The Laird’s Widow
Amanda H. Williams
An excerpt from The Laird's Widow, a Work In Progress
*Hunter is my maiden name but is also the surname of the one of the oldest clans in Scotland. Characters and situations are fictional.
Icy gales rushed through the silver hoarfrost covered birch trees atop the gray mountainside where the Hunter family cemetery lay--evidence generations of lairds, ladies, and children dotted the ten acres set apart from the central portion of Hunterston House. On this sacred, snow-covered ground, only the wind had a voice--whooshes of dashed dreams mocked amongst the stones of those resting in supposed peace.
Like a bronze statue staring at the burial ground where his beloved wife, Aileen Bram Hunter, lay, Laird Ian Hunter stood erect and motionless. Flakes of snow stuck to exposed skin. Immediate stinging, followed by numbness, matched the state of his soul. A smoky coldness infiltrated his lungs, burning.
How could he simultaneously be drawn to a place that he loathed? Mother, Father, and Wife memorialized in dirt and moss—fodder for those that prey on the dead. Nausea welled up inside of him. He clenched his fists at his side, wadding his kilt until his knuckles turned white. He did not know how long he stared, until a sudden movement shook him from his stupor. A pine marten with its chestnut-brown fur and creamy yellow bib hopped from a rocky outcrop to the space between his parent’s graves. Typically skittish around humans, the creature stared at Ian as if waiting for him to answer a meaningful question. Finally understanding he would get no reaction, the curious creature bounded into the forest, leaving tracks in the snow.
For twelve months, Ian had made the two-mile trek every Sabbath to pay respects. Or that is what Ian told the people who worried for him. Truth is he had a morbid desire to be near those he had once loved—those who had previously wrapped him in a loving embrace, tousling his hair, whispering guidance, and imparting the wisdom of how to be in the world. And those whom he had pledged his life—his love. He swallowed the bile provoked by the reality of his life. A daily existence defined by the absence of touches, voices, and truths once bestowed.
The endless hours he had spent under the instruction of Father Gerard came rushing back to him as he thought of the prophets who tore their clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes. As a boy, he had not understood such an extreme demonstration of emotion. As a man who had seen too much death, the temptation to follow the examples of the ole' wise men of the Scriptures was only assuaged by what his tenants and household might think of such a dramatic display. But how else did one express the loss of one’s mate? Ian had vowed to love and cherish until death parted, but no one ever explained how to stop loving and cherishing the person once they had departed the confines of this earth. No one ever talked about how to continue living with half a heart.
Ian's knees buckled, landing him on the mourning bench he had built beside her resting place. The texture of the cold stone against the back of his thighs was somehow satisfying. Yet, an eerie stillness overtook him as he allowed himself to lament and remember. The time it took to conjure an image of her face troubled him. Had he forgotten the tone of her voice, the touch of her skin, the passion she inspired with a glance? Like a drowning man gasping for air, he pressed his eyes closed, willing a memory to bring her to life, if only for a handful of moments.
He and Aileen had been childhood playmates, her father's lands neighboring Hunter boundaries. She was the only daughter in a family of sons, and he supposed their parents must have been hopeful for a potential match. Their bonny summer days were full of adventure and mischief, pretending to be Vikings on a ship bound for new land or swordplay out at the old abbey's ruins til twilight, but that golden time had ended much too soon.
The summer after he turned ten, he left for Glasgow to begin his formal instruction as a gentleman. Seven years passed of correspondence dotted with occasional visits home. Receiving a university education, he had studied the classics, Latin, French, and Mathematics. None of it seemed relevant to the running of an estate, but he respected his parents' wishes. Then, just as Ian anticipated taking his place at his father's knee to learn firsthand what his life as a Scottish laird would resemble, his father fell ill.
Laird Robert Hunter insisted that Ian foster with a distant cousin to prepare him to take over the estate's running. For months Ian busied himself with learning crop rotations and the importance of keeping accurate ledgers. But it wasn't long enough. There was so much to learn, and his cousin's estate was minuscule compared to Hunterston.
When his mother sent for him, his father, consumed by an illness of the lungs, only had days to live. Ian's goodbyes were hurried and jumbled amid the mourning of family and tenants who adored their beloved laird.
At his father's bedside, the man he had idolized for his short life took him by the hand and bent toward him, whispering, "Cursum Perficio,” I accomplish my course. Their clan motto. Robert Hunter squeezed his son’s hand and whispered, “Now run yours."
