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The Veiled Wish of a Highland Bride (Preview)

Prologue

August 1731

He is coming for me…

Mia lay in bed, frozen. She was paralyzed, visited by the same unwanted guest every night, a friend she called terror. It was a demon on its own.

It hadn’t always been this way. Mia had once been a happy child who did not flinch at the thought of darkness. The nightmares began at the same time as he had changed. Her little body trembled, and her eyes darted around the room, trying to dispel the tortuous images that were mercilessly infiltrating her innocent mind.

“Nae! I beg ye, nae,” she muttered as tears streamed down her face from the corners of her eyes. Her back was flush with the hard bed in the corner of her room. Turning a deaf ear to her pleas, ignoring her as though she wasn’t there, the man in her dream continued to hit the woman behind her eyes. Again. And again.

Mia was certain that if he didn’t stop soon the woman would be nothing more than a bloodied sack of bones, but he didn’t seem to care. The woman’s screams pierced through the confines of her dream and into her reality.

Perhaps if I ignore them, the screams will leave me be, she thought, but the more she fought to ignore them the louder they became.

Finally, she opened her eyes. Before attempting to get out of bed, she flexed her hands in the darkness. It usually took more than a few minutes for her dreams to unshackle her. She clutched her throbbing head—now that she was awake, the screams were even louder.

Mia was used to this. She knew where the sound was coming from, but she did not want to go and investigate. Try as she might, she could never fall back asleep. When her father lost his temper, the onslaught could — and would — go on for hours.

Slowly, Mia dragged her feet off the bed, pushing away the sheepskin that served to shield her from the cold, recalling her mother tucking it around her before retiring for the night with a smile on her face.

Mia stood beside the bed for a moment, staring at the brick walls of her room, then the wooden roofing overhead. Sometimes, when the screaming started, she counted the bricks until all she could hear was numbers. Knowing her counting would not help her now, she sighed and walked toward the door. It had been left ajar, so she could hear her parents’ voices more clearly.

“Useless, fallow-wombed woman!” her father shouted, stomping his foot on the ground. Mia felt the floor shake beneath her.

Her father had always had a temper, but it had only gotten worse with her mother’s inability — or unwillingness as he called it — to produce a son. Even at the age of ten, Mia understood how important it was to have an heir. A girl was not fit to inherit anything, her father had said, not even a name.

“I feed ye! I clothe ye! I keep yer house warm!” her father cried again. “The least ye can do is birth me a worthy bairn — a boy! Ach, what do ye do but speak to me without respect? What do ye do but drink and whine? Maybe ye’ve been killing all my boys with yer drinking.”

The pounding had stopped now and all Mia could hear were the sobs of her mother. The little girl stood clinging to the door, unsure whether she should try and intervene or if it was safer to stay away. Her mother always warned her to protect herself first.

The decision was made for her as her father stormed out of the room past Mia and into his study. Fortunately, he had not noticed her in the darkness.

There was no telling what her father would do on nights like these. Conrad Steward was an impossible man, her mother had said, a brute. Sometimes he took his anger out on his daughter. Sometimes he said nothing at all. Mia didn’t want to find out what he would have in store for her tonight.

As soon as she heard his study door slam shut, she scrambled over to her mother’s chambers. She worried, just like in her dream, that her mother would be laying bloodied on the floor.

What she saw instead took her by surprise. Her mother was standing straight, a fiery look of determination on her face as she stuffed her belongings in a little cloth bag, her left eye swollen shut.

“Maither? Mam?”

“Mia… Oh, Mia, my little bairn… Mammy cannae stand it nae more,” her mother, Maeve, said through her sobs, stumbling as she pulled Mia into an embrace. Maeve smelled like ale and sick again, which made Mia’s stomach turn.

Mia despised it when her mother drowned her sorrows in drink, as it frustrated her father even more. She could feel her mother’s ribs as Maeve held her tightly. This woman, who she could barely recognize anymore, looked frail in the silvery moonlight. It swept across her gaunt cheeks, across the dark eye that Conrad had just given her.

She pulled away from Mia, giving her a peck on the forehead. Her round eyes bore into her daughter’s face like she was trying to memorize every inch of it. That was all Mia could remember before her mother climbed out the window without saying another word.

Mia was too scared to stop her. Perhaps if she hadn’t been, she would have pleaded with her mother to say something; she would have implored her mother not to leave her alone with her father. She knew what it looked like when someone was leaving for good, but she couldn’t quite believe it—her mother abandoned her.

The girl stood there, staring at the window, shaking and trying to decide whether to follow her out into the wilderness.

At first, Mia did not hear his footsteps in the hallway. Stuck in a trance, she let out a little sob. When she heard them at last, she looked for somewhere to hide.

He was coming. If he could no longer torment his wife, who would suffer his anger next?

The footsteps and curses grew louder. Mia stepped back tentatively. With each step, she hoped to free herself from the man who sought to destroy her and find sanctuary in the arms of the woman who had just left her at his mercy.

Mia shut her eyes, covering her face with her hands.

There was nowhere left to run.

 

Chapter One

Murray Castle, 1746

In the warped wooden mirror opposite her bed, Mia stared unflinchingly at herself. She shifted the sleeve of her nightgown off her shoulder, trying to imitate the seductive women she had studied in taverns. She needed all the help she could get.

Her predicament was made worse by the scars that marred her skin. One of the deepest was a gash on her knee that she had gotten when she fell from her horse as a child. She hoped the darkness would hide her imperfections from her husband, Bram, the Laird of Clan Murray, but there was no hiding that one.

Mia was not deterred. This had to be the night. She had been married to the Laird for almost a year, but still she was as virginal as the day she had stepped foot into the keep. She looked at her reflection in the mirror, hoping that her gently waved hair and long bare neck would be enough for him to desire her. The sheer night chemise would do the rest of the work.

Turning her head from side to side, hoping her scars were mostly hidden beneath her nightgown, she reached for her dressing gown and started to make her way out of her chambers. Trying to keep her back straight, she swung her hips as she had seen some of the noble wives do.

She sighed, feeling ridiculous. Perhaps she should have asked her maids for assistance. She had sent them away earlier that evening, confident that this night would be different from every other.

Mia stood in front of the door to her husband’s chambers — chambers that should have been theirs to share — and adjusted her posture. She gathered enough courage to knock on the door. Despite being the lady of the house, she wasn’t allowed access to his room.

Before she had a chance to change her mind and turn back, she rapped on the door, turned the doorknob and walked in.

“Who’s there?” Bram grunted in the dimly lit room.

Mia could hardly make out a thing. Suddenly, she heard a high-pitched shriek from where she presumed her husband’s bed to be. The occupants of the room — of the bed — had seen her before she could see them. Both of them.

“Why do ye bother me so, Mia?” her husband rasped, getting out of the bed where he had been laying, his dark hair falling into his eyes. She could smell the alcohol on the air between them, but her eyes were fixed on the woman in the bed. She recognized her as one of the maids who worked in the keep.

The maid that had so willingly warmed her matrimonial bed was now clutching her clothes to her chest and dashing out of the room. Bram, on the other hand, stood proudly bare before Mia, challenging her.

This was not the first time he had taken other women, she knew, but this was the first time she had caught him. The keep was pregnant with rumors of her husband’s affairs, but Mia had always ignored them. Of course, it was true. How else does a man service his loins when he refuses to touch his wife?

She looked away from him, staring at the door, but promptly snapped back to attention when Bram spoke again.

“For God’s sake, Mia… What are ye doing here? Ye didnae even give me a chance to finish, and I for sure will nae finish with ye,” he argued, not even stopping to catch his breath. “I have told ye over and over again that I need my privacy, but still ye come barging into my room, disturbing my moments o’ peace. I cannae even begin to find ye desirable with that sort o’ behavior. How can I want ye when I cannae stand ye?”

Mia realized she had been slouching, her shoulders heavy with disappointment. She felt her bravery retreat. It was clear that she would never be enough. For her husband. For her father. For anyone.

“Ye walk like a man. Ye have the scars of a man. Ye act like a man, and I cannae desire such a lady. Leave now, before ye do something we both regret.”

Mia stood there, unable to move. Her heart thundered so frantically that she worried it would leap out of her chest. She was humiliated but awestruck by the body that stood before her. Although he was much older than she was, her husband was still in his prime. His muscles were bulging beneath his skin; his jawline was defined and strong, his face unmarred by age. Mia didn’t love him. She never had, not in the way the poets spoke of love and burning desire, but she did believe she was failing as a wife if she could not make her husband desire her.

Further irritated by her refusal to move, Bram’s dark eyes bored into hers. “What did I say? Get out o’ my damned room, Mia! Remember what I told ye at our wedding? If nae for the good o’ my clan, I’d nae have married ye nor any other lass. Dinnae make me regret my kindness to them and to ye. Leave me be or I will throw ye out myself!”

Mia scowled to mask the disappointment she felt. All the promise of the night washed away at once. She walked out of her husband’s chambers as gracefully as she could, clenching her fists.

This was all her father’s fault. With no son to call his heir, he had spent her entire childhood treating her like she was a boy — teaching her how to hunt, how to ride. Even now, as a grown married woman, sparring was still her favorite pastime.

She knew giving up was not an option. She refused to live in a loveless marriage like her parents or be forced to escape from the window of her own home like her mother. She would win Bram over. Of that, she was sure. She just had to figure out how.

Mia kept thinking as she made her way down the stairs, when excited chatter interrupted her pitiful musing.

“The ball,” she heard, making out the voices. “Tis the largest, most beautiful celebration in all o’ the Highlands, and I cannae wait,” the first maid said excitedly.

The maids huddled together beneath the staircase she was descending but she couldn’t understand most of what was said since they spoke in a mix of Gaelic and English. It didn’t really matter. She didn’t care about balls anyway.

“The most handsome lairds are going to be there,” another maid replied. “If only one of them could take me to be his bride, I’d be the happiest lassie alive!”

The last maid, who had been quiet, finally broke her silence. “Well, there is a load of preparations to be performed with the Lady of this keep paying nae attention to such matters.” The maid sighed. “She would rather spend her time sparring in the fields,” she whispered.

“Och, dinnae bother about her,” said the first girl. “There are going to be many ladies in attendance too. Perhaps she will learn a thing or two about being a lady from them.”
The three girls giggled under the stairs, scuttling away before long. They had been right about one thing: Mia would much rather spend her time in the fields. She continued down the stairs and headed out of the keep.

***

“Aye, aye, lassies! Exactly like that,” Archie groaned, sandwiched between two women. In tandem, they worked their way between his muscled legs.

Archie looked between them, their eyes twinkling and their cheeks flushed. There was nothing quite like a Highland girl. They were the most desirable of the bunch.

To his dismay, his enjoyment was cut short by a loud knock on the door. The knocking didn’t stop until Archie heard his war chief, Lennox, speak up.

“Och, nae again, my laird!” Lennox said, opening the door without invitation. “Cannae ye wait just a while longer before ye indulge yourself in such pleasures?”

Archie rose from the bed, dismissing the two red-haired women with a wave of his hand. They sashayed out of the room, not bothering to cover themselves. Archie noticed how one of them — God above, he couldn’t remember her name — eyed Lennox as she walked out. He debated encouraging him to run after her—it was the least he could do for his best friend.

Archie could hear the pitter-patter of their naked feet against the floorboards as they left. Lennox settled by the door, almost knocking one of the shields from its rack. Archie had a penchant for battle memorabilia. The walls of his chamber were decorated with claymores and dirks. A wide armchair was perched in the corner of the room, with shelves of fortified wine and spirits stacked above it. Archie ambled over to it, fastening his britches.

“These wenches ye entertain do ye nae good,” Lennox said. “Ye need to find yerself a fair lady to settle down with.” Lennox fixed his gaze on Archibald’s left arm and let out a breath. “Ach, with that gash on yer arm, I dinnae ken how ye handle them anyway.”

Archie picked up his plaid and wrapped himself with it. He grabbed a bottle from the shelf and poured them both a glass of whiskey. He walked over to Lennox and patted him on the shoulder, handing him a tumbler.

“Ye worry too much, my friend,” Archie said. “They dinnae call me the Highland Wolf for naething, ye ken. I belong to the ladies and the sweet pleasures they give me,” he grinned.

Scoffing, Lennox chose to ignore him. Instead, he turned his attention to the rattling window behind the bed, rain and wind crashing against its panes.

“Be that as it may, Wolf, I have news,” Lennox started tentatively. His long hair glittered in the light from the fire. “Yer brother, Dallas, was seen near the lands by Balbaire, and—”

“I have nae brother,” Archie interrupted him fiercely. His smile vanished.

“Ach, Archie—”

“I want to hear naething of it, Lennox. Dallas can do as he pleases.”

“As ye wish, my laird” Lennox sighed, “but I implore ye to go easy with the lasses. We dinnae need wee bastards running amok, Archie.”

“We dinnae need miserable soldiers either. Ye ken we should nae have been so easily crushed at Culloden, Lennox. The Jacobites have to be stronger, mightier—nae to mention that I dare nae refuse myself any pleasure I desire, knowing full well I almost lost my life in that battle.”

“Have ye considered that, perhaps, a single woman would give ye just as much pleasure? A single lass like a wife?”

Archie laughed. It wasn’t as though he had never considered marriage. However, the idea didn’t appeal to him. “Nae, my friend. I would soon grow bored and weary of her, I ken it. I would rather have any beauty I please than be bound to one lass for the rest of my life.” Moving to lay back in bed, Archie continued. “Tell me something. Have ye received any news that will lift my spirits, or are ye here simply to hound me all day long?”

“Well, the invitation to the Murray annual ball arrived this morning. We should be leaving nae later than dawn on the morrow.”

“Och, now that I like to hear! A distraction is just what I need. Are the horses ready for the journey? There is nae reason to wait for dawn where lassies are concerned,” Archie quipped, crossing his arms behind his head.

Heaving another sigh, Lennox left the room to make the final preparations for their travel. And despite his friend’s protestation, the Laird was convinced he heard the man chuckle down the hall.

***

Swords clattered all around as Mia and Clyde sparred behind the castle. The sound of battle was enough to wash away her shame from the previous night. She planted her bare feet firmly in the grass as Clyde’s sparring sword came down on her shoulder.

“Got ya, lassie!” he exclaimed, filling the air with his carefree laughter. “Ye can pretend it is nae so, but ye are still a lady,” he added with the singsong voice that never failed to amuse her.

“Clyde. Och, Clyde… Ye ken for a fact that ye are going to be beaten by a woman for the umpteenth time one way or another. These fighting words will nae protect ye forever,” Mia mocked. Today would be like every other day. She would best her husband’s younger brother before sundown.

Clyde had been her only friend at the keep since her wedding a year ago. The man was different than his older brother, who stalked around the castle like a quiet tyrant. Clyde was genial, always doing something, his hazel eyes glittering with mischief. His good humor had nothing to do with his age. Mia was only two years older than him, but she looked twice as glum, and he was twice as tall.

“What is that look on yer face? Is my brother really that awful to ye?” Clyde asked, attempting to knock her sword out of her hands. “So awful that ye choose to come and spar with me? Something ye swore to me that ye would never do again, by the way. What was it ye said the day before last? ‘It is time I stopped acting like a lad.’”

Mia scoffed. Aside from Clyde, the whole clan thought that she and Bram were the perfect match—noble, beautiful and powerful. It couldn’t have been further from the truth, and at least Clyde was brave enough to say it.

