About the book
She was the closest to heaven that he’d ever been, but she was also sin...
When a flood destroys everything she has ever loved, Anabella MacAlpein has to do something terrible: ask for the help of the man whose heart she tore to pieces.
Tormod Dunaidh, Laird of Seaghagh, has been in love with Anabella ever since he laid eyes on her. At least, until she rejected him. When she comes looking for aid, her presence rekindles a desire he had thought drowned. The only problem? He’s already promised to another.
After Tormond’s betrothed arrives unexpectedly, Arabella resigns herself to yearning for a taken man.
When an invitation for tea transforms into an invitation for death, Tormond belatedly realizes that he should have paid more attention to a letter that arrived days earlier. With Arabella’s life hanging by a thread, he has one last chance to corner the culprit. Starting from a secret maze hidden in the walls of his very own castle...
Before The War
Tormod Dunaidh watched them all dance, his eyes focused only on his star as she shone through the heavens. He had taken part in the first reel, to be polite, but he didn’t dance well or often, and so was content to watch from the sideline since.
Much to Roibert’s eternal disappointment. I dinnae think I’ll ever stop disappointin’ him.
Roibert Dunaidh was Tormod’s best friend and cousin, though as much by birth as by circumstance. The two had been born within days of each other five-and-twenty years before and had been inseparable ever since. They even looked similar, tall, dark-haired, and with the warm brown eyes that all the men in their family seemed to sport.
They’d been nearly impossible to tell apart as children, but that changed when they aged. Where Tormod was obviously muscled and bulky, Roibert was slender and toned. Tormod’s beard and hair were wild, though not unkempt–the thick dark curls simply refused to stay in one place. Roibert kept his beard short, and his hair was straight and tidy.
But that wasn’t what made them stand out from each other. No, that was their personalities. Roibert had been blessed with a silver tongue and the ability to charm with a smile. Tormod, on the other hand, just had the strength. He could hold his own well enough, but his manners were rough, and he found people and their complexities extraordinarily nonsensical at times.
Bit of a problem when ye’re soon to be the Laird of a sizable clan and ye cannae even talk to the girl of yer dreams for fear of mistakenly offendin’ her.
Because, for Tormod, it always came back to her. To Anabella.
Anabella MacAlpien was just twenty-years old, but already she was the finest woman that Tormod had ever met. She was the daughter of Ringean MacAlpien, Laird of the neighboring Clan Galloway. Therefore she and Tormod had moved in the same circles since childhood.
He didn’t know when he’d started to love her. Perhaps it was when she had first accepted a dance when they were in their adolescent years. Or maybe it was when she had been truly introduced to society, and he saw her as the woman she was rather than the girl she’d been.
Or maybe I was just always meant to love her. A woman like that deserves to be loved.
Anabella had long dark hair that cascaded down her back in an inky waterfall. Combined with her ivory skin and large gray eyes, it made her look like some Seelie princess. As she’d grown, she’d developed generous curves in her hips and chest, and Tormod knew he was not the only one to take notice.
He’d tried, at every event that his Clan–the Seaghaghs–and the Galloways both attended. He’d brought her gifts. He’d dined with her a few times. He’d held conversations and gotten to know her. He’d made it very obvious that he was attempting to court her, but he still could not tell if she returned his feelings.
And ye will nae just ask. A big lad like ye, scared of a lass.
Well, it was true. She did scare him. Nobody else held more of his happiness in her grasp.
Now was the time. There was a war brewing on the horizon, and Tormod needed to act before he went off to fight. He needed her to know of his adoration lest he never return and spend the rest of eternity in regret. He needed to take his tentative courtship and turn it into a real offer.
He’d almost begged off attending the dance, such was his fear. He could face down armies without flinching, but this was more daunting than any command. But Roibert had pushed him, reminding him that, at five-and-twenty and as heir to an entire clan, it was far past time he was wed.
But still, he had no idea how to approach her. She was dancing with everyone, confident and bright like the sun. He knew that some part of her was assessing every single male candidate on his suitability to be her husband.
If I dinnae act, I’ll lose her forever.
Roibert was dancing with her now, whispering to her, no doubt trying to promote his awkward cousin in her mind and heart. Of Roibert, at least, Tormod had no concerns. Though he was charming and loving, Roibert had firmly stated for years that he had no intention of ever marrying. He preferred the company of his friends, his cousin, and his dogs to that of women.
Which is all good for Roibert. He’s nae a Laird, just me advisor and cousin. He can do whatever he likes.
And what Roibert liked, apparently, was to be approaching him now, leading Anabella by the arm.
Tormod swallowed and got to his feet, feeling the sweat on the palm of his hands and the racing of his heart as he watched them approach.
Now or never.
“Ye remember me cousin, Seaghagh the Younger,” Roibert said cheerfully. “His friends call him Tormod, and his Maither calls him Torry.”
Tormod coughed, wondering just how bad it would make him look if he punched his cousin now for his teasing.
But Anabella smiled at him, and his embarrassment was immediately forgotten. “Of course, I remember. How do ye do, Sir?”
