When a Scot Gives His Heart Excerpt

Book 7 > Highlander Vows

Prologue
1358
Scotland

Marsaili Campbell stood upon the ramparts of Innis Chonnell Castle as her father’s warriors filled the courtyard below. The battle-hardened Highlanders spilled out from the sanctuary, past the iron-spiked, tower-manned gates and down the stone path to the loch that surrounded the Campbell stronghold. Rain poured from the sky, turning the hill into a stream of raw, red, slippery earth that could easily cause a man to lose his footing and tumble down the rocky cliffs to his death. The throng was a terrifying sight to behold, which was what her father, the Campbell laird, had wanted.

As if he sensed she was thinking of him, her father raised his arms, his black cape billowing in the wind in front of her. Before he said a word, a deafening cheer rose from the masses. Whether it was out of adoration or fear, she could not say for certain, but she suspected it was the latter. She would never dare utter such a suspicion aloud, however. A shiver ran through her just thinking of the penance cell in the dungeon where she’d spent many a night for speaking her mind. At eighteen summers, she fully understood to keep her thoughts to herself by now.

“The Gathering is upon us!” her father shouted to his men.

“Steward sworn!” came the thundering reply from the warriors, as well as her mother, brothers, Colin and Findlay, and sister, Helena, who were by her father’s side. Marsaili stood alone at the back of the rampart. It used to vex her being set apart from her family, but now she secretly considered it a badge of pride. She was different from them. She had honor—or she hoped she did, anyway.

Her father motioned for silence, and a hush immediately rippled through the crowd, leaving it so quiet that a squawk from a bird flying above made Marsaili twitch in surprise.

“Today marks a bold step toward taking the throne from King David,” her father began. He paused as another cheer rent the air.

Marsaili forced a smile in case one of her siblings, her mother, or God forbid, her father turned around and saw her face. She could ill afford to appear anything but enthusiastic about all the Scottish lairds, lords, and their chosen representatives arriving at the Campbell hold today. Some of them had come most willingly. Others, she knew from eavesdropping at her father’s solar, had been enticed with promises of greater wealth and land, and still others had been threatened with reprisal from her father if they did not attend the Gathering and pledge their support to Robert Stewart, who was known simply as the Steward due to his title, High Steward of Scotland. He was the nephew of King David II, King of the Scots, and he wanted his uncle’s throne.

“We will nae tolerate a king who does nae care what his people think, feel, or want!”

Swords clanked against shields with a vibrating hum that filled Marsaili’s ears. She wanted to spit her disgust, but she swallowed it instead. Her father was a wordsmith at best, a perverse liar at worst. She had heard from his very mouth the real reason he had pledged his support to the Steward. It was because King David was a strong king whose views on how to rule Scotland differed from those of the wealthy lords and lairds, and he neither needed nor wanted greedy men like her father telling him what to do. And it was because the king believed the common people of Scotland were as important as the wealthy, if not more so. The commoners gave the king their full support; therefore, he was rewarding them with land and coin that he was taking from men like her father, men who thought to rule the king himself.

“For the next two fortnights,” Father went on, “I will gather support for the Steward and ensure the pledges that have already been made are still strong! We must show our strength to all friend and foe!” Cheers and shouts of agreement rose from the crowd. “We go forth with the hope that the Steward will take the throne, but we must ready ourselves for every possible outcome. Every man who steps foot on my land these next two fortnights, from the squire of a Highlander to the powerful English Earl of Ulster, must ken my power. They must nae forget that I am an ally they need. Must nae forget to fear ever crossing me. Ne obliviscaris!

“Ne obliviscaris!” roared the warriors and Marsaili’s family alike.

The Campbell clan motto, Forget not, reverberated in her ears. She had the untimely urge to laugh, which sometimes happened when she was disgusted. Forget not, her father had chanted. Forget not his greatness, he’d told them. Forget not his power, he’d said. What she could not forget was his cruelty, his harshness, his greed.

“Go forth to yer posts,” he continued. “Our guests will soon be arriving.”

He turned from the men below to face his wife and her siblings, and Marsaili supposed her, as well, though he never looked at her unless she angered him. He never spoke directly to her unless to reprimand, either. She pressed back against the stone wall, wishing she could fly away like a bird. Her father raised a questioning eyebrow, and her family immediately burst out in praise of his speech.

When they fell silent, her mother said, “I was nae aware that ye had extended an invitation to King Edward’s son.”

“That is because ye are but a woman and nae made aware of all I do. Do ye forget yer place, Wife?” he challenged, his tone sharp.

“Nay, Husband,” Mother said. She was wise enough to know when to grovel.

Her father nodded, a satisfied look sweeping his face. “Inviting the Earl of Ulster ’tis a recent development. I’ve heard whispers that King David might relent to King Edward’s demands to name Edward’s son, the earl’s elder brother, John of Gaunt, as David’s successor if David fails to produce an heir. John is happily married, but Ulster… I happen to ken that Ulster’s wife is near dying and that he is searching for a leman and, eventually, a new wife. I see opportunity there.”

His calculating gaze raked over Marsaili, much to her dismay, and her nerve endings flared to life. She knew that look. He was plotting something, and she feared it involved her.

“David is weak,” Father snarled, “to even consider relenting to the English king’s demands, but I will take advantage of his weakness.”

“Well, King David must consider it, nay?” Mother asked.

“Aye,” Father answered. “He kens well the Scottish lords and lairds will nae pay the debt he owes King Edward. The ransom for David’s release from that blasted English prison should nae be our responsibility. ’Tis David’s own fault he was captured and imprisoned.”

“Aye,” agreed her mother.

Her father’s lips twisted into a gruesome smile. “Were I on the throne, I’d find a way to fulfill my debts that did nae require bowing to the wishes of King Edward.”

