This could be the best mistake of his life…
Laird Duncan Grant doesn’t want his neighboring clans, the MacIntoshes and the MacPhersons, to form an alliance by the planned marriage between their offspring. It would make for a dangerous situation for his clan. Since he is in need of a wife, he decides to seize the bride on her way to the wedding and keep her for himself.
But he takes the wrong lass.
Lady Elsbeth Johnstone is tired of living in her twin sister’s shadow. She loves her dearly, but it is time for her to have her own life. With no prospects for marriage, she decides a convent in Perth is the place for her.
In the dead of night on her trek to Perth, she is dragged away from her escort by a band of men who think she is someone else. Furious at how her life is now out of her control again, she demands Laird Grant bring her to the convent in Perth.
Angry at the mistake he made, he agrees, but he can’t help but wonder if he could tame the spirited lass and convince her to stay.
After all, he is in need of a wife.
Dornoch Castle, the Highlands
The time had come.
Elsbeth stared into the looking glass in her bedchamber at Dornoch Castle, the home of her twin sister Ainslee and brother-by-marriage, Laird Haydon Sutherland.
‘Twas also the home of the laird’s brother, Conall and his wife, Maura. The two pairs were well on their way to producing the necessary heirs and future warriors for the clan. Both couples were in love, blissfully happy, and tried their best to make her feel like part of the family.
She was not.
Oh, she had her place in the clan. She helped with the kitchen and garden and had been training for a while with the clan healer, Dorathia.
Ainslee had pushed various men in her direction, hoping a spark would ignite something. Were she to marry, she wanted what Ainslee and Maura had. Love. Devotion. Respect.
No mon in the clan prompted those feelings in her.READ MORE
She’d had a fancy for Conall from the time she’d met him when he and his brother had come to Lochwood Tower, her clan’s home to choose either her or Ainslee as a wife. ‘Twas to be an advantage for both clans. Haydon had chosen her, but she’d been terrified of the mon. He was so braw, loud, and arrogant. After much panic on her part, Ainslee had stepped into her place at the wedding.
The conflict that had started had been resolved, and everyone agreed that Ainslee was a much better match for the laird.
Conall had been nice to her, and dinna frighten her as his brother had. That kindness had continued once they’d all settled at Dornoch Castle. Ainslee had gotten permission from their da for Elsbeth to remain with her until she felt settled, since the twins had ne’er been separated before.
She’d imagined herself married to Conall even though he’d professed to ne’er marry. The mon had a reputation with the lasses and dinna want his lifestyle to be any different. She’d hoped he would one day change his mind.
And he had.
‘Twas quite a surprise and a disappointment when she’d returned from a visit with her da at Lochwood Tower to find Conall married. She’d felt adrift since then, even though Maura was a lovely lass and she and Conall made a wonderful couple.
And now they had twin lads to raise.
She checked her appearance in the looking glass, and taking a deep breath, left the room to find Haydon to present her case.
As usual in the early hours of the morn, Haydon was in his solar, going over all the things a laird of a huge clan had to deal with. She hoped he wasn’t so busy that he could not give her time. She’d made her decision, and she wanted to move forward before she lost her nerve.
A soft knock on the door resulted in a ‘come’ from inside. She opened the door and breathed a sigh of relief that he was alone, and not in the middle of some sort of meeting with Conall. This was something she had to do when there was no one except her and her laird present.
“Good morn, Elsbeth,” the laird said.
“And to you as well,” she returned.
He waved to the chair in front of his desk. “Please have a seat.” He leaned his forearms on the desk. “What can I do for ye?”
Now that the time had come, she was nervous. No’ that she intended to change her mind, but she kenned she was in for an argument. And Haydon’s argument would be one of many from others, she was sure.
She hesitated. Should she blurt it out? Or do a build-up of sorts? Now that she was facing him, her courage had begun to slip. Then she chided herself. She could ne’er do what she hoped and planned to do if she started to have doubts. She’d spent many a night tossing in her bed thinking about this.
