The Laird

The Laird

Virginia Brown

September 2018 $15.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-887-5


 
Our PriceUS$15.95
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

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Scotland, 1327…

Judith Lindsay is not just an English-born enemy of Clan Campbell—she’s the widow of Kenneth Lindsay, whose family holds a child promised to Argyll, the Campbell Clan’s overlord.

Robert Campbell is not just a Scottish warrior for King Robert Bruce—he’s a new laird of his own lands, won on the battlefield against the English.

Fate brings Judith to Rob when his father abducts her along with the Lindsay child at the behest of Argyll, a powerful man Rob detests. The deaths of his seven brothers in the skirmish with Clan Lindsay should make him hate Judith—but Rob soon finds that there is much more to this woman than he expected. She has steely determination beneath her cool beauty, and untouched passion that lures Rob to vanquish the boundaries set upon them by old feuds and loyalties . . .

But they are a people at war. Can they survive the inevitable clash to find love and peace in the Scottish Highlands?

Since her first romance novel came out in 1984, Virginia Brown has written over 50 novels. Many of her books have been nominated for Romantic Times’ Reviewer’s Choice, Career Achievement Award for Love and Laughter, Career Achievement Award for Adventure, EPIC eBook nomination for Historical Romance, and she received the RT Career Achievement Award for Historical Adventure, as well as the EPIC eBook Award for Mainstream Fiction. Her works have regularly appeared on national bestseller lists. She lives near her children in North Mississippi, surrounded by a menagerie of beloved dogs and cats while she writes.


Reviews


"…a rare jewel to cherish if you love history as much as you do romance.” –RT Book Reviews



Excerpt


Campbell Keep

Lochaweside, Scotland

1327

DEATH WAITED JUST beyond the keep. It crouched in the black hills and in the devil’s own mist that shrouded trees and marsh beyond the safety of Lochawe’s walls. Robert Campbell of Glenlyon was familiar with death, and he felt its breath in the heavy March fog that rolled into the muddy bailey.

A ghostly hush muffled the impatient stomp of horse hooves and the metallic clink of swords. Torches sputtered and spit in sconces on high stone walls, the dancing light a misty haze that did little to dispel the predawn gloom. The creeping dampness penetrated leather and wool, ignored by the men gathered in the center of the courtyard.

Tall, dark, lean, Rob blended into the shadows as he watched them. He stood with his back braced against the battlements, his injured leg a constant ache save for moments of jarring agony when he moved too swiftly or too unwisely. The wound was either curse or blessing, but at the moment, it mattered little which kept him from joining—or preventing—his father and brothers’ foolhardiness.

Cold seeped through the dark blue wool of his trews, even through the thick folds of the blue and green plaide swathing his chest, a knifing chill that made his thigh ache even more. Still, he waited, watching them prepare, anger warring with a growing sense of futility. He waited until he could delay no longer, until they were mounted and the gates began to open. Until he knew there was no more time.

Then Rob hobbled from shadows into the torchlight and barred their path, his long legs splayed and boots firmly planted in the muck and mud of the bailey. A searing pain shot up his leg, and he ignored it, concentrating fiercely upon the men and horses. His back was to the half-opened gates as he brought up his sword, the lethal blade held high in a warning to the horsemen. And a plea.

A roan steed snorted, half reared, eyes and hooves flashing close to Rob in the gloom as the lead rider reined the beast to a halt.

"Move out of our way.” His father’s growl was loud in the smothering mist as he leaned forward. The ferocity of his expression defined the name he had earned: the Red Devil of Lochawe. Hellish torchlight played over Angus Campbell’s rugged face, and his eyes were narrowed, fierce beneath a bushy shelf of red brow flecked with gray. "Ye have said yer piece and made plain ye’re set against us.”

"Kill yourself if you will, but for the love of all that’s holy, don’t take innocent lives with you.” Rob aimed his sword point toward his two youngest brothers. Wet, dull light gleamed on the naked blade as he jabbed it toward them. "Diarmid, Duncan, stay here. This is a fool’s errand, and a deadly one. You owe Argyll nothing save sword loyalty in battle, not this.Christ—not this.”

Diarmid and Duncan exchanged glances, their youthful faces creased with indecision and turmoil. So alike, with the same copper hair and blue eyes as their sire, nearly identical, though a good year separated them in age. Good lads, with good heads. Yet neither of them wavered, to Rob’s despair.

"Och, Rob,” Diarmid said at last, and had the grace to look sheepish, "we gave our word to the earl. We willna go back on it. ’Tis Campbell tradition to honor our pledge.”

