Authors: Mary Wine
Kensington Publishing Corp.
This book is dedicated to the one and only Mama Zini. For
years of mentoring
and partnering in crime, my dear friend, Frieda, who can
size up any living soul and dress
them to the height of fashion, no matter the year. May you
always know how talented you
are and how much you mean to those you touch.
Beware the spoon!!!
Red Stone Castle, McQuade land, 1603
ather writes that the king has given him leave from court.”
Bronwyn McQuade flinched. In spite of years of steeling her feelings against her father’s disdain, she still dreaded his return. Her sire was a hard man, and that was thinking kindly about him. Erik McQuade was laird and he enjoyed making sure that every man, woman, and child born on his land knew that bettering the clan was the most important duty they were charged with.
As his daughter, she felt the bite of his expectations more than most.
“I hope he has a safe journey home.”
Her brother snorted. Keir McQuade failed to mask his personal feelings completely, too. The parchment in his grasp crinkled when his fingers tightened on it. Born third, Keir was often relegated by their sire to the more mundane tasks of running the estate while their older brothers stood at their father’s side. Keir didn’t seem to mind, though. He had a keen mind and raiding alongside his father wasn’t the only thing that captured his attention. Their older brothers, Liam and Sodac, lived for night marauding—a fact that endeared them to their father. Keir shook his head before refolding the letter and storing it inside his writing desk.
“At least Jamie no’ sent him home with snow on the road.” A shadow darkened her brother’s face. “No’ that I’d blame our monarch for it.”
Bronwyn didn’t reply. She held her tongue with the aid of years of practice. Her father had no patience for any spirit in his only daughter. In truth, the man had little stomach for the sight of her at all. A girl child was of no use to Laird McQuade. Quite the opposite, and she’d grown up listening to her father lament the fact that someday he’d be pressed to dower her.
There was little chance of that happening, though.
Bronwyn sighed. She didn’t love anyone and still her father’s distaste for her chafed. There was no man wearing her father’s colors who would dare flirt with her. Liam and Sodac helped ensure that by telling one and all that she was a shrew cursed with a demon temperament.
“Och now, sister, dinna look like that.”
Bronwyn fluttered her eyelashes. “Look like what?”
Keir clicked his tongue. Raising a single finger, he pointed at her. “I know ye too well.”
“But Father does not, so there is no reason to warn me. He’ll see nothing but what he wants to see.”
Her brother grunted. The sound reprimanded her by reminding her that she was not the only child their sire valued lowly. Keir was a huge man, his hands twice the size of her own. His lack of zeal for war earned him the cutting edge of his father’s tongue. He was not a coward, simply a man who understood the value of finding other solutions that didn’t include using a sword.
“Aye, ye have the right of it and still I see the hurt in yer eyes.”
A soft smile lifted her lips. “My life is nae so hard as many have. Save yer pity for those that truly suffer.”
She didn’t want it. Nor need it. Holding her chin steady, Bronwyn pushed the floor pedal of the large loom she was working to switch the threads for the next pass of the shuttle. Rolled up on the finished end of the loom were several measures of the McQuade plaid. The loom itself was a prized possession. Modern and efficient, cloth could be woven as fine as any found in Edinburgh.
By a skilled hand, of course.
Trailing her fingers over the fabric nearest to the working edge, she smiled at how smooth it was. The heather, tan, and green stripes were perfectly repeated over and over throughout the length of fabric where they crossed, squares formed to perfection.
“Ye do fine work, Bronwyn.”
Keir’s voice was soft but she savored the approval she heard in the tone. Flashing her brother a smile, she pressed down on the opposite foot pedal.
“And ye are a master at managing the estate funds.”
One of Keir’s eyebrows rose. “I came to warn ye to take a ride afore ye canna anymore.”
Her brother bowed before turning in a swirl of pleated McQuade kilt, the back ones falling longer than the front. A sturdy, thick belt was buckled around his waist to hold the wool against his lean frame. His shoulders were wide and thickly muscled, because while Keir might not lust for war, that did not mean he was any less skilled in the art of wielding a sword than any McQuade retainer.
