Drumloch Manor, Scottish Borders
FROM THE PRIVATE JOURNAL OF LADY CATHERINE MONTGOMERY
I have decided that today, since the weather is fine, I will write my first entry at the stone circle. I cannot explain it, but something about this place comforts me, and I am in dire need of comfort. It has been four months now since my return. Though return is not at all the proper word for my status here.
I still remember nothing of my life before, despite the doctor’s many efforts and tireless attempts to experiment with my head. He is both perplexed and shamelessly enthused, and I am beginning to think he will be disappointed if he ever cures me of my malady. He frowns at me when I say this, but I feel as if my spirit is in the wrong place—as if I have taken possession of another woman’s body and claimed all that she once had as my own. I feel like a charlatan, and sometimes I wonder if that is what I am—a wicked, scheming imposter—even though Grandmother and Cousin John assure me on a daily basis that I am she.
Lady Catherine Montgomery. Daughter of a Scottish earl. A woman who went missing five years ago.
They tell me my father was a great war hero, and that he died fighting for the Scots in the recent rebellion (on the side of the Jacobites, which I allegedly supported, and quite passionately so). I remember none of that. All I know of myself is what I have been told, and what I experienced since the spring, when I was discovered in a farmer’s stable in Italy, huddled in an empty stall, hungry and shivering.
Nuns took me in, and I was, in a way, reborn in that convent abroad, nursed back to health, questioned relentlessly, and finally identified as the long-lost Drumloch heiress.
Am I truly she? I do not know. The portraits of Catherine Montgomery all show a rather plump and innocent-looking young girl. I am neither plump, nor am I quite so young any longer. I am six weeks shy of my twenty-fifth birthday, they tell me. And no longer innocent. The doctor at the convent confirmed it.
I am not sure how to feel about that. Sometimes it disturbs me, when I imagine what I do not remember. In my mind, I am still a virgin.
I am also very slim, which is why some of the servants did not recognize me. They all agreed that I had the same hair as Catherine—which is a rather unusual shade of red—but other than that, some of them believed I looked nothing like she did. They were promptly dismissed.
But what if they were right? Sometimes I feel as if Grandmother is hiding something from me. She says that is not so, but I am suspicious. Could it be that some part of her simply needs to believe that I am her grandchild, even when she knows I am not? She has already lost her son, after all—the great war hero who was my father. I am all she has left of him.
If I am, in fact, the heiress.
Either way, heiress or not, I cannot seem to keep from watching over my shoulder. I am always expecting the real Catherine Montgomery (or her ghost) to appear at any moment and expose me as a fraud.…
Catherine closed the leather-bound journal and tipped her head back against the flat standing stone, wishing she did not have to write about all this, but Dr. Williams had encouraged her to record her thoughts and feelings, suggesting it might help unlock something in her mind.
Another experiment. Would he insist on reading it?
Flipping the book open again, she glanced over what she had written about her virginity and considered scratching out the part about his shameless enthusiasm.…
No. She would leave it. It was honest, and if the point of this exercise was to cure her strange illness and solve the mystery of her five lost years, she would need to open her mind completely and let everything spill out like a bag of pebbles onto the floor.
Feeling tired all of a sudden, she set the journal aside and stretched out on the grass in the tall, cool shade of the standing stone. For some reason she felt great comfort whenever she came here.
She crossed her legs at the ankles and folded her hands over her belly while staring up at the bright blue sky, dotted with fluffy clouds. They floated by at a leisurely pace, shifting and rolling. It helped to relax her mind. Perhaps today would be the day when the past would come out of its box.
Soon she was dreaming about autumn leaves blowing across an endless bed of lush green moss. She could hear the faint rustle of footsteps through the grass, a horse nickering on the breeze.…
In the dream, she saw herself in a looking glass and heard her own voice calling out from across the distance. She reached with a hand and tried to speak to the woman in the glass. “Come and find me. I am here. I’ve been here all along.”
Suddenly the woman vanished in a rush of fear—like a ghost that did not want to be seen.
