Highland Brideby Colleen Faulkner, Kensington Publishing Corporation Staff
In the legendary Highlands, Kara Burns must obey a long-held betrothal and marry Harry, the surviving Gordon heir and Earl of Dunnane, who is but a child. His illegitimate half-brother Ian Munroe helps serve Dunnane and keeps his young half-brother from harm, even if that means saving Kara from humiliation on the wedding night. It is this chivalry that begins a dangerous passion.
Knowing an affair will bring their death if they�re caught, Ian and Kara cannot refuse their love. When treachery arrives, only the unexpected valor of a not-too honest ally and the deeper secret of a distant, lost love will save the earldom and Kara�s love for Ian.
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Chapter One Highlands of Scotland Grampian Mountains Spring, 1636
Kara pulled the heavy tartan blanket to her chin as her gaze settled apprehensively on the bedchamber door. Despite the warmth of the blaze on the hearth, she was chilled to the bone. Her teeth chattered, clicking together in an unsettling rattle. Naked, she shivered beneath the mountain of woolen blankets.
When the maids had led her to the tower room they had removed her gown and refused to bring her sleeping garments, or even a dressing gown. It was wedding tradition, they had told her, but she guessed it was to deter her from attempting to flee.
At any moment, through that door, her groom would emerge. He would come to her bridal bedchamber perhaps with laughter on his lips and scotch on his breath, expecting his husbandly rights. Kara had known him all of six hours, and of that, they had spent most of the time at the wedding feast separated except for the brief ceremony. She didn't even know the color of his eyes.
Her gaze fixed on the rough-hewn door that appeared to have previously been splintered by an overly anxious bridegroom. Kara's lower lip trembled and she bit down on it until she tasted the metallic tang of blood.
She set her jaw with determination. She would not give herself to her husband. Not tonight. Not tomorrow night. Her father could beat her, he could force her to marry the Lord Dunnane, he could even send her far from the only home she had ever known, but he could not compel her to have carnal relations with his lordship.
This was where her father's authority over her ended. Here, in this castle at the foothills of the GrampianMountains, in the unfamiliar bedchamber where she was surrounded by strangers, Kara finally had a wee bit of control over her own life.
Nae. Short of rape, there would be no consummation tonight, and she'd be damned if she cared what anyone thought on the morn.
Kara heard a sound in the passageway outside the bedchamber and she involuntarily flinched. Here she was naked beneath the covers and he was coming . . . they were coming.
Her gaze again locked on the door.
At least Harailt Gordon, Lord of Dunnane, called Harry to his intimates, would not rape her. Of that she was fairly certain.
A satisfied smile crossed her bruised lips as she thought of getting the best of her father just this once. It was a minor victory in the face of a vast defeat, but she held it dear to her heart just the same.
Harry wouldn't rape her because he couldn't. She outweighed him by a stone and towered over him by a full head. In a wrestling match she'd have the best of him in less than a minute. Short of knocking her unconscious, he would not get his way with her.
The sound of raucous laughter filled the outside passageway, and Kara shrank back under the edge of the tartan. The door was flung open and she lifted the blanket higher, lying back on the duck-down pillow.
"To the bride," a wedding guest cried with gusto as raucous men burst into the room.
"Aye, to the bride," another reveler echoed.
More Scotsmen poured into her bridal chamber, all drunk and merry, their attire in disarray. Some wore bonnets and cloaks, clad to make their departure, while others were half-dressed. One fellow with a tangled red beard was missing a boot, another his stockings. A rosy-checked piper playing a cheerful jig brought up the rear of the entourage. Fierce clansmen lifted their goblets in salute while others drank from the earthen jugs just come from the bowels of Dunnane Castle. The Highlanders stank so of damp wool, Scotch, and armpits that Kara had to swallow against the bile that rose in her throat.
The wedding guests surrounded her brocade-curtained bed, seemingly unaware that she was a human being laid out between them. Much as she would someday be laid out upon her death, she thought ironically.
"To the bridegroom!"
"The bridegroom!" The men lifted their vessels and drank again.
"May his rod always remain straight. May he always strike home."
The clansmen burst into coarse laughter as they lifted their drinks in salute again.
"Where is he? Where is the groom?" someone shouted. "Bring in the groom!"
Kara wanted to close her eyes and shrink under the blanket. She wanted to retreat from the bed, from the chamber, from the dark, lonely Dunnane Castle into nothingness. But she knew there would be no retreat this night.