But her brother’s true worth was in his thinking. Keir had a keen mind when it came to investing. Their father had married three times in his effort to amass more wealth, but it was Keir’s careful handling of the family’s gold that saw the McQuade’s fortunes increasing now. Her brother had seen the value in buying the loom she worked. They had wool aplenty from the sheep that grazed on their land. Four more of the large looms sat in the long room built alongside the great hall. Other McQuade women sat working them now, each one of them having earned the right to use the modern machines by spending years working the smaller looms that produced rougher fabric.
Being the laird’s daughter did not mean she squandered the daylight hours away. Now that winter was creeping over the land, Bronwyn would work the loom almost every day. When she was not passing the shuttle back and forth between the threads, another woman would be. Not a single machine was allowed to be idle during daylight. In a single year, the looms had paid for themselves and Keir intended to see a profit by next spring.
That was her brother’s way of proving his worth to their sire. She was not so confident that her father would see the part she played in turning coin for the family. Her feet and hands moved as her mind turned ideas over and over. She should have learned in twenty-three years to stop lamenting her sire’s lack of affection for her. From her earliest memories he had told her often and bluntly that he had no use for a girl child. It was the harsh truth that many men agreed with him. Her mother was the one to pity. Her father’s third wife, she had suffered every day until her death for birthing an unwanted daughter.
But Bronwyn remembered her kindly. For the first seven years of her life there had been loving arms that held her. Soft kisses placed on her head and a mother that had delighted in sharing time with her daughter. Who knew? Perhaps it was the difference between men and women. The kitchens were forever full of new tales of lovers forsaking their lady loves once their bellies were full. Maybe men did not love. At least, it seemed they did not love women, anyway. Her father loved his land and money; that was a fact for certain. But Laird McQuade had never loved a woman as far as she knew.
Still, there was advantage to her struggle to please him. Her cloth was so fine no one could deny that her hands were skilled. Her entire life had been devoted to bettering herself, and the lack of interest from the men around her was more a blessing than burden. Her older siblings might label her ill-tempered but they could not call her slut. Some might say she was foolish to value her chastity when her sire planned to keep her unwed, but she still cradled the knowledge that she was pure close to her heart. Besides, her sire might change his mind and she had her own pride, too. Enough of it to make sure there was a soiled sheet to fly the morning after her vows, anyway. If that was a sin, so be it.
No one had a perfect life. Her heart rate increased as she considered her brother’s words. Aye, she would take the opportunity to escape the castle before her father returned to flay her with his sharp words. Bronwyn stood and quit the weaving room. Hurrying up the stone stairs that led to the second story, she ducked into the small chamber that was hers. It was simple and modest, but private. Grabbing a good wool surcoat, she pulled a pair of gloves from a chest and turned back around. She cast a look both ways in the hallway before descending to the lower floor. The servants answered to her father and wouldn’t protect her. The staff knew well who paid their wages.
The smell of supper filled the lower floor. Walking along the smooth stone, Bronwyn ducked into the kitchen. Set away from the main buildings of the castle, the kitchens were filled with the aromas of stewing meats and baking bread. Women worked on the long tables, kneading and shaping pastry. Some held long knives that they set to dicing vegetables brought up from the root cellars. Well into November, the vegetables, summer ones that had dried out in the root cellar over the months they had been stored, would need to simmer over the coals for hours to make them soft and palatable. The cook would stew them until it was time to sleep and then leave them in the huge iron kettles hanging in the fireplaces. These would form the base of tomorrow’s meals.
She was not mistress of this house and her father had made it plain that she never would be. Most of the maids did not give her a second glance. They were not unkind, simply uninterested in being associated with her. Bronwyn could not blame them. Any new wife her father might bring home would detest her on sight simply because she represented a potential loss of income should she marry.
The voice was low. Turning, she found young Terri holding out a bundle. A kitchen cloth was tied around several lumps. The maid pressed it toward Bronwyn as her eyes cut quick glances about to see who was watching.
Tucking the bundle inside the loose surcoat, Bronwyn hurried away before Terri’s kindness was noticed. The girl was sweet and one of her few friends. Bronwyn went to great lengths to make sure their liking for each other wasn’t known by many. But Terri knew her and understood what wearing a surcoat in the middle of the day meant. The bundle clasped under her arm would have some sort of meal for her. Terri knew the kitchen and how to skim off scraps without being caught by anyone who would scold her.
