Maude Sutherland grew up racing the boys, but when adolescence arrived, she became the ugly duckling of her clan. Sent to the Scottish royal court of King Robert the Bruce, forced to navigate the social machinations of courtiers, Maude is certain no man will choose her over the more elegant ladies-in-waiting. When a Highland laird arrives and sweeps her off her feet, Maude finds hope that she might grow into a swan. Can he convince her to trust his intentions are true?
Kieran MacLeod arrived at court to settle clan business and to have a dalliance or two. But when he discovers a woman with lush curves crying on a terrace, he finds himself inexplicably drawn to the shy lady-in-waiting. Kieran finds he must use patience and kindness to lure Maude out of her shell. Can Kieran help Maude overcome her self-consciousness to stoke the passion stirring between them? Can he prove that his love can protect her from the cruel words of the other ladies-in-waiting?
A family that would keep them apart...
This slow burn romance bursts into flames as Kieran and Maude must unite to defend their love when she is put to the test by the MacLeod clan. Can Maude withstand the scrutiny? Or will Kieran's family have the last word?
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: December 30, 2020
Publisher: Oliver Heber Books
Print pages: 352
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A Wallflower at the Highland Court: A Slow Burn Highlander Romance
The din of music and loud conversation–along with the pervasive odor of too many unwashed or over-perfumed bodies crowded into Stirling Castle’s Great Hall–gave Maude Sutherland a pounding headache. As she observed the dancers from her position at the side of the chamber, part of her envied the other ladies-in-waiting who twirled with ease and confidence, but mostly she wished for nothing more than the blessed silence of her chamber. While Maude propped up the wall, she spied her younger sister, Blair, who moved through the country reel with what must have been her seventh partner that evening. Though she was only an observer, sweat trickled down Maude’s back and between her breasts. A warm snap—unseasonable for spring in the Highlands— had the doors to the terraces wide open. This should have been enough to ease Maude’s discomfort, but the breeze did little to offset how her thick brown hair trapped the heat on her head and neck. Unlike most maidens, Maude wore her hair up almost every waking moment. She possessed a massive amount of thick, coarse, mousey brown hair that was unruly even on the best of days. By evening the weight of the hair, regardless of whether it was up or down, pulled on her neck and contributed to her headache. She would have loved nothing more than to cut it all off and wear it short like her father, Laird Hamish Sutherland, or her brother, Lachlan. She envied them the freedom to wear their hair however they wanted.
A crimson gown floated in Maude’s periphery, so she turned to watch her closest friend, Arabella Johnstone. She and Arabella were as different as chalk and cheese but had somehow struck up a close friendship. Where Arabella’s hair glowed in the candlelight, Maude accepted her hair was dull. Where Arabella’s face looked like an artist’s masterpiece, Maude was aware she was plain. Where Arabella was petite and lean through her hips and legs, Maude considered herself far too broad across the beam. As she grew into womanhood, her frame filled out, and while she had a bust most women would envy, her hips and legs were proportionate. Whenever Arabella or Blair glided across the dance floor, she recalled the many adjectives her brother and his friends had come up with for her when they were younger. “Sodgy,” “bamsey,” “bowzy,” “jostly,” “podg,” and “flobbed up” were the ones that always came to mind. Her brother had since repented for the unkind and merciless teasing. Lachlan noticed that the more he and his friends teased Maude, the less she ate. On the day she collapsed and nearly fell down the stairs leading to the family chambers, he was the one to catch her and carry her to her chamber. In her hazy state, she confessed to have only eaten dried fruit and bannocks the previous three days in hopes of slimming. Lachlan never said an unkind word to his sister again and thereafter became fiercely protective of her, fighting more than one friend when they failed to cease teasing her.
Maude’s attention snapped back to the dancers as the song concluded and Arabella made her way to Maude’s side. “I caught the Gordon twins glancing at you while they danced with Blair and Cairstine Grant,” Arabella murmured.
