The Accidental Highland Hero [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Terry Spear
eBook Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
eBook Description: Lady Eilis Dunbarton's life undergoes a drastic change with the death of her cousin, Agnes. Now she's faced with the disagreeable prospect of marrying the man who was to be her cousin's husband. Not by a change of contract, though. Instead, by deceit--pretending to be her cousin. But if her husband-to-be discovers she's not really Agnes, her life is forfeit. So what choice does Eilis have but to flee? When Laird James MacNeill's clan rescues a half-drowned lass from the sea, there is speculation she is of the enemy clan, especially since she doesn't remember her own name. James is immediately enticed with the lady, but his focus must remain on finding the proper bride. For if he does not wed soon, he must give up his holdings to one of his younger brothers. Focus slips away with each day Eilis is close, and James finds himself contemplating the thought of taking her to wife without knowing her true identity. But how dangerous would the end result be? And what will happen if Eilis's husband-to-be comes looking for her only to find her in the arms of another man?
eBook Publisher: Vinspire Publishing
Fictionwise Release Date: May 2011
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3 Reader Ratings:
"[Terry Spear] draws the reader into her stories with witty banter, romantic pursuit, and cleverly woven suspense. Medieval Scotland comes alive in vivid detail with braw highlanders and brave lassies who win their hearts. Highly recommended!" Karen Michelle Nutt, PNR Paranormal Reviews "This spicy historical will steal your breath and capture your heart." ~Susan Sigler, Love Romance Passion "The story will hold you captive as author Terry Spear takes you on a fantastic journey back in time for a beguiling, tantalizing, breathtaking adventure. From the opening line to the closing words, you're taken on a heart-pounding, pulse-throbbing ride of love, honor, betrayal, hope, desperation, and salvation." ~Pamela Purcell, editor of The Chattooga Press "The Accidental Highland Hero is a wonderful, entertaining Scottish medieval romance filled with sexy Highlanders. The seductive hero, James, could charm any lass out of her kirtle! The heroine, Eilis, is strong and feisty, yet in need of someone to show her what it means to be loved. I enjoyed the tenderness and emotion between these two. This story contains all my favorite elements: sensual romance, rich historical detail, beautifully described Scottish setting, exciting adventure, suspense, and humor." ~Nicole North, Beast in a Kilt, Secrets Volume 29 "If every shipwreck resulted in the kind of brawny, sexy Scotsman such as Spear's James MacNeill, I say truss me up and ship me out. Filled with romance, adventure, and intrigue, I had no reluctance enjoying the Accidental Highland Hero." ~Robyn White, Librarian & Book Connoisseur
Cala na Creige, Scotland, 1103
'Twas the first time since her father's death in a fortnight, Lady Eilis Dunbarton had managed to sneak out of her uncle's castle without escort. She'd so longed to see the beach below the cliffs where her father and she had spent many a day talking about the sea and his journeys. Only here could she find a gift for her cousin that she would truly treasure.
Eilis unfastened her brooch and pulled off her ariasaid. After attaching the brooch to the plaid, she tucked it behind a crag on the grassy ridge so as to keep it dry.
By the time Eilis traversed the steep, natural steps cut into the cliff by wind and rain and reached the rocky beach, the tide was coming in. She couldn't tarry long and hurried to sort through the sea-polished stones when she spied a glint of purple crystal a few feet away, the water already washing over it. The stone would be the perfect gift for Agnes's day of celebration as much as she loved the color. Eilis hurried forth, her foot slipping on the wet, mossy rocks. She nearly took a tumble. Her heart leapt in her throat.
But then the small, narrow cave where the incoming tide had drowned two laddies last summer caught her eye. Were their spirits still trapped there? She shuddered, remembering how she and Agnes had sneaked into the forbidden cave only a day before and found a dagger and silver brooch. She swallowed hard. 'Twas best she kept her mind on the incoming tide and be quick about her business.
Elated to find such a treasure, she took a deep breath of the salty, fishy smelling air, grabbed the shimmering purple crystal, and dropped it into her pouch. It clunked against her other precious stones.
Drawing closer to the tidal waters, she spied an amber stone. As disconsolate and imprisoned as she and her wee brother had been since their father's death, she knew Ethan would love yet another gem to add to his collection. 'Twas a shame she could not bring him along for a brief respite, but she'd had a difficult enough time slipping out on her own without taking him with her.
Wending her way over the rocks, she attempted to reach the glistening stone, the tidewater already rushing in to claim it. Nay, it would be hers this day. There was no telling when she could sneak out alone again. Mayhap never.
She only wished her father's youngest brother living in Ireland could have taken her and her brother in. But she could wish all she liked and naught would change. Soon she feared her Uncle Ceardach would give her in marriage to some chieftain to tie another clan's loyalty to his. Ethan would then be at her uncle's cruel mercy.
