Cullen Duffie, a Highland warrior and charming rogue, is the new chief of Clan MacDonald. Determined to prove he
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The Rogue of Islay Isle
Highland Isles Series
By Heather McCollum, Alethea Spiridon
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 Heather McCollum
All rights reserved.
Isle of Islay, Highlands of Scotland December 1522
Cullen Duffie crossed his legs at the ankle before the hearth fire and took a long pull off his tankard to wash the dust from his mouth. Hair still ruffled from the winter wind, Cullen welcomed the heat from the flames, prickling against his chilled skin. The hearth sat centered along the far wall of Dunyvaig Castle's great hall. He could almost stand his six-footfour-inch frame within its stony maw. If he jumped in the flames he wouldn't have to listen to the continued lecture coming from his two uncles standing before him. Hmmm ... burning to death or dealing with these jackanapes? It was proving to be a difficult choice.
"Ye can't leave Islay like that," Uncle Farlan MacDonald said, his jowls shaking with the snapping of his words. The man's bulbous nose seemed rosier than usual. Either he'd been drinking whisky or tugging on the appendage in his agitation. "Ye're the chief now, The MacDonald," he stressed, and crossed his thick arms over his chest.
As if Cullen didn't know that. Over the last five months, Cullen's life had been turned upside down when his dying grandfather, Gerard MacDonald, the chief of the mighty MacDonald clan of Islay Isle, named him his successor over his own two sons.
Uncle William MacDonald glared down at Cullen and shook his bald head. What hair he was missing on his noggin bushed out from his jawline in a full white beard. The two brothers were only a year apart in age, but vastly different in rendering a lethal stare. Uncle Farlan was loud and brash, but compassion made him feed stray cats in the barn. Uncle William, on the other hand, would quietly feed the kittens to English soldiers if he thought that would keep them off Islay Isle.
"A leader must remain at the helm, not dance off to make merry, Cullen," William said. "One raised to lead would know that."
Cullen's gaze rested momentarily on his mother, Charlotte, where she gripped her hands in a chair beside him, her lips pinched in a tight line. Cullen swung back to the ornery pair. "Do ye two lie in wait for me to walk through the door?" He rubbed the back of his skull where a dull throb reminded him how tired he was. He'd just returned from Aros Castle on the Isle of Mull, where his friend Tor Maclean had wed an English lass. At Aros Castle the mood was joyous and hopeful, while Dunyvaig remained dismal and damp.
Farlan swore. "Making light. Exactly like your irresponsible father. I don't know what my da was thinking, naming ye The MacDonald."
Cullen ignored the slander of his dead father. He'd grown up hearing how Anderson Duffie had gambled away his mother's dowry. He was a foolish Duffie and not one of the serious MacDonalds.
Cullen inhaled deeply through his nose. "The Macleans, and now the MacInneses, are our allies because of my trip off Islay. I returned as soon as possible, but helping our neighbors creates a stronger alliance against the English. Grandfather would agree."
William tugged his beard. "'Tis best we stay far from the English. Our young lad of a king and his French regent won't be helping us if King Henry's troops overrun Islay. Already, they've infiltrated the mainland up to Oban, hunting for French conspirators against England. I hear they hauled Will Campbell and his wife down to London for trial just for serving a French meal last Christmastide."
"The English are like black taint creeping up a leg," Farlan said. "Closer and closer, without notice, until ye're dead."
A dry slice of peat crackled and spit in the hearth, making the flames brighten. Shadows from the iron grate slid against the walls, dancing like witches casting spells. Wind whistled about the corners of the stone castle that perched on a small peninsula jutting out into the sea, adding an ominous symphony to their dire predictions.
"I have no intention of inviting the French to Islay for dinner or attacking the English," Cullen said. At least not unprovoked.
Had his uncles ever made merry in their lives? His mother swore they were young once. William had even been kind to her as a lass. But anger over their father's choice for the next chief, and his hate of Cullen's da, made William, especially, a bitter nuisance. How could Cullen prove his worth to them? Become a leader they could trust?
Farlan craned his thick neck back and inhaled, filling his barrel chest like a stretched wine bladder, which could only mean another lecture. "There's much to do, Cullen. The harvest —"
"Came in with bountiful results," Cullen finished. "I left Broc and Errol to make sure everything continued to run smoothly." He nodded to the openmouthed man. "And I thank ye and Uncle William for keeping the island free of English while I was away strengthening our alliances."
Cullen uncrossed his ankles, planted his boots with a thud on the woven rug, and stood, stretching tall. His father may not have left him much, but Anderson Duffie had given his son great height and a carefree smile. Unfortunately, his uncles thought that his casual, slow-to-anger attitude made him a poor chief and constantly pointed out that he hadn't been born, nor raised, to be the leader of the huge MacDonald clan of Islay.
"Now I will find my bed." He bent to kiss his mother's cheek.
"But we should run down the accounts with ye," Farlan said.
"In the morning," Cullen answered, knowing his uncles would painstakingly go through every sheep sheared, fish caught, and candle dipped.