“Och, well, what can I do? It is the only way I can chase my worries out of my stubborn mind, ye ken.” She pulled back, deflecting a slash of Clyde’s wooden sword. “Still, I blame nae one but my wretched father, nae even yer brother. He was nae the one that sold me like a cow. At least my father had the sense to arm me with a sword. And a bow. Ach, I bet that I am a better horse rider than ye too.”

“Then it is also yer father’s fault that ye are so bonnie,” her partner replied with a smirk.

“Yer brother certainly doesnae think so.” She sighed. “For the life o’ me, I cannae imagine how those noble ladies do it—sitting all day in their cottages or chambers, embroidering and gossiping. They always have an air o’ agreeance about them. I could nae stand it. Yet a part of me yearns to give it all away… to feel wanted and appreciated and nae to be stuck in a marriage without love.”

“Perhaps if ye truly loved someone it would make ye want to be a lady for him.”

Mia said nothing. Even to Clyde, she could not admit that she had been trying to be more ladylike, to fall in love and be loved in return. To no avail.

“My lady!” a maid cried suddenly. She ran down the hill at the bottom of which Clyde and Mia stood, clutching her bonnet.

As she got to them, looking white as a sheet, Mia feared the girl would faint.

“The guests,” the girl gulped, clutching her stomach, “they are arriving tomorrow. Word has arrived that they are just over the mountains near Ben Nevis. The rooms are nae ready yet, my lady!”

The maid looked over her shoulder, and Mia regarded her curiously. She recognized her before long as the girl she had caught with her husband.

Mia swallowed down her anger. Most of these women had lived and worked in the keep their entire lives. They were loyal to the Laird now that they were grown, and if the Laird called for him to share his bed they could hardly refuse. With the way the girl refused to look at her, Mia knew she remembered the evening too. However, the maid’s shame did not soothe Mia’s pride.

“Take me to the guest rooms,” Mia said as she handed Clyde her sword, waiting for the maid to lead the way. “Let me see how much work still has to be done.”

 

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The Highlander’s Lady of Pleasure (Preview)

Chapter One

Elaine McNally sat in the parlor of the farmhouse she called her home. With a small piece of chalk, she shaded the cheekbones of her brother’s face on the paper before her. She had not seen Angus for some time. Looking at the drawing, she silently wondered where he might be. Beside him, on one side, was a sketch of her younger sister, Rhona, and on the other was the best attempt she could make of herself.

A self-portrait was more difficult than capturing those whom one could see even though her brother had always told her she had talent as an artist. Drawing was the only thing that had brought her any solace since Angus had left. Having to care for her younger sister and consistently drunk father, despair for the future seemed to be Elaine’s constant state of mind.

“Look, Elaine,” Rhona beamed, holding aloft the small cloth doll in her hand. “I made Lucy a scarf.”

“My goodness,” Elaine replied, holding her hand out to take a closer look. “Did ye sew that yersel?”

“Aye,” Rhona said proudly.

Elaine regarded the scrap of material that Rhona had carefully folded and stitched that now sat around her doll’s neck. “Well, then ye are a very clever wee lass.”

Rhona bashfully rolled her eyes at the praise. “It’s just a piece o’ cloth, Elaine.”

“It may well have been a piece o’ cloth, Rhona. But now, ye have made it intae something pretty. Ye must nae diminish yer talents.”

“I dinnae ken what diminish means,” Rhona shrugged.

“It means…”

The searing sound of a door slamming open pierced the air, followed by the cries of several men. As the intrusion continued, Elaine’s heart thumped in her chest as she heard the splintering sound of pottery and items being knocked to the floor in another part of the farmhouse. She looked at Rhona, who ran to her side, horrified.

“What’s happening, Elaine!? What’s happening?” she cried.

Elaine could not answer for she did not know. There had previously been attacks on their farmhouse. With their father owing money across the lands, many angry farmers had invaded the house, demanding repayment. Times were hard, and people needed to eat. Angus had taught Elaine to use the sword from a young age, and her skills had proven useful in deflecting attacks. With her slender figure, soft brown hair, and green eyes, one would not think of her as a warrior. But Elaine was sick of fighting her father’s battles. And this time, instead of reaching for her sword, she was more determined to protect her sister. Besides, there was clearly more than one of them.

“Find him,” she heard a man say. “He’s in here somewhere.”

Elaine stood and pushed Rhona behind her, moving them both closer to the corner of the room. Clearly, they were after her father. Maybe if they stayed quiet…

“We mustnae make a sound,” Elaine whispered. “Pretend ye are a little mouse, Rhona. Can ye do that?”

Rhona looked up at Elaine with a terrified expression, the fear in her eyes nearly breaking Elaine’s heart. Her little sister did not speak but only nodded that she understood.

As they searched the house, more doors burst open. Elaine heard thumping footsteps charge up the stairs and held her breath without realizing it. Her father was still in his bedchamber, drunk as usual from far too much ale the night before. She wouldn’t be surprised if he was still sleeping and hadn’t heard anything. These days, he was either drunk or sleeping anyway.

“He’s up here,” one of them called out. “I’ve found him.”

More stomping footsteps made their way up the stairs. Elaine guessed there were at least two or three men.

Muffled yelling followed, and a great scuffle against the floorboards was heard above them. While terrified of what might be happening to him, she couldn’t really sympathize with him. With his selfishness, he had put them all in danger. Without Angus, the farm would have perished. Angus and Elaine had tried to provide for their family, but their father had drunk his way through any savings they had, as well as what little money they made.

Heavy footsteps and scuffling moved across the floorboards. Elaine followed the sound from the ceiling with her eyes. The voices were becoming clearer now, and she could hear her father’s growling tones.

“Let me go! Gerroff me! Let me go! Ye have nae right tae come intae my house.”

“Stop struggling,” one of the men barked. “The laird wants tae see ye, McNally, and whether ye like it or nae, yer coming with us.”

“What?” her father retorted. “I’ve done naething tae the laird. Ye cannae just come in here and take me prisoner.”

“Aye, well. Maybe if yer son hadnae sneaked intae the castle and tried tae steal what ye sent him tae steal, ye wouldnae be in this mess.”

The rowdy group dragged William McNally down the stairs, and by the sounds of their voices, were nearing the front door.

“I dinnae ken what yer on about. I havenae seen Angus for ages.”

“That’s because he’s dead,” one of the men barked callously.

Elaine took a swift breath in, and Rhona suddenly yelped. Instinctively, Elaine clapped her hand across her sister’s mouth and looked down at her with a pleading expression.

Those words seemed to hit her father as well, for he cried out in desperation. “Yer’ve murdered my lad?!”

None of the men responded. Perhaps her father’s heartwrenching voice affected them. Even in her despair and shock, she could hear his anguish.

“Listen, McNally,” one of the guards said. “Yer son committed a great crime. The laird is after all o’ ye family now.”

Those words struck every emotion Elaine was experiencing. But survival took precedence over her despair at the terrible news she had just received. She dashed across the parlor, firmly pushing Rhona out of her way, and reached behind a wooden chair. She raised the sword she had hidden there and returned her attention to her sister.

“Come, Rhona. We must go!” She whispered, waving Rhona over to her.

“But, what about Papa!” Rhona cried, still looking utterly terrified.

“We cannae help him now. We must save ourselves. I have tae get ye out of here. Come, we need tae hurry!”

Despite her younger sister’s obvious concern for her father’s well-being, she had also heard the guard’s words. They would return for them once they had secured William. Rhona turned and ran across the room to Elaine, allowing her older sister to assist her through the window that led to the back garden.

“We must hurry,” Elaine whispered, dropping to the ground beside her.

They didn’t have much time, and they needed to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the house. The sisters ran across the courtyard at the back, scaling the wall that led into the grassy pasture behind them. They quickly crossed the field and came to a line of trees that led into a dense wood. The sword was heavy and challenging to carry, but Elaine knew they couldn’t slow down.

They walked through the forest for a while. The cool, dark air obscured the magnificent surroundings, but Elaine was bound to these lands. The rolling hills ran through her veins. She eventually gave in to her despair and allowed thoughts of Angus to swirl around her mind, knowing that the immediate danger had been averted. He’d told her the last time she saw him that he had to leave. She had no idea what he was up to at the time. As she trudged through the dense forest, the memory of their last meeting crept into her thoughts.

Angus walked into the parlor with a worried frown upon his brow. He looked about as though expecting to see someone else in the room. But, satisfied Elaine was alone, he closed the door behind him and approached her.

“I’ll be going away for a few days, Elaine. I need ye tae take care o’ things here.”

“Where are ye going?’’ Elaine frowned.

“I cannae tell ye that. It’s too dangerous for ye tae ken.”

Elaine felt deeply perturbed at his answer. “Well, if it’s dangerous, let me come with ye,” she replied. “Ye ken I’m good with the sword. I can help if anything goes awry.”

“Absolutely nae!” he barked. “It’s too dangerous, Elaine. If I get caught, that’s one thing. If ye get caught with me, who is there left tae look after Rhona? She’s nae yet even ten summers.”

“Get caught doing what, Angus?” Elaine pressed.

“I’ve told ye already. I cannae say. I have tae do this, Elaine. Whatever happens, just know that I’m doing it tae help deal with the mess we’re in. I need ye tae stay here and look after Rhona. If ye come with me and something happens, do ye really want our little sister tae have tae fend for herself as well as look after that drunken bastard we call a father?”

Angus was not wrong. If he was caught, Rhona would need her to look after her. And being ten years younger, she already looked to her to fill the void left by their mother.

“We cannae leave her with Father, Elaine. It’s just nae right. I will go by mysel. It’ll be less dangerous with only one o’ us anyway.”

That was the last time she had seen his face. And now, she would never see him again. Her heart was broken. Even in her grief, Elaine couldn’t understand why Angus had done something so heinous as try to steal something from the laird. He had the heart of a nobleman, and such behavior was totally out of character for him. He had assured her that whatever he had to do would benefit their family. And she couldn’t see how stealing anything could help them.

What could he have wanted that the laird possessed?

Elaine was deep in thought. Her sister’s company brought her back to their current situation. They needed to stay hidden, but she had no idea how. Rhona would be tired soon, and they would need to rest.

“Come on, Rhona,” Elaine encouraged her little sister. But when she turned around to look at her, she suddenly realized that Rhona was no longer behind her.

“Rhona!?” Elaine cried out, but all she heard was the soft rushing sound of the moving branches around and above her.

Elaine moved her eyes in every direction, panicked, but there was no sign of Rhona. And then, she was hit in the chest by the sudden realization.

Her sister was gone.

***

Laird Duncan MacDougall sat next to the lass who lay beside him in his bed. Tucked beneath the heavy blankets and furs, he watched her shoulders rise and fall with each breath. She was a fine-looking woman, he had to admit. Moving his hand above the harsh scar that ran down the left side of his cheek, he took in a long breath and removed his gaze from the lass cuddled beside him.

Dunollie Castle was quiet now that night had fallen. Perched on a cliff overlooking Oban Bay and the surrounding Isles, the castle was always bustling with bodies—guards, servants, maids, all hurrying about and seeing to their chores and duties. At night, it was quiet. While the fires still crackled, an eerie calm pervaded the corridors.

Duncan had always been soothed by the nocturnal silence. Surrounded by stone walls, knowing the moors and ocean shielded from attackers, he counted his blessings. Yet, as of late, he found no solace no matter the time of day or night.

Pushing himself silently from the bed, Duncan left the room and moved through the dark stone corridors, down the wide staircase, and made his way to the library. On entry, it did not surprise him to discover his older brother sitting in a high-backed chair beside the fir. In fact, he had half-expected to find him there.

“Och, ye’re all spent, are ye nae?” Keir smiled dryly.

Keir was three years older than Duncan, and at thirty years of age, it was he who ought to be laird, not Duncan. Yet, he suffered a terrible affliction since he was a child; strange seizures that took him over as though he were possessed by the devil himself, along with collapsing into unconsciousness without any warning. When their father had died, he had been deemed unfit to inherit the lairdship. Duncan had been Keir’s suggestion, and the council had agreed with him, saying that with Duncan’s battle experience, he would make the better laird in any case.

“So, tell me, brother,” Keir continued as Duncan dropped into a matching chair opposite him. “How long are ye going tae continue philandering with these random lasses? Do ye nae think it better tae find a woman ye can take as a wife?”

Duncan shrugged. “I dinnae want tae, Keir, nae yet. I cannae bring mysel tae think about another woman like that, when my wife and bairn are only buried four months. At least these ladies of pleasure keep their wagging tongues busy, unlike the maids under our roof.”

“It saddens me tae see ye this way, Duncan. I ken yer consumed with revenge for their murders, but ye cannae let their deaths destroy ye. I’ve seen that dead look in yer eyes. It’s like ye dinnae want tae be here any longer. A new family will give ye purpose.”

Duncan stared into the flames of the fire for a long moment. It was easy for Keir to say such things. It had not been his wife and child who had been snatched from him.

“I’ll tell ye now, brother,” Keir continued. “If yer nae careful, Mother will force ye tae be betrothed, and God only kens the kind of wife she’ll choose for ye,” he grinned affably.

Duncan smiled back at his brother, for he knew he was trying to lighten the mood. In truth, he was not likely wrong for he wouldn’t be surprised if his mother took such action.

“Aye, I can imagine,” Duncan smirked. “A big burly lassie from up north with nae teeth and more hair on her chest than I.”

That comment sent the brothers into peals of laughter. They were still chuckling when the library door opened, and Finn entered. “I thought I might find ye both here,” he nodded toward them, closing the door behind him.

Finn Stewart had lived in the castle since the MacDougall brothers could remember. The three men were close companions, and he became one of the Laird’s most trusted advisors as well as Keir’s personal healer. Duncan was fortunate to have a few loyal friends, including Keir, his blood brother, and Finn and Douglas MacDougall, his war chief, who were his brothers in arms.

“Pour us a dram before ye sit, will ye, Finn,” Keir nodded to the bulky wooden dresser.

“Aye, I could do with one myself. I was out in the forest all afternoon gathering lavender and witch hazel. That wind would’ve cut ye in two.”

Keir suddenly chuckled. “Dear Lord, man. Ye crow more than a lass. Maybe a bit o’ cold will harden ye.”

“Aye, well. If that’s what’ll dae, I should have the hide of a wild boar by now.”

All three men burst out laughing. Finn came over to sit beside the brothers after pouring the drinks. The men continued to discuss the developments in the castle before retiring to bed.

However, one thought lingered in Duncan’s mind.

***

Her mind raced with worry. Elaine began to lose hope after more than an hour of searching, running haphazardly in different directions around the woods, that she would ever find Rhona in the denseness of the trees. It was getting darker. Her little sister might be forced to spend the night lost and alone if she did not find her soon. She’d be terrified and know not how to survive in the wilderness.

“Rhona,” Elaine cried out again in desperation.

A twig snapped behind her and caught Elaine’s attention. But before she could turn, a hard hand clapped against her mouth and a strong arm grabbed her from behind. She fought with all her might, twisting and turning in an attempt to free herself or reach her sword. But it was pointless. She could tell her assailant was a man by the way he was holding her against his body–a strong, tall man at that. Even with all of her training, no amount of force could break his grip. Elaine couldn’t imagine what was about to happen as her heart thumped against her chest.

“Stop struggling,” the man’s voice growled.

Elaine could feel his breath on her ear as he spoke. She first assumed the laird’s guards had pursued her and discovered her in the woods, but she soon realized there would have been more than one of them. She then had the worst thought, and she braced herself for what he was about to do to her. She had never been assaulted before, but she had heard of others who had. The stories had instilled so much fear in her, she was shaking uncontrollably.

