A Night with a Highlander (Preview)


Isle of Iona, Scotland
Autumn 1304

Arya waited until full moon before she made her move to escape. She knew the moonlight would guide her steps from the convent all the way to the sea front. It was long after the ringing of the curfew bell and silence had fallen throughout the nunnery, before she was certain the nuns would be sleeping and she could leave without anyone noticing her slip away.

After tucking a folded note under her pillow explaining where she was going and begging the sisters not to worry about her wellbeing, she flung on her cloak and ventured from the small cell she’d been occupying during her exile here. Closing the door silently behind her she tiptoed down the corridor, her boots clutched in her hand.

Passing on soft feet along the passageways she drew open the creaky old door of the nunnery and found herself in the walled garden. This was where she’d spent many hours learning about healing and herbs from Sister Dominique. Arya was convinced the old nun, with her amazing depth of knowledge and understanding, must have been a witch before she left the confines of the world and took her vows of contemplation and chastity among the sisters of Iona.

Arya looked around with something approaching regret. Her time on the island had not been without its consolations, and she wished she’d been able to thank Sister Dominique for her teaching, and bid farewell to Maggie Drummond, her loyal maidservant. But her enforced seclusion had now come to an end, and, if her plans were known, there were those who would do their best to forestall her departure.

It wasn’t that she was a prisoner. She was a guest of the sisters, not their captive. She was here at the insistence of her older brothers. Payton, her eldest brother, the Laird of the Macdonells, and Taveon, two years younger, were convinced she should remain here, safe from the wicked Sir William de Coughran, who had threatened to kill her in his battle against the Macdonell clan.

More than anything, she wished to aid her brothers. Locked away in this peaceful community, she was no use to them at all. Although she was well aware that leaving the confines of the nunnery would incur their wrath, once they saw how much they needed her with them, she was confident they would see things her way.

Her most fervent wish was that she could earn their respect. Of course, as her older brothers, they loved their little sister. But she was no longer a child but a grown woman of nineteen years. Old enough for marriage and to have a household of her own.

Knowing her own mother had lost her life giving birth to her had always felt like a cruel curse hanging around her neck, weighing her down. The gift of life her mother had bestowed on her newborn daughter had meant depriving her older brothers of their dear mother’s love. She’d never known it herself – although she’d felt its absence sorely – but nothing could ever compensate her brothers for the precious mother they had worshipped and loved with all their hearts. No matter how hard Arya had tried throughout all her days to redeem herself she could never rid herself of the guilt.

She sighed. This was her opportunity to prove to them she was worthy. Despite her one brief moment of doubt, she was resolutely determined to make her way home to Macdonell Castle. She fastened her blue woolen cloak tight around her, pulling the hood with its lining of white fur over her red curls, hauled open the door in the garden wall, and set off, the moonlight guiding her steps.

The first part of her mission gave her a tiny niggle of concern. She must take all her courage in her hands and knock on cottage doors seeking the services of a fisherman who would take her across to the nearby Isle of Mull. On her occasional brief breaks from the routine of the convent she’d been permitted to stroll along Iona’s rocky foreshore from where Mull was clearly visible. She’d seen the fishing boats pulled up on the shore not far from the village and it was there she was heading.

Her faith in herself grew bolder. She could do this.

Squaring her shoulders, she pulled her confidence around her like a cloak. Once across to the other island, she would make her way to Ardtun, a few short miles away, where she knew she would find sanctuary with the MacKinnon clan. From Mull she would take the rest of her voyage home.

But there was something else about tonight’s adventure that set her pulse thrumming. The tiny village of Baile Mòr lay less than a mile away and, until tonight, her itch of curiosity about the place had never been scratched.

The sisters were strictly forbidden to ever set foot there and the convent rules were strict, never to be broken. Even though she’d asked around, no one had ever dared pay a clandestine visit there. Mother Superior was unmoved by Arya’s numerous pleas to be permitted, just once, to visit the village.

As far as the Mother Superior was concerned, Baile Mòr was only second to Hell when it came to wickedness. And, it was certain, the devil himself resided in the village tavern.

Of course, this made Arya even more curious.

Her heart was hammering as she made her way along the woodland path that would soon bring her to the rocky shoreline and, a little further along, to the village.

It was then she heard a strange growling sound. At first, she thought it was an animal, and she quickened her steps. Then the deep growl was followed by a high-pitched whimper and she registered that the noises she was hearing were all too human. These were the sounds of a man and woman locked in a fierce conflict.

She paused, peering through the trees into the nearby clearing. The moonlight shone brightly and she could clearly make out the two figures. Hearing voices raised in anger she crouched low, suddenly afraid of being discovered.

Although she couldn’t make out the words they were speaking, it was clear they were arguing. The woman’s voice rose higher, until she was almost shrieking, the man’s voice was deep and unrelenting with rage.

The woman screamed out “Nay. Nay.” and, heart in mouth, Arya craned forward, fearful, but struggling to make out more clearly what was going on.

Creeping toward the couple she saw the man had hold of the woman’s arm in a tight grip. She struggled, her nails raking his cheeks. Breaking free of him, she went to run, but fell, tangled in the skirt of her long kirtle. Growling and cursing he was on her in an instant, hauling her to her feet.

To Arya’s horror she saw the man draw back his arm and bring his fist up. The woman screamed as he landed a heavy blow to her jaw. Her head jolted back and he raised his fist and delivered a second blow.

From her hiding place, Arya could clearly see the blood streaming from the woman’s nose and mouth.

The woman raised a hand to her broken face, making a gurgling sound in her throat. A fierce protective instinct galvanized Arya. There must be some way she could try and save the woman from this brute.

The woman’s legs seemed to give way and she sank to her knees. At once the man seized her long hair and forced her head back, dragging her to her feet.

“Ye cursed whore,” he said in a low harsh voice. “I should slit yer throat.”

Horrified, Arya listened as the woman pleaded for her life.

“Please, nay, dinnae kill me. I swear I…”

The man was fumbling for the knife in his belt, the woman fighting fiercely.

Looking around feverishly for some kind of a weapon, Arya’s hand encountered a sharp, heavy stone which she clutched in desperation.

The man pulled up his hand, holding his dirk aloft preparing to slash the woman’s throat as he’d threatened, and Arya’s fingers closed tightly around the rock.

Just as the man was bringing down his weapon, Arya dashed forward. Coming up behind him she smashed the stone as hard as she could against his head. Letting out a roar he released the woman and staggered to his knees, his attention now on his attacker. Arya.

“Curse ye, devil’s wench,” he bellowed at her, scrabbling to haul himself upright, raising his dirk again, this time aiming straight for Arya’s heart.

In a wild panic she struck a second blow as he tried to rise, the heavy rock smashing into his temple. With a loud grunt, he dropped the dirk, fell back, rolled to his side, and lay at her feet, motionless. Blood gushed from the wounds on his head where the sharp end of the stone had found its mark.

Arya knelt quickly, forcing herself, without success, to feel a heartbeat under the heavy leather jacket he wore.

Finally, rising to her feet, she gazed with revulsion and trepidation into the man’s unseeing, lifeless eyes, her hands dripping with his blood. Frantically she grabbed his tartan cloak and wiped her stained hands clean.

Rolling her gaze to the stars, she breathed a prayer.

Oh, dear God in heaven what have I done? I’ve killed a man.

She turned to the trembling lass, her own body shaking uncontrollably.

“Ye saved me life,” she heard the woman say. “I thank ye.”

“Aye, that I did,” Arya mumbled, scarcely able to believe the scene that confronted her. “I saved yer life by making this man pay with his.”

In an instant the two girls were in each other’s arms, each attempting to reassure the other.

“Ye’ve done aught tae be ashamed of lass, he was a wicked, wicked man and the world’s a better place without the likes of him in it. I’m grateful tae ye from the bottom of me heart,” the trembling woman said quietly. Her words going some way to soothing Arya’s shattered nerves.

Arya looked up into the lass’ tear-filled eyes, surprised she was only about the same age as herself. She’d imagined her to be much older when she’d first come upon on the couple.

“There is nae need tae thank me fer…” Arya, said staring in true horror at the body crumpled at their feet where he’d fallen. He had menaced both of them with his dirk and she had no doubt he’d intended to end the lives of both her and the lass. “…and ye’ve aught tae be fearful of, now he is… nay more,” she said, releasing the young woman from her tight, panicked grip.

Taking a seat on a fallen log nearby, the woman reached for Arya’s hand and pulled her down to sit beside her.

“I am named Eleonor,” she whispered. “Ye?”

“I’m Arya…” She hesitated, suddenly afraid of revealing the name “Macdonell” to this unknown girl. After all, she, Arya had just killed a man. Her head buzzed with a thousand bees. Perhaps she’d already said too much. She sucked in a breath, her eyes widening as the recognition of her own dangerous situation dawned. Once the dead man was found, there would be others seeking to find the culprit who had murdered him.

Shaking her hand free, she pushed herself to her feet. She had to get clear of this place. Now. Before someone discovered the man’s body and came searching for his killer.

The sound of distant men’s voices made them both freeze.

“They’re coming this way,” Arya whispered as the voices grew louder.

Eleonor groaned. “That will be his men seeking him out now that he hasnae returned tae them. We must flee,” she took a step toward the path.

Arya went to follow but her skirt was caught, snagged on the fastening on the man’s plaid cloak. She tugged at her skirt but it was securely trapped.

“Here.” Eleonor swiftly snatched up the dead man’s dirk and slashed at the offending cloak. Her speedy action released Arya, but left the brooch and a fragment of the man’s cloak still clinging to her skirt.

Arya went to undo the fastening, but Eleonor placed a restraining hand on her arm. “Come now. We must be quick. There’s nae time tae fash about that now. We must run before they catch us here.”

Turning back toward the abbey, Arya reached for Eleonor’s hand. “I will find sanctuary with the sisters in the convent. I can hide there. Come with me. We’ll be safe from pursuit.”

Eleonor turned away, shaking her head. “Nae, Arya. I cannae go with ye. I have other things I must attend tae. I’ll find me way back tae the village and I’ll be safe there. There’s none who kens I was tae meet with this man, nae even his own soldiers, so they’ll nae look fer me.” She turned to go. “Ye bide well.”

Desperate as she was to regain the safety of the nunnery, Arya held grave concerns for Eleonor’s safety. “Ye must make haste tae hide, lass. But if ye ever need me help ye can find me at the abbey. If I’m nae there, leave a message for Arya with the sisters. They’ll ken where I stay and get your word tae me. I’ll help if I can.”

They gave each other a quick hug and sped on their way, their footsteps racing along the path in opposite directions.

Stumbling along the path to the abbey, Arya’s head was spinning. She was hardly aware of where she was until she found herself in the convent garden. The darkness of night was slowly being overtaken by the gray light of early morning and several nuns were pacing slowly toward the chapel for morning prayers. Passing the sisters, she entered the main hall, where preparations were underway for the breaking fast meal that would await the nuns on their return from Matins.

Head down, her hood almost covering her face, she crept along the passageway leading to the cell she’d only vacated a few short hours before.

In that time her life had changed forever. She had left here, her heart full, wishing only to be useful to her beloved brothers. She was returning with the blackest of marks marring her future. Her actions had made her a sinner. She had no right to be here, among the spotless purity of the contemplative women whose refuge she craved.

If she could only make it to her cell and take off the bloodstained kirtle and blouse and join the others in the chapel to pray for forgiveness.

Turning the corner and heading along the corridor that led to her cell, she was pulled up short by a voice crashing into her morbid and hopeless thoughts.

“Goodness child, where have you been so early in the day?”

Arya’s heart sank. It was the Mother Superior. The tall, angular nun studied Arya with an all-knowing expression in her gray eyes.

“Well, lass. I hope ye’ve nae been meeting with a lad outside these walls. Yer brother, the laird, willnae be happy if he discovers ye’ve found a sweetheart while ye’ve been with us.”

Arya shook her head. A lover would be the least of it. If the saintly Mother only knew the truth of the sin she’d committed.

Forcing a shy smile, she shook her head. Mother Agnes returned her smile, making no comment. Her gaze roamed across Arya as if search for an answer to her question, coming to rest on Arya’s skirt where the brooch with its remnant of bloodstained plaid was still attached.

Arya held her breath, fearful of the questions she expected.

Agnes reached down, undid the fastening and rose, clutching the brooch and the fabric in her hand. She looked sternly at Arya.

“This is the MacQuarrie tartan, and the brooch ye have here is chased gold, bearing the Clan crest.” She tilted her head to one side questioningly. “Only the Laird and his family are able tae wear such treasures. How did ye come by this?”

Arya gasped. “I dinnae ken, I was in the woods, Mother. It must have caught in me kirtle.”

Mother Agnes took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. “I pray ye speak truth Arya. The MacQuarries are a vile lot. If they believe this precious item has been stolen, they will nae spare the life of the thief. I must arrange fer this brooch tae be returned. It would nae dae fer any of the clan to ken it is in the hands of a MacDonell.”

“Oh, thank ye, Mother,” Arya muttered. “I’m of nae mind tae keep it.”

Mother Agnes tucked the brooch into the pocket of her surplice and gave Arya’s arm a squeeze. “Dinnae fash, lass. I’ll arrange fer one of our messengers tae take it across tae Mull, with the word that it was found in the woods by one of the sisters on her daily walk to the farms.” She made the sign of the cross. “I believe the Good Lord will forgive me the lie. Now, dae hurry and tidy yerself fer morning prayers. Yer brothers have sent news and it is now safe fer ye tae return home. After the prayers you can prepare tae leave.”

Arya could scarcely believe Mother Agnes had chosen discretion, and could only nod as the older woman swiveled and continued her way along the passage. The news of being called home would have overjoyed her just a few hours ago, but now, it was secondary. Her heart was beating fast and the blood was pounding in her veins as the nun’s dire words took hold. Feeling her knees buckling under her, she put a hand on the wall to support herself while her stomach roiled and a wave of terror swept over her.

Not only was the man she’d killed a member of a bloodthirsty, vengeful clan, it seemed he was an important member of the clan laird’s family.

Chapter One

Early Spring 1305
Isle of Iona

Grimacing, Gillebride slammed the heavy pewter tankard on the sturdy oak table. Ugh! This seedy tavern in the godforsaken village of Baile Mòr served what must surely be the worst ale in all of Christendom.

Looking around, he swiped his sleeve across his beard. He despised this place, and was only here on the Isle of Iona at the behest of the Laird, Blaine MacKinnon, who was keen to obtain the latest battle plans from their neighbouring clan, the MacQuarries.

Grumbling under his breath he scanned the motley throng of cutthroats, whores and poorly disguised clansmen seated around him in the fetid, smoky parlour. There was no sign of the man he’d been sent to meet, Beolin, a henchman of Anrias, Laird of the MacQuarrie Clan.

Although the MacQuarries and the MacKinnons were now allies, fighting side-by-side for their King Robert the Bruce, theirs was a long, uneasy history. MacKinnon land bordered that of the Macquarries on the Isle of Mull and, for as long as Gilly could remember, there’d been ongoing skirmishes along the border and attempted incursions by the MacQuarries. Cattle had been stolen, crops destroyed, fishermen’s catch taken. Not only that. They were a bloodthirsty, merciless clan with a reputation for engendering fear of their ruthlessness into all those unfortunate enough to encounter them.

Still, if nothing else, meeting on Iona they were in a neutral place, a short distance from either clan’s territory. Despite that, it was a damned nuisance to make the short sea crossing even though, when the tide was out it took a strong oarsman only minutes to cross from one island to the other.

Apart from a few straggling, thatch-roofed cottages, this was the only meeting place on the island and it bedeviled Gillebride’s thoughts that a place harboring so much evil was situated so close to the abbey and the nunnery.

Glancing around, his eye was captured by a parchment tacked up on the wall near the doorway. From where he sat, he could just make out a roughly drawn and painted woman’s face. The features were indeterminate but what stood out was the mane of red hair cascading over the face, visible even at a distance. He squinted in the dim light, but was unable to read the rough script on the bottom of the parchment. Apart from the grim words “Wanted Dead or Living”.

He had more than a little sympathy for the woman, whoever she was and whatever crime she’d committed. If she attracted the attention of the ruffians frequenting this disreputable hideout then pity help her.

A big-breasted woman whose blouse and kirtle were alarmingly low, exposing an expanse of her flesh, sidled up to his table.

