A Scot to Have and to Hold
Once Upon a Scot – Book Two
Sometimes the best revenge is to thrive…
When Ross MacDougall, fearless warrior, frequenter of brothels, and seducer of other men’s wives, receives word that the Lord of Argyll wishes to reward him for their latest campaign, he’s skeptical. His liege’s gifts are often dubious blessings. Oftentimes, more like curses. Turns out he’s right to be leery. The reward is an Irish lass who looks like a grubby boy meant to work in the stables. And she's not intended to be Ross’s slave. She’s meant to be his wife.
Men turn away from Elise O’Cleirigh because of the accursed red stain on her right cheek. Her father called it the devil’s mark. Her mother promised it meant nothing. All Elise knows is that it’s brought her nothing but suffering. This arrogant Scot looks to be no different from the others, and that’s fine by her. She escaped her first ruthless husband. She’ll flee this one as well. But this Highlander turns out to be sly. He fights with weapons she’s ill-equipped to counter: kindness, respect, and a gentleness that makes her heart hurt. The man even apologizes when he behaves like a selfish goat. He makes her want to be wanted. And needed. By him. Not a good thing at all because come spring, she’s gone.
She’s the victim of a cruel jest. He dared fate one time too many. An unlikely pair, a winter together reveals they’re not so mismatched after all. But the past proves inescapable, returning with a vengeance to destroy them.
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“Whose woman did ye dally with this time?”
“Shut it.” Ross MacDougall shoved aside the smirking guard and pushed through the heavy oak doors of the main gathering room. An eerie lack of conversation among those loitering along the walls slowed his stride. Every man’s focus locked on him, following his progress to the head of the hall. But it wasn’t their stares setting him on edge. Nay, ’twas the smugness blighting their faces. Those sly grins rubbed his hairs the wrong way. These men knew something he did not. The ominous feel of an ax about to fall filled the air.
Ross tossed away the bothersome feeling with a roll of his shoulders. They could all go straight to hell. As a mighty Gallòglaigh warrior, brother to the constable, and unit commander in his own right, he owed these fools nothing.
“I see Lachren Martmullen took it easy on ye. The last man caught ogling his wife got his legs and arms mangled for his troubles.” Alexander MacDougall, Lord of Argyll, invited him closer with an amused tilt of his head. “Tell me, Ross, did ye know who her husband was or did ye just not give a shite?”
“Yer summons, m’lord?” Ross ignored the barb and grudgingly proffered the expected bow but refused to be baited—even by his liege. His head ached, his broken nose throbbed, and the split in his lip burned like a fiend. Nor would he discuss his lapse of judgement in front of all these grovelers who had nothing better to do than kiss the MacDougall’s arse. “I believe yer missive mentioned a reward for a task well done?”
The lord grinned and scratched his jaw through the thickness of his bright orange beard. A menacing chuckle escaped him as he shifted in his chair and slid a pointed look at the empty seat beside him. “Ye’ve nay even asked about Lady Christiana. Ye always took quite an interest in her, Commander. Did ye not?”
“It is my hope that the Lady of Argyll is well.” He took care to phrase the sentiment in a stilted, detached manner. Last summer, during a sweltering hot, overcrowded feast, he had made the mistake of escorting the fine lady outside for some air before she swooned. Some worrisome fool alerted the MacDougall, and the fiery tempered man, drunk at the time, had tried to kill him. While there had been no danger of the lord succeeding, fighting the man off without doing him harm proved to be a chore. A fair enough chieftain, the lord paid his warriors well in money, land, and titles. ’Twould be a shame to lose him. “And how are yer children, my liege? How many sons have ye now?”
The MacDougall’s eyes narrowed beneath his bushy brows that mirrored the color of his beard. “Three sons. Two daughters. All are well, thank ye.”
The hall remained silent as a tomb, air crackling like a building storm. No one moved. Just stood with their tankards held aloft. Even the fire in the main hearth kept quiet as it consumed the stack of mighty logs.
“Since I dinna wish to waste yer valuable time, m’lord, might I ask why ye called me here?” The longer Ross stood on the wide flagstone dubbed the judging stone, the more he wished he had brought along his brothers, Thorburn and Valan. The MacDougall liked Thorburn and tolerated Valan. But three in front of the chieftain were always better than one. “I ken well enough that whilst ye value my warring expertise, ye dinna give a rat’s arse about my presence in yer hall.”
That won him an amused snort. His liege lifted his hand and snapped his fingers. “Yer reward, Commander Ross.”
The guard to the left of the dais rumbled out a hateful chortling, strode to the nearby side door, and yanked it open. With a jerk of his thumb, he motioned for whoever or whatever waited in the alcove to enter the hall.
