The Lady and the Laird (Scottish Brides)

By: Nicola Cornick


Forres Castle, Scotland, June 1803

IT WAS A NIGHT made for magic.

The moon was new that night and the sea was a thread of shining silver. The wind sighed through the pine trees and there was the scent of salt on its edge.

“Lucy! Come and watch!”

Lady Lucy MacMorlan turned over in bed and drew the covers up more closely about her ears. She was warm and cozy and she had no urge to leave the cocoon of the blankets in order to shiver in the draught by the window. Besides, she did not want to join in with her sister Alice in casting a spell. They were foolish and dangerous and would only get the two of them into trouble.

“I’m not getting up,” she said, wriggling her toes in the warmth. “I don’t want a husband.”

“Of course you do.” Alice sounded impatient. At sixteen, Lucy’s twin was fascinated by balls and gowns and men. Earlier that evening, Alice had run three times around the ancient sundial in the castle grounds, reciting the words of the equally ancient love spell that on the new moon would give her a glimpse of the man she would wed. Lucy had stayed in the library, reading a copy of Hume’s Essays Moral and Political. Now, after sunset, Alice was awaiting the outcome of her enchantment.

“Of course you will marry,” Alice said again. “What else would you do?”

Read, Lucy thought. Read and write and study. It was more fun.

“Everyone marries.” Alice sounded grown-up, knowledgeable. “We are to make alliances and have children. It’s what the daughters of a duke do. Everyone says so.”

Marry. Have children.

Lucy thought about it, considering the idea rationally as she did all ideas. It was true that it was expected of them, and no doubt it was what their mother would have wanted. She had died when Lucy and Alice were no more than a few years old, but everyone said she had been the diamond of her generation, the elegant daughter of the Earl of Stratharnon who had made a dazzling match and produced a perfect brood of children. Lucy and Alice’s elder sister Mairi was eighteen and already wed. Lucy was not averse to the idea, but she thought she would have to meet a man who was more interesting than a book, and that was more difficult than it sounded.

“Lucy!” Alice’s voice had turned sharp. “Look! Oh look, some of the gentlemen are coming out onto the terrace with their brandy! Which one will I see first? He will be my true love.”

“You have windmills in your head,” Lucy said, “to believe such nonsense.”

Alice was not crushed. She never listened when she was excited. Their father was hosting a dinner that evening, but both his younger daughters were still in the schoolroom and had not been invited. There was a pause. Through the open window, Lucy could hear the sound of voices from below now, masculine laughter. A trace of cigar smoke tickled her nose. There was the clink of glass on stone.

“Oh!” Alice sounded intrigued. “Who is that? I can’t see his face clearly—”

“That will be because he has his back to you,” Lucy said crossly. She was trying to sleep, but it was impossible while Alice kept talking. “Remember the spell. If he has his back to you, that means he will be a false love, not a true one.”

Alice made a dismissive sound. “It’s one of Lord Purnell’s sons, but which?”

“They are all too old for you,” Lucy said. She hunched a shoulder against her sister’s chatter. “Don’t let anyone see you,” she added. “Papa will be furious to hear of one of his daughters hanging out of the window in her nightgown. You’ll be ruined before you are even out.”

Alice was still not listening. She never listened if she did not want to hear. She was like a butterfly, bright and inconsequential, flitting off, paying no attention. “It is Hamish Purnell,” she said. She sounded disappointed. “He is already wed.”

“I told you it was nonsense,” Lucy said.

“Oh, they are arguing!” Excitement leaped into Alice’s voice again. She was as changeable as a weather vane, all disappointment forgotten in a moment. She threw Lucy a glance and then pushed the window open higher, leaning out of the stone embrasure. “Lucy!” she hissed. “Come and see!”

Lucy had heard the change in the voices from the terrace. One moment everything had been smooth and civilized, and the next there was an edge of anger, violence, even, that rippled across her skin, making the hairs stand on end. She slid from the bed and padded across the floor to where Alice was kneeling on the window seat, her body tense as a strung bow, to witness the scene below.

