Excerpt of Dunnottar

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Chapter One

The dashing red-headed John Keith sat on a stone, looking out over the sea in Scotland. As he looked up, he saw the things that were so familiar to him: the steps winding up the steep rocky cliff to the Castle Dunnottar, the great Clydesdale horses which were the mainstay of life at Dunnottar, the guards and squires perched atop the great wall, surveying the situation in case of attack.

He buried his head in his hands. All of it meant nothing to him any more. If only he could have brought his beloved Ann here, but she belonged to another. She would never see his beloved home of Dunnottar. Nor would his little Judith see it.

His heart ached for them. Even the threat of war, which was ever near at hand, brought a slight smile to his face. Shortly he would find a way to travel to London to offer his services to King Charles. He was sure that once he arrived in the ton he would be able to visit Judith, and if he was extremely lucky he might catch at least one fleeting glimpse of Ann.

It all seemed so long ago. Little Judith was already three years old. He had missed so much, he lamented, by not being there to see her grow up. Her first steps, her first words, her first tooth. He knew all of these things were mundane, but when you are not a part of them, they all loom larger than life in your mind.

He moved off the rock and lay back on the cool grass. The smell of the heather blowing in the air filled his being. There was nothing that could make a man more melancholy than the aroma of the heather. He gazed up at the sky, watching the clouds as they drifted lazily by.

"I do have one favor, as long as you ask," Squire Hastings said to his very close friend, John Keith. "If I am to go to Holland for King Charles, I cannot bear the thought of Ann being alone. Would you consider it too great a burden to check in on her from time to time?"

John Keith smiled. There was nothing he would rather do. Visions of the lovely, sprightly Ann Hastings danced in his mind. He pictured her beautiful red curls, which bounced to and fro gaily as she hurried about the house, always eager to serve those who came to call.

There was only one problem with Ann: she was deeply devoted to her husband, Squire Hastings. She would do anything to please him, and the look she got in her eyes as she stared at him… John Keith would give everything he owned—which was worth a great deal—to have someone feel about him as Ann felt about Hastings.

"It would be my pleasure," he replied simply.

"You are the only man alive I would ever trust her with," Hastings told John. "I know you would never do anything to hurt her. Or me."

Day after day passed, with Hastings away in Holland, tending to the king’s business. John Keith, according to the agreement the two men had, frequented Hastings’ small home, always to check on the beautiful young Ann. Soon the visits became a part of his daily ritual.

"It is not just," Ann complained one evening as they sat on the settle in front of the cozy fire burning in the fireplace. "Why did he have to send him? There are so many other men who are as capable as he is."

"But you should be honored that King Charles trusted Hastings enough to carry out such an important task. Besides, I have heard rumors that the possibility of war is over and that Hastings will return shortly."

"Why couldn’t he have sent you instead?" she asked. "Surely he trusts you as well. And you did not just take a bride. I would much rather be here with Hastings than with you!"

It went through him like a pointed arrow, wounding his heart as it entered.

"No," John Keith admitted to Ann, studying her with a new intensity. During the time they had spent together, he had become extremely drawn to the beautiful young woman. Now he watched the fire burning in her sparkling green eyes, brighter than the flames in the fireplace. He smiled warmly at her.

"Do you know how beautiful you are when you are angry?" he asked her.

She blushed, and the color that came to her cheeks just enhanced her beauty.

"I didn’t say there was any justice in it," John continued. "But Hastings didn’t argue."

"Oh, wonderful!" Ann sputtered. "And a lowly squire is supposed to stand before the king himself and say, ‘Sorry, you majesty, but I just don’t feel like going to Holland. I just got married and I can’t bear to leave my wife!’ How do you think the king would have reacted to such a declaration as that?"

John Keith threw back his head and laughed. She was right; it wasn’t fair. But it was no more fair that Hastings had wed Ann. He could have offered her so much more. A life at Dunnottar would be far more fitting for such a woman as Ann than the life Hastings could offer her. For a brief passing moment, John wished that Hastings was not on his way home. He could think of a thousand and one ways to console Ann in her loss.

