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Authors: Sophie Renwick

Yuletide Enchantment

BOOK: Yuletide Enchantment
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

YULETIDE ENCHANTMENT

An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author

publishing history

“Yuletide Enchantment” appeared in the anthology
A Highlander Christmas
.

Signet Eclipse edition / November 2009

InterMix eBook edition / December 2013

 

Copyright © 2009 by Sophie Renwick.

 

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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-14157-5

 

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Version_1

Table of Contents
 
 

Yuletide Enchantment

Sophie Renwick

INTERMIX BOOKS, NEW YORK

Chapter One
DECEMBER 20, 1869 THE HIGHLANDS OF SCOTLAND
 
 
 
Isobel had been six the first time she had seen him. It had been midsummer’s day, and the Scottish air had been warm and scented with wildflowers and heather. He was drinking the cool, clear waters from a loch and didn’t notice her watching him. She had stood still for long minutes, mesmerized by the magical aura she sensed around him. The next time was when she was thirteen, the day of her mother’s funeral. He had stood atop the hill and watched them through the thick mist that hovered over the church graveyard. She had shielded her eyes in order to see him better. Despite the distance separating them, she somehow felt that they were connected in a strange, otherworldly way. She had felt solace then, during that dark hour. Her heart was less heavy, her pain more tolerable.
The next time, she was sixteen, racing along on her new mount, her hair whipping wildly behind her as she ran the mare through the grouse and heather while reveling in her newfound freedom. He had followed her path, and when the mare’s hoof had stumbled over a rock and thrown her to the ground, she had opened her eyes to see his fuzzy outline towering above her.
It had been five years since that day she’d been tossed from her horse and struck her head on an old stone cairn. Years since she had seen him. Yet she hadn’t wondered if he still resided near MacDonald Hall, for she knew he did. She’d felt him still, that mystical connection that was so strange, yet familiar.
Today he was standing on a hilltop, the mist combining with snow as it fell from the clouds, blanketing the Highlands. He was big, broad, a majestic lord looking over his lands. The power and grace he exuded mesmerized her.
The scraping of wood against leather drew her gaze away from the rugged hilltop, and the male that stood atop it. “What are you doing, Ewan?” she demanded of her brother as he pulled the bow from his leather holder.
“Shh, Isobel, dona make a sound,” he murmured as he deftly maneuvered his gelding to the left. “What a prize he’ll be mounted above the hearth, and just in time for Christmas, too.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” she snapped, struggling to pull the bag of arrows from her brother’s shoulder.
“Leave off,” he grumbled. “I want him for Father. And I want him with a big tartan bow.”
Panic suddenly seized her, and she struggled harder to grip the arrows from her brother. “You canna kill him,” she cried, nearly climbing atop her brother’s horse. “Ewan, you can’t.”
“ ’Tis a sign,” Alistair Douglas said as he reined his mount in beside her. “The White Hart doesna’ just appear to all for nae reason.”
“Look at the arrogance of him,” Ewan said, awe in his voice. “Just standing there looking down on us as if he were lord of these lands, and not Father.”
Alistair’s gloved hand rested over the bow, his gaze boring into Ewan. “You know the story of the beast, laddie—the White Hart is sacred in these parts. He’s a sign that the Otherworld is close by. ’Tis an omen we see. Leave it be, Master MacDonald, and find sport elsewhere.”
“You’ve gone daft.” Ewan glanced at the old gamekeeper as if he were a lunatic escaped from an asylum. “You might believe in those ancient tales of Annwyn and its creatures, but I no longer believe in faeries.”
“Bite yer tongue, laddie,” Alistair hissed, his blue eyes widening in alarm as he looked sharply around them. “The woods ’ave eyes an ears, and the Sidhe will nae have qualms about provin’ ye wrong.”
“That white stag is going to be stuffed and mounted at MacDonald Hall regardless of faeries and Sidhe and whatever other creatures may come to stop me. Let them come,” Ewan said with a smile. “It’ll make the hunt that much more interesting. Look at him, he’s all but challenging me to come after him.”
