About the book
She never knew the true passions of the flesh, until she met him…
When her parents sent her to an Abbey to punish her for her misbehaviors, Lady Rowena Morgan thought she’d seen the last of them. A notion that proved false when years later, they come with a new demand: she must take her sister’s place and marry a brutish Scotsman.
Honoring a deal made by his father, Oscar Burns, Laird of MacLeod, has to marry an Englishwoman he has never seen before. Until the day he finally meets her, for she is the woman of his dreams. And she seems to loath him.
Newly ignited, their passion sweeps both Oscar and Rowena off their feet, challenging everything she was ever taught at the abbey. When a cloaked figure tries to abduct her, Rowena realizes she is not ready for the evils of the world. What is a girl to do when she must juggle winning over a bunch of brooding Scotsmen hellbent on hating her and avoiding abduction?
Rowena Morgan darted along the abbey cloisters, with the two halves of her torn gown flapping behind her like peculiar wings. Having ripped it upon a fence, she was eager to reach her chamber to fix the matter before Abbess Connelly—the vicious matriarch of this grim place—could catch her and punish her savagely for the transgression.
Though you will never have the satisfaction of seeing me break, Abbess, even if I remain an oblate for the next fifty years.
Rowena had tried to escape thrice in her seven years here, and the violent penance she had paid had never been worth it. Her back still bore the silvery scars of every vengeful lash she had received, though she knew she was lucky to still have her life. After her third escape attempt, the Abbess’ lashing had been so brutal that the nuns had gathered to give her last rites, and she had been forced to pull through out of spite alone.
Starve me, beat me, spurn me, whip me, I cannot leave, and you cannot be rid of me. We are stuck with one another.
Running faster on malnourished legs, Rowena avoided the startled gaze of the nuns and oblates who were walking in the pretty abbey gardens beyond. Surely, word would find its way back to the Abbess now, but there was nothing Rowena could do about that.
“Brazen as anything!” she heard one of the nuns whisper.
“Seven years, and the young lady lacks even a speck of decorum!” another chimed in, though Rowena was fairly sure it was a sin to cast judgement on others.
She had just skidded around the corner at the end of the open cloisters, ready to sprint with everything she had left down the adjoining corridor, when she almost ran headlong into a tall, skinny, gray-haired figure walking in the opposite direction. She veered off just in time, her shoulder colliding with the hard, lichen-spattered surface of the stone wall. However, that temporary pain was nothing compared to the seething disgust etched across Abbess Connelly’s hawkish face, and the abhorrence in her pale blue eyes.
“Goodness grief, girl! Have you learned nothing? A lady does not run, and an oblate certainly does not, either!” the Abbess spat, her nobbled fingers clenching as though around an invisible cane.
Rowena immediately dipped her chin to her chest and clasped her hands together. “My apologies, Abbess. I had an errand to attend to. I should not have run, you are quite right, and I am sincerely sorry for doing so.”
“There is nothing sincere about you,” the Abbess retorted, as a rather unholy shriek escaped her thin, crinkled lips. “What have you done to your gown, you wicked girl?”
Rowena gulped, bracing for a slap or worse. “I tore it in my rush to attend to… uh… my errand, Abbess. I was on my way to my cell to remedy the unsightly matter and change my attire, though I assure you I would have darned it without delay, just as soon as the day allowed.”
“You lie so freely; one must wonder if you have ever uttered an honest word in your life.” The Abbess clicked her tongue in annoyance. “Sins are not discretionary, you unseemly slattern. They are absolute, yet you see fit to indulge in almost all of them. I knew you would be difficult when you arrived here, but I always hoped there was a chance of improving you. That has dwindled with every year that has gone by.”
I am rather certain that wrath is also a sin, Abbess, but it would be impolite of me to point out such a thing.
Rowena drew in a slow breath. “I apologize for continuing to disappoint you, Abbess. It is not my intention.”
“Fortunately, you are no longer my concern, so perhaps my abbey will find peace and order once again.” The Abbess’ long, beak-like nose wrinkled as she observed Rowena’s ripped gown one last time, before she strode forward, her skeletal hands clasped across her abdomen.
