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When a Laird Finds a Lass
By Lecia Cornwall
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Lecia Cornwall
All rights reserved.
Castle MacLeod, Skye, early spring, 1707
When a chief's son wed the daughter of another chief, the nuptial celebration went on for days. It ended only when the whisky ran out, all the beef was eaten, and the business between the visiting chieftains and lairds had been concluded. While that was done, there was dancing, games, and music for all.
And flirting — there was plenty of that too.
Laird Donal MacLeod of Glen Iolair had come to the wedding with three of his lovely daughters — Aileen, Marcail, and Cait. His other lasses — all eight of them — had stayed at home with the promise of being allowed to attend the next gathering. His third-oldest daughter, Fia, had recently wed the chief of the Sinclairs, and where she went was now her husband's concern, not Donal's.
He looked around the hall. There were many fine men here — MacLeods, MacLeans, MacKays, and MacKinnons. Surely another of his lasses might find herself a husband before they went home again, since they were pretty things and born flirts. Plus there was nothing better to turn a man's mind to thoughts of marriage than someone else's wedding. Lads always had hot eyes for pretty lasses at gatherings, with so many new faces and new possibilities for romance and mischief. Not that Donal was worried — Aileen, his oldest daughter and a sensible widow, would watch over her sisters and keep them from doing anything truly regrettable.
On the other hand, he hoped she wasn't keeping too tight a rein on Marcail and Cait. He had high hopes that once the fine sons and heirs of the other visiting clans saw his lasses, he'd be negotiating two — or even three — offers of marriage by the end of the festivities. He took a long draft of ale and smiled. He was a man who believed in the magic of allowing nature to take its course where love was concerned.
And since Donal MacLeod had been married eight times — so far — and had a dozen daughters, he knew a great deal about such things.
He beckoned a serving maid to refill his cup and turned to grin at the man seated next to him. The man grinned back.
"I'm looking for a wife," he said. Donal almost laughed out loud. Would it truly be that easy?
Marcail MacLeod gazed up at Colin MacLeod through her long, dark lashes and drew patterns on his saffron shirtfront with her fingernail. He drew a sharp breath, groaned softly, and bent to seek her lips.
Marcail turned her head away, and his mouth fell on her cheek. "So you'll speak to my father about our own wedding?"
"Tomorrow," he murmured, and pulled her closer. They were hidden in the shadows of a deep window seat, behind a fringed curtain, scant inches away from the wedding celebration. Beyond their bower, the pipes played a jaunty reel, and wedding guests danced and laughed.
She put her finger against his lips, holding him back. "You said that yesterday, and the day before that, Colin."
His eyes slid away. "Your da is the Fearsome MacLeod and my laird. I'm only the son of a tacksman."
"Papa won't mind," she predicted. "He's really not so fierce as he pretends, and he left his claymore at home. You've nothing to fear."
He didn't reply.
"Marcail!" She heard Aileen call her name, and her sister pulled back the edge of the drapery. "I've been looking everywhere for you." Her eldest sister's eyes narrowed when she saw Colin. He removed his hands from Marcail at once and rose to his feet. "Don't you have duties to see to?" Aileen asked him, then turned to her sister. "You are expected to be where you can be seen at all times." She took Marcail by the arm. "Come on — they're putting the bride to bed, and we're to attend her."
Marcail pulled free and turned back to Colin. She stood on her toes to kiss his cheek. "I'll see you later," she promised, and followed her sister back into the melee.
"I'm looking for a wife," John MacKay said to Donal MacLeod.
The MacLeod looked up from his cup of ale, his eyes shining with interest. "A wife? Your own or someone else's?" he quipped, and dissolved into tipsy laughter.
Would that it were someone else's. John forced a smile and drove Cupid's arrow in deeper. "My father is insisting I wed." That was true enough. No doubt he'd be glad to see his third son married to one of the daughters of the Fearsome MacLeod.
John, however, had another plan in mind. He wanted payment for a slight to his cousin David, who had recently spent time at Glen Iolair, courting one of Donal's haughty daughters. He was refused by the lass when her father had already agreed to the match. The snub had been keenly felt — especially when the girl had married a Sinclair instead. David and his companions had returned home angry, insulted, and swearing they'd have revenge far beyond the lifting of a herd of the Fearsome MacLeod's fine, fat cattle, stolen as they left Iolair.
And now the opportunity appeared right beside John. He could arrange to wed one of MacLeod's lasses. He'd take her home, present her to his father, honor her. But on their wedding day, he'd find a reason to reject her cruelly, before his whole clan. Then he'd send her home shamed, the way her sister had shamed his cousin David.
"If ye want a wife, I have daughters of marriageable age," Donal said, right on cue.
"Oh?" John said, feigning surprise. "Tell me more."CHAPTER 2
The blushing bride was put to bed with much ceremony. The women soothed the nervous lass, while the men offered the groom wicked suggestions that had every woman in the room as pink faced as the virgin bride.
