The Ghost – Book 6 – Highland Heroes
While searching for his son, he finds something he never expected: a woman to love.
If only she didn’t hate him…
Clan MacCoinnich is the only family Magnus de Gray has ever known. But when a message catches up with him five years too late, he discovers he has more family than he thought. He has a son. But the dear lady who gave him this gift died while bringing the wee one into the world. Magnus isn’t about to abandon his child—not the way his father abandoned him. He’s determined to find the boy and bring him home to Clan MacCoinnich.
Brenna Maxwell loved her sister Bree with all her heart, but if she could reach beyond the grave, she would shake her until her teeth rattled. All Brenna ever wanted was to be a healer and even convinced her cruel father to let her leave the keep for training. She returned to find her unmarried sister pregnant and both of them banished from the clan. While on the run, her sister died bringing the babe into the world, leaving Brenna with the precious child to love and protect.
She spent years hating this man she had never met. The selfish womanizer responsible for her sister’s death and more pain and suffering than she could bear to think about. But then he saved her life. And he’s kind. And it turns out he’s not a womanizer at all, but a quiet warrior who struggles to say what he really means. He’s just a man who wants to take care of his son and make up for the past.
How can she hate a man like that? A man determined to make her love him?
*If you love romantic page-turners about alpha male Highlanders and the strong, fiery women they fight to win, then you’ll love this final installment in the Highland Heroes series from bestselling author Maeve Greyson.
“I dinna like it either, ye ken? I know I said it before, but it bears sayin’ again. When Mama says go, I must go. And might be, she’s even right this time. Usually is. Besides, I didna see ye stepping forward to tell her nay.”
Magnus de Gray cut a dark look over at the entirely too talkative fifteen-year-old. Ever since leaving Tor Ruadh, he had managed civil responses to the youngling’s endless chatter. He had been curt with the boy, but civil.
But Hell’s fire and all its demons, the days had been long. This leg of the journey should have been quiet. Time to reflect on what lay ahead. As it was, the only silence to be had was when the lad slept. It ended today. Magnus had tolerated all he could stand. “Evander! Shut it, aye?”
Evander Cameron, the eldest of Ian Cameron’s adopted sons, shrugged away the scolding, then urged his horse into the lead. He obviously didn’t give a rat’s furry arse about the seriousness of this trip, nor the obvious insult his mother, Gretna, had dealt to them both before they left the keep. The woman had shamed them in front of half the clan, swearing the two of them needed a lesson in the proper treatment of females and that perhaps working together to find Magnus’s newly discovered illegitimate son might teach them how actions always had consequences. How dare she say such a thing. In front of the clan too. And damned if Alexander, the chieftain, hadn't agreed!
His guilt about the situation already weighed heavier than his enormous warhorse. Remorse for leaving the Lady Bree Maxwell alone and pregnant pricked his conscience just as great as if he had knowingly deserted the woman. Which he hadn’t. Or at least, he hadn’t meant to leave her in such a state. She hadn’t told him she carried his child.
And how had she gotten with the babe so easily? ’Twas but a single encounter. He had known at the time it was a foolhardy move, but the lovely lass had made it impossible to refuse. Her father’s edict for her to marry a cruel man forced her to seek release from the betrothal by the most defiant way she knew. If she couldn’t marry for love, she would at least lose her virginity to friendship. The Lady Bree had hoped her deflowered state would free her from the despicable union, even if it meant imprisonment in a nunnery. She had been so desperate—and oh, so enticing. Especially after she plied him with her father’s best whisky. And when he told her he didn’t love her, she had laughed! Said it didn’t matter. And now, even without that fickle emotion, look where his actions had landed him.
“Ye ken this wouldha been much easier if they had put where they were in that letter,” Evander called back over his shoulder.
“The thing was faded, torn, and looked to have taken a good soaking. Some of the script washed away.” Magnus still couldn’t believe the missive had survived over five years before it found him.
“What was their clan’s name again?” Evander asked. “Should we not have seen their keep by now? There’s a village up ahead. See the white of the buildings against the blue of the sea? Is that not Inbhir Theòrsa? Ye said Inbhir Theòrsa was the last settlement before we reached the water’s edge. Ye said if we made it there afore we found the keep, we had somehow missed the place and gone too far.”
“I am well aware of what I said,” Magnus snapped. As much as he hated to admit it, the boy was right. They should’ve reached the keep by now. How had they not?
