About the book
He would rather die himself, than live one day without her…
Madeleine Higgins didn’t think her plan through when she stood up for herself and refused her betrothal. For no one would ever protect a woman wanted by two clans. Except for the reclusive Laird no one knows anything about…
For Odhran McEwan, Laird of Duart, his heart and his castle closed off the day his parents died. Since then, he has lived in loneliness. Until the day his sister brings in a stray: a scared woman who needs his protection.
Odhran can’t refuse her, not when his heart bleeds for her every day. For the first time in forever, he feels joy; he can’t bear the thought of losing Madeleine. And when a powerful Laird knocks on his door, demanding back what is rightfully his, Odhran gives him his life…
“Ye look bonnie, honey,” Elise Higgins, Madeleine’s mother, spoke softly as she stroked her daughter’s hair gently and smiled at her. Madeleine forced on a responsive smile as she met her mother’s green eyes in the mirror, and swallowed. “Ye will make the bonniest bride in the entire Highlands, and yer weddin’ feast will be celebrated by many Lairds and powerful men.”
Madeleine forced another smile. All her parents cared about was how large the feast would be, and the expensive jewelries they already received from Laird MacNab, but she cared about not spending the rest of her life with a man like Eric Wallace.
“Come on, let’s get to the Grand Hall,” Elise said again, and tugged Madeleine to her feet. They headed out of her chamber, to the hall, and when she stepped in, the music stopped for a moment and all eyes landed on her.
Madeleine felt the expectant gaze of everyone in the hall on her as she walked toward her father, and he stretched out his hand to welcome her. Laird MacNab was by his side, his smile wide, and his hawkish blue gaze pinned on Madeleine as she got to the table.
“My daughter,” Rhys Higgins said in a proud tone and Madeleine smiled again. “Take a seat by my side,” he offered and she sat by his left while her mother took the seat to his right. She remembered her mother’s words from a fortnight ago when her father had first announced his decision to betroth her to Laird MacNab.
“Yer faither is a very powerful Laird, Maddie, and that makes ye a powerful lady. Ye have to fulfill yer duties to this clan and marry Eric Wallace, he is the best man for ye,” Elise had said to encourage her, but Madeleine knew her mother too well, and she knew her concern was the vast access to wealth she stood to gain from an alliance with a man like Wallace.
My parents repulse me sometimes, she thought as she picked a quaich and drank from it. The music in the hall continued, and from where she sat, she felt Eric’s gaze on her. It burned her skin, and filled her with an urge to flee the hall.
Madeleine had spoken to Eric only once since the announcement of her betrothal, and she didn’t like him. He had made it crystal clear what she was to him. A prize he won because of her father’s greed, and he expected her to be of best behavior and begin preparations for their wedding at once. This entire feast was to announce their wedding date, but Madeleine had other plans.
She couldn’t sit and let her father give her away to a man as vile as Eric, one who didn’t even treat his servants’ right. Her father stood up from his seat then and raised his quaich. The music stopped, and the entire hall fell silent as her father’s gaze drifted across the faces in the room. “Today, we gather here to celebrate a union,” he began, and Madeleine’s breath hitched in her throat. She reddened, and her scared gaze drifted to her mother’s.
Elise smiled again, encouragingly, and Madeleine’s pulse heightened. When her father had first spoken of his plans, she had been too frightened to speak up then. “The union between my daughter, Madeleine, and Laird MacNab,” he continued, and sweat trickled down her arms clad in the sleeves of the green full-flounced dress she wore.
Laird MacNab stood from his seat, and the crowd erupted into a loud applause. “I am honored to wed yer daughter,” he said, and extended his quaich to make a toast.
Madeleine felt sick to her stomach, and her head swooned as she watched the feast continue.
Do it now, Madeleine…speak up.
Her father sat down again, and a servant filled his quaich. Madeleine sprang out of her seat, and yelled so everyone could hear her regardless of the loud music playing in the background. “I willnae.”
