“She found ye a fine place to rest, David.”
Harcourt Murray looked around the hill he stood on. The heather had begun to bloom, waves of soft purple broken here and there by jutting rocks. The rockiness of the hills had surprised him when he had first seen them up close five years ago for the large areas of green had hidden it. There was more than enough grazing land to satisfy a lot of livestock especially as the valley below was so verdant. Things he had paid little heed to when he had been here before.
“Aye, my friend, ye have a verra fine view from here,” he said, and looked down at the headstone he stood next to.
He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. Sir David MacQueen had been only three and thirty, a man in his prime. The fact that he was staring at the gravestone of a man so close to his own age was discomforting. It did not help to remind himself that many people died in their prime every year. David might not have been big and braw, had even once suffered what most men would have considered a debilitating wound, but he had been in fine health when Harcourt had last seen him five years ago. The memory of a smiling, gentle, educated man striding through the halls of Glencullaich would not allow Harcourt to easily accept the grave marker with David’s name so precisely carved into it.
The man had saved his life, Harcourt thought and cursed. That should have been worth at least a few more years. The one thing the man had asked of him had been no sacrifice at all, which often only added to the guilt he had carried every moment of every day since he had walked away from the MacQueens.
Harcourt sighed and patted the top of the large stone. “Rest easy, dear friend. I will keep them safe.”
“Getting late, Harcourt. They will be shutting those big gates soon, I wager. Do we wait until morning or go now?”
Gazing at Callum MacMillan, Harcourt weighed his options before he answered the man. He looked over the five men riding with him. One Cameron, Callum, two MacFingals, and one Murray, his younger brother who had arrived but a sennight before Harcourt had received the call for aid from Glencullaich. All looked like the strong warriors they were. It was a small force, but one that could easily intimidate those at Glencullaich. Unless things had changed drastically since he had left, he knew that David’s people were not ones who would attack without provocation.
“We go in now, Callum,” he told the younger man. “It is still light enough for them to see us clearly as we approach. E’en if the mon I sent to watch over David, his wife, and child isnae there, there should be someone who will recognize me.”
He nudged his horse into an easy trot and headed toward the keep at the head of the valley, his companions quickly falling into formation around him. It was time to find out exactly what trouble had David’s widow calling for his help. It was also time for him to face his past.
Waiting was pure torture, Lady Annys MacQueen decided. She looked down at the small shirt she was mending, sighed, and began to pull out the appallingly crooked stitching. It was hard to believe Sir Harcourt would ignore her cry for help yet it had been a very long ten days since she had sent him the message. Ten days and not even the young man she had sent out with the message had returned. Annys prayed she had not sent young Ian to his death. She doubted Sir Harcourt would hurt Ian but the journey itself would not have been without its dangers.
“M’lady, mayhaps ye should have a wee rest,” said Joan as she sat down beside Annys on the padded bench.
Smiling at her maid, Annys shook her head. “’Tis much too early, Joan. Everyone would wonder if I was ill and that would only add to the unease they all suffer from even now. I must try to be strong, and most certainly must at least always appear to be.”
Annys wondered why her words made Joan frown. The woman was only ten years older than her but often acted in a very motherly way. Round of body and face, Joan did not even look her age yet she could lecture one like a grandmother. That frown often warned of a lecture being carefully thought out. Annys was not in a humor to endure one but also knew she loved Joan too much to hurt the woman’s feelings by revealing that displeasure with some sharp words. They had been friends and companions, as well as lady and maid, since the day Annys had first come to Glencullaich to meet her betrothed.
“Ye are a lass,” Joan began.
“I have come to realize that. I was slow to see it, but the breasts refused to be ignored.” Annys was not surprised to receive a scowl from Joan that clearly said her maid was not amused.
“No one expects constant strength from a wee lass who has but recently buried her husband,” Joan continued. “Ye are wearing yourself to the bone trying to be the laird and the lady of this keep. Ye dinnae need to be both. All here willingly heed the lady, have always done so, so trying to don Sir David’s boots is unnecessary.”
“And if I dinnae do it, who will?”
Annys thought on that for a moment. The man had arrived almost five years ago. He had claimed that he had spent enough time selling his sword for a living and now wished to settle in one place. David had welcomed the man with open arms, readily training him to lead the other, less well-trained men at Glencullaich. Fortunately, no one had complained or taken offense at how the stranger had so quickly moved into place as David’s right-hand man. In truth, they had all welcomed his skills. She even had to admit that he had been immensely helpful since David’s death.
“Mayhaps he can,” she conceded. “He certainly has been most helpful thus far. Yet, I have always wondered why he ne’er just went home to Wales to settle.”
“A long journey for a mon who says there is no one left there for him.”
“True enough.” Annys shrugged and tossed the little shirt she had yet to finish back into her mending basket. “’Tis nay that I dinnae trust him, for I do. I but puzzle o’er it now and then. I will try to put more of the work into his hands, but nay so much that it hinders his ability to keep the men weel trained. Their training cannae be allowed to lag.”
