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The Veiled Wish of a Highland Bride – Extended Epilogue

 

Two years later…

It was not so hard for Mia to transition from being the tough woman that she was into a more confident lady. One would never have thought that the pretty blonde lady who was sashaying around the dining hall ensuring the maids had put everything in place for breakfast was the same person who had no idea which was the right way to hold a sewing needle.

Mia loved being a happy wife in such a happy marriage. It pleased her to make her husband happy just as much as he made her, and preparing his breakfast was one of her favorite things to do. The table was all set now with several loaves of bread, some cured meats, porridge, fresh fruit and cheese. As she saw him come in through the door, she burst into a bright smile.

“Good morning, my laird!”

The maids were already vying for his attention, but Archie ignored them all, going to his wife instead.

“My lady,” he said, planting a kiss on her lips. “Ye should nae be standing so much or doing anything for that matter. Come, have yer seat. I tell ye, I will nae sit until ye do.”

He pulled out a chair for her right beside him. Mia could not help but roll her eyes at his tenderness.

“I am completely fine, Archie. What ye should be worrying about is yer stomach.” She signaled to a maid to bring the porridge from the far end of the table. “I made yer favorite.”

Just as Mia was about to dish some out for him, she heard a high-pitched scream that she was all too familiar with now, followed by cries. The sound only stopped to allow for little Ewan’s gasps for breath.

“I tried to calm him down, but it seems he is hungry too,” Maeve said, laughing. “He must have smelt breakfast and now wants some of his own.”

Mia’s mother was obsessed with her grandson. There was not a single passing day when she did not desire to carry him or take him on a walk in the gardens.

“Good morning, mother,” Mia smiled pleasantly at him.

“Come tend to Ewan or he will nae give us all any quiet,” Maeve teased.

They all took their seats at the long wooden table as the maids began filling up their plates and pouring them tea.

“What time is Clyde coming over?” Archibald asked, his mouth stuffed with bread.

“Aye, Clyde. That happy lad. He is coming here today?” Maeve had taken a liking to him ever since Mia had told her everything that he had done during her stay at Murray Castle. “That is quite some journey, is it nae?”

“Well, it is a bonnie morning. I’m sure it is going to be a smooth ride for him. He should be here soon, aye.” Mia knew Clyde intended to quite early this morning and join them for breakfast, or so he had said.

She had written him a letter to tell him of the good news, and he had absolutely insisted that he come to congratulate her personally. Knowing Clyde, Mia was certain he would come at first light. Right on time, they all heard a knock at the door, which opened to reveal a footman who announced the visitor’s presence.

“Och, how is my favorite lady?” Clyde exclaimed, throwing open his arms dramatically as he walked into the room.

Mia beamed.

“But first I have to greet the sweetest wee man in all of Scotland,” he said, sidestepping her and going to the other side of the table to bring Ewan into his arms. The little boy giggled as Clyde cradled him.

“How old are ye now, lad?”

Ewan merely looked at him cluelessly, smiling. He had blonde hair identical to Archibald’s, but he inherited his mother’s blue eyes. His face was a sight to behold, the object of constant fawning by every person at Ledoch Castle.

“Almost two years,” his mother answered in his stead.

“Ye’re such a big lad now, aye?” Clyde said as he handed Ewan back to an eager Maeve. “Greetings, Maeve.”

She gave a little nod and immediately started fussing over her grandchild. “Do ye ken he uses his little feet to walk around the castle and cause mayhem?”

“Is that so?” Clyde asked in disbelief. “The last time I saw him, he could barely crawl!”

“Ye have nae idea what this little lad can do if he is let loose,” Archie said.

Clyde shook his head in disbelief as he started to walk over to where Mia and Archibald were sitting, patiently awaiting him.

“I see ye now have a preference for my son over me, aye?” Mia teased.

“Nae, nae at all. Ye will always be my favorite person. I wouldn’t have almost tasted death for anyone who was nae special, ye ken.” He kissed Mia on her cheek.