“Only a penny fer such a handsome bear of a man as ye, tae take me tae bed,” she said, giving him a lascivious grin, her gaze roaming over his broad shoulders and huge size.

Gilly shook his head. “Nay lass, I’ve nae taste fer what ye’re selling.”

She huffed, shrugged her shoulders, and moved off to another table where one of the men seized her around the waist and pulled her onto his knee. The sound of her false laughter rang in Gilly’s ears as a shadow materialized beside him. He looked up to see Beolin pulling out another stool from under the table and lowering himself into the seat.

He grunted a greeting and Gilly dipped his head. He had no time for Beolin. He’d never trusted the man, despite their frequent meetings to discuss the plans being laid down by the clans in the war against the English. Beolin was a tall, gaunt, grey-bearded man who, to Gilly, always had the hungry look of a half-starved fox about him.

Beolin called the serving-wench over and requested an ale. Gilly shook his head. He’d had enough of the bad brew. Once the woman had placed the tankard on the table the two men bent their heads in conversation, apprising each other of the most recent strategies for the upcoming battles against the English.

Gillebride watched Beolin in disgust as the man licked his lips, his gaze fixed on the young whores shamelessly parading their wares, half-naked before the men. No doubt after his conversation with Gilly was done, he’d take one of the lasses upstairs and have his way with her, offering nothing more than a small coin for her services.

“Have ye nae shame, man?” Gilly said when the man’s obvious lust became too much for him to observe without commenting. “These lassies are young enough tae be yer own daughter.”

Beolin’s only comment was a short sniggering laugh and an uneasy shifting in his seat, his hand on his braes.

Gilly shook his head, looking away in disgust. His gaze came to rest again on the rough painting tacked on the wall. “What’s the story with the lass?”

Beolin swivelled to stare at the poster and turned back to Gilly, a frown on his gaunt face.

“There’s a price on her head. If ye’ve a mind tae search fer her ye could earn yerself some coin.”

“I’m nae looking fer coin, lad.” Gilly offered a sharp laugh. “What’s the lass done tae make her an animal tae be hunted?”

“An animal is too good a name fer her. The whole of Clan Macquarrie is after her fer killing young Alasdair, the favourite son of Anrias MacQuarrie.”

Gilly raised an eyebrow. “The Laird’s son? Murdered by a wee lass?”

“She’s nae a wee lass, Gillebride, but the spawn of the devil and his bride. She’s a witch who killed the lad by smashing his head with a rock. When Anrias catches up with her he’ll most likely have her walled up fer eternity, to die a slow and hungry death. A quick death is too good fer the likes of her.” Beolin hoicked a blob of phlegm onto the scuffed dirt floor and ran his fingers across his belly and shoulders in the sign of the cross.

Gilly had seen and heard enough. It was time to take his leave and turn his back on this man Beolin and the ugly village of Baile Mòr. He placed a coin on the table as payment for the ale and rose to his feet.

“Bide well,” he said to the other man. As he turned to go a sudden commotion broke out.


The boatman lifted Arya out of his small boat and slung her over his shoulder as if she was a sack of barley. He waded the few yards to the sandy, rocky beach and lowered her, none too gently.

She handed him a coin for his trouble. “Wait here fer me, I’ll nae be long. I have business with a lass I’m tae meet in the tavern. Ye’ll get the rest when ye return me tae Mull.”

The man grumbled under his breath. “A decent lass would nae be here at all.”

Arya shivered and pulled her cloak tight around her against the wind, lowering the hood with its white fur trim. She was back in the place she’d vowed never to visit again and the cold breeze whipping off the sea and the drizzling rain simply added to her disquiet.

All these months she’d almost begun to put the memory behind her, almost begun to feel safe. Although, she knew in her heart, she would never be able to forget the awful secret of the man she’d killed.

“Dinnae fash,” she told the boatman, “I’ll be back in minutes.”

As she trudged up the hill toward the tavern her heart was pounding. A pall of wickedness fell over this place. It was clearly no place for a lass on her own. She’d learned it was a stronghold for the feared MacQuarries, even though their territory was on Mull. Despite telling herself she was be safe enough to be here, unrecognized, her feelings of unease grew stronger with every step.

Why on earth has Eleonor sent me a message? It can only mean she is in trouble. And why of all places, has she asked me tae meet her at the most dangerous place of all, the tavern in Baile Mòr?

Following Eleonor’s instructions, she’d told no one of her destination. But now, as she approached the dimly lit tavern, hearing the raucous, raised men’s voices coming from inside, she questioned the wisdom of her decision. If anything happened to her here, her brothers and her friends would have no idea where to find her.

Outside the tavern, she hesitated. Of course, she wished to aid Eleonor if she needed help, but coming here meant she was risking discovery by members of the MacQuarrie clan.

But, save fer Eleonor, nae-one kens me part in the death of that man. Surely, I’ll be safe.

Taking a deep breath to settle her nerves, she tightened her cloak and, head well-covered by her hood, she pushed open the door and stepped into the noisy, fetid interior of the tavern.

The instant she was through the door she knew she’d made a horrible mistake in coming here.

All conversation ceased as she stepped into the tavern and every eye turned in her direction. Her eyes searched for Eleonor, but wherever she looked there were men accosting women, some of whom had their breasts bare, being fondled by rough-looking characters. Many of the men seemed drunk and staggering. One man was lying on the floor looking up the skirt of a woman who was bare to the waist and giggling as if she was tipsy.

Arya groaned audibly. There was no sign of Eleonor, even though the message she’d received was clear. They were to meet in the Baile Mòr tavern, shortly after sundown.

She waited, unsure of her next move and, after moments, the rough laughter and talk resumed. All the same, she was uncomfortably aware she was being closely scrutinized by several men at a nearby table. Two of them laughed and nodded to each other as if in agreement with something. She shuddered as they gazed intently at her, their lustful intentions all too obvious

Stomach lurching, she looked away. It was then her eyes were drawn to the roughly-painted poster just inside the door. Her heart, which was already beating much too fast, suddenly felt as if it would jump right out of her chest.

The painting was childish, roughly drawn and colored, but the tilt of her head, the straight nose, the big blue eyes and, most of all, the cascade of red hair were sufficient for her to realize this was someone’s attempt at creating a portrait of her – Arya Macdonell.

The words, Wanted Dead or Living, underscoring the likeness, sent a stab of ice straight to her heart.

I must get out of here. I cannae wait any longer fer Eleonor.

On the spur of the moment she pivoted, determined to flee from this horrid place as swiftly as her shaky legs could carry her. But her hopes of beating a hasty retreat without drawing any further attention were dashed. Her cloak flying out behind her as she turned brought glasses and tankards from a table beside the door clattering and smashing to the floor.

Once again, all eyes were upon her.

Ignoring the commotion she reached a hand to the door, determined to be gone before there was time for anyone to take another breath. But the men who’d been watching her were already on their feet and in an instant two of them had seized her. One had her around the waist and the other pinioned her arms behind her back in an iron grip.

She screamed, struggling vainly against their tight hold on her.

“We’ll have some sport with ye tonight lass. Ye’ll nae be disappointed I guarantee ye.” one of the men said. “Mayhap we should take ye upstairs with us fer our fun.”

A bawdy laugh went up from the assembled throng. One man waving a tankard in encouragement.

“Let me go,” she shrieked. “Please,” she begged, attempting to kick out at the man behind her.

Her desperation only seemed to encourage them.

“Ah. I like a feisty one,” the man behind her said, leaning down to plant a wet kiss on her cheek. “Ye’ll keep us busy tonight, lass.”

She screamed again, bucking wildly as they hauled her toward the stairs at the side of the parlour.

Looking around beseechingly she implored someone – anyone – to please come to her aid and rescue her from this nightmare.

But the other denizens of the tavern were far too interested in their own debauchery to pay any further attention to her plight.

Except for one man.


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Seduced by Highland Lies (Preview)


Richmond, England, 1650
Seton House, winter

Lady Cecily Ridley had never been renowned for her rebellious nature. That distinction belonged to her dear sister, Helen, especially within the more refined circles of England. However, in that particular moment, as Cecily stealthily navigated the corridors of Seton House under the cloak of night, her heart pulsed with a newfound sense of rebellion. An exhilarating sensation coursed through her, infusing her with vibrant, tingling energy, though it was not without its dangers—evident in the rapid rhythm of her heartbeat as she approached the door nestled within the stone passage, where her brother’s study was settled.

The candle she carried was dwindling, its flickering light casting wavering shadows as a droplet of wax seared her hand, sending a swift pang of pain through her. Suppressing the urge to curse, she bit her lip, resolved not to reveal her whereabouts or her purpose. This constant need for concealment within her own home had become a prolonged ordeal. As the pain subsided, she reached into the pocket of her robe to retrieve her half-brother Anthony’s key. Casting furtive glances in both directions along the dim corridor, she slipped the key into the lock, turning it with a delicate touch. She entered the room beyond in silence, gently closing the door behind her. She felt like a criminal lurking around the house in the middle of the night and going through Anthony’s things without his knowledge.

I’ve done it.

Releasing the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, she advanced into the room and placed her dwindling candle upon her brother’s imposing wooden desk. The same desk that had once belonged to her father, a poignant reminder of his warmth and affection, now served as a stark emblem of her brother’s severity. Anthony lacked any hint of kindness or affection. Though he treated her better than he did Helen, their relationship was far from the camaraderie of true siblings.

“I must find something,” she whispered to herself, furrowing her brow as she embarked on her quest amidst the scattered documents strewn across the desk’s surface.

At that moment, nothing revealed itself to her eager eyes. Frustration began to chip away at her determination as she rifled through drawers, extracting assorted documents.

Cecily’s desperation to aid her sister, Helen, was profound. A few months earlier, fueled by animosity toward Helen’s audacity and her resemblance to their Scottish mother, Anthony had dispatched her on a treacherous mission: to spy in Scotland and gather intelligence regarding the Scottish movement during the Anglo-Scottish War. Helen’s reluctant compliance had hinged upon Anthony’s menacing threat—to force Cecily into an unwanted marriage.

Helen’s departure had occurred without resistance, despite Cecily’s impassioned pleas. The burden of guilt gnawed at her ceaselessly. Not a moment passed without Helen occupying her thoughts—her worries unending. While Helen possessed adept skills in gathering information and defending herself, the inherent danger of her undertaking was undeniable. Cecily’s uncertainty lingered; she questioned whether Anthony would honor his promise and spare her from an undesirable marriage even if Helen’s mission succeeded. Thus, she undertook her late-night journey to his study while he caroused elsewhere, presumably drowning himself in drink. Her goal was clear: to unearth any leverage she could use against him, compelling him to bring Helen back to England.

Each successive letter from Helen had carried escalating tension. Her perilous and exhausting work ignited Cecily’s fear for her sister’s safety, especially when Helen recounted her exploits of extracting information from inebriated men at taverns. While Cecily sorted through a stack of letters, the sound of footsteps resonated in the corridor. She froze, her heart pounding, waiting for confirmation if it was merely a maid concluding her nightly duties. The hushed tones that followed shattered her hopes, filling her heart with trepidation.

Cursing under her breath, she swiftly returned the letters to their drawer, tightly clutching her candle. Her only option was to conceal herself behind a long tapestry adorning the wall. Extinguishing the flame, she positioned herself, her heart pounding audibly in the silence. The tapestry cascaded to the floor, veiling her in obscurity. Though she believed herself inconspicuous, her heartbeat felt deafening in her ears.

No, this wouldn’t do. She retreated from that position, choosing instead a tall cabinet adjacent to the tapestry. She squeezed inside, grateful for the superior cover it provided. Her hope was that the tapestry would cease its swaying before her brother entered. Her heart raced as she braced herself for the impending seconds.

Since her father’s passing, fear had been her constant companion—a dread of others’ perceptions and actions. Now, at last, it seemed to have reached its zenith. Why had she embraced this rebellious course? If she were discovered, the retaliation Anthony might exact was something she deeply dreaded.

Her choice of the cabinet now appeared ill-advised, despite its practicality. It struck her that this must have been Anthony’s hunting repository, holding garments splattered with hunting blood and an assortment of weaponry. Gripped by dread, she dared not make a move, anxious about unintentionally dislodging an object or inadvertently revealing her hiding place. Yet, amid her fear, an unsettling note intruded—the distinct scent of blood permeated the cabinet’s air. The odor was potent, as though the blood was fresh. However, she was unaware of Anthony having hunted recently.

“Why the concern for those documents? They’re not your concern, but mine. I am the Earl of Seton, cousin, not you,” Anthony’s voice asserted, carrying an undercurrent of tension.

Cecily remained motionless, her heart racing, as she strained to identify the person arguing with her brother. She leaned slightly forward, peering through the door’s gap. It was their cousin, William Cavendish—or rather, her father’s distant cousin. His typically cold demeanor appeared inflamed by anger, a sight she’d seldom witnessed. He was typically passive, but now his visage was flushed with rage.

“It’s prudent for someone else to be privy to such matters, cousin, to know their whereabouts,” William retorted, his hands resting on his hips. “You can’t safeguard such secrets, or the title will falter. Surely, that isn’t what you desire.”

Cecily observed that the man wore a peculiar yellow ensemble—an odd choice of clothing, comprising a yellow jacket, a shirt and cravat of faded yellow, and yellowish breeches. This incongruity momentarily diverted her attention from the intensity of the exchange. She questioned why Anthony wasn’t mocking the man’s attire instead of arguing with him. Moreover, she pondered the purpose of William’s presence; to her knowledge, he and Anthony were not on friendly terms. Deeper into the cabinet she withdrew, her fear intensifying.

They’ll leave soon. They’ll inspect the documents and then depart.

She tried to steady her breathing, but a shift in her position revealed dampness. One of the coats hanging within the cabinet bore fresh bloodstains. A wave of revulsion surged through her as she confronted the sight and scent of it, so close. The familiarity of the scent shocked her—how had she become acquainted with the odor of blood? Her spine tingled with a fresh wave of anxiety, and she tightly closed her eyes, attempting to suppress the urge to retch. Despite her efforts, a sneeze escaped her, and she clenched her hand over her mouth. Fortunately, her brother’s sudden hand slam onto the desk coincided, muffling the sound—she hoped.

“I’ve no inkling as to why you’re even here, cousin!” her brother’s voice rang out, revealing his inebriation.

She kept her hand over her mouth to stifle her breathing, hoping the cabinet’s confined space would mask the unintended noise. For a time, silence descended, only to be broken by William’s inquiry. Anthony’s gaze flickered momentarily toward the cabinet, then returned to fixate on William. The exchange provided her a momentary reprieve from her precarious concealment.

“No, I heard nothing,” Anthony replied with a hint of irritation. “Now, cease avoiding my question.” His finger jabbed at William’s chest.

“I’m here to ensure you haven’t misplaced that wretched document, Anthony,” William retorted, his tone tinged with a snarl.

Cecily frowned, her father’s cousin had never spoken to her for this long or engaged in a dispute. What document could be of such consequence? Observing her brother’s stance stiffen, she sensed he was summoning his most authoritative tone. However, his response surprised her.

“I’ll show you, and then you can leave me be!” Anthony declared, his words slightly slurred.
She watched as he scanned the papers on his desk, mirroring her earlier search. She was profoundly relieved that he failed to notice any evidence of prior exploration in his documents and correspondence. William leaned over him, scrutinizing his actions. When Anthony’s initial search yielded nothing, he impatiently pulled out a drawer.

As she observed him hunched over the desk drawer, Cecily’s gaze remained fixed on William, noting his subtle shift. He tracked his cousin’s movements in their search, but her curiosity piqued as she watched him reach into his pocket, extracting a slim blade. Her mouth fell open, a gasp teetering on her lips, a desperate attempt to intervene rising within her. Swiftly and with astonishing dexterity, William thrust the blade into Anthony’s neck.

Her hand flew to her mouth once more to suppress the scream that threatened to escape. Blinking in shock, she bore witness to the horrifying sound of flesh being rent and the subsequent groan of agony as Anthony crumpled from the drawer to the floor. Just as adeptly as he had executed the act, William withdrew the knife and concealed it within his pocket.

For a few suspended moments, he surveyed the prone figure, the fury that had possessed his visage now supplanted by his customary frigid facade. Retrieving a handkerchief, he cleansed his hands of the bloodstains before departing the room.