"Aye, but not tradition to die needlessly.” Rob spared a glance toward his eldest brother, but Kenneth’s jaw was stubbornly set. He would not argue with their father. That, too, was tradition. Rob was the only Campbell son to ever ignore it.

His sword wavered, then slowly lowered as he recognized the futility of more argument. None of his seven brothers had listened to reason, only to vain promises of glory from a feckless earl. His gaze shifted back to his father.

Angus sat erect on his mount, a bright glint like blue fire in his narrowed eyes as he regarded Rob. "If this is why ye came to Lochawe, ye should have stayed at Glenlyon.” His voice altered slightly, became cajoling. "Robbie lad, put aside yer bitter hatred of Argyll. Ye’re no coward. Ye were knighted by the Bruce himself. If ye were not wounded—”

"A wound Ireceived in service to the king,” Rob broke in harshly, "not to a craven earl. Argyll preys upon the weak, sends others to do his dirty bidding. As he does now. This is madness. It’s certain death to ride into a well-defended keep to take a hostage. Do you think Clan Caddel will stand by and do nothing?”

The laird’s eyes flared with anger. "They have all been lured to Inverness, but d’ ye think I have ever shrunk from a fight? We’ll gain a fat purse, as well as the earl’s high regard.”

Their eyes clashed, blue against gray, both angry and unyielding. Rob’s lip curled in a snarl. "Argyll has never kept a bargain in his life. He’s not worth one of our horses and certainly not one of our lives.”

The Campbell grimaced. "Ye’ve turned womanish. Christ above, it’s enough to curdle my belly. Stay, then!”

Rob barely got out of the way as his father spurred his mount forward. Winch chains shrieked a protest as the wooden gates opened onto a bridge stretched over a marshy breach of stagnant water. Hooves struck loudly against bridge planks, marking a death knell as his brothers swarmed through the gaping yett, all without a glance at him save for Diarmid and Duncan, who flashed cocky grins of reas­surance.

Rob nodded, unable to speak, caught between rage and resig­nation. He watched until the little band rode out of the growing light into deep shadows still blanketing the marsh. Then he turned to Fergal, who waited silently.

"Bring my mount.”

"Ye’re not able to ride,” the old gillie replied, but he had already lifted an arm to summon a stable lad.

Fergal would never refuse him, for he’d served Angus Campbell since they were both lads and knew his lord’s sons better than most.

"I’ll ride.” Rob said it grimly. This may well kill him, but he was damned if he’d allow his father and brothers to go to their deaths alone.

The old gillie stood by as Rob mounted. It was hard work, but Fergal wisely did not offer aid. Stiff with pain from an unhealed wound made worse by the ride to Lochawe, Rob was sweating when he finally settled atop the fractious horse and took up the reins. Heat and cold both swamped him, but he clenched his teeth against it and dug his heels into the mount’s ribs.

The drumming of hooves on wooden planks was deafening as he crossed the bridge, and his horse leaped the last few feet onto more solid ground. Jarred by the leap, agony shot through his leg and into his belly so that Rob tilted forward clumsily to grab at his mount’s neck. His ears hummed loudly; the world shifted, swerved alarmingly awry. There was the taste of coarse mane, then marsh and water in his mouth, and darkness swooped down on him like a raven.

In his last seconds of lucidity, he thought, God help them....


 

 

Chapter 1

LIGHT DANCED WITH shadows beneath enormous linden trees that edged the Cawdor Burn below Caddel Castle. Seated on a tussock of dead, dry grass in the sunshine, Judith Lindsay tilted her face upward. Her green eyes closed, and she drew in a deep breath of sweet, soft air that held the promise of spring. A fair day, after months of cold gray days—a day tailored for sitting outside instead of in the dank confines of the stone keep. It was cool but peaceful, with the burn rushing past in a soothing melody. So quiet...

"Lady Judith, look at the fuzzy worm!”

Opening drowsy eyes, Judith turned to view the slow-moving caterpillar her young niece had discovered. Red hair like a flame curled haphazardly over Mairi’s head, and the long-lashed blue eyes regarding the caterpillar were intent and serious. The child’s Gaelic held a tinge of Fyfe dialect that must come from the servants.

"The unseasonable weather has lured it out. If you do not touch it, Mairi,” Judith said softly in English, "it will turn into a beautiful butterfly.”

Mairi looked up. "Dealan-de? Will it fly?”

