Authors: Cathy MacRae
Thrust into the role of laird upon his father’s unexpected death, Connor MacLaurey returns home to learn his cousin has usurped his lands and title. Furthermore, his betrothed—a lass he barely knows and certainly did not agree to marry—is hunted by the sheriff, accused of stealing cattle. His plan is to petition the king for clemency for the foolish chit, break the betrothal, and take his castle back from his treacherous cousin. Marriage is not in his plans.
Brianna Douglas has no use for men. Widowed young, berated daily for failing to give her husband a child, and sent home in subsequent disgrace, she devotes her life to holding her family’s land for her young brother as their sotted father drowns his sorrow in whisky over their mother’s death. Raiders have hit her clan hard, and to save them, she finds herself betrothed to Laird MacLaurey’s absent son to seal a pact of protection with the MacLaurey clan.
Forced into a marriage neither wants, it will take a king’s edict and sacrifice from both to discover what love means. But can they accept their losses and learn from their mistakes before Brianna marries another?
This book is dedicated to my wonderful husband, who is my own happy-ever-after.
September 1386, Wyndham Hall
Brianna glared at her da, hands fisted on her hips, the belligerent thrust to her chin the mirror image of his. “I willnae marry. Ye can burn that contract as easily as sign it.”
“Ye will marry, and ye will wed whomever I choose.”
“I did that once, and all I got was a dead husband scarcely a year into the bargain.”
Lord Wyndham scowled. “Young Mungo was a fool to challenge the lads to a horse race.”
“He was a fool to fall off at the first hedge,” Brianna scoffed. “And to linger for weeks afterward. I had my fill of his da’s arguments and threats during those days.”
“He dinnae want his son to die without an heir.”
“I wasnae with child and he wanted to solve the matter himself!” Her cheeks flamed as she recalled the chieftain’s rants and crude suggestions when he learned his son would never leave his bed again, his duty to the bloodline unfulfilled. Her fists clenched.
“We need the help, daughter. I have written the papers and ye will fulfill the bargain.”
“Ye put all of Wyndham into the contract. Wyndham belongs to Jamie. I want to stay here and take care of ye both. And I dinnae need a man to tell me how to run Wyndham.”
Nor will I ever put myself in such a situation again, St. Andrew be my witness.
Her da’s face reddened. “Ye need a man to put a bairn in yer belly.”
“Ten months wed and there was no bairn. I dinnae believe ye will get yer heir from me. Ye must look to Jamie for that.”
Lord Wyndham dropped his gaze and pivoted on his heel, his heavy cloak billowing about his legs. He pulled the wool close about him. “Yer brother is weak—has been since he was born. He willnae live to provide an heir.”
His bitter voice tore at Brianna’s heart and she slipped behind him, a sympathetic arm about his waist. “I know how ye have grieved since Ma died, but ’twas five years ago.” She eyed the whisky flask on his desk, already half-drained at this early hour. Rare was the afternoon that saw her sire sober.
“Though Jamie was born much too early, he has grown into a good lad. He cannae help being sickly. I know he will grow out of it soon.”
“Ye are over-optimistic, daughter. And headstrong and disobedient.” Da broke from her embrace and stalked to the chair behind his desk. “We have too much trouble on our borders, and Laird MacLaurey has offered his help if we combine our lands.”
Again Brianna’s hands propped on her hips, frustration boiling to the surface. “And by that he means I am to marry his son. Weel, I dinnae like it. He is a skirt-chasing rogue by all accounts and lost his heart to Laird Macrory’s daughter. He isnae likely to be happy finding himself betrothed to me!”
She knelt beside Da’s chair and placed a hand on his. “Besides, he is in France nursing his broken heart and who knows when he will return? Will his da honor his word to help us whilst his son traipses around the continent?”
Lord Wyndham eyed the whisky flask and licked his lips. His hand trembled. “We need the help. Reivers have struck us too many times. Our people willnae eat this winter if we cannae protect our cattle.”
Brianna bit her lip. ’Twas her da’s inability to stay sober that affected them most. She knew her ma’s death at Jamie’s birth had hit him hard, and his bouts of drinking had gotten worse, not better, since. When he could be roused to remember his duty as lord of Wyndham, he would bluster and rail, swearing vengeance on those who stole from his people. But in the end, he did nothing. Except drink himself into a deeper stupor.
“There has to be another way. Gavin and I—”
Her da smacked the desktop with a ferocious stroke of his palm and Brianna flinched in surprise. “Ye are a lady and willnae consort with the soldiers!”
“Dinnae disobey me, daughter! We will obtain help from Morven, and ye will wed the MacLaurey’s son.” He waved his hands in the air. “Be gone! Attend to yer sewing and leave me in peace!”
Gathering her dignity, Brianna strode out the door and into the hallway. The clink of the flask reached her ears as she closed the door.
July 1387, Glenkirk, Scotland
Brianna trembled in the poorly lit entrance to the main hall, a mixture of fear and anger tightening her stomach. Surrounded by surly guards, her hands clenched tight, bound firmly behind her by a ragged rope biting sharply into her tender skin. Four bristling Douglas soldiers, sworn to protect her, stood a few feet to one side, similarly detained. Her heart pounded as she stared into the brutal faces of the sheriff’s men. At twenty-and-one, she was about to be hanged for reiving.
She tilted her head slightly, wanting to see her soldiers, needing to draw strength from them.
What terrible fate have I brought them to?
Their faces were still black with fury at being forced to surrender their arms as one of the sheriff’s men had dragged her from her horse, a sword to her throat. Gavin, the Douglas captain, met her sidelong gaze and lifted his chin, nodding solemnly. Whatever happened, they would face it together bravely, as befitting Douglases.