When the sound of the door closing echoed in her ears, Cecily hastened to emerge from the confines of the cabinet, her steps directed towards her fallen brother. Lingering hope had whispered of a chance to rescue him, but his lifeless form extinguished that glimmer. The vitality in his eyes had dimmed, and Cecily sank to her knees, a hand muffling the sound of her sob.

Grief for him mingled with the dread of what his demise might signify for the title, yet not enough to elicit tears. Anthony’s cruelty had spanned her memory, a ceaseless torment. Gradually, she rose to her feet. The household needed to be informed of Anthony’s death, but they mustn’t learn of her presence in the room, so she was left with no choice.

Quietly, she left, softly closing the door behind her.


A week later

Sleep had evaded Cecily in the tumultuous week following her half-brother’s passing. A whirlwind of confusion and sorrow had swept over her as his body was prepared for burial and the somber funeral unfolded. Yet, the prevailing question in everyone’s thoughts pertained to the heir of the earldom. With no apparent successors, uncertainty gnawed at Cecily. Neither she nor Helen could inherit, leaving the identity of the next earl a source of unease. The family attorney had been summoned, but his arrival was delayed due to business in London, and he could not arrive until that very day.

Tea sat untouched upon a tray by the hearth, but Cecily couldn’t bring herself to sit down and partake. Who would be the new earl? And where had William gone after committing the unthinkable act? The secret of her presence as a witness burdened her; she dreaded the possibility that William might turn his malevolent intentions toward her if he discovered her vantage point in the closet. As she paced, the anticipation of Helen’s company tugged at her, even as her sister’s letters from the past week had taken a swift turn and now celebrated her newfound love and commitment to remain in Scotland as a clan’s lady. Cecily shared in her joy, yet that meant Helen’s return was postponed.

Once the new earl takes on his responsibilities, I’ll journey to see Helen. Staying here, among those who aren’t my close kin, serves no purpose. The notion provided solace—a promise of an impending departure as soon as the new earl assumed his role. However, Cecily wondered why the attorney hadn’t sent a message to inform her of the successor’s identity.

At that very moment, the door swung open, and Cecily let out a soft gasp at the sight of William’s approach. He wore a deep crimson suit this time, from coat to waistcoat to cravat.

“William,” she greeted, her posture stiffening as she clasped her hands together. “What brings you here?”

She had to maintain the pretense of encountering him for the first time in a while. He offered a smile and a slight bow, his demeanor as malicious as ever. She’d never quite understood why she’d felt an aversion to him all these years. However, now, having witnessed him extinguish another’s life, the same malevolence seemed to emanate from his features. Not unattractive, his green eyes gleamed with suspicion and malice. Tall and slender, he had slicked-back white-blond hair.

“Is this how one greets a cousin, Cecily?” he asked, his smile widening—a sight that heightened her unease. “I am here to offer comfort during your time of need. With your guardian gone and your sister absent, you stand alone. I thought you might appreciate companionship.”

“Why arrive only now? It’s been a week since Anthony’s passing.” She swallowed, trying to maintain her composure as William approached, his hands concealing their sinister intent.

“I was visiting a friend in Scotland; it took a while for me to return. The attorney needed time to locate me.”

She recognized his lie, suspecting that he’d been lurking somewhere nearby. Fury surged within her; her life had long been controlled by ruthless men, and she’d grown weary of it. She wished he would leave, for she was well aware of her own strength. Cecily couldn’t hold back, allowing the one thing she shouldn’t say to slip from her lips.

“Well, cousin, I must admit, the color yellow suits you far better.” Her teeth clenched as she exhaled, instant regret washing over her.

Comprehension dawned in William’s eyes, her heart skipping a beat as the door opened. An older man with spectacles stood behind the housekeeper.

“Mr. Wallen, Lady Cecily. Your father’s attorney,” the housekeeper introduced.

“Thank you, Mrs. Fields,” Cecily replied, fighting to steady herself as the old man entered the room with a bow.

“Lady Ridley, I am Mr. Wallen, and I have come to convey your father’s will and announce the next heir,” he said, turning to William. Cecily introduced them.

“Ah, splendid timing, Mr. Cavendish. It’s fortunate you’re already here.” He extended his hand to shake William’s.

“What do you mean?” Cecily inquired, the dreadful truth slowly dawning.

“This gentleman, your father’s cousin, shall assume the title of Earl of Seton.”

A chill raced through Cecily as her face drpaled; her grip on the back of a chair was her only anchor against fainting. Meanwhile, William smiled at her.

“I trust you don’t mind, Cecily. It will be wonderful to reconnect as family. There’s much to discuss. Mr. Wallen, please, have a seat. I’ll call for refreshments, and we can delve into the details.”

He led the attorney toward a table, but Cecily was paralyzed. As William neared the door, he paused beside her, gripping her arm.

“Join us, cousin,” he suggested, and as they moved toward the table, he leaned in and whispered, “Stay with me Cecily. I know you want to be with your sister. But if you do, you’ll lose the only family you have left. Because I will find her and repeat my actions.”

Cecily straightened, allowing William to guide her to the table alongside Mr. Wallen.

Chapter One

One year later

Cecily gazed down at the sparse words she’d managed to write for her sister.

Dear sister,

I know that I have still not come to see you in some time, but I am doing well here at Seton House.

She let out a sigh, hovering the quill above the paper as she pondered her next words. The transformation of her life since William took over as the new earl had upended everything she once knew. With his daughter Adelaide now part of their household, Cecily had forged a genuine friendship, a solace amidst the changes. But the absence of her sister lingered, a constant ache in her heart.

Cecily had discovered William’s habit of reading her letters not long after his arrival. From then on, her words had been constrained, veiled in a facade she knew he expected. The thought of escaping had crossed her mind, but the fear of William’s wrath, whether directed at her or Helen, had rooted her in place. With a heavy sigh, Cecily continued to pen the version of reality that William dictated.

It has been such a pleasure in the past year to help William and Adelaide set up the house. He has done well as the new earl, and he has made quite an impression in the society. Adelaide and I are like sisters, and I feel like father’s cousin is the father I have been missing for years. Anthony was no good at it; you know this, and now I feel safe under his guardianship. We are happy here all together, as if we are a new family. I am sorry that you have not yet had a chance to see them and meet Adelaide.

But how is Cory? I know you were eager for me to come and visit you, as I was, but there is so much to be done here, and William needs me. I cannot abandon them. Once they are more settled in, I might perhaps be able to come and visit you both at long last. Tell me all about your home and the clan. How has it been to be a Scottish lady? Mother would have been so proud of you.

Cecily quickly brushed away a tear that had trickled down her cheek. She couldn’t risk smudging the ink with her tears. If William didn’t notice the tear, Helen surely would, and her perceptive sister would demand answers. Cecily felt trapped, more so than ever. Since the day she had hidden in the closet in her brother’s study, she had felt like a ghost haunting her own life. Even when Anthony was alive, despite his flaws, he hadn’t made her feel so utterly powerless. Most of the staff who were present during Anthony’s time had been replaced by William’s own people. Their polite demeanor concealed their watchful eyes, reporting her every move to William. If only she could find a way to communicate with Helen without alerting William. Suppressing her fleeting hope, she dipped her quill into the inkwell and continued to write.

My living situation has improved; I’ve been moved to a new room that offers a breathtaking view of the sunset. It’s a small comfort to watch the sun dip below the horizon, knowing you might be doing the same. William has allowed me to personalize it to my liking, and I’ve taken full advantage by selecting the most exquisite curtains.

Your tapestries have found their place here, adding a touch of home to my surroundings. And that dress you gifted me for my birthday fits me like a glove; I’m wearing it as I write this letter. It’s as though I’ve found a way to bridge the distance between us through these simple things. Know that I hold you dear in my heart, Helen.

I miss you terribly and eagerly anticipate the day we can reunite.

Until then, remember me and think of our moments together.

With love, Cecily.

She signed her name with a flourish, stifling the tears that threatened to overwhelm her. As she blew on the ink and folded the letter, Cecily knew that Helen would read her words and believe the facade she had crafted. Her sister would remain blissfully unaware of the truth that lay beneath the carefully constructed sentences. Cecily’s gaze wandered around the cramped room she was confined to—a stark contrast to the luxurious life she had once known. The windows were bare, devoid of curtains or tapestries. Any that she had received had been swiftly claimed by William and offered to Adelaide instead.

The gown gifted by Helen was the sole remnant of her sister’s affection, yet even that now hung loose on her diminished frame. Over the past year, Cecily had been treated more like a servant than a family member, and the once plentiful meals had become scarce. She caught her reflection in a dusty mirror, her appearance now a far cry from the vibrant young woman she used to be. Her radiant cheer had faded, replaced by weariness and neglect. Dark circles clung beneath her eyes, constant reminders of the sleepless nights that had plagued her since the traumatic events in her brother’s study. The sound of footsteps echoed from above, causing dust to rain down from the ceiling. This cramped space beneath the stairs, her new abode, was a cruel reminder of her fall from grace.

She had been forcibly relocated from her spacious bedroom on the hillside to this desolate corner. She couldn’t help but wonder if William had orchestrated this confinement deliberately, imprisoning her not only physically but also emotionally. The mere mention of his yellow suit still tormented her thoughts, the weight of her mistake haunting her daily. If only she could erase those fateful words and find sanctuary within the walls of Helen’s castle, free from William’s grasp.

At least Adelaide remained a source of solace; that was the only truth in the letter. A gentle knock at her chamber door pulled her from her thoughts, and she rose with a yearning for a reprieve from the mundane tasks that dominated her existence. As she opened the door, a surge of hope coursed through her—it wasn’t another servant bearing instructions. Instead, Adelaide stood there, a welcoming smile lighting up her features.

“There you are,” Adelaide chimed, stepping into the room and casting a curious gaze around. Despite their strained situation, the family resemblance between them was striking. Both had cascading blonde hair, fair complexions, and vivid green eyes. The topic of their likeness had faded with time, yet their shared features still drew attention.

“Cecily, I wish you’d allow me to speak with Father. This situation is preposterous. You’re family, yet he’s assigned you to these quarters. The room he had refurbished for you has been ready for weeks now. There’s no excuse for this any longer.”

Cecily hesitated, her own predicament tightly bound by her knowledge of William’s watchful eye.

“No, please, Adelaide, I beg you not to intervene,” Cecily implored.

She feared that if Adelaide intervened, it might worsen their situation. William might even take measures to keep them apart, and Adelaide was the one bright spot in Cecily’s life.

I couldn’t bear that.

Adelaide put her hands on her hips. “Very well, but don’t think I’ll let this go. Anyway, I came to tell you that Father has suggested you go with us on a trip to McLaren’s land in Scotland.”

“Scotland?” Cecily asked, her mouth going dry. “I did not know that he was seeking a husband for you outside of England.”

Adelaide grimaced, and she picked up a book idly and flipped through it. “Nor I, but apparently, he wants the strength of a Scottish clan behind him. I had hoped that after his own disastrous marriage, he would allow me to choose, but he will not. So, will you come with us? We travel soon.”

“Yes! I will get ready as soon as possible!” she hurried to gather her things, and Adelaide laughed.

“Tomorrow we leave, Cecily, you do not have to prepare now.”

“Oh.” She stopped and smiled, trying not to give away the plan that was now forming her mind. “Very well. Thank you for including me.”

“Of course. You are family, and we are friends.” Adelaide squeezed her hands with affection.

Yet all Cecily could focus on in that moment was the hope that this trip to Scotland might provide her with the opportunity she needed—to slip away to Helen’s castle and find the freedom she so desperately craved.


Kai McLaren’s ears reverberated with the rhythmic pounding of his own heart. Amidst the chaos of the battlefield, the cacophony of agonizing screams and the clamor of clashing swords melded into an otherworldly din. Every sound seemed to drift to him as though he were submerged beneath the depths of a loch, far removed from reality. Time itself had slowed, and his own movements followed suit. Blood-stained the earth, transforming the grass into a morbid tapestry of crimson.

His gaze fell upon the figure of his brother, Torion, and a shout tore from his throat. Torion pivoted, a momentary smile illuminating his face at the sight of Kai still alive amidst the ferocious skirmish. Yet, a lurking shadow emerged, an enemy soldier stealthily advancing upon Torion. Before Kai could muster a cry of warning, the soldier’s blade descended, striking Torion down to his knees. A scream tore from Kai’s chest, an agonizing heartache that reverberated through his entire being. But his own fate soon caught up with him—a searing white pain engulfed him as his vision blurred.

Glancing downward, he found a blade buried between his ribs, agony radiating through every nerve. A panoramic scan revealed neither Torion nor his other brother, Rae, among the chaos. Collapsing to his knees, sweat drenched his body. The fight was over for him, and hands promptly seized him, hauling him toward a waiting cart. Bound and weakened, he was unceremoniously thrown inside. His screams blended with the anguished cries of others, fading as the distance grew. Darkness claimed him.

The piercing ordeal subsided as his eyes snapped open, and Kai lay there, grappling for breath. The bed was drenched with sweat, a cruel testament to the relentless grip of his recurring nightmare. Reality flooded back; he was ensconced within his bedroom, miles away from the battlefield’s horror. He touched the area on his side, once occupied by a blade, only to find the pain absent, replaced by healed flesh. Wearily, he pushed himself up, propped on his elbows, and covered his eyes.

The relentless intrusion of these dreams gnawed at him, leaving him feeling powerless and vulnerable. Each time he awoke, bathed in perspiration, he struggled to remember the true extent of his safety, untethered from the shackles of captivity. Freedom was his now, unburdened by the chains that had bound him. If only his mind could be convinced of this truth during the torment of sleep.

The recurring weakness of these nightmares left him feeling as though he was still shackled to the past, captive in ways beyond the physical. Even now, with his enemy defeated and his role as laird solidified, his psyche remained ensnared. Yet, he was free, and his younger brothers, Rae and Torion, were secure.

With a groan, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and rose, his feet making contact with the icy stone floor. Progressing to the tall mirror in his room, he cast a scrutinizing gaze upon himself. Sleep had been undertaken in the nude, and despite his formidable build, the scars that adorned him revealed a narrative of past suffering. His shoulders and ribs were etched with these markers of his history. Fingers traced their path, an act of commitment, a means to acknowledge and assimilate the unchangeable past.

He had attempted to conceal these scars beneath an array of tattoos, yet he knew their location intimately, a map of his torment. His hands brushed the one his dream had centered on—the one he had cloaked with a hawk tattoo, a futile attempt to quell the nightmares. Yet, the phantom pain of the blade’s intrusion remained as tangible as ever, the dream’s vividness akin to the torment of reality. Kai’s fist clenched, despair creeping into his resolve. The nightmares were a relentless reminder, striking terror into his core, yet he could not fathom sharing his vulnerability with another soul. The deep-rooted fear of his past still clung, refusing to release its grip.

A knock echoed at his door, rousing Kai from his introspection. He responded, swiftly dressing in a kilt and shirt, before opening the door.

“My Laird, I wished to inquire about your well-being this morn. The meeting room holds much to discuss,” the voice of his father’s old advisor greeted.

Kai’s gaze bore into the man, irritation simmering beneath the surface. His father’s recent passing had thrust him into the role of laird—a title he felt ill-prepared to carry. His advisor, despite his incessant queries and demands, had offered solace during the turbulent period following his father’s death. Yet, the constant demands, the relentless pace, irked him, preventing even the opportunity to mourn his father’s loss.

“Mr. Murray, I thought that we’ve already mulled over enough for a lifetime?” Kai’s hand raked through his unruly brown hair, his piercing green eyes reflecting his frustration.

“I am afraid nae, my Laird. There is news. Ye should come tae the council room.”

“Very well.” He shut the door and grumbled as he made himself presentable.

Kai McLaren cursed under his breath as his hands plunged into the frigid water at his table. Another inward curse followed as he washed his face and neck, the cloth tracing trails that sent icy droplets trickling through the scruff of his beard. Winter’s sting was ever a surprise, a biting cold that could infiltrate skin and bone if one wasn’t vigilant.

Having grown up amidst the harsh Highland environment, he should have been accustomed to it, yet each year it managed to pierce him anew. It was the sort of cold that, left unchecked, could creep into one’s very veins, turning the body into a vessel of ice. He’d learned to anticipate the biting winds, the frost, and the relentless snow, ready to face the challenges of the season. Awakening before the fires were rekindled was an exercise in enduring the freezing embrace of the morning.

