My Rebel Highlander Excerpt
Kinross, Scotland, November 1612
Calla Ferguson, the Countess of Stanbury, tensed when her husband strode into the bedchamber. She had just endured another mortifying examination by his physician.
The silver streaks that ran through the Earl of Stanbury's dark hair glinted in the gray light from the castle's window. When his spiteful, dark gaze swung to her middle-aged maid, Betty, she scurried into the nearby dressing room and softly closed the door.
The earl pinned Calla with a glare. "How long have we been married?" he demanded.
Why would he ask such a thing? He well knew they'd married when she was but sixteen summers. "More than two years."
"And yet I still have no heir. I have little use for a barren wife."
Barren? A chill shook her as the blood drained from her face. Could it be true?
Stanbury advanced on her. Fearing he would strike her, she backed up two steps, but a wall blocked her path. He placed his large hand slackly around her throat. Her heart stopped. Nay! Panicking, certain he would strangle her, she grasped both hands onto his forearm, but his brute strength proved immovable.
"Listen to me." He gave her a shake, his grip on her throat tightening the slightest bit, but not enough to cut off her air.
She froze, praying he wouldn't murder her on the spot.
"Do you see that window?" He pointed. "You're going to find yourself flying out of it one day soon."
The sensation of icy water trickling through her veins stole her breath. Dear God in heaven, he wanted to murder her.
"I'll give you one more month, and if you're not breeding…." With a final glower, he released her and left the room. In the corridor just outside the open door, he stopped one of the chambermaids, then pointed at Calla. "Watch her. She is in such despair, I fear she will fling herself from the window."
Saints! He would murder her and make it look like a suicide. Though her knees threatened to buckle, she forced herself to stand, tears streaming from her eyes. She had to do something.
His footsteps receded down the corridor. Betty hastened out of the dressing room and closed the bedchamber door. "Oh, m'lady! Did he hurt you?" She took Calla's hands.
"Nay." Calla wiped the tears from her eyes, ashamed of her weakness. "Not yet, anyway."
"You must do something," Betty whispered.
"I cannot run away. I have no money. Where would I go? Where would I live? He would surely find me. I have no family other than my father's cousin, and we are not close. He would turn me over to Stanbury again. What if he's right? What if I am barren? The only reason he married me was to provide him an heir, and if I'm unable to do that…"
Betty shook her head, glanced back at the door, then whispered, "The earl was married twice before, you ken?"
Calla nodded. A harrowing thought chilled her blood. "Did he kill his first two wives?"
"One died of a fever. The other… 'tis a mystery. Even the physician had nay inkling what was wrong with her when she passed. Anyway, I think the problem lies with him… that he cannot get a woman with child."
"Oh." At eighteen summers, Calla realized she was still naïve when it came to certain things. And a man being unable to sire a child was not something people discussed. "He will never admit to that."
"Of course not. 'Tis always the woman's fault," Betty said in a caustic tone, then glared at the door.
Calla clenched her hands together. She couldn't feel more trapped if she were in Stanbury's dungeon. How could her father have given her to this brute just before he'd died? He'd promised that Stanbury would protect her and care for her.
"What am I to do?" she whispered.
"Do you truly want me to tell you?" Betty asked, giving her a look that said she might not like the answer. But as a woman in her fifties with two grown children, Betty would surely ken what to do.
Betty drew her to the padded settle by the fireplace, sat very close to her and whispered, "Find a man… a stranger you will never see again, a young virile man, and… couple with him."
"What? Are you mad?" Calla covered her burning face with her hands. How on earth could her maid suggest such a shocking and sinful thing? She could never be unfaithful to her husband. Of course, she had never loved him and almost grew nauseous every time he did his husbandly duty. And he was certainly not faithful to her. Still… 'twas not something a virtuous wife should do. And if she was found out…
"You're advising me to commit adultery?" Calla asked. "'Tis one of the worst sins."
"Do you have a better idea? The man wants you to bear him a child, a son. Otherwise, he has threatened to kill you. 'Tis your decision. I'm not saying 'tis right or moral. But you're a kind young lady, much like a daughter to me, and I don't wish to see you dead." Betty blinked back tears that suddenly glinted in her eyes.
Nor did Calla want to die, but to do what Betty suggested… she could not even imagine it. "Where on earth would I even find a man that I would never see again? Certainly no one in Kinross or the surrounding area. If he were to learn who I am, 'twould be a disaster."
"Aye. He must be a complete stranger. Someone you will never see again. Someone with the earl's coloring, dark hair and dark eyes."
It might be possible. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears. "Oh, Betty, I can't believe I'm even considering doing this."
"You and the earl are going to Stirling next week, are you not?"
"Well, then, mayhap you could find a man there. Someone at an inn. If he's staying at an inn, he likely doesn't live in Stirling."
