Secrets, Lies & Sins – K. R. Richards

Well, this was the day. The day. Finlay MacDonnell, the Earl of Dunloy, and by his lineage entrusted to be one of two guardians of the ancient shroud, was being escorted to Castle Sween in Argyll by his new comrades and self-appointed protectors. The Golden Mermaid, designed, built, and owned by Arran Montgomery, the Marquess of Kildonan, sliced effortlessly through the calm waters of the Sound of Jura. Though patches of clouds skittered across the sky, blocking the sun from time to time, it was a fine, late summer morning. “We should arrive at Sween within the hour.” Arran moved to stand beside Fin at the rail. Fin nodded. “It was good of you to send a personal messenger to Dunrostan. If our last visit to Argyll was any indication, there could be trouble awaiting us at Sween. It’s a comfort to know Duncan and his men will be on hand to help.” “It is indeed. Their assistance is most welcome.” Fin’s friend, Francis Nightshade, leaned against the rail at his other side. “I just wish I knew what comes next.

Where we go from here.” Fin exhaled. Arran shrugged. “You’ll know soon enough.” “That I will,” Fin mumbled. I’ll meet Lady Jamesina MacEwen for the first time. Of course, for the past five years, and until just recently, he thought Jamie MacEwen, the other shroud guardian, was a man. He discovered, quite by happenstance, on a visit to Dunrostan several weeks ago, that Jamie MacEwen, his partner in the guardianship of the shroud, a man he’d considered a friend while corresponding with him almost weekly for five years, was not a man at all, but a woman. He resented being lied to, regardless that it was her father who fabricated the lie to protect his only child who happened to be a daughter, and not a son. Jamie chose to continue the lie.

Ah, he supposed he should really think of her now as Lady Jamesina. Well, one would think since the person he thought to be a man and a good friend expressed that he, or rather she felt the same, that it damn well might have occurred to Lady Jamesina to tell him she was a woman! His grip tightened upon the railing. It was God’s truth that it was the lying that ate at him. The reason he’d set the actions laid down by Jamie’s, rather Lady Jamesina’s ancestors and his, had all been put in motion by the actions of another lying woman. Rose MacKeown was the former mistress of Fin’s deceased brother, William. The woman paid a visit to his home, Kilrea Castle, in Country Antrim, Ireland, three months ago, and three years after his brother’s death, mind, just to ask questions about the shroud. When the shroud or guardians were endangered, the guardians must do what they were sworn to do. Stay in their safe places for three months and meet at Castle Sween on the appointed day. Today was that day. The fifteenth of the third month.

They each, Fin and Lady Jamesina, had in their possession one-half of a clue, and when combined, the instructions would lead them to another destination. To the shroud? Another clue? He didn’t know because quite simply, not even the guardians knew the true location of the shroud brought from France by the Templars in thirteen hundred and six. He was currently on his way to meet Lady Jamesina MacEwen, the woman who’d lied to him for years. He’d discovered she’d lied to him after another lying, manipulative woman, whom he now suspected caused his brother’s death, came right to his door with the intention of seducing him to get her hands on the damned shroud. If that wasn’t bad enough, Rose MacKeown was suspected to be among the upper hierarchy of a dangerous group of villains who were also searching for the shroud. They were responsible for the deaths of several shroud scholars, as well as making an attempt on his own life. Enter his new comrades, who began their quest trying to protect the remaining scholars. Many of them had traveled from London to Scotland in hopes of finding clues about the shroud, with the intention of finding it then relocating it in a safe place so no one else would come to harm. He and his colleagues all wanted the same thing, to safely hide the shroud away for good. Too many people had been murdered or harmed by those seeking the shroud for nefarious purposes.

