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My Fair Highlander
By Mary Wine
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Mary Wine
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Tell me you did not tell that barbarian Scot that he could court me."
Jemma Ramsden was a beautiful woman, even when her lips were pinched into a frown. She glared at her brother, uncaring of the fact that most of the men in England wouldn't have dared to use the same tone with Curan Ramsden, Lord Ryppon.
Jemma didn't appreciate the way her brother held his silence. He was brooding, deciding just how much to tell her. She had seen such before, watched her brother hold command of the border property that was his by royal decree with his iron-strong personality. Knights waited on his words, and that made her impatient.
"Well, I will not have it."
"Then what will you have, Sister?" Curan kept his voice controlled, which doubled her frustration with him. It was not right that he could find the topic so mild when it was something that meant so much to her.
But that was a man for you. They controlled the world and didn't quibble over the fact that women often had to bend beneath their whims.
Curan watched her, his eyes narrowing. "Your temper is misplaced, Jemma."
"I would expect you to think so. Men do not have to suffer having their futures decided without any concern for their wishes as women do."
Her brother's eyes narrowed. She drew in her breath because it was a truth that she was being shrewish. She was well past the age for marriage, and many would accuse her brother of being remiss in his duty if he did not arrange a match for her. Such was being said of her father for certain.
Curan pointed at the chair behind her. There was hard authority etched into his face. She could see that his temper was being tested. She sat down, not out of fear. No, something much worse than that. Jemma did as her brother indicated because she knew that she was behaving poorly.
Like a brat.
It was harsh yet true. Guilt rained down on her without mercy, bringing to mind how many times she had staged such arguments since her father died. It was a hard thing to recall now that he was gone.
Her brother watched her sit and maintained his silence for a long moment. That was Curan's way. He was every inch a hardened knight. The barony he held had been earned in battle, not inherited. He was not a man who allowed emotion to rule him, and that made them night and day unto each other.
"Lord Barras went to a great deal of effort to ask me for permission to court you, Jemma."
"Your bride ran into his hands. That is not effort; it is a stroke of luck."
Her brother's eyes glittered with his rising temper. She should leave well enough alone, but having always spoken her mind, it seemed very difficult to begin holding her tongue.
"Barras could have kept Bridget locked behind his walls if that was his objective. He came outside to meet me because of you."
Curan held up a single finger to silence her. "And to speak to me of possible coordinated efforts between us, yes, but an offer from the man should not raise your ire so much, Sister."
The reprimand was swift and solid, delivered in a hard tone that made her fight off the urge to flinch. Her brother was used to being in command. His tone was such that not a single one of his men would argue with even if she often did. But that trait was not enhancing her reputation. She noticed the way his knights looked at her with disgust in their eyes. When they didn't think she could hear them, they called her a shrew. She would like to say it did not matter to her, but it did leave tracks like claw marks down the back of her pride. Knowing that she had earned that slur against her name made her stomach twist this morning. Somehow, she'd not noticed until now, not really taken the time to recognize how often she quarreled with her brother. He was a just man.
"You are right, Brother."
Curan grunted. "You admit it, but you make no apology."
Her chin rose and her hands tightened on the arms of the chair as the impulse to rise took command of her.
"Remain in that chair, Jemma."
Her brother's voice cracked like a leather whip. She had never heard such a tone directed at her before. It shocked her into compliance, wounding the trust she had in her brother, allowing her to do anything that she wished. The guilt returned, this time thick and clogging in her throat.
"Has Bridget complained of me?" Her voice was quiet, but she needed to know if her brother's wife was behind her sibling's lack of tolerance.
"She has not, but I am finished having my morning meal ruined by your abrasive comments on matters concerning your future. You may thank the fact that my wife has been at this table every day for the past six months as the reason for this conversation not happening before this."
Bridget, her new sister-in-law, had taken one look at the morning meal and turned as white as snow. No doubt her brother was on edge with concern for the wife who had told him to leave her alone in one of the very rare times Bridget raised her voice in public to her husband. Curan had slumped back down in his chair, chewing on his need to follow his bride when Jemma had begun to berate him.
Her timing could not have been worse. But hindsight was always far clearer.
