Seduction in the Highlands (Preview)
Isle of Mull, Seat of Clan MacLean
Elizabeth dressed with care that evening. She had been bold and stopped in an inn along the way to make sure that everything was in order and that her dress would not be too rumpled by the carriage ride from England. With a pale blue dress and her light blonde hair tied in braids and twirled at the base of her head, she hoped she was dressed suitably for the occasion, even if the journey on the boat across the Sound may have wrinkled her dress or pulled pieces out of her coiffure. She also wished to show respect to her dear friends on the Isle of Mull, even though it was her own father that had caused problems among the clans.
To her surprise, nearly as soon as she’d arrived, she had been swept into handsome Liam MacLean’s arms onto the dance floor, and they began to dance along to the merry tunes of bagpipes and fiddles. With his handsome boyish smile, she felt herself smiling as well, her skin tingling when his strong arms were wrapped around her, pulling her this way and that as if she weighed nothing.
“So, ye Sassenachs have more rhythm than expected,” Liam said, slightly breathless at the end of the tune. She saw him wink at her and blushed slightly.
What to say? She had no idea how to flirt with a man, and the last time she and Liam had been in conversation, she felt she had embarrassed herself entirely since she was always so dumbstruck by his handsome presence. “Well, I was taught as a child. Certainly nothing like this, but we were forced into dance lessons with tutors.”
“Is that so?” Liam grinned and leaned against the pillar nearby, staring back at her. Elizabeth could see dancers and merrymakers out of the corner of her eye, but she couldn’t rip her gaze from Liam’s. He said with a mischievous grin, “I would love tae hear all about what ye experienced in England, lass. I have heard Julia and Charlotte talk about it from time tae time. ‘Tis like another world for me.”
Elizabeth felt her breath quicken, and her mind was flitting around, desperately trying to find something to say in response. His gaze was warm and direct, and he was looking at her as if he never wanted to look anywhere else. It was unnerving, yet if she was honest, it was deeply pleasurable. A song was struck up again, and Liam put out a hand. “Will ye dance again, lass? With yer tutored rhythm?” He chuckled.
Weakly, Elizabeth smiled back. She wanted to dance with him again more than anything, but she feared she would simply look like an imbecile who had nothing of interest to say. She shook her head. “No, thank you. I think I will rest for one moment before I try again.”
Liam nodded. “As ye wish, lass.” He dashed off and grabbed another giggling woman nearby the dance floor and pulled her into the center. Elizabeth watched, her lips parted in surprise. She couldn’t help feeling the slightest bit upset at Liam’s quick change from her to someone new. He had made her feel so special in that moment, and then…What am I doing? I am here to greet a friend on the celebration of her wedding! Not spend time daydreaming about fickle yet handsome men!
Wine was the answer. It would calm her nerves and perhaps help her relax enough to give her more fodder for conversation with anyone else who wished to speak with her. Searching around, she spotted a table and took a filled glass in hand. She stood alone and watched the merriment before her, hoping to soon be reunited with Charlotte. Charlotte was always one to make her feel comfortable and that her words were worth listening to.
She took a long sip of her glass, and suddenly a tall man appeared at her side. “Laird Campbell,” she said, nearly spitting out her wine onto his waistcoat, her heart beating nervously. To her relief, the man bowed his head in greeting. It had only been a few weeks since she’d last seen him after her father had killed his older brother, but now that he had become laird of the Campbells, it looked as though he’d grown in confidence and, dare she say it, happiness. His brown curls were rough and tumbling on his head, and his stark blue eyes twinkled merrily in her direction.
“Lady Darling, I am most happy tae see ye returned tae us. Charlotte never mentioned it tae me, that ye would be coming tae the wedding?” He lifted an eyebrow.
“She did not know. I wanted it to be a surprise. Is she around? There seem to be so many people here that I can barely breathe.”
He laughed, and Elizabeth noted the handsome way his eyes crinkled at the sides when he did so. “Ye are right, lass. I agree with ye. Charlotte is around, aye, but I have tae be selfish for a moment. Will ye nae give me one dance afore ye go and see her? I never know when I might get the chance again, with an English beauty such as yerself who may leave us again at any moment.”