Absently, Fin rubbed his still healing side, and grimaced at the tightness he still felt in his wounded thigh. He might not mind Lady Jamesina’s lies as much if it hadn’t been for the lying Rose MacKeown and while he was at it, the lies of one Maureen O’Brien. Miss O’Brien had captured his heart eight years before, when he was younger and quite naïve, of course. He’d thought himself in love with her at the time, and proposed to her, only to discover weeks later that she had a lover, whom she intended to keep, and was marrying Fin for his title and wealth. In the end, Fin refused to marry her, and thankfully, his father still lived then, for he helped him break off the engagement in an easy and respectable manner so as not to shame either party’s family. It wasn’t that he expected to find love, but God in heaven, a man deserved a faithful wife, didn’t he? He’d vowed then to never to be done in by a woman again. Then along comes Lady Jamesina – who pretended to be Laird Jamie MacEwen, a man he’d felt a kinship with for the entire five years of their correspondence. The reason his mood was so foul and grew sourer the closer they drew to Loch Sween and the coast of Argyll was lies. And women. To be more precise – lying women.

Truth be told, Lady Jamesina MacEwen had lied to him while claiming to be his friend. The woman had truly pulled one over on him and he resented it. Greatly. He could not alter fate. As luck would have it, it was his sworn duty to work closely with Lady Jamesina to find the shroud. Fin didn’t know how he felt about working with her, he didn’t know if he could trust her, and wasn’t even certain he wanted to. He didn’t like the idea one bit. Not one bit, mind. “Cheer up, Fin. You may find Lady Jamesina’s only sin is failing to confess that her father lied about her gender.

” Nightshade shrugged. “Humph. Maybe,” Fin grumbled. “You shouldn’t forget that Creed described her as a great beauty after seeing her portrait at Dunrostan,” Arran offered. “It’s her character that I am more concerned with,” Fin admitted truthfully. “I’d rather spend my time with an honest woman than a beauty you can’t trust.” “You’ve got the gift of reading people, Fin. You’ll be fine.” Nightshade clapped him on the shoulder. “Her honesty, beauty, or lack thereof matters not because you need her in order to locate the shroud.

” Marrek Penaluna, the Earl of St. Erth, joined them at the railing. “I’m aware of this. I’ll work with her, regardless of her temperament. The task must be completed in order to find the shroud and relocate it so no more innocent people die.” Fin let go a heavy sigh. “That is the opening into Loch Sween, across the Sound, there.” Arran pointed out. “We’ll be meeting with the men of Dunrostan within the hour.” “So, we will.

” Fin nodded somberly. He’d be meeting the woman who’d lied to him for five years in the next hour, mayhap two. He couldn’t say he was looking forward to it. Lady Jamesina MacEwen rode through the wood, her eyes cautiously observing her surroundings, her ears tuned to the sounds of nature. She would recognize any human intrusion, for her father had trained her well. It was less than a mile to the spot where her cousin, Ian MacNeill, would be waiting along the path to escort her on the remainder of her journey to Castle Sween. Originally, she planned to ride in alone, but in his missive, Duncan relayed that the situation had escalated to the level of being dangerous. Duncan, who held the position of Dunrostan’s butler, was her late father’s dearest friend and her trusted mentor. Neither Duncan, nor Ian, would consider her riding to Sween alone. She’d fought them on Ian escorting her from the cottage she’d stayed in recently.

It was a safe house and she needed it to remain so. She and Fin might have need to use it on their quest. Her father trained her to be vigilant, cautious, and careful. She could defend herself as well as a man too. Yet her biggest fear this day was meeting Finlay MacDonnell. She and Fin had corresponded these past five years since her father passed away and the guardianship of the shroud passed to her. She considered Fin to be a friend. She believed he considered her one as well. At least, he had when he thought her to be a man. Duncan had informed her by messenger two weeks ago that Fin now knew she was a woman.

Jamie was terrified that he would no longer view her as a friend, much less – well – never mind that now. Jamie had never thought to marry, as she was a shroud guardian. And a woman. For a woman, marriage meant giving a man control over her, and in her case that could mean any man she might take to husband could legally take over control of the MacEwen responsibility of the shroud. That was not something she was prepared to do. She could not assume a man she took to husband would take the role of shroud guardian as seriously as she did. Nor could she trust a man not of MacEwen lineage to protect the shroud in the manner her ancestors decreed. She had sworn, as had all the MacEwen shroud guardians before her, not to allow anyone to compromise the sacred secret they protected. Of course, to her knowledge, all the guardians before her had been men. In her mind, perhaps because of the carefree, easy friendship that she believed she shared with Fin in correspondence, she sometimes imagined that he was probably the only man she could trust enough to marry, for he was a guardian as well.

