Highlander’s Lady of the Lake (Preview)
If someone asked Nimue, she would tell them that there were many things wrong with her father, Laird Robert MacLellan, just like every other man. He drank too much; he ate too much, and he listened too little. He liked to fight and shout. He knew nothing about looking presentable; and he didn’t know how to be a host.
But his worst characteristic—and the only one that Nimue couldn’t forgive—was his loyalty to the British and to a Crown that didn’t care for him or their clan. Whispers of war were spreading fast around Scotland, and if there was one thing that Nimue knew for certain, it was that the other clans would need their help.
And yet, her father seemed to have other ideas.
“I dinna wish to hear another word about it!” the Laird said, slapping his hand down onto his desk. His cup, full to the brim with wine, rattled and shook, little drops of alcohol flying over the papers that were scattered around him.
Nimue paced back and forth in the room. She had never liked being in her father’s study, with its dark, heavy furniture and dark red walls, the very color of the wine that he was drinking. She had never been allowed in there as a child unless it was to be reprimanded, and now, at twenty-four years old, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she had somehow done something wrong.
If supportin’ me people is wrong, then so be it.
“If ye side with King Charles, our people will suffer!” Nimue said, throwing her hands in the air in exasperation. She had been trying to make her father understand the consequences of his actions, but she was not surprised to see that he refused to listen. “Na one else is on their side, Faither. Na one. Are we to be the only clan to support the English over the people of Scotland?”
“Dinna forget that we have ties to England, just as much as we have ties to Scotland,” the Laird said.
Nimue sighed, a heavy, displeased sound. She had heard that very same phrase before, many times. It was no coincidence that she had such an unusual name, nor that her sister was called Guinevere and her brother, Tristan. Though very much a Scot, as he had been born and raised there, their father had always been fascinated by England and its myths and tended to cling to his English roots. It was something that Nimue had never understood. In her eyes, they were nothing but Scottish, and it was Scotland that they needed to help and protect.
“Ach, Daidie, I ken all about our roots, but ye seem to forget that more than anythin’ else, we are Scots,” Nimue reminded him. “We dinna owe England anythin’. We owe it to our people to protect them.”
“To protect them from what?” the Laird asked. “The English willna do us na harm. Why they? They dinna have an issue with us. They only have an issue with those who oppose them, especially those up in the Highlands.”
“Scots, ye mean,” Nimue pointed out. “They are Scots. Why ye would support a Catholic king is beyond me, Faither.”
“I dinna expect ye to understand. It was yer maither who made ye so fond of yer Scotland.”
Nimue knew that her father missed her mother more than anything. She knew that he was still hurting from her death, just like the rest of their family. But the way that he spoke, in such an accusing manner, talking as though her mother’s pride in Scotland was nothing but foolishness, made Nimue’s blood boil in her veins. Her lips twisted into an ugly grimace, just as sharp as her father’s words, and she walked up to his desk, hands on her hips as she glared at him.
“Ye speak of Maither as though she didna ken what she was sayin’,” Nimue spat out through gritted teeth. “As though she didna ken perfectly weel where her loyalties lay. She kent; and I ken. I will never support the king; I will never support the war he is bringin’ upon us. I will never follow a king who wants to disregard our people, our traditions, the Kirk!”
“Enough!” the Laird said, standing up and staring Nimue down before she could utter another word. “I told ye that I willna hear any more of this. Yer me daughter, and ye’ll do as I say.”
“Oh?” Nimue asked. She wasn’t afraid of her father. She knew that deep down, under all the shouting matches and the stubbornness, he loved her dearly, and she doubted that he would do anything to hurt her. Growing up without her mother had been hard on them both. Ever since her death, her father had become overprotective, not only of Nimue but of all three children. “And what, precisely, is that?”
“Ye’re to marry the Earl of Stanford.”
It was not what Nimue had been expecting. She had thought that perhaps her father would simply insist on her supporting the English and their king. Or that he would forbid her from saying another word on the matter. Forcing her to marry a man she didn’t even know, an Englishman at that, went too far.
“I will do na such thing!” she said. “Ye canna force me to marry him!”
“Aye, I can,” her father said. “It’s already been arranged. Ye’ve been promised to him.”
Nimue scoffed, shaking her head. It was all too much for her, knowing that her father was so willing to give her away to a stranger. As far as she was concerned, she had no ties to England, and she wanted nothing to do with the place. How could she be expected to marry an Englishman when she was certain that they didn’t have a single thing in common?
“I dinna care what ye promised him,” Nimue said. “Ye didna even ask me first. Ye didna consult me at all. It’s me own life, Faither, that ye’re tryin’ to throw away.”
