Highland Reckoning Excerpt

Book 2 > Of Mist and Mountains

Cuil Castle, Scotland


Brus MacLeod stood on the ledge in the dank cell that overlooked the North Sea far below waiting for his unwanted betrothed. He took stock of the cell as he waited for the bride that would never be his if he was clever enough. The holding was thick, weathered rock on three sides with the fourth side an open-air, awe-inspiring drop past sharp, jutting rock to the violent sea below. The opening was a teasing torture device. How many men had attempted the hopeless escape? A good many, no doubt. Likely, every one of them had fallen to their death.

He wouldn’t die to escape the marriage his da was trying to force on him, but he’d damn sure connive to get out of it. He saw no other choice. One man and one woman pledged to each other for life only worked, as far as he’d seen, if they both wanted to bare their souls. He had no interest in exposing his long list of sins and shortcomings to a lass. He was well aware of his faults and didn’t need yet another person pointing them out to him or being disappointed by him. There was no worry of either of those things when relationships were simple and pleasurable with revolving bed partners.

A damp mist carried on the bitter wind and wet his face as he stared down the ledge Cuil Castle was built upon. He ignored the murmuring voices behind him—those of his elder brother and the new laird of the MacWilliams clan, Duncan MacWilliams. He didn’t need to hear the betrothal terms Royce and MacWilliams were discussing. He already knew them, and the thought of them made his teeth clench just as they had when his father had matter-of-factly delivered the news.

Brus’s right temple throbbed with each push of blood from his heart to his brain, reminding him where he stood with his da. If it had ever been in question, there was no denying the truth now. His fingers curled reflexively into fists as his thoughts turned as violently as the sea below. The second son. That’s all he was to his father. Brus had never measured up to his da’s expectations, and his da had shown no qualms about betrothing him without consent or knowledge to obtain a tract of land he had wanted.

It didn’t matter that the initial betrayal had occurred twelve years ago. It didn’t matter because his da could have made it right a sennight ago when the secret betrothal had come to light. His da could have shown that Brus had some import to him besides as a sacrificial lamb, but he hadn’t. He’d stood by the fire in the great hall of Dunvegan Castle with a hard stare and a grim expression, and made excuses. He hadn’t mentioned the betrothal because he’d expected Brus’s behavior would eventually cause the lass to break the marriage agreement.

That excuse had infuriated Brus even more. That excuse had made Brus throw a full goblet of wine across the room at his da. And the man had given him a baffled stare, as if he had not understood. And in fact, Brus was certain the thick-skulled man had not. It was Brus’s mother who had said in her patient, thick English accent that their son was vexed because her husband’s words made it seem he found their youngest son so lacking in character that the lass he’d secretly bound Brus to would surely never wish to wed him.

He could still hear the rain hitting the windows as silence had enveloped the hall and his da had stared, unresponsive, at his mother’s words. How much time had passed before the great and mighty former MacLeod laird had spoken? Minutes? Hours? Hell, Brus couldn’t say. Rage had stolen his ability to think. And when his da had finally spoken, it had been salt in an open wound.

This situation called for cleverness and an ally. Luckily, he had both. Royce had assured him that he’d go along with Brus’s plan to drive the MacWilliams lass to break the betrothal. The irony wasn’t lost on Brus that his da’s belief about Brus driving the lass to end the agreement was what had given him the idea to do exactly that. It had to work, because if it didn’t, there would be hard choices to make. Royce had made it clear that his allegiance at that point would have to lie with the welfare of the clan. In other words, his elder brother would side with their da and demand Brus proceed with the wedding.

Brus understood, though he didn’t like it. Royce was laird, and he had to think of the clan at all times, what could make it prosper or fail, and this betrothal would cause problems for the clan if the lass on the other end of it was not the one to break it. So she would be, because if she wasn’t, he’d be forced to wed her or willingly hurt his family. Despite his rage at his da, Brus could not do that to his family. There was no doubt in his mind that the lass’s stepbrother would not simply release Brus from the betrothal. The MacWilliams laird had been the one who, upon the recent death of the previous MacWilliams laird, immediately demanded the betrothal be honored.

Brus had defied his da many times in his life, but he’d never intentionally done anything to endanger the clan. There were lines—admittedly few—that even he didn’t want to cross, and betraying his family was one of those lines. He had six months to get the lass to end the agreement. That was how long they had been commanded to live together and get to know each other before they wed. It shouldn’t be difficult, given the betrothal was only now being called in at the lass’s age of two and twenty. That indicated to him that the lass must have felt as her mother apparently had: displeased with the agreement the laird had made twelve years earlier.

Brus knew from his own da that the lass’s mother had demanded a vow from her husband that, ultimately, the lass would not be forced to wed Brus if she did not choose to do so. And the father had kept the vow, even after the lass’s mother had died, even after the father had wed another woman, and even though the lass should have long been wed by then. It was the stepbrother who had immediately called for the official betrothal period to begin or for the land that had been exchanged to be returned to the ownership of the MacWilliams clan.

