Scottish Highlands, 1502
Caitrin Fletcher wrapped her arms around her middle and stared out the open window. “I willna go. Ye canna make me.” There was no point in starting an argument, one she knew she would lose, but she didn’t know what else to do. Outside, the sky brightened and wind blew aside the morning fog long enough for her to see her father and some of the men saddling horses. It was nearly time. In moments, she would leave the only home she’d ever known, perhaps forever.
Her old nurse, Rona, sighed behind her while she packed the last of Caitrin’s things. Caitrin heard something clatter to the floor but didn’t turn around to see what fell. To do that would be to face what she could not bear to see—her small chamber, stripped of all her belongings.
Her father was bent on sending her to foster with a clan of strangers. She didn’t understand why. Had she done something wrong? Why wouldn’t he tell her? Surely now Mama was gone, he’d want to keep her close by. Not send her away to people she didn’t know.
Rona’s footsteps approached. “I dinna believe a lass of nine summers has much to say about it when her da has his mind made up.”
Caitrin cringed. The weight of Rona’s hands on her shoulders nearly made her shaky knees collapse. The back of her eyes burned. She would not cry. She would not!
“Yer da is doin’ what he believes is the best for ye, lass.”
“Nay, he isna.”
Rona turned Caitrin to face her.
Caitrin kept her head down, refusing to meet her nurse’s gaze. For the second time in a month, her world was falling in on her.
“Do ye think this is easy for him, lass? He misses yer ma, too.”
Caitrin’s eyes welled, and no matter how hard she tried to prevent it, a tear leaked and trickled down her cheek.
“Now, lass, ye needna cry. The Lathans are no’ strangers to yer da. He wouldna send ye there unless he kent they would care for ye as one of their own.”
She bit her lip against the uncomfortable sensation of bees buzzing on her skin that had begun with Rona’s last words. “Ye’re just saying that. Trying to make me feel better. But it isna working.”
“Nay, lass, ’tis true. All will be well.”
“I ken ye’re lying to me. I can feel it. There’s something wrong.”
Rona gave her a little shake. “Look at me, lass, and listen. Ye must stop. Ye canna frighten people when ye reach yer new home. Do ye wish to be left all alone?”
Caitrin shook her head, gaze still on the floor and Rona’s boots though the torment on her skin had faded.
“Ye willna have any friends.” Rona continued, “Nay other lasses to play with. That isna what ye want, now is it?”
“Nay!” Caitrin couldn’t help it. The word came out as a wail, and tears washed down her cheeks much as they had when her da told her Mama had gone to the angels, and a wee bairn along with her.
Rona wrapped thin arms around her and hugged. “If ye keep what ye can do to yerself, ye’ll be fine, lass. No’ a soul needs to ken.” For a moment, Caitrin let herself be comforted, wrapped in the warmth of her old nurse’s embrace as she had been so many times before. But even that comfort could not console her. This might be the last time for that, too.
“I’ll ken.” Her words came out as a hiccup and Caitrin’s tears fell faster. “I’ll ken when they lie. It hurts me. How can I pretend I dinna ken when I do?”
“Ye must find a way, lass. Ach, my wee lassie, ye will find a way. Listen to their words, no’ what ye sense. Ye must learn to hold yer tongue.”
“Why can ye no’ come with me?”
“We’ve talked about this, lass. I’m too old to make the trip. I must stay here and take care of yer da.”
The bees came back. Caitrin wrenched away from Rona, shaking her head. “Da doesna need ye to care for him. He has all those men.” She pointed to the window where she’d seen the men saddling horses. “And servants. And…and…”
“Hush, now. What’s done is done.” Rona turned back to the bag on the bed, put in the last few items and closed it. “There, all set.”
Her voice sounded strangely hoarse. What was she hiding?
“Put on yer cloak, lass, and let’s get ye down to yer da for a proper leave-taking.”
Caitrin stood helpless under the onslaught of emotions as Rona draped the travel cloak over her shoulders and did up the clasp at the throat. Somehow, she found the will to protest. “Must I, really? This isna all just a bad dream?”
“’Tis real enough. But ’twill be a grand adventure.” Rona’s lips compressed into a shadow of a smile. “Ye’ll see.”
Caitrin’s chest hurt. Through the wash of tears, she barely saw the room she was leaving. As she made her way downstairs, her heart suddenly weighed more than the bag she carried.
Scottish Highlands, Spring 1518
“A rider approaches!” The tower guard’s voice rang out over the bailey. At the sound, Jamie Lathan hesitated long enough to earn a solid blow across his back from the flat of the claymore wielded by his cousin—and best friend. The breath left his chest in a whoosh. “Damn it, Toran!” he choked out and dropped to his knees.
Toran Lathan stood grinning, one eyebrow raised, waiting.
Jamie knew what he wanted—a concession in the long-running jest between them. “Very well, Laird, I let myself be distracted and ye bested me. Are ye satisfied?”
Toran laughed and planted the point of his blade in the packed dirt, ending their sparring session. In the failing afternoon sunlight, the blade cast a long, thin shadow between their larger silhouettes. “’Twas Donal’s favorite tactic to use on me. It’s taken me the six months since he left us and married Ellie MacKyrie, but I finally figured out how he does it.”
“Am I supposed to be proud of ye?” Jamie took a moment just to breathe. “Tell it to Donal the next time we visit the MacKyrie keep.”
“Nay. I’d rather show him.” Toran waggled his eyebrows, promising retribution with a grin and reaching out a hand to pull Jamie to his feet. “For now, ’tis a good time to stop this—it’ll soon be too dark to see ye land on yer arse when I knock ye down again. Let’s find out who’s coming up the ridge. I wasna aware we were expecting visitors.”
Jamie nodded and sheathed his weapon. “I hate to admit it, but I’m starting to miss our former arms master,” he muttered, rubbing his sword arm as they climbed the tower stairs. “I havena needed this much sparring since we were lads.”
“I never expected Donal to fall for a pretty face, but I canna be completely sorry he’s gone. He married well with Ellie.”
“Better than that skeptical bastard deserved, aye.”
“And his absence gives me the chance to knock ye on yer arse now and again.”
Jamie laughed. “Beware, my laird. I’ll be knocking ye on yers before too long. If ye’d stop sending me out as yer envoy, I’d have more time to train.”
Toran chuckled, failing to take his warning seriously.
As Jamie intended. Humor made a fine weapon, too, which Toran should have learned by now. And Jamie had mastered the taunting that cemented their friendship as young lads well beyond the bonds of blood they shared as cousins.
They arrived on the battlement as the rider reached the gate. “Who are ye?” Toran called down in answer to the rider’s hail.
“I bear a message from the Fletcher for the Lathan.”
Toran raised an eyebrow at Jamie then nodded to the gate guard. “Let him in.”
“A message from the Fletcher?” As they made their way back down the tower stairs to the bailey, Jamie’s chest tightened. “That’s a name we havena heard in years.”
Toran shrugged. “At least five, or is it six, since Caitrin Fletcher was called home?”
“Closer to six years.” Jamie’s heart skipped a beat, but he kept his pace even and his voice level. “So does the Fletcher have another daughter to foster with us?”
“We’re about to find out.”
The Fletcher ghillie dismounted as Toran and Jamie reached him.
“I’m Lathan,” Toran announced. “This is Jamie. Welcome to the Aerie.” As they greeted him, lads led his horse away to be cared for in the stable.
