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By DONNA GRANT
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One Highlands of Scotland, Winter 1592
Kate thought outliving two husbands would prevent her from being married off. Again.
She should have known better.
It didn't help that her father had wanted an alliance with a Highlander for as long as she could remember. Living on the border with England, Kate never thought he would get that union since Highlanders thought them nothing more than Sassenachs.
Now, her father had the pact, but at the cost of Kate's hatred.
Twice she had married the decrepit men her father chose for her. Twice she had suffered their pawing on her body. And twice she had buried her husbands.
Luck, it seemed, had been on her side. Both men had died within months of their marriage, saving Kate from years of agony and loneliness.
Kate had assumed her father would allow her to choose her next husband, should she ever want one, after she had been such a dutiful daughter. It came as more than a shock when her father announced she would marry Laird Ewan MacDonald.
A powerful-and feared-Highland lord.
Da told her nothing of this Highland laird other than the fact the laird was in need of a wife. For nearly two weeks, Kate had traveled across Scotland to reach the remote castle of her new husband. The brute hadn't even shown for their marriage, preferring instead to marry her by proxy.
Just thinking about it sent her into a rage. If there had been any chance at a friendship between them, Ewan MacDonald squashed it by not deeming her important enough to fetch himself. Kate couldn't wait to give him an earful once she finally met this Laird MacDonald. Maybe he would be as old and feeble as her previous husbands and find an early grave.
A smile pulled at the corners of her lips. "I can but pray," she murmured.
Maybe this time she wouldn't have to return home after her husband died. She'd already decided she would enter a convent before she returned to her father and was forced into yet another marriage for his alliances.
"Did ye say something, milady?"
Kate glanced at Rory Campbell as she pulled her cloak tighter around herself to help ward off the frigid temperatures. As his laird's loyal man, he had stood in for Ewan during the wedding. Several times on their trip she had tried to get him to speak of Ewan, but Rory was closemouthed. Yet it never hurt to keep trying.
"Tell me of my husband, Mr. Campbell. Was he married before?"
Rory chuckled. "Nay, milady. Me laird has nev'r married before now. Ye needn't worry of having another woman's children running aboot."
The mention of children always made Kate heartsick. For so long she'd yearned for bairns of her own, but even that had been denied her.
"That is good news," she said and looked between her horse's ears to the road before her. Since Rory was now answering her questions, she decided to try for another. "Is he a fair man?"
Rory's hazel eyes swiveled to hers. "Fair? He's as fair as a Highland laird can be, milady. It takes a strong man to rule a clan as large as ours."
"Doona fear though. Yer husband will protect ye should any of our enemies attack."
Kate's lips parted in shock. She knew there were Highland clans who were at almost constant war with each other, but she hadn't thought to ask of the MacDonald clan.
"Do the MacDonalds have many enemies?" she asked hesitantly, unsure if she really wanted to know.
Rory and the men around her laughed. "Aye, milady," Rory answered. "The MacDonalds are a powerful, proud, and rich clan. Our lands are huge, and there's many who want what we've worked hard for."
"Interesting." Kate could see her future of watching the men leave to battle a different clan every day. Or worse, battle at the castle.
This could be a way out of your marriage.
Kate cringed inwardly. Had she come to hate life so desperately that she was now praying for her husband's death, a man she hadn't even met? She wanted out of the marriage, but she could never live with herself if she came by it while turning into someone vengeful and malicious.
She had faced each of her marriages with the knowledge that there was nothing else for her to do. Women didn't have a choice in these kinds of situations. Men held the upper hand. From father to husband, a man would always rule her life.
It didn't seem fair, though she had always been an obedient daughter. But this latest act by her father, it went beyond her own reckoning. Not once had she fought him on his choice of husbands for her.
And this is how he repaid her?
She had learned of the marriage a scant half hour before the ceremony. There hadn't been time for her to run away to a convent or to even talk to her father.
Her hurt and anger had grown as the priest performed the marriage. During the few hours afterward in the poor excuse of a celebration meal, her belongings had been packed. Kate had a sharp tongue and a vicious temper, so her father had stayed away from her for fear of causing an uproar.
His betrayal had cut deep. So deep she hadn't bid him farewell. She hadn't even glanced at him when he wished her Godspeed. She regretted her harsh attitude now. With the distance of her old home on the border with England and her new home in the Highlands, she doubted she would ever see her father again.
Tears stung the backs of her eyes. She wasn't sure who she hated more, her father or Ewan MacDonald.
"Ye'll get to see yer first glimpse of the castle over this next rise, milady. Ye'll understand then why so many clans want what we MacDonalds have."
