About the book
"If allowing myself to love her brought me danger, then so be it…”
After her father’s money runs out, Meredith Quinn has to do what a dutiful daughter should: marry a man she doesn’t want. Her marriage of convenience helps her parents, but that’s not the only silver lining: her husband is the most handsome Highlander she has ever met. Even though he looks ready to murder her.
Laird Ryder Higgins’ reputation as cruel does not come lightly. After he lost his entire family by murder, he realizes he knows only one thing: trust no one. But his sweet new wife doesn’t stop talking, and he wants to shut her up in more ways than one…
He intimidates anyone but her. Ryder cannot understand how this kind creature came to be his, but he starts believing in miracles. Yet, he can’t protect her from everything. Her father’s castle burns to the ground, and Meredith is devastated to lose her family home. With no roof over their head, her family comes to live with them. But the problems don’t stop…
Was the fire truly a mistake? Or is there someone behind it all?
The dusty mirror hanging from the wall of Meredith’s chamber needed a good cleaning.
It was a strange thing to be focusing on when she was just about to meet the man she would most likely marry, she thought, but, nevertheless, she raised one hand and swiped it across the cloudy glass, revealing her own pale face and green eyes staring anxiously back at her.
Meredith turned quickly away. She was nervous enough at the thought of meeting the Laird of Millar – or her betrothed, as she supposed she should try to start thinking of him –– she did not need to be reminded of the fact that soon he, too, would be looking upon her face, and deciding whether she was fit to be his betrothed.
Betrothed. The word felt strange on Meredith’s tongue as she whispered it to herself, daring herself to speak aloud the truth she had been hiding from these past few days when she’d gone about her life as usual, almost as if that life were not about to change.
“Are ye ready, Meredith? Here’s here!”
The door burst open to admit her younger sister Melissa, her face alight with excitement as she almost danced across the room to where Meredith was standing, willing herself to move.
“Wait ‘til ye see him, Meredith!” Melissa gabbled as she looked critically at her sister, reaching out to straighten the collar of her blouse. “Felix and I hid in the gallery to watch him arrive, and he’s exactly as we imagined him! Exactly!”
Meredith couldn’t help smiling at her sister’s enthusiasm.
“Exactly?” she teased. “So, the Laird of Millar is, indeed, as tall as a bear and with the teeth to match, then? But a bit less hairy, I would hope?”
Melissa grinned back at her, unperturbed.
“He is quite hairy,” she said, thoughtfully. “At least, the hair on his head looked very thick and quite long. I couldnae see the rest for his clothes, more’s the pity!”
Meredith gasped in mock horror and pushed her sister away.
“Ye better nae let Ma and Pa hear ye talking like that,” she said sternly, “Ye’ll have them in an early grave!”
All the same, as she turned back towards the mirror, in a bid to put an end to this inappropriate turn the conversation had taken, she had to admit, her curiosity was piqued.
Her parents were good, decent people. She knew they would never give her hand to a man they knew to be cruel, and yet… and yet everything she’d ever heard about the Laird of Millar spoke to the contrary. He was a warrior. A good one, true –– or so rumor had it –– but also a hard and unforgiving one, who had killed his own father in a murderous rage.
The most dangerous Laird in Scotland was not a man you would want to find yourself on the wrong side of, in other words, and Meredith, who had been fortunate to only have known kindness in the course of her short life, felt her stomach clench with nerves at the prospect of meeting this man. And meeting him with the intention of marrying him, at that.
“If ye dinnae believe me, ye can always come and see for yerself,” Melissa suggested, her hand on the door of the chamber. “Maybe if ye have a quick look at him before ye go down, it’ll help settle yer nerves?”
Meredith considered this proposition thoughtfully. Of course, she would marry the Laird regardless of his appearance or character. Her mind was already made up on that. It was, after all, the only thing her parents had ever asked of her. The only thing she could do to help them out of their present difficulty. So she would marry for love after all, but the love of her family, rather than of her betrothed.
Her parents did not want to sell their lands any more than she wanted to marry this stranger, with his fearsome reputation. But what choice did any of them have?
The Great Hall of the castle that was the only home Meredith had ever known sat at the center of the building, surrounded by a wide gallery, from which it was possible to look down upon the occupants of the hall. Having grown up here, Meredith knew all its secrets, including the one spot in the gallery that was completely hidden from the view of those below.
The gallery was lit only by candles, set at intervals along its length, and it took Meredith’s eyes a few seconds to adjust to the relative gloom. When they did, she risked a glance down at the room below, almost gasping aloud at what she saw.
The man seated before her parents was certainly fearsome –– that much was true. The storytellers who’d passed through the castle had not lied when they’d spoken of his tall stature and muscular form, of the dangerous glint in one black eye, or even of the patch he wore over the other, a lasting reminder of the battle in which he’d lost it.
They had not, however, mentioned how, when you put all of these parts together, the result was, quite simply, the most handsome man Meredith had ever seen. A man who, even in the simple act of raising his whisky to his lips, displayed the kind of muscles that put the sleeves of his jacket under considerable strain.
Meredith’s mind whirled. She had not expected to like this man at all, let alone to like him in the way she already feared she did. But would he like her in return? Her face flushed, and her heart hammering, she stood up, leaving her hiding place in the gallery, and holding her back straight and her head high as she walked quickly towards the stairs that led down to the Great Hall, with a confidence she did not feel.
There was only one way to find out.
“Did ye have a long way to travel, Me Laird?” Meredith’s mother was saying as Meredith crept silently down the wide staircase, not wanting them to see her too soon. “I believe ye said Millar Castle is a fair way from here?”
“Aye.” His voice was low and rather rough, almost as if he wasn’t used to using it too often, and Meredith could tell by its tone that the speaker would have preferred to have just stopped right there, with no further explanation necessary. Apparently realizing that a one-word answer might not be deemed quite polite, however, the Laird valiantly had another go.
“It is a full day’s ride from here,” he said, “depending on how fast ye travel. I daenae mind the journey, though. It gives me time to think.”
Quite what it was that he needed so much time to think about, however, must forever remain a mystery, for he stopped abruptly, as if he’d reached the limit of the polite conversation available to him.