"Lord Dunnane! Lord Dunnane!"
The wedding guests began to stomp their feet and clap their hands so loudly that Kara wanted to cover her ears. Only her pride kept her staring straight ahead at the doorway.
The bridegroom appeared in the doorway and Kara's breath caught in her throat. Her heart tripped and set off pounding again. Here he was at last, her husband, Harry. Her husband until death parted them.
Harry was the great lord of Dunnane Castle and all the vast lands it encompassed. He was the clan lord of the Gordons, a man of great influence and wealth, a man admired by many, perhaps even feared by a few. He held a position most men only dreamed of aspiring to.
It was a pity he was only thirteen years old.
"Step aside, aside, men," a giant of a black-haired figure announced with authority as he filled the doorway behind her husband. His speech held the whisper of the burr of a Highland brogue heard only farther north, but he sounded well educated, better than most in the room.
Kara didn't know who this huge man was but she had noticed him right away when she'd arrived this morning in time for the ceremony. There had been a great deal of confusion in the great hall upon her arrival, but then, too, he had taken command and all had fallen into place as he directed. As the day had progressed, she had gathered he was some sort of adviser to her husband, someone close to him. But none had spoken to her so that she might ask and no one had apparently thought her worthy enough of introductions.
"Step aside, McCulver," the dark stranger demanded in a deep, booming voice. "You stand between a man and his virgin bride."
Again the chamber filled with crude laughter. The black-haired man laughed, but there was something about his laughter that made her think he was not laughing with them, but at them.
Kara felt her cheeks color with embarrassment. Her gaze strayed beyond her husband with his eyes downcast to the adviser. To her surprise, he was staring directly at her, and despite his gruff speech, she found his dark eyes filled with compassion. He seemed to be the only man in the room who understood her vulnerability at this moment . . . her fear.
Something in the Highlander's eyes gave Kara the courage to take another breath. I am not afraid. I am not afraid, she chanted silently. There is nothing for me to fear from this child.
Kara's gaze returned to her husband standing halfway between the door and her bed. Her lord and master gazed at his feet, his thin, boyish face obscured by shadows. He was dressed from head to toe in a silk brocade dressing gown and robe, garments made in the Orient. On his head was perched a tiny silk cap.
He looked so ridiculous that had it not been for the circumstances she might have laughed. Instead she felt sorry for the man-child. He seemed as out of place at this moment as she did.
The witnesses who filled the bedchamber were lords themselves, warriors all. And though she heard words of goodwill from their lips, she saw no respect for Lord Dunnane in their eyes. Young Harry might, in name, serve as lord over these men, but no one saw him as lord. Rather than allies, Kara saw each man as a hawk waiting to fly in, lift up young Harry and take the kill, and his lands, his title, his monies with it.
The adviser leaned forward over Harry's shoulder and whispered something. Harry glanced up at her and for a moment she thought he might burst into tears. He was more frightened than she was.
The adviser gave him a gentle nudge. "Abed with your wife and I will clear the room, my lord."
Kara had no desire to lie beside the boy, and yet out of pity she lifted the edge of the coverlet, taking care not to reveal her own nakedness.
The crowd cheered.
The boy slipped into bed beside her, bed slippers and all.
"Out, out, allow his lordship to be about his business," the adviser called merrily in the same commanding voice. "Down below where there is more to drink, my friends."
Still clinging to the bed tartan, Kara watched the crowd file out of the room, calling bawdy well-wishes over their shoulders as they went. Finally the fiddler took up the rear and Kara was alone in the chamber with her husband and his dark-haired guardian.
The Highlander closed the door and walked to the hearth. "Is there anything I can get you, Harry?" he asked quietly as he took up an iron cane to prod the fire.
Sparks leaped and the room was immediately filled with the sweet scent of apple. Apple wood burned on the hearth.
Ian . . . He was called Ian.
Ian kept his gaze so politely averted that it took Kara a moment to realize the handsome, dark Highlander spoke to her. She was not certain anyone had spoken directly to her, save the priest, since her arrival.
"Nae," she whispered, touched again that he would take her wants or needs into consideration.
"I have left wine on the table should ye wish to partake," he told her, crossing toward the door.
Kara could not drag her gaze from his. Now she wanted desperately to know who he was, but she didn't have the nerve to ask.
