The Highlander’s Promise
Born illegitimate, these sons of medieval Scotland are bound for greatnessâ€”and made bolder by the power of love . . .
Brave Lachlan Blair stands ready to become his clanâ€™s chieftainâ€”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 Lachlanâ€™s birthright, their deepening bond turns to passion. And once Lachlanâ€™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 PROMISEÂ
â€œIâ€™ve thought you a pome,â€ Eachann Todde said, a smile in his voice. Finley could feel his gaze on the side of her face, as if heâ€™d licked her, and the stench and moisture were evaporating in the cooling updraft of the falls.
â€œA what?â€ 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 parentsâ€”and the fineâ€”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 didnâ€™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.
â€œA pome,â€ Eachann said again, with what must have been meant as an indulgent grin. â€œA verse of song, you ken?â€
â€œAh,â€ Finley said with a nod, and turned her gaze back to the water lest she visibly shudder. â€œA poem.â€
â€œAye,â€ he said. â€œA pome.â€
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 toâ€”
â€œDo you wish to hear it?â€
Finley started. â€œWhat?â€
â€œDo you wish to hear the pome?â€
â€œOh,â€ she said with a forced smile. â€œWhy not?â€ She turned her face away toward the south and muttered, â€œPerhaps it will pass the time.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s that, love?â€ Eachann asked.
â€œI said, does it happen to rhyme?â€
His graveled face brightened and he leaned toward her to press her forearm in delight. â€œIt does indeed, my sweet.â€
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 Finleyâ€™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 Finleyâ€™s face.
â€œâ€˜Her hair is like the dawn; her eyes, a gentle fawnâ€™s.â€™â€
â€œMy eyes are blue, Eachann,â€ Finely interrupted.
â€œShh,â€ he scolded. â€œDammit all. Now, where was I?â€
â€œA fawnâ€™s eyes are brown,â€ she reasoned. â€œI just thought youâ€™dâ€”â€
â€œIâ€™ll start over,â€ Eachann interrupted pointedly. â€œâ€˜Her hair is like the dawn; her eyes, a gentle fawnâ€™s.â€™â€ He looked at her with warning, but Finley wisely held her tongue, wishing the whole thing over with.
â€œâ€˜My many bairns sheâ€™ll spawn. From my own loins, so brawn. Unto her glistening prawn. The fair Finley Car-son.â€™â€
Finley knew her mouth had dropped open as she stared down at him, but she couldnâ€™t help it.
Eachann grumbled in his throat and drew a breath. â€œâ€˜Her hair is like the dawâ€”â€™â€
â€œNay, Eachann, I heard you well,â€ Finley interrupted, snatching her hand from his slippery grip. â€œâ€˜Glistening prawnâ€™?â€
His cheeks speckled like a drunkâ€™s, and he rose to his feet. â€œâ€™Tis a passionate phrase, aye. But only for your ears, my sweet.â€ He took a step toward her, his arms held out as if he would embrace her. â€œAnd the only words that could express how I anticipateâ€”â€
â€œAnticipate this,â€ 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 bardâ€™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 surfaceâ€”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.
â€œFinley Carson!â€ 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. â€œYou did that a-purpose!â€
Her brows lowered. â€œI did,â€ she admitted. â€œAnd if you dare bring your bloated girth to stand too near me in the future, Iâ€™ll take a stick to you, Eachann Todde, speaking to me so boldly.â€
He stabbed a stubby forefinger up at her. â€œYou hellion. I was your last hope. Thereâ€™s not a man left in the town ye havena offended!â€
â€œGod help me, if you were the last man in all of Scotland, Iâ€™d never marry you!â€
â€œIâ€™d nae have ye!â€ he bellowed back.
Finley stuttered a moment and then shouted, â€œYour poetry is rubbish!â€
â€œYour father shall hear of this straightaway,â€ 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. â€œThe fine, as well!â€ he tossed over his shoulder.
Finley drew her head back in surprise. â€œAre you threatening me?â€ she asked incredulously, more to herself than for the benefit of Eachannâ€™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 Toddeâ€™s wide, dripping backside, her aim true more oft than not. â€œTell them this while youâ€™re about it, youâ€¦you rat-faced farmer of sheep shite!â€
He yelped and ducked as she pelted him with the stones, and he finally staggered onto the path. Finley was rather surprised that heâ€™d managed to scale the bank. His rough complexion was dark with exertion and rage and his head lowered as he marched toward her.