“And ye made the journey all by yerself?” Meredith’s father asked now, taking up the burden of the conversation as his wife shot him a grateful glance, clearly at a loss as to how to proceed with a man who seemed to prefer to sit in uncomfortable silence. “I notice ye daenae have a manservant with ye, or anyone at all to help ye on yer way?”
“Nay,” the Laird responded, with a quick shake of the head. “Nae servants. I prefer the solitude. I enjoy the silence of the forest without mindless chatter from servants to fill it.”
Still on the stairs, Meredith stifled the giggle that had risen up in her throat. The silence the Laird professed to love so much had now settled on the room, and no one seemed quite aware how to break it until her father gave it one last go.
“And nae guards, either?” he asked cautiously. “I’d have thought a man yerself would be ever wary of attack?”
“I’m aware that me reputation precedes me,” the Laird replied curtly. “But I can assure ye, sir, I can look after meself - and anyone else who travels with me. Yer daughter will be quite safe with me. Assuming she wishes to return wi’ me, that is.”
“Aye, aye, of course, I dinnae mean…” Meredith’s father started to say, but Meredith chose this moment to clear her throat loudly, thus drawing everyone’s attention to her and saving her poor father from the embarrassment she felt sure he must be feeling.
She paused at the bottom of the stairs, suddenly afraid to walk any further. The Laird had risen automatically to his feet as she approached, but as she risked a quick look at his brooding face, she noticed with dismay that he looked anything but pleased to see her.
The scowl on his face was enough to scare the dead, and it only deepened as she took a few faltering steps towards him, barely hearing her father’s voice as he made the introductions. The Laird was not, it appeared, pleased with his future wife, a fact that was written all over his rough-hewn face and glinted dangerously from his one remaining eye.
Meredith’s heart sank. She had already made her mind up to accept him, but now it seemed only too clear the choice would not be hers to make. Still, there was nothing to be done, so, straightening her shoulders once more, she flashed him her widest smile and held out her hand obediently, feeling a start of surprise when he bent over it and pressed it to his lips. His reputation might be that of a rogue and a warrior, but at least he has the manners of a gentleman, she thought, taking a seat opposite him and looking up at him curiously. The man was a conundrum, and it was a puzzle she already knew she would very much like to solve.
This is a mistake, thought Ryder Higgins, as he sat squeezed into an uncomfortably small chair in the drafty Great Hall of the castle, the seat of the Quinn clan –– the eldest daughter of which he had somehow allowed himself to be persuaded to marry.
A huge mistake.
How had he allowed it to happen, though? It was true he wanted the land they offered. Their clan, too, might not be the strongest in Scotland, but it was amongst the oldest. An alliance with the Quinns would do much to repair his reputation, damaged as it was by his father’s cruelty and recklessness, as well as by the unfortunate business with the old Laird of Moore.
As he sat sipping politely –– or, at least as politely as he was able –– on the whisky his hosts offered him, though, Ryder could not shake the notion that this arrangement was all wrong. Wrong for him, and, no doubt, wrong for the unfortunate lass who was destined to be his bride. For who, after all, could love a man such as him when his heart was hardened to the point that he could offer no such affection in return?
No, he would not do it, he decided. It felt too much like taking advantage of these people, their kindness, and desperation. And their daughter, a voice in his head reminded him. Yes, that too.
By the time a quiet footfall on the stairs behind him alerted him to his future bride’s arrival, Ryder’s mind was entirely made up. He would greet the lass politely, and then he would make his excuses and leave. They would be disappointed, he knew, or, at least, the parents would be. The lass herself would most likely be relieved to be freed of her obligation to him, especially once she’d managed to get a good look at him.
Most women found him intimidating –– frightening, even. It was the eye patch, he supposed. Or the scars, perhaps. Or even just the reputation that preceded him everywhere he went. The warrior. The father-killer. The man who was never far from a fight. It was who he was, and he would not change. The woman he married would have to accept this, and that, he suspected, was something very few would.
No, he would not go through with this, he decided, even though it would presumably leave the family whose hospitality he was currently availing himself of in dire straits. So, placing his whisky on the table before him, he rose to his feet –– and turned to face a woman unlike any he had seen before.
On the face of it, there was nothing particularly unusual about Meredith Quinn’s appearance. Black hair, green eyes, pale skin… all very pleasant, of course, but it was her smile that made him stop in his tracks, with a sharp intake of breath. Women very rarely smiled at Ryder Higgins.
No one did, in fact. But this Meredith was not only smiling at him, almost as if she did not notice the many flaws in his features, but it was also the kind of smile that could stop the world from spinning on its axis, a smile he could scarce believe was actually being directed at him.
“Me Laird, me daughter, Meredith,” Edward Quinn was saying, but Ryder barely heard him as he stepped forward to kiss the small white hand she offered, noticing as he did how perfectly formed she was. Her voluptuous figure was modestly draped in a dark green skirt, with a matching bodice laced over a white blouse.
It was the kind of outfit worn by any lady of her class, but, in Meredith’s case, the green was such a perfect match for the color of her eyes, and her curves so barely contained by the tight bodice that, for a moment he felt almost as if she must be some kind of witch, sent to tempt him. She was not slim, but she was so perfectly made, with womanly curves lurking dangerously underneath the folds of her dress, that he found it hard to look away. She might be curvier than most women, but that made Ryder even more interested, as she was exactly to his taste and everything he admired in a woman.
“I’m pleased to make yer acquaintance, Me Laird,” she said, sweeping her skirts to one side as she took her seat and fixed those dark green eyes upon him, not even flinching or dropping her gaze when he simply scowled in response.
This is dangerous, Ryder thought, sitting back down and throwing the rest of his whisky back in one gulp, nodding curtly when his host offered him another. Very, very dangerous. The fact was, Ryder did not want a wife.
Yes, he had been willing to accept one, even just a few hours ago, as he rode towards Castle Millar, utterly unprepared for what he’d find inside. He had been willing to take on a marriage of convenience, to take a wife in exchange for money, land, and the respectability that had never been his, no matter how great his prowess on the battlefield.
