Her highlander's promise

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Table of Contents

HER HIGHLANDER’S PROMISE

  Acknowledgements

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

HER HIGHLANDER’S PROMISE

B.J. SCOTT

SOUL MATE PUBLISHING

New York

BY B.J. SCOTT

THE FRASER BROTHERS TRILOGY

Highland Legacy

Highland Quest

Highland Homecoming

HER HIGHLANDER’S PROMISE

Copyright©2014

B.J. SCOTT

Cover Design by Christy Caughie

This book is a work of fiction.  The names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual events, business establishments, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved.  No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher.  The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.

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Published in the United States of America by

Soul Mate Publishing

P.O. Box 24

Macedon, New York, 14502

ISBN: 978-1-61935-591-0

www.SoulMatePublishing.com

The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

As always, this book is dedicated

to my wonderful husband Steve

for his never-ending support and love.

To Makenzie, James, and Wyatt.

Never be afraid to follow your dreams.

To my mom and the rest of my family and friends

for their continued support and encouragement.

Acknowledgements

With so many people to thank, I never know where to begin. While an author may write the story, they do so with the patience, love and support of family and friends.  Spouses and partners who eat more than their share of  take out, bring you a cup of tea during a writing marathon in the wee hours of the morning, offer a hug of support when writer’s block strikes, ignore a messy house, and understand when you can’t spend as much  time with them as you’d like, play an intricate roll. As do a strong editorial staff, dedicated publisher, and fellow authors who are always ready to listen to new ideas, lend their support, and share in the ups and downs faced by an author. Let’s not forget the readers. Without you, there would be no need for books.

Thanks you, Steve, my husband, soul mate, and knight in shining armor. Without you by my side, I would never have realized my dreams. To my family, friends, and fellow authors, thanks for the love and support.

To my friend and wonderful editor, Violetta Rand.  Thank you for keeping me motivated. Your skills as an author and editor have helped to make this book the best it can be.

To my readers and the members of my Clan Scott street team. Your support is what makes writing worthwhile.

Last but not least, I want to thank Debby Gilbert and the staff at Soul Mate Publishing, for believing in me enough to offer me my first contract three years ago, and for your continued faith in my books. 

Chapter 1

Scottish Highlands 1320

Laurel MacClay wrapped a plaidarisaidharound her shoulders, but the thin woolen shawl proved ineffective against the biting wind. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she watched the shroud-covered body being lowered into a freshly dug grave.

“Nay, dinna put him in the cold ground,” she sobbed and lunged forward, but a hand planted firmly on her shoulder halted her attempt to intervene.

“Stand fast, lass. You are the MacClay’s daughter and will conduct yourself as such. Chiefs from the most powerful clans in the Scottish Highlands have come to pay homage to your da, and I willna have you disgrace the clan or his memory,” Murray, her father’s cousin, growled in her ear.

A man of his word, Brandon MacClay never broke his promises. Until now. When her mother died, her father vowed he’d always be there to protect her. She refused to believe he was dead. It had to be a cruel jest.

A fearless patriot, he and his three older brothers fought beside William Wallace and Robert the Bruce in Scotland’s bid for independence. Only her father had survived. No matter how bleak the odds, he remained a man of conviction and would never surrender without a fight. Not yet two score, and still a virile man, succumbing to the mysterious ailment that ravaged his body did not seem a fitting end for such a noble warrior.

Her father’s cousin stood at her side, a scowl on his face, his nails digging into her flesh. He and his family had fallen on hard times, and Da had taken them in until they could make other arrangements. They never left. When struck by the unexplained illness, his death eminent, her father named Murray, his closest living relative, her guardian. She’d barely seen ten summers and was not yet old enough to reside alone, or to assume her place as his heir and lairdess of Thistledown Castle.

Neither a tall or robust man, her father’s fur-trimmed wool cloak hung on Murray like a grain sack. But he insisted on wearing the garment. A jewel-encrusted sword—a symbol of power carried for more than three centuries by the MacClay lairds—hung at his hip.

Laurel swallowed against the growing lump in her throat. Fighting back another torrent of tears and the swell of emotion squeezing her chest, she stared at the sea of sympathetic faces. So many had come to pay their respects.

The internment concluded, and as the priest recited his final prayer over the grave, the mourners filed by, offering their condolences. Laurel glanced from one person to the next, but none was familiar.

