“The laird summons ye.”
Coira MacDugall frowned at the waves rolling onto the beach below the cliff where she stood. Though the lad’s breathless voice disturbed her, neither his arrival nor his announcement surprised her. She’d been aware of him moments before he spoke.
It had happened again.
She schooled her features into an unreadable mask and glanced over her shoulder, intending to acknowledge the summons, but the lad was already running back toward the keep as if the devil chased after him. Her heart sank.
Today, she would finally face the judgment of her clan.
Coira inhaled the moist sea air, hoping to relieve the sudden dryness in her throat. Everything seemed strange, as though she was seeing through someone else’s eyes. Since she’d returned to MacDugall lands from the Highlands, everything looked the same—the same stone keep, the same mountains of the distant isles to the west, the same beach below her feet. But everything had changed.
What had happened to the pampered lass who had suitors falling at her feet, yet spurned them all? Where was the fury, the dismay, the fear that had led her to violence in the Lathan hall? Was she so different?
She remembered it all with perfect clarity, though numbly, as if it had happened to someone else. When the Lathan laird announced his marriage to the Healer, Coira vowed to put an end to it. But when she learned he’d ordered her sent home, her last illusion died. She had failed to make a place for herself among her own people, then failed again at the Lathan keep. She was unwanted. Unloved. Unloveable. But the blame was hers to bear.
At the wedding celebration feast, mad with her grief and anger at being set aside for the lowland Healer, she’d held a young lass before her, a knife to the bairn’s throat. She had taunted Toran Lathan, and then stabbed his new wife. Stabbing the Healer had been bad enough, but threatening a child in order to force the Healer within reach was something she would never forgive of herself. That she’d done it all over losing the laird’s affections to his new bride— affections she realized she’d never enjoyed and never would have—shamed her past enduring. Toran, had tolerated her, but never cared for her, not as a man cared for a woman he wished to take to wife.
She remembered the cold steel of his blade at her throat. He tried to stop her to protect his lady, not to kill her. The hot bite of the arms master’s blade in her side was meant to kill, but hurt no worse than those two all-important words applied to someone else, not to her.
Coira knew she would have been dead in moments, save for her victim. Later, she’d been told Aileana fought free of her husband’s grasp and dropped to Coira’s side, pausing only long enough to stanch the bleeding wound Coira had inflicted in her breast.
After all that, Coira’s only punishment had been to be sent home in disgrace. Banished, but with her life, which could easily have ended there in that hall, save for the gift of the Healer.
The gift of her life…and perhaps, more.
Coira ran a hand over the scar hidden beneath her clothing. The scar left by Donal MacNabb’s blade. In the few short weeks since the wound had been inflicted, it should have pained her, been sore, or itched. But nay, the Healer’s work left no discomfort. None in her side, at least. But in her soul?
Early glimmerings of the change within her had started on the journey home. Strange sensations raised the hair on the back of her neck but subsided as quickly as she noticed them. At first, she’d blamed them on her growing anxiety over her homecoming as she and her Lathan escort made their way carefully through Campbell lands and drew closer to the coast and MacDugall territory. She felt moods she could not claim as her own—gone as quickly as she recognized them. She’d assumed she was still in the grip of her madness, certain her own emotions plagued her, changing wildly from numbness to disgust, amusement, even satisfaction. She’d been surrounded by people on arrival, and she blamed what she felt then on exhaustion from her journey. But nay. The idea had come to her, slowly. She somehow sensed the emotions of her escort and the crowd.
The MacDugall healer had recommended a time of quiet reflection to soothe her before she rejoined the life of the clan, so she’d spent much of her time in her chamber, or walking these cliffs and down to the beach, alone, undisturbed, wrapped in the numbness that had protected her since leaving the Aerie.
She turned her face into the wind and let it blow her hair in a stream behind her. A few strands whipped around her nose and mouth in quick, irritating flicks, like the hints of emotion that she got from others. Lately, she realized she knew when someone was nearby, even if she did not see or hear them.
Nothing was the same. She was not the same person she’d been only weeks ago, but she must answer for what she’d done.
What would the MacDugall decide? To hang her from the Dule Tree, there at the edge of the woods beyond the keep, where the clan’s criminals traditionally met their fate? Her hand pressed against the smooth skin of her throat. Perhaps they would not hang her, rather merely finish the job Donal MacNabb’s blade had begun.
Nay, they would do nothing so drastic. Thankfully, her victim had not died, or death would have been her fate as well—if she’d survived Lathan blades. Without Healer Aileana’s intervention, she would not be standing here now.
Time in the dungeon, then. Or as a scullery maid. Or put to cleaning chamber pots. Or…
Where was her anger? How could she face such a future without emotion?
The sun peeked from behind tattered clouds. She shielded her eyes from the glare. Today was considered a calm day on the coast. But the wind off the water had a chilling bite along with the salty tang. Midwinter was still more than a month away, but the sea air carried nearly as much cold as the air at the higher elevation and more northerly climate of the highlands. Shivering, she gathered her shawl tightly around her shoulders. Perhaps it was more than the cold? Was it nerves or fear that had her insides quaking? Perhaps she’d finally come to her senses.
