Breaking a Highland Curse (Preview)
Ten years ago…
Bram Macleod carefully opened the letter he had discovered on his grandfather’s bedside table. It had not been there the night before; thus, Bram deduced under the circumstances that it had been left there for someone to read. It was addressed to no one in particular, and perhaps, he ought to have waited until his father had arrived and, instead, given it to him to read. For a few moments, Bram stood, trying to weigh up the decision, but his curiosity won in the end.
If ye are reading this, my son, then I am nae longer with ye. I have felt my end coming for some weeks now, and therefore, I have written this letter as my last confession. A truth, perhaps, I ought tae have told ye when I was still living, but if I am honest, I was too much o’ a coward tae see the disappointment I ken ye would feel toward me.
Now that I am gone, ye will learn o’ the story that is kent by nae one but mysel’. Yet, it concerns ye, and so, it is essential for ye to ken.
Before I loved yer beautiful mother, I first loved another. Her name was Martha. O’ course, I didnae ken at the beginning, the depths o’ Martha’s cruelty, nor o’ the other secrets she kept well-hidden. When yer mother caught my eye, my heart sang at the sight o’ her. Something deep within told me I was meant tae be with her. I had nae choice, but tae confess tae Martha that we were nae meant tae be, and that I had fallen for another. I cannae ken how much those words must have hurt her, and I admit, I think I did break her heart. But in return, she tore mine from my body.
Martha had powers that I didnae ken o’, and in her pain and heartache at my dismissal, cast a spell upon me. She told me that any woman I loved would die. At first, I assumed her words tae be ramblings o’ a spurned woman and thought little o’ them. Such an assumption only strengthened when myself and yer mother married, and she was with ye, our first child.
Little did I ken back then that we would only be given the gift o’ one progeny. Five years after yer birth, my beloved Isla went tae sleep one night and never awoke. You barely kent yer mother, my son, and that dreadful circumstance was my doing. Ye suffered without a mother, and I was destined tae spend the rest o’ my life alone. A lonely existence with the knowledge that it was I who had killed my sweet and wonderful wife, albeit unintentionally, and yet, the guilt has never left me.
Had I listened tae Martha’s warning, had I nae been such a stubborn man who dismissed her threat with arrogance, yer mother could have been saved. It would have pained me tae let her go, but she could still have had a far longer life. O’ course, we then wouldnae have brought ye intae the world, and therein lies the paradox.
I leave this earthly plain with my confession unburdened, though it doesnae feel like any weight has been lifted. There is one further precaution I must warn ye about. Nae one must touch my body after my death. The curse will pass from me tae whoever touches my skin first. Take great care and ensure those with the responsibility o’ dealing with my remains are instructed tae wear gloves, or some other sort o’ protection.
I leave ye now, my dear son, with love and honor. The lairdship brings with it, a great responsibility tae take care o’ all those o’ our clan. It is a privilege, and yet, a weighty burden. One I trust ye will dae with a level head and wisdom. Rule well, my son, and we will meet again in another life.
When he finally came to the end, Bram could feel the elevated beat of his heart thumping against his chest. While he had read the letter in its entirety, he could hardly believe the words and stood transfixed as he tried to take it all in.
Grandfather has been cursed for all these years?!
The letter quivered in his now shaking hand, and still stunned, Bram looked from the piece of paper to his grandfather, who lay cold and lifeless on the bed before him.
A few moments before, he and Maxwell had entered their grandfather’s chamber to see if he needed anything and to keep him company. He had been bedridden for nearly a week, and the whole family had begun to worry that whatever illness had taken over him would not lift.
Clearly, their concerns had been justified, for the older man had passed sometime during the night. Distraught at finding their grandfather cold, Maxwell had run from the bedchamber to alert their mother and father, leaving Bram standing at their grandfather’s bedside, still in shock, devastated for his loss.
It had only been when Maxwell had left the room that Bram had noticed the letter. It had been meant for his father, but he could not have known that before he opened it, given there had been no name on it.
