Taming the Highlander – May McGoldrick

Death one step in front of her. Death behind. Innes Munro stood at the edge of the world, and a cold, watery grave lay ready to take her. The gray fog swirled up the jagged cliffs. She’d run as far as she could, but another step meant certain death. Her lungs burned, and Innes stared down through moving breaks in the mist at the waves crashing against the rocks far below. Trapped. The brambles clinging to the edge of the precipice caught at her skirts as she turned to face her pursuers. A dozen men, their mail shirts gleaming dully beneath filthy, dark-stained tunics, spread out like hunters at the end of the chase. They’d run their prey into the evertightening enclosure on the cliffs. All that remained was the kill. They eyed her and awaited their master’s signal. The commander sat astride his black steed behind the line of men. A leather cloak, tied at the neck, was thrown back over one shoulder, revealing a heavily marked chest plate, a long sword, a pair of daggers. His eyes never left her.

Trapped. Innes knew what they wanted. Too late she’d learned that this band of Lowlanders and English soldiers had been roaming free in the hills, looking for a certain woman from Clan Munro. Fact and rumor had been woven together into a thick noose: the Munro woman was a witch. She possessed a mysterious relic given by Satan himself. She could turn a person into stone if he looked into her eyes. Most important, gold would be paid to any man, woman, or child who pointed them in her direction. Someone had talked. Her secret had been exposed. She’d feared this moment for so long.

For years. For Innes, the past held no mystery. She knew so well the power of the stone that passed on to her from her mother. Only one piece of the whole tablet. Three other fragments. Each carried across Scotland fifty years ago by men who’d survived a shipwreck not far from this northern shore. Innes knew the powers that the other stones held. And she knew the disaster that would rain down on their heads if the wrong person brought all the pieces together. The commander spoke to her. “Give it to me.

” Innes said nothing. His eyes were fixed on the pouch she wore at her waist. She cursed inwardly. She should have never left the safety of the castle. The sea breeze whipped her tangle of midnight black hair with its blaze of white. Behind her, seabirds floated on the wind, their cries breaking the silence. “Give me the stone and I’ll not harm you or anyone around here.” He was lying. He was an Englishman, risking his life here in the Highlands. He had to know.

For all its ancient power, the stone was a useless bauble to anyone until the moment that its bearer died. But perhaps he didn’t know. She had to touch his skin to see into his past, to learn whatever he knew, to find out which of the stones he already possessed. But she wouldn’t go near him to find out. What if her fragment was the last that he needed? “Go and take it from her.” The men advanced a step, and Innes backed to the very edge. “Stop right there or I’ll jump into the sea . and then you’ll never have it.” The men hesitated. Innes had been a child of seven when she sat at her mother’s sickbed and learned the secret of the stone.

The history, the power of sight that was soon to be hers, the knowledge that no one she touched could hide anything from her. At that moment, none of it made any sense. She’d only wanted her mother to stop talking, save her strength, and get better. Later, standing at the funeral, she’d learned exactly what it all meant. Holding her father’s hand, Innes felt his past flow like a gushing stream into her brain. Hector Munro had been so keenly disappointed with her mother, the woman who gave him two daughters and no sons, that he’d already chosen his next wife and negotiated for her hand. All of this came to Innes without speaking a word. It was at that moment, as the hot pain that came with knowing cut through her, that she realized what she’d been left was no gift, but a curse. The next morning, she awakened to see the white blaze in her long black hair. “She won’t jump.

Get her.” Innes turned toward the cliffs. She welcomed death. It would put an end to all of it. She was ready to part with the heavy weight she’d been forced to carry for much of her life. But she paused at the brink, thinking of him. The man she loved. Innes winced as someone grabbed her hair, yanking her back from the ledge. She twisted and fought the men who latched on to her arms. She’d been too slow.

One of them cut the string of the pouch and ran with it to his commander. Held captive, she watched their leader take the stone out of the pouch and hold it up. Inside her, hope fought a losing battle. Perhaps he knew nothing of the power of the relic he held. Maybe they had come because of the rumors, and he now realized that the quest had been for nothing. Those desperate hopes sank when she saw him produce two other pieces of the tablet and fit them together. He knew what he had. The Englishman’s gaze shifted to her. He’d done this before. He knew how to take from her the power of the stone.

Innes saw a movement at the top of the rise behind the raiders. A great gray wolf appeared. The Englishman nodded to his men. “Kill her.” Chapter 1 Castle Girnigoe Three Months Before Half a year, Conall thought, staring out at the folk milling about in the darkness of the courtyard. Half a year since he’d returned, and for what? To watch his people suffer, knowing he was the reason for it. It could have been different. If only he had died a warrior’s death at the Battle of Solway Moss. So many of his kinsmen had perished there. Or if only the English had not discovered his ransom value after capturing him.

