About the book
A small taste of her paradise was worth losing everything else…
Known to be a hellion, April Dumfrie, daughter of the late Laird of Crieff, doesn’t let anyone tie her down. Until the unthinkable happens: her brother, the current Laird, arranges a marriage for her, in order to help the clan. And it devastates her.
A widower and a father, Connan MacLaren needs to find a wife for the sake of his son and for this purpose only. But the woman that is presented as his future wife is the most beautiful creature he has ever seen. Not to mention the wildest.
When the death of a maid sparks an ongoing investigation, Connan has to protect April from both herself and the one who wants to harm her. Yet, Connan has to choose: stay with April or follow his King’s orders. But did the King actually order an attack on April’s clan? And how is everything tied to the death of a simple maid?
Connan Maclaren paced the front of the room, with his hands buried deep in his pockets as the screams he heard through the closed doors pierced through him. Unable to stand any more of the tension, he walked away from the door and headed down the corridor of the second landing far away from the room where his wife lay tossing and struggling to birth their baby.
A storm raged outside, rain splashing against the windows, and thunder rumbled through the night’s air, but the screams pierced him harder than any other sound and he couldn’t stand it.
Matilda’s labor had come the day before, and the entire clan awaited the good news. He was sure their child would have the same rare emerald eyes she did, and its head would be full of the same dark locks she had. It would have her smile, soothing voice, and calm nature and he would cherish them both until he was gray.
He stopped walking down the corridor when he heard the sudden cries of the newborn, and the door far behind him pushed forward as the mid-wife stepped out. He walked back toward her briskly, and with wide eyes stared at her outstretched hands. His entire body shook with the need to see his wife and child but there was a pale look on the woman’s face.
She held the baby wrapped in her arms, her cheeks were tearstained as she handed over the crying babe to him. He swallowed, his throat tight as the babe continued to bawl and struggle against the linens wrapped around its body.
“It’s a son,” the woman whispered, smiling, with tears in her eyes and he smiled back. He had a son, a wee lad with dark hair just like he expected.
“Matilda?” he asked, and her smile withered. “How is Matilda?”
“I am sorry,” she replied, her voice cracking to give way to her tears. Connan hurried through the door, holding tightly to his son, and stopped in his tracks. He flinched at the sight before him. The white sheets were draped in blood, and Matilda lay on the bed, unmoving, her skin white, and her dark long hair spread out on the pillow.
“What happened?” he asked and handed over the babe to the healer so he could approach the bed slowly. Connan couldn’t comprehend the sight before him. His heart sank instantly, and he felt the pang of loss even before he neared the bed.
When he did, he reached for her hands on the bed, and they were ice cold, the stiffness making him drop in the chair beside the bed.
“She’s gone. I couldnae save her,” the healer said again, and fresh tears stung Connan’s eyes, threatening to spill.
He lowered his head to her hand and the tears ran out of his eyes. Connan had admired and loved Matilda from the time they were mere children racing around the fields of the castle and playing in the garden. She had possessed a strong spirit, and an easy-going nature that made them a perfect fit, but now she was gone.
“Nay,” he declared and held her hands to his face. The bairn yelled, and the midwife rocked him to keep his screams down. Coupled with the heavens pouring down its contents on the fields outside, Connan’s anguished cry filled the air.
“Laird,” the healer called softly, trying to offer some comfort, and he lifted his tear-filled face to her. She held out the babe to him, and he took it from her quivering hands and stared into the bluest eyes he had ever seen.
The bairn stopped crying as soon as he entered Connan’s arms, and gently Connan stroked its cheeks and let out a breath. The child had a head full of black hair, and the color of eyes was a subtle shade of blue with the sweetest thread of caramel. It made Connan smile because his child had turned out to look like him.
“Get out,” he spoke softly, and the healer, alongside the other women in the room scurried out of the door.
Connan dropped to the chair, rocking the babe in his arms as he stared at his wife’s pale form.
“I’m so sorry, lassie,” he cried out and reached out to touch her forehead. He would never get used to this – the pain of not having Matilda by his side or hearing her laugh and play with their babe. “I am so sorry,” he cried out again, this time pressing his forehead to hers as the sobs began to wrack through him.
He had vowed to protect his wife, and he had failed. There was nothing that could take the grief away at this point. He wiped his face clean, stood up, and gave Matilda one last look before walking out of the room, rocking his bairn in his arms. He handed him over to the healer, and swallowed, trying desperately to maintain a calm exterior in front of the women gathered in the chamber.
She collected the babe, adjusted the linen sheets over his small body, and hurried back into the room to clean him up.
