From award-winning romance author, Michelle Marcos, comes the second installment in the "Knaves of Scotland" series. As rugged and bold as the Scottish hills, the Highland Knaves take no prisoners when it comes to love...
Thrust into indentured servitude as a child, Shona Slayter is counting the days until her twenty-first birthday, when she gains her precious freedom. Unfortunately, the new laird of the estate has other plans--and he's determined to keep her bound to him. The only way for Shona to be free of her bonds is to marry the man who holds the key. But seducing a handsome laird is not what she was trained for, and the more she tries to win his heart, the more she loses hers.
With a young son to raise and a crumbling Scottish estate to manage, Conall has enough to worry about without the brazen, beautiful Shona challenging him at every turn. But their heated spats are starting to turn into real sparks...and soon the Scottish hills are ablaze with their forbidden attraction. Yet no matter what Shona is willing to do to buy her freedom, Conall has no intention of letting her go
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St. Martin's Paperbacks
February 28, 2012
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Excerpt from Lessons in Loving A Laird by Michelle Marcos
MILES' END FARM
"I'll kill her!"
The front door slammed, thrusting an exclamation point on the threat.
Iona rolled her eyes as she wiped her sticky hands on her apron. "What did Shona do this time?"
Her husband lumbered into the kitchen, and wedged his hatchet into the wooden table.
"It's no' what she did. It's what she has no' done. I ordered her to bring in the flock from the field before midday. Farragut's will be here any minute to take the lambs to be butchered. She's disappeared and taken the damned sheep with her!"
Iona's loose bun wobbled as she turned back to the task of stuffing the chicken with the oniony skirlie. "Well, what did ye expect? Ye know how she gets. As soon as ye mentioned the word 'slaughter,' she was bound to rescue the lambs. I told you to send her off to market today. Getting those lambs away from Shona will be like tryin' to pry the cubs from a she-bear."
Hume jerked the worn tam off his head, revealing a shiny white scalp. Though his face was bristling with thick ginger hair, there was not a single strand above his bushy eyebrows. "Every blessed year we go through this."
Iona hoisted the pan heavy with two stuffed chickens and hung it from the hook inside the fireplace. Her back screamed as she righted her rounded frame. "After near ten year workin' for ye, ye should know the lass well enough by now."
"If I had only put my foot down in the first place. I knew she'd be trouble from the moment I laid eyes on her. I told ye so, didn't I? I told ye we should ha' only taken in the fair one. Every time I listen to you, I end up having to eat ma own liver." He stuffed a hunk of bread into his mouth.
"Och, Hume. Ye know perfectly well we couldna take one sister and no' take the other."
"Aye, we could ha'!" Crumbs of bread flew out of his mouth. "T'were required we take only one parish apprentice, no' two. And slaighteurs, no less! Two mouths to feed, two backs to clothe--"
"And two pairs of hands to do all the work that ye're too old to do, so shut yer pie-hole."
Hume grumbled. "Why can't Shona be more like her sister? I don't understand it. They eat the same food, sleep in the same bed, wear the same clothes. We grew them alike. Why is the one so obedient and docile, and the other so full of her own mind?"
Iona's thoughts turned to the gentle Willow. The twin sisters could not be more dissimilar. Not just in looks, but in disposition. The murder of their parents must have affected them in entirely different ways. The fair-haired Willow was a beauty, but terrified of her own shadow. She was not docile; she was dominated.
Shona, on the other hand, had grown fangs and claws. Since the night she had witnessed the brutal slaying of her parents and older brothers, Shona had grown into an untamable wildcat, and it was not to Hume's liking. Oh, they got along well enough, whenever they shared funny stories in the evening, or when they were of one mind on an issue. But if Shona Slayter had to stand up to him, stand up she did, and woe betide him if he tried to put her in her place. Yet there was a chink in her armor, and Hume knew what it was. She had a weakness for all things defenseless, especially her twin sister. And, of course, lambs destined for slaughter.
