About the book
Ηe threw himself into her fire, desiring more than anything to feel her burn…
Aurora Doyle must do what a proper daughter should when her clan is in danger: marry the richest man. She is resigned to her marital prison, when a sliver of hope brings her back to life: the most handsome Highlander, asking for her hand in marriage.
Thrown in jail for crimes he did not commit, Sebastian Milligan lost everything by his sixteenth summer. After he escapes, he decides to take his revenge: destroy their lives as they destroyed his. Through marriage. However, he did not foresee one detail: the fire Aurora ignited in his soul.
When Sebastian’s lies finally catch up, they have company. A past he thought dead and buried in his parents’ tombs. With Aurora’s wedding a mere few hours away, Sabastian’s only hope of reclaiming his future, lies in a pair of eyes. Eyes that he shut over a decade ago...
What if I told you that Sebastian Milligan knew if he didn’t time this right, it would all be over? He’d be thrown right back in the cell that he’d just spent a solid three years trying to escape.
Or they’ll just chop off me head and be done this time.
He had almost nothing to return to now. They were dead and gone. He’d known it long before the sympathetic guard had discreetly passed him the letter confirming it. He’d felt it in his soul.
Sebastian had been just six-and-ten, trying his hardest to work the whole farm and support his frail widowed mother and younger sister – until the Laird and the farmer both had ruined it all. He’d done nothing wrong, not to anyone, but they’d taken his youth from him. It was no wonder his mother had died, her heart broken over and over, and no way to provide for herself or her remaining daughter.
I’m sorry, Mam. But dinnae ye worry. I’ll fix it all.
He pressed his back against the walls, trying to fight the building impatience that urged him to hurry forward now. But no. Jehan had carefully strategized this escape with him, and Sebastian wouldn’t dishonor the guard by not following the plan. Besides, if he moved now, he’d have to hurt someone. He didn’t want to do that. The dungeons had taken much from him, but it hadn’t taken his soul yet.
It might if I spend another day in here kennin’ they’re nae with me.
His sister hadn’t even been three-and-ten when the guards came to take him away. Of course, he’d protested, but what had that mattered?
They’d come for him in the middle of the night, dragging him out of bed in nothing but his nightshirt. Freya’s screams and his mother’s dry sobs still haunted his dreams. And then they’d tossed him in front of the Laird, and he’d been declared guilty without so much as a thought.
Truth doesnae matter. Money does.
He pushed back against the wall, holding his breath as one of the patrolling guards stepped a little too close. If they saw him before the changing of the guards, it would all be over. But the taste of the night air was tantalizing on his tongue, so close after three years of nothing but the darkness and the dampness of moss and mold.
He’d been lucky to come across Jehan. The immigrant guard had been intrigued by how this simple criminal was able to speak French. After many lengthy conversations, he came to believe in right to freedom.
Jehan had agreed to help him in exchange for very little. And so, they’d devised a plan together, allowing Sebastian to slip out at precisely the moment the guards changed in the front of the prison. Jehan would stay behind, unconscious, with a black eye. Later, he’d insist Sebastian delivered the blow back in the cell.
“S'il te plaît, fais attention, mon ami.” Jehan had begged him just before entreating Sebastian to knock him out and make everything look as real as possible. Please be careful, my friend.
Sebastian put his hand on Jehan’s shoulder. He didn’t have words to thank him properly, but he hoped the guard understood.
With a grim smile and nod, Jehan had declared, “Fais-le!” Do it!
A swing of his fist and a carefully planned route among the shadows between cells had gotten him this far. The guard would change in a very short time. After that, he’d only have a minute or two to make his escape before someone found Jehan, and the alarm was raised.
He bolted for the door, so close to a guard’s back that he could almost taste the sweat on him, but he didn’t stop. He ran faster, faster, and threw himself off the edge of the cliff and down into the water below.
It was ice cold and, had he not been prepared for it, he would have gone into shock right then and probably drowned. Sebastian forced his head above the water and swam as fast as he could. Above him, the yelling started, and he heard the noise of weapons and projectiles being thrown down to try to hit him.
Swim faster, Seb. Freya needs ye!
After what seemed like hours, freezing, soaked, and panting heavily, he reached the bow of the ship where the men Jehan had promised were waiting to smuggle him aboard. He was pulled out of the water in a fishing net and unceremoniously bundled into a barrel, where he would spend the next two days if the cold didn’t kill him first.
Once they were on the open sea, he’d be free. The boat would take him to France, where he’d make enough money to come back and find his sister – assuming she was not wed or dead already. She must be six-and-ten now.
Well, Jehan, soon enough, I’ll be back to return the favor.
He was stuck in a barrel, unsure if he’d even survive the journey. He was cramped, freezing, and sore as the boat began to rock. He was going to a strange country where he knew nobody, with not so much as a penny in his pocket.
Despite all of this – or maybe even because of it – he faintly smiled to himself in the dark.
For the first time in three years, Sebastian was free. And soon enough, he would have his revenge.
Here rests Margaret Doyle
Far-traveled and beloved wife of Griogair Doyle, Laird of Frisean
Adored mother of Alexander and Aurora
Rest in Peace
Every time Aurora read the inscription the words hurt like an open wound. Carved below it, in the tongue of her mother’s native land, were the names of the grandparents she’d never met. Had they reunited at last in heaven? She hoped so.
During every visit, she ran her finger over the marble making sure no speck of dust was there.
I miss ye, Maither. Things are so lonely here without ye.
Aurora was just two-and-ten when Margaret – or Maggie, as everyone knew her – passed, leaving a gaping wound that never quite healed. Almost immediately after the funeral, her older brother – thirteen years her senior – departed on an expedition to discover the country, eschewing everything left behind, including Aurora and their father.
