Excerpt: The Sweetest Sin

The Sweetest Sin, released by Avon Books in 2004Prologue

Eilean Donan Castle, the Highlands, 1545

 

She wouldn’t wake up.

Duncan crouched over his bride and stroked her cheek, his hand trembling. In all of his nineteen years, he’d never felt so afraid, so helpless. Crushed rosebuds clung to the wreath in Mairi’s hair, a profane reminder of the life they’d promised to each other only moments before the MacDonells’ attack turned their world upside down. The blooms’ faint, overripe fragrance made him want to retch.

His bride.

Why hadn’t he been able to protect her? He was heir to the mighty clan MacRae, guardians to the Dukes of Ross. He should have known that the enemy would attack — should have known that Morgana MacDonell wouldn’t rest until she’d gained her vengeance.

Closing his eyes, Duncan breathed deep. His head throbbed, and his heart ached. Christ, how had it come to this? The MacDonells had overcome the castle guards, helped by his own traitorous brother Colin in sneaking past the gate. In the battle that followed, he’d fought to lead Mairi to safety. But then he’d been struck from behind. Something must have happened to her after he’d lost consciousness, for he’d woken next to her in this cell deep in the dungeons of his own keep.

And she wouldn’t wake up.

Panic gripped him. His heart hammered as he stroked her cheek again, leaning close to feel her breath against his skin. Tearing a strip of his plaid, he soaked it against the wet stones and dabbed her face with it, desperate to revive her.

She made a rasping noise. The sound barely fluttered from her lips, and Duncan’s heart felt as if it would explode. He wanted to clasp her to him, let his strength drain into her…to bring the light back into her laughter-filled eyes. Instead, he smoothed his fingers across her brow.

And then he saw it. The bloody bruise that spread back into her hairline. He breathed in sharply, a curse frozen in his throat. His touch to the spot was light, disbelieving. The hard core he’d built inside himself began to crack wide open.

“Mairi, my God…” His fingers threaded into the pale silk of her hair, and he buried his face against the curve of her neck. She stirred, and Duncan went still with hope. He felt her deep shuddering sigh, and then…nothing.

Shock lanced through him, followed by a surge of denial and agony. Frantically he searched her face, holding his breath to hear any hint of hers, pressing his palm to her breast to feel the reassuring rhythm of her heart. But all was still. Silent. Dead.

With a cry he pulled Mairi up and held her close, rocking her back and forth, until the sound of the cell door grating open raked through him.

“See you found your prize, young MacRae.”

Duncan stopped moving, and his shoulders tensed. Gently, he laid Mairi back on the rotted pallet and stood up. He wanted to grab the unknown MacDonell cur and swipe the smirk from his face, but a wave of dizziness made him veer into the wall. Pain lodged in his skull, sending arrows of agony shooting into his eyes and neck. He bit back a groan, trying not to appear weak as he shook his head and steadied himself against the damp stones.

The man picked dirt from his thumbnail with a knife. “That isn’t your only surprise, though.” He stepped aside, and Duncan squinted in the light that streamed through the doorway.

He heard the tread of light footsteps. An elongated shadow moved across the opening, followed by its owner, a young woman, who stepped into the slash of torchlight. In the moment it took his eyes to adjust, the image of her hammered at his senses. Tall, slender, with long, fiery hair and seductively curving lips.

Morgana MacDonell. The temptress who’d destroyed his life.

“Ah, Duncan. You’re not looking well.” She grinned and tilted her head; the movement made a curl slide away from her breast, exposing the gilded pendant that hung round her neck. Duncan started; she wore the Ealach amulet. His amulet.

As if she’d read his thoughts, Morgana raised her brows, her eyes cold, flat blue. “It’s mine now. It would have been ours, had you kept your promise to me.” Her gaze deepened to azure, shining with excitement. “But never fear. I know the Ealach’s powers, and be I your wife or no, I’ll be wearing it well.”

