Sunlight peeked over the hill, offering tiny glimmering splashes of a new day. The charred keep presented a stark contrast, its blackened walls and crumbling beams still smoldering, tiny wisps of smoke only hinting at the devastation it had wreaked. The bitter odor of burned wood refused to abate. Nessa watched a curl of smoke rise until it vanished into the sunlight. She narrowed her gaze at the sky. How she’d wished to see a new day, to breathe fresh air only hours ago. She clenched her jaw. Now she hated the new day. It didn’t deserve to be beautiful. It shouldn’t be promising. The blanket slipped from her shoulders and the lady tending to her arm tugged it up. “Poor wee bairn,” she kept muttering. She didn’t feel poor or wee. She didn’t feel anything. Even the pain of the burn had begun to numb, feeling like a faint throb as the woman wrapped.
She glanced at the reddened flesh before it vanished under the white cloth. She couldn’t recall when the fire had touched her or even the pain of it until she emerged from the blaze, gulping down breaths through painful lungs, scarcely able to see. The woman tending to her said her wee size must have saved her. Allowed her to escape. How could that be if no one else survived? Not even Leana who was so similar to her, people often mistook them for one another. A knot formed in her dry throat. Not even her mother. They were gone. All of them. Men and women picked their way through the debris, calling in vain for survivors.
There was no hope. Anyone who had been in that fire would know that. The flames had taken hold with such savagery that they scarcely had a moment to realize what was occurring. Escape had been impossible. Perhaps if she had remained in the Great Hall, she would be dead too. For some reason, the main doors wouldn’t open, as though they were barred from the outside. She clenched her jaw. She might only be eight summers old but she knew why they had been trapped, and she knew how. This had been a deliberate act. A fire set to wipe out as many important members of the clan as possible.
That meant people like her and her mother would be sacrificed too. A mere maid and her daughter—no one important. A few bodies had been found and were laid under blankets. One of them could be her mother but she imagined it would be impossible to tell if it was her. She’d already seen the state of the corpses, and when she had tried to wander over to look, the adults pulled her away. “There, yer all patched up, love.” Nessa eyed the woman. She didn’t recognize her, but the blaze had brought farmers from all over to help. Too late though. Everyone was gone.
The woman cupped her face. “What shall we do with ye?” Nessa didn’t manage a response. Even if her throat wasn’t as parched as sand on a hot day, she didn’t think she could summon one. If she released a noise, what would come? Tears? Screaming? She wasn’t sure but she didn’t trust herself to unleash it. Ma always scolded her for crying, saying it was a waste of time, and she shouldn’t dwell on things that couldn’t be changed. The fire couldn’t be changed. Her mother’s death couldn’t be changed. She peered at her bare toes, scarcely able to recognize the gray, dusty digits as her own. When had she lost her shoes? “What do ye have there?” The woman peeled open her clasped hand. Nessa let her fingers fall open, revealing the charred remains of a tapestry.
She recalled gripping onto it to pull herself up when the smoke became too much as she hunted for her mother in the hallway of the keep. All that remained of the image was a partridge in a pear tree. All that remained of what was once her life. She closed her hand over the fabric and clasped it tight, setting her jaw. Somehow, someday, whoever did this would pay. She would make certain of that. The ground beneath her vibrated and she turned toward the sound of horses’ hooves. Several riders approached and she recognized the clan leader at the head of the group. She wondered if he would feel like her—wishing he had burned with his family too. He spoke to one of the men picking through the rubble and his shoulders drooped.
Then the man pointed at her and he turned her way. His gaze met hers. A few moments passed while he peered at her. Perhaps he would be angry that she survived, and his daughter did not. She would be angry too, she reckoned. She pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders and kept her chin firm as he strode over. She followed the sight of his thick legs up to a broad chest, a red beard, and eyes that only just masked the pain behind them. He crouched in front of her. “Yer Nessa, are ye no’?” She nodded. “Ye were a good friend to my Leana.
” She nodded again. “It looks like ‘tis just the two of us now, wee lass.” Her chin trembled so she bit down hard until her teeth hurt. He flicked a finger under her chin. “That’s it. Stay strong. We cannae let our enemies see our weakness can we?” “Nay,” she managed to murmur. Chief Sinclair urged her face up and turned it this way and that a few times. “Yer scarcely recognizable with all this soot on ye. And that’s no bad thing.
” Nessa scowled. He dropped his hand, glanced around and leaned in. “Ye never had a da did ye?” “Nay,” she murmured. He’d died when she had been a bairn. She couldn’t recall him, but her Ma said he was a fine man. “How would ye like a da now?” She peered into his pale blue eyes, spying the slight shimmer of tears in the corners. It made her want to weep too. But he wanted her to be strong and she knew her Ma would have wanted the same. “Ye look like Leana.” His voice cracked at the mention of her name.
He cleared his throat. “And there’s no one left that would know the difference between ye. Do ye understand what I’m saying, child?” Opening her mouth, she closed it again, letting her frown deepen. She was the daughter of a mere kitchen maid. No one important. She would have probably taken over her mother’s role one day. So the chief couldn’t be asking what she thought he was. “We’re stronger together,” he reminded her. “And ye’ll be protected if yer my daughter.” “Ye want me to be…?” “Leana, aye.
” He nodded, his throat working. “Ye’ll take her place and it will be known that my one and only daughter survived this attack on our clan. Ye’ll be a wee miracle and it will help strengthen the clan once more until such a time that we can get revenge.” She looked past him toward the wreckage of the castle, still presenting wisps of smoke into the bright morning sky. Revenge. She clutched the tapestry tight in her palm until her nails dug through the fabric and pinched into her skin. She liked the sound of that. Revenge for all that was lost. And all she had to do was play pretend. Well, she was good enough at that.
