HEART OF THE DRUID LAIRD -Top Pick @ Nocturne Romance Reads!
Gairloch, Scotland, Present Day
The contents of Dermot MacKay’s coffee mug mirrored his mood—black, like the endless days stretching before him without surcease—and bitter, like his thoughts.
“Will you no’ eat something, Laird? You canna’ train on an empty stomach.”
“Nay, Lachlan. Have you forgotten?” Dermot surveyed the men around his table tucking into their hearty breakfasts. “I’ve been fasting since twilight last and will no’ join you in the gym today.”
“I’ve no’ forgotten.” Lachlan shrugged. “We’ve no reason to expect the outcome will be any different this year.”
“Where is Thomas?” Dermot watched the men’s furtive glances dart around the table like mice after crumbs. No one answered. They knew he wished to avoid his cousin. At this time of year Thomas’s antics grated, and running him through with a sword, though immensely satisfying, only incited Thomas to more mischief. Dermot’s frown deepened at the sound of footsteps. “Shite.”
Thomas sauntered into the dining hall and helped himself to a plate from the sideboard. He heaped it with fat sausages, scrambled eggs, warm currant scones with honey-butter, and fried tatties with onion, all Dermot’s favorites. His cousin faced him with an expression of smug anticipation. Swinging the loaded plate under Dermot’s nose, he took a seat.
“Have you done the deed yet, Druid?” Thomas raised an eyebrow and fixed him in his gaze.
Dermot inhaled the delicious scents wafting up from Thomas’s plate. His stomach rumbled. Another pointless fast, followed by an equally fruitless ritual, and for what? He didn’t expect the outcome to be any different either. He swallowed the saliva filling his mouth. “How many times have I told you no’ to call me Druid?”
“Let me see.” Thomas pulled the stub of a pencil and a tiny notebook from the rear pocket of his jeans and flipped it open with a flourish. “We’ve been together for sixteen hundred and fifty years, give or take a few decades. That’s three hundred sixty-five days per year, except leap years of course.” He tapped his chin with the pencil. “Let’s say you’ve told me three times per day, a conservative estimate.” He scribbled furiously, his brow furrowed in concentration. “It comes to one million eight hundred thousand times, or thereabouts.”
Laughter erupted around him. Dermot glared his men into silence.
“Well?” Thomas persisted. “Have you done the deed yet, Druid? Wait, that’s one more time you’ve told me today.” He solemnly added a tally to his notebook, eliciting choking sounds from the men at the table.
Launching himself from his chair, Dermot snapped, “I’ll do it now.” He stormed out of the dining hall and climbed the massive stone steps two at a time. Striding down the corridor on the second floor, he headed for the one place in his home he’d devoted to the Druidic arts.
The moment he opened the door to his stillroom, the earthy scent of dried herbs and beeswax soothed him. Early morning light poured through the tall beveled windows, lighting the patina of the polished oak bookshelves to a warm gold. He ran his hand along the leather spines of his ancient tomes and rare first editions and pulled one of the books from the shelf. Taking a seat in his favorite chair, he let the book fall open in his lap. How many times during the span of his life had he held this book? He glanced at the dried medicinal herbs hanging from the rack, and on to the rare works of art gracing the walls.
Shite. He’d miss this refuge, but if Mairéad didn’t show again this year, they’d have to think about relocating soon. They’d been in Gairloch over a decade, and it wouldn’t be long before the locals noticed he and his men weren’t aging.
Gods, he longed for an end. If he had any say in the matter, once the damned curse was lifted, he’d refuse another incarnation for at least a millennium. Surely he’d earned the rest.
Procrastination isn’t going to change the outcome. Best get the deed done.
He rose from the chair to put the book back in it’s place and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. With a wave of his hand sacred herbs and beeswax candles took flame. Fragrant spirals of smoke drifted throughout the room as he mentally prepared himself for the task ahead. A map of the world lay flat on the large granite-topped work table, and the scrying crystal nested in its velvet-lined box awaited his magic. He cleared his mind and meditated upon the soul he sought.