“Now,” the gravelly voice growled, “I am going tae let ye go. But before I dae, I must tell ye that I have yer little sister.” There was something strange in the way he spoke, but Elaine could hardly concentrate, with the terror that had claimed her. “A fine-looking wee lass at that,” he continued, “and if ye scream, she’ll pay the price, dae ye understand?”

Elaine let out a whelp of despair before nodding in agreement. The man hesitated for a moment. He then pushed her forward and away from him with a shove. Elaine turned slowly to face the man. He stood to the side, a large hood from a long cloak covering most of his face and a scarf wrapped from his neck to the bridge of his nose.

“Yer brother failed me, Miss McNally. And where his search ended, yers will begin.”

“I dinnae ken what yer talking about,” she cried, shaking her head.

“Angus was tae retrieve something from the laird’s castle that belongs tae me…”

“It was ye who got my brother killed?” Elaine gasped.

“Yer brother got himsel killed,” the man spat back. “Ye must be smarter than him, because if ye dinnae bring me what I desire, yer little sister will experience the same fate,” he chortled sadistically.

“Nae!”

“Then ye will dae as I bid!” he barked. “I get what’s rightfully mine, ye get yer sister. It’s that simple.”

“But how?” Elaine cried.

“That, Miss McNally, is nae my concern.”

Shoving out a hand, he pressed a piece of paper into her palm. “Find it and bring it tae me,” he growled, before turning on his heels and hurrying into the dense woods.

“But how will I ken where tae find ye?” Elaine yelled out after him but he was soon lost in the darkness of the many trees.

Elaine considered following him, but with the threat of Rhona’s safety hanging over her head, she decided against it. Instead, she was left feeling completely helpless as her entire world crumbled around her. Angus had died, her father had been imprisoned, and Rhona had been kidnapped. She had no one to turn to for help, but standing there, still shaken from her ordeal, she refused to let the despair of her situation overcome her. She needed to figure out how she could get what this man wanted while also getting Rhona back safely.

Elaine had to get into the castle undetected. And she had to make a plan.

 

Chapter Two

News had arrived that William McNally had been brought to the castle. Duncan had sent him to the dungeons to be dealt with later. According to the guards, the man would need at least a day or two to sober up. His two daughters had escaped, but they wouldn’t get far before the guards caught up with them. Duncan didn’t want Angus McNally dead. He would have been far more useful to him if he had been alive. But there was nothing he could do about it now. While he would not tolerate being undermined by those he ruled over, McNally’s death served no purpose. Though he assumed it sent a clear message to whoever else was involved, as he was certain the McNally lad was not working alone. Maybe his father and sisters knew something, maybe they didn’t, but Duncan was determined to find out.

“Dae ye think he had something tae dae with the death o’ Cora and Eoin?” Keir asked as Duncan paced his study.

The brothers had been discussing the council pressuring Duncan to marry again when the news had arrived of McNally’s capture. The subject had changed almost immediately afterward.

“It’s possible,” Duncan shrugged, feeling stung by the names of his late wife and son. “I suppose I cannae ken until I speak tae the man. With his son remaining silent, it makes sense that there’s a connection. When I interrogated him, he was clearly protecting someone.”

Keir looked a little uncomfortable for a moment and then continued. “What makes ye think his father will break when his son didnae?”

“William McNally’s a drunkard, Keir,” Duncan growled with disgust. “From what I hear, he’s allowed his farm tae go tae ruin and has abandoned the responsibilities of his family tae feed his need for drink. Clearly, he’s a far weaker man than his son.”

After a sharp knock on the door, Finn entered with a perturbed expression lining his face. “I have news that ye’ll want tae hear, Duncan,” he exclaimed a little breathlessly.

“What is it?” He frowned.

“They’ve found a dagger buried near where yer wife and the bairn’s bodies were discovered. By the markings on the handle, the blade belongs tae someone from Clan Mackintosh,” Finn replied.

Duncan’s brow suddenly deepened, for what Finn was saying made little sense. Clearly, Keir felt the same way, for he was the first to reply.

“That makes nae sense,” he stated. “Tae begin with, why have they only found the dagger now? Why was it nae discovered when they searched the place the first time?”

Duncan nodded. “And why Clan Mackintosh? They’re a brave distance away from us. What possible gain would it give them, murdering my wife and heir? We have never had any qualms with them before now.”

Both Duncan and Keir looked at Finn as if he should have an answer, but he couldn’t possibly know. He was only relaying the information. And with his lack of response, the room fell silent for a long time. Duncan resumed pacing and Keir thoughtfully rested his chin in his hand, clearly trying to deduce some answers.

Finn eventually broke the silence by clearing his throat. “I’m sure we’ll discover the answers, Duncan. But for now, I think ye have another concern.”

“Which is?” He pressed, wondering what could possibly be more important than discovering the reason for his family’s murder.

“Well,” Finn suddenly looked a little uncomfortable by Duncan’s demanding tone. “I overheard the maids gossiping about the women visiting the castle at night. Some of them seemed tae be wondering,” he continued warily, “what ye’re actually doing with the ladies, given that they never hear a sound from yer bedchamber when they pass.”

“For the love of God!” Duncan barked in frustration, but not missing Keir’s knowing look. “The servants ought tae be minding their own damned business.”

“I’m only the messenger, Duncan,” Finn said apologetically, raising his hands in surrender.

“Do I nae have enough tae be dealing with without having tae worry about everyone’s opinions from maid tae master?”
Duncan huffed at the sound of another knock at the door.

“Come,” he barked.

“Excuse me, my Laird,” the guard said as he remained in the doorway. “I have been sent tae inform you that William McNally died a little while ago.”

“God’s teeth!” Duncan bellowed, throwing his head up in angry frustration. “What happened?”

“Looks like he vomited in his drunken stupor and choked, my Laird.”

***

Elaine crept back into her home and spent a restless night in her own bed after dark had fallen and she was certain there were no guards lying in wait at the farmhouse. She came downstairs the next morning to find a note pinned to the front door with a dagger.

William McNally died in the dungeons.

There was no signature, no indication of who might have left it, but the guards couldn’t have done it. If they had returned to the house, it would have been to capture her. No, this note was left by the man who had taken Rhona.

Elaine was certain of it. Staring at the words, she felt numb. Perhaps she should have felt something, but the news of her father’s death did not strike her as hard as it would have a year ago.

Before her mother had left, he had been a happy man. A man who worked hard for his family and provided for them. But when she, Ailish McNally, decided to run off with a wealthy traveler, her departure set the family on the path of ruin. It would have been better if she had died. At the very least, William may have handled the news better. But Ailish was far from dead. In fact, she was fully alive and well, most likely in the arms of her new husband somewhere far away from them. It had taken her no time at all to pack her belongings and flee into the night, leaving her husband and three children far behind.

William was heartbroken by his wife’s departure and sought solace in the bottom of a bottle. The farmland had been neglected. Angus had been forced to take charge of the family and their livelihood, and William’s thirst for alcohol had depleted their savings. They had begun to struggle between paying the workers and feeding the family. That was why Angus had taken on such a dangerous task. And now, she had lost both of them.

Elaine left the farmhouse after a night. She rode the horse and cart into Oban. She was a skilled swordswoman who could disarm a soldier if necessary. All she needed was to find a way into the castle, which she couldn’t do while pacing the parlor’s concrete floors and mourning her losses.

“The only people who get intae that castle, my dear, are those who are invited,” the old woman said, handing her the wrapped parcel a few minutes later.

Elaine had wandered into the village bakery and purchased some bread to avert suspicion for her true reason for being there.

“Well,” the young lass beside the older woman raised her eyebrows, “that and all those ladies o’ the night,” she giggled.

Elaine frowned. “Ladies o’ the night?”

“Pay nae heed tae her,” the old woman said, swiping a dismissive hand. “She’s just a silly lass.”

“It’s true,” the girl said more determinedly. “There’s one up there every night. My friend works in the courtyards, and she told me so hersel. Says the laird sleeps with a woman from the local brothel every night.”

“My, what a tale,” Elaine said, trying to control the interest in her voice.

“Well, with all his troubles o’ late, I suppose he needs some consolation.” The girl fell into giggles again, causing the old woman beside her to roll her eyes and shake her head.

***

It was hardly the best plan. But it was the only one she had. Later that night, Elaine crouched low at the castle walls, waiting. She kept the only road leading to the castle in view as she waited for the woman to arrive. She had disguised herself as best she could, wearing Angus’s short jacket and tucking her hair into a beret with a scarf around the bottom of her face. But as dusk turned to night, she became restless, her nerves rising with each passing minute.

Have ye completely lost yer mind?

She was about to pretend to be someone who slept with men for money when she hadn’t even slept with even one. When it came down to it, how was she going to explain that? Elaine was thinking about this question when she heard rustling behind her and turned to face it. She looked up to see a fire torch being carried by a lass a little older than her.

Elaine had assumed that the woman had come from the main road, but she had actually come through the forest that surrounded the castle walls. Elaine circled her and came up behind her swiftly and quietly. She was slender, with short red hair, and roughly the same size and shape as herself, if not a little shorter.

“Halt right there,” she barked, holding out her dagger against the woman’s neck.

“Please, please, dinnae hurt me,” the woman cried. “What dae ye want?”

“Yer clothes,” Elaine demanded, struggling to keep her voice from shaking.

“My cloth…”

“Now!” Elaine barked once more. “Dae it now or I’ll take them from yer lifeless body.”

“All right, I’ll dae what ye ask. Ye dinnae need that dagger,” the woman said calmly, stripping naked right there in the grass. And as Elaine followed suit, she threw her clothes at the woman’s feet. After some time, both were dressed again, each looking like the other had before.

“Where dae ye enter? How dae ye get tae the laird?” Elaine asked roughly. When the woman hesitated to answer, she added in a lower almost desperate voice. “It’s important.”

The woman went to turn.

“Dinnae look at me,” Elaine barked and lifted the dagger closer.

“All right, I apologize,” she said again, dropping her head down. “I dinnae ken what this is about, but I’ll help ye if ye want tae get intae the castle so badly, just please lower the weapon. There’s a small gate in the wall. There’s a guard on the other side who expects us. Knock on the gate three times. He’ll take ye tae the laird.”

“I’m grateful for yer help,” Elaine replied calmly this time, happy that she didn’t need to use any force. The last thing she wanted was to cause her harm. But with Rhona being held by that madman, she would if she was forced. “Now, it’s best ye be on yer way.”

“Good luck,” the woman nodded, before scampering away, leaving Elaine alone with the terrifying task ahead of her.

Elaine found the gate not far away as she moved along the walls. She took a deep breath and looked down at herself, embarrassed by her state of undress. The dark green corset was so low that her breasts bulged out of it, exposing far too much of her milky flesh. However, there was nothing else to do. Elaine lifted her hand and knocked three times on the gate, fixing the pins in her wavy brown hair and praying she could pull it off.

The gate opened and a guard peered out. He said nothing, just nodded and jerked his head for Elaine to follow him. They crossed the courtyard, keeping close to the buildings to avoid detection. They climbed concrete steps, moved down corridors, and passed through tiny doorways in hidden passages until the guard came to a halt in front of a large heavy-looking wooden door. He did not speak again, but instead knocked on the door and walked away.

“Enter,” came a voice from inside.

Elaine lifted her hand to open the door and noticed that it trembled. Hardly the reaction of a woman who did this every night.

Pull yersel together, woman!

Not knowing how she managed it, Elaine took another deep breath and steeled herself. Rhona’s life depended on her. Whatever happened behind this door, she was going to do to save her sister. With determination, she finally pressed her hand against the heavy wood and walked inside.

A man stood at the hearth with his back to her, hands outstretched resting on the mantlepiece. The fire raged before him, and with his head bent, he appeared to be staring into it. When he did not move, Elaine allowed her eye to wander and could hardly believe the size of the room, even the size of the fireplace, for it took up nearly an entire wall. Several candelabras were scattered around, the candles within flickering and swaying as though moving to music.
Huge tapestries hung on the walls and a rug the size of their entire parlor lay on the stone floor beneath her.

Finally, she looked over at the bed. Four posts supported a cloth canopy of woven fabric above. Several furs, as well as coverlets lay spread upon the huge mattress.

Elaine had not noticed the laird had turned and was now looking at her. When her gaze returned to him, he appeared to be watching her with interest. Elaine, on the other hand, could only focus on the terrifying scar that ran down his cheek. Though a little unnerving, she couldn’t help but notice how beautiful the rest of his face was. He was tall and broad, with dark blond hair that was cut short to his head. By his expression, he looked a little confused. Elaine suddenly realized that the red-haired lass might be a regular.

“I dinnae recall ye coming tae see me ‘afore,” he said, confirming her suspicions.

“Nae, my Laird,” Elaine bowed toward him. “My friend is ill and asked me tae come in her place. She didnae wish tae disappoint ye.”

“I see,” he replied calmly.

He did not speak again, nor did he move toward her. In fact, he turned from her and rested his hands upon the mantle. The heavy silence that hung between them left Elaine feeling more than a little confused. Standing there, wondering what she was supposed to do, the resolve she had garnered standing out in the hallway seemed to slowly dissipate, giving way for her nerves to return. One wrong move and he may realize that she was not who she proclaimed to be. And in fear of such discovery, she decided to remain where she was.

Eventually, he moved from the fireplace and walked toward a dresser. Taking two goblets, he filled them both with wine. Without speaking, he walked toward her and handed her one. Elaine smiled meekly and nodded in gratitude. Not really thinking about it and struggling with her nerves, she bent her head back and swallowed the entire contents in one go. When she straightened again, the laird was looking at her with an amused expression upon his face.

“Thirsty, are we?” he smirked.

He took the glass from her and refilled it. When he handed it to her, he looked at her intently. “I would advise nae tae dae the same. This wine is nae the rot ye get in the village. I wouldnae want ye making yourself ill.”

His words were not ordered, but spoken with kindness, which made her even more nervous than before. It might have been easier had he been an ogre of a man. Yet, in the small time she had been in his company, that was not the sense she got at all. Elaine had imagined that she would hardly have been in the room more than five minutes before he would tear the clothes from her body to have his way. Yet, in stark contrast, he was cold, distant, and clearly not interested in conversation, given that he had moved back to resting his hands on the mantle while staring into the fire.

Perhaps she was doing something wrong. Perhaps it was the ladies o’ the night that made the first move, and he was awaiting her approach. If that were the case, he would become suspicious of her if she remained standing in the same spot. She could not allow him to discover her true identity, or she would join her father and Angus, and Rhona would never be saved. Placing her glass on the dresser a few steps away, Elaine approached him from behind, her heart beating wildly as the nerves threatened to overtake her.

Upon reaching him, she gazed at his broad back and wondered where to start. Softly laying her hands upon his shoulders, she began rubbing gently, attempting to caress his shoulders. She moved her hands to his upper arms with soft, slow strokes. He turned to face her then, looking down at her, watching her every move.

Elaine did not have the courage to look up at him. She feared he would see the terror in her eyes. Instead, she tried to concentrate on what she was doing. The laird bent his head, and instinctually, Elaine lifted hers, leaning up to kiss him. Their lips brushed, but he gently pulled away. His breath danced upon her skin as he lowered his mouth toward her neck, brushing past her ear, causing her to inhale sharply. A strange sensation that Elaine had never experienced before rushed through her body. Her breast ached in a way that was almost unbearable, and a heat suddenly rose far below.

What is happening tae me? Is this reaction normal?

The laird chuckled, which shocked her even further. Lifting his head, he moved passed her and walked away, still giggling. Elaine let out a silent sigh of relief. Turning toward him, she found herself smiling at his soft laughter.

