About the book
She painted his soul, when everyone was looking at his scars…
Ambitious artist Aysel MacKormack must find the funds to save her father from his illness. And the perfect opportunity presents itself when she is commissioned to paint the portrait of the reclusive Laird of McPhee. A portrait that just might prove the hardest task she’s ever undertaken, when she sees the scar marring his face.
Aptly nicknamed the “Dragon Laird” for always staying in his castle, Stephan Barclay has lived in self-imposed exile for years. Until a woman with sunshine in her smile breaks through the carefully constructed walls around his heart and rekindles his passion.
When Stephan nearly perishes on Aysel’s doorstep after an ambush, he must climb through the dungeons to get his life back. Navigating his way through years of deceit, the truth of Aysel’s heritage lies in the day he got his scar. A heritage painted in her blood...
The Land of Clan McPhee
Aysel McKormack could not get her color green right. She had mixed and mixed, adding in crushed leaves as well as earth, and it was still not quite what she wanted. She sighed and set down her clay jar and paintbrush. Today was simply not her day. She left her small front room where she did her painting, to get a breath of fresh air and escape from the heavy fog that was hanging over her mind lately.
Once she stepped out into the garden from the cottage, she took a deep breath of the cool fall air. She knew that winter would be on its way soon, and she needed to paint more if she was going to bring in enough money to survive through the cold months. Her father, Nikolas, had been ill for many weeks now and could no longer accompany her as she traveled to paint portraits and whatever anyone wanted, as long as they would pay.
Aysel’s green eyes were fixed on the puffy, white clouds scudding across the sky. A moment out in the green countryside was enough to chase her worries away, at least most of them. She had been worried ever since her father had taken ill. It was lasting longer than any of his illnesses had lasted before, and now she feared she would soon be left alone in the world.
“Miss!” A young boy called as he ran past, his red curls fiery and wild. He came up to her knees, and Aysel knelt down to his height.
“Martin! A good afternoon to ye. And where are ye rushing to this fine day, laddie?”
“’Tis a letter for ye, Miss! I was runnin’ by the post wagon, and I said I would deliver it to ye!” He stood proudly, poking his thumb into his chest.
Aysel smiled. “Why, that is a very important job, lad. I am most appreciative of it.” He beamed under her praise.
“Who will it be from?” His eyes were wide and eager. She remembered what it was like as a child, to think everything was an adventure and that excitement lurked around every corner.
Aysel played along. She slid her finger under the seal of the letter and said, “Perhaps it could be a faraway Prince asking to marry me?”
Martin’s mouth opened. “Would ye accept him if he did ask? Would ye leave us forever?”
Aysel stood up and rubbed her hand in his curls. “Certainly nae, Martin. I wouldnae even think of such a horrible thing. What would I dae in a faraway land away from everyone I love?”
Martin looked relieved. Aysel looked down at the seal, and her heart began to race. In her attempt to joke with the young boy, she hadn’t seen the symbol of clan McPhee sealed in red wax on the front.
“Aysel, are ye all right? Ye have gone pale, ye have.”
Aysel’s heart fluttered. “Nae, Martin. Nae to worry. ‘Tis only a bit of surprise, that is all. Now ye run along and tell yer Faither what a wonderful job ye did deliverin’ the letter to me.”
Martin nodded his curly head, and satisfied with his duty, rushed off down the lane. Aysel took the letter inside, trembling a little, wondering why the Laird of the McPhee clan would deign to write her a letter. It was not as if they were acquainted in any way, even though she was a member of the clan and resided on his land. She, herself, had honestly never laid eyes on the man before.
No one had seen him in years, and he had become almost an imaginary figure. There were discussions of a spurned lover from another clan, and he could no longer bear to converse with the outside world. Some said it was about disfigurement from battle. Many said he was too ugly to show his face and now looked merely like an imp, needing others to carry out his duties in his place.
There were also the superstitious few who believed the man was a mere ghost, not existing at all after dying in battle years before, but the mother was too heartbroken to declare his death. Aysel opened the letter and with trepidation filling her heart, began to read.
I would like to commission Aysel McKormack to paint a portrait of me for the Great Hall of McPhee Castle. The family will be paid handsomely for the work. Please arrive tomorrow at noon to discuss the details and begin.
Laird McPhee, Stephan Barclay
Aysel laid the letter down. Her mouth hung open in surprise and pleasure. Never had she expected to be offered such an appointment as to paint a portrait of the Laird of one of the strongest clans in Scotland, her own clan. She wasn’t sure what to think, and she swallowed slowly, trying to gather her thoughts. Her excitement was mixed with nervousness as well. Surely she wasn’t quite yet skilled enough to paint so important a personage.
“Faither!” she yelled out, knowing that he would be happy to hear the news, even though he was taking his afternoon rest. She ran through the house and up the stairs, knocking furiously at his door. “Faither, I ken ye are resting, but ye will want to hear this news. I can scarcely believe it myself!
After a few moments, a groggy voice answered, “Come in,” and Aysel pushed inside. In her hurry to get upstairs, a few strands of her golden hair had flung out of their ties, and they now framed her excited face as she stood over her father’s bed, clutching the letter in her hand.
“Faither, ye will never believe what I have to tell ye! I have just received a letter from Laird McPhee himself, asking me to come and paint his portrait! Can ye believe it, Faither? It is just like ye many years before!” She handed the paper to him and helped him to sit up in bed, placing pillows behind his back so that he was comfortable.
