About the book
Amidst the darkness of chaos, she was his heaven and his sin...
Violet O'Cain has been solving cases alongside her father ever since she turned of age. When they receive a letter from the Laird of MacChoill, requiring their services, she is not prepared for the scene she sees. Or the sadness in the eyes of the victim’s brother.
With vengeance on his mind and his brother’s killer still roaming free, Ethan MacFerson’s guilt stems elsewhere: his sudden inability to control himself around the detective’s beautiful daughter.
Convinced that his brother’s killer will strike again, Ethan’s suspicions are proven right. A note, with a very clear ultimatum: his head or his father’s. When Violet bears witness to something she shouldn’t have, she finds herself thrown into the dungeons, staring straight into the murderer’s eyes.
At the sound of the terrified neigh, Ethan shot from the back of his family’s stables into the front. He got there in time to see a blacksmith about to place a shoe on a bay-colored mare. With one look, he knew the poor man was moments away from getting kicked in the head, as this horse tended to frighten easily. He rushed in and yanked the man away just as a hoof came up to lay a crushing kick to the man’s head.
His pull was so forceful that both men were sprawled out on the floor. The horse pranced away while they sat in disbelief until the smith stood and helped him up. Ethan dusted off his kilt and went to get the horse, whose eyes were heavy with fear and her ears twitched angrily.
“She’s a nervous one,” he said to the smithy. “It doesnae take much to get her agitated.”
“Sorry, Master MacFerson.” The blacksmith then sighed. “I dinnae ken.”
“Most wouldnae.” Ethan rubbed the horse’s ears with one hand. “I’ve spent most of me time inside here with these horses. Let me help ye. Get yer tools and follow me lead.”
Guiding the horse to a corner where barrels and buckets of feed rested, he sat on a stool and began to pet the animal’s ears to soothe her. He got her calmed her down enough that her ears stopped moving agitatedly. Then, he plucked a late apple from the barrels near him and fed it to her.
While he got her distracted enough, he gestured for the smith to begin putting the shoe to her. He looked up to a window and saw the mist rising from the ground. The loch near his home made a thick mist blanket the land every morning. It was just past dawn and, even though it was summer, the land was white.
I wonder if Finley is home yet? I want to give him me ideas about this summer’s tournament.
He kept soothing the horse while the smithy worked. His mind, however, kept flitting to his older brother and how the tournament between them and Clan Hofte— their once greatest enemies— had come about. A smile tugged at his face when he remembered how Finley had nearly gotten himself killed by taking the suggestion to them.
The smithy was almost done when a boy came running into the stable, his face pale and eyes frantic. “Master MacFerson, yer faither needs ye.”
His brows knit in the middle, “Is something wrong?”
The boy’s capped head nodded furiously, “Yes, sir, it’s…it’s yer brother, he was—” a hard grimace on the boy’s face had Ethan shooting up from his seat before the boy could spit the last words out, “—found dead a while ago at the forest line.”
Ethan took off running with fear fueling his feet. He darted past guards, through a side gate, and down a slope, to come to a skidding halt. His father’s broad back blocked his way but when he shifted, Ethan nearly collapsed where he stood.
Finley was resting on a tree, his body in a casual pose but his neck…his neck was slashed right across. Dried blood stained his skin and his clothes. His shock had a cry of fright trapped in his throat, and he grabbed unto his father to steady himself.
Finley’s light brown-blond hair was matted with dew and his tanned skin was mottled. He was dressed in his hunting’s apparel, thick trews and linen shirt. In his lax hand, resting on his lap, was a wineskin.
“Has anyone touched him?” his father asked while he turned to the men, and all shook their heads. He then addressed the closest man and ordered, “Summon the hunting party he went out with yesterday. Someone had to have witnessed something.”
“Aye, sir,” a man nodded then ran off.
All Ethan could comprehend was his brother, lying there, dead. His eyes began to burn and his stomach felt sick.
The sound of running feet dragged his attention from the west—where the soldiers’ bunkhouse was— but he did not look up as the group of seven, who had hunted yesterday, came up to them.
With no time to waste, Balgair demanded, “What happened last night? Was me son alone coming back from the hunt?”