“Throw away?” her father said, and Nimue could see that he was getting angrier by the second. Perhaps he was used to being challenged when it came to political and religious matters, Nimue thought. Still, he wasn’t used to being challenged when it came to giving orders to those around him. He was the Laird, after all. “Is that what ye think I’m doin’, lass? I arranged a marriage with a man like the Earl, and ye think that I’m throwin’ yer life away? Listen to yerself . . . so ungrateful. The time has come for ye to marry, Nimue, and the Earl of Stanford is better than any man ye could find in our neighboring clans.”
“I verra much doubt that,” Nimue said. “Do ye even ken anythin’ about him? We ken our fellow clansmen. We ken the clansmen of the neighboring clans. I grew up with them. If ye wish for me to marry, then I shall marry one of them, but na an Englishman.”
“Ye will marry the Earl, and that’s the end of it,” her father said. “And ye’ll keep yer mouth shut around him about this war that ye always talk about. I willna have ye embarrass me with yer ideas and yer fancies in front of the Earl.”
Nimue looked at her father, eyes wide in disbelief. She never thought he would treat her in such a way. That he would care so little about her and her wellbeing that he was prepared to sell her off to the English for an alliance was nothing but traitorous. Her father was betraying not only her, his own daughter, but also Scotland. It pained her to see it–to know he had no regard for the clans with which their own clan had been allied for as long as anyone could remember. He was prepared to betray them and their trust, all because of the English.
Nimue was certain that the English would let them all perish if it came down to it. Clan MacLellan was an influential one in those parts. Still, she doubted any other clans would support them if they sided with the Catholic king. Were the other clans to band together to fight the MacLellans, their clan would be doomed, and the English would be of no help.
“Ye’re makin’ a big mistake, Faither,” Nimue told the Laird. “Ye may na want to listen to me, or to anyone else for that matter, but ye’re takin’ us down the wrong path. Na only me, with this foolish marriage, but our entire clan. Our people. I dinna ken what else to tell ye to convince ye. Perhaps there is na a thing I can say to convince ye but trust me when I tell ye that I willna be dragged to the altar without a fight.”
“Then so be it,” the Laird said as he sat back in his chair, the fight seemingly draining out of him. “So be it, Nimue. I’ll drag ye to the altar meself if that’s what it’ll take for ye to marry the Earl. Consider yerself warned. Noo get out of me sight. I dinna wish to fight with ye any longer, but if ye stay, ye’ll give me na choice.”
“Just like ye’re givin’ me na choice,” Nimue said and then turned around, leaving the room and slamming the door behind her. She didn’t want to stay and listen to anything else that her father could possibly have to say to her. She had heard it all, and she couldn’t bear to be near him.
What am I to do noo? What is there for me to do?
Nimue had always thought that she would marry for love. She had always thought that she would have the chance to choose her husband, and that she wouldn’t have to be married off to some Lord that she had never met before, as though she were an English girl. She had underestimated her father’s love for English traditions, though, or perhaps she had underestimated his greed. What other reason could he have to force her to marry the Earl of Stanford? Surely, Nimue thought, he believed that England would triumph in the war that was to come, and he would end up with more power than he could ever have as a Scottish Laird.
But to use her in such a way was unacceptable in her eyes. She could only imagine what the Earl of Stanford would be like, cruel and ruthless and dismissive of her. She knew he wouldn’t love her. He wouldn’t love her in the way that a man who had known her his whole life could love her.
It isna as though me faither doesna have any other options for me! I’m the Laird’s daughter! Many lads would want to marry me!
Who would turn down such an opportunity? Her looks—which she, herself, had never truly noticed or examined—were irrelevant, she thought. However, there had been plenty of men who had fallen for her unintentional charms. Everyone wanted to marry into the MacLellan clan.
Up until noo, at least. When everyone finds out that me faither is supportin’ the king, na one will want to be a part of this clan anymore.
Nimue herself wasn’t certain that she wanted to be part of her own clan anymore, after what her father had told her. As much as she loved him and everyone else in it, she simply couldn’t bear to watch her father bring her clan to ruin.
But what choice do I have? I canna abandon them when they need me the most.
If marrying the Earl of Stanford was her only option, then Nimue would simply have to accept it. She would have to marry the man and then find a way to convince him to allow her to stay in Scotland with her people.
She didn’t even want to entertain the idea of going to England and spending the rest of her life there, surrounded by strangers, having to share her bed with a man that she didn’t know. Even if the Earl turned out to be a good man, which Nimue doubted, he would still be nothing more than a stranger to her, and that is what he would always be, even after years of marriage.