The fire flickered with a gust of wind down the chimney, and thunder cracked outside. "Ye best find your warm homes," Cullen said. It was December and winter storms battered Islay from the Atlantic.
Charlotte stood, the top of her head coming only to his shoulder. "I will find my bed as well." Cullen offered her his arm and led her toward the dark corridor at the back of the hall. They reached the stairs, leaving the grumbling uncles behind.
Charlotte's face softened. "I'm glad ye're home. My brothers ..." She shook her head, sliding her long braid off her shoulder. "They are tiresome."
"Aye, but I'm sorry to be gone so often."
She patted his hand. "A necessity."
He followed her up the winding stone steps, lit by oil sconces set in the stone, their little flames undisturbed behind glass shields. His mother's fingers trailed along the rough wall. Was she happy here? Living in her father's huge, frigid castle instead of the cozy cottage Cullen's father built? She and Cullen had moved in right after Gerard died, before the uncles could do so. Perhaps they didn't belong here.
They reached the top of the stairs. "We can move back out to Da's cottage," he said, causing Charlotte to spin toward him. "And I could come to the keep for council —"
"Nay," she said. "Ye can't." Her gaze flashed toward the dark stairs. "They will swoop in here before the beds are cold."
"I will still be The MacDonald."
"Dunyvaig Castle is the home of The MacDonald, Cullen. My father thought ye to be the best leader for the clan. The one to guard us against unneeded war."
"Grandfather liked me for dancing with Grandmother and complimenting her white teeth." The woman had told everyone about her young grandson's comments to her one festival, and the teasing began. To a ten-year-old Cullen, a pretty smile, with a bounty of white teeth, meant healthy and happy. Since he couldn't live the comment down, he'd embraced it.
"'Tis more than that." His mother tapped his chest. "I have great faith in ye. Ye are clever and honorable. Ye have the best qualities from your father and none of his excesses. Ye are a leader, and no matter what anyone says, my father named ye The MacDonald."
He leaned against the wall, its silent strength reminding him of his grandfather. "But does a title make a man into something he wasn't before?" A year ago he would have been called warrior, grandson, Highlander, rogue. Now, he was called chief. Could he live up to the title? He was a warrior, fighting with ease on the battlefield, but he needed to be more, much more, to keep his people safe as their leader.
Charlotte's tapping turned into a jab in the chest. "Before doesn't matter. Now ye are the protector of Dunyvaig and Islay. Ignore those two old fools." Her glare crackled with suppressed ire.
"Why do I suddenly worry about my uncles' longevity?"
She patted her thigh through her skirts. "I do carry a blade."
They stopped outside his inherited bedchamber. "Cullen," she said, resting her palm on his door. "I went by your room earlier, and I thought I heard someone in the secret stairway."
Grandfather's secret stairway wasn't a secret. Gerard's father, before him, had renovated the small birthing chamber into an antechamber that hid an ancient set of steps he'd found behind the hearth. His wife, Cullen's grandmother, had been so excited by the discovery that she'd told the whole village about the chief's secret stairs, which led out beyond the wall around the castle.
"Not to worry," Cullen said. "It's probably one of the lasses who saw me return." Maybe the buxom twins or the raven-haired young widow who had a sinfully talented mouth.
"That's what I'm afraid of," she muttered. "Foolish chits." She pointed a finger at him. "They're hoping to get with child, Cullen, so they can make ye wed them."
Och. He surely didn't need more titles: father, husband, bastard-maker. A well-known MacDonald look crossed her fine features. "Mark my words," she continued. "The first one ye get with a bairn in her stomach will be the next Lady MacDonald."
"Wise words," Cullen said. He'd always attracted the lasses, from which he'd benefitted immensely. But since he'd been named the new chief, they'd become brazen, their desires stemming less from the power beneath his kilt and more from the power his title brought with it.
His mother tugged absently on her braid. "Ye should marry anyway and start a family now that ye're chief. 'Tis part of your duty."
He was only too aware of all the responsibilities recently thrust upon him, including a need to further his family line. "I might wed an English lass like Tor Maclean did. It could keep Captain Taylor's soldiers on their side of the strait." Captain Taylor and Captain Thompson patrolled the mainland for King Henry and were always looking for a reason to attack the Scots, taking away their land and moneys for England.
Charlotte huffed. "I suppose, though I hate the idea of some English ninny."
Cullen moved his hand to the latch but stopped. "Ye know of no bairns already, do ye?" he asked. He was always careful with the lasses he bedded, making certain to withdraw before conclusion. 'Twas risky, but he was controlled, never losing his head on the battlefield or between a lass's legs.
Charlotte shook her head, and Cullen felt the tight knot in his stomach relax. She glanced toward the door. "Do ye want me to chase off whatever trull is in the tunnel?"
The poor lass would have her ear tugged off if Charlotte MacDonald got ahold of her. "Nay," he said with as much seriousness as he could muster. "I will give her a sound talking to about honor and virtue."
His mother's tight face said quite plainly that she didn't believe him. After all, she knew his reputation. He bent to kiss her cheek and strode into the large bedchamber. His mother slept in one of the moderate rooms down the corridor, far enough away that a lusty lass in his bed wouldn't wake her.
