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Once Upon a Highland Christmas

ONCE UPON A HIGHLAND CHRISTMAS

PROLOGUE


Craigleith Castle, nineteen days before Christmas

"Come on, Fiona—it's the season for magic," Lady Elizabeth Curry said to her Scottish cousin, pressing a small bundle of dried herbs into Fiona MacGillivray's hand as they knelt by the fire in the library of Craigleith Castle. Elizabeth held up her own herbs. "See? Like this—wrap a lock of your hair around the bundle, say the words and toss it into the heart of the fire!"

Fiona stared at the crumbling gray leaves in her palm and wrinkled her nose at the pungent scent. "Are you sure this will work? I'm not English. Besides, magic can work in ways you don't expect. Auld Annie says—"

"Auld Annie!" Elizabeth scoffed. "What could she know of true love? She must be a hundred years old if she's a day."

Fiona glanced at the door, but it remained shut. "Annie has the sight," she whispered. "And she knows more magic than anyone. Why, I once saw her heal a ewe with just—"

Elizabeth sniffed. "This is about true love, not sheep. Come on. What can it hurt to know?" She drew a pair of sewing scissors out of her pocket and raised her eyebrows.

Fiona regarded her cousin's eager face, golden in the firelight. The rest of the room was filled with the thickening shadows of a winter afternoon. Night fell early in December, and Annie had predicted winter would come sooner than usual this year. "Shouldn't we be outside in the woods, dancing around a bonfire or something?" Fiona asked, holding very still as Elizabeth carefully snipped one of her curls.

"It's freezing outside!" Elizabeth protested. "Why can't it be in an earl's library?"

"Did the spell say so? Annie says a spell must be done properly, or it can go wrong," Fiona said. Elizabeth's brow crumpled for a moment, then cleared.

"What could possibly go wrong? It's not as if it's black magic. The spell says you must gather the herbs of midsummer, dry them, tie them with a lock of your hair, and burn them on the feast day of St. Nicholas. That's today. As long as the words come from your heart, then your wish is sure to come true."

Fiona closed her hand tight, and the scent of lavender rose to rival the peat smoke from the fire. There was nothing threatening about a wee bit of lavender. Still, she hesitated. "You go first," she said.

Elizabeth tossed her bundle into the fire. "Show me my true love, and send him to me by Christmastide," she said fervently. The flames pounced on her offering, flared with a hungry whoosh, and devoured the tidbit.

The girls leaned in, looking for a sign in the flames. "D'you see anything?" Fiona whispered.

Elizabeth screwed up her face and squinted. "Nothing that could be mistaken for anyone's true love. Throw yours."

Fiona wrapped her hair around the bundle. She took a breath and flung it into the heart of the fire. "Show me my true love, and bring him to me—" She hesitated. "Does it have to be by Christmas? Why can't it be by spring, or even next summer, perhaps?"

Elizabeth sighed in exasperation as the fire finished its second treat. "It's burned up now, so you'll have to wait for spring."

There was a sudden roar from the wind outside, and the windows rattled. The gust slipped under the door, and swept up the flue, making the room suddenly cold. The chimney gasped and sucked hard on the fire, making the flame hiss and leap, drawing it upward, and breaking off sharp red sparks that clung to the soot for a moment and twinkled before being carried away on the icy breath of the wind. The fire sighed and sank back, subdued, and the flames fluttered nervously.

The girls looked at each other, their eyes wide. "What was that?" Elizabeth said. "What did it mean?"

Outside, the wind howled again, high and wild. Fiona pulled her shawl around her shoulders and rose to light the candles, driving the shadows back into the corners, where they hid behind the settee and the chairs. Elizabeth went to the window. "My, but the weather changes suddenly here in the Highlands. It wasn't snowing a minute ago, was it?"

Fiona looked. The snow had started suddenly, and frenzied white flakes were rushing across the brown landscape, driving toward the castle to dash themselves against the windows and stones with icy fury, clattering like the claws of an angry creature that desperately wanted in. Fiona's gut clenched. There hadn't been a single cloud in the sky an hour ago. She glanced at the fire again, but it burned sedately in the hearth, oblivious to the sudden storm raging outside. She swallowed. The herbs, and the spell ... surely it was impossible.

