Claimed by a Highland Beast (Preview)
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Inishail Priory, Grampian Mountains
Two days prior
The winter chill permeated the air, seeping into Deirdre’s bones through her habit. Tiny snowflakes swirled in the wind around her, some of them landing on her hands and her cheeks and dusting her robes with white. As she walked, Deirdre held her cloak tightly around her with one hand, as the other fidgeted with the pendant around her neck that had once been her mother’s, a nervous habit she had developed ever since her sister Lana had gifted it to her.
It was beautiful at the nunnery that time of the year, every path, tree and bush covered in a thin layer of snow. Deirdre walked around the grounds to get to the main building, where Sister Freya was waiting for her—though for what reason, Deirdre didn’t know. All she knew was that she had called for her.
Entering the main building, Deirdre made her way to the back, to a study where Sister Freya and a few other senior nuns dealt with daily matters and correspondence. She knocked on the door and it opened almost instantly, as if the nun was waiting for her right behind it.
Sister Freya was an older woman, well into her fifties, with rosy cheeks and the signs of her gentle, kind nature etched into the smile lines and the wrinkles around her green eyes. She was Deirdre’s favorite—always had been, ever since her father had dropped her off at the nunnery, effectively ridding himself of her.
Deirdre had been only a child then, no more than five years of age, and Sister Freya had been a young woman who had taken care of her as a mother. Had she not been a nun, Deirdre could imagine her surrounded by happy children and grandchildren, little souls she would have nurtured just like she had nurtured her.
“Ach, ye are here… good,” Sister Freya said, exiting the study instead of inviting Deirdre in, much to her confusion. Had she not called to see her? Where was she going?
“Ye called fer me,” Deirdre reminded her, falling into step next to her as Sister Freya made her way down the hall.
“Aye. There is someone here tae meet ye,” the woman said, and Deirdre’s frown only deepened.
It wasn’t often that she had visitors. Her father, before his death, rarely ever came to see her, forbidding her sister from visiting her as well, more often than not. Since his death, and in the week since Deirdre’s return to the nunnery, Lana naturally hadn’t had the chance to visit, so perhaps it was her?
But if it’s Lana, would she nae have written tae me?
In her most recent letter, which Deirdre had only received a few days prior, she had made no mention of a visit.
“Dae ye ken who it is?” Deirdre asked.
At her question, Sister Freya’s face fell, her lips pursing into a thin line. It wasn’t the sort of expression Deirdre had seen on her face often. Even when she was displeased, Sister Freya rarely showed it.
“It’s Shane Hay,” she said, her voice tight and strained, as if simply the mention of the name was enough to unsettle her. “That… well, I cannae call him what I wish tae call him. The nerve that man must have tae come here after tryin’ tae take the lairdship from yer sister.”
Deirdre hadn’t even known of Shane Hay until recently, when the man had shown up from Ayrshire claiming he was the late Laird Hay’s cousin, and thus, Deirdre’s uncle. She hadn’t been the only one confused. Lana didn’t know of him, either, and no matter how many people Deirdre asked in the clan, none of them had heard of him before.
“What does he want?” Deirdre asked. She knew all about Shane’s desire to become the laird of the Hay Clan. He had made it all too clear when he had come to Hay Castle that he wanted the lairdship, but Deirdre had nothing to do with it.
“I dinnae ken,” said Sister Freya. “He only said he wishes tae speak with ye, an’ he wouldnae leave unless he saw ye. I asked him tae several times, but he simply wouldnae listen.”
“That’s alright,” said Deirdre. “I will speak with him.”
Sister Freya came to a halt and turned around to look at Deirdre. “If ye dinnae wish tae see him, ye dinnae have tae. He’ll leave eventually. Surely, he cannae stay here all day.”
“Nay, nay… I will speak with him,” Deirdre insisted. She didn’t want to see him, but she also didn’t want him to bother the other nuns or appear rude to him. “It’s alright. I dinnae mind.”
Sister Freya nodded and continued down the hall, Deirdre following close behind. When they reached the end of the hall, Deirdre saw the familiar figure through the door to one of the rooms of the wing, sitting by the fireplace. It was strange to see him there, in a room usually reserved for studying, his opulent clothes clashing with the bare walls.
