About the book
A secret that will ultimately be his death…
Sheltered by her father her whole life, Myriam Butchart longs for freedom. A freedom that comes in the form of the new stableboy, who takes her heart in his hands and gives it wings.
Erik Steoneson hides a deadly secret that no one must ever discover. Keeping his head low and assuming the role of stableboy are the only things tieing him to the world of the living. He never thought his priceless defenses would crumble like a sandcastle for the sake of the one woman he can never have.
When the forbidden nature of their love finally catches up to them, the shackles that chain Erik to his past begin to tighten. Only this time, they are not around his neck; they are around Myriam’s. And the only way to set her free is to dip them in his own blood.
Myriam’s first thought as she started to regain consciousness was that she wanted to vomit. Black spots crowded her field of vision when she cracked her eyes open and her stomach heaved in protest at the constant, jarring movement of the horse she was slung over. Each undulating motion made the bile rise to the back of her throat and she quickly slammed her eyes shut again, breathing deeply.
Vomiting would be very bad just that second, especially considering the dirty rag that had been forced into her mouth, holding her lips apart and chafing against the sides of her mouth. She could feel the knot of the gag lying against the bottom of her skull beneath her thick plait, but a small exploratory push with her tongue revealed that it was tied too tightly for her to dislodge.
What had happened?
She tried to concentrate on what she remembered, but her head throbbed with such intensity that she quickly shied away from those thoughts. She would have to try again when it didn’t feel as if she had an anvil pressing on her brain.
She could feel a rough rope wrapped around her wrists as they hung loosely off the side of the horse, but when she reached up to pull off the gag, her motion was halted by a sharp tug on her legs that nearly unbalanced her. She reached up again, slower this time, her hand stopping less than a foot from where it started, as it started to pull on her ankles.
She grimaced. Whoever had tied her up had done a very thorough job. Her wrists and ankles were tied together, with a rope under the horse’s belly connecting them, and there was a gag cutting into the corners of her mouth preventing any but the most garbled of sounds. At least there wasn’t a blindfold over her eyes.
What on earth is going on?
She could hear the sounds of at least a dozen horses, their hooves noisy on the hardened parts of the ground, and at least a dozen riders along with them. Some were silent, their presence betrayed only by the occasional click of the tongue to guide their horse, but she could hear a few of them ahead of her, their banter just loud enough in the otherwise quiet, that snatches of conversation floated over to her from time to time.
“Did ye hear the sound he made?” one asked, laughing uproariously at his own question.
“Like a stuck pig,” another called from the opposite direction, causing a fit of loud laughter to echo all around Myriam.
Bandits. They had to be. But how had she come to be with them?
A dull ache flared in her head as she tried to remember what she had been doing before she woke up tied up to a moving horse. Myriam ignored it, determined to get to the bottom of the situation.
She had been at home getting dressed in the new gown that her father had bought for her for Hogmanay. Why had Georgina not been there? Still, she must have been preparing to go meet with Erik if she chose to wear that gown.
Erik! The note!
The memory came more fully. He had sent her a note to meet at their tiny beach clearing. She had barely made it five hundred yards from the gates before she was assaulted.
Did they capture him as well?
She hoped not. Other than Erik, no one else knew where she had been headed. And if Erik had been snatched as well, Georgina would assume that they were together, and would not be alarmed until several hours had passed. Even then, she was unlikely to approach Myriam’s father until she confirmed it with the other workers at the stables, which could take hours. Her friend might be fierce when she wanted, but the Laird still intimidated her.
Was it mere chance that a band of highwaymen snatched her, or were these brutish men part of something more sinister?
She did not know, and it made her uncertain how to proceed. They were less likely to hurt her if they needed her alive to demand ransom, but she could not imagine how they would have known who she was. She desperately needed more information, and the only way to do that was to open her eyes.
Her second attempt to open her eyes was excruciating. Pain lanced through her brain at even the smallest sliver of light. Gritting her teeth, she persevered, only to find her vision completely obscured by the leg of a horse. She groaned in defeat and laid her head back down.
A heavy hand patted her familiarly on her behind.
“I see ye are awake, lass. Dinna fash, we’ll be arrivin’ soon.”
Myriam tried to flinch away but trussed up as she was, she could do little to protest. She would have to bide her time. Sooner or later, they were bound to untie her, even just a little, and then she would run for it.
The fact that she had no idea where they were, was only a distant, secondary consideration to the fact that she had been kidnapped. She would worry about survival later.
When they finally stopped, she chanced an upward look, her body heaving with the effort of lifting herself up, and saw that they had arrived at an old hut.
It looked abandoned. The door hung half-off its hinges and Myriam could clearly see a hole in its thatched roof. She allowed her body to drop again with a small grunt. Worse than the dilapidated appearance of the ramshackle hut they were apparently planning on inhabiting, was the fact that she did not recognize it at all.
