Highlander Deceived – Jayne Castel

RHIANNA WEPT AS though her heart were breaking. Head buried in her hands, her shoulders shaking from the force of her sobs, the young woman appeared oblivious to her surroundings. Similarly, the apple tree she huddled beneath, laden with rosy-cheeked fruit, paid no attention to her suffering. Keira approached her friend slowly, a frown creasing her forehead. She’d never seen Rhianna like this before. The lass was usually such lively, bright company. Keira couldn’t imagine what had reduced her to tears. Despite that the two of them had become close friends in the months since Keira had come to the nunnery, she felt as if she was intruding. Keira’s step faltered. Rhianna had clearly sought out solitude for a reason. And yet the muffled sound of her crying, which filtered across the walled garden behind the lowslung complex of stone buildings, rent at Keira’s breast like a dirk-blade. “Rhianna.” Keira stopped before the spreading apple tree. She carried a basket under one arm, as she had come into the garden this afternoon intending to pick fruit. “What is the matter?” Rhianna’s sobbing stilled, and she raised her flushed, tear-streaked face, her watery gaze fixing upon her friend.

Then, to Keira’s surprise, she gasped, “My life is over!” Keira’s pulse quickened in alarm, and she hunkered down before her friend so that their gazes were level. Like her, Rhianna wore a black habit, girded around the waist with a narrow plaitedleather belt. However, despite the drab attire, the young woman’s beauty shone like the afternoon sun above them. She had fine, aristocratic features and sea-blue eyes. Unlike the nuns here, Rhianna didn’t wear a wimple. Instead, her thick mane of golden-brown hair was tamed into a long braid down her back. Even bereft, her face mottled from crying, she was still lovely. Keira knew she didn’t look like that after she’d been weeping. Her eyes usually became puffy and raw, and her nose ran. She’d wept much since coming to live at Iona nunnery, had soaked her pillow through many a night.

Only her friendship with Rhianna had eased her sadness. As such, it pained Keira to see her best and only friend so upset. “Whatever do ye mean?” she pressed. “Has something happened?” Rhianna’s throat bobbed. “I’ve just come from seeing Mother Jean,” she replied, her voice raspy. “The day has come … my betrothed is traveling here to collect me … I will be wed.” Keira stilled. She and Rhianna had spoken little about the future over the past months. Of course, Keira knew that her friend wasn’t a novice like her, a young woman destined for a future as a nun. Instead, Rhianna Ross was an oblate, given to the nunnery by her family to watch over her and ensure her chastity until her wedding day.

“I thought yer betrothed wasn’t ready to be wed?” Keira asked weakly, disappointment a stone in her belly. Rhianna was the only good thing about this place, and now she was going to be taken from her. More tears spilled down Rhianna’s cheeks, but she knuckled them away. “My uncle has just sent me a missive. Apparently, there was a great battle between the Gunns and the Mackays over the summer … a terrible slaughter on both sides.” Keira inhaled sharply at this. She was a Gunn and knew nothing of this battle. However, oblivious to her reaction, Rhianna continued, “The Mackays of Farr lost their chieftain … which means my betrothed is now laird. He’s expected to take a wife.” It was hard to miss the bitter inflection on the word ‘betrothed’.

Keira had always been bemused at the rancor Rhianna bore a man she’d never met. It had always been her dream to marry—a dream her parents had denied her. She would have given anything to be in Rhianna’s place right now. If only her betrothed was traveling to this isle to sweep her away from this life. Swallowing down her own sadness that soon they’d be parted, and her bitterness that she wasn’t in her friend’s place, Keira reached out and took Rhianna’s hand, squeezing gently. “Ye knew this day would come,” she murmured, forcing what she hoped was an encouraging smile. “A new life at Farr Castle in the north will be far better than being stuck here. What do ye know of yer husband-to-be?” Rhianna’s beautiful features tightened, and she slowly withdrew her hand from Keira’s. “Connor Mackay is reputed to be brave and handsome … but it’s not him I want.” Keira leaned back from the vehemence on her friend’s face.

Seeing her confusion, Rhianna made a soft choking sound, her blue eyes filling with fresh tears. “My uncle had a specific reason for putting me in here,” she said finally, her gaze spearing Keira’s. “I’d grown close to one of his warriors … a man named Callum. Fearing that I’d run away with him and not honor my betrothal to Connor Mackay, uncle sent me here.” Keira gave a soft gasp. “Why haven’t ye told me this before?” Hurt twisted under her breastbone. She thought they told each other everything. Hadn’t she done so? Rhianna knew everything about Keira’s past, of how she was the youngest of six daughters—the plain one with no dowry. All Keira had ever wanted since entering womanhood was to find a kind-hearted husband to settle down and have a family with. But her parents had denied her that.

Her father, Maddoc Gunn, was a wealthy sheep farmer and wool merchant, yet marrying off his first five daughters had emptied his coffers—or so he said. There’s nothing left for ye, Keira, he’d once sneered. Not that any man would want ye. Rhianna looked away, her slender shoulders trembling as the grief that had consumed her threatened to resurge. “It was too painful,” she whispered. Her voice was so broken that Keira reached once more for her hand and squeezed tightly. “I’m so sorry,” she said. And she was. The pain on her friend’s face was difficult to look upon. “But perhaps this is for the best … ye and Callum are separated now, and yer husband-to-be will arrive soon to collect ye.

