Yuletide Angels by Keira Montclair

Chapter One

 

December 1263

The Highlands of Scotland, Grant Castle

 

Madeline Grant chased after her two lads, who were play-fighting with their wooden swords. Jake and Jamie—twins, nearly four winters old—were often a bit too enthusiastic in their imitation of battle.

Jake swung his sword, knocking Jamie’s out of his hand. “I kill the Norse who attack our land.”

“I’m not a Norseman. I’m a Scot too!” Jamie snatched up his sword from the ground. “I will send them running from the beach. Then I’ll get my slinger and shoot the stones at their foreheads.”

Jake laughed. “Loki’s slinger is in my hand, not yours. He gave me one.”

Jamie fought back. “And I wear my chain mail and send the Norse running from the beach.” Then Jake swung his sword hard against his brother’s weapon, sending the sword flying through the air once again.

“Jake, stop!”

“Die, Norseman!” Jake swung again, this time catching his brother’s wrist as he reached for the wooden handle of his weapon.

Jamie cried out in pain. “Mama, Jake hit me.”

“Stop crying, you wee bairn. Warriors don’t cry.” Jake dropped his sword to the ground and crossed his arms in a stance that showed a strong imitation of his sire.

“Lads, please do not strike each other and cease your arguing.” Maddie paused, adjusting the babe she was carrying. “Or you will upset your sister.”

“Aye, Mama,” Jamie sniffled.

“Mama, we must practice battle to be as good as our sire,” Jake explained, leaning down to pick up his weapon before turning to Jamie again. “I attack you, Norseman. I have my golden helm on.”

His weapon over his head, his mother barked, “John Alexander Grant.” Then Maddie set Kyla down and took both swords away. “If you cannot play nicely with them, you cannot have them.” Though they were twins, the two didn’t look at all alike. Jake had dark hair and gray eyes like Alex, while Jamie had Maddie’s blonde hair and blue eyes. Kyla was a lovely mix, with Alex’s nearly black locks and her mother’s blue eyes.

Jake whined, “But Mama, ’tis a war, a big battle with the Norse, just like Papa and Uncle Brodie and Uncle Robbie fought.”

“And Papa did not hurt Uncle Robbie or Uncle Brodie. Jamie is a Scot, not a Norseman.”

Jake scowled just as the keep’s main door slammed opened against the stone wall. A man stood there, looking around the hall.

“Uncle Logan!” Jamie cried. Though not a true uncle, Logan and Micheil Ramsay had been considered close relations ever since Alex’s sister Brenna married Quade Ramsay, their brother.

Jake mirrored the greeting with his own yell, and they were hugging him in a moment. Then out of Logan’s pocket came a handful of nuts for their enjoyment. “Go on outside and see if you can crack them open.”

They headed out the door, but Maddie called out, “Your mantles, lads!”

The two rushed back in, pushing each other out of the way just so one would arrive at his destination first, their usual competition, then donned their mantles, yelling in unison over their shoulders, “Many thanks, Uncle Logan.”

Once they were gone, Logan stomped his feet on the floor to clear off any mud and snow he’d gathered along the way. A couple of inches of snow had fallen last eve, leaving a coating of white on everything, including the tree branches. “They keep you busy, do they not, Maddie?”

Maddie let out a big sigh. “Aye, they do. I don’t know what I would do without Alice here to assist me. I’ll be glad when Jennie returns from Ramsay Castle. She was always such a big help. You look half frozen. Winter has settled in.” Alex’s youngest sister, Jennie, spent her time between the two castles of her eldest brother and her only sister, Brenna.

Logan glanced around and declared, “Aye, ’tis a cold one out there. ’Tis good you have the bairn dressed warmly, and yourself.” He placed a packaged wrapped in twine on the table. “Gwynie sent more leggings for you and the lass to wear under your gown.”

