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A New York Times Bestselling Author
Toni Fraser and her friends buy an ancient run-down Scottish castle with plans to turn it into a tourist destination. They want to create a reenactment that combines fact and fiction, complete with local history, murder and an imaginary laird named Bruce MacNiall. But when the actual owner - a tall, dark and formidable Scot who shares the fiction laird's name - comes charging in, the similarity between this actual being and the fictitious character created for the performance is shocking. Soon the group is drawn into a real-life murder mystery, and Toni begins to have sinister lifelike dreams in which she sees through the eyes of the killer - dreams that suggest a connection to Laird MacNiall. Bruce claims he wants to help catch the murderer. But can Toni trust him . . . especially when his ghostly double wanders the forest in the black of night?
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New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Heather Graham has written more than a hundred novels. She's a winner of the RWA's Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Thriller Writers' Silver Bullet. She is an active member of International Thriller Writers and Mystery Writers of America. For more information, check out her websites: TheOriginalHeatherGraham.com, eHeatherGraham.com, and HeatherGraham.tv. You can also find Heather on Facebook.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"Imagine, if you will, the great laird of the castle! The MacNiall himself, famed and infamous, a figure to draw both fear and awe. Ahead of his time, he stood nearly six foot three, hair as black as pitch, eyes the silver gray of steel, capable of glinting like the devil's own. Some say those orbs burned with the very fires of hell. His arms were knotted with muscle from the wielding of his sword, his ax, whatever weapon fell his way in the midst of battle. It was said that he could take down a dozen men in the opening moments of a fray. Passionate for king and country, he would fight any man who spoke to wrong either. Passionate in love, his anger could rage just as deeply against a woman, if he felt himself betrayed.
"Imagine then, being his beloved, his bride, his wife, burdened with the most treacherous of advisors, men determined to find a way to bring down a man so great in battle, to further their own aims. Imagine her knowing that she had been betrayed, maligned and that her laird husband was returning from the blood of the battlefield...intent upon a greater revenge. There...there! He would come to the great doors that gave entry to the hall."
Toni stood at the railing of the second-floor balcony, pointing to the massive double doors, high on sheer exhilaration. A crowd of awed tourists were gathered below her in the great hall entry, staring up at her.
This was really too good, far more than they had imagi ned they could accomplish when she and the others had set their wild dream about procuring a rundown castle and creating a very special entertainment complex out of it. So far, David and Kevin had rallied their crowd magnificently by playing a pair of hapless minstrels in the reign of James IV, when the current structure had been built upon the Norman bastion begun by thirteenth-century kings. Ryan and Gina had done a fantastic job playing the daughter of the laird and the stable boy with whom she had fallen tragically in love during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots. Thayer—the wild card in their sextet—had proved himself more than capable of portraying a laird accused of witchcraft in the time of James VI. And they had all run around as kitchen wenches or servants for one another.
Beyond a doubt, the crowd was into the show. Below, they waited. So Toni continued.
"Alas, it was right here, as I stand now, where, tragically, Annalise met with her husband, that great man of inestimable prowess and, unfortunately, jealousy and rage. Believing the stories regarding his beautiful wife, he curled his fingers around her throat, squeezing the life from her before tossing her callously down the staircase in a fit of uncontrollable wrath. Since he was the great laird of the castle, his servants helped him dispose of the body, and Laird MacNiall went on to fight another day. He was, however, to receive his own just rewards. Though he had bested many, and countless troops had been slaughtered beneath his leadership, Cromwell was to seize the man at last. He received the ultimate punishment, being castrated, disemboweled, decapitated, dismembered and dispersed. His pieces were then gathered by his descendants, and he now lies buried deep within the crypt of these very stone walls! Ah, yes, his mortal remains are buried here. But it's said that his soul wanders, not just around the castle itself, but through the surrounding hills and braes, and he is known to haunt the forest just beyond the ruins of the old town wall."
Her words were met with a collective "Ooh!" that was most encouraging. Toni flashed a smile to Gina, hovering in a room off the second-floor landing, watching. Any minute now, Ryan would come riding into the main hall.
"They say he roams his lands still, hunting for his wife, anxious to see her face, filled with love and lust...and a fury seizes him each time he would hold her in all her spectral beauty!"
She glanced at Gina, frowning. Ryan should have made his appearance by now.
Gina looked at her and shrugged, then lifted her hands, indicating that Toni should finish up, however she could manage.
"That night the great laird of the castle came bursting through his doorway!"