Those were the original terms. A six-month betrothal in which he and Sebille MacWilliams got to know each other, and then at the end of the six months, they were to be wed. If the lass broke the betrothal, she forever forfeited her family’s claim to the land; if Brus broke the betrothal, his family could no longer call the land theirs or use it as a strategic place for guards to keep Dunvegan Castle safe. It was a risk her father apparently had been willing to take when he’d agreed to her mother’s terms. As for Brus’s da, now that the betrothal was to commence, he expected Brus to go through with the wedding if the lass so wished it.

Brus slid his teeth back and forth, trying to cool his anger. His da could have offered Royce for the betrothal, but of course, he hadn’t. He’d offered Brus, his second son, the unworthy son, the son who had disappointed him time and again. Brus inhaled deeply, and the cold air burned his nostrils. When he exhaled, a puff of white escaped his lips and his concentration turned to why they were awaiting the lass here, in this dank cell, instead of meeting her in the great hall, as would be customary.

Was it really because MacWilliams had wanted to give them a tour of the castle that would finish here and it was simpler to meet the lass here before proceeding to the hunt, as MacWilliams claimed? It seemed a lie to Brus, and he knew it seemed a falsehood to Royce, too, given how his brother had frowned. But Royce had not commented, and neither had Brus. The hazards were high for their clan. Over the years, the land the betrothal had brought his clan had proven very strategic. Drennan Island was the ideal place to have guards stationed on watchtowers to alert them to incoming ships, just as his da had believed it would be.

Damn him. He’d left their home to return to the king’s stronghold after delivering the betrothal news and a comment that still echoed in Brus’s head: he hoped Brus would finally put the welfare of the clan first.

Finally! Brus gritted his teeth once more. Finally! Every action he had ever taken was for the welfare of the clan. His constant training to be an unparalleled swordsman so he could defend his clan and pass his knowledge on by teaching other men. His undertaking of continual missions for the king in order to keep the clan in his favor. His staying at Dunvegan Castle after their da had handed over the lairdship to Royce, even though being at the stronghold was a daily reminder of years of being told he was a disappointment.

It would have pleased Brus greatly to leave and show his da just how unworthy he wasn’t, to build a larger castle, a bigger clan, but he’d stayed at the bequest of his brother to help guide the clan. And what had staying gotten Brus? Guilt to make the ultimate sacrifice and bind himself for life to some woman he did not know. He’d didn’t want to be bound to any woman. With those binds came expectations, and he didn’t care to try to meet anyone’s expectations ever again.

“Yer brother’s wenching has to stop,” came Duncan MacWilliams’s voice from behind Brus.

Brus’s disdain rose like a wave and made his temper snap. It was one thing to bend to his brother’s demands; it was another to bend to the MacWilliams’s. “That all depends on whether yer sister is long in the face or nae.” The grimness he felt reverberated in his tone. “The betrothal says I must spend time with her. It dunnae say I have to bed a sow-faced lass. A man has needs, so if the lass be a sow, then I’ll plow a comely, willing wench.”

“Let us all hope ye find me a sow, then, because I’d rather be thought uncomely than touched by the likes of ye.”

The female voice that came from behind him dripped with disdain, singeing him. A momentary feeling of kinship touched him, but he ruthlessly smothered it. He tipped back on his heels, purposely taking his time turning around to stoke her ire. This was starting off better than he’d expected and without much effort on his part. “Well then,” he said, continuing to leave his back to Sebille MacWilliams to compound injury on insult, “let us see whether ye’re worthy of my attentions or if I need to look elsewhere for my bed to be warmed.”

He turned to face her and was momentarily speechless. She stood there in the doorway looking innocent as a delicate-boned lass, but her presence… Her presence was that of a wild storm. Intense, defiant eyes the color of polished amber stared at him with all the warmth of an icicle. He would have judged her a formidable woman from that daring greeting, but her gaze darted to her stepbrother as the man cleared his throat in obvious annoyance. MacWilliams shot Sebille a warning look that instantly changed her from a worthy opponent to a tamed animal. Her thick lashes fell to veil her eyes for a heartbeat, and when they rose once more, the flame of anger had been extinguished. In its place was disappointing compliance that moved in the shadowy windows to her soul. Perhaps the lass would be a meek bore? That boded better for controlling any desire for her.

The room was utterly silent, save a low whistle from the wind now at his back and his own sharp inhale hissing in his ears. His reaction to her physical presence disconcerted him, and it irritated him still more when her gaze flicked to him and her black brows rose nearly imperceptibly with a knowing arch. She was aware of her allure. Normally, he liked a woman well aware of her charms, but in this case, it didn’t suit his purposes.

He expected a smug smile to grace those perfect bow-shaped lips of hers, but instead, the shadows in her eyes shifted again, and the hint of knowing disappeared, replaced by a dull, compliant look. Now that was intriguing and problematic. The lass held disdain for the betrothal, as well, but she was hiding it. Did that mean it would be more difficult to get her to break it? Her wine-colored lips pressed together ever so slightly, revealing a great deal more than he suspected she wanted to reveal. Sebille MacWilliams was holding back what she really wanted to say.

