Excerpt: With Every Breath

Excerpt: With Every Breath

The MacLeod Family

Chapter One

Scotland 2005

Scotland in the rain.

There were, Sunshine Phillips decided, not many other words that could conjure up more romantic imaginings than those. She pulled the exercise studio door shut behind her, then lifted her face to the sky and closed her eyes. The rain that fell on her wasn’t particularly warm–it was the end of March after all–but it was still the sort of rain that made a woman want to curl up in front of the fire with a cup of something hot and listen to it falling softly on the roof. She smiled in pleasure. It was perfect.

She absolutely loved Scotland. She loved how the sky pressed down against the land and left her feeling grounded. She loved the cycles of the earth, the seasons in the Highlands, the family her sister had married into.

But she loved the rain most of all.

She’d had her first taste of Scottish drizzle the year before when her sister had invited her to come to the Highlands. She’d happily left her hectic life in Seattle behind for a visit that had stretched all the way through her sister’s pregnancy and delivery.

And somehow during all those months, she’d begun to wish she had a reason to stay in Scotland for quite a bit longer than a single spring and summer. She hadn’t dared hope for it though.

Then, unexpectedly, she’d been offered the moss-covered cottage that looked as if it had come straight from some Highland fairy tale. She’d accepted it without hesitation and happily spent the previous winter sitting by the fire and dreaming.

Then spring had hinted it might arrive and she’d grown restless. She’d even thought about going back to the States to pursue that raw-food catering business she’d been ready to start before Madelyn had come home from Scotland with her life turned completely upside down. But going back to Seattle would have meant leaving the Highlands and she couldn’t bring herself to even consider that. Her lovely, crooked little house was full of herbs, the forest around her house was full of quiet, the meadows and mountains outside the forest full of flowers and heather. She couldn’t give that up. Not yet. Not until she was certain she wouldn’t find what her heart wanted most.

All of which she could think about later, when she was sitting comfortably in front of her own fire. For now, she really needed to get out of the wet. She wiped the rain off her face, then started toward the corner. She jumped in surprise at the sight of a woman standing not twenty feet away from her wearing dark sunglasses that were completely unnecessary for the day. Actually, it wasn’t just the woman’s sunglasses, or her jet-black hair that was so disconcerting. There was something about her aura as a whole that was rather dark and forbidding. The woman gave her the creeps, and she wasn’t unacquainted with things of a spooky nature.

Madelyn would have had a field day with that admission.

She gave herself a little mental shake and decided promptly that too much time in the rain had rotted any good sense she had once possessed.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“I’m waiting for someone.”

“From yoga class?” Sunny asked, puzzled. “But I’m the last one out.”

“So you are,” the woman said, without any inflection at all to her voice. She stood there motionless for another minute, then turned suddenly and walked away.

Sunny watched her go, then considered. Maybe the woman had been stood up by her boyfriend, or been pulled over by a cop on the way to the village, or was waiting in the wrong place and frustration had gotten the better of her. Whatever the case, it wasn’t her problem. She shouldered her bag and walked up the alleyway between buildings, putting the woman and her potential troubles behind her. She rounded the corner of the building and paused to take in the view.

The village was not large, but it suited her purposes. There was a post office, a greengrocer, and a few other stores that sold goods that one might not want to make a trip to Inverness for. It also boasted an herb shop where she worked a few hours a week to kill some time after teaching yoga in the studio attached to the back of the shop. It was a charming place.

Well, the village was. The herb shop wasn’t.

She looked at the shop front. FERGUSSON’S HERBS AND SUNDRIES was announced in precise, unforgiving letters. If it had been her place, the letters would have swirled and enticed and invited the would-be herb shopper to come inside, have a cup of tea, and sniff the herbs and sundries. Her brother-in-law, Patrick MacLeod, offered on a weekly basis to buy the place for her, but she declined just as often. She had money enough to buy at least part of it herself, but she hadn’t wanted to. Her heart was not in being a shopkeeper, even a shopkeeper of things she loved. She had other things in mind for herself.

She ducked under the awning and walked into the shop. Unfortunately, remaining on her current side of the Pond would probably require marriage and marriage would require that she find someone within a fifty-mile radius to date. She was still working on that–and not having much success. She glanced at the man behind the counter who sported the enormous shiner under his right eye.

Case in point.

“You’re late.”

Tavish Fergusson didn’t even look up at her as he spoke. He was obviously very busy tallying up something on that sheet of paper in front of him. Perhaps he was making a list of all the bottles she hadn’t arranged on the shelf precisely so. Perhaps he was counting how many flakes of peppermint tea one could reasonably subtract from a prepackaged bag yet still have it taste remotely like it should. Perhaps he was calculating how many seconds had elapsed between the time when he first attempted to grope her in the storeroom yesterday and precise instant her fist had connected with his eye.

