Return of the Lost Bride – Cynthia Wright

Standing on castle ramparts that clung to the edge of a cliff, Ciaran MacLeod breathed deeply of the cold, misty air that blew in from the Minch. A smile touched his chiseled mouth as he gazed from the wind-tossed sea back to the courtyard where his cousin Owen MacLeod was training young warriors to defend Duntulm Castle against attack. Watching them wield their claymores, he became aware of an oddly pleasurable glow that spread out from the center of his chest. It was, Ciaran slowly realized, the closest he’d come to knowing happiness since Ma’s passing a full year ago. And he could admit, if only to himself, that dark, moody clouds had pursued him much longer. He had to struggle to remember a time when he hadn’t felt weighted down by the secrets of his own family members. From the time he was a wee lad, when he’d seen how it really was between his parents, Ciaran had known a tide of cynicism that swelled with each passing year. In truth, he’d given up on happiness. He could drink and wench and laugh with the rest of his clansmen, but always inside was a black sting of…what? Resentment, regret, or disillusionment? Perhaps a bit of all three. Yet, of late, Ciaran had become aware of a change. When he opened his eyes in the morning, he felt a new sense of anticipation for the day ahead, and as the hours passed, he could relax and enjoy the moment at hand in a way he’d previously believed impossible. The boys in the courtyard had been working hard this morning and Ciaran had been there with them, demonstrating the skills he had begun to hone when he had been a mere lad himself, urging each of them to go beyond what they’d tried yesterday. Now he descended the stone steps that led to the courtyard and called for a respite. “Come on, then, lads!” He grinned at Owen, his new Captain of the Guard. “After laboring half the morning, ye have earned a cup of ale.

” A cheer went up from the young warriors and they fell in behind him as he entered the great hall. Just as he had expected, Violette Pasquiére was waiting. The French lass turned her smile on the bedraggled youths and poured cups of watered-down ale for them. Owen, who had been growing handsome since gaining his manhood, murmured something to her and chuckled softly. “What about me?” Ciaran demanded of her in mock outrage. “Am I not your master?” As expected, Violette scoffed at him. “No man is my master, m’sieur, especially not you.” All the same, she handed him a rough towel to dry his untamed ebony locks, and he saw the warm gleam in her eyes. Sometimes, Ciaran swore she was fond of him, but of course it was only the sort of affection she might have for a brother, and a difficult one, at that. Watching as Violette continued to serve the clan warriors, he noted the proud set of her slim shoulders and the tilt of her chin, a posture that was at odds with her drab clothing.

Since the day she had first arrived at Duntulm Castle, in service to Ciaran’s sister, Fiona, Violette had covered herself with a plain headdress and rather shapeless gown that shrouded whatever female curves she might possess. She kept her face scrubbed and her person so unadorned that one’s first impression was that she was very plain, yet there were moments when her golden-brown eyes flashed with something very like beauty. “What’s this?” Ciaran picked up a pottery jug filled not with ale but with a profusion of delicately scented lavender-pink blossoms. Violette laughed. “Do you not know them? They are lady’s-smocks, my favorite flower.” Plucking one sprig from the vase, she held it momentarily to his hard cheek. “I was hoping they might soften a few of the rough edges in this castle.” “Ye may as well wish on a star, lass. But first, bring me my ale.” Ciaran bit back a smile as he waited for her response.

“’Twould do you good to pour your own.” She pursed her lips. “I’ve spoiled you, I think.” He went to the settle near the great hearth and sat down, propping his booted feet on the back of Dougal, the family’s giant wolfhound who dozed in the warmth of the fire. Closing his eyes, Ciaran waited. “Who will have venison stew?” Violette was asking the young men. They raised a clamoring reply, and Ciaran heard the sounds of the boards being laid over trestles so they might sit down to enjoy the hot food. “Ach, lass, your stew smells like Heaven itself,” declared Owen MacLeod. “Will ye let me help to serve these young warriors?” “How kind you are, Owen,” she replied warmly. “You may bring the cooking pot to the table so the lads may serve themselves.

