Protected By the Vengeful Highlander – Ann Marie Scott

“I wonder where Lennox is?” Niall Colquhoun complained as he poured out the last of the best wine they had. They had just dispatched the last of the hare soup, the venison, and the apple pie, and now it was time to progress to the whisky. The occasion was the departure of their sister Nessa Colquhoun, who had been betrothed to Laird Callum McKinnon. She was seventeen and he was more than twice that age, and their eldest brother Lennox had been fiercely opposed to the match. However, his father had wanted it, saying that he was a good man who would look after her well, and with great reluctance he had signed an agreement to the marriage on his father’s deathbed under pressure from his brother, mainly because he did not want to see the family riven by strife and falling apart. Lennox was not the kind of Laird who was afraid of getting his hands dirty. He had spent the day helping one of his tenants, who was short-handed, to shear his sheep before the summer came in. His tenants adored him, especially when he came bringing a barrel of strong ale with him, as he had done that day. The farmer’s daughter, a short, plain girl of sixteen called Margaret McKay, could not take her eyes off him, because every inch of Lennox was perfect. He had a well-defined handsome face covered in short golden stubble, broad shoulders, muscular arms and calves, and when he took his shirt off, Margaret nearly fainted with desire. That body with its broad chest graced by a Celtic knot with a hart’s head in the middle, the badge of his clan, and rippling stomach muscles was more than a woman could stand! On the days when she knew he was coming she would bake chicken pies, which he said were his favorite, and invite all her friends round, ostensibly to help her do her household chores or just pay a friendly visit, but mainly just to look at him. Lennox knew what was happening; he knew that he was good to look at, but he was not vain. It was a fact of life and he accepted it as such, just as he accepted that it was his duty as a Laird to help and work for his tenants so that they could make the best use of the land that they could. Shearing sheep was particularly hard and smelly work, but it did have the bonus of soft hands at the end of the day due to all the lanolin in the sheep skin. He laughed at the thought of a Laird with soft hands.

They would not be soft for long. At the end of the day he stretched his aching back while Margaret watched him greedily. He turned around and gave her a wink, and she turned beetroot red before running away. Now he was on his way to meet his siblings before Nessa’s departure, but the day had been long and the sheep had been troublesome, taking far more time than he had imagined. He was late; the sun in May did not start to go down till the ninth hour in the evening and it was about that now. However, the carriage still had at least three hours of good daylight left and could make it to Aberdeen before dark in order to get an early start in the morning with the worst part of the road behind them. He urged his horse into a steady canter and pulled up in front of Colquhoun Castle, not a moment too soon, just as his sister was about to leave. Nessa looked so like him, everyone said, except that her eyes were light gray instead of blue. She was pretty but not striking, and she was rather thin, but what she lacked in looks she made up for in personality. She was witty, intelligent, and charming, and was always being asked to ceilidhs because she was so entertaining.

Now she was wearing a plain gray woolen dress and a thick cloak made for traveling, but in spite of the grueling journey that lay before her, she was smiling. “We drank all the wine,” she informed him, her voice slightly slurred. “The best Madeira, Lennox. You should have got here earlier. What kept you?” “Sheep!” Lennox said wearily. “Fifty of them!” “And every one more important than we are!” Niall snapped. “Really, Lennox! You need to be more considerate!” Lennox was about to agree with him and apologize but Nessa butted in. “Your tenants need you more than we do.” Lennox stepped forward and embraced her. “If there is ever anything you need, send word,” he said earnestly, looking into her eyes.

“I will, Lennox,” she said, smiling through tears. “I love you, big brother.” “And if you ever want to come home we are here,” he said softly, then kissed her forehead. He felt like weeping, but it was an unseemly thing for a man to do. Nessa hugged Niall and he handed her into the carriage. Lennox stood for a long time holding Nessa’s hand while the coach driver readied the carriage for its journey, then he stepped back as the wheels began to roll. “Godspeed!” He shouted, as the carriage began to make its way onto the bridge over the moat. “See you soon!” Her voice came floating back to the two brothers, but Lennox had an awful feeling of foreboding that he would never see Nessa again. He was right; at the age of nineteen years and six months, Nessa Colquhoun McKinnon died under mysterious circumstances, but unbeknownst to the Clan McKinnon, Laird Lennox Colquhoun was determined to find out why. N 1 A SPARK OF HOPE ora and Elizabeth McTavish were as close as any two sisters could be, and as the daughters of a Laird in the fertile Auchterlinn valley, they had assumed that their futures would be comfortable.