Elizabeth stared out the window, hypnotized by the thickening flakes. "The snow—it's Christmas magic! Look, the garden is almost covered already!"

Fiona went to sit beside her cousin. The first snowfall was always beautiful, and magical—as if folk had forgotten what snow looked like over the seasons. Surely that's all it was.

She stared, mesmerized as the snowflakes danced intricate patterns in the air.

Show me my true love, and send him to me by Christmastide.

Outside the ancient walls of Craigleith, the sparks joined the snowflakes in a frenzied waltz around the castle's pointed tower in the thickening twilight, once, twice, and again.

Then they flew away across the moor, chasing the wind.


CHAPTER ONE

Craigleith Moor, nineteen days before Christmas

How dreadful it was to freeze to death on the day before of your own wedding.

Alanna McNabb looked around her and realized she was lost. Worse, a storm had suddenly blown in. Less than an hour ago—or was it two? —The sky had been clear, if gray as lead, and she'd been walking through hills dusted with the barest hint of snow, like a wedding cake delicately sprinkled with powdered sugar. Then wind and snow had tumbled over the lip of the mountains with remarkable ferocity, blotting out the earth and the sky and descending upon Alanna like a malicious ruffian bent on mischief.

The gale tore her bonnet off and tossed it away, slapped her cheeks raw, and twisted her cloak around her legs, making it almost impossible to walk, even as it drove her onward.

Landmarks disappeared behind a thick white curtain, and she felt the first thin edge of fear. This was supposed to be a short stroll in the hills, a chance to think, to let the brisk wind clear her mind and allow her to come to terms with tomorrow's events. Back at Dundrummie Castle, her wedding gown—pale blue—hung ready in her dressing room. The cooks were in a flurry, baking cakes and pies for the wedding breakfast. Her mother was preening in her mirror, putting the finishing touches on her own dress for the event, and her groom, the Marquess of Merridew, was on his way.

He would arrive at Dundrummie Castle this very afternoon, and she must be there to greet him. She looked around again at the blank white world. Would he worry if she was late? She drew a breath, felt the wind snatch it from her lungs, freeze it upon her lips, and knew she was going to be very late indeed. He might be irritated at the delay, or angry, or afraid. She had no idea how her fiance would react, since she barely knew him. She turned, and the wind turned with her, spinning in a circle around her, binding her, refusing to let her escape. Surely if she retraced her steps, went back the way she'd come, she'd be home before anyone knew she was gone. But which way was it?

The snow was so white it hurt her eyes. The frigid air froze in her nose and throat. She had no idea which direction she was going.

Her mother would worry, once she got over her annoyance with her middle daughter for going out in the first place. Aunt Eleanor would pace the floor, her walking stick thumping the flagstones as she waited for Alanna to return. Her youngest sister would imagine the worst—as if there was worse that could be imagined. Her family would whisper that Alanna was not one for impetuous behavior, which made disappearance all the more shocking.

Her brother Alec and his wife, and her older sister, Megan, would not be attending Alanna's wedding. They'd have no idea she was lost. She doubted Alec even knew about the hastily planned wedding, and her sister was in England, equally oblivious, newly married herself. Alanna felt the lack of Megan's company keenly, but if Megan had stayed—well, there was no point in dwelling on that. What was done was done, and Megan, at least, was happy. Deliriously so.

One of them might as well be.

Alanna tightened her grip on her hood, fighting the storm for control of it. The wind bit through the thin leather of her gloves, made her fingers useless stumps. Her feet stung inside half boots meant for much lighter outings than this, and the cold crept through her cloak like a thief. She had never been so cold.

How much farther? She couldn't recall how far she'd come. She had walked out through the orchard, up into the glen, past the loch and the ruins of old Glen Dorian Castle. She'd climbed a steep path and had stood for a moment, breathless, to look at the view. The hills had been spread out around her, the waterfall that tumbled down into the glen silver lace against the brown landscape, like a bridal veil. She'd turned away from that thought, refused to look, walked on when she should have turned back. Had the clouds been gathering even then? She'd left the roar of the falls behind her as she'd reached the moorland. The wind had been brisk but benevolent, cleansing.