She sat on the edge of the bed, staring at his face, hoping he would be just as excited as she was. Nikolas McKormack was still recovering from the last remnants of sleep as he clutched the paper and squinted his eyes to read. In a moment, his face brightened.
“Why, lass, what an appointment ye have gotten for yerself! And ye were worried about the winter. I told ye, ye were skilled enough to receive such an invitation!”
Aysel’s smile was wide. She reached out and held tightly to her father’s arm. “It couldn’ae have been without ye, Faither. I never dreamed that I would be able to gain such an honor as ye have. But what about ye? Will ye nae accompany me? I am afeared that I will be all atremble in the Laird’s presence. Ye ken the stories they tell of him. And if I should fail, where would we be?” She could feel tears suddenly prick at her eyes, but she knew she needed to be strong for her father.
Nikolas’ voice was calm, and his eyes sparkled with kindness as he stared at Aysel. “Ye will be perfect, me love, me treasure. Yer skill far surpasses mine in the world of painting, and it is time ye come to realize it. Go with confidence and courage into the Laird’s house. He will be proud of the work ye do.”
Aysel looked down at her hands, relaxing under the compliments from her father. He had always encouraged her in her work, ever since he’d begun to teach her ten years before. She had never dreamed of becoming a full-fledged painter one day, but now, here she was, on the cusp of going to the Laird’s castle, just as he had gone many years before, to paint the old Laird.
“Aye, Faither. So I shall. I shall make ye proud.”
“Dinnae trouble yerself about that, daughter. Ye already do.”
Aysel smiled and leaned forward to kiss her father on the forehead. Leaning back, she could see the toll the illness was taking on him, and it saddened her heart. He was slipping away from her, and her heart ached at the thought. His hair was growing thinner and whiter, and new lines had grown around his eyes, making him appear much older than his five-and-fifty years.
“Ye are the best Faither a lass could ask for, ye ken?” She squeezed his hand, trying not to let tears fall.
She noticed a flash of something in her father’s expression, something akin to pain, but it was gone as soon as it had appeared. She said softly, “I think it time I leave ye to rest. Will ye be all right without me, Faither? I will leave tomorrow morning as soon as I am able and fresh paints are mixed and ready.”
His voice was tired when he said, “Aye, lass. Ye may tell Mrs. Dowd next door that ye are gone. She will look after me well enough, I am sure. Ye shall see yer Uncle Ramsey there, as well, at the castle. Give him greetings from me.”
Aysel nodded but had no intention of sending any sort of greetings. Her uncle had not visited them since her father became ill, even though she had sent him many letters. As a matter of fact, he had not made many visits at all, enjoying the status his position supplied to him, and preferring to leave them be. It was as if he cared not for his brother at all. But Aysel pushed aside her resentment and whispered, “Rest now, Faither. Wish me luck.”
“Ye dinnae need it,” Nikolas said, but he was snoring softly even before Aysel was able to get out of the room.
Clutching the Laird’s letter like a good luck talisman, she returned to her workroom and began to collect her painting tools into her leather bag, starting to daydream about what tomorrow would be like.
Martin would certainly approve of the adventure she imagined would be happening to her. She thought about the tales that had begun to spread about the Laird. She liked to imagine him as a dragon, hiding far away in his lair, hoarding his treasures. She laughed at the thought of a dragon writing her a letter asking for a portrait, but she couldn’t help the image. Strangely, it made him seem a little less formidable, since he was more like a prisoner in her mind, than a powerful Laird.
Her uncle, Ramsey McKormack, had been assistant to the Laird for years. He had helped the elder Laird until the man died, and now he was assisting the son. Aysel wasn’t quite sure how old the son was, but again, in her mind’s eye, she imagined him old and bitter as he hid away from the masses, sending out her uncle and others to do the work that he chose not to do.
Hoping she would not cause offense, despite her secret thoughts of the Laird, she carefully packed the rest of her painting tools, so that all would be ready come morn. Once dawn broke, she would hurry to the woods to gather supplies and make as many fresh colors as possible before she rode to the castle. Hopefully, the dragon laird did not wish to use green.
Mist clung to the tree trunks in the forest as Aysel gathered what she needed. Red earth, bark, moss, beetles, and more were placed in her bag as she calculated the colors most often used. It would just be the first session of many, and so after today she would be able to tell what she needed next.
The forest in the morning was like a fairyland, covered in mist that hid and revealed in a slow-moving dance. She loved the way everything smelled. It was all so fresh and cool; it gave her hope for a new day. Once she’d gathered everything she needed, she hurried back to her cottage, keeping an eye on the sun.
Aysel shivered as she began to grind the different ingredients to create her colors. She was well-practiced at it, but she hated that she needed to make new colors each day, or else they would dry and separate, and the painting would become a dripping or crusted mess on the canvas. After she made five different ones, she packed them away neatly in her bag, wrapped her plaid around her, tucking it into the belt around her waist, and tiptoed upstairs.
She wanted one last look at her father before she left, just to make sure he was at least sleeping peacefully. She had spoken to Mrs. Dowd yesterday, and she knew the older woman would be diligent in keeping an eye on her father. Once she spied his chest rising and falling steadily, she breathed a sigh of relief.
