He knew his wife was dead when her body hit the fifth step below him with a sickening thud. Connor MacLerie watched as the awareness and acceptance of her fate was replaced in her eyes by the dull glaze of death. Kenna never screamed as her body fell, and now all he heard was the bone-breaking thump as she landed at the bottom of the tall stairway of stone steps.
She may not have made a sound, but he did—roaring out his fury in a burst that brought family and servants from the great hall. They gathered below him, staring and pointing, already certain of the way things had happened here since undoubtedly some had heard the argument from the beginning. Connor closed his eyes for a moment and then he turned and walked away.
And, in that moment when his wife died, the Beast was born. His reputation spread through the Highlands—his wife’s last words pleading for his pardon and his refusal to attend her burial only added to the tales of his cruelty. Mothers feared for their daughters, fathers wondered about the rumors and maidens from all the neighboring clans prayed nightly that they would never be part of any treaty or bargain that placed them at his questionable mercy.
Less than a year after his first wife’s death, Connor took over the high chair upon his father’s passing, becoming laird of the clan MacLerie. A bride was now a necessity. And so the Beast prowled the Highlands searching for a mate.
Three Years Later
"Is there no other way then?"
She fought not to let the trembling show in her voice. Jocelyn clenched her hands together tightly and pressed her nails into her skin to keep herself from fainting at the news.
"Nay, lass. He specifically asked for you. ‘Tis the only way to save yer brother’s life."
Her father would not meet her gaze now. ‘Twas over. The Beast had made his wishes known and since refusal to agree to his demands was impossible for her clan, she would be sacrificed to save another.
"Mayhap, he will fill ye quickly with a son," her mother whispered from her sickbed. Turning to face her, Jocelyn felt the blood drain from her face as she realized the result of this agreement would give her, body and soul, to a man whose physical desires and cruelty was rumored through the Highlands. "If ye give him the son he craves, he may be merciful to ye."
She fought to maintain some sense of calm, but the soft sobs that followed her mother’s words made it impossible. The tremors shook her and she feared fainting, something she swore she would not do in front of the MacLerie’s emissary. Dragging in a deep breath, she turned back to her father and his councilors.
"You do not need my consent for this, Father, so do as you must."
Nodding to him and the MacLerie’s man, she drew herself up as straight as she could and walked slowly from the room. The urge to run and hide almost overwhelmed her as her mother’s crying became louder. But, she was the daughter of the MacCallum, and she would not disgrace herself in this, even if he had. A few more steps and she was out of the solar and in the great hall. Looking around, she noticed a few servants at work, cleaning the tables from the noon meal. Jocelyn realized that word of her betrothal would spread quickly once the meeting was ended and she knew that she had to be the one to tell Ewan.
Taking the shorter way through the kitchens, she left the keep and walked to the practice yards. Shading her eyes with her hand, she searched through the various groups of men until she found him.
Ewan Macrae. Her first love.
The man she thought she would marry.
Now, she was faced with the task of telling him they would never be husband and wife. He met her gaze with a smile and a wave as he walked to meet her.
"Good day to you, Jocelyn," he said, his deep voice so familiar to her.
"Ewan, we must speak," she said, motioning to him to follow her.
Ewan climbed over the fence and walked silently at her side until they were away from the training yards. She turned to face him now with the news that would change both of their lives. Her throat and eyes burned with tears that threatened to spill, but she gathered her control and looked at him.
"Jocelyn. What is it? Your face has lost all its color and you are shaking." He took her by the shoulders and pulled her close. Improper as it now was, she stayed in his embrace, savoring the warmth and protection and affection that she knew she would never feel again. After a few moments, she stepped out of his arms and faced him, her face now wet with the tears she’d fought to keep inside.
"My father has betrothed me to someone else, Ewan. We cannot be together as I’d hoped. I’m to marry the... Connor MacLerie."
"The Beast?" he asked in a whispered voice full of dread.
She could only nod as she was filled with even more foreboding. The MacLerie’s reputation was known throughout the Highlands and although she wished that it was simply silly women’s gossip, that hope could not lessen her fear.
