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My Immortal Highlander
By HANNA HOWELL LYNSAY SANDS
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
ContentsThe Hunt by Hannah Howell......................7 The Rescue by Lynsay Sands.....................155
Chapter OneScotland, late Spring 1509
Rain. He loathed rain. It rained too much in Scotland. Bothan MacNachton suddenly grinned even though the chilling rain had found a way down the back of his neck and was slowly soaking his back. He could lay the blame for his hatred of rain at his beloved mother's tiny feet. Everyone knew cats hated to get wet. Then again, it was his mother's blood that allowed him to step outside of the shadowy world his father was forced to stay in, if only for short periods of time. That was not only a true blessing, it was vital to him and his clan. It was a fair trade, he decided.
He dismounted, took his horse Moonracer's reins firmly in his hands, and began to lead the huge gray gelding up a hillside. The rain had made the mossy rocks slick and treacherous. Not only did he want to ensure the safety of his prized mount, but under such conditions he was more surefooted than the horse. Halfway up the hill was one of the many safe havens his clan had found scattered along the routes they traveled on the rare times they left Cambrun. The location ofsuch places was relentlessly taught to every child until he or she could find them in blinding snow, and Bothan could almost scent the trails left by his kinsmen, living and long dead.
Another scent caught his attention and he stopped, breathing deeply and slowly in the hope of determining if he was walking into danger. Female, he decided, and relaxed a little, despite having grown up around women far more deadly than most men. This one was not of their ilk. He could not smell even a small trace of MacNachton or Callan blood. Starting on his way again, Bothan decided he would take the risk of sheltering with a stranger. The light smell of smoke promised a fire to warm himself by, and that temptation drew him onward.
His hand on his sword as both warning and ready defense, Bothan entered the cave. It did not surprise him to find a woman seated by the fire, her mare settled in the rear of the cave. The way the sight of her affected him did, however, and he was hard-pressed to hide that surprise. He felt as if someone had punched him hard in the chest, causing his heart to miss a beat and his breathing to falter. She also did not look even faintly startled or alarmed by his appearance. She smiled in welcome as if she had been expecting him, yet he knew he had made no sound as he had approached the cave.
Bothan stood just inside the cave for a moment, allowing the rain to finish dripping off him and Moonracer, and studied the woman, trying to understand why she affected him so. He had seen, and bedded, far more beautiful women, yet this woman's face held him nearly spellbound. Ethereal in many ways, her allure was difficult to describe. She had a heart-shaped face with wide, heavily lashed eyes and a full mouth. Her nose was small and straight, her chin faintly pointed, her skin flawless and pale, and her neck long and slender. Those wide eyes were a brilliant green, the rich color only enhanced by the light of the fire. She appeared to be small and very slender, although the blanket she had wrapped herself in hid most of her womanly curves.
When one of her delicately arched brows, tinted red by the fire, slowly rose in mute question, Bothan realized he had been silent for too long and he bowed. "Your servant, mistress. I am Sir Bothan, a weary traveler who only seeks a small respite from the rain."
Kenna Brodie merely smiled at first as she struggled to catch her breath. She had heard a great deal about the MacNachtons in the last year or so, but no one had told her that they were beautiful. Sir Bothan was very tall, almost too lean, and dark. There was a smooth, golden glow to his skin that was enhanced by the firelight. Unfortunately, that same light also enhanced the predatory lines of his face. Even though his lids were slightly lowered and his eyes somewhat shielded by his thick, black lashes, she caught the glint of gold there as well. The only feature softening that cold look of a hunter was his mouth. It was well shaped and his lips were slightly full. A mouth meant for kisses and dark, sweet pleasures, Kenna thought, and startled herself out of her bemusement over his fine looks. This man could kill her in a heartbeat, she reminded herself, and he was trying to hide who and what he was by not giving her his full name.
"Then, come, sit down and warm yourself," she said. "I am Lady Kenna Brodie of Bantulach."
"Weel met, m'lady," Bothan said as he led his horse to the rear of the cave and tended to its needs first. "Ye are far afield. Bantulach is north of here."
"Three days to the north and one day to the west, to be precise. A hard journey with poor trails to follow. I think e'en the drovers have given up on some of them."
"And yet ye traveled it all alone? Or, has some trouble befallen your companions?"
