The Highlander's Bridal bid
Publication: Harlequin (November 2022)
Drama abounds in this Medieval romance
Finding his future wife
Means revisiting his past…
After making a pact with his brother to find a bride by the year’s end, warrior Camron of Clan Graham faces his toughest battle yet: to win defiant Anna, his first love. She’s fiercely protective of her family and her independence, so Highlander Camron must prove to Anna that she’s more than just a bet—and that he’s a man she can trust with her safety and her heart!
April 1297, Graham Clan land
‘It's late,’ Camron of Clan Graham slurred. ‘We should go to bed.’
‘No,’ Hamilton, his brother, mumbled. ‘It's early, see how the sun is about to rise?’
Camron lifted his head from his brother’s shoulder and looked to where Hamilton weakly pointed. ‘It’s just another campfire that hasn’t died yet.’
‘Ours has.’ Hamilton kicked out in front of them, and Camron almost fell forward until his brother settled so he could slouch securely again.
He could feel the cold April night upon them. It was that reason why three additional fires with logs and benches were set up outside the village where Clan Graham could congregate and celebrate the return of him, his brother, and others, and bid goodbye to the ones, the scouts, who would take their place on the outer reaches of their land.
He couldn’t hear voices now. Did they leave hours ago or was it early like Hamilton thought?
Their fire was out. And out of all the revellers, only he and his brother sat on this long slumped against each other, holding the other up, side to side.
‘We need to get to bed,’ he said again.
‘Not sure I have the use of my legs,’ Hamilton replied.
Camron knew he didn't have use of his legs, but everyone else was gone. If he intended to leave, they needed to work. ‘How much ale did we drink?’
‘We’re the last Graham standing,’ his brother said.
They weren’t standing, but he was too tired to point that fact out.
‘Never bet against a Graham on drinking, you will always lose,’ Hamilton continued.
‘I am a Graham,’ Camron felt like he’d heard Hamilton say such a thing before.
Maybe it had been last night. After all, that was how it started, and how most of their competitions, challenges, and bets began. Since the moment they realized they looked the same, exactly the same from height to colouring to their toes, they were constantly trying to outdo each other to prove their differences.
Not to themselves, but to the clan. For himself he always felt different than Hamilton. On top of that, it was obvious…he was more reserved, whilst his brother liked to boast he was brave or bold or some other such ridiculous word. What he truly was, was a troublemaker.
When the betting happened it was usually Hamilton who started it. Camron tried to rub his forehead and missed.
‘Ow,’ Hamilton said. ‘Why did you poke me in the eye?’
‘Nothing less than you deserve,’ Camron said.
‘Maybe you shouldn’t have drunk so much mead.’
He did? That's why his head pounded. He had drunk Seoc’s mead. The man was as large as an oak and just as thick. He made the mead so that he could get drunk. It wasn’t meant to be drunk by anyone else in any quantity.
‘I thought we were drinking ale?’
‘We were. Apparently, you wanted a headache in the morning.’ Hamilton rested his head on Camron’s shoulder. ‘I need to sleep.’
Camron did as well. Instead, they sat on a hollow log with the mist dampening their clothes.
He didn’t feel altogether cold, but he didn’t know if that was because the fire that used to be at their feet recently died, if the mead coursing through him kept him numb, or the heavy lump of his brother leaning against blocked the wind.
He crossed his arms around himself. If it was cold, he’d get up. But since it wasn’t….
‘It’s good to be back home,’ Hamilton said, his voice low.
Camron startled awake, had he been asleep? Hamilton let out a snore. His own voice or his brother’s, it didn’t matter…the words were exactly how Camron felt.
Over the last years, the peaceful existence his clan enjoyed had been difficult to maintain.
It wasn’t only because of the tensions between England and Scotland or because of King Edward and last March’s Battle of Dunbar when Sir Patrick of Graham had died.
In that battle he and Hamilton had fled to the forest whilst dragging their friend, Seoc, behind them. Seoc had received a chest wound that had brought on a terrible fever, and almost took his life.
Peace was also interrupted by the clans around them. Most of the clans had always had some friendly rivalry. Some, like the Buchanan and the Colquhoun clans, weren’t so amicable. Lately between those two there was increasing tension that not even a marriage between them had eased.
He and Hamilton had celebrated that wedding with them all, but the celebration was filled with some heavy foreboding Clan Graham didn’t want anything to do with, and fortunately, he and Hamilton hadn’t got involved.
The mounting strife between England and Scotland was enough to keep them occupied. Since Dunbar, regular patrols and messages to exchange information between clans were necessary if not vital to save lives.
He wondered if it was doing any good. Even now, William Wallace was intending some strike against the English. It may be in Stirling, but no battle was far enough away for anyone to be safe.
He and his brother were unmarried and well trained with the sword. As a consequence, they were the ones often sent out to communicate with other clans or to do patrols. This was the first night they, and many of their friends, were home. Hence the celebratory drinking.
