The Sins of a Highland Beast (Preview)
Eighteen months earlier
Tate’s boots sank into the mud as he walked over to the man he was supposed to meet. It had been raining all morning, but now the clouds had parted, letting the sun shine down on the Hay Castle. The village streets, deserted only a few hours prior, were now filled with people, and Tate didn’t know if that was a good thing or not. On the one hand, the more people milled about, the more cover Tate would have for what he was supposed to do. On the other hand, it was easier for someone to spot him with so many people around.
Still, the plan had to be carried out.
Walking up to the man with the cart standing by the village tavern, Tate pulled a small bag full of coins out of his pocket and handed it to him.
“Half an hour,” he reminded him. “The lass will meet ye over there by the apothecary.”
“Aye, as discussed,” the man said. He was an older man, a farmer, with hair as grey as his beard, and he was willing to do a lot for some coins. “I’ll be waitin’.”
Tate nodded and left quickly, not wanting to be seen lingering around him. He made his way to the tavern instead and sat at one of the tables outside the establishment, despite the benches and the tables still being damp from the rain. It was the only place he could sit and watch both the castle and the apothecary without drawing any suspicion, and get a cup of ale, too, while he was at it.
He needed it, after all the hard work of the past few days.
Before he could even order the ale he so desperately wanted, a figure sat down at the table next to his. Tate kept his gaze in front of him, and he knew the other man was doing the same without needing to look at him.
He never needed to look to know what Kian was doing. After all the time they had spent together, Tate knew him like he knew himself. Every mannerism, every quirk of Kian’s was engraved forever in Tate’s mind, and he would recognize him anywhere.
Not that it was a difficult thing to do when Kian wore that mask. Tate had never even seen him without the blasted thing, the sterling silver mask that covered the entirety of the left side of his face, as well as the lower part of the right side. All he had ever seen were his long, blond hair and his dark blue eyes, one of them always obscured by the shadow of the mask. Same as his. If someone didn’t know them, they’d say they were twins.
“All done?” Kian asked. His voice was low, barely audible over the bustle of the village.
“All done,” Tate confirmed. “We only have tae wait fer the lassie tae come out o’ the castle now.”
It wasn’t much of a plan that he and Kian had come up with to get Lana Hay out of her father’s castle. They hadn’t had the time to think of something more elaborate, something safer that would guarantee a smooth escape. Ever since Tate had visited the castle the other day as her father’s guest and seen the cruelty the young woman had to suffer at his hands, he had known that they had to do something to help her leave the clan.
“Good,” Kian said. “The last thing we need is Eógan Hay gettin’ the alliance he wants with the Cummings clan. If we manage tae ruin this marriage, we ruin the alliance.”
“An’ we save Lana Hay,” Tate reminded him. Though putting a stop to the wedding between Lana and Balfour Cummings was important for the safety and prosperity of Kian’s clan—the Drummond Clan—Tate couldn’t help but feel that rescuing Lana from both her father and an unwanted marriage was a more pressing matter. He couldn’t bear the thought of anyone having to live their lives in such sorrow, and though he couldn’t help everyone, he could try to help Lana, at least.
“Aye, I suppose that’s an added attraction,” Kian said. “I cannae imagine the kind o’ life the lassie would have if she ended up married tae Balfour Cummings. He’s worse than her faither. It’s a good thing ye could help her.”
“It’s a good thing we could help her,” Tate said. “I couldnae have done it without ye. If anythin’, yer the one who always helps people.”
“Ach, who else have I helped?” Kian asked, waving a hand dismissively as he tended to do whenever he was too embarrassed to accept any praise.
“Me,” Tate reminded him. “Ye saved me from certain death.”
“Aye, but that was a long time ago.”
Tate shook his head in disbelief with a small laugh. Kian made it impossible to say a good word about him or to thank him for everything all he had done for him, but that didn’t mean Tate would stop trying.
He was about to respond when he spotted Lana rushing around the village, her eyes wide as she looked left and right either for the man with the wagon or for a potential threat. She seemed frightened, her hand clutching her shawl tightly around her shoulders, but Tate could hardly blame her. If her father or her betrothed found out she was trying to flee, there was no telling what they would do to her.
They’d probably keep her locked in the castle.
“There she is,” Tate told Kian. “Right on time.”
“Let’s go,” Kian said as he stood and made his way towards the man with the cart. Tate followed close behind; he never did get to drink that ale, he thought with a wistful sigh.
However, they had only taken a few steps when a drunk man fell right onto Kian, the two of them stumbling as Kian tried to hold both their weights. Tate came to a stop next to them, his hand shooting out to steady Kian.
