She trusted the wrong man...
Lady Emelie Dunbar has made the gravest error an unmarried lady-in-waiting can make. The man she believes will be a bridegroom who loves, honors, and cherishes her turns out to be a duplicitous lover. Left with few choices, Emelie struggles to make a decision that will protect not only her reputation but her younger sister Blythe's. When rescue comes from an unexpected Highlander, Emelie must decide whether she's finally found the right man to trust. Can Emelie believe an offer that seems too good to be true? Are her instincts right this time?
He trusted the wrong woman...
Dominic Campbell, Laird Brodie Campbell's younger brother, is still reeling from the humiliation and shame his dead wife left in her wake. Sent to court in his brother's stead, Dominic intended to conduct his clan's business and leave, not discover a troubled young woman in dire need of help. When he offers the protection of not only his sword but his name, Dominic wonders if he's found his redemption. Can Dominic make good on his promise that Emelie's secret's safe with him? Can love bloom from this marriage of convenience?
Dominic and Emelie believe they've reached an understanding that provides Emelie the security she needs and brings Dominic a sense of purpose. But when the very source of Emelie's troubles decides he will not let another man raise his child, the couple discovers to what lengths their nemesis will go to ensure Emelie never tells her secret to another person. Can their burgeoning love survive the looming scandal? Is their trust strong enough to protect them?
Welcome to Robert the Bruce's Highland Court, where the ladies-in-waiting are a mixture of fire and ice. The Highland Ladies, the STEAMY spin off series from Celeste Barclay's The Clan Sinclair series, returns to the Medieval royal court for love and intrigue.
Release date: May 4, 2021
Publisher: Oliver Heber Books
Print pages: 332
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
A Harlot at the Highland Court: A Redemption Highlander Romance
Emelie Dunbar glanced over her shoulder as she closed her chamber door behind her; her sister Blythe’s light snores were trapped within as Emelie scanned either side of the passageway. With no one in sight and nothing stirring, Emelie gathered her skirts in both hands to ensure she made no sound as she picked her way down the corridor. She wound her way through the dark passageways of Stirling Castle, familiar with nearly every nook and cranny after almost seven years in service as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth de Burgh.
Emelie shivered as she entered the northern wing of the stone castle. Despite the warm summer air during the day, the nights grew chilly, and the northern castle bricks never insulated the passageways well. She pulled her cloak’s cowl higher around her neck and adjusted her hood, both to keep herself warm and to maintain her disguise. It didn’t take her long to reach the chamber she sought. She rapped softly on the door and counted to ten before pressing down on the handle. The staff kept the door’s hinges well oiled, so they didn’t make a sound as Emelie slipped inside the solar.
It only took a moment for Emelie to spot the ghostly outline standing just beyond the low-burning fire’s glow. She turned the key in the lock behind her and dashed across the chamber, pushing her hood back as she went. Long arms wound around her waist and pulled her in for a passionate embrace, the kiss stealing her breath away.
“Henry,” Emelie murmured.
“I began to fear you’d changed your mind again,” Henry Pringle whispered, the note of censure seeming loud in the quiet chamber. Emelie tensed before easing away from the Clan Pringle heir.
“I didn’t change my mind. I was using an abundance of caution since we’ve come so close to being caught twice already. Until you hear from Father, you know we must be careful. You’ve warned me to be careful,” Emelie reminded him.
“I’ve just missed you so. It’s my impatience. Forgive me, dove?” Henry offered her a repentant smile that made her own lips twitch. The man standing before her was dashing and charismatic. While he wasn’t as tall or broad as the Highlanders many of her friends had married, he was handsome. Blond, wavy hair fell to his shoulders in a way Emelie always suspected was far from as natural as he meant it to look. Light brown eyes twinkled at her. Always dressed fashionably, Henry had drawn Emelie’s attention the first time she saw him arrive at court nearly six months earlier.
“I missed you, too. This trip seemed particularly long. I wondered if you were ever coming back,” Emelie pouted coyly.
“How could I stay away?” Henry winked. But Emelie’s mind rebelled at the question. It sounded too smug, and they both knew Henry had to return to the royal court, not to see her, but as his father’s delegate. She couldn’t pinpoint why his tone rankled, as though he were giving her a subtle reminder that he would attend court regardless of whether she was there. Sensing her shift in emotions, Henry pulled her in for another passionate kiss. “Come now, dove. I told you I missed you. We haven’t much time. Let me show you just how happy I am to return.”
Without hesitation, Henry’s hands roamed over Emelie’s body, already familiar with each dip and peak. His left hand slid to her breast, cupping and kneading it before his fingers slipped beneath her neckline. His right arm pinned her against him. His lips blazed along her neck until he reached her earlobe, which he nipped. Emelie turned her head toward him, her mouth seeking his. Henry backed her toward the wall and pressed her against it. As Emelie’s fingers tangled in his hair, she felt a breeze around her legs. Moving with more speed than she anticipated, Emelie found her skirts around her waist just as Henry lifted her from her feet as though she were a doll. Their bodies joined before Emelie had a moment to consider what was happening. She glanced down between them as Henry drove into her. She hadn’t felt him untie the laces to his breeks, so she realized Henry had prepared for this well before she entered the chamber.
“Henry,” Emelie hissed.
“I know. It feels so blessedly good.”
“No. Yes. I mean, it does. So good. But we agreed. We shouldn’t have the first time. We can’t. Put me down. This is wrong.” Emelie gripped his shoulders as temptation and sensation threatened to overcome her common sense. Again. She moaned with each surge as she clung to him.