Two men were confronting each other on the terrace directly beneath them. They stood sideways to Lucy, so she could see neither of their faces. She recognized her cousin Wilfred’s voice though, smooth, patrician, holding the slightest sneer.

“Why are you here tonight, Methven? You’re no one, a younger son. I cannot believe my uncle invited you.”

His tone was full of contempt and deliberate provocation. Someone laughed. The men pressed closer, almost encircling the pair like a pack of dogs closing in, sensing a fight.

“Oh!” Alice said. “How rude and horrible Wilfred is! I hate him!”

Lucy had always hated her cousin Wilfred too. He was eighteen, heir to the earldom of Cardross, and he reveled in his status and his family connection to the Duke of Forres. He had spent the past year in London, where rumor said he had spent all his substance on drink and cards and women. Wilfred was snobbish, conceited and boorish, and here, surrounded by his kinsmen and followers, he thought he was brave.

“Perhaps the duke invited me because he has more manners than his nephew,” the other man said. His voice had rougher overtones than Wilfred’s drawl and a hint of Scots burr. He did not step back before Wilfred’s intimidation. He turned and Lucy suddenly saw his face in the light of the new moon. It was strong, the cheekbones, brow and jaw uncompromisingly hard. He was broad, too, wide in the shoulder and tall. Yet studying him, Lucy could see he was still young, no more than nineteen or twenty perhaps.

A whisper went through the men on the terrace. The atmosphere changed. It was more openly antagonistic now, but there was something else there, too, a hint of uncertainty, almost of fear.

Alice evidently felt it too. She had withdrawn into the shelter of the thick velvet curtains that cloaked the window.

“It’s Robert Methven,” she whispered. “What is he doing here?”

“Papa invited him,” Lucy whispered back. “He says he has no time for feuds. He considers them uncivilized.”

The Forres and the Methven clans had traditionally been enemies. The Forreses and their kinsmen the earls of Cardross had held for the Scottish crown since time immemorial. The Methvens had been brigands from the far north, descended from the Viking earls of Orkney, a law unto themselves. Lucy knew little about the Methvens other than that they were reputed to be as fierce and elemental as their ancestors. She looked down on Robert Methven’s face, etched so clear and sharp in the moonlight, and felt a shiver of something primitive echo down her spine.

Enemies for generations... It was in the blood, in the stories she had been told from the cradle. Clan warfare might be a thing of the past, but it was not long gone and old enmities died hard.

“One day,” Wilfred was saying, “I’ll take back the land your family stole from our clan, Methven, and I’ll make you pay. I swear it.”

“I’ll look forward to that.” Robert Methven sounded amused. “Until then, shall we partake of some more of the duke’s excellent brandy?”

He walked straight past Wilfred as though the conversation no longer interested him. Wilfred, looking foolish, barged past him to assert his precedence and go through the drawing room door first. Methven shrugged his broad shoulders, uncaring.

Alice let the curtain fall back into place. “I’m cold,” she grumbled. “I’m going to bed.”

Lucy struggled to reach up and pull the casement window closed. It was just like Alice to leave her to tidy up. That was the trouble with Alice; she was careless and thoughtless and Lucy was always having to smooth matters over for her.

“Hamish Purnell...” she heard Alice murmuring as she slipped beneath the covers of the bed. “Well, I suppose he is quite handsome.”

“He’s married,” Lucy reminded her. “Besides, he had his back to you when you first saw him.”

“He turned round,” Alice argued. “Face to me, back to the sea. True love. Perhaps his wife will die. Be sure to close the window properly, Lucy,” she added, “so no one knows we were watching.”

Lucy sighed, still struggling to shift the window, which remained obstinately stuck. The heavy velvet hem of the curtain knocked over the blue-and-white china vase on the shelf by her elbow. She watched as in slow motion the vase teetered on the edge, escaped her grasping fingers and tumbled through the open window to smash on the terrace below. Transfixed, she stared down into the darkness. Nothing moved. No one came. She could see the broken shards gleaming in the moonlight as they lay scattered on the stones.

