Upon A Winter's Night
Reunite with the MacKinnon brothers and their wives for Christmas—and a tale of love, new life, and redemption.
The war between Britain and the French is finally at an end, and the MacKinnons are looking forward to celebrating their first peacetime Christmas in five long years. While Iain and Annie have discovered that the pleasures of marriage grow deeper with time, Morgan and Amalie find themselves at bitter odds. Meanwhile, Connor and Sarah have a newborn son to cherish.
The family's preparations for the holidays are interrupted when Iain learns that Britain has not paid the Rangers for the summer's victorious campaigns. Unwilling to let men who fought under the MacKinnon name suffer deprivation at Christmastime, Iain, Morgan, and Connor leave the warmth of their frontier farm for Albany. There, they find their happy Christmas, and even their freedom, at risk at the hands of a ruthless British officer who holds a grudge against them.
With the men gone, Annie, Amalie, and Sarah do their best to prepare for the festivities despite differing traditions, a raging bull—and the gnawing fear that their husbands won't make it home for Yule.
Events begin the day after the epilogue of Defiant ends. The story includes Joseph, Killy—and revelations about the fate of Lord William Wentworth.
Read and excerpt below...
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Amalie reached out and tied the string she'd bound to the end of the pine garland to the nail Joseph had driven into the wall, hoping it would be strong enough to hold the garland in place. "What do you think?"
Joseph reached up, caught her about the waist, and lowered her to the floor from the chair she'd been standing on, a grin tugging at his lips. "I think it is strange to hang branches from trees inside your home when there is a forest outside your door. If you wish to see trees, why not go outside?"
Amalie couldn't help but smile. "It is a way of celebrating the season. And the scent of pine — is it not sweet?"
She sniffed the air, loving the freshness.
He grinned. "You can smell pine even better if you go into the forest."
"It is far too cold to spend our days out of doors."
Joseph chuckled, putting the chair back in its place at the table.
She turned slowly, taking in the sight of the sitting room, only the discord between her and Morgan marring the moment. "Bien!"
She, Annie, and Sarah had thrown themselves into preparing for Christmas, first decorating Iain and Annie's house and then Morgan and Amalie's. This Christmas would be a happy one, even if their men should find themselves unable to return from Albany in time. The three of them had discussed it at length and had decided that from now on Christmas at the MacKinnon farm would blend together all of their traditions — Catholic and Protestant, Scottish, English, and French.
Pine garlands hung around the doors and windows and above the hearth as had been the custom for Annie's and Sarah's families. Advent candles sat in the center of each family's table, surrounded by wreaths of holly that Sarah had made. Slender tapers of precious beeswax sat in brass holders in the windowsills as they had at the abbey when Amalie was a child.
On Christmas Eve, they would light those candles as a sign of welcome to weary travelers, and they would leave a meal on the table of each cabin. There would be no Mass on Christmas Day, for there was no church or priest, but they would pray together and then feast — roasted turkey and venison with gravy, potatoes, corn bread, and pickled vegetables, with Annie's shortbread, sugared plums, and apple pies for dessert.
This blending of traditions might not have entirely pleased the mere suprieure, but it brought them all together like the family they had become, starting new traditions that they would pass to their children.
At that thought, Amalie glanced toward the bedroom, where the twins, Lachlan and Connor Joseph, slept, and found herself smiling. Her sons would grow up with something she'd never had — a family, a sense of home.
A thud came from upstairs, followed by Annie and Sarah's muffled laughter — and a groan from Killy, who had been helping them hang pine garlands.
Joseph called up to them. "Are you all right, old woman?"
"Killy is well," Annie answered, clearly fighting not to laugh. "He stood too near the edge and—fell off the chair."
"I'd best help him before he breaks his neck." A grin on his face, Joseph started up the stairs.
From outside came a man's voice. "Hallo in the house!"
This was followed by a low bellowing noise.
In a little more than a heartbeat, Killy and Joseph stood together by the front door, muskets in hand.