“Aye, glancing at ma bust nae ma face.” Maude grimaced as her brogue slipped out. She made a conscious effort not to allow her Highland burr to flavor her accent. At court, where Lowlanders were dominant, she stuck out like a sore thumb. Despite Stirling straddling the border between the Highlands and Lowlands and King Robert the Bruce’s affinity and dependence on the Highland clans, Highlanders were considered an oddity at court. “I mean, they were only interested in what was below my chin. My maid cinched this gown far too tight this eve. I can barely breathe, let alone move.”
Arabella gave Maude a measured stare, but chose not to comment. Arabella was aware of how self-conscious Maude was about her appearance. While she, Arabella, frequently reminded Maude of how beautiful she thought her friend was, it did little to counterbalance the snide comments they both heard. Arabella secretly wished she was as endowed as Maude, but she was aware most of the other ladies-in-waiting didn’t share that sentiment. On more than one occasion, Arabella overhead people wondering how Maude became Arabella’s friend. It broke her heart to hear the disparaging comments. She knew why she was friends with Maude: she was the most kindhearted and generous person Arabella knew. Maude smiled at her friend as she passed a mug of ale to Arabella and took a swig from her own.
“How much longer do you think until the queen retires?” Maude asked behind her mug.
“I have no idea, but it can’t be soon enough. I’ve had my toes trod on at least thrice, and Laird Macintosh’s clammy hands have left my gown damp. It wouldn’t surprise me if he left greasy marks on the back.” Arabella twisted as though she might spy the back of her gown.
“He did seem to be in a bit of a lather.”
“You’re too kind, Maude. His sweat threatened to drip from his face to my chest. I don’t know that I could’ve hidden my revulsion if that happened.”
“Aye, you would’ve. Your mother drilled manners into you far too deeply. But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t want to retch,” Maude’s sly smile morphed into a full grin until she remembered people could see the small gap between her top teeth and the tiny overlap of her bottom two teeth. For that reason, it was a rare occasion that she smiled with her mouth open.
“Come dance. Don’t leave me alone out there,” Arabella pleaded.
Maude shrank back against the wall, wishing to melt into it. She was an accomplished dancer, but she’d been embarrassed too many times when men shifted to avoid partnering with her. She didn’t consider herself overweight, but she looked it compared to the other young women. Lachlan was the only man who regularly partnered with her, but he was back at Sutherland. She wished for the umpteenth time she could be home, too.
“Don’t look at though you’re going to the gallows,” Arabella quipped.
“I told you, my gown is far too tight.”
“Then let’s step onto the terrace. I’ll loosen it for you.”
“Why are you so insistent?” Maude kept her smile in place even though her stamina for the evening withered.
“Because I want you to have fun. I want you to see there are plenty of men looking at you and wishing they were dancing with you.”
“So they can peer down my gown, but the moment they touch me, they realize I’m a pudding. Leave off, Bella. Please.”
There was a long pause before Arabella nodded. There wasn’t a chance to say more before a man requested the next dance with Arabella. She looked over her shoulder as her new partner led her toward the other dancers. Maude nodded her head and continued to smile. Once Arabella was out of sight, Maude slipped onto the terrace. She loved Arabella as much as she did Blair, but there were times when it was difficult not to be jealous.
Even our names tell how different we are. Arabella means “given in prayer,” while mine means “powerful battler.” Hers even has the word beautiful in it, while mine is as dowdy as I am. We both fit our monikers.
Maude slipped into the shadows as she welcomed the cool air on her face and neck. While she now ate proper meals, this evening had been difficult with her lacings digging into her flesh. She hadn’t lied; her maid had pulled the ribbons snug. While the young woman only tried to help, Maude was certain she looked like a sack tied in the middle rather than lithe and shapely. When the air shifted from refreshing to chilly, Maude realized she needed to return to the Great Hall. It was still early spring, and the temperature would continue to fall as the night grew late. She walked back to the open doors but halted when she caught her name being whispered by another lady-in-waiting.
