Married to a Highland Brute – Extended Epilogue
There had been no sign of rebuttal from Lords Bennett and Turner for more than six weeks.
The only news that had reached the keep was Bennett’s return to England. The tale went that he had suffered heartbreak at the hands of Turner’s daughters and sought a new start in his father’s old manor in York.
Life was peaceful in the Highlands, and Nora relished every moment of it. She spent most of her days with her family and most of her nights in Jonan’s bed.
That morning, however, Jonan had gotten out of bed early to head to a council meeting.
I should not be tired, Nora worried, before summoning all her strength and getting out of bed. Her neck and back hurt, but she forced herself to get out of bed.
I must have slept the wrong way.
After changing into fresh clothes, she headed downstairs.
“I did not want to wake you. You looked like you needed the sleep,” Amelia said with care.
Nora gave her sister a friendly smile. Amelia had decided to stay in the keep and become a permanent member of the clan. The villagers had accepted her because of their love for Nora, whom they had been quick to forgive.
Amelia let go of Leah and dashed into the arms of Nora.
“Are you alright?” Amelia asked her sister when she saw Nora almost lose her footing. “Are you late to bleed this month, sister?” she added quietly.
“No, I feel tired,” Nora said, holding back a yawn. Her mind struggled to make sense of her sister’s words.
“Hmm, are you certain it is tiredness?” Amelia asked with a suspicious look.
Why is she worrying over me so? “Yes,” Nora answered defensively.
“Then I must be mistaken,” Amelia apologized.
Nora went into her garden, as had become her habit, and picked up some new cucumbers and onions for breakfast with Leah’s help.
“Good morniin’, milady,” Callan said as Nora entered the keep.
“Good day, Callan” Nora said as she placed a basket of fresh produce in the center of the kitchen counter.
“Lady Amelia,” Callan said next, smiling proudly as he stole glances at her.
“Would ye like to accompany me on a ride, Lady Amelia?” Callan inquired, as he had done every morning for the previous two weeks.
“Certainly,” Amelia replied gleefully.
Amelia had a knowing look on her face that caught Nora’s eye that morning. She could tell her sister wanted to send her a message without saying anything in front of Callan.
When Leah arrived, Nora immediately asked, “Is there something wrong with my face?”
“Nae,” the youngster replied with an exaggerated shrug.
Nora was still bothered by her sister’s worry. “Are you late to bleed?”
When was the last time I bled?
Nora suddenly felt alarmed for she couldn’t recall.
Where is Jonan? Since Callan was here…Jonan could not have gone for a council meeting.
She began to worry.
“Would you lie to me, Mae, if I asked you a question you might feel odd answering?” Nora asked.
Mae’s brow furrowed immediately. She looked at her knowingly. “Would you accompany me, milady?”
“Where to?” she asked.
“To see a physician in the village…” Mae responded. She clearly did not want to say anything that she was unsure of. “I wonder if… maybe…” Mae let her words trail off and returned her attention to Nora’s stomach.
Nora’s hand moved over her stomach as she pondered the meaning. Am I with child?
She and Jonan had discussed having a child together. Nonetheless, the thought caught her off guard.
“How long has it been since I bled?” Nora inquired, hoping Mae would remember. “Do you remember?”
“Not exactly, milady. But I have nae heard ye speak of it in near two moons.”
“Nora!” she suddenly heard her name called from outside.
Jonan! She dashed out to meet him, who was galloping his horse towards her.
Nora was in his arms faster than she expected, he was panting for air and seemed restless; something made him happy, she could tell.
She drew back and nervously placed a hand on her stomach.
“What’s the matter?” he asked, placing his hand on hers. “Are you still feeling unwell?”
“Well… Mae suggested I go see the physician,” she told him, not knowing what to say.
“I have just ridden from the physician’s. I asked whether he would ride up later, to check on ye,” he told her, sheepishly. He then lowered his gaze. “But he wonders…”
Jonan smiled. “He asked me the last time that ye bled.”
Nora sucked in a breath. “Could it mean…?”
Nora’s eyes widened as she raised her gaze to meet his.
Jonan wrapped his arms around her again, lifting her off the ground. Looking down at his face, she could tell he was overjoyed that she was carrying his child.
“You will make such a wonderful father again, much better than mine ever was,” she told him, and he responded with a deep kiss.
“Ye will make the best mother to our child,” he said to her before easing her back onto her feet.
“Should we tell Leah and Amelia now?” she inquired as Jonan led her back into the keep.
“Nae, let us check with the physician first, to be sure. But from now on, just in case, I shall do all ye need,” Jonan said, and Nora laughed.
He would go to any length for her.
He’d proven it time and time again.
Later that evening, Nora noticed a familiar path rush past the moving carriage.
“Jonan,” Nora inquired suspiciously from the carriage. She wondered if he still had the same devilish smile he had earlier when he had asked her to accompany him somewhere.
Jonan jumped down from the carriage to hold the door open for his wife. The chilly night breeze caressed Nora’s cheeks. She immediately melted into Jonan for warmth, and he had plenty to offer her.