"I will not speak against our father and his ways with you, Jemma. However, you will not continue as you have. You were educated well, just as my wife, and yet you spend your days doing nothing save pleasing your whims. You have refused to see Barras every time he has called upon me as though the match is beneath you; it is not." Her brother paused, making his displeasure clear. "Well, madam, I believe a few duties will help you place some of your spirit to good use." Curan drew in a stiff breath. "I will not force you to wed, because that was our father's wish. Yet I will not tolerate anyone living in this castle who does nothing to help maintain it. You may have the day to decide what you prefer to do, or on the morrow I will have a list of duties given to you. Food does not appear from thin air, and you shall help make this fortress a decent place to reside."
Her brother stood up and strode away, several of his knights standing up the moment their lord did to follow him. Conversation died in the hall, and the sounds of dishes being gathered up for washing took over. Jemma watched the maids and cringed. Shame turned her face red, for she noticed more than one satisfied smile decorating their lips.
Standing up, she left the hall, seeking out the only living creature she could trust not to lecture her.
But that was only because a horse could not talk even if she often whispered her laments against its velvety neck.
In the dim light of the stable, she moved down the stalls until she found her mare. The horse snorted with welcome, bringing a smile to her face, but it was a sad one. Jemma reached out to stroke the light gray muzzle, the velvety hairs tickling her hand. Storm had been her constant companion since her father's death, and she realized that she had never really dealt with that parting. Instead she'd refused to admit that her sire's departure from this life had cut her to the bone.
Instead of grieving, she had become a shrew, irritating everyone around her and escaping to ride across her father's land while the rest of the inhabitants toiled at all the tasks required to maintain a castle keep.
Curan and the others labeled it selfish, but in truth it was running. She had swung up onto the back of her horse and ridden out to avoid facing the fact that her father was dead. It had never been about escaping her chores or thinking the match with Barras beneath her; she had sought out the bliss of not thinking at all, which removed the need to grieve from her mind. She simply ignored the fact that time was passing, choosing to remain locked in a few hours that never progressed. That way, she didn't have to face the sadness that threatened to reduce her to a pile of ashes.
The burly Scot was something else she liked to avoid thinking about, yet for a far different reason. He looked at her as though he wanted to touch her. Even now, a shiver rippled down her spine at just the memory of the way his eyes traveled over her curves, tracing them, lingering on them while his eyes narrowed and his lips thinned with hunger. Some manner of sensation twisted in her belly, and it set her heart to moving faster, but she was unable to decide just what it was. Or maybe she had merely avoided naming it to remain locked in her fairy bubble where she didn't have to face the grieve that wanted to assault her.
She was shameful to do so.
There was no other way to describe herself. Guilt cut through the façade she'd built to convince herself that she was doing nothing wrong. Well, she had the nothing part correct. It was a lacking that needed her attention. Storm pawed at the ground with rising excitement. The horse was used to her coming every morning to ride.
"Not today, my friend. At least not until later."
Turning around, Jemma squared her shoulders. The staff stared at her with confusion on their faces, but she walked smoothly toward the back of the castle. Autumn was in the air now, the harvest being brought in. There was work aplenty for every set of hands from the young to the old. The storage rooms were being carefully stocked with nuts, roots, and new grain. Barley was bundled in the fields and brought up to the castle yard for thrashing once the seeds were beaten from the chaff; women sewed them into bags for the winter. Girls mostly attended to the chore of sewing because it gave them practice with plying their needles on rough cloth.
Edible roots such as carrots and leaks were being carried up in baskets strapped to the backs of men. Squash would ripen last, but the children would be sent into the countryside to pick berries while the day was bright. The sun was up, and everyone worked to fill the storerooms before winter arrived.
"My eyes must be so old that I cannot trust what they show me."
Maitland Mitchell had been serving Amber Hill since she learned to walk. Jemma felt her cheeks brighten with a scarlet blush for the way the woman looked at her. Maitland aimed a hard stare at her while wiping her hands on her apron. The piece of fabric bore several splotches and smears, attesting to the fact that Maitland was still an early riser. Jemma knew that that apron had been clean at dawn.
"You may trust your eyes if not my ability to learn self-discipline from you."
The woman's expression softened, her eyes sparkling with welcome.
"Well, you appear to have come to your senses, so no more talk about it. You are not the first one to discover they have no defense against grief. I never doubted that you would see that it was time to move on. 'Tis glad I am to see a pair of willing hands. We've much to do; there was frost spotted on the hills last night."