A brawny warrior stalked toward her with four lads in tow. “I’m John Cameron, laird of Clan Cameron, and these are my sons. Your father and I fought in many battles together. He was a brave man, and I considered him my friend. I’m verra sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you for coming,” Laurel said as she bobbed a curtsy. “My father would be honored.”

“My name is Blair. If you need anything, I am forever at your service, m’lady.” The youngest, a lad of about thirteen summers, stepped forward.

Tall and extremely well-muscled for his age, with sky-blue eyes and finely chiseled features, she found him quite handsome. His silky hair, the color of a raven’s wing, hung loosely about his shoulders, an errant lock falling across his brow when he bowed before her. He winked as he straightened, and a mischievous grin tugged at the corner of his lips.

What felt like a bevy of butterflies bombarded her stomach, and her heart fluttered wildly against her ribs. Until now, she considered lads a nuisance, but there was something different about Blair Cameron and the way he looked at her. Heat rose in cheeks, her chest tightened, and catching a breath became increasingly more difficult.

“Laurel, come anon!” When the screeching voice of Deirdre MacClay, her cousin’s wife, echoed across the kirkyard, all heads turned in her direction. “You’re a selfish, willful lass, not to mention ungrateful. You’ve kept us waiting long enough, and your cousin Murray grows impatient,” she grumbled.

Deidre forcefully grabbed Laurel by the upper arm as she continued her tirade in a voice that was not meant to be overheard. “I dinna know how your parents ever put up with you. However, your obstinacy is something a few good lashings will tame. Come now, or you can walk back to the castle alone.”

Laurel winced as Deirdre tightened her grasp. “Please, I need but a minute.”

“You’ll come now.” Her cousin-by-marriage’s face reddened and contorted with anger.

“Remove your hand, Madame.” John clasped Deirdre’s fist, then pried her bony fingers from Laurel’s arm. “You’re hurting the lass. Can’t you see that she is having a difficult time saying goodbye? Mayhap you could find it in your frosty heart to grant her a little more time.”

Deirdre’s back stiffened as she glared at him. “How dare you touch and speak to me in such a manner! The lass is none of your concern, and I dinna need your counsel. We’ve given her more than enough time. My son, Allan, doesna handle the cold weather well, and I want to get him home before the snow flies and he catches a cold. Not that I must answer to you or anyone else,” she hissed. “Brandon MacClay is dead and buried. Like it or not, Laurel is now our responsibility, and I refuse to caudle her the way her parents did. She will learn her place, to do as told, and be prompt about it.” She reached for Laurel again, only to have John step between them.

Aside from her father, few people had the nerve to stand up to Deirdre. Not a woman one would call yielding or compassionate, she did not like to be given orders by anyone. Even her husband cowered before her. While she dressed like royalty and had married well, putting on heirs obviously did not impress or fool Laird Cameron.

The daughter of a merchant, she was a lanky woman with squinty gray eyes, muddy brown hair, sunken cheeks, a large, aquiline nose, and harsh, angular features. It was no secret that she once had designs on Brandon MacClay. Rumor was, she’d always resented the fact that he paid her no mind and married Laurel’s mother instead.

Behind her back, most likened Deidre to a cross between a spitting cat and a pit viper. However, Murray adored the woman and would do anything to please her, ignoring the fact that she married him in order to get back at Brandon. Given Highlanders’ strong beliefs in superstition, magic, and mythical creatures from the netherworld, the rumors she was a witch, and that those who crossed her disappeared or died, deterred most from confronting her.

“The lass just lost her father and needs time to grieve. If you are in such an unholy hurry to go home, I will personally escort her to the castle when she is ready to leave.” John’s dark eyes narrowed and his brows furrowed.

“She’ll do no such thing,” Deidre snapped. “Traveling unescorted with men she doesna know is indecent and willna be permitted.”

“I appreciate your kind offer, Laird Cameron, but dinna wish to cause a problem.” Laurel peered up at Deirdre’s sour face and curtsied. “I will do as you wish and accompany you.”

“About time you came to your senses and realized where your next meal is coming from.” Deirdre clasped Laurel’s wrist and dragged her across the yard.

This time John didn’t interfere.

