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The highlanders touch, p.1

The Highlander's Touch, page 1

 part  #3 of  Highlander Series

 

The Highlander's Touch
 



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The Highlander's Touch


  She opened the door and began to step in, when he suddenly spun her around into his arms.

  Without a word, he brutally closed his mouth over hers.

  Too shocked to resist, Lisa stood motionless, her lips parting at the insistence of his tongue. He was angry, she could feel it in the bruising crush of his lips, and it fed her own anger.

  Then it occurred to her that kissing was quite a useful and fascinating way to express anger, so she worked diligently at putting every bit of her irritation and displeasure into her response. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him back so uninhibitedly that he stiffened abruptly, stepped back, and gazed at her with a startled expression.

  Briefly, he looked pleased, then his eyes narrowed swiftly. “I doona like you, and I will not tolerate you complicating my life.”

  “Ditto,” she clipped through swollen lips.

  “Then we understand each other,” he said.

  “Mm-hmm,” she said. “Perfectly.”

  “Good.”

  They stared at each other.

  “Doona forget who’s in control in this castle, lass,” he snarled before stalking off down the hallway.

  If that was how he asserted his control, she might just have to challenge his authority more often.

  Dell Books by Karen Marie Moning

  Kiss of the Highlander

  Beyond the Highland Mist

  To Tame a Highland Warrior

  The Highlander’s Touch

  The Dark Highlander

  The Immortal Highlander

  For the love of it…

  I am that merry wanderer of the night

  I jest to Oberon and make him smile …

  —A Midsummer Night’s Dream/Shakespeare

  HIGHLANDS OF SCOTLAND

  CASTLE BRODIE—1308

  ADAM BLACK MATERIALIZED IN THE GREATHALL.

  Silently, he observed the towering warrior who paced before the fire.

  Circenn Brodie, laird and thane of Brodie, exuded the magnetism of a man born not merely to exist in his world, but to conquer it. Power has never been so seductive, Adam thought, except, perhaps, in me.

  The object of his study turned from the fire, unruffled by Adam’s silent presence.

  “What do you want?” Circenn said.

  Adam was not surprised by his tone. He’d learned long ago not to expect civility from this particular Highland laird. Adam Black, the deadly jester in the Fairy Queen’s court, was an irritant Circenn suffered unwillingly. Kicking a chair close to the fire, Adam lounged in it backward, resting his arms over the slatted back. “Is that any way to greet me after months of absence?”

  “You know I despise it when you appear without warning. And as to your absence, I had been savoring my good fortune.” Circenn turned back toward the fire.

  “You would miss me if I were gone for long,” Adam assured him, studying his profile. Sinful that he looks such a powerful beast, yet comports himself with such decorum, Adam thought. If Circenn Brodie was going to look like a savage Pict warrior, then by Dagda he should act like one.

  “The same way I might miss a hole in my shield, a warthog in my bed, or a fire in my stables,” Circenn said. “Turn around in your chair and sit like a proper person.”

  “Ah, but I am neither proper nor a person, so you needn’t expect me to conform to your requirements. I shudder to think what you would do without all your rules for a ‘normal’ existence, Circenn.” When Circenn stiffened, Adam grinned and extended a graceful hand to a maid who’d been lingering in the shadows at the perimeter of the Greathall. He tossed his head, casting silky dark hair over his shoulder. “Come.”

  The maid approached, her gaze darting between Circenn and Adam, as if uncertain which man posed the greater threat. Or which the greater lure.

  “May I serve milords?” she said breathlessly.

  “Nay, Gillendria,” Circenn dismissed her. “Off to bed with you. It is well past the goblin’s hour”—he shot a dark look at Adam—“and my guest has no needs I care to see filled.”

  “Aye, Gillendria,” Adam purred. “There are many ways you may serve me this night. I will take pleasure in teaching you all of them. Off to your quarters while we men talk. I will join you there.”

  The young maid’s eyes widened as she hastened to obey him.

  “Leave my wenches alone” Circenn ordered.

  “I don’t get them pregnant.” Adam flashed his most insolent grin.

  “That is not my concern; it is the fact that they are all but witless once you have finished with them.”

