A laird who fears making a mistake...
Ronan Mackinnon bears the weight of leading his clan and spares no time for his own pursuits. Summoned to court by King Robert the Bruce, Ronan diligently considers each of his words and actions to represent his clan with honor. But when King Robert demands Ronan chooses a bride, he's forced to confront his past choices. The pleasures of the flesh play no part in his life--until Abigail MacLeod enters it. Can this reserved laird prove to Abigail what he lacks in experience he makes up for in passion?
A lady who's made one mistake after another...
Lady Abigail MacLeod's life is filled with poor choices. She misjudged her brother Kieran's wallflower bride Maude when she arrived on the Isle of Lewis. She misjudged the man she entered a handfast with, and it ended in disgrace. Now a lady-in-waiting at King Robert the Bruce's royal court, Abigail finds the opportunity to redeem her past wrong deeds. But when a handsome laird arrives at court, Abigail fears her old habits haven't died. Could a rushed judgement cost her a lifetime in a Highlander's arms?
Can two nobles from rival clans find love?
The MacLeods of Lewis are on good terms with the MacKinnons of Skye. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the MacLeods of Skye and the MacKinnons. When an old feud reignites, Abigail and Ronan are caught in the middle. Fighting against time and blizzards, can they protect their burgeoning love and their lives? Will it take stealing the MacLeods of Skye's famed Fairy Flag?
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.
The first third of this novel appeared as a novella in the Christmas anthology Twelve Days of Christmas in a Highlander's Arms. Since then, more than 200 pages of new content has been added to make this a full-length novel.
Release date: February 16, 2021
Publisher: Oliver Heber Books
Print pages: 367
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An Angel at the Highland Court: A Chaste Hero Highlander Romance
Holy Father, guide me with Yer infinite wisdom and divine inspiration, so I dinna bungle ma interview with the king. Lord, keep me from making an eejit of maself. St. Columba, spiritual ancestor of the MacKinnons, watch over me. Infuse me with yer way with words. Pray for ma soul that I dinna say the wrong thing and embarrass maself and ma people. Oh, and Lord, thank Ye for the blessings of the coming season. May I keep in ma heart and ma mind the season of Advent and the celebration of the coming birth of our only Savior, Yer Son, Jesus Christ. In Yer name, I pray. Amen.
Ronan MacKinnon opened his eyes and realized he was the last person in the church at Stirling Castle. He’d thought to say a few extra words after the morning Mass ended, but his prayers drew out as his nervousness about meeting with King Robert the Bruce increased. Unfamiliar with the castle and life at court, Ronan had never felt more like an islander and less like a Scot in his life. His home on the Isle of Skye felt like a million miles away, a foreign realm compared to life on the mainland. He would have much preferred the constant drizzle and gloom of winter in the Hebrides because it came with the fresh saltwater scent and the sound of crashing waves, the call of seagulls, and the brisk sea breeze. The sights and sounds of Stirling Castle were off-putting to a man accustomed to the wilds of the Hebrides.
Ronan rose from his knees, making the sign of the cross one last time, and turned toward the doors. It surprised to him to see a young lady kneeling with her head bowed several pews behind where he’d been praying. He hadn’t heard a sound and believed himself to be alone in the castle’s kirk. He was grateful he hadn’t spoken his prayers aloud, as he often did at Dun Ringill Castle. He could see little of the woman’s face, but he noticed her ebony locks shone like a raven’s wing. Her hands were fine-boned, and her fingers showed cleanly manicured nails. Her gown was elegant, but not as ostentatious as those worn by many women at court. He deduced from her age and her appearance that she was one of Queen Elizabeth de Burgh’s ladies-in-waiting. When her eyes shifted as he approached, he blinked twice at their color. They were the same greenish blue as a robin’s egg. She didn’t acknowledge him but dipped her head again and resumed her prayers. Ronan had been unprepared for the shocking contrast between her inky hair and light eyes and the stunning combination it created. Even though she couldn’t see him as she prayed, he still nodded as he walked past. If all the women at court were as striking as this youthful one, he would likely trip over his tongue every time he opened his mouth. He would undoubtedly make a fool of himself and the MacKinnons. He wished he could call for his horse and gallop away, never looking back.
Abigail MacLeod first sensed, then saw, the man moving toward her. She’d seen the back of his head when she slipped away from the other ladies-in-waiting, opting for additional time in prayer rather than gossiping with the ladies as they broke their fast. It was a fortnight before Advent started, and the beginning of her third month as a lady-in-waiting. She spent a few extra minutes in prayer after the Sunday Mass to thank God for where her life had taken her after the last few years of turmoil.