After all, he had managed to hide his true identity for a year, and he would have happily continued to rot in that dungeon. If only his brother had not emptied the Sinclair clan vaults to free him. If only. And now, six months after returning home, he had to watch Bryce make yet another sacrifice for the good of their people. His brother was about to wed again, and to a new wife chosen because of the size of her dowry. “You won’t consider me much of a martyr once you meet her,” Bryce said from his chair. He put down his cup of wine. “Ailein Munro is quite beautiful. And pleasant. She also appears to be fairly capable.

In fact, I’m certain she’ll be able to handle the responsibilities that go with running Castle Girnigoe.” Conall shrugged but didn’t look at his brother. Outside, someone was rolling a cask of ale into the courtyard. The Sinclairs and the Munros were in high glee on the eve of the laird’s wedding. “You should have been at dinner tonight,” said Bryce. “My in-laws are eager to meet you.” “To see for themselves if I match up to my vile reputation? To stare at my stump of a hand? To see what a wreck of a man looks like?” “Probably.” Bryce smiled when Conall turned to scowl at him. “Of course not! They want to meet my older brother, the famous warrior, the earl of Caithness. It’s only right that they would want to meet you out of respect.

” “Well, they’ll have to wait. You took on the torch of sociability the day you sat in that laird’s chair,” Conall replied, starting for the door. “The Munro woman is marrying you, not me. Her family has had all the introductions they’re going to get.” “Wait. You will stand by me on the church steps tomorrow?” He paused by the door. “Is that a request or an order?” “A request.” “Good, because I won’t be there. I have no time for it.” “Then it’s an order.

” Conall pulled the door open. “Even better, because you know that Hell will freeze over before I start taking orders from a wet-nosed stripling like you.” “But it’s my wedding, Conall. It’s important that you be there.” “At first light, I’m leaving for the lodge at Dalnawillan.” “Hunting? You’re going hunting rather than stand by me at my wedding?” “Leave me be, Bryce.” He glared at his brother. “You’re starting a new life. And you, better than anyone, know that three is a crowd.” For Innes Munro, nothing compared with the protective arms of night.

She loved the dusk, the dawn, and every dark hour in between. Night suited her. Only then could she really escape the pressures that daytime held. When darkness fell and others slept, no one demanded conversation of her. No one pressed her with unwanted attention or expectation. At night, she could follow her own solitary ways. She could come and go as she pleased. She could live safely within the walls she’d erected around herself. That was when she was home. For another day or two, she was a guest here at Girnigoe.

On some level, Innes couldn’t wait to go home to Folais Castle. Before she left, however, there was something that she wanted to see. Just after supper, by accident, she’d happened to peek into a large hall that she realized was a gallery. Now she was determined to get a better look. As an artist, she knew how rare such things were in the Highlands. Works of art were not always highly valued, and with good reason. Life here was hard and a clan’s prized possessions, other than gold, were limited to weaponry, household goods, and livestock. But this wasn’t just any clan. This was Clan Sinclair. In a land of fearsome warriors, the Sinclairs held a place of distinction.

Kings of their own domains during the Crusades, they’d returned home to fight alongside Robert the Bruce. And when the great king died, no one but a Sinclair was trusted to carry his heart to the Holy Land. For centuries, a Sinclair had served as the strong right hand of every king of Scotland. And these warriors apparently had another side to them. They had artwork that, in Innes’s view, was priceless. She stayed to the shadows, skirting the revelers who were singing and carousing in the castle’s Outer Ward, and hurried to the new North Tower. The gallery was located close to the laird’s reception room and the Great Hall, where a handful of servants still worked after dinner. No one paid any attention to her when she slipped in, lit a taper, and went out. As she entered the gallery, the mere sight of this treasure trove made her sigh with pleasure. Along with a number of smaller works, four great tapestries covered the walls.

Each of them ran from floor to timbered ceiling, and they were exquisite. Italian, she decided, for the figures were incredibly lifelike. Each of them depicted religious events. One showed Christ with his disciples in two boats. The nets of Peter and the other fishermen bulged with their catch. In the flickering light of her taper, she could even make out the delicate golden halos surrounding the men’s heads. The Galilean sea was so real looking she thought she could wash her hands in the water. Innes pulled off one of her gloves and held the light high as she moved from one piece to the next. She had saved the best of the treasures for last. Two paintings hung above the stone mantel of a great fireplace at one end of the gallery.

