A Healer’s Highland Affair (Preview)
1689, MacThomas Castle
The water was soothing on Keira’s scars as she submerged herself in the tub. Those days, it seemed like the MacThomas Castle was perpetually cold, despite all the fires that burned in the hearths, the chill of the wind permeating the rooms through the windows. A warm bath was just what Keira needed, even more so after a day of riding in the woods.woods.
Of course, that meant that she had to put up with the stares.
It was an unavoidable part of her bathing routine, being stared at by the maid who brought her the tub and the hot water. Sometimes, it was someone who knew her well and thus, tried her best to look away. Other times, it was a new girl, and they often stared openly, much to Keira’s chagrin.
The latter was true now. The maid who had drawn her bath was a young girl Keira hadn’t seen before in the castle. She was new, she thought, only just starting to work for the MacThomas Clan, and she was naturally curious. While Keira had been undressing, the maid had turned around to give her privacy, but once she was in the tub, she didn’t make an effort to conceal her shock or her staring, her gaze glued to Keira’s hands.
They had the worst scarring out of any other body part, after all. If she was going to look at anything, it would be her hands.
Keira slowly submerged them into the water as well. Though she was used to people staring, she wished that they wouldn’t. Every time someone’s gaze strayed to her hands and the other scars that dotted her body, she was reminded that they would never stop pitying her and that they would never see her as anything more than the marred, wounded girl.
Stop staring at me as if I’m nae even human, Keira wanted to say.
What she ended up saying was, “Thank ye. Ye can leave now.”
The maid bowed and left the room quickly, her cheeks a pale red as if she was embarrassed. Perhaps Keira had been rougher with her tone than she had intended. Perhaps the maid had sensed her annoyance.
Instantly, she wished she had been gentler. Though she hated the stares, she didn’t want to make anyone feel bad.
With a sigh, she slid deeper into the tub, until the water was up to her chin, and closed her eyes. It was nice, being in the MacThomas Castle, but she knew that her days there were coming to an end. Eventually, she would have to return home, back to the Robertson Clan. She could hardly stay with her sister Evangeline and her husband Iain forever.
Still, she would make sure to make the most out of the time she had left there.
Only when the water started to turn cold did Keira get out of the tub. She dried herself and dressed plainly, since there was nothing for her to do for the few hours that remained in the day, in a cream-colored lèine. Then, she reached for the pair of gloves she had laid out on the bed before her bath—one of many she owned, since she refused to be seen with her hands bare.
Before she could even grab them, though, there was a knock on the door, and Keira whipped around to face it with her hands behind her back. “Come in.”
The door opened slowly, even hesitantly, just enough for Cormac to push his head inside the room. His gaze flitted around for a few moments before it finally settled on Keira, and though he didn’t quite smile at her—he never did, always wearing a scowl on his face—he seemed to attempt to contort his face into a mildly pleasant expression.
Though he looked just like his twin brother Ellair, with his fair hair and his eyes like an icy lake, Keira never had any issue telling the two of them apart. Anyone who paid any attention to them could, Cormac always grumpy, while Ellair usually wore a smile.
“Am I interruptin’?” Cormac asked.
“Nay,” said Keira. “I’m nae doin’ anythin’.”
“Right.” Cormac paused, his eyes searching for something in her face, though Keira doubted he would find anything. She liked Cormac, despite his rough demeanor, simply because she didn’t think any of it was real. She saw it for what it was: an armor of sorts, something to keep people away.
She knew, because she had an armor of her own.
Still, even if she liked him, she didn’t want to give him—or anyone else, for that matter—an invitation to get too close to her.
“Well, yer sister was wonderin’ if ye would like tae join us fer a drink,” he added after a few moments of silence. “Everyone’s gathered in the great hall.”
“I suppose I could join ye fer a while,” Keira said. “I willnae have that many chances tae see everyone once I leave.”
“Are ye leavin?” Surprise coated Cormac’s words, but surely, he knew that Keira couldn’t stay there for much longer. “When?”
“I dinnae ken yet, but soon,” she said. “I have tae return home. Me faither an’ me sisters… . . . I’m sure they’ve missed me. An’ I’ve missed them.”
“An’ yet it doesnae sound like ye wish tae go back.”
Cormac didn’t say those words with any judgement or annoyance, as if she were a burden. Rather, he said it as a matter of fact, certain that it was true.
It was, of course. Keira not only adored her sister, but she also felt safe in the MacThomas Castle.