They walked together along the loch’s shore. Nora smiled as she remembered their first kiss and felt her skin tingle.
“This is where it all started,” Jonan said, staring into the darkness beyond the loch. “This is where I first loved ye,” he breathed and Nora’s heart warmed.
“I will always love ye and our child as long as the loch exists,” he assured her. “And my love shall be as vast and endless as the loch’s water,” he promised.
He loves me.
“I love you ‘till the end,” Nora breathed.
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Married to a Highland Brute (Preview)
Jonan McKay gently stroked his wife’s head. It must have been a sight to see his large, warriorlike hands caress his only love’s soft and pale skin.
“I need water,” Magda requested in a weak voice.
Magda’s eyes couldn’t stand the light, so the room was dark. The sheets were coarse, and Jonan expected her to complain about how itchy they were. But she couldn’t anymore because she was too weak.
Gently, he reached for the cup on the nightstand. The illness was rapidly eating her away. Just a few weeks ago, she was able to lift her head and guide the cup to her lips. Now, Jonan was watching her strain to take a sip.
Jonan knew he had to put on a brave face. Magda needed him to be strong, and he couldn’t disappoint her. So he remained so on the outside… But inside, the pain overwhelmed him, especially when he was alone.
He assisted her in bringing the tumbler to her dry lips and holding it there for a few moments. “Ye didnae have a drink?” he questioned worriedly. He lifted the cup again, until he realized she was too weak.
He rang for the surgeon staying in the keep. Jonan watched the man examine her, waiting impatiently.
“Well?” he asked as soon as she was done. “Why does she nae drink?”
“The illness weakens her every day, milaird,” he replied.
“What can be done?” Jonan said, pulling him aside.
He was plagued by fear. He didn’t want to be told that there was nothing he could do. He was unable to keep his hands still. He needed to do something, anything, to help his wife.
“I will give her some water with a spoon, but ye must ken that her time draws near.”
Jonan stood there watching the surgeon leave, but he didn’t move. He’d fought and won many battles in his life. But now I am locked in a battle with death itself, he thought. He had watched his wife fade away like a beautiful flower in the cold, dry weather, her petals fading away day by day.
The illness had struck without warning. Jonan remembered her so cheerful, welcoming, and biddable. She had carried out her responsibilities to the clan and her family with love and strength. He had relied on her wisdom to keep the castle running while he protected their clan. And it had worked flawlessly until one morning not long ago.
Magda had complained of a headache while working in his office late in the afternoon. He was immediately concerned because she rarely felt poorly. She was strong enough to hold his hand tightly at noon; by dinner, she couldn’t.
Everything had gone downhill from there. Magda’s condition worsened by the day. Jonan felt like a bystander in his own life. He knew how to be a powerful soldier, claiming lands and driving his enemies away. He was the powerful and feared McKay clan’s leader — not the type of man to sit back and watch as everything he cared about was taken away from him.
As Magda grew weaker and weaker, the words haunted him day and night. He had contacted every apothecary, physician, and shaman in the surrounding towns. What had he not offered to anyone who could help his wife? What hadn’t he tried? Even so, his efforts were futile.
Grief rushed through him with such force that it was difficult to see past it. He had promised to protect Magda when he married her. He had promised to keep her pain-free, and he had faith in his ability to do so. But as he witnessed her in agony, he realized he had failed.
Jonan returned to her side and refused to leave, but the days that followed made no difference. She did not improve.
Magda coughed one cold afternoon as Jonan sat by her bed. He had been watching her chest rise and fall for comfort, and her cough startled him, snatching him away from his thoughts.
“Are ye in pain?” he asked.
Magda opened her eyes and smiled laboriously.
“Ye will see to Leah, will ye nae?”
“Ye ken I will, Magda, but ye must nae leave yet.”
“We daenae have control of these things, Jonan.” She reached for his hands, and as firmly as she could, she squeezed.
When she let go, her hand slowly searched beneath her pillow for a small portrait.
Jonan took the miniature from her with trembling hands. It had been commissioned almost a year before. He recalled how long she had spent preparing for her portrait to be painted.
They had been so happy, once upon a time.
“I’ll keep this safe,” he promised her and placed the image in his breeches.
“I know you will,” she smiled.
The smile remained on her face, even as she took her final breath.
A fading smile that would haunt Jonan for years to come.
Even before she turned around, Nora Turner knew that Henry would be behind her. She gripped the basket filled with food and refused to move an inch.
“Well, well! Lady Nora, I presume. Your father will be none too pleased about this, I think.”
“Well,” she said, spinning around, “while you tattle along to tell my father, do remember that your silly threats do not scare me.”
The short, bald butler fumed and glared at her, but Nora retained her look of confidence until he had marched out of the pantry.
“Probably on his way to tell Father,” she sighed to herself. Her whispers drifted to Amelia, who was walking past.
“Who’s on his way to tell Father what?”
Nora heard Amelia’s question before she saw her. She bit her lower lip before remembering that it would irritate her darling twin sister; she would panic once she entered the pantry.
