The Highlander’s Promise
Born illegitimate, these sons of medieval Scotland are bound for greatness—and made bolder by the power of love . . .
Brave Lachlan Blair stands ready to become his clan’s chieftain—until a revelation shows he is not a Blair son, but the bastard offspring of a notorious criminal. Faced with banishment to the Highland wilderness, Lachlan agrees to wed the daughter of an enemy clan. But he soon finds himself facing a new battle: an unwelcome attraction to his beautiful wife…
Since she was a wee lass, Finley Carson has heard tales of legendary Lachlan Blair. But nothing prepares her for marriage to the rugged highlander. Fortunately, Lachlan shares her desire to leave the union unconsummated in hopes of escaping their dutiful marriage. Yet as they partner to pursue the truth of Lachlan’s birthright, their deepening bond turns to passion. And once Lachlan’s past catches up with them, their love is put to the ultimate test…
Sons of Scotland Book 2 – March 2020
Excerpt from Chapter 2 – THE HIGHLANDER’S PROMISE
“I’ve thought you a pome,” Eachann Todde said, a smile in his voice. Finley could feel his gaze on the side of her face, as if he’d licked her, and the stench and moisture were evaporating in the cooling updraft of the falls.
“A what?” she said, turning her head to reluctantly look at him. They were both standing on the bridge with their forearms braced on the railing overlooking the deep, rippling river some ten feet below. She only needed give the awkward man another quarter of an hour, and then her parents—and the fine—should be satisfied.
His skull seemed misshapen beneath the thick, pockmarked skin of his face, his nose and upper jaw protruding while his brow and forehead sloped sharply into a bright orange hairline that didn’t begin properly until past his crown. His eyelashes and brows disappeared against the fish belly color of his complexion, bracketed by ears that stuck from the sides of his head like scallop shells. Finley thought he looked like a sea monster, if ever they existed. A prosperous and eligible sea monster who boasted the highest number of sheep in the town, but he smelled of brine all the same.
“A pome,” Eachann said again, with what must have been meant as an indulgent grin. “A verse of song, you ken?”
“Ah,” Finley said with a nod, and turned her gaze back to the water lest she visibly shudder. “A poem.”
“Aye,” he said. “A pome.”
Finley watched the river roil and swirl, wondering if a quarter of an hour had yet gone. Perhaps she should carry a glass with her in the future. A small one, that might fit in her pouch and could be looked at surreptitiously to—
“Do you wish to hear it?”
Finley started. “What?”
“Do you wish to hear the pome?”
“Oh,” she said with a forced smile. “Why not?” She turned her face away toward the south and muttered, “Perhaps it will pass the time.”
“What’s that, love?” Eachann asked.
“I said, does it happen to rhyme?”
His graveled face brightened and he leaned toward her to press her forearm in delight. “It does indeed, my sweet.”
Finley swallowed hard.
Eachann coughed and then was apparently forced to clear his throat of a rather large plug of mucus, expelling it with a wet exclamation into the churning water below. Then he wiped his mouth with his shawl and turned to her fully, splaying one stubby palm against his breast. He took a deep breath and opened his mouth.
He closed it again with a sheepish grin and sank to one knee. Eachann reached up and pawed at Finley’s right hand, now gripping the railing as if it would save her life. She resisted his prying fingers until it became obvious that he would not relent. She let him take her hand into his damp, salmon-fat fingers.
He cleared his throat again and narrowed his eyes, staring intently into Finley’s face.
“‘Her hair is like the dawn; her eyes, a gentle fawn’s.’”
“My eyes are blue, Eachann,” Finely interrupted.
“Shh,” he scolded. “Dammit all. Now, where was I?”
“A fawn’s eyes are brown,” she reasoned. “I just thought you’d—”
“I’ll start over,” Eachann interrupted pointedly. “‘Her hair is like the dawn; her eyes, a gentle fawn’s.’” He looked at her with warning, but Finley wisely held her tongue, wishing the whole thing over with.
“‘My many bairns she’ll spawn. From my own loins, so brawn. Unto her glistening prawn. The fair Finley Car-son.’”
Finley knew her mouth had dropped open as she stared down at him, but she couldn’t help it.
Eachann grumbled in his throat and drew a breath. “‘Her hair is like the daw—’”
“Nay, Eachann, I heard you well,” Finley interrupted, snatching her hand from his slippery grip. “‘Glistening prawn’?”