“Aye, I’m fair grand, Maid Galloway. Ye’re a fine dancer; I was watchin’ ye dance with me cousin here,” Tormod replied.
She nodded gracefully. “Thank ye. Dinnae ye want to dance as well?”
Roibert nudged him with his elbow, and Tormod cleared his throat. “Aye,” he said gruffly. “I mean, nay, I’m nae such a good dancer. Two left feet and all that. Me cousin is definitely the better option for ye.”
“Oh,” Anabella replied, and from Roibert’s exasperated expression, Tormod knew he’d said the wrong thing.
Idiot. She wanted to dance with ye, ye pillock!
“Tormod and I are off to the front lines on the dawn,” Roibert told her. “Tormod’s Faither, me Laird Uncle, has always believed that the rulin’ family owes it to their people to fight at their sides, and Tormod believes the same.”
“That’s very noble,” Anabella said, her gray eyes wide and innocent and even admiring. It was an expression that made Tormod’s heart thrum in his chest. “Will ye be quite safe, Sirs?”
“I hope so,” Tormod replied. “Me Faither has trained me for battle since a young age. Yer own Faither will be joinin’ us soon enough, will he nae?”
Anabella nodded. “Aye, much as I wish he would nae. Fightin’ is a young man’s game, but our clans are allies, and he’ll stand with Seaghagh in this war.”
Tormod nodded his head. “We appreciate his bravery, ye ken.”
Roibert rolled his eyes just out of Anabella’s sight, then said, “Actually, Tormod was tellin’ me before we got here that he wanted to speak with ye tonight. Were ye nae, Tormod?”
He felt the skin under his thick beard go hot as her gaze turned questioning. “Er…aye, actually. If…if ye’ve got the time and dinnae mind.”
Hesitantly, Anabella asked, “Talk? Now? With Roibert with us?”
“Nae, I was wonderin’ if ye might nae want to…take a walk in the gardens?” Tormod asked. He could barely believe that he was saying such a thing, that he was acting so bold–but it was the right thing to do, and he knew it.
“I…I cannae,” she replied. His heart sank, but she quickly added, “Nae because I dinnae want to, but…me Faither will nae allow me to be alone with a lad, nae tonight at such an event. But if ye cared to dance–?”
Roibert nudged him again, but Tormod didn’t need the encouragement this time. “Aye, of course,” he said, trying to swallow his disappointment, “just be patient with me.”
She smiled. “Let’s go, then.”
He followed her, and they took their place in the dancing circle. The whole time they danced, he was trying to build up the courage to ask her now, while nobody was looking. It may not be as private as he wished, but as they effortlessly matched each other’s steps, it was as private as they’d get.
The dance brought them close together, and he said, “Anabella, I’ve been…there’s somethin’ I wanted to ask–”
She shook her head, but she didn’t look upset. “Nay, nae now,” she said–practically pleaded. “Whatever ye have to ask me, pray wait until ye return from the war. I cannae bear to act like all is normal now.”
And then the dance was over, and she was walking away, and Tormod tried not to let anyone see how his heart was crumbling to dust.
After The War
The war raged for a solid year, and Tormod was fueled by one thing–that Anabella was waiting to hear his question when he returned. He thought of her nightly while they camped out at the borders of the Clan.
Though her father fought with them, he did not see him often. That was good because he had barely an idea what sort of thing he could possibly say to the man.
But now the fighting was over, and it was time to return home. Tormod’s own father, Alec Dunaidh, Laird of Seaghagh, had been injured many months before. Though the Laird had wished to stay on the field until he had recovered, his progressed age and his importance to the Clan had finally made him listen to Tormod’s insistence that he go home to recover.
Stubborn old man. I cannae wait to see him again and let him ken of our victory over the Lowlanders.
The Sassenach attackers had truly tested their limits. Still, Tormod, in his father’s stead, had led the army to its eventual victory. His debt to Clan Galloway and their other neighbors, Clan Wrightley, would not soon be forgotten. The combination of the soldiers and tactics of all three clans had brought them the win they so desperately needed.
The army camp was only halfway home, still a few days ride away when the messenger found them, and the thrill of victory that had surrounded them all drained away. The messenger approached Tormod and Roibert directly and spoke the words that would change his life forever.
“Yer Faither’s wounds were worse than we thought,” he said solemnly. “I’m sorry for yer loss.”
“I dinnae understand,” Tormod said, though he did, and he didn’t know how he was supposed to comprehend it.
The messenger gave him a sad smile and a bow. “Ye’re the Laird now.”
These words spun around and around Tormod’s head, and he wondered as he traveled the rest of the way home in an exhausted blur if they’d ever leave again.
There was a state funeral and a small private one, and Tormod had not been able to cry at either. Tormod’s stepmother, Mairead, was inconsolable. As the oldest son, and most importantly, as the Laird, his job was to remain stalwart in the face of his pain. His stepmother and his younger half-brother, Doran, did not need to deal with politics on top of their grief.
