Tempting the Laird – Julia London

THERE’D BEEN A spirited debate among the Mackenzies of Balhaire over where to bury the remains of the venerable Griselda Mackenzie. Arran Mackenzie, her much beloved cousin, wanted her buried at the clan’s seat at Balhaire alongside two hundred years of Mackenzies. But Catriona, his youngest daughter—who had been as close to her “Auntie” Zelda as her own mother—wanted to bury her at Kishorn Lodge, where Griselda had lived most of her remarkable life. In the end, a compromise was struck. Auntie Zelda was buried in the family crypt at Balhaire, but a fèille in her honor was held at Kishorn a month later. This arrangement satisfied Catriona, as it was the celebration she wanted for a woman who had lived life very much on her own terms. Unfortunately, the weather turned foul on the eve of her fèille. Kishorn was remote, far into the Highlands, reachable practically only by boat. Therefore, only the most immediate Mackenzie family was able to attend, rowing up from Balhaire, past the Mackenzie properties of Arrandale and Auchenard, and across Loch Kishorn to the point where the loch met the river for which it was named. There was scarcely anything or anyone this far into the Highlands. A village and prime hunting grounds had once graced the banks of the river, but they were long gone. A Mackenzie ancestor had built the lodge on the ruins of the village. Zelda, who had always preferred her freedom to a confining marriage, and had been indulged by her father, had taken possession of the abandoned lodge as a young woman and had made it her home, lovingly repairing and adding to it over the years. The only thing left of that ancient village was a crumbling abbey, built on a hilltop overlooking the river glen. It was small as abbeys went, and no one could say whose abbey it had been.

Zelda had decided it was hers and had made half of the original structure habitable again. The other half—what had once been the sanctuary—was missing its walls, and only a few beams and arches remained of the roof. It served no useful purpose, other than to provide a wee bit of respite from the weather for the cows that wandered in from time to time. If only they’d had a respite from the cold rain that continued to beat a steady rhythm against the paned windows on the day of the fèille. Catriona was quite undone by it—she’d planned this event to rival all such celebrations for years to come. “I’m bloody well cross with God this day, that I am,” she said to the women gathered around the fire blazing in the hearth. They included her mother, the Lady of Balhaire, and Catriona’s sister, Vivienne. Also present were her sisters-in-law, Daisy, Bernadette and Lottie. “It rained the day we buried her, and here it rains again. She deserved better, she did,” Catriona said as she carelessly held up her wineglass to be refilled.

“Zelda would not care a whit about rain, Cat,” her mother assured her. “She would care only that you carried on with the fèille in spite of it. Can’t you hear her laughing? She’d say, ‘Did you expect cherubs and bluebirds to herald my arrival? No, lass, heaven weeps when I knock at the door.’” “Mamma,” Catriona said gravely, but she couldn’t help a small smile. Zelda would have indeed said something like that. “I miss that old crone,” her mother said fondly, and lifted her glass in solemn salute. “She was incomparable.” That was high praise coming from Margot Mackenzie. She and Zelda had maintained a fraught relationship through the years, had never quite seen eye to eye for reasons Catriona still didn’t fully understand. She knew that Zelda couldn’t bring herself to forgive her mother for being English, which, to be fair, was a sin in the eyes of many Highlanders.

But Zelda had also seemed determined to believe the absurd notion that Catriona’s mother was a spy, of all things. Once, Catriona had asked her father why Auntie Zelda said her mother was a spy, and he’d given her a strange look. “Some things are better left in the past, aye?” he’d said. “You canna believe everything Zelda says, lass.” He had not, Catriona had noted, denied it. In spite of the ancient discord between the two women, in the last months of Zelda’s life, when she’d been ill more often than she’d felt well, Catriona’s mother had come once a week from Balhaire to sit with her. The two of them would argue about events that had occurred during their long lives, but they’d laughed, too, giggling with one another about secret things. One of the serving women refilled Catriona’s wineglass. She drank it like water. With all the Mackenzies crowded into the lodge, there was little room for the games Catriona had planned, and little else to occupy them.

