The Bard – Maeve Greyson

THREE DAYS İNTO the visit, and he still hadn’t been shot. Considering the intensity of Lady Sorcha’s threat, Sutherland MacCoinnich considered his lack of injury nothing less than miraculous. He shifted in the sumptuous depths of a leather armchair. “Quite the library, eh? Rivals Tor Ruadh’s even.” The only space in the enormous room not covered with manuscripts was the entrance and an array of tall windows overlooking a dreary garden struggling to recover from winter. Magnus de Gray, Sutherland’s long-time friend and brother in arms, slowly nodded while drumming his fingers on the armrests of a matching chair. “That it is,” he said as he looked around. The leather of his seat squeaked in protest as he leaned toward Sutherland and lowered his voice. “Ye’ve still not seen her or heard anything, yet?” He cast a glance at the door. “I havena been able to glean a single hint of her whereabouts from any of the servants. Never have I seen such loyalty.” He shot another look at the entrance, then shook his head. “I dinna think she’s even here. Has Greyloch still said nothing? The man has to know what happened between the two of ye.” “Not a bloody word about her gracing us with her presence nor last summer’s damned bet, no matter how many hints I place in every conversation.

” Sutherland rose, angled his chair to better face the entry to the library, then sat back down. “And that is why I willna be exposing my back to any door until this feud between the lovely Lady Sorcha and myself is settled.” The chieftain of Clan Greyloch had been agreeable enough at the prospect of a meeting to discuss business between the two clans. The congenial man had even welcomed them as though no undercurrent of hostility existed. Still, the first three days at Castle Greyloch had been strange. The chief had seemed too busy for them at every turn, barely sparing a moment long enough for a few words even during oddly rushed meals. Sutherland had mixed feelings about this visit that his brother, Chieftain MacCoinnich, had insisted upon. Of course, he had wondered if he would survive another encounter with Lady Sorcha. The thought of her triggered a wicked smile. He had to admit he looked forward to a fresh duel with the fiery lass.

After all, she was one of very few women he had never been able to charm. In all honesty, he truly regretted his badly handled visit the past summer. His careless wager had somehow reached the lady’s ears and did not set well with her. It hadn’t set well with him, either, when it ended up costing him a barrel of whisky. Lady Sorcha’s promise to shoot him if he so much as rode past Castle Greyloch’s gates again was disappointing, as well. He couldn’t believe the woman had gotten so angry about his betting he would have her bedded on his first night at their keep. Could she not see it as a compliment to her loveliness? A narrow section of bookshelves behind the massive mahogany desk in front of them shifted with a low, groaning creak like the opening of a tomb. It slowly swung open. He took to his feet and stepped behind the broad back of his chair but stopped at drawing a weapon. Instinct bade him wait until he knew who approached, while at the same time, his mercenary readiness tensed him tighter than a bowstring.

Magnus remained seated, giving him a side-eyed look as though he thought him mad. “Ye look a fool, ye ken?” Sutherland ignored him, keeping his focus locked on the slowly opening panel. Chieftain Robert Greyloch sidled his hulking frame into the room, giving the bookcase a critical up and down scowl as he shoved it back in place. “Damn thing. Sticking again.” His irritation disappeared as he turned and lumbered over to a chair large enough for three men. As he pulled it back from the desk, he gave an apologetic nod. “Forgive the delay in our sitting down to discuss business, gentlemen. It’s calving time. A verra busy season for our clan to ensure the continued success and growth of our prized cattle.

” His apologetic look shifted to Magnus, then returned to Sutherland. “Since the MacCoinnichs are curators of the finest breed of horses in all of Scotland, I’m sure ye understand.” He hooked his thumbs in the pockets of his waistcoat and chuckled at Sutherland. “Ye’d do better to face the chair this way, lad.” He jerked a thumb toward the wall of books behind him. “When Sorcha returns from the village today, she’ll enter the library the same way I did. But ye do well to take cover. I feel sure she’s intent on keeping the oath she made the last time the two of ye met.” So Magnus had been correct. Lady Sorcha had been away all this time.