“Do you really wish me to stop, Emelie? Or do you wish to moan and scratch my back like you did the last time?” Henry taunted as he thrust over and over.
“You must pull out,” Emelie insisted, but as she spoke, Henry’s hands gripped her hips as he plunged into her once more and stilled. She felt him twitch within her and knew her request came too late. Or rather, Henry came far too soon. His body collapsed against hers, and he lowered his head to her shoulder as he panted. Unsure of what to do and unable to move, Emelie looked around the room as she stroked the back of his head. She was left unsatisfied—again—and fearful. They’d coupled once before, and while she expected they would do so again many times throughout their marriage, she’d been unprepared to do so again so soon. No priest had even read the banns.
“Emelie, you make me lose control. You feel divine; I can’t help myself,” Henry mumbled before pulling free and lowering her to the floor.
“But we agreed we would wait until you heard from my father, and the banns were at least posted.”
“I had to have you. I couldn’t stop myself,” Henry protested. He appeared so contrite that Emelie forgave him.
“I can’t say that I didn’t want to do the same thing,” Emelie confessed. “I hope Father responds soon, so we can inform the king.”
Henry appeared distracted as he nodded. Emelie’s stomach knotted as she cupped Henry’s jaw. She pressed until he met her gaze. Her stomach cramped painfully. “You have written to my father, haven’t you?”
“I had to rush home so suddenly that I haven’t had the chance. But I will do so now that I’ve returned.”
“But it could be nearly a moon before we have a response. Then another three sennights until a priest can wed us, assuming the king agrees and informs the church immediately.”
“All will be fine, my dove. Worry not.”
“Emelie,” Henry barked. “I said not to worry.”
Emelie blinked thrice before nodding her head, surprised at Henry’s tone. She attributed it to his fatigue and whatever caused his unexpected return home. She stretched onto her toes and kissed him. He responded immediately, his tongue diving into her mouth. He moved to pull her skirts up again, but Emelie pushed him away and stepped out of his reach.
“You know I want to. There is so much you’ve promised to teach me. But we can’t be so reckless, my love.” Emelie watched Henry flinch at the endearment. She’d tried it twice before and gotten the same reaction. While Henry promised his adoration and devotion, the speaking of the word “love” always made him withdraw. She reasoned he was a man and not given to saying aloud such a deep emotion.
“I must leave again tomorrow.”
“What?” Emelie spluttered. “You just returned.”
“I know, my dove. But my father needs me to return. I am his tánaiste, after all, and I’ve spent a great deal of time here of late. I may be his trusted representative, but I have duties there.”
“But how will you court me if you’re all the way at Hoppringle?” Emelie demanded. Her tone brought a glare to Henry’s face, and she had a moment of trepidation.
“The same way I have for the past moon.”
“But I didn’t hear from you at all during that time,” Emelie countered.
“But I returned, didn’t I? I’m here with you, aren’t I?”
“Enough.” The finality in Henry’s tone warned her not to press any further. She nodded as she adjusted her gown and pulled up her hood.
“I should return before Blythe wakes and finds me gone. Will you please write to me when you hear from my father? Will we marry here or at Hoppringle?”
“I don’t know yet. And yes, I’ll let you know.” Henry’s tone softened as he pulled her back into a gentle embrace. Emelie relaxed against him, the man she was familiar with having returned. She rested her head against his chest and sighed. Henry kissed her on the head before tipping her head back and brushing a kiss on her lips. “Hurry now before your sister discovers you’re gone. I will miss you once more, my little dove.”
Emelie nodded as she pressed a last kiss to Henry’s cheek before she hurried to the door. She looked back to find Henry adjusting himself and pulling the laces to his breeks tied. She grinned as her eyes darted to the wall where they’d just coupled. She was looking forward to being a wife.
One Moon Later
Emelie swallowed the bile in the back of her throat as her stomach churned once again. The smell of incense made her want to heave as she kneeled beside Blythe during morning Mass. The aroma had never bothered her until a sennight ago. Now every scent seemed to send her belly into turmoil. She glanced sideways at Blythe, who watched her closely. Emelie offered her younger sister a wan smile before bowing her head once more.
Emelie had felt ill mostly in the mornings, but for the past two days, she’d barely been able to look at food without wanting to run from the Great Hall. The nausea persisted, hour after hour, until she was fairly certain of her malady. As she kneeled before the holy crucifix suspended above the altar, she prayed her suspicions were wrong. She prayed she hadn’t made the gravest error a young, unmarried woman could make. She made her last sign of the cross and mumbled “Amen” as the service ended.
“Emelie?” Blythe whispered.
“Aye. I don’t know why the incense burns my nose and eyes these days. I seem to be developing an aversion to it.” Emelie hoped her preemptive explanation would placate her sister. Blythe said nothing more, but Emelie knew her sister as well as she knew herself. They were barely a year apart in age, so Emelie had no memory of a time without Blythe. While they were several years younger than their older sister, Isabella, they were practically twins. Their white-blonde hair and blue hazel eyes were mirror images. Their hair was only faintly darker than Isabella’s. The only way many people could tell Emelie and Blythe apart from a distance was Emelie’s petite stature. She was so short that many confused her for a child until they saw her face.
Emelie breathed deeply as they left the castle’s chapel and progressed along with the other ladies-in-waiting to the Great Hall. Emelie forced herself to choke down the morning meal, feeling somewhat better once her stomach was full. She wanted nothing more than to climb back into bed, exhaustion nipping at her in alternating waves with the nausea.
“You really don’t look well,” Blythe whispered, trying once more to gain her sister’s attention. “Should I summon the healer?”