“Ye are a very beautiful lass…” he raised his eyebrows to inquire her name.

“Elaine,” she replied softly.

“Ye are a very beautiful lass, Elaine. However, naething will happen between us. I’m grateful for yer company, but I expect conversation only.”

“I see,” Elaine replied, not really understanding but trying desperately to hide her relief. “May I ask, my Laird…”

“Under these circumstances, ye may call me Duncan.”

“Duncan,” Elaine continued uncomfortably, “is that the way with all the ladies?”

“Are ye worried that it’s something ye have done?” Duncan asked.

“Well…” she hesitated.

“Dinnae. Ye have done naething wrong. I simply dinnae require the services ye offer, from ye or any other of yer friends,” he smiled.

Elaine was once more confused. For why would the laird request ladies of the night if he did not actually lie with them? It hardly made any sense. He had the entire village talking about his indiscretions when no such acts took place.

Why would he dae such a thing?

“I dae have one request,” he said, with a wry smile. “We have tae pretend we are doing something.”

Elaine’s brow furrowed deeply. She was more confused than ever. At her expression, he chuckled once more. It annoyed her a little that his laugh made her want to smile.

“We have tae make the noises, as though we are laying together,” he explained.

“I apologize, my Lai…” Elaine started when he interrupted her.

“Duncan.”

“I apologize, Duncan, but I am nae certain what exactly yer request means.” Feeling how her cheeks filled with embarrassment, Elaine looked everywhere but his eyes.

“I am referring tae the sounds of pleasure a man and a woman make, while they are laying together,” Duncan elaborated. He let out yet another laugh at her puzzled expression, before continuing. “Like this. Ahhh. Oh. Hmmm,” he groaned passionately.

Elaine nearly burst into laughter herself and it took all her strength to hold it in. Clearly, her not so well-hidden smile gave away her amusement and he smiled back widely. “I ken it is a rather peculiar request. But I will pay ye extra for yer services. Come, try it with me,” he offered.

 

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The Scot I’ve Always Loved (Preview)

Chapter One

The high pitch scream of death echoed through the corridor, rousing him from his slumber. He rubbed his eyes half awake, his ears ready to confirm the source of the sound. His mother’s voice. Then came a second, louder and longer wail, followed by an unsettling silence.

He sprang from his bed and descended the stairs as fast as his six-year-old legs could carry him. The outline of a man seeped like a shadow from his father’s study and out the door that led to the open fields of the keep. Curious, he edged towards the door.

As he pushed the handle, the sickening smell of fresh blood filled his nostrils. His eyes were drawn downward to the twisted figure of a woman lying still on the cold floor, her shift stained with the same blood that pooled around her, a luckenbooth brooch lying next to her.

His heart beat rapidly, and his muscles tensed as he moved closer to the body. “It is my da’s treasure,” he muttered near-voicelessly as he picked up the blood-stained brooch. “Where is…”

His eyes widened as he jerked away, quick as he could. The body of the dead woman shot up through the air, colliding with the ceiling. Blood dripped down her twisted neck, and she stared back at him with eyes that were just like his mother’s. Then, before he could run, she flew towards him.

Kendrick jolted up from his bed. His body was dappled with sweat as though he had been hunting a boar. But the pounding in his chest subsided as he realized it was merely a nightmare. He looked beside his bed to find the luckenbooth brooch.

Fourteen years had passed, yet the recollections of his mother’s twisted neck and her frozen, dead brown eyes remained vivid. The memories of his father’s sin had since been a bedside companion. Every night had been merciless.

He picked up the brooch—the one that had once belonged to his father, the one that had fallen next to his mother’s body the night he found her. He didn’t know why he kept it close. Perhaps he needed something to remind himself of his bitterness for his father, of his vow to not walk the same beastly path himself.

“Watch me, Father,” he mumbled. “I shall never become a wife slaughterer like ye. I shall live and die without a family.”

“Are ye all right, milaird?”

Kendrick gasped. It was only Catherine. She rubbed his shoulder in the early morning light, pressing her bare body against his. Shaken by the damned nightmare, he had all but forgotten she had spent the night in his chamber.

“I’d like to be left on my own, Catherine,” he rasped. “Ye may leave now.”

“But milaird—” the maid started, her voice filled with tears. Her outburst unsettled him, as Catherine knew well. He didn’t allow any of his lovers to sleep in his bed, and she pushed her luck every time.

“Now, lass,” he growled, trying to keep his anger at bay.

With a sad little grimace, she rapidly dressed and turned to leave his chamber. “Ye may not care for me, milaird, but I care for ye. Whenever ye need me, ye ken where ye may find me.”

He watched as she opened the door to leave. To his dismay, Logan, his uncle and advisor, was waiting on the other side. He entered and looked at the girl with a smirk. Blushing from head to toe, Catherine gave Kendrick one last glance before leaving the men alone. For some reason, he felt guilty.

Laird! As if it were my fault she always pretends to be asleep!

“Why, what a little bairn ye are, still sleeping next to a maid!” Logan teased through bouts of laughter.
Kendrick pretended to not hear him. “Is there a problem?”

“The farmers seek yer attendance,” Logan explained, wiping his eyes. “They are concerned by the season’s harvest—aye, it does not look promising.”

“I will join ye shortly. I plea ye, keep the peace till I return,” said Kendrick.

“Alright, lad. Go wash and straighten yerself up. Ye look awful,” Logan added before walking out of the chamber.

***

Kendrick walked into a room filled with farmers almost twice his age. He was a young laird of twenty-two, leading a clan of hundreds. The laborers’ faces held not a whisper of happiness. Kendrick could only mirror their despair as he made his way to his chair, ready to listen to their grievances.

“Milaird,” said one of the farmers. “The fields refuse to bear fruit and our families rest on empty stomachs.”

“Pardon me, milaird, even our sheep and goats starve, and we cannot milk them,” another complained.

“The soils do not yield any safe grain, milaird! We shall die of starvation if a solution is not provided,” cried another voice from the crowd.

The shouts of about a hundred frustrated farmers begging for the Laird’s assistance soon filled the hall. Hard though he may have pondered, Kendrick could not fathom what to say that might aid them. He frowned as he massaged his chin.

When he tried to speak, all that came out was silence.

He finally forced the words from his mouth. “Quiet,” he intonated, shifting the focus of the disgruntled men back to himself. “Nae one shall die of starvation. I shall find a way. I ken how ye must feel, and I will make sure naeone will go to bed hungry anymore.”

“I do nae wish to question yer word, milaird, but how shall ye cater our demands?” one of the men inquired.

“He is right, milaird,” another chimed up. “Ye dinnae have neither wife nor children. Ye dinnae ken what it is to provide for a bairn! How can ye ken what it is we feel?”

“Ye cannae put in order yer responsibilities, and make a family of yer own, milaird. How ken ye attend tae our needs?”

Kendrick was at a loss for words. There was no doubt: many were the men who looked up to him as a strong, safeguarding laird. The others, the outliers, made their disdain for his freedom clear, saying he lacked bravery… but they did not know his truth.

Logan cleared his throat and turned to his nephew. “If ye permit me, milaird, I must address them.”
Kendrick nodded.

“I am aware of yer needs and concerns, but ye all need not worry,” Logan assured them. “The Laird shall meet a maiden of decent ancestry. Aye, of that I have no doubt—and when he does, they will marry, and ye shall all reap the fruits of their union.”

The farmers grew silent for a moment, as did Kendrick, who gaped as he struggled to accept his uncle’s statement. He had hardly expected to hear such nonsense from Logan’s mouth, and now he felt even more helpless at finding the right words.

“In order for the young Laird to select his wife,” Logan went on, “We shall host a feast with all ye brave clan members, with all landholders having daughters, while we gather and search for a solution of yer worries.”

Everyone exhaled in relief, and hopeful chatter filled the air. Everyone, except for Kendrick. He refused to become his own father, to take a wife—to destroy her. Even so, he knew his fate could not be avoided. He would need to sire an heir, and he would need a wife to do so.

“Why did ye say that, Uncle?” Kendrick questioned in a low voice while the villagers were leaving the hall. “We have never discussed finding a maiden for me to marry, and a promise like that has to be of my own making.”

“Well, I do ken it is long overdue, son. Ye have witnessed the farmers’ doubt in yer duty as laird, and I could nae stand hearing it anymore,” Logan replied. “If ye don’t want to lose their faith, ye need to find a wife sooner than ye think, and I ken that even if we had discussed it earlier, the ending would nae change for it. Ye have to marry, Kendrick. And ye have to marry fast.”

Although he would have preferred to take a different stand, he had to concede that his uncle was right. He took a long breath before speaking, “Where do ye recommend I start?”

“Only two landholders have daughters of marriageable age, that I ken,” he paused to face Kendrick. “I suppose one of Angus Gibson’s daughters will be a wonderful choice for ye. He has considerable authority and influence over the other landholders of the clan to boot.”

Kendrick grimaced. Angus Gibson had been an ally of his late father. His eldest daughter, Sophia, had been a dear friend of his when they were children… until talk had started of their marrying when they were older; until he had started caring for her, too. Kendrick knew that caring only led to slaughter. It had to.

“He has three daughters, the youngest of whom is just fifteen. The eldest, Sophia, is nineteen, I suppose ye ken her well as ye both formerly ran round the castle together as bairns. The second, Lorena, is a lass of eighteen,” Logan explained.

“I shall nae marry any of Angus Gibson’s daughters.” Kendrick scowled.

“But ye must, milaird. If not them, then others! It shall bring great benefit—to ye, to yer clan. Now, ye think of this and more, while I call for the elder council to convene as planned,” Logan concluded before abandoning him to his solitude.

It was true. Kendrick had been quite fond of Sophia. He grinned as he remembered the sound of her soothing voice. She would relentlessly tease him about even her smallest accomplishments when they were children. He recalled how she was the first between them to ride a horse, how she hadn’t given up despite failing numerous times.

The first time his heart misbehaved, she had just returned from horse riding. Her raven hair was flowing in the breeze, her riding gown hugging her delicate figure. That day, after she smiled at him, his heart had skipped a beat… and Kendrick knew he was lost.

“Milaird,” Reed called as he sat next to him. “Yer uncle tells me we are to plan a wedding. To Sophia, of all lasses!”

Kendrick swallowed a sigh. Despite being his senior by two years, Reed had been Kendrick’s closest friend his entire life. “I will nae have any teasing from ye, Reed.”

“Is that right?” He grinned in challenge. “Surely, ye should now inform Sophia of yer affections for her? Unless ye are not so smitten with the lass as ye were.”

“Nae, she will nae ken of my feelings for her.”

Reed looked at Kendrick sceptically. “Would ye then keep ignoring her, like ye have been since ye learned of yer feelings for her?”

Kendrick disregarded Reed’s question, and the two simply stood in wait without uttering any other word; they both knew the answer.

***

Sophia had always loved the view from her hiding place beneath the trees. It was her sacred spot—where the willows protected her from the sun’s blinding rays; where its leaves laced together and danced in the breeze. She would settle beneath the great willow after she was done watering the plants, especially in dry periods like this, and picking strange herbs to study.

Her father, Angus, had agreed to let her go on expeditions as long as she never ventured far into the woods… but she was now standing in the middle of them, her hands gripping the weaved handle of her basket of lavender and chamomile.

Sophia was different from other maidens, and she knew it well. Instead of gossiping and knitting, she enjoyed reading and writing. She liked learning about the medicinal properties of various plants and riding horses. Since she was a little girl, she had always been told it was not something a lady should do, yet it never stopped her.

The loud cries of her sisters looking for her broke her attention from the view. Suddenly, they were upon her. “There ye are, sister,” Lorena whispered with her hands gripping her skirt.

“Sister, ye are hidden between the trees,” Emilea gasped as if Sophia didn’t know already.

“Wait till Father finds out,” Lorena threatened. “He may imprison ye in a tower for the remainder of the year. Ye ken ye shouldn’t go this far. We were all so worried!”

Sophia hushed them. “I was simply collecting these herbs—ye shall nae mention anything to father.”

Lorena caught sight of the basket her sister was holding. “Perhaps ye want to give make those little sachets for yer clothes like Ma showed us?”

“Or perhaps ye wish to gift them to a lad ye fancy, sister?” Emilea suggested, earning her a scoff from Sophia. Her little sister reached out to push back the strands of ginger hair that blew into her blue eyes.

Sophia had always envied her mother and sisters’ long, red hair. They had clear blue eyes that could be compared to the purest seas, and thin, lithe figures that only made them more beautiful.

Nature had only seen fit to bless Sophia with long hair, but hers was raven black. And her eyes were almost as dark. She was short too, a little frumpy.

It wasn’t that she hated the way she looked, for she had great confidence in her other qualities. “But a lass, they say, cannae have it all,” she would often mumble when she caught sight of herself in the river or in a looking glass.

Some days, she had great difficulty blending in with her family and would only spend such days alone, buried in her books or searching through the fields to discover new herbs. Neither of her sisters shared such interests.

“These beautiful cuttings I hold are healing herbs,” she said. “They ease many types of illnesses and inflammation when taken as tea.”

Her sisters looked at her hands in bewilderment.

“Ye can sniff them, if ye like.” She shoved the basket toward them.

Lorena scooped at the air. “Aye, they have a nice smell, sister, but ye will not stall us for all time. Lest I forget, Father seeks yer presence.”

“Whatever for?” Sophia asked.

“I dinnae ken, to be honest. He is just returned from Laird MacNeil’s keep, and he asked that everyone be gathered,” Lorena answered. “We came to find ye before Father came himself, because then ye’ll be in trouble.”

Sophia motioned for her sisters to take the lead. “Let’s go home, then. He must be expecting our arrival already.”

Her sisters gathered beside her, placing her in the middle and linking arms. They beamed as the chilly air rushed over them, their petticoats dragging along the tall grass.

“Good morn, I heard ye requested my presence, Father,” Sophia greeted as she walked towards him.

“Aye, my sweet bairn. Gather everyone in the hall for there is news I must share,” Angus ordered.

“I shall get to it.” Sophia nodded and left, wondering about the nature of said news.

The family gathered in the hall before long, little whispers filled the air as they all made predictions about what their father had to announce.

“It pleases me to tell ye that we will be attending a feast at Laird MacNeil’s keep in a few days,” Angus said, turning to them excitedly. “The Laird has graciously extended his invitation to us as he held council today on the matter of the harvest.”

“And why, dear, are we required to be present?” One needed not be told that the tall, ginger-haired woman was Sophia’s mother. Her two red-headed daughters were the picture of her.

“The young Laird seeks a lass to wed,” their father said.

“So not a feast, but a market. And all the lasses of the clan are to attend, are they?” the lady asked further. “Which of our daughters will be best suited for the Laird?”

“I have two daughters who are of age to find suitors, and mayhap the Laird shall choose one of them, my love. It shall gladden my heart to give one of them as wife to the Laird.”

The sisters turned to face each other, and the dining room swelled with chatter as Angus finished his announcement. Emilea smiled mischievously as she prodded Sophia in the ribs. “I’m sure the Laird will pick ye, sister.”

“Stop it, Emilea. Ye cannae be sure.” Sophia turned away to hide her flushed cheeks.

“Have ye forgotten, my dove?” Her mother stood in front of them, beaming “Ye two were closest friends since ye were young, and he wouldn’t want another lass over ye—I ken it. There is a great chance our eldest will finally be wed!”

“Do ye nae ken, Mother?” Lorena broke her silence. “He has been chilly with the clan members for years. It’s better to pick naeone!”

