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Chosen by a Highland Beast (Preview)

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Prologue

MacLaren Castle, two weeks earlier

Dust rose in the air as Cathleen’s feet stomped. She had left the healer’s quarters in a rush, neglecting her work after she heard two servants talk about the troops training for war and making her way to the training grounds to demand explanations instead.

There couldn’t be a war. Such a decision would be madness.

When she made it there, heart lurching in her chest at the sight of the army training, she spotted her sister waving her arms wildly as she spoke to Fergus, the clan’s Captain. The closer she got to them, the clearer Bonnie’s voice became as she shouted at Fergus, her brown eyes wild with rage, strands of chestnut hair falling off the careful updo she was sporting and floating around her head like a mane.

“If ye ken what is best fer ye, ye will explain this right the now, Fergus,” Bonnie said, jabbing a finger in his wide chest. The man looked down at her, unimpressed by her efforts, though Cathleen never once saw him try to argue. When her sister was like this, no one could oppose her. “What is the meanin’ o’ this? Why are they trainin’?”

Fergus let out a weary sigh, a hand coming up to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Ye should speak with the laird,” he said. “I’m sure he will explain everythin’. The orders came from him.”

Bonnie rolled her eyes at the mention of the laird, as she always did. Both she and Cathleen were opposed to Laird MacLaren, who had taken the lairdship only a year prior, after the death of their parents. Faolan was far from the laird their clan deserved, the sisters knew. But what could they do? Their parents hadn’t produced an heir and neither of them was married yet, so their cousin had taken over. They had no choice but to put up with Faolan until one of them wedded as according to their father’s will.

“So ye’ve said.” Bonnie took another step forward, closing the distance between her and Fergus, though he was quick to take a step back. For such a large man, he certainly seemed disturbed by Bonnie’s sudden proximity. “But Laird MacLaren,” she said, all but spitting out the name in contempt, “doesnae wish tae talk tae me or me sister. He doesnae talk tae us about such things.”

“Perhaps because it isnae yer place,” said Fergus.

It was immediately apparent to everyone around him that it was the wrong thing to say. Everyone came to a halt, save for Bonnie, who seemed prepared to throw herself into a fight against him simply to get rid of her rage.

Hurriedly, Cathleen stepped between them. This, too, was madness. Nothing good could come out of this argument, and no one else was going to put a stop to it.

“Bonnie, let us speak with the laird,” she said calmly, trying to block her view of Fergus. It did little to help, not only because Cathleen’s body was hardly enough to cover half of him, but also because Bonnie was like a dog with a bone, refusing to let go of this. “Surely, if we ask him, he will tell us.”

For a few moments, it seemed as though Bonnie would demand to have Fergus’ head, but in the end she relented. With one last disgusted look at the man, she turned around and stalked away. Cathleen following close behind.

“If I hear one more person callin’ that man the laird…” said Bonnie, her voice trailing off with a furious growl. “I’ve had enough. He doesnae deserve the title. He has done naething but bring misfortune tae this clan.”

Cathleen could hardly disagree. Ever since Faolan had taken on the role of laird, he had been cruel and thirsty for power, doing anything he could to gain the council’s approval in the hopes that he would remain the laird of the clan even if one of the sisters married. It wouldn’t be easy to get him to give up the position, Cathleen knew, even if his role as laird was supposed to be only temporary.

As Cathleen followed Bonnie, she soon realized they were walking to the laird’s study. Bonnie didn’t even bother knocking on the door before she shoved it open, nostrils flaring at the sight of Faolan sitting at their father’s desk.

Cathleen and Bonnie had spent countless hours in that study, surrounded by their father’s books, the old furniture passed down from one generation to the next, the heavy tapestries that hung from the walls. As children, they would sit by the fire as their father worked, content to spend the time by his side. Sometimes he would read to them, when he had the time. Other times, their mother would join them and the four of them would play games for hours.

It was odd, seeing Faolan where their father should be sitting. Even a year after his death, he was a palpable presence in the room, living on through their memories and all the items that had once belonged to him.

“Have ye forgotten how tae knock?” Faolan asked, raising an eyebrow at the two of them as they entered the room. Unlike their father, who had been a lithe, regal man, Faolan seemed to take up a big part of the desk, towering over everything around him. He looked like a man bred for war. “Or have ye forgotten this is me study?”

Next to Faolan stood Ronald, his most trusted advisor, and it was clear to Cathleen that they had interrupted a very serious conversation between them. On the desk laid several papers scattered about, and though Cathleen couldn’t read them from such a distance, she didn’t even need to look at them to know they were battle plans.

“What is the meanin’ o’ this?” Bonnie demanded. “Fergus willnae tell me why the army is trainin’ like they’re about tae go tae war. Is this what ye’re plannin’?”

Faolan only stared at the two of them in silence for several moments. Cathleen glanced between him and her sister, trying to gauge who would give in first. Knowing her sister, she wasn’t going to back down until she had the explanations she wanted.

“Bonnie, if ye would be so kind as tae leave us fer now,” said Faolan with the kind of politeness that everyone around him knew was nothing but a facade. “I would like tae speak tae Cathleen alone.”

“That doesnae answer me questions,” said Bonnie. “An’ anythin’ ye have tae say tae me sister, ye can say tae me, as well. I’m nae leavin’.”

“I will explain everythin’ tae ye in due time,” Faolan insisted. “Leave us now.”

Bonnie’s anger flared at the dismissive tone of Faolan’s words. She took a step forward, but Cathleen placed a gentle hand on her shoulder to stop her.

“It’s alright, Bonnie,” she assured her. “I will find ye soon.”

This was a way for Cathleen to try and figure out what was going on. Perhaps without Bonnie there, Faolan would be lulled into a false sense of security and he would reveal his plan to her. It was Bonnie that everyone feared in that castle, Bonnie who could make men crumble with nothing but her words and a scathing look. Cathleen wasn’t as feared—or as spirited as her older sister.

Perhaps it had something to do with her being the younger one. Bonnie seemed to have a fire burning inside her that Cathleen hadn’t yet managed to ignite, but her docile character also had its perks.

Hesitantly, Bonnie dragged her gaze away from Faolan, but she still didn’t move. “Are ye certain?” she asked Cathleen.

Nodding, Cathleen, steered her to the door. “I’ll be fine. An’ I will speak with ye later,” she said quietly. They exchanged one final look of solidarity before Bonnie left and Cathleen closed the door, turning to look at her cousin.

Every time their gazes met, she couldn’t help the revulsion that welled up inside her. She knew for certain that if he ever had the chance, he would do anything in his power to get rid of her, Bonnie, and anyone else who stood in his way.

“Sit,” Faolan said, gesturing at the empty chair across from him. Cathleen perched herself on the edge of the chair, her gaze falling on Ronald.

“I thought ye wished tae speak tae me alone,” Cathleen reminded him. “Shouldnae Ronald also leave?”

“He can stay,” said Faolan. “He already kens what I wish tae tell ye.”

“But me sister cannae ken?”

“She will,” said Faolan. “Like I said, in due time.”

Cathleen wasn’t going to get a better answer than that, she knew. With a sigh, she opened her arms wide as if to ask Faolan to continue. The sooner he had told her everything he had to say, the sooner she could go to Bonnie and report everything to her.

“We have a plan tae attack Clan Drummond,” said Faolan. The attack itself wasn’t a surprise to Cathleen, but the target was. Why would Faolan want to attack a clan as powerful as the Drummonds?

