Excerpt: TRUE TO THE HIGHLANDER

celtic-dragonflies-marilyn-suchan1

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

CHAPTER ONE
Present Day, New York
Alethia Goodsky gave all things supernatural a wide berth—and Madame Giselle reeked of magic. Fixing a wary eye on the fortuneteller’s green-and-white-striped tent, Alethia contemplated the two paths before her. The longer route to the parking lot meant an uphill trek all the way around the New York Renaissance Festival fairgrounds. The shorter path cut the distance in half, but she’d have to pass within a foot of Madame Giselle’s door.
A gust of wind whipped a cloud of dust into Alethia’s face, stinging her eyes. She gagged on the sour smell of rotting garbage carried by the breeze. As much as she loved her job at the Renaissance festival, weeks of working around the clock had taken their toll.
“The short path it is.” Shifting the strap of the canvas duffel biting into her shoulder, Alethia started down the hill, her violin case bumping against her hip with each step. Near the tent’s entrance she clutched the skirt of her Renaissance gown and tiptoed past. The sound of muffled sobbing brought her to a halt. Crying?
Torn, she listened for a moment before compassion won out over common sense. Moving the tent flap aside, she peered in. “Hello, is everything all right in here?”
“No, it’s not.” Madame Giselle had changed out of her gypsy costume and into gabardine slacks, a cashmere sweater and a suede blazer. At the moment, while rifling through her designer handbag, she resembled nothing more sinister than someone’s upper-class grandmother. Pulling out a linen handkerchief, she turned to face Alethia. “I’m glad you stopped by. Come in.”
Alethia really didn’t want to go into that tent, but she’d been the fool who’d lifted the flap. Given how and where she’d been raised, disrespecting an elder went against the grain. Taking a tentative step forward, she asked, “What’s the matter?”
“Oh.” Giselle blew her nose into the fancy hanky. “Someone I care about is in danger. I’d do anything to help.” She turned red, puffy eyes toward Alethia. “Wouldn’t you, if it were someone in your family?”
“Yes, ma’am, I would.”
“I thought as much.” Giselle’s eyes lit up through her teary smile. She had a birdlike quality about her, everything small and sharp. Dark eyes shining with acuity and something deeper fixed on Alethia. “You grew up on your father’s reservation didn’t you, in Northern Minnesota, near the Canadian border?”
“How could you possibly know that?” The familiar prickle of unease she always felt around Giselle cat-pawed it’s way up Alethia’s spine.
“Not all of what I do is for show.” Giselle arched an eyebrow. “You better than anyone should understand.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Heat rose to Alethia’s cheeks at the lie.
“Come now, you can be honest with me. You have . . . certain gifts, do you not?”
Gifts? That’s not the word she’d use to describe her abilities. Alethia could read other people’s energy and always knew whether someone was lying or telling the truth. She’d read everything she could about ESP. Her talent wasn’t all that unique. Still, on top of being biracial, her so-called gift made it even more difficult to find her place in a world that saw everything in black and white absolutes. “I don’t—”
“There are depths to you not yet tapped,” Giselle added as if speaking to herself. “You’d be able to survive anywhere.” Her eyes narrowed. “You have plans for the future, a carefully laid path already in the works?”
She didn’t know about the tapping depths part, but her plans at least felt like safe territory. Alethia nodded. “I graduate from Juilliard next spring, and I already have a job lined up in Los Angeles.” Pride rippled through her. “I’ll be playing in a Hollywood Orchestra that does soundtracks for movies.”
“Sounds lovely.” Giselle smiled back. “Why don’t you sit? That pack looks heavy.”
“I can’t. My ride is waiting.” Alethia stepped back, and the air in the tent became charged with an unfamiliar tension. Magic. Giselle’s image blurred, as if her her features had been superimposed over another’s more ethereal and insubstantial. Alethia’s heart beat inside her chest like a fly trapped in a glass jar.
She blinked, and the ordinary grandmother in gabardine came back into focus. Not possible. It’s exhaustion, that’s all. Alethia took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Stay for a moment.” Giselle pointed toward the rickety chair set close to the table. “I thought of you while packing my things.”
