About the book
He admired each mark on her skin like it was art…
Deemed a witch and despised for the marks on her skin, Valorie Nickolson lives in constant peril. Escaping under the cover of night with her father’s help, she finds refuge in a Laird’s castle as a maid.
After losing his parents in a vicious attack, Peter Kohl, Laird of MacIntyre, has chosen a life of solitude. Until an English maid, shows un in the dead of night, looking for a place to stay. He never thought that place would be his heart.
Yet hatred knows no borders and it taints everything is touches. When Valorie’s past takes flesh and blood to haunt her, Peter is dragged into a merciless hunt. And he’s the prey. With destruction coiling around them like a thorny vine, only one question remains: whose blood will be spilled first.
“You must go now.”
Valorie was ushered out of the door by her father. He pulled the cloak around her shoulders and over her face, trying to keep her hidden.
She stepped out into the darkness of the night sky. With heavy clouds, there was no moon nor stars to light their path across the back courtyard, but they both knew their way. Their feet trod the well-worn ground as Valorie’s hands clasped the thick woolen cloak tighter. She would need the warmth of the cloak where she was heading.
“Must it be now?” she asked again, her voice strained with trying to hide the warring feelings that fought for domination within her.
I cannot leave you.
“Yes, child. It must be now. For your own safety.” Her father pulled her to the side, urging her forward with hurried steps. A tall man with a strong bearing, he was handsome for his age. His dark-black hair was a trait Valorie shared.
Her father reached through the darkness toward a large shadow. It took Valorie a moment in the gloom to realize it was the door of a carriage. He swung it open and placed her inside, pressing her forward with a hand at her back. As he closed the door, she leaned out of the window, still grasping his hands.
“I will miss you.” The strain in her voice was becoming more noticeable. Her words made her father smile slightly in the shadows.
“And I will you, child. Now,” he let go of one of her hands and pulled the cloak around her head again, “you must stay hidden on your journey. Will you promise me?”
“Of course, Father,” she nodded, with her own hand holding the cloak close.
The cloak’s presence had become necessary these last few months. It helped her to hide the dapple of light skin that brushed her body.
Vitiligo. The name of the condition had followed her from birth. As she had grown, her skin had become more covered with the flecks, turning her already-pale skin even whiter in patches.
I have to hide it. They hate me for it.
Her father’s hand brushed her cheek, calling her mind away from her ailment to him.
“I will write to you often.”
“Please do.” She blinked the tears away from her eyes that were threatening to fall.
“They will look after you where you are going.” He brushed her cheek with his thumb, making her lean into him more. “But you must keep our secret from them.”
“I will.” She jumped in her seat as a figure appeared behind her father. She gripped his hand as the familiar bolt of fear ripped through her stomach.
He patted her hand in comfort as he looked over his shoulder.
“It is only Richard. He is to be your driver. He is the one man we can trust with this.”
“We must go,” Richard stepped forward with a nod, “before people realize.” He disappeared from Valorie’s view as he moved round to the front of the carriage.
She could hear the horses stirring, readying themselves for their journey.
“Do not cry, my child,” her father brushed her cheek again.
“How can I not?” She closed her eyes as the first tear slipped down her cheek.
“I know, but it is for the best. There…you will be safe.”
“Yes.” She willed away the tears again. “I will be strong, Father. It is the right decision.”
“I know just how strong you are.” He laughed slightly. His handsome smile spread across his aging cheeks and betrayed the sign of wrinkles around his eyes. “I have seen it in you every day and I have no doubt it will stay with you.” As a child, she had followed her father around, reluctant to be far away from him. Now a young woman in her early twenties, she knew she could not hide in his shadow anymore from the harshness of the world.
The horses neighed, signaling it was time to depart.
“Goodbye, my child.”
He kissed her hand one last time and stepped back.
As the horses moved forward, making the carriage jolt into action, she could no longer see her father’s face for the night’s shadows, but he waved. It was one solitary wave that broke Valorie’s heart even more.
She retreated back into the carriage and wrapped the cloak around her face, hiding her lips and cheeks as though she could wish away the marks that marred her skin.
She hated the thought of leaving her father behind, but he was right that it was the safest decision. On the discovery of her skin condition, death threats had arrived at their door. People would spit on her in the street and throw ugly insults.
Witch. Hag. Demon. Harpy.
With the threats against her life growing greater, it had left her with little choice. She had to leave.
The journey was long and arduous. The terrain as the carriage moved across the border from England to Scotland changed from flat to rocky, with rolling hills and difficult steep climbs.
She slept for some of the journey, but not very much. She woke with nightmares, reliving moments with strangers who detested her on sight.
As the sun began to rise over the Scottish crags, she peered through the window, watching the sky turn from black to orange. As the carriage moved forward, two hills appeared to part and between them, the shaded image of a castle coming into view.
