’Twould be a night of much turmoil. Duncan MacDougall, chief of Clan MacDougall, crouched upon the rocky crag above Loch Searbh as violet-gray gloaming settled over Scotland. The cool, early summer wind, fragrant with flowers, gusted between the rugged granite mountains. He tugged the wool plaid closer about his shoulders. Even the kelpie tribe that dwelled beneath the loch’s murky, peat-tinged surface rumbled more violently than usual.
But a more pressing matter weighed on Duncan’s mind: plotting how he might acquire his enemy Kinnon MacClaren’s magical bow and quiver. If Duncan possessed the Dealanach, as the old druid had once said, he would no longer be doomed to lurk about the night alone. With that special bow, he would finally vanquish the vile Otherworld creatures that tortured him in his nightmares and sleep peacefully as all others did.
He stroked his fingers over the sore wound on his forearm, three deep scratches he’d received almost a week ago. Recently, the beasts had even found ways to invade his sleep during the daytime. These scratches and the bloody bite marks on his calf told him the attacks weren’t his imagination.
The thumping of hooves from the south drew his attention. With his enhanced Fae senses, he listened as the horses galloped closer over the rocky ground. Below him, near the ferry crossing, the riders dismounted. Duncan counted nine men and five women in the party, all perched upon fine horses. The dock held no boat at this late hour, the ferryman having already returned to his home on the other side of the loch.
After the horses drank, the men led them away from the water, closer to the shelter of the cliffside, out of the wind. All but one woman followed.
“Do not wander far, m’lady,” one of the men called out.
“Of course.” The lady’s voice was feminine and rich, but she wore a dull brown cloak complete with a cowl over her head. Though the bulky garment concealed most of her body, she appeared slender.
“Oh, is that…” She tugged her skirts off her shoes and trotted through the heather and gorse, just starting to bloom purple and yellow, and approached the loch’s edge. “Indeed.” A small dagger glinted as she removed it from a hidden pouch. Kneeling, she cut a plant out of the ground and sniffed it.
With his keen hearing, Duncan detected a thunderous din beneath the surface of the loch once again, too low for human ears. The lady was perilously close to the water’s edge. He stood, knowing what tragedy would befall her if he didn’t intervene.
Lady Alana Forbes knelt by Loch Searbh, overjoyed to have found such a large clump of marsh tea. She would dry it and use it to heal many skin afflictions. A dull roar reached her ears. Thunder? No storm clouds lurked overhead. The loch at twilight, surrounded by the rugged Highlands, was one of the most beautiful sights she had seen. A pink and violet sunset painted the sky to the west, the direction she would journey tomorrow to meet her future husband at Castle Claren.
She hoped Kinnon MacClaren was a handsome and kind man. And though she would never admit it to anyone but herself, she hoped he was a generous lover and skilled in the bedchamber. If the rumors about him were correct, the MacClaren chief was indeed handsome, with blue eyes and tawny hair.
Rising, she sniffed the balsamic aroma of the herb. Above all, her new husband must allow her to continue practicing the medicinal arts her beloved grandmother taught her. Gran had passed three years ago, and Alana was the only one to preserve her family’s herbal knowledge and ancient Soillse Eòlas Leigheas healing spells.
She took one step toward her party’s camp when a fierce clamor exploded from the loch. She froze. Water gushed upward and a herd of white horses burst forth, headed straight toward her. What in Hades?
Something unseen slipped around her waist, snatching her into the air far above the ground. Strangely, the invisible band around her felt like a man’s strong arm. St. Bride preserve me!
Nausea roiled through her. She screamed, flailing, cold chills covering her body. Far below, the white horses galloped along the shore and disappeared beyond the bend. Alana knew a bit about magic, but sorcery such as this she had never encountered.
A few hundred feet from the water and her party, she floated down until she rested once again on solid ground.
Whatever peculiar force had lifted her out of harm’s way now released her. She perceived naught but a dull red spot glowing in the dimness. A body expanded from it—a man’s muscular chest and dark head.
“What in…” She covered her gaping mouth. What kind of enchantment could this be?
He turned, moving away toward the bushes, then his muscled back, hip and the rest of his nude body materialized. Sideways, he bent to grab a long piece of woolen tartan from the ground.
When he straightened, the whole of his spectacular front was visible for a moment. Alana’s breath fled and heat burned over her. She had never seen such an enticing, yet forbidden sight. The flat rippled plain of his chest and stomach led down to a narrow, dark trail of hair that pointed toward fascinating masculine parts betwixt his legs. Quickly, he draped the plaid over his shoulder, and it hung to his knees in front.
