Highland Knight of Dreams – Amy Jarecki

“Did you see her?” Quinn’s gaze darted through the forest, honing like a falcon as he searched for the beauty. With a dig of his spurs, he cantered ahead, leaving his companions in his wake. “Her? Are ye seeing selkies now, brother?” hollered Eachan, his horse losing speed behind. Glenn MacGregor’s grandiose laugh resounded like cannon fire, the warrior’s mount nearly able to keep pace. “Quinn most likely saw a rabbit. No matter, I’m hungry and up for the chase.” Certain his eyes hadn’t deceived him, Quinn lurched over his horse’s withers, demanding a gallop. “Haste, ye beast!” He scanned the foliage for any flicker of movement, for a glimpse of a blue gown. No, he hadn’t seen a vision. He’d seen a goddess. To where had she disappeared? As plain as the nose on his face he’d spotted her standing in a clearing. The sun’s rays illuminated wisps of her waist-length hair as it glittered like gold. The wind set her skirts to sail, and they billowed in a surreal whirlwind of color. For the briefest of moments she’d stood like a doe, her eyes wide, her stance majestic, yet sensing impending danger. When the nymph had spotted him, she’d turned and fled as if she thought Quinn the devil incarnate.

With a slight twist of his reins, he steered his horse inland and through the trees. Above, a ruined castle loomed over an outcropping. Is that where you’re hiding, beauty? Giving another tap of his heels, horse and rider ascended the hill. At the summit, he hopped down and ran up a set of unsteady barbican steps, taking two at a time. Nearly toppling to his death as old mortar crumbled beneath his feet, he caught himself on a merlon. A stone dropped from the side of the wall, thundering as it tumbled down the sheer slope overlooking the Firth of Clyde. Without a flinch, Quinn scanned the grounds and turned full circle. “Ballocks!” “Lost her, did ye?” shouted Eachan, who hadn’t yet dismounted. MacGregor joined Quinn atop the unstable masonry—the henchman was rather nimble for a beast. “Must have been a selkie, sent from the waters to drive you mad.

” At six-feet, Quinn was formidable in any man’s eyes though he had to crane his neck to meet Glenn’s gaze. “She wasn’t a bloody creature. I ken what I saw.” His friend gave a shrug. “I’m only disappointed it wasn’t a rabbit. I’m weary of dried mutton and oatcakes.” “Stop your bellyaching,” Quinn said as he continued to watch for movement. “We’ve only been riding for a day.” “Doesn’t matter.” MacGregor slapped his belly.

“I’d welcome a rabbit or three cooked over an open fire.” “Aye? Mayhap you’ll find one whilst we make camp.” “Here?” asked Eachan, still sitting his mount. “Why not?” After taking one last scan of the forest, Quinn climbed back down to what must have been the courtyard of a medieval fortress. “These are the ruins of Toward Castle, that’s why,” said his brother, ever the wary one. MacGregor grunted behind. “Lamont lands.” “Campbell lands now,” said Quinn. “The Lamonts are long gone, and the crumbling keep beneath our feet is owned by our father.” Eachan peered over his shoulder as if he expected to be set upon at any moment.

“Do not say that too loudly.” “Why? The selkies will hear us?” Quinn thrust his finger up the barbican wall. “I was just up there with a view that rivals Stirling Castle’s wall-walk and there’s nary a soul for miles.” “Aside from the beauty you thought you sighted,” said MacGregor. “Wheesht.” Quinn gave his friend’s arm a thwack. “I ken what I saw.” Eachan finally dismounted. “Are you certain it was a woman? Last time you chased after a lass she ended up having a beard.” “Aye, and you’re full of vinegar.

” Perhaps he’d imagined the woman—God knew he hadn’t enjoyed company of the feminine variety in ages, something he hoped to rectify come the fête at Rothesay Castle. Regardless, the lovely was long gone and he’d never see her again. Blast. Quinn set to removing his mount’s saddle and hobbling the horse’s front legs. “MacGregor, since you have a taste for rabbits, why not go fetch us a few? Eachan and I will tend to making camp for the night.” “I am at your command, Your Lordship.” God’s blood, the man liked to poke fun. Just because Quinn was the firstborn son of an earl, didn’t mean he was one to shirk common duties. Being a laggard nobleman might work in England, but idleness had no place in the Highlands. “Would you rather I hunt?” “Nay.

