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Have you seen her yet?"
"Nay, I have not," Angus McTern said for what seemed like the hundredth time. He had just come in from the hills, and he was wet, tired, hungry, and cold, but all anyone could talk about was Neville Lawler's fancy English niece, come to the old castle to look down her nose at the poor Scots.
"You should see her," young Tam said as he tried to keep pace with his cousin's long stride. Angus was usually glad to see Tam, but not if all he could talk about was Lawler's niece. "She has hair like gold," the boy said, his voice cracking. He was just coming into manhood, and what the girls said, did, and looked like was everything to him. "She has eyes as blue as a loch, and her clothes! Never did I see such clothes as she has. They're spun by the angels and trimmed by honeybees. She -- "
"But then you've never been anywhere to see much to compare her to, now have you, lad?" Angus said -- and everyone stopped to look at him in astonishment. They were in the big stone courtyard that had once belonged to the McTern family. Angus and Tam's grandfather had been the laird, but he was a lazy old reprobate who'd gambled and lost everything to a young Englishman, Neville Lawler. Angus had been just nine at the time, living with his widowed mother, and it had been Angus who the clan turned to. In the sixteen years since, he'd done his best to look out for the few remaining McTerns.
But sometimes, like today, it seemed like a losing battle to try to make people remember that they were part of the once-great McTerns. For the last weeks, all they'd wanted to talk about was the Englishwoman. Her hair, her clothes, each word she spoke, the way she said it.
" 'Fraid she won't like you?" old Duncan asked as he looked up at Angus from the scythe he was sharpening. " 'Fraid that great, hairy face of yours will scare her?"
The tension that had been caused by Angus snapping at his young cousin was broken and he gave the boy a rough shove on his shoulder to apologize. It wasn't Tam's fault that he'd never been anywhere or done anything. All he knew were the hills of Scotland, the sheep and the cattle, and the raids where he sometimes had to fight for his life.
"A fancy lady like her would be scared to death of a real Scotsman," Angus said, then raised his hands like claws and made a face at his young cousin.
Everyone in the courtyard relaxed and returned to his or her work. What Angus thought was important to them.
He strode past the old stone keep that had once been his family home and went to the stables. Since Neville Lawler thought more of his horses than he did of humans, they were clean, well kept, and the building was warmer than the house.
Without asking, Angus's uncle, Malcolm McTern, handed Angus a round of rough, thick bread and a mug of ale. "Did we lose many, lad?" he asked as he went back to brushing down one of Lawler's hunting horses.
"Three," Angus said as he sat down on a stool that was against the wall. "I followed them but I couldn't catch them." Saving the sheep and the cattle from the raids took most of Angus's time. As he ate, he leaned back against the stone wall of the stables and for a moment closed his eyes. He hadn't slept in two days and all he wanted to do was wrap his plaid about him and sleep until the sun came up.
When one of the horses kicked the wall, Angus had his dirk out before his eyes were open.
Malcolm gave a snort of laughter. "Never safe, are you, boy?"
"Nor are any of us," he said good-humoredly. As he ate, the warmth crept into him. He was the only one of the clan who still wore the plaid in the old way. It was two long pieces of handwoven cloth, draped about his body, held at the waist with a thick leather belt, and leaving the lower half of his legs bare. His white shirt had big sleeves and was gathered at the neck. The kilt had been outlawed by the English many years before, and those who wore it risked prison time and whippings, but old Lawler turned a blind eye to what Angus did. For all that the man was lazy, and greedy beyond all reckoning, he understood about a man's pride.
"Let him wear the blasted thing," he said when an English visitor said Angus should be beaten.
"Wearing their own clothes makes them think they have their own country. He'll cause you trouble if you don't take him down a notch or two now."
"If I take away his pride, I take away his desire to look after the place," Neville said and smiled at Angus behind the man's back.
If Neville Lawler had nothing else good about him, he knew a lot about self-preservation. He knew that Angus McTern took care of the castle, the grounds, and the people, so Lawler wasn't about to anger the tall young man.
"Go home, lad," Malcolm said. "I'll look after the horses. Get some sleep."