After the funerals, the chain of visitors started. Unsurprisingly, many of the Lairds and lesser nobles brought with them their single daughters, ready to capture the unwed new Laird of Seaghagh in an inescapable alliance.
Had Tormod been another man, this latest Laird’s daughter would have been more than enough temptation to break through his grief and abandon all thoughts of Anabella. Siona MacTiridh was two-and-twenty, an accomplished woman with skill at the harp and at song. She was quietly respectful while her father paid his well wishes to the new Laird, and tolerably well-spoken when Tormod engaged her in conversation.
And she was beautiful, he had to admit that. Tall, blonde, blue-eyed, and well proportioned. She did not walk with the air of someone aware of her graces; instead, she was timid and sweet.
“She’d make a good wife,” Mairead told him after the second night of the MacTiridhs’ visit. “She’s a kind lass. And she kens the business of Lairdship. Will ye nae consider askin’ for her hand? I ken her Faither is more than eager.”
Tormod sighed. “It’s nae that simple, Mairead,” he replied. “There’s…a lass. A lass I’ve been waitin’ for since before the war. Since before that, even. I love her, and I promised…I promised her I’d–”
“Ye love her?” Mairead echoed. There was a soft sadness in her eyes. “Aye, I ken what it is to love. I loved yer Faither, more than me own heart, me own breath. If ye’re sure about this lass, then I’ll put MacTiridh off, dinnae ye worry.”
So the days passed, and the MacTiridhs left. The next visitor came, then another, and then finally, a month after the funeral, the Laird of Galloway arrived along with his wife. With them, they brought their daughter and their younger son.
Calum MacAlpien, the heir to Galloway, was ten-and-four-years old, and he and Tormod’s three-and-ten year old half-brother Doran bonded immediately. His mother, Ceit, was pleasant to Mairead, and of course, Tormod knew the Laird from the battlefield. All in all, it was a pleasant visit.
Apart from the fact that I cannae seem to get Anabella alone.
In fact, if he didn’t know better, he would think she was avoiding him. But Roibert had assured him that his mysterious words before the war had been naught but encouragement. After all, everyone was acting a little strangely in reaction to Tormod’s father’s death.
I’ve just got to try harder.
He did, and it paid off on the last night before the MacAlpiens were due to leave. He found Anabella walking out in the gardens by the grand fountain his stepmother loved so much, and he called out her name.
“Anabella! Wait!” he called.
She looked around, wide eyed and surprised, then sank into a curtsy. “Seaghagh,” she said, straightening up. “I was nae expectin’ ye out here. I hope I’m nae trespassin’?”
Why was there a stutter in her voice? “Tresspassin’? Nay. I dinnae ken if ye remember, Anabella, but before the war started, I told ye I had a question for ye,” he told her.
Ye sound like a ramblin’ fool. Why did Roibert get all the smoothness of speech?
She swallowed, and he noticed an odd flicker to her eyes as she said, “I remember. What…what I mean to say is, did ye intend to…ask me now?”
He hadn’t, actually. He had planned it to be in a much more romantic setting, with much more preparation. But here, in the dark and next to the fountain, might be the only chance he would get. He coughed nervously. “Aye. I wondered if ye might…now that I’m Laird, I need a wife, and…I’ve admired ye for a long time–”
He trailed off, watching her expression. Though she was attempting to keep her smile, there was something like…was that fear in her eyes? Indeed, when he glanced at her hand, it was shaking.
What’s happenin’? Have I gotten it all wrong?
She bowed her head. “I’m flattered, Laird. Truly. But I dinnae…I think ye may find a better wife elsewhere.”
Her tone was too polite, and the intimidation too obvious, and it hit Tormod like a ton of bricks.
She doesnae love me. She’s never loved me. It was wishful thinkin’ and fancy. And now I’ve asked me question, and she’s told me for sure. She doesnae want me.
“Oh,” he said soberly. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didnae mean to make ye feel discomfort.”
He couldn’t see well in the dark, but he was sure she was blushing. “Dinnae…dinnae worry yerself, Laird,” she said, her voice still shaking. “I, er–”
“Go,” he said softly, and with a grateful look, she ran off, leaving him alone.
The next month or so passed in a blur, and Tormod was not sure he could recall it even if he wished to later. He spent much of it between his bedroom and his study, speaking little but to Roibert, Mairead, and the familiar young maid who brought him meals, Mariorie Boid.
He knew he must be wed soon regardless. He was Laird now, and his only heir was his half-brother. Doran was a good lad, but he was not so much younger than Tormod that he felt it could secure a legacy. And besides that, the boy’s mind was elsewhere. He dreamed of traveling the world when he grew, not waiting for his brother to die to take a seat he did not want.
Even apart from all of that, it was every Laird’s duty to pass the seat on to his son one day.
I simply must marry. I’d be disappointin’ me Faither did I not.
Mairead was worried about him, too. He knew that. He wondered if she’d guessed–or perhaps Roibert had told her–about Tormod’s failure with Anabella. He owed his stepmother some positive news, and if that meant he must wed for duty rather than love, so be it.
