Master of the Highlandsby Sue-Ellen Welfonder
As punishment for burning his family chapel on the anniversary of his wife's death, Scottish knight Iain Maclean must go on a pilgrimage to an obscure monastery on the far side of Scotland. On his way, he meets Lady Madeline Drummond and becomes her protector. Original. See more details below
As punishment for burning his family chapel on the anniversary of his wife's death, Scottish knight Iain Maclean must go on a pilgrimage to an obscure monastery on the far side of Scotland. On his way, he meets Lady Madeline Drummond and becomes her protector. Original.
Romantic Times Book Club
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Master of the Highland
By Sue-Ellen Welfonder
Warner ForeverCopyright © 2003 Sue-Ellen Welfonder
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBaldoon Castle, The Isle of Doon,
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 e'er dreaded, and neither the frantic labors of his kinsmen nor the deceptive beauty of the unusually calm night could undo his calamitous act.
The damage was too severe.
His family's private chapel would soon be little more than soot and ash, its much-praised splendor naught but a memory.
Guilt bitter on his tongue, Iain scanned the smokeclogged great hall for a hapless soul to vent his wrath upon, but his clansmen dashed right past him, hastily filled water buckets clutched in their hands, each one paying him scant, if any, heed.
Iain's brows snapped together. He couldn't hasten anywhere. Fury and disbelief twisted through him, turning his legs to lead and rooting him to the spot even as all his darker emotions coiled into a cold knot of self-contempt deep in his gut.
Scarce more than a grim-faced shadow of the carefree man he'd once been, he raked shaking fingers through his soot-streaked hair and mentally prepared himself to glower at any poor soul foolhardy enough to glance his way.
Eager to reward any such effrontery with a blaze-eyed glare hot enough to wipe the disapproving mien off a gawker's face, he was sadly impotent against the fine Hebridean gloaming that sought to mock him by spilling its fair light through the hall's high-set window slits.
The wide-splayed recesses glowed with a soft, luminous gold, wholly uncaring of the torment whirling inside him ... or the blasphemy he'd committed.
Iain blew out an agitated breath. He preferred stormy, cloud-chased skies, knew well the perfidy, the seductive illusion, of a placid-seeming summer's eve.
And naught spoiled the deception of this one save the acrid smoke tainting the air and the cold darkness in his own heart.
That, and the harried shouts of his kinsmen as they fought to extinguish the flames of what, until a short while ago, had been the finest oratory in all the Western Isles.
The pride of the MacLeans ... destroyed in a heartbeat.
"Tsk, tsk, tsk." A particularly annoying voice pierced the din. "You'd best hope for divine forgiveness, laddie." Gerbert, Baldoon's seneschal since time beyond mind, thrust his bristly chin forward, clearly bent on pushing Iain past the bounds of endurance. "This night's sacrilege will cast a pall o'er every man, woman, and child who bear the name MacLean."
Making no attempt to hide his perturbation, Iain fixed his darkest look on the scrap of a graybeard who'd dared disrupt his brooding. "If the saints are as all-seeing as a certain white-haired goat e'er claims, they'll be wise enough to ken I alone shoulder the blame."
Gerbert matched Iain's glare, his rheumy blue eyes narrowed in unrepentant ire.
"Aye, the good Lord will be having His finger on you," he prophesied, swatting a knobby-knuckled hand at the thick tendrils of smoke drifting between them.
"His finger?" Iain scoffed, his vexation mounting. "Some would say He's burdened me with more than a finger."
Try having your wife fall prey to a power-hungry uncle, then live with knowing you couldn't save her, that she met her fate on a tidal rock, tied fast by her own tresses, and left to drown.
Iain's chest grew so tight he could scarce breathe. Ire pounded through him, the image of Lileas cold and still, seaweed entangled in her unbound hair, stirring his rage with all the fierce intensity MacLean males were said to experience upon recognizing their one true soul mate. A ridiculous notion if ever there was one.
The only wildly intense emotions he'd e'er experienced were those borne of vexation, not mindless passion.
His blood heating, he squared his shoulders and stepped closer to the seneschal, hoping his formidable height and hard-trained body would intimidate the clacktongued elder, but the ploy failed.
The belligerent old rotter continued to bore holes in him with a decidedly pointed stare.
Iain drew a series of long, deep breaths until the tension beneath his ribs began to lessen. "Aye," he conceded at length, raising his voice to ensure the seneschal understood his every word. "Would the pearly-winged saints peer inside me this very moment, they'd find more than a finger weighing heavy on my heart."
"I've known you since before you could say your name, laddie." Gerbert's scrawny chest swelled with importance. "'Tis you, and you alone, heaping burdens on yourself."
