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The sweeping historical romance that began with Deception of a Highlander, and continued with Possession of a Highlander, reaches its dazzling conclusion in this scorcher set on the Scottish plains.
Alec MacLean returns home after a decade to find his recently deceased father has let his inheritance fall to ruin. As the new laird, it's Alec's responsibility to rebuild the castle and restore the lands. He must also regain the people's trust after having abandoned them so long ago, a feat not easily done when he fears he's plagued with the same darkness as his father.
Celia escaped the North Berwick witch trials at a young age, surviving because of the sacrifice of her beloved caretaker. She's made a life for herself in the wilds of Scotland where no laird rules, a life where she heals for coin, a life without love so she can never feel the hurt of loss again.
When the new laird comes back to claim his land, his determination to restore order threatens everything Celia has worked so hard to gain, especially with the undeniable attraction sizzling between them. Together, they will face all challenges, from the tangle of their own damaged pasts to the fire-fueled witch hunts sweeping the Isle of Mull. Together, they will find that the best way to overcome darkness and war is through the undeniable light of love.
Isle of Mull, Scotland, August 1608
If he was to die, Alec MacLean would take a couple of thieves with him.
The sharp scent of pine mingled with the thick odor of blood. His blood.
He edged back against the jagged rock wall and lifted his sword to the six advancing men. Blood flowed freely from the wound at his chest. The bastard had sliced him somewhere below the collarbone. His right arm was weakening.
At least the boy had gone ahead to the village and couldn't do anything stupid to get himself killed. With any luck, the woman Alec had rescued was there by now as well.
The largest man of the group lunged forward, but this time Alec was faster. He crouched low, gripped the sword between both hands, and thrust, using the power of his left arm to compensate for the weakness of his right. The black polished steel slid deep into the man's gut, a lethal wound.
Alec jerked his blade free. If he hadn't been so travel-weary, the fight would have been over minutes ago.
But Alec was not the kind of man who surrendered. Not while outlaws roamed the woods, not while innocents were subjected to their abuse, not while he was the new laird.
A charge of energy spiked through him. He would fight this battle and he would win. For his people.
The ones he'd abandoned so long ago.
The force of his resolve roared from his throat in a battle cry. His muscles swelled with crazed determination.
The semicircle of men stopped their advance and their blades dipped. Alec held his at the ready.
But they were not looking at Alec.
Their gazes crept up the rock wall behind him.
"Bana-bhuidseach," one of them murmured.
The men's eyes went wild and they scrambled back with their wounded man clutched between them. A gust swept around Alec so viciously it sent his kilt slapping against his knees and thighs.
Alec jerked around and looked up, but found only the rock wall and gray sky.
"Are you as foolish as those men?" A voice came through to him, soft, feminine, and impossible to locate with all the damn wind. It seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.
His heart slapped against his ribs.
A witch? On his father's lands—on his lands?
His gaze combed the forest in long sweeps. Naught was there but the trees bowing their limbs to the wind and the grass bending to its wrath.
"Who's there?" The words came out strong and gruff.
The other men had been afraid.
He would show no fear.
He licked his lips. "Reveal yerself."
"Perhaps you are foolish, then." The voice was behind him now.
He spun around, and his body pumped with a fight he resisted.
A tall, willowy woman stood before him with her hands clasped at her narrow waist, serene and eerily beautiful. Her long, silver-blonde hair blew loose behind her, like a cape rippling in the wind. That same wind flattened her pale blue dress to her body, hugging the curve of her breasts and the roundness of her hips.
He stared at her, fascinated. This was the witch? This was what had caused the men to run?
She stepped—nay, glided—toward him, and he had to stand firm to keep from staggering backward.
"Do you need so much comfort from your sword?" She nodded toward his blade. "Surely a strong man like you isn't afraid of one unarmed woman."
He grunted and slid the blade into the scabbard between his shoulder blades. Pain burned across his chest and a fresh stream of warmth ran down his torso.
Her careful, calculating gaze lowered to his chest, to his wound.
He wanted to stand there, to stare longer, to see if she was real.
Perhaps she was a nymph come to tempt him from his path.
She beckoned him with a gentle curl of her finger. "Follow me."
Perhaps she was an angel and he was dead.
"Come with me and I will heal your wound."
He flexed his shoulders out in a motion he'd used before to intimidate men on the battlefield. "It isna more than a nick."
Her brow lifted. She reached out one long, delicate finger toward him and hooked the hole in his blood-soaked leine. His flesh was torn beneath, the muscle glistening red and exposed.
"Aye." She peered into his shirt. "A nick." She released his clothes and her hand fell away like a sigh. "Do what you want, but be warned—if you try to walk home, you will lose strength."
Alec forced himself not to take a step back. "Do ye curse me?"
She rolled her eyes. "You've already lost a considerable amount of blood. If you don't have enough in your body, you will die." Her words were slow and measured, as if she were speaking to an errant child.
"Why do ye aid me, witch?" He watched her carefully, marking the way the wind ripped against the trees, yet did little more than brush the length of her hair.
Her pointed chin jutted up and her eyes sparked. "I'm a healer, not a witch."