“It’s Christmas,” Isobel reminded him. “Must you take delight in bloodshed?”
“It’s not Christmas for another five days, Isobel,” her brother reminded her. “Just enough time for old MacKenzie to get him mounted.”
“We’re supposed to be gathering greenery and searching for the Yule log, not hunting. Put your bow and arrows away.”
“By all means continue searching for the greenery to decorate the hearth, and the log to warm our fire, but let me worry about the hart.”
“Why do you wish to kill him?” Isobel asked, exasperated with her brother. “Why canna you let him live a long and hearty life?”
“Because he is the ultimate prize. A White Hart is more than a stag, Isobel. He is a creature of power and magic. A rarity. A true hunter cannot resist such a beast. And this one, with his proud bearing, will be immensely satisfying to run to ground.”
“You trespass on hallowed ground, Master MacDonald. This is Sidhe ground. The stag is a warning to ye.”
“Warning acknowledged,” Ewan said with a smile. “Now it is time to hunt.”
“You’re not looking to go after that, are you?” the Earl of St. Clair shouted as he came riding up beside them. “At least not with arrows.”
Ewan glanced at the earl who had appeared so suddenly. By the look of his lordship’s horse, he had ridden fast and hard. “What brings you to these parts, my lord?” Ewan asked suspiciously.
“Not to poach on MacDonald lands, I assure you,” the earl replied with characteristic dryness. His gaze then turned to her. “Good day, Miss MacDonald. You are looking very lovely this afternoon. The Scottish air becomes you.”
Isobel felt herself bristling under the earl’s blatant stare and the little jab she perceived. She had spent the better part of the year in England with her father and brothers knowing the earl never left his family seat in the Highlands. She had effectively avoided him, until now. “Good day to you, my lord.”
“It is good to have you and your family back at MacDonald Hall.”
“Indeed, but for how long it will be I canna say. I have grown rather fond of London, and I daresay I would be leaving behind a good many friends.”
His gray gaze narrowed. “I am sure, Miss MacDonald, that here you might find any number of friends to replace those in London.”
He was too far from home to be out on a casual jaunt, Isobel thought as she watched a muscle work in his jaw. She could well imagine what sort of business had made the reclusive earl leave his manor, which was on the far side of the hill and a treacherous ride in this weather.
“Ah, St. Clair.” Her eldest brother, Stuart, greeted the earl as he rode up. “Father said you had arrived to welcome us back to the district. I thought, or rather hoped, that I might find you here.”
St. Clair regarded her brother with a hooded gaze. “It appears that I have arrived just in time. Your brother has an eye for this hart and is bent on seeing it stuffed and mounted.”
“I’ve hunted this beast since I was sixteen, and he has always evaded me,” Ewan said with more than a bit of petulance. “This time he won’t.”
Isobel tried once more to tug on the leather strap, but Ewan nudged his horse forward, and out of her grasp. “Go on with Alistair,” Ewan told her. “Take the sleigh and load it with greenery. I’ll meet you back at the hall for a cup of wassail.”
With a nudge of his boots, Ewan sent his mount racing toward the hill where the stag stood motionless. Stuart and St. Clair went racing after him, but it wasn’t clear to Isobel if the earl was actually helping or hindering her brother.
“What now?” she asked the old retainer as she watched Ewan and Stuart maneuver their mounts among the stone remnants of what had once been a glorious medieval castle.
“We leave.”
Alistair turned his huge bay around and cantered to the sleigh where Isobel’s sister-i n-l aw, Fiona, and her lady’s companion awaited them.
“Isobel,” Fiona called, waving her over. “It is a man’s pastime, the hunt. Pay it no heed. Come, you can ride with me, and Mr. Douglas can bring your horse back.”
No heed, indeed. Glancing over her shoulder, she watched the stag. Defiantly he stood his ground at the summit awaiting her brothers and the earl.
“Run it to ground!” she heard Stuart call to Ewan. “It’s in your sights, man!”
Ewan pulled his bay to a stop and reached behind his back for an arrow. The stag charged, running down the steep incline, the damp earth and freshly fallen snow flying up behind its hooves. Instead of fleeing and running for the safety of the forest, it charged, antlers down, straight for Ewan.
BOOK: Yuletide Enchantment
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