Scot of Lust (Preview)

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One month earlier, Dunmaglass

The air was warm on Elayne’s skin, the breeze only a momentary relief as she rode with her guards through the forest. It was high summer and late in the morning, so the sun had shone relentlessly on them as they travelled down the path from Macgillivray Castle to her aunt’s cottage.

We should have left sooner. It’s so hot today!

The cottage was only half a day’s ride away, but Elayne felt as though she had been travelling for an eternity, the air uncharacteristically still, even for a July morning. It was better than travelling any other day of the past week, though, which they had all spent in the castle, keeping dry from the endless rain.

“We should have brought ye a carriage, me lady,” said one of her guards, Craig. He had been Elayne’s guard ever since she could remember, and was one of the people who raised her, along with her wet nurses and governess. All these years later, his skin had wrinkled and his brown hair was almost completely grey, but he still resembled the young man Elayne had once known.

Most of all, he still fussed over her as if she were a child.

“I’m fine, Craig,” Elayne assured him. “I can handle a half day’s ride.”

“I suppose it’s a good thing ye’re dressed simply,” her other guard, Lachlan, said. Unlike Craig, Lachlan was a young man, broad and tall, tasked with her protection for the first time. “Though ye resemble a maid in these garments.”

“There are many brigands in these parts,” said Elayne. “It’s wiser tae dress simply than tae attract attention.”

Craig had been the one to suggest it in the first place, so that it would not be immediately obvious that she was a noble-born girl. She hoped that if a brigand saw her like this, he wouldn’t be able to tell she was Elayne Macgillivray, daughter of Laird Lewis Macgillivray.

Of course, the plan would only work if the brigands didn’t recognize her especially if they didn’t question why a maid would travel with two guards. Though Craig and Lachlan were similarly dressed, both in simple clothes so as to look like companions, there was an air about them that anyone who had been around guards for enough time would recognize.

It was something that kept nagging Elayne, for she had the growing suspicion that someone was watching them. While they were still close to the castle, she hadn’t suspected anything, but as they rode deeper and deeper into the forest, she could swear there were eyes on her, watching her every move. Neither Craig nor Lachlan seemed concerned at all, though, and Elayne didn’t want to ask them to stop for no reason. They weren’t too far from the cottage now; sooner rather than later, her paranoia would be silenced.

She was simply glad to be out of the castle while Laird McCoy was visiting. The mere thought of him, of his hands somehow always finding their way on her body no matter how much she tried to keep her distance, nauseated her. It didn’t matter that he was handsome. It was true that his features were far from revolting, but his character more than made up for it. He was the cruelest man she knew, more so even than her father, and the ten years that separated them were very obvious when they stood side by side. Next to him, Elayne still resembled a child.

As they rode through the forest, they soon reached the part of the journey where they could hear the trickling of water from the nearby river. Elayne had always hated hearing it, but there was no other road leading to her aunt’s cottage. If she followed the river all the way back up the valley, she would reach the lake where she had almost drowned as a child, if her mother hadn’t saved her, drowning herself—the lake that made her father hate her, unable to forgive her for her mother’s death. Elayne couldn’t forgive herself either.

As painful as the memory of that day was, she didn’t try to cover the sound of the water by talking—she never did. She deserved to remember, to have those memories re-emerge every time she passed by the river, though it could hardly make up for what she had done.

There was something else that pulled her out of her thoughts, though: a sudden sound, loud and clear, which had all three of them looking over their shoulders to locate its source. Suddenly, four men appeared out of the thick greenery of the forest, two behind them and two in front of them, short, gleaming daggers ready in their hands.

“Brigands!” Craig shouted as he jumped off his horse. Neither he nor Lachlan carried a sword, but they both had multiple blades hidden on them, and Elayne knew those men, though they outnumbered them, would be no match for her and her guards.

Her own dirk was strapped to her leg and she grabbed it, ready to jump off her horse and fight. Before she could, though, one of the men approached her, spooking her horse so much that it bucked and tried to kick at him. The horse missed, and Elayne tightened her hold on it, trying desperately to hold on, but when it bucked again, it threw her off its back and fled down the path.

Elayne landed on the ground with a thud and a groan, rolling just as she made impact to avoid the worst of the injury. She could only hope her mare would stop somewhere nearby and that she would be able to retrieve her once it was all over.

I must recover fast. I cannae stay like this.

It would be a death sentence, staying on the ground. One of those brigands would soon find her and kill her. Still, breathing seemed impossible, the air knocked out of her lungs after she had hit the ground, her ribs and her arms aching with the aftermath of her fall. She could hardly draw in any air, let alone stand.

In the chaos, a pair of hands grabbed her and dragged her into the bushes that lined the road. Elayne screamed, but one of those hands quickly muffled her protests, keeping her quiet. In the distance, she saw Craig and Lachlan surrounded by the four men, fighting a losing fight.

This is it… this is how we all die.

“Are ye alright?” asked a soft, quiet voice. “Did ye get hurt?”

For a moment, Elayne froze, not expecting the man to sound concerned. Why would he care if she had been hurt? Perhaps he needed her to be unharmed in order to negotiate with her father, but the concern in his tone didn’t match the kind of concern he would have for his bounty.

It didn’t matter, though. What mattered was that he had released her, and Elayne could finally push herself to her feet and swing her fist, barely missing him when he managed to duck just in time.

That didn’t matter either. She had her blade. Even if she had to fight all of them herself, she would.

Raising her blade, she took a step closer to the young man, but he only backtracked, raising his hands in surrender. Surely, it couldn’t be that easy; he was only trying to lull her into a false sense of security before he attacked.

For the first time, Elayne gave herself a few seconds to take in his features: hair so blond it seemed almost white, a strong jaw, a slightly crooked nose. And then there were those eyes, icy blue, a jagged scar running over them both, from temple to temple.

He was a big man, tall and broad, his frame much bigger than Elayne’s. In some ways, it was an advantage for her. Everyone assumed her to be fragile, short and lithe as she was, so they underestimated her. She may not have had as much brute strength as this man, but she knew her way around a knife and she was faster than any bulky soldier.

“Calm down, lass,” the man said, still backtracking and trying to put some space between them. “I willnae hurt ye, I promise. I’m nae one o’ them.”

Elayne didn’t believe him straight away. It would be foolish to do so. But the more she looked at him, the more she realized everything about this man was different, from his clothes to the heavy sword he carried around his waist. Slowly, she lowered her blade and at the same time, the man lowered his hands.

“Stay here,” he told her quietly and, as he walked past her, he pressed his finger against his lips, asking her to be quiet. Elayne watched him draw his sword out of its sheath and slowly sneak out of the bushes, suddenly attacking the brigands and taking them by surprise.

By then, both Craig and Lachlan lay still on the ground and Elayne had to swallow down the bile that threatened to rise up her throat. Could they be dead? There was no blood that she could see, but that meant nothing. Perhaps it was only because their bodies and the greenery obscured her view.

She couldn’t allow herself to believe they were dead, not even for a moment. She couldn’t have two more deaths on her hands.

Instead, Elayne watched the mysterious man as he fought off the brigands. He had an advantage with the sword, but he also knew how to use it, his movements elegant and practiced. It was almost like a dance, his feet light as he jumped and slid around the four brigands, his arms strong as he brought down his sword. It was then that Elayne was certain he was no brigand. He was nothing like those men who had attacked her and her guards. This man had been trained to fight.

It didn’t take him long to kill the four men single-handedly. By the end of it, he was covered in their blood, some of his own trickling into the mix where the brigands had managed to wound him. The men had collapsed around him and he stood in the middle of them, drawing in slow, ragged breaths for a few moments. She should have been scared of him, terrified even… But she wasn’t, not at all. When he had composed himself, he walked over to Craig and Lachlan, and Elayne rushed out of the bushes, her dirk in her hand once more.

“Dinnae touch them,” she growled, and the man flinched, not expecting such a reaction.

“I only wished tae see if they’re alive,” he said. He watched Elayne carefully as he slowly made his way towards Craig and pressed his fingers against his neck, where he could feel his pulse, and the relief that washed over his features was palpable.

Elayne didn’t know, though, if it came from finding him alive or dead. Just in case, she stood there, ready to strike.

The man walked over to Lachlan and did the same, before approaching Elayne once more. “They’re alive. They should wake soon.”

It was Elayne’s turn to be relieved, her shoulders finally dropping as she allowed herself to relax a little. If this stranger wanted to hurt her, he would have already done so, she figured, so letting her guard down didn’t seem like a bad idea.

The man was close to her before she knew it, his fingers poking and prodding at her head and her arms as Elayne stood there, at a loss for words. He seemed to have no problem touching a woman he didn’t know, but then again, he probably thought Elayne was a maid, not a noble girl who wasn’t used to anyone’s touch.

“Ye’re nae injured, are ye?” he asked her. “Does anythin’ hurt?”

“Nay,” said Elayne. The only thing that hurt was her chest, her heart beating so fast she feared she would collapse, sending all the blood in her body to her face. “I’m alright. Thank ye… they could have killed us if ye hadnae come.”

“I’m always glad tae help a damsel,” said the man, grinning from ear to ear. The gesture deformed his scar even more, but Elayne was surprised to find out she didn’t mind it at all. There was something alluring about it and it did nothing to detract from his beauty. “Though I cannae say ye were so much in distress. Ye fight well.”

Though Elayne could fight, she could hardly take a compliment, and she lowered her gaze as her cheeks burned, trying to hide the blush. When she spoke again, she chose a safer topic.

“Ye’re nae from these parts, are ye?” she asked. She would know if he was. “What’s yer name?”

“Dunn,” said the man. “An’ nay… I was passin’ through when I saw ye were all in danger.”

“Dunn,” Elayne repeated, trying out the name. It suited him, she thought. “What clan dae ye belong tae?”

Dunn only smiled at her question and then busied himself with his sword, cleaning it and tucking it safely back in its sheath. She wasn’t going to get an answer, it seemed.

“Shall I accompany ye tae yer destination?” Dunn asked after a short stretch of silence. He looked over his shoulder at Craig and Lachlan and Elayne followed his gaze to see them stirring. “Yer guards are already awake.”

“They’re… they’re nae me guards,” Elayne said. “Only me travellin’ companions.”

Dunn gave her a slightly amused look. Still, he didn’t try to correct her, and that convinced Elayne he could see right through their disguises. “Yer companions, then. They’re wakin’.”

Glancing between Dunn and her guards, Elayne shook her head. “We’ll be fine. Thank ye. It’s only half an hour’s ride from here.”

“Very well,” said Dunn. He had pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and was dabbing at the blood on his face. When he tucked it back in, he leaned closer and pressed his lips against Elayne’s into a soft kiss before she could do anything to resist.

A gasp escaped her, her eyes slipping shut. It was the barest brush of lips, but it was more than Elayne had ever experienced before, so even that simple, tender gesture stole her breath away.

When she opened her eyes again, Dunn was gone, and Craig and Lachlan were pushing themselves off the ground, brushing the dirt off their clothes.

Looking over at Elayne, Craig asked, “What happened?”

Elayne looked at him, then at the bodies on the ground. Then, she looked at the space Dunn had occupied only moments before, now entirely empty.

“I dinnae ken.”

Chapter One

Present, The Seven Stars Inn

The smell of ale and wine permeated the air around Elayne. The inn was small, the only one in the village, so she had no other options if she wanted to be inside during the storm.

I should have listened tae me aunt an’ stayed with her at her cottage.

It would have surely been preferable to this, even if it would have delayed her return home, but when she had left her aunt’s home, she had had good reason.

Once again, she read the letter she held in her hands, the paper crumpled from the number of times she had folded and unfolded it, clutching it tightly between her fingers. It had arrived at her aunt’s cottage right before Elayne had left, a warning from her best friend Isobel that her father had planned her marriage to Laird McCoy in her absence.

I cannae believe he would dae such a thing.

Only, the more she thought about it, the more plausible it became. Her father wanted to rid himself of her and gain as much land as he could, and what better way to do that than marry her off to Laird McCoy? That way, both men would get what they wanted—her father would have his lands and he would never have to see Elayne again, and Laird McCoy could finally force her into his bed without anyone else objecting to it.

But even fer me faither, this is too much.

Elayne slammed her hands onto the sticky table, the cup of ale in front of her almost tipping over before she steadied it. She took a few long gulps, though she had already had too much to drink. At the beginning of the night, she had come down from her room to have one cup but now she had already drained three and was well on her way through the fourth. She couldn’t think of any other way to drown her sorrows or steel herself for the conversation she was going to have with her father.

She would refuse to marry McCoy. She would do anything in her power to prevent this wedding from happening or she would die trying.

But what can I dae? Me faither will never allow me tae say nay.

Maybe death really was her only other choice and compared to marrying Laird McCoy, it seemed like the better option.

There was no one for Elayne to even turn to. Under any other circumstances, she would have asked Craig for help or at least advice, but he and Lachlan hadn’t made it to the inn yet. Perhaps the storm had delayed them as they were returning to the cottage to bring her back home or perhaps they had made it there and decided to spend the night, like Elayne had, under a roof before resuming their travel the following morning.

Elayne would leave with or without them. She knew the woods well and she could take care of herself, so going back home shouldn’t be an issue. The matter of her wedding couldn’t wait.

As she drained her fourth cup of ale, she glimpsed a large figure from the corner of her eye. The man sat down on the chair next to her and Elayne braced herself for an argument or maybe even a fight. She was in no mood to act like the nice noble girl she had been brought up to be that night. If he refused to leave her alone, he would find himself in a lot of trouble.

“Find yer own table,” Elayne said, hearing herself as she slurred her words. For the first time that night, she realized she was a little tipsy, but she was certain her nausea wasn’t from the alcohol. It was from the thought that upon returning to the castle, she would see Laird McCoy and he would once again put his hands on her, thinking he was more entitled than ever to her body.

“Is this how ye speak tae the man who saved yer life?”

It was a strangely familiar voice and Elayne turned to look at the man next to her, only to find it was none other than Dunn. Her mouth fell open as she stared at him, suddenly appearing next to her in the same way he had disappeared a month prior. In the dim light of the inn, he looked even more mysterious, like a phantom instead of a person. His features, those blue eyes and his pale hair, made him seem otherworldly.

“Dunn,” she gasped, still unable to believe he was there. “What are ye doin’ here?”

“Here at yer table or here in the area?”

“Both,” said Elayne. “Either.”

“Ye seemed very sad, so I wanted tae see if ye wished tae have company,” said Dunn. It didn’t surprise Elayne that he remained quiet regarding the reason of his presence in the area. “I never expected tae see ye again.”

“Neither did I.” Elayne certainly needed more ale now. In the half-light of the room, she gazed at him more openly than she would have had she been sober, letting her eyes trail over his features before they settled on the scar across his eyes.

“Daes it frighten ye?”

Elayne was too busy staring at Dunn to understand what he meant, and she made a questioning sound, frowning at him.

Dunn laughed softly. “The scar,” he said. “Daes it frighten ye?”

“Ach… nay,” said Elayne. “Why would it frighten me?”

“It has frightened many.”

A scar was hardly enough to frighten Elayne, especially when it was attached to such a handsome man. Ever since that day in the forest, she had been unable to stop thinking about him, about that kiss he had given her, replaying it in her mind again and again.

“How did it happen?” she asked, just to keep him talking.

“In a vicious fight,” Dunn said. “I was almost blinded.”

It would have been a shame, Elayne thought, if something had happened to those beautiful eyes. She could get lost in them, staring at them forever, but even in her drunken state she could tell it would be odd if she continued to stare like that. Clearing her throat, she sat up a little straighter, trying to fight off the dizziness that came with the movement.

“So, here ye are… an’ ye willnae even tell me the reason,” she said after a short silence that stretched between them. “I promise ye, I willnae tell anyone. I have nae one tae tell.”

For a moment, Dunn seemed conflicted. He looked over his shoulders at the people around them, the inn so crowded that no one was paying them any mind. Still, he was reluctant, keeping quiet.

“What could be such a big secret?” asked Elayne. “Ye cannae simply tell me naething now!”

Dunn huffed out a laugh, shrugging a shoulder. “Very well,” he said, leaning closer to speak quietly to Elayne. “I am here as a scout. There are rumors there will be a war led by Clan Macgillivray. I’m here tae gather information but, I dinnae ken. I’ve been here fer months an’ nae one seems tae ken anythin’ about a war. The villagers are as clueless as ever.”

A war? What war could there be?

Elayne had heard nothing about a war. These were times of peace and her father had strong alliances with other clans. Why would he risk going to war? What else could he possibly want?

“Perhaps the rumors are false,” was all she could say.

“Perhaps,” said Dunn. “But I doubt it. There are many outside these parts who are talkin’ about it. If I could somehow enter the castle, then maybe I would find out what is happenin’, but I have nae hope o’ achievin’ that. I will never be able tae enter the castle walls.”

Perhaps her betrothal to Laird McCoy had something to do with this. Elayne wasn’t willing to dismiss this as nothing but rumors just yet. Knowing her father, it wouldn’t surprise her to find out that he had, after all, been planning to start a war in search of more power and more land. Those were the only two things that kept him going since her mother’s death, the only two things he craved in life.

“Well, I certainly, havenae heard anythin’ in the castle,” Elayne said with a small shrug. “But perhaps yer right. I wouldnae ken.”

“Ye live in the castle?” Dunn asked. “Are ye a maid there?”

Elayne frowned, wondering why he would ask that, but then she realized that the only two times they had met, she had been dressed in those clothes, the ones she had worn specifically for her trip. What else would he assume other than her being a maid? She certainly looked the part—she had made sure of it. But he hadn’t seemed convinced about her denial, when he had mentioned her travelling with guards the previous time, they had met.

“Somethin’ like that,” she said, not wanting to reveal the truth. She trusted Dunn, as he had saved her life, but that didn’t mean she was about to reveal her true identity to him. Danger still lurked everywhere around Elayne and she was unwilling to take any risks.

Just as she was about to speak again, a serving wench came by their table, refilling their cups. She lingered there a little too long, smiling coyly at Dunn, and he smiled back at her, raising his cup in a toast. As she left, she kept looking over her shoulder at him, much to Elayne’s amusement.

“Ye’re popular with the lasses, then?” she asked, raising a curious eyebrow. In response, Dunn only laughed, saying nothing on the matter, but it was obvious when Elayne began to look. A lot of women in the inn had their sights on him, watching him through the crowd.

For a while, Elayne busied herself with her cup, spinning it in her hands. Even though a silence fell between them, Dunn seemed in no hurry to leave, so she took a few sips, enjoying the lull in the conversation. It was comfortable, oddly enough. They didn’t need to fill the silence.

Still, there was a nagging thought in Elayne’s mind and in the end, she couldn’t help but ask, “How dae ye think a lass can escape an unwanted marriage?”

The question took Dunn by surprise. He turned to face Elayne fully, though he didn’t seem at all confused by it. “I see, is that why ye’re so sad, then?”

Elayne nodded wordlessly. How could she be anything but devastated when she knew she would be forced into a marriage with such a terrible man? Growing up, she had thought her wedding would be a joyous moment, that her father would find her the perfect match, but that was before her mother’s death. It was before he changed, before grief had turned him into a monster.

“Well, I suppose the only way tae escape it is tae marry someone else, dinnae ye think?” Dunn said after a few moments of deep thought. “Yer family is arrangin’ the marriage fer ye?”

“Aye,” said Elayne, but Dunn’s suggestion had already distracted her. How could she marry someone else? Where would she even find a man to marry her on such short notice?

But then an idea bloomed into her head. She looked at Dunn, taking in his handsome features, the kind smile, the warmth in his eyes that one wouldn’t expect from such an icy color. So far, he had been nothing but helpful to her, going as far as to save her life from those brigands. When he had seen her in the inn and realized she was upset, he had gone over to talk to her.

And, of course, he was a man. A handsome one, even.

“Dunn,” Elayne said, leaning a little closer to close the distance between them. “Are ye betrothed tae someone?”

“Nay,” Dunn said with a small frown, this time confused by her question.

This is excellent. He is precisely what I need.

“Perfect! Then ye could pretend tae be wedded tae me!”

Laughing, Dunn shook his head as if this was a joke. But then he saw how serious and how excited Elayne was and his smile slowly dropped.

“Ye cannae mean it.”

“O’ course I mean it,” said Elayne. “This is the perfect solution. I can escape this marriage an’ ye can come tae the castle. This is what ye needed, is it nae?”

Dunn sputtered for a few moments, at a loss for words. When he spoke, his voice was higher than his usual baritone. “Ye’re insane! I cannae pretend tae be yer husband! Ye dinnae even ken anythin’ about me. I could be insane. I could try tae murder ye.”

“If ye wished tae murder me, ye would have already done it,” Elayne pointed out. “Or ye would have let the brigands kill me. Either way, ye didnae. Ye saved me life, ye didnae try tae take advantage o’ me nor did ye rob me. Ye have proven tae me that ye’re a good man.”

“I absolutely willnae dae this,” Dunn insisted, already leaning away from Elayne. Before he could get too far, though, she grabbed his arm and stopped him, looking him straight in the eye.

“The castle,” she reminded him. “Ye said ye need the information.”

With a sigh, Dunn looked around as if he expected someone to rescue him from this conversation. The more he considered it, though, the more he relaxed in Elayne’s grip, until he was fully sitting back in his seat.

“Why would ye wish tae help me?” he asked.

“We’d be helpin’ each other,” Elayne reminded him. “I am nae doin’ this without gettin’ somethin’ in return. An’ it’s best fer everyone if there isnae a war. The clan is weak… a war would be madness.”

If anything, Elayne needed him more than Dunn needed her, but he didn’t have to know that. If the clan truly went to war, Elayne was certain they would lose. The previous wars had left them weakened, many of their soldiers gone in battle.

Still, despite the promise of help, Dunn was reluctant to agree. “Are ye tryin’ tae trick me?”

Elayne shook her head. “Nay. I promise ye. I will dae anythin’ ye ask. The only thing I willnae dae is allow ye tae touch me. Ye must understand that I have nae desire tae wed an’ this will only be a fake marriage, so if ye think I will fall intae bed with ye, ye should tell me now so I can find someone else.”