"'Tis true." Calla paced before the fireplace, unable to imagine herself seducing some stranger. Nay, she couldn't do it. She hated Stanbury's touch. Surely, all other men would be just as revolting.
At the same time, the thought of her own husband shoving her out a third floor window chilled her bones. He was so much larger and stronger, she couldn't fight him. And she did want a child, not just to appease Stanbury. She needed a bright spot in her life, someone to love.
"Do you truly think I can accomplish this?" Calla whispered. "What if Stanbury finds out? He'll kill me for a certainty then."
"You must be very careful, m'lady," Betty whispered urgently.
For the rest of the week, the servants eyed Calla curiously. Did they expect her to leap from the tower at any time? He must have told them all she was likely to kill herself. He'd said she had only one more month. She had no choice but to do what Betty suggested. Either that or kill him, but she could never get away with that, even if she could accomplish it. She was not the murdering kind, anyway.
As for notifying the authorities of his threats, he was a powerful earl, for heaven's sake. No one would believe her.
Two nights later, Calla paced in their room at the Silver Bell Coaching Inn in Stirling, her stomach aching with anxiety. Stanbury had left to spend the night gambling with his friends. 'Twas his favorite pastime and naught would drag him away from it. Tomorrow, they would leave for home. Tonight was her only chance. She must take control of her future, if she wanted to have one at all. She'd never been allowed to make any choices of her own. When she was a child, up to age sixteen, her father had made all the important decisions for her. And now, her husband decided everything. No longer.
Betty watched her silently from across the room.
"I will do it tonight," Calla whispered. "I'll go to the inn down the street."
Betty nodded. "Daniel will walk behind you and guard you. And he'll wait outside the inn until you come out again. I explained the situation. He will tell no one."
Daniel Kerns was Betty's husband, a large burly man. Not a guard, but a strong manservant.
Swallowing hard, Calla nodded. "How do I look?"
"Beautiful. You always look beautiful, m'lady."
Calla put on her black woolen cloak and drew the cowl over her head, hiding her flaxen hair and most of her face.
Downstairs, Daniel waited near the inn's exit door. They remained silent as they emerged onto the wet, cobblestone street. A misty rain hissed through the darkness of the chill night. She glanced back to see that he walked a few paces behind.
Her hand trembled as she pushed open the door and entered the Red Lion Inn's common room. The scent of ale and beer permeated the air. Men sat at tables, drinking, playing cards, eating and talking. She lurked in a dark corner, eyeing them. Which men were cruel beasts and which were decent citizens? Who was married and who was single? She didn't wish to get involved with a swine like her husband, nor did she want to cause a man to be unfaithful to his wife.
At one of the tables, a man with black, shoulder-length hair caught her attention. He sat across from a taller, ginger-haired man with his back to her. Even at this distance, she could see that the dark-haired man also had dark brown eyes. But it wasn't his coloring that captured her interest. He was breathtakingly handsome. And young, 'haps in his early twenties. Half Stanbury's age. There was no way to tell if the man in question was virile, but he certainly looked healthy with his broad shoulders, thick arms, and trim waist. His fine quality clothing said he might be a laird, or at least wealthy.
He laughed at something the other man said, and—saints—his smile was the most appealing sight she'd ever seen. He looked friendly and approachable. Not frightening like her husband. Stanbury rarely smiled, but when he did, 'twas smug or calculating.
Clenching her hands so tightly she feared her fingers would fall off, she moved to the alcove by the stairs, and continued to watch the gorgeous stranger. He and his friend downed whisky and played another hand of cards.
She scanned the common room, hoping to see no one she recognized, wondering if another man might better suit. But, nay, her gaze always returned to the attractive dark-haired man. When he won a hand, that captivating grin lit up his face again. She could not tear her gaze away. A painful yearning germinated within her, a need to have him smile at her. What would that feel like?
Shoving her daft and dreamy imaginings aside, she focused on what was important—her instincts told her sharing a bed with him wouldn't be as dreadful a task as sharing one with Stanbury. Guilt sliced through her at the thought of breaking her sacred marriage vows, but Stanbury had broken them numerous times, she was certain. He made it no secret that he had a mistress. As far as she was concerned, his threat on her life destroyed any vows between them.
After she'd waited an immeasurable time, her palms growing sweatier and her stomach more pained with each moment that passed, the man stood, slapped his friend on the shoulder and meandered toward the stairs… and her. Was he drunk? If so, that might work perfectly. 'Haps he wouldn't even remember her in the morn.
When his compelling, midnight gaze landed on her, she froze and her mouth went dry. What should she say to him?
He gave a slight bow. "Good evening, fair and bonny lass," his deep voice purred. He flashed her a roguish grin, then faced the stairs again.
Say something, Calla!
When he clasped his hand onto the newel post, she placed her hand upon his.
My Rebel Highlander © 2014 Vonda Sinclair