Not very many, by her count.

She walked behind the counter and set her bag down on the floor. “What do you need me to do?”

“Go restock the soap.”

“I did that yesterday.”

He shot her a dark look. “Do it again.”

She caught her breath at his rudeness. All right, so he’d never been much of a gentleman. At least he’d pretended to be civil. Obviously there was no need for it now.

She pursed her lips and went off to see what he’d managed to sell during the day. She checked the clinical, silver shelves stocked with unimaginative bits of soap, then headed to the stockroom to gather a lone bar to replace what had apparently been purchased.

She walked around the store, looking for other things to do. Perhaps it had been a mistake to even take the job in the first place, but she’d needed something to keep herself busy. How could she have refused, especially when Tavish had offered her the job in spite of the fact that she was related, by marriage, to those evil MacLeods up the way. It had seemed like a gesture of goodwill to accept. Besides, she’d been certain that even after Tavish had ignored her less-than-subtle hints–and in spite of the fact that he tended to unbutton his shirts too far in a misguided attempt to look sexy–she she could avoid any entanglements with him.

Of course, that had been before last night. After four months of knowing her, he’d suddenly decided it was time to know her quite a bit better. She glanced at him briefly as she went to throw a carton in the trash. That black eye was a good one. Patrick would have been proud.

It had been Patrick who had insisted that she learn to defend herself–and quite ruthlessly, actually. She’d gone along with it because she’d suspected he might be right. She and Madelyn had spent a good part of the previous summer learning various useful things. Well, she had learned various useful things. Madelyn had spent most of her time with her very pregnant self reclining in a chair and her feet propped up on a stool in front of her, calling out encouraging words as Sunny had practiced repeatedly fending off Patrick’s merciless attacks.

She had put in extra effort, just in case she had needed to take care of herself and Madelyn both. Then she’d put the knowledge aside, figuring she wouldn’t need it except in a pinch, sort of like tenth-grade geometry. Who would have thought that she would need to use it when she realized Tavis Fergusson wasn’t interested in discussing any inclines other than horizontal?

She spent a pair of hours helping the odd customer and generally making herself useful. She was, however, unusually happy to see the clock strike six.

“Want me to lock up?” she asked.

Tavish looked at her coldly. “I wouldn’t trust you to.”

She rolled her eyes. “Get real Tavish. I may not appreciate your advances, but I’m perfectly capable of appreciating the value of your sundries. I wouldn’t leave the store unlocked.

“You definitely won’t because you won’t be here any longer to do so.”

She started at him for a minute until she realized just what he was getting at. “Are you firing me?”

“Aye. Nessa Paine can teach the yoga classes.”

“Who?” Sunny asked in surprise.

“Nessa Paine,” Tavish repeated with a smirk. “She’s young and very beautiful. Just what we need. Why don’t you go back up the hill where you belong and be grateful I don’t file a complaint against you for assault.”


He pointed to his eye.

She shut her mouth and started across the room. She was marginally satisfied to note that he backed away when she came behind the counter to pick up her bag. She dug around in it for the key to the store, then laid it carefully on his papers.

“I suppose you could call your brother Hamish and whine all about it,” she said, slinging her bag over her shoulder, “but then you’d have to explain why you got my fist in your eye, wouldn’t you? I think you might not want to bother.”

“There will come a day when you won’t have MacLeods about to save you,” Tavish muttered.

She stopped halfway to the door, then turned slightly so she could look at him. “Is that a threat?”

He glared at her. “Just go.”

There were half a dozen comebacks clamoring to get out of her mouth, but she was nothing if not disciplined, so she bit them all back and left. She pulled the door shut behind her and stood there for a minute, trying to let the chill cool her temper. No wonder the MacLeods disliked the Fergussons so much. They had good reason.

She took a deep breath and walked away only to find herself suddenly sprawled on the ground. She groped for her bag before it disappeared with her attacker, then realized that her purse wasn’t going anywhere. The things inside certainly were, though. She lay there for a moment, too stunned to move any more, and listened to things rolling out of her bag onto the wet sidewalk.

“Watch where you’re going,” a female voice said sharply. “I almost tripped over you.”

Sunny didn’t have a chance to even push herself up before the woman stepped on one of her hands. It hurt so much, all she could do was gasp in pain.

“Unsurprising,” the woman said in disgust. “She’s probably drunk.”

