Highlander’s Wicked Desire (Preview)
Knock Castle, The Isle of Skye, Scotland
James stood atop the walls of Knock Castle and looked out over the land he loved so dearly. The Isle of Skye was imprinted upon his heart in indelible emerald green ink. He could not help but miss its craggy shores each time that he left for business upon the mainland. This time he had been away for Duncan and Marra’s wedding. They had been handfast for a year and a day and had decided to make it official before the eyes of God and man. Marra had gone into labor with their first born before the ceremony. It had been a riotous affair to be sure, and at its conclusion, they were wed, and James had become the godfather to their newborn son, Ewan.
James smiled at the thought of the wee bairn. He would need to travel back and forth to the mainland often to see his godson. He knew that children grew so very fast, and he did not wish to miss out on Ewan’s life any more than was necessary. It had been difficult watching Marra marry another man, but he knew that Duncan MacGregor was the one and only man for her, and he would never dream of coming between such a love as that.
Perhaps young Ewan can come and stay with me for a time when he is auld enough. That is assumin’ I have a place for him tae come tae.
James looked down at the piece of paper in his hand. It was the second attempt at blackmail he had received since becoming laird. Someone in the clan knew what had truly happened to his father and was threatening to tell the others and displace him as laird. The first letter had come but a month ago. He had at first suspected William as the only other clansman who had known his secret, but William had more than proved his loyalty over the last year in helping Duncan and Marra’s people to get back on their feet after being attacked and betrayed by a group of their own people led by Duncan’s cousin Lachlan. When James had approached William about the letter, he had denied any knowledge of it, and James believed him. He had received the second letter as soon as he had entered his bedchamber upon his return.
Footsteps approached from behind him, and he turned to see who it was. “How was the weddin’?” William asked, leaning his elbows against the top of the castle wall.
“Eventful,” James answered, smiling at the memory.
“’Tis about time for ye tae consider settlin’ down yerself, is it nae? Perhaps the daughter o’ one o’ the clan’s more influential members?” William suggested, with a raised brow. “’Twould certainly go a long way tae securin’ yer lairdship, would it nae.”
“Aye, it might, but I am nae ready yet,” James answered, shaking his head.
“Still pinning o’er the loss o’ young Marra MacDonald, are ye?” William asked, knowing the answer already.
James shot him a look but otherwise chose to ignore the comment. He handed William the most recent blackmail attempt and stood silently while the warrior read it. “So they have nae ceased in their threats but dinnae make any demands o’ ye.”
“Aye, it is as if their only purpose is tae make me aware that they ken the truth and that at some point in the future they intend tae share it with the rest o’ the clan.”
“And tae kill ye if these words are any indication,” William noted, tapping the paper in his hand with disgust.
“Have ye had any luck in findin’ anythin’ on the blackmailers in my absence?”
“Nae, I have nae,” William answered, shaking his head angrily. “I have spoken with everyone I can ‘bout how they feel ‘bout yer bein’ laird, and I did nae come across anyone who does nae believe ye tae be the rightful Laird o’ Skye. O’ course, they could have lied. As I am nae able tae reveal the real reason for the inquiries, my ability tae ascertain who the cuddies might be is limited at best.”
James nodded his head in understanding. It had been exceedingly difficult to make inquiries into who might have left the letter for him without revealing the contents. He had been forced to burn the first letter detailing the truth to avoid any risk of discovery. Had it been only his life at risk, he would have admitted all and been done with it, but it was not just his life. The fate of three clans depended on his father’s true cause of death remaining a secret. Duncan’s, Marra’s, and James’ own clan all hung in the balance. “All we can do is continue tae try and apprehend the blackmailers before it is tae late.”
“Aye, but how?” William asked, handing him back the letter.
“I dinnae ken, but we will think o’ somethin’. We must.”
William nodded his head, and the two of them stood gazing out over the sea. They watched as the sky darkened, and a fierce storm blew toward them from across the water. “’Twill be a rough one.” William gestured out toward the brewing storm. “’Tis good ye came home when ye did. I would nae want tae be out on the water in that.”