Marcail tried to imagine what it would be like to be tucked into Colin's bed as his wife. She looked around the room for him, sure he'd be thinking the same as she, but he wasn't among the men. Nor was her father. Her disappointment vanished as her heart bloomed. Colin was speaking to her father at this very moment, asking permission to make her the happiest lass in all of Scotland. She was sure of it, right down to the toes of her satin slippers. Colin loved her with a love as deep as a loch, as sure and true as her father's great claymore.
With the bride and groom put to bed, she hurried back to the hall to find Colin. He'd be waiting for her, his heart in his eyes, his arms open, and news of her father's blessing on his lips.
But Colin wasn't in the hall.
She went outside, sure he was with the other MacLeod men in her father's tail, by the campfire in the meadow, celebrating the good news. They'd congratulate her too ... But he wasn't there either.
Maybe he was tending the garrons in the stable, waiting to tell her later, once his duties were done.
She pushed open the door of the stable. The shiny black eyes of a dozen horses gazed at her from under shaggy manes, looking surprised to see her. She heard a giggle.
Then a grunt.
Then a whisper. "Lift yer leg a wee bit higher, lass."
Marcail knew that voice. Her heart climbed into her throat, and she rushed forward, rounded the corner, and skidded to a stop. Now there was a side of Colin MacLeod she'd not seen before — his bare, hairy arse gleamed white as snow in the lantern light as it rose and fell, pumping hard. The lass beneath him was spread wide, her eyes closed, her arms tight around Colin's shoulders, a scrap of his plaid caught in her teeth.
Marcail was mortified, betrayed, and furious. She was probably heartbroken as well, but she decided to consider that later. A pitchfork stood close to hand, and she grabbed it.
Colin MacLeod screamed when she stabbed his broad, white backside. The lass screamed as well. She pushed Colin off and skittered backward like a crab to shrink into the corner, her eyes wide, her kiss-swollen mouth gaping.
Colin was cursing at the pain, and he turned to see who had stabbed him. He fell silent when he saw Marcail standing there, still holding the pitchfork.
He cowered, one hand over his shriveled manhood, the other held out toward her in supplication. "Now, lass ..."
She tossed the pitchfork to the floor and stabbed Colin with a disdainful look instead. "You —" she began, but then her throat thickened, and her eyes stung. She could not say another word without risking the utter shame of bursting into tears. She spun on her heel and strode out into the darkness.
"Wait!" He was following her, but she kept walking, her head high. She saw the door to the hall ahead, a yellow portal in the indigo night. Her father would be there, would want to hear — "Wait, Marcail!" He caught her shoulder, turned her. He wore only his shirt, which covered him to his knees. He still had his boots on. She wrinkled her nose. What kind of man made love to a woman with his boots on?
"Do you mean to tell the laird?" he asked.
She pulled out of his grip but stood before him, her arms crossed. He'd grabbed his plaid off the floor, and she watched now as he frantically wrapped it around his hips. "Why? Are you afraid he'll geld you? I'd let him. You said you loved me, wanted to marry me."
He flushed, looked away. "Actually, I didna."
She stared at him. "What?"
"I never said I'd marry you, Marcail. You just assumed I would."
"I —" She was gaping like a fish, her jaw flapping in the wind, trying to remember when, or if ... The realization of her blind, foolish trust stabbed her, sharper than any pitchfork. Then she recalled how he'd kissed her, tried to do more, and fury surged. "I should castrate you myself," she said. She spun, rushed on toward the hall, to her sisters' understanding company. Then she'd cry. Not now, not in front of the man who'd betrayed her.
"It's not that I'm not willing to wed you. In fact, I'll ask your father right now, explain —"
How shameful, to be married out of pity, for fear of what her father might do to him. He didn't love her. She could see that now. She lifted her chin, her eyes on the stairs that led to the room she shared with her sisters.
Her father caught her arm before she was even halfway across the hall. "There you are," he said, his tone bright with whisky. He hadn't seen, didn't know. Surely he'd be able to tell by her stricken face that something was wrong, but if he asked her what the trouble was, she'd cry ... and make an even greater fool of herself.
He grinned at her. "I have good news for you, lass."
Colin stopped in the doorway at the sight of her father. He stood there frowning, worried. Not for the pain he'd caused her, but afraid for himself. How could she have imagined she loved such a heartless wretch? Her tears were even closer now, so she pasted on her broadest smile, as wide and white as Colin's arse, and batted her lashes at her father as if everything were perfectly fine. "Have you, Papa? What is it?"
Her father looked at the person standing next to him, a man of medium height. He wore a fine velvet coat and a lace cravat. He smiled at her, though it didn't quite reach his eyes.
"This is John MacKay, one of the sons of the chief of the MacKays," her father said. "And this is my daughter Marcail."
She dipped a curtsy, and he bowed slightly. She slid her eyes sideways, saw Colin watching. She forced herself to beam at John MacKay. "How do you do?"
"Enchanté," he murmured in French. He bowed over her hand and kissed the air above her knuckles. His fingers were cold.
Colin was crossing the room, heading toward her.