The leader of the group, Alban, stepped forward. “The hunt was a success, Me Laird. We came back, strung up the deer we caught, washed off and decided to go to a nearby tavern to celebrate. Finley had caught the eye of a lass and went out with her. We dinnae want to interrupt him, so we came back, certain he would be able to come home alone. He is a trained fighter, Sir, and the hunt wasnae strenuous.”
“And who was this lass?”
The men shared a look between them before Alban, a bit regrettably, admitted, “She wasnae one of the usual tavern lasses, sir, I figured she was new to the…er…trade.”
“But there was nay way that lass could’ve done this,” another added. “She was thin as a river wisp.”
“She couldhae been working with someone,” a man put in. “In all fairness, many could have used her to lure him out. But that begs the question, who would want him dead? As far as I ken, everyone loved Finley.”
“And nay one would run or walk with that wound,” Alban gestured. “It's like the ones we used to drain the deer. One slash across the neck and that’s what all it took to kill him. And with the blood splatter on the ground, it looks like he was killed here too.”
Balgair rubbed his bearded cheek in frustration, “So, nay witnesses, only a lass ye dinnae ken about and me son, dead on this tree.” He took a moment to consider his next actions and then to the nearest soldier, he ordered, “Yer name is Boyd, aye? Saddle yer horse and ride to Inverness, less than two hours’ run. I’ll give ye a letter to a man named Mister Stewart O’Cain. He is an investigator who hasnae lost a case in his life. If he isnae able to come immediately, stay with him and plead me case until he does. Three of ye, find that lass from the tavern and bring her to me. One of ye, send for me brother at Perth and— ”
“Sorry, sir, but Mister MacFerson is in the village of Glencoe, nay at Perth,” someone inserted.
“Glencoe, Perth, or the bloody moon, get him, too,” he ordered.
“Aye, sir,” the man he had ordered to find Mister O’Cain dipped his head and hurried off, another to his brother and three of the soldiers agreed to go find the lass.
“I’m going too,” Ethan had been silent for the whole proceeding and finally spoke up even with pain thick in his throat. “I will nay be left out of this. He was me brother. I will be a part of avenging him.”
Giving his youngest son a nod of approval, Balgair turned to the rest, “Go with them, Ethan, and ye, Boyd, wait here for me letter to Mister O’Cain. The rest of ye, stand guard and make sure nay one moves a thing but get a cover and protect the body, so it’s easier for Mister O’Cain to dae his job. When I find who killed me son, the Devil will have to step aside and take notes what vengeance means.”
His ominous words sent a cold shiver down the spines of the men as they hopped to follow his orders. Ethan lingered and crouched down to gaze at his brother’s cold, graying face. His heart felt hollow and numb gazing at a face that he would never see again smiling in happiness or cross with agitation, or tired with his duties or lighthearted with his free time. Swallowing thickly, he vowed, “Ye will nay have to worry, brother, we will find who killed ye and bring them to justice. I swear on me life, we will revenge ye.”
The coals caught fire and Violet O’Cain smiled while blowing on the fire-steels before putting them back in the tinderbox. Going back to the table behind her, she lifted the cauldron of last night’s soup and put in on the fire to warm up for her and her father’s midday meal.
She dropped the cloth and went to sit on the stool near the window, gazing out into the long plains that made up their backyard and the structures that stood on them. She spotted the barn, where their two cows and sole calf lived, and the stables were their three horses were housed. There was a smokehouse and a shed for their animal feed.
She turned back to the kitchen and refocused her dark eyes over the dark stonework and wooden paneling. Her father had taken to adopting some English styles lately, and had men in and out modifying the home from an old rustic Scottish home into a modern one.
Thinking of her father, she smiled.
Dear old Father…the best investigator in Inverness. I’m glad he decided to retire.
At the sound of a hurried knock on the door a room away, she lifted her head and moved toward it. But her father’s stocky form got there first.
She twisted the dishcloth in her hands while he opened it. His thick graying brows furrowed at the person on the other side, “May I help ye?”
“Aye, are ye Mr. Stewart O’Cain, the investigator?” a thick northern accent asked. She felt a note of desperation in the speaker’s voice.
