Jules MacDonald thought her happily-ever-after was secure with her barbarian laird.
After losing his first wife and wee son in childbirth, every day Hugh MacDonald's sweet Juliette's stomach grows is proof of her probable demise. Hugh must face his worst fears to win back his wife and child before she flees to the future. Or will he be too late?
About the Author
She's a hopeless romantic and always will be. Risking it all for Happily Ever After is what she lives by!
She's originally from Ohio, but got to Texas as soon as she could. She's happily married and has a bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice.
She works with kids when she's not writing.
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Jules folded her softest sleeping chemise and put it on top of the bundle. If she could manage a trunk, she would've, but a few dresses and what passed for underwear in 1676 would have to do.
She sniffled, refused to give in to her hovering tears. If she thought about the devastation rocking just below the surface, she'd crumble. Or worse — lose her nerve. She pushed it all away, concentrating on the task at hand.
I have to do what I have to do. Like always.
She hadn't been able to get a bag, so she'd set her belongings at the center of a fresh bed sheet she'd had one of the servant girls bring her. Not that she'd ever be questioned, but she wanted to be as inconspicuous as possible. For Hugh's sake, if nothing else. Gossip ran rampant around this place.
Jules wrapped it up like a present and tied the bundle off.
The baby moved and her hand shot over the spot on the left side of her distended tummy, but she didn't rub there. It was as if her husband's child was protesting her plan.
Tears burned her eyes.
She shook her head and swiped at her cheeks. The room she'd shared with the big Highlander for just over a year blurred despite her resolve.
He'd lived alone in this room for many more years than she'd been with him, so the furniture was all masculine, oversized, and dark wood — except for the trunk at the end of their bed he'd carved and given her the day they'd been married.
That day — the happiest of her life — felt like a sad memory right now.
The work on the piece was intricate. Hugh had used his talent to the fullest. The border was made up of detailed swords, thistles, and swirls in a pattern. It almost looked as if he'd had modern day computer and engraving equipment for such a delicate design.
He'd put her name at the center, but the surname 'MacDonald' dominated next to it and shook her soul as she gazed down on what she couldn't take with her. Jules was his wife, the Lady of Armadale, but lately she didn't feel that.
She avoided looking at the bed they'd made love in so many times. She could feel the warmth of the fire behind her and smell the fresh peat burning. This room had comforted her many a time since she'd traveled back in time to seventeenth century Scotland in search of her sister. Her surroundings were him, like nothing she'd ever wanted before, and now something she couldn't keep.
"Juliette?" His voice made her jump.
She crushed her eyes shut and took a fortifying breath. She was going to need any strength she could muster. Jules whirled toward the man she loved.
The love of her life.
She made no effort to hide the clothes she'd packed — he'd know her intentions in moments, and to say he wasn't going to be happy about it was putting it mildly. Hugh always yelled and barked orders, so she had to be ready for it. Her insides wobbled — and this time it wasn't the baby she carried.
Their eyes locked and she hollered at herself to not get lost in his beautiful midnight orbs like she always did. She held on to the hurt from the past months with both hands. Talked herself out of second and third, fourth, maybe even the hundredth chance she'd given him to stop smashing her hopes. Talking to him, or trying to, had gotten her nowhere.
The only thing Hugh MacDonald hadn't destroyed was her love for him, but at that moment, Jules wished she didn't love him.
Maybe she wouldn't be dying inside if she could hate him.
Her eyes trailed his tall form, broad shoulders, trim waist. His ebony hair was messy as usual, and in need of a good cut as it fell to his shoulders. His face was clean-shaven; his chiseled cheekbones and jaw lines begging for a touch even across their room.
Looking at his full mouth made Jules swallow, because she wanted to taste him. But kissing Hugh was out. He'd barely looked at her in months, let alone touched ... kissed ... held her. He hadn't made love to her since the night she'd told him she was pregnant.
Her husband usually wore trews, but today he was clad in a kilt of his clan's tartan pattern, and she shut down the zing of awareness that hit her. His ivory tunic, or leine as they called them, wasn't tight, but the defined muscles of his chest were as beautiful as his rare smile. She couldn't see them, but she remembered every inch of his body. Even mad as hell at him, he was the hottest thing she'd ever seen.
Mad's not right.
She wasn't mad. She was ...
"Juliette?" he repeated.
Her name rolled over her in his thick brogue. It got her every time, as well as his refusal to call her by her nickname, even after a year of marriage. He always said her name was too beautiful to shorten.
She jolted. Cleared her throat. Tried to shut down her draw to him. "I'm leaving, Hugh."
Silence fell, but Jules couldn't look away. To keep her hands busy, she lifted the bundle of her belongings and held it in front of her. It wasn't heavy, but it wasn't much.
Hugh's gaze fell to her tummy, but then he averted his eyes and shifted in his boots. Like evidence of their child on her body burned him.
Disappointment crashed down and she bit her bottom lip to keep it from trembling. Sucked back the urge to cry and swallowed again — this time against the lump in her throat.
