The Highlander’s Lady of Pleasure (Preview)
Elaine McNally sat in the parlor of the farmhouse she called her home. With a small piece of chalk, she shaded the cheekbones of her brother’s face on the paper before her. She had not seen Angus for some time. Looking at the drawing, she silently wondered where he might be. Beside him, on one side, was a sketch of her younger sister, Rhona, and on the other was the best attempt she could make of herself.
A self-portrait was more difficult than capturing those whom one could see even though her brother had always told her she had talent as an artist. Drawing was the only thing that had brought her any solace since Angus had left. Having to care for her younger sister and consistently drunk father, despair for the future seemed to be Elaine’s constant state of mind.
“Look, Elaine,” Rhona beamed, holding aloft the small cloth doll in her hand. “I made Lucy a scarf.”
“My goodness,” Elaine replied, holding her hand out to take a closer look. “Did ye sew that yersel?”
“Aye,” Rhona said proudly.
Elaine regarded the scrap of material that Rhona had carefully folded and stitched that now sat around her doll’s neck. “Well, then ye are a very clever wee lass.”
Rhona bashfully rolled her eyes at the praise. “It’s just a piece o’ cloth, Elaine.”
“It may well have been a piece o’ cloth, Rhona. But now, ye have made it intae something pretty. Ye must nae diminish yer talents.”
“I dinnae ken what diminish means,” Rhona shrugged.
The searing sound of a door slamming open pierced the air, followed by the cries of several men. As the intrusion continued, Elaine’s heart thumped in her chest as she heard the splintering sound of pottery and items being knocked to the floor in another part of the farmhouse. She looked at Rhona, who ran to her side, horrified.
“What’s happening, Elaine!? What’s happening?” she cried.
Elaine could not answer for she did not know. There had previously been attacks on their farmhouse. With their father owing money across the lands, many angry farmers had invaded the house, demanding repayment. Times were hard, and people needed to eat. Angus had taught Elaine to use the sword from a young age, and her skills had proven useful in deflecting attacks. With her slender figure, soft brown hair, and green eyes, one would not think of her as a warrior. But Elaine was sick of fighting her father’s battles. And this time, instead of reaching for her sword, she was more determined to protect her sister. Besides, there was clearly more than one of them.
“Find him,” she heard a man say. “He’s in here somewhere.”
Elaine stood and pushed Rhona behind her, moving them both closer to the corner of the room. Clearly, they were after her father. Maybe if they stayed quiet…
“We mustnae make a sound,” Elaine whispered. “Pretend ye are a little mouse, Rhona. Can ye do that?”
Rhona looked up at Elaine with a terrified expression, the fear in her eyes nearly breaking Elaine’s heart. Her little sister did not speak but only nodded that she understood.
As they searched the house, more doors burst open. Elaine heard thumping footsteps charge up the stairs and held her breath without realizing it. Her father was still in his bedchamber, drunk as usual from far too much ale the night before. She wouldn’t be surprised if he was still sleeping and hadn’t heard anything. These days, he was either drunk or sleeping anyway.
“He’s up here,” one of them called out. “I’ve found him.”
More stomping footsteps made their way up the stairs. Elaine guessed there were at least two or three men.
Muffled yelling followed, and a great scuffle against the floorboards was heard above them. While terrified of what might be happening to him, she couldn’t really sympathize with him. With his selfishness, he had put them all in danger. Without Angus, the farm would have perished. Angus and Elaine had tried to provide for their family, but their father had drunk his way through any savings they had, as well as what little money they made.
Heavy footsteps and scuffling moved across the floorboards. Elaine followed the sound from the ceiling with her eyes. The voices were becoming clearer now, and she could hear her father’s growling tones.
“Let me go! Gerroff me! Let me go! Ye have nae right tae come intae my house.”
“Stop struggling,” one of the men barked. “The laird wants tae see ye, McNally, and whether ye like it or nae, yer coming with us.”
“What?” her father retorted. “I’ve done naething tae the laird. Ye cannae just come in here and take me prisoner.”