And now came the almost desperate despondency he always felt. He loved being home, but there was torment here as well. A constant malady that had nothing to do with wars between countries, and everything to do with Anna, a woman he fell in love with when he was but ten.
‘You sighed heavily again brother.’ Hamilton’s head lifted, then resettled on his shoulder. ‘You thinking about her already? We haven’t even been here one full day.’
Did it matter if they were here an hour, or had been several years away. His thoughts always returned to her.
‘I’ll be seeing her today. Best to think about her and be prepared than round some corner and be surprised.’
‘Thought I’d got you drunk enough to make it through the night,’ Hamilton said with a sigh.
‘Is that why you challenged us to drink so much ale?’
Hamilton sat straighter, adjusted his seat, then slumped back against him. The feeling he was just getting back in his arm, numbed again.
His brother was a heavy man. Of course, the same could be said about him. Identical brown hair, identical brown eyes. Not as tall as some of his clansmen, but reported twice as strong. Not even their parents could tell them apart all the time. A fact, they had often taken advantage of.
When he thought about their appearance, he never saw himself when he looked at his brother. If anything, he felt he was looking at the opposite of himself.
The exception was Anna, who always knew who he was. Of course, that could be because he’d been staring at her since he was a child and couldn’t ever seem to look away.
‘I didn’t start the ale challenge,’ Hamilton said.
Hamilton always started the challenges between them…or almost always. ‘How can you remember with the pounding in your head?’ Camron said.
‘Your head’s pounding, mine’s just tired.’
His whole body was tired and filled with a familiar circumspect expectancy. ‘I’ll see her today,’ he said again.
A long pause. ‘We won’t be back as long as last time.’
That was why he worried. After wanting her forever, would there ever be a point he’d have her?
He still couldn’t remember why at aged ten he was out that evening so long ago. It was one of those nights where the air was thick with water, but hot. He remembered the clan had all been asleep, but the dark sky was lit with a full moon.
Wearing a short tunic, he’d got out of bed, and held out his hands to feel the moisture and see the moonbeams reflected in the beads. Fascinated by some sort of enchantment, he hadn’t realised how far he’d travelled carrying the water and moonbeams until he was through a small copse of trees along the river’s edge.
That’s when he saw her. Alone, sitting on boulder, and half turned so he could only see her profile.
Anna of Clan Graham was five years older than him, and though young, there were several potential suitors waiting. Something adults talked of, but he’d never bothered to understand.
Perhaps it was the hour or the enchantment he’d carried from his bed. Maybe it was the silence broken by the gentle lapping of the water or the bright moonlight which broke over all the water until it looked like jewels scattered at her feet.
But nothing was as beautiful as the young girl-woman who was running a comb through her wet hair. With uplifted arms, her white chemise clung to the damp curve of her back, and hid her feet she’d tucked underneath her. He always thought her blue eyes were striking, but that beauty was shared by that sheet of black silken strands which rivalled any unlit night.
‘You asleep again?’ Hamilton said.
‘I’m drunk,’ Camron confessed. Hamilton already knew the story of Anna and that night so long ago. His brother wouldn’t appreciate the retelling.
‘I can feel my legs now,’ Hamilton said.
‘You want to get up?’ His brother would have to get up in order for Camron to have any chance of moving from this log they sat on.
‘No,’ Hamilton said.
That was…surprising. Not the answer, but the way he said it. His brother sounded reflective. His brother never reflected.
‘So we stay here,’ Camron answered.
‘We’ll be leaving again soon for the outer boundaries.’
Not even a day returned, and their thoughts continually strayed to the trials ahead. Their time here was short, but it seemed even that peace, too, would be marred with the strife elsewhere. King Edward’s demands were unwanted, and seemingly unending.
‘Murdag’s a bold lass, isn’t she?’ Hamilton said. ‘I’m looking forward to the next few days, I’m telling you.’
Murdag, a childhood friend, was their age and Anna’s younger sister. As twins, they’d given as good as any anyone when it came to games and trouble, but Murdag always had more tricks to show them. The years hadn’t tamed her.
‘She’s the one who started the counting cups bet last night,’ he groaned.
Hamilton chuckled. ‘She did.’
There was admiration in his brother’s voice. That was new and needed understanding. As close as all of them were, it bore thought that none of them were yet betrothed or had families.
‘She’s comely,’ he offered, testing his brother if his thoughts went that way. He couldn’t see it, as Murdag was practically a sister to him. But then…he was never Hamilton.
Hamilton snorted. ‘Especially when she brandished her goblet our way.’
Last night, Murdag was standing on a boulder, her legs apart, the fire behind her. Her challenge to them wasn’t the only surprise.
‘You didn’t look away,’ Camron admonished.
‘Not a chance when she wore such a thin gown, and was challenging us to a drinking duel.’