She gazed at the work, awestruck. Portraits. Two solemn boys stood together, an arched window behind them with Castle Girnigoe and the sea in the distance. There was no question in her mind that the boys were Conall and Bryce Sinclair. In helping to negotiate Ailein’s marriage, she’d learned a great deal about this family. Only two years separated the brothers. Conall was the earl of Caithness and had served as laird until the Battle of Solway Moss. Overmatched by English cannon, many Scots had died there. Conall’s people thought he was killed, and Bryce became laird. And when Conall returned, he refused to take the position back from his brother.

A rumor circulated that the earl had gone mad in the English dungeons. Innes didn’t believe it. Rumors were nothing more than blunted swords of simple minds and wagging tongues. Innes turned her gaze to the second painting. Conall Sinclair alone, decked out in court regalia. She’d seen Bryce often enough and, looking at this depiction, she saw similarities in Conall’s features. But there were differences, too. Conall was darker and more handsome. The shape of the jaw, the intensity in the eyes, the broad powerful shoulders, the muscled legs. She wondered for a moment if the artist had been tasked with portraying the earl of Caithness as larger than life, or if indeed the flesh-and-blood man had the same ability to make a woman’s heart flutter, even in the breast of a twentyseven-year-old spinster.

Innes Munro. The bride’s older sister. Dutiful daughter and trusted advisor to Hector, Baron Folais. As he was leaving Bryce’s receiving room, Conall saw the woman glide silently into the gallery. As much as he wanted to go, to get away from this place, curiosity won out. He had to see what interested her. He entered the gallery through a door hidden in the carved wood panels behind one of the smaller tapestries. Protected now in the shadows of the cloth, Conall watched her move toward him, stopping in front of the great fireplace. The family portraits. She stood not a dozen paces from him.

Conall studied the woman. Smart, observant, shrewd in negotiations, albeit somewhat abrupt. This was how his brother had spoken of her. To win Ailein’s hand in marriage, Bryce had needed to get by the older sister first. It wasn’t easy, by all reports. From his apartments in the West Tower, Conall had watched the Munros arrive that morning. Oddly, it was Innes, and not his future sister-in-law, who captured his attention. The woman stood apart from the rest. Calm. Quiet.

A detached bystander. Her appearance surprised him. He had given no thought to what she would look like, but realized he had expected some shrewish old crone. Conall’s gaze moved over her now. She was hardly a crone. A modest black dress covered her diminutive frame, but there was no ignoring the soft curves of her breasts or the flare of her hips. And she was anything but old. He stared at the flawless skin of her face, the high cheekbones, the full lips. Her dark silky hair, braided into a thick rope, fell to her waist. But his eyes were drawn to the curious shock of white hair framing one side of her face.

The young woman’s demeanor softened into a smile as she continued to study the paintings. This close, she was striking. Not a classic beauty, but beautiful, nonetheless. It was her mouth. Something stirred deep in his belly. Conall knew lust, but he hadn’t felt it for a long time. He didn’t need to be thinking such thoughts now, either. His gaze turned to the object of her attention. The portrait of him had been done not long before he went south to fight the king’s war. Before Solway Moss.

He was whole then, a man with his entire life ahead of him. Intact in body and mind, before he became what he was now. A mere shell of a man. A relic of lost dreams. He backed away. She was looking at a dead man. Innes started at the muffled sound of a door closing. She glanced around, holding her taper high. She was alone. There was no one else in the gallery.

She heard footsteps approaching from the Great Hall, and the steward, Lachlan, limped in. “I thought I saw a light here. Can I help you with anything, mistress?” She pulled on her glove. “Nay, thank you. I’m fine. I couldn’t sleep, so I went for a walk.” The man waited politely. “The tapestries and paintings are very beautiful,” said Innes. Lachlan looked up at the walls, nodding. “I suppose they are.

Some are quite old, I believe. A wee bit of trouble, too, they are,” he grumbled. “Put them up for the wedding, and now I’ll be taking them down and putting them back in storage. And who saw them? You, mistress, are all.” “Well, I’m grateful to you.” She gestured to the painting of Conall Sinclair. “The earl of Caithness. Is he in storage, too?” “Eh?” “His lordship. I didn’t see him at dinner tonight. Is he here at Castle Girnigoe?” “Well, he is and he isn’t.

” Innes cocked an eyebrow at the man. “And will he be here tomorrow, for his brother’s wedding?” “Difficult to say, mistress. If he is, he’ll be standing beside the laird on the chapel steps. If he isn’t, he won’t be.”

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