Elizabeth opened her eyes a little wider. John Campbell is asking me to dance? He had been so kind to her the last time they’d met under horrible circumstances, but she never expected this. Even after all that had happened, here he was, asking her to dance and appearing rather forward about his interest to do so. She swallowed the remainder of her wine, and placing the glass down, put her hand forward delicately. “Of course, laird. I would be honored.”
John beamed in her direction. He leaned in to whisper in her ear, as he slipped a hand around her waist, “Ye donnae have tae call me that, ye know. I had hoped ye would call me John. It is much more informal. The way I prefer things between us.” Elizabeth couldn’t believe what was happening. John Campbell was flirting with her. A second man that evening!
He pulled her into a dance, and she tried her best to follow the rhythm. They interlocked arms and swung about. As she spun, she noticed Liam watching them from his section of the dance floor. Every time that she spun her head, Liam’s gaze was following her every movement, and she felt a heat bloom up from her stomach, up her neck, and redden her cheeks with its warmth.
She found she rather liked it, this bold attention from two very handsome gentlemen, but she felt an old shame at that fact. It brought up the memory of her father connecting her potential fate to that of the prostitutes who populated the brothels. Once the song ended, John took her arm in his. “If ye donnae mind, lass, I shall bring ye tae Charlotte myself. Ye have done me a service. Ye should see all the jealous lads around us.”
She grinned and felt her eyes flutter downward at the compliment. “Hardly a service, John. Please, I would be most gratified to see my friend on her most glorious of days.” He pulled her through the crowd to the edge where she saw with delight a beautifully dressed Charlotte and a tall, strong, dark-haired Angus standing nearby. They were looking into each other’s eyes and laughing.
Charlotte turned and smiled widely at her approach. “Elizabeth!” She opened her arms and rushed to her friend, wrapping her in a warm embrace. “I saw you earlier but did not want to disturb your enjoyment of the wedding dances.” She winked. “When did you arrive?” Angus bowed smilingly in her direction.
Elizabeth was overrun with happiness. It had felt like a lifetime since she was so warmly greeted. She suddenly felt the overwhelming desire to have a home that was cozy and loving, just like this. “Greetings and congratulations to you both! I am afraid I was much too late for the ceremony. I am so sorry; it was difficult to find a boat when it was not planned — I wanted it to be a surprise. I arrived only a little while before. Liam was the first to greet me.” She said the last sentence with a slight blush.
Angus chuckled. “As I am certain he was most happy tae do. Come, ye must take food. Ye must be very tired from yer long journey.”
Elizabeth suddenly felt the feeling come on her strongly. She was famished. It had been many hours since she’d last eaten, so she allowed herself to be seated. Charlotte sat down across from her, grinning widely. Elizabeth looked around and saw Angus disappear with John. “Charlotte! Surely you do not wish to sit here with a guest when you have your own beautiful table of honor to sit at with your husband.”
“Oh, do not worry yourself! Angus has many people to greet as brother to the laird, and I am simply doing my duty as hostess to make sure my favorite guests have everything they need.” She reached across and squeezed Elizabeth’s hands. “You do not know how much it means to me that you have come. I feared you would not wish to accept the invitation after everything that had happened.” Charlotte hesitated, and Elizabeth knew the question that was coming next.
“How is your father?” Charlotte’s eyes were crinkled in concern.
Elizabeth took a piece of bread and began to chew, not wanting to answer right away. This question was a delicate one and would take time to answer. She wasn’t sure exactly which answer people would like to hear. There had been many who wished for him to hang, and yet he did not. Perhaps this was the kinder way for him to die. By a disease he had obtained within the prison walls.
“I have not visited him often, as I am sure you can understand.” Charlotte nodded tersely. “He is unwell, and I have just received a letter from him telling me so. They do not expect him to live very long, although I do not know how long that might be.” She was surprised at the cold way she spoke of it.
Charlotte frowned. “I am sorry, Elizabeth. No matter what has occurred, he is still your father.”
Elizabeth smiled weakly, feeling a little less foolish for her portion of grief. “Thank you, Charlotte. But let us put him out of our minds on this merriest of eves. I came all this way to enjoy myself and to try and forget the past and the future as well! Tell me, where is your father? Is he doing well?”
Charlotte pointed to the corner where he was chatting amiably to an older, elegant Scotswoman. “He is there! I never expected him to enjoy himself at a Scottish gathering so much as he has, but I cannot keep track of him! From one dance to the next, he goes. He is like a different person ever since…your father left.”