Madeleine was fleeing after the declaration, already half way down the corridor when she heard her father’s voice. “Maddie–”
She trembled, her chest rose and fell with rapid breaths, and the bodice of her dress suddenly felt too tight. She spun around to see him storm toward her, and before she could protest, his hands wrapped around her arm. He led her down the corridor, and into his study. Laird MacNab followed them, and he shut the door behind him.
Standing in the study with both men, their furious and murderous gaze fixed on her, she trembled where she stood, but pretended to hold her ground by lifting her chin a little when her father spoke. “Yer weddin’ to Eric is the day after tomorrow.”
Madeleine’s eyes widened. “Ye will wed him immediately as I will have no delays, and neither will I have ye underminin’ my authority in my castle. Laird MacNab will teach ye a lesson when ye go home with him,” he added, and Madeleine’s gaze drifted to Laird MacNab’s.
There was a knowing smile on his face, and his eyes gleamed evilly, it made a chill run up her spine. “Faither, please,” she began, but he raised his hand and silenced her with his reply.
“I willnae hear it, Madeleine, ye will obey and wed him,” he said in a final tone, and turned away from her. Tears stung Madeleine’s eyes, but she clamped her lips shut, turned and rushed out of his study.
She ran down the hall, and took the right turn leading into the garden. Once outside, she dropped to her knees in a corner, and allowed the tears to slip down her face.
I hate this…I cannae wed him, I wouldnae do it.
Madeleine heard footsteps, and she scrambled to her feet. Quickly, she wiped her face, and sucked in a deep breath as Eric drew closer to her. She gasped when he reached for her face the moment he got to her, and gently stroked her chin.
“Bonnie Maddie,” he whispered in a soft voice. “Yer faither kens that I will take good care of ye,” he said, and suddenly, pulled her to him. Madeleine felt his breath on her face, inching close to her lips, and it repulsed her. “Ye will be lady of my castle, and ye will do as I say, nay spontaneous acts like what ye did in the hall earlier, as I will also never let a woman undermine my authority before my men.”
His gaze drifted over her face, and stopped on her lips. Madeleine held her breath for a minute. She wanted to scream, and fight her way out of his grip, but his hold tightened even before she moved, and she knew it was of no use to fight. “Do ye understand?”
Madeleine nodded, and he released her. She shifted away from him, and wrapped her arms around her body as dread filled her. If she ever married Eric, he would treat her terribly, she was sure of it, and she couldn’t let it happen.
“Goodnight, Maddie,” he whispered, then turned and walked away. Madeleine stared at his retreating figure until he had disappeared into the castle, and she finally released the breath she held as she retreated to her bedchamber. The only thing that came to mind was fleeing, and it was her best option. The feast was still ongoing, her parents would be occupied, enjoying the attention they had, and the conversations over delicious pie and plenty wine. No one would be on alert tonight, and she would be long gone before anyone noticed.
As the thought crossed her mind, it lingered, and formed, and she jumped off her bed and sprang into action. Madeleine was out of her chamber in less than thirty minutes, and she carefully found her way to the garden exit of the castle. If she could make it out through the garden, then the rest would be easier.
As she neared the exit into the garden, she heard giggles, and hushed whispers, and she stopped in her tracks when she saw a tall, muscular man step out of the shadows.
The first streaks of morning light broke through the horizon as Madeleine approached Doune. She had never spent this much time riding before, and she was cold, exhausted, and hungry as she rode on the horse she stole from a villager’s yard back in McGuire after escaping the guard she saw.
She shuddered and continued riding, her source of hope was the outer walls of Doune Castle she could see from where she was. The last time Madeleine saw her cousin, Matthew Higgins, was the day of his wedding feast.
Her father was never kind to his brother George, and Madeleine never understood why. She had grown fond of her cousin because they had spent long summers together in her castle in McGuire, but she had only been to Doune once, five years ago when he married his wife from another clan.
