To Marry a Highlander

He didn't mean for them to get caught. . .

Conall Sutherland, younger brother and right-hand man to Haydon, the laird of the Sutherland Clan, is happy with his life. Or was until recently. He'd never felt the pull of marriage, since he enjoys the company of the wenches who offer him room in their beds. Lately, however, things just don't seem right.

Maura Mac Ewan, Conall's distant cousin, has always had a fancy for him, but aware of his reputation with the lasses, she never encouraged him, fearing a broken heart. When the two are caught alone, in the dark, in each other’s arms, it doesn’t matter that it was innocent. Her father and brothers give them no choice.

Marriage.

Maura’s hope for wedded bliss wavers when the many lasses at the keep who had spent time in her new husband's bed begin to harass her and cause her trouble. They try their best to make her miserable, flirting openly with Conall. Can she be certain that her husband has given up his libertine ways? Or is she doomed to spend her life with a man she can never trust?

Then things get worse. . .

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Dornoch Castle
January 1655

Conall Sutherland, younger brother of Laird Haydon of Sutherland of Dornoch, slipped back into the keep a mere hour before dawn. It had been a pleasurable night. Aggie at the public house had been most accommodating. Again.

He came to an abrupt halt when he almost ran smack into Haydon’s chest. “Bollocks, brother. What the hell are ye doing up so late?”

“Doona ye mean early? ‘Tis almost time for the day to start.” His brother glared at him, his arms crossed over his chest.

“That is not yer concern. I ne’er miss my training.”

“Aye, but a tired warrior is a dead warrior.”

Conall attempted to brush past the mon, but Haydon stepped in his way. “I’ve had this chat with ye before, brother. Ye are spending far too much time chasing the wenches. ‘Tis time ye settled down and married. Started a family.”

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Conall shook his head, anger twisting his insides at this familiar conversation. “Nay. The shackles of marriage and a heap of squalling bairns is yer life. I have no intention of following in yer footsteps.” In an effort to change the subject, but also a matter of concern, Conall said, “Is Ainslee well? Is that why ye are wandering the keep at this time?”

Haydon nodded. “Aye, my wife is well. I’m fetching some warm milk with honey for her. The lass is unable to sleep. The bairn is keeping her awake with all his moving around. I think if she doesn’t birth this bairn soon, she will toss herself from the castle ramparts.”

Conall grinned. “Nay. She’s a strong lass. It canna be too much longer before yer heir makes himself known.”

“I ken what yer doing, Conall.” Haydon glowered at him. “I willna be distracted.” He waved his finger at him. “Ye one day will get into trouble with all these lasses.”

Conall had lost his patience. He was tired and had to be up in a couple of hours to oversee the training of the new lads who had just joined the clan’s warriors. “‘Tis none of yer business how I live my life, brother. Ye might be laird, but ye canno’ order me to yer will in this matter.” With those words, he brushed past his brother and headed toward the stairs leading to his bedchamber.

‘Twas no’ as though he was adamant about marriage. His opinion had changed as of late. He occasionally eyed Haydon and Ainslee with a bit of what could only be called envy. Even though they’d had a rough start, with Ainslee and her sister switching places at the wedding, they were so besotted with each other now that it was sometimes hard to sit in the same room with them.

So far, the only lass who held his interest for more than one night was Maura MacEwan, a verra distant cousin, with her full, dark brown hair and crystal blue eyes. She was curved in all the right places, tall enough that he dinna have to bend too far to kiss her, and the sound of her laughter brought a sense of joy he rarely experienced.

Except the lass hated him. Well, not precisely hated him, but had made it clear several times that she had no desire to be ‘one of his many conquests’ as she put it. She dinna approve of his string of lasses. He oftentimes thought that if Maura was his, he might not want to chase after other lasses. But since he wasn’t sure, he made no promises.

Yet.

Damn his brother for antagonizing him just as he was feeling good about his time with Aggie. He tossed and turned for over an hour, punching his pillow as he tried to sleep. Truth be known, his satisfaction with Aggie hadn’t lasted all that long. It ne did with any of the women lately. Once he’d released his seed, he was overcome with an immediate need to leave the lass’s bed.

