Lifting a Highland Lass’s Curse (Preview)
“Cursed,” he whispered.
“Aye. Bedeviled for sure,” the other man whispered in reply.
Stifling her emotions, Olivia walked along the corridor with the hood of her cloak pulled low around her, trying to hide in the darkness. She felt the eyes of the guardsmen on her as she walked by them. They didn’t even bother trying to hide their contempt. Some seemed to have become emboldened, more willing to speak out, and openly sneered at her after the death of her parents.
She turned a corner and felt her heart lurch as she pulled up short. Three of the household’s chambermaids stood clustered together—two of them she didn’t know. But they stood, heads bowed together, whispering to one another. They stopped and turned when they saw Olivia. She swallowed hard, knowing the only way to the gardens was to walk past them. As Olivia passed by, they bowed their heads and fell silent, allowing their gazes to fall to the ground, as was proper.
She said not a word as she passed, but when she turned the corner, she stopped and pressed her back against the wall, taking a deep breath as she tried to calm her racing heart. Then, just before she was about to continue on her way, she heard their whispered voices.
“See? Didn’t I tell you? Did you see the mark?” said the one chambermaid she knew—Catherine. “She’s a monster, just like I said.”
“It is certainly unsightly, to be sure,” replied one of the others. “But I don’t think that makes her a monster.”
“Of course it does,” Catherine pressed. “No man is ever goin’ to want to be with her. Not with that kind of a mark on her.”
“You never know. There could be a man out there who can see past that,” replied the other girl. “She could find a man who loves her for who she is.”
Catherine and the girl with the Irish brogue laughed together like it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. It made Olivia’s heart feel tight and difficult to breathe. The pain that shot through her was so deep, it made her knees feel weak. It was an effort for Olivia to remain standing.
“No man is going to want her,” Catherine said. “Not only is that mark unsightly, but it’s proof that she’s cursed.”
Tears welled in Olivia’s eyes. She knew she should walk away and stop listening to the three women gossiping, but she couldn’t make herself move. She’d heard their cruel words many times before. She’d hoped that in time, she’d develop a thicker skin, and she wouldn’t let them cut her so deeply.
But no matter how much time passed and how many times she heard those words, they never failed to hit her hard – every single time. The pain they caused her had never diminished in all the years she’d heard them.
“Aye. ‘tis true. She’s goin’ tae live a life filled with thae worst luck imaginable,” agreed the Irishwoman. “Look at what happened tae her parents. ‘tis because of her. She’s cursed.”
“It’s true,” Catherine said. “And do you believe any noble lord is going to want to take that sort of cursed, unsightly woman into his household?”
The pressure building inside of Olivia finally boiled over, and her body reacted without meaning to. With tears streaming down her face, hot with shame and humiliation, Olivia stepped back out into the corridor and glared at the three women malevolently.
“Unless you three wish for something terrible to befall you, I’d suggest you stop with your gossipmongering, keep a civil tongue and go about your work,” Olivia said, surprised by how cold her voice was. “Now. Go. Before I lose my temper and something unfortunate happens to all three of you.”
The three women looked at her with the same stricken expression, their faces blanching. Olivia knew she should not be berating them in that way. She was no longer the Duke’s daughter, and this was no longer her household. But the hurt and anger inside of her were so great, she could not contain herself. Giving them a final withering glare that sent them scampering, Olivia was left alone in the corridor. And as the tears continued to flow, she turned and fled, running for the secret passage that would take her out to the gardens.
The garden was the only place in the world where she felt comfortable. Where she could simply be herself. Now that her Uncle had moved into the family castle, it no longer felt like home. Yet, the garden was the only place that remained untouched and where she could still feel her parents. Sitting in the garden her father had created for her mother made her feel close to them. It was the only place in the world where she felt happy.
It allowed her to forget the morbidly curious looks and whispered insults that were a staple of her life. It allowed her to shut out conversations like the one she’d just overheard. She could never escape them. Wherever she went, people would stare at her. Or rather, stare at her disfigurement. It was why people whispered behind their hands about her being cursed and bedeviled. That was why they blamed her for the death of her parents.
