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Dunvegan Castle, Scotland
October 1st, 1737
Gwendolyn Harris stood alone outside the doorway of the chapel at Dunvegan Castle. It had been three years since the MacDonalds had raided their village and killed everyone except her sister, brother, and herself. Why they were spared when so many others perished that day, including her parents, made no sense.
In the days after the raid, there were times when Gwendolyn had wished she and her siblings had been killed. Death would have been preferable to the pain and sorrow they had experienced wandering through their lifeless village. It wasn’t until the MacLeod clan had arrived and helped them bury the dead—then taken them back to Dunvegan Castle—that hope for their future had taken hold.
Much had happened to Arabella, Samuel, and her in the past three years, but nothing more exciting than what would occur in a matter of moments when she would become the wife of Alastair MacLeod. The clan heir. The three of them would truly become a part of the Clan MacLeod, and all their troubles would be behind them.
A nervous fluttering took flight in Gwendolyn’s stomach as she peeked inside the chapel doorway, trying to catch a glimpse of her brother and sister. They should be standing near the front, yet she couldn’t locate them. With a frown, Gwendolyn shifted her attention back to the hallway where she stood, waiting for Norman MacLeod to escort her down the aisle to join her life to his son’s. Just thinking about being near the elder laird sent a shiver down her spine.
Since arriving at Dunvegan, she’d come to know why others referred to him as “Wicked Man” MacLeod. For daily he abused all those in his path—servants, clan members, his wife, and especially his own children. Even so, Gwendolyn and her siblings had kept their heads down and tried to only think of how grateful they were to him for taking them in when they’d had nowhere else to go.
Bringing her thoughts back to the present, Gwendolyn forced herself to stand taller and breathe slow and deep, keeping her excitement and her nervousness in check. It was hard to imagine only three days had passed since she and Alastair had been betrothed, on her sixteenth birthday.
The announcement and the signing of the betrothal document had come as a surprise to both herself and Alastair. They had spent some time together over the past three years, mostly at meals, and a few times alone in each other’s company. But they were essentially strangers, who were now thrust together at his father’s insistence.
Gwendolyn peered once more down the long aisle in the chapel to the man who waited for her there. Alastair MacLeod could only be considered breathtaking to anyone with eyes. The morning sun streamed through the chapel’s stained glass window to highlight the shining darkness of his hair and revealed the hint of a wave in its thickness. His sideburns accentuated the high cheekbones of his slightly elongated face, and the hollowed line of his jaw. His shoulders filled out the midnight-blue surcoat and tunic with a power and grace that rippled clearly from every taut inch of muscle; his legs, long and lean, peeked out from beneath the hem of his tartan in such a way that made her heart beat faster.
In spite of all that, it was his eyes that commanded most of her attention. They were dark, and at this moment, as dusky as the dark brown mane of his hair, and they were focused on her. When a genuine smile of appreciation touched his lips, Gwendolyn drew a startled breath.
An arranged marriage such as this was not uncommon. Her own mother’s marriage had been a prudent union between two clans with no thought whatsoever to affection, or whether the two parties concerned would eventually tolerate each other. Her mother had been happy enough until the day her marriage to a Harris ended her life because of a feud with a rival clan, the MacDonalds.
Her throat tight, Gwendolyn stepped back, out of view, trying to collect herself. Would her own marriage be similarly cursed? Or was Alastair’s smile a sign that theirs would be a different kind of union?
Suddenly footsteps sounded, coming swiftly towards her. She drew a deep breath and braced herself for the arrival of her soon-to-be father-in-law. Gwendolyn turned to greet him—but it was not Norman MacLeod who reached for her. It was not the Wicked Man MacLeod who clamped a brutal hand over her mouth to stifle her scream. She had never seen this man before, but she could tell he wasn’t a friend to the MacLeods. Her captor hauled her backwards, out of the hallway and out to the rear courtyard.
She tried to wrench away, but he was too strong. No one was around to witness anything since they were all packed into the chapel, waiting for her to marry the heir. She dragged her feet, trying to make it difficult for the brute who held her tightly in his grasp. Desperation brought a cold sweat to her skin as he pulled her to the wall of the rear courtyard that faced Loch Dunvegan.
Her captor’s hold on her lessened, and she twisted out of his grasp. She drew a ragged breath of the sea air even as her back pressed against the wall that separated the castle from the cliffs of the sea loch. She had nowhere to go but over the ledge. She turned to scramble up the wall when the whisk of drawn steel filled her ears.
A firm hand dragged her down, then thrust her backwards. She hit the wall hard as the deadly edge of a knife pressed against her neck, stilling her movements. “What do you want?”
“Take off your gown.”
Fear and desperation rose in Gwendolyn. She’d avoided all the unwanted attention that had come her way over the past few years, only to lose that battle now, on her wedding day, with a man who was not her intended spouse? Her anger flared as she twisted in her attacker’s arms and slammed her knee into his groin.
He groaned and hunched forward. Gwendolyn jerked away, racing back towards the castle. Her only hope was to either alert others to her attacker’s presence or find somewhere to hide.
“Get back here or your brother and sister will die.”
He was lying. He had to be, but then she hadn’t seen either of them in the chapel. She kept running even as the sound of footsteps sounded close behind her.
“I have them locked away. Stop, or I’ll kill them both.”
Gwendolyn stumbled, and turned as the man advanced on her, his dagger poised to strike.
