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Lord of the Isles
By Debbie Mazzuca
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Debbie Mazzuca
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe red hatchback came to a grinding stop at the bottom of a desolate gravel road, and the driver flipped off the meter. Wide-eyed, Ali stared at the back of the bald man's head. "You're kidding, right?"
The cabbie shrugged. His eyes meeting hers in the rearview mirror. "I canna' make it up the hill, lass, on account of all the rain we've had. My car's too heavy you ken, but Dunvegan's just up the road a bit," he said in his thick brogue.
Ali leaned forward, peering past the rhythmic swipe of the windshield wipers to the mist-shrouded trees and the faint outline of a stone tower just beyond them, and released a resigned sigh. She shouldn't be surprised. Lately, where she was concerned, if something could go wrong, it did.
"Okay then, what do I owe you?" she asked as she dug her wallet from the bottom of her black leather satchel.
"Two hundred pounds," the older man answered as he opened the door and heaved himself off the front seat.
Ali let out a soft whistle before she followed after him, her low-heeled shoes sinking in the mud. "Can you give me a receipt, please?"
Her agent and best friend, Meg Lawson, had told her the magazine would pay all her expenses and Ali wasn't about to argue. It meant more money to go toward the heftystudent loans she'd accumulated while going to medical school. And the sooner they were paid off the better. It was one of the reasons she'd agreed to take the modeling job in the first place. The money was great, and she'd get a chance to see some of Scotland-at the very least Skye, where the photo shoot was taking place. She just wouldn't think about why she had the time to take the job. If she did, she'd cry, and she'd done enough of that already.
"Aye." He lifted her luggage from the trunk and settled the strap of her carry-on over her shoulder. "I wish I could help with yer bags, lass, but I have a bum knee and wouldn't be much good to you."
"No problem." Ali managed a tight smile as she dragged the heavy suitcase around the back of the car, its wheels getting stuck in the mud. She thanked the man and shoved the receipt he handed her into her bag before heading out on what she hoped would be a short walk to Dunvegan Castle.
The trek was slow going, with the wheels of her suitcase getting stuck in every rut on the narrow, unpaved road. Her mud-splattered black shoes were waterlogged from the puddles she couldn't seem to avoid. In an attempt to save her jeans from ruin, she bent down and rolled them several inches above her ankles. She buttoned the navy blazer she wore over her white blouse-a blouse that had been crisp and clean when she left New York twelve hours earlier, but now was as limp and dirty as she was, or would be, after her little adventure.
Five minutes later she had to admit it wasn't so bad. The air was fragrant with the heady aroma of flowers, the misty rain warm and gentle on her face, and the scenery amazing. Some of the tension eased from her shoulders, and then she heard an ominous rumble, and a bolt of lightning crackled across the gloomy afternoon sky. Within seconds the clouds opened up and the rain came down in buckets. Ali shook her head and laughed. What else could she do-cry?
Rounding a bend in the road, a massive gray stone edifice came into view, and she felt an unexpected spurt of excitement. It looked like something out of a fairy tale with its majestic towers reaching toward the sky. Maybe Meg was right-the change of scenery would do her good.
Gripping the suitcase with two hands, she hauled it onto the pavers of the long driveway. The mud from the wheels on her suitcase splattered her legs, but at least it no longer felt like she was dragging a hundred-pound weight behind her. Hiking up the strap of her carry-on, she dashed toward the massive oak doors.
When she received no response to her first tentative knock she rapped harder, relieved when the door creaked open. She'd begun to think the place was deserted. A tall, elderly man stood framed in the doorway, staring at her, his bright blue eyes wide in his grizzled face, his mouth hanging open.
Ali didn't blame him. She could only imagine what she looked like with her long hair plastered to her head, and mascara no doubt running down her cheeks. "Hi, I'm Ali Graham." She offered her hand, but he didn't take it. Ali didn't think he even noticed-his gaze was riveted on her face.
She glared up at the offending carved overhang from which the water had cascaded to land on her head, then back to the man blocking the entrance. "Uhmm, do you mind if I come in?" She didn't want to be rude, but she was drenched.
With a brief shake of his head the befuddled look left his eyes. "Sorry, lass, please ... please come in." He ushered her into the warmth of the cavernous entrance.
Ali set down her bags on the slate floor and swiped her dripping hair from her face. She pulled her wet clothing from where it stuck to her body and shook it out. "It's really coming down out there," she said in an attempt to make conversation.
"Aye," he murmured, giving her an odd look before closing the door.
The intensity of his stare was beginning to give her the creeps. She wondered if she'd made a mistake coming inside-she was alone and didn't know this man from Adam. Not one to let things slide, Ali asked, "Is something wrong?"
"Sorry, lass, it's just that ... och, you'll have to excuse an old man for his rudeness." He gave her an embarrassed smile. "I'm Duncan Macintosh, Dunvegan's caretaker. Who did you say you were?"