Maddie set Kyla down and reached for the package. “Many thanks to Gwyneth. I love her leggings and so does Kyla, but she grows so quickly.” She opened the gift and swooped her daughter into her arms, swiftly pulling the new, soft leggings up to her waist to keep her bottom warm. The lass wiggled to get away from her mother, then grabbed Maddie’s woolen gown as she set her feet on the floor and scanned the area, probably looking for her now absent brothers.

Kyla, apparently satisfied that her brothers were gone, toddled away from her mother, straight toward the wooden swords.

“Nay, lassie. You don’t need to fight.” The lassie was always imitating her brothers.

Kyla scowled and gave her mother a look that said she didn’t agree. Maddie held back a grin and handed her daughter a fabric puppy to play with. The wee lassie tucked the soft toy against her, but Maddie knew she would reach for the sword as soon as her back was turned.

Logan said, “She’s walking already. Did she not just turn a year?”

“Aye, a few moons ago.” Maddie glanced back at Kyla, who managed to grab a sword, as predicted.

“She’s feisty like her sire,” Logan added, chuckling, taking the wooden weapon away from Kyla before Maddie could. “You want the sword, do you not, lassie?”

Kyla grinned up at Logan, smiling widely to show off her new teeth, her nearly black hair a sharp contrast to her bright smile. Since her hair was dark like her sire’s, the older she got, the more she looked like a female replica of Alex.

Maddie let out a deep sigh. “Aye, all three are feisty. Mayhap our next one will be the quiet one.” She moved away from the door and toward the hearth, lifting Kyla up and setting her down in the warmer area of the hall, not far from the sideboard so she could take care of her guest.

Logan snorted in response. “Not sure you’ll ever see a quiet one.”

Maddie stepped over to the sideboard and filled a goblet of ale. She then asked a passing serving lass for a tray of cheese and fruit before turning back to her guest. “Please sit down, Logan. What brings you here? Alex should be here from the lists any moment.”

Logan sat with a huff, sweeping his long hair back with one gesture, and said, “I come bearing an invitation. Brenna attributes her love of Christmas and Yule to you, Maddie. Said you brought your own traditions from England. As Bethia is less than a year, Brenna’s not interested in traveling again yet. They were just here because of the big battle, so she would like you all to join us at Ramsay Castle for the holiday. I hope you’ll come. My Gwynie thinks she may be carrying.”

“Oh, what news! Are you looking forward to a new bairn of your own?”

“Of course I am. And since I cannot keep my hands off my wife’s lovely arse, I am not verra surprised. A wee lassie, I hope.” He smiled. “But truly, we might have considered coming here since Brenna wishes to have all the Grant siblings together, but with Bethia, Molly, and Maggie, we wouldn’t dare travel. ’Tis too soon for our adopted lasses. Molly and Maggie are afraid to leave Ramsay land. Said they’re afraid Randall Baines will find them. I can’t do it to them. ’Tis why I came without Gwynie.”

Logan and Gwyneth had adopted two lasses who’d been sold by their parents to a cruel nobleman. Maddie’s heart tugged for the girls.

“I understand. If we came—and I would love to—I don’t know if Ashlyn and Gracie could leave.” Ashlyn and Gracie had been through a trauma not long ago. A cruel man who had controlled their mother had chased them and their mother, Caralyn, all the way to the Highlands from a small village on the coastline of Ayr, where he’d forced them to live. Caralyn had recently married one of Alex’s brothers, Robbie, who had helped her escape the fool and taken in her two daughters, vowing to raise them as his own. “The girls have their own fears, but so does Caralyn. I believe Robbie and his family would remain here. Even so, I hope Alex will agree to it—I’m sure he would.”

The door opened as if on cue, and Alex filled the doorway, stomping his boots just outside the door. “What will Alex agree to do?”

