Book Three in the Highland Force Series is here!
Back Cover Copy:
Born with the mark of the devil, Merrin has been hidden on the islet of Eilean Fladda for near twenty years. When the body of a Highlander washes ashore, the innocent lass presumes him dead. Brushing the hair from the rugged warrior’s face, her fingers connect with warm flesh. Warm.
Ian MacLeod wakes to a woman so radiant, he believes her an angel. But when the lass recoils from him, he fears she knows of his evil deeds. While he heals, Ian is stunned when he exposes her witch’s mark, yet he’s spellbound by Merrin’s allure. He’d do anything to erase his haunting past and earn her love.
But there’s a henchman after Ian’s head, and when that man learns the Highlander is still alive, the couple is forced to flee Merrin’s sheltered world. Fighting for survival, destiny demands they each face their demons, but doing so may forever ruin them both.
You're invited to the Beauty and the online Barbarian Facebook Party--Saturday, May 31st 6-9 p.m. Eastern! Click on the picture to join...
Eilean Fladda, Scotland. The year of our Lord, 1584.
Merrin had never seen a dead man before. As she peeked over the rocky crag, the image of the Highlander face down on the beach did not repulse her. From her vantage point, the man appeared in his prime, well-muscled like a warrior. Why had he washed up on the caol—the narrow span of land that connected the tiny islet of Fladda to the Isle of Raasay? From whither had he come? What caused his death?
Dry at low tide, soon the narrow gap would fill with sea water and wash the body into the Sound of Raasay. Merrin dropped the shell she’d found. Reaching beneath her cloak, she lifted her kirtle skirts and climbed over the rock. She glanced at the deerhound behind her. “Gar, come.”
After scanning the scene for danger—any sign of life—she crept down to the Highlander.
Gar sniffed, nudging the man with his nose. Merrin stood at the Highlander’s side for a moment. Powerfully built, he wasn’t anything like her father or Friar Pat. His face was turned to the side, his damp flaxen hair pasted over his cheek and mouth. Clad in a dirty linen shirt, his broad shoulders tapered to narrow hips supporting a red-and-black kilt, a bold plaid. Perhaps he’s one of the clansmen from Brochel Castle.
Dark red blood soaked one side of his shirt. It clung against him, the wound still oozing. The Highlander’s kilt hitched awkwardly up over his thighs. Merrin stared, her pulse quickening. The kilt exposed the lower half of his buttock. It wasn’t rounded and soft, but chiseled, as if hewn from stone. At the apex of his powerful legs was something soft, strewn with downy curls.
Pushing the hood from her head, Merrin stepped over the oars that rested askew beside him and knelt for a closer look. He had ballocks just like Bucky, the ram…and Gar. That it surprised her—a man had ballocks—seemed odd when she considered it. How else would he breed?
Her gaze swept across his muscular form and a stirring deep inside augmented her curiosity. Her breasts ached like they did just before she started her courses. Merrin licked her lips and cast her stare back to his face. With a soft whimper, Gar sat and leaned against her like he always did—the big sook.
She looked closer. Though bloodied and bruised, the Highlander had a pleasant face with an angular nose and a bold jaw, thinnish lips, but not too thin. She scooted up to brush the hair away from his face. Strands stuck to the stubble of his beard. Merrin gasped when the coarse bristles prickled her fingers as she swept the hair aside. Her fingers stopped at the back of his neck—a long, very warm neck.
Merrin’s gut clenched and she placed her finger just under his nose and held it still.
He wasn’t dead.
Her trembling palms clapped over her mouth. Merciful Father. Instinctively, her hand slid down and covered the red mark on her neck. She’d forgotten her scarf. What if he woke? He’d see me.
She snapped her gaze to Gar. “Stay.” Merrin pulled the hood over her head, quickly scanned her surroundings for intruders and ran for the cottage.
She raced into the rickety lean-to her father used for a workshop, latched on to Niall’s arm and tugged. “Da. Quickly. Ye must come.”
A portly man, the herbalist hardly moved. He pointed his pestle her way. It smelled of mint, which did nothing to allay the foul odor of horehound. “The friar needs this tincture straight away. There’s a nasty cough spreading at the castle.”