She sighed. Aurora knew her father loved and cared for her in his own special way, but he forgot how to show it. He met her basic needs over the last seven years, but seldom embraced her. The emotional abandonment hurt deeply.
Maggie had deeply loved both her children. Perhaps Aurora’s father was trying, but no one can replace the special bond that only mothers and daughters can understand.
Aurora found comfort speaking out loud to her mother’s grave, but it was her lady’s maid, Greta Clarke, who was around to console her.
“Greta’s been twitterin’ on about the farm lads again, Maither. I think at five-and-twenty, she’s longing to be wed, but doesnae want to leave me more alone than I already am.”
Aurora thought it was unfair that such a good friend, as Greta had been, should stick around just to serve her. She wanted to see Greta live independently and even offered to set her up financially, but Greta always refused, claiming she would not desert her lady, even though all those around did.
“Maither, I wish I could be half the woman that ye were. You knew Greta was such a good woman, and I’m so glad ye took her in,” Aurora went on with a grimace.
I shouldnae be complainin’. At least I have a friend, and a brother and me Faither.
Aurora’s mother was brave, much braver than her daughter thought she could be. She’d gone against her parents’ wish and to live a life she’d dreamed of, and her experiences were the stuff adventure stories are made of.
She’d been a child of a minor businessman who lived with his wife in the Lowlands. As a single woman of five-and-ten years, she had run away from an arranged marriage and fled to Europe. She used to tell Aurora many tales of all the countries she’d visited – Italy, France, Germany, and even as far east as the Ottoman country of Greece.
Maggie’s unique coloring of blonde hair with tanned skin gave her an uncommon beauty that helped her on her way through the courts of Europe while she mingled with her supposed betters. Although sometimes she felt so out of her depth and would fall into despair.
But nae for long, Maither. Ye taught us to be strong, just like ye were.
Aurora’s mother had told the story of her travels a thousand times, and the story of her return a thousand more.
Maggie had several brief courtships across the years, even almost wedding in another country, but her heart cried out for home.
After four years, she returned to Scotland. She didn’t go to her parents, unsure how she could face them after all this time, and instead began to travel through the Highlands.
“And ye ken, me Darlin’,” she’d always tell Aurora, “It was the first place I felt like I might be home again.”
She’d set up a shop and tried to keep a low profile, but of course, the introduction of an obvious traveler garnered attention. A year after arriving in the Frisean clan, the son of the Laird himself had approached her.
“And from there, it was all so easy,” Maggie would say dreamily, casting an affectionate look in Griogair’s direction. “He loved me on sight, as I did him. We were wed within weeks. And we’ll never be apart again. Just like I’ll never leave you, my Little One.”
But that had been a promise that Maggie had not been able to keep.
When the fever came, it cared not for Aurora’s mother’s bravery. It did not care that Griogair had no idea how to live without this woman. It paid no mind to the lost young man and the scared girl left behind.
“But Mammy,” she’d sobbed. She’d forgotten at the moment that she was now a maiden of two-and-ten, retreating in her head to a six-year-old girl hiding in her mother’s skirts. “But Mammy, ye cannae die. If ye die, what’ll I do? What’ll Alexander do? We need ye!”
Maggie didn’t spend many of her last moments lucid, but she was at that moment. She caressed Aurora’s hand and said, “Me Little Dawn Voyager, dinnae ye remember the stories?”
The stories. Her mother had raised Aurora on stories from her travels, with tales of fantastic gods and mysteries from the east, and the discoveries still out there waiting.
“I do. But why do ye call me that?” Aurora asked. It always sounded strange to her, like a grand title she hadn’t yet earned.
Maggie smiled. “Because of how ye were named. I gave ye the name of a goddess, one the Ancient Greeks knew as Eos before the Romans and their Empire renamed her. I gave ye her Roman name to fit better here. She brought the dawn on her chariot, me Darling, and so will ye.”
“I dinnae ken what that means, Mammy,” Aurora had sobbed. She was no goddess! She was just a lost girl who would never see her mother again!
Maggie had wheezed, obviously in pain. “Do ye remember where yer brother got his name?
“The conqueror,” Aurora said tearfully. “Aye. Alexander the Great took over half the world. Mammy, ye ken I love the stories. Ye ken I love the gods and the history and all of it. But what has that to do with the now? Ye’re gonnae die, Mammy.”
“And when I do, ye need to keep livin’,” Maggie told her firmly. “Nae matter how hard it may seem. Yer brother will be Laird, but ye – ye have unprecedented freedom that many lassies dinnae get. I want ye to see all the places I did. I want ye to travel. Be free. Promise me.”
Young Aurora had swallowed and nodded. “I promise,” she’d agreed, though her stubborn side still protested to this fantasy.
How can she talk of freedom when she’s takin’ me heart with her?
Maggie seemed to relax at last, sinking back into her pillow. “Go, now, and rest. I will see you on the morrow.”
“But I never did see ye in the mornin’, did I?” Aurora asked ruefully in the present. “But I ken what ye meant now. I have this whole bright future ahead of me. It’s me duty, as the daughter of the Laird and also as yer own daughter, to make that future as bright as it can be.”
She laid down the flower she had brought and turned back to the Castle. Her father would be expecting her; she had dallied here too long. She knew that Greta would cover for her – but for how long would that work?
Faither doesnae want me visitin’ yer grave, Maither. It’s like he wants to forget ye exist.
As if any of them could ever do such a thing. Aurora had her father’s green eyes and slightly paler freckled skin, but the blonde in her hair was her mother’s, as well as her strong brow and sharp jawline. The older she got, the more she heard whispers of how alike the late Madame Frisean she had become.
Even more, so was Alexander. Aurora’s older brother was their mother’s double if she had been a man, carrying almost nothing of their father in him except the muscular body of the Laird’s youth.