She and Leana had often pretended to be riding into battle or battling beasts down by the loch. Meeting his gaze, she nodded slowly. “I can do that.” He offered a slight smile then wrapped huge arms about her and scooped her into his hold. Sinking into the warm, solid embrace, a tear slipped down her cheek. She pressed her face into the rough fabric of his plaid. “Just us now, wee one,” he murmured. “We’ll be strong together.” She didn’t know much about men, she had to admit, but she had the sneaking suspicion he needed her almost as much as she needed him in that moment. Chapter 1 Caithness 1287 Leana pushed open the shutters, curled her fingers into the cold stone and inhaled a long gulp of air.
Stretching in front of her, bare land tinged with yellows and greens reached up toward the snow-topped mountains. The loch ran alongside the sharp-edged ridge of the hills, sparkling in the bright morning light. “Och, shut the window. ‘Tis freezing in here,” Maggie scolded. Leana gulped down an extra breath and drew them shut. “There’s be plenty of fresh air at Blair Keep,” the maid reminded her. “I know that,” muttered Leana. “But ‘tis no’ Sinclair land is it?” Maggie rolled her eyes. “‘Tis all the same air. ‘Tis still Highland air, is it no’?” It wasn’t the same by far but Leana wasn’t going to argue that with the maid.
Maggie offered up her plaid, helping Leana wrap it about herself then pin it with a decorative broach. She ran a finger over the delicate twists of gold. “Once I’ve done yer hair, ye’ll be just bonnie,” Maggie said, her smile broadening. She clasped her hands together and stepped back to glance her over. Grey hair peppered with suggestions of the original black shade hinted at Maggie’s skill with a comb and pins. Her perpetually rosy cheeks presented a splash of color against her pale skin. It was rare to see Maggie anything other than jovial and sometimes Leana resented it. It made her feel dry and tired and old and several decades older than the maid rather than younger. “Oh, aye bonnie indeed. But we have some work to do first.
” Leana rolled her eyes. At the same time, it was impossible not to adore Maggie. “I dinnae care if I look like a beast risen from the loch.” “That I dinnae believe.” Maggie took her shoulders and urged her onto a chair by the window of the room. Leana did as she was bid. There was no arguing with Maggie, especially over the benefits of looking beautiful in front of a potential suitor. A tiny shudder wracked her, and she couldn’t blame the frosty winter air she had released into the room. “Yer nervous,” said Maggie, combing fingers through Leana’s hair. “Nay,” she replied automatically.
“Ye are. I know ye.” Leana bit down on her bottom lip. Maggie didn’t know her. Not really. The woman might have been at her side since she was a girl, struggling to learn how to be a chieftain’s daughter instead of a kitchen maid’s, but she had little idea of the secrets she kept buried. No idea that her father was not really her blood, and certainly no clue as to her true identity. Sometimes, the truth weighed down on her as though she were at the very bottom of the loch with the water pressing down upon her shoulders. Sometimes, she wished she could unburden it all upon the woman to whom she was closest. But the truth had to remain buried.
For everyone’s sake. If it was known she had taken the place of the chieftain’s daughter, it would weaken the Sinclairs. She lifted her chin and tightened her muscles. She would never be weak. Never. It had taken them long enough to rebuild the keep as a former shadow of itself, all the while fending off threats from neighboring clans who saw them as ripe for plunder after so many of their important members had died. Were it not for her reputation as a miracle survivor—the only daughter of the chief who emerged from the ashes barely touched by the fire—they would have suffered far worse over the years, and likely been decimated. “I hear that Tavish Maclean is a braw one.” She clenched her teeth. The last time she’d seen Tavish Maclean, he’d been but a lad.
Likely around twelve years old. And his clan had not been their enemy then. “I dinnae care if he is the most braw man in the whole of Scotland,” Leana muttered. “He’s still a Maclean.” “Aye, and keen to put to rest the bitterness between the clans.” “I dinnae know what he has to be bitter about. He’s not the one whose clan was destroyed.” Maggie tugged her hair, making Leana wince. “Everyone would like to see the end of the feud between the clans. With the Campbells to the south, it would be a fine thing to be joined in numbers with the Macleans.
” Leana stared at her hands, her gaze lingering on the small patch of ugly red skin that peeked out from beneath her kirtle. She tugged down her sleeve. “I know.” Maggie was not alone in her concerns. Though they had warred with the Macleans since the fire, the Campbells were a far bigger threat. They had already expanded their lands twofold in the past ten years and had grown in numbers. If the Sinclairs were to survive another ten, they could not do it alone. But that meant forgoing the one thing she wanted the most. Revenge. She wasn’t certain she was willing to give that.
After all these years of fighting, here was her chance to make her mark. To truly hit the Macleans where it hurt. “Ye dinnae need to be nervous. I’ll be with ye,” Maggie reminded her. “Though ‘tis a shame yer Da’s health is no’ doing so well. He’ll no’ make the journey.” Nodding, she bit down on her bottom lip. The chief had struggled with his health the past year and was only just recovering from an illness that had kept him bedridden for over a sennight. As much as he wanted to be a part of these negotiations, he would never manage the journey, and she couldn’t bear it if she lost him. He might not be her real father but he had never treated her as anything other than a daughter.
The wounds of the fire had taken longer than her arm to heal, but somehow, having Chief Sinclair helped. Together they had been strong enough to get to this point. Strong enough to ensure she could take this final step. Strong enough to finally get the revenge their families deserved. She rose from the chair and adjusted her plaid. Nay, she had no intention of joining with the Macleans and marrying Tavish, no matter what the benefits might be. They deserved to suffer for what they did to her clan and there was no chance she could lie with the son of their most hated enemy. There was no forgiveness to be had this Yuletide. None at all.