But she returned today. Sutherland found himself looking forward to it more than fearing it. “I appreciate the warning, Chieftain.” He returned the chair to its original position, thankful Greyloch’s good humor appeared to be as massive as his size. While he matched the chief in both height and build, he had never seen a man with hands so large. The old warrior’s fists were broad as shields. Determined to ensure there was, in fact, no ill will between them, Sutherland held out his hand. “Since we are finally speaking openly about the matter, allow me to extend my apologies regarding my behavior last summer.” He twitched a shoulder, feeling a bit like a lad confessing about something he knew he shouldn’t have done. “I meant no harm or insult to the lovely Lady Sorcha, but I do regret behaving in such a roguish manner.

” Greyloch rumbled out an even deeper chuckle as he grabbed hold of Sutherland’s forearm and squeezed hard enough that he nearly crushed his bones. “I accept yer apology, sir, but dinna fash yerself.” He winked, still holding tight to Sutherland. “My daughter can take care of herself quite well, and I understand yer position completely. There once was a time when I was known to throw down a wager or two when it came to a challenging conquest.” Directing Sutherland to sit, he took his own chair. A glint in his eye, he settled back, stroking his closely cropped beard. “But all jests aside, ye would do well to tread lightly around her when she arrives. I fear she possesses her mother’s fire and tendency to foster a grudge—forever.” All levity left him as his silvery head tipped forward.

“God rest her soul,” he added quietly. “God rest her soul, indeed.” Sutherland wasn’t quite certain what to say next. When last they had visited, he’d realized the rumors about the great love Chieftain Greyloch and his wife had shared were not rumors but truth. The man still seemed as stricken with grief as he had last summer. “It’s been well over two years now since that damned accident robbed me of my lady love.” Greyloch shifted, heaving out a deep sigh as he scrubbed a hand across his face. He sat taller and looked at each of them with a strained smile. “But we must try and move on, aye?” Sutherland wished he could ease the man’s lingering pain, but all he could do was provide a distraction. “Aye, Chief, and while Clan MacCoinnich’s losses canna begin to compare with yer own, we’re attempting to move on from our own sorrows as well.

” “I heard of the Neal uprising.” Greyloch leaned forward, resting his forearms on the desk. “Shameful ungratefulness after all the MacCoinnich did for that clan. Prospered it well beyond what old Neal would ever have done.” The intensity of the man’s stare tightened like an arrow about to be released. Chieftain Greyloch might be getting on in years, but nothing about the man appeared diminished in any way. “Why did the MacCoinnich release them so easily from their oath of fealty? And gave them half the lands along with a share of the herds to boot? The man actually gave them the glens to the south? Those fine glens abutting the Campbells?” “Aye, sir. But it was a complicated matter, ye ken?” Sutherland wasn’t about to lay out his brother Alexander’s choices and the why’s of them to the chieftain. The ending of the feud with the Neals had come at great cost, but the decisions made had been necessary. Not only for the good of the clan but for the protection of the MacCoinnichs politically.

Sutherland gave Chieftain Greyloch a look he hoped the man would understand and not take offense. “Such a story is better left for yerself and the MacCoinnich to share over a dram or two.” “Speaking of which,” Greyloch thumped both hands on the desk and pushed himself to his feet, “it appears I have forgotten my manners. I’m sure yer throats are dry, and yer bones are cold from this dreary day. ’Tis still bitter cold for this to be early March.” He went to an amply stocked sideboard and filled three glasses. Waving them forward, he held one up. “Come, gentlemen. I refuse to risk spilling this fine whisky by toting it over to ye.” Sutherland and Magnus didn’t have to be invited twice.

Both joined Greyloch and gladly accepted their drinks. Sutherland relished the rich burn down his gullet, while the heady fumes filled his nose. Nothing warmed a man’s soul nor relaxed his mind quite like a good whisky. The creaking of the bookcase door behind him and the click of a pistol abruptly interrupted his appreciation of Greyloch’s fine blend. “Ye will do me the courtesy of turning, Master MacCoinnich. I prefer to look a man in the eyes when I shoot him.” Lady Sorcha’s melodious voice was laced with more venom than an adder. Sutherland fought the urge to rub at the hairs standing on end across his nape. Instead, he downed the rest of his drink in one gulp and returned the glass to the sideboard. He had been warned more than once that his womanizing ways would be the death of him.

