Fans of Keira Monclair, Eliza Knight, and Emma Prince will fall in love with The Highland Ladies.
A lady-in-waiting struggling to fit in….
Even after three years at Robert the Bruce’s Highland court, Cairren Kennedy still feels like an outsider. Quiet and kindhearted, Cairren has fought to make a place for herself among the queen’s ladies-in-waiting when she doesn’t look like any of the other young women. A Lowlander with a French mother, her Mediterranean heritage sets her apart both by her features and her customs. When her father hints at an arranged marriage to a Highlander, Cairren fears she’ll face more discrimination when she’s forced to make her home among strangers. Can Cairren prove that she’s more than what people assume? Can she create a new life where she’s not welcome?
A second son with other plans…
Padraig Munro doesn’t need or want an arranged marriage because he already has the perfect woman in mind. When King Robert announces Padraig’s betrothal to the unsuitable Cairren Kennedy, Padraig refuses to open his heart to a woman who couldn’t be less of a Highland lass. Faced with a bride who can’t blend in and a family who refuses to accept Cairren, Padraig is caught between his duty to protect his gentle bride and his family’s expectations. Can Padraig balance the roll of husband and son when both sides couldn’t be further apart? Can Padraig put aside his preconceived notions to make his marriage work?
Pushed together by royal decree, Cairren and Padraig take an instant dislike to one another.
Angry that he can’t marry the woman he’s certain he loves, Padraig leaves Cairren to navigate life in the Highlands until his clan’s resentment puts her life in danger. Cairren doesn’t trust the man she’s ordered to share a bed with, but when threats can’t be ignored, she must turn to the man she’d pledged her life to. Passion and desire spark between husband and wife, but outside the bedchamber, they can barely stand to look at one another. Can Padraig accept that Cairren isn’t to blame for his life’s unexpected path, and can Cairren stop seeing Padraig as the enemy before the real enemy destroys their chance to build a life together?
If you love a steamy enemy-to-lovers romance, then you’re sure to enjoy Celeste Barclay’s sizzling new Highlander romance, An Enemy at the Highland Court.
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: 446
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
An Enemy at the Highland Court: An Enemies to Lovers Highlander Romance
A crack of thunder followed only moments later by a blaze of lightning made several ladies-in-waiting jump within the queen’s solar. The early autumn storm seemed to rattle one’s bones as much as it did the window embrasures. Cairren Kennedy glanced around Queen Elizabeth’s private salon and stifled her chuckle as the newest ladies-in-waiting trembled. Mostly Lowlanders, these young ladies were not yet accustomed to the raging storms the Highlands flung upon Stirling from the north. Cairren arrived at Robert the Bruce’s court three years earlier as a wide-eyed and quiet girl. But in the time she’d spent there, she’d developed a thick skin and a significant cynicism. As she watched the newer arrivals, she wished she could return to her days before becoming a lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth de Burgh. It had been just over a year since her best friend, Allyson Elliot, married Ewan Gordon and moved to the Highlands. During that year, Cairren awaited the announcement of her own betrothal, and with each passing month, she found her mood increasingly matched the weather outside.
Cairren received a hint from her father around the time of Allyson’s wedding that he was in the midst of arranging a betrothal to a Highlander, but he’d volunteered no specifics. Cairren suspected that news came several prospective suitors ago. Growing up near the border, with constant strife between the Scots and the English, made life among the contentious Highlanders seem peaceful. While her clan’s land sat along the coast, their allies were the Dunbars and Armstrongs, which meant the two border clans often called upon the Kennedys to lend warriors to the cause. She understood her father wanted her away from the ever shifting political dynamics that were a daily part of life in the south. However, moving to the Highlands sight unseen terrified her. She was blessed with a doting father who always had her best interests at heart, but she couldn’t help but wonder how he thought the Highlands were a better option. She’d rather move to her mother’s people in southern France. At least there, she would blend in.
“Lady Cairren,” Queen Elizabeth’s voice drew Cairren out of her pensiveness, forcing her to abandon her thoughts. “Please pick up where you left off yesterday.”
Cairren retrieved the vellum copy of Summa contra Gentiles from the table upon which she’d laid it the day before. With a slight French lilt to her voice, Cairren was among the queen’s favorites to read aloud. She was also one of the few women who read fluently. She accepted that the queen had committed her to an hour of droning prose on providence and the soul. While she was as devout as the next person, Cairren swallowed her sigh as she prepared to read the divine insights of Thomas Aquinas. As she settled onto a stool, a page entered the solar and whispered to the Mistress of the Bedchamber who, in turn, cast an eye at Cairren.
