About the book
Love's other name is revenge...
Knowing she was adopted, Freya Crushom never thought that she would be the daughter of a Laird until a kind Highlander reveals her true birthright. With her whole life upside down, her heart tears between him and her duty to her new family.
For Evan Saunderson, Laird of Ruthven, an arranged marriage is the only solution to his clan’s threat of war. But his plans change, when he finds his betrothed’s identical twin staring down at him in the woods, bewitching him with her eyes.
The only thing that seems to disrupt their false sense of tranquility is Freya's sister missing. But that is only a deadly scheme by someone who seems to have forgiven but never forgetten...and Evan is the only person able to unveil it.
21 Years Ago
The healers tugged at him, forcing Aidan Milleson, Laird of Lobhdain, out of the birthing room where his wife, Grace, was crying out in pain—but he was not going to leave. He felt hamstrung, wanting to help but knowing there was nothing he could do. Grace’s hold was excruciatingly tight on his hand, and her lovely blue eyes were rife with fear.
“Me Laird,” a midwife urged. “Tis nay the place for ye.”
“The hell it isnae,” the Laird roared, “me wife is in pain.”
The woman was adamant, and Aidan memorized her face, to have a long talk with her after. “I ken, Me Laird, but there will be blood and—”
“I daenae care,” he snapped, firming his grip on his wife’s trembling hand. “I’m nae leavin’ unless God himself drags me out. It’s the middle of the bloody night for Heaven’s sake. I’m nay movin’.”
Grace had begun to feel the pain of childbirth not soon after they had retired to bed, somewhere near the ninth hour, and now, somewhere toward dawn, she was still travailing. Aidan felt the hours passing by.
“Mayhap…” Grace panted, “mayhap ye should, love. These women will care for me, and I’m…” she grimaced and bit her lip as pain lanced over her face, “goin’ to get through this.”
His face contorted with displeasure as it was not only the midwives pressuring him to leave. Now it was his love. “But I daenae—”
Grace arched so tightly she nearly doubled on the birthing bed, and the metallic smell of blood turned his stomach upside down. Swallowing thickly, he dropped a kiss on her forehead and left the room, feeling that his place was still back in with his wife.
The moment he stepped out of the room, a piercing cry had him spinning on his heel and rushing back inside, they barred him from entering. It was pure torture hearing his wife in pain, and there was nothing he could do. He had vowed to protect his beloved from anything that would harm her but now…he rubbed his face hard.
All along when she had started increasing, he had felt his love for her doubled every day. Waking up with his hand resting on her belly had been his delight, and nothing she did, her strange cravings or hurling in the morning, had turned him away. Now, his happiness was changing to dread.
What if she doesnae make it through this?
He began to pace, trying hard to not let the noises from the inside trip his heart into a panic. It was an instinct honed into him from childhood to rush to any woman’s help when she was in peril.
I am the one to put her in this peril, now.
His feet paced so hard there was a miracle he had not left a deep furrow on the stone floor. He vowed never to put his wife through this again, as he could not bear hearing her in so much agony. Was this how long childbirth took? He did not know if he could manage any more of this crippling worry that cramped his stomach when he heard her cry out. Grace’s long plaintive cry had had his heart about to leap out from his chest. He hated himself to his very core for her pain.
“Never again,” he swore while resting a hand on the cold walls. “Never again, me Love.”
Then, he heard nothing coming from the room, and his heart leaped in fright. Why was he not hearing anything from Grace? Had she made it through? His heart cramped at the thought that he might go back inside to see his wife, graying and cooling on the bed—dead. Not caring that he was banned, Aidan rushed inside, franticly praying his heart to find his wife alive. His eyes found her, laying on the bed—and heaving.
“Oh, thank God,” he exclaimed, leaping to her side and taking her hand. “Look at me, Love, please.”
Her eyes blinked open, and he saw pure exhaustion dimming her once bright blue orbs, “Twas…” she swallowed. “T’was two bairns, Aidan. I had twin lasses.”
A shaky smile tugged at his lips. He had prepared for one bairn, not two, and secretly, he had hoped it would be a boy-child, but he was not going to complain. His wife had gone through hours of pure anguish, but had come out alive. He could manage two girls.