“Aye, well. Maybe if yer son hadnae sneaked intae the castle and tried tae steal what ye sent him tae steal, ye wouldnae be in this mess.”
The rowdy group dragged William McNally down the stairs, and by the sounds of their voices, were nearing the front door.
“I dinnae ken what yer on about. I havenae seen Angus for ages.”
“That’s because he’s dead,” one of the men barked callously.
Elaine took a swift breath in, and Rhona suddenly yelped. Instinctively, Elaine clapped her hand across her sister’s mouth and looked down at her with a pleading expression.
Those words seemed to hit her father as well, for he cried out in desperation. “Yer’ve murdered my lad?!”
None of the men responded. Perhaps her father’s heartwrenching voice affected them. Even in her despair and shock, she could hear his anguish.
“Listen, McNally,” one of the guards said. “Yer son committed a great crime. The laird is after all o’ ye family now.”
Those words struck every emotion Elaine was experiencing. But survival took precedence over her despair at the terrible news she had just received. She dashed across the parlor, firmly pushing Rhona out of her way, and reached behind a wooden chair. She raised the sword she had hidden there and returned her attention to her sister.
“Come, Rhona. We must go!” She whispered, waving Rhona over to her.
“But, what about Papa!” Rhona cried, still looking utterly terrified.
“We cannae help him now. We must save ourselves. I have tae get ye out of here. Come, we need tae hurry!”
Despite her younger sister’s obvious concern for her father’s well-being, she had also heard the guard’s words. They would return for them once they had secured William. Rhona turned and ran across the room to Elaine, allowing her older sister to assist her through the window that led to the back garden.
“We must hurry,” Elaine whispered, dropping to the ground beside her.
They didn’t have much time, and they needed to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the house. The sisters ran across the courtyard at the back, scaling the wall that led into the grassy pasture behind them. They quickly crossed the field and came to a line of trees that led into a dense wood. The sword was heavy and challenging to carry, but Elaine knew they couldn’t slow down.
They walked through the forest for a while. The cool, dark air obscured the magnificent surroundings, but Elaine was bound to these lands. The rolling hills ran through her veins. She eventually gave in to her despair and allowed thoughts of Angus to swirl around her mind, knowing that the immediate danger had been averted. He’d told her the last time she saw him that he had to leave. She had no idea what he was up to at the time. As she trudged through the dense forest, the memory of their last meeting crept into her thoughts.
Angus walked into the parlor with a worried frown upon his brow. He looked about as though expecting to see someone else in the room. But, satisfied Elaine was alone, he closed the door behind him and approached her.
“I’ll be going away for a few days, Elaine. I need ye tae take care o’ things here.”
“Where are ye going?’’ Elaine frowned.
“I cannae tell ye that. It’s too dangerous for ye tae ken.”
Elaine felt deeply perturbed at his answer. “Well, if it’s dangerous, let me come with ye,” she replied. “Ye ken I’m good with the sword. I can help if anything goes awry.”
“Absolutely nae!” he barked. “It’s too dangerous, Elaine. If I get caught, that’s one thing. If ye get caught with me, who is there left tae look after Rhona? She’s nae yet even ten summers.”
“Get caught doing what, Angus?” Elaine pressed.
“I’ve told ye already. I cannae say. I have tae do this, Elaine. Whatever happens, just know that I’m doing it tae help deal with the mess we’re in. I need ye tae stay here and look after Rhona. If ye come with me and something happens, do ye really want our little sister tae have tae fend for herself as well as look after that drunken bastard we call a father?”
Angus was not wrong. If he was caught, Rhona would need her to look after her. And being ten years younger, she already looked to her to fill the void left by their mother.
“We cannae leave her with Father, Elaine. It’s just nae right. I will go by mysel. It’ll be less dangerous with only one o’ us anyway.”
That was the last time she had seen his face. And now, she would never see him again. Her heart was broken. Even in her grief, Elaine couldn’t understand why Angus had done something so heinous as try to steal something from the laird. He had the heart of a nobleman, and such behavior was totally out of character for him. He had assured her that whatever he had to do would benefit their family. And she couldn’t see how stealing anything could help them.
