Stars are Brightly Shining – Paula Quinn

ELYSANDE MACPHERSON WALKED into the great hall of the even greater MacPherson stronghold in Invergarry and smiled at the sight before her. With the help of her cousins, they had decorated the hall and just about everywhere else with mountain laurel, fir, and pine with cones attached, and holly branches. The flora was hung on walls and tables, over archways and mantels, and in vases on the tables. Everywhere she went, it smelled like the outdoors and baked goodness from the hall’s own kitchen. Delicious wassail warmed the bones and small, rectangular mince pies were handed out to everyone, all prepared with shredded beef, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Later, they would feast on salmon pottage with carrots, parsnips, and an array of leafy vegetables, clootie dumplings, Christmas cakes, bread puddings and more. It was Christmas Eve, the beginning of Christmastide for the next twelve days. The celebration was going well. No one had been killed…yet. In fact, everyone seemed to be enjoying the celebration. Even Elysande’s slippered foot tapped to the merry music played by her kin. Her eyes found Cainnech MacPherson amidst the faces. She still considered her father the most handsome of all the men she’d ever seen. He was big and broad-shouldered in his belted plaid. He wore his hair shaved on the sides with the rest braided down his back.

His eyes were like shards of sapphire in frost. He was the only one scowling, staring across the hall at his enemy, Robbie Cameron, who had been invited by Elysande’s uncle, Torin, in the hopes of ending their kin’s feud. Peace. It was the talk at every table inside the stronghold—which consisted of three main stone manor houses, several smaller cottages, a great hall with its own kitchen, a gatehouse, a church, several smiths, two tanners, a handful of carpenters and other tradesmen, a garden where much of the food was grown and a wall surrounding all of it. Everyone had their own opinions on peace. Her father’s was that peace could only be achieved when his enemies were dead. She knew his past. She understood why he felt the way he did about many things. She appreciated the measures he went to in order to guarantee her safety, but her father —her dear, loving father was driving her mad. He was also driving all of her suitors away.

All. Away. She was ten and nine and not getting any younger. She wanted a husband and a family, but her father scared everyone away. No matter how far they traveled. He threw them all out and shot arrows at them from the wall. The few he did allow in, he eventually frightened into running, and that was the end of them. Only Hugh had remained. Hugh Tanner, the son of her father’s friend, which meant that he wasn’t as hated as all the rest. She found him in the crowd.

He was tall and handsome with light blond hair to his shoulders and a bit of sharpness to his nose. She’d resigned herself after her last suitor was tossed out of the stronghold on his arse that Hugh would likely be the man she married. She wasn’t in love with him, but that didn’t matter, did it? His gaze found hers and she smiled, hoping he liked what she wore for the celebration—dark red skirts, a white kirtle and an embroidered, red overcoat and a wreath of mountain laurel in her hair. But Hugh turned away and went back to listening to another man speak. From where she stood, Elysande couldn’t see the man but his voice was like satin across her ears. He spoke of a woman and how he admired her even over the male commanders he had known. Curious to hear about such a woman, Elysande squeezed her way through the small crowd around him. When she saw the storyteller, she stopped. He was quite handsome, heart-wrenchingly so. His hair was black and tied at his nape, though some stray strands escaped and fell around his face.

His skin was the color of moonlight. He wore a short tunic, belted at the waist. He carried no weapon, as any guests not living at the stronghold were not permitted to bring weapons inside with them. Woolen hose and boots encased his calves and long, muscular thighs. She cleared her throat and blushed, admiring his raw virility. He must have a wife…or several lovers. Even if he didn’t, she had her father to get through. She turned around to see if her father was watching, but she couldn’t see him when the crowd closed in, so she returned her attention to the stranger. Was he Cameron’s son? There were other welcomed guests attending. Elysande hoped he was one of those.

“I didna arrive until later in the year,” said the glorious stranger with pale green eyes wreathed in lush black lashes. The closer Elysande came to him, the weaker her breath became. “But as ’twas told to me, the Earl of Dunbar was away and, thinkin’ the castle would be an easy target, the English tried to take it. But the castle was under the command of the earl’s wife, Lady Agnes Randolf, Countess of Moray—or Black Agnes, as she is known because of her dark skin and hair. She had just a few men with her, but she pledged to defend the castle. When the English, led by the Lord of Salisbury, requested that she surrender, she sent him a bold reply that she would keep her house. After he had hurled boulders from catapults into the castle walls, Agnes sent oot her maids onto the ramparts with handkerchiefs to wipe the debris from the walls and sing ditties as they worked.” Caught up in the tale, Elysande smiled and moved closer. “Angered by her boldness,” he continued, feeding his audience more. “Salisbury rolled oot a huge batterin’ ram with a wooden roof to protect the men underneath.

