Englishwoman, Grace Ellington, has made a home in Scotland, but to escape from the meddling people around her who seem to think she needs to wed right away
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Aros on the Isle of Mull, Scotland
"Magairlean," Grace Ellington swore as she clung to the thick log, suspended over the half-frozen river.
"Ye know I speak Gaelic, lass," Thomas Maclean called from the bank. The elderly blacksmith, whom she'd helped heal when she'd first come to the Isle of Mull, had volunteered to take her hunting for winter holly.
"I don't rightly care if you hear me cursing," she said, her teeth and eyes clenched.
"The good God understands Gaelic, too," Thomas said. "In fact, I like to think it is his native tongue."
At the moment, she worried more about falling into the freezing river that ran past Aros Castle than falling into the devil's burning hole. Bloody hell. She never would have gone with Thomas if she'd known the greenery, with its bright red berries, was on the other side of the river. Terrified of water since her brother had held her under as a child, Grace made it a point to stay away from rivers and streams, especially in midwinter, when cold water could also bring on illness.
"Come now, ye caught yourself on the log," Thomas said, his voice coaxing. "Now crawl backward to me."
"Have you ever crawled on a log wearing a kirtle, petticoats, and cloak?" Grace swallowed hard as the edges of her skirts caught in the flow of water under her, bits of ice rushing by, catching and tugging on the wool.
"Can't say I have," the elderly Highlander said. He huffed. "I'll come get ye."
"No," Grace called, determination and disgust over her paralyzing fear shuddering through her. "I will make it."
"That's a lass," Thomas called.
Grace raised up, the bones of her kneecaps wobbling on the thick creases of her kirtle. Her fingernails dug into the log, and she moved one knee backward. Then the other. One inch at a time. Dear God. Dear God. Dear God.
Crack. Upstream, ice broke free, caught in the current. Grace watched in horror as a large chunk rushed toward her. Panic gripped her with ferocity, and she grabbed tighter, trying to lie flat, but she wavered. She gasped one last time before —
Splash! Cold raked across Grace's skin as the deep water embraced her. A need to survive overrode the panic, and she threw her arms out, clawing at the icy water. Wet wool dragged her with the current as she tried to dig the heels of her boots into the rocks on the bottom. Gurgling water and bubbles filled her ears, and she broke the surface, gasping for air.
"I've got ye," Thomas said, his hand encircling her flailing wrist. Up to his waist in the river, he dragged her to shore.
Grace's heart pounded so hard she couldn't fully catch her breath. Freezing, she crawled under her sopping gown up the bank. Mo chreach. Fear had beaten her again. Self-loathing made tears press in her eyes, and she blinked to clear the ache. She'd cry later, when she was alone with her humiliation.
"Let's get ye home, lass. Ye'll freeze to the ground if we stay out here."
Grace let the man pull her up. Numbly, she accepted the wool blanket he'd brought to catch the holly twigs they never reached. Thomas walked her back to her little cottage on the edge of Aros Village. A far cry from the estate Grace had inherited down in York, England as the daughter of the Earl of Somerset, she still loved her cozy cottage with its thatched roof and wooden walls.
"Get dry and warm," Thomas said.
She managed to glare despite her chattering teeth. "I'm the healer, Thomas. I know that."
He grinned. "Aye, ye do." He shook his head. "Ye need a husband to take care of ye, lass. And there's plenty around wanting to. Say aye to one of them."
"Not you, too."
He shrugged. "Gavin Maclean is an upright, strong lad who'd be happy to watch out for your every step."
"I don't need someone watching out for my every step."
He raised one eyebrow, his gaze dipping to her soaked clothes. "Aye, lass, ye do."
She huffed loudly. Very unladylike, but she wasn't in England anymore, being groomed and corrected by her mother. She was in the wilds of Scotland where she could huff, curse, and stack her hands on her hips. She frowned. "Thank you, Thomas."
He grinned, showing several holes where teeth used to sit. "Now get ye warm."
