Eric Murray was the youngest of his brothers, determined to gain his rightful inheritance after thirteen years of bitter dispute with his father's family. Starting out alone to confront his tight-fisted kinsmen, he encountered a chestnut-haired beauty set upon by thieves. When she begged for Eric's protection for herself and her infant nephew, Eric promised to deliver them to safety.
Bethia Drummond's only hope for escaping her ruthless kin, who planned to kill her and her orphaned nephew, and claim their inheritance, was Eric Murray. Then Bethia learned that Eric, too, was seeking land and coin from his own peopleher family's closest allies. How could she love a man she might one day be forced to stand against? And yet she could not ignore what her troubled heart knewthat this proud knight had more than inspired her deepest passions. . .he had become her very destiny. . .
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A Highland Romance
By Hannah Howell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1999 Hannah Howell
All rights reserved.
Bethia Drummond watched the two sweating men throw the rock-strewn dirt on top of her sister's body and held her tiny nephew James a little closer. Orphaned before his first birthday by the greed of his own kinsmen, he was going to need a lot of love and, much more importantly, a lot of protection. Bethia swallowed her tears and tossed a few sprigs of white heather onto her sister's grave. Her heart found it hard to believe that her womb sister Sorcha was gone forever, but her mind knew that Sorcha now lay entwined forever with her love, her husband Robert, beneath the deepening dirt. Put there, she thought with a rising fury, by the avarice of Robert's family.
She stared across the slowly filling grave at Robert's uncle William and his two sons, Iain and Angus. They were Drummonds only by name, never by blood, William having taken the name when he had married Robert's aunt Mary. The barren Mary had willingly taken William's two small sons as her own, but none of her kindness and love had penetrated their thick, evil hides. The woman had, without doubt, clasped a whole nest of adders to her bosom and paid dearly for her charity. The woman's death, barely a year past, had been a slow and agonizing, and very suspicious, one. Now two more obstacles to the lands and wealth of Dunncraig were gone and she held the last. William and his two hulking sons would never get James. Bethia swore on her sister's grave that she would see all three men dead first and that they would be made to pay for all of their crimes.
When William and his sons approached her, Bethia tensed. She resisted the urge to turn and run, taking the happily gurgling James far away from the three dark men. It would be neither safe nor wise to let them know that she was suspicious of them.
"Ye need not fear for the laddie's care," William said in his rough voice as he lightly ruffled the little boy's bright red curls. "We will care for the wee bairn."
Bethia wanted to scrub the man's touch off the boy, but forced herself to smile. "My sister asked me to care for her child. 'Tis why I came here."
"Ye are a verra young lass. 'Tis sure that ye dinnae wish to waste your life caring for another woman's child. Ye should be away making a few wee bairns of your own."
"Caring for the bairn of my womb sister could ne'er be a waste, sir."
"Mayhap this isnae a good time to discuss this." William forced his thin-lipped mouth into a parody of a sympathetic smile and patted Bethia on the shoulder. "Ye are still wrapped too tightly in your grief o'er your poor sister's death. We will talk of this later."
"As ye wish."
It was hard not to yank herself away from William's chilling touch, but Bethia forced herself tosmile at the three men once again. She then turned and walked back to the keep with a hard-won calm. Bethiawanted to scream out her suspicions, wanted to unsheath her dagger and plunge it deep into William's black heart, but she knew that would gain her nothing except one brief, pleasant taste of revenge. The man's sons would quickly and bloodily avenge his death, killing both her and James. In truth, she would probably accomplish no more than giving them a ready explanation for the boy's death since she could not be sure she could even kill William.
Defeating William and his sons and making them pay for their crimes required care and planning. Bethia needed to subdue the emotions twisting her insides into a painful knot. She knew that she would also need some help and she could not count on finding any amongst the cowed people of Dunncraig. William had a tight grip upon all who lived at the keep and on the lands—one Robert had either not seen or been too often away at court or fighting in France to break. Robert's naivete or neglect had cost him and Sorcha their lives. Bethia had no intention of allowing James to join them in their cold grave.
"Your father was all that was brave and honorable," Bethia told little James as she entered the small, dark room they shared, "but he should have watched his home fires much more carefully, laddie."
She settled the yawning child in his cradle and sat on the edge of her small, hard bed to watch him. Sorcha's brilliant green eyes blessed his sweet little face and his hair was only a little brighter than his mother's. The envy Bethia had sometimes suffered over her sister's often acclaimed beauty now seemed petty and sad. She might have a duller, browner hair color and the curse of mismatched eyes, as well as a far less womanly figure than her sister's, but she was still alive. Sorcha's highly praised beauty and charm had always seemed such a blessing, but they had not saved her.
