The Lady’s Guide to a Highlander’s Heart – Emmanuelle de Maupassant

IN THE NORTHERN tower of the castle, the fire had near burnt its last. The candles were guttering low. The young man pacing the room turned again on his heel. “Ye swore tae give me the privileges of a true son, but these years of loyalty mean naught.” Malcolm Dalreagh fought to restrain his anger. “I am yer chieftain and ye’ll obey me, as ye’ve pledged in fealty since ye were a bairn.” No other would dare speak to him as his stepson had done this night. Only for his late wife’s sake did he seek to placate the cur. “Aye, I see the way o’ things. Ye be blind tae Ragnall’s ambition and the deceit that runs in his blood, but ye hear the rumours o’ how his brother died—and none tae bear witness but Ragnall himself.” Malcolm’s voice remained steady. “Rumour grows where men be envious. The fact remains that the alliance is fer the good o’ the clan. With Ragnall’s father dead, he holds the lairdship of Balmore and he’ll be seeking a wife. We mun secure a marriage without delay.

” “If that be the way of it, give him Sorcha or Hilda. Ma sisters are only a year or two younger than Flora, and her betrothal tae me was agreed years ago, upon ma father’s death.” Calder scowled. “It suited ye well enough then but I see ’twas an empty promise —a vow tae put ma mother in yer bed.” Leaning across the table, Malcolm clenched his fists. “Take care, Calder. Brina was a fine woman and I lament her passing as deeply as I did Flora’s own mother. I dunnae take this decision lightly, but it mun be, and it shall. Ye ken as well as I, these are uncertain times, and we mun strengthen the position o’ the clan. The MacDonald and the Douglas have been hungry tae seize our land since ma grandfather’s time, when Camdyn shared Balmore and Dunrannoch between his sons.

The division did naught tae stop their rivalry, and the clan has been all the weaker for it.” Calder narrowed his eyes. “I still dunnae ken yer eagerness tae marry yer daughter tae the whoreson of a trollop. I hear she made a pretty sight at the last, and her lover alongside.” In three strides, Malcolm grabbed Calder by the throat, his cheeks bright with rage. “Hold yer tongue, or I’ll slice it from yer head, sworn son or nay. The sins o’ Ragnall’s mother were punished enough without being remembered on yer foul lips.” Gasping for air, Calder clutched at the older man’s hands upon his neck, attempting to pull them away, but the chieftain’s anger gave him strength. With a final snarl, Malcolm pushed his stepson from him, then moved to the hearth, staring into the dying embers. “Our new king is headstrong, and determined tae regain control o’ Northumbria.

There’s talk of an alliance with France. If William rises against Henry, we cannae join the fray as we are. Tae survive any such battle, we mun stand shoulder tae shoulder with every Dalreagh, united whole of heart under the same banner. Ragnall’s men would follow him tae the depths of Hell were he tae command it.” Passing a hand over his forehead, the Chieftain of Clan Dalreagh looked suddenly far older than his fifty years. “The handfasting shall take place on Hogmany night and one year hence Ragnall will return tae repeat his vows, and take Flora tae the marriage bed. She will be his, whether ye like it or nae, and when the day comes for him tae become Laird of Dunrannoch and chieftain in ma stead, ye’ll bend the knee—as will she.” ABOVE, where the shadows clung thickest, the pale face pressed to the gap in the floorboards withdrew. She had no love for her step-brother, but Flora had long accepted that the betrothal was her duty. What now, was this?A chill fixed about her heart.

Though her mind was her own and her soul would remain with God, as Father Gregory had taught, her body would belong to her husband. A man known for his savagery on the battlefield. ’Twas said he would stop at nothing to gain what he desired. Sheltered though her life had been, Flora was not foolish enough to believe he desired her. But, the lairdship of Dunrannoch and chieftaincy of the united clan? For that, a man would take to wife whomever came with the prize—even a scrawny maiden barely entering her womanhood. And if she failed to please him? Flora gave up a silent prayer that she would never find out. C H A P T E R 2 Chapel, Inner Courtyard of Castle Dunrannoch Evening, December 31, 1166 THE RİDE HAD BEEN but two hours and the ground, though hard-frosted, had provided sure footing for Ragnall’s mount. He and all his men had been granted good welcome at Dunrannoch. The great hall was festooned with garlands of green, the hearths glowed warm, and the tables were generously provisioned. All honours and civilities had been observed and Malcolm had raised his first toast to his guests from Balmore.

