I'm thrilled to announce the release of the 3rd book my Stolen Bride series, THE HIGHLANDER'S LADY!
ABOUT THE BOOK...A Highlander tamed…
Laird Daniel Murray seeks adventure, battle and freedom for his countrymen. Putting off his duties as laird—with a promise to his clan he’ll return come spring—Daniel sets off with his men to fight alongside William Wallace and the Bruce. But soon he stumbles across an enchanting lady in need. She tantalizes him with an offer he simply can’t refuse and a desire he attempts to dismiss.
A lady’s passion ignited…
Escaping near death at the treacherous hands of a nearby clan, Lady Myra must find the Bruce and relay the news of an enemy within his own camp. Alone in a world full of danger and the future of her clan at stake, she must trust the handsome, charismatic Highland laird who promises to keep her safe on her journey—and sets her heart to pounding.
Together, Daniel and Myra will risk not only their lives, but their hearts while discovering the true meaning of hope and love in a world fraught with unrest.
EXCERPT--ALL of Chapter One!
A loud crash sounded from below stairs, startling Lady Myra from her prayers. What in all of heaven was that?
She’d been sequestered in the chapel for most of the morning—penance for her latest bout of eavesdropping.
The chapel was dark, lit only by a few candles upon the altar. A fierce winter gust blew open the shudders, causing the candle flames to waver. Myra rushed to the windows, securing the shudders once more, feeling the wood rattle against her fingertips.
Her stomach muscles tightened with unease. There were not often sounds like this at Foulis. In fact, she’d never heard such before.
The very floors seemed to shake. Imagination going wild, she pictured the boards beneath her feet splintering and falling through to the great hall below.
Myra kept a keen ear, waiting for a sign that would reassure her that nothing was amiss. For once she hoped to hear her older brother, Laird Munro, railing at the clumsy servant who’d dropped something, but there was nothing save an eerie silence. The hair along her neck rose and with it, her skin prickled as an acute sense of dread enveloped her.
The castle was never this silent.
“Astrid?” she called out to her maid—but there was no reply. Not even the scurrying of her servant’s feet across the floor. Where had the maid gone? She was supposed to wait for Myra outside the chapel door. “Astrid!” she called a little louder this time, but still there was no reply.
’Twas as if she were alone, but that made no sense. Foulis Castle was always bustling with people. Unable to stand the silence, Myra scrambled to her feet. She lit a tallow candle by the hearth to light her way in the darkened corridor and slowly crept toward the door of the family chapel. Nothing but a whisper of a breeze from her gown disturbed the areas where she passed—’twas how she was able to eavesdrop so often. Locked away, supposedly for her own good, since she was a girl, she learned an important lesson. If she were to find out anything of import, she had to be secretive and slick, so she learned to creep.
She did so now with practiced ease, sidestepping boards known to creak and pausing every few moments to listen for sounds. She strained to hear a whisper, someone’s breathing, anything that would assure her that she had in fact let her imagination get the best of her. But there was nothing.
Fighting hard to keep the fear from suffocating her, she reached the door, and with tortured slowness gripped the cool iron handle. She wanted to throw it open, and ignore the dread that held her hand still. But she had to trust her instincts. Something was terribly wrong. She could feel it. Myra leaned in close, pressing her ear to the frozen wood. She remained motionless, listening. Again silence. Satisfied there was no imminent threat, she began to open the door. An earth shattering shriek and another loud crash broke the silence. Myra slammed the door. Was that…? She shook her head. It couldn’t be. Scrambling away from the door, she dropped her candle which snuffed itself out. God’s teeth! Was that a battle cry? Granted, she’d never heard one before, but ’twas not just any shout. Nay, this sound was terrifying. A cry that sent her knees to shaking and her lip to bleeding from biting it so hard.
She could barely see, the candles at the altar weren’t putting off enough light. What in blazes was she supposed to do? How would she protect herself? Damn those guards. Why hadn’t there been any warning? Shouts of caution. Why hadn’t the gates been closed?
Was it possible that she’d just not heard the warnings? She had been deep in prayer, worrying about her sore knees, and to add insult to injury she’d needed to use the privy for hours. Had she been that preoccupied? Angered? So distracted that if someone had shouted in her ear she probably wouldn’t have heard it? She took a deep breath to figure out her next course of action.