"Alone, Sir Bothan. What few companions I might have chosen to travel with me are held at Bantulach." She filled a wooden bowl with some of the stew she had been cooking over the fire and offered it to him. "Eat, sir," she urged gently when he hesitated. "'Tis made from that last of my supplies, for I felt I risked my health if I tried to carry that bit of venison any further."
Quietly accepting the offer of food, Bothan cautiously sniffed it before taking a small bite. A poison might not kill him, but it could make him dearly wish it would. It could also weaken him enough to make him very easy to kill. As half Callan, half MacNachton, he could not be exactly sure just how vulnerable he was to such things, and there had been no way to safely test them. He had learned the scent and the taste of many poisons and could detect none here.
Someone could have found a new, stronger poison, he mused, but kept on eating, not wishing to reveal any fear. These were increasingly dangerous times for his clan. The whispered rumors that had always swirled around them had grown more widespread and there was a growing number of people who believed them. There were men who hunted them now, and that group showed signs of banding together. That unity would make them even more dangerous than they already were. He had heard no mention of women being part of that group, but it was not an impossibility.
"Why are ye traveling alone?" he asked.
"'Twas nay my choice," she replied as she offered him an apple. "I was sent away from Bantulach."
As he accepted the apple, Bothan stared at her. It was difficult to think of any crime such a pretty, delicate woman could commit that was so vile it would result in her banishment. A look of innocence could be feigned, but Bothan felt surprisingly certain that hers was not. Now that he was closer to her, however, he did notice that there was something a little strange about her eyes, although he could not quite put his finger on what it was. It was possible that superstition alone had caused her banishment.
"Why are ye traveling about alone?" she asked him.
"I had no need of an escort for what I was doing. A mon doesnae want an army at his heels when he sets out to find himself a bride."
Kenna thought it very strange that she should feel so upset, even a little hurt, by the fact that this man had been on the hunt for a bride. In her dreams he had been all shadow and mystery, a man with the heart of a wolf and an ancient, dark soul within him, and a man with a dark, chilling hunger. He was not a man a woman should care for. If she felt anything at all when he spoke of hunting for a bride, it should be pity for whichever poor woman he finally ensnared.
For a brief moment, she actually considered attempting to do what she had been sent out to do. Her heart twisted with horror at the mere thought of killing this man, or any man, and then mutilating his body, and she felt ashamed. Her uncle had to be mad to ask her to bring him the hand, head, and heart of a MacNachton. Even if she believed, as her uncle did, that these men were demons who fed upon the souls of Christians, she knew she could never kill someone simply to try to wrest Bantulach out of her uncle's greedy hands. It was hers by right, but she would not spill blood to regain it.
That left her with precisely nothing, she thought, and sighed. Her dreams had held the warning of her loss, her solitary future, but she had tried to ignore them. There were ways to interpret her dreams that showed the way to a happier fate, but Kenna was certain they were not the ways her dreams had truly indicated she should go. Somehow her fate was tied to this man. That was why her dreams had told her of this place and of this meeting. She just wished they had told her how and why. There was a power within this man that could help her, but it could also destroy her. Her dreams had led her here but had left all the decisions about what to do next in her hands. It was beyond annoying.
"Did ye find a bride?" she felt compelled to ask. "If she lives betwixt here and Bantulach, I may ken something about her or her clan."
"Nay, I found naught," he admitted reluctantly.
"Ah, weel, mayhap next time."
"Mayhap." He took a drink from his wineskin and then offered it to her, oddly pleased by the way she did not hesitate to accept it and have a drink. "I have some verra specific requirements," he murmured.
Naturally, she thought. All men had specific requirements when they sought a wife. No one asked if the woman had any, however. She had to accept whatever was chosen for her. It was just another great unfairness that women had to suffer, she decided.
"Was there no mon to defend ye ere ye were cast out from Bantulach?" he asked, and almost smiled at the cross look she gave him over the implication that she was unable to defend herself. He suspected some of that irritation came from the sad knowledge that a man's word would carry far more weight than her own.
"Nay, there was no one. Weel, that may be unfair. There were some who wished to speak for me, but I wouldnae allow them to, for it would have endangered them and their families. Either the mon who now calls himself the laird or those whose fears he had roused and aimed at me could have turned on them."
"And who is the mon who now calls himself laird?"
"I see. What fears did he rouse?"
