Highlander’s Sinful Kiss (Preview)
Kenna looked out at the horizon, clutching the parchment of Iomhar’s letter tightly between her fingers. She shifted it between her hands, trying not to look at the handwriting and keep her gaze on the scenery instead.
Iomhar had asked her to meet him in a place that had once meant a lot to both of them. As Kenna looked between the rocks now, it only left her feeling empty. She stood on top of a rocky outcrop near the edge of some cliffs gazing out to the sea. Behind her were the highland moors, dappled with white frost from the winter morning. She was standing on the frost-covered path, which led up to a large stone shaped like a fish. They called it the Rock Salmon.
There was a myth about the rock whispered down at the nearest town in Banff. It was said that the fish was a monster who would swim in the shallows of Banff port and swallow fishermen. The great salmon was turned to stone one day by the goddess Danu and deposited on the cliff edge.
Four years ago, the Rock Salmon was the special meeting place Kenna and Iomhar used to hide away from prying eyes. In the evenings, they would sneak out of their family homes and come to such a place.
Kenna now stood on the rock, feeling the wind whip against her face with growing anger. She passed the parchment between her hands once more, frustrated by Iomhar’s letter, wondering why after so long he wanted to meet now.
Their courtship had ended so suddenly at the birthday feast for Kenna’s brother, Gavin, four years ago. Kenna had seen that girl kissing Iomhar. She had not seen him since, and he had not tried to explain either. What Kenna once considered their love disappeared between her fingers. She liked to imagine love as something that was as strong as the waves of the ocean. It could pummel you, leaving you winded, yet try to grab it, and it slipped between your fingers. That was what had happened to her at any rate.
She could hear horses’ hooves nearby, echoing along the wind. She turned away from the green waves that were rumbling below and looked into land. She could see just a speck in the distance. It had to be Iomhar on the horse, riding to meet her.
His letter had come so out of the blue that it had unsettled her. She had thought she had moved past the pain of his betrayal, that their courtship was but a distant memory, but having been faced with his letter, it had stirred up her old pain. It made her realize that the pain he had caused her had never really gone away. She had only learned to live with it instead, stamping down on it and adopting a countenance that would not show her true feelings. If she were ever to let go of the pain, she supposed she would have to see him again.
The blandness of his letter requesting the meeting did not speak of their past relationship. It made no acknowledgement of their former connection at all and used a formal tone. Gavin had not wanted to let her go to meet Iomhar, knowing what pain the man had caused her before, but she had told him it was a necessity.
Aye, if I see him, then maybe I can let go of the pain at last.
She kept her chin high as the horse grew nearer across the horizon. She wrapped the grey wolfskin around her shoulders to keep warm as the wind whistled up from the sea and the cliff edge, pinching her cheeks with the cold and forcing her long brown hair to billow behind her.
The horse was near now; it slowed to a gentle canter, revealing someone sat atop the grey highland pony. She could see a little more of the figure—he was dressed in a black tunic and hose, his stance large and imposing, even from the top of the horse. He wore a cloak too, navy blue with his hood pulled up over his head and belted around his waist. The horse slowed to a trot, climbing the last of the hill toward where Kenna stood.
She was tempted to shift and fidget, her body tight with nerves now he was so close. She pushed his letter into the pocket of her plaid dress and tried to stay as still as possible. She did not want to give him the satisfaction of seeing that he made her nervous.
As he came nearer, Kenna realized that she wanted to see him again, despite the pain. She had wondered many times over the last four years how much Iomhar had changed, and this was her opportunity to find out. She kept her chin high as the horse came to a stop at the bottom of the rocky camber that led to where she stood, her pride refusing to let her give way to her emotions. She pictured herself as hard as the Rock Salmon on which she stood, just as impervious and just as strong.
The figure climbed down from the horse, with his head turned up to where Kenna stood. From how low the hood was, she still could not see Iomhar’s face. He slowly walked up the camber toward her, his leather boots firm on the rocky ground. She realized she had forgotten how tall he was. He cut a striking figure as he stepped up the camber, the wind picking up the edges of the navy coat and buffeting it around his legs.