The entire clan awaited news of the bairn’s birth, but now they had lost their lady too. He had bested the finest men in all of Scotland and upheld the virtue of the clan while protecting his warriors, but he had failed the one person who mattered the most.
“How do I raise a son without ye?” he muttered, still standing in the same spot, confused and torn in agony. He turned his head to see his brother standing in the corridor, his eyes wide and his expression full of questions. “She’s gone,” he whispered, and Jake, his younger brother nodded. Grief ravaged his voice when he spoke, but the man struggled to keep his emotions at bay.
“The bairn is healthy?” Jake asked in a gruff voice, and Connan rocked back on his feet and nodded. He walked beside Jake, and they headed out of the castle. The rain had subsided, but the breeze outside made it evident that the skies would still spill more contents before dawn.
It was a night he could never forget and even as the rain continued to pour, he could imagine Matilda’s face and smile hovering before his eyes. He made up his mind there and then.
“Burn the chamber,” he said, his voice raw, as he rubbed his face, and raked his hands through his hair again. “I never want to talk of or remember this day again,” he added.
Six Years Later
April rushed out of her brother’s chambers, and ran down the stairs, heading back to the stables to get Fray, her horse. She was livid, her hands quivering from the news she had just received, and her eyes burned with tears. She did not wish to be married to some man she barely knew, far away from her home, and her friends.
She hated Alexander for this. Her older brother was controlling her life. As she climbed the mare’s back, and kicked, tugging the reins towards her so it responded, she could almost see Samuel’s mocking sneer. Growing up with her other brother, Samuel, she had learned how to play the same tricks he played on her countless times.
He is proud, my brother, and I am certain this marriage was his idea.
“Wallops,” she muttered to herself and continued to gallop away. The green fields of the Crieff lands were where April loved to spend the afternoons, taking her time to ride on Fray’s back until she was soaked in sweat and exhausted.
She loved to ride after good rain, and with the heavy downpour last night coupled with the news her brother had delivered, April had known she needed a ride. She reached to her side for the bow and arrow she used in hunting. She never went riding without it in case she felt the need to let out some steam, and today was just the right day to let off plenty of steam.
Eyes still burning with unshed tears, she stopped strutting when she sighted a moving object in the fields. She pulled the arrow, and aimed, trying to steady her nerves, but thoughts ran through her mind and all April could think of was the news her brother had delivered.
What if he’s a thrawn? What if he’s nasty?
She couldn’t stand being married to a man of such attributes and she didn’t know this man: Laird Maclaren. Alexander spoke highly of him, and with respect too, and that made her curious, but she wanted more than just to be a mother of bairns and a wife to some laird keeping a household.
She wanted her own clan, her own keep, and her own future. What she wanted was more of a partnership than the arrangement Alexander was forcing her into without prior notification.
She sucked in a deep breath to steady her racing nerves again, she shot at the animal, heard it ruffle through the bushes, and she jumped down from her horse’s back and raced towards it. When she surfaced from the bushes later, she held a small rabbit in her hands.
“Dammit,” she cursed beneath her breath, frustrated that all she could land was a small game. She had hunted much bigger animals and had gotten praises from the men in the castle for being good at every activity a man did.
Angry, and frustrated, April dropped to her knees on the floor. The tears burning the back of her eyelids gushed out unexpectedly staining her freckled cheeks. She hated the subjection surrounding women like herself and wished there were a way to escape her brother’s plan of marrying her off because he thought it could tame her, but she had no other choice.
Once he met with the rest of the clan, the deed was done, and in seven days she would be carted off to another castle and delivered as a birthday gift to some strange man.
The loud wails of the lad filled the corridors of the gray colored Mullinton castle, and it was followed by the sounds of the healer talking soothingly to the boy.
“Ony speirins?” Connan asked in his brogue dialect, and Jake shook his head before pushing the door open gently to peer inside the room.
Connan followed suit and walked into the room to see the healer pressing a wet napkin to the lad’s forehead.
“The fever?” he asked, needing no more words. She shook her head and lowered her gaze from his.
“He keeps cryin’. I daenae ken what’s wrong,” she replied and shifted aside for Connan to see his son on the bed.
Six-year-old Jasper Maclaren was every bit the boy his father had expected him to grow into. He did not look so much like his mother, and Connan regretted that a bit because he would have wished to keep a part of Matilda alive.
“What’s wrong, lad?” he asked his son and touched his forehead. The boy sniffed and dabbed at his eyes once he got his father’s attention. Connan dropped on the bed, pulling him closer. He breathed out and let the boy rest against his body. “Is there somethin’ ye want?”
