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Claimed by a Highland Beast (Preview)

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Prologue

Inishail Priory, Grampian Mountains

Two days prior

The winter chill permeated the air, seeping into Deirdre’s bones through her habit. Tiny snowflakes swirled in the wind around her, some of them landing on her hands and her cheeks and dusting her robes with white. As she walked, Deirdre held her cloak tightly around her with one hand, as the other fidgeted with the pendant around her neck that had once been her mother’s, a nervous habit she had developed ever since her sister Lana had gifted it to her.

It was beautiful at the nunnery that time of the year, every path, tree and bush covered in a thin layer of snow. Deirdre walked around the grounds to get to the main building, where Sister Freya was waiting for her—though for what reason, Deirdre didn’t know. All she knew was that she had called for her.

Entering the main building, Deirdre made her way to the back, to a study where Sister Freya and a few other senior nuns dealt with daily matters and correspondence. She knocked on the door and it opened almost instantly, as if the nun was waiting for her right behind it.

Sister Freya was an older woman, well into her fifties, with rosy cheeks and the signs of her gentle, kind nature etched into the smile lines and the wrinkles around her green eyes. She was Deirdre’s favorite—always had been, ever since her father had dropped her off at the nunnery, effectively ridding himself of her.

Deirdre had been only a child then, no more than five years of age, and Sister Freya had been a young woman who had taken care of her as a mother. Had she not been a nun, Deirdre could imagine her surrounded by happy children and grandchildren, little souls she would have nurtured just like she had nurtured her.

“Ach, ye are here… good,” Sister Freya said, exiting the study instead of inviting Deirdre in, much to her confusion. Had she not called to see her? Where was she going?

“Ye called fer me,” Deirdre reminded her, falling into step next to her as Sister Freya made her way down the hall.

“Aye. There is someone here tae meet ye,” the woman said, and Deirdre’s frown only deepened.

It wasn’t often that she had visitors. Her father, before his death, rarely ever came to see her, forbidding her sister from visiting her as well, more often than not. Since his death, and in the week since Deirdre’s return to the nunnery, Lana naturally hadn’t had the chance to visit, so perhaps it was her?

But if it’s Lana, would she nae have written tae me?

In her most recent letter, which Deirdre had only received a few days prior, she had made no mention of a visit.

“Dae ye ken who it is?” Deirdre asked.

At her question, Sister Freya’s face fell, her lips pursing into a thin line. It wasn’t the sort of expression Deirdre had seen on her face often. Even when she was displeased, Sister Freya rarely showed it.

“It’s Shane Hay,” she said, her voice tight and strained, as if simply the mention of the name was enough to unsettle her. “That… well, I cannae call him what I wish tae call him. The nerve that man must have tae come here after tryin’ tae take the lairdship from yer sister.”

Deirdre hadn’t even known of Shane Hay until recently, when the man had shown up from Ayrshire claiming he was the late Laird Hay’s cousin, and thus, Deirdre’s uncle. She hadn’t been the only one confused. Lana didn’t know of him, either, and no matter how many people Deirdre asked in the clan, none of them had heard of him before.

“What does he want?” Deirdre asked. She knew all about Shane’s desire to become the laird of the Hay Clan. He had made it all too clear when he had come to Hay Castle that he wanted the lairdship, but Deirdre had nothing to do with it.

“I dinnae ken,” said Sister Freya. “He only said he wishes tae speak with ye, an’ he wouldnae leave unless he saw ye. I asked him tae several times, but he simply wouldnae listen.”

“That’s alright,” said Deirdre. “I will speak with him.”

Sister Freya came to a halt and turned around to look at Deirdre. “If ye dinnae wish tae see him, ye dinnae have tae. He’ll leave eventually. Surely, he cannae stay here all day.”

“Nay, nay… I will speak with him,” Deirdre insisted. She didn’t want to see him, but she also didn’t want him to bother the other nuns or appear rude to him. “It’s alright. I dinnae mind.”

Sister Freya nodded and continued down the hall, Deirdre following close behind. When they reached the end of the hall, Deirdre saw the familiar figure through the door to one of the rooms of the wing, sitting by the fireplace. It was strange to see him there, in a room usually reserved for studying, his opulent clothes clashing with the bare walls.

He was older, though by no means old, a few strands of his dark hair only just starting to grey. He was a tall man, lithe but imposing, even as he sat.

“I willnae be long,” Deirdre assured Sister Freya, and then she stepped inside. The moment Shane saw her, he turned to her, smiling without warmth.

“Deirdre Hay… ye are a difficult lass tae talk tae,” he said. “That woman wouldnae let me see ye.”

“Ye are in a nunnery,” Deirdre pointed out. “This isnae a place fer men.”

“Ye cannae have visitors?” Shane asked with an amused smile. “Surely, I cannae be the first man tae come here.”

“Yer nae,” Deirdre confirmed. “But ye have nae reason tae be here. If ye wished tae tell me somethin’, ye could have sent a letter.”

“Nae fer this,” said Shane. “What I wish tae tell ye is serious, an’ I didnae want tae send a letter. It’s better tae speak in person.”

This had to be about the lairdship, Deirdre thought. There was no other reason for Shane to be there and insist to speak with her face to face. But if Shane wanted her support, then surely, he was deluded.

“Ye ken as well as I dae that the lairdship willnae go tae yer sister,” Shane continued. “A lass cannae be the laird o’ the clan.”

“Perhaps,” Deirdre said, “but her husband can.”

This had been the plan from the beginning, after all, ever since their father had died. The clansmen had been ready to accept it when Shane had showed up and changed everything.

“Tate Murray is from a noble family, that much is true,” Shane said. “If he an’ yer sister were the only options, then I have nae doubt the lairdship would go tae him an’ yer sister would be the lady o’ the clan, as ye think is rightful. But he’s nae the only option. In fact, he’s nae even the best option or the first option. As a Hay, I have a right tae the clan.”

He wasn’t wrong, and that was what Deirdre feared the most. If he was who he claimed to be, then he had more right than anyone else to be the laird, since her father had no sons or closer male relatives. But if that happened, then all the hard work Deirdre had done would go to waste. She didn’t know this man. No one knew him. No one knew if he would be the kind of leader the people needed.

“Macauley an’ I—”

“Och aye,” Shane interrupted. “I heard all about Macauley. He’s one o’ Kian Drummond’s men, is he nae? What was he doin’ at the Hay Clan?”

Deirdre didn’t appreciate being interrupted, nor did she appreciate Shane trying to imply Macauley had ulterior motives. It was true that he was one of Laird Drummond’s men—one of his closest friends and his most trusted advisor, in fact—but he had stayed with Deirdre at Hay Castle after her father’s death, helping her rebuild. Without him, she wouldn’t have managed to do anything, and he had become a close friend, one she valued too much to let anyone doubt his intentions.

If anything, Shane’s intentions were the ones that were doubtful.

“He was helpin’ me,” Deirdre said. “I’m sure ye ken that when the Cummings Clan attacked us, they destroyed much o’ our clan. With me faither dead, we had to rebuild it, an’ Macauley stayed with me tae help. Balfour Cummings left naething but ruins behind him. Had it nae been fer him, there would be nae clan fer ye tae try an’ take.”

Though she originally didn’t want to be rude to the man, she couldn’t help it now. Shane was asking for it. Not only was he trying to take the clan when he had never even visited its lands, he was being rude to her, too.

“Ye didnae dae a very good job, it seems,” Shane said, his smile disappearing. This was the real him, she thought, the one he tried to hide behind smiles and politeness until he couldn’t anymore.

“We did the best we could,” Deirdre’s tone turned cold. She had no reason to even pretend to be polite anymore, not when Shane wouldn’t give her the same treatment. “Resources were limited. As time passes, we’ll dae more.”

“Why wait?” Shane asked. He stood from his chair and approached Deirdre, not stopping until he was too close to her, to the point where she was forced to take a step back to keep some distance between them, which seemed to amuse him. “I have land. I have gold. I have men o’ me own. I can rebuild the clan right the now.”

That wasn’t news to Deirdre either. She had heard of Shane’s land and the fact that he had an army, though she didn’t know the extent of it. Some said he was nothing but a minor landowner, while others swore he was wealthy beyond imagination, and Deirdre didn’t know who to believe.

All she knew was that this man didn’t deserve the lairdship. The one who truly deserved it was Lana, who had put up with everything their father had put her through all alone while growing up. However, since the council would never give the clan to a woman, then the next best person was her husband. With Tate in charge, Lana would be able to lead the clan through him and alongside him.

Shane had done nothing for the Hays. He couldn’t simply show up and demand to be the laird.

“All I need,” Shane continued, his smile returning but once again not reaching his eyes, “is a bride from the clan.”

For a few moments, Deirdre didn’t know what he was trying to say. The only one who could truly help him secure the lairdship was Lana, and Lana was already married to Tate. Marrying someone else would perhaps strengthen his chances, but it would be no guarantee.

It was only when Shane moved closer again, shortening the distance between them and gazing at her with a look akin to hunger, that Deirdre realized what it was he meant.

He’s talkin’ about me. He wishes tae marry me.

Her expression hardening, Deirdre stood her ground. “I have taken me vows. Naething will change this. Even if I wished tae wed, I couldnae. And I dinnae wish tae wed, especially nae someone like ye.”

She wanted to be clear there was no chance of him having her. It didn’t matter if the lairdship ended up in his hands; Deirdre would never be his wife.

Shane’s smile turned into a snarl, his lips curling to bare his teeth at Deirdre as he shoved her against the wall, drawing a pained huff out of her. He held her there, his hands gripping her arms so tightly that she could almost feel the creak of her bones as they were squeezed, the skin bruising under his fingers.

Her heart rattled in her ribs, panic coursing through her. Deirdre tried to push Shane off, but she could hardly move at all, pinned as he had her to the wall.

“Let me go,” she demanded. “Ye have nae right tae come here. Ye have nae right tae touch me. An’ ye have nae right tae the clan as far as I’m concerned.”

Shane laughed, an empty, hollow sound. “Fer a nun, ye’re very… spirited. I thought ye were all supposed tae be gentle. Ach, it doesnae matter. I enjoy it more when a lass fights.”

Deirdre’s eyes widened in horror as Shane pushed her firmly against the wall, bracketing her in with his body. He held her wrists in a crushing grip and kept her hips still with his own, leaving her no space to move. All she could do was wriggle violently against him, trying to push him off, but he was immovable.

Macauley had shown her how to fight. He hadn’t shown her how to overpower someone twice her size.

“Ye must understand, I am nae happy I must dae this, but ye leave me with nae other choice,” Shane said. “If ye willnae marry me willingly, ye will marry me by force. Once I have ye, ye’ll have nae choice but tae say aye.”

Holding her wrists in one of his large hands, Shane reached down to pull Deirdre’s habit up, exposing her thigh. For a moment, he looked at her curiously, his finger tracing the mark on her skin that resembled a lightning bolt, and Deirdre reeled with disgust, her stomach churning as he touched her.

I swear to God, if he doesnae stop and remove those hands from me, I will kill him…

“Stop,” she said, her legs kicking out as she tried to fight him off. “This is a holy place. Ye cannae—”

Before she could finish her sentence, a thud echoed in the room and Shane collapsed by her feet. Deirdre dragged her gaze up to see sister Freya standing there, holding an iron candelabra in her hands, her chest heaving as she looked at the man on the floor.

There was blood on it, but when Deirdre looked back at Shane, there was nothing but a small wound to the side of his head, blood trickling steadily out of it.