Abigail reflected upon the woman she was not so long ago. Her cheeks always grew heated as shame washed over her as she remembered how abominably she acted toward her sister-by-marriage, Maude Sutherland. She recalled the hateful and mean-spirited things she said when her loving and patient sister-by-marriage arrived at Stornoway, on the northeastern side of the Isle of Lewis, as Abigail’s older brother’s bride. She and her mother had been atrocious because they believed Kieran should have married a woman of their choice, a woman they believed was more like them. They’d ridiculed Maude for her appearance, though now Abigail couldn’t fathom what they’d seen as the woman’s flaws. She wasn’t a striking beauty, but she was pretty in her own way. She wasn’t the image of the thin and comely lady-in-waiting that Abigail’s older sister Madeline had been. But Maude made life better at Stornoway Castle, and she was a model wife, mother, and chatelaine. But in the beginning, Abigail and her mother had only seen what they’d believed were Maude’s flaws, and blamed her for Madeline’s banishment to an abbey. They refused to accept Kieran’s decision to send Madeline away because of Abigail’s sister’s disgraceful choices at court.
Abigail prayed for thanksgiving that Maude survived an animal attack that nearly killed her and could have killed the twins Maude carried. It had been a devastating and eye-opening experience to see Maude fight for her life and the toll that fear took on Kieran. It caused Abigail and her mother Adeline to re-evaluate their perception of Maude and the dreadful way they treated her. While the two women turned over a new leaf, Kieran initially hadn’t been as forgiving as Maude. He’d threatened to send Abigail to court as Madeline’s replacement among the ladies-in-waiting, or to marry her off to an old toad still in need of an heir. She was grateful that she had wound up as a lady-in-waiting after a failed yearlong handfast. Abigail forced herself to set aside thoughts of her doomed trial marriage. She didn’t wish to ruin a beautiful morning or her concentration by remembering him. She finished her prayers and left the kirk to find the other ladies and the queen.
Ronan swept his eyes over the Great Hall filled with courtiers and visitors as they settled at tables and waited for the evening meal to begin. He’d been at court for three days, but he still found the Great Hall and the evening meal to be a jarring experience. He spotted the table where his guards sat chatting with guardsmen who wore the MacLeod plaid. He recognized the red pattern and knew the conversation was genial. Had it been the blue MacLeod plaid, he feared a fight would have broken out. His clan was on amicable terms with the MacLeods of Lewis, but there was constant strife with the MacLeods of Skye, who were less than thrilled to share the island with the MacKinnons. The Bruce had rewarded the MacKinnons with more land after the Battle of Bannockburn. Ronan’s family had lived at Dunakin Castle for generations, but with the royal gift came a new castle. His home was at Dun Ringill, the place he longed to be.
“Strathardale,” a booming voice called out. Ronan wanted to cringe. He held various titles, but “MacKinnon of Strathardale” grated on his nerves when used in public. Ronan supposed it came from not wanting to alert any MacLeods of Skye that their enemy lurked among them. Ronan much preferred to go unnoticed. It allowed him to observe, rather than take part in conversation.
The deep voice belonged to John MacDonald of Islay, Lord of the Isles. Ronan wanted to cringe again. The man was as powerful as he was ambitious. He’d inherited his title of Lord of the Isles, but he was ambitious enough to have pursued the title “King of the Isles” if not for his loyalty to Robert the Bruce. While the MacDonald lived at Loch Finlaggan on Islay, his clan had Dun Sgathaich Castle on the Sleat peninsula of Skye. It made them neighbors, but fortunately they were a full day’s ride apart. Ronan wished the ride took the three days that separated Dun Ringill from Dunvegan, the MacLeod of Skye stronghold. With such proximity to Dun Sgathaich, Ronan hosted John more often than he liked when the man came to Skye. The Lord of the Isles boasted that Ronan’s cook was better than the one at Dun Sgathaich, but Ronan wasn’t fooled. John MacDonald was simply nosy.
“John of Islay,” Ronan returned the greeting, knowing the lesser title irritated the man. But Ronan refused to call the man “Lord of the Isles” when he stood before him. It was too pretentious for Ronan’s taste, and it annoyed him. The MacKinnons descended from the first kings of Scotland. They weren’t minions to Clan MacDonald. The two men clasped forearms, and Ronan sensed when John capitulated in their silent power struggle.
