Excerpt - Highland Knight
Munro Keep, 1303 Scotland
Ethan jerked awake and sat up. He shook his head and blinked a time or two, but the chamber remained hazy and blurred. Had someone shouted, or had he dreamt it?
Damn, how his skull throbbed. Pressing his knuckles hard against his temples, he sought to ease the pounding ache. Christ, wed less than a fortnight, yet he must have fallen deep into his cups the night before. He couldn't even recall entering his own chamber. He glanced down.
His bed was empty. And he was fully garbed.
Ethan jumped to his feet and reached for his blade. It was gone. So was his new wife, Devina. Muffled shouts rose from outside the keep, and in two strides he stood at the lone window. Throwing the bolt, he pushed open the shutters and stared out across the black water of the loch. Beside it, the knoll, shrouded in mist, where a line of torches flickered at its base in the dim, early-dawn light of morn.
The chamber door swung open and his younger brother stumbled in. “Ethan! Something's amiss!”
Rob reached his side and pointed toward the torches. “'Tis Devina's kin.”
Ethan stared at the score of men below. “Her kin left yestermorn.”
So it seemed. Ethan stared at the flickering torches below. “Where's my wife?”
“I don't know.”
As Ethan took in the scene below, wondering what had made Devina's folk return, something else caught his eye. Atop the knoll and through slips of heavy mist emerged the unmistakable figure of a makeshift gibbet.
Unease gripped Ethan's stomach as he pushed away from the window. Something was indeed amiss.
“Wake Aiden and Sorely. Have them find Gilchrist and rouse the others.” He cinched his belt and snugged his plaid. “And by Christ, find me a damn sword.”
“Aye.” Rob ran from the chamber.
Ethan grabbed a dirk, tucked it into his belt, and followed his brother out. Moments later, Aiden met him in the passageway and handed Ethan a sword.
“You look like hell.”
Ethan walked the length of the corridor then took the steps two at a time. He ignored his cousin's jest. “Where's my wife?”
“Your sister has gone to search for Devina at the priory. 'Tis her kin at the knoll,” Aidan said, right on his heels. “Mayhap they've returned to make sure the devil hasn't eaten their daughter?”
Ethan frowned and started across the great hall. His timid wife had indeed spent the greater portion of their wedded fortnight within the priory, crossing herself and praying for safety. From him.
His men were waiting at the door, and he looked each one in the eye. “Dunna make a solitary move without my say. And keep your bloody tongues in your heads. No need to provoke that superstitious lot.” Without another word or glance, Ethan sheathed his borrowed sword, grabbed a torch from the wall, and stepped out into the damp morn. The others followed, and the only sounds breaking the stillness were the shuffling of boots across the rushes and torches being lifted from their cradles.
In silence, they crossed the meadow, skirted the loch, and started for the knoll. Several paces from the line of men, and in truth they were the MacEwans, the laird, Devina's own uncle, let out a shout.
Ethan stopped, glanced up at the gibbet, and noticed then that a short stretch of frayed twine dangled from its end. A scrap of Munro plaid, held in place by his own bloody sword, lay buried in the gibbet's post. He looked back at Devina's uncle. “What is this madness, Daegus? I know not what you—”
“Murderer!” the laird interrupted his voice an angered sob.
And then his new wife's kinsmen parted.
Behind them, on the ground, a small mound lay still, covered with a MacEwan plaid.
Dread and anger built inside Ethan and he moved toward the covered body. He knew without looking, who lay beneath it.
“You'll not touch her again, you bloody devil!” Daegus bellowed, and he pushed Ethan back. “I shouldna have allowed this union!”
Ethan charged forward, and this time it took several MacEwans to hold him. The Munros became restless and agitated, the air snapped with tension, and the hissing of a sword being drawn from its sheath rang out. Ribbons of mist moved amongst them.
“Nay!” Ethan shouted. He struggled against six large MacEwan lads, and he'd almost broken free when a gust of Highland wind caught the end of the plaid covering the body and lifted it, revealing his wife's ghostly white face. Lifeless eyes glared at him. Accusing.
Daegus MacEwan grabbed Ethan's throat and forced him to look away. “You killed my niece, you bluidy Munro,” he snarled, his voice choked and raw. The rims of his eyes were red. “My brother made me promise on his deathbed! He insisted on this union, and by Christ, I agreed when I damn well know I shouldna!” He glared at Ethan. “Your blade, your plaid. Your reluctance to wed. The other lasses who've died because o' you. 'Tis all the proof I need.”