Dunn laughed, loud and delighted, as if Elayne’s warning amused him. “Ye didnae complain when I kissed ye.”

It was Elayne’s turn to sputter, throwing her hands up in exasperation. How presumptuous of him to think she had enjoyed that kiss! She had, of course, enjoyed it, but that was beside the point as far as she was concerned.

“I only allowed it because ye saved me life,” she said indignantly. “I willnae allow it again.”

Dunn gave her a lopsided grin, one Elayne was certain was popular with women, but she was determined not to be swayed by his charms. This was nothing but a business transaction. As Dunn considered it silently, Elayne tapped her fingers impatiently on the table, the tapping rhythm of them drowned out by the voices in the inn.

“Alright,” Dunn said eventually with a decisive nod, before he reached for Elayne’s arm to pull her closer—too close for her liking. “Ye have a deal. But I promise ye, by the end o’ this, ye’ll be beggin’ fer a kiss.”


Not at all Likely Extremely Likely

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Taken by the Highland Brute – Bonus Scene

“Alistair, I need…I need you.”

Alistair knew, at that moment, that he had lost the war against his desire. The lass could not possibly know the import of what she was saying. “You do not know what you are asking for,” he said. It was a last-ditch attempt to save her from his passion.

“I do,” Jane said, looking at him. There was defiance in her gaze. “I do.”

His resolve broke.

He kissed her with all the longing that he felt, and she responded ardently. But then he noticed that she was withdrawn.

That was more than a little disappointing. “Where is your mind, lass?” he asked.

“I was thinking about…clothes,” Jane returned.

“Clothes? You are thinking about clothes when I am kissing you? Perhaps you want me to stop?”

He made to leave, but she reached for his kilt. That was more than enough to restore his fervor. “Indecent thoughts indeed,” he murmured against her lips. “You wanted this from the start.” He undid it himself, and watched her look down, her face dimming in worry.

“It worries you.” Alistair said into her ear while he pulled down her dress so her breasts were exposed. “It should not. I will be very, very gentle with you. Do not think at all. Only feel.” Jane nodded at his reassurance, and he smiled reassuringly at her.

“You are beautiful, Jane,” Alistair said, his eyes on her breast. “Beautiful.” He bent down and captured one nipple in his mouth. It was soft, plump, perfect in his mouth. A moan escaped Jane, and she clutched at his head.

His lips moved to the other breast as he pulled her slip down. And then he carried her to his bed. He kissed a path from her breasts to her belly to the tangle of curls at the apex of her thighs. Jane started. She sat up and tried to push him away, but he did not move.

From between her legs, he looked directly into her eyes. At the first flick of his tongue, Jane keened. She locked her legs together, so that Alistair was trapped between them, and she clamped her hands over her mouth.

She burst into tears when she reached her climax.

Alistair felt his member strain.

Jane hid her face in his bed, but Alistair would not allow that. “Why are you hiding your pleasure, my lass?” he asked.

“The others… in the castle…they’ll hear.”

Alistair chuckled. “They can hear nothing. And if they could, what would it matter? I am told that our attraction is blatant.”

“Oh,” Jane said. “And of course they fault you for bedding an English miss.”

He silenced her with a kiss. “Jane,” he said, after he pulled away from her. His fingers insinuated themselves between her legs. He stroked her, and, through hooded lids, watched her.

“Jane,” he said again, more insistently this time.


“When we are together, nothing else matters. The castle, the matters of state. England and Scotland. There is you.” He brought the hand between her legs up and sucked on his thumb. This made Jane’s breath catch. He returned the hand and continued the stroking. “And there is me. Do you understand?”

“Y-yes.” Jane whispered breathlessly.

“What did I say, my sweet? Tell me.” His thumb was faster now, and he could see that she was struggling to form words.

“That there is only you and me!” she squeaked in one desperate breath.

“Good girl.” Alistair said, just as Jane shook in release.

He waited for her shocks to subside. There was a satisfied smile on his face.

“Sweetling,” he whispered in her ears, “this will hurt you a little.”

“I know,” Jane said, and squeezed her eyes shut.

“No, look at me,” Alistair instructed. He could not have her tense, for that would make for an uncomfortable first time. “I would never cause you pain intentionally, Jane,” he said earnestly.

Jane nodded and said she knew.

Alistair bot her nipples. He entered her slowly, his eyes fixed on her face. When he pushed past her maidenhead, she winced, but otherwise, she was calm. He began to move slowly, giving her time to adjust. Slowly, Jane began to move with him, and this satisfied Alistair greatly. She did not hide her pleasure this time.

When he was about to join her in release, he swiftly pulled out of her and spent himself on the floor. When he returned to her, she was smiling shyly. “Is that…is that what makes babies?”

“I hereby make a rule in my bed,” he announced, making a show of pouncing on her so that she squealed and rolled to the other side of the bed. “There shall be only loving. We shall reserve talking for the fields or the dinner table or the forest. And maybe the bath chamber.” He paused. “No, there shall be no talking in the bath chamber, either.”

Jane giggled. “Surely you do not mean that. So I cannot talk to you in the hallway, or in the kitchen, or by the lake?”

“The thought of us meeting in the kitchen is quite wild,” Alistair said. “You are a captive, and I am the laird.”

“Very well,” she said. “I make a rule in your bed, too.”

Alistair chuckled. “You cannot do that. It is my bed.”

“But in this moment, we are sharing it. Which makes it my bed, too.”

“Typical Englishwoman. Wanting to take things not belonging to you.”

Jane frowned.

Alistair sat up and said earnestly, “That was a joke, Jane. Purely a joke. You must believe me. Of course you can have rules in my bed.”

Jane said nothing still.

“Sweetling,” Alistair coaxed. He took a love bite of her shoulder and whispered sweet nothings in her ear. Jane squirmed against him, and when he looked in her eyes the light had returned to them.

“My first rule,” Jane said, doing her best to sound like a king, “is that there shall be no mention of the English-Scottish war.”

“A most wise choice, my liege,” Alistair said. “Will you be making any more rules today?

“Do not rush me, Ser Alistair!” she snapped.

“Never, never!” Alistair exclaimed, putting on a rather pitiful show of being subservient. Jane burst into laughter and Alistair watched her, a look of delight on his face. “I do hope the next rule you make is that I can ravish you as much as I want,” he said, his fingers tracing the outline of her lips.

Jane seemed to think about that for a moment, “You know what, Ser Alistair?” she said.

“What, my lady?” Alistair asked with a grin.

Jane grinned and locked her hands behind his neck. And Alistair decided that there was nothing quite like it, having Jane happy in his bed. “That might very well be my next rule.”


Best selling books of Juliana

Taken by the Highland Brute – Bonus Prologue

Clan Fletcher Lands, 1349

If there was something a Fletcher man excelled at besides snuffing out his enemies in battle, it was hunting.

Alistair, laird of the Fletcher clan, was flanked by Keith, his best friend, and Douglas, one of his most trusted warriors. Douglas’s ten-year-old son, sat in front of Douglas on the horse. This was the first time that the boy would accompany them. They were a little distance from Castle Fletcher. Their destination was the woods, which lay just beyond the formidable hill that they were just now descending.

When they got to the bottom of the hill, Tasgall exclaimed in wonder. He then looked at Alistair and Keith. “I am sorry,” he said.

“What fer?” Alistair asked.

“Talking,” Tasgall returned. “Pa says that if you must be quiet on a hunt, so ye dinnae scare the game away.”

Alistair smiled kindly at the boy. “Is that what he said?” he asked. “Well, there is nothing to fear, Tasgall, fer the game we seek is in the woods, and we are not yet there. Also, I dinnae think yer father follows his own rules. On hunts, he is the most talkative.” There was a tilting lint in his eye.

“Nay, I am nae,” Douglas said, addressing his son. “Lad, I am quiet as a mouse and more focused than an ant bringing fruit tae its colony.”

“And more dutiful than a beehive’s workers too?” Keith prompted. “I could never tire of reciting a lot of things that you clearly arenae!”

Douglas chuckled. “A lad is out with his faither. Dinnae spread lies against him.”

“I still think that ye are the best warrior there is, even though ye arenae quiet as a mouse or more focused than an ant or more dutiful than a beehive’s workers,” Tasgall said earnestly.

Alistair and Keith made sounds of mock emotion. “There’s a fine lad,” Keith said. “Supporting his papa no matter what. A better vision I have never seen.”

“Oh, stop it, Keith!” Douglas bellowed, but there was mirth in his voice. “Dinnae listen tae him, lad,” he said to Tasgall.

“You’d better listen tae me, lad,” Keith said. “I am old enough tae be yer faither.”

“Nay, ye’re nae,” Alistair and Douglas said in unison. “But if ye keep at the rate ye are going, ye will have a son of yer own soon.”

“By keeping at the rate he is going, Pa,” Tasgall said, “dae ye mean that Uncle Keith is making very serious plans tae marry?”

“Yes,” Douglas said quickly. Keith howled in laughter. “I am careful,” he said, “in me making of very serious plans tae marry.” He turned to Alistair. “Besides, ‘tis the laird that needs tae find a bride soon.”

“I am aware of my duties,” Alistair said. “But I shall take me time in choosing the right woman.”

“You must accept, however, that ye have lost yer way with women. There is only so much women can take before they give up. This year alone, didnae about twenty women vie fer yer hand? I remember almost all of them: offering tae cook specially fer ye in the kitchens, regaling ye with stories about the fecundity that runs in their families, risking shame just tae show ye their…” He looked at Tasgall. “Ample proportions? And there was that one that shot an arrow almost better than ye and walked like a strapping lad. She challenged ye tae a swordfight thinking that it would arouse ye, I remember.”

“Ah, yes, Caitlin, I believe she was called,” Alistair said. “A very manly sort. But a formidable opponent – fer a lass.”

“Did her manliness stop ye from… engaging in activities with her?” Keith asked.

“Quite simply, aye,” Alistair replied.

“Ah,” Keith said, “but nae with certain of the others, I am sure.” He winked at Alistair. “Fiona, fer example. She had the most-” He looked at Tasgall. “She had the most generous proportions that I have ever seen on a woman. And she giggled whenever yerur eyes met hers. Ye cannae deny it.”

“I have had me fun with women, and now I have more important things tae think about,” Alistair returned.

“Me maither says marriage is about finding yer one true love,” Tasgall said.

“A wise woman she is, is yer maither,” Keith said. “That is the only reason I dinnae fear fer yer future, dear lad. The only wisdom yer faither knows is the wisdom of crashing a skull with his club.”

Douglas and Alistair burst into laughter.

“But,” Keith said, “on this matter, yer maither is blinded by her whims. She believes in love tae a degree that exceeds the advisable level. As a matter of fact, there is no advisable level tae believing in love. Nay one should believe in it. The end.”

“You’ll nae speak ill of me wife,” Douglas said.

“I speak nay ill of me sister,” Keith returned, giving Douglas a proprietary look that said ‘she was me sister afore she became yer wife’. “I only speak the truth.” They had gotten to the forest’s edge now. “Ah,” Keith remarked, taking a sniff of the air. “Game. Waiting tae be caught and killed.”

“Dinnae be so dark, Keith,” Alistair said.

“As ye command, me laird.” He turned to Tasgall. “Ye must be quiet now. Especially when ye sight game. We must have none of that blathering that ye assaulted our ears with on the way.”

Tasgall gasped. “But it was ye who did most of the talking on our way here, Uncle Keith!” he protested.

“Keep the untruths in your belly and focus, lad,” Keith hissed. Tasgall turned to look at his father. Douglas smoothed a hand over his chest to indicate to his son to calm down, but there was a smile on his face. This was simply his brother-in-law’s nature.

Keith listened for a while, but his ears caught nothing interesting. “Ye can talk as much as ye want tae, there’s nay game on this side of the forest,” he said to Tasgall with a sigh. “Did I ever tell ye that the men on our side of the family, except me, can never grow hair on their head as soon as they turn twelve years old?”

Tasgall looked at his father in horror.

“He is only jesting,” Douglas assured. “Yer uncle loves tae jest…”

Alistair heard the sound of footsteps. His eyebrow arched. He wandered away from the group in the direction of the sound. They led him to a lake. The rays of the sun glimmered on the water like pure crystals. At the lake’s bank, he saw an old lady with a wooden bucket. He swallowed his disappointment. He had no idea what he had expected to see, but it was surely not this. Her clothes were well-worn, and her hair was white as the driven snow. He had never seen hair that white before. He turned to go.


He turned swiftly. His eyes fixed themselves on the woman. But she did not look at him. She continued at her task of filling the bucket up as though she had not just called his name. “Ye are the laird of the land,” she said. “I saw ye in a dream just last night.” She looked up and Alistair inhaled sharply. How could he not have guessed? She was the witch of the Highlands, believed to be real by most, thought to be an old wives’ tale by others, but feared by all.

“What dae ye seek outside yer cottage?” Alistair asked.

The woman chuckled. “Ye have never visited me tae find out about yer future and ye must. Great leaders take advantage of divinity instead of hiding from it. ‘Tis the only way ye can have the advantage in life.”

“I make me own advantages,” Alistair said.

The woman cackled, exposing toothless gums. “Of course, Alistair. As brave and ambitious as yer faither.”

“Ye ken naething of me faither,” Alistair said, fighting to keep his voice even. It was Highlander law to leave the witch alone, but some adventurous souls sometimes visited her with gifts in exchange for a reading. His father had had to deal with such cases: a swordsmith, for example, had attempted to kill his neighbor because the witch had told him that it was the neighbor who would cause his death. Just as his father had been about to give judgment, the neighbor had begun to laugh at the seeming absurdity of him causing someone else’s death. The man who had consulted the witch had, in one deft movement, pried a warrior’s sword from its sheath and decapitated his neighbor. Two days later, he had been put to death, for that was the law.

Alistair had found ways to explain it away, for he did not want to believe that the witch’s words had come true. But there was a part of him that knew that they had.

“Dinnae ye want tae ken yer future, dear laird?” the witch asked him.

“I have nay interest in doing so,” Alistair responded.

“Well, I insist,” the witch said matter-of-factly. “Ye will meet the woman ye are destined tae fall in love with a year from now. She is the opposite of everything that ye would expect, or want, in a soulmate, but she truly matches ye in all the ways that truly matter.”

Alistair burst into laughter. “Why would I marry a Highland lass that is the opposite of what I want?”

The witch grinned at him, and if he were a man of a weaker constitution, a chill might have run down his spine. “Who said anything about a Highland lass?” she asked.

Alistair heard Keith and Douglas calling him and he turned to look behind him. He then turned back to the lake, but the witch was gone. Keith, Douglas, and Tasgall made their way to him.

“Me laird, why did ye decide tae disappear in the middle of the forest?” Douglas asked.

“I thought I saw something,” Alistair replied. “A deer. And since ye and Douglas were busy discussing like two little lasses, I decided tae go after it meself.”

Douglas and Keith laughed. “Your braither is the one acting like a little girl,” Keith said, “hiding secrets and skipping the hunt all the time.”

“Alistair chuckled, for Keith was not wrong. “What me brother does with his free time is his problem. It is probably a lass. Kenning him, it will be over soon and we will be our merry little trioagain.”

“Frio,” Tasgall said suddenly.


“Frio. I want to come on all your hunts from now on. It is either this or being forced to mind the castle with Maither. So, we will be a frio. A trio is a group of three people. But when the laird’s brother joins us, we will be four. A frio.”

Alistair, Douglas and Keith burst into laughter.

As they made their way back to the original path, Alistair’s mirth gave way to worry.

What if the witch was right?


Best selling books of Juliana

Taken by the Highland Brute (Preview)


1350, Second War of Scottish Independence
Marsh Residence, England

Jane Marsh liked to believe that she was a good person. She tried, as much as she could, to steer clear of any situation that might test this goodness, but so far she had not had great luck doing so.

Jane seemed to attract problems. So, over the years, she’d perfected the art of inventing stories just to escape whatever situation she found herself trapped in.

Today was no different. Her sister’s engagement dinner was the perfect excuse. If she got caught eavesdropping at her father’s study, she would simply say that she had come to inform him that the table had been set. Its plausibility would depend on her ability to keep a straight face while she was saying it. And to maintain it while her father threw verbal daggers, which had grown ineffectual from overuse, afterwards. Still, she’d best not get caught.

From inside, she could hear Commander Edward Pierce, one of the guests of the celebration, regale her father with tales of his valor. His voice was loud, almost theatrical. He had a way of saying things like he was the main actor in a play riddled with soliloquys, always emphasizing his own qualities. Now, however, he was speaking to her father about the war with Clan Fletcher.

That caught her attention.

Just two weeks ago, her uncle Howard had been slaughtered in a battle with the clan and Jane had been disconsolate, for he had been more of a father to her than her real one had ever been. He’d listened to her and brought her gifts. He’d praised her beauty and given her a sense of belonging. When, as a child, she’d told him that she hated her eyes because green eyes were only for cats, he’d carried her on his lap and said, “Then I am the biggest of cats, Jane. I am a lion!” He’d made a marvelous imitation of a roar and encouraged her to do the same.

“What does that make you?” he’d asked afterwards.

“A lion, too!” she’d giggled. And then she roared again.

“Smart girl. Just like your mother was.”

And now he was gone.

Jane had mourned for a week. She had barely eaten, and she had not stepped out of her room. It was Eleonor who had broken her out of her despondent spell by informing her that she was engaged to be married.

Her father’s voice, in contrast to the commander’s, was steely and firm. It carried authority. She knew it well: it was the voice that played in her subconscious when she did things badly.

Oh, look at what you have done now.

You cannot get anything done right.

Stupid, just stupid.

“I suppose congratulations are in order, Commander Pierce,” her father said. “A win against those savages is a win for all of England.”

“True, true,” Commander Pierce said. “I am starving. I declare, I am parched. Could I ask you to ring for a servant, Marsh? A few sips of wine before the festivities will do us good. Better yet, I shall go and find a servant myself.”

“Yes, of course,” her father said, and she heard the shuffling of feet. She swiftly gathered her skirts, moved away from the door and fled down the hall to her sister’s room. Her abode was an austere affair, with lifeless walls and cold halls. She’d lived all her years in it and it still did not feel like home. The wood, though fastidiously polished by the maids, was rotten in places. The stone, though scrubbed, needed replacing. She’d once suggested that the curtains be changed, and the windows be left open in summertime and her father had looked at her as though she had an unnamable, untamable disease and walked away.

Oh, to leave here and go someplace else where she could have a say, where she could choose her own room and decorate it any way she wanted! In this sense, Eleonor was lucky. Soon, she would be the mistress of her home, a hallowed duchess, with the ability to dictate the house’s curtains and linens and rugs. Jane was truly happy for her, but she would miss her sorely. She loved her most in the whole world, and with her uncle Howard gone, living here would become doubly hard. She swallowed that despondent thought, pasted a smile on her face, and entered her sister’s room.

“I do believe that at least the bride should be present at the engagement dinner,” she said, closing the door behind her. Eleonor was standing by the window, her back to Jane. At twenty, Eleonor was almost a head shorter than her younger sister. She had the straightest black hair and the darkest black eyes that Jane had ever seen, in contrast to Jane’s green ones, so similar to her uncle’s eyes. Often, when they were children, Jane would look in the mirror and imagine that it was Eleonor’s black eyes that stared back at her.

“Oh, you chose the oxblood dress,” Jane said, as she walked to Eleonor’s bed. It was a beautiful, blooming affair of cotton with tiny lace trimmings on the bodice and the miniature cape. Unlike Jane, Eleanor had a lean figure. The kind that was favored in paintings and sculptures. Jane, on the other hand, was fuller in front and behind. Her proportions made her self-conscious, as her father had always insinuated that it was an indication of indiscretion. It was one of the many reasons for which Eleonor was their father’s favorite. Not that it bothered Jane: she was glad that their father treated at least one of them well.

“It is the prettier of the two, like I said before,” Jane said. “It fits you well. I cannot believe that you considered the black one in the first place. Black is such an inauspicious color for an engagement dinner.”

“You sound like a superstitious Scot,” Eleonor replied without turning. Jane smiled. “Sir Edward Pierce is in Father’s office, as usual. You would think the man did not have a home of his own. He is regaling Father with the details of his recent victory over Clan Fletcher.”

She sat on the bed, careful to spread her skirts out first. This habit, as well as other habits surrounding grace and poise, were not borne of the need to be ladylike but the fear of not being so. When she was twelve, her father had called her a harridan that belonged in the wild with fellow creatures simply because she had come down for supper with her hair improperly combed. There were at least seven men, her father’s friends, around. They had laughed boisterously as she ran up the stairs, tears streaming down her face.

“I suppose I should feel happy, somewhat. It is justice, in a way, even though it was at the hand of the commander and not Father,” she continued now. “But it does not change the fact that Uncle Howard is gone, Eleonor.” A wave of sadness washed over her again.

Commander Edward’s victory against clan Fletcher, in the grand scheme of things, meant nothing. It could not bring her uncle back. More so, she knew that the commander would present it as some sort of gift, something she must be thankful for. He was a slippery man in his late forties that put one in mind of a fox. He always smelled of smoke and something else, something slightly malevolent. And then there was that theatre-talk. That infernal theatre-talk. His presence was disconcerting, and several times, Jane had had to evade him, for his attentions were… peculiar. He seemed determined to share the same space as she. Over the years, he had taken an uncommon interest in her. He paid her compliments that always managed to seem a little insulting. He would be at the engagement dinner, an event best suited, in Jane’s opinion, to only close family.

“The Commander does nothing for free. He is never driven by a sense of duty or responsibility or loyalty. I am sure that this victory of his is just a way to get close to the duke, so that he can inundate him with requests for favors. Defeating clan Fletcher cannot bring our uncle back.” Jane said. “If he were here, he would corner me and ask if I was interested in getting married, as well. He would promise to facilitate any match of my choosing. He always wanted to make me happy.”

Eleonor’s response was a sigh.

“Eleonor?” Jane said, frowning. “Are you alright?”

Eleonor shook her head. Jane’s eyebrow went up. She gathered her skirts and walked to her sister. She took her hand and looked into her eyes. Her face was drawn and sad. “What is the problem, Eleonor dear? What ails you? Your engagement, is it? The duke?”

