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To Big Kipper, my best friend.
Miss you.
PROLOGUE

Glen Iolair, early November 1709

It was her wedding dayagain.


Bibiana stared at her beautiful face in the mirror. Shed been through
many weddingsthirteen, to be precise. Shed always made a lovely
bride. A new start was always exciting, and the anticipation of this new
match fluttered in her breast.
This time, her groomwho had himself been married eight times
beforehad a dozen lovely daughters, all fresh, pretty, charming, and
young.
And that was precisely why shed chosen Donal MacLeod.
Bibiana was older than her new husband. Far, far olderthough hed
never know. She smoothed her fingertip over her flawless face and
paused. Was that a small line beside her eye? She turned to her servant
Terza and snapped her fingers impatiently. The wizened handmaiden
dropped the gown she was holding and crossed to pour ruby liquid into
an exquisite Venetian glass goblet.
Is it fresh? Bibiana asked, taking the glass and holding it up to the
light. The light merely glinted off the surface, unable to penetrate the
black heart of the drink.
The game was caught this morning, Terza said. And I made the
potion myself not two hours past.
Bibiana watched herself in the mirror as she sipped. She felt the
potion slide with seductive ease into her belly, warming her at once. She
quaffed the rest in two gulps and wiped a drop off her lower lip with one
long fingernail. She leaned closer to the glass. The tiny wrinkle was
gone, and she felt a shiver of pleasure, of power, run through her. She
was beautifulthe most beautiful.
Tis nearly time, Terza said behind her, her ancient voice like the
rustle of dry leaves. What will you wear? The blue brocade is
charming.
Bibiana glanced at the gown Terza held up. What colors would Donal
MacLeods pretty daughters wear? Several of them had blue eyes. Their
indulgent father kept them clad in the finest silks and velvets his money
could buy, but it was a simple thing to look beautiful when one was
young and untouched by life. Bibiana was a woman of experience, and
women of experience could not compete with youth.
They must outdo it with utter magnificence.
No, not blue. Or red, or green, or pink. What else is there?
Youve been through almost everything in the wardrobe. Terza
grumbled as she ran her gnarled hand over the blue brocade once more.
This would be pretty enough, if you ask me, for a dreary place like
Scotland. Wear it with the sapphires. You wore blue when you married
the count in Italy . . . Or was it the duke in France?
Bibiana glared at her. It was the duke. Pretty wont do, Terza. Not
today. Not any day. I must be beautiful beyond comparelovelier than
any other woman here, more breathtaking than any of Donals past
wives, or his daughters.
Terza went back to the wardrobe. They call them lasses here in
Scotland. Bonny lasses. Donal MacLeod has had eight wives before you.
Theres no way of knowing if his other brides were fair or ugly, though if
they looked like the lasses She drew a sharp breath when Bibiana
crossed the room and pinched her into silence, hard enough to bruise,
her nails biting into the old womans skin. Terza knew better than to
show fear or pain, but Bibiana saw her lips tighten and felt a moments
elation.
Perhaps if you selected the jewels first it would make the choice
easier. Terza said, humbled. The rubies are magnificent, and they make
your hair shine like spun gold. Whatever you wear, you will be the most
beautiful.
Bibiana drifted back to the mirror. She opened her robe and noted
that her breasts were flawlessplump and firm and high as a young
girls. She could hold her own with any bonny lass, or even a whole
roomful of them.
Pink after all, perhaps, with pearls. Something fresh and youthful,
something innocent and sweet. In the mirror she saw the frown deepen
the creases between Terzas eyes. She spun to look at her. I am still
sweet, am I not? Youthful?
Terza nodded at once. Of course. The laird is in love with you. You
could wear anything. Or nothing.
Bibiana smoothed a hand over her flat, naked belly. He wants a son.
Terza stifled a laugh.
Bibiana sent her a sharp look and opened the jewel chest. The glitter
of her treasures, the gifts of a legion of lovers and twelve adoring
husbands, never failed to stop her breath. She ran her fingertips
reverently over the gems. They were perfection, their sparkle
unchanging, powerful, eternal, beautiful. She picked up a rare and
flawless pink sapphire and watched it sparkle in the light, flirting with
her, luring her . . .
Terza clasped her hands together. Dont wear pink, Bibiana. Thats a
color for untried lasses. I daresay all Donals daughters will wear pink.
Shall I fetch the gold silk with the silver petticoat? You shall be like the
sun and the moon, all richness and glow.
Bibiana dropped the sapphire and pulled out a magnificent diamond
necklace. The stones caught the light, exploded it, cast it against the
walls in shards of every colorthe red of her lips, the dark blue of her
eyes, the pure gold of her hair . . . Yes, she said slowly. The gold silk. It
will dazzle them.
Terza folded her arms over her chest. Them? Or him?
Bibiana turned back to the mirror and fastened the diamonds around
her neck. All of them, she said, looking at her reflection. Satisfaction
made her purr.
She crossed to pour another goblet full of the dark brew, and sipped.
It had cooled, and was less pleasant, less vibrant as it slipped down her
throat. What is this? she demanded.
Terza was working the creases out of the golden gown, running the
shining fabric through her gnarled fingers. Swallows blood. There are
no larks this far north. Your hunter said it isnt the season for them
here. They call him the sealgair here, by the way. The Gaelic word for
huntsman was awkward on Terzas foreign tongue.
Bibiana poured the contents of the cup into the chamber pot. Then
have him bring doves or young owls.
The mirror drew her again. She was naked, save for the diamonds
and the ringan ancient crystal that absorbed and reflected the light.
She never took it off. She made a pretty picture indeed, and an enticing
one. She smoothed a hand over the firm globes of her breasts, which
were tipped with nipples as red and ripe as new summer berries, and
anticipated the wedding night. Would there be pleasure? Would she love
this man at last, or would he bore her like the rest? He wanted a son,
and that she would not give him. She was far beyond an age to bear
children, though hed never know. Terza would feed him with herbs and
brews to stoke his passion and blind him to all but lust. Bibiana would
ride him, exhaust him, and discard him. And when she was done, all he
had would be hers. Shed heard he was one of the most powerful men in
Scotland. But his daughters drew her here, and what she really wanted
was every last drop of their beauty and youth.
She let Terza help her into the gossamer silk shift embroidered with
feathers and wings and secret runes. She fastened her stockings with
jeweled garters. She held the bedpost as Terza pulled the strings of the
corset tight, pushing her breasts skyward. Then came the layers of
petticoats, the final one silver and white with a matching stomacher. She
waited as the graceful sleeves were looped up with silver ribbons to
reveal the silver lace beneath. Then came the gown, so shiny that it
made one squint even as their jaw dropped at the sheer opulence of it. It
floated down over her body, settled against her curves, caressing and
enhancing. It was a dress more suited to the grandeur of a European
Court, to Versailles, Venice, or Vienna, than to a dour Scottish warriors
stronghold. Theyd probably never seen such a lovely gown before, or
such a woman. This wedding would be a wonder theyd tell tales about
for a hundred years. They still spoke of her beauty in the halls of the
great palaces of Europe, in the sumptuous galleries shed graced over the
years. Shed felt the stares as she walked in those places, the admiration,
the envy, the lust . . . She longed to feel it again, even here amongst
Highland barbarians who were barely worthy to touch the shining hem
of her gown.
The mirror showed a goddess, and power and joy sang in her veins. It
was how a woman should feel on her wedding daylike shed won,
triumphed, conquered. She would outshine any woman. She was the
fairest of them all.
She sat before the glass as Terza piled her hair high on her head and
teased ringlets and curls into a beguiling setting for her flawless face.
She moved her head slightly. The diamond clips winked among her
golden locks. She glimmered and shone with every breath.
Terza grinned. Perfection.
Perfection indeed. Bibiana gazed at herself in the mirror. The image
of a mature woman at the height of her beauty and power, seductive and
glorious, looked back at her. Yes, shed dazzle every eye in the Fearsome
MacLeods dreary hall. No one would even want to look at any other
woman . . .
She stared into the mirror. I am fairest of all, she murmured to her
reflected glory.
There was a knock at the door. Bibiana nodded to Terza, and the old
servant went to open it.
In the mirror, Bibiana saw one of Donals daughters enter. She didnt
know which oneshe hadnt learned their names yet. Not that it
mattered.
The girl stepped into the room, and Bibiana watched her reflection
appear beside her own. She was young, fresh and sweet, as pure as new
snow, delicate as a rosebud. It was as if a beam of morning sun had
slipped into the room, soft and utterly perfect. She wore plain violet silk
simply trimmed with white lace and purple ribbons. For adornment,
only a silver locket on a ribbon hung around her neck. Not a single jewel
graced her appearance. But of course, she didnt need them.
Bibiana felt her stomach tighten, felt jealousy grow like a hard little
egg in her throat. Were all Donals daughters as beautiful as this one?
Her fingers tightened to claws on the edge of her dressing table, and
she hated this girl and all her sisters with pure, abiding rage. The girl
stared at Bibiana, dazzled for a moment. Her expression was uncertain,
her eyes darting over Bibianas golden gown and diamonds. Then she
dropped her gaze and dipped a curtsy.
Which one are you? Bibiana asked. The girl looked up again. Her
eyes were the color of violets.
Im Laire, my lady. Papa says the priest is ready, she said in a soft,
lilting tone, full of the Highlands. Devil take her, even her voice was
beautiful.
Bibiana didnt move. She stared at their side-by-side reflections in
the mirrormature beauty, power, and grace posed with untouched,
untried innocence. Her belly writhed and coiled, and she felt the urge to
spew Terzas potion, to rip the golden gown off her body, tear the
diamonds from her throat. She had not outdone the girl.
She couldnt.
The mirror never lied. The polished glass reflected only the truth.
Laire MacLeod was the fairest woman in the room.
CHAPTER ONE

Laire stood with her sisters as Bibiana entered the hall on Papas arm. It
was Tuesday, and on an ordinary Tuesday in early November, theyd be
washing the linens, repairing plaids and blankets, distributing winter
stores to the old and sickly members of the clan to see them through the
cold months ahead. All that would be done tomorrow, of course, but that
meant Wednesdays tasks would have to wait until Thursday. She felt an
anxious twitch in her chest and clasped her hands together tightly. She
hoped her new stepmother wouldnt change the routines, the traditions,
the little rituals at Glen Iolair, but they knew so little about her.
Papa had gone to Edinburgh on business, as he did several times a
year. But this time, on the date of his expected return, a letter had come
instead, announcing the happy news that he was bringing a bride and
directing his daughters to make ready for a grand wedding a fortnight
hence.
It had set the whole castle into a spin. Thered been days of
speculation about who the lady might be, and just how Papa had met her
and fallen in love so quickly. The haste of it made Laire uneasy, but Papa
had been married eight times before. If anyone recognized love at a
glance, it was Donal MacLeod.
Theyd known Papa would remarry eventually. He wanted a son to
become the next laird of Glen Iolair, the next Fearsome MacLeod. But
with twelve daughters and only two married and gone, their father had
despaired of any woman accepting his hand in marriage while the castle
was so full of females. Laire and her sisters had come to believe that
Papa intended to wait until a few more of his daughterssay eight or
nine of themwere wed before he married again.
The ladys stunning beauty when she arrived in the glen on Papas
arm, with three servants in tow, had been yet another surprise.
And now, on this happiest of days, Donals daughters sighed like an
autumn wind at the pride and joy in their fathers eyes as he entered
with his bride. He looked every inch the nervous bridegroom, though
this was his ninth wedding.
Shes beautiful, whispered Cait to her sisters.
And look at her gown, Meggie murmured.
Papas new bride glittered in the candlelight and the sharp shards of
light that emanated from her made people squint as she passed by. It
was impossible not to stare at her jewels, at the delicate embroidery that
covered her garments, at the youth and grace of the bride.
In Laires opinion, all that flashing sparkle made it impossible to see
her, the bride, the person behind the finery. Was she pleased to be
marrying Papa? Was she as in love as he was?
Papa looks so happy, Jennet sighed. How fortunate at his
advanced age to find such a lovely wife.
Laire frowned slightly. No, he wasnt getting any younger, but he
wasnt in his dotage. She felt the hope he carried in his breast, that this
time hed breed a fine, strong, strapping son. He had a son once, Laires
own twin, but the boy had died when he was only five. A misadventure,
they called it. A tragedy. Laire felt a twinge of guilt now, a familiar
companion. It had been all her fault . . . She bent to pick up her youngest
sister, Annie, who was five herself now, so she could see the bride better,
and held her tight.
Aileen, Laires eldest sister, dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief.
I wish wed had time to know her betterthis all seems so sudden. Papa
goes to Edinburgh twice a year, and hes never come back with anything
more exciting than ribbons and sweets before now.
And books, Gillian added.
And fine gowns, Meggie sighed.
He said it was love, Jennet whispered. Where did he say she was
from?
Italy, Isobel said. Her maidservant told me so.
Her manservant Rafael said Spain, Aileen said.
I understood it was Egypt, Gillian said. They all glanced at the bride
again, standing next to Papa, smiling as she received the congratulations
of the clan.
Her servants were passing among the MacLeods with trays of wine
instead of whisky, ready for toasting the happy couple.
Wherever shes from, shes beautiful. And rich. Meggie said taking
a glass of the deep red wine. Have you tasted the wine she brought? A
dozen casks of it have arrived already, with more to come. Her
maidservant mulls it with spices and herbs and secret things. Ive never
tasted anything so fine. She drank deeply and held up her glass to be
refilled, and Rafael filled it to the brim. Her eyes shone, and Isobel
giggled. So did Aileen, and Jennet . . . All her sisters were giggling.
Laire looked around the room. The whole clan was merry on the fine
wine. It was red as rubies and apparently as sweet and heady as the rich
autumn air.
You are not drinking, mademoiselle, Rafael said to her.
I drink only water, she said. He made a moue of disappointment
and held out a glass anyway. Take just a sip to wish the bride happy, he
said. Laire looked into the depths of the liquid. It was as dark as the loch
at night, and it smelled sweet, like spring flowers. But underlying the
fragrance was a dark, metallic tang that made Laire recoil. Rafaels
jaunty smile faded. Take the glass, mistress, he said, his eyes as hard
as pebbles, and Laire felt a chill sweep over her.
She took it and held it, but Annie grabbed it in her small hands and
drank deeply before Laire could stop her. Annie, no, she said, but
Meggie laughed.
Oh let her. What harm can it do? Shell fall asleep before shes had
more than two sips.
Annie squirmed to be released, and Laire set her down, watched her
dart through the crowd.
The noise in the hall rose as one toast followed another and the clan
celebrated. The wine flowed and cups were filled and refilled until
cheeks and eyes shone. Donal gestured to the pipers and the music
began, and folk danced with wild abandon. Laire backed out of the
onrushing stream of people and found a safe place by the wall. Still the
drink flowed, an unending river of it. Lads kissed lasses, and the lasses
kissed them back. Papa would never allow such impropriety in his hall,
but he was oblivious to all but his new bride. He hadnt taken his eyes
off her.
Laire supposed Bibianas servants thought it odd she didnt drink ale
or wine or whisky. They probably thought she didnt wish her father
happy, but she never drank anything but plain water. Not since her
brothers death. She did wish Papa happy . . . She looked around the hall
at her delighted clan and saw the last of Bibianas servants standing in
the shadows just as she was, outside the party, watching.
Bibiana had brought three servants. Terza was as old and lined as the
hills, but her black eyes were as sharp as a bodkin. The French
manservant, Rafael, was handsome, quick of wit, and as charming as
summer wine. It was his job to anticipate anything that Bibiana might
want, and provide it before she even had to ask.
But this man was most intriguing. He was simply called the hunter,
the sealgair, and by no other name. Laire looked at him from under her
lashes. He neither ate nor drank, and he hadnt dressed for the wedding,
but wore the same black leather hed worn since his arrival at Glen
Iolair. He was a man of few words, but when he did speak, it was with
the gruff brogue of a Highlander.
He was dangerously dark, long, and lean. His sword hung low on his
hip, and there was a dirk in his belt and another in his boot. Even in the
midst of such revelry and merriment, he looked like a hungry wolfa
predator coiled to strike. She swallowed and ran her hand along the side
of her skirt. She couldnt seem to look away. Was he dangerous?
He turned, and she felt the moment when his eyes met hers like a
touch. A jolt of surprise shot through her. His eyes stopped her breath,
arrested her, made her lips part in breathless surprise. They were as hard
and gray as polished metal. He was a bonny man, she noted, the
realization striking her like a whip and making him all the more
disconcerting. Her belly tensed, and her breath left her body. Slowly,
those clear gray eyes gaze moved over her, taking in her violet silk gown
and the locket at her throat. Awareness of him heightened every one of
her senses. She could feel the softness of the silk against her skin, smell
the damp stones of the wall beside her, hear her heart beating. It skipped
a beat as his eyes stopped on her lips. She watched his mouth tighten
slightly, saw his throat work. She flicked her tongue over her lips,
suddenly thirsty.
She forced herself to smile, to offer him a brief and polite welcome to
Glen Iolair, but he didnt smile back. He looked away to scan the crowd,
and she felt as if a candle had been snuffed out, leaving her in the dark.
She kept her eyes on him, waited for him to look back at her again, but
he did not.
He was watching Meggie, who was very merry, and Isobel, who was
tipsy and giggling, and sensible, steady, matronly Aileen, who glowed
under the effects of the potent wine. The sealgair looked away again,
frowning.
Laire felt an angry blush rise from her breasts to her hairline. What
right did this man, this servant, have to judge the MacLeods? It was
their lairds wedding, a joyous event indeed. There was nothing wrong
with a glass of wine or two. Or more.
She looked at him again, willed his eyes back to hers, and raised her
chin. He glanced at her again, a mere brush of his eyes before they
moved on. She sent him a sharp look to remind him that she and her
sisters were the daughters of the Fearsome MacLeod, while he was just
she paused. No. He was more than a servant, that was clear.
Something about the way he stood, the proud set of his head or the easy
lines of his body, told her that. But what was he otherwise?
He was alone, and he was a guestof sorts. She turned to take a glass
from Terzas tray, not for herself, but for him. Her hands shook a little,
anticipating what she would say and how it would feel to stand beside
him.
But when she looked up again, the shadows were empty. Bibianas
sealgair was gone.
CHAPTER TWO

Iain Lindsay pushed back the black hood that covered his head and
looked around the forest that surrounded Glen Iolair. He breathed in the
rich, pine-scented air of Scotland and let himself relax for a moment.
Hed missed Scotland, even though hed hardened his heart against ever
coming back to his homeland. It had been nearly seven years. Hed
missed the rocks and the hills, the purple of the heather, and the
unsurpassed blue of the sky more than hed known until this moment.
The air held the tang of the sea, the freshness of the mountains, and the
sweetness of the peat-rich earth. It was a perfume that was unique to the
Highlands of Scotland.
He frowned. Nay, it wasnt his home. Not anymore. He had no
country, no plaid, no clan, no home, and no name. He was the sealgair,
defined by his hunting skills and nothing more.
He closed his eyes and rubbed them, the brilliant yellow of the last
autumn leaves so bright they were almost painful to behold. Or perhaps
it was the long-forsaken emotion the sight of them stirred in him.
He had no right to such feelings. He was naught but a servant now,
and his job was to kill the birds Bibiana craved and play her bodyguard
when she required thatwhich wasnt often. Bibiana was a woman of
independent wealth, wit, and charm. She was no mans victim. Some
called her a witch, some a seductress. She took what she wanted, swiftly
and without mercy.
He turned his face up to the sun filtering through the trees. The air
was crisp and cold. It was early November, and he knew there wouldnt
be many more days like this one. Winter would soon close in on the
Highlands, and deep snow would lock the land in an icy grip. Cailleach,
the winter hag, would reign. But that witch had not met Bibiana . . .
It wouldnt snow today. Yellow leaves floated down around him like
forgiveness. But redemption was impossible. His heart was as black as
the clothing he wore, black as the dried blood on his sword and the
barbed tips of his arrows.
By spring, his sworn service to Bibiana would be done. She would try
to beguile him to stay, promise him his hearts desire if he remained
with her. He wondered now if that was why shed come to Scotlandto
remind him of who hed been, what hed been, and what he was now.
Ach, but this land was still part of his battered soul, for all his refusal
to say it aloud. Still, he wouldnt stay. When his contracted time was
done, hed go and disappear forever. But no matter where he went or
how far he ran, the memories, the sins, the terrible burden of guilt,
would stay with him.
His ears pricked at the soft snap of a twig, the rustle of a branch
being moved aside carefully. Not carefully enough. Someone was
following him.
It was the boy, no doubtthe half-grown son of a MacLeod clansman
who had begged to come hunting with him that morning. Hed offered to
saddle the horse, carry the weapons and snares, and bear home what the
sealgair killed. Hed made a fist, crooked his arm, and showed Iain the
strength of his wee muscles.
But Iain hunted alone, the way he did everything else.
For the moment, he ignored his stalker. He turned at the coo of a
wood dove, high in a tree. In one sleek motion he drew his bow, nocked
it, aimed, and shot the creature. It fell from the tree without a sound.
He crunched through the leaves to where it lay, its red blood staining
the soft gray feathers and the golden leaves. He frowned. Hed hit it
through the heart and killed it instantly. It was a mistake. Bibiana liked
the heart whole and undamaged, and the creatures suffering made the
meat spicier, sweeter. He pulled his arrow free and put the limp body
into the pouch at his hip anyway. He looked around for more birds, but
the woods had gone silent.
He blamed the boy and his clumsy attempt to follow him. A hunter
must be silent, stealthy, a shadow. If he were willing to teach the boy the
way hed been taught, hed tell him that, show him . . . but he wasnt
here for that. He was Bibianas servant, her thrall, and he had work to
do.
He fixed a ferocious scowl on his face and turned to the place he
knew the boy was hiding, just a dozen yards behind him, crouched low
behind a bush. He heard the intake of the lads breath, knew his heart
was beating fast. Good. He should be afraid.
Iain began to stride toward the undergrowth. He caught the glint of
an eye, the curve of a cheek. He heard a soft gasp, the sound of
movement, and the boy lifted his head to look at Iain fully, his eyes
widening in surprise. But the eyes were violet, vivid against the yellow
leaves, and surrounded by long dark lashes. He stopped in his tracks.
It wasnt the boyit was the lass. One of Donal MacLeods daughters,
the one whod watched him at the wedding feast, the beauty with the
lush lips and slender curves. Hed broken his own rule and looked at her,
stared, unwilling to look away as his body shook with craving for her,
with sorrow for her fate and disgust for himself. It had been a mistake,
that moment of connection. Hed always made it a point not to see
Bibianas victims, not to meet their eyes. But this lass had surprised him,
and once hed met her gentle gaze and set eyes on her half-parted lips
and her slim, perfect figure, he hadnt been able to look away. She had
pale, translucent skin, and shed blushed under his scrutiny. It was like
watching the sun rise over the mountains in winter. It had felt like a
blow to the gut, and his belly curled with the kind of male interest hed
thought long dead. Shed stolen his breath, just standing there. And her
eyeslike amethysts, or the wee violets that filled the woods at
Craigmyle in spring. For a long momenttoo longhe hadnt been able
to look away from the MacLeods daughter. He tried to recall how long it
had been since he looked into any womans eyes, felt desire stir. A
mistake indeed. Lust had been replaced with regret at the thought of
what Bibiana would do to the lass, what shed suffer.
He couldnt afford such thoughts. They were distracting and
dangerous. But still his heart kicked into a run, seeing her again here in
the wood. He should turn and walk away, but he didnt. He was curious.
Why did she follow him? Her sisters were no doubt still abed, well-dosed
with one of Terzas potionsperhaps the one that brought on lust-filled
dreams and made them sigh and quiver in their sleep, their young,
perfect bodies rousing with desire and yearning.
Did this lass lust for him? He deepened his scowl.
He didnt know her name, and he didnt want to.
A sudden movement above the lasss hiding place made him look up.
Another bird. He raised his bow again, shot the bird off the branch a
scant yard over her head. She made a soft squeak of surprise as the bird
dropped to the ground in front of her. It was alive still and thrashing, its
beak wide with shock, the obsidian eyes fixed on the lass as it gasped in
pain.
Iain stepped forward and snatched up the bird. He turned away from
the girl and wrung its neck, breaking the rules and ending the creatures
suffering quickly. He felt a moments shame that shed had to witness
the birds death. He didnt look to see if there was sorrow in her violet
eyes, or anger, or horror, though he felt those eyes on his back like the
point of a dirk.
He felt a hot surge of fury. No doubt she was innocent, pure, used to
being protected by her clan. Well, her father would protect her no more.
Bibiana had pulled the teeth of the Fearsome MacLeod and he was her
creature now, docile as a lapdog. Her bed and her body would be all
Donal MacLeod would think about, all hed want, until shed done with
him. Shed fuck him, drug him, and leave him broken, empty, and
demented, the way shed left so many other men.
He turned back to the girl, intending to tell her she was a fool and
frighten her until she fled from him. But shed risen to her feet. There
were golden leaves and twigs tangled in her dark braid. She stood staring
at him in stunned silence, her eyes wide, her pink lips half open in
surprise. She had a full, lush mouth that made him imagine kissing her,
doing more than that, and his angry words died in his throat as lust rose
in a hot, unexpected rush. His tongue fixed itself to the roof of his
mouth, and his chest tightened. Iain felt the shock of awareness and lust
go through him again.
There was a wee drop of the birds blood on her cheek.
Instead of yelling he crossed the distance between themfive strides,
no more than that.
He took off his glove and raised his hand. Her eyes held his. This
close, he could see a whirlpool of colors in their violet depthsindigo,
copper, and blue. She was unsure, but not afraid. As a hunter, and
Bibianas servant, he knew the scent of fear, but the MacLeods daughter
smelled of nothing more than heather, fresh air, and clean, soft wool. He
reached out and touched her face. She was so soft, so warm, despite the
chill of the day. She gasped as his thumb brushed over her cheek and
swiped the blood away in a single quick stroke, and that feminine little
noise shot straight through him. Awareness rose higher, became
interest, grew dangerous and delicious, and turned to temptation. She
cast her own spell, he thought, and where he was oblivious to other
women, this one was somehow different. He felt a shiver run though his
limbs. He knew he should go, move away from her, but he stood where
he was, staring.
She was as slender as a willow, and he towered over her. That made
him aware of his own size, his power. He could snap her in half with just
one handwhy wasnt she afraid? She was still staring at him, silent and
curious, and he felt the effect of those violet eyes all the way to his
knees. Hed made a second mistakehe shouldnt have touched her, not
even that wee, abrupt swipe of his thumb. His hand still tingled. He felt
the birds blood cooling on his skin, but he couldnt tear his eyes from
hers. He wanted to reach out again, soothe her, warn her . . . kiss her.
He swallowed and forced himself to step back, put a strides distance
between them. When last had a woman trusted him, looked at him as
anything but a monster? This woman was far too trusting. Fool. He let
his lip curl, scowled at her.
Her face paled, but she simply stood waiting, expecting him to speak
to her.
The words gathered in his throat, fury, rage, warning. But they stuck
there. What was he afraid oftears, terror? Hed seen those aplenty. He
had been the cause of them.
It isnt safe in the woods. Go home, he said instead in a low growl.
His hand tightened into a fist, trying to force away the memory of the
feel of her, the sweetness, but it wouldnt go. He wanted more. He
wanted to run his thumb over her lush lower lip, draw her in, find
salvation . . . It was too late. He was already damned.
She didnt move, didnt flee screaming into the trees, so he turned
and walked away from her, striding into the wood with the dead bird still
in his hand. And as he went, he could feel those violet eyes watching
him, piercing his leather jack and searing his flesh.
And all he could think was how soft her cheek felt.
CHAPTER THREE

Ohh . . . Laire watched the sealgair walk away from her until he was
swallowed by the shadows between the trees. He disappeared as if hed
never been there at all, the black of his garments becoming one with the
dark places of the wood.
Once he was gone, the birds began to sing again.
She let out the breath she hadnt known she was holding and dragged
air into her lungs. Her limbs shook. Shed thought she was alone, hadnt
even known he was there until she looked up and saw him through the
foliage.
Shed happened upon him by accident. Shed been focused on finding
hazelnuts when she noticed him standing in the clearing, big and black
among the golden trees. Shed been so surprised she dropped the basket
she was carrying. Shed stopped and stayed where she was, just outside
the patch of sunlight he occupied, and watched him, wary of the stranger
the very strange stranger. Hed thrown back his black hood. She hadnt
missed the pleasure in his eyes as he lifted his face to the sun and
breathed in the perfume of the autumn woods around him. Shes taken
in his every detail. His big hands and broad shoulders, the lean, powerful
length of his body. He had looked up at the golden leaves and almost
smiled. Waiting for that smile, expecting it, wanting it, had stopped her
breath and made her heart kick. The look of pleasure had faded before it
ripened, but under his gruff, dangerous, forbidding exterior, shed
glimpsed itthe sealgair was human after all. Then his handsome face
had hardened. In one swift, lithe motion, he shot a bird, and she flinched
as she watched him pick it up, tear his arrow free, and stuff the wee
corpse into the pouch at his hip. It was a practiced, easy gesture, without
a moments remorse for the life hed taken. She wondered how many
creatures hed killed, and felt a shiver rush along her spine.
Then hed turned and scanned the woods. She waited for his eyes to
find her, and she knew they would. She kept still, anticipating and
dreading the moment. Her throat closed when his eyes met hers. She
read surprise in the gray depths for an instant, but then it was gone.
How long did they stare at each other? Long enough for her to note that
his hair was dark red, not black and his eyes were as cold as sea ice. His
nose was long and large, his mouth well shaped. The bones under his
tanned skin were well made, creating an intensely masculine, starkly
handsome face. In those seconds, it felt as if he took up all the air, didnt
leave enough for her to breathe. It wasnt fear she feltit was something
else entirely, something unfamiliar. It made her intensely aware of her
own body, and his.
Her heart stopped in her throat when he took aim and fired at her.
She heard the whistle of the arrow spinning toward her; saw the sun
glint on the white fletching and the merciless steel barb. Shed been
surprised when it struck the bird above her instead of burying itself
between her eyes.
Hed turned away so she wouldnt see him wring the doves neck. She
recognized the kindness, the chivalryor was it shame?
Now that hed gone, she put her fingertips to her cheek. His hand had
been warm and gentle, his touch a mere flick of his thumb, an instant,
casual, offhand gesture. More kindness. Or an apology, perhaps, for the
dove.
She shivered. Hed been bloody toohis hand, his chin, but she
hadnt thought to wipe it away, hadnt dared to touch him. Shed been
frozen there, standing beside the shadow of his body, aware of the scent
of him, the creak of his leather jacket as he breathed. She saw the black
center of his eyes kindle, saw his jaw tighten, and wondered if he would
step closer, touch her again, kiss her. Instead he looked away, angrier
still, but she felt no fear. He wouldnt hurt her. Or perhaps he woulda
quick twist of her neck, an arrow nocked and aimed for her heart . . . Her
belly tensed and she felt the chill of the day drop away, leaving only heat
and anticipation. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth.
Hed stepped back in one long stride, his feet near silent in deerskin
boots. The curiosity was gone, and the expression in his eyes warned her
to keep away, as if she was somehow a threat to him.
It isnt safe in the woods. Go home.
Shed stood like a ninny, staring at him, unable to say a word. Did he
expect her to speak, to remind him that these were her fathers woods,
and that she had nothing to fear? But she realized that she was afraid.
She clasped her arms around her body. Still she didnt flee.
His mouth was a slash of annoyance and confusion as he turned to
leave her. She had the sense that he was the one fleeing, restraining
some dangerous impulse she didnt understand.
She took another deep breath to restore her composure and looked
down at the overturned basket at her feet. Hazelnuts had spilled over the
carpet of leaves, and she bent to pick them up. One had a drop of blood
on it, and she tossed it away and rubbed her hand along her skirt.
What would Meggie or Aileen or any of her other sisters have done if
they were here? They should have been. They gathered the last of the
hazelnuts together on this day every year, spending the day gossiping
and collecting as many pretty leaves as nuts. Jennet knew the best
thickets, where the trees bent double under the weight of their crop.
Theyd shake them down onto a blanket and fill their baskets, taking
care to leave plenty for the birds and squirrels.
If her bold sisters had been here, they would have told the sealgair to
go seek his prey elsewhere and sent him on his way. They wouldnt be
trembling from the encounter, their hearts thumping like caged birds in
their breasts, their cheeks tingling from a simple touch. He was just a
servant, after all. Her hands shook, and she spilled as many nuts as she
managed to pick up.
But her sisters couldnt be roused this morning. Theyd grumbled and
thrown pillows at her when shed tried to wake them, ready with the
baskets and blankets. They hadnt wanted to come and pick hazelnuts. It
shouldnt have surprised Laire.
How many nights since the wedding had her sisters stayed up late,
dancing and enjoying cup after cup of Bibianas sweet red wine? Before
their new stepmothers arrival, her sisters rose with the sun. Now, they
lay abed until noon.
Laire hadnt touched the wine. Not a single drop. The dark red color
reminded her of blood, and the accidental poison that had killed her twin
brotherPapas prized, beloved son. Lachlans death had made her
afraid of so many things. Poison, wine, bloody meats . . . And the dark,
most of all. The things you loved were too easily stolen in the dark. She
slept with a candle beside her bed to push the shadows back, keep
unseen terrors at bay. By day, she followed a strict routine, keeping all in
its place, watching over her family, trying to be useful. Not as useful as a
son, of course . . .
Tears blurred her vision.
A cold gust of wind stirred the dry leaves, making them skitter and
dance. It caught at her hair, tugged long tendrils loose from her braid.
The branches of the trees creaked, keening a mournful cry for the
passing of the soft days of summer.
Laire counted the nuts as she dropped them back into the basket.
There werent enough to see them through the whole winter, and they
were Papas favorite. She frowned and glanced at the gray clouds that
were scudding across the sky, warning that it would snow soonwithin
weeks, or even days. She imagined the sealgair in his black garb against
the white snow. No one would happen upon him accidentally then.
Go home, hed said. The woods are not safe . . . Hed said it in Gaelic,
with a perfect brogue. He belonged here, a Highlander, just as she was.
One of her own kind, yet distant and different and dangerous.
He was wrong. How could the wood not be safe? This was her home.
Shed grown up here, played among these trees as a child, knew every
hill and rock. She was as safe here as she was in her own bed. But bad
things happened, even in the safe haven of a warm bed, in the dark . . .
She looked around, felt unseen eyes upon her and a creep in her spine
that had never been there before.
The soft sound above her made her flinch, and she looked up.
Another dove huddled on the branch, feathers fluffed. It stared down at
her with soft black eyes.
Laires tender heart cracked. The dead birds matehe had sacrificed
himself for her, given his life to the hunter to protect her. She read
sorrow in the creatures dark eyes.
Gently Laire reached up and closed her hands around the doves gray
body. She felt the quick heartbeat under her palms, the quiver of fear,
but the bird went still, resigned to her fate. Laire placed it gently into the
basket on top of the hazelnuts and covered it with a fold of her plaid.
You wont have to spend the winter alone, wee one, she said. No
one should spend the winter alone.
Go home. The woods arent safe . . .
Laire put the basket over her arm, lifted her skirts clear of the leaves,
and hurried back toward the familiar safety of her fathers castle.
CHAPTER FOUR

For thirty years, Ada MacLeod had ruled the kitchen at Glen Iolair. But
she wasnt in her usual place by the fire when Laire entered. It was Terza
who looked up from where she was stirring something over the heat.
The flames lit the deep lines and fissures of her face, and the suspicious
glint in her dark eyes. You startled me, she said accusingly. Which one
are you?
Laire, she said, feeling startled herself. She tore her eyes away from
the old woman and looked around the kitchen. The familiar room was
dark and bare, the noisy mix of lounging cats and busy people missing.
Usually the room smelled of fresh bread and warm stew, and Ada held
court, her sleeves rolled to the elbow. Laire couldnt remember when
shed entered the kitchens without finding Ada. But today she wasnt
here. Laires eyes fell on a pile of dead birds waiting on the table for their
turn in the pot. She swallowed pity for the bloody little corpses, the
splayed wings, the glazed, staring eyes and open beaks. She hugged the
basket tighter to her chest, kept her plaid over it, hiding the sight from
the dove inside.
Wheres Ada?
Terza picked up a knife and cut one of the birds in half. She scooped
it up and dropped it into the pot. Gone.
Laire felt a shiver of shock. Gone? Where? Ada would never go, not
without a tearful parting. She was as much a part of Glen Iolair as the
stones of the keep, the water in the loch, the ancient hills. Ada had
nursed her and all of her sisters, taken them under her wing when their
mothers died. Ada was Glen Iolairs cook, the healer, and the lasses
confidant. How could she be gone? Unless . . . An uneasy feeling made
Laires belly roll.
How should I know where she went? Terza said. Bibiana is
particular about her meals and likes the way I cook them. Her sharp
dark eyes stopped on the basket in Laires arms. What have you got
there?
Hazelnuts, Laire said.
The dove chose that moment to shy inside the basket and let out a
soft coo. Terzas eyes brightened with curiosity. And a dove, Laire
added, forced to admit there was something alive in the basket. I
thought Ada might help . . . She paused as Terza dropped the dead bird
in her hand and came around the table, looking eager. No, not eager
avid. The old woman flicked her tongue over her lips.
A dove? Is it alive? Afraid?
Laire hugged the basket tighter and sidestepped before Terza could
look. She made for the stillroom at the back of the kitchen.
Theres a cage in the stillroom. My sister, Fia, kept wild things in it
when they needed healing. Ada as well. Ill put the dove in the cage and
keep her until spring, she babbled, her heart thumping.
Spring! Terza followed her. Her gnarled fingers touched the plaid
covering the bird, and Laire saw a smear of blood on the fabric. Inside,
the bird shifted and flapped. Laire resisted the urge to draw away.
Bibianas servant smelled of bitter herbs, smoke, and sweat, and there
was something dark and metallic, too, something that made Laires nose
quiver, and her heart beat faster. She switched the basket to the other
arm, further away from Terza.
Perhaps Ill release her sooner, let her fly away south. She stopped
in the doorway of the stillroom and looked around in surprise.
It had changed since she was last here. Fias simple clay pots had
been replaced by dark-glass jars and bottles, and caskets and boxes made
of exotic wood and painted leather. The recognizable bundles of herbs
were gone and dark roots had taken their place, hairy and ugly. A sharp,
unfamiliar scent filled the room. The shutters, always open to admit the
breeze, were shut tight.
Laires gaze fell on a large bowl on the table. It was made of brass,
the lip and sides chased with silver, carved with runes and symbols. The
contents of the vessel were deep red, like wine. Or blood. The surface
glittered, and it smelled sweet and exotic. She leaned closer, her lips
parting. Shapes moved under the surface, gathered, pulsed . . .
Terza threw a cloth over the bowl.
Laire drew a breath and swallowed hard. She crossed to where the
collection of willow cages hung from the rafters, putting the width of the
oak table between herself and Terza.
Terza. Laire heard Rafaels voice in the doorway. Terza waved a
hand to silence him. His dark eyes met Laires, and his brows lifted with
interest. A smile quirked his lips sideways.
Ah, you have company. And in the stillroom. Nothing amiss, I
hope? he said to Terza.
Shes got a bird, a dove, in her basket, Terza said.
Rafaels brows rose, and the smile deepened to delight. A dove? Oh,
the lady will like that. Theyre her favorite
It isnt a gift. She means to let it go free, Terza interrupted sharply.
Rafael looked at the old woman, said something soft in a foreign
language Laire didnt understand. It made the old woman cackle. Laire
felt a lump form in her throat. Rafael turned to her again and held out
an elegant hand. May I look? he asked mildly.
The cage hung above her, but shed have to set the basket down and
use both hands to unhook it. She bit her lip, but Rafael was already there
beside her. He reached for the cage, coming so close his face was just
inches from hers. She stepped back and hit a shelf behind her. The
Frenchman set the cage on the floor and stood directly in front of her.
Holding her gaze, he reached out and flicked the plaid back, exposing the
bird.
He chuckled. Wonderful! he said. His French accent made the word
a soft purr. He reached into the basket, but the bird skittered backward
and pecked at his hand. Laire pulled away, and he looked up at her, his
smile fading. His gaze slid over her like oil.
A fine bird indeed, he whispered. If I were you, Id keep it
somewhere safe, out of reach of predators. Have you such a place?
IIll keep it in my chamber, Laire said, unwilling to leave the bird
here, now, in the care of these servants. She thought of the bird the
sealgair shot, the featherless bodies on the kitchen table.
In your chamber? Rafael smiled at her, his teeth gleaming. Bon.
She didnt smile back, couldnt.
He came a step closer to her, though he was close enough already.
She clung to the basket, sent him a fierce look of warning, which he
ignored. He put his hand under her chin and scanned her face. His
thumb brushed over her cheek, an intimate, overbold, unwanted caress.
Rafaels hands were cold and as smooth and soft as her own. The
sealgairs hands were warm, his skin work-roughened. Yet his touch
hadnt frightened her, made her flesh creep the way it did now.
She pulled out of the Frenchmans grip, felt anger flare. How dare
you? she said, warning him back with a fierce glare. He was a servant,
and she was the daughter of his master.
He stepped back, but laughed softly. I thought you looked ill. But
perhaps you are merely chilled, mistress?
Laire, Terza supplied her name.
Laire, Rafael purred, drawing the word out. Such a pretty name.
He turned to Terza. Perhaps a posset to warm her?
Terza grinned. Aye.
Rafael looked at her with a mischievous smile, and for a moment,
Laire thought he meant to kiss her. She bent quickly, opened the door of
the cage with shaking fingers. She lifted the dove gently out of the
basket and set her into the cage. She rose with the cage in her arms, a
barrier between herself and Rafael. The bird fluttered, moved to the side
of the cage that lay against Laires breast, away from the servant.
She moved to leave the room, but Terza returned, holding a steaming
cup in her hand. She set it on the table and crossed to pluck a blue glass
bottle off the shelf. She uncorked it with her teeth and carefully added a
few drops of the contents to the cup. The hot liquid hissed. She picked it
up again and approached Laire, stood beside Rafael, blocking Laires exit.
Its naught but something to warm you and soothe you, she said in
a soft voice. She held it out. The sweet fragrance was beguiling, and
Laires mouth watered. She could smell cinnamon, and ripe fruit, and
something green and tantalizing.
Laire stared at the cup without moving. Rafael made a soft sound of
disapproval and took the goblet from Terza. He came closer and held it
under Laires nose. A sip, he coaxed. Did your nurse never make you
possets as a child? Terza makes them for Bibiana all the time. Terza has
tended princesses in her day, you know, and all kinds of ladies of
nervous disposition. It is delicious, full of honey and fruit, lightly spiced
. . .
Laire looked into the depths of the cup, saw colors swirl. The liquid
reflected nothing terrifyingit was just her own face, her wide eyes.
She remembered another cup, sweet fruit juice stirred with a
handful of leaves, berries, and flowers, a bright summer day, a childs
game that turned deadly . . .
Laire felt her gorge rise and her heartbeat quicken. Her hands
tightened on the cage. ImIm not thirsty.
She raised her chin. She told herself she had nothing to fear. These
were only servants after all. She put on her bravest faceMeggies
knowing squint, Aileens haughty manner. Move aside, she
commanded.
Rafael pouted his lower lip. A sip, he insisted, coming closer still.
He cupped her chin again, held the cup to her lips, tipped it. She felt the
warm liquid slosh against her mouth and chin, and the intoxicating
fragrance enveloped her. She turned her head away, pushed him, and
fled. He gasped as the posset splashed on his arm, stained his fine linen
shirt. She accidentally kicked the basket at her feet, and the hazelnuts
skittered across the stone floor. She didnt stop. With the cage in her
arms, she hurried through the kitchen, past the bubbling pot and the
bloody birds, and ran up the steps.
She didnt stop until she reached the safety of her chamber and shut
the door behind her.
She ran her tongue over her lips, tasted the heady, perfumed
sweetness of the drink on her skin, and swallowed. She poured water
into the washbasin and rubbed at her mouth, but the taste of the posset
lingered on her tongue, crept down her throat to her belly. She felt as if a
mist had invaded her limbs, made them soften and grow warm. The
room dimmed, yet colors grew more vibrantthe embroidered purple
flowers on the brocade bed curtains seemed to bloom before her very
eyes. The vines behind them swelled and popped with new buds and
leaves, which faded and fell away to leave the vines brown and dry. Laire
gasped, blinked, but the world spun. She was dizzy. She set the caged
bird on the bed, fell beside it and closed her eyes.

She was in the woods, running headlong through the trees. The day had
darkened, and a storm rolled in over the horizon. The trees tossed their
branches mournfully. Twigs caught at her, scratched her face, and tore
at her clothes. Birds fled, fighting the wind, and foxes, deer, and rabbits
raced with her, seeking sanctuary.
Laire called out for help, for Papa, for her sisters, for Ada, but the
wind snatched her voice away. She looked around desperately. Where
were her sisters? Where were the clansmen whose duty it was to find
her, protect her, carry her to safety? She was entirely alone.
No, not alone. Rafael was here, whispering in her ear. Come little
one. There is no need to be afraid, he said in French. She couldnt flee.
Her legs didnt work. The wind blew her hair across her eyes, and she
couldnt see. Her plaid swirled around her, tightened against her throat,
choking her, and she fought for air, tried to tear the clinging cloth
away, but the wind held it in place. She opened her mouth to scream,
but the sound died in her throat as an arrow buried itself deep in the
tree beside her face. The sealgair was here.
She couldnt see him amid the trees. Terror gripped her. She lifted
her skirts and ran on, deep into the woods, through darkness was
falling, and the storm was coming closer . . . Terrible things happened in
the dark. She needed shelter, safety. Somewhere a dove cried in panic,
and she heard the beat of wings, smelled the creatures panic.
The gale tore up the trees by their roots, they fell all around her, and
still she ran. Her fathers castle was ahead, but she couldnt reach it. The
wind tore away the MacLeod banner, ripped stones from the tower,
tossed them into the loch . . . Ravens drove her back, circled overhead,
swooped down at her, coming in upon the storm. They plucked at her
hair with their sharp beaks, tore at her clothes, her face. She screamed
and ran the other way, but they followed, and soon she was lost, far
from home with no way to get back. Then Bibiana rose from the leaves,
resplendent in gold. She reached out a hand, but Laire recoiled, and her
stepmothers fingers shrank and withered until they were nothing more
than the dry branches of a tree, naked and sharp.
Look. The bony branches pointed, and Laire struggled to her feet,
following the point. In the distance, Glen Iolair stood before her, dry
and dead, the castle a ruin, the loch black as night. It was gone, all gone
. . .
Laire woke screaming, but no one came to her aid. She could still
taste the sweetness of the posset on her tongue, craved more. She turned
her head on the pillow. The cage still lay beside her, but the door was
open and the dove was gone.
CHAPTER FIVE

Bibiana watched her stepdaughters dance. They were young, lissome,


and lovely, their cheeks flushed, their eyes bright. She licked her lips.
She did love giving joy and pleasurealmost as much as she enjoyed
taking it. Her manicured fingers tightened on the stem of her own glass
for a moment as she watched them drink the spiced wine. A thrill of
power rushed through her, stronger and truer than any potion.
She glanced at Donal. He paid no attention to his daughters. He
couldnt take his eyes off her, could barely keep his hands to himself. He
was utterly besotted. She smiled at him, her eyes heavy-lidded with
sexual promise. Donals pupils widened to blot out the color of his eyes,
and he reached for her though hed left her bed well satisfied not two
hours earlier. She turned away, left him panting with lust. He was a good
man, and his clan loved him. He was feared by his enemies and
respected by his allies. He was wealthy, elegant, and clever. He simply
had the misfortune of having twelve lovely daughters. It would be the
ruin of him. She smiled at him, and he chuckled, deeply in love. Bibiana
turned good men like Donal into useful men. She offered them a taste of
their darkest desires, and most couldnt resist. She discovered what they
wanted and dangled it in front of them like a carrot. Donal wanted a son,
and the pleasure of getting it. Shed promised him that. She had no
intention of making good on that promise. Soon, he wouldnt mind. Hed
be dazed by lust, drugged, and he would forget all else but rutting, and
the terrible craving for the potion . . .
It was always that wayit worked with every man she wanted.
Except one.
She looked at Iain Lindsay, standing by the door watching the
dancing dispassionately. He was the hardest man shed ever met, carved
from the very granite of this harsh, cold land. Her huntsman, her
sealgair, as he called himself. Shed seen the desire in him from the
moment she set eyes on him, the obsession with one lass, a woman he
could not havenot her, but a milk-and-water miss who was unworthy
of a man like Iain. Bibiana had beguiled him, tricked him. She thought
she had him and could bring him to heel, control him.
But shed underestimated him. His honor was stronger than lust.
She drew circles on the tablecloth with the sharp point of her
fingernail. It was regrettable, but it didnt matter. Shed turned his honor
to something dark, and used it against him. Shed won in the end, and he
served her out of guilt and obligation. She let her gaze roam over the
lean length of his hard body, the broad shoulders, strong arms, long legs,
his cold eyes.
Had she killed any emotion, any love or kindness in his soul? He was
better off without such things. Not that his feelings mattered to Bibiana,
as long as he did what he was told. And he did, without question. He had
secrets he thought she didnt know about. Still, his disapproval, his self-
loathing, made her grit her teeth. At least he didnt blame her. He
blamed himself and the moment of weakness that had brought him so
low he could never go home again.
He was handsome, in a hard way. Hed be rough and dangerous in
bedexciting, demanding. She felt a flush rise over her breasts and
tighten her nipples. Her sealgair wasnt affected by her beauty the way
other men were. Perhaps he still pined for the insipid chit who had
chosen his brother over him, or perhaps it was regret that unmanned
him. Shed never seen him with a womana living onein all the seven
years shed known him. She stroked a lock of her golden hair, imagined
it rusty red. She could make him believe she was someone else if she
wished, bring him to her bed, have him in all the ways she wanted him.
Her fingers tightened on the linen tablecloth, picturing him gloriously
naked, his hard body poised above her . . .
She forced herself to loosen her grip, sighed, and sipped her wine.
No, there were better ways to bind the huntsman to her. She knew his
weakness, his secret. It was her trump card. Shed been saving it all
these years for the moment she needed it most. But he was loyal to a
fault. Shed taken everything from himalmostand hed had no other
choice but to devote himself to her. Still, she wouldnt hesitate to take
more.
The moment his love had breathed her last, dying in treachery and
sin, hed ceased to be Iain Lindsay. Hed cast off his plaid, left his
holding and his clan. The terrible look in his eyes, all the pain and guilt
and self-loathing, had told her she had him from that moment . . . all
hers. She preened now, in Donals hall. See? She always knew how to
play a man to get what she wanted from him. But Iains anguish had
died, replaced by silent rage and hatred. For her.
She watched his face now, so hard and cold, though he was
surrounded by beauty, light, and merriment. He was utterly alone,
separate. He enjoyed none of the pleasures she offered himnot wine,
or gold, or woman.
She wished hed at least smile now and then. His bond to her wasnt
forever. Shed been quite reasonable and had only asked for seven years
in payment for her help.
He had less than a twelvemonth to go. Mere months.
But then, when spring came to this bleak, miserable land, hed know
no other life. Hed be hers, and hed stay forever. She smiled quietly and
sipped her wine, let the rich sweetness flow down her throat. She reveled
in the dark aftertaste, felt it sing in her veins. She felt the bloom fill her
cheeks, quicken in her breasts, her womb, her limbs. She parted her lips
and sighed with pleasure, and Donal squeezed her knee urgently. She
caressed his hand playfully.
You must wait, my love, she whispered in a low, smoky voice. He
took her hand, put it on the hard jut that tented his kilt.
Does it appear to ye that I want to wait, wife?
She laughed, gripped him, teased until he groaned, his cock harder
still. Have more wine, she said, beckoning Terza, who filled the lairds
cup to the brim. She made sure he drank deeply, watched his eyes glaze.
Bibiana turned to look again at Donals lovely daughters. Most were
even virgins, the very essence of youth and beauty. Sweet, untried
perfectionand that force was hers to control. Come spring, when they
were ripe and ready, shed feast.
She lifted her glass to her lips once more, not to drink, but to admire
her reflection in the wine, the beauty of her own face, as young and
lovely as any girls, the fairest of them all . . .
But then the door opened and Laire stood in the portal, her dark hair
unbound, her eyes wide hollows of shock. Bibiana set the cup down
again and waited.
Laire looked around her fathers hall. The lingering effects of her
nightmare made her feel jittery, fearful, sleepy. Her stomach was
knotted tight, and her hands shook. The hall was as full of merriment as
if it had been on Papas wedding day. Her sisters danced and laughed
with abandon while Papa stared at his bride, bewitched. She willed him
to raise his eyes and look at her, to see, but he continued to smile at
Bibiana as if they were alone.
Her sisters wore their finest gownsbrocades and silks and velvets, a
rainbow of whirling color in the gray stone hall. Snowflakes seemed to
fill the air, floating around the dancers, catching the light.
Nay, it wasnt snow. It was hundreds of soft white feathers. How odd
Then she looked more closely at her sisters. Isobels red gown was
trimmed with swansdown at the bodice and hem. Cait wore blue
feathers in her hair. Meggie wore a collar of glossy black feathers. The
rest wore gray feathers, the plumage of a dove . . .
Laires throat closed in horror.
Papa . . . She plunged into the crowd and moved toward her father.