“I’m Uilleam Fletcher. Call me Will,” he said, offering his hand. “I have a letter for ye from my laird.” Toran gripped his arm then told him, “Let’s get a draught to warm ye. Ye can give me yer message inside.”
“My thanks.” Will shuddered. “’Twas a long, cold ride.”
Jamie’s curiosity got the better of him as they walked. “Do ye ken what message ye carry?”
“Aye,” Will answered, stepping through the doorway into the Aerie’s Great Hall. “’Tis about his daughter, Caitrin.”
Jamie exchanged a glance with Toran while they led their guest toward the hearth. Caitrin! A memory flashed before his eyes. Caitrin, coltish and beautiful, not long before she was sent away, while she laughed at something Toran said. But Jamie recalled her gaze moved quickly to him, and he’d never forgotten the flash of need he’d experienced. The need he’d never been able to satisfy.
He held onto his composure and nodded to their guest. “The dinner hour has passed, but I’ll send to the kitchen and see something is brought out to ye,” he offered, taking a step back to allow the Fletcher ghillie to deliver his message to the Lathan. His wave got the attention of a serving girl.
“I’ll no’ refuse yer kindness,” Will said with a sigh as he finished warming his hands at the hearth. He pulled a rolled-up vellum from his shirt and handed it to Toran. “I’m to say to ye that the Fletcher would be most pleased to receive a swift reply or action, since he is bound away from his keep within a hand of days.”
Toran nodded. “Ye’ll stay the night and return on the morrow with my answer, if one is required.”
The man dipped his head in thanks and took the seat Toran pointed to. In a moment, a serving girl brought a platter piled high with sliced meat, cheese, and bread.
After Toran gave the girl orders to see a bed prepared for their guest, he took his leave, gesturing for Jamie to accompany him. On the way upstairs, Toran ordered one of his men to stay with the Fletcher ghillie and see to his comfort and security.
“I’m all for providing guest-right,” Toran told Jamie, as they made their way down the hall, “but I willna have a stranger moving about the Aerie unescorted.”
In the solar, they settled by the hearth with a dram of the best MacKyrie whisky, a gift from Donal McNabb’s new bride. Toran broke the seal on the velum.
Jamie sipped and stared at the fire, watching out of the corner of his eye as Toran read the Fletcher’s request and frowned.
Finally, Toran dropped the letter into his lap and leaned his head against the high back of his chair.
“Well?” Jamie kept his tone even, despite the chill that had washed over him as the mention of Caitrin Fletcher’s name. It brought back memories of terrible days he’d thought long suppressed. Even the fine MacKyrie whisky couldn’t seem to chase them from him. What had happened to her now that would cause the Fletcher to involve the Lathan?
Toran didn’t leave him guessing for long. “Our friend and ally requests I lend the prestige of the Lathan name and presence to secure the betrothal of his only and cherished daughter, Caitrin Olivia Fletcher, to the MacGregor.”
Jamie’s heart sank even as he blew out a relieved breath that she must be well. He’d been right not to seek her out in the years since the tragedy that took her from him. Though he had no claim on her, the news that she was about to marry saddened him.
“The MacGregor?” He’d known a MacGregor at St. Andrews. “The Lathan name and presence?” He set his drink aside, a crease deepening between his eyebrows. “Why would he think he needs ye there to convince the MacGregor to marry Caitrin? Wait. Olivia?” The name ‘Olivia’ didn’t fit the tomboy lass Jamie remembered.
Toran cleared his throat. “In a nutshell, aye. There’s more, of course.”
Jamie’s lips quirked. “Of course.”
“He’s leaving early to begin the negotiation with the MacGregor in person. He doesna want to bring Caitrin with him and put her at risk, unless he kens she’ll be honored and safe in the MacGregor’s keep.” Toran huffed out a sigh and tapped his knee with his free hand.
Jamie straightened, trying to recall his days at university. “The auld MacGregor died at Flodden, aye? Who is laird now?”
Jamie thought for a moment, then the face came to him. “I kent him in school. Her safety is no’ a good worry to have. But it doesna sound like the lad I met at St. Andrews. Is it justified?”
“I havena dealt with MacGregor. No’ yet.”
Jamie frowned, not liking the implication of Toran’s half-answer. What did he know?
“Fletcher isna much to regard. His holding is small, so he canna call on many men to fight for him, though he lost very few at Flodden. But we must avoid making an enemy of him,” Toran warned. “Caitrin’s to be the final enticement to Fletcher’s ambitions, it seems, along with the prestige and presence of the Lathan laird, and MacGregor’s approval of the lass.” He read from the document on his knee. “Fletcher recalls our fondness for her as a child and promises she has bloomed most handsomely into her maturity, a woman any man would be proud to call wife.”
“What the hell does he mean?” Jamie shook his head. “She’s three years younger than we are. That’s no’ too old to wed.”
“He makes it sound as though she fell from a horse onto her face.” Toran gave a quick grin and then shrugged. “Which, recalling our Caitrin, is quite possible. We spent five years trying to keep her out of trouble.”
Jamie snorted. “No’ the Caitrin I remember,” he objected. It came to him then that Toran had even prevailed on Jamie’s older sister to keep her occupied, but sadly, she’d had little use for a lass five years her junior. Perhaps if she had, things would have ended differently. Jamie shook his head at the memory and returned his attention to Toran. “She was all knees and elbows by the time she left us, aye, but she was pretty enough for a lass of fourteen summers.”
“So ye did have a yen for her. I thought so, even then. Ye canna deny it.”
“Ye’re daft.” Jamie hid his annoyance at Toran’s allegation by picking up his cup and studying the liquid left in it. Toran was right, of course. Jamie had admired Caitrin’s spirit and never objected to her company, even welcoming it as she grew. Much to Toran’s dismay. Jamie had never been sure if Toran thought of her as a pesky younger sister or if he’d suspected she was sweet on him and didn’t want to encourage her. That possibility was something they’d never discussed.
“No’ so daft as all that,” Toran replied, smirking. “I can see the effect her name has on ye, six years later.”
Jamie snorted again then took a big swallow from his cup, coughing and spluttering as the strong spirit hit the back of his throat and burned all the way to his belly. At least he hoped the whisky caused it and not heat of another kind. He hadn’t seen Caitrin in six years, and she was about to be betrothed. At the time, their friendship had been innocent enough, for a while. Had he really cared for her? Or been jealous of any attention she paid Toran? Either way, he had no business resurrecting feelings he’d fought to contain as a hot-blooded lad. He’d never stood a chance with her and thought he’d accepted her loss. Now this. Would he steal her from her intended if the opportunity presented itself?
Toran smirked. “Ye’re going to like the rest of what I have to say even less.”
Jamie stilled, suddenly wary.
“Ye ken I canna go.”
Jamie frowned, apprehension turning the whisky’s burn to ice in his belly.
“Ye’ll go in my stead. I’ll give ye a letter for the Fletcher, and one for the MacGregor. Aye, it will extol the virtues of our former fosterling and playmate of our childhood.” Toran paused. “On second thought, I’d best leave out that part.”
Jamie Lathan glared at his laird and best friend. “Ye jest.”
Toran shrugged. “Aileana is determined to provide our clan with a wealth of sons and daughters. Our triplets are no’ yet a year old, and she says she’ll deliver twins by the full moon. Ye ken with her talent, she’s never wrong about such things. She’d skin me alive if I told her I planned to travel for weeks with a lass from my past, even if it is to deliver Caitrin to another man. Besides, better ye than me,” he groused. “She was a wee pest, following us around, ruining our hunts with her noise and her sympathy for the creatures.”
