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Taming the Highlander
By May McGoldrick
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Nikoo K. and James A. McGoldrick
All rights reserved.
Three Months Before
Half a year, Conall thought, staring out at the folk milling about in the darkness of the courtyard. Half a year since he'd returned, and for what?
To watch his people suffer, knowing he was the reason for it.
It could have been different. If only he had died a warrior's death at the Battle of Solway Moss. So many of his kinsmen had perished there. Or if only the English had not discovered his ransom value after capturing him. After all, he had managed to hide his true identity for a year, and he would have happily continued to rot in that dungeon. If only his brother had not emptied the Sinclair clan vaults to free him. If only.
And now, six months after returning home, he had to watch Bryce make yet another sacrifice for the good of their people. His brother was about to wed again, and to a new wife chosen because of the size of her dowry.
"You won't consider me much of a martyr once you meet her," Bryce said from his chair. He put down his cup of wine. "Ailein Munro is quite beautiful. And pleasant. She also appears to be fairly capable. In fact, I'm certain she'll be able to handle the responsibilities that go with running Castle Girnigoe."
Conall shrugged but didn't look at his brother. Outside, someone was rolling a cask of ale into the courtyard. The Sinclairs and the Munros were in high glee on the eve of the laird's wedding.
"You should have been at dinner tonight," said Bryce. "My in-laws are eager to meet you."
"To see for themselves if I match up to my vile reputation? To stare at my stump of a hand? To see what a wreck of a man looks like?"
"Probably." Bryce smiled when Conall turned to scowl at him. "Of course not! They want to meet my older brother, the famous warrior, the earl of Caithness. It's only right that they would want to meet you out of respect."
"Well, they'll have to wait. You took on the torch of sociability the day you sat in that laird's chair," Conall replied, starting for the door. "The Munro woman is marrying you, not me. Her family has had all the introductions they're going to get."
"Wait. You will stand by me on the church steps tomorrow?"
He paused by the door. "Is that a request or an order?"
"Good, because I won't be there. I have no time for it."
"Then it's an order."
Conall pulled the door open. "Even better, because you know that Hell will freeze over before I start taking orders from a wet-nosed stripling like you."
"But it's my wedding, Conall. It's important that you be there."
"At first light, I'm leaving for the lodge at Dalnawillan."
"Hunting? You're going hunting rather than stand by me at my wedding?"
"Leave me be, Bryce." He glared at his brother. "You're starting a new life. And you, better than anyone, know that three is a crowd."
For Innes Munro, nothing compared with the protective arms of night. She loved the dusk, the dawn, and every dark hour in between.
Night suited her. Only then could she really escape the pressures that daytime held. When darkness fell and others slept, no one demanded conversation of her. No one pressed her with unwanted attention or expectation. At night, she could follow her own solitary ways. She could come and go as she pleased. She could live safely within the walls she'd erected around herself.
That was when she was home. For another day or two, she was a guest here at Girnigoe. On some level, Innes couldn't wait to go home to Folais Castle. Before she left, however, there was something that she wanted to see.
Just after supper, by accident, she'd happened to peek into a large hall that she realized was a gallery. Now she was determined to get a better look.
As an artist, she knew how rare such things were in the Highlands. Works of art were not always highly valued, and with good reason. Life here was hard and a clan's prized possessions, other than gold, were limited to weaponry, household goods, and livestock. But this wasn't just any clan. This was Clan Sinclair.
In a land of fearsome warriors, the Sinclairs held a place of distinction. Kings of their own domains during the Crusades, they'd returned home to fight alongside Robert the Bruce. And when the great king died, no one but a Sinclair was trusted to carry his heart to the Holy Land. For centuries, a Sinclair had served as the strong right hand of every king of Scotland.
And these warriors apparently had another side to them. They had artwork that, in Innes's view, was priceless.
She stayed to the shadows, skirting the revelers who were singing and carousing in the castle's Outer Ward, and hurried to the new North Tower. The gallery was located close to the laird's reception room and the Great Hall, where a handful of servants still worked after dinner. No one paid any attention to her when she slipped in, lit a taper, and went out.
As she entered the gallery, the mere sight of this treasure trove made her sigh with pleasure.
Along with a number of smaller works, four great tapestries covered the walls. Each of them ran from floor to timbered ceiling, and they were exquisite.
Italian, she decided, for the figures were incredibly lifelike. Each of them depicted religious events. One showed Christ with his disciples in two boats. The nets of Peter and the other fishermen bulged with their catch. In the flickering light of her taper, she could even make out the delicate golden halos surrounding the men's heads. The Galilean sea was so real looking she thought she could wash her hands in the water.
Innes pulled off one of her gloves and held the light high as she moved from one piece to the next.
