A Highlander for Christmas

                                               December 1745 Scotland

“Please, Cameron, please, I beg ye, please dinna go.” Mhairie Stewart clutched the wolf pelts draped across her adopted son’s massive shoulders. “I’ve seen what will happen, laddie. These battles will all be for naught, and ye ken that I’m rarely wrong.”
Truth to tell, she was never wrong but occasionally did pretend to be, else those within the clan think her truly bewitched. ’Twas bad enough that most eyed her potions with suspicion, even when they were in sore need of them.
Her son put down his whetstone and stood. Towering over her, he gently cradled her gnarled fingers within his wide, callused palms. “Minnie, dream or nay dream, I have to go. I have no more love for Prince Charles than ye—hell, the man can barely speak Scot, much less Gael—but the MacLeod, Da, has said we go, so go I shall.”
He bent to brush a tear from her wind-chafed cheek and his rich raven locks fell forward, framing his bonnie face. Her heart contracted. “But—”
“Minnie, why do ye fash? Ye ken that I’m the strongest among our clan, and truth to tell, of many more.”
Aye, he was that, but the vision had been so clear …
“I promise to return to ye.”
Ack! ’Twas the point! There wouldna be a returning. Thousands would remain on the field, in a glen of blood near Inverness!
Goddess and her son’s saints preserve her, she hadna struggled for hours to bring him forth from her poor sister’s womb and then spent decades fretting over his every misstep and bruise to have him die so inglorious a death!
She took a shuddering breath, praying guilt would sway him where reasoning had failed. “Son, look at me. I havena many moons left to me. Will ye have me fret them away?”
Tsking, he wrapped his powerful arms about her and pulled her close, making her only that much more aware of how fragile her once strong bones had grown, of how close she was to being no more.
Into her hair he whispered, “Minnie, I love ye with all my heart and would remain if I had a choice.” He then leaned back and lifted her chin with the crook of his finger. Dimples bracketed his handsome grin as he looked into her eyes. “I promise to be careful. I shan’t take any unnecessary risks.”
Augh! He didna ken the meaning of careful! She’d heard the tales despite his trying to keep them from her, knew of the many risks he’d taken over the years in heat of battle. And had she complained? Nay.
From the verra first moment she’d held him she’d sensed that he was destined for glory. In a flash of insight she’d seen his matured countenance as it was now, his startling blue eyes, broad smile and cleft chin, had heard hundreds shouting his name as he waved. And well she understood that such a path often required daring. But to die for this, this … impostor?
He gave her nay choice. She would now have to do what she thought never to do to anyone—much less to her son—but Cameron would meet his destiny. She’d doubtless lose his love in the process, but ’twould be worth the loss and grieving to see him safe, so he might possibly be liege, mayhap even be king, to remarry and, hopefully, to a stronger lass who could birth his bairns.
Her decision made, Mhairie heaved what she hoped sounded like a resigned sigh. “I see that I canna dissuade ye. So be it. But grant me one last boon. Let me bless ye in the auld way before ye go.”
Cameron’s brow furrowed as he gave her that ’tis all nonsense look he always managed whenever she insisted that the last bit of the grain be left in the field for the Pooka, but finally he nodded. “As ye lust.”
She reached into the deep pocket of her gown and pulled forth the amulet she’d crafted years ago should she ever need it. “Bend down then.”
He examined the large hollowed acorn attached to the leather cord and his grin returned. “Where there’s a witch, there’s a way, huh?”
Mhairie cuffed his arm and anxiously glanced about. “Ye ken better than to joke about such.”
Sister by marriage to their last liege lord, she’d been offered a place within Rubha Castle when she’d first arrived decades ago. Had there been a forest at hand where she could have sought occasional privacy to worship as she chose, she would have happily joined her young sister and new husband within Rubha’s formidable walls, but such wasna the case. Her sister’s new home sat on a windswept headland with nary a bush, much less an oak, for miles.
Having gained Cameron’s acquiescence to a blessing, she patted his cheek. “Ye’re a good lad. I dinna care what those silly lasses say about ye.”
Cameron cocked an eyebrow as he settled back on the bench before her modest croft and reached for his blade. “And what might that be?”
“That as brawny and fine as ye might be, ye’re still too full of yerself by half.”
He laughed, causing great dimples to form in his cheeks as he drew his whetstone along the edge of highly polished steel. “Go on with ye. Ye havena much time. We leave at dawn.”