Kenna had waited for this moment for long enough. Being unable to see his face was making her grow frustrated.
“If ye daenae lower yer hood, how do I ken it is ye?” she called to him, seeing his feet stop beneath him, leaving them little distance away from each other.
“I think ye would ken me anywhere, Kenna.” There was the lilting humor in his voice that she had known before.
It unsettled her, prompting her to pull at the grey wolfskin around her shoulders again, as though she was trying to block out the cold when in reality, she was trying to stop the effect he had on her. He had always been so playful in his manner, constantly jesting, rarely taking any moment seriously. It was what had drawn her to him in the first place. She had thought with the passing of the years, he would have matured and lost that affable manner.
“It has been a while. I may be mistaken with so little to go on.” Kenna pursued the matter. She wanted to see his face. “Lift yer hood.”
He did not object this time, but neither did he lift his hood completely. He just pulled it back a little, revealing his face to her and a glimpse of his hair. It was Iomhar, but not the Iomhar she had known. He was older. His curly black hair that was once short was a touch longer, curling around his ears and forehead. His eyes were just as dark as she remembered, black and staring at her. Yet his face was more carved by the years, and he had grown a beard too, short though unkempt, making him look ragged rather than the Laird’s nephew he really was. There was a scar too on his cheek that had not been there before, a short white fleck, as though from a blade.
“Do ye recognize me now?” he asked, his voice still humored though he did not smile.
He was handsome. He had grown more so in the four years since their last meeting. The sight of him made Kenna’s mouth a little dry, suddenly parched with thirst.
“Ye are greatly changed.” She tilted her head to the side, watching him closely. His figure had also altered through the years. He was now broader, much more toned with muscle than she remembered. The sight was not a welcome one. She had hoped he had lost his good looks; it would have made it easier to be indifferent to him.
“So are ye.” He tilted his head to the side, too, mirroring her stance as he looked at her. She did not like his analyzing gaze and sought to change the subject quickly.
“I am nae here for idle conversation.” She looked down away from him, breaking their connected gaze and the effect he had on her. “Why did ye want to see me?”
“This is nae the place for it.” He shook his head. He began to walk up the camber again, moving nearer to her. It made her back away. “Careful, Kenna, ye will fall off the cliff.”
“I would prefer it to being so close to ye,” she quipped, flicking her chin high once more. Her words brought a small smirk to his lips.
“I see ye are still bitter.” He winced, moving to her side and looking down at the sea below. “It is a while since we were last here.”
She did not like the image he had formed of her.
“Nae bitter, just nae interested in being here for longer than I have to be.” She moved away from him to the other side of the Rock Salmon. “Why did ye wish to meet with me?”
“As I said, we cannae talk here.” He gestured to the landscape.
“Why nae? There is no one here.” She glanced around the empty frost-covered hills. “Ye would see them for miles.”
“In me recent experience, I ken people can hide anywhere.” He looked back at her. “Besides, I am tired from me journey. Hungry too. Let’s go to the Black Sheep Inn down the hill.”
“Near Banff?” The thought of being seen with him again in public was abhorrent to her. “Nay. I have come here to meet ye as ye have requested. Talk to me here. I am nae takin’ ye to Banff.”
“Why nae? Are ye afraid to be seen with me, Kenna?” His mischievous side was coming through.
“I am nae fond of the idea,” she said in return, seeing her words made him frown.
“Calm yerself. I will keep me hood up.” He walked past her and pulled his hood higher for emphasis. “No one will ken it is me.” He reached the bottom of the camber and took hold of his horse’s reins, making clear his intent to walk the horse down from the cliffs to the inn.
“I am nae goin’ to the inn.” Kenna stood her ground, refusing to follow.
“Ye will, as I am goin’,” he began to lead the horse away.
“I am nae goin’,” she reiterated, calling after him.
“Ye will come,” he called back.
“Why would ye think that?”
“Because ye were intrigued enough to come and meet me in the first place.” He did not turn around. He just kept walking forward, leaving her blindsided by his words.
She cursed under her breath. She realized Iomhar knew that she would stay to find out what he wanted as she had come so far to meet with him. She chastised herself as her feet began to follow him across the clifftops toward Banff, irritated at the power he still appeared to have over her. She stayed a few steps behind him and the horse, reluctant to walk at his side and make conversation. She kept her eyes on his back instead.
