Acclaimed author Jen Holling presents the stunning final novel in her sensual trilogy, set against the windswept hills of Scotland, about a trio of sisters with witchcraft and passion in their blood.
Rose, the youngest of the MacDonell sisters, is more concerned with her father's mysterious illness than with her impending marriage to her childhood sweetheart. A gifted but frustrated healer, she decides to beg help from William MacKay a reclusive laird who is renowned not only for his ferocity, but also for his healing powers. Denied entry to his fortress in the cold, harsh mountains of the far northwestern highlands, Rose uses cunning to force her way in, and William is duly intrigued with this bold slip of a girl. But securing his help may not be enough to save Rose's father. For there is something darker at work in the glen, something more powerful than William's and Rose's magic combined, and only the soul-deep passion that shadows their mutual desire can help their love prevail.
About the Author
Jen Holling's previous romance novels include My Shadow Warrior,
My Devilish Scotsman, My Wicked Highlander, Forever My Lady,
A Time for Dreams, and the critically acclaimed and RITA Award-nominated
Brides of the Bloodstone trilogy: Tempted by Your Touch, Tamed by Your
Desire, and Captured by Your Kiss. She lives in Texas and is currently
at work on her next novel. Visit her on the web at www.jenholling.com or email
Read an Excerpt
To the right and noble William MacKay, Lord Strathwick,
My deepest wishes that your health and prosperity continue in this most difficult time. Your lack of response to my previous correspondence signifies that this might not be so. If I am mistaken, please take care to correct this misconception. As I explained in my previous missives, my father is still very unwell. It is my greatest wish that you should grace our humble home with a visit. Your miraculous skill in the arts of healing is spoken of throughout the land and I fear you are his last hope. I pray you to remember that these gifts you are blessed with were given to you by the Almighty, to use as He wills. Alan MacDonell is a good and honorable man. He has been a just chieftain to his people and a good servant to His Majesty and God. It cannot but be God's will that you do this. So why do you ignore my pleas?
We have much to offer in the way of compensation and reward, and we will endeavor to meet any request you might make for sustenance or comfort. I pray you, my dear lord, do as God wills you and come to Lochlaire with haste. You are our only hope.
Thus indebted to the great pains you shall take on our behalf,
your good and humble servant,
From the House of Lochlaire on xv July
The year of our Lord 1597
Rose read the letter over again with a critical eye. It was the tenth letter she'd written him in so many weeks. Her gaze strayed to the window. A gray pall lay over Glen Laire. Soon it would be harvest, then it would turn cold and there would be snow. William MacKay lived in the far, wild north, where the weather and terrain as well as the inhabitants were brutal. It would be foolish to attempt the journey in the winter. Time was running out.
It would take at least a week for the letter to reach him. An unspecified amount of time for him to respond. And again, another week or more to receive his answer. A month? Winter was months away. The journey was still possible. Perhaps there was time.
Her shoulders sagged at the futility of these calculations. She'd been writing to the MacKay chief for months. He'd yet to respond to a single plea. What made her think this one was any different? And when the weather turned ugly, it was certain he would not come.
She looked over her shoulder to the still figure on the bed. Alan MacDonell had been clinging to life for months now. He was horribly thin and weak but no worse. In fact, there had been some improvement over the past month. That should encourage her, but it didn't. Rose feared he'd given up the good fight, and without the will to live, all was for naught.
She'd tried, over the past two months, to convince her family members to help her bring Lord Strathwick to Glen Laire. Uncle Roderick thought it was a bad idea to bring a hunted wizard to Glen Laire and had forbade her to continue writing him. She'd ignored this edict, of course. Hagan, her father's guard, also thought it too dangerous, what with the current state of matters in Scotland. He felt that the wizard's healing powers were too mythic to be true. He feared that Rose only opened herself to disappointment. And though her sisters and brothers-in-law agreed with both Uncle Roderick and Hagan, the earl of Kincreag, Gillian's new husband, had sent a man to fetch the Wizard of the North. To humor her, certainly, but it was something, and Rose was grateful to him.
It was past time Kincreag's man returned, and yet there was no sign of him. Lord Kincreag feared he'd had a mishap on the journey and wouldn't return until the spring. If ever.
All of this merely frustrated Rose. If only she could talk to Lord Strathwick. If only he would answer her letters. She stared down at the parchment before her, wondering what she could do to make this letter somehow different, more convincing than the previous ones.
She rose from the writing table and crossed to her father's bed. Unfortunately her ability to heal was not sufficient to save Alan MacDonell. His sleep was restless. She watched as his gaunt face twitched beneath the full gray beard. He frowned in his sleep, shook his head slightly.
