Temptation in the Highlands (Preview)
Isle of Mull, Scotland, November 1717, Seat of Clan MacLean
Calum MacLean rode hard and fast, following the coastline of his beloved isle. He saw the beauty of the green hills and the gray of the rocks and the blue of the sea, but he didn’t really see. His teeth were set, and he breathed sharply and quickly as he rode. Riding was the only way he could escape the truth of what kept gnawing at his mind. He was losing his clan.
Everything he had dreamed and learned about since he was young would soon be gone. And it was all his fault. He could barely bring himself to look at the portraits of his ancestors that hung within his castle walls. Soon, if he did nothing to stop it, the Campbells would come for his land and his castle, either merging his clan with their own and making ties with the English, or pushing them off their land entirely, leaving them as homeless orphans, wandering the desert like Moses.
Calum’s horse, Fìor-Ghlainne, named for the supposed purity of his former wife, knew the land well, and she rode steadily, beating her hooves against the ground, hoping to bring her master some solace. Calum thought about his brother and second-in-command, Angus, and the words he’d just said that set Calum to riding.
“We need food, brother. We must hunt! Yer clansmen are starving around ye, and ye have nae eyes tae see it! Ye can only see yer own pain. We need tae work the land. We need tae establish trade. Brother, ye will lose yer people if ye dinnae stop it. The English are here! And they will spot yer weakness and exploit it. Whether ‘tis they’ or the Campbells, Clan MacLean will become nae more upon the Isle of Mull.”
Angus was younger than Calum by 5 years, but in many ways, he was so much wiser. He had been the smarter of the two of them in their studies with the tutors, but Calum had been the jollier one, the more sociable, until the event happened which broke Calum and made him the unpleasant man who was riding along the coastline today.
Once Angus had spoken the words, Calum had left, feeling the fury rise in his throat. How dare his brother, his own subject no less, speak to him in such a way? Surely, he, the laird, would know best what to do with his own clan. His father would never have tolerated such remonstrances from their uncle. Why must he?
But the more he rode, and the more he fell into a sullen reverie with each beat of the horse’s hooves, the more he realized his mistakes. Yes, he had made many and had let the clan, clan lands, and the castle fall into disrepair. As he stared across the isle as he rode, it was as if he was seeing it for the first time in a long time.
The ground was brittle and dry. Fishing boats were in need of new wood. Animals wandered without fences and were sickly. He knew they were often lost in high tide or from simply wandering too close to the Sound. And Duart Castle, which rose before him in the late morning light, still looked formidable, but also looked tired and weak.
He rode towards the old gray stone walls which looked solemnly out to sea as they had for hundreds of years, and he suddenly felt a pang of regret. He would have to do something to make up for his mistakes. And maybe apologize to his brother as well. Maybe.
Julia scrawled into an old leather notebook atop her uncle’s desk. “2,000 pounds, Uncle. Why that is double what you earned at the tables last week. You are improving, I see.” Her voice was flat and emotionless.
Julia’s Uncle Andrew grinned at her from the fireplace, sticking his thumbs into his waistcoat pockets. He had grown rather fat in the past fourteen years, despite being a decorated General, and Julia did not like to look at him long. His powdered wig sat untidily upon his head, and he spoke with great obsequiousness and condescension, as he always did with her.
“Well done, Julia, my dear, my beauty. You are so talented with numbers; your mind has been blessed by Pythagoras himself.” He winked at her, and Julia looked away quickly, a sharp pang of nausea filling her stomach. He came up behind her at the desk, placing his hands behind on her chair. Julia pretended not to notice, continuing to scrawl away in the notebook, preparing columns for the next round of gaming her uncle was sure to engage in.
“My dear, you are growing prettier every day, you know, and it has not gone…unnoticed.” Julia wished she could disappear, but she continued to appear as calm as she could. It was true. However much she would have wished to stay a child, free from men’s clutches and desires, Julia had grown into a woman. And her uncle was reminding her of it nearly every day. He painted that compliment under a guise of wanting her to get married and find a wealthy husband, but if ever a man showed too much interest at balls and gatherings, her uncle would shoo them away, saying they were unsuitable. No one seemed to be good enough for his niece, who had become like a daughter to him.
And while the thought was so disgusting and so unusual, Julia could not shake the feeling that underneath everything, there lay a desire for her from her very own uncle, and she feared what might happen if she lived alone with him for too much longer under his roof. It seemed impossible, but every time he mentioned what he was about to say, the idea came ever closer to reality.
“Your bright blue eyes, my dear, and your smooth, pale complexion against your dark, ebony hair.” Julia could feel her uncle’s fingertips slowly caressing the top of her head. “They are enough to tempt any man.”
