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The Highlander's Bride
By Michele Sinclair
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 C. Michele Peach
All right reserved.
Chapter OneScotland, 1307
"Are you ever going to get married?" It was a tiresome question that had been asked too many times these past few weeks. Since his younger brother decided to wed, everyone assumed he should now want to as well. "Your turn, Conor!" was heard everywhere he turned.
Those who knew him, knew better than to ask, but those who didn't eventually uttered the cursed question: "So, when are you going to get married?" By the time they had finally left the wedding to return home, he had probably angered more than a few with his replies of "When I damn well want to-never."
"What say you, Conor-are you ever going to select a wife?" came a grating voice mimicking one of the many Scottish mothers he had encountered this past week. Quiet laughter buzzed from a group of men, all blue eyed and dark haired.
"He's going to clobber you one of these days, Craig."
"I hope he aims for Craig's mouth," chimed in one of the younger riders, enjoying that someone else was the object of his older brother's ridicule.
Conor ignored the banter of his younger brothers and led the small group to a nearby river to refresh their mounts. This obligatory trip was finally coming to an end. In a few days, he would soon be on McTiernay land again andresume his duties as laird of his clan. "See to the horses. We'll camp at the valley ahead."
The men nodded and began to take care of their mounts. Tonight's destination was several miles to the north and it would be nightfall before they made camp. While the valley Conor had chosen had not even a stream to alleviate the parched throat of man or horse, the small group of highlanders all understood his decision. None of them wanted to sleep too close to Douglass soil.
While only a small portion of Douglass territory bordered the allied land upon which Conor and his men currently rode, it was in a strategic location. Sheltered on two sides by large cliffs, only two sections needed to be fortified and protected. It was an excellent place to build a fortress, and that is exactly what the Douglass ancestors had done.
Conor thought on his brother's question as they continued towards the valley. He was a large man, even by highlander standards. His dark brown hair was usually tied back in a manner atypical of Scottish soldiers. For years, women and their mothers had pursued him relentlessly, employing various tactics to persuade him into a commitment. The idea of becoming the wife of a powerful laird was too compelling, especially when that laird was young and exceedingly attractive.
Over the years, the artificiality of soft words whispered by pretty women had changed him. He was no longer considered the desirable highlander of his youth, but a cold, hard man without warmth to share with any woman. So while still a striking man, it had been some time since he had caught a lady's eye, whether she might be sincere or not.
It mattered little, though, for Conor had no desire to marry. Most marriages were little more than contracts. They were only a means to ensure alliances, carry on family bloodlines, share work burdens, or to meet physical needs. His talent with the sword and the unswerving loyalty of his men gained him alliances enough. His many brothers would ensure the McTiernay name would continue for generations, and he had found that his physical needs could be met any time without the prerequisite of a marriage contract.
He could recall only one marriage-his parents'-that had been something more. His parents had forged a union built on support, desire, and the assurance that-no matter what the circumstances-they would always believe and trust in each other. As a naive young man, he desired to find someone and create a similar life and bond.
After barely escaping one conniving woman, Conor began to look for pretense in women pursuing the idea of becoming Lady McTiernay. He was never disappointed. While most of his admirers were polite, not one had desired him for himself. When confronted about their title-searching designs, a few panicked and others cried. Some had called him cold, declaring him to be the only highland laird alive without a heart. After a series of disappointments and stomach-churning experiences, he decided the joy and bond his parents shared was a unique gift that would never be his.
As the group reached the valley and began to make camp, Conor refocused his attention from the past to the present and began to relax. The air was getting colder now and he was glad to be going home. There were many things to do before winter came upon his clan and, in a just a few weeks, his mountains would be covered with snow.
Conor casually observed his younger brothers building a big fire located in the center of the gathering. They were a small group, five of his six brothers and four of his elite guard. Rarely did Conor allow all of his family to journey beyond McTiernay borders, but weddings required family attendance. Conor had reluctantly agreed to allow even his youngest brothers to come since the journey was mostly upon lands of allies or neutral clans.
"I bet Colin is having a good night, being his wedding night and all," Craig cackled loudly. His fraternal twin Crevan grinned, nodded, and leaned over to get a piece of meat. The seventeen-year-old twins were similar in physical appearance, each tall men with deep brown locks and bright blue eyes. Their personalities, however, were as different as night and day.
"Colin is lucky. Deirdre is sure pretty," commented Clyde, the youngest McTiernay just approaching twelve years of age. His brothers constantly teased him about his name, saying that it was too bad their mother had run out of all the good names that begun with C by the time he came along. When Clyde was very young and susceptible to such jibes, Conor reminded him that they were the only two men to inherit the McTiernay silver eyes; the others had the bright blue eyes of their mother.
