In Scot Water – Caroline Lee

IS THAT HER?” At Malcolm Oliphant’s side, his brother, Alistair, looked down at a ledger he carried, back up at the woman across the square, checked the ledger once more, and grunted. “Aye, she matches the descriptions I received. Evelinde Oliphant and her two sons come to market on the third Thursday of every month.” Alistair scowled up at the dark storm clouds. “No matter the weather.” Malcolm only had eyes for the lass arguing with the cloth merchant and was unaware of the impending weather. “She’s beautiful,” he breathed. She was. Her long black hair was pulled back in a simple braid, and she moved with a grace he didn’t often see. But as she turned away from the merchant—part of her haggling method, judging from the way the portly man began to wave his arms to call her back—Malcolm sucked in a breath at the quiet serenity upon her face. That, and the signs of her exhaustion. What must it be like, to be a woman living alone with her two young ones, far from any civilization? Alistair’s records showed Evelinde had been born a MacRob, and her Oliphant husband had built a croft close to those lands so she could visit her kin. But that meant she was several hours’ travel from the village, or any other towns. His brother cleared his throat. “I’ll admit yer scheme to find a widow with sons was a smart one, brother.

But I’ve taken too much time from my work to help ye, and now it appears ye’ve spied one ye obviously find pleasing.” Malcolm slapped his brother on the shoulder, distractedly. “Aye, and ye have my thanks.” “We’re about to be hit with a deluge.” Alistair sounded exasperated. “So go over there and speak to her.” Speak to her? Speak to that angel? The angel who looked harried as she carefully counted out money with one hand, while holding onto the hand of what looked like a rambunctious lad with the other? The small boy was yanking at her arm, trying to direct her attention to the baker’s shop, and she was speaking quietly to him in between finishing up her transaction with the merchant. There was a baby strapped to her chest with a piece of Oliphant plaid. Another son, according to Alistair’s records and the research Malcolm had done. Aye, she was exactly what he was looking for.

So why couldn’t he simply march across the square and swoop her up? Why couldn’t he speak to her? He knew how the Earth rotated. He knew how mushrooms reproduced. He knew the major arteries of the human body, and the bloodlines of the great kings, and how to employ levers and fulcrums to simplify structural modifications. But he knew nothing about speaking to a woman. “Well, Mal?” His brother sounded exasperated. “Are ye going to speak to her?” She turned away from the cloth merchant, a bolt of simple green wool in her arms, and met Malcolm’s eyes. He couldn’t move. She was beautiful, aye, but delicate. Gentle looking. Exhausted.

The lad was tugging her, and with a soft smile, she allowed him to lead her toward the delicious smells wafting from the baker. She had enough on her mind and enough to handle at that moment. Malcolm had the certain sense that, were he to go to her right now, he would only add to her burdens. “Mal?” “Nay,” he choked. “The time is no’ right.” But as he watched her glance over her shoulder at him once more, Malcolm knew the truth: she would be his. EVELİNDE COULDN’T HELP RİSKİNG another glance over her shoulder. The two men who’d been staring at her were still there, and the one on the right…? Well, she’d never believed in the kinds of connections Father Ambrose had always spoken to her about. She certainly hadn’t felt that tug with her husband. Nay, she’d married him for the security he could offer her—after years spent relying on the charity of the church, she’d been happy for a home of her own—not because of how he made her feel emotionally.

But this man…? When she’d turned away from the wool merchant, having parted with more of her precious funds than she’d intended, she’d met his blue-gray eyes and had felt the tug, the pull, deep in her soul. And something had stirred within her stomach, something which was connected to the place of her desire, and she instinctively pressed her thighs together to capture the sensation. There was promise in the man’s gaze, and she could feel it like a punch to the stomach. Even from across the square. “Mama! Mama, I want a honey bun.” She turned her attention back to her son where it belonged. “Aright, my wee honey bun.” Five-year-old Liam giggled. “And a wheat loaf?” Her monthly market visit meant treats the lad looked forward to as much as she did. “Aye.

I’ll get two, if ye’re willing to carry the basket home.” “Aye! Aye!” The lad bounced up and down. “Ye carry the baby; I’ll carry the food.” Smiling tiredly, she let him lead her to the baker. They had a three-hour walk home ahead of them, and she knew she’d end up carrying both her sons and the basket by the time they reached halfway. Her back ached just thinking of it. Sometimes she wished she could leave Liam home with Nanny, as she did when she went foraging. But on market days, she was gone all day, which was too long to leave him behind. Besides, the lad was curious and full of energy, and he craved the sights and sounds of civilization as much as she did. “Come along, my love,” she called softly to him as they reached the shop.

Before speaking with the baker, she turned once more to the spot where the men had stood earlier, hoping to catch one more glimpse of the tall, auburn-haired warrior who’d made her breath catch. But he was gone. C H A P T E R 1 THE WEATHER WAS MAKİNG everyone antsy. Already this morning, Malcolm had had to break up two fights, which was ridiculous, because two fools disagreed on who was more endowed in the bollocks department. Aye, the constant rain was making everyone irritated because they were losing valuable summer days when they could be planting or training or raiding. It seemed as if all of the Oliphant men were dealing with the boredom and short tempers in one of three ways: drinking, fighting, or fooking. And the Oliphant bastards were no exception. “Best two out of three?” Finn closed one eye and stared down at the gambling sticks on the table. “I’d be better at this, I vow, if the damned things would quit their spinning.” “They’re supposed to spin,” Malcolm drawled, as their brother Alistair scooped up the sticks.