“Your Majesty, I beg your pardon, but Lady Cairren has been summoned to see her father and mother, who are newly arrived,” the Mistress of the Bedchamber announced, all eyes swinging to Cairren.
Cairren froze. It was rare for her parents to visit court, so it was with trepidation that she laid aside the manuscript and rose. Awaiting the queen’s permission to leave, her stomach twisted into a knot that would have made a sailor proud. She could think of only two reasons for Innes and Collette Kennedy to travel during a week’s worth of torrential downpours: news of death or her betrothal. If asked, Cairren would have said they were one and the same. At the queen’s nod, Cairren did her best to maintain her poise and glide from the salon. Once in the passageway, she gathered her skirts and darted to her parents’ chamber. Fear that something had happened to her sister, Caitlyn, prompted her to hurry, but anxiousness that it might be news of a betrothal caused her to slow her pace two doors down from the Kennedys’ suite.
Cairren knocked but didn’t wait for an invitation to enter, pushing the door open and stepping inside. Her parents turned as one, opening their arms to her, and she was certain she flew across the chamber rather than walked. The relief she felt each time she reunited with her family stole her breath away. She’d learned to manage her homesickness by reminding herself that she couldn’t change the duty she served to her queen and her clan, but in moments like this, her loneliness flooded every nerve. Her mother’s familiar scent of myrtle, from her hometown in the south of France, soothed the ache in Cairren’s chest. Her father’s pine and fresh air scent reminded her of the countless hours of her childhood spent touring villages on the back of his horse.
“Maman, Papa,” Cairren breathed.
“Ma petite-fille.” My little girl. The three words Collette said no longer applied to a woman of three-and-twenty, but Cairren’s mother had called her that since the day of her birth. “Common ça va?”
“Everything is going well, Maman. I’m so happy to see you.” Cairren turned her cheek one way, then the other, to receive her mother’s customary kisses before Innes engulfed her in an embrace that lifted her toes from the floor.
“My wee lassie, it does my heart good to see you,” Innes’s deep voice rumbled against Cairren’s chest before he settled her back on her feet.
“You both seem in good spirits, so I assume all is well at home.” Cairren looked between her parents, praying she hadn’t presumed the wrong meaning to their warm welcome.
“All is as well as to be expected, with the bluidy English breathing down our necks every two minutes. They seem to have forgotten that there is a truce,” Innes grumbled. “Your sister sends her regards and is quite put out with me since I refused to allow her to accompany us.”
Cairren hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath until her chest suddenly deflated. However, this meant there could only be one other reason for her parents to travel from the southwestern corner of Scotland to Stirling, which formed the boundary between the Lowlands and the Highlands. She held her breath once more as she waited for the axe to drop.
“There’s no reason to look as though the headsman is after you,” Collette’s gentle smile only made Cairren more nervous.
“Oui, Maman.” Cairren forced her own smile, but she could tell it was more of a grimace when her father straightened and his stern “Laird of Clan Kennedy” expression settled upon his face.
“I ken you’ve deduced why we’ve come, but there’s naught to frown aboot,” Innes’s voice sounded far from reassuring. Instead, it sounded like an order.
“Papa, I don’t mean to frown, but the unknown is frightening,” Cairren confessed, and her father’s paternal smile returned.
“I ken that, lass. But we must all grow up, and we must all move from one duty to another. You’ve loyally served the queen for nigh on three years. It is time for you to move on.”
“Who is he, Papa, and how far north does he live?” Cairren asked, but dreaded the answer.
“His name is Padraig Munro. He’s the second son of the Munro laird and he’s the same age as you,” Innes explained.
“Munro? They are in the heart of the Highlands. That’s so far from you and Maman and Caitlyn. I’ll never see any of you or the clan again.” Cairren fought the tears that burned the back of her eyelids, but gave in when a sob rose from deep within her soul.
“Ma chérie, pas de panique.”
“‘My dear, don’t panic’ doesn’t make me feel better, Maman. How can I not panic? Not only is it far from everyone and everything I know, they’re Highlanders. They’ll never accept me.” Cairren closed her eyes as she tried to do as her mother instructed, but the nausea proved she was failing. “I don’t look aught like them. I can’t even pass for a Lowlander. How will I manage in the Highlands when I’m still learning Gaelic and I look like a foreigner?”