Closing the door quietly, she hurried to the stable in the back of the house, where she and her father shared the mare which they used to travel to different appointments. She would take the cart today, and it took some time to harness the horse and attach her to the cart.
To pass the time and to try to assuage her nerves, Aysel spoke to the horse as she often did. “Teine, we have a big job to do, ye ken. Ye shall find yerself dining in the stable of the Laird while I am to paint him.”
Teine whinnied in response as if pleased with her new, albeit brief, rise in station. “Aye, it should be an interesting time, indeed.” Finally tightening the last leather strap, Aysel climbed into the cart with her bag and clicked to Teine to start the journey towards the far gray castle in the mist.
Even though she was certain the Laird was a mortal human, the castle’s appearance did little to dissuade people from the idea of his rather mysterious and perhaps mystical existence or lack thereof. Morning mist curled around its edges, and it looked very much like a dragon lair, indeed.
The sun was nearing the center of the sky, and it made Aysel’s heart race. She could not be late if she was to do her duty properly. The man had asked for her specifically; she could not bring dishonor to that appointment by arriving late like a common countrywoman.
He might wish to choose another painter if so, and that she could not bear. While she was surprised to have been requested, she was also thrilled that she would be doing the same job her father had done. She truly was following in his footsteps.
Keeping her eyes fixed on the road ahead and attempting to repeat the principles her father had tried to instill in her since childhood, Aysel steadily rode towards McPhee Castle and the next adventure. The steady beat of Teine’s footsteps helped to calm her frenzied mind.
In an hour, she arrived, and once she was right in front of it, the castle was much bigger than she’d expected. She had to crane her neck to look up to the battlements. They rose high, nearly into the clouds it seemed, and men were stationed along the top parts of it, looking over the lands below. A man took the horse and cart from her, and then she was brought through the castle door, clutching her bag tightly to try to give her some sort of comfort.
Her mouth was open and her eyes wide as she took in everything around her. If she had thought the façade of the castle was impressive, the inside was even more so. It was not every Scot that had the opportunity to see inside of their Laird’s castle. While she and her father were not wealthy by any means, they were certainly not as poor as the many farmers that speckled McPhee land, working every day to bring food to the table.
She thought that she had traveled widely in her life, but the fact that she had never seen something so grand as this sobered her. She was suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude that she had been given such a chance. Her life thus far had been working for small landowners who owned modest homes, but now it was as though she was living inside of a fantasy. Everything was richly furnished from the chairs to the tables to the walls.
Large paintings with golden frames hung on the wall. Coats of arms and silver weapons were peppered in amongst them, all hanging from strong walls of gray stone. A giant hearth was at the center of one of the walls, and inside, a fire was crackling gaily. It cast light and heat that filled the entire room. Aysel was grateful as her ride had sent a chill through her bones.
She felt completely out of place in this castle and shifted awkwardly on her feet. She swallowed nervously as a well-looking older woman approached her and interrupted her observation of her surroundings. Her hair was dark, but Aysel could begin to see streaks of gray poking through. She stood tall and proud, and Aysel was not surprised to see her countenance amongst the grandness of the surroundings. She was certainly the head of the house, and what a grand house it was.
“Aysel? Aysel McKormack?” The woman’s voice was clear and strong, like a bell, and it made Aysel push her shoulders back and take a deep breath before replying.
“Aye, madam. I am Aysel. I have received word from the Laird to come to create the painting.”
The woman clasped her hands and nodded, her lips tightening into a smile. “Excellent. I am Mrs. Catriona Owen, and I have long been awaiting this day. Yer Faither, Nikolas, has nae accompanied ye?” The woman’s face looked a little concerned, and for a moment, Aysel let her confidence falter. What if there was some misunderstanding, and she would be sent away? Each moment that passed, Aysel became more worried, and it seemed that Mrs. Owen’s expression grew more and more disapproving.
Aysel set her jaw, remembering her father’s words, and finally found her voice to reply.
“Nay, ma’am. He is ill of late, but he is confident that I shall do well enough. The letter has asked for me by name.”
“I see. I remember yer Faither well, when he was commissioned to do the painting of me own late husband. It is a pity he could nae come, but ye will most definitely have to do. Come.” She motioned sharply with her arm and began to walk determinedly towards the far end of the Great Hall. Aysel made sure to stay just a few steps behind her.
“The Laird, me son, awaits ye in his study. This request for a portrait has been a long time in the making, and I trust that ye shall treat it with the utmost importance.” Mrs. Owen turned to her briefly and gave her a scrutinizing look. Aysel tensed but nodded furiously.
“Good. Now, we wish to have this portrait, so that an image of me son can hang amongst his ancestors in the hall. It is the custom. He plans never to marry, and so the Lairdship will pass to me second son by me second husband. I wish to have a portrait to remember him by once the lairdship passes. He may wish to send the title down sooner rather than later.”
Mrs. Owen spoke about this inevitability as if she was discussing the planting of potatoes. Aysel frowned, thinking it a little odd that the mother of the Laird should show no real remorse that her first son wished to pass down the Lairdship to another and possibly before his own death!
The man was now shrouded in even more mystery, and Aysel became more anxious to meet the man. She would have to be sure to tell Martin exactly what she had seen. At the far end of the hall, they entered a dim hallway and took a turn to the left. At the end of that corridor, Mrs. Owen paused in front of the doorway and clasped her hands again in front of her.
