Authors: Rue Allyn
Copyright © 2016 by Rue Allyn.
All rights reserved.
This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher; exceptions are made for brief excerpts used in published reviews.
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ISBN 10: 1-4405-9715-4
ISBN 13: 978-1-4405-9715-2
eISBN 10: 1-4405-9716-2
eISBN 13: 978-1-4405-9716-9
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, corporations, institutions, organizations, events, or locales in this novel are either the product of the author's imagination or, if real, used fictitiously. The resemblance of any character to actual persons (living or dead) is entirely coincidental.
Cover art © iStock/likstudio.
To my sisters in arms, the RomVets, and all the men and women in uniform who defend family and country.
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Mid-April 1295, the northwest coast of Scotland
Baron Raeb MacKai strode along the steep track leading from Dungarob keep to the harbor. Far below, a solitary ship edged up to the lone dock set in sun-sparkled waters. On this rare, cloudless morning, the bay shone like a jewel set in dark, craggy gray, rimmed with drab despair. Ships had become rare visitors to the bay, so this vessel most likely brought the woman who would restore Clan MacKai’s fortunes.
He had no illusions about his home. The small village bordering the harbor was ramshackle at best. The dock balanced on ancient footings, just barely steady, and—save for the ship—empty of all but the smallest derelicts. The roads—if they could be called that—were narrow and rock strewn. Walking was a hazard. The people moved slowly, thin and haggard from too much work and too little food.
Stones rattled down the cliff side of the track.
“Slow down, Raeb. I’ll go with you to greet your future wife. ’Twill be some time before anyone debarks, so ’tis no need to hurry.”
He stopped and watched his sister Neilina skip along the stone-littered path. Younger by three years, she had absolute faith in her view of right and wrong.
“If courtesy to my betrothed is your purpose, go back to the keep,” he growled. “I tell you now I’ll no have a single body—sister, clansman, or servant—give the least kindness to the woman arriving on that ship.”
A line formed between Neilina’s black brows, which arched more delicately than his over MacKai gray eyes. He hadn’t expected his sister to be happy with his order.
She halted beside him, studying the scene below as he did.
A woman now stood on the ship, observing the docking process. Her tresses shone like a beacon in the dark night of his people’s poverty. Reports gave her alabaster skin, robin’s egg-blue eyes, lips of the most delicate pink, an angel’s figure with slender hips and breasts as soft as down. All the praise probably disguised a pampered, pale weakling who would wither and die in Dungarob’s hard winters. Luckily for Lady Jessamyn Du Grace, she wouldn’t be here long enough to see a single snowflake.
She moved smoothly as she disappeared belowdecks a moment before a group of men supervised the removal of a small white steed from the ship to the dock. Raeb snorted in mild disgust. Unlike the destriers and coursers that once filled the Dungarob stables and glens, this horse, like the woman, was clearly too delicate, too refined for the challenges of the Highland coast—his Highland coast. Which was why the woman with her puny mount was here.
Beside him Neilina’s fingers drummed against her hip. Best to let her air her objections. It would not change his mind, but it would make her feel better.
“No greet our future baroness? You would have her condemn the entire clan before she even meets us and no doubt see you as the biggest boor on earth! Are you mad?”
He rolled his eyes. She could complain of his rudeness all she liked as long as his English betrothed didn’t become Neilina’s latest cause. “Nae,” he agreed without compunction. “I dinna care what the lady thinks.”
“You actually wish our sisters and the entire clan to be as callous as you? English she may be, but ’tis no reason for rudeness.”
He shrugged. “’Tis no more than any English deserves, be they king, pauper, or a coddled lady too stupid or cowardly to know better than to accept a match with a Scot.”
His sister’s gaze narrowed. “Are you so certain she’s a lack-wit or a coward? With a godfather like Edward I of England, she may have had no choice in the matter, especially if she is a properly obedient and humble goddaughter.”
“Her father is one of Edward’s favorites and a verra influential man. I doubt even the king of England would try to force Lord Du Grace to give his daughter where he didna wish, especially since the man might rebel and take others with him, if his cherished only daughter were made unhappy.”
Neilina snorted. “King Edward’s no reputed to be a man easily intimidated by others, and given his disputes with the pope, I am no certain he cares for any opinion save his own. I still say your orders are absurd, and rudeness is no way to start married life.”
Raeb frowned. Mayhap, in her champion’s way, Neilina only wished to see her brother happy. Too bad he couldn’t explain the marriage would not take place. To keep the plan safe, only a group of trusted allies and his captain of the guard knew the truth. Certainly telling his high-minded, judgmental sister would be foolish. He fixed his fiercest stare on her. “Am I Baron MacKai, of Clan MacKai?”
She gulped. “Yes, brother.”
“Then make sure my orders are carried out. If anyone offers that woman the smallest courtesy or the least sympathy, I’ll hold you responsible. And if you fear an injustice, remember that ’tis her dowry that will right the greatest wrong ever done to Clan MacKai.”
