MacPherson Castle—Loch Eireachd, Scotland, 1452
Fistfuls of hair fell to the bed like streams of molten iron. The growing pile, more orange than gold, resembled a dragon’s nest, and gleamed seductively in the firelight. Amber sighed at the sight. If only it were a real dragon’s nest and a beast could rise and smite all her enemies. One very much in particular.
She almost smiled at the fanciful thought as she chopped off her hair. Almost. In truth, her plan was an act of desperation with little chance of success. By all that was holy, she’d need a miracle to get away this time.
Grabbing another handful, she raised the knife and sawed off an even bigger chunk. The remaining strands sprang up to curl around her neck and ears, a light, airy feeling at odds with the heaviness in her heart.
Laird Machar Murray would come after her, of that she had no doubt. If he found her, no amount of false hexes or curses or threats from the devil would deter him from destroying her this time.
Her lost hair would grow back. Her lost spirit and soul could not.
The heavy wooden door rattled as a key entered the lock from the outside. It pushed open. Amber spun around to face the intruder, her heart in her throat and the knife pointed outward. Niall, the old steward, shuffled in, his worn plaid sagging below his belt. She huffed in relief and went back to cutting off her hair.
“You scared the life out of me, aye?”
“You should be scared, lass. I doona know how you’ve lasted this long with Laird Murray breathing down your neck. He’ll turn the keep upside down to find you.”
“I couldnae leave with Erin so sick, now could I? Her mother and father would ne’er recover if she died. And Ian needed me to speak for him or he would’ve ended up in the dungeon for who knows how long.”
“You’ll ne’er recover if the laird gets a hold of you—although you wouldnae end up in the dungeon. Nay, he’d lock you in his bedchamber first. And no doubt Father Odhran would consider it a just punishment for all the help you’ve given the women.”
“He’s a wee ablach, that one. The devil take him.”
“The devil take them both.”
Her knife cut through the last chunk of her hair and she held it in her hand, staring at it. The strands twisted and curled in long, silken waves, a last gift from her mother. Her father had loved her hair. Her grandmother had brushed it every night, singing the songs of the Highlands that Amber had so loved. Sorrow welled within her at the loss, and she squeezed her eyes shut to push it away.
Bah! Her hair had caused her nothing but trouble. How many times had she wished herself plain when some irritating man came knocking at her door, asking for her hand? Too many to count.
She tossed the curls down on the linen quilt, glad to be rid of them. She had no time for self-pity.
“Did you bring the lads’ clothes?” she asked. “And the band?”
“Aye.” He pulled some material from under his plaid.
Amber reached for the silver brooch that held her arisaid in place over her left breast, and released it. Niall squawked as her dress fell off, and he quickly turned around. “Lord have mercy, lass, I’m an old man. My heart willna survive looking upon the pride of Clan MacPherson in such a way.”
“Is that what they call me?” She tucked up her linen shift and shook out the tautly woven cloth Niall had tossed on the bed. “I thought ’twas ‘witch’ and ‘temptress.’ Sometimes ‘evildoer,’ depending on who did the talking.”
“Doona be daft. Only Laird Murray and his plague of rats say such things. The MacPhersons know the sacrifices you’ve made, the danger you’ve courted for us. We couldnae be more thankful.”
Amber didn’t speak—couldn’t speak—as his words washed over her. Her throat tightened and she had to blink back tears. Instead, she looked down and secured the end of the cloth over her breasts, trying to squash down the overripe mounds that had done naught but get in the way since they’d started jutting out from her chest when she was fourteen.
“Aye, neither could I,” she said finally, her voice sounding thick. “I’ll miss you all.” She lifted the end of the band trailing on the floor and held it out to Niall. “Here, hold this tight now while I wrap it.”
