Gavin MacKenzie, a chieftain heir who is hired to restore the ancient Castle of Braigh, discovers a hidden village of outcasts who have created their own private sanctuary from the world. Among them is Serena Boyd, a mysterious and
comely lass, who captures Gavin’s heart in spite of harboring a deadly past that could destroy her future.
The villagers happen to be keeping an intriguing secret as well. When a fierce enemy launches an attack against them, greed leads to bitter betrayal. As Gavin prepares a defense, the villagers unite in a bold act of faith, showing how God’s love is more powerful than any human force on earth.
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Read the First Chapter!
The ordeal over, fragmented tremors still quaked through Evelina Broderwick's body. She gazed down at her new daughter. Now, she'd finally have someone who would truly love her. Tiny fingers curled. Evelina marveled at the wee nails. The other hand tightened into a fist and flew into the bairn’s mouth as she sucked on her knuckles.
“She’s beautiful is she not?” Tears clouded Evelina’s vision, overwhelming her by the magnitude of God’s gift of life.
Gunna, her wet nurse, peered closer at the babe swaddled in a warm blanket. “Aye, she is at that.”
“I believe I shall call her Serena after my Spanish grandmother. The lass has an English da and a Scottish mither—a mixture of noble blood from three countries.”
“Not a verra common name here in the lowlands,” Gunna’s round cheeks swelled in a smile as she nodded in agreement, “but lovely just the same.”
The bedchamber door swung open, casting dim light from the hallway candles. The shadow of a man’s tall frame bounced on the dark pine walls. Evelina tensed as her husband, Devlin Broderwick strode in with his usual frown. A dent marred his forehead. He towered over the bedside.
The midwife followed him and stood at the foot of the bed, folding her hands in front of her. The woman appeared to be in her mid-fifties, personally chosen by Devlin and quite loyal to the Broderwick family. Her dark gaze traveled from Evelina to Gunna and down at the infant.
“I’ve heard the unfortunate news.” Devlin’s sharp tone cut through the room like a blade through a gentle lamb.
Was a lass so terrible? Evelina glanced at the only window on the far right. The shutters were closed, blocking the night sky from view. She would like naught more than to escape the confines of her marriage, even if it meant taking sanctuary behind the walls of a convent for the rest of her days.
Devlin cleared his throat. He wore a black tunic with blooming sleeves narrowing at the cuffs. Black suited his dark moods. His hair hung straight in the shape of an downward bowl. He crossed his arms, taking an authoritative stance. “Fortunately, you’re still young and healthy. You can try again when you’re well enough.”
Evelina stayed her tongue. Over the last eleven months of their marriage, she had come to despise him. She had tried to love him, tried to win his affection, but he had been most impossible to please. No wonder her kinsmen hated the English. He had wounded her feelings more times than she cared to count. She’d begun to resent her parents for arranging this union and forcing her into a lifetime of sorrow.
“I’ll love her.” Evelina held her daughter against her bosom. She stared at the wine-colored blanket covering her bed, tracing a finger along the raised flower pattern stitched into the thick fabric, a gift from Devlin’s mother.
“I’m sure you will.” He pointed at their daughter. “Now lay her down so I can see her.”
Cradling her child’s unsteady head, Evelina lowered Serena onto her back. She unwrapped the white blanket from her squirming body. Devlin leaned close.
The bairn’s rosy glow turned red then deepened to a shade of purple. Serena’s head twisted at the nape, her face almost level with the bed. The child’s eyes glazed over, twitching into the corners, only the whites visible.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Devlin jumped back in alarm.
Though Serena’s entire body had grown stiff, it quivered in spasms. The area around her lips faded to white and the rest of her skin melted from purple to an ashen gray.
“She’s not breathing!” Evelina turned to the midwife. “Do something!”
“I deliver wee bairns. I don’t cast out demons.” The midwife’s fearful eyes met hers.
Evelina gripped her husband’s arm, but he pulled away. “Devlin, please do something. She’s stopped breathing! Save her, please?”
He only stared at the helpless babe with disbelieving eyes.
Evelina reached for her daughter’s seizing body. Not knowing what else to do, Evelina turned the child over on her stomach and patted her back. She willed her babe to breathe. She blew air in Serena’s face, hoping to startle her into breathing. White foam leaked over Serena’s colorless lips. Evelina laid her down and plunged her finger into the tiny mouth, pulling with all her might against the curled tongue. Serena coughed, moaned, and screamed into a blessed cry.