With a tall brown brick keep and a thick outer gray wall, the place appeared more like a fortress than a home. It sat on a small island within a loch, connected to the land beside it by a stone bridge.
The sight only made Valorie shift in her seat and wring her hands together. It was an ominous place. Yet it was her new home. Perhaps forever.
As the carriage veered, turning toward the castle, she moved her head out of the window. The cold breeze whipped at her cheeks, making her squint as she looked out at MacIntyre Castle. The wind only added to her sense of forbidding.
This will be a difficult place to call home.
Two Months Later
Valorie moved the gray and white goose-feather duster toward the mantle of the fireplace, brushing away any sign of dust. Her eyes looked away from her task momentarily, turning to see the study she was working in.
It belonged to the Laird of MacIntyre, Peter Kohl.
The thought of him brought a small smile to her cheeks and the slightest of blushes. She turned her eyes back to the duster, trying to push the man away from her thoughts.
She had been working for the Laird for two months now as a maid, and this was her favorite room in the whole castle to clean. This was because it allowed her to indulge in her fascination with the man. Each part of the study revealed something about him and Valorie loved the chance to see it alone.
There was a bow and a case of arrows propped at the side of the room, on the desk sat a tower of books next to a battered old quill that needed replacing, and by the fire was a fur rug just for the Laird’s dog to sleep on. Each part of the room was a part of who he was.
Her mind often wandered to the Laird these days, apparently unable to go long without considering how attractive he was. She believed it to be her mind’s way of distracting herself from her past. She still woke at night with dreams of what the people used to say about her, of the death threats left for her, of the people spitting. Her attraction to the Laird, though an impossible thing, was a welcome distraction to such thoughts.
There were, however, two problems to her attraction. Firstly, he was a Laird and she was a maid. Secondly, she had never met anyone in her life who could drive her so mad by annoying her.
Thoughts of their bickering and past arguments made her grind her teeth in frustration as she turned her attention to dusting the leather-bound books on the desk.
When she had first arrived at the castle just after dawn, the Laird had been grouchy as he roused from his bed. It perhaps had not helped his look of surprise when he saw her face and arms. Though to his credit, he had recovered himself quickly, hiding the shock at the sight of her condition. Since that first day, the Laird had apparently made it his purpose to irritate her.
Despite the annoyance, Valorie had found herself grow even more captivated by the man, and almost infatuated at times. Far from being like any English man she had ever met, the Scottish Laird had more fire within him.
She moved the books around, trying to turn her mind away from its wanderings to her task. Yet it did not last long.
The door to the study opened with a creak. She jumped at the noise and dropped the duster. Every noise spooked her so these days, as though around each corner stood one of the people who threatened her life. She quickly collected the duster from the floor and scrambled up to see who had walked in, it was the very person she did not want to think about anymore.
Tall and broad with muscle, just a year older than her, the Laird was accustomed to battle, yet his appearance showed he was a gentleman as well as a soldier. Beneath the soft-brown hair that curled around his ears were sharp green eyes and a smattering of freckles that crossed his nose. His bearing was always formal, even cold at times. He was often so with other members of staff, but with Valorie he was hot-tempered and quick to bicker.
Valorie cursed her thoughts of admiration and raised her eyes from appraising the man to seeing his green eyes. They were narrowed on her with anger.
Well, there is no surprise there.
The sight of the new maid, Valorie, in his study made Peter’s feet fall still in the doorway. She was stood by his desk, dusting the books. She was so close to the drawer where he had hidden his secret. Fear of discovery leaped inside of him.
“Ye jumped to high heaven. It is just a door openin’.” He closed the door again for emphasis. He had seen this behavior in Valorie ever since she had arrived.
Something frightened her. Something that made her quiver at every surprising sound.
She turned away to continue dusting his room.
“What is it ye are so afraid of?”
“That is my business.” It was the same words as before; they had repeated them so many times. He was frustrated at caring so much for her fears, desperate to put distance between them again and remove her from his sight. She was too much of a temptation.
“What are ye doin’ in here?” he asked sharply, his thick Highland accent was always noticeable against her English lilt.
“Cleaning.” She jutted her chin high, clearly knowing her reply would annoy him.
“Isnae it Moira’s responsibility?” He walked forward, anxious to move her away from the desk and that drawer containing all the letters he had written to the Duke of Ment.
“She asked me to do it.” She continued to dust the books. The sight of her beautiful face made that familiar tightness in his stomach return. With brown eyes, almost bronze in color, she looked up at him, raising his anger again.
Nay. I am nae permitted to like her.
“Well, do it later,” he tried to wave her away with a hand, but she did not move. She merely quirked one of her dark eyebrows up at him.
“I cannot. Moira will be most upset if I do not complete my duty.”
“I am the Laird, if I say yer duty is done, it is done.” He had had enough. He moved round to her side of the desk, so as to get her to move far away from the drawer. Yet his presence did not make her budge.