“Go,” Sister Freya said, taking Deirdre by the hand to drag her out of the room. “I will deal with this.”

“Where… where should I go?” Deirdre asked, still shaken. Her hands trembled where Sister Freya held onto them tightly, and though her eyes were dry, a sob was caught in her throat. “An’ ye? He’ll kill ye when he wakes up.”

“I told ye I will deal with it,” Sister Freya insisted. “Go tae yer family. Ye’ll be safe there.”

Deirdre didn’t want to leave the nunnery, but she knew Sister Freya was right. Shane didn’t seem like the kind of man who forgave easily, and despite everything, he was bound to try and force her into a marriage again. He needed her. He needed them to marry so he could get the council’s approval.

The only place where she would be safe was with Lana or Macauley.

She knew Lana and Tate had been staying with the Murray Clan since their wedding, and perhaps she could go there and explain everything to her sister, but she didn’t want to put any of them in danger. Lana could very well be Shane’s target, as well, and so finding Macauley instead seemed like the wiser of the two options.

The Drummond Clan. I must go there.

But even if she did, she couldn’t say for certain that she would avoid this marriage. No, if she wanted to keep herself safe from Shane, then she had to find another husband before he could pursue her; someone who understood her position, someone who wouldn’t force her to break her vows to God.

There was only one man she knew who could give her what she needed.

Chapter One

Drummond Castle

Present moment

The letter in Kian’s hands crumpled with a rustle as he closed his fist around it. He had read it enough times to memorize it by then, his anger only growing with every time he did.

Balfour Cummings had escaped prison three months prior and no one could find him. The man could have been anywhere and Kian would have been none the wiser had it not been for this letter, sent to him by a neighboring clan.

Had no one thought to warn him? If there was one person Cummings wanted to kill, it was Kian, though he was far from the only one in danger. He and Tate had snatched Lana, Tate’s wife, right out of his hands, and with her, the alliance he was planning with Lana’s father, Laird Hay. Tate and Lana were in danger too, and so was her sister Deirdre and, by extension, the entirety of the Drummond and Hay Clans.

There was little Balfour Cummings could do on his own, but Kian knew the man still had allies and supporters. The Cummings Clan was powerful and its allies loyal. If the man decided to come after them, he wouldn’t be doing so alone.

Kian scratched at his chin; the movement hindered by the silver mask he wore over his face. He had neglected to remove it when he had entered his study and now it seemed pointless, since he would be leaving it soon, so he made no attempt to take it off. Besides, it hardly bothered him anymore, after so many years of wearing it to hide the hideous scar with which his father had left him.

What did bother him was the knowledge that Balfour Cummings was out there, surely planning an attack. All those years of enmity between their clans weren’t going to magically disappear, and now it was more personal than ever between the two men. Kian and Tate had done everything in their power to destroy the man, taking the chance to marry Lana from him and join the forces of the Cummings and Hay Clans. They had almost taken his life, too.

Perhaps they should have. With him dead, they wouldn’t have to worry about an attack now.

If only Macauley were here.

They could all sit down and figure out a way to stop Cummings before he even attacked. But his advisor and closest friend Macauley was away and Kian had received no word of his return yet.

With a sigh, he stood from the well-worn, mahogany chair where he sat, rounding the desk to head to his chambers. There was little point in trying to solve this now, on his own, when there was something else he was meant to be doing.

Namely, a maid. He had called for her earlier that evening, and he had already left her waiting for a long while in his rooms while he considered the news of Cummings’ escape.

Kian closed the door to his study behind him and made his way down the dimly lit hall, the torches casting an orange glow on the stone walls around him. The castle was cold at that time of the year, the furs that hung over the windows only able to do so much to keep out the wind where there was no fire burning, so Kian hurried to his rooms, eager to get warm once more.

As he reached the end of the corridor, though, he saw a figure from the corner of his eye walking down the corridor to his left. Slowly, Kian pulled his blade out and began to move as quietly as he could, sticking to the shadows so that he would remain invisible.

Could it be that Cummings had already found his way to the castle? Could it be that he was there to attack in secret, to kill Kian quietly and send the Drummond Clan into chaos?

The figure was hooded and rather small, now that Kian had taken a better look from closer. Perhaps it was someone else, then, someone sent there by Cummings.

But how did he get past me guards?

His men were better than that. He, Tate, and Macauley had trained them well, and he doubted someone could pass through the castle’s defenses unnoticed. But if that was the case, then who was this cloaked figure roaming around the halls as if in search of something?

Before the man could go too far, Kian rushed towards him and pinned him to the wall, his blade going straight for his neck. The figure flailed, a high-pitched yelp escaping the stranger’s lips as and Kian all but ripped the hood off, revealing a familiar face.

“Deirdre?” he asked. In his shock, he was frozen, his blade st

For a moment, Deirdre looked at him in horror, her eyes wide and her chest rising and falling rapidly as she tried to calm her breathing. In the end, she said, “Good evenin’, me laird. Could ye… let me go?”

Belatedly, Kian realized he still had her pinned against the wall and he hurriedly stepped back, putting some respectable distance between them. Clearing his throat, he put the knife away, which seemed to reassure Deirdre, though she remained timid, as if she expected him to attack again at any moment.

She was a beautiful girl, which certainly didn’t help with the heat that spread over Kian’s cheeks, thankfully mostly hidden by his mask and the dim lighting. Her hazel eyes shone with the incandescence, her skin seemingly radiating a glow of its own, and for a moment, Kian couldn’t look away, although he finally forced himself to.

Deirdre was a nun, and though Kian was far from saintly, he wasn’t going to stare at a nun, even if said nun was staring at him, still plastered to the wall for no reason.

Kian was aware of his reputation, given that he walked around with a mask covering half of his face, and he had no doubts that Deirdre was scared of him, though she had no reason to be. If anything, Kian wished to protect her from what was to come now that Cummings was free. He didn’t want any harm to come to her, especially when he had started it all by angering Cummings.

“Forgive me,” he said. “I didnae realize it was ye. Were we… expectin’ ye?”

Perhaps Tate or Lana had mentioned Deirdre would be coming to visit and he had simply forgotten about it, or maybe they had neglected to mention it at all. Either way, Kian wished he had known, so he could have made the proper arrangements to receive her as a guest.

“Och… nay,” Deirdre said. “Nae one kens I am here yet, nae even me sister. The guards let me intae the castle an’ I’ve been lookin’ fer Macauley, but I cannae find him anywhere.”

“Didnae they tell ye? Macauley isnae here.”

At that, Deirdre’s face fell, disappointment flooding her delicate features. “Och… I didnae think tae ask. I assumed he would be here.”

“Is somethin’ the matter?” asked Kian. If Deirdre had come all the way to Drummond Castle in the middle of the night, there had to be a good reason for it. Otherwise, she would have sent a letter or visited at a more appropriate time.

“Aye,” Deirdre said. “Dae ye ken when Macauley will return? I truly must speak with him as soon as possible.”

Kian shook his head. “I dinnae ken. I havenae received any word from him. But perhaps I can be o’ service tae ye.”

At first, Deirdre looked uncertain, drawing her bottom lip between her teeth as she considered the offer. Then, she simply nodded and Kian offered her his arm, which she didn’t take.

O’ course… she’s a nun.

It was something he had to constantly remind himself of.

“Well… follow me,” he said, as he gestured towards his study. “It’s cold here. Let’s talk in me study.”

Deirdre followed Kian down the hallway back the way he had come, and once they had entered it, he poured them both a cup of wine, handing one to her. He took a seat behind his desk, but Deirdre stayed closer to the fire, warming up as she took a sip from her drink.

The ride to the castle must have been a difficult one, in the dark and the cold. “I will have a maid prepare a bath fer ye so ye can warm up. Would ye like me tae move the chair closer tae the fire?”

Deirdre shook her head. “Thank ye, I’m alright,” she assured him. “I didnae mean tae show up unannounced, but I am afraid I didnae have any other choice.”

“What happened?” Kian asked, alarmed at how worried Deirdre seemed. He watched her as she began to pace back and forth by the fire, nervous energy practically radiating off her and seeping into his own skin.

“There is a man… Shane Hay,” Deirdre said, her fingers tracing the lines of a small, intricate pendant she wore around her neck. “He claims tae be me faither’s cousin.”

“Aye, I’ve heard o’ him,” Kian said, though he found it odd that he had never heard of the man before Laird Hay’s death. He knew of everyone who was related to the major clans, and he had never heard of a Shane Hay until a few weeks prior, when he had first shown up near the Hay lands.

“Well, he came tae the nunnery,” Deirdre said. “He said he wished tae speak with me, but I kent what he wanted.”

“The lairdship,” said Kian.

Deirdre nodded. “He said he can rebuild the clan. He’s a wealthy man an’ he has the resources, but… I dinnae wish fer the clan tae go tae him. Lana deserves tae be the lady. She’s the one who kens the people best and she’s the one who suffered at our father’s hands. If he takes the clan, then it would have all been fer naething.”

“I agree,” Kian said. “An’ I’m certain the council will agree, too, if they look at the facts. Surely, they would rather have someone they ken lead the clan than a stranger.”

“Perhaps,” said Deirdre. “An’ perhaps they willnae. If he is who he says he is, then I wouldnae be surprised if the council preferred him. But he seems tae fear they will choose Tate.”

“Does he?” That was a good thing as far as Kian was concerned. If Shane Hay believed there was a chance the council would be against him, then perhaps he knew something the rest of them didn’t, something that gave Tate and Lana an advantage.

“Aye,” said Deirdre. “He… he proposed to wed me. He said it would be easier if I married him, an’ when I said nay, he…”

Deirdre’s voice trailed off, but Kian didn’t need her to finish her sentence to know what had happened. He had tried to force her into a marriage, one way or another, and Kian shook his head with a sigh. Once again, a political rivalry had turned into a personal matter.

He wasn’t going to allow anyone to hurt Lana’s family. She was as good as family to him now that she had married Tate, whom Kian considered his brother, and by extension, Deirdre was family, too.

“So, I came here tae find Macauley an’ ask fer his hand in marriage,” Deirdre finished, and Kian choked on his sip of wine.

It was the last thing he had expected to hear. He thought Deirdre was looking for Macauley to ask for his help with Shane Hay, but not in the way she seemed to be planning. He had to admit, though, that it was perhaps the best course of action. If Shane was so determined to be the laird of the Hay Clan, then he would stop at nothing. Even if he ever changed his mind about marrying Deirdre, even if he found another way, she would become his enemy. As long as she and Lana existed, and as long as he was married to neither of them, they were a threat.

Then there was the matter of Balfour Cummings. He, too, would surely seek out Lana and Deirdre. The two women were in more danger than they could imagine, and the best way to keep them safe was to keep them both close.

“Danger lurks everywhere these days,” Kian said, a hand coming up to comb through his blonde hair. “Ye made a wise decision comin’ here, but with Macauley gone, I dinnae think yer plan will work.”

With a sigh, Deirdre deflated a little, and she walked over to the chair, all but collapsing in it. “I dinnae wish tae marry that vile man,” she mumbled, her voice so low that Kian could barely hear it over the crackle of the fire. “The things he tried tae dae tae me…”

“I willnae let him harm ye, ye have me word,” Kian promised Deirdre. Her gaze snapped to him, a little curious and very grateful. “Lana’s family is me family. Ye can stay with us, o’ course, an’ we can make arrangements.”

That seemed to reassure Deirdre. Her shoulders relaxed, and she smiled, though it was little more than a twitch of her lips. Kian, however, was not as reassured by his own words.