"Think you will ever get that lucky with the name Clyde?" returned Conan, the second youngest, who at fourteen, relished any chance to join the antics of his elder brothers.
Clyde retaliated by kicking dirt onto his brother's plaid. Conan, seeking revenge with just a bit too much force, sprayed dirt not only onto Clyde, but onto Conor as well. After a long day's ride, the deed seemed ample reason for the other brothers to exact retribution. It would have turned into a full brotherly brawl if Cole, the eldest after Conor and Colin, hadn't intervened. It was now Cole's responsibility to keep his younger brothers from too much mishap since Colin had married. As laird, Conor was too busy to be troubled with such details.
"Enough," stated Cole in his most firm voice, trying to imitate Conor on the training field.
Conor moved to sit down away from the commotion and leaned back against one of the elm trees surrounding the small clearing. He was relieved when Cole took their younger brothers in hand before they tore up the camp they had just built. Cole was already a big lad at twenty-one, but he would have to work on his carriage to make his commands convincing. Conor stood up, dusted himself off, and walked over to have a word with his guardsmen about the night's watch.
Though on allied land, they were still uncomfortably close to the Douglass border. Conor's allies were Douglass's enemies. While Conor would love a good reason to meet the cruel and dishonest laird on the battlefield, he had no desire to do so while his young brothers were vulnerable and days away from the McTiernay border.
Conor met with each of his four guardsmen securing the campsite. A couple more days' ride north and the full night watches could ease. He gave his orders and returned to the campsite just in time to hear Craig relate his latest bit of ridiculous wench gossip.
"You won't believe what Hilda told me," Craig threw out, trying to bait the others. As the most boisterous in the group, Craig was an outgoing young man and always full of energy.
"Who's Hilda?" asked the youngest, Clyde.
"Ahh, she's some lass he met up with for the night," answered Conan, trying to sound knowledgeable about such things.
"Anyway," stressed Craig, trying to regain everyone's attention, "Hilda told me that MacInnes's granddaughter was coming to live with him." He looked at the group with a mischievous twinkle.
"And why should that b-be interesting?" Crevan was the opposite of his twin brother. While Craig was frequently showing off and a gregarious comedian, Crevan was introspective, even-tempered, and agreeable. However, it would be an enemy's last error in judgment to mistake Crevan's composed nature and slight stammer as weakness. He had been training for a couple of years and exhibited the McTiernay trait for strategy, cunning and ruthlessness in battle.
"Because she isn't Scottish-she's English," grinned Craig.
"Oh, ho now. I thought you s-s-said that she was MacInnes's g-granddaughter. MacInnes is as Scottish as they come."
"That's because MacInnes is a highlander and was Grandfather's best friend. Conor says that MacInnes still practices many of the highlander traditions."
"S-So she isn't English, then, and your b-bit of gossip remains boring."
"Ahh, but Hilda said that she's been living in England for many years and that her bonnie mama-MacInnes's daughter-died when she was a child. Without her mother to guide her, it's doubtful that any of the Scot in her remains. Everyone is wondering how long she will last before she goes running home to England crying. It's well known how severe MacInnes is to live with."
"The English should remain in England," said a cold voice. Cole despised the bordering country and all those who came from there.
"Cole, can the English actually ruin the land by walking on it?" asked Clyde, who had often overheard McTiernay warriors say that the English spoil anything they touch. Before Cole could ridicule the question, Conan, the fourteen-year-old, chimed in. "Why would an English lady come to live in Scotland with her grandfather?"
"Dunno, maybe she hated England," answered Craig with a mouth full of cold mutton.
"English are too stupid to know they should hate their homeland," scoffed Cole as he turned to rest on his plaid. "She probably just wants to benefit from being a powerful laird's only relative."
"But you said that she was supposed to be pretty," Conan directed the semi-question to Craig. Conan was gifted with a keen intelligence and was constantly in search of new manuscripts to read and understand. But when it came to relationships-especially those with the opposite sex-he was completely lost.
"First of all, a pretty girl can still be dull-witted and extremely irritating, Conan. You just remember that," Craig replied, using a patronizing voice he knew would irritate his younger brother.
"I know that," Conan retorted heatedly. "That's the reason I'm going to be like Conor and never marry. We don't want a stupid, annoying woman, even if she is pretty." Conan looked over at Conor for affirmation, but was disappointed. Conor's eyes were closed and his expression was inscrutable.
