The Scot’s Angel – Keira Montclair

Claray came out of the tower room with a big smile on her face. This day was one she waited for every year. Yule was nearly here, and the time had come to decorate. That also meant they would have some very special visitors. Although Madeline Grant, the clan matriarch, had passed many years ago, the clan still celebrated the holiday she’d loved, honoring her by upholding her favorite traditions. Maddie had not truly been Claray’s grandmama, but she had been family in every way that mattered. This would be their first Yule without Alexander Grant, the clan’s legendary patriarch and Maddie’s husband, and the loss hurt. Even so, Claray believed he and Maddie had been reunited, and it gave her pleasure to think of them spending the holiday together, looking down on the clan. Alex had been nearly eighty years old, and they’d all watched his physical abilities deteriorate a wee bit each year. He had been ready to go. As she made her way to the hall, she heard the voice of one of her favorite visitors, something that hastened her through the passageway. She nearly ran through the great hall, but the toe of her slipper caught on one of the rushes so she stopped, pleased to see him sitting down to break his fast in the Grant great hall. Thorn was here. Loki Grant took him and Nari and a few other lads to Grant Castle every year to assist her mother, Sela, and Aunt Kyla with the hanging of the decorations. It had become a yearly tradition, simply because Loki loved Yule.

Before he was adopted into the clan, Loki had lived in a crate outside an inn. So he had an even greater appreciation for a holiday celebrating the family who’d chosen him. He used to follow his adoptive mother, Celestina, and Maddie around the hall while they decorated for Yule, helping wherever he could. They held the same traditions in Castle Curanta, but they did it on different days so Loki could bring some of his people to Grant Castle for a couple of days to decorate. Thorn and Nari were always among the group. They were also orphans, adopted into the clan some three decades ago, after they helped the Ramsays and Grants defeat the Channel of Dubh, a network of evil men who’d sold bairns across the waters for coin. Men who had tortured Claray so her mother would do their bidding. Thorn and Nari had gone to live with Loki Grant, who had his own castle but was nonetheless considered a Grant. Claray had been only three back then, while the lads were eight and seven. She carried no memories from that dark time in her life except for the nightmares that came in the middle of the night.

But she would much rather focus on their visitors than her sleep terrors. Straightening her shoulders, she smoothed the dark blue skirt of her gown and did her best to look confident. “Good morrow to you, Thorn and Nari. You are here to help with our decorations, are you not?” Thorn bolted out of his chair, his long dark hair pulled back from his face. Nari’s hair was dark red, a color that seemed to darken more every year. When Claray was younger, everyone had wondered if her red hair would darken, too, but it never had. Instead, the golden colors of the sun had mixed in with the red, making it even brighter. It was Thorn who’d brought her here with a smile on her face, Thorn who made her heart swoon. It had been for many years. “Of course,” Thorn said.

“If you need anything at all, my lady, please ask.” He gave her a short bow. He wasn’t as tall as many of the Grant men, but he worked hard, evidenced by his broad shoulders and trim waist. Looking at him always brought a sigh from her lips, but she managed to quell it this day. Although she’d always thought Thorn handsome and they used to see each other often as bairns, she first became aware of him as a man when she was five and twenty summers, nearly seven years ago. At one of the autumn Grant festivals, the participants had drawn stones for partners and Claray had selected Thorn’s. Their challenge was to fill the most baskets of apples within an hour, competing against ten other teams. She feared he’d spend the whole time silent and brooding. How wrong she’d been. Thorn had talked to her nonstop, showing her how to find the best apple trees, how to climb them and shake the apples down, and how to use her mantle to carry the fruit.

But what impressed her most was his sweet consideration. He’d taken her hand to help her down difficult paths, moving much more slowly than he needed to so she wouldn’t trip. He’d even protected her against several wildly swinging branches. Just like her sire did whenever she was outside with him. She’d felt so safe and cherished, as if a warm flame had lit inside her. She’d hoped he would pursue her. That light only burned brighter when their team came in second in the contest. But when she led Thorn over to speak with her father, her previously talkative escort had promptly stopped talking. Not out of rudeness though—he’d looked at Connor Grant as if he admired him more than anyone…and then he’d walked away from both of them. Nothing more had materialized from their adventure together.

She’d questioned her mother about Thorn, and she’d just said he was unusually shy. Since Claray wasn’t exactly forward, she’d given up hope on him. For all she knew, he might not want to take on the challenge of courting a lass who so rarely left the castle. Claray’s fears kept her more confined than most. Her first taste of safety and security had been in Castle Grant, and she had an unwarranted fear she’d never return if she left. Two years later, at seven and twenty, she’d agreed to a betrothal, but that relationship had ended tragically. That had been five years ago now, and in the interim her hopes for a relationship with Thorn had risen and fallen. While he did pay her plenty of attention, he had never asked her to dance or take a walk. Nor had he ever approached her father to ask to court her. Perhaps he thought she was too old, for unwed lasses of two and thirty were well beyond the normal age of marriage.

