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The Lady and the Highlander

THE LADY AND THE HIGHLANDER

PROLOGUE


Glen Iolair, early November 1709

It was her wedding day—again.

Bibiana stared at her beautiful face in the mirror. She'd been through many weddings—thirteen, to be precise. She'd always made a lovely bride. A new start was always exciting, and the anticipation of this new match fluttered in her breast.

This time her groom—who had himself been married eight times before—had a dozen lovely daughters, all fresh, pretty, charming, and young.

And that was precisely why she'd chosen Donal MacLeod.

Bibiana was older than her new husband. Far, far older, though he'd never know. She smoothed her fingertip over her flawless face and paused. Was that a small line beside her eye? She turned to her servant Terza and snapped her fingers impatiently. The wizened handmaiden dropped the gown she was holding and crossed to pour ruby liquid into an exquisite Venetian glass goblet.

"Is it fresh?" Bibiana asked, taking the glass and holding it up to the light. The light merely glinted off the surface, unable to penetrate the black heart of the drink.

"The game was caught this morning," Terza said. "And I made the potion myself not two hours past."

Bibiana watched herself in the mirror as she sipped. She felt the potion slide with seductive ease into her belly and warm her at once. She quaffed the rest in two gulps and wiped a drop off her lower lip with one long fingernail. She leaned closer to the glass. The tiny wrinkle was gone, and she felt a shiver of pleasure, of power, run through her. She was beautiful—the most beautiful.

"'Tis nearly time," Terza said behind her, her ancient voice like the rustle of dry leaves. "What will you wear? The blue brocade is charming."

Bibiana glanced at the gown Terza held up. What colors would Donal MacLeod's pretty daughters wear? Several of them had blue eyes. Their indulgent father kept them clad in the finest silks and velvets his money could buy, but it was a simple thing to look beautiful when one was young and untouched by life. Bibiana was a woman of experience, and women of experience could not compete with youth.

They must outdo it with utter magnificence.

"No, not blue. Or red, or green, or pink. What else is there?"

"You've been through almost everything in the wardrobe." Terza grumbled as she ran her gnarled hand over the blue brocade once more. "This would be pretty enough, if you ask me, for a dreary place like Scotland. Wear it with the sapphires. You wore blue when you married the count in Italy...Or was it the duke in France?"

Bibiana glared at her. "It was the duke. Pretty won't do, Terza. Not today. Not any day. I must be beautiful beyond compare—lovelier than any other woman here, more breathtaking than any of Donal's past wives, or his daughters."

Terza went back to the wardrobe. "They call them lasses here in Scotland. Bonny lasses. Donal MacLeod has had eight wives before you. There's no way of knowing if his other brides were fair or ugly, though if they looked like the lasses—" She drew a sharp breath when Bibiana crossed the room and pinched her into silence, hard enough to bruise, her nails biting into the old woman's skin. Terza knew better than to show fear or pain, but Bibiana saw her lips tighten and felt a moment's elation.

"Perhaps if you selected the jewels first it would make the choice easier." Terza said, humbled. "The rubies are magnificent, and they make your hair shine like spun gold. Whatever you wear, you will be the most beautiful."

Bibiana drifted back to the mirror. She opened her robe and noted that her breasts were flawless as well, plump and firm and high as a young girl's. She could hold her own with any "bonny lass" or even a whole roomful of them.

"Pink after all, perhaps, with pearls. Something fresh and youthful, something innocent and sweet." In the mirror she saw the frown deepen the creases between Terza's eyes. She spun to look at her. "I am still sweet, am I not? Youthful?"

Terza nodded at once. "Of course. The laird is in love with you. You could wear anything. Or nothing."

Bibiana smoothed a hand over her flat, naked belly. "He wants a son."

Terza stifled a laugh.

Bibiana sent her sharp look and opened the jewel chest. The glitter of her treasures, the gifts of a legion of lovers and twelve adoring husbands never failed to stop her breath. She ran her fingertips reverently over the gems. They were perfection, their sparkle unchanging, powerful, eternal, beautiful. She picked up a rare and flawless pink sapphire and watched it sparkle in the light, flirting with her, luring her...

Terza clasped her hands together. "Don't wear pink, Bibiana. That's a color for untried lasses. I daresay all Donal's daughters will wear pink. Shall I fetch the gold silk with the silver petticoat? You shall be like the sun and the moon, all richness and glow."

Bibiana dropped the sapphire and pulled out a magnificent diamond necklace. The stones caught the light, exploded it, cast it against the walls in shards of every color—the red of her lips, the dark blue of her eyes, the pure gold of her hair... "Yes," she said slowly. "The gold silk. It will dazzle them."

Terza folded her arms over her chest. "Them? Or him?"

Bibiana turned back to the mirror and fastened the diamonds around her neck. "All of them," she said, looking at her reflection. Satisfaction made her purr.

