About the book
She didn’t know her own potential for passion. He was ready to show her...
Despite being called a witch by her whole village after her mother’s death, Isobel Donnelly only cares to help people heal. And find her long-lost brother, about whom she has but one thing: a letter from her dead mother.
As a newly appointed Laird, Aidan McRussel has no time for love or marriage. But when he sees the most beautiful woman in a disadvantageous situation, he knows he has to help her. What he didn’t know was how easily he’d fall for her.
Aidan doesn’t stop Isobel from searching for her brother. But, apart from love, luck also comes knocking on her door: her brother found the way back after all these years. Isobel finally has the perfect life and family; but people rarely speak the truth, and words are sometimes deadlier than swords...
The swaying of the wagon was making her nauseous. The road was little more than a dirt track and filled with potholes. At the end of the road however, was an orphanage where she’d heard that someone might know the whereabouts of the brother she was looking for. She dug out the letter again – last legacy imparted to her by a dying mother – and read it.
If you have this letter, then it means I have died before my quest was completed. Allow me please, to pass it on to you. The first thing you should ken is that you’re not an only child. You had a brother. We named him Siobhan for your grandfather but I dinnae ken what he might go by now as I haven’t seen him in years.
Your faither and I we loved you both but Fletcher, he owed a debt to a man named Phineas. I don’t know another name for him because he wasn’t from these parts. He threatened to kill yer da if he didn’t pay. I went to him, pleaded with him and he said he would forgive the debt if I gave him my first born.
Poor Siobhan was still a wee bairn and I didn’t want to do it, but what choice did I have? I vowed that I would steal him back, and then your father and I would run away but…well, Phineas disappeared before I could.
Your brother had red hair and the greenest eyes I’ve ever seen though that may change with time. It’s not much, but it’s all I can give you. Please, try to find him. I do not want you to be alone in this world.
With all my love,
Tears were pouring down her face as she folded the letter and placed it safely in her satchel. Losing first her father to the fever and then her mother so soon after, had taken a toll on her well-being. The letter was the only thing that kept her from curling up against the hearth and giving up on life.
She would fulfill her mother’s last request, if it was the last thing she did.
Aidan, the new Laird of Clan McRussell, got to his feet, thinking it was high time he took a walk to the village and got a look at how his new clansmen were faring. He stepped back from the dining table and nodded to his friend and confidant, Samuel Chapman, to follow him. As tacksman of Millport, the village for Clan McRussell, Samuel was the right person to accompany him on this tour. The people knew him fairly well and trusted him.
Aidan trusted him too, having been raised with him at McRussell Castle.
“Where are we going?” Sam asked.
“To the village. I havenae met them yet as their Laird.”
“Ye dinnae want to wait for Quarter day?”
Aidan snorted. “I willnae be askin’ them for anything. But ‘tis good to be seen by the people ye’re about to govern, do ye not think so?”
“Aye, I suppose.” Samuel shrugged, and then grinned at Aidan. “Will ye be able to refrain from being a complete dobber for five minutes?”
Aidan nudged him hard in the side before brushing his long midnight-black hair out of his eyes. “The Clan wouldnae have chosen me as their Laird if they dinnae have faith in my ability to look suitably regal.”
Samuel snorted. “Aye, that’s why they chose ye. Yer faither and his faither afore him being laird had nothing to do with it.”
“Of course not.” They walked down the corridor toward the kitchens, booted feet echoing on the stone castle floor. Ahead of them, the usual hustle and bustle of the Castle at dawn enveloped them in sound and noise. Cooks shouted at maids as copper pans clanged on the rough-hewn stone tables. A cloud of steam rose from the huge bubbling cauldron which provided hot water for all sorts of uses from cooking to cleaning to acting as a bulwark against the cold autumn air.
The housekeeper’s voice was raised as she harangued one of the shoe boys about ruining the Laird’s boots and Aidan slowed down, not wanting to get between them. Mrs. Cooke was quite formidable when she was in a good mood; it was wise to avoid her when she was in high dudgeon.
The Laird stopped, turning with a smile to face his sister. “Oho, look who’s finally awoken.”
She wrinkled her nose, tossing her head even though her own dark hair was securely tied back with a snood and cascaded down her back in luxuriant waves. Green eyes identical to his surveyed him with censure. “Where are ye going so early?”
“I’m heading down to Millport to greet my clansmen.”
