Highlander Entangled – Jayne Castel

YE ARE A burden to me, woman. I cannot wait to be rid of ye.” Maggie glanced up from spreading honey onto a wedge of bannock, her gaze alighting on her uncle’s truculent face. Indeed, Graeme Ross’s expression across the table matched the bitterness of his words this morning. He’d been reading a missive that had just been delivered by one of his men. Maggie thought him engrossed in it, so this outburst caught her by surprise. However, his sentiment hadn’t. Her uncle made no secret that he didn’t want her at Caisteal Nan Corr—a widower himself, he’d never shown any pity for the fact that she still mourned her husband. Graeme’s thick fingers clenched around the parchment he’d just rolled back up. Glaring, he picked up the scroll and waved it at her. “And finally, the moment has come. The king has called a council of the northern chiefs at Inverness. I’m going … and so are ye. If I can’t find a man who’ll take ye off my hands there, I never will.” Cold washed over Maggie.

Slowly, deliberately, she lowered the knife she’d been using. The news that King James was calling the Highland lairds to parliament wasn’t surprising—the feuding had gotten out of control in the last few years—however, her uncle’s callous words reminded her, yet again, of how little value she was to him. “I don’t wish to wed, uncle,” she said, her voice cool and low. How many times had she told him this? And yet he refused to heed her. “And if my presence here offends ye so, I can go to Iona and take my vows.” This comment earned her a snort of derision. “Like yer fair sister?” His mouth twisted then. “Traitorous slut that she is!” Maggie sucked in a deep breath. Her sister’s behavior hadn’t pleased her either, although his language was unnecessarily vulgar. Rhianna, who’d been an oblate at Iona nunnery, had run off with her lover.

Even months later, the Highlands still whispered of the great scandal that the ‘Jewel of the Highlands’ had caused. Right now, Rhianna should have been wed to Connor Mackay of Farr—but instead, she’d worked a deception with a woman named Keira Gunn, who agreed to wed Mackay in her place. And even more incredible, Keira Gunn was still wed to the chieftain. Her ruse had been exposed last autumn, at Samhuinn, yet Connor Mackay had surprised everyone by taking her home with him, and it was rumored she now carried his bairn. Graeme Ross had raged about the outcome for weeks afterward. And even now, any mention of Rhianna—who was yet to be found—soured his mood. “The nunnery is out of the question,” her uncle continued, waggling that damn missive at her as if she were an errant bairn. “The prioress is a greedy woman and demands a ‘gift’ from me to the nunnery. Thanks to the actions of yer sister, the sum she requires is greater than that of two dowries.” His gaze narrowed, boring into her, as he continued.

“At Inverness, ye are to find yerself a husband from one of the allied clans … a man of land and influence.” Maggie glared back at him. The chill that had settled in the pit of her belly now turned into a dull ache. Her uncle spoke as if she had some value as a wife. But they both knew she didn’t. Aye, she had a pretty face and a good figure—but she couldn’t bear children. Not now. “And will such a man want a woman who is barren?” she asked, her voice clipped. Graeme Ross’s meaty fist slammed down upon the table, causing the entire solar where they sat breaking their fast to shudder. “Ye will keep that detail to yerself, niece,” he barked.

“I will not have ye ruining this chance.” He gestured to the doorway then. “Go on, get out of my sight. We leave at first light tomorrow, and I expect ye to pack yer prettiest kirtles.” His gaze raked over her then. “Put away that crow’s garb. I don’t want to see ye wearing it again.” Of course, he was referring to the widow’s black that Maggie had worn ever since her husband, Campbell, had died. When Maggie didn’t move, her uncle’s face turned an ugly red. “Go … now,” he growled, “before I take ye by the ear and drag ye upstairs.

” Jaw clenched, Maggie rose to her feet and walked stiffly from the solar. However, instead of going upstairs to her bed-chamber to begin packing, she picked up her skirts and fled from the tower house. Ignoring the curious glances from the men who were shoeing horses in the bailey, Maggie ran across the cobbled space and through a wide stone arch out into the meadows beyond. The small, rectangular hold behind her sat upon an island surrounded by a swift river that flowed into a kyle to the east. Breathing hard, Maggie took the path through the rippling grass and wildflowers to where a wood bridge spanned the River Corr. She halted in the middle of the bridge and leaned against the siding, her fingers curling around the rough wooden edge. It was a glorious spring morning. The sun was warm upon her back, the sky above was robin’s egg blue, and the air smelled sweet with the promise of the coming summer. Yet Maggie barely noticed it, such was her turmoil. “Curse ye, uncle,” she muttered to the croaking frogs, and to the dragonflies that flitted amongst the reeds beneath the bridge.