“I know the feeling,” Elizabeth said, a little sullenly.
Charlotte changed the subject, as she spotted the slight frown on Elizabeth’s face. “Now, enough of fathers. Tell me everything you have to say about young men.” She giggled. “You have had two dance partners since you have arrived, and that is more than many a young woman here can say. And such handsome ones too.”
Elizabeth blushed deeply despite herself. Charlotte always knew how to get her to do so. She was like the complete opposite to herself, and yet there as a kinship between them. Elizabeth hoped that a little of Charlotte’s boldness would brush off on herself, and she could act confidently around men. Around anyone, for that matter. “You are right. They are both extremely handsome gentlemen. But I was very surprised to have been asked. You know how tongue-tied I can get.”
“Posh! Elizabeth Darling, it is about time that you accept just how incredibly beautiful you are, and how many gentlemen’s eyes are upon you this evening. Your hair is luminous in the candlelight, and your cheeks are red and healthy from wine and merriment. I can very much understand why Liam and John both selected you as their partner of choice.”
Charlotte was watching her closely, and Elizabeth could see that mischievous smile forming. “Charlotte, it almost looks as if you are planning something.”
Charlotte giggled, and she pushed a lock of reddish-blond hair behind her ear. “Perhaps I am. Would that be so terrible?” Charlotte glanced around the room, and Elizabeth knew she was looking for the two gentlemen in question. “Elizabeth, dear friend, how long will you be staying with us?”
Elizabeth fumbled over her words. “I really do not know. I had hoped to stay for at least a few days. My aunt seemed happy enough to let me go, but I know that I could not stay too long, as to be a hindrance to her as well as a burden to you all.”
Charlotte laughed. “As if you could ever be thus. Please stay as long as you like. Now that I see you are here, I have a job for you, if you are interested.”
“Oh? A job? Is this what you have been planning?” Elizabeth smiled, feeling a little of the old happiness and life flood into her again. Thoughts of her father were momentarily forgotten.
“Not quite, but I suppose it could all be part of it. Julia is pregnant, and she had been helping me a little with the healing, but as of right now, she is not feeling well enough to assist. You can see she had to leave the merriment early, but I am certain she will be back down again later. Calum has gone to see to her needs.”
Elizabeth nodded and waited to hear the request. She ate quietly, trying to stay calm. She hoped against hope that Charlotte would ask her to help.
Charlotte said, “Would you be interested in helping me a little with the healing work while you are here? You could stay in the castle with us, and I know it would be so much fun with you around.”
Elizabeth beamed and squealed with delight. The sound was drowned out by the music and voices in the room. “Yes, of course! I would love to! Oh, thank you, Charlotte! I cannot tell you how dull it has been in England with my Aunt Mildred. She is kind in her own way, but she does not believe women should do anything other than reading, sewing, and sitting quietly. Even though it has only been a short while, it has felt like a lifetime!”
Elizabeth’s words tumbled out of her mouth, and Charlotte laughed wildly. “You are such a comfort to me, my friend. I love your humor, the way it slips out of your mouth when you least expect it. You always look surprised at the things you say!”
Elizabeth nodded. “I suppose I am. Even more so, of late. My father says…”
She caught herself, not wanting to tell anyone about the letter or her promise. It would bring no one anything but pain. She would have to find a way to finish her sentence. Charlotte was looking at her expectantly.
She bit her lip for a moment, and then said, “He says that I must abide by the rules in which I was brought up and not be swayed by any bold-minded Englishwomen in Scotland.” She reached over and grabbed Charlotte’s hand. Charlotte chuckled. Elizabeth continued. “But I cannot help it, my friend. You have helped me see the world in a new way.”
“Well, now you must take your life into your own hands and make your own decision. And I believe you have made an excellent choice, staying here with us! The servants have taken your things?”
“Yes, but I could not give instructions to them on where to place them.”
“Not a worry. Mrs. MacLean shall handle it all. You are here now.” Charlotte turned back to the dancing. “Now, let us turn our minds to merrier things. My wedding for one, and the fact that the eager gentlemen await you to dance with them.” She nodded her head in John’s direction, who glanced towards the women for a moment, a smile on his face.
Elizabeth tried to smile back, but she wasn’t sure how to react. “Charlotte, please say you will teach me how to behave with gentlemen. You tried, but then I had to leave. I have no hope if you do not help me!”
