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If hearts are meant to be together, nothing will keep them apart...
When Gavin Macgregor first laid eyes Kenna Moore at festival in their Highland home, the boy fell in love with her flaming red hair, and her easy smile.
Years later, Gavin works up the courage to give Kenna a thistle, and with one innocent gesture, steals her heart.
And then, in the blink of an eye, Gavin is gone, swept away with the rest of the Highlanders to fight in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s war, from which he never returns.
With Gavin’s thistle around her neck, Kenna finds the strength to journey south to Edinburgh, where she’s promised in marriage to Laird Ramsay Macdonald. Struggling to grow accustomed to her new life, little does Kenna know that the man who stole her heart all those years ago is waiting to do it again.
“Well boy, if you think she’s got a good look to her, go tell her so, and don’t be bashful!” Robert Macgregor slapped his boy Gavin on the back and pushed him, tottering, toward the center of the dance floor where the newest girl in the village stood, tugging on her braids, and nervously frittering with her skirts.
He took one step toward her, looked straight at the floor and blushed redder than his tartan.
The whole town of Fort Mary came alive on Hogmanay, the eve of the New Year. Flames burned bright outside the pavilion erected by the townspeople. Gavin’s little feet scuffed across the wooden platform, his tightly laced dress boots barely left the ground as he walked toward Kenna Moore.
Red haired, slim, and of a height befitting her nine years, Kenna Moore was simply the most beautiful creature that Gavin Macgregor had ever laid eyes upon. He decided this in the four seconds since he first saw her, and determined, in that blink of an eye, never to forget.
As he walked across the floor, her eyes had settled on him too, though he wouldn’t know it since he refused to look up.
Unbeknownst to Gavin, Kenna remembered him from the house warming celebration three years earlier when her family moved to Fort Mary. He hadn’t paid much attention to her, as he was far too busy fighting other little boys with sticks during the rare opportunity for play, but as he whacked away at round little Will Macleod, she couldn’t drag her eyes off his long brown hair, or his burning eyes that were the color of the ocean. She’d waited every day – from that day to this – to see him again, but had never got up the courage to ask her Pa to go around to the Macgregor's farm.
The instant little Gavin looked up and saw Kenna staring at him with her piercing stare, the same color as the grass of a dewy morning. He sucked a deep breath, turned an even brighter shade of red, turned away and fled behind his father’s tree-trunk leg.
“Oh my, but hasn’t he grown?” Lora Moore said to Kenna as Gavin Macgregor lashed his arms and crouched low in front of a caber so thick it might well have been made from the biggest tree she’d ever seen.
“I shouldn’t be watching this,” she said back, twirling one of her copper braids between two fingers. “What if his kilt comes up when he flings it?”
“Ach, what if it does?” Her mother laughed with red in her cheeks. “I’m sure he’s got it pinned properly. A boy is nothing without propriety, Kenna. Best you remember that.”
“That’s the Macgregor boy, isn’t it?” William Moore said. “Last we saw of him was – what – three years ago now? Seems a lifetime for all the size he’s put on. He looks like he could have cut that caber himself in two or three axe blows.”
“He’s shorter than me, I think,” said Kenna, smiling in spite of herself. “And besides, he’s got skinny legs.”
“You’re thinking those legs are skinny? We must be looking at different boys,” Lora laughed at her daughter. “Your affections never are hard to see, are they? You’re too sweet a girl to keep them hidden, I think.”
“Oh, stop then! I’ve no such thoughts about him.”
“When you’re ready, Macgregor!” The announcer, David McCraig, the oldest man in Fort Mary, shouted at the top of his lungs. His booming voice had a little bit of a slur at the end, assuredly from the drams he’d drunk before being called to announce the contest, but no one minded. Not at the Beltane games anyway, and Old Man McCraig almost never took to his cups at any other time.
Gavin Macgregor crouched deep, digging his leather bracelets into the wood. He bent his knees and pushed forward on the balls of his feet, then settled onto his heels with a deep breath.
