“CAREFUL, lassie! Ye’re going to pull out even more hair!” Davina MacKinnon stifled her sigh at her grandfather’s remonstrations and forced a smile. “Aye, Grandda, but I have to pull to make sure the wool is fully secure.” “If ye cannae manage to—” Mayhap she’d tugged a little too hard, but he finished his sentence with a yelp, and she pressed her lips together to stop a smirk. “Vina!” “I’m sorry, Grandda, but I cannae get a good grip with yer jaw flapping around. Could ye maybe manage to hold it still for a bit?” And quit telling me how to do my job. Grandda grumbled a bit, but for the most part, he kept his mouth shut. And Davina did try to be gentler when it came to carefully plaiting the sheep’s wool into the old man’s beard and hair in order to make his braids look as full as they once were. But his knuckles were white where he gripped the arms of his chair by the time she was done with the last plait on his chin. “There,” she murmured, cocking her head to one side and studying the braids. “They look quite natural if I do say so myself.” “Can I speak now?” the old man muttered. Chuckling, Davina patted his forearm. “Aye and thank ye for the effort I ken it took ye to remain still.” “Well, I was going to compliment ye and tell ye ‘tis a fine job ye do, even better than yer sister, but now…? I dinnae think I will.” Smiling, she dropped a kiss to his pate and took up position behind her grandfather.
“If ye had complimented me, I would’ve thanked ye verra much and reminded ye that, between me and Katlyn, I’m the one who always cared more for fashion and hairstyles, and ye should’ve come to me in the first place.” Grandda folded his arms across his chest and slumped in his chair. “She was the auldest.” “And she had plenty else to do than look after an auld man’s vanity,” Davina chided, as she poked him gently in the shoulder. “Whereas I had naught to do but sit around and be beautiful.” Twisting, he caught her hand in his. “And ye succeeded magnificently at it, Vina. Yer mother would be proud.” Proud of what? Of being beautiful? But she kept her mouth closed and offered her grandfather a tight smile, before slipping her hand from his and reaching for the bundle of wool she was going to use on the braids on his head. She worked in silence for a while, and soon Grandda’s attention drifted to the hearth where the fire was blazing, despite the warmth of the spring air.
Since the fever, which had gripped him last spring, he was susceptible to illness and thus kept their small keep as warm as possible. Luckily, he’d made it through the winter with naught more than a few sniffles, which had plagued them all, and now was as healthy as Davina could recall. Which was good because the coming spring meant the coming of other things: babies! Or rather, one baby in particular, Katlyn’s baby. Davina’s niece or nephew would determine the fate of, not one, but two different clans, and Vina was desperate to know the outcome. But more than that, she wanted to see her dear sister again. Finally, she could take the silence no more. “Grandda, have ye given more thought to when we’ll leave for Oliphant Castle?” “If we’ll leave, do ye no’ mean?” She meant naught of the sort, so instead, she said merely, “Kat’s time draws near. The last letter I had from her said that none of her sisters-in-law have begun to birth their bairns, and she’s nae more than two months from her own confinement. Ye ken how much I want to be with her when her time draws near.” Only for Katlyn.
No other reason. Sometimes she even believed herself. In the months since her older sister had left, she’d gotten good at plaiting the sheep’s wool into Grandda’s hair, so that his own braids looked fuller and longer, as a younger man’s might. It was foolish vanity, but the MacKinnons didn’t begrudge their laird this last conceit. Davina’s hands could now do the task without any input from her brain, but she still found herself staring down at the top of his head and holding her breath, willing him to answer the way she wanted. The way she so desperately hoped he would. Finally, he grumbled, “Ye ken why I dinnae want ye there, lassie.” She wasn’t going to respond to that, but quickly jumped to the heavy artillery Kat had discussed in her last letter. “Lady Agatha has asked after ye.” Her grandfather jerked hard in the chair, hard enough the braid in her hand tugged at his scalp, and he cursed and settled back down quickly.
