Mora Campbell focused her giddy senses on the gentleman kneeling by her side. He stared at her as if she were a silkie or some other fantastic creature. Even with her head aching like the beating of a Hielan drum, the appeal of her rescuer wasn't lost on her. My, but he's a handsome one. Eyes colored like a brooding sky. The strength in his face bespoke the bearing of a great chieftain. His demeanor marked him as a leader. Surely he was a commanding laird.
As her vision cleared, she looked more closely. There was a dearly familiar quality about him, though she couldn't fathom why. Searching the haze fogging her mind, she strained to remember. Her thoughts swirled around the beloved image of a man.
Niall. He looked like Niall. And he had the same masculine allure and deeply sensual air.
Why was his thick brown hair clipped so short? It should fall down around his well-muscled shoulders. Outlanders might wear their hair shorn in sech a manner, but he didn't seem to be foreign. Unless...
Her eyes dropped lower. What did he mean by wearing the clothes of an Englisher, if that's what they were? They looked to be some sort of trews or breeches, she guessed, and a jacket right enough, but not in any fashion she'd ever seen before. The narrow striped scarf he wore at his neck was most peculiar. What purpose did it serve? And the cane he held in blood-stained fingers had the oddest face. Frightening even. If he were an Englisher, he had a style all his own.
He laid the cane down, his intent gray eyes searching hers. "Who struck you?"
The force of his gaze held her. "The MacDonald, the divil."
Her apparent champion narrowed his gaze. Lifting one hand, he lightly touched the tender lump on her forehead. His scent wafted around her-masculine and clean, like fresh wind on a braw day. She breathed it in, savoring his essence.
"You'll need a Cat Scan, and the police will be here any moment."
She had no notion what service this cat he spoke of might render her or what these police were, but she liked the gentle feel of his fingers and the way tufts of hair curled at his strong neck like tendrils of ivy on a stone wall. She wanted to smooth his hair with her fingers...stroke the line of his neck.
"Who are you? Why are you here?"
His query disrupted her musing in a low tone pleasing to her ears. Though his voice lacked any recognizable accent, she'd swear she knew it in her very being.
"I am Mora, daughter of Artair Campbell of Loch Awe," she answered, glad for the English tutor her canny father had employed from Edinburg. The learned man's tolerance of her presence at her brothers' lessons had been most welcome by Mora.
As to the young chieftain's second query, she lifted her uncertain gaze past him to the unfamiliar hall and white plastered ceiling. She gestured behind her. "I hid in the passageway beneath the stairs to the keep. Only the MacDonald saw me. Chasing at m' heels, the auld hellhound. I opened a door at the other end. After that..."
Wincing at the ache, she turned her head to take a better look at her surroundings. Where had the stone passage gone? She no longer seemed to be in any portion of Donhowel Castle at all. How could this be?
She ran her incredulous gaze down the hall papered in a gold print. At the end of the passage was an intricately carved oak door, the hue darkened with age. Panes of stained glass set in the archway above it fanned out in a half circle of saffron, red, and gold...like the entry to a chapel. Burnished light from the glass slanted into the hall, so it must still be day outside. Yet she could swear the sun had set not two minutes ago over the loch.
All this passed through her muddled senses in a moment. Of one thing she was certain. The nut-brown door, shut tight now, had been ajar before. She pointed shakily. "Thair is the way."
He shook his head. "Not possible. That's the door to nowhere."
Still, why would someone have crafted a door with ornate carving and colored glass, if it was just a useless entry?
"It used to lead out onto a balcony, but that fell into disrepair and was torn down years ago," he said, as if reading her thoughts. "The door is kept locked now. I don't even remember where the key is anymore."
Mora returned her gaze to his perplexed scrutiny. "Someone must have taken it."
"Maybe. But he'd have to scale the house like a spider to gain entrance. Or pull a Houdini."
She grew increasingly puzzled. "What speak ye of?"
