The Laird’s Stolen Bride (Preview)
Highlands, Scotland, 1306
“Och, Kayla, please stop fidgeting with that thing.”
Kayla didn’t answer her father as she adjusted the bracelet on her wrist. With her eyes dancing across the beads engraved with letters, she felt that all-too-familiar emotion well up inside her. It was the grief that made her eyes tingle, and her heart ache.
Whoever kenned anyone had so many tears in their body tae shed.
There were always more tears. Even when she thought she had cried her last tear for her husband-to-be who had been murdered the year before, she found more tears. Maybe she hadn’t loved him, but he was the dearest friend she’d ever had, the companion she’d always longed for. She had always hoped, if they had married, that she would have loved him eventually.
“Pa,” Kayla’s sister, Sofia, murmured. “Ye ken it isnae easy fer her.”
“I ken.” Their father, Laird Ian Mackenzie, sighed heavily. “Yet it is me task as yer father tae make ye smile again. Come, Kayla.” He leaned toward her and tapped her chin, the touch soft.
Kayla moved her attention away from the bracelet, though her fingers still toyed with the beads connected by a silver chain. She would never stop wearing it. It was a gift from her betrothed, and she always wore it to remember him. He had worn the same bracelet, the two a mirror image of each other, to show their union.
“Is it nae a beautiful day?” Ian gestured to the blue sky they sat beneath on their picnic blanket. “The sun is shining; the trees and grass are lush this time of year.” His wrinkled hand moved across the garden they sat in, gesturing from the yew trees to the deciduous sycamores and plane trees, then to the thick grasses and heathers. “Listen tae the birds.” He paused, his hand cupped to his ear.
Kayla listened, feeling the wind dance across her face and lift her dark hair from her shoulders.
“Blackbirds,” she mused, recognizing the sound at once.
“Aye, just so.” Her father turned and smiled at her, bearing the same blue eyes that were in her own face, a shockingly bright blue, as if they had been freshly painted with pigment. “There are still pleasures and happiness tae be found in the world even when a loved one is lost. Believe me, I ken.”
She smiled sadly, knowing it was the truth. Her mother had died many years ago and though her father had grieved her, he had also found reasons to be happy.
“Aye, ‘tis easy tae be happy when she has suitors coming tae the door every five minutes.” Sofia’s wit made Kayla smile. Her sister bit into a pork pie and offered up the other to Kayla, dressed in thick onion chutney.
“Thank ye,” Kayla whispered.
Sofia, a quiet soul, hardly spoke out of turn at all, especially around men who she seemed to fear, their father being the exception. In his and Kayla’s company, Sofia was more herself, the real person showing through.
“Sofia is right, Faither,” Kayla said simply, taking the smallest bite of pork pie and gazing across their picnic. “How can I get over me grief when ye push men in front of me nose every five minutes?”
“I dinnae push them there. They come.” He pinched the brow of his nose, then thrust a hand into his silverish hair that reached down past his shoulders. “I fear what ye will make of yer next caller then.”
“What?” Kayla looked around, well aware that her father was now staring at a spot across the garden. From their high vantage point between the trees, they could see down onto the road to the castle where an entourage had just arrived. At their head was a young man astride a horse with thick auburn hair plaited at the back. His wide and rather square jaw was turned up toward the picnic, as if he had been looking out for them for some time. He came to a halt with his men and stepped down from his saddle, talking quietly to his men, before he made his way through the garden, quite alone.
“Who is that, Faither?”
Kayla whipped her head around, the sharpness of her movement making her father jump so much that he dropped his own pork pie in his lap, his face bushing red in embarrassment.
“His name is Jonathan. Laird Jonathan Graham. Good man, wealthy, supports Robert the Bruce as we. He has asked fer a meeting with ye.”
Ian calmly turned his eyes up to Kayla, though the blush was turning his cheeks crimson, revealing just how guilty he felt about this meeting.
“He would make ye a good match, Kayla. All I ask is that ye hear him out. That is all.”
Ian stood, brushing the crumbs of flaky pastry from his tunic, before striding away across the grass, his boots brushing the long green blades aside.