“Aye, ‘tis good tae be home in spite o’ everythin’,” James agreed. “Nae man or beast could make it safely through the likes o’ such a storm. We should go down and ensure that all is secure afore it reaches land.”
“Aye,” William agreed, and the pair of them descended the stairs down into the keep and out into the courtyard to aid their fellow clansmen in preparation for the incoming maelstrom.
When the storm hit, it ripped across the land, pouring down its wrath onto the island’s inhabitants. James had moved many of his fellow clansmen and women into the keep as a precaution for their safety. As the wind screamed outside of the castle walls, the Clan MacDonald of Skye lay snuggly sleeping on pallets strung out across the floor of the great hall, safe and sound. By morning, the storm had passed.
Upon waking, James and a handful of warriors began to help the people back to their homes and make repairs to their crofts where needed. Items from baskets to blankets had been strung out across the landscape leading down to the rocky shoreline. Children scampered over the rocks, collecting their family’s lost goods. James and William aided an elderly couple back to their home a little way from the castle. When they arrived, they found that a section of the thatch had been blown off and was in need of repair. Rolling up their sleeves, they immediately set to work mending the damage.
As they were working, a young lad came running up the shoreline, yelling excitedly. “They’re dead! They’re all dead!” The little boy ran up to James in the croft’s yard and grabbed his hand. “They’re all dead, My Laird!”
“Who, lad? Who is dead?” he asked, taking the boy by the shoulders and bending down to the lad’s eye level.
“The Englishmen!” The boy grabbed James’ hand once more and took off running back the way he had come.
James and William ran after him toward the beach. As they circled the rocky crag they were stopped in their tracks at the ghastly sight before them. There upon the rocks and sand lay a string of dead sailors interspersed by a much smaller number of British Redcoats. Beside them lay bits and pieces of a broken ship’s mast with the British flag atop it. “God in heaven,” breathed James as he moved forward to ensure that they were indeed dead.
“Aye, that’d be where they are now tae be sure,” William agreed, doing the same.
They moved through the dead, rolling them over so to leave no doubt as to their state. James walked over to the flag lying upon the ground and was startled when a groaning sound emerged from beneath its sodden folds. “There is someone alive over here!” he called over to William. He lifted the flag, tossing it back to reveal the wounded form of a woman. Her head and hair were covered in blood, hiding her face. She lay in the sand, her head near the mast. It was clear that it had been the cause of her head wound.
James bent down and smoothed the blood-soaked hair from her face, causing her to moan again. She was so pale and cold that she was almost blue. Her features were high and fine, classical in nature, much like that of an Italian marble statue. Her neck was long and slender, her hair lay in long dark curling tendrils around her face and shoulders. She wore a dress of fine quality in spite of its sodden, filthy state. The color appeared to have once been a lovely sky blue with ermine and lace trim at the neckline and sleeves. Gold and silver thread decorated the bodice.
“An English noble lady,” William remarked over James’ shoulder.
“It would appear tae be so,” James agreed and lifted her from the ground into his arms.
“What should we do with the rest o’ them?” William asked, frowning at all the bodies.
“They cannae remain here tae rot and be eaten by scavenging animals. They will need tae be buried.”
“And what if their people come lookin’ for them? We dinnae need tae be givin’ English soldiers a reason tae be roamin’ the island. Things are precarious enough as it is. It would nae take them verra long at all tae realize that ye have been offerin’ aid tae a bunch o’ outlawed Jacobite sympathizers o’er the last year if they were to spend any time here at all.”
“I would agree that havin’ English soldiers on our island for any reason is nae tae be sought after, but someone is goin’ tae come lookin’ for a lass such as this. She is clearly from a wealthy, noble family. She will be missed.”
“Aye, I suppose ye dinnae leave a treasure such as this behind.” William gestured toward the girl in James’ arms.
“Nae, ye dinnae. When she awakens, she will be able tae tell us tae whom she belongs, and we will return her there ourselves at the earliest opportunity.”
