“Your new life will be grand, I think. Imagine, being related to the king. When your brother binds Princess Fiona, you’ll be royalty.” Aileen grinned. “And I’ll meet staff from the royal household. Perhaps a handsome royal butler?”
Payton chuckled. “Wouldn’t that be nice if it worked that way? I can’t imagine we’ll be involved much with the royal family, honestly. Angus is only my half-brother, after all, and we’ll be in the city, not in Inverness with the rest of the Royals.”
“Aye, but aren’t they hosting a party at the castle to welcome you back?”
Payton smiled. “They are. Annis, Aidan, and I have been invited to join the grown-ups. The little ones will celebrate in the nursery.”
Aileen danced around the room, curtsying and singing a traditional Scottish tune. “I wonder if you’ll dance with one of the princes. Or the king!”
“Oh, Aileen. The men aren’t going to waste their time on me. I’m too young. I’m sure there’ll be older and much more beautiful women for them to dance with. I’ll be happy to just watch.”
“Och, lass, ye’ve always been too old for yer own good. Dream a little.”
“All right, Aileen. I’ll try.”
Payton followed Aileen downstairs and then went about helping her mother get the little ones into the cars.
* * *
Brodie Gunnach hung up the phone and ran his hands through his hair. He’d been called up to the “Big House” by his brother, Kade, and as much as he’d tried to wiggle out of it, Kade wouldn’t relent. An old clan member had returned to the fold and all of the Gunnachs were to be present at a welcome home feast. Kade was king and his word was law…and he’d insisted on black tie, which meant kilt. Damn it.
Brodie had neither the time, nor the desire, to play nice right now. He was in the middle of a complicated business deal and it wasn’t going quite as planned. He’d been forced to spend more time in Edinburgh than he typically liked, dragged from the sanctuary of his sprawling lodge in Inverness. At the present moment, all he wanted to do was hole up at home, but the family returning was that of his sister’s mate, which meant Brodie had no way out.
He showered and dressed and managed to send out a few emails before heading up to the castle. The drawbridge had been lowered for the guests to enter, and as Brodie guided his car into the courtyard, his heart began to beat faster. He’d been experiencing unusual emotional waves over the past few weeks, but this was different. Stronger. Disconcerting.
After parking the car, he adjusted his bow tie and made his way to the front door, where he was greeted by Kade’s butler, Mr. Winston.
“Your highness, welcome,” Mr. Winston said, bowing. “The family is inside.”
“I’ll find my way,” Brodie said, and headed toward the great hall.
He stopped at the threshold of the room, entirely overcome with emotion. He couldn’t have moved if he’d tried.
Kade stood with three people Brodie didn’t recognize, along with Angus’s father, Stuart, and Stuart’s wife, Phyllis.
Then he saw her. The woman standing next to Phyllis lifted her gaze, meeting his for a split second, and he realized why his heart was racing.
Að eilífu stýrimaður. This woman was his forever mate.
The beautiful woman wore a corseted gown of light blue satin in the fashion of years gone by, complementing her dark red hair, braided and swept to the side. He paused for a few precious seconds studying her, but all too soon, she caught sight of him and a blush covered her cheeks.
He smiled and approached her, realizing with a quick disappointment that this woman wasn’t a woman at all. She was a girl. A very mature-looking girl, but still a girl. He took a deep breath and hoped his smile was sincere.
Stuart and Phyllis seemed to catch sight of him at the same time and quickly bowed and curtsied as he joined them. He noticed Phyllis squeeze the young girl’s arm, and she curtsied as well.
“Brodie,” Kade said with a mischievous grin. “So glad you could join us.”
Bloody bastard, Brodie thought. Like I had a choice.
“Wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” he retorted.
Kade raised an eyebrow, but didn’t remark on his brother’s sarcasm. “You remember Stuart and Phyllis McFadden.”
“Aye. Welcome home,” Brodie said.
“And these are three of their children,” Kade continued. “Annis, Payton, and Aidan.”
Aidan bowed, and Brodie thought Annis may have curtsied, but he didn’t notice much of anything once he locked eyes with Payton. Lord, she was stunning. Her ice-blue eyes were framed by dark lashes and magnified behind thick glasses. She licked full lips as he took her hand and lifted it to his lips. “It’s lovely to meet you, lass.”
Her response was a nervous smile.
“Payton was just telling us that she will be starting year five in the new term at school,” Kade said, as if to warn him off.
Shite. She’s probably not even sixteen.
“Exciting,” Brodie said, as he dropped her hand.
“Stuart, we’ve had a few new additions to the Council. Shall I introduce you?” Kade asked.
