During supper at Dunnakeil Castle, one of the guards approached Lady Jessie MacKay at the high table. "We have visitors, m'lady," he said, raising his voice over the roar of conversation in the candlelit great hall.
Halting her knife in the midst of cutting a piece of venison, she glanced up at him with trepidation. Please don't let it be Haldane. She couldn't deal with her outlaw younger brother. Although Dirk hadn’t exactly left her in charge of the castle, she was the next oldest of her siblings and of the highest rank here. Dirk's sword-bearer, Erskine, and the guards were to handle defense. But if they had noble visitors, she was the one left to entertain them… along with her other brother, Aiden. But his method of entertainment was music. She would have to deal with everything else.
"Who is it?" she asked with dread.
"Chief MacLeod and Chief MacBain," the guard informed her.
"What?" Jessie's mouth hung open. Noticing a few people staring at her, she snapped her mouth closed and tried to contain her shock. Those were two names she'd hoped to never hear again. "Are you certain? Torrin MacLeod and Gregor MacBain?"
"What on earth are they doing here?"
"They would not say, but they're requesting entrance."
"How many men with them?" her younger brother, Aiden, asked beside her.
"Just over a dozen."
"I'll see what they want." Aiden stood.
"Wait." Jessie grabbed his slender arm. "I'll go too." Why couldn't Dirk have been here at a time like this? He and around twenty-five had left, traveling south, a few weeks ago. They'd been planning to stop by Munrick Castle, Torrin MacLeod's keep. He knew Dirk wasn't here. Was that why he'd come? To harass her about marrying him? "Where is Erskine?" she asked. Her older brother's sword-bearer would ken what to do if conflict broke out.
"Outside," the guard said. "But he wanted your permission before we allowed them entrance. We're fair certain the MacLeods are allies, but we don't ken about the MacBains since… eh…" The guard's face flushed.
"Aye." Since her handfasting with him had gone sour three years past.
"I don't think Torrin MacLeod wants to wage war with you, sister." Aiden smirked, his boyish face taking on a pixie charm.
She rolled her eyes. She could guess why Torrin was here, but MacBain? The man whose castle she'd spent a year and a day at. She'd hoped to never see him again. Of a certainty, at the time, she'd fallen for him, but since being away from him, she'd come to realize what kind of knave he truly was. He cared for no one but himself. Gregor MacBain was incredibly selfish and changed his mind as often as the changing weather in the Highlands. He'd entered into a legal marriage with another woman. Jessie had naught to say to him.
After pushing herself up from the table, she crossed the great hall on shaky legs. But never could she let either of the men outside see a smidgen of weakness from her. They would circle and close in like hungry buzzards.
Stepping into the courtyard, she saw that gloaming had settled over the land with a purple light just after sunset and a brisk breeze blew in off the North Sea. She, Aiden, and the guard moved toward the iron portcullis.
Erskine joined them, his short brown hair ruffled by the wind. He wore leather armor and carried a sword at his hip. But he did not appear overly concerned. "M'lady." He gave an abbreviated bow. "Both MacLeod and MacBain appear to have come in peace. They wish to speak to you."
Jessie's stomach knotted worse than the ropes used on the galleys. Saints! She gave a brief nod, though she did not want to face either man, but for different reasons. She took a deep breath and placed a hand upon the hilt of the foot-long dirk in the scabbard on her belt. She was never without it. Not that she expected to have to use it on either man. But it gave her more confidence.
As they approached the gate, her breathing grew shallower and her sweaty hands more fidgety. She clasped them before her.
Her gaze landed on Torrin MacLeod first. A wave of panic and something far more disturbing washed over her. The man was just as striking and attractive as the last time she'd seen him, mayhap more so, with his compelling green eyes, long chestnut hair and tall, lean frame. He was one of the few men who towered over her. But looking into his eyes filled her with a mixture of dread, fear, and something she didn't want to think about.
She quickly switched her gaze to Gregor MacBain. His black hair was much longer than it had been the last time she'd seen him and a scruffy short beard covered the lower half of his face. His dark-brown eyes had once completely bewitched her, but now she could hardly tolerate the sight of him.
"Lady Jessie," Gregor said in a cheerful tone, then bowed deeply. His conciliatory smile annoyed her greatly. "I'm so glad to see you, lass."
"What do you want, Gregor?"
Torrin snorted, one side of his lips kicking up in a half smile as he watched her with pronounced interest.
Heat rushed over her and she immediately felt even more edgy than before. No matter how disconcerting she found him, she simply needed to ignore Torrin, but remain ever vigilant around him for he was a dangerous man. She had seen firsthand what kind of lethal warrior he was.
"Is that any way to greet your husband?" Gregor cajoled.
"You are not my husband," she stated firmly, sending him what she hoped was a cutting glare. "You married another woman."
"Aye, but she passed giving birth to my son. I made a mistake. I never should've left you for her. I ken you must have missed me."
"You're wrong. I hardly remember much about you. And our marriage was not a legal one, so you were never my husband, in truth. 'Twas only a handfasting." She detested the Highland practice of trial marriage for a year and a day, to see if the woman would conceive a bairn, before the legal marriage took place. This, of course, benefited the man, usually a chief who needed an heir. She would never willingly enter into one of these arrangements again. She'd much prefer to remain unmarried and be of service to her family and clan.
Gregor sighed. "A storm is blowing in off the sea. Will you not let us in and feed us supper? What of Highland hospitality?"
"I have no hospitality or sympathy for you," she said, only now noticing the strong wind whipping her hair and cooling her overheated face.
"Allow me to talk to the lady alone." Torrin's tone was low and deep, but most disturbing of all, he never took his eyes off her.
My Notorious Highlander copyright 2013 Vonda Sinclair