Highlander’s Unforeseen Danger – Olivia Kerr

Maxwell! Darling…what do ye mean ye wilnae be coming to visit me again?” Lady Elsbeth Drummond clutched at Laird Sinclair’s sleeve, as though to stop him walking out of the door and out of her life forever. “Ye cannae be serious? After all we have meant to each other, it is nae possible!” Lady Drummond had long presumed she would be the woman to tame Laird Maxwell Sinclair and had made no secret of the fact that she had every expectation of becoming Lady Sinclair in the very near future. The knowledge that she was the one woman to catch and hold his cool, green-eyed stare at court made Lady Elsbeth preen herself in front of the mirror every day. Laird Maxwell looked down at his mistress’s pleading countenance with a calculating gaze. He was well aware Elsbeth had been circulating the rumor that they were to be wed, and soon at that. At the beginning of his liaison with the notorious courtesan Lady Elsbeth Drummond, he had made his intentions perfectly clear to her. “I have nay plans to settle down just yet, Elsbeth, and if I am a good judge of character, ye seek a generous man.” Maxwell had come straight to the point when he had visited her luxurious apartments in Edinburgh five years before. He had found Lady Elsbeth dressed en déshabillé and reclining at her leisure on a chaise. “I will have seen seven and twenty summers this year and find it convenient to seek a companion while I am at court. Ye are kind enough to have looked favorably upon me, Lady, and Laird Drummond, yer husband, is good enough to look the other way when it comes to yer indiscretions.” Lady Elsbeth had been on the hunt for a wealthy courtier to settle her gambling debts and share her favors alongside her husband. But to have caught the eye of the most handsome man at court was a trick worth crowing about. Every court lady, young and old, sighed and flapped their fans a little bit harder when Maxwell Sinclair strode past. He would have stood out anywhere as the kind of man with whom it would be difficult to compare to another.

Maxwell did not ape the strict court fashions at Edinburgh Castle. He wore his kilt when other men wore breeches; he refused to cut his hair or trim his beard into popular styles—keeping his face shaven or unshaven as though he was too busy to care; his wild appearance was offset by the great plaid he would casually drape over his shoulders whenever it rained. On top of all this, the reluctant courtier would frequently disappear to visit his estates up north, where it was supposed he ran free without the constraints imposed on other—tamer—men. Everything about Laird Maxwell Sinclair screamed Highlander. He did not come to court very often, and this suited Lady Elsbeth nicely; during his absences, she thought she would be able to see other men discreetly. Still, it would not do to appear too eager at first, and Lady Elsbeth had been offhand in her reply. “La-la, sir, before I reach an agreement with ye, how do I ken ye’ll keep yer side of the bargain? I have many interested parties, ye realize? How can I be sure it’s to me advantage to settle for ye?” She had been shocked by Laird Maxwell’s response. He had simply shrugged his shoulders and turned on his heel to walk out of her dressing room. Lady Elsbeth had been outraged. No man had ever turned his shoulder on her before.

She went pale, and her cheeks flushed with surprise, although it was hard to tell underneath all her ceruse and paint. “Nay, come back! I mean…can ye nae take a joke, Maxwell?” Laird Sinclair had halted his exit and turned round to face her again. “When ye come to ken me better, Lady, ye will understand I never joke in matters of business,” Maxwell had said. The implacable look on his face informed her that she should take his statement seriously. “I expect ye to be faithful to meself from the beginning to the end. I have no plans to catch the pox from ye. In return for our arrangement, ye shall have a quarterly stipend paid to ye in gold. Yer gambling debts can be paid off with this amount, and more to spare. Ye will find that I am nae ungenerous.” Lady Elsbeth had simpered and fluttered her eyelashes at the mention of gold.

“I thank ye kindly, Maxwell.” She had stared at the man standing so tall and proud in front of her and realized he had just made her the happiest woman in Scotland. For many months, her dreams had been disturbed by images of Laird Maxwell. His brooding dark good looks, hard muscular frame, and air of unattainability made him so attractive in her eyes. When he returned her gaze, Lady Elsbeth felt a shiver of excitement run through her body. She rose up from the chaise and went to stand in front of him. She knew she appeared to her best advantage in her dressing gown made out of delicately spun silk, and the white lace foamed around her shoulders provocatively. “Will ye nae care to seal our bargain with a kiss?” she had murmured in his ear. Laird Maxwell had spent a large portion of his adult life turning down women’s offers of physical intimacy, but he was more than happy to take Lady Elsbeth up on her suggestion once they had reached an understanding. He had followed her over to the chaise, and they had spent a delightful afternoon together.