They would marry wealthy young Lairds, barons’ sons, or the sons of gentleman farmers. They might even wed wealthy widowers who were not yet too decrepit to sire children, but that was not a future to which many of them aspired; it could be a fate worse than death. At any rate, their futures were assured; even if it was one of child bearing and obedience, they would have a roof over their heads, enough to eat, and a servant to carry out their every wish. If love developed between the Laird and his Lady, so much the better, but if not, well, she had been warned that this was the fate of the nobility; it was better than milking cows, churning milk, and milling grain all day. The two sisters had taken all this for granted, but one morning at breakfast Nora was reading a letter from their friend Maudie, who was visiting Paris. Letters were infrequent, so they treasured each one carefully, and Maudie’s letters were always informative and entertaining, so Nora kept them so that they could read them again in their lower moments. “Listen to this, Ellie,” she chuckled. “‘I am now in Paris, which must be the center of all the world’s wickedness. I have never seen women with such red hair, painted lips, and bosoms almost hanging out of their dresses! I should be more shocked than I am, but it is all hilarious, and despite the fact that my mother and Aunt Morag have fits of apoplexy every day, I love it. Ellie, Nora, you should see the young men—so elegant and handsome with the most charming manners, and every one with a naughty twinkle in his eye—I want to put one in my trunk and bring him home!’” The two sisters were hooting with laughter.

Just then, their father Tommie’s manservant Allie came running up to them from the floor above, gasping and looked as though he was going to collapse at any moment, so Elizabeth stood up and guided him into a chair. “What is wrong, Allie?” she asked anxiously. “Is it my father?” The old man, who was in his seventies and quite frail, tried to compose himself. “Mistress, he is deid,” he said in a tremulous voice. “I think it might hae been his heart, but it didnae look as if he went peaceful.” Elizabeth looked at Nora, and they rushed upstairs to their father’s room. He was lying on his back, his glazed eyes staring at the ceiling, his tongue hanging out of his hideously gaping mouth. Both hands were near his neck, as though he had tried to stop himself from choking, and the bedlothes were tangled as though he had been thrashing around in his last moments. His lips were blue, as were his fingernails, and the rest of him had turned chalky white as blood pooled to the lower parts of his body. Elizabeth and Nora clung to each other for a few moments, eyes wide with horror.

Tommie had never been a kind or affectionate parent; the best that could have been said of him was that he was always there. They were not blind to his faults; they had seen his selfishness and his anger, and they knew he was not well-liked, however, he was their father, and they still had a little affection for him. Elizabeth had always been the practical one. While Nora was standing looking at the body and trying to take in what she was seeing, she turned to Allie, who was standing with his arms wrapped around himself, trembling with shock. “Allie, go and tell the housekeeper I want to see her,” she said firmly, “then go to the parlor and pour yourself a big glass of whisky. If anyone objects, tell them to come and speak to me.” “Yes, Mistress,” Allie scuttled off, leaving Nora and Elizabeth to look at what was left of their father. Neither wanted to touch him, so Nora pulled the sheet up over his face. “I do not want the servants to see him like this,” she said sadly. “He was not an easy man to love, but I would rather they remembered him with some respect.

” Elizabeth nodded and sighed. “Indeed,” she said. “Now, there are so many things to be done, but I think we can rely on Mrs McTeer’s help and common sense.” A few moments later, after Elizabeth had poured them both a glass of whisky from their father’s decanter, the indomitable Mrs McTeer came in. She was a straight, upright woman, and although she was only in her forties, her hair was snow-white. Her eyes were deep and dark, and when Nora was a little girl she had always imagined that they were looking right through her, but her hard exterior belied her heart of gold. “Mistresses, I hear that the Laird has passed on,” she said, with concern in her voice. “May I offer my deepest condolences?” “Thank you, Mistress McTeer, that is much appreciated,” Nora replied. “Now we need your knowledge and ability to organize to get us through the next few days—I am dreadful at that kind of thing!” “Milady,” Joan McTeer said quietly, “I suggest that you and Milady Elizabeth lie doon and talk, or go tae sleep for a while. Ye will baith feel the better for it.

I will hae the cook make some valerian tea an’ ye can rest.” “You are so wise, Mistress McTeer,” Elizabeth said, grasping the other woman’s hands. “No’ sae wise, Milady,” she replied. “I see whit needs tae be done an’ I dae it. Naethin’ special aboot that. Go an’ rest noo. If I see the new Laird I will see tae him.” “I would not like to be in his shoes!” Nora said, shivering. Kind as she might be to the girls, Joan McTeer was exactly the opposite when it came to their brother Laurie. She was a strong woman and had often dragged him upstairs when he came home drunk.

