Port Saoithe, Moray Firth, Scotland, June 1621
Chief Cyrus MacKenzie, the newly titled Earl of Stornmor, had looked forward to this day for years. 'Twas the day he would meet the ideal young lady to become his bride—the daughter of a powerful marquess.
Cyrus's sister, Isobel, and her husband, Dirk MacKay, the Clan MacKay chief, sat across the table from him in the Harbour Inn's public room as they broke their fast.
"Mayhap you will fall in love with Rebbie's sister." Isobel beamed a smile brighter than the morning sun streaming in the window behind her.
At her silly words, Cyrus scowled, but she was too busy feeding a bite of porridge to her fifteen-month-old son to notice.
Cyrus grunted. "'Tis unlikely. But from what I've been told, Lady Lily will be the perfect wife for me. Her father's a marquess and her brother an earl." Cyrus chewed the last bite of bacon, then took a swig of ale. Within the hour, they would head south, toward Castle Rebbinglen for a Midsummer gathering.
Isobel grinned and glanced at Dirk, sitting beside her. "Tell him how wonderful marriage can be when you love your spouse."
"Aye, 'tis true. I'm a lucky man." Dirk gazed with great affection at his wife and their ginger-haired son, Griff, a wee replica of him.
Dirk and Isobel's romance was sickeningly sweet, but Cyrus was glad his sister had finally found a man to her liking who treated her like a queen.
As for Cyrus, he was far more practical. "My sister kens naught about me."
Dirk chuckled. "She is ever the matchmaker."
"You think you are immune to love, dear brother, but you possess a heart just as everyone else does." Isobel's dark eyes, so like his own, gleamed with humor.
'Haps Cyrus did have a heart, but no one would ever find it. He made sure 'twas buried far behind thick stone walls. His ambitions for his clan had naught to do with sentiment or emotion. Before the end of his days, he intended for the MacKenzies to be among the strongest and wealthiest clans in the country. His recent title of earl, bestowed upon him by King James, along with his new holdings in the Outer Hebrides as well as the northeast of Scotland, elevated his clan by several degrees. And his upcoming marriage to the Marquess of Kilverntay's daughter would further increase his clan's wealth and prestige.
Cyrus had always held an ambition to marry an earl's daughter, but to marry a marquess's daughter would be beyond his expectations. Of course, she had to be poised, elegant and beautiful, too.
But what if Rebbie's sister was unattractive?
Cyrus frowned. He would cope with it… in the dark, if necessary. It didn't matter what young Lily looked like. Her status alone made her the best potential bride he'd met so far.
Still… he was curious. He turned to Dirk, one of Rebbie's closest friends. "In the missive Rebbie sent, he wrote that his father was having a difficult time finding a suitable husband for Lady Lily. Do you ken why?" If the lady was a great beauty, surely legions of suitors would have been knocking at the marquess's door, and some highly ranked aristocrat would've already spoken for her.
Dirk shook his head. "He mentioned naught about it in his missives to me. She must be around twenty or twenty-one summers now, and I'm certain her father is chomping at the bit to have her married off."
Cyrus nodded. That could only work in his favor.
"If she's anything like Rebbie, she's even more particular than you are about a match." Isobel smirked.
"Maybe so, but I have good reason to be selective. I must find the bride who will bring the most benefits to the MacKenzie clan. She must be perfect."
Isobel gasped. "No woman is perfect, and you should not expect her to be." She turned to her husband. "Am I perfect?"
Hesitating, Dirk lifted a brow. "'Tis a trick question, I vow."
"Indeed. Women are ever crafty," Cyrus said.
Isobel eyed him defiantly. "'Tis merely another word for cunning. And are you not cunning, brother?"
"'Tis different for a man."
"Oh, aye," she said doubtfully. "Men are allowed to be cunning but women are not."
"With the enemy, aye. But not with a husband or wife."
Isobel glanced at her husband. "Did I trick you?"
Dirk snickered. "If you did, I was in full agreement with it."
'Twas clear to everyone they had a strong marriage, with a fine son and another bairn on the way. Cyrus envied them this.
He had met several young ladies in the past few years, but none had seemed right for him. But now, 'twas the ideal time for him to marry and sire an heir, just as he had started building a grand new castle on his recently acquired eastern lands. No more delays.