Ian glanced at the boy. "Ye must come and bolt the door behind me, else they'll be back before the next strike of the clock."
Harry, needing no further invitation to escape the bed, leaped from the bedcovers. "Ye won't stay, Ian?"
The man smiled tenderly. "I told ye, Harry. I canna stay. 'Tis your wedding night." His gazed strayed to Kara. "But I have no doubt your wife will take care of ye. I will see ye on the morn."
Still, Kara could not separate herself from Ian's compelling gaze. He was asking that she look after Harry. Perhaps even pleading. Kara nodded and she knew that Ian understood. In that moment she knew he realized what a child Harry still was and how ridiculous was this entire situation.
He looked back to Harry. "Good night then, my lord, my lady." Ian backed out of the door. "Latch it," he said from the passageway.
Harry slid the bolt home and then stood there a moment, his back to Kara before he had the nerve to turn to her. Then he just stood there.
Kara watched him for a full minute, waiting to see what he would do. Finally she realized that unless she said something he would probably stand all night.
She lifted the corner of the bedcovers again. "Come, sir. You'll catch your death if you stand there any longer."
"I . . . I could pull a chair to the hearth and sleep there," he said hopefully. His voice was still high in pitch, the voice of a boy who had not yet reached the physical maturity of manhood.
Kara couldn't resist a smile. "Nae, 'tis your bed as well. I'll stay to my side and nae snore, I promise you."
Harry looked longingly at the space beside her in the bed. He appeared tired; it had been a long day for him as well. She knew he wanted nothing more than to slip between the warmth of the wool and sleep, but obviously something else was on his mind.
The men, of course. Harry couldn't help but be thinking of all the things they had said —what they expected him to do.
"It's all right," Kara said softly. "Because if it's husbandly duties you worry over, you've nothing to fear from me, my lord. I won't tell." She made the assumption that he didn't want to lie with her, praying she was right.
He swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing. "My . . . my men, they expect —"
"I expect nothing. We have many years to be wed, my lord. Many nights to share a bed as man and wife."
His gaze met hers for a fraction of a second and then he bounded to the bed too much like a little boy and not at all like the great lord of the castle.
Harry yanked the bedcovers up to his chin and lay back on his pillow, his body rigid. Kara leaned over and blew out the candle beside the bed, leaving the room in the glow of the firelight. She stared at the bed linens draped overhead.
Harry lay absolutely still, barely breathing. After a moment she heard a little sound. Then again.
The child was crying.
Kara exhaled slowly. She wanted to go to sleep. She didn't want to comfort the boy. She didn't want to touch him —give him any encouragement he might interpret wrongly. Who was she to comfort him? Right now she could use a little comforting of her own. But of course there was no one to comfort her. Never had been.
A little sob escaped his tight lips.
"My lor —Harry, it's all right," she whispered.
What did she do now? Her first thought was to go to him, draw him into her arms and comfort him as she would any child. But she was naked, for heaven's sake!
With a sigh of concession, Kara rolled onto her side toward him and draped her arm over his abdomen. This was not a man in a position to be demanding husbandly rights; this was a little boy in need of a mother or a suitable substitute.
Harry's thin body was trembling with cold and fear. When she drew near, she felt not the body of a man in her bed, but the body of a little boy, a frightened little boy.
"There, there," she whispered. "All will be all right. Shhh." She had no need to ask him why he was crying. She felt like crying herself, and she was an adult. She could only imagine how frightened and confused he must be.
"It's all right, Harry," she soothed, rolling close to him to share her body heat beneath the covers. "Go to sleep." She reached up with one hand and stroked his silky blond hair as she would any child's. "Sleep and all will look brighter on the morrow."
After a time Harry began to relax against her. His crying subsided and eventually he drifted off to sleep in Kara's arms.
This is certainly not how I imagined my wedding night, she thought sleepily as her own eyes drifted shut. She had once imagined lying in the arms of Harry's brother, William. It was he, fifteen years older than Harry, a son of the deceased earl's previous marriage, to whom she had been betrothed. It was only upon William's death in a skirmish with the English that she had found herself the intended of a child.
A tear fell from the corner of Kara's eyes. She wanted to roll over on her own side of the bed but she was afraid to move for fear of waking the boy. Instead she drifted off to sleep, her thoughts heavy with the day's events and the uncertainty of her future with the boy-husband who slept in her arms.
Copyright © 2000 by Colleen Faulkner
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