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Master of the Highlands
By Sue-Ellen Welfonder

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 Master of the Highlands

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Master of the Highlands
By Sue-Ellen Welfonder
ISBN: 0446612332
Genre: Romance

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Chapter Excerpt from: Master of the Highlands , by Sue-Ellen Welfonder

Chapter One

Baldoon Castle, The Isle of Doon,


EXACTLY ONE YEAR TO THE DAY since his sweet lady wife breathed her last, Iain MacLean's black temper unleashed the disaster his clan had e'er dreaded, and neither the frantic labors of his kinsmen nor the deceptive beauty of the unusually calm night could undo his calamitous act.

The damage was too severe.

His family's private chapel would soon be little more than soot and ash, its much-praised splendor naught but a memory.

Guilt bitter on his tongue, Iain scanned the smokeclogged great hall for a hapless soul to vent his wrath upon, but his clansmen dashed right past him, hastily filled water buckets clutched in their hands, each one paying him scant, if any, heed.

Iain's brows snapped together. He couldn't hasten any- where. Fury and disbelief twisted through him, turning his legs to lead and rooting him to the spot even as all his darker emotions coiled into a cold knot of self-contempt deep in his gut.

Scarce more than a grim-faced shadow of the carefree man he'd once been, he raked shaking fingers through his soot-streaked hair and mentally prepared himself to glower at any poor soul foolhardy enough to glance his way.

Eager to reward any such effrontery with a blaze-eyed glare hot enough to wipe the disapproving mien off a gawker's face, he was sadly impotent against the fine Hebridean gloaming that sought to mock him by spilling its fair light through the hall's high-set window slits.

The wide-splayed recesses glowed with a soft, luminous gold, wholly uncaring of the torment whirling inside him . . . or the blasphemy he'd committed.

Iain blew out an agitated breath. He preferred stormy, cloud-chased skies, knew well the perfidy, the seductive illusion, of a placid-seeming summer's eve.

And naught spoiled the deception of this one save the acrid smoke tainting the air and the cold darkness in his own heart.

The emptiness.

That, and the harried shouts of his kinsmen as they fought to extinguish the flames of what, until a short while ago, had been the finest oratory in all the Western Isles.

The pride of the MacLeans . . . destroyed in a heartbeat.

"Tsk, tsk, tsk." A particularly annoying voice pierced the din. "You'd best hope for divine forgiveness, laddie." Gerbert, Baldoon's seneschal since time beyond mind, thrust his bristly chin forward, clearly bent on pushing Iain past the bounds of endurance. "This night's sacrilege will cast a pall o'er every man, woman, and child who bear the name MacLean."

Making no attempt to hide his perturbation, Iain fixed his darkest look on the scrap of a graybeard who'd dared disrupt his brooding. "If the saints are as all-seeing as a certain white-haired goat e'er claims, they'll be wise enough to ken I alone shoulder the blame."

Gerbert matched Iain's glare, his rheumy blue eyes narrowed in unrepentant ire.

"Aye, the good Lord will be having His finger on you," he prophesied, swatting a knobby-knuckled hand at the thick tendrils of smoke drifting between them.

"His finger?" Iain scoffed, his vexation mounting. "Some would say He's burdened me with more than a finger."

Try having your wife fall prey to a power-hungry uncle, then live with knowing you couldn't save her, that she met her fate on a tidal rock, tied fast by her own tresses, and left to drown.

Iain's chest grew so tight he could scarce breathe. Ire pounded through him, the image of Lileas cold and still, seaweed entangled in her unbound hair, stirring his rage with all the fierce intensity MacLean males were said to experience upon recognizing their one true soul mate. A ridiculous notion if ever there was one.

The only wildly intense emotions he'd e'er experienced were those borne of vexation, not mindless passion.

His blood heating, he squared his shoulders and stepped closer to the seneschal, hoping his formidable height and hard-trained body would intimidate the clacktongued elder, but the ploy failed.