“Watch where ye’re goin’!” the man shouted, much to Tate’s chagrin. He looked around them, knowing that the man was drawing too much attention to them, but not knowing what to do about it. Now that everyone in the street was looking at them, it would be difficult to slip away undetected as per their plan. Everyone had seen them, and they were bound to remember the scuffle.
“Ye’re the one who fell on me!” Kian said, rather unhelpfully. Tate wished he would just apologize and put an end to the fight before it even started, as the drunkard’s intentions were crystal clear. His gaze held a malice that was enough of a warning for Tate, but Kian didn’t seem to care.
The drunkard said nothing more before he grabbed Kian by his shirt and tried to throw him to the ground. He was a smaller man, though, while Kian shared Tate’s tall and muscular frame, towering over everyone he met. All the drunk man managed to do was pull Kian even closer to him, which instantly put him at a disadvantage.
Kian swung his fist. His knuckles connected with the drunkard’s cheek, but Tate could tell his friend was holding back, unwilling to hurt the man too much. The drunk fell to the ground, dazed and unable to stand on his own two feet, and Tate thought that would be the end of it. Swift and clean. He gave Kian one last look before he turned to join Lana by the cart, but before he could take even a single step, he saw something glinting in the drunkard’s hand.
He has a knife.
Kian hadn’t noticed. He had his back turned to the man and was walking away, oblivious to the threat right behind him. The man recovered quickly, too quickly, standing up and rushing towards Kian, and all Tate could do to stop him was throw himself at him.
Once more, the man fell to the ground with a pained moan, and Tate tumbled on top of him. His hand was wrapped tightly around the man’s forearm, pinning it down to the ground so that he couldn’t use the knife, and though the other struggled, kicking out his legs to shove Tate off him, he could hardly move.
Kian turned around and, once he noticed what was happening, he rushed to Tate’s aid. The problem was that several other men did as well, while others came to the drunk man’s rescue. Before Tate knew it, he and the man were separated, but the fight only grew. Some were looking for an excuse to exchange blows while others, offended by the punches they had already received, sought revenge.
A fist collided with Tate’s jaw, though in the chaos, he couldn’t tell who had attacked him. And to be honest, he didn’t even care. Now that everyone had stopped to stare at the fight, he and Kian had no chance of getting out of there unnoticed unless they managed to slip through the crowd. So, instead of engaging in the fight, he decided to look for Kian and get out of there.
He found him with his arms around another man, trying to restrain him, unsurprisingly. If anything, Tate was expecting him to do something even worse in the heat of the moment. Once he reached him, Tate placed a hand on Kian’s shoulder, which resulted in him almost getting a blow to the face, before Kian realized who he was.
“What are ye doin’?” Kian asked. “I could have hurt ye!”
“Leave him, let’s go,” Tate said, doing his best to disentangle Kian from the other man, but both Kian and the stranger were eager to continue with their confrontation. It took him a few moments, but in the end, he and Kian were weaving through the crowd, quickly making their way towards a small alley where they could both hide.
The fight continued without them, the men too impassioned to stop. Tate pressed himself against the wall of a house, keeping himself as invisible as he could, and placed a hand on Kian’s chest to force him to do the same.
“What were ye thinkin’, gettin’ intae that fight?” Tate hissed, as he tried to spot Lana. He hoped she hadn’t been spooked by the crowds and fled. He couldn’t see her in the village.
“Well, I clearly wasnae thinkin’, was I?” Kian said.
Despite himself, Tate laughed. “Of course, ye werenae. We have tae find the lass now.”
Pushing himself off the wall, Kian walked to the end of the alley, shoving Tate’s hand away when he tried to pull him back. Tate cursed under his breath, but at least no one seemed to notice them.
“There she is,” Kian said, pointing at the cart that was already rolling down the path away from the village and the Hay clan. “At least it worked out in the end.”
Tate let out a sigh of relief and let his head fall back against the wall. He hadn’t managed to speak to Lana, but he hoped everything would work out for her now that she had managed to escape, even without him giving her instructions on what to do next.
“I never asked ye… how did ye even manage tae tell her about the plan?” Kian said, as he hid himself in the shadows once more.
“It wasnae too difficult,” Tate said with a small shrug. “When her faither had that ball a few days ago, I snuck inside the castle as a guest.”
“An’ ye managed tae speak with her? I thought he’d be more careful than tae let a strange man talk tae his daughter.”
“Nay,” Tate said. “I barely saw her at the ball. I had tae flirt with a maid an’ she told me where tae find her.”