His smirk warned Jamie he had more to say.
“Aye,” he continued, “but ye thought her a bonnie lass. I’ll wager she’ll be even more bonnie now, despite what Fletcher implies.”
“Ye’re imagining things.”
“Is that why ye dinna wish to make this trip? Ye fear ye’ll fall for her again?”
“Fear? Ye are daft! I’m no’ afraid of any lass. Least of all one ye used to dunk in the burn to get her out of our hair.” Jamie grimaced at the memory of Caitrin running to the keep for dry clothes. He’d done what he could for her, but unlike now, in those days, he hadn’t dared to object too strongly. Toran wasn’t the heir, but he was the laird’s son.
“I think ye are afraid of this one.”
Toran’s chuckle failed to elicit the same response. Jamie just groaned.
The next morning, as he gathered what he needed for another foray from the Aerie, Jamie still wrestled with the idea of seeing Caitrin Fletcher. He had done his best to forget her these last six years. He’d thought never to see her again, certainly not before she was married off and mother to a keep-full of bairns. That she remained unwed rankled like a thistle under his seat. Despite what he’d admit to Toran, the idea of escorting her to her betrothal to another man cut him to the core. He went to the window and looked out over the keep, but didn’t see any of it, only her. The lass she’d been six years ago.
Perhaps she’d forgotten him.
How had Caitrin fared in the six years since they’d last been together? At fourteen, auburn-haired and brown-eyed, she’d been coltish, but had shown promise. Surely by now she was a woman grown into her beauty. He regretted the circumstances under which she’d left the Aerie, but she’d been sent home for her own good. The events of that time still weighed heavily on him. He hoped she’d never learned the details.
His sister’s body had been found in the woods where the wee lads and lassies often played. The clan elders had deemed the area outside the keep no longer safe, locked the Lathan children inside the Aerie’s walls and sent Caitrin home to Fletcher. The rest of the summer had passed in a cloud of fear and suspicion, but his sister’s killer had never been found. Since then, he hadn’t wished to remind Caitrin of the tragedy, or the grief of her leave-taking, and so had kept his distance. As much as it still hurt, he accepted the necessity.
Since it was his fault.
Pushing away the memories, he rubbed the back of his neck. What was he doing, packing to accompany the Fletcher ghillie back to their keep? He clenched his fists. Following Toran’s orders, as usual. Instead of dwelling on the past, he tried to imagine the Caitrin of today. She’d be taller, certainly, lithe and strong, since she’d always loved to be active. She used to run Toran and him ragged trying to avoid her, outfox her, or, worst case, outrun her.
That last had been getting hard to do by the time she’d left. Her coltish legs carried her nearly as fast as the lads she chased in their games. She could climb a tree, nock an arrow and hit dead center in a target, even wield a practice sword as well as either of them. Only the weight of a real sword slowed her down. But she’d been hell with a dirk, Jamie thought, smiling. Her intended husband had better never cross her, or he might find himself missing certain favorite parts of his anatomy. That idea elicited a chuckle, breaking Jamie from his reverie, and reminding him he had more than one mission to accomplish.
Toran not only wanted him to stand in his stead as the escort the Fletcher requested, but to sound out the MacGregor, and if at all possible, get his signature on the Lathan treaty.
Many old feuds had died along with the lairds and their heirs who were killed with King James IV while fighting the English four years before at Flodden Fields. To take advantage of the thaw in relations between the local clans, Toran had conceived a mutual-defense treaty. Since the lowlander incursion last year brought his healer wife, Aileana, Toran had become even more determined to see the treaty succeed. The journey to MacGregor offered an unexpected opportunity.
And a dilemma for Jamie.
What had become of the MacGregor, once his schoolmate at St. Andrews? Had he, like Toran, risen to the demands of the position he never expected to hold? Was he, like Jamie, forced by circumstance to do things he’d very much prefer not to do? Clenching his teeth, Jamie tossed another shirt into his bag and added a spare dirk for good measure. He closed the bag as someone knocked on his chamber door.
“Are ye ready?” Toran said as he stepped in, unbidden.
“Come to offer last minute advice?” Jamie tied the bag closed then regarded his friend, nay, his laird.
“Of a sort.” Toran propped a hip on the window ledge and crossed his arms over his chest.
Jamie hefted his bag in one hand and claymore in the other. “And?” Something in Toran’s posture made him set them down again.
“Have a care. The MacGregor is powerful, and there are rumors…”
So, Toran did ken more than he’d admitted last night. “What kind of rumors?”
“Rumors telling me he may no’ be a good match for our Caitrin.”
“Our Caitrin, is it now?” Jamie ran a hand through his hair. What was Toran leading up to? “Last night, ye wrote her off as a horse-faced pest.”
Toran stood. “I didna call her horse-faced, as well ye ken. I said she might have fallen off a horse onto her face. She was a bit clumsy in the early days.”
“As are most lasses—and lads—at that age. I recall a few trips and spills of my own—and yers,” Jamie retorted.
“She was a bit of a pest. Ye have to admit that.”
“I dinna have to admit anything of the sort, least of all to ye.” He bent and retrieved his bag and longsword then faced his laird again, one eyebrow cocked. “She worshipped the ground ye walked on. I’d think ye wouldha missed her, given nay other woman has been fool enough to do so since.” Jamie hefted his claymore and turned toward the door.
“Until Aileana? Or do ye mean Coira?”
Toran spoke so softly, Jamie barely heard his question. He glanced over his shoulder and instantly regretted his words. Toran’s expression told him his comment had brought Coira to mind, the woman who stabbed Aileana at their wedding dinner had nearly been killed by Donal in defense of his laird’s new bride. Though badly wounded, Aileana managed to save Coira’s life. Toran had sent Coira home as soon as she could travel. Her escort had returned, reporting her safe delivery and that had been the end of any mention of her name in the Aerie. Jamie was perfectly at ease with the fact that they’d never heard from her again. Bringing her to Toran’s mind was a mistake. He mentally kicked himself. He had wanted to keep his leave-taking lighthearted, despite their disagreement over this mission. They’d been friends too long to part in anger. “I suppose every woman has her weakness.” It was a feeble jest, but the best he could manage.
Toran glanced up, grunted, and gave Jamie a lopsided grin. “Perhaps Caitrin will be weak where ye are concerned.”
“Dinna be ridiculous,” Jamie answered with a snort.
Grinning now, Toran continued as if Jamie had not spoken. “If so, the MacGregor might, for the sake of yer former acquaintance, give ye a chance to explain yerself, or he might hang ye all the faster.” His expression turned serious, and he held up a hand, forestalling Jamie’s objection. “I ken what I’m asking of ye, but I trust ye to do what’s right. Hear me on this, Jamie. MacGregor is rumored to be raiding his neighbors. If he’s foolish enough to risk another clan war, and if yer mission goes wrong, it could undo all the work we’ve done on the treaty. Get him to sign so the treaty clans can control him. And get the betrothal done.”
Jamie gave up trying to lighten Toran’s mood—or his own. “Ye give me nay choice in the matter, laird.”
Toran stepped forward and clapped Jamie on the back. “Let’s get ye on yer way. I canna wait to hear how this turns out.”
Caitrin Fletcher shook out an undershift and paused to watch the dust motes dance in a beam of sunlight. Here she was, eleven years later, in her old room at Fletcher, doing the same thing she’d been forced to do as a nine-year-old lass, preparing to go live with strangers. Much about today differed from the last time—a dark, foggy morning then, a bright, sunny afternoon now. This time, she did the packing, while her old nursemaid, Rona, sat by, keeping her company. Then, she’d fought and cried, and begged her father not to send her away. This time, her father had gone ahead to negotiate the terms of the betrothal, and she looked forward to joining him.