Stirring uneasily, Catherine felt a presence all around the stone circle, but it was not the spirit from the dream. Her body tingled with awareness, and she moaned softly into the breeze.
Someone was watching her, circling around the outside of her private sphere. She could feel his eyes on her, waking her with a strange power of will that aroused all her senses. It compelled her to sit up, but she could not move. She was still asleep, and her body seemed made of lead.
At last, her heavy eyelids fluttered open, and she blinked up at the sky. She sat up and looked around.
There, just outside the ring of stones, a wild-looking Highlander was seated high upon a massive black warhorse. The man observed her with an eerie silence that made her wonder if she was still dreaming—for he was a breathtaking, godlike image in a shimmering haze of sunlight.
His windswept black hair matched the shiny mane of his horse. It reached past the Highlander’s broad shoulders and wafted lightly on a whispering hush of a breeze. He wore a dark tartan kilt with a tarnished silver brooch at his shoulder, a round shield strapped to his back. Upon his hip, he carried a claymore in a leather scabbard.
Everything about him oozed sexuality, and the shock of such an improper awareness took Catherine beyond her depth.
She wanted to call out to him, to ask who he was, what did he want?—but she could not seem to find her voice. It was as if she were still floating in the dream.
Or perhaps this was not a dream but a hallucination. She’d had a few of them lately, often seeing herself moving about, doing everyday things, and she never knew if they were memories of her life or the lazy inventions of a woman who simply had no past.
But there was nothing lazy about this man, she realized with a dizzying swirl of fascination as she rose to her knees. He was a warrior, clearly, who looked as if he’d spent days, maybe weeks, in the saddle. The evidence was all there to behold—in his weapons, his brawny strength, and the dark shadow of stubble on his finely sculpted face, the grim hue of his exhausted, angry eyes, and the grimy appearance of his shirt.
The horse snorted fiercely and tossed his huge head, and Catherine gasped at the sound. It was exactly what she needed—something temporal, something vociferous, to finally pull her out of her reverie.
She knew now that this Highlander was no hallucination. He was true flesh and blood. But why he was staring at her like that, with such angry, bold intensity?
Did he know her?
Slowly, she gathered her skirts in both fists and rose to her feet, prepared to confront this man from her past, whoever he was.
His gargantuan warhorse sensed her movement and spun in a skittish circle. The Highlander whipped his head around, never taking his eyes off her.
“Be still!” he commanded the great black beast, in a guttural voice that made all Catherine’s nerve endings quiver.
She braced herself, steady on both legs.…
The animal instantly obeyed, and the Highlander swung out of the saddle, landing on the ground with a heavy thud.
He and Catherine faced each other squarely.
Her heart beat like a mallet in her chest.
She struggled to recognize him. Surely she knew him, if only she could remember.…
God! Why couldn’t she? It was inconceivable that she would ever forget a face like that. His black eyes were piercing. They blazed wickedly at her with a savage determination that almost knocked her backwards against the stone.
She should run. Her instincts were telling her that she was in grave danger, but her feet would not move.
The Highlander’s eyes narrowed, and he began to stalk toward her, entering the ring of stones that had, until that moment, been her own private domain. This man’s fortitude, however, seemed to conquer and invade the whole world.
His gaze never veered from hers as he strode across the grass, his muscular legs taking long, sweeping strides, his big hand wrapped around the brass hilt of his claymore. At any moment he would reach her, and what would he do?
Catherine backed up against the stone, crashing into it. She sucked in a breath.
Suddenly he was upon her.
“Surprised to see me?” he asked in a deep Scottish brogue, pushing his big kilted knee between hers and pinning her to the stone. Whether he wanted to ravish her or rip her to pieces, she had no idea. Perhaps he intended to do both. One right after the other.
The firm pressure of his body, so tight up against her own, sent a hot ripple of shock through her veins.
“Should I be?” She was determined not to show fear, even while her body quivered and her breaths came hard and fast. “Do we know each other?”