And it was why, having seen twenty-four summers already, that she had no suitors – and likely would never have. No man in his right mind would ask for her hand. Not even with her handsome dowry. As a little girl, Olivia had been too naïve to realize how terribly her mark would handicap her life. She believed she would marry a handsome prince and live a life filled with love and joy. But, time had taught her that was not her lot in life. Now she knew that love and happiness were not in the cards.
A lone tear spilled from the corner of her eye, and Olivia wiped it away angrily. She crawled to the edge of the small pond on her hands and knees. Pulling back her hood, she leaned over the edge, peering at her reflection on the surface of the water. Her hair, black as a raven’s wing, framed a pale face, and her hazel-colored eyes glimmered like gold in the sunlight. She raised her hand and touched her left cheek. It was smooth and unblemished.
But then she turned her head to gaze at her right cheek, at her disfigurement. Olivia trailed the tips of her fingers across the wine-colored mark that marred her right cheek. The blemish ran from the corner of her mouth to her eye and from nose to ear. It took up most of the right side of her face and was why she kept her face hidden beneath a hood and stayed away from people. She hated that the mark was the only thing people stared at. As a consequence, when she looked at herself, it was the only thing she could see.
* * * * *
They sat in the smaller, more intimate dining room known as the Primrose Room, eating supper. It was the dining room she and her parents had dined in while they were alive – when they weren’t hosting formal dinners in the great hall. Olivia had many fond memories of having supper with them. Memories of times filled with love and laughter.
But now, the Primrose, like everything else, belonged to her uncle. Thomas sat at the head of the polished oak table with his wife, Matilda, on his left. Olivia sat on his right, quietly sipping her soup. The only sounds in the room were the gentle clink of their spoons and the loud ticking of the clock. The mood was somewhat dour, as it usually was with her uncle. He was a grave man who was not prone to laughter, as her own parents had been. Particularly her mother. Olivia’s mother had loved to laugh.
Thomas set his spoon down gently, wiped his mouth with the cloth napkin, and then looked at Olivia. She had to suppress the shudder that swept through her when his gaze fell on her. Thomas had always been kind to her. He seemed to go out of his way to be good to her. He was a tall, lean, and severe-looking man with dark hair and dark, intense eyes. He was a general of some renown in the Crown’s army and could be very cold and aloof. She figured it was his military nature that made him so. Olivia didn’t think he intended to be, but his very presence was sometimes intimidating.
“Olivia,” he said, his tone serious. “I have something I wish to discuss with you.”
Olivia set her spoon down and wiped her mouth. “Yes, Uncle?”
“I know things for you here have been… difficult,” he started. “And not just with the passing of your parents. I hear things. I see how people here treat you because of your… mark.”
Olivia looked down, feeling the familiar wave of shame her mark always inspired. Her cheeks flushed, and she knew her face was turning red. Her uncle didn’t say it to be mean, and he certainly wasn’t mocking her. It was just a statement of fact. And to be fair, he never treated her badly about her disfigurement. If she had to choose a word to describe him, it would probably be sympathetic. She knew her uncle cared for her, and he treated her as well as he knew how. And she appreciated him for that.
“I hope you know that I don’t care about your mark, Olivia. To me, you’re my beautiful and ferociously intelligent niece. And you always will be,” he said. “But with your parents gone, things have changed.”
“Thank you, Uncle. And I am grateful that you have been so kind to me,” she replied. “And I understand that things have changed.”
“I do not like seeing you upset. I do not like seeing you wasting away,” he added, his tone dripping with compassion. “I hate seeing you unhappy, Olivia. I remember when you used to smile, and believe me, it was a thing of beauty. Your smile could light up any room.”
A small smile touched her lips at his words.
“I haven’t seen that smile in a very long time, and I miss it,” he added.
“To be true, I miss being happy, Uncle.”
His eyes lingered on her for another moment before his gaze shifted down to the table. The faint smile that had been on his face a moment before faltered and then faded away altogether. But he cleared his throat and looked up at her, his expression firm.