“I would have thought you liked a clean study, my Laird. Would you prefer me to leave you in a mess?” she smirked, teasing him.
“I am nae afraid of such things.” He placed a hand on the desk in front of her. The sudden proximity between them made her look up at him with both dark eyebrows raised. “Move, Valorie.”
When she made no move, apparently too surprised by their closeness to do so, he had to take matters into his own hands. With those bronze eyes looking up at him, he was too tempted to touch her.
“Can ye nae hear? Please, move.” He placed his hand on her waist wrapped tight in her stays and moved her.
She jerked, startled by the touch, and it made him want to pull her firmly into his arms, but he resisted. He merely pushed her gently to the side and released her quickly.
“You should not touch me.” She tried to reset her balance.
“Ye shouldnae be in the way.”
As she stumbled back, still surprised, he opened the drawer, checking nothing had been disturbed. He closed it again with a sigh of relief and turned his eyes to her.
The letters were to the Duke of Ment, asking for permission to court the maid the Duke had organized to be delivered to his door two months ago. Valorie. The woman who stood before him. He had also begged in the letters to know the truth as to why she had been delivered to his door. The Duke of Ment had made it clear in his initial correspondence that she needed to escape something.
His friendship with the Duke had been a good one. Formed through trade and an alliance despite the troubles between Scotland and England. Knowing of the troubles, it had surprised Peter all the more that the Duke wished to send his maid so far into Scotland.
But what is she runnin’ from?
Whatever it was, it made her jump at any noise.
At the lack of a reply from the Duke, Peter knew he had to dissuade his captivation of her.
Yet it was difficult. He resolved instead to be cold toward her. It often ended in bickering between the two of them, though. He had never professed it was a good plan, merely the only option he could think of.
“You cannot stop me doing my job, my Laird. I will get in trouble.”
“Ye shouldnae be cleanin’ me study at this time anyway. It is me time to be here.”
“Forgive me, my Laird,” she affected a curtsy, but it was one of mockery, holding out her cheap petticoats as though it were a grand skirt. “I have not been given your schedule.”
He stood straight and folded his arms, still blocking the drawer.
“Have ye ever heard the sayin’ that maids should be like mice?” He raised his chin, trying to fight his eyes that had returned to admire her figure.
“Like mice?” She folded her own arms, dangling the duster in one hand to mimic his stance.
“Aye. Shouldnae be heard.”
“You are telling me I should not be arguing with you?” She betrayed the smallest of smiles, making him yearn for her more.
His gaze wandered over her dress. The maid’s stays were amber colored, emphasizing her slim waist. Her white petticoat was long, suggesting tall legs beneath, though she was still much shorter than him.
The warmth that spread in his chest at the sight of her made him shift uncomfortably.
“Aye.” He made his voice cold instead, determined not to reveal his true feelings. “I havenae had such a maid as ye before.”
“Well, I am not like any other maids.”
“Nay, ye are nae.” His eyes rested on her face. The softening of his tone made her to shift between her feet, clearly curious as to what his words had meant.
Daenae give way, Peter. He berated himself. Rile her, make her turn away again with those bronze eyes. Daenae lead yerself to temptation.
“If ye were like other maids me study would already be clean.”
“It would have been clean if you had given me but a minute more, my Laird.” She turned away from him with her duster and continued around the room, turning her attention to the bookshelves.
“What? Ye are nae goin’ to run from me now?”
“Run from you?” She did not even turn to look back at him.
“Ye often run away when I have been exceptionally rude.”
“So, you can recognize your rudeness?” She looked back at that moment with her quirked dark eyebrow.
He tilted his head to the side, narrowing his eyes at her wit. She had succeeded in their verbal sparring, delivering a firm blow.
He never meant the insults he gave her. It was just his defense, an attempt to stop his desire, yet he still enjoyed their sparring. She would come alive with the words, her cheeks spotted with those familiar flecks would turn pink, either blushing or angry at his remarks.
Aye, I cannae resist antagonizin’ her.
“Congratulations. Ye have won our match for today. Now, leave me be.” He gestured to the door; his voice was thickly laced with derision.
“I must finish the cleaning. Please allow me but one minute, my Laird, and I will be gone. Dust is not good for your health.”
“It is an order.” He turned his voice to a colder tone than he had ever used with her before.
It made her head flick toward him. She slowly walked to the other side of the desk, facing him with her duster clutched in her hands.
“If you were not a Laird, I would throw this duster at you and tell you to clean your room yourself.” The spirit with which she spoke and the light in her eyes made him want to round the table, take her in his arms and kiss her. Yet it would not stop there. He thought of all the things he had imagined in his dreams, of exploring her beyond her clothes, revealing the other marks on her skin.
It would be the best way to end their sparring, turning their passion for argument into a passion for each other instead.
Nay. It cannae happen.
He found himself rearranging his trews, making himself more comfortable after his body had changed at the carnal thoughts of her.