They pounded the doors, once, twice. The doors cracked and the people inside fled, terrified fer their lives. But Agnes was unmoved and ready fer such an attack. She ordered large boulders—ones that the English catapults provided—to be dropped down from the ramparts. They crashed into the wooden roof and killed many of the men beneath. The rest fled every which way.” Some of his audience laughed and shook their heads in awe of Agnes Randolf’s cleverness. “Winter passed and spring arrived,” he continued. “Salisbury knew that Dunbar’s winter food supply had to be gravely low. And ’twas.

Agnes and her men wouldna have lasted another month. I know because ’tis when I arrived with Lord Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie with supplies. We entered the castle in two boats through a half-submerged tunnel below the castle. “True to Agnes’ nature, she had fresh bread and wine sent out to Lord Salisbury, lettin’ him know they were strong and well fed.” People around Elysande clapped. Indeed, she clapped, as well, loving the heroics of this woman, a woman like her mother. “But the best of all,” the stranger told them with a furtive smile, “was when, in desperation, Salisbury had Agnes’ brother, the Earl of Moray, brought forth and threatened to kill him if she didna surrender. But Agnes pointed out that should her brother be killed, childless as he was, she would inherit the title and become the next earl. Finally, Salisbury retreated, knowin’ he couldna beat her. His men sang a ballad to her as they marched away.

‘She makes a stir in tower and trench, That brawlin’, boisterous, Scottish wench; Came I early, came I late. I found Agnes at the gate.’” Everyone who had gathered around him clapped and cheered when his story came to an end. As the small crowd began to disperse, his gaze met hers and he moved toward her. She waited for him to say something. When he finally tried—tearing his eyes off the thin laurel wreath around her brow—he stumbled over the few words he managed. “I…ye…ehm.” She blushed at how he looked about to fall at her feet. Taking notice of the MacPhersons’ enraptured guest, her uncle, Torin, ventured over with laughter dancing across his wide, green eyes. He wore his gold-splashed hair plaited and pulled back at his temples, but gossamer curls still managed to escape and fall softly around his eyes.

“Raphael, son of Robert Cameron,” he introduced, “my niece, Elysande, daughter of Cain MacPherson.” At his introduction, Raphael and Elysande’s smiles faded. Their fathers were enemies. They might as well turn around and leave now. Nothing could ever come of them. Elysande had the urge to pout, but she was no child. And why should she? Just because the woman Raphael Cameron admired most was strong and intelligent? Because his stunning green eyes were compelling and curious about her? Because she wanted to brush his hair off his cheek…and run her fingertips over his full, curved lips? Because she would never see him again after Hogmanay? There were a dozen more reasons for her sudden sadness. Her father would never—“Elysande!” His voice thundered through the hall. He didn’t wait for her response, but stormed toward her. “Go find yer mother.

” “Cain, they are just meetin’,” her uncle risked. “Just meetin’?” Cainnech MacPherson’s eyes hardened with dark intent. Her uncle took a step back. “First ye invite them to the stronghold, and now ye are handin’ them my only daughter!” Just a moment now! No one was handing her over to anyone, but Elysande knew that arguing with her father now was pointless. “Mr. MacPherson,” the foolish, seemingly fearless Raphael Cameron said. “I would never dishonor yer daughter. I am here fer peace, not a bride.” “That is good to hear,” her father growled. Elysande wished she felt the same relief at the declaration.

“Otherwise,” her father promised, leaning in and aiming his most lethal glare at Robbie Cameron’s son. “I would skin ye alive and then hang ye by yer ankles, naked and skinless in the cold until ye died.” Elysande closed her eyes. She didn’t expect to see Raphael still standing there when she opened them again. None of the men who tried to court her had stood up to her father. But Raphael hadn’t run. He was still there. Chapter Two RAPHAEL WOULD HAVE a serious talk with Torin MacPherson later about dishonesty. Torin had vowed that his two brothers wanted peace as he did. On that vow, Raphael had begged his father to accept the MacPhersons’ invitation to their Christmastide celebration and staying for Hogmanay.

Not long after they arrived, Raphael had discovered that the most merciless brother of the three, Cain, did not want peace. Not surprisingly, he also felt very strongly about a Cameron anywhere near his bonny daughter. Elysande. In all his travels, Raphael had never met anyone so exquisite, so utterly perfect to his eyes. When he’d first found her among the many faces of his audience, he’d wanted to say something, but he couldn’t. He’d never lost his power of speech before—or had it been his inability to form a coherent thought that stopped him from speaking? Why did she have to be MacPherson’s daughter? How was he ever expected to forget her luminously big, blue eyes that spoke their own language, or her mouth…hell, her mouth was the shape of an expertly carved bow, pink and plump and parted with bated breath, waiting for him to say something! “Father,” she spoke, denying her father’s request to go find her mother. He didn’t seem to mind. She spoke and Raphael fell like one enchanted by the sound of her, by the sight of her long, loose curls draping her shoulder and secured by her laurel circlet. She looked like a forest angel, otherworldly and mesmerizing. “Mr.

