The Highland Laird – Amy Jarecki

Emma Grant gripped the silk ribbon tied around her sister-in-law’s waist while she hastened forward. “You’re walking too fast!” A plethora of guests crammed the passageway, the boisterousness from their conversations almost deafening. She tightened her fist. “Janet! Did you hear me?” No reply came as someone shouldered Emma aside, making her lose her grasp on the ribbon. A chill pulsed through her blood. No! “Janet?” she called, the crowd forcing her against a wall. “Robert!” She shouted her brother’s name while people brushed past as if she didn’t exist. “Help,” Emma whispered, almost too terrified to raise her voice. Was she safe here? Robert had insisted she would be, but after a lifetime of being hidden away from society, years of pent-up fear crept across her skin. Unable to utter another sound, she clutched her trembling fists around her medal of Saint Lucia and squeezed her eyes shut. Robert would find her just as soon as he realized they’d been separated. Please! “Miss Emma?” a voice murmured beside her. The deep tenor made her heart beat faster. A different type of chill raced up her spine. But this was a much more pleasant sort of racing.

“Ciar? Is it you, sir?” Warm hands wrapped around her fingers, which were still clutching the medal of her patron saint. “Aye, lass. Whatever are you doing standing in the passageway? With this many people milling about you could be trampled.” “I-I was with Janet and Robert, but we were pushed apart.” “Not the best place to lose your guide,” he said, his tone teasing a bit while he moved her palm to the crook of his elbow. “Allow me to escort you the rest of the way.” With Emma’s next breath, her fear vanished. Thank heavens for Ciar MacDougall, chieftain of Dunollie. My knight in shining armor. “Thank you,” she said, letting him take the lead.

Dunollie was her brother’s greatest ally, and Emma trusted him implicitly. With her next step, the floor changed from stone to hardwood. The scent of roasted lamb and fresh bread enveloped her. “Have we entered the hall?” she asked, her mouth watering. Ciar gave her arm a reassuring pat. “Indeed, we have.” “Do you see Robert and Janet? By the rumble of the crowd, I fear there are so many people in attendance I’ll never find our table.” “Not to worry. I see them already.” Ciar tugged her a few steps to the right.

“It must be difficult to travel away from Moriston Hall.” “Och, is that not the truth? Wedding feasts would be so much more enjoyable in Glenmoriston, where everything is familiar.” “Agreed.” Ciar slowed the pace. “Good Lord, your brother looks as worried as a mama goose who’s lost her gaggle of goslings.” Emma chuckled at the notion. Robert might be a laird, but he never ceased to worry about her. “Good. In their haste to reach the hall, he and Janet left me in their wake.” “Hardly likely, knowing Robert.

I’ll wager he came close to losing his mind when he realized you were no longer behind him.” “He most likely did. He’s so overly protective, ’tis very like him to do so.” Emma gave her escort a nudge. “Does he see us now?” “Aye.” “Is he smiling?” “Not exactly.” She waved and grinned as wide as her cheeks allowed. “I do not want him to think I was afraid.” “You? Afraid?” Ciar’s deep chuckle rumbled through her. “Och, Miss Emma, you’re the bravest lass I ken.

” “Hardly,” she said, though a bubble inside her chest swelled. Dunollie thought her brave? Did he truly, or was he simply trying to make her feel more at ease? She certainly hadn’t felt brave standing in the passageway gripping her medal of Saint Lucia and praying she wouldn’t be trampled. “We’re approaching the stairs.” Ciar slowed the pace. “Take hold of the railing at your right. There are three steps. Are you ready?” “Yes.” Holding her head high, she collected her skirts, shifted them to the side, and ascended. One. Two.

Three. Thank heavens for Ciar. Even though he was an important man, he’d always been ever so thoughtful. “Emma,” Robert barked, his footsteps pounding the dais. “What happened? One moment you were right behind us and the next you’d completely disappeared. Are you hurt? Are you ill? Did you fall?” Ciar’s arm dropped away and was replaced by her brother’s firm grasp, nowhere near as pleasant or alluring or enticing, and in no way did her heart palpitate. Wanting to thank Dunollie, Emma reached for him but only managed to pass her hand through thin air while her brother pulled her forward. “I lost my grip on Janet’s ribbon, and when I called out, the pair of you were nowhere to be found.” “She’s safe now,” said Ciar, following, thank goodness. “No harm done.

” “No harm?” asked Robert. He made it sound as if Emma had been traumatized in the town square. He urged her into a chair. “Do you have any idea how difficult it is for my sister to be anywhere outside of her home?” “I do.” Dunollie slid into a chair to her right. “In fact, we were discussing how well she’s adapting given you left her alone in the midst of a mob.” Robert said nothing, which meant he was rather irritated. Though there was an air of fun in Ciar’s tone, his words most likely struck a dissonant chord. In truth, if Robert had still been a bachelor, he would have left Emma at home—as he’d always done. At home she never fell behind.