Brianna inclined her head in silent acknowledgement. She was Lord Wyndham’s daughter and would not bring disgrace to her clan. The sheriff may have caught them with the wrong group of cattle—who could tell in the dark?—but there was no shame in protecting her people. She flinched. The idea had seemed so right at the time. She squared her shoulders and prayed her legs would not buckle beneath her.
A guard prodded her from behind and she took a quick, startled step forward, her men a scant stride behind her. They halted just inside the main hall, awaiting milord sheriff’s pleasure. For several agonizing moments, the sheriff ignored them, intent on speaking with a young woman who giggled prettily at whatever he said to her. Brianna’s cheeks flamed as she realized the insult he gave by relegating their presence below that of his simpering leman.
At last the sheriff waved the woman away and beckoned Brianna and her soldiers forward. Lounging in his throne-like chair, he surveyed the ragged group with an insolent air of boredom.
“I am Fergus, Sheriff at Glenkirk.”
Brianna stiffened as his gaze slid from the glowering Douglas soldiers to roam her boyishly clad form, lingering on her unbound hair spilling across her shoulders. He was clearly intrigued by the fact she, as leader of the group, was a woman—an unexpected change from the rough male cattle thieves normally brought before him for judgment.
“What say ye about yer actions, milady?” Fergus dragged his gaze from her and addressed the small group. Brianna blinked at his question—she had not expected a chance to defend herself or her actions. The sheriff was not known to question reivers before hanging them. Perhaps she was of more interest to him than she’d thought. The possibility sent a shiver of alarm down her spine.
Unsticking her dry tongue from the roof of her mouth, she took a steadying breath.
I am a Douglas. I am Lord Wyndham’s daughter and I willnae be afraid.
With sudden clarity, she saw a glimmer of hope. The blood of kings ran through her veins, and to spill it this day would cost the sheriff dearly.
“Neither I nor my soldiers are guilty of reiving.” Her voice rang clear and she lifted her chin a notch higher. The Douglases’ heads swiveled to her in unison and she noted the pleased respect lighting their grim faces, warming her, giving her courage. They obviously hadn’t expected her to be so bold before the sheriff.
Fergus waved aside her claim with a flick of his wrist. “Och, of course ye are. Or have ye forgotten being caught with cattle not yer own?” He wrinkled his nose distastefully. “The odor of the byre clings to ye yet.”
Brianna’s eyes narrowed at the insult. “I demand the king’s authority.”
The sheriff sat upright in his chair, leaning forward to jab a finger angrily at her. “And what makes the daughter of a minor lord, caught reiving against the king’s direct edict, so special she thinks she can escape her fate?”
Her limbs quaked, threatening to betray her, but she dared not back down. “This daughter of a minor lord is also the grandniece of Lord John of Islay.” Anger flared even as a frisson of fear shot through her as she challenged the man who held her life, and those of her soldiers, in his hands.
Fergus leaned slowly back in his chair, stroking his chin thoughtfully. Brianna’s confidence grew. Surely he knew as well as anyone that Lord John of Islay, styled King of the Isles, was married to the daughter of King Robert of Scotland. Brianna hoped it was less well known that her lineage traced to Lord John’s first wife, not his second. She held her breath.
The sheriff’s face crumpled into a scowl, and Brianna was certain he understood hanging the grandniece of Lord John meant hanging the grandniece—however far removed—of the king. Fresh hope spread through her like a flame, thawing the icy fear around her heart. She had been right to challenge the sheriff. No matter what she had been accused of, she had the right to appeal to the king.
The sheriff stood, his mouth an angry slash across his face. “Lady Brianna of Wyndham, I hereby find ye guilty of reiving and name ye outlaw, and yer men as well. I release ye into the custody of King Robert of Scotland for yer doom. May ye find justice at his hands.”
* * *
Dazed with the unexpected reprieve, Brianna glanced around the noisome cell as the guards’ footsteps faded down the rock passageway. “I am not sure what will happen now,” she admitted, her voice a low murmur of wonderment.
“Och, ye have done a fine night’s work, lass.” Rabbie’s voice held a proud note. “’Tis enough we are still alive and not dangling at the end of a gallows rope.”
Her heady sense of relief disappeared in a cold rush of reality. “But I could have cost us our lives just as easily.”
The men quickly disclaimed the events leading to their capture.
“’Tis not yer fault yer da…”
“’Twas the alliance that failed.”
Brianna’s eyes flashed. “Dinnae speak to me of the alliance. Or Laird MacLaurey—”
Gavin raised a hand and they quieted. “We all agreed to the reiving to get our cattle back. ’Twas no one’s fault we were caught. But we need rest. William and Rabbie, the two of ye sit watch for the guards’ return. We have time before they take us to Troon to stand before the king. Wake me and Duncan when ye cannae keep yer eyes open.”
Realizing how tired she was, Brianna drifted to one corner of the tiny room in search of a place to rest, unfastening her plaide from her shoulders to spread over the rotted hay scattered across the cold stone floor. She settled gingerly on the woolen cloth, needing sleep but barely able to stomach the intolerable stench of the refuse beneath her cheek. Sleep was a long time coming. Their necks were not free of the hangman’s noose yet.
* * *
Brianna startled to wakefulness. Blearily she blinked her eyes, struggling to distinguish the nearby shapes in the gloom.
“Wheesht, lass.” A large hand fitted across her mouth and another clasped her shoulder, holding her still as the voice rasped in her ear.