Highland Desire by Nia Farrell writing as Erinn Ellender Quinn
Length: 7,632 words. Release Date December 20, 2017
In 1602 Scotland, a young widow traveling alone with her three-year-old daughter finds herself indebted to her clan’s enemy after he saves her child.
A steamy historical Highland romance novelette, written for Ages 18+.
“Ye look better,” he murmured, sounding as if the mere act of speaking was all that he could manage.
“As do ye,” she replied. If she were judging by looks alone, she would have deemed him fit for travel. But his voice betrayed his weakness. They would be here at least one night, possibly two.
The last time she was on Rannoch Moor, she was a frightened fifteen-year-old, headed for a marriage that her stepfather had arranged. Now, she was a woman grown and had a choice—to stay with Niall or go. Wounded though he was, she still felt safer with him than alone. Too, she owed him her daughter’s life. Saving his seemed the least that she could do.
She gathered berries and wood sorrel, shaved more meat, and made tea. Eventually, she helped him up when the water she’d been pushing in him demanded to be let out. Judging the hour, she gathered bits of wood and dried dung, anything that would burn to help ward off the chill of night. They spend it hunkered by the fire, trying to stay warm, with her child tethered to her so she could not wander off.
In the morning, Muirgheal steeped more sorrel and shaved meat for him, and fed Phee and herself. Niall was quiet. She wished that he would speak. Even if he was not up for conversation, he could at least tell her exactly where he lived. She prayed that it was close. Hopefully, it was within a day’s ride. Surely he would not range far from his home to hunt, but with men, one never knew.
By the time the three of them finished breaking their fast, Niall deemed himself ready to try riding.
Muirgheal said nothing. She nodded, keeping her doubts to herself. Willpower alone might get him in the saddle and keep him there. But he would be seated alone this time. He could barely handle himself. There was no way that he could handle Phee and her.
She tied their bags behind his saddle. At least that much of her burden would be lighter. The two of them walked beside him, or she walked and Phee rode her hip. They traveled until they entered Gleann Dubh—the Black Glen, which lay west of Loch Rannoch, about eleven miles east of where they had been on Rannoch Moor. It was almost as pretty a place as where she was born. The stone cottage they finally reached looked cozy and well-made.
Approaching it, Muirgheal noted a small garden out back. The door in the side of a hill marked where a root cellar had been dug into it. The barn behind the house had a paddock. From beyond the barn, she thought she heard the laugh of a stream as it tumbled over rocks and rills.
The trip had taken most of Niall’s strength. “Ye need to rest,” she said. “I’ll take care of yer horse if ye will tell me what ye want.”
There was a long, awkward pause.
He had to clear his throat to answer her.
She listened to his words, but more than that, she searched his eyes, wishing to rewind the clock and read again what she thought they were saying.
Tell me what ye want.
He wanted her.
She had begun to suspect it, the way that he tried, so very hard, to not look at her. He was a quiet one, except for the occasional tune he hummed or sang before a bullet had nearly felled him. He didn’t feel the need to fill the air with idle chatter, and in that, they were alike. She would rather listen to his breath and to his heartbeat and know that when he did say something, his words had weight and meaning.
Niall rode the horse into the barn and managed to dismount. While Phee jumped on a rick of straw, Muirgheal helped him with the saddle and pad. He took off the bridle and turned the stallion out into the paddock to graze on lush, green grass.
The inside of the house was cooler than outside, thanks to the thickness of the stone walls and windows that faced east. It was a typical one-room Highland cottage, with a bed downstairs and a sleeping loft above. Niall lived here with his ghosts, in the framed silhouette of a woman on the wall, the abandoned spinning wheel near the hearth, and the empty cradle in the corner.
“Nap!” Phee gave it a push and giggled, wanting to lie in it.
“Nay, lassie. Ye willnae fit.” Even if she did, her climbing in the cradle might violate his sacred space, and Niall was already hurting.
“Sit,” she insisted when Niall stopped beside a pair of wooden buckets. “Tell me where tae fill them, and I shall.”
“The burn,” he said, pointing in the direction of the barn.
Taking a bucket in each hand, Muirgheal ordered Phee to come and set out to find water. The burn was close by. In the summer heat, the spring-fed water was blessedly cold and clear. She walked to a point above where the horse drank and brought the wooden pails back full.
Setting them by the door, she found Niall asleep on the floor by the hearth, choosing to lie there rather than dirty his sheets or climb to the sleeping loft. To let him rest, she took Phee with her and visited the root cellar, taking stock of what was there in crocks, baskets, bottles, and kegs. Niall clearly needed more variety in his diet. There was dried meat aplenty but little in the way of vegetables, and his garden was too small to meet more than the moment’s need.
Next year, she thought, then stopped herself. So close to home, she was. So near to her mother, her family, her friends. Try as she might to picture herself on the far side of the pass, she could as easily see herself here, sewing by the hearth, mending stockings and making clothes for her growing little girl who was more comfortable with Niall than she’d ever been with the man who wished only for a son.
Did she want to stay? Dare she ask? And if she did, would he let her? She knew next to nothing about the man who lived here. How did he earn his living? Was he wealthy? Was he happy? If he wasn’t, could she be the one to ease his sadness and make him so?
She’d only known him three days, and already she could envision a future with him. In her heart, she was willing to risk it. Whatever happened now, he would be the one to decide.