A Highlander as brave and strong as a knight of old…
When Diarmid Mactavish, Laird of Invertavey, discovers a mysterious woman washed up on his land after a wild storm, he takes her in and tries to find her family. But even as forbidden dreams of sensual fulfillment torment him, he’s convinced that this beautiful lassie isn’t what she seems. And if there’s one thing Diarmid despises, it’s a liar.
A mother willing to do anything to save her daughter…
Widow Fiona Grant has risked everything to break free of her clan and rescue her adolescent daughter from a forced marriage. But before her quest has barely begun, disaster strikes. She escapes her brutish kinsmen, only to be shipwrecked on Mactavish territory where she falls into her enemies’ hands. For centuries, a murderous feud has raged between the Mactavishes and the Grants, so how can she trust her darkly handsome host?
Now a twisted Highland road leads to danger and passion…and irresistible love. But is love strong enough to banish the past’s long shadows and offer these wary allies all that their hearts desire?
An international e-book release 29th April 2019 (Amazon) and 6th May 2019 (all other platforms)
Invertavey, Scottish Highlands, July 1819
For Diarmid Mactavish, Laird of Invertavey, a gallop along Canmara Beach was his usual way to start the day. Less usual was the discovery of two waterlogged bodies washed up on the silver sands above the high tide mark.
“What the devil,” he muttered under his breath, spurring his white mare Sigurn down the dunes so fast that the sand flew up behind them.
After last night’s wild storm, debris littered the beach, including, now he looked, what appeared to be the remnants of a wooden boat. Amongst the chaos, the two motionless bodies were a cruel reminder of the dangerous waters around Scotland’s west coast. Stark proof of that lay in Invertavey’s small, pretty graveyard which contained too many headstones dedicated to sailors known only unto God.
Diarmid drew Sigurn to a rearing halt near the first body, an old, bearded man whose eyes opened milky onto the sky. He flung himself from the saddle and kneeled at the man’s side, although it was obvious the stranger was past saving. With regret for the curtailed life and what must have been a terrifying death, he reached across to close the old man’s eyes.
The other body sprawled on the wet sand about ten yards away. When Diarmid realized it was a fair-haired woman, horror cramped his heart.
Most of the dead washed up on this curve of beach were sailors or fishermen. It was rare to bury a female, although in his childhood, a passenger ship had foundered on a reef near Banory Head, with the loss of twenty-eight people, including women and children. He’d been an eight-year-old boy when the Catriona Rose went down, and he still recalled the sad procession as the crofters carried the victims through the dunes to the village.
When he rose and crossed to the lady, his regret became even more piercing. The woman was young, not much more than a wee lassie. Even lying still and pale on the sand, Diarmid could see that she’d been pretty.
It shouldn’t matter what she looked like. A life lost was a life lost. But as he stared down into her alabaster face with its straight, narrow nose and piquant pointed chin, he couldn’t help grieving that he’d never see her eyes flash or that beguiling mouth curve in a smile.
He came down on his heels beside her, noting the plain, good-quality clothes, even in their sandy, soaked state. The old man was dressed like a crofter. This woman was dressed like a lady.
What had made these two people set out on unreliable waters when bad weather had been a constant the last weeks? Had anyone else drowned with them? Where had they embarked? Where were they going?
Likely he’d never find out, unless family or friends managed to track the voyage to this isolated corner of Scotland. The woman looked like she came from money, so odds were someone would seek news of her fate. Beautiful women from prosperous backgrounds were rarely permitted to disappear without a trace.
The girl’s eyes were closed. In a useless gesture of sympathy, Diarmid lifted one of the slender hands that lay across her chest.
She wore saturated gloves of lavender kid, but even through the damp material, he felt the pliability of living flesh. Now he looked more closely, her chest rose and fell with faint breath.
By God, this lady wasn’t dead after all. He hauled her unresisting body up and began to pat her pallid cheeks and rub her hands. For what felt like an eon, there was no reaction. Then his heart faltered to a relieved stop as he heard her breath catch.
How the devil had the lassie survived a night outside in these temperatures? The wet sand under his knees was freezing, and the wind whipped about his ears as a reminder of last night’s raging storm.
She was icy cold, and if he didn’t get her back to his house, the air would finish what the sea had started. It might be midsummer, but this was the Highlands, and the water she’d come out of wasn’t much above freezing.
“Miss?” He rubbed his hands over her slender body, using hard friction across her ribs and arms, and praying he wasn’t worsening any injuries. “Miss, open your eyes.”
He was about to gather her up and carry her over to Sigurn, when dark brown lashes flickered on her pale cheeks and a cracked groan escaped her. She twisted in his arms, and he found himself staring into pale blue eyes the color of the sea at dawn. Beautiful, unusual eyes, with a rim of deepest black around the iris.