"Your father has agreed to this?" Disbelief was clear in his expression.
If she had not been in the room earlier, she would not have believed it either. There had been no formal agreement between her and Ewan about their future together, but they had grown closer and closer during his time fostering here and Jocelyn knew he planned to offer for her as soon as he visited his parents in the spring.
"He has. I’m to accompany the MacLerie’s men back and the wedding will take place when I arrive there." She said the words, but they did not feel real to her.
"You will be married there? Without even your family around you? The man truly is a beast!"
"Of all the titles he carries, the MacLerie has no liking for that particular one."
Jocelyn whirled around to find the MacLerie’s emissary standing behind them. How much he had seen and heard, she did not know. She watched as Ewan’s expression turned to stone and he stepped in front of her in a protective motion. Crossing his arms over his chest, he faced the stranger.
"Who are you?" he asked in a challenging voice. "What right do you have to speak for the MacLerie?"
"I am Duncan MacLerie," he answered, sliding his hand down to rest on the sword hanging at his side. "I am his man and represent his interests in this matter."
"This matter? You mean his betrothal to Jocelyn?"
"Aye. I carry out his wishes in this matter." Duncan’s voice was low and even, but she knew by his stance that he did not take this challenge easily.
"She is not ‘a matter’," Ewan said. "Jocelyn is..."
"The MacLerie’s betrothed and none of your concern from this time forward."
Jocelyn gasped at the cold announcement and started to step around Ewan when Duncan spoke again, directing his words once more to Ewan.
"Unless there have been promises made between you before witnesses?"
Ewan turned his head and spit in the dirt. Without looking at her, he answered for them.
"Unless she carries your bairn?" Duncan pointed at her as he said the words. The insult to her honor and Ewan’s was a shocking one. So much so that she pushed around Ewan and slapped the MacLerie’s man on his face as hard as she could.
"How do you dare insult my honor?" She stood before him with her hands on her hips.
"I will not bring back a bride to my laird who carries the seed of another within her."
"Oh, we all ken that your laird wishes to plant the seed himself."
As soon as the words escaped, she wished she had not said them. Duncan’s face darkened in rage, his gaze burning into her as he stepped forward.
"Aye, my lady," he said through clenched teeth. "We all ken his feelings on that." Looking from one to the other, he continued, "Make your farewells for we leave in two hours, whether you be ready or not."
She watched in surprise as the MacLerie’s man turned and strode away, fury evident in his every step. This was not how she wanted to begin her life as the MacLerie’s wife. Insulting him to his own retainer was a bad move, one that he would surely be informed of upon their arrival in Lairig Dubh.
"I will speak to your father, Jocelyn. I fear for you in this marriage," Ewan said softly, still standing behind her as they watched Duncan walk away and take up a position near the training yards.
"Nay, you cannot, Ewan." She turned to face him for the last time. Remembering her brother’s dangerous status, she knew there was only one path she could take. "There is more to this, I fear, than either of us ken."
"So I am supposed to stand here and simply wish you well as the MacLerie’s wife?"
Tears clogged her throat once more as she nodded. "Please?" she asked.
He took her hands in his and drew her closer in spite of the obvious scrutiny of the man across the yard. Gently, he smoothed her loosened hairs out of her face and touched her cheek.
"I wish you a long and happy life, Jocelyn. And if it must be with him, then may God go with you. I pray that he will not crush the spirit in your heart and soul."
Ewan kissed her on the forehead and stepped back. His comment about her spirit was meant to lighten her for her temper was well-known among her family. Then he walked away without another word. Her tears flowed freely now as she watched the man she thought she would marry walk away forever. She wiped her cheeks and took a deep breath. She did not have the luxury of grieving for what might have been between them. There were many things to be done if, as Duncan had told her, they would leave in two hours. Turning her thoughts to packing and preparing for her journey instead of the misery she felt tearing at her inside, she walked back to the keep.
Although she knew she should apologize to Duncan for her insult to his laird, a spark of pride would not let her do so as she passed him. Instead, she met his gaze and glared at him. All he offered was a nod in return. Puzzled over his meaning, she entered the keep to begin her work.
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