Eleonor’s face grew even darker. “Oh, Eleonor!” Jane exclaimed. “I know he is much older, and that every girl would prefer someone well… more… animated. But he is a duke. We must look at the bright side. What he lacks in youth, he will make up for in wealth. You’ll be mistress of all his houses. You’ll have servants to mind you and you’ll be among top society! You will attend occasions that the king himself will be present at. You’ll live away from the strife of this infernal war. Really, Eleonor, it won’t be that bad, you’ll see.”

Eleonor said nothing. “And… and if you’re worried about the duke himself,” Jane continued, “I know he is not handsome. But he has an eleven-year-old daughter who adores him. That is a good sign. If he is a good father, he will be a good husband, no?

She shook her head, and then her face crumpled, and she began to weep. The tears took Jane by surprise. Eleonor reached for her, and Jane held her and rubbed her back, while she whispered sounds of encouragement. When Eleonor pulled away, her eyes were watery, and her hair was mussed. “Jane…”

“Yes, Eleonor?”

“I… need you.”

“I am here, darling. Please talk to me, Eleonor.”

“I… I… I am in love.”

This came as a shock to Jane, but she smiled and said, “To feel love is a wonderful thing, Eleonor! Remember, when we were girls, we would talk about falling hopelessly in love and having our lovers love us back and…” She trailed off, realizing the import of her sister’s declaration. She knew it was almost impossible for the answer to her next question to be in the affirmative, but still, she could hope. “Is it… is it the duke, Eleonor? Please, tell me you meant the duke.”

The look of despondence morphed into one of irritation. It was gone in a second, however. “Of course it is not the duke,” Eleonor said.

“Right,” Jane said, and tucked a tendril of hair behind Eleonor’s ear. “With whom, then?”

“I cannot tell you, I am sorry,” Eleonor said.

“But you tell me everything!” Jane exclaimed. “Will you then hide something as important as this from me?”

“It is not that I do not want to tell you,” Eleonor said, “But I cannot, Jane. I really cannot. You must believe me.”

Jane sighed. “Why is that, Eleonor?”

“Because,” Eleonor sniffled, “because he has abandoned me.”

Jane’s eyes grew wide. “What? He is a rake, I am sure. A blind one, no less. What man could abandon you? You are kind and beautiful and brilliant. He does not deserve you. Not at all. Oh, come, Eleonor, it is alright, it is alright.” She made to take Eleonor in her arms, but her sister shook her head and burst into tears.

Jane tried to hug her again, but Eleonor refused. She folded her arms around her middle and rocked herself. When she looked at Jane again, her eyes were red. “I have made a mistake. A huge mistake.”

“No.” Jane said. “You have done nothing wrong. It is he who-”

“I am with child.”

A weight dropped in Jane’s stomach. Her mouth turned bitter. Her eyes widened. “What?”

Eleonor nodded, her face crumpling again.

It took quite a few moments for Jane to process this. She knew nothing of pregnancy, save what she had read about in books. Her mother had died at Jane’s birth, and so she had no one to ask about ‘womanly’ things. A tragedy indeed because she was supremely curious about everything. The books she had read on the human anatomy had been a little vague, but not vague enough that she did not know what it took to be pregnant. She was a little shocked, truth be told, that her sister, the saintly Eleonor, had done it. She looked at her sister’s belly and then her gaze moved to her face. “Oh, Eleonor,” she said simply. Eleonor jumped into her arms and sobbed, her tears flowing into Jane’s hair. “What will I do, Jane? I am ruined!”

“Don’t say that,” Jane cautioned, squeezing her sister’s hands lightly. “There is a way to remedy this. We only need to figure out how.” She paused, deep in thought. And then she said, “Whatever the solution is, we must hide the pregnancy, Eleonor. Father must never know.”

“But how will he not know? You cannot hide a lot from Father, Jane; you know this.”

“I mean this only as a temporary measure, Eleonor. You do not wish to go through with the marriage, I suppose?”

“No,” Eleonor said. “I have thought about it a lot. Getting married seems the easiest choice to make, I know. Just like Maribeth. And yet I cannot bring myself to do it.”

“That is if she truly did it,” Jane added. Maribeth was a childhood friend of Eleonor’s whose baby was born seven months after her wedding. Eleonor knew that Maribeth was in fact intimate with her childhood sweetheart, Benjamin, a weak, flighty sort, but she did not insinuate anything at the child’s birth one year ago. Maribeth responded to the gossip with disgust and told everyone who cared to know that some babies did in fact show up earlier than they were meant to, complete with hair and fingernails. Her husband was a simple man who was besotted with her, and the baby was male, and so there were no consequences as such. Eleonor knew, however, that it wouldn’t be the same for her.

“Alright,” Jane said. added. “How far gone are you?”

Eleonor did the math in her head. “About two months.”

Jane felt the air leave her lungs in a whoosh. But she plastered a smile on her face and said, “Well, we just need to delay the wedding until we figure out what to do. We must come up with a plan. A very good one.”

Eleonor nodded.

“Oh, but will you not tell me who the father is? Where is he? Perhaps we can send him a message. He could be instrumental in our-”

Eleonor said, looking at her hands. “He is gone, Jane. Gone. We were planning to run away together-” Jane’s eyes widened at this. Eleonor sighed and continued, but after I told him about the pregnancy, he just… disappeared. I went, several times to our usual meeting spot. Nothing. He left me. Oh, Jane, I am so- “

Jane held a finger over her sister’s lips. With her other hand, she pointed to her ear. Both girls listened… and then heard retreating footsteps. Jane shot off the bed and opened the door. The steps were fast, and Jane followed them swiftly down the hall. She knew who it was, and the thought left a knot in her stomach. For only one person that she knew smelt so strongly of smoke. She searched all the rooms on this floor, opening them, sticking her neck in, only to close them and bolt to the next. At last, she was at the end of the hall, where only one room remained.

Her father’s office.

She entered it without thinking.

Two pairs of eyes turned to look at her. There was no element of warmth in either of them. “Don’t hang at the door, Jane,” her father said, “Enter.”

She swallowed and urged her feet to move. She stood before them. Her eyes went from the commander to her father. There was a look of pure maliciousness in Commander Pierce’s eyes. It was as though she had done him some great wrong, and, mentally, she went over the conversation that he had eavesdropped on. It did not concern him. It was nothing against him. He had no interest whatsoever. She’d run after him solely because she knew that he could not be trusted to keep his mouth shut. He took every opportunity that appeared to offer future leverage. He would scheme, plot, and grovel if need be. This played out even in the course of his dealings with… the Duke of Lancaster.

Jane’s eyes widened. Commander Pierce, in the anticipation of a favor, could tell the duke that the woman he wished to marry was not just merely bereft of virginity, but pregnant by another man. It would mean nothing to Commander Pierce that he was friends with their father or an admirer -the term used loosely- of Jane.

Jane could not let that happen to sweet Eleonor!

Her gaze moved to her father. He was looking at her, his gaze steady. He wasn’t angry.

He was furious.

“Father, I-”

“You what, Jane?”

Jane’s heart began to beat fast. There was a thundering in her ears. She tried to calm herself, tried to make her words even when she said, “I do not know what the commander has told you-”

“That I am harboring whoredom,” her father replied with vitriol. “The commander has told me that here, in my house, I have been living with girls that are intent on bringing shame to me, despite my feeding them, clothing them, catering to their every whim and fancy. Despite my toil, I have bred committers and coverers of fornication.”

Later on, she would mull over how flawed his speech was, for he had never catered to their whims and fancies. Even Eleonor, whom he clearly loved more, could not make requests of him without first weighing the consequences.

Now, she rushed to Eleonor’s defense: “Father, it was a mistake. Truly. She did not know!”

“Silence!” her father thundered. “You wish to make me the laughingstock of every English troop that hears it. My name, dragged through slime. All because of you. Everywhere that evil is mentioned, you are bound to be tied to it.”


“It was you who encouraged her to sin. You are a sinner, and that is not enough. You want to drag everyone that you can into the mire with you. You introduced your sister to sin, and now that it has sprouted into a bastard you seek to hide it.”



Every word he said compressed her until she was deflated. But then, if one thought about it critically, Jane had nothing to feel guilty about. She was a virgin, so how could her father accuse her of sin?

“Why did you not bring it to my attention as soon as you knew of it? Why did you choose to hide it instead?”

Jane was silent.

“You fancy yourself a loyal sister, do you not? That is very well. A loyal sister is to be desired, after all. Loyalty goes with sacrifice, does it not?” He looked Jane in the eye, and she shuddered. “So my dear girl, you will sacrifice yourself for the sake of this family.”

Chapter One

A week later

Jane stared at all her belongings in the entire world. They fit into two cases. That was all she had come to possess in her eighteen years on earth. She looked out of the window, at the daises and bluebonnets that bloomed in the square garden downstairs. They were the only beautiful thing about the castle. They had been her mother’s, she’d been told. Her father had kept them for sentimental reasons. Beyond the garden was a field that stretched on as far as the eye could see. She and Eleonor were seldom allowed to go into town, and so almost all their memories were of this castle. She had always wanted to be free of it, and now she would be.

Only, she was stepping into a brand of captivity perhaps even worse than this one. Ever since that day in her father’s office, Commander Pierce had looked at her as though she were property, as though she were conquered land. He’d had the effrontery to put a hand on her waist as he led her out of her father’s office after the deal had been struck. If her father had seen it, he had made no indication of it.

Jane had always thought that she would marry for love, that she would meet a man who understood her and cherished her more than anything in the world. They would have a little house on the countryside. She would fill it with color: saffron walls and curtains the color of the sky and freshly picked flowers for every table.

Instead, her hand was given in exchange for the commander’s silence. She was nothing more than the girls she’d heard about, whose fathers gave them out for drink or cows. Inside, she was quaking. She would do this all over again if it meant that her sister’s secret was safe. Still, Jane was filled with despair.

Ever since she’d told Eleonor what the price for the Commander’s silence was, her sister had withdrawn in what Jane knew was shame and regret. Jane had tried to reach out to her, to reassure her and ease some of her guilt. But she had stayed away, locked in her room, as the life within her grew and grew. Till now, Jane had no idea how the dilemma would be resolved, but she was sure that their father was hatching a plan that would make himself come out on top.

One of the maids entered the room, her steps slow and sorrowful. Her hands were clutched together in front of her. “’Tis time, my lady,” she said. Jane nodded and stepped away from the window. The maid took one case, and another came and took the other. Jane looked around the room and sighed. As she went through the door, her hand lingered on a cold wall. She went to Eleonor’s room and knocked at the door. “Eleonor? Darling? It is time for me to join the commander in Scotland. My cases are packed. They have been taken downstairs. I cannot leave without a goodbye from you. Please.”

She heard nothing, at first, and then she heard the sound of sobbing. “Oh, Eleonor, you cannot do this to me and yourself. Please unlock the door. If we part like this, I shan’t be able to bear it. Eleonor.”

“She simply does not want to see you,” her father said, materializing from around the corner. “She has realized the harm that loving you does to people. And now she must preserve herself from further harm. You must leave immediately.”

Shortly after the commander had found out about Eleonor’s pregnancy, he’d had to return to Scotland to join his countrymen in solidifying the English position on Scottish land. His regiment was camped in an abandoned castle at Loch Lomond. Jane had never heard a good tale about Scotland. To hear everyone tell it, it was a land of illiterate savages who worshipped wood and stone and vehemently refused the efforts of the English to bring them civilization. To crown it all, there was a war going on. Commander Pierce had promised to send two soldiers of his to guide her safely through, but that did not inspire a lot of confidence in Jane. She had met their commander. And weren’t men reflections of their leaders?

“Yes, Father, I will leave,” Jane said. “I just need to say goodbye.” Her throat caught. She turned to Eleanor’s door and banged on it. “I just want to say goodbye, Eleonor.”

Nothing, except the sobs.

“Come on now,” her father said. “You must leave at once.” He took her arm and steered her in the direction of the stairs. They both descended them, and when they got outside, there were tears in Jane’s eyes. Her cases were in the carriage, and a small group of her father’s serfs had gathered around to bid her goodbye. The gardener who tended her mother’s flowers made a way for himself and presented her with a beautiful bunch of white daises. His hair was grey and wild. His shirt had patches in it. His breeches were caked with mud. And yet the open-toothed smile that he gave her as he pressed the flowers into her hands almost broke her.

Your mother would have wanted you to have them,” he said. “She would be so proud of how beautiful and… and brave you have become.”

“Oh,” Jane said, her voice shaking. A fat tear rolled down her right cheek and she quickly wiped it away with her free hand and smiled. “Thank… thank you.”

“Back to work!” her father thundered. Throughout their interaction, he’d hovered by the door, but now it appeared he could not take more of this. They dispersed speedily, and Jane felt as though a part of herself had left her.

“What are you waiting for, then? Get in!” he bellowed at her. She got in the carriage. She had seen that Commander Pierce had assigned two guards to her carriage. They sat up front with the rider, with unsmiling faces and menacing muskets.

“All set, Mr. Marsh?” the rider enquired.

“Yes,” her father replied. “Carry on.”

Jane stared up at the castle with longing. If only Eleonor would just come down and-

“Wait!” she suddenly heard. She whipped her head around. Eleonor was running down the steps. Jane threw open the carriage door and stepped out. Her sister enveloped her in a powerful embrace. When they pulled away, there were tears in their eyes. Eleonor looked like a shadow of herself. Her eyes were sunken. Her hair, which she took great pride in, was tangled. Her skin was sallow. “Oh, Eleonor!” Jane exclaimed. “You mustn’t carry on so. You must be strong. For yourself. For us. For the baby.”

Eleonor nodded and smiled through her tears. “Sometimes I think you were actually meant to be the older sister, but you just dragged your feet, as always, and let me come first.”

Jane laughed.

“You are so wise,” Eleonor said, tucking a tendril of hair behind Jane’s ear. “And brave. And kind. And selfless. I do not deserve you.”


“I owe you everything, Jane. Everything. I will never be able to thank you enough. I am sorry for hiding away like a coward. All the hours we could have spent together… Oh, I have been such a fool.”

“No,” Jane said. “Do not be hard on yourself. Please.”

“I shall visit you as soon as I can. Whether it’s in Scotland or on the surface of the sun. I will find you, Jane. I love you.”

“I love you, Eleonor.” They embraced again.

The coachman snorted. “I don’t mean to interrupt, but time is against us. We must be on our way.”

“Let her go, Eleonor,” their father said. Eleonor obliged, but not before pressing a piece of parchment into Jane’s hands. She gave her a look which made Jane quickly slip it down the sleeve of her gown.

“Read it on your journey,” she whispered. “May Mother’s spirit guide you.”

Jane nodded and got back on the carriage. She shifted the bunch of flowers, so she had more room and turned to her family. “Goodbye, Eleonor.”

Eleonor smiled sadly and waved. “Goodbye, Jane.”

“Goodbye, Father.”

Jane’s father did not even bother to say it back. He turned away and began to walk up the stairs. The carriage began to move. Her last memory of the castle was of her sister waving, her tangled hair billowing in the breeze.


Jane felt a lump form in her throat. She looked outside the carriage, at the green vegetation that they drove past. She could count the number of times she had left the Marsh residence. They were almost always at her Uncle Howard’s prompting. Uncle Howard was not here to hold her hand as he did when she was a child. She was headed for enemy territory, where her only relative would be a man she did not care for.

That was an understatement. She loathed the Commander.

She tried to tame the emotions that were welling up inside her. Her thoughts went far and wide until she developed a headache, and then she fell asleep. When she woke up, she stared out to see that the sun was beginning to set. She dried her tears quickly and unfolded the paper that Eleonor had pressed into her hand. It was Eleonor’s curved handwriting, the rounded R’s, the I’s with what looked like tear drops on top, the G’s and Y’s that invaded the line of words beneath them. And before even reading the letter, Jane knew that she would cherish it forever. Keeping it was, in a way, keeping a part of Eleonor.

She began to read:

My dearest Jane,

I have not the words with which to express how sorry I am for the outturn of events. I have known Father to be callous, but to claim that this last action of his did not shake me to my bones would be to lie. I hate him for what he made you do. And, more importantly, I hate myself for the part I played in it. If I had exercised more discretion, you would not be in this situation.

I am very sorry, Jane. I do hope that one day, you shall find it in your heart to forgive me.

“There is nothing to forgive you for,” Jane whispered to herself, and she continued to read.

I know you are disappointed in me already, and so what harm could a little more disappointment do? I am sorry. I am a wretch, trying to make jokes in this situation. But Jane, I must tell you: The father of my child is Scottish. I know your eyes will grow wide when you read this.

Eleonor was right: Jane’s eyes did go wide.

His name is Ramsay. He has blond hair and blue eyes. He is from a Scottish clan around the border. That is all I know about him.

Do you remember the storm that destroyed all our crop and made Father near-delirious for a week? Recall that I went riding that day. We had no idea that a storm was coming. When I returned, you were sick with worry. You asked how I had managed to weather it out and return. Well, it was Ramsay who saved me, Jane. I was riding through the border when it began. He took me into his his arms and on his horse and then, from there, to a makeshift tent where he had set up camp. Oh, no man had ever been as sweet to me as he was! He gave me the very clothes on his back. He had a broth made for me. He sang me to sleep. We lay together afterward. And it was the most magical thing.

I fell in love with him, Jane. It did not matter that he was a Scot in that moment. We met secretly for a while after that day and when I told him that I was pregnant, he was happy, Jane: truly, he was. There is no way to feign such joy. We planned to run away the next day, but I went to where we had agreed to meet, and he was not there.

Please do not judge me, Sister. I know that we and the Scottish are sworn enemies. But Ramsay was not at all like the Scottish were described to us. He was kind and loyal and very decent, and he looked at me like I was the sun itself. At least, that is what I thought. I see now that I am a fool for trusting him. For he left without any explanation.

Oh Jane, I have caused you so much trouble already, and I would never ask anything more of you if I had a choice. But Jane, do you think you could find it in your heart to try to find him? Please try. He did not tell me his clan for fear of putting me in danger. I know that no one else can find him. You are brave and adventurous and brilliant. Please tell Ramsay of the condition I have found myself in with the duke. Tell him that if he has any of the love he claimed to have for me, he must rescue me from my impending fate, if not for my sake, then for the sake of our child.

Please save me.

Love, Eleonor.

Jane folded the paper carefully and put it beside her on a chair. She removed the neckpiece that her uncle Howard had bought her on her sixteenth birthday. With it, she anchored the paper to the chair.

She then sighed.

It was a huge task that her sister had entrusted her with. She would be new in Scotland. She had no one to help her carry out this assignment. If the attitude he had portrayed before them all these years was anything to go by, she knew that Commander Pierce would not let her simply walk the length and breadth of the country. He seemed the type that did not allow things that he thought he owned out of his sight.

The thought filled her with fear. Her fear transformed into pure terror when she remembered that she would have to perform wifely duties. She had avoided thinking about it this past week in the oblivion that time and space afforded her, but she did not have that luxury anymore.

She had to face her reality.

And it was a grim one indeed.

She looked outside the window and was struck by the freedom of the trees that the carriage whizzed past. They grew as much as soil and sunlight and rain allowed them. No one laide claim to them. She would never have that kind of freedom. Something suddenly caught her eye and her head whipped to the left. There, on the low vegetation, was what appeared to be a boy on a horse. She blinked.

And he was gone.

She could not have imagined it. She inched closer to the window and looked outside it. There was nothing but grass in every direction as far as her eyes could see. She took her eyes away from the window and stared instead at her hands.

Her fate was worse than prison itself.


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Stealing the Highlander’s Bride (Bonus Scene)

He heard her stand and circle around the fire on nearly silent feet and forced himself to lay still. He wanted her to come to him, ached for her to be beside him as she had been hours before, but he wasn’t going to press the issue.

Then she leaned close, and he reached out and pulled her down, pleased when she curled against his chest instead of pulling away or trying to hit him again.

He was tempted to pretend he was still asleep, but she’d know it for a falsehood. And even if his move to bring her down to lie beside him hadn’t told her that, his rapidly swelling manhood surely would. With only the thin, makeshift kilt between them, it was impossible to hide his interest. Not that he cared to. Instead, he opened his eyes and met her earnest gaze, waiting for her to make the next move.

Her voice was whisper soft as she spoke. “Did ye truly feed and care fer me braither while he was captive?”

“Aye.” He saw no reason to try and deny it.

She bit her lip. “Why? He was an enemy o’ the laird ye’d sworn tae serve. In other circumstances, he might have hurt or even killed ye.”

“Anyone might, on the field o’ battle, and I’ve the scars o’ plenty o’ bands o’ mercenaries and bandits tae prove it. As tae why I cared fer Finlay, I couldnae free him, but I had tae give him what help I could. He’s yer braither.”

He saw tears in her eyes at the honesty of his answer and had to restrain the urge to lean forward and kiss them away. “But why would ye care?”

“Because I always cared fer ye, even when I was fool enough tae be the cause o’ yer pain. And I couldnae help but dae anything possible tae help ease any hurt ye might suffer. Me heart wouldnae allow otherwise, even if ye hated me fer it.” That too was truth, and as close to an apology as he would give her for how he’d reacted during their flight from Luke and his men.

Reyna reached up and laid one hand across his face. “I understand, and I forgive ye.”

Before he could answer her, she stretched up and pressed the full length of her body against his, then molded her lips to his and kissed him as passionately as she’d raged at him earlier. Blake grunted against her, his body stiffening as he fought to control his responses. He wanted her, oh how he wanted her, but he’d not go any faster or further than she would accept. Not even if controlling himself meant he’d need another dip in the loch.

Her hand trailed sensuously down his chest until it touched the tartan, then drifted lower, until she could cup the growing bulge underneath it. Blake bit his lip, helpless to stop the sound he made and the reaction of his body as she artlessly drove him mad with her hands alone.

She pulled back and looked into his eyes. “I forgive ye, and gods help me, but I never stopped loving ye, Blake Sinclair. And now…”

She shifted to whisper directly into his ear, her warm, sweet breath a temptation all its own, “I want tae have all o’ ye, and all the pleasure yer touch promised me last night.”

