The Taming of a Highlander – Elisa Braden

“He dispatches forty men? All with his dirk?” Hazel eyes glinted with amusement as John Huxley scraped a lean hand across his mouth and jaw. “Are you … certain?” Kate Huxley paused in the middle of demonstrating the imagined maneuver—left hand on hip, right hand extended forward to deliver the killing thrust. She blinked at her brother. “The dirk is the weapon of choice for Highlanders, is it not?” “Scots do like their dirks; it is true.” John rifled through the pages of her manuscript. “Perhaps the number slain by your hero’s mighty hand could be smaller, hmm?” Frowning, she crossed the drawing room to glare over his shoulder. “Forty is the number I specified in Act One, Scene Two. If I change it now, I shall be forced to include an additional scene in which Sir Wallace McClure-MacLeod rescues Fiona FarquharsonMcPhee a third time.” She folded her arms and eyed her suspiciously firm-lipped brother. “Won’t that strain credulity?” John was thirteen years older than Kate’s one-and-twenty, and before he’d settled in this remote-yet-magical pocket of the Scottish Highlands, he’d traveled to more places than Kate could name, places where lions roamed and dolphins swam and French ladies bared their bosoms willy-nilly. In short, John knew far more about the world than Kate, which was why she’d asked for his input. She’d hoped—foolishly, it seemed—that he would take her work seriously. Instead, she suspected he was laughing. If only she were writing a comedy. “Katie, you have him wearing a bearskin mantle.

” “Yes. And?” “There are no bears in Scotland.” “Perhaps I could change it to wolfskin.” “There are no wolves in Scotland, either.” She rounded in front of him and clicked her tongue. “Well, there must be predators of one sort or another.” John leaned forward to set the pages on a tea table. He remained silent, resisting a grin. At least he was trying not to laugh at her. That was something, wasn’t it? “What of cats?” she pressed.

“What of them?” “Africa has lions and leopards. They sound frightful. Are there no wild felines prowling the wintry moors of Scotland?” “I’ve heard of one breed. Quite elusive.” She retrieved her notebook and pencil from the sofa. “Yes? Is it very large?” He rubbed his handsome chin, his eyes twinkling with mischief. “Hmm. How large was Erasmus?” He referred to their mother’s ill-tempered housecat, which had been banished to the stables after an incident involving Papa’s silk waistcoats. Kate held her hands about twenty inches apart. “Yes.

That’s it.” She sighed. “Are they dangerous, at least?” “I’m certain field mice regard them with great terror and loathing.” “John.” “Papa would also dislike them, I reckon.” He tapped his nose. “The sneezing, you know.” “You are ruining everything,” she retorted. “How am I to portray the legendaryness of Sir Wallace without implying he is capable of killing a dangerous predator and wearing its pelt?” He arched a brow. “Legendaryness is not a word.

” She snapped her notebook closed. “I am the author, and I say it is. I also say there are wolves in Scotland. Wolves are better than bears, anyway.” This time, he didn’t bother disguising his laughter. The chuckles continued as he settled back in his chair. “I admire your pluck, little sister. But even you cannot imagine wolves into being where wolves no longer exist.” “I shall. It will be exciting.

No one will question it.” “Apart from everyone who has ever been to Scotland.” “Nonsense. Sir Wallace is a master of the dirk. I shall say he hunted the last surviving wolf in Scotland with nothing but his wits and his blade.” Tingles flashed as an idea sprang to life. “Or his sgian-dubh.” “Er, Kate?” “It’s perfect.” “The sgian-dubh is even smaller than a dirk.” “Yes! That’s why it’s perfect.

‘He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a horse’s health, a boy’s love, or a whore’s oath.’” John’s hand slid from his chin to his eyes before dropping away. “Please. Not Shakespeare.” She jotted a few furious notes. “Should I include a whore, do you think? I could add one to Chapter Five. Audiences love whores.” “Chapter? I thought you were writing a play.” She waved off his nattering. “It might be a novel.

I haven’t decided.” Perhaps John had been the wrong person to ask. His new Scottish bride, Annie Tulloch MacPherson Huxley, would surely prove a better resource. Kate’s new sister-in-law might be a bit brash, but she was a Highland lass through and through—red hair, fiery humor, and a brogue as thick as her venison stew. Besides, Annie understood far better than John why Kate must complete her manuscript before spring. Kate hadn’t had the heart to explain her goal of living independently to her brother. Was he a spirited woman who refused to be tamed and stuffed into an ill-fitting mold? No. He was a Huxley. Huxleys married. Huxleys bred.

Huxleys did their duty. Kate intended to be the exception, but to do so without becoming a burden to her family, she must establish an independent source of income. Finishing her manuscript was the answer, which was why she’d stayed on in Scotland. Weeks ago, upon hearing news of John’s long-awaited nuptials, Mama and Papa had immediately arranged for a Huxley family visitation. Eager to see the place she’d dreamt about for the past two years, Kate had traveled with them from Nottinghamshire to a land of green, wooded glens and glistening lochs. One glimpse, and she’d been enchanted. While the rest of the family had returned home ten days ago, Kate had elected to stay with John and Annie through winter. She had a keen interest in learning more about Scotland’s land, people, and history. One could not write a proper Scottish story without steeping oneself in Scottish culture. Besides, Kate’s four sisters, their husbands, and their children all had made the journey as well, and they’d planned to travel as a group with Mama and Papa on the return trip to England.

