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The clipped fall of boots on stone sounded loud in the deserted hallways of Dun Ard. Though few would be up and about at this early hour, Caden MacAlister had no doubt his cousin would already be hunkered over the estate accounts in his solar as he was each and every morning. Blane MacKiernan, Laird of the MacKiernan, taught the importance of hard work by setting an example.
Caden paused at the heavy wooden door, unconsciously running a large hand through his tousled dark copper hair as he gathered his wits and his courage. He had considered his alternatives time and again. This must be done.
He rapped his knuckles sharply against the door, the vibrations echoing in his stomach. Or was that simply nerves?
He pushed open the door and approached his cousin's desk. "I've come to a decision and I must speak with you." Quickly. Before he lost his nerve.
Blane looked up from the work spread in front of him, a smile creasing his face. "Very well, Caden. Have a seat and share yer great decision with me."
Caden shook his head, declining the offer to sit. He thought better on his feet. "You must choose one of my brothers as your heir. I'm no longer fit to be the next laird of the MacKiernan." There. He'd said it. It was done.
His cousin leaned back in his chair, studying the hands he steepled together. At last he looked up, a confused frown replacing his earlier smile. "I had thought you cared for our people and this land."
"I do. And that's why I ask you to choose another as yer heir." Even though this was all he had ever really wanted.
"The next laird should be someone who'll love this place, these people. Someone who'll look after them, improve their lot in life and pass it all on to his own son to do the same." And he would never be able to do that.
Blane nodded. "Exactly what I've chosen you to do, lad."
"I canna, Cousin. After what's happened with Alycie, I ken now I'll no ever wed. There will be no sons to succeed me."
He would never have a wife. Alycie had found the idea of marriage to him so repulsive she had betrayed his sister and cousin in order to escape him, almost causing their deaths. He would never again put his family in such jeopardy. Nor would he trust another woman. Alycie was now happily installed in the convent on Iona as she had wanted, and he would remain unmarried as the fates had obviously intended.
"Yer young yet, Caden. Mayhap one day you'll change yer mind on this."
"No. I'll no allow any other lass to be forced to face marriage to me. I've made my decision, just as you made yers all those years ago."
Blane rose from his chair, coming around his desk to place a hand on his young cousin's shoulder. "I chose never to wed because I feared any son of mine would carry the madness of my father and my brother. I would no risk exposing Dun Ard and her people to that tragedy again. Yer situation is entirely different. You take too much blame upon yerself, lad."
Caden shook his head. He deserved the blame. He knew his limitations. Of the three MacAlister brothers, he saw himself as the least desirable to a woman. He had neither Andrew's pretty face nor Colin's warrior abilities. He wanted only to manage Dun Ard. To find new ways to help their land and their people prosper. And while one day he would have been the laird of the MacKiernan, that alone wasn't enough to hold a wife. He'd learned that from his experience with Alycie.
No, Caden knew he was not meant to find the happiness of a mate in life. And though he had never known why his cousin remained unwed and childless, he suspected that Blane revealed his reason now in an attempt to provide solace. Solace he didn't deserve. "Still, I dinna thinkê.Ê.Ê."
"There's no a need to think on this, lad. I willna choose any to be my heir other than you. I've invested too many years in you and you've learned too well the duties of a laird. You'll go off to school as we'd planned, and when you return you'll pick up where you left off. You are my heir and that's my last word on the subject."
"And when I never wed? When I have no sons to continue the line?"
Blane smiled again, squeezing Caden's shoulder before he dropped his hand and walked back to his chair. "If that is the way of it, then you'll do as I have and choose someone. Perhaps one of yer brothers' brats will succeed you, aye? Now off with you. I've work to do before I take my morning meal."
Caden waited, unsure of what to do next. He'd struggled for weeks trying to make the right decision. And now that he finally had, Blane had dismissed his concerns as minor.
"Go on," Blane encouraged. "Oh, we're still going out to inspect the sheep pens later this morning, are we no?"
"If that's yer wish," Caden replied, leaving the room and shutting the door behind him.
He was almost embarrassed at the relief he felt, knowing at least part of his life would continue as he'd always hoped. He would have Dun Ard to live for.
And as for his own heir?
Just as Blane had said, Drew and Colin would marry and have sons. He would simply have to wait and watch to see what time would bring.
Copyright © 2009 by Melissa Mayhue