That meant that winter was beginning to return. The days would slowly shorten now, which meant that getting the last of the harvest in was on everyone's mind. Jemma pulled an apron off a hook that was set into the wall of the work rooms. Approval shone in Maitland's eyes, and that was something that warmed Jemma's heart. Maitland had helped to raise her, taking over when her mother died. The woman didn't hold any great position, but she had experience that made every person serving Amber Hill give her deference. It was respect she had earned and something Jemma realized she longed for.
"I've got soap cooking in the yard. Give it a turn and check the fires and make sure those children are staying well away from the embers."
"Aye." Jemma turned and moved quickly toward the yard. Huge cast-iron kettles were sending steam into the morning sky. She could smell the lye as it was being heated with the vegetable fat. Wheelbarrows of black, sooty ash stood near large screens formed from fabric. The ash was shoveled into the screens and water poured through it to bring the lye out.
Picking up a long-handled paddle, Jemma began turning the thickening mixture away from the sides of the cauldrons where it was cooking faster. They would keep it boiling until the entire pot was soft and gel-like. Wooden boxes sat nearby to be filled once Maitland decided the soap was ready. It would be left to dry before being cut into pieces. The steam made her head itch, and the scent tickled her nose. Her shoulders began to ache, but she smiled.
She had finally stopped running.
How was it possible to not see what she was doing? Her father had been her best friend. She sighed. Grief was a powerful thing. Riding along the edge of her family property was very foolish in such uncertain times. Maybe she had been seeking a way to join her father without realizing that was her goal.
He wouldn't want that; she didn't truly long for it, either.
It was a truth that her father would be very unhappy to hear of her unwise behavior. Riding the border land between England and Scotland was never a good choice, but now that Henry Tudor, the eighth king to be named Henry, was so close to his death, relations between Scotland and England were worse than ever. Scotland didn't even have a king anymore, but a tiny baby queen named Mary who'd been crowned at nine months of age. Henry the Eighth had negotiated a betrothal of the baby girl for his son Edward, but there were many in England who wanted Mary Queen of Scots raised in England so that she would be Protestant instead of Catholic like her mother.
A war of rough wooing had commenced, and the border was not safe. Her own brother was one of the men sent to the border to hold the land for England. The future king Edward would need all his subjects to help him maintain his hold on his country while he was still a youth. All the crowned heads of Europe were watching to see if England would crumble when the mighty Henry the Eighth died.
Her brother Curan kept peace with his Scottish neighbors by more than just the army under his command. He and Laird Barras combined their wits for the sake of business ventures that were bringing good profits to both men. Happy, well-fed people had little to rebel against.
But that didn't mean she was interested in the Scot courting her.
Yes, you are ...
It was a whisper that was born somewhere in the darkest part of her mind. Some manner of longing to see just what the Scot did when no one else was near enough to see them. Her lips tingled as she imagined what it might be like to have his against them. Would his kiss be forceful or gentle? She shivered in spite of the heat bubbling in the cauldrons.
Wedding her was just another way for Laird Barras to get what he wanted from her brother, but that didn't keep her from thinking about the way he looked at her. She wouldn't be the first woman married off to her brother's business partners, but that didn't mean the match would be a cold one, the looks the man sent her were very warm indeed.
Is it what I desire?
That question brought another sigh to her lips. It was a truth that she didn't know what she wanted. She was twenty-four years old, and the time for saying nay to any offer for her hand was past. Where had the time gone? She had simply stopped thinking about anything save for her father when he began showing signs of illness. How long had it lasted? Jemma struggled to think about how many years her sire had battled that invading weakness of his limbs. She had tried everything to restore him to health, reading every available book that offered insight into the condition. But in the end, her sire had lost even the ability to speak, blinking his eyes being the only way to communicate with her.
It had been years, seasons blurring in her memory, and during that time she had never taken time to think about marrying. Curan had been off earning his title with the king, leaving only her to comfort their dying father and care for him. She refused to leave it to servants; he was her father. The man who had chased her through spring fields when she was a girl and laughed when he caught her. The proud man who had allowed his daughter to crown his head with flowers and worn them with a level chin past his knights. Tears stung her eyes as memories, rich with love and tenderness, rose up from her mind to remind her why she had thrust the entire world away in favor of being at her father's side. She did not regret her choice.
Excerpted from My Fair Highlander by Mary Wine Copyright © 2011 by Mary Wine. Excerpted by permission of BRAVA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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