Getting to the stables wasn’t hard. Her dress was the same as any other. Good wool, grown, carded, spun and even woven at Red Stone Castle. There was no finery for her. The only silk gowns were locked away in the chests of her father’s deceased wives. She did not have a mare of her own but the stable lads would not deny her a mount. No one was unkind to her. They simply did what they could within the rules the master of the estate set down.
Horses took feed and shelter. It took labor to tend to them properly. To have one simply for her own personal use was something that would turn her sire’s face purple with rage if she ever asked him.
But she had never been one for wasting time.
Pulling a saddle from a rail, Bronwyn set it on top of a mare herself. Old Gilly, the stable master, noticed her but did not offer help. A smile graced her lips as she tugged the straps into position, checking to make sure they were not too tight across the belly of the horse. When she glanced toward Gilly, she received a single nod of approval from his silver-haired head.
The praise warmed her heart.
Old Gilly had taught her to ride. As well as every other aspect that went along with horses and their keeping. The man didn’t seem to mind that she was a girl. Gilly was far more interested in whether or not she learned how to saddle a horse with a careful hand. Gaining approval from Gilly meant a great deal to her.
But that only fueled her quest to ride. She yearned for freedom, if only for one afternoon. The hills would offer her a feast of things to admire and savor. Fresh air filled with the scent of clover and cut hay. The clouds would offer her the renewing smell of water as they darkened with the promise of snow. She walked her mare out of the stall and swung up into the saddle with a happy smile on her lips. Once her father returned, she dare not take even a moment for herself lest she gain his notice.
But winter was closing its grasp on them now. Small white flurries danced in the air. They melted when they hit the ground but the swirling white flakes made for a magical scene as she rode out of Red Stone. Among the hills she was no longer the unwanted girl child. Here there was hope, the hope that life might hand her any number of things if she was simply willing to dare to dream.
Maybe the whispers of fairies weren’t untrue at all. Bronwyn leaned close to the neck of her mare, urging the animal faster. The horse eagerly increased her pace as if she, too, understood that out here they both surrendered to no one.
Even if it was an illusion, Bronwyn enjoyed it all the same.
Sterling Castle, McJames land
“Cullen McJames, stop tossing my baby.”
Anne glared at him as he softly patted the back of his new nephew. His brother’s bride narrowed her eyes at him.
“Och now, why do ye look at me like that?”
“Because you have earned my suspicions. That is a baby, not a toy.”
Cullen placed a kiss on top of Brendan McJames’s head. The baby curled his small hand in his hair and yanked a handful of it toward his mouth. Cullen turned his head as the baby began gnawing on a hank of his shoulder-length hair.
“That’s it, lad. Show yer uncle how strong ye are.” Brodick McJames, earl of Alcaon, offered his brother a sheepish grin. But Cullen couldn’t really work up any true temper. His brother was just too much in love and it made for an envious sight. That was the truth.
His English wife drew looks of longing from his brother that should have made him laugh but instead he found jealousy rising at the way the two longed for one another. Brodick lifted his son away, pride shimmering in his eyes. The baby squirmed, making smacking sounds with his lips. Anne sighed.
“He eats constantly.” Her words lost a great deal of power when Cullen watched the way she cradled her son. Happiness illuminated her features as she turned to climb the stairs to her chamber. Anne would not let a wet nurse tend to her son. She’d turned her back on the English tradition, choosing to suckle her child. That made Cullen even more envious.
It shouldn’t and still he couldn’t dismiss the idea of it from his mind. A year ago, he’d have laughed good and hard at the idea of marriage and family. Now he watched his sister-in-law like a hungry man, enjoying the scent of a good meal.
Brodick straddled the bench next to him. With Anne gone, his brother’s expression sobered. Cullen knew the look well. Inheriting the title of earl from their father had introduced both men to the weight of responsibility. The English queen was rumored to be on her death bed and Scotland was set to inherit the crown. The times were riddled with ambitious men all fighting to take as much English land as possible.