Cheated of his inheritance and burdened by the legacy of his Fae blood, Garrett MacLachlan believes he is doomed to be an outcast forever—until he meets Annelise of Kinfairlie, a gentle maiden with the power to turn his curse to gift. Can Garrett reclaim his stolen legacy with Annelise by his side? If Annelise defies her family to pursue true love, will that be enough to heal Garrett? And even if they triumph over mortal foes, will the Fae demand a price neither of them can pay?
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An excerpt from The Highlander’s Curse:
Seton Manor, Scotland – June 1424
Annelise strode through the village of Seton Manor, blind to the activity that surrounded her. It was early summer in the highlands and the weather was fine. Seton blossomed under the hand of Murdoch and his new bride, Annelise’s sister, Isabella. The mood in the village was joyous, for all saw that their future was improved.
Annelise did not share this happy view. Indeed, she was irked and mightily so, much more so than any who knew her might have thought possible. She was vexed with her situation and thus with herself. It troubled her beyond belief that Isabella, her younger sister by two years, had wed before Annelise herself had even snared the interest of a man.
Annelise would die alone.
Tending to the children of her sisters, no doubt, and dependent upon the goodwill of their respective husbands. As kind as the husbands of her sisters had been, that was not the life Annelise had ever desired. She wanted a husband of her own, and children of her own, a hearth of her own and a garden of her own. She did not want to sit by the fire, complete her embroidery and watch the world slide past her in all its glorious activity. She wanted a busy life herself.
But she knew not how to begin upon it.
It was her cursedly shy nature at root and Annelise knew it well. She could see the evidence in the fortunes of her sisters, each of whom had been rewarded for audacity. Her eldest sister, Madeline, had boldly fled an unwanted match and won the ardor of Rhys FitzHenry. Her next sister, Vivienne, had boldly tempted a lover to come to her, and had won the heart of Erik Sinclair. Isabella had boldly dared to believe in the integrity of an apparent villain, and thus was now Lady of Seton Manor. Even Eleanor, who had boldly fled an abusive household, had won true love by taking a chance.
Sadly, Annelise had thus far in her life been incapable of either boldness or taking a chance.
Her disgust with herself was made worse by the compassion of others. Isabella’s husband, Murdoch, had invited many men to his board, his intent in finding Annelise a match openly acknowledged by all. They knew she could not manage this feat alone and deigned to help her, though in a way, their assistance was condescending. It was clearly necessary, though she might have preferred otherwise. The fact was that even though Annelise knew the men in question had come to meet her and to speak with her, she was so wretchedly timid that she had not spoken to a one of them.
She would die alone, and ’twould be her own fault.
She was a fool. Should she not be able to change her manner and thus her fortunes, perhaps she deserved to die alone.
The very idea gave her purpose. Annelise reached the edge of the village but kept walking, her chin high. She could not go back to the hall, not yet, not before she had made some change in her circumstance, however small it might be. As the forest closed around the road and the road curved out of sight of Seton village, Annelise knew what she would do.
She would visit the glade with the natural well, the place where people came to pray for healing. It was an old place and she had been there several times with Isabella. Isabella had prayed there to quickly conceive Murdoch’s child, and five months into their marriage, she rounded with child. It was clear that the well had power, and equally clear that Annelise had need of assistance. She would go there herself this very day and pray that she found a husband.
* * *
Garrett MacLachlan darted through the forest in pursuit of the wolf, not caring that he left his father’s estate far behind. It was only in the forest that he found peace, and only in the wilderness where he felt at peace. His curse seemed more of a gift when he left human society behind.
All the better, he had a quest this time. He tracked a ravenous wolf, one that had eluded all attempts at capture. It had eaten well at the expense of many others, and Garrett would see the beast pay for its crimes.
As soon as he had set out after the wolf, Garrett realized why it was so elusive. It was larger than most, but moved with astonishing speed. Further, this wolf was silent in the forest and could disappear into shadows, as if it were not truly of this earth or as if it had never been. It was cunning even beyond its fellows.
Garrett would have lost it a hundred times, save for his curse. Even now, he caught only glimpses of it moving through the forest, a fleeting shape against the patterned shadows of the leaves.
It was his awareness of the wolf’s thoughts and intent that gave him an advantage.
For once in his life, his legacy had value.
On this day, Garrett felt the wolf’s thirst and guessed its intent.
He was aware the moment that it smelled water. He was not surprised when the wolf slipped over the ridge and descended into the hollow between the hills. He heard the bubbling of the water as he crept behind the creature and realized the wolf had found a spring. The wolf glanced back more than once, pausing beneath a shrub or in the shade of a tree, its eyes gleaming as it sniffed the air. Garrett knew it sensed that it was pursued, and he dared not let it perceive him. He knew this wolf had not eaten for a week.
It would rip out his throat for coming too close.
It would rip out the throat of any creature it could devour. Harried by some awareness of Garrett’s presence, the wolf had not paused to eat. Now, hunger made its belly growl, and hunger – Garrett hoped – would drive it to err.