But could he really go through with it, he wondered now, as Melissa and Felix, Meredith's younger siblings, joined them in the Great Hall, the girl staring with open curiosity at the patch on his eye, while her brother resolutely refused to look at him at all. Ryder resisted the sudden impulse to wink at Melissa with his one remaining eye just to see her reaction.
“How did ye do that, Me Laird?” Melissa asked as soon as the introductions were made, and she was free to speak. “It must have been very terrible, I expect.”
“Melissa!” her mother exclaimed, horrified, but Ryder raised a hand to silence her.
“It’s nay bother, I daenae mind,” he assured her, before turning to the daughter, who was still watching him, totally unabashed. “It was a wild bear,” he said solemnly. “I fought it off and killed it, but not before it managed to take out my eye.”
“A bear! Really?” Melissa’s own eyes widened in delighted shock. Ryder could have sworn he heard a low chuckle from Meredith’s direction, but before he could turn to acknowledge her, the boy — Felix — had jumped in.
“Daenae be so stupid,” he told his sister roughly. “There are nae bears in Scotland, ye should ken that. He’s naught but a liar!”
There was a single moment’s silence before Meredith’s father got to his feet, his face stern.
“That's enough from ye, Felix,” he said firmly. “I willnae tolerate that kind of language to either yer sister or our guest. Ye will go to yer chamber for the rest of the evening.”
He turned to Ryder as Felix stomped off out of the room, barely managing to resist the impulse to slam the door behind him.
“I hope ye’ll accept me apologies, Me Laird,” he said, his face serious. “He can be a difficult lad, Felix. He disnae ken what he says.”
“All young lads can be difficult,” Ryder replied, brushing aside the apology. “I would ken! Please, daenae trouble yerself about his behavior. I assure ye, there's nae offense taken.”
Meredith's father nodded, but as he re-filled Ryder’s glass, the Laird could tell the older couple were still embarrassed by their son's behavior. And not just in case it reflected poorly on them, he realized, but because their concern for him appeared genuine. They did not want him to be hurt by Felix's words, and Ryder felt himself smiling at this despite of himself, for there had been so many things — serious things — in his life that had damaged him that it was hard to imagine how a young lad's words could possibly make an impact.
As Meredith’s parents continued to fuss around him, though, he smiled again. He was unused to having people show a real interest in him, much less care for his comfort or well-being, and, with their quiet warmth, the Quinns were slowly starting to win him over.
“Something funny?” Meredith asked, from the seat beside him, seeing his smile. Ryder froze at the sound of her voice. Other than their introduction, she had not yet addressed him directly. He had resolutely refused to look in her direction, scared of having the same reaction he'd had the first time he'd looked into those green eyes of hers — a reaction he just could not allow himself.
“Nay,” he said curtly, seeing her face fall as his tone. “Just enjoying me whisky.”
He turned quickly back to her father, asking some banal question about the farms on his property to extract himself from the expectation that he speak to the daughter any longer. She’d said just two words to him, and yet it had made the blood rush to his head like a lovesick lad. It would not do. He must find some way to extricate himself from this arrangement before it went any further.
Of course, there was still time, he reminded himself, taking another deep sip of his whisky and feeling its warmth spread through his body, almost –– but not quite –– reaching the coldness of his heart. This was still the betrothal phase, a time when, according to Highland custom, he would take Meredith to his home, to Millar Castle and… he knew not what would happen next, only that, were one of them to decide to break it off, they could, with no harm done.
But the harm has already been done, he thought, watching silently as Meredith chattered easily away, giving every appearance of being completely comfortable in his company. The harm was done as soon as she walked down the stone stairs and into his life; he just wasn’t sure whether or not she realized it yet.
The morning was cold but clear, the kind of weather that made the mountains to the east of the castle stand out in sharp relief against the cobalt blue sky. It was Meredith’s favorite kind of morning, the kind that carried the promise of frost but also of adventure – a new start waiting somewhere beyond that far-off horizon.
Neither the morning nor the weather appeared to please the Laird. Indeed, Meredith was starting to wonder if anything ever did. So far he’d simply grunted in response to her cheerful “Good morning!”, and although he’d recovered his manners enough to bid farewell to her family as they assembled at the castle gate to see her on her way, and had even had sensibility enough to avert his eye as she sobbed in her mother’s arms, he had yet to utter another word as they turned their horses north, and started towards Castle Millar.
A man of few words, thought Meredith, enjoying the feeling of the autumn breeze in her hair. Well, no matter; she had words enough for both of them, and she would not allow Ryder’s black mood – which seemed to be the only mood he had – to ruin her excitement as she embarked upon this, the longest journey she had ever taken.
“It’s a fine morning for a ride,” she called, raising her voice so he could hear her from his position a few feet in front of her. “Such beautiful weather, daenae ye think?”
Nothing. His back stiffened slightly, telling her that he had, at least, heard her, but there was no response to her question. Determined not to be beaten, she sat a little straighter in her saddle and tried again.
“Daenae ye just love this crisp, clear weather?” she asked, her voice trembling slightly in spite of herself. “It’s me favorite kind! Winter is too cold, and summer brings the midges, of course, but this! This is just perfect, isnae it?”
Still nothing. Meredith clicked her tongue in irritation. Was he really going to refuse to even converse with her all the way to his castle? That would not just be rude; it would be intolerable. This was not, after all, merely a pleasure excursion, after which she would return home to her family. Sighing deeply, she raised her face to the sky, feeling the weak sunlight on her skin and smiling at the sensation, allowing herself to forget, for a moment at least, the uncomfortable silence that had fallen between them.
Ryder spent half of his life on horseback; in fact, it sometimes seemed to him that riding came more naturally to him than walking. Today, though, he shifted uncomfortably in the saddle, every nerve in his body reminding him of the woman riding behind him. The woman who seemed sure she would one day be his wife. His jaw clenched in irritation. Ryder had never feared anyone in his life – with the notable exception of his father, of course. That, however, had been when he was but a lad; as soon as he was old enough, he had put paid to the old man’s abuse, and, since then, he had feared nothing and no one. They, however, had feared him, which made Meredith Quinn all the more of an enigma.
