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After five years of marriage, Lady Helen has failed to produce an heir. Giving birth to a lass, Helen’s husband rejects her and openly takes a lover while she endures in silence.
But war is brewing. The MacDonald feud with the crown comes to a head and with it arrives Helen’s childhood friend, Sir Eoin MacGregor. Eoin and his men join with the MacIain Clan to quell the rebellion. But when he witnesses Helen suffer undue humiliation, his troubles escalate tenfold.
Mingary Castle, the Highlands. March, 1493
Clenching every muscle in her body, Helen bore down with her remaining shreds of strength. She’d crossed the threshold of her endurance hours ago. Pain no longer mattered. After twenty-four hours of labor, she needed to expunge this bairn from her womb if it killed her, which may very well come about.
Her body shuddered as she shrieked through her grating voice box, pushing until her eyes bulged. “I…” she panted. “Cannot. Take. Anymore!”
“You can!” Glenda shouted. “Just a bit longer, m’lady.”
Helen sucked in a gasp of air. If she weren’t on the brink of death, she’d give her chambermaid a strong rebuttal. But before she could open her mouth, the blinding pain intensified. Panting, she gripped the bed linens and clenched her teeth so taut, they might just shatter. “Eeeeeeee,” she screeched.
“I see the head, m’lady. Keep. Pushing!”
Helen loved Glenda, but by the saints, the woman had to be the spawn of the devil to encourage this mounting torture.
Straining so hard her skull throbbed, Helen gulped one more deep breath and pushed. This had to be the end. Swooning, she could take no more. Stars darted through her vision. Her insides ripped and tore. Many women died in childbirth.
Would she, too?
Blessed Mother Mary, help me, I must survive.
Then as if her prayer had been answered, the bairn slid out between her legs. Her pain subsided.
Helen collapsed against the pillows.
A slap resounded through the chamber. A wee cry sang out.
Helen’s heart soared.
“’Tis a lass, m’lady.”
She could have floated to the canopy above. Pushing the sweat-soaked hair from her brow, Helen smiled. “A wee lassie?” Joyful tears welled in her eyes. Suddenly, all the pain and agony seemed worthwhile as the infant’s angelic voice gasped and cried. It was the most delightful sound she’d ever heard. She reached up. “I want to hold her.”
“Let me finish cleansing her and then you can make the bond,” Glenda said from across the chamber.
With a sigh, Helen gazed at the scarlet canopy above. She’d never been so elated, yet so exhausted.
Glenda came into view, a wide grin on her careworn face. She settled the bairn in Helen’s waiting arms. “What will you call the lass, m’lady?”
Helen regarded the beet-red infant yawning at her. She had a tiny bow-shaped mouth, enormous blue eyes and a smattering of black curls atop her head. “You shall be named Margaret after my mother, but I shall call you Maggie, because you are the most adorable wee bairn I have ever seen.” She kissed the top of her daughter’s head. “And your second name shall be Alice after my younger sister. I like the sound of Alice ever so much.”
With a fragrance as fresh as morning’s dew, Maggie turned her head toward Helen’s breast and nudged.
“She can smell your milk, m’lady.” Glenda untied Helen’s linen shift and opened the front. “Hold Maggie to your teat. She’ll ken what to do.”
Helen moved the bairn in place, and just as Glenda had said, Maggie started to suckle. But it burned. Alarmed, Helen gasped and shot a panicked look at her chambermaid.
“Do not worry, m’lady. It stings a bit at first, but eases as soon as your milk starts to flow.”
Again, Glenda was right and the stinging lessened as quickly as it had come on.
Watching the miracle in her arms, Helen sighed. “I do not ken what I would do without you, Glenda. You are so wise with these things.”
“Aye?” The chambermaid chuckled. “Having three bairns of my own gave me all the learning I needed, I suppose.”
Helen stiffened when the door opened. Her husband strode into the chamber, his heavy boots clomping over the floorboards while the sword and dirk belted at his waist clanked against his iron hauberk. She would never grow accustomed to Aleck MacIain’s harsh mien. With a bald head and black steely eyes, she’d yet to discover his compassionate side, despite five years of marriage. That the bulky man entered wearing his weapons, along with muddy boots, spoke volumes about his lack of respect for her.
Though Helen’s skin crawled, she feigned a smile—the same one she always used to mask her fear. “Come meet your daughter, m’laird.”
He stopped mid-stride and glared. “You mean to tell me that after five miserable years of waiting, you only manage to produce a lass?”
Helen tensed and glanced to Glenda. The chambermaid met her gaze with a frown, then snapped her attention to gathering the soiled linens. No one in the clan dared confront the Chieftain of Mingary, lest they be turned out to fend for themselves. A knot clamped in Helen’s stomach. Aleck may be a tyrant toward her, but he would respect their daughter. “She is our firstborn—a lovely, healthy bairn. ’Tis not always a misfortune for a daughter to come first. We will have other children, of that I am certain.”
He dropped his gaze to her exposed breast and frowned. “I have misgivings about your ability to be successful at bearing lads, given the length of time it took to conceive a lass.” He grunted. “At least you’ve gained some shape to your udders, though I doubt they’ll stay that way.”
Helen turned her face away, heat prickling the back of her neck. Bless it, she’d just birthed his bairn and he hadn’t a kind word to say? She bit back the tears threatening to well in her eyes. A long time ago, she’d vowed Aleck MacIain would not make her weep. She’d spent every day of the past five years trying to please him—looking at every insult as another chance to better herself. But her efforts had never been enough.
If only I could do something to make him like me.
She regarded the helpless bairn in her arms. Hit with an overwhelming urge to protect Maggie, she pulled the comforter over the lass to shield the child and her breast from Aleck’s stare.
Glenda clapped her hands. “I’m afraid Lady Helen is very weak, m’laird. She has lost a great deal of blood and needs her rest.”
Aleck’s gaze darted to the chambermaid as if about to spit out a rebuke. But his lips formed a thin line and he nodded. With one last odious look at Helen, he turned on his heel and left.
Helen allowed herself to breathe.
Glenda dashed to the side of the bed. “I’m ever so sorry, m’lady.”
“’Tis not your fault. I kent Sir Aleck wanted a lad.” Helen smoothed her hand over Maggie’s downy soft curls as the bairn continued to suckle. “He just doesn’t ken how precious a lass can be.”
“No, he does not. I doubt he ever will.”
“Wheesht, Glenda,” Helen admonished.
The woman crossed her arms. “I’ll not pretend. I disprove of his boorishness, especially toward you, m’lady.”
Her serving maid had never been quite so forthright. Helen should scold her further, but presently she hadn’t the wherewithal to do so. At long last, she held Maggie in her arms and even Aleck MacIain could not quash the joy in her heart. Helen grinned. “She is beautiful, is she not?”
“A more precious bairn does not exist.” Glenda reached in. “’Tis time for her to suckle on the other side.”