“After everythin’ everythin’…. . . I fear home might hold some bad memories fer me,” she admitted. She hadn’t told anyone else, as she didn’t want word to reach her sister and worry her. But Cormac didn’t seem like the kind of person to talk, so she figured he wouldn’t tell Evangeline.
“Because o’ yer uncle?” Cormac asked.
Keira nodded. The mere mention of the man had her hands shaking behind her back, the memories rushing back to her like a giant wave that threatened to pull her under. Like everyone in her family, she had once loved Uncle Mitchell and had thought him a good man. They had later discovered that Mitchell had been in love with Iain’s mother, who had chosen Iain’s father, Angus, over him. Mitchell had killed her, and Angus had never recovered. Furthering his revenge, Mitchell had been behind a plan to kidnap Keira and use her to get to her sister Evangeline, organizing for her to be taken captive by the enemy clan. The only reason the sisters had been saved was Iain, who had then been forced to marry Evangeline because his clan thought her intentions were bad. Eventually they had fallen in love and were now happily married. Had Iain and his clan not intervened, Keira was certain she would have died that day, in the hands of a man she had once trusted with her life. Keira could remember every torturous moment she had spent in the cave where her uncle had hid her.
How could she go back to that castle, where every room was filled with memories? How could she ever trust anyone again, when one of the people closest to her had betrayed her like this?
“Yer uncle isnae there anymore,” Cormac said. “Nor can he hurt ye now. But if ye wish tae stay, I’m sure nae one will have an issue with it. I can speak tae Iain if ye wish—”
“Thank ye,” Keira said, putting an end to the conversation before it could even start. She couldn’t begin to think that she could stay there. Her father would never allow it, for one, and besides, she had to face her fear. She had to return home. “But it willnae be necessary. I wish tae return tae me family. It’s been too long since I last saw them.”
“Very well. As ye wish,” Cormac said. Another thing Keira liked about him was that he was never push. She adored Evangeline, but her sister was stubborn and she wouldn’t let anything go, no matter how small. It was refreshing, talking to someone who didn’t care so much about her as to try and force her to do what was best for her. “Are ye comin’?”
Keira had almost forgotten all about the invitation to the great hall. “Ach, eye,” she said. “I only need a moment.”
“Alright,” Cormac said, making no move to leave.
“Alone,” Keira added.
“Ye dinnae need tae change—”
“It’s nae that,” Keira said. Her gaze fell to the gloves that lay on the bed, after she missed her chance to wear them in private.
Cormac’s gaze followed her own, zeroing in on the gloves. “Shall I help ye with them?”
“Nay!” Keira said, a little too loudly and a little too quickly. “Nay… I can dae it on me own. I only need ye tae leave the chambers fer a few moments. I… ye ken I have scars. I cannae bear fer anyone tae see them.”
Cormac nodded and made to leave, but he had barely taken a step before he stopped and turned around to look at Keira again. For a few moments, he struggled to find the right words, it seemed to Keira, and he opened and closed his mouth a few times as he tried to decide on what to say.
“Ye shouldnae be ashamed o’ yer scars,” he said then. “They show that ye’re a brave lass. They’re a reminder o’ what ye did fer yer sister.”
Keira didn’t consider them so much a reminder of saving her sister from that terrible fire, as much as a reminder of the fire itself and of that fateful day when they had both almost died. It was a reminder of the flames, of the heat that licked her skin, the terrifying moments she had spent thinking that she couldn’t save her younger sister Abigail.
But Cormac’s words brought a small smile to her lips. Even if she couldn’t see it like he did, she still appreciated the kind sentiment, especially coming from someone like him. She knew he meant it. He never went out of his way to say something to someone just to make them feel better.
“Besides, ye cannae hide yer body fer yer whole life,” Cormac added. “What will happen when ye marry? Ye cannae hide from yer husband forever.”
The smile vanished from Keira’s face in an instant. “I dinnae think it is proper fer ye tae even imply such things.”
“It isnae?” Cormac asked with a small, confused frown. “But it is a part o’ life. Once ye marry, then there is nae avoiding’ it.”
“I dinnae wish tae discuss this with ye,” Keira said coldly. She had never even heard Cormac speak so much before. Why did he have to pick this one topic when he finally spoke to her at length? “An’ besides, I have nae plans tae wed.”
How could she, when everyone who looked at her was shocked by her scars? She had yet to meet anyone who was not repulsed by the sight of them, and she was certain that any man who would even show any interest in her in the first place would run the moment he saw her body. She could imagine her wedding night, her husband bringing them to their chambers after the feast and undressing her. She could imagine his reaction, one of shock and horror, before he would demand that their marriage be annulled.
She would much rather never marry and avoid the embarrassment of it all.