The belligerent old rotter continued to bore holes in him with a decidedly pointed stare.

Iain drew a series of long, deep breaths until the tension beneath his ribs began to lessen. "Aye," he conceded at length, raising his voice to ensure the seneschal understood his every word. "Would the pearly-winged saints peer inside me this very moment, they'd find more than a finger weighing heavy on my heart."

"I've known you since before you could say your name, laddie." Gerbert's scrawny chest swelled with importance. "'Tis you, and you alone, heaping burdens on yourself."

Sheer weariness kept Iain from giving a derisive snort. "Think you?" he asked instead, the cool smoothness of his tone enough to send a less courageous man sprinting for shelter.

Gerbert nodded, his silence speaking worlds.

"And what else do you think?" Iain pressed, full aware he'd regret asking. The graybeard's unnerving perception could cut to the quick.

"What I know is that you've made your own sorry bed, and"—Gerbert poked at Iain's chest with a you'd-bestlisten- to-me finger—"mayhap if it weren't such a cold and empty bed, you'd not be stomping about wound so tight you fail to see where you're heading."


Iain cringed, the very word plunging like an expertly wielded knife straight into his heart.

He knew more about failing than all the men of the Isles and Highlands combined.

"A lass in my bed on this of all days? Have you gone addled?" He shoved Gerbert's thrusting finger from his ribs. "Wenching is the last—" he broke off, indignation closing his throat.

In another life, he would have laughed aloud at the absurdity of the thin-shouldered seneschal even mentioning such things as manly needs and bare-bottomed lasses.

But in this life, Iain MacLean, possessor of the loneliest heart in the Hebrides, had forgotten how to laugh. So he did what he could. He scowled. "Light skirts and lustslaking." Leaning forward, he narrowed his eyes at the old goat. "What would you know of such pursuits?"

"Enough to ken what ails the likes o' you." Gerbert's face scrunched into an odd mixture of pity and reproach.

Iain stiffened, a vein in his temple beginning to throb. He wanted nary a shred of sympathy. Not from Baldoon's cantankerous seneschal, not from any man.

Nor did he need censure.

Or a lass in his bed.

Most especially not a lass in his bed.

In the year since his wife's passing, he'd become quite adept at stilling his baser urges. He scarce remembered what it was like to have his blood fired, much less feel his loins quicken with need.

He took a deep breath, wincing when the acrid air stung his lungs. "One year ago today, Lileas was stranded on the Lady Rock. She drowned there," he elaborated, carefully enunciating each word. "That, and naught else, is what ails me."

And not a one of the countless hours stretching be- tween then and now had dimmed his pain . . . or lessened his guilt.

Be of great heart, his kinsmen were e'er harping at him. Move on with his life, they'd advise. He drew his brows together in a black frown. Of late, even the womenfolk had begun pestering him to take another wife.

Defeat clawing at him, he pressed the back of his hand to his forehead and glanced heavenward. Saints, but he was surrounded by witless, persistent fools, the lot of them unable to see the truth if it perched on their noses and winked at them.

Closing his eyes, he pinched the bridge of his own nose and repressed the urge to throw back his head and howl with cynical laughter.

He knew what his well-meaning clansmen neglected to comprehend.

Iain MacLean, renowned for his hot temper and master of naught, didn't have a life to get on with.

About the same time, but across the great sweep of the Hebridean Sea, past the rugged coast of the mainland, then deep into the heather hills and green glens of Scotland's heartland, Lady Madeline Drummond of Abercairn Castle stood within the hospitable walls of a friend's thatched cottage and braved her own night of turmoil.

The raw edge of her temper spurring her to desperation, she yanked hard on the worn cloth of the voluminous black cloak her common-born friend, Nella of the Marsh, clutched tight against her generous bosom.

"The robe is perfect," Madeline insisted, and gave another tug. "It will serve my needs well."