The sea soaked her to her ankles, the water icy cold, and she slipped again. Her skin prickled with unease. The deeper the water, the harder to see her treasure and to make any progress against the flow. Och, just a few more feet. The tide threatened to wash her back onto the diminishing shore.
When she reached the spot where she thought she'd spied it, she crouched, wetting her kirtle, and dug at the stones with her fingers. Lifting one after another, she tossed them aside. Where was the pretty amber stone? The water tugged at her, trying to topple her as she fought its strong push. Heart racing, she stood, shielded her eyes from the sun peeking through clouds, and peered into the water. She thought she glimpsed it farther out than she'd first imagined.
She hesitated. 'Twas not too far to go if she hurried. Mayhap she would not get too much wetter, although the cold was already making her feet ache. She thought of Ethan and how he would react when she brought him the gem. His face would light in glee. Aye, she had to get him the treasure.
She waded deeper, the cold icing her legs, her skirts soaking up the water, weighing her down. And then when she thought she stood in front of it, she peered into the water and smiled. Aye, there it is. She leaned over and thrust both hands into the water and grabbed the treasure, but the stone was wedged tight. Larger than she thought also.
The water had risen too high, was moving too fast, and now even her chest was immersed as she--
The rock began to give, and her heart did a little skip for joy.
A man's youthful voice, shouted, "Nay, lass!"
But 'twas too late for a warning.
The tide pulled her off her feet, tugging her like a hundred wet hands toward the cave into the dark and jagged rocks. Her breath let out in a whoosh. Grasping for purchase on the ragged rocks in her path, she swallowed a mouthful of briny sea and choked.
"Hold on!" the man shouted again, but his voice was still a goodly distance away.
Searing pain ripped through her torn palms and fingers while she clung on, the tide threatening to drown her as it attempted to pull her into the cave. She couldn't give in, not when she had to look after Ethan.
Was the man coming? She couldn't hear him for the roar of the water crashing along the cliff face and the seagulls screeching high overhead. Another wave roared over her, soaking her to the skin while she held her breath against the onslaught. But the wall of water yanked her from her tentative hold on the slippery rocks.
Just as the sea was pulling her under, hands grasped her wrists and tugged her away from the entrance to the cave. The man held her tight around the waist and kicked his legs, drawing her farther from the deadly menace.
Coughing to expel the seawater that gagged her, she tried to open her eyes. The saltwater stung, and she couldn't see anything more than a blur and closed them again.
"Are you all right, lass?" The man dragged her from the water and onto the first of the steps leading back up the cliff. The water lapped at the rocks just below them and would rise even higher.
All she could think of was how angry her uncle would be if he saw her clothes and hair wet. And if he knew a man had touched her, despite the best of intentions, he'd kill him. But beyond that, the man who held her so intimately, did things to her she never had imagined--sent a strange heat through her body when she should have been chilled to the bone. His strong arms secured her against him, lean and hard, his lips so close even his eyes took in her appearance with too much familiarity. 'Twas more than scandalous. Yet, she clung to him with all her strength--loving his warmth, his protectiveness, his noble endeavor to save her when he could have died.
He pulled a strand of kelp from her hair and threw it back into the sea.
"I am...I am all right," she sputtered, her throat raw from swallowing the seawater.
He raised his brows. "Aye, you are a hardy one that. Although what the devil you were doing, I cannot fathom."
He would not understand. 'Twas not more than a foolish lass's whim he would think. But to revisit the place her da and she used to come, and what the stone would have meant to her little brother--these things meant the world to her. Only she lost her brother's treasure. Her eyes filled with tears.
The man half carried, half dragged her up the steep incline. Several feet above the tidewater broiling in a frenzy against the rocks, he helped Eilis sit.
"Here, drink this." He pulled a flask from his belt.
The honeyed mead helped soothe her throat, the sweet wine washing away the salty grit. She tried to wipe the biting salt from her eyes, but her wet sleeves irritated them even more.
"Here." He pulled a dry cloth from a pouch. "Where do you live?"
After wiping her eyes, she opened them, although they still burned, and she squinted against the pain. When she was able to see more clearly, she noticed the man's hair, the color of freshly turned earth, rich and glistening with water, hanging loosely at his shoulders. His brows were furrowed with concern. But his dark brown eyes swallowed her up, held her hostage. She didn't think she'd ever seen such a handsome man in her life.
"Lass, where do you live? In yonder castle, mayhap? You will catch your death. Even now you are shivering. Shall I take you there?"
"Your name, sir," Eilis whispered, her bloodied hands burning, tears pricking her eyes.
"James." He tugged at her to get her to her feet.
