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West Highlands of Scotland
“Ye’ve gone daft, ye have.”
Cara adjusted the basket on her arm. The brisk wind from the sea pulled tendrils from her braid to fly haphazardly into her eyes. She tucked them behind her ear and smiled at Angus. He had only one tooth left in his mouth, and what little hair he had stood on end, waving about in the vicious sea wind. “I’ll be fine, Angus. The best mushrooms in all of Scotland are within walking distance.”
“Ye stay away from that castle, lass. ‘Tis full of ghosts it be. And monsters.” He shook a gnarled fi nger at her, his white, fluffy brows furrowed deep in his wrinkled forehead.
He needn’t remind her. Everyone in clan Mac-Clure knew of MacLeod Castle. For centuries the stories of how the entire MacLeod clan had been massacred had been passed down from generation to generation. Tales of ghosts that roamed the land and castle were also told to frighten young children.
But it did more than scare the bairns. Even adults swore they saw movement in the shadows of Mac-Leod Castle.
No one dared venture near the old ruins for fear of being eaten alive. It didn’t help that strange, furious sounds, almost like howls, could be heard emanating from the ancient fortress in the dead of night.
Cara inhaled deeply and turned her head to look at the castle. It stood dark and foreboding against the ominous clouds coming their way. Grass, bright green in the warming weather, surrounded the stones that protruded from the landscape while the dark blue sea set a fantastic backdrop to the castle. The castle itself had two connected towers that had at one time served as the gatehouse. The gate had burned in the slaughter, leaving nothing left.
The castle wall that was easily twelve feet thick still stood, its stones blackened by the fire, with many of the sawtoothed merlons and crenels broken and crumbling. There were six round towers that stretched to the sky, leaving only one with the ceiling intact.
Cara had wanted to look inside the bailey and castle but had never been brave enough. Her fear of the dark, and the creatures that lurked in it, kept her out of the stronghold.
“They are simply stones turned to rubble,” she said to Angus. “There are no ghosts. Nor monsters.”
Angus moved to stand beside her. “There are monsters, Cara. Heed me words, lass. Ye go near the ruins, we’ll never see ye again.”
“I promise I won’t go in the castle, but I must get near it to get the mushrooms. Sister Abigail needs them for her herbs.”
“Then let the good Sister go herself. She’s not one of us. Ye are, Cara. Ye know the tales of the MacLeods.”
“That’s right, Angus. I do.” She didn’t bother denouncing her MacClure ties. She was a Sinclair, though no one knew it. It was just one of her secrets she kept from the clan that had taken her in when she was a small child wandering the forest.
Nay, she wasn’t a MacClure, but she didn’t correct Angus, one of her only friends. It felt good to belong to something, even if it was just in her mind. Not even the nuns who had raised her made her feel as if she truly belonged. They had loved her, in their own way, but it wasn’t the same thing as a parent’s love.
Not that she blamed any of the MacClures for not opening their homes to her. When the nuns had found her, she had gone days without food. She had been filthy, barefoot, and still so in shock at her parents’ deaths that she refused to speak. She doubted anyone wanted to know that her parents had sacrifi ced themselves to save her, their only child.
Like most Highlanders, the MacClures were a superstitious lot and feared Cara and what had driven her from her home. It was that same superstition that kept everyone away from the ruins of the castle that stood on the cliffs. With one last look at Angus and his furrowed brow, she lifted her skirts and turned to start toward the ancient ruins, ignoring the tingle of apprehension that ran along her spine.
His words were soon drowned out by the breeze and the cries of birds. Cara kept a watchful eye on the sinister clouds moving toward her. If she was lucky, she would be back inside the nunnery before the fi rst drop landed.
She set out, enjoying the spring wind and the call of the razorbills that made their homes in the cliffs. Ever since the spring equinox and her eighteenth year, strange things had begun to happen to her. She would feel a sort of . . . tingling . . . in her fi ngers. The need to touch something overwhelmed her. Yet she feared that sensation, so she kept her hands to herself and tried her best to ignore the need that called to her. Being more different than she already was would not endure her to the MacClures—or the nuns.
The village of the MacClures had been built but a short distance from the old community of MacLeod Castle. After the massacre, it hadn’t taken the other clans long to divide up the lands of the MacLeods, and the MacClures were one of the fi rst.