He thought about their options. Deirdre could stay there with them, and she would most likely be safe while they dealt with Cummings and Shane Hay. But if Shane somehow got to her, he could still try to force her into a marriage as long as she was a maiden, despite her having taken her vows. He apparently did not care about that detail. Then again, Cummings could do the same if he wanted to take control of the Hay Clan. Perhaps they could wait it out and see whether Cummings and Shane would destroy each other, avoiding them lots of trouble if they were lucky.

But if they weren’t so lucky, the two men could end up becoming partners, surely causing danger to everyone around them.

All roads seemed to point to the same thing: Deirdre had to marry.

The best option was, of course, Macauley. The two of them knew each other well and from Macauley’s reports, Kian knew that they had become close friends. That was already a positive if compared to most married couples he knew.

But if Macauley didn’t return for a long time, they ran the risk of Shane attacking first and Deirdre had to be married before that happened. That left the second-best option open to them. Drawing a deep breath to steel himself, Kian looked at her, trying to appear as soft as he could while he was still wearing the mask.

“Deirdre… I ken it is far from ideal, but would ye be willin’ tae marry me?”

Not at all Likely Extremely Likely



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


Claimed by a Highland Beast – Kian’s Scene

Claimed by a Highland Beast

“Aye,” said Deirdre in a whisper. “Please, Kian . . . make me yers.”

Kian couldn’t deny such a sweet request. He wanted nothing more than to give her what she was asking for, to sink himself inside her and share in her pleasure. He kissed her and dragged his hands all over her body, enjoying her warmth, feeling the swell of her curves under her clothes before he pushed up her tunic, exposing her body to his gaze.

Deirdre was outlined in the soft light of the torch, her skin glowing under the flames. He couldn’t resist the sight of her full breasts and he leaned closer to mouth at the soft skin, gasping as Deirdre’s hands threaded through his hair and tugged.

Though the room was secluded, it was far from private, but there was an exhilaration in the risk, in the chance that they would be caught. He doubted anyone would come near, but he did his best to keep himself quiet anyway, though Deirdre didn’t seem to have the same luck—or concern. Perhaps she was already too far gone to care and Kian couldn’t help but preen at the thought that he had managed to bring her to that point.

When she wrapped herself around him, arms around his neck, her legs around his waist, clinging to him like she wanted to pull him impossibly close, Kian smirked against her cheek and reached between them, her tunic falling back down to her thighs. His fingers found her opening and when he first touched her, she gasped, her hips mirroring the movements of his hand as he caressed her folds. As he found her most sensitive spot, rubbing slow, gentle circles against her, Deirdre buried her face in his neck with a moan, her lips pressing on his heated skin.

He loved those sounds she made for him, loved that he could make her sing like this. They made him ache, his manhood hardening until he had no choice but to rub up, trying to relieve some of the pressure. The more they did this, the more she seemed to open up to him, her shame diminishing with every orgasm he gave her, and Kian couldn’t wait for the day when she wouldn’t be ashamed of her desire at all, when she would take everything, she wanted from him.

“I want . . .” Deirdre said, but she didn’t finish her sentence. She lifted her head and Kian saw the collar on her cheeks, bright red even in the half-light of the room.

“What dae ye want?” Kian asked, leaning closer to kiss and bite at her neck, gently pinching the delicate skin between his teeth. He wanted her to say it, to let go of any embarrassment she was still holding. “Ye have tae tell me if ye want me tae give it tae ye.”

“Ye ken what I want,” Deirdre said. “Dinnae tease me.”

“I’m nae teasin’,” Kian said, though it was a lie, at least partly. He did want to tease her, but he also wanted her to tell him so that she could see it wasn’t that serious and certainly nothing that should bring her shame. “I only wish tae give ye precisely what ye want.”

No words came past Deirdre’s lips, but Kian was determined to do nothing more than kiss her and touch her gently, until she had no option but to ask for more. His hands worked her faster and though she still hesitated to speak, she whimpered, wetness dripping between her thighs.

“I want ye tae have me,” she said, cheeks burning. “Properly this time. I wish tae be yers.”

Groaning softly, Kian nodded and immediately abandoned his pretenses. After he hooked his arms under her thighs, he pulled them flush together, Deirdre sitting on the very edge of the table, her chest heaving with anticipation. When Kian’s hand returned between her legs, one of his fingers plunged inside her for the first time, ripping a broken moan out of her.

Knowing it was her first time, Kian moved slowly, exploring her body at his leisure and trying to make her relax and open up for him. She was beautiful like that, her thighs spread wide for him, her breasts bouncing, her nipples hardened in the chill of the room, poking against the fabric of her tunic. He loved the way her back arched for him, the way she took him inside her as if he belonged there. Now she was eager for it, pleas tumbling past her lips with every thrust of his fingers.

“Please, Kian,” Deirdre said, reaching for him, trying to pull him even closer. “I need ye.”

“Patience, love,” Kian said with a soft chuckle. “I dinnae wish tae hurt ye.”

Deirdre was having none of it, though, and she sat up, grabbing Kian by the back of her neck and pulling him into a bruising kiss. “I’m ready,” she said. “I said I need ye.”

Chuckling again, Kian shook his head, but he didn’t try to argue this time. He knew better than that. “As ye wish,” he said, pushing her back down on the table. “Ye’ll tell me if ye wish tae stop?”

Deirdre nodded, breathing heavily. Kian teased her a little more, playing with her breasts, her nipples, wanting to drive her crazy with lust. After he pushed up his tunic, Kian took his length in his hand and leaned closer. At the first press of his manhood against her, Kian wondered, for a moment, if he should have prepared her more, but then her folds parted for him and he finally entered her, his entire body trembling with the effort it took to move slowly.

It took a few shallow, careful thrusts before Kian could bury himself inside her, the soft drag of skin against skin tearing a groan out of him that he couldn’t stop no matter how much he tried. Deirdre’s back arched of the table when he was as deep as he could go inside her, her legs wrapping tightly around his waist. Her hands reached for his shoulders, holding onto him as he gave her thrust after thrust, pushing himself impossibly deep, as if he wanted them to become one.

Deirdre was a vice around him, tight and hot and velvety around him, her body pulling him deeper and deeper. His hands were bruising on her thighs, his fingers digging into her flesh while her nails scraped down his back, surely leaving marks behind.

“Yer so bonnie like this, moanin’ fer me,” Kian said, his voice low and rumbling in his chest. “I wish tae hear ye. Dinnae hold back.”

With every thrust of his hips, Kian brought himself closer and closer to the edge, heat curling in his stomach. He was chasing his release, but he wanted to bring Deirdre to the brink first, to feel her come apart around him. When he reached between their bodies once more, thumbing over her folds and dragging her wetness up to circle that spot again, her climax crashed over her almost instantly, tearing a scream of pleasure out of her.

Kian groaned as Deirdre squeezed around him. He grabbed her thighs and spread them open once more, burying himself inside her to the hilt and watching as she threw her head back in ecstasy. The few thrusts that followed were fast and erratic, until he stilled above her, spilling himself inside her as he moaned her name, his orgasm so intense that his knees barely held him.

For a few moments, they both remained still, breathing each other’s air, both basking in the afterglow. It was Kian who moved first, pulling himself back from Deirdre with some difficulty, everything inside him screaming at him to stay where he was, to keep her in his arms. He took her hand and pulled her up into a kiss, and Deirdre kissed him sweetly, her arms coming to wrap around his neck, smiling against his lips.

 

The Cursed Highland Kiss (Preview)

Prologue

January, 1652

McLaren Castle, Scotland

Rae McLaren never enjoyed sneaking. Even as children, he didn’t enjoy hide and seek as much as his brothers Torion and Kai had. He preferred games of performance and laughter, when he could put a smile on someone’s face. But that very night, he was going to freeze his bollocks off, to sneak out of his home, McLaren Castle, to meet someone out in the nearby woods. He didn’t want to, but he had to. And the other problem was, no one else could know about it.

“Shite,” he whispered into the dark passage when he tripped over something.

It was far too bloody dark, and he didn’t dare light a candle in case someone noticed him. He shuddered, though, trying to push away from his mind the memories of being captive a few years back. The jail cells have been dark as pitch most of the time until a guard would come to torture him or his brothers, bringing a light with them. All that constant darkness did things to a man, and he’d never quite gotten over the fear of it.

“Rae.” A soft voice punctured the dark, and a hand touched his arm.

He swore again, loudly and with fear, twisting around to see a young, pretty maid named Aimee. Her candle was so low, he’d hardly noticed it, but now he could see a bit of light on her face.

“Aye, lass?” he asked in his typical charming style, trying to act as though he wasn’t doing anything unusual, bumbling around in a passage, late at night, in the dark.

Aimee was his latest flirtation, and he enjoyed her company immensely and all her obvious physical advantages. Now was not the time for any sort of liaison, even though he could see a little hope in her eyes.

“I thought perhaps we might meet tonight. I followed ye, but ye didnae see me.” She gave him a shy smile, lowering her eyelashes just so and fluttering them in a way ladies often looked at him.

He laughed, trying to push aside the nervousness and urgency that clawed at him. He didn’t know what lay for him in the woods, but all he did know was that he needed to get there. Besides, he had no interest in spending longer outside in the cold winter air than he had to.

“Och, what a temptation that is, love, but I’m afraid I cannae. I am bloody tired tonight, and I have tae fetch somethin’ I left in the stable before bed.” He hooked a thumb to the door behind him. “I want tae only give ye the best, and tonight is just nae the night. I dae have a reputation tae uphold, ye ken.” He winked at her, and even in the dim light he could see her pretty blush.

“Although another night, I would be happy tae indulge.” He leaned forward, lifted her chin, and placed a soft kiss on her lovely lips.

“Rae,” she whined, holding onto his coat. “Ye have seemed so tense these last few days.”

Aye, because I got a bloody letter from Laird Rendell, askin’ tae meet him tonight in the woods. It is nay wonder I am on edge.

But he couldn’t say all that, and in response, he just smiled at her. Everything was always easier when he smiled. Women simpered, and hard men softened; disagreements were smoothed over with ease. He also didn’t have to remember the pain he experienced in the past, the loss of his father or the torture he and his brothers went through. He could simply laugh and smile, and try to forget all the bad things. It had worked for him mostly.

“Ye are right about that. Much tae dae, lass. In this castle with me brothers so lovelorn as they are, too busy pleasurin’ their wives tae dae their proper duties.”

Aimee gave him a seductive look, and she leaned up on her toes to whisper in his ear, “Aye, but we could be daein’ those same things, and perhaps that would relieve yer stress a bit. I ken that Laird Kai and Torion are the better for all that pleasurin’ ye speak of.”

Rae was feeling impatient, but he didn’t show it. He never showed it, especially not to someone he hardly knew. Well, he knew Aimee in one particular way, but that was the only way. He took her hand, and laid a kiss on the back of it, squeezing it gently.

“Ye are a saint, lass, and I swear I will take ye up on that offer another time.” This time, he leaned down and kissed her on the cheek. “A good night tae ye.”

He backed away then towards the door at the end of the passage, and she waved at him before he shut it. A big gust of winter wind rushed over him, and he wrapped his arms about himself, swearing loudly again.

It is enough tae freeze nae only me bollocks but also me stalk!

There was no time to think of that now. He had to get to the meeting place in the woods, and then hopefully he could figure out whatever Laird Rendell wanted from him. But knowing the man, and knowing what Rae had done to his family, he knew that it wouldn’t be good.