Aurora was silently of the opinion that Griogair had been secretly relieved that Alexander was currently serving duties on the outskirts of the clan. The fewer reminders of his late wife, the better.
She arrived back at the Castle a short while later, only to find Greta dithering about outside, waiting for her. As soon as the other woman laid eyes on her, she gave a cry of relief. “Aurora! Where have ye been?”
Aurora wasn’t particularly tall, really, but she was on the higher side of average. That made it very funny whenever tiny Greta, whose bright red head stopped somewhere around Aurora’s nose line, approached to give her a scolding. “Ye ken where I’ve been,” she said in a quiet voice.
Greta’s look of aggravation quickly softened. She’d been close to Maggie, too. Her parents had been lost in a fire, and she’d been an orphan girl of four-and-ten when Madame Frisean offered her a job to help tend to the then eight-year-old Aurora.
In a very real way, Greta felt like Aurora’s older sister, and Aurora sometimes wondered if she and Alexander were the only ones capable of knowing the pain Aurora had suffered when Maggie died. Indeed, Greta had behaved like an older sister, stepping into the mothering role whenever she could as Aurora fought through her adolescence.
“Ye best come inside, Rory,” she said, using the nickname that only she and Alexander ever used for Aurora, at least since Maggie’s death. It was an affectionate moniker that Aurora’s mother had given her as a toddler on account of her loud voice. “Yer Faither’s gettin’ impatient.”
Aurora bit back the bitter response that sprung to mind immediately.
Really? I didnae ken he was aware I still lived here.
She scolded herself internally. She wasn’t being fair. Her father was a good man who had been through a lot and worked hard for the clan. So he wasn’t as affectionate as some fathers – Aurora was an adult. She could deal with that without pettiness.
“I didnae ken he was waitin’ on me,” she said instead, keeping the fire down.
The look Greta gave her told her that the maid knew precisely what she’d been thinking, but nonetheless, she nodded. “Aye. Apparently, there’s some rich visitor or the other, and yer Faither wants to show ye off. Since Alexander’s away, he wanted to display his good wee Maid, I suppose.”
Aurora sighed, irritated. She grimaced as she followed Greta inside and through the hallways to her chambers. It wasn’t that she entirely objected to the kind of finery she was expected to wear when her father wanted her to meet people. In fact, she rather enjoyed dressing up from time to time.
But she hated – hated – how he would display her like some pretty doll. Aurora knew that people thought her lovely, with her exotic structure and blonde hair and curves. She knew that at nine-and-ten, she was at the prime age to rouse interest in men, but…
I am a person, am I nae? I ken I’m just a lass, but I’m still a person. Me Maither wanted me to be free, nae a prize to be won.
Still, she let Greta pull at her hair and pin and lace her in where required. She must do what she could to please her father. No matter how annoyed she was at him and his aloofness, no matter how much she hated all of this fuss, he was her father, and she owed him that much.
A little later, Greta escorted her down to the eating hall, where her father was drinking wine and chatting with his guest. As Aurora approached the dais, it took everything she had for her face not to fall.
Och, did it have to be him?
She knew the man ahead of her. His name was Leon McCormack, and he was the wealthiest farmer in the Frisean clan – or any of the bordering clans, at that. Aurora knew he’d spent a long time accumulating wealth. He was not a particularly hard worker, not anymore; all of the farm work was performed by the farmhands while he lounged in his manor and reaped the rewards.
As well, he had a reputation of sucking up to her father, and every time she’d met him, she’d found him somewhat off-putting. All of this added together made her feel extremely uneasy.
This was the first time she’d laid eyes on him since she was four-and-ten or so, but time had not improved his appearance or demeanor any. He was a man somewhere close to fifty if Aurora had to guess; of average height but bulky, especially around his waistline. His hair, what was left of it, was brown and wispy and receding from the shiny bald spot on his head.
Like Aurora’s, his eyes were green – but where hers were deep and rich as the most excellent green grass, his were watery and pale. She could not see his mouth well through his thick beard, but from the look in his eyes, it was permanently turned up in a disturbing smirk.
“Aurora,” her father said, and both men stood as Greta bowed and retreated a little to give them privacy. “At last.”
“Forgive me, Faither,” she said, not meeting his eyes in case he could see her irritation with him and the disgust toward his guest that were poorly hidden there. He and Aurora had the same green and sharp eyes, and she often got the feeling he could see right through her. “I didnae ken ye were waitin’ for me.”
Griogair Doyle was tall with light-brown hair like freshly tilled sand. Despite being past fifty, he still sported a full head of hair, and it did not take much for Aurora to guess how her mother had fallen for this strong, handsome young man.
“Hmph,” the Laird said. For a second, Aurora braced herself for a scolding. She thought of a million retorts, most of them focused on the fact she was a grown woman, but her father simply went on. “Ye remember Farmer McCormack, daughter?”
She curtsied slightly. “I do. An honor to have ye, Sir.”
The farmer laughed, the movement making his significant frame bounce. “Och, there’ll be none of that sirrin’ or misterin’. Ye can call me Leon.”
A cold finger of unease traced down her spine, chilling her from head to toe. She did not know what had scared her, but she knew her fear was as genuine as her distaste. “If it’s all the same to ye, Mr. McCormack, I’d rather maintain proper respect.”
“It’s nae all the same to me, actually,” Leon told her, his face still arranged in that crowd-pleasing smile. “But yer Faither will tell you why.”
“Aye,” her father told her. “Aurora, child, ye ken ye’re nearin’ twenty years of age now. It’s past time ye were wed, really. Ye’re old enough now that ye should be rearin’ bairns by yerself, nae bein’ treated like one here.”