He cleared his throat. “She did, did she?” “Aye, she’s doing well. Katlyn says she’s hale and hearty and is contemplating settling down in her golden years.” The woman was Kat’s husband’s great-aunt, which made her of an age with Grandda, and the two of them had hit it off like—well, like two randy old people who’d been too long alone. Sometimes, Davina still remembered their immature giggling as they snuggled together, and she shuddered at the memories. But if it helped her get what she wanted… “And who exactly is Agatha considering settling down with?” Grandda finally grumbled. Pretending nonchalance, Davina deftly plaited a length of wool into his white hair. “Oh, Kat dinnae say. But since ye havenae been back for a visit since last year…” She left the sentence to hang, as she herself had been hanging, waiting for his permission to go to Oliphant Castle. She’d do it without his permission if she had to, but it would be easier if he would just agree.
And if it meant bringing him along too, using visiting Agatha as an excuse, then she would accept it. “I cannae believe she’d take up with someone else, no’ at her age,” he muttered. “If ye were there, she wouldnae. Ye ken she was taken with ye, Grandda.” “She loves me, or so she said.” Well, that was news. “And ye? Ye’ve stayed away, so…?” He grumbled a bit. “I suppose I love her as well as I loved any other woman. And ye ken why we’ve stayed away, lassie. Because of that bastard—” “He isnae there,” she blurted, then winced, knowing she shouldn’t have admitted to knowing who Grandda was talking about.
“I mean, Katlyn hasn’t written of her brother-inlaw visiting. He must no’ have stayed at Oliphant Castle.” Grandda hummed. “Must’ve gone back to St. Andrews. Kat doesnae say?” “Nay,” Davina murmured, grateful her grandfather couldn’t see the tears she was frantically blinking away as she tried to focus on the strands in her fingers. Nay, Kat didn’t say where Graham was, and Vina didn’t know either, for certes. Because not once in the last six months, not once after all they’d shared, had the man written to her. Six months, and not one word. She’d put off other marriage contracts, using the uncertainty of her sister’s husband’s future as an excuse.
Aye, the MacKinnons needed an heir, and the laird’s grandson-bymarriage was a good choice. And if one of Katlyn’s sisters-in-law birthed a son first, then Kiergan would be free to become their next MacKinnon laird, and Davina would be free to marry whomever she chose. So she’d avoided Grandda’s attempts to introduce her to suitors and sign betrothals, all because she was waiting on one man: Graham MacVanish, who was recently discovered to be an Oliphant bastard and Kiergan’s brother. Graham, who hadn’t contacted her, despite his vow to never forget her. Graham, who hadn’t written to her once, who hadn’t sent word through Kat, who appeared to have forgotten all about her. If she didn’t love him so much, she would hate him. Finally, after enough time had passed she assumed Grandda had fallen asleep, the old man muttered, “No’ at Oliphant Castle, eh? Then I suppose there’s nae harm in going.” Davina sucked in a hopeful breath, determined to drag the conversation away from Graham and remind Grandda of the reasons he wanted to visit the Oliphants. “Lady Agatha must miss ye terribly.” “And I— Well, sometimes a man just needs a willing lass in his bed to warm his bones.
Or one bone in particular.” He released a raspy chuckle. Blessed Virgin, please wipe that image from my mind, and I’ll say a dozen Hail Marys to ye. Quickly, she reached for the last of the braids and tried to keep her voice light. “Shall I write to Kat and tell her we’ll be there in time for her confinement? I cannae wait to hug her again.” Grandda grumbled, shifted, then sighed. “Aye, fine, alert the lassie. When ye’re finished here, go start packing my best kilts, aye? I have to look fine for my Aggie.” Her heart speeding with excitement, Davina’s fingers flashed. “Aye, and then I’ll pack my own things.
When will we leave?” As she finished up, the two of them chatted about their traveling plans, and Vina fought to keep her fingers and her voice steady. She was going to see Kat again! She’d be there for the birth of Kat’s child, and she’d get to hold her niece or nephew in her arms! She’d learn the future of the MacKinnon clan, and this cursed limbo would finally be over. And mayhap she’d learn what had befallen Graham, why he hadn’t contacted her despite his vow to always love her, and why he’d seemingly forgotten her. Davina told herself Katlyn was more important; Kat was the reason she was so excited to visit Oliphant Castle again. Hugging Kat and seeing Kat’s family again and meeting Kat’s baby…that’s what mattered most. And she almost believed the lie. C H A P T E R 1 GRAHAM MACVANİSH OLİPHANT stood between the crenelations of the outer wall of Oliphant Castle, his arms folded across his chest as he stared at the westward road, wondering if he was about to make the biggest mistake of his life. Seven months since he’d last seen Davina, last held her. Seven months without one word from her. And here he was, waiting for her to arrive like a little lapdog, desperate to find out if his mistress was going to accept him back.