“I am. Why?” Her father's tone was suspicious.
“I am Boyd Graham. Me master, Laird of MacFerson, Balgair MacFerson, needs yer assistance, sir,” the man said. “It’s of a dire situation, sir, he needs yer help now.”
Violet sidled to the left where her father opened the door a little more so she could see the messenger. She saw a man, dressed in thick gray and green plaid over leather armor, hand him a letter. The man’s face had a grim set to his jaw and his expression was pallid.
Her father took the letter, and while he was opening it, asked. “Why does he need me?”
“His son, Finley MacFerson, was killed between last night and this morning and nay one had any inkling who did the deed. There were nay witnesses and nay signs of who might have carried him to the place we found him.” Boyd’s tone had deepened.
She stood still and watched her father’s brown deepen while he opened and read the letter. Then, he closed the letter and handed it back to Mister Graham. “I’d like to help ye and yer master, Mister Graham, but sadly I am retired.”
Soldier Graham’s face fell, then firmed. “I am instructed to stay here, sir. I cannae go back to me Laird empty-handed.”
“But I am—”
“Faither,” Violet said. “A moment, please.” She stepped further into sight so both men could see her. She aimed an apologetic smile to the man. “Excuse us a moment.”
“Violet?” Her father asked while closing the door. “What are ye doing?”
She rested her hand on her father’s shoulder. “I think we should take this case, Faither. I know ye gave it up a summer ago but this…he seems very distressed. Why can’t we help his master?”
Her father’s brown gaze was dimmed, “Because I am retired, Violet. I made it a point to give that life up. It was too dangerous for both of us.
Nodding understandingly, Violet gave her rebuttal. “I ken ye left the field, and the concerns about it being dangerous are important, but the man lost his son. If you lost me in any way, much less murder, wouldnae ye want to do all ye could to have some peace of mind?”
A shadow crossed over her father’s face. She held her breath, hoping he would change his mind, but he only sighed. “I would want to, aye, but I put that part of me life behind me.”
“I ken, Faither, but please, let us help this man with his son,” she pleaded. “It sounds too distressing for us to pass off.”
“Ken of it from a faither’s standpoint,” she began to bargain. “if anything would have happened to me, ye would have moved heaven and earth to get answers, wouldnae ye?”
A conflicted look passed over his face and she knew she had chipped into his defense, so she pressed on. “That man is only doing the same, and he called ye because he must have some faith in yer reputation for nae leaving any case unsolved.”
Her father was wavering. She saw myriad emotions cross his face, but eventually, his shoulders sagged. “I suppose we can go. Get dressed and pack a few things. I do hope we won’t be there too long. And—” he paused to sniff the air, “—I ken our meal is ready. Is there enough to give the man a bowl?
“I ken there is,” she smiled and kissed her father’s cheek. “Thank ye, Faither.”
It was not the drawbridge or the curtain wall, nor was it the men in dark leather armor crossing the walkways that took her breath away; it was the dual towers that seemed to extend to the heavens. She paused her horse just to gaze at them and wonder. Pennants flew above, dark blue flags with a roaring dragon stitched in the middle. Violet swallowed tightly.
Looking over her shoulder at the way they had come, she marveled that such splendor was the highland of Argyll. The many travels she and her father had done over the years had never taken her this far in Scotland. The metallic scrape of the bridge being lowered caught her attention.
She nudged her horse forward, not having the time to reflect on the verdant forest and large plains they had passed through to get to this castle. The wooden echo of their horses’ hooves on the bridge made her stomach tighten. They passed under an overpass and as they emerged into a rotunda, and her eyebrows shot to her hairline. The castle was before her, but it had…arms. She spun and saw that what they had passed under was a part of the castle. Those “arms” had connected to become that overpass.
“Me God,” she whispered at the uniqueness of the construction.
A burly man came out of the front doors; his thick chest and body covered with a gray and blue plaid with fringes. She noticed his dark brown hair was close-cut but his beard was heavy. He nodded to something—or someone—behind them and two tall youths—twins-- came to help them off their mounts.
