Excerpt from Taming the Heiress
Scotland, the Isles, 1850
"We have never met before, Mr. Stewart," Margaret MacNeill replied to his question. Her English had the soft lilt of a Gaelic speaker. She seemed wary. Shy, perhaps.
Dougal noted that she was slim and neatly made beneath her plain garments. Her feet were sand-dusted, her clasped hands smooth and lovely. If she worked with nets and gutted fish, like many Hebridean women, her hands did not show it. Her golden curls were loose, her features beautiful, delicate—yet stubborn.
He felt sure he had seen her before. He would not forget those eyes—luminous, silvery aqua. Frowning, he remembered a moment years ago, when he had shared a storm-lashed cave with a girl of the Isles, both of them stranded for the night. Her eyes had been that same extraordinary blue-green color.
Margaret MacNeill was so much like the girl he had been with that night that he felt a shock of recognition all through his body. Could she indeed be that girl, a few years older now?
If she knew him, she gave no sign. She seemed calm, but he noticed her clasped hands, her quick glance, the clenched toes in the sand.
Uncertain yet, he looked at the girl’s grandfather, Norrie MacNeill, beside her. "Mr. Stewart is the chief of the lighthouse on the rock," Norrie was telling his granddaughter.
"Resident engineer," Dougal said. "I was assigned here by the Northern Lighthouse Commission. We have a grant of permission to build and to maintain a lighthouse here."
"I know, Mr. Stewart," the girl said crisply.
If she did know him, she was not pleased to see him again. He could not blame her. His behavior had been inexcusable, ravishing her—but she had been so willing, sharing the same desire and need for comfort that wild night. He had wanted to find her again, but had not been successful.
He had to speak with her alone, and soon. Clearly he owed her an apology and an explanation. He had acted the fool, and still felt the pang of it in his conscience.
"I saw you and your men cutting into the hard place today," Norrie said, "when I went over the waves to draw in my nets."
"The hard place?" Dougal asked.
"Sgeir Caran," Margaret MacNeill explained. "My grandfather, like many Hebridean fishermen, will not say the rock's name aloud."
"Ah. I will try to respect local traditions while I am here."
"Then do not build your lighthouse on that rock," the girl said tartly. "It is a place of legends to the people of this isle."
"The hard place belongs to the each-uisge," Norrie said. "The lord of the deep."
"A sea kelpie," the girl explained, "a magical creature who can take the form of a white horse or a man."
"He comes to the rock now and again, seeking a bride," Norrie went on. "If his bride pleases him, he will quiet the storms, summon more fish and bestow good fortune on us. But if he is displeased, he will raise great storms and the fish will flee our waters. His wrath could sink the island."
"Your kelpie is no fellow to cross," Dougal said.
"We try to make sure he is happy," Norrie said.
"We honor the tradition," Norrie’s granddaughter snapped, "even if some do not."
"I beg your pardon, Miss MacNeill?" Dougal inclined his head. She was definitely displeased with him.
The girl only scowled at him and looked away.
"I am thinking you do not have permission to use the beach and harbor. But you still do the work." Norrie sucked at his pipe.
"I have a grant of permission," Dougal said, surprised by his wish to earn the old fisherman's approval.
"The fine lady who owns this island does not like strangers here on Caransay. If we see her we will tell her you are here." Norrie pointed with his pipe toward the rock in the distance. "To please the lady, better find another rock for your light."
"The location is too dangerous," Margaret MacNeill said then. "There are wild storms and high waves out there."
"I know, Miss MacNeill," Dougal answered quietly, looking down at her. "I know that quite well, in fact."
Her gaze caught his, and he saw a flash of blue fire and awareness. And anger. Then she looked away.
Oh aye, he thought. You are the one.