“Travel to Ramsay Castle for Christmas,” Logan said. “You’re all invited. You, Brodie, Robbie, and your families. Maddie tells me Robbie would stay here. Even so, with Jennie already with Brenna, you will nearly all be together.” He glanced at the large man filling the doorway, also chieftain of the clan. “Brenna’s fixing to make room for all of you while I’m gone. She’s already set Quade to building all kinds of furniture. But my brother would do anything for his new wife, as you know. He adores Brenna. Mayhap he’ll be adding a tower or two by the time I return.”

Alex removed his mantle, placing it on the peg by the door and grabbed an ale from the sideboard. “As enticing as that sounds, the Norse presence remains heavy in the Highlands, and they search for travelers to take their anger out on. I don’t suspect we’ll be going anywhere with the bairns for at least another year.”

“Year?” Maddie asked, stopping the organizing she was doing in the hall. She had moved away to begin preparations for their departure during Logan’s explanation, believing they’d likely set off tomorrow. Alex’s words shocked her. “Not for a year? Surely you do not mean that, Alex. A year is a verra long time.”

Logan snorted in agreement. “I understand your concern, Grant, but ’tis the holiday, and if I don’t bring you back, I’ll have to answer to that new ornery mistress of my castle.”

Alex set his goblet down and settled his hands on his hips. “Would that ornery mistress you refer to be my sister?”

Logan chuckled. “You know I jest. She’s verra dear to me, but ’struth is there are others asking.”

“Who?” Maddie asked, sitting in a chair near the hearth, handing a toy to Kyla, who ignored her and waddled over to her father.

“Upsy?” She stared up at him, her hands waving in the air over her head.

Alex leaned down to pick up his daughter, kissed her cheek, and said, “I’m sure I can guess. The only two Logan cannot refuse.”

Maddie gave her husband a perplexed look.

“Wise arse,” Logan replied.

“’Ise arse,” Kyla mimicked.

“Logan!”

“Mayhap she may not—”

“’Ise arse!” Kyla grinned at Maddie’s groan, wrinkling her nose as she giggled.

Logan looked chagrined and said, “Sorry, Maddie.” Then he took Kyla away from her father and swung her high into the air. “You wee trickster. You got me in trouble.”

Kyla giggled with glee, and as soon as he set her back down, Kyla looked at him and said, “’Ise arse.”

Alex barked, “Kyla, you’ll not be talking like a reiver.”

He picked her up and set her on his shoulders, one of her favorite places to be. Then he spun in a few circles, Kyla weaving back and forth in the air a bit as he moved. She laughed louder and louder, hanging onto her father’s long dark locks.

Maddie said, “Alex, be careful.”

Alex shot her a grin but dutifully set Kyla down before settling himself into a chair in front of the fire.

As soon as the wee one’s feet hit the floor, she took off toward the spot in the corner where her father kept his extra swords. Though the swords were well-protected from the bairns inside a wooden case it was still their favorite place to go, their wee fingers trying to reach through the narrow space between the slats. “Alex, I fear someday she’ll manage to reach inside there. You must find a better place to keep your weaponry, a place none of them can reach.”

“Maddie, they just need to learn not to touch them. ’Tis no’ a difficult concept to teach them.”

“Since ’tis not difficult, then I’ll settle this task on your shoulders, Alex. Please teach the bairns not to try to take your weapons all the time.”

Alex gave a low grumble as he chased after Kyla. “You wee troublemaker. Now I’m in trouble because of you.” He swung her back into the air, her feet flying over Alex’s head, and she carried on with such delight that everyone in the hall stopped to watch the interplay between the large Highlander and his wee daughter.

Maddie drawled, “I do not think that will work, Alex. And I have too much on my hands to watch over her all the time. Please take it seriously.”

Logan said, “I’m guessing ’tis time for you and Maddie to get some of those herbs from your sister. The ones that postpone another bairn’s arrival for a time.”

Alex smirked, then glanced at Maddie, who felt herself turn hot with embarrassment. “’Tis too late for that. Our fourth could be on the way. One never knows.” He grabbed the fabric puppy and sat in a chair, placing Kyla on his lap, who eagerly took the stuffed toy to play with.