Rose placed a hand against her father's forehead. It was cool. She exhaled, her hand closing into a fist. If he were feverish, then at least she'd know what to do. She closed her eyes, sliding her hand over his head and body, fingers almost touching him, but not quite, seeing the shape of his body in her mind, glowing softly with color.
This was her magic. With concentration, when she passed her hands over a body, she could see the ailment. A fever was an angry red glow suffusing the body. The area causing the fever often internal was a dark, textured color. Her magic was a great help in diagnosing and treating all sorts of ailments, but it was of no use if she could not see what was wrong.
With her father, she saw nothing. Every person possessed their own color when healthy, and Rose could see that, too, when she passed her hands over them. Alan MacDonell's color was green. Normally a lovely shade like spring grass, it had faded so that she could barely see it. As if the light and life were being drained from him. Rose could pinpoint no source, no darkness. Nothing. He was just fading away before her eyes, and there was not a thing she could do to stop it.
The door opened, and Rose's hands fell to her sides.
"How is he?" Uncle Roderick asked softly, moving to the other side of the bed to look down at his brother. Roderick was a big man, with powerful shoulders and lustrous copper hair tied at his nape. His handsome face creased with worry and sadness and resignation. Everyone else had accepted the inevitable, that Alan MacDonell would soon die. Rose could not accept it. After twelve years apart, it could not end like this. There was more to do. More to say. He could not die.
She gazed down at her father. His sleep had calmed.
"He's the same." She clenched her useless hands. Energy still coiled tight in her chest, making her restless and confused. It was always this way, as if there was more to do but what, she couldn't fathom. "The nightmares are fewer and less severe. No bruising." For a time he'd suffered from horrible nightmares that he'd been unable to remember. And when he'd woken, he'd been covered with odd bruises, as if he'd been beaten. It had been nearly a month since the last incident.
Rose rubbed her eyes wearily. "How is Tira?"
Tira was Roderick's third wife. The MacDonells seemed to be cursed. Rose's father had managed to have three healthy daughters with his wife, Lillian, who had been burned at the stake for witchcraft. He'd wed again, but his second wife had died in childbirth. Uncle Roderick had married three times in the past twelve years. The first two wives had died in childbirth as well. He had no children. His current wife, Tira, was heavily pregnant and due to give birth in a few weeks.
It was a very important baby Tira carried. Alan had no sons, so his lands and leadership of the Glen Laire MacDonells would pass to his younger half brother when he died. If Roderick died without issue, it would all revert back to Alan's children. As Isobel was the oldest, it would go to her husband, Sir Philip Kilpatrick. Rose could think of worse things than Sir Philip being chieftain of the MacDonells, but then Roderick was a strong leader, too, and the MacDonells knew him and trusted him.
And more importantly, it was a son that Tira carried. Many MacDonells were fey. Rose's mother, Lillian, had been a powerful witch. Rose and both of her sisters were witches. And Alan had a shine. One of his powers was the ability to determine the sex of the child a woman carried. He'd never been wrong. Before he'd fallen ill, women had come from miles around so he could touch their bellies. He'd once confided to Rose that he didn't actually have to touch the women to do it, but they'd always offered their bellies up, and it had seemed to make them more confident when he'd laid hands on them.
"Poor Tira. She's tired and has been a bit achy," Roderick said. "Mayhap you could come look at her when ye're done here?"
Rose sighed. She was forever tending Tira for every little twinge. It wasn't Tira who was difficult; it was her doting husband. He panicked at every little pain she had. Though Tira could still get around fine, Roderick had confined her to bed for the past two months.
"If ye're not busy, that is..." His gaze moved behind her to the table, where she'd been composing her letter to the Wizard of the North. Rose froze, her gaze darting from the parchment lying innocently on the tabletop back to her uncle. He moved fast. He was around the bed and at the table before her.
Rose tried to snatch the letter, but he grabbed it first. She ended up ripping it, and in the end, she had nothing to show for it but a ruined letter, which her uncle was now reading. Rose watched him, sullen, as he scanned it, his brow furrowed, and resigned herself to the impending tongue-lashing.
When he looked up from the letter his face was grim. "What did I tell you? Did I not warn you to cease writing this man?"
"You're not my chief yet."
Red suffused his neck. "But I am your uncle."
Rose had never been one to back down from a fight, especially when it came to one of her patients, and this was no exception. She did not fear her uncle. Beneath it all she knew he loved her and her sisters, but of late, he'd been especially hard on her.