She lowered her voice to a whisper. “I am certain ye have heard many tales of me son.” Aysel could see her emotion in the way she swallowed slowly. Aysel did not reply, and Mrs. Owen continued. “He has been a bit reclusive in the past years, but that has nothin’ to do with what he feels for his people. My son has been through much. I hope that we can rely upon yer respect and discretion in regards to this matter?”
Aysel’s whole body tingled with curiosity. She clutched tightly to her leather bag. She wondered what could be so terrible that she would need to use respect and discretion. “Of course, madam. I am only here to do the painting, nothin’ more.” Catriona watched her for a moment, and Aysel got the feeling the woman was testing whether or not she was genuine.
Finally, Catriona smiled a little. “Thank ye. Please enter and begin. After a few hours, a servant will bring ye a meal. I understand the painting will take a few days.”
Catriona motioned to the door in front of her, and as Aysel stepped forward, Mrs. Owen walked away. Before opening it, Aysel took another deep breath, and then turned the knob. She did not realize that Catriona was watching her from afar, wondering whether she had made a proper selection in a painter.
The room was darker than the Hall, but in a few moments, Aysel’s eyes became accustomed to it, and she stepped further inside, wondering if this was truly the best place for a portrait. “Laird McPhee?” she asked, spotting a tall figure standing against one wall, the shoulders broad and strong.
So he is not a dragon after all.
She could tell that his hair was dark, and it was tied at the base of his neck. She wondered why he hadn’t yet turned to greet her. “Aysel McKormack? Ye come alone?” His voice was deep and smooth. It was the voice of a handsome man, she could tell. Her curiosity was growing to an uncomfortable level. What could have kept the man away from society? He was no imp, and he was most certainly not a ghost. He looked in perfect health, and in fact very well-formed, at least from her view.
Aysel tried to keep the trembling from her voice. She squinted her eyes in hope that he would not send her away. “Aye, sir, but I hope that will be acceptable.”
He turned around, and at the sight of his face, Aysel dropped her bag of painting supplies to the floor. Aysel could not believe her stupidity. For a second, her mouth just opened like an imbecile, and after blinking her eyes in surprise a few times, she knelt down to gather her bag. “Forgive me, sir. I am awfully clumsy.” She cast her eyes down to collect the contents, a few of which had spilled out onto the floor.
Good Lord, he will never keep me now! I could not have been more rude!
The Laird said nothing, and Aysel closed her eyes, sending up a silent prayer, hoping that he would not immediately cast her out for her explicit rudeness. Once she stood up again, she could get a full view of his face, and she realized that what had scared her initially was the mystery of it. Now that it was revealed, she was surprised at what she saw but not afraid. He was a young man, far younger than she would have ever expected. He was only a few years older than she.
His face was strong, his jaw chiseled, and he was, in fact, quite handsome. His nose was perfectly straight, and he had lovely green eyes that sparkled out from underneath dark brows. But now she knew why the stories had been told and why the man was so loath to appear in public. A long, deep scar began from the top of the left side of his head and down almost to his chin. It had just missed his lips by a fraction of a centimeter, and so his mouth was perfectly in order.
Some of the rumors had been true, at least. It was a disfigurement but nothing that many in the area had not seen before. The men who had gone off to battle returned with scars, missing limbs, or other new features they had not planned on. If she was being honest, a facial scar was not the worst thing that she’d seen. As far as she could tell, all of the Laird’s body parts were in place, and she had to admit, they were rather lovely. Strong, lean, and muscled.
His expression was unreadable for a moment, but then he said, “I do hope yer clumsiness doesn’ae apply to yer painting, lass.” Aysel blinked in surprise as she tried to take in his words. Why, the man was joking with her. This mystery man, with the scarred face, and the dragon reputation, was actually making a joke!
She chuckled nervously and set her bag upon the table. “Ye can rely upon me, sir. Me clumsiness only applies to me social abilities. I assure ye me painting is skilled.” Aysel still had trouble meeting his eyes directly because his own gaze was strong and unwavering. She attempted to flit her eyes up to him every so often.
He watched her for another moment, his eyes seeming to rove all over her. Strangely, Aysel felt warm under this inspection, but not in a frightening way. It was more of a lovely, pleasurable way. He replied, “Good. Let us begin, then.”
She nodded, coughing to try to push aside her girlish thoughts that were beginning to bubble inside of her. Never in a thousand years would she have expected the elusive man to be handsome, certainly not this handsome, and watching her as if he was watching an interesting experiment take place.
Standing to her right was a lovely wooden easel with a large, white canvas. She smiled as she finally noticed it, her blush subsiding. “Sir, the canvas is absolutely lovely. I have never had such beautiful tools. ‘Twill be a good portrait, ye can be sure.”
“I do hope so, or else my Mither will be very displeased.”
There was that joking voice again! His expression would remain the same, but in his voice there was a slight lilt of sarcasm and humor. It was a little disconcerting but still comical. She smiled in return for lack of anything to say in reply. Pulling a chair to the front of the canvas, she began to remove her tools from the bag.
Her concentration had been so focused on her work, that she did not notice the Laird preparing himself to be painted. Once she returned her eyes to him to let him know where he should sit, she gasped a little at the sight of a mask, covering the portion of his face that was scarred. She wasn’t sure if she should say anything. She had already embarrassed herself enough thus far, and clearly he was not divulging any information.