Tormod spent some days thinking of all the eligible young women who had either shown interest or been suggested by their fathers. The choice, looking at it so bluntly, was evident.
“Mariorie,” he called.
The young maid with her round face and pretty short blonde bob appeared in an instant. “Aye, Laird?” she asked in that pleasant trill of hers.
She was a good lass, and Tormod was glad that Mairead had found her. “Mariorie, can ye do me a favor and get a message sent for me?”
“Aye?” the maid asked. “What message would that be?”
“To Laird Gregor MacTiridh of Rochel. Please let him ken I’d be pleased if I could arrange a meetin’ between me and his daughter Siona at his earliest convenience.”
The maid nodded and scurried out of the room, and Tormod sighed.
It’s done. I’ll wed Siona, and I’ll be happy.
He’d finally be able to put Anabella out of his mind forever. She’d never belonged there in the first place, after all. Over the next few weeks, he set about doing just that.
And yes, he may suffer pangs in his heart from time to time, but what man didn’t still ache from his first love?
If he sometimes tossed and turned at night, dreaming of a pair of gray eyes, then that didn’t mean he’d never be happy.
And as the months passed and his heart still hadn’t healed, surely that didn’t mean anything at all.
He would wed Siona and he would support his stepmother and his brother. He would lead his Clan, he would help his people, and he would fend off attacks where he needed to. Tormod was Laird now.
His heart didn’t matter anymore, and so he sealed it away, locked tight from his chest forever.
The Flooded Selkie
The winter of Anabella’s twenty-second year was not as cold as she may have liked. If she expressed this thought, it usually merely generated laughter, but she had her reasons. Anabella had always loved the winter; the quiet noise of the snow, the comforting crackle of logs on the fireplace.
It’s one of the most romantic times of year, even if it is the hardest.
Anabella was nothing if she was not a romantic. Though she loved to swim, more than the average young woman, she excitedly waited every year for the rivers and lochs to freeze over from cold. Often, she had skated on the ice on Loch Tremaidh with her friends, dreaming of the day she’d do that with the man she loved.
If she ever found him. If there even was a man out there for her.
She was only two-and-twenty, but it was beginning to feel like she’d never find love. She’d received several proposals in the last few years, but none of them had given her the feeling the tales talked of, the feeling her mother described with her father.
There was the other problem, too. Though she was young, she was not so young anymore that she could keep putting this off. As a noble, it was past time she was wed.
But the fact was, none of them had made Anabella’s heart tremble.
Well, that is nae quite true. One of them did, but nae in the way I wanted.
When Tormod Dunaidh had proposed to her the previous year, it was all her fears come true. It wasn’t that she didn’t find him attractive–of course, she did, she’d be a fool not to. Both Tormod and his wirier cousin were known across the realm for their handsome dark looks, as had been their fathers before them.
But Tormod…he had tried to court her, she knew that, and perhaps she was a little to blame for encouraging it. What else was she to do, though? The truth was, he was an extraordinarily tall and muscled man, wild-looking with his hair and beard, and he frightened her a little.
It wasn’t that she thought him a bad man. Something about him and his rough manner and vast bulk intimidated her. She could not bring herself to get to know him without being worried he might snap. When he proposed, his father had just died. How was she to know it would not turn him as wild as he looked?
So she had turned down the suit, just as she had turned down all the others, and now she spent another winter alone.
It was raining heavily. There had been no snow at all this year, except on the highest peaks, and it made Anabella feel rather miserable. The loch had not frozen over, and the rivers ran unchecked, their banks swelling by the day as the water fell unfrozen from the sky day by day.
She was not unduly worried. The Galloway lands were in a valley, dipping between the higher grounds that homed their neighbors. Their men had been keeping a close eye on the loch and its associated rivers, and on the rainfall, but there was no fear of flooding as far as they could tell.
At least that would be some form of excitement. Instead, I shall spend another winter, single and grumpy, and now damp.
Anabella sighed, putting down her hairbrush and heading to slip between the covers in her bed. She may love snow, but she hated this kind of rain. The light showers of summer were lovely–welcome, even when they brought coolness with them–but the heavy winter rain that never seemed to stop bothered her. It took the snow from her and clouded the sky so that she could not even see the moon.
Her grandmother had always called her a selkie before she’d died four years previously. Closing her eyes and trying to fall asleep to the sound of rain drumming against the walls, she could hear Granny even now.
“Me wee selkie lass, ye are nae complete without the water and the moon. I cannae wait to meet the laddie who’s finally able to steal yer coat and bind ye to his heart.”
It was a romantic image and one that Anabella had remembered every time she was courted since. Because that was what she wanted, even though the faerie tales often ended tragically. She wanted a man who loved her, adored her, and stole her whole heart away.
But instead, here she lay, ready to sleep alone once more. Perhaps she would always be such.