Sunny wondered what sort of person didn’t at least stop to see if a drunk needed help to her feet. Well, at least Miss Stepper hadn’t been wearing stilettos. Things could have been much worse.

Sunny sat up and rubbed her palm absently, then realized the woman hadn’t been alone.

There was a hand in front of her, a hand that was being offered by a man. She couldn’t see his face thanks to the fact that Tavish had already turned off the store lights, but she could see the hand. She reached up and took it.

And felt as if she’d just stuck her finger in a light socket.

She pulled away with a gasp. The man’s hand shook briefly, then steadied and remained outstretched.

“Oh, Mac, will you come on!” the woman demanded. “Stop being Sir Gallant.”

The man sighed lightly, then reached out and pulled Sunny to her feet. The electricity of his touch was no different from what it had been before, but she was expecting it this time.

“Are you all right, lass?” he asked.

Sunny felt a little breathless. All right, so her life was full of manly Highlanders with their lovely trilling r’s and cascading consonants and lilting cadences. One more shouldn’t have been so overwhelming.

Yet, somehow, he was.

The man took her hand in both his and ran long, callused fingers over her palm. “No blood at least–”

“Mac, now! I want to be out of this bloody rain. And I want to find somewhere besides this village to have a decent meal.”

The man muttered a curse in Gaelic, then stooped and collected Sunny’s things. He put them back in her purse, put her purse in her hands, then put his hand briefly on her shoulder before he stepped around her to catch up to his girlfriend.

Sunny turned and watched them walk away. The man was tall, several inches over six feet, and broad-shouldered just like all those finely built MacLeod men she was surrounded by. She closed her fingers over the spot on her palm where he’d touched her.

All right, just what else weird could possibly happen to her that day?

Deciding that it was probably better not to know, she turned away and walked unsteadily toward her car. Her hand ached abominably and she indulged in a few unkind thoughts about that woman who had stolen a perfectly good Highlander.

At least her car started up right away, though she probably shouldn’t have expected anything else. It was a modest little Mini, but brand-new. She’d inherited money from her great-grandmother the year before, which had enabled her to not only buy a car but live without working too hard for a while.

Actually, she could have lived for quite a while without working after she had sold what she’d owned of her very small house in Seattle and moved to Scotland. A car had seemed a rather permanent thing, but the right thing at the time. It didn’t compare to the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of very fast cars her brothers-in-law owned, but she was happy to let them get the tickets while she just puttered home at her own pace.

She had just gotten onto the main village road when a lowslung, dark sports car blew past her, honking. It wasn’t Jamie, Patrick, or Ian so she felt not even the slightest obligation to be polite. She laid on the horn because there wasn’t enough time to flip him off. Then, feeling as if everything was now right with the world, she turned off onto the road that wound up through meadows into the mountains.

And promptly had a flat tire.

She didn’t bother pulling off the road. No one came this way except her family and the odd intrepid tourist capable of ignoring the rather prominent NO TRESSPASSING sign she’d just passed fifty feet earlier. It wasn’t that the MacLeods weren’t a friendly, welcoming group. It was just that their land was loaded with potholes.

Of a sort.

Sunny sighed, then pulled the parking brake up and got out of the car. She fished around in her trunk for her emergency kit and found the heavy-duty flashlight Patrick had insisted she keep. It was a decent light, enough for her to change her tire by. Now, if she’d only agreed with him that she really should have a cell phone, she could have called for a rescue. She’d never thought she would need one.

Famous last words, apparently.

She had no idea how long it took her to get the tire off, but by the time she’d done that and gotten the other one into place, she was absolutely soaked. She squatted down and fitted the tire to the wheel studs, though it didn’t go on as well as it should have. She chipped two fingernails, sat down unintentionally in the mud, and bloodied her knuckles before she managed to get the lug nuts back on and the other tire into her trunk. She got back in, then carried on in her best the-rain-doesn’t-bother-me fashion, driving past Patrick and Madelyn’s castle and on through the woods to the little house that was now hers.

Moraig MacLeod had been born in that house, then died in it ninety years later after a long life spent doing exactly what she wanted to do–which had mostly included puttering in her garden, drying herbs, and reminding the laird down the way that he was fortunate to have his own witch. Jamie had invited Moraig to dinner once a month in appreciation.

Or perhaps he did it just so she wouldn’t put a hex on him.

Sunny had met Moraig shortly after she’d arrived in Scotland and in her she’d found a kindred spirit. She’d spent the greater part of the previous spring and summer doing for Moraig what needed to be done and learning things she had never considered. She now knew how to feed herself during any season of the year in the Highlands, how to treat all sorts of wounds and infections, and how to brew a love potion.

