Highlander’s Spirited Bride – Lydia Kendall

CONNAN MACLAREN PACED the front of the room, with his hands buried deep in his pockets as the screams he heard through the closed doors pierced through him. Unable to stand any more of the tension, he walked away from the door and headed down the corridor of the second landing far away from the room where his wife lay tossing and struggling to birth their baby. A storm raged outside, rain splashing against the windows, and thunder rumbled through the night’s air, but the screams pierced him harder than any other sound and he couldn’t stand it. Matilda’s labor had come the day before, and the entire clan awaited the good news. He was sure their child would have the same rare emerald eyes she did, and its head would be full of the same dark locks she had. It would have her smile, soothing voice, and calm nature and he would cherish them both until he was gray. He stopped walking down the corridor when he heard the sudden cries of the newborn, and the door far behind him pushed forward as the mid-wife stepped out. He walked back toward her briskly, and with wide eyes stared at her outstretched hands. His entire body shook with the need to see his wife and child but there was a pale look on the woman’s face. She held the baby wrapped in her arms, her cheeks were tearstained as she handed over the crying babe to him. He swallowed, his throat tight as the babe continued to bawl and struggle against the linens wrapped around its body. “It’s a son,” the woman whispered, smiling, with tears in her eyes and he smiled back. He had a son, a wee lad with dark hair just like he expected. “Matilda?” he asked, and her smile withered. “How is Matilda?” “I am sorry,” she replied, her voice cracking to give way to her tears.

Connan hurried through the door, holding tightly to his son, and stopped in his tracks. He flinched at the sight before him. The white sheets were draped in blood, and Matilda lay on the bed, unmoving, her skin white, and her dark long hair spread out on the pillow. “What happened?” he asked and handed over the babe to the healer so he could approach the bed slowly. Connan couldn’t comprehend the sight before him. His heart sank instantly, and he felt the pang of loss even before he neared the bed. When he did, he reached for her hands on the bed, and they were ice cold, the stiffness making him drop in the chair beside the bed. “She’s gone. I couldnae save her,” the healer said again, and fresh tears stung Connan’s eyes, threatening to spill. He lowered his head to her hand and the tears ran out of his eyes.

Connan had admired and loved Matilda from the time they were mere children racing around the fields of the castle and playing in the garden. She had possessed a strong spirit, and an easy-going nature that made them a perfect fit, but now she was gone. “Nay,” he declared and held her hands to his face. The bairn yelled, and the midwife rocked him to keep his screams down. Coupled with the heavens pouring down its contents on the fields outside, Connan’s anguished cry filled the air. “Laird,” the healer called softly, trying to offer some comfort, and he lifted his tear-filled face to her. She held out the babe to him, and he took it from her quivering hands and stared into the bluest eyes he had ever seen. The bairn stopped crying as soon as he entered Connan’s arms, and gently Connan stroked its cheeks and let out a breath. The child had a head full of black hair, and the color of eyes was a subtle shade of blue with the sweetest thread of caramel. It made Connan smile because his child had turned out to look like him.

“Get out,” he spoke softly, and the healer, alongside the other women in the room scurried out of the door. Connan dropped to the chair, rocking the babe in his arms as he stared at his wife’s pale form. “I’m so sorry, lassie,” he cried out and reached out to touch her forehead. He would never get used to this – the pain of not having Matilda by his side or hearing her laugh and play with their babe. “I am so sorry,” he cried out again, this time pressing his forehead to hers as the sobs began to wrack through him. He had vowed to protect his wife, and he had failed. There was nothing that could take the grief away at this point. He wiped his face clean, stood up, and gave Matilda one last look before walking out of the room, rocking his bairn in his arms. He handed him over to the healer, and swallowed, trying desperately to maintain a calm exterior in front of the women gathered in the chamber. She collected the babe, adjusted the linen sheets over his small body, and hurried back into the room to clean him up.

The entire clan awaited news of the bairn’s birth, but now they had lost their lady too. He had bested the finest men in all of Scotland and upheld the virtue of the clan while protecting his warriors, but he had failed the one person who mattered the most. “How do I raise a son without ye?” he muttered, still standing in the same spot, confused and torn in agony. He turned his head to see his brother standing in the corridor, his eyes wide and his expression full of questions. “She’s gone,” he whispered, and Jake, his younger brother nodded. Grief ravaged his voice when he spoke, but the man struggled to keep his emotions at bay. “The bairn is healthy?” Jake asked in a gruff voice, and Connan rocked back on his feet and nodded. He walked beside Jake, and they headed out of the castle. The rain had subsided, but the breeze outside made it evident that the skies would still spill more contents before dawn. It was a night he could never forget and even as the rain continued to pour, he could imagine Matilda’s face and smile hovering before his eyes.

He made up his mind there and then. “Burn the chamber,” he said, his voice raw, as he rubbed his face, and raked his hands through his hair again. “I never want to talk of or remember this day again,” he added. C H A P T E R 1 SIX YEARS LATER APRİL RUSHED OUT of her brother’s chambers, and ran down the stairs, heading back to the stables to get Fray, her horse. She was livid, her hands quivering from the news she had just received, and her eyes burned with tears. She did not wish to be married to some man she barely knew, far away from her home, and her friends. She hated Alexander for this. Her older brother was controlling her life. As she climbed the mare’s back, and kicked, tugging the reins towards her so it responded, she could almost see Samuel’s mocking sneer. Growing up with her other brother, Samuel, she had learned how to play the same tricks he played on her countless times.