The lasses dinna like that. They wanted to cuddle, and talk, and other things while he was counting the minutes until he could gather his clothes and head home. Since he dinna like that vision of himself, he decided to skip trying to get a little bit of sleep and break his fast instead before heading out to the lists.

“Doona ye ever sleep?” Conall asked his brother as he entered the great hall. Haydon sat at one of the tables, a trencher of food in front of him.

“Aye. Just not much since Ainslee is in such a bad way.”

Conall poured himself a cup of ale from the jug sitting on the table. “How much longer before the bairn arrives?”

Haydon sat back and crossed his arms over his chest. “Any day now, the midwife says.”

One of the keep’s lively serving maids placed a trencher in front of Conall. She winked and sashayed away, glancing over her shoulder when she reached the doorway. Conall winked back.

Haydon cleared his throat.

“Why do ye stare?” Conall asked, pulling his eating knife from his waist. “Stop watching me. Ye have yer own hands full with yer wife about to give birth. If I didn’t ken ye were so smitten with Ainslee, I would think ye are jealous of all the attention I get.”

Haydon threw his head back and laughed. “Nay, brother. Even when I was unmarried, I ne’er envied ye. ‘Twas not my way to jump from bed to bed.”

Conall stabbed a piece of meat from his trencher. “Well, ‘tis glad I am that ye were so verra perfect. Mayhaps one day, I will be as perfect as ye. And then hang myself.”

Haydon stood and walked from the keep, still chuckling. Conall stabbed another piece of meat as if the animal still needed killing. Unable to stomach it, he pushed the trencher away, gulped down the rest of his ale and followed his brother to the lists.

* * *

Maura MacEwan studied herself in the looking glass in her room that Da had brought home to her from Edinburgh the last time he visited there. While not beautiful, she had a pleasant face, all the parts in the right places. Her mouth wasn’t too big, but her lips were full.  Her eyelashes were long and dark, combined with a small nose and a slight dimple in her left cheek. Her best feature as far as she was concerned were her clear crystal blue eyes.

Why then, did she remain unmarried at the old age of one and twenty summers? Were she not to marry in a couple of years, she would be too old to produce bairns. Then no mon would have her at all.

Except Conall Sutherland. Rake, rogue, and lass-chaser. He wanted her all right, but only for a quick tup, and then her name would be added to his list of lasses he’d conquered.

She rested her chin on her hand and continued to study herself. She would be lying if she said she didn’t find the mon handsome and charming. That was the problem. All the lasses thought Conall Sutherland was handsome and charming.

For some reason, however, even though she’d turned him down a number of times, he still came around, seeking her company. When he was serious and spoke of normal things, they had wonderful talks. But then he would eventually turn the conversation around to flirting, and she grew annoyed.

Were he flirting with her alone, she would be thrilled, since she’d fancied him for years. But she kenned so many lasses had fallen for his charm. Not to say all of them had allowed Conall into their beds, but she was certain their conversations were nothing like the ones she and Conall had.

“Maura, are ye going to spend the day in yer bedchamber, lass?” Da’s voice drifted up to her from where he broke his fast in the large room that took up most of the house on the bottom floor.

Their home was comfortable. Not large, but room enough to house her, Da, and her two brothers, Michael and Daniel. Mam had died giving birth to Daniel many years ago. Da still mourned the woman, and as far as Maura kenned, he’dne’er cast his eyes in another lass’s direction.

“Aye Da, I’m on my way down now.”

Her brothers had already eaten and left the house to tend to their sheep. The family possessed a large flock of the animals and received a tidy income from the sale of wool. Da had predicted that one day Sutherland wool would be well known throughout Scotland and England.

Maura’s days were filled with the usual women’s chores. She rose early to make sure there was plenty of food for her brothers to eat as well as pack to take with them for the nooning.

Then it was milking, baking bread, cooking, laundry, and tending the garden. Luckily, thanks to their profit on the wool, the family had enough coin to hire a woman to come each day and help Maura with the work. In all, ‘twas a pleasant life for her, but she truly wanted to be doing all of these things for a husband and her own bairns.

Since the accident that had crushed Da’s legs left him unable to walk, he dinna work with the animals, but spent his time carving little animals that he sold to traveling vendors. They stopped by on a regular basis to purchase the carvings to take to various castles to sell.

