About the book
Amor vincit omnia...
Love conquers all, they said. But not for Lady Magnolia Winterbourne, who had only one goal in her life: serve the Crown as a dutiful agent, and make her father proud.
When she is presented with the task of spying on a powerful Scottish clan, she is determined to succeed. Until she meets her undoing in the eyes of the handsome Laird.
Nathair Irvine, Laird of MacFoihl, has been splitting himself between protecting his clan, and being a good father. When an alluring Englishwoman offers her services as a nanny, he can’t do anything else but agree. And fall in love with her.
With Magnolia slowly winning his heart, Nathair has to let go of the past. Slowly realizing that she has nothing to spy for, Magnolia is torn between her duty and her heart. Until the decision is made for them: a letter, declaring war, written in her own hand.
There was no male heir to the Elfinstone Estate. Lady Magnolia Winterbourne, daughter of the Earl, was more acutely aware of this with every passing day. She had never married and never birthed children, and at six-and-twenty, the marriageable age had likely passed.
Magnolia had no male cousins, no brothers, no nephews–nobody to take the burden from her shoulders. Magnolia felt the pressure of the heirship more heavily than any boy in her position would. Though she would not change her service and loyalty to the Crown for anything, she had to concede to a certain amount of pressure to prove herself.
That was why she was struggling not to snap at her coach driver to hurry as the cab trundled along the road at a snail’s pace.
She must reach the meeting hall, and soon, or it would be disastrous for the reputation of Elfinstone and the Winterbourne name. The sun seemed to be speeding across the sky, each passing minute, admonishing her as it reached its peak.
I cannot believe that this would happen today of all days! Can’t this carriage go any faster?
It was no fault of the driver that she was late, but her own; she had been waylaid in her visit to her childhood friend and her new son. Magnolia had known that the meeting was at noon, but she’d foolishly let cooing over the babe take up most of her morning, and now she was going to be late.
“Timothy, is there any way–?”
“The ol’ mares are trotting as fast as they can, My Lady,” Tim assured her. “We’ll make it, dinnae ye worry. Trust me.”
She’d known Tim, a Scottish transplant who held firmly onto his accent, since she was born. He’d been her mother’s favorite driver, and now he was Magnolia’s, too. She did trust him, but Magnolia worried anyway.
She should never have been invited to this meeting at all. Her father’s reputation was already on the ropes thanks to his insistence on her induction into the Order. Yes, she’d proven herself finely, but this was a step up. A secret meeting, even within their secret society!
I cannot believe that I would be invited to such a thing. Father claims it was the Marquess’ idea rather than his own, too!
Magnolia had served in many roles since the death of her mother. She was a member of the Order, a dutiful daughter, and now the acting Countess. Some might say it was too much for a young maiden like her. Many did speak so, in not-so-subtle whispers behind her back.
Let them whisper, though.
Magnolia did not care for their whispers, just as her mother had always taught.
They may say what they will, out of jealousy or suspicion, but it does not change who I am or what I am doing. My wish is to make my Father proud and show my loyalty to the Crown and my Country. Nothing more.
Now, if only the horses could go faster…
Daniel Winterbourne had sported the title of Earl of Elfinstone for four-and-thirty years, ever since his fifteenth birthday. Since that day, he had served as one of the Crown’s most loyal servants, taking pride in his rank and his heritage in a way that benefited his station most greatly. The Winterbourne name was discussed in the courts with high esteem.
Lord Winterbourne’s services were more profound than merely land ownership and noble duties. Though few knew of it, and those who did rarely spoke of it, he was a critical member of the Royal Order of the Red Blossom. His duties encapsulated many covert missions, but he was especially well-known for his work against the threat of the Scots.
The realm existed in a time of peace now, but Daniel had seen too much war to ever truly relax. The Scots and the English, when they attacked one another, were merciless.
It is an ugly thing. I pray from my heart, and in the name of my late wife that I should never see such a conflict again. I hope to God it is avoidable.
He had given everything to the Crown, risking life and limb, and love, too. For his sacrifices, he had returned with more successful missions than any other member of the Order. It was the central pride of his heart, and he would not change it for the world.
His work had not come without great personal cost, however. As was his duty, he married at the age of sixteen to the daughter of a local Lord. The girl was a few years older than him, and while it was not a love match, he had grown to love her deeply.
The esteemed Lady Eleanor, Countess of Elfinstone, had been a wife as beautiful as she was dutiful. Though the two knew nothing of each other, they became fast friends.
I still do not know who was more nervous: Eleanor or me. Neither of us had so much as courted another before, and here we were, expected to be married! But married we were nonetheless, and we found happiness. Love. Many cannot say the same.
When Daniel joined the Order, he had trusted in Eleanor when he had no other confidante. She had steadfastly kept his secrets and smoothed the running of the estate in his absence. She was a delicate woman, though, and as the years passed without children, and his absences grew longer, whispers started at court.
And how they loved their whispers. They have not changed. They would claim she was barren. That I was uninterested in my wife. That we were cursed. They said all sorts, didn’t they, Eleanor?
It was a way he often spent his spare time; talking to his beloved late wife in his mind. He knew she could hear him. Sometimes, he even imagined her responses.
Eleanor had responded then and would respond now in the same way. “Let them whisper if they will. Why should we waste our care on what they have to say? At least this means they find us interesting compared to their lives of boredom.”
Daniel was nineteen when his son was born, but the boy passed a day later before he even had a chance to be named. Eleanor was devastated but determined to provide her husband with an heir.
She became pregnant thrice more over the following years before she was able to carry a child to term. Daniel had not known of her last pregnancy until he returned from a mission, aged twenty-three, to find a six-month-old daughter waiting for him.
Daniel paced back and forth, remembering the moment he’d seen the baby for the first time. His heart had shattered into a million pieces that had reformed into an organ that beat only for her.
He smiled. His daughter, their daughter, had grown much since then, looking devastatingly like Eleanor.
You’d be so proud of her, and what she has grown to accomplish, he assured his wife.
Eleanor survived their daughter’s birth, but it became apparent then that there would be no sons, as the doctors informed her that she could bear children no more.
It is every man’s wish to teach his son and heir, but though Daniel could not hide his disappointment, his heart was soon lost to this small replica of her blonde-haired, blue-eyed mother. She was named Magnolia, for the gentle white blossoms Eleanor adored so much, and she breathed new life into Elfinstone.
And everyone adored her right away. She was our daughter, but she was a gift to all of us.
He loved his daughter dearly, but those first few years had been especially precious. He thought of her little face and smiled.
The sweetest babe in the world. Pretty and quiet and perfect. I am so glad that, at least, you got to spend those moments with her. I am pleased that she has memories of you.