“Dinnae be talking to my wife like that, Clyde, or I’ll have yer head. Would nae be so hard to do since ye are in my lands,” Archibald teased.

“I definitely would like to keep my head.” Clyde chucked, easing himself into the free seat at Mia’s left.

“How was yer trip, Laird Murray?” Maeve asked.

“Och, I am yet to get used to being called that, ye ken.” Clyde paused for a while, presumably to honor his brother. “The trip was quite calm. A pleasant change considerin’ the madness of these past weeks.”

They all nodded, knowing full well what he meant—all of them sharing the same feeling.

“Clyde, why dinnae ye tell us about your experience on the battlefield? I hear ye have taken part in so many fights,” Archie said, wanting to change the subject.

This was clearly a topic that Clyde loved.

“Aye. I have been to many battles. I fought nigh a hundred battles during my time as war chief, whether against other clans or against the Red Coats themselves. My battle scars remind me so much of my story, and I would be sure to show it to whomever cares to see.”

Clyde promptly got up and attempted to show everyone the scar he had boasted about, but Mia cut him short.

“Ye lads should have some breakfast and stop chatting so much,” she said, taking another spoonful of porridge. “Ye ken, Clyde, that we need to start looking out for a bonnie lass to be yer Lady, aye?”

Clyde swallowed hard.

“Are ye afraid?” Maeve said, sensing his discomfort. “Ye’re terrified of lassies?”

Clyde laughed her question away. Mia could see that it looked like the other men at the table felt sorry for Clyde having been cornered by the women about matters of the heart.

“The man has told me about his experience,” Mia said to Maeve, filling her in on what she knew of the story. “But I think it is time Murray Castle has a Lady again.”

Nae,” Clyde said, laughing uncomfortably. “I am certain a bonnie lass will come in due time.”

“Och, dinnae be afraid of lassies, Clyde,” Archie teased. It was obvious that Archibald found the entire situation funny. “I am married to one and I’m nae dead yet. If I can survive a Steward, ye can survive anything.”

Mia decided that she had tortured Clyde enough. The conversation could continue on another day, but for now she felt it was only right to tease him a little more.

“Ye ken, I also have quite a lot of activities planned for our guest here. He is going to start by fixing up the mill for us.”

Clyde looked horrified but in a comical way.

“Dinnae ye look at me like that,” Mia said with a smirk. “Ye ken Archie cannae go near any mill because of ye-ken-what.

“Mia!” Archibald exclaimed. “That is nae true.”

Mia knew that he was trying to mask the truth because of his pride, and she could not help but laugh at that. The rest of the table joined in with her laughter.

“Either way, I want Clyde to help with that,” she said looking pointedly at him as though daring him to refuse. “Or would ye rather I do it?”

Clyde scoffed at her, having obviously noticed the sarcasm in her last statement.

“How is the little one in there?” Clyde asked, finally getting around to the reason he had visited in the first place.

Mia blushed slightly. “She is doing fine. A little too calm these days but fine.”

Clyde gaped at her, and then turned to Archie. “What does Mia mean, ‘she’? What do ye mean ‘she’, Mia? How do ye ken it is a girl?”

She could not help but laugh at Clyde’s astonishment. “I just ken. Lasses have a way of kenning these things.”

“I think it is a bonnie male bairn again, though.” Maeve said this with so much conviction that Clyde could not help but agree with her.

“Aye! I am certain it is a boy, too. I could tell the moment I came in. With the way ye’ve been fussing over me, I am certain I am right. The lad is telling ye to be kind to me, ye ken,” Clyde said.

“Does anyone even want to ken what the father of the child wants?” Archie asked.

“Nae!” Everyone yelled at Archie’s question, and they laughed.

As they continued in their arguments, each staking their own bet, Mia observed her entire family while rubbing the little bump of her belly. She could not remember the last time she had been this happy.

Her family was her everything.

Her family was home.

The End.

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The Veiled Wish of a Highland Bride (Preview)

Prologue

August 1731

He is coming for me…

Mia lay in bed, frozen. She was paralyzed, visited by the same unwanted guest every night, a friend she called terror. It was a demon on its own.

