a Highland Hearts novella by Heather McCollum
Alec Munro, chieftain of the Munros, has captured the Englishman who swindled his father. Set on retribution, he’s caught off-guard by the thief’s beautiful daughter, a lass whose beauty and spirit leave him questioning the value of revenge.
Rachel Brindle has a secret: she can heal people with her magic. While journeying with her father and sister into the Highlands, she becomes a prize sought between two warring clans. She must use her cunning and her healing magic to prevent the same slaughter that started the blood feud a century ago. But when her secret is exposed, will it condemn her in the eyes of the barbarian who has capture not only her family, but also her heart?
© 2012 Heather McCollum
Edge of Loch Tuinn
Highlands of Scotland
Rachel Brindle sat her mare with ease, just like any well-bred Englishwoman. She twisted an escaped strand of dark brown hair and poked it under her velvet cap. Foolish hat! It couldn’t possibly contain her wild curls.
The wagons of provisions rambled behind Rachel and her sister, Isabelle, as they skirted the large lake that glittered with a million diamond-like bits of sunlight. The water looked so cool, but their father hadn’t allowed them to wade in it. She and Isabelle had been commanded to sip water and pray while everyone else refreshed.
Rachel huffed at the rebellious strands. She looked askance to her sister. “Do you think we’re almost there?”
Isabelle shielded her eyes against the sun. “I remember the lake from when we visited with Father years ago. We’re close.”
They were traveling to Munro Keep to meet with the elderly Hamish Munro, great Highland chieftain and her father’s business partner. William Brindle brought shillings and provisions in exchange for the fine wool that the Munros grew on their herds. It had been ten years since Rachel and her sister had accompanied him to the Munros, back when he smiled, back when their mother still lived.
“I’m melting.” A trail of perspiration tickled between Rachel’s breasts. Perhaps she shouldn’t have begged their father to bring them along to escape the boredom of country life. Even with the summer heat, her father had insisted she wear long sleeves when outside their home to hide her strange dragonfly-shaped birthmark. She dabbed at her forehead and chest with a lacy handkerchief.
“If I succumb to vapors will you revive me?” Rachel teased. As usual, Isabelle frowned at any mention of their special healing abilities.
“I’ll pour water on your face,” her sister threatened.
Rachel laughed. The sound cut off as her glance strayed through the copse of thick pines on their left. Her lips opened on an unuttered gasp as her gaze locked with the intense stare of a man. He sat statue-like on his horse a hundred yards back in the thick growth. His massive chest was bare like that of a barbarian. Red-brown hair nearly reached his broad, tanned shoulders, giving him a wild look. Though the forest shadows dappled along his skin, Rachel could see sculpted muscles protecting his ribs. He held a sword in one arm, his bicep large, as if accustomed to holding its weight for long periods of time.
Narrowed eyes assessed her, judging, waiting perhaps for her outcry. But Rachel kept silent, her thudding heart the only warning. Her chin rose as she met his challenge in defiance.
“Did you see that plant?” Isabelle pointed into the high grass of the small meadow they were crossing. “I think it’s shepherd’s purse.”
Rachel forced her eyes from the man even though the effort seemed ridiculously difficult. “Nay, Isabelle, I missed it,” she murmured. Should she alert her father? Who was the barbarian? Rachel didn’t even know whose land they traveled across. She knew the Munros warred with a neighboring clan, but surely her father would have kept their route along friendly territory.
“Isabelle,” Rachel asked casually. “Do you have your arrows within reach?”
“Yes, but I don’t think father wants me hunting this close to the Munros.”
“Keep them close.” Rachel looked at her sister, her eyes intense. “Just in case.” She pulled her dagger out and set it amongst the folds of her green buckram skirt. Granted it was only one small weapon, but with a single snap she could lodge it into a man’s skull.
Theoretically, of course, since she’d only practiced with turnips at home.
Isabelle nocked an arrow into the bow she’d retrieved from behind her. She glanced around. “You saw something,” she whispered.
Rachel tipped a brief nod. “Just keep alert.”
“You should tell—”
“Munros! Batail!” The roar sliced through her sister’s words, echoing off the trees and boulders flanking them.
