His Scottish Bride – Shelly Thacker

My Dear Sir Wicked, I know ’tis bold of me to write and wish you a happy Yuletide, but I trust that I will be forgiven. I am certain you must be busy with your military obligations at home in France, so please dinna feel that you must reply to my missive. My family, indeed the entire MacLennan clan, has returned to Castle Glenshiel to celebrate the Yule season. Lord Darach is always so generous with his hospitality. Being here again, I canna help thinking of you. I remember the autumn day when we met at the wedding of Lord Darach and your sister, Lady Laurien. And I remember the morning in June when we parted for the last time. Even though we knew one another but a few months, Henri, the memories are still sweet. As I write this, I can hear everyone celebrating in the great hall below. They are a boisterous and merry bunch, my kin, the men raising toasts and laughing, the ladies and children dancing to the music of the Highland pipes. I will return to the festivities anon, but for the moment, I am happier here. I wonder if you can guess where I am. I am sitting in the library, beneath the stained-glass window with the image of two doves…I think you may remember the spot? The new tower is finished now, and the setting sun looks like pale gold sparkling through the glass. The light makes the very air glow with color, bright blues and emerald greens and soft amber. I feel warm just being here, remembering that summer day when we said farewell and you called me your sweet lass.

Your sister tells me that you are soon to ride into battle, fighting for the French king. I pray that God will watch over you, Henri. Please stay safe. You are so daring that I think you may need a few extra guardian angels to watch over you. The poor creatures may be divine, but they must have the very devil of a time trying to keep up with you. Your daring, if you recall, was one of the reasons why I dubbed you Sir Wicked. That and certain pursuits you enjoy with such enthusiasm. Now you have made me blush, and you are not even here. ’Twas a proper dubbing, done with a branch of a Scottish rowan tree, which is considered sacred, so the name is binding for life. I hope ’twill be a long life, Henri.

If it helps during the days to come, count me among your angels. Consider me your faraway Scottish angel in the Highlands, thinking of you often and praying for you. I also hope ’twill be all right if I continue to write to you, mayhap simply about my days at home on the Isle of Mull, and all the mischief my nieces and nephews get up to. Truly, you should not feel obligated to reply. I dinna know if ’twill ever be possible, but if the angels smile upon us, I do hope to see you again someday. Ever Your Sweet Lass, Aileen T December 1301 he season of Yule had always brought lightness and joy to Lady Aileen MacLennan MacFarland’s heart. The bonfires and bright candles, the music of harps and pipes, the scent of evergreen boughs, the laughter of children—she looked forward to the festivities all year long. She especially loved celebrating here at Castle Glenshiel, with her closest friends and the entire, exuberant MacLennan clan. But this year, she could find no merriment in her heart. Because in just four days, her life would change forever.

In four days, she would no longer be known as the adoring aunt of her many nieces and nephews. Or pitied as the tragic widow of the fallen hero Sir Cael MacFarland. On the day of Christ’s Mass, or Christmas as so many now called it, she would become the bride of one of the wealthiest lords in all the Highlands. Any lass—at least, any lass other than Aileen MacLennan MacFarland—would be thrilled by the unexpected proposal that had come her way a fortnight ago. But Aileen found herself troubled and distracted, try as she might to get swept up in the excitement swirling around her at Castle Glenshiel. She had even donned an emerald-green gown this morn and pinned up her red hair in fancy plaits to try and feel more festive. Carrying an engraved silver cup of freshly brewed tea, she hastened down the corridor from the kitchens and entered the great hall. ’Twas only mid-morning and already the enormous chamber bustled with activity, literally from top to bottom. Servants strung evergreen boughs from the rafters, burned rowan twigs to bring peace and blessings upon all who would enter the keep, and spread fresh rushes and herbs across the floor. The Yuletide festivities would last for twelve days, from the eve of Christmas to Hogmany—the Scottish celebration of the New Year—all the way to the feast of Epiphany in January.

The castle’s steward, Ranald, stood on a dais opposite the hearth, directing the men who were carrying in trestle tables and benches for the large number of guests who would soon begin arriving. Serving maids set new candles in all the candelabras, while others trimmed boughs of spruce and holly to decorate the tables, and children tied red ribbons on bundles of mistletoe for the doorways. More maids were at work on the floors above, putting the finishing touches on the castle’s many guest rooms. Aileen spotted her friend Lady Laurien, the mistress of Castle Glenshiel, who was doing her best to supervise all the preparations while keeping her children—and a flock of their little MacLennan cousins—out of trouble. Laurien’s husband Lord Darach and most of the castle’s men-at-arms and squires had left before dawn to hunt for wild boar, which would be the centerpiece of the Yuletide feast. Aileen walked over and handed Laurien the steaming cup she carried. “Your tea, bana-charaid, my dear friend. Rose leaf and mint, no honey…with a wee bit of lime juice. You are certain this is what you wanted?” “Thank you, Aileen.” Laurien sighed with relief as she accepted the cup, her green eyes shining, her cheeks rosy.

