The North Sea, off the Coast of Scotland, 1687
Rourke Douglas held fast to the capstan, the rain soaking his shirt as his frigate, Lady Marie, pitched in the gale. Lightning slashed through the storm-darkened sky, threatening to tear the masts apart. Over the roll of thunder, the eerie sound of Hegarty’s chanting rose from the hold of the ship, making Rourke’s flesh ripple with unease. Magic rode heavy on the air.
A high wave broke over the deck’s wooden planks in a shower of seawater.
“Close the hatches!” he barked to his crew. “Secure the guns!”
“We’re too close to the shore, Captain!” His bosun, Joshua Cutter, lurched into place beside him, his pitted face sharp with disbelief and a challenge Rourke was tiring of. “If the wind turns we’ll be dashed upon the rocks.”
Rourke scowled. “Then we shall hope the wind doesna turn, shall we not, Mr. Cutter? Return to your post and hold our position!”
The bosun blanched, took a step back, then whirled and hurried away.
God’s blood, if they survived the storm, he’d have a mutiny on his hands. As much as he hated to admit it, Cutter was right. But he’d made a vow to Hegarty to hug the shoreline until the night was through. Even if it meant damning his ship and everyone on board.
A gust of wind caused the ship to lurch hard to starboard. Rourke braced himself, holding tight.
“Order the sails furled, Mr. Baker!” he shouted to his hapless first mate. If they did not soon roll the sails up tight against the growing gale, they’d capsize. If they survived this storm, he’d happily hang Hegarty from the highest mast for manipulating him into this dire predicament.
Through the rain Rourke could just make out the rugged shoreline of his native Scotland—a sight he’d not seen since he was ten and never intended to see again. He must have been deep in his cups the night Hegarty secured his promise to go back. Naught but a sail-by, Hegarty had assured him. No need even to make port. A simple trip.
As if anything concerning Hegarty could ever be simple. Not until they arrived had the dwarf told him the ship must remain perilously close to shore for a day and a night. He’d not explained why. They both knew all too well.
His gut twisted and rolled as if mimicking the churning sea. He should never have let Hegarty force him back here.
“Captain!” the pilot cried. “We’re being pulled toward the rocks!”
God’s blood. “Unfurl the mizzen!”
The ship leaned heavily as the wind caught the single sail. His promise be damned. But even as he braced to issue the orders to set full sail, he knew it was too late. A second sail would cause them to lean too far into the frenzied waves, capsizing the ship.
The rain slashed across his back in a pelting, stinging torrent. This was Hegarty’s fault. He rued the day he’d ever laid eyes upon the little man, yet without him he’d be long dead. Hegarty was a rock in his shoe, gifted with abilities no man should possess, but Rourke owed him. Too much.
A loud crack challenged the thunder.
“Mast down!” shouted the bosun.
In grim disbelief Rourke watched the mizzenmast crash to the deck, shredding rigging and splintering deck boards.
As crewmen scurried to secure loose rigging, Hegarty appeared, cursing and stomping up the stairs from belowdecks. The dwarf wore Rourke’s best waistcoat like a tunic, his wild mane of red hair dragging with the weight of the rain. He put his head down against the strengthening gale and made his way toward Rourke.
The ship pitched, and Rourke grabbed the dwarf before he could be swept overboard. “Look at my ship! You’d damn well better be through.”
“‘Tis a poor day for magic.” Hegarty glared at him as if he blamed him for calling down the storm. “We must stay until it’s done.”
“No more. We’re through here. If we survive this storm, I’m making a new heading straight back to the West Indies.” And buying that plantation on the Isle of St. Christopher he’d been eyeing. He’d bloody well had enough of the sea.
Hegarty clung to his wrist, his small fingernails digging ridges into Rourke’s skin. “Today is the day, Pup. She must come to us. The prophecy will unfold at last.”
