Cheated of his inheritance and burdened by the legacy of his Fae blood, Garrett MacLachlan believes he is doomed to be an outcast forever—until he meets Annelise of Kinfairlie, a gentle maiden with the power to turn his curse to gift. Can Garrett reclaim his stolen legacy with Annelise by his side? If Annelise defies her family to pursue true love, will that be enough to heal Garrett? And even if they triumph over mortal foes, will the Fae demand a price neither of them can pay?
An excerpt from The Highlander’s Curse:
Garrett MacLachlan darted through the forest in pursuit of the wolf, not caring that he left all he knew far behind. He had always found peace in the forest, but now he wanted no part of men.
He had been shamed, discredited and denied.
Worse, all those he loved were dead.
He would make his future in the wilderness.
His pursuit of the ravenous wolf suited his foul mood perfectly. The beast had eaten well at the expense of many others, several of them dear to Garrett, and Garrett would see it pay for its crimes. It had led him on a long chase, but soon, the hunt would end.
He had discerned that this wolf was uncommonly elusive. It was larger than most, but moved with astonishing speed. Further, this wolf was silent in the forest and could disappear into shadows, as if it were not truly of this earth or as if it had never been. It was cunning even beyond its fellows.
Even now, he caught only glimpses of it moving ahead, a fleeting shape against the patterned shadows of the leaves.
Garrett would have lost it a hundred times, if not for his curse. It was his awareness of the thoughts of others that gave him an advantage. For once in his life, his legacy had value. Still, he had had to resort to listening to the thoughts of other creatures in the forest to find this wolf. Either his ability was fading or this wolf was wily. Garrett knew which of those choices he would favor.
On this day, Garrett felt the wolf’s acute thirst and guessed its intent.
He was aware the moment it smelled water. He was not surprised when the wolf slipped over the ridge and descended into the hollow between the hills. He heard the bubbling of the water as he crept behind the creature and realized the wolf had found a spring.
The wolf glanced back more than once, pausing beneath a shrub or in the shade of a tree, its eyes gleaming as it sniffed the air. Garrett knew it sensed it was being stalked, and he dared not let it perceive him. It was hungry beyond belief.
It would rip out his throat for coming too close.
It would rip out the throat of any creature it could. The wolf had not paused to eat in a week. Now, hunger made its belly growl, and hunger—Garrett hoped—would drive it to err.
Garrett was not even certain where he was, only that he was close to his prey. It did not matter. Once the wolf was dead, he would disappear into the forest forever.
In the view of many, he already had.
Memories crowded his mind, making him wince at what he had endured these past months. Grief welled in his throat, threatening to choke him, and Garrett struggled against its assault. He would grieve when the wolf was dead.
When justice had been done.
Garrett was suddenly aware that the wolf had a keener sense of him. Anxiety would draw the wolf’s attention, and his concerns had no place in this hunt. All was simple in the forest. There were hunters and prey.
He knew which he would be.
The wolf’s wariness faded, perhaps because of its thirst. Garrett saw it leave the shadows. On quick feet, it entered a glade dappled in sunlight, a serene place of rich green. There were rags of all colors hanging from the trees at the bottom of the valley, a sign that people came to this place to pray for healing. The wolf hesitated, as if momentarily disconcerted by the scents of so many humans, but it made its choice and headed for the water.
Garrett waited and watched. He could see the light on the pool around the spring, turning it to a silver mirror. He could see the wolf clearly from this position, and he was downwind of it. He reached out to sense the wolf’s thoughts and felt its confidence.
The wolf was silvery grey, its snout and paws darker than its back, its tail lush. Its pelt should adorn a lady’s bed, Garrett’s lady’s bed, a token that was proof of his intent to protect the woman pledged to be his own. But Garrett had no woman and he doubted there was a woman alive who could accept his curse. His life was lonely and he feared it would remain so, particularly as his ailment had suddenly become so much worse.
Perhaps it was simpler to choose to be alone.
The wolf stepped into a patch of sunlight, glanced about itself, then bent to drink.
Garrett raised his crossbow to fire, then froze when the wolf straightened. He felt its heartbeat accelerate. It raised its head and folded its ears back, sniffing and scanning, then snarled.
That was when Garrett saw the woman. She was on her knees as if in prayer, her head bowed and her hands folded before herself. He had not seen her at first because her cloak was green and her hood pulled over her hair. She was utterly still, as few people in his experience could be.