Treated like a bairn? What bairn would have the duties I have?
But she tried to swallow the irritation that the accusation had raised in her. If she got too angry, she would not be able to think, and something told her that keeping her mind sharp was essential right now.
So she breathed in and out, calming herself, forcing a cold logic to wash out the heat of the anger.
“I dinnae understand, Faither,” she said cautiously, though the tight rock in her stomach said otherwise. She had the sickening thought that she may understand better than she could ever have wished. “What has this to do with–”
“Leon McCormack has asked for yer hand,” the Laird told her without any emotion, “and I’ve consented.”
“But Faither, I–” she started.
He cannae do this! I have every right to refuse! I will simply show him how ridiculous this whole thing is.
“Ye disagree that ye should be wed?” her father asked. “Or am I to die and leave me son with a spinster sister to care for as well as a clan?”
She took a deep breath. It wouldn’t do to lose her temper. No matter how warranted, nor indeed well deserved, she simply could not embarrass the Laird in front of a guest.
But I have to protest in some way!
“I’m young yet,” she argued. “I could marry at one-and-twenty and bring luck to it. I dinnae need to wed so young.”
“Ye’re offendin’ our guest,” her father told her. His voice was still calm, extraordinarily so, but it sent a chill through Aurora. It did not do to disobey the Laird of the Castle, daughter or no. “I ken ye will nae put me to shame.”
She bowed her head, trying to hide the anger in her eyes. She was in an impossible situation, and no amount of calming breathing was going to make it stop. “Of course, Faither. But–”
“Then it’s settled,” he said, nodding. Leon’s smile widened. The Laird leaned forward. “Ye will be wed to Farmer McCormack, and I’ll nae hear another word otherwise.”
And though he isnae sayin’ it, he means I’ll face the consequences if I disobey.
So Aurora faced her father’s inscrutable gaze and the oily smile of her soon-to-be-husband. She gritted her teeth and said, “Of course, Father. It would be an honor.”
And slowly, the vast, bright future she’d thought of only a little earlier had shrunk to little more than a dark, sullen pinpoint on the horizon.
“This is it, Theo,” Sebastian said as they stepped foot on soil for what felt like the first time in weeks. “We’re home.”
“Aye,” Theodore agreed. “Now let’s commence the revenge, shall we? I’m achin’ for a bit of danger.”
Sebastian Milligan grinned. Aye. Danger it would be, but the rewards – and the vengeance – would be more than worth it. Those bastards wouldn’t know what hit them.
It felt like too long since he’d felt Scottish soil underfoot. Still, here he was, at last, accompanied by his close friend and companion, Theodore McMillan. He had met with Theodore, a Scotsman and an old colleague of the guard Jehan, upon his arrival in Calais seven years before.
Theodore was less than a year younger than Sebastian, five-and-twenty when they met, and the two of them connected intellectually almost immediately. As arranged by Jehan, Sebastian was allowed to stay in Theodore’s spare room for the first month while he found his feet in France. As it was, when the month was up, neither of them wished to part.
I didnae expect to find a true friend by escapin’ the gaol, but here I am.
After a year of working and scheming and gathering wealth in France, Sebastian announced his wish to travel between the cities of Europe. He was confident that he could use his sharp tongue and mysterious manner as bait to increase business everywhere he went.
To his shock, but not really to his surprise, the day he left, Theodore walked out with him. Without any discussion, he and his friend had begun to travel together, keeping company as though they’d shared a womb.
Sebastian had already been fluent in French thanks to the diligence of his late mother, whose own mother had been a Frenchwoman. Across Europe, that meant he could communicate most effectively.
He had amused himself over the years by learning a few words and phrases in several other European languages, though. He’d learned some Spanish, some Italian, and even a little German.
But his favorite had been when he sailed east from the island of Sicily and landed in Greece, land of the ancient scholars and warriors. He had been traveling for three-and-a-half years by then. It felt fitting that he should reach his midway point where the hero of The Buik of Alexander the Conqueror had begun the campaign that gained him half the world.
I dinnae want as much as all that, nay. But I’ll have me revenge and be as undefeated as he was.
The most memorable thing from his time there was the old grandmother with whom they lodged for a time. She took a shine to them, cooking all sorts of wonderous food and telling them they reminded her of her sons, both lost in the wars, and her lost daughter.
“Pote min ksechaseis tis rizes sou,” she’d tell each of them, touching their cheeks with affection. Never forget your roots.
“Nai, Yiayia,” he’d promised her. Yes, grandmother.
It reminded him of something his mother used to say, passed down from her father and the generations before him. “Cuimhnich cò thu,” she’d whisper to him at night after his father died, and when they struggled, and when it seemed like everything was impossible. “Cuimhnich cò thu, mo chidre.” Remember who you are, my heart.
He did remember. He hadn’t forgotten his roots, not once. For the rest of his time in Europe, he had been focused on where he’d come from. The sister he’d left behind. The parents he’d lost. The farm he’d had stolen away from him.
Just as importantly, he remembered the farmer who had accused him. The Laird, who had imprisoned him. He would go back home, back to the Frisean Clan, back to the land that had birthed him. He would find his sister, who must by now be a woman grown. He would visit his mother’s grave.
And I’ll revisit those devil-men who took me youth from me. And just like Alexander the Great, I will conquer.
Sebastian took on a new moniker, MacTavish, as he traveled through Scotland. He did not bother changing his first name; Theodore barely ever called him anything other than Bastian, anyway. And besides, who would remember a simple farmer’s son?
And escaped convict, dinnae forget that.
Well, it had been many years since then. He had grown from the last vestiges of adolescence into a fine man. He stood tall, his hair and beard neat and trimmed – not the long straggle of a prisoner, nor the fresh face of a boy. He had kept his body toned, and though he was wiry, he was healthy and robust.
