The Highlander’s Destiny – Mary Wine

SHE’D BEEN PROMİSED since she was five. Normal. Expected. Her duty. Cora curled her lips in disgust. But even as her temper flared, she couldn’t quite sink into her own thoughts and take solace in believing she was right to be so outraged. Would ye prefer a family that never thought to secure yer future? It was a valid question. One she’d be very foolish to ignore the validity of. Her father had negotiated a match for her, which would ensure she had a fine roof over her head and food in her belly, even in the dead of winter. Her children would know security, and she’d never feel the bite of desperation. Not all daughters were blessed with such fortune. There were maids in the kitchens who would tell her frankly just how well off she was, while they struggled to stay in the favor of the Head-ofHouse to maintain their positions. Their next meal was never guaranteed, for they might be put out if they failed to impress. And still, Cora raged against her life. She felt like chains bound her to a wall in a dungeon.

Her spirit longed to be as free as the wind. She felt like a bird who was frantic to fly away because it belonged in the sky. To do what precisely? That was the question Cora sought an answer to while at the top of the north tower of the Mackenzie stronghold. She’d thrown the shutters open wide, allowing the wind to blow full into her face. The chilly blast seemed to calm something inside her. A recklessness that had been growing stronger in the last few years. Honestly, maturity should have had the opposite effect. Wasn’t that the way life worked? Only a child embraced recklessness. Her need to rush headlong into the unknown should have diminished as the years of adolescence passed. At twenty-two years of age, Cora should have discovered healthy respect for a secure home and a future where she was assured of prosperity.

Logically, she understood that life had to be planned, and then, deep inside her soul, she fought against such order as she would have struggled against chains around her body. It frustrated her. She bit her lower lip for a moment. No, better to say—she frustrated herself. Perhaps she was still a child, to rage against what made sense. Cora closed the shutters and moved over toward the bed. Stripping out of her clothing, she ended up looking at her reflection in the polished mirror. A woman stood there. Her figure was full. No traces of childhood left.

And besides, she didn’t even feel a tiny twinge of heat on her cheeks for looking on her nude body. No, she wasn’t a child anymore. Not in flesh or thought. Which left her contemplating her reflection and trying to decide why she was so discontented. She’d never met her betrothed. He might suit her well enough. Ye might detest each other… Cora shook her head. Not because she agreed that she might not care for her intended husband, but because she was honest enough to admit that what burned inside her had nothing to do with Cormac Grant. She hungered for something else. It would certainly be nice if she could decide what precisely it was she craved.

Yet, it eluded her. She crawled into the bed and drew the bedding around herself. She noted the fineness of the sheets and how thick the comforter was. Above her head was a canopy supported by poles hung with thick curtains that might be drawn to keep the heat in. Aye, she was not childish enough to overlook how fine her life was. And yet, she looked toward the shutters. The latch rattled just a tiny amount with the wind. She stared at that latch. Something inside her longed to be out in it. Facing the gusts and feeling the tingle of its chilly touch on her face.

She contemplated facing the brunt of nature’s wrath. A foolish thought. Yet it stayed with her throughout the night. * RHEDYN LİNDSEY STOOD beside her husband on the steps of the main keep at the Mackenzie stronghold. In the yard, Mackenzie Retainers were checking their saddles to ensure they were secure before mounting. Cora was in their ranks, her eyes sparkling with anticipation and her step light because she was so excited. Rhedyn moved close to her husband. “Are ye certain about this? The Grants might send for her any day.” Laird Buchanan angled his head down to look at his wife. “I suppose I see Cora’s complaint in the matter of her match with the Grants.

Cormac has no’ even instructed his secretary to write her a single letter.” Rhedyn lifted her hand and waved as Cora mounted in a single fluid motion. The girl had grown into a young woman who was very adept at riding. “Perhaps Cormac Grant has no taste for the match yer father made with Cora.” Buchanan looped his arm around the back of his wife and pulled her close. “Just as ye had no taste for Rolfe Munro.” She shook her head. “I find Mackenzies more to my liking.” She rose up onto her toes and whispered. “Much, much more.

” Buchanan placed a firm kiss against her lips. “Can ye no’ wait until we’ve departed, brother?” Cora demanded. Her tone was playful and full of excitement, as she looked forward to the trip her brother had granted her permission to join in on. “I cannot,” Buchanan informed his sister. “Since ye are taking so very long in departing.” Cora’s horse was eager to go. The animal didn’t care for being turned back to face the keep. It pranced in a wide circle before Cora gained firm control of it. But she mastered the animal, proving her skill as she managed to make it stand facing her brother. She sat forward, her knees angled in toward her mount, and her thighs tight around the animal.