Neilina considered him for a moment and nodded.
Raeb didn’t care for that calculating look in her eyes, disappearing as soon as she blinked.
“Brother, I doubt an Englishwoman will be eager to become fast friends with any Scot.”
He narrowed his gaze at his sibling. “Obedient goddaughter or no, the lady is uprooted from her home and alone in a foreign land. She’s bound to search out allies. Be certain she finds none among my family, clan, or servants.”
“Why are you so set on making her friendless?”
He cast a quick glance at the ship where the lady and her maid now debarked. “She’s English. ’Tis enough.”
Persistent as any terrier, Neilina stamped her foot. “Then why in the world did you agree to marry the woman? If you sacrifice yourself for the sake of a dowry to mend a few things at Dungarob, you’re more fool than any English. You should place more trust in our abilities.”
He’d been trusting his abilities for ten years and had seen his clan sink deeper and deeper into poverty. “My reasons need no concern you; just see the household behaves as I order.”
He started walking once more, keeping one eye on his footing and one on his sister.
She lifted her chin and kept pace. “I’ll make certain your wishes are known. However, I canna guarantee anything with our sisters no matter what consequences you threaten, especially with Artis. She will always swim against the tide. I fear for her almost as greatly as I fear for you.”
The fears were old ones. “Aye, the loss of our parents hit our youngest sister hard.”
Pain flickered ugly and brief across Neilina’s face. She gripped her hands together before her. “More like, she misses the firm hand and feminine guidance Mother provided for the rest of us. Artis is nearly as wild as you were at eighteen.”
His lips lifted. Summer days swimming and hunting with his friends. Winter adventures seeking ice thick enough to bore a hole to fish while sharing hopes and dreams. Even after he’d been fostered in England and only home for rare visits, he’d not known how precious those carefree days had been. A mountain of responsibility acquired too early had stolen that wild freedom. He could not do that to Artis. “Aye, I’ve no the heart to curb her spirit, and she’ll no listen to any of us. Life will teach her caution soon enough.”
“Mayhap you are right, but the longer that lesson is in coming, the more I fear she will suffer for it.”
Their youngest sister would suffer regardless of when she learned caution. Why hasten fate?
Silence reigned as he and Neilina neared the dock and watched the ship being unloaded. After much petting and whispering from the lady, the mare allowed itself to be tied by the halter to the back of the baggage wagon. Raeb couldn’t help thinking again that the white steed and the pale woman were well matched and both completely out of place in Dungarob.
“’Tis a lovely palfrey Lady Du Grace brings us,” his sister murmured.
“No doubt ’tis intended for her personal pleasure and no a gift. Likely the beast will devour every oat in sight and no produce a single foal."
“Hmm.” Neilina paused. “Lady Du Grace is taller than I expected.”
“Mayhap.” Raeb cared little about the woman’s height. What he cared about was her dowry and making certain the lady left Dungarob without it. He stepped onto the dock. “Are you curious to see how the lady will react to my purposeful lack of greeting?”
“Nae, brother. I’ve no doubt your discourtesy will upset her as it upsets me.”
“Then go back to the keep as I ordered. I’ll no make any introductions, nor will I allow you to speak with her.”
He didn’t miss the quick intake of her breath. “Fine, I shall be as rude as you, but I came to satisfy my curiosity about English fashions.”
“I see.” Fashion was an unlikely interest for Neilina, who preferred useful clothing that she would give away to the first deserving wretch she found.
His English bride-to-be and her serving woman now stood alone to one side on the warped boards. Neilina, however, stared at the knot of men maneuvering a stack of boxes, trunks, and barrels into the rickety baggage cart.
Interested in fashion in a pig’s eye
. His sister sought out some man. Raeb took note of the three men working together. It was the first sign that her personal interests might broaden beyond lost causes and righting perceived wrongs.
“Young Ramsey doesna seem to be doing his share of work.”
Neilina snorted. “Ramsey MacEth wouldna recognize hard work if it hit him.”
. “David Linden is carrying the most weight.”
“Linden is a muscle-bound dolt.”
“Mmm.” Raeb tried to sound indifferent while he eliminated Linden as the focus of Neilina’s interest.
“Tell me, do you recognize that red-haired fellow, holding the horses and talking with the ship’s captain?”
“Of course, that’s Rhu ... Nae, it canna be. What I mean is, that’s a verra redheaded man. I’d best be certain cook has supper started. I’ll see you then.” She fled as quickly as the twisted decking would allow.
“Aye, at supper.” Raeb let her go. He knew very well the man with nearly orange hair was Sir Rhuad MacFearann. What the bastard son of the most hated man in Scotland was doing at Dungarob and how he’d come to draw Neilina’s attention, Raeb determined to discover before the day was out.