The Cursed Highland Kiss (Preview)
McLaren Castle, Scotland
Rae McLaren never enjoyed sneaking. Even as children, he didn’t enjoy hide and seek as much as his brothers Torion and Kai had. He preferred games of performance and laughter, when he could put a smile on someone’s face. But that very night, he was going to freeze his bollocks off, to sneak out of his home, McLaren Castle, to meet someone out in the nearby woods. He didn’t want to, but he had to. And the other problem was, no one else could know about it.
“Shite,” he whispered into the dark passage when he tripped over something.
It was far too bloody dark, and he didn’t dare light a candle in case someone noticed him. He shuddered, though, trying to push away from his mind the memories of being captive a few years back. The jail cells have been dark as pitch most of the time until a guard would come to torture him or his brothers, bringing a light with them. All that constant darkness did things to a man, and he’d never quite gotten over the fear of it.
“Rae.” A soft voice punctured the dark, and a hand touched his arm.
He swore again, loudly and with fear, twisting around to see a young, pretty maid named Aimee. Her candle was so low, he’d hardly noticed it, but now he could see a bit of light on her face.
“Aye, lass?” he asked in his typical charming style, trying to act as though he wasn’t doing anything unusual, bumbling around in a passage, late at night, in the dark.
Aimee was his latest flirtation, and he enjoyed her company immensely and all her obvious physical advantages. Now was not the time for any sort of liaison, even though he could see a little hope in her eyes.
“I thought perhaps we might meet tonight. I followed ye, but ye didnae see me.” She gave him a shy smile, lowering her eyelashes just so and fluttering them in a way ladies often looked at him.
He laughed, trying to push aside the nervousness and urgency that clawed at him. He didn’t know what lay for him in the woods, but all he did know was that he needed to get there. Besides, he had no interest in spending longer outside in the cold winter air than he had to.
“Och, what a temptation that is, love, but I’m afraid I cannae. I am bloody tired tonight, and I have tae fetch somethin’ I left in the stable before bed.” He hooked a thumb to the door behind him. “I want tae only give ye the best, and tonight is just nae the night. I dae have a reputation tae uphold, ye ken.” He winked at her, and even in the dim light he could see her pretty blush.
“Although another night, I would be happy tae indulge.” He leaned forward, lifted her chin, and placed a soft kiss on her lovely lips.
“Rae,” she whined, holding onto his coat. “Ye have seemed so tense these last few days.”
Aye, because I got a bloody letter from Laird Rendell, askin’ tae meet him tonight in the woods. It is nay wonder I am on edge.
But he couldn’t say all that, and in response, he just smiled at her. Everything was always easier when he smiled. Women simpered, and hard men softened; disagreements were smoothed over with ease. He also didn’t have to remember the pain he experienced in the past, the loss of his father or the torture he and his brothers went through. He could simply laugh and smile, and try to forget all the bad things. It had worked for him mostly.
“Ye are right about that. Much tae dae, lass. In this castle with me brothers so lovelorn as they are, too busy pleasurin’ their wives tae dae their proper duties.”
Aimee gave him a seductive look, and she leaned up on her toes to whisper in his ear, “Aye, but we could be daein’ those same things, and perhaps that would relieve yer stress a bit. I ken that Laird Kai and Torion are the better for all that pleasurin’ ye speak of.”
Rae was feeling impatient, but he didn’t show it. He never showed it, especially not to someone he hardly knew. Well, he knew Aimee in one particular way, but that was the only way. He took her hand, and laid a kiss on the back of it, squeezing it gently.
“Ye are a saint, lass, and I swear I will take ye up on that offer another time.” This time, he leaned down and kissed her on the cheek. “A good night tae ye.”
He backed away then towards the door at the end of the passage, and she waved at him before he shut it. A big gust of winter wind rushed over him, and he wrapped his arms about himself, swearing loudly again.
It is enough tae freeze nae only me bollocks but also me stalk!
There was no time to think of that now. He had to get to the meeting place in the woods, and then hopefully he could figure out whatever Laird Rendell wanted from him. But knowing the man, and knowing what Rae had done to his family, he knew that it wouldn’t be good.
Perhaps I should have stayed me hand.