Nella shook her head. "Nay, my lady, I shan't let you traipse about in rags," she protested, snatching the mantle from Madeline's grasp. She tossed it onto the roughhewn table behind her. "Nor shall I let you traverse the land alone. Your life would be forfeit the moment you stepped from this cottage, and of a surety, long before you neared the first shrine."

Resting a work-reddened hand atop the threadbare cloak, Nella narrowed shrewd but caring eyes. "Penitents and holy men do not set aside their manly cravings simply because they've embarked on a pilgrimage."

Madeline flicked a speck of unseen dust from her sleeve. "I harbor no illusions about carnal lust. Men's or women's," she returned, fervently wishing the opposite were true.

Her heart ached to revel in the bliss of the unenlightened, longed to be filled with naught weightier than fanciful dreams of a braw man's bonnie smile.

The sweet magic of his golden words, the sensual promise of his touch.

But rather than a dashing suitor's seductive caress, his soul-stealing kisses and sweetly whispered endearments, cold shivers tore down her spine. "You needn't warn me of the darker side of lust," she said, more to herself than to Nella. "I am full aware of what spurs men to commit black deeds."

Her shivers now joined by a rash of gooseflesh, Madeline Drummond, reputed to be the loveliest maid in the land, moistened lips yet to part beneath the onslaught of a man's hot passion. Lovely they called her to her face. Madeline sighed, her virginal lips almost quirking with the irony.

She knew what they truly thought of her.

She was no more lovely than any other maid, but she was lonely.

The loneliest lass in the Highlands.

Lacing her fingers together to still their trembling, she slanted a quick glance at the nearest window . . . or rather, the crude opening in the wall that passed for one. Square-cut and deep, its view, were she to peer past the alder thicket pressing close to Nella's cottage, lent ponderous weight to her need to steal across the land cloaked in a postulant's robes.

"I am no stranger to men's greed," she said, another shudder ripping through her, this one streaking clear to her toes.

"Mayhap not," her friend owned, still guarding the frayed-edged cloak, "but you have been sheltered, my lady. Ne'er have you—"

"Ne'er have I lived," Madeline finished for her. She blinked, for some of the color of Nella's cozy cottage seemed to fade before her eyes, the stone-flagged floor seeming to tilt and careen beneath her feet.

Ignoring the dizziness beginning to spiral through her, she jerked her head in the general direction of the atrocities she couldn't bear to look upon. "My dear Nella, do you not see it is living that shall prove impossible so long as the perpetrator of yon blackness walks this earth?"

A world of objection swam in Nella's troubled eyes. "Will you not even listen to the dangers?"

"I ken the perils . . . and their consequences." Madeline squared her shoulders. Were she not apprised of such things, her friend's boundless concern spooling through her, pulsing and alive, underscored the validity of Nella's disquiet.

And the curse Madeline carried with her since birth: the ability to feel the emotions of others.

Not always, and ne'er at will, but often enough. And always unbidden, bubbling up from some unknown depth in her soul to enfold her in the cares and wants of others as swiftly as a sudden mist could blanket the whole of a Highland glen.

It was a dubious talent, which had shown her the true heart of every suitor who'd ever called for her hand but, in truth, sought no more than her father's wealth and strategic lay of his land.

Clamping her lips together, she swallowed the bitterness rising in her throat and, instead, eyed the pilgrim's cloak draped across Nella's well-scrubbed table.

"A man would have to be sightless not to recognize your beauty and station," her friend declared, following her gaze. "Clothing yourself roughly will scarce make a difference."

"Not roughly," Madeline amended. "As a postulant."

Nella snorted. "I can see you now . . . the fiery and proud Lady of Abercairn seeking the veil."

"After I've done what I must, I will have no recourse but to plead God's mercy by gifting him with a life of servitude."

"My faith, lady, if you truly wish to spend your days in a sequestered existence, we can journey directly to the nearest abbey," Nella suggested, tilting her head to the side. "You've no need to traipse from one holy shrine to the next in search of Silver Leg. The gods themselves will smite him."

Silver Leg.

