The Murrays are back in this thrilling new tale from New York Times bestselling author Hannah Howell . . .
Responsible for protecting her younger siblings from their abusive father, Bethoc Matheson is in no position to rescue another soul in Scotland. Yet when she sees a bleeding man on the verge of drowning, that’s exactly what she does, securing him safely in a cave where she can return day after day to tend to his wounds.
Sir Callum MacMillan can scarcely believe such a slight lass as Bethoc could save him from the grasp of death. But he knows the telltale marks of an angry fist on her skin, and he knows she has the soul of a fighter within her feminine frame. Raised to be a protector of the weak by his Murray clansmen, Callum would prefer to be the one saving her—and save her, he will. If he can first survive the treacherous attack that led him into her irresistible arms . . .
Praise for Hannah Howell and her Highland novels…
“Few authors portray the Scottish highlands as lovingly or colorfully as Hannah Howell.” —Publishers Weekly
“Expert storyteller Howell pens another Highland winner.” —RT Book Reviews
About the Author
Angela Dawe is originally from Lansing, Michigan, and currently calls Chicago home. In addition to audiobook narration, she has worked in film, television, theater, and improvisational comedy.
Read an Excerpt
He needed to get his head above the water. Callum struggled upward, every movement sending pain ripping through his body. His lungs were ready to burst by the time he succeeded. Despite the pain dogging him, he took a moment to catch his breath and look around.
The shore appeared to be miles away, although Callum knew that was not true, was just an illusion. He could vaguely recall the men tossing him in. Ignoring his screams, they had taken him by his arms and legs and swung him a few times before letting his body go. Callum knew he was not far from the shore but the pain throbbing in his leg told him it would be a long, hard haul to get there. The water did not ease the pain at all.
Gritting his teeth, he attempted to swim back to the shore. Pain tore through his leg and he bit back a scream, hissing out curses between his clenched teeth. He turned onto his back and let his wounded leg just hang. His arms were not in much better shape but they were not broken and he used them to propel himself along. Very slowly. Then his foot touched the ground, agony tore through his leg, and he floundered. Callum gave out a shaky curse when he settled again. The pain really was too much. He did not think he would reach the shore any longer.
"Sweet Jesu," he muttered, lying in the water with a useless leg dangling beneath him.
Just a few more strokes, he told himself. Just a few more and he could collapse on solid ground and think about his next move. Each move he made would have brought a scream if he had not clamped his mouth shut. He did not know what had been done to his leg, aside from breaking it, but he was now determined to have a look. After that, once he was fully recovered from his injuries, he would make the bastards who had done this to him pay dearly.
The moment his hands could reach the bottom without his head going beneath the water, Callum turned and used them to pull himself up onto the bank. He gave up when he was half the way out of the water, his arms folding and dropping him to the ground. A soft grunt escaped him when the side of his face hit a rock but he did not, could not, move. Callum thought about checking his leg to see how bad it was but he was exhausted. He closed his eyes and, even as he wondered where he was, he passed out.
* * *
Bethoc Matheson winced and cursed as she walked along, every bruise her father had given her protesting her movements. She suspected that bringing little Margaret was not helping her but the girl needed some time away from the brutality of her father, from the pall of unhappiness that hung over the house. The man grew worse every day. Bethoc dreamed of leaving but there was the problem about where she should go.
She supposed she could hunt down her real father but had no idea of how to do that. Her mother had given her a name as she had lain dying after birthing little Margaret but the name meant nothing to Bethoc. Nor could she ask anyone since her father's demands and the care of the children kept her tied to the house. These short trips to her cave were all she could allow herself. Even now she felt some guilt about that for the boys were left on their own. She did worry about what could happen if their father came home before she did, but she needed to get away for just a little while. The walls of the house had begun to close in on her, her fears and worries growing too big for her to handle.
"Enough," she muttered as she started up a small hill that led to her hidden cave. "Ye need to cease fretting."
Later. She would think about it all later. What her mother had told her weighed on her, however, and as Margaret grew, requiring less constant care, the need to think grew stronger. Having to call a man Father when he was not also became a problem. She had a feeling he knew and often wondered if that was why he was so brutal, but that thought did not hold. He was brutal to all of them. She even had to protect Margaret and there was no doubt that Margaret was his.
In truth, she began to believe that Margaret was the only one who was. She had six brothers, aged sixteen down to six, yet only one of them looked anything like her father. Yet, if they were not his, how had they come to be with him? She could not recall her mother carrying any of them but knew the shapeless, ragged gown her mother always wore would have hidden it from her. It was possible her mother had borne each of them at night with only their father to help. Yet, after having aided her mother in the birth of Margaret, Bethoc doubted that. Surely her mother would have said something if the boys were not hers?
Bethoc abruptly stopped, unable to take another step as her mind was flooded by ideas, each one more bizarre than the first. Each one impossible to prove unless her father suddenly felt a need to confess. Yet she could not shake the sudden suspicion that the man she called Father had stolen those babies and brought them to her mother to care for. But why?