“No. I feel a little poorly, but I don’t think there’s much to do aboot it. It will pass as easily as it came.” Emelie assumed she was telling the truth.
“Perhaps you should retire. I will make your excuses. I’ll say your courses have come,” Blythe offered.
If only they would. Then I wouldn’t be in this mess. “I would appreciate that. I’m certain more rest is all I need.” Emelie squeezed her sister’s hand before slipping off their bench and turning to look at the queen, who sat beside King Robert the Bruce on the dais. Emelie wound her way through the crowd of people leaving after breaking their fast. She hurried to her chamber, where she waited half an hour to ensure no one came to check on her. She donned her cloak and hurried away from the keep and into town.
Keeping her head down, Emelie made her way to an apothecary she’d long ago heard of. The midwife there kept secrets and had assisted more than one woman from court who discovered herself with child. Attempting to draw as little attention as she could, she entered the small structure and passed her gaze over the array of bottles and powders. The midwife’s husband ran the apothecary, which was most convenient. Emelie spotted a woman she guessed was the midwife, but she was already talking to someone.
Emelie peered at the woman and twirled on her heel. The last thing she needed was Margaret Hay recognizing her. While neither would ever mention finding the other visiting a midwife, Emelie didn’t need Margaret knowing her secret. Margaret told her sister, Sarah Anne, everything; and in turn, Sarah Anne was merciless to the other ladies-in-waiting. There had been no courtier as vindictive as Sarah Anne since her distant cousin Mary Kerr set her sights on fellow lady-in-waiting Deirdre Fraser, who was now a Sinclair. Even Madeline MacLeod had seemed mild-mannered compared to Sarah Anne. When Emelie heard the door shut behind Margaret, she peeked over her shoulder at the woman who approached.
“Good morn, my lady,” the midwife greeted her. “What are you in need of today?”
“Good morn, Goody Thomas,” Emelie nodded with deference. “I am in need—I need—could you—”
“Ah. Come with me.” Goodwife Thomas motioned toward a staircase tucked away in the corner. She led Emelie in silence to a chamber and pointed toward a freshly made bed. Emelie looked around before approaching it. She stared at the furniture before taking a deep and fortifying breath. She toed off her slippers and reclined. Without speaking, the midwife eased Emelie’s skirts above her waist. She was efficient and gentle, setting Emelie at ease. The middle-aged woman palpated Emelie’s abdomen with her lips pressed into a thin line. “How far along do you think you are?”
“A moon or two,” Emelie murmured. She hadn’t had her courses since before Henry’s first departure from court, but she’d been due for them just after his return. She couldn’t know whether their first or second interlude resulted in pregnancy.
“I would have you use the chamber pot,” Goodwife Thomas stated. Emelie rose and made her way to it. There was no screen for her to step behind, but she figured any modesty dissolved the moment the midwife raised her skirts. When she finished—her cheeks heated to a cherry red—she stepped away and watched the woman pour the chamber pot’s contents into a bowl of wine. The midwife swirled the bowl and waited. Emelie fought not to fidget. “It’s so early that I cannot be completely certain, my lady. There is one other test that has been definitive since ancient times.”
Goodwife Thomas beckoned Emelie to follow her. As they left the chamber, Emelie glanced back, unsettled by how quickly the examination ended. She took the stairs back to the ground floor, moving just behind the midwife until the older woman stopped at a counter. She picked up a cluster of wheat and a cluster of barley. Emelie’s brow furrowed as she took what the midwife offered.
“If you can go again now, then I would have you do so over these. I can keep them for a few days, then you can return, or you can take them with you. If you can’t go now, then take them back to the castle.”
“And do what with them?” Emelie wondered.
“The ancients believed if a woman’s pish made the wheat bloom, she was having a son. If the barley blooms, she’s having a lass. Either way, if one blooms, you ken you’re with child.”
Emelie stared down at the plants in her hands and nodded mutely. Her mind seemed to both race and be blank at the same time. She couldn’t pull forth a coherent thought. She already suspected she was with child, and she’d come to the midwife hoping for a conclusive answer. But holding the barley and wheat, knowing she either needed to return or watch for blooms while in her chamber, she feared she would be ill all over the woman’s clean floors.
“If you are, my lady, there are options,” Goodwife Thomas’s kind voice was soft and lilting. Emelie still couldn’t speak, so she nodded once more. She closed her eyes against the tears that threatened to fall. She wished she’d thought of those options before she coupled with Henry either time. But both occasions had happened so spontaneously that she hadn’t prepared. Though, as she considered their last tryst at the castle, she knew she should have expected Henry to act as he did. He’d cajoled her many times before until she relented one night. And upon his last return, he’d clearly already decided, since he’d untied his breeks before Emelie arrived. She should have known he would assume they would couple again once they’d done it the first time. “Were you forced?”
Emelie’s head jerked up. “No. Not at all. I can’t claim that as an excuse. I was just wretchedly foolish.” Emelie closed her eyes and shuddered as Goodwife Thomas laid a gentle hand on her arm.
“Do you wish me to keep these until you can come back to learn of the results? You could decide then what you will do.”
“I don’t know how easily I can slip away again.” Emelie worried her bottom lip, knowing she took an extreme risk leaving the keep without guards, telling no one where she went, and with no one discovering her whereabouts. She reached into her pocket for her coins, and her voice was a hoarse whisper. “Thank you.”
“Nay, my lady. You know you’ve erred. You’re not here because of recklessness or convenience. I think you will have much to consider soon. All I ask for is you return if you need me.”