Sir Bernhard Logie.

By either name, the very mention of Madeline's nemesis reached a cruel hand through the evening's quiet to snatch away her hopes and dreams and dash them upon the charred pyres his men had erected before Abercairn's proud curtain walls.

The crenellated defenses of a stronghold taken only because her father's worst enemy had stooped to unutterable savageries: the burning of innocents.

One life for each refusal to throw wide the gates.

Compliance came swift, the drawbridge clanking down without delay, but a blameless herd-boy still met a fiery end, the ignoble deed repeated until three of Abercairn's most vulnerable were no more.

When Silver Leg's men escorted Madeline's father, straight-backed and unflinching, to the flames, she'd fled, seeking refuge from the unspeakable at Nella's door.

Her only sanctuary in a night gone mad.

A simple but good-hearted woman, Nella secured her peace by allowing others to believe she possessed a talent as unique as Madeline's own, a carefully chosen ability daunting enough to keep most danger well at bay.

Few men claimed a stout enough heart to near the dwelling place of a woman rumored to receive visitations from the dead.

And it was Sir Bernhard Logie Madeline wanted dead. Dubbed Silver Leg for the silver votive offerings, fashioned as legs, that he e'er left at holy shrines in gratitude for some obscure saint's intervention in healing his childhood lameness, the seasoned warrior knight best known for his lightning changes of allegiance, gave himself a devout man.

Madeline knew better.

She fixed Nella with a determined stare. "The gods and every ravening wolf in the land can do what they will with the man . . . after I've avenged my own."

Nella drew a deep breath, and Madeline could almost see arguments forming on the tip of her friend's tongue. Thus warned, she spun around before they could grow into full-fledged protestations. "He would have been wise to choose a better cause than to seize Abercairn," she said, and yanked open the thick-planked door.

Her heart pounded in hot anger as her gaze latched on the distant smoke still curling upward from blackened woodpiles she couldn't see but felt with every fiber of her being.

"You ken there is a well-honed dirk hidden in my right boot," she said, her voice tight. "I will not hesitate to use it once I find him."

Nella joined her in the open doorway. "Then let us be gone before they find you." She sent a meaningful glance at the evening mist already rolling down the nearby braeside. "Rumors of my witchy ways will only stay them so long."

A jagged-edged bolt of sorrow, or mayhap regret, shot through Madeline, and she glanced sharply at her friend, but the sensation passed as swiftly as it'd come, and no sign of distress marred Nella's kindly face.

The wayfarer's cloak already swirling about her ample form, Nella offered a second, less worn-looking wrap to Madeline. "Can you feel him?" she asked, low-voiced, as Madeline donned the second mantle. "If his malice stirs you at all, we will at least have a lead and won't waste time journeying in a false direction."

"I feel . . ." Madeline began, but trailed off as quickly. She did sense something, but the darkness closing round her heart held too much poignancy to hail from Bernhard Logie . . . and it came from too great a distance.

"I feel . . . nothing," she hedged, her chest tight and aching with a stranger's loneliness and guilt.

A man's loneliness, and of a certainty, not the guilt of a murderer.

'Twas a heart-wrenching guilt far too deep and intimate to be shared with another.

Not even dear Nella.

Cold, black, and laced with a bottomless yearning for vanished days and what-could-have-beens, the man's anguish seized her very soul. And squeezed so tight she could scarce breathe until his hold on her began ebbing away, slowly retreating to the far-off corner of the land whence it had come.

"You felt nothing, my lady?" Nella's doubt cut through the residual haze still clouding Madeline's senses.

"I . . ." Not quite sure what had swept through her, Madeline gave off trying to explain and leaned back against the doorjamb, her breaths coming in great ragged gasps.

"And, when he yet lived, I was the good King Robert's favored lady love," Nella quipped, peering hard at her. "Truth be told, you've gone whiter than new-fallen snow, so don't be telling me nothing's touched you."

Touched her.

