Seductive Scot Excerpt

Book 3 > Highlanders Through Time

Chapter One

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
~ William Shakespeare, As You Like It

The Past
1286
Fifeshire, Scotland

The Scottish Court was full of snakes disguised in fine silk gowns and plaids. Lady Deirdre Irvine opened the door to Queen Dowager Yolande’s solar, and a hush fell, calculating gazes turning her way. Her spine stiffened with realization: she was the mouse the serpents intended to feast upon tonight. Pushing her shoulders back, she notched up her chin and glided into the room donning her practiced smile. Climbing out of the disfavor created when her father was named a coward after taking his own life five years earlier was tedious and treacherous, but it had taught her a thing or two. She never showed how she really felt to anyone but those she trusted emphatically, and that list was short, consisting only of her younger sister, Maggie. The list had never been long, but it had, until recently, included her elder brother. Lately, Yearger had been acting as if he were keeping secrets, and Deirdre had a bad feeling that he was up to no good.

She made her way down the open aisle to Queen Yolande. She sat at the far side of the room under a large window where moonlight streamed over her, highlighting her smooth, youthful skin. It still felt odd to think of the young queen as a dowager. The newly widowed queen was resplendent in the dark-colored gown she’d been wearing to mark the mourning of her late husband, King Alexander. She looked every inch the frail widow with her pale coloring, sad smile, and the dark smudges under her eyes.

The appearance was purposeful, of course. Not that Queen Yolande had not loved King Alexander. She had loved the older Scot, but the queen was canny and she comprehended how precarious her position was now that King Alexander was dead and she did not carry his child. She would be wed to another in good time to strengthen her family’s position, and portraying herself as socially cunning would lure more politically inclined men to vie for her hand, which would give her French family more men from which to choose her next husband.

There had been a time when Deirdre’s father could have chosen from a bevy of suitors for her hand. She pinched off the irritation that there had never been a time when she could have chosen her own husband. It was a woman’s lot to have to rely on a marriage for protection and likely not even to find love in the marriage, but that didn’t mean she liked it. Even with her father dead and her family still struggling under his disgrace, she was well aware that she needed a betrothal and that she was still a game piece moved on the board of life. It was merely that Yearger now worked to position her.

She nodded to other courtiers as she approached the queen, and Deirdre’s thoughts spun. Yearger’s plans for her hinged upon the betrothal that he and King Alexander had arranged for Maggie before the king’s death. But since Maggie had been stolen by a savage Scot from right under their noses just months before, Deirdre’s prospects were not looking good. Yet she didn’t truly care. It had shocked her to realize her own apathy. She should be frightened for herself, for what would happen to her, but she was more worried for her sister. Deirdre would endure a lifetime of hardship if it meant Maggie would be returned safely.

Maggie.

Deirdre’s throat tightened as guilt closed invisible fingers around her neck. Maggie had not wanted to wed Baron John Bellecote, but Deirdre had joined forces with Yearger and insisted, thinking it was the best course of action. The fact that she could have done to her sister the very thing she despised having to endure herself tied her stomach in pulsing knots. And the lie she’d told herself repeatedly to avoid feeling guilty… She sucked in a shaky breath.

I did it for Maggie.

Lie.

It had taken Maggie’s being stolen away for Deirdre to see her own cowardice. She’d done it more for herself than Maggie, and she loathed herself for her selfish actions. She’d been scared of the life she’d face without a husband, and that fear had led her to betray her sister’s trust. The sister whom she loved. The sister whom she’d tried to protect and nurture since the day their mother had died.

If—no, when—Maggie was found, Deirdre would tell her that she would not stand with their brother and force Maggie to wed the baron. Deirdre would aid Maggie in whatever she wished to do, which was likely to become a healer, and she would do all in her power to shield Maggie from Yearger’s anger. And he would be angry. Their brother had worked tirelessly to bring the family back to respectability, to regain some of what had been taken from them, including their landholdings and their castles.

As Deirdre stopped in front of the queen, she noted with whom she was soon to match wits. To Queen Yolande’s right were three men Deirdre recognized as the queen’s appointed advisors since King Alexander’s death. To the queen’s immediate left was someone Deirdre didn’t know, but something about him tugged at her memory. And then she saw his crest. She almost gasped. This was Algien Bellecote, son of Baron Bellecote. This was the man Yearger intended to wed Deirdre to if Maggie was found and her wedding proceeded forth.

