Excerpt: My Heart Stood Still

Excerpt: My Heart Stood Still

The MacLeod Family


The Border

Fall 1382

They had betrayed her with a promise of the sea.

Go with the English-man, and he will show you the strand, her half-brother had said. Father has traded you to make an ally, but you’ll have a keep on the shore as your recompense, her half-sister had said.

Trust us, they had said.

Liars both.

The woman stood in a cold guard’s chamber and stared out the small slit of a window before her. The only thing she could see was darkness, but perhaps that was a boon. It obscured the bleak, endless stretch of land that surrounded the keep in which she found herself captive–land seemingly so far removed from the sea she wondered if the villagers even knew that such a thing existed. ‘Twas almost a certainty she would never see the like now.

She was tempted to weep, but she knew it would serve her nothing, so she forbore. After all, she was a MacLeod, and MacLeods did not weep with fear.

Despite how desperately she wanted to do so.

That she found herself in straits terrible enough to warrant tears was difficult to believe. Was it possible that just a fortnight ago the English-man had come to her home? She had stirred herself only long enough to determine that he held no interest for her, then thoroughly ignored him. ‘Twas odd to see an English-man so far north, true, but her father often had men from many foreign places at their keep. She’d had much to occupy her and had paid little heed to one more unfamiliar fool loitering at the supper table.

A pity she hadn’t, for the next thing she’d known, she had been given to the English-man. That her father would think so little of her that he would send her off with a stranger didn’t surprise her. That a stranger would take her surprised her very much indeed. What value she had to him, she couldn’t imagine.

Perhaps she should have refused to go. She would have, had she supposed she had had any choice. But she’d been but one lone woman in press of half-siblings who hated her, with a father who had forgotten she existed until that moment when he’d needed her. The whole lot had no doubt been rejoicing that they would soon be well rid of her. Defying them all had been unthinkable.

Besides, she had contented herself with their promises of a keep by the sea.

More the fool was she for having believed them.

Of course, it wasn’t as if she’d continued on the journey willingly, once she’d learned the true character of her buyer. Her struggles had earned her naught but heavy blows that had set her ears to ringing. The farther south they had traveled, the less often she had tried to escape. By now, she supposed she had traveled so far south that she stood on English soil–a place she had never thought to find herself.

She had certainly wished for a different life than the one she suddenly faced. Since her mother’s death, she had dreamed of a man who would come to take her away. Aye, he would have been a braw lad with a mighty sword. He would have arrived at her keep and demanded that she be given to him. Where words might have failed, his sword would have spoken meaningfully. Her miserable life at her father’s keep would have been over and a new life begun with a man who loved her.

Such, she supposed, was the stuff of dreams only. She had been carried from her keep, true, but only to face a fate she suspected was far worse than her life at her sire’s keep ever had been. There would be no rescue now by a man who would love her. She knew with dread certainty that she would meet her fate where she stood, and she would meet it alone. The only choice left her was to do so with courage.

The door opened behind her, and she closed her eyes briefly. Then she drew herself up, put on her fiercest expression, and turned to look at her captor.

The man stood just inside the door with a torch in his hand. He set it in the sconce, shut the door behind him, then bolted it. He put his hand on the hilt of his sword.

Ah, so that was how it would be. Whatever the man wanted from her, he intended to have his answers one way or another, so it seemed. But there was one thing she would not endure. She lifted her chin.

“I’ll not bear rapine.”

He wrinkled his nose. “Think you I would bed a wench of Scots breeding?”

“What do you want, then?” she asked curtly. Perhaps if she spoke strongly, he would find her not worth the trouble of harming. It had worked countless times with her half-brothers. This fool could be no more intelligent than they.

“I’ll have the secret of your keep,” the man said.

“The what?” she asked blankly.

He looked at her coldly. His was not a handsome face, and the determination there did not improve his visage. “You know of what I speak. Your brother himself boasted of it. He spewed out bits and pieces of the tale as we sat in an inn near Edinburgh. He said there was a magical secret in the MacLeod keep that would bring a man riches beyond belief and that you, best of all, knew that secret.”