“Nora, what did you…” Amelia’s voice trailed off as she reached her. Amelia was dressed in a simple day frock, much like her sister’s. Both dresses were adorned with simple lace edges, and much to their father’s anger, both were the same shade of pink.
It annoyed Lord Turner to no end that his daughters continued to dress in the same colors, as he could never tell them apart.
They looked so much alike; both had large ginger curls and big, green eyes. When they were born, the midwives had tied a pink ribbon around Amelia’s wrist and a blue one to Nora’s. If not for the ribbons, no one could distinguish them.
Nora offered a small smile. “Father won’t be that cross,” she said in an attempt to make her sister smile, but she wasn’t successful.
“Oh, Nora,” Amelia sighed before rushing to cover over the large picnic basket. “You know it’s too much of a risk to sneak food out in the daytime. And this is full to the brim!”
Nora sighed and they began to restock the pantry shelves together, knowing it would be foolish to continue her mission. “Naomi and Nathan are really struggling, Amy,” she whined.
Naomi and Nora had met years ago. She was a middle-aged widow with no other family except her son — she did everything she could, but times were tough and food was scarce.
“I’m aware, but you know we must avoid rousing Father’s anger. I fear he will hit you and—”
“Oh, Amy! You mustn’t worry so. Father has not hit us since we were three-and-ten.”
“You say that like it was long ago.”
“Seven years is an age for some.”
“Not to me,” Amelia said with a shiver. “He terrified me.”
“I know… and you were always well-behaved.” Nora handed her sister a loaf of bread. There was a slight smile on her face.
“And even when I was not, you took my whoopings as often as I would let you, and even—”
“And even sometimes when you would not,” Nora laughed and finished her sister’s sentence. “Oh, those times seem like ages ago.”
Once they were finally done putting the food away, both sisters exchanged fond looks.
“You were always a mother hen.”
“Well, I am older,” Nora said as Amelia slipped her hand into hers.
“By a minute only, Nora,” she said, but there was a smile on her face. “Come,” she said. “Father will, no doubt, send for you soon.”
“Oh, I’m not afraid of him.”
“That is what I fear. I wish Henry would have mistaken you for me, but he’s too eagle-eyed for his own good.”
Both sisters walked out of the pantry, arm in arm, and headed for their shared bedroom on the eastern wing of their father’s manor.
Their father, Lord Baldwin Turner, an English Aristocrat who had served in His Majesty’s court, was assigned to Scotland by the King a year ago.
Nora recalled being worried about relocating there. However, when they arrived in Brinsdale, she discovered that she had not needed to be concerned at all. Scotland was beautiful and her father had acquired a large mansion south of town surrounded by trees that were home to beautiful birds.
Those same birds sang again as the sisters entered their bedroom, awaiting their father’s call. It only took a few minutes for a loud knock to sound on the door.
“You may enter,” Nora called in a voice full of false bravery.
With a snide expression on his face, Henry opened the door but his confidence wavered as he looked between the two women. “Your father summons you.”
“Thank you, Henry. You may take your leave,” Amelia said with a jutted chin.
Nora was pleased by her sister’s gesture. Amelia’s anger, even toward Henry whom she couldn’t stand either, was limited to a raised chin, and even that was rare. When he left, Nora stood to leave, but Amelia turned to her with pleading eyes and grabbed her hands.
“Oh, please, let me go in your stead! Darling Nora, please! I will calm Father down. You will only anger him further.”
“And that will probably reveal our deceit,” Nora said with a grin.
“Oh, do be serious, Nora! Please, let me—”
“Amelia, I could never let you face Father’s wrath. You know I couldn’t, not even if you were to blame. I certainly will not since I am at fault.”
“But you so often take the fall for me…”
“You hardly get into trouble, dearest.”
“Amelia,” Nora said softly but firmly, “No. I will go myself.”
With a brave face and a beating heart, Nora strode out of the room.
Lord Turner’s study was located on the western wing’s far edge. The girls had suspected that the office was strategically placed because their father preferred to be as far away from his daughters as possible. It had been the same in their home in England.
Nora despised it; she hated having to march across half the house, terrified of what her father would do. During the walk, she would frequently try to distract herself like forcing herself to consider all the different ways she could braid Amelia’s hair or picturing rocking a sleeping child, as she had often done when bringing food to some of the local women’s babies.
The soothing thoughts never lasted long, and she was soon back to thinking about her father. She knocked twice on his office’s large door, just as he had instructed.
“Nora.” His voice was deep and heavy with a cold undertone.
She took a deep breath before grasping the large brass handle and opening the door.
Lord Turner sat at the head of the room, behind his large desk. He was wearing reading glasses and ruminating over two large piles of documents on either side of his table.
Nora took her time walking to his table, counting each step until she was standing across from him.
There was no response. Nora sat at his table, silently watching him read. He finished working on a document he had selected from the right pile, and placed it on another to his left. He repeated that for quite some time. After what seemed like an eternity, he lifted his gaze to hers.
“When I speak to you, do you hear the words I say?”
“Do you understand them?”