Frankly, Catriona had fallen into her cups. No, that wasn’t correct—she was swimming in her cups, an idea that made her giggle. “There ought to be dancing,” Lottie complained, and shifted uncomfortably under the weight of the bairn she was holding. Another boy. “Something.” “What do you mean?” Vivienne said. “You canna dance, Lottie.” She nodded to the bairn. Lottie had only recently delivered Carbrey. The birth of a second son had Catriona’s brother Aulay strutting about Balhaire like a bloody peacock.

“Aye, but you can dance,” Lottie said, nudging Vivienne. “And I should like to watch.” “Me? I’m too old and too fat for it, that I am,” Vivienne complained, and slumped back in her chair, one hand across her belly. Bearing four children had left her with a full figure. “Bernadette will dance.” “By myself?” Bernadette, wife of Catriona’s brother Rabbie, bent down to stir the logs in the hearth. “Shall I hum the music, as well?” “And what of me?” Daisy asked. She was wed to Cailean, Catriona’s oldest brother. “I’m not too old for a reel.” “Or too fat,” Lottie agreed.

“No, but your husband is too old,” Vivienne said, and nodded toward Cailean. He was seated near a brazier with their father, his legs stretched long. A tankard of ale dangled from two fingers. “’Tis a pity that Ivor MacDonald is no’ here to dance with our Cat,” Catriona’s mother said, and smiled devilishly at her daughter. Catriona’s inhibitions had been drowned by the good amount of wine she’d drunk, and she groaned with frustration. “You’ll no’ rest from seeing me properly wed until you meet your demise!” “And what is wrong with that, I ask you?” her mother asked sweetly. “Yes, what is wrong with that?” Daisy asked. “Why will you not accept Mr. MacDonald’s attentions, Cat?” she asked curiously. “He seems rather nice.

And God knows, he is smitten with you.” Ivor was a thick man, the same height as Catriona, with hair that drooped around his face. In the weeks since Zelda had died, he’d offered his condolences so many times she’d lost count. “He may smite all he likes, but I’m far too restless to tie my lot to a shipbuilder,” Catriona said imperiously, and drained the rest of the wine from her glass. Actually, his occupation had little to do with it—it was most decidedly his lack of a neck. “I think that’s incorrect,” Lottie said, looking puzzled as Catriona held her glass up again. “He hasn’t smited you, but rather, you’re the one who’s done the smiting, are you no’?” Catriona clucked at her. “You know verra well what I mean, aye?” “Aye, I know verra well,” Lottie agreed. “But you’re three and thirty, Cat. Sooner or later you must accept that the last sheep at market must take the price offered or be turned to mutton.

” “Lottie!” Bernadette gasped. “What a wretched thing to say!” Catriona gave the remark a dismissive flick of her wrist. “Aye, but it’s the truth, is it no’? I am firmly planted on the bloody shelf of spinsterhood. I’ve quite accepted I’m to remain without husband or child all my life, aye? That’s what Zelda did, and quite by choice. I know what I’m meant to do— I’m meant to carry on Auntie Zelda’s work.” “I should like to think you are destined for something other than living at Kishorn, removed from all society,” her mother said. “You are not Zelda, after all.” Well, that was just the thing—there was no society for her. There was nothing for her here but endless days stretching into more endless days, with nothing to occupy her but this blasted abbey in the middle of nowhere. “What society, Mamma? Do you mean the Mackenzies and all their married men? Or perhaps you mean the MacDonalds and their representative, Ivor?” “If you don’t care for Mr.

MacDonald, there is more society for you to explore,” her mother argued. “But spending all your time at Kishorn has isolated you from the world.” “Mmm,” Catriona said skeptically. “I think I may safely say I have explored all available society in the Highlands, and like my dearly departed auntie, I’ve found it wanting, I have. And besides, the women and children of the abbey need me, Mamma. Why should I no’ have a grand purpose?” she asked, and gestured so grandly that she spilled wine onto the stone floor. “I’ve learned all that I could from Zelda. The women of the abbey have no other place to go, and I’m determined to carry on, that I am, for there is still so much to be done, and Zelda would have wanted it so. Donna try and dissuade me, Mamma.” She sat up and turned around.