“I know it sounds terribly sour, but this tea is honestly the only thing that helps when I am…” Her voice trailed off. “Expecting,” Aileen finished for her, smiling. “There is no keeping it secret, Laurien. I suspected as soon as I arrived yesterday. You have that glow about you.” She gave her friend a warm hug. “Congratulations. And blessings to your new wee bairn.” Laurien returned her embrace. “I am so happy you are here, ma chere amie.

” “My sisters-in-law were happy to send their children off with me to Glenshiel a few days early. They both send you their thanks for the gift of a wee bit of peace and quiet.” Laurien nodded in understanding. “Little ones can be a bit too spirited at this time of year. But the cousins all love to play together.” “And they are mayhap a bit easier to manage all in one flock.” Aileen smiled as she and Laurien walked toward the hearth, arm in arm, “Now I must ask, by what Yuletide magic did you obtain limes in December? I saw lemons in the kitchens as well. And I may have pilfered an orange while waiting for your tea to steep.” Laurien laughed, sipping from her cup before she replied. “One of our guests who arrived late last night brought heaps of fruit.

” “Ah, ’tis good to have friends who can give rare gifts from faraway lands.” Aileen’s smile widened. “Be sure to introduce me to him. Or her?” “Him.” Laurien smiled a bit mysteriously. “He rode out on the hunt with Darach. I am certain he will introduce himself as soon as they return.” “You and Lord Darach know all the most interesting people.” “People like you, ma cousine.” Laurien hugged her again.

The two of them were in truth cousins, through the MacLennan line, but they had become as close as sisters since Laurien first arrived in Scotland six years ago. Nearly the same age, they shared a deep love of books and nature, and could talk for hours about all manner of subjects— medicinal herbs, history, the ancient Greek manuscripts of Theophrastus and Aristotle. Aileen lived many miles away on the Isle of Mull, with her father, two brothers, and their wives and children, but she always spent the summers here at Glenshiel. She loved reading among the roses and lavender in the renowned gardens, helping care for the sick in the infirmary Laurien had established, and writing in the castle’s library—which was one of the only libraries in this corner of the Highlands. “Auntie Aileen!” One of Laurien’s daughters tugged on Aileen’s skirts. “Tell me again about the big tree.” “Aye, little Adelle.” Smiling down at the pretty blond four-year-old, Aileen lifted her up and balanced her on one hip. The women and children all gathered around to watch as a pair of burly guardsmen carried in a thick silver birch tree at least six feet long, with some of the top branches still attached. They positioned it on the floor, the base pointed toward the hearth.

“At Yuletide,” Aileen explained, “we celebrate the light that triumphs over darkness even in the deep midwinter. So we light candles and bonfires—and a Yule log. The tree needs to be big enough to last through all twelve days of Yule. And since your mother is from France…” She smiled at Laurien. “Your family follows the French tradition and soaks the log with wine and spices so that it scents the hall as it burns.” As the guardsmen stepped back, the children crowded in, working together to slowly push the enormous log into the cold hearth. “I want to help, too!” Adelle wriggled out of Aileen’s arms and scampered to join in. Laurien dashed over to scoop up her five-year-old son, who had just climbed atop the tree as if he were mounting a horse. “Nay, Galen, you may not ride the Yule log while it is set on fire.” “Aww,” the lad grumbled after she let him go.

He raked his blond hair out of his eyes and crossed his arms. “I should have gone on the hunt with Father and the other men. I am big enough now.” “Indeed you are a big, strong young man,” Laurien said. “But you promised to stay here to help me, remember? Next year, it will be your sister Adelle’s turn to light the Yule log. I need you to show her how it is done.” The boy sighed. “Very well.” Despite his protest, he looked secretly proud to be entrusted with this important task, and to teach his little sister. The children all gathered around to watch him work.

By tradition, the new Yule log was lit from a small remnant of last year’s log, which had been stored away with care, wrapped in a length of plaide, a soft woolen cloth woven with a pattern of crossed stripes in red and black and violet. Ranald carried the remnant over and presented it to the boy with a ceremonial flourish. Young Galen unwrapped the fabric, placed the charred slice of wood in the hearth, then used flint and steel to light it. He succeeded on his first try. Smiling, he slid the glowing remnant against the base of the new birch, which quickly caught fire. A cheer went up, some of the boys chanting his name as the warm scent of the Yule log filled the great hall. As he stood up, Galen took little Adelle’s hand. “That is how ’tis done,” he informed her solemnly. His sister gazed up at him with a look of adoration, as if he were the most wonderful person in the whole world. “Och, well done, young sir!” Maud, the castle’s cook, came in from the kitchens, her gown and apron thoroughly dusted with flour.

