"Hamish Lochmore, if I have one more father complaining of a daughter keening over you I’ll crack your head open with the rim of me targe!”
Ewan, Earl of Glenarris and Clan Lochmore’s laird, glowered at his son over the shield he referred to. Hamish believed his father would gladly do as he threatened.
“I’ve never promised marriage. It’s not my fault if they don’t believe me.” Hamish folded his hands and tried to look respectful. “I never lay with a woman who isnae willing.”
“I don’t have time for your nonsense.” Ewan eyed the servants and clan members who were pretending not to listen. “Walk with me.”
They walked from the Long Hall across the dark courtyard and stopped at the chapel. At Ewan’s command, Hamish took a torch from the bracket and they made their way down the winding stair into the crypt.
“Why have you brought me here?” Hamish asked.
“The physician has told me to start making my peace with my maker,” Ewan muttered. “There’s a canker in my belly.”
The confirmation of his father’s failing health was hardly a surprise, but the abruptness of the declaration made Hamish’s heart lurch. He touched his father’s shoulder, but Ewan held a hand up to pre-empt sentimentality.
“Make sure you lay me to rest in the crypt where I belong.”
Hamish looked around the vault and shuddered. The wavering light cast shadows over the stone effigies. “Aye, Father, I will.”
Ewan walked from tomb to tomb, running his hands over the effigies of past lairds. “These hold secrets as well as skeletons, but until you marry you’ll be told nothing of the confidences that pass from a laird to his heir. Douglas MacNeish is holding games, and the victor will be offered his daughter Fiona’s hand. You’ll leave for Glenbovan tomorrow. I expect you to do your best to win.”
Hamish laughed. “A bride won in a contest?”
“A woman is a woman and you’re not too discerning usually,” Ewan said drily. “You’ll be chief of Clan Lochmore and the second Earl of Glenarris. You need sons, and she’d make as fine a wife as any.”
Hamish nodded without enthusiasm.
“Malcolm McCrieff will be competing for Fiona, too,” Ewan said. “There are secrets shared by both clans and you wouldnae want him to learn them first.”
Hamish gritted his teeth at the idea of his neighbour and rival learning what he did not know. Ewan departed but Hamish remained, looking at the names, until footsteps behind him made him turn.
“I thought I’d find you here.” His cousin Angus slipped to Hamish’s side. “What did the old man say?”
Hamish relayed the conversation. “Will ye come with me for company?”
“Aye, why not.” Angus produced a corked bottle of uisge beatha. “Let’s toast your future bride.”
“Not here,” Hamish said. “It’s a warm evening and I crave a swim.”
They left via the tunnel hidden in an alcove behind an effigy and emerged on the shingle beach. The towering silhouette of Castle Lochmore looked imposing in the spring sunset. Laughing, they stripped naked, tossed back the throat-searing liquor and ran down the beach into the sea.
As Hamish plunged into the icy depths his spirits lifted. He had the prospect of a McCrieff to defeat and a wife to win.
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