“The Drummond Clan?” she asked, eyes widening. “But they have men. They have support.”

“Aye, that is true,” said Faolan. “They have the support o’ the Murrays an’ the Hays. An’ that is precisely why they will make a good target.”

It didn’t take long for Cathleen to connect things in her head. Faolan wanted to get as many lands and as much power as he could, as quickly as he could. He would need it to sway the council, to show them he would be the best choice for the position of the laird even if Cathleen and Bonnie married.

It would be a very big reward for him if he managed to achieve his goal, but the plan was too risky. Cathleen didn’t think it was wise, waging wars against not one, but three powerful clans, all of them connected by the unbreakable bonds of marriage. They were not simply allies; they were a family. If Faolan attacked one of them, the other two would surely come to the rescue.

“This is madness,” Cathleen said, alarmed by the sudden reveal of his plans. “Why would ye risk so many o’ our men? Why would ye risk our clan? If ye fail, there will nae longer be a MacLaren Clan, dae ye nae see that? They will kill us all. An’ it’s more likely ye will lose than win.”

“If we attack,” Ronald said. “But if the plan we have succeeds, then there is a good chance we will win.”

“The plan?” asked Cathleen. She already didn’t like the way that sounded, even if neither Faolan nor Ronald had said anything about it yet. “What is this great plan, then?”

“Well… I will need yer help fer it,” said Faolan, leaning closer over his desk. “I need ye tae find a way tae enter Castle Drummond. Perhaps ye could tell them ye are a healer. Once ye’re there, ye will gather all the information ye can an’ then ye will help me capture Laird Drummond’s wife. Once we have her, we will have leverage. They will have nae choice but tae engage.”

Cathleen stared at Faolan, her mouth hanging open in shock. She couldn’t believe her own ears. Had her cousin truly suggested that she should help him hurt an innocent woman? How could she do that and maintain a clear conscience?

How could she do that at all? She wasn’t trained for any of this. She could hardly lie.

“Ye must be mad if ye think I will dae somethin’ like that fer ye,” she spat, gaze hardening as she looked at him. “I willnae be part o’ yer plans, nor will I support them. In fact, I will tell the council precisely what I think about yer plans.”

Surely, the council would understand just how dangerous and senseless it was to lead such an attack on three powerful clans. They weren’t blinded by Faolan. In the time he had been the laird of the clan, he had achieved nothing of note, nothing that set him apart from his predecessors. The only thing that made him different was the cruelty that accompanied his ambition, and no one in the clan save for his closest people valued that.

“Very well,” said Faolan. “I cannae force ye tae dae this if ye dinnae wish tae.”

Cathleen frowned. It couldn’t be so easy to convince him, she thought—it never was. She had expected him to insist, to try to sway her, but he did none of those things. He must have been hiding something from her. It couldn’t be explained in a different way.

“O’ course,” he continued, leaning back in his seat with a sickening smile, “if ye dinnae agree, I will have nae choice but tae wed Bonnie. I, personally, am in nay rush to marry but if it must be, then I shall. An’ then the clan will be mine regardless.”

A chill ran down Cathleen’s spine, as though she had been doused with a bucket of cold water. She should have expected something like this from Faolan. He would stop at nothing to get what he wanted, even if it meant condemning Bonnie to a life by his side as his wife.

Cathleen couldn’t allow that. She had to do anything she could to save her sister from such a fate, even if it meant putting her life in danger by going to Castle Drummond.

Even if it meant putting another woman’s life in danger.

I have nae choice. Perhaps I can find a way out o’ this but I must agree tae his plans at least for now.

Cathleen’s lips curled into a snarl, fingers digging into the armrests of the chair where she sat. Rage coursed like venom through her veins, and she didn’t yet trust herself to speak without her voice wavering.

“So?” asked Faolan. “What will ye choose? Yer sister or a lassie ye have never even met?”

“I’ll dae it,” said Cathleen, her voice barely a whisper.

“I thought ye might choose that,” said Faolan with a pleased smile. He had Cathleen right where he wanted her. She was unable to say no. She was unable to do anything but what he asked of her as long as he threatened to force her sister into an unwanted marriage.

Bonnie would suffer by his side, that much was certain. She would wither and slowly disappear, leaving nothing but a shell of her former self behind.

Cathleen couldn’t allow that.

“But I will take Bonnie with me,” she said, glaring at Faolan and Ronald. “I dinnae trust ye tae be here alone with her. She will come with me.”

Faolan only gave a small, uninterested shrug. “I dinnae care what ye dae, as long as ye bring me the results I want. If ye wish tae take her with ye, then so be it. If anythin’, it will finally be quiet here. But dinnae do anythin’ stupid just because I’m nae there tae watch. I will find out.”

Cathleen had nothing to say to Faolan. He had finally revealed everything about himself. He had shown Cathleen just how vile a man he was, and she didn’t want to spend another moment near him.

Silently, she stood and left the room, banging the door shut behind her. Her stomach turned itself into knots at the thought of what she would have to do, but she swallowed down the bile that rose up her throat. She had to be strong now.

If not for herself, then for Bonnie.

Chapter One

Present Day, near Drummond Castle

The town was busy, as usual, the market filled with people who perused the stalls. Cathleen and Bonnie had been there for a few days already, formulating their plan and waiting for the right moment to attack, and the day had finally come.

Cathleen both dreaded it and wanted to finish her task as soon as possible. The sooner she was done with all this, the sooner she could stop worrying about the consequences—not only the ones she would have to face, but also the ones others would face. Guilt flooded her every waking moment at the thought that she would do something so cruel to an innocent person. It didn’t help that in the days they had spent in the town, everyone around them had raved about Laird Drummond, praising him not only as a good laird, but also as a man.

Everyone loved their leader, it seemed. They had nothing bad to say about him and that only served to worsen Cathleen’s guilt. Had he been as cruel as Faolan, then perhaps it would have been easier to convince herself that what she was doing was for the best. As it was, the thought of hurting those people she didn’t even know was enough to make her crumble every night in secret, when Bonnie was asleep.

She had no choice but to go through with the plan. She knew that, and yet every day she was closer to telling Bonnie the whole truth and simply taking her out of that town, somewhere where the two of them could be together, away from Faolan and his threats.

But how could she leave her people behind? How could she leave the clan in Faolan’s hands when she knew what he planned to do?

Such a war as Faolan wanted to wage would spell the end of her people.

Bonnie’s hands trembled where they were wrapped around the bow tightly, as though loosening her grip for even a moment would mean that she would lose her courage to do this. Cathleen wrapped her own hands over them, giving her a reassuring squeeze and a weak smile, though she was certain they did little to calm her sister. Behind the cover of the tall bushes near the market, they were hidden from any prying eyes, but Cathleen kept her voice in a low whisper to be safe.

“Ye can dae this,” Cathleen said. “Everythin’ will be fine.”

“What if I injure him too much?” Bonnie asked, horrified at the mere prospect of causing too much damage. “What if… what if I kill him? What if my aim is bad?”

“Yer aim has never been bad,” Cathleen reminded her. Bonnie was the best archer in their clan. She had always been talented with a bow and arrow, her aim landing true ever since she was a child. There was no way she would miss now.

Unless her hands keep tremblin’ like this.

Cathleen had to keep her sister calm. Anything else could turn into a disaster for them and for Laird Drummond.

“Ye have practiced fer this,” she said. “Ye only have tae graze his arm or his leg. Trust yerself, Bonnie. If there is anyone who can dae this, it’s ye.”

