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"Few authors portray the Scottish highlands as lovingly or colorfully as Hannah Howell." -Publishers Weekly
"Expert storyteller Howell pens another Highland winner." -Romantic Times
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By HANNAH HOWELL
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2002 Hannah Howell
All rights reserved.
"I dinnae think our mother was verra pleased about this, Gillyanne."
Gillyanne smiled at the handsome auburn-haired James who rode at her side. He was the brother of her heart, and even he knew that the woman he called his mother was actually his aunt. Soon he would claim his heritage, become laird of Dunncraig, but Gillyanne knew it would be only a distance of miles that would separate them, never one of heart or spirit. She also knew that he did not think she was completely wise in her decision to travel to her dower lands.
"And did ye have to bring those thrice-cursed cats?" he muttered.
"Aye. There may be rats there," she replied calmly.
She reached down to gently scratch the ears of her two cats, Ragged and Dirty. Ragged was a huge dark yellow tom who well fit his name, with one eye gone, one ear missing a bite-sized chunk, and numerous battle scars. Dirty was a sweet, delicate female, a mottled patternless blend of black, grey, orange and white, who had not truly suited her name from the moment she had been rescued and cleaned. They traveled everywhere with her in a special fur-lined leather basket that was firmly attached to her saddle. The three of them had not been separated in three years, not since the day she had found them where they had been cruelly tossed into a rat-infested dungeon cell at a neighboring keep. Both of them had been weak and bloodied, the cell littered with more dead and dying rats than she had had the stomach to count. They had both more than earned their keep since she had brought them home with her.
"Oh, aye." James nodded and reached out to briefly pet both cats, revealing that his harsh words were not heartfelt. "'Tis nay like home at Dubhlinn. S'truth, Mither and I could gain little knowledge about your tower house save to learn that 'tis nay a ruin. Mither felt that the trouble was that the mon she traded messages with didnae truly understand what she was asking of him or what she wished to hear. The mon thought safe; she thought clean. The mon thought protection; she thought comfort. She finally decided safe and protected would suit us for now, that 'twas clear a woman's eye was needed."
"'Tis because this used to be MacMillan land and 'tis a MacMillan mon who guards it. Mither doesnae ken him weel, save that my great-uncle MacMillan praises his worth, and the mon doesnae ken Mama. Weel, this visit should mend all of that."
"I but pray it is comfortable."
"If it has a bed, a bath, and food, I will be content for now. The comforts such as exist at Dubhlinn can come later."
"Aye, true enough." James eyed her curiously. "I am nay sure I understand your stubborn need to come here, though."
"I am nay sure I do, either." Gillyanne smiled at her cousin, then sighed and shrugged. "'Tis mine. I can say no more than that. 'Tis mine and I wished to acquaint myself with it."
"In truth, I think I can understand that. I keep feeling drawn to my lands though I shallnae set my arse in the laird's seat for another year or more."
"Nay too much more," she said encouragingly.
"Nay, I think not. Dinnae think I resent or regret being held back. 'Tis best. I need seasoning, need more training, and have only just gained my spurs. Our cousin holds my place weel and I need to be able to fill his large boots. An untried laird will do my clan no good at all." He frowned a little. "I wonder how those who live upon your dower lands will feel when a wee lass comes to claim the prize."
"Mither wondered as weel and sought some assurances. It appears it willnae matter. 'Tis but a small keep with few people and Mither got the feeling they would welcome just about anyone. The only one they call the leader is an aging steward. They have all been left a wee bit uncertain of their future and would like it settled."
"That is in your favor then," agreed James. "Why do I think that ye are considering staying here?"
Gillyanne shrugged again, not surprised he had guessed her thoughts. She did indeed have the occasional thought about setting up her own household at Alddabhach. And, mayhap, she thought with a small smile, changing the name to something more interesting than old measure of land. There was a restlessness inside of her which she did not understand. She loved her family dearly, but they only seemed to make that restlessness worse. Perhaps, if she had her own lands to tend to, she would feel useful and that would sate the hunger gnawing at her insides.
Although she was reluctant to admit it, there was another reason she was finding it difficult at home. It tasted too much like envy, but she was finding it more and more difficult to be around so many happily married couples, to watch her cousins build their own families. Each new birth she attended was, for her, a blend of pleasure and increasing pain. She would be one and twenty soon and no man had ever looked at her with the slightest warmth. Several trips to court had not helped, had in fact been painful proof that men simply did not find her desirable, and all of her family's love and reassurances did not really ease the sting of that.
At times she grew angry with herself. She did not need a man to survive. Deep in her heart she knew she could have a full, happy life with no man at her side. But, right beside that knowledge was the fact that she ached for the passion, the love, and especially the children a husband could give her. Every time she watched one of her cousins with her children, watched the heated glances exchanged between husband and wife, she knew she did not need that to find some sort of happiness, but it did not stop her from wanting it all.