In fact, everything was so familiar, she never needed assistance moving about the estate. “I’m so sorry we lost you. How are you handling the crowd, my dear?” asked Janet from the left. Emma chewed her lip. If only she could babble excitedly about Dunollie’s rescue and how thrilling the ordeal had been because it was he who’d found her. But admitting her delight would not only be improper, the laird might realize how deeply she cared for him, which would be unconscionably mortifying. Moreover, aside from her own embarrassment, Robert would suffer heart failure. Emma clasped her hands beneath the table. “Quite well. Aside from the wee mishap, ’twas as if we rehearsed the procession from the chapel to the dining hall.

” “Wonderful.” Janet’s silverware tinked. “’Tisn’t as if you’ve never been to Achnacarry before.” “Aye, but there weren’t as many people last time.” “Why should it matter? You’re with your family, and no one loves you more than we do.” Emma brushed her sister-in-law’s arm and whispered, “Did you have anything to do with the seating arrangements?” “I believe that undertaking was done by Lady Lochiel herself.” Her Ladyship was the hostess, stepmother to both Janet and the groom. “Do you not wish to sit beside me?” asked Ciar, giving her arm a wee poke. “Are you jesting? I’m glad of it.” Emma tapped her fingers over her place setting, identifying her plate, silverware, and wineglass on the right.

“Being seated beside you, sir, is far better than sitting next to some old laird who is too filled with self-importance to speak with the likes of me.” “Och, I reckon anyone who believes themselves above your riveting conversation is undeniably daft—or in their cups.” No matter the situation, Ciar always managed to say something kind or funny, or kind and funny. And Emma had no doubt Robert’s wife had arranged for Dunollie to be placed beside her. Janet just didn’t own to it. He leaned in, his breath skimming her cheek. “Yellow suits you, miss. You’d best be careful how broadly you smile, else you’ll outshine the bride.” Emma covered her mouth before she laughed aloud yet again. Should she believe him? Nay.

He’s just being nice. “All rise!” boomed a man. “The bridal party,” whispered Ciar as he helped Emma to her feet. “Behold Lochiel the Younger and his bride!” Emma applauded with the crowd. “Is she bonny?” “Radiant as a bride ought to be,” Ciar said as they resumed their seats. “She’s almost as lovely as you are this eve.” “You’re teasing me.” “Not at all.” “And what of the groom?” she asked, trying to ignore the flittering of her heart. “Is he as fearsome as they say?” Ciar snorted.

“Kennan? He’d like to think he’s fearsome.” “I beg your pardon, that is my brother to whom you’re referring,” said Janet. “And I daresay he looks dapper in the weave of Cameron plaid.” Delicious smells of roasted lamb, baked fowl, and warm bread grew more potent. Emma licked her lips. “They’re wasting no time bringing the food.” “I’m glad of it,” said Ciar. “After the vicar’s monotonously un-invigorating sermon, I’m starved.” “Is that your way of saying you had difficulty paying attention?” Emma asked. “Perhaps, though I’d best not own to it.

” She inhaled as the dishes were placed on the table. “I can pick out the musk of lamb straightaway, but what is the fowl?” “Partridge, and it looks like French beans as well.” “Wine, my lady?” asked a footman. She held in her urge to snicker. Everyone at the table was either a laird or a lady except her. But correcting the servant would only draw attention to her station, and she certainly didn’t want to do that. “Please.” “And you, m’laird?” “I’m never one to turn down a Lochiel vintage.” Ciar tapped her elbow. “Would you like me to dish your plate?” “Janet can—” Emma patted her chest.

Why not let him? “Pardon me. If it would not be too much trouble, I’d be grateful, thank you.” “One slice of lamb or two?” “Two.” “Brown sauce?” “Please. And a wee bit of partridge and beans as well.” “Your wish is my command.” She flicked open her fan and hid her chuckle behind it. “Tell me, how are things at Dunollie?” “I suppose they would be better if the queen saw fit to fairly tax her constituents in Scotland. Aside from that, I’m grateful to say the high demand for wool and beef is keeping clan and kin afloat.” He placed a few more items on her plate.

“And how fare things with you? If I recall, the last time we met was right here when your brother wed Her Ladyship.” “My, how quickly a year passes.” Emma cut a piece of roast and savored it. “I’m sure it comes as no surprise to hear Lady Janet has been a lovely addition to Moriston Hall. Thanks to her, I have a new lady’s maid. On top of that, I’ve given two small recitals and am becoming proficient at knitting.” “Recitals? I did not know you were musical.” Janet nudged Emma’s shoulder. “Until I arrived in Glenmoriston, Robert had hidden her talent from all of society. But she is astounding.