Bibiana saw the girl coming, her eyes bright with unshed tears, her brow
furrowed. Her eyes were clear, not glazed by the potion. She looked at
the happy sight of her sisters and clansmen with dismay, trembling.
Bibiana felt her belly tighten. The girl could ruin everything.
She summoned Terza and nodded to Rafael, then turned back to
watch the girl. She had a sweet face, but it was as pale as snow. She had
wide, luminous eyes and the kind of lush mouth that made men dream
of sex and sin. Her eyes were on Donal, fierce and determined.
Bibiana felt her smile falter. She recognized Laire MacLeod, the
family beauty, the fairest of them all. She was also a flaw in Bibianas
plan, a problem.
In a moment shed reach Donal, make a scene, tell him there was
something wrong with the joy Bibiana had brought to Glen Iolair. He
may not see it now, blinded by drink and lust, but later he might wake in
the dark and remember his daughters plea and wonder . . . Bibiana felt
irritation make her sweat. Did an untried, sheltered, foolish child think
she could outwit her? This had to nipped in the bud, snuffed out, at
once. Laire had to drink, be forced if necessary.
Where the devil was Terza? She was slow coming forward with the
cup . . . and the girl had almost reached her fathers side. Once Laire
drank the potionjust one cup, one small sipshed be dancing with her
sisters, as happy as a lark, her worries, fears, and suspicions all
vanquished. What was taking the old woman so long? But it was too late.
Laire was reaching for her fathers hand.

Papa? Laire put her hand on her fathers arm and shook him gently
when he didnt immediately turn. He looked up at her, his eyes bleary.
His brow furrowed as if he couldnt quite recall who she was. Its Laire,
Papa, she reminded him.
His brow cleared, and he took her hand. Ach, of course ye are. Laire.
Come and sit down, lass.
Yes, do join us, Bibiana said, smiling brightly, though her eyes
remained as cold as an empty hearth. Laire swallowed, her belly coiling.
Terza reached the table with a cup of wine in her hands and passed it
to Bibiana. Her stepmother held it out to Laire. Have some wine, she
said, her voice hard-edged with command.
Laire glanced at the cup her stepmother held out to her. She
remembered the sweetness, the exotic scent, knew how tempting it was,
but she tore her gaze away. Im not thirsty. Papa, I had the most terrible
dream . . .
But Bibiana gripped Donals other arm, distracting him. Donal, my
love, convince her to toast to our happiness, she purred.
Papa turned to his new wife, his eyes hot. Laire could feel the rapid
beat of his pulse.
Papa, wheres Ada?
He looked at her fully then. Ada? Why do you ask, lass? Are ye
feeling poorly? he reached out and laid his palm on her forehead, the
way he used to do, checking for fever. Laire closed her eyes, enjoyed the
first affectionate touch hed bestowed on her in the days since hed wed
Bibiana. She put her hand over his, felt tears welling, and he clasped her
hand in his own. Och, now. Dont take on so. Ill ask Bibi to fix ye a
draught to make ye better.
Laire didnt dare glance at her stepmother. Perhaps we can go out,
walk in the hills she began, but Bibiana laughed, and her fathers
attention swung.
Its dark outside, Laire, Bibiana said.
Tomorrow, then, Laire said, squeezing her fathers hand, tugging on
it, but Bibiana smiled at her husband and leaned in for a long, lingering
kiss.
Papa? Laire said, barely able to breathe.
Isnt your new stepmother bonny, Laire? her father asked. Shell
bear me sons, fine strapping lads to follow after me, braw lads to wield
my great claymore in battle. The long line of MacLeods of Iolair will not
end with me.
Laire felt a twinge of guilt. Shes very lovely, Papa but
Shes the fairest woman Ive ever set eyes onand Ive been wed
eight times before.
I know, Papa, Laire said. Will you eat some bread and cheese,
drink some water?
He looked at the fare before him and frowned. Nay. Bring me more
of the spiced wine. I like it better than ale, or even whisky.
Bibiana took the pitcher from Terza and filled her husbands cup
herself. Donal drank deeply.
He winked at Laire. Bibiana says it gives a bridegroom fortitude. He
blushed slightly, tried to focus his bleary gaze on her. Though thats not
for your tender ears. Youd like a wee brother, though, would ye not?
Aye, of course, she said.
Let us toast to it, Bibiana said. She pressed a cup of wine into
Laires hands. Youll drink with us, wont you Laire? To our happiness?

Iain watched as the violet-eyed lass entered the hall. He felt the same
leap in his chest, the same tightening of his body that hed felt in the
wood. But then he saw the grim dread in her eyes, in every line of her
slender body, and felt his gut tense. She wasnt drugged.
Now why was that? She was as sober as he was, her eyes wary, her
face pale rather than flushed. She was more afraid now than shed been
in the wood, with him. Clever lass . . . Iain felt a moments panic. He
very nearly grabbed her arm as she passed by him, intent on whispering
a warning, sending her away, but he slid a sideways glance at the head
table, saw it was already too late. Bibianas eyes were fixed on the girl,
and her triumphant smile had faded. She swept a poisonous glare over
the lasss slender figure, the gloss of her loose hair. It was too late.
His hand tensed on the hilt of his sword, and he forced himself to let
go. If she expected a rescue, it wouldnt come from him. He could not
save her. He looked around the room, at the drunken clansmen whose
sworn duty was to protect the laird and his family. Shed find no help
there, either.
He cursed the fact that Bibiana had decided to come here, to
Scotland, to bring him into the midst of a clan so similar to his own. The
family bonds here were achingly familiarthe language, the music, the
whisky, and the manners were all his own. Had she chosen this place on
purpose, a final test meant to bind him to her forever? If he could betray
his own people, he was truly doomed. He hardened his heart. The
MacLeods were not his peopleand the lass was none of his concern. He
looked away, told himself he didnt care. But he couldnt keep his eyes
off her.
He saw Bibiana hold out the cup, saw the lass lick her lipsand
refuse. He kept his relief from showing on his face. But it was short-
lived. She didnt understand what was happening, and that she was
powerless to stop it. Bibiana brooked no resistance. It would simply go
harder for the girl if she didnt drink. He saw the subtle signals Bibiana
made to Terza and Rafaeland to him, and he knew he had to obey.
He set his hand on the hilt of the sword at his hip and cursed himself
for not warning her when he found her in the wood. Guilt pricked at him
like the point of a dirk. His throat closed on a moments regret for the
lasss fate, but he squelched it at once. It was not his affair. He was just
the ladys servant, her sealgair. Hed always turned a blind eye to the
drugged wine and the secret potions Terza blended from the blood of the
birds he caught and other darker ingredients he wanted no part of. Hed
told himself that the men Bibiana seduced and the lasses she destroyed
all went to their fate willingly. The MacLeods were no different. Still, the
knot in his chest would not ease. This lass was different than her sisters,
different from the all the rest.
But the cup was thrust into her hands again, and he read the
insistence in Bibianas cold eyes. Now, he thought, the lass would do
what they all did and give in.
A toast! Donal cried, rising to his feet. To a fine, strong son!
To a son! the clan roared back, and drank deeply.
Iain held his breath and waited for her to sip. Her throat worked, and
her lips parted. Her fingers tightened on the stem, and she began to raise
the glass.

Drink, Laire, Bibiana said, her voice as sharp edged as a dagger. Drink
to our happiness. Laire looked into eyes that were chips of blue ice.
She looked at her fathers vacant smile. She looked out over the
swaying ranks of her fathers clansmen, at the glittering eyes of her
sisters, each one flushed and lovely. They looked like a flock of exotic
birds . . . She remembered the tiny, bare bodies, ready for the pot, their
fine plumage plucked.
She felt her stomach rise. She looked around for a friend, for
someone who would help. She met Terzas obedient gaze. She saw
Rafaels boyish smile fade to something dark. He set aside his fiddle and
moved toward her. There was no charm in his face now. The candlelight
and shadows made him look wicked and dangerous. Laire felt her limbs
turn to water.
She cast a desperate glance at her father, but he was staring at
Bibiana, had forgotten Laire was even there. Terza was right behind her
now.
Drink, Bibiana said again, with malevolence in her eyes. Laire felt
fear rush through her like a river. Her family was in danger, her whole
clan. She was in danger . . .
The delicate wine glass dropped from Laires shaking fingers. She
heard it shatter, heard Terzas muttered oath as the wine spread like a
bloodstain across the white tablecloth. Laire felt the breath leave her
body, felt her empty, anxious belly churn.
Rafaels smirk was replaced by a baleful, determined scowl, fixed
upon her. He picked up a full cup from a tray and held it in his fist, his
knuckles white, and stalked toward her. Terza reached for a pitcher . . .
Laires gorge rose. Theyd make her to drink, force the wine down her
throat if they had to. She looked again at her father, but he was smiling
benignly, noticing nothing. Bibianas flawless face was reflected in his
eyes.
She was on her own.
Rafael was close now, scarcely a dozen steps away, but hemmed in by
the dancers. In an instant theyd part, move aside, and hed be upon her .
. .
She backed away from the table, looked frantically at the door. It was
all the way across the room, past her dreamy-eyed sisters, the drunken
clansmen, and Rafael . . . Could she reach the door before he caught her?
It was dark outside, and she was so afraid of the dark . . . but Terza
was coming around the table toward her, another cup in her gnarled
hand.
Run. Every fiber of her being screamed it. She drew in a great gulp of
air and turned to flee.
She pushed her sisters aside, shoved unsteady clansmen out of the
way. Behind her, Terza was screeching. Rafael dodged, made straight for
her, his hands outstretched, the cup in his fist. Terror gave her feet
wings, but it wouldnt be enough . . .
She felt Rafaels fingers brush her shoulder, and she jerked away,
crying out. He lunged again, and his fingers tightened on the lace edge of
her sleeve. He yanked on it, hard, and she stumbled, heard the delicate
lace tear. She felt desperation close her throat, stop her heart, but it was
too late.
He had her.

Iain saw Rafaels hand close on the lasss sleeve. He saw the evil smile of
triumph bloom on the Frenchmans face, then fade to malice as she
plunged away from him. He saw the lace tear, give way, and watched
Rafael reach for her again. The liquid in the cup sloshed, splattered. He
didnt dare spill it . . . It cost him a precious second to right the cup, and
the lass dodged, kept running.
She was coming straight toward him now, and Iains belly tensed. In
three steps hed have her in his grasp. Behind her Rafael was already
after her again.
Iain made ready to move, to take her, but he caught sight of her face
and it stopped him. He expected terror and tears. There was fear to be
sure, but there was something else as welldetermination, anger. It
stopped him in his tracks, knocked the breath from his lungs. Her eyes
were on the door and nothing else. She didnt stop when her sleeve tore.
She picked up her skirts and ran harder.
He watched as the dance went on, her kin oblivious to her struggle as
she twisted past them.
Rafael cursed as he shouldered bodies aside, his eyes on the girl. He
still had a cup in his hand, still half full. Hed knock her to the floor, hold
her as he poured it down her throat . . .
Still Iain hesitated. He had a choicehe could catch her and help
hold her down.
Or he could set her free.
He measured the distance between the lass and the Frenchman with
a glance, took in the position of the crowd that surrounded them. He felt
his heart kick into a gallop. She could make it to the door, and escapeif
Rafael werent gaining on her with every step.
A pair of dancers swept past him, and Iain shifted his weight ever so
slightly. He bumped the big clansman just hard enough to knock him off
balance. He stepped back as the lad toppled, cartwheeling his arms. Iain
winced as he fell straight into Rafael. The glass flew out of the
Frenchmans hand, and the wine arced through the air, sparkling in the
candlelight. The goblet tumbled, turning end over end before it hit the
stone floor and exploded, sending shards of glass across the floor.
People screamed with laughter as they slipped and fell, cut
themselves, oblivious to pain or shock. Rafael landed hard on his hands
and knees, the blood-red potion soaking his silk stockings and his
breeches, the glass slicing into his palms.
Iain didnt dare look toward the lass, not now. He heard the groan of
the hinges as the door opened behind him, and felt the gust of cold night
air before it banged shut again.
Shed made it.
He felt the first moment of happiness hed had in years. He had to
refrain from grinning as he bent to help Rafael to his feet.
CHAPTER SIX

How could you let her escape? Bibiana demanded, pacing the floor of
her chamber. Three of you, and you could not stop one silly girl.
She looked disdainfully at the red stains on Rafaels stockings and
coat, at the bandages on his hands, the rips and cuts on his knees, and
her lip curled. You should have been more careful.
The Frenchman flushed but knew better than to reply when his
mistress was in a high temper.
And you, Terzayou said she was in the kitchen today. Why did you
not make her drink then?
According to her sisters, she drinks only water. She always has, since
she was a child, Terza replied.
But she eats, doesnt she? You might have the potion in her food.
Bibianas wrathful glare found Iain next. He stood by the door, his
arms folded over his chest. Every moment they spent here was a
moment longer for the lass to escape. He hoped shed be sensible and
not go to the village. It was the first place Bibiana would look for her.
But she was young, frightened. Shed probably never been away from
this glen before. He met Bibianas gaze evenly, kept his expression
blank.
Youre a hunter, used to tracking prey. Where would she go?
He looked away briefly, lest she read his best guess in his eyes. She
grew up here. She knows the lands hereabouts well. Shell know where
to hide.
But you can track her. It was a statement, not a question or a
request. She came closer, stood before him. You know the kinds of
places where prey goes to ground, the sort of holes they choose. Shell be
afraid.
Terza cackled, and Rafael managed a snicker.
Prey. She liked her victims full of fear . . . Something changed in
Bibianas eyes, hardened, and Iain felt his belly tense.
You can track her, cant you, sealgair? she said, a mocking edge to
her tone. Did she suspect hed helped her?
Aye, he said, fixing his eyes on the wall.
Bibiana ran her finger over his leather jack to the hilt of the dirk
tucked into his belt. She raised her eyes to his, pinned him with a sharp
look. Did you let her go? she asked.
He didnt reply. She tilted her head and smiled at him. How tired
you must be of hunting only birds. Are you bored?
He shook his head but didnt step back. Her perfume was heavy and
overly sweet, though other men loved it.
I understand, Iain. Truly I do. But now you have a quarry thats
worthy of your talents.
His mouth went dry.
Go and catch her. It should be even more enjoyable in the dark, a bit
more of a challenge. She didnt even have a cloak when she left the hall.
She was wearing dancing slippers.
Rafael laughed until Bibiana spun on him Youll go with him, she
said. Rafaels mirth faded.
I hunt alone, Iain said gruffly.
She raised one eyebrow and looked at him sharply. Nevertheless,
she murmured, and dismissed them with a languid wave of her hand.
CHAPTER SEVEN

Laire wasnt certain which was worsethe dark or the freezing wind.
The cold hit her body like a battering ram. It stole her breath and
instantly chilled her. She was clad only in a thin silk gown, suitable for
dinner but not for being out on a cold autumn night when a storm was
brewing. She didnt even have a shawl. A few drops of rain were already
falling, and the delicate satin slippers that matched her gown were
almost immediately soaked. And it was dark, so very darkshe couldnt
see anything after the bright light inside the hall. She ran by memory,
followed the path shed trod thousands of times.
But never at night, in the terror of the dark. Panic caught in her
throat, made it hard to breathe, and the wind twisted her hair, tugged it,
whipped it around her face. The nightmare . . . Was she dreaming?
The pain in her feet, the chattering of her teeth, told her it was real.
She felt tears gather and dashed them away. Shed cry later, when she
was safe, and the ones she loved were safe too.
She looked over her shoulder. Was that a shadow or someone
running after her? Not Papa or any of her sisters. They didnt even know
she was gone. Would they think to look for her tomorrow, or did the
wine make them forget everything that was precious, important, and
good? She wouldnt forget. Shed remember for them, find help, save
them.
She rushed onward, down the rutted track that led away from Glen
Iolairs gates. By the time she reached the bottom, her breath was raw in
her throat. Stones pierced through the soles of her thin slippers, making
her stumble. She gritted her teeth and ran on until she reached the place
where the path forked. A wider road led along the shore of the loch to
the village. A narrower way led into the wood. She paused. Where was
she going? Away, just away. She looked out over the black waves of the
loch as the wind shoved at her, bullied her, and tangled her skirts tight
around her ankles.
There were folk in the village who would take her in, give her food
and shelter. They were good, loyal people. Theyd raise an army for their
laird if she asked it of them . . . and Adas sister lived in the village. She
would know where Ada had gone.
She looked back at the lighted windows of the castle. The cheerful,
familiar glow gave no hint that anything was wrong within the powerful
walls. All looked safe and normal. But it wasnt. Thered be light in the
village as well, and shed be safe, out of the dark. She could get there by
either path . . .
She had to decide.
The village was two miles away along the shore of the loch, with the
moon for companywhen it came out from behind the rain clouds.
Or it was barely half the distance if she went through the wood.
The very dark, very terrifying wood. It was dark among the trees, and
there were wild creatures there. Dry leaves skittered over the ground. In
the wood, the bare branches of the trees clacked, and black shadows
moved and shifted. Unseen dangers lurked there. Shards of the
nightmare came back to her, and she shivered as she scanned the path
behind her. Was someone there in the shadows, chasing her, coming to
drag her back?
Theyd make her drink, or kill her . . .
Her pursuers wouldnt see her in the dark wood. She knew the path
by day, every root and bump and boulder, every patch of moss and low-
hanging branch. She could walk it blindfolded. Despite the dark, it was
safer, smarter to choose that path.
Laire ran toward the trees before she could change her mind, her
heart pounding, terror making her limbs jerky and clumsy. She stepped
into the black void with an exclamation of fear. She shut her eyes, held
tight to the trunk of the nearest tree, felt sweat beading along her spine.
It made her colder still.
She forced herself to continue on.
The dark invaded her very bones. It wasnt like being blindfolded at
allthere were shapes in the dark, things that moved and shifted,
skittered across the path. The shadows confused her until the familiar
path was unrecognizable, and she wasnt sure she was going the right
way. The loch was on her left, wasnt it? Was that the sound of waves, or
the rustle of pursuers coming along the path? The very earth under her
thin soles felt alive, menacing. She tripped over a root and sprawled
headlong, jarring her teeth together. She scrambled up, hurried onward.
Someoneor somethingcaught her sleeve, and held her fast. She
hadnt the breath to scream. She clenched her fists, ready to fight, and
turned to face her assailant.
She sobbed with surprise and relief. The torn lace of her sleeve was
caught on a branch. She gasped, ripped it free, ran on, and fell. She rose
and fell again, and again, until she was aching and bruised, exhausted.
Still, she forced herself up and pushed her unruly, wind-tangled hair
out of her eyes. Which way? She spun in a circle, trying to decide. The
shadows shifted, drew in, and this time it wasnt her imagination.
She felt hands close on her arms, and she opened her mouth to
scream.

Shed been easy to track, but then, he was used to tracking prey in the
dark. Rafael had taken the path that led along the shore of the loch to
the village, sure shed taken the easy way, that hed find her lying on the
road, sobbing and terrified. Aye, shed be terrified, Iain knew. But a
smart lass who knew her fathers territory well would take the safer way,
through the wood. If she was smart.
He scanned the track that led into the wood, a white ribbon against
the black landscape when the moonlight came out from behind the
clouds to show the way. He entered the wood. It was too dark to see
much of anything at all, but he could feel her here, hiding among the
underbrush, or running for her life. He felt a moments pity as he
scanned the shadows for a gleam of silk, listened for the rustle of
petticoats. The trees creaked and groaned like old women lamenting a
deathor predicting one. He walked on, treading lightly so she wouldnt
hear him, moving like a shadow in his black deerskin boots. He held his
sword still against his hip and passed silently through the trees,
following her toward the village. He couldnt let her reach it. She was the
lairds daughtertheyd help her and hide her and never give her up. It
could take days to sniff her out, and it would be the same in the end
Theyd drag her back to face Bibiana, and Bibiana was merciless when
she was angry. It would go hard with the lass . . .
Pity swelled again, along with regret and guilt. He remembered how
she looked in the wood, her eyes on his, her skin soft under his hand.
She hadnt flinched when he touched her. And he remembered the
determination on her face as she fled the hall, and the fearwhich
would win? She was a brave lass, to be sure, but was she smart?
He dismissed the faint hope that surged in his breast. It didnt
matter, couldnt. She wasnt his concern.
It didnt take long to find her. He saw her a few yards off the path,
and she was doing battle with someone. His heart tightened in his
breast. Rafael had caught her already. His hand went to the hilt of his
sword and curled hard around the cold metal until the pattern on the
pommel bit into his skin. He heard the unmistakable sound of cloth
tearing.
He watched as she pulled free of her assailantthe branch of a tree
with a curse that would make a warrior blush, and ran on. He found a
torn scrap of lace hanging from a twig and pulled it free. It bore the
sweet smell of her skin, the scent he remembered from touching her in
the wood . . . He stuffed the lace into his pocket and heard her stumble
and fall. He crouched behind a tree and watched her fall, and rise, and
fall again, getting up even when it was easier to stay down. She wasnt
cryingshe was cursing. He felt another surge of admiration and
crushed it. It was naught to do with him how bloody brave she was.
He closed in on her as she rose yet again, saw the shimmer of silk,
heard the rustle of starched petticoats and dry leaves. She was three long
strides away.
He had her.

Laire hadnt heard a sound, but there he was, holding her. The hands on
her arms were more like iron bands than flesh. She twisted in his grip,
but he held on easily. The hard, hot wall of his body behind hers was
huge. She scratched at his knuckles, but he wore gloves. She opened her
mouth and gathered herself to scream.
Dont, he said, his voice a low growl, and she froze, the sound dying
in her throat.
The sealgair!
She felt her bones turn to water, but he held her up, pressed her
against his body. There was nothing soft about him. His limbs were as
solid as tree trunks. She felt his breath on her cheek, and her eyes
widened with panic. Dead closed her throat, left her as useless as a cloth
doll against his strength.
Hed throw her over his shoulder and take her back. Hed hold her
while they made her drink the sweet, seductive potion. She thought of
the dazed, glazed look in her fathers eyes, the way her sisters stared at
nothing and danced until their slippers were shredded by the rough
stone floors. Thered be no one to stop it. She was the last . . . She felt
helpless tears sting her eyes. But she was a Fearsome MacLeod, and if
she was the last, she would not, could not, let that legacy die with her.
She took a breath and raised her foot. She stamped on his booted
foot, kicked at his ankles, and rammed her elbow straight back into his
belly. He grunted, shifted and lifted her off the ground, so she was
kicking at the air.
How dare you touch she raged, but his arm circled her waist, and
he clamped his hand over her mouth. Furious at the indignity, the insult,
the terrible, unforeseen fate of her family, she fought him with all her
strength. Colors swirled before her eyes and she panted with the effort
of her battle, exhausted. If she could speak, perhaps she could reason
with him, convince him to release her . . .
She bit the hand that covered her mouth, but her teeth caught
nothing but the leather palm of his glove. Frustration and anger were all
she had left. She began to yell at him from behind his hand, insisting on
her release, warning him, threatening, but the words were naught but a
muffled, unintelligible garble.
Be silent, he hissed in her ear. His breath was whisky-scented and
warm. She could feel his heartbeat pounding through her, hammering in
time with her own. Hed spread his legs wide, enveloping her with his
powerful body. She gathered herself to kick him again, but he wore
boots, and the effort was worthless. He wasnt even breathing hard. She
issued a string of muffled curses from behind the glove and tried again,
driving her elbow into the hard body, rewarded by nothing more
satisfying than a faint grunt of discomfort. What next? Her mind worked
frantically. She would never give up. Shed fight until the very end.

What the hell was he going to do with her? Captured, she fought like a
wildcat. She was good, toosomeone had taught her how to keep herself
safe. The addled laird of Glen Iolair had done something right. She
caught him in the gut with her elbow and drove the wind out of him, but
he held on. She was magnificent.
She didnt deserve the fate Bibiana had in store for her.
She kicked him again, and he felt the pain radiate through his shin
and gritted his teeth. Fortunately she wasnt in a position to aim any
higher . . . but then she squirmed, twisting in his arms, and tried exactly
that. Her knee grazed his groin, not at full force, but hard enough to
hurt.
What was he waiting for? He could knock her out with one tap to the
chin. He could simply throw her over his shoulder and take her back to
the castle. But a bitter taste filled his mouth, and he frowned into the
dark. It was his job, his sworn oath, his damned duty. He had only
months left with Bibiana, a matter of weeks, and hed be free to go to the
devil his own way. The winter would be quiet here, easy, and hed be
gone by spring, before the other lasses met their fate. But this lassthis
lass would be dead by morning, and there was every chance Bibiana
would insist that he put the knife to her slender white throat. He
wouldnt be allowed to refuse. And if he did, if Bibiana ever discovered
what he was hiding from her, hed lose the one thing he had left that he
cared about. The woman in his arms was nothing to him. He had no
connection to her, no reason to risk his own life by saving hers. At least
he hadnt until hed looked into her eyes, saw her, and wondered . . . He
tightened his grip on her. He could easily end her struggles. But she was
brave, and she smelled like wind and wildflowers and summer heather.
She was alive and vibrant in his arms, and shed made him feel
something for the first time in seven years.
He loosened his grip. She took advantage of the moment to kick him
again, hard on the knee. He saw stars, stifled a curse of his own.
He hefted her to carry take her back. It was the smartest thing he
could do, the simplestbut still he hesitated. She weighed almost
nothing in his arms, yet she would not go without a bloody battle. No
wonder they called the MacLeods of Glen Iolair Fearsome. The women
alone were terrifying. Yet they were no match for Bibiana. He stood
where he was, with his hand spanning her waist, his hand over her
mouth, and considered.
Sealgair?
The distant call stilled the girl instantly. He felt her stiffen, felt the
tremor of fear go through her limbs, like a wild creature, sensing death
is near, that all hope was gone . . .
It was Rafael. Iain shut his eyes. He heard him moving through the
fallen leaves making more noise than a whole army. He was off to the
right, some distance away. Iain stayed still, didnt reply, and the lass
waited, frozen against him. Her heart pounded like a blacksmiths
hammer.
He backed against a tree out of the Frenchmans line of sight, still
holding her, and peered around the thick trunk.
Where the devil are you? Rafael called again.
He felt the tremor that rushed through her body. She raised her hand
to scrabble at the glove across her mouth, and made a soft sound of
despair. Now she was afraid . . . Silently, Iain caressed her cheek with
one fingertip, the way one might gentle a fractious cat. He felt a tear hit
his wrist, warm, then instantly cold.
He let go of her mouth, and she drew a harsh breath.
He held her so she could not flee, and pushed her to her knees.
Into the bush with ye. Hide yourself, he said in a whispered snarl.
For a moment she hesitated, deciding. Now, he warned, as the sound
of Rafaels clumsy approach grew louder.
She crawled into the bush silently and sat hugging her knees to her
chest. He peered at her. Dont make a sound.
He stepped in front of her hiding place and waited a moment longer.
He was a fool . . .
Here, he called to Rafael when the Frenchman was right in front of
him.
Rafael swore. Merde. You scared me. How can I see you if youre
always dressed in black?
Not being seen is the point for a hunter.
Rafael bent forward, his hands on his knees, trying to catch his
breath.
Did you find her? Rafael asked, and Iain felt his reply catch in his
throat.
Laire peered out between the sealgairs booted feet. She could see Rafael
by the light of the moon filtering through the bare trees, noted the sharp
glitter of the silver embroidery on his waistcoat, and the dark red
splatters of spilled wine on his white stockings. Hed taken off the
powdered wig he usually wore, and his scalp gleamed through the short,
spiky stubble of his dark hair. It gave him a brutal look. Then clouds
covered the moon again, and she shut her eyes. Her limbs trembled. It
was so dark . . .
Did you find the little bitch? Rafael demanded again when the
sealgair didnt reply, and Laire held her breath.
No.
Laire opened her eyes, stared at the length of his legs. He was helping
her. He wasnt going to drag her back, or murder her in cold blood. He
was helping her . . . Hope soared in her breast, and she bit her hand to
keep from sobbing aloud.
Rafael swore again. Its too dark to see anything. She could be right
under our noses, and we wouldnt know it. She knows these woods, this
place. Where would she go, a stupid chit like that? He stepped closer,
his foot so close to the hem of her gown she could see the glitter of the
diamond buckles.
She heard the rustle of clothing, then the spill of liquid, and smelled
the sharp tang of urine as he pissed on a tree near her hiding place.
The sealgair didnt move.
The Frenchman adjusted his garments, cupped his hands and blew
between them to warm them. Its cold as the grave in this accursed
country, and its not even winter yet. Im freezing my balls off. She cant
have gone far. She didnt even have a shawl.
An arisaid. The sealgair said softly. Scottish women wear arisaids,
woolen plaids.
What bloody difference does it make what its called? Rafael
snapped. Surely shell freeze without a cloak, come creeping home ice
cold and fainting. Shell do what we want then, wont she? Christ, does it
ever get warm in this horrid country of yours? Does the sun ever shine?
Not at night, the sealgair said drily.
Then can Scottish women see in the dark, like cats? Rafael said. I
heard this one was afraid of the dark. Maybe that isnt true. Not that it
matters. When Bibiana gets her back, shell kill her, just for spite. She
has plenty of others in hand, and she doesnt like being crossed Shes
less tolerant now, with winter setting in. Shell have to wait until spring
for
Go back, the sealgair interrupted sharply. Ill find her.
Laires skin prickled. Spring? Wait for spring for what?
Well, it is your jobhunting things, Rafael said. He turned and
looked along the path that led back to the castle, hesitating. Are you
sure you dont wish me to help you? It might be fun to steal a kiss,
sample her before we take her back. Shes the prettiest of them, and
theyre all beauties.
Laires eyes burned in the darkness, and she clenched her fists. Shed
die before she allowed Rafael to touch her. But her outrage faltered as
quickly as it had come. It might well come to death, she realized. She
swallowed, but the lump of fear in her throat stayed stuck right where it
was.
Nay, Ill go alone, the sealgair said. Ye make too much noise.
Every creature in the forest would hear ye coming a mile off. Theyd
smell the perfume ye wear, and see that fancy silver vest. Thered be so
many creatures fleeing it would be impossible to know what to track.
Rafael gave a bitter laugh and turned aside with a shrug. Fine by me.
I prefer easier prey, caught indoors and impaled on a sweeter sword. Go,
freeze your balls offIll be inside by the fire, with a bird on my cock,
and a cock in the bush. Rafael said, and laughed at his own jest.
He turned to go, and Laire stayed where she was, motionless as a
mouse, staring into the dark. She scanned the black silhouette that stood
before her hiding place. His legs were so very long, clad in fitted leather
breeches and soft black deerskin boots. She noted the sword that hung
from his belt, the dirk in his boot. She could reach it easily . . . he moved
so suddenly she jumped in surprise, and he reached for the dirk himself.
The blade made no sound as he unsheathed it. Her throat closed. He
bent and held out his hand to her. Hed removed his glove, and his
fingers were long and white against the shadows.
Come out, he said impatiently when she hesitated. If I meant to
harm ye I would have done it already.
She put her hand in his, felt the strength in the sinews and bones. He
had rough callouses on his palm. He held back the branches for her as
she crawled out and got to her feet, trembling, and cold, and stood before
him. He raised the dirk, reached for her arm, and she flinched. He said
nothing as he cut the last few inches of trailing lace from her sleeve.
Where were you planning to go? he asked.
She swallowed. The village.
Ye wont be safe there.
He sheathed the dirk in his belt and unpinned his cloak and took it
off. He reached for her and she flinched. I wont hurt ye, he growled.
He draped the cloak over her shoulders. It was warm from his body,
smelled of whisky and soap and his skin. It made her nose quiver. He
pinned it at the shoulder, his hands quick and careful.
Ye cant stay in MacLeod territory.
He said it as if it didnt matter, with an edge of irritation to his tone,
as if she was an inconvenience.
She bristled. Then Ill go to
He held up a hand. Dont tell me. I dont want to know, he snapped.
He unsheathed the dirk again, grabbed her hand, and pushed the hilt
into her palm, closed her fingers around it. Dye know how to use a
knife?
She nodded, gripped the hilt automatically. Was he not afraid shed
use it against him? She tilted her head back to look at the silhouette of
his face. He was too big, too strong for her to best him that way, and in
the dark. My father taught all his daughters how to defend ourselves,
she said instead, fiercely. But that was in better times, when anything
that threatened them could be vanquished with a knife. Now, it seemed
her wits were her best chance . . .
He grunted his approval. Then keep it ready. Theres an inn a few
miles away, over the mountain, outside the glen, and near the
government fort. Do ye know it?
Aye. The Glen Lyon, she said. Shed never been there. Her father
forbade it, since there were English troops therehard, dangerous men
with no respect or kindness for Scots or women.
Go there. Find someone whos traveling far away. Dont come back.
She stiffened. Tell me why I must leave. What will happen to my
father, my sisters?
He turned away. Theres naught ye can do to help them, he said.
She swallowed, felt desperate tears well. HeRafaelsaid
something would happen in the spring. What did he mean?
He didnt answer. He took her arm and began walking, striding
through the treacherous darkness as easily as if it were day.
She pulled out of his grip, stood her ground. My father has allies,
friends.
He grasped her arm again. Aye, go to them if ye wish, but it wont
matter. Even an army cant fight this.
Then how can I fight it? she demanded.
He made an impatient sound. By leaving and saving yourself. Come
on.
Why are you helping me?
Who said I was? Youve lived all your life here in this glen. I doubt
youve been beyond the borders of your fathers lands. Youve been
pampered and protected, and ye wont have that anymore. The real world
is a hard place.
She raised her chin. Ive been to Inverness and She drew sharp
breath as she stumbled over a root and stubbed her toe. He caught her
elbow to keep her from falling, his touch gentle, his hand warm. He held
on, guiding her forward.
Ye need boots.
I have four pairs at home, she said tartly. And my own cloak. His
was too long, too heavy. Still, she wrapped it closer around her body. It
was warm.
Much good thatll do ye now. He stopped walking. He unhooked the
pouch at his waist, and she heard the jingle of coin. He picked up her
hand and dropped the purse into it. His fingers curled around hers.
Despite the cold, his hands were warm. The purse was heavy in her
palm. He was close to her, and she looked up at the shape of him in the
dark. The moon was behind him, and she couldnt see his face. Could he
see hers? He stood still for a long moment, gazing down at her, and
when he spoke, his voice was thick and gruff.
Yell have to buy what ye need. Have ye ever done that?
No.
He swore under his breath. Tie the purse under your skirts and dont
show it to anyone. She blushed at the idea of lifting her gown and
finding the trailing end of her corset strings, here before him . . . She
shoved the pouch into her pocket instead.
He began walking again, staying close to her side in the dark,
bumping against her from time to time on the narrow path with a brush
of hands or shoulders. It made her more aware of the size and shape of
him. She was used to big men, Highlanders. He shouldnt have come as a
surprise, but she was surrounded by the scent of him, the sound of his
breath, the soft sound of his footfalls next to hers on the hard ground.
Every sense was heightened. Was she safe with him, or in danger? Her
body buzzed, making her clumsier than usual. He caught her arm again
when she tripped, pulling her briefly against the warmth of his chest.
Be careful, he said in a low growl of impatience that vibrated through
her body. Yet his touch wasnt impatientit was gentle and careful. He
matched his pace with hers, shielded her from branches and roots.
Why are you helping me? she asked after he righted her once again.
I shouldnt be, he said.
Youre a kind man, she said, suspecting it was true, hoping so,
despite his gruff, forbidding exterior.
His grip on her elbow tightened, and he turned her, held her before
him and leaned so close she could feel his breath on her face. It was too
dark to see his expression, but she could feel the tension in his body, like
a bow string drawn so tight it might snap at any moment. A frisson of
fear ran through her, and she stayed still, like a rabbit caught in the
sights of a wolf.
Nay, Im not a kind man, or a good man, mistress. Im the very worst
kind of bastard, and ye should be afraid of me, not grateful. His face
was inches from hers, and he loomed over her.
You are a good man, she insisted, breathless. I know. My fathers a
good man. Hed do the same for someone in trouble. She took a breath.
Will you . . . will you keep them safe?
He let her go so suddenly she almost fell. I cant keep anyone safe.
Its too late. He stalked away, leaving her to follow.
How could it be too late? They still breathed, still danced, still lived.
There was still a chance, still hope. For a moment she stood watching
him go, leading her away from home and everything shed ever known,
all she held dear. He was the only familiar thing left. Fear coursed
through her again, and she felt tears threaten. She stared at his back,
dashed them away with the back of her hand, and hurried to catch up.
Im not a coward, sealgair, she said.
He stopped walking and turned so suddenly she crashed into him. He
caught her, held her close for an instant, his hands tight and tense on
her shoulders. I know youre not. He released her and took her hand in
his, tucked it under his arm, kept it warm against his body, and led her
forward again.
They came to the top of the hill at the end of the glen. The ground
cleaved away sharply in a steep downward slope, marking the border of
Donal MacLeods territory. Below, she saw the lights of the fort and the
wee village. They stood side by side for a moment. She half hoped hed
change his mind, lead her home again, or shake her awake, tell her all
would be well, that none of this was real . . .
Instead he pointed to a barely visible break in the trees. Theres the
path. Follow it.
With that, he turned to go, walking away from her without so much
as a fare-thee-well.
What now? she called after him. What do I do?
He paused and turned to look at her. She saw the glitter of his eyes in
the dark, the hard set of his jaw.
Make use of all that MacLeod courage, he said. Run.
With that he disappeared into the darkness, back the way theyd
come, toward Glen Iolair.
CHAPTER EIGHT

How could a mere girl have escaped from you? You can track anything,
in any weather, and yet you lost her? Bibiana glared at Iain as she paced
the floor of her chamber.
Iain glanced at Rafael, wondered what hed told Bibiana when he
returned. The Frenchman looked smug. Hed changed his clothing, wore
his wig again, and a fine red-velvet coat. But there were still spots of
wine on his buckled shoes, and mud clinging to the high red heels.
Iain stood in a puddle, for it had begun to rain after he left the lass on
the edge of her fathers lands. Its raining, he said.
He could see his own image reflected darkly in Bibianas mirror. His
hair and clothing were soaked, but his back was straight. He kept his
expression flat.
But Bibianas eyes glittered as she watched him. He resisted the urge
to swallow. Lying did not come easily, so he said nothing more. Hed
brought an owl back with him, one of her favorites, though he knew it
wouldnt distract her. Nor would bedding her new husband. Shed left
Donal sleeping, and had simply shrugged at the owl. She wanted the girl.
Terza cackled. The laird spoils his daughters, pampers them. Shes
probably never been out at night. When we find her in the morning,
shell come easily when the sealgair goes to fetch her. Shell be cold and
crying, her passions high and fear flowing through her veins, ready.
Bibiana crossed to stare out the window, her long fingers tapping
angrily on the sill. The heavy crystal ring she wore flashed. Silver
streams of water cascaded down the expensive diamond-shaped panes.
Beyond the glass, lightning struck, shattering her image.
There are caves and shepherds huts, Rafael added. Probably all
full of bats and wee hibernating things with sharp teeth. No one else
would look there for her, only a sealgair.
Terza laughed again.
Be silent, old woman. Bibiana said shortly. Terzas unholy grin
faded. Go and prepare the owl. She waited until Terza scuttled out of
the room. She handed a half-empty glass of wine to Rafael. Go and
fetch me a fresh glass. He bowed and left the room.
Iain stood still as Bibiana paced a slow circle around him, taking in
every detail of his person. He knew shed noted his lack of cloak, his
dripping jerkin and muddy boots. She didnt touch him, but her eyes left
a heated trail over his shoulders, his back, his buttocks. He said nothing.
He could see their reflections in the mirror, hers clad in a soft white-
velvet robe, his own as black as sin.
She made a soft sound, a kind of purr, either of appreciation or
disdain.
Tell me, how is your family, your clan? she asked.
He felt his belly tighten, curdle.
It has been some time since you were home. Your brotherhalf
brotheris still at Craigmyle, is he not? His wife just died, I hear. His
third wife in seven years. Each wife looked like her, your Mairi, did you
know? Do you suppose hes forgotten, or does he hate you still? Iain
held perfectly still, though his heart began to pound against his ribs. He
put his hand on the hilt of his sword, a nervous gesture. She noticed and
smiled, sent a long, slow, simmering glance over his body. I hear your
brother bears a striking resemblance to you, Iain, and I will be seeking a
new husband next summer. There are lasses at Craigmyle, young, pretty
creatures, like your beloved Mairi . . .
He met her eyes now, knew his horror showed when he saw her
smile widen. Did she know his secret? Of course, now he had two
secrets. She didnt ask if hed let the lass go . . .
Of course, I could go back to the continent, or even to America . . .
Scotland doesnt entirely appeal to me, but Ill leave no loose ends. You
know how I hate them. The girl is a loose end, Iain.
She touched his forearm lightly, let her fingertips slide up his arm to
his face. She wore his signet ring on her right hand, marking him as hers
until the contract ended, and even then . . . would he ever be free? He
felt revulsion make him sweat. She cupped his cheek, and he felt the
edge of the ring against his skin. The crystal ring, worn beside his own,
was as cold as ice against his skin, despite the warmth of her hand. She
rubbed her fingertips over the stubble on his jaw, ran the pad of her
thumb across his lower lip. He stared into the distance, unaroused. With
an oath in a language he didnt speak, she spun away from him.
I want Laire MacLeod back, she hissed.
Laire, he thought. Her name is Laire. He hadnt known, didnt want
to. It made her real. He thought of the way she felt in his arms, all fragile
bird bones and lion courage. Where is she now?
I always get what I want. Have you forgotten that, Iain? Need I
remind you? I could make you my slave, feed you a love potion until you
crave me and go mad with longing. Youll never be free. Youll beg for
another seven years, and more after that . . . You wont care if I destroy
your clan. You wont care about anything but me.
Iain heard his own blood pounding in his ears. It wasnt just his clan .
. .
Can you track her? she asked, her voice soft, but her threat
remaining, as sharp as a stiletto pressed to his throat.
He could see his reflection in the mirror. He looked ruthless,
dangerous, a man with sins on his soul. A man whod do anything.
Helping the girlLairedidnt absolve him of all the other dark deeds. It
made him a fool, and he was not a fool. One girls life was not worth a
whole clan of others. His hand tightened on the pommel of his sword,
making the wet leather bindings squeak.
I can track her.
Bibiana smiled, a faint twist of rouged lips that didnt meet her eyes.
Good, she purred.
He turned to go, had his hand on the latch when she called him.
Sealgair?
He paused, watched as she picked up a small white alabaster box
from the dressing table. She held it out to him, and he took it. The
carved surface bore an intricate design of runes and symbols, including a
raven with its wings spread.
When you find her, I dont want her back. I want her heart in this
box.
Iains belly caved in against his spine. He held her eyes, saw the
terrible glow behind her cool blue gaze. He saw her for what she really
was, the monster behind the illusion.
He forced himself to wait, to hold her gaze, silently ask the question.
And his kin? She tilted her head and smiled at him. Dont fail me,
sealgair, was all she said.
CHAPTER NINE