Niall grabbed it, eyes lowered, and held the cloth taut with surprising strength as she turned herself into it and knotted the band in place, flattening enough of her bust that the rest could still be concealed beneath the loose shirt. Her breath came short, her ribs compressed, but it was a strain she could bear. The bulk of the boy’s plaid should hide the slight tuck at her waist and roundness of her bottom. Her legs were long and strong, and if she muddied them they should pass for a lad’s. Her face too—although nothing could disguise the startling color of her eyes. Those were an inheritance from her beloved grandmother, and had led to much trouble for her as well as for Amber.
Men envied uncommon things, beautiful things, and would go to great lengths to acquire them. Luckily, the MacPhersons were good people, and Amber’s grandmother an excellent healer. She’d taught Amber everything she’d known before she died, and Amber’s place with the MacPhersons had been secure. They’d cherished her and she them.
Not so Laird Machar Murray. Nay, the conniving laird would as soon burn or drown her for a witch—as their good-for-naught priest wanted. After Murray tired of raping her.
Amber pulled the lad’s shirt over her head and tried to belt the plaid in place by herself. In the end, Niall had to show her how it should be done—a complicated ritual of pleating and tucking and twisting the material.
When she had finally mastered it on her own, Niall moved to a chest against the wall in the corner, and on his signal, Amber shoved the heavy piece of furniture to the side so he could crouch down and count the stones.
“This is it,” he said, pushing against the block while Amber waited impatiently beside him. Finally, a space appeared that was barely big enough for her to squeeze through. She grabbed a candle from the table and lit it in the fire before passing it through the dark hole in the wall. A dank passageway appeared ahead of her, just big enough for her to stand, and a narrow stairwell descended at the end.
“Are you sure it goes all the way down?” she asked. “When was it last used? Is it safe?”
“I doona know, lass, but anywhere is safer than here with Machar Murray.”
She nodded reluctantly, laid down the candle beside her, and pulled Niall into a tight hug. “I’ll miss you, you old badger. You’ve been a staunch friend to me, and to my grandmother before that. Our family wouldnae have survived this long without you.”
Niall squeezed her even tighter before pushing her away. “Go on with you, then. And doona even think of coming back. Go find a life for yourself away from the hell of this one. Marry a good man and have plenty of fine children.” He let go and lifted a bag from his shoulder. “Some food and coin until you find your new home.”
After she took it, he picked up the candle and handed it to her. “When you get to the end, the bottom stone should push out. I’ve already loosened it from the other side. The ground is muddy. Use some dirt to darken your bare skin, especially your face. There’s no hiding you’re a woman without that, even with your hair shorn.”
Amber nodded as he talked, trying to quell the panic that had tied her stomach into knots.
“Once you’re out of the keep, go to the east wall by the tanning hut. Look for a cart missing a wheel, with a rope attached. Throw the rope over the wall, then climb up the hay bales to the top. I’ve tethered a horse on the other side.”
Amber squeezed his arm, afraid to speak lest she start crying again, afraid to even look at him. He moved over, and she wedged herself through the hole. Once on the other side, she couldn’t resist and glanced back over her shoulder to see Niall’s face, wet with tears, one last time.
“Be safe,” he said, shoving the stone back in place and leaving her with only her candle for company.
Laird Lachlan MacKay never planned on leading his clan, but when his older brother was murdered, he was left with no choice. His vow to avenge his brother has led him to the MacPherson clan—and their bewitching healer, Amber.
Amber MacPherson is desperate. Dressed as a boy to escape her clan’s treacherous leader, she runs right into Lachlan—who orders her detained. At first she causes him nothing but frustration, especially when she blackmails him into helping her clan. But when she’s threatened by the same man who murdered his brother, Lachlan will do whatever it takes to keep her safe—and by his side.
Romance Historical [Sourcebooks Casablanca, On Sale: February 6, 2018, Mass Market Paperback / e-Book, ISBN: 9781492654537 / eISBN: 9781492654544]
About Alyson McLayne
Alyson McLayne is a mom of twins and an award-winning writer of contemporary, historical and paranormal romance. She’s also a dog lover and cat servant with a serious stash of dark chocolate. After getting her degree in theater at the University of Alberta, she promptly moved to the west coast where she worked in film for several years and met her prop master husband.