“It pains me to say that I do not think you’ll find your happiness here in England,” he said softly. “I have tried to find you a suitable match but have not had good fortune in that regard. I’m sorry that I’ve failed you.”
It was Olivia’s turn to give him a sympathetic smile. “You did not fail me, Uncle. It is not your fault that nobody wants to marry a monster.”
“You are hardly a monster, Olivia. Please get that thought out of your head this instant,’ he said. “It is not your fault that some men are such shallow, vain creatures.”
His words lightened her heart a little, but it didn’t change the fact that men tended to view her as an unsightly beast. It did little to help her confidence or sense of self-worth. It was a constant poison that was eating away at her soul, and Olivia knew that one day there would be little left.
“In light of that, I’ve made arrangements for you to live with your mother’s best friend and her husband—the Lady and Laird Drummond,” he said. “I’m sending you to live in Scotland, where we will hopefully be able to secure you a match befitting a woman of your station.”
Olivia’s heart dropped to her stomach, and she clapped her hands over her mouth. She looked at her uncle, waiting for him to laugh or say something to break the tension of the moment. But he remained silent.
“Sc—Scotland?” she gasped. “You’re sending me away, Uncle?”
“Only because I want you to be happy, Olivia. I think perhaps a fresh start somewhere new will be good for you,” he said. “I also think you will benefit greatly from being away from the whisperers and the gossipmongers here. A new environment will allow you to grow and flourish. I believe you can become the woman you were meant to be if you are away from the things here that keep you… trapped.”
Olivia cocked her head. “Trapped, Uncle?”
“Yes,” he said with a touch of sadness in his voice. “Trapped in your past. And also trapped inside yourself.”
Confusion swept through her. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
He sighed and ran a hand over his face. “There are people here who are cruel. They make you withdraw and hide within yourself. It breaks my heart to see it, Niece. But I don’t know how to help,” he said. “My hope is that by sending you to Scotland, by giving you a fresh start, you’ll learn how to come out of that shell.”
She sat back in her seat and pondered his words. She knew there was wisdom in them but could not see how to apply it to herself. People were going to be the same whether they were in England or Scotland. And nobody was going to ever see past her mark. Olivia didn’t know how living in the north would change anything. It seemed as though her uncle was shipping her away so that she wasn’t his problem. It was a cynical point of view, but her life didn’t exactly equip her to see the world any other way.
She gave her uncle a weak smile. “If that’s what you think is best, Uncle.”
He reached over and took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. She looked up at him and found a soft smile upon his lips.
“I want you to have the life you deserve, Olivia. I want you to be happy,” he said. “And I want you to stop letting your mark define you. You are far more than your mark. I hope that given a fresh start in a new place, you will understand that. I also hope you can find yourself in Scotland.”
Happy. Olivia frowned. Happiness was something she would never attain. Not in this lifetime.
Blaine slid out of his saddle and hit the ground, nearly toppling over. His legs wavered and felt like they were going to give way. But he managed to keep on his feet, if only just. The young stableboy approached, giving him an awkward bow. Blaine gave him a crooked smile and threw the reins to him.
“See to me horse, boy,” Blaine said. “We’ve had a long ride back from Edinburgh, and he needs food and water. And a good brushing.”
“Yes, me Laird.”
“I’m nae thae Laird, ye bleedin’ fool. That’d be me faither,” Blaine snapped. “I’m just a pawn in his grand game. No more important than ye, actually.”
Blaine drained the last of the bottle of spirits in his hand and threw it at the stable wall. It shattered with a loud crash, spraying tiny shards of glass everywhere. The stableboy looked at him with wide eyes, and Blaine snarled at him.
“Go see tae me horse, boy,” he roared. “Are ye bleedin’ simple?”
“Nay, me—sir,” he stammered.
The boy sketched an awkward bow, then turned and scurried off, leading Blaine’s horse into the stable. Blaine giggled to himself, still feeling a little lightheaded from the bottle of spirits. Trying to sober up, he turned and breathed deeply, inhaling the familiar odors that filled the castle bailey. He looked over to the stables that ran along the eastern wall. A smithy’s forge was also on that side of the bailey. Along the western wall was a row of stalls, mostly selling roasted meats and other assorted vendors. On the southern wall behind the castle were barracks for his father’s soldiers. The main gates were set into the northern wall.
