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Authors: Jillian Hunter

Tags: #Georgian, #Highlands

Fairy Tale

 

FAIRY TALE

 

Jillian Hunter

 

Capture the grandeur of moat-encircled castles, the tradition of proud Highland clans, and the splendor of a romance so thrilling and passionate

it is the stuff of fairy tales!

Duncan MacElgin, of the devil's own reputation and sinful past, had been forced to return home t
o his crumbling Scottish castle—
only to be ambushed by a woman! Worse, the tartan-clad female was impertinent, unrepentant, and beautiful

Convinced Duncan was the enemy, Marsali Hay ordered her bedraggled clansmen to attack the powerful chieftain. She never dreamed he was the infamous "Black Duncan," returning to bring his embarrassing clan of rebels under control. Determined to assert his authority, Duncan vows that Marsali will pay dearly for her mistake. The price for revenge, however, could be higher than he'd bargained for.

Marsali and her eccentric clansmen have more than a few surprises in store for their unsuspecting laird

a meddling old wizard and apprentice witch among them. But when Marsali confronts danger, Duncan realizes that in order to regain control of his castle, he might have to
fight the battle of his life…
and surrender his hardened warrior's heart.

 

 

 

 

 

C
h
apter

1

The Scottish Highlands
1723

I
t was the first time in his life that Duncan MacElgin had been ambushed and undressed by a female—as a hostile act.

One minute he could hear the thin wailing of pipes and the bloodthirsty MacElgin war cry rising from the hills, the next he was flat on his back with his breeches pulled down around his ankles.

The shock of it had stopped his reflexes cold.

He had expected any number of things from his homecoming. Rowan crosses nailed hastily to the cottage doors he passed. Hounds baying from the hilltops to warn of his approach. Children and old women running hysterically at the sight of him, Bibles clutched to their chests. Still, he hadn’t expected to be dragged off his horse and stripped mother-naked by the unruly Highlanders who by Celtic law owed him their respect, if not their worthless lives.

Above all, he had not expected a girl to be supervising his ambush like a damned French field marshal on the front lines. The hellion had stirred his men into a frenzy. Glaring hard at the dainty hooded figure bellowing out orders on horseback, he vowed he would deal with her the moment he had finished fighting.

The incredible half-wits tried to tar and feather him next.

With no less a degrading substance than chicken feathers and smelly peat sludge. He kicked one man in the groin and hurled another over his shoulders before lunging to his feet to examine the damage done to his person. Pungent black sludge dripped down his forearms, into his leather gloves. Plucked hen’s pinfeathers protruded limply from the crook of one elbow.

Self-contempt darkened his fiercely sculpted face. Naked, humiliated, fighting for his life—why had he nurtured the pathetic hope that anything had changed?

A husky gnome of a man with a long grizzled red beard and bandy legs tossed Duncan’s boots into the stagnant water of a tarn. Chuckles of approval arose from the scruffy band of clansmen planted at strategic angles on the crag that overshadowed the pass. The dulcet tones of sweet feminine laughter rang incongruously in the robust gales of male amusement.

Duncan’s temper erupted in earnest then, a horrible thing to behold; his pride and dignity had been stripped as bare as his body. The boots were expensive Russian leather, his other clothes wouldn’t arrive for days, and the damned woman thought it was a joke. Oblivious to his nakedness, he leaped over a line of low boulders and shoved away the two Highlanders who charged at him as a giant would a pair of gnats.

“Who,” he roared into the sudden quiet that had fallen at his show of brute strength,
“who
is responsible for this outrage?”

Something in the thunderous range of voice he usually reserved for the battlefield obviously communicated authority to his ambushers. The seven Highlanders on horseback gaped at him in varying degrees of awestruck curiosity and the beginnings of a healthy fear. The two men at his feet wisely scrambled around him to take refuge on higher ground.

Fury dilated every blood vessel of Duncan’s body, numbing him to the caress of the pleasant June breeze on his skin, to the fact that he stood stark naked (except for his black leather gloves) before this band of his pathetic clansmen. There. He took a breath of savage satisfaction. That had
gotten their attention. It was what Duncan did best: Giving orders. Frightening the hell out of people.

“Lachlan MacElgin,” he shouted at the stocky man perched like a careworn buzzard directly above him on the crag, “do you have any notion in that hollow turnip of a head who you have just assaulted?”

