For the Highlander's Pleasure

By: Joanne Rock

Chapter One

Spring 1306

There was no magic in the herbs.

Violet of Caladan knelt at the riverside, her hands covered with stems and leaves that were wet after she’d plunged them into the chilly spring flow. She had known as much when she accepted the pouch of fragrant herbs from the wily forest sage who’d given her the makings for a love potion. But she had not realized there’d been a small, secret part of her heart that truly wished for such foolishness.

“You’ll catch your death,” her maid, Inna, groused. “Besides, you’ve no need of love when your da speaks of marriage to a Highland warlord. Instead of wasting a coin on an herb pouch, you would be wise to harden your heart and find a sturdy lock for your bedchamber.”

Harrumphing and tsking, Inna clutched her horse’s mane, making no secret of her hope to return home and ward off the chill the fickle April sun did little to alleviate.

“My father only wishes to protect me,” Violet reminded herself as much as Inna. The Earl of Caladan had all but lost his wits to the pain of an old war injury and the strong drink he used to soothe it daily. Yet he remained adamant that his only daughter wed a warrior who could keep the Caladan lands safe.

Yes, Violet understood her father’s plan to secure a strong warrior chieftain to protect her. That did not mean she had to like it.

But her preferences did not change the fact that danger lurked close to home. After many moons of growing speculation that the forests of Caladan harbored ghosts and unnatural beasts, a body had washed onto the shore of the riverbank as if spit out by the dense copse of trees. Lips tinged unnaturally blue, the victim did not have any visible wounds, though the pale corpse suggested some kind of bloodletting.

Violet shivered anew at the memory. She had not wanted her da to send armed men into the forest when she had friends like Morag who made their home within the woods. She refused to believe a killer dwelt within their lands, preferring to think the body came from a town farther upriver. No one had recognized the poor soul, after all. But her father was determined to flush the evil from the forests by hiring a champion to wage battle with the unseen threat.

“No mortal man can protect you against whatever demon beastie prances around a woodland fire each night,” Inna maintained, turning her mount in the direction of the keep. “Now I pray you hurry so we can wash off that godforsaken mess of plant matter ere the earl’s feast of gathering.”

Standing, Violet scowled.

“Do not remind me.” She resented the banquet to welcome warriors into the Caladan earldom. Her father searched not only for a champion to rid the woods of a vicious predator, but also for a husband for her. “You should return without me, Inna. It will take me a minute to wash this off.”

“And leave you out here alone?” Inna peered over her shoulder, her long gray braid slipping from beneath her linen cap. “What if the beastie is about even as we speak?”

“Then he will have only one maid for lunch instead of two,” Violet grumbled, certain they were in no danger from ghostly threats. If any danger lurked in their forest, it could only be human. More likely, the body discovered in the woods had been a victim of some new wasting illness. “Besides, I will be within shouting distance behind you. No doubt I shall catch up to you before you have returned to the keep.”

Hastening away her maid without much trouble, Violet studied her herb-covered hands, shoulders and chest. She had doused the region above her heart with cold water, as Morag had bid her, to make the love potion work. Then Violet had pressed the herbs to her breast.

Of course the heavens had not opened up to send her a strong and wise man to help her cope with an ailing sire, his weakening hold on the earldom, and a forest under threat.

Still, she had hoped something would happen. As a secret apprentice to Morag’s teaching, Violet understood that some beauty potions were no more than a bit of sheep fat to plump an aging woman’s weathered cheeks. But since the benefits of such a potion were all too real, if not magic, they were valuable nevertheless. Why could she not feel some softening of her heart now?

“By the saints,” she prayed, pressing one more handful of the herbs to her kirtle, just beneath the neckline. “Make me amenable to the man I should wed. Soothe the wildness in my heart that I may bow to his will and my father’s without undue pain. Or distress. Or fury.”

Her prayers turning a bit more vehement than she intended, Violet ground her teeth against the urge to say any more. Instead, she simply leaned forward into the chilly current of the water and opened her tunic to the icy kiss of the fast-flowing stream, allowing the water to wash away the evidence of her small flight of fancy.

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