Lily Blackwood lives in Texas, with her husband, their two teenagers, a devoted red golden retriever and two rascally cats. She enjoys flea markets, cooking, eating and not cleaning her house! She recently taught herself to knit and has been making a mess with yarn ever since. She loves all things historical, and finds it thrilling to imagine a time period where each day held very real dangers, and true love stories and happily-ever-afters were precious and rare. Lily loves to hear from readers! She invites you to visit her website at www.lilyblackwood.com
Lily is also the RITA Nominated author of Regency romances, Lily Dalton.
Thank you Danielle, for allowing me to be part of your Christmas celebration! I hope readers will enjoy this unabashedly romantic scene (and maybe even a little melodramatic!), in which I celebrate the themes of Christmas miracles and forgiveness.
THE HIGHLANDER’S YULETIDE RETURN
The Highlands, 1313
It had been the most memorable moment of Moire’s life, and yes—the happiest. No…the word “happy” seemed a paltry description for the magnificent delirium of that moment last spring, when Rolfe, as he departed Castle Nairnmore with his warriors, to answer Robert the Bruce’s summons, had turned on his horse and returned, his dark eyes fixed on her.
As everyone had watched—her mother and father, and all her friends—he had reached down for her and pulled her into the saddle against his fine, strong body and confessed his love and his passion for her.
He had asked her to wait for him. To be his bride when he returned.
Of course, she had said yes. It had been the happiest shock for Moire, who had loved him forever. Since she was a wee girl. From the first moment she saw him, he just a gangly youth then, standing in the great hall, having come to Castle Nairnmore to foster with her father, the great Laird Montgomery.
Despite all his teasing, and the years of banter and fun, she’d never known he felt the same. She’d only hoped and dreamed that one day he would see her as something more than a pesky midge.
In that moment, her dream had come true. In the moment after, half of her heart and ridden off.
Now, she stood at the door of the church, wearing her mother’s lace over her plaited hair, in a splendid fur mantle, looking at the man who waited for her with warmth in his eyes and a gentle smile on his lips.
A good man. A fine man. A respected warrior, well loved by all.
Theirs would be a beautiful Yule wedding, with greens hung inside the church, and a feast and music and dancing late into the night. Even now the villagers crowded the courtyard behind her, waiting to celebrate her and her new husband once the vows were spoken. But the man waiting for her beside the priest wasn’t Rolfe.
Rolfe…Rolfe was dead.
Her mind…her heart stumbled at the thought, as it had a thousand times, because it didn’t seem right. It couldn’t be true, despite the body buried in the cemetery, just a stone’s throw from where she stood.
Her heart and soul, still pleaded no.
“Go on, Moire,” her mother, the Lady Montgomery, urged softly. “Ye can’t stand ‘ere forever.”
“Yes, mother.” Moire nodded, and smiled, letting out a nervous breathe.
No, of course she couldn’t stand here forever. They’d given her time to grieve, or so they thought. She’d cried her tears, until she ought to have none left.
She’d have told them she needed longer, but her father grew old and infirm, and wished to see her marry and put a grandchild into his arms before he left this life. Loving him as she did, she had accepted a betrothal to Malcolm, Rolfe’s cousin, who understood. Who knew she did not love him. Who knew she loved a ghost, and perhaps, always would.
“Moire…” her mother urged.
She started forward, feeling more as if she stepped off a high looming crag, than across a stone floor strewn with dried flowers and herbs. Candlelight reflected off her father’s proud and smiling face, and all those who gathered, wearing their very best and warmest garments on this cold and snowy day.
All too soon, she reached the altar. Turning toward Malcom, she smiled, despite the coldness at the pit of her stomach, and the sensation, in every fiber of her being that this was wrong.
How could it be wrong? She wanted a husband. Children. A life of her own. Malcolm was a wonderful man, so like Rolfe, in many ways. And handsome! Without question, he would make a good husband. Rolfe himself had insisted to Malcolm that if anything were to happen to him…if he were to die, that Malcolm would return to Moire and marry her in his stead, for Malcolm was the only man Rolfe considered worthy enough of her.
He held out his hand to her. She placed hers, palm down, against his.
The priest began the ceremony, speaking words…words she could not hear for the pounding in her ears, like warning drums. More words were spoken.
Suddenly, everyone was looking at her expectantly. The priest. Her father and mother. Malcolm.