“Ye will not marry me off like a fattened ewe.” Her throat constricted then as thoughts of Campbell Munro surfaced. Her breathing quickened. Her husband had been gone two years now, killed in a skirmish against the Sutherlands—but she still missed him with a constant ache in her chest. She’d only just physically recovered from losing their bairn—and was still coming to terms with the devastating news that she could never bear another child—when he’d ridden out on that fateful day. She’d never forget the last time she saw her husband. He’d turned in the saddle, the wind whipping the dark hair around his face, and smiled at her. Campbell had then raised a hand in farewell. A moment later, he’d been gone, the tattoo of his horse’s hooves echoing through the crisp morning air. Tears stung the back of Maggie’s eyes at the image burned there.

They weren’t just tears of grief and regret—but of anger. She was tired of her uncle’s callous treatment. She was tired of feeling as if she was an encumbrance. If Campbell’s kin had welcomed her, she’d have stayed with the Munros. However, after his death, they’d asked her to leave. And she’d found herself back here, the place where she’d grown up. A place full of memories of her parents and sister. All of them were gone now, and although her sister wasn’t dead, she might as well have been. She’d never been close to Rhianna; the pair of them had always clashed, but after her escape from the nunnery, her sister was truly lost to her. Maggie had never felt so alone.

But even so, she wouldn’t bend to Graeme Ross’s bullying ways. He could shout, threaten, or even raise his fists to her, but it would make no difference. “I will wed no one,” she vowed aloud to the rushing waters beneath the bridge. “Uncle can drag me to Inverness and parade me before the chieftains, but he can’t make me take another husband. I will not. I cannot.” 2 A MEETING IN THE BAILEY Inverness, Scotland THE SIGHT OF the castle, its crenelated walls and towers outlined against the rose-pink sky, made a relieved smile curve Morgan Mackay’s lips. At last. The journey from Farr Castle in the far north-west of the Highlands to Inverness had taken longer than usual—for their party was a large one. Morgan was looking forward to a tankard of ale and a comfortable bed.

He slowed his courser to a walk and glanced down at where his wolfhound, Gritta, loped next to him. After a long day’s travel, the dog’s pink tongue lolled from its mouth. Just like him, the hound would be grateful to reach Inverness. Morgan’s gaze lifted once more to the fortress rising before him. Perched high above the eastern banks of the River Ness, just south of the cluster of peaked roofs that was Inverness town, the castle commanded a panoramic view. A flag—a white cross upon a blue background—fluttered from one of the towers in a gentle breeze. It was the flag of Saint Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland. Morgan’s smile faded a little at the sight of it. Scotland. Sometimes he felt as if this land were merely a colony of England.

Over the last century, too many puppets had sat upon the Scottish throne. Their current ruler, James, wasn’t one of those—as he was the rightful heir of the House of Stewart— but he’d lived for many years as an English hostage. James had only been permitted to take the throne once King Henry of England deigned to release him. Morgan’s brow furrowed. In truth, he had little loyalty to Scotland. It was his clan he cared about. The Mackays were everything to him. His allegiance to his clan-chief would always come first. “I know that look.” A voice drew him from his introspection.

Morgan tore his attention from the castle to see his brother, Connor, watching him intently. “Ye are imagining stabbing yer dirk into George Gunn’s belly, aren’t ye?” Morgan snorted. He hadn’t been, although the thought certainly appealed. “I may not need to,” he replied with a grin, “if the king deals that bastard out the punishment he deserves.” “Just as long as we’re left alone,” Connor said, his tone dry. Morgan cocked an eyebrow. “The Mackays of Farr won’t be dealt any harsh justice.” Connor held his gaze. “Why’s that? We fought at Harpsdale like the others.” “Aye … and we lost our laird,” Morgan replied.

His mood shadowed at these words. They were a reminder of that brutal day nearly a year ago now, when the Mackays and the Gunns had clashed—a vicious slaughter that had yielded no victor. A slaughter that had taken their father. “Aye, but will that be punishment enough for the king?” Connor asked, his voice suddenly subdued. He too would be remembering the sight of Rory Mackay screaming as he doubled over in agony. The memory would haunt Morgan till the end of his days. He held his brother’s gaze, troubled by the thought that Connor, as chieftain of the Mackays of Farr, might be punished for their family’s role in the feuding with the Gunns. “It should be.” The brothers fell silent then, the ‘clip-clop’ of their horses’ hooves the only sound upon the narrow road that ran alongside the sparkling waters of the Ness. They led a party of twenty, with a cart bringing up the rear.