Oblivious to his elder’s sharp tone, Evander tilted his head and squinted up at the brilliance of the sunny sky. “Hear those birds a keenin’? Is that what terns sound like?”
“Aye. Those are terns.” Magnus frowned as he turned his mount and scanned the landscape behind them. An eerie uneasiness stirred deep in his bones. “Their clan name is Nithdane,” he added, more to keep the boy from repeating his original question, and hopefully, delay him in coming up with any new ones. He needed silence to study the area. Something was sorely amiss.
“But I thought ye said her name was Lady Bree Maxwell?”
Dammit, would the boy never stop his chatter? “Aye, I said that because it was her name. Her fool of a father refused to share his surname with any of his daughters. Said only a son deserved the right to carry the clan name. The name Maxwell belonged to her mother.” With a slow steady pull on the reins, he turned his mount further, sweeping the landscape for clues.
“Ye said the keep was well before the village, aye? Said a good distance separated them but they were still within view of each other?”
Ignoring Evander, Magnus urged his horse off the dirt path and backtracked. In the distance loomed an overgrown mound of charred stones he didn’t remember. He headed for it at a dead gallop. An ominous sense of doom churned in the pit of his stomach.
Once he reached the ruin, he pulled up short. What once had been tall, imposing walls were now crumbling piles of rubble bleached white as old bones. A dark greening of moss stained the debris closest to the ground. Bits of charred wood and twisted remnants of rusting metal peeped out from clumps of sedge and thickets of nettle. Someone had reduced Nithdane Keep to nothing more than a memory.
“Is this…or was this it?” Evander asked, reining in beside him. The lad dismounted and poked around the tumbled down shell of what had once been a decent-sized keep. Not a massive fortress, but large enough to make a small clan like Nithdane proud. When the lad came upon a rotting post with a skull at its base, he backed away, crossing himself with every step. “What do ye reckon happened here?”
“Back to yer horse.” Magnus refused to dismount and disturb Nithdane’s ghosts. He turned his beast toward the settlement, eying the peaceful stretch of white buildings rimming the bay and the fishing boats bobbing alongside the docks. “Hie wi’ ye now,” he said. “I’m sure someone from the village can tell us what happened.” He snorted out a bitter huff as he waited for Evander. The place reeked with the stench of betrayal.
More likely than not, it wouldn’t be difficult to discover what Nithdane’s ruins refused to share. People loved retelling tales of carnage, suffering and death. That was but one of the many reasons Magnus preferred solitude with no one other than his falcon, Merlin, for company. Regrettably, he had left the bird back at Tor Ruadh in the care of Evander’s brothers since he had no idea what this trip might entail.
For the first time since leaving the keep, the boy did as he was asked without comment. They rode along in blessed silence. For that, Magnus was grateful. At least for a while. After tolerating Evander’s constant chatter for days, the heavy blanket of quiet between them now was not only suffocating but filled Magnus with guilt for snarling at the lad. This hellish trip wasn’t the youngling’s fault. He clenched his teeth so hard it was a wonder they didn’t shatter. By the gods, he would do better by this inquisitive young pup. The last thing he needed in this life was something more to regret.
When they rode into Inbhir Theòrsa, the first thing Magnus noticed was that the folk of the small fishing hamlet seemed leery—almost fearful, in fact. He didn’t remember them behaving like that the last time he had been there. The men in front of the buildings turned away, avoiding his gaze. Most either sought shelter inside or hurried down toward the docks. Fisherwomen sewing nets and weaving baskets dropped their work, crossed themselves, then rushed into their dwellings and shuttered the doors and windows.
“What did ye do the last time ye were here?” Evander spoke in a hushed tone. “These folk act like ye’re death’s own angel come to steal their souls.” He bobbed his head from side to side when Magnus didn’t answer. “’Course, with that white hair of yers. And them black clothes. Black horse, too. I canna say as I blame them.” Squinting one eye shut, he studied Magnus, then nodded. “Aye, I can see it. All ye need is horns, black wings and a pointy tail.”
“Ye are not helping, boy.”
“The public house used to be down that way and to the right. We’ll try there.” Magnus urged his horse to a faster clip. Not only did the hairs on the back of his neck stand straight on end, but the scar between his shoulder blades tingled. A sure sign they needed to leave this place as quick as they found the information they sought. This village possessed a darkness he didn’t like.
“Stay with the horses,” Magnus said. The shutters for the windows on either side of the pub’s bright red door banged shut. That hadn’t happened the last time he was here, unless a storm was about to hit. A louder thud hit the inside of the door, the sound of the bar being dropped across the threshold.
