Highland Knight of Rapture – Amy Jarecki

Clenching every muscle in her body, Helen bore down with her remaining shreds of strength. She’d crossed the threshold of her endurance hours ago. Pain no longer mattered. After twenty-four hours of labor, she needed to expunge this bairn from her womb if it killed her, which may very well come about. Her body shuddered as she shrieked through her grating voice box, pushing until her eyes bulged. “I…” she panted. “Cannot. Take. Anymore!” “You can!” Glenda shouted. “Just a bit longer, m’lady.” Helen sucked in a gasp of air. If she weren’t on the brink of death, she’d give her chambermaid a strong rebuttal. But before she could open her mouth, the blinding pain intensified. Panting, she gripped the bed linens and clenched her teeth so taut, they might just shatter. “Eeeeeeee,” she screeched.

“I see the head, m’lady. Keep. Pushing!” Helen loved Glenda, but by the saints, the woman had to be the spawn of the devil to encourage this mounting torture. Straining so hard her skull throbbed, Helen gulped one more deep breath and pushed. This had to be the end. Swooning, she could take no more. Stars darted through her vision. Her insides ripped and tore. Many women died in childbirth. Would she, too? Blessed Mother Mary, help me, I must survive.

Then as if her prayer had been answered, the bairn slid out between her legs. Her pain subsided. Helen collapsed against the pillows. A slap resounded through the chamber. A wee cry sang out. Helen’s heart soared. “’Tis a lass, m’lady.” She could have floated to the canopy above. Pushing the sweat-soaked hair from her brow, Helen smiled. “A wee lassie?” Joyful tears welled in her eyes.

Suddenly, all the pain and agony seemed worthwhile as the infant’s angelic voice gasped and cried. It was the most delightful sound she’d ever heard. She reached up. “I want to hold her.” “Let me finish cleansing her and then you can make the bond,” Glenda said from across the chamber. With a sigh, Helen gazed at the scarlet canopy above. She’d never been so elated, yet so exhausted. Glenda came into view, a wide grin on her careworn face. She settled the bairn in Helen’s waiting arms. “What will you call the lass, m’lady?” Helen regarded the beet-red infant yawning at her.

She had a tiny bow-shaped mouth, enormous blue eyes and a smattering of black curls atop her head. “You shall be named Margaret after my mother, but I shall call you Maggie, because you are the most adorable wee bairn I have ever seen.” She kissed the top of her daughter’s head. “And your second name shall be Alice after my younger sister. I like the sound of Alice ever so much.” With a fragrance as fresh as morning’s dew, Maggie turned her head toward Helen’s breast and nudged. “She can smell your milk, m’lady.” Glenda untied Helen’s linen shift and opened the front. “Hold Maggie to your teat. She’ll ken what to do.

” Helen moved the bairn in place, and just as Glenda had said, Maggie started to suckle. But it burned. Alarmed, Helen gasped and shot a panicked look at her chambermaid. “Do not worry, m’lady. It stings a bit at first, but eases as soon as your milk starts to flow.” Again, Glenda was right and the stinging lessened as quickly as it had come on. Watching the miracle in her arms, Helen sighed. “I do not ken what I would do without you, Glenda. You are so wise with these things.” “Aye?” The chambermaid chuckled.

“Having three bairns of my own gave me all the learning I needed, I suppose.” Helen stiffened when the door opened. Her husband strode into the chamber, his heavy boots clomping over the floorboards while the sword and dirk belted at his waist clanked against his iron hauberk. She would never grow accustomed to Aleck MacIain’s harsh mien. With a bald head and black steely eyes, she’d yet to discover his compassionate side, despite five years of marriage. That the bulky man entered wearing his weapons, along with muddy boots, spoke volumes about his lack of respect for her. Though Helen’s skin crawled, she feigned a smile—the same one she always used to mask her fear. “Come meet your daughter, m’laird.” He stopped mid-stride and glared. “You mean to tell me that after five miserable years of waiting, you only manage to produce a lass?” Helen tensed and glanced to Glenda.