“Preferably before anyone notices she is missin’,” William grumbled.
James understood William’s concerns all too well. It was unwise to give the English a reason to seek you out, for once they arrived in a place, they seldom left it willingly. He carried the lass up the shoreline to the elderly couple’s croft and placed her inside upon the bed. “Agnes, I have brought ye a guest,” he informed the woman of the house. “She is wounded and in need of yer healin’ hands.”
Agnes MacDonald moved forward and took in the state of the unconscious Englishwoman. She nodded her head and moved across the croft to place some water over the fire to boil and began gathering various herbs and some cloth. When the water was ready, she pulled it out of the flames and poured it into a bowl. She carried her supplies over to the woman upon the bed and began to cleanse the wound upon her head. Turning, she motioned for James to leave the room so that she could remove the woman’s sodden clothing, and he quickly obeyed. At the door he turned to inquire, “Will she live?” Agnes shrugged her shoulders and closed the door behind him.
James shook his head and smiled slightly at the older woman’s lack of conversational skills. Turning to her husband he said, “Ye are a lucky man, Samuel.”
“Aye, that I am,” Samuel agreed, vigorously nodding his snow-capped head.
William chuckled at the exchange and then turned serious once more. “I will go back tae the keep and gather some men.”
“I will go and speak tae the minister at the kirk tae prepare him for what is tae come. Ye can bring the bodies there for burial.”
William clicked his tongue in disapproval while shaking his head. “Sassenachs in the kirkyard among decent Scottish folk is a sin tae be sure.”
James sighed, laying a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “It cannae be helped, William.”
“Aye, I suppose it cannae.”
“I will return tae look in on the lass after I have spoken with the minister,” James informed Samuel. “We dinnae ken who she is or what we are dealin’ with so be careful.” Samuel nodded in acknowledgment.
They parted ways, and James walked the distance to the kirk. He found the minister in the kirkyard attempting to right a toppled stone grave marker. James walked over and helped him to reset it back into the ground. “Quite a storm we had last night,” the minister noted, wiping the sweat from his brow. “I thank ye for yer assistance, My Laird. What brings ye tae the kirk? Have we lost anyone?” he asked concern creasing his brow.
“Nae, we have nae lost any o’ our own, but we seem tae have been cursed with the arrival o’ English corpses and a wounded Sassenach lass on our shores.”
The minister’s eyebrows nearly disappeared into his hair. “The poor souls!”
“Aye,” James agreed sadly. He had no love for the English, but he hated to see anyone suffer so. “Can ye accommodate them in the kirkyard?”
“O’ course. All God’s creatures are welcome here.”
James nodded. “William and some o’ the lads from the castle will be bringin’ the bodies tae ye. It would be best if we could identify the bodies tae their loved ones via personal items.”
“I will be ready,” the minister promised and called out for some of the young boys who were picking up scattered items on the ground to come and help him prepare to receive the bodies for internment.
James returned to Samuel and Agnes’ croft to check on the lone surviving castaway. When he entered, he found her clean and dry, her wounds tended to and bandaged. “I thank ye, Agnes,” he murmured softly so as not to disturb the sleeping form upon the bed. Agnes patted his hand and handed him a bowl of warm pottage then went to sit with her husband at the table in the center of the room.
James took a seat in the chair beside the bed and studied the Englishwoman’s face. She was beautiful. Even with a bandage about her head, and scrapes of varying size upon her creamy white skin, she was mesmerizing. “Someone will certainly be lookin’ for a bonnie Sassenach such as ye,” he murmured. “I wonder where it is ye come from and tae whom ye belong. Do ye have a family who loves and misses ye?” He knew she could not answer in her present state, nor likely hear him at all, but it brought him comfort to speak to her in such a way.
“I put her things o’er there in front o’ the fire tae dry, but I dinnae think they can be saved,” Samuel informed him from his place at the table.