The words twisted like a dull blade in Rourke’s gut. “And I would be far, far away when it does. I promised to bring you back and so I have. On the morrow, I’m leaving, with or without you.”
Hegarty regained his footing and smiled with that infuriating surety that always boded ill.
Rourke shook his head against the canny look in the smaller man’s eyes. “You’ll not pull me into this Heg. I was not named in the prophecy. Only her.”
“Named? Not precisely.” Hegarty continued to smile, unnerving him.
“Dammit man, you’ll not involve me. ‘Tis you who is determined to set this disaster to flight. Why can ye not leave well enough alone?”
“Well enough for whom?” The dwarf’s smiled disappeared, his dark eyes flashing as he pressed the tip of his finger into Rourke’s soaked chest. “Naught will be right until the prophecy unfolds. It will unfold, Pup, and it will involve ye whether ye like it or not.” He flashed Rourke a smile of such certainty that the hairs rose on Rourke’s sodden flesh. “Now release me so that I may return to the business at hand.” He patted Rourke’s chest. “Do not look so grim, lad. Ye’ve been waiting for this all your life, whether you know it or not. You’ve been waiting for me to find Brenna Cameron.”
Castle Stour, Northeast Scotland 2012
A fine tension ran the length of Brenna Cameron’s spine as the tour guide’s thickly brogued voice echoed off the dungeon walls. Electric lights in the shape of medieval torches lined the dank space, illuminating display cases of gleaming swords and lances. Tourists—nearly two dozen of them—milled about, studying the weapons that infused the low, dreary room with an air of ancient menace.
Brenna shoved her hands into her jacket pockets as she wandered among the families and traveling couples, pretending an interest she didn’t feel even as she attempted to blend in. She couldn’t afford for anyone to guess the real reason she was here. Not yet. Not until she found him.
“Imagine these kitchens as they would ha’ looked in the sixteenth century, before the fire, before this space became the castle’s dungeons.” The guide motioned dramatically, his bald head bobbing with each word. “Imagine the tables fillin’ every bit o’ space. The hen wife pluckin’ the fowl, the turnbrochie turning the roasting spit over the fireplace. Pots and cauldrons a-steamin’ and a-bubblin’ with stews and broths.”
As an assistant restaurant manager, the thought of these ancient kitchens in all their medieval glory intrigued her, but only fleetingly. She had far too much on her mind to enjoy being the tourist. Instead, her fingers closed around the roll of peppermint Life Savers in her pocket and she pulled one out and popped it in her mouth with not-quite-steady hands.
Aunt Janie had whisked her out of Scotland when she was five, then died when she was ten, leaving her with nothing but the sapphire pendant around her neck and the title of the man responsible for their flight—the Earl of Slains. He lived here somewhere, in some part of this partially restored castle. And she wasn’t leaving until she found him and confronted him about what he knew.
On her deathbed Janie had made Brenna promise to return to Scotland for her twenty-fifth birthday. Unfortunately, Brenna didn’t remember the name of the town or village where she’d been born. She remembered almost nothing from those early years. The earl was her only clue.
The guide motioned the group to follow, then started for the far corner, away from the stairs. Brenna sighed, her patience stretching thin. She needed to find the earl, or at least identify the way into his private living quarters. That wasn’t likely to happen down here in the old kitchens-turned-dungeon.
She’d managed to contact the earl from home, but his swift, emphatic response had startled her. Stay away. If he’d claimed no knowledge of her, or simply not replied at all, she might have let it go. The last thing she wanted to do was reopen the emotional wounds she’d lived with after Janie died, especially when no one would likely know…or care…if she failed to fulfill her promise to her dying aunt. But the earl’s warning her away had her determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. Was she due an inheritance he didn’t want to part with? Was her arrival likely to be an embarrassment in some way?
Well, too bad. He’d upended her life all those years ago and she wanted to know how…and why. Who was she? Why had Janie whisked her out of Scotland? And most importantly, what had happened to the father who’d loved her?