“Laird Jonathan! So good tae see ye again.” His arms he held out wide, he took the man’s hand in greeting.
Kayla couldn’t find words as she turned to face her sister.
“Unlike ye tae find yer tongue-tied,” Sofia said, though her lips were pressed together in a firm line, showing she was equally unhappy about the situation. As was usual when a man approached them, she grew nervous. She pulled at her dark brown hair and let the tendrils fall across her face, trying to hide in plain view. “Ye ken what our faither is thinking, dae ye nae?”
“Aye, aye. I think he has lost the ability tae think at all,” Kayla muttered angrily. “He would have me marry a man I dinnae ken, when the last… the last…” She broke off, a sudden lump in her throat.
She looked down at the bracelet around her wrist again. Loyd Macpherson was a good man and she had truly believed she was on the path to love. She cared for him deeply, and being denied the chance to know him completely seemed the greatest blow she had ever been delivered in her life. Murdered on the road, whilst travelling from his clan to hers, his death was a dark day indeed.
“Use yer mind, Kayla. Ye ken as well as I what he is thinking.”
“He’s thinking this man is a laird, he’s powerful, a hard man tae refuse, and if he is an ally with Robert the Bruce, then we are strengthened by the possibility of a union too.”
“Aye, precisely.” Sofia leaned toward her and took her hand, entwining their fingers together. “Ken his mind and ken yer own. Ye dinnae have tae say aye, all ye have tae dae is meet him.”
“Hmm.” Kayla was not so convinced. She knew her father wouldn’t make her do something she did not want to, but she equally knew that him inviting this man to their house to speak to her was not a good sign. He clearly had more time for this suitor than any of the others.
Across the garden, she saw her father approaching with Laird Jonathan. On closer view, he did not have such a harsh face as she first thought, but kinder and softer eyes, like a large pup’s, big brown eyes. They glistened in the day’s light as he looked at her, his lips turning up in the sort of smile which spelled his excitement to meet her.
Oh, in the name of the Wee Man. I cannae dae this!
Kayla looked around. The rebel in her made her want to run at once, sprint from the garden and jump into the loch beyond to escape him. She was a strong swimmer, but she didn’t imagine her rebellion would please her father.
“Come, come, meet me daughters.” Ian returned to them, pulling Laird Jonathan with him. There was a boyish spring in Jonathan’s step as he approached. She didn’t like it.
Kayla and Sofia exchanged a look, then stood together, knowing they couldn’t continue to sit with their picnic.
“Me youngest, Sofia,” Ian introduced Sofia first, “and of course, me eldest ye wished so much tae meet, Kayla.” He motioned to Kayla. Laird Jonathan smiled wider.
Kayla was quite baffled as she stared at him. The childlike excitement on his face professed some sort of attachment already, which she knew was impossible. They hadn’t met before, so he simply had to have liked the idea of meeting her very much indeed.
“Lady Kayla.” He bowed deeply to her, and to Sofia too. “It is a great pleasure tae meet ye both indeed. I am honored to visit your land, melord. And what a beautiful garden this is,” he added, turning to the girls’ father.
“Perhaps Kayla could show you around. The shore of the loch is wonderful this time of year. And there is birdsong aplenty. We were just noting the blackbirds afore yer arrival,” Laird Mackenzie answered with a smile.
“If ye can spare a minute, would ye walk with me, Lady Kayla?” he asked her kindly, gesturing to the garden.
Kayla wished to shout the word, but one look at her father told her she could not. Ian’s eyes widened. He would certainly be furious if she refused. Sofia squeezed her hand in comfort one last time, then they released one another, and Kayla nodded, moving forward to walk by Laird Jonathan’s side.
They fell into step beside one another, walking down the path.
“Forgive me,” he whispered, “fer coming so unannounced. I ken from what ye have been through that any suitor at yer door right now must seem unkind… even inconsiderate.” He shook his head, as if he was baffled by his own actions.
Kayla looked up at him, noting the empathy in his words. As they walked between the trees, the wind picked up so he turned them towards a more sheltered path.
“Thank ye,” Kayla murmured softly. “Nae many understand me grief.”