“MacKinnon, it’s good to see you among the splendor of court. You so rarely get off the island,” John sniped.
“Why leave when it’s God’s gift to Scotland?” Ronan grinned. He could match John’s snide comments. “The king summoned, so I came. I’m uncertain why he did, but here I am.” Ronan wasn’t certain, but he suspected it had to do with the ongoing troubles with the MacLeods, and King Robert’s wish to see him secure an alliance through marriage. Ronan didn’t oppose marriage; he just hadn’t met a woman who didn’t madden him with frivolous talk. He would never understand why their mothers raised them to believe it was expected of a lady. He’d rather not talk at all.
“MacLeods still giving you trouble? We’re getting along these days.”
“Aye. And you’re getting along because the MacKinnons keep you both on your sides of the island while we’re trapped in the middle,” Ronan grumbled.
“If Skye is God’s gift to Scotland, then you’re God’s gift to Skye. You keep those upstarts from claiming they should be Lord of the Isles. They’re no more than a gnat buzzing aboot,” John smirked.
Ronan hardly agreed. The MacLeods of Skye were a powerful clan that held influence throughout the Hebrides, and they outnumbered the MacKinnons. But they didn’t outnumber the MacDonalds, who had two branches on the island: those in the north and the MacDonalds of Sleat in the south, which John claimed as his branch. They also had the MacQueens on their side, and Clan MacNeacail strongly allied with the MacDonalds of Sleat. There was no love lost for the MacLeods of Skye after the MacLeods of Lewis pushed Clan MacNeacail off that isle. The MacKinnons often felt like little more than a buffer, as their land ran through the middle of the island, separating the MacDonalds of Sleat from the MacLeods of Skye.
John took Ronan’s silence as an invitation to continue speaking. “If King Robert doesn’t want to discuss the MacLeods with you, what do you think he wants?”
“I shall find out when I’m called for an audience with him,” Ronan demurred. “I understand you were in Lochaber again not too long ago. How do things fare there?”
“Bluidy hell! Ever since the Mackintoshes convinced the Shaws and the MacThomases to join them in that ridiculous plot to attack the Camerons, it’s been a right bluidy mess for the MacDonalds. Hardwin decided that once Artair died—had a crazy bitch for a wife, that one—he wouldn’t allow another MacDonald to sit as chieftain at Inverlochy. Now he has one of his own as the guardian.”
“But your people still live at Inverlochy, don’t they?” Ronan hoped they could remain on this topic rather than shifting back to him. He suspected he might spend the entire night listening to John’s tale of woe about how people thwarted his ambition.
“Aye, but Hardwin–really his wife Blair–renegotiated the levies again. She might look like a saint, but her mind is as sharp as the devil. The banalities and pannage will keep that branch from ever prospering,” John frowned. Ronan knew the MacDonalds at Inverlochy were doing just fine with the portion of land the Camerons gave them. He also knew that John wanted Inverlochy to belong to the MacDonalds outright, so he would have more sway in the western Highlands. He considered Lochaber to be his, never mind the several other clans who had rightful claims to that land. Ronan wished for at least the tenth time that day that he could return to Dun Ringill, even if he didn’t see the king. He was a Hebridean, not a Scot.
Ronan muttered his excuses and slipped over to the table where his men sat with the MacLeods of Lewis. He joined the conversation in time to hear that the laird and lady were preparing to celebrate Christmas with a larger feast than usual to celebrate both their bairn and their twins’ saint’s day.
“I wonder if the laird’s sister will join them,” one of the MacLeod guardsmen mentioned.
“I doubt it. It’s too far to travel as is. The weather has been foul, and I doubt it will improve,” another MacLeod commented. “And the laird willna want to leave our lady and the bairns to fetch his sister. I ken I dinna want to travel in this.”
“I feel a wee bad for the lass after everything that happened last year. I mean, she could be aboot as sweet as pickled herring, but she and Lady Adeline came around to Lady MacLeod. She was even friends with Lady MacLeod before she left Stornoway. The lass deserves a chance to see her family. She’s a different woman these days,” the first guardsman stated. Ronan only partially paid attention as he chatted with his own men. The evening meal progressed, but as soon as the servants cleared away the tables, Ronan made his escape to his chambers.