"John MacKay wants to marry you," Donal MacLeod said, yelling to be heard above the din of the pipes. "I've given him my permission, and if you are amena —"
Colin was right behind her father. He'd heard. His mouth was opening to speak. Marcail grabbed her father's hand.
"Yes," she said.
Her father's smile faded in surprise. "Yes?" He frowned. "Yes? You've only just set eyes on him, lass. I was thinking that perhaps you'd like a few weeks — or months, or a year, to think it over."
Over her father's shoulder Marcail watched Colin's face crumple into a deep scowl. "Yes," she said again. She reached for John MacKay's velvet-clad arm and glared at Colin. "He seems an honorable, decent man. So, yes, I will marry him."
Donal blinked, dumbfounded.
She felt John MacKay's forearm tense under her hand. "How nice," he said, his tone bland.
How nice. Was that all there was? Marcail felt her stomach curl. She'd always dreamed of a grand love, of a man who would look at her and make angels sing. Someone who would never, ever dally with a wench in a horse's stall while she waited for him, loved him ... She looked at John MacKay again and bit her lip. Perhaps a year to consider wouldn't be so bad after all. Still, Colin was watching her, and she couldn't back down now. She was the daughter of the Fearsome MacLeod, proud and decisive and desirable. John MacKay wanted her, and so ...
"Yes," she said yet again, trying to convince herself.CHAPTER 3
Marcail dove deep into the dark depths of the loch and swam until her lungs burned. The cold didn't bother her. She swam all year round. Then she kicked toward the surface and came up into the pale light of dawn. What had she done? She was betrothed to a man she barely knew.
She dove again, let the water caress her naked skin. She had no fear of being caught. The wedding guests still slept, and the men by the campfires were huddled in their plaids against the dawn's chill. Anyone looking out into the loch would assume she was an otter or a seal. No one would expect to see a lass swimming at dawn. By the time they rose, she'd be inside, making ready to go, since John MacKay wanted to leave today, sail for home with the tide. He was anxious for her to meet his father and his kin, see his fine home. It was her home too, now. Apparently the MacKays lived in glorious luxury.
She wished she hadn't been so quick to decide, but she could hardly change her mind now. Her father was pleased with the match, though he worried about the haste of her decision. Papa wanted his daughters married, but happily married, to the right men. Was John MacKay the right man for her? He was polite and elegant and attractive enough. Perhaps in time she'd come to love him. She ignored the stirrings of doubt in her breast. She'd be rich and well regarded, and he'd be faithful, unlike — She dove again and commanded the chilly water to wash Colin MacLeod from her heart and her mind. She hoped that he realized what he'd lost and was pining somewhere, heartbroken and sorry. Cait and Aileen had promised to make him as miserable as possible once they were back at Glen Iolair. He'd find thistles in his boots, snakes in his bed, and curdled milk in his porridge for months to come.
She sighed. The next time she saw her sisters, she'd be a wife to a man she knew almost nothing about. He used soap scented with lavender, and by watching him eat, she knew he liked brandy, snuff, and grouse soused in wine. Otherwise, she had no idea how to please him, or if he would please her.
She climbed out of the water and let the air dry her skin before she dressed. The sun came over the hills to sparkle on the surface of the loch, and she watched the seabirds fly out to sea to fish for their breakfast. Would she be allowed to swim as a married woman at her new home?
She felt another tingle of trepidation. She loved the water.
Swimming was as natural to Marcail MacLeod as breathing.CHAPTER 4
Malcolm hated the sea and ships and being wet. It was unnatural. If man were meant to swim, he'd have gills and a tail like a fish. He leaned over the side of the boat and retched yet again.
"Nearly home," Dougal said cheerfully. "Another few hours, and we'll sail into Dunbronach Bay."
A few more hours? He'd be dead by then. Malcolm hung over the green depths and stared at the reflection of his own chalk-white face.
"Home," William said, filling his lungs with cold salt air. He nudged Malcolm hard. "Smell that? It's freedom and fresh air. Not like the reek of a city." He wrinkled his nose and regarded Malcolm. "But I suppose what ye like comes down to what you're used to."
"Did ye never learn to sail?" Fergus asked. "Yer father was a great one for the water."
Malcolm managed to shake his head.
"Here, rinse your mouth with this, Laird," Dougal said, thrusting a cup in front of Malcolm's face. Water. Blessed, clean water without a trace of salt. He took a long drink and gasped in horror.
Dougal nodded. "Of course it is. What were you expecting?" He winced as Malcolm hung over the side again.
"I was expecting water," Malcolm said, his throat on fire.
"Water?" William asked. "What for? You're surrounded by water."
Malcolm slumped to the bottom of the boat, felt the eyes of the elders upon him. Were they disappointed, angry, disgusted by their new laird's weakness? He closed his eyes, felt his brain slide from side to side inside his skull as his empty belly sloshed with liquid fire. Whisky, not water, he thought, sucking the stinking salt air through his mouth and trying not to vomit again.
Excerpted from When a Laird Finds a Lass by Lecia Cornwall. Copyright © 2016 Lecia Cornwall. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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