In Bed with a Highlander Page 9

The laird smirked back at her, his teeth glinting in the low moonlight. “For a lass determined to make her own way, you’ve done a poor job of it.”

She sniffed. “That’s very uncharitable of you to say.”

“It doesn’t make it any less true. Now if we’re done with this conversation, I suggest we return to the keep, preferably before my son vacates my chambers and goes to seek you out in yours. He seems to have a certain affinity for sleeping with you. I don’t like to imagine his reaction when he finds your bed empty.”

Oh, that was simply unfair, and the laird well knew it. He was manipulating her emotions and striving to make her feel guilt for leaving Crispen. She frowned sharply at him to let him know of her displeasure, but he ignored her and took her arm in his strong fingers.

She had no choice but to allow him to herd her back in the direction of the keep. He marched her around the stone skirt and through the courtyard where he paused to issue a sharp command to his guard that she was not to be allowed to escape again. Then he proceeded into the keep, and to her further dismay, insisted on escorting her all the way back to her chamber.

He opened her door and thrust her inside. Then he stood in the doorway, glaring ferociously at her.

“If you intend to intimidate me with mean looks, you’re destined to fail,” she said airily.

His eyes went heavenward for a moment, and she could swear he was counting under his breath. He took a second, as if trying to collect his flagging patience, which amused her, considering he didn’t seem to possess any.

“If I have to bar the door, I will. I can be a very accommodating man, lass, but you’ve sorely tried my will. I’ve given you until tomorrow to trust me with whatever you’re hiding. After that, I can promise you won’t like my hospitality any longer.”

“I don’t like it now,” she said crossly. She waved her hand in his direction. “You can leave. I’ll only be going to bed now.”

His jaw ticked, and his fingers flexed at his sides. She wondered if he was imagining those fingers around her neck. He looked to be contemplating such a thing right that very moment.

Then, as if to contradict her command, he stalked forward until he loomed forbiddingly over her. His jaw still twitched, and his eyes narrowed as he stared down at her.

He touched his fingertip to the end of her nose. “You don’t make the rules here, lass. I do. It would be in your best interests to remember that.”

She swallowed, suddenly very overwhelmed by the sheer size of him. “I will endeavor to remember.”

The laird gave a short nod then turned on his heel and left the room, slamming the door with a bang.

Mairin flopped onto the straw mattress and sighed in disgust. That had not gone the way she intended. She was supposed to be well away from McCabe land by now, or at the very least to the border. Her plan had been to venture north, because there was nothing for her to the south.

Now she was stuck in the keep with an overbearing laird who thought he could command her trust as easily as he commanded his soldiers. He’d find out on the morrow that she wasn’t so easily bent to another’s will.


“Laird! Laird!”

Ewan frowned and looked up from the table to see Maddie McCabe rush into the room, her face flushed with exertion.

“What is it, Maddie? I’m in talks here.”

Maddie ignored the reprimand and stopped just a few feet away. She was so agitated, she wrung her hands.

“With your permission, Laird, there is something I must tell you.” She glanced surreptitiously around and then confided in a low whisper, “Privately, Laird. ’Tis very important!”

An ache began in Ewan’s temples. So far, the morning had been filled with dramatics. The evening before as well, as he remembered his encounter with Mairin. The lass hadn’t showed herself as of yet, and he was sure she was being purposely difficult. As soon as he was finished with Alaric and Caelen, he planned to confront her and tell her that her time was up.

Ewan raised his hand and gestured for his men to leave. He caught Alaric’s and Caelen’s gazes and nodded for them to stay. Anything Maddie had to say could be said in front of them.

As soon as the rest of his soldiers filed out, Ewan returned his attention to Maddie.

“Now, what is so important that you’d interrupt a meeting with my men?”

“ ’Tis the lass,” she began, and Ewan groaned.

“What now? Has she refused to eat? Has she threatened to throw herself from her window? Or perhaps she’s disappeared?”

Maddie sent him a puzzled look. “Of course not, Laird. She’s above stairs in her chamber. I brought her morning meal myself.”

“Then what about her?” Ewan growled.

Maddie let out a breath as if she’d run the entire way. “May I sit, Laird? For truly, ’tis not a short tale I’ll be telling you.”

Caelen rolled his eyes while Alaric looked bored. Ewan gestured her to sit.

She settled down and pressed her hands into a single fist before setting it on the table before her.

“The lass is Mairin Stuart.”

She dropped the announcement as if she expected Ewan to react in some way.

“I know the lass’s name is Mairin. I hadn’t known her family name, but ’tis a common enough name in the highlands. The question is how did you gain this information? She’s refused to tell anyone who she is. If Crispen hadn’t let it slip, I wouldn’t have known myself.”

“Nay, she didn’t tell me. I knew, you see?”

“Nay, I don’t see. Perhaps you better tell me,” Ewan said patiently.

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“When I went up to bring her meal, I came in on her dressing. It was all quite awkward, and I apologized of course, but before she covered herself, I saw the mark.”

Maddie’s voice rose again and she sat forward, her eyes gleaming with excitement.

Ewan stared expectantly at her, waiting for her to continue. Lord, but the woman did love a good story. His brothers sat back, resigned to Maddie’s colorful retelling.

“The lass is Mairin Stuart,” she said again. “She bears the royal crest of Alexander. I saw it, branded on her leg. She’s the heir to Neamh Álainn.”

Ewan shook his head. “That’s a bunch of nonsense, Maddie. ’Tis naught but a legend circulated on the tongues of bards.”

“What legend?” Alaric asked as he sat forward. “I’ve heard of no such legend.”

“That’s because you never listen to bards,” Caelen said dryly. “You’re much too busy during festive times tossing up the skirts of some wench.”