Magnolia had grown astute, kind, and as beautiful as her mother. She was a loyal daughter, tending to her mother and obeying her father in every word. She loved fiercely and had a quick wit about her that made her popular with the young men at social events, though she demurely turned each away.
At the age of fourteen, she confided in Daniel that she wished never to marry. Shocked, he had questioned her and been astounded by the shrewdness of her answer.
“Well, Father, it is quite simple. Why should I marry and allow some lesser noble to take Elfinstone from our name when the Winterbourne bloodline has sustained it and served the Crown for generations?”
Proud but troubled, Daniel had spoken with Eleanor, who promised to converse with their daughter on the topic. She did, though Daniel never heard the result–he was told that it was a matter between women, not an Earl’s affair.
And you never did tell me what you told her, my darling. She continues to turn away suitors, even now. Six-and-twenty and she cares little for matters of marriage. She’s such an unusual child.
Shortly after, Eleanor contracted scrofula while Daniel was once again away on service. Mercury treatment did not work as hoped, and young Magnolia had been the only one present at her mother’s death.
Daniel stopped in his reminiscing for a moment, the pain still lancing through him like a fresh wound even all these years later. It felt like a physical hurt, making him flinch against it.
My Eleanor. Sometimes I still expect to come home and see your darling face. When I walk in to see your empty chair, my heart breaks all over again. But at least Magnolia is strong. More robust than me, I think.
She had only been fifteen, just as young as Daniel had been at the demise of his own father. Magnolia had borne her grief as well as any son, even though her father was still away. She had gone so far as to take it upon herself to pen the letter that had brought him the terrible news. She claimed that it was simply not right for anyone else to tell him.
When he returned, broken and lost and grieving, Magnolia told him that she would serve as Countess now and do her best to fulfill her mother’s responsibilities.
And she was quite determined, too. She was barely more than a child, but she slipped into your role with ease, even in her state of mourning. I am the most blessed father in England.
Magnolia excelled in her education and in her duties. She learned by her father’s side, and her loyalty toward and knowledge of the workings of the Crown only grew. As she matured, she continued to turn away every suitor, and Daniel began to consider something unheard of for a daughter. He argued much with his cohort about it, but he refused to back down.
Magnolia was placed under many tests of loyalty and ability without her knowledge. She passed every single one with ease, impressing everyone involved, and making her father gratified beyond belief. She performed so well that, eventually, an agreement was reached. At the age of eighteen, Magnolia Winterbourne was inducted into the Royal Order of the Red Blossom.
Her projects over almost nine years of service had been comparatively small. Still, she had worked diligently and efficiently and gained the trust of the organization.
She was the first woman to do so, but she did not let that swell her sense of self-importance.
“Well, Father, I may be a woman, but I am your daughter and a servant of the Crown before that. Why, in the future, I believe that many women will be permitted to serve and help England to thrive,” she’d told him. Daniel had not thought of and still could not think of a single reason to refute her.
She knew of her many naysayers, but she simply ignored them. She was determined to follow in the steps of her father and give everything she had to the country she loved.
Magnolia had been genuinely committed throughout her whole adult life, and Daniel wanted to reward that. That was why he had now placed his reputation on the line. The Marquess had first suggested her name, but Daniel had given everything to make sure the plan was followed through.
He had spoken against her many detractors to convince their leaders that Magnolia was the correct choice for the mission ahead. It was top secret, limited knowledge even within the Order. She was young, she was a woman, she had never been on such an important mission before. All of this was true, but Daniel knew she would not fail.
I staked everything on it, my darling. But I would do it again–for her. For you. She is my daughter, but she does you credit most of all. Not that the Viscount or his friends would agree to that.
The Viscount of Mitread, Lord Peter Kole, was particularly virulent against the idea of Magnolia being brought into the fold. He claimed it was because she was a woman or because she was young or inexperienced, but Daniel knew better.
Kole had three reasons for his obsession with her failure. The first was that Magnolia had rejected his suit only a year previously. The second, and most pressing, was his preoccupation with proving himself to the Crown. Third and final was the man’s enduring hatred of the Scots and fixation on showing personal and national superiority over them.
He was not the only one. James Reid, Earl of Westinford, and Lord Paul Jenkins had also been strong detractors of his daughter. By no coincidence, they were also two of the suitors Magnolia had turned away.
Jenkins would do anything to prove himself to the Crown. He longs to get away from his Welsh heritage and establish himself as English as any of us. I know he holds anger towards our daughter even now.
And as for Reid, his pride would lead him to do…anything. I shudder to think of the revenge he’s plotting in his small mind, even if he never acts upon it.
The arguing had been bitter, but Daniel and the Marquess had won out. Now he paced nervously before the doors of the meeting room, the three privileged men already inside waiting for him.
Or, more accurately, waiting for Magnolia. He glanced anxiously at his pocket watch. She was not yet late, but it would reflect poorly on him if his daughter was delayed after such an argument. More importantly, it would reflect poorly on her.
He stared out along the hallway as if he could see her. He silently urged her to hurry to avoid the scorn of lesser men on their house, and, more critically, on her own admirable self.
Timothy hadn’t even the time to dismount and open the door for her when Magnolia sprinted out of the carriage, her braided hair bouncing against her back. She hurried to the court steps, waving behind her in a gesture of thanks.
She was too conscious that she was still in her day-dress rather than court clothes, but there had been no time to change between Lizzy’s house and now. She was thankful that she’d chosen a well-bodiced gown for her trip, so she would not look out of place.
Well, no more out of place than usual, anyway. Dress restrictions bothered her, but she also was more than aware of their importance at court. As a woman, she needed to prove herself more than anyone. Both for her own sake and for her beloved father.
She hurried up the marble steps, exchanging a friendly smile with the young doorman who winked at her on the way past. Her flat shoes clicked on the tiled floor, and her skirt hindered her from moving faster. She rather reminded herself of a horse galloping to a goal but held back by its bridle.
Her father waited at the end of the third hallway, and the relief that echoed from his face as he saw her approach was more than palpable.
“I’m sorry that I am late, Father,” she told him, with a little polite curtsy. Lord Winterbourne did not expect such formality in his address with his daughter. Still, Magnolia wanted to do everything correctly when she knew that today she would prove herself to the Crown. “Forgive me.”
“Worry not, Daughter,” her father said with that gentle, proud smile she loved so much. “Your arrival is perfectly timely. Come, the gentlemen await.”
She followed, keeping her expression clear and her chin high even as the nerves threatened to overwhelm her. She held herself steady even as she noticed the men in the room and could barely believe that she was in their presence in a closed meeting such as this.
