Spellbound & Seduced

By: Marguerite Kaye

Prologue




Christmas Day, 1622. Scottish Highlands

Snow had fallen overnight. In the early hours of the morning, the temperature had dropped sharply, making glittering crystals of the fallen flakes which crunched underfoot as the villagers gathered, the women with their arisaidhs drawn up over their heads, the men with their plaids wrapped tightly around them. Silence reigned as the birds watched mutely from the bare branches of the trees.

A large bonfire had been built, but not to warm the assembled crowd. Its purpose was much more sinister. The atmosphere among the circle of Highlanders was tense, a potent brew of resentment tinged with fear at being forced to endure such a spectacle—on Christmas Day of all days. But the laird had insisted, set upon providing an entertainment second to none for his high-born guests, and the laird’s word was law.

Her bare feet numb, her eyes dazzled by the bleak morning light after days spent in the dank dungeons of the castle, Lillias was consumed by a fury so incandescent she did not feel the bitter cold, though she wore only her ragged shift. Ankles and wrists manacled, she shuffled along the path flanked by two of the laird’s men. The priest’s chanting affected her no more than the irritating buzz of an insect.

The circle of villagers opened sufficiently to allow her entry. In front of her stood the pyre on its platform of stones, taller than she’d expected, much more substantial. Squares of peat were laid around the base; they would burn long and fiercely. Almost, her heart failed her then. Lillias staggered, but pride kept her upright. Boldly, she tossed back the distinctive tawny tangle of hair which marked all of her female kin and stood in the place hollowed out for her at the base of the wooden stack. The witch’s bonfire. Her funeral pyre.

As they fastened the manacles to the stake, Lillias sought her daughter out amongst the curious gazes of the laird’s coterie. Her aura was bile-black and acrid, so different from the soft, glowing cloud which had enveloped Jennifer since childhood. Standing next to her was the man Lillias held responsible for poisoning her daughter’s mind towards her. Seamus, the laird’s son and Jennifer’s husband. The pair of them had branded her an evil witch even though they and all the village knew she used her powers only to do good. The laird had readily accepted their trumped-up evidence, sensing the opportunity for a Christmas entertainment that would be the talk of the glens.

The twigs were lit at the bonfire’s base. Damp with melted snow, the wood and peat caught slowly. The warmth was almost welcome on her chilblained feet, though Lillias knew it was but a shadow of the fierce heat which would slowly consume her.

A man leapt forward from the crowd. ‘For pity’s sake,’ he cried, ‘this woman saved my bairn’s life when all hope was lost. At least grant her the solace of a noose to spare her suffering.’ But the laird shook his head and his men pushed the villager roughly back into the throng.

The first of the flames licked up around her toes. Her manacles heated and began to sear the flesh around her ankles. Lillias’s beautiful golden eyes blazed brighter than the pyre as she summoned her powers. Though her bound hands prevented her from pointing, the fierceness of her gaze directed all others’—villagers, laird, and ladies—at Jennifer.

‘A curse be upon you.’ Her voice carried clear of the smoke, out into the crisp winter air. The villagers drew away as one, with a hiss of simple terror. Even the priest ceased his incessant chanting. With the flames licking at her shift, Lillias needed all her strength and resolution, all the vitriol which she had nursed through the days of captivity following her token trial. ‘For the sin of my betrayal, I place this curse upon you, my daughter. Your precious husband, who loves himself more than you, will die a year to the day upon which you married him.’

Lilias’s words held the villagers transfixed. The flames licked higher now, the heat was making her choke, but the pain was, as yet, bearable. ‘And so it will be for each generation of my female kin in the years to come. To them I bequeath my powers and my curse until a true and perfect love does break the cycle.’

Smoke filled her lungs. Pain seared her flesh. Lillias fortified herself with a final look at her petrified daughter and corrupt son-in-law, then closed her eyes and waited for death to take her.





Chapter One




December, 1822

The snow was falling heavily, thick flakes fluttering down from the leaden sky like a lace curtain. Lawrence Connaught reined in his horse and pulled his beaver hat from his head to brush it clean. Blinking away the melting crystals which clung to his lashes, he shook the damp from his hair, which was unfashionably long and curled over the high collar of his many-caped great coat. The rutted road, by London standards no more than a track, meandered ahead of him, dipping and climbing in a most contrary way, which made it impossible to tell how far he had still to travel. The last village was about five miles back. If his mother was to be relied on—which she rarely was—then Dunswaird was another mile, at most two, further on.

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