“Och aye? Why now? Why can ye not wait for Quarter day?”
Aidan frowned with irritation. “Why does everyone ask me that? I’m not going to ask for rent.”
“Mm.” Ciara sounded nothing if not very skeptical.
Aidan snorted. “Go on wi’ ye. Yer breakfast awaits. If ye care to catch up with us, ye can find us in the square.”
“Oh, ye think I havenae got things to do as well? I must see to the sick and injured since ye willnae retain a proper healer.”
Aidan waved a dismissive hand. “Ye do a verra good job with the household simples and Mrs. Cooke will help ye once she’s done making a collishangie.”
Ciara grimaced, turning away from the kitchen. “Ye’re right. I shall go and have my breakfast.”
Aidan exchanged glances with Samuel, chuckling softly at his sister’s hasty retreat. He stopped smiling once he remembered they’d have to cross the kitchen to get to the stables.
Millport was bustling with life despite the pervasive mud from overnight rain. Samuel and Aidan rode slowly into the square, the pedigree of their horses marking them as Men of Worth as distinctly as Aidan’s jet-black hair and green eyes marked him a McRussell. No one stopped to gawk but he knew their presence was noted and fully expected that the priest would be by shortly to greet them. If there was one thing they could rely on with Father Gregg, it was that he would ingratiate himself at every opportunity.
Aidan alighted from his horse, squelching across the road to the kirk to tie his horse against the fence post, Samuel following behind. He was scarcely done before he looked up to see Father Gregg hurrying toward him, an eager look on his face. “Laird McRussell, ye’ve come to pay yer respect I see,” he grinned widely, nodding at Aidan.
Aidan grimaced inwardly but nodded in return. “Aye, I thought I’d walk about and see what’s to do in the village.”
Father Gregg’s face fell. “Eh? Won’t ye join us in the kirk first to break yer fast?”
Aidan waved a hand even as he shuddered inwardly. He was not ready to listen to Father Gregg’s increasingly unsubtle hints about kirk donations being inadequate. “We already broke ours. And since its market day we wanted to get there early afore all the goods are taken.”
“Och! I’m sure there’s nothing ye need from there that’s no brought to yer door.”
“Aye. We’ll see. It was good to see ye, Faither. We shall be on our way now.”
The priest huffed in annoyance but had no choice but to watch as they made their way down the slope toward the market. Aidan was hard put not to laugh especially when Samuel favored him with a sidelong glance. “What d’ye think if we go home and tell Ciara that the priest was asking after her and she should go and visit?”
“I’d say ye were a cruel laird who will have no one to blame when she incites revolt against ye.”
Aidan began to laugh but then stopped abruptly, his eye taken by a young woman whose back was to them and arguing with a man three times her size. The man was staring down at her, a cloud of anger surrounding him. The woman’s red hair shone brightly in the morning sun as she moved her head from side to side. Her hands were on her hips, and as diminutive as she was, it felt like she was staring the huge man down. She was magnificent in her fierceness and Aidan was already intrigued. Suddenly the man grabbed at her arm and Aidan was moving before he could think. Striding forward as quickly as the mud would allow, he put himself between the girl and the man.
“Is that any way to treat a lass?” he asked, glaring at the man.
The man turned, clearly ready to turn his ire on Aidan when his eyes widened with recognition. “Laird McRussell!” he exclaimed.
Aidan narrowed his eyes. He had been away at war for years before his father died and so did not know as many of the villagers by name as he otherwise might have. “Ye ken me?”
The man nodded dumbly, pointing at Aidan’s hair.
Aidan snorted, turning to the lass to ask if she was all right but then stopped short when he found that she was glaring at him. He quirked an eyebrow.
“I dinnae need ye to save me, yer Lairdship,” she hissed.
He grinned broadly, hiding his surprise. “Have ye not heard? Lairds have no other duty but rescuing damsels in distress.”
Her lips twitched as if she wanted to laugh but stopped herself by biting down on it. That only served to draw Aidan’s eyes to her full red lips and he licked his own, overcome with the urge to press them to hers. “Well thank ye, but I dinnae need rescuing. Mr. Thomas and I were merely discussing a debt he seems to think I owe him.”
Aidan eyed the man. “Is that so? And how much would this debt be?”
The girl shook her head. “I dinnae believe that’s any of yer business, my Laird.”