Garrett was not even certain where he was, save that he was close to his prey. It did not matter. Once the wolf was dead, he would claim its pelt as proof of his deed and return home – undoubtedly to have his father’s new bride discount his accomplishment. It did not matter what his father thought of him these days, or what lies Rowena told of him – it mattered only that he did what was right. He could not help what burden he had been born to bear, and he could not stop that curse from aiding Rowena’s scheme to discount him in his father’s affections.
The curse of hearing the thoughts of others had been his mother’s legacy. His father had loved her. He should have known what ailed his son. He should have been able to see beyond his own lust for Rowena to see the way she schemed to ensure the advantage of her own brat over his blood son.
Garrett paused to collect himself, aware that the wolf had a keener sense of him. Anxiety would draw the wolf’s attention, and his thoughts of Rowena had no place in this hunt. All was simple in the forest. There were hunters and there was prey.
He knew which he would be.
The wolf’s concern faded, perhaps because of its thirst. Garrett saw it leave the shadows ahead. On quick feet, it entered a glade dappled in sunlight, a tranquil place of verdant green. There were rags of all colors hanging from the trees at the bottom of the valley, a sign that people came to this place to pray for healing. The wolf was momentarily disconcerted by the scents of so many humans, but it made its choice and headed for the water.
Garrett waited and watched. He could see the light on the pool around the spring, turning it to a silver mirror. He could see the wolf clearly from this position, and he was downwind of it. He reached out to sense the wolf’s thoughts and felt its confidence.
The wolf was silvery grey, his snout and paws darker than its back, its tail lush. His pelt should adorn a lady’s bed, Garrett’s lady’s bed, a token that was proof of his intent to protect the woman pledged to be his own. But Garrett had no woman and he doubted there was a woman alive who could accept his curse. His life was lonely and it would remain so.
The wolf stepped into a patch of sunlight, glanced about itself, then bent to drink.
Garrett raised his crossbow to fire, then froze in place when the wolf suddenly straightened. He felt its heartbeat accelerate. It raised its head and folded its ears back, sniffing and scanning, then snarled at some threat.
That was when Garrett saw the woman. She was on her knees as if in prayer, her head bowed and her hands folded before herself. He had not seen her at first because her cloak was green and her hood pulled over her hair. She was utterly still, as women in his experience seldom were.
Her thoughts were nearly silent, so serene that even he with his gift had not been aware of her presence. That astonished him.
At the wolf’s snarl, though, her head snapped up and terror filled her thoughts. Garrett had time to see that she was lovely before the wolf leapt toward her with teeth bared.
Without hesitation, Garrett lifted the crossbow and fired.
His arrow went straight through the wolf, and he knew he struck its heart. The wolf’s body jumped into the air, and the beast howled as it fell. The cry turned plaintive and faded, even as the blood streamed through its fur to the ground. Garrett grimaced at the explosion of pain that filled the beast’s thoughts and tried to close his mind against it.
At the same time, he strode toward the fallen wolf, pulling out his knife to finish what he had begun.
The lady had not moved. Garrett was astonished that she had not screamed. As he bent over the wolf and finished what he had begun, he was aware that she seemed to have been struck to stone. The wolf’s pain ended, a void of silence filling Garrett’s mind where his awareness of the wolf had been.
Where were the woman’s thoughts?
Was she simple? Was that why her mind was quiet?
He had never met anyone who exuded such tranquility and now that the wolf was dead, he could consider the mystery. Was she mute? This was a place where one prayed for healing, so she might have some ailment.
’Twould be a crime for one so lovely to be less than perfect. Garrett did not dare to look directly at her, not before he had composed his features. He knew the torment he experienced at the sound of other thoughts could be read in his expression—particularly when one died as this wolf had done. He wiped his knife blade on the hem of his cloak before returning it to his scabbard. He would remove the pelt from the carcass when she was gone, lest he shock her.
Still he marveled that he sensed no tumult of thoughts and questions. She had been frightened and now he knew she was relieved. No more than that. Slowly, so as not to alarm her, he raised his gaze to meet hers. He was aware of the blood on his kilt and on his hands, the grim finality of what he had done.
She was watching him. Her breath was coming quickly, her eyes wide. They were a magnificent shade of green and thickly lashed, her features lovely and fine. Her hood had fallen back to reveal that her hair was auburn, and neatly plaited. Her slender hands were still raised, her fingertips upon her lush mouth.
“Are you injured?” he asked, when still she said nothing.
She shook her head, her gaze darting to the wolf and then to his sheathed blade. She studied his hands for a moment, then looked at his face and swallowed. “You moved so quickly when I could not move at all.” Her voice was low and soft, filled with a gentleness that made Garrett yearn to protect her.
Not simple, then, and not a mute.
She must be one who had come to pray here, one who did not understand the forest and its ways. What did she pray for? Garrett wanted very much to know. Where was her husband? Why was she alone and undefended?
Only then did he hear the soft whisper of her thoughts, a stream of questions and impressions no more intrusive than the murmur of a brook. He sensed her curiosity about him, her awareness of him. But her presence did not trouble him, as that of others did. He could stand and be aware of her thoughts and not wish to flee. Indeed, he was intrigued by all that he sensed and saw. He wanted only to draw closer to her and learn more.