"At my house?" Angus said. "And how can I do that? I lie down there and I have brats crawling all over me. That oldest one ought to have a hand put to his backside. Last time I slept there, he wove sticks into my beard. He said the chickens could use it for a nest."
Malcolm had to cough to cover his laugh. Angus lived with his sister and her husband and their ever-growing family. By rights, it was Angus's house, but he couldn't throw his sister out.
"Go, then," Malcolm said, "and have a rest in my bed. I won't need it for hours yet."
Angus gave him such a look of thanks that Malcolm almost blushed. Since Angus's father had died when he was just a boy, Malcolm had been the closest he'd had to one. Malcolm was the youngest son of the laird who'd lost the lands to the English Lawler, and Angus and Tam were the sons of Malcolm's older brothers. He'd never married, saying he had too much to do in taking care of his deceased brothers' boys to make any of his own.
"Shall I wake you when she goes out for her ride?" Malcolm asked.
"Come now, boy," Malcolm said, "surely you've heard of the niece."
"I've heard about nothing else but her! Last night I almost expected the raiders to turn back and return the cattle they'd stolen just to have word of her. I thought they'd ask me if she wore a blue dress or a pink one."
"You laugh, but that's because you haven't seen her."
Angus gave a jaw-cracking yawn. "Nor do I want to. I'm sure she's a bonnie lass, but what does that matter to me? She'll soon go back south and live in a splendid house in London. I don't know why she wanted to come up here to this great pile of stone anyway. To have a laugh at us?"
"Maybe," Malcolm said, "but she's done nothing but smile at people so far."
"Oh, that's good of her," Angus said as he stood, stretching. "And do her smiles get everyone to do her bidding? 'Yes, my lady. No, my lady' they all say to her. 'Let me carry your fan for you, my lady.' 'Please let me empty your chamber pot.' "
Malcolm smiled at Angus's impersonation, but he didn't give up. "I feel sorry for the girl. There's a sadness in her eyes that you can't help but see. Morag said the girl has no family left except for old Neville."
"But she has money, does she not? That'll buy her a rich husband who'll give her a passel of brats and she'll be happy enough. No! I want to hear no more of her. I'll see her soon enough -- or mayhap I'll be lucky and she'll go back to London before I have to see her angelic..." He waved his hand in dismissal. "Too much of the angels for me. I'm going to sleep. If I'm not awake by this time tomorrow, check if I'm dead or not."
Malcolm snorted. Angus would no doubt be up in a few hours and wanting something to do. He wasn't one for lying about.
As Angus went into the room at the end of the stables, he glanced at the riding horse the niece had brought with her from London. It was gray, with great dapples of a darker gray, and now it raised its legs impatiently, wanting to get out and go. He'd been told that the niece took a long ride every day, always accompanied by an escort, a man who rode far behind her. Over and over, Angus had been told what a fine horsewoman the girl was.
Malcolm's bed with its rough sheets and big tartan was a welcome sight, and as Angus lay down, he thought that he'd like to see the girl ride as he'd had to these last two nights. The poor pony was tearing across rocks and shrubs as Angus pursued the raiders stealing the cattle. But the thieves had had too much of a head start, and their mounts were fresh so he'd lost them in the hills.
As he fell asleep, he smiled at the thought of the delicate little English girl holding on for her life.
When he awoke, every nerve in his body was alert. An unusual sound had awakened him, and he didn't know what it was. He'd spent half his life in the stables and he knew every sound, but this one didn't belong. The rustlers wouldn't have dared come this close to the house, would they?
Angus lay still, not moving, not even opening his eyes in case there was someone standing at the open door, and listened hard. It was coming from the stall next to Malcolm's room, the stall the niece's beautiful mare was in. Was this animal that he didn't know doing something? No. He heard breathing, then there was a little intake of breath that made Angus shake his head. Shamus. Whatever the sound was, Shamus was the one making it.
Tiredly, cursing in his mind, Angus hauled himself off the bed, went to the rack of pegs on the wall, and moved one of them aside. Only he and Malcolm knew about the ingenious device his uncle had made so he could look at most of the stables without being seen. "Lazy brats!" he'd said to Angus. "When they think I canna see them, I catch them doing all manner of things that are not work."