It was a sad story, and every time she looked at the castle she couldn’t help but wonder what had actually happened. The MacLeods had been a great clan, feared and respected, and had been destroyed in a single night. Yet no one had claimed responsibility for the annihilation.
A shiver ran through her as she recalled the animalistic howls and screams she sometimes heard at night. She told the children at the nunnery it was simply the wind racing across the sea and moving between the ruins. But deep inside, she knew the truth.
There was something alive in the castle.
The closer she got to the old castle, the more the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. She turned her back on the ruins, scolding herself for letting her fear take hold. There was nothing to worry about now. It was daylight. Only the dark of night brought out her true fear.
She briefly closed her eyes and tamped her growing fright down. A gasp escaped her lips when the necklace she always kept hidden warmed against her skin.
She pulled the necklace out of her gown and stared at the vial and the silver knot work that wound around it. The necklace had been her mother’s, and the last thing she had given Cara before she died.
Cara dropped the necklace and pulled in a shaky breath. Her mother had bade her to keep it with her always, protecting the vial. Cara couldn’t think about the night her parents died. It brought too much guilt, too much anger, to know that the people who had loved her, cared for her, had surrendered their lives so she might live.
She glanced down to see the mushrooms she was supposed to pick. No one knew why they grew only along the path to the castle, and few braved the ghosts to harvest them. Some claimed it was magic that brought the mushrooms, and though Cara would never admit it to anyone, she thought it very well could be magic. She had volunteered to go this time because Sister Abigail needed them for little Mary’s fever.
Cara loved helping the nuns with the children. It satisfied a piece of her heart that knew she would never have a child of her own. Her decision to become a nun had been a sound one. Yet there were times she felt . . . incomplete. It always happened when she saw a couple about the village. She wondered what the touch of a man would feel like, what it would be like to bring her own child into the world and look into the loving eyes of her husband.
Stop it, Cara.
Aye, she needed to stop. Keeping her mind on that track would only bring her melancholy for what could never be and rage over her parents’ deaths.
She began to pick the mushrooms and enjoyed the time alone that she rarely got at the nunnery. Her mind wandered, as it often did, while she plucked the shrooms from the ground.
It wasn’t until her basket was nearly full and a large cloud blocked out the sun that she looked up, startled to find she was closer to the ruins than she had planned to go. She had been so intent on the mushrooms and her daydreaming that she hadn’t paid attention to where she had walked. Or how long she had been out.
But now that she was at the castle, she was intrigued by it, forgetting the approaching storm. Even after three hundred years the scars from the battle and fire could still be seen in the stones.
Cara’s heart hurt for everyone who had died. No one had ever discovered why the clan had been killed. Whoever had attacked had spared no one, not even a babe. The entire MacLeod clan had been wiped away in a single night.
She shuddered as if she could hear the screams and the sound of flames surrounding her. It was all in her mind, she knew, but that didn’t stop the terror from taking hold. Her blood turned to ice, and fear clawed at her, begging her to run.
Yet she couldn’t move.
Cara blinked and forced her gaze away from the castle to calm her racing heart as her necklace heated once more. It was so hot that she took it off and held the leather strap by two fingers. She had never feared the necklace before and rarely taken it off since her mother had placed it around her neck. However, there was something decidedly odd about it now, had been since the equinox. It looked the same, but she knew what she had felt.
The wind suddenly picked up and swirled around Cara. She gasped for breath and dropped the basket in an effort to pull the hair out of her eyes.
“Nay!” she screamed when her mother’s necklace was ripped from her hands.
Cara followed the precious link to her parents as it bounced over the rocky landscape to land near the edge of the cliff.
With her heart in her throat and her hands tingling with that strange sensation again, Cara hurried to the necklace as the first fat drop of rain landed on her arm. The wind suddenly dropped in temperature. Cara glanced up to see the storm had grown larger than she had anticipated. With the breeze beginning to howl, she inched closer to the necklace.
A bolt of lightning zigzagged across the sky a heartbeat before the clouds opened up and the downpour soaked her. After several days of constant rain, the ground was already soggy and unable to hold any more water.
Cara got down on her hands and knees, uncaring of the mud that soaked her skirts, and scooted closer to the necklace. Tears coursed down her face.
Please, God, please. Don’t let me lose the necklace.
