My Wicked Highlander: The MacDonell Brides Trilogyby Jen Holling
With Scotland in the grip of a nationwide witch hunt, Isobel MacDonell is hiding in England. But when Sir Philip Kilpatrick arrives to escort her to her betrothed in the Highlands, Isobel must face a harrowing journey through a land of fear and suspicion. Soon, however, Philip grows reluctant to deliver Isobel to the noble intended she has never met. Isobel has charmed her way into his heart...and yet her determination to use her magic to solve the dark mystery of Philip's tortured past could destroy them both.
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For Isobel MacDonell being a witch was hell. Living in constant fear that what she said or did would send her to the gallows. The image of hanging by the neck until dead caused an involuntary tightening of her throat muscles. It was an especially frightening thought after reading that horrific pamphlet detailing the torture and execution of witches just across the border. Lord and Lady Attmore had gone to great lengths to keep the pamphlet from her, but Isobel had finally managed to acquire one and read it with morbid fascination. But then everything about Scotland was fascinating to Isobel.
Still, fear of discovery did not deter Isobel from her chosen path. She hurried through the forest, glancing repeatedly over her shoulder, worried someone had followed her. She shouldn't be doing such things. In his letters had her father not cautioned her repeatedly to have a care? To be mindful of all her mother had suffered?
I am careful! But those atrocities happened in Scotland -- another world, it seemed, and one she barely remembered most days. She paused, her palm on the silvery gray trunk of an ash, and peered into the trees behind her. She stood in silence, listening, feeling. She was alone. Besides, there was no real harm in visiting Ceri. If caught, it would earn her a stern lecture and perhaps even punishment from Lord Attmore, but so long as no one discovered why she really frequented the witch's cottage -- or how often -- she would suffer no serious repercussions.
Her hand slid down the tree as she gazed up into the branches, through the green clusters of buds, at the gray sky. A storm was coming. The air felt damp and heavy. Thunder rumbled in the distance.
Her fingers moved over deep grooves in the wood, and longing filled her -- sharp, passionate. She dropped her hand and stepped back, inspecting the tree. A heart was carved into the gray wood. Inside the heart the names Anne and Dan were deeply carved. Isobel smiled, passing her hand over the carving again, enjoying the youthful passion that passed through her. Dan had labored over this carving...many years ago. Because this was wood -- and living wood at that -- she'd never learn more than feelings mixed with the soft, warm hum of the tree itself. She would have liked to learn more about this Anne and Dan, but it wasn't to be.
With a deep, wistful sigh, Isobel continued on her way. The underbrush was thick, bush and scrub sprouting their first green buds, but Isobel had worn a trail over the years with her comings and goings and merely swished her skirts right and left to avoid catching them on the spiny branches.
Soon Ceri's cottage was in sight, nestled in a clearing. Isobel paused, waiting. She couldn't chance being seen if Ceri wasn't alone, so she must always wait. The damp wind blew at her, plastering her skirts against her legs and pulling her hair from its severe plait. She scanned the clearing but saw no horse or mule.
The cottage door opened abruptly. Isobel ducked behind the thick trunk of an ancient oak. Voices carried to her, one nasal and masculine, the other sharp and feminine. Isobel peered around the tree to see the vicar trotting into the trees, his shiny pate gleaming in the dull light just before he slapped a cap over it, and his dark robe flapping about his ankles.
Ceri stood at her door staring after him for a long moment. A strong wind gusted through the yard, disturbing old leaves and setting the penned chickens to clucking. Ceri's graying black hair swirled loose about her narrow shoulders.
She turned toward Isobel's hiding place. "You can come out now -- and be quick, afore you're caught in the rain." Ceri pulled her wrap over her head just as a raindrop plopped onto Isobel's nose.
Isobel lifted her skirts and ran through the clearing as the sky opened up, sending down a deluge. Ceri slammed the door and latched it behind them, then hurried to the window and closed the shutters.
Isobel shook out her skirts and unpinned her lace cap, spreading it out on the stone hearth to dry.
