A Highlander’s Heart and Soul Novel – Book One
She took his heart. Will she take his name?
A mercenary with a conscience, Alexander MacCoinnich fights for those he deems worthy of his skills and able to pay his price. His services sometimes provoke accusations of rebel and traitor and take him across countries and kingdoms. With no home of his own, this life suits him. At least… until now. Now Alexander must choose: remain a soldier for hire or retire his warring ways to save the woman who risked everything to save him.
Catriona Neal has been the lady of Clan Neal’s keep since her mother’s dying request left her striving to keep a promise. The promise she gave to shield the clan from the cruel ways of her father the chieftain. Over the years, aided by her father’s failing health, Catriona manipulated her sire’s commands for the good of all. She’s been faithful to the oath she gave her mother. But that oath came with great sacrifice. Catriona can never marry. No man would accept a life with her since she can never escape her self-imposed prison—not even when her father dies. The next chieftain, her brother, is so sadistic that the vile deeds of her father pale in comparison. Somehow, she must continue protecting her clan.
Alexander could be the answer to Catriona’s prayers, or the brutal end to all she’s promised to protect. Catriona must decide—will she risk the wrath of the king and abandon her clan for love or deny her heart and forever mourn what might have been?
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Tor Ruadh - Clan Neal’s keep
Ben Nevis - Scotland
“Ye tied these laces tight enough, I give ye that.” Gaersa yanked at the leather strips snugging the fur shaft of the boot around Catriona’s calves. The old woman bent lower, scowling at the knots as she plucked at them with her thick, crooked fingers.
Catriona Neal clenched her fists in her lap to keep from brushing Gaersa’s stiff, knobby hands out of the way and untying the boots herself. Stubborn Gaersa Aberfeldy, housekeeper to Clan Neal as far back as Catriona could remember. She reckoned the old woman would best the task in her own time. 'Twould hurt the housekeeper’s feelings o’er much if Catriona took the job from her.
I’ll ne’er be free of these boots.
Catriona forced herself not to fidget. If she moved, Gaersa would try to hurry then fumble at the chore all the longer. The door to the turret room burst open and banged against the wall, startling all thoughts of footwear out of her mind.
Gaersa yanked the boot off Catriona’s foot and threw it at the red-faced young lad hopping in place in the doorway. “Sawny Fitzgerald, I’ll box your ears for ye, I will! Gave us such a fright, ye did. What do ye mean blowing into a room like that?”
“Hunters,” Sawny said between huffing gasps. Eyes wide and hands held high with fingers outspread, he skittered back and forth like a wee scarecrow caught in a strong wind. He swallowed hard, sucked in a great gulp of air, then blew it out. “Hunters are back and…” he paused to draw another deep breath.
“And what?” Catriona prompted. If the boy had just startled the life out of them to tell her the hunters were back and they’d managed to find meat, she’d box his ears herself.
“Men!” Sawny dragged the back of his hand across his mouth then thumped it to the center of his narrow chest. He leaned forward, bobbing his shaggy head in such an excited jerking nod 'twas small wonder that he didn’t snap his spindly neck. “They found men. Near dead they are.”
Sweet Jesu, now what?
Catriona yanked off her other boot and shoved both feet into the everyday shoes she’d left in the turret room before going outside to walk the path atop the skirting wall. “How many?” She rose from the bench and shook her heavy woolen skirts down into place.
“Two, mistress.” Sawny grew more animated as he fidgeted in the doorway. He edged his way back out into the hallway, waving for Catriona to follow. “But Mr. Murtagh says there be more still out there in the snow. He said to fetch ye with great haste.”
“More?” Catriona shooed the boy forward, hurrying down the hall beside him. “Are ye telling me they left some out there to die in the cold?” She knew Murtagh was no lover of his fellow man but he wasna heartless.
Sawny’s blue eyes rounded even wider. He gave a dismissive shrug as he scurried along beside her. “I’m only saying what Mr. Murtagh said say to ye, mistress.” He scuttled and hopped, struggling to keep up with Catriona’s long-legged stride. “I be begging your pardon if it offends ye, mistress, but I swear on me mam’s grave that’s what he said say.”
Catriona bit back her words to keep from quashing the young boy further. It wasn’t the lad’s fault. He was naught but twelve years old and small for his age. A child. He adored Murtagh Aberfeldy and shadowed the stable master’s every step when he wasn’t tending to his duties as a kitchen boy helping Cook. “I thank ye for fetching me. Now hie back to the kitchen. I’m sure Cook will be looking for ye to help with the evening meal.”
The lad’s shoulders sagged, and his round face fell as they hurried down the last winding curve of stairs leading to the main floor of the keep. It was quite plain to see that Sawny would much rather return to Murtagh than see to his responsibilities. His forlorn expression pulled at Catriona’s heart. She set a hand on his shoulder and paused their descent down the winding stairwell. “If your sister Jenny can do your share in the kitchens, just this once, ye may come and help Murtagh rather than help Cook.”
Sawny’s little mouth twisted to one side. His pitiful look shifted to one of guilt. “I dinna ken if Jenny will do my share as well as hers for Cook. She’s still a bit red-arsed about…” Sawny’s words trailed off and the lad seemed quite unable to look Catriona in the eye. After a deep breath, he peered up at her through his shaggy fringe of unkempt hair and drew his shoulders into a cringing shrug. “I dinna think she’ll help me.”