Turning his focus inward, he reached deep into his soul to call forth the magic lying dormant within all sentient beings. Speaking the words of the chant, he slipped between this realm and the realm of shadow, where all souls were connected. Only on Samhain, halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, was he allowed to breach the veil between the worlds to search for Mairéad’s return.
Inured to the cold-feather touch of spirits brushing against him, Dermot closed his mind against the onslaught of random consciousness. Nothing could distract him from his purpose. He lifted the silken cord fastened to the scrying crystal, the unique image of Mairéad’s spirit fixed in his mind’s eye. With a slight motion of his wrist, the crystal circled above the map in a wide arc, narrowing with each swing.
The cord tightened and strained in his hand. His concentration faltered and his heart raced. Nay. It couldn’t be…not after all this time. Taking a deep breath, he eased the slack and continued the spin in smaller turns. The crystal affixed itself to a single spot in the center of North America. Shock reverberated through his body as powerful magic exploded from the scrying crystal through the astral plane. The signal had been sent. Àine and the high king of the Tuatha Dé Danann would know he’d found her. The race had begun, and he had only this one chance to end the curse, or he and his men would remain as they were for all eternity.
He’d waited so long for this moment he could scarce believe what his senses told him. He’d found her. Memories dragged him back through the ages. The heat of his burning keep. The image of Mairéad lying in a pool of her own blood. He choked, remembering the thick, black smoke and the smell of burning flesh. The battle sounds and the cries of the dying echoed inside his skull until he feared it would explode.
Sixteen hundred years’ worth of frustration and rage welled up with his bile, scalding his throat and filling him with bitterness. If mankind ever needed proof romantic love was nothing but folly, he had it to give. Mairéad swore she loved him, and the foolish notion led to her murder and the death of their precious unborn child.
He threw his head back and shouted a call to battle loud enough to wake the dead.
He swiped the world map off the table and snatched another—the United States—spreading it out on the table. Again he scried, and again the prism stopped. He leaned close. Saint Paul, Minnesota, an ocean and half a continent away.
A dozen pairs of boots thudding in the corridor brought Dermot back fully into the material realm. He moved to intercept his men at the door. “Niall, I need a large, detailed street map of Saint Paul, Minnesota in the U.S. Thomas, you’ll make the travel arrangements. I’ll take four of you with me. We’ll stay no more than a fortnight.” Dermot looked into the stunned faces of his men. “She is reborn. At long last Mairéad has returned.”
“Um…Druid—” Thomas stepped forward, “—you scry every year, aye?”
Dermot rubbed his temples. His head throbbed as it always did after he’d used magic. “What now, Thomas?”
“She canna be even a year old. How do you plan to get the bairn back to Scotland? We’ve only three weeks until the anniversary of Mairéad’s murder, and Áine—”
“Then we have no time to waste, do we?” He scowled at his cousin. “I’ll offer the family a vacation to a bonny Scottish castle, or throw an ungodly sum of money their way. I’ll do whatever it takes. You have my word.”
Sidney St. George awoke with a start to the scent of rain filling her bedroom, just like before a storm. Ozone. The prickly sensation that she was not alone skittered over her skin. Her mouth went dry, and a surge of adrenaline hit her bloodstream. The temperature in her bedroom had dropped about twenty degrees. She huddled deep under her blankets, every hair on her body standing on end. What the hell?
“Open your eyes, little human. I know you’re awake.”
The feminine voice surrounded Sidney in a fresh wave of frigid air and sent dread ricocheting through her body. She cracked an eyelid. Her room glowed neon blue. This can’t be good.
“Come, come, I’m here to help you.”
“Help me?” Sidney pulled the covers with her as she pressed herself against the headboard. An unearthly figure floated in the middle of her room. The diaphanous gown she wore lifted and rippled around her as if caught on a breeze. Hair the color of moonbeams danced around her shoulders.
Sidney glanced at her windows. Both were shut tight. No wind. The coldness emanated from the creature levitating above her floorboards. Impossible. The woman’s eyes glowed an eerie iridescent blue. Oh, God. Are those…wings?