“I’m sure ye didnae enjoy that at all,” Kian said, his tone dripping with mockery.
“What would ye have me dae?” Tate said. “I had tae speak with her somehow.”
The fact that the maid was a pretty girl and more than receptive to his advances was merely a bonus. It had been the only thing Tate could think of at the time, and he was lucky it had worked. Had it been anyone else, he probably wouldn’t have managed to get the information he needed out of them.
“What is she like, then?” Kian asked. “Lana Hay?”
“I dinnae ken,” Tate said. “I didnae speak with her at all, actually.”
Kian looked at him in confusion and disbelief, and Tate chuckled before he added, “I only passed her a note. I wanted tae speak with her, but I didnae have time. She didnae even see me. I walked up behind her, passed her the note, an’ left.”
He hadn’t wanted to risk being found out by her father or her betrothed, so had had to be quick in his movements, leaving before too many people could see him. He had gotten good at it ever since Kian had first asked him to pose as him while he was away. Impersonating Kian meant that he had to be careful of who saw him as himself and when, in order for his cover not to be blown.
“At least we managed tae help her flee without any problems,” Kian said, and as though his words had summoned trouble, the men who were still fighting seemed to realize that the two of them were gone. It took them only seconds to band together and start looking for them, and then only a few more seconds to find them in the alley.
“They’re here!” one of the men shouted, attracting everyone else’s attention. Tate and Kian had no choice but to run, heading out of the village towards the woods in the hopes that they could be lost among the trees.
The crowd followed them, some of the men keeping them in their sights while others seemed to be confused as to where to go. Tate glanced at them over his shoulder every few seconds and steered Kian towards where they would have better chances at losing their pursuers.
“Well, I’m glad we didnae have tae opt fer the other plan,” Kian said, shouting as they ran. He was out of breath, the mask surely not helping, but he didn’t seem too bothered by the fact that an angry mob was chasing them.
“What other plan?” Tate asked.
“If this didnae work, I’d have had tae marry the lass meself,” Kian said. “How else would I stop Balfour Cummings from marryin’ her?”
Knowing Kian, Tate had to agree that not having to marry Lana was probably for the best.
Present day, Murray Castle
Lana sat in the portrait gallery of Murray Castle with little Robert in her arms. He loved it there, always fascinated by the paintings that depicted the Murray family, and Lana often brought him there when Evelyn, the boy’s mother, was busy and couldn’t look after him.
“When ye grow up, ye’ll have yer own portrait here,” she told him, though the boy couldn’t yet understand her. He, too, would be a laird one day, the title passed on to him from his father, Laird Scott Murray.
In response, Robert giggled and made a few sounds that weren’t quite yet words. It made Lana giggle as well, delighted by the child in her arms.
The gallery was often quiet, as not many people visited it. She knew Magnus, Scott’s younger brother, came there at night sometimes, but rarely in the mornings, so she and Robert had the entire place to themselves. Lana liked to sit on the plush couch by the window and read to him, passing the hours until she was needed.
It was a nice routine she had set up for herself in the Murray Castle. She found life there much easier, much calmer than her life back home. Her father had often made her miserable, as though his sole purpose in life was to make her as unhappy as he was, and she knew that things would have only gotten worse if she had married Laird Cummings, as per her father’s plan.
But all that was in her past now. The Murrays had been kind to her. She had a good life, even if it wasn’t the life of a laird’s daughter. Besides, now that she was helping the clan’s healer instead of working as a maid, as she had been upon her arrival after Scott had saved her, she had found a passion, something that she actually enjoyed doing.
“I thought I’d find ye here,” a voice called from the door, and Lana turned to see Alba, Magnus’ wife and Evelyn’s older sister.
Originally, she had been promised to Scott, but after a series of situations he and Evelyn had fallen in love. This happened much to Alba’s delight, as she had never had any intention of ever marrying. However, to avoid another unwanted marriage, she had asked Magnus to pretend to be her husband, to everyone’s surprise as they did not get along. Needless to say, they had ended up falling head over heels for each other as well.
Lana smiled at her and gestured at her to join them on the couch, an invitation that Alba eagerly accepted.
“Robert likes this place,” Lana said, grinning at the boy. He reached up with his small hands and grabbed a fistful of her hair, tugging a few fiery red strands out of her updo before she could stop him. “Ach… ye’re a wee menace.”
“Just like his maither,” Alba said. Lana wouldn’t have guessed it when she had first met Evelyn, but she knew Alba was right. Though Alba and Evelyn were sisters, Alba shared none of Evelyn’s unruliness or her desire for adventure.
They certainly share their stubbornness, though.