The bairns loved the little toys, and they were always in demand.

“I’m needing ye to gather wood for my carving,” Da said as she entered the room. “Yer brothers cut some of those small trees down for me. I just need ye to haul them over here.”

“Aye, da.” Even though it appeared to be hard work, Maura dinna mind doing it. It got her out of the house so she could enjoy the fresh air. The logs weren’t that heavy since her brothers had done a good job of cutting them up.

She entered the stable and dragged out the old rickety wooden wagon. With her dog, Nestor, at her side, they made their way up the slight hill to the area where an abundance of trees grew. They had their choice of oak, birch, and Scots pine among others to choose from. All of them made an excellent choice for carving.

About halfway through her chore, her attention was drawn to a horse riding in her direction. She blocked the sun from her eyes with her hand resting on her forehead.

Conall Sutherland.

His grin turned to a scowl. “Why are ye doing this, lass?” He jumped from his horse and walked up to her, taking the large piece of wood from her hands. “‘Tis not women’s work, ye ken?”

“I always do it. Da needs the wood, and Michael and Daniel are out in the fields.”

He shook his head and bent to retrieve another log and deposited it into the wagon. Maura continued to load the logs as well, even though Conall cast her disapproving looks.

As much as she wouldne’er admit it, she was grateful for his help because this load was particularly large. She wiped the sweat from her forehead, and before she could grab the wagon handle, Conall had it and was pulling it along, his horse following him.

“We’re having a little gathering this evening.” Conall attempted to appear casual, but Maura noticed the way he dinna look at her and swallowed a few times. “Ainslee is about to present Haydon with their bairn, and we’re looking for ways to distract my brother since he’s been snapping at everyone in the keep the last few days.”

“Aye?”

“Donella has been helping out since Ainslee is too large to be doing much of anything except lying about in her bed. The poor lass canna even get out of a chair without someone pulling her up.

“‘Twas my sister’s idea to have some of the clanfolk who play musical instruments stop by to have a wee bit of fun and provide a distraction for Haydon.”

“That sounds like a good idea. I’m sure the laird is beside himself wanting this to be over.”

“Aye. ‘Twould be nice if ye were able to join us. Ye could probably help Donella since she’s not too good at these kinds of things. Also, ye might spend some time speaking with Ainslee.”

What was he about? Was he asking her to attend to help his womenfolk, or was he asking her to attend because he wanted her there?

It dinna matter. ‘Twas time for her to do a bit of socializing. She’d been working too hard, and her days had grown long and weary. “Aye. I might enjoy a bit of frolicking myself,” she said.

Conall’s face brightened. “Aye. ’Tis true. A good idea. I can fetch ye this evening.”

“I ken where the keep is, Conall.”

“Aye. That ye do, but ‘twill be dark, and I doona want ye walking around by yerself. ‘Tis dangerous times.”

Attempting to see what he actually meant, she said, “I can have Michael or Daniel walk me.”

Conall scowled. “Nay. I will fetch ye.”

She hid her grin as they continued their way down to the house. “Verra well. I look forward to it.”

* * *

Conall had no idea why he’d made the mistake of inviting Maura to the keep. Aye, ‘twas true that Donella had arranged for some music, and ‘twas true Haydon needed a distraction, and ‘twas also true that Donella wasn’t such a great organizer. Ainslee could also use another lass to talk to since her twin sister, Elsbeth was on her way back from their da’s keep to be at Ainslee’s side when she gave birth to her bairn.

But despite all that, he wanted to spend time with the lass. No matter how many times he tupped another one of the public house wenches, he still felt an emptiness. Mayhaps at twenty and six summers, he’d had enough of climbing out of a lass’s bed and heading for home, feeling no’ much better than when he’d entered.

No’ that he planned to have anything with Maura that lasses of her type expected. Marriage. Nay, he just wanted something different.

He tapped on her door just as the last rays of sunlight dipped below the horizon. Michael MacEwan opened the door, scowling. “What do ye want, Sutherland?”

“Michael!” Maura walked up behind her brother. “I told ye I was going up to the keep tonight to enjoy a bit of socializing.”