He shook away his desire. He imagined himself locking his longing for her in a tight box and burying it deep within his chest where it would not be so easy to access.
“Ye are crossin’ a line here, Valorie. Danae forget yer position.” He leaned on the desk, bringing his head closer toward her.
She shifted on her feet again, clearly very aware of the line she had crossed. She did not always act like a maid. It was part of why Peter liked her so much.
When she had no reply beyond staring at the floor in evident regret, he pointed to the door.
She did as he instructed, leaving him with a pit of guilt in his stomach that he had embarrassed her. He was well aware he had behaved with disrespect.
As the door closely softly behind her, he sat heavily into his desk chair and threw back his head, running his hands through his hair in exasperation.
“Ah, Valorie…” he murmured aloud, tormented by the temptation of her.
The Duke of Ment had not replied to his letters, worse still, his original letters had been sent back to him. So, he had to fight his longing. It would be improper to make an advance to the girl when she was under another aristocrat’s care. There was also the issue that the Duke might well refuse. He someday might request Valorie to be returned to his employment.
After all, who would accept a Laird marryin’ a maid?
When Valorie had arrived, Peter had found himself staring at her for a long while before he had managed any words. She was beautiful, her features bold and captivating with her dark hair and bronze eyes. The dappling of her skin had intrigued him. He knew some people whispered about her for it, but he did not care. He found shapes in each one of those marks.
There was one fleck by her left eye that was shaped almost like a star, there was another on her neck, long and willowy as a tree and on her right cheek was a mark that could have been a crescent moon.
She was captivating to look at.
There was also the mystery of her arrival. For the Duke of Ment to go to such trouble of placing a maid with a friend located so remotely in Scotland, whatever danger followed her must be a serious one. He flexed the muscles on his hands as he considered this, surprised at the desire to protect her.
He barely knew her. She had not been long in his employment. He reasoned with himself that he would be concerned for the safety of any of his staff, though he knew it went deeper. He did not have such lustful dreams about anyone else on his staff.
As he argued with himself in the fire and candlelight, there was a firm knock at the door. Peter turned his gaze to the door, hoping it was Valorie returning to continue their argument.
He wanted to continue it. He wanted to push their argument as far as it could go until she would reveal the mystery behind her and tell him why she had been delivered to his door. Otherwise, he would go mad at imagining the dark depths of that mystery.
Peter smiled as Moira hurried in, clutching a glass decanter of whisky in her hand and a cup. She held it aloft with a triumphant smile for him to see.
“Ah, Moira. Ye are me savior.” He chuckled as she walked in with a smile and placed her offerings on the desk in front of him. Second to Valorie, Moira was his favorite person in the castle. He had a lot of staff that saw to the upkeep of the castle, but Moira was the most capable and the kindest. “What would I do without ye?”
“Probably nae drink as much whisky.” She laughed at herself.
Peter knew it was always her resolution to any problem: another glass of whisky. Even if you were suffering from a little too much alcohol and carried a headache the next day, she would offer whisky, certain it would cure the pain.
As head servant for many years, Moira had seen Peter grow up. She was almost a second mother to him, and he loved her dearly for it, so no formality remained between them when they were alone. Their relationship had become even closer especially after the death of his mother.
“I heard the two of ye arguin’. Ye do give that lass a hard time,” Moira tutted, shaking her head in jovial disapproval.
“Have ye come to tell me off?”
“I have been tellin’ ye off, me Laird, since ye were a bairn. Ye would always drag in mud from the outside, messin’ up me clean hallways.”
“Well, at least I daenae do that anymore.”
“Ye did it just yesterday.”
“Well, nae as much. I went ridin’.”
“I tell ye off for different reasons these days.” She sat in a chair near the fire, her plump body fitted perfectly into it and she relaxed back, at ease in Peter’s company.
It made Peter smile and urged him to join her at the seat beside her.
“Oh, I worry for ye, me Laird.”
“Worry for me, Moira?” He scoffed with a jest. “I am all better now, as ye can see.” He swirled the whisky in his glass. “It is a medicine for all ailments.”
“Includin’ heart ache?” she teased with her eyes sparkling. “It cannae heal a broken heart.”
“Well,” he winced in reply, “it relieves it a bit.”
With the two of them being so close, Moira was the only person who had spotted the way Peter looked at Valorie. She had seen how his eyes watched Valorie and the way his demeanor altered completely in her presence. When Moira had challenged him on it, he had relented and poured his thoughts out to the woman.
Beyond just attraction, he was genuinely fond of Valorie. He was worried about her too. He was not the kind of Laird to take a mistress and he would never wish that on Valorie.
Nay. What I want from her runs deeper than that.
Filled with so much kindness, Moira had seen no obstacle in their class difference and had encouraged Peter to write to the Duke of Ment.
“I still think ye should tell her, me Laird.”
“Ye ken I cannae.” Peter sipped his whisky again, enjoying the familiar burn. “I am quite sure she doesnae like me.”