Her gown laden with water, she could barely stand.
"Concentrate on taking one step at a time, lass. We need to get you to the top of the cliff." He wrapped his arm around her waist and helped her to the next step. "You weigh as much as my horse, I fathom. What is that you are carrying?"
She couldn't tell him 'twas a collection of rocks. He would think her daft. Inching up between his pulling her and her climbing, she felt a new pain, this in her right hip. Hopefully, she had not broken anything or her uncle would be more than angered.
-By the time they neared the top of the ridge, Eilis felt like she'd been climbing cliffs on an all-day hunt.
"We are almost there, lass. Just a wee bit more, and I should be able to pull you up."
The next thing Eilis knew, she was on her back, and the youth was lying atop her, his head between her breasts, his legs between hers, his breath rasping.
"James," she gasped, her chilled body instantly heating as if she'd been immersed in cook's boiling soup. The tingling in her stomach renewed and spread to the tips of her breasts and between her legs. She'd never felt anything akin to this before, and the sensation both intrigued and alarmed her.
He lifted his head, and his mouth curved upward in the most devilish manner. "You are alive."
Her legs bared to the warm breeze, she tried to wriggle free, shoving his shoulders with her hands, but pain jolted through her hip, her palms burning, and she groaned.
"You are hurt, lass," James said, his eyes widening as he eased off her. "Where do you ail?"
"Beg pardon, sir," she cried, scooting away from him, yanking at her kirtle to cover her naked legs. Her uncle had thoroughly warned her about men, of any age--young and old, how easily they could compromise a lady's affections then leave them in a bad way, heartbroken and alone.
"Your dress, lass, was too sodden. When I finally managed to get us to the top of the cliff, we collapsed, and you fainted, pulling me on top of you. I listened for your heartbeat to make sure you had not died."
"I am quite alive, sir." Verra much so, if the way her body had reacted to his was any indication.
What was worse, she missed his intimate touch, the heat of his body, his protectiveness. Yet the image of him betwixt her legs reminded her of the kitchen maid Eilis had spied with a stable boy in the barn and with another man she did not know. Both times the maid's kirtle was above her waist, the rest of her naked to a bare-arsed lad--och.
Eilis would think naught more of the matter as she had told herself so many times before. Besides, this was not the same. James was noble for having risked his life to save her.
Until she looked into James's eyes and saw a hint of the devil in them. Or mayhap it was his lips curved up in such a roguish way that intrigued her like no other.
"Aye, I see you are verra much alive." James smiled at the bewitching lass. As soon as he'd spied her on the rocky beach, he wondered what she was doing. But when he saw the danger she was in, he'd had to stop her and nearly broke his neck in his rush down the slippery stone steps.
Now her green eyes held his gaze, boldly, unlike how a serving girl or even one of the ladies of a manor would react, looking away demurely, trying to draw him in with her subtle female ways. But the lass more than held his gaze, assessed his looks--twice already, stirring his loins like no other.
He assumed from the quality of her gown, she was a lady of some means. Although he tried not to look at it overmuch, the way the wet fabric clung to all her soft curves, revealing way more than he should have seen. Just observing her like this, for once, he was at a loss for words.
So what was she doing without a chaperone, risking her life with the tide coming in?
She was daring, adventuresome, and even half drowned--the prettiest lassie he'd seen with fiery red-gold curls in wet straggles down to her hips and cheeks full of color. Although when he'd listened to her heart, her cheeks had been quite pale.
None of the shy, retiring girls he'd met would have left their castles without proper escort. And none of them would have been caught dead doing--well, he wasn't sure what she'd been doing. Looked to be fishing without a net.
Although she'd spoken barely a few words, her speech was as honeyed as his mead, not shrill like cook's voice, or harsh as the kitchen staff. And even though he'd startled her with his actions, she had not screamed for someone to rescue her.
She more than intrigued him. He thought he intrigued her a little also.
"Your name, lass? And from where do you hail?"
Just then a man shouted from the road some yards beyond, "Where are you? Da will have your hide!"
The girl's eyes widened. "Hide. Hurry! Beyond that crag. If my cousin finds you alone with me, he will slay you."
"I just saved you."
"He will kill you! I beg of you, if you value my life and your own, leave."
Her eyes misted.
With great reluctance, James would do as she bade. He took her arm, realizing then how cold she was and berated himself for not going for help sooner. "I will wait over yonder to see that your cousin finds you."
She licked her lips as if preparing them for a kiss. Without further thought, he pressed his mouth against hers and tasted the honeyed mead and her own sweetness.
Her lips parted in surprise, and he pushed harder. Soft, yielding, perfectly innocent. 'Twas with the utmost difficulty he broke the kiss. "Lass, your name."