It took Rowena a moment to realize she was supposed to follow. In truth, she only understood when the Abbess barked an infuriated, “You are to come with me!” back down the corridor.
Holding onto her bruised arm, Rowena hurried after the Abbess, though it was hard to keep her promise of not running when the older woman moved so quickly.
“Am I being cast out?” she asked, catching up to the Abbess. “I did not think you were allowed to do that, considering I have been given as a tribute to the Lord?”
The Abbess sneered. “You are no tribute. You are a thorn in my side and, as of today, that thorn is being blissfully removed.” She raised her haughty nose higher. “Your mother and father are here, and they are waiting for you.”
Rowena arched an eyebrow. “Pardon?”
“I believe you heard me,” the Abbess replied sourly. “As you never attained the title of ‘nun’ despite being of age, you are permitted to leave the abbey and never darken our doorway again. Thankfully, your mother and father have seen fit to take you away, so we do not have to urge you to go.”
They marched past the square of open cloisters where curious nuns and oblates watched on, and down an endless array of identical, echoing gray stone corridors that made every footstep sound as though they were being followed by a horde. From some of the arched wooden doorways, more nuns and oblates peered out with keen interest, apparently knowing more about what was going on than Rowena.
“Why would my mother and father come for me? They have not even visited me in the seven years I have been here. Indeed, the day they left me here as a child is the last time I saw them.” She tried a different tactic as they took a left, onto a somewhat wider hallway that whistled with the flow of an icy draft.
The Abbess snorted. “They can answer your questions. I have been told only to bring you to them. After that, you are no longer my concern, for I only contend with true tributes to the Lord.”
This cannot be good news…
Rowena’s mind raced with a bevy of the worst possibilities. If both her mother and father were here, then no harm could have befallen them. So, was something wrong with her sister, Cassie? Had her sister died? Though their relationship had been strained before she came to the abbey, she would never have wished any ill-will upon her older sibling.
“Please, Abbess, tell me something of what awaits me,” Rowena begged, but the Abbess said nothing, apparently choosing now as her moment to begin a vow of silence.
After a few more rights and lefts down the cavernous hallways, Rowena’s every step sounding like the ominous drumbeat that heralded an execution, they reached the double wooden doors that concealed Abbess Connelly’s private domain. It was a room Rowena had entered more times than she cared to count, to receive her creative and unrelenting punishments, though she had never been more fearful of entering than she was at that moment.
The Abbess gave her a firm push over the threshold, making her stumble across the smooth, feet-worn flagstones. Lifting her worried gaze, she met the eyes of two familiar strangers, who stood beside the roaring fireplace on the far side of the room. Another aspect of the Abbess’ life that could have been considered a sin, for while she stayed warm, the rest of the abbey shivered through the cold seasons.
“Mother. Father.” Rowena dipped into an awkward curtsy; her limbs forgetting how.
The Abbess smiled politely. “I will leave you in privacy. You may call for me when you are done, and our failed oblate is ready to depart.”
You could not resist, could you?
“Thank you, Abbess,” her mother replied, with a sincere gratitude in her voice that made Rowena’s blood boil.
What do you have to thank her for? She has done nothing but torment me these seven years, though how would you know of such a thing when you have all but forgotten me?
Her father, the Earl of Fleming, folded his arms behind his back. “It has been a long while, Rowena, but the day has come when necessity has called you home.”
“I thought there was no place for me there anymore?” Rowena could not hide the hurt in her voice, for it pained her to see her parents again after they had abandoned her here due to what she would have called youthful exuberance. It agonized her all the more to hear them groveling to the cruel Abbess, when they had not even attempted to write to her or inquire after her welfare.
Her father cleared his throat. “There is another place for you, my girl.”
I am not your girl. You dispensed with the right to call me that when you dispensed with me at eleven years old.
She held her tongue, knowing it was futile to seek an apology where she would never receive one. “Another nunnery?” she said, instead.