“I’m happy, love,” he said, grasping her hand and lifting it to his lips. “I’m so happy ye’re all right now. We’ll do the best for these lasses, I swear it.”
A shuffle behind him had him twisting to see a midwife carrying a squirming, crying bundle, wrapped up in swaddling clothes, to them, and he frowned. Hadn’t his wife just said she had birthed twins? Where was the other? Worry that something had gone wrong, that the bairn had passed away or had come out a stillbirth, leaped into his chest even before the look on the woman’s face confirmed it.
“I’m sorry, Me Lady,” the midwife said while resting the bairn on his wife’s breast, “The other one did not take a breath.”
His eyes clenched tight as Grace gasped out a bereaved cry. He swallowed over his sorrow and leaned in to snake an arm under his wife’s shoulder and hug her to his chest.
“She’s with God now, Love,” he kissed her lightly freckled cheek. “But, He let us have the other.” Tucking a finger into the swaddling cloth, he peered down as his daughter, whose face was scrunched uptight. “We’ll call her Elspeth, aye?”
Tears lingered at Grace’s eyes, “Aye, as she was chosen by God to stay with us.”
Dropping a kiss on his bairn’s soft cheek, he smiled through his pain, as he looked over her, committing her infant face into memory, “And she’ll never want for anythin’.”
Twenty-One Years later
The din in the castle’s Great Hall had Evan Saunderson, the Laird of Ruthven, ears ringing. His people were getting scared, and rightly so. The Jacobite forces were rising, and soon would come in these lands. They had already taken Glenfinnan, Aberdeen, Perth, and were now nested a hop and skip away from Moray, their home. The forces, though stationed for the time being, were coming closer, like a river carving its way through the rock.
The Ruthven Clan, a territory of proud Protestants, seated in Moray, was not as tightly knit as other clans, as their people were spread out on plains, all the way to Loch Fionn Èireann. There was no walled central village, and for them to send guards to every village would not be possible. But then, to lose their people without even trying would hurt them even more.
“People,” he called. “Please, I ken it’s a very troublin’ time but try to keep yer calm. The Jacobites have camped and arnae movin’.”
“Yet,” someone called out fearfully. “Every place they’ve gone through, they have razed to the ground. What to say we arenae next?”
“Aye,” another shouted. “We fisherfolk are terrified to leave our huts when we see the smoke risin’ from their camp.”
“I hear the blasted Marquess Murray is a part of them,” a man sneered. “After his two defeats, he should have learned by now. A bloody disgrace to our land, he is.”
Evan was tired, and as he cast a look to his mother, Annys Saunderson, seated on her throne-like chair, he knew she had to be tired also. Despite the fact that he was the Laird and held control over the territory, she made sure to have a say in all that went on as well. Evan knew that she did it to honor his father’s memory, even now, twenty years after his death.
His mother had held up bravely, but he could see the deepening lines at the sides of her eyes and her cheeks that grew gaunter every day. But no matter how he asked her—pleaded with her—to leave the Lairdship to him, she just shook her head and told him that it was not a problem to her and she could handle it.
They had convened this meeting after dawn, and now it was nearly dusk. When tensions grew high, he had called for a meal to be set before all of them, knowing hunger and anger went hand in hand.
It was time to end this, so he stood and even descended from the dais to prove his point, “I assure ye all, I will use every power I have at me disposal to make sure ye are all safe. I have sent spies to where the Jacobites are stationed, and they will send me a message if they learn that they will be movin’ inward.”
He paused to take a broad, sweeping look around the room, “I have also found a few hundred acres of land far inside the woodlands, that, at worst, ye will be moved there where the soldiers will guard ye. But the army hasnae moved yet, and I ask ye to pray that they daenae. I must ask ye to be ready to move if we call, have a pack of yer essentials ready if ye are to run. But by God’s grace, I pray we won’t have to.”
He dropped his tone deep enough that they all knew this meeting was at an end, and he gestured for the guards to usher the people out. When the hall was empty, he took a moment to rub at the small throbbing at his temples and then stood.
“Come, Maither, let’s get ye rested,” he said while extending his arm to her.