That was the difference—she'd been touched, and deeply. The realization washed over her in a torrent of golden waves, freeing her from the last tenuous threads of the stranger's powerful grip. She grasped Nella's strong hands with her own, trembling, ones. "I did feel," she breathed, awed by the depth of the man's anguish, stunned by the fierceness of his longing.

"And what did you feel?" Nella prodded, giving Madeline's hands a light squeeze.

Madeline hesitated, not willing to share the stranger's pain, yet unable to conceal her wonder at the rest.

"Well?" Nella urged again.

"I felt love."


"Aye, love," Madeline repeated, suddenly quite convinced. The very word sent little tremors tripping across her every nerve ending. "Heart-pounding, thunderous, shake-the-very-earth-beneath-your-feet love."

The kind she'd dreamed of every night for as long as she could remember.

Shattered dreams, the remnants of which she'd cast to the four winds the instant she'd slipped into Nella's wayfaring cloak.

Murderesses didn't deserve to know passion, and nuns weren't allowed.

In his own far-off corner of the land, Iain MacLean stood amidst the chaos of Baldoon's great hall, his backbone steeled against the unpleasant awareness that every saint worth his wings must now be frowning upon him in fits of fine, feathered fury.

Assorted fragments of his deepest needs, all his longings and best-kept secrets, weighted his broad shoulders as surely as the billowing clouds of smoke still pouring from the ruined chapel swirled around him in a choking mantle of black reproach.

Bile thick in his throat, he struggled to ignore the seething frustration gnawing on his innards. A vein still throbbed wildly in his left temple, and his heartbeat pounded in his ears with such furor, he could scarce hear the pandemonium unfolding all around him.

Not that hearing the ruckus would tell him aught he didn't know.

The shameful aftermath of his carelessness stood carved on his conscience. Indelibly and, without doubt, dancing already on the flapping tongues of every prattlemonger in the Isles.

His jaw clenching, he drew a hand down over his face.

One fit of blind rage, an accidentally toppled candelabrum, and all hellfire had erupted, its jeering demons clamping sharp-taloned hands around his ravaged soul in a foretaste of the damnation awaiting him.

Blinking against the sting of smoke, he drew a great heaving breath and tried not to cough. If the good saints possessed a shred of mercy, they'd let the raging inferno in Baldoon's chapel claim him as well.

Unfortunately, much to his vexation, his brother, Donall the Bold, much-revered laird of the great Clan MacLean, had other plans.

Every inch as tall as Iain, and of the same impressive build and dark good looks, Donall MacLean aimed an assessing glance at the smoke-clogged chapel . . . and at the grim-faced warriors gathering ever nearer. Trusted kinsmen, well accustomed to Iain's quick-tindered blood and how swiftly sparks ignited between the two brothers who resembled each other so closely that those meeting them for the first time oft mistook them for twins.

Keenly attuned to their laird's wishes, a near- imperceptible nod of Donall the Bold's raven-haired head was all the encouragement the loyal fighting men needed to form a tight, semicircular cordon behind him.

An impenetrable barrier between Iain and the fire licking its way up the chapel walls.

His handsome face set in bitter earnest lines, Donall MacLean whipped out his steel with the loud zing only the most lethal of blades can produce.

He aimed its deadly tip at Iain's middle. "Do not even think of going back in there," he warned, his dark-eyed gaze hard as ice-frosted stone, his deep voice equally cold. And so annoyingly contained, Iain's temper blazed all the more hotly.

Irritation pumping through his veins, he met his older brother's cool gaze with his heated one. "You think to stay me by the edge of your sword? Our own father's brand?"

Donall didn't so much as blink. "I have no desire to maim you. Enough ill work has been wrought this day, but, aye, I will cut you if I must . . . if you attempt further foolishness."

"Then have at me." Iain lifted his hands, palms out, in open challenge. "Think you I fear steel more than flames?"

"'Tis well I ken you fear naught." Donall slid another pointed look at the ruined chapel. "Fearless or nay, I'd counsel you to consider God's wrath after this night's sacrilege."