” Rhianna’s gaze snapped up, her blue eyes filled with desperation. “Callum is here, Keira. He is hiding in a cove just south of the nunnery … and I have been to see him.” Keira’s jaw dropped at this revelation. She actually rocked back on her heels and gaped at her friend. Suddenly, she felt as if she didn’t know Rhianna Ross at all. “He wants me to go away with him,” Rhianna continued, her voice low and fierce as teardrops sparkled off her long eyelashes. “But I am afraid to. My uncle’s wrath will be terrible.” “Oh, Rhianna,” Keira whispered, pity crushing her ribcage.

“How tragic for ye both … I so wish I could help ye.” The two women stared at each other, the moment drawing out. Warm sunlight bathed them, dappling through the sheltering boughs of the apple tree, while beyond, the rumble of the surf against Iona’s rocky shoreline intruded. And as their stare drew out, Rhianna’s face altered slightly. The desperation faded, and in its place, Keira caught a gleam in her wide eyes. “Perhaps ye can,” she murmured. Keira inclined her head, confused by the comment. “Excuse me?” Rhianna’s fingers clenched around hers. “I know how unhappy ye are here, Keira. No one will ever rescue ye from this nunnery.

Ye will be doomed to spend the rest of yer life here.” Rhianna’s words were a punch to the belly; Keira knew that was to be her fate, and yet the words spoken aloud like this were cruel indeed. She hated a nun’s life—the austerity of it, the endless prayers. She felt as if she were slowly being buried alive here. And Rhianna knew it. “But we could change all that,” Rhianna continued, leaning toward her. “Ye and I could swap places when Connor Mackay arrives to collect me … and then we could both go our separate ways … we could both have the lives we’ve dreamed of.” Keira knew she was now gaping at her friend like a dead carp, yet she couldn’t help herself. Were her ears deceiving her, or was Rhianna suggesting they weave an outrageous lie? “We can’t do that,” she finally gasped. “It’s wrong … and far too risky.

Connor Mackay will know he’s been tricked.” Rhianna shook her head, vehement. “No, he won’t … he’s never seen me.” “But he would have heard ye are a great beauty … and I am not!” Rhianna snorted and released Keira’s hand, batting the comment away. “Ye speak as if ye are foul to look upon.” “Maybe not, but I am no beauty.” Rhianna shook her head, negating her words. “Ye have yer own charms, Keira … and many men would find yer looks appealing.” Keira shifted back from her friend and rose to her feet. “None till now have,” she pointed out, coldness seeping into her voice.

She didn’t appreciate being flattered. Rhianna was desperate; she’d say anything to get her to agree to this folly. “That’s because men are fools,” Rhianna countered. She scrambled to her feet, dusting off her skirts. “Listen to me. This is yer chance to have the life ye have always hoped for. Ye could be a laird’s wife. Ye could have a family of yer own.” “And all the while, I’d be pretending to be someone I’m not,” Keira shot back. “I’d be living a lie.

” “Would ye prefer that … or to live here, cloistered for the rest of yer life,” Rhianna hit back, gesturing to the surrounding walls. “Think hard before ye say ‘no’ … for an opportunity like this will never come yer way again.” Momentarily rendered speechless, Keira stared back at her friend. They were both tall women and now stood eye-to-eye. Keira should have been collecting apples, but suddenly the chore was the furthest thing from her mind. Instead, Rhianna’s cutting words rang through her head. An opportunity like this will never come yer way again. “If ye won’t do it for yerself, then do it for me,” Rhianna finally broke the silence between them. Her voice had lost its force now; instead, there was a brittleness to the tone. Desperation flickered to life in her sea-blue eyes once more.

“Ye said ye wished to help me … and this is the only way.” Keira swallowed hard. Her mouth had gone dry, and her heart was racing. She couldn’t believe Rhianna was stooping to outright manipulation now. And yet, the fear she saw in her friend’s eyes was real. This wasn’t just Keira’s last chance. It was Rhianna’s too. Connor Mackay was on his way here, and once he took Rhianna away, the opportunity would be gone. Keira wet her lips. “But my parents,” she began weakly, “the prioress will send word to them … will tell them I’ve run off.

” Rhianna favored her with a sharp smile. “Aye, but they’ll never suspect that ye have taken my place. The Gunns and the Mackays have nothing to do with each other these days … except for when they’re sinking their dirks into each other’s bellies.” “And what about the Ross clan?” Keira couldn’t believe she was even discussing this. It was utter madness. And yet, she couldn’t help herself. “Surely, some of them will attend the wedding … or pay ye a visit?” Rhianna shook her head, folding her arms over her chest. “My parents are dead, and my uncle has only ever seen me and my elder sister as things to be bartered and traded. He won’t attend the wedding … and nor will he make the trip to Farr Castle.” “But ye can’t be sure of that,” Keira replied, shaking her head.

Her heart was beating so hard now, she was starting to feel a bit light-headed and queasy. “If he ever—” “I told ye he won’t,” Rhianna cut her off, taking a step closer. “That’s the thing ye and I have always had in common. Our families don’t want us … that’s why they locked us away in this place. Out of sight, out of mind. None of them care what happens to us … and that’s why it’s up to us to fight for our own future … our own happiness.” A bell started to toll then, intruding upon their exchange. Vespers. Heaviness descended upon Keira. From Lauds before dawn, till Compline after supper—the bell dominated her life.

And so it would remain. Unless she agreed to this mad plan. “It will never work,” she said finally, as the bell continued to toll. They would have to go now, or Mother Jean would reprimand them both for tardiness … again. And yet, Keira’s feet felt rooted to the spot. Sensing her indecision, her conflict, Rhianna favored her friend with a slow smile. “Aye, it will … if we do it right.”

.

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