“Because o’ the scars?” Cormac asked.
Keira hesitated for a moment, but them she nodded silently.
With a sigh, Cormac entered the room fully and closed the door behind him. “I told ye, ye shouldnae be embarrassed,” he said as he approached her. Keira stood still, not knowing whether she should retreat. Even if she wanted to, there wasn’t much space for her to do so, the bed blocking her way.
Cormac stopped before he got too close, though, and then he pulled up his sleeves, revealing rows of scars. Under the soft twilight, Keira saw the raised bumps and lines on his skin, a collection of injuries, some of which were still fresh, while others looked much older.
“I have them all over me body. Many o’ us who have seen battle dae,” he said. “An’ well… ten years or so ago—Ellair an’ I were nae more than eighteen or nineteen—we were captured. The things they did tae us… the things we saw… yer scars are naething compared tae that. Anyone who cannae love ye or see yer beauty because o’ these scars doesnae deserve ye.”
No one had ever spoken to Keira like that before. Her sisters had assured her that she was still beautiful, of course, emphasizing her long, blonde hair and her big blue eyes, but she always thought they felt obligated to say such things. They were her family, after all. They would never tell her the truth.
But Cormac seemed sincere. He didn’t need to lie to her, nor would he do it just to make her feel better. It was that sincerity, though, that gave Keira pause. She didn’t know how to deal with it, how to accept a genuine compliment.
When she said nothing, Cormac reached for her hand, the one with the worst scarring, and brought it slowly to his lips. He pressed a kiss to the marred flesh of her knuckles, soft and hesitant, as though he expected her to pull away, but she didn’t. She only took a step closer to him, closing the gap between them.
Neither of them spoke. Keira gazed into his eyes, getting lost in the blue of them, in the warmth she saw there. The air between them was filled with anticipation, with a tension she could only intrinsically recognize, as she had never experienced anything like it before.
Cormac leaned closer. His lips were only inches away from her own, his body curving towards her, enveloping her entirely.
And then there was a knock on the door and in an instant, Cormac had pulled back, putting as much space between them as he could.
Evangeline’s voice was filled with concern as she opened the door, her eyes searching for Keira. When she saw Cormac first instead, she startled, frowning in confusion.
“Ach, ye scared me,” Evangeline told Cormac. “What are ye doin’ in here? I thought somethin’ happened tae ye both!”
“I couldnae find me gloves,” Keira said quickly. The last thing she wanted was for Evangeline to find out that she and Cormac were about to kiss before she interrupted them. Her sister could be very protective of her, and Keira wouldn’t suffer the embarrassment of Evangeline berating Cormac for trying to kiss her. “Cormac helped me.”
“Did ye find them?” asked Evangeline.
“Och, aye,” said Keira, as she picked up the gloves from the bed and put them on. “Thank ye, Cormac.”
Cormac only nodded. In the dim light, Keira could see that his cheeks had turned a bright shade of pink, and she only hoped that Evangeline wouldn’t notice.
“Shall we go, then?” Evangeline said, as she headed to the door. “Let us nae keep the others waitin’.”
Cormac followed Evangeline out of the room, but not without turning around just as he walked through the door to glance at Keira and give her a small smile. Keira returned it, giving him a smile of her own, and in that moment, she was certain that he was sincere.
She didn’t know if anything else would ever happen between them, though she doubted it. As special as that moment was, Keira would soon return home and she wouldn’t see Cormac for a long while. They would both move on with their lives.
But those tender moments between them, however few, would forever remain in her mind.
Six months later…
Present day, Tavern ‘The Merry Maid’
The tavern was filled with the smell of stale ale and the sounds of drunkards, some of them laughing, others arguing, others trying to coax wenches onto their laps. It was dark in there, dark enough to hide any stain on the tables, any covert transactions, any escapades that took place in the corners of the large room.
Dark enough to hide Cormac, too, from any prying eyes, many as they were in Laird MacAuley’s territory. Cormac always felt uneasy visiting the place, and had suggested different places for such meetings, but the man he was supposed to meet insisted that they had to be near MacAuley Castle, as he didn’t want to travel too far.
He had been waiting in that tavern for too long, but he couldn’t leave. The meeting was mandatory and no matter how much he wished that wasn’t the case, he had no other choice but to stay there and wait for the man. Cormac kept his head down, avoiding the glances from the people around him and trying to breathe in as little of the stench as possible.
