Falling in love means tempting fate in this passionate new novel in USA Today bestselling author Gayle Callen’s Highland Wedding series.
Maggie McCallum’s dreams about her new fiancé aren’t the romantic sort. It’s not just that she was bartered to Owen Duff like a piece of property to end a clan feud. She’s also haunted by premonitions of his death on their upcoming wedding day. Yet the exasperating Highlander won’t let her call it off, even though his life and his clan are both in jeopardy.
Owen has wanted Maggie in his bed since he first glimpsed her years ago. If their union restores peace between their clans, so much the better. But while lusting after another chief’s sister had its risks, growing to trust Maggie is far more dangerous. Owen is falling deeply in love with the one woman he cannot hope to claim…and survive.
Maggie McCallum was only sixteen and Owen Duff eighteen the autumn their families spent in Edinburgh. Her mother had said she was too young for courtship, but Maggie secretly scoffed at that. Men looked at her now, and she was finally allowing herself to give a flirtatious look back.
And then at a dancing assembly, she saw Owen, Viscount Duncraggan, heir to the earldom of Aberfoyle. She’d met him only once before, at a dinner with their parents. She’d been twelve, he fourteen, and he’d ignored her. Now a friend giggled and pointed him out.
“He’s from the Duff clan,” the girl said. “Even I ken that the McCallums and the Duffs have always despised each other.”
Maggie nodded without really listening. She was staring at Owen with wide, curious eyes. He did not wear a belted plaid as so many of her family did, but an expensive tailored coat and waistcoat over knee breeches, and the polished sword at his hip sparkled in the candlelight when he strode across the dance floor to bow to a blushing girl. He had a thin face and bony shoulders that hinted at the broad strength of the man he would become. His sandy hair was gathered in a haphazard queue on his neck, loose strands brushing his cheeks as if he were too busy to be bothered fastening it more securely.
“Isn’t your brother to marry his sister? Ye’ll be practically family.”
Family or not, Maggie knew better than to be the McCallum who approached a Duff in public, right in front of her mother. She thought of her brother’s misery at marrying a woman he didn’t know or love, the way he’d done foolish, reckless things in anger when he’d first discovered his fate at thirteen. Maggie had pitied him, and felt guilty that she was secretly glad it wasn’t she forced to marry a Duff.
Her next meeting with Owen wasn’t auspicious—she merely passed him on the stairs outside her flat on High Street, as dusk settled in dark waves on Edinburgh. The tall building with a dozen floors housed all manner of people, from the chimney sweep in the cellar to the dancing master in the garret. The best floors were reserved for noblemen, and though her father didn’t have a title, he was the chief of the Clan McCallum. Her mother had leased the flat to be near the earl’s family, since her son was marrying into them, but she did not want her daughter involved beyond what civility expected.
Upon seeing Maggie, Owen came to a stop on the stairs and grinned that grin that lived in her dreams for many years to come. His warm brown eyes made her think of the chocolate English ladies favored for their morning drink, and as they took her in, skimming her form, she felt as suitably overheated as that cup she’d only once clutched in her hands on a cold winter morning in the Highlands.
She wanted to scold him for his bold gaze but then she saw the round tube he carried.
“Is that a telescope?” she demanded.
Those eyes now brightened with more than warmth. “Aye, I’m heading out to gaze upon the stars. Have ye looked through one before?”
She shook her head. She’d done nothing more intellectual than read passages from the Bible—she hadn’t been allowed more, had no access to other books. Knowing there was a whole world of knowledge out there made her ache with regret and frustration.
He held out a hand. “I’m Owen. Do ye want to come?”
She hesitated, realizing he didn’t recognize her. In that long moment she thought of her grandparents already preparing for bed, the fact that she’d just seen her mother into a sedan chair to meet with friends, and that her brother lived in his own flat near the university. She was alone.
Owen stood a couple stairs below her, and that put them at just about the same height. She stared into his eyes again, and the admiration and curiosity made her unfurl like a blossom in springtime.
But she had to be honest. Taking a deep breath, she said, “I’m Maggie McCallum. ’Tis my brother who’s to marry your sister.”
He looked at her for a long moment, and the first feelings of regret and resignation washed through her.
But Owen didn’t rush away, only extended his hand closer to her. “Nice to meet ye, Maggie. Do ye still want to come with a dreaded Duff?”
She bit her lip to keep from giggling like a foolish girl. She was sixteen, a woman now. He obviously didn’t remember her from four years before. Maybe that was for the best. Putting her hand in his, she let him lead her out into the twilight.
During the next few weeks, Owen was the excitement in days that were once dreary and repetitive. Sneaking away to ride down to the shore at the Firth of Forth, boating, exploring the grounds of Edinburgh Castle, or even meandering through shops seemed like wild adventures when she was at Owen’s side.
Rather than deter her, the very forbiddance of a friendship between them caused her to be far too reckless. He was so very different from the men she knew. He discussed physics and chemistry and astronomy as if she was as smart as he. She saw his wonder in the world, but when she asked if he would be a scientist, his expression turned hard as he said his father had forbidden it. He was the heir to an earldom, and would be educated as such. If he didn’t study the classics, his father would refuse him attendance at university next year.