How would he finish a course he hadn't been shown? The keyholder to the map lay dying. Who would help him?
For weeks he watched in horror as his mother disappeared before his very eyes. Grief stricken, she took to the bed, refusing to eat or drink. Ian begged her to fight, to resist the urge to follow his father to the after life.
Kneeling by the bed, he kissed her knuckles and choked the words through sobs. “Mother, stay. Please. I need you. I don’t know how to be in this world.” Blue eyes, matching his own, brimmed with tears as she held her late husband’s pillow tight to her chest. No matter how much she wished to be a mother for her grown son, the idea of existing in a world without her beloved was unfathomable.
She wasn’t strong enough, and within a month—gone. The foundation of his world—decimated.
Overwhelmed by a dark cloud of bereavement, Ian barely functioned.
Immense responsibility had overtaken the remainder of his youth.
He was a ghost, but one who felt the oppressing weight of his clan, household, and tenants.
The relentless sun, continuing to rise and set without his permission, propelled him forward. Still, Ian begrudgingly obeyed its commands and moved through the day. Tending the lands, settling disputes, collecting rents—Ian proved himself a capable laird, wearing loneliness as a cloak.
Finally, extended family intervened.
Graham, a first cousin on his father's side, had convinced him to leave the walls of Hunterston House behind long enough to attend the Hogmanay celebration at Bram Manor. Letitia Bram, the Lady of the house, had created a fairyland to boost the community's morale amid a hard winter. The music, the food, the drink–intoxicating. Tenants spilled onto the front lawn, dancing and celebrating the season until the late night. Laughter and abounding joy echoed through the hills. Yet all Ian could do was think of how to escape into the solace of the night.
The blonde-haired lass he'd rambled about the countryside with as a boy was all but forgotten.
“As soon as you move, you ken that wall will be collapsin', and ma's party is ruined. That's not how you were raised, aye?" One blonde eyebrow cocked with playfulness.
Shadows of his childhood friend were encapsulated in the form of the most stunning woman he'd ever seen. Tall and regal, Aileen Bram embodied the Viking warriors' heritage they had once emulated as children.
A rare smirk met her eyes as he said, ”Oh, aye? And how do you know what I'm thinking?"
A smile that warmed him from the inside out lit up her countenance. "You haven't changed so much, Ian. Besides, ya know they are countin' on your presence for first footing." She eyed him from top to bottom. "Tall, dark-haired, a picture of luck."
The blush that darkened his high cheekbones made her giggle.
He'd asked Aileen to dance, and six months later, they had been married before the parish priest.
Had that only been three years past?
A shattered heart had cried out for partner, lover, and mother for his children; she had answered as if she had been made to every empty space in his existence. But the brevity of life snubbed out their future. And now, only silence echoed through the empty cavern left in her absence.
Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall had elapsed since he had wrapped his arms around her while sitting on the stone steps of Hunterston House. His hands, resting atop the rounded belly that held their first child, felt the jostles and kicks of his heir. A jest had passed between them. She had turned and swatted his cheek before resting her fair head against his broad chest. Light laughter, like bells, still rang in his ears. One sweet final memory eclipsed by hours of screaming, weeping, and then whimpering.
Aileen had struggled—fighting until the very end. All the determination called on from generations of past warriors was to no avail. The midwife could not stop the bleeding.
Their son lay atop his mother's chest, long enough for her to kiss his forehead, bathing him in tears for the briefest of rapturous greetings and wistful goodbyes.
No more could be done—the unrelenting hourglass emptying second by second.
Aileen had called for Ian. Despite the maid's pleading, he answered, kneeling by the bedside memorizing every detail of his wife. The walls of the laird’s chamber had seen joy, playfulness, and passion in the place of death and despair. Now, the dreaded summons from a ravenous grave returned, to steal, to kill and to destroy.
In the background, a hungry babe cried for his mother.
The linens, bathed in red, lay in heaps as there had been no time for destroying the evidence of his wife’s swift demise. A scent of iron hung in the air—blood consuming all senses.
She had lost all color, her voice just above a whisper. How had a life so vibrant drained in the space of a day? A disturbing truth wrapped around Ian’s chest in a vice-like grip. Making love to his wife had eventually led to her final sacrifice. Guilt threatened to consume him as he took her slight hand in his.