As though seeing his grandfather for the first time, Bram looked at the deep lines running across his face like a map. Lines that would never again crease with his laughter or deepen with a discerning frown. His silvery gray hair lay across the pillow, surrounding his face like some sort of halo. His jaw lay slack, dressed in the bushy beard and mustache that he always said kept his face warm in winter. Bram noticed how withered his face seemed. A face that had seen as many good times as bad, yet the old man had always kept a bright outlook on life.
Bram struggled with the rush of emotions that bombarded him as he thought about what all this meant. Before he had opened the letter, he had felt despair, loss, and heartache at the sudden demise of a man he had looked up to for the entirety of his life. Now, however, feelings of astonishment, sorrow, grief, and sympathy rose within him.
In all the stories his grandfather had told, Bram could not once remember him mentioning this woman, Martha, or anything about a curse. He had always been a strong warrior, battling to defend his clan and all those who relied upon him to lead and care for them. His inner strength was as solid as the outer strength he had always displayed.
What a lonely and heartbreaking life he had suffered. Losing the love of his life, and afterward, never having the opportunity to have such companionship again, fearing his curse would kill her too.
“At least yer now at peace, Grandfather,” Bram muttered.
His musings continued but were interrupted a moment later when Bram heard voices in the corridor. They were getting louder as they approached the bedchamber. He could hear crying and wailing and knew immediately that the despair was coming from his youngest brother, Knox.
Knox had been very close to their grandfather. In fact, in these past few years, the two were nearly inseparable. Wherever Grandfather was, Knox was either directly by his side or never too far away. There had always been an uncanny resemblance between the two, something the family had teased both Knox and their grandfather about. On more than one occasion, Maxwell had jibed that Knox looked more like his grandfather’s son than father’s, much to his grandfather’s amusement. It was a bizarre circumstance, but the family was now used to it. Every one of them would suffer the loss of the family leader, but Bram knew in his heart Knox would suffer this loss more than anyone.
Battling against Knox’s wails of grief and despair, Bram could hear his mother’s trembling voice, trying as best as she could through her own tears to soothe Knox with comforting words. While Bram could not hear his father’s voice, he had no doubt that he was approaching along with the others.
As the voices became louder the nearer they came to the bedchamber, so did the sound of hurried footsteps. It was the sound of someone running. It alerted Bram, for he couldn’t understand why anyone might be running under the current circumstances. Bram turned and looked toward the door to see who it might be. And as though seeing it in slow motion, watched as Maxwell, his eyes red from the tears that still flowed, bolted into the bedchamber. Running across the room, his heavy footfall echoed against the wooden boards beneath his feet. He made a swift approach to the bed where their grandfather lay. The grief had clearly now kicked in, and Bram knew exactly what Maxwell was going to do. His older brother was about to fling himself upon their grandfather’s chest.
The curse! If Maxwell touches Grandfather…
Only then, remembering the letter that remained gripped in his hand, Bram crumpled and stuffed it into his shirt. He had to stop Maxwell from touching Grandfather’s skin, or he would be next to be cursed. With no time to think about it, Bram, who still stood beside the bed and step to his left, blocking Maxwell’s approach. He then threw himself upon his grandfather’s chest, ensuring he encountered his skin before Maxwell had the chance.
A strange sensation ran through his body, a jolt, like he had been struck by lightning. A second later, he felt a strange twisting sin his gut. That had to be it. The curse was moving from his grandfather to him.
“What did ye dae that for?” Maxwell barked, angry that Bram had shoved him out of the way.
Bram did not reply. Having accomplished what he had set out to do, he pushed himself up from the bed and watched as Maxwell did the same thing. His brother laid his head upon the old man’s chest; his cheek pressed against the small amount of exposed skin. Maxwell did not react nor look confused at any sensation he was experiencing. Bram took a sigh of relief. In that moment, he was certain that the curse had left his grandfather’s body before Maxwell touched him. He had done it. Bram had taken the curse. A sense of relief flooded through him, swiftly followed by an overwhelming feeling of realization at his sacrifice.
What have I done?