As if on cue, a fantastic flash of lightning suddenly tore through the darkness, followed by a massive roar of thunder.
The doors burst open...and a man appeared. Toni inhaled on a sharp breath of disbelief. It wasn't Ryan. The man was on the biggest black stallion Toni had ever seen. She thought that the prancing animal might breathe fire at any instant.
And the rider. He was damp from the rain, but his hair appeared to be as black as pitch. And though he was atop the giant horse, he appeared massive himself. If his eyes had glowed like the devil's just then, she didn't think that she could have been any more surprised. He was the great Laird Bruce MacNiall, the warrior in mantle and kilt, just as she had described him.
Again lightning flashed and thunder rolled and roared.
Toni let out a startled scream, and a collective squawking rose from the audience.
Perfect! Toni thought. It was time to announce that the laird has come home, in all his glory—and wrath. But for once in her life, words failed her. Like the others, she was mesmerized, watching, afraid to breathe, thinking she must have conjured a ghost.
He dismounted from the stallion with such ease that anyone there with a question would still be in the dark as to what a Scotsman wore beneath his kilt. He looked around the great hall with dark, narrowed eyes and a jaw of concrete.
"Who is running this charade?" he demanded harshly.
The spellbound crowd still seemed to believe it was all part of an act.
David, down with the crowd, jumped to life. "The lady at the top of the stairs!" he informed the stranger, pointing up to Toni. Then he did his best to vacate the place as quickly as possible. "And there we are, at the end of the show. Ladies, gentlemen, thank you for your attention!" he said.
The crowd burst into applause, staring at the newcomer as they did so.
The stranger's scowl deepened.
"Thank you again," David said. "And now let's adjourn into the kitchen, where we'll have the promised tea and scones!"
As Toni watched the crowd disappear, she heard Gina whispering frantically to her. "What is it? What the hell...?" She stepped from the bedroom, moving out on the landing. "Is it Ryan? What on earth has he done now?"
"It's not Ryan," Toni murmured beneath her breath. Kevin had followed David and the crowd into the kitchen, but not before looking up the stairs and glaring at her, lifting his hands in a "what the hell.?" motion himself. Thayer must have gone out to help Ryan, since it appeared that Toni and Gina were alone with the irate stranger, who was now slowly striding his way up the stairs.
"Oh, God!" Gina breathed. "You said you made him up!"
"Then who or what is walking up the stairs? Never mind—I can tell you. It's one very angry man."
He was angry? Suddenly Toni, who had been so stunned and awed herself, was angry, as well. Who the hell was he, charging in on them? They had a lease option on the castle, and whatever he might be, Great Britain had laws, and he surely had no right here.
"Hello," she said, determinedly putting ice and strength into her voice. "Can I help you?"
"Can you help me? Aye, that you can!" he snapped. Now that he was close, she could see that his eyes were gray, a dark stormy gray, right now. "Who in the hell are you people and what in God's name do you think you're doing here?" If his eyes were a storm, his voice was the thunder that cracked through it. He was a Scotsman, definitely—it was clear from the burr of his words—but his clean, crisp enunciation suggested that he had traveled, as well, and spent a great deal of time in other places.
"Who are we?" she said, frowning. "Who are you?"
"Bruce MacNiall, owner of this castle."
"The MacNialls are all dead," she told him.
"Since I am a MacNiall, I beg to differ."
Behind her, Gina groaned. "Oh, Lord! It sounds as if there's been some terrible mistake."
"There's been no mistake," Toni said softly to Gina. "There can't be!" To the stranger who had arrived in perfect theatrical form, she said, "We have a rental agreement, a lease-purchase agreement, as a matter of fact."
"Whatever you have is not legal," he said crisply.
"We honestly believe that it is." Gina stepped forward, smiling ruefully and trying the polite approach. Gina was petite, with a wealth of lustrous brown hair, and green eyes that surveyed the world with intelligence and an easy courtesy. Her forte was public relations. "This," she continued politely, "is Antoinette Fraser. Toni. I'm Gina Browne. Honestly, sir, we've gone through all the right steps and paid a handsome sum for the right to be here. We're registered and have a license as tour guides. I can't begin to imagine why you've suddenly burst in here tonight. The people in the village, including the constable, know that we're here. If there was a problem, why are you appearing only now?"
"I have been traveling. The constable didn't throw you out because he hadn't had a chance to talk to me, and find out if, for some reason, I had decided to rent the place. I just arrived back in the village this evening, and learned that my home was being turned into the Pete Rose Circus!"
