The Highlands, Scotland. Summer 1742
The sun was just beginning to set as they made sail for home and Errin Mhor. They had spent an idyllic day on the largest of the scattered string of islands known locally as the Necklace. The Highland sky was streaked with pink and burnished gold, slowly turning to crimson as the sun made its stately journey towards the horizon. The little skiff, An Rionnag, bobbed her way across the silver-tipped waves towards shore, her single sail catching the faint breeze which had risen with the turning of the tide.
Alasdhair sat in the stern, one hand keeping a loose hold on the tiller, the other arm resting along the side of the boat. They’d made this trip so many times he could probably navigate it blindfold. He was sitting with his usual casual grace, bare-footed and bare-legged, wearing only his plaid and an old shirt, open at the neck. Facing him, from her seat in the prow, Ailsa smiled contentedly. It was her sixteenth birthday which meant, Alasdhair had reminded her this morning, according to tradition that she was an adult now, free to do anything she wanted. All she had ever wanted was to escape, to get away from the oppressive atmosphere of the castle, released from the autocratic iron rule of her father and the cold indifference of her mother, but Ailsa knew that it wasn’t as simple as that. As a laird’s daughter, her life wasn’t hers to dictate. The clan and duty took precedence over personal desires, but on a day like this, what better place to escape to, albeit temporarily, than the island. Their island. On board The Star. With Alasdhair.
Her skin felt tight from the salty sea-spray and the heat of the sun. Her hair had escaped its braid as usual, curling wildly down her back, reaching almost to her waist. She felt pleasantly tired, the kind of contented lethargy that comes from a day spent laughing and lazing with no-one but themselves to please.
A perfect day. As ever, she and Alasdhair had been in total accord. Despite the five year gap which separated them, they had always been close. Closer still since Ailsa’s older brother Calumn, Alasdhair’s boyhood friend, had left Errin Mhor to join the Redcoat army. Now that it was just the two of them at the castle, they spent even more of their free time in each other’s company. The laird’s much-neglected daughter and his rebellious ward, kindred spirits united by adversity, for neither of them felt wanted, neither was loved.
She had known him all her life, the young man seated opposite her, his dark brown eyes closed as he tilted his face back to catch the last of the sun’s rays. His hair, the blue-black of a raven’s wing, tangled and unkempt, grew almost to his shoulders – shoulders which strained at the seams of the old shirt he wore. She’d noticed it earlier, as they sat fishing from the rocks, how much he seemed to have filled out of late. What had been skin and bone was now sculpted with muscle and sinew. He was no longer all sharp angles, but quite definitely contoured. A sprinkling of silky black hair grew over his chest, his forearms and his muscular legs, which had lost their stork-like appearance. Alasdhair wasn’t a laddie anymore, but a man. And, Ailsa realised of a sudden, as if looking at him for the first time, an extremely attractive one at that.
Her heart did a funny little skipping movement, a hop and a jump, giving her a fluttery feeling in her stomach, as if there were a shoal of the silver darlings swimming about in there. When had all these changes happened? Why hadn’t she noticed until now?
Alasdhair opened his eyes, pushing his hair back from his high brow, and smiled lazily at her. His mouth always curved readily into a smile. It was made for smiling, despite the fact that life had given him little to smile about. Ailsa smiled back.
Her smile was dazzling, Alasdhair thought. There was something about Ailsa, a natural exuberance, that always made him feel as if nothing was quite as bad as it seemed. Despite her mother’s indifference and her father’s tyranny, Ailsa had a love of life that was infectious. Alasdhair held out his hand. “Come and sit up here with me and watch the sunset,” he said, making room for her on the narrow bench.
He watched as Ailsa picked her way daintily towards him. Her skirt and petticoat were old, a faded grey that was once the same vibrant blue as her eyes. Her arisaidh lay discarded at her feet. She had no jacket or waistcoat, only her sark, the ties at the neck loose. The wide sleeves of the shift billowed out over her arms, which were tanned a light biscuity colour. Her fair hair, streaked almost white in places by the sun, trailed in a cloud down her back, wispy curls haloing her forehead. He saw it then, so clearly he couldn’t understand why he hadn’t realised it before. She was beautiful.
As she sat down beside him, her skirts brushing his plaid, awareness shot through him. All his senses were immediately on high alert. He could feel her thigh, warm and soft through the fabric of her skirts. Her forearm touched his, slim and elegant, the wrist delicate, so tiny he could circle it with his fingers. She smelled of sea and sand and pure Scots air.
Ailsa, the feisty wee lassie he had taught to ride and to fish, and to sail, and even, at her urging, how to use a dirk. It was with that Ailsa he had spent the day, but it was a different one who was her in the boat now, her scent making it impossible for him not to notice her. This Ailsa, the enticing creature sitting next to him, her arm resting on his, her hair tickling his face, the contours of her breasts outlined by the breeze pressing against her sark, was someone quite different from the girl he’d sailed out with only this morning. This Ailsa was a sensual creature, with distracting curves and a tantalising presence.
Desire lurched at him, sending the blood surging to his groin. Embarrassed, Alasdhair shifted in his seat. Under the pretence of tightening the sail, he looked at her, and wondered if he had been blind. The long neck. The tender hollow of her throat. The soft swell of her bosom. The indent of her waist. The elegant line of her calves. Her ankles, the slender high-arched feet which rested on a lobster creel which lay on the bottom of the boat, so delicately beautiful he had an overwhelming urge to press his lips to them.