Cairren stuck out her arm, showing her parents what they already knew was there. Her olive complexion was in constant contrast to the lily-white skin that was the norm in Scotland. Her maternal grandfather’s Arab traits still showed strongly in Collette and her oldest daughter. Cairren had always thought it was a blessing that Caitlyn’s skin was lighter and didn’t tan as easily as Cairren’s. Her sister fared a better chance of making a match with a man who would want her.
“You’ve made a place here for yourself because you are good and kind,” Innes reassured her.
“Barely. It took nearly a year before most of the ladies didn’t whisper in front of me. Now they only do it behind my back. They allow me in their circle because the queen demands it, but if they had their choice, they would exclude me. Now that Allyson’s married, there are only a few who bother to remain pleasant. Only Blair Sutherland and Arabella Johnstone are willing to be my friends.” Cairren forced herself to stop. She hadn’t meant to divulge the truth about her loneliness at court, but she needed her parents to understand why marrying her to a Highlander would be a disaster.
“Lass, it’s done. Laird Munro and I have already signed the documents.”
“So, I am already betrothed. I am as good as married,” Cairren’s despondency must have shown because her parents pulled her back into their embrace. “Why him?”
“The king chose, Cairren. He knows I want to get you away from the border.”
“And the Munros are the only ones who would take me.” Cairren pulled away from her parents. “How desperate are they for my dowry?” Cairren suspected her father had been in contact with a dozen clans, but the Munros must have been the only ones who showed an interest. More likely, forced their hand.
“A bride’s dowry always comes in handy,” Innes offered. The noncommittal nature of his answer said more than his words.
“Do they know that their new wealth comes with a brown bride?” Cairren crossed her arms but refrained from tapping her toe.
“Of course they are aware of your ancestry, ma petite-fille,” Collette reassured.
“But that doesn’t mean they know what I look like.”
“Are you ashamed of your family?” Innes cocked an eyebrow.
“Never.” Cairren’s answer was emphatic, but she followed it by whispering, “That doesn’t mean I can’t be scared of what they think.”
Cairren’s tears started once again. Collette led Cairren to a chair before the fire as Innes stoked it. Both women were slight in build and could share the wide chair. Cairren leaned her head against her mother’s shoulder as Collette stroked her hair.
“I fell hopelessly in love with your mother,” Innes reminded Cairren. “Your mother’s skin color is only one part of her; it’s the whole, inside and out, that is so beautiful.”
“But you chose one another. I’ll be delivered to a mon who has no choice but to take me,” Cairren buried her face in her mother’s shoulder.
“Cairren,” Collette’s French accent softened the middle consonants and once more soothed Cairren’s fraught nerves. “It wasn’t easy for me in the beginning either. It took time for our people to accept me, to accept their laird’s son’s choice of bride. Your grand-père disapproved of me on sight. But with hard work and an open heart, I won our clan over. Now I can’t imagine living anywhere but on Kennedy land.”
Cairren nodded, but she didn’t voice her thoughts. Why couldn’t you just send me to France where I could marry? I speak French as well as anyone born there. I wouldn’t stick out there. Caitlyn belongs in this world more than I do. Her marriage could solidify an alliance. My move to France and her marriage would remove us both from the border area. The difference between you and me, Maman, is you married the laird’s heir. I’m marrying a second son. He won’t hold the same power to demand they accept me.
“We will accompany you north and remain for the wedding. We depart in two days for Foulis. It’ll take us a sennight to travel. We will hold the wedding within a sennight of our arrival,” Innes explained. Cairren recognized the hard edge to her father’s voice signaling her time to air her grievances had ended, and he wouldn’t entertain any more of her complaints.
“We will speak later, ma petite-fille,” Collette reassured, and there was little else Cairren could do but nod.
Cairren eased into her seat at the ladies’ table as the evening meal began. She’d remained with her parents throughout the afternoon, hearing stories and the latest news from their clan. Her mood lightened as she listened to her mother regaling tales of Caitlyn’s continued attempts make perfume. Collette Aubert hailed from the Grasse region, the area of France best known for its perfumes and soaps. Her father had been an Arab trader shipwrecked along the southern French coast when his Moroccan ship bound for Italy was blown off course during a storm. Collette’s mother, Marie-Claude, was already a widow and was willing to take the foreigner in while he recovered.