Sea birds wheeled and screeched above her. Would she hear their cries after today?
She hoped so. Something else had changed that gave her a glimmer of hope. The old laird who’d sent her to the Lathans as a prospective bride had died while she was away. He would have been outraged by her crime, but would have deemed the worst part of her betrayal her failure to secure a marriage. He had wanted an alliance to benefit the clan in its constant struggle with the Campbells.
People she overheard in the halls still spoke of the years of unrest and successive battles as factions in the clan fought for control. That strife lasted until the old laird’s nephew, a distant cousin of hers, had been named laird just a few weeks before her return. She hadn’t seen him yet, but she would today. She’d been summoned to face the consequences of her actions and accept the punishment of her clan.
Who would attend her audience with the laird? How many emotions would bombard her newfound sense with disgust, anger, and embarrassment?
It mattered not. She straightened her shoulders and regarded the stone edifice looming over her. Like it, she was proud and strong. And changed. The old Coira would have stood her ground and glared her contempt at any who dared to judge her. Her breath faltered. Would she be able to maintain her dignity? Or would she be reduced to pleading for the laird’s mercy? What would the new Coira do?
For a moment, she squeezed her eyes shut against the humiliating scene she imagined. Nay, she would bear whatever came to her. Nothing they could do to her would make up for what she had done in the Highlands. Chin lifted, she followed the path back to the gates. It was time to face her past.
After the windy cliffside, the solar’s warmth seemed oddly welcoming to Coira. Sunlight streamed through mullioned windows, and a fire glowed in the hearth. She inhaled the scents of leather, books, and peat smoke, familiar and heady after the astringent salt air.
She was alone in the chamber, which surprised her. She’d grown up in this keep and knew where to find the laird’s solar. Since no one had been sent to escort her, perhaps she had arrived more quickly than expected. But nay, the angle of the sun’s rays told her she’d arrived on time.
Instead of taking a seat at the large table dominating the room, she moved to the window. The view was little different than the one she’d regarded along the cliff and did not hold her attention now. She turned her back on it and studied the nearby bookcases.
She could read, but rarely had when she lived at home before her fostering, preferring to spend her time gossiping with the other lasses over their needlework. She pulled an especially worn volume from the nearest shelf and opened it, moving to the window to better see the lettering within. Poetry. French. But even familiar words made no sense to her. Suddenly irritated, she realized she was in no state to concentrate enough to tease out their meaning.
“Ah, Francois Villon. Do ye read his poetry, then?”
Coira’s heart skipped a beat as the deep voice broke the silence. She snapped the book shut and whirled to face the intruder. Her eyes widened as she regarded the man before her. Tall, a few years older than she, with the gold-streaked brown hair common among the clan, his external demeanor was calm, his expression and tone of voice cordial.
Although she hadn’t heard him enter the room, she realized where her irritation had come from—him. As he arrived, or certainly when he approached her closely enough to recognize the book she held, a favorite, judging by the wear on it, she felt it. Yet his irritation faded, quickly replaced by curiosity. He held out his hand.
Without thinking, she placed the book in it. Her irritation suddenly spiked. Hers? Or his?
This man was angry, but hiding it behind his deceptively simple question and polite treatment of a stranger. How much did he know about her?
“Are…are ye laird…” she managed to stutter.
“Logen MacDugall, aye, newly Laird MacDugall. And ye are Coira, recently returned to us from the highlands.” He turned the book over in his hand as if seeing it for the first time, then returned his gaze to her. “Ye must tell me of yer adventures there. I’m sorry I failed to welcome ye before now, but our healer wished ye to have some time to yerself.”
So his anger had not been directed at her? Her lack of understanding of this new ability frustrated her, but she dared not show it. If he was not the firebrand she expected, bent on delivering her punishment, she did not want to incite his anger further. What should she do? A flush warmed her chest and neck. “I…I thought that was why I had been summoned, laird. Because of my…misadventure there.”
A hint of sadness drifted to her, heavy and low, followed by a slight creasing of the skin between his brows, then stronger chagrin.
Logen’s lips pursed and he stepped away, behind the table. “Indeed. Please, sit down.”
“Is no one else joining us?”
“What? Nay. I wish to speak with ye without the…interference of others.”
Coira exhaled softly, tightly controlling the urge to sigh in relief. No onlookers. No one else to judge her. No storm of others’ emotions in the chamber to confuse and overwhelm her. She might get through this with her dignity intact after all. She nodded and took a seat, head down, hands clasped in her lap, and waited.
When the silence became unbearable, she looked up again. Laird MacDugall, Logen, watched her. A chill ran down her back, but she held his brown-eyed gaze, suddenly emboldened by his hesitation.
“Ye ken this is an unusual…”
“I understand this is unusual…”
They spoke over each other. Logen’s lips lifted slightly, and Coira nodded in acknowledgement of the awkwardness. “How much did my escort tell ye?”
Logen sat and placed the book on the table in front of him. “Enough.”