Anger and the recent blow to his head prevented Duncan from speaking at first, but when he did, his voice rasped with bitterness. “I never pledged myself to you, Morgana.”

“Liar. I was to be your bride. You and the Ealach were both to be mine.”

“I belonged to Mairi. You said you understood my oath to her.”

“Aye, but I never accepted it.” Morgana fingered the amulet again. “Now with you or not, the Ealach is mine, brought home after a century of possession by your cursed clan.” Her eyes gleamed in the light, and Duncan was struck with the intensity of her gaze. “I’ll be using it to impose my rule over all the Highlands.”

A knot of fear curled at the base of his spine, temporarily masking his anger and pain. He knew the Ealach’s powers, though for generations none had invoked its might. Legends abounded of how it had been used in the dark times. Of its force to control the mind, to deaden the soul…even to kill. But no MacRae would use it for ill; each clansman took the vow before battle. Their amulet was a harbinger of prosperity, used only for good, which was why God had gifted them with possession of it.

Duncan wanted to argue with Morgana and deny her clan’s claim of ownership, but he clenched his jaw, refusing to let her goad him further. It would do no good to reason. Morgana believed whatever she pleased. She always had. And that was all the more reason why he should have expected this of her — why he would never forgive himself for failing to see her plan.

She shrugged when he didn’t respond and strode further into the cell. “English guards await you above, in the hall. King Henry paid me well to deliver a fine Scottish morsel to him.” She looked him straight in the eye. “While you’re rotting in London Tower, I hope you think about what might have been if you had not spurned me.”

She paused and stroked the amulet, her eyes sharpening to sapphire ice. Then she blinked. “Oh, and allow me to offer my condolences on your wedding day.” Her lips curved with malicious pleasure. “Was it as disastrous as I’ve heard?”

Duncan felt his entire body tense as her high-pitched laughter tinkled over him like shards of glass. He watched mutely as her gaze took in Mairi’s still form on the bed. Looking back at him, she laughed again, and the sound of it made all of the hurt, all of the helplessness and anguish he’d been feeling since this began, converge on him in one blinding flash of pure emotion. But as he lunged for her throat something slammed into him, splintering the back of his skull with pain…

And the world turned to bursts of color, swirling in a dizzy mosaic before finally fading to black.

 

Chapter One

Thirteen years later
Dulhmeny Castle, the MacDonell stronghold

 

“The MacRaes! God help us, it’s the wild MacRaes come upon us from the north!”

Aileana MacDonell sat in her familiar spot at her bedchamber window, twisting her hands and trying to still her heart as she looked down at the frenzy taking place below her. The woman who’d shrieked the warning ran past, apron flapping, to scoop up a child in each arm. Various other clan folk darted in the direction of the bailey tower to grab spears, shovels and chipped swords before rushing off to join in the battle cries Aileana heard burgeoning in the distance.

For the past quarter hour, since the early morning attack began, she’d been straining to see something, to understand what was happening. And now she knew the name of their attackers.

The MacRaes.

Dragon’s breath, she’d thought them all dead; they’d all but vanished from the Highlands, so far as she knew. Standing up, she paced her chamber and dug through her memory, trying to recall the last battle her clan had fought with them.

She’d been a child of nine – only a year after Morgana had died in banishment for consorting with the English. The Ealach amulet that her sister had stolen from the MacRaes had been the root of that last war with them. But the enemy had been vanquished. The Ealach had done its rightful work, bringing her clan peace. Bringing them prosperity…

And ensuring that Aileana remained isolated from everyone for most of the past thirteen years as its appointed keeper.

Pushing that thought aside, she paced to the window again, looking for some sign of her brothers. If only one of them would climb the wall outside her window to release her so that she could take a weapon and join in the defense of her home. Gavin and Robert used to sneak her out when Father was away. They’d run with her and tease her, never seeming to tire of plaguing her with tales of their bravery. Oh, how she craved some of their good-natured boasting now. If only Gavin would come to —

A sudden breathlessness made her sink to the edge of her bed. She clutched her stomach, awareness spreading thick in her veins, even as her fists clenched until the half-moons of her nails bit into her palms.