Meredith did not fear him. That much was clear from the easy way in which she chattered on and from the way she looked him in the eye, refusing to drop her gaze, even when he simply deepened his frown in return. He could not understand her. By rights, she should be afraid of him – perhaps more than anyone, given the power a husband could wield over a wife. Yet, she did not.
He, however, was both surprised and confused to find himself very much afraid of her, not in a physical sense, of course – there was no woman alive who could beat Ryder Higgins in a battle of strength – but rather in the effect she had on him. He didn’t like it. Or rather, he did like it – too much, in fact. Which was why, when the lass had the temerity to draw her horse level with his, turning those damned green eyes, fringed with their jet-black lashes, upon him, Ryder simply stared resolutely ahead, refusing to return her gaze.
“What a long way we seem to have come already,” she said, not appearing to notice his silence.
Ryder grunted in response. He was being childish, he knew, but he refused to give her the satisfaction of drawing a single word out of him.
“Is it far? To Castle Millar, I mean? Oh, I wish ye would tell me something about it! Is it large? Comfortable? Are there mountains, or is it near the sea? I’ve never been to the sea, and I would so like to! Have ye ever been sailing?”
Despite himself, Ryder turned his head to glance in her direction, astonished at this barrage of questions.
“Aye,” he said, at last, choosing to answer the first and the easiest. “It’s a day’s ride at least. Ye’d do well to save some of yer energy for the journey.”
Be silent was what he meant by that. Stop talking, and let me think about something other than the sound of your voice and the way you look at me when you’re waiting for an answer.
But Meredith, unable to read his mind – and, he suspected, probably unwilling to comply, even if she could – continued talking, apparently untroubled by his monosyllabic answers and curt nods of the head. The lady would apparently do exactly as she pleased, it seemed. Ryder was not at all sure quite what to make of that.
As they crunched on through the trees, their horses’ hooves muffled by the deep layer of autumn leaves underfoot, Ryder suddenly became aware of a lull in the one-sided conversation. Meredith’s horse had fallen back in line with his some minutes earlier, and, as he turned in the saddle, curious to know the reason for her sudden silence, he saw that it had stopped altogether – and not only that, but Meredith appeared to be entirely absent from the saddle.
Cursing softly under his breath, he pulled his own steed to halt, seeing as he did so that she had dismounted and was crouched by the side of the road, deep in conversation with a child so small that Ryder hadn’t even noticed him standing there as he’d ridden by. Ryder glanced warily around, instinctively distrusting the situation.
He had not brought any guards with him on his journey to collect his betrothed, not thinking it necessary – he knew these lands well enough. And those who inhabited them knew him well enough, if only by reputation, to know to stay well away from him, and cause no trouble, for it would not end well for them.
“How d’ye do, sweetheart?” Meredith was saying, kneeling down in the fallen leaves so she was at eye level with the boy. “What brings ye to be out here on yer own? Is there nobody with ye?”
“Nay, miss.” The child shook his head shyly. Meredith glanced around, looking for some clue where he had come from. “I’m lost.”
“Lost? Well, that willnae do,” she exclaimed, reaching out to take him by the hand. “D’ye know where ye live? Daenae ye worry, we’ll make sure ye get home safely, willnae we, Ryder? Ryder?”
Ignoring Meredith’s words, Ryder gazed into the depths of the forest behind her. He was starting to wonder if his confidence in traveling like this, without guards, had been misplaced. Something was amiss here. He could feel it. And, whatever it was, he needed to get Meredith as far away from it as possible.
“Meredith!” he barked out, his harsh voice causing the birds to fly suddenly from the trees above his head, their flapping wings momentarily the only sound. “Meredith, get back on yer horse; ye cannae be stoppin’ to talk to everyone ye see!”
“Och, it’s just a wee lad,” she replied, turning wide, tear-filled eyes upon him. The child –– presumably lost, although Ryder personally had his doubts about that –– had clearly touched her soft heart with his plight. This was going to be harder to manage than he had thought.
Ryder had just swung one leg over the horse’s head, preparing to dismount, when he saw them. Two men had appeared from the forest behind where Meredith stood, their eyes so intent upon her that they seemed not to have noticed her companion, a mistake they would surely regret, he thought grimly, as he slid silently from the saddle. This was the oldest trick in the book. The bait and switch, whereby a crying child persuaded a kind –– typically female – passerby to stop and help, only to be set upon by the men, whose swords he could see glinting in the shade of the trees.
Ryder was fast, but the men were faster, and, before he knew quite what had happened, one of them had grabbed Meredith around the waist, one hand holding her hard against his body as his other snaked up beneath her skirt.
"Hush, woman," he growled, as she screamed in fright, her eyes wide with terror. "Ye better shut up, or I'll make ye!”
Meredith fell silent, her breath coming in loud gasps.
“Aye,” the man called to his companion, who was still keeping watch at the edge of the tree line. “She'll make a fine wench, so she will. Nice and plump, just the way we like ‘em!”
They were to be the last words he ever spoke. Barely had they left his mouth than Ryder was upon him, a roar of fury escaping his throat. This was not as he had planned. As soon as he had realized what was happening, the level-headed part of him that usually dominated had formed the intention to creep quietly up behind the pair and kill them before they even knew what had happened. But the anger that tore through him when he saw their eyes upon Meredith was so pure and so strong that it surprised even him. They would not take her from him; he would make sure of that.
The fight that ensued was short but brutal. Ryder spared the miscreants no mercy as he slashed furiously at their bodies, allowing rage to dictate his actions, as he swung the sword again and again. The first man was dead within seconds, his mouth frozen in a round ‘O’ of horror. The second fought on for a few minutes longer, but it was clear that he was more used to taking on unsuspecting women than men such as Ryder Higgins, and, before too many seconds had passed, he too lay amongst the now bloodstained leaves.
The child, however, was still out there. Glancing swiftly around him and catching a glimpse of one pale limb disappearing into the darkness of the forest, Ryder raised his sword to give chase, only to be brought up short by Meredith, her voice shaking as she grabbed him by the sleeve, clinging on his arm.
“Nay, Ryder, please,” she pleaded. “He’s just a bairn. It’s nae his fault. Let me help him, please!”