He had thought about that for months after the battle against Laird Rendell to rescue both Torion and his now wife Adelaide as well as her half-brother Cillian from the evil laird ‘s clutches. Rae had been trying to save his brother, so he killed Laird Rendell’s eldest son, and then he thought it would all be over. But then the letter came, and his fear was high.
The night was a quiet one. Being as cold as it was, Rae was certain nothing could live outside. The only sound was the crunching of the hard ground under his boots. He kept a hand on the hilt of his sword. He had to skirt around the edge of the castle and then rush to the stables, keeping to the walls so as to not alert any of the guards on the battlements about what he was doing.
The last thing I need is either Kai or Torion houndin’ me with their bloody questions. They might be busy pleasurin’ their wives, but they are never too busy tae get into me business.
Now at the edge of the trees, he took a breath before he stepped inside. Pulling out his sword, he held it tight in his hand, keeping it forward to protect himself from anyone who would rush out at him. It took him a minute to find the spot that Laird Rendell had mentioned. He only knew where it would be in dim light because he knew his land so well. He paused, his breath now making white curls into the air.
God, it’s bloody freezin’. At least the moon is high, so it is nae as dark as in the passage.
And then he gasped, his every muscle taut as he felt the ice-cold tip of a blade at his throat. “Drop yer weapons,” a voice said, and Rae stood stock still, and he dropped his sword to the ground with a thump.
He held up his hands and he asked, “Are ye here on Laird Rendell’s behalf?” He knew it was not the laird himself, for he didn’t recognize his voice.
“Aye. I am his advisor, Sutcliffe.”
However, the blade didn’t move. Rae was concerned that he had fallen into a trap stupidly, but what else was he supposed to do? He couldn’t tell his brothers about the letter. He was the one who had killed the man’s son anyway. He would have to suffer the consequences. Besides, it was not as if there was anyone waiting for him back at the castle, no lovely wife to warm his bed or his heart.
Nae that I have ever wanted more than a passin’ dalliance.
But in that moment, that idea of having someone who cared enough to wait back at home for him felt strangely important. He closed his eyes and remained standing still.
“So, will ye kill me now then?” he asked casually, even as a little fear fluttered his veins. “It might be best if ye’d get on with it because it is cold enough out here tae freeze a priest’s arse off.”
The advisor let out a small chuckle, but there was no mirth in it. “I could kill ye, I suppose. It would certainly help Laird Rendell get the revenge he’s been wantin’.”
Oh, so that was the truth of it. Rae could not say that he was surprised, but if the man had planned his revenge, why not kill him soon after the battle? Instead, he’d waited months.
“So?” He laughed this time, always trying to keep his cheery facade until the end. He would not show fear even if his throat was going to be slit that very night. “Are ye goin’ tae dae it, or nae?”
“Nae.” The man removed the blade, and then he pushed Rae forward, picking up his sword as he did so.
Rae could now see the man in the moonlight. He was about Laird Rendell’s same age, with dark hair and a dark beard. He wore dark clothes as well without a tartan or kilt in place. He held a dagger and Rae’s sword, and he was pointing them both at Rae.
“Listen tae me, lad, and listen closely. The laird wants revenge.”
“Aye, ye’ve said.” Rae’s one hand was on his hip, and the other was making a motion to encourage the man to speed up his story.
“After ye killed his heir, the laird was devastated. He hasnae been the same since, and I have seen the man. He is broken.”
Rae said nothing. He might have made another joke again, perhaps saying something like ‘good’, but he kept his mouth shut. Even if the man was their enemy and had overseen the tortures of him and his brothers and so many others, Rae could have stayed his hand and refrained from killing the man’s heir and eldest son in front of his eyes. It had not been the son’s fault. After he’d been captured and tortured, Rae had promised himself that he would never be like those men, full of evil and hatred and cruelty.
But perhaps I am after all.
“He wants payback for what ye did, and ye are goin’ tae help him get it.”
Rae put both hands on his hips now. He stared at the man. He considered fighting him. That would certainly make things easier for the moment, but he was certain that Laird Rendell would only exact a greater revenge, and it seemed the man was keen for something else, something that did not include losing his life.
“What if I say nay?”
The advisor chuckled again. “I wouldnae advise it.”