It hadn’t always been this way. Mia had once been a happy child who did not flinch at the thought of darkness. The nightmares began at the same time as he had changed. Her little body trembled, and her eyes darted around the room, trying to dispel the tortuous images that were mercilessly infiltrating her innocent mind.

“Nae! I beg ye, nae,” she muttered as tears streamed down her face from the corners of her eyes. Her back was flush with the hard bed in the corner of her room. Turning a deaf ear to her pleas, ignoring her as though she wasn’t there, the man in her dream continued to hit the woman behind her eyes. Again. And again.

Mia was certain that if he didn’t stop soon the woman would be nothing more than a bloodied sack of bones, but he didn’t seem to care. The woman’s screams pierced through the confines of her dream and into her reality.

Perhaps if I ignore them, the screams will leave me be, she thought, but the more she fought to ignore them the louder they became.

Finally, she opened her eyes. Before attempting to get out of bed, she flexed her hands in the darkness. It usually took more than a few minutes for her dreams to unshackle her. She clutched her throbbing head—now that she was awake, the screams were even louder.

Mia was used to this. She knew where the sound was coming from, but she did not want to go and investigate. Try as she might, she could never fall back asleep. When her father lost his temper, the onslaught could — and would — go on for hours.

Slowly, Mia dragged her feet off the bed, pushing away the sheepskin that served to shield her from the cold, recalling her mother tucking it around her before retiring for the night with a smile on her face.

Mia stood beside the bed for a moment, staring at the brick walls of her room, then the wooden roofing overhead. Sometimes, when the screaming started, she counted the bricks until all she could hear was numbers. Knowing her counting would not help her now, she sighed and walked toward the door. It had been left ajar, so she could hear her parents’ voices more clearly.

“Useless, fallow-wombed woman!” her father shouted, stomping his foot on the ground. Mia felt the floor shake beneath her.

Her father had always had a temper, but it had only gotten worse with her mother’s inability — or unwillingness as he called it — to produce a son. Even at the age of ten, Mia understood how important it was to have an heir. A girl was not fit to inherit anything, her father had said, not even a name.

“I feed ye! I clothe ye! I keep yer house warm!” her father cried again. “The least ye can do is birth me a worthy bairn — a boy! Ach, what do ye do but speak to me without respect? What do ye do but drink and whine? Maybe ye’ve been killing all my boys with yer drinking.”

The pounding had stopped now and all Mia could hear were the sobs of her mother. The little girl stood clinging to the door, unsure whether she should try and intervene or if it was safer to stay away. Her mother always warned her to protect herself first.

The decision was made for her as her father stormed out of the room past Mia and into his study. Fortunately, he had not noticed her in the darkness.

There was no telling what her father would do on nights like these. Conrad Steward was an impossible man, her mother had said, a brute. Sometimes he took his anger out on his daughter. Sometimes he said nothing at all. Mia didn’t want to find out what he would have in store for her tonight.

As soon as she heard his study door slam shut, she scrambled over to her mother’s chambers. She worried, just like in her dream, that her mother would be laying bloodied on the floor.

What she saw instead took her by surprise. Her mother was standing straight, a fiery look of determination on her face as she stuffed her belongings in a little cloth bag, her left eye swollen shut.

“Maither? Mam?”

“Mia… Oh, Mia, my little bairn… Mammy cannae stand it nae more,” her mother, Maeve, said through her sobs, stumbling as she pulled Mia into an embrace. Maeve smelled like ale and sick again, which made Mia’s stomach turn.

Mia despised it when her mother drowned her sorrows in drink, as it frustrated her father even more. She could feel her mother’s ribs as Maeve held her tightly. This woman, who she could barely recognize anymore, looked frail in the silvery moonlight. It swept across her gaunt cheeks, across the dark eye that Conrad had just given her.

She pulled away from Mia, giving her a peck on the forehead. Her round eyes bore into her daughter’s face like she was trying to memorize every inch of it. That was all Mia could remember before her mother climbed out the window without saying another word.