“Although I suspect they’d go where ye wanted them to go if ye were drinking less.” “Och, where’s the fun in that?” Finn reached for his flagon of ale. “So best two out of three?” “Nay.” Malcolm shook his head. “Ye’re nae challenge when ye’re drunk.” “How about me?” Alistair asked mildly. There was a flagon in front of him, but the man rarely drank to excess. The man rarely did anything to excess. “I’m no’ drunk.” “Aye, but ye’re nae challenge, period.

” As his brother scowled and Finn hooted with laughter, Malcolm took a swig of ale. There was a delightful buzzing in his head; just the sort of thing a man needed to get through yet another day of being cooped up inside by the torrential downpours they’ve had over the last sennight. “Just because ye’re smarter than me,” Alistair began, “dinnae think ye can—” “I’m smarter than both of ye put together,” Malcolm corrected, maintaining a serious expression to go with the jibe, “and ye’d be fools to doubt it.” Alistair’s scowl deepened. “Ye dinnae need brains to win this stupid game.” He was right; essentially, the players tossed the sticks on the ground or table, and bet whether they would come down with the dark or light side facing upward. I must be truly desperate for amusement if I’ve sunk this low. “Aye, but ye need brains to gamble, and I’m tired of taking yer money.” Finn guffawed at this, but Alistair tossed the sticks down with a sigh. “Why did I bother coming down from my solar for this? I was in the middle of drafting that new marriage contract Da asked for since Henry Stewart’s death.

” Malcolm winced. Their sister’s most recent betrothal—was this her fifth or sixth?—had been negated by the groom’s death just a few days ago. Was Da already looking for a new betrothed for her? That, more than any actual censure, prompted him to say, “Ye should relax more, Alistair.” “Aye!” Finn slapped Alistair on the back, his perpetual good mood somehow grating in the close confines. “Even serious auld arseholes, with sticks up their nostrils, need to put down their work once in a while.” “I’m no’ auld. Just a few months aulder than ye.” Indeed, Alistair and his twin, Kiergan, were the oldest of the Oliphant bastards, although ‘twas not much of a distinction. After the loss of his lady love, William Oliphant, laird of the clan, had set out to sow his wild oats. And sow them he had.

His first set of twins—Alistair and Kiergan—had been born to a serving wench right here in the keep, who’d died giving them life. They’d been raised here under the watchful eye of Moira, the housekeeper. The next set—Finn and Duncan, who were identical—had been born to a village lass and had grown up running between the two households, secure in the knowledge they were loved by their father and their mother’s new family. And Malcolm and his twin brother, Rocque? Well, they’d grown up, and that was the best either of them could say about the distant relative who’d put a roof over their head, and his fist in their bellies often enough. They’d been twelve before they’d discovered they not only had a father who was looking for them, but four brothers who were ready to welcome them. “And I dinnae have a stick up my nostril.” His words yanked Malcolm from the not-so-pleasant memories. “What?” Alistair jerked his thumb at Finn. “He said I had a stick up my nostril—” “I said ye have a stick up yer arse, did I no’?” Finn squinted down at his ale. “Nay! And what in damnation are ye doing down here with us anyhow?” Finn, the charmer of their lot, frowned at the most serious brother of theirs.

“Because I needed to distract ye, Alistair. Someone has to drag ye from yer work now and then.” “Do me nae favors!” Alistair snapped. “Come now, ye’re almost as bad as Mal when it comes to dourness!” Finn raised his flagon toward Malcolm. “Remember when our scholarly brother locked himself in his room for four days straight? And Moira was so frantic he wasnae eating, she snuck him dinner through the keep’s secret passages?” Alistair’s lips twitched. “What was he inventing that time? I’ve forgotten.” Finn snorted. “Likely a cure for baldness. Or a new battering ram. Oh! Remember that theory he had about how birds flew? And when the bishop visited, he spent the whole meal rambling on about bone density and feather ratios?” As Alistair chuckled, Malcolm frowned, trying not to feel hurt.

He knew his brothers and father appreciated his inventions, but none of them understood them, not really. “I’d locked myself in my room to finish my catalog of animal life.” It had taken much longer than four days, and his juvenile illustrations made him cringe when he looked at them now. Nevertheless, he was forever grateful to Da for giving him the opportunity to try. “I had to, because ye lot wouldnae leave me alone!” Finn chuckled again. “Because we were trying to drag ye away to actually experience life, rather than read about it.” Alistair rolled his eyes. “Why are ye here, Finn?” “Why are any of us here?” Their charming brother sighed into his flagon. “ ’Tis one of the great mysteries—” Malcolm cleared his throat. “I suspect what Alistair is asking, Finn, is why ye’re here.

Dunc and his Skye have been cozily ensconced in their cottage for the last week, I suspect. Rocque and Merewyn are likely going at it like rabbits, since he’s cancelled his last two sparring practices—” “A man’s got to keep up his stamina,” Alistair drawled. Malcolm nodded solemnly. “And even Kiergan—” “And even Kiergan found some companionship,” called their last brother, as he ambled up to the table, his hair mussed and his eyes blinking lazily. “That is what ye were going to say, aye?”

.

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