“And yet, you never obey them. Why is that, Nora?”
Nora remained silent.
“Has the cat got your tongue?”
When Nora refused to speak again, Lord Turner slammed his fists on the table. She stood firm, which aggravated her father even more. She hated being afraid, but it was her father’s favorite game.
Nora and Amelia were not exempt from his bullying because they were his daughters. On the contrary, they got the worst of it. It didn’t surprise her for he hated them both, she knew. She had realized it early on, but it had taken her some time to figure out why.
Nora had suspected her father disliked her since she was a child. She had initially assumed it was because she made messes around the house and frequently got into trouble, but that notion had quickly faded. After all, Amelia was as good as gold, and he was equally horrible to her.
“You and your sister bring a lot of grief to me. It is all you have ever done. You took your mother at birth, and you will not rest until you take me too.”
His words sliced through Nora like a knife, but she remained silent and unmoving; her face blank.
“Stop giving out food that you do not pay for. I should punish you, but I haven’t the time for that today. Do you understand?”
“Nora, you should know your place. I’m a busy man, and I don’t understand why you have to be watched like a child all day.”
Nora continued to remain silent, blinking back tears.
“I’m hoping to hear nothing else from Henry. You are more trouble than you are worth, and I am considering marrying you off. You may leave now.”
Nora walked out of the room, her face expressionless. The tears pricked her eyes, but she didn’t let them fall… Not until she was reunited with Amelia. She knew her sister would know what had happened just by looking at her.
“Oh, Nora, what did he say to you?” her sister said as she entered the room.
Nora closed the door behind her and tried to keep a straight face.
“He said nothing, Amelia,” she lied, but couldn’t keep the truth from her sister. Nora dashed over, allowing Amelia to tightly hug her.
She tried her hardest not to cry, but it was too difficult. Her father’s words cut her deeply.
“Do you think our mother would have loved us?” she asked.
Amelia pulled away from the hug. “I know for certain, Nora. She would have loved us.”
Nora smiled, the pain in her heart beginning to ease. The sisters sat on the bed next to each other.
“What do you think she looked like?” she said after she had calmed down a little. “I know she had red hair, just like ours.”
“Perhaps she would have been tall like us.” Amelia grinned.
“I’ll never forgive father for burning all of her paintings. I would have loved to have seen her…” Nora’s heart was overflowing with longing for her mother. It was a terrible feeling to miss someone you’d never met.
“Oh, Nora. Don’t be sad! We have each other.”
“Yes.” Nora’s smile was genuine. “We do.”
“Do you fancy a walk? We could collect some flowers.”
“It is such a lovely day, is it not?” Nora forced a smile. “I’ll take my parasol, and we can be off in a jiffy.”
The sisters shared another warm embrace, comforted once more by each other.
Nora was relieved to hear that their father had sent Henry out for the afternoon. It was the ideal opportunity for her to try her ruse once more. Naomi’s little boy would go hungry for the third night in a row if she didn’t sneak some food out.
With guilt in her heart, she crept into the pantry. She didn’t like keeping things from her sister, but she knew Amelia would have followed her. She couldn’t let her put herself in such risk.
She decided not to bring the picnic basket this time. Instead, she slipped some bread and cheese into a small cloth bag and hid it with her shawl.
She sneaked out of the house and into the woods, following the small path that circled the estate until she arrived at a small cottage at the end of one of the lanes. It was mostly hidden by the forest.
Nora’s heart had sunk when Naomi showed her where she lived with her son. Since then, she’d done everything she could to alleviate their suffering.
She imagined what it would be like to live so close to the woods, not liking the eerie feeling she got when she walked or rode alone out there. But her desire to assist Naomi outweighed her fear. Arriving at the cottage, she notice the thatch roof leaking in several places.
She knocked twice before the door was flung open.
“Naomi, it’s me.” And the woman’s eyes lit up.
“Ach, milady! Ye made it. Come in, come in!”
“Thank you, Naomi. How does Nathan fare?”
Nora was led into the small house which was slightly smaller than her bedchamber. Removing the shawl, she handed Naomi the bag.
“Very poorly, milady.” the woman said sadly.
Nathan lay in the corner on a straw bed.
“Oh, Nathan! You do look poorly,” Nora said in a comforting voice, stroking his hair.
“‘Tis jolly good to see ye, milady,” the boy replied weakly. “Ma said ye were nae sure to come, but I told her ye were.” He offered her a small smile.
Nora’s heart clenched as she looked at Naomi, glad she eventually took the risk and paid them a visit. “I must leave shortly,” she told them both, “but I will be back. Farewell, Nathan. How I worry so…”
“Ye daenae have to worry about Ma, at least,” Nathan said, despite the weakness in his voice. “I can take care of Ma.”
Nora laughed despite how sad she felt. “I’m sure you can, Nathan. That’s why we need you to be strong again.”
The boy nodded slowly before closing his eyes.
Nora shifted her gaze to Naomi. “What medicine does he take?”
The woman turned away. “We cannot afford medicine, milady.”
Nora walked to the door, deep in thought.