What could it be if not recklessness? It was the very definition of recklessness, and now it has likely come home to roost.
“Thank you, Goody Thomas. I won’t forget your kindness.” Emelie forced a smile. She tucked the wheat and barley into the folds of her cloak before ducking out of the shop. She hurried back to her chamber, grateful that it was still empty. The Mistress of the Bedchamber didn’t always allow sisters to share chambers, but Emelie and Blythe had been one of the fortunate pairs. While Emelie wasn’t ready to confess, not even to Blythe, it didn’t terrify her if Blythe discovered her secret.
Emelie poured a mug of fresh water and gulped it down before pacing the chamber, hoping movement would hurry the water’s descent. When she was certain she could use the harvested plants, she laid them over the chamber pot and closed her eyes. When she finished, she stared at the plants, wondering how long it would take. She hadn’t thought to ask where she should store them. She prayed wrapping them in a drying linen and keeping them in her chest would be fine. She tucked them away before climbing into bed. Her tears soaked her pillow.
Emelie’s hands shook as she read the missive for at least the seventh time. Her legs gave out as she approached the bench tucked away in the royal garden. She missed her target and landed hard on the ground without caring. She stared into space, seeing nothing but the words in her father’s missive in her mind’s eye.
I have received no missive from Henry Pringle asking for your hand in marriage or otherwise. I could not, since the man married more than a moon ago. He wed Laird Kenneth Elliot’s third daughter. You may recall Alice is your former peer’s sister. Of course, Allyson is no longer an Elliot, but now a Gordon.
I do not know why you would think to ask on Pringle’s behalf, but it is obvious that I cannot grant you permission to marry a man already married. If you are so eager to wed, I will make arrangements. You are of an age. I shall look into matches for you and your sister. But your mother and I had hoped you and Blythe would find husbands much as Isabella did. We wish you and Blythe the same happiness that Isabella found with Dedric.
I will send word when I’ve secured a betrothal.
Emelie couldn’t cease shaking. She didn’t sob; she didn’t even cry. She merely trembled to the point where she knew she must appear like she convulsed. Her heart hurt to such an extreme that she wished it would stop beating. Her ears rang as she heard her father’s voice reading the missive to her once more. As the words faded from her mind, her mother’s devastated face replaced the image of the missive. It was her mother who she saw sobbing, not herself. She was entirely numb.
Just that morning, she’d checked the wheat and barley once again. It had been three days since she visited the apothecary and the midwife gave her the harvested plants. She’d managed not to look for two days, but her fear and anticipation demanded she check that morning. The wheat had clear blooms while there was no change in the barley. She’d pretended to pull a pair of stockings from her chest while their maid helped Blythe with her hair. She’d nearly dropped the lid. Through shallow breaths that made her lightheaded, she prepared for Mass and even endured the service. She’d been on her way to the Great Hall when a page sought her.
The young boy handed her a folded sheaf of parchment, and she immediately recognized her father’s insignia in the wax. Blythe knew Emelie believed she would marry Henry Pringle. That wasn’t a secret, since many had witnessed him pay court. She’d even confided in her sister that she’d written to their father to learn why she hadn’t received his approval. As she sat on the damp grass, she now knew why.
Dominic Campbell watched the young woman wander into the garden. She appeared distracted; upon first glance, he’d thought she was a lost child. He’d followed, thinking she had become separated from her parents. But he caught sight of the parchment dangling from her fingers. When he noticed her gown, there was no longer any doubt of her position. The ornate stitching and lavish material signified she was a lady-in-waiting. When Dominic watched the woman miss the bench entirely and land ungracefully on the ground, he rushed to her. Even from his distance he could see that she shook. The parchment drifted to the ground, but she didn’t appear to notice.
“My lady?” Dominic said as he neared. It surprised him when she didn’t turn toward his voice. She didn’t appear to even register his presence. He tried again. “My lady.”
Emelie heard a fuzzy noise beside her, and part of her mind recognized it as a man’s voice. But she couldn’t collect herself enough to look toward its owner. It wasn’t until an enormous hand gripped her elbow that she looked toward the towering Highlander. He pulled upward with caution, but she didn’t budge.
“My lady, should I fetch someone? Are you unwell?” Dominic didn’t know what to do. The young lady didn’t respond to his words, nor had she accepted his help. He didn’t want to manhandle a stranger, but he knew he couldn’t leave her on the ground. He wasn’t certain he could even leave her side. He glanced at the missive that now laid beside her. He caught the words “daughter” and “father” before he flipped it over, recognizing the Dunbar crest. Dominic looked at the woman once more. She was ghostly pale and still trembling. Resolved to seat her on the bench, he prayed she wouldn’t fall off.
Dominic looked around to ensure no one watched them. When he was assured that they were alone in the garden, he wrapped his hands around her waist. While he’d noticed her diminutive height, she didn’t feel as fragile as he expected. He lifted her onto the bench and sat down beside her. She turned unseeing eyes toward him and wilted against his shoulder. Unsure what to do, he wrapped his arm around the strange woman’s shoulders. He heard her inhale—or sniff—before she curled into him and burst into tears. Sobs wracked her body as her tears dampened Dominic’s doublet. Baffled but sympathetic, he tightened his hold on her. She burrowed closer, as though he could somehow solve her unknown crisis.
“My lady, what can I do to help you? Can you tell me what’s wrong?” Dominic tried again. She shook her head as she continued to cry, but the sobs subsided. It was just a steady onslaught of tears. The longer he held her, the more she calmed. Absentmindedly, he stroked her arm, just as he had done countless times when his wife, Colina, grew overwrought about one thing or another. Thoughts of his dead wife soured Dominic to his soul. He grimaced as he forced himself to ignore any reminder of the treacherous woman. Instead, he focused on the one in his arms.