He knew women found him handsome, and he certainly wasn’t opposed to a night or two of female attention, but that was all. His heart had been lost along with his farm and his mother and sister, and he had no time to dwell on such things.
“It’s good to be home, aye?” he said.
Theodore nodded, but his mind was elsewhere. “We’re at the Highland borders now. Ye ready for this?”
“I dinnae think I’ll ever be ready,” Sebastian replied with a gleam in his eye as he stepped forward.
He knew not how to describe it, not entirely. It was as though he had spent the last seven years under thick fog and standing here among the thistles and the fields of sheep and hairy cows, he had finally escaped it. Like he had stepped through a veil of water and come out the other side with the whole world refreshed.
Like I’m in another world. Like I’m home.
“It’s so bonny. I didnae ken how much I missed it,” Theodore said quietly.
“Aye,” Sebastian replied. There were no other words for it.
The grass was greener, even under the fine dusting of hoar frost, which covered it in a white blanket. Every rushing blue-and-white rapid river they passed, every squirrel dashing up a conifer tree, every osprey swooping through the sky felt as magical as it did like a homecoming.
As they traveled through the hills and glens, they saw the galloping herds of thick-coated red deer, the osprey nests, the great pine trees. There were dolphins in the waters when they passed the coasts, and otters swimming along the roaring rivers with their sleek wet fur. Sebastian and Theodore saw how one part of the Highlands seemed to slumber under their winter blanket while another part was more alive than ever.
The further north they went, the more the frost became snow, and the crisp, clean air became fogged by a thick layer of Scots mist. Some might find it unpleasant, but for Sebastian and for Theodore, the mist was like a welcoming coverlet, beckoning them back to their motherland like a child to its mother’s breast.
“Me Faither used to take me to sleep under the stars,” Theodore told Sebastian one night.
Sebastian nodded. “It was me Maither. She’d take us out when me Faither was especially busy on the farm, me and Freya. We loved the stars.”
As well as camping, they stayed in various different villages throughout their journey, meeting people. This was especially good for them because it helped them to bring back their accents from the neutered tone they’d used abroad and into the proud Gaelic brogue of their home.
The best part for Sebastian was just before they arrived at the borders of the Frisean clan. They were trudging through the snow when Theodore threw out his arm to stop him and pointed ahead. “Look! Capercaillie tracks!”
Sebastian blinked and looked in the direction Theodore was pointing. They were indeed the tracks of the shy grouse that was barely ever seen except by the most patient – large and three-toed with the distinct imprint of their courting hooks.
We need to see this.
Silently, without even having to discuss it, the men began to quietly follow the tracks. What they found at the other end was worth it.
The male capercaillie was something like the turkeys Sebastian had seen on their travels, or perhaps more like a game grouse. They sported distinct red-and-white spots on its dark plumage, while the feathers on their breast were bright dark green, almost metallic in appearance.
The female beside him was half his size and much more plainly colored, but Sebastian still found her beautiful in her drab browns and grays.
They watched them for a while, but as soon as the birds detected them, they fled. Still, it had been a rare treat.
“Isnae it strange how only the male birds are bright and colorful for courtship and the women dinnae make any effort?” Sebastian mused quietly. “Sounds a terrible botherto me.”
Theodore laughed. “Och, I’ll iron that roughness out of ye yet, Bastian. Remember, ye’re a Laird now.”
That was right. The plan. As they got back onto the road, they reviewed it together.
On their travels, they’d learned that the accursed farmer who had lied and taken everything from Sebastian was to marry the daughter of the Laird of Frisean. The Laird was still, after all this time, Griogair Doyle.
Could there ever be such a perfect circumstance?
He’d heard that the daughter was passing pretty, which in itself made everything much more comfortable. He would use the gifts that God had bestowed upon him and seduce the girl away from the farmer for himself. Of course, he’d need a new identity first, just in case anyone recalled the boy who’d been imprisoned.
Theodore was all ready to help. “Ye can borrow the name of the clan where I was born. Naebody kens us because we’re so far up North and our Laird so minor. Clan Fletcher’s main claim to notoriety is how invisible we can be!” Theodore told him. “The Laird is ancient. It wouldnae be hard for ye to pose as his son, act like he’s nearin’ death, and ye need a wife before ye take over.”
Sebastian could not help but grin. “Son of the Laird of Fletcher. I quite like the sound of that, meself,” he said. “And if they’re as far as ye say, it’ll take weeks for anyone to prove elsewise. Given the weather, maybe even months.”
Theodore nodded, looking very pleased with himself for the idea. “Aye indeed. And I’ll be yer man-at-arms. I’m quite fond of the idea of makin’ meself into some mighty warrior. And when yer countin’ yer coins, I’m sure I’ll need a salary.”
Sebastian’s grin turned into a full-fledged laugh. Yes, he’d had his share of misfortunes, but meeting Theodore had been lucky beyond imagining. He could not imagine any power in the world that could change their powerful friendship.
Until something did.
Of all things, it was a woman. Neither Sebastian nor Theodore had been remotely chaste on their European journey. After all, despite everything, they were still Highland men, meaning they came with all the needs that came with that, rough and ready, and all the rest. But these had been small things, no expectation on either side, no hurt or regret.
But the week they spent in Chrìochtun, the first town within the Frisean Clan, changed everything.
“Her name is Greta,” Theodore had prattled on like an excited youth the first night he met the girl in town. It had been a complete happenstance; he’d just been picking up provisions, and there she was. “She’s right intelligent for a lass of her position. She’s here visitin’ her parents, but she serves as a lady’s maid. She’s got the loveliest eyes ye’ve ever seen, and her hair is–”
Sebastian had fallen asleep at some point during Theodore’s endless ramblings of praise. Still, he wasn’t confident that his friend had even noticed. After all, it almost felt like Sebastian wasn’t actually a required participant in the conversation.