Her thoughts were so quiet that even he with his gift had not been aware of her presence. That astonished him.
At the wolf’s snarl, though, her head snapped up and terror flooded her mind. Garrett had time to see that she was lovely before the wolf leapt toward her with teeth bared.
Without hesitation, Garrett lifted the crossbow and fired.
A lesser hunter would have struck the maiden instead of the wolf. The angle was against him and the wolf moved quickly. But Garrett’s arrow went straight through the wolf, and he knew he struck its heart. The wolf’s body jerked, and the beast howled as it fell. The cry turned plaintive and faded, even as the blood streamed through its fur to the ground. Garrett grimaced at the explosion of pain and fury that filled the beast’s thoughts. He staggered a bit under the intensity of its reaction, for he had never felt the like, but the wolf’s anguish already began to fade.
Garrett strode toward the fallen wolf, pulling out his knife.
The lady had not moved. Garrett was surprised that she had not screamed. As he bent over the wolf and ensured that he finished what was begun, he was aware that she seemed to have been struck to stone. There was a prospect that was less than ideal. The wolf’s pain ended, a void of silence filling Garrett’s mind where his awareness of the wolf had been.
Where were the woman’s thoughts?
Was she simple? Was that why her mind was still?
He had never met anyone who exuded such tranquility and now that the wolf was dead, he could consider the mystery. Was she mute? This was a place where one prayed for healing, so she might have some ailment.
’Twould be a crime for one so lovely to be less than perfect. Garrett did not dare to look directly at her, not before he had composed his features. He knew the torment he experienced at the sound of other thoughts could be read in his expression—particularly when one died as this wolf had done. He wiped his knife blade on the hem of his cloak before returning it to his scabbard. He would remove the pelt from the carcass when she was gone, lest he shock her.
Still he marveled that he sensed no tumult of thoughts and questions. She had been frightened and now he knew she was relieved. No more than that. Slowly, so as not to alarm her, he raised his gaze to meet hers. He was aware of the blood on his kilt and on his hands, the grim finality of what he had done. He was aware of the dirt on his boots and the mire on his skin, for he had been stalking the wolf for many weeks.
She was watching him, but not with horror or disgust. Her breath was coming quickly, her eyes wide. They were a magnificent shade of green and thickly lashed, her features lovely and fine. Her hood had fallen back to reveal that her hair was auburn, and neatly plaited. Her hair was uncovered though and she wore no wimple, indicating that she was a maiden. Her slender hands were still raised, her fingertips upon her lush mouth.
“Are you injured?” he asked, when still she said nothing.
She shook her head, her gaze darting to the wolf and then to his sheathed blade. She studied his hands for a moment, then looked at his face and swallowed. “You moved so quickly when I could not move at all.” Her voice was low and soft, filled with a gentleness that made Garrett yearn to protect her.
Not simple, then, and not a mute.
She must be one who had come to pray here, one who did not understand the forest and its ways. What did she pray for? Garrett wanted very much to know. Why was she alone and undefended?
Only then did he hear the soft whisper of her thoughts, a stream of questions and impressions no more intrusive than the murmur of a brook. He sensed her curiosity about him, her awareness of him. But her presence did not trouble him, as that of others did. He could stand and be aware of her thoughts and not wish to flee. Indeed, he was intrigued by all that he sensed and saw. He wanted only to draw closer to her and learn more.
Why was she so different from others he had known?
Could Mhairi’s promise have been right?
Could this beautiful maiden be his future? Garrett doubted a man as cursed as he knew himself to be could ever see such fortune.
“The choice was easily made between the lady and the wolf,” he said with resolve. “I knew that if I did not act quickly, the wolf would make its own choice—and that on this matter, as on so many others, the beast and I would not agree.”
He had hoped to tempt her smile and was disappointed when he failed.
“You have tracked this wolf then,” she said, her gaze falling to its corpse. “You are a hunter.” He nodded, feeling her respect for that task. “How long and how far?”
“Too long and too far.” Garrett dared to take a step closer. “Though I cannot object to where the path has led me.” He dared to meet her gaze and let her see his admiration of her beauty.
She caught her breath. He sensed her desire to flee, a flutter of panic within her, then she mustered a determination. She held her ground and lifted her chin. He was fascinated that this exquisite creature might fight an inner battle that was in any way similar to his own.