It did not pass his notice of how she grimaced when getting to her feet and how hard her grip was on his arm. He had to speak to her again about leaving all the Lairdship duties to him. He knew she wasn’t going to take retirement well, but she had done her best all the past years; it was time for him to relieve her. Accompanying her up the steps was another sign that she had to step back from these long days, as she had to stop and massage her left knee every two or three steps.
Entering her room, he had barely opened his mouth when she sighed, “I ken, Evan, I ken.”
He gently rested his hand on hers, and spoke. “We both ken that this is too taskin’ for ye. I want ye to fully leave the matter of the Lairdship to me, once and for all. Please, Maither.”
Her lips thinned, and a deliberating settled on her face, “I will, but ye need to marry first. It’s a bit overdue, daenae ye ken?”
She was right, it was the time for him to marry, but she had been right there when he had courted multiple women, and none of them had met the mark he had needed. And now the war was on their heels, and he needed to make a strong alliance with another Clan if they had any hope of surviving.
“I ken,” he replied, solemnly, as he glanced out the nearby window, “I believe I’ve been looking too close to home for the Lady I needed.” He paused. “I am told that Laird Lobhdain has a daughter that is canny and beautiful, which are the qualities a Lady of a Clan needs. He has the armed forces that might help us with this war if it comes to our doors.”
“It would be a marriage of convenience,” his mother replied, slightly shocked, “Ye believe in love, Son, I ken ye do as that was the example yer Faither and I showed ye.”
“At this point,” Evan shrugged, “I’ll take the most sensible option for me people, me happiness can wait.”
A shake of her head told him about her reaction to his dismal outlook, “Evan, that is a hard sacrifice for ye to take. I believe that there must be a lady out there with a family that has the resources ye need but also the soul ye will love. I refuse to believe it will be one or the other.”
“If that’s the case, I’ll take it, but if nay…” he gave her a tight smile. “Faither always said a leader must be able to sacrifice himself for the good of his people. I tend to follow his advice, Maither.”
She still did not look comforted, “Evan, please. I dinnae ken that this is the right way for ye.”
He kissed her cheek, “I’ll send a message to Laird Lobhdain on the morrow. If I find any favor with God, she’ll be the woman I’ll love from the outset, nay grow to love.”
“And if she isnae?” his mother asked.
Evan let the question linger in the air while he shrugged, May God have mercy on me soul.
Later that night, Evan braced his palms on the cold brick of his room terrace’s balustrade. It was dark, but the smoke that rose from the Jacobite’s camp miles away was still ink-black against a gray sky. He knew the stories, testimonies, and rumors of how vicious the Stuart supporters were when they went through a town and slaughtered all that moved.
“They’ve taken Aberdeen and Dundee, places with strong resistance…what will they do to me?” he wondered out loud. War was nearly on their doorstep, and Evan woke up every morning with the fear that a messenger would come from the capital, demanding him to send young men to fight.
Thinking of it, he grimaced; young men torn away from their wives and boys ripped apart from their mothers, breaking loving bonds and fracturing his people down the middle. Rubbing his tired eyes, he then rethought his commitment to sacrifice his chance at love for the safety of his people.
After mulling over it for a moment, his spine firmed. He would sacrifice his happiness for those who had no other option but to rely on him. His father had told him countless stories of kings and royal men who put their satisfaction before others.
His father had been cut from a different cloth, deeming his people more important than he was. He would be disgracing his father’s legacy if he did not do the same. After speaking with his mother, he had sent off a letter to Laird Lobhdain, and his strident hope was that the reply would be a good one.
Why wouldn’t they take it? The lass would have a good home, she would be taken care of, and their Clans would have a sound alliance. He couldn’t promise he’d love the lass as he’d dreamed of loving a woman, but for all the rest the assurances were sure. Again, what could stop them from taking the marriage? War might end upon them as well, and they would be very foolish to disregard an alliance that could help them.
It’s all up to ye, Laird Lobhdain. Would ye go about this war alone where many might die or take me offer and have someone to stand by ye?
Crickets chirped in the dimming evening, and a bullfrog bellowed near the stream. Freya’s legs were up to her chin while her hand dipped into the stream, twirling the water that shot her wobbly reflection at her.
It was an image she had seen hundred times; dark-auburn hair pulled away into a messy bun at the back of her neck, and her dark green eyes were almost hidden in the splatter of freckles across her nose.
Do me birth parents look like me?