Aidan turned to stare at her in disbelief, quite impressed at her audacity. “Unless I choose to make it so.”
The girl grimaced. “There is no need, I do assure ye.”
Aidan looked around very deliberately. “Is there a tavern nearby where we might discuss this with a modicum of privacy?” He knew full well that there was a tavern not far off and so was fully prepared when the girl resolutely shook her head. He was saved from calling her a liar when Mr. Thomas spoke up.
“Aye, my Laird. There’s a publican’s house just down this lane.” He pointed it out helpfully.
Aidan smirked inwardly. He could see the greed shining in the man’s eyes and knew he could turn it to his use. He gestured for Mr. Thomas to lead the way before turning and offering his arm to the lass. “I’m afraid ye have me at a disadvantage,” he said as she stood there, not moving. “Ye ken who I am but I dinnae ken yer name.”
She sighed deeply. “I am Isobel Donnelly, at yer service, my Laird.”
“Ye dinnae have to call me that. Aidan is fine.”
“Och…” she shook her head, “I think the townspeople are scandalized enough with me.”
He cocked an eyebrow in curiosity. “And why is that?”
“I dare to be young and a healer. ‘Tis unheard of, ye ken?”
There was a teasing glint in her eyes which he was enjoying excessively. Someone cleared his throat nearby and he realized he’d forgotten all about Samuel who must be wondering what Aidan was about. He turned to face his tacksman narrowing his eyes at him. “Isobel, may I present Samuel Chapman to ye?”
She curtsied quite prettily, an impish grin on her face, “Pleased to make yer acquaintance, Sir.”
“Och, call me Sam. ‘Tis the young laird here that ye should call thus.”
Aidan narrowed his eyes further at his second. “As I assured ye, Lass, that isnae necessary,” he bit out.
Samuel grinned, gesturing unapologetically with his chin at Mr. Thomas who was shifting from foot to foot. “Shall we go then?”
“Aye.” Aidan held out his arm to Isobel again, suppressing a grin when she reluctantly took it. They squelched their way down the muddy lane to the tavern, Aidan trying his level best to take the girl in without staring. She had the deepest blue eyes he’d ever seen, like a clear sky on a sunny day. But they were so heavy laden and sad it was all he could do not to plead with her to let him take her burdens away. It was clear – since she was arguing alone in the square with a man – that she had no protectors, perhaps no family to speak of.
A healer? Why do I not ken her then?
He’d heard the name Donnelly mentioned a few times in the Castle, but it wasn’t singular enough for him to know if they were referring to Isobel, her family or some other person by that name.
Conversation died down as they entered the pub before starting up again, at a higher volume. Since it was quite early, the tavern was hardly full but several people sat drinking ale and eating bannocks while others spooned parritch into their mouths with quiet concentration.
A man appeared from behind a door, slinging a towel over his right shoulder as he made for them. “Welcome, my Laird, to my fine establishment. Would ye like a private room for yer breakfast?”
Aidan hesitated, looking between Isobel and Mr. Thomas and assessing how loud they were all likely to get. He turned to the publican. “Aye, that would be a bonnie idea, Mr–?”
“I’m Hobert MacAllen. Moved here from down south.” The publican bowed a few times and Aidan nodded uncomfortably.
“Pleased to make yer acquaintance.” He gestured for the publican to lead them on.
Hobert bowed one more time before making his way to a darker corner of the taproom. Aidan did not even notice the door until they were right next to it, it fit so seamlessly against the wooden walls. Hobert opened the door and gestured for them to enter. The room was closer to a family room in a private home than a public house. There was a big round table in the center of the room, surrounded by several mismatched chairs. The floor was dirt covered and there was a side board, lined with various bottles.
“I’ll bring ye some breakfast, shall I?” Hobert asked.
Aidan nodded. “Aye. Some meat and bread perhaps if ye have it?”
Hobert bowed and smiled. “Right away, my Laird.”
Aidan turned to others in the room, pointing at the chairs. “Well? Shall we sit?”
Isobel took a bite out of her piece of bread, avoiding everyone’s eye. She had no idea how she ended up in this tavern with the Laird of Clan McRussell, his man, and the apothecary. One minute she was…educating Mr. Thomas on the importance of keeping one’s word when he said that he would give you five weeks to pay for the supply of herbs she needed for her business; the next she was being led here by the impossibly handsome laird, his eyes watching her with too much interest.