"If ye hide yourself away here, how will ye e'er find a husband?" James asked.
It took a moment but Gillyanne finally quelled the urge to kick her cousin off his horse. "I dinnae think that is a problem I need fret o'er, Cousin. If there is a match for me, and I have seen little proof that there is one, he can find me here as easily as he can at Dubhlinn or the king's court."
James grimaced and dragged his hand through his hair. "Ye sound as if ye are giving up. Elspeth and Avery were about your age when they found their husbands."
"Near, but still younger. I believe they also experienced the occasional twitch of interest from men ere they were married." She smiled at her cousin when he continued to frown. "Dinnae trouble yourself so. My cousins met their mates in unexpected places. Mayhap I will, too." Gillyanne broke through a line of trees and announced, "Ah, and there it looms. My keep and my lands."
Ald-dabhach had obviously consisted of little more than a peel tower at one time. Over the years two small wings had been added to the thick tower and it was now surrounded by a high, sturdy wall. Set upon a steeply inclined hill, it would be easily protected. The tiny village which sat in its shadow looked neat, the fields all around it were well tended or used to graze cattle and sheep. A small creek wound its way behind the keep, the setting sun making its waters sparkle and gleam. It was, Gillyanne decided, a rather pretty place, and she hoped it was as peaceful as it looked as she urged her mount toward its gates.
"'Tis sturdy," James said as he stood next to Gillyanne on the walls of her keep after the evening meal.
Gillyanne laughed and nodded. "Verra sturdy."
There really was not much more to say about her dower property. It was clean, but had few of those gentlewomanly touches such as linen cloths for the tables in the great hall. This was not surprising since mostly men resided at Ald-dabhach. There were those women who slept within the keep, two older women married to men at arms, and one very shy girl of twelve, the cook's daughter. Sir George the steward was sixty if he was a day and had both poor eyesight and bad hearing. Most of the men at arms were in their middle years. Gillyanne had the distinct impression that Ald-dabhach had become a place where the MacMillans sent the weary and, she glanced down at one of the few young men at the keep limping toward the stables, the lame. It rather reconfirmed her opinion that it was a peaceful place. The five men who had traveled with her with an eye to staying were young, strong, and had been greeted almost as effusively as she had been.
"I think your men will stay," James said, "which will please the maids here."
"Oh, aye. We did end up with a sudden rush of serving maids for the evening meal. They must have been watching our arrival from the village."
"And ran straight here. Clearly, there is a shortage of hale young men." James sighed. "I was rather hoping the not so hale lads here had found mates because the lasses were nay foolish enough to think such things as a limp mattered. Now I must wonder if it was just because there was no choice."
"With some, but others show more sense." She nodded toward the man with the limp just disappearing into the stables. "I saw his wife and him together ere she left to go to the village. The lass looks at him as if he is the handsomest, strongest, bravest young mon e'er born."
"So I may cast aside my moment of disillusionment."
"Aye, your hope in the goodness of people is restored."
"Yours, of course, ne'er faltered."
"With some people it doesnae just falter, it trips and falls flat on its face," she drawled and smiled when he laughed.
James draped his arm around her shoulders and kissed her cheek. "Ye see too much and see it too clearly 'tis all."
"I ken it." She stared out into the increasing dark. "I can see the good of that. It can warn us, cannae it. Elspeth says ye just have to learn when to be deaf to it, but I am nay sure I will e'er have that useful skill. I can ignore it all if the person is just, weel, ordinary, but if there is aught about him to make me wary or curious, 'tis as if I want or e'en need to see what is there. Elspeth mostly senses things, sees something in the eyes. Me? I swear I can often feel what is there. Elspeth is verra good at guessing if one lies, senses fear or danger as it flares up. Me? Let us just say that, at times, a crowded room can be a torture."
"I hadnae realized it was that strong. It must be verra difficult to be constantly battered by everyone else's feelings."
"Not everyone's. I cannae always read you, nor most of my family. The worst one to catch a sniff of is hate. It feels appalling. Fear isnae so good, either, for a part of me kens 'tis nay mine own, but that fear occasionally deafens me to my own good sense. I have blindly fled places only to suddenly come to my senses. 'Tis then that I realize the fear is gone for I have left it with the person who truly felt it."
"And this is what Elspeth feels as weel?"
"A little. She says her skill is a more gentle thing, like a scent in the air she can put a name to."
"'Tis glad I am I dinnae suffer from such skills."
"Ye have your own special one, James," Gillyanne murmured and patted his hand where he had rested it upon the wall.
"Oh?" He eyed her with suspicion, not trusting her look of sweetness. "What is it?"
"Ye can send a lass to paradise. All the lasses say so." She giggled when he blushed even as he scowled at her.
"Cameron is right," James grumbled. "Ye werenae beaten enough as a child."
"Humph. As if Avery's big dark knight worries me. He has been muttering empty threats for nearly eight years."
"And ye enjoy every one."