Rae rolled his eyes at the poor attempt to make a joke. “Tell me then. What is it?”
The advisor put an envelope into his hand, and he opened it, his blood chilling when he saw what it was. It was a lock of Kai’s long brown hair. He would know it anywhere for his brother’s hair had a distinct color.
“What are ye tellin’ me?” Rae asked, stuffing it into the envelope and closing it again, as if that could help him avoid the revenge that Laird Rendell wanted him to exact upon him.
“I am sayin’ that clearly ye can see how close we can get tae yer brothers and their wives if we wish tae.”
Rae took a breath, trying to calm his fear. He had so hoped that things were over, that they could focus on a beautiful future. “We could easily kill them as payback for what ye’ve done. It seems only fair. Ye take an heir from Laird Rendell, and he takes yer whole bloody family.”
Rae swallowed. “What does he want me tae dae so that doesnae happen?”
“That’s better. Wise lad, it seems.” The advisor began to motion with his two weapons as he spoke. “There is a young woman who has the greatest dowry in the Highlands. She is nae yet married, and Rendell wants ye tae pretend tae marry her, get the dowry, and it will go straight tae him. Or ye can marry her if ye like, he couldnae care less. But all the laird wants is the money.”
Rae frowned. “Why does he nae have his other son marry her? Surely that would be a far easier plan, and he could get the money that way. Why would he need me then?”
The advisor shook his head. “Nae possible. The lass is cursed, and it is rumored that something kills her fiancés just before their wedding day. So, he cannae risk his son’s life. Surely, ye ken the rumors about Líadan Stuart.”
Rae did know that name, and he had heard of her, if only in whispers, but he was still confused. “So, then if she kills me, how will ye get the money? Surely, she doesnae give the dowry tae each of these men and then kill them.”
The advisor threw him a dark look. “Ye are a warrior, and now that ye ken the secrets about her, ye will be sure tae stay alive for long enough for the dowry tae make it into Laird Rendell’s hand. Besides, ye are only attemptin’ tae marry her because of this and nae from some misguided desire which has clouded the others’ judgment. Once he gets the money, his revenge will be complete, and the laird will let ye live. If yer fiancée doesnae kill ye first.”
“What of this money? He is suddenly in need?”
“Aye. After the loss of so many of his men as well as his heir, and the loss of financial support from the other Earl of Seton yer sister-in-law’s brother killed, he needs the money tae build up what he has lost.” He pointed the sword at him again. “Ye dinnae need tae ken more. Ye will agree, or yer family will die. It is as simple as that.
Rae stood still for a few seconds as he thought about it. He had heard the rumors of her curse, but he had no belief in curses. He was not a Scotsman from a faraway village. He was a Laird ‘s son and had been given a proper education. He had no desire to wed, nor to be involved with Laird Rendell any more than he had to be. However, he could see no other choice. Clearly, they could get close to his family, and his brothers had only just found happiness and peace at long last. He refused to be the one to break that up.
“Fine then. Agreed. Now leave me be, so that I can go back inside.”
“The Stuart Castle is nae far from here. Ye will go in one month tae offer yerself. The other fiancée only died a few months ago, and there needs tae be some time for it tae nae look suspicious afore ye arrive.”
Rae swallowed, what he was going to tell his brothers about his sudden departure. “Aye, I am agreed. Now give me me sword back.”
The man hesitated and Rae laughed. “What good would killin’ ye dae for me?”
The advisor then handed him his sword, and Rae didn’t look back as he ran out of the woods. He knew what he had to do, but he was left with a little uneasiness.
She couldnae really be cursed, could she?
One Month Later
Somewhere in the Highland woods
Líadan Stuart stood outside of a small wooden cottage. It was covered in moss and ivy, and if one were a little farther away, they would think the cottage was a part of the forest, not a home where a witch lived. But the door was open, and the woman with long dark hair was standing in front of her staring at Líadan with a keen eye as she took her in from head to toe. Líadan hadn’t even had a chance to speak before the witch claimed that she was cursed.
“Aye. Ye ken this even afore I’ve told ye.”
The older woman shrugged, her arms crossing over her large bosom. “It is the way.”