Alethia frowned as her legs carried her toward the chair. She didn’t want to sit, much less stay, but she couldn’t seem to turn herself around to march out that door. “You thought about me?”
“Oh, yes. I’ve been thinking about you for a very long time.”
“A long time? This is the first festival we’ve ever worked together, and we’ve never even had a conversation. How—”
“Time is relative, Alethia, and completely malleable for one such as myself.”
What the hell does that mean? Despite her desire to bolt, Alethia stayed planted where she was. Goose bumps spider-walked up her arms and around the back of her neck. Alethia shuddered as she listened to Giselle mumble to herself while rummaging through a plastic bin full of her fortune telling paraphernalia.
“Ah, here it is.” Giselle turned back with a pendant on a gold chain dangling from her hands. The charm was an animal effigy made of Celtic knots with a green stone mounted in the middle. “You’ve been so kind, stopping by to cheer me up even though I’m a stranger to you. I want you to have this.” She slipped the pendant around Alethia’s neck.
Alethia traced the intricate design with her finger. The knots formed the image of a crane. Among her father’s people, the Anishinaabe, she belonged to the Crane clan. Coincidence? “It’s beautiful, but I can’t keep this.” She lifted the chain over her head to return it. “It must be worth a fortune.”
“It’s yours.” Giselle caught her hands and pushed the pendant back down around Alethia’s neck. “This was crafted in the Highlands of Scotland eons ago. It is fitting that you should have it. Don’t you think?”
Fitting? Her mother had been Scottish, a MacConnell, but how could Giselle know so much about her life? The gold chain came to rest with unnatural warmth against Alethia’s skin. Every instinct she had screamed at her to get the hell out of there. Now. “Thanks. Can I pay you for the necklace? I didn’t really do anything to deserve it.”
“Ah, but you will.” Giselle laughed as if she’d made a joke only she understood.
“I don’t want your money, child. The pendant is a gift.”
Alethia grabbed her things from the ground, relieved to find that her body finally obeyed her mind. “I hope everything turns out all right with your relative.”
“Go, Alethia. Your destiny awaits.”
Giselle had obviously played the role of the gypsy fortuneteller far too long. Alethia’s future had nothing to do with destiny and everything to do with hard work, determination and careful planning.
Alethia took a step toward the tent’s exit, and every hair on her body stood on end. An eerie electrical charge filled the tent, along with the distinctive scent of ozone. All the familiar sounds associated with the closing fair faded. A loud clap made Alethia’s ears pop, and everything flattened in an absurd two dimensional way.
Alethia lurched forward, pulled by a powerful current. It took all of her strength to hold on to her things, and she fought to remain upright against the invisible force pressing in on her from all sides. A blur of light and color flashed by in microsecond increments. Nausea and pressure made it hard to breathe. She gasped for air, and pain ripped through her. God, she was being torn apart. I’m going to die. I don’t want to die.
Blackness edged its way in around her as she fought to remain conscious. No use. The vortex pulled her under.
#
Northern Scotland, 1423 AD
Malcolm glared at the well-dressed stranger asleep on the ground. On MacKintosh ground. With an important missive to deliver into his father’s hands, he had no time for problems  not his own. “What devilry is this?”
“She looks far more angel than devil,” his cousin Robley remarked. “Who could she be?”
“No’ Sasunnach ’tis certain. Her complexion is far too dark. Mayhap she’s Italian or Basque.” Malcolm glanced at the tree line.
“Mayhap she’s fae. She’s lovely to look upon,” Angus murmured. “Enchanting.” He cleared his throat, and his complexion turned as red as his hair.
“Nay. The fae are always fair,” Galen argued.
His men grunted as they contemplated the possibilities, and Malcolm kept a wary eye on the edge of the forest. The lass wore clothing and jewels proclaiming her nobility. Where were her servants and escort?
Something was amiss, and it turned his foul mood to pitch. No doubt this sleeping apparition was some new mischief conspired by fate to beleaguer him further. Between the Comyn clan’s never-ending treachery, the greedy, ruthless rule of their regent and pressure from his parents to make an advantageous marriage, ’twas a wonder he slept at night.