Joseph looked out the window, his brow bending in a surprised frown. "I see a man with a wagon."
Amalie peeked outside. A man stood holding the reins of two enormous black draft horses, their traces tied to a farm wagon. "It is Farmer Fairley."
Amalie turned to find Sarah standing beside Annie at the bottom of the stairs, a shocked expression on her face. Her newborn in her arms, she glanced from Amalie to Annie, then looked over at Joseph and Killy. "Farmer Fairley was supposed to deliver my Christmas gifts to the family, but not until the morning of Christmas Eve."
"It seems Christmas has come early." Killy leaned his musket agains the wall, opened the door, and strode outside, his words drifting back to them. "A good day to you! Killy's the name. What is it you..."
A great bellowing arose, drowning out Killy's voice.
"What kind of gift is that, little sister?" Joseph asked Sarah, a grin on his face as he followed Killy outside.
Sarah glanced at Amalie and Annie, as if to explain. "I thought Connor and his brothers would be home when Farmer Fairley arrived."
Folding her shawl around her baby, she brushed past Amalie and out the door, Amalie and Annie hurrying behind her.
And Amalie saw.
A great bull stood tied to the back of the wagon. Unhappy about its plight, the animal huffed and growled, its head tossing from side to side, great horns slashing the air.
"Mercy!" Annie said beside her.
"Master Fairley, I wasn't expecting you so soon," Sarah said.
"There's a storm headed this way, and my good wife would be most displeased if I should be snowed in here with you and miss her Christmas cookin'." He removed his hat, scratched his head. "Truth be told, I can't be keepin' this bull any longer. The beast has already destroyed one trough and all but brought down my spare cowshed. He's a cantankerous animal."
As if to prove Farmer Fairley's words, the bull chose that moment to crash its head into the back of the wagon, causing the wagon to rock forward and frightening the horses, which whinnied and stamped uneasily at the snowy ground.
Farmer Fairley calmed the horses, holding fast to the reins. "I need your good man to take the beast off my hands."
"My husband is not here, nor are his brothers," Sarah told Farmer Fairley. "They were called away to Albany on a matter of great importance."
Farmer Fairley's eyes narrowed. "You didn't tell them you'd bought the animal, did you? You meant to surprise them?"
At the expression on Sarah's face, Farmer Fairley broke into guffaws. "One must take great care with a bull. If it were to get out, it could kill someone or get into another farmer's field and cause havoc."
Sarah's gaze fell to the ground. "I...I didn't know."
Farmer Fairley patted one of his horses on its flank. "You'd best be decidin' what to do with it, for I'll not be takin' that beast back home with me. Show me where you want it, and I'll lead it there for you."
Sarah looked from Killy to Joseph, and Amalie could tell by the expressions on their faces that they hadn't the first idea what to do with an angry bull. Neither of them were farmers. But that wouldn't stop them from taking charge.
Killy pushed up his sleeves. "We'll put him in the dryin' shed, tie him down tight, and see to it he's got food and water. When the boys get home, they'll know what to do with him."
Amalie knew little of farming or animal husbandry, but she had watched many a time while Sister Marie Louise had tended the convent's small herd of cattle, leading the bull from pen to paddock so that it could breed the cows. It had never seemed a challenge, the big animal following wherever Sister Marie Louise led.
Amalie walked around the wagon to get a closer look, amazed at the size of this bull, its coat red and shaggy, its body thick and muscled, its horns long. A rope ran from the ring in its nose to an iron ring fixed to the wagon's frame. She had no doubt that should that rope break, the beast would stampede, raging at all of them.
It eyed her, its pupils dark, the whites of its eyes flashing as she drew nearer.
"Oh, the poor beast!" Amalie drew closer still. "It is frightened."
Sister Marie Louise had never tied a bull in a shed by itself. She'd always made certain the animal had the company of a cow or two to keep it content.