Líadan was nervous. So nervous, in fact, that she put her hands behind her back, afraid that the witch could see them shaking. She had heard of this woman from her young lady’s maid, Elspeth, who was keen to help her after the third death of her betrothed. There had been rumors of a witch not too far from Stuart Castle, and so Líadan had taken it upon herself to go and seek her out. She had traveled a long way in hopes that the curse could be broken. It was her last hope.
“Come in,” the witch said, passing to the side so that Líadan could step inside the cottage.
She jumped a little when the door closed behind her. Room was lit by a fire and a couple of candles, but it still felt dark and heavy. The scent of spicy sweetness in the air, and Líadan wondered if she made a mistake coming all that way. Was it wise to dabble in magic?
Aye, when this curse has kept me from a life that I wanted, one I have yearned for with all me heart.
She turned around to face the woman. “Sit there,” the supposed witch said, pointing along finger at a chair by the fire.
Líadan was grateful to sit close to the warmth. It was winter now, and it was so cold she could nearly feel her limbs freezing. She pulled her cloak tighter and sat down.
“I ken who ye are. There are nae many who dinnae.”
Líadan shut her mouth as the witch sat across from her. “Me name is Mara, and ye are Líadan Stuart, daughter tae the deceased Laird Stuart and sister tae the new one, with the telltale sign of beautiful long gray hair, even at yer young age. How old are ye, lass?”
“Twenty-four.” Her hands moved to touch the ends of her long hair, which reached below her breasts.
Besides the curse, it was the other thing she hated most about herself. Who had ever heard of a young woman with long, gray hair? She worried it made her look like a witch herself. However, that had not stopped her fiancés from asking her to marry them. But they had never been able to make it to the wedding day. A little coil of hopelessness circled in her chest. Would this be forever?
“Ye have come tae ask for help tae rid yerself of yer curse.”
Líadan folded her hands on her lap and nodded. “Aye. It has been far too long, and I cannae take it any longer.”
Her eyes were wet with tears, but she turned her face to the fire, hopeful that they would not fall. She had no wish to appear weak, but she had had enough of this curse, and she wanted her life back. She had no idea why this curse had been put upon her anyway.
Aye, ye dae. Ye were the one who stole yer mother’s life when ye were born. Ye took her beauty as well, so they say.
Mara settled into her seat, her hands gripping the arms of the chair, and Líadan could feel the woman’s eyes on her, studying her. The woman had long dark hair, but there was something both youthful and ancient about her. She wore thick, woolen clothing that covered a body of medium-build. Líadan had not known what to expect from a witch when she’d first laid eyes upon this one, but she wasn’t sure this was it. If she had to guess, Líadan would have been unable to decide Mara’s age.
“Tell me, lass. How did ye hear of me?”
“Surely ye ken the rumors,” Líadan said, only making Mara chuckle.
“Aye, of course. How could I nae? But I wonder who could have told ye where I lived.”
“Me lady’s maid. She is a good, kind girl, and she kens just how desperate I am for this curse tae be broken. She said if anyone could help me, it would be ye?”
Mara nodded once before she asked, “How many fiancés have there been before they’ve all been found dead?”
“Three.” She swallowed, turning to gaze at Mara again.
“And accordin’ tae the tales, they have all died the night before yer weddin’. Is that it?”
Líadan nodded, her mind flashing back to each moment when she heard that her latest fiancé was also found dead. “The first was killed by being thrown from his horse on the way tae me castle. The next was durin’ a sudden attack from an enemy afore he was set tae travel tae Stuart lands. And then the last was poisoned by his own kin so that his brother could take the lairdship.”
Mara slowly nodded, and desperate, Líadan said, “Surely, these could all be considered coincidences, nay? But people like tae claim that I am the one that has killed them or perhaps asked for them tae be killed. But it is nae me. I swear it!” She felt a few tears fall down her eyes, and she wiped one from her cheek as she continued. “I have wanted tae get married, tae help me clan as well as find a love that I can have in life. It makes nay sense for me tae be daein’ this tae anyone!”
She hadn’t realized how loud her voice had gotten until she saw Mara’s hands make a motion to quiet, and she shushed her in a soothing tone. The effect was strong, and Líadan felt her racing heart calm, and she sat back in her seat.