The secret stairways! Lucky for her, the chapel was located in a tiny corridor off the gallery above the great hall. A hidden stair, inside the chapel, led up to the master’s chamber. Embarrassed after her penances—which were often, Myra chose not to venture into the great hall, instead she preferred to use the hidden stairs. She knew them well. All of them. When she was just a girl, her father had shown her where they were located, and when she’d once found them fun, she now found comfort in their obscurity. Now they would not only help hide her embarrassment but they might even save her life.
Myra did regret being sent to Father Holden for having listened in on a very private and political conversation. Her ears burned from hearing all the things he and his allies had said. Worry consumed her.
But this was no time to think back on that conversation. Or was it?
There’d been a warning. Rumors of an impending attack. But who would attack Foulis? Any why? Such an act was foolish. They had excellent fortifications. A stone gate tower was built at the front of the castle walls, with at least a half dozen guards on watch at a time. Her brother Byron made sure the gate was always closed, and most often barred. Their walls were thick and she’d thought impenetrable. If they were being attacked, there should have been fair warning. The guards could see all around the castle. No hidden spots for an enemy to hide. Her brother’s retainers kept guard upon the walls and the lands. This she knew—so how?
Then Myra remembered— from a neighboring clan, Laird Magnus Sutherland had told her brother that they suspected an attack would come from a trusted ally. There would be no warning. Anyone could be the enemy. Except Magnus had warned of one.
Upon her father’s deathbed this past spring, he’d signed a betrothal contract between Myra and Laird Ross—despite Ross being old enough to be her father. Myra and Ross’ daughter, Ina—who made Myra want to pull her own hair out—were the same age.
crinkled her nose. Wasn’t it wrong to be the stepmother of a woman who shared
her birth year? Myra
Myra’s reaction to the news of her betrothal had garnered her a penance too—three days in a hair shirt and her skin had been so irritated she’d not been comfortable in even the softest linen chemise Astrid could find for her for nearly a fortnight.
Could it be him? Was that how the enemy had gained entrance without warning? If ’twas Ross, the he probably tricked everyone into thinking he’d come to discuss the impending alliance between their two clans. Byron wouldn’t have suspected an attack—despite the warning—he was too trustworthy.
Myra backed toward the center of the room. Faint cries of pain floated through the floorboards. Fear snaked its way around her spine and threatened to take away her mobility. She grabbed the wooden slat leaning against the wall to bar the door. The candles flickered. Whoever was downstairs was not here for a friendly visit. Heaven help her. They would leave no room unturned. Myra prayed her brother and his wife, Rose who was heavy with child, were safe. That Astrid was hunkered down somewhere with the other servants. She covered her ears from the cries of pain and anger. There was little doubt the enemy was causing great destruction.
“Zounds!” Myra tamped the candles on the altar, putting the chapel into shadows and stalked toward the tapestry of a great wildcat on the hunt. She flipped back the covering, not even a speck of dust to make her sneeze since she used it so often. Pressing on the rock that opened the hidden door, she slipped into the black, closing the door behind her. Silent, she welcomed the comfort of nothingness as she slid her feet along the landing until she reached the first step. Finally something positive had come from her many penances, after using this particular staircase at least a thousand times, she knew the exact measurements of each step. The depth, the height. They fit her feet perfectly now.
Fingers trailing over the dusty, crumbling stone walls, she made her way carefully but briskly down the stairs until she reached the wall behind her brother’s study. She peered through the imperceptible crack in the wall where she often stood to listen—as she had just the day before. The room was lit by a few candles as though her brother had been there, but he was not now. The room was empty and undisturbed.
Where was he? And Rose?
Myra’s unease was slowly turning into an acute fear. She refused to let her nerves take over. There had to be another explanation. They couldn’t be under attack. She refused to believe it. Her mind skipped over every other possibility. Perhaps the men were involved in another round of betting. Fighting each other to see who could best who. That made sense. All the servants would be crowded in the minstrel’s gallery above to watch, and the great hall would be a raucous room full of shouting, sweating, swearing warriors.
That had to be it. A mock battle of some sort.