  “Witless? Who was witless tonight?”

  Circenn tensed but said nothing.

  “Where are the hallows, Circenn?” A glint of mischief kindled in Adam’s remote eyes.

  Circenn turned his back fully to the fairy.

  “You did protect them for us, did you not?” Adam asked. “Don’t tell me you lost them?” he chided when Circenn failed to reply.

  Circenn turned back to face him, legs wide, head cocked, arms folded; his usual position when quietly furious. “Why do you waste my time asking me questions when you already know the answers?”

  Adam shrugged elegantly. “Because the droppers at the eaves will be unable to follow this splendid saga if we do not speak of it aloud.”

  “No one eavesdrops in my castle.”

  “I forgot,” Adam purred, “no one misbehaves at Castle Brodie. Ever-spotless, ever-disciplined, perfect Castle Brodie. You bore me, Circenn. This paragon of restraint you pretend to be is a waste of the fine breeding that forged you.”

  “Let us have done with this conversation, shall we?”

  Adam folded his arms across the back of the chair. “All right. What happened tonight? Templars were to meet you at Ballyhock. They were to entrust the hallows to your care. I heard they were ambushed.”

  “You heard correctly,” Circenn replied evenly.

  “Do you understand how important it is that the Templars be given sanctuary in Scotland, now that they’ve been disbanded?”

  “Of course I understand,” Circenn growled.

  “And how imperative it is that the hallows do not fall into the wrong hands?”

  Circenn waved Adam’s question away with an impatient hand. “The four hallows have been secured. The moment we suspected the Templars were going to come under siege, the spear, the cauldron, the sword, and the stone were rushed back into Scotland, despite the war going on. Better they rest in a country torn than with the persecuted Templars, whose Order is being ripped asunder. The hallows are safe—”

  “Except for the flask, Circenn,” Adam said. “What of it? Where is it?”

  “The flask is not a hallow,” Circenn prevaricated.

  “I know that,” Adam said dryly. “But the flask is a sacred relic of our race, and we could all be in danger should it fall into the wrong hands. I repeat, where is the flask?”

  Circenn plunged a hand into his hair, pushing it back from his face. Adam was struck by the sensual majesty of the man. Silky black hair was gripped between elegant fingers, revealing a face composed of strong planes, a chiseled jaw, and dark brows. He had the olive-toned skin, the intense eyes, and the aggressive, dominant temperament of his Brude ancestors.

  “I doona know,” Circenn finally said.

  “You doona know?” Adam mimicked his brogue, aware that such an admission must have tasted foul on Circenn Brodie’s tongue. Nothing was ever out of the laird of Brodie’s control. Rules and more rules governed everything and everyone in Circenn’s world. “A flask containing a sacred elixir, created by my race, disappears from your very grasp and you doona know where it is?”

  “The situation is not so dire, Adam. It is not permanently lost. Think
of it as … temporarily displaced, and soon to be regained.”

  Adam arched a brow. “You split hairs with a battle-ax. Skillful prevarication is a woman’s art, Brodie. What happened?”

  “Ian was carrying the chest that holds the flask. When the attack came, I was on the south side of the bridge waiting for Ian to cross over from the north. He took a blow to the head and was knocked off the bridge, into the river below. The chest was whisked away by the current—”

  “And you say that is not so bad? Anyone could have it now. Would you like to see the English king get his hands on that flask? Do you understand the danger it presents?”

  “Of course I do. It will not come to that, Adam,” Circenn said. “I laid a geas upon the flask. It will not fall into another’s hands, because the moment it is discovered it will be returned to me.”

  “A geas?” Adam snorted. “Puny magic. A proper fairy would have simply spelled it back out of the river.”

  “I am not fae. I am Brude-Scot and proud of it. Count yourself fortunate I cursed it at all. You know I have no fondness for the druid ways. Curses are unpredictable.”

  “What clever invocation did you choose, Circenn?” Adam asked silkily. “You did choose your words well, did you not?”

  “Of course I did. Think you I have learned nothing from past mistakes? The moment the chest is opened and the flask is touched by a human hand it will be returned to me. I cursed it very specifically.”