Mia was too scared to stop her. Perhaps if she hadn’t been, she would have pleaded with her mother to say something; she would have implored her mother not to leave her alone with her father. She knew what it looked like when someone was leaving for good, but she couldn’t quite believe it—her mother abandoned her.

The girl stood there, staring at the window, shaking and trying to decide whether to follow her out into the wilderness.

At first, Mia did not hear his footsteps in the hallway. Stuck in a trance, she let out a little sob. When she heard them at last, she looked for somewhere to hide.

He was coming. If he could no longer torment his wife, who would suffer his anger next?

The footsteps and curses grew louder. Mia stepped back tentatively. With each step, she hoped to free herself from the man who sought to destroy her and find sanctuary in the arms of the woman who had just left her at his mercy.

Mia shut her eyes, covering her face with her hands.

There was nowhere left to run.

 

Chapter One

Murray Castle, 1746

In the warped wooden mirror opposite her bed, Mia stared unflinchingly at herself. She shifted the sleeve of her nightgown off her shoulder, trying to imitate the seductive women she had studied in taverns. She needed all the help she could get.

Her predicament was made worse by the scars that marred her skin. One of the deepest was a gash on her knee that she had gotten when she fell from her horse as a child. She hoped the darkness would hide her imperfections from her husband, Bram, the Laird of Clan Murray, but there was no hiding that one.

Mia was not deterred. This had to be the night. She had been married to the Laird for almost a year, but still she was as virginal as the day she had stepped foot into the keep. She looked at her reflection in the mirror, hoping that her gently waved hair and long bare neck would be enough for him to desire her. The sheer night chemise would do the rest of the work.

Turning her head from side to side, hoping her scars were mostly hidden beneath her nightgown, she reached for her dressing gown and started to make her way out of her chambers. Trying to keep her back straight, she swung her hips as she had seen some of the noble wives do.

She sighed, feeling ridiculous. Perhaps she should have asked her maids for assistance. She had sent them away earlier that evening, confident that this night would be different from every other.

Mia stood in front of the door to her husband’s chambers — chambers that should have been theirs to share — and adjusted her posture. She gathered enough courage to knock on the door. Despite being the lady of the house, she wasn’t allowed access to his room.

Before she had a chance to change her mind and turn back, she rapped on the door, turned the doorknob and walked in.

“Who’s there?” Bram grunted in the dimly lit room.

Mia could hardly make out a thing. Suddenly, she heard a high-pitched shriek from where she presumed her husband’s bed to be. The occupants of the room — of the bed — had seen her before she could see them. Both of them.

“Why do ye bother me so, Mia?” her husband rasped, getting out of the bed where he had been laying, his dark hair falling into his eyes. She could smell the alcohol on the air between them, but her eyes were fixed on the woman in the bed. She recognized her as one of the maids who worked in the keep.

The maid that had so willingly warmed her matrimonial bed was now clutching her clothes to her chest and dashing out of the room. Bram, on the other hand, stood proudly bare before Mia, challenging her.

This was not the first time he had taken other women, she knew, but this was the first time she had caught him. The keep was pregnant with rumors of her husband’s affairs, but Mia had always ignored them. Of course, it was true. How else does a man service his loins when he refuses to touch his wife?

She looked away from him, staring at the door, but promptly snapped back to attention when Bram spoke again.

“For God’s sake, Mia… What are ye doing here? Ye didnae even give me a chance to finish, and I for sure will nae finish with ye,” he argued, not even stopping to catch his breath. “I have told ye over and over again that I need my privacy, but still ye come barging into my room, disturbing my moments o’ peace. I cannae even begin to find ye desirable with that sort o’ behavior. How can I want ye when I cannae stand ye?”

Mia realized she had been slouching, her shoulders heavy with disappointment. She felt her bravery retreat. It was clear that she would never be enough. For her husband. For her father. For anyone.

“Ye walk like a man. Ye have the scars of a man. Ye act like a man, and I cannae desire such a lady. Leave now, before ye do something we both regret.”

