Her Highland Temptation (Preview)

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The Scottish Highlands, summer, 1705
Marcus and Erin MacLean’s wedding

Weddings were supposed to be a time of joy, but looking around the Great Hall of MacLean Castle gave Daemon MacMillan no sense of delight at all. He would happily have been somewhere else, if he had a choice. But the bride was kin-by-marriage, and he would not forsake his responsibilities to stand with his wife’s clan, even if it made his heart ache for her.

Erin wasn’t much like his Rowan. That was a small mercy, at least. His Rowan had been gentle and lady-like, not like her warrior-maid sister.

Rowan. Everything made him think of her, despite the fact that a year had passed since her death of a lingering winter fever. Rowan would have been delighted to see her warrior-woman sister wed, and to Marcus MacLean on top of it. She’d often told him she hoped that one of her younger siblings would choose one of the MacLean siblings as a husband, creating a formal tie where one of friendship had existed for years.

Rowan would have been in the thick of the celebrations, laughing with the bride and dancing with her sisters. It was all Daemon could do to remain and be polite to his hosts, instead of fleeing as soon as the ceremony was over. Ironic as well.

His relationship to Rowan had never been one like those of bard’s tales. No wild, passionate romance, love at first sight, or once-in-a-lifetime connection between them. He’d simply married her, as the eldest of the MacDougall clan, and over time a quiet, slow-growing bond had formed between them, rooting like a flowering shrub between his down-to-earth nature and her gentle light.

How ironic, that it was only when the light was gone and the bush had been uprooted that he noted their absence. For all that it had been no great, romantic love between them, he still felt her absence and the loss of her keenly. And it was worse here, surrounded by her kin, watching as her sister married a man she clearly loved.

He wouldn’t have stayed at all, save that he was an invited guest, and he needed to discuss potential alliance plans with Laird Darren MacLean. He was determined to honor his bond to Clan MacDougall, and now it appeared that Marcus MacLean would be Laird MacDougall’s heir, and the laird when Kaelin MacDougall passed away. That made an amiable relationship with the future laird’s elder brother important.

“Me Laird MacMillan.” A familiar voice made him turn.

Lyla. Twenty-three years old and very similar in looks to her sisters. All three of the MacDougall daughters had inherited the same raven-black hair, fair porcelain skin and sky-blue eyes. The sight of her made his heart ache.

Still, he forced himself to be courteous. “Lady Lyla.” The youngest daughter of Laird MacDougall had been recently kidnapped.

She made a face at him, even as her cheeks colored with a blush. “Och, ye dinnae need tae be so formal. Ye always called me just Lyla afore.”

“When I was wed tae yer sister, aye.” He was still allied to her father by that marriage, and by bonds of friendship and respect, but the easy relationship was gone, and he had no desire to pretend it wasn’t. The wounds to his heart were too deep, and being around any of the MacDougalls was like adding salt to the wound.

“Ye’re still part o’ the family, are ye nae?”

“I’m nae a MacDougall, nor wed tae one. I’m yer father’s ally and friend, but nae more than that.” Exasperation and heartache made his voice sharper than he might have wanted it to be. He paid it no mind.

“Even so, there’s nae reason fer ye tae be so distant.” Her voice was steady, even lightly chiding, but there was an undercurrent to it he wasn’t sure he liked. Was she afraid of him?

There was a part of Daemon that felt distressed at the idea of making one of the MacDougall sisters uncomfortable. But there was another part of him that was glad of anything that might put distance between them.

He didn’t understand why Lyla would choose to speak to him, when he had to remind her of her sister. They’d never been all that close. He was over a decade her senior, and had very little in common with her.

He hoped that silence would convince her to leave him alone. Rowan would have understood that he had no desire to speak any further, and quietly excused herself. But Lyla wasn’t Rowan, despite the similarity in looks. She’d always been more outspoken, more hot-tempered and forward. She wasn’t as stubborn as her sister Erin, but neither did she possess Rowan’s quiet serenity and gentle good humor.

Now she addressed him again. “Surely ye dinnae need tae be cold and pull away from us. Ye’re kin-by-marriage, and there’s nae reason fer ye tae isolate yerself from the rest o’ us. We all mourn fer Rowan…”

Words snarled out of him before he could stop them, startling her into silence and stillness, like a frightened deer in front of a predator. “Dinnae speak tae me o’ mourning, as if yer love fer her as a sister and mine as her husband were the same! Dinnae speak tae me o’ yer grieving, when yer sister stands laughing in the arms o’ her love, and I ken full well mine will never stand with me again.”

She paled, and for a moment he thought she would leave. Then she rallied. “I only meant that ye need nae be alone in yer grief, fer we all loved me sister. She wouldnae want ye tae be so alone.”

For a moment, he wondered if she knew of the letter – Rowan’s last letter to him. But no. There was no reason she would know of that letter. “What would ye ken of what Rowan wished fer me?”

“I kent me sister. And she was too kind and too generous tae want ye tae waste yer life in solitude. She would want yer happiness, and fer ye tae be surrounded by kinfolk – yers and ours.”