"I doona understand," he said finally.
"Yes, you do. If you didn't, you wouldn't be looking at me like that." She cursed the shake in her words.
"Ye canna leave me." This was harder. More like her husband.
He said, 'can't,' not 'won't.'
Jules didn't miss the distinction. He wasn't ordering her to stay?
That wasn't Hugh-like. The man she loved was usually full of orders and commands where she was concerned. They argued about such things so much she'd accused him of loving to fight with her. But then again, they hadn't had a real tiff in months. As if her pregnancy had shut down his personality.
Hugh closed the distance between them, so she snapped her mouth shut, but he didn't reach for her like she wanted. Needed. Craved.
That might've changed her mind.
Another wave of sadness washed over her, and Jules now had a meteor in her throat. It was growing. Soon she wouldn't be able to speak.
She was two seconds from a total breakdown, but she couldn't — wouldn't — do that in front of him.
"Ye canna go." This was low, a plea more than anything else. His eyes implored, but again, she couldn't look at him.
Her everything hurt.
"I have to," she whispered, but it was a croak more than anything. Jules cleared her throat and studied her bundle. Her arms framed her stomach, pressing the fabric of her simple saffron gown to her body, and making her roundness prominent.
She'd never been fond of dresses, but as her baby grew, she'd had to give up corsets, leines and trews. Her husband never liked her in what he called 'lad's clothing,' anyway.
"The bairn ..."
"Is as much mine as yours," she forced out.
He was silent for several moments, so she glanced up at him. His expression was unreadable, those dark eyes almost as emotionless as they were fathomless.
And wasn't that just like her man?
Hugh shook his head, making his thick locks dance, and she wanted to drop her clothing and run her hands through them. Tame his hair, like she'd thought she'd tamed him. She hadn't at all. She'd always liked him wild and unbridled, but not broken, like he was before her.
"Tha' isna wha' I meant," he whispered.
Not what she'd expected him to say, but her husband, never a man of many words, didn't expand on his statement.
That just hurt more.
He wouldn't talk to her, no matter what she'd tried. Begging, pleading, questioning just made him grumpy and he'd yell. Demanding didn't work, either. That would just make him bristle, then shut down.
"Claire is picking me up," Jules blurted.
His Adam's apple bobbed and his jaw set, but he didn't say anything. He didn't even wear the normal scowl he usually reserved for mention of anything MacLeod.
Her younger sister had come back in time before Jules, and had married Duncan MacLeod, the twin brother of the current Laird MacLeod. The clan, which lived on the other side of the Isle of Skye, had warred with Clan MacDonald for hundreds of years.
They'd been at peace since Hugh's father was the laird, but neither party was fond of each other.
For the sakes of Claire and Jules, they tried. But only because Hugh had saved her sister's son, as far as her brother-in-law was concerned.
She wrote her sister weekly — if not more — and saw her often. Over the past few months, Claire had been the only reason she'd remained sane. Here at Armadale — the MacDonald stronghold — she had Hugh's aunt, Mab, but she'd not been completely honest with the older woman. Jules couldn't open up to her like she could to her sister.
"Ye will go ta Dunvegan?" His broad shoulders slumped.
He really isn't going to argue? Order me to unpack and stay?
Defeat and agony hit her in waves, and Jules clutched the knot she'd made on the linen until her knuckles whitened and her fingertips ached. Her legs wobbled, but she locked her knees. She couldn't risk her baby with a fall.
She couldn't confirm his question aloud, but she didn't need to. Hugh had been correct, but it wasn't like she had anywhere else to go, anyway.
Jules inhaled again and swallowed for the hundredth time that morning. Squared her shoulders and forced one foot in front of the other.
Move. Walk past him. Just get out of here.
"I love ye, Juliette."
She almost lost it. Threw a hand to the doorframe when she hit the threshold so she wouldn't fall over, but didn't break into a run like she wanted to. It was difficult enough to walk around, as pregnant as she was. Wouldn't be able to run if she tried.
Jules closed her eyes and ordered air in and out as normally as possible. Forbade herself from turning back to her husband or rushing into his arms.
She loved him, too. More than she'd ever thought possible, but she loved the life growing within her, as well. More than her own. More than her love for Hugh, possibly.
So she had to leave.
"This isn't about love." She pushed words out because she couldn't deny loving her husband aloud. Nor would she hurt him like that, with a lie. Like he'd hurt her. She kept her back to him, reminding herself to be strong and just leave.
Two more steps and Jules would be in the corridor. She'd follow it to the stairs that led down to the great hall, and then go out into the bailey, where her ride should be soon. In her last letter, Claire had said they'd leave Dunvegan at first light.
"'Tis no'? What else canna be?" Hugh's voice cracked.
Tears scorched her cheeks and she cursed them. She wiped her face and sucked back a sob. The baby moved and she tried to ignore it. Refused to focus on the fact she was taking her child from his or her father. "You know where I'll be."
It wasn't like he was going to come after her — them — if he was willing to let her go.
She threw a hand to her mouth to disguise her weeping, and made herself leave the room.