What could he have wanted that the laird possessed?
Elaine was deep in thought. Her sister’s company brought her back to their current situation. They needed to stay hidden, but she had no idea how. Rhona would be tired soon, and they would need to rest.
“Come on, Rhona,” Elaine encouraged her little sister. But when she turned around to look at her, she suddenly realized that Rhona was no longer behind her.
“Rhona!?” Elaine cried out, but all she heard was the soft rushing sound of the moving branches around and above her.
Elaine moved her eyes in every direction, panicked, but there was no sign of Rhona. And then, she was hit in the chest by the sudden realization.
Her sister was gone.
Laird Duncan MacDougall sat next to the lass who lay beside him in his bed. Tucked beneath the heavy blankets and furs, he watched her shoulders rise and fall with each breath. She was a fine-looking woman, he had to admit. Moving his hand above the harsh scar that ran down the left side of his cheek, he took in a long breath and removed his gaze from the lass cuddled beside him.
Dunollie Castle was quiet now that night had fallen. Perched on a cliff overlooking Oban Bay and the surrounding Isles, the castle was always bustling with bodies—guards, servants, maids, all hurrying about and seeing to their chores and duties. At night, it was quiet. While the fires still crackled, an eerie calm pervaded the corridors.
Duncan had always been soothed by the nocturnal silence. Surrounded by stone walls, knowing the moors and ocean shielded from attackers, he counted his blessings. Yet, as of late, he found no solace no matter the time of day or night.
Pushing himself silently from the bed, Duncan left the room and moved through the dark stone corridors, down the wide staircase, and made his way to the library. On entry, it did not surprise him to discover his older brother sitting in a high-backed chair beside the fir. In fact, he had half-expected to find him there.
“Och, ye’re all spent, are ye nae?” Keir smiled dryly.
Keir was three years older than Duncan, and at thirty years of age, it was he who ought to be laird, not Duncan. Yet, he suffered a terrible affliction since he was a child; strange seizures that took him over as though he were possessed by the devil himself, along with collapsing into unconsciousness without any warning. When their father had died, he had been deemed unfit to inherit the lairdship. Duncan had been Keir’s suggestion, and the council had agreed with him, saying that with Duncan’s battle experience, he would make the better laird in any case.
“So, tell me, brother,” Keir continued as Duncan dropped into a matching chair opposite him. “How long are ye going tae continue philandering with these random lasses? Do ye nae think it better tae find a woman ye can take as a wife?”
Duncan shrugged. “I dinnae want tae, Keir, nae yet. I cannae bring mysel tae think about another woman like that, when my wife and bairn are only buried four months. At least these ladies of pleasure keep their wagging tongues busy, unlike the maids under our roof.”
“It saddens me tae see ye this way, Duncan. I ken yer consumed with revenge for their murders, but ye cannae let their deaths destroy ye. I’ve seen that dead look in yer eyes. It’s like ye dinnae want tae be here any longer. A new family will give ye purpose.”
Duncan stared into the flames of the fire for a long moment. It was easy for Keir to say such things. It had not been his wife and child who had been snatched from him.
“I’ll tell ye now, brother,” Keir continued. “If yer nae careful, Mother will force ye tae be betrothed, and God only kens the kind of wife she’ll choose for ye,” he grinned affably.
Duncan smiled back at his brother, for he knew he was trying to lighten the mood. In truth, he was not likely wrong for he wouldn’t be surprised if his mother took such action.
“Aye, I can imagine,” Duncan smirked. “A big burly lassie from up north with nae teeth and more hair on her chest than I.”
That comment sent the brothers into peals of laughter. They were still chuckling when the library door opened, and Finn entered. “I thought I might find ye both here,” he nodded toward them, closing the door behind him.