“Where is that serving girl?” “Catriona, darling,” her mother pleaded. But Catriona was in no mood to discuss her future plans. “Diah save me,” she said, and stood up, swaying when she did, and catching herself on the back of the chair before she tumbled. She was exhausted from discussing her situation. She felt as if she’d been discussing it for years and years. Poor Catriona Mackenzie, whatever will they do with her? She’s no prospects for marriage, no society, nothing to occupy her but a run-down abbey full of misfits. “I think I should like to dance, then. Is Malcolm Mackenzie about? He’s brought his pipes, I’m certain of it.” “For the love of God, sit, Cat.” Bernadette caught Catriona’s hand and tried to tug her back into her seat.

“You’re pissed—” “I’ve scarcely had a drop!” Catriona insisted. “That’s the English in you, Bernie,” she said, and wagged a finger at her sister-in-law. “We Scots are far better dancers with a wee bit of wine in us, aye?” “You could hurt someone,” Bernadette said, and tugged on her hand again. “You really shouldna drink so,” Vivienne said disapprovingly. “I shouldna drink, I shouldna dance,” Catriona said irritably. Her few drops of wine were enough to make her feel a wee bit stubborn, and she yanked her hand free of Bernadette’s. But in doing so, she misjudged her balance and stumbled backward into someone. She managed to right herself and turn about and laughed with delight when she saw who had caught her. Rhona MacFarlane was the abbess at Kishorn. Rhona wasn’t really an abbess—she had a heart of gold, but she was no nun.

Nevertheless, everyone called her the abbess, as she had been working alongside Zelda for twelve years. “Aye, look who has come to jig with me, then! Thank you, Rhona, dearest. You’ve saved me from a scolding, and I should verra much like to dance.” Catriona made a flourish with her hand and bowed low, very nearly tipping over. “There’s no music,” Rhona said. “A fair point,” Catriona conceded, and grabbed Rhona’s arms and teased her by trying to make her dance. “We donna need music!” “Miss Catriona!” Rhona said, and pulled her arms free. “Aye, all right, I’ll find Malcolm,” Catriona said petulantly. “Miss Catriona, we have visitors,” Rhona said. Catriona gasped with delight.

“Visitors! Who has come?” She whirled around to the door, expecting to see the MacDonalds from Skye, all of whom had known Zelda well. But the men at the door were not MacDonalds—Catriona could tell by their demeanor they were no friends of the Mackenzies or Kishorn. She was suddenly reminded of the two letters Zelda had received in the last months of her life. Letters written on heavy vellum, with an official seal. Letters that Zelda had waved away as nonsense. Fury swelled in Catriona, her heart calling her to arms and swimming against the tide of wine she’d drunk. How dare they blacken the fèille for Griselda Mackenzie with their presence! If they thought the abbey was easy picking now that Zelda was gone, Catriona would show them that was not the case—she’d die before she’d let these men take the abbey from her and Zelda’s memory. “What visitors?” her mother asked, rising to her feet. “Bloody bastards, that’s who,” Catriona said, and began striding for the door before her mother could stop her. As she neared the men, the one in front bowed his head.

“Who are you?” Catriona demanded. “Ah. You must be Miss Catriona Mackenzie,” the man responded in a crisp English accent. He removed his cocked hat, slinging water onto the floor and one of the Kishorn dogs, who shook it off his coat. “How do you know my name? How did you get here?” “It is my occupation to know your name, and a man at Balhaire was kind enough to bring us.” He removed his dripping cloak and handed it to the gentleman beside him. His coat and waistcoat were so damp and heavy that they smelled of wet wool and hung nearly to his knees. “I am Mr. Stephen Whitson, agent of the Crown. Would you do me the courtesy of informing the laird that I have come to present a matter of some urgency to him?” “My laird?” That man calmly returned her gaze.

