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Authors: Cathy Maxwell

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BOOK: The Scottish Witch
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It’s not midnight
,” she said, blurting the first words that came to her mind, and then chastised herself because she hadn’t used any of the special voices she’d practiced.

“I wouldn’t be a good soldier if I did what was expected, would I?”

She pulled the hood of her cloak lower over her face to hide her spectacles and slowly turned.

He was a dark shadow against the forest. The shadow moved and changed into a tall, broad-shouldered man in greatcoat and boots.

The time had come. She could not show fear or allow herself to feel it. She had come this far to play a part, and so she would.

Portia raised a gloved hand and, using the witch’s voice she had practiced that day, said, “And I wouldn’t be a good witch if I let you have your way.
Begone
with you. We have no more business between each other.”

H
arry had not anticipated being dismissed.

None of the women presented to him as witches before had dismissed him. They all wanted the money or they had been sad and lonely.

Another difference—this witch was young. Very young. All the others had been crones. In spite of the long cloak, he could tell she had a slender figure, and her arm moved with natural grace.

A small white cat who appeared not to have ears had come to sit on its haunches beside her as if offering protection. A most unusual cat. Then Harry realized it did have ears that had dropped forward, and almond eyes that watched him as if daring him to take one more step.

The wind rose, rushing through the clearing and up and around them, and Harry knew in that moment, in a way that defied logic and common sense, that he was supposed to be here. That he was meant to meet
this
woman.

Harry wasn’t given to flights of fancy. He was not even particularly superstitious—and yet there was a connection between him and this woman so strong that it
could
have survived two hundred years.

She was the one
. She was Fenella.

This was the woman he’d been searching for. He recognized her deep in his bones.

He’d even overheard her chanting as she approached the tree.

“Wait,” he said. “I . . .” He paused, and then removed his hat and fell to his knees in front of her. She held his brother’s life in her hands. “I beg a moment of your time.”

Her head turned slightly as if she didn’t quite believe him.

“Please,” he said, softening his voice. “Please” was a new word to Harry. He commanded and others obeyed. But then, since he’d started this quest, he’d had to make many changes.

“I have come so far and searched so hard for you,” he said. “Please, hear my plea.”

Her arm came down. She drew herself back toward the haven of the tree, as if uncertain, her face hidden in the shadow of her hood.

Accepting her actions as a sign that she would listen, he launched into his petition. “My brother’s life depends upon your goodwill,” Harry said, throwing all pride away. “He’s a remarkable man. A better man than myself. He has fallen in love, Fenella. You know what that means.”

She did not reply, but kept her head down. He wished he could see her face. The cat at her feet didn’t blink but stared all the harder.

“Lyon and his wife are going to have a child. He has everything to live for, Fenella. Everything. He does so much good for the world. You have extracted your price for your daughter’s death. It has been almost two centuries. Let it be, Fenella. Let it be. Let your clan and mine be at peace. Neither you nor I can bring Rose back.”

The witch stood silent as if she was part of the tree and nature around her. She’d lifted her head ever so slightly as he spoke and he was shocked because she appeared to not have eyes. Instead, moonlight glinted from where her eyes should be. Again she lowered her head. Harry didn’t know if she was agreeing to his request or merely considering it.

Harry swallowed and pushed forward, putting all his conviction, all his love for his brother in his words. “If you must claim one last life, let it be mine. I’m a worthless soul. I am burdened by my own senseless, selfish actions. I’ve cost many good men their lives through my rashness and vanity. I deserve to die. In fact, death would be a blessing. But my brother, Fenella, my brother merits happiness. I admire him before all other men. Lift the curse. You have had your revenge. And if it is more blood you wish,” he whispered, spreading open his arms, “let it be mine.”

P
ortia did not know what to make of this startling declaration.

Did he truly believe that one person could claim the life of another with something as simple and silly as a curse?

Or that there were such creatures as witches?

Paganism was long dead in Scotland . . . or was it? He spoke with conviction, with belief.

And there was something unworldly about this moment. There was the moon, the drift of fog, the wind in the trees, and this warrior of a man on his knees in front of her.

Now that he was no longer scowling as he had been the day before, she could see he was a handsome man, big-boned and with strong features that spoke of a deep character. His hair was overlong, as if he had not had time to seek his barber. It curled around his ears.

Even in the moonlight, his eyes burned with his sincerity.

And she was afraid.