And she was stronger, Bethia decided as she watched the fair James fall asleep. Sorcha had been like a candle admired for its light and warmth, for the beauty of its color-rich flame, but also easily snuffed out and left cold, lifeless. She had always been more wary than Sorcha, more able to see the evil in people. It had surprised her when Sorcha had sent word asking her to come and help with James, for Dunncraig was filled with women eager and able to help care for their laird's son and heir. Bethia now wondered if, finally, some hint of suspicion or fear had crept into her sister's loving, trusting heart.
She sighed and vigorously wiped away a tear. If it had, it had come far too late. It did, however, explain Sorcha's odd choice of words in her missive. Sorcha had asked her sister to come and watch over James. Not nurse him, play with him, visit him, or aid his mother, but to watch over him. And that was exactly what Bethia intended to do.
Every breath she took, every whisper of her skirts over the rush-covered floors, made Bethia's heart skip painfully as she crept along the shadowed halls of Dunncraig. She knew how to be quiet yet that skill appeared to be failing her miserably. No outcry came, however, as she made her way through the keep and out into the bailey. It had taken her three torturous days to find a way out of Dunncraig, one she could possibly get to unseen, and it felt as if it was taking her almost as long to get to it. And every step of the way, she was terrified that James, so sweetly oblivious to the danger he was in, would make some sound that would give them away.
For each minute of those three days she had wavered between doubting her suspicions and searching for a way to flee unseen. The death of James's little puppy had brutally ended all of her doubts and suspicions. Bethia doubted she would ever know why, after blissfully eating and drinking everything brought to her and James the first day after the funeral, she had suddenly felt compelled to test the food on the second day. When the puppy had died after tasting the food, she had wept out of guilt for using the poor, trusting animal in such a way and a strange mixture of fury and fear because all of her dark suspicions had been so gruesomely proven right. The fact that she had not been able to give the little animal a burial worthy of his sacrifice only added to her anger. She now knew that the slow, painful deaths of Sorcha and Robert had been caused by poison and not by some unnamed wasting sickness as was claimed.
Finally, Bethia reached the spot she had been seeking: a small break in the wall behind the reeking stables. Robert had not only been unaware of the deadly enemies within his keep, but of the crumbling state of his keep as well. If he had seen how poorly the place was kept, he never would have left William in control of the accounts. Bethia was not sure what William and his sons were doing with the money from the lands and tenants but they were certainly not maintaining the keep they were so willing to kill for.
As she squeezed herself and James through the opening a few pieces of the crumbling wall clattered noisily to the ground. She held herself still within the opening, holding her breath as she waited for the outcry she was sure would come. It surprised her a little when there was none. Such a noise should have caused one of the men at arms to at least glance her way. As she cautiously slipped out into the night and hurried toward the woods at the far end of the surrounding fields, she felt a little more confident about her chances of escape with every step she took. The men guarding Dunncraig were obviously as lax in their duties as William was in keeping Dunncraig strong.
It was not until she entered the frightening yet welcome shadows of the forest that Bethia dared to breathe a sigh of relief. She knew it would not be long before a pursuit was begun, but she had taken the first step toward freedom and safety and she allowed a touch of hope to enter her heart. A horse would have been a great help but she had not dared to try to steal one, not even dared to retrieve the sweet little mare she had ridden in on. She would never have gotten the animal out through her tiny bolt-hole. Bethia silently promised the little mare that she would not leave her in that rotting stable any longer than necessary. Without a horse, however, if she was going to put any distance at all between herself and James and their enemies, she was going to have to do a lot of walking.
James shifted in the blanket sling resting against Bethia's chest and she idly rubbed his back as she started to walk. "Be at ease, my bonny wee laddie." She took one last look at Dunncraig, wishing she could have bid a final farewell to Sorcha, but promising that she would return. "I will see that those swine who feed out of your father's trough will soon be choking on their ill-begotten meal. And may God heartily curse all men who seek to fill their pockets with the riches of others," she whispered as she marched deeper into the wood.
"Are ye sure ye ought to go and face these people?" Balfour Murray asked his young foster brother Eric as he sat down at the head table in the great hall of Donncoill and began to fill his plate with food.
Eric smiled at Balfour, then winked at his brother's wife Maldie, who just rolled her eyes and began to eat. "We have tried every other means to gain my birthright, but everything we do is either contested or ignored. This game has been played out after thirteen long years. I grow heartily weary of it."
"I still cannae see how confronting the fools will change anything."
"It may not, but 'tis the only thing we havenae tried."
"There is still the king to turn to."
"We have tried that too, although mayhap nay as ardently as we might have. Howbeit, I think our liege would prefer nay to take any side in all of this. The Beaton lairds may have been swine, and still are, but they have ne'er angered or offended the king. The MacMillans, my mother's clan, are also on amiable terms with the king, considered loyal and able fighters. I believe I may be the proof they cannae deny. I carry the Beaton mark upon my back and many have said that I carry the look of my mother and her kin. Mayhap 'tis past time the Beatons and MacMillans see the proof with their verra own eyes."