Bonnie nodded, though her thoughts seemed to be far away, her gaze distant. Cathleen’s grip on her hands tightened, bringing her to the present, and when Bonnie’s eyes met hers once more, they were finally clear.

“Ye can dae this,” she insisted, as she pressed a kiss to her cheek and let go. “Focus on the man with the silver mask.”

Giving another nod, Bonnie assumed her position, preparing to string an arrow. If the information they had received was correct, then Laird Drummond would soon come to the town. He visited once every month, they had found out, to ensure the townspeople were content and had everything they needed, which only strengthened his popularity amongst his clan.

It had been easy to learn things about the man. The townsfolk was eager to talk about him, singing his praises, and no one had suspected two young women like Cathleen and Bonnie. Cathleen had to admit that Faolan’s plan to send her had been clever—had he sent a scout, perhaps it would have been far more difficult to get what he wanted.

Glancing over her shoulder at her sister one last time, Cathleen snuck out of the bushes and mingled with the crowd that milled about the market. She hadn’t dared to tell Bonnie the whole truth. She knew from the moment Faolan gave her the two options that if Bonnie found out, she would choose to marry him simply so that she could put an end to the war before it could even begin, but Cathleen couldn’t allow that. She couldn’t let her sister sacrifice herself like that.

Instead, Cathleen had said that Faolan had threatened to force a wedding upon her. Naturally, the moment Bonnie had heard that, she had sworn to keep Cathleen from such a terrible fate, no matter what it would take.

And all of that had brought them here now, to this town, the two of them waiting for Laird Drummond to show up so they could injure him, in the hopes that after Cathleen used her skills as a healer to help him, she could convince him to allow her to work at the castle as a healer. It was not only risky, but there was also no guarantee that it would work. Cathleen had heard the locals talk about the healer of Drummond Castle and how she was currently too far with child to work, but that didn’t mean the laird would give the position to her so easily.

It didn’t take long for a man to capture Cathleen’s attention. She had no doubts he was Laird Drummond, as he was sporting his usual silver mask, which hid half of his face. Some said he was terribly disfigured while others spun tall tales about him, claiming that he didn’t want anyone to know what he truly looked like or that he had other men who looked like him doing his bidding. Cathleen paid little attention to those stories, though. Whatever it was, it didn’t change her objective.

As soon as the laird showed up, people flocked to him like moths to a flame, attracted by his warm and kind nature. Not for the first time ever since they had put this plan in motion, a wave of nausea washed over Cathleen at the thought that she was going to put such kind people in danger. It was true that the bulk of the blame lay with Faolan, but that didn’t absolve her or Bonnie of responsibility.

Casually, Cathleen inched closer, pretending to browse the goods the sellers had on display. She had to be near when Bonnie’s arrow hit the man, so she could be the first to offer her assistance, in case there was someone else there who was knowledgeable on the craft of healing.

She was gazing absently at a piece of lace when screams erupted around her. When she looked over her shoulder and saw the panicked eyes of the crowd, she knew Bonnie had finished her task. Quickly, she banished the smile that threatened to spread over her lips and rushed to the laird’s aid, pushing through the crowd.

Chapter Two

It was an unusually warm day in the town even for summer, the sun shining brightly over the town. Macauley cursed under his breath with every drop of sweat that coated his brow as he and Kian navigated the streets, their horses left at the local inn at Kian’s insistence.

He liked to walk, he said.

Well, he can walk. I like tae ride.

He could hardly bring his horse in the middle of the market on such a busy day, of course, since the stalls and the crowds took up so much space. Though Macauley usually enjoyed visiting the town with Kian and talking to the locals, this day seemed to have started on a very wrong note for him.

“After this, I’m goin’ tae the inn an’ I’m drinkin’ a nice cup o’ ale,” he told Kian as he wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. Next to him, his friend was perfectly put-together, not a strand of hair out of place.

Perhaps it comes with bein’ the laird. He always magically looks perfect.

Macauley couldn’t help but resent him for it, just a little.

“An’ I will join ye,” said Kian, giving him a pat on the back. As they walked, he stopped a few times to talk to the locals, exchanging pleasantries and listening to their concerns while Macauley stood by his side, mentally noting any issues they would have to resolve at a later time.

It was his favorite part of the job. Being Laird Drummond’s advisor came with many perks, but what he loved most was that he could help people. He could listen to them, he could solve their problems, he could take care of his clan.

He could do what he did best.

“Macauley,” Kian said suddenly, pulling him out of his thoughts. He tilted his head to the side with an odd rise of his eyebrows, and Macauley followed the direction he was pointing at to see a young woman smiling at him.

Quickly, he averted his gaze.

“Is she nae tae yer tastes?” Kian asked, laughing at his reaction.

“She’s bonnie,” said Macauley with a small shrug.

“But nae bonnie enough?”

“She’s very bonnie, Kian.”

“I dinnae understand,” Kian said as the two of them resumed their walk through the market. “There are so many lasses who adore ye. They would dae anythin’ fer ye an’ ye dinnae desire any o’ them. How can that be?”

“They are all too proper,” Macauley said simply. It was the truth. It wouldn’t feel right to deceive them, to make them think that he was interested in something more than a night with them. He didn’t have it in him to lie to a woman like that just so that he could bed her. “Ye ken I have nae desire tae wed. I have nae need fer heirs, so I’m nae obligated tae find a wife. An’ all these lasses want marriage.”

“Ye’ll find the right one, eventually,” Kian insisted, like he had many times, the last time no more than a couple of weeks before. However, Macauley very much doubted that. He had never had any interest in marriage and he didn’t think that was ever going to change.

“If ye say so, me laird,” he said, his tone dripping with sarcasm at the title. “Well, I will go tae the healer’s cottage an’ speak with her if ye wish tae speak tae the townsfolk. I will see if she kens anyone else who can take her place while she recovers.”

“Very well,” said Kian. “Shall we meet at the inn once we are finished here?”

Macauley didn’t have the chance to respond before he heard the tell-tale swish of a flying arrow. Before he could think better about what he was doing, he jumped in front of Kian, shielding him from it, his instincts taking over.

Pain blossomed over his arm where the arrow hit. He didn’t need to look down to know it had lodged itself in his arm. Only a few inches to the side and he would have been a dead man.

“Macauley!” Kian’s voice rang through the market as he grabbed him, while in turn, Macauley grabbed his arm. Blood soaked his tunic, dripping unbridled down his arm, and soon the earth seemed to move under his feet.

It was the shock and the pain, he told himself. It was only because it had been so sudden. He couldn’t have possibly lost so much blood already that he was feeling the effects of it.

The crowd gathered closer as more and more people realized what had happened, closing in on him and Kian. But that was the opposite of what Macauley needed in that moment. That arrow had come from somewhere and he needed to figure out who had shot it.

“Stay back!” he called, though the townsfolk hardly heard him over the turmoil. Their voices and their rushing footsteps drowned out his command—one they wouldn’t follow, since they weren’t his men. They were only people, confused and worried and scared there was an enemy among them. “Kian, ye must hide. This wasnae meant fer me. It was meant fer ye.”

“There is nae one there,” Kian said, though he couldn’t possibly know that. There were many places one could use to hide in the town, and for all either of them knew, their attacker could still be there, lurking, waiting for the right moment to strike once more.

Perhaps the next time, they wouldn’t miss.

“Kian, listen tae me,” Macauley said urgently. Even as the pain worsened now that the initial shock had subsided, his mind was getting clearer, as well. He could think logically once more. He could do his job. “It’s dangerous here. We must leave.”

