In the Arms of a Highland Brute (Preview)


Steward Castle, 1290
One year ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had never been a particularly good student.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What if someone finds out?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter One

Murray Castle, 1290

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What now?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A bet? What kind of bet?”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank ye for yer—”

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

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

“Are ye all right?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Not at all Likely Extremely Likely

  • It appears that Alba will be the attention of Fletcher and perhaps Magnus, when Fletcher implements his plan to marry her. I can’t wait to see how this story evolves.

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