It wasn't kind now. It had turned angry, sharp tongued, and merciless. Panic flared in Alanna's breast, a small flicker of useless heat. Surely if she looked hard enough through the snow she'd see Dundrummie Castle in the distance, and be safely home in a few minutes. If not, someone would come out to look for her. She scanned the white world hopefully, seeking the dark figure of a rescuer, but she was entirely alone. She suppressed a gasp of dismay.

How foolish—she'd purposely left the castle without telling anyone she was going out. Mama would have stopped her, saying there was too much to do before Lord Merridew's arrival. Eleanor would have insisted that someone must accompany her, just in case of—well, this. Her younger sister, Sorcha, would have wanted to come too, and she would have babbled incessantly, when Alanna wanted to think. Of course, thinking was no use at all. There was no way out of it—the wedding, she meant. Or the storm.

Oh, she was cold. The snow had reached the top of her boots, slipped inside to freeze against her ankles, gnawing her skin with sharp, icy teeth. How much farther? Surely such a sudden, terrible rage would blow itself out quickly enough and die away, like a tantrum. She listened for a change in the whine of the wind, a softening, but it screeched on. She blinked, felt the weight of ice on her eyelashes, rubbed it away and pushed back the urge to cry, since tears would only freeze.

She trudged on. Safety was just over the next hill—or was she in a glen? It was impossible to tell. Her cloak was crusted with ice, the hem stiff and scratchy against her legs, snagging her stockings, shredding them. Fear rose, more menacing now, and she fought the urge to panic. She gulped a deep breath and tasted snow, felt the chill invade her lungs, form a cold ball in her belly. She could barely open her eye against the force of the driving snow stinging her face.

The world was as opaque as linen, or new milk.

Or a shroud.

"Hello!" she called out. The wind snatched the word and flung it away. "Please," she begged. The gale took that word too. She bent forward, forced her way, step after step, the snow creaking and whining under her feet, the wind tearing at her clothes.

Alanna didn't see the gully. It was as white as everything else—but suddenly she was tipping sideways, sliding, unable to stop herself from falling down the frozen slope. She screamed as she hit something sharp and hard, and came to a jarring stop. Pain shot through her knee, filled her body with agony, made her pant as her heart hammered against her ribs. There were rocks lurking under the fresh snow. They peered up like jagged teeth from where her fall had uncovered them. It could have been much worse than a bruised knee. "Lucky," she whispered.

She lay still, staring up at the sky, as white and heartless as the earth, lost in shock and pain. She reached her hand down to where pain radiated from her left knee, but her frozen fingers were useless. She raised her hand and stared at the blood on her glove. She swallowed hard.

Cut then, at least. Or was her leg broken? She tried to move it, felt the instant stab of pain, and cried out. The world dissolved from snow to white-hot fire. She felt a bubble of hysterical laughter fill her chest. Surely this would delay the wedding. Or would it simply make her bruised and battered and ugly on her wedding night? Her mirth died. She tried now, as she had for days, to imagine Merridew above her, in her bed, his body against hers. She felt only dread.

Up—she must get up, keep going. She gritted her teeth and tried to rise. Pain forced the breath from her lungs, and she fell back. Perhaps the injury was worse than she'd thought, or maybe she was simply mired in a deep drift of snow. She would have to dig herself out, force herself to her feet, and continue on. She looked around, trying to get her bearings, but there was nothing, no one. The world had disappeared. She bit her lip, fought tears, and set a hand over her heart to still the terror that threatened to choke her. She was so cold, and so tired.

She lay back. She just needed a moment to rest, and then she would get up and find her way home. Above her, the snowflakes rushed toward her, silver on white, hypnotic. They tickled as they settled on her skin, a gentle caress. Alanna shut her eyes.

Just for a moment, she'd rest. Then she'd get up and find her way home.

© Lecia Cornwall


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