"If she doesna bring back those sheep before Farragut's arrives, I'll ... I'll--"
Iona ignored him and began to slice the carrots. Hume never could finish that sentence.
The sound of carriage wheels crushing the gravel outside made Hume groan. "Och! Farragut's has arrived! Damn that lass! So help me, Iona, I'll make that girl obey me if it's the last thing I do!" He wedged the cap back on his head and stormed off as fast as his bowed legs would carry him.
* * *
There would be the devil to pay for this. And Shona Slayter knew she was about to become the chosen currency.
She slumped upon a felled tree trunk about a mile from the farmstead. Two dozen sheep fanned about her, dotting the emerald hillside, blissfully munching away at the moist grass. So joyfully ignorant of the fate that awaited them.
The brisk Lowland wind leaned against the grass, and it lifted the black tendrils from her face. The breeze was thick with moisture, heralding a heavy rain. She sighed in irritation. Her work had to be done whether it be fine weather or no, and she dreaded having to spend the day in a sopping wet dress.
A three-month-old lamb ambled up to her, his white eyelashes sliding over his glossy black, questioning eyes. Her heart melted. How perfect his trust in her. The little creature followed her everywhere, came whenever she called. Hume had ordered her not to give the animals names, lest she get too attached, but she didn't care. This lamb was born with a gauzy nap of snowy white fleece, and she had named him Pillow.
She untied the pouch that hung next to her dagger on a cord around her waist. Inside a folded cloth was her untouched breakfast, plus a treacle-sweetened oat biscuit she had snatched from the kitchen window where Iona had been cooling them. She tore the chewy biscuit in pieces and held them out in her hand to Pillow. His nostrils puffed air onto her palms as he smelled the crumbles and then nuzzled them from her hand.
Shona smiled, resting her chin on her fist as Pillow finished off the biscuit. Eagerly, he sucked on her sticky fingers, massaging them between his flat upper gums and his short, dull bottom teeth. It was a pleasant sensation, and she chuckled when he weakly tried to bite off her fingers.
"Away with ye, now. Those are my fingers, not blades of grass!"
He bleated, and it sounded like a child's laughter.
Pillow sought her other hand, searching for more sweet things. But she had nothing more to give him. Her smile began to dissolve. The thought of Pillow being turned over to Farragut's chilled her more than did the distant thunder. When it came to slaughtering animals, Farragut's was careless and inhumane. She shuddered as she thought how Pillow's joyful bleating would turn to screaming as he was torn from his mother's side, hoisted onto a wagon, and hauled thirty terrifying miles over rocky roads to Dumfries. Then some brute of a man at Farragut's would cram Pillow into the slaughterhouse pen. He'd swing a hammer onto Pillow's tiny skull, knocking him senseless. Then he'd hang Pillow upside down from the lamb's delicate rear legs before slicing open his neck, leaving him to bleed out until dead. She wanted to--had to--save Pillow and the other lambs from that experience. She might not be able to stave off the slaughter forever. But today, at least, Farragut's would leave empty-handed.
The rumble of the thunder seemed to get closer, until Shona realized it was the muffled sound of a horse galloping toward her. She stood up from the tree trunk and looked behind her. Willow was quickly approaching atop General, the plow horse.
The sheep scattered as General came to a halt in front of Shona. Willow slid down the horse's bare back.
Shona crossed her arms. "Willow Slayter, if ye came to wag yer finger, I'll tell ye instead where to shove it."
Willow shook her head, her blond corkscrew tendrils bouncing against her face. "No, I didn't. I wanted to find ye to tell ye that a man came to see Hume just now. A town man! He had a big book with him ... and papers. I couldna hear what they said, but whatever he came aboot, it made Hume very cross."
Shona's eyes widened. "Was it someone from the parish authorities?"
Willow shrugged. "I couldna tell."