Duke Barton and Marquess Conley were the leaders of the Order. The former was in his sixties, with salt-and-pepper hair and a severe, square jaw. The latter was a round, cheerful man who had blonde curls almost as light as his official white wig. Despite looking like polar opposites, both men were equally kind–and equally merciless when it came time to protect the Crown.
I do like these men, but they do make me exceedingly nervous. What could such powerful men possibly want with the likes of me? What can I do for them? Will I do my father’s name justice?
Her father’s counterpart in the order, the Viscount of Mitread, was the only other man in the room. He was tall and slender with brown hair and spectacles, younger than the other men but cunning in a way that had shot him through the Order’s ranks.
Magnolia was intimidated by all of them, even knowing of their friendliness and courtesy. Still, she did not let it show at all as her father guided her to the table.
The Duke, the Marquess, and the Viscount all stood as Magnolia’s father held out her chair.
“Thank you, Father,” she said politely, sitting. When she did, the four men sat too. It was a synchronized movement, showing they were all used to acting as one, and it made Magnolia even more nervous.
Can I fit here? I am so different already, and they are already so used to each other.
She didn’t have much time to ponder, though, as the Duke started his briefing immediately.
“There have been rumors,” the Duke said in his gravelly voice. “Rumors that the Scots are gathering and preparing for an ambush.”
Magnolia started suddenly, shock filling her at the very idea. “But I thought we were in a time of peace?”
All eyes turned to her, and Lord Kole spoke in a gentle tone. There was warmth in it, and she was pleased he did not hold her rejection against her. “My dear Lady, I know you have not been educated in warfare, but I do assure you that the Duke knows his business.”
There was a pause. Magnolia felt somewhat condescended to, despite his kindness, but she did not speak up. It would not do to let her emotions cloud her judgment now.
The Duke spoke to her with a deferential nod. “That is correct, Lady Winterbourne,” he said. “Your astuteness does your father credit. However, peace is fleeting, and if the Scots attack and we are unprepared, it could be deadly.”
The Marquess nodded. “Quite. Which is why we must send one of our agents to retrieve information. We know from past work that they will likely gather around the Laird of the MacFoihl Clan. We need someone to go into his castle and find out what they are planning.”
Lord Kole straightened in his chair. “Your Grace, I know of Nathair Irvine. I would be happy to—”
“Which is why,” the Duke’s words cut across him, “Lord Winterbourne has invited his daughter here today. We believe that you, my dear, could be instrumental in preventing this new war before it begins.”
Magnolia took a moment to understand precisely what the Duke had just said. “Forgive me, but…me? Why not Lord Reid? Lord Jenkins? Or here, the Viscount himself has just offered.”
The Duke smiled and opened his mouth to answer her.
“Your Grace, I must object!” Lord Kole interrupted. “Lady Winterbourne is no doubt extremely skilled and talented, but we must not forget ourselves. She is a woman still, no matter her wit, and unwed at that. Should we risk her safety in such an endeavor? The Scots are barbaric.”
Magnolia knew that he was only attempting to protect her, but she felt a shudder of irritation, nonetheless. Keeping her face smooth, she glanced at him and said, “Why, My Lord, is not our Queen an unwed woman?”
An expression passed Lord Kole’s face too quickly for Magnolia to process, but he nodded and said, in that same polite tone, “Indeed. But Her Divine Majesty is an exception to many rules, while you…”
“Are the daughter of our most loyal Earl, and a proven agent in her own right,” the Marquess finished mildly. “And, therefore, an excellent candidate for this role. Reid and Jenkins are talented in their ways, but they are too hot-headed for this mission. Magnolia is the one who will do it.”
Both Kole and Magnolia were silent for a moment, then Kole held out his hands in defeat. “Of course. I simply wish what is best for the Lady.”
“You are very kind, Lord Kole,” Magnolia told him. It was true. He may be misguided, but it still warmed her heart that he would try to protect her in such a way.
“Indeed. Most kind,” Magnolia’s father agreed. For some reason, he sounded somewhat amused. “My Lord Marquess, if you would continue?”
Marquess Conley smiled and addressed Magnolia. “The Laird of MacFoihl has a young daughter. He has been searching for someone to care for her since the death of his wife. My Lady, if she would, could infiltrate the castle as a nanny. It would make her inconspicuous, and we have been presented with a cover story that cannot be questioned.”
When Magnolia took a long moment to answer, the Marquess turned to her father and added, “What say you, Lord Winterbourne?”
“I am entirely in support of the idea. I have no doubt of my daughter’s capabilities or loyalties,” her father said with a nod. “Though I defer to her in the final decision.”
Magnolia felt a surge of almost overwhelming excitement at the idea. Such a critical mission, and for her?
A chance to serve the Crown in full and prove my detractors wrong at last!
However, she spoke with caution as she answered. “I am flattered, My Lords, Your Grace, but…even if I am to use an alias in Scotland, shan’t it seem suspicious here in court that my esteemed Father would send his only heir as a nanny?”
The Marquess grinned. “Oh, you are a clever one. But we have thought of all of that. Tell her, Daniel.”
Winterbourne smiled at the girl. “My cousin, your Aunt Mary, is with child,” he informed her. “And she assures me that she expects a son. Assuming this is true, then the boy would be my heir. Legally.”
Magnolia could not tell if this was a ruse. Assuming that it was not, she was not entirely sure how to feel about the news. If Aunt Mary was really with child, then that was wonderful news, of course. Yes, it would mean giving up the heirship if the baby was a boy, but a new family member was a blessing.
So why do I feel so uncertain about it? Am I so uncertain of myself? Of my place? Do I not know who I am, regardless of my duty?
That thought unsettled her more than she would like, and so she turned her focus once more to the mission.
She was silent for a long moment, all eyes on her. When she spoke, it was slow and considered. “Of course, my first duties are to my Father and to the Crown. How would this project be organized?”
The Duke glanced at the Marquess, who fixed his glasses and recited, “You will apply for, and hopefully be accepted for, the job. You will send one letter to your Father, in code, to inform him you have been accepted. It will be under a false name.”
He glanced at the parchment in front of him. “You will live with the Laird as his daughter’s new nanny for a month of at least four weeks from the moment of hiring. After the month is complete, you will submit a report, and you will return home while the matter is dealt with by our men.”
She nodded, and the Marquess continued. “You may flee if discovered, but if you are caught, you will deny any knowledge of the Order or the workings of the Crown. Anything urgent must be reported immediately. You will leave in two days and have that much time to settle your affairs and gather what you need to leave.”
Lord Kole looked worried. “If they catch her, she could be hanged. The Scots are savages. Her pretty face won’t save her, nor will her esteemed and genteel manners. You are risking Lord Winterbourne’s only child. Much better that you dispense with the nanny plan altogether and send in an experienced agent.”