Yet, Ragnall could not ignore his growing unease. Something within Dunrannoch was amiss. The bride who stood before him with eyes downcast was neither child nor woman. The perfect age most men would say. An age at which a female could be moulded to a man’s liking, and this one seemed meek enough, though she was thinner than he’d have liked, and bore a pained look. ’Twas a relief her father deemed her too young for bedding—for Ragnall had not the appetite for such a bland morsel. Another year might bring more flesh on her bones, but as to whether she’d become a worthy chatelaine for his household, that would remain to be seen. The woman who held the keys to every door needed more strength than was apparent in this wee mouse. As the monk bid them face one another, he made the sign of the cross over the length of Dalreagh tartan, then tied their wrists close. “Like this knot, ye shall be bound—from this moment forward and as long as ye shall live.

May the vows ne’er grow bitter in yer mouths.” Ragnall clenched his jaw. The marriage ’twas a contract, pure and simple, to bring him Dunrannoch on Malcolm’s death. All would call him chieftain—every Dalreagh who’d whispered that he’d left his brother to die on the moor after falling from his horse; every man who’d jeered at his mother’s fate, and who’d questioned the legitimacy of his blood. If he were Broderick’s own, only God knew, but his dark mane and blue eyes had been enough to sway his father to keep him under his roof. Fortune had dictated that his mother’s lover bore the same flame-bright hues in his hair as Vanora herself. The monk motioned for them to kneel and Ragnall cast his eyes again over his bride. Though her plaits were bound about her crown and covered in a fine veil, it was plain she was of the same colouring. A stray lock, bracken-red, curled to touch the arisaid pinned at her shoulder. Her hair looked well against the russet tartan threaded with green, the length of fabric falling down her back and belted about her girlish waist.

Mayhaps ’twas that alone—that vividness in her colouring—which stirred his disquiet. Had his mother looked so on her wedding day? He wondered what Malcolm saw when he beheld his daughter: the wife he’d wed twenty years ago, or the woman whom it was said he’d truly loved—Ragnall’s mother, Vanora. Better that she’d wed Malcolm in her sister’s stead, but there was no merit in dwelling on such thoughts. The past was done. “With these vows, yer lives are bound as one.” The girl’s eyes fluttered to look at the monk as he uttered the words of betrothal. “With these hands, ye shall embrace one another as man and wife. With these hands, ye shall hold the sons and daughters God blesses ye with.” The ever-present knot in Ragnall’s stomach tightened. Aye, may God bless me with the sons this clan needs.

`His own father had been a tyrant, barely showing love for Alasdair, let alone the son whose birth remained forever in question. Ragnall had long vowed that it would be different when he had his own family. He’d do all in his power to ensure his wife’s comfort, and she’d give him what he needed in return. She seemed meek enough—disposed to obey, to do her duty. He’d want more than that, of course, but all things were achievable in time. Her affection would come, when she saw how important their marriage was to him. His own happiness depended upon it, and the legacy of the clan. He wouldn’t repeat his father’s mistakes. The girl’s gaze had lowered at the mention of children and she bit at her lip but as the holy man urged her in her own response, she raised her eyes to meet Ragnall’s and he recognized more than coyness. A flicker of defiance perhaps, though tempered by fear.

Certainly, the blush in her cheek was becoming; she might grow to be a beauty. “Ragnall, Laird of Balmore, do ye take this woman tae be yer own? Do ye promise tae protect her, tae meet her physical needs, and tae beget upon her the children ordained by the Lord?” “Aye.” Ragnall addressed all who witnessed the betrothal—the girl’s father and the others alongside. “I give all that a husband gives a wife, until ma dying breath.” Returning his glance to his bride, he was surprised to see her staring intently up at him with lips half-parted. For all her modesty, she was affected by the words. By God, if he kissed her now, he’d swear she’d open to him. Deep in his baws came a heated ache and he let his imagination linger upon her mouth. From across the room came a gruff cough from her father, pulling him from his reverie. He’d a promise to keep, and a full year before he’d find out just how willing the wench was.