How am I lost again? Ronan looked to his left and his right, but he couldn’t orient himself in the passageway. He was attempting to make his way to the lists, but he couldn’t tell which side of the castle he was facing or how to find the doors that would take him to the bailey. The one time he needed someone milling about to give him directions, every passageway was empty. He continued in the direction he’d been walking, hoping he would find an arrow slit to look out of to determine where he was.
“You can’t be here,” a woman’s voice hissed from behind him. Ronan spun around and came face-to-face with the woman from the church the previous morning. He hadn’t seen her again until now. Her bright blue eyes scrutinized him, and Ronan suspected she wanted to tap her toes as she waited for him to respond. But he had no idea why he couldn’t be wherever it was that he stood. “This is the wing for the ladies-in-waiting,” she confirmed. “This entire passageway until the end is where our chambers are. Men aren’t allowed here.”
Ronan and the courtier exchanged a look, both knowing that while men might not be allowed in the chambers, that didn’t stop them from visiting. Ronan cleared his throat as he attempted to come up with an excuse. He decided that honesty would make him less foolish than devising a lie.
“I’m not familiar with the keep, and I find myself lost while trying to make my way to the bailey. I intend to go to the lists, not pay a call to anyone,” Ronan explained, proud that he’d said more than one sentence without tripping over his words. She’d appeared attractive in the chapel, but now her robin’s-egg blue eyes mesmerized him.
The lady-in-waiting huffed as she glanced back over her shoulder as though she expected someone to appear. When she looked back at Ronan, she nodded. “I can take you most of the way, then point where you’re to go. Follow me.”
Ronan noticed that her last words were imperious, but her soft voice made them less commanding. She hadn’t spoken loudly, but Ronan was certain he detected an accent from the isles. Her wariness and silence made Ronan think she didn’t want to draw attention to them as they moved into more crowded sections of the castle. When they reached a part of the castle Ronan recognized, he was sure he could find the lists.
“Thank you, my lady. I’m certain I can make my way from here,” Ronan offered softly, unsure if there was more that he should say. Part of him wanted to bolt before he made a fool of himself; another part wished he could think of a reason to linger.
“Very well,” the courtier smiled. “Stirling is an exceptionally large and confusing place at first. You aren’t the first or last person to become turned around. It took me a fortnight before I was certain I wouldn’t get lost. Good day.” She dipped a curtsy and turned away before Ronan could ask her name.
Ronan was certain she had a Hebridean accent and wished to know from which isle she hailed. Even if they didn’t see one another again, he found it reassuring that there was someone else at court who was an islander and not a Scot. He’d given up trying to explain the difference to people not from the Hebrides. The islands shared a heritage that was both Scottish and Irish, and they’d been content to be a world unto their own for generations. They identified more with Highlanders than Lowlanders, but even the Highlanders were more Scots than the Hebrideans. Not that he would ever say that aloud to a Highlander. There was no love lost between the two parts of Scotland.
Ronan stepped into the brisk November air and inhaled. It made his nose curl. Rather than the fresh, invigorating air from Loch Slapin, the body of water Dun Ringill overlooked, he breathed in the fettered stench of the market town of Stirling. He sighed as he walked toward the entrance to the lists. Once he began swinging his sword and concentrated on sparring, he felt much of the tension slip away. Fighting and training were things he understood, and they didn’t require him to converse. Despite the noise of swords clanging, Ronan found the relative lack of voices rather peaceful. He didn’t know anyone else who shared that sentiment, but he felt confident in the lists, unlike when he had to speak before people he didn’t know. He might be Laird MacKinnon, but to the men who surrounded him, he was just another warrior.
After leaving the stranger by the doors to the bailey, Abigail slipped to a window embrasure and watched as he walked with more confidence once he spied the lists. Although he’d been soft spoken, she immediately recognized his Hebridean accent. He was clearly not a guardsman, both by how he dressed and by his presence within the private wings of the castle. She knew he was a MacKinnon from his plaid, but she was certain they weren’t acquainted. He moved with the graceful ease of a warrior, his frame tall and broad. There was self-assuredness in his stride, and while Abigail had to strain, she could see his ease with the blunted sword he drew from the armorer’s collection. She abandoned watching the still-nameless man and hurried to the queen’s solar. She couldn’t deny he was a handsome man, but the two times she’d seen him there was a shyness in his eyes. She wasn’t interested in someone who appeared meek and retiring. She already learned her lesson about such men, and she didn’t feel compelled to gain a refresher.