Blaine walked around the bailey, looking at the changes his time away at university in Edinburgh had wrought. He had been gone but a few years, but the time had brought many changes to the family castle. Somewhat depressingly, though, he noticed many things had remained exactly the same.
“So, thae rumors are true. Ye’re back.”
Blaine turned around to find Agan, one of his father’s men-at-arms, leaning against his pike. Agan was a tall man, broad through the shoulders and chest. He had light brown hair and dark brown eyes. He bore a jagged scar that ran along the left side of his jaw, curling upward in a fishhook that ended just below his eye. The beard on his face was thick—save for that line of pale, puckered flesh.
Agan had been Blaine’s friend since they were boys, and there was nobody in the world he trusted more. Blaine had always believed they were closer than brothers—a sentiment Blaine was certain Agan shared.
“Aye. They’ve called me back early,” Blaine said. “They told me there was a severe lack of good looks around here, and they wanted me to come home to fix it.”
Agan laughed heartily and stepped forward, pulling Blaine into a tight embrace. They thumped each other on the back then took a step back. The two men took a moment to look each other over and smiled.
“Ye smell like ye just crawled out of a bottle,” Agan told him with a chuckle.
“’twas a long road to get here. Nae much tae dae but have a drink.”
“A drink? Smells like ye had all thae drinks.”
They shared a laugh together. Seeing his old friend was doing Blaine’s heart a world of good. It dulled some of his resentment at being called home from his studies before he’d completed them. He wanted to finish his education at one of the most renowned universities in the world. More than that, he wanted to enjoy the life of a student. To enjoy life in general. Edinburgh was famous for the intellectual ability it harnessed, but to Blaine, it was just as renowned for its drink and its women. And there had been many women.
Just thinking about it aroused him and made him long to be in the arms of the women he’d routinely bedded. He doubted he’d find as many beautiful lasses in Glaslaw Castle willing to give him their intimate embrace. And that thought made him resentful as well. Agan clapped him on the shoulder, drawing him back to the present.
“’tis good to see ye again, lad,” Agan said.
“Aye. ‘tis good to see yer ugly mug as well.”
“I dinnae expect to see ye back for a while yet,” Agan said. “Arenae ye supposed tae be studyin’ in Edinburgh?”
“’twas supposed tae be,” he grumbled. “Me faither sent for me and bid me tae return. He said there was an urgent matter he needed tae discuss with me.”
“Aye? What’s so urgent?”
Blaine shook his head. “I’ve nay idea. Knowin’ me faither thae way I dae, it’ll probably be somethin’ bleedin’ stupid, like which color feather he should wear in his helm.”
Agan chuckled, his voice a deep rumble. “Aye. It would nae surprise me tae find ye’re right about that.”
Blaine reached out and touched the insignia on the tunic sleeve that poked out from beneath Agan’s boiled leather cuirass and smiled.
“Ye seem tae be doin’ well for yerself,” Blaine said. “A sergeant now, eh?”
Agan nodded. “Aye. When he promoted me, yer faither told me he could never have too many smart, intelligent, and devastatingly handsome men in command.”
Blaine laughed and shook his head. “Daenae let that go ta eyer head,” he stated. “He needs tae say somethin’ tae make ye feel good about yerself.”
“Well, I suppose it worked because I feel very good about meself.”
Blaine laughed. “Ye always have, lad.”
“Aye. Mebbe so.”
Blaine was grateful to have run into Agan. Their conversation sobered him and made him more focused than when he’d first slipped off his horse. That could only be a good thing—especially in light of his next destination.
“Well, I suppose I cannae put it off much longer,” he said. “I suppose I need tae get in tae see what me faither wants.”
“Probably goin’ tae ask for yer help polishin’ his sword.”
Blaine laughed long and loud. “Aye,” he said through his laughter. “Ye’re probably right about that.”