Lady Lily would be perfect—she had to be. He was determined in this, just as he had been determined in bringing the rebels on Isle of Lewis to heel months ago. He accepted naught less than victory and success in everything he did. This included a wife. He would not settle for second best.
He watched his wee nephew grab a bannock off the trencher and try to stuff the entire thing into his mouth. Cyrus grinned, hoping Lady Lily would bear him many strong sons, and the MacKenzie name would live on for centuries.
"Be sweet and romantic or the lass may refuse your suit," Isobel advised, taking the bannock before Griff could choke on it.
Cyrus snorted. "I have no inkling what the words sweet and romantic mean. Either Lady Lily will accept me for who I am or she won't." He shrugged, unwilling to prostrate himself before any young lady, regardless of her status. Besides, she was more than a decade younger than he was. "Rebbie will put in a good word for me." Cyrus had become friends with him through Dirk.
"As will I." Isobel grinned.
"You know her?"
"I've never met her, but she's a woman. I can get to know her quickly. When she sees how friendly I am—and how charming our brothers are—she will hopefully realize you're not just a growly bear who thinks of naught but military campaigns."
Cyrus rolled his eyes. "I ken how to get things done. If she's intelligent, she will see the benefit in that."
He did not expect love to be a part of the marriage deal. As a youth, he had experienced love and knew how destructive and painful it could be. He never wanted to be torn down by it again.
Aside from himself, he'd seen many other men brought to their knees by emotion, smitten with the wrong woman and unable to think straight. Such sentiment was useless to Cyrus's way of thinking. Why would he want a woman distracting him from his ambitions?
"This dress shop is not for sale at any price, Mr. Thorndyke," Elspeth Seton, Baroness Grey told the pompous, rotund man. "Why are you interested?"
Lifting his bushy brown brows, he glanced around at the many bolts of fabric stacked neatly on the tables. When his gaze landed on her assistant, Audrey, she grimaced and busied herself with straightening patterns and spools of thread.
Turning his attention back to Elspeth, the odious man peered down his bulbous nose at her. "'Tis a valuable piece of property on one of the busiest streets in Aberdeen, but clearly your business is failing."
She bristled. "Nonsense. My dressmaking business is highly profitable." Well, mayhap that was an exaggeration, but she had made a modest profit thus far this year. Thankfully, her millinery, cordwainer shop, and tenements brought in a more respectable income. 'Twas her dressmaking that she enjoyed most, and she wished to make it more lucrative.
Smirking, he held out his hands. "Where are your customers?"
"'Tis early. Gracious! The shop has only been open a quarter-hour this day."
Surely the man was daft. There was no way in hades she would ever sell this shop or any of her other properties. These buildings had belonged to her father, a merchant, and cordwainer.
She was the one who had turned her father's former tailor shop into a dressmaking business just a few years ago. Being a woman, she naturally preferred working with female clientele and creating elegant women's clothing.
Elspeth enjoyed making design enhancements to the dress patterns from the continent. At times, she could become completely obsessed with creating the perfect gown. She preferred hiring skilled local seamstresses, mostly unmarried women or widows, who could earn money and provide for themselves and their family members.
Her late husband, Baron Grey, had almost caused her to lose this property. Never again would she allow a man control of her future.
The buffoon Thorndyke fingered a charcoal wool near him. "This cloth looks more suited to servants' clothing or scullery aprons. You'll not lure in the wealthy ladies with this tripe."
Elspeth wanted to call him a bastard and other vile names but kept her teeth clenched tight. 'Twas none of his business, but she kept her most expensive fabrics in another room. The private salon was reserved for wealthier ladies who could afford silks from around the world. She didn't want her regular customers to feel inferior about not being able to afford the extravagant materials. And she certainly didn't allow men in there.
Thorndyke glanced at the doorway leading to the salon, then headed toward it. "What is in there?"
She stepped in front of him, blocking his path.
Thorndyke stopped just short of barreling over her.
"If you're in need of shoes, my cordwainer shop is next door, sir!"
He sneered. "Are you running a brothel back there?"
"Of course not! You've overstayed your welcome. Please see yourself out." She pointed toward the door.
He gave a nasty laugh. "I know about you and the Earl of Dalacroy."
"That is none of your business." Ignoring the searing mortification washing over her, Elspeth wanted to punch the asinine man in his smug mouth.