When she reached the gate of the castle, the guards in front stopped her, and she took off the cloak covering her head. At least she didn’t need to disguise herself here, yet.
“Who are ye?”
“I’m here to see Laird Doune,” she replied, and the guard eyed her. “I’m his cousin from McGuire,” she added. “Madeleine Higgins.”
The man cocked a brow, but he said nothing as he allowed her to pass through the gate, then ordered another guard to go inform the Laird in the keep. Madeleine dismounted her horse when she reached the entrance of the keep, but she made no move to walk into the castle until she saw her cousin walk out.
He beamed and spread out his arms to hug her the moment he stepped out, and Madeleine accepted his warm embrace. “Matthew,” she whispered when he released her, and she smiled at him.
“It is so good to see ye, Maddie,” Matthew said. “Where are ye parents? Ye maither?”
“I am alone,” she replied, and her gaze became wary when she saw the question pop in his eyes.
“Ye rode out here all by yerself?” he asked, a concerned look in his blue eyes, and Madeleine nodded. “Come inside,” he said and led her into the castle.
They walked the long corridor together, then reached the entrance of the keep, when Madeleine saw Harriet, Matthew’s wife, walk down the stairs.
Harriet’s smile was wide when she saw Madeleine. “Maddie, dear,” she said. “This is a surprising visit,” she said as they hugged and Madeleine placed a kiss on both her cheeks.
“Did she ride alone?” Harriet asked, and Matthew replied before Madeleine could.
“Aye, she did…have a servant prepare her bath and clean clothes,” Matthew said as he rubbed Madeleine’s shoulder, then he gave her a warm smile.
“I have to tell ye, Matthew,” Madeleine said when his wife walked away. “I ran away from McGuire.”
Matthew’s eyes widened, and Madeleine cleared her throat. “I came here because I didnae ken where else to go, but we both ken I cannae stay here as this is the first place my faither will look,” she explained. “Ye have to help me get as far away from McGuire as possible, please, Matthew,” she pleaded desperately.
“Maddie, what is goin’ on? Why have ye fled home?” he asked, and she swallowed. She was exhausted from her ride, and the idea of a hot bath and meal was more alluring than ever, but Madeleine knew she had to tell Matthew what was going on now before more time passed. That way, he would know how to help her.
“They want me to wed,” she replied as he took her hand and led her up the stairs to the first landing. “They want me to wed Laird MacNab, and I cannae imagine myself married to a man as vile as he is.”
Matthew sighed, and shook his head. “I ken Eric Wallace,” he said, and a frown spread over his forehead. “It is unthinkable that yer faither would want ye to spend the rest of yer life with a man like him.”
“If they find me then I will have nay choice, so I had to run,” she said again, and Harriet came out of a chamber, and approached them.
“I will help ye, Maddie, but for now, ye have to rest,” Matthew said and gently rubbed her shoulder. “We will discuss what to do when ye wake up.”
“All right,” she agreed, and turned to Harriet.
“A chamber is ready for ye,” Harriet said, and Matthew wrapped his arm around his wife’s waist. Madeleine thanked them again, then entered the chamber where a servant had already prepared a hot bath and placed clean dresses on the bedding.
She slipped out of her cloak and dress, then stepped into the bath. As the hot water soaked her skin, and warmed her, she relaxed and closed her eyes, exhaling deeply.
Matthew will help me, she thought as she finished her bath, wrapped herself in a night dress then climbed into the bed. She had always imagined marrying a man she was deeply in love with, and having a small, lovely family, something similar to what her cousin now had with Harriet, and she couldn’t let her parents steal that dream from her.
Slowly, Madeleine drifted into a much-needed sleep and hours later when she opened her eyes, the sun was setting.