Charlotte smiled. “Of course, dear Elizabeth. I thought you would never ask! Now, the first rule is, carry yourself with an air of confidence even if you do not feel it. It is the men who pine for you, and it is not for you to grovel at their feet.” Elizabeth could see Charlotte smile in Angus’ direction, and he winked back at his wife.”
“And what if the men do not pay you any mind?”
Charlotte waved a hand in the air. “Then they are not even worth a glance from your lovely blue eyes, Elizabeth. Stand confidently. Allow the men to come to you to ask for a dance.”
Elizabeth moved to sit next to Charlotte on the long bench, following her gaze to the frenzy of dancing couples in front of them. “And what to say? How does one flirt with a man when he is attempting to flirt with you? I find I have nothing to say.”
“But you do!” Charlotte tapped her chin in thought. “Answer the first thing that comes to your mind. If you begin to think overmuch about your words, you will find you have not spoken for over a minute while the man waits for your reply!”
Elizabeth nodded to herself, biting her lip in concentration. “You are right. Say what I think on the first thought.”
“Excellent. Now, we will have to speak later, for a gentleman comes your way again. If you wish to dance with him, then say yes as demurely and prettily as you can!” Charlotte’s eyes widened with excitement as she watched him approach.
Quietly, Elizabeth took a breath before lifting her eyes. She had expected John to approach, having seen his smile towards her and Charlotte, but instead, Liam stood before her again, bowing low. “My Lady,” he said with a grin. Elizabeth’s stomach ached for a moment, and she wasn’t quite sure why.
The celebration was positively glorious. Elizabeth was sitting on the edge of the crowd again, her belly full, and her mind delightfully fuzzy with more wine than she had ever imbibed before. Her father had only ever allowed her one glass at mealtimes, but now, Scotland made her ever the rebel. After dancing with Liam, she had spent the remainder of the time speaking with Charlotte and Angus or in John’s arms, loving the dizzy feel of music, heated bodies, and the way the room felt warm with happiness and laughter.
She was now too tired to dance any longer. Many of the guests had fallen asleep on the sides of the room, still clutching half-full glasses of wine or ale. Some had left as well, and she was ready to return to her own bed. It would be utterly delightful to sleep away from the eyes of her aunt, father, and anyone else ready to make a comment on her behavior that evening.
She leaned back against the wooden table and smiled to herself. The wine had made her brave, and she liked the feeling. Thoughts of worry and misbehaving had fled her mind, and she never wanted to give that feeling up. It had been a night of pure bliss thus far, and she wasn’t sure when she would have one again. Especially not once she was married to someone her father would approve of. She was certain he would only approve of someone as militant and controlling as himself, but at that moment, the thought gave her no pain.
She was in Scotland, on the Isle of Mull, and among friends. What more could she want from life? It was her last chance to taste beautiful freedom. She touched her fingertips to her lips to try to cover her smile. Certainly, she looked rather silly, sitting alone and smiling. But she thought about the two gentlemen paying attention to her that evening. She had danced with a few other men as well, but the only two who were filling her mind were John and Liam. They had monopolized most of her time, and Charlotte was guiding her on how to speak to them.
Liam had been flirtatious, but he had moved around to the other women of the gathering and flirted with them too. John had been the most truly attentive, for he had not danced with a single other person besides her. However, Elizabeth’s self-congratulations and secret delight were interrupted by Charlotte, who approached her, hand in hand with Angus. Both of their faces looked ruddy from wine and good food.
Elizabeth stood and suddenly felt just the slightest bit dizzy when doing so. Charlotte said, “My dear, we are off to bed. It is our wedding night, after all. Please, I would prefer it if someone escorted you to your room. I trust you have had a wonderful time?” She winked.
Elizabeth laughed. “I confess that I do not know when I have had better!” Her voice was louder than she’d expected, and she began to brush her dress, feeling suddenly self-conscious at her unusual boldness.
Before they could continue, John approached them. He shook hands with Angus and kissed Charlotte’s hand. “I must return across the water. My most hearty congratulations. Angus MacLean, ye have done better for yerself than the Lady has done.” He chuckled.
Angus replied, “Aye, so then I have been wise and lured her intae my trap.” Charlotte giggled and pushed against Angus’ chest. John turned his blue gaze to Elizabeth.
