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Master of the Highlands (Highland Knights Book 2) by Sue-Ellen Welfonder, Allie Mackay (1)

Chapter 1

Baldoon Castle … The Isle of Doon, Summer 1331

Exactly one year to the day since his sweet lady wife breathed her last, Iain MacLean’s black temper unleashed the disaster his clan had always dreaded. And now that it’d happened, neither the frantic labors of his kinsmen nor the deceptive beauty of the calm night could undo his terrible act.

The damage was too severe.

His family’s private chapel would soon be little more than soot and ash, its much-praised splendor nothing but a memory.

Guilt stabbing him, Iain ran through the smoke-clogged great hall, two hastily filled water buckets clutched in his hands. Acrid smoke swirled everywhere, tainting the air, and the cold darkness in his heart.

The emptiness.

That, and the shouts of his kinsmen as everyone fought to extinguish the flames of what, until a short while ago, had been the finest private chapel in all the Western Isles.

The pride of the MacLeans, destroyed in a heartbeat.

“Mother of the gods, what have I done?” Iain hurled water on the flames licking at the chapel door, then whirled to refill his buckets – but a slight, tuft-haired graybeard barred his path.

“Tsk, tsk. You’d best hope for divine forgiveness, laddie.” Gerbert, Baldoon’s aged steward thrust his bristly chin. “This night’s sacrilege will cast a pall o’er every man, woman, and child who bear the name MacLean.”

“Nae.” Iain stepped aside as two kinsmen raced by with sloshing buckets. “The saints and the old gods are wise enough to ken the blame is mine alone.”

“Aye, they’ll be pointing fingers at you.” Gerbert swatted at the tendrils of smoke drifting between them.

“They surely will.” Iain knew it.

He just wished he’d been more careful.

Yet the burdens he carried were over-heavy even for his broad shoulders.

How many men could bear having a beloved wife fall prey to a power-hungry uncle, then go on knowing they couldn’t save her, that she’d met her fate on a tidal rock, bound there by her own tresses, and left to drown?

He carried that weight every hour, each waking and sleeping moment. It was breaking him.

“You went too far this time, laddie.”

“I did that when I agreed to marry Lileas. Had I not, she would be alive.”

“Tut.” Gerbert shook his head. “Her uncle was crazed. He still would’ve had done with her – with everyone he saw as a stumbling block on his way to seizing lairdship.”

“We’ll never know.”

That truth damning him, Iain’s chest grew so tight he could hardly breathe. The image of Lileas cold and still, seaweed tangled in her hair, stirred his rage and anguish with all the fierceness of MacLean males.

“You made your own sorry bed.” Gerbert nodded. “Perhaps if it weren’t so cold and empty, you’d no’ be stomping about wound so tight you fail to see where you’re heading.”

Fail.

Iain winced, the word plunging like a dagger into his heart.

He knew more about defeat than all the men of the Isles and Highlands combined.

Wishing he didn’t, he shut his mind to the darkness and thrust his empty buckets at a serving lad, then grabbed two full pails from another. Leaving Gerbert, he sprinted back to the chapel and tossed water through the door arch. When he returned for more water, the steward was waiting.

“It’s been a year.” Gerbert stepped forward, his hand closing on Iain’s arm. “You’re a fine, healthy lad. You need-”

“I ken what I need.”

Peace.

Iain kept his wish to himself and stared at the ancient.

Gerbert tutted again. “Nae, you dinnae. A well-lusted young man without a saucy lass-”

“You’d suggest a woman in my bed on this of all days?” He pulled free of Gerbert’s grasp. “Wenching is the last-” Iain broke off, shook his head.

In another life, he would’ve chuckled at the bent and grizzled steward even mentioning such things as manly needs and bare-bottomed lasses.

But those days were gone.

Now, Iain MacLean, possessor of the loneliest heart in the Highlands, had forgotten how to laugh.

So he did what he could.

He scowled.

“Well?” Gerbert jutted his chin. “Have you nothing to say?”

“Aye, plenty.” Iain leaned toward him. “Light skirts and lust-slaking. What would you know of such things?”

“Enough to ken what ails ye.” Gerbert met his gaze, undaunted. “You need a woman.”

“I need peace.”

There, he’d said it.

The sudden gleam in Gerbert’s eyes made him wish he hadn’t.

“Aye, a fine piece of soft and plump womanly warmth to chase the devils from ye.”

“Dinnae twist my words, old man.”

“Be glad I have words. I speak what everyone else thinks, but willnae say.”

Iain’s brows swooped low. “Is that so?”

“Have I e’er lied to ye?”

“Nae,” Iain admitted. But he stiffened, his rage, loneliness, and frustration hurting him deeper than his bones. Equally vexing, his head was beginning to throb. And he was weary of such agony. Nor did he want sympathy. Not from Baldoon’s cantankerous steward, not from any man.

Nor did he need tupping.

He’d become quite good at stilling his baser urges. He hardly remembered what it was like to have his blood fired, much less feel his loins quicken with need.