  “Did you specify whether the flask would come by itself?” Adam asked with sudden amusement.

  “What?” Circenn regarded him blankly.

  “The flask. Did you consider that the mortal who touches it might be transported with the flask, if you used a binding spell?”

  Circenn closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead.

  “You used a binding spell.” Adam sighed.

  “I used a binding spell,” Circenn admitted. “It was the only one I knew,” he added defensively.

  “And whose fault is that? How many times have you refused the honor of training among my people? And the answer is yes, Circenn, the man will be carried by the binding spell. Both man and flask will be delivered to you.”

  Circenn growled his frustration.

  “What will you do with this man when he arrives?” Adam pressed.

  “Question him, then return him to his home with all haste.”

  “You will kill him.”

  “I knew you would say that. Adam, he may not even understand what it is. What if an innocent man finds the chest washed up on the bank of the river somewhere?”

  “You will kill the innocent man, then,” Adam said easily.

  “I will do no such thing.”

  Adam rose with the graceful surety of a snake uncoiling for the death strike. He crossed the space between them and paused an inch from Circenn. “But you will,” he said softly. “Because you cursed it foolishly, with insufficient thought as to the outcome. Whoever comes with the flask will arrive in the midst of a Templar sanctuary. Your curse will bring him, innocent or not, into a place where none but your fugitive warriors may trespass. You think you can simply send him away with a fare-thee-well and never-speak-of-this, stranger? And a by-the-bye, please don’t mention that half the missing Templars linger within my walls, and don’t be tempted by the price on their heads.” Adam rolled his eyes. “So you will kill him, because you pledged your life to put Robert the Bruce firmly on the throne, and to take no unnecessary risks.”

  “I will not kill an innocent man.”

  “You will or I will. And you know I have a habit of playing with my prey.”

  “You would torture an innocent man to death.” It was not a question.

  “Ah, you understand me. Your choices are simple: either you do it, or I do it. Choose.”

  Circenn searched the fairy’s eyes. Don’t seek compassion, I have none was the message he read there. After a protracted moment, Circenn inclined his head. “I will take care of the bearer of the flask.”

  “You will kill the bearer of the flask,” Adam insisted. “Or I will.”

  Circenn’s voice was flat and furious. “I will kill the man who brings the flask. But it will be done my way. Painlessly and swiftly, and you will not interfere.”

  “Good enough.” Adam took one step backward. “Swear it upon my race. Swear it upon the Tuatha de Danaan.”

  “On one condition. In exchange for the vow I now give you, you will not darken my door again without invitation, Adam Black.”

  “Are you certain that’s what you want?” Adam’s lips thinned with displeasure. Circenn had reverted to his arms-folded, furious stance. Such a glorious warrior, dark angel. You could have been my mightiest ally.

  “That’s what I want.”

  Adam inclined his dark head, a mocking smile playing at the corners of his lips. “So be it as you asked it, Brodie, son of the Brude kings. Now swear.”

  To save a man from a painful death at the fairy’s hands, Circenn Brodie sank to his knees and pledged upon the oldest race in Scotland, the Tuatha de Danaan, that he would honor his vow to kill the man who arrived with the flask. Then he sighed with relief as Adam Black, the sin siriche du, the blackest elf, disappeared, never to darken Circenn’s door again because Circenn certainly wouldn’t extend an invitation, even if he lived a thousand years.

  Up and down, up and down,

  I will lead them up and down

  I am feared in field and town.

  Goblin lead them up and down.

  —A Midsummer Night’s Dream/Shakespeare

  PRESENT DAY

  “HEY! WATCH WHERE YOU’RE GOING!” LISA CRIED, AS the Mercedes zipped around an idling taxi and passed dangerously near the curb where she stood, splashing sheets of dirty water up her jeans-clad legs.

  “Well, get out of the street, you idiot!” the driver of the Mercedes yelled into his cell phone. Lisa was close enough to hear him say into the phone, “No, not you. It looked like some homeless person. You’d think as much as we pay in taxes …” His voice faded as he drove off.