The second day was worse. The two had dinner together, and Theodore spent more hours extolling her virtues, talking about what they’d discussed, studying every moment of the time they’d spent.
Sebastian hoped it would fade by the third day because that was when Theodore bedded the girl. He was leaving as she entered, so he only got a quick glance, but he had to admit she was passing pretty. Not the great beauty Theodore seemed to see, but definitely worth a second glance.
Though this is ridiculous.
It didn’t fade. It went on and on until Sebastian thought he might go quite mad. He didn’t even know how long it had been when Theodore announced sadly that Greta must return to her employer, and they would be separated.
“But she tucked the heather sprig I gave her behind her ear when she left,” Theodore said, his eyes bright and his eyes fidgeting. “Do ye think it means anythin’? Do ye think–
“Oh, for the love of – Theo, ye sound like a woman. Or a French jack-a-dandy. Has Europe turned ye weak in the heid?” Sebastian interrupted, his exasperation finally getting the better of him.
Theodore scoffed. “A jack-a-dandy, is it, aye? Sounds to me like ye think nothin’ I have to say about me Greta is useful.”
“I’m sure yer Greta is lovely,” said Sebastian, though he had to admit, the possessive term bothered him somewhat. Still, if Theodore was acting this foolish over a woman so soon, then it was a good sign for Sebastian’s plan with the Laird’s daughter. “But lovely or nae, she’s nae me concern right now,” he explained, trying to be patient.
“Ah,” Theodore said. “I see. I’ve been annoyin’ ye with me useless prattle about a woman.”
Sebastian rolled his eyes. “Dinnae tell me I’ve hurt yer feelin’s.”
Theodore shrugged. “Nay, I ken when me speech is nae wanted. I suppose ye’re nae interested in anythin’ I have to say about her at all. I’ll nae bother lettin’ ye ken that the maid she serves is Maid Frisean herself, Aurora Doyle.”
Sebastian froze where he stood. “What’s that ye said?”
His friend continued to look haughty, turning his back. “Nay, never mind. I wouldnae want to bore ye with trivial information.”
With a loud sigh, Sebastian said, “Are ye truly gonnae make me apologize before ye tell me?”
“It’s so sad when a friend cuts ye in the heart,” Theodore sniffed. His back was to Sebastian, his shoulders hunched, and he was making his voice theatrical enough to impress the famous Bard himself. “Hurts worse than any sword could.”
Sebastian tilted his head back, praying to God for patience, then said, “Theo, I’m right sorry that I was so accursedly rude in regards to yer lady love,” he said, the sarcasm dripping from his tongue. “Can ye ever bring yerself to forgive me, or must I bare meself that ye will run me through with yer blade?”
Theodore turned back, a solemn look on his face, and touched Sebastian’s shoulder. “Me friend,” he said gravely. “I forgive ye. Ye ken what a hardship it is for me, but as yer friend, I feel it’s me duty.”
Sebastian bit back his smile at the mockery. “Ye’re a saint and a martyr,” he agreed. “Now, tell me what ye’ve learned of Aurora Doyle.”
Aurora knew that she was in trouble the second her father called her to the study, almost two weeks after he’d announced her engagement. She didn’t even have her usual comfort to aid her. Greta was a two-day ride away, visiting her aging parents for a week, which meant Aurora had nobody to offset her father’s sternness. Her heart in her throat, she obediently made her way there alone.
The Laird was waiting inside with that same inscrutable expression that he always wore when something was boiling just below the surface. He gestured for her to sit on the chair opposite him, which she did as promptly as possible.
Her eyes nervously fell on the two opened letters lying on her desk. One was in her brother Alexander’s precise handwriting, the other in her own looped flourish. Instantly, she felt her stomach tighten.
Och, Allie, what trouble have ye gotten me into now.
Aurora loved her brother dearly, but he was older than she, and with the duties of the Laird’s son, he often seemed out of touch with her reality. They were close, regardless, which was why she had sent him the letter – a note bemoaning her situation, which she now dearly regretted.
My Dearest Brother,
I hope with all my heart that this letter finds you in the best of health, and with the heartiest success in your endeavors. I write to you in this clandestine manner not as the Maid of Frisean nor even as Aurora, but as your younger sister, Rory. Please treat this letter as such.
It went on to explain her betrothal to Leon McCormack, and how she truly had felt she had no choice to agree. She mentioned that she knew, of course, that it was her duty to obey her father for the good of the clan…but then her true feelings showed.
I understand our Father’s agreement, of course. I am more than aware of the economic sufferings we are currently facing. I know that McCormack is rich – perhaps even more so than Father, after his prosperous business over the past few years. I understand that the lucrative offers for my hand have been slim.
But Allie, I do not wish to marry him. Would it be too much beyond your reach to intervene in some way? I beg your subtlety and patience. I do not want Father to think we are conspiring against him. I simply cannot abide the idea of bedding such a man.
If you cannot intervene, I understand. Know that having your ear when there are very few available to me is one of God’s greatest blessings.
My sincerest wishes that you shall be excellent and well, and with my most beloved encouragements to you and your company,
Bad enough that she should have written such a letter criticizing her future husband in the first place. That she did so in such an informal manner, using the childhood nicknames of both herself and her brother would only make her father more furious.
She stared at the table, nerves, and anger broiling together in her stomach, unable to look up and meet him in the eye.
He read me private letters!
The other piece of paper on the table was suddenly gone, and the Laird was holding it, reading out loud.