“Aye, well I doona want ye socializing with the likes of him.” He gestured with his thumb at Conall.

Maura scooted under her brother’s arm and turned to face him. She poked him in the chest with her finger. “‘Tis none of yer business who I socialize with. Now be off with ye.” She turned and smiled at Conall, reached behind her, and closed the door in her brother’s face.

Michael MacEwan was one of the biggest, fiercest men Conall had ever met. Although, given his training, Conall had no qualms about crushing the mon if it ever came to a fight. Still, it amazed him that little Maura was able to give her brother the rough side of her tongue without fear.

It said a lot for the mon, he supposed. She had no fear that he would raise his hand to her.

“Yer brother doesn’t like me verra much.” Conall took Maura’s hand, linking their fingers together as they made their way to the castle. He told himself the only reason was to keep her from tripping on roots.

“Nay. He actually doesn’t like ye at all.”

Conall laughed. “Doona hold back, lass. Let me ken how he really feels.”

She looked over at him, her brows raised. “Well, ye canna blame him. Ye doona do much to hide what ye do.”

He frowned. “Ye make me sound like an evil mon. I doona mess with married women or innocents.” He looked down at her. “And I doona think this is a proper conversation to be having with ye, either, since ye are one of the innocents.”

“Pfft.”

The moon was visible as they approached the keep. From the inner bailey, they could hear the music of fiddlers, bagpipes, and a hurdy-gurdy. “Sounds as though the festivities have started without us,” Maura said.

The uproar grew the closer they got to the door to the keep. When they entered the great hall, it looked as though the events were well underway.

Conall leaned closer to her ear. “Do ye want ale or whisky?”

“Whisky? Nay. I’d be on my arse before the night even got underway.”

He tried verra hard no’ to think about Maura on her arse. Especially if she were in that position upstairs in his bed. Then he shook himself. The idea of inviting the lass to the party was to prove to himself, and his brother—curse him—that he dinna always just seek out the comfort of public house wenches.

He walked her to one of the tables not too close to the music so they could have a bit of conversation. Several of the clanfolk were seated at the table with her and offered their welcomes as he left to get their drinks.

Conall returned and placed a cup of ale in front of her. They sat side by side in comfort, Conall tapping his fingers on the table to the beat of the music. He leaned close to her again. “Do ye want to dance, lass?”

“Aye. I would like that.” She took another sip of ale, stood, and climbed over the bench. Conall led her to the middle of the floor, and they joined the line of dancers who awaited a Scottish reel.

Facing each other, he bowed, she curtsied, and they moved forward to join hands and begin the dance. ‘Twas a lively number and went on a long, long time, as Scottish reels tended to do.

When the last note sounded, the crowd erupted in cheers, and they all headed back to the tables to quench their thirst for the next round. A few of the keep’s young maids arrived in the great hall from the kitchen, carrying trays of bannocks, cheese, and apples.

The maid who brought the tray to their table was one he’d bedded only a week before. He tried verra hard to ignore her when she set the tray down. ‘Twas hard when she practically rested her breasts on his head, reaching over him. She smiled. “Ye ken where to find me later.” With a wink, she left and sauntered back to the kitchen.

Conall glanced over at Maura who glared at him. “If ye will excuse me, I will take a stroll around the keep.”

He reached out to take her hand. “Wait, I will go with ye.”

“Nay.” She shook his hand off and looked at the door where the young maid had disappeared. “Ye have other things to do, I am sure, that I doona want to keep ye from.”

COLLAPSE
Reviews:Kathy, Goodreads wrote:

Engaging with a few interesting twists. Great characters and lots of shenanigans that makes this a page turner

Margaret, Goodreads wrote:

How can she trust the man she loves who pursued and bedded too many lasses? Hesitant to trust Conall Sutherland, brother to the Laird, he and Maura are caught kissing in the stable. Marriage soon follows, but the lasses Conall bedded don't make it easy in the castle. Just when everything is falling into place, an unexpected arrival creates chaos. Very entertaining when a Scottish rake has to convince his wife he loves her and deserves her trust. A well deserved hilarious ending!!

Agmwags, Goodreads wrote:

I loved this book! I was in a reading rut when it comes to romance and this book reinvigorated me.