He knew then he had to see her again. Somehow. Although he hoped she was not of an enemy clan.
But she shook her head and pushed him away. "He will kill you, fool. Go." She pressed her finger to her lips as if cherishing his touch. She tried to sit up, but she groaned, and James hesitated to leave her. Again, she shoved at him. "Go," she whispered, her word angry, but her eyes sad.
He ground his teeth and dashed off to the outcropping of rocks, hating that he had still not learned her name. Irritated he would have to hide when he had only the lass's best intentions at heart--well, except for the kiss--chaste as it was.
His younger brother slipped in beside him. "I have searched for you for miles," Malcolm whispered then peered around the rocks to see what James was watching.
Malcolm let out his breath. "What is going on? Da is calling for you. Who is the lass? What is she doing there, soaked from head to toe? And what were you doing kissing her?"
James groaned inwardly. How long had his brother been watching them? "Little brother, her cousin comes for her. Hush."
'Twas not much longer when a strapping young man, red blond hair like the girl's, came into view astride a roan, a scar across his face, giving him a surly look.
"There you are. God's wounds, cousin, my da will take a strap to you for running off. Why are you soaked to the bone? Get up."
"I...I hurt myself."
Her cousin jumped from his horse, leaned down, and grabbed her wrist.
James would have leapt from his hiding place and protected the lass if his brother hadn't seized his arm and shaken his head.
The girl's cousin yanked her to her feet, and she screamed out.
'Twas more than James could bear. He fought against Malcolm, furious he would stop him from rescuing the lass.
"Och, Da will be more than displeased." Her cousin grabbed her by the waist.
"My bag." Her face pained, she motioned to the leather pouch on the ground.
He glanced at it. "Your rocks?" He grunted. "Da needs to find you a husband without delay."
He threw her over the saddle, and again she cried out. Before she could protest or James could get loose from Malcolm, the lass's cousin remounted and galloped off.
"Who was she?" Malcolm asked as they rose from their crouched position.
The most foolish lassie James had ever met, and the only one who had ever heated his body to a fevered pitch, stolen every reasonable thought in his mind, and left him yearning for more of her touch.
He frowned at his brother for stopping him from rescuing the lass from her brutish cousin. Malcolm leaned down and lifted an ariasaid from the ground, hidden by the shadows of the rocks. "Is it hers?"
James took the plaid from his brother and smelled it. "Aye." 'Twas the sweet lassie's scent. He tucked it into his plaid and traversed the rocky cliff. When he reached her bag, he hoped to discover more about who she was and where she was from. He peered inside and stared at the contents. Rocks? No wonder the lass weighed as much as his horse. Well, that, and her wet kirtle. He tied the pouch to his waist, hoping to learn who the lass was and return her treasures. "Is Da drunk again?"
"Aye. When is he not? But he says you must wed soon, and he wishes you to choose from one of the lassies he has in mind for you to marry."
"I will not be laird until he is gone. 'Tis time to take up my sword in the Crusade." Mayhap James could redeem his father's sins. Or mayhap not. He glanced in the direction the lass's cousin had ridden. "Time enough later to find a lass to wed."
When he could find one who made him feel like the girl in the green kirtle did, with silken hair and sea green eyes, who challenged him with her sweet innocence, aye, then he would wed.
Dubh Linn, Ireland, 1107
Eilis hastily brushed away tears, and kissed her beloved cousin's cold cheek. Now with Agnes dead, 'twas only her wee brother and her against the world.
"Hurry, Lady Eilis," her cousin's maid, Wynda, scolded. "You must not keep your uncle waiting. He has an audience with the king after he speaks with you."
The fact Eilis's uncle had summoned her right before he spoke with Muirchertach did not bode well.
"I am afraid of Uncle Ceardach," Ethan whispered, her brother's small hand squeezing Eilis's to death, and she knew no matter how much she wanted to protect him from her uncle's harsh ways, she had no power here. "He is verra angry that Cousin Agnes died," Ethan added.
Looking up at Eilis, Ethan took a hesitant breath, his green eyes wide with trepidation, his windswept curly blond locks tangled over his forehead and the rest hanging down to his shoulders--a miniature version of their deceased father.
Eilis's heart shrank with distress. "Aye," she said softly, wishing she could allay her wee brother's fears, wishing she could steal away with him and live with some other kinsman. But there were none who would go against her uncle's will and provide them shelter.
She had seen her uncle terrorize his brother's servants and even his own this verra morn. She had hoped once Agnes married Laird Dunbarton, their uncle's temper would settle. Now with Agnes dead, their uncle's hopes to secure peace along their clan borders died with it.