Grace pushed inside her cottage, the warmth of the little home surrounding her immediately. She leaned back against the door and let her shoulders curve forward.
She shot upward, her heart jumping back toward panic. But it was her half sister, Ava, who pushed her pregnant bulk out of the bed. Waddling into the living area, Ava stopped. "What happened?"
"What does it look like happened?" Grace asked and let the wool blanket drop from her shoulders as she went to the hearth to stir the coals and add more peat.
"You fell in the river?" Ava asked, a shocked grin on her beautiful face. "And I wasn't anywhere near you." She walked over and helped Grace out of her dripping cloak and untied the knots of her bodice.
"I panicked again," Grace said, a sinking feeling in her middle. "It makes me lose my balance and turns me to stone." She scrunched her face. "Oh Ava. I hate it, my cowardice." Ava hugged her as best her large stomach would allow. Grace pushed back. "I'll get you wet."
"I don't care."
Grace sniffed softly. "If you get ill, Tor will throw me back in the river."
Ava laughed. "I'm healthy as a two-ton horse." She patted her stomach, which was much too large to be one baby at only six months along.
Grace changed behind her privacy screen, throwing her warm day gown on over a fresh smock. "Thank the Lord Tor's mother is such a talented healer."
"Cullen wants Rose here when it's her time to birth their first baby in another month or so. They arrived this morning."
"Is that why you're hiding in my cottage?" Grace asked, coming out to sit at the table near the hearth.
Ava sighed, lowering into the seat across from her. "Yes. It's a bit noisy, and I gave Rose our bedchamber to nap in while her chamber is dusted."
Grace sighed as she fingered through her damp hair. Ava reached across for her other hand, squeezing it. "What's wrong?"
Grace shook her head. "Everyone is having babies. You, Rose, even Mairi now up on Barra Island. People are falling in love, marrying and starting families, moving on, and I'm just ... falling in the river."
"You could marry Gavin," Ava said, catching her gaze. "He's handsome and sweet and wants only to take care of you."
A mutinous frown curved Grace's lips. "I don't want to be taken care of like some broodmare who's always getting into trouble and swooning. I'm tired of being afraid." Grace's gaze beseeched Ava. "I want to be courageous like you."
"You are. I wish you could see it."
"But I'm frightened all the time, it seems," Grace whispered. Especially where water was concerned.
"Courage is action in the face of fear," Ava whispered back as if she shared a secret. "I'm frightened a lot, too." She rested her hand on her large belly. "Like whether I can handle birthing all this baby. You can be afraid as much as you want," she said. "We just need to work on helping you move forward."
Grace met her sister's kind gaze. "I want an adventure. I want to feel the passion that you have with Tor, and that will never be with Gavin. I think I must leave Aros."
Ava's face tightened. "Somerset? Back to England?" Grace shook her head, and Ava rolled her eyes. "Thank God. I'd never see you again."
"I need to go somewhere on my own without Gavin or any of the other would-be suitors following me around, asking to help me or carry me." She waved her hands around. "Or pull me out of the river or cut my meat so I won't choke."
Ava covered her mouth with her hand, but couldn't stop the chuckle. "Really, Grace. No one cuts your meat."
Grace straightened in her chair, an idea surfacing in her mind. "Has Tor decided who will go to Barra to help Mairi deliver her baby?"
"No. Tor won't let his mother go with my stomach so large. And I can't, obviously. It's some months before Mairi is due, but she's worried about the weather keeping us away."
"I will go," Grace said, her stomach squeezing with excitement. "I've helped you with several births now. I can help Mairi, and get away from Aros for a while. Maybe long enough for Gavin to find another helpless wee lass to marry." She stood from the table.
"Grace, you don't — "
"Yes, I do." She opened her eyes wide and nodded. "I really do."
"A short ride to Kilchoan now," Thomas said as he and Grace rode away from the ferry that had brought them from Mull. He coughed into his fist and cleared his throat. "Escorts from Barra Isle will meet ye to take ye to Mairi." He coughed again.