” Heading for his horse, MacGregor pulled his musket from its scabbard. “With all these trees about, it will be easy enough to find a warren—or a deer. I’ll return in the hour.” “Good,” said Eachan. “All this talk about food is making my stomach growl.” “When isn’t it?” Quinn set to work, tossing boulders aside to clear a place to sleep. “Go on and start a fire. Mayhap it will keep your selkies at bay whilst we sleep.” “They’re not my bloody selkies. You’re the one who’s seeing things.

” Quinn straightened and thumped his chest. “Women, mind you. I can spot a bonny lass from miles away.” “And you’re full of shite.” “Possibly, but if so, you’ll be eating it for the rest of your days.” “Brothers. Why God saw to make me the second son, I’ll never understand,” Eachan mumbled as he wandered toward the trees. He stooped and picked up a stick of wood. “Ye ken this place is haunted.” “Now do not tell me you’re afraid of a wee ghost.

” Quinn chuckled, kicking away the smaller pebbles. “God’s blood, you were just teasing me about seeing selkies. Mayhap ’tis you whose head is full of fantastical delusions.” He switched tack and began stacking the boulders in a circular fire pit. The stones had fallen from the castle walls—a fortress he was well aware had been razed by his grandfather, the Earl of Argyll, a bloodthirsty zealot. It was oft difficult to admit he had descended from such a man’s loins. Grandad had nearly ruined the Campbell legacy, so much so, the tyrant had been beheaded as a traitor in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket Square— a humiliation the family desperately wanted to forget. * * * Alice pushed through the door of the thatched-roof cottage. “Gran!” she shouted, pressing her hand against her chest as she gulped in deep breaths of air. When she didn’t find her grandmother sitting in the rocking chair by the hearth, she yelled again, “Gran!” The only parent Alice had ever known came hobbling out of the bedchamber carrying her cane rather than using it.

“What is it, lass? You’re shouting so loudly, they’ll be able to hear you clear across the Clyde.” She’d run nearly two miles and was in sore need of a drink of water. “F-forgive me, but you’ll never believe who I saw.” “After five and seventy years, you’d be surprised what I’d believe.” Gran made an exaggerated show at looking from one of Alice’s hands to the other. “Where is your basket?” “Who cares about the basket?” Patting her chest, Alice dashed for the ewer sitting on the table and poured herself a drink. “You’re panting.” Limping nearer, Gran shook her cane. “Have you been running?” “Aye, near two miles.” Alice guzzled the contents of the wooden cup.

“But you must listen to—” “Heaven’s child. Sit down and calm yourself.” Ready to jump out of her skin, the last thing Alice wanted to do was sit. But after meeting her grandmother’s indignant stare, she inhaled deeply, made herself calm down and sat on the bench. “I was searching for yarrow in the wood when the ground rumbled with the pounding of horse hooves.” “Do not tell me King William has sent an army.” “It sounded like an army, but it was three knights—three Campbell men.” “Campbells?” Gran’s expression grew dark before she turned to the hob and used a ladle to stir the pottage. “What made you think they are knights?” “They were armed like knights—swords, muskets, dirks and targes. And they were carrying the Earl of Argyll’s pennant.

” Gran spat, whipping back around. “Argyll?” She clutched the ladle over her heart and squeezed, her face turning white as bed linens. “God forbid that name be uttered in this house.” “Forgive me—I ken they’re evil. Worse, they’re making camp at Toward Castle.” The old woman’s face grew so dark, it was as if a raincloud had come into the cottage, threatening to drench them both. And Alice knew why. Moreover, she wanted to do whatever she could to face these men and make them pay for the heinous crimes committed four and twenty years ago— the year of her birth. “I can take a vial of poison and spill it into the burn. No one will ken it was me.

” “Poison?” Gran exchanged the ladle for her cane while a flash of ire sparked in her deep blue eyes. Though the elderly woman’s face had grown as withered as a prune, her eyes still gleamed with astute discerning. “Alice, do you have any idea what those brigands would do to you if you were discovered?” “Ye ken I will not be. I’m as stealthy as a ghost—learned from the best of ghosts.” She grinned, flapping her eyelashes at the woman who’d been her tutor. “Nay, ’tis too much of a risk. Besides, what if you ended up killing an innocent?” Gran paced for a moment, stroking her chin and huffing as if she were about to strike something with her blasted cane. The woman had cause to hate the Campbells. Not only did the late Earl of Argyll lay siege to Toward Castle with cannons, fire, and sword, he’d decimated an entire clan. Alice’s clan.