The next morning, Madeleine woke up to a soft knock on the door. When it opened, a servant walked in, and curtsied. “Lady Madeleine,” she said and raised her head. Madeleine’s gaze met with the girl’s dark ones, and color drained from her face as she said, “Laird Doune has asked me to tell ye that yer faither is here in Doune.”
Matthew and Harriet returned to Madeleine’s chamber later in the day, and she was relieved when he announced her father left. “I was worried that he would find me here,” she said, her hand on her chest as she sighed in relief.
“We still have to get ye out of here,” Harriet replied and took her hand. “Yer faither is nay convinced that ye are not here, and he will be back.”
Matthew nodded, and Madeleine averted her gaze to him. “Harriet has suggested that ye go live in her brother’s castle, in Duart.”
Madeleine nodded. “Duart is far off from here, isn’t it?” she asked, and Matthew nodded.
“It will be a long journey, and she will ride with ye alongside my most trusted guards,” Matthew replied.
“My brother isnae very welcomin’ to strangers, but I am certain that he will help ye if I take ye to him.”
Madeleine’s spirit lifted, and she smiled. “I am indeed grateful to both of ye,” she said. “This means so much to me.”
“Yer faither is wrong trying to wed ye off to Laird MacNab, and I willnae sit back and watch ye suffer.”
“Rest today, Maddie,” Harriet said and squeezed her hands. “We ride for Duart at dawn.”
After Harriet and Matthew left, Madeleine dropped on the bed, and sighed. She spent the rest of the night worrying about what lay ahead in her future. A young lady who deserted her home didn’t have much to look ahead to, but this was the fate she was dealt, and she had to handle it.
She also wondered what Harriet’s brother would look like. She had seen him once, during Matthew’s wedding feast five years ago, but she had barely gotten a good look at him. Also, she had heard stories of the Laird, and his preference for seclusion, so she doubted he would want to help her.
She decided to hope for the best, as this was her only chance, and with Harriet’s persuasion, it might work. She was after all his sister.
Madeleine set out the next morning with Harriet, and they rode for Duart. It was her first time this far away from home, and she was hopeful. Her father or Laird MacNab would never be able to find her there.
They arrived at Duart in the late hours of the next evening, and Madeleine was completely exhausted from the journey when they finally rode into the castle. She dismounted after Harriet, and they walked into the castle.
Harriet rushed into the corridor leading to the main keep, and Madeleine saw the man walking down the stairs. He had a head full of brown locks of hair, then he looked up. Madeleine’s gaze met with his pale blue eyes, and her breath hitched her throat.
He narrowed his gaze a little when he saw her and a sudden tingle raced up her spine as she felt the intensity of his gaze. He quickly shifted it to his sister, and a smile crossed his lips as he spread his arms out to hug her.
He was tall, and her gaze drifted over his muscular build. She instantly admired his looks, and it made her flush as color rose to her cheeks. His round eyes fixed on hers for a second before he shifted it to Harriet.
His smile was wide, and the tingle reached her stomach, forming knots, and she flushed. He had the most amazing eyes she had ever seen, and the way he had looked at her momentarily made her feel…she couldn’t explain how it made her feel, but it was a tingle she had never felt before.
He descended the stairs and met his sister halfway, pulling her close to his large build.
“Harriet,” he said in a deep baritone voice as he hugged her, and his gaze met with hers again. Harriet pulled away, and reached out to Madeleine.
“It is a pleasure to see ye too, brother. How have ye been?”
“All has been well,” he replied, his gaze still on Madeleine, and she knew he wanted to ask, so she stepped forward and spoke before Harriet.
“Madeleine Higgins,” she said, introducing herself with an extended hand that he accepted graciously. He stiffened, then his lips dropped to place a kiss on the back of her palm, and the contact of his lips made her stomach swirl. The knots tightened, and her lips suddenly went dry.
The corners of Odhran’s lips curved into a smile, although it didn’t reach his eyes, and Madeleine wondered what he thought of his sister bringing her here without notice.