He bowed and brought her hand to his lips. “Lady Darling, ye have been a most wonderful dance partner. I hope that we may see each other again soon.”
Elizabeth felt dizzy again, and John’s eyes on her and his lips touching her hand ever so gently did nothing to help her state of mind. She cleared her throat and curtsied delicately, praying that she retained her balance and composure.
“I hope the same, laird. I mean John.” The corners of his mouth tilted upwards, and he left the room, Elizabeth’s hand suddenly felt cold and empty without his rough, warm grasp.
Angus waved to the side of him. “Come, Liam.” Liam’s boyish face appeared beside him. Angus clapped him on the shoulder. Elizabeth could tell his words were a little slurred from drink. “Be so kind as tae take the lovely Lady Darling tae her room. Put her in the best guest room, the one Charlotte used tae reside in.” He winked at his wife.
Liam’s face lit up as he turned to Elizabeth. While he watched her, he said, “It would be my pleasure. I shall escort ye, lass.” Elizabeth bade Charlotte and Angus goodnight and approached Liam. She was disappointed that she had yet been unable to greet Julia and Calum, but the time would come.
Liam put her arm in his own. “Ye never know what kind of rascals roam these halls at night, under the influence of too much drink. We Scotsmen every so often have the misfortune of being rather wild, like animals.”
Elizabeth chuckled lightly, knowing he was attempting to make a joke. “And is there no remedy for this wildness?”
She was impressed with her bold flirtations. Tomorrow, she would have to let Charlotte know of her success. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Liam grinning by her side. “Nae, there is a cure. The company of a lovely woman is a good cure, I think. If we care for her company well enough, then we are tamed by her beauty and strength.”
Elizabeth unconsciously tightened her grip on Liam’s thick arm, feeling a sudden flash of intimacy with him. She swallowed, surprised at her physical reaction to Liam’s poetic words. He certainly was a charming man. Her throat was dry as she said, “That is beautiful, Liam. I had no idea you thought so of women.” Her voice was small. Back to being a mouse, I suppose.
They had arrived at the guest room, and Elizabeth’s heart quickened a little at the sight of the strong wooden door. The torchlight positioned by the side of the door cast long shadows across its wooden width. She didn’t want their moment to be ended so abruptly, even though her tired limbs were crying out to be laid to rest. Liam dropped her arm and turned towards her. Elizabeth moved her back against the wall. The corridor felt thick and heavy, and she was having trouble breathing with his closeness. His eyes flicked over her face.
“I was very glad that ye returned, lass. Ye have such a beauty and strength that could tame any man.” Elizabeth felt her knees tingle. He stepped a little closer. “And yet, ye were spending more time with a certain John Campbell instead of in my arms this eve.”
The torch was sending shadows across his face as well, and its light made his eyes sparkle with mirth. Elizabeth stammered out, “I did not see you suffering at all. You had plenty of other women to take my place.”
Liam laughed at that, and Elizabeth’s eyes traveled to his mouth, so firm and enticing. Once he sighed with enjoyment, he replied, “Aye, naething gets past ye, does it, lass? Well, what if I told ye that ye were the one that I truly wanted tae dance with?” His expression grew solemn once more, and he stepped even closer, his face nearing her own. She could feel his breath lightly caress her chin. “The one I want to kiss?”
“Kiss?” Elizabeth felt like the ground fell away from beneath her as Liam laid his mouth atop hers and grasped the sides of her arms. She tensed but let the tension slide away as she allowed him to taste her slowly. There was alcohol on his breath, but it did not disgust her. It was sweet and honey-like, and his lips were warm and smooth, his tongue bold and strong.
In a flash, her father’s disapproving face came into her mind, and she thought of the prostitutes in their brothels, having made the choices they could not take back. She pulled her lips away and leaned against the stone wall, breathing quickly.
Liam was surprised for a moment. Elizabeth could now tell just how drunk he was in the light of the torch, for his eyes were unable to focus fully on her face. He almost looked angry as he said, “Ye think of John, do ye? I promise he could nae make a better lover than I. I am sure ye ken that well enough, lassie.”
To her own surprise, Elizabeth felt a deep offense, and anger rose within her. The conversation between them had moved beyond mere flirtation. It was not a game anymore. He was insulting her, making assumptions of her own thoughts, and presuming that she and he would be lying together as man and woman! Watching his laughing, drunken face, Elizabeth squinted her eyes in anger and slapped him.
