Read an Excerpt
Lairig Dubh, ScotlandSpring, AD 1370
Ciara Robertson sat away from the table, almost in the corner of the room her stepfather had chosen for the meeting. It was a large chamber and comfortable, but did not offer too much comfort. The shuttered windows were open, allowing the cool spring breezes in. Food and drink were offered, but sparingly. This was not about hospitalitythis was about business.
She met no one's gaze and most of the men there probably thought she was a servant awaiting their orders. But she was no servantshe was the eldest daughter of the MacLerie peacemaker, Duncan, and was being trained by him even now.
As he had instructed, she listened to every word said, watched the expressions of those speaking and even the way they sat or gestured to gain an understanding of who held the true power in these discussions. 'Twas not always the oldest or wealthiest or the loudest, he'd told her many times. The true power usually sat out of the attention. The true power delegated to lessers and set their leash. The true power spoke quietly and wielded their control carefully.
Now listening and watching, she believed that the MacLaren's younger brother was the one making the decisions in this series of negotiations for a trade agreement with the MacLeries. Though another man, older and calmer, spoke the MacLaren's position, it was clear to her he was not in charge.
The session went on for a few hours, each side clarifying and posturing, and several times Ciara had to force the smile from her lips as she watched her stepfather workpushing here, cajoling there, complimenting egos, urging that one or the otherto get the best terms for the MacLeries. By the time they agreed to complete the agreement in the morning and break for their evening meal, Duncan the Peacemaker had guided the MacLarens down the paths he wanted them to follow and would close the deal on the morrow. She stood, curtsying to them as they left, and waited for her stepfather to discuss the day's work.
She understood how he worked, for he'd not taken notes during the talks, but he would remember every word and clause agreed to by both parties. He would write down his thoughts and plans before speaking to anyone, so she did act the servant then, pouring ale into cups and giving them to the MacLeries remaining in the room now. Her uncle the laird and the laird's steward waited for her father to collect his thoughts and speak about how to bring these negotiations to a successful conclusion.
A few minutes passed and it felt good to stretch her legs and walk after sitting quietly for such a while. Quiet and sitting were not her usual custom of behaviour. The laird's gaze followed her, but when she met it, he smiled and looked off. Her stepfather, the only father she'd ever known, raised his head and cleared his throat, signalling that he was ready now to discuss the day's progress, or lack of it, with them. He surprised her with his first words.
'Ciara, give me your impressions of the talks today,' he said. He smiled reassuringly at her and nodded for her to begin.
Words stuck in her throat as she tried to say something useful, something pertinent, now that she'd been asked. While talking in private, giving her opinion or making observations had never been a problem at all. She enjoyed a spirited debate with the man who'd raised her as his own after marrying her mother and she never felt worried over her words. Now though, with the laird and his steward watching and waiting, her palms grew sweaty and her mind went blank.
'Do you think the laird will agree to my request to lengthen the term of this agreement?' he asked, clearly guiding her in her reply. Ciara put the others present out of her thoughts and replied as she would if only speaking to Duncan.
'I think the laird is willing to extend it as you've asked, but I suspect his brother is not. And it is his brother who will make the decision.' What if she were wrong? What if her observations were completely backwards?
Duncan looked at her intently and then glanced at the laird. Connor MacLerie could be intimidating when he wished to be so and, right now, his expression grew dark and his face stern. Had she made an error? She reached up and wiped her hand across her forehead where small beads of perspiration were gathering now, too.
'Did I not tell you, Connor?' her father said to the laird. Had she made a mess of the first time she was permitted to observe? How could she tell her mother, who'd supported her in her education and encouraged her along this unorthodox course for a young woman? If she failed now
'Aye, Duncan, you did,' the laird replied, now smiling. 'The lass is a bright one and sees through their posturing.' Connor nodded to her. 'And it did not take her as long as it took me to see it.'
Her stepfather beamed, pride in his eyes and a smile on his lips, and Ciara realised she'd been correct.
'What else, lass?' the laird asked. 'Tell me what else you noticed during the discussions.'
'The cattle interested his brother more than it did MacLaren. And I think he is overestimating the men he can call to arms if needed,' she said.
A little more at ease, she explained how she came to her conclusions and answered questions from the laird, his steward and her stepfather. They discussed the concessions they'd got already and ones they still wanted.
Only a loud banging on the door had interrupted them some time later.
'They will not serve until you are at table, Connor,' his wife, Jocelyn, said, glaring at each of them as though they could have hurried the laird when he did not wish to be. 'Everyone is waiting to eat and you dawdle here. Even the MacLarens sit waiting.'
Ciara tried to hold her laugh in, but the sight of this powerful man being cowed by his wife and not resisting her efforts made her chuckle. Her father flashed a warning frown, but she could see the mirth in his own eyes at seeing Jocelyn badgering Connor. Her mother did not hesitate to speak boldly to her stepfather and Ciara suspected that she might be waiting to do just that in the great hall. But, as Jocelyn had held her tongue until none but family remained to hear her, so would her mother.
Watching as the laird took his wife by the hand, entwined their fingers and walked at her side, Ciara now understood that the laird and her father did not simply allow their wives behaviours that other men might not. They accepted them completely in a manner that could be explained only one waythey loved them.
Having accompanied her father on many journeys on the laird's business, Ciara also understood that it was not the usual custom in most other clans or marriages.
Would she find that in her marriage?
Though not meant to, she'd overheard her parents discussing her marriageable age and about the possibility of seeking a betrothal for her. The time for that was quickly approaching. The dowry bestowed on her would only increase the offers and her ties to two very powerful clans would increase her importance to others who coveted a closer connection to either or both of them. She would be the usual brideone bartered for her perceived value and not her own worth.
No man would value a woman who was smarter than he or who could understand how legalities worked. Men wanted a woman to fill their bed, oversee their households and lessen their burdens. Whether they knew it or not, her parents had prepared her for a life and for a husband who did not exist. Fortunately or unfortunately, that dowry would plough through most objections right away.
Well, one man would be able to look past all of her accomplishments and see the true woman inside. One man always had and surely he would again.
She had kept her true feelings a secret these years from all but her closest friend and confidant Elizabeth, but she'd not forgotten or given up on him and the possibility of something more between them. As a child, she had not realised what that meant other than a fanciful dream, but now she did.
And she was ready for more to happen between them.
The small group walked through the great hall, approached the raised table and she took her place at her parents' side for the meal. The laird introduced her by name to all the MacLarens present and, other than a few raised eyebrows, none expressed surprise at her name. During the talks they most likely thought her only a maidservant to the MacLeries. Now, they understood her standing and things would change.
The glint in the MacLaren brothers' eyes made it clearshe was something to include in the agreement, a tangible way to strengthen their position with the MacLeries. A brief but telling glance between the brothers made this development clear to both of them and now their demands would change to include a betrothal.