After the sealgair left her, Laire sat on a rock on the edge of the cliff and
stared down at the lights of the fort and the small village that
surrounded it in the glen below.
Behind her lay all that was familiar. She longed for her the company
of father and her sisters and her warm bed.
But if she returned, shed find danger and madness. And if she went
forward, there would be English soldiers, patrols, strangers. Papa did not
allow his daughters to go near the fort. But he wasnt here now.
She had to take the first step, go down the track that led forward, not
back. She had to find help for her family. Without her, they were lost.
She felt tears threaten. Lost indeed. She didnt even have a handkerchief.
She swiped her hand across her eyes.
Then the rain began, falling in cold, fat drops.
Laire wrapped the cloakhis cloakmore tightly around her. It was
good thick wool, and it smelled of his body, clean and male. She looked
behind her once more, wondering if he was there, in the dark, watching
her. If she called out, would he come to her aid?
But the woods were empty, silent, and dark. She was on her own.
There was no point in sitting here in the dark crying. She stood up and
checked the dirk in her sleeve, making sure it was secure and easy to
reach, as Papa taught her. She took a few silver coins out of the
sealgairs pouch and put them in her pocket. Shed never carried money
before, had no idea how much things costa loaf of bread or a nights
lodging. She hoisted her petticoats and tied the bag to the strings of her
stays. It hung against her hip, heavy and cold.
She took a deep breath and lifted her skirts out of the mud, though
there was little point. Her gown and her satin dancing slippers were
already ruined.
She took the first step down the slippery path.
Laire was soaked to the skin by the time she reached the inn, but at least
the weather and the late hour meant that there were few people on the
road to notice a woman walking alone in the middle of the night, in the
rain.
If anyone had seen her, theyd think she was in trouble, and so she
was.
She paused in front of the inn, patted the dirk in her sleeve and
pulled the hood of the huntsmans cloak low over her eyes. She took a
breath as she opened the door, and did her best to slip inside quickly and
quietly.
The taproom was full, and she smelled stale beer, beef stew, and wet
wool. The room was dimly lit, but she saw the scarlet tunics of the
English soldiers who filled several tables. A few Scots kept to the
opposite side of the room, as if an invisible line divided them. Not a
single one of the Scots wore a MacLeod plaid, yet they were talking
about her kin.
I hear The Fearsome MacLeod has taken another bride. How many
wives is that now? Someone said in Gaelic, and Laires ears pricked.
At least a dozen.
Nay, its a dozen daughters he has.
And no sons.
She felt a prickle of guilt and swallowed it.
Then who is the new Lady MacLeod? What clan is she from?
Shes from no clan at all. Shes a foreign lady.
What kind of foreign? a dark man demanded, frowning.
French or Italian. Some say shes from Flanders.
The dark man grinned. Ach, as long as shes not a Sassenach or a
Lowlander, Ill drink to her health. Laire watched the pewter mugs rise
and clatter together.
The alewife hurried over, her face dark as thunder. Keep your voices
down. Theres a dozen English soldiers here tonight, and every one of
them knows enough Gaelic to know what Sassenach means. I dont want
any trouble, and neither do you. Have ye no homes to go to?
Now, Aggie, theres so much rain fallin a man could drown just
walking across the heath. Ye wouldnt want that, would ye? someone
said.
Behave yourselves, Aggie grumbled, refilling their cups.
She looked up and saw Laire hovering near the doorway. What the
devil are you doing here at this hour? she demanded, one ham-sized fist
on her hip. Everyone in the taproom stopped to look.
Laire felt eyes burn into her, read curiosity and suspicion, saw the
flare of lustful interest in a woman alone. She wrapped the wet cloak
tighter still.
Have you a room for the night?
Aggie frowned. Depends on why ye want it. Are ye plying your
trade?
Im first, one of the English soldiers said, and the others laughed.
Laire felt her cheeks fill with hot blood, but she kept her eyes on
Aggie. No. Im on my way to she bit her lip. Im seeking work, she
said, thinking fast. As a ladys maid.
Aggies eyebrows flew into her hairline. A ladys maid? She looked
at Laire more carefully. The only one likely to need a ladys maid
hereabouts is the new Lady MacLeod, at Glen Iolair.
Laire tightened her fists in the folds of the cloak. The lady is . . . she
brought her own maid with her when she married the laird.
She spoke in Gaelic, and the English soldiers didnt understand.
Well, is she open for business or not? one of them asked Aggie.
She turned to him. I run a respectable inn, Sergeant. The lass is not
a whore.
Then why she here in the middle of the night, all alone? the
sergeant asked. The Scots bristled.
Aye, go home, lassie, one of them muttered. Theres naught but
trouble here.
But the sergeant was already on his feet. He was a big man, fat as
well as tall. His greasy hair was tied in a queue, and there was dirt under
his nails and on the knees of his breeches. She needs to register at the
fort if shes not from these parts.
He was coming toward her and the other English soldiers were
grinning. Laire felt her belly shrink against her spine. The Scots began to
rise to their feet, indignant at the insult to one of their own, even if she
was a stranger. Thered be a fight and the Scots would lose. Laire looked
at the English muskets stacked against the wall, felt her heart kick. She
reached for the dirk in her sleeve as the sergeant drew closer.
But Aggie stepped in front the man before he reached Laire. Nay, ye
dont. Not in my inn. Ye know the rules here. I have a promise in writing
from Colonel Rowly: No fighting here.
It isnt a fight Im after, the sergeant said. And Ill take her
outside.
The alewife stood her ground. Colin! she bellowed, and a big lad
stood up behind the bar, rubbing his eyes. He was so tall his head
brushed the pewter pots hanging on hooks above the bar. Fetch the
colonels letter for me. The sergeant needs to see it.
The lad brought out a plank of wood with a piece of parchment nailed
to it.
One by one, the Scots rose from their seats and went to stand beside
Colin, who hadnt said a word.
Now, would ye like more ale, or are ye going to call it a night and go
back to your barracks? Aggie asked.
The sergeant looked at the Scots and Colin, who stood head and
shoulders above the rest of them, and he looked at Laire.
Laire clutched the knife, though she kept it hidden for now. The sight
of a dirk might set light to the powder keg of emotions. The Englishman
spat on the floor.
Shell need to register at the fort. Tomorrow morning, first light.
Aggie nodded. Fair enough. Now off ye go, Sergeant, and your men
with ye. Im closing for the night.
She waited while the Englishmen drained their cups, picked up their
weapons, and left. Aggie bolted the door behind them.
The Scotsmen resumed their seats, and Aggie poured another round
for her countrymen.
Laire sank into the nearest chair, her legs no longer able to hold her.
Tears threatened again, but she gritted her teeth, refused to let them fall,
or to let down her guard.
Well stay, Aggie, to protect the lass, one of the Scots said. The
expression in his dark eyes suggested it wasnt protection he had in
mind.
Och, will ye now? What will Morag say to that, Jock MacKenzie?
He flushed scarlet.
Ive got Colin and a good sharp dirk, and my man will be back
tomorrow. Well be safe enough, Aggie said.
Laire watched as the men filed out, and Aggie locked the door once
again. She was cold and tired. She took her dirk out of her sleeve and laid
it on the table. May I have some water? she asked politely. I can pay.
Aggie stared at the weapon and began to laugh. She laughed so hard
her sides shook, and her double chins, and her heavy breasts. Ye can
have anything ye like, lass. Come with me. It seems to me youve got
enough water dripping from your clothes. Come and get dry. Have ye a
name?
ItsElla, she said, giving her dead mothers name.
Aggie led Laire into a comfortable and well-appointed back parlor.
The inn must be a profitable business, Laire thought, for the room was
nearly as grand as her fathers own chamber.
Sit ye down by the fire, Aggie said, and plumped the cushion on the
settee.
Laire unpinned the cloak, and Aggie hung it on a hook near the fire,
where it dripped onto the stone floor.
Och, thats a bonny gown, Aggie said, looking at Laires violet silk,
though she ran her gaze dubiously over it. Or it must have been, once.
Its seen some hard wear. Laire clasped the sleeve where the lace had
torn away. The dress felt lopsided without it. There was mud from the
hem all the way up to her knees. Her hair was a fierce tangle, her arms
scratched by brambles. Aggie noticed it all. Have ye come far, then?
From Inverness, Laire said, naming the only large town she knew.
Shed been there once, with her father. My last posting was there.
And how did ye come to lose it?
My mistress died, she said quickly. She was very old. Im looking
for a healer, she said.
Aggie considered. A healer? Theres a healer up at Iolair.
Laire sighed. Ada. But Ada was gone . . .
What do ye want a healer for?
Laire swallowed. I need someone who knows about poisons. Aggie
blanched. How to stop them, I mean. My old aunt suffers from gout
Ive heard its caused by poisons in the blood.
Aggie nodded. So they say. Ive a touch of it myself. She crossed to
the sideboard and poured whisky into a cup. Will ye take a dram to
warm ye?
Laire shook her head. Just water, if you please.
Och, is it that ye cant pay after all?
I can pay. Laire fished in her pocket for one of the silver coins.
Aggie swallowed the whisky herself in one gulp. Now how did ye
come by that?
How did ordinary folk come by money? Her father had always carried
whatever coin his daughters needed, or a reliable clansman held it on
their behalf. There was never a need for a daughter of the Fearsome
MacLeod to carry money. Until now.
It was a gifta legacyfrom my mistress, she lied.
Aggie nodded, satisfied. And ye still want plain water?
Laire nodded, and Aggie poured her a cup from a pitcher that stood
on the sideboard, next to the whisky. She watched as Laire drained the
cup of water, then refilled it.
I prefer a dram myself, but probably best for a young lass like you to
avoid strong spirits.
Better than she could imagine . . .
I believe it might be good fortune that yeve come tonight, Ella, for
both of us. Im setting out on a journey tomorrow, early. I wish to visit
my sister in Inverness before winter sets in. My son Colin is coming
along with me, but hes not much of a talker. A companion, a ladys
maid, would make for grand company. She sat down. It seems to me
that the worst thing ye could do is to go to that fort tomorrow, or ever.
Best ye stay away from English soldiers, as bonny as ye are. That
sergeant wont forget a face like yours. Can ye use that dirk youve got in
your sleeve?
Laire nodded. Aye. My father taught me.
And where is he now?
Laire hated to think. Papa was probably in his bed, dazed, confused,
thinking only of Bibiana. Dead, she said, and prayed it wasnt true.
Then hell not object to you taking a journey with me. It will be
three or four days of riding. I hope well have good weather for it, or it
will take longer than that. I cant bear going by ship, since I cant abide
the water. Will that suit ye?
Im not afraid of rain, Laire said.
Well, my old bones are. They ache like the devil when it pours. Ill
need a healer myself by the time we reach Inverness. I have a salve, but I
cant rub it on my ownWell, Im sure ye understand. Ye can help me
with that, since Colin certainly cant. And when we reach Inverness, my
sister is sure to know if theres anyone in Inverness wanting a maid.
She rose to her feet. Well start early. Theres a box bed in the
corner. Ill fetch ye some dry clothes and a bite to eat. Youll be safe here,
so ye can rest easy.
When Aggie left her, Laire lay down on the wee bed. She looked at
the black cloak hanging by the fire. Why had the sealgair helped her? He
was Bibianas servant. He could have easily subdued her, taken her back.
Instead hed let her go, given her his own cloak, his purse, his dirk. She
remembered the way his body felt pressed to hers, his hand covering her
mouth, keeping her still. Hed done it effortlessly, expertly, but he hadnt
hurt her. Hed been gentle. You are kind, she whispered to the air.
Because of him, she was safe. At least for now.
CHAPTER TEN

Iain crept forward on his belly, silently, and peered through the foliage.
Hed tracked Laire MacLeod to the inn, and arrived early in the morning.
He found a detachment of English soldiers questioning the innkeeper
about a pretty young Scotswoman with dark hair.
To his credit, the innkeeper said he knew nothing, had been away for
a few days, and the inn had been in the charge of his wife in his absence.
That good woman had left that very morning to make a visit to her sister
in Inverness, in the company of her son, and none other that he knew of.
Inverness . . . now why would she go there?
It didnt mattershed never arrive. It had taken Iain only a few
hours to pick up her trail, even on foot, while the innkeepers wife, her
son, and one other rode sturdy garrons. They were travelling slowly,
taking the easiest, gentlest routes.
He understood when he caught up with the three travelers. The
heavy woman was already cursing her overburdened horse, complaining
loudly about aches and pains in every limb and that it was still three
days to Inverness. Laire MacLeod rode beside her, wearing his cloak,
quietly watching for signs of trouble. The big lad rode in the rear, his
broad face as dull and lumpen as porridge.
Iain imagined capturing Laire MacLeod, slitting her throat, and
cutting out her heart. The alabaster box was heavy in his pack. He wasnt
a violent man. Hed always avoided such duties. Rafael was the assassin
Iain stuck to birds. His guts had ached since hed left Glen Iolair. He
didnt want to kill her, but when he measured the worth of one
pampered, pretty lasss life against all the lives of his kinfolk, it didnt
add up. Hed been a fool to think saving one lass would absolve him of
the sin on his soul. His soul was as black as Bibianas.
Still, guilt gnawed on him as he tracked Laire MacLeod, made him
hesitate. He could have slipped up beside her, grabbed her off the horse
and slit her throat, or put an arrow through her from a distance. Instead,
he kept pace with her, skulking among the trees and heather with his
hand tight on his bow.
He had to do it. He had no choice.
She wore borrowed clotheshis cloak and a simple dress of russet
wool. Her hair was bound with plain white ribbon. She wore a silver
locket for adornment. She looked simple and pure. Innocent.
Which, of course, she was. Shed done nothing to deserve such a fate
none of them had. He followed her longer and further than he had to,
delaying the moment when hed have to take her, look into those
amethyst eyes of hers as he drew his dirk across her throat . . .
He watched as they made camp the first night, and sat outside the
circle of firelight with his back against a tree, watching her from a
distance. She was beautiful and kind. She tended the older woman like a
mother, rubbed her aching legs, and helped Colin skin and cook a brace
of rabbits. She ate very little herself. After the meal, the big lad sat apart,
whittling a stick with a small, sharp dirk.
Poison, the goodwife said thoughtfully, and Iains senses prickled.
I was thinking about what ye said about needing a healer who knew
about poisons. There was a woman in Inverness once . . . She had
garden, and grew all manner of plants. Folk would bring her seeds and
berries from all over, but she used other things as well, things from the
earth and the sea. Some said she was a witch. Now, if a man grows such
a garden, theres naught said about it, but a woman, especially a widow
without beauty or fortune to recommend her, must be a witch.
Iain saw Laires head come up, saw her eyes widen and her lips part.
A man, she whispered. Iain frowned. She looked like a lass with an
idea, and those amethyst eyes of hers suddenly shone. She was
beautiful, the fairest lass hed ever seen. He looked away, shut his eyes
and rubbed them. It wouldnt stop him from killing her, couldnt. There
was no sense in delaying it.
He took his dirk from his boot. Hed have to take the big lad first,
hoped he could knock him out with as little harm as possible. The
goodwife would shriek and set up a terrible din, seeing her son fall
before her eyes. And Laire MacLeodwould she freeze, or flee, or fight
for her companions? It wouldnt matter. Hed wait for them to sleep. For
now, hed let them eat and rest . . .
The goodwife chattered nonstop, telling Laire all about her sister, and
her sisters family, and the price of goods in Inverness. Laire sipped
water from a horn cup and nodded, though she said little. She was
worried about her family, no doubt. And hadnt Rafael said she was
afraid of the dark? Hed seen no evidence of that, but shed been
occupied by other thingshimself included.
Her emotions were nearly transparent in her lovely eyes and offered
a fascinating pageant. He read worry and determination. He saw mirth
as she smiled at one of the goodwifes stories. He saw cunning when the
woman asked Laire about her home and her family and she made up
lies. And he saw hope, and some kind of plan brewing inside her pretty
head.
Iain was concentrating so hard on Laires face that he didnt hear the
three men approach until they stepped out of the dark wood and into the
light on the opposite side of the campfire. Thieves. Iain recognized what
they were at once. Their eyes were sharp, their weapons ready, and they
were lean, hard, and dirty.
What have we here? one of them asked. His face was scarred across
one eye, and he was nearly toothless. He pointed his knife at Laire, the
blade already stained with old blood. His ragged plaid was so dirty it was
impossible to tell what clan he called his own, if any at all.
One of his companions had already slipped an arm around the lads
neck, and held him still with a dirk against his Adams apple, and the
third man stood with his legs splayed, his bow drawn and nocked with
an arrow and pointed at the goodwifes broad breast. She fell silent for
the first time in hours. Laire didnt move at all. She simply sat regarding
the brigands, her spine straight, her eyes moving over them with slow
calm.
The one whod spoken was staring at Laire, and Iain watched the
bastards eyes widen, saw a toothless smile kindling. Iains belly tensed.
He detested those who preyed on the weak, the vulnerable. It made him
a hypocrite, perhaps, but the folk Bibiana targeted were greedy, saw her
as an easy prize. They went to their destruction more than willingly. He
considered. He wouldnt have to kill Laire MacLeodthese bastards
would do it for him, and take the coin, his cloak, and the garrons. Theyd
kill the others, and rape her before they cut her throat. Theyd take their
time, imagining thered be no interruptions, no rescue. Bitterness filled
his mouth.
In a second, the leader would nod to the man who held the lad, and
hed slash the boys throat, and the arrow would fly into the goodwifes
broad chest, and theyd take Laire . . .
He couldnt allow that. She didnt deserve it. He swore silently and
loaded his bow, keeping his eyes on the leader.
He barely saw Laire move. She was on her feet in a single lithe
motion. She pulled a dirk from her sleevehis dirkand it whistled
through the air and buried itself in the bowmans arm. The bow went off,
and Iain felt the arrow graze his cheek, draw a stinging groove in his
flesh before it embedded itself in the tree beside his head. The lad
grabbed his captor around the head and flipped him easily onto his back,
and his whittling knife dimpled the thiefs throat.
The goodwife kicked the leader hard in the groin. He fell back with a
shriek of pain and one hand in the fire.
Whatll we do with them? the lad asked.
Lets kill them, the goodwife said cheerfully. Well roast them over
the fire for breakfast.
The leader rolled out of the fire howling and clutched his bruised
balls.
Stop your whining. She kicked him again, this time in the backside.
Get up and go. She pulled the knife out of the bowmans shoulder,
ignoring the mans cries of pain. Ye as well. Get ye gone. She returned
the dirk to Laire with a smile. The third man made to rise from under
Colins blade. Colin punched him in the jaw, and he sprawled back on
the ground, unconscious.
Best tie him up and drag him into the bush and let him sleep, the
goodwife said, wiping her hands. By the time his friends come back for
him in the mornin, well be long gone.
She grinned calmly at Laire. Well done, lass. She resumed her seat
by the fire, spreading her weight beneath her like a comfortable cushion.
The lad settled back to whittling, and Laire gazed into the wood with a
final sweeping glance and sat as well. Now what was I saying afore we
were interrupted so rudely? the goodwife asked, and began to talk once
more.
Well done indeed. As a Highlander, he knew the MacLeods of Glen
Iolair had reputation as fierce fighters, and shed told him she could use
a dirk. Still, hed not have believed it if he hadnt seen it. He let his eyes
wander over Laires sweet face and smiled. Her hand trembled slightly as
accepted a bite of bread and cheese from the goodwife, but otherwise she
was as calm as if she threw knives at brigands every day.
Iain grinned in the dark, felt admiration stir once again.
He stayed still until the women slept, and Colin, who was on watch,
dozed. Iain slipped out of his hiding place and went down to the wee
loch beyond the trees. Killing her would be harder than he thought. He
sat down on a log, his back against a tree, and looked out over the
moonlit water. How many nights had he spent at Craigmyle doing just
this? Hed dreamed of Mairi then, and love. He rubbed a hand over his
eyes to banish the last image he had of her, dead in his arms, her blood
staining his hands.
CHAPTER ELEVEN

At dawn, Iain woke to the sound of splashing water. Thick mist floated
over the loch, and there was a crust of frost on the leaves and dry grass.
He sat up and saw Laire kneeling on the shore of the loch, clad only in
her shift, bathing. He stayed still and stared. The first rays of the sun
shone through her thin garment and illuminated her breasts, her nipples
alert in the cold air. She gasped at the chill of the water as she splashed
it over her arms, and the sweet sound went straight to Iains groin. He
scanned the long slender lines of her body and reminded himself that he
was here to kill her, not . . . It didnt matter. His bow and sword were
back by the campsite, and he had only a dirk. Hed have to get close to
her, hold her still, and look in her eyes as he cut her throat. His own
throat closed, prickled. He forced himself to reach for the blade in his
boot and told himself she was only prey, like a bird or a doe. There was
always a moments regret, killing something beautiful. He gripped the
blade in his palm, screwing up his courage. Her own dirk glinted in the
sun as she picked it up and began to wash the brigands blood from the
blade. He hesitated now that she was armed. Shed fight him, and it
would go harder for her. He wanted to give her a clean, quick end. So he
sat where he was and waited.

The water was freezing. Laire longed for a bath, for hot porridge and
warm bannock dripping with honey. Instead, when she returned to the
campsite, thered be hard cheese and stale bread, and another day of
hard riding.
She knew where she was going now. She had an uncle in Edinburgh
who studied plants, a man of science. Sir Hamish MacEwan was her
mothers brother, and he doted on his only niece. Surely hed welcome
her, and hed know what to do. The decision made her easier and gave
her direction. There was a way to save them, and shed find it with Uncle
Hamishs help.
She scrubbed the rest of the brigands blood off the dirk until the
polished metal gleamed in the shallow water. She wanted the weapon
clean again before she slipped the sealgairs borrowed blade back into
the sleeve of her borrowed woolen gown, under her borrowed cloak. She
stared into the thick mist that covered the loch, and watched as a flock of
birds rose and sailed so low over her head that she could hear the buzz
of their feathers against the cold air. They would not be back until
spring.
Spring . . . What would happen in the spring?
She shivered and returned to cleaning the knife, holding it up for
examination. Something shifted in the polished surface of the blade,
reflecting something behind her. Laire froze.
If it was Aggie or Colin, they would have spoken. Perhaps it was only
a deer. Perhaps one of the thieves had returned.
Laires heart climbed into her throat. What if the rest of the brigands
had returned, and were even now holding her companions at knifepoint
while one man dealt with her alone? Suddenly she no longer felt the
cold, though her gown, her cloak, even her stockings and shoes, were
some yards away, hung over a branch to keep them dry while she bathed.
Slowly, she reached into the water and closed her fingers on a rock.
In one swift move, she rose, spun, and threw it. She heard the smack of
the impact, followed by a low, male, grunt of surprise and the fall of a big
body into the leaves. Human after all. She stood where she was, the dirk
in her hand, and waited for him to get up.
He didnt.
She crept forward, the knife poised before her, and looked down at
him.
She gasped in surprise.
The sealgair lay sprawled on his back with a bruise blooming on his
forehead. She noted the dirk that had fallen from his hand, the blade
naked and lethal in the morning light, and she knew. He wasnt hunting
birds today.
He was hunting her.
She nudged his booted foot with her bare toes, but kept her distance.
She remembered how easily hed grabbed her in the dark at Iolair. He
didnt move.
Had she killed him? She crept closer, bringing her face near to his,
checking for breath. Sealgair?
He groaned softly, twitched, and Laire leaped back, fell, and scuttled
out of reach. She grabbed her gown with shaking hands and pulled it
over her head. She left it unlaced, still holding the knife. She kept her
eyes on him, but he didnt move again. She pulled the thick woolen
stockings off the branch and squatted beside him. She clutched the knife
in her teeth as she bound his hands and feet. She tossed his dirk out of
reach, and grabbed hold of his black leather jack and propped him
upright against the trunk of a tree. She scooped a cup of water out of the
loch and threw it at him. He groaned and tried to raise his hand to his
face, frowning when he could not. His eyes opened, and he looked
confused as he regarded the bonds that held him. He let his hands fall
back into his lap, his eyes wary gray slits as he focused on her. Laire held
the knife before her.
Why are you here? You told me to go. You went back to Iolair. Why
are you here now?
What the devil did you hit me with? he asked instead of answering
her question.
She raised her chin. A rock. Its only a bruise. Now tell me why
youre here.

Only a bruise. Iains head throbbed. Shed hit him hard enough to knock
him senseless. How long had he been out? It was still morning . . . Shed
bound him hand and foot, and she stood in front of him holding a knife
on him. He scowled at her, and winced at the pain that caused. Had she
cracked his skull?
He settled for squinting at her. Her dark hair hung in a loose tumble
over her shoulders, slightly damp. Her gown was unlaced, and the locket
glinted in the V between her breasts. They were heaving with every
breath she took, and her lush lips were parted, her eyes narrowed on
him. His body responded, even now, and his heart kicked at his ribs at
the magnificent sight of her, warrior woman, fierce Highland lass . . .
This was not how this was supposed to go . . . He remembered how
easily shed vanquished the brigand the night before. And now shed
vanquished him. Irritation turned to admiration, then anger. He looked
around for the goodwife and her ham-fisted son, but he was alone with
Laire MacLeod.
Why are you here? she demanded again.
To kill ye, he growled. He was willing now. If he could get loose,
hed wring her neck. But her knots were well tied and held him fast.
She went pale. Her face, her blushes and frowns and blanches, gave
away her thoughts so easily. She wasnt so certain now, but she held her
ground, her head high.
Why? she asked. You helped me, let me go.
He held her gaze. Amethysts. Violets. Would she kill him? She didnt
look like a killer. But then, she didnt look like a woman who could
defend herself against three brigands, either. Behind her frown, she
looked vulnerable and afraid, even with a knife in her hand.
He forced his heart to curl back into a tight, pitiless, iron ball. I
shouldnt have helped ye. My mistake. Now its my job to bring ye back,
and I mean to do it, he said harshly. He tested the strength of the bonds
again, but they held him with tenacity worthy of her. She was a
contradictionthe face and body of an angel, and the heart of a warrior.
She made a formidable opponent. He felt a flash of admiration and
squelched it. He looked around and saw his dirk a dozen feet away. Shed
stab him before he could reach it. He was unarmed, helpless, and at her
mercy.
He lifted his chin, bared his throat, silently dared her to bury her
blade there, do him the favor of ending his miserable existence. At least
it would be her, not Bibiana, or that bastard Rafael, who took his life.
What will happen in the spring? she demanded, surprising him.
Iain felt his gut tense, remained silent. She waited, the knife ready.
He sighed. What difference did it make? Still, he lied. Bibiana enjoys
the flesh of birds. Spring birds. She believes they give her the power to
remain young and beautiful indefinitely.
She frowned. Then why drug my sisters, my father?
Power, he said, looking into her eyes. Control.
She scanned his face. I dont believe you. Theres more. Tell me.
Och, she was canny. He let his lips curl into a parody of a smile and
remained cold and hard and silent. He watched her face, saw pain there,
fear for the ones she loved. And hope. Little fool . . .
Theyll live. For now. Theres birds blood and God knows what in
the potion. Well, not GodTerza. It will fortify your sisters blood. It
wasnt so far from the truth. Eventually, the potion would make them
more bird than woman.
And my father?
By spring the Fearsome MacLeod would be a shell of a man, broken
and useless. It was too late. But Laire would be dead by then . . . he
shook his head, but she must have read something in his eyes. She
moaned, swayed. I wont let it happen.
Ye cant stop it.
Her jaw tightened, and she shifted the knife. For an instant he
expected her to throw it, pierce him through the heart.
Ella? he heard the goodwife call out. Where are ye lass? Tis time
to go.
She didnt move. She stood glaring at him, the knife quivering
slightly, her knuckles white on the hilt. Iain held his breath, waited for
her to decide.
Youre wrong. I wont let her harm them, she said. Im going to
find help, a way to stop her.
He gave her a bitter smile. In Inverness? He watched her blush,
surprised, perhaps, that he knew. She bit her lower lip, and another jolt
of arousal shot through him, made him chuckle at his own idiocy. Ye
may be able to fend off brigandsand mebut not her. Not Bibiana.
She was trembling now, and he could see the pulse point beating
rapidly at her throat. In a moment, shed start to cry. Iain braced himself
for that.
Instead she raised her chin higher still. Her violet eyes flared, caught
fire, burned into him I do have a choice. I am the daughter of the
Fearsome MacLeod. We do not abandon those we love. We do not give
up.
He grinned, entirely charmed by her. She was so slender a strong
wind might topple her, so delicate he could break her with one hand or a
harsh word, but he was the one who sat bound and helpless, and she was
responsible for that. Fearsome indeed. She was a worthy adversary.
Perhaps . . . He pushed the idea away. Could he let own his kin die to
save the life of one lass? But he knew Bibianas revenge wouldnt stop
there . . . He felt his grin melt.
Ye canna fight this, lass, he said as gently as he could.
Her eyes narrowed. Then why did you help me escape?
To save myself, to make myself whole again, because you are
innocent and brave . . . Because she likes fear in the blood of her
victims, terror in their eyes, awe at her beauty and her power, he said
cruelly. She sent me to hunt you down.
She blanched. IIthought you were . . .
He gritted his teeth against the rage that surged through him. Its
my job. Its what I do, who I am. I am her sealgair! He tugged harder,
uselessly, against his bonds. Did ye think that I had a soft heart, that Id
betray my mistress for you, a lass I dont even know? Untie me and Ill
make it quick. Ye wont feel a thing.
Now he saw tears sparkle in her eyes, but she didnt let them fall.
No.
No? he repeated.
I wont untie you, I wont let her win, and I wont let you kill me. I
am going to find help.
A pointless, worthless quest, he said. There are worse dangers in
the world than me.
But I bested you, didnt I? she asked proudly, tossing her head. He
nearly laughed.
Just this once, he said.
Ella? the goodwife called again.
She slipped the knife into her sleeve, then turned demurely away to
lace up the front of her gown. As if he hadnt already seen, imagined . . .
She stuffed her feet into her borrowed shoes without her stockings. He
had those. She picked up the cloakhis cloak, and pulled it around her
shoulders.
Dye intend to leave me here like this, bound and helpless?
She sent him a cold glare. I daresay someone will come along
eventually, someone you can handle.
He swore under his breath, but shed already gone, his cloak swirling
around her body as she strode away, as merciless and sure as Bibiana.
But noBibiana would have cut his heart out, just to be sure.
CHAPTER TWELVE

Inverness

Hed come to kill her.


The words repeated over and over again in her brain. Laire was
exhausted, constantly looking over her shoulder, expecting to find the
sealgair behind her, swift and silent, his bow drawn. Her muscles ached
with the constant expectation of a sharp arrow between her shoulders,
but she didnt see a soul.
Would he escape his bonds? She thought of his long, lean, muscular
body, the power of his broad shoulders, the cockiness in his gray eyes. Of
course hed escape. Hed known it too, when she left him . . .
She couldnt kill him, but she should have at least knocked him out
again. She realized too late that shed left his dirk not a dozen feet from
where shed tied him.
Nay, he was somewhere behind her, and he was coming. Her only
hope lay in speed, but Aggies gout was making her slower, not quicker,
and she complained with every step. The sky was pewter gray, the same
color as the huntsmans eyes and almost as cold. Laire wrapped the
cloak tighter and shivered. Thered be snow soon . . .
Shed made her plan. It was ninety miles to Inverness, over the rough
terrain of the Highlands. Snow would make travel harder, slower, and
she had to reach Edinburgh and her uncle. Once they reached Inverness,
shed ask Colin to accompany her to the docks, help her find a ship. Even
if he knew as little as she did about such things, a lad his size was a
powerful deterrent against unwanted attention. It would be like having
one of her fathers clansmen by her side. The sealgair wouldnt find her
in a crowded town. With luck, by the time he reached Inverness, shed be
gone.
At last! Aggie said as they came over a hill, and Laire saw the town
of Inverness spread out below them. From the high point of the road,
Laire saw shops and houses toeing the edges of the broad gap where the
River Ness met the firths of Beauly and Moray. She could see the masts
of the ships and boats lining the harbor, and she looked at them
hopefully. She looked behind her again, scanned the road, the heather,
shaded her eyes and looked as far as she could see, but there was no sign
of the black figure of the sealgair.
She tried to take note of the road that led to the harbor, but as they
descended into the center of the town, the harbor disappeared behind
walls and rooftops. The streets twisted until she had no idea where she
was. Worse, it was late afternoon on a November day and already nearly
dark. Folks became shadows, hurrying home in the gloaming. Candles
and lanterns sprang to life inside the houses and taverns they passed.
The warm glow made Laire long for home. She soon lost track of the
number of turns theyd taken, and it was too dark to be sure of any
landmarks that might help her find her way to the harbor.
She wrinkled her nose. The town smelled of too many people living
too close together, of cookshops and tanneries, of wet wool and chamber
pots.
She kept her eyes on the figures on the streets, looking for the
sealgair, but most folk were wrapped tight against the cold with no more
than their eyes showing. No one was tall enough, or lean enough, or
moved with a stalkers determined grace as he did. Still, she kept her
hand on the dirk beneath her cloak, squeezing the hilt until her fingers
cramped.
Aggie was animated, her complaints done now the end of their
journey was close at hand. She bubbled over the joys of arrival, the
pleasures of a hot meal, a warm bed, and the merry company of her
sister.
From the corner of her eye, Laire saw a man clad in black with a bow
strapped to his back, running along the crowded street behind them. But
the wind blew the corner of her hood over her eye, and when she shoved
it aside, he was gone. Her breath caught in her throat. Had he found her
already or was it a trick of the light?
Aggie was describing the particular blend of spices she liked in a hot
whisky posset on cold nights. She used a different blend depending on
the seasons. Ginger was wanted in November, strong and sharp, while
December required cloves and cinnamon when one could get such
luxuries . . .
Laires senses were on full alert, her tired body tense. She could feel
him there, in the dark, watching . . .
Therell be roast fowl and sausages waiting for us, Aggie predicted.
Laire strained to see through the dark, but in the gloaming, all was
shadow. And there were doorways and alleys to hide in, all black as
pitch. Anyone might be lurking there. She flexed her cramped fingers,
took a better grip on the dirk. The garron flinched, sensing her fear as
her hand tensed on the reins. She relaxed her grip, but her heart
pounded.
And pigeon pie and apple cake, Aggie went on.
Laires stomach rumbled, but if the sealgair was near, she could not
wait until morning, enjoy the pleasures of a good meal, a bath, and a
warm bed. She had to go now, and find her way to the docks.
She wrapped the cloak tighter, as much against her own fear as the
cold. She peered into the alleys, tried to see into the dark, and shivered.
But if the dark hid him, it would hide her as well.
Perhaps for once, the dark would be her friend instead of her enemy,
would give her shelter instead of stealing what she loved.

Iain hurried through the busy streets of Inverness, keeping his eyes on
the crowds. The tracks of the garrons had led to the hill above the town.
Then theyd become obscured by hundreds of other footprints.
Shed be harder to track in the narrow, crowded streets of a large
town like Inverness, but not impossible. Colin was a tall lad, and his
blond head would tower above any crowd. Iain kept his eyes open as he
paused to rub his wrists where her stockings had chafed his skin. The
blow to his head had been more worrisome than the bonds. An inch to
the left and shed have brained him. No doubt there was a bruise on his
brow the color of midnight. Folk glanced nervously at him, taking in his
black clothing, his weapons, the arrow cut on his cheek and the bruise
on his head before they hurried away.
He found a woman selling apples on the corner and dropped a coin
into her hand. A girl, with two companions, an old woman and a big lad
with yellow hair. Did they pass ye?
She bit the edge of the coin before she nodded. A while ago now,
she said, pointing the direction. He turned to push through the crowds.
And then he saw the big lads thick head sticking up like the spire of a
cathedral above the throngs. He smiled grimly. In a matter of minutes
hed have her.
But a cart toppled in front of him, and the load of vegetables fell into
the street. In the half-light of late afternoon, folk descended on the
produce, snatching it up as the carter yelled curses at them and tried to
save his wares. Iain ducked down an alley and threaded his way back to
the main street, but it took precious minutes . . . and when he reached
the road again, there was no sign of the lad, or Laire MacLeod.

They rode to the door of a modest house, tucked into the middle of a row
of other modest houses, and Aggie slid off the garron with a cry of relief.
She kissed the beasts nose. If I never set eyes on ye again, it will be too
soon for me, she told the horse. She tossed the reins to Colin and
climbed the steps to the front door.
Laire hung back, dismounted slowly, and stood beside the garron for
a moment. She slipped a silver coin into her saddle pack and left
everything but what she wore. A shaft of warm candlelight touched her
briefly as the door opened. Aggie threw herself into her sisters
welcoming arms as Colin watched the happy moment.
Laire stepped back. She crossed the street and ducked into the first
alley she found. She clung to the wall for a moment as the darkness
enveloped her, blinded her, made dread surge. Her heart pounded.
Ella? she heard Aggies strident voice calling for her. Ella? Where
is she, Colin? She sounded panicked, worried, but Laire hurried down
the alley toward the faint smudge of light at the other end. She prayed
Aggie wouldnt send Colin to look for her. She turned into another
street, then turned again so he wouldnt see her. She hid inside the black
cloak. Her own scent had mixed with the sealgairs on the garment. It
was oddly comforting, even now. She looked behind her, listened for
sounds of pursuit, but only rats and stray cats scuttled in the darkness.
Sensible folk were tucked safe indoors by a warm fire. She felt another
twinge of homesickness wash over her, a sweet, hot wave of misery.
But he was here somewhere, in the dark, and there was no time to
cry now. The cold deepened with the arrival of night. The sky filled with
low clouds, heavy with snow, and she could see her breath in the light
from the windows. She hurried along the street and hoped she was
headed toward the harbor at last.

By the time Iain found the lad and the goodwife again, Laire MacLeod
had already fled. He frowned and hung back, standing in a dark doorway.
Had she seen him? Ella? the goodwife called shrilly into the darkness
as if she were looking for a lost cat Ella? Why, she was just here. How
could anyone disappear so quick? she said to a woman in the doorway.
She wrapped her shawl around her throat. Tisnt safe out on the street
at night.
Should I go look for her? her son asked dully.
Dont be daft! Ye dont know the town, or where to look. Youll get
into trouble yourself. Nay, shes gone. Take the garrons round to the
stable. Someone will steal them if ye go off and leave them. She gave
the street a final glance and hurried into the lighted house and closed
the door.
For a long moment, Iain waited for Laire to move in the shadows, to
show herself, but once the lad left with the horses, all was quiet. Iain
was an excellent hunter, a fine tracker. He could sense prey, smell a stag
or a hare on the wind before the creature knew he was there. Laire
MacLeod was a Highland lass used to fresh air and sun on her skin
rather than the stale fug of the town. She trailed a faint scent of heather
behind her like a path of crumbs. There was no trace of her on the wind.
Frustration welled in his breast. Where would she go, a country lass,
unused to towns or being alone? Shed probably never been anywhere in
her life without a dozen sturdy clansmen following and keeping watch
for danger.
Iains skin prickled with warning. They were close to the docks, and it
was dangerous here. The lass might find herself robbed and murdered if
she wasnt careful. His brow furrowed. Did she know where she was
going, or was she simply running scared? He thought of the look on her
face in the wood, that idea, the determination hed seen in her eyes.
Thered been fortitude in hera lily with steel for a stem.
He started walking, his deerskin boots making no sound on the
cobbles. He was simply another shadow in a place full of shadows. Hed
check the nearest tavern first, the kind of genteel place she might seek
lodging, somewhere to hide, to think. She would not be invisible, not
with those eyes, those lips, that sweet, untried quality to her. Someone
would see her, take notice.
He tightened his hand on the hilt of his sword and hoped that was all
they took.

The dark was full of sounds, of dogs prowling and cats fighting, and folk
talking, yelling, and singing. Every screech, every whisper made Laire
jump. She missed the silence of the Highlands, where there was only the
sound of wind and birds and naught else to disturb a persons
composure. Here, every shadowed cranny was alive. She was tired and
hungry, but she couldnt stop. Shed rest when she reached Edinburgh
and her uncle . . . She rubbed her frozen hands together and followed her
nose toward the docks.
She almost sagged with relief when she rounded a corner, smelled
salt on the wind, heard the slap of water against the hulls of ships, and
saw tall masts against the dark sky. She frowned and scanned the
vessels.
How did one go about booking passage on a ship? She watched men
coming and going from the taverns that lined the wharf side. There was
laughter and music inside. Cold wind buffeted her. Her bones ached with
chill. Shed freeze if she hesitated.
She took a deep breath as she opened the door of the first tavern she
came to and stepped inside. Heads turned as she lowered the hood of her
cloak, and conversation stopped. She bit her lip and wished she had kept
herself hidden, or stayed outside, but it was done now. She raised her
chin, fixed her gaze on the sour-faced innkeeper behind the bar, and
moved toward him.

Iain tried four inns near the docks, the most respectable of the
disreputable places that offered rooms to let. Shed want a bath, a hot
meal, and sleep, and hed given her the coin to pay for it. The landlords
stared at him as he entered, expecting trouble from a battered
Highlander dressed all in black and bristling with weapons. The
customers in each place looked at him as if he were the angel of death,
come out of the dark to walk among them. He tried smiling, but he was
so long out of practice it seemed to make folk even more afraid.
No one had seen her, though her description made their eyes
brighten with curiosity. Theyd be watching for her now, a pretty
Highland lass with violet eyes, all alone.
He continued until he reached the docks. The establishments here
were rougher, full of sailors. These were dangerous places, where
whores and pickpockets plied their trades, hunting their prey the way he
hunted his. He didnt like the comparison, though it was apt enough. His
mouth dried at the thought of Laire here.
He scanned the figures and the faces that hovered outside the lowest
inns. He was desperate to find her, to know she was safe. And when he
found her, hed have to kill her.
If someone didnt do it for him first.

The innkeeper watched her moving toward him, his eyes narrowing. His
frown told her he didnt want any trouble, warning her away before shed
even spoken.
Id like to buy passage on a ship bound for Edinburgh, she said in a
soft whisper when she reached the bar.
Edinburgh? She winced at the loudness of his voice.
She swallowed. Aye.
He cast a canny eye over her cloak, the fine silver pin, her pretty face,
and leaned across the bar.
Are ye running away, eloping perhaps?
She sent him a sharp look and raised her chin. My business is my
own.
He slid his eyes sideways for a moment. Can ye pay?
She nodded. He raised his brows and waited. She reached into her
pocket for a silver coin and slid it across the scarred surface of the bar.
He snapped the coin up so fast she barely saw his hand move. He
came out from behind the bar and crossed the room. He bent to speak to
a man in the corner, and they both glanced up at her, took her measure.
She straightened her spine, did her best to look haughty and worldly.
The man at the table drained his tankard and rose slowly. He followed
the innkeeper back to Laire.
He didnt bother with introductions. Ye want passage to Edinburgh?
Alone? Just you? Laire nodded, her tongue too thick to speak. Her heart
was hammering, but she stood her ground, forced herself to hold his
gaze and not look away.
He looked her over from head to toe and back again. She was glad of
the heavy cloak that concealed her. Under it, her hand slid toward the
dirk.
At your ease, mistress. Im an honest man, he growled. The
weathers going to turn. Well have snow soon after midnight. I was
going to wait until morning, but Ill sail now. Are ye ready to go?
Laire couldnt believe her luck. Aye.
Then yed best show me your coin.
She fished another coin out of her pocket and held it out. Half now,
half when we get to Edinburgh, she said. Wasnt that how it was done?
For a moment the captain stared at the coin, then at her. Then he
laughed. He pocketed the coin. Done. Have ye baggage? She shook her
head, and his eyebrows rose. And yell brook no questions, Ill wager.
No questions, Laire agreed.
She followed him out of the tavern into the dark. The wind had
picked up, and it rattled at the rigging of the ships and boats, pasted her
cloak to her body. She scurried after the captain, who didnt shorten his
stride or wait for her. She followed him up the gangplank of a small ship,
its deck stacked with barrels and boxes.
Make ready to sail, he called into the dark, and men rushed to obey.
Laire stood by the rail and waited. The wind off the firth blew straight
through her, chilled her to the marrow, and she wondered if it was
snowing at Glen Iolair, and if her sisters still danced and drank and
slept, maddened by the potion Bibiana fed them. And Papa, what of him?
She looked up at the sky, but clouds obscured the stars, and she
could smell the bitter tang of snow on the wind.
Ye should go below, the captain said, but she stayed where she was,
scanning the dock, watching for the sealgair. Cast off! he bellowed,
and the sail unfurled with a rumble like thunder. The ship slipped away
from the dock, felt the wind, and moved into its embrace.
Then she saw him, striding down the dock. She knew him by his
height, by the bow on his back, by the way he walkedproud, aware of
everything around him.
Except her. She held her breath, pulled her hood close, and edged
behind a line as she willed him not to look in her direction. She
measured the distance between the boat and the wharf. The boat was
edging away from the dock with painful slowness, creaking complaints
like an old woman stirred from a comfortable bed.
She felt his eyes on her the moment he found her, knew he saw her
standing by the rail, her hand gripping the hawser so tightly the hemp
burned her palm.
He began to run, swallowing the wharf with his long legs. His dark
hair flew behind him in the wind. She knew he too was measuring the
distance between the ship and the dock, wondering if it was still close
enough that he could jump . . . she held her breath, willed the ship to
move, to fly. He was almost at the edge, gathering speed . . .
She cried out as he skidded to a stop on the edge of the dock and
teetered on the edge for a moment before catching himself and stepping
back. Too far. She sagged with relief and saw his eyes flash with anger,
saw his lips move, form a curse. He stood where he was, his eyes on
hers, and watched her depart.
She gasped for air, her knees weak, her heart thundering against her
ribs. She put a hand to her throat under the cloak, felt the locket there
and clutched it, rubbing the pattern etched into the silver. The sealgair
watched her still, his eyes burning through the darkness. He wouldnt
give up, wouldnt stop. But shed escaped for now.
When is the next boat sailing for Edinburgh? she asked a passing
sailor.
Two days, if the weather doesnt stop it. Theres a storm coming.
Well have a rough trip ourselves.
Two days before he could find a boat. Five days of sailing, Seven days
before he reached Edinburgh, she calculated.
Her trail would be cold by then. Shed be safe with Uncle Hamish and
on her way back to Glen Iolair with a cure soon after that.
Shed won. She risked a smile as she stared at him in the darkness,
standing on the dock as the ship sailed away. He would not catch her
now.
Aye. All would be well after all.
CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Edinburgh