Her father shook his head. “No, though there will be vows involved.”
“I am afraid I do not understand.” Rowena’s chest clenched in a vise of unease for, despite her words, she had a feeling she understood perfectly.
“You are to be wed, dear,” her mother interjected. “You are to marry your sister’s betrothed.”
The carriage trundled somberly through the winding dirt roads that snaked through the wide-open countryside that Rowena had once called her playing fields. There was still beauty to be found in the undulating hills, and the welcome thrill of spotting a bramble bush, filled with plump blackberries despite the frosty season, but she could not enjoy any of it, knowing what awaited her when they reached Fleming Manor.
“Why will you not tell me what has befallen my sister?” she asked, for the umpteenth time since she had departed Clairvaux Abbey in utter bewilderment. “Cassie has been betrothed to this Highlander since she was but two years old. Something must have happened, if I am to be her… replacement.”
Her father had struck a deal with a Scottish Laird, to have his firstborn daughter marry the Laird’s firstborn son. But that was Cassie’s fate, not hers. Nausea roiled in her stomach, for even if she had not been destined for the life of a nun, she had never intended to marry anyone. Now, once again, it felt as though all choice had been snatched from her, and she was being dragged toward a future she did not want.
A Scotsman… A brute, no doubt, from beyond the border, who will lash me and punish me far more ferociously than Abbess Connelly.
Her father stiffened. “You do not need to know, that is why. It should be enough that we have informed you of our wishes, or have you truly learned nothing while you have been at the abbey? The Abbess did say you had been as a stubborn rock during her attempts to educate you.”
“I just want to hear that she is well,” Rowena protested. “I am not a child anymore, Father, and when I am abruptly summoned home after believing I would never see home again, I find it is important to understand why.”
Her mother inhaled sharply. “Must you always be so insolent, even now? Do you think we are oblivious to the sarcastic tone in your voice?” She shook her head in despair. “You say you are no longer a child—well, you should cease behaving like one.”
“I do not even know if she is alive!” Rowena blurted out, wishing she had tried a fourth escape attempt when she had the chance. “It is cruel to keep me in suspense like this.”
After all, they had been traveling in the carriage for hours, and she had yet to receive an answer to her most pressing question. True, she did not want to wed this Highlander for any reason, but the thought that she might somehow be usurping her sister was something she could not quite fathom. For years, she had been the stubborn, impish, disobedient cretin, who lacked any favorable attributes whatsoever, while her sister had been the promising beauty with every attribute a man could want. How could she now be in favor, with that ingrained in her mind?
Her father sighed. “She is alive. There, are you content?”
“Not really, but it shall have to do,” Rowena replied, her mind whirling.
She must have done something truly awful to warrant this, unless…
“Has she suffered a disfigurement?” she pressed, determined to uncover more of the truth. “Has she suffered the pox and become scarred, or something of that nature? Did she fall while riding, and is now bedridden?”
Her mother scoffed. “I had thought that place would diminish your wayward imagination, but it seems it has only made it worse.”
“It is a logical question,” Rowena shot back.
Her father put up his hands, as if in surrender. “She is not physically disfigured. It is an impairment of a different kind.”
Pensive, and knowing she was pushing the limits of their patience, Rowena turned her gaze back out of the carriage window. She watched the lichen-covered drystone walls pass by, and the interspersed hedgerows, where holly berries and crabapples grew in poisonous abundance. The latter could be fashioned into some kind of edible, but only after incessant boiling. Even then, the sourness never truly went away.
What kind of impairment could it be? Has she taken leave of her senses? Is her mind addled? Or… is it something far worse, in our mother and father’s eyes?
Spying a way-marker at the corner of the next crossroads, she knew she would soon find out the true reason for this unexpected turn of events, for in the stone, she saw the carved words: Fleming Manor, 1 mile.
Upon their approach to the Manor, a pallid, hollow-cheeked, messy-haired dervish careened out of the front door, wrapped in what appeared to be a woven blanket. It took a moment for Rowena to recognize the dejected creature as her sister, Cassie, for this was not the prim and proper young lady she had left behind, seven years ago.