One of the men untied the rope keeping her wrists tethered to her ankles and pulled her off the horse, carelessly throwing her on the ground near the door. She landed awkwardly, jarring her elbow and letting out a cry of pain.
The man sneered at her, showing off a set of rotting teeth. She recoiled and looked around her, hoping for an easy escape, but it seemed impossible. She counted nine men and was relieved not to see Erik anywhere among them.
He will come for me.
She knew that with absolute certainty. It was as clear to her as her own name. And in the meantime, she would keep her eyes open for an opportunity to escape. She glanced around and caught the look on one of the men’s faces, a slow lecherous grin that made her cringe.
Two Months Earlier
Erik could hear the lively bustle of the busy castle from nearly a mile away and thought that it boded well for him. Surely, such a large castle would have space and work for one more person. He shivered slightly in the crisp morning air as a breeze blew over the large loch, ruffling his blond hair and easily finding the crevices in his threadbare coat.
He had not had much luck at the last three farms he had tried. Though they had an overabundance of work to be done for the harvest, they also had an overabundance of mouths to feed and little hope that the crops would yield enough to do so. He had been turned away, not unkindly, but with each rejection his desperation grew.
“Ye should go to Mackay Castle,” one of the older men had advised him at the last farm he tried. “The Laird is always lookin’ for new people.”
It would not have been Erik’s first choice. He would have preferred to stay on one of the smaller farms, as he was less likely to be discovered there, but with no other prospects and winter rapidly approaching, it was either the large castle or death by exposure.
He could see the castle now, its looming form casting a large shadow on the loch behind it. It was an interesting placement for the clan’s keep. On the top of a small island and surrounded by the loch on three sides, it was connected to the road by a sturdy bridge.
He approached quickly, eager to see if they would accept him. At this point, he would be willing to work in any available position, if they were willing to take him in. He was strong, with muscles he had gained from years of hard work, despite the fact that he had lost a lot of weight in the past few weeks.
He did not know what he would do if they turned him away.
Erik looked down at his ragged coat with a grimace and tried to straighten it. The leather of his shoes was starting to peel away from the soles and his socks were so liberally spattered with mud that he doubted they would ever regain the soft grey color they originally had.
He was close enough now that he joined the stream of people walking toward the gates. He could feel their eyes as they stared at him, unkempt and haggard, and wished that he had taken the time to wash in the loch before approaching. It would certainly have made a better impression.
Well, there was nothing to do for it now. He was there to beg for a job, so it did not matter if he looked like a beggar. He pulled back his blond hair and forged ahead.
One of the guards stopped him at the end of the bridge.
“Halt!” he placed a strong hand on Erik’s shoulder, stopping him in his tracks. “I dinnae ken ye. What business do ye have at Mackay Castle?”
Erik looked up at the red-headed warrior. “I’m looking for work,” he said as politely as he could. “Do ye ken who I need to speak with?”
The guard looked him up and down with a barely concealed sneer.
“Ye need to speak with the steward,” he said indifferently. “He’s over there at the stables.”
“Thank ye kindly,” Erik said as he passed the gatehouse and then walked in the direction the guard had indicated, looking around curiously.
The main building was at the highest point off to his right with the kitchens on his left, nestled into the barn and stables. He could smell the aroma of freshly baked bread permeating the entire yard from that corner. Next to the stables was a large smithy and just beyond that he could see a water gate with several boats anchored at the edge of the lake.
It was a vast, sprawling group of buildings, much larger than what he was used to, and he hoped it would be big enough for him to be lost in the crowd. As it was, dozens of people were bustling in every direction, each one of them busy with their work.
The steward was easy to spot despite the crowd. Of all the people milling about, the short, rotund man was the only one who was pristinely clean. His plaid was a bright green and blue, unmarred by the dust and grime of outdoor work. He was standing near an older man with greying hair as Erik walked closer.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Are ye the steward?”
Both men turned to look at him.
“Aye. Who asks?”
“I am looking for work. Do ye have anything available?”
The steward looked him up and down carefully, his eyes lingering on Erik’s worn-out shoes and ruined clothes. He opened his mouth to speak and Erik could tell that he was about to be dismissed.
“Please,” he interrupted. “Please, I haven’ae another place to go. I am strong and willing to work in anything ye wish. I am nae asking for charity. I will earn everything ye give me.”
The man standing next to the steward looked thoughtful at Erik’s impassioned plea. His green eyes met Erik’s and his piercing gaze seemed to see through him.
“Do ye have any experience with horses, lad?” he asked.
“What are ye doing, Kurgir?” the steward asked.
Erik nodded in answer.
“Aye, sir, I ken how to care for them.”
“Guid. Ye can work in the stables with me, then.”
The steward and Erik were both looking at the man incredulously.
“Ye ken well that we need the help in the stable, Dunaid. He looks like he can handle himself.”
“He looks much too old to be taking care of horses,” the steward argued back.
