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Beyond the highland mist, p.1

Beyond the Highland Mist, page 1

 part  #1 of  Highlander Series

 

Beyond the Highland Mist
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Beyond the Highland Mist


  Featured Alternate Selection of Doubleday Book Club and Rhapsody Book Club

  Praise for the novels of

  Karen Marie Moning

  The Dark Highlander

  “Darker, sexier, and more serious than Moning’s previous time-travel romances … this wild, imaginative romp takes readers on an exhilarating ride through time and space.”

  —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  “Pulsing with sexual tension, Moning delivers a tale romance fans will be talking about for a long time.”

  —The Oakland Press

  “The Dark Highlander is dynamite, dramatic, and utterly riveting. Ms. Moning takes the classic plot of good vs. evil … and gives it a new twist.”

  —Romantic Times

  Kiss of the Highlander

  “Moning’s snappy prose, quick wit and charismatic characters will enchant.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  “Moning is quickly building a reputation for writing poignant time travels with memorable characters. This may be the first book I’ve read by her, but it certainly won’t be my last. She delivers compelling stories with passionate characters readers will find enchanting.”

  —The Oakland Press

  “Here is an intelligent, fascinating, well-written foray into the paranormal that will have you glued to the pages. A must read!”

  —Romantic Times

  “Kiss of the Highlander is wonderful…. [Moning’s] storytelling skills are impressive, her voice and pacing dynamic, and her plot as tight as a cask of good Scotch whisky.”

  —The Contra Costa Times

  “Kiss of the Highlander is a showstopper.”

  —Rendezvous

  The Highlander’s Touch

  “A stunning achievement in time-travel romance. Ms. Moning’s imaginative genius in her latest spellbinding tale speaks to the hearts of romance readers and will delight and touch them deeply. Unique and eloquent, filled with thought-provoking and emotional elements, The Highlander’s Touch is a very special book. Ms. Moning effortlessly secures her place as a top-notch writer.”

  —Romantic Times

  “Ms. Moning stretches our imagination, sending us flying into the enchanting past.”

  —Rendezvous

  To Tame A Highland Warrior

  “A hauntingly beautiful love story … Karen Marie Moning gives us an emotional masterpiece that you will want to take out and read again and again.”

  —Rendezvous

  For my sister, Elizabeth, with love.

  You are my sunshine …

  Special thanks to—

  My mother and father;

  Rick Shomo;

  Carrie Edwards and Jeanne Meyer;

  and my agent Deidre Knight.

  I couldn’t have done it without you.

  You spotted snakes with double tongue

  Thorny hedgehogs be not seen;

  Newts and blind worms, do no wrong

  Come not near our fairy queen.

  SHAKESPEARE, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

  PROLOGUE

  SCOTLAND

  1 FEBRUARY 1513

  THE FRAGRANCE OF JASMINE AND SANDALWOOD DRIFTED through the rowan trees. Above dew-drenched branches, a lone gull ghosted a bank of mist and soared to kiss the dawn over the white sands of Morar. The turquoise tide shimmered in shades of mermaid tails against the alabaster shore.

  The elegant royal court of the Tuatha De Danaan dappled the stretch of lush greenery. Pillowed chaises in brilliant scarlet and lemon adorned the grassy knoll, scattered in a half-moon about the outdoor dais.

  “They say he is even more beautiful than you,” the Queen remarked to the man sprawled indolently at the foot of her dais.

  “Impossible.” His mocking laughter tinkled like cut-crystal chimes on a fae wind.

  “They say his manhood at half-mast would make a stallion envious.” The Queen slanted a glance beneath half-lowered lids at her rapt courtiers.

  “More likely a mouse,” sneered the man at her feet. Elegant fingers demonstrated a puny space of air, and titters sliced the mist.

  “They say at full-mast he steals a woman’s mind from her body. Claims her soul.” The Queen dropped fringed lashes to shield eyes alight with the iridescent fire of mischievous intent. How easily my men are provoked!

  The man rolled his eyes and disdain etched his arrogant profile. He crossed his legs at the ankles and gazed out across the sea.