It had been six years since her mother had passed away and ever since, she’d spent every summer scouring the countryside for her brother. So far, she’d had no luck but she was not ready to give up. When she wasn’t searching for Siobhan, she continued her mother’s legacy – acting as a healer especially for women’s issues.
To do so she had to contend with suspicion from the villagers, accusations of witchcraft or exhortations to marry. It was exhausting at times and there was many a summer when she’d contemplated the prospect of just never coming back to Millport. But her parents were buried here and good or ill, it was her home. When she found her brother, she wanted to have somewhere to bring him.
“Now that we have refreshed ourselves, perhaps ye can explain to me what yon stramash was about.”
Mr. Thomas took a deep breath, clearly ready to make his case. Isobel jumped in before he could speak. “I took some goods from Mr. Thomas three weeks ago. I explained to him that I willnae be able to pay him until I harvest my goose-grass and dandelion and sell it in five weeks, which means I have two weeks left afore I have to pay him.” She paused, taking a deep breath, “Now he says I am overdue to pay him and he’ll take my entire garden of sage and feverfew if I dinnae pay him right awa’.”
The Laird’s eyebrows were arched in what looked like either surprise or disbelief and he turned to Mr. Thomas. “Is this true?”
Mr. Thomas cleared his throat, his hands fidgeting with the cutlery, “Well, she dinnae tell me about the harvesting and such. She just said she willnae pay me right away. I felt I’d given her en–”
Isobel could feel her blood boil. “That’s a lie.”
The apothecary shook his head vigorously, “Nae it isna. I dinnae lie. Never in my life, my Laird.”
The Laird smirked, exchanging a glance with his man before smirking in disbelief. “Is that so? Good for ye then. Faither Gregg must be very proud.”
For the second time in his presence, Isobel almost burst out laughing. She had to bite hard on her bottom lip to keep the hilarity in.
“Now, it seems to me that a man’s word should be his bond especially when that man is not a liar, do ye not agree, Mr. Thomas?”
He nodded frantically. “Aye I do, my Laird. But my family’s hungry and I need–”
The Laird turned to his companion and held out his hand. With a roll of his eyes, the man reached into his tunic, extracting a purse and slapped it into the Laird’s hand. The Laird reached into it and put some coins on the table before returning the purse to Sam. “Will this cover it?”
Isobel lunged forward before Mr. Thomas could touch it. “No! Ye cannae do this. ‘Tis my responsibility. I shall deal wi’ it.”
Aidan looked quite unbothered by her theatrics. “Do ye or do ye not live on my land?” he asked.
She stared at him, her hand still covering the money on the table. She blinked a few times before sliding back into her seat with a sigh. “I do.”
“Aye well, then ye’re subject to my decisions. Do ye have the money to pay the apothecary?”
Isobel shook her head reluctantly. “No, I dinnae.”
“Well then, the man has to eat. Will ye begrudge him the ability to feed his family for yer pride?”
Isobel simply stared at him, breathing hard, before shaking her head resentfully.
“All right. I shall pay the man and if ye feel obligated, ye may bring yer harvest to the Castle in two weeks. Fair?”
Isobel sighed in defeat. “Aye,” she said quietly.
Mr. Thomas bowed a few times. “Thank ye, my Laird. Thank ye.” He grabbed the money, stood up and rushed out of the room before anyone could stop him, not even bothering to close the door behind him.
Aidan and his man snorted almost simultaneously.
“Well, he was in a hurry.” Aidan said.
“Aye, because ye paid him twice what I owed him,” Isobel retorted.
Sam laughed as Aidan shrugged. “Och aye? Well, I canna say as I blame him.”
“I beg yer pardon?” Isobel frowned angrily at him.
“He was clearly desperate and I could spare the money. Dinnae fash, I shall find a way to get it back. Now, tell me about ye, Isobel.”
“What do ye wish to ken?”
“How do ye come to be here alone?”
Isobel frowned, looking away. It had been six years since her parents had passed away but it still hurt sometimes as if it had been yesterday. Other days, it seemed that it had all happened a lifetime ago and she’d been wandering the earth, searching for her brother ever since.
“How do any folks usually end up alone, eh? Their families die.”
He reached out and squeezed her arm. “I’m sorry to hear tha’. Do ye not have any male relative to protect ye?”
