Table of Contents
This book is dedicated to
the Wallace sisters, here and in Heaven:
My mother, Audrey, and my aunts, Priscilla and Dorothy
I am grateful to my editor, Alex Logan, who reminded me to play to my strengths and helped make this a better book. Many thanks to her and the entire team at Grand Central Publishing for all they do for me. A warm thank-you to my agent, Kevan Lyon, for pretending I’m not troublesome and for giving me wise counsel and enthusiastic support.
I am indebted to Anthea Lawson, my critique partner, and to Ginny Heim, who reads all my manuscripts. Thank you with all my heart. When my confidence ran low, Erynn Carter, Theresa Scott, and Chris Trujillo kindly pitched in and read all or part of the draft manuscript for me. I am grateful to my RWA chapter-mates and fellow romance authors who continue to give me support and guidance.
A special thank-you to Josephine Piraneo at GlassSlipperWebDesign.com for making my website beautiful and doing endless updates for me. Thanks also to Sharron Gunn for her help with Gaelic, though any mistakes are mine, and to Mark Steven Long, who is an author’s dream copy editor.
I apologize to my husband for all the evenings he is left with the dog for company while I write. I am fortunate to have a family who supports me so completely in this writing adventure. Finally, I want to say a big thank-you to all the readers who have sent me messages telling me you enjoyed my books. You make it all worthwhile.
Chan ann leis a’chiad bhuille thuiteas a’chraobh.
It is not with the first stroke that the tree falls.
ON A SHIP OFF THE EAST COAST OF SCOTLAND
Weeping will get you nothing,” the woman said. “Be quiet if you want to go up.”
Claire wiped her eyes on her sleeve and scrambled to her feet.
“You’d best learn to be tough, where you’re going,” the woman said, as she gathered her skirts to start up the rope ladder. “They say Scotland is full of wild warriors who would sooner cut your throat than bid you good day.”
The rungs were too far apart for Claire’s legs, and the woman’s heavy skirts brushed her head as she climbed. When the ship swayed, she lost her footing. For a long, frightening moment, Claire swung by her arms, kicking in the air, until her foot found the rung again.
“I don’t know how the Scots can call themselves Christian,” the woman said in a muffled voice above her, “when they have wicked fairies hiding behind every rock.”
Finally, a burst of cold night air hit Claire’s face and blew her hair back.
“Don’t speak to anyone,” the woman said, grabbing Claire’s wrist in a grip that pinched, “or the mistress will dismiss me, and then you’ll have no one to take care of you.”
Claire leaned her head back to look at the stars. Every night when the woman brought her food and allowed her to come up the ladder for a short while, she found the star and made her wish to go home to her grandmère and grandpère.
She did not understand why her grandparents had let this woman take her away, or why, despite making sure she made her wish on the very brightest star, she did not find herself in her own bed in the morning. But she knew Grandmère and Grandpère would not approve of how this woman was taking care of their special little girl. So tonight, she made a new wish.
Please, send someone better to take care of me.
ON THE OPPOSITE COAST OF SCOTLAND
THE NEXT DAY
Ye are a devil, Alex Bàn MacDonald!”
Alex caught the boot the woman threw at his head. As he paused on the stairs to put it on, his other boot hit the stone wall behind him and bounced down the staircase.
“Janet, can I have my shirt and plaid as well, please?” he called up.
Her dark hair spilled over her shoulder as she leaned over the stairs to glare at him. “My name is not Janet!”
Damn, Janet was the last one.
“Sorry, Mary,” he said. “I’m sure ye don’t want anyone seeing me leave your house bare-arsed, so be a sweet lass and toss my clothes down.”
“Ye don’t even know why I’m angry, do ye?”
The woman’s voice had a catch in it now that made him nervous. God, he hated it when they cried. Alex considered leaving without his clothes.
“I must go,” he said. “My friend is here with the boat, waiting.”
“Ye aren’t coming back, are ye?” Mary said.
He shouldn’t have come in the first place. He’d avoided Mary for weeks, but she’d found him at his father’s house last night, drunk and desperate. After a week with his parents, he would have followed a demon to hell to escape.
“I was going to leave my husband for ye,” Mary called down.
