Stealing the Bride

By: Mary Wine

Chapter 1

Scotland, 1554

“Ye’re all the same with yer promises of sons, but I’ve had a Ybellyful of talk.”

Hayden Monroe slammed his tankard down on the table so hard a measure of ale sloshed over the rim. He gave the mess no mind but aimed his displeasure at the rows of guests sitting at his table. In spite of the fact that he’d invited them, he was not sold on the idea behind issuing the invitation. It didn’t sit well on his mind. Now that he was being forced to listen to them try to sell him a new wife, he was convinced that he’d been insane to agree to welcoming them all into his home.

“Get ye gone. Supper is finished.”

He dropped back into his large, X-framed chair, a dark expression covering his face. As much as he detested the business at hand, he could not dismiss the fact that he must face the issue of finding a new wife.

“Simply agree that ye will wed my sister Arabella and we can send the rest of these chattering women home.” Craig Buchlan’s eyes glowed with anticipated victory.

Argument erupted along the table. Men who had just broken bread together began shouting at each other, the volume of their voices increasing with every word. Hayden felt his disgust double.

“I said enough! Listen to the bunch of ye, turning on one another. I’ve no stomach for it. Go. Hopefully the bright light of morning will help us remember that we are all kinsmen.”

Hayden closed his eyes, certain he was too young to feel so old. He ran a hand through his hair and listened to the sounds of chairs being pushed back from the table. His guests didn’t go quietly; they grumbled about his temper but at least they went.

“What did I do to offend ye, Lord God?” He looked up at the ceiling of his castle home. It was a sturdy roof, fine and modern.

Hayden’s eyes strayed to his abandoned tankard. It too was quite a remarkable show of wealth, made of solid silver, along with every plate gracing the high table. The precious metal shone in the candlelight, but the sight of his belongings did not bring him any pleasure. They were cold and devoid of life. None of it was what he wanted. Wearing the title of laird was nearly breaking his shoulders with the expectations of his clan. His neighbors saw his lack of a male heir as an excuse to raid one another. He’d been trained by his father to use his sword well but it seemed that becoming laird meant he had to fight the battles of the Monroes without that weapon.

It hadn’t seemed difficult. He’d wed Ruth, the girl his father contracted, never knowing what a struggle it was to negotiate a bride from among those who felt he should wed their kin.

He wished he still didn’t know but the ache behind his eyes reminded him that he’d spent three days trying to select his next wife. He’d never missed his father so much.

He missed his wife more.

Sweet, delicate Ruth from the Kavanagh clan. She’d been too young to die. He snorted. No one was ever really ready to die but his bride had been so happy about their coming child, her cheeks blooming every day that her belly swelled larger and larger. She’d never feared the birth; only winked at him when he made sure the priest added a new prayer into the daily mass for her well-being. It wasn’t their first child and Ruth had glowed with confidence, just like so many other women who never rose from the bed they birthed their babes in. Reminding him that she had delivered his children before.

Six months later, his face was covered in the beard he’d refused to shave on the morning he heard that his wife was dead. He reached up and tugged on the lengthening strands.

“I know a way to help ye get what ye want, Laird Monroe.”

Hayden straightened up and jerked his head around to stare at the single man who hadn’t fled in the face of his displeasure.

“Ye have a death wish, Laird Leask? I told ye and the rest of those bride peddlers to be gone from me sight.” He didn’t want another wife, didn’t want to feel such guilt when he was forced to bury another bride who tried to give him children.

The castle was as still as death … the servants wiping their silent tears on the sleeves of their shirts and chemises. His first born daughter had followed her mother into death’s embrace only a day later, leaving him with no reason to shave because there was no soft baby cheek to worry about scratching when he kissed it. No little chubby hands to be concerned with offending with rough whiskers. Nothing at all to draw him out into the sunlight. There was only a burning resentment for the fact that the fever that had taken both mother and daughter from him had somehow decided to pass him over. The church told him that was mercy but Hayden called it a curse. He didn’t want to be left behind alone with the memory of his daughter’s laughter and his wife’s sweet voice as she sang to her child. The bed chamber they had died in was too full of their memory for him to consider using.

“There will be no peace until ye marry and have children to secure yer borders.”

“I know that, Leask. Why do ye think I am suffering through these suppers that remind me of a slave auction?”

His neighbors would raid one another more and more often until life became as uncivilized as it had been a century ago. He must marry and soon. He was the last of his father’s sons, the third to wear the lairdship, and that fact only made his neighbors that much bolder for they saw him without an heir. Soon they’d begin trying to rip land away from the Monroes and he’d have to defend it. Blood would be spilt, a great deal of it.

“Except that I am not interested in peddling ye a bride.”

Hayden grabbed his tankard and took a large swallow. “Then why are ye eating at me table, lad? I have no patience for men who waste me time.”

“Or a lot of guests that want to impress ye with how many sons their mothers bore.”

Hayden chuckled. “Exactly, lad, which is why I told the bunch of ye to leave me to find what peace I may.”

Dunmore Leask stood up and moved closer. He scooped up an abandoned tankard on his way to the chair sitting next to Hayden. That was a bold move and no mistake about it. Leask might be a laird, but his clan was one-tenth the size of the Monroes. Whichever woman he might have been thinking to offer up as a prospective bride didn’t have much hope of competing with the other men Hayden had just evicted from his hall because her dowry would not be worth as much. If he chose her, the clan would think he was a poor laird for not getting the best offer he might. Life had been so much simpler as a third son; he’d even thought to marry a lass he loved. Those days were gone, carried away with the sweating sickness that had taken his brothers before it stole his family away as well.