“Do you know where you are?”
Garrett smiled. “I stand in the company of a lovely lady.” It was no lie. He realized that he had previously had no luck with uttering the words of a courtier because he did not believe them to be true. In this case, he was surely snared.
And he did not wish to be free.
“I would do the same again, if only to see her smile.”
She regarded him, her cheeks burning crimson. “I apologize, sir, for I am poorly practiced in this game.”
“Surely not. A lady so lovely as yourself much have many ardent admirers.”
She smiled then, and Garrett was dazzled by the sight. “Surely so!” she argued, her eyes twinkling. “I am routinely struck mute in the company of others and overlooked by most as a result. I have no suitors, sir.”
Garrett smiled. “Yet you speak with me, quite readily it seems.” He felt lighter in her presence, at ease in a way he seldom did. Indeed, it seemed that killing the wolf had changed his prospects for the better.
The maiden surveyed him, then exhaled. “Indeed. Perhaps I should imperil myself more often.”
Garrett laughed for the first time in months and her smile broadened. She seemed to sparkle before him, her delight in their conversation as great as his own. “Perhaps the reward is not worth such a sacrifice. Perhaps there are other ways to coax your words forth.”
She flicked a glance at the spring, then back to him.
“Surely you cannot have come to pray for a suitor?”
“I came to pray for boldness, sir, and a measure of it seems to have found me.” She grimaced. “Either that or terror loosed my tongue.”
Garrett pretended to consider this. “If you mean to imperil yourself again as a test, perhaps you will have need of a protector.”
She smiled at him so warmly that his heart clenched. “Sadly, I do not have one, sir.” She was blushing furiously and he could not imagine what made her heart race so. “Truly, it would safer to first ensure that the effect was not wrought by your presence alone.”
“You think me safer company than a hungry wolf, then,” he teased. “I am much reassured.”
“Only because I am not a hungry wolf myself,” she retorted. She caught her breath, as if surprised by herself, then knotted her fingers together and blushed yet more. “I wonder, sir, if you might come to Seton Manor this night. I would see you rewarded for killing this wolf on the lands of my sister’s husband.”
The very suggestion sent terror through Garrett’s heart, for he remembered full well what had happened the last time he had entered a keep.
At the same time, he could not imagine losing this enticing maiden, not before he knew far more of her than was already the case. Perhaps that one experience had been an exception. Perhaps her family were as tranquil in their thoughts as she.
Perhaps the reward of her company was worth any price.
“I would ask a boon of you first, my lady.” Garrett took a step closer to her and fairly felt her quiver. He held up a finger. “One kiss, then all is balanced between us.”
Her breath came quickly at his suggestion and he could fairly taste her uncertainty. He wondered whether she had ever been kissed by a man before. He could not look away from the intensity of her gaze and her uncertainty made him feel uncommonly protective of her.
“Your sister’s husband may believe you owe me much more than a kiss for this deed on this day,” he said softly. “But if ever you come to me, my lady, I will not have it be because you were commanded to do so. I would have you come to me by your own choice.”
She swallowed and he watched her throat work. “I think your terms most fair,” she whispered and he knew she spoke the truth. He sensed the anticipation within her, the attraction mirroring his own, and again, was amazed that her presence was so serene.
Garrett stepped closer and touched a finger to her chin. He was aware of her desire to flee and hide. At the same time, he was honored by her trust. She struggled to overcome her uncertainties and he admired her all the more. He moved slowly, not wanting to startle her, though he yearned to crush her against himself and kiss her thoroughly.
He slid his thumb across her skin and felt her shiver. Her eyes shone as she studied him and those ripe lips parted in invitation, making him recall her determination to be bold. Garrett’s chest tightened at the sight of her vulnerability.
Then he bent and gently captured her mouth beneath his own. She shook like a new tree, and he thought for a second that he had lost her. But her newfound audacity carried the day, for she closed her eyes and placed her hands on his shoulders.
Welcoming his touch.
It was enough to make him dizzy. As he deepened his kiss, Garrett knew Mhairi had been right and he had finally found the woman who could quiet the tumult within him.
Even though he had yet to learn her name.
Excerpt from The Highlander’s Curse
Copyright 2013 Deborah A. Cooke