He was older, though by no means old, a few strands of his dark hair only just starting to grey. He was a tall man, lithe but imposing, even as he sat.
“I willnae be long,” Deirdre assured Sister Freya, and then she stepped inside. The moment Shane saw her, he turned to her, smiling without warmth.
“Deirdre Hay… ye are a difficult lass tae talk tae,” he said. “That woman wouldnae let me see ye.”
“Ye are in a nunnery,” Deirdre pointed out. “This isnae a place fer men.”
“Ye cannae have visitors?” Shane asked with an amused smile. “Surely, I cannae be the first man tae come here.”
“Yer nae,” Deirdre confirmed. “But ye have nae reason tae be here. If ye wished tae tell me somethin’, ye could have sent a letter.”
“Nae fer this,” said Shane. “What I wish tae tell ye is serious, an’ I didnae want tae send a letter. It’s better tae speak in person.”
This had to be about the lairdship, Deirdre thought. There was no other reason for Shane to be there and insist to speak with her face to face. But if Shane wanted her support, then surely, he was deluded.
“Ye ken as well as I dae that the lairdship willnae go tae yer sister,” Shane continued. “A lass cannae be the laird o’ the clan.”
“Perhaps,” Deirdre said, “but her husband can.”
This had been the plan from the beginning, after all, ever since their father had died. The clansmen had been ready to accept it when Shane had showed up and changed everything.
“Tate Murray is from a noble family, that much is true,” Shane said. “If he an’ yer sister were the only options, then I have nae doubt the lairdship would go tae him an’ yer sister would be the lady o’ the clan, as ye think is rightful. But he’s nae the only option. In fact, he’s nae even the best option or the first option. As a Hay, I have a right tae the clan.”
He wasn’t wrong, and that was what Deirdre feared the most. If he was who he claimed to be, then he had more right than anyone else to be the laird, since her father had no sons or closer male relatives. But if that happened, then all the hard work Deirdre had done would go to waste. She didn’t know this man. No one knew him. No one knew if he would be the kind of leader the people needed.
“Macauley an’ I—”
“Och aye,” Shane interrupted. “I heard all about Macauley. He’s one o’ Kian Drummond’s men, is he nae? What was he doin’ at the Hay Clan?”
Deirdre didn’t appreciate being interrupted, nor did she appreciate Shane trying to imply Macauley had ulterior motives. It was true that he was one of Laird Drummond’s men—one of his closest friends and his most trusted advisor, in fact—but he had stayed with Deirdre at Hay Castle after her father’s death, helping her rebuild. Without him, she wouldn’t have managed to do anything, and he had become a close friend, one she valued too much to let anyone doubt his intentions.
If anything, Shane’s intentions were the ones that were doubtful.
“He was helpin’ me,” Deirdre said. “I’m sure ye ken that when the Cummings Clan attacked us, they destroyed much o’ our clan. With me faither dead, we had to rebuild it, an’ Macauley stayed with me tae help. Balfour Cummings left naething but ruins behind him. Had it nae been fer him, there would be nae clan fer ye tae try an’ take.”
Though she originally didn’t want to be rude to the man, she couldn’t help it now. Shane was asking for it. Not only was he trying to take the clan when he had never even visited its lands, he was being rude to her, too.
“Ye didnae dae a very good job, it seems,” Shane said, his smile disappearing. This was the real him, she thought, the one he tried to hide behind smiles and politeness until he couldn’t anymore.
“We did the best we could,” Deirdre’s tone turned cold. She had no reason to even pretend to be polite anymore, not when Shane wouldn’t give her the same treatment. “Resources were limited. As time passes, we’ll dae more.”
“Why wait?” Shane asked. He stood from his chair and approached Deirdre, not stopping until he was too close to her, to the point where she was forced to take a step back to keep some distance between them, which seemed to amuse him. “I have land. I have gold. I have men o’ me own. I can rebuild the clan right the now.”