“As I said, it is a matter of urgency.” “Is it the same matter of urgency that compelled you to badger my ailing aunt on her deathbed with your letters, then?” “I beg your pardon, Miss Mackenzie, but this is a matter for men—” “It’s a matter of bloody decency—” She was startled out of saying more by the firm clamp of a very big hand on her shoulder. Cailean had appeared at her side and squeezed her shoulder as he gave her a look that warned her to hold her tongue. “I beg your pardon, what’s this about, then?” he asked calmly. “Milord, Mr. Stephen Whitson at your service,” the man said, bending over his outstretched leg. “He wants to take the abbey, that’s what,” Catriona said angrily. “Cat.” Aulay had come around on the other side of her. He took her hand and placed it firmly on his forearm, then covered it with his hand, squeezing so tightly that she winced.

“Allow the man to speak, aye?” “It is true that the abbey is a concern for the Crown,” Whitson said, and casually flipped the tail of his bobbed hair over his shoulder. “I have been sent by the Lord Advocate’s office.” “The Crown?” Cailean repeated skeptically, and stepped forward, putting himself before Catriona. “I beg your pardon, sir, but we are in the midst of a wake for Miss Griselda Mackenzie.” “My condolences,” Whitson said. “I regret my arrival is inopportune, but our previous correspondence went unanswered. As I attempted to explain to Miss Mackenzie, I’ve come with an urgent matter for the laird.” “Aye, bring them forth, Cailean,” Catriona’s father called from the other end of the room. Whitson did not wait for further invitation. He neatly stepped around Cailean and began to stride across the room, heedless of the others gathered.

The room had grown silent, all ears and narrowed gazes on this man. Cailean followed Whitson, but when Catriona tried to move, Aulay tugged her back. “Stay here.” “I’ll no’ stay back, Aulay! That’s my abbey now.” But Aulay stubbornly tugged her back once more. “Then I would suggest, if you want to keep it, you mind your mouth, Cat. You know how you are, aye? Particularly after a wee bit too much to drink.” She was not going to debate how much she’d had to drink with him. “What of it?” she snapped. “Zelda is gone and I have drunk my sorrow.

” She shook his hand off and hurried after the others. Her father had come to his feet. He leaned heavily on a cane, but he still cut an imposing figure and was a head taller than Mr. Whitson. Her father was a good judge of character, and he had judged this man’s character quickly, for he did not offer him food or drink. He said curtly, “What is your business, then?” Mr. Whitson lifted his chin slightly. “As you are to the point, my lord, so shall I be. Kishorn Abbey was used unlawfully in the aiding and abetting of Jacobite traitors who sought to displace our king in the rebellion of ’45, and in return for that treason, the property as such is forfeited.” Catriona and her family gasped, but her father, Arran Mackenzie, laughed.

“I beg your pardon? Kishorn Abbey sits on land that has been owned by the Mackenzies for more than two hundred years. There was no aiding and abetting. We’ve been loyal subjects, sir, that we have.” “Kishorn Abbey was used to house fleeing rebels after the loss at Culloden and was operated by a known Jacobite sympathizer in the form of Miss Griselda Mackenzie. It is pointless to deny it, my lord—we have the witness of two of the sympathizers. As the property was used to house traitors, it is forfeited to the Crown by order of the king.” “By order of the king?” Cailean echoed incredulously. “Are you mad, then? Ten years have passed since the rebellion.” Mr. Whitson shrugged.

“It was a crime then and is yet, sir.” “What does the Crown care for that old abbey?” Rabbie scoffed. “It’s falling down and too remote to be of any use.” “There is interest in it,” Mr. Whitson sniffed, and paused to straighten his lace cuffs. “There are those who believe any use would be better than housing women of ill repute.” Catriona gasped with outrage. “How dare you! Have you no compassion?” Whitson swiveled about so quickly that she was caught off guard. “There are many in these very hills who do not appreciate the likes you seek to house, Miss Mackenzie. Some are very much against it.

” “It is no one’s affair what we do with our property,” Catriona argued. She was acutely aware of Rhona’s nervous fluttering behind her, and even more acutely aware of the anger that was seeping into her bones and warming her face. “I will ignore your discourtesy, Whitson, that I will, for you are no’ from these parts, aye?” her father said. “But if you ever deign to speak to my nighean in that manner again, you’ll find yourself at the receiving end of Highland justice, that you will.” Whitson arched a thick brow. “Do you threaten an agent of the king, my lord?” “I threaten any man who dares speak to my family in that manner,” her father snapped. “Have you an official decree, then, or are we to take the word of a Sassenach?” Whitson’s eyes narrowed. “I rather thought you were a man of reason, Mackenzie. You’ve a fine reputation as it stands, but it’s best for all concerned if you do not push too hard, if you take my meaning. An official decree was delivered to Miss Griselda Mackenzie.