Ceri watched with disapproval. "What if the vicar comes back, lass? You shouldn't be here."
"I had to come! It's that...feeling -- I still have it, and it's worse now. You're the only person I can talk to, the only person who understands."
Ceri sighed heavily. "Tell me."
Isobel lowered herself onto the hearth, putting her back to the warm fire so it could dry her bodice. The cottage was small and comfortable. The rich scent of rosemary and lamb floated to her from the cauldron in the fire behind her. She preferred Ceri's cottage to anywhere else in the world -- except perhaps Lochlaire. But her childhood home was only a fond memory; she hadn't been there in more than a decade.
Ceri lit two lard candles and set them on the wooden table.
Isobel placed her hand over her belly, rubbing at the knotting, sinking sensation that had been with her for weeks. "Something...or someone is coming...but I don't know what. Something dreadful will happen." She fisted her hand, frustrated. "If only I knew what..."
Ceri chuckled. "You rely overmuch on your gift. Remember what I told you about dreams?"
"Dreams don't work for me. I must have something solid to touch."
"You don't try hard enough. You're like those who refuse to believe until they see -- and yet you yourself are proof of what is possible."
Isobel nodded blandly. She'd heard this before. Ceri was convinced Isobel had many untapped gifts. Isobel had not believed her until recently -- until she began to have this feeling of dread. That something...or someone was coming. And when this thing was upon her, it would bring bad things, things that would change her forever. But that was all she knew. She hated this lack of clarity. With her other visions, she could focus if she chose to, probe until she understood.
"But your dreams oft tell you nothing useful until it's too late," Isobel said.
Ceri nodded, unwrapping a loaf of bread. "Aye, but that is my failing. I'm still learning to read them. Sometimes things aren't what they seem in a dream. A toad doesn't always mean a toad. It can mean many different things." She grinned at Isobel; her wrinkled face softened to reveal the great beauty even age couldn't dim. "You've been a great help, you have."
Isobel smiled. It warmed her to hear Ceri's kind words. "I would do anything to help you -- you're my only friend."
Ceri's smile faded to consternation. "I cannot bear to hear you say such things. You're so young, so lovely. 'Tis wrong you should spend more time with a moldering old bag of bones than with lads and lassies your own age."
Isobel shrugged and plucked at her skirt. "It doesn't matter. I know too much, and no one likes that." She thought of her foster brothers and sisters, most married and gone now, and how they had distanced themselves from her. "I can't help myself sometimes, not when I know I can change things, that maybe I can make a difference. I am getting better at keeping silent. But the past cannot be undone, and everyone already knows I'm different. But in time, mayhap they'll forget?"
Ceri raised a skeptical brow. "Not if you keep giving your warnings -- "
"Suggestions. Nothing more. Anyone can make suggestions...right? I never give specifics anymore."
Ceri's brow creased with worry. "You are being more careful, aren't you?" She came to stand before Isobel, hands on hips. "You must learn to guard your tongue."
Isobel forced a smile. "Of course. I wear gloves most of the time, and now, unless I see something dreadful, I truly do keep it to myself...most of the time."
Ceri shook her head, lips pressed into a flat line, her gaze fixed on Isobel's hands -- which were currently gloveless. "You should keep it to yourself all the time. Even if you see something dreadful. Serves them right to get back some of what they give out so freely. It's not for you to change their lot."
Isobel looked away, to the window. "Well, even I can't change some things." Memories of Benji's wee lifeless body as it was fished from the swollen river rose in her mind. She had seen it, clear as day, and yet had been unable to prevent it. That was often the curse of it. Sometimes she was too late.
Ceri touched Isobel's chin. Isobel met the pale gray eyes that smiled at her.
"The only lot I want to change, my lass, is yours." She patted Isobel's cheek and straightened. "Come, we've a wet day, let me cast your fortune, see if there's a man in your future."
Isobel straightened her shoulders and sighed ruefully. "There is no man -- at least not until my father chooses him." Isobel frowned. "Do you think he's forgotten me? Perhaps he doesn't realize I'm now four-and-twenty -- well past marriageable age. Surely if he remembered me, he wouldn't leave me here to become an old maid. It's been more than two years since he last visited."