He had saved his brother from a dreadful fate. A noble act indeed. There had simply been no time to think. Bram could have tried to stop Maxwell, but in his distraught state, he would not have waited for an explanation. He would not have listened. Hardly having the time to think about it, given the speed at which everything had happened, Bram had reacted instinctively. He and Maxwell were very close, and Bram had always been at his brother’s side to help and protect him.
Now, however, as the rest of the family gathered around the bed, Bram took a small step back. The consequences of his actions slowly began to sink in. His grandfather’s curse had been passed onto him. A curse that none of them stood in that room knew anything about. Absently, Bram brought his hand up and touched the letter beneath his shirt.
I may never be able tae love a woman.
Bram’s mind was racing now. Standing there in his grandfather’s bedchamber, he wondered if he would have the strength to do what the old man who now lay lifeless before him had done.
Can I really go through my whole life alone?
A small village in Scotland.
Present day, 1689
Makenna Morgan cringed at the heavy thud of the door slamming in her face. She had only left the house and had turned to say goodbye to the old woman who lived there. But Makenna’s words were neither heard nor acknowledged. She had done what she had come to do, and the old woman was now glad to see the back of her.
While it was hard to take, Makenna could hardly blame her and ought not to expect any other reaction. Most of the people she had visited loathed her, and she did not blame them. These people had suffered for most of their lives thanks to her grandmother’s wickedness. While Martha had cursed these people and their children many years ago, Makenna had searched high and low, spending months trying to find them to relieve their dreadful burden.
Of course, they felt relief at their new freedom, but there was rarely any gratitude. In fact, they looked upon Makenna with disdain and hatred, as though it had been she who had cursed them in the first place. She supposed they needed to be angry with someone. And seeing how Martha had been dead for years; Makenna made a suitable substitute.
Makenna took a piece of paper from her pocket and looked at the long list of names. She had searched and found every single one, and once cured, she had scratched off their name. Looking, down at the last name on the list, she scratched that one off too. Her mission had ended. There may well be more out there, but she had found and cured those she had known about or discovered.
Putting the paper back into her pocket, Makenna pulled at the glove that had slid a little down her hands, the only protection she had from hurting people. Inheriting her grandmother’s powers, Makenna had learned the hard way what her hands were capable of, and, having done much damage when she was younger, had only discovered later that she could undo the curses she had inflicted.
The gloves remained on her hands at all times, removed only when using her gift to cure people. It had taken years for her to control her power, but she did not want to take any chances. Apart from touching those she or her grandmother had cursed, for she needed to press her hands over their hearts to do so, Makenna had not felt the touch of skin for years.
Walking away from the house and down the cobbled street of the small village, Makenna thought about the journey ahead of her. In the strangest circumstances, she had met one of her sisters, Lana, and though it had been a shock, discovering she had no family at all, their reunion had been cut short by the arrival of Laird Johnson’s soldiers. They had been hunting her for months, for the laird was determined to capture all those with powers. Allied to the English, he wanted to use the powers of those he imprisoned against the highlanders. Then, of course, there was Camden Johnson.
The laird’s nephew.
The man who had tricked her into thinking he loved her.
When Johnson’s men had arrived, Lana had run in one direction, with the man who accompanied her, Knox Macleod, and Makenna ran in the other. They had agreed that Johnson’s men would have a harder time trying to capture them if they went in different directions. Before they had been separated, Makenna had promised to come and find Lana at Macleod’s Castle. There had been no time for Makenna to tell her newfound sister that she had business she needed to attend to first. Now she had finished her mission of curing all those who had been cursed, she could finally make the journey, which was where she now planned to go.
The twisting sensation of hunger returned to her as it had earlier. Across the square, the rowdy noise of people and music floated out of a tavern. Ordinarily, she would not allow herself to be around so many people in such a small space, but she simply could not stand the pangs of hunger any longer. Besides, she would need her strength. The journey was no small feat.
Lana had also given Makenna a sense of courage that everything would be all right if she could just make it to Dunvegan Castle. Makenna was desperate to see Lana again, but also had an excitement bubbling within her to discover her other sisters.