“Have you seen how ridiculous she looks standing next to Arabella? It’s like a dove and a sow became friends,” Laurel Ross tittered. Maude hung back and listened as her heart sank.
“Arabella claims she has a big heart,” Cairstine Grant mused. “She certainly has a big chest.”
“Obscene is more like it,” Laurel sniped. “She looks little better than a dairy cow with those tits. She’s more suited for a tavern than a castle. If I didn’t know who her parents were, I’d wonder who let her in off the street.”
“Laurel, that’s a bit harsh. She’s no slattern.” Madeline MacLeod’s words were censuring, but her tone barely hid her laugh. “Men would have to want her first.”
The three women dissolved into giggles as Maude swallowed the tears that threatened to burst free.
Kieran MacLeod crept onto the terrace, watching as Lady Bevan slipped through a door further down the way. Their tryst had been quick and vigorous, as it was the only way for him not to freeze his cods. Now it was his sister’s voice that made him freeze. He hadn’t caught what the young woman before her said, only the sound of a voice, but Madeline’s words rang clear. He clenched his jaw as his sister and her friends continued disparaging another lady-in-waiting.
“Maude’s better suited to be a farmer’s wife than a laird’s wife. She’s a bit brawny to be a lady,” Madeline continued. “What laird will want hers to be the face that greets his guests. They’ll think he sent a servant. And she can barely say more than five words at once without getting uncomfortable.”
If this is who Maude has to talk to, I don’t blame her. My sister is horrid. I’ve told her to mind what she says at court. She never knows who might be listening.
As if to prove his point, something moved in the shadows on the other side of the doors. Kieran peered through the dark, but it was impossible to see who lurked there. He heard whoever it was draw in a ragged breath. It was too loud in the Great Hall for anyone to hear it, but it seemed to echo in the still air outside. Kieran changed course while he was still invisible to the gossiping ladies. He approached on silent feet and attempted to discover who stood eavesdropping. As he approached, the first thing he noticed was that it was a woman. As he drew closer, his breeks tightened at the lush form. He hated wearing the pants but acquiesced to courtly standards of dress. His breacan feile, or great plaid, would be more comfortable as his rod continued to swell. He hadn’t had this reaction to Lady Bevan when he met her in the gardens only minutes ago. The woman was attractive and lusty, but her body looked like a twig compared to the woman in front of him. He couldn’t see her face, but lust and curiosity drove him forward.
“You shouldn’t be eavesdropping. Curiosity killed the cat,” Kieran whispered. He didn’t miss the hypocrisy of his own statement, but he was too intrigued to ignore the young woman.
The woman gasped and spun around. She seemed about to take a step back but remembered doing so would put her in the doorway's light, where the women would catch her. Kieran realized that she had the most incredible bosom he had even seen, one which heaved because she was sobbing. It took little deduction to realize he must be staring at the unfortunate Maude. Without a clue what possessed him, he pulled Maude into his embrace and sheltered her against his chest. She attempted to pull away just as she should, but she settled as he caressed her head.
“Shh, lass. They’ll see or hear us,” he murmured against her ear.
Maude nodded and allowed her body to relax against this strange man. She hadn’t sensed his approach and nearly screamed when she realized she was no longer alone. When the man pulled her into his arms, she had a moment of terror that he would accost her, but his gentleness reminded her of her father, though nothing about how he made her feel was like her father. His steady heartbeat thudded against her ear, and his fresh scent of sandalwood and pine made her think of home, a place she would much rather have been than at court.
Kieran discovered his error within a heartbeat of embracing Maude. His cockstand was rampant, and he feared she would feel it and go running for the hills screaming bloody murder. He kept his hips away from her and prayed the thick material of her kirtle would serve as a buffer. Yet he couldn’t bring himself to release her. Her arms were tentative as they wound around his waist. Her frame was rigid until he whispered to her again, and then she melted against his chest. His heart broke all over again as he realized how what he thought of as a simple embrace comforted her. He likened her to an abandoned kitten brought in from the rain. He wondered what it would take to make her purr.
