Seduced by the Highlander – Julianne MacLean

Desire. Lust. Sex. In the dream, he was drowning in it, sinking deeper and deeper into a sea of desperate, tempestuous need. Soft, searching hands teased and stroked his chest and shoulders while warm, wet mouths licked at his stomach. He was Lachlan MacDonald, Kinloch Castle’s Laird of War, battle-seasoned warrior, and Scotland’s most infamous seducer of women. Yet he loved only one, who was nothing but a vague, shifting memory in his mind. Where was she in this dream? Was she even here? And was it truly a dream? It felt more like death. But if that were the case, he would be with her again, would he not? The current began to churn faster around him. No, she was not here. Not in this place. He did not know any of these women. They were all strangers. Suddenly he found he couldn’t breathe. Lachlan woke with a start, sucking cold air into his lungs.

He tried to sit up but couldn’t. His arms were stretched over his head, each wrist bound by a rope. His legs were spread wide, his ankles tethered. He was outdoors in some sort of pit, staring up at the clear night sky. A throbbing agony exploded in his skull. It was worse than death, and he shouted with rage, his muscles straining as he tugged and jerked at the bonds. But it was pointless to struggle. They were secure and his body was weak. Nausea burned in his gut. He went still and looked around through the gloom.

Vertical walls of stone surrounded him. He was lying on a bed of cold gravel. This was no pit. It was an open grave. An ancient burial cist. Lachlan balled his hands into fists and shouted with fury, but that only caused the grave to spin in dizzying circles. Had he been drugged? If so, by whom? And how in God’s name did he get here? Groping through a dense haze of incomprehension, he strove to remember his last steps. He had traveled alone to Kilmartin Glen on an errand for his cousin and chief, Angus MacDonald, Laird of Kinloch Castle. He had stopped for a midday meal at the alehouse.… His labored breaths came faster, puffing rapid clouds of steam into the cold night air.

Images slowly came back to him. There was a woman. He had gone with her to the haystacks in the field. She’d giggled and laughed when he slid his hands up her skirts and blew into her ear. But nothing existed for him after that. It was as if he had simply fallen into the dream. Footsteps approached; then a figure appeared overhead, at the foot of the grave. A woman. He watched her move like a shadow in front of the moon. She bent forward to retrieve something on the ground—a wooden pail with a rope handle—then straightened and fixed her eyes on him.

He was disoriented, but by God, he recognized that silhouette. It was Raonaid, the oracle. One month ago, she had vowed to make him rue the day he banished her from Kinloch Castle. “Raonaid…” Lachlan had never feared death before, but this woman stirred a hellish dread inside him. She worked with ancient powers from beyond, and from the first moment, he had sensed her venom. It was why he had encouraged Angus to cast her out of Kinloch. She stepped forward and dumped a bucketful of bones on top of him, and he winced with disgust as they clattered onto his kilt. “What are these?” he asked. “The bones of all your ex-lovers?” Raonaid gathered her skirts in her fists and hopped down into the grave. Straddling her legs around him, she sat down and wiggled her skirted bottom over his hips.

“If you’re hoping to ride me,” he growled through gritted teeth, “you’re going to be disappointed when I don’t rise to the occasion.” She was a beautiful woman—one of the most desirable in Scotland—with thick red hair and a buxom figure, huge, lavish breasts, and a face like an angel, but he despised her. “I don’t want you,” she said, her eyes on fire with antagonism and loathing. “I never did. But I wanted Angus, and he was my lover for more than a year—until you came and took him away.” It was a struggle for Lachlan to think straight through the pounding agony in his brain. “Angus was not put on this earth to be your bed partner,” he replied thickly. “He was born to lead the MacDonalds, to be Chief and Laird of Kinloch Castle, and I helped him reclaim that right. If you truly cared for him, you would never have denied him his destiny. You would have let him go.

” She leaned forward and whispered maliciously in Lachlan’s ear, “But Angus was forced to wed his enemy’s daughter. Nay, Lachlan—you are the one who dragged him back to a world and a life he had forsaken, and you poisoned his mind against me.” Raonaid sat back and withdrew a small dirk from her boot. Slowly, tauntingly, she waved the blade back and forth in front of his eyes, then reached down and sliced a lock of his hair. “I’ll need this for the curse,” she said, “in order to keep it going.” Then she nicked him fast across the cheek with the sharp point of the knife. “And this drop of blood.” In a fit of rage, Lachlan thrust his hips forward to buck her off, but she only laughed, as if it were a child’s game. Whatever substance she had given him was still infecting his brain, and the sudden movement caused his head to spin. Shadows clouded his vision, and nausea pooled in his gut.