That wasn’t news to Deirdre either. She had heard of Shane’s land and the fact that he had an army, though she didn’t know the extent of it. Some said he was nothing but a minor landowner, while others swore he was wealthy beyond imagination, and Deirdre didn’t know who to believe.
All she knew was that this man didn’t deserve the lairdship. The one who truly deserved it was Lana, who had put up with everything their father had put her through all alone while growing up. However, since the council would never give the clan to a woman, then the next best person was her husband. With Tate in charge, Lana would be able to lead the clan through him and alongside him.
Shane had done nothing for the Hays. He couldn’t simply show up and demand to be the laird.
“All I need,” Shane continued, his smile returning but once again not reaching his eyes, “is a bride from the clan.”
For a few moments, Deirdre didn’t know what he was trying to say. The only one who could truly help him secure the lairdship was Lana, and Lana was already married to Tate. Marrying someone else would perhaps strengthen his chances, but it would be no guarantee.
It was only when Shane moved closer again, shortening the distance between them and gazing at her with a look akin to hunger, that Deirdre realized what it was he meant.
He’s talkin’ about me. He wishes tae marry me.
Her expression hardening, Deirdre stood her ground. “I have taken me vows. Naething will change this. Even if I wished tae wed, I couldnae. And I dinnae wish tae wed, especially nae someone like ye.”
She wanted to be clear there was no chance of him having her. It didn’t matter if the lairdship ended up in his hands; Deirdre would never be his wife.
Shane’s smile turned into a snarl, his lips curling to bare his teeth at Deirdre as he shoved her against the wall, drawing a pained huff out of her. He held her there, his hands gripping her arms so tightly that she could almost feel the creak of her bones as they were squeezed, the skin bruising under his fingers.
Her heart rattled in her ribs, panic coursing through her. Deirdre tried to push Shane off, but she could hardly move at all, pinned as he had her to the wall.
“Let me go,” she demanded. “Ye have nae right tae come here. Ye have nae right tae touch me. An’ ye have nae right tae the clan as far as I’m concerned.”
Shane laughed, an empty, hollow sound. “Fer a nun, ye’re very… spirited. I thought ye were all supposed tae be gentle. Ach, it doesnae matter. I enjoy it more when a lass fights.”
Deirdre’s eyes widened in horror as Shane pushed her firmly against the wall, bracketing her in with his body. He held her wrists in a crushing grip and kept her hips still with his own, leaving her no space to move. All she could do was wriggle violently against him, trying to push him off, but he was immovable.
Macauley had shown her how to fight. He hadn’t shown her how to overpower someone twice her size.
“Ye must understand, I am nae happy I must dae this, but ye leave me with nae other choice,” Shane said. “If ye willnae marry me willingly, ye will marry me by force. Once I have ye, ye’ll have nae choice but tae say aye.”
Holding her wrists in one of his large hands, Shane reached down to pull Deirdre’s habit up, exposing her thigh. For a moment, he looked at her curiously, his finger tracing the mark on her skin that resembled a lightning bolt, and Deirdre reeled with disgust, her stomach churning as he touched her.
I swear to God, if he doesnae stop and remove those hands from me, I will kill him…
“Stop,” she said, her legs kicking out as she tried to fight him off. “This is a holy place. Ye cannae—”
Before she could finish her sentence, a thud echoed in the room and Shane collapsed by her feet. Deirdre dragged her gaze up to see sister Freya standing there, holding an iron candelabra in her hands, her chest heaving as she looked at the man on the floor.
There was blood on it, but when Deirdre looked back at Shane, there was nothing but a small wound to the side of his head, blood trickling steadily out of it.
“Go,” Sister Freya said, taking Deirdre by the hand to drag her out of the room. “I will deal with this.”
“Where… where should I go?” Deirdre asked, still shaken. Her hands trembled where Sister Freya held onto them tightly, and though her eyes were dry, a sob was caught in her throat. “An’ ye? He’ll kill ye when he wakes up.”
“I told ye I will deal with it,” Sister Freya insisted. “Go tae yer family. Ye’ll be safe there.”