She couldn’t get enough air into her lungs. Her stomach lurched like it had been left behind on a plummeting elevator. “Wh-what are you?”
“If it helps, think of me as your faerie godmother.” She dismissed Sidney’s question with a wave of her hand and glided closer.
Sidney’s heart pounded against her ribcage and she shrank into the corner where the wall and the headboard met. Cold sweat beaded her forehead. Go away, go away, go away. Was this thing an alien, an angel, or a faerie? What the hell does it matter? None of those things exist. I’m dreaming. This is a nightmare. I will wake up and everything will be fine.
“Cease your foolish cowering. If I meant to harm you, I would’ve done so already. I’ve come to warn you. You should feel honored.”
“Warn me?” She opened her right eye. “Honored?”
“Is there an echo in here?” Electricity crackled through the creature’s hair and traced along the surface of her skin.
Sidney’s limbs went rigid against her body, and she fought against the invisible force holding her. “I can’t move! Wh-what are you doing to me?”
“I’m convincing you of my…sincerity. I will release you once you promise to listen like a good little mortal should. Do you promise?”
“I promise.” The force eased.
“A man from far away is coming to find you. He’ll ruin everything, wreck your life and break your heart into a thousand pieces. He’s done it before, and he’ll do it again.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“He’s a Scot. You’ll know him by his heavy brogue. Listen carefully.” The pitch of her voice shifted, became hypnotic. “You will heed my warning. Stay away from him. When he comes begging your help, refuse him. He will tell you lies. Don’t believe anything he says. Your life depends upon it.”
Mesmerized, Sidney hung on every word she uttered, even leaning closer to the melodious sound. Was she being hypnotized into compliance? No way would she let this thing control her. “How do you know my name? Who are you?”
Laughter reverberated through the room as if it came from an invisible surround-sound system. “I know everything there is to know about you. I am a goddess—omniscient, immortal and all powerful.” The being peered down her nose at Sidney. “You should fear me.”
“Good. You will not remember our little chat. Only the warning. When he comes for you, you will refuse him.”
“Why is he coming for me?”
“Did I invite your impertinence?” She grew larger, and the temperature in the room dropped again. “The why of it does not concern you. He’ll destroy your life. That’s all you need to know. Do as I say and you will remain unharmed. If you defy me, I cannot guarantee your continued good health.”
Sidney’s breath hung in a cloud of steam before her face. Shivers wracked her body, and she wanted to be far, far away from this creature. She nodded. “I’ll refuse him. I won’t remember any of this, only the warning.”
“Good human.” The creature’s tone dripped disdain. “Now, back to sleep with you.”
Sidney dove under the covers, shutting her eyes tight. The sound of her pounding heart marked the passing time as the temperature in her room returned to normal. Just a dream. A very bad, frightening dream.
Sidney chose her tiniest brush, dipped it into the pigment, and leaned close to her easel. Her eyes strained with the effort to get the gossamer wings just right. The compulsion to paint the apparition from her dream had haunted her all morning. Despite the woman’s command to forget, every excruciating detail replayed through her mind like a movie on loop-mode. Pushing her earbuds deeper into her ears, she lost herself in the classical music and the wash of watercolor on paper.
“Hey, Sid. Why didn’t you come when I called?” Zoe leaned against the arched entry into their living room. “My arms were full of groceries, and I needed your help.”
Sidney took the earbuds out and glanced at her best friend. An empty grocery bag with a gaping rip in the bottom dangled from Zoe’s perfectly manicured fingertips. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t hear you.”
Zoe moved behind her to peer at the painting. “That’s okay. You get to clean up the broken eggs. Whoa, that’s one scary faerie you’ve painted there.”
“I know, huh?” Sidney tilted her head to study the watercolor. “She appeared to me in a dream last night to warn me about something.”
“Wow. What about?”
Sidney smiled, knowing exactly how Zoe would react. “Some hunky Scottish guy is on his way here to find me.”
“Dang, you have all the luck.” Zoe’s eyes widened. “She really used the word hunky?”