Her hand fluttered first to the pale, slender column of her neck and then to the thick, dark braid that hung over her right shoulder. There, she commenced winding the end of her braid between her thumb and forefinger repeatedly. She was nervous, but not because of him, a stranger, the man she was being forced to live with in a strange place for six months. Her gaze had moved to her stepbrother again, as if waiting for a cue, and when MacWilliams started toward her, she flinched, her lips parted, and then she caught her lower lip between her teeth.

“Sebille,” MacWilliams said, brushing past Brus to the lass, “has an odd sense of humor, do ye nae, Sebille?” MacWilliams was staring at his stepsister as he took her firmly by the elbow.

Brus was staring, too. She wasn’t the sort of lass a man could look away from. With her oval-shaped face like a drop of water. She was the sort that could stop a man’s heart if the man was not careful. It was a very good thing that he was an exceptionally vigilant man. And yet he leaned toward her as if she were fire and he needed her warmth.

“Sebille, apologize,” MacWilliams said, his voice sharp as a thorn now.

Brus narrowed his gaze on the man. He didn’t like the way MacWilliams talked to his sister, or how he gripped her so hard that the skin over his knuckles whitened. Yet, she didn’t flinch. Either she was fiercely afraid to do so or she had steel flowing through her veins. He found himself foolishly hoping it was the latter, and that was foolhardy, indeed. He didn’t need an opponent with too much courage. A dash would be entertaining; any more would be tedious.

Her attention settled firmly on Brus, and the world around him shifted. “I’m sorry,” she said, offering a smile that had no hope of reaching her eyes.

Steel. The word resounded in his head, and he accepted it for the truth he suspected it was. The woman appeared fragile, but underneath, Brus wagered, was layer upon layer of steel. The revelation, along with the surprising sensuality of her voice, did something to him. It was like diving off the high cliffs at the Fairy Pools to the glistening waters below. The air in the room got heavier, and all of it pressed directly on his chest.

“I do have an odd sense of humor,” she said, “and I’ll try to contain it.”

“Dunnae contain it on my account,” he replied, the words out before he’d considered them. But now that they were out, he was committed. “I prefer sparring with someone over yawning at their presence.”

“Are ye tired?” MacWilliams asked, sounding confused.

Laugher burst from Sebille then and a smile, a real one with the blinding brilliance of the sun. That smile of hers lit the room and warmed Brus inexplicably. Unacceptable. He intended not to look at her but found his gaze clashing with hers, and devil take it, he watched as the merriment in her eyes disappeared and a troubled look replaced it. That troubled look stirred his protective instinct.

Damn his nature. He couldn’t allow that instinct to be stirred. His gut told him it would cause him trouble that would most definitely involve the lass, and he neither needed nor wanted to be her savior. She was overly wary of her stepbrother it seemed. Brus considered his options for a breath and then spoke. “I meant only that I prefer to exchange barbs with a lass rather than be bored by her.” Offering explanations was not something he was in the habit of doing. Beside him, his brother began to cough with exaggeration, which Brus ignored. He’d let Royce heckle him later for his momentary weakness.

MacWilliams nodded, his attention returning briefly to his sister. “I promise ye, then, that Sebille will nae bore ye. Sebille, curtsy,” her brother demanded, which made Brus reactively clench his teeth. He never had cared for men who ordered women about as chattel.

Sebille stiffened, and a defiant look passed between the siblings—order followed by submission. Sebille stepped forward, speared Brus with her gaze, and offered a look devoid of artifice instead of a curtsy. It gleamed like a freshly polished blade.

Silence fell, and she tilted her head, appearing to be thinking about what she wanted to say. Brus became aware of an odd sensation within him, body tightening in complete awareness of her, blood heating. His attraction to the lass was strong. Dangerously so, perhaps. He’d have to remain aware of that.

“My lord,” she said. Her voice was sweet as a berry, but her steady gaze held disdain, whether for him or her stepbrother, Brus was uncertain. “How verra fortunate I am to be shackled to ye for the next six months.”

“There’s more of that wit I spoke of,” MacWilliams said, moving to Sebille’s side. He grabbed her by the chin, making Brus want to hit him. “A man can ignore such barbed wit when it flows from lips like these, aye?” Sebille’s nostrils flared, and a deep blush stained her cheeks. “What do ye think, Brus?”

“I think,” Brus said, anger heating his blood, “I want ye to unhand my betrothed.”

Sebille’s wide gaze flew to his, as did her brother’s narrowed one.

“Ye’re betrothed is my sister, and I’d nae ever do a thing to harm her or my other sister, Cecily. Would I, Sebille?”

For a long moment, silence followed and Brus studied Sebille intently, trying to read her emotions. But they were inscrutable. “Nay,” she finally said. “May I depart now that I’ve made an appearance as ye commanded? I need to collect herbs for a poultice.”

