Laird Kevin MacGreagor couldn’t seem to take his eyes off the woman in the glen below. A Highlander and a giant of a man with blond curls and blue-gray eyes, he stood beside his horse on a wooded hillside, with his legs apart and his hands clasped behind his back. A soft blue dominated the color of his kilt, a length of matching cloth over one shoulder covered half his white shirt, and his leather shoes were laced up to his knees.
She was magnificent. Her long, black hair hung down to her waist and her soft golden skirt caught on the grass as she walked, released and then caught again. She wore a purple tunic with a woven leather belt and a medallion that hung low on one hip. On her shoulder, she carried a bow and a leather sheath filled with arrows.
He heard it before he saw the huge black stallion breaking through the trees at a trot, but her back was turned and she didn’t seem to notice. The stallion was headed straight for her and Kevin had only just opened his mouth to shout a warning when the stallion slowed to a walk. Gently, the horse nudged her back. The woman grinned, but didn’t turn around and kept right on walking. Determined, the black followed and nudged her again. This time, she laughed and shook her head. Her laughter was wonderful and Kevin wanted to hear it again.
He wasn’t at all prepared for what happened next. The stallion turned, raced around, got in front and headed straight for her. Kevin held his breath, but the horse didn’t slow and when she held out her hand, the stallion lowered his head as if to charge her. Just as it shot past, the woman grabbed the horse’s mane and with ease and grace, swung up onto its bare back. Then she leaned down and hugged the horse’s neck until the stallion slowed to a trot and stopped.
Kevin couldn’t hear what she was saying, but it was obvious she was urging the horse on. She lightly kicked his sides, but the horse didn’t move. Instead, it pawed the ground and shook its head. The woman roared with laughter and Kevin couldn’t help but laugh with her. He’d never seen anything like it.
As the horse began to move again, she carefully got to her knees and then to her feet. She balanced herself perfectly, held both of her arms straight out, and as the stallion brought her close to Kevin’s end of the glen, she closed her eyes and lifted her chin into the wind.
She was indeed the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and he believed nothing she did could astound him now. He was wrong. When the horse began to bring her near again, she reached for an arrow, loaded her bow, and before he could react, her arrow flew between his legs. He didn’t flinch. Instead, he raised an eyebrow and glared at her.
She shouted a word he didn’t understand, sat down, and in an instant, the horse and the woman sped into the trees on the opposite side of the meadow. He quickly mounted and followed, but after a full hour of searching, he had to admit he’d lost her. Disappointed, he turned his horse north and headed home.
It was unwise, he knew, to go off alone the way he did. The capture and ransom of a laird put his entire clan at risk. Yet on this day, he commanded his guard to stay behind, and allow him the freedom he had not enjoyed since he suddenly became laird. Soon, his six-man guard surrounded him and he was not surprised. He might have been annoyed, but each man had taken a pledge to protect him and they were only honoring their word. Besides, he was consumed with thoughts of the woman, and he had neglected his responsibilities at home long enough. The ride through the dense forest that offered good hunting and ample timber, took less than a day, and when the path became a road wide enough for carts, he could finally see his village in the distance.
On each side of the road, farmers working the land or tending livestock, paused to wave and watch their laird. He acknowledged each with a nod and a smile.
The village was not unlike many others, save for one thing -- it was surrounded by a high wall and a moat that added extra layers of protection against enemies. Just outside the moat, a pleasant meadow offered a place for the warriors to practice their skills and for older children to play. A path leading in the opposite direction led to a warm-water loch fit for bathing.
At last, Kevin and his men rode over the wide, wooden bridge into the substantial courtyard, dismounted and handed their reins to boys waiting to take the horses to the stables. From the courtyard, several tree-lined paths led to cottages, and then met at a communal garden in the back. Logs along the paths and near the garden offered the villagers a place to sit, talk and rest.
Kevin was laird over a clan of no less than six hundred, all of whom seemed happy to have him back. Yet it was his sister, Katie, he most wanted to see. She stood on the wooden landing outside the two-story, stone and mortar keep he shared with her and her smile was radiant as always.
At the age of 19, an illness plagued the land taking nearly half the Highlanders, his parents and all but one of his five siblings. Kevin suffered the high fever too and recovered to find himself the clan’s new laird. He expected to be laird one day, but not so soon, and he hardly knew what to do in the beginning. Still, he did as his father and grandfather before him had done -- he spoke the edict, “Any lad who harms a lass or a child shall be put to death.” It was a good law and he was willing to carry it out.
By most accounts, it was a pleasant life. Yet for Kevin, being laird was a heavy burden he sometimes resented. If it wasn’t two followers who couldn’t get along, it was a land dispute or a threatened clan war. Most other clans saw the advantage of calling him friend and few were brave enough to cross him. Still, there were lairds who coveted the life the MacGreagors had and war was always a major concern.
Kevin was a strong, but fair-minded man who was not as strict with his followers as some Lairds. Everyone was allowed to call him Kevin and none were required to bow or curtsey. Yet in the presence of other clans, his people showed their respect by doing just that, which pleased him very much.
In the days that followed, Laird MacGreagor still could not get the woman on the horse off his mind. He was determined she would be his someday; all he had to do was find her. However, rumors of a coming battle left him with little time to search for her. He should have known better, but of an evening, he confided in his best friends, Thomas and Clymer. In a world where gossip was the favorite form of entertainment, it wasn’t long before everyone knew every detail, except for the color of her eyes, which he had yet to see. It was just as well. He couldn’t leave often and perhaps someone else would find her.
No one ever did.
Two years passed and at twenty-six, the time had come for Kevin to find a wife to give him sons. He hated the thought, but there it was. Yet not one of the women in his clan measured up, and knowing his heart was set, most didn’t even try. Lairds from other clans tempted him with daughters, hoping to make a favorable alliance, but Kevin found none of them pleasing either. At last, he didn’t care who she was. All he had to do was bed her to have sons.
It was fortunate then, when a message arrived from an English Baron by the name of Stoneham, who offered his daughter in exchange for influence over another laird. Kevin quickly agreed.
Kevin’s mother was one of only a few English women to live among the MacGreagor clan. Her greatest gift was to teach some of them her native language, and it had come in handy for Kevin on more than one occasion. Communication with his wife, at least, was not going to be a problem. Yet, he was not looking forward to being married to a woman he had never seen.
“I will not agree!” Anna braced herself. She knew what was coming and wasn’t at all surprised when her father slapped her face.
Her home was a large English manor. It was a forbidding place with no gardens, little color in the courtyard and even less inside the many rooms. A stone wall surrounded the entire estate, the gates were almost always closed, and Anna was rarely allowed to go out. Her father was a wealthy man who found favor in the eyes of the king, and more often than not, there were guards everywhere.
The day Anna feared most was finally here. Her father and two of his guards had her cornered in her small bedchamber with no avenue of escape. He was determined to send her away, and she would be of no use to anyone if he did.