Ethan's hand squeezed Eilis's again when they saw Broc, their uncle's only son, also headed in the direction of the great hall, shoving a servant out of his path. An old scar cut against Broc's brow, a mishap when fighting a neighboring clansman, giving him a perpetual scowl, now deepened as he spied Eilis with her brother.
"He is angry also," Ethan whispered to Eilis.
"Aye." She imagined Laird Ceardach MacBurness had taken his anger out on Broc as much as he did anyone else in the clan this morn. Soon, her uncle planned to return to Scotland, leaving his brother's castle in Ireland after but a brief visit, meant to secure concessions from him, no doubt. She wished Ceardach would leave Ethan and her behind to live in Ireland. But Ceardach was the elder of the two and despite her prayers and wishes, she knew he would not give them up to be wards of his younger brother, Maddock. Ceardach would train Ethan to be a warrior, loyal to his rule. She feared her uncle would soon offer her to some minor chieftain to gain special considerations as well. What she wouldn't give to raise her brother of six summers until he reached manhood.
They entered the great hall where Uncle Ceardach sat, his red beard streaked gray, making him appear older than his forty summers. He gave her only a cursory glance. Then Broc entered the hall, a smug smile fixed to his lips.
Uncle Ceardach rose to his full height, which made Eilis all the more uneasy. His green eyes pinned her as if to say she would not object to the disagreeable news. Immediately, her heart beat irregularly.
Her uncle folded his arms across his broad chest. "I have weighed this matter with the utmost concern, and my decision will stand."
She scarcely breathed, and Ethan's small hand was cutting off the circulation in hers.
"You will marry Laird Dunbarton." His cold eyes fixed on her, challenging her to object.
Her heart took a dive, her knees went weak, and she could scarce believe his words. Her uncle couldn't mean for her to wed the old laird in Agnes's place. Would the laird even be agreeable? "But--"
Her uncle waved her objection aside. "You will do as I bid. Since your mothers were twins, lassie, you look enough like your cousin, the same red gold curls, the same height, same green eyes. Laird Dunbarton has never seen either of you, and no one there will ever know the difference. The fighting along our clan borders has to stop, and he agrees to halt the conflict with this marriage."
Her thoughts swirled with confusion.
"You will take her place."
She grasped at any hope to make him change his mind. "But, my laird, will Laird Dunbarton accept me since I am but your niece not your daughter?"
"I will not have my plans laid asunder because of Agnes's death. I cannot afford for him to say no. You will be Agnes from this day forth."
Her heart stopped beating for an instant. He could not be serious. Ethan looked up at her, his mouth agape. They had always been taught not to tell falsehoods. How could she explain to him their uncle was forcing her to live the biggest lie of their lives?
"But, my laird," Eilis pleaded, knowing her entreaties would fall on deaf ears but praying her uncle would listen to reason while he paced back in forth in his brother's castle overlooking the coast. "He will know I am not your daughter. Agnes--"
Laird MacBurness came to an abrupt halt and glowered at her. "The agreement has already been signed and witnessed."
"The marriage agreement says Laird Dunbarton will marry Agnes, my laird. Not me," Eilis implored, her heart sinking in despair.
As the clan chief's only daughter, Agnes had had everything Eilis ever wanted, a father and mother to take care of her every whim, a clan who treated her like a princess. Eilis had loved Agnes like a sister. Knowing she'd never see Agnes's smiling face again brought tears to her eyes.
Taking a heavy breath, Eilis remembered the way her mother had looked, flushed with fever, then pale as death, the same way Agnes had appeared on her deathbed. Only in Eilis's mother's case, the fever was due to birthing Eilis's baby brother who was born stillborn, and her mother died shortly thereafter.
Eilis was certain that's why her father, so distraught over her mother's death, had fought against the raiding MacIntosh clan with no care for his own safety and lost his life.
Eilis's thoughts shifted again to poor dear Agnes. For once, Eilis had been grateful not to be the clan chief's daughter when her uncle made arrangements to marry Agnes to the Dunbarton chief, who was sixty summers in age. Although Eilis had fretted enough for the both of them that poor Agnes would have to marry the old chief.
How could a twist of fate be so cruel?
Now, there was no one to console Eilis in her grief. Worse, she could not protect her little brother if her uncle made him stay with him.
Leaning against the south wall, Broc considered her as if she were a peace offering, his blue eyes ice cold.. He wouldn't voice a word to save her. Truth be known, he wanted her to marry the old laird just as much as his father did, to keep the peace, to ensure their plans were not interrupted.
"I am not any good at feigning the truth. I will say the wrong thing and Laird Dunbarton will want my head and yours also," Eilis tried again.
"He would not be successful." Ceardach MacBurness smiled heartlessly, the look of a battle-hardened Highland warrior. Her father had always warned her his older brother had eaten lesser men to break his fast. She was certain her uncle wouldn't be swayed by her entreaty.