He shut his eyes and felt a trickle of blood flow down his cheek and slowly seep into his ear. When at last the dizziness subsided, he glared up at her. “Are you going to gut me like a fish?” he asked. “Will that satisfy your twisted need for vengeance?” “Nay, that would be too easy. What I really want is for you to suffer. For many years to come.” She reached for one of the bones that had fallen onto the gravel beside him, picked it up, and whispered into his ear again. “I know about your wife.” Using the edge of the bone, she scraped the blood off his cheek. Lachlan’s nerves turned to ice.

He lay frozen beneath her with raging fury. “I know that she died a painful death, giving birth to a son,” Raonaid continued. “She screamed and cried and would have given anything for the child to survive, but alas, you lost them both. It was ten years ago to this day. Did you not realize that, when you took that tavern wench to the haystack?” Of course he had realized it. It was why he had done it. He’d needed the distraction. “Was she the one who poisoned me?” he asked. “Did you pay her?” “Nay, she just made it easy for me to pour something into your wine while you flirted and teased her into thinking she was your one true love.” Lachlan’s lips twitched.

He squeezed his hands into fists. The ropes creaked as he slowly pulled with all his might. “It’s too late to break free now,” Raonaid said. “You’re already cursed. It was done before you woke.” “You put a curse on me?” He tugged again at the bonds and bucked angrily beneath her. She stood up and climbed out of the pit, then looked down at him from above. “You killed the woman you loved by planting your seed in her womb, yet you continue to seduce and bed every bonny lassie who crosses your path. You would have bedded me, Lachlan, if I had been willing the first time we met.” He jerked hard on the ropes.

“That was before I knew what a spiteful witch you were.” She bent forward and picked up the empty pail. “I don’t deny being spiteful, but if I had been easier prey, the deed would have been done before you had the slightest whiff of my malice. How many other spiteful witches have you bedded? Do you even know?” He had no answer, for he rarely stayed with a woman long enough to discover her true character. “I didn’t think you would,” Raonaid said, “which is why I have chosen a fitting curse.” He waited in silence for her to explain her wicked conjuring, while a gentle breeze blew across her skirts. “From this day forward, any woman who spreads her legs for you will conceive—without fail—and die a painful death on the birthing bed. There is nothing you can do to prevent it. One night with Lachlan MacDonald will be a death sentence for any lassie foolish enough to fall for your charms, and will bring death to the child as well.” With that, Raonaid turned and walked away.

Lachlan shouted after her and struggled violently, but she did not return. Her footsteps faded into the night. Hours later, his eyes fluttered open with the rising sun, and he was no longer bound by the ropes. There was frost in the air. He could see his breath. His cheeks and lips were numb from the cold. His head still throbbed. The pain was so profound, he rolled to the side and retched up the contents of his stomach. Weak and shaky, shivering uncontrollably, Lachlan crawled out of the burial cist and looked around. He was standing on a stone cairn, at least forty feet in diameter, somewhere in Kilmartin Glen.

He looked down. A small circle of tiny standing stones formed a ring around the grave, and farther out, a second larger circle of taller stones encompassed the entire cairn. Lachlan blew into his hands to warm them, then touched the dried blood on his cheek. Staggering across the loose bed of stones, he made his way to the edge, where the grass beyond was blanketed in a crusty layer of frost. He dropped to his knees and collapsed onto his back. Blinking up at the morning sky, he pondered the situation. He was not a superstitious man, and he had never believed in Raonaid’s gifts the way Angus had, but how could he live like this? What if there was truth in the curse? Rolling over and rising up onto his hands and knees, he coughed and struggled awkwardly to his feet. As he made his way back to the village, he vowed that he would find Raonaid again. No matter how long it took or how far he had to travel, he would find her. One way or another, he would force her to lift the curse.

Maybe he’d threaten to kill her with it. Aye … that would certainly inspire her. The notion gave him strength. Chapter One Drumloch Manor, Scottish Borders October 1721 FROM THE PRIVATE JOURNAL OF LADY CATHERINE MONTGOMERY I have decided that today, since the weather is fine, I will write my first entry at the stone circle. I cannot explain it, but something about this place comforts me, and I am in dire need of comfort. It has been four months now since my return. Though return is not at all the proper word for my status here. I still remember nothing of my life before, despite the doctor’s many ef orts and tireless attempts to experiment with my head. He is both perplexed and shamelessly enthused, and I am beginning to think he will be disappointed if he ever cures me of my malady. He frowns at me when I say this, but I feel as if my spirit is in the wrong place—as if I have taken possession of another woman’s body and claimed all that she once had as my own.