Desire and lust.

Gerbert poked him. “Swallowed your tongue, laddie?”

“You already know all I have to say.” Iain took a deep breath, not caring when the acrid air stung his lungs. “One year ago today, Lileas was stranded on the Lady Rock. She drowned there,” he spoke the dread words, each one like ash on his lips. “That, and nothing else, is what ails me.”

And not a one of the countless hours between then and now dimmed his pain, or lessened his guilt.

Be of great heart, his kinsmen were always harping at him. Lileas would want him happy, they’d assure him. He frowned. Even the womenfolk had begun pestering him to take another wife.

Miserable, he pressed the back of his hand to his forehead and glanced heavenward. Sakes, but he was surrounded by souls determined to end him. They couldn’t see the truth if it perched on their noses and winked at them.

Too bad he knew what they didn’t.

Iain MacLean, renowned for his hot temper and master of nothing, didn’t need their well-meant advice.

His life was over.

* * *

About the same time, but across the cold waters of the Hebridean Sea, past the rugged coast of the mainland, and then deep into the hills and glens of Scotland’s heartland, Lady Madeline Drummond of Abercairn Castle stood inside a friend’s cottage and braved her own night of turmoil.

“Let me have it.” Madeline yanked on the ragged cloak her friend, Nella of the Marsh, clutched tight. “The robe is perfect,” she insisted, and gave another tug. “It will suit me well.”

“Nae, my lady.” Nella shook her head. “I cannot let you run about in tatters.” She snatched the mantle and tossed it onto the rough-hewn table. “Nor can you roam the land alone. Your life could be over the moment you step from this cottage. For sure, long before you neared the first shrine.”

Resting a work-reddened hand on the threadbare cloak, Nella looked at her with troubled eyes. “Penitents and holy men do not set aside their manly cravings just because they’re on a pilgrimage.”

“I have no illusions about carnal lust.” She flicked a speck of dust from her sleeve. “You needn’t warn me of the darker side of earthy needs. I am also aware of what drives men to commit black deeds.”

Shivers rippled through her as she glanced at the nearest window, or rather, the opening in the wall that passed for one. Square-cut and deep, its view lent weight to her need to steal across the land cloaked in a postulant’s robes. A thick wood might shelter Nella’s cottage, but she knew what loomed on the far side of the trees – her beloved home and all that had recently transpired there.

“I am also no stranger to men’s greed,” she said, turning back to her friend. “Nor their vanity or constant quest for power.”

“Perhaps not,” Nella owned, still guarding the frayed cloak. “But you have been sheltered, my lady. Ne’er have you-”

“Ne’er have I lived,” Madeline finished for her.

She would have said more, but instead pressed a hand to her breast as some of the color of Nella’s cottage faded before her eyes. The stone-flagged floor seemed to tilt beneath her. Ignoring the dizziness, she tipped her head in the direction of the atrocities she couldn’t bear to dwell upon.

“My dear Nella, I do not fear the journey. It is living that shall prove impossible so long as the perpetrator of yon evil walks this earth.”

Nella’s brow pleated. “Will you not even listen to the dangers?”

“I know them, and their consequences.”

“You think you do. The truth is the world beyond Abercairn is a harsh place. You are an innocent.”

“I am a woman of full years and determined to right a terrible wrong. Indeed, I must.”

Nella sighed. “You should leave that to others.”

“Who?” Madeline stood taller. “My father? He cannot seek vengeance for he is dead. His men are likewise gone, or imprisoned. So tell me who will save Abercairn?”

When her friend couldn’t answer, Madeline squared her shoulders. “I see you agree.”

“I do not.” Nella began to pace. “My heart breaks for you.”

“I know, and I love you for it.”

Nella only threw her an anguished glance.

Seeing it, Madeline fought the thickness in her throat, the ache in her breast. Her friend’s distress spooled through her, pulsing and alive, making her almost physically ill.

She knew why…

It was the curse she carried with her since birth: the ability to feel the emotions of others.

Not always, and never at will, but often enough. They simply rose from some unknown depth in her soul to enfold her in the cares and wants of others as swiftly as mist could blanket the whole of a Highland glen.

A plague, her ‘ability’ revealed the true heart of every suitor who’d ever called for her hand. Men who sought no more than her father’s wealth and the strategic lay of his land.

Swallowing her bitterness, she eyed the pilgrim’s cloak now draped across Nella’s table.

Nella followed her gaze. “A man would have to be sightless not to recognize your beauty and station. Clothing yourself roughly will hardly make a difference.”

“Not roughly,” Madeline amended. “As a postulant.”

“Oh, aye.” Nella rolled her eyes. “I can see you now. The fiery and proud Lady of Abercairn seeking the veil…”

“After I’ve done what I must, I will have no choice but to plead God’s mercy by gifting Him with a life of servitude.”

“And the old gods?” Nella glanced at the window, the dark trees beyond. “They are never far.”

