About the book
She couldn’t see his scars, and fell in love with his soul…
Six years ago, Iona Lloyd’s life turned to ashes when a fire took both her parents and her eyesight. Desperate to outrun certain death, she takes up work as a tavern’s nameless barmaid. Until a scarred Highlander comes to her rescue.
David Fuller, Laird of Murray, lost his parents and his betrothed when an explosion destroyed their castle. The scars that mar his body instill fear in everyone around him, except for one person: a blind, lowborn tavern barmaid. With the foulest mouth he has ever heard, the only thing he wants is to kiss her senseless.
When he realizes that Iona is her own worst enemy, David makes it his mission to protect her from her own self. A feat that proves almost impossible when a beast from a past they never knew they shared returns to kill two birds with one stone. The same stone Iona wears around her finger...
“I hate ye.” Iona had stood with her spine straight, staring at her mother with so much hatred in her pale-blue eyes that they sparkled. “I truly do. I canna forgive ye if ye make me do this.”
“Nae, ye dinna hate me.” Her mother shook her head. Her brown curls, a trait Iona had inherited, bounced with the movement. “I love ye, child.” The door had then closed, prompting Iona’s mad dash from the castle’s grey walls.
Iona stormed from the castle entrance as though there were lightning bolts at her feet. Each step across the solid ground and the undulating path could have been a crack of thunder. She had never felt such ire before, such consuming anger; she was well aware anyone who watched her path from the castle windows probably likened her to an angry tot, yet she did not care.
Her mind was too consumed with her fury to consider what others thought.
Her mass of brown curls streamed behind her head as the wind buffeted through the valley below the castle, up the hill and around her short body. She braced herself against the full gale and marched on, impervious to the wind’s power, and determined not to return to the castle for the rest of the day despite the weather.
I canna marry him.
The same thought ran through her head repetitively as she paced up and down.
Her parents, the illustrious Laird Jonathan and Lady Myriam Lloyd of the Stewart Clan, wanted her to wed. Not only to wed, but at such a ridiculously young age, only just having reached her six-and-tenth year.
Her father took little interest in any complaints she had, he saw the arrangement for what it was.
A treaty for an ally.
The Laird of the Stewart Clan it seemed had brokered a deal with the Laird of the Murray Clan. She was to marry the son and heir. When the death of her own father eventually came, this same man would inherit her father’s title as well as his own father’s.
A Laird of both the Stewarts and the Murrays? Impossible. The whole idea was ridiculous and destroyed hundreds of years of rivalry.
At that moment, her head was too full of rage to even remember the boy’s name.
Daniel Fuller, wasnae it? Or David?
She had never met the boy and had heard little of him.
I canna marry him.
She turned her eyes back to Garth Castle, her home. The tall grey stone structure towered into the sky of blue and white clouds, with turrets and so many tall windows she could not count them. Behind the grey castle, as though it were a crown for the building itself, was a bank of trees, their glowing green leaves made the pale stone shine even more in the sun.
Its height and breadth were both imposing and magnificent. In all her life, Iona had never seen such a fine and grand building. Beyond the banks of the hill, the terrain melded away into a valley, down to the lock at the bottom of the hill. The surrounding land was as equally impressive and magical as the castle itself.
It disgusted her to think Garth could not belong to her. It would have to pass to the Fuller boy instead. Her future husband.
She grasped at her hand; her mirth had returned with all of its volcanic force as she took hold of the ring on her finger.
It had been a gift from her parents some years ago – it was a rare emerald, with a sharp scratch of bright red through the center. Each woman in the Stewart Lairdship had worn the ring and her mother had thought it time it passed to her. It was reminiscent of their clan colors and no other stone like it existed in this world.
She snatched it from her finger, fueled by all the anger at the pressure of the Stewart Clan.
They want me to marry a lad I dinna ken. To give me land, me home, me body to a stranger.
The thought of having to give it all up was gut wrenching.
She wanted nothing more than to be rid of her parents’ expectations. She threw the ring at the ground, desperate to be away from it. It bounced against the earth, lodging itself in some chosen hiding place far away from her view.
The image of her mother saying she loved her tore through her anger. Had her ire been a blanket, her mother’s words would have created a rip in its existence, shaking her conviction.
She opened her eyes and searched the ground, suddenly desperate to retrieve her mother’s emerald. It was too cruel to throw it away.
She dropped to her knees, sullying the satin petticoat she wore with soil and grass stains as she scrambled to find it. She crawled for a few minutes until she found the ring lodged by the roots of an oak tree, glinting in the sunlight.