Reality proved the dream a fleeting fancy. For the checks and balances put forth to ensure the safety of the shroud hundreds of years ago relied upon there being two guardians, one in Scotland, the other in Ireland. Still, dreams of a romance with Fin had been a particular pastime of hers on long, lonely nights, even though, in her heart, she knew it would only ever be a fantasy. Besides, a woman could not fall in love with a man she’d never in her life set eyes upon, could she? Jamie had dreamt several times of a man with dark hair and silvery eyes. She’d never met the man in those dreams, or Fin, in person. Yet, she pictured Fin looking like that since those dreams began. She doubted Fin would look anything like the mystery man in those dreams. Although Fin had written a few things regarding some of his experiences with certain ladies that led her to believe he was popular with the women of Ulster society, she reasoned she might not be attracted to him at all. She cautioned herself he could be an ogre or a brute, but she doubted that as well. She gathered from what he had written about his day-to-day dealings at Kilrea and the people in his care, that he took the responsibility of the people dependent on him very seriously.

She had no idea how Fin felt about her being a woman and not a man. She wondered how he did feel, and how he would treat her now. Surely, he still intended to work with her on their quest for the shroud. That was her hope. Her biggest fear was that he would not. The problem was she didn’t know. What would she do if he refused to partner with her in the search for the shroud? She wasn’t sure about anything. Was Fin angry? Did he feel betrayed, or did her being a woman just not matter? She hoped for the latter but would soon find out. Fear coiled in her belly. Long ago, she had questioned her father regarding the wisdom of allowing Patrick MacDonnell and his son, Fin, to believe she was a male.

Her father had told her that it was a man’s world, and it was best for her to leave things as they were. After all, it had been centuries since the MacDonnells and MacEwens had to enact the series of events that ensured the shroud remained safely hidden from the world. “Chances are,” Alexander MacEwen had once told her, “you may never have the opportunity to meet a MacDonnell guardian in your lifetime.” Well, her father had been wrong. Fate intervened and here it was, the moment of truth. She would soon meet Finlay MacDonnell. In the flesh. There was no point in regretting what was to come. According to Duncan, the shroud, the guardians, and many other innocent people were now in danger. She and Fin, as guardians of the shroud, were sworn to do their duty to protect the sacred relic.

It’s what Fin and Jamie had been trained for their entire lives. Surely, he would continue to uphold the agreement. She shook her head, dispelling such depressing thoughts. She and Fin would meet today and continue on, together, with their inherited task. It was their shared duty. Their destiny. Within the hour, she would know how Fin felt, for better, or worse. And she would deal with it at that time. Duncan informed her they would all meet at Dunrostan with Fin and his fellows afterward. He had called them Fin’s protectors.

Her faithful mentor who served as the MacEwen butler, Duncan, assured her these men could be trusted, and relayed to her that he trusted Fin completely. Yet, Duncan neglected to tell her how Fin felt about her being a woman. In fact, he’d not given her any indication in his missives how Fin reacted to the news. She heard the slightest rustle among the dense undergrowth from the wood on her left. She slowed her gelding and slipped her hand into her coat pocket, curling her fingers around the butt of her pistol. She watched. Listened. Waited. “Hello, Lass.” Her cousin, Ian, made his presence known as he emerged from the trees upon his large, white gelding.

He wore a wide grin, his blue eyes sparkling. “Ian.” She brandished a wide smile as she released her grasp on the pistol. “’Tis good to see you. I’ve missed all of you so much.” “Ah, you’ve pined for me, Lass. No need to shoot me for it.” He laughed. “It’s been three months nearly to the day, in fact.” He displayed a crooked grin.

“Aye. Three long months.” Lonely ones. “You were sorely missed, Jamie. I can tell you that Duncan and I worried nearly every moment you were away.” “I was fine. Duncan and I kept in regular contact through correspondence. Besides, you know that father taught me well.” “Aye, I do, for I was there for much of it. But, Lass, these people after the shroud are merciless.