She took a step forward so they were nearly toe to toe. Though a big man, Roderick was not tall. He stood but an inch or two above Rose's height.
"I am a healer healing is what I do." She gestured helplessly at the bed. "But I can do nothing for my own father. This man can help. I will not stop writing him because you are afraid of witches."
Though Roderick tried to remain stern, his blue eyes were merry with the effort to contain a smile. Finally it burst forth and he shook his head, chuckling. "Afraid, aye? And here I am, surrounded by them." His smile faded and his eyes grew serious again. "It's not the wizard I'm afraid of, but the trouble he'll bring."
"I don't care about that."
Rose turned away, but Roderick grabbed her shoulder and forced her to face him again.
"You should. He is a hunted man. His own clan has turned against him. They say he can change formsturn into wolves and such, and has familiars. It's said he goes nowhere without a demon rat."
Rose made a dismissive sound and rolled her eyes.
Roderick's fingers tightened on her shoulder. "Nonsense it might be, but the fact remains people are talking, and they are frightened of him. It takes less than that for a burning. He's too dangerous. I have heard, too, there is a witchpricker traveling the Highlands, searching for work. If he gets word the Wizard of the North is here at Glen Laire, where do you think he will travel next, aye? Would you really bring this upon your family in these times?"
Her jaw tightened. These times. They were bad times. Burning times. At one time, only the king could burn a witch legally, but witches were often lynched and burned anyway. Rose's mother was the perfect example of such a transgression gone unpunished. Five years ago, the king had granted commissions to any body of men in any village, giving them the power to try and burn witches. Churchmen and villagers had wasted no time rooting out suspects and singeing the air with pitch and fire. There was still no end in sight.
And that was exactly why there was no time to lose. What if Lord Strathwick were lynched as her mother had been? The urgency of the situation descended on Rose with renewed force. She could take care of herself, and her sisters had able husbands. Bringing the wizard here was an acceptable risk. This traveling witchpricker need never know a thing. But there was no convincing her uncle of this.
She let out a defeated sigh and nodded, eyes averted.
Despite twelve years apart, in the few months they'd been back together her uncle had gotten to know her relatively well.
"I mean it, Rose. Ye'll not convince me so easily. No more letters, understand?"
She glared at him, which seemed to be what he expected from her. He nodded and went to the door. He turned back, his hand on the latch, and asked pleasantly, "Ye'll be up to tend my Tira, aye?"
Rose managed a curt nod.
When he was gone, her father's guard, Hagan, entered, his heavy brow creased apologetically. "I'm sorry, lass. Roderick just told me I was not to aid you anymore."
The enormous Irishman had been helping her smuggle the missives to Lord Strathwick out of the castle so they could be given to travelers heading north. Hagan stood at the door, dark head lowered, thoroughly sheepish.
It seemed there was nothing left to do but fetch the wizard herself.
Rose found her sisters in the great hall. They were both seated near the largest fireplace at the west end. Isobel's gloved hands were extended out before her, draped with wool yarn. Gillian rolled the red yarn from Isobel's hands into a ball, gray eyes on something in the corner that only she could see.
"Well, dear, what is the last thing you remember?" Gillian asked the empty air.
Isobel watched the corner avidly, as if she might see something materialize.
"Any luck with the bairns?" Rose asked, sitting on the bench beside Isobel.
The ghosts of two wee lassies haunted this hall. They'd been spotted on occasion by servants, laughing and playing, but when someone got close they always disappeared. Gillian not only saw them all the time but spoke to them, too. It hadn't always been this way for Rose's sister. Someone had cursed Gillian after their mother was burned, and she'd only recently regained her ability to communicate with the dead.
Gillian ignored Rose for a moment, soft gray eyes intent on the corner, apparently attending to something the ghost children said to her. She was as lovely and perfect as always, in a green silk gown draped with a red-and-green arisaid. Thick sable hair was pulled away from her face, the glossy curls packed into a jeweled caul. The perfect countess.
Isobel's pale green eyes turned toward Rose, and she whispered, "They don't understand they're dead." She shook her head sadly, her thick copper-gold braid slipping over her shoulder. It, too, was kinked from curls. Rose was the only one of the three with impossibly straight auburn hair.
Isobel continued in a low voice, "It's making it most difficult for Gillian to help them move on."
Gillian smiled ruefully. "All they want to do is play."
"And what's wrong with that?" Rose asked. "I think I'd like to be a bairn forever and have nothing better to do than play."
Gillian's eyes softened and her smile faded. "You never did play much, did you? Always healing, even when you were a wee thing."