Sheer weariness kept Iain from giving a derisive snort. "Think you?" he asked instead, the cool smoothness of his tone enough to send a less courageous man sprinting for shelter.
Gerbert nodded, his silence speaking worlds.
"And what else do you think?" Iain pressed, full aware he'd regret asking. The graybeard's unnerving perception could cut to the quick.
"What I know is that you've made your own sorry bed, and"-Gerbert poked at Iain's chest with a you'd-bestlisten-to-me finger-"mayhap if it weren't such a cold and empty bed, you'd not be stomping about wound so tight you fail to see where you're heading."
Iain cringed, the very word plunging like an expertly wielded knife straight into his heart.
He knew more about failing than all the men of the Isles and Highlands combined.
"A lass in my bed on this of all days? Have you gone addled?" He shoved Gerbert's thrusting finger from his ribs. "Wenching is the last-" he broke off, indignation closing his throat.
In another life, he would have laughed aloud at the absurdity of the thin-shouldered seneschal even mentioning such things as manly needs and bare-bottomed lasses.
But in this life, Iain MacLean, possessor of the loneliest heart in the Hebrides, had forgotten how to laugh. So he did what he could. He scowled. "Light skirts and lustslaking." Leaning forward, he narrowed his eyes at the old goat. "What would you know of such pursuits?"
"Enough to ken what ails the likes o' you." Gerbert's face scrunched into an odd mixture of pity and reproach.
Iain stiffened, a vein in his temple beginning to throb. He wanted nary a shred of sympathy. Not from Baldoon's cantankerous seneschal, not from any man.
Nor did he need censure.
Or a lass in his bed.
Most especially not a lass in his bed.
In the year since his wife's passing, he'd become quite adept at stilling his baser urges. He scarce remembered what it was like to have his blood fired, much less feel his loins quicken with need.
He took a deep breath, wincing when the acrid air stung his lungs. "One year ago today, Lileas was stranded on the Lady Rock. She drowned there," he elaborated, carefully enunciating each word. "That, and naught else, is what ails me."
And not a one of the countless hours stretching between then and now had dimmed his pain ... or lessened his guilt.
Be of great heart, his kinsmen were e'er harping at him. Move on with his life, they'd advise. He drew his brows together in a black frown. Of late, even the womenfolk had begun pestering him to take another wife.
Defeat clawing at him, he pressed the back of his hand to his forehead and glanced heavenward. Saints, but he was surrounded by witless, persistent fools, the lot of them unable to see the truth if it perched on their noses and winked at them.
Closing his eyes, he pinched the bridge of his own nose and repressed the urge to throw back his head and howl with cynical laughter.
He knew what his well-meaning clansmen neglected to comprehend.
Iain MacLean, renowned for his hot temper and master of naught, didn't have a life to get on with.
About the same time, but across the great sweep of the Hebridean Sea, past the rugged coast of the mainland, then deep into the heather hills and green glens of Scotland's heartland, Lady Madeline Drummond of Abercairn Castle stood within the hospitable walls of a friend's thatched cottage and braved her own night of turmoil.
The raw edge of her temper spurring her to desperation, she yanked hard on the worn cloth of the voluminous black cloak her common-born friend, Nella of the Marsh, clutched tight against her generous bosom.
"The robe is perfect," Madeline insisted, and gave another tug. "It will serve my needs well."
Nella shook her head. "Nay, my lady, I shan't let you traipse about in rags," she protested, snatching the mantle from Madeline's grasp. She tossed it onto the roughhewn table behind her. "Nor shall I let you traverse the land alone. Your life would be forfeit the moment you stepped from this cottage, and of a surety, long before you neared the first shrine."
Resting a work-reddened hand atop the threadbare cloak, Nella narrowed shrewd but caring eyes. "Penitents and holy men do not set aside their manly cravings simply because they've embarked on a pilgrimage."
Madeline flicked a speck of unseen dust from her sleeve. "I harbor no illusions about carnal lust. Men's or women's," she returned, fervently wishing the opposite were true.
Her heart ached to revel in the bliss of the unenlightened, longed to be filled with naught weightier than fanciful dreams of a braw man's bonnie smile.
The sweet magic of his golden words, the sensual promise of his touch.
But rather than a dashing suitor's seductive caress, his soul-stealing kisses and sweetly whispered endearments, cold shivers tore down her spine. "You needn't warn me of the darker side of lust," she said, more to herself than to Nella. "I am full aware of what spurs men to commit black deeds."
Her shivers now joined by a rash of gooseflesh, Madeline Drummond, reputed to be the loveliest maid in the land, moistened lips yet to part beneath the onslaught of a man's hot passion. Lovely they called her to her face. Madeline sighed, her virginal lips almost quirking with the irony.
She knew what they truly thought of her.
She was no more lovely than any other maid, but she was lonely.