The good thing was that no one ever approached him. He looked too menacing for that, too cold and serious, and no one bothered him. They knew to keep away.Even the wenches gave him a wide berth, and they weren’t known to be selective in their choice of clients. They certainly approached every drunk in that place, sitting on their laps, pouring even more drinks in their glasses to get them to forget the price—both of the drinks and of themselves. But when it came to Cormac, they gave him one glance and left him alone.
Few had ever been brave enough to approach him the times he had visited the tavern, but he had never taken any of them up to their offer. His friends teased him for it sometimes, all of them wondering why he so rarely touched a woman, but Cormac had much more pressing things to consider than bedding a lass he would never see again.
Not for the first time that day, he looked at the letter he was clutching in his hands. It was one of many he had received over the years, all of them commanding him to meet a certain man in a certain place in neat, careful handwriting.Every time he received such a letter, he lost a little bit of hope.
A man, tall and broad at the shoulders sat down next to Cormac, placing his large mug of ale on the table with such might that he spilled half its contents over the table and Cormac’s hands. It was a show of strength, Cormac thought. Just something to anger him and put him on edge.
He didn’t have to turn and look at him to know it was none other than Brody, the very man he had been waiting for all that time. His mere presence was instantly recognizable to him after all those years, and besides, Brody was the only man who ever approached him in those taverns.
“Took ye long enough tae show yerself,” Cormac said. “A while longer an’ I would have left.”
“Nay,” Brody said. “Ye wouldnae have.”
Cormac didn’t say so, though. He didn’t try to argue with Brody either. Instead, he said, “What does he want this time?”
“That’s nae very nice o’ ye,” Brody said. “Show some respect fer the laird.”
Cormac didn’t think he had to show respect to any man who had taken him and his brother, had tortured them, and then had given him the option to do all his dirty work for him for the rest of his life just so that he could save himself and Ellair. He didn’t think he deserved an ounce of his respect or anyone else’s.
“Ye ken that the only reason I dae this is because I have tae,” Cormac told Brody. “An’ ye dinnae care about the way I talk, dae ye?”
Brody let out a small chuckle, giving Cormac a shrug. “Nay, I suppose I dinnae,” he said. “All I care about is that ye dae yer job so I dinnae have tae kill ye.”
“Och? Have ye come tae like me company?”
“O’ course I havenae,” Brody irked him that the man was so certain he could defeat him in a fight, albeit with difficulty. Then again, the more people underestimated Cormac in a fight, the easier it would be for him to beat them.
Part of Cormac wanted to put an end to all this right in that moment. He could take Brody out of the tavern and kill him. But what would that solve? If anything, it would only make things worse.
“Well? Will ye tell me what Laird MacAuley wants?” he asked, eager to get the meeting over with before he would do something he would regret.
Brody looked around, making sure that no one was listening in to their conversation, unlikely as it was. Then, he leaned closer and said, “Ye are tae find out who has been givin’ information tae the enemy. The laird thinks there is a traitor in the clan.”
Cormac didn’t need to ask to know what enemy Brody was referring to. After the King’s exile the previous year, the MacAuley Clan had accepted the new regime and supported it. Anyone who didn’t was now their enemy, and Laird MacAuley had sworn to destroy them.
Of course, that meant Cormac was the enemy, too. The MacThomas Clan wasn’t known for being partial to the new monarchs. If anything, they had sworn to do anything in their power to return the rightful King to his throne.
A heavy sigh escaped Cormac’s lips. The last thing he wanted to do was go against his own beliefs and hunt down a man for doing what they both thought was right. Laird MacAuley would surely want the traitor dead, and Cormac would have to deliver the blow.
“This is the last time I dae anythin’ fer him,” Cormac said. It had been a long time coming. He had been thinking about ending this for a long time now, but this time, he was certain it had to be done. Laird MacAuley had forced him to do many terrible things, things he regretted even now, years later, but he had always done whatever was asked of him because out of fear. But he drew the line at this kind of betrayal. This man was only the start, he knew. Laird MacAuley would command him to kill many more like him, men who fought for what they believed in, for what Cormac believed in.
He couldn’t take it anymore.“Are ye certain ye wish tae dae that?” Brody asked. “Ye ken what will happen if ye refuse tae dae as the laird commands. Think about yer brother. Think of how painfully he’ll die if ye refuse tae dae what yer told.”
Cormac didn’t want to think about it. He knew what Brody was saying was true, of course. Even if Ellair was a good fighter and even if Cormac spent the rest of his life by his side, trying to protect him, Laird MacAuley would send enough forces after them that they wouldn’t be able to fight them off. He would make sure he would kill them both. He had made that promise to Cormac a long while ago.