The man named Lachlan swallowed uneasily at being singled out, while the mounted men who flanked him broke into a flurry of speculative muttering. “How do ye know me?” Lachlan demanded when he could squeeze the words through his constricted vocal cords. “Who are ye then?”

“Who am I?” Duncan repeated the question with a nasty smirk that promised vengeance. He grabbed one of the two men trying to sneak past him by the scruff of his unwashed neck, shaking him like a hare he’d extracted from a hole. “You, Owen, who do
you
think I am?”

Owen blinked his lashless lids, frozen with sheer terror in his tracks. “T-the King of England?” he said, with an ingratiating buck-toothed smile at Duncan in the unlikely event his outlandish guess proved right.

“The King of England?” Duncan gave a low dark laugh that sent chilling prickles of apprehension down the spine of more than one man present. “Do I
look
like the blessed King of England?”

“I dinna ken,” Owen ventured timidly, squinting up at Duncan. “ ’Tis possible, aye, ’tis likely. Ye’ve the face for it, now that ye ask.”

Duncan smiled grimly and released the man, his shoulder-length blue-black hair, loose from its queue, tangling in the breeze. “And was His Majesty expected to come riding into the northern wilds of Scotland this very afternoon as you incredible dunderheads sat waiting to ambush him?”

“We wasn’t expectin’ to ambush the king,” Owen went on, a little more confidently now, since it looked like the naked giant wasn’t going to kill him after all. “Ye’re the one who brought his name into the conversation.”

His lean brown face disgusted, Duncan whipped off the man’s faded plaid and attempted to wrap it around his own body. But the threadbare length of tartan had not been woven for his towering frame—he’d as well wrap himself in
fig leaves—and in the wretched end he had to make do with covering his important parts. Although he had yet to see her face, he’d sensed that blasted girl’s presence while he’d been prancing about like a denuded Hercules dodging thunderbolts. A lesser man would have blushed.

He snatched his sword from the clansmen who’d confiscated it and was holding it in a clumsy grip across the neck of a piebald pony. “Do any of you have the vaguest idea
who
I am?” he demanded of his enrapt audience.

“The Earl o’ Hell?” s
omeone suggested half-seriously.

“And if I were the Devil,” Duncan said with dangerous softness, “what do you suppose the punishment would be for attacking me?”

A wave of uneasy whispering rippled through the unsightly band, men in tattered trews and coarse
worsted plaids slumped on weary
-looking ponies. At Duncan’s unwavering stare, at the hint of hellfire and damnation he had planted in their minds, they began to edge backward into the mountain pass. Everyone in the Highlands knew that the Earl o’Hell—or Old Homie, as he was sometimes called—frequently appeared in the guise of a well-endowed and naked young man. The fact that they were the ones who had rendered him naked could be reasonably attributed to his Satanic sense of humor.

Duncan stabbed his sword into the rich red loam at his feet, his voice coldly enraged. “Well, I’m still waiting for an answer. Since not one of you appears to have a clue as to my identity, may I inquire whose crackbrained idea it was to attack an incomer without the least provocation?”

The men had all but faded into the gloomy protection of the overhanging crag. High overhead, in the violet-gold shadows of the summer sky, Duncan caught the lazy circling of a hawk. It did not occur to him then, in his anger, to connect the bird’s languid flight with what happened next.

A petite rider on an exquisite Spanish mare picked a path through the Highlanders to confront him. The girl who had shouted the order to ambush him. With her arisaid, an ankle-length blue-purple plaid, pulled up over her head like a hood, Duncan found to his monumental frustration that he could not make out a single feature of her face, which lent her a ludicrous air of mystery. But there was mischief in
her demeanor, and she carried herself with a dignified aplomb that belied her fragile appearance.

Duncan narrowed his eyes, his defenses on the alert.

“You’re not the king,” she announced, so composed he wanted to shake her delicate shoulders. “Everyone kens he has a fat arse and sausage of a nose. You’re probably not the Earl of Hell, though I admit one could make the association. Who are you then, to be riding your fancy Sassenach uniform onto MacElgin land?”

 

 

W
ho was he?

Duncan drew another breath, considering how to answer her blessed impertinence. In most of Europe his name had become legend, dubbed the merciless Marquess of Minorca,
protégé
of the Duke of Marlborough, personal advisor to the Russian czar and Dutch war minister. In the civilized world he was a celebrated military general of the
corps d’
elite
Scots Greys horsemen, who had captured Europe’s imagination with his brilliant
cavalry
war campaigns and daring rescue of his captured countrymen from a High German citadel only six short months before.