"Never mind that now. Who is this MacDonald?"
"Why, chieftain of the Glengarry MacDonalds, of course. The whole clan is bent on stamping out the MacKenzies in a blood feud."
The nobleman's brow furrowed. "Have you any idea where you are?"
"None. Who might ye be, sir?"
His name tolled on a great bell of hope. A man's face flashed across her mind-the man before her now, only different. The man she yearned after. The one she sought.
Here? He was here! Joy pulsed in her soul. "Ah. I knew ye yet lived."
If possible, he stared at her even harder. "I didn't realize anyone thought I had died."
"Oh, aye. The blessed Virgin be praised, Niall."
He was mighty particular as to pronunciation. And not a glimmer of recognition shone in his eyes. Mora was beyond confused and more than a little awed by this Niall, or Neil, as he insisted on being addressed.
She braved another try, "I'm a welcome guest of the MacKenzies, sent to wed ye."
His jaw dropped, and he regarded her as he might a mad woman. His hands fell to his side.
"Our fathers arranged the match," she continued at his blank expression. "We met. Ye welcomed the troth."
The corners of his eyes crinkled. "Really?"
"God's blood, I swear it. And then ye were gone."
"None can say. All of the MacKenzies feared ye were killed in the battle over Strathmore castle and consumed by the fire. 'Tis terribly grieved we-they-are. Now I'm promised to
Calum, yer younger brother," she added at the complete lack of comprehension in his face, "but as ye live and breathe..."
How could she bind herself to Calum now, assuming she even found her way back to the MacKenzie home place, the massive castle of Donhowel. At first sight of Niall, her heart inextricably knitted to him. The meeting between them was brief, but she'd not forgotten the tingle shimmering through her at the touch of his hand on hers, or the heat of his eyes. Infinitely much had changed between them since that initial childhood encounter-she but a lass and Niall not yet grown. Though she'd loved him even then.
"I gave ye my pledge," she reminded him. Although, it pained her that she must do so.
He arched one dark brow at her. "So you are my betrothed?"
"Aye. Chosen to bear the next MacKenzie. Ye said." She could still hear his husky whisper in her ear. Another unholy tremor darted through her. Surely, she'd not gone mad with the wanting of this man. Yet, he certainly regarded her as if she'd taken leave of her senses.
"What year is this, Miss Campbell?"
She looked at him in amazement. 'Twas he who was daft. Forgetting the placement of a key was understandable, but this- "Why, 'tis the year of our Lord, sixteen hundred and two."
His eyebrows rose even higher.
"The reign of the English Queen Elizabeth," she prompted, but nothing she said seemed to shed any illumination.
His eyes held pity not recognition, preferable to scorn but it cut her beyond endurance. What happened to the Niall who was to be her husband and where in God's name was she?
England, mayhap, carried witless from the Hielans down across the Lowlands to that distant realm. But such a journey would take days and she'd only been gone moments-
The new Neil broke into her addled thoughts. "Poor lady. You must have been struck harder than I realized."
Truly, she agreed, or he had. What on earth ailed the man, she wondered, startled by the ungodly din blaring from outside the house. "The blessed saints preserve us."
"Sirens," he said off-handedly. "Don't be alarmed."
Before the banshees were upon them, she braved a plea. If she had indeed been stricken, as he suggested, she'd need all the aid she could muster. How would she even find her way without assistance?
Reaching out chilled fingers, she seized his warm hand. "Help me, sir, I pray ye. For 'tis a most peculiar dream I've awakened to."
He pressed her fingers with the compassion she'd sensed in his gentle grasp. "You must be Mrs. Dannon's niece. She said you'd be arriving this month from Scotland. I lost track of the exact date and wasn't prepared for your visit. I'm terribly sorry you've been the victim of this dreadful attack and promise to give you my full support-"
A rap at the front door interrupted them before Mora could explain she didn't have an aunt with that name. Then a voice barked, "Staunton P.D."
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