She cleared her throat. “I want to join a convent.”
There, the words were out. As was the huge breath she’d been holding. She dinna give a big explanation; that would allow an argument. She simply stated what she wanted.
Expecting outrage, or even an immediate ‘nay’ from Haydon, he surprised her by leaning back in his chair, his elbows on the armrest, his fingers tented as he tapped his lips, staring at her. “Why?”
How much to tell him? The sorrow she felt as she watched her sister cuddle and offer her breast to her new bairn? The slight bit of envy—she had finally admitted it to herself—when she saw the way Conall watched Maura as if she were the most important person in the world to him?
Should she reveal the nights of tossing in her bed, trying to convince herself that she was needed in a clan where everyone had their place, and she seemed to be just an extra with no real position? She had her pride and sounding like a spoilt child, angry because everyone had a biscuit except her, would ne’er do.
She raised her chin and met Haydon’s eyes. “I have given this a great deal of thought. I feel as though I have a calling and should be serving others for the Lord.”
“Ye are serving us here.”
“Nay.” She hated the bitterness that she heard in her voice. “Anyone else can do what I do here.” She leaned forward. “I have been corresponding with Sister Albert in Perth. I met her on the trip home from my da’s castle.
“She owns property that she inherited and houses several other nuns. They help the poor, sick, and orphans. They are doing wonderful work.”
Haydon’s brows rose. “I doona understand, lass. I thought there were no more abbeys or convents in Scotland anymore since the Catholic religion was outlawed?”
Elsbeth shook her head. “Nay. There are still a few scattered around, mostly in the Highlands. They keep to themselves and do good work.” She straightened her shoulders. “And I wish to join them.”
“Yer sister will not approve.”
“I ken that. But ‘tis my life and I wish to live it the way I see fit.” Most of her life had been decided by others. As much as she loved her sister and it would truly break her heart to leave her, ‘twas Ainslee who had directed both of their lives over the years.
Her da wrote to her on occasion reminding her of her duty to marry and have bairns. She couldna understand why since any bairns she would produce would not help Da since the Johnstone clan needed a male heir. But, again, someone else trying to direct her life.
She was a woman grown and able to make her own decisions. And this was one of them.
“I ken how ye feel, lass, but are ye certain this is how ye want to spend the rest of yer life? Ye are a beautiful woman, young, smart, and with a sweet way about ye. Why would ye want to lock yerself away?”
Why indeed? Was she hiding? Surrendering? Nay. She’d given this a lot of thought and ‘twas the right path for her.
“I doona see it as locking myself away, Laird. I want to help people who need it, who have no one else to turn to. I want to make a difference in one small part of the world.”
Haydon shook his head. “I canno’ give ye my blessing, but I won’t deny ye an escort to Perth. However, I think ye should speak with Ainslee about this before ye make final arrangements.”
“I intend to. I just wanted to be sure ye would not deny me.”
He offered her a warm smile. “Nay. ‘Tis sad that women have so little choice in their life. ‘Tis happy I am that yer sister is content with her life.”
Elsbeth nodded, a slight stab to her heart. “Aye. She is verra happy with the bairns.” She hesitated for a moment. “And ye, too.” She could feel the blush rising to her cheeks, along with the tears threatening.
He grinned like a well-pleased mon. “Aye.”
Had she made a mistake in allowing Ainslee to take her place at the wedding? Would she be as happy as her sister if she’d gone through with the marriage? ‘Twas true that Haydon was not the horrible beast of a mon they both thought when he’d arrived at Lochwood Tower to choose a bride.
She shook those thoughts off. Her sister was happy and that was important to her. She would find her own happiness in serving others.
“I suggest ye speak with yer sister. I ken she will have objections, and ye will want to get them out of the way before ye begin yer trip.”
Elsbeth nodded. “Aye. I will do that now.”