“I’m—so—sorry,” Emelie stuttered as she fumbled to wipe tears from her face. She was utterly humiliated. First by the contents of her father’s missive, then being found mute in the garden before bursting into hysterics, and finally realizing she’d practically crawled onto this strange man’s lap. She couldn’t reason out why his scent had suddenly felt like a sanctuary. His sturdy presence and brawny arm felt like a shield from reality. And he’d merely held her. He hadn’t shunned her or even demanded she answer him.
“Is there aught I can do? Someone I should fetch?” Dominic offered. Emelie shook her head as she sat up and wiped the last of her tears. She glanced down and saw the missive in the man’s hand. Her eyes widened as she stared up at him in fear, then anger. “I didn’t read it, my lady. I only glanced and noticed Laird Dunbar sent it. I assume he’s your father, since you have the missive.”
“You didn’t read it?” Emelie asked, stunned.
“Of course not. Laird Dunbar didn’t address it to me, nor did you offer it to me,” Dominic answered indignantly.
“You found a lone woman in hysterics, and you didn’t read the missive to learn why,” Emelia stated, incredulous that he hadn’t been nosy.
“Whatever caused you such upset is none of my business. I was more concerned that you were safe and would recover. And you were not in hysterics.” Dominic was emphatic about his last statement. He’d spent three years married to a woman given to histrionics. The woman beside him didn’t remind him of Colina in the least.
“That is kind of you to say. Most men wouldn’t agree with you—” Emelie snapped her mouth shut. She was certain no one had ever introduced her to the man, but she had a sound idea who he was. “Are you Laird Campbell’s kin?”
“I am. I’m his younger brother and tánaiste. I’m Dominic. How did you ken?” A twinge of his Highland burr slipped out.
“You and Laird Campbell bear a striking resemblance in your face. My friend Laurel is now Lady Campbell. I suppose that makes her your sister-by-marriage.”
“Aye. Laurel is my sister.” Dominic’s smile was genuine, and Emelie didn’t miss that he added no qualifier. The man was fond of the woman his brother married. Her eye twitched, and Dominic chuckled. “I know she wasn’t popular at court, but she’s the kindest and most generous woman I know. That isn’t to say she doesn’t have strong opinions, nor does she fear sharing them with me or my brother. But she’s not the ogre her reputation made her out to be.”
“She isn’t. She was a woman misunderstood and unappreciated.”
“You were her friend.”
Emelie nodded. There didn’t seem to be much more to say on the matter since they agreed. She reached for the parchment Dominic held and folded it before tucking it into a hidden pocket. She attempted a smile, but she knew it was unconvincing.
“Thank you for your kindness, Dominic.” Emelie liked the sound of the braw Highlander’s name. This time her smile was genuine until she realized she’d been even ruder than she thought. “I apologize. I didn’t introduce myself. Actually, I apologize for several things, but I should have said my name is Emelie Dunbar.”
Dominic grinned. “Laurel has mentioned you. I wondered if you were Emelie or Blythe.” At Emelie’s furrowed brow, he pointed to where the missive hid in her pocket. “I saw the insignia. I just didn’t know which sister you were.”
A breeze rustled the leaves surrounding them, and it made Emelie look around, noticing for the first time just how secluded their spot was. She didn’t fear Dominic in the least. But she knew it would destroy her reputation, and they’d find themselves betrothed, if anyone found them alone together.
“Should I accompany you to the edge of the garden?” Dominic offered, sensing what caused her unease.
“Thank you, but I need some more time alone.” Emelie hoped she didn’t sound ungracious after the comfort he offered when she feared she would fracture into shards.
“Is it safe to be alone out here? I confused you for a lost child.” Dominic slammed his mouth shut as he realized the insult he’d just unintentionally doled out.
“Fear not. You are hardly the first and certainly not the last.” Emelie attempted to infuse mirth into her tone, but she heard it fall flat.
“I’m sorry. I did not say that well. I wouldn’t want anyone to intrude, believing you needed returning to someone.” Dominic grimaced. “Bluidy hell. That didn’t sound any better. I didn’t mean to say you were a pet or a horse. Christ.” Dominic winced at his curse. He glanced up at heaven before looking at Emelie, who playfully leaned away.
“I hope the lightning only strikes you,” Emelie teased. “And I understood what you meant from the beginning. You’ve been exceedingly kind to me. Thank you.” Emelie hoped sharing her appreciation would signal an end to their conversation. Dominic nodded before standing. He reached for her hand and bent over it.
“I am glad I could help, little that I did.”
“Dominic—” Emelie waited for him to turn back to her as he stepped away. She blushed at the informality. “You did far more than you realize. Please know that I appreciate it.”
“I do, my lady. Good day.” Dominic turned away and made his way to a hedge he’d passed as he hurried to Emelie’s side. He stepped around it but went no further. He’d mis-stepped several times with his words, so he hadn’t pressed her about being an unchaperoned young woman alone in the garden. It was hardly safe, and she was fortunate that he’d stumbled upon her and not someone who would have taken advantage of her. He hid behind the bush, a self-appointed sentry.
Emelie knew Dominic hid out of her sight but remained nearby. She wanted to tell him that his protection was unneeded, but she also recognized his wisdom. She’d been oblivious to his approach, and she hadn’t considered the danger she’d risked by being alone so far into the garden. She appreciated the privacy, but she wondered what manner of man would be so considerate to a stranger and then waste his time milling around while that stranger sat on a bench.