How had he failed to notice this remarkable transformation?
He swung An Rionnag round to catch the wind. The tiller jerked violently as the sail filled and instinctively Ailsa reached out to help try to control it. Her hand met Alasdhair’s on the worn wood. Something sparked at the contact, a crackle in the air like the drop in pressure which presages a tide turning or a storm coming. Blue eyes, almost purple, met smoky brown. They looked at each other as if seeing for the first time. As if being for the first time.
Alasdhair’s breath caught in his throat. His stomach tightened. “Ailsa?”
She felt as if she had been waiting for this moment all her life. As if everything in the world, the stars, the sun and moon, had been waiting too for this time and this place and this man. As if they were about to emerge from their chrysalises, transformed, readied for their real purpose. This moment. This perfect, perfect moment.
“Alasdhair.” Even his name seemed different.
He hardly dared touch her, but he was hardly able not to. He tenderly stroked the wisps of curls away from her forehead. He kissed the fair brows. She closed her eyes, tilting her face towards him. He kissed the sunburnt tip of her nose. It was lightly scattered with freckles. She sighed. He put his arm around her. She nestled closer. Her bare foot brushed his. It was the most erotic thing that had ever happened to him. The arch of her sole. The tickle of her toes, curling delightfully on his.
Then his lips found hers and he kissed her, and in that second where their lips met, that awkward moment of his inexperience and her untouched lips, he knew. And he knew, from the crackling of the air around them, the stillness of sea, the suspension of The Star’s rocking, he knew that she knew too – how could she not? For their kiss had changed the world for ever.
His kiss was gentle, too gentle to be sufficient, already more than he had ever dreamed of. He was afraid to frighten her with the depths of passion even this almost innocent caress aroused in him. He was horribly conscious of the five years gap in experience which lay between them, astounded, astonished at the way her untutored, naïve touch set him afire.
It had always been he who protected her when she courted danger. It was always he who came to her rescue when she came to grief – and she often did, for she was fearless. It was always he who was there to pick her up and dust her down and dry her tears and promise not to tell. He who kept her safe.
He did so now, forcing himself to end their embrace, to put her from him, though his body sang and pleaded and begged him not to and Ailsa too murmured a soft, breathy protest in a voice he’d never heard before. A voice which whispered over his senses like a siren. He had never felt such a whirlwind of emotions storming through him, yet he had enough, just enough control left. He would not take advantage. Despite her mother’s poor opinion of him, he was an honourable man.
Ailsa struggled for breath. She touched her lips with her fingertips. So that was what it was like to be kissed! Heady, as if she’d had too much wine or too much sun. Frothy like the waves. Exciting like a sudden summer storm. That was a kiss.
“Ailsa, I didn’t mean – I should not have – you know I would never take advantage.”
“Don’t be daft, of course I know that.” She smiled at him, daringly taking his hand and pressing it to her cheek. It was a nice hand, though it was callused from the endless menial jobs her father doled out, his way of trying to bring Alasdhair’s rebellious spirit under control, teaching him his proper place in the scheme of things. Her father would have a long wait, she reckoned.
“Are you sure I didn’t frighten you?” Alasdhair asked.
She shook her head.
“I don’t know what came over me. I felt as if I was seeing you properly for the first time.”
“That’s exactly how I felt.”
They laughed. Then they kissed again, and this time their kiss was more confident. It had the tantalising sweetness of a promise not yet bloomed to full ripeness. Tentative, like all new-born things, and heady, like all things strange and illicit.
The tilt of the boat on the crest of a wave, the scrape of her keel on the first of the rocks which bordered the shore, finally brought them to their senses. They laughed in unison when they realised how far they had travelled without noticing. With the ease of familiarity and long practice, they set about bringing An Rionnag into the castle’s little private jetty where the laird’s own boat, embossed with the Munro coat of arms and with places for sixteen oarsmen, took pride of place. Leaping onto shore, Alasdhair eyed it with a mixture of disdain and trepidation. Dread God, was the Munro motto. He doubted the laird did. Lord Munro bowed to no-one. He alone owned his world, his fiefdom and all the people in it. A feudal laird in every sense, even his wife and children were there to do his bidding. Looking up, Alasdhair saw the shadow of a figure at the long windows which overlooked the castle’s gardens.
“Mother,” Ailsa said anxiously, following his gaze. “I didn’t tell her where I was going.”
“Do you think she’ll have had plans?”
“For my birthday?” Ailsa laughed scornfully. “I doubt she’ll even have remembered it’s today.”
“Do you want me to come in with you?”
“You’ll only make her worse if she’s in one of her moods.” The brightness of the day was fading with the sun, which had finally set. Her mother was waiting for her, she could sense her brooding presence. “I’d better go to her, get whatever it is out of the way.”
“Today. It was wonderful, special.”
Ailsa smiled. “Yes it was, Alasdhair, the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me.”
“And me.” He wanted to kiss her again. He hated it ending like this, under Lady Munro’s watchful gaze. In the gloaming, they should be nothing but shadows, but Alasdhair wasn’t convinced she couldn’t see in the dark, like some malevolent wildcat. “One day,” he said, satisfying himself with pressing her hand, “we’ll be together for always and then every day will be special like today.”
“One day, and for always” she agreed.
It was a promise. A solemn vow they both intended to keep.
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