"Ian?" Cornflower blue eyes stared beyond him before focusing on the outline of his jaw.
Gently kissing her knuckle, he said, "Yes, my love?"
"Take care of the babe." She could barely choke out the words as her eyes lighted on the midwife holding their son in the corner of their chambers. How could new life and death house a space so succinctly?
Tears ran unchecked. The helpless sensation of her physically slipping the confines of this earth overwhelmed him. Tempted to climb onto the massive bed that seemed to swallow his wife’s slight form and pressing his body into hers, compelling her to stay rooted to this world, he didn’t. Instead he begged, ”Stay, Aileen. Don't go.” How many times would he have to kneel at a bedside begging someone not to leave him?
"I don't have a choice, my love." The gentle voice labored with a sense of urgency only known to those who understand the hourglass's emptying. "Wed again," she pleaded. A sinking sensation pulled at him as he shook his hand vehemently but stopped as her grip tightened.
Gathering all her strength, she leaned forward and breathed, ”You need a wife, Ian. She is out there. Find her. Don't mourn a ghost forever."
No words would form on his lips, but his sweet Aileen could be stubborn. "Promise me, Ian," she demanded.
Again, she squeezed his hand with more strength than she should have had. "Promise me. Robert—Bobby—is my final gift to you. Cherish him and make sure he is loved.”
Something shifted inside Aileen’s body as she arched, writhing in pain. A frantic exchange with the midwife communicated all he needed to know. There was nothing he could do for is beloved’s physical state, but he could comfort her in other ways. In that moment, he would have said anything to give her a modicum of peace. "I promise.”
Within minutes, she died—a lifeless form, ravaged by death filled his bed.
Later that night, his son's weight resting heavily in his arms, suckling for a milk-laden breast that no longer existed, haunted him. Wee Robert Ian Bram Hunter was motherless but healthy and braw. As he traced his Bobby’s chubby profile and puckered lips, tears clouded his vision. What a horrid beginning for an innocent child.
Kissing the round head covered with wisps of dark downy hair, Ian choked through tears, "I do promise, lad. Da is here, and all will be well."
The next day, a wet-nurse took residence and a version of life continued.
Thriving, Bobby was a picture of health. In the last year, he had grown sturdy, learning to walk and talk. It was no secret to his family and tenants; Ian doted on the boy. Some had feared he would blame his son for his wife's passing, but the thought had never crossed his mind. Perhaps it was the power of her final words. She'd compelled him to take care of their son with her dying wish, and Ian would not turn his back on that promise—or any other promise he'd made in those last moments.
Bobby needed a mother, one with a beating heart who would shower never-ending adoration and attention. Aileen would have been the best of mothers, the perfect mix of affection and discipline with every interaction. But she was no more.
Ian rubbed his chest as if to massage the gaping hole. This had not been the plan. They were supposed to grow old together—to watch fifty years of sunrises and sunsets.
"How could you? How could you leave me?" His gaze swept the three side-by-side plots. "How could you all leave me?" Useless questions spat through a square clenched jaw. The tears had dried long ago.
With one final look, he rose and began to hike the trek toward home, knowing he had to yank himself out of this valley, to go on with a plan to finish the course. A fresh wave of anger crept upon him. Why was he the one left to fulfill dying wishes? What about what he wanted? No one had ever asked him that question. His course had been set before his birth, as his infant son’s is set for him. Such was this life.
As he raked fingers through his wind-swept tousled hair, Ian closed his eyes to focus on the future. The pressures from the clan to marry again intensified by the day. The '19 rising had passed a decade ago. Alliances were sought after to achieve strength in numbers as English occupation grew in the Highlands. An advantageous marriage would strengthen what would one day be his son's. And what of other children? Would Bobby be doomed to live the life of an only child as he had?
His cousin’s words from his last correspondence echoed in his ear. Be strategic, Ian. Plan this next move to benefit our family. Aileen was the right choice. Continue to choose well.
The thought of courting and finding a wife made him want to crawl out of his skin with revulsion. How could any woman take her place? Aileen had been a favorite among the tenants and neighboring clans with her gracious manner and gentle ways. Besides, she had overtaken his heart, filling every conceivable space. Would the memory of her suffocate the possibility of loving another? It didn't matter. Marrying did not necessarily translate into a costly love that would place his heart in danger. Unity as a business transaction was more common than naught and much less risky.