“How can she nae like ye?” Moira’s voice rose in outrage, she waved at the air as if she could brush away the suggestion entirely. “Ye are a kind man and a great Laird. I have seen it.”
“Ye are biased, but thank ye for it. I can see quite easily why she wouldnae like me.” He shrugged in reply, thinking on his behavior these last two months. “I am repeatedly rude to her, cold, and bad tempered. The problem is I daenae ken how to act when I am around her.”
“Well, I willnae give up hope for ye yet, me Laird.” Moira sat back, resting her plump hands on the arms of the chair. “She is a lovely lass and I think the two of ye suit each other well. I havenae seen two people enjoy arguin’ the way you two do either.”
“I cannae deny it is entertainin’.”
“Do ye ken what I think ye should do?” Moira’s voice was warm and gentle. It made Peter look at her, keen for her advice, just as he always was. “Ye should apologize.”
“Apologize? She will probably accuse me of havin’ an ulterior motive.”
“Nay, me Laird. She has more sense than that. She’s a clever lass.”
“She’s stubborn.” Peter regretted the words as soon as he had said them. “I daenae mean that as an insult.”
“It is nae matter. Ye are stubborn too. So ye match well.” Moira shrugged. “Listen, me Laird. An apology is a surefire way to soften any lass’ heart. Think on it.” She patted his arm, offering gentle comfort.
Peter looked down at his whisky, ignoring the knot in his stomach as he stared at the golden liquid swirling in his glass.
He debated her words for a long time, imagining what it might be like to see Valorie’s heart soften toward him. His mind turned to the reason why she had arrived at MacIntyre Castle, longing to know the secrets there.
What mystery are ye hidin’, Valorie?
Valorie had been unable to sleep. She had tossed and turned for hours before she abandoned the endeavor entirely and climbed out of the bed.
Her mind had been whirring with thoughts since she had left the Laird in his study. The way in which he had insisted on standing by the desk and how he had checked through the drawer suggested he had not wanted her to see what lay inside.
Valorie’s curiosity was getting the better of her. Her imagination ran mad with possibilities and wild secrets he may have been keeping. In the end, she knew she would not find sleep without satisfying her curiosity.
She was afraid of what was in that drawer. Scared that her past had followed her to MacIntyre Castle after all.
Replacing her nightdress with shift, stays, petticoats and cattle-hide shoes, she hurried from the room, carrying a single candle with her to light her path.
She kept glancing over her shoulder down the dark corridor, fearful someone would see her awake in the dead of the night, but no one found her. She passed quietly through the long castle hallways and down two sets of spiral staircases before she reached the room.
I have to know what he is hiding.
She knew it was absurd, but she was terrified. At her last home she had been so detested and received such foul death threats that she was still stunned no one treated her so at MacIntyre Castle.
She feared there could be something locked in the Laird’s drawer concerning her vitiligo. Perhaps there were more death threats on her life.
I have to know. Perhaps my troubles have followed me here after all.
Her body trembled with fear, yet she felt her spine grow taller with determination.
No. I cannot let my secrets follow me forever. I have to escape them.
She checked the corridor one last time, empty but for the shadows caused by her one orange candle, then slipped through the door of the study.
It was dark inside. The large space was cavernous with the candle barely able to offer much light in such a room. She moved quickly to the study desk, placing the candle carefully on the surface and opened the drawer with haste.
Inside was a bundle of parchments, swirled with black writing. She lifted the papers swiftly from their hiding place and held them up to the golden candlelight.
She realized they were letters from the Laird to the Duke of Ment, the master of her last household.
To George Nicholson, the Duke of Ment.
As me last letter was returned to me unanswered, I must write to ye again.
I wish to court Valorie, the maid ye delivered to me care. Yer lack of a response leaves me to conclude ye have no likin’ for my proposition. I hope I can put yer mind at rest.
I am well aware of our difference in class and that many would talk of such an alliance, but I cannae help how I feel. Rest assured, Your Grace, that what I feel for her is no passin’ fancy, but love. From the moment I first saw her I believe a part of me loved her and every day since I find meself more bewitched by her.
I tell ye this because I wish to convince ye of my sincerity and me honor in me pursuit of her. Without yer permission, I wouldnae dare to approach her on the subject.
I can only hope ye believe me in me earnestness, and I will endeavor to continue to write to ye until I receive a reply.
Yer good friend,
Peter Kohl, Laird of MacIntyre
Valorie re-read the letter, stunned by its contents and baffled.
Her breathing grew fast and heavy as she sifted through all the letters. Each one was addressed to the Duke of Ment and each one begged His Grace to allow the Laird to court her.
He loves me? How can it be so?
She repeated these words over and over again as she re-read the first letter. Her mind was blurred by thoughts, questioning how the Laird could fall for a simple maid like herself. How he could consider her so seriously, enough to even contemplate marriage and to ask permission to court her.