"He has a true skill. One can only stand back and admire it." She grinned briefly when he laughed.
"Do ye sense much here, Gilly?" he asked quietly. "Anything I should fret o'er?"
"Nay, although I have learned nay to stare at every person I meet. If I must be cursed with this skill, 'tis glad I am that my fither chose the Murray clan to be adopted by, a people who understand my gift since so many of them possess such gifts themselves." She rested her arms on the top of the rough stone wall and stared out over her lands. "At the moment, all I feel is a calm, a peace, a gentle contentment. There is also a sense of anticipation, of waiting, yet I cannae feel any fear in that. I feel as if I made the right decision in coming here. This place or mayhap just these lands, give me a sense of belonging."
"Your parents will be hurt if ye choose to stay."
Gillyanne sighed and nodded, acknowledging the one true regret she felt. "I ken it, but they will understand. In truth, I think that is one reason Mither tried so hard to stop me, or, at least, hold me at Dubhlinn 'til Fither returned. I dinnae want to leave them and, God's tears, I will probably continuously mourn the fact that I willnae be stumbling o'er kinsmen each time I turn around. I suffered some doubts as we rode here, but, once through those gates, I felt this was right. This is where I should be. I dinnae ken why or for how long, but, for now, this is where I should make my home."
"Then ye must stay. Ye must heed that calling. Ye wouldnae feel so without cause."
She leaned against his warmth and briefly smiled. James did not share in any of the odd gifts that seemed to run rampant in the Murray clan, for he was no real blood relation, either. His strengths were compassion and a sweetness of nature. He never questioned, however, never doubted or feared the gifts of others. In fact, James' complete lack of any gift was one of the things she found most endearing about him. That and the fact that she rarely sensed anything about the way he thought or felt. They were just two ordinary people when they were together and she did not think he would ever understand why she found that to be such a comfort at times.
"I am nay sure ye will find a mon here, though," he continued. "We have had ample proof that there is a lack of them."
"True," she replied, "but it doesnae matter. There are enough to defend us all if the need arises."
"I wasnae talking about defenders, or someone to lift heavy things, and ye ken it. Here is nay where ye will meet your mate."
It was not easy, but Gillyanne resisted the urge to strike him — hard. It was a severe reaction to what had been a simple statement of fact. There were no men to choose from here, and, according to Sir George, the men from the three clans which encircled her lands were not ones to pay a visit. Worse, Gillyanne had gotten the strong feeling George was very thankful for that oversight on the part of those lairds. Any visit by someone from one of those clans would certainly be treated with trepidation and a great deal of wariness. No feud, but no friendship, either. That meant a continuing paucity of men. Gillyanne hated to think that the peace, the contentment, she felt was not from seeing her lands and keep, but from accepting, deep in her heart, that she would always be no more than Aunt Gilly, maiden aunt Gilly, spinster aunt Gilly, dried up old stick Gilly.
"It doesnae matter," she finally said, not believing a word of it. "I dinnae need a mon to be happy."
"Dinnae ye want bairns? Ye need a husband to get yourself a few of them."
"Nay, just a lover." She almost laughed at James' look of shock. "Or," she hurried on before he could sputter any response, "I can train the lasses to be ladies of their own lands and households. Or, I could collect some of the forgotten children one is always seeing on the streets of every town, village, and hamlet. There are many bairns in dire need of love, care, and a home."
"True, but 'tis nay the same, is it."
"Nay, but 'twill do if naught else comes my way. Dinnae fret o'er me, James. I am capable of making my own happiness, A future with a loving husband and bairns would be best, but I can find joy in living without such blessings. In truth, one reason I wished to leave home was because I grew weary of trying to make people believe me when I told them that. Their loving concern began to become an irritation and that is nay what I want."
"Sorry," James murmured. "I was doing the same, wasnae I?"
"Some. I feared gagging on my own envy at times, as weel, and that is nay any good. Though it hurts to be apart from my family, if I am to remain a spinster, if that is truly my fate, apart is probably for the best. I would rather lead my own life than become too ensnared in theirs. I would rather be visited than housed."
"Do ye truly believe they would treat ye unkindly, Gilly?" James frowned at her with an odd mix of uncertainty and condemnation.
"Ne'er on purpose, James," she replied without hesitation. "Yet, they are all so content in their lives, with their husbands and their bairns, they quite naturally wish the same for me. So they introduce me to men, drag me to court, sweetly try to clothe me better or change the way I wear my hair." Gillyanne shrugged. "I am twenty now, but, as the years pass, that prodding may grow a little stronger, their worry more obvious. Nay, 'tis best if there is some distance. They can cease trying to find me a mate and I will no longer feel their sad concern when none appears." She hooked her arm through his and started down the steep, narrow steps that led to the bailey below. "Come. Let us see what our beds feel like. It has been a verra long day."
Excerpted from Highland Bride by HANNAH HOWELL. Copyright © 2002 Hannah Howell. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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