"Ali ... Ali Graham. I have a reservation," she said, searching her bag for the elusive piece of paper. "Somewhere." Ali grimaced and pulled the sodden reservation from her jacket pocket. With a wry grin she handed it to him.
A frown creased his brow, and he looked from her to the paper. "Lass, you've come to the wrong place. It's Dunvegan Hotel you'd be looking for. You passed it a ways back."
She looked at the paper he handed back to her, the writing barely legible, but there it was, plain as day, Dunvegan Hotel. "I don't know how I could have been so stupid. Sorry for bothering you." Ali bent down to retrieve her bags from the puddle they'd left on the floor.
"It's no bother, Miss Graham. I was just about to have a spot of tea. You're welcome to join me if you'd like."
"Please ... call me Ali, and a cup of tea sounds wonderful. Would you have something I could dry off with? I don't want to ... oh, no." She groaned. "Look what I've done." The beautiful wool area rug beneath her feet was now marked with her muddy footprints. "I'm so sorry."
He chuckled. "It's seen worse. Don't fret. I'll get you some towels and then you can come by the fire and warm up. My wife is off on a wee shop, but when she returns with the car I'll take you over to the hotel. How does that sound?"
With her jacket and mud-caked shoes disposed of, Ali followed Duncan. She gazed appreciatively at the wood-paneled room he led her into, noting its decorative ceilings with interest. The antique furniture was tasteful and inviting; muted greens and golds complemented the heavy crimson draperies and ornate cherrywood bookcases that ran the length of the drawing room.
"This place is amazing, Mr. Macintosh. You must love taking care of it."
"Och, now, Duncan will do just fine. And aye, it's a wonderful job I have," he said as he dragged a high-back chair closer to the fire and placed a forest green throw over its delicate embroidered fabric. "Sit down, lass. Dry off a bit and I'll get us our tea."
Ali sank gratefully into the chair, then leaned forward to warm her hands in front of the blazing fire. Its woodsy aroma reminded her of a damp day in fall, even though it was only the beginning of August.
Duncan reentered the room carrying a heavily laden silver tray. "Move that wee table over here, lass."
"That's quite a spread. I hope you didn't go to any trouble on my account, Duncan," she said as she placed the table between them.
The older man settled in the chair beside her. "No trouble at all." He smiled. Looking over the rim of the porcelain teacup, he asked, "What brings you to Skye, Ali?"
"I'm doing a photo shoot for Vogue. It's a magazine."
"I know of it. They requested permission a few months back to take photos here. So, you're a model, then?"
Ali laughed. "Actually, I'm a doctor, fourth-year resident. But my friend is an agent and every once in a while she passes a job my way. Helps pay the bills," she said, biting into a dainty sandwich.
"I thought you residents were a harried lot. Was it not difficult for you to get the time off?"
Ali choked and took a deep swallow of her tea before she answered, "Not really." Anxious to change the subject, she pointed to a tattered piece of silk encased in glass above the fireplace. "What's that?" "Ah, that would be the fairy flag," he said, gazing at the box with reverence.
Intrigued, Ali asked, "Fairy flag?"
"Would you be wanting to hear the tale?"
"I'd love to. If you're sure you have the time."
"I always have time for this story, lass." He made himself comfortable; stretching out his long legs, he crossed them at the ankles.
"A long time ago, according to the legend, the Laird of the MacLeods fell in love with a fairy princess."
"Fairy princess? You mean like in storybooks?"
"Aye. Do you not believe in magic, Ali?"
She didn't. As far as she was concerned only children who had been loved and protected had the luxury to believe in magic and fairy tales. Not someone like her, who had been slapped with the harsh realities of life at an early age. But Duncan didn't need to know that.
"Of course." She smiled. "Now don't keep me in suspense, what happened next?"
He studied her with kind eyes, then went on with his story. "The two wished to wed, but the King of the Fairies refused to grant his permission. Noting his daughter's sorrow, he reluctantly relented, but on with one condition; after a year and a day she must return to the fairy realm.
"Within that year the happy couple were blessed with a bonny baby boy. Their time together went quickly, and too soon the heartbroken princess had no choice but to keep her promise to her father. As she tearfully left her husband and baby at the fairy bridge, she made the laird promise never to leave their son alone, or to allow him to cry. Even in the fairy realm, the sound of his sorrow would cause her great suffering," Duncan explained.
Flames shot up from the fire with a loud crackle and pop, and Duncan leaned over, taking a poker to the logs before continuing. "Their laird was grief stricken, and his clan, wanting to cheer him up, organized a celebration. The maid who had been left to mind the wee one could not resist the music and left the bairn alone while she went to watch the festivities. The baby started to cry, and hearing his cries, the fairy princess came back to comfort him. She wrapped him in her silk and was speaking to him in a lyrical voice when the maid returned. The princess kissed her son good-bye, then vanished.
"Years later, the lad came to his father with the story of his mother's visit, and repeated her instructions to him. If ever the clan was in danger, the laird was to wave the silk to call upon the fairies and their help. But the magic could only be summoned three times, and-"
Curiosity getting the better of her, Ali interrupted. "Has it ... did the MacLeods ever raise the flag?"