"I don't like the sound of that," Grace said, searching his face from her seat. His eyes looked a bit shiny, like sickness was setting in.
"I'm too old and ornery to be ill." He led them down the road that was covered with several inches of snow.
"Thank you for escorting me, Thomas," Grace said, patting her mare's neck. "Gavin wouldn't stop asking to take me until you stepped forward."
Snow began to fall as they trotted past a small church on the outskirts. They slowed, pulling the horses to walk alongside each another. Grace watched the swirling flakes.
"Thomas?" she said, her voice muffled in her scarf.
"How do warriors stay so brave?"
He chuckled and cleared his throat. "From wee lads, we are taught to be prepared for harm, how to fend it off, outsmart it."
"Can you teach me to be prepared?" She looked up, and flakes caught on her eyelashes. "To start, how do you stay warm in all this snow?"
"That depends. If ye're caught in a storm without shelter, ye make shelter. Ye put pine boughs under ye and a blanket, if ye have it, on top, or more boughs. 'Tis better to find a cave to hide in out of the wind. Ye can start a fire with flint, a bit of wool, and dry twigs."
Grace carried a leather satchel on her back with basic provisions, including flint, just in case. "Ye can cut the boughs or kindling with a dagger. Ye do have one?" he asked.
"Yes," Grace said, patting her leg where a short, black handled, sgian dubh was strapped. "Gavin was teaching me to throw it."
Thomas nodded. "A lass should be able to defend herself." He pointed up ahead and shivered in his cloak. "There now, we've made it to Kilchoan port."
Grace stared through a curtain of snow toward a small village on the ocean, the MacInnes Castle sitting beyond it. Mairi, Tor's sister, had one time lived there, married to the elderly MacInnes chief and harassed by his horrible son, Normond MacInnes. But the elder chief had died, and Mairi now lived on Barra Island with her true love, her husband, Alec MacNeil.
Thomas coughed into his woolen glove; the sound seemed raspier than when they'd left the day before. She could pick out a wheezing sound in his inhale. Or was that the wind? "We should get you inside," she called to him above a gust. "This is turning into a blizzard."
The tavern had one open room above, and Grace worked quickly to secure it for Thomas. He felt hot to the touch, and his eyes looked damp, sure signs of a growing fever. "Is there an apothecary close?" she asked the friendly maid who'd showed them upstairs.
"Aye, on the far side of town. But milady, ye can hardly see out there in this storm. 'Tis right wicked."
Grace's lips tightened with determination. "I need some licorice root for my escort's cough."
"I'll take some honey up to him and brewed feverfew," she said. "And watch him while ye are gone."
"Thank you." Grace wrapped up once more in the cumbersome layers and pushed out into the blowing snow. Wind blew the flakes sideways, creating drifts half a foot high between the thatched buildings. Grace threaded her way between two cottages and trudged uphill along the line of trees, which helped buffer her. Her boots sunk until the accumulation came up to her calves, freezing the hem of her skirts. Thinking of poor Thomas, she trudged on.
A root caught Grace's toe, and she gasped as she fell forward onto her knees. Scrambling in her heavy skirts and wraps, she turned several times before standing. She parted the scarf to see better, but there wasn't anything to see. The snow was thick, and the wind was so fierce that all she saw was white, a grayish white that warned of sundown.
"Ballocks," she shouted, the curse caught with her wet breath in the scarf. Fear reared up inside her, and she cursed more, throwing the words out at the storm. It was better to be angry than afraid. Grace grabbed hold of a thin tree and walked around it, looking out at the swirl of white.
It truly was a blizzard. And she was lost.
Keir Mackinnon, brother to the chief of the powerful Mackinnon clan of the Isle of Skye, sat atop his black charger, looking toward where the small village of Kilchoan should be. But instead he saw snow, mounds of it, gale winds full of it, undulating white and gray. It covered his fur wraps and melted on his face.