She easily alighted from her sidesaddle pose, and as her feet met the ground, she thanked him. Her father, now down on the ground, was fixing his coat when the man from the steps hurried to them. She sensed an air of power around him even though he was a good twenty feet away.
Mayhap he is the Laird?
She stepped behind her father as the man came closer and extended his hand, “Mister O’Cain, I take it? I’m Balgair MacFerson, Laird of the MacFerson Clan. Thank ye for coming on such short notice.”
Her father shook the Laird’s hand. “Thank ye for having us, and I am sorry for yer loss.”
Mister MacFerson looked over to her in surprise. “Yer daughter, I assume?”
“Aye,” her father replied. “She was the one who convinced me to take this case, as I am retired from investigator work. But I am here and willing to help ye. What do ye need from me?”
“If ye dinnae mind,” the Laird said, “I ken the journey was for a time and ye might be tired, but I —” the man’s face went tight and his voice was suddenly laden with grief, “—I found me son’s body today and I want ye to look at it before we move it, if it’s nay too much of a trouble.”
“None at all,” her father said. “Just show us where he is.”
“Us?” Mister MacFerson’s head swiveled between them. “Ye let yer daughter see such… macabre things?”
Her father bestowed a fine look at her, “Violet has helped me a lot of times in solving me cases, either by discussing the facts with me after we are given one or assessing the murder herself on the spot. She’s done so since she was six-and-ten.”
The Laird shook his head, as if the very notion of a woman helping her father with such things was the most mysterious concept he had ever come across. “If yer sure, please, follow me.”
She was a step behind the two men, looking around as the Laird led them through a side gate and down a slope. She noted the forest line, the mountains beyond them, and the few stone walls that were far off. As they came around a corner, she saw five men there, two standing aside a covered body—evidenced by the booted feet sticking out from under the blanket.
The Laird lifted his hand and the men bowed. “This is Mister O’Cain, the man I sent for. Please, take the blanket off.”
Violet shifted to the side as the dark woolen cloth was taken off, and sucked in a breath. The man was handsome, but the gash across his neck and the dried blood staining his clothes overshadowed his handsomeness. She began to look around to see if the attacker had dropped the weapon he had used or if there were snatches of cloth on the nearby branches…when her eye landed on a man sitting in the shadows.
Her breath was trapped in her throat. His blond hair, somewhat familiar to the dead man’s, though lighter and more flaxen, was hung over into his eyes, shielding his face and his arms were braced on his knees. She wanted to see him—and as if God granted her wish, he looked up and met her eyes with dulled green.
With her breath still hitched in her lungs, Violet felt that she could not turn away from his spellbinding orbs. When his head canted to the side and a small smile was gifted to her, she felt air begin to flow into her chest again.
Her attention was called when her father spoke. “What are the circumstances that led him to be here?”
“I can tell ye that.” The man from the shadows came forward. “I am Ethan, and me brother, Finley, had gone hunting and came back with the kills. He then went to a tavern and left with a woman—” he massaged his forehead, “—that we just cannae seem to find anywhere, and came back late and alone. We suspect that was when he was attacked.”
Tearing herself away from the other man, she went to her father's side and looked at the body, where her eyes landed on something curious. “Faither… do ye see something amiss, here?”
He looked at her quizzically. “Amiss?”
“I mean, do ye nay see something here that should be seen?” she clarified. “There are nay bruises on his body, his knuckles are nay marked, which means he dinnae fight back.”
“Aye,” her father agreed. “I saw that as well, but assumed he was drunk. There is a wineskin in his hand.”
“Even so,” Ethan shook his head and moved by her side, “me brother would nay let an attacker get off scot-free, he would fight back, drunk or nay. May I?” he asked, gesturing to the wineskin while looking at Violet’s father.
With a nod of permission, Ethan knelt and pried the wineskin from his brother’s grip and put it to his mouth. Instantly, he spat it out with a grimace. “This is nay wine, Faither…” he tipped the wineskin over and dark murky liquid spilled out. “This is sleeping draught… I ken it is because I’ve tasted it too many times. This is made from our healers.”
How the lass had seen the absence of injuries on Finley’s body amazed Ethan. She had seen something that had flown over his head, and all those around him. He had not been able to think about his dead brother, much less look at him.
The wound that had lanced through his heart sank deeper and deeper, carving into his soul. To know that he would never see his brother again, to never feel his playful nudge on his head or Finley’s constant teasing remark that he should move out and live with the horses instead of in a house, made his heart feel slashed in half.
After their futile mission of finding the woman Finley had left with, he had come back to mere feet away from his brother, but those feet felt like miles. An invisible bolder had rested on his shoulders, dragging him down so heavily that lifting his head felt like he was breaking his neck.
But then…the lass. In her brown dress, she looked merged with the wood around her, but her mass of curls cascading around her neck and shoulders set her apart from her surroundings. Her bright eyes, dark like her tresses, were inquisitive but had a hint of shyness. But that bashfulness disappeared when she had examined his brother’s body.
Her words were so clear and concise, he began to wonder, are there two sides to the lass…or more.
Staring at the ground where he had spit out the drought, he stood and let the wineskin fall from his fingers, “This is why they were able…” he grimaced, “to kill him without trouble. He was asleep.”
The lass turned to him and gave a sympathetic smile; her eyes were brimming with compassion. Briefly, he wondered if she had ever faced something like this before. “Are our healers a part of this?”
“That is…” her father stopped, “…rather despicable.”
Laird MacFerson rubbed his beard and sighed heavily. “That is nay good news; now we have thirteen healers to question. That draught isnae able to keep storage, so it must have been brewed last night.”
“May I see his quarters?” Mister O’Cain asked. “Mayhap there might be some leads there.”
Ethan looked at his father, and the lines in the man’s face were deeper than he had ever seen them. “Why nay? If time passes, ye are welcome to stay the night.”
His eyes slid to the lass—Violet, was it?— and watched her. She did not move, but looked impassive while facing her father. He prayed time would spin past so she could stay. In the dimness of the forest’s cover, he had not seen her face but wanted to see her clearly.
“Faither?” she asked.
“Let’s see the room first,” Mister O’Cain said, tugging his coat off and folding it over his arm. “Violet, ye dinnae need to come with me—” Her mouth opened but his warning look had her closing it, “—Laird MacFerson, can ye give me daughter some food? We barely ate before coming.”
“Aye,” he said. “Ethan, take the lass to the kitchens and have them give her our finest roast.”
He walked closer to the lass and they stepped out from under the cover of the forest trees. Under the cooling sunlight, Miss O’Cain’s heart-shaped face came into focus and her dark lustrous locks, curling around the graceful curve of her neck, shimmered in the sunlight.
She had a pert nose, softly flushed cheeks and her full, lips—that she was nibbling at one corner—sent an unaccounted-for warmth of attraction thrumming through his veins but he could not jerk his gaze away. The brown traveling frock she wore was a bit shapeless, but still displayed her delicate bosom and nipped-in waist.
“Aye, Faither,” he said and extended his arm to her. “Please, come with me.”
Her hand rested on his softly. He guided her up the slope, through the side gate, past the rotunda, and finally into the castle. He felt the pride of his home fill him when her wide eyes traced over the three stories and the towers. He loved how she suddenly swung from shrewd to childlike.
The great hall was not filled yet, but it soon would be for supper, so he took her into the kitchen where he found a small table. The staff were bustling around them but did not stop to shoot them curious looks.
He drew a chair and sat. “Is there anything ye dinnae eat?”
“Pig meat,” she said wrinkling her little nose, “It tastes horrid to me.”
“Good,” he attempted to grin, but his motion fell halfway, “We don’t eat pork either.” Calling a servant over, he asked if supper was ready but was told it was not. However, there was bread and cheese and warm milk if she wanted. Violet opted for the milk.
He felt her eyes on him, but didn’t meet them, “Master MacFerson—”
“Ethan, please,” he murmured, and she nodded.
“Ethan then,” she amended, “and please, call me Violet. How close were ye and yer brother?”
“Very.” His eyes were on the flickering fire, and he remembered a specific day. Finley was handing him his first steel sword at fourteen, after he had excelled in the wooden one. “He was me best friend and worst tormentor. He made sure to swim with me every mornin’ when we were bairns, but made sure to flip porridge in me face when we ate. As we grew, he helped me ride me first horse but prided himself in trouncing me at sword fighting.”