“And yet, no one has proved suitable to you, Uncle.” Julia pushed the chair back into him, and he made an ‘oomph’ sound, bending over slightly with a grimace of pain. But he soon regained his composure. Julia stood by the hearth, farther away from him and crossed her arms. While it was the fashion for young ladies to have low necklines and tightened waists, Julia felt uncomfortable under her uncle’s gaze, and so she would cross her arms in an attempt to cover what she could.
He chuckled. “Your usual stance, I see. And yes, no one has quite come up to scratch, I’m afraid, but it is not true any longer.”
Julia’s heart stopped, but she simply lifted an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Yes, dear niece. I have found a friend who I believe will be quite suitable for you. He is a military man and one of my contemporaries. We will travel to Scotland tomorrow to meet him.”
Julia’s arms fell to her side, and her eyes opened in surprise and anguish. “What? You have found…” She couldn’t even bring herself to say the words.
Uncle Andrew took her surprise and speech as her enjoyment of the news. “Yes! You will be a wife at long last. Is that not what all women aspire to?”
Julia grimaced. Not quite, she thought. Especially not when marriage was what it was so often evidenced to be: a prison for the woman who must do exactly as her husband says and live a life of lonely desolation. “But, he is your contemporary? He will be too…old.”
Not often was Uncle Andrew angry, but when he was, Julia would recoil in fear at the intensity of it and how quick he could flit from cheeriness to anger. He stepped ever so slightly closer to her, but she stood steady, only moving her face slightly back from his.
“You would do well to remember, Julia, who it is who controls the wealth of this estate, who controls to whom it goes, and who has taken care of you all these years. It is not in your best interest to disrespect me or those whom I call friends. You will marry this man because I wish it. You will live a life of ease in Scotland, and I will reside there as well.”
Julia was confused. “You will be there?”
He returned to his earlier cheery mood, smiling back at her. “Why yes.” He reached his hand out and lightly touched the side of her face. Julia stood still, hardly daring to breathe. “I have been transferred for the time being to work along with General Wade’s plan to improve that brutish, wild land and bring it to English standards. I also thought that you might be lonely without family about, my dear. General Whiteman is a very old friend of mine, and he has welcomed me to stay with you both. I hope you do not mind?”
Julia knew best not to argue at this moment. But she had to think of something. “No, Uncle. ‘Twill be good to have family about me when I embark on this new adventure.” Uncle Andrew did not notice the lightness and artificial cheer that filled her voice.
“Excellent. Send your maid to begin packing. We will leave tomorrow morning.”
Angus MacLean sometimes wished he could punch his brother in the face as hard as he could. Of course, being brothers, such a thing was possible, but he didn’t think it would solve anything. Laird Calum MacLean was about as stubborn as stubborn can get, especially since his loss. He had always been so merry and joking, full of happiness from day to day, the very opposite of the quiet, reserved, stoic Angus; but now, he was a changed man. Now it was Angus who appeared to be the jolly one. Calum had been cold and hard the past four years. Nothing seemed to lure him away from his bitterness and sorrow.
However, Angus was hopeful this morning. So many things had come to a head that it was time he told Calum the truth of what was going on. He hoped it would wake him out of his stupor. He had given his brother enough time to grieve. They needed to start building up the clan again, to bring it back to its former glory. But over the past years, Calum had not moved. He had seen nothing wrong, and so had let the clan fall into weakness and uselessness.
But after Angus had spoken this morning, Calum had hurriedly left in anger to ride away on the coast. Angus waited in the main hall, pacing, hoping with each second that passed that Calum would return, the old vigor in his eyes. Even if he did not, Angus had arranged a group of men to meet with the MacLeans on the coast of the mainland to hunt and trade wares.
Even if Calum did not agree, he would take them across the Sound. The clan would not survive the winter if he did not do something. As he paced, Calum burst into the room and surprised him. It was not unusual for Calum to be bursting, but Angus had been on edge ever since he’d left.
“Brother! Ye have returned from yer ride. I hope it aided ye?” Angus asked hopefully, a little too cheerily for Calum, and so Calum’s eyebrows furrowed in displeasure. He called for wine.
“Aye, I’ve returned, but I cannae say I’m in a better mood than when I left. Brother.”
Angus’s heart fell. He supposed it was too late to ever hope for a change. He would just need to take matters into his own hands, or the Campbells would take over and bring shame to the MacLeans, being traitors and dogs who were in league with the English.
The wine came, and Calum sat gruffly down on one of the chairs against the stone wall. His voice softened. “But, I ken yer right, lad. Go. Send the hunters. The MacLeans on the mainland will help us and let us use their land.”