Cameron was just tellin’ the story of Lady Agnes Randolf of Dunbar Castle.” “Hmm,” her father growled, still eyeing him. “I know of her.” “She reminds me of mother,” beautiful Elysande told him. Then she turned to Raphael and rattled his world around in her hands with her smile. He had spoken the truth. He hadn’t come here for a bride, but now that he’d seen Elysande MacPherson, he wondered if there was a man in the stronghold who had already captured her heart. He glanced at her glaring father and doubted it. “My mother defended her castle in England with the same tenacity as Lady Agnes.” “Yer mother is English?” Raphael asked with a raised brow aimed at her father.

This was a surprise that the fearsome Highland warrior had married his enemy. “Norman,” her father corrected on a warning growl. “She knew my father’s troops were comin’,” Elysande continued, drawing Raphael’s attention to her…along with her father’s. “So with the help of her loyal villagers, they turned the surroundin’ forest into a battlefield. They constructed walkways in the trees and built traps that could be set off from above.” “We lost nine men at her hands,” said another Highlander who had just joined them. He had a long scar running down his face, and a wee girl in his arms. “She didna give up even after we took the castle. Remember, Cain? She poisoned Nicky.” “Aye,” her father nodded, his scowl, finally fading into something warm.

“She escaped the dungeon and tried to kill me in my own bed.” The men laughed with admiration for her. Raphael was surprised and gladdened that such warriors felt as they did. When the woman they were speaking of entered the hall, Elysande called to her. “Mother! Come join us!” Aleysia d’Argentan MacPherson approached with her arm hooked onto the elbow of an older priest. She was even lovelier than Raphael expected by the looks of her daughter. Her skin was as white as winter. Her eyes were as green as trees in summer. Her long, plaited hair was dark with a broad streak of gray shot through above her right temple. After her arrival, more people came to share memories of a castle called Lismoor and the surrender of the Scot’s fiercest warrior.

Raphael enjoyed the stories and, more, the fact that Cain MacPherson finally forgot about him. He caught Elysande’s eyes and she motioned for him to meet her at a long, nearby table. He did as she silently requested, doubting the good of his decision…of his mind and followed her. He looked toward the table where his father was sitting and drinking wassail with the youngest MacPherson brother, Nicholas. “Dinna worry,” Elysande reassured him. “If anyone can win him over, ’tis Uncle Nicky.” “Ye dinna know my father,” Raphael said, shaking his head. “Robbie Cameron is a cantankerous man, always sour and ready to fight. I worry I made the wrong decision in comin’ here and in trustin’ yer uncle, Torin, when he had proposed the idea of comin’ together fer Christmastide. Let our friendships grow and animosity end and let there be peace.

It felt good talkin’ aboot it.” Raphael wanted nothing more. He was determined to strive for it. He’d been so since his mother lost her life to a band of Privers, also rivals of the Camerons. The Privers were nearly wiped out in his father’s rage. He and his small army of men, including Raphael, had killed two hundred men, leaving their wives as widows and their children as orphans. Raphael wanted to avoid battle again. He would do almost anything, including dine and drink with the enemy and try to make them enemies no more. But he hadn’t bargained on meeting the most beautiful woman in Scotland, or that he would like sitting with her, talking to her, looking at her. “How do ye feel aboot peace, Elysande?” He bowed his head, hoping he hadn’t been too forward all this time using her Christian name.

“May I call ye Elysande? I like the sound of it.” She nodded then rested her elbow on the table and her chin inside her hand. “I like how it sounds when ye say it. And I shall call ye Raphael. Ye do know that Raphael is the name of an angel, aye?” He laughed softly. “I dinna take after my namesake.” “How d’ye know that?” she asked. He thought that if she wanted him to be an angel, he would give up everything that displeased God—what was he saying? He was a fool. His father would never…her father would never… He should get up, leave her company. He could go sit with his father and learn a little about Nicholas MacPherson.

But he didn’t want to leave her. “Aboot peace…” He blinked. “Aye?” She lifted her chin out of her hand and crossed her arms on the table. “I am not sure I stand on yer and Uncle Torin’s side.” “Och, dear lady, ye twist the knife.” He pretended to be holding on to said knife at his heart and writhed in pain. “Fergive me, dear sir, but with Robert the Bruce dead and his young son on the throne, we dinna have the guarantee of safety we once enjoyed with his father. If we begin lettin’ everyone into the stronghold, ’twill no longer be a stronghold. Still…” “Still?” he asked, praying there was hope for her. “If ye become the next chief, I would trust ye to keep yer word.

” “And ye would give peace a chance between our clans?” “Aye,” she promised with a smile that softened her large eyes. “But ’twill take a miracle to change my father’s mind.” “Ah, well, then ’tis a good thing I know people,” he said, glancing up—referring to his angelic name.

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