“You cannot simply allow such an unsuitable marriage, Faither! Does my Sister’s virtue nae mean more than some gold? Are we really so desperate as all of that to rely on the income of a slimy farmer who cannae even farm? Leon McCormack may be rich, but he’s nae who I would wish for in a brother-in-law. Pray, reconsider,” he quoted in a too-calm, too-even tone. “Do ye see how yer brother writes of yer betrothed, Aurora? Do ye see how he disrespects his own Faither?”
Aurora still couldn’t meet his eye, though she felt his gaze boring into her skull. “I am sure me Brother meant nay disrespect,” she said quietly, trying to bite back her outrage and her fear.
“Indeed nae,” the Laird agreed. “This has nae doubt been some terrible misunderstandin’. I assume I dinnae need to ask ye to repair it?”
“Repair it, Faither?”
Her father nodded. “Aye indeed. Ye shall write to yer Brother and request he doesnae speak of yer betrothed in such a way again, lest he hurts yer heart. Ye shall express yer happiness with the betrothal after much reflection. Ye will explain to Alexander how yer initial letter were the words of a woman flustered by the change in circumstances which ye now regret.”
She finally looked up. Her father was watching her, his hands folded under his chin, looking mildly interested if anything at all.
He’s gonnae make me do such a thing? Does he really think Allie will believe it?
“Am I nae correct, Daughter?” the Laird pressed.
She bowed her head to disguise her expression. “Of course ye are, Faither,” she lied. “Prithee forgive me the terrible lack in judgment.”
Her father smiled, though it didn’t reach his eyes. “Nae need to worry, child. Ye’re a woman, and still quite youthful even though ye’re grown. Send the letter to yer Brother, and all will be forgotten.”
“Yes, Faither,” she said, standing. She knew a dismissal when she heard one, and besides, she needed to get out of there. “Thank ye, Faither.”
He waved a hand, and she exited. She wanted to break down in tears or maybe scream and curse, but she would not. She held her head high as she walked back through the Castle to the gardens.
Things were grim. Grimmer, perhaps, than she could have predicted they would become. Alexander had done her a disservice by contacting his father directly, though he was probably trying his best to help. Soon she would be wed to McCormack, and it seemed there was little to be done about it.
But she walked upright and proud. She was the daughter of a mighty Laird and a strong woman who had overcome every obstacle against her. She was Aurora Doyle, and she would not cry.
A week later, Aurora’s perception of life changed all over again. She was sewing in her little sitting room, halfway through an elaborate daydream about being stolen away by a Norse pirate king, when Greta knocked the door then entered.
“Aurora?” she said, and Aurora instantly knew something was wrong. “May I speak frankly with ye for a time?”
Aurora raised her eyebrows, placing her needlework to the side. “Come, sit,” she said, indicating the chair across from her own. “When dinnae we speak frankly, me Friend? Has somethin’ happened? Are ye all right?”
Greta hesitated. “Ye’ve been a good friend, Aurora. Ye’ve treated me high above me station for many years. I would nae feel right keepin’ secrets from ye, and yet…yet I worry that I may disappoint ye. Shock ye, even. I would nae want ye to think less of me than ye do.”
Aurora’s worry deepened. “Nothin’ could make me think less of ye,” she assured her friend. “Please, whatever it is, just tell me, lest me worry consumes me.”
Greta smiled faintly at her and nodded. “There is a man,” she confessed. She said it slowly, but then it came out all in a rush. “I have kent him only a few days, a week maybe, but he fair has me mind in a whirl. I met him when I was visitin’ me Mam, ye see, and I found him right handsome. We got to talkin’, and, well, it turned out the attraction was mutual.”
Aurora felt her ears burning in embarrassment at the implications of Greta’s words. How scandalous! And yet part of her was indeed envious. She half wished that she was a maid or a baker’s daughter.
Perhaps then I’d be free to love and marry where I pleased.
“I dinnae see the problem,” she said finally. “Aye, it’s a shock that ye’ve been…courtin’, but ye’re a woman grown. It’s natural that ye’d be thinkin’ of marriage or…other things.”
Greta smiled fondly at her. “Och, ye’re a good lass,” she said affectionately. “But that isnae the problem. I kent he and his companion were travelin’ this way, and I suppose if I’d asked and listened, I’d have been able to work it out, but–”
“But?” Aurora prompted.
“But Theodore – och, I shouldnae have given his name, but I guess ye’ll ken it soon enough. Ye see…Rory, God help me, but I’ve been dallyin’ well above me position. Turns out he is the man-at-arms to some minor Laird’s son up North if ye can believe it!”
Aurora blinked. “Is this the truth? Oh, Greta! How did ye get yerself in such a situation? But it’s nae that bad. He’s hardly the first soldier to have a tryst with a common lass. It doesnae make ye a bad person.”
Nae that I’d ken. I’ve nae so much as embraced a man.
Still, she was Greta’s friend, and she had to help her feel better. “Will ye see him again?”
“Well,” Greta said after a moment, “therein lies the issue. Ye see, when I said he was travellin’ this way, I didnae mean to the village. I mean he’s comin’ here, to the Castle. Within a day or two, now.”
“Why would he be doing such a thing?” Aurora asked in surprise. She knew of no visitors arriving soon. “His Laird is coming too?”
“Aye, or the Laird’s son, I’m nae very clear which,” Greta replied. “But from what I can gather, he’s accompanying the young noble because the lad hopes to wed ye.”
“Oh!” Aurora didn’t understand. “But I dinnae ken him. I dinnae…how does he even ken me?”
“He says he’s heard tales of yer surpassin’ beauty,” Greta told her eagerly. “Theodore told me that his friend hasnae stopped gabbin’ about ye since he heard tales from a traveler up in their clan. Says ye’re the bonniest lass he’s ever heard of, and he must see ye for himself. He’s in search of a wife, they say.”