As they reached the bottom of the clifftop, bringing Banff port into sight in the dip of the frosted valley, he waited for her. As she reached his side, she was frustrated to see him smiling again.
“Told ye, ye would come.” He nudged the horse forward once more.
“Yer manner makes me wish I had not.” She carried on, moving toward the inn that stood halfway between where they stood and Banff town. The inn was but a small cottage, tucked between two cattle fields. It was mostly visited by the fishermen from the port, though a few travelers also used it as a stop on their journeys elsewhere.
“Ye always used to like me manner. Ye said me jests made ye smile.” His reference to their past made her stomach coil in resistance to him. He had caused her pain in the past, yet here he was, making light of their old courtship.
“I have changed,” she remarked, keeping her eyes turned away from him as they walked, though she grew aware he was watching her. “Grown-up a little more, I suppose. Jests daenae belong in serious circumstances.”
They came to a stop as they reached the inn. Iomhar turned away to tie the reins of his horse next to another so that the horse could feed on a stack of hay. Iomhar kept his gaze from her as he spoke, collecting a small bag from the saddle to attach to his belt. He pulled a sword out of the saddle, too, and added the weapon to his belt.
“On the contrary, jests are what make the serious matters palatable.” He turned his eyes toward her, black orbs finding her eyes. “Ye live yer life without laughter, do ye? It is nae a happy life.”
“I like me life as it is.” She flicked her head away from him and walked into the inn, not caring to wait for him to hold open the door as she walked in.
She told the truth; she liked her life a great deal, and she did not welcome his intrusion into it. She had a good family and was happy with her lot in life. Her brother Gavin meant a great deal to her, as did her sister-in-law, Idunn. There was, of course, their daughter too, Astridr, the bundle of joy that bounded through Banff castle and brought them all happiness. Kenna did not think she loved anyone the way she did her niece. Of course, there was also her father, Fergus, but he spent more and more days away from the castle now he was growing older. It was said he was making alliances for the clan, but in truth, he was growing weaker and just spending more time with friends in his old age.
Iomhar purchased two tankards of spiced mead from the innkeeper before turning back into the main room of the beamed, thatched building. Kenna picked up the drinks from the innkeeper and followed Iomhar. She saw him take his place at a table pressed into the corner of the room, far away from the fire and any of the other guests. His hood was pulled so low once again that it was impossible to discern his features or his identity.
She walked over and plopped the tankard heavily on the table in front of him, hardly caring as the mead sloshed over the top rim and fell on his hand. She heard him chuckle slightly in response as she took his seat on the bench opposite him. He dried the mead from his hand and peered under his hood to her.
“See? Ye still have mischief in ye. I am sure ye laugh sometimes.” Iomhar sipped from his tankard, leaning his elbow on the table.
“Rarely.” Kenna leaned back in her chair, trying to maintain distance between them. She was startled by how handsome he was, the ease of his manner too. She began to think it had been a mistake to come to see him after all. She needed to keep their conversation formal, and she had to escape from his company as soon as possible. With this in mind, she lifted her chin toward him, her manner bold and her voice insistent. “Ye have dallied long enough. Why did ye wish to talk to me?”
“Because I need yer help.” Iomhar knew his words would not be appreciated. In response, Kenna lifted her eyebrows, a mixture of surprise and derision.
He looked down from her and focused on the tankard of mead in front of him instead. She was distracting to look at. After four years, he had thought that his memories built up Kenna in his mind. The whole journey he had taken that morning, he had persuaded himself that he had put Kenna on a pedestal, that it was impossible for anyone to be as formidable or as beautiful as he remembered her being.
Seeing her stood out on the rocky outcrops of the cliffs, with the wind buffeting her, as he had climbed down from his horse, he realized how wrong he had been. She was more beautiful than he had remembered and had grown even more so in their years apart.
She had stood with her stance proud, her feet apart, her plaid dress emphasizing the curves of her body. Her long brown hair had been waving in the wind like some kind of crown or halo. It was the eyes that had drawn him in, the same eyes he had known before—wide and dominating her features, the hazel color impossible to miss.
