Scotland, The Highlands
Gwendolyn was nine years old the day she almost killed the future chieftain of Clan MacCullough.
She was hauling herself up a sturdy young oak, carefully testing each branch to make sure it would bear her weight, when his shaggy pony came into view.
She settled her backside into a well-worn hollow in the trunk and peered through the minty green veil of leaves, her heart skipping a beat. Aye, it was he. There was no mistaking Bernard MacCullough's regal bearing or the shock of dark hair that tumbled across his brow. He wore a scarlet and black tartan draped over his saffron shirt. A silver badge emblazoned with the MacCullough dragon secured the tartan, drawing her attention to shoulders that seemed to grow broader with each passing day. Below his short kilt, his long, tanned legs hugged the pony's flanks.
Gwendolyn rested her chin on her hand and sighed, content simply to drink in the sight of him as he guided the pony down the rocky path with a grace and mastery beyond his fifteen years. Although he rode through this pass every day, she never tired of watching him. Never tired of dreaming chat one day he would look up and catch a glimpse of her.
"Who goes there?" he would call out, reining his pony to a halt. "Could it be an angel fallen from the heavens?"
"'Tis only I, m'laird," she would reply, "thine fair Lady Gwendolyn."
Then he would flash his white teeth in a tender smile and she would gently float to the ground. (In her dreams, she always had a pretty pair of gossamer wings.) Using only one hand, he would sweep her up before him on the pony and they would ride through the village, basking beneath the proud smiles of her mama and papa, the slack-jawed gazes of the villagers, and the envious stares of her two older sisters.
"Look! There's Gwennie at the top of that tree. And they say pigs can't fly!" A burst of raucous laughter jerked Gwendolyn out of her reverie.
As she looked down and saw the circle of children gathered around the tree, her skin began to crawl with an all too familiar dread. Perhaps if she ignored their taunts, they would just go away.
"I don't know why ye're wastin' yer time up there. All the acorns are down here on the ground." Ross, the burly son of the village blacksmith, slapped his knee, howling with mirth.
"Oh, do stop it, Ross," laughed Glynnis, Gwendolyn's twelve-year-old sister. She twined an arm through his and tossed her flowing auburn curls. "If you'll leave the poor creature alone, I'll let you steal a kiss later."
Gwendolyn's eleven-year-old sister, Nessa, whose silky straight hair was a shade more gold than red, captured his ocher arm, pouting prettily. "Keep your lips to yourself, wench. He's already promised his kisses to me."
"Don't fret, lasses." Ross squeezed them both until they squealed. "I've kisses enough to go 'round. Although 'twould take more kisses than I've got to go 'round that sister of yers."
Gwendolyn couldn't stop herself from replying. "Go away, Ross, and leave me alone!"
"And what will you do if I don't? Sit on me?"
Glynnis and Nessa made a halfhearted attempt to smother their giggles with their hands. The rest of Ross's companions roared with laughter.
Then an unfamiliar voice sliced through their merriment. "You heard the lady. Leave her be."
Bernard MacCullough's voice was both smoother and deeper than Gwendolyn had imagined. And he'd called her a lady! But her wonder over chat was quickly overtaken by mortification as she realized he must have heard the entire exchange. As she looked through the branches, all she could see of her defender was the top of his head and the polished toes of his boots.
Ross turned to face the interloper. "And who the bloody hell are ye to--?" His snarl died on a croak as he went red, then white. "I d-didn't realize 'twas ye, m'laird," he stammered. "F-f-forgive me." He dropped to one knee at the feet of his chieftain's son.
Bernard seized the front of his shirt and hauled him to his feet. Ross might have outweighed the boy by at least a stone, but he still had to crane his neck to look Bernard in the eye. "I'm not your laird, yet," Bernard pointed out. "But I will be someday. And I should warn you that I never forget an injustice done to one of my own."
Gwendolyn bit her lip to still its trembling, amazed that their taunts couldn't make her cry, but that his kindness could.
Ross swallowed hard. "Aye, m'laird. Nor will I forget the warnin'."
"See that you don't."
Although Ross was subdued as he led his companions from the clearing, Gwendolyn caught the smoldering look he shot the top of the tree. She would pay later for his humiliation.
Her ragged nails bit into the bark as she realized they'd done exactly as she'd demanded. They'd left her alone.
She pressed her cheek against the trunk of the tree, praying she would disappear right into it like some bashful wood sprite.
A matter-of-fact voice dashed her hopes. "They're gone. You can come down now."
She closed her eyes, dreading the contempt that would darken his face if she accepted his invitation. "I'm really quite comfortable where I am."
He sighed. "Tisn't every day I have the privilege of rescuing a damsel in distress. I should think you'd want to thank me."
"Thank you. Now would you please just go away and leave me be?"
Defying him was her first mistake. "I'll not do it. 'Tis my land, and therefore my tree. If you don't come down, I'll come up after you." He planted one boot in the lowest crook of the trunk and reached for a dangling limb.