“I thank ye, Samuel. Was there anythin’ among her belongings that spoke as tae who she might be or from whence she has come?”
“Nae, I did nae find anythin’ o’ the kind, but ‘tis certain she is a lady of quality.”
“Aye, it is at that.”
“I would have burned the dress as it was ruined, but I did nae do so thinkin’ that the lady should be the one tae decide.”
“A wise choice, Samuel,” James remarked with a smile. He could only imagine how upset the lass would be to awake only to find her clothing going up in flames.
Samuel nodded his head, affirmed in his belief, then returned to his bowl of pottage. James followed suit and ate his in short order. Agnes was as wonderful a cook as she was a healer, but she had not spoken a single word in the entire time that he had known her. Samuel had told him that when she was quite young there was an incident where she was forced to watch her entire family be raped and murdered by British soldiers. Samuel’s father had come across the abused girl barely breathing among the burnt rubble of her parent’s croft. He had picked her up and brought her to Skye to heal, and she had become a part of their family. She had never spoken once since that day, but somehow Samuel had managed to win her heart and she his. They were James’ favorite married couple on the island.
Turning his attention back to the wounded lass upon the bed, he was surprised to find her awake and staring at him with wide blue eyes filled with fear. “Who are you?” she asked, her voice unsteady.
James reached for a cup of water and handed it to her. “James Alexander MacDonald, Laird o’ Knock Castle. And who might ye be?”
The woman opened her mouth to answer, but then stopped. She closed her mouth and frowned. “I do not know,” she finally answered, tears filling her eyes.
“Ye dinnae ken who ye are?” James asked incredulously.
“Apparently not,” she bit out in distress, her eyes searching about the room frantically for any sign as to whom or where she might be. She attempted to lift herself from the bed but was unable to do so successfully.
“Dinnae fash, lass. It will come tae ye soon enough,” he attempted to soothe her.
“Why do you speak in such an odd fashion?” she asked, studying his face with suspicion.
“I am Scottish. Ye are on the Isle o’ Skye, an island off the coast o’ Scotland.”
“What am I doing here?” she asked, a confused and frightened expression upon her face.
“Ye were in a shipwreck. More than that I cannae say.”
“A shipwreck?” she whispered in question, her voice cracking under the strain of fear. James could see the panic rising in her eyes. The lass was growing increasingly more terrified.
“Aye,” he nodded his head.
Her forehead wrinkled further in question as her hands began to shake. “Where am I from?” she asked, her voice quivering, the question falling from her lips in a panicked, nervous rush. “I do not speak as you do.”
“Nae, ye dinnae. I believe that ye are a Sassenach, an Englishwoman. A wealthy noble lady by the looks o’ yer clothing when we found ye.”
“I do not know, but what you say feels right.” She answered hesitantly, her forehead crinkling in thought as she nervously chewed on her lower lip. “You do not know me then?” She frowned up at him as if she were gauging the truth of his words.
“Nae, lass. I dinnae ken who ye are or anythin’ about ye.”
“That is most unfortunate,” she fretted, attempting to stand up once more. She wobbled and began to fall. James leapt up and caught her up into his arms before she could hurt herself.
“Have a care, lass,” he warned. “We cannae have ye fallin’ in the fire now, can we.”
“No, I suppose not,” she admitted, blushing with embarrassment at her ungainly state.
“’Twill take time for ye tae get yer legs about ye. Ye have been shipwrecked, tossed about in the sea, and have sustained a head injury. Ye need time tae rest and heal afore ye go runnin’ about.”
“Yes, thank you,” she murmured as James set her back down upon the bed.
“So ye dinnae remember anythin’ then?”
“No, I am afraid I do not, and I am finding it quite disconcerting.” The fear still emanating from her eyes told him that she spoke the truth.
“Aye, I can see how it would be. Well, ye can speak. That is good. Let us see if ye can eat,” James stated, handing her a bowl of pottage.
The lass took the bowl, but when she attempted to eat the soup with a spoon her hands shook too much to keep the food on the utensil. “Oh,” she cried out in dismay as the spoon fell to the floor.
