By Hannah Howell
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
Copyright © 2003
All right reserved.
Scotland, Spring 1471
Ilsa groaned as eight of her fourteen brothers
crowded into her small cottage. They looked
around, each wearing an identical scowl of disapproval.
None of them liked or tolerated her decision
to move out of the keep. Unfortunately, not
one of them understood that their often overbearing
protectiveness had been smothering her, either.
Even though one or more of them stopped by several
times a day, she was enjoying her newfound
freedom. That, she feared, was about to end.
"It has been nearly a year," announced Sigimor,
her eldest brother, as he and his twin Somerled
crouched by the cradles of their nephews. "In a
fortnight the year and the day come to an end."
"I ken it."
Ilsa put two heavy jugs of ale on the huge table
that occupied almost half of her main room. She
had realized that she would never be able to stop
her brothers from coming round as the mood
struck them so had arranged her living area accordingly.
The huge table, sturdy benches, and
extra seats, hung upon the wall until needed, had
all been made specifically for her brothers. She
had arranged a small sitting area more to her liking
on the other end of the great hall which made
up most of her bottom floor. A low, somewhat
rough addition to the back of her home held the
kitchen, a tiny pantry, a bathing room, and a small
bedchamber for her companion. The high loft
which served as the upper part of her home was
where she had done things to please herself alone.
She had the sinking feeling her brothers were
going to force her to leave her little cottage just as
she had gotten herself comfortably settled.
"The lads need their father," Sigimor said as he
let his nephew Finlay clasp his finger.
"Fourteen uncles arenae enough?" she drawled,
setting eight tankards on the table.
"Nay. Their father is a laird, has land and coin.
They deserve a part of that."
"It would appear that their father isnae of a like
mind." It hurt to say those words, but Ilsa fought to
hide her pain. "Ye want me to go crawling to a
mon who has deserted me?"
Sigimor sighed and moved to join his brothers
at the table as Ilsa set out bread, cheese, and oatcakes.
"Nay, I want ye to confront him, to demand
what is rightfully due your sons, his sons."
Ilsa also sighed as she sat down next to her twin
brother Tait. She had hoped her brothers would
not use her sons's rights or welfare to sway her, but
suspected she had been foolish to do so. They
might be rough, loud, overbearing, and far too
protective, but they were not stupid. Her weak
point was her sons and only an idiot would not realize
"Mayhap another week," she began and groaned
when her brothers all shook their heads.
"That would be cutting it too close to the bone.
We will leave on the morrow."
"Nay. I will admit that I am fair disappointed in
the lad ..."
"He is of an age with ye," muttered Ilsa.
Sigimor ignored her and continued, "For I believed
all his talk of needing to clear away some
threat and prepare his keep for a wife. Tis why I
settled for a handfast marriage. I felt a wee bit uncomfortable
insisting upon witnessed documents,
but now I am glad that I did. He cannae deny ye or
the lads. We can make him honor the vows he
made." He studied Ilsa closely for a moment. "I
thought ye cared for the mon. Ye wanted him bad
"And I thought he cared for me," she snapped.
"That was obviously utter foolishness. For just a
moment I forgot that I am too poor, too thin, and
too red. The mon was just willing to play a more
devious game than usual to tumble a maid."
"That makes no sense, Ilsa," argued Tait. "He let
us ken where he lives."
"Are ye sure of that?" She nodded when her
brothers looked briefly stunned. "We just have his
word on that and I think we can assume that his
word isnae worth verra much."
"We will still go," said Sigimor. "If we discover it
was all a lie, a trick, then we will ken that we have
us a mon to hunt down." He nodded when his
brothers all muttered an agreement. "So, Somerled
will stay here, as will Alexander whose wife is soon
to bear him his first child. They can watch the
young ones. I, Gilbert, Ranulph, Elyas, Tait,
Tamhas, Brice, and Bronan will ride with ye. A few
of our men and a couple of our cousins, too, I am
"Tis nearly an army," protested Ilsa.
"Enough to put weight behind our words, but
nay enough to be too threatening."
Ilsa tried to talk them out of their plans, but
failed. The moment her brothers left, Ilsa buried
her face in her hands and fought the urge to weep.
She had done enough of that. A soft touch upon
her shoulder drew her out of her despondency
and she looked at Gay, her companion and the wet
nurse who helped her sate the greed of her sons.