I’ve not a copy of the decree on my person, but I can have one drawn up, if that is what you prefer.” “Griselda Mackenzie has departed this life,” her father said to Whitson. “Until I’ve seen official notice of it, I’ve no reason to believe you.” Mr. Whitson clasped his hands behind his back. “I shall have it delivered posthaste. In the interest of expediency, allow me to inform you the decree grants you and your people six months to vacate the premises of the abbey, and if, by that time, you’ve not vacated, it will be taken by force. The property is forfeited, my lord. The king’s orders are quite clear.” Catriona’s head began to swim; she thought she might be sick.

There were twenty-three souls at the abbey, all but one of them women and children who had been cast out of society. Where would they all go? “Aye, and you’ve a quarter of an hour to vacate these premises, sir, or be removed by force, as well,” her father said, and with that, he turned his back on the strangers. “Expect your decree to be delivered by week’s end,” Mr. Whitson said icily. He turned about and started for the door. “Have you no conscience?” Catriona blurted as he walked past her. He paused. He slowly turned his head and set his gaze on hers, and Catriona felt a shiver run through her. “My advice to you, madam, is that you keep to the charitable works of proper women.” “Get out,” Rabbie said in a voice dangerously low.

Whitson walked out of the room, his assistant hurrying after him with his soggy cloak. All of them remained silent for several moments after the intruders had gone. Catriona’s head was spinning. She thought of the women of the abbey: there was Molly Malone, who had been beaten so badly by her husband that she’d lost the child she was carrying. She’d slipped away in the dead of night with her two young children and a single crown in her pocket. And Anne Kincaid, who, as a lass, had been cast out by a father who had no regard for her. She’d been forced into prostitution to survive. And Rhona, dear Rhona, such a godsend to Kishorn! When her husband had died, there had been no one to take her in. She had done piecework for a year but couldn’t pay her rents. Her landlord had offered her a bargain—her body for a roof over her head.

Rhona had endured it for three months before refusing him. He’d forced her onto the streets without a second thought. There were more of them, many of them with children, and Catriona could not bear to think of what would become of them. She sank onto a chair, her gut churning with disbelief, her heart racing with fear and her head beginning to pound. “Well, then,” Catriona’s mother said. “Airson gràdh Dhè, what are we to do with this news?” Aulay asked. “What can we do that has no’ been tried before?” her father returned as he carefully resumed his seat. “The MacDonalds fought to have property seized by the Crown returned to their heirs and were no’ successful.” “Aye, but the land they wanted returned was arable land,” Cailean reminded him. “It was more valuable than this,” he added, gesturing vaguely toward the window.

“Aye, ’tis no’ worth a farthing for planting,” the laird agreed. “But this is a valuable glen for a Sassenach who means to run sheep.” “Can they no’ put their sheep in the glen and leave the abbey?” Catriona asked. Vivienne snorted. “They donna want the abbey or the women who live here.” She paused and glanced sheepishly at Rhona. “My apologies, Rhona.” “’Tis no’ necessary,” Rhona said. “We know verra well who we are.” “I’ve a suggestion,” Catriona’s mother said.

“I think Catriona ought to deliver Zelda’s letter to my brother sooner rather than later.” Her father looked at his wife curiously. “A letter? What letter?” “Zelda wrote a letter to my brother that has not yet been delivered. You know Knox nearly as well as I, Arran. If there is anyone who might help us, it’s him. He knows everyone in places high and low, and it so happens he is summering in Scotland.” All of Catriona’s brothers groaned. The Earl of Norwood’s summering had been a sore spot for them all. He was one of the wealthy Englishmen who had benefited from the forfeitures and seizures of Scots’ land after the rebellion. He’d bought a small estate near Crieff from the Crown and had once crowed he’d purchased the property for as much as a horse.

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