Deirdre didn’t want to leave the nunnery, but she knew Sister Freya was right. Shane didn’t seem like the kind of man who forgave easily, and despite everything, he was bound to try and force her into a marriage again. He needed her. He needed them to marry so he could get the council’s approval.
The only place where she would be safe was with Lana or Macauley.
She knew Lana and Tate had been staying with the Murray Clan since their wedding, and perhaps she could go there and explain everything to her sister, but she didn’t want to put any of them in danger. Lana could very well be Shane’s target, as well, and so finding Macauley instead seemed like the wiser of the two options.
The Drummond Clan. I must go there.
But even if she did, she couldn’t say for certain that she would avoid this marriage. No, if she wanted to keep herself safe from Shane, then she had to find another husband before he could pursue her; someone who understood her position, someone who wouldn’t force her to break her vows to God.
There was only one man she knew who could give her what she needed.
The letter in Kian’s hands crumpled with a rustle as he closed his fist around it. He had read it enough times to memorize it by then, his anger only growing with every time he did.
Balfour Cummings had escaped prison three months prior and no one could find him. The man could have been anywhere and Kian would have been none the wiser had it not been for this letter, sent to him by a neighboring clan.
Had no one thought to warn him? If there was one person Cummings wanted to kill, it was Kian, though he was far from the only one in danger. He and Tate had snatched Lana, Tate’s wife, right out of his hands, and with her, the alliance he was planning with Lana’s father, Laird Hay. Tate and Lana were in danger too, and so was her sister Deirdre and, by extension, the entirety of the Drummond and Hay Clans.
There was little Balfour Cummings could do on his own, but Kian knew the man still had allies and supporters. The Cummings Clan was powerful and its allies loyal. If the man decided to come after them, he wouldn’t be doing so alone.
Kian scratched at his chin; the movement hindered by the silver mask he wore over his face. He had neglected to remove it when he had entered his study and now it seemed pointless, since he would be leaving it soon, so he made no attempt to take it off. Besides, it hardly bothered him anymore, after so many years of wearing it to hide the hideous scar with which his father had left him.
What did bother him was the knowledge that Balfour Cummings was out there, surely planning an attack. All those years of enmity between their clans weren’t going to magically disappear, and now it was more personal than ever between the two men. Kian and Tate had done everything in their power to destroy the man, taking the chance to marry Lana from him and join the forces of the Cummings and Hay Clans. They had almost taken his life, too.
Perhaps they should have. With him dead, they wouldn’t have to worry about an attack now.
If only Macauley were here.
They could all sit down and figure out a way to stop Cummings before he even attacked. But his advisor and closest friend Macauley was away and Kian had received no word of his return yet.
With a sigh, he stood from the well-worn, mahogany chair where he sat, rounding the desk to head to his chambers. There was little point in trying to solve this now, on his own, when there was something else he was meant to be doing.
Namely, a maid. He had called for her earlier that evening, and he had already left her waiting for a long while in his rooms while he considered the news of Cummings’ escape.
Kian closed the door to his study behind him and made his way down the dimly lit hall, the torches casting an orange glow on the stone walls around him. The castle was cold at that time of the year, the furs that hung over the windows only able to do so much to keep out the wind where there was no fire burning, so Kian hurried to his rooms, eager to get warm once more.
As he reached the end of the corridor, though, he saw a figure from the corner of his eye walking down the corridor to his left. Slowly, Kian pulled his blade out and began to move as quietly as he could, sticking to the shadows so that he would remain invisible.
Could it be that Cummings had already found his way to the castle? Could it be that he was there to attack in secret, to kill Kian quietly and send the Drummond Clan into chaos?
The figure was hooded and rather small, now that Kian had taken a better look from closer. Perhaps it was someone else, then, someone sent there by Cummings.
But how did he get past me guards?
His men were better than that. He, Tate, and Macauley had trained them well, and he doubted someone could pass through the castle’s defenses unnoticed. But if that was the case, then who was this cloaked figure roaming around the halls as if in search of something?
Before the man could go too far, Kian rushed towards him and pinned him to the wall, his blade going straight for his neck. The figure flailed, a high-pitched yelp escaping the stranger’s lips as and Kian all but ripped the hood off, revealing a familiar face.