Finn Stewart had lived in the castle since the MacDougall brothers could remember. The three men were close companions, and he became one of the Laird’s most trusted advisors as well as Keir’s personal healer. Duncan was fortunate to have a few loyal friends, including Keir, his blood brother, and Finn and Douglas MacDougall, his war chief, who were his brothers in arms.
“Pour us a dram before ye sit, will ye, Finn,” Keir nodded to the bulky wooden dresser.
“Aye, I could do with one myself. I was out in the forest all afternoon gathering lavender and witch hazel. That wind would’ve cut ye in two.”
Keir suddenly chuckled. “Dear Lord, man. Ye crow more than a lass. Maybe a bit o’ cold will harden ye.”
“Aye, well. If that’s what’ll dae, I should have the hide of a wild boar by now.”
All three men burst out laughing. Finn came over to sit beside the brothers after pouring the drinks. The men continued to discuss the developments in the castle before retiring to bed.
However, one thought lingered in Duncan’s mind.
Her mind raced with worry. Elaine began to lose hope after more than an hour of searching, running haphazardly in different directions around the woods, that she would ever find Rhona in the denseness of the trees. It was getting darker. Her little sister might be forced to spend the night lost and alone if she did not find her soon. She’d be terrified and know not how to survive in the wilderness.
“Rhona,” Elaine cried out again in desperation.
A twig snapped behind her and caught Elaine’s attention. But before she could turn, a hard hand clapped against her mouth and a strong arm grabbed her from behind. She fought with all her might, twisting and turning in an attempt to free herself or reach her sword. But it was pointless. She could tell her assailant was a man by the way he was holding her against his body–a strong, tall man at that. Even with all of her training, no amount of force could break his grip. Elaine couldn’t imagine what was about to happen as her heart thumped against her chest.
“Stop struggling,” the man’s voice growled.
Elaine could feel his breath on her ear as he spoke. She first assumed the laird’s guards had pursued her and discovered her in the woods, but she soon realized there would have been more than one of them. She then had the worst thought, and she braced herself for what he was about to do to her. She had never been assaulted before, but she had heard of others who had. The stories had instilled so much fear in her, she was shaking uncontrollably.
“Now,” the gravelly voice growled, “I am going tae let ye go. But before I dae, I must tell ye that I have yer little sister.” There was something strange in the way he spoke, but Elaine could hardly concentrate, with the terror that had claimed her. “A fine-looking wee lass at that,” he continued, “and if ye scream, she’ll pay the price, dae ye understand?”
Elaine let out a whelp of despair before nodding in agreement. The man hesitated for a moment. He then pushed her forward and away from him with a shove. Elaine turned slowly to face the man. He stood to the side, a large hood from a long cloak covering most of his face and a scarf wrapped from his neck to the bridge of his nose.
“Yer brother failed me, Miss McNally. And where his search ended, yers will begin.”
“I dinnae ken what yer talking about,” she cried, shaking her head.
“Angus was tae retrieve something from the laird’s castle that belongs tae me…”
“It was ye who got my brother killed?” Elaine gasped.
“Yer brother got himsel killed,” the man spat back. “Ye must be smarter than him, because if ye dinnae bring me what I desire, yer little sister will experience the same fate,” he chortled sadistically.
“Then ye will dae as I bid!” he barked. “I get what’s rightfully mine, ye get yer sister. It’s that simple.”
“But how?” Elaine cried.
“That, Miss McNally, is nae my concern.”
Shoving out a hand, he pressed a piece of paper into her palm. “Find it and bring it tae me,” he growled, before turning on his heels and hurrying into the dense woods.
“But how will I ken where tae find ye?” Elaine yelled out after him but he was soon lost in the darkness of the many trees.
Elaine considered following him, but with the threat of Rhona’s safety hanging over her head, she decided against it. Instead, she was left feeling completely helpless as her entire world crumbled around her. Angus had died, her father had been imprisoned, and Rhona had been kidnapped. She had no one to turn to for help, but standing there, still shaken from her ordeal, she refused to let the despair of her situation overcome her. She needed to figure out how she could get what this man wanted while also getting Rhona back safely.