“You’ve got to go and pick it up.” Alice’s voice reached her in an urgent whisper. “Otherwise they’ll find it and know we were watching.”

“You go down,” Lucy said crossly. “I didn’t knock the vase over,” Alice argued.

“Neither did I!” For all their age, there was a danger of this degenerating into a nursery quarrel. “You go,” Lucy said. “It was your idea to hang out of the window like a strumpet.”

“If I get caught I’ll be in trouble again,” Alice said. Suddenly her bright face looked young and anxious and Lucy felt a pang of something that felt oddly like pity. “You know how Papa is always telling me how Mama would have been ashamed of how naughty I am.”

Lucy sighed. She could feel herself weakening. She would never get Alice into trouble. It was part of the pact between them, binding them closer than close, sisters and best friends forever. Lucy sighed again and reached for her robe and slippers.

“If you go down the steps in the Black Tower, you will be there quickly and no one will see you,” Alice said.

“I know!” Lucy snapped. Nevertheless she felt a frisson of disquiet as she grabbed her candle and opened the door a bare few inches, enough to slide out. She stole silently along the corridor to the tower stair. It was not that Forres Castle frightened her. She had grown up here and she knew every nook and cranny of the ancient building, all its secrets and all its ghosts. It was flesh and blood she feared, not the supernatural. She could not afford to get caught. She never got into trouble, never did anything wrong. Alice was the impetuous one, tumbling from one scrape into another. Lucy was good.

Nevertheless when she had drawn the bolt on the heavy door at the base of the stairs and pushed it gently open, she allowed herself a moment to enjoy the night. The breeze was soft on her face, laced with the scents of the sea and the soapy smell of the gorse. The sound of the distant waves mingled with the sighing of the pines. The moon was sickle-sharp and golden in a sky of deep velvet. For a moment Lucy had the mad idea to go running across the lawns and down to the sea, to feel the cool sand between her toes and the lap of the cold water on her bare legs.

Of course she would never do it. She was far too well behaved.

With a little sigh she bent to collect the shattered pieces of the blue-and-white pot. The maids would notice the loss and would no doubt report it. Her father would be upset, for it had been one of the late duchess’s favorite pieces. There would be questions and explanations; lies. She and Alice would have to admit that they had broken it, just not that it had happened when they had been leaning out of the window to ogle young men. She hoped her papa would not be too disappointed in her.

“Can I help you with that?”

Lucy jumped and spun around, the shards falling for a second time from her fingers. Robert Methven was standing facing her, his back to the sea. Up close he was as tall, as broad as he had seemed from her vantage point above.

“I didn’t know anyone was there,” Lucy blurted out.

She saw him smile. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” He bent down and picked up the pieces, handing them to her gravely.

“Why don’t you put them down on the balustrade,” he suggested, “before you drop them again?”

“Oh no,” Lucy said. “I have to go. I mean...” But she made no move to scuttle back to the tower door. “What are you doing out here in the dark?” she asked, after a moment.

He shrugged, a quick, dismissive movement. “The company isn’t really to my taste.”

“Wilfred, I suppose,” Lucy said. “I’m sorry, he’s quite horrible.”

“I don’t particularly mind,” Robert Methven said. “But I would not choose to spend time with him.”

“Neither would I,” Lucy said, “and he’s my cousin.”

“Oh, bad luck,” Methven said. “That means you must be—”

“Lucy,” Lucy said. “Lucy MacMorlan.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Lady Lucy.”

“And you are Robert Methven,” Lucy said.

He bowed.

“You’re nice,” Lucy said.

He smiled at the note of surprise in her voice. “Thank you.”

“Aren’t we supposed to be enemies?” Lucy said.

His smile broadened. “Do you want us to be?”