Brutally raped, cast off by her family, and then suffering
the loss of her child had left young Gay terrified
of men, a near-silent ghost of a girl who still
feared far too many things and grieved for all her
losses. Gay always hid away when Ilsa's brothers
stomped in for a visit.
"Ye must go," Gay said in her whispery voice.
"I ken it," Ilsa replied. "Yet, when he didnae return
for me, didinae e'en send a letter or gift, I realized
I had been played for a fool and did my
grieving then. I buried all of that verra deep inside
of me. I dinnae want it all dug up again."
Gay picked up a fretting Finlay, handed him to
Ilsa, then collected Cearnach. For a few moments,
Ilsa savored the gentle peace as she and Gay fed
the babies. Looking at her sons, however, at their
big, beautiful blue eyes, she was sharply reminded
of the man whose seed had created them. The
pain was still there, deep, and, she suspected, incurable.
For a few brief; heady weeks she had felt loved,
desired, even beautiful. At twenty years of age, an
age when most considered her a spinster, she had
finally caught the eye of a man. And such a handsome
one, she mused, and sighed. That should
have warned her. Handsome men did not pursue
women like her. In truth, no man had ever pursued
her. She had let loneliness, passion, and a
craving for love steal away all of her wits. Going to
the man as her brothers wished her to would only
remind her too sharply of her own idiocy. Not that
she ever completely forgot it, she muttered to herself.
"It must be done for the laddies," Gay said as
she rested Cearnach against her thin shoulder and
rubbed his back.
"I ken that, too," Ilsa said as she did the same to
Finlay. "Tis their birthright and I cannae allow it to
be stolen from them. Weel, if there even is a birthright
and we dinnae discover that the mon told us
naught but lies. Ye will have to come with us."
Gay nodded, "I will be fine. I hide from your
brothers because they are so big, nay because I
fear them. They fill the room and I find that hard
to bear. I will find other places to slip away to when
we get where we are going." She frowned. "I just
cannae abide being inside a place when so many
men are about. I ken your brothers willnae hurt
me, but that knowledge isnae yet enough to banish
all my blind fears."
"Do ye still love this mon?"
"I think I might, which would be a great folly.
But, tis time to stop hiding for fear I will be hurt. I
must needs seek out this bastard for the sake of the
laddies, but I begin to think I need to do it for myself,
too. I need to look the devil in the eye, find
out just how big a fool I was, and deal with it all. Of
course, if he is there, was just hoping I would fade
away into the mists, tis best to confront him with
his reponsibilifies. And then I can do my best to
make him utterly miserable."
When Gay laughed briefly and softly, Ilsa felt
her spirits rise. Gay was healing. It was slow and
there would always be scars, but soon Gay would
recover from the hurts done to her. It made Ilsa a
little ashamed of her own cowardice. If, after all
she had suffered, little Gay could heal, then so
could she. And, if she did meet her lover again,
she would be a lot wiser and a lot stronger. She
would not fall victim to any more foolish dreams.
"My children need a mother."
"Och, he is back to talking to himself again."
Sir Diarmot MacEnroy smiled at his brother
Angus who sat on his right. On his left was his
brother Antony, or Nanty as he was often called.
They had come to attend his wedding and he was
heartily glad of their company. The brother he really
wished to talk to was his eldest brother Connor,
however, but that man had only just arrived with
his pregnant wife Gillyanne. Ignoring Gilly's protests,
Connor had immediately insisted that she rest for
a while and had dragged her up to the bedchamber
they would share. It would be a long while before
he saw either of them again. Diarmot just hoped
there would be some time before his wedding in
which he could speak privately with the man.
"Just uneasy about the wedding," Diarmot said.
"Thought ye wanted to marry this lass."
"I do. I just need to remind myself of why now
"She is a pretty wee lass," said Nanty. "Quiet."
"Verra quiet," agreed Diarmot. "Sweet. Biddable.
"Completely different from your first wife," murmured
"Just as I wanted her to be. Anabelle was a blight,
Margaret will be a blessing." A boring one, he mused,
and probably cold as well, then hastily shook aside
those thoughts. "Good dowry and a fine piece of
"Does she ken about the children?" Angus asked.
"Aye," replied Diarmot. "I introduced her. She
seems at ease with the matter. Her father wasnae
too happy at first, nay until he realized the only legitimate
one was wee Alice. Once assured that any
son his daughter bears me will be my heir, he calmed
"There willnae be what Connor and Gilly have,
will there?" Nanty asked, his tone of voice indicating
that he already knew the answer to the question.