"It shrieks like a bloody banshee," his best friend and cousin, Brodie Mackinnon, yelled across to him.
Ignoring what he could not change, Keir pointed forward. "Rab said the healer should be either at Kilchoan or on the Isle of Mull at Aros," Keir said. "We will wait out the storm at Kilchoan."
Brodie leaned toward him so he'd be more likely to hear. "Or we could return to that snug hunting cabin back a way."
"If we find the healer in Kilchoan, we can return to Skye with her tomorrow."
"Not in this damn snow," Brodie said. "Your grandmother and Dara are taking care of little Lachlan. He may be well when we return."
"Unlikely," Keir said. Keir's nephew, Lachlan, had been ill for two weeks, his seven-year-old body growing weaker by the day as he vomited his meals. So his father, Rab, had sent Keir off the Isle of Skye to find and return with the renowned Maclean healer to help his only son grow strong again.
Inhaling, Keir caught the tang of woodsmoke. Aye, the village was close. He pointed between the trees. "There. I saw a steeple."
With the slightest of pressure, his horse, Cogadh, moved forward with Brodie on his left. Only a foot away, the snow obscured him. Aye, this was a blizzard, one of the worst he'd seen.
A sound in the wind made Keir turn in the saddle to look back the way they'd come through the woods. A scream? Or was it the shrieking wind? Again it came, a thin, high-pitched scream. "I hear something," Keir said.
"What?" Brodie called.
Keir cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled. "Go on. I'll find ye in the village." The reins gripped in his gloved hand, he turned Cogadh around. His war horse was used to discomfort, as was Keir, but he was glad he'd put the wool drape on Cogadh under his saddle. He guided them blindly through the white in the direction he'd heard the cry. His ears trained on the woods.
A shriek sliced through the wail of the wind, ahead to the right. "Siuthad!" he yelled, making Cogadh jump forward as Keir leaned low over the horse's neck. His loyal beast churned the snow under his hooves, trusting Keir to guide him between the trees that appeared out of the white at the last second. They moved together, man and war horse, a single creature of power and perseverance.
Keir pulled back as they neared a stony cliff face. He and Brodie had ridden around it to avoid the caves cut underneath where animals likely slumbered. There, backed against a thick tree, was a cloaked woman. The cliff blocked some of the wind, and Keir could pick out three gray shapes in the snow, advancing toward her. Wolves. Hungry, no doubt.
He leaped down and drew his sword. The woman's face jerked toward him, and she screamed again. "Shite," she yelled through the scarf, covering her mouth.
Keir could see only wide, lash-framed eyes staring at him, full of panic. "Stay back!" he yelled and stepped between her and the wolves. He swung his blade through the frost-filled air, and it sang with the wind.
"Don't kill them," the woman called from behind. "They have a cave on the backside of this rock, with babies in it. Cubs, pups, whatever they're called."
Bloody hell. The woman had walked into a den of wolves protecting their pups. He sheathed his sword and threw his arms out wide. He frightened grown warriors; perhaps he could frighten hungry wolves. He growled, showed his teeth and stomped forward. One of the wolves immediately withdrew, dodging to disappear around the corner, but the other two snapped back, apparently not impressed. While one growled at him, the other began to circle behind him, realizing that the woman was the weakest and easily culled.
Cogadh snorted and reared up on his hind legs, helping with intimidation. The wolves didn't seem to care, but the woman screamed again. She grabbed onto Keir's back, pressing against him, and a weaker man would have ended up face down in the snow. Backing slowly, Keir kept the advancing beasts before him. "Ye're going in the tree," he said over the wind.
"What?" the woman asked, but there wasn't time to explain. With a swift glance over his shoulder, he turned and lifted the woman onto a branch above his head. Snow tumbled off the branch, momentarily blinding him as she scrambled. Her boots kicked, and fighting the slippery branches, she stood to balance on the thick extension.
Excerpted from "The Devil of Dunakin Castle"
Copyright © 2017 Heather McCollum.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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