The amulet. Something had happened to the Ealach.

Doubled over now, she gulped breaths of air to quell the ache. When the sensation passed, she pushed herself upright. Her instincts had never been wrong before; as the amulet’s keeper, her connection to it was strong. Something was amiss, but how? It rested secure as always in her chamber’s specially built hiding place. Racing over to the gilded door that marked the recess in the wall, Aileana tested its lock. It held.

Curses. There was no other way to reassure herself of the amulet’s safety. Unless…

Ignoring a mental warning that reminded her of the punishment to be had for leaving her chamber without attendants to accompany her, Aileana ran out into the hall and then to her father’s rooms. Retrieving the silken cord and key from a chest near his bed, she rushed back to her chamber and fitted it in the lock. The door swung wide, revealing the sacred hollow. Its velvet cushion was empty.

“Oh Father, how could you?” Aileana’s horrified whisper echoed the empty feeling in the pit of her stomach. How had he taken the Ealach from its place without her knowing?

Her bath. Aye, everyone knew that she was allowed to leave the main portion of her bedchamber each day at dawn to bathe in privacy. She’d heard battle sounds beginning just as she was stepping from the washtub this morn. Father must have learned of the attack sooner —

Heaven have mercy, but he’d taken the amulet from its hiding place and onto the battlefield for protection.

Aileana felt faint as she considered what would happen to her clan if the Ealach were lost again. She’d been told of how it was in the past, of the darkness that surrounded them when the MacRaes still held it in their evil grip. Father had reminded her more than once that her own mother’s death, brought about by birthing Aileana, might have been prevented, if only the Ealach had been near.

A familiar pain twisted her insides, and she sat down hard on her bed. From her very first breath she’d brought grief to everyone. So it had been only right that when the amulet came back into her clan’s possession, she be groomed as its keeper. She’d accepted it long ago. Learned to swallow the resentment that swelled whenever she allowed herself to consider all of the time that was lost to her forever – the normal rhythms and flow of life amongst her clansmen that she would never enjoy.

The Ealach provided security. It brought the MacDonells good fortune. Without it, life was unpredictable and terrifying, and she knew that she’d spill her own blood before she’d allow anyone or anything to threaten her clan’s security again.

Bolting out into the corridor, Aileana descended the curved staircase two steps at a time. She slipped into the great hall, her gaze darting round the piles of possessions others had left behind in their hurry to seek safety or a place in the battle raging beyond the keep. She knew she risked Father’s wrath in doing this, but the amulet was at stake. Her hands trembled as she stripped off her over-skirt and tunic before donning a lad’s garments that she found in a heap of belongings abandoned near the hearth: a shirt, leather vest and leggings. Lastly, she tied a plaid at her waist and tucked her long hair beneath a helmet.

Her breathing slowed, calming to a rhythm of grim determination as she walked from the keep. The sounds, scents, and frenzied sights of the yard assailed her senses, but still she continued on. Past the gate and up the crest of the brae, she strode, in the direction of the battle sounds.

She had to find the Ealach, whether she risked her life or no. It was in great danger, God help them, and the salvation of her clan depended on her ability to bring it to safety again.

#

Morning mist drifted across the field, blanketing the dead and dying like a mother’s cooling touch. It obscured much of the carnage from Duncan MacRae’s view, but nothing could block the groans and screams echoing off the cliffs. All around him moans of pain swelled in eerie chorus, making his mount stamp and snort. Glendragon skittered sideways, and Duncan tensed, pressing his knees into the stallion’s sides.

His gaze swept the field with predatory efficiency. He clenched his ruined, twisted fingers within their leather gauntlet, savoring the aching wound. Its throbbing had intensified today from wielding his claymore against so much resisting bone and flesh. The threading scar on his cheek – another token from his English captors – tightened as he clenched his jaw, and he fought the urge to stroke his fingers across its whitened flesh.