His cheeks speckled like a drunk’s, and he rose to his feet. “’Tis a passionate phrase, aye. But only for your ears, my sweet.” He took a step toward her, his arms held out as if he would embrace her. “And the only words that could express how I anticipate—”
“Anticipate this,” Finley said, and swept her foot at his ankles, at the same moment taking hold of his sloped shoulders and levering him across the low railing. Eachann Todde executed a lovely pinwheel on his way to the river, his bard’s voice rising in a shrill howl before it was cut off by the splash of his arse striking the rippling surface. Finley stood at the railing, waiting for him to surface—not because she worried for his welfare, but solely to see the expression of shocked confusion on his gnawsome face as he came up, gasping and sputtering.
She thought she heard some sort of canine bark from the trees behind her and turned, her eyes scanning the tall, slender trunks with suspicion. Wolves were generally rare in this part of the Highlands, but they did wander close to Carson Town now and again, especially along the river. But there was little to see in the deepening gloom of the bowing sun.
“Finley Carson!” The bellow from the water below caused Finley to whip her head back around to find Eachann Todde now standing on the steep and jagged riverbank below. Gone was the benign, doughy look of lustful admiration from his face, his fuzzy, flame-colored hair now hanging in pathetic tendrils. “You did that a-purpose!”
Her brows lowered. “I did,” she admitted. “And if you dare bring your bloated girth to stand too near me in the future, I’ll take a stick to you, Eachann Todde, speaking to me so boldly.”
He stabbed a stubby forefinger up at her. “You hellion. I was your last hope. There’s not a man left in the town ye havena offended!”
“God help me, if you were the last man in all of Scotland, I’d never marry you!”
“I’d nae have ye!” he bellowed back.
Finley stuttered a moment and then shouted, “Your poetry is rubbish!”
“Your father shall hear of this straightaway,” he threatened, waggling his finger at her again before he turned to begin the arduous struggle up the slippery rock shelves that made up the bank. “The fine, as well!” he tossed over his shoulder.
Finley drew her head back in surprise. “Are you threatening me?” she asked incredulously, more to herself than for the benefit of Eachann’s ears. Then her brows lowered again and she stalked to the eastern side of the bridge and gathered up a handful of rocks. She ran back to the center of the span and began throwing them at Eachann Todde’s wide, dripping backside, her aim true more oft than not. “Tell them this while you’re about it, you…you rat-faced farmer of sheep shite!”
He yelped and ducked as she pelted him with the stones, and he finally staggered onto the path. Finley was rather surprised that he’d managed to scale the bank. His rough complexion was dark with exertion and rage and his head lowered as he marched toward her.
“Doona come any closer, Eachann,” she warned, gripping a final stone in her hand.
“Your trouble is that your da never gave you the proper beatin’ you’ve been askin’ for since you were nine. I’ll do the town the favor of it myself.”
“I’ll lay you flat,” she vowed, shifting her weight from foot to foot. “I swear it. Stay away. Eachann…”
“Perhaps that’s what you want after all, innit?” he said. “A strong man to take you in hand and show you what’s proper? I vow I’m that man. You’ll be—” He slowed his advance, and his gaze went to the woods behind her. “Who the bloody hell is that?”
“Ha. Nice try,” Finley said with a smirk and let her final missile fly. The smooth, heavy rock struck him squarely in his long, undulating nose, and Eachann Todde made a slow descent onto his back on the bridge.
But then the sound of hooves in the thick detritus of the forest floor emerged over the rush of blood in her ears and Finley felt her eyes widen and her mouth draw down in a grimace. She turned slowly, slowly, to look behind her and, indeed, there was a black-clad stranger approaching on the bridge path, astride a magnificent, inky horse.
“Oh nae,” she breathed.
The stranger was at the ingress of the bridge in but a moment, reining his mount to an obedient halt. He was striking in appearance, pale, tall, his costume exquisite and perfect, as if he’d just ridden out of a true bard’s own heroic song. He barely glanced at the bridge behind Finley before addressing her.
“Bonsoir, mademoiselle. Is this the bridge that leads into Carson Town?”
Finley swallowed, thinking of the body of Eachann Todde lying on the planks in plain sight, and how both she and the man astride were patently ignoring the fact of him. “Aye. It is. Who are you to be asking?” The man gave a bow from his saddle.
“Sir Lucan Montague, Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter of His Majesty, King Henry of England, at your service.”
Finley’s knees went watery.
Thankfully, the man continued to speak. “I’m surprised to find such accommodating passage. My intelligence informed me that I would scarce be able to bring my horse into the town with me; I was much concerned for Agrios’s welfare.”