After six days of sailing through a gale that seemed to push the ship
backward faster than the vessel moved toward its destination, they
docked in Edinburgh. Laire paid the captain the second half of the
agreed-upon price, and he pocketed the coins and turned away without
the slightest curiosity about why shed come or where she was going.
She was grateful for that, though she would have liked to ask him if he
knew how she might find her uncle.
She walked down the gangplank and looked around her. Fresh snow
shrouded boxes and bundles and heaps of coal along the wharf.
Warehouses and sheds looked balefully down at her, offering neither
pity nor assistance. Her heart thumped in her chest. Shed never been
further from home than Inverness, and always in the company of her
father and a watchful tail of burly MacLeod clansmen. Alone, she had no
idea where to go, or how to find her uncle.
She scanned the huddled gray buildings of the city, which seemed to
stretch over the hills as far as the eye could see. One of those houses was
Sir Hamish MacEwans home, but which one? Her uncle sent her long
letters and gifts from his travels, and hed often described his home, but
mostly the gardens and the conservatory where he grew exotic plants.
She couldnt recall him ever mentioning a street, or even a
neighborhood.
She was a MacLeod of Iolair. Papa had friends in Edinburgh,
business acquaintances, knew traders and merchants. Could they help
her? She had no idea how to find those men either . . .
People bustled around her, hurrying through the snow, grinding it
into gray slush beneath their feet. Men loaded and unloaded ships,
cursing the cold and the weight of their burdens. A flash of light caught
her eyes. Two men were carrying a polished silver mirror up a
gangplank, grunting under the weight of the expensive glass and trying
not to slip. For a moment she caught sight of her reflection. Her face was
pale against the black of her cloak, her eyes wide, worried, and
underscored by dark crescents. Her skirts were rumpled and travel-
stained, and her hair was a rats nest. Who would recognize her as the
daughter of the wealthy and powerful MacLeod of Glen Iolair?
She jumped back as someone pushed past her, splashing her with
dirty water that soaked the front of her cloak. She was cold, and it would
soon be dark. She had to be clever about this. Surely there was a
particular quarter where men of science and intellect lived and worked.
Near to the university, perhaps, or close by a great library. The jagged
soot-darkened houses and shops around her hardly seemed to encourage
deep thought or high learning. It was clear that she wasnt in the right
place at all.
A hand touched her shoulder, and Laire spun, reaching for her knife.
The sealgair . . .
But it was a young woman who stood smiling at her. Good day to ye.
Ye look like ye might be lost. Can I help?
Laire scanned her face. She had blond hair and wide blue eyes like
Jennets, though shed be closer in height to Cait or Meggie. When she
smiled, dimples appeared in her cheeks, like Isobels. The girl tilted her
head and waited. She looked kind and near to Laires own age. Laire took
a deep breath. She had to start somewhere, trust someone. Im looking
for my uncle. He lives in Edinburgh.
Your uncle? Are ye alone? She stood on her toes and peered over
Laires shoulder.
Laire didnt reply to the question. Instead she said, His name is
Hamish McEwan. Hes a man of science.
The girls eyes flicked back to her, and her brows rose like sparrows
taking flight. Hamish MacEwan? Och, everyone knows Hamish
MacEwan!
Laire felt hope soar in her breast. Can you tell me how to But the
girl put her arm through Laires companionably.
I can do better than that. I have a friend who knows everyone in
Edinburgh. He has a fine carriage and hell be happy to take ye along to
see Harris
Hamish, Laire corrected, and resisted the girls tug on her arm.
Hamish MacEwan.
A sharp look passed over the girls face. She removed her hand from
Laires sleeve and stepped back, shrugging. Suit yourself. She took a
step backward, turned to go. Mind the streets after dark. Edinburgh is a
dangerous place for a lass alone, she called over her shoulder.
Wait.
The girl turned to look at her. Are ye a teuchter, then? A
Highlander?
Laire nodded.
My friendthe one with the carriageis a Highlander. On his
mothers side. She pointed up one of the winding little lanes that led
away from the docks. He owns an inn. Hell be glad to stand ye a pint of
ale and something hot to eat while he sends for his coach-and-four to
escort ye.
Laires stomach rumbled. She looked at the frowning faces that
surrounded them, the shifting eyes and hands that darted to the hilts of
sharp dirks, worn where they could be seen. A shiver ran up her spine.
Well, Im getting in out of the cold and the snow before my feet
freeze, the girl said, shrugging. Come or dont, as ye wish.
Laires feet were already freezing, and her gloveless hands were blue
with cold.
She smiled her thanks and followed the lass into the labyrinth of the
city.
CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Iain bribed a ships captain to sail early. He arrived mere hours behind
Laire MacLeod, since his ship sailed behind the snowstorm that slowed
hers. Finding her had become an obsession, a challengeeven in
Edinburgh, big as it was.
He had no idea why shed come to Edinburgh. What if it was just a
temporary stopping place? Ships from all over Europe called on the city.
How far would she run? How far would he go to find her?
The alabaster box was heavy in his pack, and Bibiana was waiting . . .
Snow was falling again when they docked in Edinburgh. It was early
evening, but the sky was as snow-lit as if it had been day. Folk hurried by
bundled against the cold, not stopping to gawk at newcomers or watch
cargo unloaded.
He felt a tug on his cloak. First time in the city, Highlander? a
female voice purred beside him. He turned to find a young blond lass
grinning up at him. Her smile faded at his frown. Her hand dropped
away, and she took a step back.
Im looking for someone, he said, keeping his voice low. A lass.
Her smile returned, bright as a torch. Then yeve found her, she
said. Shall we go where its warm?
A Highland lass, he insisted.
My father was a MacKenzie, she tried. She folded back her cloak
despite the weather, revealed a beguiling smile.
Shes got dark hair, almost black, and unusual eyes . . . Iain said.
Something flashed in the girls eyes. Her cheeks flushed pink, and
she lowered her gaze for a moment. All cats are gray in the dark. She
pulled her cloak open further still, revealing a half-open bodice and the
swell of her breasts.
Iain gaped, but not at the lasss charms. It was the locket around her
neck that caught his attention.
It belonged to Laire MacLeod.
It was nearly midnight, and if not for the glow of the snow in the air and
on the ground, the city would be black as pitch. Will Kerridge slipped
and nearly fell to his knees, unbalanced by his burden. He cursed and
steadied himself against the rough brick wall of the alley. Charlie Bell,
his partner, turned to frown at him. Hie yourself, man, Charlie
grumbled. Im freezing my ballocks off.
Shes heavier than youd think, Kerridge growled, shifting the
unconscious body of the lass on his shoulder. She didnt stir. Theyd
given her enough poppy to put a horse to sleep. She was a dead weight,
and he knew exactly what carrying a dead body felt like. How much
farther? We could just cut her throat, sell her to the medical school
instead, he grunted to Charlie.
Nay, well make more at the Pearl. The abbess likes the pretty ones,
pays well for em.
How can ye tell if a lass is pretty when shes got her tongue hanging
out of her face and her eyes rolled back?
Charlie chuckled. Thats exactly the way I like to see em when
theyre on their knees before me.
Kerridge grunted, shifted the lass again. He didnt care a fig what
happened to her, but the payment they would receive for delivering her
was far too little to be out on a night like this. The snow was thick on his
hair, melting into his eyes and beard and freezing again. His feet were
already numb. Only the girl, bundled in a woolen cloak and draped
around his shoulders like a scarf, kept him warm, though her hands and
feet were like ice. He wondered if shed freeze to death before they got to
the brothel, a fine, upscale establishment that catered to English army
officers and gentlemen with money. Of course, if she died, the abbess
wouldnt want her, and that thought made him feel almost cheerful.
Dead, she could be sold to the surgeons at the medical school, and for a
body this fresh, theyd earn almost as much as the abbess would pay.
This gave Kerridge the strength to push forward and to hope the wind
was cold enough to freeze the blood in her veins. Her long dark hair blew
across his face, and he swept it away impatiently and trudged on.
They heard the sound of laughter ahead of them, dampened by the
snow. Bell pressed himself into the shadows, and Kerridge did likewise,
holding the girl tight. A pair of smartly dressed young men rounded the
corner and passed them.
Youre a lucky sod, one of the lads said, swaying drunkenly against
his friend. Ye won enough to pay for your lodging and your university
fees for a year.
Shh! the other one hissed, giggling drunkenly. Ye never know
whos listening. He sketched a bow that nearly toppled him. But I am
indeed stinking rich. I shall have beef on my plate and coals in the
brazier at my lodgings for a change this winter. He took off his hat and
tossed it into the air for joy. It landed a foot before Kerridges hiding
place. Kerridge held his breath while the fool retrieved it, unawares.
We should have hired a coachman to take us home, the other one
said.
Aye, but there are no coaches out in the snow. Nay, Its Shankss
pony for us, and the merry jingle of riches to keep us company on the
walk.
They trudged on.
Charlie jabbed his elbow into Kerridges ribs. Dye hear that? A
fortune.
Kerridge nodded. How much will we get for delivering the girl?
Charlie spat into the snow where the hat had landed. Not a fortune.
They watched the young men weave and slip their way through the
snow. I say we leave her.
Leave her? Kerridge asked. What, just here in the snow?
The brothel is just across the square. We can drop her beside the
steps near the door. Well go after those two swells and come back and
deliver her proper-like later.
Kerridge frowned. What if she dies?
Bell grunted impatiently. Well come back later and see. If she meets
her demise, well sell her dead. If she lives, the abbess can sell her
instead. He chuckled. Opportunities like this dont come every day,
Will, my lad. Come on, before this one disappears. You set her down, and
Ill follow the toffs.
Kerridge hurried out of the alley and across the square to the brothel.
He laid the girl in the shadows beside the steps leading to the front door.
It was good and dark here, but he kicked a wee bit of snow over her to
hide heror preserve the freshness of her corpse if it came to thatand
hurried after his partner.
Iain held the innkeeper of The Skalds Cup by the throat. He was a big
man, but he hung in Iains grip like a kitten, his feet six inches off the
floor, his eyes bulging, his face red with fear and the effort to breathe.
Where is the woman who was wearing this? Iain demanded,
holding up the locket hed taken from the young whores neck. He saw
fear in the innkeepers eyes, and the man made a sound of dismay but
stayed stubbornly silent.
Iain dropped him, but only long enough to jab his dirk against the
mans ribs. One quick thrust would drive the blade into the innkeepers
heartor it would if the man had one. Iains own heart was thundering
against his ribs, and he felt his own fear, but for the lass, for Laire. The
innkeeper squeaked as the dirk pressed. The girl from the docks huddled
in a corner and sobbed.
Is she dead? Iain asked through gritted teeth, bracing himself for
the answer. The innkeeper tried to twist out of Iains grip, and he swung
one meaty fist at Iains face. Iain ducked, landed a punch of his own.
Blood spurted from the mans lips, and the whore screeched. The
innkeeper raised his hands to fend off another blow. His hands were
huge, raw knuckled, and dirty. Iains belly curled, imagining Laire
MacLeod at the mercy of those brutal paws. Iain forced himself to
loosen his grip. Hed get no answers if he killed the bastard.
The girl from the docks threw herself on Iain, tugging with all her
might, her eyes streaming. Dont you hurt him! Ill take ye to her if ye
want her so bad, but leave him be!
He let the innkeeper go. The mans knees buckled, and he dropped to
the floor like a sack of meal. The girl knelt by his side.
She isna dead, the girl said, her eyes hard as glass on Iain. She
might have been, if shed stayed on the docks where I found her, or if
shed wandered off into the vennels. Twas clear she didnt know the city
and had no idea of the dangers. She was looking for someone. Are ye
him? Hugh or Harrison? I cant remember. She said ye were her uncle, a
man of science. She looked at him more closely. Ye dont look like
anyones uncle to me, or a man of science. We did her a favor
What kind of favor? Iain asked. He still held the dirk in his fist, and
the girl looked at the blade and flinched. Are ye her uncle? Her
husband?
Iain didnt reply. The girl looked away first. He was neither. He
meant her as much harmmorethan these two did. He kept his
expression flat. Hugh or Harrison . . . She had an uncle in the city.
We took her to a place where shell be warm and cared for, thats
all, the girl said at last. Were not so cruel wed let a lass die of the cold
or worse.
Iain felt his throat close. What kind of place? A convent? An inn?
The innkeeper gave a strangled laugh. A kind of convent, Teuchter. A
house in the old town, one for gentlemen, the kind with money to pay
for the company of a pretty lass like her.
A whorehouse. Iain felt rage and dismay fill his breast. Where? he
demanded again, his voice harsher, gruffer. He closed his fist around the
locket, felt the filigree edges bite into his palm.
It was kinder than leaving her on the street. Someone would have
robbed her, raped her, and slit her throat the innkeeper began again,
but Iain gripped his throat again, stopped his words. The mans face
reddened dangerously, and his eyes widened with fear. The girl scrabbled
at Iains clenched fingers, but he ignored her.
Where?
Let him go! He cant breathe! the girl cried. Stop, and Ill take ye
there.
Iain stared at the innkeeper, wondered how many young women hed
sold to brothels, how many pretty lasses had met Laires fate. The
innkeeper regarded him with fear now, knowing Iain was capable of
ending his misbegotten life with one flick of his wrist. For a moment
Iains fingers tightened, and the man made a soft sound, a plea for mercy
perhaps. Iain forced himself to let go. The innkeeper gasped for air. The
girl fell upon him again, sobbing. He shoved her away roughly.
Get on with ye, take him to her. It wont do him any good now. Shes
been there a day and a night. The abbess doesnt give anyone free room
and board. Shell be working for her supper by now. Still sure ye want
her back?
Iain reached out, caught the girls cloak and pulled her to her feet.
Show me where she is.
As she led him out, Iain looked back at the innkeeper, still slumped
on the floor. If shes been harmed, Ill come back for you. And next time
I have your throat in my fist, I wont let go.
The innkeeper put his hand to his bruised neck and jerked his head
at the girl. Go on.
Iain followed the girl back out into the dark, his dirk still clutched in
his hand, and she hurried ahead of him without stopping, leading the
way through the winding streets. She looked back often, checking to see
if Iain was still with her. He was, mere inches behind. How far? he
asked her. The streets began to look familiar.
Not far now, she assured him. Its in the good part of town. Its
nice there.
He knew. Hed grown up here, partly. It was a neighborhood where
prosperous merchants made their homes, and Highland lairds with
riches enough and the need for a house in town lodged.
Iain held his breath as they entered the square. He resisted the urge
to pull his cloak up around his face as he passed the dark, lightless bulk
of the first house. But no one would be watching for him, not this night
or any other. He fixed his gaze on the girls skinny back and kept
walking.
CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Hurry up! Bear said, shoving his bundle against Wee Kippers back.
Wee Kipper went sprawling, and Bear had to pick him up again. He did it
with one hand, since Wee Kipper was so small and so light. And that was
exactly why he was here, in a dark tunnel under the city. Bear was the
biggest of all of them, strong and powerful, but he didnt like narrow
spaceshe no longer fit the way he once had. Kipper did his best to
hurry, but his legs were short, his own pack was heavy with loot, and it
was so very dark in the tunnel. Coins spilled out of his bundle and rang
against the hard dirt floor when he slipped again.
Hoolet, who was a few yards behind Bear hissed. Be more careful!
she snapped.
How far behind us are they? Bear demanded.
Im not going to stop and look now, am I? Hoolet said. She scooted
past Bear and Wee Kipper and the weight of Wee Kippers pack tipped
him into Bears hard body again. Bear shoved him back at Hoolet. His
nose hit the soft space between her small breasts, and she swatted him
across the ear. Kipper put a hand to his ear, stinging now as well as cold.
If hed had a voice, he would have yelled at her, but hed forgotten how
to speak. That was what made him perfect for the missionsthat and the
fact that he was so very small for his age. Like a mouse, he fit nimbly
into the kind of spaces where people hid valuable treasures and thought
them safe from those like him, Hoolet, Bear, and the other members of
the Clan of Thieves.
Hoolet gathered the spilled coins quickly, then grabbed him by the
collar and pushed him in front of her.
Get on with ye, or theyll be on us. Dyou want to hang?
Wee Kipper was very sure he did not.
He scrambled forward, trying to ignore the cold clasp of the muddy
walls. Hoolet followed him. Behind them, Wee Kipper could see the
grate in the floor theyd hastily lowered back into place. Through the
bars, the flickering light of the torch stretched and reached for them as
men searched the warehouse for the thieves. They werent usually so
clumsy, but it was Wee Kippers first mission and hed been nervous.
Hed knocked over a tray perched on the edge of a cabinet, scattering
silver forks onto the floor.
The watchman had woken at once and several forks had fallen from
his pockets as he reached for the torch, called the alarm, and gave chase.
It took only seconds for Wee Kipper and Hoolet to slip back through the
floor grate into the dark tunnel where Bear waited. They sat silently as
dirt rained down and the floorboards inches above their heads pounded
with angry footsteps. Wee Kippers heart was still pounding. He was glad
it was dark and Hoolet couldnt see the tears on his cheeks, or the fact
that his knees were knocking together so hard he was sure the
watchmen would hear them. When the search retreated, the three of
them slipped away down the tunnel.
The tunnel narrowed, grew small and tight. Wee Kipper crawled as
fast as he could, ignoring the sting of small stones and ice that ground
into his hands and knees. He kept going until the warehouse was far
behind, and it was safe enough to stop and wait to see if their pursuers
had discovered the entrance to the tunnel. All was quiet. Hoolet gave a
cold laugh. Fools. They never guess.
But it was close this time, Bear replied.
It was Wee Kippers fault. At least he didnt scream, she said,
taunting his silence.
No, he didnt scream. If he was caught, he couldnt tell tales or name
names.
Lets go home, Bear grumbled, and Hoolet pushed past Kipper to
the front again, took the lead.
She led them back through the tunnels that the clan had burrowed
under the citythrough basements and under houses and through
ditches. It was a fast, secret way to traverse the city, but one had to be
small and quick. Hoolet paused as she reached the end. They came up in
the ruins of a burnt-out house, under a pile of broken bricks and charred
timbers. Carefully, she lifted the board that covered the entrance and
peered out in the dark. Satisfied there was no one to see, she crept out of
the tunnel.
The whiteness outside dazzled Wee Kippers eyes, and the fresh,
clean air was welcome. He shouldered the pack and followed his
companions out of the ruined house, moving awkwardly under the
weight of his pack over piles of bricks, burnt timbers, and debris, until
they slipped through the fence and came out in the alley. Hoolet paused
at every turn, slipped between the shadows as quick as a cat, as silent as
the owl she was named for.
The square was covered by a glistening carpet of snow. It took Wee
Kippers breath away. The elegant houses that bordered the broad space
were solemn and dark, glaring down at them balefully as they crept
around the edge of the square, past grand wrought-iron gates, marble
steps, and porticos. Only one house was still ablaze with lights, as it was
every night. Those who knew what went on inside it called that house
the Pearl. Otherwise, it was simply known as Number Four King Jamess
Square. Wee Kipper could see people inside as they passed the windows,
heard laughter and music. Chieftain had told him that it was a
whorehouse, a place where men sported with women. And not just any
whorehouseit was the finest brothel in all Edinburgh.
Hoolet spat in the snow and turned her eyes away from the place.
The life of a thief is better than the life of a whore, she muttered. Wee
Kipper knew Hoolets mother had been a whore, and shed died when
Hoolet was just a wee lass.
Wee Kipper was staring at the windows of the magical place and not
watching his feet, and he tripped. He sprawled full length in the snow,
the loot in his pack jangling.
Shh! Hoolet hissed, and Bear groaned. They stopped to wait for him
to pick himself up.
Wee Kipper tried to get up, but between the weight of the pack on his
back and the slippery ice under the snow, it was almost impossible. Once
he would have made a game of playing in soft, fresh snow, of sliding on
the ice, but those days were gone. He was a grown-up now, in mind if
not body. He tried again.
Then he saw ita hand, just peeping out of the snow. The fingers
were delicate, curved, and nearly as white as the snow. He reached out to
run his finger over the pale bumps of the knuckles. The fingers twitched,
and he gaped. It moved again, the index finger quirking, beckoning,
before going still again.
He heard a soft sound, a sigh.
He began to brush the snow away, working quickly. He exposed a
wrist, then an arm, a shoulder, and then a face.
He held his breath. It was the fairest, whitest face hed ever seen.
Wee Kipper frowned, sure she was dead, like his mother and his
sisters . . . But her blue lips parted, and she drew a breath.
Kipper stared down at the pale oval of her face and waited for her to
wake up. The long lashes that lay on her cheeks were crusted with ice
that shone like diamonds in the light that poured from the windows of
the Pearl. She took another breath.
Dont just sit there waiting for your mam to pick ye up, Hoolet
hissed. She couldnt see the lady in the snow from where she stood.
Wee Kipper lifted the frozen hand to show them.
Bear and Hoolet hurried over to crouch beside him.
Its naught but a drunken hoor, Hoolet said, her tone acid. Lets
go.
Bear grabbed Wee Kipper under the arms, hauled him to his feet, and
brushed the snow from his coat. Are ye all right, lad?
Wee Kipper pulled away impatiently and dropped back down beside
the woman. Perhaps she was one of the ladies from inside, and shed
fallen from a window. He didnt careshe was alive, and cold, and she
needed help.
He clasped her cold hand in his, claiming her, and looked pleadingly
at Bear. Bear looked into the womans face. Lord, shes bonny. I dont
know if Ive ever seen a woman so bonny. Is she alive?
Wee Kipper nodded and began to dig the rest of her out of the drift.
He shrugged out of his heavy pack and let it fall into the snow. Hey!
Hoolet cried, but he ignored her.
Whatll we do with her? Bear asked.
One of ye can go up and ring the bell, get them to take her back
inside where she belongs, Hoolet said sharply, kicking Wee Kippers
pack back toward him. Its not our problem, is it? Lets go. Im cold, and
Chieftains waitin.
But Wee Kipper refused to take his eyes off the lass in the snow. Bear
sighed and rose to go to the front door. But Hoolet hissed a warning
when she saw two people enter the square.
Hoolet grabbed Kipper and dragged him into the shadow of the steps,
next to the woman. Bear leaped over the railing and joined them.
The snow crunched under the girls feet, and she paused and pointed to
the house across the square. There, she said. Thats where she is. Its
called the Pearl.
Iain looked up at the lighted windows of the mansion and swallowed.
It was busy. He could see people inside, hear music.
He lied, the girl said to him. They brought her here just tonight,
hours ago. They gave her poppy, so shes probably still asleep. Shell be
of no use to the abbess like that. Not until she wakes up tomorrow. Iain
felt relief hit him like a wave. It wasnt too late.
The girl was watching him, studying his face. He tossed her a coin.
Go, he said, and she was gone in an instant.
He stared up at the house for a long moment, scanning the windows.
Only one was dark. It must be busy, despite the weather. He sheathed
his knife in his belt, the motion swift and angry, and climbed the steps.

Lets go, Hoolet said once the customer had gone inside. She rose and
started forward, but Wee Kipper didnt move.
Bear glanced at him, then looked at Hoolet. We cant just leave her
here in the snow.
Wee Kipper pointed across the square, his eyes on Hoolet.
Nay! Hoolet said. Nay!
Wee Kipper folded his arms across his chest and regarded her
mutinously. He picked up his pack and reached for the straps of Bears.
He looked at the big lad pleadingly. Carry her . . . Bear swallowed, made
a small sound of pity.
The lads right. It would be wrong to leave her.
Hoolet glanced at the lass disdainfully, but Wee Kipper saw her face
soften. She sighed and jerked her head, and Bear bent to pick the lass up.
She glared at Wee Kipper. Youll carry both packs, yours and Bears.
Mind ye dont fall or drop anything, He nodded eagerly and gave her a
quick smile, which she ignored. He shouldered the heavy packs, bent
double under them.
She hardly weighs a thing. Shes lighter than my pack, Bear said.
Chieftainll kill ye both for this, Hoolet muttered, and set off across
the square.
On the far side of the square, they opened a tall, wrought-iron gate
and slipped between two houses. Hoolet hooted like an owl and waited
until she heard a soft chirp in reply. Bear and Wee Kipper followed her
around the back of the house to a small cellar door. Hoolet rapped a
quick, specific cadence. The door swung open, letting a narrow beam of
light rush out over the snow, followed by warmth and the smell of burnt
bacon.
About time. Any problems? Dux asked, holding the door for them.
Hoolet breezed past, her nose in the air, frowning. Bear followed,
ducking under the low lintel with the lass in his arms.
What on earth Everyone in the room crowded around.
Wee Kipper slipped inside and let the packs fall to the floor. His
shoulders hurt, and his ears, feet, and fingers were burning with cold.
Behind him, Dux shut the door and bolted it. Bear set the lass down on
the floor by the brazier. Her head lolled. Was she dead after all?
Whats this? Chieftain asked, crossing to stand over her. He poked
her with his toe. Her brow furrowed, and she sighed. Wee Kipper crossed
to sit beside her, claiming her, showing them all that she was his now.
The little ones hurried over. Och, shes bonny, Fussle said, running
a grubby finger along her cheek.
Magpie poked her frozen hair. She looks like shes made of snow,
she whispered.
Shes as human as any of us, and bonny means naught, Hoolet said,
pouring a cup of ale from the pitcher on the table. She grabbed a chunk
of bread and sat by herself across the room. Bonny is cheap. Just ask
the other whores at the Pearl.
Is she Dux asked, pushing up his spectacles and peering more
closely at the lass by the fire. He picked up her hand, put his fingers on
her pulse. Shes alive, he said.
Go and count what they brought in, Chieftain said, nudging Dux
hard in the ribs. Dux had been a student at the university, but hed fallen
on hard times and was expelled. Chieftain made use of his talent for
numbers and figures, and his ability to read. Dux kept abreast of the
shipping news, knew what cargo was coming in to which warehouse, and
advised Chieftain on what missions offered the best chance of profit
against the possible risk of getting caught and consigned to the tolbooth
and hanged.
Kipper watched Dux cross the room and open the packs. Hoolet
leaned over his shoulder.
Is she sick? Fussle asked, looking at the lady on the floor. Wee
Kipper frowned at him. Of course she wasnt sick. Just lost and cold and
probably afraid. Perhaps her mother was dead too . . .
What if shes a princess? Magpie asked. She was just seven, but her
size and her innocent face made her a clever pickpocket.
Wee Kipper smiled at her.
Shes a whore, Hoolet insisted. We found her at the Pearl. Why else
would she be there?
She wasnt in the Pearl, Bear said. She was outside it. Perhaps she
was lost.
Or drunk, Hoolet said.
Or dying of something catching, Chieftain said.
If shes got something, its probably the pox, Hoolet said. Dux
pulled a length of lace out of one of the packs and held it up. Thats
mine, Hoolet said, and snatched it from him. She went to her sleeping
corner and thrust it under her pallet.
Wee Kipper took the ladys ice-cold hand in his. He turned it over and
looked at the lines on her palm, the way his gran used to do, when he
had a gran. The others crowded to look too. Magpie put her cheek on
Wee Kippers arm. Whats it tell ye?
He smiled at her, and Magpie sighed. Ye see? I said she was a
princess! Wee Kipper thinks we should keep her.
Well decide that tomorrow, when shes awake and can tell us who
she is. Go to yer beds, Hoolet said, coming to gather them for sleep.
Will she be gone when we wake up? Magpie pouted.
Well tie her to her bed, Hoolet said. Bear, put her on the pallet in
Wee Kippers corner. He wanted her herehe can sleep on the floor.
Bear gave a rumbling sigh. Seems harsh, Hoolet. The lad did well
tonight, and it was his first mission.
Is this yours too, Hoolet? Dux asked, pulling a silk gown, pale
green, from the pack of stolen goods. Its very fine . . .
Hoolet snatched that as well, her face flaming. Aye, thats mine, she
said.
Youve not got enough to fill that fine bodice, Chieftain jested as
Hoolet hid the gown away with the lace.
Will I find slippers in here as well, and stockings? Dux asked.
Hoolet was bright red now. She grabbed the pack and took the whole
thing to her sleeping place while the others laughed at her vanity.
Wee Kipper thought the frozen lady would look well in such a gown
with her hair caught up in a sparkling net, the way hed seen fine ladies
of the town wear theirs . . .
Come on lad. Well get her settled and let her sleep, Bear said as he
picked her up again and carried her into the corner where Wee Kipper
slept. He shouldered aside the ragged curtain that served as a door and
laid her down on the pallet. Wee Kipper covered her with his own
blanket.
Shell be fine when she wakes, lad, Bear said. He was nearly
fourteen, big for his age already, and he was kind. Wee Kipper nodded.
Hoolet tied an expert noose, and slipped it around the ladys icy wrist.
She tied the other end around the leg of the table. Kipper sat down
against the wall and watched the lady as she slept. She sighed in her
sleep as if she was glad to be warm at last, and safe.
CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Iain entered the house without knocking. Hed find Laire if he had to
search every inch of the place.
He stopped in the entrance. It was festooned with white velvet
curtains held back with black ribbons. On the wall directly in front of the
door was a painting of a naked woman spread on a fine Campbell plaid
and a pile of furs, her lush red hair splayed around her, hiding as much
as it revealed. So did her knowing smile.
Good evening.
Iain turned. The woman in the portrait stood before him, fashionably
dressed and twenty years older. Even from a distance, the exotic scent of
her perfume rose around him like opium.
Im looking for a lass, he said, his tongue thick and slow. He was
tired, hadnt slept for days, needed a hot meal and a bath, and it was all
catching up to him. The heat of the house, the scent of perfume made it
worse. But he was close to his quarry, and his heart pounded in his
breast. He tried to sense Laire MacLeod in this house, tried to picture
her spread naked on furs and plaids with a knowing look in her eye . . .
He swallowed at the sudden intensity of desireand worrythat
overwhelmed him. He frowned at the woman before him.
She regarded him with amusement, her dark eyes twinkling. Are you
certain?
Dark hair, long enough to reach her hips, pale skin, soft eyes, he
heard himself saying. And lips . . . he paused. Shed be new here. Very
new.
The madams eyebrows quirked, and her smile deepened.
I like a man who knows precisely what he wants. We have a number
of charming ladies here, she said blandly, emphasizing the word as she
flicked one more glance over his black exterior, his weapons, his
unshaven jaw, the snow melting in his hair. He was dripping on her
Turkey rug . . . Perhaps
Her name is Laire, he said. He shook the purse on his belt, let the
woman hear the jingle of silver.
She lowered her gaze, and her lips pursed delicately, as if she were
trying to see through the leather of the purse and assess just how much
coin was inside.
I believe I have what you desire. Will you come upstairs?
She led the way through the tastefully decorated salon, busy with
elegant women entertaining well-dressed customers. Ruby wine
glistened in crystal glasses, and silver trays full of fruit and sweetmeats
adorned sideboards and tables. It all looked quite civilized, a simple
soiree and nothing more.
But the conversation stopped as Iain entered. He knew how he
looked to these folkwild, rough, and dangerous, a Highland marauder.
He glanced at the fine clothes of the gentlemen, the powdered wigs, the
lace and brocade and expensive linen. Hed been one of them once . . .
He glanced at each of the women. They looked boldly back, doe-eyed,
practiced seductresses, assessing his value, comparing him to the
gentlemen already present, and turning away. They assumed hed be
rough in bed, no doubt, and demanding.
Laire MacLeod wasnt here. He almost sighed with relief. Of course,
she wouldnt accept this life demurely. Shed fight . . . She was probably
locked away upstairs, bound and gagged, until she could be induced to
cooperate. Iains belly tensed as the abbess led him up the stairs, her
gown rustling seductively with every step.
Are you new in Edinburgh, monsieur?
No, he said, and left it there. She glanced over her shoulder at him,
but didnt press.
At the top of the stairs, she turned left and picked up a candle from a
low table. Now Iain could hear less civilized noises behind the closed
doors they passed, the sounds of sex and lower pleasures than the
genteel ones offered below. His ears pricked, listening for Laires voice,
her muffled cry of help. At the end of the hall, the abbess stopped at a
door and knocked softly.
Wake up, my dear. Theres a gentleman to see you, she said as she
opened the door. The room was dark. Iain held his breath, his hand on
the hilt of his dirk, expecting trouble. The abbess glided into the
chamber and used the candle in her hand to light others.
He heard someone on the bed stir, heard the ropes creak and the
curtain rings slide along the rail in a series of gentle clicks. He saw the
spill of dark hair on white shoulders in the half-light. Another candle
flared, then another.
There now. This is Laire, the abbess said, smiling faintly. Shes
been with us for only a fortnight.
Aye, Im Laire, the girl on the bed said, but the name stuck on her
tongue, unfamiliar. She began to loosen the ribbons of her night rail.
Iain looked at the lass, and she looked at him. Whoever she was, she
wasnt Lairenot his Laire, or rather, the Laire he wantedthe woman
he was looking forhe didnt want her, not in the sense of this place . . .
he rubbed a hand over his eyes. He was tired enough to drop where he
stood. I want a bath, he said to the abbess. And a meal.
The abbess glided across the room to pull the bell. Anything else?
Iain dropped his pack on the floor, sank into the chair near the bed,
and began to pull off his boots. Nay, thats all.
The lass on the bed came across the room to help him, her gown half-
open, her smile as practiced as her hands. You can go, he said gruffly.
Go? she said, her face falling. She glanced at her mistress.
Is something wrong? the abbess asked.
Nay, he said. I want a bath, a meal, and a nights sleep.
This is not an inn the abbess began, but Iain reached into his
purse and took out a handful of coins.
Will this cover the cost of what I want?
Aye, she said, and took the coins from his outstretched palm. She
jerked her head to the girl and followed her toward the door. My
servants will be up shortly with hot water and food. If you should desire
anything elseanything at alljust pull the bell.
When theyd gone, Iain padded to the window in his stocking feet.
He looked out at King Jamess Square, dark and snowy. It hadnt
changed much, save for one mansion in the far corner that had burned
to the ground, leaving a hole in the elegant symmetry of the square. His
grandfathers househis housestill stood across from the Pearl, dark,
shuttered, and empty. There was still a caretaker, he assumed. He looked
at the window of the bedchamber on the third floor. It had been Mairis
bedroom . . . His gut tightened. She looked up at him before she died, her
eyes dark pools of misery in a bloodless face . . .
He turned away abruptly. He unbuckled his sword belt and let it fall.
Out of habit, he tucked one dirk under the pillow, and put the other on
the nightstand. He unwound his cloak and unbuckled the black leather
jack and pulled it over his head.
There was a knock on the door. Enter, he called gruffly.
A big male servant carried in a copper tub and set it down. He
assessed Iain, took note of the weapons and the leather jack. Mistress
Arabellas compliments, he said, and stepped aside to admit three other
male servants with buckets of hot water. They poured them into the tub
and departed. One returned with a tray bearing a bottle of whisky, a loaf
of bread, and a plate of roast fowl.
Dye want a lass to assist ye with your bath? the big man asked,
standing in the doorway with his arms crossed over his broad chest.
Iain met his eyes. Any new lasses? One that might have come in the
last day, not on the job as yet?
All our lasses are fresh and healthy, if thats what youre askin, but
we havent any virgins, if thats what youre after.
It was a small comfort. He tossed the manservant a coin, and the
man caught it deftly in midair, pocketed it, and left the room. Iain locked
the door behind him.
For a moment he stood in the center of the room and listened to the
sounds of the house. If Laire Macleod wasnt here, where the devil was
she? Had she escaped yet again? Either the lass was incredibly canny, or
she had the devils own luck. Perhaps shed roused from the drug and
convinced her captors to release her, or to escort her to her uncle . . .
Harrison, or Hugh.
Or perhaps she was dead.
Mairis hand had found his at the end, clasping weakly, a wordless
plea as her life ebbed away . . .
He let out a harsh breath and shoved the memory away. He shed the
rest his clothes and settled himself in the hot water and shut his eyes.
But all the hot water in the world couldnt cleanse the blackness from
his soul.
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Laire wasnt cold anymore, but her eyelids were too heavy to lift. She
was lying on something lumpy, and she heard voices, some soft and
quiet, some raised in argument. The sound of conversation rose and fell
as she slipped in and out of sleep. She felt like her ears were full of
water, or soft cloth. She could smell something cooking, or burning was
perhaps a better description, like bannocks left too close to the fire for
too long. She could smell ale, stale and dark, and sweat, damp earth, and
wet clothes hung by the firemade from coal, not peat.
They werent the smells of Glen Iolair, of home. They were the kind
of scents found in the cotts in the village, small places filled with too
many people. Was she in the village? She couldnt remember, and there
was something important she had to remember, something urgentbut
sleep claimed her again before she knew what it was.
When she woke again her body felt like lead. Her mouth and throat
were as dry as dust. Her head felt as if someone was hammering on it
without mercy. She tried to find a more comfortable position, but the
pounding continued.
Someone poked her the shoulder. Cait or Meggie, no doubt. Was it
time to get up? She didnt want to . . . the poke came again, more
insistent, and went on until Laire forced her eyes open.
An unfamiliar face loomed over her, small, sharp, and dark. She
opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came from her parched
throat. The person above hera wee boyalso screamed, his cry as
silent as her own. He scuttled backward, away from her, until he reached
a wall a few scant feet behind him and squatted there, staring at her.
Laire clutched at the blanket that covered her, something threadbare
and rough. Where was she? She turned her head gingerly, saw a curtain
hanging beside her, as tattered as torn gauze. The room she lay in was
tiny, a mere closet, and the rough stone wall on her other side was black
with soot and age.
She was lying on the floor.
She stared at the child who was staring at her. He leaped to his feet
like a frightened hare and fled, bursting through the curtain, letting it
fall behind him.
The sudden burst of light hurt, and Laire put a hand to her eyes,
rubbed them, sure she was dreaming. She fought to remember. Snow.
She remembered snow, and a ship . . .
She sat upright with a gasp. Papa . . .
The curtain parted again. She winced and squinted. The child was
back, and hed brought others. She scanned their faces as they crowded
in, blocking the light with their bodies, peering at her with wide-eyed
curiosity. Most were children, though two of the older lads had fledgling
beards.
Shes awake, one said.
I can see that, cant I? another replied.
What will we do with her now?
There was silence in response to that.
Get back, all of ye. Yell smother her, said an angry voice. A young
woman shoved the others aside and glared down at Laire.
Who are ye? She demanded. Are ye a whore?
A whore? They thought she was a whore? I am Laire Mac the
words dragged like hot coals over the dry flesh of her throat. Im Laire,
she tried again, and shook her head in reply to the second question. She
swallowed. Where am her question trailed off, and the faces around
her shifted as they glanced at each other, quick, canny little looks. Laire.
The whisper of her name passed among them.
The angry lass stepped back to admit someone else, a young man,
slightly older than the others. He was lean and bony, his eyes as sharp as
flint.
Well ask the questions, he said. He reached out to touch her cheek
with scarred and dirty hands. Laire recoiled. The angry lass grabbed his
hand, slapped him away.
Shes obviously mad. Look at her eyes. Its drink or drug . . .
No, Laire shook her head again, through it hurt to do so. Is there
water?
The lass looked amused. Water? Theres snow aplenty. We could
send ye back where ye came from . . .
But the wee boy was back again, worming his way past the others to
reach her. He had wide green eyes, freckles, and dark hair that needed a
comb. He thrust a cup into her hands without speaking. Water . . . she
swallowed it greedily. Without a word, he took the cup and went to get
more. Laires eyes felt heavy again, and she tried to force them open, to
focus on the strangers around her.
Och, well get nothing out of her now. Let her sleep. Well make her
talk tomorrow, the hard-eyed lad said, and disappeared.
Make her talk? Shed gladly talk. She remembered the boat and the
docks. Was she still in Edinburgh?
The sealgair. Hed been chasing her, had been standing on the dock
in Inverness as she sailed away . . . Had he caught her after all, made her
drink Bibianas potion? She put a hand to her aching head. Is he here
the sealgair? She croaked, but they looked confused.
I must go. She pushed the blanket aside and tried to rise. She had
to find her uncle, get help before it was too late. But something held
tight to her wrist. She saw the rope tied there and stared at it in surprise.
Was she a prisonerhis prisoner? How . . . ? Nothing made sense. Her
mind moved like treacle, thick and slow.
The lad retuned with another cup of water, knelt before her, offered
it to her, but she pushed it away. I must find . . .
But the child put his hand on hers, patted her wrist. He didnt smile
or speak, but she read concern in his green eyes, understood his
attempts to comfort her.
He wants ye to be still, another child said, a wee girl.
The boy nodded.
Hes called Wee Kipper. He doesnt talk, the girl said.
The older lass pinched the boys ear. He can talk. He just doesnt
want to. Saw something so horrible it stole the words right out of him.
The wee lad ignored her, though Laire watched a blush spread over
his pale cheeks.
Im called Magpie, the other child said. Youre very bonny, even if
ye are a whore.
Im not a whore, Laire repeated. I must find my uncle . . .
Your uncle is it? the girl demanded.
Am Iam I a prisoner? Did the sealgair bring me here? she asked.
Is thisa madhouse? Shed heard of such places, that cities had them.
A madhouse? the young woman began to laugh. A madhouse, she
says, Dux. What dye make of that? she called to someone behind him,
someone Laire couldnt see.
It is a madhouse, Hoolet. After a fashion, came the reply.
Whos the sealgair? Magpie asked, but because she was wee, no
one answered.
Youre not a prisoner exactly. More of a guest. the older lad with
the sparse beard said.
A guest, Laire managed. Then I can leave if I wish?
The hard-eyed young man returned and glared at Laire. Yell stay
until we decide ye can go. Finders keeperswe found ye, saved ye, and
now ye owe us something for our kindness.
Room and board, the voice called Dux said.
Laire swallowed. I can pay, she said. I have a purse of money.
She could tell by the dark scowl on the faces around her that it was
gone.
I had a cloak, a dirk, and . . . She reached for the locket, but that was
gone as well. She stared at the ragged band around her and realized she
had even less than they did.
Ye had a cloak, but naught else. We found ye in the snow, snoring
like a stoat. Drunk, were ye? the girl asked.
No, Laire said. I only drink water . . .
The girl smirked. Wee Kipper crept forward and began to arrange the
threadbare blanket, tucking it around her.
He wants you to go to sleep, Magpie said. Ye do look dreadful
weary . . .
She was. Her head ached, but she pushed the blanket back again.
Nay. My unclehe can pay you, she said. Sir Hamish MacEwan.
And where might we find him? At the Pearl? the girl demanded.
The Pearl? Laire frowned.
He lives in Edinburgh. Am I still in Edinburgh? Ive come a long way
to see him.
Hoolet frowned. Then give us his direction. Well have him send his
coach-and-four to fetch ye. Shall we ask him for a proper silk gown and a
fine pair of slippers too?
Coach-and-four . . . she remembered the lass on the dock, the inn
shed taken Laire to. Shed been hungry, had devoured the bowl of stew
they placed before her. Laire rubbed her forehead, tried to remember
beyond that, but there was nothing.
Nay, she murmured. Nay. Sir Hamish is my mothers brother. Hes
a man of science. He studies medicine, and books, and
Have ye ever heard of Sir Hamish MacEwan, Dux? the girl asked.
Cant say I have, came the reply. The girl looked back at her with
dark distrust.
They didnt believe her. They thought she was a whore . . . Laires
face flamed. But Wee Kipper slipped his hand into hers, sat down beside
her, and stared at his friends. Dont mind Hoolet. Wee Kipper likes ye,
Magpie whispered.
The older lass disappeared, and Laire heard her muttering as she
moved around whatever space lay beyond the tattered curtain.
Laire forced herself up, rose unsteadily, though her head spun. She
brushed the curtain aside and emerged into a large, square room with a
low ceiling. A lad with spectacles sat at a table, sorting silver teaspoons
and making note of the tally in a ledger. He paused to push his glasses
up his nose and peer at her.
Where am I? she asked again. Who are you?
Magpie twirled one of her curly red locks around her finger. Were
the clan. We live in a very grand houseone of the finest in all
Edinburgh. Well, part of it. But nobody else lives here, so why shouldnt
we? Theres an old woman who lives upstairs. She thinks were rats or
bogles, and stays away. She has her part of the house, and we have ours.
Dont be tellin our business to strangers, Hoolet admonished the
child.
But shes not a stranger. Shes Laire.
Shes naught but a
Laire held up a hand. Nay, she said firmly, her chin high. My name
is Laire MacLeod. My father is the MacLeod of Glen Iolair. Hoolet fell
silent, her lips pinched so tightly there was a ring of white around them.
She crossed the fireplace in the corner and took the lid off the pot that
simmered there. The smell of burnt food filled the room, but she
scooped a ladleful of the pots contents into a bowl and thrust it at Laire.
Here. Yed best eatbut dont think we wont expect the cost of your
meals paid in full.
Laire peered into the chipped bowl. A strong smell of burnt oats rose
from it, and she made a face.
Dye think ye could do any better? the girl demanded.
None of us can cook, Magpie whispered. Wee Kipper nodded.
Laire took note of the thin bodies, the pronounced cheekbones, the
sallow cheeks.
I can cook porridge, Laire said. And bannock, and bread, stew, and
oatcakes.
Ye can? Magpie whispered. Better than Hoolet? Like my mam
used to?
Laire nodded.
The lad at the table chuckled. Ye hear that, Chieftain? She can cook.
The young man glared at her. Then she can prove it. She can pay us
back by making the meals. He folded his arms over his thin chest.
Well look for your uncle, but until we find him, yell stay and work for
your keep.
Can ye make tarts? Magpie asked. Kipper nodded eagerly.
Aye, if you have apples, or berries, Laire said.
We will have, Hoolet said. Go out and fetch some, Magpie.
The child made a face, but rose obediently. Wee Kipper rose as well,
but Hoolet put a hand on his shoulder. Not you. Ye were on the mission
last night. Let Magpie go.
Mission? Laire glanced around her.
Chieftain laughed. Aye, mission. Were thieves, mistress. Does that
frighten ye? He sketched a mocking bow. I am the Chieftain of the
Clan of Thieves. This is Hoolet, Dux, Wee Kipper, Magpie, Bear, and
he paused. Wheres Fussle?
Hoolet sighed. Probably up in the library again, with his nose in a
book. One of these days hell be caught for sure.
Ill fetch him, Dux said. He rose, crossed the room, slipped behind
another curtain, and disappeared. All the corners of the room were hung
with tattered curtains of various fabrics, like mismatched tapestries.
The biggest lad, called Bear, was on his knees, wrapping Magpie in a
cloak. The child had empty bags over her shoulders under the garment.
Be quick and be smart, he said, and unlatched the door. A gasp of icy
air swirled snow across the threadbare carpet that covered the rooms
dirt floor. The child went through it, and the door closed behind her, and
Bear locked it again. He turned and gave Laire a grin. I carried ye here.
Can ye really cook?
Laire looked at the fireplace, at the rudimentary and very dirty
cooking equipment. I can, but first, everything must be clean. Have you
got water for washing, sand to scrub the pots, soap?
Hoolet? Chieftain said.
Hoolet rolled her eyes. All right, Ill see to it, she snapped. She
pushed aside the same curtain Dux had and disappeared into a dark
corridor.
What will ye make first? Bear asked.
Stew, she said. If theres meat.
Chieftain looked at Bear. Bear?
But I was on the mission last night, Bear said.
Chieftain held up a coin. Then buy what we need if ye cant pinch it.
Bear took the coin with a sigh, donned his cloak, and unlatched the door.
Suddenly a strange wail filled the small space, unearthly and
haunting. Laire felt the hair on the back of her neck rise. Chieftain
grinned. Its just Hoolet clearing the way, letting the other resident of
this fine house know were coming.
A few minutes later, Hoolet reappeared. She had a large pot in her
hands, a sack of flour, and a small boy, held by the ear. Dux followed
with a handful of carrots and turnips. Fussle was in the library, right
where I expected.
The lad looked rebellious. He pulled away and stood in the middle of
the floor. Make yourself useful. Go get some snow for water, Hoolet
told him as she set the pot on the table with a clang, and turned to Laire.
There. Now cook.
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Iain woke at the knock on the door. He heard the key in the lock before
he could answer. He slid his hand under the pillow and gripped the dirk.
The abbess entered carrying a tray. She set it down on the table and
closed the door.
She slid an appreciative glance over his naked chest as he lay propped
on one elbow, still in bed, the dirk in his hand.
Good morning. If youre to stay any length of time, I think
introductions are in order, she said. Im Janet Fairly, the proprietor of
the Pearl, though my clients know me as Mistress Arabella.
Lindsay, he said gruffly. He set the dirk aside and rose, wrapping
the sheet around his hips.
She crossed and sat down in the chair by the fire, poured coffee into
two cups. You said you were looking for a lass.
Aye, Iain muttered. She has dark hair, violet eyes, and shes about
so tall . . . He held his hand up to his shoulder. Shes a Highland lass,
fresh off the boat.
Pretty? Janet asked.
Aye, Iain said. Beautiful.
Janet Fairly sipped her coffee. I was telling the truth when I said she
isnt here, Lindsay. What made you think she was?
I was told she was brought here.
I see. I assure you that you have been misinformed. I am a
businesswoman. I can see you have the means to pay me what such a
lass is worth, despite your rough appearance. I would be a fool not to
negotiate if I had her, but alas, I cannot sell what I do not have. Is she
your wife or your sweetheart, this runaway Highland lass of yours?
No, he said brusquely. He sipped the coffee, picked up a bun still
warm from the oven and studded with currants, slathered it with butter
and jam, and devoured it
Whoever she is, youre fair bristling with concern for her.
Ive been tasked with finding her, thats all.
She frowned slightly. You dont strike me as the kind of man who
does anyones bidding, if you dont mind my saying. Has she money,
connections, or is she alone?
Iain felt cold dread in the pit of his stomach. Connections, but she
was robbed. She has an uncle in townHugh or Harrison, I was told.
Hes an educated man, a scientist or a physician, perhaps. A gentleman.
She looked at him appraisingly. I could have one of the lasses cut
your hair and shave you if you like.
He rubbed a hand over the long stubble on his jaw. That bad, am I?
Youd have more success getting answers if you didnt look quite so
dangerous. While youre being barbered, I can make a few . . . discreet . .
. enquiries.
Id like to stay for a few days if I may. Ill pay you, of course.
Of course, she said. Will this room do?
Aye.
He rose and went to the window and looked down at the square. He
watched a small girl race across the snowy expanse, her russet cloak
flying behind her. She dropped somethingan appleand went back for
it before hurrying on. She disappeared between the houses.
He rubbed his bearded chin.
As a sealgair, Iain wouldnt be welcome in the grand houses of
Edinburgh, but as Iain Lindsay, all doors would be open to him. He
stared at the front door of the house across the square. Hed closed that
door seven years ago, never expecting to open it again. That part of his
life, his soul, was dead.
But to find Laire MacLeod, hed have to go back to his old life once
more.
Aye, he said to Janet Fairly. You may cut my hair.
For a fee, she said.
For a fee, he agreed.
CHAPTER NINETEEN

Laire cooked stew with turnips and carrots, and made jam tarts. All
seven of the odd collection of children and young adults tucked in to the
meal, and for the first time since Laires arrival, the room was silent
except for chewing and the clatter of spoons on plates.
She also busied herself repairing some of the clans tattered clothing.
Wee Kipper had worn through the knees of his breeches, and Fussle had
holes in the elbows of his jerkin. Magpie had nearly grown out of her
gown, so Laire added a length of colored fabric from one of the curtains
to the bottom. Hoolet watched her as she stitched, but looked away
every time Laire tried to catch her eye.
Is there anything for afters? Something sweet? Dux asked
hopefully after devouring three plates of stew. The little ones drowsed,
leaning on each other. They looked full, sleepy and content, their cheeks
rosy for once. Tomorrow theyd have clean, mended clothes to wear. It
made Laire feel useful. Shed been here for a day and a night, and more
time was passing . . . At Glen Iolair, the snow would be falling, binding
the castle in a grip of ice and cold. Were her sisters warm? Was her
father out hunting? Not this winter. She pricked her finger with the
needle and winced.
The clan had promised to help her find Uncle Hamishtomorrow,
when they woke in the afternoon, after sleeping part of the day away
after a mission tonight.
She looked at Duxs hopeful face. Behind his wire spectacles, he was
little more than a boy himself, a lad who liked sweets.
I was hoping there might be some spices for the tarts, Laire said,
regarding the wee pile of apples that Magpie had brought back. They
taste very fine with cinnamon and sugaror some honey.
They have spices upstairs, in the kitchen, Hoolet said though a
mouthful of food. Whats cimm-a-mow look like?
Its reddish brown, like your hair.
Hoolet ran her hand through her curls.
Perhaps you should take Laire with ye, Dux suggested.
Upstairs? Hoolet said, her eyes as wide as an owls.
For apple tarts, Id send her to the palace, Dux said.
I want an apple tart, Magpie said sleepily.
Tomorrow, Hoolet said to the bairn. She looked at Laire, her eyes
narrowing to slits. The old woman upstairs goes out early most days, so
well go up as soon as she leaves. If ye try to run, Ill gut ye, is that
clear?
Laire gave her a sweet smile. Aye, but wholl make the tarts then?
Hoolet looked away first.

Hoolet led Laire up the narrow stone stairs that led from the cellar to the
back of the basement scullery. The thieves had made their home in the
lowest room in the house, the one usually used for storing coal, or
brewing, or laundry.
Hoolet paused at the top of the steps and sounded her ghostly call.
For a moment she stayed still and listened. Nothing, she said at last.
The old womans out. She spends a lot of time at the taverns, since
theres not a lot for her to do here. There was a manservant, but hes
gone. She grinned. He decided the house was haunted, didnt like it
here. The woman has been harder to shift. I think she might be deaf, but
Chieftain says shes just lazy or stubborn. We watch over the place well
enough. Its our home. If she knows were here, it suits her to ignore us.
She called again, a long, fearful moan, just to be sure the poor deaf
housekeeper was out. Nothing stirred in the empty house around them.
Laire held her breath as they stepped into a small scullery. Pots and pans
lined the shelves along the wall, and a row of plain plates and bowls
stood on a sideboard. Most were dusty from lack of use. She doesnt
bother cleaning anymore. No one comes here.
Laire wondered what would make someone abandon a fine house.
She followed Hoolet silently.
Since theres no one here, theres something I want ye to see,
Hoolet said. She darted through the scullery and out into the kitchen.
The fire stood carefully banked. Hoolet pointed. Theres the pantry. Its
locked, but I know how to pick a lock. Well come back later for the
spices.
Hoolet led the way up the kitchen stairs to the main floor. Beyond
the door at the top was a grand hallway. There were portraits on the
walls, grim faces that glared down at them, powerless to stop the
invasion of the unwanted visitors. Hoolet hurried past them without
looking. Laire mouthed a silent apology as she rushed to keep up.
Dining room, salon, and the library, Hoolet said as she hurried past the
doors. She paused at the librarys double doors and pushed them open.
This is where Fussle likes to hide. He and Dux read books. I dont
see the point of it myself. She swept along the shelves that lined the
walls of the big room, running her hand over the leather spines of the
books and twitching the dust covers on the backs of the high-backed
chairs. The fine wood floor was bare, the carpet was rolled up and stored
against the wall.
Fine isnt it? Bet yeve never seen the like of it. Hoolet said.
Laire didnt reply. It was a grand room in a grand houseas grand as
her fathers castle, home. Someone had collected all these books, had
lived here . . . Where were they now? She imagined Glen Iolair like this,
empty and abandoned, the family gone, or worse . . .
Hoolet grabbed her sleeve. Dont stand there gawkin at the air!
Come on. Laire followed her back to the corridor and along to a grand
foyer. The floor was made of colored marble tiles here, and a wide
staircase climbed toward a domed skylight three floors above them.
Snow clung to the leaded panes, edging them with fine white lace and
casting delicate shadows on the walls and floor. Hoolet started up the
steps, and Laire did her best to keep up and not gawk.
Every footstep echoed through the empty house like thunder, and
Laire bit her lip, aware she was trespassing. Surely only tragedy or
illness would make someone leave such a house. Papa had always
protected his daughters from such thingsuntil Bibiana. Tears blurred
her vision, and she stumbled.
Keep up! Hoolet admonished in a whisper that echoed.
Hoolet ran lightly along the gallery of the second floor until she came
to a set of double doors. They keep these rooms locked, but thats no
problem. She withdrew a scrap of metal from her bodice and worked it
expertly into the keyhole. The lock opened with a click, and Hoolet
swung the doors wide.
The bedchamber beyond was glorious. A full tester bed, swagged with
fading brocade curtains, took up half the room. A vase filled with long-
dead roses stood on a table by the bed under a portrait of a young
woman. A dusty mirror stood in the corner, reflecting the presence of
two slim, shadowy figures creeping in on tiptoe.
Hoolet crossed to a second door, this one unlocked, and opened that.
The hinges creaked an objection. Laire saw a dressing room beyond
containing a wardrobe, a dressing table, and a round copper bath in the
corner, empty and tarnished.
Hoolet went directly to the wardrobe and opened it. Look. Laire saw
the beautiful dresses inside, shimmering silk, dazzling brocade, fine
wool, and glowing velvet. More still were sealed in muslin bags.
Hoolet pulled out a blue silk brocade trimmed with white lace. She
went back to the bedchamber and stood in front of the dusty mirror,
holding the gown before her. What I want to know is if ye can make me
a gown like this one, since ye can sew so well.
Laire gaped at the beautiful gown, at the expensive fabric and the
delicate stitches that adorned the sleeves and bodice. Not like this, she
said. She could sew a fine seam, fix a hem, adjust a bodice, or fix a tear,
but she couldnt make a whole gown. She imagined her sisters reaction
to the beautiful dress. It would match Meggies blue eyes, suit Caits
slim figure . . .
Hoolet sniffed and tossed her head. I thought not. And if youre
wondering why I dont just take this one, its because we have a pact. We
dont steal from this house, and we protect it from those who would.
This is our home. Were safe here. Borrowing a pot or a pinch of spice is
one thing, but a gown like this She ran her hand over the soft fabric,
longing clear in her eyes.
Try it on, Laire said. Hoolet looked at her as if she were daft. What
can it hurt? Theres no one here, and the lady who owns it has probably
forgotten it. Trying it isnt the same as taking it if we put it back
afterward. Ill help you with the laces.
Hoolet blinked like the owl she was nicknamed for. She bit her lower
lip, considering. Then she looked at the gown again, and pulled her own
tattered dress over her head.
Iain stared at his face in the mirror when the girl finished shaving him.
Hed given up his own name, had stopped being Iain Lindsay, the clean-
shaven respectable gentleman he saw in the glass seven years ago, in
Paris, and had become the sealgair. He never thought hed see his own
face again.
He turned away and crossed to the window. Below, three children
threw snowballs at each other. Hed seen the small girl with red curls
before. Today she was with two small lads. He glanced around the
square. Which house did they live in? There were only four houses on
King Jamess Square, and one stood destroyed by fire, a mass of black
timbers and broken bricks. They could not have come from the Pearl,
surely. The third house was empty, the inhabitants away, and Lindsay
House was lonely and forlorn . . . but the door opened as he watched,
and a woman came out. She was bundled against the cold, but he knew
Morag Lindsay, though she was older now. She pocketed the key, made
her way across the square, and disappeared. Morag was still there, after
so many years . . . He scowled at the house. The shuttered windows
scowled back. It looked neglected, guilty of all the sins and sorrows that
had occurred inside its walls. It was a fitting place for the Lindsays of
Craigmyle . . .
The Pearl was near silent around him as the lasses slept after a busy
night. Theyd wake again at dusk to preen and prepare for the hours of
business.
Hed occupy his day and his night in searching for Laire MacLeod. He
looked up at the sky, clearing at last after two days of snow. Had she
found her uncle or a safe place? His gut tightened, imagining her fate.
Hypocritewhat right had he to worry over her fate, to fear for her? He
was the one she was running from.
He looked at the little alabaster box, removed from his pack and
waiting on the table to be filled. Bibiana wouldnt wait forever . . .
He reached into his pocket, felt the locket there. He imagined putting
the locket into her fathers hand, telling him his daughter was dead.
Would Donal MacLeod even remember Laire? He shut his eyes, felt
shameand deep sorrow.
He looked across the square again.
He picked up his cloak and left the room.
Hoolet stood silently, staring at her reflection in the mirror. Laire swiped
the dust away so she could see the vivid color of the gown better.
I lookbonny, Hoolet said on a sigh.
Laire smiled. Aye.
Like I could go to a ball or a fancy party, Hoolet murmured, her
eyes still on her reflection. I look at them sometimes, ye know. I peek
through the windows of the grand houses, watch the fine folk inside
dancing and drinking and laughing. They have no idea Im there. Lasses
like me are invisible to them. She ran her fingertips over the
shimmering brocade. But theyd notice me in this gown, they would.
She dipped a graceful, practiced curtsy.
They wouldnt be able to look at anything else, Laire said. That was
what Meggie always said when she tried on a new gown . . .
Hoolet looked at her, the scorn gone, though her expression was still
guarded. I have a gown of my own. A green one. I took it on one of the
missions, fair game, from a trunk in a warehouse by the docks. I have
some lace too, and ribbons. I thought that someday she paused. I
thought that someday Id make that gown look just like this one, and Id
go to a ball, slip in, be inside the window, where the candles are, and all
the music, and the fine food . . .
Now that I can do, Laire said. Will you show me the gown? My
sisters and I share our clothes. We pass our gowns around, change them
to keep them new, add things, take things away to suit each of us. Aileen
my eldest sisteris a fine seamstress. Her fancy needlework is a good
as any on the gowns here in this room.
Hoolet gaped at her. Truly?
Laire smiled. Aye. Now sit down, and Ill tie up your hair. My sister
Jennet is the one of us thats truly gifted with hair, but Ill do my best.
Hoolet grinned, her wary face opening with a genuine smile for the
first time, and slid onto the small chair that stood before the dressing
table. Ooh, the stays pinch!
You dont need them. Youre slim enough, Laire said.
Aye but they give me Hoolet blushed and clasped her hands to
her upthrust breasts, piled high above the low neckline of the gown.
They both laughed.
There was a soft sound below, the squall of hinges, and the sound of
footsteps on the marble floor of the foyer. A door shut, and the sound of
it echoed through the house like a pistol shot. Laires eyes met Hoolets
in the mirror, and they froze.
Someones here, Hoolet whispered.
They waited, holding their breath, as someone walked along the
corridor.
Then they heard the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs.