As Collette had recounted countless times, her parents’ love story was much like Innes and Collette’s—love at first sight. Ebrahim Boukhriss traded myrrh and frankincense from the Lovat region to cities along the Mediterranean, so settling in Grasse was ideal. Collette described him as a quiet man who would have barely come to Innes’s shoulders. He was shrewd and bookish, which made it easy to expand Marie Claude’s soap and perfume trade. While Cairren had inherited her maternal grandfather’s olive skin, almond-shaped eyes, and deep chestnut hair, she’d inherited her paternal grandmother’s translucent grey eyes. There was a tinge of green that made them appear silver at times. She and her sister shared this feature, and it was the indisputable proof that Innes was their father.
Innes met Collette when the French hired him as a mercenary. When he sailed away from Kennedy territory, he was a second son, and there seemed little chance that he would inherit the lairdship. The money he earned while in France lined the Kennedys’ coffers and helped them finance the ongoing skirmishes against the English. It was while Innes was away that an English neighbor killed his older brother, during a standoff over land that had changed hands many times. It thrust him into the role of the laird’s heir and forced Innes to return, but he refused to do so without his French bride. He’d married Collette without telling his family, having planned to remain in France permanently. When Innes and Collette had no choice but to go to Scotland, Collette adopted her mother’s surname, Aubert, hoping to make her transition easier, but a single glance at Collette spoke of her Arab lineage.
There were few who could contest that Cairren was a stunning woman, but she was not the epitome of Scottish beauty. While her features were striking and created an exotic appearance compared to the fair-haired and fair-skinned Scots, her appearance was an albatross around her neck. As a young woman taught to read, she discovered ancient practices rumored to lighten skin tones for women whispered to have foreign heritage. She’d even gone so far as to try various tonics and herbs to lighten her skin when she learned she was to serve among the queen’s retinue, but nothing she used made a difference. She’d often worn peasant straw hats at home to protect her face and neck from the sun, but somehow her skin tone always deepened in summer. The veils many women wore at court did nothing to deflect the sunshine when she rode or strolled in the garden. She’d spent her first summer at court inside as much as possible, but the queen enjoyed a long morning constitutional through her gardens and insisted her ladies-in-waiting join her. Now she stayed in the shade whenever she could, claiming too much sun gave her headaches and strained her eyes.
“Why did your parents come?” Laurel Ross asked as a servant placed a trencher before Cairren.
“I will be leaving court to marry. My father informed me of my betrothal,” Cairren shrugged, hoping to play off her sense of impending doom that returned with the mention of her upcoming nuptials.
“Do you know who it is?” Blair Sutherland asked.
“Aye. Padraig Munro.” Cairren’s gaze shifted to Laurel as her friend began to cough. The look of shock made the hair on Cairren’s arms stand up.
“Just went down the wrong way,” Laurel gasped as she lifted her mug of ale to her mouth.
“The Munros aren’t far from Sutherland!” Blair bubbled. “Perhaps I could visit the next time I travel home.”
“I would like that very much,” Cairren smiled, but she was still watching Laurel, who seemed to have recovered but had grown withdrawn. Cairren wasn’t about to inquire while the worst gossips in the kingdom surrounded her, but she intended to ask Laurel about her reaction when they could speak in private. Fortunately, they were roommates.
“When do you leave?” Arabella Johnstone asked softly. Her best friend, Blair’s sister Maude, left court just before Cairren’s friend Allyson. Maude married Kieran MacLeod after a whirlwind romance that set every tongue on fire at court. Cairren grew closer to Blair and Arabella after Maude’s departure, but they hadn’t become genuine friends until Allyson left to marry Ewan.
“In two days,” Cairren plastered a smile on her face that hid her regret. She’d worked hard to make the few friends she had, and now she would have to start over again. “I’ll be wed within the fortnight.”
“So soon?” Laurel blurted.
Cairren narrowed her eyes at her roommate, but she was resolved to keep her questions until later.
“Aye. It’ll take a sennight to travel, and then my father says I’ll be married within a sennight of our arrival. My parents will have another fortnight’s journey ahead of them to return to Dunure. With the weather as it is, I suspect we’ll have an early winter. I wouldn’t want them trapped somewhere along their route. They’ll be gone more than a moon as it is. My father doesn’t care to be away from home that long with how things stand. There have been English ships spotted off our coast several times since Beltane.” As Cairren spoke about the upcoming journey, she groaned internally as she pictured the days spent on horseback and camping outside. There was no sign that the weather would improve, and as they moved further into the Highlands, the likelihood of experiencing all four seasons in a day increased. If she and her parents were departing from home, she might have convinced her father to sail along the western coast and come inland near Assynt. Then it would only have been a couple days' ride to Foulis.
