Her Reluctant Highlander Husband – Allison B. Hanson

If he could only take that final step, it would all be over. Bryce MacKinlay Campbell, war chief of Clan MacKinlay, balanced himself on the edge of the battlements for a few seconds longer before stepping back to safety. He’d been here many times over the ten years since he’d lost his wife and child, and each time he’d been unable to take that fatal action. While the grief still haunted him, he couldn’t force fate’s hand and join them. Kicking the immovable buttress, he slid to the stones and let his head hang. Letting his misery wash over him. “You think it’s weakness that keeps you from ending it, but it’s not. It takes strength to stay and do what needs done.” Lachlan MacKinlay, laird of Clan MacKinlay, was the last person Bryce wanted to see at the moment. “Only if what needs doing is at your order,” Bryce grumbled. Lach was his younger cousin, though they’d been like brothers. He’d thought the man would always have his back, but it turned out Bryce was wrong about that. They’d not always agreed on how things should be, but there had always been respect between them. Bryce’s respect had faltered when his laird had ordered him to wed. Bryce had considered for a time returning to the Campbells where his father still lived.

His mother had been a MacKinlay, and when she’d passed he’d come to Dunardry to live with his uncle. He’d never regretted his decision to stay. Until now. “I know ye think I only have one motive for forcing this marriage on you, but you’re wrong. It’s more than a simple alliance with the McCurdy clan to gain access to a port. I do it for you as well.” “Please don’t offer me any favors, laird. You know well enough, I dinna want to marry ever again. I had a wife I loved. Making me take another is a sure way to promise two people are miserable for the rest of their lives.

” “Or…it could be a new start. You may have lost Maggie and Isabel, but you’re still alive. Perhaps it’s time for ye to start living.” “I’m alive, yes, but without a heart to give to another. It’s not fair to this McCurdy lass to strap her to a husband who’s hollow and broken inside.” “I would ask you not to be cruel to her because you’re angry at me.” Bryce’s head snapped up at the insult. “I may not be able to toss myself over the battlements, but I’ll give you a mighty shove if you dare suggest I would do such a thing to an innocent girl.” “I know you wouldn’t intentionally. But I also know well what can happen when one is not happy about being wed.

” “You’re the one I’m unhappy with,” Bryce reminded his cousin. “Fair enough.” He held up his hands in surrender. “Then if you can see to treat her decent, I don’t think she’ll ask for much else. You can be sure it would take a lot for her new home to be as unpleasant as living with the McCurdys.” “Mayhap she’s just as horrible as her kin.” The McCurdys were known across the Highlands as the worst that man had to offer. Lach shook his head and held his hand out to assist Bryce to his feet. “I was told she is a quiet lass.” Bryce snorted at the word lass.

He knew she’d come of the age to marry two years ago when Lach had planned to marry her to Cameron, only to have their other cousin wiggle his way free of the arrangement. It meant Bryce’s new bride had only recently turned eighteen. Making him thirteen years older than she. “She’s a child,” Bryce complained, though she was the same age he’d been when he’d married an even younger Maggie. It wasn’t that his intended was so young, but that Bryce felt so terribly old. It had been a lifetime ago that he’d been a happy groom looking down at his bride’s shy smile. “She’s a woman,” Lach argued. “She’ll cause you no problems. Will you not give her a chance?” That was the problem. If he allowed someone the chance, they might break through the walls he’d built to protect himself from feeling such pain ever again.

He cared for his cousins and their growing families. Lach’s three boys and Cam’s wee lass were blessings that brought a smile to his face whenever he had the occasion to be around them. Though he made sure that occasion came rarely. Bryce’s attention was drawn below by the sound of a wagon and horses entering the bailey. The man in the front carried a banner with the McCurdy arms. “I must go greet our guests,” Lach said. “If you’re not planning to throw yourself to your death, perhaps you’ll come with me.” “I’ll never forgive you for this.” “I didn’t expect forgiveness.” Lach frowned.

“I carry many burdens for the sake of my clan. One more is not so much. Though I do hope it turns out well for you.” Lach couldn’t understand how Bryce felt. His wife, Kenna, was healthy. His children hearty and full of energy. He’d never lost those who were most precious to him. He’d never been broken the way Bryce had. When Bryce had come home to find Maggie and Isabel in their beds, dead for days from a fever, his heart had been shattered into pieces so small there was no way to mend it. He hated to chain Dorie McCurdy to the impossible task of finding happiness as his wife.

