The wild wind that had blown Will Mackinnon’s boat onto the rocky shore of this small island still whistled around his ears. Yesterday had been a perfect summer’s day in the Hebrides, with the sky and water as blue as his mother’s famously beautiful eyes. Today it was like the coldest corner of hell. By God, he loved Scotland. While the onshore gale persisted, there was no getting off this jagged speck in the Atlantic west of Lewis. Shivering in a wet shirt, Will set out to explore the place he’d call home, if only for tonight. It didn’t take him long. The island wasn’t much more than a mountaintop in the ocean. He climbed the slope from the sandy beach where he’d pulled his boat, the Leumadair, up out of the roaring surf’s reach, until he reached the summit. On his way, he passed a couple of tumbledown bothies but saw no sign of current inhabitants. At the top, he looked west over an empty stretch of turbulent gray water. He could be the last man on earth. His attention fixed on a ruined tower on a cliff, facing out across that heaving sea. These islands on Scotland’s west coast were littered with fortifications, some left by the Vikings, some left by even earlier inhabitants. Curiosity lured him into a scramble down a scree-covered hillside to investigate.
The closer he got, the less like a ruin the tower appeared. It might even be substantial enough to offer the hope of shelter. He didn’t fancy sleeping on his boat or in one of the ramshackle abandoned cottages with a roof open to the sky. To his surprise, at the base of the tower, he found a stout oak door in excellent repair. Now that he stood next to it, the tower was taller than he’d expected, too. On this landward side, a line of narrow windows stretched up to the top. It perched on the edge of a promontory, so he couldn’t see the side facing the ocean. Once again, he glanced around. By heaven, this was a desolate spot to pass an afternoon. Like the tower at the end of the world.
Although the island seemed uninhabited, he knocked on the door. No response. He knocked again with a similar result. A tug at the wrought-iron handle proved it was securely locked. Will sighed and surveyed the structure with closer attention. The stonework looked rough enough to provide plenty of hand and footholds for someone who had grown up scrambling over the impressive mountains surrounding his father’s castle at Achnasheen. He began to climb. The stones were wet and slippery and at times, he was hanging by his fingertips. But he and his brother had conquered the mighty Cuillins on Skye, so he was used to finding purchase on an unpromising surface. His booted feet pressed down on protrusions mere inches in length, but big enough to allow him to make slow upward progress.
At least the rain held off, although with every yard he ascended, the wind grew fiercer, whipping his long hair around his face and obscuring his sight. The first window he reached was little wider than an arrow slit. Too small for a man built on his heroic lines to squeeze through. But Will saw enough through the opening to realize that inside, the tower was habitable. In the darkness, he made out the shapes of a couple of narrow beds and a few chairs and chests. If he could find a way in, this place would offer a fine refuge, as night descended, along with the rain he could smell on the blasting wind. He was cold and wet and a dizzying three floors up before he came to a window wide enough to fit him. When he swung breathless over the sill, he set foot on something that felt like carpet. After the daylight outside, the sudden dimness within blinded him. He sucked in a lungful of air, and his vision cleared to reveal a beautiful woman with golden hair glaring at him.
She aimed a flintlock pistol straight at his heart. *** Ellen saw the man’s eyes widen as his hazel gaze focused on the gun, but he showed no other reaction. Certainly none of the cowering terror she’d hoped to see. “Och, lassie,” he said in a velvety drawl that made every hair bristle. “This isnae much of a welcome.” “That’s because you’re no’ welcome.” Her hand didn’t waver, and she responded with a coolness that almost matched his. Inside, she was a quaking mass of terror and rage, but she refused to betray any weakness to this brazen interloper. “I’d think that would be clear when I didnae open the door to you downstairs.” “It’s a braw gusty day.
” The man rubbed his hands together to brush off the dirt from the climb. “I wondered if ye heard me over the weather.” “I heard ye all right. I’m no’ at home to callers this afternoon.” Caustic irony weighted the polite society phrase. “Now I’ll thank ye to get out.” The devil made the perfect picture of male arrogance, standing there. Tall, unafraid, and breathtakingly handsome with his untidy mane of vivid auburn hair and his insolent expression. The wet shirt, grimy from his climb, clung to the hard muscles ridging his chest and abdomen. Even the bright red and black pattern of his kilt seemed to scream masculine superiority.
Ellen had had quite enough of masculine superiority. This cocky intruder didn’t impress her. Or so at least she told herself. “The way I came?” He tilted one mocking eyebrow and hitched up one hip with a casualness that he must know was risky in front of a loaded weapon. She supposed she should be grateful that he kept his distance. “Or will ye permit me to use the stairs?” Her mouth tightened as she raised the gun. “I dinnae give a rat’s behind, as long as you go.” A sardonic smile curled his lips. “In that case, I might choose the stairs. Or perhaps if ye put the gun down, I can introduce myself, and you can tell me who you are and we can converse like civilized beings.