Maggie sympathized, and distracted him from his sad and angry thoughts, but she could not stop dwelling on her own confusion. Every moment she spent in his company, Owen seemed more and more familiar to her, as if they’d met much earlier in their childhood, though he swore they had not. Sometimes it was as if a ghost of a dream teased her from just beyond the shadows, and she shivered.
Her dreams were nothing to make light of. More than once, she’d dreamed something that eventually came true. The family of a little boy in her clan had thought him drowned and were about to give up the search, when a dream led her to the bedraggled boy huddled beneath a cliff. Another dream foretold the suicide of a young woman whom Maggie’s father had abused. Maggie hadn’t understood what she was seeing until it had actually come true, which was often the case. And then it had been too late to help the girl. Maggie’s mother had taken her away from Larig Castle and back to Edinburgh, to keep her safe from her father.
But Owen? Could he have been part of a dream she couldn’t remember? The puzzle of it flooded her mind when she was separated from him, but the hours they were together were full of happy laughter, insightful discussion, and endless moments where she stared into his face when he wasn’t looking and imagined herself married to him. Maybe her mind was simply trying to tell her that he was her destiny, that they were meant to be together. She wanted him to kiss her, but he was ever the gentleman—or maybe he assumed that the centuries-old feud between their clans meant they could never share a more intimate relationship. It seemed to be a forbidden topic between them.
But he touched her, and each time she could have surely melted with delight. He would take her hand running across a field, guide her by grasping her elbow, put his hand gently on her waist when they stood watching the sun set amid beautiful orange and pink clouds adorning it like trailing scarves.
Two weeks into their friendship, they were carrying a luncheon basket along the river, Water of Leith, on a particularly sunny autumn day, when Owen suggested they look for mussels and Scottish pearls. This was no mere meandering in ankle-deep water, and soon they were both dripping wet, pearl-less, shivering as they crawled back up the grassy bank, laughing.
Owen lay down in the sun, and feeling reckless, she did the same, eyeing him boldly since his own eyes were closed. His queue had come undone, and long strands of his hair, dark brown with water, covered his cheeks. Without thinking, she came up on her elbow and used a trembling finger to move the locks away from his face.
His eyes snapped open, and she expected him to laugh up at her, but he seemed to concentrate intently on her face just above his. Everything external seemed to go silent as they shared a hot, meaningful gaze. She was focused on the rough sound of her breathing, the moisture beaded on his skin, the way she could feel his heart pounding in his chest when she rested her trembling hand there.
And then he cupped her head and brought her down for a kiss. His lips were cool from the water, yet softer than she imagined a man’s would be. Such boldness made her dizzy—or was it simply nearness to Owen? Her hand still on his chest, she lifted her head and stared down at him uncertainly, but he only brought their mouths together again. He parted his lips, and the shock of his tongue sliding between hers made her start with surprise and wonder. Her cool, wet skin seemed to heat, the warmth spreading out from her mouth and down her chest. Her trembling was no longer from the cold, but she didn’t know why her limbs seemed so restless. She wanted to be touched—needed it with a desperation new to her. But she was afraid to do more than brace herself against his chest as he explored her mouth and taught her to explore his.
The world shifted as he rolled her onto her back. It was his turn to rise above her, his intense face framed by blue sky and towering autumn-hued trees. She had no time to think as he kissed her again and began to touch her. His hand on her body was a hot, welcome presence, and with each touch she felt more and more as if she couldn’t lie still. His caresses journeyed across her wet clothes from her hip and upward. And when at last he touched her breast, pushed upward by her stays, she moaned against his lips and shuddered with each delicate strum across her nipple, as if he made her an instrument of desire.
Their shared world of passion was suddenly overwhelming, and she pushed against him before it was too late to stop. Owen lifted his head and stared down at her, his breathing as erratic as hers.
“We cannot do this,” she said with a trembling voice. Not that she regretted any of it, she realized, staring at his mouth and wishing to feel again the pleasure he’d given her.
Owen was looking at her mouth, too, and he practically growled, “I knew ye’d find out. Forgive me. I didn’t ken how to tell ye.”
“Find out what?” she demanded.
“Owen Duff, ye have to tell me now.”
“My father betrothed me some years ago to the daughter of a Lowland clan. Even now, they journey here for us to meet.”
The last warmth from their kiss deserted Maggie. Shivering, she sat up and scooted away from him, covering her chest as if it was bared to him.
“Why did ye never tell me this?” she demanded. She’d let herself get lost in the fairy tale of their friendship, and the romance she’d thought had been blossoming. Now she knew she was simply a fool.
Owen tucked his hair back into the queue, as if he needed something to do with his hands. He didn’t look at her, and his face was as red as hers felt, but she didn’t feel any sympathy for him.
His words came out slowly at first, before tumbling over each other as fast as the rippling water behind him. “At first, I thought we were simply friends, and to know ye were a McCallum made it daring. But the need to kiss ye has been dominating my thoughts more and more.”
He met her gaze at last, and she felt like she’d never forget the heat she saw there, the passion he was showing just for her. But he was betrothed, and a lump rose high up into her throat, shutting off any words. She scrambled to her feet and backed away from him before she would embarrass herself more by crying. “I—I have to go.”