Shona's breathing quickened as her excitement grew. "Maybe it was. Maybe Hume has to sign papers to release us from our apprenticeship. After all, we're nearly twenty-one." It was a day that Shona longed for, when she and Willow would no longer be wards of the parish. As much as she liked living with Iona and Hume, as a parish apprentice, Shona chafed at her lack of freedom. But one day they would reach maturity, and they'd be free--free to live and work wherever they wished, and no longer subject to a master's dominion. That glorious day was still three months, eleven days, and fourteen hours away.
Her freedom was so close she could almost taste it. She knew precisely what they would do. Upon their birthday, they would pack their belongings and head back to the Highlands to find their little brother Camran. If he was still alive.
They hadn't seen Camran since the Day. He'd been taken by the bearded man, and Shona and Willow were taken away by the man who'd branded them. Mr. Seldomridge was his name, and she'd never known a crueler human being. He used to punish them by making them kneel on brambles or locking them in a dark closet with rats. Thrice they'd run away, thrice they were caught, and each time they were badly beaten. After nearly a year, the two of them finally succeeded in escaping Mr. Seldomridge. They ran as far from the Highlands as they could, and made it as far south as Thornhill. There, they sought refuge in a church, and the vicar gave them food and a place to sleep. Eventually, though, the vicar had to surrender them to the care and protection of the parish authorities, which then arranged to apprentice them to learn trades befitting their station in life. Hume and Iona Findlay agreed to take in both sisters, and train them in farming and animal husbandry.
Shona had no idea what had become of Camran, but he was the only family they had left. She simply had to locate him. She glanced at the back of her hand. Like her, Camran had an S seared on the back of his hand. It identified them as slaighteur--knaves. Finding work or even friendship would be difficult for anyone with that damning brand, but there was one good thing about it--it might make Camran easier to find.
Willow tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. "I dinna know who that man was, but he must have a lot of power. When Farragut's wagon came, the town man sent it away."
Shona's eyebrows drew together. "The town man sent the wagon away?"
Willow nodded. "I saw him, clear as daylight. That's when Hume began to plead with him, but the town man just shook his head. Then I saw the town man get back in his carriage and leave."
Bafflement twisted her features. She picked up her pouch, and tied it around her waist again. "Come on, help me get the flock back to the sheep paddock. I want to find out who this town man was."
Willow shook her head. "Hume isna too pleased with you right now. If I were you, Shona, I'd stay clear of him. Hiding the sheep might've just earned you a lifetime of trouble."
Shona glanced at the horizon. Trouble, aye. A lifetime, no. Just three months, eleven days, and fourteen more hours of it.
* * *
To Shona's surprise, Hume didn't reprimand her for hiding the sheep from the butcher. In fact, he didn't even look for her. He spent the entire day inside the house, away from the farm. Even the chatty Iona was uncharacteristically tight-lipped about the strange visitor who had come that morning.
It rained throughout the night and into the next morning. Willow had developed a sniffle, sneezing and moaning throughout the night. When they awoke the next morning at half past four, Willow's eyes were puffed into near slits, and her nose was the color of Solway salmon. But at least she'd not had any of her nightmares.
Shona leaned over and touched her cheek to her sister's forehead. "Ye do no' have a fever. That's a blessing. Ye'd do well to stay abed today."
"No. I'll be all right. No doubt I look dismal."
"No worse than usual," Shona ribbed. "Still, I wouldna want ye to get a cough. Sleep the morning. I'll bring ye some tea after I do the milking."
Willow threw off her covers. "I canna let you do both our work. Besides, it's my turn to do the milking. I'll be fine once I shake the dew off me."
Shona felt a stab of remorse, but couldn't help feeling relief at sharing the task of milking. It was backbreaking, repetitive, exhausting work, and it had to be done twice each day, dawn and midafternoon. It took about twenty minutes to milk each cow, and there were three of them. Then there were the nanny goats, and there were seventeen of them. It was hard enough between the two of them, but for Shona alone, it would take all day.
