Royal Highlander Series: Book 2
Dalmigavie Castle, the Highlands
Far above jagged crags and worn peaks, a hawk soared free, floating on the breeze beneath the pale azure sky. Below, a glistening stream snaked through steep-sided glens, protected by thick stands of tall pine. Above the flowing waters, an impregnable stone fortress sat high on a rocky brae.
Dalmigavie Castle. Built by a warrior clan, its thick grey walls and high towers had struck fear into the hearts of the fiercest enemies for half a millennium. To the south and east, the majestic mountains of the Scottish Highlands rose like an unbroken line of ancient warriors, standing eternal guard. Beyond the forests to the west, endless hills and valleys, impassable rivers, and the great loch that cut the Highlands in two, keeping the enemy at bay. And to the north, a single path led from the sea, half a day distant. Ever since human feet trod this stony soil, it had been a track that no enemy would dare attempt, for no army had blood enough to spill on the rugged hillsides of the Highlands.
Dalmigavie Castle, the perfect place to keep the dream of Scotland alive. A fortress to protect Cinaed Mackintosh, the man called the “son of Scotland.”
Maisie Murray leaned over the edge of the stone parapet of the ancient tower and stared to the south and the range of mountains in the distance and thought of her life as it was now, and the man she’d left behind in Edinburgh. Lieutenant Niall Campbell.
Sadness, like a fist, squeezed her heart. More than four months had passed since she’d last seen him. Maisie would never forget their last day together in his rooms at Milne’s Court. She loved him and believed he loved her, too, regardless of what he’d said after. His departing words put a painful end to all of their dreams.
I’ll not be coming back. You are free of the promises we made. You must forget me.
Never. To forget him was to forsake hope, to surrender all belief in tomorrow, to accept that she was to be deprived of love for the rest of her life. He was the first man she’d offered her heart to, and he’d be the last.
Maisie wondered where he was now. She shook with fear, thinking that he hadn’t survived the things he was being forced to do. Not knowing what his mission was or where he had to go was crushing. Tears threatened to fall, and she took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the scent of pine and heather. She wouldn’t give up. No mourning, Maisie told herself. He was only lost. He’d be found again. She was certain of it. She forced herself believe it.
Her gaze was drawn to a hawk, wheeling in the blue sky far above her.
The sounds of children playing in the courtyard below mingled with the hammering of the smith at his forge and pulled Maisie’s attention back to the life around her. This was her new world. She could now only dream of Niall and her old existence. She’d found her voice on the streets of Edinburgh. She marched and protested and spoken out against the unjust treatment of the Scottish people. Against the hated Corn Laws, Parliament’s oppressive response to famine and chronic unemployment. The horrid economic conditions and the lack of universal suffrage in Scotland needed to be fought. The people had risen, and she’d been there on the front lines, speaking at gatherings and spreading the word with her pen.
Here in the Highlands, she was still finding her way, but she was using the sharp, concise power of the written word to fight for her cause. She was writing articles and letters that were finding publishers in Edinburgh and Inverness. She would not let go of her convictions in this new world, no matter how far off her old life seemed.
The sound of footsteps running up the stone steps behind her drew Maisie to the top of the stairwell. It was Morrigan. The two of them had arrived at Dalmigavie together. Sisters, not by blood, but by choice and by family relations.
“They’re here.” Morrigan’s long, dark hair glinted in the sunlight.
Breathless, she pushed by Maisie and moved to the parapet. “The men coming from the Borders. The ones that everyone has been waiting for.”
Maisie stood beside Morrigan as she leaned out, scanning the courtyard. For days, the air had been crackling with a mixture of threat and expectation. British forces were after the son of Scotland. The threat of an attack on the castle or the possibility of an assassination attempt on Cinaed’s life had kept everyone on edge. At the same time, a delegation was coming from the Borders. Maisie had no idea what the arrival of those people meant, or what they were to bring with them. But the Mackintosh clan folk were talking about the messengers as if they were messiahs.
“Look.” Morrigan pointed.
Maisie leaned over the edge and saw the group approaching the entry to the Great Hall.