“Can ye speak the words, lass?” the priest asked in the kindliest manner. “Or would y’ like me to repeat them once more?”
“I—” she whispered.
A long, silent moment passed. Her voice lost. Her mind crowded with memories of another man.
“Can’t,” said Malcolm, a forgiving smile already turning his lips. Gently, he squeezed her hand between both of his.
“Moire!” exclaimed her father—his wide-eyed expression reflecting dismay, disappointment and concern. Her mother grasped his arm, silencing him.
“All is well,” Malcolm said firmly, looking into her eyes. “She is not ready, and if she isn’t ready, then neither am I.”
“Oh, Malcolm…” she whispered, tears flooding her eyes. “I’m so sorry. I thought I could.”
“Don’t apologize,” he quietly insisted, drawing her hand into the crook of his elbow. “Not to me. Do y’ ken?”
Turning together to face the church, he announced, “There will be no wedding.”
“Oh, poor lass,” someone murmured. “She loves him still.”
Her heart broke for the thousandth time. Aye, she loved Rolfe, as much as if he were alive. Perhaps she would never marry.
Her father stepped forward, raising his hands. “But join us. For we shall still have our feast. To celebrate the lives of our families, and our friends and those whom we’ve loved and lost.”
He came near, and pressed a tender kiss to her tear-dampened, as did her mother.
A moment later, Malcolm led her through the church, and out of the doors.
There, the gathered villagers let out a loud cheer, and threw dried rose petals in the air, oblivious that no wedding had taken place.
Moire, abashed, looked toward Malcolm, to see if he would offer an explanation as he’d done to those gathered inside the church. But Malcolm looked straight ahead, his expression gone utterly blank.
Moire followed his gaze to see a man on horseback, his garments little more than rags. A gaunt face peered back at her, dark eyes piercing her through. It was a ghost’s face. It was Rolfe’s face.
“Am I too late then?” he rasped hollowly.
In that moment, the earth shook beneath her feet. Her knees…her legs…nearly failed her.
“Rolfe?” Moire cried, her voice cracking in amazement, in fear that she would wake up and he would be gone.
But she blinked, and blinked again. Still, he remained.
“Rolfe!” she half-screamed, shock reverberating through her blood.
She raced down the stairs, pushing through the stunned crush of villagers, who gaped in astonishment at the scene unfolding before them.
“You’re alive?” she exclaimed. Arriving at the horse’s side, she reached up for his hand, which rested against his thigh, and pulled it to her cheek. “You’re alive.”
Pressing her nose to his skin, she kissed his knuckles, still in disbelief.
From behind her came the sound of boots crunching rapidly on the earth and snow. She heard the sound of her father’s voice, calling out Rolfe’s name.
“Rolfe. My God. How can this be?” Malcolm uttered, incredulous. “You were dead. I brought your body back.”
Yet Rolfe’s eyes did not leave her face. “Am I…too late.”
“Too late?” Moire whispered. “No. Never too late.”
His hand, which had remained lifeless, seized hers.
“I was told you and Malcom were to be married,” he said.
“Nay, cousin.” Malcolm grinned, tears shining in his eyes. “She’s too in love with you, even dead, to marry anyone else. And as for me, I’ll wait as well.”
“Wait?” repeated Rolfe, glancing to his kinsman.
Malcolm’s grin widened. “For a woman who looks at me the way she’s looking at you now. The way she’s always looked at you, Rolfe.”
Rolfe lifted her high, into the saddle, his arms seizing her tight against his chest, just as he’d done the day he left her.
“Marry me, then.” He pressed his forehead to hers. In her arms, he was warm and alive. Strong and perfectly familiar. “Marry me, my love. Moire. I’ve come home.”
His mouth claimed hers, and the tears that spilled onto her cheeks were tears of happiness. She kissed him back, her hands spreading into his hair, inhaling his breathe, she remembering his scent.
For a moment, she forgot the world around them. All those present and watching.
“A-hem…” interrupted a deep voice. Her father’s.
They broke their kiss, and still embracing…laughing now like happy fools, and looked toward the steps.
The laird looked at them, his cheeks flushed, his mouth smiling, and with him her grinning mother.
Her father said, “We’ve a priest, right here…ready and waiting. A church.”
“Marry me now,” Rolfe murmured against her temple.
“Yes!” she answered, joy overtaking her heart. “Of course.”