He knew there could be no more excuses. He needed a wife, and his son needed a mother. Ian had to go on with living and honor Aileen's final wish. He just didn't know how or with whom. Attempting to visualize his future in light of his reality felt like peering through the fog, searching for a muted sun. The density acted as an impenetrable wall.
The sight of Hunterston House in the distance set his mind at ease. The estate was small in comparison to others, yet productive. They kept cattle and sheep, had been blessed with a generous harvest of wheat and barley, among other crops. Generations of tenants had been with his family, and were unparalleled in their loyalty to the clan, but also to Ian as an individual. A sense of guilt knotted in Ian's belly.
Gratefulness for his son, his people, the very air he breathed through his nostrils should be flooding his bones. How dare he dwell in this sea of despair, drowning while others watched from the shore. They needed him, and he refused to succumb to selfish desire like his mother. God forgive him for his anger.
Seeing the stone chapel nestled in the upper meadow prompted him to pause. Father Gerard was doing his rounds for the next couple of months, but that didn't stop Ian from seeking a sense of solace, even if it was from sitting on the empty parish bench he and his ancestors had occupied for over a century. Simple in its structure, his predecessors had been proud of this place of worship. At the altar stood a Celtic cross and above the pulpit, a cut out of stained glass depicting the last supper.
Ian took his place—front row, right side, and bowed his head to pray. Sweet, honey-laden scents of frankincense, myrrh, and tobacco lingered in the air, providing Ian with a sense of calm. In a whisper, he prayed, “Lord Jesus Christ, I beg for mercy. Thank you for the blessings you have given me. Protect my son. Grant me wisdom and determination. Help me to finish the course. Enable me to keep impossible promises. Make a way where there is no way. Amen." A meager offering, but all he had.
For a long while, he stared at the etched glass, admiring the vivid colors in the otherwise gray surroundings. The Lord knew he would be leaving his disciples and even imparted that information, though they didn’t comprehend. How desperate they must have felt upon the death of their friend. For the first time in his life, he saw the scene through new eyes. Death escaped no one.
With bone-deep effort, he rose and continued on the way home.
How would he begin? He supposed he could consult his cousin, Graham, as to eligible women in the neighboring clans. One or two daughters came to mind. At three and twenty, he was far from an old man. Yet he felt as if he'd lived three lifetimes. Most women his age were married with children. Could he bind himself to a young, innocent lass who dreamed of love? Several families had sent gifts of condolences casually mentioning the single female in their household in a note of sympathy but the idea of taking a daughter for selfish purposes with little to offer in the way of feeling made him feel like the worst kind of thief.
Ian understood the draw to want to be his wife. Humility aside, because what a horrid prize he would be for a poor, unsuspecting lass! But the idea of binding a name to his clan would hold great appeal for any family seeking protection.
Although not the most extensive line, the Hunter name was old and prestigious, earning respect from the Scottish and English. Unlike many Scots hostile toward the crown, the Hunter family had made peace with England two generations prior. One of his father's best friends was an English officer by the name of Donaldson. They had been comrades at University, and Captain Donaldson visited the estate when Ian was only a boy.
No, Ian knew there would not be a shortage of eligible women. But what kind of husband could he be when his heart belonged to a ghost?
Fighting off nausea, he promised himself he would write to Graham. At least that would be a start. Satisfied, a stifled sense of resolve rested atop the grief when a shrill voice jerked him out of his thoughts.
"Laird Hunter!" Arabella, the scullery maid, spotted him on top of the hill, picked up her skirts, and flew toward him like a bat out of hell. With an exhausted sigh, he ran his fingers through the tangle of dark curls. His innards felt as if they'd fallen from the core out, and he certainly was not in the right frame of mind for incessant blathering detailing the latest stramash below stairs. What was the lass doing running without a cloak? She'd catch her death.
"Sir! Sir! You wouldna believe the storm that has blown up while you were out visitin' the Mistress." Attempting to catch her breath, she crossed herself out of respect for Aileen.
"Take a breath, lass. It cannot be all that bad." He looked over her head toward the house. No unusual activity, no fire, no runaway livestock—all seemed peaceful.
"Where's Mrs. Mack?" The cook and head housekeeper, Regina Mack, had been employed at Hunterston House since he was a boy, possessed a steady hand and was capable of dealing with any drama that might happen amongst the servants. More than a servant, Mrs. Mack was the senior member of his household and treated him with respect.—loyal, above all, he trusted her.