"Yes, one day. But you must be kind and not harm it, or the butterfly won’t sprout wings.”

Mairi’s eyes widened. One chubby finger moved aside a twig from the caterpillar’s path. After a moment, she looked up at Judith, her round little face solemn.

"Edith said Mama and Papa grew wings in heaven. Did she mean that they are flutterbyes, too?”

Judith smiled. "No, Edith probably meant that they’re like angels.”

"But maybe angels can be beautiful flutterbyes instead. Do you think they can, Lady Judith?”

The small, lisping question struck Judith dumb for a moment; inherent in the childish mind was an innocence that she was reluctant to crush. Edith really shouldn’t fill the child’s mind with such nonsense, yet how could she take away any crumbs of comfort Mairi might find in such tales?

When she found her voice, she answered gently, "It’s said that angels can take on many forms, so they could choose to be butterflies, I suppose.”

Her reply seemed to satisfy Mairi, and the child’s pensive expres­sion altered to a sweet smile.

"Then we should take special care of caterpillars and flutterbyes, shouldn’t we, Lady Judith.”

"Yes.” Judith lifted a strand of the child’s soft red hair. It felt like silk in her hand, fine as a spiderweb, gossamer strands gleaming in the sunlight. Her hand stilled on the small head. "We should take special care of all living creatures.”

"Do you think my uncle Kenneth is a flutterbye, too?” Mairi turned an artless gaze up to her, sunlight reflected in the brilliant blue of her eyes.

"That’s a nice thought,” Judith managed to answer. The mention of her husband summoned a mix of emotions. Kenneth Lindsay was a vague memory. Six—almost seven years now since he’d died, and she was still widowed, with no offers for her hand, no hope of a family of her own. A widow, a barren crone of twenty-six years in a land and family that resented her presence.

If not for the unfettered love of this child, she’d not have been able to bear the past years of exile from her home and family. From England. She would have returned, but it had been made plain to her that she was unwanted in her father’s house. By terms of her marriage contract, her lands would be forfeit should she leave Scotland.

A cool wind blew, stirring strands of Judith’s pale blond hair in a light caress against her cheek. Woodsmoke was rife on the brisk cur­rents, a sharp tang that reminded her of waiting housekeeping duties. She had lingered too long in the sloping grounds below the keep. With regret, she decided it was time they returned to the gray safety of stone walls that jutted up from the flat escarpment.

At this time of the day, Caddel Castle cast long shadows down the steep, rocky bank that led to the burn. On the side away from the burn, a dry moat kept enemies at bay and gave the inhabitants a sense of security.

Judith rose to her feet and brushed dry grass from her skirts, then stretched lazily, loathe to return yet knowing she must. It was washday, when all the linens and clothes were scrubbed in huge tubs set beneath the giant hawthorn tree that grew in the bailey. She should be there helping, though her presence was not always welcome. She was still considered an outsider after so many years here.

"Come, Mairi,” she said and knelt beside her small charge, smiling a little at her absorption with the busy caterpillar. She gathered the plaide Mairi had discarded and put a hand on the child’s head, a soft touch that snagged Mairi’s attention at last and made her look up.

"I don’t want to go back in yet, Lady Judith. I want to wait for wings.”

"Ah coney, wings take a long time to grow. And some things are best done alone, without prying eyes to watch.”

"Och, aye,” Mairi sighed, sounding very much like old Edith when she did, "’tis a sad thing tae be alone.”

"At times, my love, but not always.” Judith smiled as Mairi still gazed wistfully at the heedless furry creature inching along a gnarled tree root. "Perhaps the next time we see it, it will be a beautiful butterfly,” she said and was rewarded with Mairi’s bright, hopeful grin.

"Och aye, ’twould be a lovely thing, dinna ye think?”

"Yes, Mairi, I do think it would be a lovely thing to happen,” she said, carefully enunciating her words in a subtle reminder for Mairi to watch her diction. It was part of Judith’s duty to teach her proper English, a task made more difficult by the resentment of Mairi’s Scottish nurse and others who cared for her. The English were still hated by those who lost loved ones in the savage conflict between King Edward and Robert the Bruce. Not even the recent abdication of Edward II as king of England had eased the sharp bite of war’s atrocities and losses.

"The apple doesna fall far from the tree,” old Edith predicted sourly, "mark me on tha’, if ye will. The lad isna better that his da, just younger. It’ll be muckle war yet.”