The other letters betrayed another wish of the Laird, her eyes hastily read these lines.
…Why did ye deliver her to me care?...
…She carries a secret. Perhaps more than one. Pray tell me what they are so that I can keep her safe…
…She has darkness on her shoulders and in her eyes. Tell me what it is that she is runnin’ from…
He was desperate to know her secret, to understand why she jumped at every loud noise in the castle.
Each one of their arguments revisited her and she suddenly saw the Laird’s temper in a new light.
He was trying to put distance between us.
She smiled, laughing slightly as she read each one, thrilled that her fascination with the man was not as one-sided as she had always presumed.
She was too consumed in the letters, too absorbed by the Laird’s soft words to pay attention to the footsteps outside of the room, nearing the study.
It was only when the door opened that she looked up, clutching the letters in her hands with fear.
It was the Laird.
He was stood in the doorway with a candle in his grasp lighting his features, revealing the shock and wide eyes of his handsome face.
He was partially undressed, gone was his coat and his waistcoat hung open, revealing his shirt and a glimpse of toned chest beneath.
Valorie tore her gaze away from his clothes to his eyes once again. The man had frozen in surprise.
“What are ye doin’ in here?” His voice was cold.
She was unable to reply, she looked down at the letters in her hand, unable to remove the smile from her cheeks.
He loves me.
“Valorie, is that–” his words trailed off as he noticed the parchments in her hands.
She looked up at him again, still smiling, though he did not return it. There was anger in his features, the green eyes were narrowed on her.
“How dare ye go through me private things?” He jumped forward, dropping the candle to the table and making her jump.
He rounded the desk, as though preparing to take the letters from her, but she ran the other way. His behavior only made her smile more.
“As a maid, ye think ye have a right to look through me things, do ye?” He continued to follow her around the table until they reached their original positions again. They both froze, hesitating on which way to go. Like a hunter, he was poised to catch her whichever way she went.
“Have ye forgotten how to speak?”
“No,” she laughed. She could not help it. She covered her mouth, trying her best to muffle the sound as the Laird stared at her. His body jerked at the laughter. “It is just…I do not know what to say.”
“Well I have many ideas of what to say to ye.” He dived to the side again, starting another mad dash around the desk. She ran the other way, still giggling and holding the papers to her chest.
“Wait, my Laird! I have thought of something to say,” she called – her words caused them to stop again, this time he was by the drawer and she was stood on the other side.
“I hope it is a huge apology, along with an extraordinary reason as to why ye would search yer superior’s private correspondence.” He leaned over the desk, placing his hands on the table.
“It is not.” Her teasing words made him jump into action again, but this time she was too slow.
He caught up with her easily and spun her back to face him, one of his hands was on her elbow, the other was trying to take the letters from her grasp.
“Give them back, Valorie. This is private, ye had nay right to creep into me study at night and go lookin’ through me things.”
“I think it is a very good thing that I did.” She smiled, pulling on the other side of the parchment, and refusing to let them go.
“Why are ye smilin’ so?”
“Because here in this room right now, my Laird, you are not the only one who is torn between frustration and infatuation.”
Peter blinked, certain he had misheard her.
“That…is nae possible.” He shook his head. Both of their grasps on the letters was still taut, neither one of them were willing to give them up to the other. His hand on her elbow had softened though.
“It is,” she nodded and her bronze eyes darted between his.
The idea she could return even an ounce of what he felt for her was unfathomable. He felt the sweat build on his neck, suddenly clammy.
“It is nae.” He shook his head, trying to tear his gaze away from her beautiful bold features, yet they would not do as he willed them.
There was so little space between them. He could close it if he wanted to. Her chest was rising and falling, drawing his eyes to the curves of her body.
It woke him into a new thought.
Nay. She cannae like me. She has read the letters and is tryin’ to let me down softly. She will have read the letters where I asked to ken her secret too.
He pulled sharply on the letters and they came away from her grasp. He released her and rushed away to the other side of the desk, leaving her standing there, wobbling on her feet with surprise at the movement.
“Daenae lie to me, Valorie. Ye have caused enough damage for one night by pryin’ into me private affairs.” He flattened the letters in his hands that had become crumpled in their tussle. “Leave, now.”
“You cannot really expect me to go now?” she shook her head, in clear bafflement.
He looked at her, amazed she was keeping up the façade.
“I gave ye an order.”
“But you truly do not want me to go, any more than I want to leave.” She raised her voice. She had stepped far beyond the line of respect that a maid should show to their superior, yet Peter did not care.
His chest ached. He was longing to hold her, to believe her, yet he thought it was impossible.
“I gave ye an order, Valorie.”
“That is all you can say?” She followed him round to his side of the desk, but he did not give away any ground. He returned the letters to the desk in a hurry, closing the drawer just in time as she arrived in front of him. “I know what I read.”