Perhaps I should have stayed me hand.

He had thought about that for months after the battle against Laird Rendell to rescue both Torion and his now wife Adelaide as well as her half-brother Cillian from the evil laird ‘s clutches. Rae had been trying to save his brother, so he killed Laird Rendell’s eldest son, and then he thought it would all be over. But then the letter came, and his fear was high.

The night was a quiet one. Being as cold as it was, Rae was certain nothing could live outside. The only sound was the crunching of the hard ground under his boots. He kept a hand on the hilt of his sword. He had to skirt around the edge of the castle and then rush to the stables, keeping to the walls so as to not alert any of the guards on the battlements about what he was doing.

The last thing I need is either Kai or Torion houndin’ me with their bloody questions. They might be busy pleasurin’ their wives, but they are never too busy tae get into me business.

Now at the edge of the trees, he took a breath before he stepped inside. Pulling out his sword, he held it tight in his hand, keeping it forward to protect himself from anyone who would rush out at him. It took him a minute to find the spot that Laird Rendell had mentioned. He only knew where it would be in dim light because he knew his land so well. He paused, his breath now making white curls into the air.

God, it’s bloody freezin’. At least the moon is high, so it is nae as dark as in the passage.

And then he gasped, his every muscle taut as he felt the ice-cold tip of a blade at his throat. “Drop yer weapons,” a voice said, and Rae stood stock still, and he dropped his sword to the ground with a thump.

He held up his hands and he asked, “Are ye here on Laird Rendell’s behalf?” He knew it was not the laird himself, for he didn’t recognize his voice.

“Aye. I am his advisor, Sutcliffe.”

However, the blade didn’t move. Rae was concerned that he had fallen into a trap stupidly, but what else was he supposed to do? He couldn’t tell his brothers about the letter. He was the one who had killed the man’s son anyway. He would have to suffer the consequences. Besides, it was not as if there was anyone waiting for him back at the castle, no lovely wife to warm his bed or his heart.

Nae that I have ever wanted more than a passin’ dalliance.

But in that moment, that idea of having someone who cared enough to wait back at home for him felt strangely important. He closed his eyes and remained standing still.

“So, will ye kill me now then?” he asked casually, even as a little fear fluttered his veins. “It might be best if ye’d get on with it because it is cold enough out here tae freeze a priest’s arse off.”

The advisor let out a small chuckle, but there was no mirth in it. “I could kill ye, I suppose. It would certainly help Laird Rendell get the revenge he’s been wantin’.”

Oh, so that was the truth of it. Rae could not say that he was surprised, but if the man had planned his revenge, why not kill him soon after the battle? Instead, he’d waited months.

“So?” He laughed this time, always trying to keep his cheery facade until the end. He would not show fear even if his throat was going to be slit that very night. “Are ye goin’ tae dae it, or nae?”

“Nae.” The man removed the blade, and then he pushed Rae forward, picking up his sword as he did so.

Rae could now see the man in the moonlight. He was about Laird Rendell’s same age, with dark hair and a dark beard. He wore dark clothes as well without a tartan or kilt in place. He held a dagger and Rae’s sword, and he was pointing them both at Rae.

“Listen tae me, lad, and listen closely. The laird wants revenge.”

“Aye, ye’ve said.” Rae’s one hand was on his hip, and the other was making a motion to encourage the man to speed up his story.

“After ye killed his heir, the laird was devastated. He hasnae been the same since, and I have seen the man. He is broken.”

Rae said nothing. He might have made another joke again, perhaps saying something like ‘good’, but he kept his mouth shut. Even if the man was their enemy and had overseen the tortures of him and his brothers and so many others, Rae could have stayed his hand and refrained from killing the man’s heir and eldest son in front of his eyes. It had not been the son’s fault. After he’d been captured and tortured, Rae had promised himself that he would never be like those men, full of evil and hatred and cruelty.

But perhaps I am after all.

“He wants payback for what ye did, and ye are goin’ tae help him get it.”

Rae put both hands on his hips now. He stared at the man. He considered fighting him. That would certainly make things easier for the moment, but he was certain that Laird Rendell would only exact a greater revenge, and it seemed the man was keen for something else, something that did not include losing his life.

“What if I say nay?”

The advisor chuckled again. “I wouldnae advise it.”

Rae rolled his eyes at the poor attempt to make a joke. “Tell me then. What is it?”

The advisor put an envelope into his hand, and he opened it, his blood chilling when he saw what it was. It was a lock of Kai’s long brown hair. He would know it anywhere for his brother’s hair had a distinct color.

“What are ye tellin’ me?” Rae asked, stuffing it into the envelope and closing it again, as if that could help him avoid the revenge that Laird Rendell wanted him to exact upon him.

“I am sayin’ that clearly ye can see how close we can get tae yer brothers and their wives if we wish tae.”

Rae took a breath, trying to calm his fear. He had so hoped that things were over, that they could focus on a beautiful future. “We could easily kill them as payback for what ye’ve done. It seems only fair. Ye take an heir from Laird Rendell, and he takes yer whole bloody family.”

Rae swallowed. “What does he want me tae dae so that doesnae happen?”

“That’s better. Wise lad, it seems.” The advisor began to motion with his two weapons as he spoke. “There is a young woman who has the greatest dowry in the Highlands. She is nae yet married, and Rendell wants ye tae pretend tae marry her, get the dowry, and it will go straight tae him. Or ye can marry her if ye like, he couldnae care less. But all the laird wants is the money.”

Rae frowned. “Why does he nae have his other son marry her? Surely that would be a far easier plan, and he could get the money that way. Why would he need me then?”

The advisor shook his head. “Nae possible. The lass is cursed, and it is rumored that something kills her fiancés just before their wedding day. So, he cannae risk his son’s life. Surely, ye ken the rumors about Líadan Stuart.”

Rae did know that name, and he had heard of her, if only in whispers, but he was still confused. “So, then if she kills me, how will ye get the money? Surely, she doesnae give the dowry tae each of these men and then kill them.”

The advisor threw him a dark look. “Ye are a warrior, and now that ye ken the secrets about her, ye will be sure tae stay alive for long enough for the dowry tae make it into Laird Rendell’s hand. Besides, ye are only attemptin’ tae marry her because of this and nae from some misguided desire which has clouded the others’ judgment. Once he gets the money, his revenge will be complete, and the laird will let ye live. If yer fiancée doesnae kill ye first.”

“What of this money? He is suddenly in need?”

“Aye. After the loss of so many of his men as well as his heir, and the loss of financial support from the other Earl of Seton yer sister-in-law’s brother killed, he needs the money tae build up what he has lost.” He pointed the sword at him again. “Ye dinnae need tae ken more. Ye will agree, or yer family will die. It is as simple as that.

Rae stood still for a few seconds as he thought about it. He had heard the rumors of her curse, but he had no belief in curses. He was not a Scotsman from a faraway village. He was a Laird ‘s son and had been given a proper education. He had no desire to wed, nor to be involved with Laird Rendell any more than he had to be. However, he could see no other choice. Clearly, they could get close to his family, and his brothers had only just found happiness and peace at long last. He refused to be the one to break that up.

“Fine then. Agreed. Now leave me be, so that I can go back inside.”

“The Stuart Castle is nae far from here. Ye will go in one month tae offer yerself. The other fiancée only died a few months ago, and there needs tae be some time for it tae nae look suspicious afore ye arrive.”

Rae swallowed, what he was going to tell his brothers about his sudden departure. “Aye, I am agreed. Now give me me sword back.”

The man hesitated and Rae laughed. “What good would killin’ ye dae for me?”

The advisor then handed him his sword, and Rae didn’t look back as he ran out of the woods. He knew what he had to do, but he was left with a little uneasiness.

She couldnae really be cursed, could she?

Chapter One

One Month Later

Somewhere in the Highland woods

“Yer cursed.”

Líadan Stuart stood outside of a small wooden cottage. It was covered in moss and ivy, and if one were a little farther away, they would think the cottage was a part of the forest, not a home where a witch lived. But the door was open, and the woman with long dark hair was standing in front of her staring at Líadan with a keen eye as she took her in from head to toe. Líadan hadn’t even had a chance to speak before the witch claimed that she was cursed.

“Aye. Ye ken this even afore I’ve told ye.”

The older woman shrugged, her arms crossing over her large bosom. “It is the way.”

Líadan was nervous. So nervous, in fact, that she put her hands behind her back, afraid that the witch could see them shaking. She had heard of this woman from her young lady’s maid, Elspeth, who was keen to help her after the third death of her betrothed. There had been rumors of a witch not too far from Stuart Castle, and so Líadan had taken it upon herself to go and seek her out. She had traveled a long way in hopes that the curse could be broken. It was her last hope.

“Come in,” the witch said, passing to the side so that Líadan could step inside the cottage.

She jumped a little when the door closed behind her. Room was lit by a fire and a couple of candles, but it still felt dark and heavy. The scent of spicy sweetness in the air, and Líadan wondered if she made a mistake coming all that way. Was it wise to dabble in magic?

Aye, when this curse has kept me from a life that I wanted, one I have yearned for with all me heart.

She turned around to face the woman. “Sit there,” the supposed witch said, pointing along finger at a chair by the fire.

Líadan was grateful to sit close to the warmth. It was winter now, and it was so cold she could nearly feel her limbs freezing. She pulled her cloak tighter and sat down.

“I am—”

“I ken who ye are. There are nae many who dinnae.”

Líadan shut her mouth as the witch sat across from her. “Me name is Mara, and ye are Líadan Stuart, daughter tae the deceased Laird Stuart and sister tae the new one, with the telltale sign of beautiful long gray hair, even at yer young age. How old are ye, lass?”

“Twenty-four.” Her hands moved to touch the ends of her long hair, which reached below her breasts.

Besides the curse, it was the other thing she hated most about herself. Who had ever heard of a young woman with long, gray hair? She worried it made her look like a witch herself. However, that had not stopped her fiancés from asking her to marry them. But they had never been able to make it to the wedding day. A little coil of hopelessness circled in her chest. Would this be forever?

“Ye have come tae ask for help tae rid yerself of yer curse.”

Líadan folded her hands on her lap and nodded. “Aye. It has been far too long, and I cannae take it any longer.”

Her eyes were wet with tears, but she turned her face to the fire, hopeful that they would not fall. She had no wish to appear weak, but she had had enough of this curse, and she wanted her life back. She had no idea why this curse had been put upon her anyway.

Aye, ye dae. Ye were the one who stole yer mother’s life when ye were born. Ye took her beauty as well, so they say.

Mara settled into her seat, her hands gripping the arms of the chair, and Líadan could feel the woman’s eyes on her, studying her. The woman had long dark hair, but there was something both youthful and ancient about her. She wore thick, woolen clothing that covered a body of medium-build. Líadan had not known what to expect from a witch when she’d first laid eyes upon this one, but she wasn’t sure this was it. If she had to guess, Líadan would have been unable to decide Mara’s age.

“Tell me, lass. How did ye hear of me?”

“Surely ye ken the rumors,” Líadan said, only making Mara chuckle.

“Aye, of course. How could I nae? But I wonder who could have told ye where I lived.”

“Me lady’s maid. She is a good, kind girl, and she kens just how desperate I am for this curse tae be broken. She said if anyone could help me, it would be ye?”

Mara nodded once before she asked, “How many fiancés have there been before they’ve all been found dead?”

“Three.” She swallowed, turning to gaze at Mara again.

“And accordin’ tae the tales, they have all died the night before yer weddin’. Is that it?”