“The bridge is new. I mean, it’s been here about ten years,” Finley said, the words bursting from her mouth as her tongue seemed to have caught up with her brain at last. “The Blairs built it for when the salmon run. It was little more than a plank and a rope up against the falls before that,” she assured him.
The knight seemed intrigued. “I see. Well, I’ve an important message from London to deliver to the Carson elders. Will you allow me to pass, or am I fated to end up like that poor fellow dare I attempt it? It appears as though he’s had a swim as well.”
“Oh, I’m nae—” Finley stammered, gesturing behind her awkwardly, just as Eachann Todde began to groan. “He was—we were…” She looked back up at Lucan Montague, could feel the tips of her ears tingling. “Please, go on. I’m afraid I canna move him, though.”
“May I assist you in that endeavor?” the knight inquired. “I could easily carry him to the town across my saddle. My horse is trained to transport the wounded.”
Now Finley’s entire face felt afire. “I’m sure he’ll be fine.” Behind her, Eachann groaned again. “This happens all the time.”
“To him, or to you?” The knight stared at her without any expression whatsoever.
Finley wanted to shrivel away to nothing. “I’ll manage. Thank you.”
Lucan Montague’s thin lips quirked. “As you wish, mademoiselle.” He gave her another bow from his saddle. “Au revoir.”
Finley stood aside as the English knight clucked to his mount and urged the fine beast onto the bridge. She held her breath as horse and rider came to the sprawled body of Eachann Todde, but the magnificent Agrios lifted each hoof as daintily as a woman holding her skirts aloft to tread a muddied street, and a moment later, Lucan Montague was trotting around the bend of the trail and disappeared into the wood.
The man on the bridge was rousing in earnest now, and as her temper had cooled, Finley was not at all interested in reviving her row with the toady man. Let him run to the elders and tell them all how mean and ungrateful she had been to him. Finley was sure no one would be surprised, and the sooner Eachann Todde was on his own way, the sooner she could follow the intriguing English knight to find out what sort of message would needs come to the Carson fine all the way from London.
Finley gathered her skirts and turned back to the woods, ducking behind a wide oak tree just as Eachann pulled himself up into a seated position. She peeked around the trunk, watching him raise his hand to his face, gingerly testing his nose with his fingers. She ducked down further as he raised his gaze and looked about him.
“Finley Carson!” he bellowed, and then winced and clutched his head.
Finley rested her back against the trunk and closed her eyes with a sigh. All bravado aside, she would hear about this from the elders. Probably for weeks. Not a word would be said against Eachann Todde for his vulgarity and familiarity with her, of that she was certain.
She opened her eyes and turned her face slightly to the right, listening intently for footsteps on the bridge, indicating that Eachann Todde had given up and was on his way back to the town. But her eyes caught a flash of white against the tree directly across from her.
There crouched a man wearing a Blair shawl about his head and shoulders, staring at her. He raised his forefinger to his lips in silent plea in the same moment as she, and Finley opened her fingers to stifle her incredulous giggle.
In all the twenty years of her life, Finley could not recall traders venturing to this remote part of the Highlands, nor merchants by ship into their tiny bay. But in the past hour, she had met two strangers just outside town.
At last, the echoing sound of erratic stomps could be heard on the bridge, and Finley dared to lean around the trunk of the tree just as the man across from her moved slowly at a crouch to watch for himself Eachann Todde weaving down the path toward Carson Town. In a moment, there was nothing on the air but the evening cries of the birds calling their mates home.
Finley looked back to the man and was shocked to see that he was already halfway across the distance separating them. Her heart knew a moment’s fear.
“You’re nae supposed to be here,” he said, looking down at her sternly.
“I’m nae supposed to be here?” Finley scrambled to her feet and backed away a pair of steps but then stopped; he wasn’t going to get away with trying to intimidate her. “Sure, you’re violating the treaty just as much as I.”
“I’m nae violating the treaty until the village,” he argued, correctly, much to Finley’s disappointment.
“Well, what are you doing here?” she asked, her fear melting away under the building heat of curiosity. He didn’t mean her harm, obviously. The man nodded toward the bridge.
“The rider. He’s caused upset with the Blair fine, and I’ll wager he’s set to stir trouble here, too.” His brown eyes bored into Finley’s. “Perhaps trouble between the clans.”
“Oh, and so you thought you’d just walk into Carson Town after him with your shawl wrapped about your head and expect to be welcomed?” Finley laughed as she raised an eyebrow. “In fact, if they discover you’ve been in the wood alone with me…”
“They’ll likely apologize and ask after my welfare, if what I saw of the other fellow is to be believed.”