“Believe me, I dae.” His eyes met hers. “I must apologize fer coming tae call on ye now that with one look at ye, I can see ye are still grieving. Yet it must be done. I ken ye by reputation tae be an intelligent woman, Lady Kayla. Both ye and I ken that sometimes, marriages happen fer alliance as well as fer love.”
“Aye, that they dae.” She looked away into the distance. No matter how kind and attentive this man was, she would not marry him. Her heart was still elsewhere and to marry now would be a betrayal to Loyd’s memory. She could not do it.
“I choose tae marry fer alliance, and fer affection.” He halted suddenly, looking at her. Kayla stopped a few paces in front of him, looking back at his soft eyes with an amused smile.
“Ye and I dinnae ken each other,” she reminded him. “I hope these words arenae going tae lead tae a declaration of affection, me Laird.”
He smiled softly.
“Can one nae develop an affection and a respect from everything they hear of another?”
Nay. It is nae enough.
Kayla was ready to argue with him, to point out that this was a mad conversation, when abruptly, wind whistle by them as something whipped through the air.
“Get down!” he called and jumped toward her. The fear that ripped through her chest was abated when he pushed her toward the nearest tree trunk and dived in front of her, shielding her.
“What…” She trailed off.
A bolt from a crossbow had fired past them, landing on the ground, where Kayla had been standing a few seconds before, but it was not the only one.
“Yer family is under attack,” Laird Jonathan hissed.
Across the garden, more bolts were being aimed from the trees toward Ian and Sofia. It was impossible to see who was firing the arrows, but the attack was relentless.
“Stay down,” Laird Jonathan pleaded with her and ran toward her father and sister.
“Nay! Faither! Sofia!” Kayla called to them. She couldn’t stay. She ran behind Laird Jonathan back toward them. She raised her arms, aware how close some of the arrows came to piercing her skin, but she managed to dodge them.
When she reached her sister, Sofia was cowering behind a yew bush and Kayla went to her. They clutched one another’s arms, recoiling together. An almighty yell ripped through the air and the sounds of the arrows ended.
Kayla peered out from behind the yew bush, looking toward her father and Laird Jonathan. Standing in front of her father, shielding him, was Laird Jonathan. The arrow that was meant for her father had cut through Laird Jonathan’s arm, grazing him, and causing a thin stream of blood to pour down his arm. He gave no sign of being affected by it. He didn’t clutch the wound, grimace, or curse. He let it bleed with his sword slung at his side, the tip glistening in blood.
The attacker that stood before them, having appeared from the trees, was now bleeding across his arm. He staggered back, his hooded figure jerking his head back and forth in fear, then he was gone, sprinting back into the trees.
“Nae possible,” Kayla murmured, struggling to use her voice after the fear had made her palms clammy and her heart thump against her ribcage.
“He saved him!” Sofia exclaimed to Kayla as they stepped out from the yew bush together, still clinging to one another. “Kayla, he saved our father’s life!”
As they reached the two men again, Ian was helped to his feet by Jonathan.
“I am greatly indebted tae ye, Laird Jonathan.” Ian shook his head, his eyes wide as he marveled at him. “What quick responses ye have, tae nae only push me daughter tae safety, but then risk yer life fer my own. Ye need tae see our healer at once.”
“It is nothing.” Laird Jonathan’s voice was deep. He tied up the wound himself with a strip of cloth. “I am simply relieved none of ye is hurt. I shall send me men tae search fer the assailant at once.” He hurried back toward the road, down the bank of the garden. “I shall return soon!”
As he left, Kayla felt both Ian’s and Sofia’s eyes turn toward her.
“We are indebted tae him now, Kayla,” Ian whispered softly.
“I think that is our father’s way of saying that debt must be paid with yer hand. Why are debts always paid with women’s lives, I wonder?” Sofia whispered.
Kayla gripped her sister’s hand hard as she moved to her father.
“Now is nae the time tae discuss debts. Are ye injured, Father?”
“I am perfectly well.” Ian assured her and sat down on the edge of the blanket once more, not to return to the picnic, but to catch his breath as he leaned forward. Kayla and Sofia dropped down by his shoulders.
