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Authors: Diana Duncan

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Sword of the Raven

BOOK: Sword of the Raven
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Sword of the Raven

 

By

 

Diana Duncan

 

 

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This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer's imagination or have been used fictitiously, and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale, or organizations is entirely coincidental. All characters portrayed are of legal age of consent for sex – i.e. over 18.

Copyright © 2011 Diana Duncan

First electronic printing October 2011

Cover by Cynthia Riley & Diana Duncan

All Rights Are Reserved
. No Part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embedded in critical articles and reviews.

Chapter 1

Almost anyone can bear adversity…but if you want to reveal someone’s true character, give them power.

Delaney Morgan didn’t find an unconscious naked guy on the beach every afternoon.

The wild Oregon Pacific had spilled out shells, driftwood, sand dollars…and at sunset last night, a Celtic pewter and garnet triadic knot pendant she’d hung on a chain as a good luck charm.

But a nude man was a first.

She lowered the high-powered binoculars, then slid a hand into her coat pocket to touch the cold steel of her borrowed—okay, technically
stolen
—gun. A ribbon of suspicion snaked through her. If the guy was a player in the deadly game she was investigating, he was in a lot more danger than exposure to the brutal October weather.

Delaney cautiously approached the big man sprawled face down in storm-etched dunes. He lay oblivious to the salty gale, head to one side, right arm flung out as if he’d crawled from the water’s icy grasp. Wind-whipped ebony shoulder-length hair obscured his profile. His muscular torso was gritted with sand…and mottled by bruises and scrapes. Her throat tightened. Naked Dude had taken a savage beating.

Hugging her sheepskin-lined suede jacket against the wind, she hastily assessed his visible wounds. No tan lines marred the smooth expanse of tawny skin from the strong column of his neck to his long, shapely feet. If he’d been bronzing his birthday suit on a boat, he’d drifted far from a forgiving climate. She scanned the secluded beach. No other people. No debris from a boating accident. The punishing waves had spit him out and left him to die. Her pulse thundered in sync with the ocean’s roar.

Was he dead?

Roiling black clouds dimmed the meager daylight, and Delaney squinted in the gloom. He had to be alive. His complexion didn’t look blue like the prop corpses on CSI. “H-hey. Can you hear me?”

He didn’t respond.

Delaney dug her cell out of her jeans, but couldn’t get a signal on the cheap-assed prepaid phone. She stuffed it back in her pocket, shoved tangled copper curls from her face and sank to her knees beside the stranger’s head. The binoculars around her neck nearly hit him, so she tugged them off and balanced them on a chunk of driftwood.

Fierce gusts slammed into her and the sea lashed at the man’s feet, trying to reclaim its sacrifice. Crouched over to shelter him, she brushed aside his hair. Mystery Man possessed beautiful, rugged masculine features. Dark brows tilted in an intriguingly wicked slant, and sooty lashes bracketed high, stubbled cheekbones. His nose was long and straight, his sculpted lips slightly parted. The set of his bold, square chin hinted at a stubborn streak.

His gorgeous face hadn’t escaped injury. Purple bruises blossomed near his temple, and a sand-encrusted gash over his right eyebrow oozed blood into his hairline and down his face.

“Please don’t be dead,” she whispered. She tentatively touched his cheek, rough bristle over cool skin.

An unexpected burst of energy jolted her body, as hot and jarring as if she’d grabbed a downed power line. Fog swirled, obliterating her vision. Vertigo spun her senses as wailing bagpipes, Celtic war cries, and clanging swords rang in her ears.

Yanking her hand away, she fell backward. The haunting sounds vanished and the beach reappeared. Temples pounding, body shaking, she lay panting for breath as nausea churned in her stomach.

What the—?

When she finally got her about-to-be-tossed cookies under control, she eased upright. What the
hell
had just happened? She didn’t normally have seizures or hallucinogenic space-outs. And as far as she knew, the mushrooms in her breakfast omelet had been the non-magic variety.

Delaney knelt at the man’s side again. After a freaky trip on the woo-woo train, she didn’t quite trust herself to touch him. But her next course of action depended on whether she had a live nude male on her hands or a stiff one. Swallowing apprehension, she braced herself and gingerly pressed two fingers to his throat.