“Ye may depart to pack yer trunks,” her brother replied.

“My trunks?” Sebille frowned. “Why would I pack my trunks?”

“To return to Dunvegan with Brus, of course, for the length of the betrothal.”

Her gaze crashed into Brus’s and then fell from his face to his groin and back up. The blush that had stained her cheeks now flushed her chest, and a bolt of lust, stronger than his usual cravings, hit him. God’s blood, he wanted to bed her. That was unfortunate.

Control. He had control.

And then her tongue darted out to moisten her lips, and visions of the two of them entwined invaded his mind. His hands on the full swell of her high, creamy breasts. Her midnight hair sliding like silk over his shoulder, through his fingers, tickling his chest. Her legs, likely firm given the appearance of her trim arms, wrapped tightly around his thighs, mayhap even locked behind his back. Her womanly scent in his nostrils, on his tongue, covering his hands.

He tried to remember the words he’d intended to say and nearly heaved a sigh of relief when he found them. “Dunnae fash yerself, lass. Ye will nae be harmed under my touch.” It was one thing to drive her away from him with rude behavior, but he’d never want her to worry he’d ravish her.

Her gaze popped wide, and then she stiffened. “’Tis nae what I’m worried about, ye clot-heid,” she snapped, turned around, and strode out of the room, the blue skirts of her gown swishing as she went. She was gone so quickly he would have thought he’d imagined her if not for the scent of sweet rush and frankincense that lingered, honey mingled with spicy, just like the intriguing woman he’d just met.

“If ye’ll give me but a moment,” MacWilliams said, leaving the stone prison without waiting for Brus or Royce to actually respond.

Brus was still staring at the open door MacWilliams had departed through when Royce said, “I do believe that lass desires this betrothal even less than ye do. It should be easy to drive her to demand to be released.” When Royce clasped Brus on the shoulder, Brus turned his head to the right and met his brother’s blue gaze. “What do ye think, Brother?” Royce asked.

What did he think? Brus stared at his brother as he contemplated his own thoughts. He wanted the lass, but that was something he’d never act upon. He could not bed the woman he was trying to rid himself of. He needed to drive her away, not seduce her. “I think fate is testing me.”

“Aye,” Royce said. “She’s bonny. Are ye certain ye dunnae want to come to know her? Mayhap—”

“Nay,” Royce said, interrupting his brother. He knew what Royce was going to say. Maybe Brus would find he wanted to wed her. He would not find that. He may find he enjoyed bedding her, but bedding and wedding were two entirely different beasts. “I’ve told ye afore, I dunnae wish for a wife in this life or the next.”

Royce made a derisive noise from deep in his chest. “One day, Brother, ye’ll fall for a lass, and I predict it will be so hard that yer thick skull will finally get a rattle and mayhap some sense will be knocked into ye.”

“A dire prediction, indeed,” Brus replied with a wink.

~ ~ ~

As Sebille stormed out of the cell and the heavy iron door slammed behind her, she paused just around the corner, legs trembling and weakness making her set her palms to the wet stone to regain her balance. She was starving! And no wonder! Duncan had kept her locked in her room and refused her food for the last sennight, trying to force her willing acquiescence to his plan. It made her blood boil to think that he would willingly use her, how all men seemed to willingly use her! First, her father in promising her to a man she had never met, and then her stepbrother!

She despised men. They were untrusting, foul creatures. Tears stung her eyes as she bit hard on her lip. The metallic taste of blood touched her tongue, and she released her lip and let out a shaky breath while squeezing her eyes shut and struggling to draw in a breath as her thoughts raced over the last few months since her father had died. The depth of her sadness at his death had taken her by surprise, given his rejection of her over the years after he’d wed her stepmother. Yet, since he’d kept the promise he’d made to her mother on her deathbed, to allow Sebille to break her betrothal to Brus MacLeod and choose her own husband if she so desired, she’d held out hope that someday he might show her some measure of love once more by standing up for her against her stepmother’s cruel treatment of her and her sister.

But he hadn’t. He’d turned a purposeful blind eye to her stepmother’s treatment of them until the bitter end, and it was like a thousand knives of betrayal in Sebille’s back. She couldn’t sleep at night for all the blades. And then a new enemy had stabbed her. Duncan. She’d mistakenly thought she could count on his support when he became laird. They’d been allies of sorts against his mother’s controlling ways, or so Sebille had thought, but the minute her father had died and Duncan had been made laird, he’d become the one determined to use and control her.

Yes, he’d demanded his mother stop lashing her every time she decided Sebille had done something wrong, and he had ensured that his mother quit taunting Cecily for her lame leg, but now he was trying to force her to enter a betrothal he did not want her to keep, simply to position herself at the MacLeod Clan to do Duncan’s bidding. She shivered at the thought of Duncan, and opened her eyes then gasped.