“I fear fer this, though. Someone broke through our guard. We’ll need men like Laird Jonathan around if dissidents continue tae attack me lairdship.” He shook his head, mumbling something to himself, then lifted his chin once more so his gaze met Kayla’s.
“Kayla, ye dae realize I cannae refuse that man anything he asks of me now. If he asks fer yer hand… I…”
She gripped his shoulder, not wanting to hear the words.
I ken. Ye will have tae give yer blessing tae the man that saved yer life.
One Month Later
“Payton? Are ye sure this is such a good idea?”
Payton gave no sign of having heard his man at arms, Dugald. He looked around Laird Jonathan Graham’s great hall, taking in the busyness of the room. Beneath the stained-glass windows that dazzled golden and red light across the room, many people had gathered to toast the betrothal of Laird Jonathan Graham and his bride-to-be, Lady Kayla Mackenzie.
Many had gathered to celebrate, knights, gentlemen, fellow lairds and ladies. They talked amongst themselves and to Laird Graham, who sat in a large chair at the head of the room. His large brown eyes surveyed the room around him, taking it all in. There was a softness to them that Payton wasn’t quite convinced by.
Who are ye really, Laird Jonathan?
“Payton?” Dugald murmured again, trying to get his attention. “Melaird?”
Payton looked darkly at his man at arms as Dugald chuckled.
“I ken ye hate me calling ye that, but sometimes, it is the only way tae get yer attention.”
Payton grunted, holding himself back from laughter. Dugald was one of the few people who had ever broken through Payton’s reserve and knew who he truly was. He could jest and make Payton laugh when no other could. Payton usually preferred his own company to others, but Dugald had never been frightened off by his iciness.
“Distracted?” Dugald asked. “Because I fear something more is about tae distract ye.”
Before anymore could be said between them, a young woman appeared beside Payton. She carried a tray with goblets of mead and smiled sweetly up at him. The long dark hair was plaited at the back of her head, quite wild thanks to his morning’s activities with her in his bedchamber.
She had been a welcome distraction and she strangely seemed to like his silent manner rather than be put off by it, as most women were.
“Will I see ye later, melaird?” she asked Payton as Dugald busied himself by taking one of the goblets and pretending utter fascination with the mead inside, ignoring their conversation.
“I will find ye,” Payton promised. In the hectic room, he felt comfortable enough to rub a hand teasingly down her back. He watched with a thrill as she shivered at his touch, excited, then smiled and walked away.
“Only ye would be bold enough tae take a lover in another laird’s clan,” Dugald hissed as the lady walked away. “What if ye are caught?”
“Nay one will catch me,” Payton assured his friend. Besides, he had no intention of not acting on his instincts.
Payton was used to silence. For all of Dugald’s friendship, his own castle had become isolated, and dare he think it… even lonely these last few months. With his brother and sister married, both enjoying their lives far from the castle, what was once a busy place had become quiet indeed. With most women frightened off by his sharp features and the number of scars on his body that marked him from the battles he’d faced, he had little in the way of female companion.
I intend tae make the most of a lover whilst I am here.
“Well, if we can leave the matter of yer hungry loins fer a minute, melaird–”
“Dugald,” Payton hissed in anger, though Dugald didn’t take offence and simply smiled some more.
“Ye like me really.”
“I’m struggling tae remember why at this moment.”
“Because I put up with ye?”
“Hmm.” Payton said nothing as Dugald laughed once more.
“Shall we discuss the matter at hand?” Dugald gestured across the room with the goblet. “The reason ye agreed tae come in the first place. Laird Jonathan Graham.”
“Aye.” Payton sighed as he looked at the man who was now laughing with two tacksmen, raising their glasses in a toast. On Laird Jonathan’s arm was a bandage. “How was he wounded?”
“From what I hear, he shielded Laird Mackenzie from an arrow,” Dugald whispered at his side. “Why else dae ye think Laird Mackenzie gave his daughter tae him?”
“What dae ye mean?” Payton frowned, not following his train of thought.
“It’s a wonder ye can avoid the gossip. I cannae seem tae avoid it since we have arrived.” Dugald sighed, exasperatedly. “They whisper that Lady Kayla had nay wish tae accept Laird Jonathan’s proposal, but as he saved her father’s life…” Dugald trailed off and shrugged.
