Bestselling Historical Romance Author Elizabeth Thornton

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excerpt from

The Runaway McBride  by Elizabeth Thornton
ISBN: 978-0-425-22634-6
Publisher: Berkley Publishing
Pub. date: February 2, 2009

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Drumore Castle, Scotland, 1885
In the four-poster bed in her chamber in the east tower of Dromore Castle, with its sweeping view of the North Sea, Lady Valeria smiled faintly. For the last hour or two, she had been drifting in and out of sleep. Occasionally, when the wind gave a sudden shriek, her eyes fluttered open, but the thick walls of the castle shut out the worst of the storm and her dreams were barely disturbed. Her mind had drifted back in time to when she was a child. She could see quite clearly the faces of her brothers and sisters as they played their games in the extensive, overgrown gardens of their parents’ home in Feughside.

Other faces flitted into her mind, other memories—Mungo McEcheran, in full Scottish regalia, the day they married; their daughters, Morag and Lucy, the mothers of her grandsons, taken from her before their time. Her soft smile faded. They were all gone, the people she loved best in the world, and it was more than time for her to join them. She wasn’t afraid. She was an old, feeble woman, and frail age was a burden she no longer wished to endure. But before she made that final journey, she had a sacred duty to perform.

She turned her head on the pillow and focused her gaze on the three young men who lounged on the far side of the room, talking in whispers. Her three grandsons.

Her heart sank. This was what her ancient line of Celtic diviners and seers had come to? Lady Valeria loved her grandsons dearly, but she could not deny that they lacked something essential for the heirs of the Seers o’ Grampian. They seemed more English than Scot. She doubted there was one kilt among the lot of them. They knew no Gaelic worth mentioning, and the soft Scottish burr had been bred out of their accent by the years they’d spent in England.

A granddaughter would have given her some comfort. Females were more sensitive to what could not be grasped by sheer intellect. A man’s intelligence was too easily corrupted by his carnal appetites.

She let out a little sigh. It did no good to torment herself like this. She had no say in the matter. The mantle would pass from her to the next generation, to one of her grandsons, and in spite of her ability to see into the future, she could not discern which one.

Her throat felt paper dry and she swallowed. “What are the villagers saying?” she asked.

The muted conversation at the fireside died, and her grandsons filed over to her bed.

“Granny, you’re awake.”

That was Gavin, the youngest. Those sleepy, midnight blue eyes shaded by sinfully long lashes made him too attractive for a woman’s comfort. Her ladyship could well understand how he had gained his reputation with women. Nobody could resist his smile, not even she, who should know better.

“They’re saying that the witch of Drumore is on her deathbed.” That was Alex, the scholar of the family, straight-faced and straight-spoken. It was hard to believe that as a child he’d been a tear-away, but that was before he’d discovered numbers. She wished he would discover girls.

“But they’re verra respectful,” Alex added, imbuing his voice with the accent of his youth.

His grandmother perceived that he had cracked a joke and she let out a cackle of laughter. “There may be hope for you, yet, Alex,” she said.

Her gaze shifted to her eldest grandson, James. There was a glass in his hand which he held out to her.

“If that,” she said testily, “is Dr. Leiper’s vile restorative, you can pour it away. I’ll not depart this life with the stench of garlic on my breath.”

“It’s good Scotch whiskey,” James replied, “distilled in Moray.”

“In that case, I don’t mind if I do.”

As she took a miniscule sip, she gazed over the rim of her glass at the grandson who made her heart ache. James had been a widower now for four years, and those years had not been easy on him. Though he was the only son and his father’s heir, he rarely came to Drumore. Some said that it was his genius for making money that absorbed all his time and energies. Others thought that he stayed away because of the memories of his wife were too painful to be borne. Lady Valeria knew better. There was something else, something that even her finely turned intuition could not discern.

They called her a witch, but really, her powers were limited. She could not read minds, or tell fortunes, or cast spells. Her gift was to see into the future. Sometimes she saw clearly and at other times, as now, she saw through a glass darkly.

“Well, don’t stand around like pall-bearers,” she said. “I’m not dead yet. Pull up chairs and sit ye down. I have something serious I want to say to you.”

Her grandsons chuckled, but she was aware of the veiled glances they darted at each other as they did her bidding. They knew well enough what was on her mind. When they were children, they’d been enthralled by stories of the diviners and seers in her clan. They’d known that one from their own family would be chosen to carry on the tradition, but as they’d grown older, wiser and more and more Anglified, they’d lost their innocence.

Without preamble, she said, “When I die, one or all of you—God help us—will inherit the gifts of your ancestors. You know what I’m talking about, so let’s not bandy words.”

Alex heaved a sigh. Gavin ran his finger under his collar, and James bolted his whiskey in a practiced movement that made her ladyship’s brows snap together.

She gave each grandson a piercing look from narrowed eyes. “Don’t look so worried. It’s not in my power to choose my successor. With any luck, it may skip a generation, though I’ve never known that to happen. I console myself with the thought that sometimes the weakest vessels surprise us all.”

Alex said, “I vote we go with skipping a generation. Granny, you’ll not get much joy out of us. Well, look at us.” He added helplessly, “We can’t even speak Gaelic. We’d be no use as seers.”

“What’s a seer?” asked Gavin.

