Crimson Heart ONLY
a Highland Hearts novel by Heather McCollum
Elena has spent her entire life hiding her family name while walking the thin line between lady and servant in a Protestant household. She has kept the secret of her lineage for years, but with a new, fiercely Catholic queen on the throne, Elena’s Protestant caretaker is being targeted. And when Bloody Mary discovers Elena’s true identity, she must flee to Scotland to save her life.
Highland warrior, Searc Munro, has secrets of his own. In a family of healers, his dark, killing magic must never be known. When his father’s life is threatened, Searc unleashes his lethal power to save him. With his clan’s suspicious glances and whispers plaguing him, he sets off alone, only to find another use for his magic in saving a beautiful lass being attacked in the forest.
Teaming up as exiles, Elena and Searc head toward Edinburg to find refuge. Yet, with a series of ritual killings haunting the city and a traitor attempting to assassinate Scotland’s regent, suspicion turns to Searc. As word of another British heir reaches the country, the two must learn to trust each other if they want to live.
Title: Crimson Heart
Series: Highland Hearts, #3
Author: Heather McCollum
Genre: Historical Romance, Historical Fantasy
Length: 300 pages
Release Date: June 2014
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-62266-362-0
Imprint: Select Historical
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An Excerpt from:
by Heather McCollum
Copyright © 2014 by Heather McCollum. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Highlands of Scotland, August 1554
Searc Munro frowned as he scanned the surrounding shadows of the forest from his mount. His father’s deep voice droned on, but Searc wasn’t paying much attention. He’d heard it all before and something tugged at the power that lay just under his skin. The terrain was familiar—Munro territory that they regularly patrolled—but the forest had grown quiet.
A prickle of awareness enhanced his unnatural senses, and he smelled the damp earth. He scanned the area for broken twigs or indents in the spongy ground but saw nothing that would indicate intruders. Heavy drops of rain, caught in the trees above, tapped sporadically down as their horses maneuvered around the raspberry bramble and gorse.
Phillip and Edgar chuckled over a jest from where they rode behind Searc and his father. A quick glance showedJohn, another seasoned warrior with a thick, bristly beard, bringing up the rear.
Something was triggering Searc’s awareness—his secret magic, his curse. He shifted his gaze from moss-covered tree to the copse of thick, knee-high ferns up ahead. Danger? Or perhaps it was just the interrogation he was enduring.
“You’re as tall as I now.” His father, Alec Munro, chief of the clan, rolled his shoulders, his reins loose in one hand. Actually, Searc had grown taller than his da by two inches. Even though he was over a score and ten years, the man still thought of him as a lad wet behind the ears. His da gestured to him. “You’ve filled out and inherited your mother’s fine features.The lasses sigh whenever you walk past even though you frown all the time. Fiona had to chase two forward lasses from outside your door the other night.”
Och! Would he not let it rest? Searc flexed his shoulders and maintained his usual silence.
“Father Daughtry said that Judith Davidson was asking about you last time he visited their holding, not that I want you tangled with those devils.”
Alec paused only long enough to tug at his short beard. “So you don’t have a wee bairn somewhere? I’m fair certain your mother would even be happy with a bastard at this point.”
Searc leveled a dark look at his sire.“And I’m fair certain that any lass to find herself with my child would inform you as soon as she informed me. Maybe before.”
Alec snorted because he knew it was true. Searc was the last of the Munro line, since his two brothers were killed decades ago during the feud with the now allied Macbains. Searc needed to produce an heir.
“Your mother’s concerned.”
“Ma wants a granddaughter she can train.” The women born in his family, linked by blood from some great healer in Denmark nearly six centuries ago, had a magical ability to move the smallest particles of air and moisture in the sky, or blood and flesh in the body. Dory and Ewan Brody’s three daughters, as well as Meg and Caden Macbain’s lasses, had inherited the gift. They all lived at Druim Castle, so Searc’s mother was the only healer at Munro Castle. Their magic was a glowing blue light of healing. Searc was the first male to inherit magic, but his was corrupt. It appeared red instead of blue, and instead of healing, his magic killed. Which was why he’d always kept it a secret from everyone, even his family.
“’Tis true she wants a grandbairn to coo at.” Alec faced front. “But it doesn’t have to be a wee lass. A strong laddie to learn how to lead this mighty clan would be just as welcome.”
Searc breathed deeply of the pungent, earthy scent permeating the air, ignoring his da’s mutterings. The trees stood silent, still. Tall, leafy giants with gnarly roots erupting up through the green moss. The birds were too still, as if they hid, their little fluttering hearts beating frantically in anticipation. Anticipation of what? His father had stopped talking as if he too felt the tension.
“Phillip.” Alec twisted in his seat, but before he could utter another word a body swung down from a tree. Holding tight to the end of the long rope, a man soared across the space to kick Alec Munro squarely in the chest. Searc’s father flew with a grunt to land among the wet ferns.
“Battail!” Searc yelled the battle cry as more men swooped down from trees around them. An ambush, and it
was obvious that they were outnumbered. At least four men ran from various trees while three others flew on ropes tied high in the tall oaks. Searc sent his dagger flying at the man who’d hit his da. The blade pierced the enemy’s skull from the back and he toppled onto Alec, who cursed furiously.