Mia stood there, unable to move. Her heart thundered so frantically that she worried it would leap out of her chest. She was humiliated but awestruck by the body that stood before her. Although he was much older than she was, her husband was still in his prime. His muscles were bulging beneath his skin; his jawline was defined and strong, his face unmarred by age. Mia didn’t love him. She never had, not in the way the poets spoke of love and burning desire, but she did believe she was failing as a wife if she could not make her husband desire her.

Further irritated by her refusal to move, Bram’s dark eyes bored into hers. “What did I say? Get out o’ my damned room, Mia! Remember what I told ye at our wedding? If nae for the good o’ my clan, I’d nae have married ye nor any other lass. Dinnae make me regret my kindness to them and to ye. Leave me be or I will throw ye out myself!”

Mia scowled to mask the disappointment she felt. All the promise of the night washed away at once. She walked out of her husband’s chambers as gracefully as she could, clenching her fists.

This was all her father’s fault. With no son to call his heir, he had spent her entire childhood treating her like she was a boy — teaching her how to hunt, how to ride. Even now, as a grown married woman, sparring was still her favorite pastime.

She knew giving up was not an option. She refused to live in a loveless marriage like her parents or be forced to escape from the window of her own home like her mother. She would win Bram over. Of that, she was sure. She just had to figure out how.

Mia kept thinking as she made her way down the stairs, when excited chatter interrupted her pitiful musing.

“The ball,” she heard, making out the voices. “Tis the largest, most beautiful celebration in all o’ the Highlands, and I cannae wait,” the first maid said excitedly.

The maids huddled together beneath the staircase she was descending but she couldn’t understand most of what was said since they spoke in a mix of Gaelic and English. It didn’t really matter. She didn’t care about balls anyway.

“The most handsome lairds are going to be there,” another maid replied. “If only one of them could take me to be his bride, I’d be the happiest lassie alive!”

The last maid, who had been quiet, finally broke her silence. “Well, there is a load of preparations to be performed with the Lady of this keep paying nae attention to such matters.” The maid sighed. “She would rather spend her time sparring in the fields,” she whispered.

“Och, dinnae bother about her,” said the first girl. “There are going to be many ladies in attendance too. Perhaps she will learn a thing or two about being a lady from them.”
The three girls giggled under the stairs, scuttling away before long. They had been right about one thing: Mia would much rather spend her time in the fields. She continued down the stairs and headed out of the keep.

***

“Aye, aye, lassies! Exactly like that,” Archie groaned, sandwiched between two women. In tandem, they worked their way between his muscled legs.

Archie looked between them, their eyes twinkling and their cheeks flushed. There was nothing quite like a Highland girl. They were the most desirable of the bunch.

To his dismay, his enjoyment was cut short by a loud knock on the door. The knocking didn’t stop until Archie heard his war chief, Lennox, speak up.

“Och, nae again, my laird!” Lennox said, opening the door without invitation. “Cannae ye wait just a while longer before ye indulge yourself in such pleasures?”

Archie rose from the bed, dismissing the two red-haired women with a wave of his hand. They sashayed out of the room, not bothering to cover themselves. Archie noticed how one of them — God above, he couldn’t remember her name — eyed Lennox as she walked out. He debated encouraging him to run after her—it was the least he could do for his best friend.

Archie could hear the pitter-patter of their naked feet against the floorboards as they left. Lennox settled by the door, almost knocking one of the shields from its rack. Archie had a penchant for battle memorabilia. The walls of his chamber were decorated with claymores and dirks. A wide armchair was perched in the corner of the room, with shelves of fortified wine and spirits stacked above it. Archie ambled over to it, fastening his britches.

“These wenches ye entertain do ye nae good,” Lennox said. “Ye need to find yerself a fair lady to settle down with.” Lennox fixed his gaze on Archibald’s left arm and let out a breath. “Ach, with that gash on yer arm, I dinnae ken how ye handle them anyway.”

Archie picked up his plaid and wrapped himself with it. He grabbed a bottle from the shelf and poured them both a glass of whiskey. He walked over to Lennox and patted him on the shoulder, handing him a tumbler.