As she stood to leave the room, Haydon said, “Are ye sure ye want to do this, Elsbeth? In all the time ye’ve been here, isna there anyone in the clan that’s caught yer eye?”
She thought briefly of Conall and shook her head. “Nay.”
‘Twas probably best to get this done before she lost her nerve. She had to laugh because she ne’er thought she’d see the day when speaking with her sister was more frightening than doing so with Haydon.
“Have ye lost yer mind, sister? Leave a comfortable home here to live in a convent?” Ainslee’s shock was to be expected, and Elsbeth had thought she was prepared for it. But it still rocked her.
“’Tis what I feel is my calling.”
“Yer calling? Ye are three and twenty years and just now ye feel the call?”
“I doona want to argue about this, Ainslee. Ye have yer life here, and a happy life it is. ‘Twas the best decision ye made when ye offered to take my place with Haydon.”
Ainslee collapsed onto the bed from where she’d just arisen after catching up on sleep with the new bairn keeping her awake nights. She reached out and took her sister’s hand, tugging her alongside her. “Are ye so unhappy, Elsbeth?”
She lifted her chin. “Nay. I just want to be of service to those who need it.”
“I need ye, sister.”
“Nay. Ye doona. Ye have yer husband, yer bairns, a keep to run, and Maura, yer sister-by-marriage.” She shook her head, fighting desperately to keep the tears that had formed in her eyes from falling.
She raised her palm, staving off any words of comfort her sister was about to say. “Doona pretend the keep willna run smoothly if I leave.” She quickly wiped the tears that had fallen, the lump in her throat as big as a boulder.
Taking Ainslee’s hand in hers she said, “I love ye. As ye ken we have an attachment like no other. I will miss ye with my whole heart, but this is something I have to do for myself. I need a life too. And it isna here.”
Elsbeth could see the fight leave her sister as Ainslee’s shoulders slumped. “Aye. Ye do have the right to the life ye want.” She reached out and tucked a loose curl behind Elsbeth’s ear. “I’m just no’ sure yer life is a convent.”
Elsbeth hopped up. They were going in circles, and she had plans to make, clothes to pack, and things she no longer needed to give away. ‘Twould be a busy day.
She leaned over and hugged her sister, then left as quickly as possible since she was about to fall into a blubbering heap right next to her on the bed.
It took two days for her to pack and prepare to leave. Conall tried to talk her out of it. Maura attempted the same. Dorathia tried, as did her niece, Helen. Haydon’s cousin, Malcolm even offered to marry her. She smiled, thanked him, and shook her head no.
By the time her last night at the keep arrived, she had what she considered a permanent headache. And heartache. ‘Twould be so easy to say she changed her mind and make everyone happy, but ’twould also not be long before she hated herself and was right back where she’d been for the last few years.
Ainslee had requested that Jonet, the cook in the keep make a special meal for the supper. All of Elsbeth’s favorite foods. She was beginning to believe she should have left a note and snuck out in the middle of the night except she could ne’er travel to Perth by herself without getting lost, or possibly killed.
So, suffering through the final meal with the family had to be done.
“Ah, lass, yer looking quite fine tonight,” Malcolm said as he sat alongside her. The hair on the back of her neck rose. Was he trying to woo her since she’d turned him down? Did Haydon or Ainslee put him up to this?
“Thank ye, Malcolm. Ye are looking quite fine as well.” She turned to Donella seated on the other side of her. The laird’s sister was seldom seen in the keep. She was a shadow who appeared, then disappeared. When the keep was under her control before Haydon had married Ainslee, the place was a disaster. She was a sweet lass, but ‘twas accepted that she had ne’er grown into a woman in her mind.
“How are ye today, Donella?” Elsbeth asked.
“I am fine. I hear ye are leaving to join a convent.” ‘Twas probably the longest sentence the lass had ever uttered to Elsbeth.
“Aye. I leave in the morn.”
