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By HANNAH HOWELL
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 1988 Hannah Howell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneShe turned the corner and he was there, sitting and staring at the roses as if they could talk and would at any moment. That sad, lost look was on his scarred face again. Sometimes she would allow herself to pretend that he revealed that side of himself to her willingly, then savored the glow that gave her. It never lasted long for she was too practical. Soon she would tartly remind herself that the only reason she had seen it was because she was lurking around, catching him when he thought he was alone.
This night she would be presented at court. She had been brought in hopes of forming an alliance through marriage, preferably one that would further the family's favor with the king. From the moment she had laid eyes on the man she had fought against hoping that he would be the one chosen for her. He had all the right qualifications, but her luck had never been that good. Instead of a man her heart ached for, she would no doubt get some mincing courtier or even a man past his prime and probably past all else.
At nineteen years she was late in wedding but her father had held off finding her a husband hoping that she would fill out to look more like a woman than a child. It was not to be. She was small and no amount of potions and porridge would change that. Only she and Meg knew that she was perhaps not as unwomanly as she appeared. All that, however, did not alter the fact that she thought she was not comely. She had been told that often enough to know it was so. With so little to offer a man, one like Iain MacLagan was not for her.
Her hair was the color of claret wine, such a deep red that many swore it ran with a purple hue despite her adament denials of such an oddity. It was of such thickness with a strong tendency to curl that it was always slipping its bonds, looking untidy. Her eyes were a deep brown with flecks of gold set beneath finely arched dark brows and ringed with such long, curled dark lashes that she was always denying accusations of their being unnatural. Though she knew her skin was lovely and pale, she had been cursed with freckles which, though faint and few, would not be removed. She sighed.
Whether it was that soft sigh or just a sense of being watched she was not sure but Iain MacLagan suddenly looked her way. She stood like a terrified hare, pinned to the spot by turquoise eyes that shone bright yet emotionless in his harsh dark face. At any moment she expected him to verbally flay her with his cold, remote voice, so well-known in court, for being so insolent as to invade his privacy.
Iain had thought to lash her with words but she looked so much like a frightened child that he could not. She was sadly disheveled with a vast amount of wine red hair easing free of her headdress. Her eyes were huge dark pools in her small ivory face, a dainty visage that wavered between being heart-shaped and triangular. Perfect white teeth worried the bottom lip of her full mouth. There were few curves to indicate she was a grown woman, but he could see she was at least past her first flux. She was also rather lacking in height and flesh elsewhere on her body for her neck and arms were slender nearly to frailty.
He wondered what fool let her wander about unattended. Her youth was no protection. Although he himself felt it abhorrent to lust after and bed a girl barely past her first flux, he could think of others who did not. There were also those men who would care little that she was obviously well-born and innocent. For all her daintiness, she was rather pretty.
"There is no need to quail so, mistress."
"I didnae mean to disturb your privacy, Sir MacLagan." She willed her body to disappear but it did not happen.
"The garden is to be enjoyed by all. Come, sit. Ye ken my name but I ken not yours. Come."
Tentatively, she did so, sitting beside him as if she expected the bench to singe her backside. "I am Islaen MacRoth."
"Islaen. 'Tis fitting," he murmured for her voice was soft, low and slightly husky with the attraction of fine music. "I have not seen ye here before. Newly arrived?"
"Aye. I am to be put forward this eve." She saw his winged dark brows quirk and knew he thought her too young. "I am newly turned nineteen. Fither kept me at home in hopes I would grow. He gave up."
A smile ghosted over Iain's face for even with her headdress and painfully straight posture she barely rose to his shoulder. The hands that plucked at her skirts were small, delicate and long-fingered. Except for the huge dark eyes that stared up at him everything about Islaen MacRoth was small, including her lightly freckled modestly upturned nose. He could not help but wonder how she would find a husband, which was undoubtedly the reason she had been brought to court.
"I have a sizeable purse, some verra sweet property near the border and an excellent bloodline."
"Ye read minds, do ye? 'Tis a verra uncomplimentary thought ye put in my head."
Guilt gave his voice the sternness he sought in order to sound convincing. It was an insult to a woman to think her unweddable and he had no real wish to insult her. She looked a sweet child.
Inwardly he cursed for his body was reacting to her as a man's did when in the presence of a lovely woman. His loins did not doubt her age. It was a feeling he fought, although he found it not as easy as it had become since Catalina's death. That troubled him deeply for he felt it vital that he keep his passion under firm control.
"Nay, only the truth and 'tis your look I read for oft have I seen it. 'Tis the ones who gape or snicker that I consider rude."
"So ye should." His face hardened suddenly. "T'would be wrong for any mon to wed ye and make ye bear his bairn."