“Not another word from ye, Lorena,” their mother instructed.

“But Mother—” Lorena tried to argue back.

“No buts,” their mother rebuked. “Ye shall nae speak poorly of the Laird. Now,” she continued, “Ye must prepare for the feast, and God willing, our Sophia will find favor in his eyes.”

Sophia’s eyes sparkled, and her cheeks burned red. The very idea of seeing the Laird after such a long time made her excited and scared in equal parts, for she would more likely than not become his wife…

And the butterflies in her stomach told her just how thrilled she was with the idea.

 

Chapter Two

Kendrick fought to keep his disdain to himself. “Ye may attend our next council meeting, Laird Munro,” he muttered.

“Yer contributions to the matter will be much appreciated, and perhaps, we may come up with a solution to the harvest troubles that both of our clans face.”

“Thank ye, milaird. We can only hope for such success,” said Munro, a man of middle age, Laird himself to a nearby clan.

His presence did not grace Kendrick in any way. He despised the man for his arrogance, but his uncle, Logan, had suggested he show leniency. Despite being Laird, Kendrick would not go against his uncle’s sincere request.

The hall gradually filled with elder clansmen ready to discuss the harvest—some with opinions of their own; and others to judge said opinions. The hall was filled with both honored council members and some concerned landholders.

Kendrick could only hope they would come to some sense between them.

“Greetings, milaird. If it delights ye, then I seek to propose a solution,” one of the men requested. It was Angus Gibson.

Kendrick made a gesture for him to go ahead. “Ye may go on.”

“There are lands to the east, where are clan borders Laird Munro’s clan,” Angus said. “I have come to find that these lands are most fertile and would be useful for planting.”

“I disagree with his proposition, milaird,” Munro objected. “We have a long-standing agreement forbidding the toil of lands on our borders.”

“Milaird…” Angus shot a brief look at Munro. “A consensus must be reached for the benefit of all. We will all starve to death otherwise. Munro or MacNeil.”

“We do not violate customs for the supposed benefit of the people,” Munro maintained. “Rather, I would suggest the farmers put in twice as much effort to revive the land they already have.”

“The farmers work hard enough already,” Angus retorted. “They labor from night till dawn, yet the earth provides no bounty. It’s nae in our hands.”

“Then,” Munro growled. “We shall find another approach—it is plain insolence on your side that you advise we violate such an old custom.”

Uproar soon sparked in the hall, some in support of Angus, and others in agreement with Munro. Caught up in their discussion, only Kendrick noticed the entrance of Catherine from the back door of the court. She fixed her gaze on him, trailing down her neck with her fingers and smiling to herself… which made him feel a shiver.

“So, Laird Munro, ye suggest we let our people starve while we uphold traditions made by long-dead men who never faced a starving clan?” Kendrick levelled a glare at Munro. Despite his failings, he could never imagine such callousness from a laird.

“Those long-dead men, as ye say, brought our lands to existence. It is only common sense that we uphold the laws of their making,” Munro responded, but Kendrick could sense his anger was at a boiling point.

“Nae, Laird Munro. Here in my keep, my people are of great importance to me,” Kendrick pressed, rising from his chair. “I shall not uphold traditions while my clan dies of starvation. This is nonsense.”

“I see ye are all grown now. Dinnae bite off more than ye can chew,” Munro gnarled. “I refuse to be engaged in violating old customs. If this is what ye propose, then I shall excuse myself from this gathering.”

The stomping of his boots against the stone was the only sound as he walked out of the hall. Laird Munro had a reputation for his ill temper. He was a man who could harbor grudges for all eternity, and Kendrick had just challenged him in front of farmers he considered lowly.

Now composed and quiet, Angus lowered his head before Kendrick. “What shall we do about Laird Munro, milaird? We need the land sooner rather than later…”

Kendrick thought for a moment. “Leave him be. I shall have a meeting with him when he has calmed. Perhaps, a few days from now.”

“How about the other matter, milaird?” one of the farmers interjected. “Surely, we should sort out what we can for today.”

“As my uncle has announced,” Kendrick replied hesitantly, “I shall find a lass and marry soon.”

“Pardon my insolence,” the farmer insisted, “How soon will it be?”

“The council will decide,” Kendrick declared to everyone in the great hall. “I shall marry according to their decision.”

There were soft murmurs in the hall for a short time. Complete silence followed soon after. One of the main members of the council walked to the front of the rest. He first bowed to Kendrick, then faced the crowd of farmers. “It has been decided.” He turned back to Kendrick. “The Laird must find a lass to marry and bear him an heir. He must do so within the next two months. If he fails, his uncle, Logan MacNeil, shall become new Laird of the MacNeil clan.”

Kendrick looked away as voices debated the council’s ruling. As Laird, he had done his very best, and he would not allow the council to remove him from his position. He would not be defined by incompetence like his father had been.

The court was dismissed, but Kendrick could not find the strength to leave his seat. It was as though his legs were numb, or too weak to carry the weight of his body. Even his spirit was unwilling. He held onto the wooden arms of the chair, struggling for support as he forced himself up.

He did not know whether fear or anger fueled him now. One thing was certain: he would not sit around forlorn, waiting to be dragged out of his clan.

When he finally stepped outside, rain poured down, and the sky rumbled ruthlessly. He turned from the hall’s entrance to nestle himself into an alcove. Crestfallen, he watched the wet, muddy field outside the keep’s gates.

It was the same field he played in countless times as a child. He almost wished to return to simpler times, when he didn’t have to worry about feelings, farmers, family, and the duty that went along with them. Back then, all he did was laugh and roll around with Reid and Sophia in the muck, as their laughter echoed throughout the keep.

Hearing a noise, he swiftly turned his neck to catch his uncle behind him.

“I told ye, lad. Have ye come to a decision?” Kendrick could only offer an expressionless stare. “Ye heard the council.” Logan sounded frustrated. “Ye have to make a choice at the feast in a few days.”

“Why dinnae ye decide for me, Uncle? Ye seem to desire my marriage more than I do.”

“It is for yer own good, lad. Ye need an heir to remain Laird, and ye need a fair lass to give ye an heir.” Logan put his hands on Kendrick’s shoulder, patting him gently. “I’m worried for ye, dinnae make light of that. Sophia, Lorena, or any other maiden yer age would be a fine choice.”

“I cannae make Sophia my wife,” Kendrick blurted out without much thought. It made Logan shift backward and arch his brow.

“It was only a suggestion, lad,” Logan mumbled. “I presumed it would be natural if ye felt drawn to her since ye had known her the longest.”

Kendrick did not move his sight away from the downpour. “I dinnae feel drawn to her,” he lied.

Because he had loved her once, he was unable to contemplate ever harming her the way a man harms a wife—the way his father harmed his mother. Out of love. Years ago, he had thought his heart belonged to Sophia… and he had pushed her away because of it. He knew there was no way he could accept her.

“I would say ye go for the middle one then. She is a bonnie lass, I must say,” Logan advised. “Ye make yer move, get close to her at the feast. Nae lass can resist MacNeil charm, ye ken. Nae that a laird will need to be charming at all.”

He could never fall in love with Lorena, but Logan was unaware of how much Kendrick had cherished Sophia. He didn’t know it was not Sophia’s beauty that incited Kendrick’s affection, but the rainy afternoon strolls they took together, the rides on the back of horses… the memories of her that shielded him from destruction on the days his mother’s ghost would haunt him.

Perhaps it was fated that only she could catch his attention, and he had no intention of betraying their friendship.

Even the memories of Sophia could evoke the deepest of emotions in him—still. He would rather live a thousand lonely nights, than admit his past affections for her.

He didn’t notice the tear on his face before it fell.

The only way he could shield Sophia was to push her as far away as he could. He would do everything in his power to keep her safe so that he wouldn’t place himself in a position where his heart could further betray him.

***

Lorena had spent an hour pacing around the room. She’d been pacing for three days since their father told them about the Laird’s feast. Sophia’s dark eyes followed her around the room, nudging her favorite planter every time she returned to it.

“Ye should sit down, Lorena. Yer movement is maddening.”

“Ye ken sister, if he chooses one of us, we would be living in hell! Imagine waking up to a man who ignores ye, it’s so terrible!” Lorena collapsed onto the bed. Her dramatic side usually amused Sophia, but now it was making her even more nervous.

Her mind drifted to thoughts of Kendrick, and she imagined how pleasant it would be to see him again. Clearly, it was an image much different than the one plaguing Lorena’s mind. “I have told ye—Laird MacNeil is a fine man, and any lass would be happy to be his lady.”

“By chance, are ye defending him, sister?” Lorena raised a brow.

“I am nae! All I am saying is he is kind and gentle. At least I have such memories of him, and he is nae a brute.”

“Yet he grew distant from ye without reason. Do ye nae consider the possibility that he may nae longer be the young lad ye played with as a bairn? Do ye nae hear the rumors of his coldness?”

Sophia had never been one to give much credit to rumors and gossip. Besides, she knew him better than anyone who had a thing to say of his character… but she could not deny it. She often wondered about the reason he grew indifferent to her, and it was, at times, a torment. She worried that he noticed her feelings for him and that they scared him away.

“People dinnae change that quickly, Lorena.” She knew for a fact that they did, but still, she had to defend him from her sister’s harsh remarks. “Ye should feel sorry for him instead. He is more likely a lonely laird stuck in a castle without someone with whom to share happiness or sorrow.”

“Now, I would be kind enough to offer pity, but I wouldn’t want to wed such a brute.” Lorena turned to face Sophia, but she was too wrapped up in her ruminating to notice. “Are ye there, sister?” she mouthed, almost making her jump out of her own skin. “Were ye even listening to me?”

“I was, indeed.” She couldn’t speak more on these rumors for she did not know what could cause anyone to hate him, especially Lorena. “How would this look?” Sophia huffed, beaming as she got to her feet. She dragged the Arasaid she had sewn for special occasions from the far corner of the room and held it over her body.

Lorena rolled her eyes in disappointment. “Ye would look like a rabbit chasing carrots in it.”

“Really?” Sophia fought a frown.

Her sister drew her down onto the bed, holding her hands as if in desperation.

“Think about it—ye are like the sun and moon. He is different from ye. Ye cannae possibly wish to marry him just because of yer admiration for him. He would smother yer light.”

“Ye poor thing… it’s a good thing ye may nae have to marry him, then,” Sophia teased as she lovingly touched her sister’s cheek.

“Ye should cease taunting yer sister,” their mother announced as she entered Sophia’s room. “It would be an honor if the Laird asked to wed our dear Sophia,” she leaned over to retrieve the garment on Sophia’s lap. “This would fit ye, my dear,” she simpered.

Sophia leaped up, catching her mother in a half-embrace. “Ye think so, ma?”

Their mother nodded in affirmation, “I believe so, my love.”

Having failed to dissuade her sister, Lorena put her hands over her mouth, yawning in resignation.

“Ye must get ready. We depart shortly for the feast.” Their mother lowered herself enough to reach Lorena’s arms, and without giving room for her to free herself, she dragged her out of the chamber.

Sophia smiled to herself. She couldn’t seem to get Kendrick off her mind. She was concerned about how much older he would appear. She imagined his blue eyes locked on hers and him addressing her as his lady. Her stomach knotted just thinking about it made her chuckle. She wished she could run her fingers through his thick, dark, curly hair. She had so much she wanted to tell him…

She had hoped for a day like this for all eternity.

This sounds too good to be true… but what could go wrong? I doubt he would choose Lorena, she thought, anxiety creeping up her throat. Lorena had no affection for him. In fact, she despised him, and she would not settle with a man for whom she had no feelings.

“Sophia!” Lorena called in a whisper as she sneaked into her room again. She was dressed in an astonishing blue dress that was falling down heavily and made her look like a serene night sky.

Turning her gaze to her sister, Sophia opened her mouth wide in playful shock. “Ye look like ye would leave all the lads fighting for breath tonight!”

Lorena posed, showing off playfully. “Do I, sister?”

“Shall I show ye yer reflection in my eyes?”

“Thank ye, sister. Ye will look even more beautiful.”

Sophia took Lorena’s hand in her own and drew in an anxious breath. There was a lot she wanted to say; a lot she had to lose tonight, too. “I dinnae ken what will happen tonight, but promise me, we will always be here for each other.”

Lorena looked suddenly downcast. She pried her hand away to seize Sophia’s. “I promise, sister. Things may change, but we will always be here for each other.”

Sophia pulled her close, holding Lorena for what could have been hours before pulling herself back.

They knew not what the feast would bring, but one thing was certain: things would not be the same when they returned. The sisters had great confidence in their unbreakable bond and, together, even the strongest storm would only seem like a drizzle.

“Shall we go then?” Sophia forced a smile once she was dressed and offered her hand.

“We shall,” Lorena grinned lightly before taking Sophia’s hand. Together, they walked out of their father’s home and into the unknown.

 


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Craving a Highland Sinner (Preview)

Chapter one

Alana’s heart was pounding so hard it was about to burst through her chest. She stared at herself in the mirror, attempting to untie the tangled ends of her long blonde hair, but her mind was elsewhere. She hoped Isla had just gotten caught up in the kitchen with the other maids because she was a quarter-hour late.

“Och,” she muttered under her breath when one strand got entangled between her fingers, and the sudden pain took her out of her thoughts. It reminded her of each time her sister Catriona did her hair for her, and she was always plucking it so hard that Alana’s eyes filled with tears.

She smiled at the memory and caressed the ribbon on her hand—a present that Catriona had given her a while before she died. The moments she shared with her sister and Isla were the happiest of her life, yet those times were long gone.

The days were not kind to her anymore, and the nights often frightened her. She had become a prisoner, confined to the castle of her new husband, the vile Laird MacAdam, and her twin sister was now buried in the ground miles away.

Life was definitely not how Alana imagined it as a wee lass.

“Things are different,” she muttered to herself again as she held onto her dresser to keep her on her feet. The memories always immersed her into a sorrowful mood, and her heart was now aching to escape her cage and breathe freely even if just for a moment.

Staring back at her from the mirror was the shadow of her old self. She had a habit of putting on beautiful dresses usually reserved for special occasions just to lift her spirits. Unfortunately, it rarely worked. Her eyes were no longer as brightly blue, and her childish fantasies had long faded. And a dress would never be able to replace that.

Her fate worsened with each passing day after she was married off to the large and powerful Clan MacAdam for an alliance. The only ray of hope was the fact she took her maid Isla before entering a loveless marriage with her horrible husband.

It had often made her wonder what Lachlan’s life had been like. What made him so disgraceful and immoral? After the first night they shared a bedchamber, she gave up trying to save his long lost soul. His terrible behavior made her loathe the man’s touch. After finally acknowledging that all their attempts to have a bairn were futile, he stopped requesting her in his chambers, and Alana began to breathe more peacefully.

Lachlan is wicked. She knew. But this is not something I cannae survive.

The woman looking back at her was one and twenty years old, but her eyes looked like she had been alive for many more. Alana took one of her golden locks and tucked it behind her ear. She only wore her hair loose because it reminded her of Catriona and her mischievous smile. She smiled as memories flashed through her mind. Her sister had always been far more daring than she was and would have gotten into even more trouble if she had taken Alana’s place.

Catriona frequently did whatever she wanted while readily accepting the consequences. Alana couldn’t have imagined such bravery, but the past year had strengthened her, and knew her soul could withstand anything.

Where is Isla?

For the second time that day, her mind pondered and took her out of her memories, and a hint of a smile sat in the corner of her full mouth. She loved Isla dearly. Since her sister’s death, she had been one of the few people who had treated Alana as a human being rather than an incomplete person.