“Rowena! My sweet Rowena!” Cassie cried, running for the carriage before it had even come to a halt. She tore open the door and, as Rowena clambered out, Cassie threw her arms around her younger sister.
Startled, Rowena had barely managed to put her own arms around Cassie, before her sister pulled away again.
“Do you despise me?” Cassie mumbled, her eyes ringed with the red of recently spilled tears. “You must loathe me. I am certain you do. Oh, my dear sister, please forgive me! I ask for nothing but your forgiveness, for you must think I have ruined your life. I know this is not what you desired, and it is not what I desired, either. You cannot know how sorry I am, that it has come to this.”
Rowena blinked. “I confess, I am more bewildered than hateful. I thought I would find you injured, or half-mad, but… you seem well. A touch sad, perhaps, but otherwise in good health.”
“They did not tell you.” Cassie dipped her chin to her chest. “I suppose they wanted me to bear that shame, for it is my shame, and now my foolish deeds have brought this upon you.”
Rowena took her sister’s hands and held them tight. “What has happened to you, Cassie?”
A tear tumbled down Cassie’s cheek and, for a long while, she did not say a word, as though she were trying to figure out how to say what needed to be said. All the while, the brutal Northumberland wind and icy rain whipped around the two sisters, sending their sodden hair flying about their faces.
“I… fell in love, but he did not love me,” Cassie admitted, at last. “He swore he did. He said… He said he loved me for who I am, and not just for my beauty. It was the first time any man had said such a wonderful thing to me, for I have always thought that is all I possess—beauty.”
Rowena could already smell the unknown fellow’s deceit, and her sister had not even finished telling the story yet. Though she also felt the rising resentment toward her parents, for they were the ones who had always told Cassie that she had nothing to offer but her looks. While it was true that Cassie was not exactly an intellectual, she was far from being an utter dolt.
“He promised he would run away with me, to a place where we could be happy,” Cassie continued. “He promised me a future, and… I gave myself to him because of that stupid promise.” Her voice hitched. “It was all a lie, dear sister, and now I am to be disowned and you are to be shackled to a man you do not know, entering into an institution you abhor.”
Without hesitation, Rowena enfolded her sister in her arms. “I am sorry, darling Cassie. I am sorry you were lied to. I am sorry you thought you were worth nothing more than your beauty. I am sorry for it all.” She paused. “But who was he?”
If this betrayer was of nobility, then their parents would have forced him to wed Cassie. And yet, Cassie had said that she was to be disowned. Was the man married? Or, worse, of no station whatsoever?
Cassie buried her face in her sister’s shoulder. “Noel Buchanan.”
“The stable master’s boy?” Rowena gasped.
“He is a man now, but… yes,” Cassie sobbed. “And he has ruined me, and ruined you, and I do not know how to say how sorry I am. Now, you must wed a terrible Scottish brute, infamous for his cruelty and violence! Oh, I wish I could change it, Rowena. I wish I could make it so I never made such an awful mistake, so I could take the marriage from you. I deserve the punishment of being wed to this Highlander, not you.”
Infamous for his cruelty and violence?
Rowena’s heart jolted in her chest as a rush of terror crashed through her nerves. Now that she had seen that her sister was well, it allowed the rest of her concerns to flood in. Namely, what sort of man she would be expected to bind herself to in Holy Matrimony, to uphold her father’s deal. Could her future husband really be the beast Cassie had just described? She had no reason to lie.
Rowena stroked her sister’s hair, to try and stave off her anxiety. “Hush now, Cassie. You have clearly suffered through enough. Do not torture yourself more by thinking you need my forgiveness. You do not. I do not blame you.” She did not say whom she really blamed, for her mother and father had just stepped out of the carriage. This was their fault, though they would never accept responsibility.
You pitted us against one another, and you crushed our spirits until we had nothing left. What did you think would happen?
All it had taken was one kind word from a seemingly sweet man, and Cassie had fallen for it. If their mother and father had celebrated her for more than her beauty, then perhaps this could have been prevented, just as they could have prevented Rowena from suffering through her abandonment if they had just accepted her for who she was.
