Excerpt: Plaid to the Bone
The Spirit of the Highlands, Book 1
“‘Tis hard not to be a pessimist if one is a student of human nature. To guard against melancholy, my old philosophy professor encouraged me to be on the watch for the one man who’d give me hope. My ‘one man’ turned out to be a woman: Cait Grant, my Lady Bonniebroch.”
From the journal of Callum Farquhar, itinerant traveler, lover of fine wine, and total fraud.
Scottish Highlands, 1521
“I’ve traveled a good many places in this world, milady, but I must say, that’s the ugliest, worst-situated castle I’ve ever seen.”
Cait Grant pulled her sturdy Highland pony up short and cast Morgan MacRath a poisonous glare. She hated agreeing with her father’s advisor on anything, but the man had a point.
Bonniebroch’s gray stone was the exact color of the lowering sky. Perhaps if the sun were shining, the granite would glimmer a bit, but now the castle brooded between two sloping hills like a squat toad, all warty and freckled.
“May I remind ye I will shortly be the chatelaine of yon ugly castle?” Cait said.
“Perhaps it merely lacks a woman’s touch,” Morgan said with a sniff, his tone slick as always.
She didn’t know if he was taunting her or not. He was a slippery devil, and the worst of it was that her father relied on him to the exclusion of all other counselors. Word about the Highlands was that it was hard to tell when Wallace, chieftain of the Grant clan, was talking because Morgan MacRath’s lips moved at the same time. It was as if Wallace had been ensorcelled, folk said.
But they didn’t say it very loud.
“Appears there’s a passel o’ people here to welcome ye, milady.” Grizel wrestled her recalcitrant mule even with Cait’s mount. A long strand of the woman’s iron-gray hair escaped from her kerchief, reminding Cait that her maid was not as young as she used to be. But Grizel wasn’t one to complain, even when Cait’s father insisted they travel overland, taking game trails in a circuitous route through the Highlands instead of sailing around to the Firth of Forth and up the River Tay. “Mind how many are coming and going over the drawbridge.”
Despite the castle’s dour appearance, the festive squeal of bagpipes floated up to their overlook.
“I doubt they’re here to welcome me, Grizel,” Cait said. “They didna know when we’d arrive.”
“We’ll never arrive if we tarry here, milady,” said Barclay, one of the two clansmen her father had sent to protect her on the journey. He tugged at his forelock in a gesture of respect, then turned to the other guard. “Fife, take the lead.”
Fife, a barrel-chested one-eyed fellow, kneed his horse down the steep track without a backward glance, expecting the rest of Cait’s party to follow without question, as if he towed them with invisible tendrils. Morgan fell into line behind him, followed by Cait and Grizel. Barclay formed their rearguard.
Of course, there was no real need for a guard, either before or behind. Cait expected no trouble. They were a small party on purpose so as not to attract much notice as they traveled. Their mounts were sound, but not showy enough to excite envy. No highwaymen would suspect Cait’s more than respectable dowry was secreted in the battered leather pouch draped over Morgan’s saddle. Barclay and Fife were old enough not to appear as dangerous as they really were. Cait’s clothing was so travel-stained and worn, no one would believe she was the wellborn daughter of a clan chieftain on her way to meet her bridegroom. No, they’d encountered no trouble on the road.
The real trouble will start once we arrive.
Fife halted when they reached the castle drawbridge. “Shall I ride on alone, milady, and leave the laird know ye’re waiting without?”
“No,” Morgan answered for her. “We dinna want him to see her for the first time looking like something the cat dragged back to the stoop. We’ll blend in with the rest of the folk in the bailey till we find the steward. Then he can whisk the lady away to her quarters where she can be made presentable.”
Irritation sizzled along Cait’s spine. She might as well have been a prize heifer to be groomed for judging at a fair. Unfortunately, Morgan’s logic was sound. The success of the plan, to which only he and she were privy, depended upon her bridegroom being pleased with her.
They rode under the portcullis and handed over their mounts to the stable lads who led them away to stalls abutting the tall curtain wall. They were asked politely, but firmly, to leave their weapons on the stack by the barbican. Bonniebroch Castle was evidently under the bond of peace.
“See to milady,” Morgan told the others. “I’ll find the steward.”
“I’m hopin’ he takes his time,” Grizel said.
Cait hoped so, too. There were rows of makeshift booths set up all around the bailey for them to explore. Tinkers mended pots and pans and offered new gewgaws for sale. Drapers displayed lengths of linen in saffron yellow, a surprisingly vibrant green, and snowy white. Sweetmeat sellers and puppeteers had all the children enthralled, their sticky faces alight with wonder at the exploits of the glove puppets.