Elaine had to get into the castle undetected. And she had to make a plan.
News had arrived that William McNally had been brought to the castle. Duncan had sent him to the dungeons to be dealt with later. According to the guards, the man would need at least a day or two to sober up. His two daughters had escaped, but they wouldn’t get far before the guards caught up with them. Duncan didn’t want Angus McNally dead. He would have been far more useful to him if he had been alive. But there was nothing he could do about it now. While he would not tolerate being undermined by those he ruled over, McNally’s death served no purpose. Though he assumed it sent a clear message to whoever else was involved, as he was certain the McNally lad was not working alone. Maybe his father and sisters knew something, maybe they didn’t, but Duncan was determined to find out.
“Dae ye think he had something tae dae with the death o’ Cora and Eoin?” Keir asked as Duncan paced his study.
The brothers had been discussing the council pressuring Duncan to marry again when the news had arrived of McNally’s capture. The subject had changed almost immediately afterward.
“It’s possible,” Duncan shrugged, feeling stung by the names of his late wife and son. “I suppose I cannae ken until I speak tae the man. With his son remaining silent, it makes sense that there’s a connection. When I interrogated him, he was clearly protecting someone.”
Keir looked a little uncomfortable for a moment and then continued. “What makes ye think his father will break when his son didnae?”
“William McNally’s a drunkard, Keir,” Duncan growled with disgust. “From what I hear, he’s allowed his farm tae go tae ruin and has abandoned the responsibilities of his family tae feed his need for drink. Clearly, he’s a far weaker man than his son.”
After a sharp knock on the door, Finn entered with a perturbed expression lining his face. “I have news that ye’ll want tae hear, Duncan,” he exclaimed a little breathlessly.
“What is it?” He frowned.
“They’ve found a dagger buried near where yer wife and the bairn’s bodies were discovered. By the markings on the handle, the blade belongs tae someone from Clan Mackintosh,” Finn replied.
Duncan’s brow suddenly deepened, for what Finn was saying made little sense. Clearly, Keir felt the same way, for he was the first to reply.
“That makes nae sense,” he stated. “Tae begin with, why have they only found the dagger now? Why was it nae discovered when they searched the place the first time?”
Duncan nodded. “And why Clan Mackintosh? They’re a brave distance away from us. What possible gain would it give them, murdering my wife and heir? We have never had any qualms with them before now.”
Both Duncan and Keir looked at Finn as if he should have an answer, but he couldn’t possibly know. He was only relaying the information. And with his lack of response, the room fell silent for a long time. Duncan resumed pacing and Keir thoughtfully rested his chin in his hand, clearly trying to deduce some answers.
Finn eventually broke the silence by clearing his throat. “I’m sure we’ll discover the answers, Duncan. But for now, I think ye have another concern.”
“Which is?” He pressed, wondering what could possibly be more important than discovering the reason for his family’s murder.
“Well,” Finn suddenly looked a little uncomfortable by Duncan’s demanding tone. “I overheard the maids gossiping about the women visiting the castle at night. Some of them seemed tae be wondering,” he continued warily, “what ye’re actually doing with the ladies, given that they never hear a sound from yer bedchamber when they pass.”
“For the love of God!” Duncan barked in frustration, but not missing Keir’s knowing look. “The servants ought tae be minding their own damned business.”
“I’m only the messenger, Duncan,” Finn said apologetically, raising his hands in surrender.
“Do I nae have enough tae be dealing with without having tae worry about everyone’s opinions from maid tae master?”
Duncan huffed at the sound of another knock at the door.
“Come,” he barked.
“Excuse me, my Laird,” the guard said as he remained in the doorway. “I have been sent tae inform you that William McNally died a little while ago.”
“God’s teeth!” Duncan bellowed, throwing his head up in angry frustration. “What happened?”
“Looks like he vomited in his drunken stupor and choked, my Laird.”
Elaine crept back into her home and spent a restless night in her own bed after dark had fallen and she was certain there were no guards lying in wait at the farmhouse. She came downstairs the next morning to find a note pinned to the front door with a dagger.
