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To Wed a Highlander
By Michele Sinclair
ZEBRA BOOKS Copyright © 2008 C. Michele Peach
All right reserved.
Chapter One Lochlen Castle, Scottish Borders, 1309
"Enough!" bellowed the old laird as he rose stiffly from his chair. His commanding voice belied the weakness of his slow-moving body, as did his brightly lit green eyes. His thick hair, which had once been a dark red, was now a beautiful silver gray barely reaching his shoulders.
Emerald shards of frustration and aggravation lashed out at the two seething figures in his dayroom. Both remained unaffected by his looks of fury. They were too obstinate to realize that his toleration of their mutual detestation had vanished. No longer could they avoid the inevitable.
Alexander clamped his jaws together as a shot of fire coursed through his chest. The pains were becoming more frequent-and more powerful. His time left was limited, and before he died, he vowed his clan would be in the hands of the one man who could ensure its survival.
He glared at the powerful highlander towering motionless near the hearth, and then slid his gaze toward the obstinate redhead across the room. Her jaw was clenched and her hands were clasped behind her back as she paced furiously back and forth across the planked floor. Neither of them was any closer to conceding.
In two strides, Alexander was in front of the hearth and met the fierce gaze of two bright cobalt eyes intense with controlled emotion. Alexander Dunstan knew he was considered a large man by his Lowland peers and had often used his height to intimidate those who had raised his ire. However, the idea of his imposing figure affecting Colin McTiernay was ludicrous. The man was a giant even among Highlanders. And while Alexander would never admit it aloud to anyone, he usually avoided being in situations in which he had to look up at his sonin- law. However, right now, the anger, fear, and frustration boiling in his blood made him oblivious of Colin's towering stature.
"Pride!" Alexander growled. "Aye, your damned, maddening, and unreasonable pride! It prevents you both from accepting what must be." Refusing to wince as the burning pressure in his chest strengthened, he returned to the comfortable, oversized chair situated in the middle of the room.
He sank into the well-worn leather cushions hoping the man he had learned to trust above all others would now trust him. Alexander knew his people disliked outsiders, but he also knew that given time, they would follow and respect the Highlander. Colin was one of those rare men a laird was lucky enough to meet, let alone welcome as family. He was a highly skilled soldier, but even more important, Colin's ability to train and create unbreakable bonds with his men made him an exceptional leader. Loyal, strong, and fair, the Highlander was Alexander's undeniable choice to lead his proud people. But, more than that, Colin was the only one who could save them.
Alexander shifted his gaze to the slim athletic woman with the fiery red mane and flashing clover-green eyes. There was no doubt she was his daughter. Her long, wild, slightly curly hair matched the color of his youth. Her eyes were both proud and compelling, and her unconventional demeanor reflected more of himself than any son he might have had. But, right now, his youngest daughter's willfulness was going to destroy not only her future happiness but also that of everyone and everything she loved.
Makenna Dunstan was not exactly ignoring her father, but whenever the Highlander was in sight, her heart raced and her blood boiled. She stopped pacing, crossed her arms, and stared defiantly at her fate looming over the hearth. She then looked at her father and shook her head firmly no, hoping to exhibit the inflexibility of her decision.
Alexander closed his eyes and after a few moments reopened them. "I love you, Áille, but your pride will give you no lasting joy," he cautioned her solemnly.
Makenna increased the grip she had on her arms. Her father's special epithet for her-most beautiful-had not masked the seriousness of his comment. He fully expected her to be at the chapel tomorrow, in front of everyone, and do the impossible. She would not bend. She could not bend ... not on this.
She marched over and knelt by her father's chair. "Your affections will not dissuade me, Father. I openly admit to my pride. It has given me self-respect and a sense of value. And with my pride, I can promise you I will never marry that overbearing bully of a giant," Makenna huffed, locking eyes with her oversized nemesis. She rose slowly. "He might have convinced my sister to marry him, but he will never convince me."
Colin clutched the timber portion of the hearth's mantel so tightly he could feel the wood begin to give beneath his fingertips. Makenna Dunstan was by far the most infuriating woman in all of Scotland, and despite her impassioned claim, it was he who was refusing to marry her. "I also have my pride, woman, and it does not include latching myself to a female who refuses to know her place. I want a wife who can maintain a keep, not see it go to ruin as she rides wild on her horse trying to be a man she can never be." Colin's voice was level and soft, but its impact was just as strong as if he roared the words aloud.