“No.” Sidney laughed. “I added that for your benefit.”
“Even so, did the nice lady say why the hunky Scot was coming to find you?”
“Scary Faerie wasn’t nice at all, and she didn’t elaborate. I’m supposed to stay away from him.” When he comes begging your help, refuse him. That part kept running through her mind. The thought of refusing help to someone in need went against the grain.
“This sounds intriguing. Does he have a friend?”
Sidney laughed. “Only you would turn my encounters with the supernatural into a chance to meet men.”
“It could happen.” Zoe shrugged.
“It was a dream. There are no hunky Scots on the horizon.” She placed her paintbrush into a jar of water and started to clean up. “Besides, I’m working around the clock to make our shop a success. I don’t have time in my life for men, foreign or domestic.”
“You should make time.”
“Sure. Because it’s gone so well for me in the past.”
“You give up too soon.”
“No, I don’t. I—”
“Yes, you do. For as long as we’ve known each other, what’s the longest you’ve ever dated the same man?”
She thought about it. “Remember Paul? He and I lasted almost three months.”
“Paul.” Zoe tilted her head and tapped her chin. “You mean tall, gorgeous and crazy about you Paul? I rest my case.”
“You broke it off with him. Like I said, you give up too soon.”
“It’s not that I give up.” Sadness filled her. “It’s hard to explain. I start to get close to a guy, and this voice in my head whispers, it’s not him. After that, I lose interest.” She sighed. “There’s nothing I can do to get it back either. Believe me, I’ve tried.”
“Who the hell is him?”
“How the hell should I know?” Sidney shrugged. “Maybe there is no him for me. Can we change the subject?”
“If you want, I could do a Tarot reading for you. We can ask the cards—”
“You know I don’t believe in that stuff.”
“Don’t give up, Sid. You’ve closed yourself off, and Lord knows there are—”
“I mean it, Zoe. Let it go.” Had she given up? More than anything she wanted a husband and a family of her own. A familiar ache filled her. Why couldn’t she get close to any of the men she’d dated? What was wrong with her?
“You don’t believe in that stuff, but you’re the one who gets the paranormal visitations and voices in your head. Lucky for you I don’t much care for normal, ’cause you’re one odd little duck.”
“You called me little.” Sidney grinned. “Thanks.”
Zoe shook her head and glanced back at the watercolor. “I like the painting. It’ll sell quickly. Let’s place it by the dragon figurines and move the silk-screened T-shirts to tie it all together.”
“You mean the shirts with the magical creatures on them?” Sidney asked. “I like it. We could do a whole enchanted theme in one corner.” Sidney followed her down the hall toward the kitchen. Maybe Zoe was right, and she gave up on men too soon. She’d always been in awe of Zoe’s fearless, outgoing nature when it came to men. During the years they were in college together, Sidney had been the quiet one, content to stay in the background while her best friend created a stir wherever they went.
She smiled. Creating a stir happened naturally for Zoe. Her blonde hair curled in soft ringlets around her perfect oval face and big blue eyes. Petite and curvy, Zoe barely reached five feet three inches. At five ten, Sidney towered over her, with nothing but straight lines and long limbs—except for her chest. She crossed her arms over her ample breasts. They’d been the bane of her existence as a teenager.
“Did you call your mother back yet, Sid?”
“Nope. I’m avoiding her.”
“It won’t do you any good. She’ll keep calling. Mothers are like that.”
“Is this ‘push Sidney’s buttons’ day or something? Did I miss the memo? I know she’ll keep calling. I just can’t face another grueling lecture about the shop or my lack of a social life right now.”
“Stop putting so much pressure on yourself. Panache a Trois is doing really well for a new business. It’s only going to get better.”
“I hope so.” Their boutique had to succeed. Her family’s financial future depended upon it. She’d been the one to persuade her mother not to sell the building after her father died. Their success or failure rested squarely on her shoulders. “I’ll call her back later. David said he’d be home for supper. What are we having?” Sidney toed a broken eggshell on the kitchen floor and picked up a roll of paper towels from the counter. “Not quiche, I’m guessing.”