We wouldn’t want them to grow into men who expect to be served by a woman.” As Owen laughed and did her bidding, Ciaran wondered if his cousin meant to transfer his affections from Susan, a kitchen maid, to Violette. If Owen began to disrupt the peace of this household, he’d soon find himself back at Dunvegan! At last, Ciaran thought of a way to get Violette’s attention without giving her the satisfaction of hearing him beg for her aromatic stew. The smell of it made his mouth water. “Where’s Da gone to?” Dougal the wolfhound raised his huge head and looked around at the mention of Magnus MacLeod, but Violette took her time. She was laughing with the boys as they ate the stew. At last, she deigned to turn toward Ciaran. “Were you speaking to me?” She smiled a bit too sweetly. “Your father is with Fiona and Christophe at their cottage.” “Without Dougal? ’Tis rare to see this great beast apart from Da.

” “Magnus is talking with them as they make preparations to depart for France on the morrow, and you know that Dougal doesn’t get along with Raoul,” she said, referring to the St. Briacs’ Gascony Grand Bleu hound. “Oh, aye. It will be strange when my sister is so far away. Even though she’s always dreamed of traveling to far-off lands, I suppose I never thought she’d really go.” He paused for a moment before adding, “I hope she will not be so taken with the splendor of Paris that she begins to favor it over our Isle of Skye.” “France isn’t so desirable, really,” came Violette’s terse reply. “I can assure you that life there is far from perfect.” A beam of sunlight found its way through an arrow-slit window and slanted down into the hall, illuminating Violette Pasquiére with hazy golden light. For the first time, Ciaran noticed the small patches on her sleeve and skirt, where she’d painstakingly mended worn places.

No ordinary servant, Violette was proud, intelligent, and strong. She put Ciaran in mind of a faerie princess who’d been stranded among mortals and forced to labor for her bread. “Why are you looking at me that way?” Violette asked. She turned away slightly as she spoke, as if instinctively wishing to shield herself from his scrutiny. This gave him pause, for she was usually so open in her dealings with him. Not for the first time, he wondered about her past. Bemused, Ciaran replied lightly, “No reason. I was just hoping ye would take pity on me and bring me some of that stew.” * * * How much easier life would be if Ciaran MacLeod were an ugly man, Violette thought, or afflicted with a foul smell. Unfortunately however, he was too splendid for words.

As she watched him converse with the young warriors he’d been instructing all morning, her heart stirred restlessly. Violette had come to Duntulm Castle during the past summer, arriving by boat with Fiona and Magnus MacLeod, and she would never forget her first sight of Ciaran. He’d been standing on the cliff, silhouetted against the sea-gate, and his dark, powerful good looks had made her feel both breathless and wary. At that time, Violette had been serving as maid to Fiona, but it soon became clear that the newly-widowed Magnus and his moody rogue of a son, Ciaran, needed her domestic assistance more. When Fiona wed Christophe de St. Briac and went to live in the cottage he built for her, Violette had stayed behind to manage the household at Duntulm Castle. Over the months, she and Ciaran had developed an easy friendship, but she had secrets to keep and was determined to stay at arm’s length. Her very life depended on it. “Those lads are becoming fine warriors,” said Ciaran, interrupting her reverie. “I’d like to think I’ve had something to do with that…” “Indeed.

You and Owen have a right to congratulate yourselves,” Violette replied. Setting down two trenchers of stew, she slid onto the bench and glanced back, waiting for him to join her. “Owen does well enough, but I think you may have a special gift for teaching.” Of course, Ciaran would not want to immediately do what she wanted, so he waited a few moments before rising casually and crossing to sit beside her. “Aye, I believe I do have a gift,” he said drily. “’Tis just one of many.” Violette pretended not to have heard him. “Perhaps the lads deserve a reward for their hard work.” “What sort of a reward?” He regarded the youths who were exuberantly drinking second cups of ale. “Something to make them feel proud to be in service to your clan and this castle.

New plaids, perhaps? If you reward them, they’ll be even more loyal.” He had turned his compelling gaze on her, and Violette couldn’t help responding. As she spoke, she leaned forward and touched his strong hand. “Everyone needs to know they are valued, especially growing boys. And kindness is never a mistake.” Although Ciaran was nodding, he said, “Da would say I’m daft, that such a gesture will only make them soft.” “And what do you think?” “I think…I may do it, no matter what Da might say. I’m the one who has worked with these lads, after all. Even Owen wouldn’t have come to be our Captain of the Guard if I had not pressed Da to ask him.” Violette smiled happily and a reckless warmth stole over her.