William McNally died in the dungeons.
There was no signature, no indication of who might have left it, but the guards couldn’t have done it. If they had returned to the house, it would have been to capture her. No, this note was left by the man who had taken Rhona.
Elaine was certain of it. Staring at the words, she felt numb. Perhaps she should have felt something, but the news of her father’s death did not strike her as hard as it would have a year ago.
Before her mother had left, he had been a happy man. A man who worked hard for his family and provided for them. But when she, Ailish McNally, decided to run off with a wealthy traveler, her departure set the family on the path of ruin. It would have been better if she had died. At the very least, William may have handled the news better. But Ailish was far from dead. In fact, she was fully alive and well, most likely in the arms of her new husband somewhere far away from them. It had taken her no time at all to pack her belongings and flee into the night, leaving her husband and three children far behind.
William was heartbroken by his wife’s departure and sought solace in the bottom of a bottle. The farmland had been neglected. Angus had been forced to take charge of the family and their livelihood, and William’s thirst for alcohol had depleted their savings. They had begun to struggle between paying the workers and feeding the family. That was why Angus had taken on such a dangerous task. And now, she had lost both of them.
Elaine left the farmhouse after a night. She rode the horse and cart into Oban. She was a skilled swordswoman who could disarm a soldier if necessary. All she needed was to find a way into the castle, which she couldn’t do while pacing the parlor’s concrete floors and mourning her losses.
“The only people who get intae that castle, my dear, are those who are invited,” the old woman said, handing her the wrapped parcel a few minutes later.
Elaine had wandered into the village bakery and purchased some bread to avert suspicion for her true reason for being there.
“Well,” the young lass beside the older woman raised her eyebrows, “that and all those ladies o’ the night,” she giggled.
Elaine frowned. “Ladies o’ the night?”
“Pay nae heed tae her,” the old woman said, swiping a dismissive hand. “She’s just a silly lass.”
“It’s true,” the girl said more determinedly. “There’s one up there every night. My friend works in the courtyards, and she told me so hersel. Says the laird sleeps with a woman from the local brothel every night.”
“My, what a tale,” Elaine said, trying to control the interest in her voice.
“Well, with all his troubles o’ late, I suppose he needs some consolation.” The girl fell into giggles again, causing the old woman beside her to roll her eyes and shake her head.
It was hardly the best plan. But it was the only one she had. Later that night, Elaine crouched low at the castle walls, waiting. She kept the only road leading to the castle in view as she waited for the woman to arrive. She had disguised herself as best she could, wearing Angus’s short jacket and tucking her hair into a beret with a scarf around the bottom of her face. But as dusk turned to night, she became restless, her nerves rising with each passing minute.
Have ye completely lost yer mind?
She was about to pretend to be someone who slept with men for money when she hadn’t even slept with even one. When it came down to it, how was she going to explain that? Elaine was thinking about this question when she heard rustling behind her and turned to face it. She looked up to see a fire torch being carried by a lass a little older than her.
Elaine had assumed that the woman had come from the main road, but she had actually come through the forest that surrounded the castle walls. Elaine circled her and came up behind her swiftly and quietly. She was slender, with short red hair, and roughly the same size and shape as herself, if not a little shorter.
“Halt right there,” she barked, holding out her dagger against the woman’s neck.
“Please, please, dinnae hurt me,” the woman cried. “What dae ye want?”
“Yer clothes,” Elaine demanded, struggling to keep her voice from shaking.
“Now!” Elaine barked once more. “Dae it now or I’ll take them from yer lifeless body.”
“All right, I’ll dae what ye ask. Ye dinnae need that dagger,” the woman said calmly, stripping naked right there in the grass. And as Elaine followed suit, she threw her clothes at the woman’s feet. After some time, both were dressed again, each looking like the other had before.
“Where dae ye enter? How dae ye get tae the laird?” Elaine asked roughly. When the woman hesitated to answer, she added in a lower almost desperate voice. “It’s important.”