With another longing look over the edge, he turned to go face his future. … When the wagon stopped, Dorie’s brother, Wallace, grabbed her ankle to yank her down. His efforts tore her already ratty dress. She winced more at having her bare leg exposed to the cool morning air than any worry over the dress. What was another rip in the tattered hem anyway? She was certain whoever she was here to marry would take one look at her and send her away. She couldn’t wait to see her father thwarted at whatever foul plan he was attempting with this clan. Not that he’d know immediately since he hadn’t deigned to come to her ill-fated wedding. Two days ago, she’d been pulled from her prison of a room and scrubbed clean by maids who had dressed her in this sorry excuse for a gown. Her brother had thrown her in the wagon after her uncle appraised her with a frown and a grunt. She hadn’t expected anything different.

The McCurdys hated her. So much so that she’d been kept in her room for the last nine years. The windows of her makeshift prison had been boarded up after her first attempt to escape. Her life had consisted of the few books she owned and the single visit per day by a silent maid who brought her meals and tidied her room. Neither of them spoke, but a few times they’d exchanged a smile. Twice over the years, men had entered her room with the purpose of doing her harm, but her brother had stopped them. Not out of brotherly regard, but with the reminder that she was to remain chaste so she could be bartered at some point. Apparently the time had come. She had heard her brother and cousins speaking of a wedding during the journey. She had no idea what clan she was to be married off to or who her husband would be.

But surely her life couldn’t be any worse than it had been these last nine years since her mother passed. Thoughts of her mother brought a strained smile to her face. She might not look like much in the ragged dress, but her mother had always said a smile was all she needed to be beautiful. Perhaps her smile would enchant her new husband into keeping her so she wouldn’t be sent back to Baehaven Castle and that small room with no windows. “Stop that. You look a fool,” Wallace said, giving her a firm shake. Her smile fell along with her hope of any chance for a better life. Whatever husband waited for her here did so because of an arrangement her father would surely default on. It wouldn’t be long before her unsuspecting groom realized he’d been tricked and would punish her for her father’s crimes. Of which there were many.

Dorie might have spared the man this fate, but she knew she would remain silent. Silence was safe. … When Bryce entered the hall in his best shirt and his hair combed, he found the small gathering waiting by the hearth. Other than two servants there were no other women with their group. For a moment his chest relaxed. Perhaps his bride had abandoned him. He’d be glad to be spared this duty. It would save them both a lot of misery. Lach might be able to force him to marry for an alliance, but the laird couldn’t force Bryce to live with her or get a bairn on her. It would be a marriage contract in name only.

A binding to gain access to a seaport from the McCurdys and nothing more. Lach, Cam, and the priest were frowning when he arrived. “What’s the matter? Did the lass flee?” Bryce couldn’t help a slight smile. “Nay. She’s there with her maid.” Bryce glanced over at the woman young enough to be Dorie McCurdy. A tall stick of a girl who looked as if she hadn’t eaten a good meal in ages. Her midnight hair longed for a comb, and her blue eyes darted around as if ready for an attack. He’d noticed her as he’d approached, but thought her a maid for how poorly she was dressed. He knew the McCurdys were hurting for coin, but surely they could spend the money on a clean dress for the laird’s daughter on her wedding day.

The gown wasn’t even made for her, as evidenced by the way the hem fell well above her thin ankles. He groaned when he noticed her bare feet. A twitch of sympathy coiled in his stomach before he reined it in. No emotions. None but anger. “For the love of all that’s holy, what is going on here?” Bryce asked, quickly murmuring an apology when the priest gave him a look for his blasphemy. “She’s no shoes.” “Aye.” Lach frowned and pulled him aside to whisper, “She’s got nothing except the dress on her back, and I don’t think that’s hers, either.” “My Mari wasn’t better dressed when I married her,” Cam offered.

“In fact, she had no shoes, either. Perhaps it’s a good omen.” “Marian had been on the run from the British for months. This lass is being delivered to her planned wedding by her family,” Lach said with a wave. “Kenna offered to find her a better dress and shoes, but her brother won’t have it. He wants the wedding done with as quickly as possible.” “And you don’t think that speaks of something underhanded?” Cam asked. Before Lach could answer, the McCurdy heir, Wallace, stepped up with his two cousins behind him. “Is this the groom?” the man bellowed. “Let’s get on with it.

Before the MacKinlay breaches another arrangement like the last time.” The younger men with him chuckled at the man’s snide comment. Cam took a step toward the strangers, but Lach put out his arm to stop his progress. “Father,” Lach said to the priest. “Let’s commence with the service so our guests can return home as soon as possible.” A few moments later everyone was sorted out and Bryce stood in front of his bride, who stared back at him openly with wide eyes. Eyes the color of the perfect September sky he’d observed earlier while standing on the battlements. He swallowed and looked away. The lass was pretty enough despite her condition. A few good meals and a bath and she’d be much improved.

Not that he cared. He planned to see her to his cottage in the village and be done with her. He’d stay in his small room in the keep. He’d give her enough of his pay to care for her better than she was currently, but she would be on her own. His duty to his clan ended with him speaking the words, “I do.”

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