Abigail entered the queen’s solar and slipped to an empty seat near several other new ladies-in-waiting. Mostly Lowlanders, they’d snubbed Abigail as a Highlander when she arrived at court. When they discovered she was from the Hebrides, they’d gawked as if they’d never met anyone from the isles. It had taken Abigail several days to realize that most of the ladies had never met someone from the isles, and they believed everyone who wasn’t a Lowlander was a heathen. They claimed Highlanders were barbarians, and people from the isles were barely civilized. Abigail learned the invaluable lesson of biting her tongue and keeping to herself.
Two more experienced ladies, Emelie and Blythe Dunbar, took pity on her and befriended her. They had known her older sister, Madeline. The sisters had arrived at court several years before Abigail, replacing their older sister Isabella when she married. They were quiet and tended to prefer one another’s company. But they’d been kind to Abigail and welcomed her.
“Good day, Lady Abigail,” one lady greeted her, but there was no warmth in the greeting.
“Good day to you, Lady Sarah Anne,” Abigail smiled. Sarah Anne Hay was the self-appointed leader of the younger members of the queen’s entourage. When Abigail arrived at Stirling, it was assumed that she would join Sarah Anne’s ring and fall in line with the vindictive woman’s expectations. In fact, there had been whispers that Abigail might be enough like her sister that she would oust Sarah Anne. But Abigail never had an interest in cattiness for its own sake, and she’d arrived at court resolved to be a better person than she had been in the past. But when Sarah Anne and her older sister Margaret made Abigail their target, the courtiers soon learned that Abigail had no problems defending herself when necessary. A scathing assessment of Sarah Anne and Margaret’s characters made both sisters avoid Abigail most of the time. Abigail tried to sound sincere, but when Sarah Anne turned her nose up, Abigail found she didn’t care.
“Lady Abigail,” Emelie greeted her as she moved closer to the light from the window embrasure near which Abigail sat. “Have you had any more news aboot Maude’s weans? Blythe and I are eager to hear aboot the lass.”
“I’m afraid not. If I hear aught, I will surely pass it along promptly,” Abigail reassured. Emelie nodded, returning to her own sewing now that she had more light. Abigail knew neither Emelie nor Blythe had been close to Maude, but they’d both been happy when the former lady-in-waiting found a love match much like their sister Isabella had.
Abigail picked up the embroidery she’d left behind the previous day and continued stitching the tunic she was making for her nephew. A toddler now, he had a cherubic face with perpetually rosy cheeks. Abigail finished her older niece’s tunic a few weeks prior, so she was confident she would finish the matching set she was making for the twins before Christmas. She’d embroidered the edges of a sheet to embellish what Maude could use to carry the babe strapped to her front and eventually on her back. While Maude’s younger daughter now toddled, Maude often carried her, so they could both keep up with the twins. They were all practical gifts, but she hoped her family liked them. She’d forgone the lavishness she’d once expected, even demanded, before her brother married. When Abigail looked back at her life before Maude arrived at Stornoway, she felt as though she watched someone else’s. It was only within the past year that she felt she’d grown up.
She’d handfasted with Lathan Chisolm and become Lady Chisolm, albeit temporarily. She’d thought him so handsome and charming when they met. She was eager to become a clan’s lady, and she believed she was ready for the responsibility. But she was woefully unprepared, despite the intensive training Maude offered and the duties that fell upon her shoulders while Maude was injured. Abigail had still expected servants, particularly the cook and the housekeeper, to shoulder much of the work while she floated around the castle supposedly keeping an eye on everyone.
In truth, she’d been useless at keeping the ledgers and living within a budget. The clan was fortunate that the housekeeper, the cook, and Lathan were knowledgeable, or she would have failed completely. By the end of the year and a day, she admitted she was still more like her mother than she was her sister-by-marriage. She was still immature.
“His name is Ronan,” Sarah Anne whispered—though none-too-quietly—to her sister Margaret. “He’s braw and handsome. His clan is prosperous too. Just what a bride wants.” Abigail dipped her head to hide her smile. She’d sounded so much like Sarah Anne not long ago.
“We just need him to notice us,” Margaret replied. Abigail sighed as she tuned out the women’s conversation, uninterested in the man they discussed.