In this quiet, the few hours she had to herself, she dreamed; dreamed away from the farm-fields, the thick forest, and the village that her home was on the fringes of. The mountains that shielded them from the horrible snow and rain the other villages got, loomed above her high and majestic.
Sitting at the stream that flowed just a stone’s throw from her parent’s modest cottage, Freya allowed herself to wonder. It was the same issue that had plagued her from the day her parents, Balthair and Caitlin Crushom, had told her the truth about who she was, or, rather, who she wasn’t. She was not their birth child.
Her mother had said to her that it was a babe’s cry that had woken her up a summer morning, two decades ago. She was there, on their doorstep, in a basket. Her parents hadn’t known who she was, where she had come from or who had carried her there, but they had taken her as theirs anyway.
As Freya grew, her mother had told Freya that, she, Caitlin was barren, and that her appearance in their lives was a gift from God. She loved her parents, with all her heart, but she kept wondering who her birth parents were and why they had sent her away.
The more Freya wondered, the more she battled with two opposite emotions. When she was optimistic, she felt they had sent her away because they were dying or were not able to raise her as there were too many children in the home, and so they sent her away for a better life.
When Freya felt negative, she thought that they had sent her away because she was not a son, and a lot of families prized sons more than daughters. But then, the one she hated the worst was that, she had been born too ugly. Perhaps to some beautiful people who saw her face and deemed her unfit. That one sank to her core.
Is that it? Is that why they sent me away?
No one in the village treated her differently, but she heard things. When some of the merchants took their produce to the cities, they came back with stories of what the rich women wore, how they acted, and, more importantly, how they looked. They all had skin like alabaster and hair that looked like silk. And they were all married.
Had her parents come from the city? Were they beautiful people? Was that why they had sent her away? Or were they poor and had sent her away to get a better life?
She twisted to look at the cottage on the hill behind her and smiled. Her life was not bad at all; her parents loved her, and she had no reason to be feeling this way, but the uncertainty that came from not knowing what had caused them to send her away was still sticking in her mind. And the older she grew, the worst it got.
“Freya,” her mother called from the backdoor. “Freya, come here.”
Swatting a buzzing insect away from her face, she darted up and ran to the lady who was wiping her hands on her apron, “Aye, Maither?”
Caitlin gestured to a basket of washed turnips on the tiny kitchen table, “Peel those for me, Dear. I want to have dinner ready afore yer Faither comes home.”
Obediently, Freya went to grab the knife and began peeling while her mother put a pot on the fire-prongs to boil. Beside it, was an iron bread pan that, from the scent coming from it, had bread baking inside it. “What were ye out there kennin’ about?”
Though the subject of her birth parents was not an issue, she would rather not speak about it. “Old Missus Beathag asked me to pick some herbs for her on the morrow, I agreed, but I forgot to ask her which ones.”
Her mother clucked her tongue, “Always so absent-minded.”
Freya only smiled and went on peeling. Somewhere between peeling the turnips and dicing them, they began to sing an old song about a beggar man. “The pawky auld carle cam ower the lee, Wi' monie gude-e'ens and days to me, Saying, Gudewife, for your courtesie, Will ye lodge a silly puir man ? The nicht was cauld, the carle was wat. And doun ayont the ingle he sat. My douchter's shouthers he 'gan to clap.”
“Oh, ho,” her father Balthair called as he came in. “The Beggarman, eh, what put ye in such a jolly mood?”
“Naythin’,” Caitlin smiled and kissed his cheek, “Just normal happiness.”
Her father was dusty and stained from work on the farm, but he was cheerful. They were reaping the overflow of the wheat and barley crops, moving it away to prep the land for the next crop of barley, oilseed, and corn. He dropped a kiss on her cheek as well before announcing he was going to wash off in the river.
When he moved off, her mother dropped the roasted beef into the pot for the stew, and she finished dicing the turnips.
“Let that cook for a while, and before it gets soft, add those pieces, Dear,” her mother advised. “And mind that the pot daenae boil over.”
“Aye, Maither,” she nodded, grabbing a wooden spoon and stirring the pot while her mother went to meet her father at the stream.
These twilights moments were when her mother and father had some time to themselves and shared some intimate moments. As they lived in one open cottage, it was challenging for her parents to have some time to themselves. Freya did not mind; it was only reasonable for married folks to reconnect in private.