” The arrant coxcomb. He imagined sheer cheek might win out. Her tone remained implacable. “I dinnae want to converse with you. I want ye out of my tower. If you’re wondering whether the gun is loaded and whether I ken how to use it, the answer to both those questions is yes.” “I’m sure it is, lassie.” Humor lightened his eyes to sparkling green. “Ye have an air of competence that says you mean business.” “So I’ll tell ye again.
” Her voice remained steady, belying the nerves that leaped about inside her stomach like excited puppies and made her feel queasy. “Get out.” “As ye wish, although I swear on my soul you’re safe with me.” He bowed, as if they were in a ballroom and not a rough stone tower on the remote edges of the kingdom. “Before I go, may I know the name of the lovely lassie who refuses me her hospitality on such a dreich day?” His game playing made her lips lengthen in irritation. “Ye know who I am.” He frowned as if he sifted his memory for a lady who fitted her description. She could already tell that the villain had a long list of women to count through. “Have we met before?” “No,” she snapped, annoyed at this masquerade. His glance travelled over the round room, furnished with every comfort, and out through the large window behind her that faced the turbulent Atlantic.
She saw the moment that shocked realization descended over his features. This confident intruder was either a cursed good actor, or he really didn’t know who she was. At least, he hadn’t until now. “By God, you’re Fair Ellen of the Isles.” His wonder sounded genuine. “Ye expect a prize for guessing?” she asked sarcastically, still convinced he was pretending. While Bortha’s isolation meant visitors were rare, enough would-be rescuers had turned up over the years for her to mistrust this one’s claim of ignorance. He didn’t seem to hear her, but studied her with a bright-eyed interest that made her blush, mad as that was. “I’ve always thought ye were a myth, yet here you are. I’ve got a cousin who set out to find you about four years ago, all fired up to rescue ye from captivity.
I told him he was a complete knucklehead and that he was chasing after shadows. Now it turns out that you’re nae shadow.” “As ye see,” she said stiffly, wondering in bewilderment how she was losing control of the discussion when she held the gun. Wondering why she was even having a discussion. “As I see.” He continued to inspect her as if she was about to sprout wings and fly off to Ireland. “The stories say that you’re a prisoner, yet I gather ye can leave the tower when you wish, if you had a choice whether to let me in or no’.” She was a prisoner, all right. “I have the run of the island.” “The rumors got one thing correct.
I’ve never seen a woman so fair.” “Save your flattery,” she said in a voice that crackled with ice. Compliments on her looks had stopped pleasing her, once she’d matured enough to realize that they disguised unspoken attempts to possess or control. Often enough, she’d cursed the face she saw in the mirror. It hadn’t done her any favors. “Is your wrist no’ getting sore?” He waved an elegant hand at the gun, as if it held no more importance than a toy. “By my faith, ye can put your pistol down. I mean you nae harm. I was looking for somewhere warm and dry to spend the night, and I thought the tower was empty.” Ellen didn’t take up his invitation, although he was right – her wrist had started to ache.
But despite his reassurances, fear pounded in her heart. Since she’d heard him try the door downstairs, she’d been clutching the gun. She’d give this swaggering jackanapes one thing – he’d made quick work of scaling her tower, and he’d done it without ropes or assistance. At least… A horrible thought struck her. “Are ye alone?” That glittering curiosity made her feel like some sort of scientific specimen. “Aye.” Most of the men who reached the island in search of her had come alone, although one or two had arrived with armed backing. “And ye expect me to believe that you accidentally ended up on this rock in the middle of the sea?” The man shrugged in response to her skepticism. “Whether ye believe me or no’, that’s the truth.” “So how did ye get here?” “I took my wee boat out for a sail yesterday and got caught in the storm that sprang up.
What is this island? It’s no’ on my charts.” “Bortha,” she said, before she remembered that she didn’t want to talk to her unwanted guest, she wanted him gone. “And who is Laird of Bortha?” “My father, the Laird of Inchgallen.” He frowned. “Inchgallen I know. I’ve seen it on my charts.” She gestured toward a low, dark shape on the far horizon behind him. “That’s Inchgallen.” The island she hadn’t set foot on in ten years. Just thinking about it was enough to make her heart keen in sorrow, despite the cruel treatment she’d received there.
Inchgallen would always be home, the place she was born, the place where she belonged. The man twisted to see where she pointed, before his attention returned to her. “If the stories about ye are true, the suitors for your hand were so numerous and so troublesome that your father locked you up in a tower to keep you safe.” “It’s a fairy tale.” Scorn turned down her lips. “Does it no’ sound like a fairy tale to ye?” He shrugged again. It seemed to be a characteristic response. “I told ye – until this moment, I’d never believed in the existence of the legendary Fair Ellen of the Isles, confined to her tower like a princess in a story.” He paused, surveying her with that intense attention that left her so unsettled. She could already tell that a piercing intelligence accompanied his spectacular looks.