She folded the garment and picked up another. It wasn’t that she yearned to marry, or to marry the MacGregor in particular. She didn’t know him, or even much about him. Rich and powerful, with lands and an army of his own. That about summed up all her father had told her. Things important to a man, to a laird, but not the other things she wished she knew, such as his age, his temperament, or what he looked like. But her father very much wanted this match to improve the standing of the Fletchers. If she became the MacGregor lady, surely her clan would benefit. She would see to it.
Again, she paused to imagine how her future husband might appear. Dark red hair, she decided, so dark it might be thought brown or black in some light. Tall and strong, with a square jaw and commanding manner, but a sense of humor, too. Deep blue eyes that warmed her with a glance and sparkled with mirth when he laughed.
But wait. Suddenly, she felt flushed all over. Though it grieved her, at this moment, she was glad Rona’s eyesight was poor enough she would not see her skin pinking from head to toe. The image forming in her mind was not of a stranger, but of a lad that she’d known well, until six years ago. A friend, the only Lathan male who tolerated her childish presence at first.
Not that she expected to see him again. Her father had asked for the Lathan to escort her, feeling the presence of the young laird, who had influence in the highlands, might increase the clan Fletcher standing in the negotiations, and in the eyes of the MacGregor. So Toran would be her escort. She stifled a quick flare of disappointment. Seeing him again, she supposed, would be good. But, he was not the one she wanted to see.
Unless, among the men who surely would travel with Toran as guard and escort, he brought Jamie. Her pulse kicked up at the thought. The highlands were still a dangerous place, despite Toran’s best efforts to mend relations between formerly feuding clans. Toran would bring a dozen men, she guessed, perhaps more, to avoid risking her person or his relations with the Fletchers or MacGregors. Surely, he and Jamie were still close. They’d been thick as thieves as boys, never one without the other.
Nor without her, when she could catch up to them.
Once he knew they were to escort her, their wee pest of a friend they hadn’t seen in six years, surely he’d bring Jamie with him.
Caitrin clutched a kirtle to her chest and sank onto the bed, heedless of sitting on the clothes waiting to be sorted and folded.
“What is it, lass?” Rona might be nearly blind, but her ears were sharp as a bat’s. From her seat in the rocking chair across the room, she missed nothing, not the slight shift of fabric, nor the give of the ropes beneath the mattress.
“What if Jamie comes with the Lathan? He and Toran were inseparable.”
“That was six years gone, ye ken. They’re men grown. I doubt they’re in each others’ pockets the way they were back then. And if they are still close, perhaps Jamie is the one Toran trusts to leave behind in his stead to hold his keep.”
Caitrin’s heart sank. She clutched the kirtle, wrinkling the fabric mercilessly. “Ach, I didna think of that.”
“Ye’ve spent the last six years pining for a lad who couldna be bothered to call on ye. Now ye’re about to be betrothed to another man. ’Tis no’ the time to be wishin’ the lad would appear before ye.” Rona pursed her papery lips. “’Tis best to put him out of yer thoughts.”
“Perhaps ye have the right of it.” Caitrin’s eyes narrowed. Out of her thoughts? Possibly. Out of her heart? Never.
“Well, then, have ye finished packing?”
“And do ye recall what I told ye the last time ye were about to leave me?”
A sense of desolation swamped her, but it was only a memory, quickly dismissed. “Aye. Keep my talent a secret. Dinna tell anyone lest ye willna have any friends and nay lasses to play with.”
“Ye’re a might old to be worrying about finding playmates. Especially as ye’ll be lady of the clan and mistress of the keep. But ye mustna risk revealing yer ability in a clan full of strangers. They may no’ be as accepting of the old ways as I am.”
“I ken it. And I’m grateful for yer care and counsel, Rona.” Caitrin’s hackles rose at the thought of ruining her father’s plans for her and for their clan. She could not do that. She must be careful.
“Only if ye…if there is nay other way to save yerself. Do ye ken?”
Caitrin sighed. “Aye.”
“Well, then, that’s that. We’ve had the talk. Ye ken what to expect from yer husband should ye wed.”
Caitrin felt heat climbing into her face and knew she blushed again. But she kept her voice steady, secure in the knowledge Rona could not see her embarrassment. “Aye.”
“’Tis no’ so bad, after the first time. And if the MacGregor is the right man for ye, yer coupling may well be a joy. I wish it so for ye, lass.”
Suddenly, Caitrin struggled to find her voice around the lump in her throat. She sensed Rona was saying goodbye in the only way she knew how, counseling her one last time, reminding her of the things most important to her future. A future she would face, again, without her old nurse.
I’ll miss ye, as I did then.
“Ye ken I wish ye could go with me.” Caitrin choked on the words, but Rona’s smile told her they were enough.
The trip from the Lathan Aerie to the Fletcher keep took two days. Most of that time passed in silence. Apparently, the Fletcher ghillie did not indulge in idle conversation, ever. Jamie tried a few leading questions about Fletcher’s aspirations with the MacGregor, about Caitrin, about the state of affairs in Clan Fletcher, but Will provided, at best, one sentence in reply, often only one-syllable responses—aye or nay, or merely a grunt of acknowledgement.
Jamie supposed it could have been worse. The man could have talked his ear off the entire trip, though at least then, Jamie might have gleaned a hint or two about the situation before him. Toran’s mention of rumors about the MacGregor made Jamie itch in his ribs under his arm, where he’d taken an arrow last year and nearly died. Not only was he concerned about what he might be getting into, but what he might be taking Caitrin Fletcher into. Yet, she was the linchpin. The enticement. The one thing the Fletcher pinned his hopes to for the betterment of his clan. Fletcher’s clan, not Lathan’s. So what about this trip, this errand, made Jamie uneasy?
He shifted in his saddle and considered the problem from another angle. He no longer knew the MacGregor. Their time together at St. Andrews was five years gone, and they hadn’t been close. Arriving only a few months after his sister’s death, Jamie had not been the most motivated of students and as a result, had fallen under the watchful eye of several of his tutors, which meant extra hours of study. MacGregor completed his time at St. Andrews during Jamie’s second session there. Before Alasdair left, he had been more interested in socializing and more practiced at getting around his tutors, so they rarely crossed paths. But taking on the mantle of leadership changed a man, especially if that burden came unexpectedly, as it had to many younger sons—and daughters—of lairds killed at Flodden. Chances were, Jamie would barely recognize Alasdair MacGregor when they met again.
Of course, Jamie no longer knew Caitrin Fletcher, either. He hadn’t laid eyes on her in six years. She might be nothing like the bonnie lass she’d been as a fosterling with clan Lathan. Since then, she’d had six years to grow up, six years to change, six years to harden, six years to…oh, hell. He bit his lower lip for a moment, trying to distract himself, but it didn’t work. What if she remained exactly the same? He’d been half in love with her then. Half maddened by any notice she gave Toran. How would it feel to see her now? No longer a lass too young for his attentions, but a woman ripe for marriage…and the marriage bed. Bollocks. This line of thinking was getting him nowhere good.