Algien’s keen, close-set blue eyes met hers, and a smirk came to the man’s thin lips. He had his father’s same pompous sneer, long aristocratic nose, and oval-shaped face. What did it mean that Baron Bellecote’s son was here? Had he been sent by his father? Had Maggie been found? The need to ask questions was like an itch, but to scratch it might only make matters worse for her and Maggie.

“Lady Deirdre,” Queen Yolande murmured in the same grieved voice she’d adopted since the night King Alexander had fallen off that cliff to his death.

Deirdre dipped into a low curtsy and paused there, head bowed, as the queen liked for her ladies-in-waiting to do until she bade them to rise. She stared at her shoes, soft leather slippers that had been a gift from Yearger before he’d departed with Lady Grace MacKinnish to lead a search party to look for her missing sister, Shona. Part of Deirdre wished she were with Grace. The healer was the only person who could understand the fear of one’s sister being missing. But Grace would likely blame Deirdre for Shona’s disappearance. After all, as head lady-in-waiting, Deirdre had been the one to instruct Shona to take the note to the king which had led him to ride out in a storm and ultimately die.

It was but another thing that weighed heavily on her mind. Yearger had said that Shona had accidentally scared the king’s horse, which caused the horse’s fall and, consequently, the king’s death. Had Shona fled Kinghorn after the accident because she had felt she would ultimately be blamed and punished for the king’s death? Yearger thought so. He’d told Deirdre as much and had ordered her to keep the information about Shona a secret until she could be found.

Deirdre bit her lip. Why had she been called here? Was it about Shona? Maggie?

“Rise, Lady Deirdre,” Queen Yolande said.

Deirdre did so to find the queen staring at her with pity. That look, as if she were about to deliver devastating news, was all too familiar. She’d seen it from her father when he told her, Maggie, and Yearger that illness had taken their mother. She’d seen it again when he’d informed them he’d been falsely named a coward, and they would be losing their place at Court and all their properties but Castle Lochlavine. It remained with them only because it had been a gift from King Alexander to Maggie, his goddaughter, upon her birth. And she’d seen a similar look of pity and fear in the eyes of the servant who had found their father hanging in his room where he’d taken his life.

A large lump formed in Deirdre’s throat, but she swallowed it down, her mind racing with all sorts of horrible, tragic thoughts for herself and Maggie.

“I wish to speak with you regarding Lady Margaret,” Queen Yolande said.

Deirdre’s breath caught at the mention of her sister. “Is there word of her?”

The titters of the gathered ladies-in-waiting told Deirdre there was word and that it was known by the Court. She laced her fingers together in front of her to prevent herself from curling her hands into fists.

“Out,” Queen Yolande commanded, sweeping her eyes over the three ladies-in-waiting present.

Deirdre gave the queen a grateful look, but then the advisor sitting closest to her, Bishop Cuthbert, held up a staying hand. “Let them remain,” he said, looking down his nose at Deirdre, which was an impressive feat given he was sitting, therefore lower than her. A flush of embarrassment mingled with dislike, heating her, and she prayed her cheeks had not turned rosy to give away her distress. Bishop Cuthbert enjoyed lording his power over others, and it seemed the queen was his latest victim. He wanted to show that whatever power was left to her was by his and the other advisors’ grace. The man did not serve God; he served himself.

“Very well,” Queen Yolande said, weariness slowing the two words, and showing the queen understood all too well that she held little power now. “Sit, Deirdre.” Immediately a chair touched the back of Deirdre’s legs. She obeyed, trying to ignore that being ordered about made her feel like a hound. Such was her life.

“There is not an easy way to say this, so I’ll just tell you quickly. We’ve received word that your sister has betrayed your family and wed a man named Rhys McCaim—the prisoner, the one named the Devil’s servant, who was here and we thought escaped.”

Deirdre’s heart beat so loudly in her ears, she could hear nothing else. Perspiration trickled down her back, and she trembled. “My sister would nae do such a thing,” she protested, though the slightest doubt niggled. Maggie had not wanted to wed Baron Bellecote, and she had been very distraught about what might happen to the man, Rhys McCaim. Maggie had blamed herself for his imprisonment here at Kinghorn Castle. Never mind that Maggie had saved the man from having his hands cut off by the baron. Maggie, with her soft heart, had focused on the fact that her efforts to help him had also ultimately endangered his life.

Oh, Maggie… Maggie, what have ye done?