Yet, this felt different. Every nerve in her body strained and her teeth chattered with fear. Why was she reacting so physically when it might possibly be nothing more than a bit of rowdy warrior fun? Her overactive imagination? Probably. But, she would have to see for herself. Myra continued along her path, winding down and nearly to the great hall when she heard a distant whimpering. Nothing more than a whisper of a sound, but in the complete and silent dark, it was telling. Recalling the number of steps she’d taken, she calculated that she must be just outside Rose’s solar. She ran her hand along the wall searching for the small metal handle, then nudged the door an inch ajar. It was indeed Rose’s solar, and the whimpering was coming from inside, but she couldn’t see who it was, since the doorway was hidden behind a bureau that was pushed against it.
Myra listened for a few moments longer to discern if there was only one person in the room. It had to be Bryon’s wife. “Rose?” she whispered.
The whimpering stopped.
“Hello?” came the tentative voice of her sister-by-marriage.
She called to her softly, “Rose, ’tis Myra.”
A scuffling, like shoes scooting across the floor sounded within the room. Within moments Rose’s tear-stained face peered through the crack. Her brown eyes were red rimmed and her fiery curls jutted in frantic wisps from her head.
“Myra!” she whispered frantically. “Ye must help me. They’ve come. I think they killed Byron. Everyone.”
“Who? Wait, help me push this door open, ye must come in here.”
Rose shook her head. “They are tearing the castle apart as we speak. If I come in there, then they will too.”
Myra’s sister-by-marriage was right. It would be impossible for them to put the bureau back in place. They had to escape unnoticed. The secret passages were the only way—and they had to remain concealed. “Can ye get to Byron’s library? There’s a passage through the hearth.”
Rose looked about frantically, as if expecting the door to her solar to bang open at any moment. She nodded, fear filling her eyes.
“I will meet ye there. Go. Quickly.” Myra reached her fingers through the door and gripped Rose’s, hoping to give her some measure of comfort. “I will be there waiting.”
Rose nodded again, squeezing Myra’s hand with trembling fingers.
“I’m going now, Myra.”
There was silence and then a creak as Rose opened the door. For several agonizing heartbeats, Myra waited. Waited for Rose to be struck down. Waited for the sound of shouts as she made her escape. Waited for something horrifying to happen. But there was nothing.
Myra counted to thirty, slowly, with even breaths, and then she ran back up the dark winding stair until she reached Byron’s library. Peeking through the crack, she determined the room was still empty. With trembling fingers she found the hook in the wall, and slid her finger through it yanking and twisting until the lock unlatched and the wall opened behind the hearth. The library’s hidden door was heavy, but not as heavy as it could be. Made from plaster to look like stone, it was a perfect disguise within the wall. Ashes from the grate stirred and made her cough. She hid her face in her cloak to stifle the sound, and muttered a prayer of thanks for no fire being in the hearth.
Her heart felt as though it would explode, racing like sheep hunted by wolves. Myra crouched low to wait for Rose, hoping that should the enemy enter she’d have time to shut the hidden door without their notice.
Dear God, let Rose make it here safely.
Now she knew for certain, the castle was under attack. None of it seemed real. Fear prickled her skin. Why would anyone want to attack her home? And Byron couldn’t possibly be… “Nay,” Myra whispered with a shake of her head. Byron couldn’t be dead. Just couldn’t.
Her breath hitched and panic threatened to take over, but she willed herself to calm. Willed herself to stay strong for Rose and her unborn niece or nephew’s sake.
What felt like hours later, but in reality was probably only minutes, the door to the library crept open. Myra bit her lip hard, expecting to hear the scrape of booted heels on the wooden planks, but there was only a whisper of slippers. Rose.
“Myra?” her sister-by-marriage called softly.
“I’m here.” Myra scrambled out of the hidden door in the hearth, bumping her head on the oak mantel. “Come, we must hurry.”
Rose didn’t hesitate. They were through the secret door, the last inch closing when the main door to the library crashed open. Rose jumped beside her, letting out a strangled squeak. Myra reached up, finding Rose’s lips in the dark and pinched them, indicating silence.
Rose nodded, and gripped Myra’s hand with deathlike force.
Myra did not want to wait and see if those who’d entered happened to notice the wall shift when she’d closed it the remainder of the way, and so squeezing Rose’s hand, she urged her down the steps.
