She must choose between a life of adventure with the man she loves or a settled, secure life with her betrothed. Flora Vass put Gavin Munro out of her heart and mind until he returned to Scotland after an adventurous five years in the New World. Gavin left no doubt he returned to make the bonnie Flora his own and intended to fight for her. Flora’s betrothed, Iain MacKay, and Gavin’s brother, Chief Andrew Munro, had other plans. Andrew needed her to marry the MacKay to bring peace between the two clans. Iain MacKay wanted an heir. War with England looms on the horizon, forcing Flora to choose between her heart’s desire and her logical choice.
A Highland Ruby
“It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.” Luke 15:32
Scottish Highlands, 1513
Ferindonald, Easter Ross
He watched her through the grey mist, walking along the shore of Cromarty Firth. The hood of her arisaid covered her bonnie russet locks, but he imagined them bouncing with each step she took. She came every morn, sometimes with the wee curly-headed laddie in tow, but now, she walked alone. His heart beat a fast rhythm like a lad watching his first love. How foolish to be hiding behind a rock when he could speak to her, hold her hand, and look into her dark eyes.
Gavin gathered courage and stood to his full height when Flora walked past the rock where he hid. “Flora,” he said in a quiet voice. She continued to walk, not hearing him above the moaning wind.
Quickly, he took a place beside her, then grabbed her arm. She screamed as she turned to face him. Her eyes widened with fear, she tried to jerk her arm free, then beat his chest with the fist of the other hand, and kicked his shin with the toe of a pointed boot.
Gavin jumped from the boot’s path, but kept her arm secure. “Stop. ‘Tis I, Gavin.” She stopped kicking and the free hand went to her mouth while she studied his face. A small squeak emerged from between full red lips. He watched her lips for a moment, then bent to place a kiss on the inviting mouth. She became rigid with no response.
He released her arm then backed away. She continued to stare as though he were a stranger, and he very well may be to her now. After all, five years in the wilderness of the New World can change a man beyond recognition.
Flora’s hand raised for an instant then came across his face with a stinging blow. He rubbed at the burning cheek. “How dare you,” she screamed above the wind. “You left me. You left me.” She hit his chest with both fists now.
Gavin grabbed her wrists, bringing her close. “Stop. I only want to see you, be near you once more. May I walk with you? Just a short distance?”
Flora stared. Her brown eyes larger now with surprise or mayhap shock. She stopped struggling and rested her head on his chest. A seagull called overhead and waves lapped against the shore of the firth. Gavin pushed the hood of her arisaid back, stroking her hair while wrapping an arm around her slender waist. The russet locks felt soft to his fingers. They smelled with the sweet fragrance of heather and salt air, just as he remembered and dreamed. The mist had damped one small curl so that it clung to her neck. He touched the softness of her skin where the curl lay. They stood for a long time. Flora now seemed reluctant to move and Gavin did not wish to spoil the moment.
Finally, she stepped back and looked into his eyes. A line creased her fair brow. “Why did you come back? I made a life without you.”
“I wanted to see you and the lad. Andrew sent a message while I was still in Barcelona waiting for a ship to the New World.”
Flora searched Gavin’s face. “You look older, tanned, hardened.”
“Aye. I’ve been living in a wilderness, defending myself from the wild natives and animals. Searching for gold while starving for food. Takes a lot out of a mon.”
“I am betrothed to a fine mon. One who loves and wants me and my bairns. I wanna have you back, Gavin. You left me carrying your bairn. I wanna have you back.” She beat his chest once more. Tears spilled over to her cheeks.
He grabbed her wrist. “I understand, Flora. I understand. I’ll leave you alone, I will. But I do want to see my son.” He kissed each tear-filled eyelid, then her cheeks, and not being able to resist the temptation, her tempting lips.
Flora didn’t resist and, when the kiss grew more passionate, responded. Her arms went around his neck, her body melted into his so her warmth reached his very soul.
She pushed away. “Why did you go without a word?”
“I dinna ken. I canna explain why.” He lied, not exactly an untruth, but an exaggerated one.
“Well, I ken. You fancied yerself to be in love with your brother’s wife. Now what are you gonna do about that? They’re happily married with a bairn of their own and another on the way.” Flora’s eyes flashed then she turned away, watching a crab crawl away on the sand.