Keep going, just keep going.CHAPTER 2
Hugh stared down into the bailey. He didn't remember wandering to the window, but most of his body was numb anyway. The ache had started in his chest and spread downward slowly, traversing his limbs into his feet and hands, but then the burn froze, shifting down his spine as if he'd jumped into the Minch. His fingers and toes tingled, then stiffened as if bitten by the frost outside.
It was winter, bitter outside, but that was pretty close to how he'd felt, until everything had iced over, so frigid it actually felt hot, scorching in its contraction.
His bones started to shake and even his teeth chattered, despite the fire behind him. The scent of peat moss filled the room, but it was mixed with an aroma that was just his wife.
Somehow, the shuddering got worse. Hugh flexed his hands and arms, but it didn't help.
He couldn't tear his eyes away from the scene below. Two horses stood waiting, hitched to an open-bed cart. A petite blonde woman embraced his wife, her hair lighter in color than Juliette's honey locks. She was dressed warmly, in a dark green cloak with a fur-lined hood she'd just lowered. His sister-by-marriage appeared to share words with Juliette before she returned to the cart, gesturing to his wife, then to the dark-haired man who'd accompanied her into his gates.
Duncan MacLeod hopped off the bench seat.
Hugh's lip curled of its own accord, and a snarl breeched his lips. His hand landed on the hilt of his sword at the first touch he witnessed. He opened and closed his fingers on the grip, but his feet disobeyed orders to run down there and challenge the MacLeod laird's brother.
Another man wrapped his wife in a fur. Another man put his hands on her, lifting her gently to the front of the cart. Another man was offering her the comfort he could not, if his rival's gentle expression was any indication.
Hugh wasn't far enough away that it wasn't as plain as the clouded breath from all three of them.
She'd sit next to him up front, while his own wife was in the back.
They were taking his Juliette away.
It wasn't against her will.
'I'm leaving, Hugh.' The horrid sentence reverberated in his mind, making him freeze all over again. He swallowed, but it helped naught.
Hugh closed his eye when he heard the thump thump of what could only be his Aunt Mab's cane, and the shuffling of her uneven gait.
Juliette had left the door to the laird's quarters open when she'd departed.
"Hugh MacDonald!" The shout made him flinch, but he didn't move away from the window.
He tried to ignore his meddlesome aunt, and watched the cart rock with Duncan MacLeod's added weight. The man had indeed taken a seat next to Juliette. He clenched his jaw.
Duncan took the reins, and even though he couldn't hear anything from his position, Hugh imagined the shout for the horses to dart forward at the moment they did so.
"Doona ye mean, 'my laird?'" he asked, trying to keep his voice dry. He'd failed. It'd come out a pained crack, betraying how he was feeling. He didn't turn to the woman who'd raised him.
"Nay. I doona!" She slammed her cane to the floor with a bang that echoed.
"Weeel, I am tha laird."
"Ye are a foolish, foolish lad!"
He sighed and dragged his hand down his face.
The bailey was empty now. As empty as his heart and soul.
She's really gone. You drove her away, Hugh MacDonald.
Guilt and pain swirled low until it jumped up for a bite, and a lump strangled his throat. He remained at the window, looking out. He couldn't deal with himself, let alone Mab. Hugh wished her away, but knew better.
When he'd girded his loins and faced his aunt, he tried to avoid the scowl on her lined face, but her dark eyes speared right through him. That renewed his pain, somehow.
"What. Are. Ye. Doin'?" Mab said the words slowly, each one gaining volume. She panted, she was so angry. Her thin shoulders shook and her face was crimson, the bright color splotching her cheekbones up to her ears. Her salt and pepper hair was plaited, the thick rope swaying with her tremors. Even her dark skirt shook where it rested above the floor.
At least he'd come by his MacDonald temper naturally.
"Sit down, a' fore ye hurt yerself," Hugh admonished.
His aunt narrowed her eyes and brandished her cane like a sword. "Doona ye try ta order me 'round." With a speed that belied her uneven legs, she crossed the room and smacked his thigh with the staff he'd taken such care to carve for her.
"Ow!" He rubbed his leg as she readied for another strike. Hugh dodged, but she advanced on him with an agility she shouldn't be capable of.
"Tell me why yer lass has left Armadale."
"My marriage isna yer concern." He held his hands up in surrender, then thought better of it. If she hit his bollocks, he'd double over, and he'd just left them unguarded. Wouldn't put it past her, either.
"Yer marriage? 'Tis verra much my concern when tha lass carryin' tha MacDonald heir flees her husband wit'ou' warnin'!"
He stilled and sucked in a breath as anguish spread across his chest all over again.
Juliette really left me.
It hurt to breathe. His heart cantered and he wanted to clutch something, but didn't want to show weakness, even in front of Mab.
She studied his face, and lowered her cane to the stone floor. "Ah, jus' hit ye, did it?" "What?" he croaked.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Highland Valentine"
Copyright © 2016 C.A. Szarek.
Excerpted by permission of Paper Dragon Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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