“Aye. I should get tae thae gatehouse anyway,” he added. “How about we share a bottle of spirits tonight. Catch up on our lives.”
“I’d like that,” Blaine replied. “But we better make it two bottles. I think I’m goin’ tae need one of me own after dealin’ with me parents.”
“Aye. Two bottles it is then,” Agan replied. “It really is good tae see ya again.”
“Aye. Ye tae.”
Blaine watched as his friend walked across the bailey, heading for the guardhouse on the main gate. That was one thing he liked and admired about Agan—his willingness to roll up his sleeves and do the work he’d have others do. Blaine had seen plenty of men in elevated positions who refused to do the job they’d ordered their men to do.
To Blaine, it showed that Agan didn’t think he was above anyone. It showed his integrity. That he was humble enough to still hold a post, and even though he was of a higher rank, he didn’t think himself better than anybody. Blaine knew that one day, Agan would make a grand commander of his father’s forces.
Finally, turning around, Blaine walked across the bailey and walked into the keep. The servants all bowed and gave a respectful nod as he passed by. There were few faces he recognized, but the fact that they all knew him was somewhat unsettling. His boots thudded heavily on the stone floor of the corridor, and turning a corner, Blaine nearly ran straight into Carson, the household chamberlain.
Carson was a tall, thin man with green eyes, pale skin, and thinning hair that was once dark but was gradually turning silver. Though Carson was most definitely his father’s man, he’d always been fair to Blaine. Even indulgent once in a while. He looked at Blaine with an expression of annoyance; no doubt upset that he’d almost been knocked over. But when Carson recognized Blaine, his eyes grew wide, and a smile crossed his lips.
“Master Blaine,” he gasped. “I dinnae expect ye here.”
Blaine smiled. “I dinnae expect tae be here either,” he replied with a note of bitterness in his voice. “And yet, here I am all thae same.”
“Aye. Well. ‘tis good tae see ye, Master Blaine,” he said. “Yer faither is in thae grand hall hearin’ petitioners.”
“Right. Thank ye, Carson.”
“Of course,” he replied. “I’ll have thae chambermaids freshen up yer room.”
“Me thanks,” Blaine said.
Blaine turned again and strode through the corridors—taking the long route through the keep, trying to put off seeing his parents for as long as humanely possible.
But after five minutes or so, Blaine knew he couldn’t postpone it anymore. So, he walked the long corridor that led to the pair of heavy oak and steel banded doors of the great hall. A couple of men-at-arms flanked the doors, swords on their hips, pikes in their hands.
“Master Blaine,” said the guard on the left. “Good tae see ye.”
“Aye. Good tae see ye tae, lad.”
The man reached out and opened the door, holding it open for him. Blaine nodded his thanks and walked into the great hall. The heavy door closed behind him with a loud, hollow noise. The great hall was circular and made of thick stone. A beautiful stained-glass window was set into the wall behind the dais holding the Laird and Lady’s chairs. Both seats were occupied.
Sconces held torches that flickered and guttered, spaced at regular intervals along the walls around the chamber. Ornately woven tapestries hung between the torches and a large rug sat at the foot of the dais where his mother and father were seated. It was for the petitioners’ comfort when they knelt before the Laird.
At present, two men were kneeling on the carpet, both of them pleading their cases passionately. His father sat back in the massive and ornately tooled chair, his legs crossed and not even attempting to hide his expression of boredom. Yet, on the other hand, his mother seemed to be paying close attention to every word the two men said.
When the door banged closed, she looked up, and her expression changed. Unlike the mask of cool indifference she wore as she listened to the petitioners – when her eyes fell on Blaine, they widened, with a look of pure joy. But she quickly controlled herself and looked down at the two men.
“We have heard everything you have said and will take it into consideration,” she said, trying to rush them along. “And we will have a decision for you in a couple of days. Now, if you will excuse us….”
The men rose, gave a bow, and walked toward the doors, glowering at each other every step of the way. Blaine stepped closer to the dais as his mother bounded down the stairs and threw herself into his arms, squeezing him tightly. Finally, she stepped back and looked at him, taking his hands in hers.