And I would not have to go from one realm of torment to another, if you did not use us as pawns in your games.
“Get inside,” their father commanded, though Rowena sensed the instruction was not so much directed at her. “Laird MacLeod could arrive at any moment, and I will not have him see my daughters in such a state—one with her reputation in tatters, and the other with a torn gown, both soaked to the bone and looking like feral waifs.”
Rowena’s stomach plummeted at the mention of that man’s name, and the imminence of her twisted fate. Thanks to her wayward imagination, she had visions of a real, hulking monster sitting astride a red-eyed, black steed, as though he had been sent from the pits of Hell itself. And the worst part was, she knew her parents would not care what happened to her once she left the estate grounds. Even if she died at this Scotsman’s hands, they would consider their part of the exchange complete, and likely forget they ever had a second daughter.
“Come.” Rowena slipped her arm around Cassie’s shoulders, and helped her across the gravel driveway to the smooth stone of the front steps. For as long as she had until her future husband arrived, she would pretend there was no marriage, and she would enjoy this last sliver of freedom until she had to face her new, bitter reality.
The sisters had just ducked under the lintel, where the rain could not reach them, when Rowena heard her mother gasp in fright.
“No, no, no, this cannot be!” her mother cried.
Confused, Rowena followed the Countess’s horrified stare down the drive, toward the gates. The breath rushed out of Rowena’s lungs as she witnessed three riders making their slow approach.
In the center, leading the trio atop a black horse, sat a tall and proud man with dripping locks as dark as his mount’s hide. She did not see any red, hellish eyes, however, only the hardened chest beneath a soaked white shirt, and the slick skin of a corded neck, where raindrops trickled down to the exposed triangle of flesh at the man’s collar. Truly, she had never seen anyone so broad and formidable in all her life, even before she was sent to the Abbey.
“That is him,” Cassie whispered in a small, scared voice. “Your future husband.”
Rowena nodded slowly. “He is so…” She trailed off, unable to find words for the conflicting emotions that collided in her mind. There was visible power in his immense, sculpted arms and broad, honed chest, of which she could see every contour through the translucent fabric. But while that power frightened her somewhat, the brazenness of his raw appearance also sent a strange thrill through her.
He does not care what others might think of him…
In that sense, perhaps they had more in common than she could ever have expected.
And yet, as he drew nearer, flanked by two riders—one handsome, with long, russet hair that he wore in a braid; the other more weathered in appearance, with close-cropped, dark brown hair that bore some gray streaks—the fear returned. This was not a random, divinely crafted man who she could admire from afar. This was her future husband, whose temperament and character she knew nothing about, other than what her sister had alluded to.
With such a muscular physique, he certainly looks like he could be violent.
The Laird brought his horse to a standstill, directly in front of Rowena’s mother and father. Showing no hint of warmth upon his chiseled face, and with a disinterest in his green eyes, he addressed them in an equally cool tone.
“I’m here to claim me bride.”
Oscar sat awkwardly upon a velveteen settee of dark green, careful to keep his calves together so his kilt would not gape and expose anything untoward to the refined Countess sitting opposite. His two men, Finley and Christopher, stood behind the settee, stiff as sentinels on duty, their arms behind their backs.
The Countess kept staring at them distractedly. “Are you quite certain you would not prefer to refresh yourselves first, while my daughters are changing their attire?” she asked, wringing her hands in discomfort, causing her jeweled rings to scrape together. He knew she was likely more concerned for the welfare of her furnishings, considering he was dampening them with his sodden attire.
“We’ve been ridin’ a long while, Me Lady,” Oscar replied. “This is all the rest our weary legs need.”
The Countess appeared horrified at the casual mention of such masculine limbs. “Y-Yes, I quite understand,” she spluttered. “As long as you are all… um… comfortable.”