He reached into his greatcoat and pulled out a small leather drawstring bag that he tossed toward the toadstool ring. It landed heavily at her feet. Owl pounced on it immediately, believing it a toy. The cat batted at the purse strings, and then, placing a paw upon it, lay down upon it, claiming it for her feline self.

“There are fifty silver pieces in that purse. I offer two hundred and fifty more if you will remove the curse,” he said. “If that price is not enough, name what you want and I will pay it. I am a wealthy man but my money means nothing to me if I must watch my brother die.”

Portia had meant to take advantage of an arrogant man. Instead, she found herself facing a contrite one. A wounded one. This man suffered. He was in pain.

The spell she had been practicing that afternoon rose to her lips, unbidden by conscious thought. “
Power of All Beings Abound, Clear my path that I may walk, Clear my eye that I may see, Depart all that would stop me from being free.
” Her voice didn’t even sound like her own.

“You will lift the curse?” he asked. Straight, masculine brows had come together. This man was nobody’s fool, and here she was playing him for one.

“I will think on it,” she whispered.

His jaw tightened. “I cannot accept that answer. I demand certainty. I’m paying for it.”

Here was the man who had almost run her over.

Portia shook her head. “I shall
think
upon it,” she repeated, matching the challenge in his voice with steel in her own.

He studied her a moment as if weighing his advantage, and then bowed his head. “As you wish. We shall meet tomorrow night?”

The Chattan was taking charge again, but Portia discovered her knees were shaking. Holding her own against him in this encounter was taking its toll.

“Tomorrow, midnight,
and not before
,” she answered. “Now go.” As if to second her command, Owl hissed at him.

He nodded, placed his hat on his head, and rose to his feet. Portia dared not to take a breath until he had walked away.

Owl did not move. The cat was listening, and Portia trusted her. She did not move as well.

A few minutes later, she heard a horse moving through the forest. The Chattan must have tethered it a good distance away so she would not be alerted to his presence. The horse’s movements faded into the distance, and Portia could release the breath she had been holding.

She knelt to the ground, her legs almost unable to support her.

Owl rubbed her back against Portia and purred her pleasure.

Portia reached for the purse. It was heavy in her hand. She untied the drawstrings and poured the gleaming silver into her hand. This was a small fortune. It was one year of support from her Uncle Ned. They would be able to pay rent and back wages and hold on for another year of their tenuous existence. It would be a good Christmas.

Portia didn’t linger but picked up her black bag and hurried home. She was very lucky that he had not seen her face, or at least she prayed he hadn’t.

She took off the dress, stuffed it, holly leaves and all, in the bag with the hat, and hid the lot under her bed.

After a restless night when she had dreams of knights in armor kneeling before her and wild horses running her over, Portia cooled her impatient heels until late morning to announce to her mother and Minnie that she had heard from Uncle Ned. Her letter and his money to them must have crossed paths in the post, she said, because here was what he had promised.

Minnie was still very quiet and sad and behaved as if money didn’t matter—but her mother was thrilled. “We need a new frock for Minnie if she is to attract notice at the Christmas Assembly.”

“I’m not going to the Assembly,” Minnie said.

“Oh yes, you are,” Lady Maclean announced. “No daughter of mine will go into hiding for a mere country physician. You were destined for better things, my girl.”

“We have plenty of dresses,” Portia argued. “We don’t need new.”

“It’s not you I’m buying for,” her mother said. “It’s for your sister. We need her to marry well, or do you want to spend a lifetime of begging Ned for money?”

“I’m not going to marry,” Minnie announced. “I’m going to be just like Portia. Alone and content.”

Portia had opened her mouth to speak, but found words deserted her.
Was she content?
Certainly she was alone.

And why did Minnie’s assertion make her feel hollow inside?

“Minnie,” their mother said, “you mustn’t waste time licking your wounds. Mr. Tolliver ran too easily. It was a test, you see. Any man worth his salt would have fought for you. You want a man who is more stalwart. And you want to look your very finest when Mr. Oliver Tolliver sees you again, which will probably be at the Christmas Assembly.”

The last argument won Minnie over.

Pride was a funny thing, and Portia could see that their mother had struck just the right chord to raise Minnie’s.

Minnie’s chin lifted. “You are right. If I don’t go, then he will know how much he has hurt me.”

“That’s my girl. Portia, hitch the pony cart. Minnie and I are going to Fort William.”

“Mother, please,” Portia said. “We don’t have money for this.”

“Nonsense,” Lady Maclean said, plucking the coin purse right out of Portia’s hand. “We don’t have money to
not
do this. Consider it a sensible investment in our futures.”