Suddenly he seemed cold, closed off from her.
Coira blanched. Enough…for what?
Logen’s gaze drifted to the window where the sun hid behind puffy clouds. His unreadable expression gave her no clues as to what he was thinking—or feeling.
Though her strange new talent worried her, the loss of its insight frightened her. Waiting for his judgment set her teeth on edge. Coira fought the urge to cross her arms over her chest.
Suddenly, a ray of sunshine brightened the room. Logen turned to her and nodded. “The Lathan, on the advice of his lady, excused yer actions due to the illness ye suffered while ye fostered with them, and hoped returning to the sea air would make ye well.”
“What?” Confusion swept over her, stealing her breath and forcing her to her feet. Suddenly, she was back in the Lathan great hall, watching as Toran, Laird Lathan and his new bride, the Healer Aileana, approached her. She could feel the trembling child beneath her arm, the dirk in her other hand. And see Donal MacNabb’s steely glare focused right between her eyes. Her own feelings were still missing. Numb. Even the memory of plunging the dirk into the Healer’s chest and the fire of Donal MacNabb’s blade as it pierced her side failed to arouse any of the fury that had been a howling, raging beast within her that night. It was as if everything had happened to someone else. Not to her.
“Are ye well, Coira MacDugall? I was told the Lathan Healer treated ye.”
“I…” Coira’s knees went weak, and she lowered herself into her seat as another memory claimed her attention. Dimly, as if viewed through morning fog, she saw Aileana leaning over her where she’d collapsed on the rush-strewn floor. A blood-soaked cloth covered the wound Coira had inflicted on the Healer, but her hands moved over Coira’s dying body with strength and…what? She felt the warmth of the blood welling from her own wound as Donal’s blade was drawn from her side. Then it all faded away, except she could almost hear Aileana speaking to her, like an echo from distant hills. Faint, but repeating. What had the Healer said to her? What had she done?
“Must I be concerned for yer future well-being? Or that of the clan?”
Logen’s voice yanked her back to the present, shocking her, like cold water to her face. “What?” It took a second to recall what he’d said. “Nay!”
“Then ye are well?”
She took a breath. Where was her anger? Had the Healer stolen her emotions, only to give her an awareness of the emotions of others? “I…believe so, Laird MacDugall.”
“Yet yer escort recommended ye be watched. So ye have been observed since ye returned to us. There havena been any reports of strange maladies in the clan. Ye have remained compliant with the Healer’s instruction for rest and contemplation. For that reason, I willna set upon ye the penalty my advisors recommend.”
Penalty? Coira’s heart pounded its distress at hearing the word, though she’d expected nothing less. What penalty? What did they know, or think she’d done? Logen gave her no chance to ask.
“Instead, ye will rejoin the clan. But ye must make yer own way back into their trust.”
No punishment? Had she understood him correctly? If he knew what she’d done, how could he think she deserved a reprieve? “Is that possible?”
“I fear I am not the best person to ask, being newly made laird. I am not entirely in the clan’s favor either.”
The change in subject confused her. She shook her head. “Out of favor? How can that be?”
Logen shrugged. “I am the remainder of several candidates whose factions, in essence, eliminated each of them from contention. That left me most favored long enough to be elected laird.”
Was that a whiff of fear she detected? Or resignation? Did he expect to meet the same fate, sooner or later? And what would happen to her if he became some faction’s next victim? Would that leave someone in power who would deal more harshly with her? What penalty had his advisors recommended?
Coira gave in to the urge to cross her arms over her chest. What sort of mess had she returned to? And what would be the clan’s reaction when they learned their laird had decided not to punish her? Did he have allies, or was he as alone here as she? Was he truly strong enough to defy his advisors or was he using her to test them? Would they take it upon themselves to retaliate for the wrongs she’d done to the Lathans and to the clan’s reputation? Her stomach roiled as her mind ran through the possibilities.
She’d expected to be punished. What was she supposed to do now?
Logen tensed as he stared down the table in his solar at the latest of his advisors to decry his decision not to punish Coira. Based on the few hints her escort had let slip about events in the highlands, rumors had been swirling since she arrived, growing wilder and more dire with each passing day. It troubled Logen that the escort was clearly under orders not to reveal everything they knew. But the message from the Lathan laird had been specific in its forgiveness of whatever had happened. Since the Lathan did not demand consequences, Logen had no reason to impose any, and he certainly would not do so based on rumor.
If only he knew what had happened that required such…circumspection…or was it compassion…from the highland clan.
But he was right, whether these ruffians could see it or not. Forcing Coira to make her own way was harsher punishment than lashes or time spent in the dungeon could be, no matter how well deserved—or undeserved—they might be. She would find regaining the clan’s trust hard going, but nothing worthwhile was ever easy. She would succeed or fail on her own terms. Much as he would do.
“The Lathan only wished the sea air would restore her. Did that sound like a man, or a clan, bent on revenge?”
“So ye mean to allow her to walk among us, unguarded, unsupervised, as though nothin’ happened?” Rannulf would not let this go.