Mother quirked her mouth. “Will ye tell me of yer cunning plot involving Ulster?”

He smiled. He did so love to be indulged. “I must cultivate alliances with all who could possibly be named king while still maintaining my outer show of fealty to David.”

“If we truly want a position of favor, perhaps ye should make a match between Ulster and Helena,” Mother offered.

Marsaili tensed. Her mother was wily, too much so, and knew how to state her opinions in a way that usually did not anger Father by the mere fact that she had been so bold as to give an opinion. But presently, her father’s eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared. She had not been quite manipulative enough this time. Marsaili wanted to laugh, then felt a flush of guilt at wishing ill on her mother, in spite of the poor way she treated Marsaili.

Oblivious to their father’s ire, Marsaili’s sister nodded. “I’d like that, Father.” Helena’s eyes gleamed; she was just as hungry for power and wealth as Father. Marsaili had to grind her teeth to keep from speaking.

He chuckled, indulging her sister, whom he favored greatly. “I’m sure ye would, lass, but I have other plans for ye.”

Helena pouted, and Marsaili’s mother frowned. “Might I inquire what they are?”

Marsaili’s father scowled at his wife. “Silence yer questioning tongue, woman. I’ll tell ye my intentions when the time for ye to ken them is at hand. Besides, I just told ye the earl is currently married.”

“Aye,” her mother said, clearly disappointed that he wasn’t sharing more.

“However, my cunning wife,” Father continued, “use yer soft, female mind to recall that his wife is verra ill, and it is said she will nae live much longer.”

“Excellent!” her mother replied, which made Marsaili’s stomach turn. “Except,” she went on, “we’ve nae a daughter to put forth for Ulster if ye have plans for Helena.”

“There’s Marsaili,” her father said. Now Marsaili’s stomach dropped in shock at her father’s words. She had been correct about his look earlier. All eyes swiveled toward her. “Is she nae a lass and our daughter?”

A disgusted look came to her mother’s face. “Aye,” she bit out, “but—”

“But what?” her father snapped, his color rising with his temper.

Marsaili pressed herself harder against the stone wall, disliking being the object of this conversation or her father’s notice.

“She could nae catch the earl’s attention,” Helena snipped, looking down her nose at Marsaili. The bite of shame from her sister’s cruel words heated Marsaili’s cheeks.

“Aye, and she’s a daft lass,” Colin, her eldest brother, said.

Her other brother, Findlay, agreed. “The earl would nae wish to marry a half-wit.”

Marsaili clenched her jaw, bombarded with anger and humiliation at the same time. Her father’s cold gaze settled firmly on her. “Leave us,” he said. His hard words brooked no argument, not that Marsaili cared to argue. It would do no good.

She turned to make her way toward the stairs when her father said, “Nae ye, Marsaili.” Marsaili cringed as she faced her father once more. He looked over at their family.

“Us?” Her mother gasped. “Why do ye wish us to leave?”

Marsaili backed up a step when her father raised his arm as if to strike her mother. “Do ye question me again, woman?” She shook her head as she cast her gaze down. “Away with ye now,” he commanded and motioned to all but Marsaili. “Helena, select a gown—yer best—for Marsaili to wear tonight to meet the earl.”

Helena opened her mouth as if to protest, but when Mother shook her head, Helena pressed her lips together and nodded.

“Findlay, ye will greet the Earl of Ulster with me and then invite him on a hunt, which Marsaili will attend.”

“Ye are plotting, Father,” Colin said, his admiration clear in his tone.

“Always,” her father answered with a boastful smile. “And ye have a part in this, too, Colin. Ye will make certain ye dunnae win the hunt. The earl needs to be in front of ye, so that it will appear ye are taking aim at the wild boar when ye accidentally shoot the earl. His arm is most preferable, I think. And then Marsaili will be the one to tend his wound. She can rip her dress to do so. A nice touch, aye?” he added with a nefarious laugh.

The way her father so easily plotted to purposely hurt another made Marsaili’s stomach roil once more. Her nostrils flared as she tried to subtly suck in more air to calm herself.

Colin nodded and departed quickly behind Findlay, Helena, and Mother. Marsaili’s father caught her gaze but said nothing for a long moment. Finally, he said, “Ye have proven ye are a survivor, Marsaili. Cunning, too.”

“I’m nae cunning,” she replied, wishing immediately she had not spoken.

Her father gave her a condescending smile. “Ye are. I ken ye think yerself unlike the rest of us, but ye are verra much like us. Ye have used cunning to contrive a way to mostly escape yer siblings’ and yer mother’s notice. Ye have convinced them ye are a simpleton, but I ken ye are nae.”

Dread trickled down Marsaili’s spine.

“Ye are a clever lass.” He paused and cocked his head, as if considering what else to say. “Ye are plain, though,” he finally said, his eyes narrowing. “Dunnae forget that. Dunnae think to tempt a man to yer bed with yer appearance. Ye will only have a man by my good graces, my negotiations on yer behalf, and my say so.”

That statement almost made her laugh. Her father had no good graces, just plots to make himself wealthier and more powerful.

“Do ye ken me?” he demanded.

She nodded dutifully, her mind turning, as it often did, to where she would go if she ever managed to flee her home. The problem was that she had nowhere to go, no one to call on for aid, no one who cared for her. When she was younger, she had daydreamed of meeting a man and falling in love. He would take her away in her silly fantasies, but she knew better now. No man ever saw her; they all looked through her. Of course they did. Her father had been right that she strove to appear the simpleton to escape as much notice as possible from her family. She rarely received new gowns, and she rarely washed the ones of quality that she did have. Her hair was usually knotted, her face dirty, and she had perfected a blank stare, as if she did not have a thought in her head. It had served her well with her brothers, sister, and mother. They were still cruel to her, but her ruse had blunted the sharp, sometimes physical, edge of their cruelty.

“Ye will marry the Earl of Ulster,” her father pronounced.

Her breath caught in her throat. Surely, her father did not intend to kill the earl’s wife!

She kept her voice calm and cautious. “Ye said the earl was married.”

“When she dies, ye foolish lass,” her father snarled.

“But I dunnae ken the earl, and he dunnae ken me. Ye said yerself, I’m plain.” She knew she was no great beauty, but she also knew her father liked to make her feel ugly. Honestly, she was unsure if a man would think her pleasant to look at if she took care with her appearance.

“Ye will find a way to enthrall the earl in spite of that. And ye will do so strongly enough that he will wish to have ye as his mistress. Ye will let him join with ye then, until ye are with child, and when his wife dies, ye will compel the man to marry ye.”

Heat singed her cheeks, her neck, her chest. “Ye would make me a whore?”

“Aye,” he replied, matter-of-fact. “I would make my own mother a whore to get what I want.”

All her silly dreams of girlhood flooded her mind once more—her lost hopes, her fantasies. In that moment, her anger exploded and fear fled. “Nay,” she said, tilting up her chin. “I’ll nae do it.”

Her father brought his hand up in a flash and gripped her chin in an iron hold. He jerked her face so close to his that she could see the cracks in his yellowed front teeth. “Ye will do as I bid, or I will have the healer, Maria, killed slowly and painfully. I ken ye have formed a friendship with her.”

Marsaili sucked in a sharp breath. Maria was her only friend. She was the one person who had shown kindness to Marsaili. She did not want to do as her father ordered, but she was certain that he’d kill Maria as he’d threatened. However, if Marsaili agreed, she’d be relinquishing all hope of happiness—unless the earl actually proved to be a kind man, one she might even fall in love with, which was doubtful. Regardless, the idea of luring him, of tricking him, disgusted her. She could not refuse, though. Maria’s life was more important to Marsaili than her own happiness.

“I will try,” was all she said.

Her father released her immediately. “Excellent choice. Now off with ye to make yerself presentable before our guests arrive.”

~ ~ ~

“Callum Grant, halt, damn ye! I demand ye halt!” Edina Gordon screamed at Callum’s back as he strode outside, toward his horse and away from the stable, where he had just discovered his intended wife naked in the stable hand’s arms.

For a moment, he considered simply mounting his destrier, continuing on his journey to the Gathering at the Campbell hold—he’d been ordered to attend for his father, the Grant laird—and dealing with breaking his vow to wed Edina after the Gathering. The idea of letting her fret over what he might reveal, what he might say until he returned to speak with her appealed to him, but he recognized the dishonorable thought and came to a stop.

He was angry, but only because he’d almost allowed himself to be wed to a woman he had never cared for and who had been claimed in body by another man. She would have brought betrayal to their marriage that would have been difficult at best.

Edina hurried toward him, tugging the laces of her bodice together. She stopped in front of him, cheeks flushed from her tumble in the hay with the stable hand. “It’s nae what ye think.”

For some reason, that amused him. “Is it nae?” He raised his eyebrows. “I’ve nae joined with a woman myself, given I’ve been promised to wed ye since I was ten summers, but I’m fairly certain what I just saw ye and the stable hand doing in the hay was a joining.”

Her gray eyes narrowed as her mouth puckered. “Dunnae stand there and lie to me, Callum Grant. Ye are a laird’s son, and a fine-looking one at that. Ye kinnae tell me ye have been true to me. I’ve seen the lasses flirting with ye.”

“Aye,” he agreed, “they flirted. But my father made a vow to yer da that I’d wed ye when ye were eighteen summers, and as much as I did nae wish to take ye to wife, our clans had an alliance, and I intended to honor it.”

She gasped. “Ye still have to honor it! I may be with child!”

“Then marry the stable hand,” Callum said calmly. “Ye two seem to like each other verra much.” How any man could have been enticed into Edina Gordon’s arms perplexed Callum. She was lovely enough, but it was surface deep.

“I kinnae marry a lowly stable hand!” she bellowed.

“A man’s station in life dunnae determine his quality,” Callum said through clenched teeth. He hated that so many people, including his own parents, thought that it did.

Edina clenched her hands into fists. She had a spitefulness about her and a jealous tendency to be cruel to anyone she thought might be prettier than she was. He’d asked his father more than once over the years to break their promise to wed, but his father had refused every time, reminding Callum that their alliance with the Gordon clan only existed because of the impending marriage. Callum gave a quick thanks to God that Edina’s mother had insisted she reach eighteen summers before they wed. If not for that request, he would already be well and shackled to a woman without honor.

“I’ll tell ye, as I have before, that my father’s warriors are the reason yer family is still in possession of Urquhart Castle.” Edina gave him a haughty smile. “If it were nae for them, the MacDonald clan would have taken the castle from yer father shortly after it was granted to him by King David. We both ken the MacDonald laird has a much greater force than yer father does. So ye kinnae renounce our upcoming union,” Edina said smugly. “Ye will marry me, and ye will keep what ye saw a secret. And if I should have a bairn, ye will raise it as yer own.”

Callum felt as if his blood were boiling. He had known for a long time that Edina was a spoiled lass, but he had misjudged the depth of her lack of character. It was true that the Lord of the Isles did have many more men at his disposal than Callum’s father had. It was also true that Callum’s clan had desperately needed an ally to help them defend Urquhart against sieges by the MacDonald clan because their laird had wanted to advance his holdings farther north.

“Ye dunnae ken me Edina, and ye did nae ever. I am nae a man to be told what to do. I’ll nae shame ye by telling all that ye gave yerself to another man, but I’ll nae marry ye. Ye may consider our promise to be wed broken.”

“Ye kinnae do that! Yer clan needs the alliance!”

He nodded. “Aye, we do, but we dunnae need it so greatly that we will sacrifice honor. We will find another alliance.”

She glared at him. “Yer father will nae allow it, and I’ll nae consider yer vow to wed me broken until yer father has agreed.”

“My father kinnae force me to wed ye and neither can yer threats.” Callum turned and strode toward his horse with Edina bellowing his name.

He kept going until he was mounted and riding away from her. He felt liberated, though also burdened by what was to come next. He suspected his father, and most assuredly his mother, would try to compel him to mend the rift. But he’d not bind himself to a woman like Edina for life. That would not be good for the clan, nor for any children they might have. For too long, Callum had obeyed his father’s commands, despite his doubts, but no more. He’d not wed Edina, but he would do all he could to ensure his clan made another alliance.

The best way to do that would be to travel with haste to the Gathering and speak to the other lairds who’d been called there by the Campbell laird. Callum hoped that some of them had doubts about pledging loyalty to the Steward, too. His father disagreed with Callum’s concerns, but his father would not always be laird. It would be Callum’s duty someday, and he intended to be informed thoroughly about the politics of his land and choose his loyalty based on the honor of a man, not how the man could increase the Grant clan’s wealth.

~ ~ ~

Marsaili sat on a plaid in the grass with her mother and sister, as she had been ordered to by her father. The lords and lairds who’d been invited to the Gathering, including the Earl of Ulster, had ridden off into the woods some time ago for a Bow and Stable hunt. Her father had chosen to hunt a wild boar as opposed to the usual prey of a deer, and the animal had taken off with a squeal. The men, all assembled on horseback with their bows ready to shoot, had set off after it. The winner would receive a purse of coin and his choice of lass to dance with at the feast tonight. Her brother Colin was the best shot she had ever seen, and under normal circumstances, he would be the winner. Except today, of course, he’d been instructed to let the Earl of Ulster pull ahead for the win so he could shoot him from behind.

Marsaili picked unhappily at a blade of grass. She listened with little interest to her mother and sister, who were speaking extensively on the eligible men present, making a list of their attributes, which apparently included their clan’s wealth, their clan’s strength, and finally, the man himself. Not of his honor, of course—her petty mother and sister were judging each man by his appearance.

Marsaili listened half-heartedly, but most of her thoughts were occupied with the horrible predicament in which she found herself.

She’d met the Earl of Ulster when he had arrived. He’d only managed to draw his gawking gaze from her cleavage, which Helena had ensured was almost spilling out of Marsaili’s gown, when her mother had inquired after his wife. His answer had been disturbing and telling of his character. Marsaili had quickly concluded that he had little merit when he had complained that his wife was “still stubbornly clinging to life” despite his best physician assuring him that the woman would succumb to her sickness within a few months. He’d noted, with a scowl, that it had been six tiresome months.

It disgusted her to think upon his callous words and uncaring attitude. She did not want to do as her father had demanded. She did not want to gain the earl’s attention, become his mistress, and then wed him, either. But she had little choice if she wanted to protect Maria.

“They approach!” Helena cried out and scrambled to her feet. The sound of the hunting dogs barking filled the air. “Mother! Callum Grant is leading the hunters!” she gushed.

Marsaili looked up from the grass. She did not know who Callum Grant was. She’d only been present yesterday when the Earl of Ulster had arrived, and then her father had commanded her to her room until today’s hunt. She lifted her hand to shield her eyes as she stared at the rider who was coming hard and fast at the boar, the hunting dogs on his heels. The Highlander had his bow raised, and Marsaili could see, even from a distance, that he had quite powerful arms.

“Where is Colin?” Mother moaned. “Callum Grant is nae meant to win!”

“There!” Helena exclaimed, pointing. “He is ten paces behind Callum.”

Marsaili rose to her feet, getting embroiled in the excitement of the hunt despite her worry. Colin had never lost a hunt, and she wanted to be in a position to see him finally bested. He’d been especially cruel to her all her life. He was the one who often locked her in the penance cell and said she had done things she had not. Sin or not, she would enjoy watching his defeat. He was as prideful as they came, and this public loss, which also would disturb their father’s carefully laid plans, would sting his pride.

“Do ye see the earl?” her mother demanded.

“There,” Marsaili said pointing, “he’s coming up beside Colin.” The thundering of the horses’ hooves reverberated in the air, and the ground trembled beneath her feet. Marsaili held her breath in anticipation as Callum Grant closed in on the boar, backing it against a wall of rock. He cocked his head slightly, and she knew he was lining up his shot. Behind him, her brother and the earl raced onward, the earl pulling ahead of Colin. The minute he did, Colin raised his arm, and Marsaili cringed, knowing her brother intended to shoot the earl and not the boar.

The barking dogs grew frenzied, Callum released his arrow, and at the same moment, Colin released his. The boar fell and an exalted shout came from Callum, but then a bellow rang out as the Earl of Ulster yanked his destrier to a halt. He reached for his arm and awkwardly dismounted his horse.

“Make haste,” Marsaili’s mother said calmly. “Ye ken what ye’re to do.”

She started toward the earl as her father and the men gathered around him, but her feet would not carry her quickly. It felt as if she were wearing stone shoes. When her father glanced her way, his gaze narrowed dangerously, and she forced herself to increase her pace. Soon, she was running.

As she drew near the earl, so did Callum Grant. His gaze locked with hers, and her breath caught. She felt as captive as a hawk in an iron cage. Eyes the color of a rich honeyed mead assessed her frankly, and then his heavy eyebrows drew up as if he were shocked by something. By what, she didn’t know. The urge to smooth her gown and put order to her hair gripped her, but she fought it. When the earl groaned loudly, she remembered all too clearly the task at hand. She turned her attention to the earl, even as Callum moved to stand beside her. His arm brushed hers briefly, sending a tremor of odd recognition through her, as if her body were familiar with his.

“I can tend to the earl if someone can withdraw the arrow from his arm,” she said, inhaling in a desperate bid for calmness.

The Earl of Ulster swung toward her, face mottled red and fist raised in anger. Her instinct was to scuttle backward, but Callum stepped slightly in front of her. She blinked in shock at his boldness and at the fact that he would place himself in harm’s way to protect her, a woman he did not know. No one had ever done such a thing for her in her life.

The earl raked his flinty gaze over Callum before settling it on her once more. “There’d be no need to withdraw an arrow if that fool—” he glared at Colin “—had aimed with more care.”

“I am terribly sorry,” Colin replied, but his stiff tone alerted Marsaili immediately that her brother’s quick temper had been lit. Her father must have realized it, as well. He placed a hand on Colin’s shoulder, and she saw him squeeze it until his knuckles turned white. Colin’s jaw began to twitch, but he gave an almost imperceptible nod of understanding. “I can remove the arrow,” he said, exactly as their father had planned.

“If you believe I’d let you near me, you’re mad!” the earl bellowed and then grabbed Marsaili by the arm. “You will do it. I’ll take a woman’s touch.”

To dress an arm was one thing but to remove an arrow? “I kinnae, my lord. I—”

“Ye dare defy me?” He shot her a menacing glare.

Callum moved forward so quickly, she didn’t even realize what he was doing until she heard a snap, and then in a flash, he yanked the arrow out of the earl’s arm. “There,” he said, throwing the two halves of the arrow on the ground. “’Tis done.”

Marsaili was too astounded and too grateful to speak for a moment. The earl appeared enraged, as his face twisted into a grimace, but he bit out through clenched teeth, “Thank you.” And when he looked down at the steady stream of blood coming from his arm, he paled.

Marsaili’s instinct to help anyone in need took over. She took up the hem of her dress and ripped off a long strip of material without a thought. She didn’t realize until she was wrapping it around the earl’s arm with great care that she had unwittingly done her father’s bidding. She ground her teeth, though she would not have changed aiding the man. “There now, my lord. That should hold ye, but I compel ye to make yer way immediately to the medicine woman.”

“An excellent idea,” he replied, his gaze sliding from her face to her chest. “You will show me the way, of course.”

“Aye, she would be happy to,” her father answered for her.

She bit hard on her lip but nodded. She was trapped, exactly as her father had intended. The earl gave an impatient wave for them to depart. As she turned, her gaze caught Callum’s once more. The look of understanding he gave her filled her with an unexpected sense of hope, but she quickly shelved it, knowing how foolish hope was.

~ ~ ~

The beautiful Marsaili Campbell stayed in Callum’s thoughts all day, even as he spoke with many of the other men at the Gathering. Many men talked highly of his father, which did bode well for making a new alliance, but with each person he spoke with, Callum’s hopes to find a like-minded man, one who was doubting the wisdom of pledging his clan to the Steward, ebbed away. He tasked himself with delving deeper into the character of the king and his nephew so when the time came that he led the Grant clan, he’d be well-informed enough to make an unprejudiced decision.

When he entered the great hall for supper, the first person he saw—truly, the only person he saw—was Marsaili. She looked fragile, tense, and stunning as she sat on the dais between her father and the Earl of Ulster. Gazing upon her tightened Callum’s chest and stirred his desire in a way it had never been stirred. He had no notion what was making her so unhappy, but perhaps it was the married earl’s attention. The man was gawking at her. Not that Callum could blame him.

Marsaili Campbell had outer beauty, to be sure. Her mahogany hair shined and tumbled over her shoulders in inviting curls. And her eyes… Never had he seen eyes of such a pure, clear blue. God’s blood, he would likely dream of her eyes tonight. They reminded him of the waters of the loch around his home. Yet, it was not the color he would dream of as much as the emotions they had conveyed. One minute her gaze had appeared guarded, then forlorn, and for one extraordinary breath, he’d sworn he’d seen hope there.

Not only did she have unforgettable eyes but the lass was all lush curves and softness. She had a body that God had created to be loved by a man. But for all the outer beauty she possessed, he sensed her inner beauty down deep to his very bones, and it drew him to her. It was the sort of beauty that would not fade with age but grow ever brighter, ever warmer, and would guide a man in his darkest hour and heat him on the coldest nights. He had to find out if what he had sensed was indeed true.

He strode toward her, anticipation filling him at claiming the victor dance with her. When he reached the dais, he inclined his head to her father, skimmed his gaze dismissively over the earl—whom he did not care for at all, even after just one meeting—and settled his focus on her. He allowed himself a long breath to soak in her beauty. He bowed to show her the respect she deserved. “I’ve come to claim my first dance rights.”

Her eyes widened with surprise, with delight, and then shadowed with worry. He was uncertain what had caused the last, but each emotion proved what he had suspected: she was a complex lass, a knot to be untangled, and he itched to do so.

Her father scowled, as if he wanted to deny the request, but Marsaili rose, almost hastily, and descended the dais without so much as glancing at her father. Callum set his fingertips to the delicate slope of her back, and it felt right to guide her. He could not explain it. He did not want to explain it. He simply wanted to discover what these feelings were and where they might lead.

The floor was littered with couples dancing and did not lend the space for any sort of private conversation. Yet, when their palms met to begin the dance, it was as if he’d been struck by a powerful gust, and he could not resist one question. “Does any man have yer heart, Marsaili Campbell?”

Those expressive eyes showed her shock at his question, but then a lovely shy smile touched her lips. “Nay,” she replied in a low voice. “Why do ye ask?”

He slid his arm around her back to twirl her in the motions of the dance. For one spin, their bodies were pressed together, hardness to softness, man to woman. He finished the circle, and before releasing her into the next motion, he whispered in her ear, “I needed to be certain there was nae a man I needed to kill.”

Her shy smile became a grin, and she released a throaty chuckle. “And why would ye be killing a man if he had my heart?” she whispered.

“Because,” he said, wishing more than anything that they were alone, “I’ll nae tolerate a man trying to claim what I ken is mine.”

“By whose authority is my heart yers?” she asked, her look serious but her tone teasing.

“By God’s.” He snagged her hand in his and pressed her palm against his heart. “I recognized it here the moment I first saw ye.”

“Marsaili!” her father’s voice barked to Callum’s right. “The dance has ended. Bid Callum good night.”

She broke contact immediately and curtsied.

An almost desperate feeling came over Callum. “My lady,” he called to her back, fearing that he might never see her again.

She turned quickly, looking over her shoulder once at her father, who was still striding through the crowd.

“What say ye, my lady, to what I told ye?”

She bit down on her lip, and for a moment, he thought he had overstepped, but then she said, “I say it is as I told ye. The stream to the east of the castle is verra picturesque in the early-morning light. If ye wish to find a spot to be alone, it is most recommended. I often go there myself.” With that, she curtsied again and scurried after her father, who led her to the earl.

Callum watched her as she danced once with the man, who looked entirely too engrossed with her for Callum’s taste. But Marsaili appeared miserable, which assured him that she did not care for the earl’s attention. When her father fetched her from the earl, she seemed eager to leave, and Callum wondered if her father often made her dance with men who leered at her. It set his teeth on edge with anger, but as she was leaving the great hall, she smiled at him, and his anger dissipated. When he could no longer see her departing figure, he made his way to his bedchamber to dream of her, what tomorrow would bring, and all the days after that.

~ ~ ~

Marsaili awoke at dawn, giddy with the prospect that Callum might venture to the stream to see her. She sat up in her bed, waiting for the sun to fully rise so she could make her way there without it seeming peculiar. As she sat there, she thought on his words from last night and of how a man she had only just met could fill her heart with such hope. She’d spent her life cast in the shadows. When she was younger it had hurt her greatly, but she had learned that the shadows were the safest place to dwell. She did not want to live the rest of her life cowering in shadows, though, unable to find happiness.

She had been a fool. She had not escaped her father’s notice; he had been biding his time until he was ready to use her as he wished. All her life he had made her feel ugly and unwanted, and she knew in her gut it had been purposeful. Mayhap, he had wanted her to be so grateful to leave home someday that she would do whatever he bid without argument. She would have to do as he insisted when it came to the earl so she could protect Maria, but she wished to know the tender touch of a man she desired, of a man who looked at her the way Callum had last night. If she must be chained to the earl for life, she would steal a taste of what true passion would have been like.

Anticipation swelled and with it, unexpected hope. She did not try to quash it as she usually did. Instead, she allowed it to take hold and spread like a vine within her chest. What if she and Callum fell in love? What if he wanted to wed her and she could take Maria with her, offer a position, and be free of this place and her father? She pressed her fingertips to the smile she felt on her lips, and she chuckled at herself. It felt good to laugh and to hope. However foolish it was, however unlikely, today she would pretend that her future was not yet plotted. She was the weaver of her fate for this day, even if it was the only time she ever was. With that in mind, she arose, dressed, and made her way into the great hall, where she rushed through breaking her fast and then departed for the stream.

When she entered the courtyard, her silly, foolish fantasy immediately came crashing down around her.

“Ah, Marsaili,” the earl boomed. “I’m glad to see you before I have to take my leave.”

Elation burst within her. “I did nae ken ye had to quit our company so soon,” she said, hoping her voice did not reveal her happiness at the news. Perhaps she had failed to sway the earl to her as her father had wished. She sent a quick prayer up that this was so.

“One of my men arrived late in the night with an urgent message from my physician that my wife is finally dying.” She sucked in her breath as his callousness. His gaze widened fractionally, and he said, “You cannot imagine what it has been like for me, Marsaili, married since my youth to a woman who has always been ill. She’s never had vigor nor beauty as you do.”

“My lord, please,” she said, disgusted that he could talk so about his wife.

“I see my compliments make you blush,” he said, running a hand down her cheek. “I very much like your modesty, Marsaili.”

“I blush,” she said, through clenched teeth, “because I am disheartened to hear ye speak of yer wife in such a cold manner.”

A dark scowl swept his face. “Don’t be, my dear. If you knew her, you would understand. She revels in being a burden, but soon I will be done with her. You are the exact sort of woman I always wished to have for a wife.”

“I’m certain I am nae,” she replied, desperate to change his mind.

“See,” he said, smiling, “this is what I told your father this morning when I formally asked to make you my mistress and wed you once my wife is dead. You are modest about your own attributes.”

“My lord, I fear ye are mistaken about me. I have spent a great deal of time in the penance cell for my stubbornness.”

“Yes,” the earl said, a twisted smile coming to his lips. “Your father told me. I rather like the idea of punishing you if you cross me.”

The earl’s eagerness at the prospect of punishing her made her cringe. Her father had to know the sort of man the earl was but simply did not care.

“With my wife,” the earl continued, “I had to fear reprisal from her father, but from your father, I have no such fear. We will suit perfectly, Marsaili. If my wife should not breathe her last breath within a sennight, I will settle the nuisance in the country and send for you. I’m finished waiting patiently for her to die.” With that, he pulled her to him and covered her mouth with his in a wet, sloppy kiss. He broke it as abruptly as he had started it, mounted his horse, and waved for his men to depart. She was left trembling with rage and disgust in the empty courtyard.

Her thoughts tripped over themselves, and in time, her mind settled on one: seeing Callum. She rushed to the stream, disappointed to find that Callum was not there, yet she clung to the hope that he would appear. As the sun shone down on her, she removed her slippers and sat in front of the water, listening to the wind rustle the trees and the trickling of the stream. After a long while, her certainty that Callum would come began to fade, and that’s when a twig snapped behind her. She turned as he kneeled, his warm gaze assessing her. “I was starting to think ye would nae come,” she admitted.

“A legion of warriors could nae have kept me away, though yer sister did delay me,” he replied as he sat next to her.

His thigh pressed against hers, but she did not move. She reveled in the strength his powerful legs displayed. Her belly tightened, and her breath quickened. This was desire. She knew it instinctually. She welcomed it, even if it was sinful. This could well be her only chance to ever experience it.

Still, she frowned. “My sister? What did she want with ye?”

Callum looked suddenly uncomfortable, and Marsaili’s cheeks flamed. She knew Helena well. She was a born seductress, and men succumbed willingly to her desires. She was beautiful whereas Marsaili was plain.

“I see,” Marsaili said slowly, jealousy burning within her. “If my sister wishes yer attention, I’m surprised ye’re here.”

“Ye should nae be,” he said. His gaze glittered as he studied her. “Yer sister has a skin-deep beauty. It will fade. It dunnae reach her soul.” He gently rubbed his thumb against her right temple. “In yer eyes, I see goodness, kindness, and courage. I see beauty that will nae fade and reaches all the way into ye to envelop ye.” He brought her untried senses to life, and the very air around them suddenly was buzzing, as if a storm were approaching. Yet it was not a storm; it was possibility and hope.

“I want to kiss ye,” he said, his voice rough with emotion.

“I want ye to, as well,” she whispered. His hands cupped her face, and a delicious shudder heated her body. As he brought his lips to hers, the thudding of her heart drowned out the wind and the stream. The touch of his mouth to hers was velvety and warm. He deepened the kiss, and she responded with every ounce of desire that he had brought to life within her.

His ragged groan filled her ears as his lips became more insistent, more searching. She parted her mouth, wanting to taste more of him, to become one with him. Their tongues met and circled as he possessed her with demanding mastery. When they finally pulled apart, her breaths came in short gasps, and it pleased her to hear he was affected the same way.

Without a word, he held his hand out to her, and she slipped her palm into his, interlacing their fingers. “Ye will be mine,” he said simply.

Her heart clenched with joy. “I believe I shall,” she replied, willing it to be so.

~ ~ ~

The Gathering was to span two fortnights, planned this way by her father so there would not only be time to talk politics and pledges but for the men to go on lengthy, overnight hunts. When Callum was at her home and not away on an excursion, they met at the stream at first, and then they began to meet in a secret spot that Marsaili had discovered long ago where a cliff overlooked the loch, surrounded by thick brush. Purple heather encircled the grass on that spot and took her breath away every time she went there. It was the perfect place for her and Callum to become acquainted without fear of her father discovering what was occurring.

Each time a messenger arrived at the castle, she feared it would be a summons from the earl, but so far, no word had come. She considered it as a blessing from God, who she decided had finally remembered her and was giving her time with Callum. Time to know each other, time to forge a possible future before it was too late.

Every moment they shared strengthened the invisible bond between them, and it was this ever-growing bond that stirred guilt in her that she had not confessed to him her father’s plans regarding the earl, plans that may well affect Callum’s clan if her father decided to declare the Grants an enemy, which would most assuredly occur if she and Callum were to run off together. Of course, he had not asked her to wed him, but she hoped he would.

Then one night, while Callum was away on a four-day hunt, a letter arrived from the earl. His wife had still failed to succumb. Those were his exact words. He still intended to settle her in the country, but he had been called to his father, King Edward. He expected a delay of a fortnight, perhaps two, before he could carry out his plans. Marsaili was ecstatic. There was still a chance they could change the course of the future.

The morning Callum returned from the hunt, she raced to their secret spot on the faint hope he would be there. When she reached the top of the ledge and saw him looking out over the loch, her heart rejoiced. He turned toward her, face bronzed from the sun and dark stubble on his cheeks and chin. He was even more alluring than he had been four days before.

She had not so much as taken a step when he was upon her, arms encircling her, hands in her hair, and his lips capturing her mouth. “I missed ye,” he said between kisses.

“And I ye,” she replied as his lips traced a shivery path down her neck to her collarbone. “Tell me of the hunt,” she urged, trying to silence the voice in her head that demanded she tell him of the earl.

He shrugged. “We killed a wild boar.” He looked at her. “I dunnae care to kill animals.”

“Truly?” she said, heartened to learn he had such compassion.

He nodded. “Aye, truly. But my father so shamed me for the weakness when I was younger that I forced myself to become an expert hunter. I dunnae mind killing near as much when it is for our food, but the sport of killing…” He shrugged again. “I dunnae have any desire for it. When I am laird of my clan someday, I will nae call for hunts for sport, only for need. Does that make ye think me weak?”

She pressed her body to the length of his and leaned her head against his chest. “I think ye perfect and strong.”

“Would ye wish to wed a perfect, strong man who dunnae care to hunt unless it is necessary?”

She looked up at him, her heart stuttering. “Are ye asking me to wed ye?” Her hopes and fears crashed within her.

“Aye,” he replied, his eyes growing dark as the ancient trees that surrounded them.

Happy tears welled in her eyes as joy, wonder, and love overtook her.

He pressed kisses to her nose, her forehead, and her lips. “I will need to travel home and speak with my parents first, but I kenned the moment I met ye that ye’re the women for me. What say ye?”