“Which gown will you wear?” Blair prodded. Cairren recognized Blair’s attempt to cheer her up, but any thoughts of the wedding soured her mood as much as it did her stomach.
“I suppose my mother brought the gown I made before I left for court. It’s pale blue with embroidery at the neckline, the waist, and the hem.” What Cairren didn’t mention was the higher than fashionable neckline and the billowing sleeves that covered as much skin as possible, no matter how she moved.
“That sounds lovely,” Laurel offered, but Cairren caught the uncertainty in her voice.
The women eventually turned to other topics of conversation before the dancing began. Cairren was never short of dance partners, but their intent was rarely innocent. When she was newly arrived at court, it had shocked her to hear the propositions courtiers made to women, but the ones she received were often among the lewdest she heard. Men who had no intention of an honorable outcome suggested acts that Cairren initially believed were depraved. As she grew more accustomed to her new way of life, she learned that the acts were normal parts of bed play, but they were inappropriate to suggest to a maiden. The men assumed that she was desperate for a guardian to offer his protection and often reminded her that she wouldn’t do better than to become a man’s mistress. She’d hidden in her chamber more than once during her first year, and she’d learned to never walk alone in the passageways and to steer her way into the crowd if an unsavory courtier or guest approached for a dance, but it was inevitable she could not avoid some of the brasher ones. She never considered relenting. She had always trusted her father would find her a match, and if not, she would happily retire to Dunure when her tenure as a lady-in-waiting ended.
“Lady Cairren, it’s always a pleasure to partner with you,” an Armstrong delegate whose name she couldn’t recall spoke from behind her shoulder. Cairren turned to see the attractive man sweep his gaze over her, lingering overly long just below her waist and at her bust.
“I thank you for the compliment. Please excuse me. I must join my parents,” Cairren sidestepped the callow man’s implied request.
“I am certain they won’t begrudge you a turn around the floor with a neighbor.”
They may not, but I will. The man didn’t give Cairren an opportunity to refuse before he grasped her hand in a hold that was far too tight and virtually dragged her into the mass of dancers. The set was one where each dance was with the same partner. Unlike a reel, she would be stuck with the Armstrong warrior who held her too close.
“You’re even lovelier than the last time we danced,” he whispered beside her ear. The shiver that raced along Cairren’s spine was from fear. She understood where the conversation would go before long. “You are enticing and could lead a mon to sin.”
“Then perhaps you should make your way to the kirk, and I can make my way to my parents,” Cairren’s tone was like syrup, but the put down was clear.
“Where would the fun be in that?” The man steered them toward a door that led to a darkened passageway Cairren knew couples often used for trysts. She dug her slippered heels into the floorboards, but the man took little notice, or rather he ignored her opposition.
“Cuthbert, who is this fine piece?” Another Armstrong asked as they came closer to the door than made Cairren comfortable. She recalled now that the delegate had an English name because his mother had English parents.
“Don’t you recognize the Kennedy’s daughter, Nevil? I intend to discover if she’s as smooth as French women are reported to be. She’ll be good for a tupping. I’ve heard her people own women just to pleasure men.”
Cairren gasped, understanding Cuthbert’s meaning. She recalled Cuthbert and Nevil were brothers. She had no intention of allowing any man besides her husband discover what her grooming habits were. She twisted away, but the man’s hold on her hand made it impossible to break free. She grabbed his little finger and pulled it back as hard as she could. His hand dropped from hers only for his brother to wrap what felt like an iron manacle around her arm.
“Let go of my daughter,” Innes’s quiet hiss made Cairren and both Armstrongs halt. Suddenly, Cairren was free and stumbling toward her father. He pulled her against his side, dropped a kiss on her crown, then pushed her behind him as he cracked his knuckles. “I heard what you said to my daughter. I saw my daughter trying to get away. To me, it looked like you intended to accost her.”
Innes took a menacing step forward, but the men were foolish enough to stand their ground. Innes’s grin made the men finally realize the grave error they made. It was an expression that made warriors cower on the battlefield. He grasped a handful of hair on each head and slammed their foreheads together.
“Perhaps if you put your heads together, you’ll come up with some sense.” Innes pulled them apart only to ram them together again. “You can tell your laird that I expect a proper apology or our alliance is through.”