Where was the devil’s spawn? The MacDonell chieftain had fallen, of that he was sure. He’d seen one of his men strike the fatal blow only moments ago, straight through the MacDonell’s black heart. Yet there’d been no time to search the body. The man’s legions had swarmed around them, preventing Duncan from gaining his just reward.

Glendragon jerked at his bridle, demanding Duncan’s attention; the stallion’s powerful muscles rippled, his nostrils flaring at the scent of death. His might was leashed and awaiting his master’s command, but Duncan kept him tightly reined, even as his own frustration grew.

Through thirteen years of hell in the English Tower, he’d stayed alive for this day. Through the beatings, the cold, the pain…the crippling of his hand. He’d endured all of it to taste this one moment of triumph. With this attack, he’d finally initiated his revenge against the MacDonells. Now he hungered to take back the Ealach, to steal it from this nest of vipers and return it to its true home.

Mist floated from the cliff’s edge, revealing several corpses sprawled on the field. There. The bitter tang of vengeance filled Duncan’s mouth, and savage joy flared through him. The MacDonell chieftain’s body still steamed from the heat of battle; it lay in a death-pose next to his shield.

But as Duncan spurred Glendragon toward the remains, a young soldier darted forward. Without a moment’s caution the intruder leaned over the body and embraced it before pulling open its shirt to grasp at something inside.

“Nay!” Duncan’s growl of rage rolled across the battlefield. The thief looked up, startled, then stood and wrenched off his helmet…freeing a cascading mass of red-gold hair.

In that instant disbelief washed over Duncan, and his blood beat faster. Morgana? The murdering bitch was here on the battlefield?   But he’d learned that she was dead, brought low in banishment not long after betraying him to the English. Nudging his stallion closer, he stared down at his mortal enemy, unwilling to accept the truth his eyes beheld. That face, exquisite as ever, the slender build, the flaming hair…

Raw hatred spilled into the battle lust surging through his veins, igniting it with lethal potency; his sword arm tensed as he raised it in preparation to swing the death blow that would finally bring Morgana MacDonell to her just reward. But before he could act, she took several steps toward him, stilling him as effectively as if she’d shot an arrow through his heart.

Piercing green eyes stared up at him – eyes as green as Morgana’s had been blue. They shone luminous with grief that the bloodthirsty sorceress would have been incapable of feeling. This wasn’t Morgana, but a stunning likeness of her…all but for the eyes and the emotions that played freely across her delicate features.

“May you roast in hell for what you’ve done here, murdering MacRae!”

Duncan’s impression of tender femininity vanished.

Her body shook with pent-up feeling. “Come and finish it then. You’ve killed the chieftain, now slay his seed as well!”

Calm filled Duncan. Morgana’s sister. Of course. This one had been no more than a chit those years ago – too young to have taken part in the massacre against his clan. Sweeping his gaze over her, he scowled. “I seek not your life, woman, only the amulet. Give it to me and go in peace.”

“Peace?” Her face twisted into a mask of fury. “What know you of God’s peace?” The gilded talisman dangled from her grip, swinging on its golden chain as she taunted him. “I swear on the blood of my father that I will forfeit my life before I relinquish the Ealach to you.”

A dangerous cold seeped from Duncan’s chest to the tips of his gauntleted fingers. The amulet was his. He’d be denied no more. “Cease woman,” he thundered. “Give it to me or face retribution when I take it from you.” He urged Glendragon forward, threatening to fulfill his words with action.

“Then do your worst, MacRae. But I’ll not be standing by for the kill.” Her eyes glowed with defiance, and every muscle of her slim form seemed to go rigid. Tense.

Too late, Duncan realized her intent. He followed her gaze over the cliff’s edge, down the precipice to the cold, gray surf that crashed to the rocks below. Suddenly, she whirled and raced toward the ledge. Duncan’s wordless roar filled the air, and he launched himself off Glendragon, charging forward to catch her.