His straight, jet-black hair brushed his broad shoulders. Eyes, dark as a midnight sky, stared a hole through her, though she was certain he couldn’t see her face beneath the cloak and deep cowl over her head. The men of her family had ever overreacted and made her travel concealed in this manner, to ward off those who would see her beauty and take her hostage, they claimed.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Duncan MacDougall. And who are you?” His deep voice held a stronger, more northern Highland accent than she herself possessed. She found his tongue-rolling burr captivating and wished to hear more of it.
“Alana.” She would not reveal her clan name and position for her own safety. “You saved my life.” What a daft thing to say. She hoped he couldn’t see her blush.
“Aye.” A hint of a grin gave his rugged face a boyish charm. He was perhaps the most handsome man she had ever beheld, with his high cheekbones, wide sensual mouth and square jaw.
“I’m grateful to you.” He bowed.
The plaid draped from his shoulder, covering the left half of his chest and the manly parts between his legs. His right thigh was visible as was his hip. How strangely exciting to see parts of a man such as were usually concealed. She yearned to see more.
His muscled arms and massive shoulders attested to his warrior training. But her mind kept drifting back to his groin. Well-endowed was how she would describe him, nothing like the stable lad she had called lover a few years ago. That was the secret she must never allow Kinnon MacClaren to learn. He must think her a virgin.
How did you carry me through the air? What kind of creature are you?” she asked the sinister stranger.
He smirked. “’Tis a secret.”
Duncan MacDougall possessed a fearsome magic. Clearly. How else would such a feat be possible? She was skilled in the mystical healing arts, but she’d never before known of a person who could do something so remarkable as vanish or fly.
“Why did those white horses stampede from the loch?” she asked.
“They are kelpies, water demons who emerge at night.”
“So they do exist,” she mused. She’d heard tales of kelpies all her life, but she’d thought they were simply legends.
She forced her gaze away from Duncan’s appealing form and down to her hands, where she still held the precious herb she’d risked her life for. Her stranglehold had crushed some of the leaves and their strong aroma filled the air. “Again, I thank you for saving my life. How will I repay you?”
“No repayment necessary.” His deep murmur threatened to seduce her.
Alana dared not look at him again. She feared he was casting a spell upon her with his wicked eyes and sensual voice. Kinnon MacClaren was the man she would marry, though she didn’t know if he was as striking and tempting as this man.
A short distance to the south, the voices of her maids echoed as they shouted her name.
“Will you return me to my party now? They grow worried.”
“Where are you headed?”
Unable to resist, she drank in the sight of his pleasing face again. “Castle Claren,” she said.
“Castle Claren? Why?” he demanded. Duncan’s arrow-sharp tone startled her. Something was amiss. She had revealed dangerous information. “Maids.” Alana swallowed hard. “The chief has hired us as his new maids.” Her palms sweated. She clenched her right hand, only now realizing she’d dropped her dagger.
He frowned, his expression becoming harsh. “Remove your cowl, lass.”
Nay. She had to escape him. Turning her head, she slid a glance toward her party. Could she flee to them before he grabbed her? When she faced Duncan again, he stood beside her, close enough to touch.
He grasped her shoulder and yanked the cowl from her head, pulling her hair.
“Ow! Unhand me!”
His sinister gaze speared hers, his face inches from her own. His jaw tightened, and before he could conceal it, lust, greed and—could it be?—dismay played over his features. He was like all other men, then, wanting what he could never have. Quickly, he blanked his expression and pushed the front of her cloak back to reveal her fine clothing.
“I knew you were a noblewoman. No need to hide the truth. Now, tell me, Lady Alana, what business have you with the MacClaren?” He spoke low and close to her ear, his hot breath sending icy chills through her body. His tight hold made her heart beat fast as a bird’s wings.
She yanked backward, but his grip proved unbreakable. “I am to wed Laird Kinnon MacClaren,” she said through clenched teeth. “And if you do not release me, he will seek retribution.”
Duncan’s eyes narrowed. “Is that so?”
“Aye.” She could talk her way out of this thorny situation. ’Twould not be the first time. And though this knave seemed a bit dangerous, he did not have an evil air about him.
“Why did MacClaren not fetch you himself?”
“I know not. He sent his men. Do you know him?”
She wanted to ask what MacClaren was like, but doubted Duncan would tell her the truth.
“Allow me to return to my party now.” She drew in a breath, and for the first time, detected his scent above the medicinal aroma of the plant in her hand. Warm, spicy and masculine—a tantalizing fragrance she’d never smelled the likes of before and which spoke to an instinct deep within her. Like when someone who had not eaten in a fortnight smelled freshly baked bread covered in butter and honey. Without logic, she wished to bury her nose against his neck, inhale deeply and taste him.
Was she daft? He was a stranger, and a violent one at that.
“I cannot do that,” he murmured in a voice that blended with the night, dusky and deep.