“I am surprised ye can read at all. Yer last household taught ye to read?” It was another clue to her history, to the secrets she kept, and he grasped onto this new information with intrigue.
“Well, yes.” Valorie looked up at him, the marks on her cheeks were crinkled slightly with the fervor in which she spoke. “If you really care for me so, is that all you can say in reply to my own declaration? That you want me to leave the room?”
“What ye read…” Peter tried to think of a way out of his situation, but he was struggling, “it means nothing!”
“Nothing?” she scoffed. “Then let’s have another look, shall we?” She went to open the drawer, but he held it firmly closed with his hand. She strained against it, but it was of little use.
“Nay. Ye have done enough pryin’ today.”
He turned and pulled her hand away from the drawer. With one easy movement, he took her waist in his hands, he lifted her from the ground, making her gasp, then planted her on the desk.
It brought her to his head height.
He had removed his hands as quickly as he had touched her, but now he longed to be holding her again.
“Why do you not believe me?” Valorie asked with passion, trying to catch his gaze as he looked away.
He ran his hands through his brown curly hair, pulling them at the roots in stress.
“Because it is nae possible!” He threw his hands down at his side again with the words. “I have been rude and foul these last two months.”
“I still like you,” she smiled slightly. “Even though I think you are hot tempered, cold, grumpy at times–”
He cut off her words with a hand to her lips. It was gentle, yet it surprised her enough to stop speaking.
“This is nae possible.”
He turned his hand away from her lips to her chin.
“Well, it is, so you can just –”
Before she could say anymore, Peter used the hand on her chin to direct her lips to his.
She was startled and fell completely still for a second. Then she responded, kissing him back with just as much fierce passion.
He wound one hand behind her head and into her dark hair, using it to tilt her face and allow him to deepen the kiss by parting her lips. The other hand he braced on the desk beside her.
He had given into temptation, but he would not let himself go so far as to touch her more than this.
She is kissing me back.
Valorie had been surprised by the kiss, but now she did not want it to end. She kissed him back with the same ardor, astonished when their tongues danced together.
As sharply as it had started, it was over. He pulled his head back, leaving her to moan slightly as he leaned away.
It was her first kiss and it left her dizzy.
“My Laird, I…” She did not know what she was trying to say. She bit her lip instead, keeping her eyes on his face.
He was breathing heavily, and his freckles were flushed from their kiss.
“Ye are tellin’ the truth?” he whispered after a moment, their lips still inches apart. He had both hands on the desk, on either side of her now.
Seeing it as an opportunity, she dropped her hands to his and laced their fingers together.
“I am.” She gave him another quick kiss. It was chaste, barely a brush of lips before she leaned back again. When she pulled away, she felt a rush of air leave her with relief as he smiled. “Now do you see why I was smiling so much?”
He let out a single laugh in reply and turned his head away, clearly running through his thoughts. His hands enveloped her fingers, holding them tightly together.
“Valorie,” he turned his eyes back to her, the lids narrowed again, making her fingers tighten in alarm.
“What is it ye are runnin’ from?” His deep words made her attempt to pull her hands free of his grasp, but he would not let her. “Nay, ye daenae. I am nae lettin’ ye go now. What are ye runnin’ from?”
“I cannot tell you.” She closed her eyes, determined to keep her secret, despite the temptation to tell him everything, even more than the death threats.
“Ye just shared a pretty intimate kiss with me, and yet ye cannae tell me yer secret?”
“Exactly,” she nodded with a jest and the smallest of smiles, he shook his head, clearly baffled by her reaction.
“Ye will tell me.”
“I will not.” She swallowed past the lump in her throat, ignoring her fear. At the mention of her secret, she had wanted to run from him, to escape, but they had already crossed a line meaning they could not go back to how they were.
“Valorie, tell me. I ken ye carry somethin’ dark with ye.”
“It is my secret to keep, but…” When he made a move to interrupt her, she stopped him with the softest of kisses, merely brushing her lips against his. “Let us leave that as it is a secret I will one day tell you. I will say no more on the subject now.”
She had no intention of telling him anything, but it seemed a good way to change the topic and it worked. His lips were curving up into a smile after their kiss.
“I can scarcely see how this is possible. I cannae believe I am kissin’ ye,” he whispered, turning to look away from her again.
“Yet it is happening.” She returned the squeeze of his hands, amazed at how close she felt to him.
All of their previous arguments, all of their bickering had vanished, leaving them in this quiet, intense moment.
“Well, tomorrow…” He looked back to her with a full smile. “I guess I should officially start courtin’ ye.”
“Courting?” Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, she tried to remove her hands from his grasp, but he would not let her. “I am a maid. You are a Laird!”
“I daenae care.”
“What of your letters to the Duke of Ment? Has he replied?”
“Nay, but I shall write a new one. Now I ken it is nae merely meself goin’ mad with affection, I daenae think I will be able to stay away from ye, even without his reply. And I will ask him again to tell me why he delivered ye to me door.”