Pulling her gaze from the harbinger of death he so lovingly fondled, Mhairie muttered, “Aye.”
Her thoughts consumed with the lie she would tell his father and with the sleeping potion and snippets of verse she had yet to fully formulate, she hobbled as fast as her creaking hips and failing heart would allow down the path past Rubha Castle, turned south at the wee stone kirk that she and the rest of the clan attended daily, and then onto the path leading to the firth and its boulder-strewn beach.
At a lone stone croft built into the cliff, she knocked.
Three breaths came and went before the leather-slung door listed open and Tall Thomas poked his shaggy head out. Squinting against the glare bouncing off the choppy sea, their clan’s huge light-keeper grumbled, “What do ye—Ah, ’tis ye.” He grinned and pushed the door wide. “Did ye bring currants, mistress?”
“Nay, Thomas.” She held out a leather pouch. Once firm and tawny but now stained the color of old wood, the pouch she held was too flimsy by half from decades of use so should he not return it—which he more often than not forgot to do—she’d be none the poorer. “I’ve brought ye walnuts.”
“Oh.” He snatched the bag from her hand. “Next time bring currants. I’m a wee stove up.”
Humph. “Next time.” She eased past his formidable bulk into the croft’s one-room interior. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom her nose twitched, offended by the acrid stench of mildew, sweat, and old ashes. As Tom leaned out to grab the door, she grumbled, “Leave it open. Please.” He scowled over his shoulder at her but left the door ajar. “Have you been applying the ointment to your wound as I asked?”
Thomas caught his lower lip betwixt his teeth and she heaved an exasperated sigh. “Sit down and roll up your sleeve.” He did, and she tsked finding a soiled, sloppily applied dressing covering his right forearm. “If you were having trouble doing this, why did ye not come to me?”
“Ye ken why, mistress. They,” he cocked his head in the direction of the village and castle high above them, “fear me.”
Aye, they did. Misshaped by perpetually growing lumps of flesh, Thomas—desperate and near starvation—had wandered onto MacLeod land some fifteen years past. Their liege, not having the heart to cast him out, had given him this isolated and damp croft that no one else would occupy.
Clever with wood, Thomas had tried to make his way as a carpenter but none, save Mhairie, would barter with him fearing they’d catch whatever afflicted him. So now he earned his keep by tending the fires on their headland whenever their men were out to sea. No easy task given his infirmities and the distance he had to travel to gather wood. Worse, he had no help. His lone brother had gone to the New World—to a place called Virginia.
As she finished redressing his wound, which was healing nicely despite Thomas, he murmured, “How will I ever repay yer kindness, mistress?”
She smiled, glad for the opening. “ ’Tis simply done. I have need of your croft this evening and for the box ye crafted for me so many years ago.”
“Just before the moon reaches its zenith.”
He nodded. “Good. I dinna feel comfortable wandering about before gloaming.” Thomas shifted his gaze to the long, intricately carved oak box resting against the back wall. “I’ll miss looking at it.”
Mhairie rose and ran her hand along the finely chiseled spirals, crescents, and wedges—auld symbols that meant the world to her—carved into the box’s lid. Aye, ’twas truly a sight to behold. Wishing she could take possession of it but knowing the risk, she murmured, “ ’Twill remain in yer safe keeping, Thomas. I just need a bit of privacy to put something of great value into it.” She resumed her seat on his cottie stool and patted his misshapen leg. “Grave trouble is bearing down on us, Thomas. ’Tis verra important that the box never be opened by any, save me. That which I put within must be safeguarded.” No one would think to look for Cameron here, but just in case, she added, “Safeguarded with yer life, if need be.”
Scotland’s future might well depend on it.
He tipped his head and stared at her for a long moment, then held out his hand. “Aye, m’lady, with my verra life.”

                                                          Chapter One
                                             Boston December 2, 2007

Claire MacGregor wanted to cry. The biggest shopping weekend of the year had come and gone and she’d only brought in thirty-six dollars and change. Merry Christmas, ho, ho … blah.
But then Christmas hadn’t been the same since her mother had died eight years ago. Had it not been for customer expectations and the hope of luring shoppers into the Velvet Pumpkin she wouldn’t have bothered to decorate at all.
The brass bell hanging above her antique shop’s door chimed, and Claire looked up from her computer screen, a smile in place for her first customer of the afternoon. Seeing Tracy Simpson crossing the threshold, all hope of her making her first sale of the day fizzled. “Hey, Tracy. How did the job interview go?”