Dermot studied the storefront across the street and read the marquee above the door, Panache a Trois: Fine Art, Handcrafted Gifts, and Locally Designed Clothing. It seemed unlikely he’d find the babe here. Perhaps there were flats on the second floor, and the family lived in one of them.
The traffic light changed. “Thomas, Niall, come with me. Lachlan, you and Donald wait outside.” Dermot crossed the street with his men. “We’ll be less conspicuous if we enter separately. You two go first. Blend in.” He paused by the entrance.
“Blend in?” Thomas shot him an incredulous look. “We’re conspicuous no matter what, Druid. More so when we travel as a pack.”
His cousin had it right. Thomas, the shortest of the lot, stood at six feet three inches, and Dermot insisted they all maintain peak fighting form. Immortality was no excuse for a lack of self-discipline. “Nonetheless, you’ll do as I bid.”
Thomas snorted and went inside. Niall followed. Dermot took a deep breath to center himself before entering. What he found inside was an over-stimulating cacophony of color, scent and sound arranged to entice the senses. To his left, baskets full of scented soaps sat on shelves next to lotions and creams.
Every available inch of wall space held paintings and prints, colorful wall plaques, mirrors with hand-painted frames, and knickknacks of every sort. Racks of clothing and islands of gift items created a maze, guiding shoppers near every product the store had to offer. Soothing music provided a backdrop for the shoppers, encouraging them to linger. Impressive. Someone here had a genius for marketing.
Movement caught his eye. A young woman emerged from the back, her hands full of receipts she studied with focused attention. She had the body of a swimmer, broad shouldered, long limbed and slender—except for her breasts. There, Mother Nature had blessed her with the gift of plenty.
Hair the color of polished walnut fell straight and thick to the middle of her back. As he watched, she flipped an errant lock over her shoulder. His mouth went dry. She had a body to stir a man’s blood. He imagined those long legs wrapped around…What the hell was he thinking? Dermot gave himself a stern shake.
He was here for one reason, and one reason only.
The woman perched on a stool behind a computer with the receipts clutched in one hand. Could this be Mairéad’s mother? Something about her drew him, and he knew better than to ignore his instincts. Slowly, so as not to draw attention, he made his way toward her, stopping now and then to pick up this object or that. She never looked up, not even when he stood right before her. Dermot reached for a business card from the Lucite card holder in front of the computer. “Zoe LeBlanc and Sidney St. George, Proprietors.”
She gasped, and her body jerked at the sound of his voice. The receipts fluttered from her hand like a flock of startled sparrows, and she dove to the floor after them.
“St. George.” Dermot leaned over the counter to get a better view of her very fine backside. “Sounds like it ought to have dragon-slayer written after it. The St. George’s were famous for it, ye ken.”
She rose abruptly, and her head connected with the edge of the counter with a thunk. “Ow!” She scrunched her eyes shut and rubbed the back of her skull. “Is there something I can help you with?”
“I did no’ mean to startle you, lass. I’m looking for someone.” Dermot tucked the business card into his breast pocket. “Are Zoe and this Sidney fellow a couple?”
She frowned and busied herself with putting the slips of paper back in order. “A couple of what?”
“A couple with a child, perhaps?”
“I am that Sidney fellow, and no, Zoe and I are not a couple.” Still she refused to look at him. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m very busy.”
“Who would do that to a lass? Give her a man’s name that is.” Look up woman. Let me see your eyes.
She let out an exasperated sigh, and her eyebrows drew together to form a tiny wrinkle between them in the shape of a V. V for vexed. Most people treated him with deference. Some cowered in his presence. None let on that he’d vexed them. For some inexplicable reason, the fact that she didn’t hide her response pleased him.
She raised herself to her full height and squared her shoulders. “My parents, of course.” She met his gaze, one eyebrow lifted in annoyance. “And you are…?”
