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Authors: Temple Hogan

Tags: #Historical Erotic Romance

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BOOK: The Laird's Daughter
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“It’s a pity you feel that way about such natural beauty all around you,” Jean said softly.

Rafe discerned that Jean didn’t like Dianne, didn’t like her airs or her rudeness to those who served her. While chatting earlier, Jean and Rafe had observed Dianne strike a helpless, young serving girl who had trembled as she’d tried to please the noblewoman. He guessed that only Jean’s good breeding had kept her from berating the noblewoman, but he knew her patience would wear thin when next she observed Dianne’s cruelty.

“Perhaps, on the morrow, we might ride together and you can show me the area round about?” Jean suggested without any real enthusiasm.

Dianne shuddered delicately. “I do not ride around this cursed land,” she snapped. “There’s naught to see but poor villages and lazy peasants who do naught to improve their lot. Their children are…” She shuddered again. “Dirty and dull-eyed without a thought in their head but their next crust of bread.” She cast a glance at the corner of the great hall where peasants sat on the stone floor waiting for just such a treat.

“Perhaps, ‘tis because they’re hungry,” Jean said mildly.

Dianne caught the implication of her admonishment and raised her chin proudly. “That is not of my concern,” she said and turned away from the guest of honor so sharply as to make clear to all, her action was a snub.

Jean’s lean cheeks bloomed with color for a moment, then a smile curved her lips and she turned to Rafe. “I saw little in the way of cattle and lambs about. Do your herdsmen have them in the high pastures already?”

“Unfortunately, our herds are nearly decimated, and I split what we have left among the villages with instructions some were to be slaughtered and eaten and the others to be bred to increase our numbers. It will take some time to rebuild them, and I worry about the winter, but next spring should see us in better shape.”

He turned his back to Dianne who’d apparently grown bored with such mundane talk and wandered to the cluster of MacIntyre men. Gare was there as well and gave her a mocking nod, his dark eyes bright with admiration of her beauty. Rafe thought he should give his friend a bit of advice regarding the shallow noblewoman, but then Gare had never needed advice from him before. Mollified by Gare’s attention, Dianne seemed content to stay in his company. Rafe turned back to Jean who was looking at him appreciatively.

“That was a most kind thing for you to do, Rafe,” she said quietly. “I wonder, would you and your uncle be offended if we offered a hundred head of our cattle and perhaps sheep, as well, until you’ve brought back your herds?”

“Damme, Campbells have no need of charity,” Archibald snapped, having overheard the conversation.

“Charity was not meant,” Jean said hastily. “Only a gift of good will.”

“Well.” Archibald huffed and cast a look at his nephew.

“Your clan has offered us good will enough in sending men to our rescue,” Rafe said warmly, “but we will take a loan of such cattle and sheep as you’ve offered with a promise we’ll repay you.”

“Done,” she said, laughing and holding out her hand as if they’d struck a bargain.

Rafe took her slender hand and bowed low over it, looking up at her with such admiration, Captain Aindreas was moved to take up a position at her other side.

“You’re a lucky man, Captain,” Rafe said, straightening. “To have won the heart of such a lady.”

“Damme, ‘tis talk enough we’ve done,” Archibald called. “Let’s take our places for I’m truly starved.”

Rafe exchanged another glance with Jean, and he thought of the villagers and clansmen without the castle who had known the true meaning of hunger. He prayed his efforts had ended that atrocity for all their people.

From her place in the corner, Annie watched the highborn intent on their drink and conversation. When Jean appeared in her simple, elegant attire, Annie’s stomach had tightened in envy. To have such garments to wear would be a true pleasure. Then she was caught by the close intimate greeting between the lady and her captain. She watched closely as Jean greeted Rafe. Though there was friendship and respect between them, she saw nothing to indicate the affection evident between Jean and the MacIntyre captain. He had said he wasn’t betrothed. Perhaps he had spoken the truth.

Her eyes narrowed when Dianne appeared and quickly launched onto Rafe’s arm. Despite her jewels and finery, she was not half the lady as Jean MacIntyre with her direct, friendly air. Strain as she might, Annie was able to hear only part of the conversation between Rafe and his guest, but it was enough to know that Jean had offered help for the suffering peasants. Her reluctant esteem for the newcomer was further enhanced.