Tracy grinned as she pulled off her gloves. “I didn’t go. I went to a cattle call instead.”
“A cattle call.” Claire glanced at the French banjo-bottomed clock she held on consignment, then out through the wide bow windows fronting her shop. Four-thirty and snowing. No way could Tracy race across town now. “I don’t believe you did this.”
Tracy dropped her leather trench coat onto the back of a nearby Victorian side chair, then strolled toward Claire’s most prized possession, the eight-foot-high baroque mirror that dominated the front half of the Velvet Pumpkin. “I know, I know. I should have gone to the job interview and I will … tomorrow, if I don’t get a call back in the morning.”
God, not again. “And what if you don’t get a callback and that secretarial position is taken? What are you going to do? Swivel around brass poles for the rest of your life? You have no savings, Tracy. You spend every dime you make. Hell, you’re only a good case of the flu away from being evicted.”
Tracy waved a dismissing hand as she scrutinized herself in the mirror. “Claire, you worry too much. I’ll get the call. I’m perfect for the part.”
Hating herself for asking, Claire grumbled, “What part?”
Tracy’s face lit up like the small Christmas tree standing next to the mirror. “Of Sandy.”
“In Grease! You know the musical that starred Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta. You remember. We saw it a dozen times.”
How could she forget? Having been an academic geek in bottle-bottomed glasses in high school, never having been on a date that Tracy hadn’t strong-armed one of her boyfriend’s football teammates into going on, she’d been mesmerized by the film, caught in the fantasy of having a man of her own with flashing blue eyes, dimples, and a cleft chin. A fantasy she was ashamed to admit she still harbored and had yet to experience despite new contacts and having read every Cosmo she could get her hands on.
“Ya, I remember. But hasn’t the production been here and gone?”
And didn’t the role of Sandy usually go to a headliner?
And a young one at that?
“It’s summer stock.”
“Where?” Please don’t tell me it’s some community theatre without a budget. She didn’t have the money to bail Tracy out again.
Ignoring the question, Tracy turned sideways to the mirror and lifted her boobs with her hands. “I think gravity is starting to take its toll. I’m not collecting the tips I did a few years ago, not dating as much either. Tell me the truth. Do I look my age?”
Hell, they both did.
Tracy, the leggy blond star of their high school musicals, had blown off college and run straight for Hollywood. After ten years, three commercials—one for a laxative—and a supporting actress role in a truly forgettable, straight-to-video horror flick, she’d given up on being a film star and headed to New York in hopes of making it on Broadway. But by then, she was well into that no-longer-an-ingénue-not-ready-to-play-someone’s-mother netherworld so many middle-aged actresses found themselves in. After a few more fruitless years, she’d returned home, an obsessive name dropper.
Meanwhile, Claire had been hip deep in endless minimum-wage jobs but finally she’d acquired her master’s in art history, only to discover after a decade of no sleep, night classes, and shouting “You want fries with that?” that she was but one of hundreds looking for curator positions. Thank God she had an eye for quality antiques and had been able to parlay a few awesome estate and garage sale finds into solid cash. At least she now owned this shabby three-story brownstone and the Velvet Pumpkin, failing though it was. “Your boobs are fine. Leave them alone.”
With her gaze still locked on her reflection, Tracy arched her back and pushed out her butt. “You haven’t answered my question.”
Mentally groaning, Claire assured her, “You look great, could pass for twenty-five, maybe twenty-two.” When Tracy grimaced, Claire shrugged. “Stop fretting. And I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.”
Looking sullen, Tracy grumbled, “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Claire turned her attention back to her computer screen. Praying someone had put a bid on the Victorian jewelry she’d scooped up at an estate sale, she clicked on eBay and mumbled, “Anything is better than you dancing at the Purple Pussycat.”
“I heard that and it’s not that bad. The bouncer keeps the creeps at bay.”
Finding only two bids for the gold-filled locket and chandelier earrings, neither of which covered her initial cost, Claire groaned.
“I’m thinking,” Tracy said as she faced the mirror, “of getting breast implants. Maybe even a butt lift.”
Good Lord. There comes a time in every woman’s life when she just had to admit she’s no longer the cutest kitty in the litter box and go on. “For heaven’s sake, Tracy, you’ve read all those articles—”
The bell over the door clattered, and Claire rose from her stool, a smile again plastered on her face for her Christmas shopper, only to find her mailman clomping snow on her welcome mat. “Hi, Mark.”