The woman went to turn.
“Dinnae look at me,” Elaine barked and lifted the dagger closer.
“All right, I apologize,” she said again, dropping her head down. “I dinnae ken what this is about, but I’ll help ye if ye want tae get intae the castle so badly, just please lower the weapon. There’s a small gate in the wall. There’s a guard on the other side who expects us. Knock on the gate three times. He’ll take ye tae the laird.”
“I’m grateful for yer help,” Elaine replied calmly this time, happy that she didn’t need to use any force. The last thing she wanted was to cause her harm. But with Rhona being held by that madman, she would if she was forced. “Now, it’s best ye be on yer way.”
“Good luck,” the woman nodded, before scampering away, leaving Elaine alone with the terrifying task ahead of her.
Elaine found the gate not far away as she moved along the walls. She took a deep breath and looked down at herself, embarrassed by her state of undress. The dark green corset was so low that her breasts bulged out of it, exposing far too much of her milky flesh. However, there was nothing else to do. Elaine lifted her hand and knocked three times on the gate, fixing the pins in her wavy brown hair and praying she could pull it off.
The gate opened and a guard peered out. He said nothing, just nodded and jerked his head for Elaine to follow him. They crossed the courtyard, keeping close to the buildings to avoid detection. They climbed concrete steps, moved down corridors, and passed through tiny doorways in hidden passages until the guard came to a halt in front of a large heavy-looking wooden door. He did not speak again, but instead knocked on the door and walked away.
“Enter,” came a voice from inside.
Elaine lifted her hand to open the door and noticed that it trembled. Hardly the reaction of a woman who did this every night.
Pull yersel together, woman!
Not knowing how she managed it, Elaine took another deep breath and steeled herself. Rhona’s life depended on her. Whatever happened behind this door, she was going to do to save her sister. With determination, she finally pressed her hand against the heavy wood and walked inside.
A man stood at the hearth with his back to her, hands outstretched resting on the mantlepiece. The fire raged before him, and with his head bent, he appeared to be staring into it. When he did not move, Elaine allowed her eye to wander and could hardly believe the size of the room, even the size of the fireplace, for it took up nearly an entire wall. Several candelabras were scattered around, the candles within flickering and swaying as though moving to music.
Huge tapestries hung on the walls and a rug the size of their entire parlor lay on the stone floor beneath her.
Finally, she looked over at the bed. Four posts supported a cloth canopy of woven fabric above. Several furs, as well as coverlets lay spread upon the huge mattress.
Elaine had not noticed the laird had turned and was now looking at her. When her gaze returned to him, he appeared to be watching her with interest. Elaine, on the other hand, could only focus on the terrifying scar that ran down his cheek. Though a little unnerving, she couldn’t help but notice how beautiful the rest of his face was. He was tall and broad, with dark blond hair that was cut short to his head. By his expression, he looked a little confused. Elaine suddenly realized that the red-haired lass might be a regular.
“I dinnae recall ye coming tae see me ‘afore,” he said, confirming her suspicions.
“Nae, my Laird,” Elaine bowed toward him. “My friend is ill and asked me tae come in her place. She didnae wish tae disappoint ye.”
“I see,” he replied calmly.
He did not speak again, nor did he move toward her. In fact, he turned from her and rested his hands upon the mantle. The heavy silence that hung between them left Elaine feeling more than a little confused. Standing there, wondering what she was supposed to do, the resolve she had garnered standing out in the hallway seemed to slowly dissipate, giving way for her nerves to return. One wrong move and he may realize that she was not who she proclaimed to be. And in fear of such discovery, she decided to remain where she was.
Eventually, he moved from the fireplace and walked toward a dresser. Taking two goblets, he filled them both with wine. Without speaking, he walked toward her and handed her one. Elaine smiled meekly and nodded in gratitude. Not really thinking about it and struggling with her nerves, she bent her head back and swallowed the entire contents in one go. When she straightened again, the laird was looking at her with an amused expression upon his face.
“Thirsty, are we?” he smirked.