Ah, so that was why the English-man had taken her so readily. Damn Angus, the blabbering fool who could scarce hold a thought in his head, much less any wits with his ale. She shook her head in disbelief. A pity her father couldn’t have chosen someone else to forge his alliances. For some reason, and one beyond her comprehension, her father seemed to find his son trustworthy, for he sent him on all manner of journeys to far-flung places to woo and befriend powerful men who might become allies. It shouldn’t have surprised her that the selling of her soul had much to do with one of Angus’s foolish acts.

She looked at the man whose name she hadn’t bothered to pay heed to when she’d heard it. She could scarce believe he’d gone to such lengths to uncover the truth of Angus’s tales. Then again, with the state of his keep, perhaps he had need of the gold.

But to give him what he asked?


“Your journey was wasted,” she said flatly. “I have nothing to tell you.”

“You lie!”

The sudden violence in his voice made her jump. Fear stole over her in spite of her fine vow to remain calm.

“My brother is the liar,” she managed.

“But he said you knew–”

“He is a boastful, foolish boy who should have remained at home and passed his time mucking out the stables,” she said. “My father is the greater fool for having let him leave the keep.”

The man cursed fluently and at great length. Then he looked at her. “You’re of no use to me then.”

A desperate hope bloomed suddenly in her breast. “Then you’ll release me?”

“And have you return to your sire and snivel out your sorry tale?” He shook his head. “I think not. I was the fool for thinking your sire would have entrusted you with knowledge of any value.” He laughed shortly. “He didn’t even give you a name. What does he call you? Gel?”

She pursed her lips. ‘Twas true her father could never remember her name. Being that she was his eldest girl-child and the only girl sired on his first wife, girl was what he called her. But her mother had given her a name, one that her father was too feeble to wrap his tongue around. Her mother had never used it save for her ears alone. She supposed now that no one remembered what it was. Certainly her half-brothers didn’t. Nothing they called her was worth repeating.

Her other secret was indeed the secret of her keep, but neither would she give that. Not upon pain of death, for so she had sworn herself. Her grandfather had entrusted it to her, and she would not betray that trust.

Though she had to admit that giving her grandsire her word when they were together on the side of a mountain was one thing; keeping that word when she alone was looking at death was another.

“If you let me go,” she said, trying mightily to keep the quaver from her voice, “I will not return home.” There was no sense in not trying to free herself. She hadn’t given her word not to do that.

“The promise of a Scot means nothing.”


“Nothing,” he interrupted shortly.

“My brothers will come see how I fare,” she warned, though she knew in her heart that wasn’t true.

The man grunted. “They seemed rather happy to see the last you. I doubt anyone will come after you.” He folded his arms over his chest. “This choice I will at least offer you. Will you starve, or will you be put to the sword?”

Her heart felt as if it might shake the very walls surrounding her with the force of is pounding. A slow death or a less slow one. Where was the choice in that? She looked at the man facing her and could scarce believe she found herself in his clutches.

“You,” she said, “are and honorless whoreson.”

“Perhaps. But at least I am giving you a say in your end.”

“And I am to be grateful for it?”

“’Tis more than your sire offered you.”

There was truth in that. She took a deep breath, then attempted a swallow, which she found to be a futile exercise. She’d seen men starved to death in her father’s pit, and it wasn’t pleasant. Perhaps there would be pain with the other, but it would be over much sooner. And it seemed a braver way to die, if one had to die.

But, by the very saints of heaven, she didn’t want to die. She wanted to live. She wanted with every bit of her soul to continue drawing breath long enough to have her heart’s desire.

She wanted to see the sea.

And she wanted the man of her dreaming to look at it with.

The man facing her drew his word. Perhaps he thought she wasn’t able to choose. Perhaps he thought he offered her the more merciful death. She suddenly found her thoughts less on what she would never have and more on not shaming herself by falling to her knees and weeping. She was, after all, a MacLeod, and a MacLeod always died well if he could.

So she lifted her chin, stared her murderer full in the face, and let his sword do its foul work unhindered.

And then Iolanthe MacLeod knew no more.