“The English earl captured me. Had his men take my clothes…and my ring,” Rolfe explained.
Moire sat close beside her husband, her arms around his waist. She’d not left his side all night, insisting on going with him even as he bathed and changed into some of Malcolm’s garments, when they’d shared more breathless, passionate kisses, but been interrupted by her mother and servants plying him them with food and wine.
She couldn’t stop looking at him. Touching him. Convincing herself he was real.
Christmas had brought her a miracle. A dream come true.
All around them, revelers danced and sang. Ate and drank.
“And put them on a dead man,” said Malcolm. “So everyone would believe it was you.”
Rolfe nodded. “Aye—he hated me. I slew his son in battle. Because of that, he wanted me to die a slow and miserable death in that tower, deprived of warmth and food. But…”
“You escaped?” Moire murmured, tightening her arms around his waist. He was thinner now than before, but that would change now that he was home.
“No.” He shook his head. “He released me.”
“Released you?” exclaimed the laird, leaning forward in his seat.
Rolfe nodded. “He was a father. Hurt and grieving. He held me there too long, I suppose, lecturing me. Tormenting me. Eventually, he saw me not as his son’s killer, but a man with kin and sworn loyalties, no different than him.”
Moire whispered, “No different than his son.”
“Aye,” he answered.
She said, “Then I cannot hate him. He sent you back to me.”
“I have forgiven him,” Rolfe murmured. “Just as he forgave me.”
A moment later, they were alone, the others having left them, at Lady Montgomery’s insistence that they be given a moment of privacy.
“I’m very tired,” Rolfe said, stretching out his long legs. And indeed, though he smiled, his expression reflected weariness. She could not forget the circumstances that had kept him from her for these many long months.
“Then let us go to bed,” Moire answered softly, meeting his gaze with a shy smile. Heat burned her cheeks at the idea of sleeping with him…of making love to him, but this was Rolfe, and she loved him, heart and soul.
“Moire…” He paused.
“I have been gone a very long while...” He spoke quietly, his hand coming up to touch her hair.
“Before I left, we had no opportunity to court. To know each other.”
She drew back, and teased, “Are ye sayin’ y’ don’t want to go to bed with me?”
His eyes widened. “There’s nothing I want more, lass,” he answered, flames coming alive in his eyes. “Thoughts of you kept me warm every night in that frozen tower—”
“And I’ll keep y’ warm tonight,” she murmured.
Fearing she spoke too boldly, she bit her lip.
A deep flush rose in his cheeks. He bent his head, and touching her cheek, kissed her ardently.
“I love you Moire,” he murmured against her lips.
“I love you too,” she sighed.
He drew back, and peered down at her, appearing somehow…tormented.
“All I’m saying is I can be patient. I don’t want to hurry you—“
The restraint he showed…the way he looked at her now. How she loved this man.
She stood, her heart beating faster, and took him by the hands so that he stood. “I don’t want to be patient. I thought you were dead. Now you’ve come back to me, alive. No, Rolfe, I’ve waited long enough.”
He grinned down at her. “Aye, we’ve waited long enough.”
They made their way toward the tower steps, doing their best to do so unnoticed.
Moire’s mother called out, “Everyone, gather round. We’re going to play some Yuletide games!”
From behind them, someone shouted, “Look at those two sneaking away to play games o’ their own!”
Rolfe laughed. Sweeping Moire up into his arms, they ascended the steps.
Since childhood, Magnus has been led to believe he is the Laird Alwyn’s bastard, and raised to hate the Clan Kincaid. But when he learns he is without a doubt the son of the murdered Laird Kincaid, his life as he has always known it is shattered. Now, hiding his knowledge and his fury, he returns to Burnbryde Castle, awaiting the chance to strike against the man whose treachery robbed him of his legacy. His first act of rebellion: to steal a kiss from the redheaded beauty who’s betrothed to the Alwyn’s eldest son and heir.Since her arrival at Burnbryde, Tara Iverach has been confined to a tower to guard her virtue before she marries. But after a surprise embrace with a lean, bare-chested Highlander who claims to be the Alwyn’s oldest son, she can’t contain her excitement over her good fate. Unfortunately, he is the wrongeldest son, and she is set to marry his cruel and lecherous half brother, Hugh. Can Magnus conquer his rivals and claim his Kincaid destiny before the woman who’s captured his heart becomes his sworn enemy’s bride?
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