He gave her a stern look, his red hair hanging loosely about his haggard face, made harder from the strain of losing his only daughter. He cared not about Eilis nor Agnes for that matter. They were only pawns to be used wherever it suited the clan best. But losing his daughter had created the latest angst during his long years of embattled rule.
"If I don't resolve this matter at once, I'll have another fight on my hands," he growled to Brock. "God's wounds, couldn't Agnes have waited to fall ill until after she'd wed Dunbarton?" he roared.
Instantly, Eilis felt feverish and wondered if she was coming down with the same sickness her cousin had died from. 'Twould serve her uncle right.
MacBurness's beady green eyes seemed to shrink even smaller in the tanned seasoned lines of his face. "'Tis not my fault my daughter died of fever early this morn. You will do this for the sake of our clan. If you tell Laird Dunbarton otherwise, it will go badly for you. Your own people will deny you are Eilis."
"What about Ethan?" she asked in a small voice, already knowing what would happen to her little brother. Her uncle would not want her influencing her brother any more than she already did, and Dunbarton probably would not want her attention diverted from him to a sibling either.
Her uncle gave her a sly smile. "He stays with me to learn to be a man." He motioned to a servant. "The lady is ready for her journey." Turning to Eilis, he said, "Do well by us, my niece, and your clan will speak only praise of you. Try any bit of trickery, and you will live to regret it. Now go and fulfill my promise to Dunbarton."
'Twas not what her uncle had promised Dunbarton at all! 'Twas the most despicable of lies, and somehow she had to steal Ethan away and find someone who would shelter them. But she couldn't even begin to think of anyone who might aid them who wasn't afraid of her uncle.
Agnes's maid, Wynda, stiffly walked toward Eilis, as dour as usual, her gray eyes clouded with hate, her lips pursed in complaint. Did her uncle intend Wynda to attend her in her new life? Och, the woman had treated her with contempt ever since Eilis's da had died.
"Come." Wynda's petite stature and older age gave the illusion she was weak and easily manipulated, but the bony fingers gripping Eilis's arm told the truth. "The ship awaits." Wynda jerked Ethan's hand away from Eilis's, and her brother wailed.
Her heart in her throat, Eilis grabbed for his hand, but Laird MacBurness commanded, "Take him away!"
One of her uncle's men strode forth, seized Ethan, and hauled her crying brother off toward his chamber.
Her uncle gave Eilis a look like she better not disobey him. And with a nod of his head directed at Wynda, signaled to the woman to yank Eilis out of the hall and through the keep toward the waiting ship and her fate.
James MacNeill, laird of Craigly Castle, surveyed the sheep pastured in the glen, and seeing no sign of the raiding Dunbartons, he motioned for his men to continue the sweep south. He would string every last one of the raiders by his neck if he didn't put them to the sword first, he swore.
And to think he was supposed to be concentrating on wedding the fair Catriona, not dealing with troubles at his clan borders again. The thought of her creamy soft skin beneath his, the way she moved her hips, hurrying his thrusts, and mewed her pleasure stirred him all over again. Although it had been a year since he had been with the widowed lass, it seemed like yesterday.
Catriona. He could not wait to see her on the morrow, although he was tired of pretending they had a chaste relationship in front of his clansmen, whilst burying himself deep inside her when she stayed in the chamber adjoining his. She had to agree to be his this time. She had to. He would allow her no other answer.
Movement in the woods stole his attention. 'Twas a Dunbarton! The murdering thieves. With a war whoop, James targeted the bearded, heavy-set man, his tangled red hair hanging about his shoulders. He responded by charging toward James with a hearty war cry of his own. James's own men had scattered in search of the Dunbartons and those who were allied with them, so he was on his own. But James would not let the whoreson out of his grasp. Either he killed him, or he took him hostage. Those were the only choices he would allow.
The redheaded beast seemed of like mind and with murder in his eyes, swung his sword at James. But James had fought valiantly in the Crusade and for his father until his death, ensuring the MacNeill lands were free from poachers and brigands. The man would not best him.
Yet the sheer force of the Dunbarton's blows sent a jarring vibration through James's sword arm every time steel met steel. The mountain was unmovable, and the strikes James dealt seemed to have no affect.
The beast gave a sly grin, his blue eyes narrowed with despise. "Laird MacNeill, you will taste my sword afore long. Why do you not give up? Make it easier on yourself. You know Laird Dunbarton will send us to plague you until you give your life for his nephew."
"'Tis I who should be seeking Laird Dunbarton's head for the death of my dear sister," James said dryly.
Yet he knew the fault partly lay with him. Had he let his sister marry the Dunbarton's nephew, would they still be alive today? Mayhap not. But he couldn't stamp down the feeling he was the reason for his sweet sister's death.
