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Return of the Highlander
By Sara Mackenzie
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Sara Mackenzie
All right reserved.
"I'm waiting for Maclean."
Bella was dreaming. She knew she was dreaming, but it seemed so real. She was standing in the ruins of Castle Drumaird and there was someone with her, an old, old woman with a green plaid or arisaid wrapped over her white hair, her skull-like face peeping out. It was a hag, a creature common in Scottish myth and folklore. Bella had dreamed about her before, but she had always been on the fringes of the dream, a distant figure who watched but did not speak. This time she was center stage.
"He's been away for two hundred and fifty years, and now he's almost home. At last this day is come."
The hag leaned closer and Bella flinched. This was definitely no living creature, despite the rasp of her sour breath. No woman could neglect her skin care quite this badly.
"With him comes danger for us all, but redemption, too, if he is brave and lucky. Aye, he is coming." Her voice grew sly. "Braw, handsome Maclean. Soon, soon. . . ."
Bella was waking up.
But the hag's face was pressed up against hers and would not go away. "You must beware, Arabella Ryan," it whispered.
The hag breathed a laugh. "Och, no, but there is danger. The door has beenbreached and she doesno' know it yet."
"She? Who are you talking about?"
"She! The Fiosaiche. The door has been breached and the creatures of the between-worlds can come through. You must beware especially of the each-uisge, the water-horse. It will harm ye if it can."
Bella's eyes opened and she groaned. What a weird dream. Her dreams had been particularly vivid lately, but this one hadn't really seemed like a dream at all.
He is coming. . . .
Bella shuddered. She eased her toes onto the floor by her bed and whimpered. It was cold. Make that freezing. The Highland version of central heating had failed to come on again.
Moving quickly, she snatched up her sweater and pulled it over her head, wincing when her long dark hair became tangled. She slipped on her red woolen coat, and wrapped it around her, ignoring the way it stretched over her rounded hips and large boobs. She wasn't a small girl and never had been. Bella was voluptuous, a look that was very much out of fashion these days, but she had been born this way and usually it didn't bother her. Except that, recently, she had begun to feel more self-conscious about her size than ever before.
There were warm socks on the chair and she pulled those on, too, and then her sweatpants. Better, but it was still icy. Her breath was forming her own personal cloud in front of her as she made her way down the narrow, creaking stairs and into the kitchen.
At least the fire in the Aga was still alive and well. It had taken months of her landlord's patient instruction, but Bella felt as if she had finally mastered the difficulties of getting peat to burn properly.
Bella reached out her hands and felt the warmth. She sighed and drew a chair up close, enjoying the sensation of thawing out. Much better.
Except that now the worries that had kept her awake most of the night returned. First in line was: Where is Brian? They'd argued last night and he had walked out and he hadn't come back. At first she thought he was sulking at the local pub -- but the local pub was in Ardloch, a two-hour trip on winding roads through the hills. Or he had gone over to Gregor's place -- their landlord had a farm on the road to Ardloch and kept his sheep on the moorland around Loch Fasail -- but Gregor and Brian didn't get on that well. Then she thought he might have gone back to Edinburgh to his friends' home, to soak up their sympathy. Bella knew that Hamish and Georgiana had never liked her -- they made it plain enough that they considered Brian was doing her a favor by staying with her.
"Well, the three of them deserve each other. Good riddance!"
Did she really mean that? With a sigh, Bella stepped across to the small window above the sink and peered out. Her car was there, parked in front of the cottage, but not Brian's. As much as she sometimes wished Brian gone, being all alone here was unsettling. For a moment the view distracted her, the sweep down to Loch Fasail, the desolate lake; the stark beauty of the surrounding rocky hillsides with their skirts of heather and gorse. The sun was awake and shining, but there were clouds hovering, as they always were in this northwestern part of Scotland.
Loch Fasail was famous for its unpredictable weather.
She and Brian had been arguing a lot lately. She didn't like to admit it aloud, but things between them hadn't been good for a long while. Bella had hoped that living out here with no distractions would bring them together, but so far that wasn't so. Once Brian had seemed so exuberant, so much the extrovert -- a big bold lion to her scholarly mouse. They were opposites attracted.
But recently the scholarly mouse had discovered that the gap between what Brian wanted her to be and what she was had widened. He was dissatisfied with Bella's weight, her appearance, her career . . . everything. And where once she might have made an effort to change herself to gain his approval -- well, she'd loved him, hadn't she? -- now she wasn't sure she wanted to. The love had withered into mild affection and irritation, and then . . . What did she feel for Brian these days? More often than not he simply made her angry. She was usually a good-natured person, not easily upset, but even Bella could only be pushed so far before she exploded. The thing was, Bella could please herself or she could please Brian, but she didn't think she could please them both.
Excerpted from Return of the Highlander by Sara Mackenzie Copyright © 2006 by Sara Mackenzie. Excerpted by permission.
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