Duncan stood before her, gaze assessing and probing, mouth pressed into a hard line. “Ye did nae behave as a lass willing to aid me, Sister.”

Sebille was well aware she had to choose her words wisely. Duncan was no fool. She swallowed and wet her lips, partly in fear, partly to gain time to think exactly what to say. “I’m sorry, Brother.” To call him that made bitterness fill her mouth. He was no brother to her. He was a living, breathing reminder that to put faith and trust in any man was to court heartbreak and desperation. “I was nae expecting to have to go with the MacLeods today.”

Duncan offered a grim smile. “My sources at the king’s court tell me he will travel to the MacLeod stronghold earlier than expected, so I need ye in position immediately to do as I told ye.”

Desperation was a swift emotion. It descended upon her like a swarm of bees, making her feel as if she were being stung. Her skin tingled all over in a most unpleasant manner. “I do nae think the plan will work,” she said, praying this time Duncan might actually listen, but did madmen listen? And he was mad! He had to be to think she’d be able to get close enough to the king to poison him or that she’d even do such a thing.

“It will work, Sebille.” His confident hard tone told her he wanted no further argument, but she had to try, though carefully. “I’ll never get close enough to the king to poison him. They will be having him watched to ensure he’s safe.”

Duncan nodded. “They will, of course, but it will be much easier to get close to him at the MacLeod stronghold than it would ever have been at court.” He grasped her suddenly by the chin. “I told ye, little bird, this is why ye have to pretend to want to go along with this betrothal. It’s a stroke of luck that the king has decided to visit his favored clans. If not for that, this chance to actually kill him may have been impossible.”

Duncan’s matter-of-fact tone about murder made Sebille’s scalp prickle. She had to curl her hands into fists to resist the urge to plunge her fingers in her hair and rub her head vigorously.

“Did ye see my betrothed?” she asked, her voice pitching high. “Brus MacLeod does nae look like a man who would be easily distracted from his duty to keep the king safe while at Dunvegan Castle.” When Duncan simply stared at her, the compulsion to continue grew stronger. She had to persuade him to abandon his foolhardy plan to have her poison the king. “Did ye see Brus’s eyes?” They had delved into her, making her feel he could see into her soul. “Even if I could get close enough to the king, I’ll be found out. Brus will see. He’ll know.”

“Nay,” Duncan said, the solitary word as unforgiving as forged steel. “He will nae see yer sins, because ye will seduce him. A man in the throes of lust dunnae contemplate much else but the heat between the woman’s thighs.”

She flinched at Duncan’s crass words and pulled back from his grip, grateful when he actually released her. Duncan was wrong about Brus MacLeod. She felt it in her bones. He seemed like a man who knew how to spot trouble when trouble came his way, and she didn’t think he’d be easy prey for seduction. She suspected he had bed partners aplenty. A man with his dark good looks would.

And that smile—slightly smug, slightly inviting. She frowned that she could recall it at all. No doubt that smile had lured many women to his bed and graced his lips before they spilled many a lie of trust and faithfulness. Life had taught her that men were not capable of such things. And if she ever doubted it, she had but to recall the things she’d overheard some of the other women of the castle whispering after her betrothal had been announced. Brus MacLeod was a predator. Though apparently women lined up to be his prey. He was a charmer. That’s what she’d heard. He didn’t seem very charming to her. Self-indulgent, mayhap.

They’d said he was compelling, too. She nibbled on her lip. Yes, fine, his looks were compelling, especially his eyes. They were a like the loch waters when the sun danced on them, bluish gold and secretive. Those eyes hid pain he’d never put to words. She didn’t like seeing that. It made him a person she could truly hurt and not just someone she would be forced to use. At the surface he appeared brutish, but there was a hint of some honor in his dislike of Duncan’s treatment of her. If she was forced to go along with Duncan’s plan, it would be far better if Brus was shallow and without honor.

“I tell ye, Duncan, it will nae work. Ye must abandon this notion of killing the king. Ye made a promise to me to allow me to choose my husband as my mother had wished!”

Duncan smiled at her, but no warmth touched his gray eyes.

A flash of her mother lying in a pool of her own blood filled Sebille’s head. The knife her mother had plunged into her own gut after discovering Sebille’s father was being untrue had not instantly killed her, but it had killed her not long after. The pain was the same either way—all-consuming. The old memory made her nostrils flare and left her feeling breathless. Her mother had trusted Sebille’s father, and that trust had led her to take her own life. The soil hadn’t even been dry over her mother’s unblessed grave before her father had wed Duncan’s mother, Morag. Foolish little girl that Sebille had been, she still had clung to the hope that her father loved her, but he’d shown her with slices of betrayal day by day that he hadn’t, keeping only one promise, elicited from her mother’s dying lips: that Sebille not be forced to wed Brus MacLeod if she did not wish it, just as her mother had been forced to wed her father. She had not wanted to wed him at first, and then she had eventually fallen in love with him, only to have him betray her and prove her first instinct about him had been correct. It hardly mattered whether she’d been correct or not. In fact, far better had she been wrong about Sebille’s father. His lack of character and love had shamed Sebille’s mother and made her soul die. The pain had been so great that she could not face living.