“I ken that me mother died in childbirth, but surely it cannae be me who stole her breath. I was only a child.” Her voice was small now, and all the fears she’d had about why she was the way she was came rolling back.
She had held onto this guilt for so long, she couldn’t remember a time without it. But now that she needed to marry to help the clan, she wanted it to be over. She wanted to be able to move on with her life.
“Aye, of course, lass.” Mara’s voice was calm, and it made Líadan remain calm as well. “But there is nay requirement for ye tae marry, is there?”
Líadan looked down at her hands, now glad that she could feel her fingers again after her time traveling out of doors. “Nay. Me laird brother, Kaden, tells me that I dinnae need tae. But as ye likely ken, our clan is one of the wealthiest in the Highlands. With that much money, we are open tae dangerous attacks, and I wish tae help me brother and sister tae be safe and happy. If I dinnae wed, then me sister Étaín will be forced tae dae so.” She shook her head. “She is younger, and I dinnae wish for yer tae have tae dae that.”
“I see.” Mara rose and poured a drink into two cups. She handed one to Líadan and sat down again. “It is only spiced wine,” she said with a slight chuckle as Líadan had looked into the cup with slight trepidation.
She took a long sip and let out a large sigh. “There are two other men whom still wish tae marry me, and they will be comin’ tae see them tomorrow. I wish for this curse tae be lifted so that one of them could be me husband in truth. That I could finally have a normal life.”
Mara’s eyes narrowed. “I ken nae the use of a normal life, as ye say, but I understand yer frustration. Lookin’ at ye, I can tell that the curse is alive and well. A curse hangs on a person and only a refined few can see it’s vibrations.” She looked her up and down. “However, the curse can only be lifted in a specific way.”
“How?” Líadan nearly dropped the cup of wine in her shock. No one who had attempted to lift the curse before had ever mentioned that. They had always been so confident that they could remove it for good and in full. “There really is a way?”
“Aye. But I dinnae think that ye are goin’ tae like it.”
“It is better than empty promises from people who realize that they cannae remove the curse after all. What is it?”
Her hands tightened around the cup, and her blue eyes widened with hope.
Mara frowned a little. “I’m afraid that the curse is specific. The only way it can be broken is if ye find true love.”
All the wind came out of Líadan’s sails. “I could never hope for true love. Everyone is afraid of me. It is only the bravest as well as the most money-focused whom I can find for meself. And we hurry tae wed because of the curse. There is never enough time for me tae find true love!” She leaned back again, finishing off the wine and starting to worry that the curse could never be ended.
“Listen, lass. When ye find the right man, the curse can be broken, for there is a man, and he will be the one tae break it.”
She blinked at Mara, wondering if she should just leave and forget all this nonsense. “How will I ken who this man is? He could be anyone!”
“Well, he will be the man who willnae die.”
Mara was grinning, but Líadan was frustrated. “Well, then, I would marry him of course. But I dinnae see how true love has anythin’ tae dae with it.”
“The man who disnae die is meant for ye, so that is why the curse will be broken because he will be yer true love. Love is the only thing stronger than magic, for it is the greatest magic of all. People believe that the curse is because of the death of yer mother while givin’ birth tae ye, but it is the opposite.”
She shook her head with a soft smile. “With her dyin’ breath, yer mother placed this curse upon ye. She knew she was dyin’ and so she couldnae protect ye herself. She put this in the place so that only the man who is good enough for ye, lass, and who loves ye with everythin’ in him will be the one tae be yer husband.”
Líadan could feel the tears coming again, and the ache in her chest had only gotten stronger. But those words comforted her. For her whole life she had feared her mother had hated her because Líadan had been the one to kill her. But this turned everything on its head.
“Here is another clue. Only the person ready tae die for yer sake willnae die by the curse. When ye find a man who is willin’ tae die for ye, then ye’ll ken that he is the right one. Nay curse would be strong enough tae stop that love.”
While she thought, Mara poured her more wine, Líadan felt an odd flicker of hope. Perhaps there could be someone after all. She wondered if after all her waiting she could finally feel the true love of a man, feel his touch, and his kiss before it is too late.
“Thank ye, Mara. Ye have given me what nay one else could.”
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