“Here like this,” James showed her, putting his bowl to his lips and drinking out of it like a cup.
The lass looked horrified but did as he instructed. She may nae ken who she is or from whence she has come, and yet she is disconcerted by poor manners. James fought the urge to chuckle at the absurdity of it all.
The lass set the bowl down and looked around her. “You say I was shipwrecked?”
“Surely I was not aboard a ship alone.”
“Nae, ye were nae alone.”
“Where are the other passengers?”
James did not wish to upset her further than she already was, but he knew he had no choice but to do so. “They are all dead. Ye are the only survivor.”
“Nay, it cannot be so!” Her eyes filled with tears at the thought of so much death. She began to shake even harder than she had before.
“Do ye remember anythin’ about the ship or the people aboard?” James asked, as he took the bowl from her hands to avoid its contents sloshing out onto the bed.
“Nay,” she shook her head. “What if I had a family aboard the ship? What if…” her words faded away as the myriad of possibilities swirled through her mind.
James watched as realization swept over her face, and she melted into sobs. Leaning forward, he awkwardly placed his hand upon hers in an effort to console her but quickly took it away when she shrunk back away from him. “I am truly sorry for yer loss, lass. E’en if ye dinnae remember them, it is clear that yer heart has nae forgotten everythin’.”
“How can you be sure?” she asked sniffing.
“Nae many people would weep for the death o’ those they dinnae ken.”
“This is all too much,” she whispered. “I cannot bear it.”
“Ye dinnae have a choice, lass, but I will be here tae help ye through it. When ye are strong enough, ye will move tae the castle, and we will see what can be done tae return ye tae yer people.”
“If I have people,” she murmured, tearing up again.
“Rest now. I will return for ye once we have buried the dead. I dinnae ken if it will bring ye any comfort at all, but it appears that they are all either members o’ the crew or British soldiers. Both are unlikely tae be the family o’ a wealthy noble English woman. ‘Tis nae impossible, but improbable.”
“I fear it does little to appease my sorrow.”
James nodded in understanding then left the croft. When he arrived back at the kirkyard, he found several of his men digging graves, the cloth wrapped bodies of the dead lying on the ground in a row. James had never seen so many dead at one time outside of a battlefield. Grabbing a pick, he began digging. It took hours to bury all the dead. When they had finished, the minister said a few words over the graves.
Night was falling once more as James returned to Samuel and Agnes’ croft. It had taken the entire day to bury the dead and repair the damage caused by the storm. When he walked through the door, he found the Sassenach lass asleep. “She can stay here with us for the night,” Samuel whispered. “We have made pallets on the floor and will be nearby if she awakens and needs anythin’.”
“I thank ye, Samuel, for yer hospitality. I will return upon the morrow.”
That night James tossed and turned. He could not get the thought of the Sassenach lass out of his head. Her tears had touched him to his very core, and he felt for her plight, but he knew he could not allow himself to feel anything more for her as she was English and would one day soon return to her own people. He could also never be sure if he could fully trust her once she got her memory back. William was right. It was too risky having the English wash up on their shores. Somehow, he needed to ascertain where she had come from and return her as quickly as possible, all while attempting to discover who was blackmailing him.
“I loathe lies,” he whispered into the night as he turned over once more, “but it is in order tae save more lives than I will e’er ken, including my godson, wee Ewan’s. I cannae risk that nae matter what must be done tae put this matter tae rest.”
‘‘Elizabeth! Elizabeth! Run!’
“Mother!” Sitting up in bed she panted in fear calling out into the darkness around her.
“’Tis well, lass. Ye are safe,” a man’s voice from beside her soothed. It took her a moment to remember the man’s name.
“Aye, lass, ‘tis Agnes and I. Have a nightmare did ye?”
“Yes, I think so. Either that or a memory, but if it is a memory, I am not sure that I wish to remember it.”
“Ye cried out for yer maither, lass. Do ye ken who ye are?”