“Someday, I hope to have a marriage as they do,” she mused.
With a knife, she tested the meat, and it was getting soft. She quickly added the turnips and stirred them in. Helping her mother cook was a part of her daily life. The others had her assisting her father on the farm when they needed extra hands to pack up the produce, and to her home, where she aided her mother with the household duties. When she had time to herself, she helped Missus Beathag, the town’s old healer, with her tinctures, infusions, and poultices.
Taking a seat on a rough-hewn kitchen stool, she kept one eye on the pot, but her mind drifted. She was of age to marry, many women her age were already married, and some had bairns that passed three or four summers already. The men in the village were young, handsome, and very courteous to her, but she had never felt any connection to any of them.
A connection means tryin’ to make one—which I havenae. What is holdin’ me back? I’ve drawn attention from Iain Muller and Andrew Drummond…but…
Never could she answer that question. When she tried to dig deep, a ridiculous notion that she was not fated to live in this village and marry one of the men there, had sprung up in her heart. But she did not see a way it would ever happen.
The bubbling of stew had her pulling the pot off the iron prongs, to rest it onto a thick wooden block. In good time too, as her parents came into the room from the backdoor. Her mother was smiling and ruddy-cheeked, and her father dressed and chuckling lowly.
It was good to see them so happy as it was not always that way at times. A few years ago, there had been a horrible drought that had scorched their crops to dry twigs. And when she was about nine, a terrible blizzard had rolled in, swelled the rivers nearby, and had flooded the whole town.
The fields had drowned. Her father had been inconsolable, and her mother a worried mess. They had struggled those times, but they always made it through. Now that the summers were warm and the crops were growing and overflowing, they had food in the house and a small cache of silver coins.
“The stew is done,” she gestured to the pot. “Would ye like to share it out?”
“Nay,” her mother shook her head, “The bread is still bakin’. Ye can pop into Missus Beathag and ask her what she needs from ye on the morrow. By the time ye’re done there, the bread should be ready.”
She looked between the two and ducked her head, “I’ll be back soon.”
Turning away, she saw a loving look pass between the two and thought they were sending her to have more privacy. It was dark, but she knew the way to the older woman’s home. The path that took her there, was lit by buzzing lighting bugs and serenaded by the song of crickets.
Missus Beathag's house was just across and behind a thick line of hedges. As she rounded the bushes, she spotted the home with light spilling out from the closed door. She hopped up the flat steps and knocked on the door and waited.
The sound of shuffling feet had her stepping away, so the elderly woman, leaning heavily on a cane, opened the door and exclaimed, “Freya Crushom, Dear Heart. Why are ye here so late?”
Before answering, Freya dipped her head to kiss the woman’s cheek. “How are ye, Missus Beathag?”
“I forgot to ask ye what herbs ye wanted,” she said. “And I ken Maither and Faither want some time to themselves.”
“Ah,” the healer said and gestured for her to come in. “Come in, sit for a spell.”
Stepping in, she closed the door behind her, and helped the woman sit. Then, she took her seat near the roaring fireplace. In the firelight, Missus Beathag’s hands, spotted with age and callused with using a pestle for years, clenched around the handle of her cane.
“I ken it’s nay the time for many herbs to have grown, but I need mandragora, hawthorn, nettles that ye already ken about, and ramsons, that’s wild garlic, Dear. The plant has broad green leaves, and large heads of starry white flowers that smell strongly of garlic. But daenae go in the morning, go in the afternoon. Remember, pluck them with yer right hand only and keep them in yer left. For the mandragoras, go pick them after sunset and use an iron tool.”
“Aye,” Freya said, in a solemn tone.
Missus Beathag leaned forward with her eyes, rheumy but sharpening, “What is botherin’ ye, lass?”
Freya nibbled on her lip a little, then sighed out her answer, “I keep wonderin’ about me real birth parents, why they sent me away.”
“Lass, I understand yer frustration, but keep worryin’ about it willnae solve it. It is worryin’, but if ye keep yer mind on it all the time, ye’ll never have any peace. Whatever the reason was, ye couldnae do anythin’ about it. If they dinnae want ye, they could have killed ye. What ye can do is use the life they allowed ye to live to make the most of it,” Missus Beathag counseled. “Now, what else is botherin’ ye?”