“Och, and what am I, then?” the stable master said, waving a hand. “I need someone who is nae a bairn to replace Finlay. The lad moved away with his new bride last month.”
“Verra well,” the steward finally conceded. “But I dinnae want to hear about any trouble,” he warned, sending a stern look to Erik, who nodded in response.
“Aye, sir. Ye will nae regret it. I promise ye.”
With a final look at the stable master, Dunaid the steward walked away, leaving Erik standing alone with Kurgir.
“Thank ye,” Erik immediately said to the older man. “I will work verra hard.”
“What is yer name lad?”
“Erik Hamilton,” he replied promptly, the false name falling from his lips easily after having had to repeat it so many times the last few weeks, even if it chafed uncomfortably to not be able to use his own name.
“Hmm… I am Michael Kurgir,” the older man hummed as he looked him over. “Ye can call me Michael. Most of the lads do. Now, come this way. I’ll show ye around.”
Erik followed dutifully as the man showed him where the horses were stabled and where everything he would need was located. The steward had been right. At ten-and-nine years of age, Erik seemed to be older than everyone else by at least five or six years. Hell, some of the younger stable hands were still children.
“Michael!” a young woman called from the entrance of the stables. Michael shook his head at the summons, but immediately went in that direction. Not knowing what to do, Erik followed behind him.
“What can I do for ye today, Miss Myriam?” Michael asked, as Erik rounded the corner around the last stall. He froze.
Standing at the entrance was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen in his life. Dark brown hair framed her round pale face, a smattering of freckles accentuating her enormous blue eyes. Her red lips were full and curved into a stunning smile. Soft curves hidden under a bold, blue gown completed the image of perfection. He stood a few feet away from them, dazed and unable to look at anything other than her.
“Can ye prepare Faither’s horse? He wants to go to the merchants in Inverness,” she asked Michael.
Her voice was soft, but he could almost hear the hidden smile underneath. He wanted to say something but he stood rooted to the spot, powerless against her.
“I’ll have it ready in an hour for him, lass.”
“Thank ye, Michael,” she said, and then turned to leave. Her eyes fell on him and she smiled and exited the stables. He answered mechanically and then she was gone.
Erik blew out a breath and turned to find Michael looking at him with amusement. “Who was that?” he managed to choke out.
Michael chuckled at him. “That is Myriam, the Laird’s daughter. Ye had best stop looking at her like that if ye want to keep yer job, laddie. Her Faither and brothers are mighty protective of her.”
Erik looked away from Myriam’s retreating form hastily as Michael’s words registered. It would not do to be caught ogling the Laird’s daughter, and yet there was something about her that made him want to keep looking at her.
“Come,” Michael said. “I’ll show ye the Laird’s horse and we will get him ready for a ride. It seems like ye will be meeting him sooner rather than later.”
With a last look out of the courtyard, Erik followed the older man into the depths of the stables.
Myriam rushed away from the stables, certain that her face was flaming red. She had nearly asked Michael who the beautiful man standing half-hidden in the corner was, but she managed to restrain herself. Her father would certainly have a fit if he found out.
She pulled herself into an alcove near her father’s chambers and breathed in deeply to compose herself. He had been dirty, his clothes frayed and grubby, but there was something about him that made her want to look at him again.
His bright green eyes had followed her from the moment he walked in, so much so that she had felt his entrance. It was all she could do to continue speaking to Michael calmly. And when he had smiled back at her just before she left, and matching dimples appeared on his cheeks, she had to run away lest she embarrass herself.
When she felt poised enough to speak with her father, she continued the rest of the way down the hall and knocked on the heavy wooden door.
“Enter,” his deep voice beckoned.
She found him with his manservant, a small travel bag open between them, as the Laird instructed him on which items he wished to carry.
“A second pair of shoes is nae necessary, Tamas. I’ll be gone less than a week. A couple of extra shirts and me plaid are enough.”
“Aye, Laird,” the servant said and moved to do her father’s bidding.
“Ah, Myriam. What took ye so long? Did ye tell Master Michael to prepare me horse?”
“Aye, Faither. It will be ready for ye to ride in a few minutes.”
He nodded and then turned to accept the saddle bag that Tamas was holding out to him, hoisting it over his shoulder.
“Be good while I am gone, Myriam,” he admonished, his eyes serious, and then exited the room.
She rolled her eyes. She was always good. It was not her fault that Seumas always dragged her into whatever crazy plan he had going on.
Her face fell slightly at the thought of her brother. She missed him. Between her two brothers, he was the one she was closest to, despite the fact that he was seven years older than her. He left a few months before to train as an apprentice to the smithy and she had barely received news of him since then. She knew that he would have approved of what she was about to do, though.
“Georgina!” she called, as she ran into her room a couple of minutes later. “Are ye here?”
Her best friend rushed out of the adjoining room, a half-mended stocking clutched in her hands.
“Myriam? Is something amiss?” she asked, her eyes darting all over her friend.