Was peace too much to hope for? He scowled at the sleeping woman, feeling as if her presence embodied all the perils in his life. His gelding stretched its neck to nose the curiosity on the ground, and a delicate hand rose to bat the disturbance away. The lass sat up and looked around in sleepy-eyed confusion, leaping to her feet when she saw him and his men in a circle around her.
“Who are you, lady? From whence do you come?” Malcolm demanded.
At his words, she turned to stare owl-eyed up at him. “Holy. Crap.”
The corner of his mouth twitched up. “Where are your guardsmen and servants?”
Her spine straightened, and her chin lifted. “They’re . . . in the woods.”
Malcolm studied her. She had eyes the color of the sea on a stormy day. Hair the lustrous shade of fine sable hung in a braid down past her waist. He lost himself in fantasies of that glorious hair free and cascading down around her shoulders. She was a vision.
Malcolm gave himself a firm shake. Her looks mattered not in the least. “Aye? What might they be doing in my woods?”
Her eyes flew to the forest. “Um . . . tending to . . . things.”
His men chuckled. She was a terrible liar, clearly alone and abandoned by the side of the road. This could only mean one thing. Trouble, and more trouble he did not need. “What sort of things?”
#
“Very important things,” Alethia muttered. Definitely the Alpha male in this barbarian six-pack, the brute confronting her radiated arrogance and authority. Sun-kissed golden hair fell to his shoulders, and a few days growth of thick russet beard stubbled his strong jaw. He wore nothing but a swath of wool in muted plaid draped around his body and soft leather boots that reached mid-calf.
Where the hell was she, some kind of Brave Heart parallel universe? What did that old witch do to me? Giselle’s words echoed inside her head. “Time is relative, Alethia, and completely malleable for one such as myself.” Oh, my God. Did she send me back in time? Was such a thing even possible?
Their leader scowled down at her, his wide generous mouth drawn into a straight line that screamed annoyed. Well, shoot. She wasn’t all that happy herself.
Sparing a glance for the rest of his crew, she couldn’t help noticing the large swords slung over their backs and all the daggers tucked into belts and boots. She sucked in her breath and stood a little straighter. The Anishinaabe had always been a peace loving people, but also fearless when the need arose. Alethia intended to be brave now, or at least appear to be. She clasped her trembling hands together in front of her. “Now, if you don’t mind, please move aside, and I’ll be on my way.”
One of the men nudged his horse forward. As dark as the leader was fair, this one gave off a bad vibe. Even as panicked as she was, she could sense his malicious nature.
“Let me take her off your hands, Malcolm. She’s a foreigner and without protection. That makes her fair game.”
No! Alethia glanced around for a possible bolt hole. “Thanks for the offer, but I’m responsible for myself and not game of any kind.”
“She is on my land, Hugh,” the one called Malcolm replied. “That makes her my responsibility.”
“My people are waiting for me to join them,” she blustered, “and they’re heavily armed.”
The one called Malcolm snorted and scooped her up off the ground like a sack of grain. Placing her in front of him, he nudged his horse down the road. His chortling men fell in line behind him.
“Put me down! I have no intention of going anywhere with you.”
“And I have no intention of leaving you alone in the wilderness.” Malcolm’s arm tightened around her waist.
Alethia’s heart pounded against her ribcage. She blinked back the tears of fear and frustration and struggled to get out of his hold. It was useless. He probably weighed more than twice what she did, and every inch of him was granite. She glanced back at her violin and duffle bag. The only links to her life lay by the side of the road, growing smaller by the second. “My things. At least let me get my violin.”
“Nay, we travel in haste. I’ll no’ burden our mounts with any more useless baggage.”
“Hey, that was just mean.” Damn the tear trickling down her cheek. “I didn’t ask you to take me anywhere. I didn’t ask for any of this.”
Don’t panic. Think. Alethia swiped her eyes and took several deep breaths to calm herself. Her mind raced for a way out of this mess. Thank heavens her friends had insisted she take self-defense classes after one of their classmates had been mugged.
She forced herself to relax into his hold. His grip eased. Reaching back, Alethia placed her hands on either side of his neck below his ears. Using the pads of her thumbs, she found his pulse points and applied pressure. Within seconds his body slackened. Shoving his arm from around her waist, she slid off the horse and hit the ground running. Her captor fell with a loud thump behind her.