Angus looked through the hole and saw Shamus -- huge, stupid, mean-spirited Shamus -- doing something to the cinch of the girl's saddle, and Angus wanted to groan. Had the man no sense at all? Was he playing one of his cruel tricks on Lawler's niece? While it was true that Shamus was a bully and loved to torment anything smaller than he was, he usually had the sense not to go after anyone who had a protector -- as he'd learned as soon as Angus grew to be taller and nearly as strong as the older Shamus was.
But here he was, loosening the girl's saddle. What was his intent? If Angus knew Shamus, it was to embarrass and humiliate her, to make people laugh at her. "That's all we need," Angus said as he closed the peg and leaned his head against the wall. For the most part, Lawler was an easygoing master. But he was unpredictable. A man could accidently set fire to a wagon and Lawler would laugh it off, but another day a man could break a rein and Lawler wouldhave him flogged. Sometimes it seemed to Angus that he'd spent half his life arguing with Lawler to save the skin of somebody. As for Angus himself, Lawler had never dared touch him.
Angus, still tired -- he figured he'd been asleep only a few minutes -- looked at the bed and wanted to go back to it. Why was it any of his business if the girl was laughed at? It might be good for everyone if she were seen as human. On the other side of the wall, he heard Shamus lead the mare out of the stall, and he heard that awful little self-satisfied grunt the man made when he anticipated what was going to happen because of his prank.
"None of my business," Angus said to himself and went back to the bed. He closed his eyes and let his body relax. Like all Scotsmen, he prided himself on being able to fall asleep anywhere and at any time. Whereas others had to carry blankets with them, Angus just loosened his belt, rolled himself in his plaid, and went to sleep -- which was yet another reason the English had outlawed the garment. "They don't even have to pack their bags when they run," the English said. "They wear their beds on their backs."
"Aye," Angus whispered, and it was a good feeling to cover himself with his own plaid and drift off.
Ten minutes later, he was still awake. If Shamus humiliated, or worse, hurt Lawler's niece, there would be hell to pay -- for everyone. Shamus should know this, but he'd never been known for his brains, just his muscle.
Groaning, Angus got off the bed. Would he never have peace? Would there never come a time when he didn't have to take care of every problem on what used to be McTern land? By ancestry, Angus was the laird, but since the land no longer belonged to his family, of what use was the title?
Feeling as though he ached in every joint, he made his way out toward the courtyard.
"You've come to see her, have you?" asked one man after another.
"No, I have not come to see her," Angus said half a dozen times. "I want to see her horse."
"And so do I," a man called.
Angus rolled his eyes and wished he had more hair and more beard to cover his face. If they kept pushing him, he was going to let them know what he thought of their obsession with this English girl. They'd not been treated to Angus's temper for months now, so maybe it was time.
Young Tam was holding the girl's horse, looking as though it was the proudest moment of his life. Holding a girl's horse! Angus thought. Where was all the training he'd given the boy? Where were all the stories he'd heard about the pride of the Scotsmen? All of it forgotten in a moment at the sight of a pretty girl.
"I will help her on her horse," Tam said when he saw Angus approach, looking as though he was ready to fight for the right.
"And you may help her," Angus said patiently. "I just want to check the girth. I saw -- "
He broke off because an unnatural hush had come over the place. Usually, the area around the decaying old castle was filled with noises of people and animals at work. Steel beat on iron, wood was chiseled and cut, leather buckets hit the stones. There was always a cacophony of sound. Even at night there were so many people in the courtyard that the noise was sometimes too much for Angus. He liked the open places and the quiet of the hills.
He looked up and she was there, standing just a few feet from him, and he drew in his breath. She was more than pretty. She was beautiful in a way that he could never have dreamed a person could be. She was small, the top of her head reaching only to his shoulder, and she was wearing a black dress with a tight bodice, with a little red jacket over it. Her face was oval, with deep blue eyes, a small, straight nose, and a perfect little mouth with lips the color of raspberries in the summer. Her skin was as fine as the best cow's cream, and her hair was thick and dark blonde. It was pulled high on her head, but with long ringlets hanging over her shoulders, entwined with red ribbons tied in a bow at the end. Tipped over the front of her head was a little black hat with a tiny veil that almost reached her eyes.