Pulling the hood of her coat further over her head to hide her face, Makenna walked into the tavern. She had stayed undetected by wearing men’s clothes, oversized men’s clothes that hid the shape of her slender body beneath. Her long, dark blonde hair was tucked under a cap, even though a few strands did manage to escape. But there was little she could do about her face, and thus, the hood was the only defense she had to protect her from being recognized.
She kept her head low, ensuring she did not catch anyone’s eye. Any of the people in the tavern could be Johnson’s spies, and she could not chance being discovered. Hurriedly, she walked across the tavern and headed for a corner table. So busy hiding her face from those who surrounded her, Makenna was not entirely paying attention to where she was going, and suddenly, she stumbled forward, almost falling to the ground.
A strong hand grabbed her, making her gasp with shock and fear. But as she turned her face automatically, no longer thinking about hiding her identity, she suddenly faced a rather scary-looking character. Even though his quick reflexes had saved her from falling and calling more attention to herself, Makenna could not help but hiss curses at him.
“What a great bloody oaf ye are. Why dinnae ye look where ye are going?”
Instead of retorting or replying angrily, the massive beast of a man only began to laugh. “My word, lass. Ye nae only look like a man; ye chastise like one too.”
While she ought to have been angry at him for laughing at her, Makenna felt her cheeks rage red from embarrassment. It was not how she ordinarily conversed, but with her heightened fear, it had trickled out of her mouth so naturally, one might assume that it was.
The man looking down at her was tall and as broad as a house, with a great scar across his left eye. It did make him look quite terrifying, but with his face beaming with laughter, Makenna could easily see the handsomeness beneath. His long blonde hair rested upon his shoulders, and his hazel eyes gave her such a look of intensity it took her breath away. Once more, she blushed under his gaze.
What am I doing? This man could be anyone. He could even be one o’ Johnson’s spies.
“Thank ye for saving me from falling,” she blurted. “If ye’ll excuse me.” She turned to walk away, but the man did not release her arm. He was no longer gripping her tightly, but the pressure was enough to keep Makenna from walking away freely.
“Given it was I, who nearly knocked ye down, will ye nae let me buy ye a meal tae show ye how sorry I am for being a great bloody oaf,” he said, smirking as he repeated her earlier insult.
She could not deny he was a handsome man, but Makenna was well aware of how dangerous a striking man could be. It had been the handsomeness of Camden Johnson that had caught her off guard the last time. Allowing her emotions to overtake her rational thoughts, she believed he truly had feelings for her. It was only later, when she discovered his true intent—capturing her for his uncle that she swore she would not allow herself to be so easily fooled again.
Interacting with people was more difficult for Makenna, for her childhood had been lonely. One might say it had been unusual, but that would vastly understate her situation. Growing up in a small cottage in the middle of nowhere, with only an old woman for company, Makenna was easily swayed, and did not really understand the trickery of men. She had learned her lesson quickly.
Camden had tricked her, and in doing so, had hurt her terribly. Clearly, men were dreadful people who needed to be avoided at all costs. She had once heard a friend of Camden’s say that “pretty men always get what they want.” It would not be happening this time.
“I am grateful for yer offer, sir, but I dinnae need yer charity. I’m perfectly capable o’ taking care o’ mysel’.”
“I wasnae offering ye charity, lass,” the man replied, a slight frown dancing on his brow. “Nor dae I think ye nae capable o’ taking care o’ yersel’. I was simply offering an apology.”
“I dinnae need yer apology…”
“’Tis only a meal—”
Makenna had heard enough. Like Camden, this man could not take no for an answer. She refused to be treated as though her feelings did not matter, and clearly, her objection was falling upon deaf ears. Perhaps a sharp awakening would do the trick.
Lifting her hand, she slapped him hard across the face. “I dinnae ken yer help,” she hissed. “Now, leave me alone.”
Once more, the man chuckled at her, but released her arm all the same. “Och, now, lass. If yer wanting tae dissuade me, yer going tae have tae try harder than that.”
Makenna suddenly felt anger rise within her. “Ye are insufferable, dae ye ken that?”