The chambermaid met her gaze with a frown, then snapped her attention to gathering the soiled linens. No one in the clan dared confront the Chieftain of Mingary, lest they be turned out to fend for themselves. A knot clamped in Helen’s stomach. Aleck may be a tyrant toward her, but he would respect their daughter. “She is our firstborn—a lovely, healthy bairn. ’Tis not always a misfortune for a daughter to come first. We will have other children, of that I am certain.” He dropped his gaze to her exposed breast and frowned. “I have misgivings about your ability to be successful at bearing lads, given the length of time it took to conceive a lass.” He grunted.

“At least you’ve gained some shape to your udders, though I doubt they’ll stay that way.” Helen turned her face away, heat prickling the back of her neck. Bless it, she’d just birthed his bairn and he hadn’t a kind word to say? She bit back the tears threatening to well in her eyes. A long time ago, she’d vowed Aleck MacIain would not make her weep. She’d spent every day of the past five years trying to please him—looking at every insult as another chance to better herself. But her efforts had never been enough. If only I could do something to make him like me. She regarded the helpless bairn in her arms. Hit with an overwhelming urge to protect Maggie, she pulled the comforter over the lass to shield the child and her breast from Aleck’s stare. Glenda clapped her hands.

“I’m afraid Lady Helen is very weak, m’laird. She has lost a great deal of blood and needs her rest.” Aleck’s gaze darted to the chambermaid as if about to spit out a rebuke. But his lips formed a thin line and he nodded. With one last odious look at Helen, he turned on his heel and left. Helen allowed herself to breathe. Glenda dashed to the side of the bed. “I’m ever so sorry, m’lady.” “’Tis not your fault. I kent Sir Aleck wanted a lad.

” Helen smoothed her hand over Maggie’s downy soft curls as the bairn continued to suckle. “He just doesn’t ken how precious a lass can be.” “No, he does not. I doubt he ever will.” “Wheesht, Glenda,” Helen admonished. The woman crossed her arms. “I’ll not pretend. I disprove of his boorishness, especially toward you, m’lady.” Her serving maid had never been quite so forthright. Helen should scold her further, but presently she hadn’t the wherewithal to do so.

At long last, she held Maggie in her arms and even Aleck MacIain could not quash the joy in her heart. Helen grinned. “She is beautiful, is she not?” “A more precious bairn does not exist.” Glenda reached in. “’Tis time for her to suckle on the other side.” AFTER A FORTNİGHT LİVİNG in solitude with her newborn cradled beside her bed, a bout of melancholy attacked Helen today. Aleck had ordered the bairn to be moved from Helen’s chamber to the nursery. He’d cited the unbearable racket at all hours of the night screeching through his adjoining chamber walls. Such is the affection of my husband. The fortnight hidden away with Maggie had been a heavenly reprieve.

But even Helen knew her bliss wouldn’t last. Henceforth, Maggie’s care would be entrusted to the nursemaid and Helen would resume her duties as lady of the keep. Standing in front of her polished copper mirror, she clamped her hands to her waist and pushed in on her stays while Glenda laced her bodice. “I’m afraid I’ll have to ask the tailor to alter all my gowns.” “You’ve slimmed down a great deal since Maggie was born.” Helen regarded her bosoms, now swelling above the neckline of her blue gown. At least she was more voluptuous. Aleck seemed to prefer women with more shape. Perhaps he would now look fondly upon her. The thought, however, turned Helen’s stomach.

She’d been married to Aleck long enough to shudder any time he suggested paying a visit to her bedchamber. In addition, by his frequent derisive comments, she suspected he wasn’t overly fond of bedding her either. Alas, arranged marriages often did not come with a silver lining…or love. But Helen had a duty to her clan, and now to Maggie, and she would see to everyone’s care with forthright, if not stoic, dedication. Glenda finished tying the bodice and gave it a pat. “How is that, m’lady?” Helen released her grip and inhaled. Her head spun. “I must admit I haven’t missed wearing stays during my confinement.” The chambermaid frowned, deepening the lines in her jowls. “These new contraptions are devices of torture if you ask me.

” “True, but fashion dictates ladies must wear them.” “Aye?” Glenda placed a matching mantle of blue, adorned with gold threaded fleur de lis over Helen’s shoulders. “Next the powers above will be convincing Scottish women that iron corsets are the style.” Helen laughed. “If that comes about, at least there will be no need for women’s armor.” “Armor?” Glenda gaped, pinning Helen’s silk veil in place. “Do not tell me the women at court wear armor?” “Of course not, silly. But ladies might be a bit more secure if they did.” “Do you believe so?” The chambermaid brushed her hands along Helen’s skirts. “But isn’t that what menfolk are for?” “Aye.

