The Highlander Who Stole Christmas – Eliza Knight

REVENGE WAS A dish best served on a cold, snowy platter. At least, that was what Laird Thane Shaw told himself as he headed out into the darkness just after nightfall, ignoring how the clouds covered the stars in the inky black sky. A blustery wind blew, and a man with less hate in his bones might have frozen to death. But his thirst for revenge was enough to keep him warm. This was for his twin sister, Thea. If no one else felt the need to exact revenge on her behalf, then he would gladly take up the mantle. Thea deserved no less—in fact, she deserved so much more. Life, for one. Damn his clan for fearing the wrath of the Campbells. The bloody bastards deserved to feel the same pain the Shaw clan endured. No matter their size, no matter their might, the Campbells couldn’t get away with murder. And he was going to teach them just that. An eye for an eye—or rather, a sister for a sister. Lady Sarah Campbell was about to become collateral damage in a war waged between clans, and while he did feel a twinge of guilt at putting her life in danger for the sake of his bloodlust, at least he wasn’t going to kill her. Unlike the Campbells who had violently stolen his sister’s life.

And so, Thane ignored the warnings of the weather and rode out into the night before anyone could stop him. Wrapped in his plaid to ward off the cold along with an extra riding blanket on his horse, Destiny, he rode over the moors. His horse’s hooves knocked against the frozen, packed earth. White clouds puffed from his mouth and the horse’s muzzle, and with each gust of wind, the ice on the tree limbs tinkled like musical wind chimes. Eight long months had passed since the Battle of Culloden, which had not only changed the landscape of Scotland but the landscape of his clan. His entire life. And ended his sister’s. He’d been one of the lucky ones. Hell, if one could call him lucky. He felt cursed.

Vexed with life, and guilt for surviving, when so many others had died for the cause. More than half of the Shaw warriors had been annihilated in battle. And those who’d made it were filled with such anguish and fear. Not to mention they’d had to hide from those who sought to kill them ever since. The Duke of Cumberland had orchestrated the catastrophic battle, and when it had ended, he’d put out the order for all Jacobite rebels to be murdered. And still, Thane was here. But without his twin sister in the world, what more did he have to live for? When he returned to his castle with Lady Sarah in tow, it would raise the morale of his people. Seeing that Thea’s death was being avenged would bring them hope for a brighter future. Or in some way present a future that was less bleak. Even the dogs looked dejected these days.

All of the clan’s crops had been burned or stolen by dragoons, and what little stores they’d been able to hide were quickly dwindling. Neighboring clans were all in the same boat. The population itself was dwindling because of it, as some fled to the New World and parts of Europe. Escaping starvation, fear and grief. At the very least, he might be able to extort some supplies from the Campbells when they came looking for Sarah. A ransom paid was better than a silly chit who required rations. Lady Sarah Campbell…He’d not seen her since Thea had been wed to the Chief of Clan Campbell, but his memory of her was sharp. The lass had a confidence about her that came with the privilege of belonging to a powerful clan. One that had not seemed to fair as badly as the rest of the nation. Trailing in undulating waves down her back and threaded with little white flowers, her red locks screamed out to the sun.

Her lips were a perfect pink bow, accented by a beauty mark on the indentation of her creamy, dimpled cheek. But most noteworthy were her brown eyes, the kind that saw straight into a man’s soul, disturbing him enough that he’d dreamt of them for months after their meeting. What sort of things had a lass like that seen? He hardly had to guess, given the brutality of her brothers. It crossed his mind then that perhaps Lady Sarah had witnessed his sister’s death. A shudder passed through him, imagining what Thea had gone through. Why had their da arranged to marry her off? If Thane had been laird at the time, he’d not have agreed. But the responsibility had only fallen to his shoulders after the great battle, which had also stolen his da’s life. And what was done was done. Thane thrust aside those melancholy thoughts, or else he might guide his horse right off a cliff. Instead, he focused on his plan for infiltrating the Campbell stronghold and finding Lady Sarah as fast as he could.

Recognizing her was the least of his worries. Och, but Thane could pick her out of a crowd of a thousand fiery-headed beauties, of that he was certain. What he worried about most was blending in with those in residence. He planned to infiltrate the castle during their annual Christmas feast, which took place on the eve of the holiday, and steal her away while everyone was distracted by the celebration. Word had leached out across the Highlands that the Campbells still planned to celebrate despite the death and destruction that had hit their country. Another great blow to those who were still suffering. Bloody bastards would be drunk on ale and wine and spiced cider, dining on the blood and guts of their peers. The Campbells hardly suffered enough during the battle. Of course, he knew that wasn’t generous of him. All the clans had suffered.

However, after learning that Thea had been left with little protection at the castle while the warriors had gone off to fight for Bonnie Prince Charlie and that when the ransom for Thea was demanded, the Campbells had refused, he wasn’t feeling very charitable. Oh, how his sister must have suffered at the hands of the butcher of the loyalist government army —also known as the Duke of Cumberland, son to King George who’d exacted his revenge on the Scottish rebels in favor of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Knowing that had made him harden his heart. Not just to the bloody Sassenachs who’d murdered her, but to those bastard Campbells, who might as well have been a party to it for they hadn’t done much to protect her. The place in his chest that used to burn a fire for a cause, had now frozen over, beating only for revenge. BEFORE THİS MOMENT, Lady Sarah Campbell had considered herself to be quite beloved by her family. But now, as she backed against the wall in the darkened corridor, she realized what a complete fool she’d been. How easily she’d allowed herself to live in a bubble of pure fantasy. For it was evident now, considering the conversation happening on the other side of the tightly closed door, that she was only a commodity to be traded. Her heart pounded in her ears, threatening to drown out the rest of the conversation happening within.