“Och, aye,” he said, shrugging with a huge grin. “I hear that a lot.”
Makenna could not help but smile a little at his nonchalant and witty response. He might be insufferable, but he could have handled her slap far differently.
“I’m sorry,” she said, looking remorseful. “I shouldnae have slapped ye.”
“Och, dinnae be worrying yersel’, lass. This face has suffered far worse.” He winked at her with his scarred eye.
Indeed, the man had clearly seen battle for one reason or another. Going against her previous convictions, Makenna could not help but wonder what had happened.
“I just cannae understand why ye have such a hard time believing that someone wants tae help ye,” he replied. The grin had gone now, replaced with a strange sincerity that made her feel a little uncomfortable.
He couldn’t possibly understand. No one really could unless they had walked in her shoes. Her life had not been an easy one, from the very beginning, until now. Her parents had abandoned her as a child, or so she had always believed until she met Lana. Her sister explaining that their mother had wanted to keep Makenna away from magic so she would not turn out as wicked as her grandmother, had made sense. Yet, it had not taken away everything that had happened to her.
Living such a secluded life with an old healer in the woods, had hardly been an ideal childhood. The healer, while kind, would tell her nothing of her origins, who her parents were, or why she had been abandoned. When the old woman passed away, Makenna had been left entirely alone. It had been a terrifying experience, and one she would never forget.
Nor would she forget the feelings that her power had evoked within her. The healer had not explained them to Makenna, as though, by doing so, it would make them worse. It did not make her powers worse, it simply brought Makenna no comfort. Only when she met another woman with powers, who explained why Makenna had her own and what good she could do with them, did things finally make sense. But Makenna had done a lot of damage before then.
Between being abandoned and not really having any sort of relationship with another person to speak of was hard. Given that the healer fed and protected her but did little else, and then, of course, there was Camden. Makenna was now left with heavy feelings of distrust. If she did not get close to people, they could not abandon or betray her. Was it not better to suffer loneliness, than the greater pain of those other things?
Makenna did not answer the man’s obvious curiosity and instead, gave him a nod. “I thank ye for yer concern.” She turned and moved in the direction she had originally been heading when she had first stepped foot in the tavern.
The stew was hot, and the bread was fresh. Makenna ate as though she might not eat again. The little money she had was running low, and before now, she had not eaten for two days. If she could just make her coins last until she reached Dunvegan Castle, she would not need to worry where her next meal was coming from after that. As she took the last bite of her bread, deep voices from a nearby table floated over to her. It was not the voices that piqued her interest, but the words those voices said.
“Are they nae Johnson’s men?” one man said to the other.
“Who?” the other answered.
“Those men who just walked in.”
The hair on the back of Makenna’s neck suddenly stood on end. Instinctively, she lowered her head, but tried with great effort, to peak toward the tavern door from beneath her hood. It was no use, however, for the hood fell too far forward. The only way she could see them would be if she lifted her head, and it just wasn’t worth the risk.
Their arrival at the tavern may just be coincidental, and yet, Makenna could not help but wonder if they had followed her. If they had followed her, how long had they been following her for? Hours? Days? Surely, if it had been days, they would have captured her by now. They could have spotted her in the village though and watched her enter this tavern.
She now had two choices. Stay and finish her meal in the hope she would not be discovered, or carefully and casually leave the tavern in hope they did not see her departure. She had escaped them. She would not allow them to capture her now.
Bram Macleod sat at the table in the tavern feeling more than a little frustrated. The man sitting across from him shrugged and looked regretful. “I’m sorry, Bram. I’ve searched high and low. Anyone I speak tae has nae information either. I wish I was here tae give ye better news.”
When Lana and Knox had returned to the castle, their arrival had been warmly welcomed. Knox had been gone for years, and having him back once more, made their family complete. What they had relayed, however, had piqued Bram’s interest. They had spoken of their search for Makenna and the fact that she held powers that might lift the curse that had weighed upon his shoulders for so many years.