As they reached the gate, Laurel yanked free of Deirdre’s grasp, turned to face Blair, and waved.

Deidre quickly recaptured Laurel’s hand and hauled her toward the horses. “I’ll not have you associating with lads as ill-bred and ill-mannered as that. From this day on, you will speak to no one unless I grant my permission. Is that understood?”

“He seemed verra nice. Not at all like any of the lads from the village. His da is a respected laird and a friend of my father.” Laurel sighed and glanced over her shoulder at the grave. There was no reasoning with Deirdre.

“I’ll take none of your backtalk. And be forewarned, if you defy me again, I vow you’ll regret it.”

When Deirdre raised her hand in the air, Laurel squeezed her eyes shut. Her pulse pounded in her ears and her breath caught.

When her parents were alive, they never believed in striking a bairn, and Laurel didn’t give them cause to question their decision. However, over the last two days, Deirdre had threatened, more than once, to beat her into submission if she did not learn to mind.

Something told her that if she gave her cousin any grief, she’d follow through on those threats. Her life was about to change in many ways. Since she was still a bairn, and had no one to intervene on her behalf, she saw no option but to comply, to bide her time until she turned eighteen and assumed her position as lairdess of Clan MacClay. A spirited lass, remaining complacent was not going to be an easy task, but necessary if she wished to honor a promise made to her father on his deathbed. His one final request was that she honor Murray and do him proud.

Laurel stiffened and braced for the blow, but the backhanded slap never came. She raised her lashes, shocked to see Murray holding his wife’s wrist and whispering in her ear. While Laurel would like to think her cousin was defending her, that wasn’t the case. If anything, she’d wager he was concerned about the mourners’ reaction to the act of cruelty on such a solemn occasion. She had no doubt that he’d allow Deirdre to carry out any punishment she saw fit in the privacy of the keep.

Murray glared at Laurel. “Best you mind your manners and mount your palfrey. You’ve dallied long enough.”

“She’ll never learn to obey, so you’re wasting your breath. When we get back to the castle, I will give her a much-deserved lesson in humility,” Deirdre said, then redirected her attention to Laurel. “Do as Murray says and get on your horse. I want to see Allan home before he catches a chill. He has a delicate constitution, and if he gets ill, you’ll be to blame.” Deirdre stomped toward the cart where her son waited, a heavy fur swaddled around his slender body.

A gust of frigid north wind blew across the kirkyard and snow started to fall. Laurel shivered, her teeth chattering. She watched as Murray helped Deirdre into the cart, wrapped a length of woolen fabric around her shoulders, then placed a pelt over her lap. Her heart sank and she choked back a sob of despair. Never in her life had she felt so alone.

“Wait,” Blair shouted as he dashed across the yard, reaching Laurel before she mounted her palfrey. Bending at the waist, he sucked in a deep breath, and before she could react, he clasped her hand.

Certain that hermount blocked most of Deirdre’s and Murray’s views, Laurel did not withdraw her hand. However, her surprise was difficult to mask when he placed a silver ring on her palm, then quickly closed her fist around it.

“This may seem sudden, but I would like you to accept this ring of intent. It belonged to my mam. We will meet again, Laurel MacClay. I promise. When I am old enough, I wish to court you proper. Say that you’ll wait for me and marry no other,” he whispered in her ear.

“I’m touched and honored, but I canna accept this. We’ve only just met, and I am sure you will forget all about me once you leave for home,” she said, then tried to give him back the ring, but he refused to accept.

“Keep it. Please. I willna forget you, Laurel, and swear I will honor my pledge.” He thumped his fist over his heart.

“Scat! Go back to your father.” Deidre waved her hand in Blair’s direction. “Laurel, mount up. Now.”

“Aye, I come anon,” Laurel answered. “I will hold you to your promise, Blair Cameron.” She kissed his cheek before climbing on her horse.

Chapter 2

Scottish Highlands 1328

Laurel released a heavy sigh. She’d been dreaming about the day she buried her father. While it seemed like yesterday, eight summers had passed. But he was never far from her thoughts.

Rays of sunlight filtered through the narrow casement window, causing tiny prisms of color to dance across the ceiling and walls of her chamber. When a wee bairn, her da told her these flecks of light were fairies come to awaken her to a new day.