She should never have taken it off, never have feared the very thing that her mother had kept close to her heart. An image of Cara’s parents flashed in her mind, driving home yet again how lonely she was, how alone in the world she always would be.
“I’m not leaving without the necklace!” she screamed into the wind. Her mother had entrusted the vial to Cara’s care, begging her to keep watch over it. She wouldn’t let her mother down. Not now, not ever.
Lucan MacLeod stared out over the landscape he had loved since the first moment he had realized what it was as a lad. He leaned his forearm against the edge of the narrow window in his chamber in the castle that faced the south and gave him a view of the cliffs and the sea.
He never grew tired of the beauty of the Highlands, the rolling waves of the sea before it crashed into the cliffs. There was something amazing about the smell of the sea mixed with the heather and thistle. This land calmed the raging anger inside him as nothing else could.
It was the Highlands. His Highlands. And he loved it.
What he didn’t love was being trapped, and that’s essentially what had happened ever since he and his brothers had returned to their home over two hundred years ago.
That was their life now. And he hated it.
How many times had Lucan raged at the inability to leave the castle? How many times had he sat in his chamber as the fury over what had happened to him and his brothers consumed him? How many times had he begged God for a way to make it all go away, to free him from the dark torment that threatened his very soul?
But God wasn’t listening. No one was.
They were fated to hide away from the world, watching as time changed everything around them. While they endured. Alone. Forever alone.
He briefly closed his eyes and remembered what it was like before their lives had been ripped apart. It was a lifetime ago that he had stood at that very window watching the clan, hearing the children’s laughter over the roar of the waves. That time seemed like a dream now, a dream that faded with each day that passed, each beat of his heart.
As the son of the laird, Lucan had never wanted for anything. Whether it was food and drink or female company. Women had always sought him out, and he readily accepted them.
He had taken their touch, their smiles, and their bodies for granted. Now all he wanted was to feel a woman beneath him. He had forgotten what it was like to have the soft curves of a woman’s fl esh against him, to have her wet heat surround him as he thrust inside her.
There were times his need had been so great that he had thought of leaving the castle and fi nding a wench. All it took was one look at his brothers and he would remember why they had locked themselves away, why they didn’t allow themselves to be seen.
Lucan and his brothers were dangerous. Not to themselves, but to everyone else. There was great evil out there, and it wanted to use them.
Over two hundred years of confi nement in the castle. But what else was there? They couldn’t be seen, not as they were, the monsters they had become. As the middle son, he had always been there to make peace for his brothers. A rock, solid and steady, to keep them all together, his mother had called him. He didn’t allow himself to think what was becoming of him and his soul.
Fallon had taken the role as heir to the clan seriously. Everything he did, everything he thought about, was for their clan. He hadn’t known what to do with himself when there was no clan, and with the beast constantly hammering for control and no way to reverse what had happened, he had turned to the wine.
As for Quinn, they had nearly lost him to the beast. Lucan snorted. Beast seemed such an understated name. There was no monster inside them. It was a primeval god banished to the pits of Hell. Apodatoo, the god of revenge, was housed within each of the MacLeod brothers. A god so ancient, there were no rec ords or tellings of him. And he was far worse than any beast.
Whenever this despondent mood struck Lucan, as if often did when it rained, he took himself off to his chamber away from his brothers. They had their own worries. They didn’t need to see him grappling with his inner demons. He could wallow in his self-pity the rest of the day if he allowed himself. But he couldn’t. His brothers needed him.
He took a deep breath and had started to turn away from the window when something caught his eye. Lucan’s gaze narrowed as he spotted a breathtaking vision. It was a woman, a very young, shapely woman who had dared to come close enough to the castle that he could see the comeliness of her heart-shaped face. He wished he could see the color of her eyes, but it was enough that he saw her full lips that begged to be kissed and her high cheekbones that turned pink in the wind.
And the thick, dark braid that hung down her back to her waist. What he wouldn’t do to see that hair unbound and falling about her shoulders. He fi sted his hands and he imagined running his fi ngers through the tresses.
Her gown was plain and worn, but that didn’t disguise her small waist and rounded breasts. She moved with the freedom of one who enjoyed being outdoors, of one who reveled in the beauty around her. The gentle curving of her lips as she looked out Excerpted from Dangerous Highlander by Donna Grant.
Copyright © 2010 by Donna Grant.
Published in January 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.