Willow had washed and dressed before Shona had much time to object. Willow didn't seem to mind the quiet, patient work of milking as much as Shona did. Shona would rather pull a plow over a rocky field than have to do the milking. Cows could be peculiar, inscrutable creatures. It was easier to milk them from the rear, but that was not their most attractive side. Plus, it was the most dangerous. When she wasn't dodging a kick, she was dodging something else.
Shona stepped behind Willow to tie her pinafore. "All right, ye can help milk ... but ye must stay inside the byre. The rain's coming down in buckets, and I dinna want you getting wet. I'll bring in the cows and nannies from the field to ye. Agreed?"
Willow snuffled, and nodded.
The morning lasted twice as long as any other for Shona. Her dress was glued to her wet body as she brought in the goats one by one from the paddock to the dairy. While Willow milked them, Shona tended to their other work. She mucked out the horse stalls; filled them with fresh, dry hay; collected the chicken eggs; and hauled water from the brook. By noon, even though it had finally stopped raining, she was nearly done in.
As Shona was hitching up General to the wagon, she saw a carriage approach the farm. Her eyebrows drew together as she edged toward the stable door. Hume and Iona had such few visitors that Shona immediately suspected it was either very good news ... or very bad.
Willow ran into the stable from the kitchen courtyard, where she had been washing and candling the eggs. "Shona! That's the carriage that came yesterday! The town man ... he's back!" She pointed at the carriage from behind Shona's back.
It was a fancy carriage, very unlike the kind seen in this part of Dumfriesshire. An older gentleman alighted from within the black lacquered coach. He had a compact, thin frame, and his body moved with great purpose and ease, even though his hair had become snowy white. He was dressed in a tartan jacket, vest, and trews. Under his arm was a large, flat book.
Shona took a step toward the driveway, but Willow gripped her arm. "Where are ye going?"
"I mean to find out exactly who this man is."
"What if he's from Mr. Seldomridge?" Willow's large green eyes had curved fearfully.
A streak of vengeance stiffened her spine. After all, she was no longer a frightened eight-year-old girl. In fact, she would very much like to cross paths with that monster once more. "Only one way to find out," she said as she wiped her hands on her sopping wet pinafore.
She walked out of the stable, her hands clasped behind her back, and stood in front of the team of horses. "Good day to ye."
The man turned his face to her. He touched his hat. "Good day, lass. Can ye fetch Mr. Hume Findlay, please?"
"Aye. Can I tell him who ye are?"
"Horace Hartopp. Factor to the new laird of Ballencrieff."
Shona let her guard down an inch. She turned in the direction of the house to call Hume over, but he was already coming toward the carriage to greet the visitor.
"Mr. Hartopp! Just having me tea. You're a wee bit earlier than I expected, sir."
The elderly gentleman held out his hand. "My apologies, but Ballencrieff has matters of a pressing nature this afternoon, and he hopes to settle business affairs with his tenants as soon as possible."
"Well, I'm afraid I've no' been able to scrape together the amount due the laird. Would he consider extending the time I have to repay?"
The elderly gentleman waved his hand. "We already discussed this yesterday, Mr. Findlay. Ye're nearly eighteen months in arrears, and I sent ye notice of collection six months ago. Ballencrieff has now arrived to take the reins of the estate, and he will not permit his tenants to live gratis upon his lands."
"'Twere not our fault the estate has been ungoverned this past eighteen-month after the old laird passed away. No one came to collect the rents."
"All the more reason I would expect ye to have the monies from the sale of last year's crops."
"No, sir. We put all that money back into the management of the farm. Bought a new plow, got a stronger horse. We rotated our crops, and that required additional tilling and fertilizing."
Mr. Hartopp pasted an artificial smile on his face. "I appreciate the improvements to the land, Mr. Findlay. But the fact remains that the rent must be paid."
"We need more time to make up the debt, Mr. Hartopp. Can the laird just give me until the harvest?"