She tossed back the woolen plaid and slid from her pallet, a shiver running up her spine when her bare feet connected with the cold stone floor. The fire had long burned to ash, and when she exhaled, she could see her breath. Normally, she’d still be snuggled beneath the covers, but today she awakened early. Her guardians had granted permission for her to accompany one of the servants to town. Something she’d looked forward to for almost a sennight.

After her father’s passing, things she once took for granted, like a visit to the village proper, rarely happened, and only when her cousin’s wife, Deirdre, felt charitable. She’d also been ousted from the spacious, comfortable solar across from her parent’s chamber to a cramped, dismal room in the north tower of the castle. Her cousins claimed a taste of deprivation would feed her spirit and nourish her soul.

She glanced at her surroundings. The cold, damp solar was sparsely furnished. The straw-stuffed mattress on an old wooden palate was thin and uncomfortable, the blankets moth-eaten and threadbare. A chair and a rickety table occupied one corner of the room and a wooden shelf stood beside the door. The air was stale, and she could not remember the last time anyone replaced the rushes on the floor.

After picking up a dirk from the bedside table, she padded to the hearth, knelt, then pried a loose cornerstone. From a narrow trench, she retrieved a leather-bound book, a gift from her father on her ninth Saint’s Day. With the intent she would someday be the chatelaine of Thistledown Castle, her da had insisted she learn to read and write. The fact she was not a male heir had never bothered Brandon MacClay. At no time did Laurel question his pride, love, and devotion.

He’d even gone so far as to decree before witnesses that on the day Laurel turned eighteen, she’d inherit his estate and take her place as lairdess to the clan. Once married, her husband would become laird, under the provision he assumed the MacClay name. While not a common practice, it had been done by lairds in the past as a means to preserve the clan name, fortune, and property.

She reverently opened the book and traced each letter of a faded inscription with her fingertip and read aloud. “To my beloved daughter, Laurel. You are the light of my life, and the reason for my existence. Be it in body or spirit, I will be with you always.” Below the inscription, he wrote the clan motto—Strength in honor.

While many summers had come and gone since his death, Laurel still expected to enter the great hall to find her father sitting at the dais, his warriors gathered around awaiting orders. She wondered if someday she’d have her own babes and if they, too, would feel the same tug on their hearts when they thought about her. She could only hope that they would never experience the pain of loss and prayed she’d be there to watch them grow and prosper.

She had barely seen four summers when her mother died. On that day, her father became her whole world. But she remembered every contour of Katherine MacClay’s beautiful face, her delicate lavender scent, and the melodic lilt of her voice. She never tired of hearing how much she resembled her mam. She clutched the book to her breast, tears running down her cheeks. “I miss you both so much, and while I relish the thought of my freedom—be it only until I am wed, I’d willingly trade it all for one more day with you.”

A small wooden treasure box also occupied the space left by the cornerstone. After brushing off a layer of soot, she lifted it to her nose, closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply. The scent of carved pine remained after all this time. Upon opening the lid, she plucked out another cherished possessions—a silver, emerald-encrusted pendant that belonged to her mother. The only article of value that Deidre had yet to confiscate. Not that she hadn’t tried. In fact, she’d turned the keep upside down looking for the precious amulet. She wanted the clan heirloom as much as her husband wanted to rule in Brandon’s place.

Laurel believed had Deirdre been the sole person in charge, she’d have shipped her off to the convent the day of her father’s funeral. However, Murray would not permit it. Not because he cared about her or out of loyalty to her da, but it would not do for the future mistress to suddenly disappear.

While he gave his wife free rein to raise her as she saw fit, he did express the importance of keeping up appearances and being discrete when it came to punishment. In addition to being seen at feasts and events held within the castle walls, her cousin felt an occasional appearance in the village from time to time would help to naysay any rumors she was being mistreated.Todaywas one of those days.

Deirdre proved to be a master of deception and at no time did anyone suspect that her charge was anything but well-tended. For the first couple of summers, she claimed the death of Brandon MacClay left Laurel sad and so distraught that she’d become withdrawn and reclusive. Manipulating a bairn of ten was no challenge. Most of the clan believed the tales about her being a witch were true, so were afraid to question their mistress. Her finest coupe was winning over the clan elders with bribes and favors so they would turn a deaf ear and a blind eye. Even if Laurel had decided to come forth with accusations, no one would listen. Still facing the same two alternatives she’d had when her da died—either wallow in misery each day of her life or make the most of things until she came of age to inherit—she’d chosen the latter.

