Secrets of a Highlander’s Heart Excerpt

Book 1 > Return of the Highlanders

The Past ~ 1460

Dunstaffnage Castle, Scotland

Sir Gilbert Stewart, Lord of Lorn, was intimately acquainted with treachery. Having gained his castle, lands, and title by ferreting out duplicity for the king of Scots, Gilbert had prided himself on recognizing disloyalty by a mere look upon a person’s face. But as he stared at the missive that Bran, his right hand, had bravely copied a sennight ago from the original he’d chanced to spot on John MacDonald’s desk, Gilbert thought again how his friendship with the Lord of the Isles—and his pride—had blinded him to the wolf in his midst.

Sun shone into his solar from the stained-glass pane behind him, making him squint to see the signatures that Bran had copied. Gilbert ran his finger over each one: Edward IV, King of England. Gilbert’s teeth pressed together so hard that pain shot through one of his molars, but he continued the process he’d repeated dozens of times since Bran had delivered the missive and the terrible news. Colin Campbell. Gilbert’s nostrils flared. He’d suspected Colin to be against the young, new King of Scotland, so the confirmation was not a dagger in the gut like John’s signature was. Gilbert’s temples pounded as he ran his finger over the signature of John of Islay, John MacDonald, Earl of Ross, Lord of the Isles.

He’d counted John as his closest friend ever since they’d apprenticed together as lads for their recently deceased king. They had served side by side in many a battle protecting the king, and when he’d died and his son of only nine summers had been crowned, John had kissed James III’s soft, untried hand and pledged his loyalty.

Gilbert snorted at the lies and the arrogance that made John sign the document with all his titles. Of course, the man had done so. Even though it was only a draft of a proposed treaty—for which signing John MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, would have more than sufficed—John had used all his titles on the Treaty of Westminster, just as he’d signed them all to the betrothal contract that had been drawn up for John’s eldest daughter and Gilbert’s eldest son. Gilbert strummed his fingers on his desk as he stared at the signatures until his vision went blurry. He’d ignored dozens of signs that John had craved more power, that he needed it to define himself.

“God’s blood!” Gilbert roared, slamming his fist down with such violence that the wine he’d poured nearly to the top of his goblet sloshed over the edge, trailing a line of ruby-red liquid over the edge of the copied missive. It seemed a sign of the carnage that would inevitably come. Gilbert had no doubt. He could see no other ending for it.

His loyalty to the King of Scotland ran through him thick as his blood, and John was disloyal. The treaty between the King of England and these Scots proved it. These men had agreed to help the English king gain the Scottish throne. They had agreed to become his vassals, and in exchange they would receive the land they coveted and power that came with it. John wanted what belonged to the young Scottish king, and Gilbert could not allow his oldest friend what he craved.

Gilbert stared down at the last signature on the paper, the Earl of Douglas, and the space where Bran had said there had been another but he had not been able to read the name. Gilbert didn’t know who the other man was that had signed the treaty, but he intended to find out. And until he knew the last traitor’s name, he had to keep what he had discovered—or rather what Bran had uncovered—secret. Gilbert would need all the names before he went to the king, in case the unknown traitor sat on the king’s council himself. But in the meantime, he would start the process of untangling himself from John, lest any loyal men on the council name him traitor as well by mere association, not to mention his son’s betrothal to John’s daughter.

A squeal of delight rang through the air, and Gilbert rose from his desk and made his way to the window that overlooked the courtyard. Down below, his wife Isabel sat on a blanket spread in a patch of bright-green grass by the blooming flower garden. Standing on chubby but still wobbly legs, given her tender age of two summers, and within his wife’s reach was his youngest bairn, his daughter. He smiled at her fiery-red hair that matched her personality.

Contentment warmed him as he watched Margaret plucking bright-yellow flowers he was sure she’d been told not to pick. He chided the little lass often about her stubborn streak, but there was a part of him today that found a sense of peace in the knowledge that she had a strong spine. This world was treacherous, and though he’d done his best to secure good marriage alliances for each of his children, his confidence was shaken. He’d clearly misjudged John, and the betrothal between John’s daughter and Gilbert’s eldest bairn, Ross, was a grave mistake that would need to be undone. Gilbert ran a hand across his aching eyes. He may not be here to undo other mistakes for his other two children.

A yelp stole his attention from Margaret to the small pond. Graeme, his middle child, tumbled headfirst over the stone wall into the pond. A moment of panic seized Gilbert, for though Graeme had been taught to swim, at only three summers, he was still a weak swimmer. But before Gilbert had shaken loose the fright that had held him in place, Ross appeared in his line of vision, scrambled up the stone wall that surrounded the pond, and dove in. He seized his flailing brother and flipped him on his back to swim him to safety. By the time Ross was dragging the wailing Graeme up the wall to safety, Isabel was standing there, reaching for Graeme, whom Ross unceremoniously shoved toward her. Isabel took the red-faced Graeme into her arms and set him on her hip. Gilbert smiled as his wife’s lips moved in a blur, surely with a sharp lecture for the mischievous Graeme. The lad was cursed with the ability to find trouble wherever he went. When at last her lips pressed into a thin line and she served Graeme a severe look even as she patted his tiny back lovingly, Gilbert let his attention go back to Ross, his eldest, his heir.

