Upon his release from his seven-year imprisonment in the Tower of London, the Highland chieftain Drummond Macqueen thinks of only one thing—revenge. But when he seeks out the treacherous bride who betrayed him, he instead finds a woman who is more like a stranger. Both lovely and defiant, it seems his deceitful wife has drastically—and inexplicably—changed.
Seven years ago, Johanna took her dying sister’s place to raise her infant son, even if it meant sacrificing her own happiness. But when her sister’s husband Drummond—thought to be executed—shows up alive, Johanna’s precious independence is threatened.
Soon Drummond’s bitterness gives way to passion, and Johanna’s soul-deep longing erupts. But when enemies of the past come back to settle old scores, the blossoming love may be crushed before it even has a chance to bloom.
“So powerfully moving that the audience will feel that Ms. Lamb has exceeded her usual high standard of excellence . . . Just another tremendous novel from one of the greats.” —The Reader’s Voice
“Arnette Lamb creates love stories that fire the heart and make your blood sing and your imagination soar! Chieftain is as enthralling, tempestuous, compelling, and intense as any of Ms. Lamb’s richly painted tales.” —RT Book Reviews
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Seven Years Later Fairhope Tower
The door to the buttery slammed open. "A stranger's just come, my lady," said Amauri, the porter, as breathless as if he had run all the way from Carlisle. "He claims he's your husband."
Johanna turned around so quickly the wide cuff of her surcoat tipped over a crock of honey. Fighting back panic, she righted the jar before the sticky contents spilled onto the workbench. Were it not for the fear in the servant's eyes, she would have accused him of teasing her. "He said nothing else?"
Amauri's mouth pinched with disapproval. "Only that he was Drummond Macqueen was all."
Drummond Macqueen was dead, hanged years ago by King Edward I. Although she'd received no formal notice of Drummond's execution, she hadn't expected condolences from the Crown; the ruthlessness of Edward I toward his enemies was legendary. The arrival of this imposter did seem oddly timed, since the old king had been laid to rest himself last year. The new king, his son, Edward II, had recently been crowned.
Surely the man played some jest or hoped to profit by posing as her husband. He'd soon learn that the widow Macqueen was no easy mark for tricksters.
"You mustn't worry, Amauri. Show him to the hall. Have Evelyn serve him the everyday ale, but she's not to chat with him. And you're not to carry his luggage."
"Aye, Lady Clare." He bowed and turned.
Johanna had answered to that name for so long it sounded natural. She did not regret losing her own identity; in taking Clare's name she kept her sister's memory alive. But more, seven years after the fact, Johanna knew she was fulfilling her own destiny.
The porter stopped. "What shall I do with his elephant?"
"His elephant." The servant put his hands on either side of his head and wagged his fingers. "Massive beast with huge ears, a snout as big as last year's Yule log, and beady eyes."
Johanna glowered at him. "I know what an elephant looks like. I've seen the drawings in Alasdair's books."
Embarrassment turned the servant's complexion pink. He fumbled with the laces on his jerkin. "Sorry, my lady. I meant no offense. Everyone knows you're as bright as the king's own chamberlain."
At any other time she would have scoffed at his praise, but considering the meeting ahead, she needed every scrap of confidence she could muster. "And you're a prince among porters, Amauri. Where is the creature now?"
"Chained to a post in the outer bailey and drawing a crowd. The workmen from Saddler's Dale dropped their plows in the field and swarmed the creature. The cobbler's wife swooned."
Johanna imagined the excitement the beast would cause. She also wondered where the visitor had acquired the odd animal. She had heard of only one elephant in the land, and it was housed in the Royal Menagerie.
Alarm pricked her senses. The Royal Menagerie occupied a part of the Tower of London. Drummond had been taken there for execution. But what, her common sense demanded, would a man posing as a Highland chieftain be doing with an elephant?
Trying to still her racing heart, she dismissed the porter. "Fret not about the beast unless it causes trouble. Its owner won't be here long." Then she carefully rolled down the sleeves of her bliaud and stepped into the afternoon sunshine.