Jasper shook his head, but instead, he wrapped his hands on his father’s neck and buried his face in his chest. The illness Jasper recently recovered from had left the entire clan on edge, and voices were raised concerning the state of affairs of the keep. They couldn’t wait the long years for Jasper to come of age and get them a lady, so his trusted men and even his brother had suggested Connan wed.
The search for a bride was a quick one and soon enough he had stumbled on the bonny lass from the Highlands clan of Dumfries. Although Alexander had initially refused the proposal, warning to be wary of his younger sister and her knack for causing trouble, Connan had only been intrigued by all he heard.
There’s no lassie that cannae be tamed, he had told the Laird.
“We’re havin’ guests today and I daenae want ye greetin’ them like a weaklin’,” he said in a soft voice as Jasper raised his head to look at him. “Young lairds daenae cry,” he added.
“Aye, papa,” Jasper replied with a nod, and Connan ruffled his hair bringing a smile to his lips before getting up. The boy wiped his face, and Connan walked out of the room beside his younger brother, Jake, heading outside of the building.
It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, and after the rains in the previous week, Connan knew the summer had finally arrived. He loved this time of the year when he could wander the fields around the village alone and bask in the awe-inspiring sunset in the evenings. The entire clan was looking forward to the feast tonight and meeting his bride-to-be, wondering what she would be like. He also could not help but think of her himself.
A beautiful woman with brains, or an annoyin’ one with a sharp tongue?
He didn’t care much for her physical looks as he had no intentions of bedding her, but he cared a lot about her mental ability because his son would learn a lot from her. He wanted a woman to care for Jasper and spend time with him while he was busy.
As if reading his mind, Jake asked. “Do ye ken what yer bride-to-be is like? I always thought if ye would re-marry, it’d be to a bonny lassie from our clan.”
“I never planned to remarry and I’m only doin’ this because Jasper needs to have a maither.”
“What if she’s bonny and ye fall for her?”
“I willnae,” he replied dismissively, and Jake chuckled.
Jake had the same looks as his brother, dark hair with subtle blue eyes and the kind of masculine lean figure that any woman would beg to bed, but he had no woman chasing after him. Connan had seen that the very few women Jake admired seemed to admire Connan instead.
“Instead of worryin’ about my bride, go make sure everythin’ is set for the feast?”
“There’s wine, food, and music. What else do ye need than the company of a sweet bonny woman?” Jake replied, chuckling as they stopped at the entrance of the moors and watching the horses strut toward them.
“Please behave properly in the presence of our guests,” Connan chided and poked his younger brother in the rib before straightening the hem of his kilt and clearing his throat.
The carriage stopped, and the first man to step down was the only one he recognized. Alexander Dumfrie, Laird of the Crieff clan, and his mutual acquaintance. He smiled and extended his hand for a brief shake.
“Good day,” Alexander said and Connan returned the warm smile.
“Laird Crieff, I am pleased to have ye here,” he replied and then released his hand before looking up to watch the doors of the carriage open.
His smile withered when he saw the woman who stepped down, and he turned to Jake who immediately put on a knowing coy smile, then focused back on the woman.
She is nothing like I expected.
She had a slight frown on her face, and her full lips formed a slight pout, but it did not diminish her beauty. Connan took in all her features in one look, and it sent an immediate jolt of excitement through him as his brother’s words flashed in his mind.
She is bonny.
Her hair was the lightest shade of brown he had ever seen, and it was a jumble of massive curls on her head. It complemented the green of her eyes and he couldn’t help but notice her slender neck and the freckles scattered across her pale cheeks.
“Laird Maclaren,” she spoke, and her soft voice captivated him, dragging his attention from her looks. It was gentle but fierce, and Connan immediately admired it. “I’m April Dumfrie,” she added and extended her small hands for a greeting.
Connan took her hands as she curtsied and as their skin touched, he heard her slight intake of breath. Her palms slid into his smoothly, and her soft skin made him warm. He placed a small kiss on the back of her palm and then smiled.
“I’ve heard so much about ye and it’ll be a pleasure to have ye here,” he commented, and she smiled, pulling her hand from his when his touch lingered.
April’s skin tingled where the Laird’s lips touched and a heat warmed her insides, sending a jolt of excitement to her brain.
At least he’s nae an ugly one.
She didn’t like the way his touch made her feel, as he released her and turned back to her brother. She turned to watch her younger sister Sofia exit the carriage, and curtsy to Alexander and then his brother.
“Please come with me, I’d like to personally show ye to yer wing of the castle,” he said, and April looked up at the castle for the first time.