Beneath her, Cinaed stepped out into the courtyard, and Blair Mackintosh crossed the open space to take his usual protective place beside him. Searc Mackintosh, a cousin to the laird, led the three visitors, and the clan chief was speaking with one of them, a burly, well-dressed gentleman.
Maisie’s gaze was instantly drawn to one of the other newcomers. The wide brim of his hat shadowed his face, but there was something about the confident steps, the motion of his hand as he talked. The broad shoulders. His impressive height. Awareness flashed through her, and Maisie’s heart skipped a beat.
It couldn’t be. She walked along the edge of the tower, following the men’s steps below. Morrigan’s voice was silenced by the loud drumming of Maisie’s heart. She stared, afraid to blink. Afraid he would disappear. It couldn’t be.
The men stopped before entering the keep. The visitor pulled off his hat, and Maisie forgot to breathe.
“What’s wrong?” Morrigan clutched her arm. “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”
She opened her mouth to speak, but no words emerged.
Niall was here.
Recognition triggered a rush of emotion. He was no ghost. He’d come. She laughed and threw her arms around Morrigan and whirled her around wildly.
“What are you doing?”
There was no time to explain. She had to get to him. Spinning on her heel, Maisie raced across the top of the tower, leaving Morrigan calling after her. In an instant, she was running down the dark stone stairwell, made even darker by the bright sunlight she’d left behind.
Niall was here. That meant his sister Fiona must be free. He’d come for her. Their promises to each other were still alive. He loved her.
At the foot of the steps, Maisie ran along the corridors to the Great Hall, searching for them. Her doubts and fears were gone. She was again the same woman who’d run through the streets of Edinburgh that winter day, a lifetime ago, wearing no boots or coat, holding her heart in her hand, offering herself to him body and soul.
They weren’t in the Great Hall.
“The visitors? Where are they?” she asked a Mackintosh fighter she’d seen shadowing the group.
“The laird’s study, miss.”
She hurried to the closed door. Voices drifted through. Niall’s deep voice was as familiar as the wind through the leaves, as the rolling thunder of an approaching summer storm. The last of her doubts disappeared. Nearly unfathomable joy bathed her with its warmth. She raised her fist, ready to knock.
“Maisie. What’s wrong?”
She jumped at the sound of her sister’s voice. Isabella stood few steps away, silhouetted by the light coming from the courtyard. Maisie blinked, realizing she’d been standing in a cloak of fog. The air thinned. The mist lifted and a chill prickled down her back. A dark reality reemerged, choking her. Her sister, the physician. The woman who’d sacrificed so much on all of their behalves. Her family. Maisie’s eyes burned. Her throat closed. Isabella, who finally for the first time was living as she chose to live, and not acting because of what she saw as her duty. Isabella who was newly married to a man who she deeply loved and was worthy of her.
“Maisie?” She approached.
“I heard the news too. Finally, they’re here. Everyone is relieved. Men we can trust.”
Trust. Men we can trust.
Her sister Isabella. Niall’s sister Fiona. What Maisie would do for Isabella, Niall would do for Fiona. The reality of their past tumbled and fell like an avalanche all around her. Isabella was free. Fiona was a prisoner.
Tears brimmed over. His words the last night they were together pushed through her elation and sank at last into her mind. Niall wasn’t here for her.
I’ve been given a task to accomplish in exchange for my sister’s life.
His life wasn’t his own. Maisie shook her head in disbelief. “No!”
With anguish squeezing every bit of air from her chest, Maisie shoved the door open and entered.
All conversation in the laird’s study halted, and every head swiveled toward her. But Maisie’s eyes were on only one person. Niall. He stood. The blood drained from his face.
His handsome face was a watery image as her tears fell relentlessly. She loved him, but she had to let him go. He had been her hope, but she would instead have to suffer misery.
“You can’t do this. I won’t let you.”
Invisible shackles dragged at her steps. Her heart threatened to spill out of the rend opening in her chest. It was too painful to do this, to do what she must. Maisie forced herself to cross the room and face Niall.
“I know why you’re here.”
Words caught in her throat, but she forced them out. She wouldn’t remain silent. She couldn’t.
“Cinaed Mackintosh is my sister Isabella’s husband. I can’t let you do it. I’ll not let you kill him.”