The key was hidden in the usual place, and Iain stared at it in his palm
for a moment before he inserted it into the lock. He pushed the door
open, his gut tight, his foot hovering over the doorstep for a moment
before he entered. He felt like a thief in his own house.
He looked around the foyer. Nothing had changed, save for the fact
that much of the furniture had been removed to storage, and what was
left stood draped and ghostly in white sheets.
He closed the door behind him and walked along the hall to the
library. His books were still here. He breathed in the familiar smell of
the leather bindings and old wood, overlaid by dust. The rugs were rolled
against the wall, the furniture pushed to one side. Dust crouched thickly
in the corners. He pulled down the drape that protected the portrait of
his grandfather over the fireplace. The old chieftain glowered down at
him with the familiar mix of iron pride and deep disapproval.
Iain turned his back on the old man and wandered through the other
rooms. They stood just as empty, just as dusty. He went back to the foyer
and stared up the long flights of steps to the skylight. He looked behind
him at the front door, considered turning around and leaving.
No, not yet. He gritted his teeth and began to climb.

The footsteps were climbing the stairs, measured and heavy.


That isnt the old woman, Hoolet whispered in a panic. She
shuffles, mumbles to herself. Well have to run for it.
There isnt time, Laire whispered back, clutching the hairbrush
tight. Well have to hide, and hope she couldnt say it.
Hoolet spun, looking for a place to conceal herself. The blue gown
rustled, the faint sound loud as a shout. The doors of the bedchamber
stood wide open to the hall. Anyone passing would see them inside the
room.
They dove into the dressing room. Laire moved to close the door, but
the hinges squealed, crying out for oil. It would have to stay open. They
hid behind the door, pressed against the wall.
The slow, deliberate footsteps paused at the top of the steps. Hoolet
drew a sobbing breath. Theyll hang us! she hissed, holding Laires arm
so hard it hurt. Laire felt an icy trickle of sweat creep down her spine.
The floorboards creaked under the intruders feet as he came closer.
Laire held her breath, willed him to pass by the open doors of the
bedchamber. But he stopped. Hoolet clasped a hand over her mouth in
terror. Laire peered through the crack between the hinges and waited.
She had no weapon save for the hairbrush, no explanation for why she
was inside this house . . .
Then he stepped into the room. Laires bones turned to water, and
she sagged against Hoolet in horror. The sealgair stood in the middle of
the room. His gaze flicked over the bed, the dresser, the writing table. It
stopped on the vase and the dead flowers, and rose to the portrait. He
stared at the pale painted face, and Laire held her breath and waited for
him to turn and draw a dirk, stalk toward the dressing room with deadly
intent. This time she couldnt fight him. Not with a hairbrush, not with
Hoolet to defend . . . But he didnt come. He stood where he was,
mesmerized by the portrait.
He looked different, clean-shaven, his hair well-trimmed, though he
still wore his black garb. He didnt belong here. He was too tall, too dark.
He took up all the space in the delicate room, all the air. Laire couldnt
breathe, and her heart was hammering against her ribs so hard she was
sure hed hear it, but he stood where he was, staring at the portrait and
frowning. She saw his throat bob as he swallowed. Every line of his body
was tense, as if he feared this room, and that painting.
He reached up a hand, brushed his fingertips over the painted cheek.
He knew her. Laire frowned.
Then he dropped his hand and turned away from the painting, looked
toward the dressing room. Laire held her breath, felt a scream gather in
her throat. Hoolet was trembling, her hand clamped over her mouth, her
eyes huge in her pale face. Laire stared at the sealgair, at the shadowed
plains of his face, the fine bones of his jawbut that jaw was tight, his
expression grim. He lookedafraid.
Instead of walking into the dressing room, he backed away, moving
toward the door. He stepped out of the room and pulled the doors shut
behind him, and Laire heard his footsteps retreating, hurrying down the
stairs.
Surprise coursed through her. Hed been afraid, vulnerable, human.
Her grip on the hairbrush slackened. That was the man shed met in the
wood, the one whod swiped a drop of blood from her cheek, the man
whod rescued her, aided her. He wasnt the terrifying sealgair who told
her he meant to hunt her down and kill her.
When the front door shut below, Hoolet let out a terrified squeak of
breath. She began to undo the laces of the blue gown, her fingers
shaking.
I thought he had us sure! Dye think hes a watchman? Ive got to
warn Chieftain and Fussle . . . what if he catches the lad in the library?
Laire swallowed, her throat rough. He wasnt here for you, Hoolet.
Its me he wants.
Hoolets brow furrowed, but Laire didnt offer a deeper explanation,
couldnt. Laire grabbed her arm. Come on, wed better go afore he
comes back.
As they fled the room, Laire glanced back at the smiling woman in
the portrait. She was pretty, her hair strawberry red, her skin as pale and
perfect as new cream.
He knew this beauty. She was sure of it . . .
She hurried after Hoolet and wondered just who the sealgair really
was.

Iain strode through the streets of Edinburgh, walking fast, not noticing
or caring where he was going, just anywhere away from Lindsay House.
Hed made it as far as Mairis chamber. Her portrait had stopped him
that lovely face, the soft smile that had always stirred his heart. He felt
regret and deep sorrow. The anger was gone, as dead as Mairi herself,
but the guilt, soul searing and raw, remained. Hed never be free of it.
One thing had struck him when he looked at Mairis portrait. Hed
loved her, but as a prize, as someone hed known all his life. Hed
married her because it was expected of him, and because his half brother
tried to take her from him. Iain had wonor thought he had. His belly
clenched with the familiar ache. Shed been in love with David, the way a
woman loves a man, not a lad shed grown up with and wed out of duty.
But neither brother had loved her as she deserved.
Only one woman had affected him the way a man should be affected
by a woman. He remembered the shock that had run through him when
his eyes met Laires in her fathers hall, the sudden punch to the gut, the
surge of interest, the recognition that this woman was different. And
desire. There was desire as well . . . He curled his hands against his sides,
realized hed stopped in the middle of the street, and walked on. Hed
denied the meaning of that look, but he recognized it now. Hed never
felt that when he looked at Mairi.
He couldnt kill Laire MacLeod.
Nor could he continue to serve Bibiana, not even for the last few
months of their agreed-upon contract. He could not endure any more
blood or death.

He regretted going to Lindsay House, opening the past and all the pain
hed locked away. He needed clothes, something fine and fitting for
calling on the merchants and gentleman who knew Donal MacLeod, for
his search for Laire. His chamber at Lindsay House was full of all the
fine clothes hed left behind.
Hed found the door to Mairis chamber open and made the mistake
of going into the room. It led to his own apartments, connected through
adjoining dressing rooms. The armoire still blocked the way, and he
remembered when shed ordered it moved to keep him out, afraid of
what hed do when he discovered the secret she was keeping . . .
He paused again, leaned against the wall of a house, and scanned the
street around him. He was miles from Lindsay House. He ran a hand
over his face.
He had to find Laire MacLeod.
Not to kill her, but to save her.
CHAPTER TWENTY

So you see why I must find my uncle, Laire said, pacing the floor of the
cellar. Chieftain frowned. Hoolet was holding back tears. Fussle was on
watch at the steps that led up to the scullery, and Bear stood by the back
door, ready to open it so they could flee if the sealgair found his way
into the clans lair. Magpie was blinking back tears, and Wee Kipper had
a large spoon clutched in his fist and looked ready to fight. Dux was out
on an errand.
Witches and poison, Chieftain murmured, rubbing his chin.
And Highlanders with dirks, Bear said.
He was huge and all black, Hoolet said, her eyes wide. Im still
shaking.
Ye shouldnt have done it, Chieftain said angrily. Ye shouldnt have
gone upstairs at all. Ye went up for spices. Did ye get them?
Hoolet looked at him as if he were daft.
He pointed at Laire. Shes put us all in danger. She should have told
us some bastard was hunting her. And now hes found her, hes found
us. I say she goes, now, tonight.
We have to have a vote, and Dux isnt here, Bear said.
A vote? Chieftain said. Hell murder us all. Highlanders are
heartless killers at the best of times, and when their ires up
I vote we keep her, Magpie chirped.
Youre too young to vote, Chieftain told her. As leader of the clan, I
vote for ye.
The little uns go on missions the same as the rest of us. They
should have a say, Bear argued.
Chieftain looked at Hoolet. How do you vote?
Hoolet looked at Laire. She stays.
Aye, that goes for me too, Bear said.
And me, Magpie said. And Wee Kipper, too.
Fussle? Chieftain said.
What? Fussle said, staring at the door at the top of the steps.
Hoolet rolled her eyes. We still have to wait for Dux.
Laire regarded the clan. Youve all been very kind to me, she said
politely, and reached for her cloak. Thank you for your hospitality, but I
think it would be safer for all of you if I go.
Wholl bake us tarts? Magpie wailed.
Wee Kipper frowned and shook his head at Laire.
Ye made me a promise, Hoolet hissed.
Laire felt tears sting her eyes.
I vote we make Laire part of the clan, Magpie said.
Och, aye? Thats a whole different vote, Chieftain objected. I still
think . . .
There was a knock on the door, three sharp raps, and they jumped
nervously. Its just Dux, Hoolet said. Bear opened it.
Just in time. Were having a vote, Bear said.
But Dux unwound his scarf and grinned at Laire. Never mind thatI
have news. I found him, Laire. I found your uncle.
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Iain prowled the streets, walking alone in the dangerous darkness. He


couldnt bear sitting in his room at the Pearl, listening to the sounds of
sex. The idea of going back to Lindsay House had even less appeal,
though he still needed clothes. Tomorrow, hed call on whatever
associates of Donal MacLeods he could find. He would announce
himself as a friend of the family, though he was hardly that. Even if
shed had time to warn them to expect a sealgair, an assassin, they
wouldnt be expecting a gentleman, the laird of his clan, a wealthy,
educated man in fine clothing.
He still had the problem of the alabaster box.
Bibiana would expect him back soon, with Laires heart in the wee
casket. The longer he delayed, the worse her revenge would be. He
looked over his shoulder even now. He had days left at best . . .
He had to find Laire and send her far away, somewhere Bibiana
wouldnt find her. Hed go to Craigmyle, do his best to make peace with
his half brother, warn him . . .
And then?
His future stretched before him, bleak and lonely. He looked down at
the dark water of the river, thick and cold and oily in the dark.
He heard the splash up ahead and saw the shimmer of ripples
spreading outward from the bank in the pale moonlight. Haul her out,
a gruff voice said, the sound echoing off the dark buildings that lined the
bank.
Shes heavy, someone in the water said. He cursed, struggling.
Shes not been dead long, but her clothes are soaked.
Iains belly tightened, and he drew his dirk, crept closer.
He stood in the shadows and watched two men wrestle with
something in the water.
A body . . .
They hauled it up onto the bank, and water poured off it like silver
paint in the moonlight. Iain saw a white limb fall away from the bodya
lifeless handand a tangle of long, dark hair. His gut tightened. The man
in the water struggled to peel the corpses clinging locks of hair away
from his own flesh, grimacing. His teeth chattered as he climbed onto
the bank.
Iain crept closer.
Two men leaned over the body, holding a lantern aloft, but the dead
womans head was turned, her neck twisted unnaturally, and Iain
couldnt see her face.
The lantern bearer chuckled as he poked at the body. Nice and fresh.
Not more than a day or two in the water, Id say.
Iain felt his stomach drop to his feet. No. No, not like this . . .
The other man looked into the face of the corpse. Pretty.
Dye think the quacks care if theyre bonny or not?
The wet man sleeked water off his face and shrugged. Might pay a
bit extra. He lifted the corpses arm and checked the pulse, even though
it was obvious the woman was dead. The lantern illuminated the drape
of a lace cuff against the blue flesh of a delicate wrist.
Iain slipped silently up behind the cove with the lantern and slipped
the dirk under the mans chin. He grunted in surprise.
Keep still, Iain warned.
The man on the ground rose slowly, his hands spread wide. We
didnt kill her, I swear. She was already dead. We just found her.
Shes ours, The man in Iains grip growled.
Turn her into the light. I want to see her face, Iain said, and braced
himself.
The man on the ground cupped her chin and turned her toward him.
Her lips were blue, her face ash gray. It wasnt Laire. Relief flooded
through Iain, made him shut his eyes for an instant.
The man on the ground moved fast. Iain felt the blade slice into his
thigh. The pain was instant, and he fell to one knee, his teeth gritted.
Then he felt a knife under his own chin.
We dont want no trouble. This body will fetch us a good price.
Were poor men just trying to make a living, and the surgeons at the
medical school will pay a fortune for one this fresh.
On his knees, Iain was inches from the dead lass. He looked into her
sightless eyes, milky in the lamplight, and swallowed. She wasnt Laire,
but she had belonged to someone. Now, she was just a lass.
Just a lass . . .
I need her heart, he said.
The body snatchers looked at one another. Her heart? What for? Did
ye know her?
I can pay, Iain said, ignoring the question. What do ye get for a
body?
Intact? the wet one asked.
The man with the knife laughed and shook his head. More than
yeve got, Teuchter.
Iain fumbled for his purse. He tore it off his belt and tossed it at their
feet. The coins inside jangled together. I only want her heart. Ye can sell
the rest.
It was cold, craven, and cruel, but hed been cruel before, and this
lasss heart would appease Bibiana. It would buy him time . . .
The knife stayed hard against his windpipe as they counted the silver
coins. He heard a thin whistle. Take it all. Put the heart in the purse
instead, he said.
He turned away while they peeled opened her sodden garments and
opened her chest. At last they thrust the purse into his hand. It was
heavier now. He forced himself to his feet and bit back a gasp at the
white-hot pain in his leg.
They tell us its how doctors learn, the wet man said as he closed
the womans garments over the gaping hole in her breast. They cut up
dead bodies, see how things work inside. Cant bring em back to life, but
they might find something to save someone else. If she was yours, Im
sorry for your loss.
She wasnt mine. Iain hesitated. Im looking for a different
woman. Dark hair, pale skin. A Highland lass.
The wet one shook his head. This is the first lass weve found in a
month.
The other man brandished his knife under Iains nose. No more talk.
Ye got what ye wanted. Now go. Dont come back here again or Ill gut
ye.
Iain tied the heavy purse to his belt and limped away.
He made it back to the Pearl, but the knife wound made his progress
slow. By the time he arrived , he could feel blood squelching inside his
boot. Mistress Fairly saw him climbing the stairs and summoned a pair
of strong lads to help him before he attracted the attention of her
customers, or bled on her fine carpets. She followed with a tray of
bandages and a bottle of whisky.
Drop your trousers, she ordered. Iain wondered how many times
shed said that before. Still, he did as he was told, hiding the purse under
his discarded clothing.
The manservant drew a ragged breath through his crooked teeth at
the sight of the slash, but Janet Fairly regarded the wound without a
hint of emotion. Hmm. Long and bloody, but not deep enough to kill ye.
It will need stitching.
She opened the bottle and poured a dram of whisky. Is there any
chance the one who did this followed ye here to finish the job?
Iain shook his head. She handed him the cup, and he drained it in a
single swallow.
Hold him still, she said to the biggest manservant.
No need, Iain said, gritting his teeth. She raised her brows but
dismissed the men.
Should I ask how this happened? she said as she threaded the
needle.
No, he said. The whisky was warming his limbs nicely, though it did
little to dull the pain as yet. Ill take another dram before ye start
sewing, he said, and she obliged him.
She poured a third cup when he drained that, and emptied it over the
wound to clean it. It burned like fire, but he trapped his tongue behind
his teeth and stayed silent.
She smiled. Brave man. I know men who cry like bairns at a
scratch.
She took the first stitch, watching him. He held still, though it was
far worse than the sting of the whisky. So did ye find the lass you were
looking for?
Nay, he said through gritted teeth.
Pity, she said. I may be a businesswoman, but I do enjoy tales of
true love now and then.
Its not like that, he said. She came to find her uncle.
AyeHugh or Harrison, the man of science. So who is she, this
dark-haired lass?
A woman in trouble, he said.
She looked up for a moment, gave him a knowing smile. Then youre
a hero, are ye? Rescuing damsels in distress?
Something like that. He glanced at his torn, bloody trousers on the
floor. The pouch was still tied to them. He felt anything but heroic. He
waited in tense silence for her to finish.
I made some enquiries for you.
The whisky was taking effect now. Oh? he asked.
There are, of course, many men of science in Edinburghdoctors,
astronomers, physicians. But it seems one man knows them all. He
holds a weekly salon when hes in town. Sir Hamish MacEwan.
McEwan, Iain said.
She smiled softly and studied her fingertips. Hamish iswasan old
and rather dear friend of mine once. I havent heard his name
mentioned in many years. She shrugged and began to wrap clean linen
over the wound. He lives in Saint Georges Square. Ill lend you my
coach, since you can hardly walk with this. You should stay off it for a
day or two, but ye wont, will you? Iain didnt reply. I thought not, she
said as she tied a knot in the bandage. Just be careful not to tear the
stitches. She took the bottle off the tray and left it where he could reach
it.
My thanks, he said. Shall I give Sir Hamish your regards?
She smiled faintly. I doubt hed remember me. Still, I hope this will
lead you to your bonny lass. I do love a happy ending.
Iain drank down another swallow of whisky. How dye know shes
bonny? I didna say she was.
She gave him a knowing look, and he felt himself blushing. The
whisky was to blame for that, he told himself, not the remembered
sparkle of Laire MacLeods violet eyes, the lush curve of her lips . . . Liar
she was all he thought about.
Janet caught the look and chuckled. Oh, I can see shes bonny
indeed. I hope ye find her before someone in my profession does.
I intend to. No offense.
None taken, she said easily. A lass should have a choice. I take
good care of the women in my employ, and they are safer here than
theyd be on the streets.
She looked at him thoughtfully. Tell me, Lindsay, are you a good
choice, or a bad one? You look like a hard man to me, a rogue. Perhaps
this lass doesnt wish to be found by you. No offense.
He raised the whisky glass to her. None taken. Ive sworn off
women, he said. I was married once.
As was I. When he died, he left me this house, but not a penny to
run a household. So I took a lover, and when he died, he left me a very
expensive necklace as a parting gift, and I started a business. Needs
must. And your wife?
Dead, he said flatly, and poured more whisky. It slopped over the
edge of the glass slightly, but Janet didnt scold.
I wish ye better luck with your next wife.
There wont be a next time for me. Im not the marrying kind. I have
a job to do, and then . . . He let his voice trail off.
Janet frowned. Oh, that would be a pity. If ye need companionship,
or employment, Ive always got room here.
He swallowed more whisky. His head buzzed pleasantly as the pain
in his wounded leg diminished. Ill keep that in mind. Thank ye for your
hospitality, but Ill be leaving tomorrow.
It was time to go, to return to Lindsay House.
He lay back with his head on the pillow and was fast asleep before
she left the room.
In the morning, he carefully tucked the lasss heart into the alabaster
box with all the reverence he could give it. He wondered if someone was
looking for her, worried about her, and he felt a moments sorrow for all
the lasses he hadnt helped. Bibianas victims.
He closed the box and slid the small gold latch into place. He asked
the manservant for Sir Hamish MacEwans address on his way out. He
hired a carriage, made his way down to the docks, and found a tavern by
the water. He inquired about a ship to Inverness and someone willing to
carry a package to Lady Macleod at Glen Iolair.
Then he went back to Lindsay House and let Morag make a fuss over
his unexpected reappearance before he changed his clothes and left to
see Sir Hamish.
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Iain found St. Georges Square and Sir Hamish MacEwans home. It was
a fine townhouse, four stories tall and made of yellow brick stained with
soot. It had an air of gentle refinement and comfort. He looked up at the
windows that faced the street. With luck, Sir Hamish would know
someone who knew a man of science named Hugh or Harrison, kin by
marriage to Donal MacLeod.
He rubbed his chin and straightened the fine lace cravat at his throat.
He had only one dirk, and it was concealed under his fine, sober,
respectable coat. The elegant clothing felt unfamiliar after so long, and
the tailored coats that had once fit him perfectly were now tight across
his shoulders. His knee breeches bunched over the bandage on his leg,
even without the added muscle on his thighs. Seven years as a sealgair
had sculpted his lean body, added muscle.
Even dressed as a gentleman and the rightful laird of Clan Lindsay,
he knew he still looked like a lone and dangerous wolf, a man who had
gambled his own soul and lost. He half expected a burly manservant take
one look at him and toss him off the step and onto his ass before he
could even give his name.
He pursed his lips and limped up the steps anyway.
He lifted the doorknocker and let it fall.
A wee ball of a woman in a frilled bonnet opened the door. Yes? she
said crisply, regarding Iain suspiciously. She clutched a hand to her
shawl, drawing it protectively close to her throat.
Iain forced himself to smile, but that seemed to make the womans
fears all the worse. She closed the door ever so slightly and stepped back,
peering through a narrower crack.
My name is Iain Lindsay. Is Sir Hamish MacEwan at home?
Nay, he is not. She moved to shut the door. He put his hand against
it before it closed. She made a small sound of surprise.
When may I call to see him?
He wont be back today, or tomorrow either, she said. I have a
pistol. Kindly remove your hand or Ill shoot ye.
Iain would have laughed if her expression had not promised she
would do so.
He stepped back and the door banged shut. He heard the locks slide
into place.
He retreated down the steps and paused to scowl at the house. An
uneasy feeling settled in the pit of his belly at the delay. Finding Laire
wouldnt be as easy as hed hoped. It could take days, perhaps weeks.
But by then, Bibiana would realize he wasnt coming back, and if she
guessed that the heart didnt belong to Laire MacLeod, shed come to
find out why.
And she wouldnt be pleased with the answer.

I asked some old friends at the medical school. Sir Hamish lives on
Saint Georges Square. Everyone knows him, Dux said, leading Laire
through the Edinburgh streets the next day. Wee Kipper skipped beside
them. He holds a salon for colleagues, professors, and even students on
Thursday afternoons, and today is Thursday, he said happily.
He ducked between buildings and down vennels and crooked streets,
past houses, shops, and kirks until they arrived at another square. He
pointed at one of the tall townhouses. Its that one. I hope youll
introduce me to him. I do miss medical school.
Laire smiled at him. Of course I will. Ill tell him you rescued me.
Wee Kipper tugged on her cloak, and she took his small hand in hers.
And you of course, Wee Kipper. You most of all.
He nodded proudly.
She gazed up at the windows of the tall house. She was finally here
and safe at last.
She picked up her skirts and hurried toward the steps.

Iain turned to go, lost in thought, and collided with someone. He felt the
surprised exhalation of breath on his cheek, and instinctively grasped
her elbow to keep her from falling. She wore a black cloak, the hood
pulled over her head, half covering her face, and it fell back as she tilted
her head to look up at him.
He stood in shock for an instant, staring down into Laire MacLeods
violet eyes. He watched them widen, saw her cheeks blanch and her lips
part to scream.
Laire . . .
Something small and hard hit his leg. He gasped as his wound caught
fire, flared to agony. He let go of her arm. He glanced down and saw a
small boy holding tight to him, his wee face ferocious.
Laire reached for the child, her face anguished, her eyes wide with
terror, but before she could grab the boy, a young man, blond and
bespectacled, grabbed her and began to drag her away. She resisted, her
face crumpling.
Iain tried to move toward her, but the boy latched onto his hand and
bit him. The child fought like a wildcat, kicking and using his fists to
pummel Iain. The red mist of pain thickened, and Iain did his best to
hold the child away from his injured leg without hurting him. The young
man was pulling Laires hand, but she was fighting him. There were
tears in her eyes . . . the lad was speaking to her urgently, refusing to let
go of her.
The child. She is trying to reach the child, he realized.
She met his eyes, her expression fierce, full of anguish and warning.
Iain felt his face fill with blood. Does she think Id harm a child? The
child was harming him. The boy bit him again, and kicked at Iains
injured leg. It hurt like the bloody devil . . . Iain grabbed the lad by the
back of the collar, lifted him off his feet, and held him away. Still, the
boys fists swung at him, and his teeth were bared, his face red with fury
despite the cold. He didnt make a sound.
Iain looked at the young man, who peered back at Iain through dusty
spectacles, his expression hard, resigned. He was abandoning the boy to
save Laire . . . He put his arm around her waist and tugged her into an
alley and was gone.
The boy still swung at him, even at arms length and out of reach. His
green eyes were full of murder.
Easy, lad. Ill not hurt yeor her. Where did she go? he asked. But
the boy twisted in his grip, refused to speak. He was light as a feather, all
wee bones and wide eyes and no substance at all.
Iains leg was bleeding again. He couldnt pursue her in this
condition. He felt frustration well and cursed silently, mindful of the
childs tender ears. The boy kicked again, hit a rib this time.
Iain tucked the child under his arm, hailed a carriage, and ordered
the driver back to Lindsay House.
CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Chieftain stood in the middle of the floor, his face red with fury. Bear
looked sorrowful. Fussle and Magpie were sobbing. Hoolet was
glowering at Dux, who looked guilty. Silent tears rolled down Laires
face.
She should have left the clan when she knew the sealgair had found
her, and not endangered them. What could Wee Kipper do against a full-
grown man? Hed held the child by the scruff of the neck like a lost
kitten . . .
Ye shouldnt have taken the boy with ye, Chieftain railed. He
canna talk, but he can still show the bastard where we are. Were done
for. The old woman nearly caught Fussle in the library this morning. She
was dusting fit to burst, and ye know what that meansher masters are
back.
Dux removed his spectacles and swiped at his eyes.
I didnt mean for Wee Kipper to get caught, Laire said. I would
have gladly taken his place. I dont know how the sealgair found me.
She was trembling, and it had nothing to do with the cold.
He was just waiting there, Dux said. Standing right by the steps of
Sir Hamishs house, like he knew shed come.
We should have known when we saw him here, upstairs, Hoolet
said. She looked at Bear and Chieftain. He was eight feet tall and built
like a blockhouse. He had hands as big as whole hams . . . and hes a
Highlander. Ive heard they eat children. Hell make a meal of poor Wee
Kipper.
Magpie began to cry harder.
Im a Highlander, Laire said fiercely. We dont eat children. We
protect them with our very lives. She had barely recognized Bibianas
sealgair today, dressed in fine clothes. Hed looked like any other
Edinburgh gentleman. Well, not any otherhed always stand out in any
crowd.
Hed been as surprised as she when she ran into him outside her
uncles house. Shed watched his gray eyes widen. Laire. Hed breathed
her name. His grip on her arm hadnt been hard . . .
Would he truly harm a wee boy?
She fingered the edge of her cloakhis cloak, the one hed wrapped
around her shoulders on a cold night when she was frightened, to warm
her and protect her . . . Which was he, brute or gallant? It was time to
find out.
Poor Wee Kipper, Hoolet said, turning away from the others so
they wouldnt see the glitter of tears in her hard eyes. We dont even
know where the beast has taken him.
But Laire knew. Or at least she had an idea. She shut her eyes,
rubbed them with her finger and thumb, numb with loss, fear, and
worry. She was weary to her very bones, tired of running and hiding.
Hed be waiting for her. No doubt he expected her to come for the boy.
She would not sacrifice his life for her own.
The clan continued to argue. Unnoticed, Laire got to her feet and
walked toward the stairs.
CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

His leg burned, and the pain made him dizzy. He was sure Janet Fairlys
careful stitches were torn and the wound was open again. But he
couldnt leave the boy alone, for fear hed escape. He was the only link
he had to Laire. If the child trusted him, he might lead Iain to her. So far
he hadnt said a word.
For now they sat together in the dining room of Lindsay House,
supping on Morags roast chicken. For such a small child, the boy ate
like a starving Highland warrior.
He heard the door open, and expected Morag.
Instead, Laire MacLeod stood there.
Iain felt his throat dry. For a long moment he held her eyes, saying
nothing, and she hesitated in the doorway. He watched her hand curl
against the wood of the frame, and his heart kicked against his ribs.
The boy looked up from his meal and saw her. He dropped the
chicken leg in his hand and ran to her. Iain rose, leaned on the edge of
the table. She dropped to her knees and hugged the child, her long
fingers caressing his hair.
The child pulled back, pointed silently, and tried to draw her to the
table, but she rose to her feet and stayed where she was, her eyes on
Iain.
Ive come to take his place. Let him go. Her voice was smoky and
soft. She raised her chin, and he looked for a weapon, but her hands
remained by her sides, empty, and there was no bulge in her sleeve. She
was trembling slightly, afraid, but determined not to let it show. He
noted the throb of the pulse at her throat. He couldnt move from where
he was, didnt dare. He stood, but his leg ached, wobbled under him. If
he fell, shed take the child and run . . . He eased his weight slightly and
pressed his knuckles on the surface of the table. He held her in place
with his eyes. Will ye sit down? he asked politely.
She surveyed the table, the fine china, the silverware, the half-
finished chicken on the boys plate. She glanced at Wee Kipper, and he
tugged her hand again. This time she came to stand at the far end of the
table.
He doesnt speak, Iain said, running his eyes over her. He felt the
same shock of awareness hed felt the first moment hed seen her at
Glen Iolair, the instant, undeniable, desire. It came with a feeling of
relief so strong it nearly toppled him. She was here and safe.
No, she said. Hes called Wee Kipper. Hes only six.
The boy shook his head and held up seven fingers.
You fed him? she asked.
He was hungry, he said simply, though he knew what she was
thinking. Hes a child, Laire, he said, and she looked away, ashamed,
and relieved.
Thank you, she said. She was wary, her eyes ringed with dark
circles, her body as tight as a bowstring. Not the Fearsome MacLeods
innocent, confident daughter now. She looked fragile and beautiful. Her
spine was stiff, as if the core of steel he remembered was all that held
her up. He stayed perfectly still, felt sweat on his forehead and warm
blood on his thigh. The boy was oblivious as he returned to his seat to
continue devouring his dinner. Iain saw Laire note the childs ease and
swallow. Her brow furrowed slightly, and she looked at him again,
curious nowor suspicious. Her fingertips met at her waist.
For the first time he wondered how shed simply appeared in his
dining room. He hadnt heard the door.
How did you find me? she asked.
I might ask you the same question. Did you follow me here?
She blushed, and looked at her hands. How did you know Id be at
my uncles? she countered.
Your He paused. Sir Hamish MacEwan is your uncle?
Hes my mothers brother.
He looked up at the ceiling, tempted to laugh. Your uncle is away
from home, or so I was told when I called on him this afternoon. She
blanched, and he saw the misery in her eyes. Thered be no salvation
there, no sanctuary.
My father, my sistersare they . . . ?
They live, he said, though he had no way to know that was true. Her
shoulders drooped with relief, and he saw the telltale sparkle of tears in
her eyes. She closed them for a moment, refusing to let them fall.
Is thisis it Bibianas house?
Its my house, he said. She looked surprised.
But the room upstairs, the beautiful gowns . . .
He felt the shock of that go through him. Now how did ye know
about that? he asked in a quiet voice, studying her. Wee Kipper looked
up at her with interest.
She glanced at the boy, then looked away quickly, fixing her eyes on
the wall, and didnt reply.
The clothes upstairs belonged to my wife. His tone was gruff, hard-
edged. He watched her cheeks bloom with hot color again, and her eyes
flew to his.
Your wife, she murmured, scanning his face. He didnt want her
pity. He wasnt going to explain himself.
Sit down, Laire, he said, annoyed.
Tell me your name, she said. I only know you as the sealgair.
My name is Iain Lindsay.
Iain Lindsay, she repeated. I suppose I am now your prisoner. Let
Wee Kipper go.
He opened his mouth to speak, but the door opened again and
banged against the wall. A ragged young man entered, pushing Morag
ahead of him.
He held a dirk to her throat.

Laire jumped as the door burst open. Hoolet, Bear, Dux, and even Fussle
and Magpie entered the room, holding dirks and weapons. Chieftain had
the old woman, who was pleading for mercy. Give us the lass and the
boy and well let the old woman live, Chieftain said.
Laire looked at the sealgairIain Lindsay. He hadnt moved. For the
first time she noted he was sweating and his skin was pale, though his
eyes were hard as flint. Are these friends of yours, Mistress MacLeod?
Bear waved his knife, but Iain Lindsay stood where he was, leaning
on the table, though he looked neither fearful nor angry.
Aye, she said. She turned to Hoolet. Hoolet, Wee Kipper isnt a
No names! the girl hissed.
Bear crossed the room, grabbed the boys shoulder. Come on, lad.
Were going.
Hes welcome to stay, Iain said. But his voice sounded hollow.
His gray eyes rolled in his head, and Laire watched as he toppled
backward into his chair. He reached down under the tablecloth and
brought his fingertips back bloody.
CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Bear and Dux carried Iain through to the library and laid him on the
settee while Morag screeched and cried and fluttered around her master.
Laire took Hoolets knife and used it to slit the leg of Iains breeches.
Bear whistled at the sight of the wound. Morag fainted in a heap.
That doesnt look good, Hoolet said, pointing at the ragged scraps of
broken thread that edged the wound.
Leave him and lets go, Chieftain sneered. He cant come after us.
Laire frowned. We cant just leave him. What if he bleeds to death?
Its not so bad as that, Iain murmured. He lay on the settee and
stared at Laire as she leaned over him. Even after so long in the city, she
smelled of the Highlands. He shut his eyes, ignored the pain and
breathed her in. Shed go now, flee again, and hed lose her . . .
He needs to be stitched again, Dux, she said firmly, and Iain opened
his eyes again. Ive seen plenty of Highland warriors and men with
sword wounds and knife gashes. If it bleeds too much, or if the wound
becomes corrupt, hell die. My sisters the healer, but I know that much.
She wasnt going anywhere. He didnt know whether to be grateful or
horrified. Her eyes were on the young man with the glasses, and Iain
watched as the lad turned as pale as the dusty draping cloth that covered
the rooms sparse furnishings
Youre as close to a doctor as we have, Dux, Laire said when the lad
didnt move.
Icant, Dux said. He looked around at the others. The sight of
blood makes me sick, he admitted. Tis the real reason I left medical
school. I faintlike her. He pointed at Morag.
Then yell stitch him, Hoolet, Chieftain said. Hurry up about it.
He was the only one who hadnt put his weapon down, Iain noted.
Me? I canna sew! the girl cried.
Laire rolled up her sleeves, and Iain saw the determination in her
eyes, the way her lush lips were pursed.
You? he asked. She met his eyes.
Aye, me. Are ye afraid? I can sew, and Ive seen it done. We need
clean linen and she hesitated.
Whisky, Iain mumbled. Pour whisky over the wound to clean it.
The needle as well. Theres a sewing basket is in the cabinet in the
corner with needles and thread.
Laire crossed and found it. A half-finished baby gown made of fine
lawn lay inside the basket. Iain looked away. Use it as a bandage, he
snapped.
Bear handed Laire a flask, and she kept her eyes on Iains as she
poured the spirit over his leg, her hand shaking. He held her gaze, and
she winced more than he did. Now sew, he said, taking the flask from
her. He drank a long swallow. Your pardon, but I hate this part.
Hoolet gasped as the needle went into his flesh. Laires hands were
warm and steady and her long hair tickled his naked thigh. It shouldnt
be erotic, and it wasnt, really. It was Laire. He took another swallow of
whisky and shut his eyes.

Laire saw his eyes close. She was hurting him, though she went
carefully, was as gentle as she could be. She braced her hand against his
thigh. His skin was warm, hairy and the muscle was hard as iron. Was he
as hard all over? She felt a flush of heat rise in her belly. She ran her
eyes over his chest, the width of his shoulders, the flat, linen-clad plane
of his abdomen.
He shuddered, and she glanced at him. He was staring at her, and the
look in his eyes was unreadable, intense. It was the way hed looked at
her the day she saw him hunting in the wood. Hed touched her cheek . .
. She felt her skin tingle, felt her body heat, bloom with awareness of
him. She could smell his skin, the familiar masculine scent of him,
learned from wearing his cloak. She was aware of the heat of his flesh.
She concentrated on the next stitch, and the next. He didnt move. She
finished and cut the thread carefully with Hoolets dirk. She was
trembling, and her body buzzed with awareness. The air between them
crackling. She could feel his eyes on her, smell the whisky on his breath.
Now what? she asked Dux, her voice thick and low timbred. My
sister would put a poultice on it, but I dont know what herbs to use, or
how to
Douse it with more whisky and bandage it, Iain said gruffly. Tis no
worse than any other wound Ive suffered.
Have ye had a lot of them? Magpie asked, coming to peer at the
wound with round eyes.
Iain smiled at the wee girl, a smile of such gentleness that Laires
heart contracted. Aye, a few. He showed her a scar on his the palm of
his hand, and Magpie giggled.
Laires hands shook as she bound the wound.
He brushed his hand over hers, caught her fingers when she finished.
The shock of the simple touch ran through her limbs like liquid fire. She
met his eyes. Thank ye, he said quietly. He tried to sit up.
No, Laire said, putting her hands on his shoulders. It brought his
face very close to hers. She heard his intake of breath, saw his pupils
flare to consume the gray of his eyes. Ye must lie still, she said, her
voice a mere whisper.
He sank back obediently, and she rose, moved away, wiped her hands
and tried to regain her composure.
We must go. The wee ones need sleep, Hoolet whispered.
Stay, Iain said gruffly. His voice was thick with whisky and sleep. It
vibrated through Laires body. She turned to look at him. He kept his
eyes on hers. There are empty rooms here, room for all of yeguests,
not prisoners, he said, with his eyes on hers. Yell be safe here, I swear
it. Stay.
She saw the truth of that in his eyes, and the yearning. It made her
throat close.
Stay? Dye mean up here? Hoolet said. How grand! Might I have a
room of my own? Laire tore her gaze away from Iains.
Chieftain scowled. We have our own place. Lets go.
But the wee onesthey could have a real bath, Hoolet said. So
could I.
Fussle frowned. Not me.
Ye can read all the books ye want, Hoolet promised.
Then Ill stay, Fussle agreed. Can I go downstairs and fetch my
whistle?
And just like that, the truth was out. Laire glanced at Iain. They all
looked at Iain. Be my guest, he said blandly.
Morag chose that moment to wake with a shriek.
Tis all right, Morag. These are my guests. Theyll need rooms, Iain
said.
Rooms? For how long, Laird? the old woman asked, confused. Bear
helped her to her feet.
Laird? Laire looked at Iain, but he didnt react.
I dont know yet.
Laire can help ye cook, and sew, Hoolet told Morag eagerly. The
wee ones can fetch and carry, and Bear can do any heavy lifting . . .
Morag set her fists on her hips and glared at Hoolet. And what can
ye do, missy?
Hoolet frowned at her. Me? I can slit a throat or a purse with one
single swipe of my dirk.
Morag paled. I dont know where yeve been all these long years,
Laird, but yeve made some very peculiar friends. Id best find some
linens.
Hoolet herded the children upstairs.
Well, Ill not stay, Chieftain said proudly. Bear? Dux?
The other two looked at each other. I for one would welcome a night
in a real bed, Dux said.
Bear nodded his agreement, and they left the room to follow the
others upstairs.
Chieftain shoved his dirk into his belt and stalked away in the
direction of the kitchen, cursing.
Dux? Bear? Magpie? Iain asked Laire after theyd gone.
Clan names, she said. In case theyre caught.
And do you have a clan name?
She shook her head and glanced around the room, but they were
alone. I should have asked them help you upstairs to your chamber
before they left, Laire said. I can help you if you like.
Id crush ye, he said. Ill sleep here. I have before.
Youll need to rest your leg so it heals this time.
He sighed. I can, now.
Now?
I had to find ye first. I trust yell still be here in the morning?
She looked around the grand room, thought of the clan sleeping
upstairs. She felt safe for the first time in weeks.
Aye, she said. Ill still be here.

Laire tiptoed down the stairs an hour later, carrying a blanket for him as
an excuse. She really wished to thank him. Shed checked on the wee
ones and found them asleep, looking content and happy, in a bed big
enough to hold six children their size. There was no mission tonight, no
danger. Hoolet had a room to herself with three fine wool blankets,
plump feather pillows, a lace coverlet, and plenty of privacy.
Dux found a room with a desk and books and was happy. Bear snored
in a chamber meant for a lass, wrapped in pink sheets and surrounded
by flower-sprigged bed curtains.
Laire paused on the threshold of the library. She cleared her throat as
she entered, but Iain Lindsay didnt move. His big body overfilled the
delicate settee, and moonlight filtered through the windows,
illuminating his face as he slept. He looked younger. She stared at the
planes of his face, the fullness of his lips, the kink in his once-broken
nose. He had a fine face. A lairds face.
She tucked the blanket around him and tiptoed out of the room.

Iain heard her enter the room. He kept his eyes closed, not wanting to
talk now. She was safe tonight, and he was drunk, and his leg still hurt
every time he moved. He feigned sleep for those reasonsand because
the moment hed heard her footsteps on the stairs, arousal stirred. He
was stiff as a pole and hoping she wouldnt notice. He wondered why
shed come. Perhaps shed thrust a dirk between his ribs for his sins. He
lay still and waited, but instead she draped a blanket over him and
tucked him in. No onenot even his motherhad ever done such a
thing for him. His grandfather had forbidden such coddling. Iain
wondered what the old man was thinking now, glaring down at Laire
from his portrait. Iain was glad of the blanket, for it hid his bodys
response to her. He kept his eyes closed and his teeth gritted as she
stood over him. He could hear her breathing in the silent dark, smelled
her skin, clean and sweet, heather-scented. Her hands were gentle as she
smoothed the blanket over him.
For a moment she stood in the moonlight and watched him sleep.
What was she thinking?
But she tiptoed out without saying a word.
CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

Iain spent two days on the settee in the library while the clan of youthful
thieves and cutpurses made his home their own, filling it with laughter
and noise. He didnt mind. He watched Morag and Hoolet and Laire tend
the children, reading to them, making sure they ate welland God knew
they needed good food and plenty of it. Laire herself barely ate anything.
There were hollows of worry under her eyes, and she started at small
noises outside like an anxious doe.
He watched her pace the floor in the library, her face drawn with
worry that shed hide whenever one of clan walked in. The odd collection
of young folk had forged themselves into a family. Their original kin
were forgotten, their lives raw and dangerous. Yet they cared for each
other, their bonds stronger than the blood ties of Iains own family.
But Laire knew such love. Away from her kin, she gave her love
generously to the Clan of Thieves and cared for them like her own. Iain
learned to watch for her smile, anticipate the way she brushed Wee
Kippers hair or played with Magpie.
Chieftain still refused to come out of the cellarexcept for meals.
Hoolet and Bear watched for him anxiously. The lad was young, perhaps
only eighteen or so, but he was already a hard man, sly and cunning,
because that was the only way he knew how to survive. Iain thought of
his own privileged childhood. Hed been his raised as his grandfathers
heir when his parents died, the eldest surviving son. And when his half
brother had arrived, the son of a woman his father had loved better than
his own wife, their grandfather had seen it as a way to make Iain harder
and stronger, to forge him into an iron leader. Hed encouraged constant
competition between his grandsons until theyd grown to hate one
another.
Mairis love had been the final competition . . .
He watched Laire MacLeod now, standing by the window, peeping
out at the world from behind the curtain. She was beautiful, brave, and
loyal to a fault. He knew she was thinking about her family. She was
powerless to stop their destruction. He knew that, tooall too well. And
he knew shed never accept it.
He winced at the hope in her eyes when she came to him after the
others had gone to bed one night. He heard her footsteps descending the
stairs, and his heart kicked in anticipation of seeing her. This time, hed
keep his eyes wide open. By the time she stood in the doorway, his heart
was pounding, his mouth dry. She stirred a desire he thought long dead
nay, this was a feeling hed never known. It was new and intense,
painful and thrilling and dangerous. He curled his hands against his
sides, against the longing to reach for her, pull her into his arms, and
kiss her senseless.
How is your leg? she asked. Perhaps you should have had a
doctor.
Im a Highlander, same as ye. We dont use doctors.
It had been three days. He sat up and flexed his leg, not letting her
see that it still ached. It was better, and it would heal.
She perched on the edge of the chair next to his settee, her eyes on
the bandage under his clothes.
It will heal on its own, he said irritably. He wasnt part of the Clan
of Thieves, and he didnt need mothering. He didnt want her to care
about him. It made him want more from her, something he didnt
deserve, wasnt worthy of.
She was silent for a moment. He watched her worry her lower lip
with sharp white teeth, and he knew she was wondering if she could
trust him. He was, after all, Bibianas servant, or he had been. No more,
but he didnt tell her. It was better for both of them that she didnt trust
him, kept her distance.
Do you know how to stop Bibiana? she asked suddenly, and he
looked up at her, met the same damned foolish, unshakeable
determination in her eyes that hed seen when shed bound him in the
woods.
There is no way. Let it go, he said softly.
Her brow furrowed. How can that be? There must be
Why? Because theres always been a way before, because theyre the
Fearsome MacLeods, and theyve never been vanquished?
Yes, she said fiercely. My father
Not this time, lass. Its too late. It was too late the minute Donal set
eyes on Bibiana, and she set her sights on him.
Tears sprang into her eyes, sparkled on her lashes. Nay! She got to
her feet and faced him. I refuse to believe its too late!
He shook his head. Even you arent safe. Not here. Ye must go,
Laire, fleesomewhere very, very far awayand forget the past, he said
harshly. Bibiana doesnt like problems. She doesnt like to lose. She
doesnt like betrayal.
Shell lose this time, Laire said, folding her arms over her chest.
She was stubborn. He refrained from saying it, knowing how much
pain she felt. Shed lost everything, everyone, she loved . . . Find a ship,
sail away. Dont come back. Think of them as dead.
The tears were rolling down her face now, but she stood before him,
fierce as a warrior, her face flushed to scarlet, her violet eyes wide. We
are the Fearsome MacLeods. I am a Fearsome MacLeod! We dont like to
lose, and we do not tolerate betrayal. I will find a way to save them, and
Ill never leave them or forget them. She stood glaring at him, her eyes
lit with a holy fire. It broke what was left of his heart to break hers, to
crush her hope.
He wanted to touch her, to ease her pain and his own, but it wouldnt
help. He stayed where he was. One touch, one taste, would make
wanting her all the worse.
Frustrated in all the ways a man could be, he turned away and drove
his fist into the nearest wall, reveling in the sting of split knuckles. She
flinched at the violence, but he didnt care.
Furious, he let the blood drip from his hand as he glared at her.
There is no going back. Think yourself lucky that you escaped their fate,
but ye cant ever go home again. Theyre gone, Laire. As good as dead.
She stared at him for a moment, her eyes wide, and her body as taut
as a bowstring. He saw the disgust in her eyes, the fury. He stood and
took it all, every drop, waiting for the tirade or the tears that he was sure
would come. Instead, she turned and left the room without a word, and
he listened to the angry precision of her footsteps fade into the distant
reaches of the house.
Then there was only silence.
CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Laire left Lindsay House the next morning as soon as it was late enough
to politely pay a call. She marched through the snowy streets like a
soldier, clad in the black cloak hed given her only because she had
nothing else. Shed take no more from him.
Hed told her to flee. Well, she intended to do just thatbut she
wasnt fleeing from him, or Bibiana, or her familys gruesome fate. She
was fleeing toward help. Wherever her uncle was, shed go there, find
him, bring him home to help her if she had to.
She looked anxiously around the edge of her hood as she reached her
uncles door and took a deep breath before knocking. Uncle Hamish was
wont to take long voyages to remote parts of the world in search of new
plants for his collection. What if hed gone on such a journey? It would
be too late . . .
She lifted the knocker.
The woman who opened the door cast a dubious look over Laires
person. Yes?
Im Sir Hamish MacLeods niece she began, but the woman gave
a small cry and brought her hands to her cheeks.
Och, ye look just like Sir Hamishs sister. Theres a portrait of her in
the sitting room. Youve the very same face!
She was my mother, Laire said. I was wondering if
Im Mrs. Groves, Sir Hamishs housekeeper. Laire extended her
hand to shake, but the woman grabbed her wrist and pulled her inside.
Come in out of the cold, my dear. I wasnt expecting ye.
Im looking for my uncle, Laire said.
Of course ye are, Mrs. Groves beamed. Im afraid Sir Hamish
wont be home until Thursday, Mrs. Groves said. Hes gone away with
several other gentlemen to Leiden, in the Low Countries, to visit the
medical school there.
Leiden? Thursday? Laire parroted. She felt her heart lift. So soon
as that? It was only three days off.
Aye. Theyre raising funds for the new Royal Infirmary. Sir Hamish
has gone with Mr. Drummond and Mr. Monro from the Royal College. It
isnt a long trip. Theres to be a fund-raising ball next month, and theres
ever so much planning to do for that. It will be held at the Duke of
Argylls magnificent home here in town.
She opened the doors of a room on the right. And theres the portrait
of Ella MacEwan, she gushed. You can see how I couldnt have
mistaken ye for anyone else.
Laires mothers gentle face gazed down at her, and Laire smiled.
She was a great beauty, the housekeeper said reverently.
Laire looked around the small salon. It was crammed with plants,
papers, and books. Mrs. Groves bustled about, moving books off the
settee and transferring a potted fern from a chair to a place on the floor
by the window. Sit ye down, lass. Ill fetch tea.
She was gone before Laire could beg a place to stay while she waited
for her uncle. She could not go back to Lindsay House, to the unsettling
company of Iain Lindsay. Why did he make her heartbeat quicken
whenever he was in the same room? She couldnt think when he was
near her. Her hands shook, and her body
She blushed even now and turned her thoughts to the present. There
were pots and boxes in every corner, plants from seedlings to specimens
that swept the ceiling of the small room.
Mrs. Groves returned with a tray and ducked under a low-hanging
bough. Och, its the same in every room, and the conservatory is full as
well. It takes a staff of three just to keep all the plants watered. Sir
Hamish doesnt bother about whether things are dusted or tidied, so
long as his plants are tendedand Im forbidden to touch his books. You
mark my wordshell return from Leiden with another crate of books,
and his pockets will be full of seeds, shoots, and berries. She poured tea
into fine china cups, and the steam curled enticingly from the amber
liquid. She passed a cup to Laire and sat down opposite her, squeezing
herself between two stacks of books.
Now I assume youll be staying here with us, Mrs. Groves said.
If its convenient, Laire said.
Its most convenient. Its a delight, in fact, to have company. Ive
already sent a maid upstairs to make a room ready for ye. She beamed
at Laire. I assume yeve had a long journey, since ye look entirely done
in. Would ye like to rest until supper? Have ye brought a trunk? Och, I
assume its waiting at the docks. Shall I send Geordie to fetch it?
Er, no, I left home rather unexpectedly. I have nothing at all with
me, Laire said. She hugged her body under the cloak, aware of the plain
russet woolen gown shed worn for days.
A fresh flame of curiosity kindled in Mrs. Grovess wide blue eyes.
Oh? she said, seemingly speechless at last.
Ive come on aa rather urgent family matter, Laire said. How did
one explain to a stranger that her fathers new wife was busy poisoning
her kin, and that she needed an antidote and a doctoror a magician.
An illness, she said, and left it at that.
I see, Mrs. Groves said, though she obviously did not. She colored
like a peony as she reached out to pat Laires hand. Yell be safe here,
lass. Sir Hamish is very broadminded about such things. Do ye require
her blush deepened to purple. Do ye require a physician at once or
a midwife, perhaps?
It was Laires turn to blush. She felt a hot flush rise over her cheeks.
Im notwith child. You see, my father has a new wife, and things have
been . . . difficult. I need Uncle Hamishs advice.
Mrs. Grovess sigh of relief had the force of a gale. How wonderful!
How very wonderful! Well get ye rested and fed and put the roses back
in your cheeks before Thursday, then.
Laire smiled and took off the cloak, since the house was tropically
warm to preserve the plants, and also to prove to the housekeeper that
she was most definitely traveling alone.