Kenna hesitated to answer that question. Her gift had only ever caused her trouble, even amongst her own kinsmen and clansmen. She had learned at a very young age that it was wise to speak of her gift only rarely. Such a thing had been impossible to keep secret amongst those whom she had grown up with, however, and she had suffered for that, hating the wariness others revealed and the fears bred of old superstitions. It was not until her uncle had prodded at all those fears, fed them with lies, that she had actually begun to fear her own people, however.
But this man had his own secrets, she suddenly remembered. Her dreams had made that much very clear. This man held fast to secrets that made hers look as innocent as a child's. Kenna discovered that she was also intensely curious about how he would react to her gift and all of the accusations flung at her far too often, all those superstitions her sly uncle had made excellent use of.
"The fear that I am a witch, a handmaiden to the devil, and a sorceress," she said quietly and was a little surprised when his only reaction to that confession was to cock one dark eyebrow.
"And are ye?" he asked.
"Nay, but I do have dreams."
"Most of us do." He had to bite back a smile when she glared at him. "Ah, a seer's dreams, are they?"
"In some ways, although I think a true seer would have ones that were more precise than mine. My dreams tend to leave me with more questions than answers."
Bothan smiled faintly. "As do a seer's, but many who call themselves such are arrogant enough to think they ken all the answers. From what little I ken of such things, few such seeings are precise. I have a cousin who is troubled by such dreams and often curses them for telling him only part of the truth."
"Aye, 'tis exactly what such dreams do. And too often that little piece of the truth is hidden within a swirl of images, dire warnings, and curious hints of what is to come if one doesnae choose the right path." She sighed and shook her head. "'Tis difficult to choose, especially when I am left with only frightening warnings of what will happen to me or others if I choose wrongly. Too often that leaves me with such doubts I cannae choose at all, nay verra quickly leastwise. My mother always called it a gift but I have found it a torment and a curse most of the time. The only thing that pleases me about it all is that the dreams dinnae come to me too often."
Bothan could easily understand that feeling. He would not like to be haunted by dreams that carried warnings but no hint as to how to avoid the trouble being foretold-or even if it could be avoided. It certainly sounded like a curse to him. He could sense that it made Kenna feel alone, as if she was not truly a part of the life that teemed all around her. That, too, he could understand, for it was a feeling he was well acquainted with.
The wariness he always felt around Outsiders began to ease. This young woman was even more alone than he was, for she was feared and cast aside by her own people. Bothan hastily reminded himself that her situation did not mean she would accept all that made him different, but that did little to end the sympathy he felt for her. He at least had his father's and his mother's people to stand beside him, people he did not need to guard every word and action around. Kenna suddenly started to look irritated again, and he suspected he had just revealed his sympathy for her a little too clearly.
"There is no need for ye to pity me," she said a little sharply, fighting the temptation to accept such comfort.
"'Twas nay pity, m'lady, but sympathy," he said.
"I am nay sure I see the difference." And she knew he would lose that touch of compassion very quickly when she told him the whole ugly truth.
He ignored that. "So your uncle used your gift against ye, stirring up the fears of your clansmen, and then grabbed hold of all that should be yours. Is that the way of it?"
"Aye, ye have guessed it aright. My clan wasnae too certain they wanted a wee lass as their laird and my uncle gave them a verra good reason to put me aside and allow him to rule. There were witnesses to my father's dying words, the ones that made me his heir, but they were soon cowed by my uncle. I could see that it would be dangerous for the few brave ones who chose to stand with me and begged them to save themselves. One mon died and, although it could have been an accident, his death came so quickly after he spoke out on my behalf that I feared my uncle had silenced him. I couldnae let any others suffer that fate."
"But why has your uncle allowed ye to live?" Bothan shrugged. "I think 'twould be easiest for him to just be rid of ye, aye?"
"That is what he has done, isnae it?"
Bothan thought about that for a moment and had to agree. Kenna was a small woman, slim of build and delicate of feature. No matter how clever, strong, or brave she was, she was no match for any man determined to do her harm. Luck with a knife might save her a time or two, but the odds of her continuing on her travels in blissful safety were very small indeed. It was sad and unfair, but a woman on her own too often faced a hard, brutal life and a very short one. Her uncle had indeed rid himself of her and without even bloodying his hands.
"So he has banished ye from your home and your birthright."
"Aye, but he told my clansmen that he was sending me on a journey that would prove me worthy of being their laird."
"And just how were ye to do that?"
"By returning to Bantulach with the hand, head, and heart of a MacNachton."
Excerpted from My Immortal Highlander by HANNA HOWELL LYNSAY SANDS Copyright © 2007 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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