Blake groaned, his honor warring with his desire to give her exactly what she asked him for. “Reyna, lass… if we start this… I willnae be able tae stop.”

“I dinnae want ye tae.”

It was difficult to control his breathing or keep himself from crushing her to him and taking her like a barbarian right then and there. “Ye have tae be sure. It cannae be taken back, if I claim ye. Ye cannae decide ye’re too angered tae remain with me later. If ye come tae me taenight and welcome me, then ye’re mine forever.”

“That’s what I want.”

She kissed him again, then slid her hand between their two bodies once again and pressed her against his hardening manhood. She rubbed gently, and Blake felt his control evaporate like rain on a burning hearth.

With one smooth motion, he rolled them both over so that he was crouched over her, his thighs on either side of her hips and his hands to either side of her head. Even with desire singing like flames in his blood and his manhood painfully hard and begging for release and the pleasure of her body, he was careful to be gentle as he laid her back against his blankets and looked down into her glittering eyes.

Her face was open, welcoming, and her hands reached for him without hesitation. A part of him screamed to ask her again, that she couldn’t want this, couldn’t want to taint herself with the touch of a man accused of murder and betrayal, scarred inside and out. But it was a distant feeling, and Reyna in his arms was too real to ignore or deny.

He leaned down to kiss her again, hungry for the taste of her. He used one hand to support him, while his other tangled in the laces of her bodice and undid them, then dropped to the fastening of her skirt. He dragged the belt free, feeling clumsy as a boy with his first woman, then sat up.

His voice was hoarse when he spoke. “Sit up, Reyna, and let me see ye.”

She did, and he drew the shirt slowly and sensually over her head. Her eyes were wide as he bared her body, and she looked suddenly shy as he took his time admiring the soft, creamy skin on display, and the way the wind teased her nipples into hardened peaks, begging for his touch and his mouth to engulf them.

“Beautiful.” Blake guided her to lie back, her shirt now serving as a makeshift pillow as he caressed her sides. She shivered as his warm hands smoothed over her belly and dropped to her hips. He wondered if it was nervousness or desire, or merely cold that made her tremble. He longed to chase fear and cold away, and lift her to the heights of desire, and forced himself to go slowly. His Reyna was a maiden, and he’d make it as pleasant as possible for her, even if the effort made him want to collapse under the strain.

Slowly he drew the skirt down, the cloth sliding over her sex and her hips, before gliding down her legs. The dim firelight glimmered on the curls that adorned her sex, and he was pleased to see they were already damp. Even uncertain and inexperienced, she was already damp and waiting for him. He wanted to lean down and taste her, as he had the night before. He wanted to lick her clean, then give her more pleasure until she was wet and gasping for him all over again.

Gods above, but she was beautiful. The most glorious thing he’d ever seen in his life. If ever a goddess came down to earth, she would look, and smell, and taste like his Reyna. The scent of her was all around him, and his lips tingled with the memory of her sweetness.

Now she was completely exposed to his gaze, and he let his eyes feast, drinking in every inch of her creamy looking skin, accented by the rose color of her lips and her breasts, and the soft, darker patch of short hair that adorned the junction of her thighs and her soft, feminine sex.

Blake set her skirt aside and stared at her, hardly daring to do more than stare, lest he frighten her or embarrass himself. She blushed, then abruptly reached out and grabbed at the length of tartan around his hips and tugged. A moment of effort and the knots came free. The cloth fell away to reveal his member, already hard and thick in the firelight. Blake nearly sighed in relief, even as the cold air on his shaft made him ache all the more.

Reyna gasped at the sight of him. Blake chuckled again as he leaned down to cover her. “Dinnae fret lass. Just trust me.”

I’ll have tae be careful with her. Ferr all her bold words and actions, she’s nae ever done this afore. I’m her first lover, and if I have aught tae say about it, her last. ‘Tis important tae let her enjoy the experience.

Her thigh was soft against his member, driving him nearly to distraction, as he lowered himself and began to kiss a slow, lazy trail from her earlobe, down the line of her neck to the hollow of her throat, before he bent lower and took one breast into his mouth, suckling and nipping until she was writhing beneath him. She tasted honey-sweet with hints of flowers and sunshine and something that was just Reyna, and he took his time in savoring each taste, and each noise she made as he teased her.

He wanted to know every sound she made when she was in the throws of pleasure. He wanted to hear every gasp, every sigh, and every cry. He wanted to feel her quiver as she screamed his name, and the sound she made when she was beyond even that, so lost in pleasure that even she couldn’t manage any words at all.

Reyna gasped when he switched his attention to her other breast, allowing the night wind to provide a chilling contrast to the heat of his mouth and the stimulation offered by his teeth and tongue scraping and licking gently over her.

His chest was pressed to her belly, the firm muscles gently pinning her in place. He felt her move against him, and it was all he could do not to raise himself up to bury the length of his member in her soft, welcoming heat.

Even so, he refused to move too quickly, no matter how his own desire and her voice begged him to.

He slid one of his hands lower, until his palm was caressing her sex, before he shifted his weight and lowered his knee gently to part her thighs. “Open yerself tae me, Reyna.”

His voice was a low, rough growl of desire and command, and he smiled as she opened her legs obediently to his touch and his gaze.

Och, Reyna, me little love. So sweet and open tae me. Gods, I dinnae deserve ye… but I’ll be sure ye have all the joy ye deserve at me hands.

He moved to balance himself between her legs, his erection pressing against the junction of her thigh, tantalizingly close to where he wanted it, and yet achingly far as well.

She shifted, trying to encourage him to enter her, clearly as desperate as he was, but he laughed and shifted low to whisper in her ear. “Nae yet, lass. I’ve waited a long time tae be with ye, and I’ll nae be rushing it fer either o’ us.”

“But… I want… Blake, I need…” her voice was a whimper of need, and he drank it in.

“I ken. Just relax.”

He kissed her again and slid one hand down slowly, tracing the shivering muscles, mapping her body with his touch and making note of every reaction, every twitch and all the little cries and gasps he didn’t think she even knew she was making.

When he reached her navel, he let his fingers scratch lightly around the indentation in her belly, teasing the soft, sensitive flesh. He wanted to dip his head and lick her there, to taste her belly, but she was already on the brink of release, and he wanted the moment to last. There would be other times for that.

His fingers carded gently through the soft, fine hairs of her sex, the short nails scratching lightly to add another level of sensation. It made her squirm and try to arch against his hand, and he bit his lip as the sight of her, writhing under his touch, made his body harden even further. She was so responsive, so open to everything he did… it made him long to feel her around him.

She’s so glorious, so generous in this… how can I fail tae offer her generosity in return? That thought was all that kept him from yielding to the fire that coursed through his veins and cried out for release.

His fingers slipped lower to stroke over the outer lips of her sex, sliding through the dampness of her arousal with a slowness that teased them both, before he gently eased one finger into her.

Reyna gasped, whimpering, as his finger slowly pressed deeper into her, and his thumb caressed the pleasure center he’d used to send her over the edge the night before. Blake held back a groan of his own with effort as he stroked his fingers inside of her, pressing deep inside her inner walls, so that his finger was sheathed in her feminine core. The walls of her channel were wet with desire, hot and tight like a tunnel of arousal-soaked velvet that he longed to explore and bury himself in.

He drew his hand out of her, and slowly licked his finger clean of her fluids, grinning at the pleading expression and the way she arched up, begging without words for his touch. “Ye taste good tae me, did ye ken that?” His hand slid back to her secret places to continue stimulating her as he bent to whisper in her ear. “Like the finest draft straight from Cerridwen’s cauldron… or the sweetest wine from Underhill…”

His hand slid deeper, stroking deep as his hand would allow, deep into her core. When she was stretched enough to be comfortable with that, he gently included a second finger to carefully ease her core open wider. Reyna cried out, pressing into his hand, her momentary discomfort at the unfamiliar sensation lost in the pleasure he was giving her.

Blake slowly but steadily stroked her open, watching her face as he changed the position of his hand slightly with every stroke, he noted what made her whimper, what made her gasp, and what made her cry out and press against him for more. Before long, she was writhing against his hand, whimpering, her back arching as she sought more pleasure and release from him.

He drew his hand back, and she actually cried out as he left her wanting, her expression open and pleading as she squirmed, looking for the stimulation that would grant her release. “Blake…”

“I ken lass.” His voice was a low, rough sound, hoarse with his own desire as he lowered himself over her and aligned his aching shaft with the lips of her sex and pressed gently against her.

Reyna gasped as she felt the pressure of his shaft against her entrance, and he hesitated a moment before he pressed inside her, not wanting to hurt her. She quivered around him, but there was no pain in her face, and when he paused, she whimpered and arched and twisted, trying to take him deeper.

His hands held her in place, keeping her from going too fast, for both their sake. For all his control, the sensation of her hot, soft walls swallowing his manhood was nearly unbearable, and it took all his control to keep from burying himself fully in her heat. The velvety sheath around him offered pleasure beyond anything he had ever experienced or imagined, and every inch was like sliding deeper into paradise.

They both felt it when the tip of his length reached the barrier of her maidenhead within her. Blake froze, shuddering as he did so. His breath was ragged, his sweat falling to sizzle against her heated skin as he bent close once more. “Last chance tae stop me, Reyna love. Once the barrier is breached, there’s nay going back.”

He half expected her to come to her senses and pull away or beg him to stop. He wasn’t sure he could. Instead, she arched into him, trying to get closer. Blake made a low sound in the back of his throat, like a groan and a growl intermingled, then bent to seal his mouth over hers as his member pressed forward and breached the thin barrier of her innocence.

His kiss swallowed her cry of pain and filled his mouth with the taste of salt and her sweetness, both shuddering. He fought to remain still, to give her time to recover.

Then Reyna whimpered against his mouth and arched up against him, pressing closer to bring him deeper within her.

Blake growled again and pressed forward, forcing himself to maintain his slow, smooth glide as he entered her fully. The pain of her maidenhead being taken couldn’t be avoided, but he was determined that she would feel only pleasure from him beyond that.

Finally, he was sheathed fully to the hilt, his groin flush against hers and his bollocks brushing her buttocks as they both breathed in time with one another.

Reyna squirmed against Blake, begging him to move. With a ragged breath, he began to do so, setting up a steady rhythm as he slid out of her and back into her, thrusting steadily and deeply.

Every thrust felt like falling into heaven as her heat and softness engulfed him to the hilt, pulling him so deep that his bollocks caressed her soft, rounded buttocks when he paused. Every withdrawal felt like a loss, begging him to plunge inside her once again.

Blake lost all track of time, of everything save her pleasure and his, the sounds of their mingled breathing and the way they rocked together in harmony, every movement perfect and wonderous beyond anything he could even dream of.

Pleasure and pressure intertwined and spiraled higher, burned hotter, to levels he’d never imagined possible. Reyna writhed around him, pressed against him, gasping with him as they both rose higher on a wave of pleasure.

He was so close. Blake could feel his release coming, the tightness in his loins that heralded his coming. Reyna was quivering, close to her own release as well.

Blake bent his head without warning and took one of her breasts in his mouth, his tongue laving the sensitive flesh before his teeth nipped her gently. As he’d intended, the unexpected sensation flung her over the edge. Reyna stiffened, inner walls clenching down around his manhood as she came undone around him.

The pressure of her velvet heat and the walls of her inner core clamping around him was enough to carry him over as well. Blake stiffened, white heat and stars filling his vision as he climaxed and his rhythm stumbled to a halt and his seed pumped deep into her body,

Her inner walls clenched around him again, and drew a harsh, guttural sound out of him. His fluids mingled with hers, and the tide of their enjoyment swept over them both and wiped away everything in a haze of pleasure.

The aftershocks and heat and light went on forever, leaving him limp and boneless in the aftermath. When he finally regained his senses, their release was cooling between them, and Reyna was cuddled against him, almost fully asleep.

The length of Murray tartan took care of the first problem. Grabbing a blanket ensured that they would be somewhat warm when they woke in the morning. Immediate needs taken care of, he laid down and wrapped his arms around her, then followed her into a sleep full of joyful dreams.


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Stealing the Highlander’s Bride (Preview)


Springtime 1440

“Och, ye didnae see him. He was red-faced with temper one minute, shaking, and the next he went pale as fresh milk. Then he orders me off, and taeday he didnae come down fer breakfast.” Blake Sinclair lifted his head from the makeshift grassy pillow he’d been reclining against, and scowled at the stem of heather he was toying with. He tugged at it in a distracted manner while he tried to ignore his companion’s muffled giggles.

At fourteen summers, nearly fifteen, he’d grown several inches over the past year. He’d enjoyed the extra height, right until his voice had cracked for the first time, sending muffled laughter through everyone listening. And now Reyna Gregor – his childhood friend and the girl he’d slowly fallen in love with over the past few seasons – was laughing at him too, despite the seriousness of the situation he was trying to relate.

Finally, Reyna managed to stifle her laughter, and toppled over lazily to rest her head against his shoulder. “I’m sorry… I dinnae mean tae laugh at ye. But ye cannae think ye’re the cause fer yer faither feeling poorly. Surely ye’ve fought afore.”

“O’ course we have. But never about something like this. About foolish things, like the time I tried tae sneak intae the training yard, five summers ago.” The heather came free of the dirt, and Blake scowled at it, before reaching for another piece.

“Ye mean like the argument ye had with him about riding, after we first met? After ye lost control o’ one o’ his best horses?”

“‘Twas me first-time riding someat other than a half-grown yearling or an elderly training gelding. And I was only eight summers at the time. I did the best I could.”

“Ye let the horse out o’ the main courtyard though, and dinnae pretend it was any sort o’ accident.”

That was true. Blake grimaced. That event wasn’t one he was proud of. He’d wound up holding on for dear life as his horse raced over the moors and fields in an uncontrolled gallop. On the other hand, that wild ride had dropped him at Reyna’s feet, in every sense of the phrase. He’d fallen off right in front of where she’d been picking herbs, and the friendship that had grown from that first meeting gave his next words the ring of sincerity.

“That might be the truth, but I cannae regret it, nae matter how much o’ a scolding me faither gave me when I finally got home.” He sighed and sat up, leaving the heather stems for a handful of flowers that he had made a halfhearted effort at weaving into a flower crown before he resumed absentmindedly shredding them. “Ye’re right that we’ve had our share o’ quarrels, and mayhap I’m tae hot-headed and reckless, as he says, but this wasnae the same. He was angrier, and nae just because o’ some daft thing I did. He was saying me actions were jeopardizing the whole o’ the Sinclair clan, and nae just meself. Tae say naething o’ setting a bad example by me actions. Among other things.”

“And how was this different? What was he referring tae if he wasnae simply angered over something foolhardy ye did?”

“We were arguing about ye.” Blake felt his ears heat and avoided looking at her. “He found out I’d been sneaking out tae meet with ye, and ye ken how he feels about any sort o’ speech between our clans.”

Reyna scowled. “Aye. I ken he and me faither are nae on speaking terms since me grandfaither passed away. Though me faither willnae say what it is that caused the rift between them. All he’ll say is that Leith Sinclair insulted him and refused tae take it back.”

Blake grimaced. He’d heard something similar when he was younger, but after last night’s argument, he suspected he knew the real reason the clans were at an armed truce with each other. “Aye. He didnae ken I was meeting ye, but somehow he found out, and he was right furious. Confronted me at supper, in front o’ the entire clan, including the Elders. Said I was defying a direct order, and if I didnae stop seeing ye, there’d be consequences.”

Reyna gave him a sideways look. “And still, here ye are.”

“O’ course I am.” Blake returned her stare with an indignant one of his own, barely even noticing how his voice cracked again. “I’ll nae let any man tell me what friends tae have.” He flushed again.

“And that’s all I am tae ye?” She gave him a look that made him wince. “Just yer friend?”

“Ye ken it’s more than that. Otherwise, I wouldnae be set on defying him when he tries tae convince me tae speak tae lasses from other clans. He’s been wanting me tae secure the clan a strong alliance and has been talking marriage proposals. I said he could try tae plan a marriage and pick a lass fer me if he liked, but he might as well ken now that I’ll choose who I want tae wed, whether he agrees or nae. I’ll nae spend me life with someone I cannae care fer, especially when me heart’s given tae ye already.”

Reyna’s eyes were wide, slightly pleading as they met his. “Ye want me? Truly? Ye really care fer me enough tae defy yer faither, and mayhap mine?”

“O’ course I dae. Ye should ken that, since it’s ye I’m sitting with, and nae one else.” His father, Leith, had been adamant that Reyna Gregor’s clan was neither wealthy enough or powerful enough to be an appropriate match for the heir to the Sinclair clan, but he wasn’t going to tell Reyna that. It would be far too insulting. “I told him tae dip his head in a loch if he thought he was going tae stop me from seeing ye as I liked.” He flushed a deeper red. “I mean…”

“I kent what ye meant, ye daft idiot.” Reyna retorted. “And at least ye have a choice about it. Ye’re nae a girl.”

Her sharp tone dragged his eyes from the heather to her. “Is there something wrong, Reyna? Has someone said someat tae ye?” He’d always thought she’d be safe, given that she had a brother who was heir to the clan.

“Me faither’s talking about marrying me off tae some laird or laird’s son, as soon as he finds one he approves o’, claiming as kinfolk. I’ve seen messages with the Murray Clan seal on them, and I dinnae trust what he’s thinking in regard tae them.” She shivered. “I’ve heard word he’s looking fer a wife, but nae a woman will have him because he has a beastly temper. The fact that he’s sending letters tae me faither, despite the ill-will between them…”

“Doesnae mean a thing, save that he might be as mad as he is bad-tempered.” Blake scowled, even as he wrapped his arm around her to comfort her. “The Murray-Gregor feud’s been going on fer centuries, and it’s a blood feud tae. Yer faither would never consider giving ye away tae him, nae matter how Laird Murray tried tae convince him it was a way tae end the enmity between yer clans. He kens as well as I dae, better mayhap, that old Laird Oran’s as like tae murder ye as marry ye. And ye and I both ken he loves ye tae much tae risk it, even if Laird Murray offered him a thousand years o’ peace, most o’ their lands, and all the gold in the Murray clan coffers.” He kissed her forehead. “Besides, Clan Gregor may nae be the biggest, but yer strong enough tae stand yer ground, and yer braither’s nae a weakling. Clan Gregor will be standing strong long after Oran Murray and his temper are dust on the Highlands.”

Reyna laughed a little at his vehement declaration. “I ken that. And I’ve said as much tae me faither whenever he brings up marrying me tae another clan tae strengthen our borders, but he likes tae hear arguments from me as much as yer faither likes tae hear them from ye. I’ve told him I’m tae young as well, that if me braither isnae old enough tae be a warrior, then I’m tae young tae be a wife. He didnae like that either.” Reyna looked as if she’d swallowed a thistle.

The sight of her indignation filled Blake with mixed feelings of protectiveness, anger on her behalf, and a sense of affection. He grinned and reached out to wrap an arm around her shoulders. “Och, well, even if ye happen tae get sent off tae Clan Murray, I’ll be more than happy tae come get ye.” He smirked at the flowers and heather that Reyna had slowly been accumulating in a basket at her side. “After all what would I dae without me little witch tae offer me tinctures and tisanes and teas fer everything that might be ailing me?”

“I’m nae a witch.” Reyna huffed the words in exasperation, but she was smiling. “’Tis only medicine and herbs, like the wise women and the healers gather.”

Blake chuckled, his own mood easing. “I ken, I ken. But it willnae change the way I think o’ ye.” He dug into a pouch on his belt. “But never mind that. Ye’ve given me so many flowers and herbs, I thought it might be proper tae give ye one in return.”

“Nae that heather ye’ve been mangling, I hope?” Reyna eyed him.

Blake shook his head, and took one of her hands, pressing the object he’d fished out of his belt into her hand. “It’s nae. It’s nae a flower ye can put in a medicine, but it willnae wilt or go bad, either.”

Reyna studied the thin metal flower, suspended from a thin leather cord. “’Tis pretty. Where did ye find it?”

Blake flushed again and looked away from her bright expression. “Och, well, I had some time tae meself, and I started watching the village blacksmith. When he caught me watching, he offered tae teach me someat o’ the basics – said it was a good skill tae have, fer an emergency shoeing on the road, if naught else.”

“A horseshoe nail isnae a flower.” Her voice sounded amused.

“One thing led tae another… I have a bit o’ skill, and the blacksmith had some spare bits o’ metal lying about… and I wanted tae make ye something”

“It’s beautiful.” She lifted it and slipped the leather cord over her neck with a brilliant smile. “And I like it all the better now that I ken ye made it fer me.”

“It’s a promise, as well as a gift. I’ll dae me best tae change me faither’s mind and get his blessing. Tae court ye if I cannae convince him o’ more. I promise, I’ll make sure we’re both safe, and free tae marry as we like.”

Reyna’s eyes shone like stars as she leaned against his shoulder. “Ye give me yer word?”

“Me word as a Sinclair.”

Anything else he might have said, or any reply she might have made, was interrupted by the sound of hooves approaching rapidly. They were coming from the direction of Sinclair lands, following the same path Blake had ridden hours before.

Blake rolled to his feet, one hand on is dagger as the rider came into sight and splashed across the rill that divided their meadow from the main Sinclair lands. Reyna came to her feet beside him.

The rider came closer, and Blake relaxed a little as he recognized his cousin Hutch. “Och. Nae need tae fret. ‘Tis only me cousin.”

Hutch rode up, and Blake felt a slow, churning feeling of unease begin to creep through him. Hutch’s face was grim and pale, and his horse showed signs of hard riding. He was also carrying saddle bags, more than he could possibly have needed. “Blake. I’ve been looking everywhere fer ye. If I didnae ken ye liked tae meet yer lass here, I’d never have thought tae come this way, or this far.”

“Aye. But if ye kent that, ye might ken I wouldnae want tae be found.”

Hutch shook his head. “And I’d nae come looking, but ye’re needed back at Sinclair Castle. Yer faither collapsed.”

The temperature of the meadow seemed to fall, as if he’d been doused in icy water. “What are ye…?”