“Ye worry too much, my friend,” Archie said. “They dinnae call me the Highland Wolf for naething, ye ken. I belong to the ladies and the sweet pleasures they give me,” he grinned.

Scoffing, Lennox chose to ignore him. Instead, he turned his attention to the rattling window behind the bed, rain and wind crashing against its panes.

“Be that as it may, Wolf, I have news,” Lennox started tentatively. His long hair glittered in the light from the fire. “Yer brother, Dallas, was seen near the lands by Balbaire, and—”

“I have nae brother,” Archie interrupted him fiercely. His smile vanished.

“Ach, Archie—”

“I want to hear naething of it, Lennox. Dallas can do as he pleases.”

“As ye wish, my laird” Lennox sighed, “but I implore ye to go easy with the lasses. We dinnae need wee bastards running amok, Archie.”

“We dinnae need miserable soldiers either. Ye ken we should nae have been so easily crushed at Culloden, Lennox. The Jacobites have to be stronger, mightier—nae to mention that I dare nae refuse myself any pleasure I desire, knowing full well I almost lost my life in that battle.”

“Have ye considered that, perhaps, a single woman would give ye just as much pleasure? A single lass like a wife?”

Archie laughed. It wasn’t as though he had never considered marriage. However, the idea didn’t appeal to him. “Nae, my friend. I would soon grow bored and weary of her, I ken it. I would rather have any beauty I please than be bound to one lass for the rest of my life.” Moving to lay back in bed, Archie continued. “Tell me something. Have ye received any news that will lift my spirits, or are ye here simply to hound me all day long?”

“Well, the invitation to the Murray annual ball arrived this morning. We should be leaving nae later than dawn on the morrow.”

“Och, now that I like to hear! A distraction is just what I need. Are the horses ready for the journey? There is nae reason to wait for dawn where lassies are concerned,” Archie quipped, crossing his arms behind his head.

Heaving another sigh, Lennox left the room to make the final preparations for their travel. And despite his friend’s protestation, the Laird was convinced he heard the man chuckle down the hall.

***

Swords clattered all around as Mia and Clyde sparred behind the castle. The sound of battle was enough to wash away her shame from the previous night. She planted her bare feet firmly in the grass as Clyde’s sparring sword came down on her shoulder.

“Got ya, lassie!” he exclaimed, filling the air with his carefree laughter. “Ye can pretend it is nae so, but ye are still a lady,” he added with the singsong voice that never failed to amuse her.

“Clyde. Och, Clyde… Ye ken for a fact that ye are going to be beaten by a woman for the umpteenth time one way or another. These fighting words will nae protect ye forever,” Mia mocked. Today would be like every other day. She would best her husband’s younger brother before sundown.

Clyde had been her only friend at the keep since her wedding a year ago. The man was different than his older brother, who stalked around the castle like a quiet tyrant. Clyde was genial, always doing something, his hazel eyes glittering with mischief. His good humor had nothing to do with his age. Mia was only two years older than him, but she looked twice as glum, and he was twice as tall.

“What is that look on yer face? Is my brother really that awful to ye?” Clyde asked, attempting to knock her sword out of her hands. “So awful that ye choose to come and spar with me? Something ye swore to me that ye would never do again, by the way. What was it ye said the day before last? ‘It is time I stopped acting like a lad.’”

Mia scoffed. Aside from Clyde, the whole clan thought that she and Bram were the perfect match—noble, beautiful and powerful. It couldn’t have been further from the truth, and at least Clyde was brave enough to say it.

“Och, well, what can I do? It is the only way I can chase my worries out of my stubborn mind, ye ken.” She pulled back, deflecting a slash of Clyde’s wooden sword. “Still, I blame nae one but my wretched father, nae even yer brother. He was nae the one that sold me like a cow. At least my father had the sense to arm me with a sword. And a bow. Ach, I bet that I am a better horse rider than ye too.”

“Then it is also yer father’s fault that ye are so bonnie,” her partner replied with a smirk.

