Unbreakable (Highlands Forever Book 1), page 1
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Highlands Forever, Book One
Copyright © 2017 by Violetta Rand
Published by Dragonblade Publishing, an imprint of Kathryn Le Veque Novels, Inc
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
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To Kathryn Le Veque for providing the inspiration to go back to the Highlands.
And to DJ, you are like starlight, brightening my life and lighting my pathway to happiness.
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Excerpt from Undeniable
Clan MacKay lands
Northern shore of the Scottish Highlands, 1462
The wind chilled Alex MacKay as he squinted through the morning mist to catch sight of the lush shoreline where his galley would soon anchor. Years had passed since he’d stood on MacKay lands. He was but twenty then, and convinced he was in love. Betrayal forced him to leave home, and he sold his allegiance, and maybe a bit of his soul, to the princes of Constantinople as a mercenary.
There were no golden palaces decorating the Highland coastline. No bathhouses and perfumed women waiting to welcome him back from battle. No bustling marketplaces where anything a man imagined could be bought. No sand and hot sun. Only gray outcrops and hills, fields of heather and mountains—the very things that breathed life into his battered heart. Things he’d purposely forgotten.
He gripped the missive from his only brother in his left hand, having committed the desperate plea to memory—begging Alex to return home and help defend clan lands from Sutherland raiders.
Did nothing change? Why were Scots so determined to kill each other when the real threats lie south of the border? Squabbling over holdings and sheep couldna compare to the devastation of English swords.
Alex had learned the hard way what real wars were fought over. He’d seen princes dragged into the public square and tortured, hands and feet chopped off, the crowd as bloodthirsty as the executioner. What did MacKays or Sutherlands know of such evil? And deep inside, Alex regretted that he’d ever witnessed such brutality, that he’d ever left the place he once called home. No one would be privy to his regrets, though. Everything that connected him to Scotland, whether family or bitter memories, were locked away in the depths of his soul, along with any feelings he had left.
Soldiers fought with true purpose here, the one thing he appreciated about the men on this side of the world.
After the boat landed, Alex walked up the beach toward a group of waiting horsemen. He immediately recognized the blue and green tartans they wore and the man at the front. Seeing his brother on a massive, black beast was nearly the same as staring at his own reflection in a looking glass. He stopped a few yards away, taking in everything. He’d never imagined being here again, feeling the fine Scottish breeze blowing through his hair or the bite of the salty air on his tongue.
His brother dismounted and quickly closed the distance between them. “Alexander.”
In truth, nothing could have kept Alex away. He relished the idea of seeing his brother fail. A man couldna pray for better revenge. He ripped a leather coin purse from his weapon belt and tossed it on the ground at his brother’s feet.
John sucked in a ragged breath and shook his head. “My lands.”
“Call it whatever ye will. I’ve done my duty. If ye canna manage to hire mercenaries to defeat yer enemy, then ye don’t deserve to be laird.”
Alex turned back to the water, ready to return to his ship.
“Wait,” his brother called. “Ye came all this way just to give me money?”
“No.” Alex wheeled around. “I traveled halfway around the world to gaze upon ye a last time.”
John’s lips drew together. “Why?”
“To see if yer sins have finally caught up with ye.”
“That isna an acceptable answer.”
“It will have to suffice.” Alex was a respected warrior in the exotic lands where he’d carved an existence out with blood, sweat, and some bitter tears. Even the sultans dinna ask for explanations. So Alex would provide none here.
“Ye’ve been gone five years.”
Alex studied his brother’s features. The breeze lifted his sandy-colored hair, revealing a long scar along his right jaw. His eyes were creased in the corners and dull. He’d aged hard, which told Alex he’d suffered. “My curiosity is satisfied.”
“Dinna speak in riddles.”
“Riddles?” he repeated, sounding angrier than he’d intended. “Do I need to spell it out for ye?’
“She’s not here.”
Bloody bastard dared resurrect that old memory? “Who?” Alex pretended not to know.
Time had dulled the pain, relegating her countenance to the occasional nightmare. But the mere mention of her name burned a new hole in his soul. “I doona care.” But he did—too much for a man who’d been away so long.
John smirked, acting as if he’d seized the power in their conversation. “Ye’re a bad liar.”
“Am I?” Alex surged closer, standing a head taller than John. The temptation to beat him senseless nearly won the day. “Ye are the worst sort of thief, brother.” There was no love in that designation, no loyalty for his own sibling. Only rage and hatred. Alex touched his sword. In the heat of battle in the desert, he’d often pictured his brother’s face as he cut down an enemy. It served a purpose—making him more lethal than most—able to kill a man without caring for who or what he was.
John’s shoulders drooped. “She spoke her vows before God but ran away the same night. Before we consummated our marriage.”
The news did little to ease the hostility swirling inside Alex. His time away had altered his view. The only man he trusted was himself. It kept him alive and made it easier to wake up every day. Men with deeply rooted feelings–a weak man of conscience like John–would have withered and blown away in the desert winds a long time ago. “Good luck,” Alex murmured as he turned his back.
“Shame follows ye,” John yelled. “Father would roll over in his grave if he knew ye abandoned yer family again.”
Though his brother’s words reached his ears, nothing touched the black depths of Alex’s soul. Numbness ruled him. He must never relinquish the tight control he exercised over his heart. And since he’d grown fond of the silver and gold the eastern princes paid him for protecting their fortresses, he had every intention of returning to foreign shores.
The sound of thundering hooves made Alex stop. Against his better judgment, he looked over his shoulder. A dozen warriors had arrived. He cursed as he backtracked, getting close enough to overhear what they discussed.