Rachel whirled around in her saddle, dagger poised. Men ran and jumped through the trees, not toward them, but back the way they had come.
“Ride, girls!” their father yelled from up ahead.
Rachel kicked her mount’s flanks and leaned low as it lurched forward. Isabelle raced next to her. The meadow ended and they fled into the dappled light of the thick woods. Their father waved his arm overhead to urge them to follow as he wove through the trees.
The guttural sounds and clang of steel mixed with Gaelic curses. Had the barbarian followed? Rachel glanced at Isabelle. Her sweet, dutiful younger sister; would she be murdered by marauders because Rachel had failed to warn everyone? Rachel swallowed against the dry panic in her throat as she thought of the man, his piercing eyes, his proud stare. What if he was in jeopardy?
“Watch out!” Isabelle shouted as they galloped toward a thick uprooted tree.
Rachel veered and yanked the reins to the right, while Isabelle tore off in front of her to the left. Lost in the heavy growth of trees, Rachel steered the horse in a tight circle. Her gaze wove through the dense woods as she tried to discern the sound of the battle over her thumping heart. She continued to circle, hoping to find a clear-cut path through the thickets.
“Blast!” She cursed low and looked up at the giant trees. She had absolutely no sense of direction. She shifted in her seat, breathing the moist earthy air while the halted horse quivered beneath her. Which way?
She scanned the woods, looking for any familiar path. And stopped. The barbarian stood amongst the trees. He held his blood-streaked sword ready, his legs braced apart as if waiting for another target to strike. In a fluid motion he pivoted, sharp eyes connecting once again with Rachel’s as if they were magnets. There was something…something familiar about his eyes. A distant memory fluttered in her mind. A Highland festival, a young boy several years older than she.
The man took a step toward her, dissolving the image. The whoosh of an arrow made Rachel drop low against her horse’s neck, but she watched in horror as the arrow slammed into the man’s shoulder.
“No!” Rachel screamed and pushed her horse through the undergrowth to him. She slid down into the ferns. Her little slippers found no purchase and she tripped and slipped toward him, where he lay surrounded by green fronds. He wore a kilt draped loosely around narrow hips. His eyes were closed, but he swallowed. Her breath hitched as she saw the faint line near his right ear. A scar.
Rachel forced a deep breath and looked away from the mark, her mark. The tip of the arrow protruded from his chest, its shaft all the way through.
Rachel ignored her shaking and placed her hands on his hot skin. She closed her eyes and released the bubble of power that churned behind her ribs, funneling it through him in search of physical details. She heard his blood whoosh through his veins. The hollowness of his stomach and bladder indicated they were empty. The hard echo of his pounding heart beat through her, straining with the injury. But where exactly was it? The whisper of a leak caught Rachel’s breath, a nick in the artery, blood pooling in his chest cavity.
“Holy Lord,” she whispered, and opened her eyes. In the distance she could hear shouting, guttural and fierce. She flattened her blood-smeared hands on the wet grass, pawing, searching. Yes! A rock! She clawed at the fist-sized rock at the base of a fern, dirt cramming under her nails. Her eyes dropped to the man’s jagged flesh, holding the arrow. She breathed, and hefted the rock high. “Holy Lord, help me.”
Her stomach tightened. Can I really do this? I must! Holding her breath, she slammed the rock against the protruding arrowhead.
The man gasped but didn’t wake.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, and tugged his arm. Holy Lord, he was heavy! She braced her muddied feet against the side of a large pine and used her legs to yank, turning him onto his side. In the shadows before, she hadn’t seen the crisscrossing of scars marring his skin. This man had seen battle—a lot of battle. Guilt took hold of her, lending her strength. He’d survived all this time only to be shot when she stole his attention.
The shouts crept closer. Were they looking for him? Rachel sunk lower into the ferns as she wedged her feet against his bloodied back. With a great yank, the shaft slid free. The unconscious man groaned. She straddled him, kicking her skirts out of the way. He was so broad her knees didn’t reach the ground, and she balanced on his hip while slamming one hand on each bleeding hole, front and back.