As he tied back his unruly hair and donned his boots, Kai’s coat followed, and he bundled his white shirt into his kilt. His broadsword hung by his side, a steadfast companion, and a hidden dagger resided within his boot. The battlefield that had nearly claimed his life, along with those of his brothers, had left an indelible mark. His weapons were no longer ornamental—they were a lifeline, a constant reminder of his vulnerability, and a lesson he’d been taught by his father. War’s harsh education had shown him the necessity of being ever vigilant, ready to safeguard his loved ones at a moment’s notice.

But the guilt of his father’s passing was an insidious weight that hung heavily upon him. Despite the attempts of his brothers to console him, the truth lingered: he couldn’t protect his father. The pain of that failure would remain with him indefinitely.

Now, the council’s audacity had reached a new height. Mere months since his father’s death, their eyes were already fixed upon the issue of succession. Pressuring him for a wife while he still wrestled with grief and a newfound responsibility was an affront. A growl of outrage had erupted from him upon learning of their intentions. The mantle of a lairdship may have demanded it, but Kai was far from prepared to be a husband or entertain the notion of a wedding.

When he approached the council room, its door stood closed. However, the low hum of discussion within reached his ears. He pressed a hand against it, taking a moment to summon the memory of his father’s wisdom and strength. His father had been a paragon of patience and tact—a stark contrast to Kai’s own bristling demeanor. Clinging to his father’s legacy, he gathered strength before pushing open the door.

Mr. Murray stood, while the other council members held their positions. Every gaze fixed upon him, Kai could sense the weight of their expectations. It was Mr. Murray who broke the silence.

“It is better ye know now than when yer bride arrives,” the advisor began, his tone brimming with an odd mix of formality and sympathy. “The council has made a selection for ye.”

“What?” The word erupted from him, carrying the full force of his disbelief and frustration. This time, he allowed his anger to surface without restraint. Whatever patience he’d invoked just moments earlier had vanished like a wisp of smoke. “Aye, and the lady in question shall arrive today.”


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Marrying a Highland Outlaw (Preview)


Edinburgh, Scotland
May 1304

Shivering slightly, Taveon Macdonell wrapped his heavy woolen cloak tighter across his shoulders as he entered the tavern. The oak door slammed shut behind him and he looked around. He blinked, half-blinded by the sudden near blackness. He could scarcely make out more than dull shapes in the smoky, noise-filled interior.

He cursed inwardly as his eyes adjusted to the dim light. He was bone-weary, fatigued by his life as a hunted man, sick and tired of the distance he’d been forced to keep from his home in the Highlands. And oh-so-fed-up with seeing a stranger reflected back at him whenever he glanced in a looking-glass. He scarcely recognized himself – his hair darkened, his jaw shaved, his clothes shabby and nondescript. All he wanted was to cast aside this damned disguise and get his life back.

His heart cried out to be able to return to Macdonell Castle, to his brother Payton and his precious little sister Arya.

His gaze fell upon the two men who awaited him, seated at the rear of the room. On heavy, aching limbs he slowly made his way to their corner table. As he approached, one of the men rose menacingly, a dirk grasped in his hand.

The man, grey-haired and grey-bearded and burly, snarled. “Who the devil are ye? Ye’re nae Taveon Macdonell.”

Taveon scowled for he knew this man. His name was Tal Macintyre and if Tal didn’t know him, at least he could be assured his disguise was doing its job.

“Ye stupid arse, Macintyre,” Taveon countered. “Of course I’m Taveon Macdonell. Have ye nae eyes tae see?”

The man grunted. He was half a head taller, looming over Taveon. “I remember ye as fair-haired and bearded.”

“I once was. But blessed be walnut juice for dyeing my hair and this sharp knife for keeping my beard trimmed.” He placed his hand on the hilt of the sharp dagger sheathed at his waist, making no bones about his own ability to fight, if this meeting turned out badly.

“The password.” The seated man spoke abruptly. He was the younger of the two, his light-brown, greasy hair, tied at his nape, his shirt and britches of fine cloth.

Taveon spat the word. “Gaisgeach.”

The man laughed. “Ah yes, the Scot’s word for warrior.” He spoke with an English accent. “Name’s John Sykes, at your service.” He indicated a space at the table. “Join us Taveon Macdonell.”

As Taveon pulled up a chair, Sykes signaled to the tavern keeper, who hurried over at once.

“Three tankards of yer best ale,” Sykes said smiling affably. Once the man had departed, he turned his attention back to Taveon, his smile fading. “Are ye ready and willing to do our bidding Macdonell?”

Taveon leaned back in his chair folding his arms across his chest, biting his tongue on an angry retort. He spoke his answer in measured tones. “I’ve done all that was asked of me. Made meself a traitor tae Scotland tae suit William de Coughran’s blasted cause. And all tae keep me wee sister safe. I’ve nothing more tae give of meself.” He shook his head, a determined glint in his green eyes.

“There’s yet a month before I’m due in Carlisle tae deliver the details of the Scots’ battle plans tae yer English masters and I’ve sworn tae complete me mission. Ye cannae command more from me.”

The man gave him a tight-lipped smile. “You’ll do as you’re told Macdonell. That is, if you wish to see your family again.”

Shaking his head, Taveon went to rise, but Macintyre’s hand shot out, grabbing his arm in an iron grip, forcing him to stay in his seat. Gone was any pretense at civility.

“Ye’ll sit and listen tae what we have tae say, Macdonell, and ye’ll keep yer blasted mouth shut.”

Taveon drew in a deep breath, filling his lungs with the smoky air, steadying himself, holding back the torrent of rage building inside him.

So, this is what it has come tae.

He was nothing more than a pawn in the traitors’ games, helping the English against his own countrymen.

But he reminded himself that, after his mother’s death giving birth to his baby sister Arya and his father’s decline into drink and gambling ending in his murder by the hand of William de Coughran’s men, he and his brother had made a sacred pact, one they had kept without faltering. The older brother, Payton, would fulfill his duties to the clan, while Taveon would be responsible for his family. It was Taveon’s sworn duty to keep his sister and brother safe from De Coughran, who was his father’s creditor and had vowed to make them pay for their father’s sins. If his actions were to save his kin from harm, he had no choice but to abide by whatever was asked of him now by his enemies.

“Go on, then,” he said, gritting his teeth as Macintyre twisted his wrist and pressed his hand to the table. Before Taveon had a chance to pull free, the man brought down the sharp point of his dirk, piercing the flesh between Taveon’s first and middle fingers, pinning him to the table, trapping him.

He watched, stunned, as a bubble of blood welled and trickled onto the worn oak table-top.

Sucking in a breath, ignoring the pain in his hand, he met John Sykes’s gaze front on. The man’s gray eyes flicked over him, lingering on Taveon’s bleeding hand for a moment, his lips spreading into an ugly grin.

“You may recall Castle Ardtun,” he said, clearly amused at Taveon’s plight. When he received no response other than a thunderous scowl, he continued.

“The MacKinnon Clan’s seat, the home of Laird Blaine MacKinnon? Surely, you recall the family.” Sykes gave a sharp laugh. “I am sure you have not forgotten your long months of incarceration there, waiting for the hangman to put a noose around your neck.”

Taveon’s mind shot back to the time he’d spent imprisoned on the Isle of Mull after he’d been captured on his way to the English. He’d been treated well, better than he had deserved, eventually making his escape with the assistance of a sweet young woman. He’d heard, later, that she’d wed the laird’s younger brother. He had forgotten her name, but he recalled her gentle, anguished words before she’d freed him from the dungeon. Her quest to free him resembled his own, a vow to protect her siblings. He wondered if she hated herself as much as he loathed himself while doing so.

“I remember it very well, Sykes. Although I cannae see it’s any of yer treacherous business whether my memory serves me well or nae.”

“Oh, that’s where you’re wrong.” Sykes swilled another mouthful of ale. “Your memory of the MacKinnons is exactly what my business is with you today. We have in mind a fitting punishment to be dealt to the MacKinnons. They must be taught a lesson and made to understand we will not be interfered with. We need reprisal for your imprisonment, something that will cut deep, cause pain. Something that will bring down a hail of nightmares, prevent them from sleeping.”

“I dinna follow yer train of thought, Sykes. Castle Ardtun is well guarded. Sir Michael Wemyss attacked and tried tae take the castle, but his men were nae match for the MacKinnons and their clansmen. Ye’ll find great resistance if ye attempt another raid.”

Sykes pshawed loudly. “No, Macdonell, we’ve nothing so clumsy in mind. We’re counting on your knowledge of the
castle and the country surrounding it. We’ve an altogether different and far more painful retribution in mind.”

He leaned forward, a sneer on his bloated features, his beery, rancid breath assailing Taveon’s nostrils. “You are to return to Ardtun and there you will whisk the laird’s younger sister out from under his nose. Once you’ve captured her, you’re to take her to Sir William at Castle Lochnell. If MacKinnon wants his sister safe back home with him in Castle Ardtun, he’ll have to pay a bounty to the English, in exchange.”

“Ye can count me out, ye lying bunch of bastards.” Taveon’s voice rose. “I’ve done what I was asked and that’s it. Nae more. I was told that once I’d delivered the Scots’ plans tae the English ye would leave me family alone. Me father’s debts would be overlooked and we could live our lives in peace.”

“You forget yourself, boy. You’re impertinent. Let me remind you that you’ve still to fulfill your side of our bargain. The plans have not yet reached the English commanders.”

Taveon slumped in his seat. His hand was throbbing steadily now, and a pulse beat in his forehead ached like the devil. Would he never be free?

“Ye ask too much of me. I was promised my actions would nae bring harm to any soul directly. My task was tae steal the plans and take them tae the English side. Nae more than that.”

Sykes cackled gleefully. “And were you such a prize fool Macdonell, that ye believed you’d be harming no one by giving the plans to the Scots’ enemies? The Scots will be slaughtered once the plans reach the army. And that will be on your head.”

Taveon shuddered. Of course, the man spoke the truth.

“So, if you want to keep your family safe, you know what is required of you.”

Taveon gave a weary nod. He could see no way out for himself but to accept this cursed new mission.

“I’ll do what ye want,” he said, his green eyes fixed on Sykes. “But I want your sworn word on one thing. Nay harm will come to Hannah MacKinnon while she’s held captive. She’ll be returned to her brother as soon as he pays the ransom.”

Sykes flicked his forefinger finger at Macintyre who ripped away his dirk, freeing Taveon.

“Of course,” Sykes said smoothly, as Taveon rose to his feet, blood still welling from his injured hand. “You have my sacred word on it. No harm will come to the girl and she’ll be returned, unscathed, to the heart of her family in due course.”

Chapter One

Castle Ardtun, Mull
May, 1304

Peeping through the leaves in the hedge, Hannah could just make out little Mirin half-hidden behind one of the shrubs in the garden. Mirin’s twin sister, Alba, stood in the middle of the lawn, eyes closed, counting to ten.

It was a golden day of sunshine. Apart from a few puffy white clouds, the sky was blue, perfect for a fun game of hide ’n seek with her nieces. Spring was all around, daffodils were blooming and Hannah’s favourite tree, the crabapple, was covered in buds, soon to be bursting into a mass of fragrant pink flowers.

Pulling up her kirtle, she hugged her knees. The girls would never find her in this spot. It was a hollowed-out space between the hedges, perhaps made by an animal sheltering over the winter, but it made for a perfect place to stay hidden, even though the girls were hardly more than an arm’s length away.

Squeals and giggles indicated that Alba had discovered Mirin’s hiding place. Now both twins were searching for her.

“Hannah, Hannah. Come out.” Alba called.

“She’s nae here,” Mirin whispered.

“Perhaps the little people have taken her,” Alba said, her voice suddenly fearful.

“Hannah, please come out,” pleaded Mirin.

Hannah could stand it no longer. The game was only fun if no one was scared by it. She leaped to her feet. It was at the moment that she heard the sound of men’s voices entering the garden. The girls swirled around and took off.

Athair,” they cried in unison.

Hannah’s heart did a flip. It was their father, Blaine. Her brother. Straightening her kirtle and brushing leaves out of her hair she ventured out of her hiding place. It was unusual for Blaine to be in the garden. This was the place where the women came to chat, to embroider, or attend to their mending. It was her favourite place within the castle walls. She often came here with the twins and her sister-in-law Edina’s sisters Margaret and Skye, who were around her age.

Here in the garden, they could chat and make as much noise as they liked without an angry face appearing at their door telling them that girls should be seen and not heard. She also frequently came alone, just to sit and enjoy the birds and butterflies and the flowers coming into bloom. It was a peaceful place, a respite from the duties and busyness of the castle.

Now, disturbing the gentle harmony of the place, was her brother.

Whatever does Blaine want?

She stepped hurriedly out of the hedge, feeling foolish and off-kilter under the watchful presence of her brother. Her foot caught on a protruding tree root as she hastened forward, sending her head over heels. She squealed, putting out her hands to break her fall. But despite her best efforts, she landed face down on the grass.

Mirin and Alba raced over, giggling as Hannah struggled to s sitting position, her hands muddied and her kirtle covered in grass.

Alba tugged at her aunt’s braids. “Oh wait, Auntie Hannah, ye’ve a ladybird in yer hair,” she shrieked, gently removing the little insect.

Blaine stood watching them, his mouth screwed in lines of disapproval, his eyes narrowed.

It was not until Hannah had finally risen to her feet, and was brushing her tangled skirts and neatening her hair, that he spoke.

“I regret intruding intae yer area, sister, but it seems ye pay nae heed tae my requests for yer presence. Thus, ye give me nae other option but tae come here in search of ye.”

His displeasure was rolling off him in waves, and Hannah noted with dismay that the vein in the middle of his forehead was prominent. Always a sign he was in a rage, but containing it.

Her stomach lurched. She had received his summons but the time seemed to have flown and she’d lost track of when she was to have the meeting with him.

“I’m so sorry brother. Please forgive me. I was nae heedless of yer message, but simply unaware of the time passing.” She looked around. Gillebride had taken the twins by the hand and was leading them out of the garden.

It was only then that Hannah saw Errol, her other brother, standing quietly at the entrance to the garden, another man at his side. Her heart sank as she became conscious of her dishevelled state, her muddy hands, grubby kirtle and messy braids. Her forehead was stinging and she was afraid she may have scratched it when she fell, bringing further disharmony to her appearance.

She gripped Blaine’s sleeve. “What is it? Please tell me what’s going on. Who is that man and why is he looking at me like that? Are we in danger?”

The man had stepped forward, taking his place beside Errol and was now standing in the sunlight where she could observe him fully. He was tall, possibly around Blaine’s age, with well-coiffed dark hair and blue eyes.

Blaine made the introduction. “May I present my sister Hannah?” The man nodded in Hannah’s direction, favouring her with a haughty smile, his eyes mocking her.

“This is a dear friend of mine, Duncan Buchanan.”

Taking an instant dislike to him, despite his handsome profile and fine clothes, Hannah bobbed a curtsy and offered the man her most dazzling smile.

“I am so very pleased tae make yer acquaintance, my laird,” she responded as graciously as possible.

Inwardly she was heaping a mountain of curses on Blaine for putting her in such an unenviable position with a stranger. And why had her brother, the Laird, seen fit to bring this strange man to invade this private space?

“Would ye excuse me, sir, tae have a few words with me brother?”

The man nodded politely, turned on his heel and walked off with Errol.

Hannah turned to Blaine, her brows drawn in a frown.

“I dinna like yer Duncan Buchanan,” she hissed once the two men were out of earshot.

Blaine sighed. “Ye dinna understand, Hannah.”

Glaring, she placed her hands on her hips defiantly. “Well, then, brother, please do go ahead and explain what all this is about.”

“Ye’ve told us often enough of yer longing tae find a husband and be wed,” he began.

She huffed impatiently. “Yes. I’ve envied my brothers their happiness. Ye know I wish for nothing more than tae find a man tae love and tae have me own family. Like ye with Ivy, and Errol with Edina.” Her eyes misted as memories came flooding in. “After our parents died, ye two were everything to me, ye were me entire family.” She gazed up at him, trying to gauge his reaction to her words. Would he understand how much this meant? “But now ye have families of yer own, and I’m a little lost. It’s as if I dinna belong anywhere, nowadays.”