Aurora’s neck and chest suddenly felt very warm, and she was sure her cheeks were crimson. “What do…that is to say, I cannae–”
“I caught a glimpse of him once,” Greta said. She had relaxed into a slightly mischievous smile now that she knew her friend wasn’t going to judge her for her indiscretions. “He walked through the room where I was chattin’ to Theodore, and I had a quick look.”
“And what did ye think?” Aurora asked, trying to sound uninterested. She knew that she wasn’t fooling anyone, though, least of all her long-time friend.
“Well,” Greta said. “He was rather tall. Lovely brown hair cropped around his ears, the kind that looks like smooth chestnut. I didnae see the eyes. Quite thin, but I did hark at the muscles through his shirt. Och! The lad must be quite active, I’ll tell ye that.”
Aurora giggled at the enthusiasm. “And his age?” she asked. “Was he young?”
Greta gave her a sympathetic look of understanding. “He was about me age if I had to guess. A wee bit older, perhaps, but nae more than a year or two. Theodore is five-and-twenty, and I get the impression that the two of them grew up together.”
“I see,” Aurora said, picturing this handsome, dashing stranger in her mind. A fantasy played out where he looked very much like the pirate from her dream, a rogue rascal here to steal her away. He’d bundle her onto his ship and claim her then and there as his own. He’d take her to sea, never to return, exploring as her mother had before her…
But when she opened her eyes, the romantic image was gone, and unwelcome reality was still firmly in place. “Well,” she said with a little sigh. “I suppose it matters nae. I am already betrothed. I do suppose me father will host them for a while, though.”
Greta gave her a sad smile. “Have heart, me Friend. Things have a way of workin’ out in ways ye never expected.”
Aurora knew that Greta meant it as an encouragement, and she loved her for it. But given how everything had happened recently, she couldn’t help but see the possibility that the unexpected was a threat to her happiness.
Two days later, her father called her down to the same room where she’d learned of her impending marriage. He insisted that she dress well and take the time required to be fully presentable. As such, Greta spent the morning helping her to bathe and dress, arranging her hair in an elaborate style that highlighted the sharpness of her cheekbones.
The maid’s mind was clearly elsewhere, and she hummed to herself as she worked, a distant smile on her face. Aurora found it rather charming to see her friend so happy. She hoped that, assuming they were right and this was Greta’s Theodore and his mysterious companion, the man-at-arms treated her friend well.
He’ll pay for it if he doesnae, that’s for sure.
Not that Aurora had any idea how she’d make him pay, but she was sure she could think of something.
Finally, dressed in a dark-blue gown with a matching ribbon in her hair, she made her way down to the hall. She walked through the doors just as she had on the day of her betrothal, and Greta stood back, just as she had before.
This time, though, another man was waiting in the back of the room, and from the way Greta’s eyes lit up, Aurora knew this was Theodore. Before she had to look at her father, she took the opportunity to observe her friend’s new companion.
Although he was not the type of man who dwelled in Aurora’s own fantasies, she could easily see how Greta was so taken by him.
He had long blond hair tied back artfully with a gray ribbon in the increasingly popular manly fashion. He was large, but in a way that was all muscles: broad shoulders and toned arms and legs. His beard hair was fine, stopping short just below his chin, and his eyes were the brightest blue that Aurora ever remembered seeing.
He looks like a prince from an illumination. Nae wonder Greta is helpless.
She smiled a little to herself, then turned to curtsy to her father. “Hail, Faither. I hope I didnae keep ye and yer guest waitin’.”
“Nae, Child, dinnae worry, ye’re right on time,” the Laird told her. “Ye look lovely. Thank ye for makin’ an effort.”
Aurora smiled, preening at the compliment. They were so few and far between from her father that each one made her feel a warm glow inside. She knew that he loved her, but it had been a long time since he was willing – or perhaps able – to show it.
“This is the maiden ye’ve traveled all this way to see,” her father told the man next to him. Aurora couldn’t see his face yet, but his hair and profile certainly matched what Greta had described a few days before.
It’s true, then? He came all the way here to lay eyes on me?
“Aurora,” her father said. For the first time in who knew how long, she saw pride shining there. “This is Sebastian MacTavish, first son and heir of the Laird of Fletcher up in the North. Despite the snow and treacherous conditions of winter, stories of yer beauty and grace reached his ears, and he traversed the path to see ye.”
The warm blush was back. “That’s…very flattering, Sir,” she said, her voice shaking a little. “But I am afraid I am already betrothed.”
“Dinnae worry, yer Faither filled me in on all of it,” the man said. His voice was warm and deep, like a hot drink in the depth of winter with just a little rich honey mixed in. It was doing things to Aurora’s insides that she couldn’t fully understand. It was as though it created a wave of heat that started in her chest and rushed downwards, settling somewhere near her groin.
He kept talking. “Still, the Laird of Frisean is gracious enough that he will let me and me man-at-arms stay a while until the harshness passes and we can return home. Me Clan is in his debt, and I hope that while we’re here, we can at least have a friendship.”
Aurora’s voice stuttered a little as she said, “Of course. I’d be honored to host ye.”
At this, the man turned around and gave her the full force of his unexpectedly warm brown eyes. His beard, like his hair, was cropped close to his face, and his smile took Aurora’s breath away.
But it wasn’t just the smile. Her heart started to pound in her chest, and she felt a thrill so intense that it was almost fear. Shivers ran down her spine, and all of the tiny hairs on her arms and legs stood on end.
Staring at her with a cocky smile was a man who looked exactly like the pirate king from her dreams.
And she already felt in danger of being stolen away.
Did you like this preview? Please, don't forget to leave me a comment below!
Want to see how this story ends?
Highlander's Kingdom of Ashes is live on Amazon now!