I am of equal standin’ with these people, yet they look at us like we’re feral beasts that’ve just wandered in out the woods…
The only exception was the Earl of Fleming, who had almost seemed relieved to see Oscar. Such an expression did nothing to allay Oscar’s concerns that he was about to pledge himself to a woman of few merits, though he was yet to discover which young lady would be his bride. He had seen two sheltering by the Manor’s entrance, though they had been hurriedly ushered away before any introductions could be made, while he and his men had been led into this drawing room to wait.
“Ah, here they are!” the Countess cried, in a strangled voice.
Just then, the same two women Oscar had seen before were brought into the room. They could not have been more starkly contrasted: where one was tall and appeared naturally slight, with long fair hair and pale blue eyes, the other was short and seemed too thin for her broader frame, with wavy dark hair and eyes the color of a lake in autumn—darker blue, almost gray.
“Laird MacLeod, might I introduce you to my daughters.” The Earl took his cue and gestured to the dark-haired woman. “This is my eldest, Lady Rowena, and this is my youngest, Lady Cassandra.” Oscar detected a note of reproval in the Earl’s voice as he mentioned the latter. Evidently, she had done something to irk her father, as many a daughter did. Or so Oscar had heard from Finley and Christopher, for they had sisters, while Oscar had no siblings at all.
At last, I have a name… Rowena.
He observed the raven-haired young woman more closely, realizing this was his betrothed. It took a matter of moments for some of his more trivial concerns to drain away, for she had a quiet mystique about her that the fair-haired sister lacked.
Cassandra stood proud and almost haughty, graced with a more typical beauty that most men would have concentrated on immediately. Indeed, he could almost hear Finley salivating. But Rowena possessed a rarer kind of beauty—one that was unaware of its existence, devoid of any arrogance or expectation of flattery.
She is strikin’ and nay mistake. Shapely, an’ all, or she would be with a bit more meat on her bones.
Rowena wore a coral bodice, embroidered with small bronze flowers, worn with an open-necked chemise with a wide lace collar. Oscar rather liked the way it revealed her curved waist and the plump crescents of her tempting bosom, though he wished he could see more of her smooth, milky skin. Unfortunately for him, rose-colored satin sleeves billowed from her shoulders to just below her elbow, the edges tied with ribbons of a darker red hue. To conceal her legs, she wore a closed skirt of coral satin, looped up onto her hips to reveal a peach-colored petticoat.
I wonder if all of her is as smooth as those ripe breasts… I bet her thighs would be warmin’ under me cold hands—better than any fire.
His admiring gaze took in her creamy complexion, dark eyebrows, high cheekbones, a firm jawline, and a smoothly angled nose that turned up slightly at the tip. Her mouth was full and pink, and he could not stop his gaze from lingering there a moment longer, as he watched her bite her lower lip, visibly nervous. Indeed, he felt envious of her teeth upon her lip, desiring to be the one to graze that pink skin, knowing it would elicit an impassioned gasp.
She enchanted him far more than Cassandra, though part of him wished she had remained in the simple, sodden shift he had seen her wearing earlier, before she had been marched away. That way, there was very little of her figure he would not have been able to see.
The Earl gave Rowena a nudge. “Introduce yourself, my girl.”
“I thought you already did that?” Rowena retorted, making Oscar smirk. Behind him, he heard Finley snort, though he quickly covered it by pretending to sneeze.
To his disappointment, Cassandra walked forward and dipped into a low curtsy. “It is a pleasure to welcome you to our home, Laird MacLeod. I hope you have not ridden too far.”
“They have come from Scotland, Dear Sister. I am surprised His Lairdship is even able to sit without grimacing,” Rowena replied, bringing a wider smirk to Oscar’s face, while the Countess gave a gasp of utter horror and Finley descended into a coughing fit. Truly, it was the first time Oscar had genuinely smiled since his father had died.
“Rowena! You will not speak to your betrothed so!” The Countess dabbed her brow with a handkerchief. “You must forgive my daughter, Laird MacLeod—she often misjudges her humor.”
Oscar shook his head. “She’s made a good observation, Lady Fleming. I didn’t like to say it before, but there’s another reason my acquaintances have chosen to stand.”