Now he was in her line of sight, and she was relishing the thought of toppling him. She sent for the wise woman from the village, the priest, and the ladies who would do the laying out. After that she organized the funeral. Then she waited. Nora and Elizabeth lay down, but in spite of the valerian tea, neither could sleep. It was not that their father was much of a loss to them, but they were worried about their own fate. No man had come to ask for Elizabeth’s hand; she was plain, with a long face and a nose that was slightly too big for it, thin lips, and a pointed chin. She was tall and had a boyish figure with small breasts and narrow hips. Her beauty lay in her hair, which was the color of ripe corn, and the softness of her brown eyes. She also had a wondrous speaking and singing voice, that could move one to tears with its beauty.

The sweetness of her nature was not known to everyone because of her shyness and her lack of self-confidence. Nora, on the other hand, was a beauty. She was very petite, with a generous bosom and curving, womanly hips. Her blonde hair tumbled down to her waist, and her eyes were a light apple green. Most people could not believe they were sisters. “I know that you will be able to get a husband very quickly,” Elizabeth said, her voice laden with sadness. “But no one will marry me.” They were lying facing each other in the big bed they shared, and both were terrified of the future. Nora gave her sister a hug. “Your husband does not know you yet, Ellie,” she said fondly.

“When he finds you he will love you as much as I do. No one has come calling on me yet either, so give yourself peace. I am not stupid; I know I am pretty, but that is not all that matters when finding a husband. All I want is someone kind and generous. He need not be handsome—that will not help us in times of trouble—but he must not be brutal. That is all I ask.” “And the estate?” Elizabeth asked anxiously. “It seems to be looking more and more shabby these days. Is there someone who can understand the accounts?” “No,” Nora sighed. “Mistress McTeer told me that the estate manager left a while ago because he had not been paid for two months.

Apparently Laird Balfour employed him at once. He was a very good man.” “Perhaps we should take the account books there,” Elizabeth said, sighing. “We need to know what our future holds.” The new Laird Laurie McTavish was big, but much of his bulk was fat due to the excessive amount of alcohol he consumed on a daily basis. He was a strange- looking man, having dark hair but a fiery red beard. He nearly always stank of whisky and stale sweat, since his personal hygiene was sorely lacking. When he came staggering in Mrs McTeer stood in front of him to halt his progress, and he was only just able to keep his balance. “Out of my way, woman!” he cried. His voice was slurred and indignant, and if he had been able to balance he would have struck the housekeeper.

However, she stood her ground, looking at him contemptuously. “M’Laird, I have some news for ye,” she said heavily. “Your faither is deid.” He stared at her stupidly. “He cannot be dead!” He laughed. “I saw him this morning!” “Between this morning an’ noo he has died, M’Laird,” she stated. “So you are the new Laird. Congratulations.” An’ God help us, she thought. “I will show ye.

Come on.” She held his hand and dragged him up the stairs none too gently. When Laurie saw his father’s body he burst into wailing, melodramatic sobs. “Father! Father!” he howled. “Come back!” He bent down and shook the corpse till Mistress McTeer had to get a guard to restrain him, then he threw himself on the floor and had to be hauled upright. Just then Elizabeth and Nora came in, alerted by the noise Laurie was making. “He is a disgrace,” Elizabeth said, disgusted. “Father!” Laurie was still lamenting so loudly that the staff could hear him in the kitchens. He threw himself over the corpse, still weeping bitterly. “Whisky!” he demanded.

“Get me whisky!” “Ye’ve had quite enough, M’Laird,” the housekeeper said, “aff tae yer room an’ bide there till ye sober up.” “I am ashamed that you are my brother!” Nora spat out disgustedly as he passed them. “Just you wait, you pair of bitches!” he growled. “You will be wed soon and out of my sight. I have bridegrooms for both of you sluts!” Elizabeth gave a shiver of disgust. She knew that it was the drink talking, but the threat was unsettling. “We must eat whether we want to or not,” she said, heaving a weary sigh. “Has the cook prepared anything for tonight, Mistress McTeer?” The housekeeper looked away from them, then back again as she braced herself to answer. “Milady, the tenants are no’ sendin’ meat ony mair—they were no’ bein’ paid.” She took a deep breath.

“The buttery cannae make cream or cheese an’ the Auld Laird hae just pit the rent up. Ye must look intae the accounts. The new Laird should dae it, but…” she shrugged her shoulders. “We cannae rely on him.” “What would you advise, Mistress McTeer?” Elizabeth asked, dreading the answer. “Bury the Auld Laird the morrow,” Joan McTeer replied. “As cheaply as ye can. Nae headstone—just get it ower wi’, then go an’ see the estate manager at Auchterlinn Castle. Laird Balfour is a good man. He might even help ye himself.

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