“We cannae leave if we dinnae find who did this,” Kian insisted.

“That is a task fer another day.”

Macauley’s main objective now was to get Kian somewhere safe, somewhere away from arrows and swords and people who wished to hurt him. Everything else could wait. Surely, whoever had shot the arrow had been aiming for Kian only. They had no reason to kill any of the townspeople.

As he regained his strength, Macauley began to tug Kian away, but Kian was too stubborn to move. Then, before he could take a single step, the crowd parted as a young woman pushed her way through, shouting.

“I am a healer!” she said. “Let me through!”

“Well… isnae that lucky?” Kian asked, gripping Macauley’s shoulders tightly as though he still feared he would collapse from the injury. It was silly, Macauley thought. Kian had seen him in battle and he hadn’t been as concerned, but perhaps the abruptness of it all had gotten to him, too.

Macauley gazed at the woman, at her long, brown hair, the blue eyes that shone under the sunlight. Perhaps it was the blood loss, but in that moment, he couldn’t help but think that she looked like an angel.

“Aye,” he said. “Very lucky.”

Not at all Likely Extremely Likely



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


Chosen by a Highland Beast – Bonus Prologue Scene

A month earlier, The Rowan Tree Inn, Gartness

The day had been a long one and Macauley was chilled to the bone from spending it on his horse and then in the small village of Gartness, attending to clan matters along with Kian and Deirdre. Sitting now next to the fire with a whisky in his hand, he could finally stretch his limbs and let out a deep sigh, deflating as all the air left his lungs.

“Tired?” Deirdre teased. Unlike Macauley, she seemed in perfectly good spirits, entirely unaffected by the cold or the long day.

The perks o’ youth.

He had only reached his twenty-eighth year, so he couldn’t claim to be an old man, but sometimes he felt like one, especially when Deirdre was around to play the role of the annoying little sister. But he could be annoying, too, so he straightened up, his exhaustion forgotten in favor of teasing back.

“Why dinnae ye ask yer husband if he’s tired?” he said, looking pointedly at Kian, who had all but collapsed in his chair and was halfway to asleep already, an acorn he had picked up somewhere outside being rolled lazily around his fingers. If anything, Kian was more of an old man than he was, despite the two of them being the same age. “Look at him… he can barely keep his eyes open.”

“He’s been workin’ all day,” Deirdre said, reaching over to pat Kian’s arm. He smiled at her, that small quirk of lips barely visible under the silver mask he always wore. Macauley couldn’t help but make fun of him. It was too tempting to resist.

“He’s truly at yer mercy now, isnae he?” Macauley asked. “Look at ye, Kian… ye were once a formidable man an’ now ye’re like a wee pup. Did yer mistress train ye intae submission?”

Kian rolled his eyes at Macauley, the gesture barely visible through the mask in the half-light of the room, its walls bathed in a soft orange light from the candles and the fire. Around them, villagers and other travelers alike enjoyed a dram of their own, filling the room with quiet, idle conversation. It was comfortable in there, the low buzz of their chats making for a pleasant background noise that filled the silence whenever there was a pause in their conversation.

The acorn landed on Macauley’s face, hitting him square on the forehead. Kian always had great aim. “Ye wouldnae understand. Ye have never treated a lass well in yer life.”

“That is entirely false,” Macauley said, tossing the acorn back only for Kian to grab it in the air before it could even hit his shoulder. Macauley’s aim, unfortunately, was not nearly as good. “I treat all lasses very well. I give them a good time an’ they always ken they cannae have anythin’ else. They dinnae expect me tae love them.”

“But dinnae ye wish ye had someone?” Deirdre asked, always the romantic. She had been hounding him to find a good woman and settle down, though Macauley hoped he could soon wear her down enough for her to understand that he never would.

He was perfectly happy remaining a bachelor for the rest of his life. He had no need for a wife. He had no title, nothing to pass on to an heir. When he wanted the company of a woman, it was easy for him to find it. Many maids working in Castle Drummond liked him and even if they found a husband or decided they didn’t want him anymore, he could go to any village and find another girl. What was the point of marrying someone when all she would do was chain him?

He looked at Kian and Deirdre, noting how they always seemed to touch and hover around each other. He looked at the genuine joy in their eyes at being near each other, as though simply sharing the same space was enough for them.

For all he teased them, Deirdre hadn’t chained Kian. If there was any chaining happening, then he could only say that they had chained each other, but they seemed too happy for him to think of them as prisoners in their own marriage. They were the exception, perhaps.

“I have plenty o’ someones,” Macauley said with a smirk, just to avoid the question. “I have nae desire tae wed.”

“None at all?” Kian asked.

“I wouldnae even think o’ it,” Macauley said.

It was as though his words had given Kian a new sense of vigor. He sat up straight and leaned closer over the table, eyes narrowing and lips pulling up in mirth.

“A bet, then,” he proposed. “If ye ever wed a lass, ye will have tae allow me tae chain ye on yer weddin’ day.”

Macauley couldn’t help but laugh, but Deirdre looked at them in alarm, she too leaning forward and slamming her hands on the table.

“This is madness,” she said. “Ye cannae go tae yer weddin’ in chains!”

“It’s alright, Deirdre,” Macauley assured her. “There will be nae weddin’.”

“Well, I willnae allow it,” Deirdre insisted. “Ye never ken what happens in the future an’ I willnae force the poor lass who may wed ye one day tae witness such a thing. Or the priest, fer that matter. It would be a disgrace.”

“The feast, then,” Kian said, never one to displease his wife, but also never one to back down. “If ye wed, ye’ll have tae spend the entire feast in chains.”

“Deal,” said Macauley before Deirdre could react, giving Kian his hand to shake.

“It is agreed, then,” Kian said. “An’ I will enjoy yer weddin’ day very much.”

“It will never come,” Macauley insisted, as he stood, shaking his cup at Kian and Deirdre to indicate he was getting another refill.

When he reached the counter, where a serving wench was pouring drinks, he put on his most charming grin for the young woman. She was pretty, with blonde hair and blue eyes that crinkled in amusement when she saw him, heat bubbling up just beneath the surface of her gaze. Macauley could always tell when a woman wanted him—more often than not, women wanted him.

“Good evenin’, lass,” he said as he passed her the cup. “Will ye pour me another?”

The girl took the cup and poured him another drink, handing it back with a smile.

“Has anyone ever told ye how bonnie ye are?” he asked, only to have the girl laugh at him. It was all part of his plan, though. It was better to make a woman laugh, after all, even if it was with a silly line like this.

“Och aye,” she said. “Many times.”

“Well… has anyone ever told ye that ye should be worshipped?”

It was that which had the woman’s attention in an instant, her gaze darkening as she leaned closer to him. Macauley couldn’t even tell if she knew she was doing it or if she was pulled to him by instinct alone.

“Ye should be,” he continued, voice dropping low. “I can show ye, after ye’re done here.”

There was no hesitation before the woman spoke. “In two hours. Meet me at the back.”

With a grin, Macauley took his cup and raised in a toast, before he turned around. Just behind him, an old woman was drinking alone, finishing the last drops of her cup, and on a whim, Macauley ordered another for her.

“Here,” he told her, placing the cup in front of her on the table.

The woman looked up at him. She had long, grey hair that flowed down her waist, and though her face was creased with wrinkles, her eyes were bright, full of life. Macauley couldn’t help but wonder what this woman was doing all alone there in the middle of the night, but he didn’t think it proper to ask.