“Deirdre?” he asked. In his shock, he was frozen, his blade st
For a moment, Deirdre looked at him in horror, her eyes wide and her chest rising and falling rapidly as she tried to calm her breathing. In the end, she said, “Good evenin’, me laird. Could ye… let me go?”
Belatedly, Kian realized he still had her pinned against the wall and he hurriedly stepped back, putting some respectable distance between them. Clearing his throat, he put the knife away, which seemed to reassure Deirdre, though she remained timid, as if she expected him to attack again at any moment.
She was a beautiful girl, which certainly didn’t help with the heat that spread over Kian’s cheeks, thankfully mostly hidden by his mask and the dim lighting. Her hazel eyes shone with the incandescence, her skin seemingly radiating a glow of its own, and for a moment, Kian couldn’t look away, although he finally forced himself to.
Deirdre was a nun, and though Kian was far from saintly, he wasn’t going to stare at a nun, even if said nun was staring at him, still plastered to the wall for no reason.
Kian was aware of his reputation, given that he walked around with a mask covering half of his face, and he had no doubts that Deirdre was scared of him, though she had no reason to be. If anything, Kian wished to protect her from what was to come now that Cummings was free. He didn’t want any harm to come to her, especially when he had started it all by angering Cummings.
“Forgive me,” he said. “I didnae realize it was ye. Were we… expectin’ ye?”
Perhaps Tate or Lana had mentioned Deirdre would be coming to visit and he had simply forgotten about it, or maybe they had neglected to mention it at all. Either way, Kian wished he had known, so he could have made the proper arrangements to receive her as a guest.
“Och… nay,” Deirdre said. “Nae one kens I am here yet, nae even me sister. The guards let me intae the castle an’ I’ve been lookin’ fer Macauley, but I cannae find him anywhere.”
“Didnae they tell ye? Macauley isnae here.”
At that, Deirdre’s face fell, disappointment flooding her delicate features. “Och… I didnae think tae ask. I assumed he would be here.”
“Is somethin’ the matter?” asked Kian. If Deirdre had come all the way to Drummond Castle in the middle of the night, there had to be a good reason for it. Otherwise, she would have sent a letter or visited at a more appropriate time.
“Aye,” Deirdre said. “Dae ye ken when Macauley will return? I truly must speak with him as soon as possible.”
Kian shook his head. “I dinnae ken. I havenae received any word from him. But perhaps I can be o’ service tae ye.”
At first, Deirdre looked uncertain, drawing her bottom lip between her teeth as she considered the offer. Then, she simply nodded and Kian offered her his arm, which she didn’t take.
O’ course… she’s a nun.
It was something he had to constantly remind himself of.
“Well… follow me,” he said, as he gestured towards his study. “It’s cold here. Let’s talk in me study.”
Deirdre followed Kian down the hallway back the way he had come, and once they had entered it, he poured them both a cup of wine, handing one to her. He took a seat behind his desk, but Deirdre stayed closer to the fire, warming up as she took a sip from her drink.
The ride to the castle must have been a difficult one, in the dark and the cold. “I will have a maid prepare a bath fer ye so ye can warm up. Would ye like me tae move the chair closer tae the fire?”
Deirdre shook her head. “Thank ye, I’m alright,” she assured him. “I didnae mean tae show up unannounced, but I am afraid I didnae have any other choice.”
“What happened?” Kian asked, alarmed at how worried Deirdre seemed. He watched her as she began to pace back and forth by the fire, nervous energy practically radiating off her and seeping into his own skin.
“There is a man… Shane Hay,” Deirdre said, her fingers tracing the lines of a small, intricate pendant she wore around her neck. “He claims tae be me faither’s cousin.”
“Aye, I’ve heard o’ him,” Kian said, though he found it odd that he had never heard of the man before Laird Hay’s death. He knew of everyone who was related to the major clans, and he had never heard of a Shane Hay until a few weeks prior, when he had first shown up near the Hay lands.
“Well, he came tae the nunnery,” Deirdre said. “He said he wished tae speak with me, but I kent what he wanted.”
“The lairdship,” said Kian.