Gavin grabbed her hand so she faced him. “I was wrong. I dinna love Maidie, ‘twas you I carried in my heart. I ken that now.”
Flora snatched her hand away. “I must go. My bairns are waiting. Phillip is readying for work in the fields and Ishbel is attending Gavy. Aye, I named him for his da, but call him Gavy.”
“I’m keen to see him.” Gavin didn’t want to beg, but he would if necessary.
“I live in Leslie Manor no’ far from Fàrdach. Laird Andrew provided well for your son. I am nanny to Maidie’s bairn and Andrew’s deaf daughter, Briana.”
“What of Phillip and Sven, your son and Maidie’s?”
Flora smiled with the mention of her oldest child. “Phillip is growing like a weed and favors his da so much I hurt to look at him. He helps with the land and sheep on the estate and trains with Laird Andrew’s slaugh. Sven studies and trains also. Maidie dislikes his fighting, but Laird Andrew insists. He says Sven must learn to defend himself and his family.”
“Both sound like fine lads.” Gavin hesitated. “And what of my brother, the Laird of Fàrdach Castle?” An image of his brother popped into mind. Would Andrew welcome him back to Fàrdach Castle after all these years? Gavin doubted he would receive a warm welcome.
“The Laird of Fàrdach Castle grieved for his lost brother and tanist, but he’s happily married and in good health.” Flora gazed into his eyes. “I must go. You’re welcome to visit Gavy, but only visit, naught more.”
Gavin returned her gaze. “Aye, I’ll visit, naught more.”
With a nod of her head, Flora replaced the hood of the arisaid, turned, and walked in the direction of the house, not far from where they stood. Gavin watched until she took a path from the shore to the manor, his heart heavy with rejection. He didn’t expect, but hoped for more. Maybe she would turn back and accept him into her life once again. He watched, but she didn’t look back. Now the task of facing his brother, Sir Andrew Dubh Munro, Laird of Fàrdach Castle.
Flora ducked behind a grass-covered dune to hide from Gavin’s view. She peeped over the grassy slope to gaze in the direction of the beach. He still stood, watching her. She turned quickly toward the house and didn’t look back. Her stomach churned and thoughts of him swirled in her head. He still raised a passion within the depths of her being she could not deny. Why did he come back? He should have stayed in the savage New World and never returned to Ferindonald. Life was complicated enough without the luring charm of Gavin Munro. He would certainly be around often to visit his son. What will Iain think?
The large manor house sat far enough away from the firth that high tides did not intrude upon the land, but close enough for a good walk along the shore when one’s heart ached and needed solitude. Flora often walked the shore of Cromarty Firth looking for dolphins, listening to the water lapping over rocks, and tasting the salt air on her tongue. She bathed in the firth on warm summer days, feeling the refreshing water on her skin.
She often took the bairns on an outing. They enjoyed wading and chasing the sea gulls. Sometimes they found pretty shells she took home, cleaned, and added to their collection. Other times she walked with Iain, while they made plans for a life together. Her life, if not the exciting one she knew with Gavin, had taken a quiet, peaceful turn with promise of a secure future. Now, he had returned and her insides felt like the firth during a storm with crashing, violent waves smashing against the rocks.
Flora saw the eye of her small son pressed against a crack in the large iron-studded oak door. When he saw his mother, Gavy opened the door wide and ran out to meet her, grabbing her long wool skirt then hanging on. She bent down to rub the small head full of russet curls.
“Mam, Mam, you left without me,” he whined.
“You slept and I dinna wish to wake you.” Flora removed his hands from the cloth and picked him up. He was heavier than she wanted to carry, and immediately put his feet back on the ground, taking his hand instead.
Gavy looked around Flora’s skirt, “I see Phillip.”
Flora turned. Her oldest son ran toward them with something awry from the looks of him. He barely nodded in her direction then ran into the house. She followed, dragging Gavy along by the hand. Phillip’s footsteps clicked on the plank flooring and then ascended the spiral staircase to his room on the second story. She released Gavy’s small hand once inside and gave it to Ishbel, the housemaid, who dropped the bundle of heather she carried. Flora followed Phillip to his room. The heavy door stood ajar, so she entered without knocking.