Líadan nodded, her mind flashing back to each moment when she heard that her latest fiancé was also found dead. “The first was killed by being thrown from his horse on the way tae me castle. The next was durin’ a sudden attack from an enemy afore he was set tae travel tae Stuart lands. And then the last was poisoned by his own kin so that his brother could take the lairdship.”

Mara slowly nodded, and desperate, Líadan said, “Surely, these could all be considered coincidences, nay? But people like tae claim that I am the one that has killed them or perhaps asked for them tae be killed. But it is nae me. I swear it!” She felt a few tears fall down her eyes, and she wiped one from her cheek as she continued. “I have wanted tae get married, tae help me clan as well as find a love that I can have in life. It makes nay sense for me tae be daein’ this tae anyone!”

She hadn’t realized how loud her voice had gotten until she saw Mara’s hands make a motion to quiet, and she shushed her in a soothing tone. The effect was strong, and Líadan felt her racing heart calm, and she sat back in her seat.

“I ken that me mother died in childbirth, but surely it cannae be me who stole her breath. I was only a child.” Her voice was small now, and all the fears she’d had about why she was the way she was came rolling back.

She had held onto this guilt for so long, she couldn’t remember a time without it. But now that she needed to marry to help the clan, she wanted it to be over. She wanted to be able to move on with her life.

“Aye, of course, lass.” Mara’s voice was calm, and it made Líadan remain calm as well. “But there is nay requirement for ye tae marry, is there?”

Líadan looked down at her hands, now glad that she could feel her fingers again after her time traveling out of doors. “Nay. Me laird brother, Kaden, tells me that I dinnae need tae. But as ye likely ken, our clan is one of the wealthiest in the Highlands. With that much money, we are open tae dangerous attacks, and I wish tae help me brother and sister tae be safe and happy. If I dinnae wed, then me sister Étaín will be forced tae dae so.” She shook her head. “She is younger, and I dinnae wish for yer tae have tae dae that.”

“I see.” Mara rose and poured a drink into two cups. She handed one to Líadan and sat down again. “It is only spiced wine,” she said with a slight chuckle as Líadan had looked into the cup with slight trepidation.

“Thank ye.”

She took a long sip and let out a large sigh. “There are two other men whom still wish tae marry me, and they will be comin’ tae see them tomorrow. I wish for this curse tae be lifted so that one of them could be me husband in truth. That I could finally have a normal life.”

Mara’s eyes narrowed. “I ken nae the use of a normal life, as ye say, but I understand yer frustration. Lookin’ at ye, I can tell that the curse is alive and well. A curse hangs on a person and only a refined few can see it’s vibrations.” She looked her up and down. “However, the curse can only be lifted in a specific way.”

“How?” Líadan nearly dropped the cup of wine in her shock. No one who had attempted to lift the curse before had ever mentioned that. They had always been so confident that they could remove it for good and in full. “There really is a way?”

“Aye. But I dinnae think that ye are goin’ tae like it.”

“It is better than empty promises from people who realize that they cannae remove the curse after all. What is it?”

Her hands tightened around the cup, and her blue eyes widened with hope.

Mara frowned a little. “I’m afraid that the curse is specific. The only way it can be broken is if ye find true love.”

All the wind came out of Líadan’s sails. “I could never hope for true love. Everyone is afraid of me. It is only the bravest as well as the most money-focused whom I can find for meself. And we hurry tae wed because of the curse. There is never enough time for me tae find true love!” She leaned back again, finishing off the wine and starting to worry that the curse could never be ended.

“Listen, lass. When ye find the right man, the curse can be broken, for there is a man, and he will be the one tae break it.”

She blinked at Mara, wondering if she should just leave and forget all this nonsense. “How will I ken who this man is? He could be anyone!”

“Well, he will be the man who willnae die.”

Mara was grinning, but Líadan was frustrated. “Well, then, I would marry him of course. But I dinnae see how true love has anythin’ tae dae with it.”

“The man who disnae die is meant for ye, so that is why the curse will be broken because he will be yer true love. Love is the only thing stronger than magic, for it is the greatest magic of all. People believe that the curse is because of the death of yer mother while givin’ birth tae ye, but it is the opposite.”

She shook her head with a soft smile. “With her dyin’ breath, yer mother placed this curse upon ye. She knew she was dyin’ and so she couldnae protect ye herself. She put this in the place so that only the man who is good enough for ye, lass, and who loves ye with everythin’ in him will be the one tae be yer husband.”

Líadan could feel the tears coming again, and the ache in her chest had only gotten stronger. But those words comforted her. For her whole life she had feared her mother had hated her because Líadan had been the one to kill her. But this turned everything on its head.

“I see.”

“Here is another clue. Only the person ready tae die for yer sake willnae die by the curse. When ye find a man who is willin’ tae die for ye, then ye’ll ken that he is the right one. Nay curse would be strong enough tae stop that love.”

While she thought, Mara poured her more wine, Líadan felt an odd flicker of hope. Perhaps there could be someone after all. She wondered if after all her waiting she could finally feel the true love of a man, feel his touch, and his kiss before it is too late.

“Thank ye, Mara. Ye have given me what nay one else could.”

 

Not at all Likely Extremely Likely

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



The Laird’s Stolen Bride (Preview)

Prologue

Highlands, Scotland, 1306

“Och, Kayla, please stop fidgeting with that thing.”

Kayla didn’t answer her father as she adjusted the bracelet on her wrist. With her eyes dancing across the beads engraved with letters, she felt that all-too-familiar emotion well up inside her. It was the grief that made her eyes tingle, and her heart ache.

Whoever kenned anyone had so many tears in their body tae shed.

There were always more tears. Even when she thought she had cried her last tear for her husband-to-be who had been murdered the year before, she found more tears. Maybe she hadn’t loved him, but he was the dearest friend she’d ever had, the companion she’d always longed for. She had always hoped, if they had married, that she would have loved him eventually.

“Pa,” Kayla’s sister, Sofia, murmured. “Ye ken it isnae easy fer her.”

“I ken.” Their father, Laird Ian Mackenzie, sighed heavily. “Yet it is me task as yer father tae make ye smile again. Come, Kayla.” He leaned toward her and tapped her chin, the touch soft.

Kayla moved her attention away from the bracelet, though her fingers still toyed with the beads connected by a silver chain. She would never stop wearing it. It was a gift from her betrothed, and she always wore it to remember him. He had worn the same bracelet, the two a mirror image of each other, to show their union.

“Is it nae a beautiful day?” Ian gestured to the blue sky they sat beneath on their picnic blanket. “The sun is shining; the trees and grass are lush this time of year.” His wrinkled hand moved across the garden they sat in, gesturing from the yew trees to the deciduous sycamores and plane trees, then to the thick grasses and heathers. “Listen tae the birds.” He paused, his hand cupped to his ear.

Kayla listened, feeling the wind dance across her face and lift her dark hair from her shoulders.

“Blackbirds,” she mused, recognizing the sound at once.

“Aye, just so.” Her father turned and smiled at her, bearing the same blue eyes that were in her own face, a shockingly bright blue, as if they had been freshly painted with pigment. “There are still pleasures and happiness tae be found in the world even when a loved one is lost. Believe me, I ken.”

She smiled sadly, knowing it was the truth. Her mother had died many years ago and though her father had grieved her, he had also found reasons to be happy.

“Aye, ‘tis easy tae be happy when she has suitors coming tae the door every five minutes.” Sofia’s wit made Kayla smile. Her sister bit into a pork pie and offered up the other to Kayla, dressed in thick onion chutney.

“Thank ye,” Kayla whispered.

Sofia, a quiet soul, hardly spoke out of turn at all, especially around men who she seemed to fear, their father being the exception. In his and Kayla’s company, Sofia was more herself, the real person showing through.

“Sofia is right, Faither,” Kayla said simply, taking the smallest bite of pork pie and gazing across their picnic. “How can I get over me grief when ye push men in front of me nose every five minutes?”

“I dinnae push them there. They come.” He pinched the brow of his nose, then thrust a hand into his silverish hair that reached down past his shoulders. “I fear what ye will make of yer next caller then.”

“What?” Kayla looked around, well aware that her father was now staring at a spot across the garden. From their high vantage point between the trees, they could see down onto the road to the castle where an entourage had just arrived. At their head was a young man astride a horse with thick auburn hair plaited at the back. His wide and rather square jaw was turned up toward the picnic, as if he had been looking out for them for some time. He came to a halt with his men and stepped down from his saddle, talking quietly to his men, before he made his way through the garden, quite alone.

“Who is that, Faither?”

Kayla whipped her head around, the sharpness of her movement making her father jump so much that he dropped his own pork pie in his lap, his face bushing red in embarrassment.

“His name is Jonathan. Laird Jonathan Graham. Good man, wealthy, supports Robert the Bruce as we. He has asked fer a meeting with ye.”

Ian calmly turned his eyes up to Kayla, though the blush was turning his cheeks crimson, revealing just how guilty he felt about this meeting.

“He would make ye a good match, Kayla. All I ask is that ye hear him out. That is all.”

Ian stood, brushing the crumbs of flaky pastry from his tunic, before striding away across the grass, his boots brushing the long green blades aside.

“Laird Jonathan! So good tae see ye again.” His arms he held out wide, he took the man’s hand in greeting.

Kayla couldn’t find words as she turned to face her sister.

“Unlike ye tae find yer tongue-tied,” Sofia said, though her lips were pressed together in a firm line, showing she was equally unhappy about the situation. As was usual when a man approached them, she grew nervous. She pulled at her dark brown hair and let the tendrils fall across her face, trying to hide in plain view. “Ye ken what our faither is thinking, dae ye nae?”

“Aye, aye. I think he has lost the ability tae think at all,” Kayla muttered angrily. “He would have me marry a man I dinnae ken, when the last… the last…” She broke off, a sudden lump in her throat.

She looked down at the bracelet around her wrist again. Loyd Macpherson was a good man and she had truly believed she was on the path to love. She cared for him deeply, and being denied the chance to know him completely seemed the greatest blow she had ever been delivered in her life. Murdered on the road, whilst travelling from his clan to hers, his death was a dark day indeed.

“Use yer mind, Kayla. Ye ken as well as I what he is thinking.”

“He’s thinking this man is a laird, he’s powerful, a hard man tae refuse, and if he is an ally with Robert the Bruce, then we are strengthened by the possibility of a union too.”

“Aye, precisely.” Sofia leaned toward her and took her hand, entwining their fingers together. “Ken his mind and ken yer own. Ye dinnae have tae say aye, all ye have tae dae is meet him.”

“Hmm.” Kayla was not so convinced. She knew her father wouldn’t make her do something she did not want to, but she equally knew that him inviting this man to their house to speak to her was not a good sign. He clearly had more time for this suitor than any of the others.

Across the garden, she saw her father approaching with Laird Jonathan. On closer view, he did not have such a harsh face as she first thought, but kinder and softer eyes, like a large pup’s, big brown eyes. They glistened in the day’s light as he looked at her, his lips turning up in the sort of smile which spelled his excitement to meet her.

Oh, in the name of the Wee Man. I cannae dae this!

Kayla looked around. The rebel in her made her want to run at once, sprint from the garden and jump into the loch beyond to escape him. She was a strong swimmer, but she didn’t imagine her rebellion would please her father.

“Come, come, meet me daughters.” Ian returned to them, pulling Laird Jonathan with him. There was a boyish spring in Jonathan’s step as he approached. She didn’t like it.