“Pub’s closed!” shouted a voice from inside.
“In the middle of the day?” Evander taunted. “Are ye that afeared of the mighty Magnus de Gray?”
Magnus shot the boy a threatening look that surprisingly shut the lad’s mouth. He made a note to remember that for future reference. Stepping closer to the door, he caught sight of a watery eye peering at him through a knothole. “Tell me what I seek, and the boy and I will leave.”
“I got nothing to say to the likes of ye. Be gone now. I done spread salt across the threshold and mewife’s got a vial of holy water what came all the way from Inverness.” The bloodshot eye blinked.
“What happened at Nithdane Keep?” Magnus widened his stance and fixed the eye with his grimmest stare. “What became of Lady Bree Maxwell’s child?”
The window to his left creaked and the barrel of a gun slid through the crack between the shutters. “Get out of here, ye devil. Ye’ve stirred all the evil here ye’re gonna stir. We willna bear no more from ye! Be gone or we’ll see if ye bleed like the rest of us.”
“Dinna shoot him,” screeched a higher-pitched voice, a woman from somewhere inside. “He’ll curse ye like he did Nithdane and the Maxwell women.”
It was times like this that Magnus wished his mother had never instilled within him the belief that whatsoever you send out returns to you in thrice. Her warning had stayed his hand many a time—but not this one.
“Tell me what happened to Nithdane Keep and Lady Bree’s child or I’ll curse the lot of ye to a slow death from the pox!” He added a thunderous stream of Latin to the threat, wondering if anyone within earshot understood the wicked sounding words. His Latin was a mite rusty. If he remembered rightly, he had just threatened to awaken a dragon and feed their ships to it, but he wasn’t sure. Wouldn’t it be grand if he really could?
Apparently, Evander’s education included Latin. His snicker changed to a coughing fit when Magnus jerked around and shot him a dark glare. If that boy ruined this ruse, he’d thrash his talkative arse for him.
To ensure the weapon’s bearer heeded the woman’s warning and didn’t shoot, Magnus scooped up a clump of dirt and jammed it in the end of the barrel. “Now that yer weapon’s fouled, ye best speak or die. Tell me of the keep and Lady Bree.”
The gun slid out of view, but the crack between the shutters remained, held open by a thick, stubby finger. “Old Red Caunich razed the keep when his betrothed—yer precious Lady Bree cuckolded him.”
Someone spit, making Magnus tighten his jaw. How dare that bastard spit after saying Lady Bree’s name.
“His lairdship, the Caunich,” the voice continued. “Didna take kindly to such disrespect. Killed all in the keep. Burned them alive. Leastways, the ones he didna hang from the cliffs or impale on the pikes.” The voice wheezed in a deep breath, then coughed. “He hunted down many in the clan, too. Swore he wouldna leave a Nithdane alive to speak of this shame. ’Twas only by God’s good grace that he spared this here village. Right as he was coming to attack us, a powerful ague came upon him. Left his sword arm paralyzed and turned him mute. The Caunich took it as a sign he had done enough to avenge the insult, so he returned to his keep and left us in peace.”
Magnus scrubbed the stubble of his jaw, mulling over the man’s words. The letter that had finally caught up with him at Sutherland MacCoinnich’s keep had said the Lady Bree had died in childbirth. Said he had a son. When had Red Caunich attacked? “When?”
“Aye. When did all this happen?” Magnus shoved the shutters aside and reached through the open window, grabbing hold of the wide-eyed man by the throat. “When did Red Caunich destroy the Nithdanes?”
Clawing at Magnus’s arm, the pub keeper made a futile attempt to wriggle free. “’Twas when his lairdship arrived to claim his bride and found they banished her for her whoring. Her and her sister both. The Nithdane thought the banishment might appease the raging laird, but it didna do so. Old Red Caunich said it was his right to punish the Lady Bree—not her father’s. Said he wouldha cut the bairn from her belly and left’m both on the cliffs to feed the terns.”
Magnus released the man with a shove. They had banished Lady Bree. And her sister, too. He turned and glanced back toward where Nithdane Keep had once stood. The heartless banishment had saved their lives. “Where did they go? The Lady Bree and her sister?” For the life of him, he couldn’t remember the sister at all. Before the pub keeper could close the shutters, Magnus slammed them both open wide and held them. “Tell me where they went or die.”
“I dinna ken,” the man said…