The meal was quickly consumed, and the trenchers passed among the children and needy who waited patiently. Annie passed hers over to a crippled stable lad who often looked hungry and was cuffed and abused by those more able-bodied.

“All of it, Annie?” he asked.

She nodded, and his face grew radiant as he cast a furtive glance over his shoulder and began to gobble down the grease-soaked bread crust. When she looked back toward the great table, she was startled to see that Rafe was crossing the hall toward them. Quickly, she pulled her hair forward over her face and huddled down more. He paused and watched the children in their rags devouring their unexpected repast.

“I thought I caught a glimpse of you, Annie,” he said, his voice sympathetic. “Did you not get a trencher for yourself?”

She shook her head and waved a hand indicating she had no desire for food.

“Of course, you do,” he said and called to a nearby servant. “Bring that platter of leftover meat here,” he ordered, “and the baskets of bread.”

The servant looked at him askance and raced away. Soon, she was back with a companion, each bearing trays of mutton and baskets of bread. At first, the children were disbelieving, staring at him with round eyes, but he motioned them to take the bread and meat.

“Come, join your children.” He waved to their parents who waited patiently at the door and ordered they take meat and bread. “Stay and watch the jugglers,” he said.

Soon the floor space in the whole corner and the benches against one wall were filled with the castle workers and peasants. Rafe’s face beamed, and he ordered more meat be brought so all could eat. Excited, the children forgot their reticence and began to talk and laugh. By the time the jugglers entered, the hall echoed with noise. Fortunetellers went round about the room, reading palms and offering fortunes. Even Archibald’s loud cackle of amusement could be heard throughout the hall.

Enchanted, the children and their parents laughed and clapped at the agile jugglers and acrobats. Most of them had never seen such wonders. With their bellies full and the sounds of merriment, a sense of well-being overcame the gathering. Rafe stayed close by Annie, laughing at the antics of the gypsy entertainers, his manner relaxed and at ease for once, the scowl that habitually marred his handsome features gone. Annie relaxed her vigil and clapped. Suddenly, as if on a whim, Rafe grabbed hold of her hands and tugged her toward the middle of the hall.

“Come, Annie,” he cried. “We’ll have your fortune told.”

She shrank back and shook her head vehemently.

“Don’t be afraid, lass,” he called. “I but wish you to have your fortune told. Come.”

He tugged her forward with such force, she stumbled and fell against him. His strong arm caught her, pulling her against his side in a steadying gesture, and she felt the hard, masculine angles of his body. Heat sufficed her body. Her cheeks flamed as she remember the feel of his body against hers in their afternoon tryst by the pool.

His arm stayed at her waist long after she had regained her footing. Her startled gaze met his, and she couldn’t breathe for fear he’d recognized her. Quickly, she lowered her head and pulled away, but not before she felt the hard ridge of his cock. Face flaming, she made to flee the hall, but his clasp caught her fast. His tanned cheeks were flushed and she guessed he’d been as caught unawares as she by the flame of desire between them. He looked ashamed as well he might. He considered her a child and grown men did not think of lasses in such a manner unless they were immoral beasts.

“Where are ye going, lass?” he inquired softly and turned her toward the great table where the fortunetellers were plying their trade.

She would have struggled more, but she caught sight of Bryce and some of the clansmen who’d gotten to their feet and looked ready to do battle on her behalf. Under the guise of righting herself, she waved them away and followed docilely where Rafe led.

“What have you there, Rafe?” the MacIntyre captain called good-naturedly.

“’Tis Annie, our goose girl,” Rafe explained to Aindreas. “She’s mute, so don’t expect her to converse with you, but neither should underestimate her intelligence. Sometimes, methinks ‘tis Annie who runs the castle.”

He came to a halt and released the hold he’d taken on her shoulder. She slumped, hunching her back and staring at the floor with a dull expression.

Suddenly she was aware of someone beside her, someone who smelled of flowers. She raised her head sharply and stared into the clear intelligent gray eyes of Jean.

“Hello, Annie,” the lady said gently. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Annie ducked her head and put up a hand to shield her face.

“Don’t be shy with me, Annie,” the noblewoman said, taking hold of her hand. “And don’t hide your pretty face.”

Her smile was summer rain, gentle and nourishing. Annie wanted to return the smile, but forced herself to remain petulant as any child might.

“She cannot answer you. She’s a mute,” Rafe said, almost protectively then waved to one of the gypsies. “Here, I wish you to tell the fortune of this lass.”