But she was too quick. He reached out, trying to grab her, desperate to stop her from going over the cliff…

And wound up holding nothing as she threw herself from the bluff.

The moment seemed to spin itself out into eternity, slowing to an agonizing string of images that burned forever into Duncan’s soul. Tightness filled his chest when he saw her graceful arms stretched out, saw her hair streaming behind her like a wave of silken fire. In the next instant he glimpsed her face with its wide-eyed, haunted expression, her mouth opened in a soundless shriek of terror as the wind tipped her over, and then over again in her plummet toward the deadly surf.

And as she fell, a shaft of sun burst through the clouds. It glinted for just a moment off the amulet she held tightly in her hand, before it disappeared with her beneath the punishing, pounding waves.

 

Chapter Two

Duncan’s senses exploded, his emotions coiling into shock as he peered over the rocky ledge. The woman chose death over relinquishing the Ealach? Waves surged, and white foam rolled with crushing force against the narrow band of jagged rocks lining the beach. There was no sign of her.

The salty air burned his nostrils as he stalked the precipice, and he felt a grinding sensation in his stomach. Those eyes. Those wide, haunted eyes. He couldn’t erase the image of them from his mind. He told himself it was just the aftermath of battle. But the sensation snaked at his gut, relentless, harping.

Curse her. She was a reckless harridan, a witless shrew…

A frightened, helpless female.

He fought the swell of guilt twisting his belly. She’d resisted, damn it. And she was the enemy. Morgana’s sister. The thought stilled his uneasiness, settling ice into his veins once more. He had to regroup. His mission here was unfinished.

Swinging astride Glendragon, he rode onto the battlefield. The day was won, but it took time to find Kinnon. His cousin sat with several other warriors on the bluff, his tunic stripped from his torso to tend a wound to his shoulder. Blood seeped from between his fingers, and he looked up in surprise, wincing when Duncan pushed his hand away to tie a makeshift bandage with a strip torn from his shirt.

“This should hold for an hour or two. Come. We’ve work to do.”

Kinnon frowned and ran his hand through his sweat-dampened hair. Even matted from battle, strands of it shone white-blond in the sun that had burned away the morning mist. “God’s head, cousin, do you never rest?”

“Nay,” Duncan muttered, quelling his impatience with action. He grasped Kinnon’s good arm and pulled him to his feet. “Now find Gil, Ewen and Hamish, and meet me at the base of the bluff. I’ll explain when we get there.” He tossed Glendragon’s reins to a soldier and began to stalk across the field, pausing only long enough to half-turn and growl, “Hurry.”

There was no time to waste. For sure as the English were bastards, he and his men had a long day of searching ahead of them. And he didn’t intend to give up his quest until he had his prize in hand.

#

Warmth radiated up her palm to the rest of her body. Cautiously, Aileana opened her eyelids a crack. The sun glistened, fat and yellow in the robin-egg sky, so beautiful that for a moment she forgot what had brought her to this place. Then memory slammed home, making her breath catch and her head throb.

The Ealach.

A tingle against her fingers made her hand clench, and she felt the amulet’s reassuring weight. Thank God she’d managed to hold on to it. It had saved her, sure. Just thinking about her unaccustomed, bold action on the battlefield made her feel like swooning again.

Struggling to a sitting position, Aileana pushed the damp weight of her hair from her face and stared at the Ealach. Its intricate gold setting remained unharmed but for the wet of the ocean, and the opalescent surface of its stone winked back at her with a thousand colored lights. It seemed to know something, though she remembered little after the sensation of falling through the air and into the cold embrace of the water.

She should be dead.

But she was alive, and she had to move quickly to protect herself and the Ealach from the marauding MacRaes. Aileana toyed with the idea that they would think she’d perished in the fall, but she couldn’t take any chances.

A thrill of fear ran down her back at the expression she remembered seeing in the MacRae leader’s cold gray eyes. He’d used his gaze to pin her, his aura of unyielding power magnified by the jagged scar that ran down the length of what otherwise would have been a face of almost flawless masculine beauty. He’d seemed an unholy, avenging angel, his shoulder-length, golden hair swirling wildly around his face.