Too soon to tell, but Judith suspected Edith was right. England was not yet done with Scotland, for all that Robert Bruce was now recognized as the rightful king. Escalating conflicts and the English penchant for attacking Scottish trading vessels in the Low Countries in defiance of the Bishopthorpe truce had earned a sharp retaliation by Robert Bruce. On the day young Edward III was crowned king of England after his father’s abdication, the Scots attacked the castle of Norham to make their point. Now Ireland was under threat, with the Scots rallying in her defense. The shadows of war still hovered darkly overhead.

Kneeling, Judith pulled the dark red plaide around Mairi’s shoul­ders, giving the child a teasing shake that made her giggle. As she rose, the thundering sound of hoofbeats snared her attention, and Judith turned to glance down the rocky slope, faintly surprised that the Caddel men were returning from Inverness. Mairi’s uncles had left the night before, intent upon finishing their business quickly. But surely they could not be back so soon? It was barely midday, and Inverness was a good distance away.

Shading her eyes with one hand cupped above her brow, Judith scanned the road that wound below the keep, a brown ribbon of packed-down dirt half hidden by tree limbs and bracken. Flashes of color appeared and vanished, the blur of riders visible for only an instant, but just long enough for her to recognize that it was not Mairi’s uncles approaching. These riders came at a fast, furious pace that sent warning tremors through her entire body.

"Come, Mairi,” she said calmly, and took the child’s hand tightly in her own to urge her toward the keep without causing alarm, "we must hurry, or Mistress Edith will give us a scold for tarrying so long.”

"Aye—oh wait, Lady Judith! You nearly stepped on the wee worm.”

Mairi broke loose from her grip, bending to move the fuzzy creature aside, and Judith quickly scooped the child into her arms. The sense of urgency increased, for now she could see that the riders were strangers to her, coming far too swiftly to mean any good. There was an air of purpose about them that made her throat close with appre­hension.

Startled at being snatched up so rudely, Mairi cried out softly as Judith began to move toward the keep at a run, stumbling over her long, dragging skirts, intent upon reaching the safety of the postern door. So far ahead... the climb arduous as Judith struggled beneath the child’s solid weight. Her breath huffed in front of her face, dissipated in a gauzy fog. She lost a shoe but did not falter.

Panic seized her as Judith felt the ground shudder beneath the force of so many horses—six? Seven of them? Oh, they were coming so swiftly now, she could hear the labored wheeze of winded mounts, the excited, guttural urging of the riders, and the entire world seemed a blur of thundering horses and pressing danger, and the door still so far away.... Only yards now, an uphill climb with Mairi so heavy in her arms, but Sweet Mary, the men were fast upon them, shouting in Gaelic, curses, laughter, surrounding them and cutting her off from her path so that Judith had to swerve, dodge outstretched arms to dart into the shelter of thick hedges on the soft rise above the meadow. Mairi sobbed, baby arms clinging tightly to Judith’s neck as she ran, panting and helpless, like a caterpillar at the mercy of beings far larger and omnipotent.

And then the muscled sheen of a horse cut her off as she turned and twisted, and a brawny arm swung out, snatched at Mairi, the man cursing when Judith held tightly to the child, her fists tangled in the folds of Mairi’s gown.

"Give up the lass,” a hoarse voice snarled in Gaelic, "or ye’ll rue it, by God’s teeth!”

A meaty fist knotted in the wool of Mairi’s gown; red-gold hair curled over the bare arm, and without hesitation, Judith sank her teeth into the muscled flesh. A pained howl rose above the chaos, something slammed against the side of her head, and still she clung to him fiercely, like a dog with a bone, as the taste of sweat and blood filled her mouth and desperate terror filled her world.

And above howls of pain, she heard snorts of laughter and a note of urgency in one voice that said, "Bring them both, or we’re like to be trapped! They come!”

Caught in the midst of jostling horses and determined men, Judith heard muffled shouts. Without seeing them, she knew that Caddel servants were coming to their aid; if only she could hold on a little longer, delay these marauders until help arrived.

Mairi clung still to her neck, a strangling hold as Judith kept her tenacious grip on the man’s arm. It was hard to breathe, impossible to see more than the shifting horse and a man’s bare leg... then the bloodied arm jerked free. She gulped in a breath of hot, dusty air that tasted rusty and thick. With her last bit of strength, she wrapped her arms around Mairi’s frantically squirming body. Then another blow rocked her, lights exploded in front of her eyes, a whirling darkness spun her round and round until the world tilted and shifted beneath her feet. A keening cry enveloped her, and she recognized it as her own as Mairi was torn from her arms. Then all went black.






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