“What did ye do to Jenny?” Catriona had four brothers. She was well acquainted with young boys' antics.
“Me and Tom caught a rat and put it in Jenny’s room.” Sawny shifted sideways with a guilty twitch. “But it was mostly Tom’s idea.” Sawny drew closer and lowered his voice to a secretive tone. “I think he likes Jenny.”
Catriona rolled her eyes and shook her head. Males. “If ye canna find a way to make things right with Jenny so she’ll do your chores, then ye canna come and help Murtagh, ye ken?”
“Aye,” Sawny said in a dejected tone as he plodded down the remaining steps. By the time he’d reached the main landing, determination squared his narrow shoulders, and he darted off toward the kitchens. Sawny was not a lad to give up on an opportunity.
Skirts fisted in both hands and held high above her steps, Catriona hurried into the heart of the keep: the clan’s meeting hall. Just inside the front entrance to the great room, closest to the tall double doors that led outside to the bailey, six of Clan Neal’s hunters and Murtagh stood clustered together. Amid the hunter’s hulking fur-wrapped forms lay two men. They had been placed across a pair of benches pulled together to keep them up out of the muck and wet snow tracked inside. The men appeared dead, so still they were and so absent of color. Murtagh turned at the sound of her approach and the rest of the hunters shuffled back a few feet.
Catriona circled the unconscious men stretched across the benches, apprising their grim condition. Sweet Jesu. Look at them. Barely drawing breath. So near dead. She looked up at Murtagh. “Sawny said there were more?”
“Aye. Found them on the northern ridge between here and Glen Coe.” Murtagh frowned down at the pair as he shrugged off the heavy fur cloak from around his shoulders and tossed it across a nearby table. Strong, healthy fires crackled in the two great hearths of the long hall, making the high-ceilinged room too warm for outdoor clothing. “Old MacAlpin’s cave. Seven of them.” He dipped his grizzled chin in a single nod toward the lifeless men. “These two were the worst, so we brought them here.” He locked eyes with Catriona, a grim look of finality on his face. “They’ve but one horse betwixt them all and the drifting snow be too deep for them to walk here in their condition. Might survive another few days. A fortnight at best. They’ve no food or water. Ill prepared, they are.”
“Gather additional men and whatever ye need to fetch the rest. We’ll no' be leaving anyone to suffer and die.” Peering under the bloodied plaid wrapped around the man on the left, Catriona cringed. Gunshot wounds. Cuts. Deep slashes in dire need of stitching. She pressed the back of her hand to the side of his neck. Fever. The man burned hot to the touch even after traveling in the frigid weather. She checked the second man. He was overly warm, too.
“Storm’s a coming,” Murtagh said, as he retrieved his fur cloak and the gloves he’d tossed on the table beside it.
Catriona knew Murtagh wasn’t arguing with her request. He was merely stating a fact. She looked up at him and nodded. “Aye, I saw the clouds to the north of us. Ye’d best hurry.” She turned to the hunters still hovering close by. “We canna leave those others to die. Think how ye would feel if it were your own kin lost in this weather.” She stood taller and lifted her chin. “A storm doesna exist that a Neal hunter canna best. I ken ye will all be safe enough, aye?”
The biggest and burliest of the group, Ranald, stepped forward. “Aye, mistress. We’ll get them all fetched afore the storm hits. Ne'er ye fret.” He turned and glared at the other men still skulking back in the shadows beneath the gallery running the circumference of the great room. “Ye heard Mistress Catriona. Each of ye fetch an additional man and be quick about it. Extra supplies as well in case the storm delays us.”
“And rig up some sledges. Five of them,” Murtagh said. “I willna be taking extra horses just to risk losing them in the pass.” He turned back to Catriona, scowling at her with a pained expression. After a stolen glance at the hunters scattering to gather supplies, he leaned in close and lowered his voice. “Ye will light a candle and say the words for us, aye? As your mother always did?”
“Aye.” Of course she’d light a candle and say the words. She just wished she’d inherited her mother’s talents when it came to the mysteries and influencing the way of things. She’d yet to see any results from uttering words, lighting candles, or burning bundles of herbs.
No time to mourn lost abilities now. Catriona motioned forward the ever-growing cluster of servants peeping into the room through multiple arched doorways lining the great hall. “Come. The lot of ye. We’ve work to do. Our healing room will be here in the hall.”
Gaersa emerged from the turret stairwell, her face round and shining with sweat and her plump arms pumping at her sides. She waddled as fast and furious as her matronly form would allow. With a swipe of her fingers across her forehead, she tucked in the strands of gray hair escaping out from under the ruffles of her white cap. After a deep intake of air, she clapped her hands and barked out her orders. “Blankets. Linens. Hot water and basins. In front of the hearths. Off with ye now!”
Servants mobilized. White-capped maids scurried to fetch the required items and scullery lads rushed to pull the long dinner tables and benches out of the way.
Catriona gazed down at the two wounded men, concern, compassion, and indecision fighting for supremacy within her. Who in God’s name did this to ye? And will they follow ye and do the same to us?