Shuddering, she shook her head and stood as she slipped the Ealach’s chain around her neck. The pendant nestled between her breasts for only a moment before a dizzying swirl of images spun her into a vision of the amulet’s last resting-place. Blood and gore strewn across the field. Screams of agony and moans of death…

Father. Turbulent emotion swelled in her heart. In her mind’s eye she saw him lying there, mangled, his dignity stripped away as surely as his lifeblood soaked the ground beneath his body. He’d been snatched away before his time, before she’d been able to make him see that she wasn’t like Morgana. That she could be worthy of his love and pride.

Her jaw clenched with a fierce, welcoming burn. She pressed the amulet close, feeling the metal heat to her skin. One thing was certain; the MacRae devil could rot in hell before she’d let him steal back what Father and her clansmen had died to protect.

A new energy flowed through Aileana’s limbs, spurring her on in her task. Ignoring the ache in her legs, she clambered up the bank. Tufts of hardy grass sprouted among the rocks, and she glimpsed splashes of purple as well. A violent shiver shook her. Wrapping her arms round herself, she peered into the intense blue of the sky. It spread above her, wide and open.

The countryside was beautiful, just as she remembered from her days of childhood freedom. But where would she go? She had to hide the Ealach; that much was certain.

Struggling to regain her sense of direction, she squinted and surveyed the landscape. The area seemed familiar. If instinct served, she wasn’t far from an ancient rowan grove that Morgana had shown her long ago. She’d been just a little girl who’d idolized her older sister, then. It had been shortly before the crisis, before Morgana had stumbled into the temptations of sorcery – a time when they’d often found time to wrap cold partridge and bread in cloths and carry it out to eat in the shelter of the rowan trees.

If she could find the grove again, she could dig a recess there to hide the Ealach.

Then, once the amulet was safe, she’d search out one of the clans friendly to her people, to the east of Dulhmeny. But she’d have to find them soon. For summer or no, the gusting winds shook the trees like an old woman’s bones.

Aye, she needed to hide the Ealach and gain refuge with another clan before nightfall, or she knew that the MacRaes would soon be adding her lifeless body to their bloody list of death.

#

Duncan cursed under his breath as he knelt to examine the prints below him. A female’s step, small and light. His men had scoured the beach, looking for her body washed up to shore, but it seemed she had eluded him again. This was all that remained, her footprints leading up the beach and into the woodland.

The MacDonell woman was alive.

A spark of relief lit in Duncan’s chest, but he extinguished it with brutal force. She held what was his, and he didn’t relish the cat and mouse game she played with him. He stood, grasping a handful of sand and flinging it into the lapping maw of the ocean.

“Kinnon, take your men through the wood from the northern point. Hamish, approach from the south. I’ll be taking Gil, Ewen and the others to follow her trail from here. We need to flush her from her hiding place.”

The men nodded, their faces solemn. The air crackled with tension, as if each warrior sensed the importance of this hunt to his chieftain. Everyone began to disperse, and Kinnon directed his men to retrieve their horses. Then he came toward Duncan.

“Perhaps it would be better for me to be coming with you, cousin. You’ve the look of the Tower in your eyes right now, and it wouldn’t serve for you to be too rough with the woman, be she a MacDonell or no.”

Duncan pulled his gaze up sharp to Kinnon’s face, reading the worry couched there. He didn’t blame him. They were of an age, and Kinnon knew him well. Truth be known, he was the only person that Duncan would consider trusting with his life.

After Morgana had ravaged their clan in the attack, Kinnon had approached their overlord, the MacKenzie Chief, for help. The MacKenzie had refused, wanting to keep the peace, and so Kinnon had moved on his own, pulling together enough surviving MacRae clansmen to try to free Duncan from the English. But he’d only been captured himself for his pains.