“Don’t tell me you don’t remember our last encounter.”
Now that he was closer, she noticed a small scar across his left cheek—one small imperfection on an otherwise perfect canvas.
He placed his hands flat on the stone above each of her shoulders, keeping her trapped there while his infuriated gaze swept down the length of her body. He smelled woodsy, like leather and pine.
“I’m sorry,” she answered shakily, her knees going weak, “but I remember nothing.”
Had she been his lover once? Was he the one who had taken her virginity? It was entirely possible, for although she sensed danger in him, she found him brutally attractive.
“You remember nothing?” the Highlander said. “Nothing at all?” His eyes glimmered with challenge. “Well, do not fret, lass. I remember everything. I’ve been going over it in my mind for three years, and I never gave up my quest to find you. And to do this to ye.”
He wrapped his big hand around the back of her neck and thrust his body closer.
Bewildered and breathless, she willed herself to remember. He had been searching for her. For three years.
But what exactly had they been to each other? Why was he so enraged? Perhaps she had jilted him.
God help her.… Everything about him—the way he smelled, the husky timbre of his voice, and the crude manner in which he held her up against this cold wall of stone—was causing a fever inside her brain.
His palm slid around to the small of her back, and he pulled her even closer with a rough grunt, crushing her breasts against the solid wall of his chest.
She tried to shove him away.
“That’s it, lass,” he whispered. “Fight me. I want you to. For old times’ sake.”
She knew she should tell him to stop, for she was not some lusty tavern wench. He had no right to treat her this way. She was, according to her grandmother and cousin, a lady of noble blood and superior breeding.
“I demand to know your name,” she managed to say.
“Don’t pretend you do not know it.” He spoke with a low snarl of hostility.
Catherine regarded him steadily in the sunlight.
“This may be difficult for you to believe, sir—for clearly you know me—but I do not know you. I remember nothing. I wish I could, but I have no idea who you are. You must stop this.”
There. She’d said it. Firmly and without hesitation.
He gazed at her for a heated moment, and Catherine’s heart turned over in her chest. Something was very wrong.
“So this is how it’s going to be?” he asked. “You’re going to play innocent?”
She fought to recover her wits. “I honestly don’t know what you—”
“Did you think you would get away with this?” He grabbed hold of her wrists and held her arms up over her head.
“What do you mean?” The words slashed out of her as she tried to struggle free. “Let go of me! And get away with what?”
Wake up, Catherine. Wake up!
“You cursed me, lass, and now you’re preying on these innocent people, pretending to be something you’re not. How long do you plan to stay here? Just long enough to steal the inheritance? You once told me you would die a wealthy woman. Is this how you’re going to achieve that?”
She frantically shook her head while the likelihood that he was speaking the truth shuddered in the air between them.
“Or maybe you plan to assume Catherine Montgomery’s identity for the rest of your life? Is that it?”
A terrible pang of dread pitched through her. “What do you know of me?”
He sneered. “I know that you’re a vindictive she-devil and a lying thief. I ought to kill you right now and spare everyone a lot of trouble.”
His loathing cut her to the quick, and she fought harder against his unbreakable hold.
“I am not stealing anything!” she shouted, even though she knew nothing about herself or her past. Half the servants believed she was an imposter. Now it seemed they were correct.
Nevertheless, she felt compelled to defend her honor, for she had not come to Drumloch to deceive anyone or take what did not belong to her. That much, at least, was true.
“I don’t know what you speak of,” she argued. “The dowager countess traveled to Italy to claim me as her granddaughter, and she insists that is who I am.”
“With no help from you?” His fierce gaze swept over her whole face. “No spells or potions?”
Catherine winced at his words. “Explain what you mean, sir!”
He dipped low and thrust his hips between her legs. “This ought to remind you. Surely you know what I can—and cannot—do with it.”
His arousal was undeniable, his size and strength overwhelming. Her heart thudded against her breast. “No, it only tells me that you are a brute!”