“Do you still think his legs are too skinny?” Lora chided her daughter, who turned bright red and giggled.
“Well no, I suppose not.”
Even at twelve, Gavin’s body was hard. He worked his father’s fields of a morning, and then like every other boy in the village, spent part of the afternoon training with claymore and shield, or with an over-large broadsword meant to build up his strength. Prince Charles – the rightful king of England, most highlanders thought – was denied the throne that was his by right, and if things didn’t chance soon, there would likely be war.
Kenna watched his legs flex above the ankles. His thighs, the little that Kenna could see under the frayed hem of his kilt, were hard too, and lined with muscle.
“Those arms,” her father said. “Look how he holds the caber. That boy’s going to be a Hell of a soldier. Well, if it comes to that, God forbid.”
Lora tapped William on the arm and pointed her eyes at Kenna. The two of them watched their daughter with her hand on her chest, and her mouth halfway open, as she stared at Gavin’s deep-knee-bending preparation.
“Why sir, I think that I am looking at a girl smitten,” Lora whispered.
“She’s not the only one,” William said as he pulled his wife into his side and turned to kiss her. “Fine girl we’ve managed to make. But, Lora, something’s bothering me.”
“What’s that?” Lora didn’t take her eyes off Kenna, who remained absolutely still, entranced by Gavin’s warm up exercises.
“Well, it’s just that,” he took a breath. “No, it’s nothing. Never mind. It’s nothing.” He grinned with a devilish glint in his eye.
Lora elbowed William in the ribs. “What is it, you great fool?”
“Ow! Well, it’s just that looking at her, something struck me. How is it that our daughter is so pleasing to look at?”
Lora narrowed her eyes, elbowed him again, and said: “without me in her, she’d look like the dog,” without missing a beat.
Gavin stood, stretched his back, then his wrists and crouched again.
Kenna’s lip slipped between her teeth and she took her hand off her chest, dropped it to her side, and then intertwined her fingers. As the young Macgregor stood up again, apparently to remedy some
equipment malfunction, she squeezed her hands into fists, rhythmically gripping and releasing them.
“What are you stalling for, Macgregor? Throw the log!” Old Man McCraig roared, raised his cup, and the rest of the village cheered along with him.
Kenna just wrung her hands and chewed her lip.
Come on, Gavin, she thought, come on!
He looked about the staring crowd and waved the crowd to be quiet.
Gavin was searching for something.
Kenna squeezed her hands together so hard her fingers turned white.
He turned left and then right, his eyes bouncing over the crowd.
Finally, they settled on something.
Gavin flashed her a smile, radiant white through the sweat and mud on his face.
How does he remember me? He does remember me. That’s why he’s staring at me. Maybe his legs aren’t too skinny after all.
After a long moment, he turned his head away from Kenna and squatted low in front of the caber, grunted and exploded upward, flinging his arms into the air. Every muscle in his lean body flexed and released as the log turned end over end, landed with a heavy thud straight up and down, then fell away from him to the crowd’s delight.
Red in the face, Gavin brushed his hair backward out of his eyes, his smile radiant as he watched the caber flop down to where it rested.
Through the crowd’s wild cheers, Gavin turned back to Kenna and mouthed something to her that she couldn’t quite understand, but what looked like ‘come find me.’
With the festival’s energy, and exuberant drunkenness, winding down, the celebration had finally begun to die a gentle death. Kenna wandered through the small crowd, nibbling on shortbread and trying to find the young man who won the caber toss. She spotted Gavin just as Robert Macgregor came to whisk him off, back home.
His eyes lit up when he saw her, and he turned to his father, said something, and then slipped out from under his huge arm.
“Gotta be quick about it, we’ve got an early start tomorrow,” Gavin said in a hushed tone. “But I’ve been saving this for you.”
He pressed something round and hard and thorny into Kenna’s nervously hot palm, bowed to her as he was supposed to do, and kissed her hand. “Have to run. I’ll see you soon.”