Rage bubbled over inside her as she made her way down the stairs, putting as much distance between herself and her father as she could. She feared that if she didn’t, she would simply march right back up to his study to continue their fight, even though it was hopeless. Her father wouldn’t change his mind, and neither would she. In the end, she would end up doing his bidding simply because she was a woman and had no other choice.
She hated that there was nothing she could do, that her life and her future were not her own, that someone else was making every decision for her. Why were men given the option to do as they wished, but she had to constantly follow orders, whether dictated by society or by her father?
She wished that she could be insignificant, a farmer girl, perhaps, or a cook. She had never experienced hard work, but she thought it must be better than her current situation.
With an exasperated sigh, she burst through the front doors of the castle, making her way to the gardens, and from there, past the castle walls, through a small opening that only she seemed to know existed. It was the only way she could avoid the guards, who would certainly question her regarding where she was going at that time of the night.
She couldn’t blame them for being careful with the Laird’s daughter, but it wasn’t the first time that Nimue had snuck out of the castle and made her way to the It had always been her favorite place, even as a child, ever since her mother had first brought her there to teach her how to swim. Nimue had returned to that lake over and over throughout the years, even when it was cold, even when her mother wasn’t around to take her there anymore.
It was their spot. Her spot. At night, no one went there but her and her siblings, and they had stopped going there a long time ago.
The night was still young, and Nimue had plenty of time ahead of her until she would have to return to the castle. She looked up at the sky and saw all the stars glittering there, trying to remember their names, just like her father had taught her, but soon, the water became too inviting for her to resist. She began to undo her clothes, letting them pool around her feet until she was in nothing but her underdress, and then stepped into the lake, relishing the way the water slid against her skin.
I may never see this place again. I may never swim in these waters again. I’d do anything to stop this marriage.
Chrisdean and his men had come a long way to find the daughter of Laird MacLellan. Rumors of the man’s alliance with the English had reached the Highlands, and Chrisdean had taken it upon himself to put a stop to it. He knew that the girl was supposed to play an important part in Laird MacLellan’s entire plan, as he was certain to marry her off to a noble Englishman. The only way that Chrisdean could think of to stop it was to marry her himself.
Besides, an alliance between his clan and the MacLellan clan would only benefit him and his clansmen. Everyone in Scotland knew just how much power and influence the MacLellan clan had, and Chrisdean, as a new Laird, wanted nothing more than to share that power.
And as far as he had heard, the girl was a beauty.
He and his men were camped by the lake near the castle grounds, waiting for the two scouts he had sent to find a way into the castle when he heard the sound of footsteps approaching. At first, he thought that it was just the scouts returning from their mission—hopefully with good news and a way to slip into the castle undetected—but he soon realized that the footsteps were too soft to belong to either man.
Chrisdean gestured at his men to be quiet, though they had already halted all their conversations, having heard the sound, too. Holding his breath, he began to walk slowly towards the source of the sound, making sure to stay in the shadows behind the trees and bushes, remaining unseen; and then his gaze fell on her.
Even in the half-light of the moon and the stars, Chrisdean could see that she was gorgeous, her chestnut brown hair brushing against the small of her back and her lips glistening, making her irresistible. The mere sight of her stopped his breath and quickened his heartbeat. Desire pooled low in his stomach, along with a scorching heat that begged to be satisfied.
For a moment, Chrisdean considered calling his men, who hadn’t seen a woman ever since they had left the Highlands, but then he recognized the woman in front of him. She was none other than the daughter of the Laird.
A few of his men rushed to him before he could go to them, mesmerized as he was by the girl, unable to do much other than stand there and watch her. At first, he didn’t even notice that they had approached him, as they had done so quietly, and he wasn’t paying attention to anything but his future bride.
“Ach, noo I see why ye stopped,” Conall said, Chrisdean’s General and right-hand man. He was standing right behind him, whispering in his ear, but Chrisdean could tell that there was a teasing smile on his face. “She’s a bonnie one, isna she? Do ye think I should go up to her and ask her if she wants company?”
Chrisdean couldn’t help but roll his eyes at the crassness of his friend, shaking his head as he turned to look at him. “That’s her,” he told him. “That’s the lass.”
“The daughter of the Laird?”
For a few moments, Chrisdean and his men remained quiet, simply watching the woman. Their original plan had been to infiltrate the castle, but now that seemed to be unnecessary since she was right there, making their job even easier. All he had to do was approach her carefully, make sure she didn’t have a chance to run, and capture her.