He watched as a slim hand calmly smoothed back loose wisps of curly red hair. The action revealed insolent jade pools framed by long dark lashes. The woman was like unrestrained fire, constantly challenging him on everything. It mattered little to her what her father wanted or what her four older sisters encouraged. She had been allowed to indulge in her peculiar interests for too long. She had never learned how to be a woman, let alone a wife.
Makenna refused to turn away from his cold gaze. She would not give him the satisfaction.
Colin was unmistakably a Highlander, and definitely a McTiernay with his giant build, dark brown hair, bright blue eyes, and stubborn jawline. When Colin married her sister, he had entered the Dunstan home and consequently Makenna's life. Within weeks, he had started banning her from the few activities that gave her confidence. Even though she was better at them than most men and had been doing them for years, he deemed them unsafe for a woman. Now, for almost two years, she had been forbidden to hunt wild boar or any other beast he deemed to be dangerous. She was never to ride alone, and he had prohibited her from training with his soldiers. One by one, Colin McTiernay had stripped away her favorite pastimes, and all with the blessing of the one person who had previously championed her unusual diversions-her father. She would never marry the dictatorial colossus, tomorrow or any other day.
Makenna released the back of the leather chair, swung around, and begun pacing again. Her father had had enough? Well, she was also done with this conversation. For weeks, she had felt like a caged animal being pressured into a binding agreement that would eventually steal her sanity. Despite her stream of vocal refusals, her father had moved forward inducing her older sisters, Ula and Rona, to plan the wedding. Every local laird had been invited, and most had come. Tomorrow they would all be disappointed.
Makenna took several intakes of breath, determined to maintain her composure. "I cannot do as you ask, Father. I am not ready to pledge myself to any man, but I especially won't to this one. Deirdre might have loved him, and I have never fathomed why. I don't disagree that he can lead men and rebuild our battle strength. I will even admit that he should continue to train our soldiers, but I just cannot marry him. I will only make us both miserable, and that cannot be good for anyone, including our clan."
Shocked by her flattering admission of his abilities, Colin was too stunned to do anything more than stare at her. Never before had Makenna acknowledged his skills or supported his efforts to reestablish the Dunstan army. Outside of his soldiers and Alexander, no one had verbally recognized what he had accomplished. He was about to say as much when Alexander indicated with a flicker of his fingers for him to remain silent.
Alexander understood his youngest daughter's reluctance. Marrying a Highlander would be difficult, and promising oneself to a McTiernay would be even harder. Their enormous size, dark looks, and cool blue eyes made even the most composed of men sweat. But marrying the husband of her dead sister? It was a near impossible thing to ask. Near.
"I have heard your pleas, Makenna. I have catered to your rebellious ways for too long and now that I require you to act not only for yourself, but for others, you refuse me."
Makenna winced. "Father, it is not for me, but for this clan that I refuse."
Alexander's eyes narrowed and he attacked her declaration. "It is for you. And even your sister, who watches you from above, knows it. Do not pretend otherwise. Accept for once that I know what is best and lean on my judgment. For if you do not, it will be my cousin who decides this clan's fate-as well as your own."
Alexander shifted his focus to Colin. "I have heard your excuses as well." He saw the swift turn of his son-in-law's head and the burning fire smoldering in the cobalt depths of his eyes. The man had complete control of his actions, and though Colin outwardly appeared calm and collected, Alexander knew he was suppressing his instinct to draw blood. Alexander also knew his words had to strike hard to achieve his goal. He had no more time to wait. "Aye, I said excuses, Colin. Deirdre died nine months ago, and she loved you, son, but she would not have wanted you to live this way-constantly driving yourself and the men. You have a decision to make. Keep your pride and return to your Highlands or finish what you started here. Make your choice. You're out of time."
Alexander rotated in his seat and leveled his eyes on his youngest daughter. She stared back undaunted. He had often felt enormous pride in her ability to remain staunch in her convictions. Too many times his delight with her willful behavior had resulted in him giving way to her unorthodox desires. Now she was the only one of his five daughters unmarried. "And you, my Áille, keep your pride as well, but learn to be lonely. For one day, possibly very soon, you will no longer have me to applaud your unusual accomplishments. And whom will you have then? You claim you desire no man, but I put forth that what you have always wanted was for someone to accept you, be proud of you, and love you. I have given you this, but still you want more. Someday you will realize that what you seek needs to be offered by a man, a real man, not one of the malleable ògans who follow you about professing their awe at your skills. Go and prepare yourself for a sad and solitary life, daughter."