She cradled herself within the roots as she picked up the ring and attempted to remove the dirt from the gold band and green gem. It took a few minutes; she abandoned the hope to clean it with her now dirtied fingers and wiped the jewel on her petticoat instead. Slowly, she replaced the ring to her soiled finger, watching it shine in the sunlight with a heavy frown.
A sudden scream tore up from the castle.
Her head snapped around from the oak roots, turning back to the daunting image of the castle towering over the estate at the top of the hill.
The one scream was joined by others – a guttural chorus of fear erupted from behind the windows.
Iona hurried forward from the oak’s roots, directing her steps up the hill as the screams continued.
Some guttural and deep, belonging to men, others shrill and high-pitched. The sound shook Iona to her bones. A cacophony of screams and calls for help erupted, as though a volcano of screams had shaken free from the center of the castle.
People were now sprinting clear of the castle. A window was smashed, and servants were climbing from the hole created, clambering out into the grounds, and running free.
What is happenin’?
Iona felt fear clinging at her shoulders, as though it were a monster from the depths of the loch far behind her, trying to drag her back down the hill. She fought the fear, tried to shake it from her body as she hurried up the hill, clutching at the blades of grass to aid her ascent.
There was smoke, billowing wildly from the chimneys and windows.
The screams grew greater and as Iona neared, she started to discern individual cries.
“Did ye see how it started?”
The fire blew out one of the windows, the glass smashed to the ground as the orange flames crawled through the gap, and the grey stone wall around it.
As Iona reached the softening camber of the hill, she stood upright and bolted forward, sprinting as fast as she could. She frantically searched the faces – servants, maids, guards…her parents were not there, neither were Laird and Lady Fuller.
Gasping for air, she came to a stop as a familiar face ran forward. It was Siona. Her friend, companion, and governess. Her long red hair was wild, her normally pale cheeks were bright pink and there were soot marks across her clothes and face.
“Siona!” Iona grabbed hold of the woman’s arms, as they reached out to each other, clutching at each other’s elbows. “Are ye all right?”
“Aye, fine,” Siona replied though the soot marks were splattered across her cheeks. “A fire,” she tried to explain, panting as she frantically gathered her thoughts. “We dinna ken how it started.”
“Me parents.” Iona shook Siona, desperate for news. “Have ye seen them?”
Siona did not reply, she merely stared back, realizing the weight of her words.
“Siona!” Iona shook her again. “Tell me ye’ve seen them!”
“Nae. I havenae.” Siona’s words were soft, barely audible above the cries.
Iona pushed away from her friend, turning in a panicked circle as she searched the crowd of faces.
“Maither!” She ran among them, desperate for any sign. “Faither!”
“Iona! They arenae here,” Siona was behind her, following her path and every move.
“Are they in there?” Iona came to a sudden stop, her gaze casting back to the castle.
The fire had grown worse.
Nae. This canna be real.
Smoke was billowing from most of the open windows, seeping through the closed ones too. It formed a black cloud above the grey walls, circling as though cast by a demon or witch. Flames danced beyond the closed windows. Embers of red and orange shining through the glass.
“Maither!” Iona felt the desperate need to be inside the castle. She had to get them out. She tore forward, but Siona’s arms were on her, dragging her back. “Let me go.”
“Ye canna go in there, Iona, listen to me,” Siona’s reasonable words could not break through her haze. As though a mist of red had descended, her old anger had turned into a pure monster of fear.
“I can. Let me go,” she pushed her friend off and ran back toward the castle again. “Maither! Faither!”
She scrambled around the side of the house, determined to find a door and barge her way inside to pull her mother from the flames, but as she barreled forward, merely steps away from the front door, she was tackled to the ground.
She screamed as the sudden weight was lifted from her.
It was Siona and two other maids. They all grabbed at her arms and dragged her back away from the door. Iona was small, even for her age, their advanced height and greater number meant she stood little chance of fighting them off.
“What are ye doin’? Let me go!” She kicked out at them desperate to be free.
“I canna do it,” Siona was crying. Tears streaked her pink cheeks as she tussled with Iona, pulling her away. “Ye go in there and ye’re running to death’s hands themselves. I’m sorry, lass. I canna let ye do it.”
“Nae!” she screamed, feeling her feet make contact and strike one of the other maid’s hands. The girl squealed and let go, but it was not enough. Just as Iona scrambled to her feet, Siona grabbed her arms, pinned them to her waist, and pushed her away from the door.