And she guarded Alana’s secret like it was her own. Still, she despised the danger she was putting her friend in by sneaking out to the brook near the castle. But the thrill she felt was the only thing that kept her alive.

She estimated how much time she would have to wait by staring out the window before she could accomplish her mischief. She kept a mental countdown going until she was certain Lachlan wouldn’t come looking for her.

Keeping within the castle grounds, Alana had instinctively developed an acute sense for reading the time of the day from the sun and its shadows. And from the brightness of the rays, she could tell that her husband would soon enough walk out of the castle from beneath her window and head out to wherever he found amusement.

Alana expected Isla to have arrived earlier, but she knew there was probably a good reason for her delay. Perhaps Lachlan was still in his chambers. She knew not if her husband had slept alone the night before or with one of his many lovers. Regardless, she did not care who warmed his bed as long as it wasn’t her.

The sound of footsteps from the corridor outside her chamber drew her attention.

Isla, she thought with joy as she hurried to the door. Pulling it open, her eyes darted across the corridor, hoping to catch sight of her maid.

However, instead of seeing Isla walking down the corridor, she saw her husband’s wide back. Alana tried to sneak back into her room before he could notice her. She had stayed in her chambers all day to avoid him, and she hoped her work would not be undone.

“Alana?” she heard one second before closing the door.

Her heart skipped and her lips parted, but she could not make out the right words. Finally, she answered to his angry voice with a cold and distant tone on her side.

“Milord!” she uttered with a forged smile, knots forming in her stomach. Alana knew disobedience would not be her salvation that day, only a chance to postpone her fate at his hands. After all, she did live inside his castle. But she knew she’d never be able to control her temper because she wasn’t the type to keep her head bowed.

“Ye seem tae be in a mood today. Is there a reason?” his foul mouth asked her.

He didn’t strike her, despite his angry expression. His irritated gaze darted up and down her body before settling on her attire.

The dress. Alana realized too late she was wearing one of her most astonishing dresses. Wherever his eyes looked, she felt her skin burning, and no matter how hard she tried to distract her mind, she still felt Lachlan’s gaze everywhere.

“Where are ye runnin’ off tae?” he asked her.

Alana noticed they were alone when she looked around. There was no one around to quell his temper, and knew she had no choice but to comply. He never measured his strength with her, so she might end up with a swollen arm.

“I wasnae going anywhere,” she said, but his frown did not ease any less. “I just wanted to cheer up me spirits. Is that alright?”

Lachlan only nodded while staring at her lower lip, which made Alana quiver.

“I was searching for me maid,” she told him and turned around a bit, cutting his insolent gaze. “I want her help with one dress that is a bit ripped on the hem,” she hurriedly added when a frown formed. Like a flash of lightning, his frown dissolved into a smile.

“The dress looks braw on ye,” he complimented, slowly closing the distance between them.

Alana tensed. Previous experiences had taught her body not to trust his proximity to her or his smiles. But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t escape him. When his hand caressed her arm, she flinched in disgust. Her reaction had no effect on him, and that terrified her.

Lachlan knew she didn’t love him, and the way he treated her didn’t help matters. However, he attempted to crush the wall between them on occasion, which always resulted in a big fight followed by his violence. He had previously broken her pinky finger, which had not grown properly and was now bent to the left.

“Ye ken why I dinnae allow ye tae wander about the village, nay?” he asked her, his eyes following the trail of his finger as it ran up and down her arm.

Clan Ross. She knew what he would say even before he said it. And she also knew it was a lie. He would never have let her leave—threat from another clan or not.

“I have enemies,” he said, personalizing his desire for battle. “If they lay eyes on ye, they will harm ye. It is the reason why I ask ye tae remain within the castle. It is for yer own protection, Alana.”

She nodded because she couldn’t bring herself to speak to him again for fear of inciting his wrath. And, as usual, she was right in predicting his temper.

His hand tightened around her leaner arm and squeezed. Despite the sharp pain, she did not scream. She couldn’t scream because she knew no one would come to her aid, and doing so would only aggravate him. However, his grip intensified until her jaws couldn’t hold any longer.

Stop, please. She wanted to speak, but her words were cut off with her groans of pain.

“Stop, Lachlan,” she gasped, but his eyes only grew wider with excitement, enjoying the pain he caused her.

He will nae stop until he has broken me arm. The pain became so excruciating, she had to squeeze her eyes shut. She yanked her arm free from his grasp with all of her strength, but she was no match for the power he wielded over her.

His reaction to her struggle was to place another hand on her other arm, and squeezed them both, forcing her to look him in the eyes. She noticed her husband’s sadistic expression, but resisted his gaze.

“Ye listen when I speak tae ye. If ye wish to step out of yer room, I want yer hair tied in a bun like the wife of the Laird MacAdam. Dae ye understand me? When ye wear yer strand falling freely, ye send a wrong message to the lads.

“Is this clear?” he asked through gritted teeth.

“But ye ken I love it when my hair is free,” she breathed weakly. Her pains caused her heart to slow and her breathing to become shallow. She couldn’t focus on his words because there was too much noise in her head.

“I didnae hear ye,” he demanded another response, giving her time to repair what she said. “Repeat yersel’.”

“Why?” Alana thought out loud, catching herself too late.

She felt his grip on her bones, threatening to break her arms.

“Ye ask me why?”

“Nay,” Alana shook her head with tears in her eyes, not being able to endure the pain anymore.

“Nay, nay,” he refused to accept her denial. “Tell me why. Answer me!”

Seeing that she was without a choice lest she might lose her arms, she answered, speaking words that she would not have dared say to him otherwise.

“Because ye dinnae treat me as yer wife. And ye ken what me hair means to me,” she answered in a whimper. Tears welled in her eyes as the words slipped out of her mouth. “Ye treat me less than yer other women.”

Alana thought she saw a hint of acknowledgement of her boldness in his eyes, but the fury was stronger. “Good afternoon,” a voice called from the end of the corridor. “Laird MacAdam. Lady MacAdam,” Ewan, Lachlan’s right-hand man greeted as he approached. In a second, Lachlan’s grips on her arms loosened. Ewan was his advisor and the only one that could have been considered friends with the Laird MacAdam.

“A good afternoon tae ye as well, Ewan,” Lachlan said with a smile that appeared to have always been on his face.

While his interruption had saved Alana’s arms, his appearance still bothered her. He was a tall man with dark short hair and almost black eyes. He exuded threat and fear, with a scar on the side of his face that the maids suspected he had inflicted on himself as a child. And he was always giving Alana inappropriate looks.

“Is the lady well?” he asked with a smile on his lean face.

Alana managed a smile and leaned into her door, waiting on the chance to escape back into it and end this awful scene. Her hands rubbed against her bruised biceps, and her limbs shivered.

“She is well,” Lachlan answered on her behalf before turning to the friendly intruder.

“May I have a moment with ye in yer study? I have information about Clan Ross,” Ewan asked.

Alana’s heart leapt with joy when she heard the clan’s name. Lachlan’s obsession was Clan Ross, and the only thing more important to him than her torment. So he followed his advisor after one last long look at his wife.

Alana raised her head to watch them leave, and her gaze met Ewan’s.

I shouldnae have looked.

Though Ewan had saved her a couple of times from her husband, it always felt like he had found them because he had been looking for her and not Lachlan. His eyes always lingered on her, making her uncomfortable.

Alana ran back into her room and locked the door behind her as soon as they left the corridor. Her legs gave out, and she collapsed at the foot of the door. Finally, she let out a few tears as the pain overwhelmed her, but she quickly wiped them away.

“Ye cannae cry,” she reminded herself. Her marriage was much more important than her own feelings. The safety of her clan depended on it, as they needed the protection that their alliance with Clan MacAdam provided them, and she could not to complain. Complaining evoked pity in others, and Alana despised pity more than anything else.

But how can I live with that me whole life? She asked herself the question that always plagued her. How much more can I take before I go completely mad?

Alana suddenly heard a knock behind her, and she screamed instinctively.

“I am sorry, milady,” she heard the calm voice of Isla behind the door.

She is here; she is alright! Alana dashed to the mirror and wiped her tears away with the hem of her dress. Her sleeves carefully concealed the bruises on her arms. She took a deep breath before exhaling loudly as she straightened her back. She had to be careful not to bother Isla with her own worries. Her friend had already done enough to help her escape the castle and experience some stolen freedom before being imprisoned again.

Her reflection gave her confidence in her pretense. She went to her window and pretended to look out for a second before Isla walked in.

“Good afternoon, Isla,” Alana sang as casually as she could manage. Her arms ached as she held them in a pose, but she endured it for the fear that Isla might see through the worry in her eyes.

“Good afternoon, milady. I got caught up in the kitchen with the cook. I apologize for making ye wait,” Isla said as she walked in.

“Dinnae worry about it. Did anyone see ye as ye came?” Alana asked.

“Nay, of course not,” Isla assured her with a wicked smile. She had a keen sense of her surroundings. It had only taken her a few days to figure out where all the rooms in the castle were and the names of the servants.

Alana laughed, but the dryness in her throat caused her to croak, making Isla, who had brought her a shawl, suspicious and concerned. She quickly caught the look in her maid’s eyes before it festered.

“I’m alright, Isla. I just miss me freedom,” Alana said sternly.

Isla’s eyes were rebellious, despite the fact that it was not in her nature — she was concerned. Alana could see it, but she was overwhelmed and didn’t want to put Isla in danger. She knew Lachlan would not kill her, but she couldn’t say the same for her maid should he took offense with her.

“Dinnae worry. Ye help me more than anyone I ken,” Alana reassured her maid, and she nodded, despite the fact that she did not fully agree with her mistress’ hesitation.

“I am sorry I cannae dae more, milady,” Isla said with regret.

It shouldnae be yer worry. I am sorry I make it so.

Alana extended her hand, and Isla placed hers in it. They squeezed each other before Alana pulled away, and her maid noticed the slight grimace on her face as she tugged.

“Did he hurt ye, milady?” she asked solemnly.

“Nay,” Alana lied immediately. “He didnae hurt me.”

Pulling the scarf over her face, she stepped out of the chambers, following the routes she had memorized to escape the castle’s walls.

Alana felt a rare joy again as she burst out into the sunlight of the Scottish hills and fields. It was the joy of loneliness, a sensation she had grown to appreciate throughout her marriage. And the calm brook was her safe haven, the only place she could feel free.

 

Chapter two

Home, Kai thought with a smile on his face. He was always soothed by the Highland air. As he rode atop his stead, he wondered how he had survived all this time away from his home.

Two farmers he knew as a child walked down the path he was taking. Kai waved to them, hoping they’d remember him, but they did not.

It has been four years, he thought bitterly as he watched the men go on their way without giving him a second look.

Despite the fact that it had rained the night before, the sun was terrifyingly bright the next day, and Kai had been riding for hours under it.

As he approached the village, he continued down the path, which was marked by forests. The air around it carried the stories of various households, of bread and of burning metal, wet sand, and spices.

From afar, he could see the castle he once called home. It was perfectly situated on a hill for all to marvel. His father was proud of the structure, which also served as a memorial to the clan lands. Kai learned to share those sentiments as he grew older, but after his father died and his mother soon followed, he found the lands to be a bitter reminder of his broken family.

Staring up at the castle, his memories came flooding back to him again. They were memories that he had buried when he left, revealing one of the reasons he had not wanted to return: his brother.

Kai’s older brother, Lachlan MacAdam, the then-young Laird, became Clan Chief as soon as their father died. Lachlan, despite his lack of concern for his own family, was a good laird, according to what Kai had heard while he was away.

He could only hope that with his title in place and a new bride to look after, he had become a better person too.

Why did I come home? he asked himself again, holding tightly onto the reins of his horse, even though he knew the answer:

Helen Findlay, his betrothed. It was time for them to marry.

Kai had returned home because he needed to see his estranged brother. This allowed him to spend more time away from Helen before word reached her that he had indeed returned. And then he’d meet his fate and marry her.

She had been one of the reasons that he had left the clan lands in the first place. However, it was time for him to meet his own responsibilities. It was not that he wanted to escape them but to postpone the wedding as long as possible. And Kai knew that Helen’s family would press him for marriage, as this was his last promise to his dying father, and she was well aware of it.

Helen Findlay, he mused as he rode. She had been his childhood friend, an offspring friendship born of the bosom friendship of their fathers. The two lairds had always encouraged the companionship of their children from a very young age, even before Helen had grown into her own character.

As she grew older, she, like many other young women her age, fell in love with Kai and chased the rest away.

Kai, on the other hand, never fancied girls when he was younger. He played with them as he would with his brother. But Helen’s selfishness had become evident to him quickly. Nonetheless, he had accepted his fate. She was to marry one of his father’s sons, and she had chosen him.

He remembered the day as if it had happened yesterday. Lachlan had been standing outside the room, unable to look at their dying father, while Kai had remained by his side all along. The old man had been dissatisfied with death but had maintained a brave face for his son, and Kai could only hope he would prove as brave.

“I ken ye would be the one to sit by me when me time came. Yer brother—”

“He loves ye, faither,” Kai had interrupted, but the old man’s look showed disbelief. “He just dinnae ken how to show his support. Dinnae judge him.”

“I love the two of ye, but ye share different destinies…” Kai had listened to the words that his father had told him for years. “Yer brother needs ye,” he reminded him, in an attempt to fix a relationship that was barely existent. Lachlan was so closed off it was pointless to even try.

“If me brother needs me help, I shall offer it tae him,” Kai had vowed back then, and even if it was a vague promise, it was one that he knew he could keep. He had never lied to his father, and he had no intention of doing so on his deathbed.

“I need ye to promise me, Kai,” his father had started. Kai had feared the words that would come out of his mouth but nodded anyway.

“Promise me that ye will wed Helen,” he had said, obviously expecting the frown on his younger son’s face even before it had formed.

“Ye must think of the family now that me time has come. Me friendship with her faither protected this family. She chose ye. I ken that ye dinnae want to wed her, but people can change. Maybe with time, she will turn into the lass ye desire. If not, ye will at least know ye fulfilled yer duty as an heir of our strong clan.”

His gaze was drawn to his father’s withering face when the man squeezed his hand. A face and a pair of eyes that had been filled with pain—pain that was far greater than the words he had spoken.

“Promise me, Kai.”

“I promise I will wed Helen,” he had appeased his dying father, but his eyes remained perplexed by Kai’s evasive promise.

That was about four years ago, and Helen Findlay would be two and twenty in only five months. Kai had wandered around, spending his days as he pleased until he had to marry her.

Even after all that time, he knew something his father did not. Helen Findlay would not change. Every time they had met, she had grown more selfish and self-absorbed. The only constants had been her attraction to him and his refusal to marry her, but with the passage of time, Kai had come to terms with his fate. He hadn’t met anyone while on his journey, so perhaps his path was really about fulfilling his father’s death wish.

Mayhas love isnae me destiny.

A sudden rustle on the left drew his attention away from his memories. He immediately turned in that direction and saw a grey rabbit hop out of the bushes. The small animal looked at him, assessing his intentions toward it.

Kai tried to move his hand, but his fingers became entangled in the reins of his horse. He’d been so engrossed in his thoughts that he hadn’t realized how tightly he was gripping them. The rabbit hopped across the path and into the bushes, turning away.

Hunting. Kai thought of an amusement that he could immerse himself into if the town was beginning to eat at him again. Riding through the hills always helped to ease his mind. When he kicked at the horse to get it moving again, it neighed in protest, but calmed down when Kai stroked its mane. The tall Highlander listened intently for the faint sound that had brought him to a halt.