“Ye do no’ understand.” Merrin tugged harder. “Th…there’s a dead man on the caol. But…he’s no’ dead.” Shaking, she rushed to explain, “I thought he was dead when I saw him, b-but he was warm to the touch and then I…”
“Slow down, lass, me head’s spinning with your babble.” Niall rested the pestle in the mortar. “There’s a man washed ashore, ye say?”
“Aye, with blood oozing from his side.” Merrin dragged him toward the door. “Gar’s guarding him, come. We need the barrow.”
Niall shrugged out of Merrin’s grasp and followed. “Ye’re becoming bossier every day—just like your mother, God rest her soul.”
Merrin couldn’t help the roll of her eyes. She loved her father dearly, but he forever chastised her for everything—or nothing. “Ye need someone to keep ye to rights.”
Niall lifted the barrow handles and pointed it toward the caol. “I need someone to stay quiet, cook me meals and keep the cottage.”
Merrin rushed ahead, pulling up her hood and clasping it closed at the neck. “I do all that.”
“Not the quiet part.”
“Och, quit your bellyaching, Da.”
Merrin stopped at the top of the bluff, which was covered with verdant green grass. Gar stood and barked up at her, wagging his tail. She pointed. “There.”
Huffing, Niall wheeled the barrow beside her. His mouth drew down in a grimace. “Come. We must hurry.”
Now he sees the urgency—couldn’t listen to the likes of me. Merrin scuttled after him, having never seen her father move so fast.
Niall knelt and tugged the Highlander’s kilt to cover his buttocks.
I should have done that.
He pulled up the blood-encrusted shirt and leaned close, his lips pursed. A jagged puncture wound seeped. Carefully placing two fingers either side, Niall examined it. A thick line formed between his brows and he swirled his fingers in a circular pattern. “There’s a musket ball inside.”
Merrin dropped to her knees beside her father and studied the wound. “Shot?”
“Aye, and left for dead, I’d wager.” Niall stood. “He’s a big fella. I’ll need your help lifting him into the barrow.”
Merrin moved to his shoulders. “Do ye recognize him?”
He rolled the man over. The hilt of his dirk glistened in the sun with brilliant reds and blues sparkling. Merrin looked closer. “Are those jewels?”
Niall brushed the sand off the hilt. “I daresay ’tis an heirloom a man would carry with pride—definitely not a piece worn by a common sentry. That’s for certain.” Da pointed to the matted fur sporran. “And his purse is ermine. The only man I know around these parts with an ermine sporran is our chieftain, Alexander MacLeod.”
Merrin puzzled—a bejeweled dirk and an ermine purse? Where on earth had the Highlander come from?
Niall levered his hands under a shoulder. “Latch on to the other one and we’ll lift together.”
After a fair amount of hefting, they got him in with legs dangling so far over the barrow rim, his toes nearly touched ground. The poor blighter would have been bellowing like a castrated bull had he been awake.
Niall picked up the wooden handles. “Run ahead and stoke the fire. We’ll need to remove that musket ball straight away.”
Merrin slapped her hip. “Gar, come.” Along the way, she snatched an arm full of peat from the workshop. She pushed through the cottage door and tossed it on the fire, then swung a kettle of water into place. After setting fire to a twig, she went about lighting every candle in the main room, including a tallow column with three wicks upon the enormous hearth. She pulled aside one of three wooden chairs to access a candelabra on the rectangular table. Next, she crossed the room and lit the oil lamp that rested on the small table beside her mother’s oak rocking chair. Merrin’s favorite, it sat in the corner beside her loom.
When the wheels crunched across the path, she held the door. “Barrow him straight inside.”
Niall pushed the cart beside the table. “We’ll put him on the board where I can work.”
Merrin moved the candles and together they rolled the Highlander from the barrow, which was a mite easier than lifting him into it. Resting on his stomach, the man grunted. Merrin examined his face to see if his eyes had opened—no, he still looked dead, his skin a pale bluish-yellow in the candlelight. Bruises spread beneath his closed lashes.
Niall’s iron knife scraped against the whetstone. “I dunna ken if I can save him, but I’d be no kind of healer if I didn’t try.”