Ross stood before his mother, already a good measure above her waist at seven summers. He shook his head at his brother while gazing down at him. Then Ross began to move his arms through the air, and Gilbert grinned. Ross was showing Graeme how to properly stroke the water to swim. Isabel set Graeme down, and Ross took him by the hand and led him to the shallow side of the pond where there was a gate. Ross opened it, and they waded in together and stood side by side, Ross’s gleaming black hair contrasting sharply with his brother’s golden locks. A bit of Gilbert’s trepidation for Ross eased. The boy was a natural leader. He would be all right. Gilbert refused to believe another opportunity for an alliance with a good, powerful clan would not come for Ross after Gilbert ended his ill-advised betrothal.

A rap upon his solar door broke his train of thought. He turned away from the window and toward the thick, dark-wood door. “Enter,” he bade, drawing himself to his full height. He’d instructed Bran not to interrupt him today unless it was for the arrival of John, whom Gilbert had called there. When the door opened, he was surprised to see his brother-in-law, Alan MacCoul, standing there.

He smiled and waved the man into his private chambers. Alan strode to him, and they embraced forearms. “Bran tried to stop me, but I told him ye’d nae mind if I interrupted ye.”

“Of course nae,” Gilbert replied, gesturing toward the chair that faced his desk. “Does Isabel ken ye’re here?”

“Nay,” Alan said. “I came straight to ye first.”

“What’s amiss?” Gilbert asked, because though he and his brother-in-law held great affection for each other, Alan and Isabel were very close. Having been orphaned at a young age when their castle was attacked and their parents killed, they’d filled the roles of siblings and parents to each other as they’d made their way through the treachery of the king’s court. It was Alan who had eventually introduced Gilbert to Isabel on the day that Gilbert, Alan, and John had finished their apprenticeship. John and Gilbert had been apprenticing with the MacLeod clan for a year when Alan arrived, having caught the eye of the MacLeod’s right hand trying to overcome their traveling party to steal food for himself and his sister. They had lost more than their parents when their clan had been destroyed: they’d lost their home and any allegiance owed to them because the MacCoul castle had been attacked upon orders of the king, who claimed that Alan and Isabel’s father had been planning to commit treason. It was never something that could be proved, but the old king had been stubborn and did not like to appear wrong. Rumor held that what the king really had not cared for was the talk of an affair between Alan and Isabel’s mother and the king’s lady wife.

“There is great grumbling at Court about decisions the Queen Regent is making,” Alan said.

Gilbert tensed. He’d been waiting for this—for the crows to fly from their nests to try to take control of the young king from his mother until he was able to rule on his own. “What are the grumblings?”

“That the queen is showing a distinct preference to her lowborn favorites. The nobles and bishops wish to appoint a council of regency to guide her in her decisions on behalf of the king.”

Gilbert sighed. And so the inner scheming began. Everyone wanted to control the king for as long as they could and have his ear. In doing so, they stood the best chance of gaining land and titles for themselves.

“Are ye still glad ye chose to serve at Court?” Gilbert asked.

“Of course,” Alan replied. “I dunnae have a castle like ye do, so serving at Court is my only chance of ever having one again.”

“Ye could wed a woman with a stronghold.”

Alan scowled. “I wish to hold a castle in my own right.”

Gilbert nodded. “Why have ye come to see me?”

“I think ye ken why,” Alan replied, and Gilbert did. They’d discussed this very eventuality in this very room the night they’d learned the king had been killed in battle.

“Ye wish to serve on the council that will aid the queen.”

Alan gave Gilbert a knowing smile. “I ken as well as ye that the council will be a frenzy of men trying to gain power, and I’m nae denying I want power, but only that which was stripped unfairly from my family. Ye ken in yer heart I will serve the king until my dying breath. Whatever I gain, I will use it to aid in the protection of Scotland.”

Gilbert waved a hand at his friend. “Ye dunnae need to convince me. Ye need to convince those who will appoint the council.”

Alan cleared his throat and picked up a satchel on the floor by his feet that Gilbert had not previously noticed. After digging though it for a moment, Alan pulled out a scroll sealed with wax in three places, and he held it out to Gilbert. Dread filled him, but he dutifully reached out and took the scroll, then picked up his dagger from his desk and used the tip to break the seal, which with a single glance told him the missive was from the queen of Scotland.

Sir Gilbert,

The buzzards are circling, and I am but a woman who kens a woman must use a bow to defend herself from the buzzards.

A smile tugged at Gilbert’s lips. The queen of Scotland was a most canny woman. He looked down to read on.

Ye are my bow.

His smile faded. He was too old to be the main line of defense between the queen and the men who sought to control her and, therefore, the king, and he had much more to lose now than he once had. He had not only his wife to think about but his three children. The enemies he made would be their enemies. If he failed, they would pay, possibly with their lives. He did not want to put his wife and children at risk like that, but what choice did he have? He was the king’s—and therefore, the queen mother’s—loyal servant.

He let out a long sigh, and he glanced at Alan, seeing by his brother-in-law’s knowing expression that he was aware of what the queen’s missive contained. Interesting. He would not have thought she’d share it with anyone. He opened his mouth to ask how Alan knew what the missive contained, but a rap came at the door.

“The Lord of the Isles, Sir Gilbert,” Bran said, which meant John was standing outside of the solar door with Bran. The enemy had arrived.

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