“Aye. Ye have to come with me,” Myriam said, plucking the stocking she had been mending out of her hands and placing it on the bed.
“I cannae just leave me duties, Myriam,” Georgina said patiently. “Ye ken that. Yer Faither will have me heid if the steward discovers me gone again.”
Myriam rolled her eyes. “Ye are me lady’s maid and I need ye to assist me. He cannae have a problem with that, no matter what we are doing.”
They stood facing each other for a moment, each trying to convince the other that they were correct. Finally, Georgina lifted her hands in exasperation before placing the mending basket on Myriam’s bed along with the stocking.
“Verra well. What do ye need?” she asked, as she straightened her long red plait over her shoulder.
“Ye need to see. We’ll go through the passage. Come on.”
She didn’t wait to see if Georgina was following her. Despite her hesitance to break the rules, Myriam knew that once Georgina had given her word to do something, she would follow through.
They walked quickly around the main hall into one of the less-frequented corridors. She and Seumas had discovered a way directly into the kitchen storage area years ago, but that wasn’t the best part. The neglected hallway led to a staircase. At the very bottom was the kitchen storage room, but the stairs led to an abandoned room above it with two small windows into the courtyard.
It was a tiny room, originally unfurnished, and Myriam imagined that long ago it served as the head cook’s room. Or perhaps for more storage.
Regardless, it hadn’t been used in a very long time, and Myriam took advantage of that whenever she felt the need to escape for a few hours. She had convinced Georgina and Seumas to help her move a few comfortable chairs and a table inside and it had become her hideaway from the world.
It was where she was leading Georgina now. The fact that the room was two floors higher than the kitchen and overlooking the courtyard where the horses were stabled was rather convenient in that instance.
“Will ye tell me what happened?” Georgina asked when they entered the room a couple of minutes later.
Myriam didn’t answer immediately. She stared intently out of the windows for a second and then turned around triumphantly.
“Come see,” she beckoned, and Georgina crossed the room to join her. “Have ye seen him before?” she asked, pointing to the man she had seen in the stables earlier.
He was standing with Michael near the entrance of the stables, holding the reins of her father’s horse as Michael and one of the younger stable hands checked the saddle.
She looked him over again. In the bright sunlight she could see that his hair was a dark blond, almost the color of honey, under all the dust covering it. He was talking animatedly with Michael, the dimples she had noticed earlier in full display.
“The dirty man near the stables?” Georgina asked incredulously. She looked back at Myriam as if questioning her sanity. “That is why ye dragged me up here in the middle of the day? He looks like a beggar.”
Myriam blushed slightly. She had been so taken with the feeling he had elicited in her that she had almost forgotten how disheveled he was. Georgina, who was always prim and proper—and who tried to get Myriam to follow her—would of course notice that fact first.
“He was inside the stables with Michael earlier and now he is helping him. He must work there,” Myriam explained. Her face fell when Georgina showed no recognition. “Ye dinnae ken who he is,” she said, deflating. So much for finding out that information easily.
“I haven’ae seen him before,” Georgina confirmed. “Why are ye so interested in finding out who he is?” she asked. Her wry look told Myriam that she already knew, and her blush deepened slightly.
Myriam had never been one to fawn over boys, even as a young girl, and Georgina knew that. She had been her lady’s maid since Myriam had moved out of the nursery and into her own room five years earlier. The fact that Georgina was only a couple of years older than her had cemented their friendship fairly quickly, despite how different they were.
“There is something about him,” she told her friend and turned to look at him again.
Suddenly, he turned his face up to where she was, his eyes squinting against the late morning sun. She hastily pulled back, hiding next to the window.
Did he see me?
Erik looked back at the building he had ascertained was the kitchen. He thought he had caught a glimpse of someone moving on the upper floors, but he must have been mistaken. Unlike the rest of the castle, the walls on the top floor looked like they were beginning to crumble. Why would anyone be staying in such a run-down space?
He gently patted the horse he was holding on the nose to calm him. Michael, and the young boy who had introduced himself as Roger, were busy tightening the saddle around its belly. Seeing as Erik had only arrived that day and the horses didn’t know or trust him yet, they thought it would be better if he wasn’t the one strapping on the equipment.
Privately, Erik agreed, but he had to admit that it was fairly boring, allowing his mind to wander. He looked back up to the window, and this time he knew there was someone up there.
“What is up there?” he asked curiously. Michael turned to look at where Erik was gesturing and frowned.
“Over the kitchens? Storage mostly,” he said and then turned back to the horse.
Storage. That did explain why someone would be up there, but not why it would look almost abandoned. Didn’t storage rooms need to be secure and free of leaks so the food wouldn’t spoil?
He pushed it out of his mind and focused his attention on keeping the horse in front of him calm, but he couldn’t help the niggling feeling that someone was watching him. Looking around the courtyard, everyone was busy with their own work. His eyes were involuntarily drawn to the top of the kitchen again. This time he definitely saw someone moving in the window of the top floor.