“Shall we?” He said in that deep, smooth voice of his, and Aysel nodded wordlessly, pointing to the chair that was near the window.
“I think here would be perfect. Once I have begun, we can discuss what kind of background ye would prefer. We could put a landscape or even add in any weapons that ye would like.”
Taking out a bit of charcoal, Aysel bit her lip and squinted her eyes as she took in his form, trying to translate it to the blank page. She always preferred to sketch her figures beforehand, if only slightly, to give herself a guide for where to begin. She could also tell which of the angles were working and which were not.
The Laird was silent, and Aysel found that the quietness was soothing, albeit a bit distracting, for his sharp green eyes continued to watch her movements, and it made her skin tingle. Not once had she been given the opportunity to capture an image so handsome, with such strong lines for features. There had been beautiful women she’d painted before with their fat, ugly husbands, but it was not a woman who was making her breath catch in her chest every time she glanced up to see him watching her.
Stephan had been wary of inviting an outsider into the castle for a portrait, but his mother had vehemently insisted, and he got tired of arguing with her. She wanted desperately to make sure he followed in the ancestor’s footsteps and had a portrait made to hang in the hall. Her younger son, Bhaltair, would do the same, when the time was right for him to take the lairdship.
He had become even more wary, once he heard the painter’s light, yet sensual voice, introducing herself to him when his back was turned. After that voice, he needed to see the face that came with it, and when he did so, it happened just as it always happened. The lass got scared at the sight of him and dropped her bag. It made him tense. It didn’t matter that people recoiling from him had happened so often; it still stung, and he had to swallow back the pain and the rage of so many years.
However, to his surprise and delight, she did not question him about the scar, and she merely got on with her work. That instantly intrigued him, for no one before that he’d met in recent years was able to resist asking him how he had obtained the ugly scar across his face, the sign that his life was ruined.
The woman was tense and nervous at first, and it entertained him, but he noticed that she’d begun to relax, if ever so slightly, after he made a few jokes. When she smiled at his words, Stephen was struck by her beauty. Hers was not the obvious kind that one would find at Court in England, with seductresses for miles, but it was a soft, gentle beauty that grew with each second he looked at her.
He found that he couldn’t take his gaze away. Her hair was golden, and it held its brightness even in the dimness of his study. Her eyes were like two gemstones, green and bright, and he felt lucky every time she honored him with a look. Perhaps his mother had been right to have him select the McKormack family. He had expected an old man as well as the daughter, but to have the daughter alone, was not a terrible price to pay. All he had to do was sit there and let her watch him, while he watched her.
He cleared his throat, enjoying the silence, but suddenly found himself curious to know more about her. Ramsey had told him a few things, but the man was always reticent to talk about his family or anything personal. “Yer Uncle tells me that ye and yer Faither are the finest painters in the clan. That is why I selected ye tae come.”
The young woman blushed becomingly under his compliment. “I am happy to hear that me Uncle has so highly recommended us, but I must give all credit of me skill to my Faither. He is the one who taught me and nurtured my abilities.”
A bonny and a humble lass? What an odd combination.
Ramsey had admitted that the daughter was much better than the father ever had been, and it was the first time the man had deigned to really say anything kind about anyone. He couldn’t quite imagine the familial connection Ramsey and this kind beauty had. Around her, he oddly felt like a schoolboy, as his palms began to sweat, and he tried to think of what to say next. “Ye are Aysel, correct?”
“Aye,” she said calmly, and then returned to biting her lip and focusing on the canvas in front of her.
“I am Stephan Barclay, but I am certain ye ken that already.”
“I should hope I ken the name of me Laird, or else I wouldnae be a very good Scot. And it was mentioned in the letter, of course, sir.” Pausing a little, Aysel added, “I am most honored by yer appointment. I shall do my utmost to make the portrait a success.”
“As ye can understand, by the wretchedness of my appearance, lass, I have nay interest in viewing the picture myself. I hope to hang it high enough that it would be an effort to raise my eyes up to it.” He chuckled. “That way, my Mither will be satisfied, and I will nae have to look upon my own visage every day as I wander the Hall.”
Stephan was impressed that she still did not question him about his looks. She said, “I have many clients that commission paintings for others to have, but of course there are the few that wish to hang the picture proudly in their home, even though it is of themselves. I cannae decide which of these actions I find to be stranger.” She laughed to herself, a light, melodic sound that lifted Stephan’s heart and made him think of sunny days, spring flowers, and the babbling brook in the forest nearby.
He laughed, too, for her merriment made him feel merry as well. She sat back for a moment, staring at the work in front of her. Part of him itched to see what she was doing, but then another part of him did not want to know. How would she portray him? He had not told his mother about his plan to wear a mask, and he was grateful that Aysel had not mentioned it or asked him to remove it.
She sighed. “I suppose it is because I couldn’ae imagine someone painting my own portrait, and so I ken I would never have to decide what to do with it.”
Stephan was surprised. Any painter worth their salt would desire to paint such a bonny lass and keep an image of her on the wall. Before he could stop the words from leaving his mouth, he uttered, “But of course people would want to paint ye, lass. Ye are as bonny as they come!” Once he said it, he wished he could jump out of the window to escape or at least leave the room. Instead, his only option was to remain silent, waiting painfully for her reply.