Unaware of what prompted his statement or put the harshness in his voice, she drew herself up to her full, inconsiderable height. "And just why do ye say that? I am a woman and ye wed women and get them with bairn. I can do it as weel as any other."
"Nay, ye cannae. Ye havenae got any hips, ye foolish wee lass."
"Pray tell me then what it is I am sitting on?"
"Your backside and cursed little there is of it."
"My mither looked much as I do and she bore a dozen bairns, healthy bairns. She didnae die bearing them either. Went fishing for salmon when I was five and drowned. If she could then I can."
"Ye cannae recall your mither exact, child." He stood up to glare at her. "Ye are a wee thing not made for childbearing."
To counter the effects of his towering over her, she stood on the bench. "Then what did God put me here for?"
"Only He kens. Aye, and only He kens how I got into this discussion. Ye would be wise to join a nunnery and forget the bairns."
"Ye be a mon. What do ye ken about it?" she asked scornfully and squeaked when he roughly grasped her shoulders.
He did not really frighten her with his sudden fierce intensity. She found that she had a deep, abiding trust in him. What she did not understand was why he was so fierce. Their conversation had taken a strange turn that left her confused. It was certainly not like any she had dreamt they would have when she finally got to talk to him. 'Although,' she mused with an inner smile over her own foolishness, 'it is no stranger than if he began to spout flowery phrases of undying love as I have so often imagined him doing.' In truth, next to that fantasy, this strange discussion seemed quite reasonable.
"I ken more than I like, little one. To get a wee lass like ye with bairn is much as cutting her throat. Aye, she will do naught but scream while day fades into night and back again, only to spill out a dead bairn and her life's blood. I ken all too weel."
She staggered when he released her abruptly. "That fate can visit a woman with hips as wide as a loch," she said calmly, knowing from the brief glance she had had of remembered horror in his eyes that he spoke of something very personal.
"Suit yourself, lass," he said coldly, his calm restored.
"Aye, I will. I will wed and by a year's end I will have me a bairn. Nay, I will have twins and ye can come to the christening, Sir MacLagan," she retorted with a mixture of confidence and childish defiance.
That haughty declaration almost made him smile. She looked belligerent and confident. That made him feel certain that she had little idea of what she spoke of. Some women could be kept very sheltered, knowing little or nothing of life until they found themselves wed and thrust from their family home.
"'Tis your life, mistress. Toss it away as ye please."
The reply forming on her lips was never made for she spotted a familiar shape in the distance. "I must go now, Sir MacLagan."
With that she was off and running even as a farewell formed on his tongue. Her skirts were well hiked up and, even as he noted that her legs were slim as well, he deemed them very fine legs indeed. He then looked to see what had sent her off.
Marching down the path was a tall, thin woman adorned wholly in black. Her hawkish features made him think of a carrion bird. The impression was not lessened when she paused before him, fixing him with a cold, grey stare.
The woman was so completely the opposite of the woman-child that Iain almost smiled. He mused with a touch of humour that they made a strange pair. Then again, he mused, such a stern guardian was probably just what the minx needed to keep her from getting completely out of hand.
"Did ye see a wee lass aboot, m'laird? Most like she was disheveled and without an escort."
In a courtly manner that never failed to impress, Iain replied that he had indeed seen just such a lass. In the same way he politely sent the woman in the wrong direction. As he strolled back to the castle he wondered why he had done that.
After just a few moments of conversation with the girl he was already acting strangely. Since she was going to be around often now, he decided that was something he had to watch out for. His cold, hard pose had been hard won and he had no intention of losing it to some tiny lady with wild, wine-red hair. It had worked and no knight worth his armor gave up a successful defense.
He fought down his emotions as he saw her in his mind's eye. She was daintier and smaller than Catalina had been. The only reason he could find for speaking out so bluntly was that he could see her meeting the same fate. She would go to her marriage bed, get with child and die to be buried beside her babe, two innocents lost in one stroke. Iain shook his head wishing there could be some sort of law against letting such tiny, frail ladies wed. It was tantamount to a death sentence.
Islaen suffered no concerns about childbirth once she left Iain. Her only worry was surviving Meg's scolding which had duly fallen on her moments after she had reached her room. A distant cousin of her father's, Meg had been hired to raise her after the death of her mother. The woman set about her job with admirable vigor. Making use of the tender spot her father and eleven brothers had for her did not deter her at all.
Each of the men in Islaen's family treated the girl with amused and loving tolerance. Sometimes Meg suspected they forgot Islaen was a girl. She had dragged the girl from wrestling matches, riding contests, knife hurlings. That Islaen seemed ill-equipped to be a fine lady was no help either. Not only ill-equipped but none too interested either, Meg feared, as was illustrated by an incident just a week past. Fine ladies did not get on their hands and knees to join in a dice game.
