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The Highlander’s Sinful Bride – Bonus Prologue Scene

Matheson Castle, The Scottish Highlands, Summer 1308

Catalina Matheson, her skirts held high, was running through the hallways of her father’s castle. She was on an urgent mission, having just been tasked by her father’s manservant to find her elder sister Anastasia and bring her, along with herself, to his study as soon as possible. Laird Matheson had important news to impart to his two daughters, it seemed.

Eager to obey their father’s summons and unable to help speculating about what his news could be, Catalina paused sporadically to open various doors and peek inside all the rooms where she thought she might find Anastasia at that time of the day. She tried her sister’s chamber first. It was empty. She went to the library, the chapel, the dining hall, then the vestibule, to ask the guards stationed there if her sister had gone outside—she had not—but all to no avail.

Then, she had an idea. Picking up her skirts once more, she raced in a very unladylike manner back up the stairs, to the castle’s third floor. She ran down the hall and threw open the door to the solar. Framed in the sunlight that was pouring through the enormous windows were three familiar figures.

One was Nancy, the girls’ lady’s maid, who was seated in a far corner of the room, her needle poised above the pile of darning on her lap. She looked at Catalina with a startled expression, her mouth hanging open.

Nancy was clearly on chaperone duty, for the other two figures, sitting on opposite sides of a small table in the window bay, with playing cards clutched in their hands, were her sister and their faithful friend and protector Dunstan Armstrong.

As Catalina stood on the threshold, panting, they both turned their heads towards her, surprise etched on their faces.

“Cat? Yer face is all red. Have ye been runnin’? What is it? Are ye all right?” Anastasia asked, her beautiful features creasing with concern as she scrutinized her younger sister.

“’Tis Faither, Ana,” Catalina puffed, holding her side. “He wants tae see us both in his study, now. He has some news tae impart.”

Anastasia exchanged a wondering look with her card partner. Dunstan, his eyes almost black beneath a mop of dark-brown curls, shrugged his powerful shoulders in response, expressing his ignorance of the matter.

“Oh?” Anastasia replied, turning back to Catalina. “D’ye ken what he wants tae see us about?”

“Nay, only that ’tis important and that we’re tae hurry, so ye’d better come quick.”

“Very well.” Anastasia placed her cards neatly down on the table and rose from her seat. Smoothing down her skirts, she smiled at Dunstan, “This probably willnae take long. Will ye wait fer me? I still have tae beat ye, so dinnae try tae cheat while I’m gone.”

“I wasnae thinkin’ of it, but now ye mention it , I think I might,” he replied, returning her smile while throwing down his cards and leaning back in his chair.

“Keep an eye on him while I’m gone, Nancy,” Anastasia told the maid with a chuckle as she crossed to the doorway. She put an arm about her sister’s shoulders and turned her about. “Come then, Cat, I suppose we’d better hurry.”

A few minutes later, both girls were in their father’s study, sitting in chairs before his enormous desk. They looked at him expectantly. Laird Matheson leaned his elbows on the desk, steepled his fingers, and looked at his daughters over the top.

Catalina thought her father was terribly handsome despite his nearly fifty years, and all the many responsibilities he carried on his shoulders. He was tall and powerfully built, with a stern, cleanshaven face, eyes the color of moss, and steely gray hair. However, it hurt her heart to see the obvious marks of weariness in the many lines on his face and the hollows beneath his eyes, for she loved him dearly.

“Thank ye fer comin’ so quickly, me girls,” he told them, his deep voice grave. “I have some important news tae give ye.”

“What is it, Faither? Why d’ye look so worried? Is it Chisholm again?” Anastasia asked, her voice laced with anxiety. Catalina tensed to hear the dreaded name. Their clan had been at war with their neighbor, the brutal Sir Henry Chisholm for the last four years, and the feud dominated their lives.

Their father sighed. Wearily, he moved to pick up a parchment from the desk and held it before him. “Unfortunately, ’tis always Chisholm.”

Catalina was staring curiously at the parchment in their father’s hands. It was unusually large and had bright red wax seals attached to ribbons dangling from it. It was unlike any missive she had ever seen. “What is that, Faither? A letter? It looks very grand,” she could not help remarking.