When she slept, she dreamed that she was one of a pod of seals dancing in the waves. A towering, shadowy figure waited on the beach, under the light of the full moon, waiting to embrace her. Excited, she began to swim toward him, knowing that if she reached the shore, she would have found her love at last.
Mo chidre. Me heart. Wait for me.
Anabella shot awake as the door to her room clattered open, and her mother’s shrill, scared voice echoed in her ears.
“Ana, hurry! Grab only what ye can carry; we need to get out of here now!” Ceit was shrieking as she shook Anabella by the shoulders. “Damn it all, lass, wake up!”
Frightened, Anabella opened her eyes. Her mother’s face was drawn, pale, and tear-streaked, and inches from her own as Ceit tried to drag Anabella out of bed. “Maither? What…what’s happenin’–”
“Nae time. Gather whatever is precious to ye and a change of clothes,” Ceit instructed.
Anabella pushed herself out of bed, trying to fight through the blur of sleep that was clouding her thoughts. The rain pounded more heavily than ever against the walls, drowning out almost all sounds except her mother right next to her ear. “Maither…what–”
“The banks have burst, mo ghràdh. The Nether District of town is gone. The Upper District is battlin’ back the water. It willnae be long until the Castle is swept under and all,” Ceit told her urgently. “Gather yer things and let’s go.”
The banks? Surely she meant the riverbanks and not the loch. Undoubtedly, the lovely loch where Anabella swam and skated could not have betrayed her like this. There must be a mistake. Someone must have misunderstood. She ran to the window, which saw far out over the town.
Unlike many Lairds, Galloway’s Castle was dead center in the middle of the Upper District of the town of Bailedún. It had been purposely built that way, with the town forming around it, by Anabella’s great-great-something grandfather. As the town had expanded beyond the circling walls, it had split into two districts–the Upper District, where the more affluent folk made their homes–and the Nether, by the lochside.
I’ve always loved the Nether District most. It’s where the best shops and the friendliest of people are.
Anabella spent a lot of time there, especially when she was younger, socializing with the poorer girls who always had the most fun games. Nowadays, she spent a lot of time at the provisioner’s shop, where there was always a fresh apple or some sweet left out from the latest soldier’s pack and waiting for her.
And best of all, she could see the Nether District from her room. She could wake in the morning and see the lower town rising, so much earlier than the Upper District or even most of the Castle. She loved watching them go about their mornings, serving as a real inspiration to her for her future.
I’ll never be the ruler of Galloway, but when I’m wed, I want to provide for me people just as we provide for this town and the rest of the Clan.
But now, when she looked out, the rain was coming down in thicker sheets than she’d ever seen–so thick that she could not see anything, much less the distant Nether District.
“Gone?” she repeated faintly. “What…what do ye mean that it’s gone? How can a whole district of town be gone? What about the people? The property–”
“Much of it is washed away, but we dinnae ken the extent of the damage yet,” Ceit told her. Her mother was now rushing about Anabella’s room, grabbing things at seemingly random and stuffing them into a bag. “Some of the villagers made it up to the Upper Lands, but many–” she trailed off.
The girls. The provisioner. Her friends.
“They’re dead?” she asked in a trembling voice.
“We dinnae ken yet,” Ceit replied, grabbing her by the arm and physically pulling her toward the door. “ALL we ken is that we need to get us and as many people as possible out of here. Naewhere in Bailedún is gonnae be livable after tonight, nae even here.”
“What about the people?” Anabella asked desperately, tripping as she followed her mother down the winding stairway to where the servants and her brother and father waited downstairs. “What about our people, Maither?”
Pain shot across Ceit’s face as they reached the others, and she fell into Ringean’s waiting arms. Calum hurried forward and grabbed his sister’s hand, half giving reassurance and half seeking comfort, suddenly looking much younger than his five-and-ten years.
Anabella clutched his hand in comfort but turned to her father to demand answers. “Where are our people, Faither? Where are the people who didnae make it?”
“Some of the townsmen are volunteerin’ to stay behind and try to salvage who or what we can from the wreckage of the Nether District,” Ringean told her in a quiet, distraught voice. “Soon enough, the Upper District will be overwhelmed and all, though we’re nae expectin’ it to be so bad as it is down below,”
“Where will they go?” Calum asked fretfully.
Anabella squeezed her brother’s hand again. The boy had always been gentle, sweeter than most other lads his age. He had a soft heart, and he wore it on his sleeve. Anabella loved him more than anyone else alive, even her parents, who she adored.
The Laird and his wife exchanged looks before Ceit said gently, “We’re expectin’ the upper floors of this Castle to be all right. It will nae be livable as its meant to function. Still, if they barricade themselves in the upper floor and are willin’ to get a bit cold and damp, then the rescuers can probably survive.”
“And where will we go?” Anabella asked faintly.
“To whoever can take us, with as many of the women and children as we can,” Ceit told her. “They’re waitin’ outside the Castle gates as we speak.”
Then she did something very unlike her. She wrapped her arms around her husband’s neck and kissed him, openly and passionately. Even more strangely, Ringean held her tightly and kissed her back equally as fiercely, right there in front of all the servants.