"Ye may wait until harvest to make up the rent past due for this year. But as I informed you yesterday, Ballencrieff must have the last twelvemonth rent."
"I tried to sell all my lambs yesterday ... did ye at least tell the laird that ye yerself stopped me from doing so?"
Mr. Hartopp shook his head. "Selling off your livestock was a step ye should have taken a long time ago. As the new laird's factor, I could not risk that ye would abscond with any new profits. It is now simply too late. The laird has the right to confiscate this land for nonpayment of rent."
Hume turned pale. "The wife and I are advanced in years, Mr. Hartopp. Ye can't throw us off the homestead we've had for nigh on three decades."
"That decision is for the laird to make. But in the meantime, these crops are now forfeit to Ballencrieff."
Hume's voice shot up. "But I worked these crops, sir. They're mine."
"Not in the eyes of the law, Mr. Findlay. This land belongs to the estate of Ballencrieff. Under yer agreement with the landowner, ye were permitted to live upon and cultivate these forty acres for a rent of thirty-five pounds sterling per annum. As ye have provided the estate with neither monies as rent, nor provender to the stables, nor produce to the house, it now falls to the laird to determine how the estate can recover its losses. It will be my recommendation to rent the arable part of the land to a new tenant, thereby making good on most of your arrears."
"That's not fair! The fields are already planted and cultivated. A few more months and they'll produce a full harvest. This year, I've got wheat, peas, barley, and oats. They'll bring in enough money at market, I promise. If I could just have more time. Maybe if I speak to Mr. Carnock, the former factor?"
A note of pique sharpened his tone. "Mr. Carnock is no longer working for the estate. I'm the new laird's factor, and ye'll have to deal with me. And I do not look the other way when I see a scrounger living off my employer's generosity. In fact, if the laird is agreeable, I will suggest that he scrape you off his land this very day."
Hume had been a strict master, but a fair one. In all the time Shona had worked for him, she'd never seen him swindle anyone. Everyone in these parts could attest that Hume never asked for a farthing more for something than it was worth, nor did he pay less than its fair value. Indignation leaped within her. No one insulted Hume that way and got away with it.
"Ye will, will ye?" Shona retorted, taking a step toward the white-haired man. "Then ye're as wicked as ye are ugly. Hume is no scrounger, and he's never cheated a soul. The man's as good as his word. If he told ye ye'd have yer money at the harvest, then ye'd be smart to believe him. But ye seem more interested in showing off yer fancy suit and crowing like a cockerel on a pile of pigswill. Ye're nothing but bully and bluster, and I'll wager ye don't have the goolies to do it. Away with ye, and tell yer master he's got a whey-haired old goat for a servant."
Mr. Hartopp's face flushed to red, and even the whites of his eyes had colored to pink. He looked as if he'd been winded by a fist to his gut.
The carriage door opened. A glassy black Hessian boot emerged and landed on the muddy path. A second followed, and the door closed. Standing beside the carriage was a man almost as tall as General, the Clydesdale she had just been harnessing. His mouth had thinned to a razor-blade line across his face, and his eyes were blue flames burning beneath a scowl. He was dressed unlike any Scotsman she knew, with a tailcoat of navy blue and breeches made of fawn. A white cravat was tied underneath his square chin, and a gold brocade waistcoat outlined a trim torso. If she didn't know better, she'd think the new laird of Ballencrieff was an--
"You can tell me yourself, young woman, for I'm right here."
Shona's open mouth closed slowly. The man towered over her, filling her range of vision with his forbidding presence. A quake of fear erupted in her belly.
She swallowed hard, trying not to betray her trepidation. The man was an unfamiliar threat, but he clearly had both the status and the physical strength to enforce his own will. He was not in the least singed by her words. And that was the only weapon she had at her disposal.
"What game is this?" she demanded, forcing the steadiness back in her voice. "Do ye really expect us to believe that the laird of Ballencrieff is an ... an--"
"Englishman?" The handsome man cocked an eyebrow. "I'm afraid so."