“We offer that apology now, my laird. We beg your pardon and Lady Cairren’s for the slight.”
“Nay,” Innes growled. “Not good enough. You’re here to represent the Armstrongs and your laird. Since you act on his behalf, your behavior is a reflection of him. He will offer an apology or he can fight the English without the Kennedys.”
Cairren listened to the exchange and was prudent enough not to interfere, but she wished her father would let sleeping dogs lie. She didn’t want this to become public fodder for her last two days at court. While she appreciated her father’s intervention, his overprotectiveness was creating a scene. As if sensing his daughter’s growing anxiety, he released the men and spun on his heel. He wrapped his arm around Cairren and led her back to where Collette sat with the senior guardsmen who traveled with them.
“Qu’est-ce qui s’est passe?” What happened, Collette asked as she noticed their approach.
“Rien, Maman.” She knew her father would say it was more than nothing.
“Two Armstrong swine tried to pull our lass out of the Great Hall and made inappropriate comments. I handled it,” Innes stated as he took his seat on the bench beside Collette. A speaking glance at his men had them hurrying away from the table.
“You don’t seem very surprised, Cairren,” Collette observed. “What did they say?”
Cairren’s face flushed as she glanced at Innes, whose temper seemed ready to flair again. She looked back at her mother and shook her head. “They were interested in learning aboot French grooming customs. They intended to see for themselves.”
Collette’s French temper was shorter than Innes’s Scottish one, which meant her mother was ready to commit bloody murder to defend her daughter. The older woman’s eyes swept the crowd, narrowing when she recognized the Armstrong contingent.
“Maman, please. Just let it go. I’m used to it.” Cairren wanted to swallow her tongue. She hadn’t intended to admit that she was accustomed to such insults.
“Because that wasn’t the first time I’ve heard that. Court is not a place known for morality. The ladies-in-waiting receive uncouth offers, but most refuse them.”
“But most aren’t likened to a harem slave,” Innes growled.
“Harem?” Collette’s eyes narrowed as she left her seat.
“Maman, s'il vous plaît. Non,” Cairren begged, but Collette was already winding her way through the crowd until she reached the Armstrongs. Silence fell among the men as they recognized Lady Collette Kennedy.
“Qui? Who?” Collette demanded. She kept her voice low, but the steel edge cut through the awkwardness.
“Who, what, madame?” Cuthbert spoke up. His smarminess dripped from his words. But Collette refused to play his game. She reached out, grabbed his groin, and squeezed mercilessly.
“C’est vrai. It is true. They say the English have tiny cocks. Perhaps your mother shouldn’t have lain with one and kept herself to a good Scotsman.” Collette squeezed once more for good measure. “Give my regards to your mother, Lady Anne. And I’m certain your uncle will offer the apology I imagine my husband demanded.”
Those surrounding them chuckled at Collette’s put-down. She stepped away as the crowd of onlookers parted to allow the angry Frenchwoman through. But she turned back to face the Armstrongs once more. “By the by, if I learn a single one of you insults another young lady, you’d better guard your cods because I will cut them off.” She made a slicing motion through the air, and more than one man winced.
Cairren wanted to melt into the floor. Her humiliation was complete, even if she recognized her parents’ good intentions. It was just as well she was leaving because she wouldn’t be able to show her face again. She prayed she could spend the next two days hidden away.
Cairren finished scrubbing her face and neck before turning to Laurel. She eyed her roommate before putting the drying linen aside and pulled on the chemise she preferred to sleep in. Steeling herself for whatever she would learn, she cleared her throat. Laurel looked over at her as she combed her hair.
“Why won’t I be welcome at the Munros? Is it because of how I look?” Cairren saw no point in mincing words.
“There’s that,” Laurel glanced back at her before settling in to braid her hair. By silent agreement, both women had dismissed their maids.
“Then what else?”
Laurel lowered her arms and studied Cairren for a long moment before sighing. “You’ve been a good roommate to me. You tolerated my rudeness to you and your friends yet never had a harsh word to me. You’re not a gossip, and you don’t spread untruths. Perhaps I should have appreciated that more. Cairren, you won’t be welcome because Padraig wants to marry my sister, Myrna.” Laurel lowered her eyes and shook her head. “They’re in love.”
Cairren sucked in a breath as the room spun. As though her ethnicity wouldn’t be enough of a challenge, she faced a life with a man who would resent her for taking him away from the woman he loved. She was doomed to fail before she arrived.