“Wheest, buttercup. I’m here. Don’t cry. They aren’t worth the salt in your tears. Don’t listen to those harpies,” he crooned. She rewarded him with a small nod of her head. One hand continued to stroke her hair as the other ran circles over her back.
“Her father will have to buy her a husband,” Laurel’s voice floated to them. “What mon would pick her?”
Maude went still, the breath in her lungs stuck. Fresh tears threatened to fall as the conversation continued inside. The stranger’s arms tightened around her, and she burrowed her face into his chest as though she might tunnel her way to escape. She noticed his breath catch, and it did little to reassure her.
“They called Elizabeth Fraser a spinster, but at least she was beautiful. The real spinster will be Maude. She’ll be on the shelf if her father doesn’t bribe someone to take her off his hands,” Madeline sneered, and if Kieran hadn’t been unwilling to unwrap his arms around the trembling woman, he would have wrapped them around his sister’s throat. “Maude on the shelf. That’s what we shall call her. Maude on the shelf.”
Kieran cringed as the other two heartily agreed. He understood how the ladies-in-waiting could be. His sister had been one for three years, and to his great misfortune, he had to visit court more often than he would like. Kieran was aware the new epithet would spread and be on everyone’s lips by morning.
“Maude,” a woman’s voice hissed. “Maude, where are you?”
The jerk of Maude’s head was so unexpected it snapped Kieran’s jaw closed. He’d been leaning his head down as he whispered to her and was unprepared for her sudden movement. He stifled a curse as Maude pulled away. Even in the dim light, he could see her eyes widen.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I must go. Thank--”
Maude froze when Arabella stepped near them. Maude couldn’t see the man’s face, but she was certain Arabella had seen them embracing. After all, his arms were around her waist, but as Arabella drew closer, Kieran shifted so his larger frame partially hid her.
He’s trying to protect me.
Maude tapped his arm and nodded when he looked down at her.
“It’s all right. She’s my friend.” Maude stepped around him and stumbled as Arabella grasped her hands and dragged her away from the doorway into the light of a wall sconce burning at the end of the terrace. She was certain she looked a fright when Arabella gasped.
“Why’re you crying? What happened? What did he do?” Arabella demanded. She glared at the shadowy figure who followed them.
“He didn’t do aught other than offer me a moment of sympathy.”
“Sympathy for what? Why was he embracing you? And you still haven’t told me why you’re crying.”
“I overheard something I wasn’t intended to, and it saddened me. He heard, too, and comforted me when he found me upset. Naught more.”
Kieran listened to the two women, and his heart slowed when he was confident Maude wouldn’t accuse him of any untoward behavior. However, he couldn’t agree with her summation that there was nothing more. There had been plenty more for him, and his semi-aroused rod agreed. He’d never enjoyed holding a woman more than he did Maude. He regretted that his sister and her friends upset her, but his arms ached to encircle her again. She felt perfect.
“Maude, what did you overhear?” Arabella’s voice softened, and Maude wanted to cry yet again. She hated the pity that colored Arabella’s voice.
“I don’t want to talk aboot it. At least not right now and not here.” The other women humiliated Maude enough without having to repeat everything so her unknown protector could hear her shame again.
Arabella pulled Maude into her arms, and while her friend’s embrace comforted her, it wasn’t the same as the one she had received in the dark.
“You haven’t introduced yourself,” Arabella squinted at the hulking figure. She hadn’t realized the man was so large until he stepped into the light. His face seemed familiar. Maude turned to face her mystery protector and couldn’t believe she could be so unlucky in one night.
“Oh dear God, no.” Maude shook her head as she tried to back away. Her humiliation was a fait accompli. While she wasn’t acquainted with the man, he was easy to recognize.