Iain fixed his brother with a steely-eyed glare, his own wrath ready to erupt in a welter of invectives. Battling such an outburst, he pressed his lips together and hoped Donall wouldn't notice the muscle jerking in his jaw.

Nor guess the depth of his turmoil, for he alone bore the weight of his wife's demise.

His entire body thrumming with agitation, he clenched his hands to white-knuckled fists. Had he loved Lileas as fiercely as MacLean men were legended to love their women, he would have sensed the danger stalking her that day, could have kept her from going anywhere near the Lady Rock.

But he'd sensed naught.

He hadn't even thought of her that fateful morn . . . until it was too late.

So he staunched his guilt the only way he knew: by braving his brother's censure with the bold arrogance few but a MacLean male can summon. "You dare say I ought consider the whims of a God so uncaring He allowed Lileas to be murdered?"

"The good Lord had nary a hand in her death, but I vow He will be mightily displeased to see you've set alight His place of worship."

Roiling anger rose in Iain's throat, his bitterness near choking him. "Aye, you're right, my brother. He had naught to do with the deed," he seethed, no longer even trying to contain his fury. "God and all His saints were sleeping that foul-dawning day, just as they slept when my own grief sent me wheeling away from the altar and into the accursed candlestand."

Bristling, he met Donall's measuring gaze with the calculated sizzle of a narrow-eyed glare. "Or would you insinuate I collided with the candelabrum a-purpose?" he ground out, unwilling to admit his deepest guilt even to the brother he loved above life itself.

"Think you I wished to set fire to the chapel?" he pushed, his voice louder this time.

Louder, and laced with crackling anger.

Donall studied him for a long, uncomfortable moment. "Everyone within these walls knows you've spent more time on your knees before yon altar than in your own bedchamber this past year," he said at last. "Why should you burn the one place you're e'er hiding yourself? Nay, my brother, I think your own torments and your unchecked ire blinded you."

"Torments and ire?" Iain's very toes tensed in outrage. "I'd say it is my fullest right to harbor both."

Grief, hot and all-consuming, coursed through him, but he'd be damned a thousand times before he'd give a name to his regrets. Or admit to the black void that darkened his every waking hour and shadowed his sleepless nights.

Donall lifted a brow, his silent appraisal more eloquent than words.

Drawing himself to his full height, Iain cocked a brow of his own. A challenging one. "You dare say I've no claim to those rights?"

"I say you forfeited any such claims the instant your temper caused you to knock over the candlestand."

"Some dull-wit moved the unwieldy apparatus," Iain countered, every fiber of his being daring Donall to state otherwise.

"Nay, you err," the MacLean obliged him. "The candelabrum stood where it's always stood."

Iain held his brother's gaze. "It scarce matters now."

"Say you?" Donall cast another quick glance at the shouting kinsmen still battling the flames. "It matters to them."

And it matters to me! Iain's temper roared. So much so that I see no purpose in living in the dark and chasing shadows all my days . . . subsisting as one ill wished.

Or, less appealing still, pitied.

His mood worsening with each beat of his heart, he took a step forward, then another, until the sharp point of Donall's blade pricked his abdomen. Then, standing proud and straight, he risked a smile, his first in longer than he could recall.

And meant to be his last.

Keenly aware of his brother's scrutiny, Iain readied himself for a lightning-quick sprint into the flames. His decision made, the unaccustomed smile began to spread through him, not filling him with joy and light as smiles ought do, and not banishing the dark in his soul, but flooding him with blessed relief.

The sweet surety that his bone-deep aching would soon cease.

He heaved a great sigh . . . and blinked back the unexpected heat suddenly jabbing the backs of his eyes. "You err, brother mine, for I do know fear," he said, his deep voice husky and . . . tight. "I fear living and"—he made an impatient gesture—"I've grown mighty weary of it, too."