“Aye,” Logen repeated for at least the sixth time. “Unguarded, but no’ unobserved. Every eye in the clan will be upon her, and she kens it well. Ye must give her the chance to prove herself—”
“We mustna do any such thing,” old Eric interjected in his crackly voice. “She’s been among wild highlanders these last two years, where the auld laird sent her against our advice. They sent her back to recuperate from…what? Some strange ailment that requires isolation and rest? She could be a danger to the other lasses, the bairns.”
Logen fought down the irritation this discussion was causing him. If he was to convince these fools, he must remain calm, his tone reasonable. “She isna. The healer has approved her. She’s hale, a great deal more than ye. So watch her all ye like. She will again become a useful member of this clan, and ye’ll no’ be able to deny her.”
“And what makes ye so certain of that? Are ye hankerin’ for a lass, then. One new to ye? Do ye think by going easy on her, she’ll lift her skirts for ye in thanks?”
Logen snorted his disgust, then leaned forward and pinned Rannulf with a glare. “I dinna think any such thing. And if ye were thinking, ye’d realize I havena gone easy on her.” He emphasized his point by tapping the table between them with his index finger, when in truth, he’d rather use the pommel of his sword. “The clan wouldha’ accepted any punishment the Lathans demanded. They didna. The Lathan wished her well, for God’s sake. But to satisfy the concerns of a few, what she must do now is much harder. She will spend as long as it takes making amends to every member of this clan for any discord she may have caused.” As the rude chuckle erupted around the room, Logen slammed his fist onto the table. “If one hair on her head is disturbed by any man whose attentions she doesna welcome, I’ll gut that man myself. We dinna treat our lasses that way.”
“She’s no longer our lass.”
Logen stood and planted both fists on the table top, looming over Rannulf. “I’m laird here, and I say she is, born and bred. We are her family and it’s up to us to help her.”
“Who’s helpin’ the Lathans she harmed?”
“If she harmed any of them, and we havena any proof she did, they’ve been cared for and are no’ of concern to us. Coira is.”
Hugh, who’d kept silent up to now, leaned forward. “As laird, ye say she is again one of us. Let yer actions speak, then. Make her yer charge. She’ll be yer responsibility, and her actions will reflect directly on ye.”
A chorus of aye’s echoed around the room.
Logen grimaced, but saw no way to avoid the challenge. “Aye, I will. Hear me, then. Any harm done to her is harm done to me, and willna be ignored.” He looked from one side of the table to the other, making certain he had their full attention. “Ye may consider me little more than a fisherman who was made laird by accident, but think on this. I havena survived these long years at sea by being stupid or soft. Ye’ll remember that I beat all comers in training as a lad, and years of hauling nets have only made me stronger. I’m one of the few who walked away from Flodden.” Logen paused to force down the bile that threatened to rise into his throat. Now was no time for those memories. “Our clan has been through troubles, but that time is over. Dinna think to use this lass to stir them up again.”
“Sure of yerself, are ye?” Auld Eric’s voice never wavered.
“Sure enough.” Logen walked to the door and opened it, his meaning plain. “Now that’s clear, we’re done here.”
“Aye, for now.”
He stood by the door, making eye contact with each man as they left the room. He had to appear stronger than he felt at this moment. Their challenges, based on nothing more than speculation and aimed at a lass who had harmed none of them, told him he still had a great deal of work to do to consolidate his position in the clan. His power base was too small, since most were fishermen and too often gone from the keep to back him up in a violent confrontation. This meeting had not come to blows, but his advisors had just raised the stakes. His future was now even less in his control. Coira’s actions, Coira’s acceptance, would make the difference, not only for her future here, but his.
A few of the council nodded as they passed by. A few clapped him on the shoulder before quitting the room. A few glanced quickly away. Aye, he’d keep his eye on all of them, but those last few he would watch most carefully.
Everywhere she went, Coira could feel the attention on her. Her new sense gained strength each day, making her more sensitive to the moods around her. Simple curiosity reassured her and made her feel like she might stand a chance of becoming accepted. But some people’s anger and suspicion surrounded her like a cloak of needles, pricking her skin and making her bleed from a thousand small wounds. She braved those people as long as she could, smiling and offering no insult, but she moved away from them as quickly as was polite to do so. She could tolerate individuals for a short time, but even small groups pained her. She couldn’t imagine joining the clan in the great hall for the evening meal.
But she could not hide in her chamber forever. Logen had charged her with regaining the clan’s trust and acceptance. To do that, she must find a way to prove she could be a valuable member of the clan.
As penance for her greatest heartache, she spent a part of her day in the nursery with the infants and small children. She didn’t understand how she could have threatened a child, no matter how desperate she was for Toran’s attention or angry that he was sending her away. The person she had been seemed as foreign to her as the highlands had seemed when she first arrived there. But in helping to care for the bairns, she could, in small measure, atone for the awful thing she’d done. She fervently hoped the lass had forgotten, perhaps with Aileana’s help, that horrible night.