“Someone with second sight,” replied James. He was looking around for the whiskey decanter. “Would someone mind telling me which of us is going to make the supreme sacrifice and produce the next generation of Grampian sorcerers?”

His question was met with stark silence.

“I thought as much,” he said.

He found the decanter, topped up his glass, then took his chair again. “Go on, Granny. Tell us what’s on your mind.”

“It must be the air,” her ladyship observed with a coy smile. “You’re beginning to sound like Scotsmen again.” She exhaled a long breath and went on, “I have a message for each of you, so listen well. I don’t know what it means and I doubt that you will either. However, in the not too distant future, you would do well to remember my words and act accordingly. Gavin, take my glass away and give me your hand.”

It looked as though Gavin would argue the point, but when James kicked him surreptitiously on the ankle, he gave a pained smile, set his grandmother’s glass aside and extended his right hand. Lady Valeria held it loosely, but she did not look at it. She gazed into his eyes with an unnerving intensity. No one moved, not a sound was heard not even the hiss of the gas lamps on the walls, only the frail rasp of an old woman’s voice.

“Look to Macbeth. That’s where your fate lies. You stand on the brink, Gavin. Fail Macbeth and you will regret it to your dying day.”

When she released his hand, Gavin gave an involuntary shudder.

“Alex?”

Alex meekly gave his grandmother his hand. “Calluses,” she said, opening his fingers to stare at his palm. "Now how would a man who works behind a desk come by these bumps?”

He shrugged indifferently. “I keep up with my fencing.”

“Mmm,” her ladyship intoned, searching his expression as though she doubted his words. There was nothing to read there. Of all her grandsons, Alex was the most adept at concealing what he was thinking and feeling.

She let out a sigh. “You will pass through fire,” she said, “but it will not consume you if you trust your intuition. Logic will not help you. You will know what I mean when the time comes. Hold fast to what you feel, Alex. That’s where you will find your salvation.”

Gavin stifled a yawn and received another kick on the ankle from James.

“Thank you, Granny,” Alex said. “You’ve given me a lot to think about.”

Her ladyship gave a snort of derision. “Aye, you may thank me, but your gravity does not deceive me. There’s none so blind as those who will not see, and you three are no better than those three wee blind mice in that cursed nursery rhyme. Disregard my words if you will, but you do so at your peril.”

She ignored their feeble protests and looked at James. After setting aside his glass, he surprised her by taking her hand between his own and cradling it gently.

He spoke first. “You see how it is with us, Granny. You can’t leave us, not yet. We’re practically Sassenachs. Stay a while and tell us the old stories and teach us the old ways.”

Her throat tightened. He’d had a harder row to hoe than his cousins. A shadow seemed to cling to him, as though all his dreams had faded away. She longed to help him, but her time was past. All she could do was point the way.

She spoke so softly that he had to put his ear to her lips and ask her to repeat herself. Inhaling a shallow breath, she whispered haltingly. “Your bride is in mortal danger, James. You must find her or she will surely die. Don’t despair. Your gift is to see into the future and the future can be changed.”

She saw the doubt in his eyes as he pulled back to stare at her. “I know, I know,” she said querulously. “It doesn’t make sense, not yet. Just remember my words and in due course all will become clear to you.”

James’s cousins looked at him with raised brows. They had not heard their grandmother’s message to him. He gave a slight shrug and lounged back in his chair.

Her ladyship seemed to be dozing, and Gavin turned to the others and said in an undertone, “Do you think we’ve been given a test, you know, whoever successfully completes his quest become the next—” he made a face, “grandmaster or whatever?”

James replied, “If it were that easy, all we need do is fail the test then we would be free and clear.”

Alex shook his head. “Sometimes I wonder about you two. We’re not living in the Dark Ages. This is the age of Progress. Granny is a. . . ” he had to search for the word, “a relic of a superstitious era. I no more believe in seers than I do in King Arthur and his knights of the round table.”

Lady Valeria joined the conversation at this point. Without opening her eyes, she said, “Your trouble, Alex, is that you spend too much time with numbers.” She opened her eyes. “Let me tell you that I have seen more of the world than you can possibly imagine. I was born at the turn of the century. I was in Brussels with my parents when Wellington met Napoleon at Waterloo. I’ve lived through other wars and the reigns of four monarchs as well as countless prime ministers. The changes I’ve seen—” She shook her head. “Trains from one end of the country to the other; gas to light our homes; water closets and I don’t know what all. I understand what is of this world as well as you. I’m asking you to pay attention to what is unworldly and unchanging.”

“Granny,” Alex hastily interposed, “I did not mean—”

She waved him to silence. “I know what you meant. Make sure that you know what I mean.” She looked at Gavin. “I don’t know whether or not you are being tested, but those messages came from my heart. All I want is to see my grandsons happy. Promise me you won’t forget my words.”

They promised. She beamed at them. “Now make me happy by offering me a wee dram of uisge beatha.”

It was one of the few Gaelic expressions they all understood.

“Slàinte Mhath!” said her ladyship.

“Slàinte Mhath!” her grandsons chorused as they knocked back their whiskey.

It was moment of complete harmony and happiness.

In the wee hours of the morning, with her three grandsons by her side, Granny McEcheran drew her last breath.

 

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Copyright © ElizabethThornton, June 2008: All Rights Reserved