“I won’t let her spend it all,” Minnie promised Portia. Now that she had a purpose in mind, that of showing Mr. Tolliver how foolish he was to let her go, color had returned to Minnie’s cheeks. “We just need lace and ribbon. It won’t cost much. I assure you it won’t.”

“At least let me keep twenty pounds for the back rent and the next quarter,” Portia said. She’d also be able to see to Glennis’s back wages.

“If you insist,” Lady Maclean answered, and counted out the coins, but she kept the rest. She and Minnie put their heads together and started sharing ideas for updating dresses they already had.

Portia stood there, listening to them carry on . . . and realized they would soon spend what she had. And then she would need to find more. Always searching for more.

And she felt very guilty that she had deceived the Chattan only to have her family spend, spend, spend.

She was not surprised when they returned from Fort William with the information that buying lace and ribbon for old dresses had not been enough. A new dress had to be made for Minnie, and of course it had cost extra since the seamstress had such a short amount of time to create it.

And her sister had wanted it. In the space of hours Minnie had changed. She’d gone from the heartbroken sister to a woman who felt scorned. Certainly their mother had worked her magic.

Oh yes, and Lady Maclean had purchased a few “necessities” for herself.

That night, Portia didn’t go to the Great Oak.

She’d never intended to. After all, she was not a witch. She could not give the Chattan the spell he wished. And she could not return his money. It was almost gone.

And so she lay awake, Owl curled into a contented ball at the foot of the bed, while she stared at her ceiling, praying fervently that the Englishman would forgive her for playing him false.

The problem was, with the image of the man on his knees in front of her burned into her memory, she doubted if she would ever be able to forgive herself.

Chapter Four

T
he “witch” had deceived him.

Harry had been cheated. The realization had come to him slowly. He’d rejected the idea at first. He’d wanted her to be a witch. He’d wanted her to have the power to save his brother.

He stood there in the middle of the night staring at the Great Oak, willing it to conjure Fenella. He’d waited for
three
hours before he realized she would not come. Three hours spent cramped and hidden, three hours when he’d dared to let himself
hope
.

And now? He realized the woman might have been some charlatan who had heard of the money he’d been offering. He was humiliated. Cheated. He’d even posted a letter to his sister, Margaret, to take heart, that he believed he had found Fenella. He hated thinking of the false hope he’d passed on to his brother.

Harry was not a man one crossed. He hated double dealing. Even in the military he was known for wanting the truth, no matter how ugly. Only then could he make a reasonable decision.

Damn, he needed a drink or the blessed relief of opium. His game leg had started aching and he was angry enough to tear the head off of someone.

He had to have a release, and for a wild moment, he vented his anger by kicking the tree and stomping on the toadstools, silly, childish gestures, and yet he was in such a rage he needed a release of some sort.
He had believed.
What a fool he’d been!

Harry had even fallen to his knees in front of her. He’d
humbled
himself.

He marched off, collected Ajax, and tore off across the moonlit countryside as if the devil was at his heels.

No, he
was
the devil! When he found “Fenella,” she would rue the day she had thought to cheat him—and he
would
find her.

And he tried.

For the next twenty-four hours, he wore himself and Ajax to the bone, searching for the woman who had deceived him. She was here somewhere. He knocked on doors, paid bribes, followed every path through forests, over moors, along the shoreline.

Did he know the Scots didn’t trust him? Oh yes, he did, but Harry was beyond caring what they thought. Every fiber of his being was intent on finding this woman.

Of course, his decision to stay had pleased Monty.

“So you
will
be able to attend the Christmas Assembly. That’s good. That’s good,” Monty said, rubbing his hands. “Do you have something suitable to wear?”

Harry frowned at him, thinking his friend insane. “I am not going to any dance. That is not my purpose here.”

“But you
are
here. It’s tomorrow evening. You should go.” He paused to add, “You know I need you. And it is the Christmas season, a time when we should gather for good company.”


No
.” Harry ran a frustrated hand through his hair and attempted to soften his tone. “I’m sorry, Monty, but I’m not feeling in a festive spirit. I don’t care if Christ himself was present at that dance. I’m failing my brother. I’ve never failed before. I’ve cost lives, but I have
never
failed.”

“I only thought since you were here . . .” Monty’s voice drifted off and Harry couldn’t help but pity him, standing there alone, surrounded by his dogs who wagged their tails, eager for his attention.

Harry raised his hands to protest and then let them drop to his side. “I must leave on the morrow. I travel to Edinburgh.”