As Ciaran turned back to his stew, she remembered the kiss they’d shared months ago, when they had conspired to help Christophe escape undetected from Fiona’s castle bedchamber. They’d kissed to distract the guards, but the moment their mouths had touched, Violette had been suffused with an alarmingly sensuous intoxication, beyond anything she had ever imagined. Those moonlit moments, when Ciaran had held her against his hard-muscled body and explored her mouth with his tongue, had been so keenly arousing that she’d avoided physical contact with him ever since…in the same way she would refrain from touching a hot flame. She knew full well what fate awaited the foolish moth who was drawn to a lit candle… Yet, more and more, it seemed that Ciaran sought to talk things over with her, including his dreams for the future of the castle. Magnus MacLeod was beginning to take an interest in life again after the long illness and death of his wife, and he’d talked about living in another part of the Isle of Skye…or even in Fife. There were too many memories here, he said, yet Violette suspected he also longed to be somewhere less remote, where he might meet eligible women. Ciaran’s brother, Lennox, was also absent, spending extended periods of time on the Isle of Raasay, tending to other MacLeod lands. It had gradually become clear to Violette that Ciaran himself hoped to become keeper of Duntulm Castle. “And ye will help me with this plan to reward the lads?” he asked, offering her a dazzling smile. “Of course I will help.

After we contrive to get the woolen cloth, I will make a plaid for each of your young warriors. Would it not be a fine thing if they each could also be presented with a clan brooch?” “Oh, aye!” He leaned closer still, and she was beset by a sudden wave of longing. Was it not a sin for a man to be as handsome as Ciaran MacLeod? “I like the way you think, lass. Perhaps the brooch could be bestowed as a special reward for some grand achievement.” He paused, looking serious. “Or for showing courage in battle.” Violette felt chilled. She had heard a rumor that the MacDonald clan plotted to retake the Isle of Skye’s Trotternish peninsula, including Duntulm Castle itself. Magnus and his refined Lowlander bride, Eleanor Lindsay of Fife, had raised their family there. “Ciaran, do you fear that the MacDonalds may try to storm Duntulm Castle?” His face darkened.

“Fear? Nay, I do not fear them or anyone else. This is my home and I mean to keep it.” Then he met her gaze and added, “But I do suspect that Donald Gorm may plot with others to steal it from us.” Although the MacLeod and MacDonald clans had been enemies for as long as anyone could remember, the last several years had brought a welcome lull in the hostilities. Now, however, it seemed that the peace might be ending. Violette found Highland politics to be disorderly and confusing. “Tell me again, who is this Donald Gorm? And why does he think he’s entitled to this part of Skye?” “He believes he is the heir to the Lordship of the Isles,” muttered Ciaran. “What’s that?” He looked at her as if she had spoken a foreign language. “How can ye not know this? Don’t they teach subjects of importance in France?” This almost made her laugh out loud, and yet she wanted to throw her arms around him. He was impossible, yet irresistible.

“This will be difficult for you to believe, but the French do not generally consider the Scottish Highlands to be a topic for civilized minds.” “Do ye mean to insult me, lass?” His eyes were narrowed but she wasn’t frightened in the least. Then, with exaggerated patience, Ciaran said, “If ye will bring me a piece of that pie, I’ll explain.” “It is not a pie, but a tarte,” she corrected, while rising to cut a generous portion to set before him. “It is so much better than a common pie.” “Aye, your cooking casts Old David’s in the shade. Perhaps ye would care to take over his duties and appoint him your assistant.” He took a bite and paused to savor the crumbly, sweet crust and plump berries. “As for Donald Gorm, I’ll confess that it’s a tale so tangled even I don’t completely understand.” “Aha! You see, I was right,” Violette teased.