Hearing them speak of such a woman had taken Bram back to that dreadful day his grandfather had passed, the letter he had discovered, and the curse he had willingly taken upon himself. He remembered the day so clearly; the circumstances were embedded in his mind forever. He supposed inheriting a curse would do that to a person.
After Bram had shoved Maxwell out of the way, ensuring he was not plagued with such a dreadful inheritance, the rest of the family had gathered around the body and mourned the loss of the wise man.
Knox had draped himself over their grandfather. His body had jerked uncontrollably as his sobs had poured from him. Their mother had stood beside his younger brother, rubbing his back and trying to comfort him, while she herself had cried her own tears of grief. Father had stood beside the bed, his jaw clenched, trying to contain whatever he was feeling. One arm had been wrapped around Maxwell’s shoulders, while the other had hung loosely by his side.
The letter had been for his father, and Bram had toyed with the idea of telling him about it. But thoughts of the consequences of such an action had caused a conflict within him. If Bram had given his father the letter, surely, it would have changed the view he had of his own father. They had always had such a strong bond.
Would the fact that his grandfather’s actions had been the cause of his grandmother’s death make the new laird see his father differently? Bram had not imagined how it could not. The old man was gone, and the idea of changing his own father’s view of his grandfather had dissuaded Bram from revealing the truth.
Besides, if his father discovered the letter, then Bram would have to tell him about the curse and about the fact that Bram had taken it upon himself to save his older brother. He had not wanted to consider what trouble that might cause. And the same point came to the fore. The laird would no doubt view his own father differently after hearing that.
It had felt, after Bram had gone over these considerations, that the best thing for everyone involved would be for him to keep the curse a secret. His father’s view of Bram’s grandfather would remain. There would be no fuss, and nothing would change. Well, not for anybody else, at any rate. Their grandfather’s death had been a heavy enough blow, and Bram had concluded that revealing the curse would help no one.
A few days after the funeral, the reality of what his life might be like had finally sunk in. Though love and marriage had hardly crossed his mind before, Bram had only been eighteen years old, after all. And now, all those things had suddenly felt important. The prospect of a lonely existence was a heavy burden to carry. Especially for a young man in his prime.
Yet, he had hardly been given a choice. Perhaps, had Maxwell not rushed into their grandfather’s bedchamber that day with the sole intention of throwing himself upon his chest, Bram would have had more time to think it through. But that had not been the case. He simply could not have let Maxwell take that curse. Besides, after their father, Maxwell was next in line for the lairdship. It would be his duty to carry on the Macleod bloodline for the sake of the clan. How could he do that if any woman he fell in love with died?
After all these memories had come flooding back, without a word, Bram had left Dunvegan Castle some months back in search of Lana and Skylar’s sister. He could tell no one about his reasons for leaving. The curse had been his secret for all these years. He was not about to disclose it now. He had exchanged many coins with the number of scouts he had out looking for her, but not one of them had discovered her whereabouts. The damn lass was just impossible to find.
This meeting was a last-ditch attempt before he returned to the Macleod lands, but it now appeared this scout had no good news for him, either. There was one more messenger he was going to meet. His location was nearer to the castle, and thus, Bram planned to speak to him on his journey home. He did not hope that the messenger would have any better news.
The scout began speaking again, but Bram stood from the table.
“I thank ye for yer efforts, William,” Bram said, cutting the man off. “But I cannae see that there’s any more point tae my searching. Wherever she is, she doesnae want tae be discovered, and clearly, she has her reasons. Besides—” he turned toward the exit without looking where he was going, when suddenly, he walked into a man moving across the tavern. Such was the force of their collision that the man fell forward, and only for Bram’s quick reactions, the man would have fallen flat on his face.
When Bram steadied him on his feet again, he discovered the person wasn’t a man at all, but a woman. She glared at him with a rage, but Bram was too surprised to feel reprimanded. She wore men’s clothes that were far too big for her, and a coat with a large hood that covered much of her head and face. She was a beautiful woman, which made Bram wonder why such a bonnie lass would be dressed in such overbearing clothes.