The battle between the clans had gone on for over a century. They killed a MacNeill, and the MacNeill evened the score. It would go on for several more centuries, no doubt.
Just when James thought he had struck a decisive blow, cutting the brigand clean across the chest, blood spilling from the fresh cut, the giant retaliated. Striking James's readied sword with such force, the brigand knocked James from his horse.
On foot against the big man, James was sorely disadvantaged. Crippling the Dunbarton's horse might have worked to even the odds, but even in battle, James could not injure a good horse. Instead, he danced like some Sassenach fool, moving himself out of the path of the rider and his horse, feeling the whoosh of the beast's steel but missing the cut of its blade. Then swinging about as if readying himself for the final battle, only with him on foot and his opponent mounted, he waited for the Dunbarton to make a mistake.
With their eyes staring each other down, the Dunbarton kicked his warhorse forward.
James swung his sword first and made a deep cut across the Dunbarton's thigh. With a howl, the enemy missed striking at James, who nimbly jumped away.
The Dunbarton whipped his horse around and charged again. Except this time, he swung first, and the impact of his sword against James's knocked him off his feet. With a thud, James landed hard on his back, knocking the breath from him.
'Twas not a good position to be in during a fight.
He tried to jump to his feet, but weariness cloaked him in a shroud of refusal. Staggering, he unsheathed a throwing dagger. He barely had time to aim it when the Dunbarton swung his sword at James's head.
Whack! The dagger hit the Dunbarton in the temple.
The man teetered on his horse for a moment then plummeted to the ground. Dead. Meaning to take the beast alive, James cursed under his breath.
Noting a missive in the man's belt, James reached down to remove it.
Meet the ship at the aforementioned time and bring the precious cargo here post haste.
James smiled wryly. He would send his cousin and seneschal with several of his men and intercept this precious cargo before Laird Dunbarton could get his grubby hands on it.
An icy wind tugged at Eilis's plaid brat cloaking her head while she held onto the ship's railing with a death grip. Her brother's cries still echoed in her mind. His rounded green eyes filled with tears of terror still held her hostage. He was all she had left in the world, and she wanted more than anything to free him from their uncle's tyranny. But what could she do?
A woman set upon the Irish Sea, bound to marry a man she didn't love, pretending to be her cousin? She feared she was destined to fail, and all she could hope for was the creaking ship sailing across the frothing sea from Ireland to Scotland would sink.
The wind howled, black clouds boiled into mountains above, lightning flashed, casting jagged bolts of light into the rising waves, and she threw up her morning meal over the ship's railing.
"You must come back to the captain's quarters, my lady," Agnes's maid clutched the railing and commanded Eilis, although her brusque manner revealed a hint of fear. Could the maid of steel be afraid of the storm?
Eilis hoped so, as much as her own insides quaked.
The waves lifted the ship toward the heavens then dropped it, crashing it into the next black trough. The elderly woman shrieked, her face as gray as her eyes.
"I am sicker down there than I am up here. Leave me be and go inside with you."
"Nay, I cannot leave you alone with the crude men on this ship."
The woman had to be daft. "They will have naught to do with me! They are too busy trying to keep the ship afloat!"
"I order you, my lady, come back inside."
Command this! Eilis heaved the last of her oatcakes over the side, tears splashing down her cheeks, mixed with fresh rainwater and the salty sea. If she fell overboard, she would not have to marry the old Dunbarton chief. She would not have to lie about who she was and forever fear he'd find out.
But she was a coward, and the small nagging voice in her head said she had to return for her brother and rescue him some day. Staring into the angry waves capped with white foam, dashing into the ship's hull, beating it with horrible vengeance, she couldn't jump.
"Nay, go away. Leave me be." Mayhap a wave would wash Eilis overboard when she hadn't the courage to do it herself.
"You cannot mean to throw yourself over the side. Our clan will be punished for it, and you will be hated for all eternity." The maid curled up her lip. "Besides, your uncle kept Ethan as an added bargaining tool in case you get other notions."
Eilis glared at Wynda, her pasty face angry and determined. How could Eilis hope to survive Dunbarton's scrutiny when she could keep no secrets from even Agnes's maid?
The woman's eyes bored into her like icy gray daggers. "Think you I do not know what you are planning." She grabbed Eilis's arm, her fingernails digging into the flesh through the long-sleeved kirtle. "Come with me, my lady, or I will fetch the guard. He will not be as gentle as me."
As if the woman had ever treated her with even a wee bit of gentleness. But thank God he was just as seasick as Eilis, and she was sure he couldn't deal with her at the moment.