She was going to ride the beast, not just allow it to carry her along. No one missed the skill she displayed. Buchanan nodded toward his captain, silently agreeing with the man over not settling Cora on a more docile mare. But his sister was watching him, her eyes narrowing as she caught sight of Buchanan and his captain scrutinizing her. “We’ll celebrate Samhain when ye return.” Buchanan raised his hand in a formal farewell. Cora narrowed her eyes for a moment but turned her mount toward the gate. A dozen Mackenzie Retainers joined her as they rode out of the stronghold. “I don’t believe she got the point,” Buchanan muttered to his wife. “Don’t doubt it,” Rhedyn argued quietly.

“Cora has a sharp wit.” She held up a single finger. “And a care for not openly arguing with the laird, even if ye are her brother and baiting her.” Buchanan drew in a long breath as the dust settled in the yard. The wind was blowing cold now. Around them, the fields were dry as the harvest had been brought in. Samhain would mark the end of the season. Snow would be falling soon after. “Cora understands ye are giving her a chance to run free before ye must demand she settle into the place yer father promised her,” Rhedyn said what was on her husband’s mind. Buchanan shook his head.

“If the lass finds another man she’d rather wed…I would consider him. Seeing as the Grants have made no move. They can hardly argue too much if I inform them she’s set her sights on another.” “Which is why ye have sent her to Munro land on a matter of little importance,” Rhedyn remarked. “To see if there is any spark between her and Rolfe.” Buchanan locked gazes with his wife. “Cora has a need to be busy. If I do nae give me approval for something, she’ll think up one of her own.” Buchanan flashed his wife a knowing grin. “Besides, Rolfe is a good man.

It’s time he took a bride. Because ye…” Buchanan placed a hand on her distended belly, “are my wife.” Rhedyn felt her second child kick. She was truly wed and by her own choice. She looked out the gate where the Mackenzie riders could be seen just disappearing over the rise in the road. The Mackenzie Retainers had several words for Cora. They enjoyed her strength, but there were growing rumblings for her to shoulder the responsibility of making a match, which would secure a good alliance for the clan. Rhedyn knew the burden too well. Fate had been kind enough to bless her with a husband she loved. Was it too much to hope Cora might find Rolfe Munro to her liking? Who knew? At least it was better to have a little hope left, even if Rhedyn recognized it was the last one that might be afforded to Cora.

At twenty-two, the time had come. Rhedyn would have to pen the letter to the Grants herself as Mistress of the Mackenzies. But for now, there was a possibility of something else. Rhedyn smiled and silently wished for good fortune for her sister-in-law. One chance. Of course, life rarely offered even that. * THERE WAS GOSSİP about her. Cora wasn’t oblivious to the way the Mackenzie Retainers were casting looks her way. They had expectations—ones steeped in traditions and rich with benefits for the clan. She wasn’t insensitive.

Life was hard, and no one made it alone. No matter how enticing the idea of pitting oneself against Fate and life might be, it was something that only happened in songs and legends. Real life required working together. The Mackenzie clan was strong because of every soul who placed allegiance above their personal need for glory. As the laird’s daughter, she needed to be practical. Her father had made a match for her with Cormac Grant. It would secure an alliance that would ensure peace. Fighting meant suffering for everyone. Moonlight raids translated into lost homes and crops. One death in the heat of battle could spark a feud that might stretch for generations.

Every member of the clan had their place, and with it came responsibilities. Hers was to wed with an eye on alliances. Cormac wore the same yoke. Cora sighed. She felt a tightening around her throat. A sense of panic was growing inside her lately; one all of her logical thoughts seemed powerless against. At least her brother seemed willing to give her more time. Most men would have already pressed Cora to prepare to go to her intended husband’s holding. But the laird had obligations as well. The Mackenzie Retainers gave Buchanan their obedience, and in return, her brother would be expected to make her accept her responsibilities to her clan.

Cora felt that tightening around her throat again. This time, there was also a tingle on the back of her neck. The wind blew in a hard, sudden gust. Dry leaves rattled in the trees adding to the sense of unease raising goosebumps on her skin. Fate might just be stirring. As Samhain approached, it was the time for spirits, both good and bad, to rise all around them. The harvest was in, and now, the battle to survive until the next season would begin. Winter was always the time when everyone was shut inside and had ample opportunity to talk. There were no fields to tend, no roofs to mend. Conversation would flow.

The growing number of looks being cast her way confirmed the topic her clansmen were discussing was her future. But where to go? The path in front of her was as unreadable as ever. Hours of prayer and soul searching hadn’t yielded any clear idea of where she should seek whatever it was out in the world that would ease the growing tension inside her. She was restless, but what did that mean? Running away seemed pointless unless she had some destination in mind. Something to become or someone to be with. So, she’d go up to Munro land. Her brother had sent her to deliver a letter. It was a less than important task. Cora saw through it, and yet, she was grateful to her brother for offering her one last ride across the Highlands before winter closed in. She leaned forward, enjoying the chill of the wind across her cheeks.

