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"Why don't you just pick one, then?"
Standing waist deep in the chilly waters of Loch Glenshea, Ewan MacLaughlin slicked his wet hair back from his face and stared dumbly at his cousin Jamie. "Pick one what?"
With a sigh and an expression of exasperation, Jamie jerked his head in the direction of the shore. "One of them."
A crowd of girls from the village had gathered to watch the boys swim. Some of the girls were trying to goad the others into joining them, for the day was sunny and hot and they'd all been working since sunrise. None of the girls was actually brazen enough to wade in, however.
Ewan scoffed as the sound of giggling drifted across the water. "What would I want to pick one of them for?"
Jamie scowled, drawing his dark auburn eyebrows together. "Are ye daft as well as stubborn? So the rest of us might actually have a chance of choosing one as well "
Ewan truly had no idea what his cousin was talking about, and he was certain he was neither stupid nor stubborn, but as he studied the girls on the shore he noticed that most of them were watching him. An uncomfortable realization settled in his chest. He'd never thought of himself as much of a catch before, but as an eligible, landowning young man of twenty-four, he realized that he was definitely seen as a catch.
Wanting to put a stop to this ridiculous conversation, he dove under the surface of the loch, each powerful stroke of his arms taking him farther away from his cousin and his absurdquestions.
Him, a husband? The very thought filled him with horror. While many of the girls of his village were bonny to be sure, there was not one who caught his interest more than the others. Not one that set his heart pounding or made his palms damp. He couldn't imagine spending the rest of his life with a single one of them. What would they have in common? And what would they think of a husband who sometimes stayed up half the night reading or painting? A sensible Scottish lass would think him as daft as Jamie seemed to think him.
Lungs close to bursting, Ewan broke the surface of the lake, only to find Jamie coming up behind him, his long chestnut hair trailing like seaweed behind him. His cousin's fair skin had finally started to tan rather than burn, but he was still several shades lighter than Ewan. Jamie's complexion was the only delicate thing about him. He was pure Scot through and through-as strong as an ox and just as stubborn as one too. He had to be. It was the only way his family had survived The Clearances. They'd been kicked off their land by the wealthy landowners, and Jamie came to his cousin Ewan looking for work to support his family-and work he did. It was Ewan, the lord of the land, who wasn't a true Scot. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't change the fact that English blood also ran in his veins.
"What do you mean you don't want one?" Jamie demanded, treading water beside him. "You'll not find a more bonny lot anywhere-not even in the court of King George himself." The statement wasn't meant to be insulting, of that Ewan was certain, but it stung all the same.
Ewan averted his gaze so his cousin couldn't see the guilt there. He was certain it washis father's blood -- "English blood-that made him want to taste the world beyond his tiny village of Lodi Glenshea, beyond Hadrian s wall to the southern lands of England. He had no good reason to feel such a pull toward his father's homeland. In fact, he resisted it violently. His father had deserted Ewan and his mother years ago, leaving his mother to waste away and eventually die broken and in much lowered circumstances. Ewan had been very young, but memories of his mother were burned into his mind.
Ewan's one memory of him was of his father leaving after his mother's funeral. It was fuzzy, for he'd been just a wee lad of three. At the time, Ewan was glad to stay in Scotland with people he knew, but as he grew older he wondered why his father hadn't taken him with him, why he had left his son to struggle to keep his home standing and his people prosperous. He also wondered why he still thought about his father after all these years. He deserved none of Ewan's curiosity. He certainly didn't deserve the small bit of his son's heart that still ached at the thought of his father not wanting him.
"I have no desire to take a wife, Jamie: ' he replied softly. He'd seen what marriage had done to his mother. He had no desire to afflict anyone with that kind of suffering -- nor have it put upon him for that matter.
But even as the bitter thoughts ran through his head, they were chased by memories of the kind of marriage his grandparents shared -- one of hard work, love, and laughter. He knew that his mother and father's marriage hasn't been a normal one.
Jamie snorted. "You don't have to marry her, Ewan. Just pay more attention to her than the others so they'll give up hopin' you'llpick one of them and start lookin' at the rest of us...
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