“What a great bloody oaf ye are,” she spat. “Why dinnae ye look where ye are going?”
And thus began an interaction that led to Bram getting a rather undeserved slap. She might have been dressed in men’s clothes, but she slapped like a woman. And though she apologized, she needn’t have bothered. He hardly felt any sting. In the end, she walked away, leaving him gazing after her and wondering what her story was. He had planned to leave, but sat back down at the table.
“Are ye nae going then?” William grinned.
Being so close by, he would have heard and seen everything, and now looked rather amused.
“There’s a story behind that wee lass, William,” Bram said with a smirk on his lips. “A woman doesnae wonder about dressed like that, unless she’s in trouble.”
“Or has something to hide,” William added, raising his eyebrows and nodding his head. “Well, I’m away,” the scout said, scraping his chair back and standing. “I’m sorry again, Bram, for all your trouble. Are ye heading back tae Dunvegan anytime soon?”
“Aye. I’ll be leaving this evening.”
“Then, if I hear anything—”
“Ye willnae,” Bram said firmly. If there was information to be discovered, he would have found out by now.
“Maybe,” William shrugged in half agreement, “but if I dae, I’ll send word tae ye at the castle.”
“I’m grateful for yer time and effort, William. But I have a feeling I’ll nae be hearing from ye again.”
William bid him farewell and left the tavern, leaving Bram to sit and enjoy the small amount of ale in his cup. While he did not make it obvious, he glanced across the tavern every now and again, checking on the beautiful stranger he had nearly knocked down.
After some time, he noticed her leave, likely the same way she had entered; the hood covering most of her face, and her head looking down at the floor. It made him wonder if it hadn’t been herself who had caused the tumble by not looking where she had been going earlier. Bram’s gut twisted as she walked through the tavern doors. It was a sign, and he knew it. If there was one thing he could rely on, it was his gut. When he had listened to it, it had always worked well for him, and bad things had happened when he ignored it.
He listened to it now, and throwing a few coins on the table, made his way out of the tavern after her. She was adjusting her coat when he caught up with her, but frightened he might scare her. Given the fact he was approaching her from behind, Bram called out, “Dae ye need any help?”
She spun around and looked at him, her brows furrowed together in a suspicious expression.
“Yer like a bad smell, are ye nae?” she snapped back.
Bram suddenly laughed. “My god, woman. Ye dae have a way with words.”
“What dae ye want?” she demanded.
Bram raised his hands submissively and shook his head. “I dinnae want anything. I’m only wondering if yer all right. Ye dinnae see a woman dressed as a man too often in these parts. Is it that yer hiding from someone?”
“Ye ask too many questions,” she replied. Her tone was a little less abrasive, but not by much.
“I find I ask just the right amount o’ questions.” Bram grinned.
“O’ course ye dae. Yer a man, and men think they ken it all.”
“Well, nae all,” Bram bantered back, the grin growing wider at his sarcasm.
She huffed then, clearly frustrated and not at all amused at his lighthearted banter. “I thank ye for yer kindness earlier, but yer questions are a little too intrusive for my liking. I have my reasons and nae one o’ them has anything tae dae with ye.”
“There ye go, refusing help again.”
“When I need help, I’ll ask for it,” she retorted.
“Somehow, I doubt that,” Bram concluded firmly.
“Like I say, yer a man. Ye ken it all. I’ll be on my way now. I would suggest ye dae the same.”
Once again, she turned away, leaving him standing there looking after her. He couldn’t help but smile. Whether or not she needed his help, she was never likely going to admit it. Her feistiness would put any man on the back foot, and yet, Bram could not help but admire her spirit.
Makenna hurried through the village streets as the sun crept across the sky. She needed to cover some distance before dark fell completely. The Macleod lands were far away, and the sooner she could reach the safety of the castle, the better.
What have I ever done tae deserve such a difficult life?
For years now, she had been hiding. Partly because of Johnson and his obsession for her capture, partly because of all the guilt she felt at her own and her grandmother’s evil. She had poured out her heart in apologies to all who had been harmed by hers, and the old woman’s curses, trying to make things right again. It was exhausting.