“What? Do you know him?” Arabella looked between the man and Maude several times.
“No, but how can you not tell he’s Madeline’s brother? They look too much alike to be otherwise.” Maude glanced around, looking for a way out of this untenable conversation, and considered running into the gardens. She was sure Arabella and this still unnamed man would follow her.
“Laird Kieran MacLeod.” He bowed as he took Maude’s hand and bussed a kiss onto the back of it. She was unaccustomed to such courtly manners directed toward her. She assumed it was perfunctory before his attention would settle on Arabella, as it inevitably always did. He stunned her when Arabella only received a nod and a glance from him. “I must apologize for my sister’s cruelty. I’m ashamed on her behalf, and I wish I could take it back. I will have words with her.”
“No!” Maude practically shouted. She shook her head with vehemence. “Don’t either of you say a word aboot this. Please. It’s embarrassing enough without them discovering I overheard them. It’ll only make them believe they were successful.”
“Maude,” Kieran liked how her name sounded as he spoke it for the first time, and from the flair of her nose and the rise of her chest, she seemed to like it too. “Madeline doesn’t need to ken you were here too. I’ll tell her I was returning from the gardens and couldn’t help overhearing them.”
Kieran watched color flood Maude’s face as she glanced at the garden and then him. He watched her eyes dart to his waist and then away. He realized she understood why he had been in the garden, and for some reason, shame filled him even more. Arabella’s hardened expression told him she understood, too. But it was before he even knew Maude existed, he reasoned with himself.
“Please, no. Just leave be. The less said the better,” Maude sighed.
“I wish that I could, buttercup.” Kieran wanted to bite his tongue as the endearment slipped out. It was one thing to use it when he and Maude were alone, and he attempted to comfort her. It was a different matter to do it in front of her friend. “I won’t mention that I met you or that you were anywhere near here, but I can’t let Madeline’s behavior stand. It’s a disgrace to our name. If she speaks this way aboot you, I can only imagine what she is saying aboot other people. Her loose tongue could do more damage than she realizes. Hurt feelings destroy alliances all the time. Besides that, I abhor her willing cruelty. It’s disgusting, and hardly ladylike.” Kieran forced himself to stop speaking before he became guilty of his sister’s sin and spoke too ill of her in front of others.
“Do as you must,” Maude sighed again.
The resignation in her tone once more made Kieran wish to protect her. Disregarding her friend, Kieran lifted Maude’s chin and leaned next to her ear to whisper.
“They arenae men. They havenae a bluidy clue what they’re talking aboot. You can take those words to the grave, lass.” He placed a kiss on the corner of her jaw before pulling away.
Maude stared up at Kieran as she processed what he said. A smile made the corner of her mouth twinge as she nodded.
“I bid you good eve, ladies. I have a little sister to find.” Kieran once more bowed to Maude but didn’t even look at Arabella. Maude wondered if she’d be insulted by the slight. They watched him walk back to the doorway where he discovered Maude and disappeared into the Great Hall.
Maude and Arabella didn’t speak until they reached their chamber. Once inside, Maude yanked at the laces to her gown, but Arabella swatted her hands away before they became knotted.
“What was that aboot?” Arabella checked her tone as she pulled Maude’s laces through the eyelets. She didn’t want to sound accusatory, but it had stunned her to see her friend in a man’s embrace. Not because she thought Maude didn’t deserve a man’s attention, but because she was terrified for her friend’s reputation. If anyone else found them, Maude would be betrothed as they spoke.
“I stepped outside to get some fresh air.” Maude began as she pulled the kirtle from her shoulders. The freedom eased her aching ribs. “I was aboot to come back inside when I heard my name. I stopped and listened. And now I wish I hadn’t. Madeline, Laurel, and Cairstine were discussing my many and singular flaws. They described all the ways in which I’m unappealing to a mon and how my da will have to bribe a mon to want me.”
Arabella snorted, then giggled before covering her mouth as her friend’s distressed expression reminded her that her reaction was inappropriate.