He could see a light flush cover her cheeks. His mind was moving quickly, but it could not grasp a suitable addition to his statement. She did not say anything for quite a while, but then replied, “The sketching is done, Laird, and so now I will begin to add paint. I hope ye ken that the painting will last a few days at least, if nae a few weeks. I want to make sure that it is correct. Ye must also make sure the painting is pleasing to ye, and to ye Mither, of course.”
Excitement spread through Stephan’s limbs as he pondered that image. Aysel coming every day for a few hours to paint him, and he able to look upon her beauty and enjoy her intriguing nature.
“Of course, lass. That will be nay trouble.”
“Excellent.” He could hear the light sound of a brush on the canvas, and it filled the room instead of words for a few moments. He had never felt more comfortable in his life, excepting with his family, of course, but even then, there was a past full of old grievances and sad memories. With Aysel, like a bright blooming flower who had just entered his life, he felt safe to simply be for the moment.
He waited, enjoying the chance to look upon her as she concentrated on her work. Every so often she would glance in his direction, but then her green eyes would flick back to the canvas, and he could watch a little crinkle between her eyebrows fold and smooth, as she chose her strokes carefully.
Their pleasant rhythm was interrupted by a servant. “Laird, Mrs. Owen has asked us to tell the painter that her meal is ready. She can take it in the Great Hall.”
Stephan was disappointed, but he tried to hide it. “Aye, of course. Aysel, I think we are done for the day. Ye may take yer meal and then head home. I am certain yer Faither will be looking out for ye?”
Aysel smiled gratefully. “Thank ye, sir. Me Faither has been ill recently, and so it is a great comfort to me that I can see how he fares. Good day to ye.” He watched her collect her things and then walked her to the door. She followed the servant out, sparing him a quick glance before the door shut after her, and he was left alone again in the dim study. He had been alone indoors for so many years, but now, the study felt a little bit empty without her.
Aysel felt she could breathe easier once she was out of that study and out of the young Laird’s sphere, and she found a bowl of soup and a hunk of bread lying on the table in the Great Hall. She took it gratefully and thought for a moment about how her time with Laird McPhee had gone. She wished she could reveal to her whole village that she had actually seen the man and could finally quell the continued rumors about his existence and form.
However, it seemed wrong to do so, now that she had a few hours to speak to him and to get to know him. It was as though the man had given her access to his inner life; she didn’t dare betray his trust in that way. It felt too personal, the things they’d discussed. In addition, he had shown her his face, the thing that he had kept from society for so many years. Even though he was using a mask in the painting, he had shown her his full face before doing so.
Could she really live with herself if she revealed to anyone, besides her father, of course, what she’d seen? Or perhaps it would be helpful for everyone to know. Once they saw him, they would stop their rumors, and he would be able to roam the streets and towns of his clan’s land again. She assumed that was what he truly wanted. She thought of herself trapped away for years, even if it was in an elegant castle, and the idea of it sounded awful. It was suffocating, and for a moment, she pitied the man, a prisoner in his own home.
Martin will come to ask about it, she thought with a smile.
She supposed that it was fine to tell whoever asked that nothing whatsoever unusual had happened. She was almost finished with the soup and was beginning to feel strengthened for the cold journey ahead, when Mrs. Owen entered the room and stood before her. Aysel couldn’t quite tell if the woman was cold, or if she simply wished to appear so. Her posture, tall and rigid, and the way she seemed to enjoy casting her eyes down upon others, made her quite a formidable woman to look up to from a seated position.
“Aysel? How did the painting go? And I trust ye are pleased with the meal?” In order to not offend or assume the worst about her most recent employers, Aysel chose to assume that Catriona was merely anxious about Aysel’s reaction to her son’s “deformity.” Mrs. Owen did look nervous, with the way her muscles seemed tense and how she kept her hands clasped together until the knuckles turned white.
Aysel had been surprised by her arrival, and still had food in her mouth. Embarrassed, she had to chew a little bit more before replying. “Aye, Mrs. Owen, all is well. The meal is wonderful. I thank ye. The painting is progressing perfectly. I believe I will be able to complete it in a week, if I could come each day for half the day, or in a couple of weeks if ye prefer me to be here less time.”
She watched the older woman’s eyes carefully. They were the same green as Stephan’s eyes, and sadly, they contained the same wariness as his. Perhaps they had both suffered greatly in the last few years and were fearful of anyone who might wish to hurt them. Catriona was searching Aysel’s face, and while it was acutely uncomfortable for Aysel, she knew what the woman was looking for. Mrs. Owen narrowed her eyes a little. “Good. Now, I suppose I do nae have to repeat meself about discretion? Ye will keep whatever ye have learned today about me son to yerself?”
Aysel nodded and tried to reassure the lady of the house. “Mrs. Owen, I promise ye that I will be discreet. I hope me Faither’s reputation can speak for itself, since ye dinnae ken mine. There is nay one I could tell about anything for there is naught to tell.”
Aysel was being honest. So the man had a scar? It wasn’t exactly exciting news. The scar was not unusual, and really the only strange thing about it was that it was long and on the face. That was all. Mrs. Owen nodded and looked satisfied for the moment.