Anger sparked in him. “Would she indeed? Or is it that ye’re wanting a protector, and ye think tae ask me tae serve since ye have nae husband?”

She stepped back at that, or perhaps it was the ice in his voice. “Tis nae what I’m saying…”

“Or were ye offering yerself as me new wife? A second MacDougall tae replace the one I lost?” He regretted the words as soon as he spoke them, knowing they were cruel.

Her expression twisted in a combination of hurt and well-deserved rage. “How dare ye suggest such a thing? I was trying tae be kind…”

“And the greatest kindness ye can dae is leave me be.” He huffed out a breath, then spotted Erin approaching, with her husband in tow. No doubt Lyla’s older sister had seen her sister’s distress. He made an effort to gentle his tone. “I didnae mean tae slight ye, or suggest anything untoward. I misspoke in me pain.”

She sighed. “I can understand it. But Daemon…”

“Laird MacMillan, if ye will. Nae matter that I didnae mean tae be discourteous, my point still stands. ‘Tis solitude I want, from Clan MacDougall as much as any other. Mayhap ‘tis nae what ye want and what me clan needs, but I’m resolved tae never marry again. I’ll nae choose a hollow sham o’ a marriage, nor will I risk losing another as I lost Rowan.” Grief sharpened his tongue. “Understand me feelings in that, at least.”

She winced backward from the harshness of his words, but before she could reply Erin was there, stepping between them with the excuse of asking both of them to join them on the dance floor. He watched Lyla be led away, to eventually be partnered with Laird MacLean, and slid back further into the shadows.

The joy was gone from his life, but there was no reason for him to intrude upon the joy of others. He would do his best to honor his alliances and care for his clan, but he’d no interest in any more interactions with the happy couple. Or with Lyla MacDougall.


Chapter One

Three months later, autumn 1705
MacLean Keep

The cards in her hand weren’t the best, but Lyla MacDougall had no intention of revealing that – not if she could get away with bluffing. She was the only representative of her clan at the table, and she had to uphold the honor of her family. Even against her elder sister.

Her eyes slid to her left, where Laird Darren MacLean sat, studying his cards with lazy focus that she couldn’t read now any better than she’d been able to the first time they played. As far as Lyla was concerned, the intricate pattern of tattoos the eldest MacLean had gave him an unfair advantage. They not only helped mask his expressions, but they were distracting – Celtic knotwork connected symbols with meanings and stories only Darren knew in a lattice of flowing lines that drew the eye and interrupted concentration.

Then there was her sister, sitting across from her. Erin was far more transparent, but her husband had been teaching her about duplicity, and Lyla knew better than to trust that little quirk of a smile. It might mean anything, these days, and Erin had never been a bad card player, even before Marcus had taught her more about masking her emotions.

Then there was Marcus himself. Marcus had an expressive face, never still, and he bluffed as easily as he spoke. He was looking at his cards with a bland, intent expression that could mean anything, or nothing at all. Marcus would be a MacDougall soon, when he and Erin returned to MacDougall Keep and he claimed his official position as her father’s heir.

There was no hurry, though, not when Lyla and Erin’s father, Kaelin, was still hale and healthy. That was why Lyla had elected to stay in MacLean castle with her sister and her new kin-by-marriage while his replacement as war leader was trained, and Marcus himself was taught some of the basics of lairdship by his brother. He’d learn more with her father, and Erin could also help him learn to manage MacDougall clan, but none of them begrudged the brothers the time with each other.

Lyla was the first to bid. “Five coppers.” They weren’t playing for large stakes, not among family, and five coppers raised eyebrows.

“Raise ye two.” Darren tossed the coins in.

“Fold.” Erin shook her head.

“Raise another five.” Marcus threw twelve coppers into the pot.

“Call.” Her hand didn’t warrant such a bet, but she wasn’t going to back down. She thought Marcus was bluffing.

“Fold.” Darren shook his head.

“Raise two.” Marcus grinned a challenge at her, and Lyla grinned back.

“Call.” She tossed the chips in, then added another. “And raise a copper.”

“Matched.” Marcus tossed in his coin. “Show.”

Lyla laid down her cards. “Two pair. Queen high.”

Marcus laid down his cards, and Lyla sighed. “Flush. O’ course ye would. Are ye sure ye’re nae cheating?” She smirked to take the sting out of the words, and Marcus grinned easily back.

“Nae at all. I’m just a lucky bastard.” Marcus’s gaze slid to Erin, who blushed under her husband’s gaze and the admiration in it.

“That ye are.” Darren nodded. “And I’m hoping that luck will shadow us all.” He looked to Lyla. “Are ye sure ye’ll be all right with nae more than a guard as escort? Ye’re welcome to stay the month, and longer if ye need, until I can spare Marcus… or I can ask Keegan…”

“Dinnae drag Keegan from his duties.” Marcus shook his head at the mention of their youngest brother. “Lyla’s welcome tae stay, o’ course, but I’ll nae be leaving ye with an untrained war leader, even one as skilled as Adrian, if Clan Ranald is on the move again.”