Alethia snatched up her belongings and ran for the forest bordering the rutted dirt road they traveled. Thundering hooves ate up the ground behind her. She dashed into some brush and glanced over her shoulder. Damn. The dark one was after her, the one who saw her as game. Frantic, Alethia searched for a place to hide.
#
Malcolm awoke on the ground to find the eyes of his cousins staring down at him. “What the devil happened?”
“The lass, she . . . ah . . .” Liam stammered.
Robley reached out his hand and grinned. “The wee sorceress put you to sleep, cousin. I’ve never seen the like.”
Malcolm took the proffered help and hoisted himself from the ground as he assessed the situation. “Where is Hugh?”
“He went after her,” Angus replied.
“God’s blood!” He glared at each of his men until they squirmed. “I dinna keep Hugh close because I desire his company. You know my thoughts, yet you let him go after the lass with no thought to her safety?” He leapt onto his gelding’s back. “Liam, you’re in charge. Ride ahead and make camp by the burn. I’m going after Hugh and the lass.”
The last thing he remembered, her soft hands had brushed his neck. The next thing he knew, he awoke flat on his back in the dirt. He gave sorcery no credence and knew her actions had been physical in nature. Still, what had she done to him, and how dare she?
Hugh left an easy trail to follow, but there were no signs of the woman. Malcolm overtook Hugh, bringing his mount around to cut him off. “Return to the men,” Malcolm commanded. “They’ve ridden ahead to make camp.”
“She means naught to you nor to the MacKintosh. Leave her to me.”
“Nay. She is my responsibility for as long as she remains on my land.”
“You know nothing about her. Mayhap she’s a spy.”
“Mayhap you are as well.” Malcolm shrugged, and his gelding danced with tension beneath him. “The MacKintosh have naught to hide. We are, and always have been, loyal to king and country.” If it came to it, he’d not regret running Hugh through with his claymore. A Fraser, Hugh had fostered with the MacKintosh as a lad. As a youth, he’d been sullen, cruel, and spiteful. As a man, he’d grown even more perverse.
Hugh had come to Moigh Hall a fortnight ago seeking a place in the MacKintosh garrison. If the decision had been his, he would have sent him on his way. Drawing his sword, Malcolm edged closer. “Do you challenge my authority, Hugh? If so, draw your weapon. Let us settle the matter forthwith.”
Hugh glared at him. “I’ll go if that is your command.”
“It is.” Malcolm watched to ensure Hugh didn’t double back, then he started his search for the woman. He returned to the point where the chase began, dismounted and examined the forest floor. A tree covered hollow caught his eye. The earth and the brush around it had been disturbed. She’d hidden there until Hugh had passed. Canny lass.
He picked up her trail, and it wasn’t long before he caught sight of her, doubled over and gasping for breath. Her paltry bundles lay on the ground beside her. Malcolm secured his horse and stepped through the brush separating them. She whipped around, eyes darting, most likely searching for another escape route. He stood still before her, keeping both hands in plain sight. “I mean you no harm.”
She straightened, lifted her chin and glared him down again. Her bravado amused him, made him want to laugh, though he wouldn’t. To do so would be a grave insult.
“You have no right to interfere with me, and you have no idea what I’ve been through today.” Letting out a huff of air, she lifted her belongings from the ground, gave him her back and walked away.
Malcolm let her get as far as the end of her braid.
She made a snarling noise and let her burdens slip from her hands. Grabbing his wrist with one hand, she turned and latched onto his little finger with the other. Bending it back with considerable might, she forced him down.
“Ahhh, by the saints!” Pain and confusion brought him to his knees. He recovered his wits enough to keep hold of her braid, yanking her to the ground with him. When she reached around with one hand to try to free her hair, he grabbed her arm and bent it up behind her back, gratified when he heard the sharp intake of her breath.
Had he thought her delicate? Nay, he had misjudged her. She was a wildcat. A cornered wildcat. He tried to raise his hand out of her reach. “Foolish woman, a broken finger is naught to me?”
“Fine, I’ll break it then.” Keeping her tenacious hold, she increased the pressure. “If you mean me no harm, then let me go.”
“Nay.”