And yet, he didn’t move, even as she began to undress, or perhaps precisely because she began to undress. His gaze lingered on her body as she removed the seemingly endless layers of garments, slowly revealing the curves of her hips and chest, more and more of her skin on display with every movement she made.
Then, he heard one of his men draw in a sharp breath, and he remembered that he wasn’t the only one watching.
“What are ye all doin’?” he asked, his expression pinched, laced with annoyance. “Stop lookin’ at her, ye bastards! Go, go hide behind those bushes!”
“Aye, me Laird,” came a chorus of hushed whispers as his men began to retreat—all of them but Conall, who seemed content to simply stand there and watch, despite Chrisdean’s order.
“That goes for ye, too, Conall,” Chrisdean pointed out, crossing his arms over his chest as he put himself between him and the girl, blocking the man’s view.
“What if somethin’ happens to ye, me Laird?” Conall asked him. “I should be here to protect ye.”
“What’s goin’ to happen to me, do ye think?” Chrisdean asked.
Conall shrugged. “I dinna ken. Maybe she has a blade hidden.”
“She’s na wearin’ any clothes, Conall.” Chrisdean pointed out. “Where would she hide the blade, lad?”
Chrisdean watched as Conall looked past him, at the girl, his gaze going straight to her thighs and buttocks, and he had to resist the urge to slap some sense into him.
“Bushes. Noo,” Chrisdean hissed, pointing at the rest of his men who had already retreated back into the shadows.
Conall joined the rest of the men with a dejected look, leaving Chrisdean alone—and most importantly in Chrisdean’s mind, having no direct view of the girl. Chrisdean pulled his focus back on her, seeing that by the time he had managed to get rid of all of his men, she had already gone into the lake.
He decided to wait. Chasing her in the lake would make no sense, he decided, especially with all his clothes which were bound to weigh him down. He simply kept his eyes on her as she swam, fearing that if he lost sight of her, then he would lose his chance to capture her.
She was a good swimmer, he noticed, but he also saw that she seemed to be in no hurry. He wondered how long he would have to stand there, waiting in the shadows for her to come out of the lake, since he was eager to get out of there as soon as he could.
If someone comes to look for her, they might find us, too.
Chrisdean didn’t know how long he stayed there, perfectly still, holding his breath until the girl finally came out of the water. Once she did, his gaze lingered on her body once more, looking at the way her underdress clung to her figure, hugging the curves of her hips and breasts, and at the way her hair, dripping wet, fell over her shoulders in gentle waves.
He could see the entire outline of her body, but he knew that it would be nothing compared to what he would see on their wedding night. He could already tell that she had a body that looked like it was sculpted out of marble, but he could only imagine what she would look like naked in front of him, her full breasts and buttocks more inviting than anything he had ever seen before.
She looked unlike any other woman Chrisdean had ever seen, and to say he was relieved would be an understatement. He had been prepared to marry any woman for the future of his clan, but the fact that she was beautiful meant, in his mind, that their marriage would bring him personal joy, too.
I can only hope that she willna be too stubborn and make me marry her by force.
Chrisdean gave the girl a few moments to put on some garments, though he did not allow her to get fully dressed before jumping out of his hiding spot, running up to her, and grabbing her. The girl was startled, and for a split second, she froze, giving Chrisdean the impression that it would be an easy fight if a fight at all. But before his men could even approach, the girl began to scream and kick at him, her heels connecting with his shins again and again.
Chrisdean groaned in pain, even as he clasped a hand over the girl’s mouth to silence her. The last thing he wanted was to alert guards of his presence and end up dead, so far from home. Then, he tightened his grip on the girl, but that didn’t seem to deter her. If anything, she began to fight him even harder, thrashing in his arms as she tried to get away, her breath coming out in short, labored puffs.
“Stop it, lass,” Chrisdean told her, biting back another pained groan when she stepped on his foot with what seemed to be her entire weight. “I said stop. I dinna wish to hurt ye.”
The girl mumbled something unintelligible under his hand, but Chrisdean didn’t dare pull it away to let her speak. It was too dangerous, and he didn’t want to hear what she had to say, not while she was still trying to fight him. Instead, he held even more tightly onto her, squeezing her with his arms and trying to get her under control.
“I said stop!” he hissed in her ear. “I willna hurt ye or anyone else, I promise.”
Just as he was talking, his men finally approached them, but they didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t simply attack her, of course, as the last thing that any of them wanted was to hurt her, but they also couldn’t approach her, not when she was thrashing around like a wild animal. For what seemed like hours to Chrisdean, she kept fighting, and he thought that it would never stop, but soon enough, the fight was drained out of her as she became tired, eventually slumping in his arms.