What is this? Are they sayin’…farewell?
It wasn’t that her parents didn’t love each other–they did, rather a lot–but that they never showed such public displays of affection. To them, the appearance of proprietary was critical. Anabella had inherited it, too; it was one of the reasons she had turned down some of the rougher men who had asked for her hand.
“Are ye nae comin’ with us, Faither?” Calum asked uncertainly.
He shook his head. “I am Laird of Galloway. I owe it to the people of Bailedún and the people of the entire Clan to help when I can. I’m sendin’ some of the survivors off with our soldiers to the Clan outskirts to see if any of the rest of our people can take them in. Ye’ll take fifty with ye to try to rehome, mostly bairns with their Maithers.”
Calum shook his head almost violently. “Nay. If ye’re to stay, then so am I. I’ll help ye.”
Ringean crouched so that he and Calum were face to face, placing his hands firmly on the boy’s shoulders. “Nay. Ye will nae. I ken ye’re almost a man grown, but I have an important task for ye. I need ye to be the big lad I ken ye are and take care of the ladies for me. Ye’ll be the Laird one day. Can ye do it?”
Calum swallowed, and Anabella could feel his hand shaking where she still held it, but he nodded. “Aye, Faither,” he said solemnly. “Aye. I’ll do it. And when ye get to wherever we’re goin’, ye’ll be right proud of me.”
“I’m always proud of ye. Of both of ye,” Ringean said, looking at Anabella as well.
Anabella’s eyes were itchy with tears. “Ye dinnae need to stay here, Faither. Ye dinnae–”
“I do, and ye ken it,” Ringean said firmly. He leaned into her now and whispered in her ear. “Take care of yer wee brother.”
She nodded, trying not to cry, and together she, her family, and the castle servants turned to leave her father behind to the rising water.
As they braced against the wind and the impossibly heavy rain, fifty or so townspeople behind them, Anabella couldn’t help but grimly wonder.
Will I ever see me Faither alive again?
She could not be sure, of course, but she also couldn’t shake a terribly familiar feeling as they rode away. It was a dark feeling that she’d only felt once before…the same thing she’d felt when she left the kirkyard after her grandmother’s funeral.
Moving Forward and Looking Backward
Tormod had rarely been surprised in his own home, but the early-morning visitors certainly did it. He was in a meeting when they arrived, and a guard whispered the news in his ear. He wanted to go immediately, but he could not simply abandon the widow of a soldier looking for aid for herself and her small children.
Instead, he sent his stepmother. She was, after all, still Lady Seaghagh, if in a less formal sense than before. He just hoped that whichever unfortunate Laird had washed up on his doorstep did not take offense to his sending Mairead instead of going himself.
It was gone breakfast by the time he’d finished dealing with provisions for the soldier’s widow. The Castle would keep her and her children clothed and fed and allow them to delay their rent until the oldest son was of age. It was not, perhaps, the wisest decision–but Tormod would not leave a woman to starve as a price for her husband’s bravery and sacrifice.
Mairead met him outside the breakfast hall, looking a little wary. “Everythin’ all right with Mrs. Brewster?” she asked.
Tormod nodded tiredly. “Aye, I’ve sorted it. We’ll put her and the bairns up in the inn until the house is fixed. And our unexpected guests?”
Mairead hesitated. “Well, we’ve managed to get most of the fifty-odd townsfolk settled with others from our town. That’s nae a concern. Lady Galloway and her bairns, though, they’ll stay here.”
Tormod struggled not to yawn. He’d been wakened so early by Stephanie Brewster and her plight that he had barely slept. She had come to the Castle, desperate, after she’d found her baby drenched, still, and ice cold to the touch in his bed from the heavy rain. All four of her children had accompanied her to beg for alms, the little one waking only once he was in the warmth again. Tormod could hardly ignore such things.
But his work was never done, and now he had new strays. The dim part of his mind that was still awake struggled to remind him why this should worry him, but he couldn’t quite work it out. “Aye, of course,” he said. “Ye didnae tell me what unfortunate souls had to drag themselves all the way here.”
Mairead hesitated, then a look of profound relief crossed her face as Roibert walked around the corner. Roibert approached and touched his step-aunt on the shoulder. “Dinnae ye worry, Auntie,” he chirped. “Go and tend to the women and the lad. I’ll talk to Tormod.”
Mairead gave him a brief smile, and Tormod could have sworn he saw a trace of guilt in her eyes before she disappeared inside.
“Talk to me about what?” Tormod asked his cousin when they were alone. “What am I missin’?”
“Dinnae ye be angry at Mairead, now,” Roibert warned. “It is nae her fault. She had nae choice but to offer hospitality.”
“And why would I be angry at her for doin’ so?” Tormod asked warily.
Roibert sighed. “It’s Bailedún, the Castle town of Galloway, that flooded,” he admitted, shifting uncomfortably. “The Laird stayed at home to help the rescue efforts, but Lady Galloway, Galloway the Younger, and the daughter are here.”