You are lucky they did not locate you. MacDonnell was nearly killed.” “What?” Her heart seized for a moment. Her one chance to meet Finlay MacDonnell, the man she had come to admire above all others, except of course her father, Duncan, and her cousins Ian and Ewan. She’d never met Fin, would do so very soon, but though she’d never set eyes on him she liked to think she knew his character, and possibly even his heart. Hearing that someone attempted to kill him sent an uneasy shiver racing through her. Even though Fin might not harbor good feelings toward her when they met at last, the knowledge that he’d been wounded while protecting the shroud was a sure sign, and a promising one, that he took their inherited duty seriously. I will, as well, no matter how he feels about me. “Aye, he was shot in the side and the leg. He was alone at the time, but managed to make it to friends who are now protecting him.

” “And what do you know of Fin MacDonnell? What sort of man is he?” “I like him. He’s a good man of sound character.” “Duncan mentioned in a letter that Fin knows about me.” Ian nodded. “Aye. He was surprised, but eventually seemed to accept it.” Jamie’s eyes narrowed upon her cousin. “Mostly.” Ian gave her an uncomfortable shrug. “He wasn’t pleased.

” She watched her cousin’s face. “Well, I wouldn’t say he was pleased, but-” “The truth if you please, Ian MacNeill. I’m a woman grown and you don’t need to make it sound any better than it is on my account.” Ian shook his head. “Verra well then. No, he definitely was not happy with the news at first, yet he does seem determined to find the shroud and eliminate our enemies.” Jamie let go a long sigh. “Relax, cousin. Dunloy has had weeks to get used to the idea that you’re a woman and not a man. Once he sets eyes on you, well, I believe he’ll come around.

I’ve always told you that you are the fairest woman in all of Argyll.” Ian gave her a wink. Jamie’s intense gaze caused Ian to squirm. “Well, lass, there’s a good chance he’ll be fine once he meets you.” “I just hope we can still be friends,” she whispered. “All will be well. He seems to be a fair-minded man. And you’ve the kindest heart I know.” Ian gave her a reassuring smile. Jamie hoped Fin MacDonnell was a fair-minded man.

Fin stood with his comrades. Beyond them, the ruins of Castle Sween stood on a rocky headland, overlooking the loch of the same name. “What time is Lady Jamesina expected?” Fin removed his watch to check the time as he turned to Duncan. “Anytime, my Lord. We will await Ian’s signal.” Duncan MacGowan, Lady Jamesina’s chief protector informed him. Fin nodded. Duncan had sent a group of men out to scout the area for signs of intruders. He had others stationed in strategic points around the castle. He assured Fin they would be safe.

Fin’s friends, Arran, Nightshade, Marrek, and Creed waited with him. The loud caw of a crow sounded from the wood nearest to the castle. “That would be Ian. They are approaching.” Duncan’s gaze slid toward Fin. “I’ll make my way then.” Fin turned, intending to retrieve his horse. “Can you not meet here in the protection of the trees?” Nightshade reached out and caught his arm. “There’s open ground around the sides and back of the castle, and the loch in front of it. I fear being confined on the promontory will make for a difficult escape for you and Lady Jamesina if our enemies attack.

” “Our instructions specify we are to meet inside the castle, just past the main entrance.” Fin shrugged. “Why?” Marrek asked. Fin shook his head. “I’ve no idea of the why of it. Only that it is specified in the instructions. Perhaps our clue leads us to something inside the castle. I can’t say.” Fin watched two riders, one wide-shouldered man astride a white gelding, and the much more slender of the two riding a bay. The pair picked their way up through the jutting rocks along the headland.

Fin knew by the sheer size of the man, that Ian MacNeill was on the white horse. The thin, lean person, dressed in trousers like a man, mind you, and riding the sure-footed bay had to be Lady Jamesina. “It seems Lady Jamesina intends to follow instructions and meet inside Sween. We’ll accompany you,” Arran declared.

.

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