Blaine nodded, reaching a hand to squeeze her arm gently. “Well, yer brother and I have talked with the Council of Chiefs. Ye’re nineteen, old enough tae wed. It’s been decided we dae our best tae grant yer wish.”

Hannah’s blue eyes lit up. “Blaine, ye mean… ye’ve agreed tae allow me tae wed?”

He laughed softly. “Aye lass. It’s what ye want.” His eyes grew serious. “I want tae know ye’ve a man tae protect ye when the battles come again, and I cannae keep ye close forever, nae matter how much I’d love tae have ye in me sight.”

She frowned up at him. “Do ye think the English will attack?”

He shook his head. “I dinna ken, luv. All I ken is that a war is raging, that the traitor Taveon is still abroad with our battle plans, and sooner or later it will come tae our doorstep. And when it does, I want ye safe and – Heaven forbid, should something happen tae me and Errol – under the protection of a powerful family.”

She clutched his sleeve again. “If battle’s where yer thoughts take ye, I must tell ye this my dear brother. The man I’ll wed must be a true Scot. One who’s nay traitor tae the rightful king. Never a man the likes of that traitor Macdonell Edina helped escape from yer dungeon.”

“Aye. we have all forgiven Edina for the heartache she caused. I ken why she took such a great risk and almost broke Errol’s heart. Tae keep her sisters safe. I’d have done the same if I had been her.” Her eyes flashed. “But I’ll nae forgive Macdonell for his wicked treachery.”

Blaine smiled fondly at her determination and loyalty. “Never fear, sweet lass, the man ye wed will be one who takes an oath of allegiance to our Liege Lord, King Robert.” He gave her a wry smile. “Someone like Duncan Buchanan, the next Laird of the Buchanans.”

Hannah gasped, raising a hand to her mouth. “Och, my dear Lord. Are ye telling me that man is me suitor?”

Again, Blaine chuckled. “Dinna worry, lass, he’s nae the only one. Ye’ll be kept busy all through the summer. There are lads lining up tae ask for yer hand. Buchanan is only the first.”

Beaming, she glanced up at him.

“Methinks he’s the first, but by nay means will he be the last.”

“The first of many,” Blaine said, pulling her into his arms for a great bear-hug. “Ye’ll be wed before winter is upon us, wee sister.”

Chapter One

Ardtun, Isle of Mull
Midsummer, 1304

The heavily-laden woodsman’s cart rattled its way up to the castle gate.
“Whoah,” said the cloaked figure, pulling on the reins. The strong cart-horse came to a standstill as the two guards nodded toward the woodsman.

“It’s Euan, bringing another load for the castle fires,” the guard called. Moments later the gate into the keep was slowly raised, allowing the cart’s entry. The man on the cart gave a brief salute as the cart rumbled through the gate and across the cobblestones.

He circled around the back of the castle and pulled up beside the servants’ quarters near the kitchen, where he tethered the horse and set about unloading the timber logs and kindling.

Some of the heaviest wood he carried on his shoulders, muscles straining, to stack on the covered wood-pile beyond the kitchen while several servants filled baskets from his smaller choppings to be used in the great kitchen fires.

He filled a basket and carried it through to the great hall where he was relieved of the weight by the serving-man, whose sole job it was to ensure there was sufficient fuel for the roaring fires that warmed the castle.

The man they called Euan had been carrying out these tasks for the past weeks, coming and going through the castle’s iron gates with nary a glance from the guards, all the while taking care to keep his cloak wrapped securely and his hood shadowing his face.

Taveon hated his disguise almost as much as he hated being here. His memories of the dungeon were still fresh enough in his mind to make him shudder, even though it had been months since he’d found his freedom. Yet, it had been simple enough to find a way to enter the castle. He’d paid a handsome bounty to borrow Euan’s cart with its load of wood and take his place three times a week when he took the timber load to Castle Ardtun.

In his woodsman’s guise, Taveon had been able to make his way through the castle unhampered. On the rare occasions he’d been questioned, he’d simply shown his basket of trimmed logs and been waved on.

Now that his plan was coming to fruition, he had high hopes he’d be able to overwhelm the laird’s sister unnoticed. He’d capture her swiftly, putting miles between the two of them and the MacKinnons, before her disappearance was discovered and the alarm was raised. If his luck held, her absence would not be noticed until morning.

In the weeks he’d been surveilling the castle, he’d become aware of the small garden frequented by the women. The first time he’d been there he’d been casting his eyes around, taking in his surroundings, when a young woman and two little girls burst through the entry way. Before they could catch sight of him, he’d quickly crouched in the hedge, finding a space there where he could observe them.

The wee girls’ innocent play put him in mind of his sister Arya when she was a bairn. That memory was like a knife between his ribs.

He heard them call “Hannah,” and his heart jumped.

She was beautiful. Tall, slender, her golden hair falling in waves to her slim waistline. He hadn’t counted on her loveliness, or on the feelings that stirred inside him as he observed her – hair flying, skirts tucked up, long legs on display. He watched, enthralled, as she laughed with the wee girls, playing catch-me-if-you can and skipping a rope. The ache in his groin and the urge to seize her and bury his face in that glorious mane of hair, to hold her soft curves against him, to crush her lips to his was, suddenly, almost unbearable.

It had been many years since a lass had made his heart beat faster. He’d been leading a monk’s life for too long.

He was suddenly assailed with doubt. This lovely creature did not deserve the fate that lay in store for her. The MacKinnons had treated him well while he was their captive. They’d given him good food and ale and despite knowing him as a traitor who threatened the lives of their clansmen, he’d not known cruelty at their hands.

To inflict the pain he knew was in store for them went against everything he believed was right in the world.

Conscious that such feelings were dangerous, threatening the cold-heart required for his mission, he steeled himself with the knowledge of the fate awaiting his own kin should he not succeed.

On several further occasions, when the weather was good, he’d snuck into the garden, observing the women chatting and laughing at their needlework or frolicking with the bairns.

Hannah spent more time there than the others. More often than not she was alone, sitting quietly, sometimes with her eyes closed, peacefully breathing in the perfumed air. He knew it was only a matter of time before he came upon her when there was no one around to come to her aid.

Tonight, after carrying out his usual duties with the firewood, Taveon slipped away from watchful eyes, making his way, unseen, to the little garden. The cart was empty, save for a sack containing his tools, and he’d drawn it as close as he could to the doorway near the kitchen. At this time of the evening, he could count on the servants being too busy serving the laird and his family to be coming and going through the door.

The evening was still warm in the long twilight, and Taveon had high hopes Hannah would come here, as she did so frequently, to take in the air before retiring to her bedchamber.

Once he reached the empty garden, he found his way to the space in the hedge where he could observe whatever was taking place there. His heart was pounding and the blood thundering in his veins. If he was caught now there’d be no mercy, hanging or beheading would be his certain fate.

As minutes turned into hours of waiting, his legs stiffened and he rubbed his calves, keeping them pliant, aware that any stumbling misstep could be his last.

His mind meandered idly over thoughts of Hannah, imagining her looking at him with glowing eyes, her lips opening tenderly…

He froze, straining his ears at the sudden intrusion of voices, groaning inwardly. One of the voices was Hannah’s, but the other voice belonged to a man.

God’s teeth!


Hannah flew out of the great hall, aware that Hendrie was following on her heels.

“Hannah, wait,” he said plaintively. “I have something I want tae say tae ye.” He was like a young puppy; all sad eyes, floppy hair and gangly legs. She didn’t lessen her stride, heading straight for the Ladies’ Garden. Surely the boy wouldn’t be so foolish as to follow her to that private spot.

No. He had no time for such niceties. Entering the garden, he scooted alongside her and clutched her hand. Ugh. His hand was limp and sweaty.

Oh dear! What was Blaine thinking?

All smiles this afternoon, he’d presented her with young Hendrie Davidson, the son of one of his oldest friends. In the space of two months, Hendrie was the eleventh offering her brother had trotted out for her approval as a prospective suitor. Eleventh.

But, by all the saints in Christendom, this lad was scarcely out of the nursery. Still wet behind the ears. He was sweet enough, eager to please, but not yet bearded, with aught but peach-fuzz on his chin. She’d wager he was not a day over seventeen. Why, she stood at least a head taller than him, for goodness’ sake!

Was this Blaine’s plot to force her to agree to marry the next man that actually looked like a full-grown man? At least one with a beard.

Hendrie was clinging to her hand like a limpet. She plonked her bottom on the bench at the far end of the garden, spreading her skirts in the faint hope he’d realize there was no space for him to sit beside her.

Not in the least deterred, he flung himself on one knee on the grass in front of her.

“Fair lady, please let me recite the poem I’ve written for ye,” he begged.

She huffed indignantly.

Blaine must secretly hate me. Otherwise, he’d never keep beleaguering me with unsuitable, unappealing, impossible lads.

“All right. I’ll listen tae yer poem. But, afterwards, ye must promise tae take yer leave. I wish tae enjoy the evening air by meself,” she said sternly.

Hendrie took a deep breath, issuing a sigh. “I shall, melady. I shall leave ye once ye’ve heard me out.” He took a parchment from the pocket in his britches and unfolded it.

After clearing his throat, he began. “Fairest Jennifer,” he read.

“My name’s Hannah” she said, her lips quirking in a smile. Why, this buffoon had not written the poem for her at all.

“Oh…” he gasped.

“Methinks ye should stand, Hendrie. I’ve changed me mind. I nay longer wish tae hear yer verses.” She reached a hand to help him up.

Suddenly, he switched his eyes from her face, to the small creature that was climbing on the bench beside her. A spotted, brown, scaly creature.

“Ye gods. A monster,” he shrieked, losing his balance and, hands flailing, landing bottom-first on the grass.

In fright, Hannah heaped to her feet, her skirt tangling her feet, bringing her down to land beside him.

Pointing with a shaking finger, his ashen face washed of all color, he squeaked, “There. It’s a deadly, poisonous, serpent”

Scrambling to her feet, Hannah looked around.

“Hendrie. Get up.” She snapped. “While there are some shy snakes here on Mull that are poisonous, that’s nae snake. It’s a wee lizard. They are common here and that one visits me often in the garden.”

She savagely brushed at her skirt with one hand, fluffing grass and leaves out of her hair with the other.

“Now,” Her voice was unusually sharp. “I believe it’s time ye left me.” She lifted her chin in haughty dismissal. The boy stumbled to his feet, swiveled without a word, and hastily made his departure, leaving Hannah alone in the gathering twilight.

“At last,” she breathed aloud.

Leaning over the lizard, she whispered her thanks.

“Mr. Lizard.” She said, breathlessly. “I do so appreciate yer help in chasing that boy away. I was beginning tae fear he’d never go.” She laughed.

Then came a whispered voice in response, “Happy to be of service melady. I could see he was nae the man for ye. Ye deserve a strong, handsome fellow tae set ye tae rights.”

For one fleeting second it seemed as if the lizard was speaking to her, and she giggled. But then it dawned.

Someone was there, unseen, beside her in the garden.

She drew in a breath, filling her lungs, ready to scream bloody murder.

But, before she had a chance to let out an awe-inspiring shriek, a tall figure leaped from the shadow of the hedges and clamped a ruthless hand over her mouth.

Struggling furiously, she raked the hand with her nails, kicking out as best she could, although hampered by her long skirts. She heard a rough swear word as she tore at the man’s hand, but his other hand clamped her waist and she was hauled unceremoniously into the hedge, landing a hundred tiny scratches on her face and bare arms.

Before any further ado, a heavy cloth was wrapped around her mouth and fastened, her hands were seized in a strong grip and tied tightly behind her back with string. Throwing her head back she tried to butt against the man’s chin, but he was too quick for her. He dodged sideways, grabbing her hair, twisting it painfully around his hand.

“Dinna try anything, lass. It’ll go badly for ye if ye dae,” he breathed into her ear. “Stop struggling and ye’ll nae be hurt.”

Then the world went dark as a sack was thrown over her head and pulled down over her body to her feet. She felt the man fastening a binding like a belt at her waist, securing the rough hessian sack, and another binding her ankles.

Bound hand and foot, her mouth gagged so that her screams were stifled, she felt herself being hoisted over the man’s shoulder as if she was nothing more than a sack of chaff.

“If ye make a sound, if ye try and wriggle, I’ll run ye through with my dirk,” he said in a low, gravelly voice that shot terror straight to her heart.


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Not at all Likely Extremely Likely

In the Arms of a Highland Brute (Preview)


Steward Castle, 1290
One year ago

Steward Castle was quiet these days, the once lively rooms filled with hushed whispers. Even the weather seemed to mourn, the sky a dull, cold gray outside Laird Steward’s study.

Fletcher Steward already thought of the room as his own, though his father had not yet taken his last breath. It was Fletcher’s, as he was now the Laird of the Steward Clan in everything but name. He took care of clan matters, he made all the decisions, and he would soon have the title as Laird Steward’s rightful heir as well.

He had no animosity towards his father, nor did he want him to die, but he understood the natural progression of things. No man had ever escaped death and his father would be no different. Fletcher tried to focus on the positive, such as his upcoming rise to power. He had already had a taste of it, acting in his father’s stead.

People answered to him, they followed his orders. Other lairds sought his friendship and support. It was the sort of position Fletcher had craved for a long time. He wanted to be looked up to. He wanted people to respect him and, if necessary, also fear him. Fear could be a powerful tool for those who wielded it. It would keep his enemies at bay, and though it wouldn’t make him many friends, it would make him the right ones.

A knock on the door drew Fletcher’s gaze away from the morning clouds that had gathered over the glen stretching below the castle as far as the eye could see. It was all for this land, he had told himself. All his efforts were for the sake of this land and the people. If he got something out of it—power, riches, beautiful women—well, that was only a fitting reward for his efforts.

“Come in,” he called, leaning against the heavy wooden chair his father loved so much. Fletcher remembered sitting there with him when he was younger, his father showing him everything he needed to know about running a clan.

He had never been a particularly good student.

The maid who walked into the study was a pretty thing, young and lithe, with an open face. A new one, Fletcher noted, eager to make a good impression. She had certainly made some sort of impression on him, and he would seek her out late at night.

“Forgive me fer interruptin’,” the girl said. “A guest has come tae see ye.”

It wasn’t unusual for people to come to Steward Castle to visit his father and, lately, Fletcher himself. He gestured at the maid to let his guest in, eyes narrowing just slightly when he saw who it was.

The man, a laird himself, leading a powerful clan, had been a thorn in Fletcher’s side for months. He didn’t quite know how their tentative friendship, if he could even call it such a thing, had begun. He only knew that the laird had power and land, and he was willing to share it all with him for what he called a “small price.”

Fletcher showed the laird the chair across from him, and the man sat down in silence. He poured them both some wine, toasting the laird before draining his cup. He would need all the alcohol he could get if he were to mask his nervousness, though it was far from a good idea to drink too much when dealing with men like him.

Though Fletcher hated to admit it, the laird had cornered him. He knew about Fletcher’s desire to gain more than his father had ever managed, and he had the right leverage over him. There was little Fletcher despised more than being in a weaker position, but what could he do? His father was a good man, and good men were rarely ever powerful. He had neglected expanding the Steward Clan in favor of maintaining friendly ties with all his neighbors. No one feared the Stewards. No one would hesitate to take over once his father was gone.

The two men sat in silence for a while. The laird was seemingly comfortable where Fletcher was squirming in his seat, trying to figure out what the man’s next move would be. Why had he come to the castle? Did he want something more from Fletcher, or was he there to tell him he would withdraw the proposed deal, which Fletcher had still not decided?

What the laird was asking of him was not difficult to procure. It was a small price to pay for the lands and riches promised to him. Still, there was something holding him back from committing. And Fletcher thought it had less to do with the condition itself as much as with the fact that he was dealing with a man like him.

“Did ye consider me proposal?” the laird asked after a long stretch of silence. Fletcher was glad he had finally spoken, but he frowned a little at the question. If that was all he wanted, he could have sent him a letter.

“Aye, I did,” Fletcher said. He didn’t give any other information, and that seemed to frustrate his guest, who gave him his most unimpressed gaze.

“And?” the laird asked. “Did ye decide?”