“Your sister,” said Algien as he leaned forward with narrowed eyes, “apparently willingly wed McCaim, and therefore, she willingly broke her contract to wed my father.”

“How do ye—”

“The priest who wed them told me,” Algien said, matter-of-fact.

“Did Baron Bellecote confirm this?” she asked, struggling to keep her voice from betraying her concern for her sister and, in truth, herself.

“I am Baron Bellecote now,” Algien replied, the only sound in the room the shifting of the people gathered there.

Deirdre frowned. “I do nae understand. If ye are the baron now, that would mean—”

“Yes,” Algien interrupted, the word clipped and sounding even harsher with his proper English accent. Baron Bellecote had been King Edward’s man, and Deirdre assumed his son was, as well. “My father is dead. Killed,” he went on, his voice as cold as the wind off the icy waters of the loch, “by Dermot MacKinnish, who it seems is related to your sister’s new husband. I believe the MacKinnishes are familiar to you.” The way he said it, as if there was a hidden meaning behind his simple statement, confused her.

“Everyone at Court knows the MacKinnishes, of course.”

Algien gave her a smile that indicated he was pleased with her. It made no sense. None of this did. She squeezed her hands together tightly as worry coursed through her. Had Maggie truly wed of her own volition? If so, it had to mean she was in love—or thought she was. Or good Lord, maybe her sister had wed McCaim thinking to somehow save him, to protect him. That would be just like Maggie. Deirdre needed to speak to her sister, but the bishop and the queen’s advisors would never allow that. It was obvious by the scornful looks cast her way that Maggie’s actions put her in disfavor. Perhaps Deirdre and Yearger, as well.

“I’d like to speak to my brother,” she said slowly. Dread settled at the bottom of her belly as all gazes turned from her but the queen’s, her advisors’, and the new baron’s.

“My dear,” the queen said, holding her hands out to Deirdre. The dread grew, making Deirdre’s stomach cramp. “Take my hands.”

Deirdre’s trembling increased, but she scooted forward and did as she was told. “Your brother was killed in Northumbria by Ross MacKinnish. The two of them got into some sort of quarrel.”

Whatever else the queen said, Deirdre could not hear. Her ears roared with her blood, and her throat suddenly ached with the need to cry. Her eyes stung horribly, and she had to blink them repeatedly to keep the tears back.

Dead. Yearger is dead.

She could not believe it. She bit her lip on a cry.

The queen released her hands and sat back. “We have decided that since your sister broke the betrothal to the baron that the king wished for, you will wed Algien.” She motioned to the new baron. “And Castle Lochlavine will be his upon your wedding, rather than your sister’s. She has brought shame to your family once again, but Baron Bellecote has generously agreed to take you to wife anyway and preserve the long peace between Scotland and England.”

Take her to wife?

A blind terror hit her as her gaze swung to Algien, who gave her an expectant look. One that said, You may thank me now. She fought the urge to run. She did not want to wed this man that she did not know, who did not seem kind. The irony hit her like a slap in the face. She cringed inwardly.

I would have wed him. I would have wed him before Maggie disappeared for the promise of security, or possibly because I simply lack the courage to do anything else.

Dread choked off her air. She could not swallow. She wanted to claw at her throat, but she did not dare. This had to be how Maggie had felt knowing she was to wed Algien’s father. She had betrayed Maggie, and in return, Maggie had betrayed her. The difference was Deirdre had deserved it. Her cultivated self-control crumbled in a breath, and the tears broke free.

“Look how she weeps with joy!” Algien exclaimed.

Amid her tears and loud crying, Deirdre could neither see nor hear any responses, but she felt someone grasp her arms, and then she was being lifted to her feet and led out of the room.

A moment later, the door shut behind her, and she was released. A cloth was roughly swiped over her eyes and cheeks, and then Algien’s smug expression came into view. He passed the cloth to one of his guards standing beside him. Algien drew close to her and slid his hand around her neck to cup her head before pressing his mouth near her ear. “You may thank me properly for getting your arse out of this predicament when we are wed. The queen and her council really are fools, just as your brother claimed.”

Shock at his words rendered her speechless.

“It’s a shame about Yearger,” Algien continued. “He proved very useful to King Edward, but we’ll say you were the mastermind behind it all so the king will reward you, and thus, he’ll reward me, my dear future wife.”

Yearger had proved useful to the king of England? Her head spun with the implications. Good Christ! What had Yearger done?

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