He is proud, my brother, and I am certain this marriage was his idea. “Wallops,” she muttered to herself and continued to gallop away. The green fields of the Crieff lands were where April loved to spend the afternoons, taking her time to ride on Fray’s back until she was soaked in sweat and exhausted. She loved to ride after good rain, and with the heavy downpour last night coupled with the news her brother had delivered, April had known she needed a ride. She reached to her side for the bow and arrow she used in hunting. She never went riding without it in case she felt the need to let out some steam, and today was just the right day to let off plenty of steam. Eyes still burning with unshed tears, she stopped strutting when she sighted a moving object in the fields. She pulled the arrow, and aimed, trying to steady her nerves, but thoughts ran through her mind and all April could think of was the news her brother had delivered. What if he’s a thrawn? What if he’s nasty? She couldn’t stand being married to a man of such attributes and she didn’t know this man: Laird Maclaren. Alexander spoke highly of him, and with respect too, and that made her curious, but she wanted more than just to be a mother of bairns and a wife to some laird keeping a household.

She wanted her own clan, her own keep, and her own future. What she wanted was more of a partnership than the arrangement Alexander was forcing her into without prior notification. She sucked in a deep breath to steady her racing nerves again, she shot at the animal, heard it ruffle through the bushes, and she jumped down from her horse’s back and raced towards it. When she surfaced from the bushes later, she held a small rabbit in her hands. “Dammit,” she cursed beneath her breath, frustrated that all she could land was a small game. She had hunted much bigger animals and had gotten praises from the men in the castle for being good at every activity a man did. Angry, and frustrated, April dropped to her knees on the floor. The tears burning the back of her eyelids gushed out unexpectedly staining her freckled cheeks. She hated the subjection surrounding women like herself and wished there were a way to escape her brother’s plan of marrying her off because he thought it could tame her, but she had no other choice. Once he met with the rest of the clan, the deed was done, and in seven days she would be carted off to another castle and delivered as a birthday gift to some strange man.

What sort of man will he be like? C H A P T E R 2 THE LOUD WAİLS of the lad filled the corridors of the gray colored Mullinton castle, and it was followed by the sounds of the healer talking soothingly to the boy. “Ony speirins?” Connan asked in his brogue dialect, and Jake shook his head before pushing the door open gently to peer inside the room. Connan followed suit and walked into the room to see the healer pressing a wet napkin to the lad’s forehead. “The fever?” he asked, needing no more words. She shook her head and lowered her gaze from his. “He keeps cryin’. I daenae ken what’s wrong,” she replied and shifted aside for Connan to see his son on the bed. Six-year-old Jasper Maclaren was every bit the boy his father had expected him to grow into. He did not look so much like his mother, and Connan regretted that a bit because he would have wished to keep a part of Matilda alive. “What’s wrong, lad?” he asked his son and touched his forehead.

The boy sniffed and dabbed at his eyes once he got his father’s attention. Connan dropped on the bed, pulling him closer. He breathed out and let the boy rest against his body. “Is there somethin’ ye want?” Jasper shook his head, but instead, he wrapped his hands on his father’s neck and buried his face in his chest. The illness Jasper recently recovered from had left the entire clan on edge, and voices were raised concerning the state of affairs of the keep. They couldn’t wait the long years for Jasper to come of age and get them a lady, so his trusted men and even his brother had suggested Connan wed. The search for a bride was a quick one and soon enough he had stumbled on the bonny lass from the Highlands clan of Dumfries. Although Alexander had initially refused the proposal, warning to be wary of his younger sister and her knack for causing trouble, Connan had only been intrigued by all he heard. There’s no lassie that cannae be tamed, he had told the Laird. “We’re havin’ guests today and I daenae want ye greetin’ them like a weaklin’,” he said in a soft voice as Jasper raised his head to look at him.

“Young lairds daenae cry,” he added. “Aye, papa,” Jasper replied with a nod, and Connan ruffled his hair bringing a smile to his lips before getting up. The boy wiped his face, and Connan walked out of the room beside his younger brother, Jake, heading outside of the building. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, and after the rains in the previous week, Connan knew the summer had finally arrived. He loved this time of the year when he could wander the fields around the village alone and bask in the awe-inspiring sunset in the evenings. The entire clan was looking forward to the feast tonight and meeting his brideto-be, wondering what she would be like. He also could not help but think of her himself. A beautiful woman with brains, or an annoyin’ one with a sharp tongue? He didn’t care much for her physical looks as he had no intentions of bedding her, but he cared a lot about her mental ability because his son would learn a lot from her. He wanted a woman to care for Jasper and spend time with him while he was busy. As if reading his mind, Jake asked.

“Do ye ken what yer bride-to-be is like? I always thought if ye would re-marry, it’d be to a bonny lassie from our clan.” “I never planned to remarry and I’m only doin’ this because Jasper needs to have a maither.” “What if she’s bonny and ye fall for her?”

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