A half-grown lad stumbled into the room, then whirled and spat at the guard who shoved him along. Long legs and scrawny arms akimbo; he shuffled beneath the weight of the shackles and chains locked around his ankles. Dressed in ragged trews and a threadbare, oversized hauberk that might once have passed for armor, the boy’s thin frame pained Ross. The waif’s ratty red hair, pulled back in a knobby braid, made his face appear even more gaunt. The child needed a meal. Several, in fact. And worst of all, the poor beggar had a bright red patch staining a good bit of his right cheek. The devil’s mark, some would call it. Ross didn’t believe in such superstitious nonsense. But he knew such a strange coloring of skin always cursed its bearer. His distant cousin, a sweet lass, had ended her life because of such cruel ridicule.
A corner of the MacDougall’s mustache rose, and his eyes twinkled with a devious glint. “As I said, yer reward, Commander. A gift from O’Conor of Connacht.”
Ross eyed the youngling, then chose his words with care. “The Earl of Connacht?”
“Aye.” The MacDougall nodded. He settled back more comfortably in his ornately carved chair and rested his elbows on its arms. “Ye remember the man. Ye cuckolded him too.”
“I never cuckolded yerself, m’lord,” Ross said, addressing the too in that statement. “Nor would I.”
“Be that as it may, ye did bed O’Conor’s wife. Did ye not?”
Ross shifted in place, noting this so-called reward smacked of a public shaming right before an execution. “I also recall saving the man’s life. Did he fail to mention that?” He wouldn’t deny sharing the lovely Lady Shannon’s bed, but his personal code demanded he not brag about it outright.
The MacDougall’s beard split with another wicked smile. “Aye. He did mention that. In fact, ’twas why he sent this gift to ye.” His smirk slid to the mottle-faced lad who looked ready to either collapse from hunger or burst into a screaming fury.
Not quite certain what to say and sensing the trap had yet to be sprung, Ross gave a polite nod. “While I appreciate the O’Conor’s generosity, I must decline the offer of the boy. My two knaves, Tam and Munro, see to my weapons and provisions. I dinna need another and seeing as how I live in the barracks with my men, I need no servant or slave either.”
Laughter rumbled through the hall, making Ross tense and slide his hand to the haft of his sword. “And what do yer grovelers find so amusing, m’lord?”
Still stroking his beard, the MacDougall’s focus slid back to the half-grown child. “This is neither knave, slave nor servant for ye, Commander.” His toothy smile, irritating and malicious, returned. “O’Conor sent this gift to be yer life’s companion.” With a mock frown, he tapped his chin as though struggling to sort through his memories. “What was it the missive said? Ah, yes. That he would do ye the favor of sending ye a helpmate marked by the devil himself. One no other man would ever wish to bed. ’Twill be a proper marriage, indeed.” A wicked chuckle rumbled from him. “Said it was the least he could do since ye killed his assassin as well as the one who hired him.”
“Marriage? To a boy child?” Ross drew his sword. “This is a damn sorry jest, m’lord.”
The boy’s jaw tightened, and his gaze jerked downward. Probably in relief, most likely. Poor abused bairn.
“Introduce yerself,” the lord barked, tapping his fingers on his carved armrests in gleeful anticipation.
The waif pulled his defensive stare up from the floor and locked his golden-brown eyes on Ross. “I am Elise O’Cleirigh. Daughter of Lady Cillian. And I will thank ye to know I am a woman grown.” She bared her teeth as if bracing for a hurtful response.
A weighty sense of shame bowed Ross’s head. It consumed him, burning through his innards like a bitter poisonous bile. This very public humiliation no longer centered on him, but also engulfed this poor lass who had done nothing to deserve it. He knew O’Conor, and he damn well knew the pettiness of the MacDougall. Both men would do anything to soothe their wounded pride. Even if it meant crushing the spirit of a helpless woman.
Outrage shoved aside his shame. Churned hot and fierce within him. He stood taller and strode forward. As gallant as if addressing the queen, he offered the lass a formal bow. “It is my pleasure to meet ye, Lady Elise. Ross MacDougall at yer service.”
The woman didn’t so much as flicker an eyelash, but the shadows shifted in the rich whisky hue of her eyes. She didn’t speak, just dipped her chin in leery acceptance of his greeting.
“Fetch the scribe,” the MacDougall ordered the pair of guards who had brought her forward. His attention returned to Ross. “The papers are ready ’cept for yer mark.” He shifted again and puckered a frown at Elise. “If ye canna write yer name, an X will do well enough on the marriage contract.”