She'd had little choice in the matter of becoming Dalacroy's mistress after her husband had died, leaving her in debt without even two pence to buy bread. Thanks to Dalacroy, she now had her independence. 'Twas either that or live destitute on the streets with her young son and siblings. Now, as then, she would do anything for her family.
"Everyone kens he was dimwitted, chasing after every skirt in the kingdom, then getting himself killed in a sword duel."
Regardless of Dalacroy's intelligence, or lack thereof, she would have nothing without the deal they'd struck years ago. "As I said, the building is not for sale. You're wasting your time here." Gritting her teeth, Elspeth glared at Thorndyke, eye to eye, willing him to leave.
The shop door opened with a squeak. Elspeth was relieved to find her friend Rose Forbes, the Countess of Kerrimuir, entering. A deep blue traveling cloak covered most of the elegant gold gown Elspeth had designed for Rose, and her dark curls were upswept.
Turning to see who had arrived, Thorndyke gasped, then bowed deeply. "My lady."
To Elspeth's surprise and profound relief, he hastened out the door. "Do you know Thorndyke?"
Rose grimaced as she might when noticing sewage in the gutter. "He's a solicitor for some of the lairds. My late husband used his services on occasion. What did he want?"
"He was trying to buy my building and being very insulting about it." Annoyance again prickled at her nerve endings.
"For himself or one of his clients?"
"I have no inkling. Why would an aristocrat be interested in owning a business?"
"Maybe he's short on money." Rose shrugged. "I wouldn't concern myself. Are you ready to leave? I want to arrive at Castle Rebbinglen by tomorrow evening. I've arranged for us to spend tonight at an inn."
I've changed my mind about going, Elspeth almost said, her chest tightening. She was hesitant about rubbing elbows with the loftier aristocrats, in truth, for they intimidated her. Even though she was the widow of a baron, they would look down on her as a merchant's daughter… and current merchant. If they ever learned she was the former mistress of an earl, she would no doubt be tossed out on her ear. But she needed to meet some of the ladies, and hopefully gain them as customers, if she wanted her clothing business revenue to increase. They might also have need of new slippers and boots.
"I suppose I'm ready," Elspeth forced herself to say. "But I'm only staying four days. I must return here by Monday morning."
Rose blew out a breath. "You like naught better than work, do you? I'm certain Audrey can handle your customers for a few days. 'Tis time for relaxation. We'll travel together in my coach and our maids will ride in yours. That way, we will have the privacy to talk. Where are your trunks? My manservants will load them."
"They're already on my coach. Vance and Jenkins loaded them. They're waiting outside in the close, along with Bernice."
The night before, Elspeth had packed the two trunks with beautiful gowns she would wear to the festivities. She had recently designed them and her best seamstresses had sewn them. Surely the Countess of Rebbinglen would be intrigued by her creations and wish some for herself.
After Elspeth gave Audrey a few final instructions, she and Rose exited.
Clothing design was her greatest passion, for 'twas in her blood. And now she must do something very difficult if she wished her beloved business to survive—mingle with countesses, earls, and 'haps even a marquess. What if she slipped up and bungled the whole thing?
The following afternoon, Elspeth's stomach knotted all the more as she stared out the coach window, stunned at the magnificence of Castle Rebbinglen in the distance, the Cairngorm mountains standing tall behind it. The elegant rounded towers were capped by turrets with sharp, conical roofs. The MacInnis standard flew from the highest spire. 'Twas the grandest castle she had ever seen.
"I shouldn't have come." Elspeth clasped her gloved, sweating hands together.
"Why ever not?" Sitting on the brown leather seat opposite her, Rose frowned.
"The Earl and Countess of Rebbinglen didn't invite me. I feel like an interloper."
"Nonsense." Rose waved a hand. "Rebbie said it would be wonderful if I brought my good friend to their Midsummer celebration."
Elspeth could not imagine calling the Earl of Rebbinglen by his nickname. "Do you truly call the earl Rebbie?"
"Of course." Rose chuckled. "He insists upon it. Even though he is not my cousin by blood, because he and Lily have different mothers, he still considers me a cousin. Have no worries. He will ask you to call him Rebbie as well."
Elspeth doubted that.