Tormod froze where he stood, his mind finally catching up to the rest of him. “Ye mean—”
“I’ve already sent out a good section of our men in yer name,” Roibert assured him, “to help with the rescue efforts. But until such time as the floodin’ stops and the debris is clear–”
“Anabella MacAlpien is gonnae be a guest in me Castle,” Tormod surmised. Roibert was looking at him warily, and Tormod groaned, hiding his face in his hands.
Of course. A year and change since she rejected me suit, when me heart was finally over it, and here she is now.
“Do ye want me to make yer excuses at breakfast so ye can prepare yerself?” Roibert asked.
Tormod appreciated the offer, but he would have to face her regardless. “Nay,” he said, “let’s get this over with.”
Roibert nodded, and the cousins walked through the doors together.
The breakfast hall looked crowded to Tormod’s eyes. Only the family broke their fast together in general. When they were young, it had been Tormod, his parents, and Roibert with his parents. After the accident wherein Roibert had lost his parents and Tormod his mother some fifteen years back, Roibert had joined the core family.
The previous Laird of Seaghagh had remarried the young Mairead only a year later. Though she was only ten years older than Tormod, she had done her best to serve as a stepmother to a mostly-grown young man and his orphaned cousin. Doran came two years later. Then, of course, a year-and-a-half ago now, Alec Dunaidh had died.
It’s been awfie strange to get used to, but charmin’ in its own way: just Mairead, and Doran, and Roibert, and me. We barely have any other chances to be alone.
But they weren’t alone now. The maid Mariorie was placing a plate in front of a woman with mousy-brown hair and gray eyes that Tormod vaguely recognized as Ceit MacAlpien, wife of the Laird of Galloway. To her left, chatting animatedly with Doran, was a tall boy with jet-black hair. Calum, Tormod remembered. He’d grown a lot since Tormod had seen him last.
And then, on Lady Galloway’s other side, there she was. She hadn’t looked up yet, but his heart lurched anyway. Her long dark hair was still damp from the rain, and the borrowed dry clothing was overlarge, but she was still as beautiful as the day she’d broken his heart.
I’m gonnae be sick. I dinnae ken if I can to her lookin’ at me, much less stayin’ in me Castle.
Roibert gently tapped his arm. “Remember, ye’re over this,” he coached steadily. “Remember. Things are different now.”
Different? Aye, that was one word for it. There was no room for Anabella in his heart, not anymore. He’d assured that for himself only a month after she had rejected him.
He remembered it all as clear as day.
Siona had been–and she still was–a bonny lass, there was no denying it. Even Tormod, still smarting from the rejection from a woman he loved, had found her exceptionally attractive as she had been presented before him. His proposal had gone awry, it was true. But regardless of all of that, he was a Laird and still in need of a wife.
Siona had known from the start why she was there. It was one of the things that made her so suitable; they never attempted to kid each other about their purposes. She did not love him, and he did not love her, but she was a Laird’s second daughter, and her prospects had been slim compared to most. Marrying a Laird would be a feather in her cap.
And would it be so terrible to be married to such a beauty? Her looks are so bright, such the opposite of the Unseelie lass who stole me heart, that it might be precisely what I need.
She’d stayed for three days before he’d worked up the courage. It had all been very smooth; he’d asked her to go for a walk in the gardens, and she’d accepted. They’d walked for an hour, chatting of small things, and then he said, “Siona, may I be clear with ye?”
She’d smiled sweetly, those light-blue eyes as far from the forbidden dark gray as one could get. “Aye, Tormod. I was hopin’ ye would.”
He had returned her smile a little nervously as they sat on a rough-hewn bench near the edge of the gardens. He had taken her hand, and she hadn’t pulled away.
“Siona,” he’d said. “I ken this isnae the proposal most lass’ want to hear, but I owe it to be honest to ye. I cannae claim to love ye, because I scarcely ken ye. But I also cannae deny yer beauty and yer charm, and I think over time I may be able to grow to love ye. How would ye feel about becomin’ me wife?”
She’d looked at him, and he could see the calculation there before she nodded. “Aye,” she agreed. “I cannae claim to love ye either, Tormod, nae yet. But I ken ye’ll make a fine husband. I’ll accept yer proposal, and hopefully one day we’ll find the love in each other that we seek.”
It had been that simple. When they’d returned inside, they announced the news to Tormod’s and Siona’s parents. Much celebration was had, and the wedding was to be set a month later.
Sadly, Siona’s older brother caught a fever that raged through his body, taking him from the family within weeks. The wedding had been postponed ever since until Siona’s family sorted out issues of heirship. It had been more than a year now, but still, they waited to know when they would be wed.
But it’s a done thing. There’s nae goin’ back. We have become friends if nay passionate lovers. I cannae let this unexpected arrival distract me.
But though he knew that, though he firmly believed it, part of him wondered if he was strong enough to continue on as usual.
Or will it be the case that Anabella MacAlpien has ruined me life once again?