â€œDoona come any closer, Eachann,â€ she warned, gripping a final stone in her hand.
â€œYour trouble is that your da never gave you the proper beatinâ€™ youâ€™ve been askinâ€™ for since you were nine. Iâ€™ll do the town the favor of it myself.â€
â€œIâ€™ll lay you flat,â€ she vowed, shifting her weight from foot to foot. â€œI swear it. Stay away. Eachannâ€¦â€
â€œPerhaps thatâ€™s what you want after all, innit?â€ he said. â€œA strong man to take you in hand and show you whatâ€™s proper? I vow Iâ€™m that man. Youâ€™ll beâ€”â€ He slowed his advance, and his gaze went to the woods behind her. â€œWho the bloody hell is that?â€
â€œHa. Nice try,â€ 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.
â€œOh nae,â€ 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 heâ€™d just ridden out of a true bardâ€™s own heroic song. He barely glanced at the bridge behind Finley before addressing her.
â€œBonsoir, mademoiselle. Is this the bridge that leads into Carson Town?â€
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. â€œAye. It is. Who are you to be asking?â€ The man gave a bow from his saddle.
â€œSir Lucan Montague, Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter of His Majesty, King Henry of England, at your service.â€
Finleyâ€™s knees went watery.
Thankfully, the man continued to speak. â€œIâ€™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 Agriosâ€™s welfare.â€
â€œThe bridge is new. I mean, itâ€™s been here about ten years,â€ Finley said, the words bursting from her mouth as her tongue seemed to have caught up with her brain at last. â€œThe Blairs built it for when the salmon run. It was little more than a plank and a rope up against the falls before that,â€ she assured him.
The knight seemed intrigued. â€œI see. Well, Iâ€™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 heâ€™s had a swim as well.â€
â€œOh, Iâ€™m naeâ€”â€ Finley stammered, gesturing behind her awkwardly, just as Eachann Todde began to groan. â€œHe wasâ€”we wereâ€¦â€ She looked back up at Lucan Montague, could feel the tips of her ears tingling. â€œPlease, go on. Iâ€™m afraid I canna move him, though.â€
â€œMay I assist you in that endeavor?â€ the knight inquired. â€œI could easily carry him to the town across my saddle. My horse is trained to transport the wounded.â€
Now Finleyâ€™s entire face felt afire. â€œIâ€™m sure heâ€™ll be fine.â€ Behind her, Eachann groaned again. â€œThis happens all the time.â€
â€œTo him, or to you?â€ The knight stared at her without any expression whatsoever.
Finley wanted to shrivel away to nothing. â€œIâ€™ll manage. Thank you.â€
Lucan Montagueâ€™s thin lips quirked. â€œAs you wish, mademoiselle.â€ He gave her another bow from his saddle. â€œAu revoir.â€
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.
â€œFinley Carson!â€ 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 momentâ€™s fear.
â€œYouâ€™re nae supposed to be here,â€ he said, looking down at her sternly.
â€œIâ€™m nae supposed to be here?â€ Finley scrambled to her feet and backed away a pair of steps but then stopped; he wasnâ€™t going to get away with trying to intimidate her. â€œSure, youâ€™re violating the treaty just as much as I.â€
â€œIâ€™m nae violating the treaty until the village,â€ he argued, correctly, much to Finleyâ€™s disappointment.
â€œWell, what are you doing here?â€ she asked, her fear melting away under the building heat of curiosity. He didnâ€™t mean her harm, obviously. The man nodded toward the bridge.
â€œThe rider. Heâ€™s caused upset with the Blair fine, and Iâ€™ll wager heâ€™s set to stir trouble here, too.â€ His brown eyes bored into Finleyâ€™s. â€œPerhaps trouble between the clans.â€
â€œOh, and so you thought youâ€™d just walk into Carson Town after him with your shawl wrapped about your head and expect to be welcomed?â€ Finley laughed as she raised an eyebrow. â€œIn fact, if they discover youâ€™ve been in the wood alone with meâ€¦â€
â€œTheyâ€™ll likely apologize and ask after my welfare, if what I saw of the other fellow is to be believed.â€