She turned to Annie. "Go and get Nessa from the barn and loose her in the paddock. Spread hay for her and fill the trough with water."
The water would freeze during the night, but it was the best they could do until other arrangements could be made.
Annie nodded and dashed off toward the barn.
Joseph frowned. "What do you know of bulls?"
"I watched one of the sisters tend our herd of cattle at the abbey. I often walked beside her as she led the bull to pasture."
Joseph shook his head. "This beast is mean-spirited. It would be hard for a grown man to tame him, let alone a small woman."
The bull bellowed again, swung its head from side to side, pawed at the snow.
"It has nothing to do with size. It is about mastery," Amalie said, remembering what Sister Marie Louise had once said to another nun who was afraid to go near the bull. She turned to Farmer Fairley. "When the cow has been moved, you can take him and place him with her."
Farmer Fairley nodded. "The company of a good cow ought to calm him. 'Tis more often than not the cows that train the bull."
Killy chuckled and opened his mouth as if to speak, then seemed to think the better of it, his mouth snapping shut.
Farmer Fairley motioned to the back of the wagon. "Why don't you two men unload the rest of it while we're waitin'?"
Amalie looked over at Sarah again, amazed. There was more?
Killy and Joseph walked to the side of the wagon and, together, drew back a heavy sheet of canvas, a wide grin spreading across Killy's face. "A plow — and a fine one at that — and a scythe, too."
Amalie stared over at Sarah, astonished.
Sarah looked as if she feared she'd done something wrong, her gaze drawn repeatedly to the bull, which lowed and huffed. "These are my Christmas gifts to all of you. I wanted to help in some way, to use my coin to make life on the farm easier."
"Such gifts, Sarah!" Amalie couldn't imagine how much the bull must have cost, much less the plow and scythe. She knew Sarah had been left with a small fortune, but hadn't imagined Sarah would spend so much of it on the farm. "You are very generous."
"You are my family now."
Sarah's simple reply put a lump in Amalie's throat. She understood only too well how it felt to be alone in the world. Until she'd come to live at the farm with Morgan, she'd never had a place she could truly call home. "Yes, we are your family."
"Well, the boys will be surprised when they get back, won't they?" Killy laughed, lifting the scythe out of the wagon and walking over to lean it up against Iain and Annie's cabin.
"That much is certain." Grinning, Joseph hopped into the wagon and lifted up the heavy plow. "I am glad I will be here to see their faces."
The bull bellowed again, lowered its head, and crashed once more against the back of the wagon, making Sarah gasp and nearly knocking Joseph off balance as he tried to lower the plow to Killy.
"I've got it." Killy rested the heavy implement on the ground, chuckling. "Aye, this will be a Christmas to remember."
Amalie saw that Nessa was now in the paddock, Annie spreading hay on the snow-packed ground.
Farmer Fairley saw, too. He handed the horse's reins to Killy, then got something out of the back of the wagon — a thick rod.
Another bellow, another crash.
"Quit your caterwaulin'!" Farmer Fairley walked to the back of the wagon, hit the bull with a stick to make it step back, and unbound the rope, glancing over at Amalie. "You'd best move aside, mistress. Bulls are troublesome. You can never tell when — "
The bull bellowed and turned as if to run, the sudden motion causing Farmer Fairley to drop the rod. For a moment, Amalie feared the bull would charge the poor farmer, perhaps even gore him.
Without thinking, she stepped between the farmer and the terrified animal, raised her hand, and struck the bull as hard as she could on its nose. "Non!"
It quietened at once, turning its head to gaze at her.
Any fear she'd felt subsided. She took the rope from a startled Farmer Fairley, then chastised the bull in her native tongue. "Comporte-toi bien ou tu seras castr et finiras dans ma marmite!"
Behave, or you will be gelded and put in my stewpot!
The animal followed docilely as she led it toward the paddock.
From behind her she heard Joseph let out a breath.
And then Killy spoke. "I'll be damned."