For a moment, he had found it difficult to talk to her. His mind was much more focused on their last visit to the same clifftop spot. There they had sat together on the rock, kissing and pressing each other’s limits in their courtship, with wandering hands and heated blushes. Staring at her on the cliff, he had imagined what it would have been like to take her in his arms again, to kiss her.
“Me help?” Her outraged voice brought him back to the moment at hand as he sipped his spiced mead. She was shaking her head, her disbelief evident. “We havenae seen each other for four years. Why would ye need me help now?”
He recognized the signs of her pride. In their courtship, he had grown to know her well. She had been idealistic, clever, resourceful, yet also a little proud. Looking at how harshly she was staring at him now with those large eyes, he wondered if she had perhaps lost a little of the dreamy view she used to take with life.
“Because I am in danger. As is me Uncle.” He lowered his voice to a whisper, casting a gaze around the inn, but comforted that conversation was so spirited between the other groups that no one was taking notice of them. “And ye are the only one I can trust.”
She really did scoff this time, taking hold of her tankard and eagerly drinking the mead.
“Ye daenae believe me,” he said plainly. He did not need to phrase it as a question. It was clear to see. “Then allow me to persuade ye. Somethin’ is afoot in me Uncle’s home. I am nae sure who in his castle I can trust. I havenae seen ye for four years. Ye have nae a thing to do with me uncle’s Lairdship—ye are the only one I ken who cannae be involved with what is happenin’ there. That is without a doubt in me mind.” He could see his words had surprised her. She had paused in her drinking, staring over the rim of the tankard at him. “Have I persuaded ye, lass?”
She bristled as he called her lass, setting her tankard back down on the table.
“What is happenin’ in the castle?”
“It isnae easy to explain.” As two men walked past their table, he pulled the brim of his hood a little lower over his face to hide.
“What are ye doin’ that for?” She gestured up to his face sharply. “Why are ye hidin’?”
“Because nay one can ken I am here.”
“Because nae one can ken I have come to see ye.” He did not want to draw Kenna into his mess more than was necessary. He needed her help; that was something he could not escape; she was the only one he could trust. Yet, he still needed to protect her from the danger he was fighting.
She lowered her gaze to her tankard, her manner suddenly altered in a new way. She was angry, her clasp on the tankard so tight it turned her skin white. He realized how his words must have sounded to her—as though he were embarrassed to be seen with her. He opened his mouth to tell her that was not what he had meant, but he closed it again, unable to speak.
He had come to talk to her of a matter of life and death; no good could come from being close to Kenna again. Despite what he felt as he looked at her, that stirring desire he had always known in her presence, it had ended so badly between them, something he would forever be ashamed of; now was not the time to talk of such matters.
“Then ye best explain yerself quickly.” She kept her eyes away from him, her voice harsh. “Before someone recognizes ye are here, talkin’ to me.”
He did not take the bait. He refused to raise to her taunt. He abided by her wish to speak quickly instead. He leaned more across the table toward her, lowering his voice even more. The move made her look up to him, her hazel eyes sharp.
“There have been many things wrong in the castle for so long now.” He could not describe everything, it would take too long, but he had to get to the crux of the matter. “Strange happenin’s, things that were supposed just to be accidents, leavin’ people harmed. So many accidents, they couldnae have been just from coincidence. In many of these events, me Uncle Laird Udair has escaped by the skin of his teeth without bein’ harmed.”
“Ye think someone wishes to harm him?”
“Nay, I ken someone wishes to kill him.” The firmness of his words made Kenna shift in her seat, but she kept her eyes on him. “Ye remember I spoke of me other Uncle, Udair’s younger brother, Joseph?”
“Aye, I remember.” She nodded. “He was like a faither to ye, ye said.”
“Aye, that’s right.” He subconsciously adjusted the hood on his head again, trying to stay hidden. “Since me parents’ deaths, it has just been a family of three—Udair, Joseph, and me. When I talked to Joseph of me fears, that maybe someone wished to kill Laird Udair, Joseph wasnae so concerned. We spoke, and everythin’ he said seemed to make sense. That perhaps it was just me fears lettin’ me imagination run away with me. After me parents’ deaths, he said it was natural to fear losin’ someone else. Inventin’ somethin’ that wasnae there.”