And how would she react when she saw him? She probably expected Toran, primed for battle, ready to defend against his teasing and taunting. Or to use well-practiced feminine wiles to gain his favor, or her revenge. Jamie regretted some of the things they’d done at Toran’s instigation while trying to rid themselves of their unwanted and annoying shadow. At least that’s how Toran had characterized her, and Jamie had no doubt she knew it. Toran never hid how he felt. But if Toran had been the one to make this trip, to escort her to her betrothal, she’d have been surprised at the changes in him since he’d been forced to become the Lathan laird. Bearing that responsibility, he’d grown up, matured, in all the ways that mattered. Even more since Aileana’s arrival.
More than likely, Caitrin would be prepared for an interesting, even irritating, trip to her betrothal, but no more than that. She’d be focused on her eagerness, or her anxiety, to meet her prospective husband. Women obsessed about such things.
Jamie glanced around at Kyle and the four other Lathans riding with him on the way to guard and escort Caitrin. Donal had trained them well to fight, but also to avoid a fight. Judging by their silence and the movement of their eyes as they rode, they were alert and aware of their surroundings. They would be even more careful once Caitrin joined them. It wouldn’t do to let her be stolen away by bandits or brigands or lowlanders. The territory between the Fletcher and the MacGregor keeps was not known to be particularly dangerous, but it paid to be prepared. A large party attracted attention a smaller party might avoid. Toran wanted allies, not enemies. Peace, not war.
Finally, Jamie looked down upon a broad glen. At Will’s nod, he surmised they’d arrived. The Fletcher keep was a tower house with wings built off two sides, added, Jamie supposed, years or even generations after the original tower had been built to secure the surrounding glen. Like most keeps of its type, the tower’s ground floor had no windows and only one door. The first floor above it had tall, narrow slits, openings for raining arrows down upon an attacker. Above those were larger, glazed windows, intended to provided light and air to the living quarters. The wings boasted small windows on the ground floor and larger ones above, where Jamie supposed were more living quarters.
All in all, it was an impressive keep, though not on the scale of the Lathan’s Aerie, and certainly not as imposing as Donal and Ellie MacKyrie’s keep. But it would do to protect the inhabitants, allow for a defense, and if worse came to worst, hold off attackers long enough for help to arrive.
Jamie anticipated no problems getting the Fletcher to sign Toran’s treaty. He would welcome allies. The MacGregor might be another matter entirely.
MacGregor had an army of his own and might find a treaty such as Toran’s unnecessary. iI he had designs on his neighbors’ lands and goods, he might even find it inhibiting. Toran’s warning echoed in Jamie’s mind. He’d be wise to tread carefully until he understood the situation, and not assume he knew the MacGregor based on his recollections of a lad from school.
But now, he had a more pleasant matter to deal with. Caitrin. Where was she?
An older man exited the keep’s stout door, followed by several lads. “Uilleam, I see ye were successful.” At Will’s nod toward Jamie, he continued speaking. “Greetings, Laird Lathan.”
Jamie shook his head. “I fear I must disappoint ye. I am Jamie Lathan, envoy, come to answer the Fletcher’s request at my laird’s bidding.”
“Ah, be welcome then. I am steward here, Hugh Fletcher at yer service.” He gestured to the lads with him. “These laddies will take yer mounts to be cared for. Come within. I’ll get ye and yer men settled, and send lady Caitrin word ye’ve arrived.”
“Thank ye. I’m looking forward to meeting her again.”
Jamie beckoned to his men as the taciturn Will dismounted.
“I’ll leave ye in Hugh’s capable hands,” Will said. “I must speak to Caitrin.” He headed for the door before Jamie had a chance to respond.
Jamie frowned briefly at his back then, at Hugh’s gesture, moved forward. He stepped into the Fletcher keep’s windowless lower floor behind the steward. Will had already passed through and disappeared.
Torches lined the walls, every other one lit to illuminate the large space. A hearthfire glowed in the opposite corner of the room and stairs ran along one wall, ending opposite the entry. Under the stairs, a low doorway gave into a hall Jamie surmised to be in one of the wings built after the original tower. Sure enough, Hugh led them through. The Lathan men had to duck to get under the lintel. Doorways lined the hall and stairs were visible at the far end. Hugh indicated several doors. “These are guest-chambers. Make yerselves comfortable as ye see fit. There is water for bathing in each, should ye care to clean up before ye meet the mistress.”
Jamie grinned. “Aye, and welcome that will be.”
“An hour, then?” Hugh asked. “The evening meal will be served at that time in the tower hall above stairs.”
“We’ll join ye, then. I look forward to renewing my acquaintance with Lady Fletcher.”
Rona answered the knock on the door as Caitrin finished brushing out her hair. At Uilleam’s low-voiced greeting, the old nurse stood aside and allowed him entry.
Caitrin’s nerves tightened. The Lathans were here. But which Lathans? “Will, it was ye who rode up. I thought as much.” Caitrin stood and went to the Fletcher ghillie, placing her hand on his forearm in greeting. “It’s good to have ye back. Did the Lathan return with ye?”
“Thank ye. And nay, Toran Lathan didna make the trip. His wife is nearing her childbed, so he was loathe to leave.”
“Toran, married?” The woman must be a saint. “Who came with ye, then?” Caitrin’s heart beat a little faster. She took a calming breath and told herself not to be a silly fool.
“He sent an envoy and a handful of others to escort ye.”
Could it be? “Do these Lathans have names?” Trust Will to withhold the one piece of news she could not wait to hear.
So that was the game he played. “Will…”
He narrowed his eyes, but a corner of his mouth quirked up. “I answered yer question.”
Caitrin huffed an exasperated breath. “What are their names? I wish to find out if I kent any of them while I lived there.”
“Ye’ll see them all at evening meal, won’t ye?”
He glanced at Rona, but since she couldn’t see his expression, Caitrin knew he’d get no help there.
“Verra well. The envoy is Jamie Lathan.”
Caitrin’s heart beat faster at the mention of his name. Jamie, at Fletcher! After all these years.
Only the slight knitting of Rona’s brow signaled her displeasure at this news.
Caitrin kept her expression calm as Will named the other Lathans, Kyle, Bram, Ewan and Lorn. None seemed familiar.
“I argued for a larger group,” Will continued, “but the Lathan and his envoy both felt a smaller party would attract less notice.”
Caitrin managed not to roll her eyes. “They did? Well, let’s hope they are correct.” A sudden case of nerves plagued her. Her hands tingled and she wanted to pace, but her chamber felt too crowded. What she’d hoped for had come to pass. Now she had to deal with it and with him. Jamie. What if Rona was right and she’d spent the last six years imagining rather than remembering him? She could only guess who he was now. How had he changed from the gangly lad she knew?
The lad who’d insisted she leave the Aerie when she’d come to him in tears with the news they were sending her home. She’d thought he would defend her and argue for her to remain, safe behind the Aerie’s high walls. But he’d surprised her. Toran had said she was too young to ken what was best for her, and to do what she was told. But for Jamie to agree? That hurt. At the time, it felt like a betrayal. She still didn’t know what about his sister’s death had made her safety an issue, since the body had been found in the forest, but the entire keep had been in an uproar. And the look in Jamie’s eyes that day had broken her heart.
“To risk ye with so small an escort?”
Will’s voice sounded like an echo of something she’d heard that awful day, but it served to yank her attention back to the present. At least this time, she had some control over the arrangements being made in her name.
“Nay,” he continued. “Fletchers will ride with ye, too.”
She nodded, knowing he meant well. “Ye ken I’d be proud to have ye with me, Uilleam. But I want to hear what Jamie Lathan has to say before we decide on the size of the escort.”