Ian believed in being an active laird, one who knew his servants and their families by name. But he also knew when to step back and let the most qualified handle conflict. He knew better than to complicate a situation by his presence, so he didn't get overly concerned at Arabella's hysterics.
Besides, what could be worse than their former Mistress lying underground molding in the soil? Ian closed his eyes and took a deep breath, forcing himself to turn from those awful images.
Then a new possibility struck him. Was it the bairn? Had he toddled and taken a tumble? The lad was pulling up and learning how to climb, much to the household staff's dismay. His heart began beating fast as he imagined his son injured.
Arabella read his expression and exclaimed, "Oh no, Sir! The wee man is sleeping."
Filling his lungs with relief, he placed his hand on the young maid's shoulder and instructed, "Slow down, and tell me what happened."
Arabella shook capped head back and forth, landing it crooked on her crown, all the while flailing her hands like a bird who'd gotten into the still and had forgotten how to fly. "Hamish was finishing up his chores, and ya ken when he heard some rustling near the haystack. Ya see he was afraid a fox had entered the barn and readied himself with his rifle to take care of the fiend. But come to find out, it was not a fox at all."
Ian listened impatiently, encouraging the girl to go on with an irritable nod of his head. She simply stared, blinking like an owl, as if he could read her addled mind. "And?"
"Arabella, what was rustling?"
"Twas, a girl," she said.
"A girl? In the haystack?"
"Aye. Come see, Sir." Arabella jumped up and down with eagerness.
A brew of equal parts curiosity and dread settled in his gut. New drama was not desired, nor needed. With purpose, he sidestepped Arabella and began the short march down the hill to find out what the hell was going on.
Ian entered through the kitchens but stayed hidden behind the high stone wall opposite the hearth. Delicious aromas of baking bannocks and roasted meat hung in the air, reminding him he had not eaten today. Arabella followed behind him, but he held a finger to his lips to silence the announcement of his presence. She obeyed, reluctantly, and busied herself elsewhere. He peered around the corner to find Mrs. Mack face to face with what appeared to be a starved urchin. He could only see the young miss from the back, but the girl was petite and haggard. Copper hair a tangled mess, stalks of hay stuck out this way and that. What was left of her dress—filthy and torn. No shoes or coat, she must be freezing—poor lass.
Occasionally a disgruntled child or ruined maid would flee, fearing discipline or corporal punishment from their parent or master. A good, stern talking-to from Mrs. Mack might be just the thing. She probably only sought a meal, sustenance to fill her belly, and would be on her way. He had faith the young lass's stomach would be filled, and her hands and feet warmed before returning to her home.
Nevertheless, he would let Mrs. Mack decide whether his audience was needed. Weariness drained him of overt concern. Step by step, he ascended the back stairway that led to his chambers. A thousand thoughts pressed down on his shoulders, and he swore he could hear his body creaking in protest. Could prolonged grief wear you down? As he rubbed the back of his neck, he suspected so. A part of him yearned for the tired that waited after a long day's work, knowing a warm, loving woman waited for him at home. But not just any woman. His wife. Longing to see a part of Aileen, he diverted his route to see his son.
Bobby's nursery lay to the right of his study. He entered through the door and motioned for the maid to remain seated. Quietly, he bent over the bed and peered at his sleeping son, laying bottom-up sucking his thumb. His heart immediately liquified like the milk the babe consumed. To all who knew him, Bobby was made over in his father's likeness. Dark curly hair, violet-blue eyes, sturdy build, and a strong streak of mischief marked his son as his. Yet there were hints of Aileen in his skin's translucency, the sparkle in his eyes, and the curve of his mouth. At times, Ian made the boy giggle to hear an echo of his mother throughout the halls.
He gently patted Bobby on the bottom and grinned as he inhaled and exhaled. Satisfied, Ian angled his head and nodded at the maid who knit beside the window. Maria responded in return and settled back to her work, convinced the master needed no assistance.
Ian chose to rest in his study instead of his chambers. Giving in to fatigue was counterproductive and would only allow him to muddle in his dark thoughts. Besides, his room only reminded him of memories lost to death. Instead, he entered his study, walked to his desk, and sat in the leather chair that had belonged to the lairds before him and promptly poured himself a whiskey, followed by another.