Hutch frowned. “I cannae say more than that. I only ken ye need tae come with me.”

He couldn’t think. Couldn’t move. It didn’t make sense. He’d known his father was unwell, but collapsing? Their argument couldn’t have upset him that much.

Suddenly, small hands slammed into his shoulders and shoved him toward his horse, which was grazing nearby. “Get back tae yer family, ye great lout. Ye’re needed.” Reyna stared at him with sharp eyes. She turned and darted away, toward her own horse, before he could say anything.

At least she’d managed to shock him out of his frozen state. Blake sprang after her and caught her arm. “Reyna, wait!” She swung around. “I dinnae ken what’s wrong, but…”

He took a deep breath, then bent to kiss her lightly. “Come back tae this spot, this same time taemorrow..” With another quick, chaste kiss, Blake darted away, to where Hutch was waiting impatiently.

Blake swung into the saddle of his own horse. He waited just long enough to see Reyna’s bay mare disappear on the far side of the meadow before he turned away and nudged it into a trot beside his cousin. “Does the healer have any idea what happened? Is Faither ill? Will he be getting better? When?”

“He willnae be getting better.” Hutch waited until they’d entered a stand of trees by the road, then abruptly nudged his horse forward, and swung it around to block Blake’s.

Blake pulled his horse to a stop in surprise. “What are ye saying?”

Hutch shook his head. “I didnae want tae say anything in front o’ the lass, but yer faither didnae just collapse. He’s dead. By the time the maid found him, it was tae late. He’d passed on.”

Blake reeled in the saddle. “Me faither’s dead…”

“Aye, and I wish that were all o’ it. Or even the first o’ it.” Hutch reached out to grab his arm. “I’m sorry, Blake, but the healer said he’d been poisoned. And mayhap the last dose wasnae the first.”

The cold feeling came back, fierce and sharp like ice in his gut and his bowels. “Poisoned? With what?”

“I didnae stay around long enough tae hear. Blake… I… I wish I didnae have tae be the one tae tell ye this, but…” Hutch’s face twisted. “Och, cousin, I’m truly sorry, but the truth o’ the matter is, they’re after thinking ye were the one that poisoned him.”

The ice turned into a sword, lancing through his heart, and for a moment he could hear nothing save a roaring storm in his ears. He forced it back and held onto the saddle and reins with hands that were white-knuckled from the strain. “What? Ye cannae be serious.”

“I wish I werenae. But there’s the truth o’ it. After yer fight last night, there’s folk saying ye were angered with his refusal tae let ye see yer lass, and tired o’ being the heir instead o’ the laird. They’re saying ye were hoping nae one would realize. I’ve even heard folk saying they’re surprised it didnae happen sooner, the way ye’ve always seemed tae be close one moment and fighting the next. And since ye’ve nae been seen since this morn, there’s folk saying ye always planned on being away and pretending tae ken naething o’ the matter, or worse, that ye’re a coward who decided tae flee afore ye had tae face justice.”

Breakfast and lunch both threatened to reappear. Blake swallowed hard. “I have tae go back, tae explain tae the Elders, tae yer faither… I have tae tell them the truth.”

Hutch shook him once, then twice. “Think, Blake. What proof have ye o’ yer claims? Ye’re kent tae spend time with a girl who’s always after mixing teas and the like. Ye were fighting with the laird last night, and ye nearly came tae blows with the man. And ye’re the heir. With yer faither passed away, ‘tis down tae ye and me faither tae tae’ the mantle o’ the laird. And ye can guess what me faither thinks about the whole matter. His temper’s up, and he’s fair out fer blood. Ye really think it willnae be yers, with the way things look right now?”

His own uncle thought he’d killed his father. He swallowed hard. “What o’ me maither?”

Hutch shook his head. “Dinnae ken. So far as I heard, she’s tae far in shock and mourning tae speak one way or the other.”

He didn’t want to believe anyone could think such things of him. And yet, he had argued with his father in full view of the clan the night before. And anyone who knew Reyna would know she had an interest in herbs of all kinds. It was also no secret that her father and his had argued and had a hostile truce that was just short of feuding. Or that his father disapproved of his relationship with Reyna.

With a sick, sinking feeling, Blake realized what Hutch had truly come out to tell him. The clan believed he’d murdered his own father. Not only that, they thought he’d killed his own laird. If he went home, he’d face the Clan Elders, and his uncle, with little or no way to convince them of his innocence. After all, they could say he’d left the castle that morning to try and avoid suspicion by being elsewhere.

Kin-killing was a crime that carried a sentence of banishment, at best, unless the person who died was known to be a danger to the clan or close family. Killing a laird though, was something that could see you put to the sword unless the laird was a proven problem for the clan, or he was killed in a feud or an honor duel. Poisoning though, would be considered dishonorable and cowardly, even in the best of circumstances.

Putting all those together… Blake felt his stomach lurch and he came perilously close to throwing up again. “If I go back, they’ll put me tae death. With nay proof I didnae dae it, they’ll find me guilty likely as nae, and nae even the Fair Folk could keep me head attached tae me neck. I’m nae even sure an act o’ God could dae it.”

“I ken. And I’m sorry fer ye. I believe ye’re innocent, Blake, but one lad’s word willnae count fer much. Especially since I came tae find ye and warn ye, instead o’ telling the clan guards where I thought ye were.” Hutch dismounted and went to rummage behind a tree. He emerged with extra packs that bulged with clothing, a heavy-looking purse, and Blake’s weapons.

Blake shuddered, and tried to think as he took the things Hutch handed to him and set them in their proper places with practiced precision. “What dae I dae?” He suddenly felt much younger than his fourteen years. “What can I dae?”

Hutch reached up and tugged free two of the saddle packs slung across his horse’s hindquarters. He passed them over, and Blake took them with shaking hands. He tried to stop the tremors passing through him, but he could barely breathe, let alone exert any sort of control over his limbs.

Hutch’s next words fell like blows from a warrior in the training yard. “Ye need tae leave. Go somewhere, anywhere but back tae Sinclair Castle. Write me when ye find a place, and I’ll stay in touch with ye. I’ll look fer proof that ye didnae dae this, and once I’ve found it, ye can come home again.”

His choices were to be executed or banished, and that was no choice at all. Dead, he’d never get a chance to prove his innocence, or regain his honor.

If proof were easy tae find, they’d nae think I was the killer in the first place. And Hutch isnae much older than me. He won’t be able tae dae much or stand up against the elders. It might be years afore I can come home. And even then, it willnae be the same. Me faither is dead.

He wanted to curl up and cry until he had no more tears left. He wanted to throw up more than he had when he’d snuck a bottle of his father’s mead during the Harvest fest the year before.

Neither of those were options. Hutch was right. He needed to get far away from the Sinclair clan, before someone else came after him. The next member of the clan who found him might not be as sympathetic as Hutch.

He swallowed hard and forced his emotions down. “Ye’re right. I need tae be gone. And the sooner I take tae the road, the farther gone I’ll be when the rest o’ the clan comes looking fer me.” He hesitated. “Will ye tell me maither, please, that it’s nae true? Tell her… convince her if ye can, that I didnae kill me faither? And tell her I’ll come back as soon as I can prove the truth o’ it.”

“Ye ken I will.” Hutch nodded. “And I’ll look after her like me own.”

He gave Hutch a quick, hard clasp of the arm, which his cousin returned. “Thank ye fer that, and fer coming tae find me, fer believing in me, and fer helping me get tae safety.”

“Ye’re welcome. Be safe, cousin.” After a last, lingering look, Hutch released him and turned his horse back toward Sinclair Castle.

Blake watched until his cousin was out of sight, then resolutely turned his own horse in the opposite direction. As much as it broke his heart, he couldn’t afford to linger.

And he couldn’t take the chance of going to see Reyna, not even to tell her what had happened. Not even to keep his word. Someone would surely look for him there, and it would be worse for the both of them if he was anywhere within the Gregor lands when they came looking.

Blake gave a soft, bitter laugh. How ironic that he’d given his word as a Sinclair to come back for her. He was no longer a Sinclair and did not even have the meager satisfaction of being able to keep the last promise he had made as a member of his birth clan.

He was on his own, with nothing save his grief and his regrets to follow him into exile.

Chapter One

Springtime, 1450

Ten years later

Reyna Gregor stared at the meadow, one hand tangled in the worn leather cord about her neck as she watched the heather sway in the light spring breeze that danced through the moorland grasses. For years, this place had been her refuge, and a place where she’d made some of her happiest memories. After today, she might never see it again.

When Blake had disappeared, and they’d received word that he’d been exiled, she’d come to the meadow every day for a year, until she could no longer ignore the bitter truth. Blake Sinclair was gone, in every sense of the word, and he would never come back.

Her hand tensed around the flower. The cord dug into her neck as she tugged. She imagined the cord breaking, imagined the frayed strands and the weathered metal flower flying through the air to disappear forever among the heather.

“Reyna. There ye are.”

Reyna stuffed the necklace under top of her dress, dropped her hand, and turned to see her sister-by-marriage, Tessa, wading through the long, thick grass. Tessa’s movement was somewhat hampered by the soft rounding of her belly, evidence of the child she carried within. For a moment, she was tempted to reach out and help Tessa to her side, but she knew from experience that her brother’s wife was an independent woman. Instead, she settled for a worried look. “Should ye be riding in yer condition?”

Tessa made her way to Reyna’s side with a heavy grace that Reyna envied. “I’m well enough. ‘Tis early days yet, and the healer says the babe and I are fair healthy enough.”

Tessa’s gaze drifted over the meadow. “I was wondering where ye might have gone. I should have kent ye’d be here, though I dinnae ken why, as ye left yer herb-gathering basket at home. I thought ye’d stopped coming here years ago.”

“I ken. But I only wanted tae come tae enjoy the peace, afore I have tae leave fer Murray Keep.”

Tessa nodded. “I understand. Though I dae wish ye’d choose a meadow closer tae the castle tae find yer peace.”

Reyna offered her sister-by-marriage an apologetic smile. “Aye. I ken full well ye’re nae the only one who’s exasperated by me habit o’ coming out here. But…” She trailed off.

“But it’s where yer memories o’ Blake Sinclair are, and ye have the same questions I dae about what happened tae the lad.”

Reyna nodded, glad Tessa understood. She’d tried to explain her feelings more than once to her brother and her father. Neither of them had ever listened. Not since the message from Clan Sinclair saying that the former laird was dead, his son had abandoned the clan and been declared an exile for his shameful behavior. That was all she’d been told, and all she’d ever been able to learn. Even after ten years, she still had no idea why Blake had been exiled, or how his father had died.

She had no idea where Blake had gone. And even less idea why he had never come to see her, never even sent word about what had happened. She’d sent a request for more information to the cousin who’d come to the meadow the last day she’d seen him, but she’d never received a response.

And now, it no longer mattered. In a few short hours, she’d be on her way to her new betrothed. She’d never have another chance to find out what had happened to the boy she’d once admired. The boy she loved.

“Reyna?” Tessa’s voice interrupted her thoughts.

“Sorry. I’m coming.” Reyna turned away from the meadow. “I was just saying farewell tae some old memories. The last o’ me childhood, I suppose.”

Tessa’s expression turned regretful, and her arm curled around to cradle the swell of her belly. “I’m fair sorry, Reyna… I ken ye never wanted tae marry someone like Laird Oran Murray.”

“I didnae. And I dinnae even still. But it doesnae matter, does it? I’ve kent since I was a child that he was after marriage tae get himself an heir, since he has nay sons. I just didnae think he’d ever be daft enough tae try and claim me hand, with the feud between our clans, or that he’d stoop tae such cowardly measures tae get what he wants.”

To her surprise and regret, she saw tears beginning to slide down Tessa’s face. She hurried to wrap an arm around her sister-by-marriage to offer her comfort. “Dinnae fret. I’ll be well enough, and I’ve had plenty o’ time tae come tae terms with it. Besides, I’d dae fair worse than get married tae a man I dinnae love tae see Finlay back at me faither’s side, and yers.”

She reached out and laid a gentle hand above Tessa’s. The child was too small yet to move much, but Reyna imagined she could sense the life growing inside her brother’s wife anyway. “Yer bairn needs a faither, ye need yer husband, and me faither needs his heir. ‘Tis well worth a wedding, even tae Laird Oran Murray, tae get him back.”

Nearly a season ago, Oran Murray’s men had ambushed and kidnapped her brother and taken him hostage. With her father’s only heir in his dungeon, Laird Murray had informed her father that he’d only trade Finlay for the chance of an heir of his own, and a marriage alliance to bring an end to the feud between the clans.

Tessa’s brow furrowed, then she spat out a curse that would have made some of the soldiers Reyna knew flush to hear. “Laird Oran Murray’s a craven, cowardly, dishonorable wretch o’ a man, too foul and twisted tae even be called a bastard. And I hate that he managed tae take Finlay prisoner tae force yer faither tae agree tae this.”

Reyna laughed, but she couldn’t help but wonder if Tessa’s anger was coming from more than missing her husband and worrying over her bairn. She took a deep breath. “Laird Oran’s man has arrived?”

Tessa nodded, her expression going soft with regret. “Aye. Arrived just afore I came tae get ye.”

“Then ‘tis best tae nae keep the man waiting.” Reyna helped Tessa into the saddle of her horse, then swung up into the seat of her own. Her bags were already packed and waiting back at Gregor Keep. No doubt her father would have them in the front hall and prepared for loading onto the horses.

She could only hope that whoever Laird Murray had sent to collect her wasn’t too much of a brute.


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

Sleeping with her Highland Enemy (Bonus Scene)

Duncan deepened the kiss, hoping that with her hands on his chest, she could feel the hammering of his heart. His sincerity.

“Please dinnae leave,” he muttered.

Her face relaxed, a wispy smile curling that beautiful mouth. But a moment later, her expression turned sad . “How can ye ask that of me?” she muttered on his lips. “Ye are engaged tae someone else.”

Duncan shook his head, words crashing from his lips like an unrelenting wave. He had to make her understand. She was vital to him.

“Me faither is ill. ‘Tis why this is delicate, and why I need yer time. This engagement came as a surprise an’ I couldnae immediately refuse, because our faither’s are close friends and they are our allies. We are in the middle of a war and I have a responsibility toward the clan, not just me family. Once I have found a way that will suit both clans, I will make it right by ye. Please tell me ye understand. Ye’re nae taken fer granted an’ this isnae an afterthought.”

Duncan watched a myriad of emotions flit past her face. That alone, gave him some hope. If she did not want him entirely, she would not need time to consider it. Still, his nerves were in painful knots, as he waited for her response. He could not push her. He-

She reached up and kissed him. Duncan was stunned. The flavors from her mouth, imploded inside him, igniting a heat he’d kept restrained for so long. He groaned deep in his throat, then slipped his arms around her waist. Duncan explored every inch of her mouth, trailing his tongue along a pointy little tooth she had.

Her body juddered against his, soft where he was hard. He drowned in the feel of her breasts rising and falling on his chest as she panted her need. He wanted to hear how she sounded. He had to know if she missed this contact the way he did.

“Tell me ye missed as much as I did.”

She gave a tiny laugh, “I didnae.”

Duncan chuckled. He sucked the corner of her lips, sinking in his teeth into the plushness. She gasped and he thrust his tongue inside again. “Sure,” Duncan said.

She made this small sound in her throat, a cry for his touch. “I dinnae think about ye,” she rasped.

“Aye,” Duncan concurred with a groan. He was fired up by her slightly husky voice. He lifted her off the ground, and she wrapped her legs around him, bringing the heat of her center to his abdomen. She touched his neck and his face, her fingers fluttering down, like she couldn’t get enough. Duncan jolted, and she kissed him with a frenzied desperation that fueled him.

Gently, he placed her on the bed and braced his hands on either sides of her, between her legs. He looked down at her. His throat tightened from the vision before him. Her deep brown eyes encased by lustrous lashes gazed back at him. Rosy lips softened by his kisses, beckoned to him.

“So beautiful,” he muttered.

He leaned down and pressed his lips to her jaw, her neck, the swell of her cleavage. Duncan looked at the woman, wondering how he could ever let her go. He could never let her go.

He took her lips gently, pouring the love suffusing his heart into it. She moaned his name softly, her fingers digging into his hair. Duncan wanted to see her shatter before him, just as she had in the camp. He would have never guessed that the lass possessed such passionate fire.

He kissed down her chest, breezed past that full cleavage. She’d been with no one else, he had to respect that. He would satisfy her and stop. He lifted her skirts, running his lips down her thighs. He stopped at her knees, and kissed the soft underside.

Her legs trembled and he smiled, “I see ye remember.”

Their night in the camp.

His mouth dried as he thought of it. Back then, he’d not seen her fully without clothes. His erection jerked at the image.

She moved her legs and Duncan threw caution to the winds. He massaged downwards, past her calves then under her feet. She uttered a long, sweet moan of relief. He repeated the move, knowing that it relieved her tension and watched her.

She hid her face behind her arm.

“I want tae see yer eyes darken from me touch. I want tae see ye, all of ye.”

“I thought ye’d ne’er ask,” she replied in a sultry tone.

Duncan had to control his hands, as he drew on the rope around her blouse. He really enjoyed hearing her speak in that manner.

Her breasts were well-rounded, full and bounced softly when he touched them. He took one hardened nipple in his mouth and swirled his tongue around it. She tugged on his shirt with shaking hands. Duncan wanted to stop her. If she touched him, he wasn’t sure he could continue to restrain himself.

Her fingers flicked along his hot skin and he quickly reconsidered. He could do it, he could feel her skin on his and he would not seek anything further.

He undressed her completely, and watched her eyes go round with appreciation as they took in his appearance.
Her waist was small, yet opened wider to deliciously curved hips. Leaning down, he grabbed those hips but she sat up and took his nipple in her mouth. Decadent pleasure raged in him as her soft mouth worked, her other finger, kneading his second nipple.

Grunting, Duncan took a fistful of her hair, jerking her head up. He devoured her lips, possessing her in the one way he could. That kiss embodied the fact that he could not thrust the raging manhood into her to ease his fire.

It was far from enough. Nearly out of his mind, Duncan brought Jo to her knees on the bed. Swiftly, he inserted his member between her legs, right on the moist part of her.

He thrust back and forth, aching to be inside her. Her cries, her hands on his body worsened his need. Duncan had often prided himself on his control. Tonight, it seemed to have fled. He grasped her breast, flicking his thumbs over the nubs.

Jo moved her hips on him, sliding in and out. He was a finished man. Teeth on edge, Duncan allowed her to ride it out. When he was about to release, he lowered her to the bed, afraid that he would scare her.

“Ye want this,” his voice was barely above a whisper.

“Aye, I dae.”

She brought him closer by nudging her legs on his back. Duncan’s member shuddered from the contact with her soft skin. He had to shift back a little, gather himself. She wanted him, but he did not want to hurt her.

His erection faced the bed now, as he kissed her softly. He trailed his fingers down her body, finding heat below. His entire body jerked as she cried out. She slid around his fingers, so seductive and sweet.

“Nice and wet,” Duncan grunted. He thrust that finger into her and she bucked.

So goddamn wet he could only imagine what she’d feel like inside. How she’d fit snugly around him. He pleasured her center, stroking in and out, his thumb working on that pleasure nerve. He reveled in the sounds she made, how she wriggled on the bed.

She gripped the sheets, yanking them up as she thrashed harder. Duncan applied pressure on that singular point, letting her control the waves as they hit her. Her mouth opened, letting out his name in a moaning tone. Her breathing was choppy and heavy, her face rosy with the color of her climax.

“Ye’re magnificent when ye come,” he rasped.

He smiled and withdrew his fingers. He shared her juices between their lips and asked, “want tae see how good ye taste?”

His words shocked her eyes open. “Duncan!” She sucked on his fingers. then pushed him aside. Jo straddled him, opening her wet center on him. Duncan groaned, simply unable push her off though he knew he should. It was too dangerous like this. She reached downwards and stroked herself and Duncan’s eyes blurred. He covered her breasts with his palms, praying for all the restraint he needed.

She shocked him.

Grace knelt between his legs and held his manhood in her slim, soft hands. In them, it felt as though he was extremely massive. He found the sight titillating as his hips bucked off the bed.

“Ye dinnae have tae…” he muttered halfheartedly, attempting to drag her up.

She dodged his touch and swooped down on his manhood, taking as much of his length as she could.

“Gods! That feels good!” he groaned.

She flicked her tongue around the head, caressing with his balls with her other hand. She lowered her head until her eyes started to water and emitted a soft cough. Alarmed, Duncan fought out of his immense sensual haze, “stop, stop…” he said in a voice unrecognizable to him.

She would not listen. Having learned her limit, Jo proceeded to go up and down on him, stopping just short of where her hand grasped him. Sparks shot off in his body.

“Damn… Jo, that…” he mumbled, gathering the sheets in his hands. Her mouth was wet on him, making sloshing sounds as she moved. He was about to lose control.

“I have tae be inside ye. Now.”

He flipped her back on the bed, and readied to thrust his aching member in her. He met that resistance again. It was the perfect reminder. His head blared with the alarm of what he was about to do. “Damn it,” he cussed. “I cannae.”

“Try again,” she said in a strong voice, widening her legs.

He wanted to take some of the pain or at least distract her. He wanted to kneel and thank her. He kissed her gently, muttering, “Dinnae be scared, I willnae hurt ye.”

Muscles on his body grew tight from holding back as he pushed in just the tip. He had barely settled when Jo grabbed his shoulders and bucked her hips.

“Aaah!” she cried.

Duncan froze inside her. Veins throbbed out of control in him. He wanted so much to be gentle. But all his senses were directed at the area of their joining. She was so hot, and fit him to intense perfection.

But she was gritting her teeth. He hurried to slide out but Jo held him in with her legs. “So good…” He thrust in again, embedding himself fully. He could feel every throb inside and outside of her body.

She was his, in every sense that mattered. Gently, his strokes went in and almost out of her. He was afraid of aggravating her pain. He looked down at her face, cradling her cheek with one hand and supporting his weight with another.

Their eyes locked and she leaned into his touch. His heart bloomed with waves of love as he stared down at her. “Are ye hurtin’?”