In the castle yard the wheelwright haggled with the blacksmith over the price of nails; the randy potboy bartered with a comely goosegirl over a more personal and earthy commodity. From the laundry shed came the fresh scent of lavender soap. An infant wailed. A horse whinnied. A small herd of sheep fled before a yapping dog.
The familiar sights and sounds soothed Johanna's jangled nerves and inspired rational thought. Once she had lived in fear of discovery, but after seven years she'd grown comfortable with the identity of her twin sister. Everyone, from the lordly sheriff of Dumfries to the poorest cabbage farmer, was loyal to her and protective of Alasdair.
At the thought of her son, she grew fearful again and paused near the rabbit warren. This had been his favorite place to play, until he saw the butcher slaughter an old buck. Alasdair had sworn never to eat rabbit again. Although she hadn't given birth to him, Johanna considered herself his mother. She had paced the floor and comforted him when a budding tooth made him fretful. She had watched with joy in her heart and tears in her eyes when he'd taken his first wobbly steps. She had made mistakes. She had showered him with too much affection. She had, in sum, spoiled him.
What if this stranger tried to take Alasdair? That possibility brought her to the point of panic. Comfort came with the knowledge that Alasdair was absent from the castle. After the midday meal, her son had gone fishing with Bertie Stapledon, but they always returned before dark. Instinct told her to get rid of this stranger before her son came home.
Eager to do just that, she pulled off her soiled coif and picked up the hem of her work dress. Then she hurried across the yard and raced up the steep steps to the hill fort. As she made her way to the upstairs hall, she laid out a plan for dealing with the man who awaited her. She would greet him kindly. She would listen to his preposterous story. She would name him a liar and order him off her land. If he refused she would have her guards subdue him. Then she would send word for the sheriff and insist he earn his retaining fee by sending back the pretender and his elephant from whence they'd come.
But the moment she saw the stranger, even from across the hall, she was forced to rethink her strategy.
In profile, he bore so striking a resemblance to Alasdair that Johanna grew panicky all over again. His straight nose with its high bridge and gently flaring nostrils marked him as a relation. His pitch-black hair reminded her of her son's unruly mane. A sensitive mouth and strong, square jaw confirmed the likeness. But more than his features, his intensity of concentration as he examined the needlework on the fire screen swayed her the most. Bending from the waist, he looked just as Alasdair had when he'd first seen a turtle draw into its shell. This man appeared interested and inquisitive. And breathtakingly handsome.
Without doubt, he was a Macqueen.
Terrified, she could not yet step into the room and announce her presence, but continued to watch him unnoticed. Rather than trunk hose and jerkin, he wore trews of soft leather and a full-sleeved shirt of loosely woven wool. His long legs were lean, his flanks trim; yet his shoulders were as broad as a blacksmith's. In his hand he held a Highland bonnet, ornamented with three tattered feathers and a shiny silver badge bearing an emblem she couldn't make out, but suspected was a wolf rampant, the symbol of Clan Macqueen. The device was repeated on the palm-size brooch that secured his distinctive tartan cape at his shoulder.
Over the years she had created fictional stories about Drummond, tales designed to inspire pride in a fatherless boy. To Alasdair, his sire was a heroic figure, pure of heart and strong of will. Would this man, surely a Macqueen cousin or uncle, refute or enlarge upon the legends?
"I see improvement in your needlework, Clare," he said, still studying the framed tapestry.
Startled, Johanna stepped back. Then she caught herself. She would not fear this man, neither would she allow his breach of etiquette to go unchecked. "I pray the same is true of your manners, sir, for you haven't the right to address me with so much familiarity."
He stood upright and strolled toward her. With an outwardly casual air, he studied her from head to toe; yet his blue eyes were intense in their inspection. "I haven't the right, Clare? You seem to have forgotten just how many rights I hold where you are concerned."
She felt invaded and clenched her fists to keep from slapping him. "Who are you?"