And mind you, I am not exaggerating in the slightest.” “Are you a vocalist?” Ciar asked. Emma cut her lamb and raised the fork to her lips. “Harpist.” “Aye?” Ciar’s voice filled with admiration. “All these years I’ve been visiting Moriston Hall, and I never knew you had such a talent. I hope you will be sharing your gift with the guests during the wedding celebrations.” “What a wonderful idea,” Janet agreed. Batting her hand through the air, Emma shook her head. “No, no.

I’m certain Her Ladyship has quite a schedule planned for the gathering. I most certainly would not want to put a kink in her preparations.” Besides, Robert mightn’t approve when in the company of so many strangers. And all these guests might not approve of her. “Unfortunately, I’m afraid I left my harp at home.” “Not to worry.” Janet patted her arm. “There’s a harp in Achnacarry’s music chamber. I’ll speak to Lady Lochiel at my first opportunity.” “Oh, no, please.

I do not want to be a bother.” “Bother?” Ciar’s plate clanged with the tapping of his knife. “If you are proficient, I’m certain Her Ladyship will be delighted, as will I.” Pushing her food around her plate, Emma bit her bottom lip. Since their parents had passed away, her brother had assumed guardianship, and he was rather protective. Most likely he’d forbid it. “I suppose if Robert agrees.” Janet squeezed Emma’s fingers. “Leave His Lairdship to me.” Prickly heat spread across her nape.

Indeed, she could play the harp in her sleep. But what about the other guests, the ones who didn’t know her? What might they think? For years her brother had hidden Emma from all but close kin. And for good reason. It wasn’t easy for Emma to expose herself in public. Many Highland folk were superstitious. They feared the blind and thought them demons. Drawing attention to herself so far away from Clan Grant didn’t sit well. What if someone jeered? What if they didn’t like her music? But then Ciar had mentioned that he wanted to hear her play. Had he meant what he said? Emma would gladly pluck the strings all night if he asked. On the other hand, the laird was most likely being nice.

He was always incredibly kind, almost the antithesis of Robert, who was affectionate but severe. Dunollie was not only affectionate but polite, thoughtful, warm, and… Emma sighed for what seemed like the hundredth time. If only Dunollie might look upon her as a woman and not the sister of his friend and ally. Perhaps if they didn’t discuss it again, Janet would forget to mention the recital to her stepmother. Besides, the feast had only just begun. With Janet on Emma’s left and Ciar on her right, she fully intended to enjoy herself, starting with the delicious fare. Through the first and second courses, she listened to the friendly banter, savoring the food and wine while trying not to laugh too boisterously at Ciar’s wit. After a dessert of trifle served with macaroons, a Highland folk tune rose over the hum in the hall. Emma counted three fiddles, a bass violin, a drum, and a flute. Clapping, she sat taller.

“I daresay there will be dancing.” “I cannot imagine a wedding feast without dancing.” Ciar’s knee lightly brushed hers as he shifted toward her. The inadvertent touch made Emma gasp as gooseflesh rose across her skin. Rubbing her thigh, she pretended to be unruffled. “Tell me about the musicians.” “The orchestra is up on the balcony, and the ceiling of the hall is vaulted, which makes the music resonate.” She ran her spoon around her bowl just to ensure she hadn’t missed any sweet. “Ah, that’s why they’re so clear.” “The musicians look to be a band of tinkers.

There’s a scrawny fiddler and another who appears to be the cook’s trifle sampler.” Licking her spoon, Emma grinned. “And the third?” “Och, your ear is impressive. He’s a wee lad of no more than thirteen, but I daresay his bow work is effortless—though you’d be a better judge.” The footman removed their bowls. “I had to blink twice when I saw the bass fiddler.” “Why?” “’Cause the enormous rosewood contraption is being wielded by a wee lassie. The thing dwarfs her. I can’t be completely certain from here, but she must be standing on a box.” “She’s keeping tempo.

” “Aye, and who wouldn’t with a drummer who looks like a stray dog.” “Truly?” “He’s the most ragged of the lot, from his moth-eaten kilt to whiskers that haven’t been groomed in a half year or more.” “I wonder if he has a bird’s nest in all that hair,” said Robert. Laughing, Emma rubbed her fingers along her jaw imagining the man’s beard tangling with his drumsticks. “And the flutist?” Ciar’s shoulder bumped hers as he leaned nearer. “That fella’s almost as large as I am. ’Tis a miracle his fingers aren’t too thick. I think mine would end up covering multiple holes at once.” “But his do not?” “Mayhap he’s not quite as large as I.” Tapping her lip with her tongue, Emma shifted her shoulder just to brush his once again.