“Where’s me sister?” Alba asked. “I’ve searched the entire castle an’ I cannae find her.”
“She’s with Scott,” Lana said. “They’re havin’ a meetin’ about the army again.”
“Again?” Alba asked. “That lass… she couldnae keep herself busy with somethin’ other than armies an’ fightin’?”
“I dinnae think she’s particularly fond o’ looms,” Lana pointed out. It was another thing that had surprised Lana when she had first come to the Murray clan. Scott not only didn’t mind it when Evelyn assisted him with clan matters and strategy, but he even encouraged it, asking for her opinion. Though she didn’t join him for the council meetings, as they were both certain the council would frown upon such a thing, Scott made sure to tell her everything that had been discussed.
“I ken that,” Alba said with a long-suffering sigh. As the oldest, Lana knew she felt responsible for her sister’s wellbeing and reputation, and though she wasn’t fighting any wars anymore, there was no telling what she would do if another war broke out.
“Dae ye need tae speak with her?” Lana asked.
“She told me tae remind her tae feed Robert, because she would be too busy tae keep track o’ the time,” Alba said. “I thought I’d find ye here with him, but I didnae ken it would be this difficult tae find her!”
“I can take him tae her,” Lana said, already standing with Robert in her arms. “It’s nae a problem.”
She had taken only a few steps before Alba called to her again.
“Ach, I almost forgot again!” Alba said, joining her by the door. “I keep meanin’ tae tell ye somethin’ an’ I keep forgettin’ tae.”
“What is it?” Lana asked.
“Ever since ye told me that story o’ how that man saved ye from yer faither, I’ve been lookin’ fer that mark that ye described tae me,” Alba said. “Ye said he had a mark on his hand, did ye nae?”
“Aye, he did,” Lana confirmed, her heart filling with hope. Could it be that Alba had found the man she had been looking for? It had been over a year since then, and no matter how much Lana tried, she could never figure out who her savior was. She had only gotten a glimpse of his hand as he passed her the note that night, and even though she had tried to run after him once she had read his words, she hadn’t managed to catch up with him.
“Ye’ve heard o’ Tate,” Alba said. It wasn’t a question. Though Lana had never seen Tate, she had heard of him, as his family talked so much about him. He was the baby out of the three brothers, and though he was often away travelling, they always spoke fondly of him. “I realized the other day that he has a mark on his hand. Look.”
As she spoke, Alba pointed at Tate’s portrait on the wall. His hand was visible, and the painter had definitely painted something on his skin that could have been a birthmark, although Lana couldn’t tell if it was the same one she had seen or not. She would have to see it in real life to know for certain.
“I dinnae ken if that’s it,” Lana said. “I… I’m nae certain.”
“Well, ye’ll see it when he returns from his travels,” Alba pointed out. “Wouldnae it be strange if all this time, yer savior was Tate?”
It would be a strange coincidence, indeed, Lana thought. She wanted nothing more than to find the man and thank him for saving her from a miserable fate, so if it was Tate, then all the better. She didn’t know how she could return such kindness, but she would at least try.
“Thank ye fer showin’ me, Alba,” Lana said. “I hope ye’re right.”
“I hope so too,” Alba said. She, like everyone else in the castle, knew how much this meant to her.
With that, Lana was off, taking Robert to Scott’s study. She knocked on the door and entered, finding him and Evelyn hunched over the table as they discussed their plans. Evelyn stepped back as Lana entered, shoulders going stiff. She only relaxed when she realized who it was, and her face split into a grin when she saw Robert.
“Is it time already tae feed him?” she asked, as she reached for her son. Lana handed him to her, nodding.
“Aye, Alba came tae find me,” she said. “He’s been a wee angel all day.”
“Has he?” Evelyn asked. “Well, that’s new.”
Lana and Scott laughed, both knowing how much of a handful Robert could be sometimes, especially now that he was growing and getting curious about the world around him. He wasn’t a fussy child, though, and Lana rarely heard him cry.
“Thank ye fer bringin’ him, Lana,” Evelyn said. “Will ye stay fer supper?”
“Nay, nay… I must go back tae the cottage,” Lana said. “I need tae gather some supplies fer the healer.”
“As ye wish,” Evelyn said. “But ye’re always welcome.”
“Thank ye,” Lana said, giving them both a small bow before she left the study. She often spent her afternoons and evenings at the healer’s cottage, a little further down the path from the castle, and she preferred it there. It was much quieter, nothing like the castle she had called home fer so many years.