Early this morn, she'd overheard Wynda speaking with the personal guard, poised to protect Eilis, when in truth he served as a spy for her uncle to ensure she did as she was told. Agnes's maid accompanied Eilis for the same purpose. To instruct her, to keep her in line, to monitor her every move.
At sometime or another Eilis feared she must have offended God, although she did not know when. It had to be the reason her life was in such dire straits. Yet she wondered, mayhap Dunbarton would not be as bad as she dreaded.
She shook her head and fought being dragged from the railing. Dunbarton was ancient and had buried two wives already, both who had died in childbirth and their bairns along with them. She would be next.
She caught a glimpse of a wave rising like a mountain, growing higher and higher. Her mouth dropped open, and the cry she would have made, died on her lips. Cresting, the wall of seawater buried the ship as if it were dunking a small wooden toy.
Crushing cold water, no air, total darkness, cries of alarm, the cracking and splitting of wood filled her with mute terror. Swept off her feet, she slid across the deck. Something struck her shoulder, her head, her legs, the sharp pains cutting through to the bone.
Eilis knew she'd died until men's ragged shouts brought her to full consciousness. Clinging to bits of ship that floated up and down the massive waves, she held on tight. Her head pained her something fierce, and the chill from the water seeped into her bones. She was only vaguely aware she was no longer on the ship. Although in the dark she could not see any signs of it.
Even more frighteningly, the men's shouts died away. Rain splattered across the top of the sea, thunder grumbled, waves splashed into each other, and the wind cried in the darkness. But no sound of a human soul penetrated the black night, and sheer panic rose in her breast. 'Twould be easy to let go and end the misery she was sure to face, but she couldn't do it. Coward, she chided herself. No, not a coward. Somehow, she had to save her little brother.
Left to shiver endlessly, she gritted her teeth to prevent them from clattering, the ship's remnant keeping her afloat. Fervently, she listened for any human groan or cry, but there was none but the storm and the sea's harsh melody.
They had left her behind, she fathomed. When would they discover she was missing? Too late, she suspected.
The waves settled into a choppy rhythm, up, down, up, down, with no long lulls in between, making her head ache and her stomach roil with new upset.
Near morn, the rain and wind died down to a gentle patter and whisper.
Worrisome thoughts plagued her. Would her appearance anger the Dunbarton chief? Aye. Would the sailors be able to salvage her wedding gown? Her other gowns?
She would not look like the MacBurness's precious daughter but her half-drowned cousin. She lifted her head. The motion sent streaks of pain across her skull while she attempted to observe any signs of land. Still too dark to see anything but the cold, black water.
How far out to sea was she?
It didn't matter that it was the middle of summer, except that the sun would rise early. The water was as frigid as a loch in winter. Watching the sky for the beginning of light, her eyelids grew heavy. Worse, she could no longer feel her fingers or toes, but better, she was not feeling so cold. In fact, she was feeling rather warm.
And for the moment, she was free of Agnes's nagging maid. But waves crashing on a beach quickly quashed her weary relief. The tide yanked her perilous perch into the rocks farther out, but she couldn't avoid them, nor leave the safety of her floating home. Her energy spent, she clung to the ragged piece of wood with as much strength as she could manage, her arms aching.
Men shouted in Gaelic from the direction of the beach, and she lifted her head to look. Thinking someone had sighted her and were bound to rescue her, she saw instead six men attacking two others. The two fought valiantly against the onslaught, their swords slashing against their enemy's.
She stared at the sight, barely believing the irony. Clinging to life, she couldn't fathom how others would kill each other when she was in such dire straits and needed rescuing.
Unable to resist admiring the bearded man and the slighter built one fighting overwhelming odds, she prayed they would survive. But when the two men finished the last of the brigands off, she reconsidered. Were they the brigands? Which clan had set upon which? Worse, would they find her one of the enemy?
The younger man shouted in her direction this time. "Yo, there! Hold on!"
Then he and the bearded man commandeered a small boat. Resting her head against the wet splinters of wood, Eilis tried to concentrate, but her mind drifted. They would rescue her and then where would she be?
If they were not from an enemy clan, it would only be a matter of time before they set her upon a horse and sent her to Dunbarton to seal the lie her uncle had forged. If he should discover her uncle's deceit, Dunbarton could very well be angered enough to end her life for the treachery.
"Hold on!" the young man shouted again, closer this time. "We will rescue you! Just do not let go!"
Her floating home lifted on a sharp swell, drawing her closer to the jagged rocks. Then the wave bashed her against the boulders. Her arms too numb to hold on, she lost her precious driftwood and was delivered atop a ragged rock.
"God's teeth, hold on!" the young man hollered.
Another wave crashed into her, and she choked on salty water, fell against the boulders, and hit her head hard. Sharp pain radiated through her skull, and the sun instantly vanished from the sky.