“We dinnae ken they are.”

“We didnae ken they were on the move until near tae late last time. And I’ll nae be rescuing ye from that keep twice, even if I thought the new laird left the weaknesses we used afore.” Marcus shook his head. “And Donall Ranald has reason tae feud with us, even if we had our reasons tae act as well.”

“I ken. But I thought they’d accepted the fact that we had tae kill Connor Ranald, for the sake o’ both our clans. Keegan didnae have any other choice, with Ranald threatening his lass.” Darren scowled.

“Aye. But I’m thinking the lad bears equal grudge tae ye fer threatening his sister. Certain sure she doesnae appreciate having a man who was supposed tae be her betrothed put a sword tae her neck.” Marcus shook his head. “I ken why ye did it, but…”

“It was that or risk losing Isobel.” Darren grunted. “But they’ve been quiet for so long… I thought they’d done their mourning and got on with life when I didnae receive a challenge letter in the first month.”

Marcus snorted. “More fool ye. A grudge born in blood cannae fade so fast, nae among the clans. A year could pass and the anger would burn hot, or a decade, as well ye ken. And even if Donall kent his father was the world’s biggest bastard, still honor demands he avenge the man.” He considered his words, then amended them. “Or at least make the attempt.”

“Well enough. But that’s why I asked if Lyla will be all right with only an escort o’ two or three guards.”

“I’ll be fine.” Lyla smiled at the older man. “I’ve traveled alone afore, and come tae nae harm. Faith, even Coire didnae catch me on the road when I was watchful. And as I’ll be riding with MacDougall men, there’s nae reason fer any man tae come after me.”

“I hope that’s truth, and Donall will have the sense tae leave yer clan out o’ the feud, though I fear ‘tis a fools hope.” Darren exhaled. “But there’s little enough tae be done about it, and if ye’re certain ye want tae make the journey, then best we end the cards here and let ye prepare tae start out with the morning ferry.”

Lyla nodded and scooped her coppers into her purse. There was more than enough for the short journey home. “Aye.”

“I’ll help ye.” Erin rose from the table as well, gathering her own coin – she had the least of any of them – as her husband excused himself. Her eyes were sparkling. “Unless ye’d like Darren tae assist ye.”

Lyla blushed. Darren was a good man, and she’d come to know him well over the past month. Still, they were only friends, and she didn’t need him seeing all her things. “Thank ye, but nay.”

Erin shrugged, a smile still teasing her features. “Ye and Darren seem tae like tae plan things taegether… I’d hate tae deprive ye o’ more match-making opportunities. Though there’s only the two o’ ye still single, save for some o’ the servants…” She trailed off with a raised eyebrow that made Lyla blush again.

“Och, nay. We’re good friends, but Lyla and I arenae more than that.” Darren shook his head. “Nay offense tae ye lass, ye’re nae me type and I’m nae fer marrying right at the moment in any case.”

“I’m nae offended.” Lyla responded. She glared at her sister. “And ye cannae think I’d want such a stern suitor, nae matter how good a man he is. I’m nae one fer the rough, barbarian fellows, nae even one so personable as ye, Darren MacLean.”

“Nae even a little?”

“Nae even.” Lyla folded her arms. “The only man I’ve less interest in than Darren is someone of the likes of Daemon MacMillan.” She shivered. Daemon MacMillan wasn’t a bad man, she knew that, but his ice-pale hair and stern features made him look fierce. And there was a reason he was known to his enemies as ‘The Devil’s Servant’. “Ever since Rowan, he’s become cold and hard…”

“He’s mourning, like the rest o’ us who kent her.” Erin came around the table to embrace her. “He’ll thaw with time, I’m hoping.” She sighed.

They stood for a moment, with Darren tactfully ignoring them and working at his desk. Then Erin straightened. “Well, enough o’ that. If ye’re tae leave with the morning ferry, then we’d best get the majority o’ yer things packed taenight.”

Lyla nodded and rose from her seat. She was halfway to the door when Darren spoke her name. “Lyla. A moment please?”

She waved Erin to go on ahead of her and turned back. “Aye?”

Darren held a message in his hand, already sealed. “When ye were speaking o’ Daemon MacMillan it made me think of the alliance we made a few months ago. If Clan Ranald is moving, we’ll need our allies at our side. I’ve written him a letter, and I’d like tae ask ye tae deliver it. I ken it will be safe with ye, and like as nae, safer than with a messenger. If Donall Ranald is moving against us, he’ll have men watching for Clan MacLean runners.”

It would take her a little out of her way, and she wasn’t eager to see Daemon MacMillan again. Not after their encounter at Erin’s wedding. Still, it was a small enough favor, and she was fond of Darren. She nodded. “I’ll take it.”

He handed her the message in a sealed tube to protect it from the elements, and she tucked it into her belt pouch. With a last smile, she turned and left the office.

It was tempting to stay at MacLean Keep, but she had duties at home she’d neglected for far too long. And now, she had another duty as well – a message to deliver to her once brother-by-marriage.


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