"You need to venture out into society more. I ken how lonely and isolated you've been since Adam went to boarding school."
"I do miss him." Her son was ten summers but exceptionally mature for his age. The last time she'd visited with him, he was a couple of inches taller and behaved like a confident young man. She had not wanted to send him off to school, but he was already a baron. Before she knew it, he would be old enough to run his own estate.
As for society… Elspeth shrugged. 'Twas a way of life for her as she drifted between social stations. Men didn't like that she was an independent lady and business owner. Some women saw her as a threat, while others wanted to be like her. No one, except Rose, knew or cared what she'd been through, what had forced her to be strong enough to survive, and now to support herself.
She had been friends with Rose since her first visit to the dress shop. They were both widows around the same age and shared many interests. Although Rose was a countess, she treated Elspeth as an equal and didn't look down on her for her less than ideal past.
"We already decided you need more aristocratic ladies as customers," Rose reminded her. "Most of them have no inkling your shop exists."
"Aye, but I cannot tell them I'm a dressmaker and wish them to be patrons of my shop. 'Twould be the height of rudeness."
"There is no need to mention it. If one of the ladies asks where your exquisite gown was made, you simply tell her your own seamstress created it at your shop in Aberdeen. And by the way, I am drooling over that gown. I'm going to order one just like it."
"Indeed?" Glancing down at her emerald green gown, Elspeth grinned, thrilled as always when anyone complimented a dress she'd designed.
"A different color, perhaps. The green is a perfect contrast for your ginger hair, but I think deep wine red would suit me."
Feeling inspired at the images flitting through her head, Elspeth nodded with enthusiasm. "'Twould be beautiful with your dark hair."
"We saw none like them in Paris last year. You have a unique gift."
"I appreciate your kind words." Elspeth had gone with Rose and their servants to Paris the year before. While there, she had met a wonderful new supplier of cloth and patterns.
"I hope you brought several of your designs to wear, as I did. Once Calla sees the styles you create, she will order a dozen."
Hope and anticipation surged within Elspeth. She already knew that Calla was the countess, the Earl of Rebbinglen's wife. "Do you truly think so?"
"Of course. She only had a bairn a short while ago. She will be wanting a new wardrobe soon. Rebbie's good friends, Chief and Lady MacKay, have also been invited. And then there is Lily. Her father is trying his hardest to find a suitable husband for her. She'll need a wedding gown and an entire new wardrobe to take to her new home."
Excitement buzzed like a hive of honeybees through Elspeth's veins. She could already imagine the elaborate silk gowns these wealthy ladies would require, and she was eager to design them. "Who is Lady Lily going to marry?"
"Thus far, she has not met a man to her liking. The marquess insists that she marry an earl or better."
"'Tis wonderful that he allows her to approve the man. I certainly didn't have that privilege when I married Grey."
"Nor did I," Rose muttered. "Neither of us would've chosen husbands old enough to be our fathers."
"Aye, I forgot Grey was in his fifties."
"And I was sixteen summers. Just a naïve child, really."
Rose shook her head. "I wish we had known each other back then. We could've commiserated over our gruesome wedding nights."
Elspeth nodded, glad she no longer had to allow any man into her bed. "I'm thrilled to be done with that duty."
"Well, 'haps one day you will discover bedsport is not meant to be gruesome nor a duty." Her friend sent her a mischievous grin.
Rose appeared sly of a sudden.
Realization dawning, Elspeth felt her mouth drop open. "Is that why you're attending this gathering?"
Rose shrugged. "You never know when you will meet an attractive man. By the way, a new earl will be at the gathering. The family is hoping he will measure up to Lily's expectations. And I've been told he's bringing a couple of his brothers."
"A new earl?"
"Aye, he is newly titled. The Earl of Stornmor. A Highlander and a friend of Rebbie. He is also the brother of Lady MacKay."
So many important people she had lost count. Her stomach felt even queasier than before. "Good heavens. What if they find out about my connection to Dalacroy?"
"No one knows, and I'm certainly not telling them."
Gossip might have already reached them. 'Twas the ladies she worried most about. They might fear she would steal one of their husbands. But she had no interest in husbands, her own or anyone else's. She wished to steer clear of men, especially powerful, titled ones who might try to control her life or take away her properties or her independence.
Highlander Besieged ©2019 Vonda Sinclair
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