The horse stamped his feet and tried tossing his head. Erik quickly caught on tighter to the bridle and reins, holding him in place.
“Ye’re fine, laddie,” Michael said. “He’s ready for the Laird.”
Erik loosened his grip and gently led the horse to one of the nearby hitching posts, tying a loose knot around it.
Just in time. A man who could only be the Laird strode up confidently to the stables. Erik thought he looked nothing like his daughter. While Myriam had dark hair and dainty features, her father’s hair was a light red, bordering on blond, with a strong jaw. Only the bright blue eyes hidden under bushy eyebrows showed any sort of resemblance.
He did have the bearing and assurance Erik was used to seeing from a Laird, though. It was the walk of a man who was confident in his ability to lead his clan. Erik admired that sense of conviction in the person who commanded the lives of so many people.
“Michael,” the Laird greeted coolly. “I see me horse is ready?”
“Aye, Laird. Erik here and Roger saddled him just a minute ago.”
The Laird’s gaze fell on Erik who resisted the urge to fidget under the steely look within it. He could feel himself being judged and found himself lacking in that look and he bristled inwardly. He really should have taken the time to bathe before entering the castle.
“Erik?” the Laird said, his one-word question somehow encompassing both a curiosity about who he was and why he was working in the stables.
“This is our newest worker at the stables, me Laird,” Michael said, gesturing at Erik who bowed his head. “Erik Hamilton. He just arrived today. Erik, this is the Laird of Clan Mackay, Viktor Butchart.”
“Pleasure to meet ye, Laird,” Erik said, holding the eye of the gentleman.
The Laird looked at him from head to toe for a moment and then nodded.
“Verra well. Where is me horse? I want to leave as soon as possible.”
“This way, Laird,” Michael said, guiding him toward the tethered animal. Behind the Laird’s back he gave Erik a reassuring smile. It made Erik feel a little better about the meeting.
Perhaps the Laird was a little aloof with everyone, but Erik got the distinct impression that the man didn’t like him. He would have to make a sincere effort to change that impression. The last thing that he needed was for the Laird of the clan to notice him enough to take an active dislike of him.
Ye just want Myriam’s Faither nae to hate ye.
He silenced the traitorous thought as soon as it manifested. Much as he would have liked to get the chance to court her properly, he didn’t think calling attention to himself in that way would be a good idea.
His eyes drifted toward the top of the kitchens again for a moment and then away. He turned around and entered the stables in the same direction as Michael. He would put as much effort as he could into working hard and forget about Myriam.
The next few weeks passed both very quickly and excruciatingly slow. Erik was exhausted, each day more grueling than the last.
He woke at dawn every morning, his day beginning with a quick splash of cold water on his face and then he joined the rest of the stable hands in mucking out the horse’s stalls. With more than fifty horses and only six workers in the stables, there was always something to be done. Even with the rotation they had set up, they each had to clean three stalls before they even had any breakfast.
He was no stranger to working hard, but he would be the first to agree that he had been somewhat sheltered from it all before arriving at Mackay Castle. Now, he worked continuously from dawn until dusk, not wanting to give Michael any reason to regret giving him a chance.
And slowly his efforts were starting to pay off. He got used to the routine and started mastering the tasks that he was assigned. Michael watched over him less and less every day, and rarely had to correct his work anymore. Not to say that he knew everything. There was always some new task that he had not been aware of, but it was much easier than it had been the first day.
It felt good.
“Good morning, Mrs. Boyd,” he greeted the cook as he sat down in the dining hall for breakfast one day.
“Oh, Erik. How are ye, lad?”
“Verra well, though I think it might snow today.”
Mrs. Boyd chuckled.
“We dinnae get much snow around here. The Loch doesn’ae freeze over, either.”
“Never?” Erik asked curiously. The loch near his home when he was a child froze every year when winter came, so it was a bit disconcerting to think that this one would not.
“Nay. Ye’ll see small patches of ice from time to time in the early mornings, but they always melt by noontime.”
“That is unusual,” he commented.
“Nay so much as ye might think,” she shrugged. “Perhaps the kelpies keep it free of ice so they can come on land when they want to.”
“Perhaps,” he said.
They returned to their food. Mrs. Boyd was an old, matronly woman who ran the kitchens with an iron fist, though Erik had only ever seen her pleasant side. He had heard her voice coming loudly from the direction of the kitchens enough to know that this was not always the case.
He was not working under her, though, so she was always pleasant company. With her eating after everyone else so that she could oversee the preparation of breakfast and everyone at the stables cleaning out the stalls before sitting down to eat, they were often some of the last to eat.
He had been dying to ask her about the third floor over the kitchens, since he found out that she was the head cook, but he didn’t dare. He was not certain why, but for some reason, he felt that the question would anger her, or cause much trouble if he asked it.
So they stuck to easier topics, such as the weather heading their way and the castle gossip.