Meg had no sense of failing with the girl. Improvements had been made. When the laird had first brought her to care for Islaen, the girl had been as wild as any lad. With determination Meg had smoothed away many a rough edge.
"Is he not the bonniest mon ye have e'er seen?" Islaen sighed after Meg soundly denounced Iain MacLagan's trick.
Meg's sharp eyes grew even sharper as they rested upon her charge sprawled somewhat ungracefully in her bath. "He is scarred."
"'Tis just a wee one," Islaen retorted defensively. "Ye hardly e'en see it."
Thinking of the scar that ran from the man's right temple nearly to his lip, Meg drawled, "Oh, aye, barely visible. A wee nick in the skin."
With no trouble at all, Islaen ignored Meg's sarcasm. She had never found it hard to do that. Long before Meg had arrived Islaen had learned that, as well as how to return it in equal measure, for her family had sharp tongues.
"I wonder how he came by it. Something gallant, I wager. A duel o'er a fair lady's honour or heart." She let her imagination take hold of her.
The noise Meg made was highly derisive. "Or bed. 'Tis the sort o' thing that puts most men in a lather. They wield one sword and hack aboot at each other just tae win the chance to wield their other sword. Men have but twa thoughts in their heads."
"Aye," Islaen sighed, "fighting and wenching, blood and flesh, violence and lust, swords and seduction, rampaging and rutting ..."
"I ken that covers it, ye wicked girl." Meg met Islaen's dancing gaze without expression. "Out o' the bath ere ye wrinkle."
"Heaven forbid that I should add wrinkles to the freckles," Islaen murmured as she stood up and stepped out of the bath. "I wish I could have such a husband as Sir Iain. Would we not have bonnie wee ones? And strong, like my brothers and fither. T'would be verra nice."
As instructed by her kin, Meg took note of Islaen's stated preference. At the first opportunity she would tell the laird. It would be nice if the child could have a husband she fancied, but none of them hoped too hard. She was a wee lass that many a man would fear to break. It had been the same when the laird had married the lass's mother only to have everyone proven very wrong indeed. The trouble was that few recalled the girl's mother, so few would believe that Islaen could prove as strong or as prolific. Then too, Islaen was a bit more delicate and not quite as lovely, her mother having been highly praised for her beauty.
Meg could not help but wonder if she had erred in keeping Islaen's true looks a secret from her family. There was no chance that a husband could remain ignorant. She had only tried to insure that the girl did not become an object of ridicule and looked her loveliest. Perhaps that would be enough to gain forgiveness for the deception she had practiced, and forced Islaen to, when the truth was finally revealed. As she began to help Islaen dress she hoped the girl would not suffer from her own husband the very scorn and ridicule she had tried so hard to protect the girl from. It would cut the child deeply, inflict a wound that might never heal.
Islaen was dressed in her finest. Her father was a wealthy man and no expense had been spared. Her chemise was of the finest silk, as were the braes she insisted upon wearing. The corset was a rich brown velvet with elaborate embroidery on the sleeves that matched the gold surcote. Shoes of the finest gold velvet adorned her small feet. The houppelande that was becoming more and more popular was left off for Islaen had not yet mastered wearing the voluminous robe with any grace, having difficulty with the draping sleeves and the way it trailed on the ground. After placing the fine couverchef upon Islaen's head, Meg surveyed the results with a very critical eye.
After a final check to make sure that there were no lumps, bumps or wrinkles and that the errant hair was still neatly contained, Meg declared Islaen ready. She then took her charge to join the men in the great hall where the search for a husband would begin and Islaen would meet the king.
Islaen fought to control her nerves. She did not want to do anything silly or stupid. Her pride quailed at the very thought of it.
She did not like the situation but had decided to forbear. It was far past time she had a husband. Coming to court allowed a greater choice. She simply wished the choice would be more in her hands than it would be.
The resentment that tried to gnaw at her was fairly easily put aside. This was the way such matters were settled. She was grateful she had not been betrothed at cradleside. There had been the opportunity for her to find a man and there were plenty to choose from around home. When she had reached the age of nineteen still unattached, it was no surprise that her father would take matters into his own hands. She could not blame him for that. Even if she did not really agree with his methods, she knew he was doing it out of love, because he wanted to see her happy. The political, defensive or monetary arrangements that could come out of her betrothal were only pleasant additions, not necessities. Glancing towards her father, who was talking to Meg, she hoped he would give her some pleasant surprise in his choice of groom that would ease the sting of not having Iain MacLagan.
Excerpted from HIGHLAND WEDDING by HANNAH HOWELL Copyright © 1988 by Hannah Howell. Excerpted by permission.
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