“Ach, laddie… I cannae accept a drink like this,” she said in a thin, croaky voice. “I have naething tae give ye in return.”

“I ask fer naething,” said Macauley with a small shrug. “Only fer ye tae enjoy yer night.”

The woman stared at him for a moment longer before she pushed the chair across from her back from the table with her foot.

“Sit,” she said. “I shall tell ye yer fortune.”

“Me fortune?” Macauley asked, amused. He didn’t think the woman could perform any real divination, but he also didn’t want to offend her. For a moment, he glanced back to his table, but Kian and Deirdre were lost in their own little word, talking to each other quietly, and he figured he could give them some time alone after spending the entire day with them.

With a sigh, he sat across from the woman, taking a sip from his drink. The moments stretched between them, and the woman did nothing but stare at him, though her gaze was piercing as though she could see right through him.

Eventually, she spoke.

“There is somethin’ big in the horizon fer ye, laddie,” she said. “Somethin’ that will change yer life. But it will nae be as it seems. Love hides in the oddest o’ places an’ nae everythin’ ye consider bad is a sin, as nae everythin’ ye consider good is a virtue.”

Macauley couldn’t recall a time in his life when he had been more confused. He blinked at the woman once, then twice, and she laughed at him, a high, reedy sound.

“It is an art, ye see,” she said. “I can see intae yer future, but nae everythin’ is clear.”

“I dinnae think any of it is clear,” Macauley said, though not unkindly. The woman only smiled at him, shrugging a little.

“It will be, with time.”

“Well… thank ye fer yer advice,” he said as he stood, and the woman tilted her head in one last greeting before he left and went back to the table. By then, he had gotten Kian’s and Deirdre’s attention and the two of them frowned at him in confusion as he joined them once more.

“Who is that woman?” Kian asked.

“I dinnae ken,” said Macauley. “I saw her sittin’ alone an’ so I bought her a drink, an’ she told me me fortune in return.”

“Was it a good fortune?” asked Deirdre.

“I’m nae certain,” said Macauley. “But how bad could it be? She didnae mention me dyin’.”

“Did she mention ye wearin’ any shackles with a bride next tae ye?” Kian asked, evidently finding himself very amusing. Macauley wasn’t as convinced and only kicked his chair under the table, jostling him.

“She didnae,” he said. “So dinnae expect any weddings in me future.”

“Nae even with that lassie over there?” Macauley asked, tilting his head to where the serving wench was still pouring drinks.

Macauley laughed. Of course, Kian had noticed, he thought.

“Nae a weddin’, but perhaps a weddin’ night,” he joked only for Deirdre to snatch the acorn out of Kian’s hand and throw it at him again. She, too, hit him square on the forehead.

Next to her, Kian laughed. It was a full sound, one that echoed around the room, and one that Macauley heard often those days. It had started ever since he had found Deirdre. It seemed that, along with her, he had also found himself.

Begrudgingly, Macauley had to admit that marriage agreed with Kian. He was happier now, not the shadow of himself he had once been. He and Deirdre brought the best out in each other and Macauley couldn’t imagine them ever being apart again.

But if seeing this love between them couldn’t convince him to find a wife of his own, then nothing could. Kian would lose his bet and Macauley would forever have the satisfaction of proving him wrong.

 

Scot of Devotion – Bonus Scene

Dear, Beloved Evander,

‘Tis with a heavy heart that I write this tae ye, fer I ken nae when we will see each other again. A formal feud has been declared against me clan by Clan MacDonell, and already now word has come that warriors o’ this clan are marching against our home.

‘Tis me faither’s will that me braither Killian and I shall be sent away from here, fer the safety o’ our clan’s future. Killian, o’ course, is his heir, and I deem it likely me faither kens that Killian wouldnae consent tae be sent from the field o’ battle unless it were fer the duty o’ keeping watch over me.

I understand me faither’s reasons, fer he cannae have either o’ his blood used as hostages, and yet, I am sore aggrieved, fer there is nae way o’ kenning how long this feud will last, nor how long me braither and I will be kept away. I wish tae believe it will only be a short time, but as ye and I both ken full well, feuds dinnae start or end lightly. And so, it might be months, even years, afore I see MacPherson Keep again.

And how much longer still afore there’s any chance o’ seeing ye? Certain sure, even if the feud were tae end, at least formally, within a fortnight, ‘twould be much longer afore me faither would permit me tae be wondering around the hills and lochs as we’ve done thus far.

I ken ye’ve sent a formal betrothal request tae him, but with a feud now spoken against us, I dinnae ken if yer kinfolk will wish tae continue extending the offer. I ken yer folk are honorable and strong, but they may nae want tae be brought intae a feud, and they would be, if we were tae be married. Honor as kin-by-marriage would demand it.

Likewise, I ken that even if yer clan is willing tae permit yerselves tae be caught up in our strife, me faither will have little or nae time tae be considering a suit. He’s nae likely tae spare the time and attention fer yer request, nae with Clan MacDonell marching on his doorstep. Nay more would he listen tae me if I were tae try and persuade him that giving me hand tae yers in betrothal would keep me safer than sending me away.

I dinnae want tae be parted from ye – nae fer a day, and certainly nae fer months or years. And that is why I write this letter tae ye, me beloved Evander. That ye may find me, if yer love is strong enough that ye’re willing to brave the dangers o’ the feud and the possible displeasure o’ two lairds – yer faither and my own – tae be taegether with me.

Will ye seek me? If ye choose tae dae so, I will be with me maither’s sister, Ava’s mother, and her husband. Ye’ll find me waiting fer ye, and we can cement our betrothal then, and be married as soon as we have the consent o’ both our lairds – when the feud is over, if nae afore then. After all, once engaged, ‘twill nae matter if the wait is long or short, fer we will be taegether and promised tae each other.

On the other hand, if ye willnae seek me and risk the ire o’ yer faither, or the danger o’ bringing yer clan into the quarrel which may yet consume Clan MacPherson, then I will understand. But if that is the case – if yer love cannae stand against yer loyalty tae yer faither, or yer consideration fer yer clan – then I pray ye, dinnae tell me so. Dinnae respond tae this missive, me love, and let silence be yer answer. Silence and the distance between us, fer I cannae bear the thought o’ reading a rejection penned by yer hand.

I am sorry tae ask so much o’ ye, but what then is love, but asking and giving fer the sake o’ another? I love ye, and I wouldnae be parted from ye, and if ye love me as well, then ye’ll understand.

This letter shall reach ye through me faither, but it is best tae address all others tae me through me aunt, fer it is she who will be me guardian. Also, me faither doesnae need any more distractions.

I pray tae hear from ye soon, or better still, tae see ye at me aunt’s door.

All me love tae ye,
May

 

Scot of Devotion (Preview)

Don’t miss your link for the whole series at the end of the preview.

Prologue

September 1688

Somewhere between MacPherson and Mackintosh lands…

The sun was shining outside the small cave where they habitually met. May MacPherson watched it dance over the familiar fields of heather, then turned to look at her longtime friend, Evander Mackintosh.

How long had they wandered these hills and fields together and explored every loch and stream and stone between MacPherson Keep and Mackintosh Castle? She didn’t know, but she was all too aware that her feelings for Evander were no longer purely friendship. She might have been mortified, save that she knew Evander’s feelings had changed to match hers as they grew from bairns to youths.

As if in answer to her thoughts, Evander’s hand slid into hers, his lightly tanned skin only a few shades darker than her own, and flawless as May knew her own could never be. From the forearms to her fingertips, her skin was smooth and tanned. Under the cloth of her blouse and skirt, however, it was a different story.