Her face warmed, and she ducked it, “Marriage. I ken I’m old enough to be on me own now, but that means I should marry. I just deanae feel any connection with the men here.”
A soft snort was interspersed in the silence that followed her bashful statement, “Have ye ever tried to make a connection with them, lass?”
Even more self-conscious, she shook her head, “I suppose that’s what’s needed, eh?”
“It is,” Missus Beathag said, “But if I were ye, I wouldnae worry meself about marriage, lass. Ye’re lovely on yer own, and the right man who will come along will see ye for it.”
Freya held in her reservations as she still felt that her mottled skin was going to be a problem. “So, ye need mandragora, hawthorn, nettles, and…er…wild garlic?”
“Aye, remember, that plant has broad green leaves and large starry white flowers,” Missus Beathag reiterated. “And go when it’s past noon, lass. In the cool of the day.”
“Aye,” Freya said, rising to kiss the older woman again. “I’ll find what I can.”
The older woman took her hand and held it securely, “And daenae ye worry about yer husband, Dear Heart, he’ll come around soon, and ye’ll feel it down to yer bones.”
“I’ll try,” Freya smiled while pulling away.
She closed the door behind her and headed home.
Why is it that I feel Missus Beathag kens something I daenae? And why is she so sure I’ll find me husband soon, when I cannae see it?
Standing in a lovely room, furnished with padded chairs, thick carpets, and a finely stitched tapestry of a forest over the fireplace, Evan dared not fidget under the eyes of the man who was soon to be his father-in-law. He stuck his hand out to Laird Lobhdain, who shook it with a firm grip.
“Please, take a seat, Laird Ruthven,” the Laird, clad in his great kilt of red and green tartan, said, gesturing to a seat.
“Thank ye for havin’ me,” Evan said, and rearranging the golden brooch and pin resting heavily on his shoulder of his gray and blue plaid, he felt the cold steel of his dagger in his boot. “I ken the situation is nay the best desired for courtship.”
“Nay, it certainly isnae,” the older man said, stroking his beard. “But I do understand. And I must say it will be a good alliance for us in more ways than this war.”
“I believe so,” Evan said, glancing at the door, hoping to see Miss Milleson soon.
When he had arrived with his mother, they had been received by both Laird and Lady, but Lady Lobhdain had whisked his mother off so the two of them could talk. Or to plan the wedding day.
“However,” Laird Lobhdain leaned in to press his point, face set in a no-nonsense and no-wavering mien, “This will nay be a rushed wedding, Ruthven. Me daughter has longed for this almost all her life, and will be torn if ye dinnea put any effort into it. I will nay be handing me daughter over to be married and put aside like a vase. I need ye to care about this courtship with all the care and attention ye would give when ye had in times of peace.”
Evan stopped himself from gritting his jaw. He was too close to the man, and a sign of frustration like that would worsen his cause. The man had all the right to state what he needed from him as a potential son-in-law.
“Aye,” Evan replied with a single nod. “I fully intend to do so.”
Satisfied, the Laird sat back, “Now, I need ye to understand that Elspeth is a sensitive soul, Laird Ruthven, she’s strong in many ways but very vulnerable in others. She will nae take to any inattention or disloyalty.”
Evan knew what he meant—that Elspeth needed constant devotion—and began to doubt if he could give her that. The second part, about disloyalty, was a not-so-subtle warning that there would be no philandering on his part. Which he felt was an insult to his honor. He would never marry the girl and take his attention elsewhere when it came to marital fidelity, but it was war; he had to focus on that.
How could he devote most of his time to courting a lady when he had to prepare for something that would be devastating?
Hopefully, Miss Milleson will be reasonable and allow me to share me attention both ways.
“I will never be unfaithful to yer daughter,” Evan declared, a little annoyed the man would think so.
“I deanae ken ye would as I’ve noticed, however from afar, how ye go about all yer affairs with integrity but…” he rubbed his face, “ye have to understand, and it's hard for me to let her go outside of our care. We’ve tried to shield her from the harshest realities of this land, ye ken. And to have her leave in a time of war…it’s just hard.”