She scrubbed a stray tear from her cheek with the back of her hand. There was no changing the past and no one knew for certain what their future held. But, she would soon be eight and ten summers. Free. Until then, Murray and Deirdre governed her life. She’d managed to survive thus far and had honored the deathbed pledge she’d made to her father. She had but a sennight to wait.

Closing her fist around the pendant, she wandered over to the small window, then peered outside. When she moved from the south tower, she traded her breathtaking view of the forest and loch for one of the mountains. She often stared in awe at the majestic peaks. Whether covered in snow, shrouded in a fine morning mist, or encased in sunlight, they were always a magnificent sight. The trees that lined the valley were ablaze with autumn foliage. Billowy clouds, the color of a lamb’s belly, dotted the azure sky.

“Lady Laurel. Are you awake?” a woman called from the hallway, then rapped on the door.

When Laurel recognized Isla’s voice, she quickly returned her treasures to their hiding place. As she tucked the necklace in the box, she spied the ring she received from Blair Cameron. A smile tugged at her lips and her heart skipped as she remembered the handsome young lad who had vowed to court her when he came of age. But she’d not heard a word from him since the day of her da’s funeral and she’d all but given up hope of ever seeing him again.

For all she knew, he was married, his wife round with his babe, and mayhap other bairns tugging at her apron. Given Deirdre’s reaction to Blair on the day they met, she had no doubt he’d be turned away even if he tried to visit.

“Lady Laurel!” Isla called again. “Are you awake?”

“Aye, I come anon.” Laurel dropped the ring into the box before returning it to the trench in the floor. She replaced the hearthstone, climbed to her feet, then opened the door.

The petite, dark-haired woman cringed as she stepped into the room. She immediately pulled her plaid around her shoulders and clucked her tongue. “I canna believe your cousins make you stay in this dreadful place. Your father would be furious. I never understand why he left you in their care.”

“I had only seen ten summers when Da died and I wasna old enough to stay alone. My mother was gone and his brothers all died in the war for Scotland’s independence.” She paused to mumble a quick prayer, then crossed herself.

“His illness struck suddenly and he had verra little time to prepare for his death. Murray was his closest living relative and Da asked him to watch over me until I was ready to assume my duties as lairdess of the castle. He accepted. For that, I am grateful.” The words left a bitter taste, but she had promised her father to honor Murray, and while difficult at times, she had done her best to keep that vow.

“Grateful? The mistress treats you like a servant, worse than her husband’s deerhounds. A stray cat would make a better mother. Your cousin Murray and their son, Allan, are no better.”

“It willna be long before I am mistress of the castle, and all will be as my da intended. It is sweet of you to care.” Laurel smiled.

“You are far more forgiving than most, m’lady. I hope you are able to fulfil your father’s wishes. But. I . . .” She hesitated.

“But?” Laurel asked.

“I’ve heard your cousin Murray plans to see you wed his son. Were that to happen, he would become laird, and you would remain forever under his parents’ rule.”

“I’ve no intention of getting married to anyone. Especially to my cousin Allan.” She shuddered at the thought of her homely, arrogant kinsman.

“You dinna have a choice. As your legal guardian, Murray can declare the two of you betrothed, and you willna be free to decline. I overheard some of his men talking. They said he wishes to maintain control of the clan and will use his son to do so.” Isla lowered her gaze and shook her head. “For you to be forced to marry Allan would be a shame. Not only is he sickly and unattractive, I’ve heard he favors the lads and not the lassies.”

“Rumors are not to be believed, Isla. However, I willna marry. Unless, it is to a man I love and one who loves me in return.”

“Do you have someone in mind?” Isla wiggled her brow.

“Mayhap,” Laurel replied hesitantly, thoughts of Blair Cameron flooding her mind.

“I pray what you say is true. That you find your true love. But right now, we must see you dressed.” She handed Laurel the bundle of clothing she carried. “Lady Deirdre told me to give you these. She said she willna have you going to the village looking like a serving wench.”