“Oh, thank God!” Evelina collapsed, lowering her head next to Serena and letting silent tears fall in relief. Their wee bairn would live.
Evelina kissed Serena’s round head on a thin layer of soft black hair. Her tiny lungs panted for air as her breathing returned to normal. She touched Serena’s sweet ears, her pug nose, and cheeks now gaining a rosy glow.
“What was that?” Devlin’s voice flayed her nerves and she jumped. He stood with his hands on his hips, staring at the child in disbelief, his dark, condemning eyes narrowed.
“The babe was having some sort of fit,” the midwife said. “I’ve heard of stories like this, but never seen one myself.”
“Yes, I can see that. I want to know why!” Devlin took two menacing steps toward her.
“’Tis unexplained.” She stepped back, tilted her head upon her shoulders, and looked up at him with wide eyes. “No one really knows what it is. Some call it the falling sickness.”
Devlin paced across the chamber, rubbing the back of his head. The soles of his mid-calf leather boots clicked against the hardwood floor. “Why would a child have such a fit? How can ye stop it?”
“I don’t know.” The midwife shook her head and sank against the wall.
His gaze dropped to the bundle in Evelina’s arms. “It’s possessed.” His lips twisted in thought. He paced again. “We’ll call a priest to cast it out.” He paused and shook his head. “No, we can’t do that. How would it look if the Broderwick family produced a demon possessed child?” He shook his head. “I won’t have the family name ruined.” He turned and pointed at the midwife and Gunna. “No one had better speak a word outside this bedchamber. If you do, I’ll make you sorry.”
“I won’t say a word,” the midwife said, shaking her head.
“Yes, my lord,” Gunna said, looking down at her feet.
“She isn’t possessed,” Evelina said, her heart pounding in worry. “She stopped breathing and nearly died.”
Devlin strode toward her. He pressed his fists into the soft feather mattress and leaned foward. “There’s no other explanation.”
“Devlin, ye’re mistaken. She couldn’t catch her breath is all.”
“Then why did she turn her head as if it would disconnect from her body of its own accord? Where did her eyes go? In the back of her head? What was coming from her mouth? Do ye call it somethin’ from God?” He stepped back. “`This isn’t the work of God. I feel it in my soul. Something is wrong. As head of this household it’s my responsibility to take care of it.”
“Our child is not evil.” Evelina moved Serena over her shoulder and patted her bottom.
“I make the final decisions in this house.” Devlin’s dark eyebrows knitted together in an angry line. “She may look normal now, but her body is possessed by somethin’. I’ll not tolerate evil under my own roof. Do you hear me, woman?”
“Devlin, listen to yerself. She’s our child.” Evelina clutched the bundle in her arms, fear rooted in her heart. Was he completely mad?
“I saw the babe turn into a demon with my own eyes. I won’t claim it as mine. I’ve made up my mind. I don’t want it, and I forbid ye to keep it.”
“I won’t give her up!” Evelina moved Serena to the far side of her body away from him. “She’s my bairn, not some animal to cast away.”
“You’re my wife, and you’ll do as I tell you.” He stepped toward her, grabbing for the child.
Evelina refused to relinquish her hold. Their daughter began to cry at their tug of war. He tightened his grip on Evelina’s flesh until she could no longer feel. Fearing Serena would be hurt from their struggle, Evelina relented. He snatched Serena.
“I beg ye, don’t take her away.” Tears clogged Evelina’s voice, choking her.
He strode from the chamber with Serena. The midwife made a “hymph” sound and followed him.
Evelina tried to rise. In her weakened state, she fell to the floor.
“Oh, dearie me!” Gunna cried, hurrying around the bed to help her.
Evelina had forgotten she was still in the room. Frantic hands pulled under Evelina’s arms, trying to lift her as she struggled to her knees.
“Nay! Don’t bother with me. Find out where he’s taking her.” Evelina nudged her.
“Please? Do this one thing for me.” Evelina sniffed back tears. “Go! Make haste before it’s too late.”
“I-I’ll do as ye ask. Don’t ye worry, lass. We’ll save yer bairn.” She fled the chamber, leaving Evelina alone in her anguish.
Evelina dropped her head upon her arms. Her eyelids fluttered shut. “Dear God,” she whispered. “I dedicate Serena to Ye. She isn’t evil. She’s just the way Ye made her. Allow me to be her mither and I’ll teach her Yer ways and raise her to be Yer child.”