He took the glass from her and refilled it. When he handed it to her, he looked at her intently. “I would advise nae tae dae the same. This wine is nae the rot ye get in the village. I wouldnae want ye making yourself ill.”
His words were not ordered, but spoken with kindness, which made her even more nervous than before. It might have been easier had he been an ogre of a man. Yet, in the small time she had been in his company, that was not the sense she got at all. Elaine had imagined that she would hardly have been in the room more than five minutes before he would tear the clothes from her body to have his way. Yet, in stark contrast, he was cold, distant, and clearly not interested in conversation, given that he had moved back to resting his hands on the mantle while staring into the fire.
Perhaps she was doing something wrong. Perhaps it was the ladies o’ the night that made the first move, and he was awaiting her approach. If that were the case, he would become suspicious of her if she remained standing in the same spot. She could not allow him to discover her true identity, or she would join her father and Angus, and Rhona would never be saved. Placing her glass on the dresser a few steps away, Elaine approached him from behind, her heart beating wildly as the nerves threatened to overtake her.
Upon reaching him, she gazed at his broad back and wondered where to start. Softly laying her hands upon his shoulders, she began rubbing gently, attempting to caress his shoulders. She moved her hands to his upper arms with soft, slow strokes. He turned to face her then, looking down at her, watching her every move.
Elaine did not have the courage to look up at him. She feared he would see the terror in her eyes. Instead, she tried to concentrate on what she was doing. The laird bent his head, and instinctually, Elaine lifted hers, leaning up to kiss him. Their lips brushed, but he gently pulled away. His breath danced upon her skin as he lowered his mouth toward her neck, brushing past her ear, causing her to inhale sharply. A strange sensation that Elaine had never experienced before rushed through her body. Her breast ached in a way that was almost unbearable, and a heat suddenly rose far below.
What is happening tae me? Is this reaction normal?
The laird chuckled, which shocked her even further. Lifting his head, he moved passed her and walked away, still giggling. Elaine let out a silent sigh of relief. Turning toward him, she found herself smiling at his soft laughter.
“Ye are a very beautiful lass…” he raised his eyebrows to inquire her name.
“Elaine,” she replied softly.
“Ye are a very beautiful lass, Elaine. However, naething will happen between us. I’m grateful for yer company, but I expect conversation only.”
“I see,” Elaine replied, not really understanding but trying desperately to hide her relief. “May I ask, my Laird…”
“Under these circumstances, ye may call me Duncan.”
“Duncan,” Elaine continued uncomfortably, “is that the way with all the ladies?”
“Are ye worried that it’s something ye have done?” Duncan asked.
“Well…” she hesitated.
“Dinnae. Ye have done naething wrong. I simply dinnae require the services ye offer, from ye or any other of yer friends,” he smiled.
Elaine was once more confused. For why would the laird request ladies of the night if he did not actually lie with them? It hardly made any sense. He had the entire village talking about his indiscretions when no such acts took place.
Why would he dae such a thing?
“I dae have one request,” he said, with a wry smile. “We have tae pretend we are doing something.”
Elaine’s brow furrowed deeply. She was more confused than ever. At her expression, he chuckled once more. It annoyed her a little that his laugh made her want to smile.
“We have tae make the noises, as though we are laying together,” he explained.
“I apologize, my Lai…” Elaine started when he interrupted her.
“I apologize, Duncan, but I am nae certain what exactly yer request means.” Feeling how her cheeks filled with embarrassment, Elaine looked everywhere but his eyes.
“I am referring tae the sounds of pleasure a man and a woman make, while they are laying together,” Duncan elaborated. He let out yet another laugh at her puzzled expression, before continuing. “Like this. Ahhh. Oh. Hmmm,” he groaned passionately.
Elaine nearly burst into laughter herself and it took all her strength to hold it in. Clearly, her not so well-hidden smile gave away her amusement and he smiled back widely. “I ken it is a rather peculiar request. But I will pay ye extra for yer services. Come, try it with me,” he offered.
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