Laurel studied the plain, blue wool gown, a pair of matching slippers, and a stark white wimple. “My cousin likes to keep up appearances, even though they may be false. I am certain she worries more about her own reputation than she does mine.” This time, she didn’t try to hide the sarcasm in her voice. “I prefer to wear these.” She moved to the shelf by the door and picked up a kirtle and brown skirt. “They may not be the attire befitting a laird’s daughter, but they are clean and comfortable.”

“I dinna think it a good idea to upset Lady Deirdre. She said you must go out looking like a lady.” She motioned toward the items of clothing Laurel held. “Please, m’lady, put those on and make haste. I truly want you to accompany me, and if you dinna do as you’re told, she may reconsider.”

“She willna change her mind. It has been a while since I last visited the village. She doesna want people to wonder if I am well. Besides, if we slip out before she sees us, she willna know.”

Isla shook her head. “Och, no, milady. She wishes to speak with you before we leave.”

“Verra well, I’ll do as you request. Nothing will spoil this day,” Laurel said with a smile. “I havena visited a fair in such a long time and plan to make the most of it. I will change and join you in the bailey when ready.”

“You have yet to break your fast, and what of your cousin Deirdre?” Isla asked.

“I’m far too excited to eat and will speak to Deirdre before we depart.”

“As you wish, milady. I will meet you below,” Isla replied. She curtsied, then headed down the hallway.

Laurel watched the young woman scurry out of sight before closing the door. Her cousin believed in a firm hand. Whether she’d deserved it or not, Laurel had seen the biting end of a willow switch more than she cared to remember.

She closed her eyes, her mind drifting back to the day she had dallied too long conversing with friends. She was fourteen. Infuriated by her tardiness, Deirdre had ordered a harsh reprimand. In private, of course, so no one could bear witness.

Laurel rubbed her wrists, remembering the tight leather straps that bound her to the whipping post. She could still feel the rush of cold air when her gown slid from her shoulders, exposing her bare back. The sharp crack of the whip and the biting sting as it tore into her tender flesh were unforgettable. Passing out after the third lash had been a blessing. She still bore the scars and would do so forever, but she had never been late again.

“Soon I willna be under their rule, but until then, I must bide my time,” she said on a shuddering breath, then tugged the gown over her head. After plaiting her hair and donning her wimple, she secured anarisaidharound her waist before positioning the extra fabric over her head and shoulders.

“Best get this over with so I can be on my way to the festival,” she said to herself as she headed in the direction of Deirdre’s chamber.

Chapter 3

Laurel knocked, waiting for permission to enter the sanctity of Deirdre’s chamber.

“Who dares disturb me at this hour of the morn? You best have a good reason,” Deirdre shouted.

“Laurel. Isla said you wanted to speak with me before we left for the festival.”

“Enter, and be quick about it.”

Laurel opened the oak door and stepped inside, a rush of warm, fragrant air greeting her. While the décor had changed to reflect her cousin’s taste, the sunny solar stirred many fond memories. A knot formed in the pit of her stomach as she pushed thoughts of her parents and the happy times they’d shared to the back of her mind. “When I assume my rightful place, reclaiming my chamber will be one of the first things I do,” she muttered beneath her breath.

“Stop mumbling and step intae the light. You remind me of a thief skulking around in the shadows.”

“Why did you wish to see me?”

“Let me look at you.” Deirdre’s brows knit together as she studied Laurel from top to bottom. “I suppose you’ll do,” she finally said.

“Why did you summon me?”

“You dinna think I would let you leave without making sure you dressed appropriately? I also want to remind you to conduct yourself in a manner befitting your status. Dinna speak to anyone while in the village, except to make your purchases. You are to accompany Isla, retrieve the vegetables, then return by noon. Is that clear?”

Her heart sank. Noon did not leave them much time to spend at the fair. By the time they got there and completed their task, they’d have to return home. “I was hoping to stay a wee bit longer. I’m sure Angus would like to take part in the completions. He has trained all summer for the events. Would that be possible?”

“Nay. There is no need for you to dally. Angus is going as your escort, not to compete. Make your appearance, get the items Cook needs, and return as I have instructed. That is, unless you want me to change my mind and not allow you to go at all.” She handed over a small pouch containing several silver coins. “This should be more than enough to cover the cost.”

Laurel bobbed a curtsy. “Aye. We will do as you request.” She almost choked on the words, but refrained from arguing. It would do no good to anger her benefactor.

