1748 – Laggan, Scotland
Crisp apples bobbed in the aged whiskey barrel. Fenella leaned forward and trained her eye on the green one with trace scratches embedded in the skin. The outcome of her future tossed in the water. Her destiny.
Tugging at her plaited braid, she studied the barrel further. Certainty set in her jaw for the moments of frenzy to follow.
“The others are on their way. Mighty frigid out.” Marcus brushed flecks of spruce needles from his shoulders and settled beside her. “You’ll get it.”
His moss green and black tartan dotted with drops of rain, a sight she ached for since the edict to outlaw them.
“Are ye not in danger sporting that?” Her fingers traced the plaids swung over his outstretched shoulders.
A battle-weary look etched lines on his youthful face, telling her tonight he dinna care. A moment of defiance while celebrating. “Aye. But sometimes a man needs a moment to remind himself who is he is.”
Crimson faces invaded the barn, bearing the scent of whiskey and spruce. Mud splattered on the floor as families rushed in. Carved glowing turnips in hand, they settled them on the stoop.
Dougal marched to the center. A warrior in his day. Now, the only war he would partake in was wearing a tartan in secret. The British needn’t know this display of bravery.
“Now for apple dookin.” Dougal scurried around, grabbing maidens’ arms with their faces flushed. “Lasses on one side. Men, on the other. Ye know the rules.”
And they did. A ritual Fenella had witnessed year after year. Except the year of Culloden. The harvest celebration forgotten in the blood-splayed fields as men fought for their land, their freedom.
“Each lass is after her lad’s apple. One bite and he’s your true love. Two bites, aye, then you will fall in love, but it won’t end well for either of ye. Three bites – well, let’s hope we don’t have any of those.” A chuckle bellowed from Dougal’s barreled chest.
Hands intertwined in front of her tan striped dress, the color of goldenrod in the sun. To her mother’s dismay, she’d loosened her stays this morning. Every bit of movement needed for dookin.
Five lasses brushed shoulders with her; some faces eager, others terrified. Fenella spied Marcus across the barn, dark hair falling around his face. A warrior before his time. She’d win his apple. A wink, and a smirk settled over his lips. She glanced away before hers replied with a smile.
“Now is the time to meet your destiny. May you lasses find love today.” Dougal shifted on his feet, and Fenella inched toward the barrel. Six apples danced on the surface. “Go.”
Each lass knelt and thrust her head into the icy water. Hands behind her back, Fenella crashed her head into Margot’s. A curse rolled on her tongue. She held it back.
Plunging into the water, she spied the apple across the way. Praised be for her great height. She towered forward and lunged. Lips inches from the green globe. Just out of reach. She forced her jaw closed and crept forward. Margot’s teeth clacked and missed beside her.
Open and ready to sink into the fruit. An elbow met her shoulder, and she pitched face-first into the barrel.
No, this couldn’t be. Murky water clouded her vision.
As she surfaced, she eyed the apple. Bit again. Water flooded her mouth. Aye, she’d done it now.
Miss two. Destined for failure.
Her fingers trembled against each other.
Another bite and her teeth sank into his apple. Head up; the tangy juice dribbled down her chin. She darn’t glance at the crowd, a burning sensation filled her insides in opposition to her dripping clothes.
Marcus tipped her chin up, the apple still clenched in her teeth. “Ye got it.”
Her mouth agape as he removed the apple. Nothing could make up for three bites. Were they destined for destruction?
Laughter and taunts chorused around her as couples inspected their prizes. Lads and lassies rejoicing. They engulfed her until she could bear it no longer. She rushed through the open door, leaving it all behind. Pinpricks of cold punched her gut through her soaked dress and stays. A strong, familiar hand wrapped around her wrist.
“Would ye stop, Lass?” Marcus’ face still held the smirk from earlier.
Dinna he know what this meant? With a shrug, she freed her arm.
She scrambled over General Wade’s road, the stones beneath slick with recent rain and the oncoming frost of this October evening. Fog rolled through the spruce forest just beyond, creating a canopy of secrets, but what it contained was home.
Footsteps crashed behind her until they overtook her at the edge of the forest. She’d never outrun him.
“Lass, would ye stop before ye freeze yourself to death?” Marcus flung a shawl of tartan over her.
The musky scent of him clung to every inch. She drank it in. A moment with him, before she must abandon him forever. She refused to be the one to bring him destruction.
“Ye saw how many tries it took.” Her head tipped in defiance. “Three. Ye know what that means.”
“I care not for that silly game, Lass.” He drew her closer, and her shivering frame welcomed the heat from his arms.
“Aye, ye may not, but they do.” Her eyes nodded toward the barn. “They won’t rest until they see us turn on each other.” That’s how it worked, aye? She’d never seen anyone take three bites.
“Then come with me.” The four simple words hung in the mist between them. Warmth from him and the frigid air combated around her on an invisible battlefield.
“Ye canna mean that.”
He tugged her closer. “Aye, but I do.”
“And where will ye be taking me?”
“Adventures high and low.”
The space between them closed, and his lips found hers. A comfort. A steady presence. Their destiny lay far beyond what the apples foretold.
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