“Maddie is my husband’s cousin,” Harriet said when he released her hand, and Madeleine covered the hand he kissed with her other one, her heart pounding in her chest. She wondered if anyone could hear it as loudly as she could. This is mortifying, she thought as she turned to Harriet.
“She needs help,” Harriet continued. “And I have brought her here for ye to help her,” she added. Madeleine saw the Laird’s jaw tighten, and his eyes narrowed down on his sister’s again. Harriet added immediately. “Before ye say anythin’ Oddie, just discuss this with me.”
“All right, we will discuss this in the morning. Yer visit is without notice, so I have to prepare a chamber for ye to rest the night alongside yer friend,” he replied and spared Madeleine a momentary glance before adding. “I hope ye dinnae mind yer old chamber?”
“My old chamber is perfect, Oddie,” Harriet replied with a smile, and touched his cheek. He smiled at her, then turned and walked away. Harriet turned to Madeleine.
“Ye think he will agree to hide me here?” Madeleine asked, and Harriet nodded and led her up the stairs.
“He is my brother, Maddie, he will do anythin’ for me.”
Madeleine was worried the entire night because she didn’t know her fate. If Laird Duart turned them away, then what would she do? There was no one else to turn to and returning home meant bending to her father’s will.
Harriet told her she would be safe here because her brother rarely entertained guests, but would he want to her to stay?
Harriet left the chamber early, and returned later to give her good news. “Oddie has agreed to let ye stay here, so long as ye remain in the castle as yer faither will have his men combing the Highlands for ye, and he wants to avoid getting’ into any trouble with any Laird.”
Madeleine sighed in relief. “Oh, thank ye so much, Harriet,” she said and grabbed her friend’s hand. “Ye have saved me from my faither, I am forever indebted to ye,” she said, and Harriet hugged her.
Relieved, Madeleine shared dinner with Harriet, and the next day Harriet set out to return home. She spent the rest of the day in the chamber watching the fields from the window in the castle, and late in the evening she decided to find Laird Duart, and thank him for his graciousness.
When she walked down the stairs, the beauty of the castle walls immediately caught her attention, and she walked over to one, and admired the stone carvings embedded in it. Madeleine was lost in her exploration of the castle, she walked through the corridor, admiring every pillar, and carving, not conscious of which part of the castle she was in.
She stopped when she got to the grand hall, and she stepped inside because the door was ajar. The huge empty room reminded her of the feast back in her castle few days back when her father had almost married her away.
Thankful that she had escaped that fate, Madeleine smiled and swirled around, giggling to herself. She stepped on the hem of the dress she wore, and tripped, but instead of colliding with the hard ground, she felt hard muscles break her fall, and strong steady arms grab around her waist.
Madeleine gasped, and her eyes widened and landed on Laird Duart’s blue ones, and their gazes met and lingered. Color rose to her cheeks alongside the heat inside her as she looked into his eyes, and his gaze dropped to her lips, then slowly back to her eyes again.
“I…I was searchin’ for ye,” she stammered, and swallowed. He pressed his lips into a thin line, then slowly released her, steadying her to stand on her own two feet. “I wanted to thank ye, for lettin’ me stay here, it really means a lot to me,” Madeleine rushed to say, scared that she would lose her voice if she kept looking into his intense eyes. She looked away first, and cleared her throat, hoping that he would say something and not just look at her like she was strange.
“Ye should be more careful,” he said in an icy tone. “I wouldnae want ye to break yer neck from a fall while ye are here.”
He was so close, she could barely hear a word of what he said because his scent tantalized her senses. The woody scent with a mixture of mint in his breath made her flush and her cheeks burned from the intensity of his eyes searching hers.
“I’m sorry,” she stuttered as he released her. Madeleine immediately missed the warmth of his closeness, and the direction of her thoughts appalled her.
He turned and walked away without another word, leaving her stunned, and unable to regain her composure until seconds flew back.
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