“Dinna make me regret my generosity. Your cousin Murray has an announcement to make at the feast this evening and you must attend. It wouldna due for you to be locked in your chamber for disobedience.”

An announcement? Laurel’s stomach twisted with dread. But she was not going to let anything spoil her day. “I’ll return on time.” She curtsied and left the room before Deirdre could comment further.

“Why did the old crone insist on seeing you?” Isla asked in a hushed voice when Laurel joined her in the bailey.

“She ordered us to return by noon and forbid me to talk to anyone while in the village,” Laurel replied. “She also gave me coin to make our purchases.” She held the pouch in the air. But she didn’t mention the announcement. She did not wish to speculate for fear the rumors being bandied around the keep about marriage to Allan might be true. She shuddered at the thought.

“That doesna leave us time to see the sights or for Angus to take part in any of the events. Did she give you any coin for yourself? Isla asked.

“Nay.” Laurel shook her head.

“That doesna surprise me. She isna known for her generosity. Not that the money belongs to her. Were your father still alive, she and Murray would have nothing but the tunics on their backs.”

“It doesna matter. I am grateful to have some time away from the keep. Best we be away. The longer we tarry, the sooner we will have to return. Has Angus readied the horses?” Laurel asked as she glanced around, seeking her beloved palfrey. A gift from her parents when she was old enough to sit a horse.

“Lady Deirdre thought it best we go in the carriage. Angus is waiting near the postern gate,” Isla replied.

“Then best we hurry. I dinna wish to waste a precious minute,” Laurel said and turned on her heel.

The hour-long journey between the keep and village seemed to take forever. But when the rows of brightly colored tents finally came into sight, the equally decorative pennons flapping in the breeze, her heart leapt with joy. The din of cheerful voices, the smell of cook fires, and the festive music reminded her of the times she attended the annual event with her parents.

“Do hurry, Angus, we want to do and see as much as we can before we return home,” she said.

“I’m certain you ladies are anxious to sample the sweets. Mayhap buy some fabric or bonnie ribbons for your hair. But the horses can only go so fast, m’lady. We’ll be there in a few minutes.” Angus smiled.

“The miserly old witch only gave us enough coin for the vegetables. But that willna keep us from looking,” Isla replied.

Angus reached into his sporran, retrieving two pieces of silver, which he handed to Laurel. “Now you’ll each be able to shop as well as taking in the sights,” he said, then cracked the reins across the horses’ flanks. “Ha!” he shouted and the carriage lurched forward.

“Your kindness touches my heart, but we canna accept this,” Laurel said as she tried to hand them back.

“Nothing would please me more than to know you and Isla are enjoying the festival. I held a great deal of respect for your da and consider it an honor to see that you have a good time. Keep it.”

Laurel closed her fist around the coins and silently vowed that when she became the mistress of Thistledown Castle she would repay Angus tenfold, then see that he was returned to his position as captain of the guard.

Angus stopped the carriage as they entered the festival grounds, leapt from the seat, then helped Laurel and Isla down. “I’ll see to the horses and meet you by yonder market square.” He pointed to a cluster of tents in a circle a short distance away.

“Do you not wish to join in some of the events, mayhap have a tankard of ale? I’m certain you dinna wish to follow us around as we see to the mundane task of buying turnips and onions,” Laurel said.

“Are you sure the two of you will be all right on your own? I would like to try my luck at the stone throw and mayhap the caber toss. I have been practicing since last fall and think I might have a good chance of winning this year.”

Angus was one of her father’s most trusted warriors. A bear of a man, he boasted a large muscular frame and what Laurel figured was considerable strength. “By all means go. We will see to our purchases, then join you. I canna wait to cheer you on to victory,” Laurel said. She was going against Deirdre’s orders, but as long as they returned on time, no one would be the wiser.

He bowed, and after securing the horses, raced off in the direction of the competition field.

“I’ve no doubt he will do verra well. Da always said he had the brawn of five men.” Laurel watched their escort disappear, then walked toward the market.

With so much to look at, taste, and smell, Laurel closed her eyes and savored the moment, committing it to memory so she could call upon it on one of the dismal days she found herself alone in her chamber.

“Sweetened nuts, m’lady. The best you’ll find anywhere.” A peddler offered Laurel a sample of the confection.