Her mouth curled into a taunting sneer. “I can read and write as good as anyone. Probably better than most in this hall.”
The lord twitched and jerked his focus back to Ross. “Ye would do well to educate yer wife on the proper way to address her liege, ye ken?” He tossed her another glance, then shook his head. “A beating or two would nay be amiss for this one. I’d wager a barrel of my best whisky on that.” Eyeing her face, his nose wrinkled as if he smelled a stench. “Best burn some sage and fetch an amulet for protection first though.”
The man’s cruelty infuriated Ross even more. Women and children were not unruly animals meant to be broken by beatings and public mocking. An honorable warrior protected those weaker than himself. He knew exactly what to do. “I willna sign the marriage contract until we have a proper wedding ceremony in the kirk.” He turned to Elise and softened his tone. “And I wouldna recommend ye sign it until after we’ve stood before the priest. Ye deserve better, Lady Elise.”
Both her feathery brows shot higher, as if she couldn’t believe her ears.
Ross tipped his head toward her shackles. “Free her of her bonds and grant her a room and a maid so she might prepare herself, ye ken?”
“I suppose ye’ll be demanding a gown for her as well?”
“Aye, that would be most appreciated.” Ross locked a fierce glare on the MacDougall.
His liege’s face flared a darker red, and for the first time since this debacle began, he appeared ill at ease.
Ross didn’t try to curb his smile at besting his ill-tempered lord yet again. The man had planned poorly when he dragged an innocent into a weak attempt at public vengeance. “If ye canna arrange all we require by this afternoon, I feel certain tomorrow would do just as well. After all, a proper feast to celebrate a Gallóglaigh commander's wedding would nay be amiss. Consider it a gift if ye like.” He widened his stance and tapped his fingers atop the pommel of his sword. “Word will spread far and wide of yer generosity, m’lord ’Twill aid us with recruiting fresh blood in the spring.” While he felt his surliness justified, common sense bade him give the Lord of Argyll a bit of leeway. After all, the man possessed powerful connections. Ross didn’t fear him, but it paid to taunt the man with caution.
The MacDougall’s cheeks calmed to a less furious shade. “Fair point, Commander.” His tone became less menacing. “Ye mentioned ye live in the barracks with yer men?”
“Aye.” Ross braced himself. It appeared the MacDougall’s game was not at an end.
“Where the hell is that scribe?” The lord turned and fixed a furious glare on the guard remaining by the side door.
“I thought—” The man cut off his excuse, made a curt bow, and backed away. “I shall fetch him myself, m’lord.”
The chieftain snapped his fingers at the other guard standing to the right of the dais. “Remove her bonds.”
The man hurried forward and removed the shackles from Elise's wrists and ankles.
“If the two of ye would care to wait in my library, I shall reveal yet another gift once that feckin’ scribe is found.” The chieftain pushed himself to his feet and swept a hard glare across the room. “We feast tonight to celebrate the marriage of one of my finest Gallóglaigh. I would have it known that the Lord of Argyll is a generous man.” With a narrow-eyed scowl first at Elise, then at Ross, he made to step down off the dais, then paused and frowned at all those gathered in the hall. “Out of here. Now. All of ye.”
The onlookers cleared like mice scattering for the shadows. Before the lord disappeared through a door concealed in the wall behind the dais, he turned and focused on Ross. “Ye won this day, but it isna over yet. To the library with the both of ye.”
“Aye, m’lord.” Ross held out his arm to Elise. “Come, m’lady.” He paused and waited for the guards nearest them to follow the lord. In a lower voice, he continued, “Dealing with Himself is like playing chess. We must think at least three moves ahead at all times. Even more, if possible. ’Tis the best way to survive.”
“That man is a swill drinking toad,” she murmured, then clamped her lips together as if she hadn’t meant to say the words aloud.
Ross cleared his throat to keep from chuckling. With a gentle pat atop her grimy hand, he escorted her to the arch leading to the library. “Ye can always speak yer mind with me,” he said softly. “But take care no one else ever overhears, ye ken? At least while we’re here at Dunstaffnage.”
She nodded, falling back two steps as he opened the door to the library.
Perplexed, he motioned her forward. “M’lady? Ye always enter first, aye? ’Tis only proper.”
As she eyed him, her reddish blonde brows drew together. “Are ye saying the way ye acted in there will continue until we leave?”
“The way I acted in there?”
“All polite and such. As if I’m not meant to be a slave or a pet.”
“Ye’re not meant to be a slave. Or a pet.” He held out his hand, his earlier apprehension returning. The challenge of helping this woman would not be as easy as he thought.