“Did ye hear about yer young Alastair and Fiona Robasdan?” she asked in a low tone.
Gossip. Little escaped Mrs. Boyd’s notice, especially when it involved romance.
He shrugged in answer. He had seen Alastair courting a little blonde girl, but he didn’t know if that was Fiona Robasdan.
Truthfully, it was half the reason that he had not attempted to meet Myriam in person. Mrs. Boyd had gleefully informed him on the first day they met that Myriam had two older brothers and that the Laird was hideously overprotective of her, refusing to allow her to be courted by anyone.
As much as it pained him, he could not afford to get mixed up in a situation like that. If she had only been a simple lass, someone he could attempt to court quietly, he might have reconsidered. But as it was, it was best if he admired her from afar.
“I need to get back to the stables,” he told Mrs. Boyd. “Michael will be looking for me. Will ye be at kirk on the morrow Mrs. Boyd?”
“Aye, lad. I’ll see ye then.”
He nodded in acknowledgement and returned to the stables. He approached the group that he had started to think of as “his” horses. The stable hands each cared for about a dozen horses each. With so many in the stables, it was easier if they only had a few each.
A few horses whinnied in greeting as he passed by.
“They ken ye are going to feed them,” Michael said from the corner of the large room.
“Aye, I ken. They are verra intelligent animals,” Erik said as he reached for one of the hay bales stacked around the walls. “Once they ken that ye will feed them after breaking yer fast, they harass ye as ye enter. Dae nae ye, a charaid?” he asked the nearest horse, scratching under its chin.
Michael laughed. “Don’t let her fool ye,” he said. “I fed her an apple a few minutes ago.”
The mare whinnied again, as if to confirm Michael’s words and Erik chuckled.
“Did ye need something?” Erik asked a few minutes later when Michael didn’t immediately leave. The man usually had so many things to oversee that he barely had time to sit and talk with anyone.
“How are ye settling in, lad?”
Erik continued down the line, placing food in each horse’s trough as he considered his answer.
“Slowly,” he finally said. “I feel like I ken the routine now, but there are always new things. But everyone at the castle has been welcoming.”
Minus the Laird.
He pushed away the thought immediately, even though it was true. Every time Erik had seen or spoken with the man there had been a scowl on his face. Erik was starting to wonder if the older man even had the capacity to smile.
“That’s good. Things will change a bit now that the harvest is finishing. A couple of the lads will return to their homes for the winter so ye and the others will have to take care of those horses, but there will also be less to be done as it gets colder. Ye will most likely have more available time during the day than ye do now.”
That was good to hear. At the moment, his days seemed to bleed into each other. Wake up at dawn, work, eat, sleep after sundown and repeat. He was usually so exhausted at the end of the day that he barely had the energy to make it through dinner, never mind spending his free time doing other things.
To hear that work would be lighter was a relief, even if it was only while the cold weather lasted.
“That is guid,” he said.
“I want to train ye a bit during this time,” Michael said.
“Ye are doing well with the animals, but truthfully, there were many other young lads that I could have brought in to do the work. Nay, I needed someone who was old enough that the others would learn to respect him when he gave orders.”
“Ye want me to become yer second,” Erik guessed. Michael nodded in agreement.
“Ye will still have some of the duties ye do now, of course, but ye would also work with me to oversee the stables. It’s difficult in a different way.”
Erik nodded. He knew it well. Doing the work was difficult but trying to manage everyone could be doubly hard sometimes and got even less recognition.
“All right, then,” Erik said. “When do we start?”
Michael smiled at him in response.
“As soon as the harvest is finished and everyone beds down for winter, we can start.”
Erik nodded and went back to feeding the horses.
“Michael?” he called out to the older man as he was about to exit the stables. Michael turned around to look at him. “Thank ye.”
Michael nodded in acknowledgement, leaving Erik free to think about everything.
Erik finished his chores just as the sun was reaching its high point in the sky. With winter rapidly approaching, and rain and fog being almost constant, sunshine was something that was coveted, both by humans and animals.
He put bridles on a couple of the horses and started leading them toward the main gates. A little beyond the gate house there was a paddock where they could run a little bit. He usually tried to time it for when the sun was out.
He was just returning to pick up the second set of horses when he saw her in front of one of his stalls.
Her gown was a deep green this time with a light colored arisaid to match, her long, dark hair in a plait that was around her head like a crown, leaving her neck bare. He sucked in a deep breath at the sight. Her neck was just as graceful as the rest of her.
He turned around to flee from the stables before she noticed him. He could not bear to talk to her and not be able to approach her further. It was best if he kept his distance from her altogether. She was too beautiful, and his situation was too problematic to invite her into something like that.
Alas, fate was not on his side that day. His leg collided with one of the buckets on the side of the stalls, making a loud noise. She turned around, startled, her blue eyes honing in on him immediately and a small smile spreading on her beautiful face.