Angus stared at her, unable to speak. He'd never seen or imagined anything like her.
"Excuse me," she said, and her voice was soft and pretty. "I need to get to my horse."
All he could do was nod and step back to let her pass. As she came closer to him, he could smell her. Was she wearing a scent or was it her own fragrance? For a second he closed his eyes and inhaled. They were right to mention angels and her in the same breath.
Using his shoulder to push Angus aside, Tam clasped his hands and let the girl put her tiny foot in them as she vaulted onto the horse. The minute she was in the saddle, the horse began to lift its front hooves off the ground, but the girl seemed to be used to that and easily got it under control.
"Quiet, Marmy," she said to the mare. "Calm down. We're going. Don't rush me." As she lifted the reins, Tam stepped away, but Angus just stared up at her. "If you don't get out of the way, you're going to get hurt," she said to him, and there was amusement in her voice.
But Angus still stood there, gaping, unable to move.
In the next second, the girth on the horse slipped and with it the saddle. It slid around the horse, sending the girl to the left, toward Angus. She gave a little cry and tried to hold on, but with the saddle falling to one side, there was nothing to hold on to.
Emergencies were something that Angus was used to and was good at. The girl's sound of panic brought him out of his stupor and he reacted instantly. He grabbed the reins and pulled them tight to get the horse under control. Still holding the reins, he tried to catch the girl, but she slid to the other side and fell onto the stones.
By the time she landed, Tam had run forward to help with the prancing horse, moving it forward so that Angus and the girl were no longer separated. He reached down to help her up.
"Don't you touch me!" she said as she got up by herself and dusted at her clothes. She glared at him. "You did this! I don't know who you are, but I know you did it."
Angus wanted to defend himself, but his pride wouldn't let him. What could he say, that he'd seen a clansman sabotaging her saddle and that he, Angus, had tried to save her? Or would he say he should have checked the girth before she mounted but that he'd been so blinded by her beauty he'd completely forgotten about the saddle? He'd rather be flogged than say such things.
"I am the McTern of McTern," he said at last, with his shoulders back and looking down at her.
"Oh, I see," she said, her face pinkened prettily with anger. "My uncle stole your property so now you take it out on me." She looked him up and down, sneering at his wild-looking hair and his full beard, then her eyes traveled down to his kilt. "Is your protest of my uncle why you wear a dress? Tell me if you want to borrow one of mine. They're much cleaner than yours." With that, she turned and went back into the old castle.
For a moment there was no sound in the courtyard. It was as though even the birds had stopped singing, then, in one huge, loud shout, everyone started laughing. Men, women, children, even a couple of goats tied along the wall started a high-pitched laugh.
Angus stood in the middle of it all, and what little of his face could be seen was dark red with embarrassment. Turning, he went back to the stables, and all along the way, he heard the comments that renewed their howls of laughter. "He didn't want to see her." "No one could tell him anything." "Did you see the way he stared at her? You could have cut off his foot and he wouldn't have felt it." Angus even heard the women laughing at him. "He's not so uppity now. He wouldn't dance with me, but she won't dance with him. Oh, he deserves this, he does."
It was as though in a single minute he'd gone from being the lord of his kingdom to the jester.
Passing by the stables, he went out through the gate in the tall wall that surrounded the castle and headed toward his own cottage. He wanted to explain himself to someone, to tell his side of what had happened. It was Shamus who had loosened the girth on her horse and Angus had been about to tighten it, but the girl had startled him so that he hadn't done it. Yes, that was a good word. She'd startled him. She'd shown up wearing her silly little hat and her bright jacket with the big buttons and he'd been so startled by the sight of such ridiculousness that he'd been speechless. And the ribbons in her hair! Had anyone ever seen anything so foolish? Her clothes were so absurd that she'd not last ten minutes in the hills. Yes, that's what he'd say he'd been thinking. He was looking so hard at the uselessness of her garb that he'd been speechless.
By the time he reached his cottage he was feeling a bit better. Now he had a story to counteract what everyone seemed to think had actually happened.