Her upper arms, shoulders, chest and back were heavily marked with long, slashing scars and small, rough-edged furrows – the price she’d paid as a child when she’d saved her cousin Ava from a pack of winter-starved wolves. Most of the time, she hated to even think about the scars, but Evander never made her feel self-conscious, despite never having seen them either, save for the very edges on the rare occasions she pushed her sleeves back while they were engaged in some activity or the other.

“Ye’re fretting again.” Evander lifted her hand and placed a gentle kiss on the back of it. “Ye ken I dinnae mind yer scars. Why should I? Ye’re still the most beautiful lass in all the Highlands, and scars are proof ye’re as brave as ye are beautiful.”

He pressed a gentle kiss to her wrist, then turned and kissed her again, this time on her cheek. May turned her head and kissed him back, enjoying the feel of his chapped lips against hers.

When they finally broke apart for air, Evander smiled. “That’s better. I’d hate fer ye tae looks so pensive when I’m telling ye the news I brought from home.”

May felt her heart skip a beat. “And what news is that?”

Evander grinned, his whole face lighting up with joy. “I finally mustered the courage tae ask me faither tae seek out yers tae discuss a potential betrothal between us. And he agreed that I should extend an invitation tae yer faither, tae ask fer yer hand and formally ally both our clans through marriage.”

May felt her heart leap in her chest. “Ye’re serious?”

“Aye. The formal messenger should be leaving Mackintosh Castle fer yer faither’s castle taeday, but I wanted tae tell ye in person tae make sure ye’re happy with the idea.”

She gave him a mock-indignant look. “Did ye think I wouldnae be? ‘Tis nae like I’d kiss any other lad the way I just kissed ye.”

Evander threw his head back and laughed. “I should hope nae.”

May smiled to see his easy mirth, though her delight faded as she contemplated the matter. Having the permission of Evander’s father was a blessing to be sure, but they’d need her father’s as well, in order to avoid causing strife between the two clans.

“Here now, ye look fair sad of a sudden.” Evander pulled her close. “What’s troubling ye, me love? Ye cannae think yer faither will refuse the alliance, dae ye?”

“I dinnae. ‘Tis me fear he willnae make time fer it at all.” May sighed. “Ye ken he’s always had a poor relationship with laird Scott MacDonell, but ‘tis grown fair worse of late. There are rumors that there is tae soon be an all-out feud – if nae a blood feud. With battle on the horizon, I dinnae ken if me faither will be willing tae make time fer seeing me married.”

Her father never had much time for her. She’d heard from the maids a long time ago about the circumstances of her birth, and how her mother had died bearing her. Was it any wonder Laird Conor MacPherson found other things to look at and love than the daughter who’d cost him his wife?

“I’m sure he’ll come around. After all, an alliance with our clan would make yer own safer. And even if that’s nae something he believes, surely he’s yer faither and will want ye happy and safe if trouble comes.”

May wanted to believe that, and was opening her mouth to say so, when rocks clattering across the ground outside their little hideaway made them both tense up. May clutched at Evander’s arm, hoping it wasn’t a wild animal whose den they had invaded.

Ever since the encounter with the wolves, wild animals terrified her, and so did some domestic ones as well. Dogs in particular, especially hunting dogs, but even harmless animals like rabbits and deer made her heart beat faster.

More clattering, and then a familiar voice rang out. “May! Och, May!”

“Killian,” May scrambled to her feet and out into the sunlight, with Evander a step behind.

Her brother was waiting atop his horse, his shorter blond hair disordered by the breeze and his expression tight with concern. His dark eyes were filled with urgency as he waved her over. Even if she hadn’t known something was wrong from that, she would have understood from the fact that he’d made no effort to dismount. Killian had always been tall for his age, and it was only recently that he’d stopped being so self-conscious about it. “There ye are.” A brief expression of apology filled his eyes. “I’m sorry tae be disturbing ye, when I ken how much ye enjoy these outings, but Faither sent me tae find ye, says ye’re needed back at the Keep with all haste.” He looked at Evander and nodded his respect.

She could hardly refuse a summons from her father, especially not when Killian delivered it. She and her older brother had always been close, and they did their best not to interfere in each other’s leisure time with friends or companions. May turned to Evander. “Me love, I must go. But I’ll be waiting tae hear from ye and yer faither.” She pressed a light, quick kiss to his mouth, then turned away.

Evander caught her arm. “I could come with ye. If there’s trouble, I could help protect ye, and speak tae yer faither direct.”

May smiled, touched by his words. “Nae. If there’s trouble, he’ll nae have time fer speaking tae ye. And as fer protecting me from trouble, me braither’s here. He’ll be seeing me home safely enough.”

“As ye will. I’ll be patient till our next meeting. And I hope tae be seeing ye soon.”

A last, quick kiss, and May swung onto her horse and followed her brother. They rode back to the familiar walls of MacPherson Keep at a fast walk, just short of pushing the horses to a run, and within the candle-mark, the horses were stabled and she and Killian were hurrying toward their father’s study.

Laird Conor MacPherson was a sturdily built man, who always seemed to regard May with a cool gaze. May looked for any sign that the Mackintosh’s messenger had arrived, hut her father looked as stern and remote as ever, save for a slightly furrowed brow.

He didn’t even greet them as he normally did. “Laird MacDonell’s declared a formal feud on us, and scouts have said he’s marching his warriors on MacPherson Keep. I want the two o’ ye tae be somewhere safe, so I’m sending ye tae me sister within the hour.”

Killian scowled. “I’m old enough tae help ye in the fighting.”

“Ye’re also me son and heir. Ye and yer sister can be used as hostages against me, and if ye’re hurt or killed, the clan falls. I willnae risk it.”

May swallowed hard against the forlorn feeling that filled her. For a moment, she’d thought her father was worried about her, but his words only reminded her of the truth – his concern was for his clan and her brother. She was a concern only in that she was a way someone could potentially endanger those things.

Even so, she needed to speak up. “Faither, the Mackintosh clan….”

“There’s nae time tae be thinking about that. The clan needs ye tae be safe.” His face was stern, unyielding, and she knew there’d be no convincing him otherwise.

She dipped her head. “I understand, Faither. But I’d like tae write a letter and ask ye tae send it tae Clan Mackintosh.”

She saw the glint of annoyance in his face, but he nodded and gestured to his desk and the writing tools placed there. “As long as ye’re quick about writing it.”

May nodded and went to the desk to pen a quick missive for Evander.

Once she’d finished writing the letter, she folded it over and sealed it. “Thank ye Faither. It is fer Evander Mackintosh. Can it be sent as soon as possible?”

“Aye.” Her father took the letter and tucked it away. May offered him a brief curtsy, then hurried to pack her belongings.

She had every faith that Evander would come to find her soon, and their betrothal and the alliance between their clans would be a reality. However, if she was wrong – if Evander’s love for her wasn’t as strong as his loyalty to his clan – then she’d know soon enough.

*****

Evander watched as May rode away with her brother Killian. He was worried about what might have caused her father to send his brother for her. He wished he could have gone with them, but he respected May’s request that he let them go alone.

Hopefully, it wasn’t anything too serious, and they’d be able to have the meeting for their formal betrothal and alliance within the next few days. And if it was serious, perhaps he could ride over to MacPherson Keep to speak to Laird MacPherson himself, and discuss the potential betrothal in person.