“Milady, do ye need a hand finding yer way back?”
Nora’s eyes snapped up. “I’ve got it,” she replied, then sighed. “Do you remember the short path through the woods that you showed me? From the farmers’ market?”
“Aye,” Naomi nodded, opening the door.
“Well, someplace along there, I noticed a white willow tree. You must find it and scrape off some of its bark. Boil it down and make it into a tea for him. It might help some. Now, I really must be off.”
And with that, she was gone.
Nora hurriedly made her way home. Her father’s estate was larger than any of the surrounding residences. The main gates opened onto a large plot of land that housed his horses, servants, and a few other structures.
Unlike their home in England, the manor had a garden that Nora adored; enclosed by a small fence and gate leading into the woods. She sneaked in and out of the manor from here.
Nora closed the wooden gate quietly behind her. She dashed through the garden and into the house and quickly peered down the corridors. There was no sign of Henry so taking a deep breath, she set out to find Amelia.
“Lady Nora… Lady Amelia?” a voice asked from behind. Nora turned back to Henry whose face held a menacing grin. “Your father summons you and your sister to his study immediately.”
It was nearly noon when Jonan McKay awoke from his slumber that day. He rolled out of bed and onto the floor, unable to get back up.
He had no desire to do anything. It had been like this for years, ever since his wife died. The days passed slowly, and the nights even more so. Everything in the world seemed to be at odds with him, as if he were trapped in an endless cycle of torture.
Jonan laboriously drew himself up until he was leaning against his bed. He reached for the bottle of rum he’d left on his dresser the night before. On most days, he drew himself out of his rest and avoided hitting the bottle until noon. That was not the case today.
For he had a dream that took him back in time.
He cracked open the rum and let the hot liquid burn a path down his throat. He grimaced at the bitter taste of the alcohol but took another sip, throwing it away once it was empty. He then leaned against his bed and closed his eyes.
It was just another day.
I have nae luck, he thought as he rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. Beyond the chandelier was simple darkness, and it reminded him of the void that was now in his heart.
“Milaird,” he heard a knock on the door. Jonan closed his eyes again, not in the mood for visitors. For a long time, he had not been in the mood to see anyone.
His duty as a laird to his clan meant that he couldn’t stay alone for long. His heart was bitter. For months, he had considered leaving the clan and moving somewhere far away, where no one would find or know of him; somewhere where he would not be constantly reminded of his grief… but he couldn’t. He had promised Magda that he would look after Leah and, by the Gods, he would.
Shame engulfed him — he used to be powerful and strong, someone who would never evade his duties.
Who have I become? he thought to himself.
The knock came again. “Laird McKay,” the familiar voice came again. “I ken that ye are awake, milaird.”
Aye, I am awake. I just wish for nae guests. Jonan kept quiet even though he knew he could not hide forever.
Callan, his most trusted ally, was standing outside the door. Still, Jonan lay motionless on the floor.
“Father!” Jonan’s eyes flew open as he heard the gentle voice of his daughter, Leah.
Leah is here. Jonan got off the floor quickly and grabbed a shirt from his drawer, wanting to look presentable.
“Laird McKay.” Callan repeated.
With a groan, Jonan pushed open the door.
“A wonderful mornin’ to ye, Leah. How was yer night?” he asked. She sat with her arms folded across her chest, as if she had been forced to come. It appears that his daughter, though young, held a grudge against him; feeling the burden of his neglected to her and his clan. No matter how hard Jonan tried to mend the growing rift between him and his daughter, he always ran into a painful brick wall.
Leah was only four years old, but she looked exactly like her mother, and he was deeply saddened every time he saw her. Everyone in the keep could see Jonan’s growing absence from the girl’s life, but he couldn’t deny his sorrows for they overwhelmed him.
He extended his long arms and smiled. wanting her to love him, she was his only remaining family after all—his own flesh and blood.
Leah, however, remained motionless. Callan nudged the girl forward, and finding herself near her father, she reluctantly walked into his waiting arms.
Jonan tightly hugged her before abruptly lifting her off the floor. Leah screamed with delight, making him smile for the first time in weeks as a bright grin spread across her face.
She is innocent and has nothing to do with her mother’s death, he tried to remind himself as he danced with his daughter.
“She never laughs this hard when she plays with the other children, milaird,” Callan said. Guilt prickled his conscience, but he did not comment.
Magda had been gone only a short while, but he was already failing her—just like he had failed to keep her alive.
“She should play more with children her age,” Jonan said before putting Leah back down. The young girl’s eyes welled up with tears but he couldn’t bring himself to look her in the eyes again. So he turned away as Callan approached to collect her.
“For ye, milaird,” Callan said, tending Jonan a note.
He looked down on it, then sighed. “I shall see ye before the day ends,” Jonan said to Leah. Dismayed, she nodded and sniffed back her tears as she was led out of the room.
Just smile at me, and tell me all is alright and forgiven, the Laird wished as he watched his daughter walk away from him.
The door remained open in their wake. Soon after, two maids entered the room, carrying buckets on their arms. They greeted him appropriately, then went into the washroom, where they poured steaming, hot water into the tub.