"Do ye think the Beatons will heed the truth e'en if ye bare your back and force them to see the mark there?" asked Maldie.
"Nay, mayhap not, but it cannae hurt to try," Eric replied. "I have heard nay ill about the MacMillans. Unfortunately, I have yet to meet with one during my times at court. They may but heed the lies told by the Beatons too closely. Mayhap I can finally make them see the truth."
"Ye must take someone with you," insisted Balfour. "'Tis a pity Nigel went to France."
"Gisele has now born him three bonny bairns. 'Twas past time they were shown to their kinsmen in France."
"Aye, I ken it. If ye can but wait until my work is done, I could come with ye or Nigel may have returned."
"This is my fight, Balfour, and mine alone."
It took Eric the rest of the evening and most of the next day to convince Balfour that this was indeed something he had to do alone. Neither of them feared any real threat from the Beatons or the MacMillans, for they and their quarrels were all too well known to the king. Any harm coming to Eric on the lands of either family would bring a swift and harsh response and both families knew it. There were other dangers in traveling alone, however, and Balfour did not hesitate to list them in gruesome detail.
He was still listing them three days later when Eric was leading his packed horse out of the stables. "A mon to watch your back wouldnae be a bad thing," he said, frowning as Eric just smiled and mounted his black gelding Connor.
"Nay, it wouldnae," agreed Eric, pausing to tie his long, thick reddish gold hair back with a wide strip of blackened leather. "Howbeit, ye have more need of able-bodied men than I do. I can care for myself, Balfour. I dinnae go to do battle and I think I can fight off a thief or two or e'en outrun them. Cease mothering me," he added gently.
Balfour grinned. "Go on your way then, but if ye meet with more trouble then ye can deal with, pause at an inn and send back here for a mon or two. Or return and we will set off in more force when the work in the fields is done."
"Agreed. I will be certain to send word of how I fare."
"'Tis best that ye do, for if we havenae heard from ye in what we feel is too long a time, we will come hunting for you. Go with God," Balfour added as Eric rode through the gates.
Eric waved, then continued on. He was torn many ways about what he was doing. What he sought was indeed his birthright, yet it galled him to have to go and beg for it. Balfour had gifted him with a small peel tower and some land to the west of Donncoill. At times he felt strongly inclined to cease trying to get what was not willingly being offered, to just go and make a life at the peel tower. Then his sense of what was right and fair rose in his breast and he went back to struggling to gain his birthright.
There was also the often ignored fact that he was not a Murray by blood. The ties were as strong and had been deepened by his half sister Maldie's marriage to Balfour, but legally the Murrays owed him nothing, did not have to provide for him in any manner at all. But they did. They called him brother and they meant it. That made the refusal of the Beatons and the MacMillans to accept him as kin all the more infuriating. Eric had a right to all that had been his mother's and his father's. In his heart he knew he could never be anything but a Murray, but he intended to retrieve all that had been stolen from him by the lies of the Beatons. If his blood kinsmen wanted to fight over it, then fight he would. For thirteen years, since they had learned the truth about his birth, they had clung to the gentle, diplomatic way. Now was the time for confrontation.
It took him only a few hours to reach the gates of the Beatons' keep. Although he was not surprised when they refused him entry, refused to even speak to him, he was disappointed. His father's cousin had slipped onto the lands within days after his father's death and clearly intended to stay. Sir Graham Beaton was as cruel and as clever as his father had been and, if only for the sake of the long-suffering people who lived in and around the keep, Eric would like to see the man unseated from his stolen lands, but it was clear now that that would take a fight.
As he rode away, struggling to ignore the insults flung from the walls, he decided to continue on to the MacMillans'. If he could win his battle for recognition there, he would have more men, more power, and more money with which to fight the Beaton usurper. Eric suspected that Sir Graham knew the truth and thought that, by refusing to look closely or heed any of the calls to surrender the stolen lands, he could hold on to his riches. An alliance through blood with the more favored MacMillans might be just enough to force the man to admit the truth, to concur with all he fought to deny and decry as lies. Eric became even more determined to win the favor of his mother's kinsmen. It now meant more than the legal winning of his birthright. It could easily mean the final ousting of a long line of despicable Beaton lairds.
Bethia swallowed a sudden welling of tears as she held the ornate silver quaich up to James's mouth and let him sip at the water it held. The small, shallow drinking cup, its two handles beautifully carved with an old Celtic design, had been her sister's wedding cup. Their father had spent a great deal of money on it and had searched long and hard for the best craftsman to make it. To hear Sorcha's child ask for his mother as he drank from that treasured memento made Bethia's heart clench with a sorrow she had not yet had time to deal with.
Excerpted from Highland Promise by Hannah Howell. Copyright © 1999 Hannah Howell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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"Those who enjoy Ms. Howell's exuberant writing style and a well-drawn Scottish setting should not miss Highland Promise." -Romantic Times