Wait, would that no’ make ye the bitch in this scenario? He shifted his weight, peering toward the distant pass made muddy by the spring rains, wondering how she’d react when she saw him. Had her grandfather’s objections finally gotten to her? Had the old man married her off to someone? Surely Graham would’ve heard through the elaborate Highland gossip system if she’d married. And why should she nae? She’s the granddaughter of a laird, and her husband is destined to become the next Laird MacKinnon. And what are ye? Naught more than a bastard. His lips twitched. Albeit a laird’s bastard. Last summer, he’d snuck here to meet her, little realizing what he would come to learn. Little realizing, after a lifetime of shame thanks to his mother’s indiscretion, he’d find his father. And not just a father…but brothers too. “So this is where ye’ve been hiding.
” Graham tilted his head just enough to watch Kiergan climb the last few steps from the bailey below. The man wore his usual easy-going grin, and although Graham didn’t respond in kind, he hoped his brother knew how much his easy acceptance meant to him. Waiting until his brother stood beside him, Graham nodded. “She’s—they’re—coming today.” “Aye, Katlyn has sent me up here twice already to look for them. If she weren’t so large, I suspect she’d be making the climb herself.” The underlay of worry in his brother’s voice grabbed Graham’s attention. “She is well? Nae pains or blood?” Although most medical men in his acquaintance refused to learn about the female reproductive system, Graham knew enough to be dangerous, as his sister-in-law Merewyn—the midwife—would say. “She’s sleeping fine?” Kiergan’s normally cheerful face screwed up in a wince before he blew out a breath and relaxed. “She’s…pregnant.
Hugely pregnant, although thank St. Columba no’ as outrageously pregnant as Fiona. Merewyn says ‘tis normal that she no’ be sleeping well, and nay, there’s been nae pains.” He shuddered. “Nor blood. This breeding nonsense is messy, is it no’?” Graham’s lips tugged up as he turned back to his vigil of the horizon. “Aye, messy is one word for it.” “And miraculous,” Kiergan whispered. “But thank fook ye’ve come back home, Graham, to help.” Home.
Is that what Oliphant Castle was? He’d been born on MacVanish land—the grandson of the old laird and the nephew of the current one, who had five sons of his own. His mother had died birthing him, and his grandfather and uncle had spent his childhood reminding him he had no place there and no real claim to the MacVanish name. A few fortnights at Oliphant Castle, and the place had felt more like home than anywhere else. So why had he spent so long away? Because the place reminds ye of Davina now, damnation. Kiergan was waiting for a response, so Graham dragged his attention back to his brother. “Ye think I can help Merewyn birth yer bairn?” “Nay, I think ye can help me get through this stress.” Kiergan slapped him on the back, his tone jovial once more. “Of the seven Oliphant bastards, ‘tis only ye and Duncan who doesnae have a wife breeding. I fully expect ye to hold my hand and wipe my brow and whisper ‘there, there’ and supply me with more ale when Katlyn finally does get around to birthing my bairn.” Only a lifetime of reining in his emotions—necessarily when drawing attention to himself could have terrible consequences—kept him from chuckling at the image his brother painted.
“Ye think I’ll consent to getting ye drunk instead of helping Merewyn and yer wife bring said bairn into the world? Ye think I’d waste all my medical training just to comfort ye?” “Ye wouldnae?” Kiergan’s false frown didn’t last long, and he shrugged. “Ye might be the only one who can help my Kat, since Merewyn is likely to pop long before her and will be nursing her own bairn by the time mine arrives.” Pop? Graham’s lips twitched, having never heard that description before. “That’s why I’m here, brother.” Kiergan’s hand tightened on his shoulder, then dropped. “I willnae say I havenae missed ye these months. I ken ye claimed ye had business and patients in St. Andrews, but ‘tis pleased I am ye’ve wrapped all that up to return home.” Before Graham could work out how to respond to that, his brother hurried on, adding, “I suspect ye’ve been away for so long because of Davina, but with her return, mayhap the two of ye will find a way to be together.”