The Chisholms welcomed her, but she soon realized it was for the dowry and the lands in Assynt that she brought to the handfast. Despite her failings, the clan was kind and patient with her. But when she thought back over her time there, she suspected their kindness was more from pity than anything else. She hadn’t understood Lathan’s determination to secure her dowry until their wedding night. They consummated the handfast, but before he spilled his seed, Lathan withdrew. That became the norm for when they coupled. He wasn’t a selfish lover, and he taught her how to enjoy intimacy, but he never climaxed within her. He’d refused to answer beyond the vaguest of explanations at first. But by the time three months had passed, Abigail understood Lathan didn’t want to sire a child with her so he could more easily repudiate their handfast. It wasn’t until she overheard a conversation between Lathan and his brother that she understood how unwanted and manipulated she had been.
Lathan intended to continue the handfast until the end, all the while searching for a more advantageous match on the mainland. He had a leman in the village, and he had already sired three illegitimate children with her. Abigail encountered them the first week she was there. She’d wished that Lathan would come to care for her and decide to remain faithful to her. She’d hoped that he wouldn’t want to end their trial marriage, but as she looked back, she knew in her heart that he never intended to keep her as Lady Chisolm. It wasn’t until she overheard the conversation that she understood he’d never been faithful to her. She learned that he frequently left her bed and the keep, spending the night with the other woman.
Margaret’s voice intruded upon Abigail’s thoughts again. “If he notices us, then we’d be forced to live among the savages. Mayhap he’s better to just look at.”
“There’s still a fortnight before Advent. I intend to dance with him every night. He’s bound to kiss me,” Sarah Anne preened.
Abigail tried not to roll her eyes and resumed her introspection. Once she’d put all the pieces together, Abigail was heartbroken that her life with Lathan was more a figment of her imagination than reality. She’d attempted to slip missives to Kieran to warn him of Lathan’s plan, but after five failed attempts, Lathan grew so angry that Abigail feared for her life. She’d wondered if she could escape and make her way back to Lewis, but she was unfamiliar with all the clans that surrounded her. She knew no one among the Mackenzies, the Frasers of Lovat, or the MacDonnells. Abigail knew Cairstine Grant was once a lady-in-waiting, but that was before Abigail arrived at court. Abigail had even wondered more than once if she could escape all the way to Dunrobin and seek shelter with the Sutherlands. In the end, Lathan had unceremoniously dumped Abigail on the steps of Stornoway while Kieran, Maude, and their children were visiting Maude’s family. With only her mother to greet her, there had been no way to stop Lathan.
“I’ll run a stake up his arse and leave him dangling from his curtain wall!” were Kieran’s first words when he returned from Dunrobin to find Abigail pale and underweight.
It enraged Kieran to learn of Lathan’s actions. For all Abigail’s faults, Kieran was livid that she’d been disgraced and mistreated. He’d been beside himself with guilt when he learned about the fear that became part of Abigail’s daily existence. He petitioned King Robert, whose mandate compelled Lathan to return Abigail’s dowry and lands, less the amount he felt his clan was owed for housing and feeding Abigail for a year. Maude rarely made it known—or took advantage of the fact—that she and her siblings, along with her Sinclair cousins, were all King Robert and Queen Elizabeth’s godchildren. But after Abigail’s return home, Maude requested a place for Abigail among the ladies-in-waiting.
Five months later, and Abigail still gave thanks every day that she no longer suffered through her handfast. She didn’t miss Lathan, but her heart ached for the missed opportunity for happiness. Her mother, along with Kieran and Maude, agreed that she returned to Stornoway as a more introspective and mature young woman, but Abigail wasn’t wholly convinced. However, she knew she was a better person than when she’d left the Isle of Lewis for her handfast. After three months at court, Abigail wondered if she might ever meet someone who would wish to marry her. No longer a maiden, with a failed handfast to her name, she was a less-than-desirable candidate.
“Who was that mon you were walking with?” Blythe asked as she sat between Emelie and Abigail. “I haven’t seen him before.”
Abigail shrugged, not giving it much thought as she peered at her embroidery. “I don’t know, other than he’s a MacKinnon. He was lost, and I showed him how to get to the lists. We didn’t say aught else.” Abigail’s attention returned to those around her after tuning out the other ladies-in-waiting while she reflected upon her doomed handfast.
“You mean you didn’t introduce yourselves?” Emelie’s brow furrowed.
“Nay. He strikes me as rather shy. We both needed to go our separate ways, so I pointed him in the right direction, and we parted.” Abigail shrugged again, but the nameless MacKinnon and his rugged attractiveness played through her mind for the rest of the day.