"Aye, they did, back in 1570. The MacDonalds, an enemy to the MacLeods, attacked them. Severely outnumbered, the MacLeod unfurled the flag and its fairy magic. To this day no one knows for certain what happened, but the MacDonalds retreated. Some say it's because the fairies made the MacLeod's army swell, but others say something happened to the MacDonald's wife and daughter that day, drawing him from the field, leaving his army in disarray."
"Well, Duncan, that story alone was worth getting soaked for. Thank you."
"My pleasure." The older man glanced at her and seemed slightly embarrassed. "I don't know if you noticed, but I was a wee bit disconcerted when you first arrived."
Ali grinned. "Now that you mention it, I did."
Color bloomed in the man's heavily lined cheeks. "I should have said something. Come, I'll show you the reason."
Ali padded barefoot across the thick oriental carpet to the far end of the room where Duncan stood in front of a large gilt-framed portrait. He stepped aside and her jaw dropped. At first glance it was as though Ali stood in front of a mirror. The woman in the painting could have been her.
"That would be Brianna MacLeod, wife to Rory. He was laird in the latter part of the sixteenth century. The resemblance is uncanny, don't you think?"
"I do," she murmured, touching her wavy and still wet platinum blond hair. The woman in the portrait's long spiral curls were a burnished gold and caressed her delicate heart-shaped face. Her eyes were coffee colored, whereas Ali's were blue, but other than that, they could have been twins.
The man chuckled at her expression before turning back to the portrait. "She was a MacDonald. Their marriage brought an end to the families' long-standing feud, but they didn't have many years together before she died in childbirth."
"How sad," Ali said, drawn to the woman in the portrait. Although Brianna MacLeod radiated happiness in the painting, an almost palpable sense of sadness washed over Ali, and she took an unconscious step backward. She looked at Duncan to see if he felt the same thing, but he'd already moved away.
"And this is Rory, her husband." Duncan pointed proudly to the portrait on the other side of the large picture window.
For one moment, just as she turned away from Brianna's portrait, Ali sensed the coffee-colored eyes following her. She shook off the feeling. Dismissing the notion out of hand, she joined Duncan in front of the second portrait. Her uneasiness faded the instant she looked at the man in the painting. She sucked in an appreciative breath. Now that was a highland hunk.
Rory MacLeod was breathtaking. Wavy black hair ac8 centuated high, chiseled cheekbones and a firm jaw. The sensual curve of his full mouth hinted at a man who laughed often. His green eyes glittered with a penetrating intelligence as he looked down his straight and aristocratic nose at her. He exuded power and strength. A man's man-no metrosexual there.
A sudden draft swirled around her bare feet and ankles. The cold air enveloped her in its icy embrace, causing goose bumps to form beneath her skin. Ali tried to contain the teeth-chattering shiver by wrapping her arms around herself.
"Och, and look at you, freezing in those wet clothes while I blather on. Come, I'll set you up in one of the rooms where you can change."
Ali nodded, unable to tear her gaze from Rory MacLeod, mesmerized by the powerful warrior he portrayed. She jumped when Duncan patted her shoulder. "Oh ... sorry." With one last look at her handsome highlander, she followed the caretaker from the room.
"I'm going to give you a special treat." Duncan winked at her as he unhooked the red velvet rope that blocked the polished wooden staircase. "But you must promise never to tell."
"I promise." She smiled.
As they made their way up the curved staircase, Duncan relayed more of the MacLeod family's history, but Ali barely heard him, her mind filled with images of Rory and Brianna. She thought if she closed her eyes she would see them, young and in love, roaming the halls of Dunvegan Castle. Touching the wood-paneled walls, running her hand along the thick balustrade, Ali felt close to them, a part of their history. Hundreds of years ago they had walked these stairs; laid a hand on the same railing and walls.
Ali snorted, shaking her head at her whimsical musings. Totally out of character for her, she blamed it on jet lag.
"Here you go." Duncan opened the door with a flourish. "The laird's chambers."
Ali quirked a brow. "Are you sure, Duncan? I don't want to get you in trouble."
"Don't give it another thought. The present day laird doesn't sleep here, but Rory MacLeod once did. And after my behavior earlier, I thought it the least I can do."
"Please." Ali shook her head with a smile. "It was no big deal, but I'm not going to refuse. This is amazing," she said, stepping into the bedroom.
Duncan set her suitcase beside the four-poster bed. "It's chilly in here," he said as he crouched beside the stone fireplace across from the bed. "I'll get a fire going and leave you to freshen up. You can take a wee lie-down if you'd like, Ali. You're probably tired from your long journey. Afterwards you can join my wife and me for supper and then I'll take you over to the hotel, if you'd like."
Excerpted from Lord of the Isles by Debbie Mazzuca Copyright © 2010 by Debbie Mazzuca. Excerpted by permission.
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