He’d have to speak to his father first though, to let him know that there might be a situation between the MacPherson and MacDonell clans. He was fairly certain his father wouldn’t refuse the betrothal or alliance because of a potential feud, but Laird Mackintosh would be furious if he discovered that one of his sons had risked the safety of the clan by knowingly holding back information about a danger to a potential ally.

With a sigh, he returned to his own horse and began the ride back to Mackintosh Castle. All he could do was return and wait for the reply from May’s father, Laird MacPherson.

Back at home, he sought out his father in his study. “Faither, was the formal betrothal request sent tae Clan MacPherson?”

His father huffed. “Aye, me boy. It was. Dinnae be so impatient. The messenger will return soon enough.”

“I ken. ‘Tis only that I care a great deal fer May MacPherson.” Evander swallowed hard. “And she just told me that Laird MacPherson is in a dispute with another o’ his neighbors – the Laird o’ MacDonell Clan.”

“Everyone kens that. But we’re strong enough, and the MacPherson’s have been good friends and neighbors tae us. A little thing like a feud wouldnae stop us from agreeing tae an alliance, especially nae an alliance by marriage. ‘Tis good fer both clans.” Just then, Alec Mackintosh, Evander’s oldest brother, opened the door and stalked over to throw an arm over his shoulder. “Faither’s right, braither. Be patient, and the messenger will return with word soon enough.”

“Aye.” Evander sighed, bowed to his father and older brother, then left the office. Perhaps some sparring would help take his mind off May while he waited for word from Clan MacPherson.

Chapter One

September 1698

Ten years later

May Mackintosh scowled as she worked on the ropes binding her arms. If she could just get her fingers around and a fingernail or two under one loop, she was confident she could loosen the bonds and free herself from the bindings.

The guards would be a different matter, but she’d rather make the attempt than even consider the fate that awaited her if she stayed where she was.

A pox-rotted plague on Scot McDonell’s land. Serves him right, fer the ten years o’ strife he’s given our clan, and all fer a marriage I’ll never agree tae, and lands that were never his nor his family’s tae claim!

The knots came free, and May smiled in triumph as she hurried to shake loose the ropes that had bound her for the past few days. Once free, she rose to her feet and searched her room for a weapon, feeling a little bit dizzy on her feet. There wasn’t much. The room was scarcely better than the prison cells of her family’s dungeon. There was a heavy door that was always locked, a pallet with pillow and blanket, and a hearth, currently unlit. Scot was determined to give her as few weapons and options as possible.

After a moment, May selected a relatively sturdy log from the woodpile for the hearth, to serve her as a makeshift club. A guard would be coming with food for her soon, and that would likely be her best, if not her only chance at escaping. She couldn’t waste it, especially knowing what Scot McDonell had in store for her clan.

He’d already told her, just after she was captured, and the conversation had made her blood run cold with fear and loathing. He planned to force her to the altar, then use the marriage as a way to draw her father and her brother into a position where he could kill them and take the clan and the lands they held by force. If May hadn’t already despised him before then, the way he spoke so casually of kin-killing made her sick, even if he hadn’t been referring to her father and brother.

She was distracted from her thoughts by the heavy tramp of the guard approaching her room. May dropped into a sitting position and hid the wood in her skirts, pretending to still be bound in place.

She might not have bothered for all the attention the guard paid her as he walked to the fire, set down her trencher, and began to poke the embers into a small, sullen blaze.

May clambered quietly to her feet, moving slowly and carefully as she’d often done in childish games trying to startle her brother. The guard paid her no mind. Fool.

As soon as she was in range, May lifted the wood and slammed it down on the guard’s skull with all the strength she could muster. The man crashed to the ground with barely a grunt. May stooped to check and make sure he was breathing. She hoped she hadn’t hit him too hard. Once she was sure he wouldn’t have any problems besides a lump on the back of his head, she stole his dagger.

Thus armed, her next step was to see how many guards there were outside her room. She knew she wasn’t in a large building, certainly not MacDonell Keep.

She stuck her head cautiously out of the room of what looked to be a village leader’s house or a prosperous crofter’s home. A short hall led to the main front room, and the front door, where two more guards were waiting.

If they’d both been alert and keeping a strict watch on her, she would have had no chance. But one was watching through the front windows, presumably for a rescue party or for his laird to return with the priest he’d threatened May with before he departed. The other was eating a quick meal on his own, sitting on one of the three chairs in the room.

Neither of them was paying any attention to the small side door that most likely led to the privy, or at least the rubbish pit. May moved as quickly as she could to the door and opened it with slow, quiet movements, just far enough to slide through the gap and outside.

Her first instinct was to run for the woods, but instead, she moved toward the front of the building. The men had horses, and they’d outpace her in an instant if she tried to escape on foot. It was better to try her luck at stealing a horse and seeing how much distance she could put between the guards and the cottage before they came after her.

They’d kept her blindfolded, and May had no idea where she was, but she was certain that any place she could wind up, besides MacDonell Keep itself, would be better than where she was now.

She was fortunate that the horses were tied loosely to allow them to eat, and that the knots were easy ones to undo. She was even more fortunate that the horses hadn’t been unsaddled. There must have been a change of watchmen at some point, for no proper Highlander would leave his horse saddled for two days. The only other explanation was that they’d received word they would soon be leaving. She hoped that wasn’t the case, as it meant she was in danger of encountering MacDonell soldiers on the road.

May chose the smallest and fastest looking of the horses and untied it. The horse made soft whickering noises, clearly surprised by an unfamiliar rider. She soothed it with gentle responses as she allowed the animal to get her scent, before she swung up into the saddle.

Even with her caution, she wasn’t quiet enough. The horses stamped and whinnied at the sudden movement, and she heard a shout from the house. With an oath, May put her heels to the horse’s sides and startled it into a run.

She had a head start, and she knew it. But the warriors were not put out by that. Even as one of them hurried to untie the other horses to give chase, his companion flung a blade at her. It might have been aimed to knock her off her seat, or to injure the horse into throwing her. It might even have been aimed at the horse to lame it slightly.

May leaned, twisted the reins to pull the horse out of the path, and swiped back with her stolen dagger to ward off the blade or any others he might throw. She thought she felt something glance off her lower arm, but she was too busy with swinging the horse back around and pushing it back into a run.

The small, barely visible track from the building branched into a larger path. May started to turn in that direction, then paused. The warriors of MacDonell would expect her to take the path, and if she chose the wrong direction, she might encounter more soldiers. Instead, she chose a passable section and sent her horse off the road, into the brush.

There was a good chance they’d be able to follow her trail, but only if they were looking for it. She rode as hard, not knowing if she dared to look back or slow down. She couldn’t hear any pursuit, but then she hadn’t heard the men who’d kidnapped her the first time.

There was nothing she could do save ride, and hope to find her way to safety. As she did, she couldn’t help thinking about all the circumstances that had brought her there.

Ten years before, Scot MacDonell had declared a formal feud with her father. She’d never known the reason behind the feud, if there was one beyond greed. But since then, it had been a constant struggle.

Scot had demanded she be given to him in marriage, along with a claim to the lairdship of MacPherson when her father passed, but Laird Conor MacPherson had adamantly refused to rob his son of his birthright and May had adamantly refused to marry a man who was an enemy.

There was only one man in the world she’d ever wanted to marry, and even if she had been forced to have stomached a loveless alliance marriage, she wouldn’t have accepted to marry Laird MacDonell. She simply couldn’t trust him to not to murder the entire rest of her family as soon as the wedding night was over.