The room began to spin. Evelina clutched the bed linens for support. Darkness claimed her vision as the distant sounds of her child crying in another part of the house fell silent. “Please…God,” she whispered, fading to unconsciousness.
Gavin MacKenzie and Leith, his brother, led fifty clansmen along the narrow dirt path, two men abreast, their conversation a gentle rhythm above the steady clip-clop of horses. The comfortable late-spring air made it a good day to travel.
Something moved ahead. From this distance it looked like a horse pulling a wagon. The sound of weeping reached his ears and then faded. Had he imagined it? He motioned to the men to be quiet. Their voices dropped to whispers before altogether silencing.
Sholto, his horse, grew restless and sidestepped. Gavin grabbed the reins with both hands. The animal snorted in obvious distress. To calm the beast, Gavin rubbed his mount’s neck until his breathing evened and his gait steadied. Gavin’s red and gray plaid fell over his right shoulder. Shoving it out of his way, he studied the layout of the land, looking for signs of a surprise attack.
They’d travelled for days, leaving the familiar glens and rolling moors with a sheltered forest for the flat peatland surrounding them in Scotland’s northern tip of Caithness. With no place to hide, the element of surprise was not in their favor. The light wind carried the scent of the bog myrtle across the silver lochs and purple heather dotting the land mixing with the salty sea. By this, Gavin knew they must be getting close to Braigh Castle. He was told it stood in alone on the moss-covered rocky cliffs facing the sea—like a sanctuary.
The wagon up ahead moved. Gavin gripped the reins tight and hastened his mount. As he drew closer, a skittish horse flung his tail in vexation, hitched to a heavy laden wagon. The animal neighed and pranced about as much as the load allowed.
More weeping carried from the opposite side of the wagon. Gavin motioned for his men to halt. He nodded toward Leith who dismounted and went to calm the beast. Gavin inched toward the noise.
A woman with a long braid of auburn hair streaked with gray bent over a lass lying on her back. He couldn’t see much of the one lying down, but the weeping one wore a dark blue gown. She patted her unresponsive companion, speaking in a hushed, worried tone.
He cleared his throat, reining in his horse and sliding to the ground.
She gasped and turned a frightened expression toward him.
“What happened?” He nodded toward the unconscious lady lying in a bed of thick grass.
Her moss-green eyes watched him, assessing his character. She wiped at the tears staining her cheeks. “We must have hit somethin’. The wagon nearly tipped over. She fell from her seat and hit her head.”
Gavin bent to his knees, surveying the unmoving lass and felt for a pulse in her neck. It beat steady. Her skin was warm and smooth. She was much younger than her concerned friend. “Have ye checked her head for bleeding?”
“It only happened a moment ago. I first tried to wake her.” Alarm crossed her face as her eyes widened, and she grabbed the girl’s hands between her own. “I do wish she’d wake. ‘Twould put my mind at ease. She’s my daughter…my only child.” Her chin trembled.
“May I?” Gavin gestured toward her daughter. “I’d like to check her head for bleeding or lumps”
“Aye.” She nodded. “Serena took many falls as a child. She was always so free-spirited. But I’ve never known her to be out this long.”
Serena. He liked her name. It was different. Lying here, she looked serene.
Although her skin was pale, he could tell she had spent time in the sun. Her dark lashes curled against her skin. Light freckles lay across the bridge of her nose. He took a deep breath and eased his hands in her black hair. It was thick and free of curls, reminding him of black velvet, though it felt more like smooth satin.
“It’s right here.” He found a bump forming on the right side of her head above her ear. “’Tis only a slight knot. I’m sure she’ll be fine.” Gavin glanced at the full wagon. “There’s little room in yer wagon. Would ye like me to carry her to my horse?”
She graced her knuckles over her daughter’s cheek. “I’m verra thankful for yer assistance. We live in the Village of Braigh about a mile ahead. Would ye mind carrying her there? We were just returning from the town market.”
“We’d be honored,” Gavin said. “We’re on our way to Braigh Castle. Is yer village near the castle?”
“Aye.” A smile brightened her worry-filled eyes. “Only a half a mile further beyond our village, would be my guess.”
Gavin crooked his finger toward his men, singling out Roan. As his friend dismounted, Gavin realized how much his tall frame would benefit them. His long blond hair was tied back at the nape. One thing he and his men lacked over the course of their travel was proper grooming. He hoped their ragged looks and overgrown beards wouldn’t offend or frighten the lasses.
“I’m going to mount my horse, and I need ye to lift her to me as gently as possible.”
