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The Sweetest Sin
By McCall, Mary Reed
Avon BooksISBN: 0060098120
Eilean Donan Castle
The Highlands, 1545
She wouldn't wake up.
Duncan MacRae crouched over his bride and stroked her cheek, his hand trembling. In all of his nineteen years, he'd never felt so afraid, so helpless. Crushed rosebuds clung to the wreath in Mairi's hair, a profane reminder of the life they'd promised to each other only moments before the MacDonells' attack turned their world upside down. The blooms' faint, overripe fragrance made him want to retch.
Why hadn't he been able to protect her? He was heir to the mighty clan MacRae, guardians to the Dukes of Ross. He should have known that the enemy would attack -- should have known that Morgana MacDonell wouldn't rest until she'd gained her vengeance.
Closing his eyes, Duncan breathed deeply. His head throbbed, and his heart ached. Christ, how had it come to this? The MacDonells had overcome the castle guards, helped by his own traitorous brother Colin in sneaking past the gate. In the battle that followed, he'd fought to lead Mairi to safety. But then he'd been struck from behind. Something must have happened to her after he'd lost consciousness, for he'd woken next to her in this cell, in the dungeons of his own keep.
And she wouldn't wake up.
Panic gripped him. His heart hammered as he stroked her cheek again, leaning close to feel her breath against his skin. Tearing a strip of his plaid, he soaked it against the wet stones and dabbed her face with it, desperate to revive her.
She made a rasping noise. The sound barely fluttered from her lips, and Duncan's heart felt as if it would explode. He wanted to clasp her to him, let his strength drain into her ... to bring the light back into her laughter-filled eyes. Instead, he smoothed his fingers across her brow.
And then he saw it. The bloody bruise that spread back into her hairline. He breathed in sharply, a curse frozen in his throat. His touch to the spot was light, disbelieving. The hard core he'd built inside himself began to crack.
"Mairi, my God ..." His fingers threaded into the pale silk of her hair, and he buried his face against the curve of her neck. She stirred, and Duncan went still with hope. He felt her deep shuddering sigh, and then ... nothing.
Shock lanced through him, followed by a surge of denial and agony. Frantically he searched her face, holding his breath to hear any hint of hers, pressing his palm to her breast to feel the reassuring rhythm of her heart. But all was still. Silent. Dead.
With a cry he pulled Mairi up and held her close, rocking her back and forth, until the sound of the cell door grating open raked through him.
"See you found your prize, young MacRae."
Duncan stopped moving, his shoulders tensing. Gently, he laid Mairi back on the rotted pallet and stood up. He wanted to grab the unknown MacDonell cur and swipe the smirk from his face, but a wave of dizziness made him veer into the wall. Pain lodged in his skull, sending arrows of agony shooting into his eyes and neck. He bit back a groan, trying not to appear weak as he shook his head and steadied himself against the damp stones.
The man picked dirt from his thumbnail with a knife. "That isn't your only surprise, though." He stepped aside, and Duncan squinted in the light that streamed through the doorway.
He heard the tread of light footsteps. An elongated shadow moved across the opening, followed by its owner, a young woman, who stepped into the slash of torchlight. In the moment it took his eyes to adjust, the image of her hammered at his senses. Tall, slender, with long, fiery hair and seductively curving lips.
Morgana MacDonell. The temptress who'd destroyed his life.
"Ah, Duncan. You're not looking well." She grinned and tilted her head; the movement made a curl slide away from her breast, exposing the gilded pendant that hung round her neck. Duncan started; she wore the Ealach amulet. His amulet.
As if she'd read his thoughts, Morgana raised her brows, her eyes cold, flat blue. "It's mine now. It would have been ours, had you kept your promise to me." Her gaze deepened to azure, shining with excitement. "But never fear. I know the Ealach's powers, and be I your wife or no, I'll be wearing it well."
Anger and the recent blow to his head prevented Duncan from speaking at first, but when he did, his voice grated with bitterness. "I never pledged myself to you, Morgana."
"Liar. I was to be your bride. You and the Ealach were both to be mine."
"I belonged to Mairi. You said you understood my oath to her."
"Aye, but I never accepted it." Morgana fingered the amulet again. "Now with you or not, the Ealach is mine, brought home after a century of possession by your cursed clan." Her eyes gleamed in the light, and Duncan was struck with the intensity of her gaze. "I'll be using it to impose my rule over all the Highlands."
A knot of fear curled at the base of his spine, temporarily masking his anger and pain. He knew the Ealach's powers, though for generations none had invoked its might. Legends abounded of how it had been used in the dark times. Of its force to control the mind, to deaden the soul ... even to kill. But no MacRae would use it for ill; each clansman took the vow before battle. Their amulet was a harbinger of prosperity, used only for good, which was why God had gifted them with possession of it.
Duncan wanted to argue with Morgana and deny her clan's claim of ownership, but he clenched his jaw, refusing to let her goad him further. It would do no good to reason. Morgana believed whatever she pleased ...Continues...
Excerpted from The Sweetest Sin by McCall, Mary Reed Excerpted by permission.
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