“They didn’t see the way Kieran MacLeod was looking at you. He was salivating as though you were the first meal he’d had in a sennight.”
“Stop, Bella. You don’t have to make me feel better.” Maude walked to the jug of lemon verbena-scented water and basin. She scrubbed her face and neck before changing out of her chemise and into her nightgown. She had given up trying to hide from Arabella while she changed, but she still turned her back.
“Gracious! Your maid did tie the gown far too snug. You have lines all across your back.” Arabella winced when she realized how much pain Maude must have endured that evening.
“She was only trying to help.”
“Everyone is always just ‘trying to help.’ I wish they’d leave you alone.” Arabella walked to her own jug of rosewater and washed her face.
“Anyway.” Maude didn’t want to discuss how her maid swore she’d make Maude appear thinner if she pulled just a little harder before tying the laces. “He came from the gardens and heard the women’s voices. He stopped and listened but noticed me. I guess I moved at some point. He sneaked up behind me and teased me aboot being too curious. When I turned around, he realized who I was. There could be little doubt since I was crying. Before I understood what was happening, he pulled me into his arms and comforted me. Then you came looking for me.”
Arabella assessed her before raising an eyebrow. “Just how long was he holding you in his arms before I came out?”
“He wasn’t holding me,” Maude denied. “He embraced me and told me not to worry aboot what they said.”
“He was holding you. I saw him. I also saw how he looked at you when you were looking at me. I can’t explain it, but it was a glare, a warning to me and concern for you. Along with a strong dose of lust.”
“Bella, don’t. I told you, you don’t need to make me feel better. I’d rather you stop trying to make me think men are interested when I know they’re not. He caught sight of my bust like most men do, but that’s it. I’m sure he could feel I’m--” Maude shook her head, unsure how to finish. “It embarrassed him when he discovered his sister’s behavior, and he tried to make me feel better. I’m sure he felt guilty.”
“He felt a few things, and guilt might have been one of them, but that’s not what I saw. He tried to protect you and pushed you behind him when I approached.”
“So he had good manners? He must have known what would happen if anyone else caught us.”
“And yet he persisted in holding you against him. I’m telling you, the look he shot me was protective. It was almost as if he dared me to speak against you. Once he realized we are friends, the expression was like he wanted to comfort you and devour you all at the same time.”
Maude climbed into bed and waited for Arabella to do the same before snuffing out her candle.
“Good night, Bella. And good night to your overactive imagination.”
“Humph. Night, love.”
Maude lay on her side, staring into the dark. This time there was no mystery man in the shadows. There was just nothingness. It fit how she felt. She replayed his final words in her head, but they made little sense. Or rather, they didn’t make sense when said to her. She couldn’t fathom how they had anything to do with her, so she assumed he’d merely attempted to make her feel better. But once again, the meaningless words made her heart feel hollow. She wished she could fall asleep at court and wake up in her chamber at home.
Maude rubbed her eyes as she came awake to the sound of Arabella and her maid moving about. She looked over to see Arabella fully dressed and her hair nearly done. Maude glanced toward her dresser and spotted her own maid brushing out her kirtle. She pushed back the covers and slipped from the bed.
“We should’ve been quieter,” Arabella frowned. “I’m sorry we woke you.”
“Sorry? Thank goodness you did. I’ll be late as it is. Why’d you let me oversleep?”
“Because you must be exhausted not to wake up before me. Are you poorly?” Arabella stepped away from her maid with her hair falling out of the unfinished braid. She approached Maude and looked over her face as though she searched for an invisible malady.
“Naught is wrong with me. I had a headache last night, but I’m well this morning. I suppose I just needed a little extra sleep.” Maude encouraged her maid to hurry to assist her with her gown. “Not so tight, if you please.”