Why was she so different from others he had known?
What was this spell she wove around him?
“The choice was easily made between the lady and the wolf,” Garrett said with resolve. “I knew that if I did not act quickly, the wolf would make its own choice – and that on this matter, as on so many others, the beast and I would not agree.”
He had hoped to tempt her smile, and was disappointed when he failed.
“You have tracked this wolf then,” she said, her gaze falling to its corpse. “You are a hunter.” He nodded, feeling her respect for that task. “How long and how far?”
“Too long and too far.” Garrett dared to take a step closer. “Though I cannot object to where the path has led me.” He dared to meet her gaze and let her see his admiration of her beauty.
She caught her breath. He sensed her desire to flee, a flutter of panic within her, then she mustered a determination. She held her ground and lifted her chin. He was utterly fascinated that this exquisite creature might fight an inner battle that was in any way similar to his own.
“Do you know where you are?”
Garrett smiled. “I stand in the company of a lovely lady.” It was no lie. He realized that he had previously had no luck with uttering the words of a courtier because he did not believe them to be true. In this case, he was surely snared.
And he did not wish to be free.
“And I would do the same again, if only to see her smile.”
She regarded him, her cheeks flushing bright. “I apologize, sir, for I am poorly practiced in this game.”
“Surely not. A lady such as yourself much have many ardent admirers.”
She smiled then, and Garrett was dazzled by the sight. “Surely so!” she argued, her eyes twinkling. “I am routinely struck mute in the company of others and overlooked by most as a result. I have no suitors, sir.”
Garrett smiled. “Yet you speak with me, quite readily it seems.”
She surveyed him, then exhaled. “Indeed. Perhaps I should imperil myself more often.”
Garrett laughed and her smile broadened. She seemed to sparkle before him, her delight in their conversation as great as his own. “Perhaps the reward is not worth such a sacrifice. Perhaps there are other ways to coax your words forth.”
She flicked a glance at the spring, then back to him.
“Surely you cannot have come to pray for a suitor?”
“I came to pray for boldness, sir, and a measure of it seems to have found me.” She grimaced. “Either that or terror loosed my tongue.”
Garrett pretended to consider this. “If you mean to imperil yourself again as a test, perhaps you will have need of a protector.”
She smiled at him so warmly that his heart clenched. “Sadly, I do not have one, sir.” She was blushing furiously and he could not imagine what made her heart race so. “And truly, it would safer to first ensure that the effect was not wrought by your presence alone.”
“You think me safer company than a hungry wolf, then,” he teased. “I am much reassured.”
“Only because I am not a hungry wolf myself,” she retorted. She caught her breath then, as if surprised by herself, then knotted her fingers together and blushed yet more. “I wonder, sir, if you might come to Seton Manor this night. I would see you rewarded for killing this wolf on the lands of my sister’s husband.”
The very suggestion sent terror through Garrett’s heart. At the same time, he could not imagine parting from this enticing maiden, not before he knew far more of her than was already the case. Perhaps it was a small hall. Perhaps her family were as tranquil in their thoughts as she.
Perhaps the reward of her company was worth any price.
“I would ask a boon of you first, my lady.” Garrett took a step closer to her and fairly felt her quiver. He held up a finger. “One kiss, then all is balanced between us.”
Her breath came quickly at his suggestion and he could fairly taste her uncertainty. He wondered whether she had ever been kissed by a man before. He could not look away from the intensity of her gaze and her uncertainty made him feel uncommonly protective of her.
“Your sister’s husband may believe you owe me much more than a kiss for this deed on this day,” he said softly. “And if ever you come to me, my lady, I will not have it be because you were commanded to do so. I would have you come to me by your own choice.”
She swallowed and he watched her throat work. “I think your terms most fair,” she whispered and he knew she spoke the truth. He sensed the anticipation within her, the attraction mirrored his own, and again, was amazed that her presence was so delightful.
Garrett stepped closer and touched a finger to her chin. Instincts warred within her and he was aware of her desire to flee and hide. At the same time, he sensed her anticipation and was honored by her trust. He moved slowly, not wanting to startle her, though he yearned to crush her against himself and kiss her thoroughly.
He slid his thumb across her skin and felt her shiver. Her eyes shone as she studied him and those lush lips parted in invitation, for she was determined to be bold. Garrett’s chest tightened at the sight of her vulnerability and determination.
Then he bent and gently captured her mouth beneath his own. She shook like a new tree, and he thought for a second that he had lost her. But her newfound boldness carried the day for she closed her eyes and placed her hands on his shoulders.
Welcoming his touch.
It was enough to make him dizzy. As he deepened his kiss, Garrett knew he had found the woman could could still the tumult within him.
Even though he had yet to learn her name.
Excerpt from The Highlander’s Curse by Claire Delacroix
©2013 Deborah A. Cooke
The next book in the True Love Brides Series is The Frost Maiden’s Kiss.