Cullen released a long exhale, deflating his chest, and looked about the heavily furnished room. It still felt like his grandfather's abode since Cullen hadn't had time to change out the hanging tapestries depicting serious, bloody victories from MacDonald history. It was a wonder his grandmother had been able to sleep in here with the walls draped in death. The large bed sat in the middle of hanging velvet curtains that still clutched his grandfather's tangy, old-devil smell. The heaviness of the room weighed on him. The only part of the room he'd leave unmolested would be his grandfather's whisky decanter and glasses.
Och, that was what he needed, some of his Aunt Maggie's fine Duffie brew. Cullen shucked his boots, setting them together to the side of the hearth. He poured a glass of the whisky, swirling it in the pewter cup, and took a sip. Smooth. It trailed a hot path down his throat.
Now to discover what delights awaited him on the other side of the door to the secret stairs. Padding silently over, he stood and listened. Nothing. The lass may have tired of waiting. Lightning flashed, followed immediately by a clap of thunder outside the windows. He used the cover of the thunder to lift and drop the heavy bar, jerking open the door with his free hand.
"Bloody hell," the woman squeaked from the shadows. "Cull, ye scared the life out of me."
Not the widow or the twins. Mild disappointment turned his smile into a crooked grin. Cullen inhaled deeply and took a step back to let Beatrice MacDonald out of the dark closet. She wore a woven shawl over a sleeping smock.
"What are ye doing sneaking up here?" he asked. Beatrice had grown up with him, their cottages next to each other. He thought of her more as a sister than a bedmate. She'd seemed to agree, but lately she'd been hinting that she wanted much more than a friendship. Hence showing up in his bedroom in her smock.
Beatrice fluttered her lashes. "I saw ye ride home and thought I'd come see to yer ... comfort." Her face flushed red, but she held her mouth in a smile as if it were painted there.
"In yer smock?" he asked, one brow raising.
She stepped close enough for her breasts to press against him, making her pale skin swell up over the low neckline. "There's quite a bit of comfort a lass can give wearing nothing but her smock."
He stared down into her bonny, blushing face. "Hell, Bea, ye need this more than I do." Stepping back, he thrust the whisky into her hand. With only a slight hesitation, she threw it back. Did she know it was whisky?
Her eyes widened, but she swallowed it down. "Thank ye."
Cullen crossed to the hearth, throwing a block of peat onto coals that someone had kindled earlier when he'd arrived. "So ye've joined the pack of lasses trying to drag me before the kirk."
"Cull," she whispered, and he realized she'd followed. He planted his hands on her shoulders to keep her from pressing into him. "Ye've known me since I was born," she said. "We grew up together. I've always been fond of ye, even when everyone talked bad of yer da. Ye didn't take on his foolish bent, or your grandda wouldn't have named ye chief." Her gaze traveled up and down his frame, an eyebrow raised. She drew her one hand across her bosom, petting herself.
Cullen exhaled and turned, walking over to pour himself some watered-down ale. One of them better stay sober or Beatrice's plans to get him into bed would be successful. Would that be a terrible thing? He watched her as she spun around like a leaf in an eddy, skipping to the decanter to pour herself some more.
"Our mothers have practically planned our wedding, Cull." She took two gulps of the fiery liquid and breathed out the smooth fumes in between each. She poured a third cup, plopping down on the end of his bed. Cupping the drink in her palms and dangling her slippered feet, she looked too young for a seduction even if she was reaching a score in age.
Cullen sighed. Aye, Beatrice was bonny and womanly, but she was often condescending and sharp-tongued, like her mother. To tangle with her would cause more trouble than a romp in bed was worth.
Lightning flashed outside the windows, followed by a crack of thunder. "Ye should get home, Bea, before the clouds open up." He watched out the window as a splinter of light crossed the sky through the clouds, as if cleaving them open with a blade. Another streak lit the billowing mass, illuminating the sea below like midday. In the flash he saw angry waves rising up to beat against the rocky shore, and ...was that a ...?
Rain pelted the thick glass panes his grandfather had set in the window openings. Cullen rubbed a hand across the cold glass and watched lightning zigzag down. Aye, he was right. There was a ship tossing in the swells, halfway to the horizon. Keeping himself from blinking, he waited, knowing exactly where it battled to stay above the waves.
Flash. The large ship bobbed sideways, her tall masts like limbless trees reaching up to the angry clouds. The sails were collapsed, probably tied down by anxious sailors who prayed and ran about while their captain steered into each swallowing wave. Would it hold together through the night or break up in the brutal smash of wind and water?
Cullen's nose brushed the glass as he stared, waiting for another lightning strike. When it came, he didn't see the ship. Could it be lost in a swell or sinking to the bottom of the icy black sea? For long minutes he watched, occasionally spying the tips of masts still pointed toward the angry heavens. He turned, shaking his head.
Excerpted from The Rogue of Islay Isle by Heather McCollum, Alethea Spiridon. Copyright © 2017 Heather McCollum. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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