“What? Who?” she forced out, before she raised a shaking hand to her lips. Mortification flooded her expression. “Going to be…sick.”
Diarmid only just managed to turn her onto her side before she started to heave, bringing up what was mostly seawater. He kept hold of her as she jerked and shuddered, expelling what seemed to be half an ocean.
Hell, it was a lucky thing she hadn’t drowned like her companion. She’d clearly come close.
By the time she’d finished, she was gasping and loose with exhaustion. Diarmid helped her sit up and settled her head on his shoulder. She lolled against him, struggling for breath.
“That will make ye feel better, lassie,” Diarmid crooned, tightening his grip on her.
She smelled of the sea, and her fair hair hung in rats’ tails about her bonny face. He dug in his pocket for a handkerchief and started to wipe her damp cheeks. Green still tinged the translucent white skin.
“No, I’ll…I’ll do it,” she said unsteadily, raising a shaking hand to take the handkerchief. He took this sign of reviving spirit as a hopeful indication that she wasn’t badly hurt.
“I’m sorry,” she said in a hoarse voice, caused partly, he guessed, from vomiting, but mostly from embarrassment.
“Are ye injured?” From what he could tell, he thought she’d suffered only bruises and scrapes, but he wanted to make sure.
A trembling hand touched her forehead. “I have a rotten headache.”
He frowned. A head injury could be serious, although she seemed perfectly lucid. The sooner he got her to shelter, the better.
“I’m sorry to hear that. It could be dehydration.”
To his surprise, her mouth quirked with unexpected humor. “I don’t feel at all dehydrated. Rather the opposite, in fact.”
He gave a grunt of amusement, as he registered her crisp Edinburgh accent. A Scotswoman, then. With her striking fairness, she could have washed in from Scandinavia.
Her dazed eyes looked past his shoulder at the windswept beach. “Where am I?”
“This is Invertavey, just south of Ullapool.” He took back the crumpled handkerchief and stuffed it in his pocket. “My name is Diarmid Mactavish.”
She stiffened against him, although he had no idea why. “Mactavish?”
“Aye. I’m laird of this estate.”
“I’ll take ye back to my house and fetch the doctor.” Her increasing distraction troubled him. He had to get her off this exposed beach fast. “Then we’ll do our best to let your family know where you are.”
He waited for her to introduce herself, but instead she tried not very successfully to push away from him. “Could I…could I please have some water?”
Blast him for a thoughtless fool. Of course, she wanted something to drink. He’d already guessed she must be parched after swallowing all that saltwater.
“I’ve got a flask tied to my saddle. Can ye manage to stay sitting up while I go and get it?”
“I think so,” she said, although she was still worryingly pale, and she trembled in his arms.
With care, he slid his arm away from her midriff and edged back. Blindly she felt for the sand behind her and when she found it, she leaned back on one arm.
He surveyed her with some doubt. She looked ready to collapse again. “I could carry ye across to my horse.”
“No, no, I can manage.”
When he saw the effort she needed to sit upright, he commended her courage. With rough movements, he tugged his coat from his shoulders and wrapped it around her. Once he made sure she could sit without support, he rose and strode across to Sigurn, who was nosing at a clump of seaweed.
He returned to the woman and hunkered down beside her, offering her a leather flask. The hand she raised to take it was shaking so badly, he had to help her to drink.
After she’d taken a few sips, he pulled the flask away from her lips. “Och, gently now, lassie.”
“That’s so good,” she rasped.
Diarmid could imagine. He forced a smile. She hadn’t yet asked about her companion’s fate, and he didn’t want to tell her until he had to.
“Thank you,” she said.
He gave her a little more water. “Do ye want to rinse your face and hands?”
He dribbled water on her hands and studied her with a worried frown as she wiped her cheeks. “Can ye walk?”
“I think so.”
A quick survey of her pale face told him that was either optimism or bravado speaking. Her trembling had turned into full-on shivering. So much for a Scottish summer.
“If you’ll let me, I’ll help ye over to my horse and get you up to the house,” he said. “I could go and fetch the villagers with a litter, but it would take too long and you need to warm up.”
Despite her obvious exhaustion, she looked a bit better after a drink and the cat wash. “Let’s try.”
Diarmid rose and held his hand out to her. Her grip was weak, and he did most of the lifting as she stumbled to her feet. It turned out she was a tall woman. He was a couple of inches over six feet. When she stood, that disheveled blond head reached past his shoulder.
She staggered as her legs took her weight, and he caught her by the waist. “Hold on to me.”
She made a smothered sound and lifted her face. The wide, beautiful eyes turned glassy and to his horror, he realized she was close to falling. He wasn’t even sure she could see him anymore.
With a muttered imprecation, he caught her behind the knees and swung her up. The body in his arms was rail thin. Her sodden garments accounted for most of the weight he carried.