“'Tis a lie!” Rob yelled.
A burst of fury let loose, and Ethan broke free of the MacEwan's strongarms. “You're mad, Daegus! Let me at my wife!”
“You'll die first, Munro.”
Daegus unsheathed his sword, let out an anguished scream, and charged Ethan. As Ethan loosened his own blade, so did every man on the knoll.
Ethan did his best to ward off Daegus' fury without killing him. 'Twas no use. A battle broke out, and then Ethan reflected attacking blades from all angles. Shouts and cries chimed with the ring of steel as Munro fought MacEwan. The scent of blood tainted the sweet Highland air.
Meanwhile, Devina's lifeless eyes lay, watching.
Then, the bite of sharpened steel sliced into Ethan's back, and he sucked in a breath and whirled around, sword raised.
The MacEwan fell to the ground, and Rob yanked his blade out of the older laird's back. A shout cried out, and a dozen more MacEwan warriors topped the knoll. With a fierce battle cry, they charged downward.
And then the sheets of mist that had been slipping in and around them thickened to near-blinding, so much that Ethan couldn't see his own hand before his face. His men cursed and shuffled about, drawing closer to one another, until they all huddled together, seemingly shoulder to shoulder. His brothers, Rob and Gilchrist, flanked him.
Somewhere in the whiteness, a voice—not a warrior's voice, but that of a lass—murmured, heavier than a whisper, and it carried on the same breeze that had lifted the plaid from Devina's lifeless face.
And then the thick blanket of white turned to pitch, the MacEwan shouts faded away, and all was eerie, unholy, breathless, and still as death…
Charleston, South Carolina Present Day
Amelia Landry stepped through the white double-French doors of her beachside cottage and onto the deck overlooking the Atlantic. Squinting, she shielded her eyes with her hand and took in the view. What an ideal June day. Sea oats waving in the breeze atop hilly sand dunes.
Cornflower blue skies, white puffy clouds, and gulls screaming overhead. Perfect. She walked to the railing, scratched between the ears of her sun-bathing cat, Jack, who didn't even bother to crack open an eye, and then leaned on her elbows and inhaled a lungful of salt-tinged air.
A gull pooped on her arm.
So much for perfect.
Pulling a tissue out of the pocket of her lucky white cotton robe, she wiped her arm, tossed the tissue in the ceramic trash bin in the corner, then from her other pocket lifted a loaded can of Cheese Whiz to her mouth and bent the white tip with a forefinger until a stream of orange paste covered her tongue.
Anything, she thought, to help her forget she'd lost her mojo.
Writing mojo, that is. Gone, for nearly a year now. Her brain, a useless well of doggie doo doo. Everything she came up with bored her beyond tears.
She closed her eyes and let the tangy orangey paste melt in her mouth.
“You are pathetic, you know that?”
All at once, Amelia inhaled with surprise, swallowed, and coughed. Rather, she choked.
Congealed fake cheese was torture on the lungs. After she wiped the tears from her eyes, she glared at her best friend. “Jesus, ZuZu. There's this thing called knocking.” She coughed once more, and then squirted another mouth full of heavenly paste. Jack meowed, opened his mouth, and she gave him a squirt, too. They both swallowed. “What about ringing a doorbell?”
Zulia Tinkerly—known by all as ZuZu—set her handbag on the deck, tucked her jaw-length auburn hair behind her ear, and frowned. “Okay, Meelie, this has got to stop. Not only is that disgusting, but it's not nutritious at all. For you or Jack.”
Jack meowed and nudged the can with his nose.
Amelia, whom ZuZu had called Meelie since childhood, lifted the Whiz and wagged it at her friend. “It's a full dairy serving, smarty pants.”
ZuZu grabbed the can, hung it over the rail, and squirted until it sputtered empty. Jack jumped down, following the stream of cheese. Then ZuZu threw the can in the bin. “You're ridiculous. Now sit down. I've got something to tell you.”
“You just littered.”
“Jack and the gulls will eat it.” ZuZu guided Amelia to one of the Adirondacks and pushed her into it, then perched on the railing. “Any new ideas lately?”
“Great. That's what I hoped you'd say.”