” Helen turned sideways and regarded her profile in the mirror. “Though perhaps we would gain a bit more freedom to move about if we were more self-reliant.” Glenda gestured toward the door. “Sometimes I think you live in a fanciful dream.” “I suppose I do.” I would have withered under Aleck’s harsh nature by now if not for my vivid imagination. Helen picked up her skirts with a sigh. “Besides, I like my stories. They help me escape, if only for a brief interlude, and I see no harm in it.” “Nor do I.

” Glenda opened the door and bowed her head. “Enjoy the evening meal, m’lady.” Helen smiled while her stomach squelched. She dreaded rejoining Aleck at the high table. But like the books she so loved to read, her time of solace had come to an end. She stood tall and headed to the stairwell. The voices below stairs rumbled with a familiar hum, reminding her of all the duties she must resume as lady of the keep—caring for the villagers of nearby Kilchoan, and menu preparation being at the top of her list. The jumbled conversations grew stronger as did the aroma of rosemary herbed lamb. When she rounded the last few steps, she stood at the bottom of the stairwell and looked across the tapestry-lined hall. The tables, filled with her kin, were lined end-to-end forming two long rows.

She nodded to those who noticed her, then focused on the dais. Aleck presided over the throng from his oversized chair as usual, but Mary the widow sat in Helen’s seat. That the buxom woman had been invited to dine at the high table didn’t surprise her, but the fact that the pair was being openly affectionate did. Upon Helen’s confinement, Aleck had wasted no time finding a leman. Helen had felt slighted, of course, but he’d been reasonably discreet—aside from the lewd noises coming from his chamber at night. Fortunately, Helen was the only one privy to such a disturbance. Mary wrapped her arms around Aleck and mashed her breast flush against him. In fact, the woman leaned so far forward, she not only gave Aleck a peek at her wares, the clan’s highest ranking men seated at the high table could see as well. The scene was scandalous. Mary hadn’t even respectably covered her brown tresses—she was, after all, a matron.

Something must have been inordinately funny because they laughed raucously, until Aleck looked up and spotted Helen. Then he puffed out his chest as if he was proud of consorting with his leman in front of the clan. The rumble in the hall silenced. Helen lifted her chin and affected a pleasant smile. All eyes fixated on her as she proceeded to the dais. The swishing of her skirts in concert with her footsteps echoed clear up to the rafters. Aleck shifted in his seat and glared with a look Helen knew well. She was to keep her mouth shut. Mary released his arm, but remained in Helen’s chair. Lovely.

“You’re late,” Aleck groused as she neared. Ignoring him, Helen climbed onto the dais. Head held high, she strolled to the place reserved for the lady of the keep. “Good evening, Mistress Mary. My husband requested my presence in the hall this eve.” In the folds of her skirts, she clenched her fists and forced a serene expression. “I believe ’tis time to remove your person from my chair.” Aleck inclined his head to the seat at his right. “Och, Helen. Mary has already portioned her trencher.

It will not pain you to sit over here for a meal.” Heat flooded her cheeks, but she did not falter. How she’d expected him to support her assertion was beyond Helen. Clearly, he cared not about her humiliation upon arriving in the great hall to see a woman pressing her breast into her husband’s arm. Then to be swatted aside with a “sit elsewhere” was almost more than Helen could bear. She pursed her lips and slid into the chair at Aleck’s right, then looked out over the hall. Stunned faces gaped back—faces of people she’d grown to love and she hoped had also developed a fondness for her. She spread her palms and offered a gracious smile. The banter resumed and a servant placed a tankard of mead in front of her. Helen bowed her head in appreciation.

“My thanks, Roderick.” On her other side, Grant, the MacIain henchman, dipped his head politely. “’Tis good to see your bonny face this eve, m’lady.” He’d learned his manners from Glenda, his ma. Thank heavens all MacIain’s are not brutes. “I’m glad to be well enough to dine in the hall, though it was difficult to leave Miss Maggie.” “Och, the bairn will be right with Sarah. She’s a fine nursemaid.” Grant held up a trencher of bread and offered it to her. “Aye, she is,” Helen said, reaching in.

