she went for a ride. They both knew the answer. Without hesitation she set her heels to the stallion's flank and he shot from the stable yard into the bailey, his muscles bunching with pent-up energy and the anticipation of a good hard run. As they pounded over the cobbles and under the portcullis, chickens scattered and sheep scuttled out of the way with plaintive
s. And then, once they reached the open road, they flew.
It was splendid.
It was a lovely day for a ride. The breeze was cool and the sun shone down through the spotty clouds overhead in a soft, watery light. There were some shadows in the sky. No doubt it would rain later, but for now the road leading toward the loch was dry and spattered with colorful blooms. Some would call them weeds. But Hannah was not some; she loved every flower, weed or no.
Because it had been so long since she'd ridden, Hannah decided on a ride around the loch. Enough to give Beelzebub a much-needed outing, warm his muscles, but not enough to exhaust him. Though she knew he would run and run like the wind as long as she allowed it. Aside from that, she loved to take the curving road as it wound in and out of the woods. It was much more exciting than the straight stretch to the east.
Hannah bent low over Beelzebub's neck and urged him on, exulting in the feel of the wind in her hair and the taste of adventure. In tandem with the churning dust kicked up by Beelzebub's heels, her thoughts roiled. They tumbled through her mind like water through a burn, nearly too fast to capture.
Not the least of which was the realization that once she settled on a husband there would be no more reckless rides like this. No doubt a husband would want to fetter her freedoms, chain her up and lock her in. She'd seen more than one of her carefree friends tender their independence for a ball and chain.
Other thoughts ran rampant as well. Most of them circled around a certain tall, silent, simmering manâthe kind of man for whom she had yearned, except for his rudeness, and the fact that he'd offered for her. She was torn between a bothersome tug of longingÂ â¦ and irritation.
Above all things, she wanted warmth in a husband. Someone who would laugh with her and share ideas. Someone who would accept her as an equal. Should he prove to be malleable, well, so much the better.
Dunnet, that hard, dark warrior, was nothing of the sort.