“Nay, ye are right. It cannae.” Joan nodded. “It is badly needed, sad to say. E’en weel trained as they are now, ’tis a constant battle to keep that bastard from trying to destroy us. If he sniffed out a weakness he would be on us like carrion birds on a fish-ermon’s catch. Have ye heard anything from that Sir Murray yet?”
“Nay. I begin to fear that I have accomplished naught but to send poor young Ian to his death.”
“Och, nay, m’lady, dinnae allow that fear to prey on your mind. Ian kenned the risks and he is a clever lad, one who kens weel how to slip about quietly and hide weel when needed. There are many reasons one can see for why he hasnae returned yet. Many. And a sad fate is but one of them.”
And it was true, Annys thought. It was simply a truth she had a difficult time clinging to. Ian had come to the keep as a young boy, orphaned when the rest of his family had died in a fire, frightened, and painfully shy. It had taken a while, but by the time she had come to live permanently at Glencullaich as its lady, he had blossomed. Still sweet, still quick to blush, but settled and happy. He had fallen into the role of Glencullaich’s messenger as if born to it, but he had never been sent on such a long journey before.
Annys started as the shout from the door yanked her out of her thoughts and she stared at the tall, too-thin young man who had burst into the solar. “What is it, Gavin? Please dinnae tell me there is more trouble to deal with. It has been so blissfully quiet for days.”
“I dinnae think ’tis trouble, m’lady, for Nicolas isnae bothered.” Gavin scratched at his cheek and frowned. “But there are six big, armed men at the gate. Nicolas was going to open the gates for them and said I was to come and tell ye that.”
“I will be right out then. Thank ye, Gavin.” The moment Gavin left, she looked at Joan. “How are six big, armed men nay trouble?”
“If they come in answer to your message?” Joan hastily tidied Annys’s thick braid. “There, done. Now ye look presentable. Let us go out and greet our guests.”
“Guests dinnae come armed,” Annys said as she started out of the room, Joan right at her side.
“They do if they come in reply to a lady’s note saying ‘help me, help me’.”
“I didnae say ‘help me, help me’.”
“Near enough. No gain in talking on it until we actually see who is here.”
“Fine but I did nay say ‘help me, help me’.”
Annys ignored Joan’s soft grunt even though she knew it meant the woman was not going to change her mind. She stepped out through the heavy oak doors and started down the stone steps to the bailey only to stop short before she reached the bottom. The man dismounting from a huge black gelding was painfully familiar.
Tall, strong, and handsome with his thick long black hair and eyes like a wolf, he had been a hard man to forget. She had certainly done her utmost to cast him from her mind. Each time he had slipped into her thoughts she had slapped his memory away. Writing him that message had brought his memory rushing to the fore again, however. Seeing him in the flesh looking as handsome as he had five years ago told her that she had never succeeded in forgetting him. Annys began to regret asking for his aid no matter how badly they needed any help they could get at the moment.
She fought to remind herself of how he had ridden away from Glencullaich all those years ago without even a quick but private farewell to her. It had hurt. Despite knowing it had been wrong to want that private moment to say their good-byes, despite the guilt that wanting had stirred in her then, and now, she had been devastated by his cold leave-taking.
Then, abruptly, his gaze locked with hers and every memory she had fought to banish from her mind came rushing back so clearly and strongly that she had to fight to stand straight and steady. Annys cursed silently. It was still there. The fascination, the wanting, was all reborn beneath the steady look from those rich amber eyes. This could become the biggest mistake she had ever made in her life.
Harcourt looked at Annys and his heart actually skipped a beat. He would have laughed if he was not so filled with conflicting emotions. Such happenings were the stuff of bad poetry, the sort of thing he had always made jest of. Yet, there he stood, rooted to the spot, frantically thinking of what to say and how to hide the tangled mass of emotion that was nearly choking him. He nodded a greeting to her and watched her beautiful moss-green eyes narrow in a look that did not bode well for an amiable talk later. Talking was not what he was thinking about, however. He was recalling how soft that long blood-red hair of hers was, how warm her pale skin felt beneath his hands, and how sweet those full lips tasted. That was a memory he needed to smother and fast.
“Are matters as bad as young Ian indicated?” he asked Nicolas, and inwardly winced when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Annys cross her arms under her breasts.
“Aye,” Nicolas replied. “We can have that talk with her ladyship in attendance as soon as we get all of you sorted.”
Harcourt nodded and turned his attention to seeing to the matter. Once the horses were taken care of, their supplies unloaded and carted away, he knew the time had come to actually face Annys. He took a deep breath and started toward her where she still stood on the steps only to come to a halt when a small child rushed by him and ran up to pull at her skirts.
Ye got us more soldiers.”
“I did, Benet. I thought it might help stop all the trouble we have been having.”