"Aye, well," Rose said, feeling guilty for expressing such feelings. Her mother had worked very hard to teach her, even though Lillian herself had not been a healer. She'd had such faith in her youngest daughter, and Rose had failed her. She'd been barely competent when Lillian had died. Rebellious and complaining, she'd given her mother fits. Rose gave a small shake of her head, putting it from her mind. She couldn't change it now, so there was no value in dwelling on it. Instead she worked hard to be the healer her mother had always believed she could be.
Rose nodded to the corner. "Why can't they just stay here and play?"
Gillian sighed and gazed at the empty air thoughtfully. "I suppose they can for now. But they should move on. Others are there, waiting for them. They'll be happier."
"It sounds as if they're happy now."
"They keep asking about their mother," Gillian said. "They understand that she's dead, but they don't understand they're dead. If they'd move on, they'd be with their mother again."
"Unless she went to the other place," Rose said.
Gillian shook her head firmly. "She didn't."
"How do you know?" Rose asked, skeptical. Her sister could see ghosts, but so far there'd been no mention of an afterlife.
"Because there is no hell."
Isobel looked around the hall nervously, but no one was close enough to overhear. "Hush, Gillian. That's blasphemy you speak."
Gillian shrugged. "It's the truth or so it seems to me. Hell is of our own making, if we're afraid to move on."
"So the wee lassies are in hell?" Rose asked.
"That's not what I said. They've not made it into a hell. They don't even understand they can move on. They're just children. It's the ones that tie themselves to a place and haunt it. Those are the ones in hell."
Rose considered this while Isobel glanced around nervously.
"Can we speak of something else?" Isobel whispered. After nearly being burned herself for witchcraft, Isobel had become quite cautious about such things.
"Aye," Rose said. "I've something to tell you, but you must not breathe a word to anyone especially Uncle Roderick." Rose scanned the hall. It was deserted except for a few hounds lazing in the rushes. She leaned closer to her sisters. "I'm leaving at first light. I'm going to bring Lord Strathwick here."
They both stared at her as if she'd gone mad. And perhaps she had, to undertake this alone, but she could see no other alternatives.
"Tell Da for me, but give me as much of a head start as possible in case he tries to send someone after me. Two days would be good."
Isobel reacted first, shaking her head in bewilderment. "You're going north alone?"
Before Rose could respond, Gillian gripped her arm. "You cannot go alone."
"And who should I take? Who can I trust here?"
Isobel and Gillian exchanged an uneasy glance.
"Fash not. I will disguise myself as a man."
Gillian grabbed her hand and squeezed it. "Rose think! Broken men roam the Highlands. Even lone men are in danger."
"You and Isobel traveled alone, and not disguised as men either. You came to no ill."
"We were fortunate."
"As will I be."
Her sisters still looked uneasy, and Rose couldn't risk them doing something foolish, like telling their husbands. That might end her journey before it began. She stared down at the rush-strewn floor for a long moment, then inhaled deeply through her nose. "I'm not a fool. I know that some of the stories about this wizard might be just that fables. But I can't help hoping..." Rose's heart raced at the thought, her voice catching momentarily. "If he is real, then I'll bring him back if I have to tie him to my horse. But if he's not..." She didn't want to consider that. "I have to know."
Gillian's lips thinned, and she gazed at Rose with worried gray eyes. "But are you sure it's wise? Nicholas's man never returned . . . we don't know what happened to him. The journey north is harsh and dangerous."
"Aye, but they haven't burned nearly as many witches up north. It's far safer than what you two did a few months back, traveling into the heart of the witch hunt to save Sir Philip."
"Aye," Isobel conceded, "but there are other dangers in the north."
"It'll be fine. I promise. I lived on Skye, remember? I can't imagine a bigger band of hempies then the MacLeans. I'm well used to such men."
They both still looked so worried. Rose sighed and held her arm out to Isobel. "Have a look see what happens."
Isobel frowned uncertainly. She had visions when she touched some things. Sometimes she saw the past, sometimes the present, sometimes the future. She'd been working hard to gain greater control of the gift, and she was having some success. She removed her gloves and gripped Rose's sleeve. After a moment she shut her eyes, her smooth brow creasing.
Rose and Gillian watched her closely. When her sage green eyes drifted open, they were empty, sightless. The troubled lines in her forehead became more pronounced, and her hand tightened on Rose's arm. She shook her head slightly, as if trying to shake off something disturbing, then her shoulders relaxed and a smile spread across her face. She released Rose's arm.