“Let go,” she gritted out.
“You first.” The rise and fall of her breasts against his chest stirred his blood to a boil. His gaze roamed over her face, settling on the fullness of her lips pursed into a determined little pucker. An idea formed in his mind. Raising his eyes to hers, he grinned.
Her eyes widened, then narrowed. “Oh, no.”
He covered her lips with his. She gasped, and he took advantage, deepening the kiss. She sucked his lower lip into her mouth, and desire surged through his body in a rush so strong, ‘twould have brought him to his knees, had he not already been on them.
Then she bit him. Damnation!
One tiny female had bested him with nothing more than his little finger for leverage and his lower lip trapped between her teeth. Judging by the pain, she had no intention of letting go. So be it. Neither would he. Malcolm bent her arm up behind her a bit more in retaliation for the insult to his pride. She yelped through her clenched teeth, and a twinge of guilt forced him to loosen his hold.
Stalemate.
Never had he been in a more absurd predicament. By God, ’twas a good thing none of his men were here to witness this indignity. She was like no other lady he’d ever met, and he could scarce believe her audacity. What would the earl think if he saw his only heir in such a ridiculous fix?
A rumble began deep in his chest, erupting in loud, raucous laughter that shocked the little warrior. He fell backward, taking her with him until he lay flat on his back with her on top. Miracle of miracles, she let go of his lip and his finger as she tried to wriggle away. He encircled her waist with his arms and trapped her legs between his. Placing a hand on either side of his head, she raised herself up and stared down at him as though he’d completely lost his wits.
No doubt he had.
It would not take this braw lass long to attempt escape again. He rolled them over and straddled her. Malcolm took a leather thong out of his sporran and bound her wrists. “You have naught to fear,” he told her in a soothing tone. “Though I doubt you lend credence to my words, I mean only to offer you my aid.”
“And I suppose this is for my own good?” She lifted her tied wrists, her eyes flashing.
“Nay.” He hefted her off the ground. “In less than a day, you’ve managed to render me senseless, brought me to my knees, and drawn blood.” He winked at her. “The binding is for my own good.”
She huffed, and then her expressions shifted. “I did do all that, didn’t I? My uncles and cousins would be so proud.”
She surprised him at every turn, and her bemused expression had him laughing out loud again. “If you’re any indication, they must be a bloodthirsty lot.”
“They are.” She glared as if challenging him to disagree.
He held her with one arm while retrieving his mount. Still chuckling, he placed her astride his horse, careful to keep the reins out of her reach. Malcolm gathered her things, secured the smaller case behind his saddle and dumped the larger sack on her lap. Even with her hands bound ’twould be best to keep them occupied. He swung up behind her and turned his mount toward the road.
“Where are you taking me?”
“To a place of safety.”
“Where are we now?”
“We’re on MacKintosh land.”
“MacKintosh. Is that Irish or Scottish?”
Malcolm frowned at her odd questions. Mayhap she’d been set upon by brigands and suffered a blow to the head. “You’re in Scotland, lass.”
She gasped, and placed her bound hands on her pack in a possessive gesture.
“Weesht now, woman, lest any more trouble lurking about the forest should find me.” There was no mistaking the signs she was spent, near tears, and trying hard not to show it. He always traveled light out of deference for the horses, and with the earl of Douglas’s missive to deliver, the need for haste was great. He’d intended to have someone retrieve her belongings once they reached home. Not in the habit of explaining himself, he saw no reason to do so now.
How had she happened to be alone on that particular stretch of road at the very moment he traveled by? Who was she? What would his family and clan make of her? Each question raised another until his head throbbed.
Tomorrow was soon enough to demand answers, and the earl would insist he be the one to question her. For now, Malcolm would leave her be.

terribleminds: chuck wendig

Chuck Wendig: Freelance Penmonkey

Barbara Longley

Award winning author of contemporary and paranormal romance

Bob Mayer

Write on the River

scarpetta dolcetto

home cookery and the pursuit of the perfect dinner party

WordPress.com

WordPress.com is the best place for your personal blog or business site.

%d bloggers like this: