About the book
Danger and delight grow on one stalk...
Emma Marston, daughter of the Earl of Dawaerton, travels to Scotland to marry her childhood foe—a deal arranged by their parents since birth. But fate has different plans…
William, future Laird of Clan MacNair, awaits his betrothed, a distant memory from the past. However Emma, in flesh and bones, is lovelier than he remembers....and steals his heart in an instant.
But when the night of their engagement the Earl gets mysteriously poisoned, everything changes for both of them. With Emma's brother canceling their engagement, she finally sees clearly the odious fate that awaits her.
With all fingers pointing at the MacNairs, William is the only one who can rescue her...
Until the day they both discover that the murder is only the start of a well-thought scheme and they are trapped right in the middle of it.
“Lady Emma! Lady Emma! Where have you gone off to, My Lady?”
Young Emma Marston could hear her governess, Mrs. Briddle, calling for her. Knowing that a bath and a sharp tongue waited for her, she chose to remain hidden in the bush.
She was enjoying herself immensely. The mock fight between her brother and their Highland visitor was infinitely more interesting than any lesson or other such nonsense Mrs. Briddle had planned for her afternoon.
If she finds me I’ll have to go back, and I shall not have any more fun this day, she thought, trying hard not to pout.
After all, what was the point of pouting if there was no one around to see her do it?
There was hope—Mrs. Briddle’s voice was far away, and growing faint, so Emma knew she would be safe where she was for at least a little while longer.
She turned her focus to the young men in the field. She was only nine, but the sight of her brother Thomas losing to the strong William MacNair gave her a slight thrill.
Thomas never lost to anyone. He was the best fighter on their lands, all the tenants knew it. Mostly, because Thomas never let anyone forget it. He was the Earl of Dawaerton’s only son and heir, after all, so he should be the best at everything. At least, that was what he always said.
Emma had to try really hard not to roll her eyes. It was unladylike, was what her mother and Mrs. Briddle always said. But, sometimes, Emma did not want to be a lady. And at sixteen years of age, Thomas was a bully. Watching him now, on his knees in front of the visiting Scottish lad, gave Emma endless pleasure.
She had only seen William MacNair once. It was the summer before when they had visited. Their fathers were friends, though it was rare that Laird MacNair traveled all the way to England from the Scottish Highlands, and rarer still that he brought his son.
Emma was overjoyed the times when he did.
Even though he and Thomas were the same age, William was so much larger than Thomas. He was so much larger than any boy Emma had ever seen. But, William had kind eyes, and when he smiled at Emma, she couldn’t help but giggle.
She wasn’t afraid of him at all. He was strong, but. didn’t pull her hair, or try and trip her in the halls like Thomas did. He spoke funny words and called her a wee rascal. Emma liked to be around him.
“Ye might as well give in, Thom,” William said, as he knelt beside Thomas, the practice sword at his throat.
“Never!” Thomas growled in return. William laughed as he stood and turned his back.
Emma felt her heart quicken. William didn’t know Thomas as she did. Her brother was angry, and William shouldn’t have turned his back to him. Thomas didn’t play fair.
Thomas stood and moved to swipe William’s legs out from under him. She watched in horror, torn between exposing her hiding place in the shrubs or helping William.
She willed her mouth to work and surprised herself as she was able to shout, “Watch out!” causing William to turn and catch her brother’s unfair move.
At the very moment, when Thomas should have made an impact, Emma gasped, her hand rushing to cover her mouth. Her eyes stayed open even though she wanted to close them. She didn’t want to see.
Then, with one swift movement, William crouched and captured Thomas’ leg from underneath his body, dropping him. Emma cheered as her brother ended up flat on his back.
“Me thanks to ye, wee rascal,” the Scot shouted into the shrubs, meeting her eyes and giving Emma a sly wink. Thomas looked up from the dirt and gave her a scowl, causing a tight knot to form in her stomach. Emma cringed at the sight of her brother’s anger. She instinctively knew she would pay later for her betrayal, but she couldn’t let him cheat to beat William.
Revealing her hiding place, Mrs. Briddle saw her and ran to capture her young charge. Emma tried to dash away but got caught on a thorn bush. She let out a weary sigh. There would be no more frolic and fun for her this day.
“There you are. Come now, Lady Emma, we have to get you bathed and dressed for dinner!”
Emma groaned as she tried in vain to brush the leaves and dirt from her smock.
“Mrs. Briddle, must I leave? I am having such fun watching the boys.” Mrs. Briddle gave her a severe stare.
“This is no type of activity for a young girl, Lady Emma, and you know it! Now come, don’t be trouble, lest I’m forced to tell your father.”
At the mention of her father, Emma grew more defiant.
“One day, when I am married to William MacNair, he will take me far away from here, and Thomas and Father will not be able to hurt me anymore! Your words will have no power, Mrs. Briddle. Just you wait!”
The older woman laughed and pulled Emma roughly by the arm.
“One day, hmm?” She snorted. “Little girl, there is much you need to learn of how marriages are arranged. If you know what’s best, you’ll come along and get your bath, and stop your foolish childlike fantasies. You should mind your father. He’s a powerful man, a great man, and he knows what is best for you!”
Emma knew Mrs. Briddle was wrong, but it was fruitless to argue. Everyone thought the world of her father and brother. Only Emma understood how cruel both could be.
She may have grown quiet, but she was not resigned. She simply walked alongside Mrs. Briddle, as best she could with her arm still in the woman’s grasp. “Very well,” the girl said. Her mind, though, was already made up. She would do everything in her power to get away from England, her father, and her brother.
I will marry William MacNair. He will be my savior.
Ten Years Later…
Emma’s breath was coming in rapid bursts and she tried her hardest to keep the tears from running down her cheeks.
He is a monster.
She burned with anger. Her life wasn’t her own, and perhaps, a part of her had always known that it would come to this. Yet, it seemed so cruel and sudden, to be hurried off to Scotland, away from her home, her friends, her life, to marry a man she did not remember.
This marriage was a sham. There was nothing of the sweet romance and caring love of a real marriage. No, this was only to further her father’s business and political interests. It was inhuman. She wanted to scream, to fight, to do anything, except what she knew was her fate to do, which was play the role of the fine English daughter and submit to her brutal father’s will.
“I should run away,” she moaned. Mrs. Briddle, her once governess and now her ladyship’s companion, chuckled at her youthful insolence.
“And where would you run? With no money, no family to take you in? You’ve always had a flair for the dramatic, child. Settle down. We’re in Scotland now, what’s done is done.”
Emma knew the woman was right, however, that didn’t make her any less angry. She had been under the assumption that this family trip to the Scottish Highlands was simply to visit an old family friend. It wasn’t until they rolled up to the large imposing medieval castle that she was told they were here for a wedding—her wedding.
Emma moved toward the window of her bedchamber in this strange castle, her breath hot enough on the chilled glass to create a fog. If she were she younger and more inclined to fantasy, she would have drawn a heart in the cloud and hoped for a dashing prince that would come and save her from a cruel fate.
Spring might be coming soon, but not soon enough in this God-forsaken place. Emma hugged herself tightly as she watched the men in the bailey below. She saw the outline of her brother Thomas as he stood with two or three of their father’s men. They seemed to be deep in conversation.
Her brother must have been pleased with what was being discussed. She watched as he clapped another man on the back and threw his head back in what Emma thought must have been laughter. When is the last time I heard my brother laugh? she thought before her attention was taken by four large men across the field.
Dressed in only kilts and nothing else, Emma admired the men and their athletic frames as they moved around each other. They looked to be practicing some kind of fighting or battle formation. They were very different from her brother and their English counterparts. These men were large, muscular, and ready for battle.
The largest of the four broke ranks from his clansmen. His hair was dark as midnight, and Emma drew in a sharp breath as he looked up toward the sky, closing his eyes as if in prayer. His skin was tanned by the sun of bygone months and the sheen of sweat from the exertion made him look almost godlike.
Emma wondered what it would feel like to run her hand across his smooth chest. She turned away quickly as a blush of warmth hit her cheeks. How could she have such thoughts, intruding on what was clearly a private moment for the man? Instead, she turned her focus back to the issue at hand, her anger.
“By keeping the true reason for our visit to the MacNairs, by keeping it a secret from me, Father stole my choice away. I will never forgive him.”
“The daughter of an Earl has no choice,” Mrs. Briddle muttered.
“Are you saying I’m like cattle? Sheep to be bartered off without any input? I am a sentient being and I would have liked some say with whom I would be forced to spend the rest of my life with. What if he is daft, or indifferent, or worse, cruel?”
“I seem to remember a little girl who wanted to marry William MacNair quite badly.” Mrs. Briddle clucked her tongue. She had reminded Emma of her youthful declaration no less than twenty times since their arrival in the keep.
Emma closed her eyes as a fresh wave of anger, mixed with a small amount of embarrassment, curled in her chest. She remembered being enamored of a young William MacNair as a child, but she had been just that—a child. She never truly thought she would marry the Scottish brute. It had been bad enough when Father insisted the entire family travel to Scotland for his birthday celebration, but now learning that she, Emma, was to be served up as one of his gifts? It was a travesty.
How could Father do this?
She hadn’t even seen William MacNair for almost a decade. He surely wouldn’t remember her as the child she was, and she knew nothing of the man he had become.
But she had heard tales in the village back home, from her few friends, and the men who worked her father’s land, that Highlanders were horrible men, dirty, quick to anger, thieves, and hellions. She had no desire to leave England, her home, and marry one of them now, no matter what she’d foolishly said as a child.
“Mrs. Briddle, must you bring the utterances of a silly child up time and time again?” she groaned, as the door to the chamber opened. Both women turned, their quarrel forgotten as Katharine Marston, Lady Dawaerton, come through the door. Her mantua of pale pink silk barely touched the floor as she walked across the room toward Emma with grace and purpose.
Emma hurriedly dried away her tears. A lady did not cry in her mother’s presence, after all. Mrs. Briddle gave a quick curtsey, as Lady Dawaerton brushed past the woman and came to stand near her daughter. Emma allowed herself one small pleasure in seeing her lady’s maid cower in her mother’s wake.
“Mother, surely you can see this betrothal is a horrible idea! And why did Father find it necessary to lie to me?” Emma skipped formal pleasantries and tried to appeal to her mother right away. She knew, in her heart, pleading with her mother would not change her fate, yet she could not help but try.
“Emma, dear,” her mother replied, casually fingering the blue pleats of Emma’s day gown between two of her delicate fingers. “Your father did not lie. It truly is the young MacNair’s birthday celebration and what better timing to announce a fortuitous engagement?”
“But Mother?” Emma knew she sounded like an unforgiving child, but her situation was dire. By evening’s end, she would no longer be able to plead her case. She would be truly betrothed.
Her mother did not spare Emma a second glance before saying, “You know, as the daughter of an Earl, and a great ally to Laird MacNair, it is your duty to marry William. It will do you no good to cry and beg.”
Emma looked down to her mother’s hand, fighting the urge to grab it into her own.
“Mother, I do not know him! Surely, we could at least postpone the wedding until we have had a chance to meet? To speak with one another and see if we even suit?”
“Mrs. Briddle, what is this rag my daughter is wearing?” Her mother turned to the maid, ignoring her daughter’s pleas.
The gown was modest as well as comfortable. It was one of Emma’s favorites and she saw nothing amiss.
“My Lady, I’ve tried to tell the young lady that she must dress in her finest gown to meet her betrothed, but you know how difficult she can be.”
“Yes, well, since we are in Scotland, she can forgo the heavy powder on her face, as fashion matters not a whit here, as far as I can tell. But I would like to see her in the green silk. It plays up the beauty in her complexion, as well as the flecks of gold in her eyes.”
“Yes, My Lady.”
“I have two of the MacNair maids coming up to draw her a bath. See that she washes with the lavender soap. I had it packed in one of the trunks.”
“Yes, My Lady.”
“And please make sure her hair is tucked and pinned under her cap properly. It won’t do any good to have her curls sticking out every which way.”
Emma subconsciously reached up and touched her hair. There was absolutely nothing wrong with her curls. Really, Emma thought her hair more gentle waves than curls, but over the years her mother had subjected her to endless treatments to tame the chestnut locks. All to no avail and Emma had learned to love the wild mass of her hair.
She liked it loose, and when decorum dictated and she had to have it pinned, her preference was only half drawn up, so some of her hair could still be free. In this case, her mother clearly had other ideas.
Emma was used to her mother and Mrs. Briddle discussing her as if she was not in the room, but this onslaught regarding her appearance and even worse, her scent, was more than usual.
Lady Katharine made her move toward the door to leave the room, then she turned around and gave her daughter a curt nod. “Emma, dear, if you know what is best, you will not disappoint your father this night. It is an important alliance between our two families. I trust you understand your role.”
“Yes, Mother.” Emma knew that she would have no help from her mother. Lady Katharine was in favor of this arranged marriage and Emma would have to come up with another way out of the wedding.
“Is a marriage between ye an’ the English lass really necessary?” Finley asked William, as he cleaned his training sword against the side of his plaid. William groaned, taking a large drink from the barrel laid out by the field.
He knew his responsibility to his clan was great, yet he had always hoped to marry a Scottish lass, a bonny thing with sweet blue eyes, and fire red hair to contrast his own dark mane and intense gray eyes. Finley knew that, and his friend meant well, but the last thing William wanted to think about at the moment was his upcoming wedding.
“I dinna see that I hae a choice, Finley. Da has decreed it, and as I’m nae Laird yet, I’m honor bound to oblige.”
“Tis matters such as these that make me glad I’m nae of fine blood,” Finley spat. “Is she bonny?”
“Truth be told, friend, I dinnae ken. I remember the lass as a wee chit. She seemed playful enough then. I hae nae seen her or her kin in years thou’. I would nae recognize her on the streets of Edinburgh or London should we meet.”
“There are bonny enough Scottish lassies that would be a damn sight better for ye to marry, than some poor, sodden English lady.”
“That may be so, Finley, but they are not here, and the English lass is.”
“If Goraidh were here, he’d talk some sense intae ye.” Perhaps Finley was right, but William knew Goraidh would only serve to counsel the best decision possible for Scotland and their clan. He wondered if his friend would return in time for the feast. It had been almost a fortnight since he had been in the castle keep, and on such a day when a celebration was bound to be grand, not only for the betrothal but for William’s birthday, as his oldest and most reliable friend, Goraidh would not want to miss it.
William looked across the bailey to where Thomas Marston stood with some of the Englishmen, all dressed in their coats. He knew there was a chill in the air. He and his lads, though, had just spent the better part of an hour practicing and conditioning, and they were warm in the rare March sun. He looked up, toward the blue of the Scottish sky. There was nowhere he loved more than the Highlands on the cusp of spring.
“Ah! That’s her brother coming this way,” he said pointing. “He looks much like he did as a lad.”
“He looks like a prim and proper man,” Finley said, barely disguising the disdain in his voice. “I doona see why we must make friendly with the English scum. It would do better if the Earl and his brats were wiped from our land, mayhap wiped from England.”
William knew his friend had no love for the English. William shot him a look of warning as Thomas made his way over to where he and Finley were standing.
“Ye should be more careful with yer words, friend. This marriage will secure the future of our two families, an’ possibly the future of relations between our two countries. Prim an’ proper as ye say ’tis not a bad thin’.”
“For yer sake, I hope not. Looks like we hae company,” Finley said.
William did not remember much of Thomas Marston from their youth, save for his arrogance, and a fight where the lad had been content to cheat his way to victory. In fact, if his wee betrothed had not called out from her hiding place in the brush, the lad could have easily taken William’s leg as well as the victory. William smiled at the thought of the wee lass. He wondered what kind of woman she had grown into. Would their match be a good one?
If memory served him right, the young lord had fought with a real sword instead of the training sword that was customary at the time. And even though he didn’t trust Thomas Marston all those years ago, out of respect for his sister, and the arrangement they now found themselves in, he was willing to give the man the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps, he had grown out of whatever ailed him in his youth.
“MacNair,” The English man extended his hand in greeting.
“Me Lord, I trust ye find our arrangements to yer likin’?”
“Indeed, quite comfortable for this far north. I didn’t expect the MacNair keep to be so…” He looked around with a slight frown.
William felt Finley bristle at his side. Stay well friend, he thought, hoping that the Highlander would not lose his temper with their guest so early on in the visit.
William himself was quick to anger. MacNair Keep boasted some of the finest lands in all the Highlands. Stone walls of the bailey gave way to a medieval castle that was fortified against intruders.
However, his father, the current Laird, had made the keep into a true marvel of comfort. The castle boasted no less than fifty separate rooms for guests, all impeccably decorated with every possible comfort by his mother, God bless her soul.
There were two lochs that abutted the castle grounds. The family kept each stocked with an assortment of sporting fish each spring through early fall, which was rare for a Highland clan. Not to mention a stable filled with some of the finest beasties should anyone wish to ride along the paths and hills that surrounded the castle.
The great hall itself was large enough that any in the clan who wished it, could take the evening meal with the Laird and his family.
And the hearth in the great hall kept its fire going day and night. Two large tapestries hung above, one depicting current life in the Highlands, and the other a beautiful representation of a Pict warrior poised on the rocky sea, looking out to protect his land and his people. It was that tapestry that filled William with wonder as a lad and instilled in him the honor of keeping his clan, his people, and their way of life safe.
William did not take kindly to any slight on his home, no matter how politely delivered, but he also realized that he needed Thomas Marston, and without backing down, simply gave the arrogant fool a slight nod and bow.
“Please let me ken if ye’d be needin’ anythin’ specific to make yer stay more comfortable.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing a comely wench and some good ale couldn’t take care of,” Thomas replied, and his men gave a hearty laugh. “I’m sure you have good women around who are randy for sport, eh, MacNair?”
“Nae, Marston. Our women are all to be treated with the highest respect, an’ nae for sport, as ye call it.” Finley put his hand on William’s arm, reminding him of his duty to remain calm and act like a generous host. Yet, Finley was allowed to be more forthcoming with their guests.
William took a deep breath and tried to control his temper. He did not find the humor in the bawdy talk about women, especially the women of his clan. It did not speak well for Marston that he did.
William did not think he was going to share the same cordial, friendly relationship with Thomas that his father kept with the current Earl when it came time for them to take their place as the leaders of their families.
It doesnae seem Marston grew into any kind of different man than the lad he had been all those years ago.
He reminded himself to discuss it with his father. The need for the marriage was becoming even more apparent to him in light of his conversation with the Marston heir. The Laird must have seen the potential for trouble and hoped a marriage between the two families would be the way to secure the future. Rarely was his father wrong.
A small pit of trepidation formed in William’s middle. He disliked having choices about his future made for him, and hopefully, the sister wasn’t as arrogant and spoiled. Otherwise, it would be a long and lonely life for them both.
The pins in her hair pulled as Emma walked along the darkened corridor of the keep. She longed to find herself in different grounds far away from her conventional world. She wanted to get away from Mrs. Briddle, her mother, and the curious glances of the MacNair maids that had been enlisted to help get her ready to meet her betrothed.
The mood around her had been jovial; the ladies clacking, humming, and frequently telling her how lucky she was to be marrying the Laird’s son.
Not luck ladies. No, this is the result of a carefully calculated and crafted machination of powerful men.
She couldn’t share in the maids’ happy moods. She was headed toward her own demise. Not to mention the sheer exhaustion she felt after what seemed to be hours of pinching, pulling, poking, and prodding that made Emma want to scream. Now, it was nearly nightfall, and the feast was to begin soon, so Emma took these precious last moments of freedom for herself.
Even in her despair, she couldn’t help but note how nicely appointed the keep was.
Clearly, Laird MacNair’s deceased wife had a hand in this beauty.
Emma ran her hand along the cold stone, admiring the candlelight as it played across the tapestries and portraits hung throughout. It made the scenes dance as if they were coming to life. If it had to be her funeral pyre, at least it was comfortable.