“There’s naught to decide. Yer safety is most important. Yer da would never forgive yer loss.”
“Yet, he’s bargaining to be rid of me as we speak.” Her lips compressed into a stubborn line. This tugging her to and fro felt all too familiar.
“Lass,” Rona chided.
“Only for the good of the clan,” said Will, who could see her expression. “And yer own, married to a rich and powerful laird. ’Tis a better match than he could find for ye here.”
Caitrin couldn’t miss the frustration in his tone, but she shrugged and moved to the window to let Uilleam’s statement pass unremarked. How all of this commotion must gall him. Not just the commotion, but the reason for it. Her betrothal.
The empty courtyard below didn’t surprise her. She expected Hugh would have already brought the Lathan party to the guest quarters. She just needed some space from Will’s pronouncements.
“I’d best go check with Cook.” At Uilleam’s stern look, she smiled. He did have her best interests at heart. He did not deserve her pique. “We have guests. I must be hostess in my da’s stead and make sure all is prepared.”
“Very well. I’ll escort ye.”
“In my own keep? No’ needful, Will. Go to yer chamber and take care of yer own needs. I’ll see ye in the great hall.”
“Dinna lass me, too, Will Fletcher.” Caitrin glanced from him to Rona and back again then shook her head, her charity toward him replaced by exasperation. She brushed past him to the door, resting a hand on Rona’s shoulder for a moment, then turned back to Will. “Come. We’ve both places to be and things to do.”
MacGregor leaned back in his chair and regarded the man standing before him in his solar. He’d left Fletcher standing for some minutes while he ostensibly considered his latest proposal in their negotiation for his daughter’s hand. Fletcher’s wishes were of no more consequence to MacGregor than the dust motes dancing in the shafts of sunlight illuminating the room.
Fletcher appeared calm and determined, yet a hint of nervousness leaked through. MacGregor liked that. He preferred to keep his underlings off-balance, unsteady and unsure of his next move. Standing while he sat, waiting for his judgment. Their uncertainty added a layer of protection he relied on. No one would attempt to overthrow him unless they were sure of his intentions. Or saw past his strengths to his weaknesses.
He made certain they never did. Not until he was ready for them to know, and then only so they could comply with his demands and do his bidding.
He let his gaze roam from Fletcher, who must be longing to hear his answer, or at least to get off his feet, to the view out the window of the curtain wall and the fortifications on it. He liked being chief. He relished the power of the position. Ever since he’d inherited the seat from his elder brother, who’d got it after their da’s and eldest brother’s deaths at Flodden four years ago, he’d wielded power with one goal in mind. His brother had considered him frivolous, scattered even, and had made the mistake of underestimating his ambition. It was the last mistake he’d ever made. After their losses at Flodden, the hunting accident had been seen by those in the clan as a second tragedy. Only MacGregor knew it culminated the first stage of his plan.
Now Fletcher offered him a new amusement. His daughter—to bear MacGregor heirs and cement his position in the clan. Not that he didn’t have a number of bastards already. But none of the lasses he’d encountered so far had deserved to wrest the title of Lady of the MacGregors from his widowed mother. Perhaps the Fletcher lass would meet his measure. He must think on how else she could serve his ambitions. But ultimately, she was a secondary consideration.
The real enticement was the presence of the Lathan laird as her escort. He’d been thrilled when Fletcher announced that bit of good news. Did Fletcher think that tie made her more valuable to him? It did, aye, but not in the way Fletcher anticipated.
Dared he make such an audacious move? To take the Aerie’s laird hostage and demand the wealth of the clan for his return? Surely, in that impregnable fortress, the Lathans had amassed several fortunes through the years. And gotten soft, sloppy, and secure behind their walls. Tired of raiding the neighboring clans and ready for bigger game, he risked warfare, and siege, but the payoff would be worth the trouble. Fletcher was the key to the Aerie, the Lathans’ stronghold. Lathan wealth would buy an army of a size even the Regent’s forces could not match.
Or he could be less direct.
Fletcher’s daughter interested him because the lass had fostered in the Aerie. She probably knew her way around—particularly, how to get in and out—without being seen. A clan’s children always discovered its secrets. He would only need a few men on the inside to throw open the gates to the rest of his soldiers, and the Aerie would be his. Aye, he could be single-minded.
Did the lass know enough to make her worth the alliance Fletcher proposed? If she was comely, and biddable, he would enjoy finding out. If she did not live up to the promise of her upbringing—and her fostering—he could amuse himself with her then dispose of her.
In the meantime, until she arrived, he’d have some fun with her father.
Jamie waited in the Fletcher hall for Caitrin to put in her appearance. He knew his heart should not beat so fast, nor should his palms be damp. He should not care. He was here to do a job for his laird, nothing more. But the anticipation of seeing what…and who…the Caitrin he recalled had become was almost more than he could take sitting down. He wanted to surge to his feet and pace the length of the hall in agitation. Instead, he remained seated where the steward had directed him, in the place of honor at the high table, to the right of the laird’s seat. He did his best to seem relaxed, watching the goings-on around him with mild disinterest.
A slight stir of movement and the sound of greetings being exchanged outside the door was the only warning he got. She arrived and Jamie’s breath left him in a low exhale that barely escaped becoming an appreciative whistle as he rose to his feet. Stunning. She’d morphed from coltish and pretty into a breathtaking woman, beautifully curved, proud and…haughty? Her stiff posture as she approached warned him that their former easy camaraderie might be a thing of the past, indeed. Her first words as she took the laird’s seat next to him confirmed it.
“My escort, are ye, Jamie Lathan?” she groused as he reseated himself next to her. “Growing up, ye felt ye had to do Toran’s bidding. I see that hasna changed.”
“On the contrary,” Jamie answered in his most diplomatic tone, though it pained him to keep his voice level when his gut demanded the answer to why. Why was she on the offensive? And why was she so displeased to see him? “On the contrary, much has changed.” He gave her his best disarming grin. “Besides, Toran is laird now, and married, with bairns due to arrive at any time. His loyalty lies, rightly so, with his lady wife.”
“Indeed. What of the loyalty he owes his clan?”
“How do ye mean?” Jamie’s earlier fears seemed well-founded. He couldn’t believe she really would have preferred Toran as her escort. The thought made him heartsore. And angry after the many years he had spent mooning over losing her in the troubled times that followed his sister’s death. This haughty creature was not the Caitrin of his memories. Far from it.
“The opportunity to gain allegiance from both Fletcher and MacGregor, of course. As my escort and advocate. But I should have known he’d pass off anything to do with me to ye.”
For once in his life, Jamie was speechless. What had happened to the lass he used to know? And why was she now seemingly determined to put a barrier of resentment between them? While she lived at Lathan, Toran had paid her no more heed than he could avoid and tormented her when he did notice her. Was she truly smarting from his absence? Or from Jamie’s presence?
Jamie realized his ego was coloring his perception of her. While she tried to put distance between them, he wallowed in his long-held jealousy of the interest he thought she’d shown in Toran. Nay, this had nothing to do with Toran, or their past. She was scared. Understandably, though he hoped she did not fear him. She knew no more of the man he’d become than he knew of her. Perhaps she also missed the lad he once was and feared his loss. But why go immediately on the attack? Did she think to force him to refuse her escort as a way to avoid the match her father was making? She was no more free to ignore her laird’s wishes than he was. Or did she also remember him fondly and fear his presence would distract her from the man she was intended to marry. His ego preferred that explanation, but he’d learned the hard way not to trust that fickle beast.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other, Caitrin,” Jamie said, trying to change the tenor of their conversation before they got too far down the wrong path. “Canna we begin again as the friends we once were?” He studied her eyes, searching for the lass he used to know, then smiled, hoping to encourage an answering smile from her. “Yer da’s description in his letter to the Lathan didna do ye justice.” Flattery might work. It usually did with a lass. Certainly, it couldn’t hurt.