Magnolia hesitated at the thought. “Is that true, Father? I could be hanged?”
Lord Winterbourne’s face was grave. “Yes. I will not lie to you, Daughter; this is dangerous. You are to have no contact with your family or the organization for at least the first month. You will be entirely on your own. Nobody can help you.”
“But,” the Duke added, “if you do this for us, the Crown will personally owe you its gratitude. As will I, My Lady, and all members of the Order of the Red Blossom.”
She paused again, mulling it all over in her mind. Such a task. Such an honor. Such an overwhelming responsibility!
Am I truly ready for this? Am I prepared to leave my friends, my family, everything I know behind and travel into the great unknown?
“Two days?” Magnolia asked.
“And no more,” the Marquess confirmed. “It’s a long journey up north, and we need to start soon. You will use an alias. As long as you are in Scotland, you will hold no title but that of the nanny Magnolia Leighmoore. Your history will mean nothing.”
She swallowed, feeling her nerves rise as her eyes met his.
She could feel them all looking at her. The Duke, the Marquess, Lord Kole…and her father. All focus was on the girl as the Duke said, “So, dear Magnolia. What do you say?”
“I cannot believe you’re going all the way to Scotland to seek employment, Magnolia!” Lizzy said, for what must have been the thirtieth time during this visit. “To be a nanny, no less! Aren’t there children enough in England to keep you entertained? Look, there’s one on your knee now.”
Magnolia bounced the baby on her lap, a soft smile on her face as she did so. Little John had been named at his baptism today, and Magnolia was eternally honored to have been chosen as godmother. It did, however, make leaving all the harder.
“Lizzy, I simply must,” she told her friend. “I have barely seen anything of the world. If I am not to inherit Elfinstone after all, then why should I not see some of the world?”
“But Scotland, Magnolia! They are barbarians up in those parts!” Lizzy leaned forward and lowered their voice. “I hear they don’t even bother with real marriages. They steal women from their beds and get them with child so that the poor woman is bound to them!”
“That’s nonsense,” Magnolia said sharply, though secretly she was unsure. She knew a little about Scottish customs, but the further north, the less in-depth her knowledge. Lizzy was a gossip, but she always had a way of making Magnolia think twice about things.
What do I really know about the Scottish Highlanders? We are in a time of peace, but we have fought wars a-plenty. My father and the Order dedicate much of their time defending our borders from their spies. What am I getting myself into?
But it did not matter, not really. Magnolia looked down at the baby in her arms, her little godson, and brushed his wispy dark hair gently.
I will go regardless. To protect you, John, and to please my Father, and to serve our Crown. I will ensure you and all like you grow up in a country of safety and peace.
She could not speak of any of this to Lizzy, of course. Instead, she continued with her disapproving correction, as though she really knew of what she spoke. “The Scots are human, just like you or I. They may be less civilized in some respects, but I will be perfectly safe at the home of a respected Laird.”
Unless he has me hanged as a spy, of course.
“You will write, though?” Lizzy asked, as Magnolia reluctantly handed John back to her. “You will keep in touch?”
“I shall endeavor to do so,” she promised, even though she knew her opportunities would be minimal. “Do not worry. Focus on your husband and your son. I will write as soon as I am able.”
She buttoned her coat. “I must go now; I have many preparations to see to and very little time in which to make them. Take care of yourself, Lizzy.”
The two women embraced carefully so as not to squash the infant, and then Magnolia headed for the door. She paused in the doorway as Lizzy called her name once more, turning her head.
Lizzy looked hesitant as she said, “Why do I feel like I shall never see you home again?”
Magnolia shook her head and forced a smile, though it felt like Lizzy had dropped a stone into her gut. “You worry too much,” she told her. “Be safe.” And then she walked out, leaving her friend and the baby behind.
Two days was too short a time for a father to have to say goodbye to his daughter, but the day of her leaving arrived regardless. He journeyed north with her, as far as Edinburgh, where he would meet with one of his liaisons after he passed her onto the coach to the Highlands.
They sat together in a small teashop, sipping at their cups, and Daniel found himself at a complete loss of words. His daughter sat there in her traveling clothes, looking calmer than he ever remembered.
Is this an act? Is she trying so hard to make sure she does not leave me upset? Would that I could read her mind and see her worries for myself. Would that I could take on this burden for her.
“Magnolia,” he said after a reasonably long stretch of silence had passed. “My dear Daughter. I hope you know that you are still free to change your mind. If you felt at all pressured into this, I do not wish—”
“I don’t feel pressured, Father,” Magnolia replied. She had the same decisive smile on her face that Eleanor had worn whenever she decided an argument was won. “I know my duty as well as you. Will you please relax? For my sake, if nothing else?”
Daniel smiled. “My brave little girl,” he said. “Though not so little anymore. Have I done right by you, involving you in all of this? Should I have kept you from the Order and valued your safety more?”
She leaned over the table and took his hand in her own. “Father,” she said firmly, “you have always done right by me. Since Mother died, you have served as mother and father both. You have trained me and educated me and allowed me freedoms that many women of my rank could never dream. Never doubt yourself on my behalf.”
Daniel felt a swell of pride and love threaten to overwhelm him, and tears pricked at his eyes. “Promise me, child, that you will do everything in your power to remain safe.”
“I love you, Father,” she told him earnestly. “I love my Country. I love the Crown. I will return with the information we need to help our country protect itself.”
He watched her, the passion and enthusiasm and seriousness in her expression, and had never been so gratified…or so worried.
That isn’t what I asked, Magnolia, he thought but did not say. After all, it was he who had raised her this way–Country before self, Crown above all.
Later, they walked together through the streets of Edinburgh, and Daniel marveled, as he always did, over how similar it was to home but with a different flavor. It was a city indeed, not all that different from any in England except, of course, London. The Scottishness was here, in the flags that flew and the way they spoke, but it was similar enough to feel...comfortable.
“Isn’t it amazing, Father, how everything changed at the border?” Magnolia asked him, looking around with a half-smile on her face.
Daniel gave her a questioning look.
How is it that she sees something so different from what I see?
It seemed that this was always the case, ever since Magnolia was a child. She’d always had a unique take on otherwise simple ideas. She spoke the kind of thought processes that, if she were a man, would have her lauded as a great philosopher.
He remembered the first time this had stood out to him and made him realize how different his daughter really was compared to other girls of her age and time.
“Father, Mother,” she’d once asked them both over dinner, aged just nine. “When my brother died before I was born, did he go to Heaven?”