Payton thought that was a ridiculous reason to marry. As far as he as concerned, such debts could be paid in other ways, especially through loyalty, but Lady Kayla was not why he was here. He hardly cared about the position of a woman he had never met.
“I need tae find out more about Laird Jonathan,” Payton said coolly.
“If looks could murder as well as a sword, eh?” Dugald laughed at his side. “Laird Jonathan would drop down dead now at yer glare.”
“I dinnae like a disloyal man. If the whispers me spies heard are true, if Laird Jonathan is in fact working with the English and that bastard, King Edward, then he is a betrayer,” Payton said with such passion that this time, even Dugald couldn’t make a joke to lighten the air. “He deserves tae pay fer what he has done, and tae be stopped, before any more battles can lead tae more innocent Scottish blood being spilled.”
“I agree with ye. The English must be stopped in their advance, but as ye said the other night, we need proof if we are tae discover just who Laird Jonathan is truly loyal tae. How dae ye intend tae dae that?”
“I’ll find it,” Payton said with a sudden firm tone. At his side, Dugald shifted. “Ye once said I didnae frighten ye, Dugald.”
“Well, put it this way, melaird.” Dugald smiled at him. “I would never want tae be yer enemy in a fight. Ye cut ‘em all down.” He affected a shudder of fear.
“I only cut down those who deserve it.” Payton stared forward once more at Laird Jonathan, watching as the man laughed. That sound was just audible through the cacophony of the room.
If he is the blood betrayer, he will pay.
Payton had heard a whisper some months ago of a Scottish laird informing on his other clans, in order to help the English advance, but could it be Laird Jonathan?
I will find out.
“The tacksmen are parting. Now is yer chance,” Dugald whispered.
“Aye, so it is.” Payton nodded at Dugald. “He loves a hunt, aye?”
“Aye, that’s what everyone I have spoken tae has said. Nothing he loves more. This very hall is decked with the kills he has made.”
Payton looked around the room. Over the low-lying felt bonnets the gentlemen wore and the excessively elaborate updos most women bore, there were distinct plaques bearing animal’s heads around the room. There were two wolves, three stags, and a doe. Payton jerked his head toward the doe, suddenly sickened by the sight.
Payton was a good hunter, and he had made many kills himself, but he never in his life had shot a doe. The idea of hurting a female animal cut deeply. It was not battle, not war, and if it came to killing in order to eat, he would always hunt a stag and leave the female alone.
There’s another reason tae be suspicious of this man.
“Then I will offer him the thing he desires most,” Payton said to Dugald and strode forward.
“Wait, what? What are ye doing?” Dugald hastened to follow him, scarcely keeping up with his fast pace.
With ease, Payton cut through the people in the great hall. Many ladies and men stepped back when they saw him, their eyes darting over the scars on his body with something akin to fear in their eyes. Payton didn’t cower but raised his head higher. He was not ashamed of his scars. They were the souvenirs of battles hard won, the mark of triumph and victory. Anyone who thought them fearful didn’t understand what life was like as a laird.
It is hard work. Aye, ye put yer people and the safety of others over yerself at every step of the way.
It was why he had never pursued a lover who was frightened of those scars. He waited, until a woman was fascinated by those marks.
“Laird Jonathan Graham.” Payton bowed his head as he approached the vast chair.
Laird Jonathan sat forward, an easy smile on his lips.
“Laird Payton MacDonell. What a surprise this is.” Laird Jonathan stepped out of his chair and down off the platform, to go see him. They clasped hands for a second and Payton gripped hard. Laird Jonathan winced only a small amount, proving himself stronger than most men here. “I heard ye barely leave yer castle these days, so I was nae expecting ye. I’m thrilled tae see the information was wrong. I am so pleased ye could join us.”
“I have come tae congratulate ye and offer an invitation. I am putting together a hunting party at me castle in a few days’ time. Many lairds will be invited.” At his words, he felt Dugald look sharply at him, but he was grateful his man-at-arms said nothing. Payton had no intention of inviting other lairds to his castle at all, rather hoping to get Laird Jonathan completely on his own, so he could interrogate him properly.