“Hey, Claire. Howz it going?”
“Slow, but then it’s snowing.” She took the box addressed to her upstairs tenant from his gloved hands, mindful that his attention had already shifted from her to Tracy, who stood with one hip cocked, twisting a strand of shoulder-length platinum hair between her fingers. Long resigned to fading into the woodwork whenever Tracy was around, Claire muttered, “Tracy, meet Mark Mullany. Mark, meet Tracy Simpson.”
Turning beet red, Mark mumbled, “Hi ya, Tracy.”
“Hi, yourself.”
Tracy’s tentative—out-of-character—tone caused Claire to glance from Tracy to Mark, then back again. Did they already know each other?
Mark, forty-something and still good looking in a padded teddybear sort of way, was married last she heard and not really Tracy’s type.
As if to confirm her suspicions, Mark tugged at the cuffs of his gloves and muttered, “The kids have been sick and Kathy’s been pulling her hair out, so I haven’t been getting out much.”
Tracy suddenly grinned from ear to ear. “Well, I hope the kids are feeling better soon.”
“Ya, me, too.” Mark glanced at Claire, apparently realized she was paying attention and turned fuchsia. “Well. Gotta go. Hope business picks up, Claire.”
Curious about the undercurrent between her friend and her mailman, Claire mumbled, “Thanks, Mark. Give my best to Kathy and the kids.”
“Will do.”
With a wave and a final glance at Claire, Mark left, leaving only a puddle on the door mat and a brassy tinkle in the air.
Claire watched her friend fidget with her hair and makeup for a moment before asking, “What’s going on?”
Crap! Claire came out from behind the mahogany sideboard that served as her reception desk, office, and lunch counter. “Talk to me.”
Tracy spun, a slight blush gracing her cheeks. “There’s nothing to tell. He comes into the Pussycat once in a while, that’s all.”
“Uh huh. Then why did you light up like that tree when he said his kids were sick?”
Tracy sidestepped left and started rearranging the cinnamon-scented candles sitting on the oak dresser beside the mirror. “He hasn’t been in the club in a while and I was worried that something might have happened to him.”
“Are you two seeing each other?” Is this what all the talk of boob and butt lifts was about? Tracy wasn’t simply worried about her floundering acting career but fearful she couldn’t hold a man’s attention anymore?
With her face averted, Tracy inched farther away. “We’re just friends, Claire, nothing more.”
“He’s married.” Having come up the hard way, Claire didn’t live in a black-and-white world, but there were definitely limits on how much gray she’d tolerate.
“Ya, I know.” Tracy headed toward the desk and her coat, no doubt hoping to escape.
Pissed, Claire blocked her path. “And he brags regularly about his kids.”
“It’s not like that! Look, he comes in twice a week, throws back a few beers and we talk. Nothing more.”
And pigs fly.
Tracy needed attention to function. Particularly a man’s. Insecure at the best of times, she had a long history of choosing bad boys who left her twisting in the wind. Mark, a family man, would be a break from tradition, but then again, he did say something just a few weeks ago about working on his Harley.
Seeing her friend’s jaw set and normally full lips thin into a hard line, Claire heaved a resigned sigh. Hey, it wasn’t her life. “Sweetie, I just don’t want to see you get hurt again.”
“Thank you. And you’re no one to be shelling out dating advice. You haven’t been out with a man in years.”
“Have too. I went out just last week.”
Tracy snorted. “Going to a comedy club with Victor, your gay interior designer, does not constitute a date, Claire. I mean … when was the last time you got laid?”
Sensing the accusation worm turning, Claire reached for the candles, rearranging them back to the way Victor, a master merchandiser, had piled them. “I don’t remember.”
“My point exactly. I bet you look like a prune down there. You really need to invest in some serious lingerie and then find yourself a boink buddy. You know what they say … use it or lose it.”
“Augh.” True, she hadn’t been on a real date in years, hadn’t found anyone worth getting dolled up for, much less making love to, but prune? Claire shuddered.
Tracy, a look of pity in her eye, wrapped an arm around Claire’s shoulder. “Finding someone safe—and in as much need of some healthy, casual sex as you are—would do you a world of good.”