“Actually, ye’re too slow.”

Duncan chuckled. His fiery princess would say that. He did not want to part with her, so he turned her around carefully, placed a pillow under her waist. He pounded her from the back. Each time, she nudged back her hips, meeting his crazed thrusts with hers.

He sought downwards and stroked her with his fingers, while his member rushed in and out. Soon, Duncan could not control the pace. It was as though a demon had overtaken his hips. His groin slapped against her round buttocks, the sounds of their joining rising higher and higher.

In that second, Jo’s climax rocked her. She arched her back into him, fueling his rampant lust. She twisted around with glazed eyes and puckered her lips. Duncan kissed her and started to move again.

“I dinnae want this tae end,” he rasped.

“Then we’ll dae it again,” she muttered hoarsely.

The words unlocked a beastly part of Duncan. He stopped kissing her, placed his palms on her hips and rotated his member in her. Her warmth, cries and wetness finally drove him off the cliff. He jerked himself out of her and came all over her thighs and the bed.

When he married her, he would pour all of his seed in her. Their children would be conceived under their wedded bliss. His breathing was erratic as he waited for stars to stop glinting across his vision.

He dragged her to him and said, “Ye were talkin’ about doin’ this again.”

Her smaller frame hugged him, laughing, “I doubt if ye can.”

“I’ve created a monster,” Duncan grumbled.

“Havin’ regrets already?” she asked in a soft, fearful voice.

“Never,” Duncan was quick to promise. “Ye are the best thing that has ever happened tae me.”

He felt her smile against his chest. He held her in that position, reveling in her scents. About twenty minutes later, Jo nudged his member with her knee. Duncan became alert again. She rubbed against him like a hungry cat. It was a good that thing that he had an inexhaustible appetite.


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Sleeping with her Highland Enemy (Preview)


Jacobite Rising, 1715

“Caelan!” Duncan roared at the sight of his friend’s body hitting the ground. Storming forward, his broadsword carved a path through the English soldiers bearing down on him. He itched, more than anything, to reach the gloating commander. He stood over the body of Caelan, not only his ally but one of Clan Campbell’s greatest warriors. Now his blood tainted the earth.

Around them, several bodies gave up the fight and hugged the ground, bearing different fatal wounds. Screams of varying degrees pierced the air. Caelan’s chest trembled to produce his last breath.

“Move!” Duncan bellowed at a fellow warrior who lurched to block his path in order to protect his friend. Seeing the blistering fury in Duncan’s charcoal eyes, he fled.

As all wars, this war filled Duncan with anger. Ironically, it started in a pursuit of peace and the restoration of King James. His sword had become an extension of his hands since the start of the Jacobite Rebellion. Blaedy greedy English. If only they would stick to their lands. But no, they had to invade Clan Campbell’s lands. They were Clan Hay’s biggest allies and there was no way Duncan, the heir of Laird Hay himself, would stand by and watch their massacre. He would rather die than let the English scum encroach on what was rightfully theirs. Today, it was Clan Campbell, tomorrow it might be his own.

He arrived at the clearing, where only two soldiers stood, with Caelan’s twitching body at their feet. With the English commander in his sight, Duncan slashed his sword e, eliminating the man’s last protection. Just as he prepared to cover the space between them, another Englishman, pierced a sword into the commander’s back.

Absolute shock washed over the man’s paling face as blood spurted from his mouth. Duncan glanced left and right, but there was no one else to witness the atrocity. Frozen in disbelief, he watched the commander fall to one knee. With effort, the wounded man turned to see the grinning face of his attacker, who laughed in his face. Duncan blinked to be certain that the other attacker was indeed part of the English troops. His gaze fell on what was sticking out of the commander’s back. It was a sgian dubh, and its handle bore a distinct lion’s head crest.

Distaste, bitter as bile, rose within Duncan’s mouth. If there was one thing he despised more than the English, it was disloyalty. Briefly, he contemplated running after the worm who’d just murdered his commander. It would be a way to avenge Caelan’s death too. But as he took the first step, a hand gripped the tail of his kilt. Duncan peered down at the man he’d planned to kill just a few minutes prior. The one who’d murdered his comrade. Unreasonable pity suffused his heart. They had collided in a few battles and, despite being English, Dankworth was a man who fought with honor. Duncan had seen the travesty brought to some clans by the English, women and children left destitute. When this commander was involved, there was nothing of the sort. If his men acted beyond his wishes, they were considered war criminals and executed for harming civilians. The man did not deserve such a pitiful end.

As though he’d applied the last of his strength in drawing Duncan’s attention, his grip loosened, and he started to fall back. Duncan rushed to catch him before he hit the ground. Commander’s bloodshot eyes roved wildly, his mouth opening and closing. The words he was attempting to form got lost in the blood rushing down his jaw.

“’Tis all over now,” Duncan said in gruff tones. He swept his helmet off his head, shaking loose his ginger curls. It was his last respect to the honorable soldier. “Rest.” Duncan’s chest twisted with hate and pity.

The man shook his head and for just a second, something blazed in his eyes. Duncan decided to quit being the fool. He was the enemy. His betrayal by his fellow soldier was a problem in their ranks, not Duncan’s. Still, he couldn’t get his hands to release their hold on his shoulders. Nor could he tear his gaze away from the agony reflected in his suffering face.

Commander John’s lips moved faster, so that Duncan had to abandon his prickling conscience and lean closer.

“G…G…” he sputtered.

“Aye, good night,” Duncan completed though it was high noon.

“Gr…Grace…” the man spat, determination warring with his fading expression.

I dinnae think ye deserve grace, Duncan bit his inner lip from saying the words out loud. Instead, he nodded, bring his ear even closer to the weak lips. “Aye, grace.”

“Danger… help. Please.”

A whoosh of air blasted Duncan’s cheek and he knew, the commander had just exhaled for the last time. A cry rose from his left. He looked to see a hurdle of English soldiers, rushing to his side. In a last gesture of kindness and respect to another fighter, Duncan pressed his hands across the man’s open eyes, wishing him peace. He grabbed the hilt of his broadsword.

However, the commander’s weak grasp tugged at Duncan’s leg once more. But there was no time. Although the soldiers were upon him, his wound was severe. He would not survive it.

“Commander!” One of the men screamed, brandishing his weapon at Duncan. His cry was echoed by the others. “You killed him! You fucking brute!” Looking left and right, Duncan realized that he was indeed alone at this clearing. His comrades were in the thick of the battle. He took several steps back, held up his sword and widened his stance.

Aye, tis a war, Duncan thought, flashing an arrogant, come-hither grin at him. Still, it was dishonorable at best to claim a victory he didn’t earn.

He struck down the closest soldier, and two others in quick succession. “Him? nae!” None of them listened, as he’d expected. “However, I willnae hesitate to end ye all!” The old man’s dying words fled Duncan’s mind as he braved each attack with the anger exploding at his core.

Duncan fought his way out of their midst and rejoined with his warriors much later, but his mind stayed with the commander and his dying words. From a soldier, it could not be mere blathering. Grace… Duncan muttered a while after, as he rounded the number of survivals. Who is Grace?

Chapter One

Dankworth Residence

Two weeks after

“You’re my Grace. Granted by God, to be cherished and loved forever.”

Grace crushed her face into her pillow, drowning it in tears. Her body quivered as those words resounded in her head. Her father’s face, his wide beloved smile, his ever-welcoming arms, his kind voice, his everything.

Scarlett fever was not enough to tear her family apart. It grabbed her mother’s life when she was a mere five years old. A babe left in the care of her father. She could still recall her father’s grief for months. And as Grace grew, she knew why. It had not been easy for her parents to conceive her. When she finally came, everyone thought, surely, the mother could not carry her to term.

Her health had been frail but somehow, Grace was brought into the world. The whispers urging her father to take an illegitimate mistress died. The ones laughing at her mother, quenched. For five years, their little family blossomed. After that, her father stood tall beside her, like an infallible tree guiding her through life.

Only now, he was gone.

Her heart craved his presence, just once more. That one time, she would… what? What could she have possibly done? She had no premonition, other than the persistent dread pounding in her heart. When she saw him off, it was like always, with tears blurring her vision and a prayer on her lips.

“Did you hear me?!” Grace screamed at her ceiling. “Didn’t you hear? Didn’t you hear God? I wanted him back safe!” She shouted, her voice hoarse.

Her maid knocked, but Grace refused to pay mind to her concerned enquiries. She would stay ensconced in her bedchambers, until another messenger arrived. Until the news changed. Until her father’s benevolent voice and warm heart suffused the house with happiness once more.

The maid knocked again. Grace swiped a hand over her face and drew a deep breath. It did nothing to calm her nerves but at least, her heart had stopped thundering. She swallowed a lump gathered in her throat and called, “Come in, Mary.”

She was seated when Mary poked her head in. Trepidation clouded her expression. Everyone treated her like glass ready to break and she couldn’t blame them. She struggled to rein in the storm.

“It is fine,” she said softly.

“I… I could tell the gentlemen that you’re resting. They would not object.”

“No, I have put this off for as long as I can. It is time to face my responsibilities.”

Mary’s eyes clouded and Grace couldn’t bear to look at her. Otherwise, her own tears would come as an unceasing torrential downfall. Mary had come to live with them when she was five, around the same time Grace’s mother had passed. She knew the woman understood her loss more than anyone else. Grace inhaled and placed her palms on the flat surface of the dresser. “I would like a single braid please.”

“Certainly. May I wash your face first?”

Grace gazed at her pale face. Her lips were without color, dark circles surrounded her eyes, her nose was tinged red. The only light in her dark brown eyes came from the lamp, otherwise, they were dull, bloodshot, and lifeless. She was in no mood to face Owen or Ethan. But her father would have wanted her to be strong.

About twenty minutes later, Grace met the men in the main hall. She was draped in a simple black dress, black gloves and a dark veil shielding half her face. Her thick dark hair had been tugged into a single braid down her back.

They rose as she entered. Mr. Williams, her Gaelic teacher, was also present and her eyes warmed as they flickered toward him. Pain reflected in his drooping eyes. Having lost a best friend, the oldest friend he had, made him just as hollow as Grace. He tilted his head, opening his arms to her. Stifling a sob, Grace went to him and hugged him for a shorter time than she liked. Cut short by Owen’s loud cough.

“How are you, my dear?” Mr. Williams asked in a hushed voice.

Grace couldn’t force her lips to rise in a smile. She nodded then looked toward Owen just as a serving girl entered. Owen had one of those faces one forgot very quickly, if not for his nasty attitude, which made him memorable in the longer run. Nasty toward those he considered below his station. Grace supposed it was down to his own lack of confidence.

To the serving girl, he barked, “leave the room. We will call when you are needed.”

She looked to Grace and she gave a slight nod. With a small smile, the girl walked back to the kitchen. Ethan cleared his throat as Grace took the single chair opposite them, which faced the window. It was her father’s favorite. Several nights had been spent within the confines of these cushions, his voice right next to her eyes as he read adventurous stories to her.

Now, she basked in his scent, using that to calm her as Ethan opened his mouth to speak. He was not a bad fellow. Those transparent blue eyes, coal-dark hair and wide shoulders distinguished him among other gentlemen, especially in contrast to Owen’s big nose and black eyes. The women swooned in the presence of the tiny mole above Ethan’s upper lips, composing little poems about kissing it away. In addition, he was her father’s most trusted confidant and second-in-command. A position he had risen to in less than three years.

“Have you been well?” Ethan asked.


“Of course not, Mr. Smith,” Williams said lightly. He’d always liked Ethan, for reasons best known to him. “I think you should proceed to the agenda of the evening.”

“And I think you should know your place,” Owen pranced to Ethan’s needless defense. It was his primary job, other than being a social nuisance, which included bedding as many women as he could.

“Gentlemen, please.” Grace said, curiosity prickling her ears. “I will call for tea…”

“I would prefer something stronger,” Owen interrupted. Grace rang the little bell by her side and the same serving girl reappeared. She repeated the order and when she left, she asked about this agenda.

“No, I just want to know how you are carrying on, dear,” Ethan said softly. Grace’s eyebrows rose. Never had he spoken to her with such an informal affection. Could it be that with the loss of her father, came the disrespect of his subordinates?

“I am well,” she lied.

Ethan took something wrapped in black cloth by his side. Grace frowned at it, then at him. He cleared his voice and rubbed his palms down his legs. “There is no good way to say this.” He slid out the long object and placed it on the table. Slower than a snail, he unwrapped it. Grace stifled her shock as she gazed upon a sharp blade.

Its blade bore caked, brownish blood. The hilt had the face of a lion carved into it. Her breathing became fast as her lungs sought for fast-diminishing air. She blinked rapidly, fighting with everything in her, to hold back tears. That was her father’s blood. On the weapon that’d taken his life.

Ethan cleared his voice once more, waving a hand at the sword while Williams rose to stand by her side. She had requested to see it, yet she could not force herself from the chair to touch it.

“This is a sgian dubh, a Scottish adaga. We found it next to him. I saw your dad at the clearing with another Scottish warrior and I called for reinforcements, but it was too late.”

Grace feels like her breathing stopped for a second. Ethan spoke again.

“However, we recognize the man that was closest to him at the time. He dressed in the colors of clan Hay and the weapon has a lion symbol. During battle, he was the one commanding the Scots and, since we heard that the Laird of the clan himself has been sick for a while now, the man is probably his son.”

Grace clenched her fists in her lap, thinking of that man. The vile person who’d deprived her of her father.

“You should remember that it is war,” Williams said, noticing her clenched fists. Grace disagreed. It was her father, and the person who murdered him did not deserve to share the air with her.

“I found him… we found him… just before…” Ethan paused, closed his eyes and inhaled, in a show to gather his feelings. “Anyway, even in his last moment, he was thinking about you.”

Grace allowed a trembling smile as a single tear slid past her defenses. “Thank you.”

Ethan smiled at her, and Grace could sense that his mood was improving.

“I have another thing to tell you Grace. Good news that will hopefully make you feel better. Of course, I was preparing something more romantic but, due to the circumstances, I believe it is best to let you know. Last time I came to visit your father here before the battle, I asked for your hand and… and he said yes.” her eyes flew to his face.

“What?!” Grace blurted, foregoing all of her training. “That is impossible.” Ethan shrank back as though he’d been slapped. He never thought he would receive such a fervent rejection. She glanced at Williams, wanting to hear that it was a lie. Williams placed a hand on her shoulder for a moment.

“He speaks the truth,” he said quietly.

Grace gripped the arms of the chair, waves of shock rippling through her. “No. My father would never make such arrangements without telling me. He…” She knew he must have had a will, every soldier did. But she knew nothing of its content.

“He would have told you, eventually. While he had his will prepared, Commander was an incredible soldier, so his death was a shock to us.” Owen spoke quickly, his words falling over each other.

“I’ve had enough of this, gentlemen.” Grace said, attempting to get out of her seat.

“Ethan please,” Owen said. “Caution your fiancée before she does something regrettable. You know how women are”

Fiancée? Was it already decided?

Grace had the mind to damn them all to eternity. Only the face of her father helped curb her annoyance. She should have known one of these men would swoop in to take her inheritance. The fact that it was Ethan, however, was beyond disappointing. She had expected more from the man who fought by her father’s side.

She leveled Owen with an icy gaze. “Mr. Owen. I am not a horse to be cautioned by a man. You will speak to me with the decorum I deserve.”

He turned red. In the midst of his tantrum, the serving girl arrived with the drinks. Her eyes flared on seeing the sword. Wordlessly, she placed the tray beside it and walked out. At her departure, Ethan unfolded a piece of paper from his coat pocket.

“This is a document signed by your father, the day I asked for your hand. In it, he declares that it would be a perfect arrangement to have you as my wife. But I want you to know, Miss Dankworth, even without these stipulations, I will make it my priority to see that you are happy and without a single worry.”

Grace made a sudden grab for the paper, “Let me see that.”

Owen slapped down Ethan’s hand, narrowly missing hers, before she could collect it. “Ethan would not lie to you. Have you not known him long enough?”

Grace opened her mouth to rebuke strongly, etiquette be damned. This was her future in discourse. However, it seemed Ethan noted her escalating temper and signaled his lackey to wait outside. Grumbling, Owen grabbed a glass of whisky and did as he was asked. Calmer now, Ethan walked to her and passed the paper.

There it was. Her father’s sloped handwriting and his crescent moon seal. This was not a horrible nightmare she dreamed up in her despair. She looked from one man to the other, her chest rising and falling fast. Whenever she had thought about marriage, she had imagined it to be with a man who made her heart race. Someone whose presence alone wrought a smile from her lips. Someone who she would care deeply for, and who would feel the same. She wanted love, in its purest form and this arrangement robbed her of that privilege.

Ethan, who was almost twice her age, was not in that category. Although he had always had great conduct, both with her father and with her. She had no doubt that he would make some woman happy. But not her.

“It has just been a few days since my father’s burial. I cannot marry you nor do I have the strength to discuss the implications.”

“I understand, Grace, if I may use your name. However, you are aware of the perilous times. I am only allowed a handful of days to mourn the Commander before I am called back to the station. I am afraid we have to proceed quickly. As you know, soldiers cannot predict the length of their lives.”

Grace’s vision swam. “How many days?” her voice came out quieter than the storm clashing in her head.

“Two days.”

Grace made an involuntary sound that was a cross between a squeak and a laugh. She lurched from the chair. “Please, help yourselves. My head… is aching.”

She fled the room. Halfway to her own chamber, she veered towards her father’s study. It would be hard for her to confront the place where he had spent much time, but the situation was dire. Grace locked the door behind her, afraid that she might be seen by Mr. Williams or Ethan. She had to confirm the facts on her own.

Grace knew that her father’s testament was hidden in a locked drawer, since he had told her about it in case she ever needed it. At the time, Grace had not liked the way her father talked about his death, but she could see now that he had just been looking out for her. The key was hidden inside her father’s favorite book, the one he read to her before bed.

Grace’s heart sank as she read the will. In it, her father made it clear that his fortune and properties would be passed on to Grace’s husband after his death, emphasizing the need for her to marry soon so she would be taken care of. In case he died before the marriage, her inheritance would be administered by a man of his utmost trust, Mr. Williams. Grace knew about the will, but she never would have thought he had harbored such plans. She felt trapped by the situation and even worse knowing she would never be able to discuss it with her father. Grace forced herself not to cry again because she had to think clearly. She had to come up with a plan of her own.

In her room, Grace made a beeline to the chest of clothing in the corner, then the wardrobe. Her mind refused to fully understand what had just transpired among her and Ethan. Her father had loved her more than anyone else in the world, of that, she was beyond certain. So she could not understand why he would agree to give her hand in marriage without telling her.

With everything happening, a wedding was the least of her concerns. The killer pervaded her mind, leaving room for little else. Her father should have trusted her capabilities instead of giving her away in such a manner.

Weren’t her knees scraped and her hands calloused from all the training she had received from him? He taught her to be independent, to fight with a sword, ride hard and fast, and more than anything to have her own damned mind. He cherished every single breath she took. Her father’s doting was the very reason why she had to avenge his death. Grace was determined. She would devise a plan that would help her escape the wedding to find the killer.

The sky outside her window had gone dark by the time her attire was complete. She wore a white blouse with puffed sleeves and a wide neckline, a plaid corset, flaring out to a full blue skirt. Her hair was brushed out and cascaded down her back, in luxurious waves.

At a glance, she resembled a highlander lass. From all the books she’d read, blending into their culture would be… well it would have to be like a second skin, which was rather impossible. But she would do her best to fit in, until she found that bastard. Under the dark sky, Grace picked her way through the familiar grounds. As her feet led her toward the stables, Grace’s heart bled. Despite her conviction regarding this forlorn mission, she wept in silence for the home she was deserting.

She hoped her father would understand and forgive if he could see her. At the stables, she reached into her pocket, finding the carrot she’d hidden there. She fed her horse Minnie while keeping a look out for the stablemaster. At this time, he was usually passed out drunk, but one of the hands could come. After Minnie had chewed the last piece, Grace hurried to saddle her. She also hid the money she’d managed to pilfer.

She led her from the stall. Once the fresh air hit her face, a voice floated in with it. “Where are you going?”

Grace jumped, her spirit nearly fleeing from her body in fright. Ensuring that her bag was hidden atop Minnie, she turned to Harris. In the reflection of a full moon, his usual warm smile was missing. She’d grown up without biological siblings, but thanks to Harris she had never felt the absence.

How many times had she and Harris, Mr. William’s son, snuck around enjoying a fun childhood, playing outside with the horses? They had grown up like siblings and yet, she could not count on his help this time.

“Oh bollocks! Harris, you gave me a good fright. Out for a ride, what else? Why are you skulking about? B-back from the station already?”

“My father was worried you’d do something rash.” He looked at her horse, then her odd dress. “Appears he was right.”

“Well, he’s wrong. Did he tell you about the will? I’m to be married to Mr. Smith,” she rushed on without waiting for his reply. “I just need some air. I’ll be back before you know it.”

Concern flickered in his gaze, “I could come with you.”

“Please,” Grace scoffed, waving her arm. “I have a steadier hand than you. I’m fine. Be back before you know it.” She stepped on the saddle and heaved herself up to the seat.

“I just let you think that you have a steadier hand than mine.” He cocked his head to the side, scanning her appearance closely. “Grace, what are you wearing then?” Exasperation filling his voice.

Grace reddened. He might really follow and in turn foil her plans. “My father just died. I don’t want pitying glances and attention. This perfectly conceals who I am.” She forced a jolly tone. “Don’t you think?” She jiggled her shoulders. A hesitant smile lifted Harris’s thin lips. He took a step back.

He nodded once, “In that case, I will wait here until your return. Please don’t be late or I would be forced to follow you.”

Relief flooded Grace as she took a last glance at her dearest friend. She flashed a smile then gave Minnie a light kick. She rode hard into the field separating her home from the road. In a few minutes, it was swallowed by the woods surrounding it. She had one goal. To avenge her father’s death.


