Read The Highlander Online

Authors: Kerrigan Byrne

The Highlander

 

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P
ROLOGUE

Wester Ross, Scotland

Something has to be done,
Liam Mackenzie decided as he stared down at his gruesome discovery.

About the evil man who ruled the Mackenzie of Wester Ross with sadistic whims and cold terror. About the hollow-eyed woman who'd replaced Liam's own wretched mother, haunting the halls of Ravencroft Keep like a thin, tormented specter of regret and fear. About her son, Liam's half brother, who hid in closets and had never learned to smile in his entire young life. About the Mackenzie bastard recently beaten to death in Newgate prison.

Something had to be done about the body that Liam had just fished out of Bryneloch Bog.

Tessa McGrath.

Though she'd been little more than a skeleton covered in sludge, peat, and mud, Liam had known it was her. The moment he'd glimpsed what remained of the wool cloak he'd given her on that terrible night those few years ago, he'd
known
.

That cloak—his final act of kindness—had become her shroud.

Tessa had been a bawdy whore who'd boasted of incomparable skills and dark fetishes. It was why the Laird Hamish Mackenzie had hired her for his sons. Why she'd been chosen to turn boys into men. Nay, not men, but something entirely more terrible.

Tessa had underestimated the abject cruelty of the Marquess of Ravencroft. She'd not known the depth of Hamish Mackenzie's evil.

“She wants it.” Liam's father had sneered as he'd strapped a naked, blindfolded Tessa to the bed. “She's begging for it.”

The whore
had
been begging for it. For the playful lashes of the buttery-soft whip she'd brought in her satchel of pleasure toys. She made the appropriate noises, writhed in the appropriate ways. She'd said inviting things and given salacious permissions that would send any boy of sixteen into a lustful frenzy.

But not Liam.

It wasn't her fault. She could never have imagined what the laird had in store for her. She liked to play with a little pain, but Hamish Mackenzie didn't stop a game when he'd won, he kept going until his opponents were utterly broken.

Liam had already suspected that Hamish meant to break the girl in front of them. To compel them to watch. He could never have imagined that his father had intended to force his
sons
to break her. To observe with sick, sadistic pleasure as the very lads he'd sired became monsters.

Monsters like himself.

Not until the laird had produced a toy of his own had Liam guessed. An antique, Roman lead-tipped whip with as many leather straps as Medusa had snakes on her head.

Each one of Laird Mackenzie's sons trembled at the sight. Hamish, the laird's namesake bastard. Liam, his heir apparent. And the boy they called “Thorne,” the only son of the laird's second wife. They were all intimately acquainted with that whip. They knew the pain of its kiss and missed the flesh it tore away with each lash.

Indeed, they'd stared at it in wide-eyed incredulity as the laird had run it over the purring whore's back. She'd arched and gasped in anticipation … at first.

Then she'd screamed and cried, struggled and begged, and that was after only two lashes.

Dark eyes glowing with perverse excitement, Hamish stalked to their side of the bed and held the detested whip's pommel out to his sons, who gaped from a regimental line.

“Two lashes for each of ye,” he'd ordered.

“She'll not survive that,” Thorne had argued, his pubescent voice cracking against his fear.

The laird answered his son's impudence with his fist, sending Thorne sprawling to the floor. “Two. Lashes. Each,” he repeated. “I doona care which of ye gives how many, but she'll not be released until she's been whipped six times.”

Laird Hamish Mackenzie, a giant of a man, used to tower over all his sons as he did most men. But on that night, Liam noted that he looked across at his father eye to eye for the first time. Few dared to meet his father's glare, let alone stand against him.

“Ye do it,” the laird ordered with an evil smile. “Or I'll do it
myself
.”

It was disconcerting, to say the least, when the person you hated the most wore your own features. To ken that someday, perhaps in two decades past, those same monstrous dark eyes would stare back at Liam from the mirror, a reminder of the rancid cruelty that ran through his tainted Mackenzie blood. Seeing the paternal challenge on the face of his father, Liam realized that one day, he would no longer have to be afraid of this man. He would have to grow just as large, just as cunning, ruthless, and brutal. But one day, he would challenge the monster with a beast of his own.

The glint in his father's eye had told him that he looked forward to that day.