The nursemaid, Mhairi, welcomed her help, but there was no doubt some of the mothers did not. As soon as one left, another arrived. Their tension tightened her muscles. Their irritation felt like splinters under her skin. She breathed deeply, fighting to ignore them and remain calm, even cheerful, as she helped Mhairi feed or change or play with her charges.
The littlest bairns would fret until the current mother-guardian’s irritation faded. Coira noticed the infants breathed easier at the same time she did. She wondered if babies were born with the ability to sense the moods of others around them, but lost it as they grew.
Although the effort exhausted her, she was gaining ground with some of the mothers. They no longer glared daggers at her, simply took a seat and turned their attention to their needlework or played with the older children. Coira actually enjoyed those visits.
Her greatest ally so far was a cousin, Elizabeth, who had been a childhood friend before Coira went away, and who started spending time in the nursery with her. When Elizabeth arrived, the latest mother took her leave. Elizabeth and Coira exchanged a glance, then, as the woman exited the room, Elizabeth made a face at her retreating back.
“Watch yerself, lassie,” Mhairi chided softly.
Coira bit back a smile as Elizabeth dropped into the chair, still rocking slightly, that the other woman just vacated.
“She didna see me,” Elizabeth retorted. “And besides, this…parade…of watchers is a waste of time. It’s not like they’re doing anything to help ye, are they?”
Mhairi shrugged. “’Tis no’ their place to do so.”
“Of course it is—these are their bairns, are they no’?”
Mhairi just smiled and Coira relaxed.
“Tell me more about what I’ve missed while I’ve been away. Everything seems to be very…unsettled.”
Mhairi snorted and turned back to playing a game with the smaller children.
Elizabeth set her chair to rocking at a faster pace. “Where to begin? Deaths at Flodden—I suppose ye heard about that?”
“Aye. Who in Scotland hasna?”
“The clan has been working its way through the auld laird’s heirs, one by one. ’Tis no’ a job with much longevity, it seems.”
Coira’s heart clenched. Logen had hinted at such, but it hurt to hear it confirmed.
“So the new laird…?”
“Had best watch his back, else he’ll end up like the others and another unlucky fool will take his place. Or the wrong man with enough minions to help him hold power.”
“When did this clan turn into a nest of vipers?”
Elizabeth gestured toward a window and the battlements beyond it. “The good men, except for those few left behind to man the walls, went to fight with the king. The lazy, wastrel, cowardly…well, if they could, they remained behind. When the good men failed to return…”
“The rest began to fight over the spoils.” Coira nodded. “And the good men left behind were outnumbered, outmaneuvered, and, eventually, outmatched.”
“Why do the troublemakers cling to a semblance of order, a laird and a council?”
Elizabeth shrugged. “Ambition, I suppose. To become the rightful laird, ye must have in place a lairdship to assume and a clan to rule. Chaos serves no master.”
Coira glanced over to where Mhairi was settling her charges down for a nap. “Thank heavens for that. Or the women and bairns would be in great danger from a mob of desperate men.”
“It may yet come to that.” Elizabeth stilled her chair. “Logen didna want the job, but cooler heads prevailed and convinced him to take it. Logen is a master on the seas and an accomplished warrior. He knows how to deal with trouble from the island clans as well as the Campbells. But there are no guarantees our troubles are over. There could still be factions that hope to remove him and replace him with one of their own. It remains to be seen whether he can hold power and become the leader this clan needs. He may no’ have enough time.”
“Who is helping him?”
“So far? A handful of fishermen and men who were his friends before this came about. The women could help, but I think most want to stay out of the men’s battles lest they suffer for having chosen the wrong side.”
“We need to do something to build support within the clan.” But what?
“And how do ye propose to do that when ye need to build support for yerself.”
“Perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive.”
“Have a care, cousin. Yer acceptance depends on building bridges, no’ burning them. To do that, ye must avoid taking sides. Remain neutral. Stay out of the power struggles. Besides, what can ye, a woman, do, when the men play politics and worse?”
Coira didn’t know how to respond to that, but she had an idea the Healer’s gift might be just the edge Logen needed.
Coira was tiring of mincing about the keep, smiling and staying neutral. Another week passed uneventfully. No one seemed to be hiding any anger or frustration. Many still shunned her, but after hearing some of the rumors going around about her time in the Highlands, she understood why. It pained her to know how much more work she had to do to be accepted. Still, none of the rumors were as bad as the truth, and that, at least, was still her secret to keep.
She needed a change of scenery, a diversion, or she would be the one hiding frustration and anger. Elizabeth arrived in time to keep her from pacing a rut across the floor of her chamber.
“Thank goodness, ye’re here. I’m about to go out of my mind.”
“Ye are doing well, Coira. I overheard Nan say something almost even-handed about the work ye did for her yesterday.”
Coira wasn’t sure if Elizabeth was serious or not until she broke into a grin.
“Wonderful.” Coira planted her hands on her hips. “I’m running out of ideas. What else can I do to raise opinions of me? Leave the keep?”
“I have the solution for that,” Elizabeth told her with a smirk.