Realization flashed across Donall's face. "Nay!" he cried, flinging aside his sword. He lunged forward, throwing his arms around Iain in the same moment a strange prickling in the back of Iain's neck made him spin around.

His agility rewarded him with the surreal glimpse of a bonnie raven-haired lass rushing him. Wild-eyed and screaming, she held a large earthen wine jug high above her head.

Its descent was the last thing Iain saw before a numbing darkness of a wholly different nature than he'd hoped for rose up to claim him.

Many leagues away, on the other side of Doon, everstronger wind gusts swept across the isle's high moors and boglands, but carefully skirted a particular cliff-top glade, not daring to bend a single blade of grass within its enchanted circle.

A lone thatched cottage stood there, thick-walled and silent. Perched precariously on the rugged edge of nowhere, high above the sea, sheltered by silver birch and rowan trees . . . and the magic of Devorgilla, Doon's resident crone and wise woman.

The cailleach, who, even now, as Iain slumbered in fitful oblivion, used her skills to borrow some of his darkness to cloak her own doings from the gloaming's luminous light.

"Not the time o' year for spelling," she muttered, carefully fastening a length of dark linen over one of the cottage's unshuttered windows . . . the last one to require such a blackening treatment.

Pursing her lips, she smoothed the cloth into place. Her most potent incantations had failed to conjure sufficient gloom, and no wonder, when his disbelief raged so strong it hindered her even while he slept!

"Harrumph," she scolded, shuffling across the cold, stone-flagged floor toward a rough-hewn bench pushed flush against the far wall. Her straggly brows met in a frown. " 'I want naught of your depraved chantings and even less of black cauldrons bubbling over with newts and bats' wings,' " she mimicked him as she eased her bent form onto the bench.

Once settled, she allowed herself a well-earned cackle and pulled a large, wooden bowl filled with stones onto her bony knees. "Hah!" she scoffed, a familiar thrill tripping down her spine.

"Iain the Doubter shall have a more potent cure than tongue of newt and wing of bat," she informed the stillness, her concentration focused on the softly gleaming stones.

Special stones.

Highland quartz, mostly, though some came from sacred places throughout the Isles.

Fairy Fire Stones, rare and precious. Each one collected by her own two hands or gifted to her by those more appreciative of her talents than a certain dark-eyed laddie too closed-minded for his own good.

Humming to herself at his ignorance, Devorgilla began to poke through the stones with her gnarled fingers until their tips grew tingly and warm, and the stones themselves began to vibrate and glow.

With a deftness that belied the appearance of her knotty, age-spotted hand, she plucked his stone from the bowl and placed it on the bench beside her.

Her stone, the one she'd selected to represent Iain MacLean's true soul mate, was found with equal ease. And while his stone still felt cold to the touch, its core a deep and chilling blue, hers was growing warmer by the day.

Savoring its heat, Devorgilla set the female stone in the palm of her left hand. Her wizened face wreathed in a knowing smile when a teensy point of reddish gold suddenly appeared deep inside the Fairy Fire Stone's core.

One be you, and one be she. When your lady's heart catches fire, you'll recognize her, she'd explained as she'd tried to give him the stones the last time she'd made the long trek to Baldoon.

A tedious journey she'd undertaken solely to offer him her assistance.

Clucking her tongue at the scowl he'd bestowed on her, Devorgilla placed his cold stone next to the maid's warm one and closed her ancient fingers over the two.

His lady's heart couldn't catch flame, he'd informed her, claiming her heart was cold as the grave and would ne'er warm again.

The cailleach cackled anew.

Her smile turning impish, she curled her fingers tighter around the stones, and fixed a self-satisfied gaze on the low, black-raftered ceiling.

Iain MacLean was sorely mistaken.

Though the flame in his true lady's heart might not yet be a blazing inferno, it'd already caught a fine, healthy spark, and was very much alive.

Very much alive indeed.

Excerpted from Master of the Highlands , by Sue-Ellen Welfonder . Copyright (c) 2003 by Sue-Ellen Welfonder . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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