’Twas nae a marriage for love, but he would see right by the woman who was to be his wife—and perhaps there would be more pleasure in it than he dared hope. TURNİNG for the twentieth time against her pillow, Flora wondered if she were the only one still awake. The hubbub from the hall had quietened down some time ago. She’d stayed for the first footing, with one of the newer stable boys proudly carrying in shortbread and salt, a black bun and a brick of peat. After that, the men had grown riotous and she’d politely excused herself, knowing that the ale would eventually catch up with them. Most would fall unconscious where they lay. It was the same very year. In the morning, she’d find them sprawled over benches and tables, clutching poorly heads. A good bowl of porridge usually sorted them out. She could hardly help being awake, of course.

As of this very night, she was no longer simply Flora Dalreagh, daughter of their clan chieftain; she was a woman betrothed. And the man to be her husband? Distant cousin though he was, she’d only met him once before, and had been too young then to take notice—but, there had been plenty to take notice of today, and everything they said about him appeared to be true. Taller and broader than any other, he carried himself like the warrior he was, and there was a hardness to him she’d not seen in other men—as if he might reach behind and draw his sword at any moment. As if he’d think nothing of swinging it wide and lopping off whomever’s head was nearest. He’d probably done so on many an occasion—on the battlefield. She wondered briefly how many men he’d killed. Not that it mattered whether it were one or five hundred. A soul dispatched in battle wasn’t the same as a life taken under normal circumstances. It was just the way of things. Each clan had to protect its own.

Still, the imagining of it made her stomach turn. What did it do to a man? Could anyone be the same after they’d spilled blood? Being a woman, she’d never know—for her duty was to her father, helping run the castle. She’d worked hard before the snows came, ensuring provisions were set by to get them through the winter months, preserving and pickling and smoking what they could; storing the rest. Her duty was to her father and to her clan. And now? Another duty was to be hers, not just as daughter but as wife—and it caused her stomach to turn some more. She was an innocent, of course; even Calder had never pushed her to give up what they’d both anticipated would be his with time. Of all the unmarried women in the castle, she probably knew a great deal less than most, but she knew more than nothing, thanks to Maggie. Her maid was snoring soundly on her cot, having had more than a little ale herself. Before passing out, she’d had more than a few opinions to share on Ragnall Dalreagh— not all of them uncomplimentary. To hear Maggie speak, the betrothal wasn’t the worst thing—and certainly better than the match Flora had been expecting with Calder.

Flora turned again, pulling her legs away from the cold spot at the bottom of the bed. A year from now, she wouldn’t be in the bed alone—and Maggie wouldn’t be in the corner cot. Another wave of nausea passed over her. Maggie had told her enough that she knew what was expected. A wife obeyed her husband in all things, no matter how vile they might seem—but a considerate husband knew to take the bedding gently. Would Ragnall be considerate? Across the room, Maggie gave another loud snort and shifted under her blankets. It was hopeless. Flora might as well have someone in the room playing the bagpipes for all the sleep she was likely to find this night. With a sigh, she plumped the pillow beneath her and willed her mind to find some peace but no more than a few moments passed before another sound carried to her ears. A thin sound at first.

A reedy repine. A long lament curling through the darkness. Nay! It couldn’t be! No one could be playing the pipes. There was not a body in the castle would thank whoever dared take up the instrument at this time of the night. Clutching the quilt to her chest, Flora sat upright, listening keenly. The pipes were growing louder. Not far off now but as if in the passageway. “Maggie!” Flora hissed through the darkness. “Do ye hear it?” The woman in the cot muttered something but didn’t wake. Still, the pipes were playing.

They halted briefly by the door, so loud that Flora could hardly believe Maggie didn’t wake, then the piper seemed to move on, towards the staircase beyond, and downward, to her father’s chambers. As the sound receded, Flora wondered at the quietness of the hall. Had no one heard? But there was no shout—of revelry nor protest. Bringing her feet to the floor, Flora fumbled for the over-gown draped close by, pulling it over her shoulders, then felt her way to the hearth, to light her tallow. She considered waking Maggie, but there was no time to waste. The piper might have disappeared altogether by the time her maid gathered herself. Entering the passageway, Flora cupped her hand to protect the flame from the cool draught. Shadows flickered over the narrow stone walls and then the confines of the stairwell as she descended. Though she trod softly, each step seemed to echo—yet no door opened and no voice called. Only the pipes’ wail drifted faintly from below but, upon reaching the lower floor, she saw no sign of anyone.

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