And Cormac had no one but his brother. Their parents had died a long time ago, leaving the two of them orphans. They had no one but each other, and the mere thought of anything happening to Ellair, especially because of him, was enough to bring Cormac close to a roiling panic, his heart beating erratically in his chest.
He couldn’t risk his brother’s life. The only reason he had made this deal with Laird MacAuley was so that he could save Ellair from the man’s clutches.
Cormac looked around the tavern, if for nothing else, then to simply give himself some time to think about what to say to Brody. On the one hand, he couldn’t imagine continuing in this way for the rest of his life. It had already gone on for too long and he was not only exhausted, but also disgusted with himself for killing so many innocent people. When Laird MacAuley’s letters had stopped coming for a while, he had thought—and hoped—that perhaps it was all over, that the laird had forgotten about him or that he had found a more capable man. But then this letter had come, the one he was still clutching in his hand, and that hope had immediately dissipated.
The only way he could see out of this was telling the truth to his family, but if he did, he risked putting them all in danger. They were bound to fight for him, to do everything they could to make sure that Laird MacAuley would have no power over him anymore, but in the process, many of them would be hurt. He didn’t want to start a war between the two clans. He didn’t want the bloodshed. It was why he had kept the whole thing a secret from everyone, even from his twin. It was the only
secret he had ever kept from him, to protect him from that vile man. If Ellair knew, he would insist on trying to help and he would put himself in exactly the kind of danger from which Cormac wanted to keep him away.
The tavern around them was as lively as always, its patrons drinking themselves into a stupor without giving him and Brody another glance. A part of Cormac wished for a fight, thinking that maybe, with some luck, someone else would end up killing Brody, but he knew the chances of that ever happening were slim to none.
No, he had to find another way to put an end to all this, after he was done with this one last job. Anything to get him out of his predicament without putting anyone else in danger.
“Besides, think o’ yer bride,” Brody said after he realized that Cormac had nothing to say to him in response to his thinly veiled threat.
Cormac turned to face him, confusion etched on the furrow of his brow. “Me bride?”
“Aye,” said Brody. “One day ye’ll marry. Perhaps soon, even. How old are ye, lad?”
“Twenty-nine,” said Cormac.
“Och, aye. It’s time fer ye tae find a bonnie lass tae marry.”
Cormac’s frown deepened. “Are ye tryin’ tae get me tae wed?”
It was strange, even for a strange man like Brody. Cormac wondered if perhaps Laird MacAuley would try to get him to marry someone from his clan, though he doubted that would be the case. Why would he want someone like him? Even if Cormac did all the dirty work for him, they were still enemies, after all.
“Nay, I’m nae tryin’ tae get ye tae wed,” Brody said with a frustrated huff. “Why would I dae that?”
“I dinnae ken! Yer the one who keeps talkin’ about marriage!”
“It’s a threat, Cormac,” Brody pointed out. He picked up his ale and drained what was left of it, shaking his head in disappointment. “All I’m sayin’ is that sooner or later, ye’ll have tae wed an’
when ye dae, ye should make sure that yer bonnie wife doesnae end up in the hands of Laird MacAuley.”
Cormac’s gaze hardened as he looked at the other man. “Ye mean yer hands,” he said. “Yer the one who would carry out the order.”
Brody grinned, a cold, merciless grin that had even Cormac on edge, a shiver running down his spine. He hated it when Brody smiled like that. It stretched his already rough features into a mask of mockery and self-satisfaction.
“I suppose yer right,” he said. “It’s me job, after all. An’ yers.”
“I dinnae need tae be reminded,” Cormac said bitterly.
He had thought about what his life would be like with a woman. Everyone around him always pressured him to marry and start a family, just like they had done. Even Ellair often told him he should find a wife, thinking perhaps that it would help mellow him out and soften his demeanor.
Perhaps they were all right in that regard, Cormac thought. Perhaps a woman, a family, children of his own would help change him, make him a different, better man. He would know the pleasure of calling someone his own, of sharing his life with her. He would get to raise children and watch them grow up, be better than he ever could be.
But he would never subject a woman or children to the kind of life he was leading. It was too dangerous and their lives would constantly be in danger. Cormac would never be able to rest, knowing that Laird MacAuley could use his wife and children as leverage to get him to do what he wanted.
With narrowed eyes, Cormac turned to look at Brody. He shook his head, knowing that he had no other choice.
“Ye can stop tryin’ tae threaten me an’ me… bride,” he said.
“An’ why is that?” Brody asked, sounding genuinely curious. “Will ye shut yer mouth an’ dae as yer told?”
“Nay,” said Cormac. “I simply will never marry.”
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