Maxwell Sinclair had been content with his choice of mistress. She was amiable company and skilled in the boudoir. And Lady Elsbeth had obeyed his stipulations to the letter— that was, until Laird Drummond had died in a hunting accident six months before. It was then that Lady Elsbeth Drummond had begun to press him for more of a commitment. Laird Maxwell had no intention of marrying his mistress and had been contemplating leaving her boudoir for good even before her husband’s death. Like the noble Highland chieftain he was, Maxwell always played fair when it came to love. Once he realized that underneath her coquettish mannerisms, Elsbeth Drummond was deeply in love with him, to the point where it was becoming almost an obsession, he had decided to sever all ties with her. He hoped that it would be momentarily awkward for her but that she would quickly recover to find comfort in another man’s arms. Now, standing in her rose-colored boudoir, Maxwell knew he had left breaking his relationship with Lady Elsbeth slightly late, but it was best that the hammer fell at once, before she made even more of a fool of herself. “I have plans to wed, Lady.

However, it’s nae to ye. Ye broke our initial bargain, but there is naught I can do about that. For many years, I thought ours was nae more than a lighthearted liaison. So, please send a reckoning of yer final debts to me steward, and he will settle them all for ye as a final token of me appreciation for yer companionship these five years.” “Ye callous bastard, Maxwell! How can ye cast me off as though I were naught?” Lady Elsbeth’s voice rose to a shriek, and she began to pace from one side of her chamber to the other. “Ye ken nae what ye do!” Laird Maxwell had put every effort into making this as painless as possible. Every court lady knew that Highland lairds married to expand their sphere of influence and form stronger bonds with their neighbors. He was not surprised at her reaction, though, because Lady Elsbeth was the kind of woman who believed the rules never applied to her. “Farewell, Lady, and dinnae forget to send me steward a list of yer debts.” Maxwell moved toward the door.

Lady Elsbeth ran after him and gripped his arm. “Max, please, if ye go, I swear I will take the fiercest revenge on ye and all yer family. It’s nae too late to change yer mind.” Laird Maxwell peeled her hand off his doublet sleeve. “I have nae family, Lady,” he said cooly, and left. A long scream of anger and agony followed him down to where his horse waited for him. E 1 A BETROTHAL AFTER SORROW arly 18th century. Scottish Highlands. Ffion ran down the hillside so fast, she was scared her feet would falter. But she made it to the bottom without falling.

Her palfrey was waiting for her next to a narrow stream that trickled over the pebbles and bog myrtle at the foot of the hill. The patient mountain pony was used to its owner climbing and exploring the craggy peaks and grassy Highland knolls. Ffion skipped over to the animal and gave it one of the bannocks she had saved after breaking her fast that morning. The palfrey enjoyed its snack and then nuzzled her hand for more. “Nay, Rosie, ye will get even fatter than ye are already. Dinnae be greedy.” She patted her pony for a few minutes, taking comfort from the chewing sounds Rosie made every time she dipped her head to pull grass from the ground. Ffion Mackay had spent more of her time outdoors climbing the isolated Altnaharra mountains since the tragic death of her older sister three months before. One week, Martha had been sewing fallals for her bridal chest, and the next week she had been laid low by a sudden deathly malady. The air of gloom and sadness inside the halls and chambers of her parents’ ancient lodge caused Ffion to steal down to the stables and saddle up a mount at every opportunity she got.

Poor Martha. I miss her so much. I wish there were some way I could bring comfort to mither and faither. All their hopes of securing the safety of our lands were wrapped up in her. Ffion shook the moss and grass seeds off her thin linen round gown and prepared to ride back to Altnaharra Lodge. The sun was sinking toward the western skyline, and Ffion knew her mother would look for her return soon. As much as it hurt for Ffion to see her parents’ sorrow, she was kindhearted enough to spare her mother further pain by the continued absence of her last remaining child. With one final lingering look over her shoulder at the purple heather and grey rocks that studded the mountains surrounding the Mackay lodge, Ffion gave Rosie a gentle tap with her ankles, and the little palfrey began trotting home. As rider and pony entered the courtyard back at the lodge, Ffion noticed a strange horse being led away by the groom. “How now, Pevensie.

Who’s mount are ye stabling?” The lodge was situated at the edge of Scotland’s northwestern border, holding the ground between land and stormy northern seas. Any visitor was a rare and unexpected thing. “Never tell me that it’s more bad news.” The groom gave her a wide grin and shook his head. “Nay, miss, ‘tis good news, I’m happy to say. A messenger from the castle over in Donnachaidh has arrived with a letter for yer faither.” Ffion paused when she heard this. Surely, Laird Sinclair can have nay more business with me faither now that Martha has passed away? He never even met Martha before seeking to become betrothed to her. It’s always about land and how many tower keeps the bride brings along with her. His grand plans will have to wait until he finds himself another willing bride.