“To what purpose?” Monty asked.

“There is a man, William Donan at the university in Edinburgh, who specializes in folk stories about kelpies and witches. Perhaps he can give me information.”

“You don’t know
where
you are going,” Monty answered, his doubt about the idea clear.

That was true.
But he had exhausted every avenue in Glenfinnan.

“I’m trying my best,” Harry said, speaking more to himself than the general. He looked to his mentor. “I’m sorry, sir, that I can’t help you. Once I’ve found a way to break the curse, I shall return and we’ll sweep every woman in Glenfinnan off her feet.”

“I don’t want every woman,” Monty responded. “I want just one, and I don’t know if I’ll ever have her.” He turned away from Harry. “Go on. You’ve been wanting to leave. You need to carry on. Don’t worry about me. We are both good soldiers and understand that there is always a calling higher than our own personal desires.”

“I wish it was different, sir,” Harry said.

Monty’s response was a wave of his hand. “Just don’t fall in love, Chattan. It’s worse than hell.”

Harry could answer that he had already lived his own personal hell, one made up of a love of a different kind, but there was nothing more that could be said that would make the situation better. He turned and left the room. As he passed the dining room, the cut glass of Montheath’s wine and whiskey decanters gleamed in the room’s lamplight. Harry gripped the stair railing. His leg was tight with pain and tension from too many hours in the saddle. A dram would make life easier.

Or make it tortured.

He’d fought hard to overcome his vices. He would return to them someday, but not until he had saved his brother. With that promise, he forced himself to climb the stairs.

His valet, Rowan, was waiting with hot compresses for his leg. The servant had been with Harry since his service in India. One day in Calcutta, he’d begun following Harry and had soon made himself indispensable. Over the years, the small man with the dusky skin, unflinching amber brown eyes and impeccable, accented English had proved himself trustworthy, and was greatly valued.

“How did you know?” Harry murmured, so grateful for his valet’s foresight he could have wept. The moist heat immediately eased the cramping in his leg.

“The cold damp is not good for your muscles, Colonel,” Rowan answered, sitting Harry on the edge of the bed and helping him remove his coat and boots. The manservant had also kept a steaming pot of water on the hearth and in short order had a cup of special “tea” made of dried lemon rinds, basil and honey.

Harry took a good sip, feeling the lemon’s oil settle in his chest before saying, “I can’t find her, Rowan. I’ve searched every inch of this damned place. Fenella was probably a fraud. I can’t believe I was hoaxed.”

“She is one of many who were not true, Colonel.”

“Yes, but the first one who made me believe she was real.”

Harry stared at the fire. Montheath liked a wood fire. Harry appreciated this choice.

“What do you do now, Colonel?”

What
did
he do now?
“It’s not the money. I don’t care about throwing my money on the woman,” Harry answered. “But I can’t believe I was so wrong. I could feel her power, Rowan. She wasn’t like any of the others I’ve met. And her eyes, Rowan, they were like small moons. I know that sounds odd but it was the image I gathered.”

Harry shook his head. He was starting to sound foolish. “We go to Edinburgh,” he informed Rowan. “There is a gentleman scholar there who is said to know a great deal about witches and the like. We’ll leave at first light.”

“Are you certain, sir?”

Harry gave a sharp glance to Rowan. The manservant had never questioned him. “Do you believe we should stay?”

Rowan didn’t answer immediately, taking his time hanging Harry’s jacket in the wardrobe. Harry waited. He expected a response.

The manservant turned and then said quietly, “There is something here.”

“Something or someone?” Harry demanded. He had met mystics in the East. He’d often wondered if Rowan was one, if that was the reason the man had taken up with him, because Rowan had certainly chosen him, not the other way around. But he’d never asked. He did so now. “Rowan, why did you follow me that market day in Calcutta? Why did you choose me?”

“You are a good man, Colonel.”

“There are many good men. I’m also a man who is fatally flawed. I’ve proved it many a time since you’ve known me.”

“You are a
good
man.”

“But why, Rowan? Why did you choose me?”

Rowan came over to Harry. He squatted in the native way. His somber gaze met Harry’s troubled one. “I killed a man.” He didn’t wait for Harry to comment but said, “The man deserved to die. He was evil. But I had to atone for my action. I asked goddess Maya for guidance.”

“Maya?” Harry repeated. There were thousands of Hindu gods. He’d not heard of this one.

“The Spider, the spinner of magic. She weaves the web of our lives. I asked her what I should do now because no one saw me kill this man. No one questioned me.”