Hell, last month in Holland, hordes of nubile young women had thrown themselves at his carriage and hidden themselves in his apartments, popping out of his wardrobe at all hours like jacks-in-the-boxes.

And now here he stood explaining himself to a girl as hopelessly uncivilized as the savage land that had spawned her.

Here, in this unholy wart on Scotland’s rugged northern coast, in a forgotten village squashed between mountain, moor, and sea, he was merely Duncan MacElgin,
Duncan Dubh
as the villagers had once whispered behind his back; Black Duncan, the tall skinny boy believed to have murdered his mother and her husband, the boy whose unofficial banishment by his natural father almost fifteen years before had been met with wholesale relief by the people of MacElgin.

He was also reluctant heir to the chieftainship of Clan MacElgin, and a sorrier excuse for a group of humanity he had never seen in his life.

He strode up to the girl’s horse, catching only the gleam of
amused gray-green eyes like Scottish mist on the sea before she drew back into the shadows of her hood. A soft laugh escaped her. Self-consciously he glanced downward to make certain his important parts were still covered by the scratchy plaid. The hawk circled lower, a flash of graceful power in Duncan’s peripheral vision. Tension gathered in the air like storm clouds. He felt like an utter ass.

“Unfortunately, I am not the Earl of Hell,” he drawled, annoyed that he was reduced to explaining himself to this anonymous slip of a thing. “However, the whole miserable lot of you might have been better off if I were. I don’t suppose the name
Duncan MacElgin
is going to be met with a chorus of rousing cheers.”

He heard the girl’s startled intake of breath and wondered vaguely if she were even old enough to remember his black history or had been merely threatened into obedience by a well-meaning parent with tales of Duncan’s violent youth. His face tightened as the old taunts resounded in his head. Remembered humiliation burned in his chest.

Dinna walk down the lane after dark, lass, or Duncan Dubh will sneak out and steal ye away. Dinna leave yer horse out at night or Duncan Dubh will sell it to the gypsies. Dinna play with Duncan. Dima let his shadow cross yer path. Hold yer breath when he passes by.

“Duncan…
Duncan MacElgin,” Lachlan said, dismounting slowly and coming toward him. “But it canna be. We’d heard that ye were dead like yer dad, that you died in one of yer wars on the Continent.”

They’d
hoped
he was dead, Duncan amended silently, feeling the hostility toward him rising in waves with a personal intensity that was palpable. Aye, his clansmen had hated him; and after the grief he’d caused, who could blame them? Still, after fifteen years even Duncan was surprised that the memories of his youthful sins could arouse such a potent surge of resentment.

He suppressed his unexpected reaction of disappointment as if it had not penetrated any deeper than a wasp sting. They could despise the ground he walked on, but he would bloody well command their respect. From the look of things, however, he had a damn long way to go in gaining it. And the girl. He threw her a castigating look, debating
how to handle her, wishing he could simply toss her over his knee and whack the disobedience out of her; the handling of unruly ragamuffins was beyond his considerable expertise. How dare she question him with that absurd sense of hauteur? Why did she keep staring at him like he was the first man she’d ever seen? Didn’t she realize what he was entitled to do to her?

He grabbed his long cavalry sword and reflexively started to resheathe it before remembering his scabbard and knee breeches had sunk to the bottom of the tarn. His black cocked hat floated on its algae-rimmed surface. At his ferocious scowl of displeasure, a clansman vaulted off his pony and attempted to fish Duncan’s apparel from the murky shallows of the pool.

“Ain’t too bad, my lord,” he announced, scurrying back to wave Duncan’s shirt by its dripping lace cuffs. “Just give it a few good shakes to get the scum off, and ’twill be like new.”

“Get this disgusting mess off my arm,” Duncan snapped. And while two other clansmen hastened to rub the feathery sludge from his forearm with their own filthy plaids, Duncan glanced up again unwillingly at the girl, aware that, unlike the others, she hadn’t given any sign of remorse for her outrageous conduct. He squared his shoulders in irritation. Well, let her smirk in silence. When he confronted her family, he suspected s
he wouldn’t be so blasted self-
possessed.

“What’s wrong with her anyway?” he snapped at the pair of Highlanders who were scrubbing a bare patch on his elbow in their effort to remove the sludge. “Is she disfigured by pockmarks or some physical infirmity that she has to hide beneath that infernal hood?”

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