“He was not baptized,” he’d told her, truthfully, a sad note in his tone now. It was something that often worried him, deep in his soul. “I do not know. We did not even have the chance to name him.”
Magnolia had tilted her head and said, “I think he is there, with all the others who were never born. After all, God already knew the name of his heart, even if we didn’t yet.”
Eleanor had burst into tears and embraced her, and Daniel had never known such love as he felt for his clever little daughter at that moment.
Back in the present, Daniel asked, “Different in what way, my dear?”
Magnolia gestured vaguely to the air. “Surely you can see it too, Father. The grass seemed more alive the second we crossed. Greener, somehow. I suppose it is all the rain they get here in the north. Even this city, which isn’t all that different; there’s something odd in the air, isn’t there?”
Daniel nodded slightly. He couldn’t deny that. “I suppose so. You seem to feel it much more intensely than I do, though.”
She shrugged. “Maybe. Is it so…strange as all of this up in the Highlands, too?”
No. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. I don’t even know how to begin to prepare you.
But all Daniel said was, “It’s different up north.”
Magnolia just nodded, smiled trustingly at him, and took his arm.
They walked together like that until they reached the carriage stop. Magnolia embraced her father tightly before she boarded. “Do not worry, Father. I will be quite all right.”
“I know you will,” Daniel told her. He helped her onboard then kissed her cheek through the open window. Then he stood back, and with a final wave, the carriage took his daughter from him, away up to the wild north and the unknown.
He watched the horses trot away with the carriage until it turned a corner, and then he could see no trace of it anymore. It was as though it, and Magnolia, had never been here at all.
As a Lord, he could not be more pleased with the opportunity his child had been offered and accepted. As a father, though, he could not be more afraid.
The journey from Scotland’s civilized capital to its wild north took longer than even the one from home to Edinburgh. Magnolia began to wonder if she would ride in this carriage for eternity. They stopped nightly for rest and refreshment at whatever inn they could find, but the further north they traveled, the sparser the inns became.
She noticed the change just as she’d seen it when they had crossed the English-Scottish border when they left what she knew as civilization behind.
Extraordinary, Magnolia thought to herself as she watched, entranced, I would never have imagined a place such as this.
The grass grew wilder, the birds sang louder. As they trundled along a hillside road, Magnolia could see nothing but Scottish mist for miles around. The drizzly fog gave the whole world an ethereal quality, which both unsettled and excited her.
On the days when the mists were less thick, or when they traveled at a lower dip, the view outside the window was spectacular. It did rain a lot, more than she was used to, but when the rains finished, they just seemed to have enhanced the landscape rather than diminish it.
The trees were taller than any Magnolia could remember seeing before in her life, towering over them like towers or castles. Once, when they traveled directly through a forest, the dense pines seemed to completely block out the sun.
It is like an illustration from a manuscript of children’s faerie stories. Like an evil witch or a clever pixie could jump out of the darkness at any moment and spirit me away forever.
Magnolia shivered at the thought, and though, of course, she did not believe in such things, she retreated from the window until the forest had passed.
When they passed farmland, even the animals seemed different. The sheep were sheep, though they appeared to frolic more here than on the farms in England. The cows she spied, though, were like creatures she had never imagined.
They were not the standard dairy cows and bull studs she knew, but rather another beast altogether. They were roughly the shape of a cow, and the size too, but they had broader shoulders, longer horns, and perhaps most strangely, they were covered in thick, shaggy brown hair!
The first time she saw them, she didn’t even realize that they were cows at all. They had stopped for the night at a small cottage. She and the driver were eating together out in the garden when she pointed to the animals in the field across from them.
“What kind of beast is that?” she asked. “I have never seen its like.”
The driver, a hardy Scotsman in his fifties, burst into laughter. “That’s a Heilan’ coo, lass,” he said. “That’s what coos look like up in these parts.”
She’d spent enough time with him now that she understood that he meant Highland cow, but it seemed so strange to her that these creatures should be the same as the farm animals back home, or even further south!
On pleasant days, she’d spy flowers she’d never seen before in her life, and sometimes the driver would stop so she could pick them. She was entranced by one she’d never seen, a strange spiky plant with a brilliant purple flower that displayed as thousands of little hairs on top.
When she pointed it out to him, he simply laughed, though not unkindly. “That isnae a flower, Miss. It’s jist a weed.”
“But it’s so beautiful,” she said, surprised. The driver shrugged, and she moved deeper into the field, her skirt catching on the high grass as she walked past, the smell of the fresh air almost too sweet in her lungs. She knelt next to it and carefully reached out a finger to brush the tiny violet petals.
“Och, dinnae—” the driver started, obviously alarmed.
“Ouch!” she exclaimed, withdrawing her hand in surprise. The petals were prickly! It hadn’t hurt so much as surprised her; the leaves had looked so delicate.
“Are ye hurt?” the driver asked her.
“No, not at all,” she said, shaking her stinging hand. She covered her hand with the cloth from a layer of her skirt and reached out again, carefully plucking the flower. “I still think it’s beautiful. What is it?”
He chuckled. “It’s a thistle, Me Lady. The national flo’er o’ Scotland.”
“A thistle,” she mused. She tucked the little flower into her bodice, and together they headed back to the carriage.
I wonder if the Laird of Clan MacFoihl will be as prickly as this flower? Or as easy to tame in the end?
Somehow, she doubted the latter very much.
As the carriage trundled away from the wild field, she couldn’t help but think the same thought to herself over and over again. Would this end with her triumphantly returning home with the information the crown needed from her? Or would she get stung, and this time not so lightly?
“Dadaidh!” Elaine shrieked as she “found” him again, hiding just behind his favorite rocking chair where he’d sit to read to her at night. “I found ye, Dadaidh! I’m the winner!”
Nathair laughed, scooping his little daughter up in his arms. “Ye surely did! Dinnae ye ever forget, me precious wee heart, ye’ll always find me when you need tae.”
“Ye’re awfie silly,” Elaine giggled, patting his cheek through his vivid red beard.
“Och, silly, is it?” Nathair grinned. He sat down heavily on the floor of her chamber, pulling her down with him. He held her in her lap, tickling her belly until she shrieked, kicking her little legs and flailing her arms in false protest. “Who are ye callin’ silly?”
There was a knock at the door, and Nathair stopped tickling Elaine long enough to call for whoever it was to come in. He smiled pleasantly as he saw her.
The young maid was only nineteen, with tightly curled brown hair and shocking blue eyes. She was as common as dirt, and Nathair liked that about her. Her mother was the castle’s Cook, and her father an earnest farmer for the clan. When they’d asked Nathair to hire her, he hadn’t even considered doing otherwise.