Isobel blinked a few times. “I have a brother.”
“Where is he?”
She shook her head. “I dinnae ken.”
He leaned forward, his eyes dark with concern. “What d’ye mean… did he leave ye?”
“Not on purpose. My mither she…well, they owed a man a debt and he took my brother as payment. I havenae been able to find him yet.”
“But ye’re looking?”
Her lashes came down to hide her eyes and the tears that blurred her vision.
“Ye could come up to the Castle and stay there. We are in need of a healer.”
She shook her head, surreptitiously wiping the tears from her cheeks. “I cannae. I told ye, I have to find my brother.”
“We could put out the word for him. We can help ye find him.”
She turned to look at him wistfully. It had been a long time since she’d felt another person’s care on her behalf. “I do thank you for that, my Laird, but I have no description, no name, there is no way that you could put the word out on him. He was a bairn when he was given away.”
“And how do ye plan to find him?”
“I’ve been following stories, rumor and legend all up and down the south coast.” She huffed tiredly. “It’s been a lot of dead ends.”
“Yer dedication is admirable.”
“It was my mither’s dying wish that I find him.”
The Laird was staring at her with such fixed focus that it was hard not to fidget on the bench. Her skin felt hot where his green gaze touched her. She could not look directly at him; there was something about the luxuriant greenness of his eyes, so alive and bright, all his attention on her that made her dizzy. That, combined with the inky black of his hair and the paleness of his skin made him seem like an enchantment sent by the fae folk to bewitch unwary maidens. He was more vivid and immediate than anyone else she’d ever met. She would not have been at all surprised if he’d cast a spell on her.
She blinked a few times, trying to shake herself free of his magnetism but the magic was too strong. It effortlessly held her captive.
Be gone with ye, Fancies!
She grimaced inwardly at her thoughts, acknowledging the irony of her thinking that he was magical when she had to contend daily with being called a witch for trying to heal women of their various ailments.
Aidan held his hand out again and Sam handed him the purse without a word. Aidan extracted a gold coin, putting it on the table between them. She was already shaking her head as she watched his hand push the coin toward her. “Really, my Laird, this isnae necessary.”
“It would give my heart peace if ye would accept this from me. It might help ye as ye make inquiries of your brother. Sometimes greasing the palms enhances the memory.”
She caught Sam’s eye who nodded as if to give her permission. Smiling, touched beyond her ability to say by the Laird’s generosity, she lowered her eyes in refusal, keeping her hands in her lap.
“Please. I am yer Laird. This is my duty.”
She shook her head, turning away as the tears fell. “I am grateful beyond my ability to say, my Laird, but I canna take yer money.”
He sighed and to her surprise, did not press her any further. “Verra well then. But ye must make me a promise.”
Slowly she turned bracing herself to meet his verdant gaze and not drown in his eyes. “Aye?”
“If ye need anything, ye’ll come to me. Until ye find yer kin, I’ll be yer protector.”
She nodded jerkily. “Very kind of ye, my Laird.”
He leaned forward. “Ye’re a healer, is that not right? Can ye help me with my wrist?” He held it out to her. “Sometimes it pains something awful.”
Isobel suppressed a snort. “Is that so? Have ye tried willow bark tea?”
He shook his head. “I dinnae ken it. Would ye make it for me? Ye can show me where yer shop is and I can come there and get it.”
She blinked at him, surprised at his blatancy. “I’m sure yer wife would ken how to make it.”
“I’m not marrit.”
“Och aye? Why not?”
He shrugged, his lip turning down self-deprecatingly. “I’ve been away at the wars.”
Isobel nodded. “What of yer housekeeper? Yer mither?”
“My mither, like yers, is no more.” He sat up straighter, looking her in the eye. “Why do ye not want to cure me?”
“I dinnae say tha’.”
“So ye’ll show me yer shop?”
Samuel snorted, getting to his feet. “I’ll leave ye to do tha’ then while I head for the market?”
Without looking at him, the Laird waved him off. “Aye, ye do that. Miss Donnelly and I have some business.”
Samuel shook his head, his eyes shining with amusement before taking his leave. If she’d had the courage, Isobel would have begged him to stay. His dancing eyes and peaceful spirit called to her in a different way than the chaos the Laird evoked within her. She thought he could be a good friend. Now she was alone with the Laird and no idea how to behave.
