A desire that defies all limits...and a love that was meant to be..."A captivating, finely written romance...with excellent pacing and characters who are honorable, intelligent and full of humanity. This is a tale to cherish." ~ Romantic Times, 4-star review
Scotland 1502. Akira Neish has been raised as a peasant, her belly often empty and her family subject to the cruel whims of her clan's laird. To the clan's children, the horned shaped birthmark she bears means she is a witch. But she is neither peasant nor witch--and now the man who knows the truth has returned to claim her for his own.
Calin MacLeod has kept Akira's secrets and to avenge his father, the sensual young laird must marry her. He is more than a match for the fiery nature of the woman he adores. Yet the passion they share--and truths that can no longer remain hidden--could rip all of Scotland apart...
Scotland Highlands, 1484
Hidden behind a false panel, ten-year-old Calin MacLeod covered his ears with sweaty palms. The screams echoing throughout Brycen Castle were loud enough to loosen his teeth.
Lena Kinnon cried for mercy with every gut-wrenching contraction, but didn't receive the slightest morsel of compassion from the many men present. Her position held no dignity, sprawled atop the council table like a sacrificial lamb. The wool of her soiled sark draped between her raised knees and provided her little privacy. No one wiped her brow or offered soothing words of comfort.
A woman was supposed to suffer during childbirth to pay for the sins of Eve. Even at his young age, Calin knew the laws of the church. He also knew Lena had already suffered more than any woman in Clan Kinnon. The bruises speckling her pale skin were evidence of the constant torture she endured at the hands of her ruthless husband.
The sliver of space between the wooden planks where Calin hid was no wider than the trunk of a sapling, but provided a view of his da, Laird MacLeod, who stood against a stone pilaster opposite Laird Kinnon. Da's dark hair had grayed at the temples over the recent months, and his face sagged in weariness, but his rigid stance displayed his contained rage. With his eyes narrowed, Da stroked the golden bull's head engraved into the signet ring he wore and glared at his enemy.
Two pairs of MacLeod warriors flanked each side of his da, while four Kinnon warriors surrounded Laird Baen Kinnon. All were unarmed as was previously agreed upon by both lairds.
"Ye keep screamin', wife. It'll cleanse your black English soul." Laird Kinnon paced the council chamber, a sneer twisting his pitted face.
Calin hated the chieftain of his neighboring clan as much as Da did. Laird Kinnon was a cold-hearted demon. Anyone who would beat his lady wife during her childbearing time walked upon this earth with the devil's black blood flowing through his veins.
"Ye bear me another bitch and it will be your last."
"Please, Baen, have ye no mercy? Send for the midwife, please." Lena gripped the sides of her belly and arched her back.
Laird Kinnon slapped her across the face with an open palm. Sweat sprayed over the tabletop. "Still your tongue, wife, or I'll cut it out." He spread his arms wide, gesturing to the many warriors present. "There be plenty o' eager hands awaitin' to catch my male bairn as soon as ye free him from your spoiled womb."
Calin bit his tongue to avoid cursing the man as venomously as his da always did. Calin had lived his whole life without a mam to kiss his cheek or offer him praise. Over the past few months, Lena had been like a mother to him. She was kind and gentle and Laird Kinnon should burn in the deepest pit of hell for the way he abused his lady wife. Calin didn't have to be an aged warrior to know this was wrong. Lena's child was nothing more to Laird Kinnon than a binding contract.
A contract that affected Calin's future. Which was precisely why he'd disobeyed Da's direct order not to follow him to the Kinnon keep when word of Lena's lying-in arrived. If Lena bore a daughter, the babe would become his betrothed.
Calin and his friend, Kendrick Neish of Clan Kinnon, had discovered the secluded compartment just two months past after stumbling into the pitch-black caverns beneath the castle. Since then, they had become privy to every council meeting between their clans. They knew of war and how the English wanted to reign over Scotland. Both had heard the gruesome tales of entire villages being slaughtered. Neither he nor Kendrick wanted their clans to suffer such a fate. Calin knew they were supposed to be enemies, but they wanted the same thing--an alliance.
For five hours, Calin had hugged his twisted limbs in the narrow space while Lena labored in the corner. His arse tingled, and his toes had gone numb hours before inside his leather brogues. The dank odor of moldy floor rushes drifted into his hiding place. A prayer floated into his ear.
"Fàilte dhut a Mhoire, tha thu lan de na gràsan..." In the Gaelic tongue, Father Harrald prayed to the Blessed Mother while he paced the edge of the chamber. The granite beads of his rosary clattered with his every movement. The young priest had been summoned to perform the baptism or to administer Last Rites in the event this child didn't survive--as Lena's previous three babes had not.
Lena pushed and Calin sucked in air.
He exhaled when she did. Her whole body convulsed, his shivered. Wet ropes of black hair clung to her face and neck. Propped on her elbows, her head fell back. Her mouth opened, and she screamed in agony.
One of the warriors caught the babe just as it slid from Lena's body.
Calin held his breath awaiting the outcome.
"A lass, Laird Kinnon," the old man announced grimly while he held the babe by the ankles and slapped her rump. He then laid her atop Lena's quivering abdomen.
Lena pulled the crying child to her breast and stroked her newborn skin. Relief washed over her face and tears spilled over her cheeks when she smiled at Da. All would be well now.
"Seal off the hall and bring me the other child." The cord still attached his infant daughter to his wife when Laird Kinnon commanded his seneschal. Dark eyes blazed with contempt as he stared directly at Da. "Ye will ne'er hold claim to my land. Nor will ye e'er touch my wife again."
"I have ne'er wanted your land." Da stepped closer to Lena.
"But ye dinnae deny touching my wife."
Da glanced at Lena.
A dozen broad-shouldered men materialized from the darkened recesses of Brycen Castle. Their weapons flickered beneath golden wall torches. A raw-boned nursemaid, escorted by another warrior, entered the chamber, her fear evident in sunken wide eyes. In her arms, she held another babe swaddled in striped wool, its fists swatted the air. With trembling hands, she placed the babe in the crook of Laird Kinnon's arm.
Confused, Calin studied the exchange. Laird Kinnon had agreed to unite their clans if Lena bore a daughter.
Laird Kinnon turned to his warriors. "Send their miserable souls to the devil. All of them." His tone was devoid of mercy. Of compassion. Of any emotion except contempt.
He stepped out of the keep onto the stone rampart. "I have a son!" he shouted.
The villagers of Dalkirth roared their approval while the words echoed in Calin's ears.
Nay! 'Tis a lie! He gawked in horror as the shadowed knights charged his clansmen. Da's devoted seneschal used a flaming pitch-pine torch to defend the attack. His efforts were futile. With one swing of a halberd, a Kinnon warrior beheaded him. Another fiend slashed one of the MacLeod warriors from gullet to navel. Fists clutched enemy plaid as he fell to his knees.
Calin's heart tripped. His hands flattened against the panel. His nose pressed into the crack. Oh saints, help them!
From the book Highland Dragon by Kimberly Killion. Copyright © 2009 by Kimberly Killion.