Her heart gave a wee flutter. “I do not hear a piper.” “Because there isn’t one. At least not yet. But if I ken Lochiel, he’ll be saving the pipes for later.” Something heavy screeched across the floorboards—several somethings. Emma clasped her hands beneath her chin. “They’re moving the tables!” “Lassies and laddies,” boomed the steward. “The wedding party will now join Sir Kennan and Lady Divana in the first dance.” As rustling filled the hall, a country tune with a three-beat rhythm began.

“Is the wedding couple very bonny together?” Emma asked. “They are stunning.” Ciar brushed Emma’s arm, making tingles tickle all the way up to her neck. “Have you met the bride?” Emma tapped the place he’d touched, wishing he’d do it again. “Briefly. Janet and I visited her chamber before the ceremony.” “Ah, then I suppose you already ken she has hair the color of fire.” “Aye, my lady’s maid mentioned the radiance of Divana’s tresses. D-do men like fire-red?” “Some do. Though there are fools who fear it.

” Emma wrung her hands beneath the table. She oughtn’t have asked Ciar if he liked red hair. It wasn’t polite and, by his tone, she already knew he did. Emma’s hair wasn’t exactly fire-red. Mrs. Tweedie, the housekeeper at Glenmoriston, said it was auburn. And Janet insisted it was the color of cinnamon. Emma had a strong sense of fire. It was warm and could burn if one drew too close to the flame. Fire was useful, necessary, and desirable.

Conversely, cinnamon was a spice. True, it was pleasant-smelling and she loved the taste, but it was nowhere as dramatic as fire. If only I were astonishingly dramatic, perhaps I might be more appealing to Ciar. “Is something amiss?” Janet whispered in her ear. “Not at all. Just enjoying the music.” Emma raised her chin, affecting the serene expression she’d practiced with her lady’s maid. Had her smile fallen? She mustn’t allow herself to appear fearful, aloof, or disinterested—according to her sister-in-law’s tutelage. It didn’t take a seer to realize Janet was eager for Emma to marry, though Robert seemed none too keen to boot her out of Moriston Hall. “Is not the tempo of a country dance a bit fast for the bride and groom?” she asked.

“Not for them,” said Janet, lowering her voice and whispering again. “I only learned when we arrived that Kennan’s bride hasn’t enjoyed the benefit of dancing lessons as we have. In fact, she is fortunate to be alive.” “Oh?” “She was left for dead on a deserted isle. As it turns out, Clan Cameron is much in her debt. The lass saved Kennan’s life after his ship was attacked by pirates.” “Gracious. Bless her soul.” “Amen to that.” Janet flicked one of Emma’s curls.

“They do make a lovely couple. Perhaps I’ll see you dancing with your groom one day soon.” “Sh—do not speak of such things in mixed company.” “Hmm.” Emma wasn’t thrilled with Janet’s tone. She’d heard it before, and a “hmm” could be ever so meddlesome. Did Emma want to marry? Aye, more than anything in the world. She wanted a husband and children—lots of children. But she cared not to ever spend another day away from Glenmoriston, which posed quite a conundrum. Wives, especially daughters of esteemed lairds, generally moved to their husband’s lands.

The mere idea was utterly terrifying. It was difficult enough to visit a new place for a fortnight, but to leave Moriston Hall and venture somewhere completely foreign frightened Emma to her toes. As the music ended, she joined in the applause. “Will you do me the honor of granting me the next dance, miss?” Ciar asked, lightly brushing her elbow. “Me?” “Aye, you, lassie. We’ve danced before. In this very hall, mind you.” How could she forget? Dancing with the Dunollie laird might have been the most exhilarating moment in her otherwise unvaried life. Though Ciar looked upon her as a sister, deep in her heart Emma burned for him. In all these years he’d never feared her.

Whenever he visited, it was as if the sun shone into every room and bathed her face in its warmth. She tried very hard to not to sigh like a lovesick waif. “I shall never forget.” He took her hand ever so gently, making a tingle shiver up her arm. “Then let us not delay.” “Thank you.” Emma wrapped her fingers around his. She absolutely mustn’t ever mistake his kindness for anything more. Regardless of how much she desired more. He was the chieftain of Clan MacDougall of Dunollie and, though she was the daughter of a great clan chief, any woman afflicted with blindness, no matter how wellborn, had nary a chance to win the affections of a great Highlander the likes of Ciar MacDougall.

Nonetheless, she felt utterly secure as he led her to the dance floor. Not only secure but filled with a sense of purpose. Filled with desire. Filled with a grand sense of belonging, even though dozens of strangers surrounded her. “Are you ready?” he asked, squeezing her hands. “Aye,” she chirped. If only she could wrap her arms around his neck and tell him how much it meant to dance with him—the most wonderful man in the hall.

.

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