“Denial,” Kenna said simply. She had always been clever, it tempted Iomhar to smile, but he resisted.
“Aye, I now think so. I had nay more reason to worry, then one time when I went to speak to Joseph, I came across him talkin’ to an English soldier.”
“English?” Kenna whispered harshly, with her panic evident.
“That was me own reaction.” He gestured to her. “I dinnae ken what to think. Joseph doesnae do anythin’ without reason. He is cunnin’, clever. I dinnae hear everythin’ that was said, but it certainly sounded like he had a deal with the English. Laird Udair has nay children. Like his brother, Joseph is arguably the heir. If the English gave him men in support, Joseph said he would kill Laird Udair and take the Lairdship. To repay the English, Joseph would give his support in turn when they tried to take down other clans.”
“In the name of the wee man.” Kenna shook her head, clearly despairing of the idea. “With an English stronghold so far into Scotland, they could launch an attack on any of the clans… it would be nearly impossible to stop them. Are ye certain of this?”
“I wasnae. There is more though.” He leaned toward her again, surprised when she leaned forward too, the better to hear him. It brought her scent toward him, rose and bergamot. He attempted to ignore it, but it was difficult. He had not experienced that scent in a long time. “As Joseph and the English soldier parted ways, Joseph found me watchin’ him. I ken Joseph. We have always been close. I couldnae understand it, so I asked him what I heard. I presumed Joseph was somehow plottin’ against the English, promisin’ something he never intended to give.”
“What did he say?”
“Just that.” He shook his head, remembering the conversation well. Joseph was so easy with his charm; it was easy to be led down whichever path he wanted you to take. Iomhar felt he had been led so by the man many times in the past. “He twisted me words, a little, claimin’ I had misheard some of it, but aye, he agreed he was plannin’ to get close to the English to discover what they were plottin’ against the clan.”
“And ye believed him?” Kenna bit her lip in suspicion. The action drew Iomhar’s gaze. He remembered kissing those lips, the excitement it caused. He looked away from her, trying to ignore the image.
“Of course, I did. He is me uncle. He is me family.” He breathed deeply, preparing himself for what he had to say next. “That was when everythin’ started to change in the castle. Laird Udair and I have always been close too, but suddenly he grew distant. I saw Joseph and Laird Udair together, whisperin’, lookin’ at me with heavy glares all the time.”
“I listened in on one of their conversations, in the end, hid meself in the hall as they talked. Joseph was manipulatin’ Laird Udair—tellin’ him that I was ambitious and wanted the Lairdship for meself. He claimed that I was tryin’ to overthrow Laird Udair with the help of the English.” His fists clenched around the tankard at the memory of hearing them talk together. The sense of betrayal was overwhelming, turning his stomach.
“Why did Laird Udair believe him?” Kenna’s brow furrowed.
“Why would he nae? He is his brother! Why should Laird Udair think Joseph would lie? After all, Joseph and I lived in and out of each other’s pockets. He probably thought Joseph ken me better than anyone.” He tried to relax his hands, release the tension, and stop his fingers balling into fists, but it was difficult. The sense of injustice was still burning within. “Joseph was suggestin’ to Laird Udair that I should be imprisoned. In order to keep the Lairdship safe. So, I ran.”
“Ye ran?” She was shaking her head, her face making clear her bafflement. “But… ye had nae done a thing wrong?”
“Nay, but if I stayed, I could have been imprisoned for somethin’ I dinnae do. Maybe even hanged. What would ye have done? Risk hangin’, or run? Laird Udair believed Joseph. It’s as though he dripped poison in his ear as they spoke, warpin’ his mind.” His challenge made her sit back in her seat slightly, struggling for words. “I daenae ken what to do now. I am quite convinced that me absence will only add credence to Joseph’s words, but what else could I do? I cannae go home. Nae until I have found a way to clear me name and can prove that Joseph is the enemy here, nae me.”
He downed what was left in his tankard, happy for his thirst to be quenched.