Some of her hair worked its way free, and the strands blew back across her cheeks. Unbridled… She truly was. And completely unrepentant as well! * “I’M AMAZED YER brother allowed ye out so late in the season.” Rolfe Munro wasn’t laird yet. But his father hadn’t been in good health for years. There was a hardness in Rolfe’s eyes, which spoke of the toll leading the Munro took from him. He was young, and yet, he was a man because life demanded it of him. The way he’d risen to meet the expectations placed upon him was by far the most attractive feature he had. Cora did feel a twinge of guilt over the thought. She was being overly harsh.

Ye mean judgmental. It was true. Rolfe had golden hair and blue eyes. He was built tall and had thick muscles on his shoulders and arms to prove he didn’t just lead in name alone. No, the man trained with his men. Rode with them. He would be Laird of the Munro by more than bloodline. He’d spent years earning the respect of his men. Yet, he moved her, not at all. Rolfe suddenly chuckled.

“Mistress Cora,” he muttered as he lifted a measure of whiskey up in a silent salute to her. “Would ye be kind enough to not slice me to the bone while I sit at me own table?” Cora blinked, forcing herself to focus on the conversation. “I do nae understand yer meaning, Laird Munro.” “Ah,” Rolfe muttered with a narrowing of his eyes. “No mercy for me, it would seem.” He drew a sip from his whiskey and took a long moment to enjoy the bite of the strong brew. When his eyes widened again, she felt the look he sent her all the way to her toes. “Has Cormac no’ taken the time to meet ye lass?” Rolfe asked. It was a blunt question. One which skirted the boundary of decency.

Rolfe knew it, too. There was a flash of boldness in his eyes that tickled her. She leaned forward, maintaining his gaze. “Ye,” Cora declared softly, “are not nearly as civilized as ye attempt to convince the world.” Rolfe lifted a toast to her again. “I am a Highlander, lass. There are expectations….” He made a slow-motion with his glass. “If I am too congenial…well someone might start saying I am civilized and more suited to…the low lands. I’ll be expected to wear britches before too long.

” Cora laughed at his explanation. “We can nae have that.” She tossed the last of her whiskey into her mouth before setting the cup down with a solid sound on the tabletop. It earned her approving looks from Rolf’s men. The Mackenzie Retainers didn’t miss it either. The men were contemplating what a fine match she and Rolfe were and how it would keep the peace between their clans solid as stone. That damned feeling was back around her neck. Her clansmen were doing a good job of appearing to ignore her and Rolfe while noting every last detail of the meeting. And the Munros were doing precisely the same thing to Rolfe. She saw the glitter of frustration in his eyes as he maintained a perfect position in his chair and never allowed his gaze to drop lower than her chin.

She battled the need to make an excuse and leave the high table before she’d afforded the meeting enough time to give it a fair chance at success. If she failed, the Munro would have a reason to accuse her of slighting their hospitality and their laird’s son. What was wrong with her? She forced herself to look at Rolfe Munro. There was nothing so horrible about the man. He wasn’t twice her age or swimming in the fat of excess. More than one bride would be content to discover him waiting for her when she completed the journey from her father’s home. Not her, though. And to be fair, there was only a mild expression of interest on Rolfe’s face. He was performing according to the same guidelines she was. Minding his manners.

Thinking of the way his actions would be picked apart by both their kin. He didn’t find her any more interesting than she did him, and he was lecturing himself as to just why she wasn’t at all a poor choice for a bride. Rolfe Munro didn’t want her, but he’d settle for her. Odds were, Cormac hadn’t contacted her because he felt the same way she did about their impending union. Oh…so ye want to be craved?… Was that at the core of her restlessness? A desire to fall in love? If so, she was setting her feet on a perilous path, for love was so very often not returned. No, that wasn’t it. Rolfe’s lack of passion wasn’t needling her. She’d been discontent before leaving the Mackenzie stronghold. Later, as she should have been sleeping, Cora gazed up at the ceiling. The walls around her were thick and sturdy.

She should have taken solace in them. Instead, she was eager for sunrise and the opportunity to depart. There was something pounding through her that demanded she climb back in the saddle. Dissatisfied when she realized she had no reason to feel as though life had left her wanting, for she had much more than many, she went back to sleep with frustration gnawing at her. Shame was there as well, for she was no longer a child who might convince themselves that they were justified in their battle against what simply was. Perhaps it was time to meet Cormac Grant. See how the man affected her. Give the union her father had arranged a chance. After all, the man hadn’t arrived the moment she turned eighteen and demanded she be given to him. More than one man would have, for the sake of the alliance between their clans.

Cormac was as stuck as she was. Perhaps he had someone he cared for. Was that the reason he’d not even sent one letter of introduction? Was he dreading the moment when her brother reminded him of his duty to honor the arrangements their fathers had made? Cora rolled over and screamed into the pillow.

.

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