After saying that, Calum drank his wine in one gulp and then put his face in his hands. It was as if the effort of trying to make changes took everything out of him. An excited Angus moved closer to his brother, placing a hand on his shoulder. He whispered, “She is not worth this, lad. She is not worth a lifetime of sorrow.”
From beneath his hands, Calum said, “But how could ye know what she is worth? How could ye know what she has cost me?” His voice was raspy with emotion.
“Be the laird our father always knew ye would be. Dinnae let clan MacLean suffer because of what she has done.” With that, Angus left, knowing there was nothing more to say. His heart ached for his brother, it really did, but it was time for action. And Calum was still young, not being yet 30 years of age. He had his whole life ahead of him, and he was wasting it on that bitch. What Calum needed was a swift punch to the face and to find a good woman. Angus yearned for that for himself as well, but he would never have said so, and he had never found any woman to be enough for him. But for Calum, it was time he married again.
But now, to the hunters. They would be assembled quickly and sent across this very afternoon. And perhaps, clan MacLean would have a new chance at survival.
Julia’s lady’s maid had packed her case with care, providing everything her young mistress would be in want of. Books and notebooks, of course, filled a great portion of it. She would not need too many ball gowns in Scotland, but they were necessary all the same. Julia sat across from her Uncle Andrew in the carriage as they said goodbye to her family home in the fashionable area of London and headed towards Scotland.
She barely had time to write to her cousin, Charlotte Andrews, about her departure. She and Charlotte had hardly seen each other since her Uncle came into his wealth, yet she was still the closest friend Julia had. There was no one else she really knew, aside from mere acquaintances she met at social gatherings. And so, with tears in her eyes, Julia had written to Charlotte to let her know her fate. It had finally come.
She knew it would, but she had hoped she would be married to someone in her beloved London and not someone who was stationed off in the wilderness. She did not know much about Scotland, other than what she had read. The English seemed to disdain the people there, especially the Highlanders, who were reputed to be fierce, uncivilized, and uneducated.
She was not one to enjoy geography as much as science and mathematics, and so she was terribly unsure as to the exact location of Fort William on a map. And she was, of course, unsure as to whom her bridegroom would be. She’d heard of General Whiteman, for his fierce reputation preceded him, but she’d never seen him or heard him described. But her heart told her that he would look just as Uncle Andrew looked: balding with white wisps of remaining hair, fat, old, and ugly. And he would probably be just as…uncomfortable as Uncle Andrew was.
Ever since her father died, and her uncle began taking over her day to day life, Julia’s experience with men had been mainly limited to him and the servants. She spoke occasionally to men at balls until their liaisons were swiftly interrupted and broken. In her heart, besides her father, she thought all of them vile creatures. Men, especially wealthy, greedy men, were of the worst kind, and she had no false illusions as to the happiness of her future wedded life.
Julia lay back against the carriage seat as it bumped along, allowing her mind to help her accept what was about to happen. Uncle Andrew was asleep, and his mouth opened and gurgled with each breath he took. She made a face of disgust and wished she could tear open the carriage doors and push him out into the road to be feasted upon by the wild animals. Julia looked out at the countryside that surrounded them.
They had long left London behind, and what was around them now was rolling hills, dotted with sheep. The sky was a beautiful bright blue, and Julia thought she was looking upon a storybook page. She had never been outside of the great city, and so this seemed like another world. Her father had always meant to take her on his occasional travels, but after his death, she was stuck endlessly in the same place.
Julia pulled away from the window, feeling the sting of impending tears behind her eyes. Father’s death changed my life for the worse. It’s as if I’ve lived two lives. One of happiness before and one of sorrow and tragedy after. I can honestly say, I have not felt happy for one day in these fourteen years.
Then escape. Julia sat upright in surprise. A voice not her own felt like it had spoken to her mind. She looked around, feeling unnerved by such a phenomenon.
She attempted to speak back. Escape to where? We are nowhere.
The time and opportunity will come. Take it.
Julia gripped the edges of the carriage seat and bit her lip. She felt oddly comforted by the voice. But surely it was just her own voice speaking to her. They must be her own thoughts. The time and opportunity will come, she repeated to herself.
She looked across at Uncle Andrew and felt hatred in her heart grow so strong; she thought she would nearly burst. He had been no father to her, but merely a benefactor who was making her more uneasy with each passing day. How could this man have been her lovely father’s brother? Julia squinted her eyes at him. The area around his eyes reminded her slightly of her father, but that was it. That was where the resemblance ended. What would her father say if he knew what was happening now?
Julia wanted to scream. She repeated in her head, the time and opportunity will come. But would she know when it came? And would she take it?
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