But when he got within a few feet of the door, his sister came out and she was grinning. She had a dirty-faced child holding on to her skirt, another one on her hip, and a third one in her belly, and she was smiling broadly.
Behind her, her husband stuck his head out the door. He was still red-faced from how fast he must have run to beat Angus back to the cottage. "Did you do it?" he asked. "Did you loosen her stirrup so she'd fall?"
That was more than Angus could bear. "Never would I hurt a woman," he said, his voice showing his shock. "How could you think such of me?"
His sister said nothing, but she was laughing.
Angus could only stare at the two of them. What had he ever done to make them think he was capable of something this low? He wasn't about to honor his brother-in-law's accusation with an answer. Turning, he started walking away.
He only slowed when he heard his sister call out to him, "Have mercy on me, Angus. My belly slows me down."
He halted and looked back at her. "I have nothing to say to you."
When she caught up with him, she put her hand on his shoulder. "Either we sit and rest or you're going to be delivering this baby by yourself here and now."
That made him sit on a rock, and Kenna sat by him, working to get her breath while stroking her big belly to calm it. "He dinna mean anything bad," she said.
"Your husband or Shamus?"
"So it was Shamus who loosened the girth. I figured so."
"You're the only one. The rest of them think I did it."
"Nay, they do not," she said.
"Your husband -- "
"Is sick with jealousy over you," Kenna said. "You know that."
"What does he have to be jealous of me about? He has a home, a family, the best wife there is."
"The home doesn't belong to him and all he seems good at is producing babies. You run everything."
"Yet I am the one being laughed at."
"Oh, Angus," she said, leaning against him, "look at you. You've been a man since you were a boy and our father was killed. By twelve you'd taken on everything that our grandfather had gambled away. People have always looked up to you. There isn't a girl within a hundred miles who wouldn't have you, beg for you."
"I doubt that," Angus said, but his voice softened.
"Don't be so small spirited that you begrudge the people a chance to laugh at you. Why canna you laugh with them?"
"They think -- "
"That you made the girl fall off her horse? Do you truly believe anyone thinks that of you?"
"Your husband..." Angus trailed off because he well knew that his brother-in-law didn't really believe he'd loosen the cinch on anyone's horse. If Angus wanted to hurt someone, he'd do it face-to-face.
"Gavin and everyone else either knows or can guess who did that to the poor girl. And as for what she said to you..." Kenna smiled. "If she'd said it to someone else, you would have fallen over with laughter. I wish you'd told her that you have a sister who'd like to borrow her clothes."
"Would you like to have a silk dress?" he asked softly. His sister was five years older than he was and the person he loved the most. If the truth were told, there was more than a little jealousy coming from him toward her husband. Since Kenna had married, Angus felt as though he'd been alone.
"Would I like a silk dress? Trade you a bairn for one."
Angus laughed. "If all of them you produce are as bad as your eldest, you'd have to trade six of them for a length of silk."
"He's just like you were at that age."
"I never was!"
"Worse," she said, laughing. "And he's the spitting image of you. Or I think he is, but it's been too long since I've seen your face." Reaching up, she touched his big beard. "Why don't you let me cut that?"
He pulled her hand away and kissed the palm. "It keeps me warm, and that's what I need."
"If you married, you -- "
"I beg you not to start on me again," he said with so much agony in his voice that she relented.
"All right," she said as she got up, with Angus pushing on her back to help her. "I'll leave you be if you promise not to take a girl's laughter in anger. She bested you with the only weapon a woman has, her tongue."
"There are other uses for a woman's tongue," Angus said, his eyes twinkling.
Kenna stuck out her big belly. "Do you think I do not know all about the uses of a woman's tongue -- and a man's?"
Angus put his hands over his ears. "Do not tell me such! You're my sister."
"All right," she said, smiling. "Keep your belief that your sister is still a virgin, but please do not let anger rule you over this girl."
"I will not," he said. "Now, go back to your husband."
"And what will you do?"
"I'm going to crawl under a rock and sleep for a day or two."
"Good, mayhap the heather will sweeten your temper so that when a girl makes a remark to you, you can reply in kind."
"In kind," he said. "I will remember that. Now go before I have to play midwife to you."
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