Now it was Shona's turn to be winded. His clothes, his accent, even his arrogance all screamed English. Despite the dominating stance, he was incredibly, incredibly handsome.
"Bah!" Hume punched his forefinger in the man's direction. "Ballencrieff was a patriot. A head-to-toe Scotsman. He would ha' nothing to do with Sassenachs."
The man's jaw tensed, and his eyes grew flinty.
"I appreciate neither my uncle's politics nor your disparaging remark, sir. Do not now pretend you two were allies. As for your daughter here, you'd do well to teach her to respect her betters. Or at least to keep a civil tongue in her head."
Hume's mouth sealed to a tight-lipped snarl.
The Englishman continued. "As for Mr. Hartopp's generous offer, it is hereby nullified. You will repay your debt--in its entirety--to my estate. If you don't like that arrangement, perhaps a spate in debtor's prison is in order, there to remain until every last penny is settled. Now, what's it to be?"
Shona could kick herself. Her outburst served only to worsen Hume's position. And put a smug smile on Mr. Hartopp's face.
Hume grumbled into his chest. "I've got five pound in the house."
The Englishman gave a curt nod. "And?"
Hume's nostrils flared. "I'm owed four pound thruppence from some in town. I can have it to you on the morrow."
Hume shrugged. "Crops will come in by fall."
The Englishman shook his head. "I won't wait that long. You can make up the difference with the livestock. Hartopp, what was your accounting of his animals?"
Perfunctorily, Mr. Hartopp opened his book to a marked page and scrolled down with his finger. "Three milk cows, seventeen dairy goats, two bucks, one plow horse, twenty-four sheep and lambs, fourteen laying hens, and one rooster."
"Take them. Have them conveyed to the estate until I decide what to do with them. You can reduce Mr. Hume's debt by the fair market value of his animals." The Englishman turned on his heel, followed closely by Mr. Hartopp.
"But you can't take my animals, my lord," Hume pleaded. "You'll leave us with no milk or cheese or meat. We need them for sustenance."
The Englishman didn't even turn around as he spoke. "I'm certain you'll think of something."
Hume removed his cap and held it to his chest in humility. "My lord, please. My family will starve without them."
The Englishman stopped in his tracks. He heaved a ragged sigh and turned around. The Englishman's eyes landed upon Shona. His expression softened.
"Very well. In light of your years, I'll allow you to keep the plow horse to help you bring in the harvest. You may also keep one cow, and half of the poultry. That should keep you and your daughter from immediate want."
"I'm no' his daughter," erupted Shona.
It felt so good to toss his mistake into his face. "I said, I'm no' his daughter."
"I see," he said, his irritation palpable. "You're incredibly opinionated, but I find you a bit scruffy to be his solicitor. Who are you then?"
Hume took a step toward her. "She's a parish orphan, my lord. The wife and I took her and her sister in. We've been taking care of them for almost ten year now. I taught Shona the business of farming. Growing crops and raising livestock."
The Englishman crossed his arms at his chest. Slowly, his eyes took their fill of her, and she grew uncomfortable under his perusal. She could just imagine how she looked to him. Horse manure caked her shoes and lined the hem of her dress. Her wet, shiny hair hung down her head like long black snakes. Her once-white pinafore was now mottled with smears from handling the rain-soaked animals.
A thread of embarrassment coiled inside her. The image she presented to him was little more than mud, moisture, and manure. At least her branded hand was behind her, out of his sight.
"How much were you given for her?"
Hume wrung the tam in his hands. "Er ... two pound, my lord."
The Englishman scratched his jaw. "I've not hired any outside servants yet--other than the gamekeeper, that is. I'll need someone to look after the livestock that Hartopp is conveying to the estate. As you'll have little enough need of Shona yourself, you can article her to me. And for that, I'll reduce your debt by a further four pounds."
Hume silently considered the proposition.