“Yer brother certainly doesnae think so.” She sighed. “For the life o’ me, I cannae imagine how those noble ladies do it—sitting all day in their cottages or chambers, embroidering and gossiping. They always have an air o’ agreeance about them. I could nae stand it. Yet a part of me yearns to give it all away… to feel wanted and appreciated and nae to be stuck in a marriage without love.”

“Perhaps if ye truly loved someone it would make ye want to be a lady for him.”

Mia said nothing. Even to Clyde, she could not admit that she had been trying to be more ladylike, to fall in love and be loved in return. To no avail.

“My lady!” a maid cried suddenly. She ran down the hill at the bottom of which Clyde and Mia stood, clutching her bonnet.

As she got to them, looking white as a sheet, Mia feared the girl would faint.

“The guests,” the girl gulped, clutching her stomach, “they are arriving tomorrow. Word has arrived that they are just over the mountains near Ben Nevis. The rooms are nae ready yet, my lady!”

The maid looked over her shoulder, and Mia regarded her curiously. She recognized her before long as the girl she had caught with her husband.

Mia swallowed down her anger. Most of these women had lived and worked in the keep their entire lives. They were loyal to the Laird now that they were grown, and if the Laird called for him to share his bed they could hardly refuse. With the way the girl refused to look at her, Mia knew she remembered the evening too. However, the maid’s shame did not soothe Mia’s pride.

“Take me to the guest rooms,” Mia said as she handed Clyde her sword, waiting for the maid to lead the way. “Let me see how much work still has to be done.”

 

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The Highlander’s Lady of Pleasure – Extended Epilogue

 

Two years later…

In two years, a lot had happened. Not the least of which was Allison and Keir finally realizing what everyone else had known for a long time—that they were in love with each other. In fact, their wedding was to be celebrated with a large feast that afternoon.

Allison looked beautiful in her gown, and Keir looked as dashing as ever. But Duncan couldn’t stop himself after the toasts were finished.

“So, when can we expect wee bairns o’ yers running about then?” He asked as the family all sat at the top table of the Great Hall.

“Duncan,” Elaine gasped. “Ye cannae ask such a question on their wedding day.”

Duncan shrugged, looking bewildered. “Why nae?”

Keir only laughed, shaking his head at his brother. “We’re nae all like ye, Duncan, with the ability tae produce two at the same time.”

“I think ye’ll find that was Elaine’s miracle, nae Duncan’s,” Allison cut in with a grin.

“Hey,” Duncan replied, pretending to look deeply offended. “Are ye trying tae say I had nae input in the creation of my own children?”

“Och, ye likely had some input, all right,” Keir chuckled.

Elaine has given birth to twins. A boy and a girl. While they were now just under a year old, at the time of their arrival, Duncan had been more than surprised. Elaine had told him all the way through the pregnancy that something did not feel right. She was growing far bigger than she thought she ought to be. It was only later that Allison had discovered she were to have twins and the had decided to keep it from him in case anything went wrong. But as always, Elaine had been amazing and strong and had given him two beautiful children.

Having discussed names during the pregnancy, they had decided they would name a boy after Elaine’s brother, Angus. If it was a girl, Duncan wanted to honor his mother by naming her Catriona. In the end, the children were christened with both names. Duncan had been overjoyed by their arrival. However, one evening after the children had been settled by a maid, Elaine revealed a long-held fear.

“I need tae talk tae ye about something that has been bothering me, Duncan,” she said, as they sat by the fire in the library, enjoying a needed moment of peace and quiet.

Before their wedding day, Elaine had relayed that she would never keep anything from him again. The lies and deceit that had been forced upon her by Finn Stewart had caused so much damage and had been more than dangerous. She never wanted either of them to be in that position again.

“Whatever is it, my darling?” Duncan asked, seeing by her expression that she was deeply troubled.

“Well, it has been on my mind since the babies were born,” she began tentatively, “but I havenae found the right time tae talk tae ye about it. Before me, there was Cora. And before Angus and Catriona, there was Eoin.”

