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Once Upon a Highland Summer

ONCE UPON A HIGHLAND SUMMER

PROLOGUE


"Angus MacNabb!"

Was there no peace in his own grave?

He'd been tormented enough in life. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to ignore the soft voice calling him, drawing him, pulling him back into the world, even knowing she was the one and only person who could.

"MacNabb, I know you can hear me. Stop being stubborn and come out. We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for your foolish curse, and you're going to help me fix it."

"Stubborn!" Angus snapped, unable to resist the goad. "Isn't that a case of the pot calling the kettle—" he stopped and stared. Georgiana stood shimmering in the air before him.

He blinked, wondering if he was seeing a ghost, then recalled that he was.

Even dead, Georgiana had the power to steal his breath away—if he'd had any breath to steal. She titled her head and smiled at him, just the way he remembered. It had been nearly sixty years since he'd seen that smile, but he'd never forgotten it. It smoked through him now like life itself, filled him with passion and pain.

Georgiana Forrester, the late Countess of Somerson, raised her eyebrows as if she was waiting for him to finish his comment, but he didn't. How could he speak while her eyes roamed over the plaid he'd been buried in? He'd looked his best when they'd laid him out, and he straightened his shoulders proudly now, and pushed the laird's bonnet back on his brow.

"That's a fine gown ye're wearing. You still look like a lass." His lass.

Georgiana looked down at the silver satin with a moue of distaste. "I detest this gown. I married Somerson in it, and they chose it for my burial. The only good thing I can say about it is that it still fit perfectly after all those years. I don't know how they found it. I ordered my maid to burn it."

MacNabb frowned, and one of the eagle feathers in his bonnet fell over his eye. The three feathers proclaimed him chief of his clan, laird over every rock, tussock of grass, and starving child as far as the eye could see from the crumbling tower of Old Glenlorne Castle, where they stood now. It had been their trysting place until—the old, familiar anger flared.

"Somerson!" he spat the name, filling it with sixty years of hatred. "Only a cheap fool would bury his wife in her wedding gown."

Georgiana's chin came up. "You said you liked it. Besides, the day of my marriage and the day of my burial were equally sorrowful. I think it was a most appropriate choice."

MacNabb sighed, and a breeze moved restively through the treetops beyond the tower's sagging walls. "Aye, well, that's not why we're here, is it, to debate our grave clothes?"

He looked around the tower, open to the sky now, the roof long gone. The rotting stones of the windows framed a view of the glen, the loch, and the new castle of Glenlorne at the opposite end of the valley. The new keep, already over a hundred and fifty years old, looked near as decrepit as this tower, older by four centuries. He sighed again.

If he turned and looked away to the east, he'd be able to see Georgiana's uncle's cottage, Lullach Grange, but he kept his back to it. He'd spent sixty years watching the empty house for her candle in the window, the signal that she'd meet him here, at the tower, but that light had gone out when their families tore them apart forever. The familiar bitterness of loss filled him again, still, and he turned to glare at her.

"What do you want of me, woman?" he asked gruffly.

Her eyes remained soft, unafraid. "You cursed us, Angus."

"I had cause enough!"

She shook her head, her smile wistful. "We were in love, and they would not let us marry, but your curse has echoed through two generations of both our families. It must end. I want my granddaughter to know the kind of happiness we shared, Angus."

"Was it happiness? It made the rest of our lives unbearable. Well, mine anyway. I canna speak for you, of course." There wasn't a day he hadn't thought of her. Her name had been the last word on his lips.

She looked down at her hand, where her wedding band had once sat. The family heirloom now graced the hand of the present countess. It was another ring she missed, the one Angus had given her that night to seal their love, a promise ring with a small ruby. "Neither of us had joy in our marriages." She waved her hand to indicate the tower. "The last true happiness I felt was here, that last night, in your arms."

Angus could see the place she meant right through her transparent body, the sheltered spot where they'd lain together, wrapped in his plaid, alternately making love and whispering about the future, pledging themselves to each other. His hands coiled, aching to touch her. Could they touch? He didn't know, but to reach for her and close his arms on empty air yet again would be too much to bear.

"Ye've come at a bad time, gràdhach," he said, the Gaelic term for "beloved" slipping off his tongue. He could have bitten that tongue in two when she smiled sweetly at him. "My son just died, and my clan's left leaderless. My daughter-in-law is trying to sell out to Engl—"

"Not leaderless. You have a grandson, don't you?"

"I do. But Alec left Glenlorne years ago, swearing he'd never return. Mayhap it's better he doesn't."

"You don't believe that."

"What's left for him to come home to?" he asked, his mouth twisting bitterly.

She floated over to stand beside him. "There's the land, Angus. And there's love. Love can rebuild anything."

He stared at her, saw the foolish hope in her eyes. That look, that hope had made him fall in love with her, made him believe anything was possible. He shut his eyes against the feeling stirring in his breast. "Ye can't truly think I believe in love, do ye?"

She reached out a hand, laying it on his arm. He couldn't feel it, but light flared where their shadows touched, glowed. "You did once—an Englishman's daughter and a Scot—who would have imagined it in those terrible times? It was almost impossible."

"It was impossible."

She laughed, and the sound echoed through the tower, startling a bird to flight. It flapped into the night with a frightened cry. Georgiana ignored it. "It was only impossible for them, not for us. I doubt we'd be here now, together in this place again, if our love had died too."

No, his love for her had never died. Not even here, on the other side of death. He loved her still, yet what point was there in that? Was it to be an eternity of pain instead of a mere lifetime? "What has any of this to do with Alec?" he demanded. Was it his imagination, or could he smell her perfume?

"My granddaughter's name is Caroline." Her voice was soft, fond, gentle.

"Caroline? You want to match her to my grandson? How can you be sure they'd even suit? Wouldn't the current Earl of Somerson object to a match with a penniless Scots laird o'nothing?"

"Leave him to me. We need only bring my Caroline and your Alec together, remind them, perhaps, of—" she cast a meaningful look at their trysting place.

"Has she any money?" he asked ruthlessly, trying to ignore the tender memory. "He needs to marry a lass with a bloody fortune if he's to save this place!"

She dismissed his concern with a wave of her hand. "She has a respectable dowry, of course, but that hardly matters. They'll find a way, but not because of money—love, Angus, love." The sound of the word swirled in the air around him. It softened his heart.

"I'm not against trying, Gràdhach, but we can't force them to fall in love, or be sure it'll last."

She smiled sweetly and sighed, and the white heather growing under the walls shivered restively. "Tis almost summer, Angus. Remember how easy it was to be in love in the summer? All we need do is bring them here. The rest will take care of itself."

Angus frowned, still dubious that anything to do with love or marriage could ever be that simple.

Beyond the sanctuary of the tower, belligerent clouds covered the moon, and thunder muttered a dark warning.

A storm was about to descend on the peaceful valley of Glenlorne.

© Lecia Cornwall


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