A steady pulse throbbed beneath her fingertips.
Thank God.
She retrieved the pistol from her coat pocket and tucked it into the waistband of her jeans beneath her bulky fisherman’s sweater. Then she yanked off her coat and draped it over his back. The jacket barely covered him from wide shoulders to his admittedly excellent butt, but was better than leaving him bared to the harsh weather. “Hey, buddy, can you hear me? Wake up.”

Though his eyes remained closed, he uttered a low groan.

She rechecked her cell and swore, tempted to hurl the worthless piece of crap into the ocean. Should she run for help? Her borrowed cabin didn’t have a phone. By the time she scrambled back up the bluff and drove ten miles to the sheriff’s office, the storm would’ve blasted in full-force. The rural four-officer department had their hands full battening the hatches against the incoming gale, and locating a cop would take a while.

Mr. Tall, Dark and Naked might die before she returned.

Not to mention that she didn’t want to attract attention. Especially from the cops.

Delaney leaned closer, afraid to move him until she knew the full extent of his injuries. “C’mon,” she demanded. “Open your eyes.”

He groaned. The thicket of black lashes fluttered, drifted upward.

“There you are,” she said. “Welcome back.”

He slowly raised his head, and her gaze collided with eyes the same crystal gray as the hungry sea thrashing behind him. Despite his beat-up condition, it was a warrior’s stare—calculating, unafraid, and sharply intelligent. That laser look jolted her as strongly as touching him had.

His silent question rang clearly inside her head.
Who are you?

Even weirder, she felt compelled to answer. “I’m Delaney Morgan. Are you all right?”

His glance flicked to her pendant. “The Morrigan,” he murmured in a husky, rolling Highland burr. “So…’tis dead I am.” He blinked. “Come to guide me to the Otherworld, have you?”

The stranger’s lyrical speech slid through her like a long-forgotten memory, the odd familiarity warming her insides more insidiously than potent Scottish whisky.

She preferred pomegranate mojitos.

“Delaney
Morgan.
If you believe I’m some kind of angelic escort to Heaven, you whacked your skull way harder than it appears, pal.”

“I ken.” His eyes narrowed. “I’m thinking the temperature should be far warmer, then.”

A smile sneaked out. “You’re not in Heaven or Hell, you’re lying on a beach near Cape Hope. How badly are you hurt?”

 “From the neck up, it’s foggy.” He went silent for several beats. “But I’m fair certain everything else works fine.”

Cutting him slack because of the head injury, she let that ride. “What’s your name, and what happened to you?”

“I…I’m…” Another, longer, pause. “Rowan…” An uncertain frown. “Rowan…MacLachlan. And a wee bit…murky on details.”

He abruptly rolled over and levered to a sitting position, draping her coat across his lap. Delaney jerked backward, sprawling in the damp sand.

“No need to run away, Morrigan,” his low voice soothed.

Maybe. Ted Bundy had reportedly been good looking and charming, too.
“Morgan.
I wasn’t running away. I tripped.”

His frown deepened. “I’m not a serial killer, lass.”

How did he know exactly what she’d been thinking? Then again, lurching away the moment he moved was hardly subtle. “That could be one of your missing
details.
If you were a psycho, I’m sure you’d out yourself, right?” She stood and slapped sand off her pants. “You have a cut on your forehead.”

 He touched the wound. Shrugged. “It won’t kill me.” His teeth started to chatter, and he swayed.

She admired the effort he exerted to hold himself steady. This determined man probably went after everything he wanted, no-holds-barred. And probably didn’t often lose. Her scalp prickled with foreboding. “Can you stand?”

“Aye. In a minute.”

Dangerous strength pulsed from his huge frame, but the energy radiating around him didn’t feel malevolent. When it came to evil, Delaney possessed 20/20 hindsight. And the Glock she was teaching herself to use. She’d often watched her big brother load the magazine, slap it into the gun, chamber a round, and fire.

But unlike Connor, she wasn’t sure she could shoot a human being.

She looked away from the rise and fall of Rowan MacLachlan’s broad, dark-hair-dusted chest, toward the raging ocean. Her instincts insisted she was safe with him. From physical harm, anyway. Not so much the assault on her libido. “Better make it thirty seconds.”

“Not a patient wench, are you?”

Wench?
The wind slashed icy fingers through her sweater, making her shiver. “Get a move on. That storm is about to kick our butts.”