Stuart smiled. “Aye, Your Majesty. I’d be most grateful.”
“I’m certain my mother would be glad to see you both again as well.”
“How is Alice?” Phyllis asked.
“She’s very well, thank you. If you’ll both follow me,” Kade said, leaving Annis, Payton, and Aidan with Brodie.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Brodie requested, “I haven’t greeted my sister yet.”
“Of course,” Aidan said, bowing.
Payton and Annis said nothing as they curtsied again.
Brodie gave a quick nod and decided a conversation with Connall was wiser than finding his sister. His older brother was the calming influence on all the siblings, and Brodie suddenly felt the need to hit something. He saw Connall standing as far away from the din as possible, and Brodie shook his head at him as he approached. “Hiding?”
Connall smiled. “If I really wanted to hide, I’d be in the other room, with the hounds.”
Brodie chuckled. “True.”
Connall was a genius with animals, a trainer and breeder of Thoroughbreds, and the most sought-after large animal vet in Inverness. He was an empath and a healer, two qualities that came in handy when dealing with frightened animals. And he hated the pomp and circumstance of official events almost as much as Brodie. A gifted musician, Connall tended to spend his free time in his home studio.
“Did you get a chance to speak with Stuart?” Connall asked.
Brodie nodded. “Just to say hello.”
Connall frowned. “What’s the matter?”
The siblings could all feel each other’s stress or excitement if the emotions were strong enough, and Brodie’s stress was certainly prevalent in his mind.
“I actually need to talk with you, if you have a minute. Alone.”
“Of course,” Connall said.
Brodie led his brother out a side door and into the privacy of the library.
“What’s up?” Connall asked.
Brodie settled his hands on top of his head as he paced the room. “I think I’m in a pile of shite.”
“Oh? What did you do?”
Brodie rolled his eyes. “I’ve met my mate.”
“Really?” Connall asked in surprise. “Who is she?”
“Ah, Annis? Wasn’t she away at school for several years?”
Brodie shrugged. “I have no idea.”
“Well, she seems lovely.”
“No.” Brodie groaned. “Not Annis.”
Connall raised an eyebrow.
Brodie shook his head. “Payton.”
“What? Seriously?” Connall’s mouth dropped open. “She’s fourteen.”
“No! Is she?”
“Aye,” Connall said. “Well, for another two days she is. Her birthday’s on Friday.”
“Damn it. I thought maybe sixteen, but that’s even worse.”
“Are you sure, Brod? She’s Angus’s sister. I don’t recall this even being possible.”
In Cauld Ane history, it was a generally accepted fact that siblings didn’t mate into the same family. If Brodie was correct in his belief that Payton was his mate, the fact that Angus was Payton’s brother and he was mate to Brodie’s sister could confuse the historical account that had been written down centuries ago.
“Aye. I’m sure.” Brodie rubbed his forehead. “Perhaps the fact Angus and she have different mothers makes it possible.”
“Damn it.” Brodie dragged his hand over the stubble of his cheek. “Fourteen.”
“This explains a lot, Brod,” Connall said.
“What exactly does it explain?” he challenged.
“Think back to when your personality changed.”
Brodie crossed is arms. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Just hear me out.” Connall smiled. “It was about almost fifteen years ago that you suddenly got all responsible and crap.”
“Screw you, Connall.”
“No offense, brother, truly, but think about it. You bought your first club, stopped sleeping with everything that moved, and stopped being nice. You grew more…ah…pensive.” Connall shrugged. “Coincidence? I think not.”
“Are you trying to say that subconsciously I knew my mate had been born?”
“Possibly.” Connall smiled. “Ask Fi. She’s decided to find out everything about our history. I don’t know how much she’s discovered to date, but I have a feeling she’ll have more answers as time goes on.”
Brodie paced the room. “What am I going to do, Con?”
“I suppose you’re going to have to be patient.”
Brodie delivered what he hoped was a murderous look as he flicked his wrist and sent a book flying toward his brother’s head. The gift of telekinesis came in handy every now and then.
Connall deflected the hardcover with a laugh. “Sorry. I suppose I’m stating the obvious.”
“The whole idea of finding my mate has rarely entered my mind, and when it has, it’s been in passing. I figured it would happen when it happened, but to know who she is, and know that I have to wait more than ten years before I can bind her, has suddenly made me want to kill someone or break something.”
“But you feel like that most of the time,” Connall retorted.
Brodie told Connall what he could do with his opinion.
The bell indicating dinner cut off Brodie’s creative reply. He grimaced. “Great. Hours of small talk and BS to look forward to.”