“I could do that,” Dianne said in a cruel, mocking voice. “Were I of a mind to.”

The men around her laughed, and she was spurred to rise and move toward Rafe and Annie. She sauntered around the girl, taking in her cramped posture and poor attire.

“Hold out your hand,” she demanded arrogantly.

“Leave her,” Rafe growled. “’Tis not your concern.”

“Nay, my brave warrior,” Dianne cried with false gaiety, although her dark eyes narrowed in defiance. “You’ve taken pity on this wretched creature and wish to bring some merriment to her life. Would you deny me the right to do the same?” She glared at Annie. “Hold out your hand, I say.”

Annie did as she was bidden. Dianne snatched it toward her and peered at it overly long, making many faces of disgust and delight.

“I see you are to take a husband, a fine man of wealth, a Marquis, nay, a king and you’ll live in a fine castle.” Her voice rose in glee as she spun her improbable tale.

“Leave her, I say,” Rafe roared and pushed Dianne away. “You but mock her.”

“I would not do that, Rafe,” Dianne replied lightly. “That is what I see in her palm. Ask the gypsy if I do not speak the truth.” She looked around and motioned to an old gypsy woman who had paused to listen to the nobles at their game, trying to divine what role she would be expected to play in this little farce.

“Woman, come and read this child’s fortune,” the lady ordered, and the gypsy edged away, suddenly wary, but the auburn-haired noblewoman waved her forward peremptorily. There was naught to do but obey.

With a sharp eye on the baubles pinned to the lady’s breast, the gypsy brushed against the haughty noblewoman. Her nimble fingers relieved her of a brooch. Taking Annie’s hand, she peered at her callused palm then traced the lines with one dirt-encrusted nail.

A smell of leeks and herbs surrounded the old woman, mingling with the earthy odors of unwashed body and smoky campfires. Her brown face was seamed and darkened by years of travel dirt and sooty fires. Her thin wrinkled mouth worked as she chewed on something then spat it on the floor.

“Aye, ‘tis a long life you’ll have,” she began, glancing at the girl’s face then at the noblewoman who hovered nearby, her lips pressed together in displeasure. Uncertain what was required, the old woman, mumbled beneath her breath, her finger tracing the girl’s palm. Suddenly, she stiffened and stared into the girl’s face. A look of fear crossed the old gypsy’s face.

“You’re of the lineage of a broken clan,” she said in a low crooning voice. “Of a noble line, you are, and you’ll marry a brave nobleman and bear him many children, but first there will be sorrow and betrayal.” Her lively dark eyes flickered from side to side as she stared into Annie’s eyes. “There will be many deaths and blood will flow—”

“All right, that’s enough,” Rafe said, pulling Annie against him. “You’ll not mock the girl. She hears you well.”

“I dinna mock her,” the gypsy said urgently. “I but tell the truth. She is loved by a man who will wed her and give her strong sons. She will be happy and the mistress of her own house.”

“’Tis a happy fortune telling,” Jean said and put her arm around Annie and smiled at her. “I pray it will come true for you.”

“Annie.” A harsh voice sounded behind them, and she turned. Bryce, who’d been sitting with his friends, enjoying the bountifulness of the Campbells, rose from the bench and glared at her. At the moment he shouted her name, the music died away, so his shout silenced the hall. Scowling, the burly blacksmith got to his feet and stalked toward them, snatching Annie’s hand from Rafe’s and jerking her backward, so she nearly sprawled on the floor where the old gypsy had spat.

“Don’t think to use her for your amusement,” he roared, glaring at Rafe.

“Here, you can’t talk to your betters like that, man,” one of the MacIntyre clansmen called. “Clout the fellow.”

The other men took up the cry and Rafe, seemingly knowing he had no other choice, stepped forward and landed a blow against Bryce’s chin. Bryce fell backward and landed on his backside in the middle of the floor.

“Fight, fight,” the drunken men cried.

Annie cried out, aghast at what was taking place. She turned a beseeching face to Rafe.

“I can’t fight my Laird’s nephew,” Bryce said, regaining his feet and glaring at the man before him.

“I give you leave to do so,” Rafe called. His cheeks were flushed with emotions Annie couldn’t name. “You’ll suffer no repercussions for fighting me.”

BOOK: The Laird's Daughter
13.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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