Kate adored her family, but six days’ travel in an enclosed carriage was dreadful enough without constant talk about the vagaries of infant teeth on one’s nerves and nursing bosoms. She could only imagine what Annie had thought when they’d all arrived at Glendasheen Castle. She needn’t have worried. Annie had handled the Huxley Invasion splendidly. Annie was accustomed to managing a large family; hers included a stepfather and four stepbrothers. Just then, Annie entered the room, abducting John’s rapt gaze. To be fair, her hair did flash brilliant scarlet in the warm autumn light, so it caught Kate’s attention, too. Several curls had escaped their pins, and Annie fussed with them as she crossed the room. “Katie-lass. Ye always look so fresh and bonnie.

Tell me how ye keep yer pins in place, and I’ll let ye do another dramatic readin’ after dinner.” “Of course—if you also agree to help me with Chapter Seven.” “Which scene is that, now?” “The one in which Fiona Farquharson-McPhee rescues her father from a marauding gang of sheep farmers.” “Right. The sheep farmers.” Annie cast a furtive look in John’s direction and coughed. “Well, I do my best readin’ when my hair isnae in my eyes.” Kate chuckled, set her notebook aside, and wiggled her fingers toward Annie’s hair. “Here. Let me help.

” She went to work, tucking and repositioning the fiery coils. She and her sister-in-law were similarly petite, so Kate stood on her toes to get a better view of the top. “How did you manage to dislodge so many pins?” Annie quirked a smile at John. “Care to explain, English?” He cleared his throat. “No.” “I was havin’ a wee nap.” Annie’s hand slid over her abdomen. “The bairn makes me … weary from time to time.” Kate glanced at John, whose cheeks were ruddy with the telltale Huxley Flush. “Right,” she murmured.

“Well, unlike my sisters, I’ve little advice to offer on that score.” All her sisters had borne children. Many, many children. Kate sometimes wondered what Annie would do when she grew too big to knead dough or carve venison any longer, or when she birthed the first of her inevitably large brood and spent all her time fretting over the babe’s every sneeze. Motherhood had a way of taking over one’s life. So did falling in love. As the youngest of five Huxley daughters, Kate had a unique perch from which to observe the phenomenon. One by one, her sisters had fallen madly in love and promptly descended into a state of foolish preoccupation. Longing glances, fluttery lashes, florid Huxley Flushes. It was all a bit bizarre, really.

Worse, they’d lost interest in discussing much of anything apart from their men and, eventually, their children. Even John—carefree, world-traveling, marriage-forswearing John—had fallen prey to the affliction. To Kate, love was indistinguishable from a consuming parasite of the mind. “Is it dreadful, then?” Annie asked, turning concerned eyes over her shoulder. Kate tucked the final red curl into place. “There. Lovely.” Bright blue eyes warmed and sparkled. Annie gave her an affectionate pat. “My thanks, Katie-lass.

Now then, ye must choose a happier scene for yer dramatic reading than the one from last night.” Kate frowned. “That was the Scottish play.” Both Annie and John appeared unimpressed. “It is Shakespeare.” “Aye. I ken ye’ve a fondness for auld Willy. But if I have to listen to one more lament about hand washin’, I’ll nae be responsible for the snorin’.” “Your father appeared to enjoy it.” The towering old Scot had grinned throughout Lady Macbeth’s scene, Kate had noticed.

Which had been odd, given the dark subject matter. Still, Kate had thought it a positive reaction, even though his eyes had been fixed upon Annie’s dressmaker, a widow from Inverness, who had joined Kate to read the other characters’ lines. “Angus was enjoyin’ the whisky,” Annie said wryly. John came to slide an arm around his wife’s waist. “I think he was enjoying the view.” “Hmmph. Mrs. Baird wants naught to do with him. What’s he thinkin’?” “Probably the same thing I’m thinking whenever I look at you.” “Dear God, English.

Dinnae say such a thing. The very thought puts me off my breakfast.” His hand slid over hers where it lay upon her belly. “You cannot blame Angus for wanting—” “I didnae say I blame him. Just that it makes me ill to contemplate.” As John and Annie discussed the unlikely affection developing between Annie’s stepfather and her dressmaker, Kate sighed. This was yet more proof that love infected the mind of even the old and widowed. Shaking her head, she moved to gather up her manuscript. “Well, I’ll scurry off, then, shall I?” They continued arguing with one another, ignoring Kate. Nothing new, there.

John and Annie often forgot everyone else when they were in the same room, a common symptom of the mind infection. “Must work on my manuscript if I ever wish to finish it.” She didn’t know why she bothered speaking. They were absorbed in a disagreement about whether a “crabbit auld man” of fifty-seven years and an “elegant lady” of forty-six years could make a sound marriage when they were so very old and settled in their ways. Inches from embracing, John and Annie didn’t notice as Kate backed toward the open doors. “Perhaps the bit about the wolf will add an ineffable mystique to Sir Wallace’s legendaryness,” Kate observed. No answer. “That is the hope.” Now, John teased Annie about wanting to keep her dressmaker all to herself, to which Annie scoffed and repeated her assertion that “Angus and Nora suit one another about as well as an auld boot and a silk reticule.” John retorted some might have said the same for an English earl’s heir and a Highland lass.

Kate sighed and left them to their argument. It was a daft one, anyway. In her experience, there was no point ruminating upon whether a love match made sense. Love itself made none at all. On her way to the stairs, she passed Dougal MacDonnell, a brown-haired Scot with a plain face and friendly demeanor. One of many MacDonnells who now worked for John, Dougal functioned as head groundskeeper, footman, and general man-of-all-work. He tugged off a dusty cap. “My lady.” She halted, her scalp tingling as another idea bloomed. “Mr.

MacDonnell, may I see your sgian-dubh?”


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