Wee Kipper stood in the shadows across the street and watched Laire
knock on the door and go inside her uncles house. Hed seen her gather
her cloak and slip out of the house as quiet as a mouse when she
thought no one was looking. Hed followed her, staying well back to see
where she was going. He didnt want to lose her. He needed herthey all
did. He loved her apple tarts and the way she read to him, Fussle, and
Magpieeven Hoolet and Bear listened to Laires stories. She made him
remember a time when he had a home and someone to love him.
He waited outside of Sir Hamishs house all morning for her to come
out, but she didnt. He frowned at the door, willing it to open. An hour
after that, he saw the curtain in an upstairs window twitch, and he saw
Laires pale face appear in the glass, looking out over the square.
Wee Kipper gaped. Was she a prisoner?
He waved at her, jumped up and down to let her know that help was
near, but she turned away without seeing him.
His heart thumped in his breast and tears stung his eyes.
He ran home again as quickly as he could.
Out of habit, Wee Kipper crept into the house through the cellar.
He found Chieftain sitting by himself by the fire, a half-bottle of
whisky in his hand, taken from upstairs. Whereve ye been? he
demanded as Wee Kipper crept in. Kipper wiped away the tracks of his
tears. Of course yell not say, will ye? Chieftain took another long drink
of whisky. His eyes were glazed, his face red from the drink, and Kipper
kept his distance, tried to slip past and reach the stairs that led to
Hoolet, Bear, Dux, and Laird Iain. Theyd know what to do, how to save
Laire . . .
Not so fast. Chieftain grabbed his arm. His fingers went nearly
twice around Wee Kippers thin arm. Wee Kipper could smell the whisky
on Chieftains breath. He tried to pull free, but Chieftain only laughed
and pulled him closer. Were going on a mission you and I, since the
others are so busy upstairs. What do ye say, boy?
No. Its what Wee Kipper would have said if he could speak. It was
only midmorning and bright daylight. Their missions only took place at
night. They crept in and out of the tunnels and sewers like mice and
scurried about in the dark, unseen.
Chieftain was on his feet, still holding on to Wee Kipper. He fetched
down the empty sacks from the hooks by the door, the ones they stuffed
full of loot and carried home on their backs. Ill not sit here under the
orders of the bastard upstairs who calls himself a laird. Youll seehell
throw ye all out when he tires of your company. Or hell turn ye into
servants. Yell be scrubbing dunnies and plucking fowl for his table. Is
that what ye want? He belched loudly, and laughed. I can offer ye
freedom, a kings life.
Wee Kipper frowned. He remembered the terror of the dark tunnels,
the fear of being caught, the nights they all went to bed hungry and cold.
Chieftain leaned closer and pointed at his own chest. Im your chief,
and ye owe me your loyalty. Ye all swore to obey in return for your bread
and a share of the profits. It means you obey me, not Laird-bloody-Iain-
bloody-Lindsay.
Had he sworn to obey? Wee Kipper didnt remember. Chieftain and
Hoolet had plucked him off the streets, starving. He would have agreed
to anything for a crust of bread. And profits? No one had given him
anything of value. Even the clothes he wore were ragged and thin, the
cast-offs from some other boy, and several boys before that one.
Chieftain was looping the bags over Wee Kippers thin shoulders.
They hung limply down to his knees. Lets go. Well go to the Sinclair
warehouse by the docksthey just had a ship come in last night and the
pickingsll be good.
Wee Kipper refused to cry, but he scowled at Chieftain. Chieftain
only laughed. One last mission for ye, lad. Then ye can go on your way
if ye like. Well gather the clan, cast a vote, even. Im a fair manriches
and freedom, or slavery. Now lets go.

Laires gone, Magpie said, entering the library looking forlorn. And
sos Wee Kipper. Ive looked everywhere for them.
Iain looked up from his breakfast.
Gone? Hoolet said.
Where would they go? Bear said.
A walk perhaps, a bit of fresh air and sunshine? Dux suggested
around a forkful of eggs.
Iain considered the matter. Hed told Laire to flee, to forget her
family. Knowing her, shed do the opposite. But she wouldnt take the
lad, not to Glen Iolair . . . Still, Iain had a tight, uneasy feeling in his
belly. The young members of the clan of thieves were all looking at him,
waiting. Iain set his fork down.
Nay. She wouldnt go home without what she came for. And if she
wished to escape from him, shed go to her uncles house, enquire where
he was, when hed be back . . . and if she was there, and the lad with her,
then they were safe enough.
Finish your breakfast, he said. Theyre fine for now. Ill go and
fetch the lad this afternoon.
What about Laire? Magpie said.
What about her? Iain felt a longing for her in his soul that made his
breath catch. He coughed and forced himself to turn back to the food on
his plate. He attacked the eggs and sausage as if they were living things.

Chieftain barely fit in the tunnels anymore. It was why he had younger,
smaller lads like Wee Kipper. Still, he followed Wee Kipper through the
narrow openings now, goading him onward.
Wee Kipper didnt want to go. It was cold and wet with melting snow,
and his knees ached. The light made him afraid. He heard footsteps
above him, saw the shadows of dozens of people. Their movements
shook dust and dirt down on his head and into his eyes. Long, thin
needles of daylight pierced the cracks and grates in the floor. If anyone
looked down, would they assume he was merely a rat, the way they did
in the dark, and let him pass? He waited for a shout of discovery.
They reached the warehouse. It was big, filled with goods from all
over the world, brought to Scotland by the trading ships of the Sinclairs.
Hoolet said they had so much money they could afford to share a few
sacks of loot with the likes of them. Wee Kipper knew it was still
stealing, even if he just did it so he could eat.
He hunched miserably against the wall under the grate. Chieftain
crouched beside him. Ill wait for ye here, he said, and nudged the
heavy grate aside with his shoulder. Coins, lad, and gold, thats what we
want. Ye know how to pick the lock on a strongbox.
Wee Kipper swallowed as Chieftain grabbed him by the seat of his
pants and shoved him forward. Up ye go, he growled, allowing no
objection, and Wee Kipper found himself on the floor of the warehouse,
behind a great stack of crates and bundles. For a long moment he waited
there, too frightened to move. There were voices close by, and people
moving through the sunlight that poured down through the high
windows. Light was the enemy. It warmed his flesh, but made it creep
with dread. The empty sacks around his shoulders felt as heavy as
boulders.
Go on, Chieftain snarled from under the grate.
Wee Kipper crept to the corner of the nearest crate and curled his
fingers around the edge. He peered out into the warehouse. A dozen men
were moving goods. None of them looked in his direction. Two set down
a heavy box near him and walked away. He saw the padlock on the latch,
which suggested there was something valuable inside, something
Chieftain would want.
He crept forward on his hands and knees, pretending he was just a
mouse, all but invisible to ordinary folk. He crouched beside the box and
took the picklock out of his pocket. He grabbed the ice-cold metal of the
padlock in his small fist and tried to poke the tool into the lock. His
hands were shaking and he dropped it, spent precious seconds searching
for it on the floor. He found it and pushed it into the lock again.
The mechanism popped, sprang loose in his hand. He unhooked it
and slowly slid away the chain that bound the chest, one link at a time,
so it made no sound at all, and lowered the heavy links to the floor. He
ducked behind the box as another man passed by, holding a sheaf of
paper and the stub of a pencil.
Slowly, Wee Kipper pushed his fingers under the lid of the box, and
raised it an inch, then two. He shoved his whole hand into the box, up to
the elbow, feeling for the treasures that lay inside. His hand closed on
something made of metal. He tugged, and it came free. He had to raise
the lid a little higher to remove it. He pulled the item out, expecting the
gleam of gold or silver, but it was just a pewter candlesticka simple,
very ordinary pewter candlestick. Wee Kippers stomach plummeting to
his muddy shoes.
Thief!
He looked up as the cry sounded. The man with the papers was
pointing at him, shouting. Wee Kipper dropped the candlestick, which
fell with a clatter to the floor. He began to run back toward the hole in
the floor.
His foot got tangled in one of the sacks over his shoulder, and he
tumbled. He felt the hard floor come up to meet his palms, felt splinters
bite into his knees. He heard angry shouts, and rough hands dug into his
shoulders. He kept his eyes on the hole.
But the grate slid back into place, and Wee Kipper knew Chieftain
was gone, and he was caught and as good as dead.

Hoolet returned to the cellar, to her cache of special belongings. She


wanted the green gown and the lace. She hoped that when Laire
returned with Wee Kipper, their faces rosy with cold, and with tales to
tell of the things theyd seen on their walk, Laire would begin the
alterations on the green dress.
She hummed a minuet as she went down the steps. But the music
died in her throat when she walked into the room and found Chieftain
hunched in a chair by the empty hearth, sobbing.
What are ye doing? she asked. Chieftain was hard as stone. He
didnt cry . . . He looked up at her in surprise before turning away
quickly. Whats happened? she demanded, approaching him, standing
before him, forcing him to look at her.
He sobbed like a bairn. Its Wee Kipper. Hes taken. He was on a
mission
A mission? What mission? Its daylight! Hoolet cried. She crossed
and looked into the cubby where Wee Kipper had made his bed. It was
empty. She felt her hands begin to shake, and her belly turned to water.
What did ye do?
Chieftain blubbered. The Sinclair warehouse. A ship came in last
night he sobbed. I wasnt thinking.
Hoolet cast desperate eyes around the room and saw the empty
bottle on the floor. She raised accusing eyes to Chieftain. Ye were
drunk? Ye took Wee Kipper out in broad daylight when ye were drunk?
She clouted him on the side of the head with her fist. Dye know what
theyll do to him? Theyll hang him! Hes a wee boy, the youngest of all
of us. How could ye do it?
Chieftain cowered under the next blow.
Hoolet hit him until her arm ached. We have to get him back.
How? Theres no way, Chieftain moaned.
She grabbed him by the ear, began to drag him across the room. She
refused to let go when he tried to pull free. Where are we going? he
demanded.
She kept dragging him. Upstairs to tell the others.

A servant showed Iain into the jungle that served as Sir Hamish
MacEwans sitting room and asked to wait for Mistress MacLeod. He
looked around at the books on rare plants and familiar ones piled next to
antique herbals, atlases, and medical books. He turned as the door
opened and Laire entered. The housekeeper stood behind her, keeping a
suspicious and proprietary eye on Iain. Laires cheeks flushed at the
sight of him.
Ive come to fetch Wee Kipper, he said without preamble. Magpie
and the others miss him. They missed Laire as well, as did he, though
he refused to say it aloud or let it show on his face.
She frowned. Wee Kipper? she said, and her blush faded. He isnt
here. Where could he
There was a sudden frantic pounding on the front door, and shouts
outside. Mrs. Groves put a hand to her heart, her blue eyes popping from
her head. Theres trouble! And Sir Hamish is away from home. They
might imagine an old lady cant defend her masters home, but I can.
She opened a drawer and took out a sharp letter opener and headed for
the door.
Iain put his hands on Laires shoulders, moved her aside, and
followed the housekeeper.
Hoolet nearly fell into the room when the door opened.
Wee Kippers taken! she cried, looking from Laire to Iain and back,
ignoring the woman with the knife. Hes in the Tolbooth and sure to
hang!
Laire slipped past Iain. She took the letter opener from Mrs. Groves
and tucked it up into her own sleeve. Then she reached for her cloak.
Mrs. Groves, Im going out. You neednt worry. She cast a quick glance
at Iain. Ill be safe with Laird Lindsay. Or else, her eyes said.
CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

The trial had been swift and the outcome a foregone conclusion. Wee
Kipper was marched into the court with five grown men, his wrists and
ankles bound like theirs. He couldnt see past the knees and backsides of
the other prisoners as his sentence was passed.
Hang im, the judge said without bothering to look up as each
prisoner shuffled forward and his name and crime were called out.
A boythief, they said when Wee Kippers turn came.
Hang im, the judge said, and Wee Kipper felt the breath leave his
body. He looked around desperately, seeking a friend, someone to speak
for him, but the faces in the crowd were rough and dirty, without
sympathy or compassion. He remembered the men who had come in the
night and burned his familys cott, killed his da and his wee sisters, and
raped his mam. Theyd looked just like these folk, as if they had no
heart, no good inside them. He shut his eyes as the shackles jerked him
forward. They led him back into the stinking darkness of the cells, dank
chambers filled with the wails and curses of the inmates. Would he
scream too if he could speak? There was only one other prisoner in the
cell they shoved him into. He glanced at Wee Kipper without interest
and turned to face the wall, taking all the stinking straw that littered the
floor to make himself a bed.
Wee Kipper sank into the bare corner and hugged his arms around
his body and shivered. He kept an eye on the thin strip of grated window
that let in the cold. Dusk was falling over the city. When the sun rose
again, theyd come for him. Theyd take him outside and put a rope
around his skinny neck and hang him. He put a hand to his throat and
tried not to cry. He hoped it would be quick.

Hoolet and Laire stood outside the prison gates in the dark. Hoolet
carried a flask of whisky under her cloak. Laire had a dirk and a
pocketful of silver coins Iain had given her. He objected to the plan
theyd come up with, but the clan insisted the guards would respond
better to a pair of pretty lasses than a dangerous Highlander.
Hed tried to insist that Laire return to her uncles house, stay safe
and warm while they thought of another way to rescue Wee Kipper.
Shed given him a sharp glarethe kind of look a Fearsome MacLeod
gave an enemy or anyone else who crossed them.
Now, as she stood in front of the prison she felt Iains big, broad body
behind her like a solid wall, reassuring and strong, the way it had felt in
the wood at Glen Iolair. It gave her courage. She turned. He was so close
to her that she saw his gray eyes flare as she looked up at him. She felt
an answering flare in her own breast. She clenched her hands in her
skirts to keep from touching him. She looked at his mouth, and her own
watered.
He reached up and tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. Ill be
right here, and Ill come for ye if theres trouble.
She scanned his face, and knew he would. She swallowed. If things
go wrong She swallowed again, leaned closer to him, breathed in the
familiar scent of him, memorized it, just in case. Get Wee Kipper out.
He squeezed her elbow. Ye can still change your mind.
But Hoolet caught her other arm. Its time to go in.
Laire and Hoolet knocked on the gate. It was dark enough to conceal
their faces with their hoods up. Iain and Dux and Bear stood in the
shadows of Saint Giles Cathedral across the square, waiting.
State your business, the guard said rudely.
Weve come to see a poor prisoner, set for execution in the morn.
She handed him a silver penny. If it isnt too much trouble.
He snatched the coin from her fingers and opened the postern gate.
Be quick about it. Ten minutes. He opened a door that led down a long
coil of steps. The smell made Laire gag. Hoolet grasped her arm. I swear
Ill give up thieving, she whispered as they descended the steps slowly,
heard rats scurry. The torches that lit the narrow passage at the bottom
filled the chamber with more smoke than light. Laire coughed. The cells
were black holes on either side. None of the white faces that stared out
of the gloom belonged to Wee Kipper.
What dye want? the jailer demanded. Laire could smell the whisky
on his breathand that wasnt easy over the stench of the prison.
She swallowed and raised her chin. Were looking for a boy, very
small, sentenced to be hanged in the morning,
Be off with ye. No one sees prisoners.
Its a cold night, Hoolet said in a sweet voice, withdrawing the flask
from her pocket. Perhaps this would warm ye.
The guard took it with a swipe of his dirty hand. He shuffled to a low
door and opened it. Hes in there. Ill give ye five minutes.
It was almost too dark to see, and Laire entered the terrible hole with
her heart in her mouth. Kipper? she whispered. Dear god, they
couldnt put a child in such a place, could they? But a small body hurtled
into her knees, clung to her. Hoolet sobbed with relief. The cells other
prisoner lay in the corner with his back to them and didnt stir. They
waited a moment.
Thats enough time, Laire whispered, desperate to be out of the
stinking prison. Quick as ye can, Wee Kipper, get under my cloak. She
said a silent thanks Iain Lindsays cloak was long and heavy. Wee Kipper
put his hands on her waist and Hoolet knocked on the door. All done,
she said, feigning tears. The guard opened the door and Hoolet swept
out. Laire moved carefully past him, scarcely needing to feign faintness.
He eyed Hoolet with a leer.
WaitIll have to search ye for contraband, he said. He squinted at
Laire. You too. He shoved Hoolet against the wall.
Hoolet jerked her head, indicating that Laire should run, but Laire
stayed where she was, not willing to leave anyone she cared about in this
fetid place. She reached into her sleeve, felt for the dirk. The guard
grunted as he put his hands under Hoolets cloak, and pressed closer.
Laire slid her weapon under his ear. Let her go and Ill let you live.
The guard went still, and Hoolet slipped out from under him.
What now? she whispered.
Bring im here, the prisoner in Wee Kippers cell said, now pressed
to the bars of the cell, watching. Ill make sure he never utters a sound
again. Laire saw the fear in the jailers eyes as she held the knife tight
against his throat and considered the offer.
Someones coming, Hoolet said. Laire turned, saw the shadows on
the wall, twisted and distorted by the torchlight, and heard the sound of
boots on the stairs, and the clink of weapons. Hoolet didnt hesitate. She
picked up a stool and whacked the guard across the head with it. He fell
like a stone, unconscious.
Hoolet stepped over him. Come on. She led the way up the stairs,
passing the guards coming down. Your mans drunk, Laire said tartly
as they passed them.
She tried to walk slowly, though she wanted to run. She put a hand
under her cloak and squeezed Wee Kippers shoulder. Nearly there,
she whispered.
They reached the door that led into the yard, and she took a deep
breath, her heart pounding.
Hurry, Hoolet said, grasping her arm. The gate was a few yards
ahead. Laire kept her eyes on it, waiting for the alarm. The guard saw
them coming and unlocked it. Hoolet hurried through.
But the scream of alarm shattered the night. Stop those women!
The guard grabbed Laires shoulder.
This time she didnt hesitate; she plunged her knife into his arm. She
grabbed Wee Kippers hand and ran for all she was worth, through the
gate, and out into the street.
Run! Hoolet screamed, but Laire hardly needed to be told. She
followed Hoolet toward the dark bulk of the kirk. Could they claim
sanctuary? She could hear the guards behind her, the repeated order to
stop.
They reached the porch of Saint Giles, climbed the steps and plunged
into the shadows. Hands grabbed her and she slashed at her assailant
with the dirk. Arms went around her. Its me, Iain growled in her ear.
She was enveloped in his familiar scent, the big, reassuring bulk of his
body. She sagged against him with relief. Bear took Kipper. Iain let her
to. Go with Bear. Dux and I will delay them. It was too dark to see him,
but he found her hand, squeezed it for an instant. Dont stop, Laire.
Dont get caught, he said, and turned back to the guards.
Bear carried Wee Kipper, and they raced into the kirk. Hoolet led
them through the dark nave and down into the crypt. It was pitch dark,
and Laire felt her chest contract. She couldnt see, and the hair rose on
the back of her neck . . . terrible things happened in the dark, death
hovered there . . . She felt her stomach churn, and fear made her limbs
heavy. She stopped and clung to the wall. She could hear Hoolet and
Kipper and Bear breathing nearby. There was no sound of pursuit.
She heard the gruff hiss of metal on stone in the dark, and the noise
vibrated across her nerves. Hoolet found her hand and pulled her
forward. Follow me. Its a tunnel, she whispered.
Youll have to crawl. Mind your head, Bear added.
It was as cold as the grave under the ground. Laire felt sweat sting
her eyes. She couldnt breathe, couldnt move. Crawl, Hoolet ordered,
and she heard the rustle of the girls skirts moving away. Laire was
frozen.
She felt Wee Kippers hand on her ankle behind her, a careful pat,
small and reassuring. He was behind her, keeping her safe, a wee child.
She forced herself forward into the pitch darkness. The tunnel was
barely big enough. Her head brushed the top of the narrow space in
places, made her jump with fright. Behind her, Wee Kipper nudged her,
patted her, kept her moving.
Are we safe? she asked, needing to hear her own voice, to hear the
people around her.
Quiet, Bear hissed. They continued on until they came to a wider
place. There was a grate in the ceiling of the tunnel here, and faint light
filtered through it. To Laire it felt like the sun, and she pressed against
Hoolet, wanting to get closer to it. Wee Kipper gripped her hand, and
Hoolet put a finger to her lips. Someone was walking across a wooden
floor just inches above their heads. She heard the sound of voices, the
rustle of clothing. Laire felt a new ripple of fear creep up her spine. They
all sat together in silence, not daring to move, waiting for the light to go
out, for the footsteps to cross the floor, for a door to close, for darkness
to make them safe. Laires throat closed.
Lets go, Hoolet whispered at last, and they began to crawl again.

Iain stood in the shadows with his dirk in his hand, watching the guards
rush out of the prison. Dux calmly strolled out to meet them.
Two lassesdid ye see them? the guard demanded.
They went that way, Dux said, pointing, and the guards rushed off
in the wrong direction.
Then Dux led the way through a warren of narrow streets and
vennels until theyd ended up amid the ruins of the burnt-out house
across the square from Lindsay House.
Dux moved several planks and revealed a dark hole in the ground.
Theyll come out here. He gave a soft whistle and waited. There was no
reply. He crouched by the opening to wait.
Iain felt the way he did on a hunt, waiting silently in the dark. The
tunnel was pitch black, and Laire was afraid of the dark . . . Had she
panicked, gotten stuck? He swallowed, tempted to dive into the narrow
hole to find her. But he wouldnt fit. He paced anxiously. Where does it
go?
Dux grinned. To all the best places in the cityunder warehouses
and counting houses, kirks and taverns. The small ones can go through
easily, but adults cant follow.
And thats how Wee Kipper ended up in the Sinclair warehouse?
Iain asked.
Aye, Dux said after a moments hesitation. We steal so we can eat.
We only take what we need to survive. When we grow too big, new little
ones come to take our places. Its how we live because we have no other
way.
Have ye no families? Iain asked.
We are a family. Dux bent nearer to the mouth of the tunnel and
whistled again. Still there was no reply. They should have been here by
now.
Iains spine prickled. He imagined Laire caught in the tunnel, lost
and alone. He imagined the tunnel caving in on top of her, on Wee
Kipper, Hoolet, and Bear, trapping them forever . . . Hed be helpless to
save her. He felt a sharp, agonizing pain in his chest, a sense of terrible
loss that was all too familiar.
Where else can we get to them? he asked Dux, but he heard a soft
whistle, muffled by dirt and distance.
Dux whistled back. Here they come.
Hoolet climbed out first, and Laire followed. Dux reached down to
grab Wee Kippers hand, and Bear gave the boy a boost from underneath.
Laire had dirt on her face, and in her hair. Her gown was muddy and
her cloakhis cloakwas torn. Shed never looked more beautiful. She
stood staring up at the stars, gasping. Are you unharmed? Iain asked,
taking her elbow. Her eyes were shining as she looked at him. Nearly
breathless, she grinned, and that shone in the darkness too. He felt a
lump in his throat.
Im fine, she assured him. Better than that. Were safe, Iain. All of
us. It seemed impossible, but it wasnt. Do you ken? Its not impossible.
Theres always a way. I will save my family.
She looked so happy, so vibrant, that the shell around his heart
cracked. He didnt hesitate, he didnt think.
He pulled Laire MacLeod into his arms and kissed her.
CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

Hes kissing me, Laire thought. Iains lips were gentle, surprisingly soft,
but the sensation shot through her like a lance. Her body responded to
his instantly, instinctively, and she knew this was meant to happen, that
shed wanted it. She put her arms around his neck and kissed him back.
She could feel the wool of his coat and the silk of his hair. He made a
small sound and deepened the kiss, invading her mouth. Oh yes, she
thought as his tongue slid over hers, and he groaned. He tightened his
hands around her waist, pulled her closer, and she pressed against him,
felt the hardness of his body against hers, felt exhilarated, safe, and
warm. Her blood sang.
Then he pulled away, and she felt as if a light had gone out. She
looked up at his profile in the dark. He stepped back and cold rushed in.
He turned to ruffle Wee Kippers hair. Well done, lad. You were very
brave. His voice was kind enough, but an octave lower, gruff and
breathless, as if hed been running. He didnt look at her as they made
their way across the square. They used the front door this time, and
Morag was waiting. Her lined face creased into a smile when she saw
Wee Kipper. She hugged him tight. Its late and time ye were in bed,
she said, but ye need a bath, and some decent foodall of ye.
The young cove in the cellar said to tell ye hes leavin Morag said.
Hes signed on with a ship bound for somewhere far away.
Chieftains gone? Hoolet asked.
Tis for the best, Morag said. Now upstairs, the lot of ye.
Wee Kipper hugged Laire, and she bent to kiss his forehead. Then the
others led him upstairs for a bath, to wash the stink of the prison off his
wee body.
Laire stood at the bottom of the stairs with Iain. What justice could
there be in hanging a child?
Iain kept his eyes on her, his expression guarded and flat. Its late.
Will ye stay?
A long, hot blush rolled up her body at the idea of bed and Iain. She
flicked her tongue over her lips. Mrs. Groves will worry. Id best go.
As ye wish. Ill escort ye to your uncles he said.
Your leg. Perhaps Bear could, if hes not too tired. Or Dux, she said,
fumbling for words.
My legs fine, he said sharply. If youre afraid Ill kiss ye again, I
wont. Should I apologize for kissing ye earlier?
She wasnt afraid. Shed liked his kiss . . . In the light, he looked
forbidding, distant, untouchable. No. Theres no need to apologize.
He opened the door and led the way, walking beside her. He didnt
offer his arm. He kept his eyes on the doorways and alleys they passed,
watching for trouble. He moved along the cobbles of the city with a
Highlanders sure stride, long-limbed and sure of himself. He was all
that was familiar to her, yet different from any man shed ever known.
The dark held no terror with him beside her.
He kissed me, and I kissed him back. She wanted more. Her cheeks
burned, and she was hot all over, though the night was cold.
She walked beside him in silence, matching his long Highland steps
with her own. She glanced at the silhouette of his profile, the sharp
planes of his cheeks and jaw, the jut of his nose. He had a very manly
nose, she thought, large, the bridge crooked where it had been broken.
He was handsome enough to steal her breath away.
He knocked and waited until Mrs. Groves opened the door and let
Laire in before nodding crisply and taking his leave.
Laire peered through the window, watched him walk away. She
touched fingertips to her lips.
He kissed me, and I kissed him back.
CHAPTER THIRTY

Laire was waiting in the parlor when her uncle arrived home. Now this
is as fine a surprise as Ive ever had. How good to see ye, lass. He
enfolded her in a warm hug before hed even shed his cloak. He smelled
of the sea and tobacco and cloves, just the way she remembered. She
hugged him back fiercely.
Mrs. Groves took his cloak and directed the unloading of the cart that
carried not just one, but two crates of books. What, no plants? she
asked.
Hamish MacEwan laughed. The plants will come in the spring, he
said, giving her a fond smile. Now how long has my niece been here? I
trust youve made her comfortable?
Aye. Shes in the blue room at the top of the stairsher mothers old
room, the housekeeper said. She came without a trunk or even a valise,
and I took the liberty of making an appointment with a seamstress for
her. No doubt yell want her to accompany you to His Graces ball. Its
only a few weeks away.
No doubt, no doubt, Uncle Hamish said, watching the crates come
through the door. Careful now, lads. He turned back to Laire. Yell
attend my salons as well while youre here, I hope. He shook his head.
Och, youre just like your mother. Lets have a cup of tea and a chat. I
want to know all the news from Glen Iolair. Hows your father?
Laire felt her smile slip. She clasped her hands together. Papa has
married again. Thats the reason I came to Edinburgh to see you.
Hamish chuckled. So as not to interrupt the honeymoon, eh? I shall
write Donal with my warmest congratulations at once, and you shall
help me choose a suitable wedding present.
Laire blinked away tears. Nay, II need your help, Uncle. Theres
something terribly wrong . . .
Oh? frowned. He took her hand, patted it. I cannot bear to see
tears in your pretty eyes, my dear. Ill do all in my power to make ye
smile again. Come into the siting room and tell me everything.

Sir Hamish McEwan adored his niece, just as hed adored his sister. Ella
had been bereft when her son, Laires brother, had died, and less than a
year later shed followed the lad to an early grave. Laire was the only
blood kin Hamish had left in all the world. She was like the daughter
hed never had, the sister hed lost, and the lass hed once loved with all
his heart but neglected to marry.
He frowned as Laire spoke with tears in her eyes, her hands a-
tremble. He had never known her to be flighty or featherbrained before.
Now she spoke of a mysterious poison that made her sisters dance all
night and sleep all day. They wore feathers plucked from the birds their
new stepmother dined upon. Donals bride drank blood. Blood! It was a
ridiculous, outlandish tale . . .
And Laire had fled when they tried to make her drink blood and
poison as well. Her father was enthralled with his new bride, who was an
unsurpassed beauty.
And there, Hamish decided, lay the problem. His niece did not like
her new stepmother, even if she had loved all of Donals wives before
this one. Sweet Laire was jealous. Her father was obviously in love. In
Hamishs experience, men in love often exhibited the same symptoms as
men whod been poisonedglassy eyes, rapid pulse, giddiness, and
euphoria. It was all perfectly natural.
He patted Laires hand again, soothed her. Her eyes were hollows of
grief and worry, and she was too thin, according to Mrs. Groves. There
now. Youre welcome to stay with me as long as you wish, my dear. Well
have a grand time. Ill look into your concerns. Now go and rest before
supper. He crossed and rang the bell and asked Mrs. Groves to prepare
a soothing cup of chamomile tea for Laires nerves.
He sighed as they left the room, then crossed to his desk to take out a
sheet of paper and pen and ink. Hed write to Donal at once and resolve
the whole matter.
CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

Glen Iolair

Rafael brought the small package to Bibianas chamber. This just


arrived. Someone brought it up from the local inn.
Open it, Bibiana ordered, turning back to the mirror. She gazed at
her flawless reflection, her eternal, undying beauty. She glanced at
Rafael, saw the alabaster box under the wrappings, and wondered briefly
why Iain had not come himself to lay the prize in her hand. Perhaps hed
gone to Craigmyle to see his kin. Perhaps he was lying drunk in brothel
somewhere. Hed be back. He was a man of honor, and hed done his
duty as required.
She took the box from Rafael with a smile, and ran her thumb over
the embossed symbol on the lida raven, wings outspread, beak open
and cruel. Its Laire MacLeods heart.
She opened the box and gazed down at the poor little heart. Rafael
drew back at the sightand the smellgagging. He clamped his hand
over his mouth and nose. To him it was rot and death. To Bibiana it was
life and victory. Laire MacLeod had flown and been snared, her life
ended. All was as it should be once more.
She thought of the girls lovely face, her eyes like amethysts, her
supple young body. That beauty was all gone now, food for worms . . .
her heart was as bronze as dried beef, wizened and small. Bibiana poked
it lightly with the tip of one perfectly manicured fingertip. Her nail
dimpled the flesh, and she put her finger to her lips, tasted the metallic
tang of the girls blood. She smiled at Rafael as she closed the box. My
sealgair did as he was told after all. I said he would, did I not? She put
the alabaster casket into his hand. Take it to the kitchen. Have Terza cut
it into pieces and feed it to my husband for his supper.
Rafael was pale, his expression grim. Bibiana knew hed let Terza
deal with this, and hed go and drink himself into a stupor. He was bored
at Glen Iolair, edgy. They all were. The winter equinox was fast
approaching, and long weeks of deep winter would follow. She would
sleep then, rest, and when the birds returned in the spring, and her fine,
loyal sealgair came back, shed feast. By summer shed fly away and find
warmer climes and new blood . . .
She looked into the mirror and smiled radiantly.
CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

Edinburgh

He shouldnt have kissed her. Laire was in his blood now, a fever, a
yearning. But hed sold his soul, committed sins, and he was unworthy
of her. He could not have her.
When his contract with Bibiana ended in the spring, he planned to
leave Scotland, disappear, wander the world with no clear destination.
Hed form no attachments.
He had decided make arrangements for the Clan of Thievesand for
Laire. He would make certain she never wanted for anything and did not
suffer privation because of the loss of her family. Shed have a fine
dowry. He knew Sir Hamish MacEwans niece would marry well, thanks
to her uncles connections. In a few brief weeks shed become the toast
of Edinburgh. Still, it tore at him to think of her in the arms of another
man. But his life had ended seven years ago, and hers was just
beginning.
Iain was a rich man. His grandfather had once been convinced to
make an investment in a shipping venture, and his money had been
returned twentyfold. Further investments had made the Lindsays
wealthy.
He went to visit his Edinburgh man of affairs, the solicitor who had
overseen the investments of the Lindsays for forty years.
And there was one more matter to see to, the deepest secret of all.
There was astonishment in the clerks eyes when Iain arrived at the
offices of Messrs. MacDougall and Crawford, and asked to see William
Crawford.
The solicitor hurried out of an inner office, straightening his wig. It
is you! he cried. I mean, it is a pleasureand a surpriseto see ye,
Laird Lindsay. A very great surprise indeed. Come into my office. He
stood aside to let Iain precede him through the door.
We thought ye were dead, the clerk blurted out, following them. In
fact, we were about to declare ye so before the courts.
Crawford glowered at his assistant. Fetch the whisky. He turned to
Iain and indicated a chair. Please sit down, Laird.
He peered at Iain over the cluttered surface of his desk. Ye look like
your grandfather, sir. Very like. Id have known ye anywhere, though its
been many years.
Ive been abroad.
The solicitor waited for Iain to supply more details, but when none
followed, he folded his hands and continued. As my clerk so bluntly put
it, we were about to declare ye dead. Your half brother has requested . . .
He stopped. Im certain hell be pleased to hear that yeve returned, hale
and safe.
David would curse his return . . .
I have no intention of returning to Craigmyle. I simply came to
make certain provisions.
Crawford stared at him. Not returning? But . . . Do you intend to
return to the continent, sir? I must inform ye that . . .
I simply wish to make certainfinalarrangements. Is it still my
right to do so?
Why, yes, of course. Youre the laird of Clan Lindsay, and your
grandfathers heir. Its just that your brotherhalf brotheris coming to
Edinburgh to sign the papers. I expect him within the week.
Ye killed her! Iain heard Davids scream again as he looked at the
blood on Iains hands, saw Mairis pale, dead face . . .
Inform him that wont be necessary. David would inherit
everything, become Laird of Craigmyle in Iains place.
The private arrangements I made some years agoare they still in
place?
Crawford smiled. They are indeed. And as arranged, that matter is
taken care of in the strictest confidence. He leaned over the desk. The
investmentis quite safe, and flourishing. I receive regular reports
and would be pleased to show them to you
Iain got to his feet abruptly, and Crawford scrambled to rise as well.
Theres no need, he said. He took a letter from his pocket and glanced
briefly at the Lindsay seals before dropping it on the desk. This contains
my wishes, he said crisply. Please see they are executed.
Crawford peered at the letters. Aye, of course, but
Good day, Mr. Crawford, Iain said, and walked out.
David wanted him declared dead.
Iain smiled grimly. Hed have to wait.

Of course my dear, there are many more species in the Botanic Garden
in St. Annes Yards, near Holyrood Palace, Hamish told Laire as he
escorted her through his conservatory and pointed out the exotic plants
in his collection.
Shed been at her uncles home nearly three weeks, and he had
avoided any discussion of how to aid her family. Instead, shed had
endless dress fittings under the supervision of Mrs. Groves, and had
been introduced to most of Edinburgh society. She was not permitted to
go out without the chaperonage of Mrs. Groves, Uncle Hamish himself,
or the protection of a burly manservant. She visited Lindsay House to
help Hoolet with her gown or play with the wee ones, but shed seen
little of Iain.
Which plants counteract poison, Uncle? she asked now, turning to
look at a leafy fern. Beyond the priceless glass panes, the world lay under
a deep, lace-edged blanket of December snow. But inside the
conservatory, it was perpetually spring, and plants flourished, strong and
green, bloomed with colorful flowers, and bore luscious fruit.
That depends on the poison, of course, he said, looking around.
Ladys Thistle is effective if one has ingested poisonous mushrooms.
Adderwort assists with some He stopped, and wagged his finger at
her. Och, ye dont still believe that your fathers new wife is poisoning
him, do ye, lass? He chuckled fondly. When a man is in love, it can
seem like hes been drugged. His heart pounds, he smiles as if hes gone
daft, and he hums to himself and preens like a dandy. And in the ladys
presence, hes dafter still, pale and sighing, moony as a schoolboy. Donal
was that way when he met your mother, Laire. Ye neednt worry. Youre
young, and ye dont understand such things yet. Well say no more about
it. Now come and see my lemon tree. Well have lemon tarts for supper,
and thats a treat that will make ye smile. Well take a cutting when I
escort ye home to Glen Iolair in the spring, and ye can grow your own
lemons. Wont that be fun?
It will be too late . . . She blinked back frustrated tears. He took out
his handkerchief and wiped them away, just as he had done when she
was a child crying over her lost twin and her mothers death.
Och, now, theres nothing to cry over. Youll understand when you
fall in love yourself. When the man youre destined to love comes along,
it will be exactly the same. Your heart will cry out for him, ache with
longing, and yell be daft as a hare . . . His smile faded slightly. True
love is as painful as it is pleasant.
She imagined Iain Lindsay, the kiss theyd shared, the way her heart
contracted and her body bloomed whenever she thought of him.
Did you ever fall in love, Uncle?
He sighed. Aye, once. A bonny lass she was . . .
What happened to her?
She married someone else, he said, and looked at her soberly.
There is no cure for some of the unkindest ills that plague us, lass, but
time heals some of what hurts worst.
She put her hand on his. I miss Mama and my brother. Ive seen
Papa in love many times. But this time . . . She struggled for the words.
This isnt love. My sisters are ill, changed. In the spring
He stepped back, alarmed. My mother suffered from hysteria. Could
it be that it has been passed down, that you are likewise cursed? My
friend Dr. Monro believes that theres something in the blood of women
that makes them emotional creatures, incapable of reason. Ill have him
assess you.
I am not irrational, Uncle! They are ill. It isnt love but hate that has
changed them. They are in danger . . .
He turned away, shaking his head. I have work to do, my dear.
Perhaps you should rest. Ill see you at tea.
He left her, hurrying away between the marvelous array of plants as
if she were the poison, and the truth was the illusion . . .
Only one person knew she was telling the truth. Only Iain, Bibianas
sealgair.
Only he could help her now.
CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

She needed Iain. He could convince her uncle that she was not a silly,
jealous child or a hysterical woman. Even if he didnt know precisely
what was in Bibianas potion, he knew the effect, could tell her uncle . . .
She needed to see him alone, without Mrs. Groves to chaperone their
conversation.
She waited until the house fell silent for the night. Her uncle retired
to his study after dinner to read and study until the wee hours. Mrs.
Groves took to her room to sip sherry by the fire until she dozed off. The
manservant did a circuit of the house at ten oclock, checking the locks
and window latches before he went to bed.
When the clock chimed ten, Laire slipped the dirk into her sleeve and
donned Iains black cloak. She climbed out the window of the salon and
shut it carefully behind her, hoping the gust of cold air did no harm to
the exotic plants in the room. Her fear of the dark had eased since the
night shed crossed the city through the clans tunnels. Thered been no
more missionsThe clan had sworn off thievery after Wee Kippers
brush with death. Iain let them stay at Lindsay House and watched over
them. He was kind, not cruel, gentle and not brutal. Her heart caught in
her throat as she made her way along the streets, skirting the shadows,
keeping her eyes open for trouble. The city was so much more dangerous
than the Highlands. There, the dark might hold a wild creature on the
prowl, but here the predators were two-footed, armed and ruthless. She
hurried on, hoping she could trust Iain . . .
When she reached King Jamess square, she slipped quickly into the
cellar and entered the dark house like a thief. In the kitchen, Morag
dozed by the fire just like Mrs. Groves, but with a cup of whisky instead
of sherry. Laire tiptoed past her and hurried up the steps. Iain wasnt in
the library or the dining room. The others were all safe abed.
She paused outside the door of Iains bedchamber. Should she
knock? She heard footsteps on the floor aboveHoolet or Bear or Dux,
perhapsand lifted the latch and dove into the room.
She closed the door and stood with her back against it. There was a
candle burning beside the bed. Iain sat up, the bedclothes falling away to
reveal the naked planes of his chest. A number of small silver scars
crisscrossed his skin, and she found herself staring. What would it be
like to touch the marks, trace them?
Laire.
She forced her eyes up to his. His expression was unreadable, his
eyes in shadow. She remembered the kiss, and her mouth watered to
kiss him again. She felt a rush of heat go through her body.
I came to askto beg if I mustfor your help.
His brow furrowed and his mouth tightened. Hed refuse, send her
away . . . She rushed on before he could speak. My uncle thinks Im
jealous of my fathers new wife, that my running away was just a
tantrum, that Im a silly child, and that there is no poison.
His gaze slid over her body. It made her feel anything but childish.
She licked her lips and went on. I need you to help me convince him
that Im telling the truth, Iain. And if you cant do that, then tell me what
the poison is, how shes keeping them in thrall, and I will find another
way. I wont give up. I cannot.
Turn around, he said gruffly.
She raised her chin. Im not leaving.
I sleep naked.
Laire felt her face fill with hot blood. She spun and faced the door.
She heard the rustle of sheets as he got out of bed. The silence of the
room made the sound of his dressing loud, erotic. She could picture it
even if she could not see him. She could smell the rich, masculine scent
of him in the roomsoap, and leather, and the unique, familiar smell of
his skin. It made her quiver. She remembered how it felt to kiss him, the
sweep of his tongue in her mouth, the taste of him . . . She clutched the
wool of her cloak in her fists.
How did ye get here? Is there someone waiting downstairs for ye?
he demanded, and she turned to face him. He wore his breeches, but no
shirt or stockings. He had long, well-shaped feet.
She swallowed. I came alone. This is not a conversation I wanted to
have in front of Mrs. Groves. She took a breath. You are the only one
who can help me. I understand that you are Bibianas servant, her
sealgair, but I dont understand why you serve her. Most men strive to
be good, yet you strive to be bad. And youre not.
He folded his arms over his chest and regarded her flatly. Am I not?
She shook her head. Youre kind, Iain, and good. You saved me. You
have a house full of strangers, thieves, and cutpurses.
Theyre children.
Aye, they are, she agreed. My youngest sister is only five, younger
than Wee Kipper and Magpie. Help me save her and the rest of my
family.
He swallowed and crossed to the table under the window. A bottle of
whisky stood there, and he splashed some into a cup and swallowed it.
He stared out the window at the street below.
Bibiana has had five husbands in the seven years Ive been with her.
Every one of them had pretty daughters or sisters. There were more,
many more before those men. In all those years, shes never changed.
Her face remains unlined, untouched by time. Old Terza gets more
wrinkled and crooked each year, but they continue on together.
He set the cup down and turned to look at her. I dont know whats
in the potion. A good man might. Hed care. I make it my business to
look away. Im her sealgair, only that. I bring her the birds she prefers,
and Terza prepares them. I am careful not to shoot them through the
heart because it drains away too much blood. She wants them to suffer,
says fear makes the meat sweeter. I lie. I shoot them cleanly when I can,
kill them instantly.
Laire shivered, but he went on. She uses the feathers. You saw that.
She makes collars and coats and fans for the lasseswhole gowns
sometimes, and the girls grow more and more like birds, singing at
night, sleeping by day, startling and ruffling easily, until they are more
bird than woman. Bibianas favorite birds are the ones that nest early in
the springthrushes and robins and tits. They are the sweetest. And
young lasses, well fed on the potionthey bloom in the spring as well,
become ripe and ready.
Laire felt horror creep over her like hoarfrost.
One by one, your sisters will disappear. Ive seen it happen with
other girls in other places. Bibiana stays for a winter and a spring, never
longer. Then she flies away.
How? Laire insisted, moving toward him. How does she do it?
He shook his head. He looked her in the eye, his gaze fierce, raw.
And my father? she asked.
Hell live. Hell be a shell of the man ye knew, broken in spirit and
mind. Hell be dependent on the potion, crave it. Living without it will
drive him mad. Hell forget ye, Laire, remember nothing in the end.
She made a sound of grief, swayed on her feet, and he caught her
shoulders. His touch was gentle, but she pushed his hands away, moved
out of reach.
Why? she asked. Why do you serve her? You are not that kind of

I am exactly that kind of man, he said harshly. I swore an oath to


serve her in payment of a debt that could be satisfied no other way. He
sagged a little, the anger gone as quickly as it had come. He ran his hand
through his hair, paced the floor.
Tell me, she said.
He laughed harshly. Do ye really want to know? Its an ugly,
shameful tale. His eyes were pools of pain and horror, but she nodded.
His mouth twisted bitterly, and he looked away. She thought he
wouldnt tell her, that the sin and the scars of it were too raw, too deep
to expose. He sat down on the edge of the bed, his elbows on his knees,
his eyes on the floor. She waited.
I was like you once. I wanted to help someone I loved, help myself. I
failed. Have you considered what the cost will be to you if you fail?
I will lose everything I love, she said bluntly. But it hasnt come to
that yet. Theres still time.
She touched his shoulder. I came to find my uncle. I thought hed
help me save them. But he wont. Only you can.
He rose, shook her off, and backed away like a cornered wolf. Damn
ye. I couldnt save my own wife. She died, and it was my fault. Thats
why I am Bibianas servant, bound to her for seven years. Because I
asked her for a potiona love potion.
She stared at him, her heart in her throat, her belly tight. He turned
away from her.
Tell me, she whispered again. He met her eyes, scanned her face.
She held his gaze, fiercely. What was her name?
Mairi. The word was rough, bitter.
Did you love her? she asked, bracing herself.
He looked upward. I thought I did. I knew her from the time we
were children, and it was assumed that wed wed when we were grown.
When we did, I thought I was happy. Id seen the way my brother David
looked at her, you see, how he wanted her, but she was mine. He
clenched his fist. I didnt see the way she looked at him. I was so cocky,
so sure Id won.
She was unhappy, but I didnt see it. She cried at night. I didnt
understand, didnt know why. I didnt ask. Instead I gave her jewels and
gowns. When she told me she was with child, I thought a bairn would
make her happy, make everything right. But she told me the babe wasnt
mine. It was Davids. She loved him, begged me to let her go to him.
Laire felt her heart climb into her throat, saw the pain in his eyes, felt
it in her own breast. What did you do?
He laughed without humor. I refused, told her Id claim the child as
my own and never let her see David again. I took my pregnant wife to
Paris, away from my brother. He rubbed his hand over his mouth.
Thats where I met Bibiana. She was dazzling, lovely, a good listener to
a man with all the sorrows in the world on his plate. She said she could
give me a potion that would make Mairi love me. She did warn me that it
came with a high price. He shut his eyes. I didnt care. I thought I
loved her, but it wasnt love I felt. It was something twistedhatred for
my brother, perhaps. Competition. Mairi was just caught between us.
Laire waited for him to continue. He swallowed as he fought his
emotions. He stood with his back against the wall, his hands in his
pockets.
I told Bibiana aye, that I wanted the potion, that Id pay anything. I
let Mairi drink it, watched her drain the cup to the dregs.
He stared into the air as if he could see it all, his eyes dark with grief
and guilt. Laire felt her belly curl with dread.
She woke in the night, screaming. The potion brought on the child
too early, and Mairi died in my arms. And DavidDavid came all the way
to Paris to fight me for her. He walked into our lodgings just as Mairi
breathed her last. He thought Id killed her, murdered her in cold blood.
Then Bibiana arrived, demanded her fee. His mouth twisted bitterly.
She wanted the child. I told her it had been born dead, so she insisted
on another payment. Memy servitude for seven years. I didnt care
where I went or what I did, so I agreed. I sold my soul and the life of an
innocent lass He clenched his fists, ground them into his eyes. My
wife, the woman I was supposed to love and protect! I sold her life, sold
my own soul to a witch because I had to win over my brother.
He opened his eyes and stared at herwild, crazed. Laire read self-
loathing and torment in the gray depths. Thats why I cant help you,
how I know you cannot save them, he said through gritted teeth.
Laire was silent. He hit the wall with his fist. Now will you run? Go,
Laire. Leave. Run.
Instead she crossed the room. She put her arms around his waist,
and laid her head on his chest. His heart pounded under her cheek. For a
long moment he made no move to hold her.
Then his arms came around her, and he pulled her close, hugged her
fiercely. Christ, lass . . .
She placed the palm of her hand over his heart. She stood on her toes
and pressed her lips to his, once, twice, three times, soft pecks against
his resistance until he groaned and kissed her back. He held her face in
his hands, angled her head to deepen the kiss, stroking her tongue with
his. He tasted of whisky, and she felt the kiss all the way to her toes, a
flush of heat that flowed through her. Could someone get drunk on a
kiss?
She sighed, felt her body turn to warm butter and mold itself to his.
Her breasts rested deliciously against the hard, naked muscles of his
chest, and she felt the jut of his arousal against her belly. When he tried
to pull back, she slid her hands around his neck, tangled them in his
hair, and held him. He made a ragged sound of desire, or despair, and
she felt his body tremble against hers.
He gripped her shoulders, pushed her away, but he didnt let go. He
held her at arms length. She stared up at him. She wanted him, wanted
this, a moment between them, comfort and passion and peace, the rest
of the world and all the sins and torments forgotten, just for now.
Why, Laire. Why me? Is this a bribe, some kind of payment for my
services?
She shook her head. No, Iain. I simply want . . . The words would
take too long to say. She didnt want to talk.
She held his eyes as she undid the pin that held her cloak and let the
garment fall. She began to unlace the front of her gown. She willed him
not to stop her, or send her away. He stood still, watched her.
She let her gown drop to the floor on top of the cloak. She stood
before him wearing only her shift and stockings and shoes. She began to
fumble with the ribbons that tied her chemise. His fingers covered hers
and took over the task. When the ribbon was loose, he slid the straps off
her shoulders, caressing her bare flesh as the garment slid away. She
stood naked before him, and his eyes roamed over her, full of heat.
Youre beautiful, lass.
She put her hand on his chest, traced the little scars of a manly life.
He let her explore. He put his hand on her waist, held her lightly. He
lifted her chin with the other hand, pulled her close until her breasts
rested on the naked planes of his chest, flesh on flesh, heart upon heart.
He brought his mouth back to hers, kissed her until the room spun and
desire pooled in her belly, hot and sweet.