"Your father hasn't forgotten you. He's looking for the right man, is all -- you're not just any lassie, but an heiress, should aught happen to your uncle. And he has your sisters to worry about, too. Scotland isn't safe these days. He knows you're in good hands and is likely waiting for the time to be right." She nodded sagely. "That time soon approaches, methinks. I had a dream about you and just such a lad."
Isobel laughed, knowing Ceri jested, but wishing it was true. "What did he look like?"
Ceri cut bread for them and set bowls of stew on the table. She leaned forward. "Oh, he was handsome -- a big man, not like these wispy Englishmen. He must be one of your kind -- a brawny Highlander."
Isobel considered that while they ate. Her father, Alan MacDonell, was a big man, though not overtall. But all the other men she knew seemed frail and fine-featured compared to the chieftain of Clan MacDonell of Glen Laire, with his heavy brow and rugged features.
Ceri withdrew a scarf and laid it in the center of the table.
Isobel sobered. "Who brought it?"
Isobel stared hard at the fine linen scarf. Its edges were embroidered with bright red thread. A faint yellow stain marred a corner.
"What does he want?"
Ceri raised her brow. "He came to me yesterday asking for a love philter to keep his wife faithful. You've seen his wife -- I told him it was likely unnecessary, but he was most insistent. So I advised him to bring me something of hers to use in the potion. He brought me this."
"You know there's no true love philter. Why do you agree to such things?"
"Because it's safe -- safer than delivering babies." Ceri shuddered, eyes closed. "I thought my life was over when the sheriff's long-awaited son was stillborn. If not for the good vicar and your auntie, I'd be long gone. No more midwifery for me."
Isobel scowled. "It is the village's loss." She smiled and reached across the table to pat her friend's hand. "Besides, now you find things for people. That's safer, aye?"
Ceri opened her eyes and pinned Isobel with a hard look. "It is. But you know I couldn't locate things so quickly -- if at all -- without your help. And I'll not have you in such a situation as I was." She returned to her stew. "As for love philters, no one wants to admit they purchased one, so no one will accuse me of witchcraft. It's harmless."
Isobel shook her head, her gaze going back to the stained linen. "What happens when it doesn't work? It is a dangerous game you play."
"You play it too, my lassie. Now touch it and tell me if his wife is faithful so I know whether or not to make this philter."
Isobel took the scarf and held it between her palms. Sometimes the visions came fast, overwhelming her, other times she had to work for them. This would be one of those times. She felt nothing initially. She rubbed it rhythmically between her palms and closed her eyes, breathing deeply, clearing her mind of everything but the vicar's wife and the scarf she held.
When still that didn't work, she tried thinking of the vicar. Almost immediately she felt lust. Not like the longing and desire she'd felt at the ash tree. This was not a love affair like Dan and Anne. This was base, empty. As these feelings didn't reconcile with Isobel's knowledge of the vicar's wife, she frowned and dug deeper, probing through the feeling, looking for visions, not merely emotions.
A picture slowly materialized behind her eyelids, like a mist clearing away. Arms and legs entangled in a pile of filthy hay, hairy buttocks thrusting, a bald head shining in the candlelight. She strained to bring the vision into closer focus, to see it from other angles.
It was the vicar, his godly robes bunched up to free his movements. The woman beneath him was young, redheaded, her head thrown back, lips parted in pleasure. Rain tapped the roof above them.
Isobel's eyes sprang open, and she stared at Ceri in disbelief. "He's riding the baker's wife -- well...he will be -- this evening, I believe." She threw the scarf onto the table as if it had turned into a viper. Thunder crashed over head -- as loud as a pack of horseman. "This isn't his wife's scarf, but Letty Baker's. Some man of God! First he visits a witch, then goes straight to commit adultery! I saw them -- all covered in sweat and rutting like animals."