“Yet here I am on a mysterious island with a girl in a tower, a girl with a face to make Helen of Troy green with envy. It makes me wonder if perhaps the rest of the legend is true.” *** Contempt firmed the woman’s pretty pink lips. In the stories, Fair Ellen had been a sweet little cipher, waiting for a strong laddie to brave the tower’s defenses and climb to her rescue. Naturally in the legend, the grateful beauty would take one look at her savior and fall madly in love with him. When his cousin Dougal had set out to free the imprisoned maiden, Will had told him he had rocks in his head. Highlanders loved a great story. They cared much less whether the story was true. The tales of Fair Ellen were just another rumor, substantial as a wisp of sea fog. As Will had predicted, Dougal hadn’t discovered Fair Ellen, although he’d found true love on another small isle.
Before Will was blown off course, he’d been on his way to visit Askaval, where Dougal and his wife Kirsty lived in wedded bliss. Now it turned out that the wisp of sea fog that had intrigued Dougal held more than a kernel of truth. There was indeed a maiden in a tower on an island, although Will was delighted to find that the real woman had much more salt in her character than the gormless creature of rumor. In the legend, Fair Ellen had been a mere slip of a girl. This was a grown woman in her midtwenties. As promised, she was beautiful, although he could see his compliments didn’t please her. Nothing he’d done so far had pleased her. Yet for the life of him, he couldn’t look away from her face. Will came from a famously handsome family. His mother had been a famed beauty.
But he’d never seen a lassie to rival Fair Ellen. Fair indeed. She looked like a Viking princess, which was no surprise, given that for centuries, Norse longships had sailed up and down this coast. Hair like moonlight. Skin like new cream. Eyes the pale blue of the sea at dawn on a fine summer’s day. A delicate face with a pointed chin and a decisive jaw. A soft mouth that he’d give half his considerable fortune to see relax into a smile. No smiles from Fair Ellen for Will Mackinnon. Hell’s bells, she was holding him at gunpoint.
He saw no reason to doubt her claim that she knew how to use the little silver pistol. That low, husky voice – damn it, even her voice was beautiful – had rung with confidence when she’d threatened him. “Were ye no’ listening?” Those spectacular ice-blue eyes narrowed on him. “I dinnae want to sit down and have a chat with ye. The only word I want to hear from ye is goodbye.” Amusement curled his lips. How he loved a challenge. The problem with most of the lassies he met was that they were far too eager to fall at his feet. The heir to Achnasheen was a catch, when he much preferred to play hunter than quarry. Hoping that it would convey good intentions, he retreated to sit on the sill of the window he’d climbed through.
Behind her, the view through the large window facing west revealed another squall sweeping in from the sea. “What if I want to stay? Will ye shoot me in cold blood?” Another furious flash of those gorgeous eyes rewarded his impudence. The girl in the legend had always struck him as rather soppy and far too resigned to her fate to be worth the winning. The real Ellen offered a much more alluring proposition. Will had spent mere minutes in her company, and already he knew that he’d like to know her better. Of course, he wanted her, too. He doubted any man could behold those perfect features or that tall, slender body without desire. But it wasn’t just her appearance that stirred his masculine interest. “If I have to,” she said evenly. Hoping he wasn’t tempting fate, he spread his hands.
“Go ahead, then.” A thorny silence fell, and he caught the first sign of uncertainty in her eyes as she surveyed him. “I don’t want ye here.” “You’ll like me when ye get to know me.” His effrontery didn’t make her smile. “I don’t want to get to know ye.” That was no doubt true. He was unused to girls who didn’t giggle and twinkle and fiddle with their hair when he flirted with them. Ellen’s flinty gaze told him she was made of sterner stuff. Will was perceptive enough to know that if she lived here alone, she must feel vulnerable.
The pistol itself was evidence of that. He gentled his tone, as he hid a shiver. His shirt was wet and clammy. If she made him sleep outside tonight, he risked frostbite. Or drowning. “I swear you’re safe.” He went on before she could argue. “The only shelter on this island is your tower, and I’m stranded here until the wind changes.” As if to confirm what he said, freezing rain spattered his back. It wasn’t a downpour yet, but it promised to become one in the next few minutes.
“That’s your problem.” He chanced another smile. It received the same frosty reception as his others. “Is there nae trace of Christian charity in your breast?” Och, and what a comely breast it was. He didn’t glance down to the curves filing out the modest blue bodice, but he’d already noted the generous bosom and slim but womanly figure. She wasn’t voluptuous, but what there was of her was prime quality. “No’ for an uninvited intruder,” she snapped. “Perhaps for a sailor blown off course and requesting succor.” “I presume a sailor has a boat he can sleep on.” “It’s only a wee vessel with no cabin.
” “Then the sailor is likely to get wet.” He couldn’t help it. She was so adamant against him, and it made for such a refreshing change. He burst into delighted laughter and rose, although he was careful to venture no closer. He didn’t want to frighten her more than he had already. “You’re a braw hard-hearted lassie, my lady.” His movement startled the girl into backing away, and Will’s urge to laugh died an abrupt death. His first impression of physical perfection crumbled in an instant. Fair Ellen was lame.