He held out a hand to her. “Come, Isobel, shall we go?”
Slowly she got to her feet. “Aye, all right.”
She was a bit embarrassed to let the Laird into her cottage. There was not much in the way of furniture and she mostly used the front room as a storage space for herbs. There were several bundles hanging from the rafters, a huge cauldron sat in the fireplace, gently simmering and her work bench had mortars, pestles, and other implements. She really could not blame anyone who came in for mistaking her for a witch. Her cheeks warmed as she watched the Laird look around. When he turned to her, she expected to see judgement in his eyes so she was surprised when he smiled instead. “May I sit?”
“Aye,” she said softly.
He pulled out the bench and sat on it, hands in his lap. She stared at him for a moment at a loss. Crossing to the fireplace to scoop out some water, she poured it into the kettle before crushing some willow bark into it as well as lavender. She left it to steep and came to sit opposite him.
“May I see your wrist?”
He stretched it out obligingly and she began to massage it slowly, watching his face. She pressed down on various places, letting herself enjoy the tender warmth of his flesh against hers, his own hand twice the size of her own. He did not react in any way to the pressure, his face remaining smooth and untroubled. She bit back a smile and refrained from calling him out.
“Yer hands are very soothing,” he murmured.
She let go of his wrist as if it burned her.
“Please,” he said stretching his hand closer to her, “dinnae stop.”
Aidan was quite taken with the healer and he didn’t even try to deny it. Her callused hands manipulating his own limb had him almost closing his eyes and sighing in ecstasy. He could feel every brush of her palm like a hot brand, igniting his flesh on fire. When she let go of his hand his stomach twisted with disappointment.
“Dinnae stop.” The words burst out of him without his permission and she jumped in startlement. He flushed, pale skin heating up embarrassingly fast. “Forgive me…I dinnae mean to scare ye.”
She shook her head, lashes swept downward to hide her gaze. “I wasna scared. I’m just wondering…” she lifted her eyes and he saw them gleam with something like teasing amusement, “why ye dinnae feel it when I pulled yer wrist if ye’re in pain?”
He blanched realizing his ruse was exposed and then gave a small laugh, shrugging his shoulders. “I suppose ye caught me. My wrist doesnae hurt at the moment. That doesnae mean that I couldnae use the help. It twinges something terrible every time ‘tis about to rain.”
She made a skeptical sound in her throat but stood up nevertheless to pour some liquid from the kettle into a cup. “Well then, ye should ha’ told me that. I would have given ye the herbs to take with ye.” She handed him the cup with a sigh.
He smiled, taking a sip and then grimacing. “I feel sure this will be of benefit to me, nevertheless.” He looked around the room, noting the single bed wedged into a corner and piled high with pieces of cloth, a woolen arisaid, a gown or two all atop a simple heather mattress. They seemed to have been thrown upon the bed in a haphazard manner. Beneath the bed, was a pair of worn, scuffed boots. There was no wardrobe in the single room hence why the clothes were on the bed, Aidan concluded.
Along the floor were various pots, filled with plants, the roof had drying plants hanging off of hooks and the bench had various open satchels filled with powders and pills. The room wafted with a collection of smells from the slightly aromatic tormentil and bog myrtle to the woody scent of common heather.
Despite its cramped nature, it was a pleasant room to be in.
He finished the bitter concoction in the cup and handed it back to her. “Thank ye for that. I feel much better for it.”
Her mouth twisted in doubt but she did not contradict him.
“Have ye lived here all yer life?”
She glanced at him and then away. “Aye, as long as I can remember.”
“I’m sorry, I dinnae ken that name – Donnelly. Would I have met yer parents or did they pass long ago?”
“It’s been six years since they both passed. My faither was ill and my mother had a fall.”
Aidan’s eyes widened. “At the same time?”
Isobel shook her head. “No, my faither died first and then six months later, my mither followed.”
“And now you are alone.”
“I have a brother.”
“Indeed.” He nodded, blinking at her. She stood before him, twisting her hands together as if she was anxious, her blue eyes fixed watchfully on him. Her hair had escaped its snood and hung above her head in unruly curls like a red halo. He wanted to tuck her into his cloak and protect her from everything. Instead, he got to his feet as there was a knock on the door. “Well, I should leave ye to yer ministrations.” He bowed. “I thank ye for yer services. How much do I owe ye?”