Chrisdean slowly, hesitantly removed his hand from her mouth. She didn’t scream, and for that, he was grateful.
“Who are ye?” she asked. “What do ye want with me?”
“I am Chrisdean, Laird of the MacIntosh clan,” he told her. It seemed to him as though she had already understood that there was no escape, not when she was surrounded by so many men, and so he let her go, though once again, he did so hesitantly. “I mean ye na harm, lass. Ye are the daughter of the Laird, arena ye?”
“What is it to ye?” the girl asked, placing her hands on her hips as she stared him down.
“Weel, I’m lookin’ for the daughter of the Laird.”
“Weel, then I’m na the daughter of the Laird.”
Chrisdean looked at her for a few moments, his brow furrowed, and then he glanced at his men. Conall shrugged at him, and Chrisdean wondered if he had the wrong woman.
But no, it couldn’t be. Not only did Nimue look precisely like her description, but Chrisdean was also good at detecting lies. If there was one thing he knew, it was that the girl was lying to him.
“Na . . . ye’re lyin’, lass,” he said, and the huff that the girl gave him confirmed his suspicions. “What’s yer name, then?”
“Och, ye dinna ken?” the girl asked. “Ye ken who I am but ye dinna ken me name?”
“I didna have the chance to learn it, na,” Chrisdean admitted. “But I gave ye me name. Ye owe me yers.”
“I owe ye na a thing,” the girl said, her hands moving from her hips so that she could cross her arms over her chest defensively. “And ye didna answer me other question. What do ye want with me? Why are ye all here?”
Chrisdean smiled, a smile that was meant to distract the girl from a question that he didn’t want to answer, not quite yet, at least. “How about ye tell me yer name first?” he asked.
The girl looked at him, defiance in her gaze, but then she seemed to weigh her options, which were few. “Nimue,” she said. “There, I answered yer question; noo answer me mine.”
“Nimue,” Chrisdean repeated, trying the sound of her name on his tongue. “That’s a verra strange name ye have, lass.”
“I dinna care what ye think about me name or about me or about anythin’ else!” the girl said with a huff. “If ye’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go back to the castle noo.”
“Ach, I dinna think so,” Chrisdean said, and before Nimue could run, trying to escape, he grabbed her once more. Just like before, she struggled, but this time she quickly realized that there was no escape, or so it seemed to him, and she slumped against him, giving in. “Ye’re comin’ with me.”
“Why?” Nimue asked. “I dinna think ye’re a verra smart man if ye take me with ye. When me faither finds out about this, he’ll have yer head.”
“We’ll see about that when the time comes,” Chrisdean said. As long as he had her, then her father was certain to do as he was told. Besides, there was little that Laird MacLellan could do after they were married. The deal would be sealed, and the other man would have no choice but to accept it.
Chrisdean carried his future bride to the horses, which he and his men had left a little further away; all of them marching to the little clearing. His men seemed to be just as eager to leave that place as he was, and he could hardly blame them. They were too close to the castle for comfort.
When they got to the horses, Nimue seemed to hesitate, which Chrisdean took as yet another attempt to escape or at least delay the inevitable.
“Get on the horse, lass,” he said, and when Nimue didn’t move, he jumped on the horse first and then, with the help of Conall, pulled Nimue up behind him. Her grip was like a vice around him when they began to move, but he didn’t give it any thought. He had experienced worse pain in his life.
“Alright, lads, time to go home,” Conall called out to everyone before turning to look at Chrisdean. “Doesna this place make ye miss the Highlands?”
“Och aye,” Chrisdean said. He knew that his men missed their families and their homes; and he had, as well. There was nothing that he missed more than his bed, though, after all those days of sleeping on the ground. He missed how soft and warm it was, how comfortable, how well he could sleep every night, but he knew that soon, he would be back in his chambers.
And he would have a brand-new wife, reluctant as she seemed to be around him. He knew that, in time, she would grow to like him, perhaps even love him. Out of all her choices—though he didn’t know what those choices could be—he was certain that he was the best one. Perhaps their marriage wouldn’t have a good start, but he would make sure that Nimue was content at least.
And why wouldna she be content? There isna anythin’ bonnier than the Highlands and na clan better than the MacIntosh. She’ll never lack anythin’ in life.
Feisty as Nimue seemed to be, Chrisdean was certain that he would tame her soon enough. All he needed, he told himself, was patience–patience and his charming demeanor. Then, she would be his.
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