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In Love with a Highland Outlaw (Preview)

Chapter One

Troy staggered across the thick, overgrown floor of the forest with one sole focus: staying alive. As the son of a Laird, he had grown up with the hefty weight of many responsibilities thrust onto his shoulders. It was a role that he had been born into, a role that had underlined everything he did. One day he was to lead the Macleod clan, and he wanted to do his father proud. But at that moment, staggering blindly through the undergrowth, there were no castle walls to protect him, and none of his father’s men had been able to get to him in time to help him. All he could do was flee and pray that his father and brother were right behind him as he did so.

Troy grunted, trying his best to remember the many years of training that should have equipped him for such an attack. But he felt like a stag caught out on the glen after dawn, left exposed for the hunters to find.

The trees around him swayed, appearing to bend and meander like water, lurching as though gripped by an invisible wind. He pushed through the densely packed columns of bark, the harsh surface callous against his hands, but also occasionally sticky from leaking sap.

Troy groaned. He stared at his hand which rested on the nearest tree, but the more he focused on it, the more he saw multiple hands. He shook his head, knowing that if he didn’t get help soon, he was going to lose consciousness.

Instead of letting himself panic, he tried to focus on keeping one hand pressed to the wound at his side. It wasn’t as sticky as the trees, but the consistency of blood was unmistakable. His white cotton shirt was saturated down his side. It gaped in the wake of being slashed by a blade, exposing his bare skin to the cool air of the forest. Troy continued pressing his hand to the cut skin, wincing at the contact on the sensitive area. He knew it was for the best to maintain pressure on the wound, though. The scarlet pouring out of him was thick and warm, Troy’s head spun as he staggered to the side. In his disorientated state, he wasn’t sure if it was his body turning, or the world around him.

“Troy! Run!” It was his father’s voice he heard, shouting from behind him. Troy turned to see that both his father, Andrew, and his brother were struggling after him, clutching their own wounds. Sweat was falling into his eyes as he stared at the scene before him. His father and brother were slowly catching up to him, but then Troy saw the two men behind them.

“Run!” He managed to force the word out. His voice was hoarse, like fingernails being scratched on stone.

His brother Douglas was slightly ahead of his father. Propelled forward with the aid of his youthful years still on his side, the strength and stamina in his body prevailed over that of his father’s. Douglas’ cheeks were pinched pink from the cold as well as the strain of running for so long. Troy could hear both of them gasping for air as they ran. Their eyes were wide, their movements desperate. His father was close to giving up. His eyes were closed for longer periods of time as he ran and the gap between him and Douglas was opening up with each step they took.

“Come on!” Troy was calling to them both desperately. He was urging them with his own body to run faster. “Please, they’re nearly upon ye!”

“Ye cannae stand and fight, Troy!” Douglas grunted after him. “Ye have to run too!”

“Aye, but I will nae leave ye!” Troy could hear the panic in his weak voice as his body struggled.

Standing still certainly felt better than running, but the pain in his side was still throbbing.

The men were still in pursuit. Determination filled their bright eyes and their bodies were neither fatigued nor injured. They were catching up.

“Run!” Douglas was pleading with him as they neared where Troy stood.

But it was too late. He heard the sound before they both went down. Troy watched helplessly with wide eyes as his father and brother fell slowly into the overgrowth, shining blades sticking out of both their backs.

“Nay!” It took Troy a moment to realize that he was the one shouting out for them. The cries which rang out around the forest were coming from him. But all he felt was blinding pain. He was sinking to his knees, his legs unable to hold him up as the men continued to advance.

Their sights were now fixed on Troy, the only one still alive. He no longer cared for his own life. Grief was sinking into his heart like a heavy stone falling to the bed of a river. Somehow, he could barely even feel the wound in his side now.

His entire life was beginning to fall away from him. Breathing was becoming difficult, and his face was covered with both tears and sweat. His heart, although broken, was still thumping mercilessly, but it felt as though it could give out at any moment. Troy groaned, his body becoming heavy. Each moment that passed was another moment where it felt even harder to get up. He was shaking, but he couldn’t control it.

His mind flew to the people of his father’s clan. What would become of them if any of the townspeople survived this attack? Would anyone be left to tell the truth of what had happened to them? History was always twisted by those who survived. Perhaps someone would let the truth be known to his people after he was gone.

The men were right in front of him, snarling and smirking at him as he pushed himself up to his knees. He was swaying as the trees had done in his vision, his eyes almost unseeing as two shadows stood over him.

“Please,” he found himself whispering, even though he knew that begging would do him no good. The wound at his side throbbed and dark curls of hair were clinging to the sweat on his brow, but Troy didn’t have the energy to push them away.

“Be prepared to join yer family,” one of the men said, chuckling mirthlessly. They were both unarmed, their blades still sticking out of the Laird and Troy’s brother. Troy felt sick at the thought of his family lying face down dead in the mud.

The men were coming at him with their fists. Knuckles found flesh, pounding against his head and body. Pain erupted within Troy. His entire body was on fire and he was slowly losing consciousness. The eternal darkness felt like a balm compared to what he had been through, and he looked forward to submerging himself in nothingness.

But he had always been taught to go down fighting, and even with no witness, he wanted a noble death. He lifted his arm, uncaring for the muscles that screamed in protest, and threw a weak punch at the nearest man. It connected with his side and caused the man to howl in pain, but it wasn’t enough.

In an instant, both men were back on him and using even more force. Troy knew at that moment that they were much stronger than he, that they would beat him regardless of him putting up a small fight.

His face was pushed to each side, his eyes closing up from the impact of severe punches. A knee found his chin, knocking his head back and causing Troy to see stars. The forest around him grew darker and he knew that it wasn’t because of the light. The two men continued until Troy put his hands out and fell fully to the dirty ground. The smell of earth was a blessing to him, a smell that he loved, but now that scent was marred by blood and dirt. Troy grunted as the blows kept coming. He knew that the only way it would end was if they believed him dead. He closed his eyes and let his body still, holding his already weak breath. It was terrifying to feign death when he was almost standing on its doorstep, but Troy had no other plan. No other option that could save him.

The pain cracked through his ribs, but Troy remained still. Another kick to his head sent his body sprawling, but still he made no movement of his own. Playing dead was cowardly, but at that moment, cowardice might be only thing that would keep his heart beating.

“He’s nae moving anymore,” one of the men remarked. “We’re just beating a lump.”

Another of them came over to him, leaning close to see if he was breathing. Troy held his breath and put every effort into staying still and silent.

“Aye, he’s gone,” the man said grimly.

“Come on then, let’s go,” the other said. Troy listened to two pairs of footsteps walking away. Everything hurt; it hurt to breathe, it hurt to simply exist, even just closing his eyes for one final time.

The men had left a dead man alive unknowingly, and Troy vowed that if the harsh conditions of the forest didn’t finish him off, he would get his revenge.

Chapter 2

Lorraine watched intently as the old lady stirred a large pot. Her green eyes were fixed on the movement of the wooden spoon. The concoction inside the pot was spreading the blissful scent of lavender around the healer’s house.

It was dark inside the house, but Lorraine always enjoyed the shadows that danced on the wall, avoiding the licking flames of the fire. She let her eyes fall onto the various books that littered the table in front of Skylar. She knew that the old healer could easily spend hours poring over the words and recipes.

Lorraine let her hands scan over the spines of three different books, her eyes flitting over the letters printed onto them. She was deciding which book to next devour, but the sound of Skylar tutting her stopped her in her tracks.

“Ye ken that yer father will nae approve,” Skylar said, shaking her head.

“Well, he is nae here,” Lorraine said. “And I can do what I want.” For Lorraine, the healer’s house was a daily escape. When her father wasn’t paying too much attention to her whereabouts, she would discretely leave the castle to get a few hours out in the fresh air of their clan lands. Lorraine would visit the healer and feel as though she had traveled to another world entirely. A world filled with wisdom, healing, and knowledge, where she could revel in her passions without her feeling ashamed of them. Her father would often make comments and berate her for reading books. But Skylar welcomed such activities, and so Lorraine felt drawn to the peculiar house near the border.

“Ye are certainly a force tae be reckoned with!” The older woman’s wrinkled skin was pinched as she smiled at Lorraine’s response.

“My mother did nae teach me before her death for it to go to waste,” Lorraine said with narrowed eyes. Her heart had never quite been as full since her mother passed, and reading was just one of the ways that she could honor her memory.

“Raine, she didnae die for ye to run around with yer skirts creased and yer shoes off,” Skylar pointed out.

Lorraine shrugged off the comment, not caring about the healer’s remarks about her appearance. It wasn’t something that was ever high up on her priorities, and Lorraine heard enough complaints from her father about how she looked and conducted herself.

“Aye, I ken,” Lorraine said with a huff of frustration. “But she never asked me to be someone I was nae. I could run about like this all day and as long as I was clean for dinner, she had no complaints.”

“And that is why yer father would argue with her so much,” Skylar reminded her with a slight chuckle.

“He just has different ideas on how I should behave,” Lorraine grumbled.

“He wants ye to behave like the daughter of a Laird.”

“And I dinnae want to, I want to be myself,” Lorraine said firmly. “If ye could hear how loud my father gets when he yells at me for conducting myself like this, I think ye would save yer breath on trying to tell me such things.”

She laughed to herself, wondering when people would finally realize that she wasn’t like other noble girls. She didn’t care about her appearance; she wanted to be outside, running around, not worrying about the state of her skirts. She habitually walked around the castle with creased skirts that were always littered with tears at the bottom, the material snagging on twigs and catching around corners. Her red hair flowed like a wild river, strewn with tangles and knots that would force her maids to strain themselves when attempting to brush through it. “Is he still trying to find ye a husband?” Skylar asked without looking up from what she was doing.

“Aye, but he is nae going to get anywhere so long as I am around.” Lorraine couldn’t keep the pride out of her voice. The suitors that came to her clan were invited by her father, and they weren’t men that Lorraine would ever choose for herself. They could be too young or too old, too rude or too quiet, and she was still never given a choice as to whether she even wanted to be introduced to them.

“Ye cause him such trouble,” the old healer chuckled.

“Aye, but it’s only because he tries to get me to do so many things that I dinnae want to do.”

“Ye will have to marry eventually.”

“And I will, but I will follow my mother’s wish too. She wanted me to marry a man I love.”
Skylar glanced up at her while cocking an eyebrow in amusement. “And who will love a noblewoman who runs around barefoot?”

Lorraine had left her boots by the front door, enjoying the feeling of the cool stones beneath her bare feet. It caused a shiver to pass through her, and she moved closer to the small fire that the healer was working from.

“None of the men that my father invites to the castle, that’s what I’m counting on,” Lorraine explained with a rather determined look on her face. “He kens that I can read, but it displeases him,” Lorraine continued, her eyes flicking over the words on the page before her. “He kens that I leave the castle most days and roam about outdoors, but that displeases him too.”

Skylar continued her stirring, focusing heavily on the consistency of the mixture. Lorraine knew that she was probably boring Skylar half to death with her endless complaints about her father.

The old woman had heard it all before. But Lorraine could watch the healer work for hours without boring herself. The various herbs and flowers freshly picked from the forest nearby could create tinctures and mixtures that possessed the power of healing. Lorraine found it incredible that the leaves and flowers she passed most days could do such things. You just had to have the knowledge to know how to unlock their powers.

“Ye should still be getting back soon. Ye ken that yer father will be even angrier if ye arrive back after dark,” Skylar said eventually.

The healer was staring at her with eyes that had long since been glazed over by time, their pigment faded to a dull grey. Lorraine had been told that the old woman’s eyes were once the kind of deep green that could be found in the depths of the forest. She wondered if there was anyone still alive who had ever seen them or if the healer had outlived all those who knew her when she was young. Lorraine knew that it was a part of life, but she wished that she could have seen the healer in her prime; a young and radiant woman with the power to heal those around her sounded rather magical.

“I’ll be back tomorrow morning,” Lorraine said, closing the book in front of her. She had carefully folded the corner of the page she’d been on with two pale fingers so that she could pick up where she had left off from the next day.

“Would ye be able to get some flowers for me in the morning?” Skylar asked, her gaze focused on counting the number of droplets she was letting fall into the mixture. Lorraine had realized long ago that making a potion was a form of juggling – though much more advanced than the kind of juggling the court fool could manage. The potion-maker had to be accurate with measurements as well as skilled at crushing up the herbs and flowers properly and knowing the right order to put the ingredients into the pot. Lorraine greatly admired the healer; she had always been focused on her own passions and destiny, never worrying about pleasing other people.

“Aye, which flowers?” Lorraine asked, before opening the old wooden door to leave the house.

“Foxglove and Bog Myrtle,” Skylar said. “But if you see any Gorse too, that could be helpful, I ken it’s nae in season so dinnae worry if nae.”

Lorraine nodded. “Aye, I will do my best.”

“Thank ye, child. Now run along and leave my name out of yer mouth if ye encounter yer father!” Skylar called after her as she closed the door behind her.

The healer’s house was a short ride from the castle, but because it was close to the clan’s border, her father didn’t like her to venture there too often. Yet, Lorraine liked the adventure and the risk of being out in the wild; trees and overgrowth surrounded her as she mounted her horse and headed back toward the main road back to the castle of Clan Mackenzie.

The afternoon was drawing to a close, grey clouds merging into darker grey clouds in
the west, and as she rode faster, Lorraine sensed that a strong wind was picking up. The morning dew was still settled on the grass like an enemy besieging their land; it hadn’t managed to thaw since the bank of clouds across the sky had failed to offer up any sun throughout the day.

Lorraine suppressed a shudder as she pulled her dirty cloak closer around her neck, the ends of it spattered by mud from her many riding trips.

By the time she reached the castle, Lorraine was tired from the day spent outdoors. Her cheeks were cold and the idea of sitting by the fire in her chambers was incredibly enticing. She felt fulfilled from her day of reading in Skylar’s house and gathering flowers for her. Lorraine was accustomed to roaming through the forest on her own. She wasn’t scared, as her father’s clan lands were much safer than those lands further afield. She never encountered any strangers, and she never expected to either.

She was sure, though, that if her father knew the extent of where she roamed alone, he would lock her in her chambers like a lonely princess in a far-off land until she had learned her lesson.

She rode through the main gates of the castle. The courtyard was busy enough that her entrance wasn’t noticed by too many people. Lorraine quickly spotted the begrudging stable hand who would help her daily by readying her horse for her. He was a rather skinny and small boy who wore a frown more often than not, but she tipped him well to be discreet in his work. Lorraine smiled as she handed him the reins of her horse, a noble beast who had never done her wrong.

“Thank ye,” she said, then turned to glance around in search of the one man she hoped she wouldn’t see. Her eyes moved up the dark stone walls of the castle, which loomed over the hill like the leader of a stone army, the towns around it all loyal to its call. Her father was standing on one of the lookout posts, but he wasn’t alone.

Lorraine froze as she stared up at the Laird. Her father’s hair was greying and the skin around his eyes and lips had cracked many years ago, the darkness of the hour pronouncing such wrinkles. But her father wasn’t the one she was concerned about; it was the man at his side who worried her.

She stepped to the side slightly so that she was out of their view, but her eyes remained trained on the two men above her. The man by her father’s side was certainly older than her, his own greys beginning to dapple in his dark hair.

Lorraine knew in an instant what it would be about.

Her father was determined to marry her off, and he had become obsessed with finding her a husband as soon as possible. He claimed that it would be the best thing for the clan if she were to create a union with another nearby clan.

Lorraine was no stranger to duty; it was something that had been taught to her since she could talk. But the thought of marrying a man she didn’t love was not appealing to her. Before her mother had died, she had urged Lorraine to marry a man who caused her heart to flutter. But with each day that passed, Lorraine grew less and less sure that she would find such a man.

She had been thwarting his plans each time a new suitor came to the clan, and this man would be no exception. Lorraine quickly started into the castle, heading straight up the winding stone staircase to where her father was located with the latest suitor. Her lungs burned as she took the stairs two at a time, her cheeks turning pink and long, red hair falling in her face.

Lorraine stood in the doorway, while the two men surveyed the bustling courtyard below with their backs to her. She inched closer, turning back to make sure that no servants would catch her eavesdropping, then strained her ears to listen to their conversation.

“I do believe that the bond this marriage would form between Clan Mackenzie and Clan Sinclair would be very advantageous,” her father was saying.

“Aye, I do believe that it would be,” the man agreed with him, turning his head slightly to smile in the Laird’s direction. “Our clan has many different trade routes, some of which I do believe ye aren’t able to access from up here.”
Trade routes.

Lorraine knew that it was her duty. Her father had told her many times before, but that still didn’t make it any easier for her. She was to be married to a man because of the advantages it would bring in trade for the clan. Lorraine had no problem admitting that she was stubborn, but she just couldn’t see herself ever growing to love the man in front of her. She couldn’t stop the way that her face scrunched up. Her green eyes narrowed and Lorraine could no longer hold herself back.

“Father,” Lorraine said, stepping out from the doorway and onto the small lookout area of the castle. Both men jumped slightly at the sound of her voice as they turned around to see her.

Lorraine smiled, knowing from the two expressions that met her that her appearance alone would work. But she decided to fully commit to the role that she was trying to enact for them

“Ah, Alan, please allow me to introduce ye to my daughter,” her father was forced to say rather reluctantly.

She smiled widely – almost unpleasantly – exposing her teeth to him while bowing slightly, letting loose strands of her hair fall in front of her face.

Lorraine straightened up to see the disgust that the man, Alan, could no longer hide in his expression.

“Lorraine, this is Alan. his father is Laird Sinclair, and he is next in line for the lairdship,” her father said while shooting her a look of warning.

“It’s nice to meet ye,” Lorraine said, thickening her accent ever so slightly. She could see the disapproval in her father’s face, but that was only a sign that spurred her on.

“Ye are…the Laird’s daughter?” Alan asked while narrowing his eyes at her in confusion.

Lorraine had to stifle a laugh, knowing that her plan was working. “Aye, of course!” she said while raising her voice suddenly to catch him by surprise.

As she spoke, Lorraine saw his eye twitch and his head shake slightly. Alan was poised as though ready to run in an instant. She scratched the side of her scalp just for emphasis, trying to seem as wild as she thought she could get away with.

“I…” Alan swallowed thickly as he glanced between Lorraine and her father.
She caught the Laird giving her another look of disapproval as she simply smiled in response.

“I will have to speak with my father,” Alan said hesitantly. “I feel that there have been some…miscommunications.”

“What?” the Laird asked, as his dark eyes widened.

Lorraine pushed her hair out of her eyes, tugging at her dress to show some of the more prominent rips in the material.

“If ye would both excuse me, I must retire to my chambers now,” Lorraine said while continuing to smile. But before she could leave, Alan pushed past her and started for the stairs.

“Come back!!” her father called after him as he headed for the stairs too, but not before Lorraine caught the flash of anger in his eyes.

She stepped back out into the fresh air, watching as the two men emerged into the courtyard below. Her father was calling after Alan, a man who Lorraine knew would no longer consider her as a potential wife. She couldn’t help but chuckle as the man stumbled while grabbing for the reins of his horse. His manservant was clearly confused by Alan’s sudden need to leave but said nothing as he too started to mount his own horse. Her father stopped calling to him, and Lorraine knew that he wouldn’t want to cause too much of a scene in front of his people.

Her laughter continued until the dark eyes of her father, bursting at the seams with anger, found hers once more. She stopped quickly when she saw the fury in them, knowing that he would shout like thunder if he reached her.

“Don’t go anywhere!” he shouted up to her. But Lorraine was already turning and dashing back into the castle. She had to get to her chambers before he could catch her. She could laugh all she liked, but she knew that, in the end, her father had the power to ruin her life if he wanted to, taking away every ounce of freedom and happiness she had ever known.

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

Wicked Highland Spell (Preview)

Chapter One

Drumnadrochit, 1594

“Hurry up, lass!”

“I am moving as fast as I can, Ma,” Maisie said breathlessly as she followed her mother out of the small cottage.

It had rained earlier, and the mud made squelching sounds with every step they took. The night was dark, and every sound echoed like they were walking through an empty tunnel. The wet and cold clung to them like webbed fingers reaching out into the night to swallow them.

The wooden gate banged shut behind them, and Maisie jumped in fright and clamped her hand over her chest. “Thing scared the life out o’ me.”
Her mother grabbed her hand and pulled her deeper into the pitch darkness. They were barely breathing when she stuck her head out, searching the narrow path for signs of life.

“‘Tis nae a braw night for healing,” she hissed. “It’s all wet and muddy, I can barely move properly.”

“Ye ken we had tae come see him,” Maisie replied to her as she inched forward, her heart in her chest. “He did nae look so well the last time, an’ his poor mother did nae ken what else tae do.”

“I ken that, child,” her mother snapped, and pulled the blanket scarf over her head.

“I hope he is well enough now,” Maisie said with concern.

“‘Tis nae the lad we best worry about now,” her mother said as they started off hastily down the path. “We need to get back home quickly.”

Panic gripped them as they moved faster, looking behind them for any signs of trouble. It was dangerous to be out at all, and the sounds of hounds barking in the distance did not help their worry. That was sure to be the King’s men on their nightly quest to find the healers they called witches to add to the mountain of scorched bodies they had already burned.

“They are coming!” her mother cried as she started running. She was a plump woman, and with the mud pulling at her soaked tartan, it was getting harder for her to move quickly.

“Maybe we should hide,” Maisie suggested as the barking cut through the night.

They both froze. The sound was much too close for comfort, and with great reluctance, they turned onto a narrow lane, right into the path of a bearded man wearing a scowl and carrying a torch. Their eyes connected, and Maisie was instantly rooted to the spot.

“Over here!” the man bellowed into the night, signaling his company.

“Quickly now, child,” Maisie’s mother said as her voice trembled, and she grabbed her daughter with shaky hands. They pushed through the wooden fence to their right, which led to a yard in the clustered village. As soon as they had squeezed through the narrow opening, bearing the brunt of the rotting wood scratching against the sleeves of their tartans, they spotted the others. The once dark night was littered with torchlight as the angry mob spotted them and started running.

“There they are!” someone yelled. “Burn the witches!”

“Ma!” Maisie cried as she clung to her mother who pulled her along. “We have tae run faster, or they will catch us!”