“You could not keep your hands to yourself, Grant? Give your wife a reprieve?”

“I don’t think my wife would be pleased if I chose to do that, Logan. Do you give your wife any rest?”

Maddie abruptly stood up and cleared her throat. “If you do not change your conversation, I’ll throttle one of you. ’Tis not appropriate for a wee one to hear. She picks up on everything you men say.” Though she wished she could rid herself of the redness on her cheeks, blushing was a trait that never left her. “Alex, I’d prefer to discuss our visit to your newest niece. And who are the two you cannot refuse, Logan?”

Alex replied for him. “Torrian and Lily, if I were to guess. He doesn’t care about Brenna.”

Logan snorted. “Aye, you’ve the right of it. That wee lassie with the golden hair knows just how to beg. She wants ‘Unca Alex.’ You know how fond Lily is of you. You, too, Maddie. Of course.”

Maddie laughed. “I know his appeal more than anyone, Logan. And Lily is a smart lassie. We should go, Alex. It will not take me long to pack. We can be ready by the morrow.”

“Nay, we’ll not go. I’m sorry to disappoint Lily and Brenna, but I’ll not risk it.”

Kyla grew tired of sitting still, hopped off her sire’s lap, and took off at a wobbly run toward the door.

“Alex,” Maddie said, while chasing Kyla to the door, afraid someone would open it and hit the little lassie. “How many guards do you have? I think we have enough to protect our three bairns on a journey to Ramsay land. It would be lovely to have us all together again, to meet the holiday surrounded by family.”

She snatched up Kyla and set her down again in the opposite direction, where Logan waited with open arms. Encouraged, Kyla ran over to him.

Alex stood up then, moved over to his wife, and wrapped his arms around her. He nuzzled her neck and whispered, “My apologies, sweeting, but I cannot allow it. Mayhap this summer, when the weather is fine.” He kissed her cheek and then went to open the door in response to a sudden pounding.

He swung it open and the lads shoved right past him, already chattering. “Papa, where is Uncle Logan? We need more nuts.”

“They were delicious, and we cracked them with the biggest rocks we could find,” Jake said, swinging an imaginary boulder over his head and onto the ground.

“’Twas easy except for the last one,” Jamie said, making his way over to Logan. “Do you have more, Uncle Logan?”

“Why did you come, Uncle?” Jake asked, stopping in front of his chair and looking up at him.

Maddie regarded the trail of mud following the lads and sighed. “Lads, look at the mess you’ve brought in. Go back to the door and take your boots off, please.”

Logan ignored the lads to look at their father. “Alex, please reconsider the journey.”

“A journey? May I come?” Jamie asked, as he returned to the door to belatedly remove his boots.

“And me,” Jake practically shouted. “Where are we going?”

“Nowhere, lads. Do as your mother says and remove your boots and mantles.”

“Is the journey on the morrow?”

“How long is the journey?”

“May we ride our own horses?”

“Does Kyla have to come?”

“Can we sleep under the stars, Papa?”

The two lads continued peppering their father with questions, but Alex just turned to Logan. “Many thanks to you, Logan. Now you’ve made me the bad one to my bairns, as well. You may stay the night, and then I ask you to return to your keep before you cause more trouble.”

Logan guffawed, slapped his knee, and said, “With pleasure, Grant.”

Alex headed into the kitchen and the lads chased him, leaving Logan and Maddie alone for a moment.

Maddie whispered, “I’ll convince him.”

Logan said, “I’m not sure about that, Maddie. He seems pretty set in his ways. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it or not, but Alex is a wee bit stubborn.”

Maddie’s jaw inched up a bit and she whispered, “So am I. You can count on me being there with the bairns, with or without him.”

Logan arched a brow at her and opened his mouth to reply, but Alex came back in with a half loaf of bread, and he wisely fell silent.