He snapped to attention. What kind of a monster had he become? Hastings was one of his best friends and he had made a vow to him to protect Ann. He wondered if he could protect her from himself? He realized that his own intentions had become less than honorable towards her.

He never meant for it to happen, but someplace along the line John Keith had fallen hopelessly in love with the lovely Ann Hastings.

Hurrying to change the subject, he began to relate more tales of Dunnottar Castle and the Keith clan, one of the mightiest in all of Scotland, to Ann.

She listened intently, asking questions from time to time. She could almost picture the castle, perched high atop the stones, just from the way he described it. The Keiths, especially William and Mary, the patriarch and matriarch of the family, sounded like the most wonderful people who had ever lived.

"You must be very proud of being a Keith," Ann said.

"Aye, that I am," John admitted freely. "It is nearly the most wonderful thing to be a Keith."

"Nearly?" Ann asked, a twinkle in her eye. "And what would be better?"

John hesitated before answering. "To have a woman to share it with," he said slowly.

Ann laughed. "Surely any woman would be proud to be the wife of the great John Keith of Dunnottar."

"Almost any woman," John said. The one woman whom he would love to take with him to Dunnottar was sitting here, so close he could reach out and touch her. So near he could feel the warmth of her breath on his face. So near and yet he could never touch her. Could never claim her as his own. She belonged to someone else.

"If there is a woman who would turn you down," Ann said, winking playfully at him, "there must be something dreadfully wrong with her."

"No," John said. "The truth of the matter is, she is perfect. The only fault she has is that she has already been spoken for by another."

John wondered if she knew he was talking about her. She was so in love with Hastings, he doubted she had any idea how much he loved her. How much he wanted her.

With no warning, Ann broke into tears. John drew her close, wrapping his arms around her.

"What is it?" he asked. "Was it something I said? Something I did?"

"Of course not," Ann replied. "You have been wonderful to me. It is just that I miss Hastings so much. I know you would never understand, not ever having loved a woman, but at times when I lie in bed at night, I almost imagine I can feel him there beside me. I love the way he makes me feel. When he is with me, I am complete. When he is away, it is as if a part of me is gone, too."

John ran his hand over her red tresses, trying to console her.

"I am sorry," she said, drying her eyes on a corner of her skirt. " I do not mean to carry on. I am just so lonesome."

John did not know how it happened, but somehow they ended up in bed, in each other’s arms, making mad passionate love. He caressed her tenderly, loving the touch and the smell of her. Before he knew it, he felt their love end in one giant, breathtaking crescendo, like beautiful music.

They lay exhausted, their bodies melding together as if they were made for each other. John was still awake when Ann fell asleep, her bosom heaving enticingly with each breath she took.

The worst part of it was that when he awoke in the morning, with Ann cuddled close to him, he had no feelings of guilt, in spite of the fact that he had made love to his best friend’s wife. And in his own bed! If he had it to do over again, he wondered if he would be strong enough to resist the temptation, or if he would give in so easily to his passions again.

He carefully crawled from the bed, trying not to awaken her. He was afraid if he stayed there and she woke up, he would not be able to leave her alone. His entire being cried out to take her to him again, but he knew it was wrong. If all he had was one solitary night of lovemaking with her, that would have to suffice for his entire life. He knew he could never love any other woman. Not after Ann.

In less than a week, Hastings was back in London. Ann had continued to allow John to come to the house, but she remained cool and aloof to him. She had enough guilt over what had happened for both of them.

"Thank you," Hastings said when he found John Keith. "I asked Ann if you kept your word, and she said that you were very good to her."

John turned away from Hastings. He could not bring himself to look at him directly. He was glad that Ann had kept their secret. There was no reason for him to ever find out. Some things were just never meant to be revealed. Their one night was one of those things. He knew Ann would never hurt Hastings, and he saw no reason to do so either. It would serve no practical purpose, as he knew Ann would never leave Hastings—not even for a Keith and all the treasures of Dunnottar.