Ceri studied Isobel critically. "You're looking a bit flushed yourself, lass. Such things a maid should not be seeing."
Isobel pushed back the damp curls that had escaped her plait from her forehead with dignity. "It takes a lot out of me, you know that."
Ceri raised her brows censoriously.
"What shall you tell him?" Isobel asked.
Ceri smiled wickedly. "I'll tell him the philter rejected the scarf since it came from an adulterer."
Isobel shook her head. "Have a care. He might have saved you once, but he might not be so quick to if you anger him."
Ceri made a rude sound but before she could say another word someone hammered on the door so hard it shook in its frame. They both froze, staring at each other in disbelief. Who would be out visiting a witch in such a storm?
Ceri sprang into action. "Hurry! You must hide!"
She shooed Isobel to the back of the cottage, where a blanket hung. A small cot was concealed behind it.
"Get on the bed," Ceri said, shoving her family of cats to the floor. "They'll see your feet otherwise."
Isobel did as she was bid, her heart pounding against her ribs, excuses for why she was at the local witch's cottage chasing through her head. She was lost in the woods and just happened by. No one would believe that. She'd lived at Attmore Manor for twelve years and spent a great deal of time in these woods. She had an ailment and sought Ceri for a cure. Why come alone, then? She knew as well as any young lass she shouldn't be wandering the woods unescorted. She should have brought a servant -- not that she ever did.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a deep voice that resonated through the blanket, into her very belly.
"Gude day, lady. We seek shelter from the storm."
A Scotsman. Isobel sat up straighter.
"I've but a humble cottage and no room for so many."
"There are but three of us, lady, and we vow to wipe our feet."
"I'm but a lone woman," Ceri continued to protest, but weakly now. She was no lady, as they all well knew, but being called one had softened her.
"We mean ye no harm. Only rest and a dram, for which I will give recompense."
But no ordinary Scotsman. He spoke well and had fine manners. Isobel sat cross-legged on the cot, straining to hear every word. Soon the scraping of boots was heard. True to his word the Scotsman and his men were cleaning their boots before entering. Ceri's cats returned to the bed, one stretching out on Isobel's lap and the other two lying on the other end of the cot. Isobel scratched their heads absently. Though many animals shied away from Isobel, cats rarely feared her, and these cats had come to know her from her frequent visits.
When the movement had quieted down, Ceri spoke again. "You're far from the road, sir. Whence are you headed?"
"Attmore Manor. I was told the way was quicker through the wood."
Isobel stiffened, the twisting in her gut growing fierce. Attmore Manor was her home. What business had he there?
Ceri's thoughts clearly mirrored Isobel's for she asked, "Attmore Manor? What business have you there?"
Silence drew out, then Ceri said, "I see."
What did she see? What had Isobel missed? She couldn't stand the suspense. She slowly placed her feet on the dirt floor.
"Could I at least have your name, sir?"
"Sir Philip Kilpatrick of Clan Colquhoun."
Ceri grunted insolently. "You don't look like a Highlander."
Isobel couldn't bear it. Setting the cat aside, she eased to her feet and tiptoed to the edge of the blanket. What did Ceri mean, he didn't look like a Highlander? He was small? Fine-featured? He didn't sound small. His voice was a deep, rumbling baritone -- it conjured images of bears and lions.
She peeked around the blanket. Two large men crowded around the hearth. An enormous blond man sat on the stone ledge where Isobel had rested earlier, and a burly red-bearded man hovered close to the fire, trying to dry wet clothes. A third man sat away from the others, on the bench at Ceri's table. His back was to Isobel -- and a broad back it was, heavy, too, filling out the buff jack he wore. His longish hair was sandy brown and damp at the crown. Even sitting he was more than a head taller than Ceri, who sat across from him.
Ceri saw her peeking out and her eyes widened, then narrowed. The man turned abruptly to see what Ceri peered at. Isobel drew back, her breath catching as she nearly fell on the cot. But she caught herself, teetering momentarily. The cats showed no interest in the fact she'd nearly squashed them. The large gray yawned.