“Truly?” Coira instantly felt lighter. “Where are we going? I hope ye have something interesting in mind.” Elizabeth had been taking her around the keep, reacquainting her with the nooks and crannies they’d explored as children, as well as out of the keep into the meadow and down to the beach, but never out of sight of the keep’s high walls.
“The fishing boats have been spotted on their way in. Everyone is headed for the beach to help carry the catch back up to the kitchen.”
Coira groaned. This was work she was familiar with, having done it many times as a young girl, but it was not the sort of diversion she hoped for. It was one time when every able-bodied member of the clan worked together, bringing down baskets and carrying them back up, full of fresh fish to be cooked for the evening meal, or salted and dried for later use in soups and stews. “Let’s go then.” Her mouth watered at the thought of roasting fish for dinner even as she winced at the thought of the hard, messy work to come.
They collected their baskets from the kitchen in companionable silence, then joined the line of people making their way down the cliff path to the beach. Once everyone was down the single-file path, people could begin to carry the loaded baskets back up the cliff to the keep.
Coira spotted Logen standing at the shoreline, hands on his hips, as the first boat, a small, flat-bottomed birlinn, beached. He moved forward to grab a net, passing its length through his hands with obvious skill. Others joined him, clearing the nets and tossing fish into small baskets. Coira’s gaze was captured by the ripple of muscle in his arms and across his broad back as he worked.
The next boat, a larger galley, beached further out in the surf. From waist-deep water, Logen pulled himself over the side and onto its deck, then bent to assist with its catch.
As Coira handed over her basket to be filled from the first boat, a sensation of hatred, like a cold wind, blew past her. Startled, she glanced up in time to see Logen trip over something on deck and tumble headfirst over the side.
Nay! She froze with fear as he rolled in mid-air. He hit the shallow water with a tremendous splash, spread-eagled rather than headfirst. The noise of that splash caught the attention of those around her, but she sensed only surprise, not satisfaction.
Logen floated for a moment, then got his feet under him and stood, water sluicing down his broad chest as he brushed wet hair out of his eyes.
“Wha’ the hell?” A voice drifted down from the deck. “What was that?”
She saw Logen glance upward and announce, “I’m fine.”
Tightly focused on him, Coira sensed his chagrin and anger as he struggled to catch the breath that had been knocked out of him when he hit the water. He was a master sailor. Surely, it was not like him to trip in the netting on deck. The way he studied the faces at the rail looking down at him told her he was trying to decide who, if anyone, had arranged his accident.
If someone had arranged it, they had failed. His neck wasn’t broken.
She suddenly longed to go to him, but dared not move. Not in this crowd. She could not be seen as trying to gain the favor of another laird after the last one had rejected her. No good would come from appearing either desperate or calculating. So she stayed where she was and continued collecting slippery fish in her basket, all the while keeping one eye on Logen as he splashed his way ashore.
She forced her attention to the men on the boat, but no sense of them came to her. Were the men’s emotions too muted now for her to detect? Too far away? Then why could she sense Logen’s? And why had she sensed cold hatred just before he fell?
Elizabeth jostled her when she picked up her basket. Coira glanced down, suddenly noting her basket was full, too. She couldn’t linger any longer. They must join the line of people making their way back up the cliff path. She took her time leaving the beach, moving slowly, pausing to greet anyone who made eye contact with her. She spoke to anyone Elizabeth spoke to, glancing about as if enjoying the day and the activity, but keeping her attention on Logen. She saw him working another small-boat catch and laying out nets to dry.
If she hadn’t felt so uneasy, the play of muscles under his wet shirt and the rough strength of his grip as he tugged heavy nets across the sand would have fascinated her. He worked comfortably with some of the men, as though nothing had happened to put his life at risk only a few minutes before. But she saw him glancing around and realized he was keeping watch, too. Logen’s gaze met hers just as she and Elizabeth started back up the path from the beach. She nodded, but he simply bent back to his work as if satisfied to know where she was.
“That was odd,” Elizabeth remarked when they were far enough up the path to be away from other ears. Though she knew what Elizabeth had in mind, she asked the expected question. “What was?”
“Ye ken exactly what I mean. I’ve never seen Logen fall like that in my life. He was born to be on the water. And this close to shore, in the shallows?”
Coira’s belly tightened at the memory of Logen’s fall. “An accident, surely.”
“It’s done and he’s fine.” Coira shook her head. They shouldn’t be iscussing this here. “I wouldna think on it any more, if I were ye.”
“Aye, well, I’m sure he is…thinking on it, that is. If someone did that, they’ll try again.”
Coira clutched her basket tighter to her middle as a chill ran down her back. “I believe he’s aware of that.”
“For his sake, I hope so.”
They reached the top of the path and paused. Coira looked down on the scene below. Another birlinn had beached and Logen was in the midst of the activity, pulling nets, offloading fish and gear. Nothing alarmed her, so she let Elizabeth guide her back to the kitchen with their share of the catch. But she vowed to speak to Logen, later. She must warn him not to dismiss his fall too easily.