She breathed in the tang of blood, of sweat and mud, of his masculine scent as she released her magic, directing it through her splayed hands into his body. The nick first. She cringed as she felt the larger tear along the thin wall of his artery, a consequence of removing the splintery shaft. Her eyes flickered closed as she imagined the smooth lines of healthy tissue. She pushed her power into the torn muscles, moving outward, repairing, smoothing. She knit the splintered edges of a rib and healed the broken and seeping blood vessels feeding the muscles. Finally, the skin over the holes. Rachel breathed deep, feeling her energy feeding into the man. Her head swam and she slumped forward, draping him in blood-stained green buckram. Would she have enough strength to escape?
“Lass.” The whisper tickled at her ear and she felt her body lowered gently to the soft earth. Warm fingers brushed the hair from her cheeks and her eyes fluttered open. “What are ye?” Dark blue eyes stared down into her own, intense, questioning, stunning, but what captured her full focus was the telltale slice near his ear.
“There! A horse! I know I shot him. Over there!”
The barbarian glanced over his shoulder and then back at her. His sensuous lips thinned into a line of frustration. “I’ll come for ye.”
Come for her? Where was she going?
Rachel’s consciousness slipped over the edge into comfortable darkness.
Rachel felt the sway of a horse under her and stirred. Where am I? As her memory crashed into place, her eyes snapped open. The barbarian?
He was the boy from the festival all those years ago. She knew she’d recognized those eyes. They’d played together, and he’d taken a hit from her wooden sword. She hadn’t known yet about her gift, so she couldn’t heal him. He still carried the scar.
Gray clouds pushed against blue overhead. Horses clipped along at a quick gait around her, the jostling of bridles indicating a large number. Cold fingers touched her cheek, drawing her gaze to the eyes of a stranger. She struggled to pull away, and realized that she sat across his lap. She’d been cuddled against the man’s chest.
“Whoa there, lass,” the young man said. “I’m not going to hurt ye.” He grasped her arms so she wouldn’t tumble from the horse.
Rachel’s gaze circled the small army marching across the moor. Curious stares from rough, dirty faces surrounded her.
“Ye’re English?” the man asked.
“Now what was a bonny thing like ye doing all muddy and bloody amongst the ferns on the border of Munro land?”
She returned her gaze to his. Genuine confusion wrinkled his dirty forehead, but a twinkle livened his kind eyes.
“I…” What should she say? “I…was traveling with my father. He has business up in the Highlands. He’s a wool merchant.” She glanced past his shoulder, back toward the thick forest beyond. Had Isabelle escaped? “I need to go back.”
The man didn’t say anything for a few long moments. “If yer da has dealings with the Munros, we aren’t likely to take ye back.”
Rachel’s heart sped and she turned back to study the landscape.
The man leaned closer. “I’m Angus Riley, friend and warrior to The Macbain of Druim. And ye are?”
Rachel kept her chin high and her lips tight.
“Now if I’m to introduce ye as a…guest at Druim, I must know yer name, lass. Prisoners doona fair well in the dungeons. It be dark, cold, and skittery down there.”
A threat or a fair warning? “Rachel Brindle. And you will return me to my father, William.”
“Ah, now Miss Brindle, how is it that ye have so much blood on ye?”
Rachel glanced down at her hands. They were streaked red. So they hadn’t found the man she’d saved. “I…I must have cut myself,” she murmured.
“I see no gash upon yer lovely skin, lass. Not even a bump from falling off yer mount.”
Rachel’s mind whirled. “I don’t remember.” She shook her head. At least the torturous velvet cap was gone. Would her father find it amongst the ferns and know she’d been taken? Or would she be lost forever at Druim?
I’ll come for ye. The words of the boy turned man came back to her.
Would he come? Rachel let out a long sigh. She wouldn’t count on it.
The incredible bath was so worth the price of her name. Warm water enveloped Rachel in the deep bathing bucket in the small, square room she’d been given at this massive stronghold called Druim. Guest was certainly better than prisoner. Angus Riley had kept his word and introduced her as a damsel in distress to the tall, grim-faced leader of their clan. She’d been given food and drink and a room with a bed and blazing fire above the main hall.
What would happen to her tomorrow was unknown, but for the night, she was told she could bathe, sleep, and recover from her obvious ordeal. Bathing and eating was in Rachel’s plan, but not sleeping. She planned to escape.