“The brook!” he realized.

He drew his horse closer and tied it to a tree before walking into the bush to find the brook. The closer he got to the water, the more familiar he became with the bushes. There were new plants and shoots, but the trees remained to guide those who had been gone for a long time.

As he heard the gentle sound of the water and the chirping of birds in the trees around it, Kai felt the need to swim and wash away all the thoughts that plagued him. He knew that immersing himself into the brook was going to ease his mind and make everything feel a bit lighter, especially his upcoming meeting with his brother and his betrothal to Helen.

Kai saw clear water in front of him and closed his eyes as he inhaled the cool air surrounding it. Growing up in the clan lands, the brook had always been one of his favorite places. He had always known when it’d be devoid of people and he could have it all to himself and whoever friends he had chosen to accompany him at the time.

Suddenly, he heard a ripple in the air and turned to look. It was a woman, a naked woman to be precise. Kai was taken aback when he saw the beautiful lass emerge from the water in such a slow and majestic manner that he couldn’t take his gaze away.

The brook had submerged the lower half of her body, revealing only her elegant back that stopped at her small waist. The Highlander knew he should have moved away, covered his eyes, but couldn’t stop himself from looking at her.

She must be beautiful, he imagined even though he had not set his gaze upon her. His mind was so focused on the source of his curiosity that he thought no further to what might happen if she turned her face to him.

Her dark blonde hair was glued to her back, concealing the majority of it. But she didn’t return his gaze. She soaked her arms in water that she scooped up with her small palms.

I shouldnae be here, Kai knew, wishing only to see the woman’s face so he could find her again when it was more appropriate.

To get rid of some of the water, the woman in the brook pressed her hair down onto her scalp. Then she drew the locks away from her back so she could pat the length to squeeze out the drops as well.

Kai’s groin tightened at the sight of her small pale back. At that moment, he knew he had to leave, but he couldn’t think of a reason compelling enough to move him. It was illegal for him to be there, watching a woman who was not his wife bathe. Kai mustered the courage to turn and walk away unnoticed, muttering scolding words quietly.

Ye will be married to another in five months.

Kai took his first step and heard a snap. He had snapped a twig.

“How can ye be such a fool, Kai?” he muttered to himself, and froze immediately.

He turned to see if the woman in the brook had heard him, though he was certain she was already staring at him. When he shifted his body, their gazes locked. Kai couldn’t take his eyes off her, captivated by her beauty. He opened his mouth to speak but was rendered speechless.

Her eyes stood out against her pale face and small pink lips. Time slowed—nothing else existed but the astounding lass inside the brook. Her hair glowed in the dappled sunlight, hair and hands over her breasts, her eyes captivating. He couldn’t tell if they were blue or deep grey from where he was.

But time accelerated once her scream pierced the air.

 


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Married to a Highland Brute (Preview)

Prologue

Jonan McKay gently stroked his wife’s head. It must have been a sight to see his large, warriorlike hands caress his only love’s soft and pale skin.

“I need water,” Magda requested in a weak voice.

Magda’s eyes couldn’t stand the light, so the room was dark. The sheets were coarse, and Jonan expected her to complain about how itchy they were. But she couldn’t anymore because she was too weak.

Gently, he reached for the cup on the nightstand. The illness was rapidly eating her away. Just a few weeks ago, she was able to lift her head and guide the cup to her lips. Now, Jonan was watching her strain to take a sip.

Jonan knew he had to put on a brave face. Magda needed him to be strong, and he couldn’t disappoint her. So he remained so on the outside… But inside, the pain overwhelmed him, especially when he was alone.

He assisted her in bringing the tumbler to her dry lips and holding it there for a few moments. “Ye didnae have a drink?” he questioned worriedly. He lifted the cup again, until he realized she was too weak.

He rang for the surgeon staying in the keep. Jonan watched the man examine her, waiting impatiently.
“Well?” he asked as soon as she was done. “Why does she nae drink?”

“The illness weakens her every day, milaird,” he replied.

“What can be done?” Jonan said, pulling him aside.

He was plagued by fear. He didn’t want to be told that there was nothing he could do. He was unable to keep his hands still. He needed to do something, anything, to help his wife.

“I will give her some water with a spoon, but ye must ken that her time draws near.”

Jonan stood there watching the surgeon leave, but he didn’t move. He’d fought and won many battles in his life. But now I am locked in a battle with death itself, he thought. He had watched his wife fade away like a beautiful flower in the cold, dry weather, her petals fading away day by day.

The illness had struck without warning. Jonan remembered her so cheerful, welcoming, and biddable. She had carried out her responsibilities to the clan and her family with love and strength. He had relied on her wisdom to keep the castle running while he protected their clan. And it had worked flawlessly until one morning not long ago.

Magda had complained of a headache while working in his office late in the afternoon. He was immediately concerned because she rarely felt poorly. She was strong enough to hold his hand tightly at noon; by dinner, she couldn’t.

Everything had gone downhill from there. Magda’s condition worsened by the day. Jonan felt like a bystander in his own life. He knew how to be a powerful soldier, claiming lands and driving his enemies away. He was the powerful and feared McKay clan’s leader — not the type of man to sit back and watch as everything he cared about was taken away from him.

Weak. Powerless.

As Magda grew weaker and weaker, the words haunted him day and night. He had contacted every apothecary, physician, and shaman in the surrounding towns. What had he not offered to anyone who could help his wife? What hadn’t he tried? Even so, his efforts were futile.

Grief rushed through him with such force that it was difficult to see past it. He had promised to protect Magda when he married her. He had promised to keep her pain-free, and he had faith in his ability to do so. But as he witnessed her in agony, he realized he had failed.

Jonan returned to her side and refused to leave, but the days that followed made no difference. She did not improve.
Magda coughed one cold afternoon as Jonan sat by her bed. He had been watching her chest rise and fall for comfort, and her cough startled him, snatching him away from his thoughts.

“Are ye in pain?” he asked.

Magda opened her eyes and smiled laboriously.

“Magda?”

“Ye will see to Leah, will ye nae?”

“Ye ken I will, Magda, but ye must nae leave yet.”

“We daenae have control of these things, Jonan.” She reached for his hands, and as firmly as she could, she squeezed.

When she let go, her hand slowly searched beneath her pillow for a small portrait.

Jonan took the miniature from her with trembling hands. It had been commissioned almost a year before. He recalled how long she had spent preparing for her portrait to be painted.

They had been so happy, once upon a time.

“I’ll keep this safe,” he promised her and placed the image in his breeches.

“I know you will,” she smiled.

The smile remained on her face, even as she took her final breath.

A fading smile that would haunt Jonan for years to come.

 

Chapter one

Even before she turned around, Nora Turner knew that Henry would be behind her. She gripped the basket filled with food and refused to move an inch.

“Well, well! Lady Nora, I presume. Your father will be none too pleased about this, I think.”

“Well,” she said, spinning around, “while you tattle along to tell my father, do remember that your silly threats do not scare me.”

The short, bald butler fumed and glared at her, but Nora retained her look of confidence until he had marched out of the pantry.

“Probably on his way to tell Father,” she sighed to herself. Her whispers drifted to Amelia, who was walking past.

“Who’s on his way to tell Father what?”

Nora heard Amelia’s question before she saw her. She bit her lower lip before remembering that it would irritate her darling twin sister; she would panic once she entered the pantry.

“Nora, what did you…” Amelia’s voice trailed off as she reached her. Amelia was dressed in a simple day frock, much like her sister’s. Both dresses were adorned with simple lace edges, and much to their father’s anger, both were the same shade of pink.

It annoyed Lord Turner to no end that his daughters continued to dress in the same colors, as he could never tell them apart.

They looked so much alike; both had large ginger curls and big, green eyes. When they were born, the midwives had tied a pink ribbon around Amelia’s wrist and a blue one to Nora’s. If not for the ribbons, no one could distinguish them.

Nora offered a small smile. “Father won’t be that cross,” she said in an attempt to make her sister smile, but she wasn’t successful.

“Oh, Nora,” Amelia sighed before rushing to cover over the large picnic basket. “You know it’s too much of a risk to sneak food out in the daytime. And this is full to the brim!”

Nora sighed and they began to restock the pantry shelves together, knowing it would be foolish to continue her mission. “Naomi and Nathan are really struggling, Amy,” she whined.

Naomi and Nora had met years ago. She was a middle-aged widow with no other family except her son — she did everything she could, but times were tough and food was scarce.

“I’m aware, but you know we must avoid rousing Father’s anger. I fear he will hit you and—”

“Oh, Amy! You mustn’t worry so. Father has not hit us since we were three-and-ten.”

“You say that like it was long ago.”

“Seven years is an age for some.”

“Not to me,” Amelia said with a shiver. “He terrified me.”

“I know… and you were always well-behaved.” Nora handed her sister a loaf of bread. There was a slight smile on her face.

“And even when I was not, you took my whoopings as often as I would let you, and even—”

“And even sometimes when you would not,” Nora laughed and finished her sister’s sentence. “Oh, those times seem like ages ago.”

Once they were finally done putting the food away, both sisters exchanged fond looks.

“You were always a mother hen.”

“Well, I am older,” Nora said as Amelia slipped her hand into hers.

“By a minute only, Nora,” she said, but there was a smile on her face. “Come,” she said. “Father will, no doubt, send for you soon.”

“Oh, I’m not afraid of him.”

“That is what I fear. I wish Henry would have mistaken you for me, but he’s too eagle-eyed for his own good.”

Both sisters walked out of the pantry, arm in arm, and headed for their shared bedroom on the eastern wing of their father’s manor.

Their father, Lord Baldwin Turner, an English Aristocrat who had served in His Majesty’s court, was assigned to Scotland by the King a year ago.

Nora recalled being worried about relocating there. However, when they arrived in Brinsdale, she discovered that she had not needed to be concerned at all. Scotland was beautiful and her father had acquired a large mansion south of town surrounded by trees that were home to beautiful birds.

Those same birds sang again as the sisters entered their bedroom, awaiting their father’s call. It only took a few minutes for a loud knock to sound on the door.

“You may enter,” Nora called in a voice full of false bravery.

With a snide expression on his face, Henry opened the door but his confidence wavered as he looked between the two women. “Your father summons you.”

“Thank you, Henry. You may take your leave,” Amelia said with a jutted chin.

Nora was pleased by her sister’s gesture. Amelia’s anger, even toward Henry whom she couldn’t stand either, was limited to a raised chin, and even that was rare. When he left, Nora stood to leave, but Amelia turned to her with pleading eyes and grabbed her hands.

“Oh, please, let me go in your stead! Darling Nora, please! I will calm Father down. You will only anger him further.”

“And that will probably reveal our deceit,” Nora said with a grin.

“Oh, do be serious, Nora! Please, let me—”

“Amelia, I could never let you face Father’s wrath. You know I couldn’t, not even if you were to blame. I certainly will not since I am at fault.”

“But you so often take the fall for me…”

“You hardly get into trouble, dearest.”

“But—”

“Amelia,” Nora said softly but firmly, “No. I will go myself.”

With a brave face and a beating heart, Nora strode out of the room.

Lord Turner’s study was located on the western wing’s far edge. The girls had suspected that the office was strategically placed because their father preferred to be as far away from his daughters as possible. It had been the same in their home in England.

Nora despised it; she hated having to march across half the house, terrified of what her father would do. During the walk, she would frequently try to distract herself like forcing herself to consider all the different ways she could braid Amelia’s hair or picturing rocking a sleeping child, as she had often done when bringing food to some of the local women’s babies.

The soothing thoughts never lasted long, and she was soon back to thinking about her father. She knocked twice on his office’s large door, just as he had instructed.

“Nora.” His voice was deep and heavy with a cold undertone.

She took a deep breath before grasping the large brass handle and opening the door.

Lord Turner sat at the head of the room, behind his large desk. He was wearing reading glasses and ruminating over two large piles of documents on either side of his table.

Nora took her time walking to his table, counting each step until she was standing across from him.

“Father.”

There was no response. Nora sat at his table, silently watching him read. He finished working on a document he had selected from the right pile, and placed it on another to his left. He repeated that for quite some time. After what seemed like an eternity, he lifted his gaze to hers.

“When I speak to you, do you hear the words I say?”

“Yes, Father.”

“Do you understand them?”

“Yes, Father.”

“And yet, you never obey them. Why is that, Nora?”

Nora remained silent.

“Has the cat got your tongue?”

When Nora refused to speak again, Lord Turner slammed his fists on the table. She stood firm, which aggravated her father even more. She hated being afraid, but it was her father’s favorite game.

Nora and Amelia were not exempt from his bullying because they were his daughters. On the contrary, they got the worst of it. It didn’t surprise her for he hated them both, she knew. She had realized it early on, but it had taken her some time to figure out why.

Nora had suspected her father disliked her since she was a child. She had initially assumed it was because she made messes around the house and frequently got into trouble, but that notion had quickly faded. After all, Amelia was as good as gold, and he was equally horrible to her.

“You and your sister bring a lot of grief to me. It is all you have ever done. You took your mother at birth, and you will not rest until you take me too.”

His words sliced through Nora like a knife, but she remained silent and unmoving; her face blank.

“Stop giving out food that you do not pay for. I should punish you, but I haven’t the time for that today. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Father.”

“Nora, you should know your place. I’m a busy man, and I don’t understand why you have to be watched like a child all day.”

Nora continued to remain silent, blinking back tears.

“I’m hoping to hear nothing else from Henry. You are more trouble than you are worth, and I am considering marrying you off. You may leave now.”

Nora walked out of the room, her face expressionless. The tears pricked her eyes, but she didn’t let them fall… Not until she was reunited with Amelia. She knew her sister would know what had happened just by looking at her.

“Oh, Nora, what did he say to you?” her sister said as she entered the room.

Nora closed the door behind her and tried to keep a straight face.

“He said nothing, Amelia,” she lied, but couldn’t keep the truth from her sister. Nora dashed over, allowing Amelia to tightly hug her.

She tried her hardest not to cry, but it was too difficult. Her father’s words cut her deeply.

“Do you think our mother would have loved us?” she asked.

Amelia pulled away from the hug. “I know for certain, Nora. She would have loved us.”

Nora smiled, the pain in her heart beginning to ease. The sisters sat on the bed next to each other.

“What do you think she looked like?” she said after she had calmed down a little. “I know she had red hair, just like ours.”

“Perhaps she would have been tall like us.” Amelia grinned.

“I’ll never forgive father for burning all of her paintings. I would have loved to have seen her…” Nora’s heart was overflowing with longing for her mother. It was a terrible feeling to miss someone you’d never met.

“Oh, Nora. Don’t be sad! We have each other.”

“Yes.” Nora’s smile was genuine. “We do.”

“Do you fancy a walk? We could collect some flowers.”

“It is such a lovely day, is it not?” Nora forced a smile. “I’ll take my parasol, and we can be off in a jiffy.”

The sisters shared another warm embrace, comforted once more by each other.
Nora was relieved to hear that their father had sent Henry out for the afternoon. It was the ideal opportunity for her to try her ruse once more. Naomi’s little boy would go hungry for the third night in a row if she didn’t sneak some food out.

With guilt in her heart, she crept into the pantry. She didn’t like keeping things from her sister, but she knew Amelia would have followed her. She couldn’t let her put herself in such risk.

She decided not to bring the picnic basket this time. Instead, she slipped some bread and cheese into a small cloth bag and hid it with her shawl.