“I thank ye, Aysel.” Aysel was grateful to see Catriona unclench her hands and blood return to her knuckles. She smiled up at her and took another spoonful of soup, happy to have assuaged the woman’s fears.
“What is there naught to tell about?” a deep voice said, and Aysel turned to see Laird McPhee, the mask now gone from his face. Once she saw him in the stronger light of the Hall, she coughed and spluttered out the soup she had just attempted to swallow. Laird McPhee was even more handsome than she’d realized while in the study. His hair was as dark as raven’s wings, and his eyes shockingly emerald, like a fairy sea.
He had also removed the cravat from around his neck, and so Aysel could see a triangle of tanned chest which made her feel like the room was suddenly getting warmer. Altogether, the image shocked her. As she set herself to rights, coughing a bit more and wiping her chin with the napkin, both sets of eyes turned to her. Aysel nearly died of embarrassment.
Twice in one day!
Unfortunately, it was the Laird’s mother who looked a little angry at Aysel’s reaction, while he simply looked confused. Aysel knew she had to make this right. “Excuse me. I must have taken the soup in too quickly. Me Mither always warned me about such things.”
No one replied to her statement, and Stephan merely posed his question again. Mrs. Owen waved a hand in the air.
“Oh, ‘tis nothing, dear. Dinnae fash yerself over it. Have ye come to speak with me about somethin’?” Catriona was looking at him now, her face a mixture of confusion and concern.
Stephan stood awkwardly before them, shifting on his feet a little, and Aysel’s eyes switched between mother and son, wondering just what was happening. “Och, aye, I suppose so. I had thought,” he motioned for a moment towards Aysel.
Bemused, Catriona replied, “Did ye mean to eat with Aysel? I am sorry, Stephan, but I had nothing laid out for ye. In future, I will do so if ye wish it.” Aysel was dumbfounded. She clasped her own hands under the table, trying not to look up at him. Could it be true? Laird McPhee would have wanted to eat with her? Was that really why he had emerged from his lair? His mother seemed even more confused than Aysel at the turn of events.
After a moment of silence, she couldn’t bear it and glanced up at his face. She saw his jaw clench for a moment. He glanced at Aysel quickly and replied stiffly, “Aye. Thank ye.”
With that, he turned on his heel and left back the way he had come with Aysel feeling even more confused. He did mean to eat with her the next time she came to paint? As his mother said, would he be wishing to do that every time? Her stomach filled with dread as she worried about what she could say to the man. When they were painting, it was fine to be silent, but when they were sitting across from each other and eating? That would be most awkward, indeed, and Aysel had never prided herself on being good with words, especially not when she was nervous.
She wanted to groan with frustration as she stood up. Mrs. Owen was now regarding her with an even more scrutinizing stare. The woman was not the most comfortable person to be around, and Aysel was now ready to leave the castle and talk to Teine on the way home about everything. Perhaps tomorrow things would make sense again.
“Are ye finished now?”
“Aye, ma’am, I thank ye for yer hospitality.”
“It is well-earned, or will be, I suppose. Here is yer payment for today.” The woman placed a small coin purse in Aysel’s hand, and she wanted to shriek with delight when she felt the weight of it. Her father would be so proud!
“This is today’s payment?”
Catriona lifted an eyebrow. “Aye, ye shall be paid daily for yer work. I hope that is nae disagreeable to ye?” Aysel could hear the icy edge to Catriona’s voice again.
She smiled. “Och, nae, I was merely askin’. Thank ye, I shall take me leave.”
She wandered to the door, but she could feel Catriona’s eyes upon her. Once outside, Teine and the cart were waiting patiently out front for her, and a servant helped her inside. Clicking to Teine, she set off on the dirt road towards her own little patch of the world. Out of earshot of anyone in the castle, she breathed a sigh of relief. “What in the bloody Hell was that?” she asked, shaking her head. It was a good thing that she had not also met her uncle while there, or it could have been even more uncomfortable.
She turned over the days’ events in her mind. The most handsome man of her acquaintance, for that is now what she thought of him as, turned out to not be a dragon. He had actually been quite nice, even the slightest bit charming. He had complimented her and then told his mother that he would like to eat with Aysel tomorrow.
Mrs. Owen seemed wary of her for whatever reason. She would have to ask her father what he thought about that. Why should she be wary of Aysel at all? She was merely a painter. She seemed quite worried that Aysel would spread something all over town about her son, but that was confusing to her as well. What could she possibly have to say? And then, she also got the feeling that Mrs. Owen was attempting to size her up to see if there was anything untoward in her reasons for accepting the painting position.
Perhaps it was the duty of a laird’s mother to make sure that no unsuitable maids attempted to make their way into the laird’s heart, but certainly Catriona would not think that Aysel, in any way, had plans of the like or would even have been considered by her son!
Once the sight of her own cozy cottage came into view, she decided she would give up thinking of it for a while until she got to speak to her father. Leaving Teine in the stable, she opened the door to her home and found Mrs. Dowd sitting in front of the hearth, a kind smile on her face.
“Dear Aysel! Ye have returned. Yer Faither was nae sure if ye would be back today or nae.” The old woman stood and clasped Aysel’s hands in her own. She was a bit shorter than Aysel, and she looked up into her face, her ruddy cheeks round and her eyes merry.