The English bastards had imprisoned Kinnon at York, and by the time he’d gained his release, it had been too late to do Duncan any good. Kinnon had had to focus his attention on rebuilding the clan, on trying to make it strong and whole again. Eventually, Queen Elizabeth had taken the throne and released all of her Scottish prisoners, Duncan among them. He’d returned home only months ago to find his clan still struggling to regain their fortunes and their pride, but alive and safe, thanks to Kinnon.

Unblinking, his cousin pressed his point. “What say you, Duncan? I can appoint one of the men to lead my group so that I can ride with you.”

Duncan shook his head. “Never fear. I’ll not be harming the woman…” He paused to check Glendragon’s bridle before glancing at his cousin again, “…unless she refuses to give me the amulet.”

Kinnon blanched. The wind ruffled through his sun-bright hair, making him look younger, and he moved as if to stop him. “Hold, now, Duncan. You know I cannot let you do something you’ll be regretting later –”

Grim satisfaction lifted the corners of Duncan’s mouth, and he slapped his cousin’s back. “Ah, Kinnon MacRae — what would yer own mother be sayin’ about havin’ a gullible man as ye fer a son?” He savored the feel of the brogue rolling off his tongue. In the Tower he’d been beaten senseless more than once for purposely exaggerating his accent. Its sound had incited the guards to a fury, and many of the other Scottish prisoners had learned to speak almost without a lilt at all. But Duncan had refused. It had been the only method of rebellion open to him, and no matter what the physical cost, it had helped to keep his soul free.

Kinnon stood still, stupefied for a moment; then he threw his entire weight against Duncan, knocking him off balance. His chuckle rumbled from deep in his belly. “Sure the evil fairies had a hand in makin’ a worthless wretch like ye, Duncan MacRae. Take yourself off, then. But dinna say you were lackin’ the offer of my help.”

Duncan righted himself and gave a quick nod, more pleased at Kinnon’s concern than he’d ever admit. He took a deep breath of the clean Highland air, filling his lungs full, as if its freshness could remove all memory of the Tower’s stench. Looking up, he checked the position of the sun. Just past noon. There was still plenty of time to pick up the scent and hunt down his prey. With a glance at his men, he started up the stony embankment.

A fierce pride burned in his breast. He was Duncan MacRae, laird of the clan MacRae. Kinnon was his clansman, as were all of these warriors. They’d risked their futures to come together once again under his leadership. They were counting on him.

And that was all the more reason for using any means necessary to seize the Ealach back from the thieving MacDonell wench who’d taken it.

#

Aileana tried to scrape away the dirt that clumped cool and gritty beneath her nails. Straightening to her knees, she stretched her back for the first time since her escape from the MacRae leader more than two hours ago. Her work here pleased her. No passerby would guess that behind the leaves and moss rested a secret grotto, or that within the shallow cave lay the precious Ealach. Wiping her hands on her rumpled clothes, she edged back into the brush, promising herself that she’d return to get the amulet later when she was sure wasn’t being followed.

She moved quickly from the spot, careful to avoid leaving cracked branches or crushed vegetation. But after several minutes of ducking and hiding, she failed to see any sign that she was nearing an allied clan. Spotting another leafy copse of trees ahead, she decided to creep into the shadows to reconsider her plan.

Bark scratched her as she crouched near a trunk. When a branch snapped back into her face, she sputtered until bits of leaf came out of her mouth. There. She settled onto the soggy earth. Peering through the branches, she could just see a sliver of blue sky above her. When she looked ahead, however, it was as if a magic transformation had taken place in the forest. Sun slanted into a tiny glade less than twenty paces away, beckoning her with warmth. Her heart rolled with a sickening thud. It was an accustomed sensation, just like being back home, gazing from the confinement of her chamber to a freedom she wasn’t permitted to enjoy.

She struggled against the temptation to dart into the little clearing. To just this once dance in the sun or scamper in the leaves. A niggling voice echoed in her head, reminding her that she could do whatever she wanted now. There were no walls to hold her, no barriers now other than those of her own mind. With the Ealach concealed, she was free to go where she chose.

