Read an Excerpt
He'd never find her here.
It was twilight when Maggie Claren finally wound her way to the end of the gravel and dirt road and parked in front of the old cabin. Madden County, North Carolina. It was impossible to believe that anyone lived in such a remote area. On purpose.
From the looks of the place, no one had been living here for quite some time. The cabin was part stone, part log over log, put together the way she imagined Abe Lincoln's folks had probably built theirs. If she'd been standing in Kentucky instead of the Smokey Mountains, she could easily be convinced they'd built this one personally.
Maggie forced her fingers to release their death grip on the steering wheel. She rolled her shoulders, wincing at the pinches of pain. She didn't care what the place looked like. It was hers. She could be safe here. She had to be.
The deed had been rerecorded over the years, but at least part of the cabin and all of the land was the original Claren property as it was first claimed almost three centuries ago. She could not fathom it.
How many of her ancestors had stood on this spot, walked this land, stepped up on that porch?
Until recently Maggie had never given much thought to her family tree. Aunt Mathilda hadn't spoken of it, most likely because she didn't care. They'd both been too busy living the present to dwell on the past. As Mathilda had been right up until her death at age eighty, Maggie was happy, well-adjusted and excited about the vast opportunities life presented to her. That had always been more than enough.
Had been. One of those opportunities had, unfortunately, been Judd. Suddenly the opportunity to delve into the past was a tantalizing proposition.
She looked upward. "Thank you Great-Uncle Lachlan, whoever you are. Were. You saved my life."
She eyed her timely inheritance again. Old Judge Nash had not been a fount of information, but now she understood why he'd spared the extra minute to explain where she could find a room for the night. She hadn't thought to ask about basic matters like electricity and running water.
She looked down at the key in her hand. Who was she fooling? There was a good reason Judd would never think to look for her here. Ellie Mae Clampett she was not.
She seriously debated tracking down that motel room and tackling this tomorrow. Then she thought of Judd, who was probably taking her condo apart right this minute, looking for any clue to her whereabouts. Well, he wouldn't find any. Judge Nash's letter telling her of her recent windfall could not have arrived at a more perfect moment. Judd knew nothing about it and since the letter was in her purse, he never would.
He'd certainly never picture her living in a run-down shack and driving a rusted out hull of a car. She smiled a bit smugly at her vehicle. Little had she known just how well the junker would suit her new life.
She slid out of the car, groaned as she stretched, then marched up the steps of the creaking front porch. She slid the key Judge Nash had given her into the lock, then shoved at the warped door until it opened enough for her to squeeze inside. She had no idea what she expected.
It definitely was not a six-foot-plus Scotsman wearing a kilt. And nothing else.
Her mouth dropped open. Too stunned to do more than blink, she simply stared. The man was a giant. His long legs resembled roughly hewn oak trees, looking oddly all the more masculine for the skirt he was wearing. Her gaze moved upward when he crossed formidable arms over an even more formidable chest and glared at her. His face was full of magnificent angles, accentuated by dark slashes of eyebrows and sculpted lips that, for all their beauty, looked as cold and hard as the rest of him. His hair was long, black, and as wild as the light in his fierce gray eyes.
He took a menacing step forward. "I dinna ken who ye be lassie, but I'll thank you to get the hell off my land."
He was entirely overwhelming and more than a little terrifying. None of which explained why a bubble of semi-hysterical laughter emerged through her lips. She held up her hand. "I have a key," she said, as if that would explain everything. "Lachlan Claren left the cabin to me."
The man's face twisted in rage and he stormed across the room toward her, dust rising from the floorboards with each thundering footstep. "This is MacKinnon land," he roared. "And MacKinnon land it will stay! Auld Lachlan dinna own this place, nor lass, do you. Now be gone!"
By all rights she should be running screaming down the mountain. Perhaps it was because less than a week ago she'd had a loaded gun held to her head and had spent several terrifying minutes believing she was going to die. Maybe you only really believed you were going to die once.
She stepped back and said, "I don't know who you are or how you got in here, but this is my cabin now. I have the deed to prove it. If you have a problem with that then I suggest you take it up with Judge Nash. In the meantime, it's late and I'm tired. When I come back, I expect you to be gone."
She turned and walked out to her car where she grabbed her duffel bag and the can of pepper spray she'd tucked into the glove compartment. She glanced at the rest of her inheritance, which occupied almost the entire back of the car. Later, she decided. She'd unload Lachlan's trunk tomorrow, though she had no idea how she was going to get the thing inside. She cast a look toward the cabin, then shook her head. She doubted Braveheart in there would be willing to play bellboy.
She could hear him swearing and stomping about as she walked back to the porch. Her moment of bravado wore off and she paused at the foot of the stairs. She read newspapers, she watched CNN. She'd heard of wild loonies living in the woods doing horrible things to unsuspecting campers. She looked back at her car, then down at the can of pepper spray in her hands. This was stupid. Going back into that house armed with only a can of chemical spray was asking for trouble. God knows, she'd had enough of that.
She turned back to her car. The motel it would be after all. She'd confront her houseguest again in the morning, with the police in tow.
She grabbed the door handle, then stilled. It was quiet. Suddenly, completely silent. No swearing, no stomping. And she could have sworn she heard the faint echo of bagpipes echoing through the trees. She shook her head, then warily turned around.
She half expected to hear a bloodcurdling war cry as Braveheart launched himself from the door or the roof. Maybe he was getting a rifle or flaming arrow launcher. She could easily picture him wielding a battle-ax.
But she didn't hear anything. After all the racket, the total lack of it was odd. More than odd, it was curious. From where she stood, she peered at the two windows fronting the cabin but they were too dingy to see beyond. Still, there were no curtains and it wasn't dark enough yet for a man to stand on the other side without being seen. Find the motel and come back tomorrow with that nice deputy sheriff, she told herself.
She opened the door of her car, then froze. No curtains in the windows? There had been curtains. Lacy ones. She closed her eyes and pictured the inside of the cabin as she'd seen it the instant before he'd filled the room. The furniture had been basic. But she definitely remembered lace curtains. Her neck prickled and she spun around. No curtains. Had she imagined them?
She crossed the clearing. "Hello," she called out. "It's the owner here." She half-ducked on the off chance she'd provoked him to blow her head off. Still nothing. She climbed the steps, almost certain that she was alone.
She stepped inside and was immediately proven right. The cabin was one open room comprising both living and dining area. A large stone fireplace and hearth framed one end, old oak cabinets were mounted above a scarred countertop that ran along the back wall of the cabin. There was a window over the sink and an old fashioned refrigerator in the corner.
There were no interior walls, only a curtain that could be drawn across a corner at the opposite end where a claw foot tub and an antique toilet crowded each other in the limited space. A small loft ran across the narrow end above the bathroom area, but that was completely visible from below . . . and completely empty.
A quick glance showed there was no back door and the one rear window obviously had not been touched in decades.
But it wasn't the mystery of where her kilt-clad madman had disappeared to that had the room tilting and her peripheral vision growing narrow. It was the fact that not only had he disappeared, he'd somehow managed to make an entire cabin full of furniture and belongings disappear right along with him. What did remain was covered in a thick layer of dust. Including the rustic floorboards.
Floorboards that showed only one set of footprints.
Maggie capped off her day of surprises by adding another personal first. She fainted.