God help me, he thought as he gave in to temptation, to the scent of her,


the desire in her eyes, the soft sound of her sighs, the silken heat of her
skin against his. She was so soft. She fit against him perfectly. He kissed
her gently, sure shed change her mind and pull away, but this was Laire
bold, brave, exquisite Laire. She sighed and kissed him back. She let
her head fall back, giving him access to the sensitive place under her ear,
and gasped when his tongue found the pulse point at her throat.
He cupped the fullness of her breast, ran his thumb gently over her
nipple.
Tell me to stop, he growled.
She shook her head, made an incoherent sound and tightened her
hands on his shoulders. He trailed his mouth along the upper slopes of
her breasts and flicked his tongue over her swollen nipple. She arched
her back, cupped his head in her hands, held him to her.
The soft sounds of need she made shot straight to his cock, drove
him mad. He forced himself to go slow, sure shed change her mind,
realize what he was . . .
Touch me, she pleaded when he took his mouth away.
Where? he asked, his voice thick as honey.
Everywhere. She moved her hips restlessly against his.
Tell me what you want, he whispered against her mouth.
Everything, she said. All of you. Every part. Dont stop.
He scooped her up, carried her to the bed and laid her down. He
unfastened his breeches, peeled them off, tossed them away.
She lay on the pillow and watched him, her incredible eyes roaming
over him. Oh, she sighed. Oh. She held out her arms to him, and he
tumbled into her embrace, pulled her under him, kissed her. Slowly, he
warned himself. She was innocent and untried. But she was beautiful,
and it had been a very long time . . . or never, perhaps. This was new
this was love, not sex. He recognized that, felt the danger of it, but he
wanted her and this moment between them.

She reveled in the feel of himhis erection hard against her belly, the
pebbles of his nipples as they brushed her own, the silk of his skin over
muscles like solid oak. He was hairy where she was smooth, hard where
she was soft . . . He murmured Gaelic endearments in her ear, and his
hands roamed over every inch of her, leaving trails of fire and ice. She
gasped as his fingers dipped between her thighs and slipped into the wet
heat of her body. His fingers teased, stroked, urged. He wanted . . . or
was it she that wanted it? The wave of sensation surprised her when it
came. Her body pulsed. She cried out, and he kissed her, caught the
sounds she made with his mouth.
He positioned himself between her thighs, He hesitated, and she
could see the question in his eyes, the strain on his face.
She looked back at him, sure. I want this, she said.
With a groan he filled her in one powerful thrust, and she gasped in
surprise at the small, sharp pain that shot through her. He held still, his
eyes on hers, and let her grow accustomed to him, to his body inside her
own. He stroked her hair, whispered sweet, soft things. He was so hot, so
hard. She shifted her hips, and he let out the breath hed been holding.
His eyes drifted shut, and the muscles of his jaw corded. He withdrew,
and drove into her again. He moved against her, filled her, over and over
again. She dug her nails into his back, felt the rush of desire rise, and
threw her head back as sensation overwhelmed her again. She felt him
thrust into her, once, twice, and then his body arched over hers as he
found his release.

Iain marveled at the feel of her in his arms. She lay with her head on his
chest, curled against him, safe, soft and warm against his heart. This is
what hed wanted, what hed longed for with Mairicomfort and
pleasure and pillow talk on a winters night.
Is the portrait of the lady in the other room your wifeyour Mairi?
He tensed. Not his Mairi. Shed never really been his Mairi . . . Aye,
he said. This was not the kind of pillow talk he wanted. He eased her
away gently and got up, reached for his breeches, pulled them on.
She propped herself up on one elbow and smiled at him, contented as
a cat. He felt a moment of pure masculine pride at her satisfaction. This
is what my uncle meant . . . the desire, the wanting, love. He said love
made a person act drunk and daft. He said it was what Id feel when I
found the person I was meant to be with.
Its not love, lass. Not with me. Ye deserve better than me. This was
only a bedding. A very, very good bedding, but no more than that. He
refrained from looking at her, afraid shes read the lie in his eyes.
He felt the hard burn of shame. The room was cold. The whole world
seemed cold away from Laire and the bed. Ive told ye what I am, what I
did. I must live with that every day of my life. Your trouble is that ye
think with your heart, lass. Others dont have that luxury. He reached
for a shirt.
She made a purring sound, undeterred by his harsh words. Its what
the Fearsome MacLeods do. It usually turns out right enough. We all
make mistakes. My father was thinking with his hearthe wants a son, a
woman who loves him. It doesnt make him evil. It makes him human.
How are you any different?
Was she so naive? Anger flared. How in hell would you know?
Youve never made a mistake. Youve not got a selfish bone in your
body. He let his eyes slide over that body again.
Have I not? She slipped off the bed, wrapping the sheet around
herself. She stood on the opposite side of the bed, regarding him soberly
in the candlelight. Ive sins of my own, Iain Lindsay. Ive got scars on
my soul too.
He sent her a long look, but she raised her chin. I had a twin brother
Papas longed-for son, his pride and joy. When we were five, we went
into the garden to play. We picked pretty flowers and steeped them in
water and wine, called it ale. We stole two of Papas best pewter cups.
Lachlan drank his ale fast, and he liked it so well he took mine and
drank that, too. Her eyes were haunted, staring into space, seeing the
events. I was angry. I refused to speak to him. When my mother put us
to bed that night, I was still mad. He came and crawled in beside me in
the dark, curled himself against my back, crying. She shut her eyes
against the grief. For a moment he watched her lips tremble, but she
shut her eyes, refused to cry. I wouldnt turn, wouldnt forgive him. I
heard my brother gasping, pleading with me. I thought he was playing a
game, trying to get my attention, but he was sick. A tear slid over her
cheek anyway, gold in the candlelight. Then he stopped making any
noise at all. He was so cold, and he wouldnt wake up. I turned and
wrapped my arms around him, tried to keep him warm. I couldnt see
what was wrong in the dark, and I was too frightened to call out for help.
They found us together in the morning, Lachlan dead and cold, gone
away, taken in the dark. I saw the terrible pain in my fathers eyes, knew
he wondered why his son had died, while I, another girl, had lived. My
mother was devastated. I tried everything to make my father forget, but I
could not be the one thing he wantedhis son. My brother. She looked
at him, her eyes liquid, more tears flowing now. So you see, there must
be a reason why I lived. Perhaps this is my chance to make things right.
She dashed the tears away with her fist. I wont fail them again.
He swallowed. Thats why you fear the dark.
The dark takes things. Precious things. But now I know. Sometimes,
like with Wee Kipper, it gives them back.
They stared at each other across the rumpled width of his bed. He felt
the heat rise again in his body, a new tide of desire, a need to comfort
her, hold her, find absolution in her arms, offer her the same. But it was
just bedding, nothing more. Lass, he began, but her breath hitched,
and her eyes widened, and he knew she felt what he did, wanted him the
way he wanted her. He swore softly and looked away.
Ach Dhia, sweetheart, I need to get you home to your uncles before
he thinks Ive . . . done what Ive done.
But she came around the bed, took the shirt from his hands, and
tossed it aside. She slid her arms around his neck, and sheet dropped
away between them.
What weve done, Iain. My uncle isnt here, and I dont intend to tell
him. Do you?
He shook his head, his throat closing with renewed desire. She
smiled sweetly.
Then perhaps I dont have to go just yet.

By the time he walked her back to her uncles house, dawn was turning
the city a beguiling pink. He pulled her into the shadows before they
reached the house and kissed her again. She clung to him, kissed him
back.
Yeve got to go in, lass, he groaned.
I came out through the window in the sitting room. Can ye help me
climb back in?
He slid open the window and lifted her slight weight in his arms,
passing her through the opening. Even that contact made him want her
again. She leaned out the window and kissed him. He felt joy surge
through his veins and laughed as he broke the kiss. Away with ye,
wench, or the neighbors will talk.
She smiled, her face flushed, her mouth kiss-swollen, her hair loose
and love-rumpled, her eyes bright. She looked like a woman whod been
well loved, all night. He couldnt help it, he grinned, imagining what he
looked like.
So youll come to the salon this afternoon, speak to my uncle?
He nodded, already looking forward to seeing her, scarcely able to
leave her now. He wouldnt be able to touch her at her uncles salon,
surrounded by other people . . . Ill bring Dux. The lad needs a mentor.
Perhaps hell find one here.
She smiled, as if hed come up with something so clever that no one
else had ever thought of it. Aye, she said. Aye.
She kissed him again until he groaned and pulled back.
He turned and walked away before he was tempted to climb through
the window and love her all over again.
CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

Glen Iolair

The snow had fallen steadily throughout December, filling the woods,
covering the frozen loch, and robing the mountains in white. The
inhabitants of the castle were unaware of the weather, slumbering by
day and dancing by night. Bibiana waited impatiently. Even an early
spring would not come to the Highlands until mid-February.
Her sealgair would reappear, and the birds would begin a new season
of breeding. He mouth watered for the taste of sweet flesh. She grew so
tired of caged birds at this time of year.
For now, she lounged in the bath, reveling in the pleasures of hot
water and a blazing fire. Rafael added the contents of another copper,
and Bibiana sighed.
The door opened and Terza entered, bringing a gasp of cold air with
her. Bibiana cast a sharp glance at her, and Terza shut the door quickly
and made her way through the steam.
Theres another delivery all the way from Edinburgh, Terza said.
This time its a letter for the laird. Rafael crossed to peer at the missive
over Terzas shoulder.
Give it to me. Bibiana said, drying the fingertips of one hand before
she took it. Sir Hamish MacEwan? Who is he?
She broke the seal and read the contents.
My lady? Rafael said. Youve gone quite dangerously red . . .
How is this possible? Bibiana demanded. She rose from the tub, her
body glistening and pink. Terza hurried forward with her robe, thick red
velvet, trimmed with raven feathers. Bibiana shrugged into it and paced
the floor, leaving steaming puddles behind her. Rafael picked up the
letter from where Bibiana had dropped it and read it. She allowed it.
Shes alive? she heard Rafael gasp.
Bibiana cursed in an old, forgotten language. It seems my sealgair
has betrayed me.
She looked at her face in the mirror and saw perfection and rage.
This is her fault, a chit of a girl. How is this possible? Iain Lindsay is
mine, she hissed.
She whirled upon her servants, snatched the letter from Rafaels
fingers.
Pack at once, she commanded him. We leave for Edinburgh within
the hour. She looked at Terza. They must sleep while I am away.
The old woman cackled. Aye. She moved to help Rafael pack.
Bibiana dressed, choosing a silver-blue gown and a thick, hooded
white-fur cloak. She swept toward the cracked mirror and looked again.
She was beautiful in her vengeance. She opened her jewel box and took
out a bulky ring. It bore the head of a raven carved in jet, with ruby eyes.
Inside the beak was a small chamber that contained a few drops of
poison. She slid the ring onto her finger, next to Iain Lindsays signet
ring. She pressed a button on her dressing table, and a hidden
compartment popped open. There was naught inside but a tattered piece
of blue cloth, rumpled and threadbare, the pocket of a mans coat. The
corner was stained with blood.
She didnt care about the girl. She might have simply let it go, since
the world dealt cruelly with pretty young girls all alone, and shed been
as good as dead when she left this glen. But Iainhe was the one who
had betrayed her, and she couldnt forgive that. Now theyd both have to
pay, the sealgair and the girl. Did he love her? That would make
destroying him all the sweeter. Even if it was simply lust, shed make
him pay, make him watch while she killed Laire MacLeod before his
eyes. And then . . . She looked at the scrap of blue cloth and smiled.
I know your secret, she whispered, and tucked it into her bodice.
CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

Edinburgh

Laires breath caught at the sight of Iain as he entered her uncles house
the following afternoon. He wore a pewter-gray coat with lace at his
throat. He was taller than any other man at her uncles salon, broader,
handsomer. His eyes met hers and she thought she would melt.
She kept her eyes on him as he made his slow way across the room to
where she sat. Dux beside him, looking nervous.
Laire fought to keep from sighing as he made his way across the
room.
Then he was there beside her. She dipped a curtsy, and he bowed low,
sending her a momentary heavy-lidded look of knowing, and in an
instant she relived all the touches and kisses of the night before, the
joining of their bodies, the soft sighs. He seared her with a glance, and
she could hardly stand. He was here, and no one else in the room
mattered.

Hed promised himself he wouldnt do this, that hed concentrate on


introducing the erstwhile medical student to Edinburghs finest
physicians and scientists and keep his distance from Laire. But she lit up
like a pine torch the instant she saw him, and he swallowed a groan, felt
desire roar through him. She was wearing a pale-blue gown that brought
out the color of her eyes and the creaminess of her skin. He knew every
inch of that skin . . . She was blushing, and she looked like a woman
whod been well bedded. Twice. He introduced Dux to Sir Hamishs
guests without hearing the brief exchanges. He couldnt look at anything
but Laire. She was trying not to look at him, and failing. He heard the
soft, throaty catch in her voice as she greeted Dux and dipped her curtsy
to him. Iain bowed. If he touched her now, shed melt. Hell, hed melt.
Arousal made him sweat. The mere touch of her hand made him harder
still, and intensely glad for the full-skirted gray coat he wore. He kissed
her knuckles, felt her fingers tighten, heard her soft sigh. Are you well
this afternoon, mistress? he asked politely. The simple words came out
as a barbaric growl, full of sin and lust, somehow suggestive and
improper, and her blush deepened. He curled his fingers against her
palm, slid them up to the pulse hammering in her wrist.
Exceedingly, Laird Lindsay. She was as breathless as if shed been
running.
Is there somewhere we can speak? he asked.
Yes, of course, she said, the dark center of her eyes flaring. Would
you like to see my uncles conservatory? Theres a marvelous plant
called a pineapple. She expected a tryst, stolen kisses. She wouldnt like
what he had to say.
He offered his arm, and she set her hand upon his sleeve and led him
into the glass house.
Oh, Iain, she breathed as they walked among the plants. Her skirts
swirled against his boots, the silk and lace of her sleeve whispered
against the velvet of his coat. His body roared for deeper, more intimate
contacthis mouth on her eyelids, her throat, her breasts, her legs
around his hips. Her uncles guests were on the other side of the glass
wall, a few feet away.
She led him deeper into the leafy bower until they were hidden from
view. She slid her arms around his neck and kissed him until they were
both breathless. Touch me, she pleaded.
Nay. I didnt come to ravish you, he said, but he cupped her breast,
knew the way her nipples hardened at his touch. We must talk, Laire,
he said as he kissed her ear.
Ill come to you tonight.
His cock twitched at the promise, and he swallowed. No. Its too
dangerous, too She slid her hand down, gripped the rigid bulge
through fine wool of his breeches, and he groaned. He could scarcely
think. The damned glass house was too hot. She was too hot . . .Lass,
stop, he said halfheartedly, his hand on her wrist. He forced himself to
curl her hand in his, drag it away. She made him pant . . .
What did you wish to talk about? she asked primly, but her eyes
danced.
You asked me to speak to your uncle, tell him about Bibiana.
Yes, she said. Shall I get him now?
Nay, stay. He shut his eyes. I cant do it, Laire. He saw her face fall,
her lush lips part. If I begin telling tales of poison and magic, hell think
Im mad. It would only make things worse. It would destroy his regard
for you, lass. He has a reputation to protect, and he loves you. If he isnt
willing to help, then let it be.
The playful smile left her eyes. I see.
But he knew she did not. Well try to find another way.
How?
Dux will make discreet enquiries. There may not be any
She stood on her toes and kissed him hard, and he caught her in his
arms. The hinges of the conservatorys glass door creaked a warning as it
opened. Tonight, she whispered as they sprang apart.

A carriage pulled up alongside Iain as he walked home. Dux had stayed,


deep in discussion with the famous doctor Alexander Monro, his pale
eyes glowing behind his spectacles.
Janet Fairly lowered the window. Good afternoon, Lindsay. I am
heading back to the Pearl. May I offer you a ride? He got into her coach,
and she smiled at him. I see ye found your dark-haired lass. She is a
beauty.
Shes Hamish MacEwans niece, he said, and he watched her brows
rise in surprise.
How exactly do ye know Sir Hamish, Janet?
She raised her chin and lowered her lashes. I do have a private life,
Lindsay. He was silent, waiting, and she sighed. I knew him when we
were both young. I had hoped wed wed, but he sailed away in search of
plants. It was a higher calling, perhaps, or his true love. I married
elsewhere, and when he returned, he called on me and wished me well. I
cant help but wonder . . . if Id waited . . . She paused. Well. Thats
really all there is to tell. It was a long time ago. Nearly twenty years.
She looked out the window. I havent seen him since. I have,
however, followed his work. I know hes raising money for a new
infirmary, and I have given a very generous donationanonymously, of
course, so no one will be embarrassed. That infirmary will benefit the
poor of this city, and the kind of women who ply my trade in the streets.
He saw the regret in her eyes, overlaid by practicality and pride. But
enough of my past. Tell me of your bonny lass.
Theres nothing to tell. I am trying to convince her to leave the city,
and the country.
She smiled. To run away with you, elope? How very romantic.
Not with me. Despite me. Shes in danger if she stays. I have
enemies, Janet. They are her enemies as well.
Then an elopement seems a fine idea to me. You love her, dont
you?
Its more complicated than just that.
Is there another man? Janet asked.
A woman. A witch, Iain said.
A witch? Oh, Ive known a few of those in my day.
They reached the square and pulled up in front of the Pearl. He
descended and offered Janet his hand. She squeezed it briefly, smiling
her thanks. If the trouble you fear finds you, and you need a safe place
to hide . . . she said softly, and shrugged. You never know.
He glanced at her in surprise, and she tilted her head and smiled.
Believe it or not, I make it my business to protect the members of my
sex as best I can, and my friends.
My thanks, Iain said. He bowed and crossed the square to Lindsay
House.

Laire arrived in the company of Sir Hamishs housekeeper that evening.


Mrs. Groves looked around the grand foyer of Lindsay House with
undisguised awe.
Are these your bairns, Laird Lindsay? she asked, her face wreathed
in smiles when she saw the youngest members of the clan.
They are my guests.
We came to see how Dux had enjoyed the salon, Laire said, smiling
at the young man. Iain took her cloak, breathed in the smell of her hair.
I was very pleased to meet Sir Hamish, Dux told her, grinning. And
Dr. Monro, and Drs. Sibbald and Balfour, of course. If my uncle hadnt
died Id be a physician myself by now. he said. When I met Sir Hamish
and Dr. Balfour today, and learned that they study medicinal plants
well, I knew Id like to do that. He looked at Laire through his
spectacles. I dont fear sap the way I do blood, and I want to learn all I
canespecially if it can help your kin, Laire.
Thank you, Dux, she said. She tilted her head. I take it you are the
Rob Macintosh my uncle was enthusing over?
Its my real name, he said. Dux is my clan name. It means top
pupil, and I am indeed a quick study.

Mrs. Groves insisted on helping Morag with the little ones while Laire
and Hoolet worked on the pretty green gown. My uncle said that I
might bring you and Dux to the Duke of Argylls Ball. Its to be a
masquerade.
Hoolets eyes widened. Truly? Oh, Laire . . .
Wed best get to work. Will you go as an owl?
Hoolet shook her head. Nay, I want to be something pretty. A sprite,
perhaps? What will you wear? You could go as a dove or a swan.
Laire pricked her finger and winced. Not a dove, she said.
Iain knocked on the half-open door, smiling slowly as he looked at
Hoolet. Ye look very pretty, he said, before he turned to smile at Laire.
She swallowed a gasp of longing and felt hot blood fill her face and make
her body heavy with desire. She met his eyes, waited to see an answering
longing in the gray depths. Except for a slight lift of his brow, he gave
nothing away.
Mrs. Groves is helping Morag make jam tarts for the wee ones,
Fussle is teaching Bear his letters, and Dux is reading a book that Sir
Hamish gave him to study, he said. He paused. Might I speak with ye
for a moment alone, Laire?
Jam tarts? Hoolet said. I think Ill go and see. Can we finish the
gown tomorrow, Laire?
Of course, Laire said.
They waited until the girls footsteps had faded away on the stairs.
Iain swung the door shut and flicked the lock with his thumb. Then she
was in his arms, and his mouth was on hers, hungry. He grabbed her
skirt, pulled it up, and she fumbled with the buttons on his breeches. A
kilt, she said. You need to wear a kilt.
He didnt answer. He lifted her leg to his hip and pressed his erection
against her, groaning. She clung to him, panting. He entered her in one
quick, filling stroke. She tilted her hips and rode with him. She dug her
nails into his shoulders as she felt the pressure build. Iain! she gasped.
She shuddered, felt her inner muscles pulse and clasp him. He kissed
her hard, muffling her cries, and filled her one last time before he found
his release.
He kissed her gently, still inside her, their hearts pounding together.
Ive wanted to do that all day, he said. God help me.
She smiled. I thought everyone could tell, at the salon, what I was
thinking.
He kissed her eyes, her nose, her cheeks. And what were you
thinking?
She swiveled her hips, and he groaned softly. This, she whispered
in his ear. She felt him growing hard again inside her.
Yell be the death of me, Laire MacLeod, he murmured, and he
carried her to the bed this time.
CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

Her longing for him was sweet torment. In the following week, Laire
managed to visit Lindsay House almost dailyfor Hoolets sake, or so
she told Mrs. Groves, since the ball was mere days away. She and Iain
managed to slip away only twice. They made love quickly, furtively,
listening for footsteps, starting at shadows. He left her breathless. It
became as much torment as joy to see him in company, at her uncles
salons or at dinner, to try and exchange pleasantries as she felt his eyes
on her, remembered how he looked when he loved her, the strain of
passion on his face, the curl of his lips as he came inside her . . .
She longed for him with an ache that near stopped her heart when
they were apart, and she counted the hours until they could touch again.
And when she saw him again, her heart began to beat again, and
desire made her body turn liquid.
And she knew it for what it was. She was in love.

Laire, we must talk, Iain said as they adjusted their clothing in a small
storeroom on the third floor of Lindsay House. Weeks had passed and
Laires uncle still refused to speak of the danger her family was in. He
sent his niece to balls and parties to try and distract her, refusing to hear
more about poisoned wine and mysterious potions.
Laire and Dux spent their days scouring books and papers, asking
doctors and scientists hypothetical questions, but they had found no
cure, no precedent. It was early January. The Dukes ball was scheduled
for Twelfth Night. The earliest spring birds were mere weeks away from
returning in February. Bibiana would expect him back. Or she would
come looking for him. He wondered how much time he had leftthey
had leftbefore she found him He watched Laire struggle with the
buttons of her gown. Her hair had come loose, hung over her shoulders
in a love-rumpled tangle. Her face was flushed with sex, her eyes bright,
and his heart expanded in his breast.
She smiled knowingly. Oh, its talk you want, is it?
I want you to reconsider leaving Scotland.
She scanned his face. Her smile faded. With you?
Aye.
Her hands fell away from her buttons. She clasped them together.
She looked away, scanned the room, and he saw tears in her eyes. I
want this more than I can say, Iain. But I cant leave. Not while theres a
chance to save my family. Theres still timebefore spring. I might find
something, or convince my uncle.
He frowned. If I speak to him, ask him, and he refuses once again,
will ye come away with me?
She touched his face, a light brush of her fingers over his cheeks, He
caught her hand, kissed it.
She pulled away. I love you, but I love them as well. I have a duty to
them. I am not free to do as I please. she said. He read anguish in her
eyes. Please do not ask me to choose. I must She left the rest unsaid,
but he knew. He watched her leave, walk out of the storeroom with her
chin high. He stood without moving until her footsteps faded.
She would choose them.
CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

Edinburgh

Rafael staggered off the ship. His empty belly felt like it was clinging to
his backbone, and still the sway of the ship threatened to make him
puke again.
Go and hire a carriage and see to the baggage, Bibiana said without
mercy. She had a house here. She had houses everywhere. This one had
once belonged to a wealthy and elderly gentleman that Bibiana met in
Paris, on his honeymoon with his very young wife. She had seduced both
husband and wife, and when the gentleman died some weeks later and
the young wife disappeared, it turned out that the Edinburgh house had
been willed to Bibiana.
Wake the servants, Bibiana ordered as they pulled up at the front
steps. And order them all to leave.
She floated up the steps like a dark goddess, and Rafael paid the
coachman.
Cold night, the driver said, watching Bibiana walk away, her red
cloak flying behind her like blood-soaked wings.
And about to get colder still, Rafael muttered, and hurried after his
mistress.
CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

On Tweltfth Night, the night of the ball, Laire descended the stairs and
watched her uncles eyes light up.
She was dressed as Diana, the goddess of the hunt, in a gown of
purple velvet and violet satin brocade that matched her eyes. Pearls,
sapphires, and amethysts adorned the sleeves, hem, bodice, and the half
mask. Her dark hair flowed to her hips in a silken curtain, and a small
bow and a silver quiver filled with arrows completed her costume.
Oh my dear. You look lovely, Sir Hamish said, straightening his
own costume, a simple black domino. He carried his mask in his hand,
an antique mask with a long birds beak, the kind once worn by
physicians in Venice to ward off the plague.
Mrs. Groves sobbed at Laires beauty.
Uncle Hamish took her arm and led her out to the coach. I have
received requests from several gentlemen to call upon you. At this rate,
your father will have to come to Edinburgh to meet your suitors.
She smiled, but didnt speak. There was no point in saying yet again
that Papa was indisposed, drugged, bewitched. And Laire only wanted
only one man . . .
Of course, I can see Laird Iain Lindsay is rather fond of ye, her
uncle said, and Laire looked at him quickly in the dark. Aha! I daresay if
there was enough light, Id see ye blushing, niece. Is he the one ye like
best? I think hes rather rough myself. Too bold, he said. But its for
your father to say, since Donals a bold Highlander himself. Just dont
give your heart too soon. Dance with other gentlemen tonight, enjoy
yourself, flirtjust a little, mind. I shall be keeping a close eye on ye, and
Ill be watching Iain Lindsay. You are like a rare flower to me, and I will
do all in my power to protect you.
She didnt speak, couldnt. She loved Iain, and shed refused him.
Shed made her choice. For her, there was no other man. But she could
not abandon her family. She tightened her gloved hands in her lap,
fighting the pain in her heart.
Thank you, Uncle. I promise to be good.

Iain wore his plaid and bonnet and a fine jeweled Lindsay brooch on his
shoulder. Morag began crying the moment she saw him. Ye look like
your grandda, Laird, and he was a handsome man.
Duxs costume was the wig and robes of a hanging judge. Wee Kipper
regarded him balefully. Bear wore an ancient soldiers breastplate, found
in the attic, and a rusted helm.
But everyone gasped as Hoolet descended the stairs, dressed as a
sprite. Her green gown made the most of her tiny, slender figure. She
was no longer a girl, but an elegant young woman. Her hair was piled
high on her head, woven through with ribbons and gems to give it
sparkle. Shed borrowed from the jewelry shed found in the house. She
touched the garnets at her throat. Mairis garnets. I hope ye dont mind
if I borrowed these, Laird.
Iain saw no reason to rebuke her. Ye look lovely. He bowed and
offered her his arm. Shall we go?
She took a deep breath and smiled at him. Aye, Laird.
Dux took her other arm, and Bear fell in behind them.

Are you certain shell be at the ball? Rafael asked, watching Bibiana
brush her golden hair. Hed been sent to watch for Laire MacLeod
outside the home of Sir Hamish MacEwan, the man who had written to
Donal MacLeod.
Hed stood in the cold for hours and had seen her only once, alive
and well and in the company of a watchful old biddy.
He also watched Lindsay House, and felt a hard rush of jealousy that
Bibianas sealgair had such a fine home. Iain Lindsay had cast off his
black leather garb, put away his sword and bow, and he looked quite the
fine gentleman. Rafael sneered. It didnt matter. Hed played Bibiana
false, and hed pay the price.
Of course shell be at the ball. Her uncle is a friend of the dukes,
Bibiana said. She frowned at her reflection in the mirror. Our sweet
Laire is the toast of Edinburgh. Did you know that? Shell be the belle of
the ball, and the men will flock to her like dogs around a bitch. And Iain
Lindsay, my sealgair, my Laird of Craigmyle, will be right by her side.
Rafael felt another stab of jealousy. Iain Lindsay was a bloody laird?
He watched as Bibiana powdered her face until it was white and
outlined her eyes with thick black kohl. She painted her lips scarlet.
He helped her lace up her black-velvet gown. She looked magnificent.
The bodice was so low it pushed her lush breasts halfway to her chin and
showed the teasing sight of the top half of her rouged nipples. Rafael
swallowed at the sight of her, beautiful, terrifying, powerful. She donned
a hooded cloak made of glossy black feathers.
She stared at the reflection in the mirror. Whos the fairest of them
all? she purred.
You are, Rafael said, awed by the vision of her. You are.
She opened the jewel box and put on her ringsIain Lindsays signet
ring went on the finger next to the large crystal she was never without. It
flashed in the candlelight, lit her eyes and her hair. She reached for the
last ring, the ravens head carved of onyx so black it stole the light and
held it. Bibiana slid the ring onto her finger and held her hand before her
to admire it. The birds ruby eyes glittered with malice. One nip of this
birds beak, one drop of poison, and Laire MacLeod will die, she
murmured. And Iain Lindsay will be mine forever.
CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

Hoolet trembled as she gazed at the crowd of fine folk making their way
up the front steps of the Duke of Argylls Edinburgh mansion. Footmen
lined the sweeping steps, their polished shoes and white wigs bright in
the light of a hundred torches. She stopped where she was and gaped.
What if they discover Im not supposed to be here? she whispered,
looking at Dux and Bear.
We have an invitation, Dux said. Sir Hamish arranged for it. He
took a card out of his pocket. See here? Mssr. Robert Macintosh and
guest. Thats you . . . He took her hand from Iains sleeve and dropped it
on his own. Come, Mistress?
Jenny, she said softly. How long had been since shed said it aloud,
or heard it said? Jenny Brodie.
Then come along Mistress Brodie, Dux said, and led her up the
steps.
Farlan Kilgour, Bear called after them. They turned to look at him.
Thats my name. And now that were all properly introduced, lets go
inside out of the cold.

His Graces butler took their invitations and announced them. Ian
scanned the crowd for Laire. The ballroom was crammed with people
already, gleaming in silk and satin, glowing in velvet. Lavish jewels
caught the candlelight and shot shards of light around the room.
He frowned. Everyone was disguised behind half masks, and it was
nearly impossible to recognize anyone.
Hoolet hurried off with Dux and Bear. Iain pushed through the
crowds. He should have asked Hoolet to tell him what Laire would be
wearing, how hed recognize her. Costumed bodies swarmed around
him. Masked balls always brought out the devil in people who felt free to
misbehave while their true identities were hidden. Manners and morals
slipped or were disregarded altogether. Wine and whisky flowed, and the
crowd was merry. Iain felt a bead of sweat slip down his spine. The scene
was all too familiar. In his mind, the dancers became Bibianas victims,
MacLeods daughters, Mairi . . . the colors whirled and spun until the
whole room revolved.
Where was she?
He scanned every corner, every chattering clutch of ladies. There
were many rare beauties in attendance, but none of them was Laire.
Then he saw her, a slender lass in purple velvet with long dark hair.
He felt the familiar clutch in his gut, the skip in his heartbeat, knew her
instantly. Masked, she was standing in a crowd of eager gentlemen, all
leaning in on her, whispering, flirting, touching, their white teeth
flashing.
He saw the glitter of her eyes through the slits of her mask, noted the
curve of her lush lips as she smiled at her suitors. Was she charmed,
besotted? Iains hands curled to fists against the wool of his plaid.
Jealousy consumed him, and he reached for his dirk, and remembered it
wasnt there. This was a party, not a brawl. He was Iain Lindsay, Laird of
Craigmyle, a gentleman. The rough Highland sealgair had no place here.
He stood amid the cream of Edinburgh society and wondered who he
truly was. He watched as a man picked up Laires hand and kissed her
palm, and her smile dazzled every man in sight of her, even Iain, even
halfway across the damned room, and he wished he had his bow and his
dirks about him.
He stood where he was, watching her flirt with another man. Shed
refused him . . . No doubt this man was some worthy gentleman, the
kind her father would approve of, the kind she should marry.
If hed hoped for redemption in Laires arms, for absolution, hed
been a fool. His sins could not be washed away so easily. Hed pay for
this, for falling in love, for hoping, for failing, for the rest of his lonely,
worthless life.
He had to leave, disappear. He couldnt bear to stay, to watch as Laire
Someone bumped his shoulder hard, and he looked up.
Straight into Rafaels mocking eyes.

The butler gaped as the exotic beauty swept in, rendered speechless. The
footmen by the doors stared too. The lady wore a long cloak made of
glossy black feathers. She pushed back the hood to reveal gleaming
blond locks. She wasnt wearing a mask. Instead, her face was painted in
stark black and white, with a savage slash of red across her lush lips. It
was sinful, bold, and the butler felt his old heart kick, and his cock stir.
For a moment she paused at the top of the steps and scanned the
crowds below her with a cold silver gaze, regal and haughty.
Your name, mistress? the butler managed.
Lady MacLeod.
She didnt wait for his announcement. She descended the stairs with
her head high, and her feathered cloak flowing behind her.

Laire curled her fingers in her amorous suitors grip. His mouth was too
wet, too intimate, and she could smell brandy on his breath. Other men
crowded her as well, competing for her attention with silly, meaningless
compliments. Her flirtatious sister Meggie would have loved every
second of it, but Laire looked anxiously around the room, searching for
Iain. Hed be easy to see, taller than any other man here, but there was
no sign of him.
Would you care to step outside where its cooler, my dear?
someone whispered in her ear, grasping her elbow, stroking her flesh
through the thin silk of her sleeve.
She pulled away. No thank you, she said primly.
A glass of wine? someone else asked.
Im not thirsty, she said, striving for a light tone.
Will you dance, mistress? Will you stroll the room? Will you allow
me to escort you to supper? A thousand eager questions flew at her until
she felt lightheaded, overwhelmed. The room was too warm, too
crowded, the laughter and chatter too loud. Her heart thumped. She
needed air, space, lightand Iain. She needed Iain most of all, his tall
body shielding hers, his hand under her elbow, staying her, his
formidable gray gaze warning all other men away. Shed refused him. He
would not come now.
Is there any water? she asked.
Four men reached for glasses of wine as a footman passed with a tray
held high, and presented them to her. Drink, one said, pressing the rim
of a glass against her lips. The sweet white wine was cool on her mouth.
She instinctively licked her lips, tasted sweetness. It was refreshing. She
grasped the glass, sipped, felt the liquid cool her throat. It bloomed in
her belly, soothed her. She sipped again, and grinned. The room looked
brighter, and her limbs loosened pleasantly. She turned and smiled at
the pack of men around her.

Rafael held Iains stare, his dark gaze knowing, mocking. He turned and
looked at Laire, his thin lips curving into a grin. Bibianas here, sealgair.
Shes come for the girl.
No. Iain could not hear his own voice over the cacophony. His
bones turned to water. He spun to look at Laire, still standing among her
adoring coterie. Laire. He willed her hear him, to look up.
He looked around and saw Bibiana. She was striding through the
crowd, which parted for her, swept out of her way, the laughter dying in
the throats of those she passed. He could smell her perfume, the dark,
ethereal, haunting scent she wore. It was bewitching. Men turned,
looked after her with lust in their eyes, but she didnt stop. Her eyes
were fixed on one thing, one woman.
Laire was a dozen long strides away, and Iains way was blocked by
the crowd. He began to shoulder through the crush, desperate to reach
Laire before Bibiana did. Men objected, cursed him, women screamed,
and angry hands tore at his clothing. He shook them all off, and rushed
on.
Too slow.
Bibiana was nearly upon her . . .
Laire! he screamed. A punch glanced off his cheek, and he ignored
it. Laire was laughing, her head thrown back. She hadnt noticed her
stepmother, couldnt hear him calling her name.
He opened his throat and bellowed like a Highland warrior charging
an enemy in battle. Men flinched, cowered. Ladies screamed and fainted,
but at last Laires head came up, and she scanned the crowd for him, her
smile fading.
He was almost there . . .
But it was too late.
He felt a foot curl around his ankle, felt himself falling. He turned to
look as he went down and saw Rafael. Touch, sealgair. He caught
Iains elbow, hauled him up, and pointed. Look there. Oh, this could not
have worked out better. Bibiana will be very pleased. Very pleased
indeed. Iain tried to jerk free, but Rafael held him. Now watch the girl
die.
Iain watched in horror as Bibiana arrived behind Laire. Her eyes met
Iains, and her malice was a living, breathing thing that slammed into his
chest.
She smiled coldly and reached for Laire.
CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

Laire felt warm and light and happy. If Iain were here, she would most
certainly tell him how marvelous it was to drink wine after all . . .
She heard a shout, a Highland battle cry, screamed out above the
sounds of the crowd. She scanned the crowd until she found him.
Iain.
He was pushing through the crowd toward her. She felt a thrill rush
through her at the sight of him.
And ohhe was wearing a Lindsay plaid and bonnet with a jeweled
brooch at his shoulder. He was unmasked. Her heart rose, danced. Her
lover, her Iain, her hearts only prize . . .
But he wasnt smiling. His gray eyes were wide with panic, and he
was shoving desperately through the crowd. His lips were moving, but
she couldnt hear him. He tripped, rose, and she felt her smile fading.
Rafael was here . . .
Iain wasnt looking at her.
He was staring at someone behind her.
Laire felt a chill run up her spine, ice in the heat of the crowded
room.
She spun.
Hello, my dear, Bibiana said, smiling coldly. Weve missed you at
home.
Laire turned to look at Iain. He was a few feet away, his face
anguished, his hand outstretched to her. She felt a sob gather in her
throat, and she raised her arm, reached for him.
But Bibianas hand closed on her shoulder. Too late, she said in a
singsong voice. Too late.
Laire felt a sharp pinch on her neck, like the sting of a wasp. She
gasped and clasped her hand to the spot when Bibiana released her. She
felt blood between her fingers, stared at it. The room began to waver,
and dark spots bloomed in her vision.
She felt Iains arms come around her as her knees buckled. He
caught her, held her, and she reached up to touch his cheek. My love,
she whispered.
But the world went black.

Iain stared down into Laires face. He watched the light dim in her eyes,
felt her body go limp in his arms. Anguish rushed through him,
immobilized him. His throat closed.
He felt the brush of feathers as Bibiana bent close to his ear. You
have blood on your face, sealgair, she purred, and was gone.
Blood. He looked at the small wound on Laires neck, the smear of
ruby blood on white skin. Her pulse still beat at her throat like a trapped
bird. The area around the wee wound was turning blue . . .
Poison . . . Iain bent and put his mouth to the puncture mark and
sucked hard, spat, and sucked again, drawing out the poison, praying
that this time he wasnt too late to save the woman he loved . . .
Hands caught him, pulled him away from her. Sir Hamish bent over
his niece, put his fingers on Laires neck, feeling for a pulse, crying her
name. He looked at Iain, horror blooming in his eyes. You did this, he
said. Iain shook his head. Laires uncle bunched his fist and punched
him hard in the face. Iain barely felt it.
He saw Hoolet kneel beside Laire, and Bear, and Dux. Dux put his
fingers to her neck as Iain watchedlong, delicate fingers, bronze
against Laires white skin, checking for a pulse. Dux caught Sir Hamishs
arm, looked at Iain. She lives, he said. She lives.
Get her away, Iain said, the bitter, numbing tingle of the poison
slick on his tongue.
Look, Hoolet pointed. Bibiana stood on the staircase, her black
cloak shimmering, her eyes filled with triumph. Then she turned and
strode up the steps without looking back. Hoolet gripped Iains arm. Is
that? Hoolet breathed.
Iain looked at Sir Hamish. Aye. Bibiana. The witch, Laires
stepmother. He watched the botanists jaw drop, saw his eyes widen as
he watched Bibiana disappear. He looked down at his niece again,
sobbing.
I didnt believe her, he said, taking her limp hand in his own. And
now shes
No, Iain said desperately. No, shes not. He pushed Hamish aside
and scooped Laire into his arms. He looked for the nearest way outthe
French doors that led to the gardenand moved toward them. People
stepped aside, made space, their smiles fading to shock.
Drunk, he heard, Fainted. They hadnt seen . . .
The garden was dark, but he strode through it, moving between the
winter trees and arbors in search of a back gate. Ill find my coachman,
take her home, Hamish said, hurrying after him. Hoolet, Dux, and Bear
followed. Iain ignored them all.
No. The witch will know to look there, Hoolet said. She needs
somewhere safe.
Lindsay House? Hamish panted.
The tunnels? Bear asked.
Iain stopped walking. He looked at the three young thieves. I need a
diversion. Bibiana has a servant. Hell be following to see if the jobs
done. Laires face was pale in the dark. He wrapped his plaid around
her. He stood in the shadows, scanning the dark for signs of Rafael.
Hoolet turned to Bear. Pick me up and carry me, she said. Like
Iain is carrying Laire . . .
Bear picked her up, and she lay limply in his arms. Now run.
Iain watched as they set off across the garden. He saw Rafael slip out
of the shadows and follow them, a blade in his hand. The Frenchman
would be no match for the Clan of Thieves. Hed find himself lost,
chasing the air, while the young thieves slipped away.

Iain knocked on the back door of the Pearl. Fetch Mistress Fairly, he
said, pushing past the manservant who opened the door. He climbed the
back steps to the familiar room at the front of the house, and laid her on
the bed. Hamish took her pulse again, and Dux lifted her eyelids,
checked her pupils. Iain held his breath and waited. She was so still . . .
Shes alive, Hamish said. Tears poured over his cheeks, and his
hands shook.
Iain felt relief rush through him like a wave. He sat down heavily in
the chair and buried his face in his hands.
Shes been poisoned, Sir Hamish pronounced unnecessarily. But
with what, I dont know.
The door opened and Janet Fairly entered the room. She stopped in
her tracks, her jaw dropping. Hamish MacEwan looked up. Janet?
She blinked. Aye, Hamish. Its been a long time. Welcome to the
Pearl. With a glance, she took in the lass on the bed, and Iain.
Your bonny lass? she asked Iain softly. What happened?
Iain began to speak, to do what he should have done weeks ago,
explaining to Hamish that what Laire had told him about her new
stepmother was true. He kept talking, describing what he knew about
Bibianas victims, the ones long dead, and the ones at Glen Iolair, in
hopes that there was a way to save them all. Laire most of all.
Sir Hamish listened grimly. This is my fault. He took Laires limp
hand in his and blinked away tears. Laire came to me for help, but I
wouldnt listen. God help me, I even wrote to her father, telling him she
was here with me. I led the witch right to hershe is a witch, isnt she? I
am a man of science. I dont believe in superstition and magic. He
looked at Laires still form. At least I didnt until now.
Can you save her, save her family? Dux asked.
Hamish frowned. I dont know. If I knew what the poison was,
perhaps. Id need sample of the potion. He took her pulse again, and
laid her limp hand gently on the coverlet.
Iain rose. Ill go and fetch a sample of the potion from Glen Iolair,
bring it back.
Ill go with ye, Dux said fiercely. And Bear and Hoolet will want to
come.
And I believe I must go, Sir Hamish said. It will save time. He
looked at Iain. Will the witch be at Iolair?
Iain nodded grimly. Shell be waiting for me. She knows Ill come.
He looked down at Laires still face, felt the desire for revenge rise in his
breast. Bibiana and I have a debt to settle. He took Laires hand in his,
held her cold fingers and rubbed her knuckles with his thumb. He stared
at her still face, memorized it, made a silent promise to her. He looked at
Janet. Can she stay here?
As long as you wish, Janet said.
Laires fingers twitched against his, and Iain looked down at her. Her
eyes were glittering slits, fixed on his face.
Youll not go without me, Iain Lindsay she said, her voice thick and
slow. I wont let her hurt anyone else I love.
CHAPTER FORTY

You let them escape? Bibiana raged at Rafael.


I lost them, he admitted, trembling. One moment they were there
the sealgair had her in his arms, a dozen strides away from me on a
street with no way out. He made a fist. I had them. There was no
escape, and then He opened his fist in the air. They were gone
without a trace. Like magic. Black magic, he thought. Surely Bibiana of
all people would understand that. I saw Laire MacLeod at the ball. She
wasnt moving. Surely shes dead . . .
Bibiana glared at him, magnificent in her rage. She began to pace, the
long feathered cloak whispering over the floor behind her. Surely the
poison Raphael began again, but she stifled him with a look of pure
malice. He shivered and cowered back. Hed be here if she was dead.
Hed come for revenge. Did you not see his face? Her red mouth
twisted. Hes in love with her.
She opened a trunk in the corner and took out a ragged blue square
of cloth. It was soiled and tattered, the velvet worn to a shred. Rafael
frowned. It seemed a strange souvenir for Bibiana . . . she kept nothing,
hadnt a sentimental bone in her body. She tossed it at him, and he
caught it. He stared at the dark bloodstain that marred the corner.
Take this to Lindsay House.
Rafael frowned, curious. Is there a message?
She turned away, unclasped the raven cloak and let it fall. Tell him
Ill be waiting for him.

Janet shook Iain awake as the sun rose. He looked at Laire. Her eyes
were closed, her face still pale. Shes sleeping, Janet said. Go home.
Eat, bathe, change your clothes. Hamish and I will watch over her. Iain
looked at the long dark lashes resting on her pale cheeks, at the red lips,
the blue mark on her neck. Her hand was still clasped in his. He kissed
her fingers and tucked her hand under the covers. He looked up to find
Hamish watching him.
The botanist said nothing, simply nodded.
Iain walked the long way round to Lindsay house, across half of
Edinburgh, keeping his eyes open for signs of Rafael, needing the fresh
air and time to think. When he climbed the steps of Lindsay House at
last, Hoolet and Bear were waiting for him, and the three little ones were
up as well.
Is she . . . ? Hoolet asked, her eyes bleak.
Shes alive. She woke, spoke, and Sir Hamish is watching her, Iain
said. Wee Kipper was staring at him, his green eyes wide. Iain ruffled the
boys hair.
A man brought this while ye were out, Laird, Bear said, and handed
Iain a scrap of cloth.
Iains heart stopped. He stared at it in horror. He knew what it
meant. He closed his hand on the worn fabric. What did he say?
He said to tell ye that shed be waiting, Bear said. That was all.
What does it mean?
Iain felt his stomach rise into his throat. He swallowed hard and
looked at the faces of the clan, thought of Laire. Hed put them all in
terrible danger. Bibiana would take everything he had left, everyone he
loved . . . hed tried to cheat, and shed caught him. Now shed make him
pay in full. He stared at the ragged scrap in his hand and remembered
the last time hed seen it.
Its a reminder of an old debt, Iain muttered. He set the blue cloth
on a table and stepped back from it.
He should have plunged a dirk into Bibianas black heart seven years
ago, but hed been a fool, blamed himself. Hed given her everything
well almost. Hed been foolish enough to imagine his secret was safe.
Hed been fool enough to believe that Laire had redeemed him, saved
him, made him clean again.
He had too many secrets, too many sins, and the devil wanted her
due.

Janet Fairly set a tray beside Hamish. Eat. You said yourself shell sleep
for hours yet. She sat down, poured him a cup of coffee and pressed it
into his hands. He stared at her.
Ye look fine, Janet. I never thought Id see ye again.
Nor I you. She glanced at Laire. Your niece is a bonny lass, and a
lucky one.
His face crumpled and he set the cup down untouched. Not so lucky.
I didnt listen, didnt think.
She smiled faintly. A failing of yours, if I might say.
He regarded her sadly. Ive regretted losing you all these years. How
did ye come to behere?
She patted her hair. Needs must. I had to earn a living. I gave up
being Janet Fairly a long time ago and became Arabella. She raised her
chin. I couldnt bear to marry again. I shouldnt have the first time. I did
it to make you mad, because you left me.
I went to seek my fortune. I was poor as a church mouse and twice
as threadbare when I met ye.
I like church mice. And I loved you. I didnt care about your
fortune.
He scanned her face. I wanted to keep ye in style. I was too proud to
ask ye he rubbed his tired eyes with his fingers. And then it was too
late. I wish . . .
He was the same dear, distracted Hamish shed always known, the
man who thought with his head and forgot to feel with his heart. She
took his hand, squeezed it.
I know what you wish. Ive wished the same every day for nearly
twenty years.
Its not too late? he asked.
Im single again, and so are you . . . Whos to say its too late? she
said. Now eat your breakfast and sleep for a while. Ill be here when ye
wake up.