Fletcher had not, and it must have shown on his expression as the laird gave an impatient sigh.

“This isnae the kind o’ plan that ye can consider forever,” the laird said. “And it isnae the kind o’ plan that ye can decide ye dinnae like once it has started. I need tae ken ye willnae change yer mind.”

Fletcher was not the kind of man who enjoyed being constrained by such promises. He never knew when he might change his mind or find a better solution to get what he needed. But in all this time that his father had been sick, no one else had offered him the kind of power the laird had. How was he supposed to refuse? How was he supposed to end the deal before it had even properly started, especially when he knew what he knew about it? If he said no, there was no telling what the laird would do to keep his plan a secret. Fletcher could end up just as dead as his father by the end of it all.

“Are ye certain that the plan will work?” Fletcher asked. “I cannae agree to it only tae have her clan fight back.”

The laird waved a hand dismissively, as though the mere thought that the clan they wanted to destroy could fight back was ridiculous. It made Fletcher bristle like a cat, knowing how much the laird thought him an inferior, his concerns nothing more than a nuisance.

“There is naething for ye to fear. All ye have to dae is marry the lass,” the Laird said. “Or is that too hard for ye?”

It was Fletcher’s turn to glare at the man. He couldn’t stand being mocked, especially so openly. He didn’t care that the man was a laird and Fletcher was not yet one, nor that his clan was more powerful than the Steward Clan. Many had disrespected him throughout his life, and Fletcher had promised himself long ago that he would never allow another person to do so again.

“Yer in me castle now, dinnae forget that,” Fletcher said.

“I’m in yer father’s castle,” the laird corrected him. “Yer nae the laird yet, lad, and even if ye were, what is there fer ye to dae about it? If ye dinnae like how I speak to ye, I will take my leave and find someone more grateful.”

Fletcher’s first instinct was to stop the laird, but when the man didn’t move, he realized something that had, until then, escaped him. The laird needed Fletcher just as much Fletcher needed him. The more he thought about it, he realized it wasn’t surprising. How many heirs to a lairdship were there, ready to take over from their fathers, the right age for the woman he was to marry, and willing to go along with the laird’s plan? Surely if the laird had found someone more willing than Fletcher, he would have already gone to him instead.

“What will happen once I marry the lass?” Fletcher asked to break the silence and this stalemate they had found themselves in. “How dae ye plan on destroying her entire family?”

“Once yer clans are united, we will kill them all one by one, as long as ye can play yer role well,” the laird said.

It wasn’t a plan that Fletcher liked, not because it involved killing, but because it involved him. Marrying the woman, deceiving her into thinking he was a good, honest man, was work enough already, and now the laird wanted him to kill her family, too.

“What if someone finds out?” he asked.

“Ye must make sure that nay one finds out,” the laird said. “If they dae, they’ll come for yer head, nae mine.”

Fletcher would be damned if he didn’t betray the laird if he was caught. The man would go down with him, that much was certain, but Fletcher wasn’t foolish enough to say so.

Fletcher fell silent, refilling his cup with wine and nursing his drink. He stared out the window once more, the soft, gray light a more pleasant sight than the man in front of him. Though there was nothing particularly off-putting about the laird, that piercing stare of his blue eyes unnerved Fletcher. He couldn’t bear to look at him for too long.

“Perhaps this will help ye make up yer mind,” the laird said, drawing Fletcher’s attention back to him. “If ye dinnae agree to my terms, I will make sure that the Steward Clan is destroyed For the first time since Fletcher had first met the laird, he realized he was in deep, in a much more dangerous position than he had once thought. Before this direct threat, there was the possibility of a negative outcome if he displeased the laird. Now, the laird had laid all his cards on the table, making it very clear that his clan would be the one to suffer if he didn’t agree to the plan.

What other choice did Fletcher have? He couldn’t be the man who destroyed the Stewards before the clan had even been passed on to him. He would not only be killed for it, but he would go down in history as a hated, weak man instead of the great leader he craved to be.

Fletcher had no choice. He had to marry the woman the laird was offering him, and he had to pretend to be a good husband to her. He had to lure her in and be on his best behavior so that no one would suspect him, difficult as that would be, as he often enjoyed the company of several women at once. It wouldn’t last long, his marriage to this the woman. Eventually, the laird would kill her family off one by one, and she, too, would be a victim of his plans. Maybe if Fletcher was lucky, she would give him an heir before she died, and then he could live his life as he pleased.

“Very well,” Fletcher said, standing to walk around the desk and offer his hand to the laird. The man stood, taking the hand offered to him and shaking it. “Dinnae fash, Laird MacNab. I promise ye. Give me this year, and by the end of it, Alba Menzies will be me wife.”

Laird MacNab gave Fletcher a satisfied grin, one that did nothing to soften his stern gaze. It was more of a reflex, Fletcher thought, than a genuine smile; or a practiced gesture to put others at ease.

“Good,” said Laird MacNab. “Good. Until then, ken that I will be watchin’ ye. It’s yer job to ensure that this part o’ the plan goes smoothly, and then ye can leave the rest up to me.”

“Aye. As I said, I can manage. How difficult can it be to marry a lass like the Menzies lass?”

Her father held some power but was certainly not the most powerful man in their lands. Alba had already been betrothed once, but the man she was supposed to marry fell in love with her sister. Fletcher didn’t think she would be a difficult target. Some sweet words and a few promises of a glorious life would be all he would need to convince her to marry him.

“Ye better hope yer right,” Laird MacNab said. “I shall see ye at the wedding.”

The laird took his leave, letting the door swing shut behind him. Fletcher found his cup of untouched wine and drained it, before slamming it against on the tray, everything on the desk rattling with the force of it.

He placed both hands on the edge of the desk, fingers brushing over the intricate carvings on the wood. That desk and room had seen so many of the Steward Clan Lairds pass through it, conduct business and plan their wars there. Each one had left his mark, and now it was Fletcher’s turn to do the same. His own sons would one day be where he was now, reminiscing about their father, and they would have better things to say about him than he had to say about his own. He would take this clan and make it the most powerful one in the area. He just needed a little help at first, a little push from Laird MacNab, who had the resources. Once he didn’t need him anymore, he would dispose of him as well.

In the meantime, he had to get to work. Fletcher had to convince his father that Alba Menzies was a good choice for him, and then he had to convince Alba’s father he was a good match for her. He had to work on that alliance, ensuring that by the end of the year, the two of them would be married and their actual plan could begin. He had plenty of time. He had so much time, in fact, that he decided to do something for himself first; to help him release some of this nervous energy that had been building while he was talking to Laird MacNab.

Fletcher left the room, heading toward the servants’ quarters. He hadn’t asked that beauty’s name, but with some searching, he was bound to find her.

Chapter One

Murray Castle, 1290

The day was still young, but the clouds had already gathered over Murray Castle. The courtyard was filled with movement, the servants going about their morning routines and duties, bringing color to the castle, which was washed in browns and grays this time of the year. Soon, everything would bloom, Magnus knew, and the courtyard would burst with life and flowers.

Next to him, Tate was taking some food off the table, and he asked a servant to prepare it for his trip. Magnus didn’t know why he was wasting his time trying to convince him to stay. His brother had never been one to stay in one place for too long, always restless and in search of adventure, but Magnus had hoped he’d get to see him for a while longer. It was always hard to watch him leave, not knowing when he would return.

“Are ye certain ye dinnae wish tae stay?” Magnus asked for what seemed like the hundredth time. Perhaps it was tiring for Tate, but Magnus would be damned if he didn’t at least try to keep him there a while longer.

“Aye,” Tate said, his icy blue eyes crinkling at the corners as he smiled. He looked even younger than his twenty-six years with that smile. And though Magnus was only two years older than him, he couldn’t help but see him like the little boy he once was. “I told ye I have some unfinished business. Maybe once I’m done, I’ll come back home.”

“Maybe?” Magnus asked. “Ye and I both ken this means nay.”

Tate sighed as though the conversation was already taking a toll on him, but his smile never wavered. Magnus knew he wasn’t the only one to have this conversation with him. Their older brother, Scott, the laird of the Murray Clan, had already tried to convince him to spend some more time at home, and so had Scott’s wife, Evelyn. The two of them together were difficult to say no to, presenting a united and formidable front to anyone who disagreed with them. If they hadn’t swayed Tate, then Magnus doubted he could.

“It means maybe,” Tate insisted and grabbed Magnus’ shoulder to pull him into an embrace. “And even if I dinnae come home after I finish me business, I’ll still come sometime later. It’s nae as though ye’ll never see me again.”

That was precisely what Magnus feared. He trusted his brother with his life, but when it came to Tate’s own life, all trust disappeared. He was the youngest brother, and someone had to take care of him.

Magnus didn’t voice any of his fears, though. He never did. No matter how much he wanted to monitor Tate, he didn’t want to imbue him with the same fear he had. Tate loved to travel, loved to see new places, and meet new people. Magnus didn’t want to take any of that away from him.

“Fine, fine,” Magnus said, holding Tate just a little tighter for a moment before letting go. “Go and enjoy yerself.”

“Thank ye. Och, let me say goodbye to Evelyn and Alba.”

As Tate spoke, Magnus followed his gaze to the two women who were talking with Scott a little farther from them. The moment Magnus’ eyes met Alba’s, his expression soured, and he averted his gaze, though not before Tate could catch him in the act.

For a few moments, Tate said nothing and only rolled his eyes at Magnus, but then he couldn’t help himself.

“What now?” he asked.

Magnus didn’t know how to respond to that. He had known Alba for a short while, but in that time, she had made a poor impression on him, one that he couldn’t shake, no matter what anyone else told him about her.

“Ye ken I dinnae like her,” he said. “She’s so… perfect.”

“It sounds tae me like ye think she’s bonnie,” Tate said and Magnus’ fist flew without him even thinking, connecting with Tate’s ribs just hard enough to jostle him. Tate still clutched his side and moaned in mock pain, though Magnus knew it would take much more than that to hurt him and felt no sympathy.

“Aye, she is bonnie.” Alba was beautiful, with long brown hair and piercing green eyes. Her skin was like porcelain, her limbs long and delicate, the very picture of elegance. She really was perfect. Too perfect, in Magnus’ opinion. “She has everyone thinkin’ she’s perfect with her bonnie face and her gentleness, but mind my words, Tate… she is hidin’ somethin’.”

Tate didn’t seem as convinced as Magnus, looking at him with doubt. “What could she possibly be hidin’?”

“I dinnae ken,” Magnus said. “But I’ll find out eventually. Every time I am near her, she makes me look like a savage in comparison. Always so frigid and composed and doin’ what is expected of her, but I promise ye, under that mask, she’s hidin’ a beast.”

“A beast?” Tate asked in disbelief, laughing. Of course, he was laughing at Magnus. No one believed him, but they would once he uncovered her secret. “Surely, ye must jest. Alba is nay beast. Ye only say that because ye like her, and ye dinnae ken how tae accept it because ye’ve been alone for so long.”

“That has naething to dae with it,” Magnus insisted. Sure, he had been alone all his life, never allowing anyone but the people closest to him to get to know him. But that didn’t mean that he couldn’t recognize when he had feelings for a woman. He simply never did. “I can see what she is, and ye’ll see it soon, too.”

“I’m sure she’s a perfectly sweet girl, Magnus,” Tate said, now suddenly serious. “She’s Evelyn’s sister, and ye like Evelyn just fine. Why would ye hate Alba?”

Magnus had no other answer for him. If Tate didn’t want to believe Magnus was right, then there was nothing he could do to convince him.

“She’s nae hidin’ anythin’,” Tate insisted. “There’s nae beast, just a nice, bonnie lass.”

“Is that so?” Magnus asked, once again letting his gaze stray to Alba. This time, she didn’t look at him but she always had an uncanny way of knowing when Magnus’ eyes were on her. He was certain she knew now, too. “Well, how about we make a bet, then? If yer so certain?”

“A bet? What kind of bet?”

“If I can anger her and prove tae ye that she’s a fiery beast, then ye’ll stay a while longer,” Magnus said.

“If ye anger her, it’s only natural that she’ll react,” Tate reasoned.

“Aye, but how she reacts is the accurate indicator of who she is,” Magnus replied. “If she’s as kind and gentle as ye think she is, then she willnae take it too far. But if I’m right about her, who kens what she may dae?”

Tate hummed thoughtfully, clearly considering Magnus’ proposal. “Fine,” he said after a few moments. “But dinnae push her too far; then ye’ll be the beast.”

“Dinnae fash,” Magnus said. “I’ll only go as far as I must.”

It wouldn’t take much to anger her, Magnus knew. And then everyone would know that he was right not to trust her.


After saying goodbye to Tate outside in the gardens, Alba decided it would be best to let him and Scott say their goodbyes in private. Her sister Evelyn returned inside the castle, but Alba didn’t want to stay inside, even if it wasn’t the brightest day of the month. Perhaps it would rain soon, but until then, she wanted to enjoy the fresh air, so she walked around the castle grounds. She knew her way around the castle by then, and she enjoyed the servants and the people of the clan who took care of the daily proceedings. She even tried to see if anyone needed any help. As she was so used to being the one everyone depended on, this sudden change had left her feeling restless. Back home, in her father’s keep, work never ended. Now that she was in Murray Castle, she had nothing to do.

Luckily, she found a young man carrying a stack of plates almost as tall as she was, and she immediately swooped in to help. It wasn’t much, but it was something to do other than embroidering or sipping tea or, even worse, having to be around Magnus Murray who seemed to have gathered every negative trait, allowing his brothers to be the lovely men they were.

Alba had noticed how he had looked at her when he said goodbye to Tate. She had seen his venom and hatred, and she couldn’t understand what she had done to make him dislike her so much. They were very different people; that much was obvious. Alba thought of him as a savage, a brute, very unlike his brothers and her, but she kept her dislike of him to herself, while Magnus had made it his mission to make his hatred known.

“Let me help ye with these,” she told the servant, taking some plates off his hands. Instantly, the man stood a little straighter, the load in his arms now easier to carry.

“Och, I dinnae want tae bother ye, me lady,” the man said. “It’s nae proper for ye to be doin’ such tasks.”

“I dae this all the time when I am back home,” Alba assured him. “It’s nae problem for me. If anythin’, it will keep me from havin’ tae walk around this courtyard all day.”

The man was hesitant at first, looking around as though he expected someone to catch him and scold him for it, but Alba’s smile was convincing enough. In the end, he nodded eagerly and led her to the kitchen, where he placed everything near the fire.

It was a big one, even if it was contained. It was just a normal fire, Alba told herself, used to heating water and cooking. It was nothing to be afraid of.

And yet she couldn’t bring herself to get too close. Instead, she left everything on the other side of the room, eager to be as far away from the flames as possible.

“Thank ye for yer—”

Alba didn’t hear the end of that sentence. Instead, she heard a soft curse and the clatter of a poker against the floor. When she turned to look, eyes wide, she didn’t see the maid whose hand had been licked by the flames, making her drop the poker as she stoked it. What she saw instead was herself, only fourteen years old, holding her little sister tightly and screaming for her mother.

Alba felt as though the fire that had taken her mother was around her now, even ten years later. She felt as though those flames surrounded her, hot and asphyxiating, the smoke acrid in her lungs, Evelyn shaking as she hid her face against her shoulder. Alba could hear nothing but the roaring blaze of fire as it destroyed everything; pieces of burned and burning wood collapsing to the ground, trapping their mother inside. She could smell nothing but that distinct, warm scent of flames. She could feel nothing but the tears that wouldn’t stop falling.

“Are ye all right?”

Those words, coupled with the hands that shook her just a little, brought Alba back to the present. She looked around, remembering where she was. Remembering she was safe. Still, it did little to calm her racing heart.

“I’m fine,” she said, her words forced and stilted.

“Maybe we should call the healer,” she heard a woman say. “She looks very pale, like she’ll fall any moment.”

“Nay, nay… I’m fine,” Alba insisted. “Thank ye. I only need some fresh air.”

Before anyone could protest and insisted she had to see the healer, Alba fled from the kitchen and made her way back outside. She had been right. The fresh air helped her to breathe and calmed her mind, the breeze taking those awful memories with it.

It was just her luck. Right as she calmed down, a looming figure approached her. Alba didn’t need to look to know it was Magnus, but she looked at him anyway. It would be impolite to ignore him.