Resting her hands on her broad hips, she looked around at the boisterous children. “Now who would like to help me make the black bun? I need some helpers to count raisins and currants and stir in the cinnamon. And mayhap one or two to taste some oat cakes.” “Me! Me!” The children all crowded around her, clamoring to be chosen. “Come along, all of ye, me wild, wee bairns.” Smiling at Laurien, Maud turned to lead them away. “Thank you, Maud,” Laurien said with a grateful expression as the children skipped happily off to the kitchens. Only the youngest, Emeline, who was just eighteen months old, remained behind, looking eager to follow the group, but not quite ready to let go of her mother’s skirt. She looked up, her lower lip quivering. “Mama?” “I think you should stay here with us, ma petite.

” Laurien ran a hand through Emeline’s curls. The wee lass’s spice-brown hair perfectly matched her mother’s. “It is almost time for your mid-day nap.” Sighing, Laurien glanced up at Aileen. “And I might well need one, too.” “Here, allow me.” Aileen bent to pick up the sleepy bairn, who was rubbing at her eyes. “I can watch her, if you would like to steal away.” “Nay, ma chere amie, you and I have scarcely had time to talk since you arrived yesterday.” Laurien gestured toward one of the newly arrived trestle tables.

“The tea will help me feel better.” She took a seat, sipping some more of the aromatic brew. Aileen sat across from her, the drowsy bairn snuggled on her shoulder. “Is your stomach troubling you very much this time?” “Not as much as it did when I was carrying the girls.” With a wistful smile, Laurien reached out to tug a half-fallen sock back onto her daughter’s foot. “But I am so weary, all I want to do is sleep the day away. Which was just how I felt when I was carrying Galen.” “Mayhap ’tis another boy, then.” “Galen certainly hopes so. While I was tucking him in last night, he informed me that two little sisters were enough, and he requested that this baby and all future babies be brothers.

He even gave me the request in writing.” The two of them laughed heartily over that. “’Tis sure that lad is going to be strong of heart and strong of will.” “A true Glenshiel man, just like his father.” Laurien’s green eyes sparkled with love. She raised her cup to Aileen in a salute. “It was kind of you to come early to help with the preparations—and the children.” “’Tis you and Lord Darach who are kind, bana-charaid. Not everyone in the Highlands would willingly host all the MacLennans. There are so many of us.

” “Dozens of cousins from here to Inverary.” Laurien nodded, quoting the familiar saying uttered often by local folk. Though Laurien had been born and raised in France, even she had MacLennan blood, on her father’s side. “You are family, ma cousine. And Malcolm helped raise Darach from the time he was a lad. It would not be Yuletide without you—all of you.” She glanced around the noisy great hall. “My husband loves for our keep to be crowded and merry at the holidays. He lost so many people dear to him when he was younger…” Aileen reached across the table to take her friend’s hand. “Then ’tis a blessing that you and he are raising a whole new clan of Glenshiels, together.

” Her movement woke wee Emeline, who lifted her head. Blinking sleepily, the child studied Aileen’s face for a moment, then touched her cheek with a look of concern. “Owie?” “Emeline…” Laurien admonished gently. “’Tis all right,” Aileen said, turning so the little girl could see her cheek more clearly. “Nay, Emeline, it doesna hurt. Dinna be afraid.” Her eyes bright with curiosity, the bairn traced her tiny fingers over the uneven smudge of dark color on the left side of Aileen’s face. Deep red, it looked as if someone had spilled wine across her cheek. The mark ran from just below her eye, down over her cheekbone, up onto the side of her nose, and ended just above her lip. The wee girl patted at it, as if washing it away with a cloth.

“Bath bath.” “Nay, it doesna wash off,” Aileen said lightly. “I have had it since I was even smaller than you, leannan. Since I was born. It doesna bother me.” That had not always been true. Many folk—including some in her own clan—considered the mark a sign of ill fortune, a curse. On the night Aileen had been born, some had suggested she should be banished…or even drowned in the sea. But her parents and grandparents had defended her—fiercely —and refused to allow anyone to mistreat her. Her mother had always been especially protective.

Aileen still grieved after losing her last spring. It had been with her gentle help that Aileen had slowly come to accept the mark simply as part of who she was. Little Emeline seemed to accept it easily, snuggling back onto Aileen’s shoulder with a contented sigh. “Oh, Aileen…” Laurien said softly as she watched her youngest daughter drift to sleep in her friend’s arms. “You look as beautiful as a French ange de Noel today, with that green gown and your red hair in such lovely plaits. I…I had so hoped this Yuletide would be a special one for you…” “Marrying Lord Alsh will certainly make it memorable.” Aileen laughed, but this time her humor felt forced, and her friend did not join in.

.

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