Rachel rubbed the pine-scented lye soap along her limbs but resisted the urge to relax. Escape was a priority, before Druim realized just how capable she was. Her bedraggled and exhausted appearance upon arrival had lowered their defenses. There wasn’t even a guard outside her door.
She dried and dressed in her stained green gown. It was damp from washing away the blood. She finger-combed her wet hair and glanced through the window slit. Outside, it was dark. She ignored her heart, which galloped like a spooked horse. Time to go. Rachel cracked open her door to an empty corridor, dimly lit by oil-fed wall sconces. She walked with purposeful stealth away from the main stairway, where masculine laughter filtered up from the great hall below.
She stopped and studied the shadows. There should be another set of back stairs for servants. This was a huge fortress. They needed at least one other exit. Rachel resumed her pace, and nearly fell into a rectangular hole cut into the floor at the end of the corridor. The top of a wooden ladder stuck up above the edge. Her heart thudded as she gathered her long kirtle.
The ladder led into a low ceilinged hallway. The earthy smell of roots and grain indicated a storage area. Perfect. Rachel crept along the dark, rough wall into a kitchen. Several cloaks hung from pegs. She threw one over her dress and pulled the hood up. She could disguise herself as a servant and sneak out the gates past the guards.
Rachel whirled around at a muffled gasp. A woman stood in the doorway, a bit older than she. Evelyn, if Rachel remembered her name correctly. A maid who watched the chief’s young children. Evelyn’s eyes were wide in her round face. Rachel grabbed the woman’s stiff hand and let just enough power flow into it to warm her. A blue glow surrounded their clasped hands.
“Holy Lord our Father,” Evelyn murmured and passed the sign of the cross over her chest with her free hand.
Rachel stared into her frantic eyes. “I have powers. They are good powers, but if you don’t help me I will turn them against you.”
The woman didn’t say anything. Did she not care what happened to her?
“I can turn them against your young charges.”
Evelyn’s eyes nearly popped. She bobbed her head nervously.
Rachel smiled. “Good. I think we both want me to be gone now. So you’re going to walk me out of here, past the guards, and past the gate to where I can find a horse.”
The night was cool and felt good against Rachel’s flushed face. As much as she dreamed about adventure, the actual participation was stressful. Perhaps she would agree to settle down with a docile Englishman like her father wished.
They walked arm in arm, like two young maids heading home for the night. “Wave with me,” Rachel whispered, and Evelyn lifted her hand to the watchman. He tipped his head and walked the other way along the wall. “You’re good at this, Evelyn.” Rachel patted the woman’s rigid arm.
Evelyn passed another sign of the cross before her chest. Rachel frowned. She didn’t like scaring the woman. They hurried through the streets toward a corral.
“You know, I lied back there,” Rachel said in the dark. “My powers only heal. I can’t hurt you or your wards. And I wouldn’t anyway.”
Evelyn stopped before a low barn. “There are horses. Now go.” She turned a fierce expression on Rachel. She certainly wouldn’t be inviting her over for tea anytime soon.
“Not a word, Evelyn.” Rachel held a finger against her lips. Could Evelyn see her finger tremble? She lowered it before it gave her away. “You’ll look guilty if you admit to helping me get away.”
Evelyn fled. Rachel hastened into the barn. She’d spent hours in her father’s at home, and the tang of fresh hay and dung were familiar to her. Tails flicked along the pebble-strewn walk between the stalls. A plain saddle and bridle hung on the wall. A dark muzzle pushed over the wooden gate of one stall and snorted. Rachel grabbed a handful of oats from a sack on the wall.
“Aren’t you a fine lady,” she murmured to the tall mare and let the horse lip the oats from her hand. Rachel lifted the gear off the wall and stepped into the stall. She worked the bridle between the mare’s teeth and ran her strong hand down the horse’s neck. It wasn’t the horse she’d had, but it was a fair swap. She led the beast through the darkness, keeping to the back sides of houses. She knew exactly where she was headed. The moor that stretched wide and bare in front of Druim would allow no hiding, and a single rider out at night would call suspicion. No, the mountains behind the castle were the best way to go.
“Holy God, please guide my way to safety,” she whispered into the hazy black mist floating down along the ledges of granite.