Her name was Betty, and she had been a real gift from God above. She was one of Elaine’s few playmates when Nathair was busy, which was far too often of late. Elaine loved her dearly, and Betty loved her in return, which had been a blessing when Elaine was younger and just needed some company.
The child brightened when she saw her. “Betty! Have ye come to play wi’ me and Dadaidh?”
Betty smiled and nodded her head at the child but spoke directly to Nathair. “Me Laird, I’m right sorry to interrupt, but there’s a posh English lass here askin’ tae speak wi’ you.”
Nathair stood, Elaine still in his arms. “She’s an English lass, ye say?”
That was very strange.
I am nae accustomed to visits from the English, even in this so-called time of peace. And a woman traveling alone from the Southern Country is fair strange, to say the least.
Betty was waiting for his answer, so he asked, “Dae we ken her?”
The maid dipped her head and replied, “She says her name’s Leighmoore, Me Laird. I dinnae ken the name. It isnae one of any o’ the English ye’ve met with that I recall. Should I tell her ye’re busy?”
He shook his head. “Nay, I’ll see what she wants first,” Nathair replied. “Thank ye kindly for tellin’ me.”
Elaine pouted. “But Dadaidh, it’s our playtime. Ye promised!”
Betty stepped forward. “Should I take Elaine?” She smiled at the pouting child. “We can play that chase game ye like.”
He was about to hand her over, then shook his head. “That’s all right. She’s gonnae be the Lady o’ the Castle one day. She can come to meet our visitor. A’right wae ye, me chook?”
Elaine nodded solemnly and said, “But ye have tae play wi’ me later, Betty, a’right?”
Betty promised, and Nathair laughed. He placed Elaine on his shoulders, and like that, the two followed Betty down into the kitchens where the mysterious visiting girl awaited them.
The lady standing at the foot of the dais was very pretty. Elaine had only ever seen pictures of her Mamaidh, but this woman was at least as lovely as those portraits. Mamaidh had been dark, but this visitor was fair, with bright blonde hair and even brighter blue eyes, and the kind of skin that looked like she’d never spent much time out in the sun.
She had a sweet smile when she looked at Elaine and Nathair. When she spoke, though, her voice sounded very strange. The words weren’t quite what Elaine was used to. Even those that were familiar were pronounced in an odd fashion. It was like she didn’t know how to speak correctly.
Nathair put Elaine down in a chair at the head table on the dais and said to behave while he talked to the lady.
“Well, then. Welcome, visitor,” Nathair said, turning away from Elaine.
“My Laird,” the lady said in that funny voice of hers. “Thank you for seeing me.”
“O’ course,” Nathair said in his polite voice that he only used with visitors. “What can I dae for ye?”
The lady lifted the front material of her skirt and gave a short curtsy. It was very fancy, much more so than the one Betty sometimes did. “My name is Magnolia Leighmoore. I’m a nanny by trade. My previous family’s children have outgrown me, and in my travels, I heard that you were looking for someone to work with your daughter.”
“Oh, aye?” Nathair asked, leaning casually against the table. “An’ how long have ye been nannying?”
“Ten years, My Laird. I started at sixteen.”
That was a lot of years, even Elaine knew that. Cook had taught her to count when she was permitted to help in the kitchen sometimes. But she looked at the pretty lady suspiciously now.
She knew nannies; she’d had a lot of them. They kept leaving, and that kept making Dadaidh sad. They were supposed to teach her, not Cook. They were supposed to read to her rather than Betty and the other maid. There always seemed to be some reason they didn’t work, and then they’d leave.
Elaine didn’t understand it, but she knew she hated it when they left because Dadaidh always got sad.
“’Scuse me, Lady,” Elaine said, folding her arms. Both adults looked at her.
“Haud yer wheesht, pet,” Nathair told her.
The lady shook her head. “It’s quite all right. You can call me Magnolia if you like. What’s your name?”
“Mag-nole-ya?” Elaine asked, tilting her head. “Me name’s Elaine.”
The lady smiled. “Elaine, is it? That’s a beautiful name. My Mother was named Eleanor, you know. It’s nearly the same thing. Maybe that means we’ll be friends?”
Elaine stared at her. If that was true, it was exciting! She had never met another Elaine or Eleanor before. That was almost like fate! But she was still suspicious. “Miss Magno…Magna…Maggie, are ye gonnae make my Dadaidh sad?”
Magnolia seemed amused by the nickname. “What’s a dod-yee?” she asked in her strange accent.
Ah, so clearly she didn’t know very much. That was all right. Elaine would help her. Elaine was very good at helping people. She was patient as she explained, “Dadaidh is what I call my Athair.”
Magnolia frowned. “And your ah-hair is your…”
“That’d be me,” Nathair spoke up, “her Faither. She’s speakin’ in Gaelic. My wee chook is well-educated already. Can ye keep up wi’ her?”
Magnolia gave Nathair a look that Elaine didn’t understand. She didn’t look mad or sad, but she didn’t look happy either. “I’m sure Elaine and I can teach each other a lot. I find that working with my charges rather than dictating to them tends to go over much better. And look, she’s taught me a new word already!”
Elaine looked at Nathair and was thrilled to see he was smiling.
I must have made him smile because I’m helping Maggie to learn!
Elaine gave her father a huge beam to show she was pleased, too. If her helping Maggie was helping Dadaidh, then Maggie could stay…maybe.
Nathair gave Elaine a brief grin in return then looked back at Magnolia.
“Tell me, Miss Leighmoore, how well dae ye cook? We’ve got a cook, o’ course, but if she’s no available or we’re away from the castle, how would ye feed Elaine?” Nathair asked. He had a thoughtful look on his face. “Ye look high-born. Nae really the type to be slavin’ o’er a hot stove.”
“High-born enough to be educated in the arts, My Laird, and no more,” Magnolia replied pleasantly without so much as a pause. “I am pleased to prepare food in most any circumstance. I would happily find out Elaine’s likes and dislikes to make sure I can cook something we all enjoy if need be. I can act the role of maid and cook as well as a nanny. Whatever My Laird requires.”
Nathair nodded, looking thoughtful again. Elaine looked between him and Magnolia, then decided that he obviously needed some help. She wriggled down off the chair, and, with a little difficulty, down off the dais, too. Dadaidh didn’t try to stop her, but she felt him being nervous behind her. Elaine marched right up to Magnolia.
Magnolia smiled at her and crouched so that their faces were level. “Warmest greetings to you, young Maid, Elaine. Did you have something to ask me?”
Elaine pulled herself up to her biggest height, making sure that Maggie knew that she was the Maid of MacFoihl, and therefore she was in charge. She nodded. “Aye, I dae have a question,” she said. “Dae ye ken any good games, Maggie?”