“Think ye to sway me with sweet words, Jamie Lathan? I am nay longer a lass of sixteen years to be swept away by a lad’s fawning attention. I’m the heir to Fletcher. Dinna patronize me.”
“I never would,” he replied. Too quickly, he realized, as her eyebrow arched. Ach, think! What was she up to? “I merely hoped to renew our acquaintance. Since we’ll be spending the next several days together, I thought we might enjoy—”
“We may be forced to travel together, but there’s nay reason for us to make anything more out of the journey. Ye are here to do a job.”
Jamie winced as she spoke the same words he’d said to himself not so very long ago. At least they were in agreement on one thing. “Aye, I am.”
“Then I trust that ye will do it well and deliver me to my da.”
How had this gotten so out of hand? Jamie knew better than to go into a negotiation with expectations of how his adversary would act, but this…he’d never thought of Caitrin as an adversary in his life. Nor had he thought their first meeting would devolve into this sort of…he had no word for what this had become. Disaster, perhaps. Disappointment, surely. While Caitrin’s beauty had matured, her nature had…soured. What had happened to her in the intervening years? When he had the time, he’d discover the truth, and mourn the loss of the lass she used to be. But for now, he must deal with the woman before him.
Thankfully, the kitchen staff arrived with their meals and gave him time to get his emotions—and expectations—under control while they ate. Caitrin passed the meal in silence, seeming to have dismissed him from further consideration. Jamie allowed her that, for now. But he vowed to find out what had caused such an unhappy change in the lass he used to know.
Caitrin swallowed her food past the lump in her throat. The reality of Jamie’s presence was so much…more…than she’d imagined. She’d nearly swooned when she entered the hall and saw him. And that made her teeth clench. And her eyes well up.
He was here—at last. Why now and not sometime in the last six years? More handsome than she could have dreamed he would become. Bigger, broader, with hair turned so dark it was easy to miss the reddish highlights she recalled from his youth. His eyes were the same deep blue she remembered. The moment he first saw her, they had widened a bit as though her appearance surprised him. And why would it? She was much the same. Taller, more filled out, but the same hair, the same eyes, the same…longing. For him. Aye, and that made her even madder. How dare he appear now? Years too late. Why was he the man fate decreed to take her to be wed to a stranger?
It seemed her lot in life was to be handed off from one set of strangers to another. She was tired of it. So achingly, bone-wearily tired of it. Sitting next to Jamie should have pleased her, but instead it served to rub salt in the wound of her insecurity. Would she ever find a home, a family, a husband, who would not abandon her or send her away? And why did Jamie’s presence in the hall make these feelings so much more pronounced? She’d kept them at bay for years. Now, anger and despair seemed to fill her, blocking out any lighter emotion, such as gladness at seeing her old friend.
She’d pushed him away with rudeness and hauteur when what she really wanted to do was lean into him and rest her head on his shoulder, to feel is arms go protectively around her as they once had done when she was upset at Toran, or at anything else. Jamie had been her friend, her protector. He didn’t deserve her ire, and he’d borne it with typical Jamie good grace. Only she knew him well enough to see him struggle to hold his reactions in check, to allow her to vent. She saw his puzzlement at her verbal attack, though she was certain no one else could. He knew he didn’t deserve such treatment, but he let her get away with it. And now, suddenly, shame added itself to the mix of anger and despair that filled her. To hold back tears, she bit the inside of her cheek. She had spoiled what should have been a happy, or at least a pleasant, reunion. Her peevishness turned it into acrimony. How would they ever recover from what she’d just done?
This was not like her. Jamie must be shocked at the change. But, perhaps it was for the best. Perhaps, deep down, she knew she must keep him at arm’s length. He’d returned to her too late to save her from the fate her father decreed.
She glanced around the room and saw Will smile at her and nod. He’d been watching, and probably listening, though how much he could hear from his seat was a question she couldn’t answer. No matter. He’d have seen their faces. He’d be pleased by her actions. He lived to do as her father commanded. Too bad, she did not. Oh, who was she kidding? She could no more defy her father’s wishes than Will could. Fletcher was busily arranging a match that would benefit their clan. She had no choice in the matter.
And at this moment, she would do anything for the chance to choose Jamie Lathan. But she dared not.
When the meal ended, Jamie stayed by her side, watching her and, it seemed, patiently waiting on her pleasure. She stood abruptly, no longer able to bear being near him when unable to reach out to him as her old friend. Jamie immediately got to his feet, politely dipping his head.
“Let’s go to the solar,” she said and wondered from where those words had sprung. She hadn’t meant to say anything but that she would be ready to ride in the morning. Then dismiss him. But her unruly heart apparently had other ideas.
“After ye,” he responded with an open-palmed gesture. He placed a hand on her lower back as he helped her down the dais steps and left it there as he escorted her across the hall. Caitrin could barely see anything around them. Jamie’s touch held her in thrall and let her hope she had not fatally wounded their relationship after all. It took a great deal of effort to make Jamie angry. Perhaps she’d fallen short. Now that she’d had the time during the meal to cool off, she hoped so.
In the solar, she gestured him to a seat then went to the sideboard and poured them both a liberal dram of whisky. She almost missed his quick frown, as he tasted the first sip. “If it isna to yer liking,” she offered, determined to keep pleasant the tone of the first words spoken to him since their earlier confrontation, “I can provide something else. Ale? Mead?”
“Nay, ’tis fine enough,” he answered smoothly. “But I will have to introduce ye to the MacKyrie spirit.”
“Superior, is it?” Damn it, her sarcastic tone was back.
But Jamie must have refused to take it amiss.
“Superior to any spirit I’ve tasted, anywhere. Dinna mistake me, this is quite good and entirely appreciated.”
He told the truth. She would know if he lied, not that the quality of the whisky meant so much to her. She would not be able to prevent the awareness coming over her. Especially not from someone as close to her, physically and emotionally, as Jamie. “I’m glad.” That sounded lame, but she was too taken in by his implied promise of a future meeting to come up with anything more profound. “I want to apologize for the way I acted in the hall.” A sense of peace settled over her when she thought of a future that included him. But nay, that could not be, not if her father had his way.
“Ye dinna need to apologize, Caitrin. We ken each other too well. And it seems to me ye have a right to be concerned, even scared, about this journey and what might await ye.”
“Ach, that makes me feel better, that does.” She grimaced and took a healthy sip of the whisky then coughed as it burned its way down her gullet. Instead of apologizing, Jamie grinned at her, and it occurred to her that he’d taken a few lessons from Toran over the years, since he probably meant that as payback for her behavior in the hall. If she’d had a pillow to hand, she would have tossed it at his head.
Was it appropriate for an heir and a former friend, nay, a friend…a male friend…to be playful while alone together? Probably not. But she didn’t care. The vision of the pillow smacking him in the face made her answer his grin with one of her own.
“What evil are ye contemplating, Caitrin, my lass? Remember, I told ye, we ken each other too well.”
“Only knocking that grin off yer face—with a pillow,” she answered. “But it seems undignified, somehow.”
“Aye, that it would.” He answered her sip with one of his own then sighed and settled back in his chair. “What’s really going on, lass?”