“Oh, my baby boy. ‘tis so wonderful tae see ye,” she said, beaming.
“Aye. ‘tis good tae see ye tae mother.”
She smiled, but her lips wavered as a strange look crossed her face, and a slight frown curled the corners of her mouth downward.
“Have ye been drinkin’?” she asked.
Blaine gave her a crooked grin. “Mebbe a wee bit.”
“A wee bit?” How much is a wee bit?”
Blaine shrugged. “Let’s nae talk about that right now.”
“Is it a wee bit more than ye had in Edinburgh then?”
Doing his best not to roll his eyes, Blaine looked up at the dais. His father was still reclined and hadn’t made a move to come to greet him. He hadn’t even offered a word of greeting. Not that Blaine was surprised. His relationship with his father was—complicated.
“So why did ye send for me then, eh?” Blaine asked.
“It was time. Ye’ve things tae attend tae here at home,” his father said.
“What kind of things?”
“For starters, ‘tis time for me tae find ye a proper match. Ye need a wife,” his father said. “And I’m goin’ tae find ye one.”
“And if I daenae want tae marry, Faither?” Blaine added, a dark tone to his words
“Don’t be ridiculous. “’tis our way. And ‘tis yer duty tae thae family.”
Blaine sighed but held his tongue. What he couldn’t stop was the frustration building up within him. His father finally leaned forward in his seat, laying his forearms down along his thighs. He looked at Blaine, who felt uncomfortable as his father’s eyes bore into him. It was as if his father could see inside him. See all his secrets. See his soul. His father frowned.
“And now that ye’re home, ye’re goin’ tae be a better man than ye were down in Edinburgh,” he said, then held up his hand to forestall the argument Blaine already had queued up in his mind. “There will be nae drinkin’, and there will be nae whorin’. Thae life ye lived and thae man ye were in Edinburgh will stay in Edinburgh. Am I clear?”
“I said, am I clear?”
Blaine glanced at his mother, who was frowning as she looked down at the ground. He wondered what was going through her mind. Was she trying to hide the disappointment she felt in learning that he’d behaved less than ideal at university? But the anger was simmering inside of him, and when he turned back to his father, his fury was rising dangerously high.
“Are you following me, Faither? Did you have somebody watching me?”
His father nodded. “Of course I did. I had a vested interest in keeping you safe, so aye. And I’ll nae be apologizin’ for it either.”
“Does me privacy mean nothin’ tae ye?”
His father scoffed. “When ye’re the son of thae Laird, ye daenae have thae luxury of privacy,” he said. “And what I’m askin’ ye is nae too much tae ask. Ye’ve had yer fun. Ye’ve sowed yer oats. Now ‘tis time for ye tae settle down and do yer duty for thae good of thae clan.”
“Ye mean, to dae what’s good for ye, since ye’ll reap the benefits of marryin’ me off tae somebody wealthy, eh?”
His father’s expression darkened. “It’s time for ye tae stand up and be a man. Tis time for ye tae put thae clan first.”
Blaine was angry. He couldn’t believe his father was lecturing him about his duty but that he’d had him watched—it was all infuriating. He glanced at his mother, who quickly took his hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.
“Ye look tired, dear. I’m sure after such a long ride from Edinburgh, ye want tae clean up and get some rest, eh?”
His mother was giving him an out. The tension was certainly rising in the room, and it appeared that a fight was inevitable. It always upset her when Blaine argued with his father, and she would always do whatever she could to diffuse the tension and protect him.
“Aye. I’m beat,” he said. “I’ll go and clean up and get some rest.”
She nodded, a small smile on her lips. “I’ll have supper sent to your chamber tonight.”
“Thank ye, Maither.”
“Of course, Blaine,” she said. “I’m just happy to have you home.”
Blaine gave her a small smile and a curt nod. He leaned forward, planted a gentle kiss on her cheek, and then walked out of the great hall without acknowledging his father. He wasn’t happy to be home, and he certainly didn’t want to marry whoever his father picked out for him. And as he made his way to his chambers, he silently vowed to himself that he would do everything in his power to prevent it from happening.
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