“Thank you for telling me,” Cairren murmured.
“Be careful, Cairren. My sister isn’t known for her kindness. How she’s fooled Padraig for this long, I can only imagine.”
Cairren closed her eyes as she imagined her faceless groom in bed with a woman who resembled Laurel. She wanted to cry, but she also wanted to heave. “At least I know and won’t walk in blind.”
“I suppose you could look at it that way. Cairren, Laird and Lady Munro have wanted to secure an alliance through marriage with my clan since I was a child. They’ve practically turned down the covers to Padraig’s bed for my sister. If she had a greater dowry, they would already be married. But they must need your dowry even more than I thought. Padraig’s not a cruel mon, but he’s devoted to Myrna. He won’t welcome you either.” Laurel stood up and tentatively moved toward Cairren. “I’m sorry to tell you this. But I feel you deserve the warning. It will be hard enough without adding the humiliation of discovering the truth in front of your new clan. Hopefully, you can prepare yourself. I suspect Myrna will be there when you arrive. Padraig won’t have kept this from her, and she’ll want to eye her competition.” Laurel drew Cairren into an embrace. The women had never shared physical affection before, but Cairren found surprising comfort in Laurel.
“I don’t think I’ll be much competition if Padraig is that in love with your sister. I suspect he’ll do his duty once and then forget aboot me.”
Laurel nodded, but Cairren couldn’t read the emotion in her roommate’s eyes. If she’d had to describe it, Cairren would have said speculative, even hopeful. What Laurel hoped for, Cairren didn’t know.
The morning of Cairren’s departure couldn’t come soon enough. She’d faced the other ladies-in-waiting the morning after her parents arrived when she joined them for Mass. She continued to read Thomas Aquinas’s manuscript as the queen requested, but she slipped away from the solar and took her meals in her chamber. Neither Laurel nor Cairren broached the subject of Padraig and Myrna, but it hung as a leaden weight between them. Laurel helped Cairren pack and offered her a set of earbobs that Myrna would recognize. Laurel insisted her sister would know they were a token of friendship and believed it would ease some of the inevitable hostility. Cairren thanked her, but she suspected Myrna would more likely accuse her of stealing than believe they were a gift. Cairren said her goodbyes to Queen Elizabeth, who offered her a blessing and a kind word.
Then it was time to leave, and Cairren found herself mounted on her horse with a dozen Kennedy warriors guarding her and her parents as the sun raised its sleepy head over the horizon. She wished they headed south instead of north, but as the Kennedys passed through the Stirling city gates, Cairren resolved not to think about how much she dreaded their destination or how her homesickness grew with each clop of her horse’s hooves. A light drizzle seemed like nature’s way of commiserating with Cairren’s feelings, but by midmorning the sun shone, and she found her spirits lifted.
When they made camp the first night, Innes and several of his men went hunting. One of the men felled a doe, so Cairren worked alongside her mother as they butchered the animal, careful to salt and store the meat so it would last the fifteen-person party for a couple of days. Cairren relished each moment she had with her parents, even during the less-savory tasks. She’d never been an avid hunter even though she knew how, but she’d enjoyed spending time with her mother in the kitchens. Not a noblewoman by birth, Collette grew up in a small cottage where she helped her own mother with cooking and housekeeping. Collette insisted that Cairren and Caitlyn learn each task needed to run a keep so the sisters would appreciate the labors of servants and to remind them of their great fortune as the laird’s daughters. Innes often praised his daughters for their humility and willingness to always assist in any task inside or outside of Dunure Castle.
“Be sure you clean all the entrails out and put twice as much salt as you think you need, comprends?”
“Oui, Maman. I understand. I haven’t been away so long that I’ve forgotten,” Cairren grinned. She looked forward to the roasted venison that would feed them for the first half of their journey. It made the arduous cross country trek less intimidating, knowing she would have a full belly rather than the hollowness bannocks and dried beef never really filled. As she and one of the guardsmen lifted the skewered flank onto the spit, Cairren looked around at the men who traveled with her. They were men she’d known her entire life; some were childhood friends close to her age, while others were closer to her parents’ ages. As some of the men sang, Cairren relaxed for the first time since her parents arrived. Laurel’s warning was ever present, but Cairren was able to push it to the back of her mind. When the men opted to sip their whisky, Collette dulcet tones eased many into slumber.