  But the Queen wasn’t fooled. The man at her feet was vainglorious, and not as impervious to her provocation as he feigned.

  “Quit baiting him, my Queen,” King Finnbheara admonished. “You know how the fool gets when his ego is wounded.” He patted her arm soothingly. “You’ve teased him enough.”

  The Queen’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. She briefly considered forgoing this vein of revenge. A calculating look at her men dashed that thought, as she recalled what she’d overheard them discussing late last evening in excruciating detail.

  The things they’d said were unforgivable. The Queen was not a woman to be compared with another woman and found lacking. Her lip tightened imperceptibly. Her exquisitely delicate hand curled into a fist. She carefully selected her next words.

  “But I have found him to be all that they say,” the Queen purred.

  In the silence that followed, the statement lingered, unacknowledged, for the cut was too cruel to dignify. The King at her side and the man at her feet shifted restlessly. She was beginning to think she hadn’t made her point quite painfully clear enough when, in unison, they rose to her bait. “Who is this man?”

  Queen Aoibheal of the Fairy disguised a satisfied smile with a delicate yawn, and drank deeply of her men’s jealousy. “They call him the Hawk.”

  CHAPTER 1

  SCOTLAND

  1 APRIL 1513

  SIDHEACH JAMES LYON DOUGLAS, THIRD EARL OF DALKEITH, stalked across the floor. Droplets of water trickled from his wet hair down his broad chest, and gathered into a single rivulet between the double ridges of muscle in his abdomen. Moonlight shimmered through the open window, casting a silvery glow to his bronze skin, creating the illusion that he was sculpted of molten steel.

  The tub behind him had grown cold and been forgotten. The woman on the bed was also cold and forgotten. She knew it.

  And she didn’t like it one bit.

  Too beautiful for me, Esmerelda thought. But by the saints, the man was a poison draught, another long cool swallow of his body the only cure for the toxin. She thought about the things she had done to win him, to share his bed, and—God forgive her—the things she would do to stay there.

  She almost hated him for it. She knew she hated herself for it. He should be mine, she thought. She watched him stalk across the spacious room to the window which opened between fluted granite columns that met in a high arch twenty feet above her head. Esmerelda sneered at him behind his back. Foolish—such large unprotected openings in a keep—or arrogant. So what if one could lie in the massive goosedown bed and gaze through the rosy arch at a velvety sky pierced by glittering stars?

  She’d caught him gazing that way tonight as he’d slammed into her, exciting that bottomless hunger in her blood with the rock-hard kind of maleness only he possessed. She’d whimpered beneath him in the greatest ecstasy she’d ever experienced and he’d been looking out the window—as if no one else was there with him.

  Had he been counting the stars?

  Silently reciting bawdy dittys to prevent himself from toppling over and falling asleep?

  She’d lost him.

  No, Esmerelda vowed, she would never lose him.

  “Hawk?”

  “Hmmm?”

  She smoothed the lavender silk sheet
through her trembling fingers. “Come back to bed, Hawk.”

  “I’m restless tonight, sweet.” He toyed with the stem of a large pale blue blossom. A half hour earlier he’d swept the dewy petals along her silken skin.

  Esmerelda flinched at his open admission that he still had energy to spare. Sleepily sated, she could see that his body still thrummed from head to toe with restless vigor. What kind of woman would it take—or how many—to leave that man drowsing in fascinated satisfaction?

  More woman than she, and ye gods, how that offended her.

  Had her sister left him more sated? Her sister who had warmed his bed until Zeldie had found a way to take her place?

  “Am I better than my sister?” The words were out before she could prevent them. She bit her lip, anxiously awaiting his answer.

  Her words dragged his smoky gaze from the starry night, across the wide expanse of the bedchamber, to rest on the sultry, raven-haired Gypsy. “Esmerelda,” he chided gently.

  “Am I?” Her husky contralto soared to a shrewish pitch.

  He sighed. “We’ve had this discussion before—”

  “And you never answer me.”

