The Prodigal Laird
By Vanda Vadas
His marriage might cease decades of hostilities between two clans, but that doesn't mean he wants it─or his bold new wife who is keeping secrets of her own.
Roderick MacLeod arrives in his native Scottish Highlands to pay brief respects to his recently deceased father─the man Roderick blames for the death of his English mother. But before he can return to England, he is saddled with two responsibilities he never asked for: the title of Laird of Clan MacLeod and an unwanted marriage, by proxy, to the daughter of a rival laird.
Annabel MacDonald thought she had the perfect marriage; her husband's continued absence allowed her independence and the freedom to secretly hide and abet the escape of her fugitive clansmen. When the husband she'd never met shows up, she must convince him to return to England before he uncovers her many secrets, and perhaps her heart.
Roderick bounded up the stone stairs two at a time. Prowling the upper floors and passageways, he passed a small bedchamber. There, a woman dressed in serviceable attire knelt on the floor beside a bed.
He stood in the doorway and quietly knocked. ‘Servant.’
The young woman turned reproachful eyes on him. She pressed a finger to her lips. ‘Shh.’ Her attention returned to whomever lay abed.
Roderick waited. ‘Servant,’ he asked again.
‘Shhh.’ She shot him a second look—lethal this time—quickly rose and ushered him out.
She stepped into the corridor and gently pulled shut the wooden door. With hands on hips, her direct gaze reprimanded him. ‘I’m not yer servant. And who are ye to be storming the castle and bellowing like a bull?’
She stood almost eye to eye with Roderick. The anomaly caused him to stare. He didn’t recognise her. Without lowering his gaze, he could see her body boasted a woman’s curves. Yellow-green eyes reminded him of a Highland wildcat. They stood out in remarkable contrast to plain features and pale skin.
‘Weel then,’ she said, ‘speak up! I havenae all day to be tarrying in these draughty corridors.’
Corkscrew curls poked out from beneath the tatty scarf wrapped around her head. The colour of her hair offered a clue to her temperament. Fiery red indicated a feisty spirit and this lass did not disappoint.
Her critical words hit a raw nerve. Roderick’s protective nature awakened in favour of his mother. She’d loved this castle, her home, despite its discomforts. He spread his arms wide, looked about him and back at the young woman. ‘Is the castle not up to the standards of a serving lass then?’
Her eyes narrowed. Fearless, she stepped closer. He caught the briny scent of the sea, like that on the shoreline at low tide. She poked his chest with her finger. ‘Mind yer manners. I’ll not tolerate insolence from any man.’
‘Nor will the Laird of Clan MacLeod. Especially from a servant who dares criticise he who offers her a home and protection.’
‘The laird is dead!’
The snap in her insensitive tone, together with the cold hard truth of her words, rushed through Roderick as if she’d mercilessly stabbed him clean to the heart. Reality hit its mark. Intense and unyielding, it pressed heavily upon him.
If Roderick thought it unlikely he’d ever shake his father’s hand and resolve their differences, then reconciliation was impossible now. His father was indeed dead.
Here, now, Roderick made the decision to uphold tradition and duty and grudgingly accept, temporarily, his fate as laird. If only to honour the memory of his mother.
The servant lass muttered darkly to herself and turned away. With his emotions raw, Roderick’s hand shot out to capture her wrist. He gave a tug and spun her around to face him. Words, razor sharp, were out before he could retract them. ‘Never ... turn your back on your laird.’
Her eyes flared a fraction. He knew in that instant she’d registered the implication of what he’d spoken in his half-English, half-Scots accent, a legacy of his upbringing.
‘Unhand me,’ she said.
His grip tightened.
Her steady gaze didn’t waver. ‘I said, unhand me.’ Spoken with the authority of a king.
Roderick glanced down at her slender wrist. Skin as soft as silk warmed his palm. Strange. He didn’t want to let go, until he sensed his father mocking him from the grave. Roderick released her and took a step back.