“Hunting party, ye say?” Laird Jonathan’s eyes lit up and his broad cheeks lifted into a smile. “Now, how could I refuse? Could me betrothed and her sister accompany us?” He gestured around as he spoke, pointing to a pretty young woman who stood behind him on the platform. She approached at his gesture, with her head bent down. Her dark brown hair scarcely moved from where it covered her face, as if she didn’t want to be seen at all. Her hands fidgeted in front of her, and Payton’s perceptiveness recognized at once there was fear in her.
What is this woman so afraid of?
“Of course.” Payton smiled. “I am delighted tae meet yer betrothed at last.”
“Betrothed? Oh, nay, nay. This is me future sister-in-law, Lady Sofia Mackenzie.” Laird Jonathan gestured to her.
Lady Sofia’s eyes flicked up to meet Payton’s, then she looked away again. Any irritation Payton might have felt at her fear passed quickly, for he was not the only one she looked at with fear. If Payton wasn’t mistaken, she glanced at everyone in the room with that same expression, the fidgeting of her hands never stopping.
“Well, ye are very welcome tae come with yer sister and Laird Jonathan here on our hunting party.” Payton bowed her head to him.
“Thank ye,” Lady Sofia said, still struggling to meet his eyes.
Payton glanced at Dugald, seeing his man at arms offer the smallest of shrugs. He had no better idea as to what she was so afraid of.
“As they can come too, I’ll happily attend. Leave the details with me advisor, Lachlan.” Laird Jonathan gestured to a man standing quite alone at the end of the platform. “I shall be there.”
“Thank ye.” Payton nodded and moved on with Dugald, allowing others to present their congratulations.
“I’ll give him the details,” Dugald assured Payton. “Ye go find that young woman of yers. We’ll have tae head back later.”
“Thanks,” Payton said with a smile.
“Nae because ye are impatient or anything, is it?” Dugald laughed. The causal thump Payton gave his arm simply made his laughter louder.
Payton stepped away. At least now, he had a plan. He would do his part for Robert the Bruce. He would get Laird Jonathan on his own to discover the truth. In the meantime, what was the harm in enjoying himself?
He looked around the room, searching for the maid who had kept him company that morning. Between the swathes of golden cloth and dark tunics, it was difficult to focus on anyone. As evening drew in, the light in the room was fading, and maids had started to light tall beeswax candles in the corners of the room.
There ye are.
At the side of the room, he saw the familiar wild dark hair, plaited behind her head. The lady reached for a door, rather hurriedly, and stepped out, her pace so fast it was as if she was running from something.
Payton hastened to follow her. When he reached the door he glanced back, ensuring no one was watching what he was doing, then he slipped out of the door and into the corridor.
He trailed behind her as she walked through the corridor, heading to a much smaller and narrower corridor on the south side of the building. Here, there were no candles, and with the fading light streaming through the windows, it was increasingly difficult to see anything about her beyond her silhouette.
Wary of someone overhearing, he didn’t call out to her, but he hurried to catch up. As she entered a corridor flooded with the evening’s apricot light, he at last reached her. He threaded a hand across her waist and bent down, pressing his lips near her ear.
“Dinnae run now,” he whispered. “Give me one last kiss afore I have tae leave this place.”
She halted, her body stiffening so much that something felt wrong. He was certain she would have turned to him by now, molding her lips to his. She had been a good kisser that morning.
The lady turned her head. In the last golden light that streamed through the window to his left, he at last saw her face.
God’s wounds. It isnae the maid.
The face staring up at him was someone different entirely. Bold, bright blue eyes, stared at him without blinking. The prominent cheekbones structured a very elegant face, and the plump lips were pink. There was a flicker of something silver on her arm. Something stirred in Payton’s gut. He was attracted to that beautiful face at once. With lips like those, she certainly had to be a good kisser.
Her lips parted a little in shock, and he feared she’d start yelling, alerting someone to what he had done.
“I am so sorry,” the whisper escaped his mouth as he released her. “I thought ye were someone else.”
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