“I think my name is Elizabeth.”
“And yer surname, lass?”
“I do not remember.”
“What do ye remember?”
“I think my mother is dead.”
“In the shipwreck?”
“Nay, I do not think so. It felt as if it were before, long before now.”
“I see. Lost her when ye were nae but a bairn, aye?”
“I think so,” she answered.
“Well, Elizabeth, ‘tis a pleasure tae make yer acquaintance. The laird will be right pleased tae hear that ye have remembered somethin’ o’ yer past. A name is a good place tae start.”
Agnes came forward and laid a hand on hers in sympathy, then the elderly couple returned to their beds upon the floor. Elizabeth… She mused over the name in her mind and knew it just felt right. The woman she had somehow known was her mother had cried it out before her death. Who or what was I to run from? She could not remember, but she had felt the fear as strongly as if she had been back in that moment. Who or what had hurt her mother, she did not know, but she determined that if at all possible, she would find out who she was and fill in the missing pieces from her past.
She lay in the darkness, playing the dream over and over in her mind, attempting to remember even the slightest detail that might help her to remember who she was, where she had come from, or how she had gotten where she was now. Why was I on a ship? Where was I going? Who was to meet me when I arrived? The questions ran through her mind one after another, tumbling in a confused cacophony of disconcertion. Tears streamed silently down her cheeks. She buried her face in the pillow to keep from waking Samuel and Agnes again. Who am I? Stripped of her identity, her sense of self, her heart felt as if it had been wrenched from her chest. When she finally fell back to sleep, she dreamed of a great endless sea swallowing her whole.
“Elizabeth… Elizabeth…” A deep masculine voice pushed its way through the haze of her dreams forcing her into the light. “Elizabeth…” She opened her eyes to find the strong handsome face of James MacDonald standing over her. “There ye are,” he remarked with a smile. “Ye were cryin’ in yer sleep, lass. Have the night terrors, did ye?”
“How do you know my name?” she asked confused.
“Samuel told me about yer difficult night and that ye remembered yer name, or at least part o’ yer name. Did ye happen tae remember anythin’ more?”
“The feeling of drowning perhaps, but naught else.”
“A terrible thing tae remember, lass. ‘Tis nae wonder at all that ye were cryin’ as ye were.” He sat down beside her, his face filled with concern. “Is there anythin’ that I can do tae help ye remember?”
Elizabeth studied his face for any sign of recognition. He had said they did not know one another, but she had no way of verifying that fact. Was he a man that could be trusted to safeguard her while she attempted to remember who she was? She looked into his eyes and saw nothing but honest concern for her wellbeing. She had not noticed in her fright the day before just how handsome he was. James was tall, lean muscled, with long blonde hair that he tied in a leather thong behind his head. He had a confident but gentle air about him, a quiet strength that radiated from his person. As she sat studying him, he gazed down at her with his intelligent, sharp blue eyes, as if assessing whether she too could be trusted.
“I do not know,” she answered her own question aloud, as much as she answered his. “I simply do not know.”
James nodded his head. “Well, dinnae hesitate tae tell me anythin’. Any wee bit o’ information ye can provide will aid me in returnin’ ye tae where ye belong.”
But do I want to return? The image of her mother’s terrified face from her dream flashed before her eyes, causing her to doubt whether she wished to return or not. Return to where? Though she knew not from whence she had come or to whom she had belonged, she could not escape the feeling of foreboding that haunted her, as if naught but pain and suffering awaited her there.
“Thank you,” she murmured. “I will be sure to do so.” She hid her doubt by attempting to sit up. The world spun all around her, and her head throbbed so violently that she felt as if she were about to be sick in his lap. “Bucket,” she managed to gasp out. James moved as quickly as was humanly possible and managed to just get a bowl under her chin before the contents of her stomach spewed forth. Every muscle in her body cried out in agony. She felt as if she had been beaten from head to foot. Perhaps she had been for she had no real way of knowing anything that had transpired before she had first awakened to the face of James Alexander MacDonald.
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