“Sounds like he loved ye,” Violet mused. “A little violent but I suppose that is what brothers do.”
A servant came forward and laid the food on the table. Violet looked down. “Arenae ye going to eat too?”
“Nay,” he sighed. “I have nae appetite. Please, eat yer fill.”
She reached for the warm milk and sipped it before looking at the cup clasped in her hands. “I ken what if feels like…” her sad tone had his eyes flicking to her and then down to her bottom lip that she was worrying. “When me mother died, I felt like a part of me had been ripped away, a corner of me heart shattered and would never be mended.”
“When was that?” Ethan gently prodded. He did not want to rake up any bad memories, but he had a feeling that she had come to some peace with her mother’s death.
“Sixteen years ago, when I was four,” she said with a wry smile. “Me Faither was devastated.”
A quick adding up, he realized Violet was twenty, six years younger than he was. He watched her avoid eye contact with him and how she trailed her eyes down at her untasted food. Violet was a grown woman, but he could bet she was pure, and untouched.
He tried to ignore the flash of warmth he had felt for her and began to fight his attraction for her, as it felt wrong.
This is nay the time or place for this… me brother was just killed.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” His mind ran onto his mother who was very faint-hearted and prone to nervous hysterics at time. When they had found Finley dead, his father had made the mistake of telling her directly instead of spoon-feeding it to her. She had flown into hysteria and the healers had rushed to give her some sleeping tea and she was probably still asleep to this late hour.
“I took on a lot of responsibilities then…” Violet’s tone was far away as if mired in her memories. “I learned to cook and clean while following him on his cases…” she laughed softly. “The things I’ve seen over the years…”
His curiosity was prodded, “Like what?”
The call came for supper and she postponed getting into the details. “We can speak after.”
He stood to hold out her chair and she gifted him with a beautiful smile. He took her into the main hall, one that usually had a constant air of cheer inside and was now sober and saddened. As they neared the dais, he made sure to look at Miss Violet, whose face showed wonder, curiosity, and sympathy.
The high table was spread with a blue cloth, and two thick tallow candles spaced at points where all who were eating could see. The fireplaces were bright and flickering and so were the candles, but the food was not coming out yet. He met inquisitive gazes as they sat but no one came forward. He took his place and trained his eyes on the doorway where his father was bound to come out from.
“Who is that?” Violet murmured, and his eyes flicked to the direction she was looking in and saw a slender form winding slender form through the tables and people in the great hall.
“‘Tis me uncle,” he said standing to greet him. Callum MacFerson stepped up and Ethan embraced him. “Welcome. ‘Tis sad to have ye come on such a sad situation.”
Callum—thirteen years younger than his father of three-and-fifty years—was a traveler and a scholar. His dark blue eyes were similar to Balgair’s and his hair was lighter. His uncle was the voice of reason in his family, always calm and controlled, unlike his father, who was brusque and impulsive. They were the antithesis of each other but balanced enough that they could make the lairdship prosperous.
When his brother’s wife had shown hysteria, Callum had voluntarily traveled to England—in the middle of a harsh winter—to source a revolutionary brew of sherry wine and Indian opium to calm her. The man had a heart of gold, and Ethan felt very fortunate to have him in their lives.
“Uncle, I’m so happy to see ye,” he said. “Was the journey arduous?”
“Nae at all.” Callum’s voice sounded like a more cultured English tone, but the rumbling highland brogue was still heard. “But the reason for it was distressing. Who is the lovely young lady? Nephew, are ye courting again?”
Pulling away, Ethan laughed at the light tease. “Nay, Uncle, she is the daughter of Mister O’Cain, the investigator Faither brought in to help with this troubling situation. Miss Violet, this is me uncle, Callum MacFerson, Uncle, Miss Violet O’Cain.”
As the man sat, his father and Mister O’Cain came into the room. From the distressing look on his father’s face, he knew that they had not found much. Both men came to the table and sat, with his father sending for some wine.