Rachel led the horse along a narrow path between the castle wall and the rock face. Thunder rumbled, and she tipped her head upward with a soft groan. The horse nickered. “Shh,” she whispered.
Rain began to tap the summer leaves overhead just as she spotted a fairly large ascending path. She tramped up the path, under the trees. Lightning sparked across the moor behind with a deafening clap of thunder. Rachel jumped and the mare yanked the reins. Rachel gasped, grabbing for a better hold, but the leather slipped from her grip. The horse ran.
“No!” she yelled to its retreating tail. She ran several steps after it. “Come back here,” she called as loudly as she dared and stopped, knowing full well there was no catching a running horse. She spent a full minute trying to decide what to do. Go after the horse or continue on foot? In the end the increasing downpour decided it for her. Under the thick canopy of trees, Rachel was dry. Trying to find the horse meant she’d have to go back toward Druim and she’d get soaked. She gathered her skirts and climbed.
She walked blindly, her thin slippers barely protecting her feet from sharp rocks. She wanted to put some distance between her and Druim before finding a place to hide for the night. Who knew what types of animals roamed these woods? She glanced up nervously as God lit up the woods with another flash of lightning. The deafening crack of thunder barely registered in her shocked mind—for standing on a boulder just above her was the man from the woods.
He had come for her.
The light retreated, leaving her blind until her blinking eyes adjusted again to the shadows. He stood, staring down as if cut from the rugged granite around them, a fortress like the mighty one behind her. Curiosity and shock mixed on his face. Did he remember her? As distant lightning lit up the trees, she watched his eyebrows rise and the corner of his lush mouth crook upward into a lopsided grin.
Rachel’s heart danced, flushing her with heat that, luckily, he couldn’t see in the dark. He’d come for her. A man who kept his promise.
She wasn’t sure what to do. Should she walk to him or wait in the dark? What was the protocol for a rescue? She huffed. Some rescue. She’d done most of it herself. And for all she knew she was being rescued by someone much more dangerous than those at Druim.
The man’s shadow moved in the darkness and Rachel jumped, frowning at herself. Even if she could barely see, she could definitely hear.
“What is your name?” she asked, her voice sharp in the stillness. All these years, she’d never known the boy’s name, only the deep blue of his eyes.
“Alec Munro.” His voice, drawn rough and strong, reflected his Highland heritage. He was a Munro. Thank the Holy Lord. “And ye are?”
Rachel released her breath and smiled in relief. “Rachel Brindle. I was traveling with my father and sister to Munro Keep when the Macbains attacked.”
“And ye circled around into the fight to…”
Rachel felt guilt bubble up inside. She certainly hadn’t meant to ride back and distract him. “My sense of direction is quite poor,” she murmured. “I did not intend to distract you.”
“Yer father travels to meet with The Munro?”
A flash of lightning showed him much closer than she’d thought, his gaze assessing. She refused to back away, even though her foot lifted involuntarily. “My father trades with Hamish Munro.”
“Hamish Munro is dead.”
“Oh…I am sorry. My father did not know. I suppose he will want to discuss trade with your new chief.”
The man remained silent and still.
Rain dripped on Rachel’s head and she wiped at it. “Do you have a horse?”
She took two stumbling steps past Alec before he placed his hands on her shoulders and gently turned her in another direction. Rachel ignored the thrill that shot down her arms at the solid hold.
She huffed. He didn’t have to look so bloody amused. “If you plan to help in my rescue at all, please lead the way.” Her words sounded terse but Rachel’s frustration was growing to the point she just might choke on it. She’d done the hard work of escaping a fortified castle without alerting the guard. The least the Highlander could do was lead her to Munro Keep.
Alec’s hand slid down her sleeved arm, his strong fingers wrapping around her wrist. He stepped close as they walked along a twining path upward into the forest. Rachel nearly jumped when she felt his warm breath against her chilled ear. His words were quiet but as firm as his hold. “I am not rescuing ye, Rachel Brindle.”
Rachel’s breath caught in her chest as she stared out into the dark shadows, which flickered sporadically with brilliant lightning. She shivered as his lip grazed her skin.
“I am capturing ye.”