It was much bigger than the Crieff castle she had grown up in, and every inch of it seemed like it was carved out of a child’s imaginary story. The huge stone walls reached high up to the sky, and from where she stood, she could spot the clan’s flag on the top.
April already wanted to get to the top and learn what it would feel like to look down from that height at the lush green fields.
She had ridden in her carriage after long arguments with her brother about her outfit and had finally succumbed to Sofia giving her this stupid outfit.
She hated the color on the dress, but Alexander had said the cream complimented her eyes and would attract any man. April did not crave the attraction of any man, especially when she knew why she was here.
A gift offerin’ in exchange for power from the most powerful Laird in the highlands.
“I’m certain ye’ll love it here, Lady April,” Connan said to her. She rolled her eyes and huffed before replying.
“It’s April. I daenae like to be bothered by titles.”
“Certainly,” he replied, a smug grin on his face, and it irritated her. Ignoring him, she gathered the hem of the dress and walked beside him into the keep.
When they got inside, they all ascended the stairs and walked past the first and second floor, as both Connan and Jake showed them to their chambers. Sofia got the first room on the right of the landing, and a maid was already inside preparing her a bath. Alexander got the next one and she was left standing with Connan and his little brother.
“Do I nae get a chamber?” she asked, and Jake chuckled, making her shoot arrows at him with her stare. Her eyes held onto his and she saw him stare, as though her gaze had pierced right through him.
“We share a chamber from tonight,” Connan replied, and April froze. “It is acceptable for betrothed couples to share here.”
Color rose to her cheeks unexpectedly, but it was not because she enjoyed entertaining the thought of sharing a bed with this man. It was because it was absurd that he thought she would.
“I wouldnae do that, my Laird,” she said and faced him squarely. She raised her chin a notch so the difference in height between them wasn’t so visible even though his frame towered above her.
“I came for yer birthday feast out of respect for yer clan and love for mine, but I daenae intend to share in my brother’s or yer insanity by agreein’ to a marriage of this sort.”
Connan maintained his calm composure, possessing the same grin on his lips as he watched her speak. Her eyes danced around, and she made little hand movements as she rejected him, and for the first time, he felt a stir inside him.
This woman is more than just a bonny one with a sharp tongue. She already intrigues me.
“Ye will change yer mind after tonight,” he replied smugly, and she scoffed.
“Ye’re so sure of yerself, arenae ye? If ye were this cocky, why dinnae ye woo some woman from yer clan? I’m certain the women in yer keep are dyin’ for yer attention and ye could easily get another lassie from a stronger clan to plan yer household.”
“I’m nae interested in beddin’ any other woman,” he said and stepped closer to her.
Both of them were completely unaware that Jake still stood beside them, watching them bicker. His low chuckle made them both turn to his side, and then April cleared her throat and turned back to Connan.
“I willnae wed ye,” she refused again, and he reached out and touched a loose strand of hair tumbling across her forehead instinctively. He let it flow through his fingers before he inched in closer so he could whisper in her ears.
“I doubt that ye will refuse me,” he said and stepped back. “Our chamber is this way,” he added and with a low chuckle walked away from her.
April huffed, and swallowed, raising her hands to her suddenly warm cheeks. His closeness had warmed her unexpectedly, and his outright cockiness annoyed her but at the same time interested her.
She followed behind them and stopped when he stepped in front of a chamber, pushing the doors open. It was the master chamber, with a wide space, and a double-sized mattress dressed in subtle blue linens in its center. She stared at the room, hiding her discomfort at the thought of sharing this chamber with him.
April weighed her options. She could race out of this keep and ignore her brother’s words or she could follow her initial plan and cause a scene during the feast so that Laird Connan would realize she would not make a fine wife for him or mother of his son.
The second seemed the smarter and most likely success, so she faked a smile and swallowed her pride. When he knew what she was really like, he would refuse to wed her himself, she was sure of it.
“Very well. I’ll share a chamber with ye,” she agreed and Connan smiled.
“Then, I’ll see ye at the feast. Aila will attend to ye,” he said, and April saw the maid step into the chamber, holding a pot by her side. She curtsied and hurried away from them. Connan shot April one last look before walking away with his brother.
They weren’t far off from the chambers when Jake whispered to him, “I told ye she’d be bonny,” he said and then burst into a fit of laughter, amused by the scene that had played out before him seconds ago. He shook his head and gave his brother a light pat on the shoulder. “Ye will fall in love with this one.”
The last time April wore a dress, she was forced by her brother to appear pleasant for Samuel’s wedding. That was two years ago, and she had thought it would not happen again, but now she was confined to wearing layers of satin, and bright colors she thought so odd.