Rowena canted her head, looking at him with curiosity. “Then, it is certainly provident that these settees have such soft cushioning, Laird MacLeod.” Her eyes narrowed slightly, as though to gauge his reaction to her somewhat rude jest. In return, a genuine laugh bubbled up from his throat, coaxing a small, satisfied smile onto her bitten lips.
“Rowena, that is enough!” the Earl hissed, before addressing Oscar. “Please, do not be disturbed by her somewhat coarse tongue, for she has had little opportunity to engage in the etiquette of polite society.”
“Being all the way out here in the wilds of Northumberland, he means!” the Countess added, a touch too aggressively. “We have few occasions to attend balls and gatherings, you see.”
The Earl nodded effusively, to the point where Oscar feared his neck might crack. “And please, do not be disheartened by her appearance. My… um… youngest is certainly the fairer of the two, and the most charming to behold, but Rowena is… uh… sturdier, and she will make you an excellent wife.” He said those last words like a threat, gaining an unveiled scowl from Rowena herself.
She has character. I like that in a lass.
“I dinnae see anythin disagreeable about Lady Rowena’s appearance,” Oscar protested, speaking the truth. Why, he could not tear his eyes away from her uniquely beautiful face, nor the pert bosom that heaved with every restrained breath she took.
“You are very benevolent to say such things, Laird MacLeod,” the Earl said, evidently believing that Oscar was lying. “But she is aware of her shortcomings. I am only sorry that Lady Cassandra is the younger of the two, and there is nothing to be done about the exchange I made with your father.” He paused. “You have my deepest sympathies for his passing.”
Oscar bristled with annoyance. How could a father speak so unkindly of his daughter, and cast such harsh judgment upon her appearance? Could he not see that Rowena was the more engaging of the sisters? It bemused him how any parent could be unfeeling toward one of their children, for he intended to love and encourage all of his children, just as his father had done for him.
Rowena snorted. “Ah, my shortcomings. How ironic.” She flashed a smile at Oscar. “Goodness, anyone would think I were a goblin, if they heard of me solely through the whispers of my mother and father. May I remind you, Mother, that we are the same height.”
“We are most certainly not!” the Countess argued, her cheeks turning purple with anger.
Oscar chuckled. “You’re nae a goblin, Lady Rowena,” he assured her. “A mischievous elf, perhaps.”
“Ah, you have seen my ears.” Rowena pretended to cover them. “Oh, Father, it is all no good. Laird MacLeod shall never wish to marry me, now he has witnessed my secret.”
“What about your ears?” Cassandra turned, wearing a confused expression. “There is nothing amiss with them. You have always had rather pleasant ears. At least, I have often thought so.”
It appears Rowena got beauty and intelligence, while this one only got beauty.
He did not mean it unkindly, but there was a certain obliviousness to Cassandra that could not be ignored. Humor seemed to fly over her head.
Rowena laughed. “There, you see—at least I have pretty ears in my favor.”
Behind the settee, on Oscar’s left side, Finley had been forced to turn his face away, his hand clamped across his mouth to stop the laughter from bleeding out. As first impressions went, Rowena had evidently made a triumphant effort at winning two of the Scots over, though Christopher remained stony-faced, unmoved by the young lady’s jests.
“You have more than that, Dear Sister.” Cassandra went to Rowena’s side, and took hold of her hand. The gesture moved Oscar, for it showed a familial love between the sisters. Moreover, it showed there was more to Rowena than just her appearance and her humor. Clearly, she was loveable and good-natured, too, otherwise such a sisterly bond would not have had the nourished roots to grow.
“Nevertheless, this is what was agreed upon.” The Earl shot Rowena a stern look. “The former Laird’s only son was to marry my eldest, upon the event of him becoming the Laird of MacLeod.”
“Do ye ken why that is?” Oscar asked, prompted by curiosity.
The Earl frowned. “Pardon?”
“Do ye ken why me da made this deal with ye?” Oscar repeated, only to realize that the Earl did not understand him. “I mean, do ye understand why me faither wanted this?”