During the siege, Sir James Lamont had ordered his wife to take their only grandchild and spirit her out the secret passageway to the hidden cellars, the same route Alice had used that very day. Praying for a miracle, Gran had taken the newborn bairn and hid. That fateful day all had been lost. When Gran’s husband, the feared knight and Lamont chieftain, negotiated the terms of surrender, he’d given up his castle and livestock to preserve the lives of his clan. But no, not even evicting his enemy from his land had been enough to satisfy the earl. Argyll’s bloodlust proved far too great to merely accept surrender of lands and livestock of an entire clan. Alice gripped her stomach as her mind fixed upon the story. No matter how much she tried to steel her nerves, the brutal truth always made her blood pulse with ice. After Grandfather had conceded defeat, Argyll marched the Lamonts to the churchyard in Dunoon. There the earl brutally executed every man, woman and child and then commanded his men to put all Lamont lands to fire and sword while Gran remained tucked away deep in the caverns below Toward Castle where she remained with Alice for an entire year.

Only when it was safe did she take her granddaughter to the cottage in the wood. Shaking off the chill, Alice poured herself another cup of water. “They’re going to the fête at Rothesay Castle, I’m certain of it.” Gran leaned heavily on her cane, her gnarled fingers wrapped around the worn crook. “How do ye ken?” “I heard them talking.” “Good heavens, child. You could have been smote where you stood.” “I hid in the cellars. Heard every word.” “You are careless.

” “Nay!” Alice’s ears rang, and this from the brave woman who’d saved her from the massacre. “How can you say such a thing? You hid in the cellars with me.” “That was long ago, afore the keep completely fell into ruin.” Gran slid onto the bench beside Alice. “Tell me what they said.” “They were talking about me, mostly. One of them saw me in the clearing and then made chase.” Clapping a hand over her heart, Gran pretended to swoon. “My word, it grows worse.” “Nay, the others decided the heir had seen a selkie.

” “Heir?” “Aye, one man called the leader ‘your lordship’ and the other referred to himself as the second son—and then they decided to set up camp for the night. Then the Campbell heir started ordering the others about.” Alice decided against telling Gran the man in charge had been ever so braw and strikingly handsome with his thick chestnut hair clubbed back. Such an admittance would reveal exactly how close she’d been to the scoundrels. And their looks mattered not. All three were knaves and scoundrels. Gran leaned on her cane, her lips twisted as if deep in thought. “Two of Argyll’s offspring will be sleeping in Toward Castle this very night?” “Aye. What can we do?” Alice sprang to her feet and pounded her fist on the table. “This is our chance for vengeance—our chance to repay the crimes against Grandad, my father, and our clan.

” “If he is the heir to the earldom, then it is Quinn Campbell who is sleeping in the remains of a once great and powerful clan, the grandson of Archibald the black-hearted beast.” “Quinn, aye?” Alice wasn’t overly anxious to know the man’s name. He might be pleasing to the eye, but he was the spawn of the devil and she doubted he’d be alive come dawn. “Nightshade might do the trick.” “Nay.” Gran pulled Alice out to the garden. Oddly, she didn’t stop by the plot with medicinal herbs—the plot with a clump of nightshade and a wee clump of hemlock. Hobbling along, she kept going until she reached the stone fence. There she gestured to a spindly bush of thorns with but a half-dozen leaves. “After two and twenty years, my demask rose has finally produced a bud,” Gran said, her voice soft, as if she’d nurtured a plant from a seed to a glorious masterpiece.

“Rose?” Alice asked, bending over and carefully pulling aside the neighboring clump of gorse. “Ah, there it is.” “Aye, it’s been hiding from me, the elusive bloom. I discovered it only yesterday.” Gran cradled the bud as if it were as precious as a ruby. “I purchased this bush from a passing tinker and planted it on your second birthday.” “And it hasn’t yielded a single flower until now? Looking as pallid as it does, I’m surprised the thing lived so long.” “Hmm. Sometimes it takes a lifetime to nurture a living soul until it yields its fruit.” “You speak as if the rosebush is human.

” “It could be our salvation.” “Goodness, Gran. You make no sense at all.” “Perhaps not, but you will take this rosebud and leave it beside Quinn Campbell as he sleeps this night.” Alice gasped so violently, she nearly toppled. “I beg your pardon? I love you more than anyone in all of Christendom, but have ye gone daft?” “Not in the slightest.” The old woman’s eyes flashed as she shook her cane. “You were just there today, were you not?”

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