He wrenched her closer, his grip punishing on her arms. “Aye. That’s what I am, only because you made me so. But I shouldn’t need to explain it to you. Do you not see everything in the stones?”
She didn’t know what he was referring to, but she could not risk angering him further. “I will be honest,” she said, swallowing tightly. “I have no idea if I am the real Catherine Montgomery or not, but I did not come here looking for any of this. I meant it when I said I don’t remember meeting you, because I have no memory of anything. I do not know who you are.”
His dark eyebrows pulled together in a frown.
“No one here knows where I have been for the past five years,” she continued to explain, “but you seem to know something. If you could tell me why—”
Suddenly he covered her mouth with his big, callused hand. Her eyes grew wide with panic.
“I admire the effort, Raonaid, but you cannot fool me. I’ve been hunting you down for three years, and now that I’ve found you, you’re going to do exactly as I say. Do you understand?”
A mixture of rage and desire burned in his eyes. As a result, she did not dare provoke him. She would do what she must to keep him calm. Catherine nodded her head.
Slowly, he withdrew his hand from her mouth, but used his body to keep her pinned against the stone.
Everything inside her—all her thoughts, senses, and emotions—screamed with alarm, but she had to keep her head. She had to explain herself logically. Make him understand.
“You called me Raonaid,” she carefully said.
“Aye, that’s your name.” His voice lost some of its hostility in that moment. A quiet, more curious arousal seemed to take its place.
Catherine took in a shaky breath. All she wanted was to understand why he was here and to find out what he knew about her past. Perhaps if she heard something familiar, her memories might return. And if she understood what she had done to him, she might be able to appease him somehow.
“What is it that you want me to do?”
“I want you to fix it.”
Her pulse throbbed. “Fix what?”
He had mentioned a curse before, but still no memories returned to her.
“Have you cursed so many men that you don’t remember one from the other?” he asked as he pulled her snugly against him.
All her instincts roared at her to go along with this, at least until she understood what he wanted. He seemed to be growing more aroused. Perhaps if she could get him to let down his guard, she might be able to strike back at him and escape.
He reached down and gathered her skirts in his hand, and began to tug them upward. “You look different,” he said, his voice husky with desire. “The clothes, the hair, the perfume. It’s a wonder I even recognized you.”
He slid his hand up her thigh.
“What are you doing?”
She squeezed her legs together and pushed his hands back down, but he was persistent.
“Lift the curse, Raonaid. You know what will happen if you don’t.”
“No, I assure you, I don’t know.” She punched at his arms and tried to shove him away. “Stop, or I will scream!”
“You want me to stop?” he scoffed. “And you expect me to honor your wishes? Thanks to you, it’s been three years since I’ve had a woman, and suddenly, I’m as randy as a bull. I didn’t expect it to be quite so stimulating—not with you, of all people—but I suppose I’m in a worse state than I imagined. Since it’s your fault I’m this way, here is my proposal.” He paused and brushed his lips across her cheek. “You’re going to do one of two things for me today. Lift the curse, or relieve some of my pent-up frustrations. It’s your choice.”
He used his body to hold her captive against the stone while he pushed his kilt to the side and began to wrestle with her skirts. A blazing hot fireball of terror shot through her bloodstream.
“Tell me how to lift it, and I will!”
She squirmed against him and tried to escape, but he was too big, too strong—and all of a sudden he was brimming with sexual need.
“You can feign innocence all you like,” he said, looking into her eyes, “but I’m not as easily swindled as your doting grandmother. I know who you really are, and I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment—for you to undo what you did to me three years ago. Lift the curse now, or you will soon fall victim to it.”
Instantly Catherine gave up any hope of appeasing him. “Let go of me!”
She spit in his face and kneed him in the groin. He doubled over in pain.
Bolting toward the manor house, she shouted, “Help! Someone help me!”
She barely reached the other side of the stone circle before the sound of the Highlander’s heavy footsteps pounded fast in pursuit. She glanced over her shoulder, and the slight twisting of her body caused her skirts to tangle around her legs. She flew toward the ground, scraped the heels of her hands on the grass, and split her lip open.