He reckoned death by the hand of a beautiful lass was as good a way to go as any. Slowly turning, he held out his arms. Might as well provide the lady with a broader target. He came close to stumbling as he faced her. May the heavens help him, the woman was still lovely as hell even with a pistol pointed at his chest. Tall and slender as a graceful willow, with long hair the color of a red deer’s newly born fawn. Eyes a startling greenish-gold, honed in on the sighting of her prey. Lady Sorcha Greyloch possessed a fierce, untamed beauty. She was definitely more intoxicating than any drink. “Would ye grant me one last request, dear lady?” “Why should I?” Fire and fury flashed from her.

What passion this bonnie lass possessed. Damnation, he wished she didn’t feel so ill toward him. What he wouldn’t do for a chance to win her over. Perhaps he might accomplish it yet. After all, as long as he wasn’t dead, there was hope. With a contrite dip of his chin, he took a step forward, keeping his arms extended. “Aye, my dearest lady, ye speak the truth of it. Ye are in no way bound to grant me a last request, but still, I beg ye to search what I’m certain is yer generous nature and choose to hear me out, even though I am so undeserving.” “Come now, daughter,” Chieftain Greyloch urged, utterly failing at hiding his amusement. “It wouldna be Christian to shoot the man without hearing him out.

” He moved to stand beside Sutherland. “Be a good lass, now, and let the man speak his piece, aye?” Weapon steady and still leveled at her target, Lady Sorcha’s eyes narrowed even more. Sutherland could tell she knew her father thought this all a jest. He prayed she wouldn’t kill him just to prove the man wrong. After a few moments, she gave a regal nod. “Speak yer request then. But know this, just because I hear it doesna mean I shall grant it, ye ken?” Just to buy himself a bit more time and maybe even a tad of the lass’s favor, Sutherland dropped to one knee. Surely, the woman wouldn’t shoot a man kneeling at her feet. “All I ask, m’lady, is that ye grant me yer forgiveness for behaving like an ill-mannered cur. Please, I beg ye find it in yer heart to understand why I couldna help myself.

The temptation was just too great. Yer beauty addled me, so I lost all ability to reason.” The pistol didn’t waver. Lady Sorcha’s head tilted slightly as one of her delicate brows arched higher. “So, ye’re saying the fault of yer uncomely behavior is mine?” “Aye, m’lady.” He was a dead man for sure. He could tell it by her tone. Since he was already condemned to die, maybe he should ask for a kiss as well. Might as well leave this world with the taste of a fine lass on his lips. “Dear woman, truly, I had never beheld such a rare loveliness as ye possess, and a man is always more motivated to win a fair lady’s approval when a wager is involved.

Ye ken it’s our nature to compete—to strive for our lady love’s hand. The bet drove me even harder to win a sweet kiss from yer divine lips.” “My divine lips?” she repeated. Her contempt appeared tempered with the amusement of a spider toying with its prey. “I’m the fairest woman ye’ve ever met, ye say? And ye needed the bet to give ye the courage to try and seduce me?” “Absolutely, m’lady. ’Tis the honest truth. I swear it.” Sutherland assumed the most woeful look he could manage. “I pray the angels are as lovely as yerself, m’lady. My death willna be so bad then, although, I’m certain, they willna be able to console me if ye dinna grant me yer forgiveness and maybe even a last kiss so I might find rest in the hereafter.

” Lady Sorcha blew out a very unladylike snort. “If our stables were filled with as much shite as ye just spewed, our livestock would drown in it. I shouldha worn my boots. Ye’ve piled it arse-high in here.” “Daughter!” Chieftain Greyloch strode over and plucked the pistol out of her hand. “Such language! Enough of this foolishness now. Accept the man’s apology and be done with it. At least he asked yer forgiveness, and might I also add, he didna spread unseemly rumors about ye like some wouldha done once ye spurned them.” “A man will apologize for anything when he’s facing the barrel of a gun.” Lady Sorcha lifted her chin and pinned a damning glare on Sutherland.

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