Read an Excerpt
When the Laird Returns
Book Two of The Highland Lords
There were no hints of what was to come on that perfect summer morning, no sign that in a few hours her life would be forever changed. But then, Iseabal was later to realize, momentous events are often heralded not by a thunderclap but by a sigh.
She bent over the neck of her horse, flying over the ground so fast that the grass was a green blur. A brilliant blue sky, cloudless and clear, was a backdrop for the craggy hills in the distance. To her left was Loch Euliss shining gold in the morning sun, and ahead was her destination, the ruins of Gilmuir. The ancestral home of the MacRae clan sat perched on a cliff-faced promontory overlooking Loch Euliss and connected by a strip of land to the glen.
The wind, brushing against her cheeks almost abrasively, made her feel free and brave. But the feeling was short-lived and edged with caution. Each time she′d engaged in secret rebellion, the act had been accompanied by a sour taste in her mouth. Even now as she slowed, her fingers began to tremble on the reins.
Her father and his entourage had left for Inverness not an hour earlier, but Iseabal knew better than to believe herself completely safe. Hesitating at the land bridge, she turned in the saddle, watching as the sheep behind her were being moved. The shepherd was not, blessedly, looking in her direction.
Dismounting, she tied the reins of her horse to a piece of iron bar, all that remained of the front door. Stepping between two leaning columns, Iseabal entered Gilmuir. Although the slate floor was covered in brick dust, the hallway connecting the main part of the castle to the priory was surprisingly intact. The curved roof still held and sunlight spilled through the trellis-like pattern of bricks on one side. Walking through the corridor, Iseabal stretched out her hand, touching the sun-warmed bricks in greeting or petition.
After all, she was a Drummond and a trespasser.
"It′s the spawning site of our enemies," her father had once said about Gilmuir. "Just as well there are no more MacRaes about," he′d added grimly. "I′d have to kill them all."
Yet she could not find it in her heart to feel anger toward people she′d never known.
Reaching an opening in the corridor, Iseabal turned to her left, facing the ruins of the clan hall.
Summer had come to the Highlands, sending the warm wind soughing around corners and darting in playful gusts around the rubble. Gilmuir seemed saddest in this season, as if knowing that the world blossomed around it and life would never come again to this once grand place.
There was no sign of grandeur now. All of Gilmuir′s walls had fallen but for one short section, and it leaned at an angle toward the cavernous space below the ruin, a framework of piers and vaults that had once supported the floorboards.
Her imagination, however, sketched in details long gone. Across the ceiling and against the walls, the banners of the MacRaes would have been hung. Below her feet, polished boards would have gleamed from a treatment of heated oil. At night, lamplight and the glow from candles would illuminate the painted walls and embrasures.
The wind swirled around her, brushing a tendril of hair onto her cheek as if admonishing her for this moment of pretense. Smiling, she thought that the breeze, too, would have been different back then, filled not with the scent of dust but with the smells of fresh herbs and flowers.
Her fascination with the old castle had begun as a child, watching as her father directed the removal of stone and bricks from both Gilmuir and the adjoining Fort William. From that moment on, the fortress and the promontory on which it stood had been a lure. Perhaps in some way, her fascination with Gilmuir had also been responsible for her love of working with stone.
Sometimes she lost herself in carving, the rigidity and rough texture of the stone representing the life she lived. The broad strokes of her chisel against rock embodied her secret wish to escape from such an existence.
Leaving the protection of the corridor, she walked out into the open air. Something caught the light as she skirted the edges of the chamber. Kneeling beside the open foundation, Iseabal stared down into the forest of pillars jutting up from the earthen floor. There, not far from the base of one, was a stone block, not white or beige limestone, but something as dark and shiny as the eye of a conjurer.
Measuring the distance from the surface to the bottom of the foundation, she realized that it was too steep to descend. Resigned to being unable to retrieve the stone, she rose to her feet. Without warning, the earth crumbled in large chunks beneath her. To her horror, Iseabal was sent hurtling into the open pit.
She fell hard, the force of the impact stealing her breath. Stunned, Iseabal lay as she′d fallen, struggling to breathe. The earth, soft and powdery beneath her cheek, smelled sour, layered as it was with rotting wood. Darkness draped around the base of the pillars like silken curtains. Other than her harsh breathing, there was not a whisper of sound.
Each indrawn breath brought a piercing pain, each exhale an answering discomfort. Pressing her left hand against her ribs, Iseabal laboriously struggled to her knees, leaning her shoulder against one pillar. Carefully, she pushed herself up until she was standing.
How was she to find her way out of here?
Glancing up at the spot where she′d been standing, Iseabal began to realize how far she′d fallen. Puffs of dust filled the air as she wound her way through the pillars looking for a way out of the foundation.
What she needed was a stepping-stone. Walking back...When the Laird Returns
Book Two of The Highland Lords. Copyright © by Karen Ranney. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.