“I’m sorry I’m so much trouble,” she mumbled, closing her eyes.
Like a flower too heavy for its stem, her tousled head drooped to rest on his shoulder. She was as cold and wet as a salmon. With her cuddled up against his chest, he was soon nearly as waterlogged as she was.
Diarmid couldn’t control a shiver. The wind whistling around them cut like a knife, and since giving her his coat, he was only in his shirtsleeves.
“It’s no’ far to the house. We’ll soon have ye in dry clothes and a warm bed.”
“That sounds good,” she muttered without opening her eyes.
“Can ye manage to sit on my horse for a wee moment? I promise you’ll be safe on Sigurn. She’s well trained and as gentle as a lamb.”
“I like horses,” she said, then broke off on a gasp. Green tinged her complexion again.
“Do ye need to be sick?”
Her slender throat moved as she swallowed. Even as she shook her head with what he thought was an excess of foolish pride, he helped her to kneel. While she retched violently into the sand, he held her.
Poor wee lassie. After the shipwreck, her body was in such a parlous state that she couldn’t even keep down a few drops of water.
Diarmid waited for her gasping to ease and watched her fumble in a pocket for her handkerchief. It was sure to be wet, but it was probably the best she could do.
“Was I alone in the wreck?” She caught Diarmid’s expression before he could hide it. “I wasn’t.”
Hell, what was this? Didn’t she know?
Diarmid frowned in confusion, but he made himself answer her. “There’s a man washed up over there. He drowned. I’m sorry.”
She looked sick again. “Can I see him?”
“It’s probably better if—”
Despite his better judgment, he succumbed to the appeal in those wide blue eyes. He rose and helped her up, holding tight to her elbow when her knees threatened to buckle. “He’s over here.”
Fortunately the dead man was only a few yards away. When they reached him, the girl straightened and managed to stand on her own two feet.
Diarmid studied her as she stared down at the body. In his opinion, she looked sad but not devastated. Probably not a family member then, which he’d already suspected given the difference in their clothing.
“Who was he?” Diarmid asked.
Avoiding Diarmid’s eyes, she shook her head. “I don’t know.” She raised a hand to her bloodless lips. “Poor soul.”
Diarmid bit back a flood of questions, starting with a demand for the girl’s name. She’d been through a horrible ordeal. He had no right to badger her. Once she was safe back at Invertavey House, they’d have time enough for introductions and explanations.
“Come.” He took her elbow and angled her away from the dead man. “It’s too cold for ye out here.”
Their stumbling progress toward Sigurn seemed to take forever.
“You’re so kind,” the girl said in a choked voice, and he caught the glitter of tears in her eyes as he lifted her into the saddle. When he set her astride, her sodden skirts rode up to reveal slender calves in tattered white stockings.
“Not at all. Hold tight to the saddle while I get on.”
The lass had bonny legs, shapely and with a neat ankle. He told himself that when a woman was so defenseless, he was a swine to notice such a thing. But on the other hand, the legs were very bonny indeed.
The girl was in such straits that she looked fit to slide back onto the ground. Her brief spurt of energy ebbed, leaving her even paler than before. When he found her, he’d imagined she was already as wan as a lassie could get.
He mounted behind her and curled an arm around her waist. “Lean back against me, and I’ll get ye back to the house as soon as I can.”
“There seems to be a lot of touching,” she said uncomfortably, squirming a little.
The discomfort was probably a good sign. He managed a wry smile, although in his shirtsleeves, he was as cold as a naked Eskimo stuck in a Greenland blizzard. Despite wearing his coat, the girl must be freezing, too.
“I beg your pardon.” He clicked his tongue to urge Sigurn to walk toward the dunes. “Actually, madam, I’d like to know whose pardon I’m begging. Will ye nae tell me your name?”
She wriggled weakly until she could see him. Once again, he found himself transfixed by those striking eyes. She looked pale and tense and afraid.
His grip tightened, before he recognized that clutching her closer wasn’t likely to soothe her uncertainty. He loosened his hold and lowered his voice, hoping sincerity might overcome her trepidation. “I ken I’m a stranger, and you have nae reason to trust me, but I’m only trying to help. Surely there can be nae danger in telling me who ye are. I’d like to be able to call ye something, and if I know your name, I can contact your family and arrange for them to come and fetch you. Ye have my word as a gentleman that I mean you nae harm.”
She stared searchingly at him, as if trying to pierce through his skin to his soul. To his dismay, the fear he read in her eyes didn’t ease. He supposed he couldn’t blame her for being hesitant to confide in him—they’d known each other less than an hour after all, and she’d been through a hell of an ordeal before he found her.
After a charged silence, those thick eyelashes fluttered down and she bit her lip. “I’m sorry, Mr. Mactavish,” she said in a broken rush. “I wish I could tell you my name. But for the life of me, I can’t remember what it is.”