She had saved the best of the treasures for last. Two paintings hung above the stone mantel of a great fireplace at one end of the gallery. She gazed at the work, awestruck.
Portraits. Two solemn boys stood together, an arched window behind them with Castle Girnigoe and the sea in the distance. There was no question in her mind that the boys were Conall and Bryce Sinclair.
In helping to negotiate Ailein's marriage, she'd learned a great deal about this family. Only two years separated the brothers. Conall was the earl of Caithness and had served as laird until the Battle of Solway Moss. Overmatched by English cannon, many Scots had died there. Conall's people thought he was killed, and Bryce became laird. And when Conall returned, he refused to take the position back from his brother.
A rumor circulated that the earl had gone mad in the English dungeons. Innes didn't believe it. Rumors were nothing more than blunted swords of simple minds and wagging tongues.
Innes turned her gaze to the second painting. Conall Sinclair alone, decked out in court regalia. She'd seen Bryce often enough and, looking at this depiction, she saw similarities in Conall's features. But there were differences, too. Conall was darker and more handsome. The shape of the jaw, the intensity in the eyes, the broad powerful shoulders, the muscled legs. She wondered for a moment if the artist had been tasked with portraying the earl of Caithness as larger than life, or if indeed the flesh-and-blood man had the same ability to make a woman's heart flutter, even in the breast of a twenty-seven-year-old spinster.
Innes Munro. The bride's older sister. Dutiful daughter and trusted advisor to Hector, Baron Folais.
As he was leaving Bryce's receiving room, Conall saw the woman glide silently into the gallery. As much as he wanted to go, to get away from this place, curiosity won out. He had to see what interested her.
He entered the gallery through a door hidden in the carved wood panels behind one of the smaller tapestries. Protected now in the shadows of the cloth, Conall watched her move toward him, stopping in front of the great fireplace.
The family portraits.
She stood not a dozen paces from him. Conall studied the woman.
Smart, observant, shrewd in negotiations, albeit somewhat abrupt. This was how his brother had spoken of her. To win Ailein's hand in marriage, Bryce had needed to get by the older sister first. It wasn't easy, by all reports.
From his apartments in the West Tower, Conall had watched the Munros arrive that morning. Oddly, it was Innes, and not his future sister-in-law, who captured his attention. The woman stood apart from the rest. Calm. Quiet. A detached bystander.
Her appearance surprised him. He had given no thought to what she would look like, but realized he had expected some shrewish old crone.
Conall's gaze moved over her now. She was hardly a crone. A modest black dress covered her diminutive frame, but there was no ignoring the soft curves of her breasts or the flare of her hips. And she was anything but old. He stared at the flawless skin of her face, the high cheekbones, the full lips. Her dark silky hair, braided into a thick rope, fell to her waist. But his eyes were drawn to the curious shock of white hair framing one side of her face.
The young woman's demeanor softened into a smile as she continued to study the paintings. This close, she was striking. Not a classic beauty, but beautiful, nonetheless. It was her mouth. Something stirred deep in his belly. Conall knew lust, but he hadn't felt it for a long time. He didn't need to be thinking such thoughts now, either.
His gaze turned to the object of her attention.
The portrait of him had been done not long before he went south to fight the king's war. Before Solway Moss. He was whole then, a man with his entire life ahead of him. Intact in body and mind, before he became what he was now. A mere shell of a man. A relic of lost dreams.
He backed away.
She was looking at a dead man.
Innes started at the muffled sound of a door closing.
She glanced around, holding her taper high. She was alone. There was no one else in the gallery.
She heard footsteps approaching from the Great Hall, and the steward, Lachlan, limped in.
"I thought I saw a light here. Can I help you with anything, mistress?"
She pulled on her glove. "Nay, thank you. I'm fine. I couldn't sleep, so I went for a walk."
The man waited politely.
"The tapestries and paintings are very beautiful," said Innes.
Lachlan looked up at the walls, nodding. "I suppose they are. Some are quite old, I believe. A wee bit of trouble, too, they are," he grumbled. "Put them up for the wedding, and now I'll be taking them down and putting them back in storage. And who saw them? You, mistress, are all."
"Well, I'm grateful to you." She gestured to the painting of Conall Sinclair. "The earl of Caithness. Is he in storage, too?"
"His lordship. I didn't see him at dinner tonight. Is he here at Castle Girnigoe?"
"Well, he is and he isn't."
Innes cocked an eyebrow at the man. "And will he be here tomorrow, for his brother's wedding?"
"Difficult to say, mistress. If he is, he'll be standing beside the laird on the chapel steps. If he isn't, he won't be."CHAPTER 2
Castle Girnigoe sat on a narrow peninsula atop slabs of rock that rose high above the sparkling blue-green sea. Innes couldn't help but be impressed by the three towers looming over the sea and the rolling moors.