Kayla and Sofia exchanged a look, then stood together, knowing they couldn’t continue to sit with their picnic.

“Me youngest, Sofia,” Ian introduced Sofia first, “and of course, me eldest ye wished so much tae meet, Kayla.” He motioned to Kayla. Laird Jonathan smiled wider.

Kayla was quite baffled as she stared at him. The childlike excitement on his face professed some sort of attachment already, which she knew was impossible. They hadn’t met before, so he simply had to have liked the idea of meeting her very much indeed.

“Lady Kayla.” He bowed deeply to her, and to Sofia too. “It is a great pleasure tae meet ye both indeed. I am honored to visit your land, melord. And what a beautiful garden this is,” he added, turning to the girls’ father.

“Perhaps Kayla could show you around. The shore of the loch is wonderful this time of year. And there is birdsong aplenty. We were just noting the blackbirds afore yer arrival,” Laird Mackenzie answered with a smile.

“If ye can spare a minute, would ye walk with me, Lady Kayla?” he asked her kindly, gesturing to the garden.

Nay!

Kayla wished to shout the word, but one look at her father told her she could not. Ian’s eyes widened. He would certainly be furious if she refused. Sofia squeezed her hand in comfort one last time, then they released one another, and Kayla nodded, moving forward to walk by Laird Jonathan’s side.

They fell into step beside one another, walking down the path.

“Forgive me,” he whispered, “fer coming so unannounced. I ken from what ye have been through that any suitor at yer door right now must seem unkind… even inconsiderate.” He shook his head, as if he was baffled by his own actions.

Kayla looked up at him, noting the empathy in his words. As they walked between the trees, the wind picked up so he turned them towards a more sheltered path.

“Thank ye,” Kayla murmured softly. “Nae many understand me grief.”

“Believe me, I dae.” His eyes met hers. “I must apologize fer coming tae call on ye now that with one look at ye, I can see ye are still grieving. Yet it must be done. I ken ye by reputation tae be an intelligent woman, Lady Kayla. Both ye and I ken that sometimes, marriages happen fer alliance as well as fer love.”

“Aye, that they dae.” She looked away into the distance. No matter how kind and attentive this man was, she would not marry him. Her heart was still elsewhere and to marry now would be a betrayal to Loyd’s memory. She could not do it.

“I choose tae marry fer alliance, and fer affection.” He halted suddenly, looking at her. Kayla stopped a few paces in front of him, looking back at his soft eyes with an amused smile.

“Ye and I dinnae ken each other,” she reminded him. “I hope these words arenae going tae lead tae a declaration of affection, me Laird.”

He smiled softly.

“Can one nae develop an affection and a respect from everything they hear of another?”

Nay. It is nae enough.

Kayla was ready to argue with him, to point out that this was a mad conversation, when abruptly, wind whistle by them as something whipped through the air.

“Get down!” he called and jumped toward her. The fear that ripped through her chest was abated when he pushed her toward the nearest tree trunk and dived in front of her, shielding her.

“What…” She trailed off.

A bolt from a crossbow had fired past them, landing on the ground, where Kayla had been standing a few seconds before, but it was not the only one.

“Yer family is under attack,” Laird Jonathan hissed.

Across the garden, more bolts were being aimed from the trees toward Ian and Sofia. It was impossible to see who was firing the arrows, but the attack was relentless.

“Stay down,” Laird Jonathan pleaded with her and ran toward her father and sister.

“Nay! Faither! Sofia!” Kayla called to them. She couldn’t stay. She ran behind Laird Jonathan back toward them. She raised her arms, aware how close some of the arrows came to piercing her skin, but she managed to dodge them.

When she reached her sister, Sofia was cowering behind a yew bush and Kayla went to her. They clutched one another’s arms, recoiling together. An almighty yell ripped through the air and the sounds of the arrows ended.

Kayla peered out from behind the yew bush, looking toward her father and Laird Jonathan. Standing in front of her father, shielding him, was Laird Jonathan. The arrow that was meant for her father had cut through Laird Jonathan’s arm, grazing him, and causing a thin stream of blood to pour down his arm. He gave no sign of being affected by it. He didn’t clutch the wound, grimace, or curse. He let it bleed with his sword slung at his side, the tip glistening in blood.

The attacker that stood before them, having appeared from the trees, was now bleeding across his arm. He staggered back, his hooded figure jerking his head back and forth in fear, then he was gone, sprinting back into the trees.

“Nae possible,” Kayla murmured, struggling to use her voice after the fear had made her palms clammy and her heart thump against her ribcage.

“He saved him!” Sofia exclaimed to Kayla as they stepped out from the yew bush together, still clinging to one another. “Kayla, he saved our father’s life!”

As they reached the two men again, Ian was helped to his feet by Jonathan.

“I am greatly indebted tae ye, Laird Jonathan.” Ian shook his head, his eyes wide as he marveled at him. “What quick responses ye have, tae nae only push me daughter tae safety, but then risk yer life fer my own. Ye need tae see our healer at once.”

“It is nothing.” Laird Jonathan’s voice was deep. He tied up the wound himself with a strip of cloth. “I am simply relieved none of ye is hurt. I shall send me men tae search fer the assailant at once.” He hurried back toward the road, down the bank of the garden. “I shall return soon!”

As he left, Kayla felt both Ian’s and Sofia’s eyes turn toward her.

“We are indebted tae him now, Kayla,” Ian whispered softly.

“I think that is our father’s way of saying that debt must be paid with yer hand. Why are debts always paid with women’s lives, I wonder?” Sofia whispered.

Kayla gripped her sister’s hand hard as she moved to her father.

“Now is nae the time tae discuss debts. Are ye injured, Father?”

“I am perfectly well.” Ian assured her and sat down on the edge of the blanket once more, not to return to the picnic, but to catch his breath as he leaned forward. Kayla and Sofia dropped down by his shoulders.

“I fear fer this, though. Someone broke through our guard. We’ll need men like Laird Jonathan around if dissidents continue tae attack me lairdship.” He shook his head, mumbling something to himself, then lifted his chin once more so his gaze met Kayla’s.

“Kayla, ye dae realize I cannae refuse that man anything he asks of me now. If he asks fer yer hand… I…”

She gripped his shoulder, not wanting to hear the words.

I ken. Ye will have tae give yer blessing tae the man that saved yer life.

Chapter One


One Month Later

“Payton? Are ye sure this is such a good idea?”

Payton gave no sign of having heard his man at arms, Dugald. He looked around Laird Jonathan Graham’s great hall, taking in the busyness of the room. Beneath the stained-glass windows that dazzled golden and red light across the room, many people had gathered to toast the betrothal of Laird Jonathan Graham and his bride-to-be, Lady Kayla Mackenzie.

Many had gathered to celebrate, knights, gentlemen, fellow lairds and ladies. They talked amongst themselves and to Laird Graham, who sat in a large chair at the head of the room. His large brown eyes surveyed the room around him, taking it all in. There was a softness to them that Payton wasn’t quite convinced by.

Who are ye really, Laird Jonathan?

“Payton?” Dugald murmured again, trying to get his attention. “Melaird?”

Payton looked darkly at his man at arms as Dugald chuckled.

“I ken ye hate me calling ye that, but sometimes, it is the only way tae get yer attention.”

Payton grunted, holding himself back from laughter. Dugald was one of the few people who had ever broken through Payton’s reserve and knew who he truly was. He could jest and make Payton laugh when no other could. Payton usually preferred his own company to others, but Dugald had never been frightened off by his iciness.

“Distracted?” Dugald asked. “Because I fear something more is about tae distract ye.”

Before anymore could be said between them, a young woman appeared beside Payton. She carried a tray with goblets of mead and smiled sweetly up at him. The long dark hair was plaited at the back of her head, quite wild thanks to his morning’s activities with her in his bedchamber.

She had been a welcome distraction and she strangely seemed to like his silent manner rather than be put off by it, as most women were.

“Will I see ye later, melaird?” she asked Payton as Dugald busied himself by taking one of the goblets and pretending utter fascination with the mead inside, ignoring their conversation.

“I will find ye,” Payton promised. In the hectic room, he felt comfortable enough to rub a hand teasingly down her back. He watched with a thrill as she shivered at his touch, excited, then smiled and walked away.

“Only ye would be bold enough tae take a lover in another laird’s clan,” Dugald hissed as the lady walked away. “What if ye are caught?”

“Nay one will catch me,” Payton assured his friend. Besides, he had no intention of not acting on his instincts.

Payton was used to silence. For all of Dugald’s friendship, his own castle had become isolated, and dare he think it… even lonely these last few months. With his brother and sister married, both enjoying their lives far from the castle, what was once a busy place had become quiet indeed. With most women frightened off by his sharp features and the number of scars on his body that marked him from the battles he’d faced, he had little in the way of female companion.

I intend tae make the most of a lover whilst I am here.

“Well, if we can leave the matter of yer hungry loins fer a minute, melaird–”

“Dugald,” Payton hissed in anger, though Dugald didn’t take offence and simply smiled some more.

“Ye like me really.”

“I’m struggling tae remember why at this moment.”

“Because I put up with ye?”

“Hmm.” Payton said nothing as Dugald laughed once more.

“Shall we discuss the matter at hand?” Dugald gestured across the room with the goblet. “The reason ye agreed tae come in the first place. Laird Jonathan Graham.”

“Aye.” Payton sighed as he looked at the man who was now laughing with two tacksmen, raising their glasses in a toast. On Laird Jonathan’s arm was a bandage. “How was he wounded?”

“From what I hear, he shielded Laird Mackenzie from an arrow,” Dugald whispered at his side. “Why else dae ye think Laird Mackenzie gave his daughter tae him?”

“What dae ye mean?” Payton frowned, not following his train of thought.

“It’s a wonder ye can avoid the gossip. I cannae seem tae avoid it since we have arrived.” Dugald sighed, exasperatedly. “They whisper that Lady Kayla had nay wish tae accept Laird Jonathan’s proposal, but as he saved her father’s life…” Dugald trailed off and shrugged.

Payton thought that was a ridiculous reason to marry. As far as he as concerned, such debts could be paid in other ways, especially through loyalty, but Lady Kayla was not why he was here. He hardly cared about the position of a woman he had never met.

“I need tae find out more about Laird Jonathan,” Payton said coolly.

“If looks could murder as well as a sword, eh?” Dugald laughed at his side. “Laird Jonathan would drop down dead now at yer glare.”

“I dinnae like a disloyal man. If the whispers me spies heard are true, if Laird Jonathan is in fact working with the English and that bastard, King Edward, then he is a betrayer,” Payton said with such passion that this time, even Dugald couldn’t make a joke to lighten the air. “He deserves tae pay fer what he has done, and tae be stopped, before any more battles can lead tae more innocent Scottish blood being spilled.”

“I agree with ye. The English must be stopped in their advance, but as ye said the other night, we need proof if we are tae discover just who Laird Jonathan is truly loyal tae. How dae ye intend tae dae that?”

“I’ll find it,” Payton said with a sudden firm tone. At his side, Dugald shifted. “Ye once said I didnae frighten ye, Dugald.”

“Well, put it this way, melaird.” Dugald smiled at him. “I would never want tae be yer enemy in a fight. Ye cut ‘em all down.” He affected a shudder of fear.

“I only cut down those who deserve it.” Payton stared forward once more at Laird Jonathan, watching as the man laughed. That sound was just audible through the cacophony of the room.

If he is the blood betrayer, he will pay.

Payton had heard a whisper some months ago of a Scottish laird informing on his other clans, in order to help the English advance, but could it be Laird Jonathan?