She became very flustered, blushing and stammering. “Ye already gave me a gold coin, my Laird. I dinnae need any–”
“That wasna for payment of services. Please,” he dug into his pocket and extracted a copper coin, “allow me to pay ye with this at least.”
She just stared at the coin, not reaching out for it so he placed it on the table. There was another knock on the door. He glanced at it and then back at her. “Yer public is calling for ye.” He smiled as he went to the door and pushed it open. There was a woman there holding a young child. They both stared up at him in wonder.
“Good morning to ye,” he murmured, tipping his chin at them before striding off toward the market and leaving them to the gentle attentions of Miss Donnelly. Even though his steps led away from her abode, he could not stop thinking about her. He did not know what it was about her that had captured his attention so strongly but he wasn’t going to delve too deep into it. His body reacted to hers in ways he hadn’t experienced before and he was determined to see where that led.
He caught sight of Samuel, haggling with a seller and went to catch up to him. Isobel was not the only person in his village, and he had come to greet them all after all.
Sam turned his head, face brightening as he caught sight of Aidan. The Laird smiled reflexively back, coming to a stop beside his friend. “What gives?”
Samuel cleared his throat. “Nothing. ‘Tis glad I am to see ye, in one piece, no worse for wear for yer encounter with the town witch.”
Aidan scrunched his nose. “Ye better not be referring to Miss Donnelly.”
Samuel raised his hands in surrender. “I dinnae say I thought she’s a witch. Just what I been hearing in the market place. I’ve received many ‘friendly’ warnings for ye for consorting with the ‘witch’.”
Aidan snorted. “They cannae be that backward.”
Samuel gave him a sidelong glance. “Ye cannae have been away so long ye lost yer memory.”
Aidan grinned, clapping him on the shoulder. “Right you are. Anything else ye need to report?”
Samuel stopped smiling. “Aye. It seems someone was verra interested in yer conversation at the inn. The publican told me he chased away a man who was lurking at the door, listenin’.”
Aidan frowned. “Why would he do that? We werenae speaking of anything of importance to anyone but the healer and apothecary.”
“Aye well…” he shrugged one shoulder, “perhaps he was a friend of one of them and just wanted to see how it would all pan out.”
“What exactly did he hear?”
“I dinnae ken. The publican dinnae say.”
“Aye well…I suppose there isnae anything we can do about it now.”
“No. ‘Tis too late. But come here and have a look at this venison. The lady’s roasting it with tomato fruits. Says it enriches the flavor.” Samuel pulled him toward a lady hunched over a fire pit over which roasted an entire deer. She was industriously coating it with a red paste. Aidan frowned with concern.
“And she manages to sell the meat?” he whispered in wonder. In his travels during the war, he’d seen tomato fruits used in food and knew full well they were not poisonous but many a Scot’s man had long held that belief and it wasn’t easy to change.
“Aye. It goes over a treat or so’s I hear. I’m waiting to taste a piece.”
Aidan sniffed. “It does smell very good.”
“Does it not?” Samuel rubbed his hands eagerly.
“Aye. We’ll wait and taste it.”
The lady tending the pit didn’t crack a smile but the frown on her forehead diminished slightly. They decided to walk around the market and meet as many of the farmers and vendors as they could. It was the least he could do to ensure he didn’t squander his father’s legacy.
Isobel was glad that her day was so busy. She was quite impressed with her ability to get any work done considering her mind was in such a whirl of thoughts and feelings. She had no idea why her body was choosing this time to betray her like this. She’d had plenty of men proposition her either offering to make an honest woman of her or else they wanted to corrupt her completely. She refused them all with equal fervor, focusing all her hopes on finding her brother. She knew that if she wed, her husband was unlikely to allow her to continue her quest.
So far, it had not presented such a challenge, to keep herself separate from society except at the point where they met as patient and healer. She helped people who had no one else to turn to and counted it a blessing to be able to do so regardless of the nasty talk she endured from time to time. But now, even as busy as she was, she could not get the Laird out of her mind.
The intensity of his emerald gaze, his impish grin, the way he protected her without asking for anything in return, it all set her heart aflutter.
She dug the letter out of her pocket, re-reading it to herself just to remind herself of the stakes. Having her heart flutter, her breath come fast at the sight of him and her head become light and swoon-worthy at his presence was all very well and good. But it could not detract her from her mission.