Once again, she found herself remembering Evander. Her first and only love. Despite the ten years since their last meeting, the thought of him still made her heart ache.

She thought he’d loved her. Loved her enough to do anything for her, even convince his father to come to the aid of her family. But it seemed she’d been wrong about him – not that she could fault his decision. The fighting had been long and bloody, and it was little surprise that no other clans had wanted to involve themselves in the struggle.

She’d sent him a letter asking him to seek her out, if their love mattered enough to him to risk involving his clan in the fighting that engulfed hers. She’d waited for weeks, then months, for a response until she’d finally been forced to accept the bitter truth – silence was his answer, and his love for her had been no stronger than a summer blossom touched by frost.

It hurt, but at least Evander hadn’t lied to her, or pretended to accept obligations he’d no intention of upholding. From time to time, May had heard news of him. Rumor among the clans had it that the former Laird Mackintosh had passed away. Then she’d heard that Evander was betrothed to another. The news had hurt, for all that she’d tried to pretend it didn’t.

She wondered what life would have been like, married to Evander – what all their lives would have been like had the feud not interfered. It was far too easy to recall all the lovely days they’d shared, roaming the moors and hills, laughing and kissing as they walked hand-in-hand, or sprawled out on the grass as they talked.

May shook her head, banishing the thoughts of Evander. As easy and as tempting as it was to get lost in thoughts of the past, she had more immediate things to concern her. Night was falling, and the scent of rain was heavy in the air. She needed to find shelter, until she could find a way to return to her father and her brother.

Hopefully, she could find somewhere safe from Laird MacDonell’s soldiers.

There might be wolves. Just the thought was enough to make her reconsider her plans before she took control of her wayward imagination and faltering resolve.

In the twilight, everything seemed strangely familiar. Heartened by the feelings of recognition, she spurred her tired horse onward, toward the structure she thought she could see in the distance, a darker shape against the deepening gloom.

Storm clouds gathered overhead, and May shivered in the chill wind. She wasn’t dressed for traveling out in the open and in poor weather. A part of her longed to push the horse faster still, but the animal was already well-lathered and wearied from the hour-long flight over uneven ground in their effort to escape, and she dared not risk foundering or laming it.

The first drop of rain hit her nose as she crested the rise nearest the large building, and May stopped in surprise and slight dismay.

In the burgeoning gloom, she hadn’t recognized the castle, but this close, not even the growing deluge could disguise where her steps had led her. Somehow, she’d made her way to the steps of Mackintosh Castle. Part of her wanted to turn around and run for the hills once more, but the rain was coming down harder with every passing moment, and she was shivering. After a moment, May bit her lip and rode up to the gates to seek sanctuary for the evening. She might not like the idea, but even an encounter with her long-lost love was preferable to catching her death of cold, or being caught by Laird MacDonell’s men.

Ten years later and me heart still belongs tae the man who broke it. God’s grant, and he’ll nae be there… or I’ll have strength tae nae let him see me troubled if he is.

Not at all Likely Extremely Likely



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Seduced by the Highlander’s Kiss – Bhaltair’s Scene

“Ye love me?” she asked.

“Aye, I love ye, more than life itself.”

He was now right in front of her, his arms coming out to pull her close. “I want nay one but ye,” he told her.

When her own words of love came out of her mouth, Bhaltair lost all thoughts except for being with her. He reached for her and kissed her wildly, no longer gentle, backing her up against the wall and crowding her into the space. She tasted like heaven, her soft tongue gliding along his own, little moans sounding into his mouth. His hands roamed over her soft, amazing body, and he lifted her skirts, reached down and lifted her legs so that they wrapped around her waist. He groaned as he pressed his already hardened length against the soft place between her thighs.

When she said, ‘please’, he nearly fell apart, but he gripped her bare buttocks tighter, wanting nothing more than to bury himself inside her.

“Dear God, I have wanted ye fer so long, Étaín. I have thought about this body fer longer than I can remember, bein’ inside ye, listenin’ tae yer cries of pleasure in me ear, but…” he paused, still breathing hard. “Are ye certain?” he asked.

When she responded in kind, he grinned at her, sliding his hand under her skirts where he sucked in a breath when he found her wet folds.

“Dear God, ye are so wet, lass,” he told her, his fingers sliding along her, making little whimpers come out of her mouth. It only made him harder. “Wet fer me. When ye are ready like this, it will be easier fer me tae slide inside ye and take ye just as ye want tae be taken.”

He loved the shocked look on her face, and when her mouth opened, he couldn’t resist taking her mouth again, kissing her as his fingers moved against her. She came apart with a few strokes of his thumb, and he swallowed her moans, now needing to be inside her even more. He pushed a finger inside her, drawing out her orgasm before he pushed in.

“It may hurt a little. Ye must be prepared.” He watched her face as he spread her open bit by bit, amazed that he was here now, with her, doing this.

When she leaned her head back against the wall, he took his chance to kiss the soft skin of her neck, licking and kissing it, biting playfully along the wall. Étaín was everything he had ever wanted, and he was getting drunk off her.

“Yer mouth is far too good,” she told him breathlessly, and he chuckled, looking down at her again.

Her hands moved to his shoulders, and she gasped when he thrust deeper with his fingers. “Aye, I am prepared. Anythin’ fer ye, Bhaltair, and it willnae hurt fer long. I ken that at least.”

Grinning, he removed his fingers, and he took them into his mouth. He loved the look on her face as he sucked her sweet juices from his fingers before he moved his hands to his kilt, lifting it up so that he could free himself.

“I cannae get enough of yer taste, me love,” he said, and then he was there at her entrance, sliding his length up and down her, making her whimper again.

“Please,” she said, her fingers pressing into his back, her hips moving forward until he couldn’t take it anymore.

He cursed as he pressed inside her, bit by bit. It was like he’d gone to heaven the way her sheath clamped around him tightly, softly. His hands held her waist to keep her steady as he thrust in once hard, breaking past the barrier that had kept her innocent. He paused, leaning forward so that his head was against hers.

“Are ye all right?” he asked, and she nodded.

“Aye. Ye are so big. Dinnae stop.”

He didn’t need to hear anymore. He angled her hips a bit and pulled out before he thrust once more. His eyes rolled back in his head for a moment as he savored the pleasure of it. Swearing aloud, he started to move faster, staring down into her eyes as he took her against the wall, wanting this like he had wanted nothing else in his life.

When she tightened her legs around him, he groaned aloud, and then he slowly lifted her thighs a bit higher.

“Dae ye want me deeper?” he asked against her ear before he drew it into his teeth.

“Aye!” she cried, and Bhaltair was lost.

He lifted her thighs and placed his hands under her knees to push them even higher as he thrust faster. She gasped, her eyes widening, and he could feel himself hardening even more at the depth he found inside her.

He could see and feel her pleasure building, her body slowly clamping around his every thrust into her hot, sweet, depths. He took one hand and rubbed against her once more, and she screamed, leaning her head back against the wall and coming, her body shaking all around him.

“Shite!” he said under his breath, for his own pleasure was coming soon.

With Étaín coming all over his length, he knew he would not last. After a few more thrusts, he was gone too, pressing deeply inside her as he spilled into her, breathing hard against her neck and holding her tightly against him.

“Dear God,” he said, as they shook together, still pressed tightly against the wall.

After a few moments, he leaned back to look down at her, and he took her mouth again. He had never felt such pleasure, and he knew in his soul that he never would never with anyone else.

 

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