  “I wasn’t in the street!” Lisa yelled after him, tugging her baseball cap lower on her head. Then his words sunk in. “Homeless?” Dear God, is that what I look like? She glanced down at her faded jeans, worn and frayed at the hems. Her white T-shirt, although clean, was soft and thin from hundreds of washings. Maybe her slicker had seen better days, a few years before she’d bought it at Second-hand Sadie’s, but it was durable and kept her dry. Her boot had a hole, but he couldn’t have seen that, it was in the sole. The chilly puddles from the recent rain seeped into her boot, soaking her sock. She wriggled uncomfortable toes and made a mental note to duct tape her boot again. But surely she didn’t look homeless? She was spotlessly clean, or at least she had been before he’d come whizzing by.

  “You don’t look like a homeless person, Lisa.” Ruby’s indignant voice interrupted her thoughts. “He’s a pompous ass who thinks anybody not driving a Mercedes doesn’t deserve to live.”

  Lisa flashed Ruby a grateful smile. Ruby was Lisa’s best friend. Every evening they chatted as they waited together for the express shuttle to the city, where Lisa went to her cleaning job and Ruby sang in a downtown club.

  Lisa eyed Ruby’s outfit longingly. Beneath a dove-gray raincoat with classic lines she wore a stunning black dress adorned with a string of pearls. Strappy, sexy shoes displayed French-manicured toenails; shoes that would feed Lisa and her mom for a month. Not a man alive would let his car splash Ruby Lanoue. Once, Lisa might have looked like that, too. But not now, when she was so deeply in debt that she couldn’t fathom a way out.

  “And I know he didn’t get a good look at your face.” Ruby wrinkled her nose, irritated with the long-gone driver. “If he had, he certainly would’ve stopped and apologized.”

  “Because I look so depressed?” Lisa asked wryly.

  “Because you’re so beautiful, honey.”

  “Yeah. Right,” Lisa said, and if there was a trace of bitter
ness, Ruby tactfully ignored it. “It doesn’t matter. It’s not like I’m trying to impress anyone.”

  “But you could. You have no idea what you look like, Lisa. He must have been gay. That’s the only reason a man could miss a woman as gorgeous as you.”

  Lisa smiled faintly. “You just never give up, do you, Ruby?”

  “Lisa, you are beautiful. Let me doll you up and show you off. Take off that cap and let your hair down. Why do you think God gave you such magnificent hair?”

  “I like my cap.” Lisa tugged at the faded bill of her Cincinnati Reds cap protectively, as if she feared Ruby might snatch it away. “Daddy bought it for me.”

  Ruby bit her lip hesitantly, then shrugged. “You can’t hide beneath that hat forever. You know how much I care about you, and yes”—she waved away Lisa’s protest before it even reached her lips—“I know your mother is dying, but that doesn’t mean you are too, Lisa. You can’t let it defeat you.”

  Lisa’s expression grew shuttered. “What are you singing for your opening number tonight, Ruby?”

  “Don’t try to change the subject. I won’t let you give up on life,” Ruby said gently. “Lisa, there’s so much ahead of you. You’ll survive this, I promise.”

  Lisa averted her gaze. “But will I want to?” she muttered, kicking at the curb. Her mom, Catherine, had been diagnosed with cancer a few months ago. The diagnosis had come too late, and now little could be done with the exception of making her as comfortable as possible. Six months, maybe a year, the doctors had advised cautiously. We can try experimental procedures, but … The message was clear: Catherine would die anyway.

  Her mom had refused, with unwavering determination, to be the target of experimental procedures. Spending the last months of her life in a hospital was not how either Lisa or Catherine wanted it to end. Lisa had arranged for home health care, and now money, which had always been tight for them, was even tighter.

  Since the car accident five years ago that had crippled her mother and killed her father, Lisa had been working two jobs. Her life had changed overnight following her father’s death. At eighteen, she’d been the cherished daughter of wealthy parents, living in Cincinnati’s most elite, private community, with a brilliant, secure future ahead of her. Twenty-four hours later, on the night of her high-school graduation, her life had become a nightmare from which there’d been no awakening. Instead of going to college, Lisa had gone to work as a waitress, then picked up a night job. Lisa knew that after her mother was gone she would continue to work two jobs, trying to pay off the astronomical medical bills that had accumulated.

 
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