Standing amid the throng of Sinclairs and Munros waiting for the bride to appear, she looked past the happy but boisterous crowd at her sister's new home.
For the wedding celebration, the servants had decorated the courtyard with bright banners and flags. Spring flowers of yellow, pink, violet, and blue were woven into garlands and hung everywhere, adding even more color to the festivities.
The chapel stood in the original section of castle the Sinclairs now called the Inner Ward. Over the past two decades, the clan had added two more sections to the clan seat. The Outer Ward, with its North Tower, held the new Great Hall, laird's quarters, gallery, and kitchens. Beyond it, a bridge led to a walled stable and a West Tower.
Innes was satisfied. She couldn't have found a more secure home for her sister. With its impenetrable gray walls, high towers, and the surrounding sea, Castle Girnigoe was beyond impressive.
She was happy for Ailein. This was a perfect place to live, to start a new life. Her gaze was drawn to Bryce, standing alone on the steps of the chapel. She wondered if the earl of Caithness would make his appearance.
"Couldn't you change into something more appropriate, at least for today?" her stepmother urged, interrupting her thoughts. "There's still time, and this is a celebration. You shouldn't be wearing black."
"I'll wear what I please," Innes said curtly.
"And you're fine with this, Hector? Your daughter, wearing black at her own sister's wedding?"
"What business is it of mine what she wears?" the Munro clan chief replied. "She's a grown woman. Leave her be. She knows what she's about."
Her stepmother was not ready to give up. "But why, Innes? Today of all days should be an exception. Ailein is the only one that you care a fish egg about anyway."
"How many times does she have to tell you?" Hector intervened. "She wears black because she is in mourning."
"Aye, for the death of innocence in the world."
"By the Virgin, man, and you encourage her by repeating that nonsense?"
Innes stopped listening, looking past her stepmother and her father. She focused on the windows halfway up the East Tower.
What could be keeping Ailein? The last time she'd checked, the women of the household were bustling about the bride with the efficiency of a small army, and Jinny was ordering them about like a warrior chief. Come hell or high water, her sister would be suitably dressed, adorned, and standing at noon at the chapel doors.
A movement drew Innes's gaze upward. A dark shape moved in a window above her sister's chambers. Another outsider, she thought, watching the events of life without taking part. She understood that all too keenly.
A young woman's anxious voice broke in. "I am so relieved to find you, mistress."
Innes glanced at her and then looked up again. The shadow in the window was still there.
"Lady Ailein is in a state," continued the serving woman. "She sent us all away, and Jinny said to search you out and bring you back as soon as I found you."
Innes allowed the young servant to lead the way. "Tell me. Who is staying in the upper chambers above my sister?"
The woman glanced back, her eyes wide. "No one, mistress. The upper chambers are shut and locked."
"Locked, you say?" Innes asked, looking up. The shadowy figure was gone.
"Aye, mistress. It's been that way for months now."
Distant, quiet, observing rather than participating, Conall thought.
Innes Munro was the only interesting fish in that sea of guests. Eying the black dress, he shook his head. That's not quite right, he mused. She was more like a raven in a flower garden. A rebel. A presence.
Innes looked up and he thought she might have seen him. He backed away from the window and turned around, his eyes surveying Shona's room.
Bryce had been at Conall's door at dawn, again insisting that he at least show up for the marriage ceremony. To get rid of him, he promised to think about it.
He had thought about it. He still wasn't going. But he wasn't leaving Castle Girnigoe until he found what he came up here for.
Conall glanced for a moment at the large window from which Shona fell to her death on the cliffs this past winter. He frowned and walked to the dresser, searching for the brooch. It had belonged to his mother. He had given it to Shona before he left, thinking she would become his wife when he returned.
But his life had gone down a different path.
They reached the East Tower and the woman stepped aside to let her pass.
Innes moved from the bright spring sunlight of the courtyard into the damp darkness of the tower house stairwell. She started up the stone steps.
Her sister should be on her way to the chapel now, Innes thought. It did not bode well that she was sending out the very women tasked with preparing her for the ceremony. She frowned.
"Nay, Ailein," she murmured. "I know what you want, and I'm not doing it. Not this time."
Reaching the landing, Innes pushed open the door without bothering to knock.
Jinny threw her hands up and sighed with relief. "Praise be. You've come."
Innes had known Jinny since the woman came to look after her and Ailein when their mother died. Seeing now the frustration in the lined face, she shook her head. After all the years of service to their family, Jinny knew the two sisters well enough not to be bullied by a mere outburst of temper.
Excerpted from Taming the Highlander by May McGoldrick. Copyright © 2016 Nikoo K. and James A. McGoldrick. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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