Sofia exclaimed and clapped her hands as she stared at her sister’s beautiful form in the pastel rose-colored dress, with hues of green pastel embroidery, and soft patterns. “Ye look stunnin’. I doubt the Laird will be able to keep his eyes off ye.”
“I daenae want his eyes on me, Sofia, I want to leave this place,” April complained and walked away from the mirror in front of her.
Sofia pouted and jumped on the bed, crossing her arms over her chest. “Why? I think it’s beautiful here. We daenae have fields like this in Crieff, and besides, I do think the Laird’s brother is handsome,” she said and sighed, smiling like a love-struck adolescent.
April shook her head and ignored her sister’s comments as she pulled the drapes on the window aside to look outside.
Mullinton was indeed a beautiful place, with high mountains that looked like they could reach the sun, and subtle colors all over the fields. A morning ride in these fields seemed like such a great idea, and April was secretly thankful she had packed her riding trews. Aila, the maid, had finished helping April with her bath and left the two sisters to prepare and talk about the feast while they chose their outfits.
Sofia wore a purple tartan skirt and had pinned the clan’s badge proudly to her side. Her sister had a penchant for fancy dresses, make-up, and hairstyles, but April preferred brawling and duels. She was certain she could challenge the Laird to a duel if he would let her.
Even though her chances of winning were slim, she was certain she could give it her best shot. Her thought of duels made her think of his large frame, and she bit her lip. His height almost made him seem like a giant, but then again, the men here were tall, with shoulders towering high before April’s head.
Her brother’s words flashed in her head, and she bit her lower lip.
‘Nay more un-ladylike behavior, April.’
She turned to Sofia who continued to put her tartan in order. “Do ye think the Laird would find me bonny?”
“Ye’re bonny, April,” she replied and stood up to walk to her. April understood her sister cared about her appearance and wanted to encourage her, but the reason for her question was because she had other plans for the night.
If the Laird did find her pretty, then she had to make sure that notion was removed. He did not have to grace her with his kind thoughts or gestures because she wasn’t some meek woman looking for a true knight to save her. She wanted a man that would listen to her, and Laird of Mullinton did not seem like that man.
“Yer engagement is important to the clan. Alexander says so and he insists that I make sure ye do nothin’ stupid.”
“I daenae intend to marry that man,” she replied and looked outside of the window. Far off from the building, Mullinton men gathered around practicing their sword skills, and she marveled at the uniqueness of how good they looked.
She spotted Connan amongst them, and her breath hitched again in her throat, annoying her that she reacted to him even when she disliked him. For no reason, of course, because she didn’t even know the man. He lunged at his opponent, clashing his sword against his, and using his feet to topple him over.
The other men cheered him, and he raised his fist in the air claiming his quick victory. He picked another opponent and repeated the same act, taking him down before the practice duel could even begin.
Sofia walked to her sister and stood beside her at the window. Her gaze followed her sister’s and rested on the men far off from the castle. They were shirtless, holding their swords tightly as they took stances they had both seen their brother and his men take countless times.
“They’re handsome,” Sofia squealed, and April agreed, drowning her eyes in the sight of male beauty but deliberately avoiding Connan’s form on the field.
Practicing sword fights and stances was a common thing back in Crieff too, but she did not enjoy watching those men as much as this because she had known them her entire life. None of them made her jittery, not like when she had first seen the Laird.
She sighed and let her gaze linger one last time on the tall, sweaty male bodies, and then turned to Sofia.
“The feast is startin’ soon, and I’d like ye to help me with somethin’,” she said to her.
“What is it?” Sofia asked, interested in her sister’s request, but scared of the grin that crept on her lips.
April knew that Sofia admired her, but Sofia never did anything un-ladylike because she feared their father’s wrath. So asking for Sofia’s help would be a difficult one. When their father passed away in an accident, Sofia had been devastated. As she was already a trained lady, she had mourned properly and attended a funeral dressed in black tartan skirts and the clan’s badge.
April, however, had arrived at the funeral grounds late, with her boots covered in mud because she had spent the morning riding in the moors to clear her head and let out her grief. She could never forget the disappointment that flooded her because she had lost her chance to bid her final farewell.
“Before ye ask, please make the Laird introduce me to his brother,” Sofia begged, and April burst into a fit of laughter.
“Very well. But now ye’ll need to do somethin’ for me in return.”
April grinned as she thought of her plan and concluded that by the time the night was over, the Laird of Mullinton would be completely uninterested in wedding her forever.
She would be free.
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