Once the group gathered, the guide continued his speech. “During the excavation of these kitchens, an amazin’ discovery was made in this pantry.” He led them to a small alcove in the far back corner, reached in, and pulled a light cord. “A hidden door that opens onto a passage out to the cliffs.”
The guide ducked into the low-ceilinged pantry and motioned those closest to follow. Brenna was caught by the surge and pulled deep inside the small space.
“The door dates from the original construction over four hundred years ago,” the man continued. “The first Earl of Slains conquered the castle soon after it was built, but apparently never learned of the secret entrance. During the mid-1600s, the kitchens were moved to the outer ranges and this space turned into a prison. In 1687, during the time of the third earl, the castle caught fire and a fortune in weapons went up in flames—weapons hidden here during the Covenanting Wars. Had the earl and his people known of this passage, the weapons would surely have been moved to safety.”
Brenna glanced toward the door she’d entered through, longing to slip back out and escape the press of people. And the tour. While she languished in his dungeons on this never-ending tour, the earl was probably driving off in his chauffeur-driven Bentley for parts unknown.
“How did the castle burn?” a young Brit asked, an intricate tattoo covering the entirety of his neck.
“‘Tis said a pirate and his lady attacked the third earl and set his castle aflame.”
The young man laughed. “Did they best him?”
“Och, aye, though he was not greatly missed. A bad one, the earl was.” The guide ran his hand over one of the shelves. “Can ye see the hidden door?”
No sooner had he uttered the words than the wall behind him swung inward, causing one of the attached shelves to hit him in the shoulder. A small girl of six or seven poked her head through the opening. Short, red hair framed a gamine face liberally sprinkled with freckles.
The guide clutched his chest overdramatically. “Ah, Lintie, lass. Ye stole ten years from my life, ye did.”
The girl giggled. “The earl’s using the observe-tory. You canna be coming in.” With that, she closed the door.
Brenna’s heart stopped beating for an instant before taking off like a flock of doves. She’d found him.
The guide let an expletive escape under his breath. “The one time I don’t want him to be around.” He shrugged. “That was the earl’s granddaughter. Apparently he’s chosen to use the cave this morn. I’ll not be able to show you the tunnel.”
A chorus of disappointed murmurs filled the small space as the guide motioned them out of the pantry. Brenna hung back, taking off her jacket in a sudden flush of nervous heat. As the tourists filed out of the pantry, Brenna grabbed one of the shelves, swung the hidden door open, and slipped through, closing it behind her. With her heart pounding, her breath trapped in her lungs, Brenna stood still as concrete, waiting for someone to reach through and snatch her back.
But the only movement she heard was the soft patter of small, bare feet racing away down the long, primitive tunnel that wound through the rock. As her pounding heart slowly settled into a swift beat, Brenna took a deep, unsteady breath, filling her nose with the musty smell of damp stone, and pushed away from the wall. Stepping lightly, silently, over the uneven rock, her scalp dampened with sweat at the prospect of confronting the earl. But she wanted to know, dammit. She needed to know why she’d been abandoned.
Her father had loved her. She was sure of it. Her fingers reached for the comfort of the sapphire at her throat as the only memory left to her of those early years brushed across her mind. He’d held her in strong arms, tight against his chest, as the winds of a brewing storm whipped her straight, auburn hair in a frenzy around her face. As she’d laughed at the feel of it, his answering laughter had rumbled in his chest, filling her with joy. Lifting her high, he’d twirled her once, grinning at her with pure adoration. Then the rain had started and he’d tucked her against his chest, shielding her as he’d run for cover. Keeping her safe.
Deep in her heart, she knew he’d loved her. So why had he let Janie take her away? Why hadn’t he come when she’d needed him?
He would have, if he’d been able. Looking at it with the wisdom of an adult instead of the hurt of an abandoned child, she knew that now. And the fact that he hadn’t come had something to do with the Earl of Slains.