She stopped in front of a scene depicting a lone Highlander looking out onto a crystal blue lake. Emma couldn’t believe how the colors came alive under the artist’s eye. It looked as if she could clasp the Highlander’s hand and walk into the water herself.
“That one is a particular favorite of mine.” Emma startled and turned at the thick brogue behind her. “Och, I dinna mean to startle ye, lass.”
He put his hands out with a shrug. His black hair was tied at his nape and he was dressed in a formal kilt. The metal of the sporran gleamed in the candlelight as if it has been recently shined. The fabric of his shirt sleeves pulled tight against his arms, revealing strength Emma knew she would find underneath.
A pool of warmth hit Emma’s center followed quickly by apprehension as she stepped back. He was the same man she had spied from her chamber window earlier; the warrior in practice, only now standing in front of her he appeared to pull all the air from the corridor.
This Highlander is handsome, too handsome to be safe. He was larger than life, and Emma wrestled with herself. There was nothing but him surrounding her senses. She was drawn to him, still also wanted to run.
Why must all the men in my life be so imposing?
She fought to find her voice. “I...um…excuse me.”
She swore she saw a flicker of recognition cross his gray eyes, as she made to hurry away, but before she could name it, it was gone. He did stop her though.
He lowered his head and gave her a crooked smile. “Ah English, ye must be part of our visitin’ party then? Naeone comes through this way often, were I nae passin’ through meself ye would’ve been alone, lass.”
“I don’t wish to disturb you, sir.” She was flustered, yet for the life of herself could not tell why. She must simply be travel weary and nervous about her future. Clearly, she was safe within the keep walls, no matter who this rogue Highlander was, he was not going to harm her? Yet, there was something dangerous about him. The only problem was that she might not be right in speaking with him alone as she did not know who he was.
“’Tis no trouble, lass, ye weren’t disturbin’ me at all. Tell me, what do ye think of this one?” he asked, pointing to a portrait of a young man on the opposite wall.
The boy was tall, thin, and smiling, which was odd. Emma couldn’t remember the last time she saw a portrait of a person smiling. Most were of dour-faced aristocrats with firm grips on a cat or hound. This portrait was different, the boy was smiling and holding a duck. And by the look on his face, it was a duck he’d hunted and shot himself. He was wearing a short plaid, of the same color and pattern that the man in front of her wore, and Emma was struck by how familiar he looked. She couldn’t help the smile that came to her lips.
“Is that you?” she asked. The man let out a chuckle. Emma liked the shine in his eyes as he smiled. Her guard slowly eased back. He must be a member of the family, else why would his portrait be on the wall? Back home in England, often cousins and other relatives would have their likenesses hanging in the manor house. Emma supposed Scotland wasn’t that different.
“Aye, it ’tis, lass. Yer bonny an’ ye have a good eye.” Emma felt a blush creeping up her skin at the Highlander’s compliment. She knew bonny meant pretty. She had been called pretty only once before, and that was by her father in anger as he was ordering her to marry the Laird’s son. This man offered up the gentle word with no ulterior motive and Emma found she liked it.
“I was right proud of that hunt,” he continued. “Couldn’t hae been more than nine or ten. I insisted the moment be put to canvas. The artist made me hold a log for days on end in place of the poor bird so that he could get the light right for the paint.”
“What happened to the duck?”
“The duck?” He smiled again and Emma found herself returning his smile. “Och, the bird was plucked and eaten for a meal the night of the hunt. Ye don’t let a fine specimen like that sit around to rot. I’ve shot a lot of fowl on MacNair lands, but that bird ’twas the best duck I’ve ever tasted, even to this day.”
“I must take your word for it,” she replied.
So, the man had lived here for a long time. She could not guess his age, but if he had shot as many birds as he described, he must be on good terms with the Laird and his family.
Maybe Emma could get him to tell her more about this place. A friendly face would be welcome if she was to spend the rest of her life in the keep. She looked up at him and flashed her most brilliant smile. “Do you like living here then?”
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