Hamish smiled at his niece as he took her pulse, checked her for signs of
fever, made her drink a tonic to purge her body of the poison. It had
been nearly three weeks and the blue ring still stood out on her neck.
Youre doing very well, lass, considering. His smile faded. I was
foolish. If it wasnt for Iain Lindsay, youd be His chin wobbled.
Forgive me. Ill make this right if I can, I promise.
Uncle, where is Iain? Her heart churned with longing. Shed looked
for him every day, but he hadnt come. Bear and Hoolet and Dux came,
and brought loving messages from the little ones, but said nothing about
Iain. Like Hamish, they avoided her question.
Hes . . . Hamish hesitated, looked away.
Laire pushed back the coverlet and forced herself to sit up. Her head
felt full of air, and her limbs were heavy and slow.
Ye cant get up, Hamish objected. Youre still recovering.
If no one will tell me where Iain is, Ill go find him myself, she said,
and reached for her robe.
Get back into that bed! he tried ordering, but she stuffed her feet
into slippers and stood up. She needed her boots and a cloakhis cloak
and a dirk. She clung to the bedpost for a moment. Uncle Hamish
fluttered around her. Pleaseyell do yourself harm, lass.
She let go of the bed, stood on her own, her spine stiff. Then tell me
the truth.
Hamish scanned her face, his lips sealed, but she held his eyes and
waited. Hes gone, he said at last.
Laire felt shock rush through her. Her uncle put a hand around her
waist so she wouldnt fall or faint.
But she was stronger than that. Gone?
He left four days ago, warned us not to tell you, told us to keep you
away from Iolair . . .
The breath left her lungs. Iolair? Hes gone back to Iolair?
He said he had unfinished business.
Laire felt dread uncurl along her spine, turn it to jelly. And me? Did
he leave any word for me?
But Hamish shook his head.
CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

Early February

Angus Mor Sinclair stood on the deck of the Virgin and regarded his
chiefs young sister-in-law with a slight frown. So as I understand it, ye
want me to lend ye a ship, Mistress Laire, but ye dont want Fia or Dair
to hear of it. Do I have the right of it?
She smiled at him and nodded. Like her sister Fia, Laire MacLeod
was a winsome creature. I need a very fast ship. Is this ship fast?
Angus straightened his shoulders. The Virgin is the fastest ship in
the Sinclair fleet. Might I ask where ye wish to go?
Home, she said innocently. He took her to the other side of the
deck, out of the crews keen hearing. Are ye in trouble, lass?
Nay, Angus. Ive been visiting my uncle, and now I wish to go home
as quickly as possible.
Warning prickled under Angus Mors thick skin. The lass was pale as
a winter moon, and she had smudges like storm clouds under her eyes.
She was so thin a fresh breeze would carry her overboard. She was
hiding something.
If theres trouble, we can easily stop at Carraig Brigh, gather some
men. Marriage makes us allies, lass.
No! she said quickly. He frowned. My father is ill.
We have healers at Carraig Brigh, and your sister would want to help

She has the children to see to. I dont want to worry her.
Youre worrying me, he said.
My uncle is coming with me. Hes skilled with plants and cures . . .
How long will they voyage take? she asked, eyeing Virgins sleek lines.
Itll take a fortnight at this time of year, he said.
A flock of seabirds flew over the ships tall masts, sensing an early
spring and heading for their nesting grounds. She tracked their progress
anxiously.
Then she smiled at Angus. What was it about the way MacLeod
lasses smiled that turned a mans wits to porridge? Angus Mor sighed.
Fine. Ill take ye where ye need to go. What about them? he nodded
toward a small group of ragged young folk that stood on the wharf. They
hadnt taken their eyes off of her.
Theyre my tail, she said. My escort. Theyre coming as well, along
with my Uncle Hamish.
Angus rolled his eyes. Good thing were sailing empty. Well go on
the morning tide tomorrow, weather permitting.

Storms pummeled the coast as winter and spring fought for control. The
wind and sleet were fierce, but Iain stood on the deck of the small, fat
cargo vessel that moved like an old woman. He let the rain lash his face
and body, soak his black leather clothing, and tried not to think of Laire,
which was like trying not to breathe. He concentrated on his journey, his
mission. With luck, by the time Laire returned to Glen Iolairand he
knew she wouldBibiana would be dead.
As would he, most likely.
He couldnt say what would happen to her family . . . He went down
to the hold and unwound the leather bindings of his pack. He picked up
his swordhis great-grandfathers swordand slid it out of the leather
sheath. He tested the blade with his thumb, and then honed it until it
sliced his flesh at a touch and blood welled. He put two dirks in his belt,
one by his right hand, and one behind his back. He tucked a third into
his boot. He checked the bow, and the barbed points and fletching of the
arrows. Then he sat in the shuddering belly of the ship and stared into
the darkness. Laires soft eyes gazed back at him, and he felt desire and
regret rise, at war with anger and determination. He took out his sword
once more and went up on deck to practice with the blade, hoping the
work and the storm would pound her out of his brain.
But it was no use.

Magpie, Fussle, and Wee Kipper refused to be left behind in Morags


care, so they crept aboard the ship like mice and hid themselves. When
the coast had disappeared behind the Virgins stern they crept up on
deck.
Angus Mor blustered and shouted about hanging stowaways, but
there was naught to be done without turning back. He set Fussle to work
untangling ropes, and Magpie and Kipper were sent below to help the
cook.
At night, Wee Kipper found Laire and curled up in her bunk with her.
And Magpie shared Hoolets narrow bed on the other side of the cabin.
Ye shouldnt have come, Hoolet told them both angrily, but she let
them stay.
Fussle had a hammock in the hold near Bear, and Dux and Sir
Hamish spent the entire voyage studying the books theyd brought with
them.
By day, Laire stood on deck and watched the sky. The clouds scudded
by, and the wind grew warmer. The ice on the hawsers thawed and
dripped. The Highland coastline became more familiar as they rounded
the northern headlands and got closer to home. Home. Laire shut her
eyes and gripped the railing.
She could feel the residue of the poison in her veins, like shards of
glass rubbing against her nerves, though her mind was clear, sharp, and
determined. She would save her family from Bibiana, and she would find
Iain. Had he gone back to Bibiana, to serve as her sealgair once again? It
would destroy him . . . Her heart caught on the edge of a ragged breath,
ached for him. When she got to Iolair, she intended to offer Bibiana a
choiceherself, her own life, in exchange for Iains freedom. Her uncle
would save her kin.
She spent the rest of the voyage practicing with her dirk, honing her
skills with Hoolet and Bear until she was so exhausted she could think
no more.

The Virgin put into the bay a dozen miles from Glen Iolair, and Angus
Mor sniffed the wind. Dye smell that? he said to Laire. Thats the
smell of spring in the air. Its early this year, and thank the lord for it,
after the winter weve had. He crossed himself. Looktheres flock of
finches, back already.
Laire watched the tiny birds winging inland toward Iolair and
wondered if Iain was in the wood, his bow at the ready, his eye on the
wee creatures as he took aim . . .
She felt the blue mark on her neck pulse, and ran her fingertips over
it. She was home, but this time, thered be no welcome for her.
She turned to find Angus Mor watching her. Ive seen your face
these past two weeks. Youre worried, fearful. Youve been practicing
with that dirk of yours, sharpening it over and over again. Ive been
askin myself why a lass would do that if shes just going to sit by her
sick fathers bedside. Will ye no tell me what well face when we reach
your fathers keep?
Laire swallowed. I truly dont know. Angus, will you promise me
something?
He folded his arms over his broad chest. If I can.
Promise me if things go wrong, youll save my uncle and my friends.
Especially the little ones. She shut her eyes. And Iain Lindsay. Get him
safe away from here. Tell him . . .
Anguss frown deepened, and he scanned the shore with the keen
eyes of a warrior. I dont know the man, so yell have to tell him
yourself. Im not good with delivering lovers messages. Always sounds
like a threat when I say such words, especially to another man. I will
promise Ill do what I canyour sister and Dair would skin me alive if I
did any less. Ill save your man for ye, lass, but your life will come first
with me. If your lad is worthy of ye, hed want that too. Now yed best get
some sleep. Its nearly dark and its a fair way to walk. Well go up to
Glen Iolair in the morning, and leave the wee ones aboard with Jock.
Hes got a bairn of his own on the way, and he needs the practice.

Hours later, when everyone was asleep, and the sailor keeping watch
was on the port bow, Laire slipped over the starboard side of the ship,
gritting her teeth to keep from gasping at chill of the frigid water. She
swam the short distance to shore and climbed out on the rocky shore.
She checked to see if the dirk was still in place inside her sleeve, wrung
the water from her woolen skirt, and took the path that led homeward.
CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

Glen Iolair

Bibiana was waiting for him. Iain stood at the shadowed edge of the
wood and saw her standing on the parapets of the castle. Her golden hair
caught the sun, and the silver brocade that trimmed her red gown
glinted. She was alone on her high perchthere wasnt a single MacLeod
warrior in sight. His blood thickened, and his senses sharpened, ready
for danger. He checked his weapons, broke an arrow in half and slid it
into his sleeve.
He could feel Bibianas eyes on him, knew she was waiting. He
shouldered his pack and headed up to the gate.

There was danger hereWee Kipper could feel it. He remembered the
sharp scent of it, the way it felt in his bones. Last time, hed crept away,
hidden himself, and the soldiers had come . . . This time, Laire needed
him. She didnt like the dark, and between the trees it was very dark
indeed. The water was cold, but he climbed down the anchor chain,
splashed the short way to the shore, and ran up the path shed taken. His
ears pricked, and his skin crawled, but he pretended he was a mouse and
scurried after her.
He needed her. So did the others, and Laird Iain most of all.
He wasnt going to lose her.

Angus Mor grabbed Hoolets skinny wrist and dragged her back behind
him again, avoiding the dirk in the fierce wee lassies hand. No ye dont.
Ye cant take the lead. Thats mans work. Now stay behind me where
youre safe. He was angry enough that one lass had eluded him. He
wasnt about to be bested by another one.
It has been Hoolet whod sounded the alarm in the pale light of
dawn, screaming blue murder that Laire had gone, and the wee lad with
her. Angus and Niall had hurriedly donned leather jacks, snatched up
weapons, and followed, ready to move at a run. But the lasss uncle and
his young bespectacled companion had insisted on bringing all the books
they could carry. They were slowing things down, walking, talking, and
reading all at the same time.
Sir Hamish had a dozen small glass bottles of medicines and
antidotes tucked into his pockets, and they clinked together as he
walked, making it impossible to move through the wood silently. Angus
Mor frowned.
The best thing to try first will be bistort, Sir Hamish told Dux. It
conquers many poisons. We might try bleeding the patients to flush the
toxins from their bodies.
Or a hot seaweed bath, followed by ginger tea, Dux replied, pushing
his spectacles up his nose and trying to hold the herbal open at the same
time. He stumbled, and Hamish caught his elbow.
Careful, my lad, he said.
What about charcoal? Dux asked.
Or yellow dock, perhaps.
Or fresh lettuce?
Just what kind of illness are we speakin of? Niall Sinclair asked.
Hamish and Dux glanced at him. Its not illness. Its witchcraft,
Bear said.
Niall flushed. Witchcraft!
Aye, Hamish said. And dark poisons made with blood and other
secret ingredients.
Niall looked ill as he crossed himself. Angus dragged Hoolet back
into line again and quickened his pace.

Iain walked into the great hall. There were birds roosting in the rafters,
doves cooing, sparrows chirping and beating their wings vainly against
the sealed windows. He dropped his pack by the door and pulled the dirk
from his belt.
Hello, Iain.
Bibiana stood on the stairs, her red gown glowing in the gloom. She
held the hand of a small girl, her red curls tumbled, her blue eyes wide.
The girl stood on the very edge of the stone steps, watching the birds.
God, she looked like Mairi . . . He felt his breath catch in his throat.
You know who this is, dont you? You told me shed died along with
her mother. You deceived me, Iain, cheated me.
I gave you something more valuable
She laughed. Yourself? Youve never served me fully. Youve
counted the days, the months, the very moments, of our contract.
Which ends tomorrow.
She tilted her head and smiled her most beguiling smile. But that
was before I discovered youd lied. I demand another payment.
Iain braced himself. What do ye want? Bibianas hand rested on the
girls shoulder. One push and the child would tumble down the steps. He
edged forward, ready to catch her. Bibiana laughed. Such a hero, arent
you? The child is safe enough for now. What do I want? I want you to
suffer, Iain, and I want Laire. She stroked the childs pale cheek. The
mirrored ring on her finger glinted in the dim light.
Iain shifted the dirk in his fist. He could not throw it for fear of
hitting the girl. She was frightened and there were tears in her eyesshe
had Mairis eyes, and her russet curls.
Shell grow into a beauty, like her mother, if she lives. Bibiana said.
Do you remember the night she was born, the night you deceived me?
Iain remembered.

It was weeks too soon, and Mairi fought the birth pains, screaming. The
midwife was late and drunk. Mairi pleaded for David, called his name
over and over again, and begged to go home to Scotland.
Iain had bought a potion from a woman hed met at a ball, a beauty
with sympathetic eyes and lavish jewels. Iain didnt usually blurt out
his woes to strangers, but she was a good listener, kind, and hed
downed nearly a whole bottle of brandy. Shed whispered in his ear that
she could help, make Mairi love him and forget David with a simple
potion she knew of, a harmless blend of flowers and green plants. Mairi
would sleep, and when she woke, shed turn to Iain with love in her
eyes. All for him. Only for him. It would be costly, she warned him. Was
he ready to pay the price?
He was desperate and drunk. He would have paid anything, given
anything, and he told her so. He wanted Mairi, wanted his brother to
suffer as he had, knowing the woman he loved wanted another man.
The beauty even promised Mairi would forget whod fathered the babe
in her belly and believe it was Iains.
God help him, but hed done it. Hed taken the small glass phial and
poured the contents into Mairis wine and watched her drink it. Shed
smiled at him and fallen asleep. She woke screaming in the darkest
hours of the night.
Hed held her as the pains tore through her body, too thin, too frail
from grieving for David. The child had rolled and squirmed inside her,
anxious to be out. The midwife had lifted Mairis gown, had crossed
herself at the terrible pool of blood. Shed shaken her head, told him to
send for a priest, and fled. The wet nurse cowered in the corner, no help
at all . . .
Iain delivered the child himself, a boy, small and blue, born without
breath in his body. Iain had wrapped the babe in the swaddling blanket
Mairi had stitched with her own hands and laid the child in the cradle.
But Mairi had screamed again, and a second child was born. She
was small and pale, but she cried like an eaglet and thrashed her arms
and legs. Mairia daughter, hed whispered, but Mairis life was
ebbing away. Iain wrapped the living babe in the blue velvet coat he was
wearing and handed her to the wet nurse. Take her away. Keep her
safe, he said. She left the house minutes before Bibiana arrived.
Ive come for my fee, she said.
Your potion did not work, he said, holding Mairis dead hand in
his, filled with regret.
Bibiana made a moue of pity. Still, you made a promise upon your
honor. Is that worth nothing to you?
Hed met her eyes, saw his own face reflected there, haggard and
tearstained, full of guilt and sorrow. Whats the price?
Her child, she said. I want the child.
Hed felt his belly roil, sickened by the evil he saw now in her lovely
face. He swallowed. Hed made a pact with a witch. He could have saved
himself if hed told her of the living child, given Mairis daughters life
to save his own . . . The child was born dead, he said, pointing to the
cradle.
There wasnt a shred of sorrow in Bibianas eyes, no sympathy for
the young woman whod died, or her babe . . .
Then Ill take you. You will serve me for seven years, hunt for me.
Then his brother had burst in, come from Scotland to find the
woman he loved. Bibiana watched as David stared at the unholy sight
of Mairi in Iains arms, bloody and limp, and saw his stillborn babe
dead in the cradle. Hed broken Iains nose, beat him half to death. Iain
didnt fight back.
And when David had gone, he left Iain in a room filled with death
and remorse. It was his fault, his sin. He had nowhere to go, no hope,
no future. Well? Bibiana had asked. And hed nodded his agreement,
ceased to be Iain Lindsay, and became the sealgair instead.

Until he found Laire.


He stared at Bibiana. Laire was safe with her uncle, far away. He took
comfort in that at least. But Mairis daughter was here. He raised the
dirk in his hand to throw it, but hesitated. Could he hit the woman
without harming the child?
I wouldnt, a voice said behind him. Iain felt the unmistakable
sensation of a cold steel point against the back of his neck. Or you could
try. Rafael said. The odds are against you. Either way, youre a dead
man. Bibiana has promised I can kill you when the time comes, as
slowly as I wish.
Not yet, Bibiana said. Take his weapons and bring him upstairs to
my chamber. She took the childs hand and led her along the upper hall.
Rafael began to disarm him, taking all three dirks, throwing them to
the floor. The steel rang on the stone, made the birds startle and fly,
crying out. The noise echoed through the silent castle, and feathers
floated like snow. Where are the MacLeods? Iain asked.
Rafael snickered. Terza put them all to sleep for the winter, but
theyll soon wake. Havent you heard? Spring has come early.
And who will hunt her birds? Iain asked.
Rafael smirked. Terzas been feeding the lasses well all winter. She
wont need birds. Not now. And she wont need you. He pressed the
sword into Iains neck, and forced him up the stairs.
In Bibianas chamber, he bound Iain to a chair with his hands behind
him. Mairis daughter squatted on the floor hugging a ragged doll
wrapped in an equally ragged blue coat. Iain stared at the garment. The
pocket was missing. It was downstairs in his pack, the corner still
stained with Mairis blood.
You recognize your coat, then, Bibiana said. I discovered your
secret a few years ago. I saw you giving money to a messenger, had him
followed. I could have taken her then, but having a secret is so much
more powerful, dont you think? Until its discovered. She looked
balefully at Iain. You should have told me the whore had twins.
You didnt ask, he said. She flew across the room and slapped him,
hard. His signet ring cut his cheek. A lock of hair came loose from her
coiffure, and she crossed to the mirror, smoothed it back into place, ran
her fingertips over her flawless face.
He could see his own reflection behind hers, and the childs, sitting
on the floor with her doll.
Let the child go. Send her to Craigmyle, he said, and Bibiana
turned, her lips quirking with dark amusement.
Did you imagine it would be that easy, sealgair?
She came across the room, bent and put her mouth against his. She
ran her tongue along the seam of his lips. He forced himself to open, to
let her tongue tangle with his, knowing what she wanted. She tasted of
blood and the sweet ingredients of the potion. He pulled back, revolted.
She slapped him again, hard, twisting his head.
The child scurried across the floor and crouched against the wall. Iain
could see her in the mirror. The door was just a few feet to her right . . .
He forced himself to hold Bibianas eyes. Try again. He shut his
eyes as Bibiana slid her hand down his belly. She caressed his cock
through the leather breeks, and his body responded to her expert touch,
though his skin crawled with revulsion. He shut his eyes. For Mairis
child, for Laire, hed endure this, please her . . . But Bibiana squeezed,
hard, and he gasped in pain. She brought her mouth to his again. Open
your eyes, sealgair, look at me, she purred, and brushed her lips across
his.
The door opened, and he turned, caught sight of Laires reflection in
the mirror, her arm twisted behind her in Rafaels grip. Iain saw Laire
blanch at the sight of Bibianas mouth on his, her hands on his body. He
saw shock in her eyes, and hot color filled her face. He sat still, giving
her nothing, not a shred of apology, or comfort, or denial. Later, hed
explain.
If there was a later.
Bibiana moved away from him with a grunt of annoyance at the
interruption to her game.
Tie her, Bibiana ordered.
CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

Isobel MacLeod woke from a strange dream. Shed been flying


fluttering really, looking at the sky through a pane of glass, beating her
wings against it, unable to fly free. She sat up and looked around the
bedchamber she shared with two of her sisters. The fire had gone out,
and the room was ice cold. Cait and Jennet slept on without even
noticing. Isobel slipped out of bed to pad across the icy floor. She
touched Caits cheek. It felt as smooth and cold as marble. Her
nightgown was trimmed with feathers, and there were feathers on her
pillow. In fact, the whole floor was covered with feathers. How odd.
Isobel put a hand to her forehead. Her head ached, felt oddly heavy
on her neck. Her limbs too . . . She picked up a shawl and wrapped it over
her nightgown. Shed go and find Aileen or Ada or Papa. Aye, surely Papa
would know why she felt so strange . . .

Sir Hamish spotted an interesting type of fungus next to the path and
stopped to investigate, in case it might yield something promising.
I wouldnt touch that if I were ye, someone said. They turned to
find an old woman behind them, carrying a basket. She looked them
over sharply. Who are ye?
I am Sir Hamish McEwan, good woman, kin by marriage to Laird
Donal MacLeod. These are my companions.
Sir Hamish? Laires uncle, then. Im Ada MacLeod. She pointed to
the fungus. Thats poisonous.
Hamish puffed himself up like a pigeon. I am an expert on such
matters. I study poisons. Is all well at the castle? The laird and his
daughtersare they . . .
Alive? Ada said. Theres no way to know. No one from the village is
allowed to go into the castle. No one in the castle comes out.
Laire did, Hoolet said. She came to Edinburgh to fetch Sir
Hamish.
Did she now? Ada said, running her eyes over Hamish again. And
can ye help them?
I do hope so, good woman, Hamish said. Were seeking a cure
even now.
Ada nodded. Then yed best come with me.

Rafael had been waiting for her. Hed captured her easily as she opened
the door to the hall. Laire had been so been shocked by the changes that
she hadnt seen him until it was too late. The great hall was full of birds,
and there was not a soul to be seen save Rafael. He twisted her arm
behind her back, and Laire gazed at the empty rooms as Rafael led her to
the ladys chamber. The doors to her fathers rooms were closed tight.
And when he shoved her into Bibianas chamber, the first thing Laire
saw was Iain . . . he was kissing Bibiana, and her stepmother had her
hand
Laire looked away, feeling her belly flip and her face burn. Hed
betrayed her, tricked her . . . Rafael bound her to a chair across from
Iains. She gaped at the extraordinary changes Bibiana had made to the
room. The walls were draped in rich, blood-red velvet, and thick carpets
covered every inch of the floor. A glowing brazier heated the room
almost unbearably. It was like walking into a living, beating heart.
She met Iains eyes, but he regarded her without expression, as if
theyd never kissed, or touched, or fallen in love. He was clad in the all-
too-familiar black, Bibianas cold-eyed sealgair once again. She felt her
heart crack.
A sound in the corner made her startle.
Bibiana followed her glance. This is Mairi. Shes named for her
mother. She was conceived in adultery and sin and raised by strangers.
Laire glanced at Iain, but he wasnt looking at her. He was looking at
the child. Hed said the babe had died . . .
You didnt know? Bibiana asked her. What do you talk about after
youve bedded her, Iain?
Rafael chuckled, a low, dirty sound that made Laires flesh creep.
Still Iain didnt look at her.
I could have killed you both in Edinburgh. In fact, I gave you enough
poison to kill a horse, Laire. How is it you did not die?
I am a MacLeod, she said fiercely.
Bibiana laughed. As am I. But Ive found the Fearsome MacLeods
arent fearsome at all. She paced the carpet soundlessly until she stood
behind Iain. She put her hands on his shoulders. She bent and kissed his
ear, licked it. Laire looked away. Perhaps love kept you alive, which is a
pity, because I wanted Iain to watch you die that night, powerless to help
you. He has the power now, but will he use it? Tell me Laire, do you love
my sealgair?
Aye, her heart said. Aye. Even now . . . Still he did not look at her, and
so she frowned and shook her head.
Bibiana laughed. A pity. He really is a fine figure of a man. Your
father said his daughters were particular about the men they loved. It
doesnt do to be overly picky. It makes you a coquette She snapped
her fingers at Rafael. What do they French say?
Cock allumeuse, Rafael said in his native tongue.
Yes, a cock tease. Are you a cock tease? Bibiana asked. Have you
been tormenting my sealgair, distracting him from his duties?
Laire felt her cheeks heat against her will.
Bibiana laughed. The blush gives you awayyou have been using
your feminine wilesas minimal as they areto bind him to your will.
Bibiana turned to Iain, ran the back of her fingers along his cheek,
and bent to whisper in his ear. Then its hardly your fault, is it? Youre
the victim here. Young lasses can be so cruel. She slid her hands down
his chest, over his belly, and cupped his crotch. You need a woman,
Iain, not a girl. You could have me. I wont even drug you. Ill give you a
choice, free will. Ill let her live if you come to my bed and please me,
She glanced at the curtained bed. Now. While she watches.
Laire felt her heart contract. She felt shame and fury fill her.
Iain looked at her then, a quick glance that touched her and passed
by. She read wariness, torment, anguish, and regret in the gray depths.
And something more.
Trust me . . .
Did she dare?
No, he said to Bibiana, his tone flat, hard and cold as steel.
Bibiana reddened with anger. No? She stepped away from him,
swirled her skirts around her as she folded her arms across her breasts.
Then so be it.
She nodded to Rafael. He crossed to pour the all-too-familiar dark-
red liquid into a goblet. The scent of flowers filled the room. Laire held
the Frenchmans dark, malicious gaze as came toward her, knowing
what he intended. She felt her belly curl with dread, but she would not
beg. She heard Iain shift, knew he was trying to break the ties that held
him but couldnt. She braced herself.
Rafael forced her head back, pressed the cup against her mouth, hard
enough to bruise her lips. She tried to turn her head, but he twisted her
nose, and she had to open her lips to gasp for breath. The sweet drink
splashed over her tongue. She closed her throat, tried to spit it out, but
Rafael clamped his hand over her mouth and made her swallow.
She felt the liquid slither through her body, curl in her belly. The
lights in the room grew brighter, and the red velvet walls glowed and
shimmered, like a heart beating around her, pulsing. She met Iains eyes,
met the torment there.
Are you surprised? Bibiana asked. Did you think Id drug you,
Iain? Kill you? You are bound to me still, valuable to me. Youll suffer
more for if I let you live. I intend to punish you. She reached out and
dragged the child over to stand beside Laires chair. The wee girl looked
like the beauty in the portrait at Lindsay House. In Laires drugged
mind, she became Mairi, Iains beautiful, beloved wife . . .
I will give you a choice, sealgair, Bibiana said. You can save one of
themLaire or the child. One must die, but the other can live. Now
choose.

Laires eyes were glassy and luminous. Her lips were bruised, and the
potion had stained her cheeks and chin. The child stood beside Laire,
small-boned and helpless, her blue eyes wide. Rafael stood behind them
both with a dirk in his hand, waiting for Iains decision. Iain kept his
eyes on Bibiana.
He slid the arrow out of his sleeve, gripped it awkwardly, and began
to rub the sharp point against the rope on his wrists.
Bibiana raised one blond brow. Well, sealgair? Which is it to be?
Laire MacLeod or Mairis child? Make your choice or Ill kill them both.
CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR

What dye mean Laire cant be poisoned? Hamish MacEwan demanded


after Ada made the incredible statement. Hed been telling her the
woeful tale of the night of the ball and the poison that had nearly killed
his niece, and shed scoffed.
Laire cant be poisoned, she repeated. It wouldnt matter if she
drank the potion or not.
Hamish gaped at the old woman. He squatted on a stool by the fire in
her rustic wee cott. The room was divided in half, and a cow stared at
them balefully from its side of the hut. There was barely room for all of
them in the tiny room. Bear and Dux leaned against the wall, Hoolet sat
on the little bed, and Angus Mor and Niall Sinclair were at the single wee
window, weapons drawn, watching for trouble. The ceiling was hung
with drying plants and roots, but Hamish hardly recognized any of them.
All his great, important books sat on Adas scrubbed table amid pots
of salve, bags of seeds, and a dead rabbit, freshly snared and waiting to
be skinned and cooked for supper.
Hamish frowned at her. Thats impossible.
Ada folded her arms over her thin chest. Laire lost her twin to
poisonye know that, since the lad was your nephew. The lad took the
brew they made, drank all of it, but for a few drops. Laire drank those. It
wasnt enough to kill her, or even make her sick. Instead, it made her
strong. I gave her more, slowly and in careful amounts. And now, she
cannot be poisoned.
Hamish looked at Dux. Look that up, lad, he said, pointing to a
heavy medical tome. Dux began to flip through the pages, and Ada
grinned at Hamish and tapped her forehead with a gnarled finger.
I daresay I have more knowledge here than ye have in a dozen
books, she said.
I am a member of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, and
a founder of the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh. I have conferred
with the physicians at Leiden, Bologna, and Padua, the greatest centers
of medical learning in the world. You cant mean to suggest that a
Highland herb woman knows more than I do, or the authors of these
great books and all my esteemed colleagues.
She tilted her head. I know plants. I know where they grow and how
to make them into useful medicines, she said. And I can promise you
that my sweet lass cannot be poisoned.
Hamish blinked. Even Dux stared at her, the open book forgotten
before him.
Ada rolled up her sleeves. Now then. Ye say ye need a sample of
Bibianas brew to see whats in it. Wed best put aside the books until we
need em and get to it, dont ye think?
All that was left for Hamish to do was nod.
Well go, Hoolet said, rising. Its what we dosteal things. Now,
how do we get inside the castle?

Wee Kipper crept along the wall of the castle pretending he was a
mouse, the way he did in the tunnels. Mice werent scared of the dark, or
of big places. They could slip through small cracks, become invisible. He
followed Laire into the castle. He held his breath, waited for the sound
of running feet, the cry of Thief! but no one came.
He gaped at the grand room. There were birds fluttering in the
rafters. They wanted out. Since there was no one about, he looked for
something to prop the door open, so they could find their way to the sky.
Wee Kipper wasnt used to big empty spaces anymore, though hed
been born in the Highlands. Hed learned how to be a city mouse, a thief,
and it felt odd to be in a place that was silent and without people. Where
was everyone? His eyes widened when he saw Laird Iains pack on the
floor. He squatted beside it. Iains bow and arrows spilled from it, and
there were sharp knives and a sword scattered around it. He sniffed the
air and caught the faint hint of Laires scent. He knew it like hed once
known the smell of his mothers skin, the familiar odors of home and
happiness. He squinted at the stone steps that climbed up to another
floor and knew shed gone that way.

Hoolet, Bear and Dux crept out of the tunnel. It was old, Ada had warned
them, an escape tunnel dug some four hundred years ago by the first
Fearsome MacLeod when he was building his mighty fortress. Ye never
knew when ye might have to get out of a place by stealth, Ada said.
Or in, Hoolet quipped.
Being the ones used to making their way through tunnels, the three
members of the Clan of Thieves volunteered for the mission and left Sir
Hamish and the big Sinclair warriors behind.
The tunnels were crumbling, overgrown, and tight. Dux and Hoolet
had slipped through easily enough, but Bear had to be pulled out the end
like a stopper from a bottle. He wiped the dirt off his face. I think thisll
be my last mission, he said. Im too big.
Hoolet sniffed the air.
Whatre ye doing? Bear asked.
Finding the way to the kitchen. Dye smell food?
Dux wrinkled his nose. I smell something, but I dont think its
food.
They crept carefully along the hall that led to the kitchen and peered
through the half-open door. An old woman stood at the table. They
flinched as she raised a cleaver and brought it down with a wet thunk on
the bloody wee body of a bird. Beyond her lay the stillroom. Ada was
sure the potion would be there. Hoolet nodded at Bear. He took a pebble
from his pocket and tossed it across the room. It hit the wall on the old
womans left.
The old woman lowered the cleaver and turned to look. Bear did it
again, sending the pebble right into the stillroom this time.
Rats, the old woman said. She tightened her grip on the bloody
cleaver and went into the stillroom.
The three thieves slipped into the kitchen. Dux and Bear took their
places on either side of the door the old woman had gone through.
Hoolet stood in the middle of the room and waited for her to return.
She paused as she saw Hoolet. Which one are you? Youre supposed
to be asleep, she said, mistaking her for one of Laires sisters.
Im thirsty, Hoolet said. May I have a drink?
The old woman threw the cleaver into the wood of the table, where it
stuck and quivered.
She wiped her hands on her apron, grumbling under her breath. She
grabbed a pitcher and poured a cup full of red liquid. Hoolet watched as
Bear silently took a pot down from a hook on the ceiling behind the
servant.
The old woman held the cup out to Hoolet. Drink it down and go
back to sleep, she said.
Hoolet stared into the dark depths of the liquid. It had a sweet smell
that made her nose quiver. Her mouth watered to taste it. She raised the
cup slowly to her lips.
The pot made a metallic clang as it connected with the old womans
skull. She dropped to the floor like a wet sack and lay still.
Hoolet sipped. Its sweet. She grinned at her companions, feeling
her cheeks flush. Taste it for yourself.
Bear licked his lips, but Dux took the cup. No But he hesitated
and peered into the seductive potion. He turned his head and set the cup
on the bloody tabletop and backed away from it. Find a flask, something
with a tight stopper, he said. Hoolet, go and get Sir Hamish and Ada.
Everything we need is right hereit will be faster.

The condition of the great hall made Hamish shiver. It had always been
a warm and welcoming place when he visited before, when it was under
the care of Donals other wives.
Whatever else Bibiana MacLeod was, she was a terrible housekeeper.
He followed Ada to the kitchen and rolled up his sleeves. Lets get
started.
Ada sniffed the potion, dipped her finger into it and tasted. She licked
her lips and frowned. Not anything I know. Its sweet.
Hoolet looked at the flask hopefully, and Ada frowned at her and
passed it to Sir Hamish. He sniffed. It smells like flowers. He sniffed
again. Like nectar . . .
He went to his books, began to search.
What if its not a plant at all? Dux asked. What if its something
else?
Like what? Hoolet asked.
Something from birds. Did you see what the old woman was cutting
up? Dux said, and Sir Hamish glanced at Ada.
The old woman has a pouch on her belt, Hoolet said, and deftly cut
the strings with her dirk.
Sir Hamish opened the bag. Its a rock, he said. Some kind of
crystal. A harsh, nauseating smell filled the room, and blue smoke rose
from the stone. Hamish dropped it onto the table. The wood beneath the
rock sizzled and charred. Ada used a spoon to poke it onto the floor. It
sat in the sunlight, smoking.
Its blue, Dux said. Like the mark on Laires neck.
Ada peered at it. Its like a stone from a kidney. Ive seen those, but
theyre white. They hurt inside a body, but once theyre out they dont
burn or smoke. Whats the pouch made of?
Hamish examined it carefully. Feathers, he said, then gasped. Nay,
its a whole bird, turned inside out. He touched the soft feathers and
drew his hand back. Red welts covered his fingers. Poison.
But it doesnt burn the birds body, Dux said.
Ada frowned. Not a bird from these parts. The feathers are bright
yellow.
Ive heard of birds that are too poisonous to touch. Perhaps the
stone comes from the belly of such a creature.
Can we destroy it? Dux asked.
I dont know, Sir Hamish said.
Ada sniffed the smoking crystal and then the potion. It smells the
same, she said.
Then we have our poison. Hamish said. We only need an
antidote.
CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE

Isobel found her way to the roof and stood on the edge of the parapet
looking up at the sky. She spread the wings of her nightdress and let the
wind hold her as she leaned over the edge. How marvelous it would feel
to fly, to leap from the hard stone and feel nothing but sky beneath her.
She remembered how Papa had carried her on his shoulder around and
around the top of this tower . . .
She frowned. Papa . . . ah, yesthats where shed been going.
She reached the scarred oak doors that sealed off the lairds great
chamber and tugged on the iron ring latches. Inside, Papa lay in the
center of his great bed, fast asleep. The shutters were closed tight, and
the room was very cold.
Papa? Isobels long-unused voice was as rusty as a crows harsh
caw.
She went across and touched his hand, poked his shoulder. Papa?
His eyes opened slowly. For a moment, she thought it wasnt Papa
after all. He looked differentthin, his beard springing from his chin in
long gray wisps, his keen eyes foggy with sleep. Isobel? he said, his
voice rough.
She smiled. Aye, Papa. Its time to get up.

Well, sealgair? Which lass will you choose?


Theyd left the door ajar, and Wee Kipper dropped to the floor and
peeked through the crack. A beautiful woman in a red gown paced the
room. Will you choose the child you stole from me or the woman you
love? You do love her, dont you? Why else would you betray me?
Bibiana crossed and stroked her finger along Laires cheek, and Wee
Kippers eyes flared. Laire looked sick, her mouth all red and cut, the
way his mams had been when the soldiers hit her. She looked scared,
too, the way his mother had been. Wee Kipper frowned.
FoolYou loved your wife, Iain, and you wanted her to love you.
You fall in love too easily, and you lose every time, the red lady said. No
one else was talking.
Iain. Then the laird was there as well, just out of Wee Kippers sight.
Hed protect Laire . . . But the man whod brought the wee scrap of blue
cloth to Lindsay House was standing behind Laire, holding a knife. He
laughed, looked happy that Laire was afraid. Wee Kipper remembered
the soldier whod watched as his men butchered his father, and his little
sisters. Hed laughed as their cott burned and when the men took hold of
his mother . . . Wee Kipper flinched, remembering her screams.
Someone was watching him. Wee Kipper looked up. A small girl was
crouched on the floor beside Laire, holding a doll wrapped in a tattered
blue coat. She was staring at Wee Kipper, her blue eyes as wide as
saucers. He stared back, told her without words that he was only a
mouse and she had nothing to fear. He slipped through the narrow crack
in the door and right under the edge of the long red curtain that covered
the wall behind Laird Iain. He peeked out under the chair, between the
lairds ankles, and saw the girl was still watching him. Everyone else was
looking at the red lady. Wee Kipper put a finger to his lips and beckoned
to the wee girl.

The arrow was biting through the rope, but not fast enough. Iains
fingers were clumsy, the position awkward.
If you cant decide, Ill take them both, Bibiana warned, and Iain
felt a bead of sweat slither down his back. He glared at her. Hed kill her .
. .
She rolled her eyes and motioned to Rafael. So be it. Kill Laire first,
then the child.
Iain watched in horror as the Frenchman raised the knife.
Laire lifted her chin, met his eyes and held them, ready to meet her
end bravely. Iain saw Laires reflection in the polished steel of Rafaels
blade as it descended toward her. No! The word tore itself from Iains
throat. Desperately, he fought the bonds that held him captive.
Someone untied the ropes. He felt fingers brush his own, and he was
free. He lunged across the room with the arrow in his hand and planted
it in Rafaels shoulder. The Frenchman screamed and swung the blade at
Iain instead of Laire. Iain grabbed a candlestick and used it to parry the
next blow. Laire was in danger . . . he shot a quick look at Bibiana as she
screamed a curse and advanced on Laire, her hands curled to talons as
she flew at her.

Iain stopped Rafaels blade inches from her neck. Laire was dizzy, but
she refused to give in to the seductive lure of the potion. She struggled,
fighting the ties that held her as Bibiana reached for her. She looked for
the child, but the girl was gone. Bibianas hands closed on Laires throat,
her nails biting into her flesh, her hands squeezing. Laire stared up at
her. Bibianas eyes were narrowed with fury. Her face was red and
blotchy, mottled with rage. Wrinkles appeared in her forehead and her
hands became claws. Laire felt horror chill her. Surely it was the potion
and her own terror. She fought for breath, to twist, but she was bound,
and Bibianas grip was as strong and cold as steel.
This is your fault, she raged at Laire. You have ruined everything.
BlueBibianas eyes were blue, like the poison ring on her neck.
Bibiana was poisonous, deadly, her very body toxic.
The heavy scent of Bibianas perfume washed over Laire as she
gasped for air. The room blurred, and she saw black spots swirling before
her eyes.
Then Bibiana let go with a shriek. There was blood on her hand and
Wee Kipper was beside her, holding a dirk. The wee girl was trying to
untie Laires bonds, her fingers clumsy.
Run, Kipper, Laire ordered as Bibiana reached for him, but Wee
Kipper lunged again with the dirk, his face fierce.
Bibiana raised her hand and hit the boy across the head, sending him
flying. Then she turned to the girl with her bloody claws outstretched.
But Laire felt the ropes slacken just enough to pull her hands free, and
she rose between Bibiana and the girl. She was dizzy, panting, and her
throat hurt, but she faced her stepmother furiously. Iain and Rafael
fought on behind her. She stood over Wee Kippers still form, held the
girl behind her, and held Bibianas gaze. I will not let you hurt anyone
else, Laire said. Bibiana smiled as she reached for the dirk wee Kipper
had dropped.
Bibiana pointed the knife at Laires heart. Youre no match for me.
You bewitched my sealgair, but you are nothing. Nothing at all. Ill do
myself what he could not. Ill cut your heart out and feed it to your lover
and your kin.
Laire was unarmed. She was slow and dizzy, but her mind was clear.
She faced the witch before her with her head high. Behind Bibiana, she
saw the door open, and her father stood there. Bibiana spun in surprise.

Donal MacLeod blinked at the scene in his wifes chamberat the


children, the men fighting, at his daughter, and his wife, and the knife in
her hand.
What the devil? His brow furrowed. What are ye doing, Bibi? he
asked, confused. He stepped farther into the room and stopped when he
caught sight of his reflection in the mirror. He started back in surprise.
Was that truly him? His eyes were dull and red-rimmed. He had a beard
that must have taken months to grow to such a length. Hed lost weight,
and his nightshirt hung on his skinny frame like a flag on a pole.
He crossed and ripped the velvet covering away from the window.
Light flooded the room, and he peered into the mirror again. Bibianas
reflection appeared behind his own.
Donal felt the hair on the back of his neck rise at the sight of the
crone wearing Bibianas red gown. Her face was pockmarked and
wrinkled, her back humped, her hands like claws. In horror, Donal spun.
My love, she said, and opened her arms to him. Whatever is the
matter? But he couldnt let her touch him, not now. God in heaven,
what have I done?
He looked at the dark dcor. Bibianas dressing table was filled with
vanitiespowders, paints, and jewels. Had he been so deceived? He
picked up a box carved with strange runes and symbols and felt fury well
in his breast. He threw the box as hard as he could into the mirrors
shining surface.
Points of shattered glass flew, arced, caught the light as they filled
the air. Bibiana screamed a curse and rushed at him with her dagger.
Suddenly Laire was in front of him, her hand raised to stop Bibiana,
but she had no weapon. She picked up a cup of potion on the dressing
table and threw the contents in Bibianas face.
Bibiana shrieked as it hit her. It dripped over her ruined face, blinded
her. She dropped the knife. She was repulsive, corrupt. How could he
have thought her beautiful? She looked at him in desperation. For a
moment her eyes glowed an unholy blue.
Blue smoke filled the air, rising from her hair, from her skin. The red
gown smoked, turned black, shriveled. The glossy silk looked more like
feathers now, black and sharp. Bibiana was staring at her hands. Shining
ringsthe MacLeod betrothal ring, a mans signetfell from her
withered fingers. The last ring, a shining crystal, clung to her smallest
finger, and she closed her fist around it. Bibiana opened her mouth to
scream, but only a hoarse, birdlike caw emerged.
She clasped her hand to her throat, and the crystal caught the light,
dazzling. Donal squinted against the sharp points of light that stabbed
his eyes.
And when he looked again, Bibiana was gone, and only a sweet,
bloody scent remained.

You killed her! Rafael screamed. He rushed toward Laire with his
dagger, but Iain deflected the blade easily, sent it spinning. He planted
his fist in the Frenchmans face. Rafael fell backward. The shards of the
broken mirror standing upright in the thick loops of the rug pierced his
body in a dozen places, and he lay still.
Laire! Iain found her kneeling on the floor, holding Wee Kipper
and Mairi in her arms.
The red marks of Bibianas hands marred Laires white throat, but
the blue mark of the poison had faded, gone, and only a small silver scar
was left.
Iain fell to his knees and pulled Laire into his arms. He breathed in
the soft scent of her hair, her skin. Are ye all right? he asked. The
potion . . .
She curled her hand over his heart. When she looked up, her eyes
were clear. Is it really over?
He kissed her eyelids, her cheeks, he was gentle with her bruised
mouth. Aye, he said.
And then he felt the unmistakable sensation of a blade against the
back of his neck.
Unhand my daughter, Donal MacLeod growled.
Papa Laire began, but her father held up a staying hand. It shook
slightly, but his eyes were sharp on Iain. The Fearsome MacLeod had
returned. Oh, Papa, she said softly, smiling through the tears in her
eyes.
I want to know whats happened here, he said, piercing Iain with a
sharp glare. Are ye the one who can tell me?
I can try, Iain said.
And who are these bairns? Donal asked, pointing to Wee Kipper
and Mairi. He looked at Laire. How long was I asleep? Is hemy son?
he asked.
Iain looked at Laire. Nay, Laird. Hes mine. And the lass as well.
Shes my niece.
Ada appeared in the doorway. It smells of brimstone in here. Her
eyes fell on Laire and she crossed to examine the cuts and bruises on her
face. Shell need some salve, she said to Uncle Hamish, who stood
behind her. Ill show ye how to make it.
Hamish! Donal cried, seeing his brother-in-law. What brings ye to
Glen Iolair?
Hamish looked at Laire, his eyes misty with tears. A very brave lass.
She saved your life, Donal. She came all the way to Edinburgh on her
own.
Laire felt her cheeks heating under her fathers shocked scrutiny.
My sisters
Ada grinned. Theyre just waking up. Theyll be confused for a few
days. They have no idea a whole winter has passed, and theyve slept like
dormice under the snow . . .
Dux, Hoolet, and Bear entered the room, grinned at Laire and Iain
and stroked Wee Kippers hair.
Donal set the dirk aside and sat down, rubbing his forehead.
Bewildered, he looked at the shattered glass, the red-velvet walls, the
dead Frenchman, and the crowd of strangers. I must confess I dont
understand any of this, he said. He looked at Iain. Who are ye? he
asked.
Iain Lindsay, Laird of Craigmyle, Iain said. I wish to wed your
daughter.
Donal looked up. With two bairns of your own to raise?
There are seven, Papa.
Seven? he gaped at her. How long did ye say I slept? Are any of
these your own, lass?
Laire blushed. No, Papa. He took note of the way her hand was
clasped in Iains and sighed.
I suppose ye love him, this Lindsay?
She nodded, smiling.
And do you love my daughter? Not just as someone to raise your
bairns, but as the other half of your own soul, and more?
Aye, Iain said.
Donal looked around the room once more. Not that Im a good judge
of true love, I fear.
Laire took his hand. Its all right, Papa. I know. I feel it here in my
heart. May I have your blessing to marry Iain?
He smiled wanly. Aye lass, but not just yet. I want to get to know
this man. I wont give my trust so easily now. Can ye wait a year?
She shook her head.
A month?
No, Papa, she said.
A fortnight is my final offer, Donal MacLeod said.
Laire smiled and kissed her fathers cheek. Then she kissed the man
she loved, exactly like he was the other half of her soul, and more.

In the kitchen, a raven perched on the unconscious woman on the floor


and pecked her until she woke. Terza stared at the bird for a moment.
Not again, she muttered, righting herself and probing the bump on her
forehead.
The bird cawed and ruffled its wings. It flew onto Terzas shoulder
and perched there. The ring? The bird lifted one foot to show the
crystal clutched in her talons.
Terza patted the shimmering black feathers. Then we shall go, and
start again.
And with that, she was out the door and down the track, skipping into
the wood with a sprightly grace for such an ancient beldame.
EPILOGUE

A fortnight later, Laire MacLeod married Iain Lindsay on the banks of


Loch Iolair. The bride wore early spring flowers in her hair, and the
groom wore his Lindsay plaid, which they used, along with the brides
own MacLeod plaid, to bind their hands together and plight their troth.
Beside them stood their families, old and newall of Laires sisters,
her father, and her beloved uncle. Iains half brother had arrived from
Craigmyle, and he held the hand of his wee daughter, who still wore the
tattered blue coat over her pretty new gown. Hoolet and Dux and Bear
stood with the wee ones beside the bride and groom.
And when the vows were said, and Iain took Laire into his arms to
kiss his wife for the first time, she leaned up to whisper into his ear. Iain
blinked at her.
When? he asked in dumb amazement.
Laire smiled. About seven months from now, I believe.
And he scooped her into his arms and kissed her, and she kissed him
back.
Only whisky and water were served that day, but the groom raised a
toast to his bonny wife. To my bride, the fairest and bravest lass of all!

High above the happy celebration, a raven circled in the clear blue sky,
watching the scene below with baleful eyes.
In the wood, a young huntera sealgairraised her bow, and let her
arrow fly. The bird felt the missile pierce her black heart. With a cry she
opened her talons as she plummeted toward the loch, and the crystal
ring fell free. It sparkled in the sunlight for a moment, then sank into
the cold depths of the loch, gone forever.
Authors Note
I found the history of medical education in Scotland a fascinating part of
my research for this bookso much so that I took the liberty of
changing the dates a wee bit so I could include more of it here.
Our story takes place around 1809. Although University of Edinburgh
has taught medicine since the early sixteenth century, and the Royal
College of Physicians and Surgeons was founded in 1681, it wasnt until
1726 that Archibald Campbell, the Duke of Argyll, sponsored the formal
founding of the Faculty of Medicine, modeled on the great medical
schools at the Universities of Bologna, Padua, and Leiden.
The establishment of The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, for which
my character Sir Hamish is helping to raise funds for in this story, was
indeed opened in 1729 after extensive fundraising efforts by Edinburgh
politician George Drummond and Dr. Alexander Monro, the universitys
first professor of anatomy, appointed in 1720.
The Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh was created in 1670 by Dr.
Robert Sibbald and Dr. Andrew Balfour for the study of medicinal plants,
and was originally located at St. Annes Yards next to the Palace of
Holyroodhouse. The gardens became the base for the study of
pharmacology, and, my writers heart hopes, a real cure for poison just
might have been found there . . .
As for poison birds, they really do exist. Id like to credit the PBS
documentary Forces of Nature for offering New Guineas beautiful but
highly poisonous hooded pitohui bird as a real-life solution to a sticky
story problem.
About the Author

O LI VI A C O TTO N C O R N W ALL

Lecia Cornwall lives and writes in Calgary, Canada, amid the beautiful
foothills of the Canadian Rockies, with four cats, two university
students, a crazy chocolate Lab, and one very patient husband. She is
hard at work on her next book. Come visit Lecia at
www.leciacornwall.com.
You can sign up for email updates here.
Also by Lecia Cornwall
Beauty and the Highland Beast
When a Laird Finds a Lass
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Table of Contents
Title Page
Copyright Notice
Dedication
PROLOGUE
CHAPTER ONE
CHAPTER TWO
CHAPTER THREE
CHAPTER FOUR
CHAPTER FIVE
CHAPTER SIX
CHAPTER SEVEN
CHAPTER EIGHT
CHAPTER NINE
CHAPTER TEN
CHAPTER ELEVEN
CHAPTER TWELVE
CHAPTER THIRTEEN
CHAPTER FOURTEEN
CHAPTER FIFTEEN
CHAPTER SIXTEEN
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
CHAPTER NINETEEN
CHAPTER TWENTY
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO
CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE
CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR
CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE
CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX
CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN
CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT
CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE
CHAPTER THIRTY
CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE
CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO
CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE
CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR
CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR
CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE
CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX
CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN
CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT
CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE
CHAPTER FORTY
CHAPTER FORTY-ONE
CHAPTER FORTY-TWO
CHAPTER FORTY-THREE
CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR
CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE
EPILOGUE
Authors Note
About the Author
Also by Lecia Cornwall
Copyright Page
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel
are either products of the authors imagination or are used fictitiously.

T HE LA DY A N D T HE HIG HLA N DER. Copyright 2017 by Lecia Cornwall. All rights reserved. For

information, address St. Martins Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New Y ork, N.Y . 10010.

www.stmartins.com

Cover photographs: path Denis Belitsky/Shutterstock.com; forest


Andreiuc88/Shutterstock.com; plaid NemesisINC/Shutterstock.com; woman Malgorzata
Maj/Arcangel

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First Edition: April 2017

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