Despite his intentions, he lay his head down and succumbed to the pull of blessed oblivion. Dreams haunted him. Visions of his mother and father laughing over dinner reminded him of a childhood long gone. Making love to Aileen, reveling in the warmth of her presence in his bed. Peacefully sleeping as he held her naked body in his arms. Then, the dream shifted. They sat together in the great hall, a baby girl cuddled against Aileen's breasts, nursing. A happy little boy, around the age of three, ran in the open space laughing. A vision from the future—as it should be.
A knock echoed in the background. Ignoring it, Ian hung on to the tendrils of an alternate reality. Gut-level sadness compelled him to remain still, to return to the bliss of the dream. Another knock startled Ian to consciousness. As he spun around to glance out the window, the sun had shifted low on the horizon. How long had he been asleep? It must be supper time, at least.
Scrubbing his face with his hands, he responded, "Enter."
The door cracked open, and Mrs. Mack stepped over the threshold. He and his cook had an easy rapport, absent of unnecessary formality probably since she'd swatted him more than a few times on the backside as a lad. Yet she appeared nervous. What had happened to make her hesitant to approach him?
"Yes, Mrs. Mack? Please, come in."
"Sir, Arabella, foolish lass, told me she informed you about our visitor."
Ian, confused, shook his head a bit, dislodging the cobwebs from his mind. Oh, yes. The errant runaway child. In slumber, he'd forgotten about their unexpected guest.
Leaning back in his chair, he said, "She did. I confess I saw the two of you in the kitchens. You appeared to have it in hand, so I thought I'd let you feed the lass and send her on her way. From where did she come?" He shuffled the rent ledgers to the right side of his desk before looking up in the absence of a response. He cocked an eyebrow in question. "Runaway servant unhappy with her situation?"
Mrs. Mack swallowed and flattened her apron against her ample midsection before making eye contact. "Noooo, not exactly. She requested an audience with you, Sir. I—cleaned her up a bit. You see, she was no presentable."
Ian recalled the vision of the urchin-like figure. Not presentable was putting it kindly. The girl appeared to have been dragged through the muck and mire for days. "Yes, but Mrs. Mack, why would the child want an audience with me? Surely—"
Mrs. Mack cocked her head to the side and interrupted, "Ian—Sir, she's not a child. I reckon she's at least one and twenty. Old enough to be widowed."
He sat up, eyes narrowing. "The girl I saw in the kitchens is a grown woman?" Was his mind addled? Had he not gazed on another woman's figure so long, he no longer recognized the form?
"Aye, sir." She cleared her throat, and he noted a hint of mischief light her large brown eyes. "Quite grown."
"Where does she come from, then?"
"I think the lass should explain the tale herself if you don't mind me saying, Sir."
"Why?" Frustrated, Ian began pacing. Today had been chock full of emotions, and he didn't want to cap it off with begging from a servant. "Mrs. Mack, what on earth is going on? If the girl—woman—is a runaway, she must go back. We can't harbor errant servants at the estate."
Mrs. Mack shot a glance over her shoulder as she stepped forward and lowered her voice. "She came from the Castle Craig."
Ian groaned and covered his stubbled face with his hands. Oh, God. Of all the clans in this part of the highlands, he despised the Craigs. The past century was tainted with bad blood between the Hunters and the inhabitants of the third largest family on this side of the valley. To be housing a member of their household would inevitably spark a flame that would ignite a war. And as much as he savored any opportunity to knock Craig from his high horse, he wasn't up for it. The girl-woman—whatever she was had to go back. Immediately.
Ian walked around his desk and motioned forward. Leaning back, he folded his hands in front of him, preparing to reason with a foolish lass, no matter her age. "Send her in, Mrs. Mack."
Mrs. Mack turned and signaled through the slight opening of the door. Breath caught in his throat, and for a moment, he forgot to exhale. Ian stood stock still as a petite form entered his chambers. Surely this couldn't be the same person he saw in the kitchens. But according to his trusted servant, this ethereal vision of loveliness and the urchin were one and the same.
Ian swallowed. Mrs. Mack was correct in her assessment. The woman who stood before him was no child. Fully formed curves, hugged by a simple blue house dress that clung to the most pleasant places, caused him to avert his eyes deliberately. Fiery red hair, clean and loosely piled atop her head, set off bright green eyes that held no fear, only wariness. Fair-skinned and small featured, she reminded him of the beautiful wood nymphs he'd heard about as a little lad.