In the next moment, she saw the speculative, amused expression on Ciaran’s face and realized she’d allowed herself to be too playful. Thinning her lips, she willed the flush to leave her cheeks. “Just do your best to sort it out for me. I’m listening.” “Aye. I’ll try to simplify, so ye may understand,” Ciaran said with a twinkle in his eyes. “For centuries, the MacDonalds of Sleat ruled most of the Western Isles, a kingdom too wild and distant from Edinburgh for the King of Scots to bother interfering. Through marriage, they continued to expand until Skye and parts of the mainland came under the control of the Lord of the Isles. Then, near the end of the last century, King James IV became so aggravated with the lordship’s growing power that the Crown put an end to it.” “How long ago was that? A half-century?” “Aye.

That’s about right. The lordship was forfeited, but the MacDonalds continued to hold it up as a misty ideal. In the Highlands, it’s thought of as a kind of Gaelic nationhood, and many dream of restoring the Lord of the Isles.” He paused to savor the last bite of tarte and looked regretfully at the empty dish. “It does sound very romantic,” Violette murmured. Ciaran frowned in a way that only made him look more splendid. “Ye will not say that if Donald Gorm tries to reclaim the Trotternish peninsula. Many years ago, the Crown awarded these lands to my grandfather, Alasdair Crotach, our clan chief. He installed Da as keeper of Duntulm Castle. This castle now belongs to our clan.

But romantic folk like you believe Donald Gorm is entitled to be the Lord of the Isles. He’s worked out some sort of arrangement with Ruairi MacLeod of Lewis, and I suspect together they are conspiring to take back the lands of the Trotternish peninsula for the MacDonald clan…beginning with Duntulm Castle.” An icy shiver ran down Violette’s back. She’d lived here less than one year, yet it had become her home and she understood how deeply the MacLeods were attached to this castle. The notion that someone wanted to steal it away from them was alarming. However, before she could say this to Ciaran, they were interrupted by a familiar, booming voice. “Look who I encountered on the road, as I was returning to the castle!” It was Magnus MacLeod, gesturing back to the doorway of the great hall, where a bent old man leaned on a gnarled walking stick. Ciaran was on his feet in an instant. “Grandfather!” Violette watched him cross the stone floor, pausing to greet Magnus before reaching Alasdair Crotach. The MacLeod clan chief’s body was hunched over, a consequence of a terrible battle wound he’d suffered at the hands of the MacDonalds.

Long, wispy white hair framed a craggy face that remained clear-eyed and alert after nearly nine decades of life. The sight of the two MacLeod men standing together made Violette’s breath catch. They were a study in the cycle of life, she thought—the shrunken old man who had been through so much and accumulated so much power and wisdom in a very long life, looking up at his tall, magnificent grandson, who aspired to a trusted position in their clan. Of course, Ciaran couldn’t ever be the MacLeod chief, for Magnus had been born outside of Alasdair Crotach’s marriage, and the elderly chief now had legitimate sons. Still, there was a strong bond between the MacLeod and his natural son, and Violette could see in the old man’s face that he felt real affection for his proud, often arrogant grandson. As the young warriors returned to the courtyard, she poured ale for the three MacLeods and watched as they took their seats. The pair of men-at-arms who had accompanied Alasdair Crotach stood off to one side, and she served cups of ale to them as well. “I was just returning from a visit to Fi and Christophe,” Magnus told his father. “Their cottage is not far, and as ye may know, they leave for France on the morrow. How I’ll miss my bonnie Fi.

” The big warrior blinked back tears. “Aye. I do know it.” The MacLeod nodded, his eyes bright under the thick white tufts of his brows. “I mean to bid them farewell before returning to Dunvegan today, but I came here first, with news of great import.” “Should I leave you two alone to talk?” asked Ciaran. Violette could sense his underlying curiosity. “Nay,” his grandfather replied in a raspy voice. “This concerns both of you. I’ve had word from the king.

He bids me travel to Edinburgh for a grand banquet and a private audience. Given the troubles between some of the Highland clans and the Crown, I cannot spurn an opportunity to gain young King James’s favor.” Pausing, he added, “In the months to come, we might need it.” From her vantage point behind Alasdair Crotach, Violette could see the telltale gleam in Ciaran’s eyes. In moments of hostility, his eyes were flint-blue, like the sea in a storm, but passion could transform them to clear azure.

.

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