Amelia glared at her friend. She always knew when ZuZu was up to something rotten. Her lips twitched. “Why?”
“Because I'm sick and tired of seeing you mope, eat horrible, nasty by-products of God-knows-what, and just…mope. You need a change, Amelia. Your hair needs a trim, your nails need a manicure, and you definitely need some new clothes. You've been in that ratty robe now for what? A week?”
ZuZu grabbed her by the hands and pulled. “Stand up.”
“You just made me sit down.”
With a hard yank, ZuZu succeeded. She untied the knot in the sash and pulled the robe off Amelia's shoulders.
“What are you doing?” Amelia asked. “I wash it twice a week.”
“You need an Intervention before your publisher lets you go.” Reaching into her handbag, she withdrew a big pair of scissors and made a cut in the collar of the robe. Gripping the scissor handles with her teeth, ZuZu ripped the material right down the middle.
“So your idea of an intervention is cutting my lucky robe into shreds?”
“Give me that hideous tee-shirt.”
Amelia glanced down at her beloved garment, then scowled at ZuZu. “No way. You're not getting it.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Over my dead body.”
“That can be arranged. Now give it here before I cut if off of you.”
ZuZu's lips twitched.
With a gusty sigh, Amelia made a vow to herself to get that oh-so beloved garment back, yanked the cotton tee over her head and plopped it into ZuZu's outstretched hand. “Do not cut it up. It's my favorite shirt. My lucky shirt. I love that shirt.” Black in color, it had a pair of florescent fangs on the top, and in a dripping-blood font the words Bram Stoker Rocks!, also in fluorescent. It glowed in the dark, and she adored it.
“We know. You love that old bikini top that you've been wearing for the past month, too. God, Meelie, your boobs are going to sag to your kneecaps if you don't wear more support.” She pushed Amelia back into the chair, and then started to pace the deck. “Now, here's the deal. You're going on a little vacation this summer. It's already arranged, so you've got no choice but to suck it up and go. I used your business account Visa and booked your flight, lodgings, and rental car. You leave in two days.”
Amelia blinked. “Have you lost your mind? I've got a book due, on my editor's desk, completed, in three months. That's twelve weeks. I can't go on a vacation.” She shoved her fingers through her hair. “Good Lord, ZuZu. That's credit card theft, you know. I could report you.”
ZuZu didn't even bat an eye. “I'm your assistant, ding dong. You can't report me. Besides, your editor is all for it. And let me remind you that you've had an entire year to start, finish, and complete a book. Your fault.”
“What'd she say?”
ZuZu tapped her chin with a perfectly manicured fingernail. “Let's see. I think her exact words were, “anything to get her sorry ass moving”. Now, I pulled a lot of strings to get you this place for the summer. Lucky for you, I know people.”
Amelia narrowed her gaze. “What place?”
ZuZu stopped pacing, squatted in front of Amelia, and grinned. “A remote, creepy, supposedly-haunted, 14th century towerhouse.”
Amelia lifted a brow. “Where?”
“The Highlands of Scotland.”
“What about Jack?” Amelia asked. She wasn't, by any means, The Cat Lady. Not that there's anything wrong with it, mind you. But she liked Jack's companionship. He was a quiet presence during times of extreme solitude. And he adored her.
Twenty-eight years old, no children, not even the prospect of a relationship in sight, and her constant companion was a cat.
God, she was The Cat Lady.
“Amelia!” ZuZu hollered, snapping a finger in front of her face. “Did you hear a thing I said?”
Amelia glanced down at her bare feet, wiggled her toes and noticed the pink polish that had started to chip off a week ago. “The Highlands of Scotland?”
“The remote, secluded, haunted Highlands of Scotland.”
A grin tugged at Amelia's mouth. “I like haunted.”
“I know you do.” ZuZu reached into that big bag she'd dug the scissors out of and pulled out a book. “Here. Read this on the way over. I've dog-eared a section I think you'll find very interesting.”
Amelia took the book. Haunted Scotland. She flipped to the page ZuZu had tagged and read the chapter heading out loud. “The Bluidy Munro.”
The idea did sound fascinating. She'd never been to Scotland before, but she'd certainly seen pictures and watched movies, and the scenery was breathtaking. Throw in a haunted castle and a Bluidy Munro to boot? Maybe that was just what she needed to jump-start her imagination. She grinned. “When do we leave?”