“You will do no such thing!”
“Is a maid presumin’ to give a Laird an order?” He tilted his head in a challenge.
“When a Laird intends to go behind my back to uncover my secrets then yes I do.”
“Then ye best tell me yerself.”
She laughed as her eyes lingered on his handsome face, admiring the freckles that brushed his nose and cheeks.
“Ye should return to yer chamber, lass.”
“Why? I –”
“I daenae want anyone to discover me awake after hours in the company of me maid before I officially start courtin’ ye. Think what the staff would say.”
“They do like gossip.”
“They love it.” He moved his lips to hers again. It was just as chaste as their last one, but it lasted a little longer this time.
She ached to deepen it, yet she resisted.
As their lips parted, his hands returned to her waist and lifted her off the desk. This time his touch lingered on her as he placed her on the floor.
“Until tomorrow? And daenae go lookin’ through me things again, ye mystery.”
She nodded in reply. She was about to turn away when he stole yet another kiss. Eventually he pulled away with a groan.
“Ah – leave, chiridhe. Ye are too much of a temptation.”
“Chiridhe? What does that mean?”
“Ye have discovered enough of me secrets for one night, despite the fact ye keep yer own secret locked tight. Go.”
She turned away, reluctantly parting from his arms and hurrying to the door. She hesitated in the doorway, leaving him with one last smile before she left, rushing to bed in the hope of having sweet dreams of the Laird that would push away the nightmares that still taunted her.
“Moira, there is somethin’ I need to tell ye.” Peter sat at the table of his dining parlor as Moira served his breakfast. With an array of smoked fish, haggis and bread, he was spoiled for his choice of food, but his stomach was too knotted with excitement to eat too much.
“If it is the fact ye dragged in more mud this mornin’ with yer early mornin’ ride, I ken, me Laird.” She waved a finger at him with a smile. “I’ve already set two lads on to clear up the muck.”
“Thank ye, but that is nae what I was goin’ to tell ye.” At his happy countenance and wide smile, Moira paused in her activities with the plates and turned her eyes on him.
“Somethin’ has tickled ye, pray tell, Laird. I like to see ye have a reason to smile.”
“Well, someone has made me smile.” The Laird poured his drink as Moira clasped her hands to her face.
“Daenae tell me, let me guess. Ye told the lass!”
“Actually, she discovered it.”
“How did she do that?”
“It is hard to explain. Ye should ken, Moira, that Valorie is nae afraid to pry into other people’s affairs.”
“Oh, I ken that already,” she waved the idea away. “She’s a bold lass. I like her for it. What did she say?”
He did not reply, his smile just grew wider, making Moira let out a yelp of delight.
“Oh, that is fine news, me Laird. What did she say?”
“Ye can ask her that, if ye wish to. I willnae reveal her words.” He shook his head, knowing Moira kept all his secrets, but it was a moment he wished to keep to himself for yet a little longer. “Now, there is a matter of the staff we need to discuss.”
“Aye. Sit, Moira, please. Have some fish. Nay other servants will see ye here to transgress.” He urged her to sit beside him and she did without fuss, picking at some of the food.
“Ye are very kind, Laird.”
“Now. As I was sayin’, today ye will have to make an announcement to the staff. I wish ye to tell them that I will now be courtin’ Valorie.”
Moira served more food onto Peter’s plate. It was her habit, always trying to feed him.
“Ye ken they will talk behind closed doors. A Laird courtin’ a maid and one who…well, ye ken.” She pointed to her face, referring to Valorie’s skin condition. “There is also the mystery of her past. So many of the scullery maids and cooks like to natter about her already, they make up such stories, creatin’ wild fantasies of what secrets she keeps.”
“I ken. Now, they will talk a lot more.” Peter nodded, moving some of the food Moira had put on his own plate to hers in a game. She laughed and tossed it back.
“I am yer servant, me Laird. I cannae eat all yer food!”
“It is hardly all of it.” Peter shook his head, though he relented. “I expect the staff will talk, but in time, if all goes well, they will stop, even with the mystery of her past. Today when ye make the announcement I will take Valorie for a walk. I daenae wish her to be there when they start prattlin’.”
“A very sensible idea.” Moira nodded firmly. “I do worry about that lass, me Laird.”
“Worry about her? Whatever for?” Peter watched Moira closely, made curious by her words.
“Well, I ken ye said the Duke of Ment asked her to come here to escape somethin’. And ye still daenae ken what?”
“I have watched the lass. Any time there is a loud noise she jumps and flutters like a spooked bird. The cook dropped his pan just yesterday and she practically leaped onto the ceilin’!”
“She is scared of somethin’.”
“I wouldnae presume to say that, Laird, but it does make me wonder about her.”
Peter pondered this thought as Moira left him, returning to her duties.
Why did the Duke send her here in the first place?
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