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AudioFile Earphones Award winner Elizabeth Wiley is a seasoned actor, dialect coach, theater professor, and dedicated narrator. She brings over twenty-five years of award-winning acting and voice experience to the studio to create memorable, compelling storytelling.
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Royal Court, England, 1603
Sometimes being a Highland laird was a royal pain in the arse.
Laird Ciaran MacGregor of Glenorchy was tired and wanted to be home. It felt as if he had been attending court for more than a fortnight. The courtly games alone were enough to make a man impale himself on his own sword. As soon as he was finally granted the audience he had requested from King James, Ciaran and his men would depart.
Sounds of laughter and snatches of song filled the air. As Ciaran glanced around the great hall filled with several hundred members of nobility, he was thankful to have discovered an unoccupied wall. Frankly, everyone was grating on his nerves. Men socialized and were dressed in their finery. To him, they all looked like exotic birds-peacocks, perhaps. The heat was so unbearable that he did not know how the women managed with so many layers of clothing. He pulled at his restricting silk doublet at the thought.
"Ye have held up exceedingly well, my laird."
"Aye, as well as can be expected in this madness." Ciaran scowled at his brother and knew his vexation was evident, but frankly, he did not care.
"We are all ready to be off," said Aiden, slapping him upon the shoulder. "Have ye given any thought to whether Glenorchy still stands with Declan in your stead?"
Running his hand through his hair, Ciaran sighed. "I think of it often. He had best be out of his cups and have ceased his wenching before we return. I only hope my walls still stand."
Only a king's summons would have forced him to leave his reckless fool of a brother in charge. At least most of Ciaran's actions were defended at court-well, except his skirmishes with the bloody Campbells. Hence the reason for his delayed departure. If upon his return he found Glenorchy destroyed by the bloody Campbells or under siege by Declan's wenches, he would not be shocked. He hoped that leaving additional guards behind would have protected against both.
When Ciaran received the summons, he had no doubt Aiden would prove more beneficial at court. Had he brought his younger brother... he shivered at the mental image. Between constantly worrying about the neighboring clan's machinations and wondering if his home was still in one piece, he needed a drink.
Recognizing his familiar expression, Aiden cast a wry grin. "Ye worry overmuch. He knows the duty that befalls him. I cannae speak to whether he is in his cups, but Aisling would have speech with him if he was wenching within your walls. Of that, I have nay doubt."
"I have noticed your wee wife has found her voice since she is with child."
"Ye've noticed, have ye?"
"Brother, we can hear her bellowing at ye from across the bailey. At least ye seem to be the only one provoking her ire as of late." A smile played on the corner of his lips.
"'Tis only because ye run at the sight of her, ye coward." A flash of humor crossed Aiden's features. "She says she cannae find comfort and I must suffer as well because of her condition."
It was difficult not to notice how much his brother had changed since Aisling had become with child. Even though his lady wife would cry, laugh, and call him to the devil in the same breath, Aiden seemed to be both happy and content. Ciaran hoped Aiden's contentedness would rub off on Declan-well, one could always pray to the gods for a miracle.
They exchanged a subtle look of amusement. "And I wish ye luck with that. Praise the saints, I donna yet have a woman to make me suffer. Howbeit I do have enough troubles with Declan," Ciaran grunted, rolling his eyes.
"He may go knee deep into his cups more often than he should and he may also wench a time or two or thrice, but ye know if ye needed him he would be at hand. 'Tis ironic to hear ye speak as such lest ye forget it wasnae long ago when ye fondled a lass with one hand and held a tankard in the other," Aiden smirked. "Granted, ye took your responsibility seriously when Father passed. Listen to reason, Ciaran. All Declan needs is to find a strong woman and wed. Aye, mayhap he will even be lucky enough to find himself a lass with Aisling's ire." A mischievous look twinkled in Aiden's eye.
That was surely something to think upon. Perhaps a wife was what Declan needed. Ciaran could go daft remembering all of the times he had tried to save his brother from himself. His head was starting to throb. No longer interested in having this discussion, he was about to take his leave for some much needed air when a raised voice held his attention. His private wall was no longer his own.
"How many times have I told you to watch that Highland tongue of yours, Rosalia? It makes you sound daft. I will not tolerate your deliberate attempts to thwart your chances with an English gentleman. You are one and twenty. How many chances do you think you have left? No one shows interest in you. Did you notice your midriff is much larger than the other women in attendance? I will not tell you again-do as I say or suffer the consequences."