Already imagining how fast he could scale the tree with those long, limber legs of his, Gwendolyn then made her second mistake. She began to scramble higher. But in her haste she forgot to test each bough before she put her weight on it. There was a creak, then a crack, then she went plummeting toward the earth. Her last coherent thought was Please, God, let me land on my head and break my neck. But the fickle branches betrayed her once again by breaking her fall instead.
She had only a mercifully brief glimpse of Bernard's shocked face before she slammed into him, knocking him flat.
It took Gwendolyn a moment to catch her breath. When she opened her eyes Bernard was stretched out beneath her, his face only an inch from her own.
His eyes were closed, his stubby, dark lashes fanned out against the masculine curve of his sun-bronzed cheeks. Gwendolyn was so close she could even make out a hint of the whiskers that would soon shadow his jaw.
"M'laird?" she whispered.
He neither groaned nor stirred.
She moaned. "Oh, God, I've gone and killed him!"
If only the fall had killed her as well! Then the villagers could find them here, her body draped protectively across his, united in death as they'd never been in life. Unable to resist the heartbreaking pathos of the image, Gwendolyn buried her face against his breastbone and snuffled back a sob.
"Are you hurt, lass?" came a smoky whisper.
Gwendolyn slowly lifted her head. Bernard's eyes were open now, but not in the death stare she'd feared. They were a rich green, the color of emeralds spilling across a cache of hidden treasure.
As he gently brushed a leaf from her hair, Gwendolyn scrambled off of him.
"I've bruised naught but my pride," she said. "And you? Are you hurt?"
"I should say not." He climbed to his feet, swiping leaves and dirt from his backside. "'Twould take more than a child landing in my lap to knock the wind from me."
A child? Gwendolyn could almost feel her braids begin to bristle.
He brushed a twig from his hair, eyeing her from beneath that wayward lock across his brow. "I've seen you at the castle before, haven't I? You live at the manor in the village. You're the daughter of my father's steward."
"One of them," she replied tersely, not wanting him to suspect that she lived for those days when her papa would take her to the castle while he conducted his business simply because she might catch a glimpse of Bernard bounding down the stairs or playing chess with the chieftain or sneaking up behind his mother to give her a teasing kiss on the cheek. To Gwendolyn, Castle Weyrcraig had always been a castle of dreams, a place of pure enchantment where even the most unlikely of wishes might come true.
"You've a baby sister, haven't you? And another on the way. I've met your two older sisters," he said. "A cheeky pair, aren't they? Always batting their eyelashes and wiggling hips they don't yet have." A bemused smile softened his lips as he took in her rumpled tunic and the faded knee breeches she'd pilfered from her papa's laundry. "You're not like them, are you?"
Gwendolyn folded her arms over her chest. "No, I'm not. I'm fat."
He looked her up and down in frank assessment. "You've a bit of extra flesh on your bones, but 'tis not unbecoming on a child your age."
A child! Somehow it galled her more that he'd called her a child again than that he'd agreed she was fat. How could she have ever thought she loved this arrogant lad? Why, she loathed him!
She drew herself up to her full four feet three inches. "I suppose just because you live in a grand castle and ride a pretty pony, you fancy yourself a man full grown."
"I've still got some growing to do. As do you." He wrapped one of her flaxen braids around his hand, drawing her nearer so he could lean down and whisper, "But my father believes me man enough to escort a most esteemed guest to our castle on this very night."
Gwendolyn jerked the braid out of his hand and tossed it over her shoulder, terrified he was going to tweak her nose or pat her on the head as if she were some drooling puppy. "And just who would that guest be?"
He straightened and folded his arms over his chest, looking smug. "Oh, that's one secret I could never trust to a mere slip of a girl."
Horrid boy. Wretched boy. "Then I'd best be on my way, hadn't I, so you can attend to your manly duties."
She started up the hill, absurdly pleased that he actually looked taken aback by her desertion. "If you'd like, I can give you a hint," he called after her.
She refused to flatter him with a reply. She simply stopped and waited in stony silence.
"He's a true hero!" Bernard exclaimed. "A prince among men."
Since Gwendolyn had thought the same thing about him only a few minutes ago, she was none too impressed. She started walking again.
"If that lad troubles you again, you'll let me know, won't you?"
Gwendolyn squeezed her eyes shut against a rush of longing. Only a short while ago, she would have given her eyeteeth for the privilege of claiming him as her champion. Now, gathering the tatters of her pride around her, she turned stiffly to face him and asked, "Is that a request or a command?"
As he rested his hands on his lean hips, she realized she'd once again made the mistake of defying him. "Consider it a command, lass. After all, someday I'll be your laird and master as well as his."
Gwendolyn tilted her nose in the air. "That's where you're wrong, Bernard MacCullough. For no man shall ever be my laird and master!"
She wheeled around and went marching toward the village, missing the smile that played around Bernard's mouth as he whispered, "I wouldn't be so sure of that, lass, if I were you."