Abigail kept her head down during the Sunday Mass. She was supposed to be paying attention to the Latin being recited by the priest, but her mind drifted toward the MacKinnon warrior she kept noticing around the castle. She caught sight of him during meals, but he always disappeared as soon as he’d eaten. She assumed he spent his days in the lists or with his men. He didn’t strike her as a courtier or an advisor to the king, so Abigail thought he must be a visitor.
Abigail hadn’t dared ask anyone who he was, since the last thing she needed were more rumors circulating about her. Her arrival caused a stir after Kieran removed Madeline from court. Her brother had heard several of the hateful things she spewed about Maude while they both served Queen Elizabeth de Burgh, and her lack of tact threatened their clan’s standing. People expected Abigail to be just like Madeline, and while Abigail knew she’d been on the path to becoming like Madeline, she’d mended her ways.
As she thought about her sister’s near-consecration, Abigail’s lips twitched. Kieran not only dragged Madeline away from court, he sent her to Inchcailleoch Priory, an abbey on “the island of auld women.” The priory was known for its austerity and rules of silence. Madeline had been so intimidated by the nuns upon arrival that she did whatever she was told to avoid extra hours of prayer, a hair shirt, and self-flagellation. It hadn’t taken long for Madeline to realize that behaving herself and being kind took less effort than being hateful. She’d found peace and grace during her time as a postulant and novice.
Madeline had spent four years at the abbey and had been prepared to take her vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience; but despite her reformation, the Mother Superior knew the monastic life wasn’t Madeline’s vocation. She’d recommended that the order release Madeline from service, and Kieran accepted the nun’s suggestion. Now Abigail’s older sister had a blissful marriage and was preparing to one day become Lady Grant.
“Amen,” Blythe hissed as she elbowed Abigail. Her head whipped up, and Abigail noticed that the congregation was standing for the final hymn. She hadn’t realized her thoughts drifted so far and for so long. She rose and joined in with the rest of the congregants. A rich baritone floated to her ears, and she was certain she’d never heard the voice before. It wasn’t loud and overzealous—in fact, it was just the opposite. The man’s voice was rich and subtle, but she felt like it coated her in warm honey. It was smooth and would stick with her. Abigail did what she could to shift and look back over her shoulder inconspicuously. She failed to go unnoticed when the singer smiled at her, the very same man she’d given directions to and seen in the kirk the previous week.
I canna keep thinking of him as “that mon” and “him.” I should learn his name. But why? What does it matter what he’s called? He’ll leave court, and I’ll likely never see him again. I’m too curious. I should find better things to pay attention to. Like Mass. Dammit. Och, sorry, God. The service is over, and I’m keeping the others trapped in the pew because ma mind is drifting. Again.
Abigail slid from her pew and turned toward the back of the church. She offered the stranger a nod before continuing down the aisle. When she was nearly at the rear of the nave, she slipped into a pew and kneeled. The other ladies were accustomed to her routine, and as a very devout woman, Queen Elizabeth never begrudged her more time in prayer. It was the week before the start of Advent, and Abigail recited her usual litany of thanksgiving. She tried not to think about how much she would miss richer foods, music, and dancing while trying to show her newfound selflessness to God.
I suppose nay one’s perfect. I mean, other than Jesus. I suppose Ye understand, God, why sometimes I slip back into ma auld way of thinking. But it is through Yer bountiful mercy that I have seen the error of ma ways and ma many sins. I strive to be better each day, and Ye have given me another chance for both happiness and to prove I am a worthy servant to Ye, Lord God. Thank Ye for the many blessings of this life and those who I love and care aboot. Guide me with Yer presence even when I may nae think of Ye. I place ma trust in Ye, Lord. In all things and in all ways, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Abigail glanced at the hanging crucifix and the altar beneath it one last time before rising. She genuflected as she left the pew and turned around to see the same man, with his fair hair bowed in prayer, just as he had been the previous week. This time he sat in a pew behind hers, so it was she who passed him. She offered a slight smile as she walked past. Ronan dipped his head, and the corner of his mouth twitched before he returned to his prayers. Abigail wondered what he prayed about, and why he needed more time than the Mass allowed. She knew why she wanted more time, but she was curious about him. She reminded herself that other people’s prayers were none of her business.