I feel like a charlatan, and sometimes I wonder if that is what I am—a wicked, scheming imposter— even though Grandmother and Cousin John assure me on a daily basis that I am she. Lady Catherine Montgomery. Daughter of a Scottish earl. A woman who went missing five years ago. They tell me my father was a great war hero, and that he died fighting for the Scots in the recent rebellion (on the side of the Jacobites, which I allegedly supported, and quite passionately so). I remember none of that. All I know of myself is what I have been told, and what I experienced since the spring, when I was discovered in a farmer’s stable in Italy, huddled in an empty stall, hungry and shivering. Nuns took me in, and I was, in a way, reborn in that convent abroad, nursed back to health, questioned relentlessly, and finally identified as the long-lost Drumloch heiress. Am I truly she? I do not know. The portraits of Catherine Montgomery all show a rather plump and innocent-looking young girl.

I am neither plump, nor am I quite so young any longer. I am six weeks shy of my twenty-fifth birthday, they tell me. And no longer innocent. The doctor at the convent confirmed it. I am not sure how to feel about that. Sometimes it disturbs me, when I imagine what I do not remember. In my mind, I am still a virgin. I am also very slim, which is why some of the servants did not recognize me. They all agreed that I had the same hair as Catherine—which is a rather unusual shade of red—but other than that, some of them believed I looked nothing like she did. They were promptly dismissed.

But what if they were right? Sometimes I feel as if Grandmother is hiding something from me. She says that is not so, but I am suspicious. Could it be that some part of her simply needs to believe that I am her grandchild, even when she knows I am not? She has already lost her son, after all—the great war hero who was my father. I am all she has left of him. If I am, in fact, the heiress. Either way, heiress or not, I cannot seem to keep from watching over my shoulder. I am always expecting the real Catherine Montgomery (or her ghost) to appear at any moment and expose me as a fraud.… Catherine closed the leather-bound journal and tipped her head back against the flat standing stone, wishing she did not have to write about all this, but Dr. Williams had encouraged her to record her thoughts and feelings, suggesting it might help unlock something in her mind. Another experiment.

Would he insist on reading it? Flipping the book open again, she glanced over what she had written about her virginity and considered scratching out the part about his shameless enthusiasm.… No. She would leave it. It was honest, and if the point of this exercise was to cure her strange illness and solve the mystery of her five lost years, she would need to open her mind completely and let everything spill out like a bag of pebbles onto the floor. Feeling tired all of a sudden, she set the journal aside and stretched out on the grass in the tall, cool shade of the standing stone. For some reason she felt great comfort whenever she came here. She crossed her legs at the ankles and folded her hands over her belly while staring up at the bright blue sky, dotted with fluffy clouds. They floated by at a leisurely pace, shifting and rolling. It helped to relax her mind. Perhaps today would be the day when the past would come out of its box.

Soon she was dreaming about autumn leaves blowing across an endless bed of lush green moss. She could hear the faint rustle of footsteps through the grass, a horse nickering on the breeze.… In the dream, she saw herself in a looking glass and heard her own voice calling out from across the distance. She reached with a hand and tried to speak to the woman in the glass. “Come and find me. I am here. I’ve been here all along.” Suddenly the woman vanished in a rush of fear—like a ghost that did not want to be seen. Stirring uneasily, Catherine felt a presence all around the stone circle, but it was not the spirit from the dream. Her body tingled with awareness, and she moaned softly into the breeze.

Someone was watching her, circling around the outside of her private sphere. She could feel his eyes on her, waking her with a strange power of will that aroused all her senses. It compelled her to sit up, but she could not move. She was still asleep, and her body seemed made of lead. At last, her heavy eyelids fluttered open, and she blinked up at the sky. She sat up and looked around. There, just outside the ring of stones, a wild-looking Highlander was seated high upon a massive black warhorse. The man observed her with an eerie silence that made her wonder if she was still dreaming—for he was a breathtaking, godlike image in a shimmering haze of sunlight. His windswept black hair matched the shiny mane of his horse. It reached past the Highlander’s broad shoulders and wafted lightly on a whispering hush of a breeze.

He wore a dark tartan kilt with a tarnished silver brooch at his shoulder, a round shield strapped to his back. Upon his hip, he carried a claymore in a leather scabbard. Everything about him oozed sexuality, and the shock of such an improper awareness took Catherine beyond her depth.

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