“Come now, milord,” one said. “There’s no time to spare.”
“How bad is it?” John asked as he climbed into the saddle, looking more haggard by the second.
“The west village is burning. Many have been killed, I’m afraid.”
“The women and children?”
“The Sutherland pigs gave no quarter, milord.”
The words Sutherland pigs stirred something inside Alex. Memories from his childhood flashed before his eyes—the smell of burning wood, the cries of helpless women seeking their missing children. He’d witnessed Sutherland barbarism too many times as a youth, unable to stand against his enemies because he was too young. Overcome by something powerful, the target of Alex’s rage shifted suddenly.
Even the legendary warrior Achilles possessed a weakness. So did Alex. Knowing innocent women and children had been slaughtered lit his blood on fire. John dinna matter. The betrayal of a woman dinna matter. Only the right to live in peace did. And those crofters—people who had served his grandfather and father—deserved his protection.
“What is it, Alex?” John called from his restless steed. “Did Father’s ghost whisper in yer ear?”
Alex gazed into his brother’s eyes. There was no passion, no thirst for blood vengeance, only a tired man who had been pushed too hard for too long. Perhaps John had missed his calling as a priest, for that’s what Alex saw in his elder brother—a man of the cloth, not a man of war. “If Father had anything to say to me, Brother, he wouldna whisper, he’d scream it from the highest peak.”
John’s warhorse circled him, lifting its front hooves. “There is no time to argue, Alex. Make yer choice. Join us or be on yer way.”
Alex unsheathed his curved sword, a gift from one of the princes he’d saved. “MacAoidh,” he cried out, identifying himself as a MacKay. The clan motto followed. “Bi tren…” Be true, be valiant.
“Why am I weeping?” Keely dismounted, pausing to take in the view of the valley below. She hadn’t crossed a MacKay border since her wedding night, abandoning the husband she never wanted, the new laird, John Mackay.
She didn’t blame her past on anyone but herself. But after five years of hiding behind the walls of Dunrobin Castle, relying on the charity of the Sutherlands, she’d finally decided to face her past. To seek forgiveness, first from her husband’s family, and then her own.
Whether they’d welcome her remained a mystery, for she’d sought sanctuary with the enemy. Which raised the next concern. What name should she use? Keely MacKay, or her father’s name, Oliphant? Surely she had no legal claim on the MacKays, for she’d never consummated her ill-fated marriage. Not in the flesh, anyway. However, she had taken vows in the kirk, before her own family, Clan MacKay, and God.
In order to move on with her life, to free herself from the burden of endless guilt, she must attain absolution. Twould be the only way she could show her face in public again.
“Come, Meara.” She patted her mare’s head affectionately, taking the reins and leading her down the hillside.
The well-worn sheep path would eventually take her to the west village, where the shepherds lived with their families. She missed the bleating of the ewes and lambs, having always been welcomed there.
In the Sutherland keep, she was expected to conduct herself as a lady at all times. There’d been no barefoot walks in the pastures or nighttime swims in the loch. Only sewing and weaving, the occasional ride, and perhaps a bit of music if the laird was in the mood for entertainment. Sutherland women were coddled and kept from the outside world. Unfortunately for Keely, she’d already tasted the sweetness of freedom for too long, so her time there had felt more like a prison sentence.
It had taken many nights of hard riding to evade the Sutherland guards. Keely planned her escape carefully over time, hiding food and clothing in the stables whenever she went riding.
Now, excited to see her friends again, she rode the last couple of miles to the village. What greeted her shocked and saddened her. All that remained of the pleasant cottages were smoldering wood frames and ash.
She slid off her mare and rushed to the closest burned out hut, calling for the women she knew. “Elizabeth? Suzanne? Tara?”
No one answered.
She searched cottage after cottage, hoping to find someone. But everything had been destroyed.
There were no bodies. No signs of violence. Perhaps a cooking fire had been le
“Justice?” a man’s voice sounded from behind her. “Ye seek justice in the wrong place, lass. Ye’ll find only death and sorrow.”
Startled, Keely rose to her feet and found a guard on horseback. “Where are the people?”
He stared at her for a long moment before he spoke again. “Are ye a kinswoman? Did yer ma and da live here?”
She shook her head. “I am a friend. Gone for longer than I ever should’ve been.”
“Tis a bad time to visit, lass. Go home. Violence awaits anyone who comes here.”
“Who did this?” she asked.
“Ye ask too many questions. Tell me yer name, lass.” He dismounted.
“Keely…” What name should she use? Though she didn’t recognize the warrior, he wore the MacKay tartan.
“Yer da’s name?”
“I’m Keely … MacKay.”
“The lass who left our laird on his wedding night?”
“Aye,” she admitted. “The very woman.”
He frowned, studying her. “Ye’ve heard the news, then?”
“Ye better come with me, lass. It isna safe here.”
She hesitated, not wanting to go anywhere with anyone she didn’t know and trust. “Who torched the village? Where are the tenants? The animals?”
The guard ignored her questions and retrieved her mare. “Climb up. The answers ye seek will come from the MacKay himself.”
“I am more than capable of finding my own way.”
“I willna leave a helpless woman here. Especially a MacKay. I have orders and intend to carry them out.” He gestured for Keely to mount.
Living with the Earl of Sutherland had taught her many things. The most important lesson was: once ye cede control, the chance of ever recovering yer independence may never come. On the other hand, she wanted to see her estranged husband. What difference did it make if she arrived with an armed escort or by herself? She sized up the guard, knowing she’d lose the wrestling match if she tried to escape.
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