“Dae ye ken this is the right time to be drinking, Balgair?” Callum asked, calmly.
“When ye lose a son like I did this morning, only then can ye lecture me on what to do,” his father snapped as a woman came with the wine. “I’ll have as much wine as I want.”
Other servants came with troughs of food, stew, platters of bread, and jugs of water and wine. Ethan looked between his father and uncle, breathing a soft sigh of relief when no more barbs were traded over the table.
“Faither?” Violet asked. “Did ye find anything in the room?”
“Sadly,” he shook his head, “nay, but this crime does call for some more looking into, and I am willing to help. I shared the same sentiment with Laird MacFerson, and he has offered us lodging for the time it may take. I’m sorry, Violet, I never intended for us to stay but—”
Violet waved him off. “I havenea problems with it, Faither, I was hoping we would stay and help. I am happy to assist ye, as always.”
“I ken ye are, dear.” He inclined his head to her before eating.
Ethan spotted his uncle’s head snapping between the two with the question that he had asked himself when he had first seen her. “Miss Violet assists her faither with his cases,” he explained.
“Really,” Uncle Callum mused over his goblet of water. “An unusual trade for a young woman like yourself. I’d imagine ye be married, or at least engaged.”
Violet’s cheeks pinked. “Er, nay, Mister MacFerson, I’m nae engaged or married… but nay for a lack of tryin’.” The last part was mumbled so quietly, only Ethan heard it.
The meal was winding down and his father, who had drank more than he’d eaten, said, “Ethan, would ye take Miss O’Cain out for a turn in the garden. Yer uncle, Mister O’Cain, and I are going to discuss what more we can do from here on.”
Violet looked to her father for permission, who only nodded. “It’s all right, Violet, I believe ye are in good hands.”
She stood, and smiled. “Well, then, I ken I will. Good evening, Faither, and Misters MacFersons. Ethan?”
Ethan stood and extended his arm to Violet. “Me pleasure,” while a little intrigued at what his father was aiming for in telling him this. It surely could not be to shield her from any gruesome details or tedious discussions…so why were they setting her apart from it all?
It was still summer, but moonlight shone through small slivers of the fog threading through the trees. The garden was surrounded by a small rectangular wall with thick hedges dotted here and there. Violet was happily taken aback when she saw that lanterns lit the graveled paths.
The only thing missing in a gurgling stone fountain in the center, like what I saw in the castle at Edina one time.
She held onto Ethan’s arm, keenly aware of the firmness of his muscles, and breathed in a soft river-water scent coming from his skin. His blond hair was a halo around his head when the moonlight fell on it. He was so close that her nerves were brimming with anticipation and her belly warm with her attraction to him.
“This garden is lovely. I see some English traits in it too,” she noted.
“Me uncle travels a lot,” Ethan replied. “He came back with many ideas to give us, many of which he implemented himself because me faither just waved him off saying, ‘do what ye ken is best.’ Miss Violet, may I ask ye a double question, and ye are free to choose which one ye might answer, or nay of either if ye dinnae feel like it,” he ended.
Sucking in a deep breath through her nose, Violet permitted him to ask her whatever was on his mind.
“Earlier ye hinted that ye had seen a lot of things in the years ye were working with yer faither,” he said. “And then, a while ago, ye muttered that it wasnae a want for trying that ye arenea married, would ye like to expound on either?”
What should I choose, me history with Faither or marriage… which one should I choose…or should I not choose any at all?
The marriage—or lack off—did not sit well with her. It was a bit too personal to discuss at the time.
“Aye, I’ve seen a lot of things. We’ve traveled a lot. Since I was six-and-ten, I had asked Faither to take me on a case near our home. A woman had reported a diamond ring stolen and was ready to dismiss all her twenty-something servants and have some of them thrown in prison, when I realized her cat was the culprit and gave her something to pass it out,” Violet admitted. “And that one was the easiest of them all.”
“Really?” Ethan asked. “What was the hardest?”
“Faither was called to Edina once,” Violet said, swallowing.
Please, dinnae take this the wrong way.