"What is it?" Rose asked impatiently.
"Oh, you'll be back and in time to deliver Tira of a large son."
"You saw this?" Gillian asked, eyes wide.
"Aye, I did. It will be a difficult birth you'll nearly lose both mother and child. There is a strange man there I don't recognize. He has gray hair. I think he's your wizard. He helps with the birth."
A surge of excitement and determined hope shot through Rose. Isobel's visions weren't always accurate, but they were often enough to make Rose confident her mission would be a success. "You see? There is naught to fash on. I'll be back with the wizard within the month."
Isobel grew serious. She seemed to be mulling something over, then she blurted out, "I saw something else, Rose, before the birthing. Something from your past."
Rose's gut clenched. "Aye?"
Isobel bit her lip hesitantly. "Would you like to talk about what happened on Skye?"
"No, I wouldn't." Rose tried to keep her face expressionless, though it felt stiff and unnatural from the effort, but she was determined to discourage further questions.
Gillian, of course, had no clue what they were talking about, and she looked between the two of them curiously. Rose was certain Isobel would fill Gillian in later, and that made resentment simmer, but not enough to discuss it. Let them think what they would. She had other things to fash on.
"What about Jamie MacPherson?" Gillian asked.
Rose's hand went to the ribbon around her neck, drawing the locket from her bodice where it lay against her heart. Jamie MacPherson was her betrothed. He'd been writing letters to her for months now. They'd known each other as children, and she remembered him with great fondness. She longed to wed him, but she'd written him, telling him she could not in good conscience marry him so long as her father was so ill. He'd written back assuring her that he understood and would wait.
She opened the locket and gazed down into her betrothed's cerulean eyes, his handsome face framed by golden hair. She shut the locket abruptly and tucked it back into her bodice. "He doesn't have to know...besides, if he ever finds out, he would understand. He is a good man, like Sir Philip and Lord Kincreag."
Her sisters had been most fortunate in their husbands fine men both, who adored their wives.
Rose stood. "I need to have a look at Tira so Uncle Roderick doesn't suspect anything." She gave them both a penetrating look. "Not a word to anyone. If someone comes looking for me tomorrow, tell them I've the bloody flux and cannot leave my chambers."
Isobel and Gillian stood, giving Rose swift, firm hugs and wishing her Godspeed. Filled with hope and resolve, she left to begin her preparations.
From his tower window he watched her leave under shadow of darkness and fog. She thought she was being clevershe always thought she was being clever. But in truth, she was doing exactly what he wanted. She'd interfered for the last time. The demon-raising ceremony was a lengthy one, consisting of days of fasting and prayer, and he could not do it with her present. Her sisters might cause some problems, but not nearly the delays Rose had caused him. Besides, he could charm the sisters into anything. Rose did not respond to charm or scolding or anything.
How she had become such a hard woman, he didn't know her time on Skye with the MacLeans, no doubt nor did he care. Not anymore. He looked to the sky. The moon was waxing. Soon it would be full and he could finally begin.
Copyright © 2005 by Jennifer Holling
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I started this trilogy in book 2 and had to look for more Jen books. Found this one. I really enjoyed the story.
I enjoyed how all 3 books came together in this last book. All 3 were great books :)
This is the story of two gifted healers who are drawn to each other. I think it is a sweet and beautiful love story.
Not my favorite but a very nice story at a reduced rate.
In 1597 Scotland, the youngest of three sisters, healer Rose MacDonell has mixed feeling about her family. While she rejoices that Gillian (see MY DEVILISH SCOTSMAN) and Isobel (see MY WICKED HIGHLANDER) have found happiness she worries that her father Alan is dying from a mysterious illness that she has failed to heal. --- Rose sends letters pleading with renowned healer Lord Strathwick William MacKay to come help her beloved sire, but he never replies. Desperate as her dad is getting worse, Rose decides to visit Strathwick to force him to see her father. However, William refuses to see her until she tricks her way into his frozen fortress in Glen Laire. He admires her courage and fortitude, but has his own troubles here in his isolated keep. Soon William and Rose fall in love, which geometrically enhance their healing powers. They will need that and more as they battle evil witchcraft that threatens his home and her father. --- The final tale of the MacDonell Brides trilogy is a charming historical fantasy romance that ties up the loose ends from the delightful previous tales within an enchanting plot. The story line is action-packed from the moment that Rose stands in the rain outside of Strathwick Castle until the final confrontation with an evil adversary. All three novels are worth reading as Jen Holling turns her late sixteenth century Scottish realm into a world of magic fueled by love. --- Harriet Klausner