Six hard workers, six boys instead of the useless girls he always accused her mother of having. Bethoc stared out over the water. How would her father know her mother could only bear girls? Had there been others and, if so, where were they? Then Bethoc heard her mother's last words as clearly as if the woman stood at her side. "Watch over Margaret. Never leave her. Promise me."
She clasped one sturdy little leg that was dangling at her side. Her mother had been so insistent, so fierce in her demand that Bethoc had sworn to do as asked. As she struggled with these new, terrifying thoughts, she caught sight of something at the water's edge. She squinted as she tried to bring it into clear view and a plump little arm stuck out from beside her head, finger pointing.
"Mon," Margaret said. "Mon."
Releasing Margaret's leg, Bethoc cautiously began to go down to the riverbank. Mon was one of the three words Margaret could say and the closer she got to the riverbank, the more certain she was that Margaret was right. The only doubt she had was whether the man was alive or dead.
It was not easy with a child strapped to her back and a bag of supplies at her side, but Bethoc hitched up her skirts, crouched down, and slowly pulled the man the rest of the way out of the water. He groaned when she turned him onto his back and she breathed a sigh of relief. Using one of Margaret's changing cloths while silently praying the child would not need it, she lightly bathed the dirt from his face. Bethoc found herself staring at a very handsome man. An instant later he opened his eyes and stared back. Those eyes were washed out, pain stealing the color from them, but she could still see a strong hint of green.
She also smelled no taint on him. She was not sure what his smell was but it was pleasant and she relaxed. It was a silly thing to be able to do, smell some unknown scent on a person, but it had served her well over the years so she just accepted it. She still wondered why her father had recoiled from it though.
"Who are ye?" he asked.
"Bethoc Matheson. And ye?"
"Sir Callum MacMillan of Whytemont. There were some men ..." he began as he quickly looked around. Worried that he had drawn her into his trouble.
"No one is here, sir. Just me and Margaret."
Bethoc sighed and patted her sister's leg. "Aye, Margaret, 'tis a mon."
"Ah, a bonnie wee lass. Greetings, wee Margaret."
Bethoc sought to remain steady as Margaret bounced on her back. "Can ye be moved, sir?"
Callum struggled up until he was seated and slowly shook his head. "Leg is broken. Left one."
She looked at his leg and silently cursed. It was bent wrong, not terribly but enough to prove his words. She cautiously moved to his side and studied it. There was no bone peeking through and she was grateful for that, but she would need to set it and bind it somehow before she could even think of moving him.
Standing up, she looked around and then moved toward a fallen tree, digging a knife out of her bag. Boards would have been better but sturdy sticks would suit for the short distance she had to move him. Picking two thick branches, she cut off the twigs and branches before returning to his side.
"This will hurt, I fear," she said as she braced herself to do what needed to be done.
"I ken it. It cannae be helped. Do ye have anything I can bite on?"
Bethoc took the band of leather from her wrist, the only thing her mother had given her. It was thick and the designs etched on it were simply something she had found attractive. "Will this do?"
Callum studied the Celtic runes on the leather band. "My teeth will no doubt ruin this."
"No more than Margaret's did." She pointed out the marks her sister had left on it. "Her teeth were coming in and I had nothing but this to give her."
"I will try nay to bite through it," he said as he turned it and placed the barest part in his mouth then nodded at her to begin.
She ran her hand over his leg until she found the exact place it had broken; to her relief it felt to be a clear, simple break. She tore three strips of cloth from her petticoat, set them by her side, and reached for his leg. The deep moan he gave as she worked to straighten his leg nearly made her stop, but she closed her ears to his sounds of pain. The bone had to be put back together to heal. She then wrapped the leg tightly to hold the now aligned bone in place better.
Once she had the sticks tied on either side of his leg, she sat back and took a deep breath before looking at him. He was pale and sweating but still conscious. Bethoc was astonished by his stamina as he was a lean man, his muscles clear to see but not bulky. Setting his leg had caused a lot of pain, excruciating pain, yet he clung to consciousness. After a few deep, slow breaths, he appeared more at ease. She hoped it was because most of the pain had now passed.
He looked at his leg and then gave her a smile. "A fine job, Mistress Matheson."
"I thank ye. Now, I fear there is more trouble ahead." She rubbed her hands on her thighs. "I need to get ye somewhere ye can rest and regain your strength in safety."
Callum tensed, not sure he could trust her. "Why would I need to be safe?"
"Sir, I ken weel the marks of a beating nor do I believe ye hurled yourself into the water. A mon who wants to die doesnae struggle as hard as ye obviously did to get to shore. Someone tossed ye in there. Someone broke your leg ere they did so, which means they planned on ye drowning." She lightly touched the marks on his wrists and ankles made by the men holding his struggling body. "Ye dinnae need to tell me the why of it, but I ken I need to leave ye somewhere safe. That means a wee cave just up the hillside." Bethoc pointed up the hill that ran down to the edge of the water.
Staring where she pointed, Callum grimaced. His leg throbbed with pain and he seriously doubted he could make it even partway up that hill with only one leg. The lass had been a great help but he doubted she could carry him.