“Good morning,” she greeted him. “Ye must be Erik. I’m Myriam. It’s a pleasure to finally meet ye.”
He had been gawking at her for a full minute. It made her want to fidget under his gaze. Was there something wrong with how she was dressed? Why was he staring at her like that?
She noticed as they stood there that he had filled out a bit since the last time she had been that close to him, on the day he arrived. He was still slim, but he was developing muscles on his arms and chest that weren’t there before. And if she could see that while he was still fully clothed, she wondered what it would look like if… No, she would not think of that right now.
He was still staring at her as she blushed darkly at her thoughts. She hoped they didn’t show on her face. After another long moment of trying not to squirm under his gaze, she finally gave in and straightened her skirt slightly.
Her small movement seemed to snap him out of his stupor.
“Good morning, Miss Myriam,” he said, his voice low and smooth like honey over warm butter. The sound made her shiver. “It is a pleasure to make yer acquaintance as well. Though ye seem to already ken me name.”
She blushed again, inwardly berating herself for revealing that, even though, as daughter of a Laird with no Lady, it would be perfectly reasonable for her to know the names of everyone in the keep. Somehow, with Erik it seemed more intimate.
“Michael,” she offered as an explanation. And it actually had been the older man who had given her the information, though she hadn’t actually asked. They had been talking over dinner when he started going over the new stable hand he had hired.
Erik nodded, knowingly. It seemed like the older man’s penchant for talking about his employees was well-known within the group, then. Myriam had spent many a dinner sitting with Michael as he regaled her with the antics of the stable hands. She felt as if she was good friends with most of them, even though she had barely spoken to any of them.
“How can I help ye, Miss Myriam?” Erik asked after a moment. He wiped his hands on his kilt and then reached up to remove the leather from his hair and tie it back again. Myriam’s fingers itched to help him.
“Oh, aye, of course. Erm, I want to go on a ride this afternoon. Could ye prepare me horse for me? Michael said that ye were the one in charge of her.”
She gestured at the sweet little mare a couple of stalls down that had been her companion for more than ten years. Her light brown coat covered her entire body except for one leg, and their shoulders were about the same height. She had just been a foal the first time they met and Myriam had immediately fallen in love with her. No one else had ever ridden on her back and Myriam refused to ride on another horse.
“Aye, a sweet lass, that one is,” Erik commented, rubbing the horse’s nose. “What do ye call her?”
Myriam blushed darkly. It wasn’t like most people didn’t know the name of her horse; it was just, well, a little embarrassing as an adult. Erik was looking at her curiously.
“Is it a secret?” he asked. “Or does she nae have a name?”
“It is nae exactly a secret,” she hedged and then blew out a frustrated breath. “Fine, her name is Pixie.”
He blinked in surprise.
“Ye named yer horse… Pixie?” he asked with a bemused smile.
“I was nine,” she defended herself. “Pixie seemed to suit her at the time. She was barely three hours old and jumping around all over the place.” She shrugged as he chuckled.
His laughter brought his dimples to the forefront again. She had to resist the urge to poke the odd little indents on the sides of his mouth. They were much more attractive than she had ever considered dimples to be before.
Not that she had really noticed things like that before he came to the castle. She had been the perfect picture of chastity since her early teens when James Abernathy had stolen a kiss. After her father and brothers found out, James had barely even dared to look at her, let alone kiss her again. When word got out, no other boy had even dared approach her.
It was rather lonely.
And then Seumas had to leave for his apprenticeship, leaving her with only Georgina to talk to. They were nearly as close as sisters, but she wished for the easy camaraderie she had with childhood friends. With the restrictions her father placed on her, none of the other women wanted to deal with being her friend.
Erik was watching her face closely, and Myriam almost cursed out loud. Her brothers always told her that everything she thought about showed on her face as if it were made of glass. Rather than being put off, though, Erik seemed to come to a decision. He smiled at her and then opened Pixie’s stall.
“Well then. Let’s prepare yer horse so ye can escape the castle for a bit,” he said, his smile turning mischievous at the end of it. She shook her head ruefully. How was it that he seemed to understand her after just a few words spoken between them, when her own family remained woefully ignorant of her feelings?
She watched as he slipped Pixie’s bridle over her head and then led her out by the reins into the main room. He was so gentle with her. Myriam smiled. She had to argue with stable hands before, when they used too firm a hand with her horse. Honestly, she wasn’t a war horse, they didn’t need to manhandle her like one, or like one of the enormous draught horses they used in the fields.
Erik seemed to understand that. He led Pixie out with a firm but gentle hand, murmuring soothingly the whole time. At her age, Pixie was unlikely to bolt, but a little tenderness went a long way with establishing trust with her.
“Where are ye planning on going?” Erik asked, as he set about preparing the equipment he needed.
“I am nay going far,” she said. Truthfully, she wasn’t allowed to go too far, but she did not want to explain that at the moment. “A few miles down the trail to one of the farms and then I will be back.”