The moment the child turned to look at him, Harcourt clenched his fists at his side. The boy’s eyes were a match for his own. Bright amber eyes watched him closely and Harcourt fought against the urge to shout out his claim to this child. He had given up all rights. It had been the debt owed for his life. He could feel the eyes of his companions fixed upon him though and knew he would be facing a lot of questions.
It took every ounce of strength he had to start walking again. He stepped up until he was standing just below Annys and the boy. It was easy to read the fear in her eyes. Young Benet’s eye color was not an exact match with his and could be attributed to the tiny gold specks in her eyes or just a different shade of the brown David’s eyes had been. The boy’s hair was black but so had David’s been. As long as he did not say or do something to give the secret away, all would be fine. Yet, Harcourt knew it was going to be a long hard battle not to reach out and claim his son.
“M’lady,” he said and took her hand in his to brush a kiss over her knuckles.
That tiny soft hand trembled slightly in his grasp and his body reacted to the sign that she was not as indifferent to his presence as she appeared to be. Harcourt knew it would be unwise to try to begin an affair with her but he was not sure he was strong enough to resist if she gave him even the smallest hint that she would welcome his attention.
“Sir Harcourt,” she said and nodded as she almost yanked her hand out of his grasp. “Where is Ian?”
“He was injured in his travels. Nay badly, but I thought it best if he remained at Gormfeurach for a while. He is being given the best of care.”
“Thank you for that. I was most concerned when he did not return.” She turned slightly and took Benet by the hand. “Shall we go to the hall where you can quench your thirst and have some food while we talk?”
Annys fought to keep from racing into the keep, putting as much distance between her and Sir Harcourt as she could. The touch of his lips on her hand had nearly undone her hard-won composure. It had been five years since she had felt his touch yet the moment his flesh met hers, even in the innocence of a proper greeting, her mind had gone back to those nights by the burn.
Guilt left a sour taste in her mouth. David was barely cold in his grave and she was allowing herself to weaken at the touch of another man’s hand. What had happened between her and Harcourt had been wrong, even if it had been condoned by David. She nearly laughed. Condoned? It had been meticulously arranged. David had been the sweetest, kindest man she had ever known but he had also been a man who would not hesitate to do whatever was needed to get what he wanted. He had wanted a son.
She glanced down at Benet who kept looking back at the men following them into the keep. Until she had seen Harcourt again, she had not allowed herself to even think on how much Benet looked like the man. All she could do was pray no one else noticed, especially since there had been the faintest similarities in coloring between David and Harcourt. She would also have to be very watchful for even the smallest possibility that she or Harcourt were giving the secret away in how they treated the boy.
“M’lady,” Joan whispered in her ear as they entered the hall and pulled away from the men who went to wash their hands, “it is not as clear to see as ye think it is.”
“I pray ye are right, Joan.”
“I am. I only see it because of what I ken and I have ne’er heard a whisper that would tell me anyone else here kens the truth or that those who may would e’er say a word. So, ye just be careful in what ye say and do and all will be weel.”
Annys wished she had the confidence in that that Joan had. The looks on the faces of the men who had come with Harcourt, looks the men were doing a pitiful job of hiding, told her that they noticed something already. She prayed Harcourt would have a stern word with them all.
“Allow me to introduce my companions, m’lady,” Harcourt said once they were all seated. “This is Sir Callum MacMillan, Sir Tamhas Cameron, Sir Nathan MacFingal, Sir Ned MacFingal, and Sir Gybbon Murray.”
Annys nodded a greeting to each man as he was introduced. Two redheads, a brunet, and three raven-haired men. All handsome. All warriors. All tall and fit. It was not going to be easy to stop the maidens of the keep from seeking them out. They were, however, a treasure of skill and strength she could not turn away, no matter how much she worried over the chance that her secret might come out.
“I thank you all for coming,” she said. “Please, eat, drink, and we can talk once ye take the edge off your thirst and hunger.”
The only conversation that ensued as the men ate concerned the journey they had taken. Gormfeurach was not as far away as Annys had thought, although far enough when one half of the partners in a huge secret were concerned. She ate very little, her stomach tied in knots, as she struggled to push aside all worry about what might or might not be exposed by Sir Harcourt’s presence. The people of Glencullaich needed these men. They had to take precedence over all of her fears.
As she sipped her wine she glanced between Harcourt on her left and Nicolas on her right. Both were extraordinarily handsome men yet she experienced not one single twinge of womanly interest when she studied Nicolas. Hair the color of dark wood, gray eyes, and a strong body were all things that could please a woman but, although she did like the look of him, nothing else stirred inside her. Harcourt stirred everything inside of her and not all of it was good. The warmth was side by side with the chilling fear of secrets being uncovered. The need was side by side with the guilt for having given in to it even with the urging of her husband. The pleasure of seeing him again sat side by side with a lingering anger over the way he had left her. Somehow she had to clear her heart and mind of all the confusion.