Kenna was so stunned that she forgot to look in her hand until her Pa asked her what it was she was clenching at so hard.
“Oh, it’s something Gavin handed me,” she said.
William and Lora exchanged a quick glance.
“Well what is it, dear? Is the boy proposing to you?” Lora laughed when Kenna pursed her lips, though she thought she noticed a little look of hope behind the feigned irritation.
Opening her hand, slowly, to extend her anticipation, Kenna stared in wonder at the half-opened thistle flower with a delicate, purple fringe barely creeping out of the hard, green covering. A tear rolled down her cheek, though she wasn’t quite sure why.
Her mother, though, understood perfectly.
“Keep it safe,” she said. “Put it away and dry it. I can show you how.”
“Oh – okay Ma,” Kenna said. “But why? It’s just a flower. How do you know about drying them?”
“I have some experience,” Lora said with a glance at William. “Your father gave me one of those once.”
The pipes played early, halfway through the fifth year of the 1740s. As expected by some, but feared by others, the Bonnie Prince’s petition for the throne was denied by the English, but worse than that, he was ignored and treated like a petulant child. The highland clans had already begun to move, but this morning, one of the main regiments assembled to go south and fight for Prince Charles was to come through Fort Mary and carry with it to Edinburgh, and to battle, all able men willing to fight for their prince.
Some men older than Kenna's father joined the march, but he had a leg that rendered him less able than others. Still, he rose with the pipes to see them who left off.
Kenna woke slowly, eyes still full of sleep when her father pulled her out of bed to stand by the roadside and say goodbye to those who left, many of them not likely to return, if reports of how serious the English were proved true.
“Is everyone going? This looks like half the town,” she said.
“Aye,” her father’s face was stone. “Anyone able and anyone willing, they’ll take. The clans are so desperate for fighters they’re taking the old and the young alike – just so long as they’re able to fight. There will be a meeting in two weeks’ time in Edinburgh, at the castle, and if the situation isn’t remedied, there’ll be a war as sure as I stand here with my hand on your shoulder, lass.”
Kenna, sixteen years old and full of a flush she couldn’t explain, reached with one hand for her father and with the other for her mother. Both of them grabbed her hands and held them tight.
“Aye, I expect he’s going. He’s the strongest lad in the town, and as brave as the night is long this time of year. If anyone will be fine through a battle, it’s him. But there’s still a chance it won’t come to that. There’s always hope, Kenna, that the politics can be taken care of and left to those who have naught to do but play at such games.”
But nothing prepared Kenna for the wave of emotion that pounded against her when she saw Gavin, with his thick shoulders and long hair, walking sleepily down the road, in his dress kilt, with full arms. The dubh in his sock with the Macgregor crest she couldn’t see but knew was there, bouncing in time with the flat of his sword slapping his leg. She screamed his name, but the noise around them drowned her out.
Pipes, drums and fifes playing their outlawed tunes as outlawed clans marched under outlawed banners.
She hadn’t seen Gavin in a year, probably more, but the sight of him was still just too much. Instinctively, she slid her hand down inside the sleeve of her sleeping gown, and held the dried thistle. Her mother told her never to lose it, and she never had.
As the group marched past, all of them with different armaments, different tartans, looks, there was a certain power to the image of all those men, and the few barely-disguised women among them, who had nothing at all in common, moving as one.
“Gavin!” She screamed one last time when he passed directly in front of the window from which she watched. “Gavin, over here! I’ve still got the thistle!”
If he heard, he made no motion. But, Robert Macgregor, massive and terrifying beside his son, patted his shoulder and pointed.
The last thing Kenna remembered before tears took her full in the chest was Gavin, looking back, and his smile.
That shining, radiant smile that he flashed her again, for what might be the last time.
Please, Kenna thought or maybe it was a silent prayer, please don’t be brave, Gavin. Run if you have to, fight if you have to, but don’t get hurt. Please.