"Nay," Diarmot replied quietly. "I thought I had
found that with Anabelle, but twas naught but a
curse. Nay every mon can be blessed with what
Connor has, but then no mon deserves it more."
Both his brothers grunted in agreement. "I now
seek peace, contentment."
He ignored the looks his brothers exchanged
which carried a strong hint of pity. Since he was
occasionally prone to feeling the pinch of it for
himself, he did not really need theirs. It was time,
however, to set his life back on course. He had
drifted for too long after the debacle of his marriage
to Anabelle, descending into debauchery and
drunkeness which had left him with a houseful of
children, only one of whom was legitimate by law
even if he was not certain that little Alice was truly
his child. Then, as he had finally begun to come to
his senses, he had been attacked and left for dead.
The months needed to heal had given him far too
much time to think. That had led to the coming
marriage to sweet, shy, biddable Margaret Campbell.
It was the right step to take, he told himself firmly.
It was late before he got a chance to talk privately
with Connor. Diarmot had almost avoided
the meeting he had craved earlier, for the looks
Connor and Gilly had exchanged while dining with
Margaret and her family had not been encouraging.
It was possible Connor might try to talk him
out of the marriage and Diarmot feared he was too
uncertain of himself to resist such persuasion. As
they settled in chairs set before the fireplace in his
bedchamber, Diarmot eyed his elder brother warily
as they sipped their wine.
"Are ye certain about this, Diarmot?" Connor finally
asked. "There doesnae seem to be much to
"Nay, there isnae," Diarmot agreed, "but that is
what I want now."
"Are ye being prompted by your injuries, by that
loss of memory?"
"My injuries are mostly healed. And, aye, my
memories are still sadly rattled with a few unsettling
blank spots remaining from just before and
just after the attack upon me. But, those things have
naught to do with this." He sighed and sipped his
wine. "Not every mon has the luck ye have had in
finding Gillyanne. I tried and I failed, dramatically
and miserably. Now I seek peace, a woman to care
for my home, my bairns, and to share my bed when
I am in the mood. Nay more."
"Then why did ye wish to speak to me?"
"Weel, I havenae seen ye for months," Diarmot
began, then grimaced when Connor just stared at
him with wry amuement. "I think, like some foolish
boy, I wanted ye to say this is right, to give your
Connor nodded. "But ye arenae a small boy any
longer. Ye are the only one who can say if this is
fight or not."
"Ye arenae going to give me your opinion, are
"I am nay sure ye want to hear it," Connor drawled.
"Also nay sure what ye want my opinion on. By
all the rules, ye have arranged yourself a good marriage,
gaining land, coin, and a sweet, virginal bride.
By all the rules, ye should be congratulated by most
"But not by ye or Gilly."
"I cannae see into your heart, Diarmot. I cannae
be sure what ye want, what ye seek. To be blunt, I
look at that sweet, shy, biddable bride ye have chosen
and wonder how long it will take ere ye have to
be reminded that ye e'en have a wife."
Diarmot laughed and groaned. "About a month.
I can see the same ye do, but tis what I think I need.
Yet, something keeps nagging at me, weakening
my resolve. One of those lost memories trying to
break through the mists in my mind. The closer
the time to say my vows draws near, the sharper the
nagging. I have more and more dreams, strange
dreams, but I cannae grasp the meaning of them."
"What is in these dreams?"
"Nonsense." Diarmot sighed. "Last night I dreamed
of a scarlet elf poking at me, cursing me, and
telling me to clear the cursed mist from my puny
brain ere I do something stupid. Then there were
some angry fiery demons, near a dozen of them,
bellowing that I had best step right or they will be
cutting me off at the knees. Then, for a brief moment,
all seems weel, until the first blow is struck.
Tis the beating, I think, for I wake up all asweat,
the fear of death putting a sharp taste in my mouth."
"The last I can understand," Connor said. "Ye
were helpless. No mon wants to die, but to be set
upon in the dark by men ye cannae recognize,
who beat ye near to death for reasons ye dinnae
ken, would stir a fear in any mon."
Diarmot nodded. "I can understand that part. I
just wish that, upon waking with that fear, I would
also hold the memory of the who and the why."
"Twill come. Now, elves and fiery demons? Nay,
I dinnae understand that. Gilly might. Could just
be some trickery of your mind which is struggling
to remember." He shrugged.
Excerpted from HIGHLAND GROOM
by Hannah Howell
Copyright © 2003 by Hannah Howell.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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