Mayhap it’s because he’s a Highlander. They’re different from Lowlanders for certain. Strong and silent isn’t an exaggeration. And he’s sinfully handsome. I even noticed that despite being a watering pot. I’ve never felt such strength. I mean, I know I could stand to gain a stone or three, so it was no struggle for him to lift me.
Bluidy hell!! He had to lift me onto the bench. One more thing to add to my humiliation. But it wasn’t that. It was the strength I felt in his arm and his chest. He could crush me, yet you would think he was holding a bairn the way he was so gentle with me.
He’s a mountain of a mon. He couldn’t be more different from Henry. I thought Henry was so debonair. He’s hardly going to pot, but he definitely isn’t as sturdy as Dominic. I don’t know that I’d ever feel so protected by Henry if he merely wrapped an arm around me. Not that any of that matters now.
Bluidy bleeding hell with the Devil on a cross! The bastard is married. And a moon ago. He was telling me he would marry me. He coupled with me. He was already bluidy well married. Ugh. I’m naught more than a harlot. I helped him commit adultery.
Though…I suddenly have an overwhelming sense that I’m not the only one who’s done that. I even doubt I’m the first woman he tupped who wasn’t his wife. Bastard.
What the devil am I going to do?
Emelie inhaled deeply as she rose. She patted her pocket, checking that the missive hadn’t somehow disappeared. She shook out her skirts, smoothed back her hair, and squared her shoulders. She moved toward the path, expecting to find Dominic where she suspected he hid. She experienced a pang of disappointment when he wasn’t there. But she spied him standing off to the side with his back to her as she entered the bailey. A slight twist at the waist and a turn of his head allowed one eye to glance at her. He made no other gesture to acknowledge her, but she read something in that mere single-eyed stare. She wasn’t certain what it was, but she felt safe once more. It disconcerted her how much she appreciated knowing someone was looking out for her, looking after her. She tilted her head an inch as she continued walking. She steered herself across the bailey, forcing herself not to look back.
Dominic stared across the bailey to the left of where Emelie walked, but he was aware of every step she took until she entered the keep. She was something of an enigma, but more than that, she seemed so vulnerable while she sat beside him. But it was a resolute and self-assured woman who left the gardens and made her way into the castle. The contradiction was staggering. Had he not just felt her trembling against his side, he would never guess she’d been sobbing not twenty minutes earlier.
Dominic had barely dismounted his horse when he saw Emelie entering the gardens. He’d dismissed his guards, telling them to find their bunks in the barracks. He wouldn’t need them again that day. He’d intended to seek the Campbell suites that were always at the ready, but he’d followed the mysterious Emelie instead. Now he ambled across the bailey until he reached the same door Emelie passed through. He wound his way through the castle until he came to his chamber. He dropped his saddlebags beside the bed and toed off his boots. He’d relinquished his sword at the gates as a formality.
As the brother of Laird Brodie Campbell, one of the most powerful lairds in the country, Dominic knew he could have demanded to keep his sword, and the guards would have obliged. But with dominance and influence came great resentment. The Campbells had been ever loyal to the Bruce’s cause, and the king had rewarded them generously. Not everyone in the realm appreciated the clan’s wealth and power.
It was the ongoing conflict with the MacArthurs that brought Dominic to court. Their rivals continued to encroach upon Campbell territory, attempting to reclaim land that hadn’t been theirs in generations. Once the more powerful lineage with a shared progenitor, the MacArthurs had yet to accept the rise and supremacy of Clan Campbell. With delegates from Clan MacArthur also at court, more than one threat lurked within Stirling Castle. If Dominic sensed even a hint of trouble, he would claim his sword from the armory. But for now, the empty scabbard stood beside the foot of his bed.
Dominic poked his nose into the passageway and called to a page standing at the ready. He requested a bath, wanting to rid himself of the dirt from days on the road. He hadn’t considered how filthy he must be while he was comforting Emelie. However, as he waited for the tub and steaming water, he sniffed. He didn’t smell as foul as he expected. He’d felt Emelie smell him as she leaned against him, and she hadn’t recoiled in disgust. But he was hardly as clean as he preferred. His eagerness grew when servants arrived.
“Would you like help, my lord?” A saucy brunette maid offered, leaning forward and offering a view of her cleavage. “Your back is so broad. It must be hard to reach.” The woman’s cooing grated on Dominic’s suddenly exhausted nerves.
“With a broad back comes long arms. I can reach by myself, lass. But I thank you.” Dominic offered a coin to each of the servants who hauled the tub and buckets to his chamber. His encounter with Emelie unsettled him more than he realized, and he wanted privacy and a long soak to consider what happened.
As Dominic lowered himself into the wood and copper tub, regret that he didn’t read the missive nipped at him. He chided himself for even considering violating a stranger’s privacy. He felt worse still once he reminded himself that he’d spoken to Emelie and held her against his side. But he wondered what could cause her such distress. He could only imagine that someone’s death would cause her to be so bereft, but she likely would have volunteered that as an explanation. She’d offered none, and he hadn’t pressed her. However, curiosity ignited his thoughts as he tried to reason out what led Emelie to seek solace in the garden, and what could have caused gut-wrenching sobs.
The more Dominic attempted to figure out the cause of her pain, the more wild and unlikely his guesses became. Eventually, he shook his head and chuckled. He abandoned his guessing game, dunked his head beneath the water, then scrubbed himself clean. As he dried himself, he eyed the bed, considering whether he could catch a nap before the midday meal. He was certain King Robert would already know of his arrival, but the monarch hadn’t summoned Dominic to the Privy Council chamber. Dominic assumed that meant the Bruce was in no rush to see him. Rather than wait in the sultry passageway with every other petitioner just to have the chamberlain send him away, Dominic gave into his wish. He climbed into bed and was soon slumbering. A blonde garden nymph tiptoed through his dreams, one after another. When Dominic awoke, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept so well.