She made to turn and run after the boy, but Ryder gave a roar of fury and, before she could even try to stop him, had turned and scooped her up, carrying her firmly back to the horses, which had, mercifully, waited obediently where he’d left them. He would let her have her wish regarding the child. He would not harm him. But he’d be damned if he was actually going to allow her to help the wee shite who had almost lured her to her death. If he hadn’t been there...
Not wanting to continue the thought, Ryder threw Meredith back into her saddle, trying his best to ignore the way her soft body felt as he held it against his.
“Ye’ll sit there, and ye’ll do as I say,” he told her. Then, noticing the glint in her eye as she turned around to look in the direction the boy had fled, he turned and strode quickly over to his own horse, returning with a length of rope, which he coiled tightly around her wrists, ignoring her yelp of protest as he got back onto his horse, one end of the rope wrapped firmly around his hand.
“Just to be sure,” he said, urging the horse forward. “If I cannae trust ye nae to leave that saddle, or talk to any strange bairn ye happen upon, then this is the way it’ll have to be.”
He spoke angrily, his heart still hammering wildly from the fury that had filled his body when he’d seen the two men creeping up on her. He had not intended to care about her, but he did not seem to have a choice in the matter, and his scowl deepened as he looked back to see a small smile playing around the corners of her pink lips.
“What are ye laughing at?” he demanded, over his shoulder. He did not particularly want to engage her in conversation, but the woman was infuriating. To have taken such a foolhardy risk was one thing, but to be actually amused by his anger… Ryder had never known anything like it.
“Well?” he said, turning again in the saddle. “I’m waiting?”
“I’m sorry,” Meredith gasped, a small laugh escaping her lips. “I know it’s nae funny. It’s just, ye look so amusing when yer angry, I can’t help myself. Do ye ever laugh at things you’re nae supposed to? Because I do, all the time. In fact…”
She launched into a story about how her brother, Felix, had once fallen from a tree and knocked himself unconscious. Rather than wailing in horror, like her sister Melissa had when they’d finally been ushered in to his chamber to see him, Meredith had found herself unable to stifle her laughter at the sight of his shocked face upon the pillow.
“It’s nae that I didnae care, or thought it was funny,” she finished, thoughtfully. “I was as scared as Melissa was, in truth; I just seem to react to it differently. Do ye ken what I mean?”
Ryder stared resolutely ahead, refusing to answer her. He couldn’t believe the temerity of the lass. She was going to be a handful, to be sure, and it was better that he nipped her behavior in the bud right now before they went even one step further.
“Ye need to be careful,” he said, pulling his horse to a stop and turning to face her. “Yer behavior has consequences. Consequences ye willnae like.”
His single eye glinted dangerously, but she simply smiled back at him, as if challenging him in some way – to what, he did not know.
“Back there –” he nodded in the direction they had come. “Ye could’ve been killed. Ye could’ve got us both killed, for that matter.”
Meredith nodded solemnly.
“I know,” she said, her eyes downcast. “And I will nae do it again, I promise.”
Ryder clicked to his horse to walk on, placated. That had been easier than he’d thought.
“I daenae think ye’re quite right about possibly getting us both killed, though,” her voice said from behind him. “Me, maybe. But ye? The great warrior, Ryder Higgins, famed throughout Scotland? Oh nay, I daenae think anyone would dare try to kill ye.”
Her tone was arch. She was toying with him, Ryder realized in astonishment. Making fun of him, even. She had just watched him kill two men, without even pausing for thought, and yet here she was, playfully sparring with him. He frowned, hardly able to believe the sauce of the lass.
“Quiet,” he said curtly, not wanting her to know how discomfited he felt. “Ye need to learn to be quiet.”
But Meredith simply shrugged, her black curls tumbling over her shoulders and lifting slightly in the breeze as she urged her horse level with his once more.
“Is that right?” she asked calmly, looking him in the eye. “Well, I’m sorry to say it, sir, but if ye wanted a quiet bride, ye’ve picked the wrong woman.”
Ryder looked at her incredulously, resisting the sudden impulse to return her smile. He had a feeling she was right – and that perhaps he did not want a quiet wife after all.
The Laird of Millar may have lived up to Meredith’s expectations – in terms of his appearance, at least – but his castle, unfortunately, did not.
“Is... is this it?” she asked in dismay as their horses carried them under the arched doorway, leading into a central courtyard, buzzing with people. Even from the outside, the castle looked as if it had been leeched of all color, with nothing left but grey tones. Everywhere she looked, grey stone gave way to grey cobbles, which led to grey stone stairs, leading up to a wooden door, which looked in need of a good clean. Even the late afternoon sky was grey, leaden with rainclouds and darkening by the second in the quickly fading daylight.
“Is it nae to yer ladyship’s liking?” Ryder snorted, jumping down from his horse and coming, at last, to untie her hands as a small boy ran towards them to take the horses. Meredith shifted uneasily in the saddle, uncomfortably aware of the many eyes upon her – eyes which, she knew, would also have mouths attached. Mouths which would, no doubt, take great delight in spreading the news that the Laird of Millar had returned from his travels with his betrothed tied up like a captive – or a savage.
Meredith felt her face flush in embarrassment. This was not exactly how she had hoped to start her life as mistress of this castle, she thought, ignoring the hand Ryder offered her as she jumped down herself.
“Nay matter,” she chirped, looking him in the eye. “It looks a bit... unloved, I suppose, but it just needs a woman’s touch, that’s all. So, it’s a good thing I’m here.”
The castle wasn’t the only thing in need of a woman’s touch, she thought, as she followed Ryder through the door she’d noticed earlier and into a dimly lit entrance hall. By the look of him, he could be doing with that himself; maybe it would help soften him up a little. Meredith flushed again, surprising herself with the unusually brazen thought, and thanking her stars that the narrow spiral staircase he now led her up was too dark for him to notice – not that he was looking at her, anyway.
“I’ll take ye straight to yer chamber, so ye can rest,” he said curtly over his shoulder. “I’ve matters I must attend to before bed.”
“And leave me there alone?”