Ffion clattered up the stone stairs that led up to the heavy wooden lodge door. Instead of ringing for the steward to open for her, she twisted the hefty iron ring up and pushed the doors open herself. As she entered the large, wood-paneled entrance hall, Ffion caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror stand where visitors hung their capes. Somehow, her long red curls had managed to escape from their netting at the back of her head again. They sprung in a riot of russet and gold around her neck and forehead. One long ringlet cascaded down her back and had caught itself in the ribbon around her bodice. Knowing her mother would not be pleased, Ffion tried to tuck her unruly curls back into the netting, but she was too late. “Ffion! Wherever have ye been? I have been searching for so long” Mistress Mackay, Ffion’s mother, took one look at her daughter’s tousled appearance and gasped, “Such untidiness and yer boots are muddy! Follow me to yer bedchamber at once afore Laird Sinclair’s messenger sees ye.” She obeyed dutifully. When her mother got Ffion behind the closed door, she relaxed her upright stance and became more confiding, “Dearest daughter, ye’ll never imagine what’s to do! We got wind of Laird Sinclair’s man traveling hence, and for what purpose, I cannae say, although I ken yer faither has been in communication with the Laird himself.

” Ffion was pleased to see her mother in happier spirits than she had been for a long while. Perhaps her father’s northwestern watchtower was worth something to the wealthy Laird Sinclair after all, even without a blushing bride to go with it? She hazarded a guess. “Mither, even though an alliance with Clan Mackay is nae longer possible, do ye think Laird Sinclair wishes to offer faither gold for our sea-facing tower?” Her mother looked down at her lap for a brief minute before replying, “Aye, Daughter, it could be that…or it could be something a bit different.” Ffion was seated in front of the small looking glass above her dresser and tried to tuck her curls back into the netting. She mused out loud, “I have heard the servants speak of Laird Sinclair as being the kind of man who never stops until he gets whatever he has set his mind to. And as he wants our watchtower to guard the northern mountain entrance, we can safely guess he is going to make Faither rich so long as he can get his hands on it.” She turned around to look at her mother and saw the lady was looking sadly at the locket, where she kept a cutting of her eldest daughter’s hair. Ffion got up off the little cushioned stool and went to place her arms around the good lady’s shoulders. “Never worry, Mither,” she said comfortingly. “Even though the Mackay and Sinclair blood bond by marriage never happened, perhaps we will be able to find some other way to join our lands.

” Mistress Mackay sniffled into a small lace kerchief and gave her daughter a misty smile. Just then, there was a loud knock on the door. “Come,” Ffion said, and wondered who could be banging as though there was a fire in the house. It was her father’s page. His face was flushed, and it looked as though he was bursting to tell the ladies his message. Between puffs, he managed to say, “Ye’re to go down to yer faither’s study at once, Miss Ffion. On a matter of great urgency.” Ffion whipped her head around to see if her mother had an inkling of why the young boy looked so excited, but the elderly lady had turned her face to one side to prevent her daughter from reading her expression. Ffion hesitated, but the page insisted. “Yer faither said, ‘now,’ miss.

” Once again, she obeyed. Her father was a loving man, but he ruled his household with an iron fist. After five and thirty years of marriage, Chieftain Mackay had only one daughter alive to carry on his clan, and the death of his firstborn daughter had brought bitterness and despair. His wife had been content to allow their youngest daughter to run wild while placing all their hopes of advancement with Martha. Now, with not much else to offer, their thoughts turned to Ffion, just one month shy of her eighteenth birthday. At her knock, her father bade her enter. Ffion felt the atmosphere was heavy with news the moment she came in. “I bid thee good morrow, Faither.” She dropped a polite curtsy and went to stand in front of the chieftain’s desk. “Me mither is curious, as am I, as to what urgent good news Laird Sinclair’s messenger brings? Are we still to be made rich from the leasing of our watchtower?” The last part was said half in jest and half as a genuine question.

Ffion’s delicately arched eyebrows were raised, and she stared at her father with mesmerizing grey eyes. Chieftain Mackay could not meet her gaze. He shifted in his chair as though it was making him uncomfortable and then finally said, “Ye are to pack yer trunks on the morrow, Ffion, me dear…ye are to take the place of yer sister as Laird Sinclair’s betrothed.” The red woolen rug beneath her feet seemed to shift and rock at her father’s words. “Faither!” Her voice was strangled with shock. “I dinnae want to marry some great laird so far away!” Chieftain Mackay had expected this outburst. Ffion had been reared with such hoydenish ways because he had come to look upon her like the son he had never had. Since she was a small child, the chieftain had enjoyed riding over the rolling grasslands and coastline with his tiny red-haired daughter in the saddle in front of him. As soon as she had been able to, Ffion had joined him by riding on small ponies, and finally, full-grown horses like those he rode himself. Her untamable hair would blow like a comet’s tail in the wind behind her, and an ecstatic smile of freedom would be on her beautiful face.

Father and daughter had never expected this day to come, but now that it had, Chieftain Mackay’s will had to be heeded. He was all that was left of the Altnaharra Mackays, and his bloodline must carry on, even if it was aligned with another clan’s name. “Come now, Ffion, ye must have had some idea as to which way the wind was blowing?” Chieftain Mackay said in his most encouraging voice. “Laird Sinclair is most eager to seal our agreement with a betrothal, and ye are our last child. Surely ye understand why this step was necessary?”

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