Highland Scoundrel (Highland Brides)

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Lois Greiman

 

H ighland Scoundrel

 

Copyri ght © 1998 by Lois Greiman

 

Travis, I thank God for every minute, every word, every silly bit of laughter we've shared.

You're everything I could ask for in a son and so much more.

Prologue

Burn Creag Castle Year of our Lord 1509

 

Lightning forked across the inky-black sky. Ghostly shadows, cast by a single flickering candle, flitted across the curved walls of the tower room, and beneath Shona's bare toes, the rushes felt coarse and cold.

She hunched her shoulders inside her too-large night gown and huddled closer to Sara's side.

Thunder sounded like a witch's cackle. Shona jumped, but suddenly a tiny spot of red fire snagged her attention. Turning toward her eldest cousin, she saw that the glow came from the center of Rachel's palm.

It took Shona a moment to recognize the source, longer still to find her voice. Then, "The dragon!" she gasped. Even in the fickle light she could not mistake the silver amulet. "You stole it from—"

Thunder crashed like a giant's wicked fist against the tower, shaking the very stones around them. Shona stifled a scream. The noise rolled slowly away, leaving the air taut in its aftermath.

"You stole it from Liam?" she finished breathlessly. The youngest of the three cousins, she was determined not to let the others know that beneath her voluminous night gown her knees shook like a wet cur.

"Aye," Rachel said. "I took it whilst he slept."

"Tis magic," Shona whispered, transfixed by the blood red stone that gleamed from between the dragon's spread wings.

"It canna be magic," Sara corrected and tightened her hand as though she sensed Shona's fear.

"Tis but stone and metal."

"But Liam said twas," Shona whispered, awestruck by its presence here. Liam was a crafty sort, and not one to part easily with his possessions.

"Tis the very reason I doubted," Rachel said, her voice barely audible in the hushed silence.

"But even Liam must tell the truth sometimes, I suppose. And twas the truth he said when he told me of our great grandmother."

"Our
great grandmother?" Sara asked. "But how does
he
know about our ancestry?''

"I canna say for certain," Rachel admitted, glancing from Sara to Shona. "But this is the story he spewed. Long ago there lived a lass in this very castle. Her name was Ula. Small she was like me, with Shona's fiery hair and Sara's kindness. Her mother died when she was but a bairn, and she was scared to be left alone at night. Sometimes she would cry out."

"And her father would come and tell her outlandish stories to make her laugh?" Shona guessed.

She wished now that she had not been quite so clever in sneaking from her own chambers. Indeed, she almost wished her father would find her gone and come looking for her, for Roderic the Rogue would surely chase away any evil that lurked in this spooky tower room.

"Aye," Rachel said. "Aye, he would tell her stories. But still she was afraid. So he called on the best mason in the land to craft a magical stone dragon near her room to protect her."

"He must have loved her so," Sara whispered.

Shona squeezed her hand.

"They built the dragon out on the roof to overlook the land about," Rachel said. "Now the lass felt safe in the comfort of her quarters. But her father worried that something might happen to him, and Glen Creag would fall into the hands of the evil sorcerer. Then wee Ula would be left alone. He knew if such was the case she would be forced to leave her home, and he wished for her to be bold enough to make the journey. So he had a silver amulet crafted. A magical pendant it was, graced with a gem taken from the enchanted water of Loch Ness."

"Where Nessie lives?" Shona hissed.

"Aye. That amulet would protect Ula wherever she went."

Shona stared at the dragon in breathless wonder. "And this is that very amulet?"

"Aye."

"But Rachel," Sara said, "though I dunna understand it, ye never believe a thing Liam says. Why do ye trust him in this?"

Rachel scowled, then, "Come here," she whispered, and stepped toward the window. Sara tugged at Shona's hand until they were peering through the narrow opening. They tilted their heads close together. "Look out there."

"Tis dark," Shona whispered, but suddenly a fork of lightning slashed across the sky.

"There!"

"A dragon!" Sara gasped, starting back. "How did it get there?''

Rachel drew the amulet closer to her chest. "It must have been there for many years, but ye canna see it from most points, only from here and from that room beside it."

"Ula's room." Shona felt the hairs at the back of her neck rise eerily.

"Tis truly magic, then," murmured Sara.

"Aye," said Rachel, "and tonight we will bend its magic to our will."

"We will?" Shona's voice sounded squeaky to her own ears.

"Aye. We will. For tomorrow Sara will return to her home. And shortly after, ye will go back ta Dun Ard. Tis impossible to know when we shall be together again."

The tower room fell silent.

"I will miss ye," Sara whispered.

"And I ye," Rachel said. "Ye are the sisters of my heart."

"We will see ye soon, surely," Shona said. She tightened her grip on Sara's hand. Brothers she had aplenty. But sisters were a rare and precious thing. "When the weather warms..."

"One of us will surely be betrothed soon. In fact, the MacMurt has asked for my hand in marriage and—" Rachel stopped abruptly, glancing quickly at the barrels stacked along the curved wall. "What was that noise?"

Shona held her breath and listened, but all she could hear was the frantic pounding of her own heart.

"It must have been a mouse," Sara said, then turned her gaze back to Rachel. "Promise ye'll not move far from us."

"I'm not going to move away," said Shona, yanking her gaze from the barrels. "I will marry Liam and live forever at Dun Ard."