"My horse," he said, and looked at her. "Did ye see my horse?"
"Nay, sir, I didnae. Mayhap the ones who did this took the beast. A good horse would be tempting to steal. It could bring them a good price."
"They wouldnae be able to hold him. Stormcloud is a hard mount to hold on to."
"Stormcloud? A fanciful name."
"It suits him in both look and temperament. Unless they were verra alert, the horse would get away from them, and they didnae strike me as being verra quick-witted. Brutish, aye, and good at what they do, but nay more."
"I shall look for him but first we must get ye to the cave."
"Ah, weel, I was thinking that would be where my horse might be of help."
Bethoc thought a moment on having a look for his horse. She could see nothing in the area, not even the shadow of an animal. She looked back at Sir Callum and sighed.
"I cannae leave ye here as I search, sir. I doubt those who attacked ye will return but one can ne'er be certain and ye are unable to defend yourself. I think it best if we get to somewhere safe first. Aye?"
Callum hated to agree, dreading what needed to be done, but what she said made too much sense to argue with it. "Aye," he agreed, and almost smiled over how sulky he sounded.
"I will find ye a stick to help ye walk. Ye will nay be able to set that foot down just yet." She grimaced. "Probably nay for quite some time."
He watched as she returned to the fallen tree. She was not a big woman but he had no doubt she was strong. She moved easily with a child on her back and whatever was in the pack she carried. What puzzled him was that she spoke well yet her clothes were those of a poor crofter, neat but subtly ragged, signs of many patches easy to see.
The other thing that puzzled him was why she was helping him at all. Most women, especially with a child to watch out for, would have fled, not wishing to risk getting caught in the middle of any trouble. She had stepped right up, dragged him out of the water, and tended his wound. Yet she had to have considered the possibility that his attackers might return. A small raven-haired woman would be no obstacle to them.
Callum used the time she was distracted to indulge in a close inspection of his rescuer. It was not easy to judge her figure when she had a child on her back but he could see that she had a small waist. The way her skirts were bunched up made it impossible to judge the curve of her hips but it did reveal strong, well-shaped legs. He smiled, thinking that few women would see that as a compliment.
It was her face that fascinated him, however. There was gentleness there, a calm that soothed him, and something that reminded him of someone else. Callum puzzled over that for a moment then decided he was too tired and in too much pain to care. He fought the urge to close his eyes and give in to his weariness, to gain some respite from his pain through sleep. She needed him to remain aware for a while longer, he thought, even as he closed his eyes.
Bethoc finally found a thick branch that had a fork at the top. She took the small axe she had brought with her to collect firewood out of her bag and removed the branch from the dying trunk. As she walked back to Sir Callum she hoped it would be the right height. She also wished she had a blanket at hand so she could make a litter for him. Dragging that up to the cave would be a chore, but a lot easier than helping a barely upright, hobbling man.
Once back at his side, she tested the length of the stick, needing to take off only a small bit at the bottom. The man looked to be asleep and she hated to wake him but knew she had to get him hidden away as soon as possible. Kneeling by his side, she gently shook him until his eyes opened.
"We have to try and get to the cave now," she said.
Callum wanted to say no, to just leave him to sleep, but knew she was right. It was not safe to stay out in the open. He did not really think the men would return but he could not be absolutely sure. Careful not to put any weight on his broken leg, he took the stick from her and settled it under his arm. It was awkward, but he suspected it would still work.
"'Tis nay such a long walk to the cave, sir," she said, "but I fear it is nay a smooth one, either."
"Then we had best get started."
"Margaret, sit up," she ordered her sister, and then put his arm around her shoulders plus her arm around his waist. "I will try to pick the smoothest parts of the trail."
"Just pick the quickest," he replied, and gave her a brief smile before adjusting the stick beneath his arm.
"All I ask," she said as they began to move toward the hill, "is that ye tell me if ye think ye are going to stumble for I will be walking close to the edge of the path and could fall."
He made a sound of agreement that was more of a grunt and she knew even the current easy pace they did was paining him. The cave opening was only partway up the hill but she knew it was going to be a long, slow climb for him. Bethoc held him as tightly as she dared, trying to give him as much support as possible, as they began their way up the rocky path to the cave. The fact that she only reached his armpit made that a difficult chore.
It felt as if hours had passed before she got him to the cave. Every step had to be taken carefully and progress was slow. A few times he had nearly stumbled and, although he had warned her as she had asked him to, her heart had leapt into her throat. She could all too easily see herself tumbling down the rocky hillside, a fall that could easily prove fatal.
Carefully propping him up against the rocks at the mouth of the cave, she removed the brush she used to hide the entrance. Not only did it keep her father from finding her hiding place but, she prayed, it also kept her safe from men like those who had beaten Sir Callum. Bethoc helped him inside and settled him on the pallet she had made of old blankets and leaves. The moment she was certain he was simply recovering from the journey, she hurried to pull the brush back into place.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Highland Chieftain"
Copyright © 2016 Hannah Howell.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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