It was hard and satisfyingly loud, and the sound echoed through the stone corridor.
Liam MacLean awoke the next morning with a pain in his head that felt like something was inside, trying to tear him apart. He sat up on his elbows, groaning. He looked around him. Somehow, last night, he had made his way deep into the castle and had fallen asleep in one of its lonely hallways. There was nothing laid down for comfort, only the cold touch of hard stone underneath him. He groaned again at the pain emanating from his back. “Bloody Hell,” he said into the empty hallway, criticizing himself inwardly for his stupidity. He knew it was a wedding, but how had he drunk enough to make him feel like his body was dead, only consisting of limp arms and legs, refusing to do his will?
He felt like a young boy again, not able to handle his alcohol. After a few heaving pushes, he was able to stand, but the pain in his head only renewed. “Fecking ale. I shall never drink ye again!” He knew it wasn’t true, but it felt good to be angry at something and to blame something else besides his own idiocy. He looked one way and then the other, trying to figure out his path back down to the Great Hall. He did not want anyone to see him, especially Fergus or Angus, for they would laugh him right out of the castle. He had work to do today, but he wasn’t sure he was up to it. And Brea would want to see him as well. She had been sending him letters ever since his last visit, and he knew she would not remain satisfied for long. She was coming to Mull in a day or two.
He stumbled down towards the steps and looked down to see his stains speckling his waistcoat and kilt. He huffed in frustration. He hoped that no one had seen him in that state, lying like a dog in the hallway, or else he would have a lot of explaining to do to Mrs. MacLean.
He ran a hand through his hair and over his beard, hoping it was not too unruly in case it was Mrs. MacLean who found him wandering the halls. He was certain she would and would not look too kindly upon him. As he entered the main hall, he looked about, hoping to sneak out to his own home without being seen. His horse was still tied in the stables. He walked across the flagstones, listening to the crackle in the hearth, noting the mess left from the night before.
Soon, servants would be entering to clean up, and he wanted to get out before that happened. He was almost at the door. It was within reach, but then he heard that infamous throat clearing from behind him. Squinting his eyes to prepare for the worst, he turned to face Mrs. MacLean. She was standing erect, with her eyes scrutinizing him. “Liam MacLean. I heard ye had graced our upper hallway with yer presence last eve, lad. ‘Twas a good wedding tae be sure.”
“Aye, aye,” he laughed, but as if in punishment, his headache increased sharply. “’ Twas a good wedding, Mrs. MacLean, but I am off now, ready tae return tae me own bed.”
“I see.” She tapped her foot, and Liam knew just what that meant. Mrs. MacLean was a good sort. Since his own mother had died many years before and had been a friend of hers, the old woman had become like a mother to him. “Well, now that ye have done yer best tae insult the guest of this house, I am certain ye need plenty of rest.”
Liam furrowed his brows and cocked his head to the side. “What do ye mean? Insult who?” His mind was swirling, trying to piece together foggy images from the evening before. There was dancing, drinking certainly, and music. He could see Charlotte and Angus smiling happily together. He could envision Elizabeth in her pale blue and blonde beauty, moving gracefully around the dance floor with her tutored limbs. He smiled despite himself.
“One of the servants has seen ye being forward with Lady Darling who has come tae stay with us, and who is a dear friend of Charlotte’s. The slap she gave ye was heard clear around the castle. I wouldnae be surprised if the Campbells heard it on their side of the water!” Her voice was sharp but still motherly in its own way.
Liam lifted a hand unconsciously to his cheek. He did remember that. A slap so hard he was certain never to forget it. But for the life of him, he could not remember what he’d done or said. “Mrs. MacLean, I have nae idea what ye mean. I walked the lady back tae her room as Angus asked me too. That was all.” He hoped that was all, but after Angus had asked him to take her, he couldn’t remember much else.
Mrs. MacLean put her hands on her hips. “Yer flirtatious and philandering ways will get ye intae trouble one day, Liam MacLean. Well, it appears they have done so already, whether ye remember it or nae.”