Connor urged his roan stallion, Thunder, into a swift canter, leading the way toward the castle. Morgan followed upon his dapple-grey gelding, Archer. The party left Castle Road now, taking the steep path that led to the gatehouse above. The gates were open this evening and the portcullis raised, for they wouldn’t be the only travelers arriving. The first session of parliament had been called for the following noon. Clattering into the outer bailey—a wide, cobbled space flanked by low, thatched stone buildings —the Mackays drew up their lathered mounts. A number of men and horses already filled the bailey. The Mackays of Farr wouldn’t be the only members of their clan in attendance either. Morgan wondered if their clan-chief had arrived yet from Castle Varrich. “We should be just in time for supper,” his cousin Kennan announced, swinging down from his horse.

“Always thinking of yer belly, husband,” Kennan’s wife chastised with an arch smile, as he helped her down from her palfrey. “Aye, lass … and of yers.” Kennan cupped Cait’s gently curving stomach. She was two moons gone with bairn, but unlike Connor’s wife, Keira, who had made the journey in a cart at the back of the escort, Cait had insisted she could ride to Inverness. She’d spent the day traveling alongside Jaimee, Morgan’s sister. Connor dismounted his stallion and strode to the cart, helping his pregnant wife disembark. Keira was very evidently ‘with bairn’. However, the babe wasn’t due for another three months yet, and so Connor had allowed his wife to accompany them on this journey. Still seated astride Archer, Morgan observed the tenderness and care his brother took with Keira. Her gaze gleamed as she wrapped her arms around Connor’s waist and raised her face for a kiss.

Smiling down at her, Connor reached out and brushed a lock of golden-brown hair off his wife’s cheek. The pair had been wedded around seven moons, yet the bond between them was something that made even Morgan take notice. He’d never seen the like. Morgan smiled at the irony of how things had turned out. He had no problem with Keira these days, although the ruse she’d woven in order to wed his brother had been difficult to pardon at first. Keira was a Gunn, a member of one of the clans they’d been feuding with for years now. Not only that, she’d married Connor while pretending to be a woman named Rhianna Ross. The ruse had been exposed at Samhuinn, and the aftermath had shocked them all. Connor had been supposed to deliver Keira back to her kin at Camster broch on Gunn lands. But upon meeting with the woman’s awful parents, he’d changed his mind and taken her home to Farr Castle instead, where he’d eventually found it in his heart to forgive her.

Averting his gaze, as Connor and Keira kissed, Morgan’s smile turned wistful. He didn’t covet his brother’s wife—and indeed didn’t wish for a wife at all—but there was something about their happiness that made his carefree existence seem a little hollow. Shrugging off the thought, Morgan loosed his feet from the stirrups and stroked Archer’s sweaty neck. Wedded bliss be damned, what he needed at present was a tall tankard of ale and a plate of food. Kennan was right: they were in time for supper. He was about to swing down from his horse and lead Archer into the stables, when barking erupted behind him. Morgan tensed. Gritta. Supper temporarily forgotten, he twisted in the saddle, his gaze traveling to the opposite side of the outer bailey. Maggie didn’t usually mind dogs.

But this one was a huge beast, with a grizzled, grey coat and a snarl that turned her pony witless. Tired after the long journey, she’d followed her uncle’s party into the outer bailey and had been about to dismount when the hound appeared from nowhere. The dog’s barking echoed off the surrounding stone now as it bounded toward them. An instant later, Walnut, Maggie’s sturdy garron, let out a shrill whinny and reared. Cursing, Maggie threw herself forward, clutching at Walnut’s coarse mane. But it was too late. Her placid Highland pony never reared, but today—in the face of the hell-wolf—he did. The next thing Maggie knew, she was pitched backward, off the garron’s back and into the air. She hit the cobbles hard, falling on her side, and just missed being trodden on by one of Walnut’s large feathered hooves. The garron danced sideways and kicked out at the wolfhound’s snapping jaws.

Winded, pain-lancing down her right-side, Maggie lay there, while around her the outer bailey rang with angry male voices and the clatter of startled horses’ hooves. “Gritta!” A powerful male voice cut through the rest. “Stand down!” Maggie watched dust-covered boots stride past her, and then the snarling subsided to a yelp. Clenching her jaw, she rolled onto her back to see a tall man with shaggy dark-blond hair haul the hound back from her pony and scruff it. Submissive now, the beast cowered before he sent it scampering off across the bailey. Only then did the dog’s owner glance her way. Piercing green eyes, the color of a pine-thicket, met her gaze.

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