Ciaran watched the English she-dragon spread her wings and fly across the floor, but not before she pinched the young woman in the arm. Stains of scarlet appeared on the woman's cheeks, but when her heightened color subsided, her features were exhilarating. Loose tendrils of hazel-colored tresses softened her features, and her fully rosy lips beckoned to be kissed. She had more curves than most, but she was a wild beauty.
For a brief moment, her azure eyes met his. He attempted to ease her embarrassment by offering her a gaze as soft as a caress. She returned a shy smile and inclined her head in a small gesture of thanks before she walked off in the wake of the fiery beast.
"Och, I pray for a son," murmured Aiden, a suggestion of annoyance hovering in his eyes. "We need women such as that on the battlefield-aye, brother? Her venom alone would bring a man to his knees."
Ciaran shrugged dismissively, but his eyes still followed the young woman.
"Ye know, Ciaran. Mayhap while we are at court ye should seek a wife." His brother shifted, giving him a better view of the woman.
"How many times must we speak of this? Ye know I cannae seek a wife until my vow to Father is fulfilled."
"Aye, the vow," Aiden drawled with distinct mockery. "And ye think Declan will straighten his path because ye made a promise to Father?"
Ciaran's body stiffened in response. "I gave my word." He was tired of having the same speech with his brother. He needed a respite-from everyone.
Lady Rosalia Armstrong of Mangerton was crimson with humiliation. She prayed no one had heard her mother's venomous tongue. When she discreetly glanced around to ensure no one had overheard their words, she saw him standing there, devilishly handsome. She did not know who he was, but his profile spoke of power and ageless strength. Even in a crowd, his presence was compelling.
He was over six feet and stood tall and formidable. He had a generous mouth, a straight nose, and a smile that was a dazzling display of even, white teeth. He had a ruggedness and vital power that definitely attracted her. His full chestnut hair brushed the rich outlines of his broad shoulders which strained against the fabric of his clothing. The muscles under his silk doublet quickened her pulse, and she found it impossible not to return his captivating smile.
Keenly aware of his scrutiny, Rosalia could see that he obviously pitied her. Taking a deep breath, she brightened her smile and straightened her spine. She had to step away from his observant eyes before she was made any more the fool. Seeking her mother and father in the crowd, she finally found them huddled with a man in deep conversation. Upon her approach, the man lifted his head and openly studied her. His dark eyes shifted and seemed to undress her.
A shudder passed through her.
Walking casually to her father's side, Rosalia remained silent, trying to watch that Highland tongue of hers. Her father cleared his throat. "Lord Dunnehl, allow me to present our daughter, Lady Rosalia Armstrong." His eyes were intent on watching Lord Dunnehl's reaction to her.
Lord Dunnehl gave her a low bow and then stood. When she extended her hand, he brushed a brief kiss on top, his expression one of faint amusement. "A magnificent creature indeed. Clearly, she gets her beauty from you, Lady Armstrong."
"You flatter me, my lord." Joy bubbled in her mother's laugh and shone in her eyes.
Rosalia was unimpressed. "A pleasure, my lord," she responded with a nervous smile.
During the discussion that followed, Rosalia did not pay attention. There was no need. Her mother and father entertained Lord Dunnehl with pleasantries and she was happy for the respite. For the first time, Rosalia was grateful for her mother's endless prattle and it gave her an opportunity to inspect the "English gentleman." Rosalia swore if she heard those words one more time, she would surely lose her contents.
Height was definitely not in his favor. Although Rosalia was taller than most women, she was at least a head taller than he. His eyes were of a muddy brown color, and the few hairs he had left on the top of his head were a thin tawny-gold. He was quite large around the middle, and the courtly fashions did nothing to flatter his appearance. A man of his station would be expected to dress in such a manner, but the clothes made him look like a peacock.
With a sigh, Rosalia shifted from foot to foot. Her eyes darted around the room, and when she found the man with the handsome smile, he was looking directly at her. Quickly, she lowered her gaze.
She could not resist another peek at the man. Every time she glanced at him, his gaze returned to her. She tried not to be caught staring and found a joyous satisfaction in studying his profile. Her mother's firm nudge brought her back from her woolgathering.
"Rosalia!" her mother repeated with authority.
"Lord Dunnehl has taken his leave. You could at least have feigned an interest in the conversation," she said curtly.
Rosalia nodded briefly, turning to her father. "Father, who is that man standing..." When she twisted around to show her father, she spotted his broad back walking briskly out of the hall.
Her father glanced around her. "What man?"
"It does not matter what man," said her mother, attempting to correct their brogue. "We leave for Mangerton on the morrow. Your father must see to the crop, and we need to prepare for an important guest."
Rosalia raised her brow searchingly. "An important guest?"
Her mother smiled at her knowingly. "Lord Dunnehl."