While the maid assisted Maude into her stockings and chemise, Maude awkwardly balanced as she twisted her hair into a bun she secured with copious pins. She was certain that was part of what gave her headaches. It wasn’t just the weight of her hair, but all the pins that dug into her scalp. If she were at home, she could have gotten away with wearing her hair in a long braid down her back, but she learned soon after her arrival that the other ladies called her a country bumpkin for looking like a milkmaid. She resorted to wrapping her hair into a tight circle instead. It was only for feasts that she would sit while her maid braided her hair into more intricate styles.
Once Maude and Arabella were ready, they made their way to the queen’s dining hall, where the other ladies-in-waiting were gathering to break their fast. Arabella led Maude to a spot where several of Arabella’s friends sat. Maude believed she had a vicarious friendship with most of the women only because Arabella befriended her, and that was why they welcomed Maude at the table. She spotted Madeline and Laurel sitting a few spots down and across the table from her. The glare Madeline sent her told her Kieran must have spoken to her already. Maude lowered her head in prayer before beginning her porridge. Arabella was busy speaking with Cairren Kennedy and Blair. Maude and Blair had argued with the Mistress of the Bedchamber when she assigned them separate rooms upon their arrival. The woman had refused to entertain their complaints and insisted she separate them. It had been fine for Blair, who was far more sociable than Maude and who made friends with ease. Maude had been fortunate to move into Arabella’s chamber after her former roommate returned home. The separation allowed Blair and Maude to become more independent, but it was times like the night before when she missed Blair climbing into bed next to her. She smiled at her sister and gave her a speaking glance, to which Blair nodded. They would find each other after the meal to talk.
“Should we ask a stable hand to find you a shovel? You’d be able to inhale that porridge faster.” Madeline taunted. When Maude refused to answer, remaining focused on her meal, Madeline slid closer on the bench. Arabella, Cairstine, and Blair stopped talking, and Maude saw her sister lean forward. She placed a fist on the table, and her sister saw their sign to stop. “Thanks to you, the queen overheard my brother harping on aboot me being unkind to you. Now I have an afternoon of prayer to look forward to.”
“Thanks to Maude?” Cairren asked in confusion.
“Aye. My brother overheard part of a conversation last night that wasn’t intended for him, and he took pity on the poor wretch and chewed my ear off this morning. Of course, he doesn’t know how to whisper, so the queen overheard since he waylaid me outside the hall just as she was entering.”
“If she weren’t so pathetic,” Laurel chimed in. “He wouldn’t have pitied her enough to say aught. He doesn’t even know you and he thinks you’re pathetic.”
Maude looked up, the stubbornness that got her in trouble as a child rearing its head. She looked at Madeline and Laurel but said nothing. Her gaze dared them to say more. She was aware her expression could intimidate, so she enjoyed seeing the discomfort her adversaries experienced as she continued to stare. Madeline looked at the pitcher of cream near her right hand, and a cruel gleam entered her eyes. Maude sensed what was coming, but with other women on the bench, she couldn’t push back far enough to escape the liquid splashing down the front of her as the jug rolled across the table.
“My pardon, Maude. I’m usually not so clumsy,” Madeline purred.
“Bitch,” Blair growled as she stood and looked ready to reach across the table. “You did that on purpose, and we all ken it.”
“Blair,” Maude warned. She eased from her seat and notched up her chin. She forced her hands not to reach for her unfinished bowl of porridge. Chucking it in Madeline’s face wouldn’t endear her to the queen, and her parents would be livid if they learned of it. “It’s not her fault that those mitts of hers are so ham-handed.”
Madeline screeched as the other ladies giggled. Maude stepped away from the table, certain Madeline wouldn’t have her restraint. She didn’t want to wear any more of the morning meal than she already did. She turned on her heel and walked to the exit. Arabella and Blair would have more to say to Madeline, and she had no remorse.
Kieran’s gaze followed the velvet-clad woman as she hurried down the passageway. He recognized Maude at once, even though her back was to him. He didn’t understand how he could be so certain, but he was.