“For a slate of three murders of women…of a… questionable profession, and another one was missing. All the people we spoke to were hush-hush about it, so we had to go to the source and visit the brothels. The culprit turned out to be a rich lord in the capital with the means to use and abuse them.”
“Ye went through brothels?” Ethan exclaimed while they turned to a wooden seat.
She giggled. “I dinnae see anything scandalous, Why, I may be brave, but I’m nay that brave to compromise me innocence. We spoke to the women away from the…er…service rooms.”
Tucking her legs under her, she inhaled deeply, the heather-scented night air quickening her senses, and Ethan sitting beside her, even more so. “And what about ye?” she asked.
“Brothels or marriage?” he asked lightly.
“Marriage,” she asked. “But ye can refuse if ye want to.”
“Mayhap…we’ll postpone that discussion,” Ethan hedged. “I ken its nae fair as I was the one who asked ye. Those are, well… a bit difficult for me to speak on now.”
“We can speak about yer brother,” Violet proposed. “If it’s nay too troubling.”
He sat back on the bench and clenched his eyes clenched tightly. “Finley was a smart man. A few years ago, a neighboring clan was at war with us, and he decided to be the bearer of peace. He went to the clan, unarmed, and met with the Laird there. He suggested that instead of fighting with each other, we should learn from each other. So, he proposed that we exchange a squadron of thirty of our soldiers with one of theirs, and to foster more camaraderie, hold tournaments every year before harvest. It worked, and to this day, Clan Hofte is our best ally.”
She could hear the pain in his voice, but he uttered a soft, humorless chuckle. “He always won the archery section. The man could kill a bird between its eyes from a hundred feet away, but was hopeless in jousting. He made sure to take care of others before himself… he was even slated to get married before me faither stepped down and handed him the lairdship. Now, I’m slated to take the lairdship up and I wonder…I wonder if I can follow in his footsteps.”
Hesitantly, Violet rested her hand on his shoulder. “I’m sure ye’ll do fine. Ye have yer faither and the memory of yer brother to rely on.”
“I dae,” he acknowledged, “but I just wish I had paid more attention to them when they were working. I was happy to be me brother’s support when he took on the post, but for me to jump into that role… distresses me. What distresses me, even more, is that we might nae find the man who killed me brother or the woman who lured him off.”
“What dae ye ken happened with her?” Violet asked.
“I cannae say, but her sudden disappearance tells me that a conspiracy was afoot.” Ethan’s words were tight and sounded as if they were forced through his teeth. “She took him out to someone who killed him.”
The shadows were deepening and the night was getting colder, but Violet did not want to part ways with Ethan. She felt deeply touched by his ability to love and his admission of care, and she felt drawn to him. It was late and she should find her room, but she wanted to linger.
“I agree,” she replied, trying—and failing—to not let a shiver from a cold breeze show.
Sadly, Ethan noticed and stood. “Let's get ye inside, it is getting cold out here.”
Reluctantly, she joined him as he offered his arm and she took it. They walked back to the castle and, once inside, Ethan took her upstairs to the line of rooms left empty for guests. “How do ye ken which one it is?”
“Faither would give ye and Mister O’Cain the last rooms at the end, with doors facing each other,” Ethan nodded to the end of the hall. “Those over there.”
She grasped the door’s latch and pushed it in to see her sack resting on a tiny bed. “Yer right, these are me rooms. I’ll…” She spun to see him lingering at the doorway, a small tic in his jaw. “Ethan? What’s wrong?”
His hand lifted toward her face and his fingertips rested on her cheek. She blinked at him, cheeks flushed and eyes flushed of expectation. If he did kiss her—and she wanted him to—he would be the first one to claim that title. Having him so close and so warm, were so very distracting and affecting her ability to think. She heard her heartbeat in her ears. “Ethan?”
Dropping his hand, his smile was deeply apologetic. “Good night, Violet, sleep well.”
Lingering at the doorway, she made to speak but no words came from her. She watched, dumbly, as he went to the end of the corridor and disappeared around it without a look back.
Her fingertips danced over where he had touched, and her heart sank within her. Serves me right to ken he would be attracted to me. How much of a fool am I? He’ll never see me the way I want him to…
“Good night…Ethan,” she whispered to the thin air.
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