* * *
Do I tell Henry? Don’t I owe it to him to tell him he’ll be a father? If he would claim the bairn, is that what I want? He or she will be a bastard, regardless. Would it be better or worse for Henry to acknowledge them? What have I done?
Emelie sat at the table in her chamber. It was still predawn, and Blythe had yet to stir. A tallow candle sat on the table beside Emelie’s left arm, a sheaf of parchment before her. Her right hand grasped a quill, but she had yet to dip it into the ink. She was torn yet again.
Emelie had made discreet inquiries over the past few days, trying to learn when Henry would return. But no one she asked had an answer. She’d vaguely hinted about it to Queen Elizabeth, but she was cautious, since she was certain the queen knew Henry was now married. The pitying expression she received told Emelie definitively that not only did the queen know about Henry’s marriage, she knew that he wouldn’t return to court soon. Emelie had no choice but to nod and excuse herself.
Now Emelie sat in her dimly lit chamber, trying to decide what to do. Henry had abandoned her. She didn’t know whether he would even care that she was pregnant. The glimpse of a temper she’d witnessed the last time they were together made her fear his reaction, but she felt obligated to tell him. Her morals may have flown away twice already, but they demanded that she be honest. She dipped her quill and considered her wording.
Circumstances have changed for us both. I am aware of yours, but I thought you should know of mine. Fear not that I’ll be alone. You’ve ensured that I won’t be. I’ll likely travel to Druchtag Motte within the next two moons. I won’t be able to wait much longer.
* * *
“I wonder when Henry will be back,” Blythe teased Emelie at the evening meal, pressing her shoulder against her sister. Blythe worried about Emelie, watching her retreat further each day. She didn’t want Emelie to pine for a man who wouldn’t follow through on his flirtations. She hoped that lightening the mood would help Emelie relax, but her comment had the opposite effect. Emelie flinched and looked around.
“I don’t know. He was supposed to be back already, but as he told me, he is his father’s tánaiste. He has duties at home.” And a wife he’s likely bedding every night and promising the world to now that he isn’t doing that with me. At least the promising part. I will cut off his cock if he ever brings it near me again.
“I know how you must miss him. Surely he will return as soon as he has Father’s blessing.”
Emelie looked at her sister and debated confessing everything to her. She’d never kept secrets from Blythe until she met Henry Pringle. Now everything about her life felt like a secret. Her eyes traveled from table to table as diners finished their evening meal. It had been three days since she received her father’s message and embarrassed herself in front of Dominic Campbell. She’d caught sight of him several times since their chance meeting. He’d smiled and nodded, always polite, but they hadn’t spoken except for the mildest banalities when they partnered during dances.
“Come outside with me,” Emelie whispered. The pair eased away from their table, appearing to mingle until they could wander out to the terrace. Emelie drew Blythe into the shadows and kept her voice low. “I doubt Henry is coming back. Blythe, he’s married.”
“What?” Blythe hissed.
“Shh.” Emelie’s eyes darted around, but they were alone on the terrace and too far from anyone inside to overhear. “I grew impatient and sent a missive to Father. I heard back. Henry married Alice Elliot a moon ago.”
“A moon ago? Alice? Alice, as in Allyson’s sister?” Blythe watched as Emelie nodded. Neither woman had ever met the former Alice Elliot, but they knew from their friend and former lady-in-waiting, Allyson, that her next-oldest sister was hardly a woman of high moral standards. Allyson hadn’t said as much, but the Dunbar sisters easily deduced Alice was loose. They learned how Alice and Allyson’s other sisters attempted to seduce Ewan Gordon while he and Allyson were only betrothed. Anyone who met the couple would see how ridiculous the notion was that Ewan would ever choose someone over Allyson. They’d been married a few years and had children, but the man was still as besotted as a new bridegroom. “Wait. He was married the last time he was here.”
“I know that now.”
“But you sneaked out to see him.”
Emelie gasped. “You knew aboot that?”
“Of course. We share a chamber, Emelie. We both know any time one of us comes or goes. I just didn’t say aught because it wasn’t my business.”
“But you’re my sister,” Emelie blurted.
“But I’m not your keeper.” Blythe pulled Emelie in for an embrace. “I thought he was making you happy. We’ve both been here so long. I thought you’d finally found your chance to have what Father and Mother have, what Isa and Ric have. Mother and Father aren’t very warm in front of others—not like how Isa and Ric still can’t keep their hands off one another—but we all know they love one another. Even if things were more like our parents than our sister, I thought Henry loved you.”
“I thought so, too.”
“It was likely an arranged marriage. He must be heartsore that he couldn’t marry the woman he wanted.”
“Hardly,” Emelie sneered. “He let me think he was going to ask for my hand. He let me think he was coming back for me. I was clear aboot my impressions for our future. But now that I think back, he was evasive. He said just enough to placate me. I’m such a fool.”
“Oh, Emmy.” Blythe fell back on her childhood name for her sister. “There will be other men. Men far more worthy than that prick. I bet his cock isn’t that big.” Blythe sniggered. Emelie pretended to be shocked, but she already knew exactly what Henry offered. She just had no basis for comparison. She assumed it was average.