She gave Rory a brief nod and tried to feel some excitement about her new home. At least she hadn't married a weak man. She had seen firsthand on her journey to the MacDonald lands just how powerful the clan was. Everyone knew of Ewan MacDonald, and many feared his wrath should something happen to his men or his new wife.
There should be some satisfaction in that knowledge.
Yet there was nothing.
When their small group crested the rise, she stopped her mare beside Rory. The castle rested on the edge of the cliff, its many towers reaching toward the clouds while a thick stone wall enclosed the massive structure. She looked at the churning sea and its dark, cold depths that set the backdrop for the MacDonalds' land. The wind was harsh and cold as it swept from the water across the land, blowing through the few trees that dotted the rolling hills.
The gray stones of the castle matched the sky and her mood. From where she sat, she could see the men at the gatehouse watching them. The tartans the men wore spoke louder than any banner ever could, proclaiming them MacDonalds.
"What do ye think? Isn't it a magnificent sight?" Rory asked, pride dripping from every word. Kate inhaled the sea air and blinked against the wind that stung her eyes. " 'Tis larger than I imagined." And more ominous.
"It's taken the MacDonalds many generations to build such a grand castle. Ye should be proud to be one of us now."
Kate began to doubt if she could ever find happiness in such an uninviting place. "Oh, aye, Rory. I'm very proud of that fact."
Rory gave a snort, indicating he didn't believe her, and nudged his mount forward. "Come, milady. Yer laird awaits ye."
Kate was tempted to stay where she was. She licked her lips to hide her smile as she wondered what the all-powerful Ewan MacDonald would say when he was told his wife refused to enter the castle.
Do you really want to find out?
Kate groaned inwardly. That wasn't the way to greet her new husband and his clan, but then again, he had insulted her pride by marrying her by proxy.
Get your revenge another way. Use your head instead of letting your anger consume you.
She knew her conscious was right, but it still gnawed at her to be nothing more than an afterthought. Ewan needed a wife because he needed heirs. She would be used for nothing more than that.
"Come, milady," Rory called over his shoulder.
Kate lifted her chin and clicked to the horse, her mind already forming a plot for revenge. Highlander or not, Ewan would learn soon enough that she was more than someone to breed his children.
The other MacDonald men followed behind her as she trailed after Rory. Every step of her mare took her closer to a man and a castle she wanted no part of. She was tired of traveling, but she wasn't ready to meet her new husband. In fact, she doubted a few years would be enough time to prepare her for Laird Ewan MacDonald.
The only thing her father had said of her new husband was that Ewan MacDonald was a very powerful laird. Power in her mind meant he had to be controlling. And Kate hated to be controlled. She wanted to live her own life, make her own decisions-something that baffled her father to no end.
With her head turned away from the vicious sea wind, Kate trusted her mare to follow the others. If Kate were more adventurous she might kick the mare into a run and try to escape.
But that wasn't something she could do. Kate had given her word when she had taken Ewan as her husband. She was well and truly trapped. The only escape she would find would be in her daydreams.
Chapter Two All too soon they reached the impressive gates to MacDonald Castle. Kate's mare stopped next to Rory, and Kate had to tilt her head all the way back for her gaze to follow the tall wooden gates to the gatehouse above. The guards stared down at her, whispering among themselves.
She sighed. This would be another place where she would be treated as an outsider. She was a Lowlander, and thus nothing more than English to these Highlanders. Was it too much to want a husband she didn't mind looking at, one that she could laugh with, and children to bring light and hope into her world? Had she done something in a past life to force fate into giving her such misery?
There were no answers for Kate, and there never would be. She knew that, but she couldn't help but ask every once in a while. She had survived two marriages. She would survive another or make the most out of it.
She was a realist, and as such, she knew her place in life, as much as she hated it. In the meantime, she would pray that one day women would have the right to choose their own husbands-or not choose one at all. Maybe one day women could do whatever they wanted and be beholden to no one but themselves. It was just a dream, but what a glorious day that would be if it could be so.
The gates swung open and they rode into the bailey. People began to gather as they rode toward the castle. Kate let her gaze wander the large bailey, and she spotted a blacksmith's shop and the chapel close to the castle before her mare halted.
Once Rory stopped at the steps of the castle, she swung her cold and numb leg over her mare's neck and dismounted. The stares of MacDonalds made her uneasy, and to make matters worse, it appeared her husband wasn't at the castle to greet her or introduce her to his people.
Just what kind of brute was her husband?
A savage most likely. Everyone said Highlanders were.
Kate took a steadying breath as she looked at the faces that surrounded her. Her lips pulled back in a smile as she winked down at one of the children who gazed up at her with wide eyes. She kept the smile on her face as she turned and followed Rory up the steps to her new home despite the whispers of "Sassenach" and "Lowlander" that ran through the crowd like fingers of lightning.