“And you listen to these poets and singers?” Alaric mocked.

Caelen shrugged. “ ’Tis a good way to keep abreast of the current gossip.”

Maddie’s eyes gleamed as she turned her attention to Alaric. “The story goes that King Alexander had a child after his marriage to Sybilla, a daughter. And that at her birth, he had his royal crest branded on her thigh so that her identity could never be questioned. Later, he bequeathed Neamh Álainn to her firstborn child.” She leaned forward and whispered, “ ’Tis said, he did so so that she would be sure to secure a good marriage since she was a bastard born child and her mother was baseborn.”

Alaric snorted. “ ’Tis a well-known fact that Alexander never sired a daughter. He had no legitimate children and only one bastard son. Malcolm.”

“He did sire a daughter. A daughter named Mairin Stuart. And she’s just above stairs in her chamber,” Maddie insisted. “I’m telling you I saw the mark. I am not mistaken in this.”

Ewan remained silent as he mulled Maddie’s remarks and those of his brothers. He wasn’t entirely sure he believed any of this nonsense, but it would certainly explain why Duncan Cameron was so determined to marry the lass, and it would also explain why she was desperate to escape.

“Why not just acknowledge the lass?” Alaric argued. “A bastard of the king would have no trouble securing a sound marriage. Any number of men would line up, if for no other reason than to seek favor with the crown.”

“He didn’t want anyone to know,” Maddie said. “I can remember some years ago hearing the whispers that circulated. Alexander waited a full five years before making his bequest to the lass. He valued his marriage to Sybilla, and Malcolm was born before their marriage. It isn’t known how he explained the bequest, but soon after his death, rumors began going around about the existence of the lass.”

“With Malcolm still imprisoned, the existence of another descendent of Alexander could brew support for Malcolm’s followers,” Ewan said thoughtfully. “It could, in fact, be a large reason for Cameron’s determination to wed her. Taking over her inheritance would give him more power than he currently wields. Much more power. Scotland could be at war again, and David would face a renewed threat. With Alexander having sired not one, but two possible contenders to the throne, David’s position would be weakened. He can’t afford another lengthy war that will only divide Scotland once again.”

“A bastard cannot inherit,” Caelen reminded him. “This would never be accepted.”

“Think, Caelen. If Duncan Cameron had control of Neamh Álainn, he would be unstoppable. It would matter not the circumstances of Alexander’s children’s births. With that kind of wealth and power, if Cameron chose to ally himself with Malcolm, either could seize power.”

“Are you saying you believe this rubbish?” Alaric asked in astonishment.

“I’m not saying anything. Yet,” Ewan said calmly.

“Don’t you see, Laird?” Maddie burst in, excitement bubbling into her voice. “She’s the answer to our prayers. If you marry the lass, then your heir would inherit Neamh Álainn. ’Tis said she brings a rich dowry to her marriage in addition to the bequest of the lands for her firstborn.”

“Marry her?”

The question was all but shouted by all three brothers. Ewan’s mouth gaped open, and he stared at Maddie in astonishment.

Maddie nodded emphatically. “You have to admit, ’tis a sound plan. If you marry her, Duncan Cameron very well can’t.”

“There is that,” Caelen pointed out.

Alaric turned to Caelen, his expression questioning. “Now you’re going along with this madness?”

Ewan held up his hand to silence them. The throbbing in his head had escalated to a full-blown ache. He leveled a stare at Maddie, who had been listening to everything with rapt attention.

“You may go now, Maddie. I fully expect that everything that has been said here will remain strictly confidential. If gossip gets about the keep, I’ll know where it originated.”

Maddie rose and dropped a curtsy. “Of course, Laird.”

She hurried off and then Ewan turned to his brothers.

“Tell me you aren’t considering this madness,” Alaric cut in before Ewan could get a word out.

“What madness do you think I’m considering?” Ewan asked mildly.

“Marriage. Believing that the lass is the bastard daughter of Alexander, which makes her the niece of our current king. Not to mention half sister of the man who spent ten years trying to usurp David from the throne. And would do so again given the least opportunity.”

“What I believe is that the lass and I are due for a long conversation. I intend to see this mark for myself. Given the relationship between our father and Alexander, I’ve seen his royal seal on more than one occasion. I’d know if the mark on her leg is the true one.”

Caelen snorted. “And you think she’s going to lift her skirts for you to see this brand? She’s more likely to knee you in the testicles for the offense.”

“I can be persuasive when the situation calls for it,” Ewan drawled.

“This, I’d love to see,” Alaric said.

Ewan raised his eyebrows. “You’ll see nothing of the sort. If I catch you even looking like you want a glimpse under Mairin Stuart’s skirts, I’ll pin you to the wall with my broadsword.”

Alaric raised his hands in defense. “Forget I said anything. You’re awfully touchy about a lass you claim annoys you to no end.”

“If the lass is who Maddie says she is, I aim to marry her,” Ewan said grimly. “Our clan needs the coin her dowry would provide.”

Simultaneously, his brothers’ mouths dropped. Caelen cursed loudly and Alaric shook his head and sent his eyes heavenward.

“Think about what you’re saying,” Caelen said.

“I believe I’m the only one who is thinking,” Ewan returned. “If ’tis true that her firstborn inherits Neamh Álainn, think about what this would mean for our clan. We would control the choicest lands in the whole of Scotland. No longer would we sit here dreaming about the day we take our revenge on Duncan Cameron. We would decimate him and his name. He would be obliterated from history. Our name would be avenged. The McCabe clan would be second only to the king. No one, and I mean no one, would ever have the power to destroy us as Dunca Cameron nearly did eight years ago.”

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