“Well, dinnae ye look bonnie today?” Magnus said. It was something Alba never expected to hear from him. It stunned her into silence for a few seconds. Magnus was a known flirt, infamous around the castle for his conquests and the girls he bedded. But he had never directed such a compliment toward Alba.

“Thank ye,” she said, phrasing it more like a hesitant question.

“Aye, ye have a bonnie glow today. Yer cheeks are all flushed.”

That didn’t surprise her. She was still feeling hot, anxiety coursing through her body as though it were the flames she so feared.

“Perhaps it’s because ye were talkin’ to that laddie,” Magnus added, and Alba’s anger at such an insinuation overshadowed her panic.

“Of course, ye’d think that,” she bit back. “That is all ye think about.”

“Is that what ye think?” Magnus asked, grinning as he leaned closer to Alba, almost caging her against the wall. He really was a mountain of a man, towering over her. But Alba had never feared anyone. She wasn’t about to start now. “Is that so bad, after all? If ye’ve heard the rumors, then ye must have thought about me that way once or twice.”

Alba was speechless. She didn’t know what had gotten into Magnus to make him focus his romantic efforts on her, but she didn’t like it. She tried side-stepping him, not caring anymore if she was being rude, but he blocked her way with his body.

“There are plenty of rooms in this castle,” he said. “I’m sure I can find an empty one if ye wish to see what the rumors are all about.”

Alba had had enough. She didn’t know exactly what happened between a man and a woman in those moments. Alba was always changing the subject in embarrassment when Evelyn brought it up to prepare her for her wedding night, as she claimed. She knew enough, though, to understand what Magnus was implying, and it made her sick to her stomach to even hear such a thing from his lips.

“Ye really are a savage!” she said and slapped him hard across the face. Magnus looked stunned for a moment, surely not expecting such strength from her. All the work Alba did back home made her much stronger than she looked. It served him right. Magnus was nothing but a philanderer, and Alba had been foolish to think that their dislike for each other would keep him away. “If ye ever come near me again, I will dae much worse than slap ye.”

With that, she ducked under his arm and walked away, Magnus letting her go this time. Now he would think twice before ever speaking to her in such a way, but that didn’t erase the anger that had bloomed inside her. It would take her hours, if not days, to calm down again.

That good for naething barbarian! How does nae one else see how lecherous he is?

Alba tried her best to show nothing but kindness to those around her. It was what her dear mother had taught her, and she always tried to be the type of woman she would be proud of. But Magnus Murray inspired nothing but disgust and hatred in her.

She had thought the only man she would ever want to kill would be Laird MacNab, but now Magnus was firmly in second place.


If you liked the preview, you can get the whole book here

Not at all Likely Extremely Likely

The Highlander’s Sweet Surrender (Preview)


Foyers, Scotland, near Loch Ness, 1644
Chattan Castle

“Shite,” Cory Chattan muttered under his breath as he ran down the long passageway to the Council Room.

He was perpetually late, but it surprised him to be late that morning. That was the morning they were to read his father, Laird Gregor Chattan’s, will, and he was going to have an enormous responsibility on his shoulders soon enough.

Ye can dae this. Ye can be Laird of yer clan.

It was something he’d told himself as soon as his father had been found dead suddenly in his study just a few days ago. It had been odd to see him so cold and… gone, yet his eyes were open, and he’d worn a look of surprise that death had come for him so soon. Cory had been surprised as well. His father had always been hale and hearty, a loud, aggressive presence in Cory’s life ever since he could remember. As he rushed, he tried to tell himself again that he could do this, even though his father had hardly taught him anything about it and neglected him in the past few years. It had been Ruairidh, his cousin, who had been his father Gregor’s favorite, but now they could at least be united in their grief.

He slipped inside the sizeable oaken door of the Council Room, his boots making loud sounds on the stone floor, which might have been hidden if the room was not so silent.

“Forgive me, Council members,” Cory announced, nodding his head at the line of old men at the table in the front of the room, all looking solemn and fatigued.

When he sat down next to his beady-eyed cousin, he let out his breath and faced the council. When he was a child, his father had brought him to a few meetings, and he’d thought then that the men were older than life itself, but even now, years later, they seemed positively ancient. At twenty-two, however, perhaps all men with white hair and beards seemed older to him. He wondered if they had ever cracked a smile in the whole of their lives.

The man in the center, the most frightening and oldest of all, narrowed his steely-eyed gaze at Cory. “Now that we are all together, we might begin the reading of the will. Let it be noted that it is nae like a future laird tae be late when there is so much at stake.” If it was possible, the old man’s gaze narrowed even more.

“Forgive me, Elder McCreary.” Cory nodded and gave the man a brief smile, which was not returned.

He sat up in his chair and looked around the room. The other servants and soldiers of his father’s castle were there, and they all stared stonily ahead. Only a few glanced his way, and it was with pity, he realized. Everyone undoubtedly believed that his heart was sunken in grief, when it was much more with surprise and fear. When he turned back, Ruairidh nudged him.

“Listen, ye dobber. Ye are about tae hear of the fate of yer clan,” his cousin whispered in his ear. “Nae a surprise that ye would show up late.”

Me clan.

His whole life, Cory had thought of it as his father’s clan, feeling like an outsider even though he was a laird’s son. And now, it would all be turned over to him. People would look his way, expecting him to know what to do in times of battle. He folded his hands together on his lap and leaned forward, eager to hear what the old men had to say. The oldest man cleared his throat, unrolled a scroll, and read.

It began with minor details, discussing his father’s plans of what to do for the servants and soldiers of the clan. Cory felt his mind wandering to what he’d been doing that morning as Elder McCreary drifted on and on, his voice not changing as he divided Laird Chattan’s wealth.

Only half an hour before, Cory had been stood out by his father’s grave, a thing he thought he’d not be doing for years and years. He’d watched it with a sort of distance. He and his father had not been close for many years, and he knew his father disapproved of him in many ways.

After leaving the grave, he had to see Millie again before the will was read. Her green eyes, red hair, plump lips, and her way of looking at things made life so much easier to bear. He knew she would know what to say, and so he’d hurried off to her home in the village, but Millie had been waiting for him on the edge of the graveyard.

“All will be well,” she had said, allowing him to kiss her lips and pull her close, breathing in her familiar scent.

They were to be married soon, and he couldn’t wait. He’d been in love with her ever since the day he’d laid eyes on her. But then, his father died, and now there was this burden of the future upon him. Could he possibly take over a clan and be a new husband?

When the old man cleared his throat again, Cory’s mind jumped back to the matter at hand. “And now we will read who is tae take ownership of Clan Chattan and become the laird. Because Cory and his cousin, Ruairidh, were raised by the laird, and they are the same age, it was up tae Laird Chattan who would take over the clan once he passed.”

Cory nodded, but he could feel an icy chill over his skin. His father would never have believed he could take the clan, but who else could have? He was the man’s blood heir, his rightful son, and he even looked just like him with dark red curls, a light reddish-brown beard, and blue eyes. Even though Ruairidh had come to live with them long ago and had been considered family, Cory was certain that his blood would win out in the end. As the old man took a breath to read his next lines, Cory reached up to touch the golden chain around his neck, which held a pendant from his father. It was the shape of a C, with a pointed V at the bottom edge. He’d been given it years ago in a rare show of affection from his father.

Never take this off, no matter what. One day it may give ye all the answers ye need ,” his father had told him, his blue eyes bright with urgency.

The Elder continued. “And Laird Chattan had specific and perhaps unique wishes for the transfer of ownership of Clan Chattan.” Cory glanced at his cousin, who was leaning back in his chair, arms crossed.

“The lairdship of Clan Chattan will go to Ruairidh Chattan, son of Arya Chattan, sister to Laird Gregor, raised by Laird Gregor Chattan and now Laird of Clan Chattan.”

For a moment, everything was still. No one spoke after the elder councilman spoke the last words, and Cory felt like he’d been submerged in an icy loch. No, it couldn’t possibly be true. How could his father have chosen his cousin to be the laird? Cory was his own rightful heir. He tried to breathe, but the air would not enter his lungs. He felt as though he’d been punched in the gut. At the same time, his veins filled with ice.

Ruairidh slowly rose, and Cory realized this was all a reality. He had been pushed aside for his cousin. His rude, angry, and cruel cousin who had not shown Cory one moment of kindness in all their years together.

“Yer father had always approved more of me, ye ken.” Ruairidh gave Cory a thin smile. “It is only natural that I should be chosen. I thank ye, council members,” he said louder. “I will lead this clan with honor as me uncle did.”

Cory sat there, amazed, a silent room behind him until they all rose to give their allegiance. While he felt himself dragged to his feet, his mind raced. If he was not the laird, then what in God’s name was he supposed to do?

Chapter One

1650, six years later

Helen Ridley pulled at the bodice of her work-worn woolen gown, adjusting it so that her cleavage was just a little more pronounced than usual. Once it was settled, she stared at the tavern in front of her and grimaced a little. One of the best places in the country to get information about each side during a war was the tavern, but after so many taverns, Helen was never eager to set foot inside one. Men’s eyes felt like they were undressing her with each moment, and more than once, she’d felt a rough hand on her backside as she walked around to seek just the right man.

I suppose I cannot complain too much. I am attempting to play a lady of the night, after all.

With another deep breath, she stepped forward, ensuring her cloak was open enough to reveal her bosoms on display. She hesitated only once outside in the breeze of a March night, pushing aside a dark blond curl that had sprung free. Biting her lip a few times to give them more color, she pulled open the door, and the loud sounds of merry men, drinking songs, and perhaps a little arguing filled her ears. So did the smells. The wheat of the ale, the savory warmth of the food, and the scent of about fifty male bodies all cramped into a small space after a long day of work.

She walked in; head held high. One must always portray confidence in every situation. Helen had learned that over the past year. People responded to confidence and courage. It was why so many foolish men were in power when they should not be, including her brother, Anthony. He never faltered, and he never backed down, even when he was making terrible and sometimes cruel decisions.

Noticing a few eyes watching her, she made her way to the center of the activity, a long wooden counter stretching nearly the entire room. Chairs were lined up against it, and she sat on one, pulling a letter out of her pocket and placing it on the wood surface in front of her.

“Whisky, please,” she said to the oily barkeeper, who only grunted at her before pouring her a glass.

“Here,” he grunted, and he pushed it towards her.

She looked up at him with her bright green eyes and flashed him a smile, tilting her head slightly. In a moment, as she expected, the man colored, and his stern expression melted.

“Thank ye,” she said, and he nodded, looking a little more flustered but less grumpy than before.

It always helped to make alliances when one could, especially in a place like this. That was why she was always polite, if possible, and why she would use her Scottish accent that she’d learned from her mother rather than her true English one. No better way to remain hidden in Scotland as an English lass than to speak the brogue as much as possible. As she spun the whisky glass in her hand, her eyes glancing down at the letter, she watched things out of the corner of her eye. Men were looking her way, and that was a good thing. It meant she would find some secrets out that night. It would also mean she would have to listen to the terrible flirtations of old, drunken highlanders who thought little of the care of their own bodies but wished their women to be pristine.

But none yet approached her, so she had time to reread the letter in front of her for the hundredth time.


I hope you are not wasting your time gallivanting about on my coin. You always were the more frivolous of all three of us, but you will make it up to me with your service to the English. Since I know you are desperate to know, Cecily is fine. I have kept my word and have not married her off as I threatened. But I will not keep to that if you do not come back with information about the Scottish plans for their next moves. You have been away long enough. You need to return to England as soon as possible to avoid that. I never understood how you could never forget your Scottish mother and turn away from our father, but do your country justice now. Help the English side defeat those bastards, who are little more than creatures among the rocks in those dark Highlands. Send word.


Helen folded the letter quickly and took a breath before gulping down a large swallow of whisky.

One of these days, Anthony will receive his due. And I sure as hell hope it’s me who gets to give it to him.

She took another sip and let out a breath. She had never thought to find herself in this position, but it had been the only way in her mind to save Cecily from having to be married to a complete stranger by their half-brother, Anthony, now Lord Seton, an earl. Cecily was the one person who did not despise her for their shared the hot, Scottish blood of their mother, even though Cecily had favored their father, and she was far warmer and more tractable than Helen had ever learned to be. But at the same time, home had become insufferable since her father died. Her family hated her for what loyalty she held to her mother, especially now that the Scottish and the English were now at war.

War was a way of life between the two nations, and they’d been battling for years. But now, the Anglo-Scottish War was underway, and when Anthony suggested to help him get information about the English, she’d taken it. Just a little excitement about the dangers of it had made her heart beat faster. That she was constantly on the road and focused also helped to lessen the pain that she felt she had no real true home any longer.

Trying her best to calm her thoughts to focus on the matter at hand, she finished the whisky and put out her glass for another. A few drunken mumblings about war and position and the English caught her attention. She turned slightly to see a rough and tumble group of men bending over their cups, leaning close to each other, whispering.

One man, a round-headed balding man, looked up and saw her watching; he shooshed the others and then smoothed a hand over his shining head. Swallowing back her bile, Helen rose from her seat.

You know what to do. Think of it as finding another secret.

Swaying her hips just so, she took her newly filled glass of whisky and walked towards the table. It was four men, all soldiers in dirty uniforms, and they all gazed up at her with bleary-eyed drunken looks of lust.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” she said. “One of ye might be interested in an evening of company.” She gave them her charming smile as well, and all men’s eyes darkened with lust, and she sat down next to the balding one.

He slid a hand around her waist and pulled her close, smiling into her face. Helen tried to smile back, but she could feel the bile rising in her throat at the scent of the man. Sweat and ale and stale breath. His teeth were also filled with bits of food, and his clothes looked as though they had not been washed in an age.

“Just give me a minute or two, lass, and then ye and I can go.”

“Och, I am nae rush, lads. Why dae I nae join ye for a wee whisky first?” Helen lifted her glass and tried to slide away from the man, but he held tight.

“Very well. Now, Angus, get back tae what ye were talking about,” the balding man said. “About Clan Chattan.”

Helen smiled and looked down at her glass. It was the reason she played this role. No one believed that women of the night cared about anything and that they didn’t matter. They were consistently underestimated, as were women. But Helen could feel that she was right on the brink of finding out something good.


Cory Chattan stood on the battlements with Laird Grant, also known as Cam, and they stared out over the lands below. Cory had been Cam’s advisor for a year, but they had become more like friends and confidants. The man next to him was a good one, strong and true, with long blonde hair that often reminded people of a lion. And he loved his wife Ella dearly and their twins. There was so much to like and envy about the man, but Cory couldn’t help but feel only good things about him. It was evening and both cold and dark, but the moon was full, and Cory took a deep breath of icy air. His auburn hair was tied back, but he could still feel the tickle of a loose hair on the back of his neck.

“It will snow taenight,” he said. “I can feel it in the air. It hangs heavy.”

“Aye,” Cam said. “The village will need some help. The last time, too many rooves caved in. We tried tae rebuild, but we will see if these new rooves can handle the weight of this snow. Och, there it is, the first flake.”

Cam reached out a finger to catch a snowflake as it fell, and Cory smiled. “Aye, it seems we are tae be plagued with snow, even in the spring. Let us hope April brings us less trouble.”

“I hope so. Plus, it is too bloody cold of late. I cannae drink enough whisky or sit in front of enough fires tae warm me bones.”

“Och, but what of Ella?” Cory teased. “Surely that is a wife’s duty, is it nae? As it is a husband’s. Tae keep one another warm at night.”

“Aye, true enough.” A look of pleasure passed over Cam’s eyes, but then he coughed, and his face turned a bit more serious. “Sorry tae ye for yer disappointment with Ada. I ken that ye were interested in her.”

Ada was Cam’s sister-in-law, who had just been visiting last year at the end of the year. She was bright, beautiful, and intelligent. She was feisty, and she fought, taking nothing she didn’t want to. For a brief time, Cory had flirted with the idea that perhaps she could be the woman for him. That he could finally forget about the past, his failures, and the way he’d lost his clan and family and move on. But it was not to be. Ada had been in love with her guard, Blair, right from the beginning,

“Och, it is nothing. It is nae as if I really expected anything tae happen.” Cory shrugged and shivered a bit when an icy breeze blew past him. “I suppose we ought tae go inside again. Maybe drink a dram or two ‘afore I set off again.”