But what if it was dangerous? She chewed her lip, trying to weigh the harm in indulging herself. A swift glance in either direction assured her that nothing was amiss. In truth, she most likely she feared for naught. The MacRae devil couldn’t possibly think her alive now.

A flare of excitement shot to the ends of her fingers and toes. She would do it. Ignoring the quaking of her stomach, she scrambled into the clearing and sat in the middle of it, soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of the woodland as if she’d never get enough. She felt as if she was suspended in the center of a crystal drop, floating and glistening in the sun’s brilliance. For this one, perfect moment she was free! Free to move and explore. To dig in the dirt or lay in the sun. Free and —

Alone.

A hollow ache bloomed in her with that grim reminder, quelling her enthusiasm. She pulled her knees to her chest. Saints above, what was she thinking? She had no where to go, no one to protect her. And it was still possible that she was being followed. Sitting in this clearing left her exposed. Vulnerable.

A tingle shot down her spine, reminding her of when she was a little girl, jumping from the door onto her mattress to avoid having her toes nipped by the monsters lurking beneath her bed. Only this time it was a vicious MacRae beastie that lay in wait for her. And she feared he’d do far worse than just bite, by heaven – he’d devour her whole.

With a muffled shriek, Aileana threw herself back into the cover of brush at the clearing’s edge. Only then did she allow herself to take a breath. She’d been so foolish! Never again could she forget her circumstances. Father was dead, and Gavin and Robert might well be too. Who knew if any of her clan had survived?

Heat prickled her eyelids. Her brothers had been the only spot of joy in her life. She couldn’t bear the thought of them lying crumpled and wounded. Or slain like Father. Her breath came faster, and the pressure behind her eyes swelled.

Swallowing hard, Aileana rubbed her hand across her nose. She wouldn’t cry. She had to be strong to make her clan proud. She’d figure out what to do. She’d go and —

Another tingle shivered up her spine, despite the protection of her hiding place. She’d heard footsteps on the ground nearby, she was sure of it. A twig crackled to the left of the clearing, and Aileana’s gaze darted to the spot. Something flashed in the sunlight. Something metallic, long and sharp.

She caught a glimpse of colors — tightly woven red squares with bands of green, blue, and purple. MacRae plaid. Her heart thudded in her chest as she tried to inch further back into the concealing trees. Her cursed hair would be like a beacon in the light. She might as well jump up and down and wave her arms.

Something dug into her thigh as she slid along the ground, and she tasted blood as she bit her lip to keep from yelping. Dragon’s breath, how could she have been so stupid? Never underestimate your foe. The words rang shrill and clear in her head, Gavin’s warning from their childhood games with claymores echoing too late to be heeded. She’d broken a fundamental rule, and now she would pay.

She felt blood, warm and wet on her leg from where the stick had gouged her, but she ignored the sting as she inched toward the copse. Hair rose on the back of her neck and her breath froze when she heard the shout that told her she’d been spotted. Her muscles bunched into a knot of energy an instant before she shot to her feet and ran.

She’d never make it. Her back tensed. At any second she expected to feel the cutting rip of an arrow between her shoulder blades. But then, miraculously, she was within the shelter of the trees and flat on her face. A lancing pain shot from her ankle up her leg, and she rolled to her side with a gasp. The root that had caught her foot looked innocuous, but its gnarly strength had been enough to make her see stars.

Biting her lip, Aileana dragged herself through the damp leaves, groping her way to a hollowed-out trunk that was tipped on its side. If she could just wedge herself inside it, she might remain undetected. Her blood pounded and her breath came ragged as she started to dig her way into the hiding place.

The fertile smell of rotted wood filled her nose. She didn’t hear anything but her own labored breathing, until a deep voice behind her echoed, “I’d hate to have my men shoot that pretty backside of yours, but if you don’t stop burrowing like a hunted fox, you can be sure you’ll be serving as their trophy for the day.”

 

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