“Milady,” Barclay said, a gruff warning in his tone. “Dinna wander off.”
“There’s no harm here,” Cait said as she continued to stroll by the booths, stopping to admire a cunningly wrought necklace of amber set in silver. “All weapons are forbidden, remember.”
Barclay and Fife exchanged a guilty look. Somewhere on their disreputable persons they’d secreted a blade or two. Maybe even a small mace.
She couldn’t really scold them. There was a slim four-inch dagger hidden in the busk of her bodice, which she would never think of surrendering, whether the castle was under the bond of peace or not. Not only did she wear it almost constantly, she knew how to use it.
But before she could ask what small arsenals her guards’ plaids concealed, a clattering uproar erupted on the other side of the bailey. A tall, skeletal man was dragging a much smaller one to the pillory in the center of the open space. Before Cait could turn around, she was swept along with the other fair-goers as they crowded toward this new spectacle. She and Grizel were separated from Barclay and Fife by the press of people.
“But I didna do anything,” the little fellow wailed.
“Ye’ve been cheating people all day.”
“I . . . I demand to see the laird to lay my case before him.”
Clearly the miscreant was grasping at anything to avoid his sentence. Cait’s father had often expounded on the character qualities of the laird of Bonniebroch. The list didn’t include mercy.
“His lordship isna here. I’m the steward of this castle and when Lord Bonniebroch is absent, my word is law,” Skeleton Man said and promptly fastened him into the pillory. “This’ll teach ye to play a dishonest game of thimblerig.”
When he nailed the man’s ear to the pillory, Cait scrunched her eyes tight, though nothing could keep the squeal of pain from piercing her ears.
The people around her didn’t seem to mind. In fact, the adults seemed as fascinated by what was unfolding before them as the children had been by the puppeteers. They laughed. They pelted the man with small rocks, which made him flinch and tear his bleeding ear a bit more. Several enterprising lads came running with armfuls of rotting vegetables.
Evidently, more folk than the steward had been duped by the fellow’s questionable thimblerig game.
Cait clenched her fists so hard her nails bit into the heel of her hand. The little man probably deserved his punishment, but a game like thimblerig only worked if the player to be duped was greedy. As far as Cait was concerned, anyone fooled by shifting thimbles and a vanishing pea deserved to lose their coin.
Barclay and Fife pushed through the crowd to her side. “Come, milady,” Barclay whispered. “Let us get you to safety.”
“I’m no’ the one in danger at the moment,” Cait said. Had the little fellow no friends in the crowd who would step forward to try to shield him?
Rotten vegetables were one thing, but the rocks being tossed had graduated from coin-sized to fist-sized. One struck the man over his right eye. A growing ribbon of crimson streamed down from the gash over his brow and dripped onto the splintered wood of the dais. As if they were a pack of wolves, the crowd seemed excited by the blood.
Cait pressed forward, but Barclay grasped her forearm.
“What are ye thinkin’, milady?”
“He may be a cheat, but I’m no’ going to watch a man be killed before my eyes and do nothing to stop it, am I?” She broke free and mounted the small dais, taking position before the man in the pillory. Barclay and Fife followed, plowing through the crowd Cait had slipped through. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder in front of her, determined to shield her from the assembled folk, who were in no mood to suffer interference from a trio of strangers.
“Whoever ye are, mistress,” the fellow in the pillory said in a rasping voice, “I pledge ye my life for your kindness.”
“Hush,” Cait ordered. “No one needs your life but you.”
She wished someone had told her the same before she embarked on this journey to wed the laird of Bonniebroch. But she was given no real choice in the matter. Her life was not her own. There are some charges a dutiful daughter must accept when her father demands.
The crowd roared like a single giant beast, but the onslaught of rocks stopped when the people realized Barclay and Fife could throw them back with great accuracy. However, the pelting with offal continued. A lad came running with a wheel barrow filled with “horse apples” he’d mucked from the stable.
The frenzy started to build again. A cold lump of panic congealed in Cait’s belly. If the crowd realized their numbers would allow them to rush the defenders with little trouble, there’d be no safety for any of them.
She couldn’t see much from behind the broad shoulders of her guards, but the pounding of horse’s hooves reached her ear.
“What’s afoot here?” a man bellowed.
The crowd quieted in an instant.
“We’re only after pillorying a thief who’s running a crooked thimblerig game.” Cait recognized the reedy voice as belonging to Skeleton Man, the castle’s steward.
“All thimblerig games are crooked, Mr. Shaw,” the deeper voice answered. “Any eejit who thinks otherwise deserves to be cheated.”