“I got ‘er.” Roan said, bending to one knee and slipping an arm beneath her neck and behind her knees.
Once he was settled upon Sholto, Gavin secured the reins and held out his arms. Roan raised her up. Gavin settled her across his lap, hoping she would be comfortable and the ride wouldn’t jar her wounded head too much. It helped that she wore a simple brown gown.
“Careful,” her mother said, wringing her hands.
“Serena will be safe. Would ye prefer to drive the wagon or would ye like for one of my men to take over?” If she was too upset, he didn’t want another mishap to befall them.
She shook her head. Pieces of hair loosened from her braid. “Nay, it helps me to have somethin’ to do. Let me know as soon as she wakes. My name’s Evelina Boyd, and I’m verra thankful for yer help.”
Leith assisted her to better secure the horse to the wagon and checked the condition of the wheels. Once he and Roan were mounted on their horses again, they began a slow pace to match Evelina’s wagon.
The men conversed in quiet tones. A bird flapped its wings above them and sang. A gentle draft kept the air from being too warm. The sun hid behind white clouds and burst out in brightness every once in a while.
Gavin looked down at the bonny lass in his arms, breathing in the feminine scent of heather and juniper. The aroma stirred forgotten memories of another lass he’d tried his best to forget. If she had lived, he’d be a married man by now, mayhap the father of wee bairns. To his bitter disappointment, his life had taken another route, which led him and his brother all over Europe to escape his grief and guilt.
“Could that be a patch of woods down yon in the glen?” Leith rode up beside Gavin and shielded his hand over his eyes.
“Looks like it.” Relieved to be distracted from his thoughts, Gavin looked where his brother gestured. “That must be Braigh Castle.”
Situated on a long, narrow rocky cliff sat a magnificent stone fortress that looked to be king of the sea. A wide tower stood tall above wings that stretched out on each side. “From here, it doesn’t look like it needs to be restored,” Gavin said, admiring the view. “How will we ever be able to improve upon it?”
“Yer here to restore the castle, then?” Evelina rolled the wagon to a stop beside them.
“Aye.” Gavin nodded, careful not to reveal the other reason they were there—to protect the new laird, his castle, and the village. He wondered how much Evelina and Serena knew concerning the truth behind the elder laird’s death.
“The massive keep is at least two centuries auld and Vikings have attacked it on several occasions,” Evelina said.
“Were they ever successful?” Leith asked.
“I don’t think so.” Evelina shook her head. “But I don’t know the whole history.” She glanced at Serena in Gavin’s arms. “Will the restoration take long?”
Gavin shrugged. “We won’t know ‘til we see the damage.”
“Oh.” Her gaze shifted back to the castle as she pondered his words. Her expression tensing as the lines around her eyes and mouth deepened. She cleared her throat. “I suppose that means ye’ll be here for quite a while then?”
“Aye.” He nodded.
A strange silence followed. An eerie forboding crawled up his spine. He couldn’t help sensing she didn’t welcome their presence. He scratched his temple.
“Back in the town of Braighwick people called it the Village of Outcasts,” Leith said. “Why?”
“Ye’ll see soon enough.” The warmth in her eyes faded to a reserved caution as she clicked to her horse and started forward.
As they approached the only patch of woods in the area, Gavin braced himself for what could earn this place the odd name. They crossed into the shade of the birch and hazel trees dotted among the dominant forest of pine. Brown needles cushioned the ground in a blanket of comfort, much like the serenity of snow he loved in winter. The fresh scent surrounding them appealed to Gavin as he breathed in the pine scent.
Small dwellings were scattered throughout the woods, made of stone and packed with peat bothy, straw, heather and moss. The turf roofs contained a simple hole for the smoke that rose from the center where they built their fires. If the inside of these cottages were like the ones that belonged to his father’s tenants at home, most were one room dwellings with a dirt floor. The family slept on one side, while their cattle passed the night on the other. Having grown up in the luxury of his father’s castle, it was hard to imagine enduring conditions such as these as a way of life.
A few people opened their doors to watch them pass. Compassion hit Gavin with a force he had not expected. Their clothes were worn through and tattered in places. Most were barefoot. Filth and grime covered their faces. The Boyds seemed out of place here with their clean clothes and clean appearance. Yet, in spite of these people’s poverty, their eyes glowed with a passionate joy he couldn’t fathom, not the listless melancholy one would expect.
“This is ours.” Evelina stopped in front of one of the rectangle hovels. She secured the reins, set the wagon brake, and climbed down.