"Oh! Really!" Gina sucked in air.
Toni looked at her, smiling grimly. Gina looked stricken, and certainly she felt the depth of the insult herself. "I quite enjoy the Pete Rose Circus," she said. Arms crossed over her chest, she turned back to the stranger. "Look, we're truly baffled by your sudden appearance, especially since we didn't know that you existed and because we do have legal forms. Perhaps people here keep their own counsel, but surely someone might have mentioned you to us! And...we walked right in here, without even having to acquire keys—we found a set on a hook by the door. Perhaps you're out of town too frequently, Mr. MacNiall."
"It's Laird MacNiall," he said, his tone dry. "And I could hardly expect to come home and find—"
The roar of the word sounded along with a new clatter of hoofbeats, cutting off Laird MacNiall. Ryan Browne had at last arrived, sword drawn, risen in his stirrups. He realized almost immediately that the room was emptied of people and filled with a huge black horse. He reined in swiftly, his eyes following the steps until they fell upon the upper landing, and he stared at the three of them.
"The great laird returns to his castle?" he said weakly.
"Where he finds...?"
The black stallion let out a wicked-sounding snicker.
Ryan's horse, their handsome roan named Wallace, shied. "Another great laird with a bigger horse! Okay.... This great laird is leaving," he said quickly, getting the gelding under control. "But I'll be back," he promised.
He turned and left, the roan clattering its way out of the castle.
"I really will have the lot of you arrested," Bruce MacNiall said. It was more like a growl than a spoken comment. "How dare you burst in here, mocking Scottish history? Americans!"
"Excuse me, I think that we've explained all this. We have a lease, a legal document," Toni said. "And we're not mocking Scottish history, we're here because we love it."
"Listen to me one more time, you addled woman! I own the place, and it has never been for sale or lease!"
It simply couldn't be, yet his irritated aggression was so vehement that Toni found herself suddenly afraid that something could be really wrong. Gina looked stunned, and equally worried.
Toni stepped up to the plate, ready to do battle. "You're wrong," she informed the man claiming to be the living MacNiall. "We have an agreement."
"The hell you do!"
"We should have you arrested, since you're doing your best to destroy the tour," Toni told him, aware that she was taking a slight step back despite her words. "And you've certainly no right to call me an addled woman. We have papers that prove we have leased the place. Now you say that you own it! It was filthy and in horrid disrepair. It was obvious that no one had given the least care to this place in years. We've been through here repairing electrical connections, replacing wires, plastering and painting—just to keep the place from falling apart completely. The first day, David and Kevin shored up the front wall. We've worked our asses off to make it livable."
"I told you, I've been out of the country."
"All of your life?" she said sharply. "Because if not, you should be ashamed. This place is incredible. If I had owned it since birth, I'd have never let it come to this!"
"My castle is not your concern," he said icily.
"But it is, because for the next year—at the least—it's our castle," she said tightly.
"No, it is not," he said. "I own the place and I did not lease it!"
Toni was forced to feel another moment's unease. There was definite conviction in his voice.
"I can see that you've put time and work into the place," he told Gina. "For that, I'm sorry. But the place is not now, nor ever will be, for rent. I would have stopped you, but as I said, I've been out of the country."
"Well, that's just amazing," Toni said, stepping in before Gina could reply. "In this day and age, one would have thought that someone in this little village might have known where you were and called you, or at least said something about you when we were buying the paint and materials!"
"Right!" Gina said.
At that moment Ryan came striding back into the great hall. Being Ryan, however, he paused. "Great horse!" he said, staring at the stallion. "What a beautiful animal."
Bruce MacNiall started back down the stairs. "He's a mix of long and careful breeding."
"Draft horse.look at the muscle and the size! And there's Arab in the history somewhere. He's almost got the legs of an American Thoroughbred," Ryan said.
Bruce MacNiall kept walking down, talking to Ryan as easily as if they were friends meeting at a horse show. "Good eye," he commented. "The mare was a cross between an American Thoroughbred and one of our own stallions. He is something. He's got the strength of a Belgian, the grace of an Arab and the dignity of a Thoroughbred."
"Majestic," Ryan agreed.
Toni and Gina stared at one another, then followed MacNiall's path down the stairs. The men were both standing at the stallion's head, admiring the length of his neck and the wide set of his very large eyes.
"Excuse me, but we have a problem here," Toni reminded them.
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Book Description Thorndike Press, 2004. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0786270861