Calum took the stairs that led to the lass’s chamber with a particular slowness, stopping once, and then twice, to reflect along the way.
He had, after all, absolutely no idea what he was going to find when he got there.
They'd taken a hostage. He'd come to accept that. It wasn't as if he had any real choice in the matter. What was done, was done. Now he just had to decide what to do about her.
He could simply let her go, and at first, he'd considered doing just that. He would make Fergus do it, of course, put her right back on that ship and drop her at the nearest inconspicuous landing point near Edinburgh. They could forget any of it had ever happened. After all, it was Fergus's doing that had brought her to the castle to begin with. Calum need not see her at all.
But the possibility, nay, the probability, was that now the waters all around Edinburgh would be heavily patrolled, especially if she was indeed Belcourt’s daughter. Returning to the scene of the crime as it were, wasn’t at all wise.
And then there was the stone.
Other than to have known his father, that stone was the one thing Calum had wanted all his life. He had been raised with the legend of it, and it was the only thing that connected him to the father he had never known. He had dreamed about that stone, of one day finding and having that small part of his father someday. And now it was here, suddenly, inexplicably within his grasp.
But who was this lass? And how had she gotten the stone? Was she older—or young? Fergus hadn't said, but somehow Calum had gotten the impression she was some years shy of matronly, yet old enough to have at least graduated the schoolroom. But if she was quite young, then she must at this point be frightened half to death. She'd been taken captive by a motley mob of would-be pirates, brought to she-had-no-idea-where. What if, when he went into that room, she was hysterical? What if, two seconds after he opened the door, she took one look at him, screamed her face blue, and then fainted at his feet?
Or what if she wasn't there at all?
For all anyone knew she could have escaped while they’d been below stairs, discussing what to do with her. She could even now be off wandering the Parbh, those endless miles of wind-lashed moorland that stretched beyond the castle's walls. Men had been known to vanish out there, never to be seen again.
What if the stone was lost there with her?
Perhaps Fergus and the others had injured her when they had spirited her away. And just how exactly had they spirited her away? Had she fought them? Had they had to subdue her, bind her hands and mouth, threaten her with any number of injustices?
Fergus had never said and so, obviously, Calum's imagination took over.
He shook his head. Oh, the scene it must have been on that ship, for while his people had certainly been reiving and thieving for centuries, the notion of his men attempting what they had made Calum cringe. Any number of misfortunes could have befallen the lass. She could have taken ill during the journey north. She could be in that room, alone, burning up with a fever and with no one being the wiser.
What if she…he didn’t want to even consider it.
They didn't know who she was, or where she'd come from.
They didn't even know her name.
Dia, just the thinking of it was giving him a pain in his head, right between his eyes. He could put if off no longer. He had reached the top of the stairs now. The door to her chamber stood right before him.
Calum approached with no small amount of trepidation. The two men Fergus had stationed outside were slumped against the wall. They appeared to be dozing, until Calum quietly and deliberately coughed. They shot instantly to their feet, ready for his orders.
"Has she said anything?"
"Nae. Been quiet as a dormouse, tha' one."
Calum didn't even bother asking them if they were sure she was still inside the room. Letting go a breath of resignation, he reached for the latch on the door.
The creak its hinges gave off sounded like a mournful moan.
He slowly pushed the door open. The chamber on the other side was dark. There were no windows and there was only a single candle, burning on a small table. It threw a fluttering mix of shadows across the pitted stone walls, making the place look more like a dungeon than a bedchamber. It was quiet, except for the echoing sound of the surf breaking on the rocks beneath the castle cliffs.
She didn’t rush at him.
She didn't scream.
She didn't make so much as a sound.
Calum stood there for a long moment, leaving the door open behind him to allow in the light.
And then he said softly, "Lass?"
But a moment later, he saw her.
She was sitting in a chair in the farthest corner of the room, her feet tucked up beneath her, half in, half out of the shadows. She was wrapped in a length of faded woolen. She wasn't crying. She wasn't even blinking, it seemed. Yet as he drew nearer to her, peering at her in the darkness, he could see her shoulders were trembling and she was subdued.
"You are cold," he said, immediately concerned.
Or scared to death, he thought to himself.
She barely looked at him. "A little, yes."
Her voice was quiet, nearly a whisper, and smoky, the sort of voice well-suited to a darkened room. He moved in closer and then took a step back. His vision had adjusted to the darkness well enough for him to make out the shape of her face, the sweep of her nose, the elegant tilt of her chin. What he saw when he finally took her in was enough to make him blink.
Hers was a face that could have been carved from alabaster, uncommonly, almost otherworldly, beautiful. Thick lashes swept against a cheek that was pale as the moonlight, that looked smooth as the finest pearl. Her hair was dark, how dark he couldn’t quite tell, but it fell in untidy wisps above the curve of her ear. He found himself taken with the urge to brush it away with his fingertips so that he could better see her.
Her brow arched in a soft curve above her eyes and her mouth revealed lips that were slightly parted.
Calum blinked again, startled at himself.
He shook his head once to clear it.
"Who are you?" She finally said. She stared at him, her brow furrowed. "And why have you brought me here?"
Copyright © Jaclyn Reding, Oliver Heber Books, 2023
Daughters of the Duke #2
A Scottish Jacobite Historical Romance
“You must take this stone, and you must return it…”
Isabella Drayton is at once fascinated and intrigued when a mysterious stranger insists she is the fated one to take guardianship of the ancient crystal. Her deep-seated belief in the mystical and enchanting, nurtured by a childhood filled with fables of ancient knights and wizardry, sets her on a course for adventure that will change her destiny. In the aftermath of the failed Jacobite Rebellion, the Crown intends to do whatever is required to prevent any further effort to dispel the newly united kingdoms of England and Scotland, even if that means the arrest and seizure of every last Highlander. Calum Mackay sails the North Sea under cover of mist and darkness, seeking to free those countrymen taken prisoner by the brutal English forces. But raiding one particular ship brings him more than he bargained for in the form of a spirited, dark-haired lass with eyes of bonny blue…and who wears a stone he had only ever heard of in clan legend.
Romance Historical [Oliver-Heber Books, On Sale: August 29, 2023, e-Book, / ]
Jaclyn Reding’s award-winning, bestselling historical and contemporary romance novels have been translated into nearly a dozen languages. A National Readers’ Choice Awards finalist, and Romance Writers of America RITA Award nominee, she is the proud, proud mom of two grown sons, and willing minion to an elderly cairn terrier and a tuxedo cat. Home is with her family in New England, in an antique farmhouse that she suspects is held together purely by old wallpaper and cobwebs. A lifelong equestrian, she spends her free time in the saddle, going over plotlines and character arcs with her confidant and toughest critic, a very opinionated retired racehorse named Brunello.
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