“A farm?” he asked curiously.
“Aye, one of the tenants was recently injured. I’m bringing her a salve that the healer made for her burns.”
“That is nice of ye,” he said as he methodically checked the placement of the saddle.
As they talked, he glanced over at her every few seconds, as if unable to help himself. Each succeeding look warmed her from the inside. Whatever it was that she was feeling, that drew her to him, it seemed like he was feeling it as well. It made her heart swell with hope.
She also noticed that it seemed to be taking him an inordinate amount of time to saddle her horse. She had seen him doing it in a fraction of the time when she watched him from her little room over the kitchens. Her cheeks burned a little bit at the reminder that she had basically been spying on him for two weeks.
But it stood to reason, that if he was able to saddle her horse quickly and he was choosing to take his time in doing so, he wanted to spend time with her, too. It bolstered her courage a little bit more.
“I enjoy helping people when I can. Just because I am nay harvesting the fields meself, doesn’ae mean that I cannae help with other things,” she said.
Erik raised his hands in surrender and Myriam realized that she had spoken perhaps a tad more defensively than she had intended. She huffed. It was an argument that she had with her father more than once. If he could stop her from leaving the castle walls entirely, he would. He didn’t understand her need to get out, to talk to people, and to care for them.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured.
“Apology accepted,” he said. “I did nae mean to imply that ye should nae go. I think that it is a braw idea.”
“You do?” she asked in surprise. It was so different to what she was usually told.
“Aye, I do. Look, ye are the daughter of the Laird, so ye will nae be doing the harvestin’, but there are other ways to support yer people. Why should ye nae do that?”
“Ye are one of the few people who think that. Me family doesn’ae believe that I should do anything.”
He shrugged. “That is nay how I was raised,” he said simply. “I have two older sisters meself. They wouldnae be happy to be limited like that.”
That actually explained a lot. He seemed to understand her in a way that her brothers never did. Maybe growing up with sisters gave him better insight.
“Where is yer family, Erik?” she asked.
“Och, me sisters are married. They live with their husbands. Me Mither lives with Mairi, the eldest, and her family.”
“Are they far?”
His eyes took a haunted look for a moment before he responded.
“Aye, they are many days ride from here,” he said.
They must live on one of the islands, or far up in the north if they are so far.
She tried to imagine being able to travel that far and see so many new places, but could not.
“Well, I hope I meet them someday. I would love to tell them that they raised ye well. Me Faither and brothers think that I should stay in the castle, but I want to help everyone in the clan, nay matter how far they live.”
“Ye should tell them that, Miss Myriam.”
She had told them that, but it was not exactly a conversation that she wanted to have with Erik just yet. She would only get upset. Instead, she latched onto something else that had been bothering her since she arrived at the stables.
“I wish ye wouldnae call me that,” she said. He looked confused. “Miss Myriam,” she clarified. “Ye cannae be much older than me. It feels rather odd.”
His face fell into a grimace, and her heart plummeted into her stomach. Had she mistaken the situation? She braced herself internally for his rejection.
“I dinna ken if that is a good idea, Miss Myriam,” he said. “Yer Faither…”
Suddenly she understood, and her face turned into a scowl. Of course, he was afraid of her father. His job and his ability to make a living depended on it. Maybe she should have explained a little better, as she refused to allow her father to ruin this for her.
“In private, then,” she said. “Me Faither doesn’ae have to ken and neither does anyone else. I give ye leave to simply call me Myriam.”
He looked conflicted for a moment, something akin to hope in his eyes, before he finally nodded.
She gave him her most brilliant smile in return. It felt good to be on equal footing with him. She did not want him to think of her only as a superior.
“Well, Myriam,” he said, the emphasis on her name deliberate. “Pixie is ready for ye.
He brought Pixie up closer to the mounting block and offered Myriam his hand in assistance. She took it with a smile, the heat of his fingers lingering on her palm even through her riding gloves.
He was standing so close to her that she could feel the heat of his body and not just his hand where he touched her.
“Enjoy yer ride, Miss Myriam,” he said, looking at the people around them, his face set in an impish smile. She smiled back at him and guided Pixie around, clicking her tongue.
Pixie immediately started moving. The cool wind rustled through Myriam’s hair, the small breeze a promise of the winter that would soon be arriving. But for now, the sun was shining, and she was allowed out of the gates. She would take full advantage while she could.
She saw Georgina standing on the steps leading to the great hall and nodded to her. Her friend smiled back, subtly pointing to the stables and then mouthing “Later!” Myriam nodded and guided Pixie toward their destination.
She could feel Erik’s eyes on her as she and Pixie gained distance from the stables. When they reached the gates, she turned around slightly, catching his eye from where he stood looking at her. He smiled lopsidedly, his dimples deepening on his cheeks. With a blush, she faced forward again, urging Pixie into a light trot, hearing his light laughter following them even through the bustle of the crowd in the courtyard.
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