John was still lying on the grass just outside the confines of Dunnottar. His eyes were once again fixed on the clouds above him. He wasn’t sure if he had fallen asleep and it was all a dream, or if it was merely a daydream. Whichever it was, the only thing he had left now—three years after that fateful night he spent with Ann Hastings—was his dream. His dream—and little Judith. No one could ever take either of them away from him. Even if they must remain secret forever, he would cling to them until his dying day.

"How dare you call yourself a friend?" Hastings bellowed at John Keith. He landed one swift blow to John’s cheek, sending him reeling to the ground. It seemed so real, even now, that John rubbed his cheek.

"Get up, you coward!" Hastings screamed at him.

John Keith was no sooner on his feet than Hastings once more sent him sprawling. Not daring to get up again, John rubbed his jaw and looked up at Hastings. He did not need to ask what it was all about. He knew! Hastings had somehow found out about the one night he and Ann had…

John stared at Hastings. His eyes burned with rage. He had seen men at battle who looked less like they were intent on killing another person. John Keith was not a weak man, but he shivered now as the cowardice ran through his veins.

"Let me explain," John said, still not getting up. "She was so lonely. She said she missed you so much."

"Don’t you go laying the blame on Ann!" Hastings screamed. "I asked you to look after her, but I never meant for you to try to horn in and take my place in her bed. My bed! And then, when I returned, you went right on calling on us as if nothing had ever happened. And all the while you were leering at my Ann. I forbid you to ever see her again!"

John Keith did not know if Hastings would give him an answer or not, but he had to know.

"How did you find out?" he asked.

"How did I find out?" Hastings asked. "You thought you could keep it a secret forever? And the nerve of it! Of course when the baby began to bulge…"

John gasped in disbelief. Ann was carrying a baby. His baby! And he would never be able to claim it as his own. Or would Hastings turn on Ann for her part in it and throw her aside? It was more than John dared hope for. If he chose to do that, he would be there to pick up the pieces. Would he have a chance to show Ann that he still loved her? If she was left alone, would she love him in return, or would she despise him for taking Hastings from her? Only time would tell. Surely Hastings would not want to raise John Keith’s child as his own.

"I must speak to Ann once more," John Keith pleaded. "You may be there, if you wish, but I must tell her how sorry I am."

"I told you to stay away from her!" Hastings repeated. "You will never set eyes on her again! Nor the child!"

John felt a tear trickle down his cheek as he recalled the events of the past. It did not seem possible that it was three years ago. The pain he felt at the loss of Ann was as fresh as a newly-inflicted stab wound, with blood gushing forth from it.

At least Hastings had softened somewhat. He had arranged to take John and Ann’s daughter, Judith, to the palace whenever John came to London. He showed great compassion, but told John that he must never reveal the truth to Judith—nor to anyone.

They had grown close. John often marveled at her looks. She was the exact image of Ann. It was, according to Hastings, her most redeeming quality. Hastings, in spite of his feeling before her birth, loved her as if she was his own child as soon as he saw her.

"Uncle John!" she called to him. He loved it when she came running to him and climbed up onto his lap. It was as close as he came to feeling happiness. He would accept their relationship as it was, but he would never be happy about it. She was his own flesh and blood, but no one would ever know it. When the kin at Dunnottar taunted him about finding a mate in his old age, he could not tell them that he had already found true love. They would have to think whatever they chose.

John stood up and began to make his way back through the tunnel in the hillside and up the long trek to Dunnottar. As soon as the time was right, he would inform the clan of his intentions to go to King Charles to offer his services.

His steps became lighter as he climbed. It would not be long before he would once again be in London and together with Judith. At least that was some consolation. A deep smile crept across his face as he thought of his daughter.

"Bring on the war!" he shouted into the wind.


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