“Excuse me,” he muttered to the other men he milled about with as they waited to make their way to the lists. His long strides made it easy to catch up with Maude, but he waited until they turned a corner and were out of sight before he reached for her arm. She tugged it away, and a fist came flying toward his jaw. It was close to his shoulder before Maude realized at whom she aimed.
“Apologies. You startled me. You’re very silent.” Maude felt thick-tongued as she took in Kieran’s appearance in the full light of day. She had suspected he was handsome, but she was unprepared for his rugged good looks. His tawny hair had touches of carrot to it, but rather than looking garish, it gave the tone richness. His eyes were gray with a touch of green. It made for an unusual combination. She remembered how his broad frame encompassed her the night before as his large but gentle hands slid over her hair and back. In the dark, it had been impossible to tell just how large Kieran was. In the daylight, it was clear that he was a veritable mountain. It was clear he was a Highlander by his size and his bearing. He was similar in build to her father and brother, she realized; that was why his hug seemed familiar. However, the men in her family didn’t draw her like Kieran did. Women ogled her four braw cousins--Callum, Alex, Tavish, and Magnus—but never had the Sinclair brothers made her breath catch in the back of her throat.
Heat rushed through Kieran as she offered him her half-smile. He perceived she didn’t wear it often. It was genuine; not a courtly smile that he was sure she employed throughout the day. His eyes gorged on the ample bust hidden under her kirtle. The top of her cleavage showed, and he wished for nothing more than the chance to run his tongue along the deep crevice. He appreciated the trim waist that had been firm and curvy in his hands the night before, and he forced himself not to gaze at hips he wanted to thrust against. Randy thoughts were stirring his rod, and his breeks would again display his interest if he didn’t calm himself. Instead, his brow furrowed as he noticed the kirtle had a long stain running from the middle of her chest to where the material would have pooled while she sat. There was a faint scent of dairy as he sniffed. He smelled lemon verbena, but he also caught the odor of milk.
“A little mishap?” He kept his voice low. As soon as she heard his words, her smile vanished and a stubborn set to her jaw took its place. He understood two things in that moment: she had more mettle than the other women gave her credit for, and his sister was responsible for the mess. “What did she do?”
“I think it’s rather obvious. Excuse me, but I must hurry.” Maude turned to continue down the passageway, but Kieran matched her stride. When they rounded the corner that led to the ladies’-in-waiting chambers, she halted and turned to him. Before she realized what she was doing, she placed her hand on his chest and nudged him back. “You can’t follow me.”
“Then stop and talk to me.”
“I told you, I can’t. I must hurry and change if I’m to join the queen on her walk. If I arrive late, it will be obvious, and then I’ll need to either lie or explain. Neither of which are appealing.” Maude turned away, but paused and looked back. “You may whisper to me, but apparently your voice carries when you speak to your sister. It carries straight to the queen.”
Kieran’s eyes flashed wide before regret filled them and his shoulders slumped. He looked like a guilty child being remonstrated by an adult.
“I’m sorry, Maude. You warned me not to say aught, and I insisted I knew better when you’re the one who survives her at court while I just visit. How much worse have I made it?”
Kieran was unprepared for the flat and succinct response. He looked at his feet as he tried to come up with something else to say. Maude took it to signal the end of their conversation.
“But how will you get out of your gown?” Maude spun around with such haste that her skirts twirled out before settling against her legs. “Bluidy hell. I didn’t mean it as it sounded. I mean, I wasn’t offering. Unless--- No. I meant should I fetch your maid?”
“I can manage on my own.” Maude turned away once again. “But thank you.”
Kieran had little choice but to watch her walk away. Unless he wanted to jeopardize her reputation, there was no way for him to follow her any further. And unless he wanted to jeopardize the little self-restraint he possessed at the moment, he had to let her go. He hadn’t intended to imply that he would help her undress until the image took shape in his mind. By the time he finished stumbling over his words, that was precisely what he wanted.
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