And now Duncan was breaking that one kept promise. She waited for the sweeping anguish to roll over her, but it didn’t come. Thank god. She was finally numb to disappointment. Not fear, though. As Duncan’s gaze narrowed, sweat dampened her underarms and her back, though a winter chill kissed the air in the prisoner’s chambers.

“I did nae say ye had to wed him. I said ye had to distract him enough to enable ye to kill the king. When the deed is done, ye may wed who ye wish.”

Her mouth felt suddenly as if she had not had a sip of liquid in years, yet she managed to swallow and form words past the panic closing her throat. “I do nae think I can make myself do it, brother.”

If there had been any warmth in Duncan’s eyes, it disappeared. His nostrils flared as he stared at her. “Ye will do as I bid, or ye will nae ever see Cecily again.”

Sebille’s heart dropped to her slippers, and instinctively, she turned to go find her sister, but Duncan grasped her by her arm and swung her back to face him. “She’s gone, so there’s nae a need to try to flee to her.”

 “Where is she?” she heard herself ask, her voice tight with worry.

Duncan let out a long sigh. “I did nae want to send her away, Sebille, ye must understand that.”

She wanted to scream. Her throat tightened with the desperate need to yell at Duncan, claw at him, hit him. Instead, she inhaled a deep breath to try to calm her racing heart and boiling rage. Neither would help her or Cecily now. “Why then? Why did ye do so?” She already knew the answer. Of course she did. He was using Cecily to get Sebille to do his bidding. Had it been his idea or Morag’s? Did it even matter?

“Ye know why. I can see on yer face that ye do.”

Damn her face! She had always had trouble hiding how she felt, which had caused her countless problems with Morag and now Duncan. She rubbed her sweaty palms together, unable to stop the nervous gesture. “I did nae think I could do it, but I will.” The lie sounded false even to her, but she pushed on. “If I’m to do this, at least tell me why ye want the king dead.” Mayhap there’d be a sliver in what he offered her that she could use to save herself and her sister.

“Sebille.” The word held a tinge of sorrow in it. “Ye are naive. That’s the problem. That has always been the problem. But I’m going to enlighten ye.”

The way he said it, as though he dreaded doing it, made her shiver in fear. Things were not simple. It was suddenly very clear. Duncan had attempted to betray her, was betraying her, and she had put him in the same category as her father, that of a duplicitous man. She knew men and women were all capable of good and evil, of being greedy and giving, loving and vengeful, protective and harming, but whatever failings she possessed, she had never betrayed someone she loved. She had never intentionally caused them harm or used them. Why did men seem incapable of the same ability to choose right over wrong, no matter the personal cost?

“The world is a harsh place, Sebille.”

“Is this ye enlightening me?”

 “Nay, this is.” He leaned so close to her, his breath wafted over her face when he spoke. “Ye have nae ever had to do anything to survive. Ye have been sheltered.”

That wasn’t quite true. She’d kept her mouth shut at his mother’s treatment of her because she’d known it was futile not to and would only bring her father’s anger upon her.

Duncan nodded, as if he were reading her thoughts. “Nae voicing complaints is nae having to do something to survive. That’s getting along, Sebille. ’Tis different.”

She wanted to argue, but she wasn’t entirely certain he wasn’t correct. Instead she said, “Ye still have nae told me why ye wish the king dead.”

“Because though he is my da, he’ll nae ever claim me, and worse than that, he’ll nae ever allow me, allow us, our clan, to grow bigger, stronger.”

She’d known Duncan was the king’s bastard son. And she’d known the king had refused to acknowledge him, but the last, the king refusing to allow the clan to grow, she had not known. But that did not mean murder was the answer. “Duncan—” No more words came at his sharp look. She felt cut by his gaze.

“Do nae try to convince me again to relinquish my plan. Ye dunnae have a notion of what I have endured.”

“Then tell me,” she urged in a soft voice, hoping if he finally talked about it, mayhap he’d forget this mad plan. “I had to return to my da year after year for punishment because if I didn’t, I would have been eliminated. But now—” He paused, the vein by his right eyes pumping his blood so furiously, she could see the rapid up and down movement of his skin. “Now I will have my revenge.”

“Revenge is nae survival,” she said.

“Oh, but it is, Sebille. If I dunnae have this revenge, I will be held down by my da until the day he draws his last breath. I will nae prosper beyond the meager bit he allows. Our clan will nae prosper and become stronger, and perhaps even someone will come along and destroy us. I kinnae say my da would stop it. To survive, I must gain power. To gain power, my da kinnae be in control of the throne, and thus, we come to the bad things we must do to survive.”

“I dunnae want any part of it,” she whispered, unable to stop the truth from slipping out of her mouth.

“And I dunnae wish to be the bastard of the king of Scotland, but I am. I need yer aid. If there were another way, I’d nae ask it of ye.”