“I dinna want to see ye die too.”
The thought her parents were already dead created a depth of fear Iona had not thought possible.
Nae. They canna be dead.
She sank to her knees.
Siona stood in front of her, refusing to let her stand again. Past Siona’s head, the fire raged on and the crowd continued to panic.
“Laird an’ Lady Lloyd. Do ye think?”
“What else? The Laird an’ Lady of the Murray Clan too.”
There were screams inside the castle. Iona winced as she listened. They could have been her parents, they could have been servants, she could not differentiate the voices when they were screaming in such anguish and the sound itself was being drowned in the angry bellows of the fire.
Tears pooled in Iona’s eyes as the heat of the fire grew worse. The cloud above the castle had now grown so dark and large, it masked the view of the trees beyond. The once-grand turrets were hidden, the grey stone walls were turning black, and the whole building glowed orange and red.
“It canna be.” Iona gasped as tears took her body. “Nae. It canna happen.”
How had a fire started?
They had never had a fire before. The mere idea of it was a surprise, unfathomable even.
Her father kept the local militia’s gun powder and weapons inside the castle. It was possible a fire had started in the storeroom. The thought of the gun powder and an impending possibility shook Iona.
She could not give up now.
She jumped to her feet – the sudden action surprised her captors. One of the maids jumped away and Siona attempted to hold her back, but Iona kicked out at her, knocking the woman to the ground.
“Maither!” Iona screamed again as she barreled toward the door.
“Iona! Come back!”
Siona’s voice and a cacophony of others begged her to return, but she ignored them all.
She reached for the front door, her hand about to clasp the heavy iron handle when she felt the explosion.
The heavy thud and shaking of the ground could be felt before she heard the sound. The boom rippled beneath the earth; what windows were left all shattered at once, blasting outwards as the fire soared, bricks fell from their place, causing the building to cave in on one side.
Iona stumbled back, just as the oak door surrendered outwards, tipping toward her.
“Nae!” she screamed, scrambling away, but too late.
As the building fell in, the door came down, striking her on the head and knocking her to the floor.
She felt the door being removed from her. She had passed out from the impact; she was sure of it. She could not seem to open her eyes as the door was removed from above her face and body.
“Iona!” It was Siona’s voice. She felt the woman’s hands grab her wrists; she was dragging her away. There were other hands too, seconds later she was lifted from the floor and someone was carrying her.
The door had struck her in the head. She could feel a little blood next to her right eye – she had been hit directly on the side of her temple. She felt such pain in her eye socket, then a deadening of feeling grew. As fast as the stinging took hold, a numbness was soon following.
“Iona? Iona, speak to me?” It was Siona’s voice again, she probably belonged to the hands that were pulling at Iona’s skirt from where she was being carried.
Her body was lowered to the ground. She felt herself set among the grass she had stormed through earlier. The scrape of the thistles pulling at the petticoats of her torn dress.
“Iona? Are ye all right lass?” Siona was in front of her. She had her hands around Iona’s wrists, trying to pull them from her face.
“It hurts,” Iona whispered, strangely aware as she said the words how much the pain had passed, and how the numbness had grown.
“Let me look at ye wee lass,” Siona pulled again at her hands, this time, Iona let them drop. She kept her eyelids closed, adjusting to the strange feeling behind her eyes and in her temple. “Aye, ye’re bleeding.” She felt Siona press a cloth to her head.
“What happened?” Iona asked with a small voice, though aware exactly what had happened, she wanted to know what Siona had seen from her vantage point.
“Explosion,” Siona confirmed. “Must have been the gunpowder store.” She continued to dab at the blood.
“Only…” Siona stopped her own words. It confirmed Iona’s suspicions. Everyone had made it clear except her parents, and the Laird and Lady of the Murray Clan.
“Maither–” Iona said quietly, blinking open her eyes and becoming accustomed to the numb sensation. As she blinked, she became drastically aware of how bad things had become. “Siona…are ye sat before me?”
“Aye, lass.” Siona’s voice was suspicious as she stopped dabbing at the blood on Iona’s temple.
“Ye canna be.” Iona shook her head, blinking madly again. She should be able to see Siona before her. See the worry in her face. See the pink cheeks and wild red hair she had observed minutes ago, yet there was nothing there.
It was empty. Only black.
“Iona, what is it?” Siona must have knelt in front of her. She could hear the change in position from where her voice came. Siona’s hand also rose to cradle her cheek, urging her gaze to look in a certain direction.
Still, there was only black.