Her son, in the process of belting his father’s claymore over his young shoulders barely acknowledged her when she approached him. “What are you doing, Phillip? You have nae business with your da’s sword.”
Phillip jerked away and continued securing the large leather scabbard over his shoulder. When he insisted, she had let the young lad keep the claymore in his bedchamber, but he had solemnly promised not to use it except to practice with the slaugh.
Flora grabbed for the claymore again. “What are you doing?
“MacIntosh reivers burned a haystack. While we were trying to douse the fire, they stole ten head of cattle. I’m going with the chief to find them and get the cattle back.”
“Och, I give nae permission for you to go with the slaugh.” Flora held to the billowy sleeve of his léine.
“I dinna need your permission. I am of age, thirteen years.” Phillip’s dark head shook. His cheeks, already ruddy from exertion, reddened even more while bright brown eyes flashed.
Flora could only stare at her son. Thirteen summers and he thought himself a man. The heaviness of his father’s sword weighed down upon his shoulder. He practiced with the Munro cateran, but only with small dirks and bows, not with large claymores or the deadly falchion.
“I forbid you to go. You’re too young to take on such a task. The chief wanna allow it.” She grasped at Phillip’s sleeve when he brushed past her, but to no avail. Her son rushed through the open door. She followed calling to him, “Phillip you’re too young. The chief will forbid you to go.”
Flora watched Phillip’s back as he descended the spiral staircase, rushed through the great hall, and out of the door. Gavy whimpered when his brother strode by without acknowledging him. Phillip fancied his wee brother, and delighted in teasing the lad, rumpling his hair, and telling him stories of ghosts and fairies. Flora rushed to the yard as Phillip entered the stables. She could say or do naught to stop him, so she stood, waiting until he galloped by on a garron. They owned no war horse, and would never own one if she had her way.
She would not give her son up to fighting. Maidie, her friend and wife of the Munro chief, Laird Andrew, insisted her son, Sven, study the law. He would train as a barrister and live in a burgh. Sven would never see battle and fighting. Flora wanted the same for Phillip. Her sons were as good as Maidie’s. They should have the same opportunities.
Flora dashed back into the house and found Ishbel. “I’m going to the castle. Look after the bairn.” Crying, Gavy reached for her. Flora pressed a kiss on the plump pink cheek, then turned to leave. Mayhap if she could get to Fàrdach before Andrew left with his cateran, she could stop Phillip.
Gavin turned away and started toward the castle. His heart felt heavy like a rock in Cromarty Firth. Flora spurned him. She was promised to another, betrothed to another man. He came back to Ferindonald to see her, but she no longer loved him. Although she would not have him, he must see his son at all cost.
Fàrdach castle loomed before him. A large band of Munro warriors, some mounted and others on foot, were assembled on the grassy meadow outside of the castle wall. Calls and war whoops rose from the horde. Those ahorse rode away to the west in a cloud of dust. The warriors afoot followed closely behind. Reivers must be about, with Andrew leading his slaugh to fight.
Hopefully, he would not have to face his brother this day. He could gauge the mood of the castle servants and occupants then decided if he should stay or go before meeting Andrew. Gavin fell in with some of the tenants making their way to the castle with their quarterly rents. One woman who had a chicken under her arm gave him a suspicious eye. The woman looked familiar. She may have been a neighbor of Flora’s in the village of Drumainn. The chicken squawked when Gavin walked by. The woman turned her gaze toward him and searched his face.
“Sir Gavin, is that you?” she asked in amazement.
“Madam.” He touched his forehead in a salute, then walked on quickly.
The woman walked faster as if to follow him, so he quickened his gait. He could hear her calling to others. “Sir Gavin’s home. Sir Gavin’s home.”
Calls traveled down the line of tenants entering and leaving the castle. Soon a small crowd gathered, following Gavin through the castle gates and under the portcullis. The guard in the gate house called then waved. He recognized the man and returned the greeting. Those within the outer bailey stopped their work or activity to welcome him home. Some gathered around. Small children tugged on his great plaide until it sagged beneath the thick leather belt. He tugged back, trying to keep some semblance of order about his person. The crowd followed him through the bailey, over the drawbridge covering a deep moat, then into the quieter inner yard. Guards called from the catwalk on the curtain wall. He saluted and returned the greeting. The great iron-studded oak doors of the keep opened. The chief of Clan Munro stepped out.