She opened her mouth to protest once more, but he held up his hand to silence her, a warning look settling in his eyes. She’d learned in the last few weeks that her stepbrother had a formidable temper, which he’d hidden well in the seven years he’d lived at the castle. He had been, she realized now, biding his time for the moment he would seek his revenge on what he’d had to endure. But exactly what had he endured to make him so cold and calculated? He still had not said. And as if he’d read her mind, he spoke.

“Ye think because yer mother died of her own hand, because yer da betrayed her, and ultimately ye, that ye have endured a lot.” She opened her mouth once more, but a dark look swept his face that sent chills trickling down her spine, so she pressed her lips tightly together. He smiled thinly. “Ye think,” he continued, “that my mother’s lashes upon yer back were horrors that ye survived, but those lashes were nae horrors.”

“Tell me, then,” she seethed, unable to contain the burst of anger within her, though she knew it was unwise not to. “If the deep scars I now bear on my back were nae horrors, what are horrors?”

“Horror,” he said, the one word seeming to come from a dark place deep within him, “is having a da who would see ye dead because he believes ye would try to claim his throne. I stand here now, only because yer da wed my mother, and the king did nae wish to break peace with yer da after he claimed me for protection.”

That was perhaps the one honorable thing her father had ever done. She thought now of all the months Duncan had been away every year apprenticing and how he’d always come back so very quiet, but she’d assumed he had been contemplating what he’d learned while he was gone. Whenever she’d asked, he’d never wanted to speak of it.

“Horror,” he said, “is being locked for a month in a rat-infested, pitch-black dungeon with nae a thing to eat but an occasional hunk of stale bread that ye have to fight the rats for.” She shuddered at that revelation, her hand fluttering to her neck as her skin crawled, envisioning rats scurrying over her in the darkness, baring their teeth at her for the meager food she’d been given.

“Were ye enslaved the whole time ye were gone? All those years?” When he gave a quick nod, a wave of pity washed over her, and she reached for him, but he flinched away.

“He couldn’t kill me, but he made me want to die.” Duncan looked away for a moment, and when he looked back, it was as if the light had been snuffed out of him. “Horror is being stretched on a rack day after day until the pain is so great ye pass out. Horror is having leeches put on yer manhood, while threats of cutting off yer manhood are whispered in yer ear by yer sire, yer king, if ye dare to ever reach for more than the meager scraps he’s willing to throw yer way.”

“Did…did my da know of what was being done to ye?”

“Of course he knew, Sebille, as did my mother, but my torture was the price she was willing to pay to keep me alive. And it was the price yer da was more than willing to pay for standing up to his king for my mother. It aided in the king’s willingness to overlook yer da defying him.” Duncan grabbed her chin yet again. “I told ye, little bird, men in lust forget themselves. Yer da forgot his loyalty to his king. Nae that I’m complaining. I simply make a point. He forgot it, because all he could think upon was the heat between my mother’s thighs. Women have the power to make men fools, and ye’re beautiful, so ye will wield great power; even Brus will nae be able to resist.”

Sebille frowned. “My da and yer mother should have protected ye better. I’m sorry they didn’t, Duncan. They did nae love ye well.”

“Love is nae so simple, Sebille, as the fairy tales yer mother told ye. She should have amended them after yer own da betrayed her.” Sebille kept her thoughts to herself, but they were loud in her head. Her mother had become like a ghost after da’s betrayal had become known. She did not have the will to live, let alone instruct Sebille that love was not a fairy tale, but there had not been a need for instruction. Sebille had two eyes and could see well enough that to bite of love was to bite of a poisonous apple with the power to kill ye. “I love ye as a sister,” Duncan said, “but I need ye to do this, whether ye wish it or nae.”

“I kinnae—”

His palm came to her mouth, shutting off her words and severing her hope. She heard the swish of it falling away from her, as if he’d cut it out of her with a sword instead of his hard look. “It pains me to force ye, Sebille, but I must—for ye, for yer sister, for the clan. If ye ever want to see Cecily again, ye will do this. Ye will go to the MacLeod Clan. Ye will use yer time there until the king’s visit in a month to ensure that Brus MacLeod is so distracted by ye, that he fails in his duty as the head of the MacLeod guards to protect the king. And then ye will poison the king.”

He said it without inflection, as if he were telling her snow had started to fall. Duncan turned to look behind him at the dark passage that led to the cell where Brus MacLeod and his brother still were. “Ye’ll nae be finding allies in them. In case ye did nae notice, Brus MacLeod wants to be wed to ye just as much as ye wish to wed him, so seducing him may nae be easy.” Duncan’s gaze came back to her and raked over her from head to toe and back, making her skin crawl with the frank assessment. “Ye’ve plenty of feminine wiles, and from what I’ve heard, he likes to partake a great deal. So let him partake, if need be.”