Six Years Later
David Fuller swallowed the whole first glass of whisky in one gulp. He screwed up his face at the customary sharp burn of the single malt on the back of his throat, the action pulled at the battle scars on his neck as he settled onto the second glass. He never ordered just one at a time these days.
He was sitting in one of the very worst alehouses he could find in his lands. Blackmud’s Inn. A dark place that entertained rogues and thieves. It was a good place for any man with a secret to hide.
As Laird of the Murray Clan, straddling both the Highlands and Lowlands, David did not take his responsibilities lightly. He always ensured he knew everything that was happening in his lands and this little deception he frequently pulled had proved very fruitful in the past.
Under the guise of a war veteran from the Jacobite uprisings, following the death of Queen Anne, he would frequent such taverns and inns to listen to the conversations. It had sparked many investigations into illegal trades and unrest.
Posing as a war veteran had never proved too difficult. Bearing the scars that he had earned from his own battles and time at war, no one would question the guise.
Like his father before him, David worked hard to make his land and his people prosperous. That meant keeping an eye on any illegal activity that might also be hiding under his nose. Listening in on drunken conversations always revealed leads – people had looser tongues for darker conversations after whisky.
He sipped the second whisky he had ordered and settled back into his seat to watch his surroundings.
Plastered white walls and brown timbers encased the open square room. On one side stood the bar, manned by the innkeeper and a maid. The rest of the space was occupied by tables with drunken visitors, nooks, and corners of the building were crammed with chairs and other people trying to stay away from the hustle and drink in quiet solitude, lit only by candlelight in the darkness of the night.
David was in one such corner, his eyes rested on a table overflowing with drunken Highland soldiers. The mesh of tartans was abrasive to the eye, but at least the majority of tartans on show was the one favored by the Murray clan. He leaned forward onto his table, peering from beneath the tam hat he used to hide the scars across his cheeks, and set his gaze on one of the men in the group.
He was familiar. David watched the man’s movements closely, suddenly growing certain he had seen him before.
It canna be.
David had suffered a lot over recent years with the new Laird of the Stewart Clan’s attacks on his land. Forced to fend off cattle theft, the pillaging of villages, and general attempts at seizing his land, David and his Highland soldiers had seen the Laird of the Stewart Clan’s men in battle a few times. The man before him at the table he was certain he had seen in one such skirmish.
He had run from the battle, limping away with injury after David’s men had been victorious.
The treaty David and the Laird of the Stewarts had signed had demanded that no soldiers of the Stewarts were to enter David’s land, yet here was one of the soldiers.
David felt a smirk grow across his face. It seemed the Laid of the Stewarts had broken their deal. It did not surprise him. The cattle raiding that he had also been promised would stop had continued. Thieves tore across his land at night, stealing his people’s livelihood.
He was sure the time grew near when he would have to do something about the Laird of the Stewarts once and for all.
David’s gaze was fixed on the familiar man when a figure walked by the same table. His eyes slid to follow her with curiosity. It was the barmaid.
She moved incredibly slowly, almost warily. The strange behavior caught his interest and his eyes followed her about the room. She was collecting empty pewter cups from tables, placing them on a wooden tray balanced in her hands. Each movement was slow and deliberate, though she moved so sluggishly, David felt irritation grow within him.
He looked down at the empty glass on his table, realizing it would be many a minute before she leisurely made her way to him. He scoffed and returned his eyes to her.
What canna I expect from such a place?
It was a grubby inn, with few accolades and even fewer morals. He shook his head, knowing he should not have expected more from a lowly barmaid.
Yet his eyes returned to her, and this time he analyzed her.
She was short and slight in stature. She would not have reached his shoulder in height, but she had curves that made many a man she walked past watch her. Her cheap green stays fitted closely to her figure above petticoats of white. She held a sweet face, with small lips and big eyes. The sweetness of her expression was framed with a cascade of short brown curls. Most women wore their hair long these days, but her curls were cut short to above her shoulder, encouraging them to bounce higher.
David cleared his throat and looked back down to his whisky, reprimanding himself for ogling the barmaid the way anyone else in his clan would.
Dinna I have more dignity than that?
She moved on. Her ridiculously slow walk was still irritating, and his eyes slid back up to watch her, frustration growing in him at why she would not make greater haste. His gaze dropped back to her eyes and admired their color.
Pale blue. Startlingly so. The vacant way in which those mesmerizing eyes stared forward began to bother him. He wondered what consumed her thoughts so much to make her stare in such a way.