Where she’d been able to fly in the dark before, she now had to tread lightly. Rose was already off balance with her huge belly, and not being used to the darkened stairs was made all the more unstable.
Myra prayed constantly, a litany in her mind, for the enemy to not follow, and luck must have been on their side because they made it to the door leading into the dungeon without one of the evil villains following.
She stopped and gripped Rose’s shoulders. Although she couldn’t see her face, Myra stared in that direction.
“Listen now, sister. Ye must hide in here. They willna find ye. I promise.”
From the shudder of Rose’s shoulders, Myra imagined her shaking her head hard.
“Ye must. If they find these tunnels, all is lost. But within the dungeon, they’d not find ye there.”
“Where are ye going?”
“I have to find Byron.”
“Nay! Ye canna! He’s dead!” Panic seized Rose’s voice, and she appeared to be on the very verge of hysterics.
“Shh… Ye dinna want them to hear us. I willna tarry long. But I must see if he lives.”
Rose sobbed quietly and pulled Myra in for a hug. They stood for as long as Myra would allow, which wasn’t nearly long enough, before she pushed the dungeon door open and guided Rose inside.
“Hurry back,” Rose said, her voice cracking.
Myra wasted no time rushing back up the stairs to the great hall. Peering through the hole, she saw nothing but destruction.
Bodies with blood flowing. Furniture turned and tossed. Food and wine mingled with the blood upon the floors and tables. Even a few of the dogs had been slaughtered. The dogs. Why would anyone slaughter an innocent animal? Tears pricked her eyes, but she willed them away. What did the enemy have to gain? She kept asking herself that question over and over and still didn’t have an answer.
The enemy still lurked within the room. A few warriors she didn’t recognize boasted of their heinous glory while another maniacally abused the body of a dead servant.
Bile rose, burning the back of her throat. There was no way she could get inside without being seen.
“Myra.” Someone grabbed her ankle, tugging.
A scream bubbled up her throat, threatening to wrench free, when logic filled her mind with the sound of her brother’s voice. Weak and pain-filled.
Myra crouched before she collapsed to the ground, patting the stone stairs until she felt the slightly cold flesh of her brother’s hand. She scooted close, her knees pressing against his side, feeling his shuddering breaths keenly.
“Byron, what’s happened? How did ye get in here?” she whispered.
His breathing was labored and she was surprised she hadn’t heard him before.
“Ross attacked…” He breathed deep, his lungs rattling. “Just as Sutherland said he would. I crawled into the tunnels…hoped you’d taken Rose…was trying to find…her.”
Part of the conversation she’d overheard… Myra squeezed her eyes shut, trying not to cry, wishing this nightmare away. Her brother was badly injured. Her people slaughtered. The enemy waiting with glee for her to show her face.
“Why did he attack?” she asked.
Byron squeezed her fingers, but even his grasp was feeble.
“They are not our allies. They are allies of England.”
Myra’s stomach turned. She swallowed hard as her worst fears came true. And she was supposed to marry the bastard. Shaking her head, she gripped Byron’s hand hard. There was no time for her to dwell on it now. She had to help him.
“Come, let me help ye. We must patch up your wounds. Where are ye hurt?”
“There’s no use for it, sister. I’m going to die…”
For what seemed like a lifetime, there was silence. Her heart felt like it’d been ripped from her chest, and the fear of her brother passing before she could say goodbye collided with her senses.
“Nay. Nay, we will bring ye down to the dungeon with Rose. She’ll help me.”
Byron chuckled softly. “Ye’re a good woman, Myra. As much as ye’re a pain in the arse. But ye must leave me here. I need ye to do something for me.”
Tears stung her eyes, and if she could see, her vision would be blurred. “What? Anything, tell me.”
“I need ye to see Rose safely to the Sutherlands. And then I need ye to deliver a message.”
The Sutherlands were their allies, and to be trusted. The chief himself had been involved with William Wallace at Stirling Bridge, a major reason for their victory. He’d been the one to warn of the Ross treachery. Rose would be safe within their walls.