Gavin pushed his way through the crowd, jerked his plaide from the hands of a small, dirty-faced boy, and approached his brother. Andrew looked the same, but older with deeper lines on his brow and around his grey eyes. His raven hair hung in the usual warrior braids to the broad shoulders. He had trouble keeping the wry strands out of his eyes if not braided. The chief’s lips pursed into a firm line, then turned up on the edges with a broad smile. Without a word, he moved forward to embrace Gavin who returned the embrace with relief.
Andrew pushed away and studied Gavin’s face. “Welcome home, Brother. I thought you lost to Ferindonald forever.”
“Andrew. Good to be home. To see you. I figured you led your warriors and wanna be here.”
“The business of chief sometimes keeps me at my desk and ledgers instead of chasing thieves with my men. I’d rather be out with them any day.”
Gavin returned his brother’s broad smile. “You seem to be unchanged except for deeper wrinkles, and do I spot a few grey hairs among the ebony?”
“Aye. More than a few grey, I’m afraid.” Andrew gave Gavin a pat on the shoulder. “I sent Alan with the slaugh. Only a small band of reivers pestered us. Alan was elected tanist when you left Fàrdach. Come inside to greet my family. The ruckus you caused has them all aroused and curious.” Andrew motioned for Gavin to go ahead.
Gavin stepped inside to the great hall of Fàrdach. Nothing much had changed. The same boar and stag heads looked down from around the claymores, broadswords, axes, lances, and targes. Maybe a few more weapons had been added. Andrew seemed ready for a mighty fight. Reivers must be plaguing Ferindonald with their stealing and looting. Servants spread bundles of dried heather across the flagstone floor, filling the hall with a sweet aroma. They stopped and nodded toward Gavin with broad smiles. Shafts of light streamed through the small keyhole windows, causing dust motes to dance on the air. A large grey, shaggy hound lumbered up to Andrew who reached down to scratch the dog behind the ear.
“’Tis no’ the same hound with all the pups the bairns played with?” Gavin asked, eyeing the huge dog that stood up to his brother’s waist. “Seems like I remember a brown and white dog.”
“Nae, the hound and all her pups went out to tenants who needed good rabbit dogs. This large, lumbering thing is a gift from Maidie for my birthday of thirty years.”
“How does Maidie fair? And Sven?” Gavin brought himself to ask.
“She fairs well, and gains in beauty within and without each day.” Andrew smiled, showing white teeth through his salt and pepper beard.
Gavin’s heart skipped a beat with the mention of Maidie’s beauty. Her memory still held a special place in his heart, although he gave her up to Andrew five years before. He felt self-conscious, covered with road dirt and unshaven. He bathed in a cold burn three days ago and scrapped his beard with a dirk, but now stubble covered his face. The men turned toward the stone spiral staircase to watch two women descend. One held the hand of a small dark-haired lassie. The other, wearing a gown of blue silk clinging to her comely form now large with child and a thick braid of golden hair hanging down her back, held the hand of a blonde curly-headed lassie. Andrew’s smile grew brighter. He walked toward the group, taking the younger blonde bairn in his arms.
“Come family and greet our brother who returned to us this verra day.” Andrew said, bringing the group to Gavin. “This bonnie lassie is my daughter, Andrina.”
Gavin stroked the small fair hand. The bairn smiled. Her blue eyes sparkled, and he saw Maidie’s bright eyes smiling at him, then she buried her pretty head on Andrew’s shoulder. Her father patted the small head with a gentle, loving touch. He reached for Maidie’s arm, drawing her forward. Gavin swallowed a large lump forming in his throat. She was more beautiful than he remembered. Married life and having bairns agreed with her. He bowed.
Her blue eyes glowed. “Hello, Gavin. Welcome home to Fàrdach.” Then her eyes roamed over his dirty, disheveled clothing. “Seems you’ve journeyed long and hard.” She placed her hand upon his arm. A chill ran down his spine. “We’re so verra glad you returned home and hope your stay with us will be a long one. I’ll have your old chamber made ready with a bath.”