“Do you regret killing him?” Harry asked.

Rowan shook his head. “He killed my father for our family’s land. He deserved his fate. His karma. He knew I would come, but he was a powerful man. I gave an offering to Maya and she told me to go with the next man I met. It was you, Colonel.”


She
told you?”

A knowing look came to Rowan’s brown eyes. “If you listen, the gods will speak to you.”

“I doubt that, Rowan. I’ve been beyond God’s hand for too long.”

“Listen. Ask Maya.”

The soft command hovered between them.

“I’m not a praying man,” Harry said carefully, “to my God let alone any others.”

Rowan shifted his weight. “Perhaps, sir, it is something you should do. Every man must have a belief. How else does he understand his karma?” He bowed, rose, and withdrew from the room, shutting the door behind him.

The silence in his wake was unsettling. The servant had been with Harry through two continents. He’d been quiet and unassuming, never asking anything, never challenging—until now.

Harry looked around the room, at the draperies and bed curtains, at the bare floor and the wardrobe. He was alone, and yet perhaps Rowan was right. Perhaps there was something more here. Something he didn’t understand.

But he did believe man controlled his own fate. His karma sprang from the decisions he made, the actions he took.

And Harry didn’t look to a Hindu deity for assistance.

No, he was a lone wolf. It was how he’d survived. How he wanted to be.

As for God? Harry and God had not been on good terms for a long time. The last time Harry put trust in the Unknown was on a battlefield at Vitoria when he’d charged French cannons. He’d gone alone, leaving orders that his men were not to follow him . . . but they did.

One man could have made it across the field. A troop of them were easy targets. Harry had survived. He and the mighty Ajax took the cannon—at a tremendous cost. His men had followed him. He’d prayed that day when he’d turned to see his men being mowed down by French guns, but there had been no God to answer his prayer. They had all died.

And strong spirits and laudanum had helped him face the disaster. He blamed himself. He’d been their commander. If he could have done it again, he would have been wiser. He would have understood the depth of their loyalty. Indeed, he was the one who had set the example of disobeying orders that they had used to follow him.

Harry rubbed his thigh where he had been wounded. He would have gladly given his leg if it would have saved the lives of those valiant men.

And Rowan spoke to him of karma . . .

Harry blew out the candle, slid beneath the sheets, and laid his head on the pillow.

Rowan had not come to him by chance. That was one thing Harry did believe.

O
f course he dreamed of the battlefield. He couldn’t stop the dreams. They haunted him, except this time was different.

She
was there.

Although he could not see her face, he knew it was she. She was a glorious creature, hovering above the field as he watched his men being slaughtered.

And Harry wanted her. He was hard and ready for her. He reached up, the French artillerymen he’d slain watching him with curious expressions, their faces white in death.

Just when Harry thought he could touch her she moved—no, floated—away from him, drifting to the plains beyond the battle.

She was swathed from head to toe in a great cloak that moved around her slender frame, the moon in her eyes. She had no hands, no feet, no face, and yet he
knew
her.

And there was fire now, all around them. The flames leaped to the heavens but he felt no heat or fear.

He heard her laugh, the sound seductive, inviting. This was not the sound of a witch. It was the song of an angel. Again he reached for her. His hands went right through her.

And then Harry wasn’t in the dream. He was in his bed and he sat up, puzzled. She pushed him back down upon the mattress. He could feel her, but could not see her.

She leaned forward. He sensed the movement as if his eyes were closed.

He knew he was still dreaming. This was not real.

Her head dipped toward his. He wanted to open his eyes, and yet he feared what he would see. She would have no face, only shadows—

And then her lips touched his. He felt the roughness of her tongue against his lower lip. The touch was real, wet, strange, abrasive—

Harry came awake with a start, realizing he
was
being kissed—but not by a woman.

A cold nose brushed his skin. Again the rough tongue stroked his lip. He reached up what was on top of him and flung it away from him.

A small body landed on the floor.

His senses on alert, Harry reached under his pillow for his knife as he rolled out of bed and held it out, ready for the intruder.

No one attacked.

He knew he’d been dreaming. Damn, his body was still hard and the blood flowing through his veins hot. The embers in the fire in the hearth sent a warm glow through the room. He held his breath, listening. He was not alone.

And then he heard the small meow.

A cat?

“Oh God,” Harry said, raising the back of his free hand to his lips and wiping them clean.

What would a cat be doing here in this house that was a haven for every dog that came its way?

BOOK: The Scottish Witch
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