“Yer bath is prepared, milaird,” the women said.
“Thank ye,” Jonan bid the two women as they hurried out the room, hiding their grins and whispering.
Jonan did not call them back to find out what they were gossiping about. He already knew. There was no more popular topic than the laird, who rarely left his chamber.
He sat on the bed, unfolding the note. Callan had tried to remind him that the clan elders had called a meeting with him that morning. He had intended to avoid it entirely, but after seeing Leah, he felt eager to do something worthwhile with his day.
A bath first, Jonan decided, taking off his shirt. A brief giggle alerted the Laird to the presence of peepers. He knew it had to be the maids.
He coughed loudly enough for the ladies to hear. Their quick feet hurried out of the chamber, across the corridor, and to the stairwell.
He held no grudges against the young women who wanted to see him naked. Years ago, his pride might have reveled in the attention, but now… now he was a different man, and he desired to be alone.
They are naïve to like a man such as meself, Jonan thought, downcast before he dipped into the bath.
It wasn’t his first time dealing with nosy maids. He was a widower, so many women fancied him or aspired to be the clan’s new lady.
Jonan quickly washed himself and exited the washroom. He looked through the looking glass, which hung just outside the door.
He looked like the tall and burly man he had always been with broad shoulders like his father and black curls like his mother. He was a strong man; his body was toned and muscled—he was, after all, a seasoned warrior.
But deep inside, he felt weak.
Perhaps this is who I really was all along. Perhaps I played the strong laird for too long. If I didnae, why can I nae remember what it feels like to lead, to be in control?
Jonan brushed aside his thoughts, and dressed in a loose shirt and breeches. He slipped on his boots and walked down the spiral stairs that led to the main dining hall.
It was a large room, big enough to host a clan ball. He recalled running through the hall as a wee lad, disobeying his parents and getting into trouble.
Breakfast had been served. The Laird sat down but the meal in front of him did not pique his appetite. He did, however, force himself to eat, not wanting to waste valuable food, even if it brought him no satisfaction.
After a while, Callan entered and joined Jonan at the table. “Milaird, ye daenae seem to be in the best of moods.”
“The clansmen are just concerned. They need yer reassurance.”
Jonan took a sip from a tumbler of water. He didn’t have the courage to tell his friend that he couldn’t offer any reassurance.
“I dinnae ken if I wish to go.”
“You are the Laird McKay, and yer people have barely seen ye since the Lady McKay passed,” Callan pointed out. “There are rumors amongst the clan members that ye dinnae care for them anymore,” he continued.
“I care for me people. I am only in mourning. A man may grieve loss, may he nae? ” Jonan replied bitterly.
“Ye need to go out into the clan, Laird McKay,” Callan continued.
Jonan was well aware of Callan’s intentions. The man would gently pester him; never demanding, always implying. But he was unwavering in his support. Jonan knew that the commander would not rest until he attended the meeting.
“I will go,” he said at last.
Jonan felt uneasy while riding through McKay village. Everyone stared at him as he walked past them in silence. He could see in their eyes that they remembered his loss the moment they saw him, and their sympathy for his plight was too much for him to bear.
Overcoming his discomfort, he waved and smiled at the clansmen. They all bowed to him and waved the clan’s flag as he rode through.
The children were more palatable, with less concern for his loss and demeanor. There was no sadness for them to feel, only joy and fun.
Jonan left his stead in front of the town hall in the square. He could already hear conversation inside the building, as the council had begun without him. Nonetheless, he entered.
When he pushed open the front doors, the large meeting room fell silent. After a while, they all rose to greet him.
Jonan counted the people in the room and realized he was the odd one out. Callan had prepared for him the vacant seat at the head of the table. The Laird McKay walked over to his seat, ignoring the men around him who were trying to conceal their surprise at his presence.
“Ye may sit,” Jonan stated. “Why have I been summoned?” he asked then, getting straight to the point.
The men at the table exchanged glances before one of them spoke up. The council’s eldest member — a fifty-year-old clansman who had seen three lairds in his lifetime.
“It is a pleasant sight for the clan to have ye bless our invitation. The people of the clan felt hope this day as ye rode amongst them,” Aodh started.
“I apologize for my absence,” Jonan replied. “I have been occupied with other, pressing matters.”
“While ye were absent, Laird McKay, the English have gained ground on our people. The Scots are terrified,” the man continued.
“We are strong and proud Scotsmen who would lay down our lives for the freedom of our country, but we are weak in numbers,” another man said.
“We have been forced to find allies in clans we once lorded over,” Aodh announced.
“We must not forget that when the rains destroyed our harvest last year, the clan was forced to loan from the Ta’Mas.
‘Tis due to be repaid,” another man added on.
All eyes were on Jonan. He sat in silence, unsure what to do.
The Ta’Ma’s were a wealthy group of Barbarians. They charged exorbitant interest rates and would not accept late payments. They were known to burn entire clans’ villages down after taking everything valuable to repay their debt.
They murdered children and men and frequently raped women.