She sneaked out of the house and into the woods, following the small path that circled the estate until she arrived at a small cottage at the end of one of the lanes. It was mostly hidden by the forest.

Nora’s heart had sunk when Naomi showed her where she lived with her son. Since then, she’d done everything she could to alleviate their suffering.

She imagined what it would be like to live so close to the woods, not liking the eerie feeling she got when she walked or rode alone out there. But her desire to assist Naomi outweighed her fear. Arriving at the cottage, she notice the thatch roof leaking in several places.

She knocked twice before the door was flung open.

“Naomi, it’s me.” And the woman’s eyes lit up.

“Ach, milady! Ye made it. Come in, come in!”

“Thank you, Naomi. How does Nathan fare?”

Nora was led into the small house which was slightly smaller than her bedchamber. Removing the shawl, she handed Naomi the bag.

“Very poorly, milady.” the woman said sadly.

Nathan lay in the corner on a straw bed.

“Oh, Nathan! You do look poorly,” Nora said in a comforting voice, stroking his hair.

“‘Tis jolly good to see ye, milady,” the boy replied weakly. “Ma said ye were nae sure to come, but I told her ye were.” He offered her a small smile.

Nora’s heart clenched as she looked at Naomi, glad she eventually took the risk and paid them a visit. “I must leave shortly,” she told them both, “but I will be back. Farewell, Nathan. How I worry so…”

“Ye daenae have to worry about Ma, at least,” Nathan said, despite the weakness in his voice. “I can take care of Ma.”

Nora laughed despite how sad she felt. “I’m sure you can, Nathan. That’s why we need you to be strong again.”
The boy nodded slowly before closing his eyes.

Nora shifted her gaze to Naomi. “What medicine does he take?”

The woman turned away. “We cannot afford medicine, milady.”

Nora walked to the door, deep in thought.

“Milady, do ye need a hand finding yer way back?”

Nora’s eyes snapped up. “I’ve got it,” she replied, then sighed. “Do you remember the short path through the woods that you showed me? From the farmers’ market?”

“Aye,” Naomi nodded, opening the door.

“Well, someplace along there, I noticed a white willow tree. You must find it and scrape off some of its bark. Boil it down and make it into a tea for him. It might help some. Now, I really must be off.”

And with that, she was gone.

***

Nora hurriedly made her way home. Her father’s estate was larger than any of the surrounding residences. The main gates opened onto a large plot of land that housed his horses, servants, and a few other structures.

Unlike their home in England, the manor had a garden that Nora adored; enclosed by a small fence and gate leading into the woods. She sneaked in and out of the manor from here.

Nora closed the wooden gate quietly behind her. She dashed through the garden and into the house and quickly peered down the corridors. There was no sign of Henry so taking a deep breath, she set out to find Amelia.

“Lady Nora… Lady Amelia?” a voice asked from behind. Nora turned back to Henry whose face held a menacing grin. “Your father summons you and your sister to his study immediately.”

 

Chapter two

It was nearly noon when Jonan McKay awoke from his slumber that day. He rolled out of bed and onto the floor, unable to get back up.

He had no desire to do anything. It had been like this for years, ever since his wife died. The days passed slowly, and the nights even more so. Everything in the world seemed to be at odds with him, as if he were trapped in an endless cycle of torture.

Jonan laboriously drew himself up until he was leaning against his bed. He reached for the bottle of rum he’d left on his dresser the night before. On most days, he drew himself out of his rest and avoided hitting the bottle until noon. That was not the case today.

For he had a dream that took him back in time.

He cracked open the rum and let the hot liquid burn a path down his throat. He grimaced at the bitter taste of the alcohol but took another sip, throwing it away once it was empty. He then leaned against his bed and closed his eyes.

It was just another day.

I have nae luck, he thought as he rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. Beyond the chandelier was simple darkness, and it reminded him of the void that was now in his heart.

“Milaird,” he heard a knock on the door. Jonan closed his eyes again, not in the mood for visitors. For a long time, he had not been in the mood to see anyone.

His duty as a laird to his clan meant that he couldn’t stay alone for long. His heart was bitter. For months, he had considered leaving the clan and moving somewhere far away, where no one would find or know of him; somewhere where he would not be constantly reminded of his grief… but he couldn’t. He had promised Magda that he would look after Leah and, by the Gods, he would.

Shame engulfed him — he used to be powerful and strong, someone who would never evade his duties.

Who have I become? he thought to himself.

The knock came again. “Laird McKay,” the familiar voice came again. “I ken that ye are awake, milaird.”

Aye, I am awake. I just wish for nae guests. Jonan kept quiet even though he knew he could not hide forever.

Callan, his most trusted ally, was standing outside the door. Still, Jonan lay motionless on the floor.

“Father!” Jonan’s eyes flew open as he heard the gentle voice of his daughter, Leah.

Leah is here. Jonan got off the floor quickly and grabbed a shirt from his drawer, wanting to look presentable.

“Laird McKay.” Callan repeated.

With a groan, Jonan pushed open the door.

“A wonderful mornin’ to ye, Leah. How was yer night?” he asked. She sat with her arms folded across her chest, as if she had been forced to come. It appears that his daughter, though young, held a grudge against him; feeling the burden of his neglected to her and his clan. No matter how hard Jonan tried to mend the growing rift between him and his daughter, he always ran into a painful brick wall.

Leah was only four years old, but she looked exactly like her mother, and he was deeply saddened every time he saw her. Everyone in the keep could see Jonan’s growing absence from the girl’s life, but he couldn’t deny his sorrows for they overwhelmed him.

He extended his long arms and smiled. wanting her to love him, she was his only remaining family after all—his own flesh and blood.

Leah, however, remained motionless. Callan nudged the girl forward, and finding herself near her father, she reluctantly walked into his waiting arms.

Jonan tightly hugged her before abruptly lifting her off the floor. Leah screamed with delight, making him smile for the first time in weeks as a bright grin spread across her face.

She is innocent and has nothing to do with her mother’s death, he tried to remind himself as he danced with his daughter.

“She never laughs this hard when she plays with the other children, milaird,” Callan said. Guilt prickled his conscience, but he did not comment.

Magda had been gone only a short while, but he was already failing her—just like he had failed to keep her alive.
“She should play more with children her age,” Jonan said before putting Leah back down. The young girl’s eyes welled up with tears but he couldn’t bring himself to look her in the eyes again. So he turned away as Callan approached to collect her.

“For ye, milaird,” Callan said, tending Jonan a note.

He looked down on it, then sighed. “I shall see ye before the day ends,” Jonan said to Leah. Dismayed, she nodded and sniffed back her tears as she was led out of the room.

Just smile at me, and tell me all is alright and forgiven, the Laird wished as he watched his daughter walk away from him.

The door remained open in their wake. Soon after, two maids entered the room, carrying buckets on their arms. They greeted him appropriately, then went into the washroom, where they poured steaming, hot water into the tub.

“Yer bath is prepared, milaird,” the women said.

“Thank ye,” Jonan bid the two women as they hurried out the room, hiding their grins and whispering.

Jonan did not call them back to find out what they were gossiping about. He already knew. There was no more popular topic than the laird, who rarely left his chamber.

He sat on the bed, unfolding the note. Callan had tried to remind him that the clan elders had called a meeting with him that morning. He had intended to avoid it entirely, but after seeing Leah, he felt eager to do something worthwhile with his day.

A bath first, Jonan decided, taking off his shirt. A brief giggle alerted the Laird to the presence of peepers. He knew it had to be the maids.

He coughed loudly enough for the ladies to hear. Their quick feet hurried out of the chamber, across the corridor, and to the stairwell.

He held no grudges against the young women who wanted to see him naked. Years ago, his pride might have reveled in the attention, but now… now he was a different man, and he desired to be alone.

They are naïve to like a man such as meself, Jonan thought, downcast before he dipped into the bath.
It wasn’t his first time dealing with nosy maids. He was a widower, so many women fancied him or aspired to be the clan’s new lady.

Jonan quickly washed himself and exited the washroom. He looked through the looking glass, which hung just outside the door.

He looked like the tall and burly man he had always been with broad shoulders like his father and black curls like his mother. He was a strong man; his body was toned and muscled—he was, after all, a seasoned warrior.

But deep inside, he felt weak.

Perhaps this is who I really was all along. Perhaps I played the strong laird for too long. If I didnae, why can I nae remember what it feels like to lead, to be in control?

Jonan brushed aside his thoughts, and dressed in a loose shirt and breeches. He slipped on his boots and walked down the spiral stairs that led to the main dining hall.

It was a large room, big enough to host a clan ball. He recalled running through the hall as a wee lad, disobeying his parents and getting into trouble.

Breakfast had been served. The Laird sat down but the meal in front of him did not pique his appetite. He did, however, force himself to eat, not wanting to waste valuable food, even if it brought him no satisfaction.

After a while, Callan entered and joined Jonan at the table. “Milaird, ye daenae seem to be in the best of moods.”
Jonan grunted.

“The clansmen are just concerned. They need yer reassurance.”

Jonan took a sip from a tumbler of water. He didn’t have the courage to tell his friend that he couldn’t offer any reassurance.

“I dinnae ken if I wish to go.”

“You are the Laird McKay, and yer people have barely seen ye since the Lady McKay passed,” Callan pointed out. “There are rumors amongst the clan members that ye dinnae care for them anymore,” he continued.

“I care for me people. I am only in mourning. A man may grieve loss, may he nae? ” Jonan replied bitterly.

“Ye need to go out into the clan, Laird McKay,” Callan continued.

Jonan was well aware of Callan’s intentions. The man would gently pester him; never demanding, always implying. But he was unwavering in his support. Jonan knew that the commander would not rest until he attended the meeting.

“I will go,” he said at last.

***

Jonan felt uneasy while riding through McKay village. Everyone stared at him as he walked past them in silence. He could see in their eyes that they remembered his loss the moment they saw him, and their sympathy for his plight was too much for him to bear.

Overcoming his discomfort, he waved and smiled at the clansmen. They all bowed to him and waved the clan’s flag as he rode through.

The children were more palatable, with less concern for his loss and demeanor. There was no sadness for them to feel, only joy and fun.

Jonan left his stead in front of the town hall in the square. He could already hear conversation inside the building, as the council had begun without him. Nonetheless, he entered.

When he pushed open the front doors, the large meeting room fell silent. After a while, they all rose to greet him.

Jonan counted the people in the room and realized he was the odd one out. Callan had prepared for him the vacant seat at the head of the table. The Laird McKay walked over to his seat, ignoring the men around him who were trying to conceal their surprise at his presence.

“Ye may sit,” Jonan stated. “Why have I been summoned?” he asked then, getting straight to the point.

The men at the table exchanged glances before one of them spoke up. The council’s eldest member — a fifty-year-old clansman who had seen three lairds in his lifetime.

“It is a pleasant sight for the clan to have ye bless our invitation. The people of the clan felt hope this day as ye rode amongst them,” Aodh started.

“I apologize for my absence,” Jonan replied. “I have been occupied with other, pressing matters.”

“While ye were absent, Laird McKay, the English have gained ground on our people. The Scots are terrified,” the man continued.

“We are strong and proud Scotsmen who would lay down our lives for the freedom of our country, but we are weak in numbers,” another man said.

“We have been forced to find allies in clans we once lorded over,” Aodh announced.

“We must not forget that when the rains destroyed our harvest last year, the clan was forced to loan from the Ta’Mas.

‘Tis due to be repaid,” another man added on.

All eyes were on Jonan. He sat in silence, unsure what to do.

The Ta’Ma’s were a wealthy group of Barbarians. They charged exorbitant interest rates and would not accept late payments. They were known to burn entire clans’ villages down after taking everything valuable to repay their debt.

They murdered children and men and frequently raped women.

The McKay clan had a formidable army, but it would never be able to withstand the Ta’Mas’ wrath.

“The clan is failing, milaird. The farmers are sick with the flu, and they cannot work.” Aodh continued. “‘Tis crucial that the planting begins immediately. There is no more time to waste. Even while we contend with this, we are ever threatened by the English.”

Jonan remained silent. He knew the words spoken were true. Despite having spent the majority of the previous few months in his keep, he was aware of rumors of English soldiers on their lands. The council’s solution appeared simple enough, but he knew how difficult it would be to secure allies with civil wars raging across the country. Scotland was sick of conflicts.

All of the men sat quietly at the table, waiting for him to provide a solution. As clan chief, it was his responsibility to protect them.

“We shall bide our time and wait before sending the council in search of allies. The war is still far from our lands.” Jonan pronounced. The members of the council were shocked at the laird’s words. He knew that they thought his approach was too passive.

“But we must be hasty in our actions to protect the clan lands from the English,” Aodh argued, speaking the minds of all those at the table.

The old man’s words fell on deaf ears. Jonan got to his feet, startling them.

“Our clan does nae cower and seek out allies,” Jonan stated firmly. His voice was so loud and mighty that none of the men dared to speak until the echo of his voice faded away.

“We ken about the past wars between our clan and the others. We were strong in those days, and we made all our enemies bow to us… but the English are upon us now,” Callan spoke gently.

“I think ‘tis high time that we speak clearly,” Aodh said, standing. “Ye are the Laird and ‘tis yer duty to care for yer clansmen. The clan suffers and weakens as each day passes, yet naught is done.”

Under Aodh’s piercing gaze, Jonan remained silent. The men of the council kept quiet too, not supporting Aodh but also not disagreeing with him. A rather terrible sign for Jonan.

“Ye must do something, Laird Jonan McKay, and prove that ye can still rule this clan.”

“Enough!” Callan said, standing up and facing Aodh. “I respect yer gray hairs, but I will nae listen to ye disrespect the Laird.”

“I have given my final word, Aodh, to ye and every member of this clan. We will seek no more allies.” Jonan’s words were firm, but his confidence shook, and he might have remained silent had it not been for Callan’s bold words. “I remain Laird of this clan. If any man wishes to challenge me, let him pick up a sword. I have nae forgotten how to wield a blade.” He rose to his feet, noting Callan’s relief in his response. “I am Laird Jonan McKay and the McKay clan yields to none. That is my final word.”

With those words, he marched out of the meeting and rode back to the keep.

Once there, he allowed himself to collapse on his bed as evening fell — alone in solitude. The way the bed accepted the burden of his worry was almost blissful.

“But life is nae meant to be so.”

He sighed deeply. He reached into his pocket, searching for the portrait of his beloved Magda. He realized that he couldn’t take it out as he usually did. He didn’t want to. A sense of shame washed over him, knowing that, deep down, he was no longer the man his late wife had adored.

He had failed her, but wouldn’t fail his clan too.

For the first time in a long time, Jonan headed toward his study. He was on a mission to find a letter he had previously discarded.

There it was, lying in a drawer of his desk. The brown envelope was wax-sealed. The initials on the seal read L.T. As he trailed over the smooth paper with his fingers, he began to think.

He wasn’t oblivious to his people’s hardships. Their food supplies were running low, and more trespassers were showing up on their land. Their finances were failing, and he worried that the clan would be marched upon.

Jonan understood that it was solely his responsibility and duty to keep his people safe. The clan required more money, allies, and food. If his people were not conquered, they would almost certainly starve.

He grimaced as he opened the envelope and removed the neatly folded letter. Unfolding it, he reached for his quill.

I accept.

He rummaged through the drawer for the McKay signet ring. He sighed and dipped it into ink before slamming it against the paper, echoing finality. Then he went in search of a messenger boy to send the letter on its way.

As Jonan watched the messenger ride away, a strange dread swirled in his stomach. He retired to his chambers and drank himself to sleep.

 


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