She hadn’t used that last one quite yet.

When Moraig had insisted on her deathbed last fall that Sunny be given her house and her things, Sunny had been touched beyond measure. She’d also accepted Jamie’s invitation to stay in Scotland and take over Moraig’s place in the clan. Clan witch was better than fighting Seattle traffic.

All of which left her, a year and a few months after she’d first come to Scotland, parking her own little car in front of her own little house and thinking that her life was fairly perfect.

She walked inside, then shut the door behind her. She turned on the lights, one of the few concessions to the twenty-first century, and leaned back against the door and smiled. Herbs hung from the rafters, pots and wooden bowls were stacked on shelves that might have been level at one time but now leaned along with the rest of the house, and a substantial fireplace dominated what could have been considered a great room. She stood in the middle of the house and felt a deep contentment wash over her. It wasn’t what she’d expected from her life, but she wasn’t unhappy with it. After all, she had Scotland and its rain. What wasn’t to love about that?

A smart rap on the door had her jumping in spite of herself. She put her hand over her chest, took a deep breath, then went to open the door. A gorgeous Highlander stood there with a smile on his face.

Too bad he was her brother-in-law.

She smiled anyway. Patrick MacLeod was a prince among men, doting on his wife and baby daughter until Sunny wondered how he managed to get anything done.

“Dinner?” he asked.

She nodded. “Always.”

“Sunny, you’re covered in mud.”

“I had a flat tire,” she grumbled, wiping her hands unsuccessfully on her leggings.

“If you’d had a mobile,” Patrick began wisely, “you could have called me.”

“Spoken like a man who only began charging his cell phone after he found out his wife was pregnant.”

Patrick pulled her out of the house, reached in and shut off the lights, then shut the door as well. “Aye, and now that I’ve seen how useful they are, I recommend one for you.”

“I won’t need one because I don’t have anywhere to go anymore.”

He looked at her in surprise. “Did Tavish sack you?”

“He did.”

“Must have been the black eye you gave him,” he said, unsuccessfully fighting a wicked smile. “How did it look today?”

“It was ripening nicely.”

“Good gel.” He put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her along the path. “Don’t fash yourself over it, Sunny. We won’t let you starve.”

“I have money, Patrick,” she said dryly.

“We’ll still feed you so you don’t spend it all.” He drew his jacket up toward his ears. “’Tis bloody cold out. Let’s run. We’ll be soaked to the skin if we don’t hurry–och, but you are already, aren’t you?”

She glared at him, but he only laughed.

“Not to worry; you can raid Madelyn’s closet when we get home. I’ll by her something extra to make up for it.”

“You already buy her too much,” Sunny muttered. “She complains endlessly about it.”

“Aye, I know,” he said with the contented smile of a man who knew his wife adored him. “Let’s hurry just the same. Did I tell you that Madelyn made dessert? Something with chocolate, just for you.”

Given the day she’d had, she thought she might just have to give in and partake. She nodded, then hurried with him down the path.

Several hours later, she sat in front of her own fire with a cup of tea in her hand. There was no point in going to bed early when she had nothing to get up for in the morning. She wondered if she was making a mistake staying in Scotland.

She quickly came to the same conclusion she always did: she wanted to stay. She loved the heather on the hills, the fire in her hearth, and the rain falling softly on the roof above her.

Her hand ached briefly and she realized that she’d forgotten about what had happened earlier. She looked down at her hand and wondered how it was that crabby English gal had snagged a solicitous, Gaelic-speaking Highlander. Would he be tempted to dump her for a perky, herb-loving American?

She smiled to herself. Probably not. If he had that high-maintenance sort of girlfriend, he was probably just as high-maintenance himself and that wasn’t the sort of man for her. Even Tavish Fergusson with his very proper, very pinched way of looking at life wasn’t for her. She wanted a laid-back, relaxed, private sort of man who would be happy with his nine-to-five. She could supplement their income with veggies grown in the backyard and an occasional stint as a midwife.

Or perhaps she would just content herself with being the MacLeod healer in residence. She would get up in the morning and think about the book on herbal medicine she’d been wanting to write for years. She would go to Jamie’s that next evening for the witch’s appeasement meal. Maybe she would open the door to find Jamie’s minstrel Joshua standing there, come to escort her to the MacLeod keep–just as he’d done every month for the past year. And if he actually got up the nerve to ask her out instead of hemming and hawing about it, she might even say yes. At least she wouldn’t have to punch him in the eye.

But for now, she would be grateful for what she had and let the future take care of itself. It always seemed to. She washed out her cup, banked her fire, then put herself to bed.

She fell asleep to the sound of rain on her roof.