Liam’s stomach sank. Why did Elizabeth slap him? He must have so deeply offended her for that gentle, kind creature to react in such a way. He wanted to lay down. It was all too much, and Mrs. MacLean’s angry remonstrances were only making everything worse. “By God, Mrs. MacLean, I donnae remember what I have done.” He looked down for a moment, feeling ashamed in front of his stand-in guardian. Mrs. MacLean always knew how to make him feel like a little boy, no much how he’d struggled and fought to grow up and to be seen as a man.
He looked up again, daring a glance at her strong gaze. “Do ye think I ought tae apologize?” He knew what her answer would be before she said anything.
“Of course, lad. Ye must apologize, and despite yer wild ways, ye must think of a way tae do it prettily enough. If the laird or Angus hears about this, then ye know ye are in for an angry sort of discussion.”
Liam groaned like a little boy. “Donnae say ye will tell him what ye know, Mrs. MacLean. I will try tae think of a way tae apologize tae the lass, but my head is hurting like a bastard. I cannae think straight or make pretty speeches.”
Mrs. MacLean crossed her arms and squinted just a little bit more at him. “I suppose that is punishment enough for now. I willnae tell the laird nor Angus, but who knows what the Lady will do? Most certainly, she will tell Charlotte of what occurred.”
Damn. In his continued state of uselessness, he hadn’t considered that. Women told each other everything, especially if it had to do with men and their antics. He frowned. Maybe Elizabeth was kind enough to forgive him? He would have to think of the perfect words.
He was the sort to do that well, after all. Women seemed to melt into his arms with his pretty turns of phrase. Most of the other men on the island were mere brutes, unable to formulate sentences beyond the desires of what lay beneath their kilt, but Liam was different. He knew what women liked to hear, so he would figure out a way to speak to Elizabeth. Just not now.
He nodded to Mrs. MacLean. “Aye, yer right. Donnae worry; I will think of something.” Mrs. MacLean opened her mouth to speak again, and he reassured her. “I will do it soon as well. Just as soon as my head stops feeling like ‘tis splitting apart.”
He gave her a tight smile and left with what small amount of dignity he had left. His shoes crunched on the stone just outside of the castle door, and he had his first morning view of the Sound, so stark in its icy blueness. Curls of mist were spreading over its expanse, and he pulled his coat a little tighter. The coldness of night had not steamed away with the rising sun, and he looked forward evermore to returning to his warm bed before heading across the Sound to hunt again.
He kept his eyes on the water as he walked to the stables. He thought pleasantly of a memory of his mother holding his hand at the side and pointing to it, telling him that the Sound was full of magic. He was told he could merely whisper his wishes at the edge of its coast, and they would come true. If they did not, he either did not wish hard enough or, as his mother said, he was too naughty of a boy.
The second part of that was true. It had always been so. Anyone who had met him as a child had considered him a naughty boy. Even though the years had passed, he still felt like he was that same little boy in many ways. He didn’t know how to be anything else. Angus was wise and strong. Calum was a leader who knew how to make anyone laugh. But Liam was just like a child, content with the moment and enjoying himself. Yet sometimes, he wished that he was different.
Sighing, he rubbed his beard again out of habit, making an attempt to slough off the painful memories of the past and the strong evidence of his continued flaws. He had enough of them for the day. Stumbling up to the stable doors, itching to be atop his horse again, so that she could lead him away to safety, he saw Fergus leaning up against the wall, his arms crossed, and his face merry.
Fergus was like a brother to him. In fact, many thought they were brothers upon first acquaintance, for they looked nearly identical. Yet, Liam was the youngest by a few years, and Fergus was only a slight bit taller, his own red hair and beard tinged with a slight bit of gold. “Aye, lad, ye have returned tae take yer horse back home, have ye? I was wondering when we would see ye again.”
Liam grimaced. “Have ye nae alcohol lingering in yer own brain this morn? I feel as though a pair of sharp claws have been pinched intae mine and will stay thus until I rest.”
Fergus puffed out his chest and stroked his beard mockingly. “I am man enough tae handle my own ale, I think, lad. Ye would think ye had the experience.” Fergus laughed, and Liam closed his eyes and put his hand to his head. The throbbing had begun anew.
Seeing this, Fergus grinned and said, “I see God has seen fit tae punish ye, lad, for all yer antics with the women are now known. Which one of them is angry with ye taeday?”
Inwardly, Liam groaned again. He supposed that rest would not be given to him today, and he would have to suffer through another set of remonstrances
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