Caitrin pressed her lips together so hard they cramped. She rubbed a hand over her mouth to ease them and watched as a concerned frown drew down Jamie’s dark brows. “I dinna ken. Da thinks the future of Fletcher depends on this alliance. Why?” She shrugged. There were so many possibilities. Protection seemed most likely, but from what? “I’m the price he plans to pay for whatever he’s after.”
“Then whatever it is, the cost is dear indeed.”
“Where’s a pillow?”
“I mean that, Caitrin. Aye, marriages of alliance happen every day in Scotland, but to barter ye away to a man ye’ve never even met? Fletcher wants something, and he wants it verra much.”
A shiver ran down her back at that. “Which means he’ll no’ be easy to dissuade.”
“Do ye want to?”
“I…canna say. I havena met the MacGregor.”
Caitrin sat up straighter. “Tell me about him. What kind of man is he?”
Jamie shook his head. “Nay, lass. Ye will want to form yer own opinion. I’ll no’ be the one to blame for whether ye like him or no’.”
But he would be the one to blame, Caitrin thought. Jamie was the standard against which she assessed all men. The MacGregor would have to be special indeed to measure up to the man sitting across from her.
Morning came early, but Jamie was ready for it despite the whisky he and Caitrin had shared last night. He tightened the girth under his mount’s belly and rechecked the contents of his packs as he thought back. Much to his relief, they seemed to end up on a better footing than where they’d started. He hadn’t recognized the beautiful martinet who’d greeted him before the meal, and thanked all the saints and angels Caitrin was not really like that. Her fear had been speaking. He’d been one more unknown in a host of them she had to deal with, one that carried extra weight because of their shared history. He could understand that. He could even forgive it, despite the uncomfortable meal that followed. They’d both loosened up over the whisky, which in no way compared to MacKyrie’s, he thought with a snort. But Jamie would let Caitrin form her own opinion about that, too. Someday. After she met Alasdair MacGregor, he hoped he’d get the chance.
He’d seen her eyes light up when he mentioned treating her to the MacKyrie spirit. He didn’t think her sudden interest was in the taste, but in the notion of a future encounter. A future with both of them in it—together. She might hide it from others, even from herself, but that notion hadn’t left Jamie’s mind since the comment came out of his mouth. It had kept him awake long into the night, imagining something that might never take place.
What was he doing, saddling up and readying to ride with her to her betrothal? Possible betrothal, he reminded himself…unless they arrived to find a signed contract of marriage. There was still a chance they might have time to get to know each other again, and for Caitrin to refuse the match her father was negotiating. Except Toran intended Jamie to help negotiate—not undermine—the match while he got the MacGregor’s signature on the Lathan treaty. Bollocks.
He shook his head. A lot depended on the outcome of this journey. Too much for his comfort, truth be told. Not just Caitrin’s future, or his, but the futures of three clans. It was a heavy burden. One they both bore reluctantly. Of that, he was certain.
He glanced around when he heard Caitrin’s voice.
Finally. She quit the keep with Will in tow, and from the exasperated tone of her voice and the low, chopped cadence of his, Will was still trying to convince her to overrule Jamie and bring more Fletchers in escort.
“Jamie knows what he’s doing.” Caitrin’s voice rang clear in the morning air as they approached.
Jamie finished his inspection of his own mount and moved to Caitrin’s. This confrontation had been building up since he and Uilleam had left the Aerie. He’d hoped Will would see sense and give up arguing for more men to accompany them. Just Jamie’s luck that the taciturn man would find his voice in time to use it to aggravate the hell out of him.
“Good morrow,” he said as he adjusted a cinch strap. “We’re ready to ride. Are ye?”
“Aye,” Caitrin answered.
“Nay.” Will’s voice drowned hers out. “We’re no’ ready at all.”
“Will ye stay behind then?” Jamie asked, looking straight at Will. “We need to keep this group small, but yer company would be useful and welcome.”
“And a dozen more Fletchers would be more useful still,” Will replied with a stubborn set to his mouth. “Two dozen. We canna risk Lady Fletcher with so few men to protect her.”
“She’ll be best protected by traveling quietly and no’ proclaiming her presence across the countryside.” Jamie dropped the leather cinch and held his hands out by his side. “Ye have a choice, Uilleam Fletcher. Get on yer horse and ride with us, or stay here and send one other Fletcher fighting man with us. One. The Lady Fletcher values ye and yer guidance, but in this case, if we must make our way without ye, I’ll accept that, and we’ll manage without ye. ’Tis yer decision.”
“Will…” Caitrin held out a hand to him.
“If anything happens to her, and the attackers dinna kill ye, I’ll finish ye myself,” Will blustered.
“If anything happens to her, ye’ll no’ get the chance. We’ll all be dead defending her. Now are ye going to ride or stand there making idle threats?”
“Will!” Caitrin’s shout rang out as Will’s hand hovered near his dirk. “If ye are foolish enough to try that,” she warned, “I’ll order ye to stay behind right now. I need ye to keep me safe, no’ to start a brawl because ye dinna agree with yer orders.”
“’Tis what I’m trying to do,” Will growled. “Keep ye safe. Yer Lathan friends are too few to do the job.”
“And what ye propose will bring half the brigands in the Highlands down upon us, ye fool,” Jamie hissed, his patience at an end. “All the Fletchers here willna be enough if that happens.” He kept his gaze on Will. “Caitrin, we’re going to have to leave him behind.”
“Nay!” Will barked the objection. “I’ll come. Just remember what I said.”
“Ye’ll kill me, aye,” Jamie answered, exasperated beyond all bounds. His control was slipping. Normally, he could handle anything with calm reason and a touch of humor. But Caitrin had mattered to him, as no other lass ever had. Apparently, she still did. Is this what being around her did to him? If so, Will had better watch his step. “Good luck to ye. Better men have tried.”
“Jamie, Will, stop it. I’ve heard more than enough of this. We’re leaving. Quietly. This argument is over.”
Jamie took a breath and nodded, determined not to let his sudden lapse make things worse.
Will locked gazes with his mistress and narrowed his eyes, then he, too, nodded.
Jamie admired the air of authority she exhibited, but he dared not let his pleasure at her display of backbone show on his face. Will would surely misinterpret a grin as a challenge, or as a taunt that Jamie thought he won the argument. With Will’s temper, they might wind up in a brawl after all. Jamie didn’t care about besting Will in an argument or a fair fight. He cared about keeping Caitrin out of jeopardy, and as head of the Lathan scouts, a fact Will was not aware of, he knew his business. Jamie would get Caitrin safely through any danger that might befall them. The rest might die defending her, but Jamie would get her away. A chill ran down his back.
Even if that meant getting her away from MacGregor.
You’ve Been Reading HIGHLAND TROTH
Years ago, after tragedy struck Jamie Lathan’s family, fosterling Caitrin Fletcher was sent home, out of danger. Heartbroken, young Jamie never expected to see her again. He certainly never imagined he’d be called upon to escort her to be betrothed to another man.
But now, as their attraction reignites during the trip, Jamie’s longing for Caitrin deepens, and he despairs to lose her again. The secret he hides, however, may prevent any chance for a future with her. Can Jamie find a way to claim her for himself without starting a war involving three clans?
Caitrin is torn between her duty to make the marriage her father wants and her feelings for Jamie, the lad she’s loved for years. When she meets the man her father has chosen, her secret Highland talent tells her he cannot be trusted. Can she refuse the powerful lord without revealing how she knows he’s lying…about nearly everything?