“L’autier jost’un sebissa
Trobei pastora mestissa,
de joi e den sen massissa,
Si cum filla de vilana,
Cap’ e gonel’e pelissa,
Vest e camiza treslissa,
Sotlars e caussas de lana.”
Cairren followed along, softly translating each line.
“The other day beside a hedge,
I found a humble shepherdess
Full of joy and good sense
Like the daughter of a peasant girl;
A cape, a coat and fur
She wore, and a shirt of rough cloth, shoes and woolen stockings.”
As more men settled on their bedrolls, Cairren abandoned the English version and sang along with her mother. By the end of the thirteenth verse, mother and daughter sat with their arms wrapped around one another. Cairren’s alto was the perfect complement to her mother’s soprano. They’d sung together since Cairren could speak, with Caitlyn’s voice eventually offering harmony with its mid-range octave.
“I shall miss this, ma petite-fille,” Collette whispered. “But remember when you miss home, Caitlyn and I are singing along with you, even if only in spirit.”
Cairren nodded as she gazed at the twinkling stars and wondered if her sister was doing the same. She wondered whether Padraig ever stargazed, but the image of a woman who resembled Laurel pushed to the forefront of her mind. Her thoughts became locked on the notion that Padraig didn’t bother to look at the stars because he preferred to stare at Myrna.
“What is it? Where have you gone?” Collette’s whisper broke through the quagmire that threatened to pull Cairren’s mind under.
“Maman, I learned something from Laurel Ross the night you and Papa arrived.”
Cairren looked around the camp at the sleeping men, but even as snores drifted to them, Cairren opted to continue their conversation in French. “Laurel told me that Padraig has been in love with Laurel’s sister, Myrna, for years and wants to marry her. Laurel said that if Myrna had a larger dowry, they would already be wed. She warned me that Myrna would likely be there when we arrived. Maman, how am I supposed to marry a mon when the woman he loves is watching? How can I go to a mon’s bed when he wishes I was someone else? What if he mistakes me in the dark and calls out the wrong name? I don’t know that I could survive that humiliation.”
“You can and you would. It breaks my heart to learn you are entering this marriage at such a disadvantage, but you are a woman with much to offer your husband and new clan. And before you say that what you have to offer is a fat dowry, you know that isn’t what I meant. You will never be able to make everyone like you. Some may never respect you, but as long as you show everyone kindness and dignity, then most will come around. I wish I could have promised you a love match like your father and I have, but we know how rare that is. Try to build an accord with your husband. Don’t attempt to replace this Myrna but carve out a place where you and Padraig can get along. Perhaps in time, his feelings will change.”
“I will try, Maman. Is it wrong that I pray he gets me with child quickly? Then I will have someone to love and who will love me, and I won’t have to share a bed with a mon who doesn’t want to be there.”
“It isn’t wrong, but don’t set all your hopes on that. It might not happen so easily. Cairren,” Collette paused as she bit her lip. “I explained to you when your courses came how a man and woman join to make babes. I suspect you’ve learned even more since arriving at court. Padraig may not love you outside your bedchamber, but if he desires you within your chamber, you may find pleasures of two types. The obvious is the pleasure your body enjoys. But the other pleasure is finding a common ground where you can nurture trust. I won’t give you false hope and say satisfying your husband will make him faithful, but it can keep you in his good graces.”
“I know, Maman. But he may already be bedding Myrna. If he is, then why would he bother to bed me once we’ve made the marriage binding?”
“Then ensure he wants more than one night.”
“How can I do that without coming across as a wanton? How would I know to do those things if not from experience?”
Collette chuckled. “I’m not saying you should perform the acts of a courtesan, but welcome him to your bed. Don’t lie there like a dead fish. Pay attention to what seems to spur him on, and whether or not he arouses you, for God’s sake, make it seem like he is.”
“How do you know this if you and Papa were in love when you married?”
“My mother didn’t love her first husband and could barely tolerate him at first. She had to learn these lessons with no one’s advice. She made peace with her marriage and made the most of it until he died. She explained these things to me before I met your father, and they have stuck with me. It saddens me that I must impart them to you, but I pray they serve you well.”
“Merci, Maman,” Cairren whispered as she yawned. She slid down her bedroll, and Collette kissed her temple as she drew the plaid over Cairren’s shoulder for what would be one of the last times in either of their lives.
“Fais des beaux rêves.” Make good dreams. It was the phrase Collette had said every night as she tucked her daughters in. And Cairren offered the same response she always did.
“Toi aussi.” You too.
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