Not being a parent himself, Evan did not know what it felt like to raise a child, but he thought that they should not have cosseted the lass so much. His mother and father loved him, but he remembered his father just looking at him, when he had fallen, and the dirt horribly skinned his tender knees.
Evan had cried for a while, but his father had not moved. His father had just stood there, looking at him, silently urging him to get up by himself—and he had. Had Miss Milleson ever had lessons like that, something that taught her to manage for herself at times? Probably not. If she was as protected as her father implied, she might have had a dozen maids at her beck and call.
“And ye say she’s never been courted before?” Evan confirmed.
“Aye,” the older Laird confirmed. “She professed a need to be educated first, kennin’ that only a man on the same adept level would court her.”
“Rather canny of her, I’d say,” Evan noted. “The Bible does warn us about unequal yolks.”
“My daughter is wise, a little guileless and sheltered, but she did have the wisdom to ken that she would be the wife of a Laird someday, so she prepared for it,” Laird Lobhdain said proudly. “I’ve told her the situation underlyin’ this arrangement, Ruthven, and she kens it’s nay a normal courtship.”
A servant woman pushed the door in and stepping aside, held it open for three women to come in; his mother, Lady Lobhdain and, behind them, Miss Milleson.
She was beautiful. Her face, a soft oval where delicately arched brows curved perfectly over large verdant eyes, rimmed by long, dark lashes that brushed her cheeks as she blinked. Dark-auburn hair spilled artistically around her chin and shoulders, and the cut of her deep-blue silken dress accented her nipped-in waist.
Men would have worshiped at her feet if they had been allowed to see her.
Evan bowed, as she came forward and dipped out a curtsy, “I’m honored to meet ye, Miss Milleson.”
“Likewise, Laird Ruthven,” she said in a cultured, musical voice.
“Please, sit,” he said and held her chair.
His mother gave him a look of approval while she sat near to Lady Lobhdain. He did not feel overwhelmed as he had acted calmly with more eyes on him, but not in this situation.
“Miss Milleson, I ken yer Faither has told ye about the reality of this marriage, how it is a measure to merge our clans to protect ourselves from the war. I ken it is nay the situation any Lady would have wanted to be courted in, but that daenae mean I will not extend to ye the same treatment I would have done in times of peace.”
Her head inclined in a gracious, queenly dip, “I understand, Laird Ruthven. Times are troublin’, aye, but I do hope we can still have a lovely courtship, nevertheless.”
Evan briefly met his mother’s eyes, and she looked pleased. He turned back to the Laird, “Laird, would ye mind if I took a walk with Miss Milleson?”
A look passed between the Laird and his wife, and when she gave him a slight nod, he gave his consent, “Ye may use the garden.”
Standing, Evan extended his arm to Miss Milleson and when she took it, he nodded to the three and walked her out the room, “I’ll need to lean on yer expertise, Miss Milleson, please direct me to this garden yer Faither spoke about.”
Her laugh was soft and refined, “It’s just down this hallway and out the door. Nay worry, I’ll show ye where it is.”
Following her, they emerged from the house onto a walkway that led to a walled garden. The bushes were just starting to feel the coming winter and were growing thin at the increasingly cold air and frosty mornings.
“Before I say anythin’ more, I must say, ye are bonnie,” Evan said. “I am astonished ye have nay been asked for before.”
“Well, I havenae,” she replied, looping her arm tighter with his. “I ken that me destiny would be different from other women. So, I made sure I’d have all the wisdom and discretion I’d need to help me husband, when it came to makin’ the hardest decisions.”
Her Faither said the same.
“And I do applaud ye for it,” he said sincerely. “What did ye like to do as a child? What was ye favorite food?”
“I loved and still love to read,” she replied. “Faither dinnae have access to many books or scrolls as most of them came from England, but the ones he did have, he gave to me,” she replied. “And me favorite food was honey cakes. Sadly, I overate and grew plump. Maither adjusted me diet, and now I eat a specific set of foods that come from all parts of Scotland. I eat a silverfish from Loch Lamond and Lock Eck and beef from Aberdeen.”
Evan blinked; he had never expected that. But he could deal with her dietary requirements. She wrinkled her nose, “Pork is vile, and I never touch that meat, in fact, Faither banned pigs from the castle when I was seven years old. One of the servant’s hogs had rushed me and frightened me.”