“That’s better,” he said as he came close. “Now hold still or I’ll slit your pretty little flesh.” With a flick of the dagger, he caught the bodice of her gown and sliced it all the way down to the hem. Gwendolyn’s knees started to wobble as the weapon gleamed in the morning sunshine.
“Take me to my brother and sister.”
“Only if you do as I say.” He once again caught her against his chest and held the blade to her throat as he dragged her back to the cliff’s edge. She felt the dagger dig deeper into her flesh and the warmth of her own blood trailing down her throat. At the edge, her captor stopped and peeled her gown from her then wiped the bodice against her neck, smearing the fabric with the bright red blood. From his sporran he withdrew a sheep’s bladder filled with a dark red liquid. With his dagger, he pierced the vessel and doused her dress with the additional blood.
Fear rippled down her spine. “What are you doing?”
“Making it appear as though you jumped. Once Alastair finds your dress along the shoreline, bathed in blood, he will assume you are dead and won’t turn the countryside upside down looking for you.”
She stared into her captor’s hostile face. “He hardly cares enough for me to go to such trouble.”
A wicked smile came to the man’s lips. “He would if he knew a MacDonald, his most hated enemy, had taken something that was his from him.”
“Why would you do something like that?”
“Men have gone to war over far less.”
Gwendolyn blinked hard to stop the tears that threatened. “You mean to start a war with the MacLeods?”
“Not until you steal the Fairy Flag, their most valued treasure, and give it to my clan. We will use the luck of the Fairy Flag, and any magic it contains, to smite our enemy once and for all.”
Gwendolyn had been shown the Fairy Flag shortly after her arrival at Dunvegan. Norman MacLeod had taken her to the drawing room where the MacLeods kept the flag, hanging between the seaward-facing windows. He claimed the length of magical silk had been given to the MacLeods by a daughter of Oberon, king of the fairies. The fairy princess had imbued the flag with the power to overcome an enemy or a hardship when it was unfurled and waved three times. Doing so would bring the fairy legions to the flag bearer’s aid.
The legend also claimed the magic of the Fairy Flag could only be used three times, after which it would return to where it came from, taking the flag bearer with it. The flag had already been put to the test twice before when the MacDonalds invaded with overwhelming numbers. At the waving of the Fairy Flag, the tide of battle turned and the MacLeods were saved from destruction.
As the memory faded, Gwendolyn stiffened. “Why would I give you anything that might help you win such a war against the MacLeods?” The MacDonalds had killed her clan and left her and her siblings orphans.
Her captor leaned in closer as the knife bit deep once more. “Because if you don’t, you and your siblings won’t live to see another sunrise.”
“How can I trust you have them in your possession? Am I simply supposed to take your word for it?”
A hint of a smile pulled up the corners of his lips. “Somehow, I knew you’d want proof.” He reached into his sporran once more and withdrew a length of pale blond hair with the ribbon Arabella had worn earlier still tied about it and placed it in Gwendolyn’s hand. Next, he removed a lock of hair that was the same golden brown as her brother’s.
Gwendolyn clenched her fingers around the proof that he had her siblings, the two people she loved most in this world. “Why capture me? Why fake my death?”
“I’ve seen the way Alastair MacLeod looks at you. You are important to him. And by taking you away from him on the day he believes you will become his, I hurt him, I hurt the entire clan. Only they will not know it was I who took you from them. I’ll make it look as though you chose to end your own life rather than marry Alastair MacLeod.”
Bile rose up in Gwendolyn’s throat. “Isn’t taking me from Alastair punishment enough?”
“The punishment hasn’t even started.” Her captor released the blade at her throat but in the next moment he reached up and grabbed a handful of her hair.
Gwendolyn cried out as he tugged at the length then sliced through a section of her golden-blond hair. With a satisfied smile, he released her and clutched the strands of her hair in his fist. Gwendolyn’s hand lifted to the blunt section of her abused hair.
“Now that you have the means to falsify my death, let me and my siblings go. We will leave. We’ll go far away. No one will ever find us.”
“I’ll put you where no one will find you,” he said with a terrifying smile. “But first, while everyone is crowded into the chapel, you must go and steal the Fairy Flag. Quickly, before you are missed.” He grabbed her arm and shoved her in the direction of the castle.
“Nay. If you want the flag, you’ll have to steal it yourself.”
“If I stole the Fairy Flag, I would be forced to eliminate the guard who stands vigil beside it day and night. Is that what you want? To kill one of your soon-to-be kin?”
“You think I can talk the guard away from his duty to steal the flag for you?”
Garrick gave her a slow nod. “You’ve proven yourself to be a clever girl over the years that you’ve lived here. Why else would a nobody from a distant clan be marrying the heir to the MacLeod chiefdom?”
Gwendolyn glared at her captor. “I did not manipulate him if that is what you are insinuating. Besides, the Fairy Flag was given to the MacLeods by the fairies. Will the magic work for anyone else?”
“No one knows the answer to that question, because no one but the MacLeods have ever used the Fairy Flag. But even if the magic does not work for us, our possessing the flag will keep the MacLeods from using it when we do finally attack.”
Agony rocked Gwendolyn. Her wedding day was over. Her life as she had known it was over. If she stole the Fairy Flag from the MacLeods, and gave it to their enemy, she would forever alter the course of the Clan MacLeod.
“Enough stalling,” Garrick growled. “Do what I ask or there will be dire consequences for you and your siblings.”
End of Excerpt