Her words made him sit up and pay even more attention, for he could never have imagined this was where the conversation was going to go.

“I adore our children with every inch of my heart, but I dinnae ever want ye tae think that ye cannae talk about Eoin. Or that our children should be more important tae ye, than he was.”

Strangely, Eoin had been on his mind since their children were born. But he hadn’t told Elaine about it. Perhaps he didn’t mean to upset her, but she clearly knew him better than he thought. He should not have been surprised.

He couldn’t love her any more in that moment—love her pure and wonderful heart. “I will admit tae ye, Elaine. Eoin has been on my mind.”

“I couldnae imagine he hasnae, Duncan. He is yer firstborn son.”

“Ye are right. He is and always will be. Yet I want ye tae ken that Catriona and Angus’s arrival has only brought me such great joy. They will never replace Eoin, but then, the arrival of a child in any circumstances, doesnae replace the existence of another. The twins only add tae our family, and when they are old enough, I will tell them they once had a brother.”

***

The wedding had been magical, and Elaine was overjoyed for Allison who had taken quite a while to admit to herself that she loved Keir. And Elaine believed she had a hand in it. Elaine had made a point of quietly making small comments to Allison over the six months since she and Duncan had married. Allison eventually gave her a response that shocked her. “Ye have been right all along,” she had said.

The revelation came when Elaine had told her how well Allison and Keir complimented each other while they were in the castle gardens collecting herbs for Allison’s tonics. It had gotten so bad that they were even finishing each other’s sentences.

“What dae ye mean, I have been right all along?” Elaine asked to make sure.

“I am in love with Keir,” Allison said simply. “I have been since a little before yer wedding.”

“Then why has it taken ye this long tae admit it tae me?”

Allison shrugged. “I’ve been scared,” she replied. “What man wants tae spend his life beside a woman with my past?”

Elaine understood her concerns, but watching the way Keir was with her, she certainly did not share them. “I cannae put yer mind at rest, Allison, I can only tell ye what I see. When Keir is with ye, he is really with ye. Dae ye ken what I mean?”

Allison nodded. “I think so.”

“He hangs on yer every word, he gazes at ye when ye talk tae him, he watches ye when ye leave the room. That is nae a man who is bothered by yer past, Allison. This is a man who is likely contemplating his future. But I think ye need tae talk tae him and tell him how ye feel.”

Allison had initially dismissed the idea. But here they were now, enjoying a joyous wedding feast, celebrating their union and their new life together.

Later that evening, Duncan found Elaine sitting quietly by herself in the library. The raucous celebrations had worn her down, and being a sleep-deprived mother didn’t always help.

“This is where ye are hiding,” Duncan said, coming to sit beside her in the chair. “Are ye well?”

Elaine smiled warmly toward him. “I am more than well, my love. I just needed a quieter place.”

“Aye, it is getting a little mad down there. The men are now singing clan songs, badly, I might add.”

He reached over and took her hand in his, and Elaine looked down, noticing the ring that had caused all that trouble so long ago.

“Dae ye think it really has any powers?” she asked, gazing at it.

“Och, nae. It is folktales, passed down from father tae son. That is all.”

“I disagree,” Elaine said, shaking her head. “If it had nae been for this ring, ye and I would never have found each other.”

Duncan shrugged. “Well, when ye put it that way, then perhaps yer right.”

“And we wouldnae have two wonderful children together.”

“Indeed, we wouldnae,” he agreed again.

“Nor would I be able tae happily tell ye that there is a third on the way,” she said, beaming a delighted grin.

Duncan suddenly stood and grabbed her hands, pulling Elaine to her feet. He wrapped his arms around her and held her close to his body. “I have said it before, my dear wife. Yet, I will say it again. I dinnae ken what I did tae deserve ye, but I am glad I did it, all the same.”

He then hooked his finger under her chin and kissed her tenderly. Elaine let herself sink into his embrace, delight and desire sloshing around her like they always did beneath his tender kiss. Neither of them knew what the future held, but from where they stood at the time, it seemed happy, full of love, and brimming with joy.

The End.


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