Her father looked at her keenly. “Aye, ’tis a letter from the king.”

Catalina and Anastasia gasped in unison. “The Bruce, ye mean?” Anastasia said, her voice full of wonder.

“Aye, The Bruce,” The laird confirmed it with a nod.

“But why is the king writin’ tae ye, Faither?” Catalina wanted to know, now burning with curiosity.

“Because I wrote tae him. This is his reply,” he said, indicating the parchment.

“What fer?” Anastasia asked.

“I asked him tae send me soldiers. I need men tae help me fight Chisholm. As ye both ken, this war he started between us has been goin’ on fer more than a year now. I’ve lost too many good men. I’m runnin’ out of resources, and I need help from the king tae keep fightin’ and tae try tae defeat Chisholm once and fer all.”

Fear struck at Catalina, and she and Anastasia exchanged worried glances as they reached for each other’s hands, seeking comfort.

“He’s never going tae give up, is he, Faither,” Anastasia said, her voice shaking slightly, an edge of fear to it. “Nae until ye agree tae let him wed me.”

The laird’s face twisted into an expression of furious disgust. “I made a serious misjudgment about Chisholm when I agreed tae let him marry Brenna. I thought he was a good man, that he truly cared about her, that he was the right man tae lead the clan after I’m gone.” He got up and began pacing about agitatedly, his hands curling into fists. Catalina and Anastasia looked at each other fearfully.

“But the way he acted when Brenna died, so cold, demandin’ tae have ye fer his wife in yer sister’s place, Ana, as if ye girls were naethin’ more than chattel.” He shook his head, his face dark. “Well, then I realized what sort of a man he really was. He’s proved it a hundred times over, with this insane war on us, claimin’ the marriage promisin’ him Brenna’s hand still stands and that I owe him a wife. He’s a bloody madman, and he’ll get his hands on ye over me dead body!”

The words struck terror onto Catalina’s heart, and she could feel from the way Anastasia was gripping her hand tightly that she felt the same.

Chisholm had been a dark and threatening presence in their lives ever since Brenna, their elder sister, had suddenly been carried off by a bout of fever a year before. She had been a mother to her two younger sisters, and her loss had been devastating. Not a day went by when they did not miss her terribly.

Yet Chisholm, careless of their grief, had maintained his crazy insistence on having Anastasia’s hand instead and had made their grief all the harder to bear through his continual attacks upon their clan.

“What daes the king say in his letter, Faither?” Catalina asked, filled with anxiety at the thought her remaining precious sister falling into Chisholm’s evil grasp and being forced tae wed him. “He’s going tae give ye the men ye need, is he nae?”

Her father resumed his seat with a heavy sigh and rubbed his hand distractedly over his short grey locks. “Nae exactly,” he replied grimly.

Catalina felt her sister tense up. “What? But Faither! What are we tae dae without men tae keep fightin’? What if Chisholm…” Her voice trailed off, the specter of a future as Chisholm’s wife, which would allow him to take control of their clan after their father’s death, looming large over them all. Catalina’s stomach began churning in fear.

“I havenae told ye all yet, lassie. The king writes tae say he cannae spare his own troops. He needs them fer his own battles if he’s tae hold his crown against the English. But he’s suggestin’ an alternative that will supply me with the men I need and protect ye from Chisholm ever getting’ his hands on ye at the same time. But there’s a certain price tae be paid if I’m tae secure this help,” he explained.

Catalina watched as her sister’s eyes widened. “And what is that?” she asked.

The laird hesitated for a moment before answering. Then, he said, “He’s suggestin’ an alliance with another clan, a powerful clan, with a powerful army.”

“But that’s good news, is it nae?” Catalina asked, somewhat relieved at the news help might be forthcoming. “So, why d’ye look so sad about it?”

“As I say, there’s a certain price tae be paid.”

“Please, Faither, dinnae keep us in suspense. Tell us, what is this price ye speak of?” Anastasia asked.

“’Very well. He’s offerin’ an alliance with the clan tae be secured… through a marriage.”

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