Sometimes she had dreams in which her brother was bending over digging with a hoe, over and over, while a hazy figure whipped him again and again. Suddenly he would stop, straightening up and looking straight at her.
“Help,” he would say before the figure pushed him into the hole he’d been digging and began to fill it up. She woke up screaming every time, and ever more determined to find him.
Her mind jumped to the Laird and the gold coin he’d given her to aid in her search in addition to paying for her herbs. Already she was thinking of ways to utilize the money to the best advantage.
Should I write to Father Donovan at the orphanage or leave early and look longer?
With a sigh, she got to her feet and walked out of her cottage. It might rain at any moment and she wanted to collect some bulbs from her kitchen garden before that happened. In addition to serving the villagers, she had to feed herself somehow. “I’m thinking a lovely onion stew with the remains of yesterday’s bread, what do you think?” she said aloud to herself even as she hunched over, and drew her arisaid closer around her frame, trying to keep the cold out.
She looked around, blushing a bit, hoping no one had seen her talk to herself. She recently began to feel a strange prickling sensation around her shoulders when she went out as if someone was watching her. She dismissed it as overly distrustful misgivings but could not help looking around to see if anyone else was nearby.
Her cottage was on the edge of the village, surrounded by fence and wooden fence posts and facing the lonely road that led out of the village. It was empty at the moment, and covered with slush. A line of trees in the distance stood like sentinels marking the end of McRussell land and the beginning of the neighboring homestead – a group of cottages belonging to a family of farriers, blacksmiths and hunters, all women.
They’d petitioned the Laird for permission to hunt on his land – strictly for rabbits and other small game and according to what Isobel had heard, he’d agreed. That in itself was highly unusual as was the very presence of a bevy of women with no men to protect them living on their own.
“Times they are a-changing,” she murmured to herself as she picked onions and garlic. The feeling of being watched did not go away so she hurried at her task before disappearing back into the house.
Aidan thoughtfully watched the bleeding cut on his hand wondering if it was enough of an excuse to go down to the village and see the healer again. He had sufficient skill to tend to it himself and certainly his sister would not object to lending a hand if he could not. However, instead of heading to the Castle, he turned his horse toward the village. He’d been hunting for game when it had happened. A rutting stag had streaked past him, no doubt in pursuit of the same does he’d been chasing. He’d been startled, listing to the left, his hand shooting out to land on a hawthorn tree and keep him steady on the horse. Unfortunately that had resulted in various cuts on his palm, hence the bleeding.
He cantered down to the village, tying his horse on the fence post of Isobel’s cottage before calling out for her. The door opened a crack and she peered out curiously. “What can I do for ye today, my Laird?”
He held up his bleeding hand. “I need help.”
She stared dubiously at his hand but then held the door open. “Come in then. At least this time ye have a real injury,” she said breezily watching him.
He grinned happily, striding past her and into the cottage. She closed the door behind her with a sigh and then turned to face him. “So tell me, did ye cut yerself or did something else do that to ye?”
He gave her a sheepish grin. “I leaned on a Hawthorn tree.”
“Why would ye do that?” she took his hand gently between hers and peered at it, a furrow marring her brow. She actually sounded concerned. He took it as a good sign.
“Just careless I suppose,” he murmured with a shrug.
“Mmph.” She leaned forward and he thought she would kiss him. He closed his eyes, holding his breath in anticipation.
Her breath ghosted against his skin and her scent, a mix of juniper and jasmine with a touch of womanly musk, wafted over him. He breathed in deep, his hand clenching, breeches suddenly tight.
He opened his eyes, and looked into hers, smiling. “What ye do to me,” he whispered. She blinked, once, twice.
“What do I do?” she whispered back.
He smiled, eyes dropping to her lips. He licked his own, looking up into her eyes. “Would ye be offended if I kissed ye?”
Her eyes widened and she pulled back abruptly, dropping his hand. “I am no a whore.”
“I dinnae say ye were. Do ye think I would insult ye by thinking ye were?”
She shook her head slowly, her eyes steady on his lips. “Why do ye want to kiss me then?”
He reached out, running hand over her bottom lip. “Soft,” he murmured and then pressed down, “pliant.” He rubbed his finger back and forth along her bottom lip “Hot.” His hand dropped to his side as his eyes lifted to stare into hers. “Ready.”
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