Ronan was lost again. He was certain it was at least the thirtieth time since he arrived at court nearly a fortnight earlier. He seemed to find fresh places to get lost each time he ventured from his chamber or the Great Hall. He’d waited for an audience with the king, praying over and over that he make a good impression. Now he was late—extremely late. As he rushed along a passageway he believed he recognized, he wished he had a guide who could lead him from place to place. He normally had a keen sense of direction, so getting lost within the castle doubly annoyed him. He found too many of the passageways looked the same, with only closed doors lining each side. He’d grown more confident about finding his way to the lists, but he’d never been to King Robert’s Privy Council chamber.
“Are you turned around again?” Abigail called out. Ronan looked to his left and spied a shadowy figure. He realized he stood in the light, which made his appearance clear to her even though he had only her voice to help him recognize her. “Off to the lists again?”
“Nay.” Ronan shook his head and waited until Abigail stood before him. “After a fortnight of waiting on tenterhooks, I’ve finally been called for my audience with the king. I haven’t the foggiest notion how to find the Privy Council chamber, and I was meant to be there at least a quarter of an hour ago.”
“Oh, dear,” Abigail gasped before a corner of her mouth drew down. Her expression showed she knew how dire it was that Ronan was so late. She didn’t envy him. “We’d best get you there sharpish. You’ll lose your audience, and it could be a moon before the king will risk wasting his time again.”
“I ken. That’s why I’m in a bit of a dither aboot it. It’s been quite some time since I last saw the king, and now I’m late when he summoned me.”
“You’re here on behalf of your laird. Did he not warn you that it could be several weeks before you’re granted an audience? The king might summon you by a specific date, but it rarely means you’ll be seen in less than a fortnight.”
“For my laird?” Ronan’s brow furrowed before he smiled. “My lady, I am Laird Ronan MacKinnon.”
Abigail stopped short as she rudely looked him over from the top of his hair to the tip of his boots before she caught herself. “My pardon, my laird. I hadn’t realized you were who you are.” Abigail dipped into a curtsy before grinning. “I’m Abigail MacLeod.”
It was Ronan’s turn to stare. His eyes opened wide before narrowing as he looked for any plaid in her ensemble. Abigail chuckled, having expected his reaction.
“I’m from Lewis, not Skye. We need not try to run each other through,” Abigail’s voice was lighthearted despite her embarrassment in thinking that Ronan was a clan delegate rather than the MacKinnons’ laird. She held out her hand while offering him a shallow curtsy. Ronan’s fingers barely grazed the underside of her fingers as he leaned over to kiss the air just above her hand. Abigail stepped away and began guiding Ronan to his destination.
“I suppose I should have introduced myself the last time you guided me, but I’m afraid I forgot my manners in my frustration to find my way out of this maze,” Ronan explained.
“It’s quite all right. I recognized your plaid and your accent. I should have introduced myself as a neighbor,” Abigail replied.
“I knew you were a Hebridean, but I didn’t guess a MacLeod.”
“From Lewis,” Abigail teased.
“Aye,” Ronan returned her grin. “My men and I have sat with your guards each evening.”
Abigail waited for Ronan to continue, but when he said nothing more, she glanced at him. It seemed as though he’d used all of his words and wasn’t sure what to say next. It reminded Abigail that he’d appeared shy the previous times she’d seen him. They carried on in companionable silence until it became awkward walking together as though the other didn’t exist. Abigail didn’t want to prattle, but she felt like she needed to fill the quiet.
“Do you plan to remain long at court?” she asked.
“Nay.” Ronan looked down when he realized how abrupt his answer sounded. He smiled sheepishly at Abigail. “I intend to be home before Christmas, my lady.”
“I miss Christmas at Stornoway. It’s festive here, but it’s not the same as being with family,” Abigail admitted. She glanced up at Ronan, but he only nodded, his eyes staring ahead of him as the doors to the Privy Council chamber came into view. Abigail stopped, and Ronan nearly walked past her. “The Privy Council is just ahead. You must make your presence known to the guard who will summon the chamberlain. He will admit you or turn you away. I wish you luck that you didn’t miss your audience.”
“Thank you, Lady Abigail.”
Ronan and Abigail stood looking at one another, neither sure who should take the first step. They both stepped in the same direction, but when each of them tried to alter course again, they stepped in the same direction once more. Abigail pointed to her left, and Ronan nodded before pointing to his left. They stepped around one another, and Ronan carried on toward his meeting. Abigail glanced back and caught Ronan doing the same thing. They exchanged another smile before going their separate ways.
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