“We will see.” Emelie peered around her sister and strained to see into the crowded Great Hall. The summer sun still hadn’t set, despite the evening meal’s completion. She’d contemplated what she would do now that marrying Henry was an impossibility. She’d procrastinated in visiting the midwife again, but she had to decide. Looking back at Blythe, she infused warmth into her smile. “Let’s dance. I don’t want to think aboot him anymore.”
Feeling a slight reprieve from her guilt after admitting one of her many secrets, Emelie walked arm-in-arm with Blythe as they reentered the Great Hall. The musical set changed, and the women took places among the other ladies. Emelie grinned at Blythe, but it slipped an inch when she faced forward and found Dominic standing before her. Her cheeks heated, just as they did every time they partnered. Fortunately, every dance they’d shared required changing partners, so they never stayed together long. But this set would keep them together for its entirety.
“Lady Emelie,” Dominic said as he bowed. It disconcerted him to see Emelie’s unease. She’d blushed prettily each time they came together during a dance, but this was the first time she looked as though she wished to flee. As their hands joined, they both glanced down before their gazes met. There was something unidentifiable, but almost tangible, that passed between them. Emelie twisted toward Dominic as his other hand came to rest on her waist. They stepped together, but neither hurried to step away, causing them both to miss a beat.
“Dominic,” Emelie whispered, unsure what she should say.
“I’m enjoying our dance, but I’m afraid I have to pay close attention to the music. I don’t practice often.”
Emelie smiled gratefully, appreciative that he let her off the hook from conversation. They both knew what he said was a falsehood; Emelie had already noticed he was an accomplished partner to any woman he twirled about the floor. He might not perform courtly dances often at home, but he was at ease in the royal Great Hall. They moved together in silence. The quiet between them wasn’t uncomfortable, but it made them both more aware of one another. When the music ended, they were slow to release each other.
“Thank you.” Emelie lingered when she knew she should step away, but Dominic didn’t seem in a hurry, either. She hoped he understood she meant her gratitude was for more than the dance. She had almost forgotten her situation while they moved together, and she’d relished the reprieve of being in Dominic’s arms again.
“I hope we can share such a set again,” Dominic said as he bowed. It could have been a perfunctory comment, but Dominic realized he was sincere. His curiosity about the events in the garden had abated, but the lady-in-waiting herself intrigued him in a way he’d never been before, not even when he met Colina. He clenched his teeth and forced away the sneer that tickled his nose and lip. He’d noticed he loathed thinking about Emelie and Colina in the same moment.
“I would like that.” Emelie curtsied before inching toward a set of doors. Her insignificant height made it easy for her to maneuver through crowds unnoticed. She knew Blythe would assume she merely couldn’t see Emelie, and thus wouldn’t worry. This happened every night. Emelie rushed to her chamber and snatched her cloak from the peg upon which it hung. She knew it was unlikely she would pass anyone but servants in the passageways. Nonetheless, she kept her head lowered whenever she was near someone until she stepped into the bailey. She pulled her hood up, as her hair was far too distinct for anyone not to recognize it.
When Emelie and Blythe used to walk on each side of Laurel, the three women always stood out. Laurel’s strawberry-blonde mane was as unique and identifiable as the Dunbar sisters’ white-blonde hair. Only Arabella Johnstone’s deep red hair had been as eye-catching as the hue Emelie shared with Blythe and Isabella.
With her hair tucked into the shadows of her hood, Emelie hurried through town until she reached Goodwife Thomas’s door. She knocked without trying the door. The hour was too late for the apothecary to be open, but Emelie prayed that the woman would see her. It was the woman’s husband who opened the door, but the midwife stood just behind him. She nodded and waved Emelie inside as she told her husband to let Emelie pass.
“Was it the wheat or the barley?”
“The wheat,” Emelie replied.
“It didn’t take long,” Goodwife Thomas mused.
“It didn’t, and I don’t think I have much longer to decide what I should do.” Emelie pursed her lips before pressing them flat. “I already know what I should have done.”
“The past is the past, my lady. But you have a choice.”
“I’m not sure I can go through with it.” Emelie felt her gorge rise as she fought to keep her tears at bay. The matronly woman patted her shoulders, careful not to overstep the bounds of propriety while still offering comfort. Emelie was hardly the first young woman to visit her in the same predicament. Goodwife Thomas went to the stack of narrow drawers and pulled one open. She scooped out something Emelie could not see and dumped it into a sachet.
“In that case, take this pennyroyal with you. If you decide to use it, boil it into a tea and drink it three times a day until it brings on your courses.” The midwife handed Emelie the sachet, which was filled with petals. It was what Emelie knew she should have purchased before her first encounter with Henry. She knew other women used pennyroyal to prevent pregnancy, and she suspected it was what Margaret purchased the morning Emelie first came in.
“Thank you.” This time, Emelie pressed coins into the woman’s hands, but not just because the midwife’s husband glared at her with narrowed eyes. He’d obviously learned his wife hadn’t charged Emelie the first time. She wanted to pay the woman for her discretion and lack of judgment.
“Come back to me if ever you need me.”
“I will.” But Emelie prayed it would never come to that. She clutched the pouch in her hand as she made her way directly back to the castle. The sun had now set, and it grew dark quickly. Emelie had underestimated how long it would take her to visit the midwife, and she feared being outside the gates when they closed. She was also nervous about who she might encounter while she was alone. Her free hand drew the dirk she kept at her waist. She wasn’t overly skilled with it, but it was long and sharp. As long as an attacker didn’t turn it on her, she figured it would do enough damage to buy her time to get away. She didn’t breathe easy until she pulled the castle’s side door closed behind her.
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