“There will be dozens of them present.” This was the distinctive deep voice of her younger brother Edward. “Ye were smart, brother, to invite everyone for the Christmas feast. No one will guess that we’re actually brokering a deal.” And that had been her other youngest brother Ellyson’s reply. Both her brothers chuckled, following by the sound of clinking. Were they giving cheers to selling her off? Sarah fumed, hands fisted at her side, and her jaw clenched so tight she risked breaking a tooth. To them, she was a deal to be brokered, and neither of them seemed to care one wit that she was human, and until a few moments ago, their much-beloved sister. Alas, that had all been in her mind, for it was evident now that she didn’t mean as much to them as she thought she did. What an absolutely pathetic idiot she’d been.

The Christmas feast that she’d been helping to prepare for weeks—had in fact planned most of— was just a ruse to auction her off to the highest bidder. Why did they even bother with the feast to begin with? They could have saved themselves a lot of trouble and resources if they’d simply tossed her naked out into the moors for the quickest man to grab. The clans were all hurting for money and staples since the Battle of Culloden, and though their clan was larger and richer than others, their size was the problem. They were large, too large, and had a lot of mouths to feed. So why not get rid of her and collect coin in the process? She was nothing but a piece of property. Jon was so busy with the rebellion these last few years that he’d put off arranging a marriage for her, and she’d been glad for it. Now that she was five and twenty, she thought for certain she’d be too long in the tooth for anyone to want her. Apparently not. Sarah reached forward, preparing to bang on the door to tell them exactly what she thought of their disgusting plan, but what they said next stilled her. “Northumberland’s son will be there, as well.

” “English bastards,” cursed her brother Edward. “Aye. We’ll rob him blind if he’s willing to take her.” Selling her to a bloody Sassenach made her stomach curdle, and she dropped her hand, pressing it to her gut, willing herself not to vomit. Northumberland…The same man who’d killed their brother and cousins on the field of battle. Oh, dear God, she could not be wed to a Sassenach! Especially one who’d led a red-coated regiment against her own kin. What had got into her brothers? Greed. Sarah pinched her forearm, hoping this was a dream, but the pain radiating from the spot between her thumb and forefinger was very real. They rattled off a few other names—all men she knew to be violent, and several more that were in league with the government, having gone against Bonnie Prince Charlie. Was that it then? After having fought for the prince at Culloden, her brothers were now prepared to sell their souls, and hers, to the highest bidder? This wouldn’t do.

It couldn’t. Again, she raised her hand to rap on the door, to barge inside and tell them that they were crazy, but something stopped her. What if they denied her argument? What if they were so desperate for coin that they locked her up until the deed was done, the papers signed, and she was no longer a Campbell, but the wife of an Englishman? Sarah backed away from the door, fear snaking its way down her spine. Her entire body started to tremble, and she bit her knuckles to keep from screaming. There was so little she had control over. So little, indeed. Except for one thing. Edward and Ellyson didn’t need to know she was aware of their plans. If they weren’t privy to her knowledge, and they continued with the charade of a festive Christmas celebration, they would have no idea that she was planning to escape, for that was what she must do. Get as far away as possible.

Sarah would not wed any of the dozen or so men her brothers had invited into their home to steal her away. Never. And she wasn’t against marriage—but she was against being sold to butchers. She needed to escape, and perhaps the night of the feast was the perfect time. Her brothers would be so distracted sorting through the proposals, counting the coins that would soon line their coffers, they wouldn’t notice she’d gone missing. Blinded by tears, Sarah rushed back to her chamber and quietly shut the door. She leaned against the cool wood, sucking in a breath on a sob. So much had changed in the last eight months. So much had changed in the last eight minutes. This time last year, they’d been celebrating the holiday season with their clan.

Singing, dancing. There had been so much hope for a better future with Jon as their new leader. Edward and Ellyson had been eager to join their comrades in the Jacobite rebellion, to bring honor to the clan. Their eldest brother Jon had been wooing his new wife, Thea. Standing in the center of the great hall last Christmas, Sarah never would have guessed that she’d be where she was now. Jon and Thea dead. Her, escaping the family she’d once loved so fiercely. Och, not once, but still. She loved them even now when they were tearing her apart on the inside. Pushing away from the door, Sarah marched toward her wardrobe and wrenched it open.

She pulled her leather traveling satchel out from behind the hanging gowns and stuffed her winter cloak inside, along with a gown, a pair of riding boots and a spare chemise. Then she opened the tiny box her father had carved for her and stared inside at the ring that had once belonged to her mother—the Campbell crest surrounded by rubies. It was her prized possession. If her brothers realized that she had it, they would steal it for certain. But the ring had been given to her in private by her and Jon’s mother just before she’d passed when she’d been barely five years old, and she doubted they were even aware of its existence. She put that into the satchel with her other belongings. This was all she could take with her. Where she would go, she’d not yet decided. Tonight, when it was dark, she would hide the satchel in the barn so that it was there when she was ready to leave. She prayed the feast tomorrow evening would give her some answers.

Until then, she’d need to come up with a plan—any plan, as long as she was gone before midnight struck on Christmas.


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