This was their home, and she was the stranger. She couldn't blame them for their wariness or for the curious stares. She was thinking the same thing as they were: Why had the laird chosen a Lowlander as a bride?
Her curiosity got the better of her sometimes, but she wanted to know. Why her? She had never met Ewan, or seen him for that matter.
Kate sighed and lifted her cloak and skirts and climbed the steps. There would be plenty of time later to wonder why she was a laird's wife. For now, she just wanted out of the cold.
After such a long journey, Kate was looking forward to a warm fire and a good meal. Even her gloomy new home would be welcomed after being in the frozen weather for so long.
Whether she wanted it or not, MacDonald Castle was her home now. As large as it was, it must have plenty of servants to keep it clean. But when she walked into the castle, she came to a halt as her eyes registered the filth around her.
"Somethin' wrong?" Rory asked.
Where did she start? It looked as though the castle hadn't been thoroughly cleaned in months. The stink of old rushes filled the air, making her breathe through her mouth. Scraps of bones were piled near four wolfhounds that slept before a hearth that needed to be cleaned of its ashes.
Rory walked into the great hall and filled a goblet with ale. He lifted the drink to his mouth and drained it in one long swallow.
After he belched and wiped his mouth on his sleeve, he turned to her. "All right. Let me show ye to yer chamber."
Kate fought not to roll her eyes as she trailed after Rory yet again. Everywhere she looked, layers of dust and dirt could be seen. She prayed her chamber was cleaner than the great hall, but she wasn't holding out any hope.
She stood in the doorway of the master chamber and barely suppressed a shudder. The bed was unmade and ashes spilled from the hearth, not to mention that there was even more dust. There was no way she was sleeping in a chamber so filthy. There would have to be cleaning done before she could relax.
Kate turned and found a woman with flame red hair and gentle green eyes watching her from behind Rory. Kate gave her a smile. "My name is Kate. I'm your laird's new wife."
"Welcome, milady. Me name is Beth."
"Thank you, Beth. Tell me, when was the last time the castle was cleaned?"
Beth glanced at Rory and licked her lips. " 'Tis been a while, milady. When the laird is gone, things tend to ... slow."
"That's not going to happen as long as I'm here," Kate said as she pushed up her sleeves. "Gather some women. We've got some cleaning to do."
"You're going to cl-clean, milady?" Beth's eyes rounded and she buried her hands in her skirts.
Kate bit back a grin at the girl's surprise. "I am, and I'm going to start in this chamber. We best get started."
"Aye, milady. I'll gather some more help," Beth said and hurried away.
Rory looked around the chamber and shrugged. "I doona see what's amiss."
"Are you married, Mr. Campbell?"
His brow furrowed and he took a step back. "Nay, milady."
"When you do find yourself a wife, you'll understand."
Rory stood in the doorway for several moments before he stammered something about helping Beth and walked away. It wasn't long before Rory and Beth had gathered a large group of women. Kate dispersed them throughout the castle to begin cleaning.
She rolled up her sleeves and began to strip the bed. Just like at home, she was alone again. In some ways she looked forward to the time by herself to get used to the castle and her role as wife.
A sound at the door drew her attention. When Kate glanced up, she found Beth watching her. The girl gave her a shy smile and took a step into the chamber.
"I hope ye doona mind me help, milady. I doona think the laird would like ye cleaning."
"I don't care what he thinks," Kate said. "But I'm glad for the help."
Beth began to clean the hearth. "We're all verra happy to see Laird Ewan finally wed."
Kate shook out the new linens and kept her mouth closed since her reply wouldn't be kind.
"Yer verra lovely, milady. The laird has made a good match."
Kate looked up, startled by the servant's kind words. "Thank you."
She smiled and returned to the linens, but Kate now had a warm glow in her heart. Maybe this time it would be different for her.
The time passed quickly as they worked, and soon the master chamber was spotless. Kate stood back and looked at their effort. The feather mattress had been plumped, and with the deep green velvet bed hangings shaken out, the bed looked utterly inviting. A MacDonald plaid had been folded at the end of the bed, reminding her it wasn't just her chamber.
They had even cleaned the sword and shield that hung over the bed. Both weapons looked ancient, and Kate wondered who they had belonged to.
"The laird will be grateful for what ye've done, milady."
Kate crossed her arms over her chest and turned to Beth. "Maybe, but this should have already been done. Who's in charge of the castle?"
"That would be Bridget, milady," Beth answered softly.
Kate knew she needed to find this woman and set her straight on how the castle should be cleaned, but first she wanted something else.
Excerpted from MUTUAL DESIRE by DONNA GRANT Copyright © 2009 by Donna Grant. Excerpted by permission.
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