The womanly curves of Anna’s younger sister were there for all to see. No doubt every man did. Except for him, as he’d been looking around for Anna, who had never shown.
‘I’m in lust,’ Hamilton sighed.
That wouldn’t be a first.
‘Let’s not go there,’ Camron warned. Except the look on his brother’s face last night was as if he was seeing Murdag anew. He was already besotted.
‘Not go there? We’re there, brother. She’s our age, and we’ve returned in time since she’s unclaimed. I’m a fortunate man, I am.’
The probable reason Murdag wasn’t betrothed was that there wasn’t a man brave enough to tame her. The very reason Hamilton had no wife, was because there was no one to tame him.
The two were far too alike, she was practically a sister, and he had to be imagining Hamilton’s interest. He must be joking.
His stomach roiled. ‘Why did we drink mead?’
‘Because we were both still standing?’ Hamilton said.
‘Did Murdag drink with us?’
‘She was long gone by the time you poured the sweet nectar.’ Hamilton snorted. ‘Seoc was still here…I think.’
He’d better have been. ‘We need to get to our beds so we can sleep.’
‘Too late for that. The sun rises.’
Camron peeled open his heavy lids. The darkness of night was a grey now. He’d be cursed to a day of churning bile, constant thirst, and exhaustion. Maybe that would be enough distraction to avoid Anna for another day.
The pang in his chest at that thought was evidence enough his intention wouldn’t hold. It was an ache to avoid her, but even more to see her and not have her.
With a slap to his thighs, Hamilton stood. ‘Well, I’ll call it a draw on who won, but be warned, brother, I won’t back down or draw on the challenge we set for ourselves today.’
Arm tingling, his entire body protesting, Camron pushed off the log.
‘Was it a bet that we can stand?’ Camron said. ‘Because I’ll declare you the winner so I can lie down until I’m dragged out of bed by whomever dares interrupt my sleep.’
‘Fine idea for you to sleep,’ Hamilton said with too much glee. A sure sign he didn’t drink as much of Seoc’s mead as Camron had. But also a certainty that he was up something.
Camron stumbled to the nearest tree, unlaced his breeches and quickly relieved himself. ‘Why the glee about when I sleep? Did you put thistles in my bed?’
With that pressing concern out of the way, he turned to his brother who was lacing up his own breeches.
Hamilton always did that differently than him. How could no one tell them apart?
‘Because whilst you sleep,’ Hamilton said. ‘I’ll have a head start on wooing the woman I love.’
The woman he loved. Now he knew his brother jested about Murdag.
‘Have a fine time,’ he said, knowing he’d be better off sleeping.
‘Time doesn’t matter…except for you,’ Hamilton said. ‘Don’t you believe you’ve waited long enough?’
There was that reflective tone again.
‘What are you talking about?’
Hamilton’s grin turned crooked. ‘Oh, come now, you won’t get out of the bet by forgetting about it. Not this one, not now. I have finally pushed you into a corner to do something, and after seeing her in that thin chemise, I’ll have to be more persistent in my wooing of Murdag too. I couldn’t be the only one to notice those hips in the firelight. This is just what we need to begin.’
His brother wanted to pursue Anna’s sister in truth? Something clanged inside Camron. Some warning, like a sword slap to the gut, or a fist to his temple. Hard. Jarring. Dangerous to health and well being.
‘What exactly do we need to begin?’
Hamilton grin turned to laughter before he winced. Camron felt satisfaction at that. Maybe his brother had drunk as much as him after all.
‘You truly forgot about the bet?’ Hamilton said. ‘Oh, this is good. Far too good.’
‘Tell me what bet.’ He had no patience for his brother’s games today when he intended to lie in his bed until evening’s meal.
Hamilton wagged his finger. ‘You’re not getting out of it. Not this time, cause if you do, I’ll…tell her of all the maudlin years you’ve wished for her. No! I’ll tell her we made the bet. Then she’ll not want anything to do with you.’
There was only ever one her. ‘What is it you’ve done?’
‘Not me. You wanted this. You made the challenge,’ Hamilton said.
He never made challenges…or almost always never. And he couldn’t back down when his brother was this deadly serious. Though Hamilton’s eyes shone with some tricks, that reflective tone was still there underneath the challenge.
‘Swear an oath.’ Hamilton’s eyes narrowed, all humour gone. ‘Tell me you swear to uphold the bet. Tell me or I will ruin any chance you have with her. It’s been long enough. There is no more time. You heard the council, you know what comes our way, what comes every Highlander’s way.’
‘Tell. Me. About. The. Bet.’
‘You bet that you’d marry before me.’
‘Marry before you?’ Camron said. ‘What are you…. Who are you to marry?’
‘Murdag. I’ll marry Murdag,’ Hamilton gave a swift grin. ‘Which is perfect, since you swore before we left again, to marry her sister—’