That startled him. A lot of Scots did not eat pigs, but the lowest who hardly could afford beef or goats reared pigs. Banning them from the castle meant banning food from a lot of people. He hoped, though, that the Laird has subsided the loss in some other way.
“A lot of my servants raise pigs,” he mentioned. “Me family daenae eat pork, though.”
“Ye should get rid of it overall,” she pronounced. “It’s vile.”
He bit back his reply, “Anythin’ else…do ye ride?”
“I tried once,” she said, “Faither bought a pony for me to ride. Gorgeous thing, golden-haired with brown eyes as big as the moon, but gettin’ into the saddle was hard, and riding felt unnatural, so I stopped it. I daenae ride at all, but Faither sourced an English-style carriage from Edinburgh for me to use when I have to go somewhere.”
Again, a lot of Ladies did not ride in the saddle, so he let that pass by.
Steering them around a corner, he asked, “Where do ye like to go when ye travel?”
“I went to France once,” she replied. “For one summer with my maids and Maither. It was magical. When I do travel here, it’s to the city to shop for new clothes and cosmetics. Once, Faither was invited to a Royal Ball, and I went with him. I was ten-and-six, too early to court, but I still learned a lot. City life is fantastic. Even now, Faither sends me to Edina every summer from then.”
His lips pressed a little tight at the particularities Miss Milleson had. But still, he could deal with them. He needed this arrangement to work for the safety of his people.
“I havenae traveled much,” he admitted. “The farthest I’ve gone was Cumberland. I had yearned to go to Glasgae for higher education, but I couldnae, as I had taken on the brunt of the Lairdship at twenty, fourteen years after me Faither died. So I called for masters from the capitals to teach me along the way. I’m told ye made sure to be educated as well.”
“Aye,” she nodded. “I daenae ken much about trade or business, but I do learn quickly. I ken a lot about art, philosophy, history, and some medicine.”
Fair enough. Evan nodded; he had not expected a Lady to learn what tradition deemed as male subjects, and it was even better; with her knowledge, their children—if born—would have a well of education to draw from.
“That’s lovely,” he mused. “There are Ladies in court that are very engrossed in those subjects. I ken ye would be able to have discourse with them when they do come about. I—”
“Pardon me, Laird Ruthven,” a female servant hurried toward them. “Lady Ruthven has—”
And then Miss Milleson transformed. Her face darkened, and her eyes flashed with anger, “Who do ye ken ye are? Daenae ye see we are havin’ an important conversation. Leave us ye—now, glaikit.”
Evan’s jaw dropped at the insult. Calling the woman stupid was not something he would ever have expected from such a sophisticated Lady—but looking at the woman’s impassive face, he realized that probably it was something she was used to.
“I would Miss, but the Laird’s mother is asking for him. She received a message from the castle, and she says they are needed back there,” the servant woman said carefully.
Miss Milleson’s face did not soften, but he intervened. “Me Maither wouldnae have called me back if it wasnae important, Miss Milleson. I do apologize for this interruption, but I do need to leave. I pledge to be back as soon as I am able.”
She huffed, but then nodded. “I understand.”
They hurried back to the castle, but instead of going to the room they had first assembled in, his mother was at the front entrance, and her coat was on.
“Maither, what is happenin’?” he asked.
“One of the stables caught fire,” she said curtly. “We need to go and see if anyone was hurt and what must be done.”
Grimly, Evan turned, “I apologize, Laird Lobhdain. We must go. I’ll send notice to when another meetin’ might happen. Right now, me people need me. I fear someone might have died.”
“Go, Laird Ruthven,” the man shook his hand. “We’ll speak another time, take care of yer people.”
Over the man’s shoulder, he saw Miss Milleson roll her eyes, as if to say, How are those people more important than me? She even crossed her arms and pouted—like a petulant child.
As they rode away, he added up what he knew about Miss Milleson; she was sheltered and cossetted, she had expensive tastes, and, based on the pig story, she got whatever she wanted with little regard to those around her. Then, there were two sides to her; the lovely, calm persona versus the one who had hissed at the woman servant. If she did not have any respect for those, who ran her house, who was able to gain her respect?
As they rode away, he wondered.
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