Deirdre nodded. “He said he can rebuild the clan. He’s a wealthy man an’ he has the resources, but… I dinnae wish fer the clan tae go tae him. Lana deserves tae be the lady. She’s the one who kens the people best and she’s the one who suffered at our father’s hands. If he takes the clan, then it would have all been fer naething.”
“I agree,” Kian said. “An’ I’m certain the council will agree, too, if they look at the facts. Surely, they would rather have someone they ken lead the clan than a stranger.”
“Perhaps,” said Deirdre. “An’ perhaps they willnae. If he is who he says he is, then I wouldnae be surprised if the council preferred him. But he seems tae fear they will choose Tate.”
“Does he?” That was a good thing as far as Kian was concerned. If Shane Hay believed there was a chance the council would be against him, then perhaps he knew something the rest of them didn’t, something that gave Tate and Lana an advantage.
“Aye,” said Deirdre. “He… he proposed to wed me. He said it would be easier if I married him, an’ when I said nay, he…”
Deirdre’s voice trailed off, but Kian didn’t need her to finish her sentence to know what had happened. He had tried to force her into a marriage, one way or another, and Kian shook his head with a sigh. Once again, a political rivalry had turned into a personal matter.
He wasn’t going to allow anyone to hurt Lana’s family. She was as good as family to him now that she had married Tate, whom Kian considered his brother, and by extension, Deirdre was family, too.
“So, I came here tae find Macauley an’ ask fer his hand in marriage,” Deirdre finished, and Kian choked on his sip of wine.
It was the last thing he had expected to hear. He thought Deirdre was looking for Macauley to ask for his help with Shane Hay, but not in the way she seemed to be planning. He had to admit, though, that it was perhaps the best course of action. If Shane was so determined to be the laird of the Hay Clan, then he would stop at nothing. Even if he ever changed his mind about marrying Deirdre, even if he found another way, she would become his enemy. As long as she and Lana existed, and as long as he was married to neither of them, they were a threat.
Then there was the matter of Balfour Cummings. He, too, would surely seek out Lana and Deirdre. The two women were in more danger than they could imagine, and the best way to keep them safe was to keep them both close.
“Danger lurks everywhere these days,” Kian said, a hand coming up to comb through his blonde hair. “Ye made a wise decision comin’ here, but with Macauley gone, I dinnae think yer plan will work.”
With a sigh, Deirdre deflated a little, and she walked over to the chair, all but collapsing in it. “I dinnae wish tae marry that vile man,” she mumbled, her voice so low that Kian could barely hear it over the crackle of the fire. “The things he tried tae dae tae me…”
“I willnae let him harm ye, ye have me word,” Kian promised Deirdre. Her gaze snapped to him, a little curious and very grateful. “Lana’s family is me family. Ye can stay with us, o’ course, an’ we can make arrangements.”
That seemed to reassure Deirdre. Her shoulders relaxed, and she smiled, though it was little more than a twitch of her lips. Kian, however, was not as reassured by his own words.
He thought about their options. Deirdre could stay there with them, and she would most likely be safe while they dealt with Cummings and Shane Hay. But if Shane somehow got to her, he could still try to force her into a marriage as long as she was a maiden, despite her having taken her vows. He apparently did not care about that detail. Then again, Cummings could do the same if he wanted to take control of the Hay Clan. Perhaps they could wait it out and see whether Cummings and Shane would destroy each other, avoiding them lots of trouble if they were lucky.
But if they weren’t so lucky, the two men could end up becoming partners, surely causing danger to everyone around them.
All roads seemed to point to the same thing: Deirdre had to marry.
The best option was, of course, Macauley. The two of them knew each other well and from Macauley’s reports, Kian knew that they had become close friends. That was already a positive if compared to most married couples he knew.
But if Macauley didn’t return for a long time, they ran the risk of Shane attacking first and Deirdre had to be married before that happened. That left the second-best option open to them. Drawing a deep breath to steel himself, Kian looked at her, trying to appear as soft as he could while he was still wearing the mask.
“Deirdre… I ken it is far from ideal, but would ye be willin’ tae marry me?”
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