He came down on top of her, then flipped her onto her back.
“You’re insane!” she cried, fighting to shove him away, glaring at him with fierce and vicious determination. She slapped him across the face, kicked at his legs, and scratched his neck.
“Lift the curse!” he demanded. “Do it now, woman, or I swear, by all that is holy…!”
“I cannot!” she insisted. “I cannot remember anything! Let me go!”
For a moment, the whole world went quiet, and the Highlander paused, suspending the attack. He stared down at her in a cloud of hazy shock; then his eyes focused on her bloody lip. It seemed almost as if he were seeing her for the first time.
Catherine lay motionless beneath him, afraid to move, lest he grow violent again. All she could do was stare up at him in bewilderment, waiting for him to do something, to say something. Anything. He squeezed his eyes shut and touched his forehead to hers, grimacing as if he was in terrible pain.
Catherine slid out from under him and scrambled backwards. He withdrew onto his haunches, gaping at her with dark, suffering, bloodshot eyes.
“Look what you’ve done to me,” he growled, shaking his head. “I despise you, Raonaid.”
“I’m sorry…,” she replied, even though she had no memory of what she had done. And it was ridiculous for her to be apologizing to him, under the circumstances.
He watched her with a strange mixture of shame and desperation, then spoke quietly, through gritted teeth. “I beg of you—just lift the curse, and I’ll leave you be.”
“I assure you, I would have done so already if I’d known what you were talking about, but I have no memories. I don’t know who I am.”
His eyes darkened. “You are Raonaid, the oracle. The witch who put a curse on me three years ago. You are not the Drumloch heiress.”
All the blood in Catherine’s body rushed to her head as she tried to comprehend what he was saying. Was it true? Was she some kind of mystic, and had she unknowingly been deceiving the Montgomerys all this time? Half the servants believed she was a fraud. But why would her grandmother lie? Or was the woman simply in denial, refusing to believe that her only granddaughter was still missing, or possibly dead?
Just then the resounding crack of a gunshot ripped through the air. Catherine jumped back while the Highlander fell to his side, cupping his upper arm.
“Shit,” he groaned, utterly defeated as he rolled onto his back and grimaced up at the sky.
Catherine rose to her hands and knees, just as her cousin John came striding into the interior of the stone circle, reloading his pistol.
“I heard your screams,” he explained as he dismounted. “My apologies, Catherine, for taking so long to arrive, but I needed a clear shot.”
Lying flat on his back, moving his legs about in discomfort, the Highlander swore something in Gaelic. Catherine could not understand the words, but she recognized his tone of self-recrimination. Blood seeped through his linen shirt and dripped onto the grass.
John finished reloading his pistol, cocked it, and strode closer. He stood over the wounded Scot and pointed the gun at his face. “I am John Montgomery,” he said. “Fifth Earl of Drumloch. This woman is my cousin, and I would be within my rights to shoot you dead, you vile savage.”
Catherine rose quickly to her feet and laid a hand on John’s arm. “It’s all right,” she told him. “He didn’t hurt me, and look, he is wounded. You can lower your weapon now.”
John refused to do so. “This dirty Highlander tried to disgrace you, Catherine.”
“Indeed,” she replied, “but he regained control of himself before doing so.”
And she could not let him die, for he was the first person she had met who seemed to know something about her whereabouts over the past five years.
“I cannot let him go free,” John declared.
The Highlander’s lips pressed together in a thin line while he glared up at her cousin with contempt. “She’s not who you think she is.”
John raised the pistol again. “And how would you know anything about it?”
“Because I know this crafty lass,” the Highlander ground out, struggling awkwardly to sit up. “And she’s a nasty, vengeful witch.”
Catherine sucked in a breath at the cold insult to her honor just as her cousin swung back a heavy boot, kicked her attacker in the head, and knocked him out cold.
Copyright © 2011 by Julianne MacLean