Merrin nodded. “How can I help?”
“Put a poker in the flame. We’ll need it red hot. Fetch a pile of rags—and grab a pot of honey poultice from the cupboard.”
Once Merrin followed her father’s orders, she stood beside him, cloth in hand.
Niall ran his dagger through the candle flame. “Hold the cloth beside the wound to sop up the blood.”
Merrin swallowed and looked down at the peaceful form unconscious on the table. “Do ye think he’ll wake?”
Niall pulled up the shirt, exposing the angry wound, encrusted with dark blood. “Mayhap. It’ll hurt like the devil, nonetheless.”
“Do we have to do it now?”
“The longer the lead ball stays in him, the sicker he’ll become.” Niall nodded toward her hands. “Hold the rag firm.”
The Highlander’s muscles remained flaccid while Niall probed with his knife. “’Tis not too deep.”
An exhale whistled past Merrin’s lips. “’Tis a good sign.”
“I nearly have it.” With a twist of Da’s wrist, the musket ball popped out. Niall grasped it in his pincher fingers. “Nasty piece of lead.”
Blood drained from the cut. Merrin worked quickly to sop it up, but it flowed too fast to stanch it.
“Put pressure on the wound,” Niall snapped. He turned to the fire and reached for the poker. “Stand back.”
Merrin pulled away the blood saturated cloth and tossed it into the fire. Drawing in a ragged breath, she clutched her fists to her chest.
Niall hesitated. “He may thrash a bit. Ye’d best bear down on his shoulders.”
Merrin moved to the end of the table. Her fingers sank into muscle, thick with banded sinew and ever so warm to the touch. Her insides tumbled like a rolling brook. These were the shoulders of a powerful warrior. Merrin leaned her weight into him just as Niall rammed the glowing poker into the wound.
The Highlander bucked so violently, Merrin’s small hands were useless holding him down. The pungent stench of burning flesh wafted from his back. The man bellowed louder than a braying bull. Arching up, his eyes flashed open and focused on her—ice-blue eyes filled with agony stared at Merrin as if she’d murdered him and all his kin.
He thudded back to the table, the wind wheezing through his throat. His body shuddered. Wide-eyed, Merrin stepped away. The Highlander’s eyes closed and his back rose and fell in a steady rhythm. Merrin glanced to the wound. The bleeding had ebbed considerably. “Ye did it.”
Niall jabbed the poker in the flame. It sizzled and stank as he turned it over. “Did ye doubt me, lass?”
“I kent ye could, I just feared he would be too weak to withstand it.”
He hung the poker on its black nail against the hearth. “He’s not healed yet. Rub the honey poultice into the puncture, then bind it. I’ve got to finish mixing the tincture before Friar Pat arrives.”
Merrin pulled the stopper off the pot. “Do ye think he’ll help us move him? The Highlander cannot stay on the table.”
“Aye.” Niall wiped his hands on a rag. “Ye’d best bring in some straw and fashion a pallet for him.”
She glopped the poultice over the Highlander’s angry-red flesh and gently rubbed it in. “Should we put him on me bed?”
“And where would ye sleep?”
Her shoulder ticked up. “I could use the pallet.”
“Nay. We’ll put him out here where we can keep an eye on him. God only knows how he ended up with a musket ball in his back.”
“Ye think he might be evil?” Merrin studied the man’s face. She didn’t have a sense of foreboding like she did when marauding pirates from Rona were about. She sensed no wickedness at all.
Niall grasped the door latch. “I dunna ken, but I’ll no’ have him sleeping in your bed, or mine for that matter. We can make him comfortable enough with a bit of straw.”
“I’ll see to it, then.”
Merrin glanced back to the door that led to her room. Once a larder, the small space had a bed, a trunk for her things and pegs on the wall where she hung her two kirtles. Niall’s chamber was much larger, with a bed big enough for two. It even had a chest of drawers with a mirror atop—the nicest piece of furniture they owned.
The Highlander would be far more comfortable on her bed, though. She’d recently finished making a mattress of downy feathers. She could sink into it and sleep like a bairn. Alas, Niall said no. There was no use arguing—at least not today.
I hope you have a wonderful day!