The shock of recognition took his breath and rendered him speechless. The impact slammed into him like a cannonball to the midsection. He stepped back. Mairéad’s spirit radiated pure and bright from this woman’s eyes. All he could do for several seconds was stare. How could this be? How had she hidden herself from him all this time?
Fumbling with his pocket, he drew out a card, hoping she didn’t notice his hand trembling as he gave it to her “Diarmad Macaoidth, at your service.”
Damn! Why did you have to go and look at him, you idiot? The moment their eyes met, Sidney fell into some kind of crazy, gut-wrenching thrill ride. Scary Faerie’s warning pinged around inside her head while the Scot’s gunmetal-gray gaze bored into her soul. His voice was bad enough. Deep and rich like a fine aged cognac, it resonated through her until her insides shifted and realigned. Did she have to make it worse by looking at him? No man had the right to be that gorgeous.
Sidney forced herself to break the eye contact and glanced at his business card before laying it face down on the counter. “Well, Deer-Mud-Mack-Eye—”
“It’s Diarmad, lass.”
“What brings you to my little corner of the world, Deerrrr Mutt?”
The roller-coaster took a drop, leaving her heart somewhere in midair. Oh, God. This can’t be. Scary Faerie had to be a dream, because if she wasn’t, then what the hell is going on? “Sorry you came all this way for nothing.”
“Are you no’ going to ask why I’m here?”
She shook her head. She longed to ask, but a vague sense of foreboding held her back. How was it possible he could affect her the way he did? She pretended to return her attention to recording consignment receipts and willed him away.
“We can discuss it over lunch tomorrow.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I’ll pick you up here at noon.” He rapped the counter once with his knuckles. “Be ready.”
“No, I…” she protested, only to find he’d already walked away. She got goose bumps all over watching him leave. Two men materialized from the shadows at the end of the aisles to flank him. Damn. She hadn’t even known her store had those kinds of shadows. Once the trio reached the sidewalk outside, two more joined his entourage. The man surrounded himself with muscle.
Who the hell was Dermot MacKay, and what could he possibly want with her?
“Did you see that?” Zoe whispered.
“The demigod convention that just walked outta here. Did you notice the runt of the litter?” She sighed and leaned against the counter. “He winked at me.”
“The runt?” Sidney blinked. “All of them are well over six feet tall.” She watched Dermot’s retreating form until only the empty sidewalk remained in her line of vision. Despite the cashmere sport coat and the designer jeans, Dermot MacKay radiated suppressed wildness, like some kind of Viking marauder throwback from the dark ages masquerading as a civilized man.
Everything about him evoked images of windswept moors and rocky, barren terrain, right down to his shoulder length, auburn hair. Frightening. Thrilling. Something about all that wildness flipped her on switch and made her body stand up and take notice. “He’s a Scot.”
“Get out!” Zoe nudged her. “Then your dream—”
“Weird, huh?” She picked up a pen from the counter and started clicking the tip.
Zoe removed the pen from her hand. “Scary Faerie didn’t say I have to avoid anybody, did she?”
“No, why?” Sidney gave her a puzzled look.
“I wanna have the short one’s babies,” Zoe whispered, leaning toward her.
“Of course you do.” She shook her head. “The big one in the middle ordered me to have lunch with him tomorrow.”
“Wow.” Zoe stared at her in awe. “What did you say?”
“I said no, but he didn’t listen.” She sorted the receipts on the counter into neat little piles. How could this stranger destroy her life? If he was a scammer, she had nothing to steal— unless he was after a shitload of debt.
“Aren’t you even a tiny bit curious? What’s the worst that could happen? Find out why he’s here, and then give him the heave-ho.”
“I don’t know. There’s something spooky weird about all of this. First the freaky dream, and then MacKay shows up saying he’s looking for me. I’m so far out of my comfort zone, I don’t know what to think.”
“And he’s hunky, too.”
“I know, huh.”
“Go have lunch with him,” Zoe pleaded. “At least keep him around long enough for me to meet his little friend.”
“I don’t know.”
“Take a chance. One little lunch. What’s the harm?”
Sidney raised an eyebrow. “Said the spider to the fly.”