I will find out.

“The tacksmen are parting. Now is yer chance,” Dugald whispered.

“Aye, so it is.” Payton nodded at Dugald. “He loves a hunt, aye?”

“Aye, that’s what everyone I have spoken tae has said. Nothing he loves more. This very hall is decked with the kills he has made.”

Payton looked around the room. Over the low-lying felt bonnets the gentlemen wore and the excessively elaborate updos most women bore, there were distinct plaques bearing animal’s heads around the room. There were two wolves, three stags, and a doe. Payton jerked his head toward the doe, suddenly sickened by the sight.

Payton was a good hunter, and he had made many kills himself, but he never in his life had shot a doe. The idea of hurting a female animal cut deeply. It was not battle, not war, and if it came to killing in order to eat, he would always hunt a stag and leave the female alone.

There’s another reason tae be suspicious of this man.

“Then I will offer him the thing he desires most,” Payton said to Dugald and strode forward.

“Wait, what? What are ye doing?” Dugald hastened to follow him, scarcely keeping up with his fast pace.

With ease, Payton cut through the people in the great hall. Many ladies and men stepped back when they saw him, their eyes darting over the scars on his body with something akin to fear in their eyes. Payton didn’t cower but raised his head higher. He was not ashamed of his scars. They were the souvenirs of battles hard won, the mark of triumph and victory. Anyone who thought them fearful didn’t understand what life was like as a laird.

It is hard work. Aye, ye put yer people and the safety of others over yerself at every step of the way.

It was why he had never pursued a lover who was frightened of those scars. He waited, until a woman was fascinated by those marks.

“Laird Jonathan Graham.” Payton bowed his head as he approached the vast chair.

Laird Jonathan sat forward, an easy smile on his lips.

“Laird Payton MacDonell. What a surprise this is.” Laird Jonathan stepped out of his chair and down off the platform, to go see him. They clasped hands for a second and Payton gripped hard. Laird Jonathan winced only a small amount, proving himself stronger than most men here. “I heard ye barely leave yer castle these days, so I was nae expecting ye. I’m thrilled tae see the information was wrong. I am so pleased ye could join us.”

“I have come tae congratulate ye and offer an invitation. I am putting together a hunting party at me castle in a few days’ time. Many lairds will be invited.” At his words, he felt Dugald look sharply at him, but he was grateful his man-at-arms said nothing. Payton had no intention of inviting other lairds to his castle at all, rather hoping to get Laird Jonathan completely on his own, so he could interrogate him properly.

“Hunting party, ye say?” Laird Jonathan’s eyes lit up and his broad cheeks lifted into a smile. “Now, how could I refuse? Could me betrothed and her sister accompany us?” He gestured around as he spoke, pointing to a pretty young woman who stood behind him on the platform. She approached at his gesture, with her head bent down. Her dark brown hair scarcely moved from where it covered her face, as if she didn’t want to be seen at all. Her hands fidgeted in front of her, and Payton’s perceptiveness recognized at once there was fear in her.

What is this woman so afraid of?

“Of course.” Payton smiled. “I am delighted tae meet yer betrothed at last.”

“Betrothed? Oh, nay, nay. This is me future sister-in-law, Lady Sofia Mackenzie.” Laird Jonathan gestured to her.

Lady Sofia’s eyes flicked up to meet Payton’s, then she looked away again. Any irritation Payton might have felt at her fear passed quickly, for he was not the only one she looked at with fear. If Payton wasn’t mistaken, she glanced at everyone in the room with that same expression, the fidgeting of her hands never stopping.

“Well, ye are very welcome tae come with yer sister and Laird Jonathan here on our hunting party.” Payton bowed her head to him.

“Thank ye,” Lady Sofia said, still struggling to meet his eyes.

Payton glanced at Dugald, seeing his man at arms offer the smallest of shrugs. He had no better idea as to what she was so afraid of.

“As they can come too, I’ll happily attend. Leave the details with me advisor, Lachlan.” Laird Jonathan gestured to a man standing quite alone at the end of the platform. “I shall be there.”

“Thank ye.” Payton nodded and moved on with Dugald, allowing others to present their congratulations.

“I’ll give him the details,” Dugald assured Payton. “Ye go find that young woman of yers. We’ll have tae head back later.”

“Thanks,” Payton said with a smile.

“Nae because ye are impatient or anything, is it?” Dugald laughed. The causal thump Payton gave his arm simply made his laughter louder.

Payton stepped away. At least now, he had a plan. He would do his part for Robert the Bruce. He would get Laird Jonathan on his own to discover the truth. In the meantime, what was the harm in enjoying himself?

He looked around the room, searching for the maid who had kept him company that morning. Between the swathes of golden cloth and dark tunics, it was difficult to focus on anyone. As evening drew in, the light in the room was fading, and maids had started to light tall beeswax candles in the corners of the room.

There ye are.

At the side of the room, he saw the familiar wild dark hair, plaited behind her head. The lady reached for a door, rather hurriedly, and stepped out, her pace so fast it was as if she was running from something.

Payton hastened to follow her. When he reached the door he glanced back, ensuring no one was watching what he was doing, then he slipped out of the door and into the corridor.

He trailed behind her as she walked through the corridor, heading to a much smaller and narrower corridor on the south side of the building. Here, there were no candles, and with the fading light streaming through the windows, it was increasingly difficult to see anything about her beyond her silhouette.

Wary of someone overhearing, he didn’t call out to her, but he hurried to catch up. As she entered a corridor flooded with the evening’s apricot light, he at last reached her. He threaded a hand across her waist and bent down, pressing his lips near her ear.

“Dinnae run now,” he whispered. “Give me one last kiss afore I have tae leave this place.”

She halted, her body stiffening so much that something felt wrong. He was certain she would have turned to him by now, molding her lips to his. She had been a good kisser that morning.

The lady turned her head. In the last golden light that streamed through the window to his left, he at last saw her face.

God’s wounds. It isnae the maid.

The face staring up at him was someone different entirely. Bold, bright blue eyes, stared at him without blinking. The prominent cheekbones structured a very elegant face, and the plump lips were pink. There was a flicker of something silver on her arm. Something stirred in Payton’s gut. He was attracted to that beautiful face at once. With lips like those, she certainly had to be a good kisser.

Her lips parted a little in shock, and he feared she’d start yelling, alerting someone to what he had done.

“I am so sorry,” the whisper escaped his mouth as he released her. “I thought ye were someone else.”

 

Not at all Likely Extremely Likely

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

The Stolen Highland Kiss (Preview)

Prologue

September, 1651
Richmond, England

Lady Adelaide Cavendish struggled to keep the chill out of her skin as she walked down the passageway of her father’s prison. Granted he was an earl, so he had been given more palatable lodgings in comparison to street thieves and cutthroats, but still she shivered as she followed a greasy-lipped warden with a toothpick in his mouth to his rusted door. The doors were made of iron and locked tight with heavy keys.

This was not the way she had imagined her life being. Adelaide jumped when a prisoner called out to her, stretching his arms out between the spaces of his gridiron door, widening his eye in a grotesque manner. She gasped, staring at him for only an instant before she hurried on, pulling her shawl around herself more tightly.

Adelaide had always considered her father to be the best of men. Growing up, and even more so since her mother passed, he had been so loving and kind to her, giving her everything she could have desired. He had wanted a good life for her, and he’d done his best to strive for it. They’d been doing well enough, but when he received the title of earl… well, everything seemed to change.

She couldn’t exactly describe what had come over him, but it was something akin to bloodthirstiness. He had been hungry for the title, status, and wealth, but as soon as he had achieved it, he’d turned into a different person. She had no longer recognized him and she she’d tried her best to pull him back. But then she’d seen how he’d treated his cousin Cecily, and things slowly became clear. He was not her father anymore, not the person he had used to be. He was someone else entirely, solely focused on getting more.

And while it had stunned her to find out that he had killed his own cousin, Cecily’s brother Anthony to get the title, Adelaide had not been entirely surprised. But when she’d seen him nearly kill Cecily as well as her now-husband Kai by locking them inside of a room and setting it alight, all the love and hope she’d still had for her father had died instantly. This was not her father, she had to keep repeating to herself. The man she had so loved longer existed. And so, as she tugged her shawl out of the grasp of yet another prisoner who had reached out to her with a few lascivious words on his tongue, she resolved that this would be the first and the last time that she would visit him in prison.

I have a life of my own, I shall not hang on to the past. Father has created scandal enough.

She was an earl’s daughter and yet the whole of London knew what her father had done, staining her reputation as well. She lived in shame.

“Here we are, My Lady,” the warden said, jangling his keys in the air and giving her a toothy grin. “Ye will find him calm and content. He’s been a good prisoner these past months.” The man whistled low and shook his head. “A murderer, what a thing to have amongst us. The rest of this lot are petty thieves, but at least they get a bit of sunlight during the day.”

She nodded, not wishing to spend a moment longer in that hellhole than she had to. With another grin, he unlocked the door, and opened it with a clang. He dragged it back, scratching along the stones of the floor. Adelaide put a handkerchief to her nose when a strange smell hit her. As they were paying for better lodgings, Adelaide could not imagine what the poor were subjected to. She stepped inside as the guard moved out of the way and stuffed the handkerchief into her sleeve, in an attempt not to embarrass her father in these conditions.

Foolish girl. I am much better off without him.

“Father,” she said, surprised to see him rising with difficulty from the chair in front of his ramshackle desk. He still wore one of his ridiculously colored suits, this one a deep blue, but it was dirty and stained. His hair was greasy, his beard getting long.

The door shut and locked behind her, the warden telling her to knock for her to be released. A grin from her father at her arrival showed her yellowed, dirty looking teeth. She had been sure to provide him with all the necessary items to tend to his appearance and cleanliness, but they must have been pilfered instead.

Care not. He has done a grievous wrong left only scandal in your wake. There is not one person in London who does not know you are the daughter of a murderer. There is no hope for you now.

“I am glad to see you, Adelaide. I have sent you many letters, why have you taken so long to come? It has been more than three months, my dear.”

Adelaide shifted on her feet, pulling at her shawl as if it could protect her from the slight twinge of guilt. Of all the letters he had sent her, none of them, except for the most recent one, had moved her in the slightest. She just wanted to be done with the visit, but she did not say that.

“I needed to make sure that all was set right, Father. You left a mess in your wake. Not forgetting that I now must reconcile with the fact that my father is a murderer. There is no one on the streets of London who will look upon me as they once did. Your deeds, they have stained me as well.” Adelaide was annoyed that a tear had slipped down her cheek as she had talked, and she furiously wiped it away.

Her father took a step closer, and she took a slight step back. She had no wish to be close to him, to remember the father of yore that she’d loved. He held out his arms as if to embrace her.

“Please Adelaide, you must know that it was all for you. All that I did and planned; it was for your future.”

Adelaide shook her head and took another step back. He was using the voice he used to use when she’d believed him to be the best father that ever lived. She would not fall for it again, not when she now had evidence of the blood on his hands. The callous way he’d killed a member of his family and then treated cousin Cecily thereafter.

She spoke firmly. “Do not say it was for me. It was for your own selfish gain. You only wanted to that title.”

It surprised her to say it as strongly as she did, and he reacted to it as well, lifting both brows, his lips parting.

“Now,” she said, looking away from him and reaching into her reticule to pull out his stained and folded letter. She dragged it out and shook it in the air. “I am here because you begged me to come.” She would never admit to him her desire to see him one last time before she put all that behind her. “So, what is it that is so urgent, Father? Why did you need to see me?”