Maisie’s breath came out in ragged gasps, and her mouth was parched dry despite the damp air. Her chest burned as she ran, her wicker basket tucked under one arm, and her mother’s hand in the other. She knew the village well, but she was not sure if they would get away that time.

Their pursuers probably knew where they lived. They’d seen their faces, which meant home was no longer their safe place. The angry mob had only one thing on their mind – burning them at the stake.

The panic swelled in Maisie’s chest as they turned a bend that led to a neighbor’s yard she knew well. They were very familiar with the layout of the village, perhaps even better than the people chasing them, which gave them their only advantage. They had to pass through a grove of trees, and the low-lying branches clawed at their faces and slapped against their arms like they too were inanimate accomplices of the evil that chased them.

“Och!” her mother exclaimed as she stopped suddenly.

Maisie, caught off guard by her mother’s abrupt stop, felt her body snap back like new stockings. “Ma, what is it?”

“Caught me foot on a wee branch,” her mother said and pulled herself upright again. “I lost some of me herbs.”

“We can nae think about that now. We must go before they catch us. Ye ken well what they will do,” Maisie reminded her.

The woman nodded sadly, tucked her basket under her arm, and scurried after Maisie who plunged into the thick darkness like she was a part of it. The barking and shouting were close, and fear gripped her with every step. The wet, night air seemed to be pulling her back. She was running breathless, but she did not feel like she was moving.

Once they hit the clearing, she stopped and surveyed the village. There were no signs of their pursuers. “Okay, quick, Ma,” she said as they stole from the woods and ducked between the alleys. “We need tae get home right away.”

Maisie had heard about the other people that had been caught and the horrible things they had done. As she clung to her mother, her chest burning and her eyes peeled, she was afraid to even blink. Her entire body was in survival mode, and she could barely think above the pounding of her head and heart.

“We should nae be running like this,” her mother said breathlessly as they climbed the small incline just below their cottage. “All we did was help out a wee lad in pain.”
“It is nae time tae be thinking about that now, Ma,” Maisie told her as she glanced behind her. The barking was in the distance, but she knew the hounds would find their scent soon enough. It was not the time to be thinking of anything but running and hiding.

“I am an old woman, me child. I can nae run like ye,” she complained as she hobbled as fast as she could. “Even now, me poor back hurts so much, I can hardly keep up anymore.”

Maisie wanted to comfort her mother, but she did not have the luxury of that. Their pursuers were already close to finding them both, achy back or not. They could not stop. She was not even sure she could make it to their cottage without being discovered, which meant she had to enter from the back – the long way round.

They dashed through the alleyways like thieves in the night, stealing away to their own home. She was far too young for all that running, and even younger to be burned alive.

Her red hair escaped her shawl as her feet moved like those of an antelope in flight. She was about to make her way across the glen that would bring her up the hill yonder, leading to the narrow path behind their land, when she spotted the torches again.
“Hold on, Ma,” Maisie said and grabbed her mother’s hand.

She leaned against the broken stone column that used to be the old church, holding her breath, and praying they had not been spotted. At least that party did not have the hounds.

“Nothing here!” she heard someone shout.

“Ye ken how these witches are,” a gruff voice responded. “Maybe disappeared or turned into a toadstool. Keep looking.”

“They will nae get far tonight,” his comrade answered. “They are close.”

Maisie watched as the men walked away, but she did not dare move. Their cottage was a little distance across the glen, and she was afraid of being dragged back by angry hounds and rabid humans hungry for the smell of burning flesh.

She would not give them the satisfaction, but her feet would not budge. Fear had paralyzed her, and she leaned against the stone structure, clutching her bodice as her legs grew weak.

“Ye can nae faint now, lass,” her mother said. “The cottage is just yonder. We can nae stay here, or they will find us fer sure.”

“I ken,” Maisie said as she struggled to breathe. Her head felt like it had swollen to twice its size, but she could not remain rooted to the spot. Her pursuers were relentless. They would not stop. “Come on.”

She did not dare look to the right or the left as she scurried across the glen, her head low and the shawl covering her, allowing her to blend into the night.

The door banged against the stone wall as Maisie pushed it with all the strength she had left, and Graham ran to the door when he heard the crash. “Uncle!”

“What is the matter with ye, lass?” he asked, his eyes wide with fright.

“The King’s men,” Maisie replied breathlessly, clutching her throat for much-needed air. “They are after us. We can nae stay here.”

“The King’s men? After ye? Why?” Graham asked, his dark eyes piercing hers as he clutched her by the shoulders and shook her.

“Ye ken well,” Maisie’s mother scolded as she peered out the window. “We are healers, and they dae nae ken how we do what we do, so they believe we are something else.”

“Och!” Graham cried and hurried to the window. He peered outside for any sign of the enraged mob. “I told ye not to go.”

“Ye ken well I can nae see the poor lad in pain and do nothin’,” her mother replied. “We had tae go.”

“And look at what it cost ye,” Graham snarled, his long beard swishing across his chest. His bald head glowed from the torch perched on the stone wall and magnified his shadow behind him, so he seemed to fill the room. “Quick, get some things together. Ye have tae leave now!”

“I ken,” Maisie replied and busied herself with wrapping up some loaves of bread with cheese, a bottle of milk, some jam, and some herbs she kept in a small sack. “Ma, get some clothes.”

“That’s what I am doing, lass,” her mother said and waved her off. “And ye, Graham. Ye have tae come with us. They will hang ye if they ken ye live with us.”

Graham sighed as signs of worry creased his brows. “Och!” he exclaimed and slammed his fist onto the wooden table in anger. “Fine.”

Maisie was still wrapping the parcel together when they heard a loud commotion outside. “In there!” someone cried.

And Maisie’s heart almost caved. A frantic shriek escaped her, and all three of them charged toward the back door just in time to hear the front crash to the ground.
“Seize them!” a voice boomed in the night, already pronouncing Maisie guilty of having compassion.

She did not look back as she scrambled through the slippery backyard and dashed toward the thick grove in front of them. Torches blazed in the night as the cries rang out behind them.

“Oh!” Maisie’s mother cried as she slipped and fell.

“Ma!” Maisie cried and tried to run back to her.

Graham grabbed Maisie around the middle, her arms and legs flailing as he pulled her back like a hapless puppet. “No!” he cried and tried to run with her under his arm.

“If ye go back, they will get both of ye.”

“I can nae leave her,” Maisie screamed. Tears rolled down her face as she watched the angry mob descend upon her mother.

They grabbed her and bound her as Graham ran away into the forest with Maisie tucked away under his arm like a sack of potatoes.

“No! No!” Maisie cried. “Let me go. We have to go back!” she wailed as she squirmed and tried to get away from him.

But Graham continued running as fast as he could. Maisie could not understand why he would just leave her mother to the King’s men. He knew what they would do to her. She craned her neck to see, but the only visible thing in the dark were the specks of light as her uncle whisked her away.

When Graham finally set her down, she crumpled into a heap against a large, oak tree. “They took her,” she sniffled and rubbed her burning eyes. “They will kill her. Why did you nae go back for her?”

Graham sighed and knelt in front of her. “I ken, lass,” he said. “But I could nae go back for her. It would have been too dangerous for ye, and me,” he said and stood again. He placed his hands on his hips and stared into the darkness like he could see something she could not.

“I ken,” Maisie sniffled and wiped under her nose with the hem of her scarf. “What am I going tae dae without her?”

He sighed again and slipped his arm around her shoulder. “Ye will nae be alone, lass,” he told her. “Ye still have me.”

She stood and fell into his embrace, her tears drenching his overcoat. She felt all her tiredness seeping into him as he held her. She needed rest, but she was not allowed to have it. Not if she kept practicing healing. The country did not take too well to things it did not understand. Maisie did not understand it either, but she had inherited it from her mother – they simply knew which herbs were better for different sicknesses.

Even though they had helped a lot of people, the rumors still flew around the country, and they were constantly hunted. It was exhausting.

“Come,” Graham told her and helped her to her feet.

“I have tae go back,” Maisie cried and pulled on his arm.

“Maisie, are ye mad? They will kill ye along with yer mother if they find ye,” he warned. “We have tae leave here.”

“I need to ken what happened to her,” she sobbed. “Please, Uncle. I must ken. I can nae keep running not kennin’ if she is well or…”

Graham sighed and looked around him, the darkness swelling around them. “Follow me.”
He led her through a thicket of trees to one of the places known for the burnings. Maisie wanted to throw up. She did not know what she would do without her mother around, and to know that it was all because of the special gifts they had that people just did not understand. They were not hurting anybody or turning anyone into toads. She wished they could have left them alone.

“Wait here,” Graham said and disappeared over a mound.

Maisie stood alone, hugging herself, the loaves and cheese she had left home with forgotten. She could not eat even if she wanted to. The lump in her throat would prevent her from swallowing. She looked around wildly at every cracking twig or rustling leaf, anticipating her uncle’s return, but all that greeted her was the blanket of darkness that seemed all too eager to embrace her. Her body quaked, and she barely felt herself breathing. Her mind started to race that she would get caught if she stuck around any longer when she heard movement to her right. She jumped up, her eyes peeled and her breath still, when she saw that it was her uncle.

“This way,” Graham called to her.

She breathed a momentary sigh of relief as she joined him, pulling the thick cloak over her head. They could not go closer to the site, but Graham managed to find a place where they could see what was happening.

Maisie’s heart sank when she saw her mother bound to a pile of wood.
“Please!” her mother shrieked, piercing the night with her cries. “Have mercy!”

“Shut up, witch!” someone spat. “Begone with ye!”

Maisie’s heart ached to watch as her mother’s wails traveled to her ears and cut at her heartstrings. She wished at that moment she was a witch, and that she could free her mother. But all she could do was watch as tears cascaded down her cheeks.

“I curse all of ye!” she heard her mother yell after a couple of minutes of endless torment. “Ye will all burn in hell for this! I curse all of ye!”

Maisie watched as one of the men approached with a torch and touched the base of the pyre. The flames leaped forward, lapping at the wood, and climbed the stacks to her mother. They must have doused her with something, as she was instantaneously engulfed in flames, and her shrieks were deafening.

Maisie collapsed to the ground, her hands over her eyes. She could not watch, and she wished she could not hear.

“I am sorry,” Graham said as he fell beside her. “I wish things were nae this way.” Maisie had never seen her giant of an uncle weak before, and when he crumpled to the ground next to her, his broad shoulders rocking as he sobbed, she melted into his arms.

“I can nae believe she is gone,” Maisie cried as her body rocked violently with grief. “What am I going tae do?”

“Curse them all,” Graham growled and released her. He stood and faced the mob. The only sounds they could hear were the crackling of the fire as it devoured her mother, and Graham balled his fists and slammed it into the earth. “Barbarians!” he cried.

“They will nae get away with this, I swear it on my life.”

His words scratched at her already raw emotions, evoking more tears. Maisie could barely find the strength to stand. The smell of burning flesh drifted to them on the mound and years of her mother’s kind face flitted before her mind’s eye.

“Come on, lass.” Graham sighed and reached down to pick her up. She was only a small thing, and her flaming-red hair that matched her spirit was consumed by the night as he lifted her, and she hung against him, almost lifeless.

Maisie could barely manage a coherent thought as her head rolled back and forth against her uncle’s chest as he walked. But the one thing she knew was that her life would never be the same again.

Chapter Two

“Laird, they are waiting for you in the main hall!” a frantic Fiona cried as she pushed the wooden door in and entered her master’s bedchamber.

“Let them wait,” Creighton said as he stood by the window, his back turned to her and his eyes scouring the land that was now his to rule.

Laird of Castle Urquhart. It did not even sound right. He knew the title would pass to him one day, but now that it had, it did not seem to fit him as snugly as it had his father.

He stared out at the vast expanse of pale green on the moors as the heavy morning mist shrouded the thatched roofs of the cottages below. It gave off a dark and ominous feeling, and he clenched his jaws before he turned.

“It is nae a braw time to be back home,” he said and walked over to his bed.

“It does nae matter, Creighton,” Fiona said as she hurried to get him undressed. “Ye are back now, and things will have tae change.”

“I wish I was still back in France,” he sighed. “Things were uncomplicated then.”

She stopped moving and stood in front of him, her brown eyes burning into his. “Stop that nonsense!” she spat as her nostrils flared. “Ye are the only one who can govern this clan, and ye ken it well,” she said, her arms gesticulating for emphasis.

Creighton turned and smiled at her. Fiona had been his maid since he was a child, but she had grown to be so much more than that. He considered her one of his best friends. She was always the one behind him pushing him when he doubted himself, and he would always cherish her.

“I have heard how they talk about me,” Creighton sighed. “No one thinks I have what it takes tae take over the clan after my father.”

“And since when did ye give a rat’s arse about what anyone thinks, huh?” Fiona asked and placed her hands on her hips. She was a foot shorter than him, which meant she had to crane her neck to get a good look at his six-foot-two frame.

Creighton smiled and placed his hand on her shoulder. She had pale skin that was practically flawless, and eyes so bright it caught the attention of many a man wherever she went. The bonnet she wore hid the soft, golden hair underneath, something perhaps only a few people like himself had seen when she removed it in moments of safety. She was a beautiful woman, and he wondered at her never choosing a husband.

“What would I do without ye?” he asked.

She slapped his hand away. “Ye would likely wither away in a dram cellar somewhere.”

She smiled. “Now, how about ye get dressed, and get this over with?”

He chuckled. “Bossy are ye nae?” he teased.

“I will leave the bossing to ye, Laird,” she said and did a low courtesy before she started giggling.

“Ye fancy yerself to be funny?” He laughed louder, his deep baritone bouncing off the stone walls.

She grinned and handed him the green and black kilt. “Put this on. An’ do not forget the brooch. They will kill ye for leaving it out.”

Creighton grunted as he walked over to his bath. The water was already warm, and he stripped down and stepped into it.

“I am getting tired o’ seeing that arse.” Fiona giggled.

“Stop looking.” Creighton chuckled and slipped into the water.

She walked over to him and knelt next to the bath, her chin resting on her hands against the edge of the tub. “I missed ye when ye went to France.”

“Missed ye, too.” He sighed. “But ye had Jamie. I am sure he made up for all o’ the trouble I’d have given ye.”

“Och!” she said and waved him off. “Jamie was much too busy for the likes of me.”

Creighton laughed, but there was no happiness in him. He’d only returned to Scotland a year ago to take care of his father when he’d gotten ill. As the months rolled on, he knew his father was not going to get better, and his time abroad had come to an end. He had to remain at Castle Urquhart as its Laird.

His father had been a hard man – not the kindest, and certainly not the most loving. But he was his father, and he’d spent the last couple of weeks mourning his death. The time for mourning had come to an end, and some things needed to get done, and he had to be the one to do it.

He sighed and stepped out of the bath. Fiona helped him get dressed, smoothing his long black hair back and tying it with a ribbon. He stood like a giant next to her as he pulled her in and kissed the top of her head.

She disappeared toward her quarters as soon as he stood in the long stone passage. He held onto the small sword dangling on his hip and could easily trace the markings of the Lennox emblem on the hilt.

Creighton sucked in a deep breath and walked off. His footsteps echoed in the hollow tunnel as he made his way to the main hall where the elders had gathered. They’d come to ratify his ascension to Laird, but even from afar, he could hear the grumblings of disapproval.

When he entered the archway and stood above the two stone steps that descended into the room, a hush came over it as all eyes turned to him. He was happy to see at least two friendly faces. Brodric, his ever-faithful sword-master, and Jamie, his right-hand man, and friend for life. He was sure to have at least two votes – if voting even mattered.

He was the rightful heir to the clan, and unless he surrendered that, then they had to accept him. Their acceptance, however, would make it easier for him.

“I did nae think he could find his way to us,” a sour-faced man spat when he saw Creighton, but he spoke louder than he realized. Creighton heard him and flashed him a disapproving look. He recognized the man as Laird Mackenzie, head of one of the largest clans on that side of the coast. Their opinion of him, however, did not matter. Whether they liked him or not, he was their Laird.

Creighton clenched his jaws and stepped down, making his way to the head of the gathering. “Now that I am here,” he said, spreading his arms before he sat, “shall we?”

He knew he was in for a great many protests, but he could handle it. Brodric raised his brows at him and then nodded his approval.

Jamie was the first to stand from his seat next to Creighton. “As ye all ken, Creighton is the rightful heir to the Lennox clan. That’s indisputable. Frankly, I am not sure why we are gathered here. There is nay a thing tae talk about.”

Creighton smiled to himself. He was not surprised by Jamie’s words – he was always quick to defend him and was always generous with the truth.

“There is plenty tae talk about,” Baron Weiss ranted. “What does the lad ken about being a laird? Why he was almost still a bairn when he left.”

Several nods were circulating the room and hushed whispers. Creighton pinched his chin and surveyed his subjects. “And ye think ye could do a better job?”

“Of course!” the baron cried and toyed with his silk neck scarf. “What do ye ken?” he asked and glared at Creighton.

“Does it matter?” Brodric chimed in from his relaxed posture on the wooden chair. “He is the heir.”

“It does!” someone else piped in, a long, thin man who was a wealthy farmer. “In case ye haven’t noticed, the lands are constantly ravaged by other clans seeking power. The clan Lennox needs a strong leader so they will nae prey on us. We dae nae need a boy who barely remembers the Highlands.”

“He grew up here, on these very lands,” Jamie jumped in. “He kens it well.”

“No one kens who he is!” the baron persisted. “He has been living in France for years! He will fail as a laird!”

Creighton’s chest tightened as he listened to the men talking about him like he was not there.

“Our enemies ken nothing o’ him,” Alderman MacIntosh, a thin and lanky man, commented.

“They will laugh at us. We need someone who is feared, like his father before him. Look at him!” he declared as he stood and pointed to Creighton.

Creighton slammed his fist onto the table and rose. “What about me?” he asked and glowered at the man. “Ye think me a boy because I lived somewhere else fer a few years? Is it fear ye want?” he asked and walked over to the man.

“All am saying is, ye can nae rule the people if they think ye weak,” the Alderman said as his lips trembled. Creighton towered over him, inciting the very fear they claimed he lacked as a leader.

“I am not weak!” he snarled. “This is my home, and I will nae let it be overrun by other clans.”

“But who’s tae believe ye?” Baron Weiss asked. “Ye do not have a reputation. It’d be better if ye marry into one of those wealthy and powerful clans and bind our kin together.”

“Yes,” some others mumbled as Creighton’s eyes widened. “Marry?”

“Yes,” Baron Weiss continued. “If ye marry into a well-known clan, and get a bairn, ah, then ye’ll be known fer sure.”

“We’d be stronger,” some others agreed.

“I will marry soon enough!” Creighton declared and walked back to his seat. “I will nae marry because ye think that’s the only way fer me tae look strong.”

“That alone tells us yer not fit to be Laird of this castle,” Baron Weiss snarled and shifted on his chair, his curly brown hair swishing against his shoulders. “A good laird does what is necessary fer his clan.”

Creighton paused and looked at the rest of the men gathered in front of him. They had already made up their minds, and to go against them would prove exactly what they were saying about him – that he was weak and incapable. They had skillfully played him, and his back was up against the wall. He had no problems with marrying. He knew he would have to marry, and likely to a lass from one of the other powerful clans. What he disliked was the way they made him look weak, like he needed a wife to appear capable. He could tell it would be the question he’d have to answer every day until he found a wife. And he had not even started looking yet.

“If it is a wife ye think I need, fine!” Creighton growled. “But dae nae ye dare think me weak! I may not be me father, but I will make me reputation in these parts. I will find a lass. Until then, there’s another business we need tae tend tae.”

He’d grown up with his mother and father treating each other like strangers. There had been no love between them. They’d married to unite two clans, and there he was, on the verge of doing the very thing he’d hoped he would not have to do. He was still a romantic at heart and had hoped his wife would have been a woman he could love. He was quickly thrust into a life he was not fully prepared for, but there was nothing he could do about it. Nothing that would not mean abandoning his clan. His hopes at love quickly fled his life, and in its place, only business. If his father were still alive, he’d have encouraged the same thing, and quickly. He’d have been front and center in pointing him out as a failure too.

Creighton sighed and wiped his hand down his face. He needed a whole bottle of dram. Or something else to clear his head.

Pegasus was the first thing that came to mind – his trusted horse.

“I am glad to see ye are disposed tae taking counsel, milord,” the Baron replied glumly, a smug smile spreading across his face. “‘Tis nothing new ye will be inventing. Why half o’ us in this here room got married for the same reason.”

Creighton’s greatest concern at that moment was where he could find a bride, but he was also sure there would be many suggestions from the council members. With any luck, some Lairds would come around with their daughters and one bonny lass would catch his eye.

When Creighton left the main hall, his was the only pensive face remaining. Brodric followed him.

“What are ye going tae do?” he asked. “I can visit some of the other lairds, see if I can find ye a lass worth looking at.”

Creighton chuckled. “That’s the best I can hope fer right now.”

“Ye ken this might happen when ye came back,” Brodric replied sympathetically. “That’s why I was with ye all those years in France. Make sure ye never lost yer way. And ye did nae do that,” he said and peered into Creighton’s eyes. “Now, ye just have tae do what is necessary.”

“I ken,” Creighton told him.

“It is nae the worst thing in the world, lad,” Brodric said as they stepped back to allow some council members to pass them by. “Have ye seen Baron Weiss’ wife?” he whispered and the two erupted into laughter.

“I see yer point,” Creighton replied, and they continued walking for a second in silence. After a while, they stopped, and Creighton pressed his hand down hard on Brodric’s shoulder. “Yer a good lad, ye ken?” he asked.

“I ken,” Brodric smiled.

“I am going tae go for a ride tae clear my head,” Creighton told him. “I will nae think about it fer now. There’s always tomorrow.”

“Dae nae fash, Creighton!” he shouted after him. “I will look out for ye.”

And Creighton did not doubt he would. When he’d decided to go to France, Brodric had not hesitated to go with him. And he’d stuck with him throughout all his brawls and awkward phases. He’d taught him the art of swordsmanship and had kept talk of the Highlands alive. Always. And it had come down to one thing nonetheless – the age-old, fool-proof way for their clan to move forward, simply by taking one step back.

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