“Games?” Magnolia blinked a few times, then laughed. “I know hundreds! Do you like marbles?” She reached into her right pocket and pulled out a shiny white ball. It was beautiful, but…
“I have a load o’ marbles. Dae ye ken anything else?” Elaine asked her. If she didn’t have anything other than that, then what was the point?
Magnolia thought about it for a moment, then her face brightened. “Have you ever played Handy-Dandy?”
“What’s that?” Elaine asked, curious. She’d never heard of such a game.
Magnolia closed her hand around the ball and stood up straight, then put both arms behind her back. After a moment, she said, “What hand is my marble in?”
Elaine pointed. “That’s easy. That one!”
But when the right hand was extended and opened, it was empty!
Is she using magic? Is she a witch?
Elaine was uncertain.
Then Magnolia showed her the ball in her left hand. “I switched it!”
“Let me try!”
They played with the marble for a while, and Elaine knew her Dadaidh was watching. She hoped he was pleased. She wouldn’t mind if someone fun like Magnolia stayed for a wee while.
He hired her almost immediately, promising at least a month of employment before they reviewed her staying more permanently. She’d been surprised at that, but when she asked why he hired so quickly, he shrugged and told her that if she was good enough for Elaine, she was good enough for him. Magnolia couldn’t quite believe it had gone so well and that she’d been hired immediately. Still, she thanked him as graciously as she knew how, over and over again.
As Magnolia was shown through the stone-walled hallways towards what would be her rooms by a young maid, though, she couldn’t help but feel suspicious.
Yes, she’s a sweet child, and the Laird seems to care for her deeply, but he wouldn’t hesitate to have me hanged.
She could feel a phantom pain around her neck already. It was as though the rope was measured and tightening around her neck. She was more than aware of the danger ahead of her. It felt strange to her that she should be hired so quickly. It felt like he was plotting something. It was almost as if he’d known the whole time what game she was playing.
Does he suspect something? If so, then surely he would not have involved his daughter?
She frowned to herself. She didn’t know anything about this man. But the way he interacted with Elaine…thinking about it made her smile.
My Father looks at me in the same way as he gazes at that little girl. Whatever else he is, whatever else he’s plotting, he loves her. Just like my Father loves me. And Elaine adores him, too.
The little girl looked remarkably like him. She had his bright red hair and freckled features, though her eyes were a deep gray that sparkled like silver in her excitement. She wore her hair neatly in braids, and she had dimples on both cheeks.
Her father was like a wild version of her. Nathair’s hair really was a flame, wild without being messy as it bounced around his head and down to his shoulders, with a matching fiery beard. His eyes were a brilliant green she had never seen in a person.
They look like they belong to a ginger cat. Intelligent, shrewd. As though he is a half-wild tom who has seen much, and he’s prepared for anything.
He was tall, at least a head-and-a-half taller than she if her estimates from the floor were correct, and though he dressed modestly, it was clear he had hard, toned arms and legs under his lordly clothing.
And he is rather handsome, I suppose. In a barbarian sort of way.
He was the kind of attractive that screamed danger and warning but intrigued sillier girls than Magnolia, nonetheless. His freckles, noticeable and thick all over every visible part of his sun-darkened skin, added a layer of the unexpected. Especially those dotted on his cheeks and over his nose. When she thought of how they looked…
Well, they’re rather adorable.
The second the thought came to her mind, she shooed it away.
That was absurd! The Scottish air must be getting to her mind.
She shook her head, alarmed by the turns of her daydreams. No. She could not become caught up in such sentiment now! She must remember that everyone here–the maid, the cook, even her four-year-old charge and especially her charge’s handsome father–was a potential threat.
If she was caught, she could be hanged, and Nathair would be the one to give the order. Even now, he could be planning an assault against the Crown and Country she and her father loved so much. No number of freckles could soften her against such as that. No soft beard, no muscles, could make a monster less of a beast.
“This is yer room while ye’re here,” the maid told her. “It’s a’ made up. His Lairdship hasnae changed it since the last…well, it’s a’ yers, now.”
Magnolia gave her a small smile. “Thank you,” she said. She opened the door, and the maid turned to go. Magnolia reached out and touched her shoulder. “Wait. What’s your name? I never asked you before, which was very rude of me. I apologize.”
The maid’s cheeks blushed bright red, and she nervously brushed some of her dark curls from her face. “Ye dinnae need to apologize tae the likes of me, Miss.”
“I insist,” Magnolia pressed. “We shall be working together, shall we not? Please give me your name so that I may thank you better.”
The color in the maid’s cheeks blossomed into something gentler and more pleasant. “Well, if ye insist. Me name is Betty, Miss.”
“Betty is short for Elizabeth?”
“Aye. Me Maither is an Elizabeth, too, but she’s Eliza.”
Magnolia gave her a genuine smile. This young woman, at least, seemed harmless. “My best friend at home is also Elizabeth. We call her Lizzy,” she said. “I hope this is a good sign that you and I will get along well together.”
Betty returned the smile a little awkwardly. “Well, that’d be fair pleasant, Miss.” She shrugged. “There arenae many young folk aroun’ here. It’d be nice to have someone for talkin’ to, Miss.”
“Thank you, Betty. For introducing yourself, and for showing me here.” Magnolia said. “And, please, call me Magnolia.”
“Aye, all right,” Betty agreed. “It’s been really nice to meet ye… Magnolia.”
Betty curtsied and left. Once she was gone, Magnolia entered her room. She closed the door and was surprised by the generous size of the chamber.
There was a large bed with a beautiful patterned quilt and an abundance of soft pillows. In the corner was an ornate oak dresser, and along one wall sat an elaborate writing desk with an elegant matching chair. There was plenty of floor space without making the room look empty. There was even a rather delightful rug patterned with an astoundingly beautiful unicorn.
Magnolia walked to the large window and opened the shutters, and what she saw almost took her breath away.
It did not just look like she was in another country. It looked like another world. There were greenery and trees as far as the eye could see. She’d seen them on the way here, of course, but seeing them from above was…astounding.
Is this what a bird feels like when it soars above the forests?
Many of the homes of the MacFoihl Clan could be seen in the near distance, but they blended with the natural landscape rather than disrupting it. They looked almost as natural as the trees did, even the faint moving dots she guessed were the clan’s people going about their evening duties.
Between the castle and the start of the village and forest, there was a considerable body of water. It was a glistening clean loch, Magnolia knew, of the sort that she could only imagine in the South. It was more beautiful than even the lakes that were famed in the Borderlands.
I cannot see, but that loch must be teeming with fish and wildlife. It really did look like some celestial otherworld. Do the fish look the same as those at home? Do the birds sing the same way?