He recovered quickly enough, even brandishing a smile as he put his hands behind his back. He stepped closer, looking to the left and the right before he did, as if he expected someone else to be in the cell besides the two of them.

“I brought you here,” he whispered, “because I am in danger.”

She snorted but then put a gloved hand to her lips. Of course, he was in danger. If he was not an earl, then he would have been hanging from a noose by now. If things changed, then he certainly would be, and Adelaide knew that he deserved little better than that.

“Danger? Of what, from whom?”

He cleared his throat and leaned close to her. She could smell the stench of him, but she concentrated hard to focus on his whispered words. “They might come to kill me, you know. For my sentence is uncertain at this time, and the earldom is unprotected. Anyone would be interested in taking advantage of such a situation. Anyone who would stand to gain by my death.”

Adelaide let out a breath, and she folded the letter again and shoved it back into her reticule. “Is this what was so urgent, Father? If it is going to happen anyway, then why would someone wish to kill you to make the process happen faster? And as you cannot act on your duties as an earl from prison, it is just a matter of time before the earldom is given to the next in line.”

Her father leaned back, stiffening. “That I know, and I will regret it forever. But there is something I simply must tell you, Adelaide, something no one else knows.”

She bit the inside of her cheek to remind herself to be patient. Soon, she would be back out of the prison and free again. This was her last act of duty towards him. Then her father would be out of her life forever.

It is for the best.

“What?”

“I will be giving over my title, as you know, to my distant cousin Thomas Frenzby.”

“Yes, I know.” Adelaide clenched her gloved fists, trying yet again to keep her patience intact. This was not news to her. “What of it?”

“I was able to win the title after Anthony’s death, but it was by a very small margin, in terms of our blood ties to the Ridley family. But now that I am going to give it up, Thomas is the last man I wish to have the title. It must be kept from him.”

“Why?” she asked tiredly.

“Because my son is the real heir.”

Adelaide nearly dropped the reticule that was in her hands, and she pressed her hand onto the side of the stone wall to keep her balance. “A son? I have a brother?”

He nodded and turned away from her, going to sit on the edge of the desk, looking slightly nervous. “Yes. I never told you, for he is an illegitimate child, and I never wanted his existence to tarnish your reputation in any way.” He then folded his arms across his chest, looking more serious than before. “However, he is the legal heir to the earldom, and I fear that if Thomas finds out about his whereabouts, then he will kill us both so that he can take the title for himself… Just as I did.”

Adelaide was so angry that she could feel the tears pressing at the backs of her eyes. Yet again, more lies, more danger lingering in the background. What was the problem with the men, or at least those in her family? All bloodthirsty, eager for power and status over goodness and morality.

“I do not know what you expect me to do about it, Father. It seems I am at the whim of three men, even though I have done nothing wrong to deserve such a thing.”

To his credit, he looked slightly ashamed as he replied. “I had been searching for him for a long time. His mother was a Scottish woman. I left her, like the cad I am. However, the thought haunted me from the moment I left, and so I began to search for him. I only learned of his whereabouts after she wrote to me on her deathbed. My son has lived and in Scotland his whole life and has been imprisoned for being a part of a group of men that tortured Scottish soldiers. Now that my name is so public, I fear that all these secrets will come to light, and I cannot afford that. I beg you, my sweet Adelaide, to find Cillian and to help him get out of prison so that he can take over the earldom.”

“Cillian,” she repeated, the fact of having a brother strange to her mind.

“Of course.” Her father approached her, and this time she allowed him to take her hand. “Please say you will find him. Be careful, though, for Thomas is unscrupulous. Saving Cillian will help you to stay alive as well.”

A shock of fear ran through her. Why should she be a target? She was merely a victim of all that had occurred, and she had no real home any longer. She no longer had any real place to go to, unless if she accepted Cecily’s invitation to join her in Scotland and live with her and her husband. And indeed, that was what Adelaide planned on doing.

“I’m not sure I want to get entangled in this, Father…”

“It’s the last thing I’ll ever beg of you. It’s too late for me, Adelaide.”

Adelaide hesitated. She no longer wanted to do anything connected to London, her father, or the damned earldom.

But still, he is my father… I can give him this much and then put everything behind me by starting anew in Scotland.

“I shall help you one last time, Father. I will go to Scotland.”

“Thank you, my daughter, thank you for granting me one last wish.” He dug out a piece of paper from his waistcoat pocket, excitement all over his face. “Here. Cillian is held prisoner at this castle in Scotland, or so he was when I last heard of him a few months ago. You must go to my study at the house as soon as you leave me. In the second drawer, there is a false bottom. Underneath there is the proof and all the information you will need to show that he is my own blood, and that he is deserving of the title of earl when the time comes. You must show it to the proper authorities.”

He shoved the piece of paper into her hand and closed her fingers over it. He looked fearful; his eyes wide as she backed away from him.

“You will do this?”

“Yes,” she said, not sure why she was agreeing, but she was glad she could finally take her life in her hands instead of just sitting and watching as people stared at her in horror. “I will do it, and I will go to see Cecily in Scotland as well.” And probably stay there for good.

“Good. Thank you, Adelaide. I knew that I could trust you to handle such an important task.”

She nodded and turned towards the door, knocking hard on it. When she heard the screech of the lock in the door, she looked back at her father.

“I wish you well, Father,” she said, meaning it but knowing that she would not see him again. A lonely tear ran down her pale cheek.

“And you, my dear. What a beautiful life you will lead. I just know it.”

She hurried out the door as it opened, and she was glad when she heard it clang shut. Looking down at the small paper in her hand, she felt slightly excited that she finally had somewhere to go and something to do, yet she also feared what danger she might get herself into.

Chapter One


One month later

Adelaide couldn’t cry when she had heard of father’s death almost a month before, and she still hadn’t. Instead, she felt numb. A few days after her father had warned her of what was to come, she’d been sent a message from the prison authorities. Her father had been found dead in his cell, hanging from a rope.

Naturally, everyone thought it had been his doing, once again dragging the family name through the mud. ‘Good riddance’ and similar phrases had been uttered when she had passed acquaintances in the street, and they hurt like daggers.

Shortly thereafter, Thomas Frenzby had been declared the new Earl of Seton, and Adelaide had not been able to go to Scotland to begin the search for her half-brother. It had been the same for her father’s cousin Cecily when her brother had been killed by Adelaide’s father. She’d had to stay on until everything was set right. Adelaide remembered how Cecily had planned to go visit her sister Helen in Scotland but had been prevented from doing it, only to practically be imprisoned by her father.

Adelaide had planned her father’s funeral and met with the solicitors. She had met Thomas and had played the role of hostess to him for a couple of weeks, and she had even helped to plan the feast to celebrate the new Earl of Seton, getting Thomas to agree that Cecily and Kai should be invited. Cecily was family after all. Cecily’s sister Helen and her Scottish husband Cory would not able to join them, for they had a young one to care for. But last week, Cecily had written to confirm their arrival with her brothers-in-law Rae and Torion as well. Afterwards, they would all return to Scotland together for Adelaide to remain as long as she wished.

Adelaide was very grateful that Thomas had agreed for her to leave for Scotland. The feast would be taking place that very night, and Cecily was expected to arrive within a few hours. They would be leaving in a few days and Adelaide couldn’t have been more eager to leave. She felt rather uneasy around Thomas, but finally having Cecily there would make everything a little bit easier.

It was not just the fact that her father had warned her about his distant cousin being an unscrupulous man. There was something strange about his air whenever she was around him, and he seemed to always be looking at her in a rather inquisitive way.

Sitting in her father’s study, she thought about the documents that lay hidden away. They were proof enough that her brother Cillian was the blood heir. She took them from their hiding place and folded them away before tucking them into her bodice. Thomas could not find them, and she needed to take them on her journey to Scotland with Cecily to begin her search for her brother.

Now is the best time to take them, afore the castle becomes busy with guests and eyes everywhere.

Suddenly, the door to the study opened, and in walked Thomas. She bit back a gasp, but he just smiled at her, lines forming at the corners of his eyes. He was fifteen years older than her twenty years, and rather handsome, as many of the young society ladies whispered behind their fans at balls. With black hair and cold, blue eyes, he stood tall, over six feet, and he had an athletic build. He seemed to be greatly enjoying his newfound wealth and status.

Thankfully, he did not look suspicious about finding her in the study. She brushed her hand across the desk and then stood.

“It normal that you should mourn your father. No wonder you wish to come into his old space and touch his things. You are feeling sad that you are leaving soon? Leaving your house for a time?”

She nodded but smiled. “You are kind to allow me such liberties, and you are right. It feels good to remember him just a bit more before I leave and you make this place as much your own as possible. I shall leave you to it and make sure that all is prepared for the feast.”

She passed by him, so close that the skirt of her dress brushed against his leg, and he turned towards her. “Wait for a moment, if you will, Adelaide.”

She paused and faced him, her heart fluttering a little with fear. Did he mean to question her about other reasons why she might be inside her father’s study? Did he mean to ask her about the bulge of documents hidden inside her bodice?

She held her breath as he gestured to a chair by the fire. “Would you sit? I shall pour us a drink.”

Uneasy about the request but preferring that to him questioning her about why she was in the study, she nodded and went to sit down.

“Good.” Grasping the bottle of wine from a table in the corner, he poured them each a glass and handed one to her before sitting down across from her. Raising it in the air, he said, “To your good health.”

“And to yours.” She smiled before she took a sip. “So, what is it you would like to discuss with me?”

He grinned at her, and Adelaide could understand why the ladies were flocking to him, eager to become a countess, but as for herself, his smile only reminded her of her father’s words. She knew that Thomas had something to do with her father’s odd death, but she had no proof, and she would never confront him about it until she was in a position of safety.

He got comfortable in the chair, leaning back so that his legs stretched out before him, clad in tight, fine breeches. “I thought perhaps you might enjoy remaining here at the house once the feast is over.”

She clutched her glass tightly, eager to finish it one gulp, but she did not want to appear suspicious in any way. “Stay at the house?”

He nodded. “I know you are to go to your cousin’s home in a few days, but I thought you might like to remain here as hostess instead. You have already done your duties so admirably, I should hate to lose you. The house could be entirely under your control. You could take care of the household, and you would have a respectable place to say.”

Even though Thomas had said a lot of words, Adelaide was only focused on one of them. “Respectable?”

He paused in the middle of his speech and nodded. “Yes.” Then he frowned when she did not reply. “Surely you know your reputation because of your father, the murders he committed, and the odd circumstances of his death. It is rather shameful.”

Adelaide winced, amazed that the man could say things so starkly when they had only occurred a month before. She had not wished to see her father anymore, but that didn’t mean she was not mourning his death.

“Yes, I know of it,” she replied through gritted teeth.

I do not need your help to remind me of what sort of reputation I have, sir.

“Well then, you understand how good an idea it is that you should find a way to make yourself respectable. You can go to your cousin’s, of course, but that is only a balm and not a solution for your future. For eventually you will return, and you will still need to find a solution. So, I have a proposition for you.”

Adelaide swallowed, and she felt cold all over. She was glad to be sitting down because she could feel the room begin to spin. A dark ball of dread knotted in her belly, and she tried her best not to reveal her inner feelings on her face.

“Oh?” she asked, taking a sip of wine.

“Yes. I thought perhaps you might like to stay in the house not just as a housekeeper but as something far more dear and far more distinguished. You could stay in the house as my wife.”

 

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

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