“Ye must find Robert the Bruce. He is…” Byron’s voice trailed off again. Time was running short. She could only pray he would last long enough to give her the full message. “He is at Eilean Donan… Not safe. He’ll never be king if… Ye must tell him about Ross. Tell him that there is an enemy within his camp…tell him Ross is in league with the English and plans to kill him.”
Myra shuddered. King Edward, better known as Longshanks by her kin, was responsible for this war. He wanted to scour the Scots from their own land, the greedy bastard. She’d lived in fear nearly her entire life. The Sassenachs were monsters that lived under her bed, crept in the shadows of her nursery as a child, and even now when she felt as though she was being watched it was by one of the demon English.
With William Wallace fighting alongside the Bruce, they’d won the Battle of Stirling Bridge—a major victory for the Scots—and it emerged that her country might indeed gain their freedom from English oppressors. But not if they were being undermined from within. Not if Ross gave away their secrets and whereabouts.
“Tell Rose I love…” Byron’s voice trailed off and Myra felt him shudder against her knees.
Myra shoved her anger to the back of her mind, concentrating on her brother’s last ragged breaths. A sob slipped from her throat and she collapsed onto his chest, hugging him, trying to push her warmth into him, trying to bring him back from death. All around her on the floor, his warm sticky blood flowed.
But ’twas no use. Byron was gone—and at the hands of a man she despised. An enemy of her country. An enemy of her family. A man she vowed to never marry. Not in this lifetime, nor in the next. She would see Rose to safety and then she would see to the demise of Ross—tell the Bruce of the traitor’s existence.
Myra slipped her brother’s ring from his finger, the one made of gold and onyx, a symbol of the Munro clan chief and shoved the ring into her boot. With a start she realized what Byron’s death meant.
Myra was chief.
“Dear Rose, please birth a son.”
She didn’t want to be chief. Had no idea how to run a clan.
Cradling her brother’s head, she laid him down gently, giving him one last kiss on the cheek. She swallowed her fear, clear on what had to be done. Conviction straightened her spine as she stood. As chief of Munro—for hopefully only a month or so longer—she would see this deed done.
Myra raced down the steps to the dungeon, finding Rose where she’d left her.
“We must make haste.” Her voice came out harsher than she intended, but Rose made no comment on it.
Pulling Rose back into the darkened corridor, they made their way farther down the stairs.
“We will have to crawl through here. Think ye can manage?”
“Aye,” Rose said. She didn’t ask what Myra had found and her voice too grew harder as though she knew her husband was dead.
Myra could not imagine how Rose felt. To be left so soon by her husband and a bairn on the way.
They crawled through the last tunnel, the weight of the castle above them. The stones were slick and bits of debris littering the floor jabbed into her palms.
Ye can do this. Myra repeated the words in her mind a thousand times, and with each recitation, she felt a little stronger.
When they neared the end of the tunnel, a bright light slipped through a crack of stone, beckoning them forward. A breeze whistled through the crack sending wintry chills up and down her limbs. ’Twas cold outside… Traveling would not be easy.
“We’re almost there,” she called to Rose who crawled behind her.
Rose let out a little grunt.
“Keep that bairn inside ye.” Myra had the sudden horrific thought that Rose might go into labor from all the stress of the day on her mind and body.
“He’s to stay put,” Rose panted from the exertion of crawling.
“Let us pray ’tis a boy.”
They at last reached the end where there was room to stand. Myra helped Rose up, her legs wobbly.
“When we leave this cave, we will have to keep close to the walls, and ye’ll need to stay hidden while I fetch us a horse.”
“Nay!” Rose shook her head vehemently. “The attackers are sure to be out there.”
“Aye. But what choice do we have? We canna stay here and wait for them to find us.”
In the sliver of light coming from the hidden entrance, Myra could make out Rose’s eyes shifting about in thought.
“We shall walk into the village and get a horse from there,” Rose offered.
Myra shook her head. “Most likely they’ve burned the village, or at the very least are looting it. I’ll not have us stuck there.” Myra pressed a steady hand to Rose’s belly, feeling the child kick within. A surge of protectiveness filled her. “Or be killed. We will see my brother’s heir to safety. Ye and I together.”
“I trust ye.” Rose nodded, her eyes wide. “I do.”
“All right, then, ye stay here. If I’m not back within a quarter hour, run.”
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