Anabella had been prepared for awkwardness once she realized where they were headed, but not…whatever this was. Though Mairead was friendly and Roibert as charming as ever, Tormod barely glanced her way after the first greeting.
And to think I couldo been married to him!
The thought made her shiver. She had heard he was a good man, and he was undoubtedly a handsome one under all that ruggedness, but she could not help but still be intimidated. It seemed he was perpetually cold, even for one such as Anabella, who thrived in frost, and his gruff manner had not changed at all in the past year.
This observation she shared with her mother, but Ceit seemed to see only the opposite. She thought Tormod a charming young lad and exceptionally skilled to be holding the Lairdship so well. As well, she knew Mairead a little and was glad to be reunited with a friend she hadn’t seen in quite a long time.
At least Calum is happier.
The boy had been maudlin since they left, but he had brightened as soon as he and Doran began to chat. The two seemed to have endless things in common, and they were best friends faster than Anabella could blink an eye. It was unexpected but sweet. Calum was a nice boy, but he was often too shy for friends.
Perhaps that will be the benefit of us havin’ to stay here.
She had spent the morning going over and over in her head what she would say to Tormod after the awkwardness of the last time they’d been together. It turned out unnecessary, however. The second breakfast was over, Tormod had taken his cousin Roibert, along with both Calum and Doran, down to the village to check how the newcomers were settling into their temporary homes.
A young maid named Mariorie chatted to her as she helped unpack the few belongings Anabella had managed to collect. The maid had a short blonde hairstyle and brown eyes, and she was perhaps the same age as Anabella if not a little older.
“Aye, he’s worried about feedin’ ye all, ye ken,” the maid told her. “Seaghagh is a prosperous Clan, but we buy a lot of our crops and animals from ye and yers. I’m guessin’ that cannae be the case this year.”
A sudden cold feeling settled uncomfortably in Anabella’s belly. She’d been so caught up in the deaths and destruction, so distracted by her own family’s displacement that she hadn’t even considered the structural damage. Almost all of the nearby farmland was in or near the Nether District of Bailedún–or it had been. Now?
Are there any crops left? Any animals? Any farmers, even?
“Yer Laird is a kind man to take us in like this,” she said quietly when she realized the maid was waiting for some sort of response.
This seemed to be the right one because Mariorie’s face lit up. “Och aye. He’s a good man, our Laird. He’s been doin’ the job better than most since he took over from his Faither.” Mariorie smiled affectionately. “Still nae wed, but a handsome man like that is sure to find love soon enough, once he opens his heart to it.”
Anabella shifted uncomfortably. She did not want to think of Tormod Dunaidh and his lack of a wife. She did not want to think of him and love.
It cannae be that he never met another lass since he proposed to me. It must be some mistake on the maid’s part. Perhaps he’s betrothed even now.
She hoped so. It would make this whole thing easier on everyone.
Mariorie kept chatting about the Laird, Lady Seaghagh, and young Doran. She was clearly delighted by the company, and while Anabella did her best to be polite, she found herself tuning Mariorie’s chatter out after a while.
Her mind focused on her father. Was he all right? Had he and his men been able to save anyone yet? Had Tormod’s men arrived to help them by now?
And her mother, so brave and strong, yet she must be terrified. She’d left her husband, the one true love of her life, behind to face who knew how much danger. She’d risked herself riding all this way to protect her children and the people they’d traveled alongside.
And she’s here with her friend, Mairead, a widow. It must be bringin’ up terrifyin’ thoughts for her.
She thought of her brother next, her shy, sweet brother, and his determination to help with the rest of the men no matter what. She hoped Tormod’s guards treated him well and did not make him feel inferior or frail. She had the feeling that young Doran would help Calum out, at least.
Finally, she tried to think of the town: the sodden Upper District, and the washed-out Nether District. No matter how she tried to think about what they had been, all she could see were ruined houses, bodies floating in the water, her home ravaged–
Exhausted, she collapsed onto her bed. It was only just gone noon, but she soon slept soundly. The water waited for her, just as it always had, but it was a friend no longer. It surrounded her, smothered her, threatened her with death and decay.
As she swam in the flood in her dreams, she passed Mary Todd, the girl who’d taught her to skip, her pregnant belly swollen as she screamed for help under the water. There was Joe Moone, the provisioner, his eyes glazed over as his corpse floated away. And countless others, their cries and screams filling her ears.
She swam around one more corner, and to her horror, she saw her father, cold and stiff and dead.
“Ye shouldo helped me, Anabella,” groaned his body. “Ye shouldo made me leave.”
“Faither…Faither…nae!” she screamed, but it was too late. A current swept through, sweeping his body away, leaving Anabella alone.
She screamed hysterically, bolting upright in the strange bed. The sun was still streaming through the window as her heart raced so quickly that she could barely breathe.
A dream. It was just a dream.
But some part of her doubted it. Some scared, terrified part of it was convinced entirely now, even though she could not be sure if it was true. Some part of her earnestly believed that she had lost her home, her friends, and worst of all, her father.
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