The McKay clan had a formidable army, but it would never be able to withstand the Ta’Mas’ wrath.
“The clan is failing, milaird. The farmers are sick with the flu, and they cannot work.” Aodh continued. “‘Tis crucial that the planting begins immediately. There is no more time to waste. Even while we contend with this, we are ever threatened by the English.”
Jonan remained silent. He knew the words spoken were true. Despite having spent the majority of the previous few months in his keep, he was aware of rumors of English soldiers on their lands. The council’s solution appeared simple enough, but he knew how difficult it would be to secure allies with civil wars raging across the country. Scotland was sick of conflicts.
All of the men sat quietly at the table, waiting for him to provide a solution. As clan chief, it was his responsibility to protect them.
“We shall bide our time and wait before sending the council in search of allies. The war is still far from our lands.” Jonan pronounced. The members of the council were shocked at the laird’s words. He knew that they thought his approach was too passive.
“But we must be hasty in our actions to protect the clan lands from the English,” Aodh argued, speaking the minds of all those at the table.
The old man’s words fell on deaf ears. Jonan got to his feet, startling them.
“Our clan does nae cower and seek out allies,” Jonan stated firmly. His voice was so loud and mighty that none of the men dared to speak until the echo of his voice faded away.
“We ken about the past wars between our clan and the others. We were strong in those days, and we made all our enemies bow to us… but the English are upon us now,” Callan spoke gently.
“I think ‘tis high time that we speak clearly,” Aodh said, standing. “Ye are the Laird and ‘tis yer duty to care for yer clansmen. The clan suffers and weakens as each day passes, yet naught is done.”
Under Aodh’s piercing gaze, Jonan remained silent. The men of the council kept quiet too, not supporting Aodh but also not disagreeing with him. A rather terrible sign for Jonan.
“Ye must do something, Laird Jonan McKay, and prove that ye can still rule this clan.”
“Enough!” Callan said, standing up and facing Aodh. “I respect yer gray hairs, but I will nae listen to ye disrespect the Laird.”
“I have given my final word, Aodh, to ye and every member of this clan. We will seek no more allies.” Jonan’s words were firm, but his confidence shook, and he might have remained silent had it not been for Callan’s bold words. “I remain Laird of this clan. If any man wishes to challenge me, let him pick up a sword. I have nae forgotten how to wield a blade.” He rose to his feet, noting Callan’s relief in his response. “I am Laird Jonan McKay and the McKay clan yields to none. That is my final word.”
With those words, he marched out of the meeting and rode back to the keep.
Once there, he allowed himself to collapse on his bed as evening fell — alone in solitude. The way the bed accepted the burden of his worry was almost blissful.
“But life is nae meant to be so.”
He sighed deeply. He reached into his pocket, searching for the portrait of his beloved Magda. He realized that he couldn’t take it out as he usually did. He didn’t want to. A sense of shame washed over him, knowing that, deep down, he was no longer the man his late wife had adored.
He had failed her, but wouldn’t fail his clan too.
For the first time in a long time, Jonan headed toward his study. He was on a mission to find a letter he had previously discarded.
There it was, lying in a drawer of his desk. The brown envelope was wax-sealed. The initials on the seal read L.T. As he trailed over the smooth paper with his fingers, he began to think.
He wasn’t oblivious to his people’s hardships. Their food supplies were running low, and more trespassers were showing up on their land. Their finances were failing, and he worried that the clan would be marched upon.
Jonan understood that it was solely his responsibility and duty to keep his people safe. The clan required more money, allies, and food. If his people were not conquered, they would almost certainly starve.
He grimaced as he opened the envelope and removed the neatly folded letter. Unfolding it, he reached for his quill.
He rummaged through the drawer for the McKay signet ring. He sighed and dipped it into ink before slamming it against the paper, echoing finality. Then he went in search of a messenger boy to send the letter on its way.
As Jonan watched the messenger ride away, a strange dread swirled in his stomach. He retired to his chambers and drank himself to sleep.
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The Secret of a Highland Rebel – Extended Epilogue
One year later
Bevin sat in the sunroom with Louisa, sipping a cup of tea. She’d been married to Keenan for a year now, and life had been beautiful and blissful since then. He had kept his promise to her, constantly demonstrating his love for her in small and large gestures. She also made certain to reciprocate his efforts so that he would never feel unloved.
The Athol clan was doing outstandingly well. Keenan had made it his mission to restore the clan to its former glory and then gone above and beyond, introducing new ideas he was certain would benefit the people’s growth.
Keenan was unlike any other Laird. He made sure that he listened to people who had complaints — that he was physically available. He was always working with them, going out to join them during the planting season and assisting them in building silos and digging wells to prevent fires around farm areas and provide more water sources.
He was still the same person he was before becoming Laird. He made certain that Athol had many allies by attending meetings with other Lairds himself rather than sending others in his place. He was excellent with people. He proved to be physically and mentally strong, and people preferred to work with him rather than oppose him.