She couldn’t remember what she’d asked him. “Do what?”
His lips quirked, and his knowing eyes stared into hers a moment too long. “Allow you to return to your party.”
A prickle chilled her spine. “What do you mean?”
Two of her mounted guards, MacClaren’s men, burst from the bushes, their horses galloping at full speed, their swords swinging. She ducked.
Duncan released her. His plaid dropped to the ground, and he vanished.
One of the guards flew sideways from his horse as if flung by an invisible force. The second man was tossed forward, over the horse’s head, flipping through the air twice before landing facedown with a groan.
More of her guards, her own clansmen, charged forth, yelling battle cries. Alana froze in place while they galloped all around her, the horses neighing and rearing.
A scarlet spot the size of her fist moved through the twilight, and wherever it darted, her men soared through the air and fell to the ground with a thud, the breath knocked from them.
One man pushed himself to a standing position, gasping for breath, his sword drawn. In the next instant, the red glimmering light intervened, and the guard’s sword flew to the right while he tumbled to the left.
“St. Bride preserve us,” she whispered. What dark magic did Duncan possess?
“Cease! And I shall let you live!” Duncan commanded.
But Lady Alana’s guards didn’t obey. Imbeciles. Didn’t they know he could kill them all in a trice? Not that he wished to kill anyone presently. He merely needed to capture Alana and her people, all unharmed. He couldn’t believe what a prime opportunity he’d been given. At last he had the leverage to bend MacClaren to his will as never before.
The MacClaren men who had been riding with Alana returned for another go at him. Duncan, flying through the air like an invisible arrow, slammed his fist against one’s shoulder. His powerful Fae strength sent the man sprawling from his saddle and his sword hurtling through the air. The wild-eyed horse whinnied and bolted. Duncan dispatched the second man in the same manner.
He scanned the area. Where had Alana gone?
She was escaping. He sailed through the air, giving chase. She glanced back but he knew she could see naught but the glowing crimson mark over his heart. One phenomenal thing about being half Fae was the ability to disappear, except for the Fae mark, and soar with the birds when he wanted. As a child, he had terrified everyone in the clan with this magical gift, and had even angered his father. ’Twas at times like that when he’d vanish, fly away from the castle and not return for days. He’d found friends among the common crofters. Anything to escape his father’s fists. Finally, his father had simply taken to ignoring him.
“You demon! Leave me be.” Alana sprinted toward the loch.
She thought him a demon, did she? Nay, he was no demon, but he would show her he’d use any means to get what he wanted. He reached out, his hand sliding off her shoulder when she changed direction abruptly. She headed straight toward the women of her party and a break in the bushes near the cliff.
“Hurry, m’lady! It is nigh upon you!” her maids screamed.
It? He was no it.
Nay, the cavelike space beneath the bushes couldn’t prevent Duncan from capturing her now. She halted abruptly. He bumped into her back, but slid an invisible arm around her waist and caught her before she could stumble forward.
She twisted and shoved at him, trying to pry herself from his grip, but he was far stronger. Though she thrust her elbow against his torso, it felt like a mere tap. ’Twould do her no good to fight him; she would only injure herself.
“Turn me loose.” She kicked backward, missing his leg by an inch. “Blast!”
Though she struggled, he seized her legs and swung her up into his arms. She weighed less than a thistle flower, and her soft form against him awoke all his primal instincts and urges. He ignored them and carried her from the bush, back along the trail.
"Release me, you blackguard. And show yourself.”
Duncan didn’t appreciate the careless insults she tossed his way. Most people were too terrified to insult him in such a way. He didn’t know whether to laugh or spank her. Mayhap he would do both later.
He made sure her skirts and cloak ensnared her limbs, then made himself visible.
She jumped, glaring up at him. “Bastard! You shall pay for your crimes, I vow.”
He smirked and flicked what he hoped was a disparaging glance down at her. Did she truly think he would heed any of her warnings?
“I demand you take me to MacClaren at once.”
He chuckled. He couldn’t resist, given that she appeared about as frightening as an incensed rabbit. “Do you now?”
“’Tis unfortunate then that I’ve never taken orders from lasses, and don’t intend to now.”
"I am Lady Alana Forbes. Sister of Chief Malcolm Forbes.”
“How grand for you.”
“You will have both my brother and my future husband to contend with if you do not release me at once.”
Though her maids kept their distance, huddling near the supplies and campsite, Duncan was certain they were getting an eyeful of his nude body. Her men were a different story. Swords drawn, they limped and stumbled toward him. He couldn’t help but admire their tenacity.
Close your eyes, lass,” Duncan ordered.
He vanished and they shot toward the sky.
Published by Carina Press © 2011 by Nicole North
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