For the first time, Meredith felt a shiver of fear run through her. The corridors they passed through were dark and dank, with an unpleasant, moldy smell that made her want to press her handkerchief to her nose. She knew the Laird to be a man of considerable means, but you would not know it to look at the place he called home. “Home,” however, would be a poor choice of words for this... this place. It was as cold and unwelcoming as a villain’s lair, and, as the shadows around them deepened, Meredith found herself shrinking closer to Ryder, shivering involuntarily.
“Of course, on yer own; ye can hardly expect me to stay with ye,” he said, appearing not to notice her fear. “Do ye want me to sit and braid your hair like a lass?”
“Indeed nae, I’ve already learned to keep me expectations low,” Meredith shot back before she could stop herself. “I realize that whatever business ye have must be far more pressing than making your future wife welcome, but it would’ve been nice to have been introduced to some of the staff, at the very least. If I’m to be mistress here, they should at least know who I am!”
“Och, they’ll know who ye are,” Ryder replied grimly, stopping in front of a chamber door, which he pushed open as he spoke. “It would be hard for them to have missed ye.”
His eye swept quickly over her, and then he was inside the room, taking the lamp he carried with them. Meredith took a deep breath, then quickly followed him before the shadows in the corridor swallowed her up.
The bedchamber was every bit as austere as what little she’d seen of the rest of the castle, with no furniture but for the bed itself, a small wooden table and chair pushed into the corner and an ancient wardrobe which Meredith already knew she’d hesitate to open, for fear of what lay inside. Thick curtains covered the only window, and Meredith hurried to pull them back to admit what was left of the light, regretting her decision as a cloud of dust rose up from the worn fabric, threatening to choke her.
“It’s lovely, thank ye,” she said blandly, determined not to give the Laird any further reason to smirk at her. “When will dinner be served?”
Ryder looked at her in amusement. “I’ll have a tray brought up along with yer things,” he told her, taking his lamp over to the table to light hers. “I willnae have time to dine with ye tonight, I’m afraid.”
“Nay, I daenae suppose ye will,” Meredith sighed, perching on the end of the bed and trying not to think about how hard it felt. “What is this business of yers that’s so important, anyway?”
Ryder’s face darkened.
“Man’s business,” he told her abruptly. “All of the business that comes with running an estate and being a Laird…”
“…and fighting?” Meredith added, looking at him directly. “I know ye do a lot of that. Or so I’ve heard, anyway.”
“Aye, maybe I do,” he replied. “Fightin’ to keep people safe. There’s a lot of people depend on me to do that, not just those who dwell here in the castle, but many beyond its walls, too – the rest o’ the clan, the people who live off the land attached to Millar Castle, and who need to be protected.”
“And me?” she asked softly, allowing the words to hang in the air as he considered how to reply. “Even me?”
“I do me duty to everyone under me protection,” he said at last. “Even ye.”
Turning quickly, as if regretting the softness of his final words, he opened the chamber door and stepped into the darkness beyond it. “I’ll have yer things sent up,” he said. “Ye’ll have plenty of time to unpack.”
And then he was gone.
Ryder closed the chamber door firmly behind him, then stood outside it for a few seconds, needing time to think before he descended back into the main part of the castle. She was rattled, he could tell. Oh, she had tried to act brave, as if nothing troubled her, but it was clear from the way she’d crept closer to him on her walk through the castle and the question she’d asked about whether he’d protect her that Millar Castle had not felt any more homely to Meredith than it ever had to Ryder himself.
He had not deliberately allowed the castle to fall into disrepair or to feel as cold and joyless as it no doubt did to a woman used to a comfortable family home. It was simply that he had never loved it, which meant he had never cared enough to make it any more than the empty shell it was. A strong roof and a set of sturdy stone walls, that was all he needed.
But, as he paced the empty stone corridors now, he couldn’t help but notice that it was perhaps not the most welcoming place to bring a new bride, whether he was legally married to her or not. Maybe Meredith was right about the castle needing a woman’s touch.
A frown crossed his face at the thought of Meredith and her touch. This would not do. He had been pleased to realize the castle scared her, he reminded himself. He did not, after all, want a wife, and bringing her to so inhospitable a place was an excellent way to make sure he didn’t end up with one in spite of himself. But as he stepped back out into the courtyard, scanning the area for someone he could charge with the duty of taking Meredith’s belongings to her, he realized he was lying to himself.
He had liked the way she shrank closer to him. He liked being the person she turned to for protection. He did not, however, like these feelings she was inspiring in him, so, giving his head a quick shake, as if to free it from her, he marched quickly over to Matthew, his estate steward, who he’d just spotted on the other side of the courtyard. He would busy himself with matters of importance and put Meredith out of his mind for now, he decided; if, indeed, it was even possible.
Once Meredith’s small number of belongings had been delivered to her chamber and carefully unpacked, the room looked ever so slightly better. Meredith had taken her time over the task, draping some of her more colorful shawls around the room in an attempt to bring a little color to the drab greyness that seemed to prevail everywhere in this place. But, now that she was done, there was little else to occupy her.
“Where is the tray of food Ryder had promised me?” she wondered, drumming her heels impatiently against the end of the bed she sat on. Must she go and fetch it herself, as well as unpacking her own clothes? It seemed she must, so, without allowing herself time to reconsider the bold move, Meredith quickly took the candle from the table and stepped out into the gloom of the corridor.
This had been a bad decision, she realized, almost as soon as she left the safety of her chamber. The corridors Ryder had strode down so confidently were a veritable maze to one as unaccustomed to them as Meredith, and it took only a few short minutes for her to become hopelessly lost.
“Nay matter,” she muttered to herself, turning down yet another corridor that seemed to have appeared from nowhere. “I just have to find the staircase, then I’ll at least be able to get down to the ground floor, where there will surely be someone who can help me find me way back to me chamber. The stairs have to be here somewhere, after all...”
With that, the candle she was carrying abruptly spluttered out, the flame extinguished by a rogue draft that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Her heart hammering, Meredith broke into a run, rounding another corner in the darkness and screaming in fright as she ran straight into a small but solid form, coming in the opposite direction.
“Ow! Get off, demon!” the figure squealed angrily. “Leave me be!”
Meredith gasped in fear – then felt her whole body relax as the shadowy shape in front of her raised a lamp to its face, revealing a small girl, not much younger than Meredith herself.