Before she could tear off a bit from the loaf, Aleck stretched in front of Helen and snatched the tray from Grant. “When I said it was time to return to your duties, I expected you to be attentive to the ram’s horn announcing the evening meal.” Helen drew back her fingers and clutched her fist to her chest. “Forgive me. I had a bit of trouble fitting into my gown. The one I wore for my confinement is now too large and this one…” She gestured downward. He arched a brow and glanced at her breasts. “I reckon a bit of fat on your bones is not a bad thing.” She pulled her mantle across her open neckline. “I was thinking of asking the tailor to let out one or two gowns to provide a bit more comfort.

” His shoulder shrugged. “Do what you must.” When he started to turn toward Mary, Helen grasped his arm. “It would be ever so nice if you would pay a visit to Maggie, m’laird. She changes every day.” Aleck brushed her hand away and gave her a steely glare. “I’ll not be visiting the nursery until there’s a wee lad occupying it. I need a son to inherit my name, not a daughter. You’d best heal fast, wife, for I’ve no option but to visit your bed again soon.” She preferred not to have this conversation in the hall, but now that he’d mentioned the bedchamber, Helen would have her say.

She leaned closer so only he could hear. “And once you return to my bed will you stop keeping company with the widow?” “Wheesht and mind your own affairs.” He grasped her hand under the table and squeezed. Hard. “I’ll not have any lassie yapping in my ear like a bitch. I need your noble arse to bear my son and that’s the last I’ll hear of it.” Suddenly not hungry, Helen pulled her hand away and rubbed her fingers. How could her brute of a husband treat her with such disdain? And how in God’s name was she to endure his boorishness for the rest of her life? Yes, her mother had always repeated the words: that which cannot be helped must be endured. But Da had treated Ma with respect, even in the beginning. Though Helen’s parents had an arranged marriage, they’d grown to love each other, and in short order, too.

Helen glanced at Aleck’s bald head. She no longer harbored hope of love ever growing between them—tolerance was the best she could hope for. But I must try harder. The big oak doors at the far end of the great hall opened with a whoosh. A sentry wearing the king’s surcoat emblazoned with an orange lion rampant stepped inside. “I’ve a missive for Sir Aleck MacIain.” The Chieftain stood and beckoned him. “Are you blind? Bring it here to the high table.” Helen huffed. Decorum would never be her husband’s strong suit.

Who on earth would not be aware the clan’s chieftain sat at the high table? And flaunting the fact by being rude only served to promote discourse among those who paid fealty to him. Aleck drummed his fingers while the man strode through the hall and climbed up to the dais with all eyes upon him. The room hummed as people mumbled, clearly impressed that a king’s man had come all the way to Ardnamurchan to deliver a missive to their chieftain. Aleck snatched the velum from the man’s fingertips and sliced his eating knife under the seal. Leaning toward the light of the enormous candelabra, Aleck knit his bushy eyebrows as he read. Helen craned her neck in a futile attempt to see the writing. “What news, m’laird?” With a frown, he shoved the missive into his doublet and looked to Grant, completely ignoring Helen’s question. “The king has requested my presence at Stirling Castle. We must leave on the morrow.” “Stirling?” Helen clapped her hands together.

“Oh it would be lovely to purchase some new fabric at the castle fete.” “Aye, but you will not be accompanying me.” Helen frowned. It was no use asking if he would bring back a bolt of gold damask. He wouldn’t do it. And making such a request would only give him another opportunity to berate her. Grant stood and bowed. “I’ll ready the men.” He looked to Aleck. “We’ll take the galley to Dunstaffnage and ride from there as usual?” “Aye.

” Helen nearly melted when she heard the henchman say Dunstaffnage. She had many fond memories of that castle. It was only a short ride from Dunollie where her sister, Gyllis, lived with her husband, Sean MacDougall. If only she could stow away on Aleck’s galley with Maggie. Helen could visit Gyllis and then travel east to Kilchurn Castle and see her mother. How wonderful such a holiday would be. She hadn’t seen her kin in years. Alas, Aleck would be in too much of a hurry to take her and Maggie to Dunollie—only four miles south of Dunstaffnage. However, in her usual mien, Helen chose to see the positive side of this turn of events. Perhaps this journey would take Aleck away for an entire month.

She smiled. Indeed, his absence was something she would welcome.

.

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