Alexander watched a visibly shaken Makenna absorb his words. More softly, he added, "Colin is right, Makenna. You have little knowledge about being a proper wife, but you could learn." He paused and waited until she looked at him. "What a man seeks most in a wife you have to give in abundance. That I promise. You just must first learn to trust in him and in yourself."
He leaned back against the cushions. "And, Colin, despite your year with my Deirdre, you learned very little about being a good husband. Aye, I know the truth. Remember, she was my firstborn, and I knew her for almost six and twenty years before she finally chose you for a husband. Do you know how many she had turned down before you asked for her hand? Do you know why she desired you above all others? Aye, it might have been love, for indeed, she did love you, but she knew even before I did that you could save our people. She waited to marry until she found someone who could do just that. If you choose to leave, her desires for her clan will have been for naught." Alexander watched the deep blue of the Highlander's eyes grow darker.
Colin stood silent for several moments before moving toward the large dark walnut door and pushing it open. He stopped his exit halfway into the passage's outer stone corridor. Gravely, he pivoted and declared quietly, "This isn't what I wanted, Alexander."
Green eyes weakened by pain and loss captured the blue ones of the man Alexander had learned to trust and lean upon. "I know," Alexander replied, "but it has to be. Either you and Makenna marry tomorrow or you leave. Both of you, go now and make peace with your decision."
Alexander closed his eyes and listened to his daughter's light retreating footsteps followed by Colin's heavier ones. Two years ago, when his eldest daughter had announced her decision to marry the second eldest of the famous McTiernays, he never dreamed he would select Colin to be the next laird of his clan. Yet soon after their marriage vows, Alexander knew Colin was the one man who could ensure that his Dunstan lineage continued to grow and be prosperous.
His clan was not ready for another war, and yet despite Edward I's celebrated death, a fight was coming in the shape of his son, England's new king. Located on the Scottish Borders, the Dunstan clan was especially vulnerable. It needed a brilliant leader like Colin, who possessed the rare ability to train raw men into skilled warriors ready for combat.
Makenna, with her unorthodox habits of training with the soldiers, was the only one of his offspring who understood just how depleted the Dunstan forces had become while supporting Wallace's cause. Without McTiernay's leadership and legendary ability to train and build a loyal force, his people would be enveloped by another branch of Dunstans, and his bloodline would fade as if it never was. Makenna would most likely be forced to wed the man designated to run Lochlen Castle, and Colin would be obliged to return north, causing his soldiers to either go with him or disperse. Some would join Robert the Bruce's campaign, but very few would remain loyal to the Dunstans. Most had joined to follow McTiernay, and the majority of them would follow him to the Highlands if he left. Eventually the Dunstans would be no more.
There would be a marriage tomorrow.
There had to be.
Colin marched out of the dayroom and descended the tower's stone spiral staircase. Rounding the last turn, he exited into Lochlen Castle's inner ward and proceeded along the southern curtain wall leading to the inner gate. Named for Malcolm Canmore III, the Canmore and Forfar Towers were two of the castle's most prominent structures.
After the Viking raids, Malcolm III was one of Scotland's first rulers to defy the Norman kings of England reluctant to accept Scottish independence. Malcolm's leadership inspired the construction of many keeps, including Lochlen, named after the small lake located southwest of the castle's town wall. Continually fortified for over two hundred years, Lochlen had been transformed into a small, well-fortified castle nestled between the Lammermuir Hills and the River Dye Water. Seven towers unevenly spaced to fit the rolling contours of the land formed the castle's odd-shaped inner ring. Surrounding the main castle was a thick outer curtain wall connected by intermittent round drum towers situated to protect the two main outer gates.
Colin had intended to continue expanding and securing Lochlen by completing the town wall surrounding the local village. While it would only protect clansmen who made their home behind the stone barrier, the wall would create a place for Dunstans and allies to come and seek refuge when under attack.
With Alexander's decree that he leave, the wall would be completed without him.
Colin's mood darkened with each step. He had been walking among Dunstan clansmen for almost two years and still the men and women scampered like frightened children out of his path. Today was no different as one by one they ceased their occupation and dashed out of view. He knew his black mood was clearly etched on his face, but Colin doubted his expression was the cause behind their fast disappearance. The Lowlanders darted out of sight because of who he was-an unwanted outsider, an undesired future clan leader, and worst of all-a Highlander.
Excerpted from To Wed a Highlander by Michele Sinclair Copyright © 2008 by C. Michele Peach. Excerpted by permission.
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