  “Stop comparing yourself, sweet. You know it’s foolish …”

  “How can I not when you can compare me to a hundred, nay a thousand, even my own sister?” Shapely brows puckered in a scowl above her flashing eyes.

  His laughter rolled. “And how many do you compare me to, lovely Esmerelda?”

  “My sister couldn’t have been as good as me. She was nearly a virgin.” She spit out the word with distaste. Life was too unpredictable for virginity to be a prized possession among her people. Lust, in all its facets, was a healthy aspect of the Rom culture.

  He raised a hand in warning. “Stop. Now.”

  But she couldn’t. The poison words of accusation tumbled out fast and furious at the only man who had ever made her pagan blood sing, and his boredom between her thighs had been chiseled in granite upon his perfect face this very eve. In truth, for many evenings now.

  He suffered her rage in silence, and when at last her tongue rested, he turned back to his window. The howl of a solitary wolf ruptured the night and she felt an answering cry well up within her. She knew the Hawk’s silence was his farewell. Stinging with rejection and humiliation, she lay trembling in his bed—the bed she knew she would never be asked to enter again.

  She would kill for him.

  Which is precisely what she meant to do moments later when she rushed him with the silver dirk she’d slipped from the table by the bed. Esmerelda might have been able to leave without swearing an oath of vengeance, if he had looked surprised. Momentarily alarmed. Sorry, even.

  But he exhibited none of these emotions. His perfect face lit up with laughter as he spun effortlessly, caught her arm and sent the dirk hurtling through the open window.

  He laughed.

  And she cursed him. And all his begotten and any subsequent misbegotten.

  When he shushed her with kisses, she cursed through gritted teeth, even as her traitorous body melted for his touch. No man should be so beautiful. No man should be so untouchable. And so damned fearless.

  No man should be able to forsake Esmerelda. He was done with her, but she wasn’t done with him. She would never be done with him.

  “It wasn’t your fault, Hawk,” Grimm offered. They sat upon the cobbled terrace of Dalkeith sipping port and smoking imported tobacco in purely male contentment.

  Sidheach James Lyon Douglas rubbed his perfect jaw with a perfect hand, irritated by the perfect shadow of stubble that always appeared just a few hours after shaving.

  “I just don’t understand, Grimm. I thought she’d found pleasure with me. Why would she seek to kill me?”

  Grimm arched a brow. “Just what do you do to the lasses in bed, Hawk?”

  “I give them what they want. Fantasy. My willing flesh and blood to serve their every whim.”

  “And how do you know what a woman’s fantasies are?” Grimm wondered aloud.

  The Earl of Dalkeith laughed softly, a heady, confident rumble of a purr that he knew drove women wild. “Ah, Grimm, you just have to listen with your whole body. In her eyes she tells you, whether she knows it or not. In her soft cries she guides you. In the subtle turnings of her body, you know if she wants you in front or behind her lush curves. With gentleness or with power; if she desires a tender lover or seeks a beast. If she likes her lips kissed, or savagely devoured. If she likes her breasts—”

  “I get the picture,” Grimm interrupted, swallowing hard. He shifted in his chair and uncrossed his legs. Recrossed them and tugged at his kilt. Uncrossed them again and sighed. “And Esmerelda? Did you understand her fantasies?”

  “Only too well. One of them included being Lady Hawk.”

  “She had to know it couldn’t be, Hawk. Everyone knows you’ve been as good as wed since King James decreed your betrothal.”

  “As good as dead. And I don’t want to talk about it.”

  “The time draws near, Hawk. You’re not only going to have to talk about it, you’re going to have to do something about it—like go collect your bride. Time is running out. Or don’t you care?” Hawk slanted a savage look Grimm’s way.

  “Just making sure, that’s all. There’s scarce a fortnight left, remember?”

  Hawk stared out into the crystalline night, heavy with glowing stars. “How could I forget?”

  “You really think James would carry out his threats if you don’t wed the Comyn lass?”

  “Absolutely,” Hawk said flatly.

  “I just don’t understand why he hates you so much.”