Her mother, Sela, smiled at her from the table. “Join us, Claray. I’ll have the serving lass bring another bowl of porridge.” Other members of the clan were scattered throughout the hall, chattering happily. Thorn said, “I’d be pleased to share my honey with you. I have much more than I need.” Then he sat down, quietly consuming the bread and porridge in front of him. She ignored everyone else, her eyes on Thorn. She’d been interested in him for such a long time, but what was a woman to do to engage a man. Ask him directly? Would you court me? Do you have feelings for me? Thorn, we’re both getting on in years.

Can’t we arrange something? But she’d never had the courage to say anything. Neither had he demonstrated any more interest in her, which left her wondering what was wrong with her. Perhaps her mother had been right about him, and he was simply shy, for he was older than she and still unmarried too. It might be time to ask Dyna for help. Her sister was the expert at conniving. Sela said, “We’ll decorate most of the day, then all the Grants will join us for our first seasonal feast this eve. The minstrels will come, and I’ll hang a special ornament as we do every year.” “I’ll help any way I can, Mama,” Claray said. “’Tis my favorite time of the year.” Nari said, “’Tis the best time of year for food.

I hope we find a wild boar or a deer on the hunt tomorrow. We’ll go goose hunting soon, as well. Must have that plump goose for the Yule feasts. The two men chattered on about what food was best, but Claray kept her gaze on Thorn. Every now and again, he cast a glance on her too. Would he look at her with such admiration if he wasn’t interested? She had to do something. *** Thorn did his best not to stare at Claray. They’d known each other since before her mother had married Connor Grant, who was now one of Clan Grant’s two lairds. In the beginning, he’d had an interest in her in a protective sense—the bastards in the Channel of Dubh had held her prisoner when she was just a wee lassie—but that had changed with the years. He’d watched her grow into a beautiful lass, always afraid she’d marry someone else.

It had almost happened once, but a tragedy had prevented it, and she hadn’t married at all. He remembered when he’d nearly lost his heart to her at a long-ago autumn festival. It was one of his favorite memories of Grant Castle. Everything about Claray warmed his heart. Her laughter, her light-hearted ways, and her bright beauty—as distinctive as a ray of sunshine on a gray, misty day. He only wished he had the pluck to tell her so. But he was afraid to go after Connor Grant’s daughter. He’d stood in front of the great man that night, Claray next to him, eager to ask for permission to pursue her hand, but his tongue had turned to stone. Over the years, he’d try to convince himself to pursue her, but he’d never had enough gumption. Then the worst had happened.

A new guard had joined the Grant warriors, and he’d gone right after the laird’s only eligible daughter. Thorn had only seen them together once, but it had felt like an icicle had fallen from the tallest tree branch and landed in the middle of his chest. Nari had told him he had no one to blame but himself. Then her betrothed, a man named Cordell, had snapped his neck falling off his horse. Nari had told him he should give her time to grieve and then act. That he’d be a fool not to pursue her. It was his deepest desire to make Claray his wife, but doubts and fears held him back. He didn’t feel worthy of her. He was just an orphan, a warrior without any title or claim, and she was the daughter of a laird. Still, anytime anyone from Loki’s castle came to Clan Grant, Thorn found an excuse to join them.

“What decorations have you chosen for this year?” Thorn asked, hoping Claray would be the one to answer. Sela spoke first. “We’ll be searching out as many evergreen boughs as we can find to put near the door and on the tables.” Claray’s face lit up. “I love to make baskets filled with pine boughs and pinecones. I’ll make one for each table and tie red ribbons on the handles. The pine makes the keep smell so fresh.” Sela added, “And don’t forget all the flowers you’ve been hanging to dry.” “Aye, my red ones are looking extra beautiful, though I have some white and pink flowers that are pretty, too. The decorations brighten up the hall.

Don’t you agree, Thorn?” The look she gave him, eyes bright and wide, lips slightly parted, rattled him. But he recovered enough to nod. “Absolutely. No one else I know of celebrates Yule for as long as you do here. Why is that?” Claray bounced in her seat before she answered, “Because Mama is part Norse, and they celebrate Yule for three sennights. But ’twas Grandmama who started decorating and sharing gifts at Yuletide. ’Tis my favorite part.” Nari said, “The feasts are mine, especially on the eve of Yule. There’s nothing so enjoyable as seeing everyone in one place.” “I agree,” Thorn said.

“While I love Castle Curanta, it wouldn’t be Yule if we didn’t come to Grant Castle to celebrate. Claray, you play the lute beautifully.” “I’m learning a new song. I cannot wait to share it with all of you.” The comment was addressed to all of them, but her gaze landed on Thorn, and for the first time he wondered if she shared his feelings. She’d never looked at him like that before, let alone twice in one night. Maybe she’d had enough time to mourn her loss. Mayhap he would approach her this eve, after the decorating and the fine meal. She wasn’t getting any younger, and neither was he. If she were interested in him, would her father accept it? Perhaps it was time to take a chance.

The great Alex Grant had died after an irreproachable life. No regrets had weighed him down at the end, which had led Thorn to ask himself if he would feel the same if he were to die on the morrow. He wouldn’t. His greatest regret would be that he had not pursued Claray. Perhaps it was time to finally live as he wished.

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