Now there’s a man of sense!
The measured clomp of horse’s hooves came closer. Cait stood tiptoe to peek over Fife’s shoulder. A man mounted on a bay stallion was advancing on them. He was dressed in a somber hunting plaid of heather and brown, designed to make him blend in with his surroundings.
But the man himself would stand out anywhere. Powerfully built and so comfortable on horseback he seemed a veritable centaur, he came steadily on, not troubling himself the least about the crowd, which parted before him as if he were Moses. His stern expression projected absolute authority. Firm jaw set, his dark eyes were riveted on her little party.
Cait sucked in a quick breath. She always appreciated a fine figure of a man, but this one had made her stop breathing for a bit.
“What business is it of yours to interfere with the work of my steward?” he demanded of her guards.
His steward? Crivvens!
This was Lord Bonniebroch? Why had no one thought to warn her that the man was handsome enough to make the birds stop singing?
She gave herself a forceful mental shake.
Handsome is as handsome does, Father always says. It was too bad the man’s face didn’t match his evil reputation. If he were ill-favored, it would be easier for her to despise him as he deserved.
Cait pushed between Barclay and Fife and faced Lord Bonniebroch squarely. “I made it my business to interfere in these unlawful proceedings. My men are merely protecting me.”
The man swung down from the saddle and gave her an unhurried perusal. One corner of his mouth lifted in a smile of masculine approval. Cait decided to press her advantage while she had one.
“This man may indeed deserve his punishment.” She waved a hand toward the wee fellow in the pillory. “But no court has convened. No magistrate pronounced his sentence. Not even an order from yourself, milord. Only the whim of a steward. I can hardly credit that ye give so much power to an underling.”
“Mr. Shaw does tend to most things in my absence, but you’re right. His authority doesna extend to doling out punishment.” Lord Bonniebroch dismounted, strode past Cait, and pulled the bloody nail out of the wood so the man wouldn’t have to tear his ear half off getting out of the pillory. “Release him, Shaw.”
“How can I ever thank ye, milord?” the little man said after his head and wrists had been freed.
“Thank me by standing still till I’m ready to deal with ye,” the laird said. “And mind, if ye run off and make me set the hounds after ye, I’ll no’ be in a mood to call them back.”
The little man stood quietly to one side, mopping at his ear with a surprisingly clean-looking handkerchief.
Lord Bonniebroch turned back to Cait with a smile of such dazzling whiteness, she almost flinched. It wasn’t fair that the man should be so appealing. But hadn’t her confessor warned her that Satan himself could masquerade as an angel of light? By that account, perhaps it was right for this wicked laird to be blessed with a full head of hair, dark as a raven’s wing, and muscular calves showing beneath his kilt, fit to make any maiden swoon.
Any maiden but her, of course.
“Now, mistress, yours is a face I dinna recall.” A slight smile played about his lips as he cocked his head to one side, considering her. “A bit on the bedraggled side, are ye no’? But I reckon ye’ll clean up well enough.”
“Ye’d best hope so, milord,” she said, wishing she could simply spit fire at the man and be done with it. “I am Cait Grant, daughter of Wallace Grant, chieftain of the clan Grant, and . . . your betrothed.”
His smile went suddenly brittle. “Ah.” The sound was more a forceful exhalation than a word. “We didna expect ye so soon.”
Only royalty used “we” when they meant “I.” The man’s presumption knew no bounds. “We? Have ye a mouse in your pocket, milord?”
The crowd around them tittered at this, but he silenced them with a scowl.
Good. A man who feels himself the heel of a joke is likely to make mistakes.
The more off-balance she could make the man, the better.
“I, then,” he amended. “I didna expect ye yet.”
Cait realized now why her father had chosen to send her overland. A river was the course most often taken by gossip as well as travelers. Word of her approach would have preceded her. It was best she catch the laird of Bonniebroch unprepared.
He sketched a belated bow. When she extended her hand, he took it and bussed his lips correctly over her knuckles. For the flicker of an eyelash, Cait wished her fingertips smelled of rosewater instead of warm horse.
“Shaw,” Lord Bonniebroch bellowed to his steward. “See to Mistress Grant’s comfort.” Then he turned back to Cait. “This was a rough welcome, milady. We shall endeavor to do better hereafter.”
“‘We’ again. Ye and the wee mousie, ye mean?” There was another small ripple of laughter from the crowd. “Nevertheless, I thank ye, my Lord Bonniebroch,” she said as she dipped in a shallow curtsey before she turned to follow Mr. Shaw.
The baron deserved that small courtesy. After all, she was supposed to marry the man.
And then she was supposed to murder him.