“Think you I’d forget them?” Madeline looked at her friend. “I will beseech them as well. Every monastery and convent has walls carved with ancient pagan deities. Green men, Celtic gods and goddesses too plentiful to name, and who knows what else.

“The nuns will not mind if I implore saints and ancients.” She pressed a hand to her middle, wished her stomach would stop clenching. “Great as my sin will be, they might even encourage me to do so.”

“By all the heathers, lady, if you truly wish to spend your days in a sequestered existence, we can journey to the nearest abbey,” Nella suggested. “You’ve no need to traipse from one holy shrine to the next in search of Silver Leg. The gods will smite him.”

Silver Leg.

Sir Bernhard Logie.

By either name, the mention of Madeline’s nemesis reached her through the evening’s quiet. A cruel hand to snatch away her hopes and dreams and dash them on the charred pyres Logie’s men had erected before Abercairn’s curtain walls.

The crenellated defenses of a stronghold taken only because her father’s worst enemy had stooped to unutterable savageries: the burning of innocents.

One life for each refusal to open the gates.

Compliance came swift, the drawbridge clanking down without delay. But a blameless herdsman still met a fiery end, the ignoble deed repeated until three of Abercairn’s most vulnerable were no more.

When Silver Leg’s men escorted Madeline’s father, straight-backed and unflinching, into the flames, she’d fled, seeking refuge at Nella’s door.

Her only sanctuary in a world gone mad.

A quiet-loving and good woman, Nella secured her peace by allowing others to believe she possessed a ‘gift’ as unique as Madeline’s own, a carefully chosen ability daunting enough to keep most danger at bay.

Few would near the home of a woman rumored to receive visitations from the dead.

And it was Sir Bernhard Logie Madeline wanted dead.

A seasoned knight, he was known as Silver Leg for the silver leg-shaped votive offerings he left at shrines. He did this in gratitude for some obscure saint’s intervention in healing his childhood lameness. Also famous for his lightning changes of allegiance, he gave himself as a devout man.

Madeline knew better.

“He will meet a sad end, my lady.” Nella made the sign against evil. “Worse than what he has done at Abercairn.”

“The gods and every ravening wolf in the land can do what they will with him – after I’ve avenged my own.”

“I cannot dissuade you?”

“Nae.”

Nella held her gaze. “I do not like this.”

“Logie would have been wise not to seize my home.” Madeline opened the cottage’s thick-planked door. “Now he shall be the hunted.”

She drew a breath, her heart pounding as she stared at the smoke rising from blackened woodpiles she couldn’t see but felt to the roots of her soul.

She looked at Nella, her blood icing.

“You know there is a dirk hidden in my right boot,” she said. “I will use it when I find him.”

Nella joined her in the doorway. “Then let us be gone before they search for you.” She glanced at the evening mist already rolling down the hillsides. “Rumors of my witchy ways will only stay them so long.”

A bolt of sorrow, or perhaps regret, shot through Madeline. She glanced at her friend, but the sensation passed swiftly. She saw no indication she’d picked up the emotion from Nella.

It’d come from elsewhere. And it left her chilled.

She brushed at her skirts. “You are right. We should leave now.”

Nella nodded, clearly relieved.

“Here, my lady.” A wayfarer’s cloak already swirling about her own shoulders, Nella handed the other cloak to Madeline.

“Can you feel him?” She helped Madeline adjust the mantle. “If his malice touches you at all, we will have a lead. We won’t waste time heading in a false direction.”

“I feel…” Madeline began, but trailed off as quickly.

She did sense something. But the darkness closing round her heart held too much poignancy to hail from Bernhard Logie. It also came from too great a distance.

“It isn’t him.” She pressed a hand to her breast, her chest aching with a stranger’s loneliness and regret.

A good man’s sorrow. Not the guilt of a murderer.

What she felt was a heart-wrenching pain too deep and intimate to be shared with another.

Not even Nella.

Cold and bleak, the sensation was drenched with yearning for vanished days and what-could-have-beens. The man’s anguish wrung her soul. And squeezed so tight she could hardly breathe until his hold on her began ebbing away, slowly retreating to the far-off corner of the land whence it had come.

“You felt nothing?” Nella’s voice cut through the haze still clouding Madeline’s senses.

“I did, but it was fleeting.” Madeline leaned against the doorjamb, her breath coming in gasps.

Nella peered at her. “You’ve gone pale. Something powerful touched you.”

“I believe so.” She shivered, awed by the depth of the man’s anguish, his fierce longing.

“What was it?”

Madeline hesitated, not wanting to share the stranger’s pain, yet unable to conceal her wonder at the rest.

“Well?” Nella urged again.

“I felt love.”

Nella’s eyes rounded. “Yet you look so stricken.”

“I would say stunned.” Madeline remembered. “It was overwhelming to feel such strong emotion. Heart-pounding, thunderous, shake-the-earth-beneath-your-feet love.”

The kind she’d dreamed of every night for as long as she could remember.

Shattered dreams, the remnants of which she’d best forget.

Murderesses didn’t deserve to know passion, and nuns weren’t allowed.

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