Gavin could only smile and nod his head at the lovely lady. His heart beat much too wildly to say more, so he turned to look at the other lassie and her maid. “Hello, Nellie. You look well. How is Briana?” He tried to take Briana’s hand, but she jerked back. Gavin looked at Andrew. His brother shrugged his shoulders.
“Briana is leery of strangers these days. Of a sudden she’s become shy, and clings to Nellie. I can hardly touch her, myself.” Andrew made a sign with his hands to the lassie. She shook her head then hid her face in Nellie’s dress. “Briana is learning to speak with her hands. She learns quickly, but wanna speak around strangers. We are all learning to talk to her with our hands. Sven is teaching the family and anyone who wants to learn. He studied a book I brought from Edinburgh.”
Gavin turned to Maidie. “You must be proud of Sven.” She smiled and nodded. He spoke to Andrew. “You have a lovely family, M’Laird.”
Andrew placed his free arm around Maidie’s shoulders. “Aye. These dear ones are the light of my life.” He gave Andrina to her mother then planted a lingering kiss on Maidie’s lips. Gavin wondered if his brother did that for his sake. Probably. Like a hound marking his territory. “Come, let’s go to the tiltyard before Maidie gets you into the bath. Several of the luchd-taighe that dinna go with the slaugh are practicing. They’ll want to bid you welcome.” Andrew took Gavin’s arm, turning him toward the door.
He turned back. “Thank you, M’Lady for being so kind. I shall look forward to a comfortable bed and hot bath. Both have been few and far between these past five years.” Her lips, now rosy from his brother’s kiss, parted in a smile.
The two men made their way out of the keep and walked through a heavy door in the curtain wall of the inner bailey that led to a broad meadow beyond. The large wolfhound followed at Andrew’s heels. Several warriors dressed only in a great plaide held secure by a broad leather belt practiced with claymores, broadswords, and bows. One rode a horse toward a target and threw a spear at the center. The spear met its mark with a thud. Two men wrestled within the center of a small group who cheered for one or the other. Gavin smiled, remembering the many days he practiced with the warriors. This sparring field felt more like home than any other place in the castle or the whole of Ferindonald, except maybe the small box bed in Flora’s black house in Drumainn Village. Ah, remembering the reason he left seemed harder with each passing day.
Andrew’s voice broke through Gavin’s revelry. “Have you seen your son?”
His brother’s unexpected words took him aback. “Aye. That I have, Brother—from a distance is all.”
“You ken Flora is betrothed. He is Iain MacKay, and a finer fellow you’ll be hard pressed to find.”
Gavin turned to stare at Andrew. Did he think Flora would never love again? “So ‘tis Iain who won her heart. I remember the first son of the MacKay being wild and rambunctious, always looking for a way out of duty.”
“Iain’s gained in maturity these past five years, and being the first-born will inherit his father’s title and land. Flora could do nae better.”
“Did you arrange the marriage, thinking I may never return to lay claim to my son?” Gavin felt a tinge of ire rising around the idea of his brother arranging the marriage of his love to another.
“We dinna ken whether you lived or died at the hand of savages. When nae word came from you year after year, I began looking for a suitable mate for Flora and a da for your son.” The light in Andrew’s grey eyes faded. A deeper line formed between his heavy brows. “What would you have me do, Gavin? Keep Flora unwed and your son with nae da to see to his raising? Phillip needs a father also.”
Of course the chief was right in his decision. He had obligations to the members of his clan—to take care of their welfare and keep them safe. Andrew made the only choice left to him in Gavin’s absence. He found Flora a suitable mate and a father for Phillip and Gavy. Flora’s and Iain’s love for each other did not matter, they could make a good life together.
Gavin started to walk away, but Andrew put a hand on his arm. “Brother, I expect you to abide by the betrothal contract and leave Flora be. Make nae trouble for Iain.”
“What about my son? Will I be allowed to see him?”
“Aye, with restraint. You gave up rights to the boy when you left his mither.” The eyes of the two men met. Andrew didn’t blink. Gavin knew his chances with Flora were nil.