“I beg yer pardon,” she said, smiling. “I seem to be lost. I’m Meredith. What’s yer name?”
“Ellen.” The girl before her scowled, still annoyed at having been almost knocked off her feet, but her expression changed to shock and then embarrassment as she realized who she was speaking to.
“Meredith? Ye… ye mean the woman his Lairdship is bringing to be his bride?”
Ellen gulped in horror, then dropped into a quick curtsey. “Beg pardon, m’lady,” she said. “I thought ye were a ghost!”
“I thought the same about ye,” Meredith laughed, liking the girl immediately, despite their poor start. “I was just about to scream for help when I realized ye were but a girl!”
“I’m sixteen!” Ellen retorted. “Well, fifteen and three-quarters.”
“Very mature, I’m sure,” Meredith said gravely. “Well, Ellen, now that we’ve met, I daenae suppose ye can help me find me way back to me chamber, do ye? I was looking for some food, but I’ve become so lost I fear if I daenae go back soon, I’ll probably be out here all night.”
“Oh, I can do better than that,” Ellen replied, giving a smile that lit up her freckled face. “I can take ye back to your chamber and bring ye something good to eat. I know where cook keeps all the best stuff!”
“Well, then, I’m fortunate indeed to have bumped into ye, then,” Meredith said warmly, linking arms with the girl. “Now, lead the way!”
The castle’s kitchen was easily the most welcoming room in the building, with a cheerful fire burning in the grate and delicious smells wafting through the warm air. Everywhere Meredith looked, scullery maids rushed to and fro, all under the watchful eye of the cook, Mrs. MacDonald. A short woman with a headful of white hair, and the kind of figure that suggested she was in the habit of sampling her own food just a little too often.
“Ye, lass!” she barked as Ellen led Meredith into the room. “Give me that pot over there — and hurry up wi’ it, I daenae have all day!”
Surprised and more than a little bit scared by the woman’s harsh order, Meredith turned obediently to fetch the pot the woman indicated, only to be stopped in her tracks by a low, rumbling chuckle from the cook.
“Och, I wasnae talking to ye,” she said, reaching up to mop at her brow. “I ken better than to start giving out orders to the new mistress o’ the castle. Or so I assume, at least? I was talking to this one.”
She pointed at a small scullery maid, who appeared from behind Meredith, struggling under the weight of the heavy pot.
“Here, let me help ye with that,” she said, starting forward, but the cook got there first.
“Indeed she will not,” she said firmly, pulling out a chair at the long wooden table that occupied the center of the room. “I’ll not have the lady o’ the house working in me kitchen! Ye sit yerself here, and I'll get ye a bowl of broth; I daenae expect his Lairdship has troubled himself to make sure ye have something to eat?”
Meredith shook her head as she sank gratefully into the seat offered.
“He did say he’d arrange for something to be sent up,” she said, not wishing to appear disloyal to Ryder in front of his staff. “But... well, I suppose he must have forgotten. Lucky for me that I met Ellen here.”
“Och, aye, that one’s always turning up like a bad penny,” Cook said, rolling her eyes in the direction of the maid, who simply grinned back at her as she went to help pour the thick broth into a bowl for her mistress. “Ye can take some for herself too,” she said, her voice softer. “I daenae expect ye’ll have had much to eat, have ye?”
Meredith sat at the table and watched the exchange with interest. For all the cook’s sharp words and rough manners, it was clear that there was a good heart lurking somewhere underneath, and Meredith liked her for it already.
“As for his Lairdship,” the woman was saying now, as she energetically kneaded a lump of dough for tomorrow’s bread, “I’m sure he did forget; only his Lairdship could forget to feed the new bride he’s brought to his castle. But daenae ye fret, me lovely, we’ll look after ye here!”
Ellen underlined these words by placing a full bowl of broth in front of her, and Meredith tucked in enthusiastically. “This is so good,” she mumbled through a mouthful of food. “So, so good!”
“I like a lass who enjoys her grub,” Cook said, nodding approvingly. “And his Lairdship does too, I happen to know.”
“Why, has he brought other brides here before, then?" Meredith asked, her eyes wide. She spoke in jest, of course, but she nevertheless felt relieved as the Cook chuckled loudly in response, amused at the very idea.
“Nay,” she answered at last. “Ye’re the first. And the last, I’ll be bound, for if there’s one thing I ken about his Lairdship, it’s that he's loyal as the day is long. Once he’s made up his mind about something, there’s nae changing it."
Meredith would’ve described that as stubbornness rather than loyalty, but she let it go, curious to know more.
“I’m not actually sure he has made his mind up — about me, I mean,” she said ruefully, taking another spoonful of broth. “He daenae really speak much, does he?”
The older woman chuckled again.
“Ye’ll get used to that," she said, handing Meredith some bread to mop up her broth with. “And he’ll get used to ye, too, for that matter.”
“Have ye kent him for a long time, then?” Meredith asked, eager to speak to someone who knew him better than she did — not that it would be hard, mind you.
“Only since he became the Laird,” Mrs. MacDonald told her. “I came here after the old Laird — his faither — was gone, so I’ve only kent him as a man, not as a boy, more’s the pity. Maybe if I’d got me hands on him earlier, he’d have manners enough to look after his bride a bit better.”
“Och, I’m fine,” Meredith protested, getting up from the table. She was disappointed not to have learned more about Ryder, but pleased to at least have found some friendly faces in this strange place; it would certainly make her life that little bit easier. “At least I ken where the food is now," she smiled. “So I’ll be able to come and help meself next time I’m hungry."
“That ye willnae,” Mrs. MacDonald tutted, turning to Ellen, who stood behind her, awaiting her next orders. “Never let it be said that a single soul in Millar Castle ever has to go lookin’ for their supper. I’ll get Ellen to carry some more back upstairs wi’ ye, so ye can eat it in yer chamber.”
A few minutes later, Meredith was safely ensconced in her chamber once more, only this time with a roaring fire in the grate, courtesy of Ellen, and another tray of broth and fresh bread in front of her. The inhabitants of this castle may be woefully unprepared to receive visitors, but at least she wasn't going to starve.