Somehow, this thought seemed overwhelmingly lonely, and a sob rose unbidden in her throat. Her eyes started to itch. She let no tears fall and no sound out, though.
Why am I so upset all of a sudden? Why do I suddenly feel so melancholy? I am here on a mission. I must not get emotional before I have even started my work.
She closed the shutters tight, holding them closed for a few seconds and taking some deep breaths to steady herself.
Easy, now. Breathe, Magnolia. Breathe.
She moved away from the window and focused on the necessary tasks immediately ahead of her. She unbuttoned her over-gown, determining that now was as good a time as any for a rest. She kicked off her shoes and lay down on her bed after loosening her bodice, staring up at the pretty pattern on the ceiling, then closed her eyes.
I must stay focused. I have a mission. I must be alert and keep my suspicions at the forefront of my mind. I have no access to my Father, my friends, the Crown’s protection. I am on my own and responsible for my own choices and fate now.
This place she would call home for the next moon-turn was foreign to her, in everything from the building to the fields to the smell of the air. She was under threat of death or worse if she misstepped even once. She was simply an Earl’s daughter, and this was like no task she’d ever completed before.
But I can do this. I will do this. More than that, I must. For my Country, for my Queen, and for my Father.
When she thought of all that green–of the trees outside, the scent of fresh grass, the daisy chain Elaine wore around her neck, a particular pair of eyes–it made her wary. She was not very far from home, but she may as well be entirely outside the Earth.
It does not matter. I am brave. I am strong.
Magnolia repeated it like a chant in her head, taking from it strength and comfort, hearing her father’s voice as she did.
No matter how brave and strong she was, though, she was alone and scared, and though she would never admit it aloud, afraid of this strange new world and its bizarre inhabitants.
She could not help but feel frightened that this alien world may be the last thing that her eyes ever saw.
The girl was lying about her name. Nathair knew that much, and he pondered it as he crept out of Elaine’s chambers while the child slept. Magnolia was more high-born than she wanted him to believe, and he knew of no Leighmoore family.
As Clan Chief, he made a point of knowing the top English names in case they should attack again. He’d never heard of Leighmoore, nor anything close to it. Even besides that, though she’d smiled prettily enough, there had been a hint of…something…in her eyes. Something he didn’t quite know.
But ye hired her anyway, Nathair. Why?
Well, there were a thousand reasons a noble lass could be fibbing about her own surname. It needn’t be anything sinister. Perhaps she was on the run from her father. Mayhaps she had been involved in a marriage gone wrong–those kinds of unfortunate situations were undoubtedly common enough when people were wed without love.
He knew that the English could be particularly restrictive of their women; even the Southern Scots were sometimes guilty of that. Perhaps she had tried to change her identity simply to escape the life she’d left behind.
There was no denying she was good with Elaine, either. Elaine was precious, pleasant, and bright, but she never took to anyone so quickly as she’d taken to Magnolia. If she could keep Elaine amused, safe, and educated, then she was already miles ahead of any of the nannies he had tried to retain so far.
An’ the lass’ answers to me questions were sharp without disrespectin’ me and me position. She’s got a cleverness about her, a wit combined wi’ a strange kind of kindness I havenae seen since…well, nae since Catrina.
Nathair entered his own chambers, sighing as he shrugged off his over-wear and then his undershirt, his muscled chest bathed in the moonlight. He smiled faintly at the tiny miniature portrait he kept on his bedside. It was of his beloved late wife with her shining black hair and those shining gray eyes she’d given to their daughter along with her life. Four-and-a-half years had passed since Catrina’s death, but he would never stop missing her. Or feeling guilty that she was gone.
He moved to his washbasin, soaking his face and splashing water on his arms and torso as was his nighttime tradition. It had been unimaginably complicated, balancing a newborn babe with his duties as Laird and Chief.
He hadn’t even been able to grieve, torn between his duties and fatherhood. Nathair only wanted the best for Elaine, but he had never been able to spend the time with her he liked. When she was young enough for wet-nurses, they had cared for her, but since she was weaned, it had gotten much harder.
Too smart for her own good, me wee chook. Too curious. Too eager to ken the world an’ how it works. A million questions that me and mine didnae and still dinnae have the answers to gi’e her.
The child was remarkably intelligent, with a voracious hunger to learn even at her tender age. It had been too much for many of the nannies that Nathair had previously hired. Many had resigned, and many more simply abandoned their post without explanation.
Aye, and then my heart broke o’er and o’er as the bairn kept askin’ me if it was her fault. It’s me own fault for no’ being careful enough.
The maids and the cook had stepped in. All the servants loved the child as though she was theirs, and Elaine loved them in return. But it wasn’t enough; she was approaching five and needed an education. Not just any education, either. It was unlikely that Nathair would ever produce a son, which meant Elaine would one day be the sole Lady of this castle. There was no telling when that would happen.
So yes, this English lass may have her secrets, but perhaps that was just another sign of her intelligence, and he could use that when it came to his daughter. Besides all of that, though he would never admit it, he was growing desperate. His duties required more and more of his attention, and he lived in fear of leaving Elaine to become lonely.
Nathair knew loneliness better than most. The last thing the Laird wished was to burden his little daughter with it, too. He’d lost his parents at a relatively young age, and his wife was gone now also. The other Lairds treated him with deference, which sometimes made them forget to treat him as human. Apart from William, his army commander, he sometimes felt like he had nobody at all.
Magnolia Leighmoore, or whoever she indeed was, would care for his daughter, he was sure of that. She would stave off the loneliness from the girl, at least.
I’ll jist have to make sure I’m keepin’ my eye out on her.
He lay down on his bed, glancing once more at the miniature of Catrina. Catrina Kelton, the woman he’d married for love when everyone had suggested a more political alliance. He hadn’t regretted it for a moment. When Catrina was alive, she’d given him hope. She’d given him life.
She’d given him Elaine.
What would she say about all of this? He knew already. “Ye need to learn to trust, Nathair.” She’d said that to him in their blissful years of marriage more times than he could remember.
Perhaps she was right, even now beyond the grave. Perhaps now, with this strange English girl, was the time where he would finally permit trust back into his life. It had always been a problem for him, but it was undoubtedly in scarce supply since Catrina’s death.
But as he drifted off to sleep, Nathair had to wonder. Could he truly place his trust in a strange woman when that which was entrusted to her was more precious than any gold? Or would she just be another break to Elaine’s heart like all the rest?
She had better nae. For Elaine’s sake, for mine. And for her own.
Did you like this preview? Please, don't forget to leave me a comment below!
Want to see how this story ends?
The Highlander's Alluring Spy is live on Amazon now!