Claire grumbled under her breath. The only males in her life were either gay or plain vanilla. No way would she be boinking any of them. She’d done the let’s-turn-this-friendship-into-something-more thing with the guy she’d been dating in college. Biggest mistake of her life. The sex went from bad to hopeless and she’d lost a friend when she put an end to it. Lesson learned, she vowed never again. She was holding out for the man of her dreams, one with flashing blue eyes and dimples, one who’d be able to turn her knees to jelly and her blood on fire with just a look or touch. The fact that she was now thirty-one and he’d yet to show up didn’t dissuade her. Miracles did happen.
Tracy looked at her watch. “Now that we’ve made nice, do you want to join me for supper? I haven’t eaten all day.”
Claire studied the snow falling in fat, dime-sized flakes that clung like meringue to the lonely parking meters outside her door. Hell, there was no reason to stay open. No one would be out Christmas shopping tonight. And closing early would save on heating oil. “Only if we go to the Union Oyster House.” Clams were her comfort food, and the Union had the best.
“That works for me.”
“Let me check something before we leave.”
She clicked on eBay. As she punched in her password, Tracy twirled the wrought-iron Christmas card holder sitting on the desk. “Hey, you got another card from that old guy you helped a few years ago.”
“Yes.” Claire grinned. It had been on a night much like this one that she’d first met Tavish MacLean. She’d been closing up for the night when she heard the crash, rushed outside and found Tavish half frozen, his compact car crumpled against a light pole and sitting crosswise to the deserted street. After he assured her he could walk, she brought him back to the shop, where she’d called the police and tended his wounds.
While they waited three hours for the tow truck to arrive, she’d filled him with cocoa and sugar cookies and he’d entertained her in his lovely burr with tales of his Christmases in Scotland. Since then, he called regularly, always sent her a lovely anniversary card three weeks before Christmas, and drove down from Portsmouth to have lunch with her the day before Christmas.
Reading the card, Tracy grinned. “I think he’s sweet on you, Claire.”
“Just my luck the only real man in my life is almost eighty and—”
Tracy jerked, her head snapping around in the direction of the sound. “What the hell is that?”
“Just the loading dock bell.” As it continued to clatter like an ancient firehouse alarm, Claire reached for the cane she kept behind the desk.
“Who’d be making a delivery at this hour?”
“No one. It’s probably just kids screwing around.”
Every merchant on the street had recently been hit by vandals. Their leader, a pimple-faced kid of about fifteen with a pierced eyebrow and tattooed fingers, had had the audacity to suggest she pay protection money to ensure her windows remained intact. When she told him to go screw himself or she’d call the cops, he’d shrugged and walked away.
At three the next morning, the crash of glass followed by her security alarm screaming nearly gave her a heart attack.
She’d shot out of bed, grabbed her cell phone and cane and headed for the back staircase. She hadn’t made it to the first landing when she heard alarmed shouts from her elderly second-floor tenant.
After telling Mrs. Grouse to stay calm, she raced down the stairs and found the glass in her double front doors in shards but everything else intact.
The police came, dusted for prints and said they’d patrol the neighborhood.
And then it happened again.
To date, the little bastards had cost her $1,800 in new plate glass and glazing fees, an amount she could ill afford.
In the backstore room, cane in hand—its lethal inner blade exposed—she peered through the small window. A moving van filled the alley and a man, dressed in a delivery uniform, stood on her loading dock blowing white clouds into the air. The loading dock—an add-on the previous owner had constructed when he’d converted the first-floor apartment into retail space—had been the primary reason she’d chosen this narrow building over others. That and its rock-bottom price. There was something to be said for leaking pipes, an antiquated heating system, and layers of lead paint.
She pulled back on the steel bolt and cracked open the sliding door. Peering out, she asked, “May I help you?”
The guy stomped his feet as he held out a clipboard. “Are you Claire MacGregor?”
“Good. Sign this, and we’ll start unloading.”
“But I haven’t ordered anything.”
“Doesn’t say that you did. We’re just delivering the stuff from the house.”
“What house?” She hadn’t been to an estate sale in weeks. Couldn’t afford to go. “Look, you must have the wrong—”
“Claire!” Tracy shouted from the front, “The phone—some guy from Brindle, Bailey, and somebody, attorneys at law. He says he has to talk to you.”
Shit. Now what? Scowling, Claire pointed at the delivery guy. “Don’t you dare unload a thing until I get back.”
At the front of the store Tracy held the phone out to her. “Are you in some kind of trouble?”