Logen stayed at the beach once the catch was offloaded to secure the boats and help pull them up above the high tide line. It was good, honest work. The kind he understood. The kind that taxed the muscles and relieved the mind. The kind he’d done all his life, with nary a concern it could all change one day. Oh, he’d always known a man could die at sea in a sudden storm, or lose a limb or a life to drowning, a shark, or countless accidents. But he’d never envisioned himself beached, at least not until old age robbed him of the ability to do the heavy work, or to tolerate the cold and wet for weeks at a time. Those days were comfortably far in the future and never troubled him. He was a man in his prime, too young to worry about such.
Now look at him, worried that going out on the boats was too risky. He’d thought most of the fishermen he’d worked with the last two years supported him, but clearly that was not a valid assumption. And it was all too easy to make someone disappear into the ocean.
Who had yanked the net and tripped him, knowing he would fall into shallow water? Nets didn’t move by themselves, and the timing was too perfect. That was no accident. But who ever had done it was a good actor. The faces peering down at him as he spluttered to standing in the hip-deep water all seemed genuinely surprised at his fall.
He had to get the clan in his corner, or at least firmly under his control. He needed trustworthy allies, but more than that, he needed to discover who was conspiring against him. How else could he guard against the innocent expression of a friend, a man he’d worked and lived with for years, who would try to break his neck?
He timed his ascent so the entire path was clear; saddened he had to be concerned about a companion pushing him off near the top. But that kind of fall, unlike the one he took from the boat, would surely kill a man. He needed eyes in the back of his head, and ears that could hear every word uttered by his people. Most of all, he needed to identify the man—or men—bent on sending him to the same fate as his predecessors.
Inside the hall, the smell of smoke, brine, and fish permeated the air. Today’s haul had been enough to keep them fed for a week or more. If the weather and their salt supply held, he’d send the boats out again in a day or two. He wanted a good store of dried and salted fish against the coming winter when storms would keep the boats ashore.
But first he wanted to rinse off the salt water and change into some dry clothes. He headed to his chamber after collecting a bucket of hot water from the cook. Inside, a small fire kept the room warm enough for him to strip to his skin, now prickling from the drying seawater. He wished he had someone to wash his back.
Of all the women in the clan, the one whose face kept appearing in his mind was the one he could not become involved with. His charge. Coira. Why did she fascinate him? Because she was an enigma? Or beautiful? Or just a new woman about the keep?
With a growl, he tossed a rag into the bucket, then wrung it out. The hot, clean water eased his muscles and relieved the prickles on the skin of his face, neck, and shoulders. Would her touch be soft and tentative? Or firm as she washed the sea salt from his body? He dipped the rag again, then stood over the bucket and wrung the cloth out behind his neck. Warm rivulets ran down his back and buttocks, and he imagined her fingers trailing there instead of droplets of water.
Then he wiped down his chest to his belly, pausing before moving lower. Would she be so bold as to touch him there, too? To trail the warm rag across his skin? Or grasp him firmly with it and stroke away the salt? His cock twitched at the thought as droplets ran down his thighs. He squeezed more water into the curls below his navel, shuddering at the warm, wet sensation, imagining her hands, her mouth, there instead.
Nay, this was foolish. He’d been too long without a woman; that was all. The scare today had his blood up. He quickly washed down his arms and legs, ignoring the need that clawed at his belly. Then he dunked his head in the remaining warm water to rinse the salt from his hair, slicked back the wet strands, and reached for another rag to dry off with.
Someone knocked at the door, then opened it without waiting for a response. He had a brief impression of a lithe build and chestnut hair before recognition slammed into him.
“I came to…oh!”
Logen clutched the scrap of cloth to his unruly groin.
Her hand clapped over her open mouth as she stared at him.
“What are ye doin’ here?” Had his longings somehow summoned her?
Coira whirled and presented her back to him. “I came to warn ye. I dinna think yer fall was an accident.”
Logen pulled a shirt over his head and reached for his plaid, wrapping it about his waist, not bothering to be neat about it, as he considered her statement. He didn’t think it was an accident, either, but why didn’t she? He buckled a belt in place. “Ye can turn around now, and tell me what ye think is so urgent that ye must enter my chamber without leave.”
It amused him to see her peek over her shoulder. Did she think he would lie and remain unclothed? For what purpose? To embarrass her further? Not that she didn’t deserve it.
Slowly, she pivoted, pink still blossoming across her cheeks and nose. “I owe ye an apology. I shouldno’ ha’ surprised ye the way I did.”
“True,” Logen agreed. “Ye couldha found yerself with a dirk to yer throat.” The thought made him queasy, especially after what he’d been picturing before she burst in. “Dinna do that again.”
“I dinna plan to. But I had to see ye without the rest of the clan being aware of it.”
“And why is that?”
She paused, and the look she gave him left no doubt she thought him daft.
“Few of them trust me. If something were to happen to ye, as has happened to the lairds before ye, I would be blamed.”
Logen pursed his lips. She was right, painful as it was to admit. “That would be convenient, aye.”
“I think someone made ye fall. From the boat. It wasna an accident.” Her words came out in a rush, as if she thought he’d be swayed by their velocity.