He trained new guards and soldiers, incorporating techniques he had learned on the street and from the many masters he had served under, and their military strength more than doubled. His soldiers were regarded as the best in the villages and clans that surrounded them.
He had Mr. Balfour by his side, which aided him in his mission. The merchant, who had connections with other merchants, assisted in bringing good trade to Athol, causing other villages to turn to them for goods they required.
Mr. Balfour maintained his habit of rescuing strays and training them to be experts in various fields. He no longer warned them against using their hearts, but instead reminded them that the brain was a very important tool that they should use.
The old man’s habit appeared to have grown with age and since his reunion with Keenan. He did everything he could to replace Keenan while still holding him in high regard. When he returned from his trips, he always brought some boys with him and trained them to be better, effectively removing them from the streets and ensuring their basic needs were met.
Mr. Balfour chose to settle in Athol after becoming tired of constant travel. He had built a large network with his boys and those he had met over the years, and he no longer needed to leave his house on long trips.
His friendship with the former Laird remained strong. The two of them trained the boys in their different areas of expertise and picking a new spot to travel to every few months. The two would go away for a few weeks at a time, sending letters back and forth about their adventures. They always returned with stories of their explorations and gifts for everyone.
John was no longer tempted to drink, though he did occasionally share a glass with a friend on nights when they decided to stay in and enjoy a quiet evening.
Once Bevin asked him about her mother and he’d made it clear that any mention of her only caused him grief and drove him deeper into the bottle. Bevin had been afraid to ask again because she didn’t want to jeopardize his progress. She was surprised when he smiled and told her about her mother’s shenanigans and all the times she had made him worry.
The night had been filled with so much laughter that Bevin had been moved to tears. She had tried so hard to keep them from falling down her cheeks because her father still felt guilty about how he had treated his daughter, and she wanted the night to end in the same joy it had begun.
She attributed part of his happiness to the merchant and loved him for it. She was grateful to him for the man Keenan had become, but now she loved him with all her heart, just as much as she loved her father. The old men’s mischievous behavior only reinforced that love.
She was grateful for Keenan’s special bond with Mr. Balfour, whom she had come to know as James. It appears that James and her father brought these boys and trained them to be mercenaries in order to ease Keenan’s position. The two frequently dispatched young mercenaries to him, who always joked that his land would soon be overrun with young men.
The merchant had told Keenan that he was their older brother in a way because they all looked up to him as their father. Keenan was glad to train them, glad that he could at least provide them with a stable future as guards.
He would come home from the training ground, clean himself up, and join her in the sunroom or wherever she was at the time to spend quality time with her. She was particularly fond of their amusing exchanges. He was a very busy man, but he showed that he wasn’t too busy to spend time with her.
Keenan appeared just as she was thinking about him, as if she had summoned him with her thoughts, and kissed her cheek, causing her to smile. He smelled like the soap he’d used in his bath, and his hair was still slightly damp.
“How is me lovely wife doing today?” he asked, striking up a conversation. Bevin responded that she was feeling great and that she was glad he could join her. He left their bed before she woke up this morning, telling Louisa to notify her when she awoke that he had been called for an emergency and didn’t want to wake her up to tell her.
“I have been thinking of ye all day,” he said to her. Bevin couldn’t believe that after a year of marriage, he still made her heart skip a beat. Her new friends had told her that once she settled into marriage, her feelings would level out, but she was relieved to know that she still felt the same way she did when she first fell in love with him. It made her so happy that Keenan was feeling the same.
“Louisa, I hope this one has nae talked yer ears off,” he joked, pointing to Bevin, who smacked him lightly on the arm, unable to keep her laughter at bay.
Louisa, who was used to both their antics by now, laughed with them as she said, “Nae me Laird, she has been perfect.”
The two continue to have light conversation, frequently including Louisa, who tried but failed to stay out of their antics. She eventually gave up trying as they laughed and joked.
Keenan told her about his day, including the emergency that had compelled him to leave their bed. A Laird from another clan had had his land flooded and required assistance in dealing with it. Keenan had taken some men provided by James and gone to the Laird’s land before the flood caused any further damage than it had already.
He had advised him to construct an irrigation system that would direct the water to the farmlands instead, and he had stayed with his men to assist the Laird in this endeavor. Bevin was pleased with her husband. He was selfless, always willing to lend a helping hand to others. There was no other man she’d rather be with, and she ensured he knew that.
“I saw yer faither in the study on me way here,” said Keenan suddenly. Bevin looked at him, wondering what he had done or said this time.
“He said he was proud of how we handled the clan and our marriage so far. He is glad that both have been going so smoothly.” Bevin was moved by her father’s efforts to be present in her life and grateful that, even though he was no longer Laird, he was still working hard to ensure the clan’s success.
“He said that now all he wanted to make his joy complete was for us tae give him a grandchild,” Keenan laughed. “James asked me the same thing a few nights ago. Maybe we should get tae it now so that we can give them the grandchild that they want so badly,” Keenan joked.
Bevin set the cup she was holding down and exchanged an excited look with Louisa. It had been their topic of discussion today.
I cannae wait tae tell him I am with child.
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