She flushed at her stepbrother’s crude words, and his shoulders dropped as he raked a hand through his wheat-colored hair. “If ye’ll just do as ye’re bid, Sebille, the deed will be done quickly, hopefully, I’ll return Cecily to yer care. Then ye can wed whomever ye wish, I vow it.”

 “And if I refuse?” she asked, needing to know just how far Duncan would go.

The coldness in his eyes turned positively frigid. “Mark me, Sebille, if ye refuse, or if ye fail, or if ye so much as peep a word, I’ll sell yer sister to the highest bidder. And dunnae think to try to find her. I’ve sent her so far away, she would nae ever be found by anyone but one who knows where she was sent.”

A knot lodged itself in Sebille’s throat. She was trapped. She would have to use and lie to a man, murder another man, and debase herself to save her sister. But what choice did she have? She was her sister’s protector. She had filled that role since the day their mother had died. Morag had come to the castle not a sennight later and tried to send her sister away simply because she had a lame leg. Morag had convinced her father that Cecily’s impairment reflected poorly on him as a man and a laird, and her father had never had a single kind word for Cecily again. The only reason Cecily had been allowed to stay at Cuil Castle was because Sebille had vowed Cecily was a useful healer. It had been a lie, but together they had secretly learned the healing arts, and it turned out Cecily was a gifted healer. Apparently that gift now held little importance to Duncan in the face of ensuring his security and growth.

“I’ll do as ye bid,” she whispered, even as her mind turned in circles to try to think of a way to extract her and her sister from this situation. But she could think of nothing. She had no one to trust. No one to turn to.

“What is it ye’re agreeing to, lass?” came a rumble of a voice from the shadows directly behind Duncan. Her gaze flew through the darkness, and Brus stepped into the sliver of light that was coming from the window in the passage. Her heart gave an odd flip at the sight of the man she was to seduce simply so he’d let his guard down when it came to her, so that he’d let her close to the king when he came for his visit. He was beautiful.

It wasn’t an appropriate word to describe a man, especially one who looked as capable of killing another with his bare hands as Brus did, but he was beautiful. His jaw was square and perfectly cut. A swath of inky hair fell across his forehead and curled at his neck below his ears. Dark stubble covered his chin and neck, and his shoulders were the broadest she’d ever seen. They’d need to be to balance the weight of his muscular arms. His chest and torso were chiseled rocks that did not have a spare ounce of fat on them. The man might enjoy pleasurable pastimes at night, but it was clear he honed his body during the day. She couldn’t help but wonder if it was to be in the best form possible to defend his clan or to attract the attention of lasses? Of course, he was the head of the MacLeod warriors, which was why Duncan had focused in on Brus when Duncan had heard the king was to visit the MacLeod Clan. The timing of that and her father’s death had paved the way for Duncan’s plan to kill the king.

A slow, knowing smile stretched across his lips, and heat washed over her. She’d been gaping at him like a fool, and he was well aware of it. She wanted to avert her gaze, but she didn’t do so. It was one thing to go with this man and possibly try to somehow persuade him to find her sister. It was quite another to purposely seduce him. She honestly didn’t think she’d know where to begin.

“Did ye forget what ye agreed to?” Brus asked, his look probing.

She forced a smile and said, “I agreed I should pack quickly so as nae to keep ye waiting. I’ll just go now.” She swung away, sidestepping Duncan and starting out the door of the prisoner’s chambers.

The door had no more than swished shut behind her when a hand gripped her arm. She took in a shaky breath of cool air. “What is it now?” she bellowed, assuming it was Duncan. But as she turned her head, Brus stood so close his heat invaded her and his scent of fire, forest, and destrier surrounded her.

His eyes delved into her, searching, probing, and curious. “What did ye truly agree to, Sebille? I’ll nae tolerate deceit, even for land.”

Devil take the man. He did not want her. He wanted her land. She’d known. Of course she had. Duncan had told her, but it still stung her pride. Yet, if he had so little honor as to wed her simply for her land, she shouldn’t feel guilty about using him to get to the king.

Sensing he’d detect a lie in this moment if she uttered one, she spoke as close to the truth as she could. “I agreed to retract my claws.”

“Verra good decision,” he said with a tight nod. “Because if ye did nae retract them, I’d have to clip them.”

He certainly was making it easier to do what she needed to do. Distaste for the man filled her mouth with bitterness. Here stood yet another male who thought he had every right in the world to tell a woman what to do, and he did. It simply wasn’t fair.

She inhaled a long, steadying breath, conjured up a picture of her sweet sister’s trusting face, and forced a smile she’d been told could melt the thickest ice in the loch. He stared stonily at her as if she’d shot a fierce scowl his way instead of an inviting smile. Worry blossomed in her chest. What if she couldn’t seduce the man? What if she was the one woman he didn’t care to bed? What if she couldn’t gain his trust, and so he would not let her close to the king without a watchful eye upon her? Her sister could be lost to her forever.

She gritted her teeth, repulsed by the idea of having to debase herself so, but to protect her sister, she would stomach anything.

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