What none of those people who hated her so vehemently knew was that she was cursed too. She had never asked for any of this. She didn’t ask for this so-called gift, and yet, from the day she had been born, it had been hers to carry. Apart from all the damage she had done, it had been the cause of her mother abandoning her; the separation of her entire family, in fact, and her being forced to lead such a lonely life.
It was a spell that had been cast upon herself that only one person could break—the love of her life. Not that she knew what love really felt like. For though she had thought she loved Camden Johnson, her infatuation had resulted from his lies and manipulation. Besides, how could one love another if they did not really know them?
It was a tricky situation, for if the love of her life killed her, the curse would die too. She would not die, her soul would remain, but the spell would be broken. But how would she know the love of her life? What would it feel like to even be in love? It was an enormous risk to take. And given the fact she had not connected with anyone before or after Camden, currently, an impossible likelihood. Perhaps she was simply destined to carry this burden for the rest of her life, and with it, endure a lonely existence.
Long shadows now fell across the cobbled streets as she headed in the direction she needed to go. It gave Makenna some cover, and she made a conscious effort to stay in the shadows. Clearly, her disguise was not as effective as she had thought, given the man in the tavern had realized she was a woman so very quickly.
It was only because he saw my face.
Maybe. Maybe not. She hadn’t spoken with him long enough to discover such information. In either case, she had to remain vigilant.
Turning down another street, Makenna was certain she could hear hurrying steps behind her. She might not have paid attention if it sounded like just one person, but it was clear. The footfall was from several people running. Her gut twisted and her heart beat faster at the thought that perhaps that man in the tavern had alerted others to what he had witnessed. Hurrying her pace, she turned another corner and ran. Soon enough, the heavy footfall followed her, and Makenna knew for a certainty she was being chased.
The largeness of her clothes weighed her down, nor were they ideal to run in. Battling against the resistance of the heavy materials, Makenna struggled to lengthen the gap and could hear the thundering footsteps getting closer and closer. Turning one more corner, Makenna looked up ahead of her and suddenly gasped in despair. She had turned down a dead end, and the only thing ahead of her was a high wall.
Spinning around to go back on herself, she realized it was too late. She was trapped. The men, seeing her situation, had slowed down now and stealthily approached. She could see them all very well and knew exactly who they were. Johnson’s men.
“She cannae escape now,” one of them growled, gripping tightly onto a rope in his hands.
“Aye, we’ve got her. But be careful. She’s a witch.”
“Aye,” Makenna cried with as much conviction as she could. “I am a witch, and I’ll curse ye all.”
“I dinnae believe in such crap,” another one said. He was a great, broad man with barely any teeth and a snarling growl.
Makenna stepped further and further back until she could go no further. A solid wall stood at her back, and eight soldiers approached her at the front. There were too many of them. Even if she managed to curse one, the others would overpower her. Besides, no matter what the circumstances, she didn’t want to use her powers in that way ever again.
“Please,” she cried. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”
But her cries fell on deaf ears, and a second later, four of them launched forward. Makenna fought with all her might as they grabbed at her, finally securing her hands and binding them with the rope. Her struggle was pointless. They were far bigger and stronger than her. Even so, she jerked and thrashed. It did not take long before they had secured her fully, though she still did not succumb without a fight.
Her heart thumped wildly in her chest at the thought of what would happen to her now. She had evaded Johnson’s men while she had gone from one village to the next, curing all those poor souls she and her grandmother had harmed. How ironic that she was to be captured now, after her task had been completed. Perhaps she was being punished for all the hurt she had caused.
“Leave her be,” a booming voice came from somewhere behind them.
The soldiers slowly stopped what they were doing, if only to turn and see whence the voice had come. Makenna looked up but could hardly believe her eyes. It was the man from the tavern. The man she had abruptly told to leave her alone. The man she had suspected, as she was being chased through the streets, had been the person who had told the soldiers of her existence in the first place.
Clearly, that had not been true, for by the glare in his eye as he stared with anger at the men who had bound her, he was there to rescue her.
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