When a Laird Finds a Lass (A Highland Fairytale)

By: Lecia Cornwall
PROLOGUE

Edinburgh, 1707

Malcolm MacDonald’s lodgings were cramped with unexpected visitors.

He knew the three Highlanders felt it too. They were more used to the wide-open spaces of their MacDonald homeland, perhaps, where there was naught to contain their big bodies but peaks, sea, and sky. They looked unhappily around the wee closet Malcolm called home. He followed their gaze. There was a narrow bed with a small table beside it. His clothes hung on pegs along the wall and his books were stacked in teetering piles under the window. Writs, wills, and deeds covered the surface of the table like a fall of new snow, deep, crisp, and legal.

He could smell the salt that clung to the damp wool of their plaids, the smoky tang of peat fires, and the whisky on their breath, though they were neither dirty nor drunk.

It made Malcolm aware of his own smells—the leather binding of his books, the sharp gall of ink, and the burned oat smell of his neighbor’s breakfast, seeping through the thin walls. He went to the narrow window and opened it, letting in a few inches of air. Now the stench of the city drifted in, gutters, livestock, and cookshops, borne on the sluggish wind that came from the docks. The Highlanders wrinkled their noses, and Malcolm resisted the urge to lower the warped sash again.

He stood back and let them see the view instead. His fifth-floor lodgings looked down upon the Royal Mile. If one leaned out the window and looked to the left, the Palace of Holyroodhouse stood golden and grim against the startling green of the hills. If one looked straight down, there were pigs blocking traffic and merchants with their wares spilling out of crowded shop fronts into the street. The fifth floor was a fine, middling place to live for an unmarried junior lawyer of modest means. Richer folk lived on the floors below him, and the people who made their homes above Malcolm’s meager room were ever-so-slightly less respectable than he was. There was a widowed seamstress upstairs, and a one-eyed poet above her. The poet was nearly as old as Malcolm’s three visitors, who had introduced themselves as the elders of the MacDonalds of Dunbronach, his kinsmen.

Dougal MacDonald was bent and bandy legged, and his green eyes flitted about the room like trapped birds.

William MacDonald was as tall as a tree and twice as broad. He stood ramrod straight and nodded silently when Dougal introduced him. He kept his eyes on Malcolm and his hand on the hilt of the sword belted to his hip.

Fergus MacDonald sat in the only chair, his hands clasped on his bony knees; his face was a mask of cold disapproval.

“Will you take a drop of sherry?” Malcolm asked his guests, since no one immediately gave a reason for their visit. He poured out three delicate glasses of amber liquid, Spanish and expensive, and they squinted and frowned at it. William quaffed his in a single gulp, then made a face and declared, “It’s no’ whisky, is it?”

Dougal sipped and pursed his lips, and Fergus set his glass on the edge of the table, untouched.

“Ye look like yer da, Malcolm Ban,” Dougal said for the second time, leaning on the gnarled root that served him as a walking stick.

Malcolm folded his arms over his chest and leaned back on the edge of the table. “So you’ve said. Is he well?” Malcolm had not seen his father in nearly fifteen years, and to a lad of nine, Archie MacDonald, the laird of Dunbronach, had been the biggest, broadest, loudest man he’d ever seen. He’d been in rude health then and somewhat drunk as he sat in Malcolm’s uncle’s elegant Edinburgh parlor. He’d looked as out of place there as—well, as these Highlanders looked here.

Malcolm still recalled how Archie’s face had fallen when his mother introduced him. “Who’s this weedy lad?”

“Malcolm, of course. Your son,” his mother had assured her estranged husband.

“My son?”

His mother’s eyes had flared. “Ye can see that he is, Archie. He’s as much a MacDonald as you are. He has your eyes, your height—or he will have. He’s smart. He’ll make a fine lawyer someday, like his uncle.”

“A lawyer.” Malcolm still remembered how his father’s mouth had twisted bitterly around the word.

“Like his uncle,” his mother had repeated. “He’s not cut out to be a Highlander, Archie. Is that why you’ve come?”

His father was silent for a moment. He looked Malcolm over once again, then turned away with a sigh. “Nay,” he muttered. “Nay, I suppose not.” He left the tea in the fancy china cup, rose, and departed from his brother-in-law’s house. He did not return again. Even when Malcolm’s mother died, he’d not bothered to send condolences. His uncle had taken Malcolm as his protégé, and he’d almost forgotten he even had kin in the Highlands, at Dunbronach, a place he barely remembered.

Dougal’s eyes shifted to the worn rug that covered the floor. “Er, nay, lad, I wouldn’t say yer father’s well. In fact, he’s dead.”

Malcolm’s brows rose. “Dead?”

“Aye, and a good many other folk,” Fergus growled from his chair.

“There was a terrible sickness,” Dougal said. “It carried off fifty-four MacDonalds.”

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