As she moved past the table of drunken soldiers to another smaller group of men. She held her hand out to the table far in advance of her arrival, even though she did not drop her gaze to see where she was going. She also felt across the table for a second, searching for the empty cups.
The realization dawned within David.
The lass is blind.
He took another swallow of whisky as he berated himself for feeling any frustration at all toward the young woman. She had a job, after all, he had seen many blind men and women begging on the street, unable or incapable of work. This woman, it appeared, would not accept her affliction so lightly. There was something to admire in that. It showed…determination.
As she patted the table, searching for the cups, one of the men moved his cup away. The men round the table sniggered and the girl froze.
She made no comment, but she tilted her head as though listening intently. Her hand found the empty cup perfectly on the table, having heard the slide of the pewter on the wood and she snatched it from the man’s grasp. Placing it with the others on her tray, she turned away from the men to attend to the other tables.
David felt the smile return to his face as he watched her. He knew he was admiring her, well aware now that his ogling was unrestrained, but hidden by the hat he had acquired.
It had been a long time since he had allowed himself to look at any woman in such a way. He did not grow close to anyone these days. His only friends in this world were from many years ago. His oldest and most trusted friend, Matthew McTiridh, often teased him on being cold and closed off.
Despite the jest it was said in, David knew the real intent behind Matthew’s words and to an extent, he was right. Since the death of his parents six years ago, David had become much more reserved, and much colder with anyone he met. As battles and war raged, and the number of scars grew too, any attempt at comfort in a woman’s arms had also ceased.
He was sure no woman would find him attractive now. Too deformed from battle.
He brushed one of the largest scars across his arm with this thought. It stretched from the knuckles up to his elbow. He had been lucky to escape with his hand still attached to his arm on that occasion.
No – he was certain no woman could find him attractive these days.
Yet it dinna do any harm to look.
So, his eyes continued to follow the barmaid around the room, his gaze admiring her figure and her face as she moved.
As the young woman neared the bar to deliver the pewter tankards and cups, the innkeeper leaned over the wooden bar, whispering something to her. At this distance, it was impossible for David to hear what the innkeeper was saying, but the manner of the action, the cheeks turning red with rage, to match the color of his hair, spoke volumes.
There was some disdain in the words he spoke to her. As quickly as the innkeeper had spoken, he took the tray and walked away from her, leaving the young woman leaning on the bar.
Her expression was no longer vacant. It was angry, he was sure of it. She made no attempt to go after the innkeeper and retaliate, but there was a tightening of the jaw around her small lips and she closed her beautiful eyes for a moment, hiding the pale-blue color and breathing deeply, as though trying to calm herself.
She was about to move away from the bar when a customer blocked her path. She walked straight into them, unable to know he was there. Yet even David could see the customer had blocked her path on purpose.
He said something to her, leaning toward her; she mirrored the action and leaned away. Whatever she said in reply, it made the customer chuckle. He patted her hair, an action more akin to give a child. It was an act that was belittling.
David felt his grasp on his whisky tighten. The man was playing with her. As though she were a pet or an attraction at a theatre show.
The innkeeper stood on the other side of the bar made no attempt to stop the customer. He was happy to let the man pester his staff.
David could not sit and watch. He felt himself drawing to his feet, knowing he had to intervene, but as fast as he had stood, the woman spat something angrily back. She grabbed one of the pewter tankards from behind her and threw the cup, contents and all at the man. She had perfect aim, despite her lack of sight.
Many eyes in the tavern turned to look.
David stood still, waiting with wariness to see what would happen next.
The customer moved forward – something she must have sensed as she dived to the side and used her hands to hurry along the side of the bar. As she reached the end, the customer collected the tankard from the floor. He threw it at her, bellowing at the top of his voice as he did.
“Ye blind tart!”
The tankard struck two glasses that were sat on the bar next to where she stood; they smashed into smithereens. Though the young woman flinched, the shards did not make contact with her. The innkeeper’s dark gaze turned on the woman, as though she were responsible.
As the customer marched out, David could not stand in the corner anymore to merely watch. The innkeeper was barreling toward the barmaid, fury in his eyes and steps.
“Ye pathetic wee lass!” The innkeeper came to a stop next to her, not noticing that David was making his way across the room and could now hear every word. “Ye’re losin’ me customers faster than a fire could!”
She flinched at his words, turning her head to reply, but he cut her off.
“Canna ye just calm down? Ignore the man!”