Cam put his hand on Cory’s shoulder and faced him. “I can send the men, Cory. Ye are always doing too much, and ye donnae have tae. There are plenty a thing ye can dae here in the warmth, as me advisor.”

Cory smiled and laughed, but he knew he would not listen. He had to make himself feel useful.

He patted his stomach. “I could dae that, but then I fear I will get a bit longer around the waist.” He winked at Cam. “I have tae keep up me physique if I am going tae find another lady, one who is nae already in love with another.”

“Aye then.” Cam patted his shoulder, and the two of them headed down from the battlements to a door in the wall.

Once inside, the air was instantly warmer, and Cory could hear the whipping of the wind.

“The storm is comin’ fast,” he warned.

He always helped during storms and any other times the clan needed him, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t sometimes afraid of how a storm could turn into something ugly in moments. And just like Cam had said, it would take many whiskeys and many hours in front of the fire to warm his bones again once he returned.

“They always dae. I daenae have much use for God, but in storms, I find meself praying like a zealot.”

They went to Cam’s study and found that Lady Ella was already there, bringing in a pot of tea.

“Och, the two of ye,” she said, smiling up at them from a chair by the fire. “Come and sit. I heard ye were up on the battlements, and so I brought ye both some tea.” She stood and pointed to the pot, but Cam took her in his arms and kissed her.

Cory looked down and folded his hands in front of him. He had never seen a husband and wife so taken with one another, and even though it was unusual, he found he rather wanted that for himself. It made him think of Millie and what could have been.

Och, traitorous, heart-breaking Millie.

Once the announcement of Ruairidh’s ascension as Laird of the clan had been made, Millie pretended as if whatever she and Cory had had not existed. She’d claimed passionate love for Ruairidh instead, and they’d been married, making her Lady Chattan with all that went with it.

“Are ye cold, Cory?” Ella asked, and he looked up again to see her smiling at him.

“Nae. Thank ye. I am well. I will leave the two of ye.”

“Nonsense!” she cried, pulling herself out of her husband’s embrace, but he still held one hand on her waist. “Ye two have much tae discuss, I’m sure, with the storm coming. I was only passing by. A good evening tae ye.”

“Until later, love,” Cam said, kissing her again before she giggled and pushed his arms away, nodding at Cory before she went.

With a sigh, Cam sat down and poured each of them hot tea flavored with rich spices to warm the heart. He handed Cory one, and he lifted a brow.

“Ye look as though ye have something on yer mind. Besides the storm, of course.”

“Just thinking about ‘afore, I suppose.”

“Yer family?” Cam took a sip of tea and leaned back, his keen eyes watching him. Nothing seemed to get past the man, even though Cory had done his best not to share everything about his life. At least not the painful parts.

“Aye, something like that. Dae ye ken how me cousin fares as laird?”

Cam nodded, staring into the flames as he thought. “Aye, just a bit. We daenae have much dealings with one another as ye ken. But I hear he has strength in numbers, and he is a rather strong leader, nae always so focused on kindness and compassion.”

“That sounds just about right.” Cory drank a sip so fast that it burned his tongue, and he winced. The tea did, however, warm him a bit. When he finished, he put it down and stood. “I suppose I ought tae go.”

“Ye should get some food in ye ‘afore ye leave. Keep watch when yer out there,” Cam frowned. “There are always English soldiers about these days. Sometimes, they like tae use the storms tae take advantage of weak moments.”

“Aye, ye can be sure I will be on the watch. Thanks for the tea.”

“Cheers. Good luck tae ye.”

Cory left the room and shut the door, focusing on the night ahead. Hopefully, no one would be in need of too much help so that he could soon return home and sit in the warmth of his fire.

Chapter Two

1650, six years later

Helen tried her best to sip her whisky slowly as she leaned in to hear the mumbled and slurring words of the old soldiers.

“Aye, that new laird is a right blaigeard,” the one called Angus said. “Only put in place six years ago, and he is nae even the son! He has taken the clan and made it strong, but I heard tell. Of his evil around. That he is so cruel, even the devil himself would nae wish tae face him.”

“Och, but what of their loyalties? Ye think they want Scottish independence?” Helen’s bald man asked.

Angus shook his head, his dark eyes narrowing as he put two fists on the table. “Nay. All he cares about is money, so he does.” He leaned in, as did the others, and Helen did so as well, as slowly and softly as possible. The stench of the group was a little unbearable, but she breathed into her mouth as she listened in. “I heard that he is selling weapons tae the English, and giving them space on their lands tae camp, prepare, and even give them some insight intae what other clans are doing. I ken those English blaigeards are planning the attack soon enough. They daenae like the king we’ve chosen.”

“Nay, they daenae,” a ruddy-faced man at the far end of the table said. “I ken ye had always better keep a close eye on an English lad or lass. Cunning is in their blood.” All eyes turned to Helen, and she pulled back quickly, showing the men her bright smile again.

“’Tis a good thing we have a proper Scottish lass here among us.” The bald man put his arm around her again and kissed her cheek. “Come then, lass, shall we go have us a good time.”

He let go of her long enough for her to slide away, and he rummaged in his pocket for a few coins to put on the table. The other men did the same, standing up and not looking at her any longer. Helen’s breath came quickly. She could deal with one man, but more than one would be more difficult to handle, even if they were drunk off their feet. With them being soldiers, even if they were older, she knew they would still be strong.

“Come along then, lass.”

“Aye,” she said, again trying to muster a bright smile.

Stop being afraid. You have done this many times, and you can do it again.

Now that she had some interesting information, she wanted to start making her plans immediately, but she had to deal with this man first.

“What is yer name, then?” she asked, sliding a hand through his arm to act as if she was eager to go. “I think ye should be the man tae pay me bill at the bar.”

“Och, is that so?” He winked at her before producing another coin and slapping it onto the counter, making the barkeeper jump slightly.

He pulled on Helen’s arm, and she followed confidently, swaying her hips once more, catching the eyes of a few men on her way out.

Just play the part.

“Come with me,” she said to the man once they left the tavern.

Thankfully, the other men had not followed them, so she’d only have this man to deal with. Pulling him towards the alley, he chuckled and stumbled along drunkenly after her. This would be easy enough.

“Eager are ye then, lass? Havenae had a real lad in some time, is that it?”

“Of course. Surely ye can rectify that, sir.”

“I certainly can.” His eyes darkened, and once they were in the alley’s shadow, he drew closer, his breath hot on her cheek.

“Just a moment,” she said, giving her best feminine giggle as she pushed against him. “Turn around for a moment. I want tae undress a bit for ye.”

“Och, ye dae ken how tae entice a man.” Slowly, the man turned around, and her girlish smile fell instantly as she raised her hand and made it fall hard against his neck, hitting the vein in just the right spot.

As she hoped, he crumpled to the ground like a sack of potatoes, and she breathed a quick sigh of relief. “Thanks be to God.”

Hurrying away, she took one more look behind her in the alley, where she saw the shadow of the slumped man. She put up the hood of her cloak, buttoned up the front over her bodice and continued on.

An evening’s work done. Now to find the Chattan Castle and get there before they give too much information to the English. Can’t have Scotland getting too much of the short end of things.

She smiled at herself as she hurried off into the night. She noticed the snowflakes falling around her and cursed aloud, searching one way and then the other. It wasn’t safe to stay in an inn, not when she’d just made an impression like that. Her eyes moved to the far woods.

Perhaps the snow will not be so bad. I could wait it out until the worst is over. Then no one would be out and about as I return to my room to gather my belongings.

Convincing herself of her choice, she trotted toward the woods as the wind blew harder, and the snow came faster. Once inside the woods, the wind abated somewhat, and she wrapped her cloak a little tighter about herself. She wished she’d eaten a morsel or two at the tavern instead of only drinking two drams of whisky. But that would keep her bones warm, at least.

She had to hide after what she’d just done. They would not notice for a while, but the men inside, drunk as they were, were sure to come after their friend soon enough, and then they might think something of her. Helen could not afford to arouse suspicion. When she’d walked far enough into the woods, she came across a large boulder facing away from the wind, and gleefully, she sat down against it, protected from the wind much more now. Slowly, she watched as the snow fell softly around her. No one would find her there, and she could rest peacefully for a few hours. But her eyes fell. The whisky and the rush of what she’d just done hit her now. Protected from the wind, she felt a little warm and cozy, and she fell right asleep.


“God in Heaven.” Cory’s teeth chattered as he rode back to the castle on a lone, wintry road.

The storm had taken a turn, and quickly, snow was piling up on the edges of the road, and the villages were getting covered. He was just on his way home from securing one of the newly built rooves in the closest village, and everything in his body was cold. It felt as if his very veins were made of ice, but he tried to stay focused as he rode home in the dark, clucking and saying soothing words to his horse, Maitheanas.

“Come now, lad. We can dae this.” Cory clucked and nudged against the poor steed’s icy sides, hoping to encourage the horse to continue.

“Jesus, it’s feckin’ cold,” his friend and soldier, Tobias, said at his elbow. “I cannae believe anythin’ could survive this.”

In the silence of the night, it felt as if they were the only three beings in the world. When he and Tobias blew out their breath, it swirled around them like twin clouds, making Cory dream of whisky and fireplaces.

And perhaps a warm body tae come home tae.

Where in God’s name had that thought come from? He blinked in surprise at the train of his thoughts and encouraged Maitheanas to ride faster to get home all the quicker. He had not thought of being with anyone in such a long time. Not in that way, the way that meant he would return home to them night after night. For so long, it had only been Millie in his mind: her lovely mouth, warm, smooth body, and the way she’d always screamed her pleasure for him as if he was the only one who could give it to her.

All a lie. She had cared nae a whit for me.

But after that evening’s conversation with Cam, Cory had thought of it again. The thought that perhaps one day, there could be someone he could return home to. Who would smile at him, embrace him, and lead him to bed?

“Cory? Ye all right?” Tobias asked, his teeth chattering loudly.

“Aye, just thinkin.’ I hope that roof holds, but we may have tae think of somethin’ else once the snow melts if it doesnae.”

“Aye. We will. The family was thrilled tae have us come. I am sure of it. I hope the other soldiers sent out were all right on their way back. The snow has calmed a bit, but it came in a big rush there for a while.” A twig cracked in the woods on one side of the road, and both their heads jerked in that direction. “What is that? Dear God, if it is wolves, then I will warm up soon enough, rushin’ back tae the castle.”

Cory chuckled, glad for the distraction from his earlier uncomfortable thoughts, full of longing and desire. “Nay, I doubt it. But the fight would certainly warm our bodies up a bit.” He narrowed his eyes at the woods, where he saw a boulder and some figure slumped underneath it. “Better go and take a look, though. Go on ahead. I can dae this on me own.”

“Thanks be tae God,” Tobias said, riding off, and Cory turned his curious gaze back to the trees.

He turned Maitheanas towards the woods, and the horse diligently obeyed. He stopped at the edge and jumped down, patting the stallion’s flank for comfort.

“Just a wee while more, lad. Just tae check on this.”

He trudged forward, his hand hovering above his dirk in case it was something dangerous. The moon was high and full enough to give a haunting light to the dark trees, bouncing off the snow, painting everything around it the same color: black. When he got close enough, he saw that the slumped figure was not an animal but a person, and he hurried forward to reach them when the figure suddenly gasped, stood up, and Cory, bewildered, found himself on his back in the snow.

“What?” he cried in shock. No one had ever moved that quickly before or had bested him with hardly an effort.

But when he looked up, a young woman stared down at him, her hair falling about her, and her cloak hood fell back. Her hands were on his shoulders, and she was straddling him. He was so surprised by what had just happened that it took him a few seconds to realize that an icy blade was at his throat.

“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” she breathed, her white teeth bared in a sort of grimace.

Her thighs gripped his sides tightly, and he knew that if she had slung them around his neck instead, he would have choked in a matter of seconds. It was such a stark difference from the usual young ladies he met in his life among the clan villages, who batted their eyelashes at him and pretended to faint or feel ill so that he or another young man would have to catch them.

Cory held out his hands to the side. The lass was strong, but now that he had his wits about him, he hoped he could overpower her with a few quick moves, but he waited. The sight above him was mesmerizing, and he had no words for the moment. He wondered if he’d collapsed off his horse and knocked his head on the icy road, for it appeared a goddess straddled him with her strong thighs. Her every breath and slight movement radiated fire, strength, and courage. It was enviable, for he wasn’t sure he had ever looked as powerful as she did right then. Even in the darkness, he could tell that her eyes were fiery, and her voice was strong and confident. For a moment, he did not know what to say, and then he realized that if he didn’t speak soon, his back would become fused with the frozen ground beneath him, and then the both of them would be caught in the woods, freezing to death.

“Listen, lass,” he said, and he felt the blade press even closer, the chill of it making him gasp, only reminding him just how close the point was to his throat.

“I am no mere lass,” she growled at him.

If it was possible, her fiery eyes showed even more sparks.

Ye certainly are nae.

“I—” he started yet again, but then out of nowhere, she sneezed.

The movement was such a stark difference from the one she had started with, her gloved finger moving up to brush against her nose as she turned away daintily to sneeze. The blade loosened on his throat as the sneezes wracked her body. Two more came soon after, and as her body vibrated with the motion, Cory laughed. His goddess was entirely real, it seemed. And much more of a proper lady than she’d wished him to notice, making sure that she did not sneeze all over her prey.

“How dare you laugh?” she cried, looking as if she was about to sneeze again, when Cory reached up, grasped her wrist, and he spun them around until she was now pressed underneath him. Her hand, still holding the knife, was now held above her head, and she was looking up at him wide-eyed in surprise, her red nose pointed in his direction.

For a moment, Cory paused. In those fateful few seconds, the cold was no longer seeping into his bones. The breeze above had blown aside a few of the bare branches of the trees, and the moonlight could now cast light more fully onto her face. He sucked in a breath, wondering if he had ever seen a bonnier lass than the one he was looking at right then. Her lips were parted, and her eyes met his with a confidence he had never seen before in a young woman, except perhaps both Lady Ada and Lady Ella. And with her pressed beneath him, his hips between her legs, his mind had no trouble in immediately thinking of another situation in which he might find himself like this.

But he was a gentleman. He was not his cousin, who had no care for the permission of young ladies and took pleasure where he found it. Clearing his throat, he furrowed his brow and tried to focus. She was no goddess but a woman, and he had to figure out a way to get out of there so that they both did not end up dead.

“By God, woman, we are goin’ tae both freeze tae death if ye daenae come with me. All I wanted tae do was help ye, so daenae fash but move quicker tae my horse and let’s get going.” He squeezed the wrist that held the knife, and she let it go, muttering something under her breath that he thought sounded like “bloody scoundrel.”

He stood, pulling her up with him, and she ripped out of his grasp as quickly as she could, but not before he could reach down and pick up her dirk, pushing it into his boot. He gave her a quick smile.

“In case ye are thinkin’ about stabbin’ yer rescuer again.”

The way her eyes widened and her mouth gaped open made Cory want to laugh again. “That is the last thing I would ever think to call you, you…brute!” she cried indignantly even though she stomped after him out of the woods towards his waiting horse. “More like someone who is keen to interrupt one’s peaceful slumber!”

He grinned, spinning around to face her once he reached the tree around which the reins had been hastily tied. “Och, the peaceful slumber of a lass who is slowly freezin’ tae death. Ye’re right. How dare I dae such a thing?”

She had no response to that except for an angry huff, and Cory tried to stifle another chuckle. He was surprised. He was freezing his arse off, and yet the young woman had made him laugh three times in the span of their brief yet very interesting encounter. And forget the fact that it was bloody cold.

He patted Maitheanas’ gray sides, noting just how cold the horse was. “Listen lass, come with me for the night, and I will give shelter, and ye can go yer way tomorrow. I cannae just leave ye here, but I daenae want tae stay in the cold tae protect ye from the wolves.”

He stared at her for a few seconds while she thought about it, looking him up and down. “I do not care for your smugness. It’s a very unattractive quality.” She tapped angrily with her foot. “You know that I could just put you down on the ground again. You caught me in a moment of weakness with that sneeze.”

“Of course, I ken that. But I think there are other more important matters at hand, such as getting warm and finding food. So? What dae ye say? Will ye come with me?”

She took a breath, and then taking a step forward, she did the last thing he thought she would do. She crumpled into his arms.


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