Aysel smiled. It was hard not to when Mrs. Dowd was in the room. She was so kind and cheerful and warm. Aysel was lucky to have her around to assist with her father. The woman’s own family had passed, and so Aysel knew that she appreciated the company.
Without waiting for a reply, Mrs. Dowd said, “Come. I shall bring ye tea, and ye will tell me all about yer time with the new client.” She shuffled off to the kitchen but then turned around. “Or perhaps ye would prefer hot wine? The day is a lot colder than expected. I ken winter is comin’ soon, then.”
Aysel nodded gratefully. After the strange day she’d had, hot wine sounded heavenly. “Aye, Mrs. Dowd. I thank ye.” Once the woman had scuttled away to the next room to bring a bowl for the fire, Aysel called out, “I hope Faither is well today? Has there been any change?”
Mrs. Dowd emerged with bowl and wineskin in hand. She stood before the hearth and Aysel helped her place it carefully over the flames. Mrs. Dowd looked slightly disheartened, but her smile soon returned. “Nae, lass, there has nae been any change. He has slept most of the day. At one point, he ate a little soup, but then I thought it best to let him rest.” She paused, taking the time to pour the wine into the bowl. “Have ye sent for the healer?”
Aysel watched the wine pour in, thinking about how the room would soon be filled with spices and herbs. She shook her head. “I was afraid to do so. Ye ken that if I send for the healer, it must mean something is serious. I also thought that we dinnae have the money, but today, I was paid well for me work. I will send for him tomorrow.”
Mrs. Dowd sprinkled a few herbs and spices over the wine and began to stir. “That is lovely news, bairn. This must be a good job then, to have given ye payment before the painting is yet finished.”
Aysel nodded, grateful that her father had not revealed her position to anyone. It would be best to keep it that way. Somehow, though, word was eventually bound to get out once the villagers saw Aysel ride away in her cart every day towards the Laird’s castle. “It is a good job. I will return tomorrow. It will take a few weeks to paint, I believe.”
Mrs. Dowd nodded, watching the wine carefully. The room became thickly warm and sweet, and it made Aysel’s eyes feel heavy, even before drinking the wine. “Ye sit down, dear. I will bring ye a cup.” Aysel did as instructed. She so missed having her mother around since she had died years before, and now Mrs. Dowd made her feel like at least a part of her mother was still there.
In a few minutes, a warm cup was placed in her hands, and Mrs. Dowd sat next to her. “I understand why ye wouldnae want to send for the healer, me love. It is not pleasant to watch the ones we love suffer.” Aysel could detect a catch in her voice. “But I think there is a chance yer father could recover, if he has the right care.”
Aysel nodded, feeling again the pressure of tears behind her eyes. She took a sip of the wine and savored the feel of its warmth sliding down her throat. “Aye. I will do just that.” The old woman reached out to touch Aysel’s hand. Aysel said, “And thank ye, Mrs. Dowd. I dinnae ken what we would do without ye.”
Mrs. Dowd waved away the compliment. “Come, tell me about the new painting. I have nay excitement in me life anymore, and so a bit of news will please me greatly.”
Aysel nodded, happy to have someone sit with her at the hearth. She did not reveal the Laird’s identity, but she did speak about the man in general terms, and it satisfied Mrs. Dowd well enough. In a few hours, Aysel was in her bed, her whole body fatigued, and she fell off to sleep, dreaming of eyes like emeralds and a pair of broad, strong shoulders.
The next day, she awoke early again to mix her colors before riding to the castle. Her father was asleep when she awoke, and she thought it best not to wake him.
I will speak to him when I return.
Nearing the castle with Teine’s reins in her hand, Aysel’s heart began to flutter with nerves. Would Laird McPhee be even more handsome today? Would she be able to find the words to speak to him for the next few hours, especially when he came to eat with her? Would Catriona plague her with suspicious questions?
Her stomach was in knots as she left the horse and cart with a servant and entered the castle again. For some sort of protection, she wrapped the plaid more tightly to her belted gown and looked around the Great Hall. It was still as impressive as ever, and its grandeur made her even more nervous. She could feel her breath quickening, and she tried to take long gulps of air, hoping that would help to calm the flutter in her chest.
“Aysel. We welcome yer return.” Catriona entered the hall, clasping her hands again, but this time wearing a dark green gown with a McPhee tartan around her shoulders. She looked the slightest bit tired, for new lines had formed around her eyes, but the green in them still flashed with power.
Aysel nodded, clutching her bag. “Thank ye. Is the Laird waiting for me?” She pointed to the corridor.
“Aye, so he is. Will ye be able to find it yerself? Me son, Bhaltair, is nae feeling well this morning, and I must attend to him.”
Aysel was grateful the woman had something else to occupy her that day. “Of course. Ye must nae worry about me. I shall find me way well enough.” Catriona nodded with a slight lift of her eyebrow and then left. Aysel took another breath before following the same path to the Laird’s study as she had before.
Outside of the door, it seemed larger than yesterday, its wooden beams strong and tall. Aysel smoothed her gown and pushed a few stray strands of her hair back behind her ear. Then, she knocked lightly.
That same deep voice which had pervaded her dreams said, “Come in.”
She closed her eyes, not enjoying the way the sound of it sent a tingle down her spine. It made her think of warm wine, honey, and woodsmoke.
It is nae proper to think such things about one’s employer.
Clenching her muscles tightly, she entered the room.
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