She wanted to say yes, but she still needed to tell him of the earl. “Ye dunnae really ken everything about me,” she said, her voice softly wavering.

“It’s true we have only kenned each other for fewer than two fortnights, but I have learned ye,” he said. “Ye dunnae like winter, but summer. Ye prefer the night to the day, as ye love gazing at stars. Ye kinnae swim, either, I think, aye?”

“Aye,” she said with a nod. “How did ye ken that?” She had thought she hid it well.

“I will tell ye.” He took her hand, led her to the grass, stripped off his plaid, and laid it down. He motioned for her to sit. She swallowed the knot of desire that formed in her throat at the sight of his bare chest. Once they were both sitting, he lay back, crossed his feet at his ankles, and cradled the back of his head in his hands. “Come,” he said in a most persuasive voice, “lie beside me and lean yer head on my shoulder.”

She did so, soaking in his heat and his nearness. She felt utterly protected when he was close, which was a foreign feeling for her. “How did ye ken I could nae swim?” she asked again.

“Simple,” he said. “Ye dunnae ever do more than dip yer toes in the water, and yer shoulders become tense as ye near the loch. Why is it that ye are afraid of the water?”

“My brothers,” she muttered. “They used to push me under the water when I was younger and hold me there. The one and only time I managed to swim for even a brief moment, they caught me and held me under so long that I almost drowned. I was too scairt to venture back in after that, so I did nae ever learn to truly swim.”

“Yer brothers deserve to be beaten,” he said with a scowl, but then he smiled. “I will teach ye to swim when we are wed.” His words held a powerful intensity of emotion.

Her heart clenched. She tilted her face up to his and felt something uneven brush against her cheek. Pushing herself up on her hands, she glanced down at his shoulder and found a short, jagged scar. “How did ye get this?” She traced the white line with the tip of her finger.

“From my first battle,” he replied, then caught her hand and tugged her back down to him.

As she snuggled against him, she said, “Tell me of it.”

“It was against the MacDonald clan. Their leader, the Lord of the Isles, has long attacked our clan ever since King David—or his advisors, really, since the king was but a lad at the time—gave Urquhart Castle to my father for services rendered.”

“The MacDonald wanted the castle?” she asked.

“Aye,” Callum said. “He wants to grow his power farther north, which includes our home. He’s been attacking us since I was but ten summers.”

“The king is crafty, aye?”

“Aye,” Callum agreed. “He kept the MacDonald from getting too powerful, but he also did nae oblige himself to aid us. When he was older, the king told my father that he had too many other battles to fight and that if my father lost the castle, he did nae deserve it.”

“Is this why yer father changed his allegiance to the Steward?”

“One of the reasons,” Callum replied.

Their conversation continued for hours, past the nooning meal and into the evening as the sky turned purple and blue. She learned that he had one brother and that Callum was not particularly close to his parents. She discovered that he was a great hawker, and he promised to teach her the art someday.

As the hour approached supper, Marsaili’s nerves grew; she had to tell him about the earl. She would not be missed in the great hall, as her father had instructed her not to come once the earl had departed, but Callum would need to make an appearance. She forced herself to swallow her fear.

“Callum,” she began, “I want to wed ye, but ye need to ken that my father wishes to make me the Earl of Ulster’s mistress, and when the man’s wife dies, my father intends to wed me to him.”

Callum’s jaw tensed visibly, and his thick, corded arms tightened around her. “What gain is there for yer father?”

She told him quickly of the earl’s brother possibly being named king of Scotland. When she finished, silence stretched between them, and the sickening feeling that he had decided she was too much trouble swept through her entire body.

He pressed his lips to her forehead and then said, “Dunnae fash yerself. My mother and father are cunning. More so than I have ever cared for, but in this, it may serve well. Surely, some sort of alliance between our two clans can be formed.”

“Nae unless yer father has something of great value to offer my father,” she said bitterly. “I fear if ye wish to marry me, we may need to do so without my father’s consent, and ye must accept that it may well bring his ire to yer clan’s doorstep.”

“I accept it,” Callum vowed. “I will see what can be done and return to ye as quickly as I am able. Whether I take ye away in the dark of night or by the light of day remains to be seen, but ye will depart here with me. This I vow.”

The tenderness of his gaze released her of all fear. “Callum,” she said, her voice husky with love and desire. “I wish to consummate our commitment.”

Possession flared in his gaze. “Are ye certain?”

“Aye,” she said. “Nae ever have I been more certain of anything in my life.”

His hands slid up her arms, bringing her closer, and he whispered his love for her in her ear. His hot breath sent gooseflesh racing across her sensitive skin. He lifted her on top of him so she was straddling his thighs, and then, ever so gently, he explored her stomach, her back, her breasts, making them instantly heavy and tight. They both shed their clothes, all the while touching and kissing. Her heart raced with eager anticipation, and at one point, he pressed her palm to his own racing heart.

He laid her back on his plaid, spread her hair around her, and worshipped her in a way she had not believed was possible. With strokes of his tongue and his fingers, he made her cry in pleasure and pain, and then beg for him to enter her and make her his. She could see the effort prolonging his own pleasure was requiring. His jaw was locked, his brow damp, and the corded muscles of his arms strained. He slid into her slowly to make them one.

He paused for a moment and looked in her eyes questioningly. “Are ye hurt?”

She smiled at his concern, his kindness, and his tendre for her. There was a small pinch of pain, but it was easing already. “Please, Callum. Truly make me yers.”

He began to move within her, and the pain was replaced by a slow-building pressure that grew until she felt she would be undone at the seams. She screamed out her pleasure, clinging to him, and his entire body tensed atop her as he cried out with his own release, his warm seed filling her.

They were bound by this night, this act, and their love. Nothing would part them now.

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