  A sardonic smile flitted across the Hawk’s face. He knew why James hated him. Thirty years ago Hawk’s parents had humiliated James to the seat of his vain soul. Since the Hawk’s father had died before James could avenge himself, the king had turned on Hawk in his father’s stead.

  For fifteen long years James had controlled every minute of the Hawk’s life. Days before his pledge of service was to expire, James contrived a plan to affect every future moment of it. By the king’s decree, the Hawk was being forced to wed a lass he didn’t know and didn’t want. A reclusive spinster who was rumored to be quite hideous and unquestionably mad. It was King James’s twisted idea of a lifetime sentence. “Who fathoms the minds of kings, my friend?” Hawk evaded, pointedly putting an end to the topic.

  The two men passed a time in silence, both brooding for different reasons as they stared into the velvety sky. An owl hooted softly from the gardens. Crickets rubbed their legs in sweet concerto, offering twilight tribute to Dalkeith. Stars pulsed and shimmered against the night’s blue-black canopy.

  “Look. One falls. There, Hawk. What do you make of it?” Grimm pointed at a white speck plummeting from the heavens, leaving a milky tail glowing in its wake.

  “Esmerelda says if you make a wish upon such a falling star ’twill be granted.”

  “Did you wish just now?”

  “Tinker talk,” Hawk scoffed. “Foolish romantic nonsense for dreamy-eyed lasses.” Of course he’d wished. Every time he’d seen a falling star lately. Always the same wish. After all, the time was nearing.

  “Well, I’m trying it,” Grimm grumbled, not to be swayed by Hawk’s mockery. “I wish …”

  “Yield, Grimm. What’s your wish?” Hawk asked curiously.

  “None of your concern. You don’t believe.”

  “I? The eternal romantic who enchants legions with his poetry and seduction—not a believer in all those lovely female things?”

  Grimm shot his friend a warning look. “Careful, Hawk. Mock them at your own risk. You may just really make a lass angry one day. And you won’t know how to deal with it. For the time being, they still fall for your perfect smiles—”

  “You mean like this one.” Hawk arched a brow and flashed a smile, complete with sleepily hooded eyes that spoke volumes about how the lass receiving it was the only true beauty in his heart, a heart whic
h had room for only one—whoever happened to be in the Hawk’s arms at the moment.

  Grimm shook his head in mock disgust. “You practice it. You must. Come on, admit it.”

  “Of course I do. It works. Wouldn’t you practice it?”

  “Womanizer.”

  “Uh-hmm,” Hawk agreed.

  “Do you even remember their names?”

  “All five thousand of them.” Hawk hid his grin behind a swallow of port.

  “Blackguard. Libertine.”

  “Rogue. Roué. Cad. Ah, here’s a good one: ‘voluptuary,’” Hawk supplied helpfully.

  “Why don’t they see through you?”

  Hawk shrugged a shoulder. “They like what they get from me. There are a lot of hungry lasses out there. I couldn’t, in good conscience, turn them away. ’Twould trouble my head.”

  “I think I know exactly which head of yours would be troubled,” Grimm said dryly. “The very one that’s going to get you in big trouble one day.”

  “What did you wish for, Grimm?” Hawk ignored the warning with the devil-may-care attitude that was his wont where the lasses were concerned.

  A slow smile slid over Grimm’s face. “A lass who doesn’t want you. A lovely, nay, an earth-shatteringly beautiful one, with wit and wisdom to boot. One with a perfect face and a perfect body, and a perfect ‘no’ on her perfect lips for you, my oh-so-perfect friend. And I also wished to be allowed to watch the battle.”

  Hawk smiled smugly. “It will never happen.”

  The wind gusting sweetly through the pines carried a disembodied voice that drifted on a breeze of jasmine and sandalwood. Then it spoke in laughing words neither man heard. “I think that can be arranged.”

  CHAPTER 2

  THE MYSTICAL ISLE OF MORAR WAS CLOAKED IN EVENTIDE, the silica sands glistening silver beneath King Finnbheara’s boots as he paced, impatiently awaiting the court fool’s return.

 
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