Logen frowned. “Why do ye think that, lass?” Could she have learned something he’d been unable to uncover for weeks in the short time since she’d returned?
Suddenly, she twisted and placed a hand on the door, cocking her head, then turned back to him. The rosy pink fled her face, leaving behind wide eyes and pale, translucent skin. “I canna tell ye.”
“Ye dinna ken? Or ye willna tell me.” Surely, she could not be involved. Could she?
Her nervous swallow was so obvious, Logen would have laughed except she had tensed like a bowstring drawn to its breaking point, her body rigid, her arms tucked close to her sides. His frown deepened. He stepped toward her, but for every step he took, she retreated until her back was to the door and she had nowhere left to go. What did she fear?
“Coira, I willna hurt ye. It doesna matter what ye have to tell me.” His earlier lust evaporated into concern for the frightened lass before him. He was tempted to stroke her cheek, to bring some color back to her countenance, but he reached instead for the hands she clasped before her so tightly that her knuckles were white. Cold. Her hands were so cold. What was going through her mind to upset her so? He wrapped his fingers around hers to warm them and was rewarded by seeing the tense line of her shoulders drop, just a little.
“Someone kens I’m here,” she whispered. “I felt the same cold hatred just now that I felt right before ye fell.”
“Someone’s out there?”
Her eyes widened. He moved her aside, more gently than his haste dictated, and yanked the door open, but the hallway outside was empty. No one lurked there. He waited a moment, listening, but all he heard was Coira’s rapid breathing. He shut the door, softly, and turned back to her.
He kept his tone low and light, but she shuddered and stepped away, shaking her head.
“What did ye mean when ye said ye felt the same cold hatred ye felt before I fell?”
She moved to the hearth and stared into the glowing embers. “I shouldno’ ha’ come here.”
Logen went to stand behind her, trapping her between the heat of the fire and his body’s warmth. She shivered, but did not try to move away.
He gave her a moment to collect herself, then gripped her shoulders and turned her to face him. Her tremors had subsided and a hint of color was returning to her skin as he studied her. “Do ye have the Sight?” It made sense, after what she’d said. “Did ye See who caused my accident?”
He’d spent four years fostered with the MacKyrie clan, whose young Seer, Ellie, had been a familiar presence in the clan’s everyday life. The idea of such a talent did not trouble him. But apparently, it troubled Coira, who blanched yet again. “Dinna fash,” he told her. “I dinna fear such things. If ye have the Sight, ye can help me.”
Coira shook her head and lowered her gaze. “I do no’ have the Sight.”
“’Tis something else,” Coira continued, cutting him off. She took a deep breath and pursed her lips, as if taking a moment to decide whether to continue. “I can feel what others around me feel. Strong emotion, especially.”
Like his lust, when she burst in the door? Logen felt heat rising in his face. No wonder she’d reacted the way she had. Not just from his nakedness, but from the fire that burned within him. For her.
Coira gasped and tried to pull back, but he refused to release her shoulders. “Ye are embarrassed. Angry,” she told him. “And there is heat of a different sort…”
Logen got hold of his emotions—and the rising tide of his lust—with a deep breath. “I am but a man, Coira. I will do my best to…remain calm.” She could read emotions? “How well can ye do this? How sure are ye of what ye sense? From how far?” He released her and took several steps back. “From here?” At her nod, he moved to the opposite side of the room. “Here?”
“I could sense yer surprise and anger when ye fell, even from up on the beach. But no’ the reaction of the men in the boat. Why?”
He gestured her to a chair and sat opposite her; needing to know more and determined to discover what she knew. “Ye felt cold hatred, ye said. Whose?”
“I dinna ken. The beach was so crowded, and it was just a quick sensation of icy wind.”
“And satisfaction when I fell?”
“I dinna think so. I didna get anything else.”
“There shouldha been disappointment,” he mused.
“Or even more anger, when I gained my feet, still unharmed, aye?” He gave her a disarming grin, until he recalled she would see through it.
Could she be the advantage he so desperately needed? If she could see through him, perhaps she could see what others hid behind smiles and loyal demeanors.
You’ve Been Reading THE HEALER’S GIFT
THE EXPANDED EDITION RE-RELEASE IS HERE!
The Healer’s Gift resolves the story of one of the most tormented characters in HIGHLAND HEALER. Coira MacDugall deserves the harshest punishment for her actions in the Highlands. But her clan’s new laird, Logan, defies her expectations. And the Healer’s gift changes everything she thought she knew — about herself and her future.
Coira MacDugall paid with her life for her attack on the Highland Healer. But her victim did more than heal Coira’s fatal wound that awful night. Now drowning in the unwelcome emotions of others, Coira wonders if her new empathic ability was meant as a gift or a curse.
Logen MacDugall must discover who killed three previous lairds if he hopes to survive for long in the position. He believes Coira’s new sense can help him root out the conspirators, but after her disastrous time in the Highlands, the last thing she wants is to get involved with another laird. Logen must help Coira gain control of her talent in time to save him and their clan from those intent on destroying MacDugall.
Can Coira believe this laird truly loves her? Or will her memories lead her to madness again?