Finding it hard to resist the sugar-dusted almonds, Laurel curtsied and smiled. “Thank you. Mayhap we will return for some before we leave. Can you direct us to the tent with the freshest vegetables?”

“That would be the green one yonder.” He pointed, then scurried off to attend to another customer.

“I would be happy to buy you some sweetened nuts or anything else you might like. A lassie as comely as you should have anything her heart desires.”

Laurel spun around at the sound of the deep gruff voice, coming face to face with a tall, scruffy-looking man and his two friends. She stiffened and inclined her chin. “As I explained to the peddler, we may return and make a purchase later. But right now, we must be on our way.” She suspected given their dishevelled appearance and the strong odor of ale, the three men were well in their cups. There was no telling what they had in mind, and she quickly devised a plan to discourage their unwelcomed advances without angering them.

“Come, Isla, we dinna want to keep Angus waiting. You know how furious he gets if he sees us talking to strangers. Best we hurry. We are already late.”

“If your man is foolish enough to let his lassie out of his sight, then he doesna deserve you,” the first man said, his words slurred.

He obviously had not fallen for the ruse or was too drunk to care. “Come with me and I will show you a good time.” He grabbed Laurel by the arm and tried to drag her around to the side of the tent.

“Leave her be. Do you have any idea who she is?” Isla tried to intervene only to be shoved to the ground.

“She could be the Queen of England for all I care,” the man growled and hauled Laurel against his chest.

Her stomach roiled at the overpowering stench of spirits, unwashed flesh, and foul breath. She choked back the bile rising in her throat, then forced herself to speak. “Release me at once. I am not a lass who lifts her skirt for strange men.”

“Then I can show you what you’ve been missing,” he hissed, then nipped at her neck.

She tried to twist free when he captured her mouth, but she was no match for his size and strength. Planting both hands on his chest, she pushed with all her might. But he held firm, and instead of releasing her, she heard the tear of fabric and felt a cool rush of air on her shoulder.

“Now look what you’ve done, Callum. You ruined the lady’s gown. She obviously doesna fancy your company and we should let her go,” one of his companions said.

“Aye, let’s be off. You said you wanted to have a little fun with the ladies, but you dinna say anything about forcing yourself on them,” the other one added.

“The two of you are daft, spineless sots. Look at her. And her friend isna hard on the eyes either. All I want is a little kiss,” Callum said. “What say you, m’lady? Cooperate, then I’ll let you be on your way.”

“Unhand her. Now. Least you find yourself on the receiving end of my blade,” a man growled.

Callum released Laurel when a large hand clamped down on his shoulder, then whipped him around. “Wait your turn. I’ll be but a minute, then you can have her if you want.”

“Time is up,” the man snapped as he drew his sword.

Callum glanced to his friends for help, but when they both lowered their heads and backed away, he did the same. “I wasna going to hurt her,” he spat, then turned and ran.

“Did they harm you in any way?” the man asked as he offered his hand to Isla, helping her to stand.

Isla brushed the leaves and dirt from her skirt and shook her head. “Nay, I’m fine. But I am grateful you came along when you did.”

“So am I,” Laurel said. “Thank you.”

“As always, I’m at your service, Lady Laurel,” he said and bowed, a lock of raven hair falling over his eyes.

Laurel’s heart skipped. While it had been eight summers, she’d recognize that mischievous smile and those expressive blue eyes anywhere. “Blair Cameron?”

His grin broadened. “I’m pleased to see you havena forgotten me. And if I might add, you are even lovelier than I remembered. Have you missed me?”

“Do you know this silver-tongued devil?” Isla asked.

“Aye. We met on the day I buried my da, but I havena seen or heard from him since.” She straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. She was grateful for his assistance, but refused to let him know how truly happy she was to see him. “I hope your father is well. And your brothers?” she queried in an attempt to change the subject.

“They are all hale and hardy. My brothers are taking part in the games, but my da decided not to attend the festival this year. And tell me, Laurel, how haveyoubeen?” He took her hand and brought it to his lips.

“Halt! Stand down and step away from the lady, or I will run you through!” Angus rounded the corner with his blade drawn. His face was contorted with anger as he ran toward them at full speed. “I heard there had been some trouble. If you’ve laid a hand to either one of these ladies, you’ll only live long enough to make your peace with the Lord.”

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