Searc turned his horse, Dearg, with his knees as he drew out his long sword. The lethal song of it, sliding from the scabbard, shot warrior’s instinct through Searc’s muscles. His heart raced, feeding his body with the rush of blood and power. Every sense he had intensified. His magic swelled inside him, waiting to be allowed release like a hungry beast gnashing at the bars of a cage. He could hear the grunts and hisses of the enemy as they attacked. Several rose from under ferns.
“The bastard killed Arthur.” The man’s accent was local. Two men turned toward Searc, and he dodged a dagger snapped from one of their fists. Searc whistled quickly for his wolf in case the beast was nearby, then swung his blade in an arch down along Dearg’s side. The well-trained horse danced nimbly on the spongy soil with a simple nudge of Searc’s knees. A third foe surged toward Da as he rolled the dead man off him to stand. Did his da even have his sword?
Searc urged Dearg out of the melee and leapt down amongst the ferns. Phillip and Edgar battled men half their ages but fought with practiced strategy. John’s thick arms bulged as he struggled against three attackers and Searc ran to assist him. One turned to block Searc’s strike from the back. With a quick twist and lunge, Searc felled him and hurtled himself against another man, knocking him down.
Searc yanked the wet fern out of the man’s face and spit. “You are a Davidson.”
The nephew of the last Davidson chief glared back at him. “’Tis time to rid the land of the chiefs of Munro!” and the man twisted his hand. But Searc felt the intent before the blade and grabbed the man’s wrist, forcing it down to pierce the Davidson’s own throat. Searc leapt to his feet and turned. Two men still battled his father several yards away, blood dripping down his sire’s face from a fresh gash above his eyebrow. The sight of the red against his da’s pale features, hardened with intense pain, caught Searc’s breath in his chest. Obviously trained and large, the two Davidsons lunged together in an attempt to kill the proud warrior.
Fury flashed through Searc with such force he barely registered the dark gray wolf jumping into the chaos, ripping into the Davidson who’d knocked Phillip to the ground. Searc held his sword and ran, stomping down the ferns to dash between trees, desperate to get to his father. Another jumped before him, blocking his aid. With a growl of sheer hatred, Searc imbedded his sword into the man’s gut, dispatching him to hell, and turned to see his da fall to his knees under the assault.
“Da!” Searc bounded forward, thorns slashing his legs. Leaving his sword and dagger behind him stuck in his enemy, Searc grabbed the arms of the two Davidsons. Searc felt their pulses race, mimicking the battle lust within himself, incensing and freeing his magic. Red washed through Searc’s vision as he stared at the men ready to gut his father, ready to bring anguish to his mother and war to his clan.
The unnatural power surged upward through him, released like a flood shattering through a cracked damn. The heat of Searc’s magic boiled out of his hands where he gripped, his fingers digging into their arms.
“Blast!” one yelled and stared at his limb where Searc held tight. Searc let his fury flood into the two Davidsons, grabbing hold of their very essence and reversing to pull it back into him. The one man’s cry turned to a scream and the other joined the first. They sunk to the earth, kneeling before the wide eyes of Searc’s father.
“Searc,” Da called, but the blood and power rushing in Searc’s ears blocked all but a whispered stream of curses from his sire.
The men beneath his hands drooped, their faces turning ashen. Wrinkles in their leathery skin deepened, their faces shriveling like sun-dried apples. And still Searc extracted the life from them. Their surprised eyes sunk into their skulls as he continued to pull every drop of moisture from their bodies. He knew the moment they died, their hearts collapsing in on themselves, the blood drying in their veins, and yet he still held onto them, giving in to the desire to take every last drop of their power, crushing them and their attempts to end all that was good in his world.
Bones, brittle and weak, buckled as the men’s husks crumbled to the forest floor beneath them, a pile of ashes, hair, and broken bones barely contained within their collapsed clothes. As if to punctuate the horror, one complete skull rolled away from the neck opening of its tunic. It stopped before his father’s foot, empty eyes staring up at his sire’s horrified, frozen face.
Searc breathed deeply, his hands curling into fists as his chest rose and fell with the surge of strength now filling him. With practiced focus he re-erected the dam, brick by mental brick, and slowly the red haze cleared from his vision.
“Holy Christ, Searc.” Da gaped. The forest seemed to
hold its breath. Edgar held up Phillip and John stomped through the undergrowth toward them, forming a small semi-circle, all eyes on the proof of Searc’s damning power. At least ten Davidsons lay unmoving in the thick greenery, the tang of blood and sweat filling the air. Searc’s wolf raised its blood-soaked muzzle to the still canopy and howled, his song both victorious and mournful.
“By all that is holy…” Da began, staring, his gaze filled with awe and something Searc had never seen in his father’s face before—fear. Searc shut his eyes against the sight. In a swift motion he plucked his dagger easily from the Davidson on the ground and strode over to his bloodied longsword. The energy feeding his muscles pulsed uncomfortably and he slammed his arm against a tree trunk as thick as his thigh. Crack! The tree shook, its mighty branches shivering as it toppled away from the group, shattering the stillness.
“Bloody hell.” Searc strode to where Dearg stood, eyes wide and nostrils flared. The horse sensed the danger in him but bravely stood his ground. Searc wouldn’t touch the charger with the amplified strength of the dead men running through him, but gently picked up the reins that dangled to the leaves, leading him away. Searc could hardly suck in a full breath with his heart pounding so hard, pulsing through his head, churning his morning breakfast in his gut. His wolf, Cheò, followed as they strode away, leaving the bodies, leaving his da and friends with the truth. The truth that Searc Munro was a monster.