“Ma and Da dinnae want me to come to work here,” Ellen was telling her now, as she gave the fire another vigorous poke. “They’d heard too many tales of the auld Laird and his ways with the maids, and they dinnae want me to end up the same way. He was a bit too free with his hands as well as his affections, if ye know what I mean.”
Meredith nodded slowly, her eyes on the girl.
“And the current Laird?” she prompted softly. “Is he the same way?”
“Och, nay!” Ellen grinned up at her, showing a row of crooked yellow teeth. “That yin’s bark’s worse than his bite. That’s nae to say his bite isnae bad enough, mind ye, but he’s nae a cruel man, or an unfair one like his Da was. I still wouldnae want to marry him, though – rather ye than me – but he isnae so bad. There are far worse masters, and far worse husbands too, I’ll be bound.”
Meredith continued to eat her broth as the girl chattered on. She was relieved to know Ryder was considered a decent master by his servants. “Remember,” her father had told her more than once, “ye can tell a lot about a man by how he treats those who he considers beneath him.”
It was something she had always taken to heart, but while she was pleased to hear that the Laird would at least meet her expectations in that regard, she still found it hard to think of him as a husband. He may not be cruel to her, true, but it was hard to imagine him ever being tender, either, and, for a moment, she found herself almost envying Ellen, who would never have to make the decision Meredith had, and marry a man she barely knew.
“That was delicious, Ellen, thank ye,” she said, putting down her spoon and looking imploringly at the maid. “In fact, I don’t suppose ye’d be kind enough to go back down to the kitchen and fetch me some more, would you?”
No sooner had the words left her lips, however, there was a commotion outside the chamber door, which suddenly banged open to reveal Ryder himself, his face filled with fury.
“What’s this I’m told about ye wandering the castle on yer own?” he demanded, storming into the room and making Meredith shrink back in her seat in alarm. “Ye’re the talk of the castle, woman! Meredith Quinn, wandering the castle like a ghost and giving the maidservants palpitations! What did ye think ye were doing?”
Meredith threw a swift glance at Ellen, who had leaped to her feet at her master’s entrance, and was now staring determinedly at the floor, the strings of her aprons twisted in her hands.
“I… I’m sorry, m’lady,” Ellen said, at last, still refusing to meet Meredith’s glance. “I mentioned how ye almost knocked me off me feet when I was speakin' with the scullery maid, and I suppose she must have passed on the story once we’d left the kitchen.”
“News travels fast, I see,” said Meredith drily. Then, her voice softer, “It’s all right, Ellen, you’re nae in trouble. But I’d be very much obliged if ye could go and fetch me that broth now.”
Grateful to be excused, Ellen swiftly left the room, giving Ryder a wide berth as she did so.
“Well,” he growled impatiently as the door closed behind the maid. “Do I have to ask ye twice? What were ye thinking, creeping around the place without so much as a by-your-leave?”
“I do beg yer pardon, sir,” Meredith said stiffly, drawing herself up to her full height, inconsiderable though it was, “But I had nay idea that I was to be a prisoner in me room. Am I to understand that I may nae leave without yer lairdship’s express permission, then?”
“Aye,” said Ryder after a moment’s hesitation. Then, apparently reconsidering, “I mean… nay. I don’t mean for ye to be a prisoner, that is. But ye cannae just wander where ye will. These corridors are dark and uneven. Ye could hurt yerself, or someone else, as ye apparently discovered with yer carelessness!”
“But no one was harmed,” Meredith countered calmly, refusing to allow the spark of anger that his words had kindled in her to take light. “Indeed, quite the opposite, for I made myself a fine new friend. Two, in fact.”
“A friend, is it?” Ryder was incredulous. “The maidservant isnae yer ‘friend,’ lass. And the servants aren’t here to sit nattering by the fire for yer entertainment. That’s nae what I pay them for. I’ll be having words with that girl when I find her!”
“Indeed ye willnae,” Meredith replied, her green eyes flashing in anger. “Ellen was merely doing as I bid her, and if I’m to be the mistress of this castle –– ” she raised an eyebrow to silence the objection she could sense on the tip of his tongue, “then I should be free to ask her to do as I wish. Perhaps if ye’d provided me with some food and warmth, as ye promised, I wouldnae have had to take matters into me own hands. So, nay, sir, ye will nae take Ellen to task, I willnae stand for it.”
She glared at him, doing her best to look imposing in spite of her small stature.
“In fact,” she continued, as inspiration struck, “I think I’ll take Ellen as me personal maid from now on, if it pleases ye. I’ve rather taken a liking to her.”
Ryder stared at her for a second, dumbstruck. Had she been a man, he would have struck her for her impertinence. But here she stood before him, a woman — and one who was very much at his mercy, despite all of her attempts to seem brave. It was almost intolerable.
“Dammit, woman,” he spat out at last. “Do ye really think ye can come into me castle – me home – and tell me what to do in it and how to run it?”
Meredith smiled suddenly – a broad, sunny smile that Ryder almost found himself returning in spite of himself.
“Aye,” she said simply, her voice low. “Aye, I do think that. What did ye think a wife would do, yer Lairdship?”
Again, she turned those wide, innocent eyes upon him, and again he hesitated, not knowing how to respond. There were several roles he had expected his wife might perform for him, he had to admit. It was just that none of them were ones he felt able to explain to her then and there, and none of them had involved him being so thoroughly scolded by her, within mere hours of her arrival.
As no response seemed appropriate to her last question, Ryder took the only option remaining to him, turning quickly on his heel and leaving the room, slamming the door behind him in an impotent gesture of outrage.
A few minutes later, however, the door opened once more, and Ellen’s head poked around it, her smile wide on her freckled face.
“Ye’ll never guess who I just bumped into in the hallway,” she said cheerfully, carrying another bowl of broth into the room and setting it carefully on the table. “It was his Lairdship! And he tells me I’m to be yer new maid, m’lady! What d’ye think o’ that?”
Meredith smiled as she took up the broth and warmed her hands on the bowl. Perhaps Ellen was right, she thought, bringing it to her lips and blowing softly to cool it. Maybe his bark was worse than his bite after all.
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