She didn’t want to be reminded of her past. It was all too painful, too much to bear. All she wanted to do was spend her days immersed in her new job, learning everything there was to know about healing people and saving lives. There was no point in revisiting the past and dwelling on every cruel thing her father had done to her.
Lana greeted all the guards and the clansmen and women as she walked through the castle and then the courtyard, before exiting the castle walls. She had taken that same path countless times, but it never failed to amaze her how beautiful the place was, each side of the dirt road stretching out into the forest. Flowers and herbs bloomed by the path, and Lana stopped for a moment to gather some hedge nettles for the healer to use. She pulled her small knife out and started cutting a few stalks, making sure to get the freshest ones.
Thankfully, it was a nice day and the sun was shining through a smattering of clouds. Every time she had to take the path when it was raining, she delayed it for as long as possible, loathing the mud that caked her shoes when even just a little rain had fallen.
With an armful of hedge nettles, Lana continued down the path, but something made her pause. She felt as though there were eyes on her, much like she did back home, every time her father had one of his guards—sometimes even multiple of them—following her every move. She was accustomed to the feeling, that tell-tale shiver down her spine notifying her that there was something wrong.
Nonetheless, when she looked around, she couldn’t spot anyone. There was nothing but trees, bushes, and a few birds flying from branch to branch.
Could it all be in me head?
Lana doubted it. She was far from paranoid. Even when she had been living in her father’s castle, she never worried without reason.
Her instinct told her that there was someone there, hiding among the trees.
But what other choice did she have than to keep going? She was too far from the castle to ask for help. The cottage was closer, and maybe if she made a run for it, she could get there before whoever was watching her could catch up with her.
Taking a few steadying breaths, Lana reached for her knife once more. She held it tightly in her hand, though she didn’t know how effective it would be during an attack. It was barely sharp enough to cut through stalks, let alone human flesh. Also, she had never even been in a fight before. How could she defend herself if there was a brigand after her?
Why me? I’m nae one important, nae anymore.
It didn’t matter. She could figure that out later. All that mattered was getting to the cottage on time, where she would be safe.
In an instant, she dropped the hedge nettles and broke into a sprint. Her feet thudded against the ground, clouds of dust rising behind her with every step she took. It didn’t take her long to hear another set of footsteps behind her, louder and heavier than her own, but she didn’t dare look back at the person who was chasing her.
Although she was running as fast as she could, the footsteps sounded closer and closer with every passing second. Her pursuer was catching up to her. Lana tried to run even faster, to push herself even more, but she had no more strength left. All she could do was hope she wouldn’t trip and fall, and that she would be fast enough to escape.
That hope faded when a hand grabbed her and brought her to a halt. Lana screamed and tried to tug her arm away from the man’s grip, but he was too strong. He only held her even more tightly, one arm wrapping around her waist as the other wrapped around her throat, choking her.
In her panic, Lana’s breath rushed out of her. She couldn’t draw any air into her lungs. She couldn’t fight the man. Her legs kicked out, and her hand swung the knife wildly in the air, trying to hurt him even a little, just enough so that she could escape, but he was too strong. He grabbed her wrist and twisted it, making her drop the knife with a pained wail, before he continued to choke her.
He’ll kill me.
She didn’t understand why. She didn’t know why he had chosen her or why he had decided to kill her, but she knew that was his intention. His arms were too tight, pressing against her stomach and her throat. His chest was a solid wall against her back, and she had no chance of making him move.
Tears began to stream down her cheeks, carving hot paths in their wake. The world tilted and started to go dark and fuzzy at the edges as she lost consciousness, though she didn’t know if it was because of the lack of air or the panic that was bubbling up inside her. Either way, she knew she wouldn’t be awake for long.
She had to find out who the man was. She had to sneak a look at him, just in case she managed to survive this, so she craned her neck trying to get a glimpse but no matter how much she tried, she couldn’t.
What she did see was the ring he was wearing. It was a ring that many of her father’s men wore, gifted to them when they rose up the ranks of his army. Lana would recognize it anywhere.
Me faither sent him… he’s here tae take me back.
She didn’t know how anyone had found out where she was. Lana thought she was safe there and that her father would never find her, but she had clearly been wrong. She had been wrong about the man, too. He wasn’t trying to kill her; he was only trying to incapacitate her.
Still, that didn’t comfort her in the least. She would rather die than go back to her father, to that daily abuse and misery. She would rather the man end her life right then and there, because she would never agree to stay with her father.
However, she couldn’t speak. No words would come out of her mouth, just like she could not get any air into her lungs.
Her limbs were soon too heavy for her too struggle. Her head was filled with cotton, making it impossible to think. And then, everything went black.
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