Seizing upon the opportunity to impress his father, Hamish the younger had reached out for the whip, a familiar cruel anticipation building beneath the apprehension on his less compelling features.

Hamish would do what his father said.

And Tessa wouldn't survive it.

“Nay.” Liam had stepped forward, wrenching the whip out of his father's hand before Hamish could take it. “
I'll
do it.”

The wind screamed over the moors and whipped across Bryneloch Bog with a resonance not dissimilar to the sounds Tessa had made that night as lead-tipped straps flew toward unblemished skin. The confused terror in her sobs had carved what was left of Liam's heart out of his chest until only a raw, cavernous wound was left.

Now, standing over her body, Liam's hand closed around nothing but moist, humid air, his knuckles as white as they had been the night he'd hesitantly gripped the braided handle of the leather whip.

She didn't ken that he was doing her a kindness in the only way he knew how. That by being the one that carried out his father's pitiless orders, he could do his best to mitigate the damage.

How could she have?

Liam wished to God the night had ended there … but the laird's cruelty knew no bounds, and it had been a hellish hour full of unspeakable things before Liam had been able to roughly bundle her into that cloak and help her escape.

To her credit, she'd never stopped fighting; indeed, she'd threatened retribution through a bottomless well of frightened tears.

Those threats had been her fatal mistake.

She hadn't been walking right when she'd limped down the stairs, and some of her rosy, pink skin was starting to color with what would become ugly bruises. That had been Hamish's doing.

Even at his young age, Liam had been strong enough to carry her through the night and across the fields to the village, and he'd offered—God, how he'd tried—to reason with her. Apologize to her. Anything to mitigate the shame staining his insides.

She'd hear none of it, not that he could blame her.

“I'm going to turn the clan against ye, and yer wicked family,” she spat. “See if I doona. I'll tell everyone, show them what ye barbaric demons have done to me. They'll come for ye. For all of ye!”

But she hadn't had the chance. She'd been silenced.

She'd been
murdered.

There was no question in Liam's mind who'd committed the deed.

Evil begat evil, did it not?

There was no escaping it. Even Dougan, his father's youngest bastard, who'd been raised away from the red stones of Ravencroft Keep, had killed a priest when he was just a teen.

Dougan. His father had paid to have his youngest son beaten to death in prison. Somehow, the lad had escaped, reinvented himself, and secretly reached out to Liam whilst simultaneously waging a war for supremacy of the London Underworld.

The sons of Hamish Mackenzie had been
bred
to spill blood. The Fates wove violence into their sinew like a gruesome tapestry, and brewed ruthlessness to pour through their veins.

When the king is dead … long live the king.

Dougan had written those words in lieu of a signature in the letter that bade Liam to do the one thing he'd always fantasized about.

Liam wrapped what remained of Tessa back into the dissolving cloak, and let the gurgling bog become her grave. As he watched the earth slowly claim her, he felt what was left of his hope, of his humanity, sink with her. A coal of hatred replaced it, igniting in his empty chest, fanned into an inferno by the rank and sulfurous breath of the devil himself.

Perhaps fantasy hadn't just become a reality, but a necessity.

As he stood and stared across the emerald landscape interrupted by the jagged Kinross Mountains, Liam thought of his mother and how his father had broken her, both in body and spirit. He thought of his clan, the Mackenzie of Wester Ross, who toiled and cowered beneath their laird's merciless iron fist. He thought of his brothers, both bastard and legitimate, none of whom was strong enough to withstand his father's abuse.

So Liam often took it for them.

But who would be here to protect them now that he was off to war?

Liam had grown into a man, not only tall enough to look his father's evil in the eye. His shoulders were finally wide enough to carry the weight of the numerous lashes that shaped the flesh of his back as though carved from brimstone by Satan's own mallet and chisel. His fists were heavy enough to strike in kind.

He'd reported for his commission in Her Majesty's Regimental Army. He'd used the fire in his blood to commit violent acts in service to the crown. Sanctioned by God and country.

It was his only way out.

But first,
something
had to be done about all of this.

The day had come.

Laird Hamish Mackenzie had wanted to craft a monster out of his son and heir. Someone like
him.
But monsters were mythical, the figments of superstitious imaginations and farcical stories of centuries past. Liam decided he'd be no monster. Nay, he'd do one better.

He'd become a demon.

 

C
HAPTER
O
NE

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