“For God’s sake, lass, ye don’t want to do that!” Alex bit his tongue to keep from reminding her that she was the one who had started the affair—and she’d made it very clear at the time that all she wanted from him was between his legs. “I’m sure your husband is a fine man.”
“He’s an idiot!”
“Idiot or no, he won’t like finding another man’s clothes in your bedchamber,” Alex said, talking to her in the even tones he used to calm horses. “So please, Mary, let me have them so I can go.”
“Ye will regret this, Alexander Bàn MacDonald!”
He already did.
His shirt and plaid floated down to him as the door slammed upstairs. As he dressed, Alex had a sour feeling in his belly. Most of the time, he managed to part on good terms with the women he bedded. He liked them, they liked him, and they understood it was only meant to be a bit of fun. But he had misjudged this one.
“Alex!” Through the open window, he heard Duncan calling from the shore. “There’s a man walking up the path. Get your arse in the boat!”
Alex climbed out the window and ran for the boat. Not his finest moment. He took the rudder while Duncan raised the sail, and they headed for open water.
Duncan was in a foul mood—but then he often was. He stomped around the boat, making sure everything was tied down, which it already was.
“Are ye no tired of these antics with women?” Duncan finally said. “God knows I am.”
Alex was weary to death of it, but he wasn’t about to admit that. Instead, he said, “This was easier in France.”
Alex and Duncan—along with Alex’s cousins, Connor and Ian—had spent five years in France, fighting and swiving. It had been grand. Once a French noblewoman gave her husband an heir, no one got too excited if she discreetly took a lover. Ach, it was almost expected. In truth, Highlanders were no more likely to keep their vows, but bloodshed and clan wars were a too-frequent consequence.
“How did ye know where to find me?” Alex asked when his curiosity got the better of him.
“I saw Mary drag your drunken arse off last night just as I arrived,” Duncan said. “Ye didn’t look worth the trouble, but then, she doesn’t strike me as particular.”
Alex fixed his gaze on the horizon as they sailed past his parents’ houses. When his mother left his father, she had only gone across the inlet, where she could watch him. His father was no better—both paid servants in each other’s houses to spy for them.
“Why does my mother insist on returning to my father’s house when I visit?” Alex asked, though he didn’t expect an answer. “My ears are still ringing from the shouting.”
When they reached open water, Alex stretched out to enjoy the sun and sea breeze. They had a long sail ahead of them, from their home island of Skye to the outer isles.
“Remind me how Connor convinced us to pay a visit on the MacNeils,” Alex said.
“We volunteered,” Duncan said.
“Ach, that was foolish,” Alex said, “when we know the MacNeil chieftain is looking for husbands for his daughters.”
Alex opened one eye to look at his big, red-haired friend. “Were we that drunk?”
“Aye,” Duncan said with one of his rare smiles.
Duncan was a good man, if a wee bit dour these days—which just went to show that love could bring the strongest of men to their knees.
“And he didn’t tell us that he wanted us to visit the MacNeils while we’re in the outer isles,” Duncan said, “until after he’d lured us in with the prospect of chasing pirates.”
“Since Connor became chieftain,” Alex said, “I swear he grows more devious by the day.”
“Ye could make this easy by marrying one of the MacNeils’ daughters,” Duncan said, the corner of his mouth quirking up.
“I see ye do remember how to make a joke.” Not many men teased Duncan, so Alex did his best to make up for it.
“Ye know that’s what Connor wants,” Duncan said. “He has no brothers to make marriage alliances with other clans—so a cousin will have to do. If ye don’t like one of the MacNeil lasses, there are plenty of other chieftains’ daughters.”
“I’d take a blade for Connor,” Alex said, losing his humor, “but I’ll no take a wife for him.”
“Connor has a way of getting what he wants,” Duncan said. “I wager you’ll be wed within half a year.”
Alex sat up and grinned at his friend. “What shall we wager?”
“This boat,” Duncan said.
“Perfect.” Alex loved this sleek little galley that sliced through the water like a fish. They had been arguing over who had the better right to it ever since they had stolen it from Shaggy Maclean. “You’re going to miss this sweet boat.”
* * *
“Can ye hurry with your stitching?” Glynis asked, as she peered out her window. “Their boat is nearly at the sea gate.”
“Your father is going to murder ye for this.” Old Molly’s face was grim, but her needle flew along the seam at Glynis’s waist.