Voices carried to her from deep in the tunnel, one male, elderly, and angry. Rounding the final corner, she saw him. Her heart skipped a beat as she stared at his bent shape standing in silhouette against the upside-down Hershey’s Kiss shape of the cave’s mouth, the freckled girl, Lintie, standing before him.
“How many times have I told you to stay away from the tourists? If I catch you again, I will take my cane to your backside, lassie!”
Lintie darted away from him, out where raindrops bounced on a small patch of rock that extended beyond the cave’s mouth like a porch. The child climbed onto the rusted iron railing that encircled the ledge, then throwing her grandfather a mulish expression, jumped, disappearing over the edge.
Brenna gasped, her heart in her throat, and ran for the rail.
“Who are you?” the elderly man demanded as she brushed past him.
“The girl . . .” She’d seen the treacherous cliffs and jagged rocks as she’d driven the coast road. The child couldn’t possibly have survived such a fall. But as Brenna lunged for the railing, she heard the unmistakable sound of little girl laughter, and the tightness eased from her chest.
Peering over, she found the child sitting on an outcropping of rock, her face tilted up, her mouth open, catching raindrops. Behind her, the rock slid off into a crude, precarious path amongst the sharp, knifepoint turns and crevices of the cliff face.
The secret cave had a secret path.
“Who are you?” the elderly man demanded again.
Brenna turned to face the distinguished-looking white-haired gentleman. The earl. He had to be. Lifting her chin and squaring her shoulders, she met his hard gaze.
“You’re the Earl of Slains.”
“I am. And you’re trespassing.”
“I have a reason.” Brenna strode out of the rain and back into the cave as the man moved toward her, the clip of cane on stone echoing over the rock. “You had something to do with my being sent to America as a child. I want to know what.”
He peered at her suspiciously. “And who would you be, then?”
She hesitated, watching him carefully. “I’m Brenna Cameron.”
The earl’s eyes widened. His cane clattered to the floor as the color drained from his face.
My God. Had she somehow inherited his castle out from under him?
Pale face flooding red, the elderly earl took a menacing step toward her. “Out!” His voice cracked with the effort of shouting. He stumbled forward and picked up his cane, then brandished it at her. “Get her out of here!”
Too late, she saw the angry-faced guide rushing toward her from the tunnel. She swung her gaze back to the earl, holding her ground.
“You owe me an explanation.” But the guide grabbed her by the arm and roughly yanked her away. Brenna struggled against his hold, shouting over her shoulder, “Tell me what you know!”
The earl’s hoarse voice followed her as the guide hauled her away. “You burned this castle three hundred years ago, Brenna Cameron. You’ll not do it again!”
Brenna stared at him. “I what?”
But the guide had his orders, and within minutes she found herself standing in the rain, on the wrong side of the castle’s thick doors. Dammit.
Brenna was still debating her next move as she prepared for bed that evening, pulling on her Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt and flannel sleep pants with the curly tailed monkeys. With a yawn, she climbed under the soft, down comforter and lay in the semidarkness, tracing the cool silver that encircled the sapphire at her throat until she slowly drifted to sleep.
In her dream she was little again, held tight in her father’s arms.
She heard his voice as if from afar. Then suddenly he was gone and she was alone. Terror welled up, threatening to choke her.
Far off, enveloped in mist, she glimpsed him again and started toward him, the pounding of her bare feet on the uneven ground echoing the thudding of her heart. He waited for her, tall and strong, smiling at her with boundless love. But as she reached for him, the mists swirled around him, stealing him away.
“Brenna!” The voice echoed as if nearby.
Brenna opened her heavy lids and blinked sleepily. The light from a streetlamp cast shadows in the empty room. She’d been dreaming. Closing her eyes, she snuggled under the covers, and drifted back to sleep as the silver grew warm against her throat.
As the sapphire began to glow.
End of Excerpt
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