“Why come here?” Kenna asked, looking back up to him. “Ye ken me Father and Gavin have an alliance with Laird Udair. There is nay guarantee Gavin would believe yer side of the story.”
“I dinnae come for Gavin’s help. I came for yers.”
Iomhar’s words left Kenna stunned. His black eyes were staring at her, imploring her to believe him. She looked away from him, needing to distance herself from the depth of that stare. She gazed at the mead in her tankard instead, watching the golden liquid swirl in the cup as she tilted the tankard round.
“Why do ye trust me with this?” She needed that question to be answered. In truth, she did not trust him. She could not. Not after she had seen him kissing another woman during their courtship. It proved he was a man who said one thing and yet did another.
Despite her conviction that she could not trust him, she also knew he was not capable of attempting a coup against his own uncle. She knew Iomhar loved Laird Udair. Udair and Joseph had practically raised Iomhar from when he was a child, after the deaths of his own parents.
“As I said,” Iomhar continued, releasing the empty tankard on the table. “Ye are unconnected with the castle and Joseph. I ken ye havenae a thing to do with it. And, whilst I ken what passed between us dinnae end happily…” He paused, prompting her to glance up to him, both of their expressions were uneasy, neither one of them pleased with the topic. “Ye are still the best woman I ken.”
His words made her anger spike.
“Ye think a compliment would persuade me to believe yer side of the tale?” she scoffed, pushing her chair away from the table with sudden energy.
“Nay, that is nae what I am doin’.” He raised his hand, a gesture to try to calm her, but she was too angry to be appeased so easily.
“Do ye take me for such a fool that I would be so easily lured?” She stood to her feet, but before she could march away and make her escape, he had made his move. He had jumped to his feet and stepped in front of her, blocking her path.
“I take ye for a fool now if ye think that would really be me intent.” His words were a harsh whisper. She tried to push past him, but he stepped in the way again. The move brought them surprisingly close together.
Kenna tried to ignore what the feeling of standing so near to him felt like, but the thrill was still there, even if she pretended it was not.
“Ye always were a blunt man. It was one of yer greatest flaws.” She shook her head, trying to step around him again, but he took hold of her elbow, bringing her to him so that they were standing flush together.
“Then as yer opinion is so low of me, I see nay point in tryin’ to hide how blunt I can be. If I had anywhere else to go, I would.” His voice was firm, his body bending down toward her. “But I have nowhere. All of me other friends are Joseph’s friends too. Ye are tactful. If anyone can think of a way to help me out of this mess, it is ye. I take nay more pleasure than ye in this situation. I am well aware I have come grovelin’ on me knees for yer help when I deserve none, but there it is. I have nay choice.”
Kenna tore her arm free of his grasp, allowing her to step away from him slightly. She was aware the table close by to them had gone quiet, their gazes drawn to her and Iomhar’s direction. Iomhar appeared to grow aware, too, being careful to keep his head turned away from the group, hidden by his hood. She realized she had to stop them staring, pretend everything was well if Iomhar were to stay hidden.
“Please, Kenna,” Iomhar continued. His voice was much calmer now, though still just a murmur. “Daenae send me away.”
His words caused pain in her stomach. She did not want to have anything to do with him. She felt more in control with him being far away from her. Standing so close together, her body was alert with the touch he had just placed on her arm. She had been excited by that touch. Yet, she had no choice. She could not send the man to his death. To think of the boy that she once loved hanging from a noose for something he had not done made her nauseous.
She reached forward and took his elbow, a physical demonstration to the table next to them that all was well and that they could go back to concentrating on their own discussion. She steered Iomhar back to his seat and sat down next to him, the better to lower her voice.
“I will help ye.” Her voice made him look sharply to her, his face suddenly animated. “But, once I help ye restore yer name, we willnae see each other again. Aye?” She had to be clear on the matter.
Her acceptance to help him was not an admittance that she cared for him in any way anymore. It merely came from not wanting to see him dead. By making this agreement, she was putting distance between them. She would not have to contend with her body’s reaction to the sight of him, attracted and excited by his handsomeness. “Do we have a deal?”
“Aye, we have a deal.”
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