“Oh no,” Lucy said. “It’s old history.”

“Old history has a tight grip sometimes,” Robert Methven said. “Our families have hated each other for generations.”

“Papa thinks feuds are foolish,” Lucy said. She watched the play of moonlight across his face, the way it accentuated the planes and hollows, emphasizing some features and hiding others. It was oddly compelling. She felt a strange tug of emotion deep inside.

“That’s why I am here tonight,” Robert Methven said. “To put history behind us.” He nodded toward the pot in her hands. “How did that happen?”

“Oh...” Lucy blushed. “The window was open and the curtain caught it and knocked it over.”

Methven laughed. “My brother, Gregor, and I are always getting into trouble for stuff like that.”

“I don’t believe you,” Lucy said. She looked up at his tall silhouette against the deep blue of the night sky. “You are far too grown-up to get into trouble.”

Robert Methven laughed. “You might think so, but my grandfather is a tyrant. We are always falling foul of his rules.”

Lucy became aware that the sharp corners of the broken pottery were digging into her palms and that her bare toes were beginning to chill within her thin silk slippers. She wondered what on earth she was doing standing here in her nightclothes talking to Robert Methven, of all people.

“I must go,” she said again.

He made no effort to detain her. But he did smile. “Good night, then, Lady Lucy,” he said.

At the door Lucy paused and turned. “You won’t give me away, will you?” she asked carefully. “I don’t want to get into trouble.”

He laughed. “I’d never give you away.”

“Promise?” Lucy said.

He came right up to her. She could smell the smoke and fresh air on him and see the white slash of his teeth as he smiled. It made her feel a little bit dizzy and she had no notion why.

“I promise,” he said.

He bent and kissed her. It was light and brief, but still it left her so breathless and shaken that for a moment she stayed quite motionless with the surprise, the shards of the pot forgotten in her hands.

“Was that your first kiss?” Robert asked. She could hear a smile in his voice.

“Yes.” She spoke without thinking, too honest and innocent for artifice.

“Did you like it?”

Lucy frowned. The sensations inside her were too new and confusing to be easily described, but she did know that what she felt was very different from simple liking.

“I don’t know,” she said.

He laughed. “Would you like to do it again so you can decide?”

Sudden, wicked excitement curled inside Lucy, giving her the answer. “Yes,” she whispered.

He took the pieces of the pot very carefully from her hands and laid them down on the stone balustrade. He put his arms around her and drew her closer to him so that her hands were resting against his chest. The texture of his jacket felt smooth under her palms. She felt extraordinarily shy all of a sudden and might have pulled away, but then he kissed her and the shyness fled, lost in a sensation of sweetness and a warmth that made her tingle with excitement. Her head spinning, she dug her fingers into his jacket to steady herself. Her heart was beating a fierce drumbeat. She felt fragile and could not stop herself from trembling.

Then, too soon, it was over and he stepped back, releasing her gently. For a second the moonlight illuminated his expression, surprise, puzzlement perhaps, the flicker of something she could not read or understand in his eyes. Yet when he spoke he sounded exactly the same.

“Thank you,” he said.

Lucy did not know what you were supposed to do after you had kissed someone, and now she felt very shy all over again, so she grabbed the pieces of the pot, mumbled a good-night and hurried away so quickly that she almost tripped over the hem of her robe. She sped up the dark spiral of the stair without really noticing the stone steps beneath her flying feet. Her mind was too full of Robert Methven’s kiss for her to be able to think of anything else.

Alice was asleep when she got back to their bedroom. Looking at her serene face, Lucy could not help smiling. She could not feel cross with her twin for long. She loved her too much, the sister who was different from her in so many ways and yet closer to her than the other half of the apple.

She placed the pieces of pot carefully back on the shelf and slipped into bed, burrowing into the warmth and falling asleep. She dreamed of the sickle moon shining over the sea and of strong magic and of Robert Methven’s kisses. She knew he would not give her away. They were bound together now.

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