“Ignore him? Aye,” her voice was sharp, full of fury. “He propositioned me. Wouldna ye rather run a brothel than an inn?”
“Ye –” he lifted his hand, about to insult her and deliver a strike at the same time, but he hesitated, holding back his hand. She stood straight, holding her face toward him, David thought she must have known he wanted to strike her.
“Canna ye do it? Ye takin’ pity on the blind lass?” Her voice was full of rage, seething as her vacant stare was fixed to him.
“Ye ken I willnae strike ye, but ye’re bein’ ridiculous. Dinna throw things at me customers!”
“Ye want me to let him touch me instead?”
David had heard enough. His arrival behind the barmaid forced the innkeeper’s dark glare to raise to look at him. David had been right, he towered over the girl, though he towered over most people, including the innkeeper.
His mere presence had been imposing enough to put a tremor in the innkeeper’s face. David adjusted his stance, placing his hand on his belt where he carried his flintlock pistol, basket-hilted sword, and dagger. His scarred form must have been frightening enough.
“I think ye have said yer piece.” David could hear the usual calm confidence in his voice, it made most men bow their heads and do as instructed.
The barmaid’s head twisted slightly, suddenly alert to the tall presence behind her, though she made no further move toward him.
“Get out of ‘ere ye incomer,” the innkeeper attempted to wave him away, his voice rising in anger at being so admonished on his own property.
“Ye went to strike a lady.” David slowly jutted his chin to the side. He kept his voice low and quiet, contrasting the innkeeper’s rising tone. “I canna leave now.”
“Me inn, me rules. I will nae be told by ye or anyone what I can do with me staff,” the innkeeper folded his arms, attempting to appear taller, though his countenance shifted, and his eyes ran over David’s scars.
David knew the look. He had seen it many times. They all feared him.
“Ye will.” David’s words were quiet, sharp, and to the point. He removed the tam hat, flicked it onto the bar, and adjusted the collar around his neck. Flashing open the neckline of the waistcoat he revealed the full extent of his scars. He stepped further into the flickering candlelight, emphasizing his point as he rested a hand back on the weapons in his belt. “Me scars are nae gained through simple bar brawls ye ken, but I am willin’ to make an exception in this case.”
That appeared to be the only threat the innkeeper needed. The note of doom, that David had used, made the innkeeper drop his folded arms.
He nodded and scampered away, leaving the barmaid alone with him.
David watched the innkeeper leave, ensuring he really was gone for good. The man put his focus on clearing tables.
“Ye all right?” David asked as he turned his gaze back to the barmaid.
She made no move to turn her own body to him, but her chin tilted a little more his way as she rested a hand on the bar.
He waited for an answer, knowing full well she was not short of hearing. She appeared to be debating her options, she bit her small lips for a moment, her vacant blue eyes staring forward.
“I suppose I should thank ye,” her small voice eventually came forth. It was followed by her snapping her whole body round to stare at him, with venom encased in a stern frown aimed somewhere in his direction, though truth be told it was more at his chest than head height. “Yet I am nae yer damsel in distress.”
She marched past him, storming away, and leaving him standing behind her in confusion.
David turned to watch her, bewildered by the barmaid’s move.
She was walking directly toward a table, about to collide with it; David jumped forward ready to stop her, with one arm outstretched.
“I ken it’s there!” She snapped back, not even turning her head to look at him. She had a hand on the table and was using it to orientate herself as she marched toward the door. “Ye think I need yer help just because I canna see?”
Despite himself, David followed her. He could not quite believe the fury in her voice. Had he not just stopped the innkeeper from striking her?
Aye, perhaps I should have left her to it.
“Nae. I think ye need help from a man about to strike a lass. Maybe I was wrong,” he kept his voice low and quiet, the words called her to a stop on the other side of the table, her face turned back to him with those pale-blue eyes staring in his direction in a heavy frown. “It’s possible ye can handle yerself better in a fight then I can. But–”
He paused for effect, stepped to the other side of the table, and leaned down toward her to emphasize his greater height. “I canna think so.”
The woman’s sudden shift of raising her head higher to acknowledge how tall he was sent a thrill through him.
“Ye judge me by me appearance.” She scoffed, a smirk playing on her lips. David found his eyes drawn back down to those lips. “Ye judge me by just what ye can see.”
“I dinna judge ye at all. I judged the situation by facts. He was about to strike ye and ye canna see it.”
“Nae – I ken he wanted to, but he never would.”
“Yet he raised his hand to do it. Rejectin’ help at such a time, I call that nae sensible.”
“I call it independence. Understand this,” she stepped toward the table again, he thought she attempted to appear menacing, but it only drew his smile, he folded his arms, creasing the scars across his skin.
He doubted any harm could come to him from her small stature, though there was a certain appeal to the idea of being locked arm in arm with the woman. He tried to shake the alluring image from his head and focus on her words.
“As I said before, I am nae yer damsel in need of a man’s help. Now – leave me be.”
She had spun around again, maneuvering through the tables toward the back door.
David found himself following her, wary she could knock into something at any moment, but she dodged the tables easily. It had to be a well-worn path she had trodden many times to do it so fast and with frustration in each step. He imagined she had the layout of the inn committed to memory.
Yet, he still followed.
As she reached the door, quickly finding the handle to be released outside, David’s eyes drew back to the man he had been watching earlier at the table of soldiers.
He was sure it was a soldier from the Stewart clan, even though he wore the Murray tartan. There were a couple of scars across his right arm, adding weight to David’s theory of who the man was. A suspicion lingered that the soldier had been sent by the Laird of the Stewarts as a spy into the Murray territory. David had a choice, to stay and watch the man or follow the barmaid outside.
Such suspicions were why he had come to the inn in the first place. Blackmud’s Inn was infamous for hiding people with secrets, allowing them to pass in the dead of night undetected and undercover. He had heard tales that the innkeeper even passed on information of the best route through Murray’s lands to avoid the Laird’s soldiers and constables of the law.
He had come with the express purpose of discovering plots against the Murrays. The man he believed to be a Stewart soldier was a firm possibility. Though his eyes drew back to the closing door.
Why am I doin’ this?
His feet led him outside to follow the barmaid instead.
She was hurrying down the small grassy slope away from the two cottages that made up the inn. She walked with purpose, easily dodging the large rocks and stones in the hilly landscape as her petticoats dragged against the grass.
In the day as David had arrived, he had seen that the inn sat within the nook of two great hills in the Highlands, hiding it well from passersby. It was a place you had to know was there to find it. Grey rocks, purple heather, and green grass stretched for miles. From the door of the tavern, David could see across the valley and down through the hills. He knew his horse was tied up on the other side of the tavern, left there to feed on the hay provided.
As night had now fallen, beyond the retreating figure of the barmaid David could only see the night sky and the sparkle of the stars above the crests of the hills.
Her silhouette was easy enough to follow down the slope in the moonlight, her white petticoats shining in the silvery light. Her other senses had to be attuned well to her environment, as her head tilted to the side slightly at the sound of his steps behind her and the closing door.
“If that is ye, ye can return inside. I dinna waste me time with those that would judge me by me appearance.” Her words were curt and sharp as she came to a stop, just as the slope levelled out. She had stopped near a well and a line of large grey rocks.
“Might I suggest a little hypocrisy?” He smiled, following her still. “I canna judge ye for bein’ unable to see, yet ye can judge me for wishin’ to help a stranger?”
She flicked her head in his direction – her cheeks were pink, her breathing heavy, raring for the fight. The action made her brown curls flick around her neck.
Her spirit only amused him. It was unusual for anyone to argue back. Most days people cowered from him, being either intimidated by his height or his battle scars. It was one of the reasons he had stayed closed off from people. They were all frightened of him.
This young woman had a different state of mind, however. She would not wilt, despite how much smaller she was than him.
It was the first time anyone had wanted to argue with him for a long time. That was something he rather desired, an outlet for pent-up energy. It was a pull he could not resist, especially if she was so keen to also continue the argument.
“Actions mean more than yer words,” she spat the words back, turning her head in the darkness in his direction. Her ears had pinpointed his exact location and her pale-blue eyes stared toward him. “Ye may speak fine, but ye intervened where ye were unwelcome. I dinna need yer help.”
“I confess I’m curious. Dinna ye accept anyone’s help? Or is it just any man like meself that wouldna want to see a lady harmed?”
“A lady?” She scoffed, turning her head away and folding her arms. She paused for a second, then her cheeks tilted up into a small smile and she affected a deep curtsy in his direction. “How do ye do, Sir?”
Her brief jest tore the same smile from his cheeks, even though it did not last long.
“See how ill I curtsy? It dinna befit me. What ye see before ye is a barmaid, nae a lady. In me time here I’ve seen what men like ye want from barmaids. It is always the same thing. Any man who offers help wants a very particular act in return.”
He began to understand her. Her want of the argument was a way to protect herself. It was not a wish to be rude or to offend, it was distrust. A form of protection.
“Forgive my laughter,” David could not help the chuckle that escaped him. “But again, ye have just judged me on what other men have done before me arrival here. I say ye judge me more on me appearance than I do ye.”
His calm words only appeared to infuriate her more, she clutched her hair and let out a small squeal of frustration.
“Leave me be already!”
“I canna.” He kept his voice calm, despite her outburst.
“A woman outside on a night such as this.” He slowed his words and tutted to emphasize his point. “With passin’ drunkards, pished with whisky, who accordin’ to ye only want one thing from a barmaid…well, I wouldna want to leave her alone.”
“I dinna need yer help!” She turned back toward him and marched forward, easily stepping over a rock beneath her feet. David’s eyes dropped down to the stone with concern, but he realized she had traversed it easily – he wondered if she had tripped on it before and committed its location to memory. “I am perfectly capable without yer help.”
“I never said yer werena.”
“Ye implied it.” She pointed toward his chest, there was a slight surprise in her eyes when her finger made contact with his waistcoat; it appeared she had not expected him to be standing so close. She snatched her finger away quickly.
“Nae. I think we all need help at times. I dinna think ye’re incapable, but it never hurts to have the kindness of a stranger when it’s offered.” He kept his words soft, practically whispered them as he looked down at her.
She jumped back away from him with another small growl of frustration.
It drew another smile from him. He could see his attempt to placate her only riled her further. The inherent logic too was something she was not in the mood to hear.
“Do ye nae like the kindness of passin’ strangers?” David did not know why he continued on this line, but there was a pull toward her. He was enjoying himself and he did not want it to stop. He was reluctant to leave at all.
“Nae – I dinna.” She softened as she reached out in front of her, locating the position of the stone well nearby. David felt compelled to help her forward to the well, but he resisted. She had made it clear she did not need or want help. “Kindness comes from one of two places. Pity or because they think me an easy target for their lust.”
“Aye, ye do judge all men and tar them with the same bad brush.” David was now beginning to feel anger himself. He had rescued her from being struck by the innkeeper and in return, she had accused him of either pitying her like a wounded animal or wanting to bed her.
“I dinna need yer pity or yer bed.”
“Then it’s good I am offerin’ neither.” His words were firm as he watched her circle the well, using it to orientate herself. “Yer accusations are harsher than ye believe them to be.”
As the Laird, he had never been so accused before. The coarseness of the accusation sat deeper within him than he had expected. He had treated any woman he had ever met with respect. Though many had recoiled away from him in recent years from the sight of his scars, that was just his misfortune and it had not changed him as a man. He could never harm a woman.
His words appeared to strike a chord within her. She stopped her movement around the well and raised her chin slightly toward him. She shifted between her feet for a moment, apparently thinking on her words before she spoke.
“Ye really offer neither? Neither pity nor yer bed?” Her voice was much calmer. Her hands gripped the grey stone wall of the well tightly.
“I offer neither.” He folded his arms, watching her closely.
“Oh, I–” She shifted between her feet again. David saw the twitch of her cheeks, wondering if she was torn about apologizing for her words. She seemed to choose against it and instead stepped away from the well to find the line of grey rock protruding behind her.
She traversed the rock with her hands until she found a nook she seemed to know well and took a seat within the stones, turning her head out to the landscape and closing her eyes.
David took a few steps forward. Each step was slow and carefully placed as he was wary of her recoiling away as he crossed the distance between them, moving past the well and reaching the end of the line of stones.
“Can I take yer silence as a sign of a truce?” He tilted his head, still watching her closely.
“What is in yer truce?” She snapped her head round in his direction, opening her eyes again. The words were not spoken with the same venom, they were much calmer, but there was still a caginess that lurked there. An evident distrust of David as a stranger.
“The end of our argument. That is all.”
She turned her head back to the horizon, as though her pale-blue eyes could see it. David found himself admiring the color once again. In the moonlight, the shimmer of those eyes could have almost been silver.
Her brown curls bobbed slightly behind her as a shiver of wind blew up the valley and caressed them both. They framed her face beautifully. David tore his eyes away, determined to stop admiring her figure.
After all, she had no care for a man that wanted to bed her, so she would not appreciate a man who liked her features, even though he had no intention behind the admiration.
The silence stretched between them, a cavernous hole as large as the valley before them. David had drawn the conclusion that she would never answer when her voice eventually spoke up. Quiet and to the point, lacking any of the anger it had born before.
“Aye. I’ll accept yer truce.”
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