Connall slapped Brodie on the back. “After you, Your Highness.”
“Oh, no, Your Highness, I insist.” Brodie waved his hand toward the door. “Age before beauty.”
Connall laughed and headed back to the great hall. Brodie followed, but stalled when he reached the table. Payton stood behind her chair and gave him a shy smile. Brodie did his best not to scowl. His chair just happened to be next to hers. He pasted what he hoped looked like a sincere smile on his face and made his way to the table.
* * *
Payton did her best not to pass out as Brodie Gunnach made his way to the table. Her heart raced and her stomach roiled, her extreme emotions unfamiliar to her and making her want to crawl into a hole and hide. The prince was the best looking man she’d ever seen. Tall, with dark blond hair and wide shoulders. His deep blue eyes darkened when he caught her eye, and although they were beautiful, his expression was one of irritation. She had to admit, he frightened her.
“Miss McFadden,” Brodie said gruffly.
She gave a slight nod. “Your Highness.”
The king directed the guests to take their seats, and Brodie gallantly held Payton’s chair for her and waited for her to sit down. She sat as quickly as possible, not wanting to keep him standing.
Once she was settled, he took his place next to her, and Payton squeezed her eyes shut briefly. He smelled so good, she just wanted to lean in closer. Instead, she laid her serviette across her lap and folded her hands in an effort to hide the shaking. She didn’t know how she would possibly be able to eat with him sitting right next to her.
The king said a prayer to bless the meal and then the first course was placed in front of each guest by their own personal server.
Great, she thought. Ice blue gown and yellow soup…perhaps pumpkin or squash? Not a good combination.
Payton prayed the etiquette classes she’d attended since birth would kick in. The impeccable Mrs. Jones didn’t cover what to do when you’re sitting next to someone you’re so attracted to, even though you know you’ll never have a chance with them. She took a deep breath and lifted her spoon.
“Payton,” her brother snapped, albeit in a whisper.
Brodie stiffened beside her.
Doing her best to ignore the prince’s possible annoyance, she glared at Aidan. “What?”
“I asked you a question,” he accused. “Twice.”
“Oh, sorry.” She laid her spoon down. “What did you ask me?”
“I need you to cover for me with mum and dad tonight.”
“Why?” she asked, immediately suspicious.
“Nothing nefarious, little sister. Just a few of us hanging out after the party. But it’s possible I won’t be back before curfew.”
Payton narrowed her eyes. “No, Aidan. I don’t want to be roped into one of your harebrained schemes.”
He gave her a look of innocence. “I’m not roping you in. In fact, you’re not invited. I’m just asking you not to blow the whistle.”
Payton sensed a vibration of sorts and felt compelled to glance at Brodie. He appeared to be in conversation with his sister, Fiona, but Payton would have sworn he was upset about something. His body was rigid. Before she could dwell on the feeling, her soup was removed from in front of her.
The rest of dinner was an exercise in patience for Payton. Her brother spent the majority of the meal attempting to manipulate, cajole, or threaten her into her cooperating with a plan he refused to share the details of.
By the time dessert was served, Payton realized she’d managed less than one bite of food, and the thought of fruitcake on an empty stomach made her want to be sick. She sat quietly and waited for her untouched dessert to be removed.
Once the table was dismissed, she found herself hauled, albeit gently, outside by her brother. “Are you going to give me up?” he demanded.
Payton sighed, the relief of the cold air bolstering her confidence. “I don’t know, Aidan. Are you going to tell me what you’re up to?”
He crossed his arms. “It’s better that I don’t.”
“Then, no promises.”
“Damn it, Payton.”
“Is there a problem here?” a voice asked, pitched low in warning.
Payton gasped as Brodie stepped out from the shadows. She hadn’t seen or heard him approach.
Aidan immediately bowed. “No, Your Highness. My sister just needed some air.”
“I believe your father is looking for you,” Brodie said.
“We should return,” Payton said.
“He was looking for your brother, Miss McFadden.”
“Oh,” she whispered. She hadn’t been dismissed. In fact, it seemed the prince wanted her to stay where she was. She watched confusion play over Aidan’s face. For all his faults, he was still a protective brother, but he would never defy royalty.
“She will be safe in my hands, Aidan,” the prince said.
“Aye,” Aidan stuttered. “Thank you, sir.”
Aidan left and Payton took a deep breath, forcing a smile and trying to keep from looking like a lovesick teenager. Even if she was headed in that very direction.
Brodie presented her with a plate laden with bread and cheese. “I noticed you didn’t get the chance to enjoy your supper.”