“Oh.” She picked up her cup of ale and took a sip. “Be careful.” With those cryptic words, she smiled and began to eat from her trencher.
“I would like to walk with ye after supper, Elsbeth.” Malcolm drew her attention.
God’s bones, nay. There was only one reason he wanted to walk with her after supper, and she had already politely, but firmly, turned him down. The mon dinna want to marry her. He was only feeling sorry for her, or maybe he was simply willing to sacrifice himself in the name of loyalty to his cousin.
“I’m afraid that is no’ possible, Malcolm. I have many things to do tonight to prepare for my leave tomorrow.”
“Ah, aye, yer leave.”
As if he dinna remember it.
The meal couldna be over soon enough. She did have some last-minute things to do, but the mood on the dais was somber enough that one would think she was dying instead of moving onto another life that suited her better.
Did it suit her better?
She put a quick halt to that thought. Her mind was made up. Walks with Malcolm, talks with Ainslee, and advice from Haydon would not change her mind. The sooner she left the table and retired to her bedchamber, the better for her mental state.
She rose and looked over at Ainslee. “If ye will excuse me, there are some things I need to do to prepare for tomorrow.”
“Aye. I will stop by yer bedchamber before I retire.”
Elsbeth nodded, and before she left the dais, Haydon said, “Be ready at dawn, Elsbeth. I’m sending about a dozen men with ye.”
She nodded and left the great hall, not looking back. ’Twas something she needed to do from now on.
Not look back.
Things were no better and possibly worse when the morn arrived and Elsbeth joined the team of men who were to escort her.
The weather was damp, with a slight mist shrouding them all. Despite it being summer, Elsbeth shivered in her plaid, then swung the fur-lined cloak that Ainslee had made for her over her shoulders, bringing some warmth. She kenned, however, that the cold inside her would not be assuaged with a warm cloak.
Haydon, Ainslee, Maura, Conall and Malcolm had all risen early to see her off. Another night of tossing and turning had left her weak, tired, and something she ne’er was. Peevish.
Malcolm walked up to her and took her hand in his. “Can I change yer mind, lass? Are ye sure?”
If only she could feel something for the mon besides friendship. He was a strong, braw warrior with a kind heart. He would be a good husband and father to any bairns he produced. But she felt nothing when he held her hand.
“Aye. I’m sure.”
He leaned over and kissed her on her cheek. “If ye change yer mind, I’ll come for ye.”
She nodded and turned to Haydon and Ainslee. Her sister’s eyes were swollen and red, and she hated kenning that she was the cause of it. But she would be fine. Her husband stood with his arm around her shoulders, protective and loving, and she had two sweet bairns to take care of.
She took a shuddering breath. ‘Twas time to end the suffering for all of them. She stepped forward and hugged Haydon, then turned to her sister and pulled her in for a hug. The tears on both their cheeks mingled, as had their lives since before they were born.
Eventually, Haydon had to pull them apart. Moving swiftly, he lifted Elsbeth and placed her on her horse.
"God go with ye, lass.” He stepped back and gave a signal to the mon leading the group, and they moved ahead.
She dinna look back.
She would only look forward.COLLAPSE
Cheryl, Goodreads wrote:
[Duncan and Elsbeth's] journey to their HEA is quite fun and sprinkled with ups and downs. I loved watching Elsbeth find her strength and refusing others to take her choices from her, even knowing she was lucky to have listening people around her. Duncan is in for quite a ride with this woman who learns to say no.
Sabilla, Goodreads wrote:
Great story with lots of enjoyment in this plot. I especially liked the two main characters
I love how Elsbeth is so determined not to allow everyone to dictate her life again and how Duncan unwittingly besotted with Elsbeth is and wants to make her his, additionally Elsbeth’s father! I was wholly led into the wrong assumption regarding her father. It is splendidly enjoyable read and I always love the unexpected twist from Callie Hutton’s book.