Alec kept his gaze fixed on her willowy frame and bent to retrieve the pack he'd thrown at the onset of battle. The forest pulsed hot white and spun.
Perhaps the wound was more than a nick after all.
He hefted the thick leather strap to his good side, but the torn skin on his chest still wrenched against its weight. A low grunt slipped from his throat.
She did not move to aid him with his bag, and for that he was grateful.
He didn't want the woman's pity.
"The villager you saved was with child," she said. "That was kind of you, to offer her your protection."
"How do ye know I saved a villager?" he asked.
She turned and glided away. The wind caressed her pale hair, sweeping it aside to blow like a tendril of linen caught in a breeze. Her waist was so narrow he could probably span it with his hands.
"Are you coming or not?" Irritation laced her tone. "I won't drag you."
Alec stumbled after her then, focusing on keeping his footing sure in a world where everything had begun to tip and rock. Certainly he was in no position to refuse her offer.
Even if she very well might be a witch.
Celia closed the door of her cottage against the push of wind. A stark quiet filled the room.
Gray light filtered in from the open shutters and highlighted the warrior's massive form. She studied him now in the privacy of her own home. His hair was black as peat and pulled into a braid long enough to graze the sheath he wore between his shoulder blades. Blood stained his shirt, a violent splash of color against otherwise muted tones.
Even with the wound, the man stood upright, his broad shoulders pulled back with the pride of someone who never bowed.
His eyes were pale blue, the color of a cloudless sky on a cold winter day, and his unwavering stare left her skin tight with awareness.
She pointed to a chair by the hearth. "Go sit by the fire."
His pack fell to the floor with a thunk that rattled the shutters.
She pulled open the plain wooden box of thread. Her back faced him, but she kept her ears strained for any sounds of his approach.
Bringing the injured man to her home by invitation was imprudent. She knew nothing of the stranger aside from the assistance he had offered Bessie when the woman was attacked.
He'd angled himself between the outlaws and Bessie so the young woman could escape. Only then had he backed against the rock wall to keep from being surrounded. Surely his valor spoke something of his morals.
The chair by the fire gave an aged groan. She dug a needle from another box and glanced over her shoulder. He watched her still with those cool blue eyes.
Rescuer of women he might be, but she would be keeping her dagger at her waist.
"Where was the woman's husband?" His voice was strong, commanding. The kind men obeyed without question.
But Celia wasn't a man.
She took her time pulling a bundle of thyme from the rafters. His gaze drifted to her naked ankles.
"Dead." She readjusted the hem of her dress with a snap.
She didn't typically know much about the people who sought her aid, and preferred to keep it that way. But Bessie had always taken Celia's silence as an invitation to chatter nonstop.
It had been impossible not to listen.
The stranger's gaze slid up to her face. "Where's yer husband?"
His inquiry was more than most men asked.
Fortunately, the rumor of her being a witch kept the men fearfully at bay. Ironic that the dangerous slur shrouding her life was the very thing protecting her.
Such had not always been the case.
"You should take off your leine so I can see your wound," she said. She shifted her gaze to the dried thyme in her hand to keep from watching him undress.
The dusky green leaves crackled against her palm and released a smooth, clean scent.
"Do ye always ignore questions or is it just me?" His sheath clattered to the ground followed by the slick peel of wet fabric sliding off skin.
"Do you always ask so many questions?" She dragged the extra chair toward the fire and sat upon its hard surface. "Or is it just me?"
The water had begun to boil, bubbling low in the pot, yet she did not pull it from the flames.
Her gaze fell on his bare torso and any comment she might have made died in her throat. She'd seen men without their shirts before—in fact, she'd seen men naked. Some were fleshy with inactivity or age and some were hard and sculpted like the one in front of her.
But never had she seen one with so many signs of past hurt.
"It's just ye."
She lifted her eyes and found him staring at her again. "What?"
He didn't reek of stale sweat and sour cloth as some of the other warriors she'd tended had. She drew in a long, discreet breath through her nostrils. No, he smelled like sun-warmed grass and leather.
"Ye're intriguing." His eyes searched hers.
She looked away, focusing instead on carefully removing the pot from the flames.
"Who are you?" she asked.
She knew that name. What resident on the Isle of Mull did not? Alec MacLean was the name of the laird who had recently died. Finally died. But not before destroying the land and breaking his people.
And this warrior bore his name.
"Our former laird had that very name, the one who just died."
He made a noncommittal sound.
"He was not well liked." Celia stated baldly.
"I've heard something of that."
"He ran this land into ruin and let its people starve."
The skin around his eyes tightened. "I've heard that too."
"Aye." A muscle flicked in his jaw. "I'm his son and I've returned home to claim my inheritance."COLLAPSE
RT Book Reviews wrote:
Romantic tension is an ever-present force as Celia is determined to avoid any romantic entanglements with Alec for fear of being hurt, and Alec is just as determined to have her in his life. This tension, coupled with the mysterious witch hunts, is the driving force behind this enchanting series conclusion.
Kilts and Swords Blog wrote:
The third book in Martin’s Highlander series is filled with interesting characters and is an enjoyable read.
Madeline Martin is highly skilled at crafting characters that seep off the page with their emotions and words.