He’d noticed that?
“Oh, thank you, sir.” Her stomach rumbled, and she laid her hand over it in an effort to hide the sound.
“Please, call me Brodie.” He smiled and set the plate on the ledge of the balcony.
She felt her face heat in the coolness of the night. “I don’t know if that would be appropriate.”
He leaned against the stone wall and smiled. “It’s perfectly appropriate and acceptable for you to call me by my given name. I have granted you permission to do so.”
She studied his youthful face, belying his centuries-old age. He didn’t look much older than she did, in her opinion. Or it could be that she didn’t want him to look much older.
Her stomach rumbled again, and the sight of the bread and cheese, her favorite, was enough to send her over the edge. She grabbed a piece of cheese and ate voraciously, sighing with pleasure at the taste of the Gunnachs’ world-famous gruyere.
Brodie accepted a glass of champagne from one of the king’s staff who seemed to appear out of nowhere. He handed Payton the glass and gave her empty plate to the woman, who scurried off to continue her duties. Payton eyed the drink, knowing her tolerance to alcohol wasn’t the highest.
Brodie smiled. “It’s cider, lass.”
“Oh. Thank you.”
“Are you going on the hunt tomorrow?”
Payton shook her head.
“Would you like to go?” he asked.
She shook her head again.
“I don’t like horses.”
“Ah.” He smiled. “Shall I tell you a secret?”
Payton bit her lip.
“I don’t particularly like horses, either.”
She grinned. “Really? What did you do when you had no other choice?”
“I lived with it, but when the first automobile was available to purchase, I didn’t hesitate to buy one immediately.”
Payton giggled. “I bet. What did you buy?”
“Oh, wasn’t that the late eighteen-hundreds?”
“Aye. 1897, actually. After George Johnston was prosecuted for driving his car in St Enoch's Square in Glasgow, I took it off his hands…for much more than it was worth, to be honest.” He leaned down and whispered, “I still have it.”
“You do? Where?”
“In my garage.” He grinned. “I promise I’ll show you one day, lass.”
“Thank you.” Her heart raced at the thought of knowing him long enough for him to keep that promise. Another server arrived with a dish of ice cream. Payton’s mouth tingled at the sight. She loved ice cream.
Brodie took the silver cup and spoon and nodded to the server, dismissing him. “I thought you might like to try this.”
“That doesn’t look like fruitcake.”
He chuckled. “No. It’s my favorite flavor. Can you guess what the secret ingredient is? We ship it in from New Zealand.”
“New Zealand? Really?”
He nodded and scooped a little out, lifting it to her mouth. She wrapped her lips around the spoon and sighed in pleasure as she swallowed. “Oh, this is magnificent. I can’t place the flavor, though.”
“It’s called Hokey Pokey. Niall MacMillian discovered it on their winter tour.”
“The drummer from Fallen Crown?”
He fed her another bite. “Aye. You know their music?”
“Aye.” She licked her lips, tasting the small drip left from the spoon. “I love their music.”
Brodie nodded. “Most people do.”
He smiled. “I do, but don’t tell Niall. He’d never let me hear the end of it.”
Payton giggled. “I doubt I’ll ever have the chance to meet him, so your secret’s safe with me.”
Brodie checked his watch. “I should return you to your father. It’s almost midnight.”
“Is it that late?” Payton’s heart dropped. She didn’t want their time together to end.
“Aye, lass. One more bite?”
She nodded. “Oh yes, please.”
Once she’d wiped her mouth daintily with a serviette, Brodie set the dish down and presented his arm. “Shall we?”
She slid her hand into the crook of his arm and was instantly assailed with a vision. Brodie and Connall were speaking, and Brodie said he’d met his mate. Payton gasped and yanked her hand away. She didn’t want to know anything further. Her gift of psychometry was often confusing and rarely gave her the whole picture..
“Are you all right?” Brodie asked, his face showing concern.
“Oh, yes. I’m sorry. I thought I’d stepped on my hem,” she improvised. She gathered her skirt and lifted it from the ground.
Brodie stepped back and let her precede him through the doors, his hand pressing against her lower back, the universal Cauld Ane action toward his mate.
Payton’s heart raced. It couldn’t really be…could it?
Brodie delivered her to her parents, bowed over her hand, and then was gone almost as quickly as he’d appeared.
The next day she questioned her vision again, particularly when she found out that he’d threatened Aidan and told him he was leaving. The question turned into a certainty when, within the week, Brodie was gone for good.
Payton decided then and there that little girl dreams were not for her. She’d forget about Brodie Gunnach and focus on things within her grasp.