The Earl visibly relaxed. “Ah, I see.” He gave a contemplative nod. “He and I enjoyed a joint venture in the malt trade, and we thought it prudent to unite both nations in our business endeavors, should anything happen to either of us. This way, there can be no external influence upon our trade, for when I pass, the business will go entirely to you, with an income set aside for my family, and it will then pass to your sons, when you are blessed with them.”
Oscar glanced back at Finley, whose amusement had all but died. “Do ye ken of this?”
Finley tilted his head to one side. “Aye, I think so. I’d have to check me ledgers, but there’s somethin’ about malt in ‘em.”
So… that’s the reason.
It made complete sense to Oscar, for his father had always been looking for other ways to bring wealth to Clan MacLeod. To have a stake in the malt trade was a prudent maneuver, and tying the business together on both sides of the border was especially wise, for it meant lessening the chance of any taxes or tariffs becoming an obstacle or a conflict, as it was over a hundred years prior.
Christopher cleared his throat. “The hour is gettin’ on, Laird. We ought to leave afore it gets dark.”
“Oh… you are not thinking of departing so soon, are you?” The Countess leaned forward in her seat. “We had hoped the wedding might take place here at the Manor’s chapel, so we can be certain that it has happened. Our daughter has a tendency toward waywardness, and we would not want any unfortunate incidents occurring on your journey back to Scotland.”
Oscar blinked. “Ye want to have the weddin’ here?” That had not been part of his plan, and the thought of remaining here for a while did not sit well with him. Although, now he had met Rowena, he felt much less apprehensive about the marriage.
“It would be best for all involved,” the Earl insisted firmly. “I have taken the liberty of having chambers prepared for you, Laird MacLeod, and I will arrange chambers for your acquaintances.”
Christopher coughed into his hand, as if to say: Nae for me.
“My man-at-arms would prefer to sleep outside, Lord Fleming,” Oscar said, knowing his friend. “So, we’ll only need one other bedchamber.”
The Countess’s eyes widened in alarm. “But it is bitterly cold! He shall surely freeze to death!”
“I willnae, M’Lady.” Christopher squared his shoulders. “I’m used to it.”
“That sounds rather liberating,” Rowena interjected. “Perhaps I shall dispense with my chambers and sleep beneath the stars, too.”
I’d sleep with ye beneath the stars, and nay mistake.
Though Oscar was not thinking at all about rest.
The Countess looked as though she might faint. “You must forgive me, Laird MacLeod, I feel a frightful headache coming on.” She cast a disapproving glare at Rowena. “One of these days, my daughters will surely be the death of me.”
“If you would care to follow me, Laird MacLeod, I will see you and your acquaintance to your respective chambers,” the Earl said hurriedly, eyeing his daughters with a palpable anxiety. Indeed, both the Earl and the Countess had been behaving strangely since Oscar arrived, though he did not know enough about them to understand if this was their usual demeanor.
They’re probably worried I might start drinkin’ ale and swingin’ me broadsword around or trail boars into their nice house and get blood on their floor.
He knew the English thought of the Scottish as uncouth savages, and that such fine members of the peerage were likely nervous about how a Scottish wedding might proceed, but they need not have done. He would endure their way of doing things while he was here, and leave as soon as it was over, so there could be a proper wedding in Scotland.
I hope ye’re nae disappointed in what ye see, Rowena.
Standing, he directed a bow at the Countess, and went to follow the Earl out into the entrance hall. On the way, he passed by Rowena, and took a moment to pause and take her by the hand. She flinched in surprise as he lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it gently.
“I look forward to learnin’ more of ye, Lady Rowena,” he said, lifting his gaze to hers, only to find her staring wide-eyed back at him. “I’m pleased to have met ye.”
She dipped her head. “And you, Laird MacLeod.”
Refusing to look away, his lips curved into a smile as he stood back to his full height. A swell of relief swept through his broad chest as the ghost of a reflected smile lifted her lips, making them look even more enticing in their plumpness.
Perhaps, this would not be such a terrible event after all.
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