"Liam!" Rachel scoffed. "Not that wild Irish rogue. Ye will marry a great laird as will we all."

A sliver of noise issued from behind the barrels again.

"The mice are certainly restless," Shona murmured, shifting nervously closer to her cousins.

"Please duuna leave us," Sara whispered again.

"That's why I asked ye to come to the tower," Rachel said. “If the dragon is truly magical it can grant us our fondest desires and bind us together. We will each touch the amulet and make a vow to take care of the others."

"But if we're far apart how will we know when we're needed?" Sara asked.

Rachel scowled, drawing her dark brows together over eyes as bright as amethyst. "The dragon will know," she murmured. "He will make certain we are safe or he will send help."

Sara thought a moment then nodded. Her expression was somber, her blue eyes wide as she reached for Rachel's hand. "We shall all touch it together."

They did so now, piling their hands atop the thing, and squeezing their eyes closed.

"My fondest desire is to be a great healer like my mother," Rachel began.

Thunder boomed again. Shona jumped at the sound.

"I wish to be bold!" she chirped. "Like Father and my mother, the Flame."

The thunder rolled into silence.

"Your turn," Rachel whispered.

"I but wish for my own family to care for," Sara said softly. "My own bairns by my own hearth.

Nothing more."

"Now we must make a solemn vow," Rachel said. "Forever and always we shall be friends.

Neither time nor distance shall separate us. When one is in need another shall come and assist her, for we that are gathered in this room are bound together for eternity."

"Now we must swear to it," whispered Sara.

"I swear," they chanted.

Thunder crashed like a cannon in their ears. The candle was snuffed out. Blackness exploded around them. Wild energy crackled through the room and shot up Shona's fingers.

She shrieked in terror. The sound mingled with the cries of her cousins, and suddenly they dropped the amulet and raced as one toward the door and down the stairs.

The panicked galloping of their feet gradually faded to silence. The tower room lay in darkness, and nestled deep within the rushes, the dragon smiled.

Chapter 1

Blackburn Castle Year of our Lord 1519

"You must marry me, Lady Shona. You must." James's amber eyes were intense, his expression sincere as he gripped his love's hand firmly between his own and gazed up at her from the time-honored position of one knee. "Say you will."

"Ye know I canna." Shona glanced nervously about at the audience that surrounded them. She would give much to spare James this scene, for someday his pride would prick him for such a public display. Tongues would surely wag. Variations of this moment would be told and retold beside a thousand cook fires, but the unforgettable fact would remain; King James V, sovereign ruler of Scotland, had begged on bended knee for a simple Highland lass to marry him.

The very thought made Shona want nothing more than to forgo this entire spectacle. But she knew she must not, for her plans would be greatly weakened without such a dramatic public parting.

"Ye know I canna marry ye," Shona murmured. "Lord Tremayne would never allow it. He was piqued enough when we sneaked out of Edinburgh Castle for naught but a few hours last Midsummer's Eve. And it did not help matters when ye injured your arm."

"Twas naught but a bruise, and not your fault."

She gave him a smile, both for his quick defense and for the memory of how he'd dressed as a peasant and she'd dressed as a lad. James had walked right past Tremayne's oversized nose without his noticing, but there had been consequences. Indeed, Tremayne had raved about her propensity for "putting dangerous notions into the king's head." He'd even gone so far as to accuse her of plotting against the throne for her own devious reasons. How much more would he do if he knew her present plans? She dared not think about it. "Ye know I would do anything for ye, James. But had it not been for your other advisors, my head might have already been forfeited just for my
ungodly
influence on ye. What would Tremayne do if he thought ye wished to
marry
me?" She grinned. "Some say I have been less than respectful of your lordly title."

"Some wart-faced old men who have disliked you from the first," James said.

"Be that as it may, I dare not cross Tremayne again, or—"

James wrenched to his feet, his brow wrinkled in agitation, his mouth taking on that surly tilt it did when he pouted. "Tremayne does not rule my life. You
can
marry me. Indeed, I
insist
that you do."

"Insist?" She smiled at him. In truth, she was more comfortable with an insistent James than a melancholy one. "Even though ye know tis not in Scotland's best interest?"

He scowled as if considering her words.

"I think not, Your Majesty. For ye are good and wise, and ye will wed with a thought for Scotland's future."

"Never could Scotland do better than to have you for its queen," he vowed earnestly.

"Me?" She laughed and slipped her hand from his. "A humble maid from the north? Not for ye, Your Majesty. Someday ye will marry a rich king's elegant daughter, and the union will greatly aid our cause."

"I do not want someone's elegant daughter. I want
you\"
His voice was growing louder.

Shona stood. "Your Majesty, your new servants watch," she reminded him. "Not to mention Hawk." She glanced at her uncle, the mountainous warrior who, after the last attempt on the king's life, had been chosen as the monarch's personal body guard. "The Hawk watches. Ye would not wish for him to think ye are acting like a child."

"But I am a child!" wailed the boy, and bursting into tears, threw his arms about her waist.

It was true, Shona thought, hugging him to her. He might be the crowned king of Scotland, but he was also a seven-year-old boy. A boy who had lost his father in the bloody battle at the Field of Flodden, a boy who had lost his mother to another marriage—a marriage that had forced her to give up guardianship of him. He was treated now not as a child at all, but as either a pawn or an heirloom.

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