She crossed to pour another goblet full of the dark brew, and sipped. It had cooled, was less pleasant, less vibrant as it slipped down her throat. "What is this?" she demanded.

Terza was working the creases out of the golden gown, running the shining fabric through her gnarled fingers. "Swallow's blood. There are no larks this far north. Your hunter said it isn't the season for them here. They call him the sealgair here, by the way." The Gaelic word for huntsman was awkward on Terza's foreign tongue.

Bibiana poured the contents of the cup into the chamber pot. "Then have him bring doves or young owls."

The mirror drew her again. She was naked, save for the diamonds and the ring—an ancient crystal that absorbed and reflected the light. She never took it off. She made a pretty picture indeed, and an enticing one. She smoothed a hand over the firm globes of her breasts, which were tipped with nipples as red and ripe as new summer berries, and anticipated the wedding night. Would there be pleasure? Would she love this man at last, or would he bore her like the rest? He wanted a son, and that she would not give him. She was far beyond an age to bear children, though he'd never know. Terza would feed him with herbs and brews to stoke his passion, make him blind to all but lust. Bibiana would ride him, exhaust him, and discard him. And when she was done, all he had would be hers. She'd heard he was one of the most powerful men in Scotland... But it was his daughters that drew her here, and what she really wanted—every last drop of their beauty and youth.

She let Terza help her into the gossamer silk shift embroidered with feathers and wings and secret runes. She fastened her stockings with jeweled garters. She held the bedpost as Terza pulled the strings of the corset tight, pushing her breasts skyward. Then came the layers of petticoats, the final one silver and white with a matching stomacher. She waited as the graceful sleeves were looped up with silver ribbons to reveal the silver lace beneath. Then came the gown, so shiny that it made one squint even as their jaw dropped at the sheer opulence of it. It floated down over her body, settled against her curves, caressing and enhancing. It was a dress more suited to the grandeur of a European Court, to Versailles, Venice, or Vienna, than to a dour Scottish warrior's stronghold. They'd probably never seen such a lovely gown before, or such a woman. This wedding would be a wonder they'd tell tales about for a hundred years. They still spoke of her beauty in the halls of the great palaces of Europe, in the sumptuous galleries she'd graced over the years. She'd felt the stares as she walked in those places, the admiration, the envy, the lust... She longed to feel it again, even here amongst Highland barbarians who were barely worthy to touch the shining hem of her gown.

The mirror showed a goddess, and power and joy sang in her veins. It was how a woman should feel on her wedding day—like she'd won, triumphed, conquered. She would outshine any woman, the fairest of them all.

She sat before the glass as Terza piled her hair high on her head, teased ringlets and curls into a beguiling setting for her flawless face. She moved her head slightly. The diamond clips winked among her golden locks. She glimmered and shone with every breath.

Terza grinned. "Perfection."

Perfection indeed. Bibiana gazed at herself in the mirror. The image of a mature woman at the height of her beauty and power, seductive and glorious looked back at her. Yes, she'd dazzle every eye in the Fearsome MacLeod's dreary hall. No one would even want to look at any other woman...

She stared into the mirror. "I am the fairest of all," she murmured to her reflected glory.

There was a knock at the door. Bibiana nodded to Terza, and the old servant went to open it.

In the mirror, Bibiana saw one of Donal's daughters enter. She didn't know which one—she hadn't learned their names yet. Not that it mattered.

The girl stepped into the room, and Bibiana watched her reflection appear beside her own. She was young, fresh and sweet, as pure as new snow, delicate as a rosebud. It was as if a beam of morning sun had slipped into the room, soft and utterly perfect. She wore plain violet silk simply trimmed with white lace and purple ribbons. For adornment, only a silver locket on a ribbon hung around her neck. Not a single jewel graced her appearance. But of course, she didn't need them.

Bibiana felt her stomach tighten, felt jealousy grow like a hard little egg in her throat. Were all Donal's daughters as beautiful as this one?

Her fingers tightened to claws on the edge of her dressing table, and she hated this girl and all her sisters with pure, abiding rage. The girl stared at Bibiana, dazzled for a moment, her expression uncertain, her eyes darting over Bibiana's golden gown, her diamonds. Then she dropped her gaze and dipped a curtsy.

"Which one are you?" Bibiana asked. The girl looked up again. Her eyes were the color of violets.

"I'm Laire, my lady. Papa says the priest is ready," she said in a soft, lilting tone, full of the Highlands. Devil take her, even her voice was beautiful.

Bibiana didn't move. She stared at their reflections in the mirror, side-by-side—mature beauty, power, and grace posed with untouched, untried innocence. Her belly writhed and coiled, and she felt the urge to spew Terza's potion, to rip the golden gown off her body, tear the diamonds from her throat. She had not outdone the girl.

She couldn't.

The mirror never lied. The polished glass reflected only the truth.

Laire MacLeod was the fairest woman in the room.

© Lecia Cornwall


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