The loneliest lass in the Highlands.
Lacing her fingers together to still their trembling, she slanted a quick glance at the nearest window ... or rather, the crude opening in the wall that passed for one. Square-cut and deep, its view, were she to peer past the alder thicket pressing close to Nella's cottage, lent ponderous weight to her need to steal across the land cloaked in a postulant's robes.
"I am no stranger to men's greed," she said, another shudder ripping through her, this one streaking clear to her toes.
"Mayhap not," her friend owned, still guarding the frayed-edged cloak, "but you have been sheltered, my lady. Ne'er have you-"
"Ne'er have I lived," Madeline finished for her. She blinked, for some of the color of Nella's cozy cottage seemed to fade before her eyes, the stone-flagged floor seeming to tilt and careen beneath her feet.
Ignoring the dizziness beginning to spiral through her, she jerked her head in the general direction of the atrocities she couldn't bear to look upon. "My dear Nella, do you not see it is living that shall prove impossible so long as the perpetrator of you blackness walks this earth?"
A world of objection swam in Nella's troubled eyes. "Will you not even listen to the dangers?"
"I ken the perils ... and their consequences." Madeline squared her shoulders. Were she not apprised of such things, her friend's boundless concern spooling through her, pulsing and alive, underscored the validity of Nella's disquiet.
And the curse Madeline carried with her since birth: the ability to feel the emotions of others.
Not always, and ne'er at will, but often enough. And always unbidden, bubbling up from some unknown depth in her soul to enfold her in the cares and wants of others as swiftly as a sudden mist could blanket the whole of a Highland glen.
It was a dubious talent, which had shown her the true heart of every suitor who'd ever called for her hand but, in truth, sought no more than her father's wealth and strategic lay of his land.
Clamping her lips together, she swallowed the bitterness rising in her throat and, instead, eyed the pilgrim's cloak draped across Nella's well-scrubbed table.
"A man would have to be sightless not to recognize your beauty and station," her friend declared, following her gaze. "Clothing yourself roughly will scarce make a difference."
"Not roughly," Madeline amended. "As a postulant."
Nella snorted. "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 recourse but to plead God's mercy by gifting him with a life of servitude."
"My faith, lady, if you truly wish to spend your days in a sequestered existence, we can journey directly to the nearest abbey," Nella suggested, tilting her head to the side. "You've no need to traipse from one holy shrine to the next in search of Silver Leg. The gods themselves will smite him."
Sir Bernhard Logie.
By either name, the very mention of Madeline's nemesis reached a cruel hand through the evening's quiet to snatch away her hopes and dreams and dash them upon the charred pyres his men had erected before Abercairn's proud 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 throw wide the gates.
Compliance came swift, the drawbridge clanking down without delay, but a blameless herd-boy 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, to the flames, she'd fled, seeking refuge from the unspeakable at Nella's door.
Her only sanctuary in a night gone mad.
A simple but good-hearted woman, Nella secured her peace by allowing others to believe she possessed a talent as unique as Madeline's own, a carefully chosen ability daunting enough to keep most danger well at bay.
Few men claimed a stout enough heart to near the dwelling place of a woman rumored to receive visitations from the dead.
And it was Sir Bernhard Logie Madeline wanted dead. Dubbed Silver Leg for the silver votive offerings, fashioned as legs, that he e'er left at holy shrines in gratitude for some obscure saint's intervention in healing his childhood lameness, the seasoned warrior knight best known for his lightning changes of allegiance, gave himself a devout man.
Madeline knew better.
She fixed Nella with a determined stare. "The gods and every ravening wolf in the land can do what they will with the man ... after I've avenged my own."
Nella drew a deep breath, and Madeline could almost see arguments forming on the tip of her friend's tongue. Thus warned, she spun around before they could grow into full-fledged protestations. "He would have been wise to choose a better cause than to seize Abercairn," she said, and yanked open the thick-planked door.
Excerpted from Master of the Highland by Sue-Ellen Welfonder Copyright © 2003 by Sue-Ellen Welfonder
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Sue-Ellen Welfonder is a Scotophile whose burning wish to make frequent trips to the land of her dreams led her to a twenty-year career with the airlines.
Now a full-time writer, she's quick to admit that she much prefers wielding a pen to pushing tea and coffee. She makes annual visits to Scotland, insisting they are a necessity, as each trip gives her inspiration for new books.
Proud of her own Hebridean ancestry, she belongs to two clan societies: the MacFie Clan Society and the Clan MacAlpine Society. In addition to Scotland, her greatest passions are medieval history, the paranormal, and dogs. She never watches television, loves haggis, and writes at a 450-year-old desk that once stood in a Bavarian castle.
Sue-Ellen is married and currently resides with her husband and Jack Russell terrier in Florida.
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