He tisked and shook his head. "Shame, shame, my dear. Not that I expected you to welcome me with open arms. You preferred to save your embraces for other men."
A pigeon landed on the sill of the open window. Seeking a diversion from the compelling man and his just accusations, Johanna shooed the bird away. Casually, she said, "I asked your name, sir."
One side of his mouth curled up in a smile. "I haven't changedthat much. You know precisely who I am. Why pretend otherwise?"
Resisting the urge to call him a knave, Johanna summoned patience. "Because Drummond Macqueen is dead. The old king hanged him."
"Not so. Edward the First, rest his soul, chose to be merciful. His son proved benevolent and upon taking the crown, set me free." Anger glittered in his eyes and tightened his jaw. "But then, as I recall, you have intimate knowledge of our new king, do you not? Have you presented him with more bastards?"
He was referring to Clare's affair with the Plantagenet prince who was now the king. With dread Johanna remembered that all the Macqueens knew. Thank God their lands were far away in the Highlands, for her heart wrenched, thinking Alasdair might be scorned for another's sin. Yet how dare this brute be so rude as to bring up Clare's mistake? Johanna had no intention of addressing her sister's indiscretion. She sighed and lifted her chin. "Who are you, and what do you want?"
With no more vigor than a carpenter choosing wood, he said, "You have a brand here — a wee blunted sword." He pulled his shirt aside and touched the thick muscles above his right collarbone. "'Tis why you wear modest gowns."
Seeing his strong hand and remembering the passion Clare had attributed to her marriage bed, Johanna fought back a surge of longing. She would not risk losing her independence or revealing her true identity, not for the sake of passion. "Your knowledge of the mark proves nothing."
"You cannot possibly have forgotten me." A trace of vulnerability laced his words and his massive shoulders slumped.
Sensing a weakness in him, she took advantage; Clare had risked her immortal soul for her husband, and Johanna had too much to lose. "Forgotten you, an imposter?" she scoffed. "You may be memorable in some circles, but here ..." She let the insult trail off.
The troll laughed, a hearty sound that seemed natural. "Very well. I offer you more intimate proof." He plopped down on a bench. Resting his arms on his knees, he stared into the mug. "You suffer dreadful cramps during your menses, which are as regular as Sunday Mass. You used to cuddle beside me in bed or lie awake until I joined you. Who else but a husband could know that?"
Appalled, Johanna felt herself blush. Unlike Clare, she didn't suffer for being a woman. That he knew the particulars of Clare's cycle created the first doubt in Johanna's surety. But she hadn't built a successful life by withering before every man who challenged her. "You are not my husband."
Surprise lent elegance to his rugged good looks. He took a long pull on the ale. "Have you annulled our marriage?"
She wanted to rail at him; instead she began to pace the rush-strewn floor. "How long, sir, will you continue this farce? I am not your wife."
He chuckled, but the sound held no humor. "You're not a verygood wife."
"Enough of your rough talk!" She whirled and marched over to him. "I can see you are a Macqueen. I give you that much."
"Then I've made progress. Hurrah for me."
"Which Macqueen are you?"
He stared at her breasts. "The only one you know in the carnal sense — at least I believe that is so."
The insult deserved a like reply. "Have you come here for money?"
He almost choked, and his gaze leaped to her face. "Money?"
She'd made him uncomfortable. Hurrah for her. "If so, you've made a useless journey, for I haven't a mark to squander on a man who cannot earn an honest wage."
He craned his neck in an exaggerated examination of the tapestries on the walls, the brass brazier, and the diamond shaped panes in the windows. "You expect me to think you are poor, amid all of this prosperity? The largesse of the Plantagenets, I assume."
To build the keep, she had sold all of her jewelry and Clare's. When that had not been enough, she had indebted herself to the neighboring laird of Clan Douglas. During the construction she and Alasdair had lived in a crofter's hut. She had repaid the debt, and to this day, worked as hard as anyone in her demesne. "You know nothing about me or the origins of Fairhope Tower."