"Second of all, I didn't say she was pretty," stated Craig. "I just said that her mother, MacInnes's daughter, was noted to be a bonnie lady and was wanted by many men."
"So why is MacInnes's granddaughter English if her mother could have married a Scot?" Clyde asked innocently.
"Because," remarked Cole as if the answer was obvious. "She ran off and married an English baron. Proves you can be pretty and stupid just like I said. But more than likely MacInnes's granddaughter takes after her English father and hurts the eyes."
"That must have made Laird MacInnes sad," murmured Clyde.
As usual, Conor did not participate when his brothers conversed amongst themselves. He intentionally separated himself from them, and they knew better than to try to pull him in. It was hard straddling the roles of laird and eldest brother. He loved his family, but it was difficult to know how and when to just be their brother and not their laird. Consequently, soon after he became laird, Conor had encouraged Colin to act as the older brother, allowing him to focus on the clan and its needs.
Today, Colin had married Deirdre, Laird Dunstan's eldest daughter. Upon their return, Cole would leave to join the guard of Laird Schellden, an ally holding lands adjacent to McTiernay's western boundary. Colin and Cole were the first to leave, but eventually all of his brothers would set out and make their way.
This realization bothered him, but he could not understand why. He wanted his brothers to forge lives for themselves, either with him or wherever their destinies took them. But for some reason, it made him feel isolated knowing his future did not include them. The only way he knew to cushion the pain of their leaving was to distance himself now. His life was the clan, and the clan would always need him.
Conor was musing on all that needed to be done upon his return when Finn, the commander of his elite guard, approached from his watch in the woods.
Finn came towards Conor unsmiling and prepared for battle. "Hamish heard movement in the trees and is investigating now."
Just then, they heard Seamus release a muted bellow from the woods. They drew their weapons as they advanced to confront the attackers. As they neared the edge of the woods, Loman and Hamish dragged an incredibly disheveled woman into the clearing.
Loman advanced towards Conor with a strong grip on the woman's arm. She was no longer struggling, but Loman had seen firsthand how cunning she could be. Conor saw Loman's grip and wondered at the cause for it. She was a scrawny lass, so it was hard to imagine that she could defend herself against any man. Conor found himself surprisingly intrigued.
"She knocked Seamus pretty good in the head. We captured her trying to run away from her crime," Loman said.
When Laurel heard the word "crime," she was surprised and then outraged. The giant they called Seamus had tried to seize her. She had every right to defend herself against such a colossal man. She turned her gaze to their leader, who seemed to be the biggest of them all.
Conor did not miss the change of emotion flash across her face. She was extremely frightened, but trying very hard not to show it. He saw her look of surprise when Loman mentioned her crime and was fascinated when the shock turned into sheer fury. However, Conor was not ready for his reaction to the defiant female when she turned her attention towards him.
Her tousled appearance and torn clothing faded for a moment, and he could only see her eyes. They were the color of the North Sea after a storm-a dark blue-gray with flecks of green. They stared at each other for several moments before he regained his wits.
"Who are you?" he demanded without inflection, somehow giving the question even more power.
She was tall for a woman, but held herself regally despite the grip Loman continued to exert. Her dress was torn at the shoulder so part of her sleeve hung down to her elbow. Her eyes sparkled intensely and she protruded her chin confidently. Still she couldn't hide a faint tremor as Conor moved closer. He doubted most men would have seen or recognized her small shudder for what it was. He was surprised by and wary of the immediate pull he had towards her.
Laurel was desperate. She realized that the advancing man was her captor, but she instinctively knew this huge Scotsman would somehow also be her savior.
She rose her chin even higher. "My name is Laurel. Laurel Rose Cordell."
Conor nodded at Loman to release the proud mystery. Loman immediately let Laurel go and stepped back. Conor watched her absentmindedly massage the spot where his guardsman had seized her. Dirt and twigs from bushes were ensnarled in the long golden waves of her hair. She had high cheekbones and ideal full lips that were meant for kissing. Suddenly, he realized that he was drawn to her in a very physical way despite her chaotic appearance. It had been a long time since he had a woman. Trying to regain control of his unexpected sexual need, Conor concentrated on her qualities that would calm his desire.
She was English. She was filthy and a complete mess. But somehow, she smelled of flowers, lilacs to be precise. His mother had loved the blossom and kept them throughout the keep when they were in bloom.
Excerpted from The Highlander's Bride by Michele Sinclair Copyright © 2007 by C. Michele Peach. Excerpted by permission.
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