Her arm fell gracefully at her side. ‘Then ye are Roderick MacLeod.’
He recognised disdain in her voice and indifference in her eyes. He’d expected her to curtsy, perhaps lower her gaze, yet reminded himself he no longer stood in the company of an insipid, subservient English mistress or wife.
She was proving to be a proud Scotswoman, the kind to speak her mind at will, even if not invited to do so. She was no chattel to be owned and ordered about, to obey without question. She would swear allegiance to her laird but not bow down to him.
Her gaze assessed him from head to toe. ‘Laird? I’d hardly have guessed it.’
Roderick accepted the challenge of her bold opinion. ‘Why so?’
‘People speak of the late laird’s son as a man of honour. A man of impeccable manners and appearance.’
Roderick glanced down at his boots caked with mud, and at the dirt smeared on his breeches where he’d wiped his hand when visiting his father’s grave. He touched the stubble on his cheeks and chin. He could only imagine how his unruly hair had been whipped into shape during his long ride. Adding to that, his clothes had long lost the scent of freshly laundered linen. In its place, he reeked of horse and sweat.
If, as she’d said, there’d been any draughts where they stood, he would never have noticed, for beneath her scrutiny he felt uncomfortably warm.
He noted the bloodstains on her apron. ‘Who lies abed?’
She made no effort to hide her contempt. ‘Yesterday, Redcoats happened upon a young boy hunting rabbits. They saw fit to tell him he was the rabbit and if he didnae run fast enough they’d shoot and skin him. Dead or alive. They fired at him.’
Roderick hastened to move past her, towards the room. Her swift hand caught his.
‘Clever lad dodged death, except one shot grazed his thigh.’ She snatched her hand back as if she’d touched a red-hot poker. ‘He made his way to the castle. For protection.’
Roderick felt pity for the boy. ‘What of his parents?’
‘It seems they may have abandoned him. So he tells me. I’ve just redressed his wound. Now he sleeps. Best he remains so.’
Roderick’s gaze drifted past her shoulder to settle on the closed door. ‘Finvreck is his home for as long as need be. Until his parents return or ... are found.’
‘Or until I find his next of kin. Life can be lonely without the love of one’s family.’ Haunting sadness flashed in her eyes.
‘I’m looking for the MacDonald lass. Do you know her whereabouts?’
She looked puzzled. ‘The MacDonald lass?’
Her hands settled on her hips, her expression said she now understood. ‘I ken exactly where she is.’
‘Then if you value your station in this keep, you’ll ensure she reports to the drawing room in one hour.’
She nodded. ‘Aye. I’ll tell her the new laird has returned in a grubby state with a foul temper and wishes to introduce himself.’
‘You’ll tell her nothing. Only that her presence is required.’ Lips the colour of a ripe cherry drew his gaze. ‘You’d do well to curb your tongue, lass.’
‘As ye wish, Laird.’
Roderick did not miss the deliberate inclination of her head. He spun on booted heels, his coat-tails swirling about his knees, and took leave of her.
He stopped, without turning. Did she appeal to his Scot’s blood or simply mock his mixed heritage? ‘What is it?’
‘The MacDonald lass. Yer ... wife. Her name is Annabel.’
Roderick glanced at her over his shoulder and caught the defiant glint in her eyes. Her chin lifted a fraction. He entertained an irrational thought, only to have it swept away by the sudden chill of a draught. Without another word, he disappeared into the corridor from which it blew. •
• • • •
Before residing in Australia, Vanda's birthplace and early childhood years were spent in Papua New Guinea. At the age of eleven, a holiday in England sparked an interest in the days of old. Castles, ruins, and discovering Jane Austen novels inspired a life-long interest in all things historical, a passion that later kick-started Vanda's desire to write historical fiction. Subsequent travels to faraway places have served to create fictitious characters and dramas set against authentic and geographical backdrops. The Gold Coast in Queensland is home to Vanda and her husband, where they enjoy walks along world-renowned beaches or a quiet getaway to the lush hills of the Hinterland.
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