"You are not alone?" the man asked. The bench scraped. His footsteps started toward the blanket.
Isobel whirled back to the blanket, her hand clamped to her mouth in horror.
Ceri said, "Cats -- that's all. Getting into things." She was moving toward the blanket, too. The man's footsteps stopped, and a moment later Ceri joined Isobel behind it.
Isobel smiled sheepishly. Ceri pointed to the cot, giving Isobel a severe look, and scooped up Whiskers, a fat black cat. Isobel returned to the cot, and Ceri went back to her guests.
Isobel propped her chin on her fist and listened to Ceri chatter at Sir Philip. The old woman tried to discover his business, but he was not a talkative sort. Isobel thought about his eyes as she waited. She'd caught but a glimpse, but they'd been dark, deep-set. Ceri was right, he didn't have the harsh, rugged features of her father. His nose had been straight, his jaw wide, but elegant, in spite of the dark whiskers shadowing it. His lips had been full and smooth. By the time the rain ceased, she'd convinced herself he was devastatingly handsome. And this darkly beautiful knight was on his way to Attmore Manor. Why?
It had to do with her. The roiling in her gut had worsened since he'd arrived -- so he must be the reason for it. Was he sent by her father? By the time the men departed a sense of urgency had filled Isobel. She must get to Attmore Manor before Sir Philip. She burst from behind the blanket.
"You best be getting home, lass," Ceri said, handing her the cap she'd removed earlier.
Isobel pinned it back on her head. "First -- give me the cup he drank from."
Ceri quickly fetched a battered tin cup from the table and thrust it into Isobel's hands. Isobel knew immediately he'd come for her. Her father had finally sent for her. But she could glean nothing else from the cup, except a warm and faintly disturbing sense of his lips against the rim. He'd not held it very long, so little of him would be imprinted upon it, she understood this. Still, it frustrated her. She'd hope for some sense of him, but he was a mystery.
"Soon enough, lass, you'll know just what he wants," Ceri said, urging her to the door. "And then come back and tell me!"
Isobel stopped in the open door and turned back to her friend. "Is he the one? The one you dreamed of?"
Ceri shook her head. "I didn't have no dream, lass. That was a jest."
"Oh." Isobel's heart sank. "He was very handsome, wasn't he?"
"That he was, and such pretty manners. Now off with you, afore Lord Attmore sends someone to look for you!"
"Oh, you know he won't. He'll just ring the bell."
Ceri gave Isobel a firm look. "Just go afore you get in trouble."
Isobel stared at her friend, the heavy sensation of dread intensifying in her belly. Impulsively, she grabbed the crystal charm Ceri wore about her neck. Warmth filled her as she saw Ceri shuffling about her cottage, surrounded by her cats, older and content. Isobel smiled. At least the feeling had nothing to do with Ceri.
She squeezed her friend's hand and raced into the forest.
Copyright © 2004 by Jennifer Holling
Meet the Author
Jen Holling's previous romance novels include My Shadow Warrior,
My Devilish Scotsman, My Wicked Highlander, Forever My Lady,
A Time for Dreams, and the critically acclaimed and RITA Award-nominated
Brides of the Bloodstone trilogy: Tempted by Your Touch, Tamed by Your
Desire, and Captured by Your Kiss. She lives in Texas and is currently
at work on her next novel. Visit her on the web at www.jenholling.com or email
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This was an amazing piece of work. Holling really incorporated all different sorts of feelings and emotions in this trilogy. She is hilarious as well as captivating. You can tell she puts a lot of hardwork and effort into researching every little detail of the story. Brilliant...
This book took me a while to read because I had to stop at all the infuriating points throughout the story. The heroine, Isobel, has many annoying tendencies. She is naive, stubborn, and selfish. There are witch hunts going on all around her yet she persist to use magic openly. Although the author tries to justify why she behaves sometimes stupidly and selfishly, especially when it comes to dealing with the hero Phillip, I find myself wanting to smack some sense into her. I understand she is trying to help the people she loves but couldn't she do it with a modicum of intelligence.