"You needn't explain, Clare. 'Twould seem we have the same benefactor." His expression grew hard, and he slammed down the tankard. "But I will not share you again."
His possessiveness gave her pause, for Clare had spoken at length about her husband's jealous nature. Perhaps it was one of many family flaws. Clare had loved Drummond more than life. She might still be alive were it not for his warring ways. The old heartbreak returned. "You have the poisoned brain of a madman."
"An interesting observation," he growled. "Especially from a faithless wife."
Suddenly afraid and desperate to get rid of him, she said, "I'll summon my guards."
He waved her off. "Summon your new king, should it suit you. He bids you well, by the way. But I'm certain you often receive his greetings."
She had seen Edward II only once. He'd been a prince back then. The truth came easily. "I haven't had the honor of seeing His Majesty since I came to this land."
It was the wrong thing to say. His eyes narrowed, accentuating the length of his lashes. "Come now. Our gracious new sovereign cannot say enough about the way in which you honor him. He was particularly verbal about his sojourn last year in Carlisle."
In January of 1307, the old king had convened Parliament in the nearby city of Carlisle, but neither he nor his son had communicated with her. What game did this man play? At a loss for a convincing denial and weary of defending herself to a stranger, she again spoke the truth. "You have been misinformed. Ask anyone here."
"I'll not reap the truth from them. These people will be loyal to you." He gave her a sugar-sweet smile. "But that will change. This land, the keep, and all in it belong to me."
"Mother!" Alasdair's voice boomed through the keep.
Johanna gasped. The stranger lifted his brows.
She heard the slap of boots on the stairs. Her heart hammered in tune with the footfalls. A moment later, Alasdair burst into the room, a huffing Bertie Stapledon on his heels.
Hair in disarray, blue eyes bright with wonder, her son skidded to a halt, scattering the rushes. "There's an elephant in the bailey, Mother." He lifted his arms. "An elephant!"
The stranger looked awestruck. "As the Lord lives," he murmured, "that lad is my son."
Johanna glanced at Bertie, the servant who had accompanied Clare to the Highlands years before. To Johanna's great dismay, he doffed his cap and bowed. "Lord Drummond," he stammered, and shot Johanna a worried frown. "We thought you dead."
"So I'm told. You're Bertie, if I recall."
Johanna went weak with fear. The man was Drummond Macqueen. He had spent seven years resenting his wife's infidelity while languishing in prison. Johanna's demesne had prospered under her care, and Alasdair had grown to a good-natured, precocious boy of whom any father would be proud; Drummond had a right to claim both. Could she convince him that she was the wife he hated and whose body and spirit he knew intimately?
She must entice him into leaving. Either way, she'd do her acting without an audience. "Alasdair, go with Bertie." She tipped her head toward the door.
As if he hadn't heard, the boy approached Drummond Macqueen. His chin up, boyish pride shimmering like a bright mantle, Alasdair said, "Who are you?"
Drummond seemed fascinated by the lad. "I'm your father."
Alasdair peeked behind the man. "Where are your wings, then?"
"My wings? Why would I have wings?"
Flapping his arms, Alasdair sighed dramatically. "Because if you're my father, you must be an angel. Mother said 'twas so."
Surprise and amusement twinkled in Drummond's eyes. "She did?" He shot her a measuring glance. "What else did she tell you about me?"
Alasdair shrugged. "Stories. Hundreds of them. No — thousands." Turning pleading eyes to Johanna, he said, "Is he my father?"
Her throat as dry as last summer's bracken, Johanna tried to swallow. Gathering courage, she kept her voice even. "We'll discuss it later, Alasdair. You are excused."
"He is my father." He hooted with joy and turned his back on her. "Is that elephant yours?"
Still wonderstruck, Alasdair's father gave the lad a genuine smile. "Aye. He's called Longfellow."
"I want to ride it." Alasdair tucked his small thumbs into his belt. "I ride very well, you know."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Chieftain"
Copyright © 1994 Arnette Lamb.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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