“And I’m betting you don’t let anything—man nor nature—defeat you, Delaney Morgan.” He shakily maneuvered to his feet, tying her coat around his waist. She figured he did it more for her comfort, because other than looking flash frozen, he seemed perfectly at home buck naked. “I’d return your jacket…however…”

“Keep it. I like the coat exactly where it is.”

His mouth slanted. “‘Tis warmer.”

She tilted her chin to look up at him. Well over six feet, a foot taller than her own five-five. And totally jacked. From the stunning width of his shoulders tapering into sinewed arms, broad, capable hands, and all the way down his hard torso to the coiled muscles in his solid thighs and long calves, this was one huge Scottish hunk.

Unease slithered up her spine. If he tried anything…

But she couldn’t leave him at the storm’s mercy. Prolonged exposure would kill him. Her fingertips brushed the reassuring bulge beneath her sweater. If she let fear rule her actions, she’d have crawled into a cave two decades ago. Delaney retrieved her binoculars. “We need to go.”

MacLachlan arched a brow at the binocs, then winced. “Sodding bad day for bird watching.”

“I’ve seen several ravens, but they were watching us. Are you able to walk?”

He swayed again. “Aye.”

He didn’t appear steady enough to stay upright, much less hurt anyone. Her innate empathy toward victims of violence kicked in. She and her brother wouldn’t have survived if a stranger hadn’t cared enough to gamble on them. “My cabin is on top of the bluff, and you’re not up to the hike. Lean on me.”

“I’ll manage.” He staggered several wobbly steps.

“I’m stronger than I look. I run, do yoga, and kick-boxing.” Delaney scowled into the wind’s tangy bite. “Let me help you.”

“Nay.”

“Testosterone poisoning can be fatal, Braveheart.”

His husky chuckle rumbled in tandem with a peal of thunder as he doggedly shuffled forward. “If I can’t die with my boots on, I’m not going.”

“You were a lot more cooperative when you thought I was a guardian angel.”

“Not an angel, nay. A Celtic goddess with North Sea eyes and a waterfall of sunset curls. Wearing the Eye of Eternity around your neck.”

Her hand closed around the pendant. Who would’ve thought beneath all his macho stubbornness, the big guy possessed a poet’s soul? Delaney fingered the charm’s intricate knots. She’d been thrilled at the unusual find, but the necklace hadn’t seemed significant. Yet, suddenly she was collecting stray Scotsmen and hallucinating Highland battles.

Trepidation wormed inside her as she led the way up the incline, her hiking boots slipping on damp pine needles. “Save your energy for climbing,
laddie.
I’m not interested in men.”

“Bloody shame, that.”

Delaney rolled her eyes. “Don’t sprain anything jumping to conclusions. I just meant I’m…discerning.”

“Discernment.” His ragged breaths were almost as loud as the ocean crashing behind them. “Wise policy.” He patted her shoulder.

She flinched, breaking contact. “You can touch me for help. No other reason.”

“Don’t get yourself into a swither, lass.” His voice sounded fainter behind her, revealing how much the steep ascent was costing him. “I won’t be harming you.”

She crested the bluff and hurried toward the cabin. Evergreen trees flanking the dirt path trembled in the wind, perfuming sea-damp air with sharp pine. “You’re dead on, there. I can handle myself.”

A jagged streak of lightning scalded the black clouds. Ozone supercharged the air, thunder cannoned again and the sky split open and dropped a cold, drenching curtain. Delaney broke into a run, digging in her pocket for keys. Rain hammered the roof of the old cabin’s front porch as she unlocked the door. Shoving it open, she scurried into the sturdy warmth of the 1940’s forest green and ruby living room.

She turned, watching her exhausted, uninvited visitor labor to catch up. He tottered over the threshold, and she ruffled her wet curls, scattering raindrops on the braided entry rug and knotty pine floors. “If you have any hinky ideas, MacLachlan—for your own good,
don’t
go there.”

“No plans to.” Panting, he leaned against the jamb, his face paler than the watery daylight shimmering around him. “Otherwise, I’d have confiscated your gun the moment you turned your back on me.”

Then his eyes rolled back and he crashed to the floor.

Well, balls.
Wasn’t that just like a man? The obstinate Scot could spot a concealed weapon at twenty paces, but refused to admit his limitations and ask for help. If he weren’t already unconscious, she’d smack him upside his Stonehenge skull.

Her cell, fifty percent reliable from the cabin, remained signal-free. She couldn’t leave Sleeping Braveheart in the open doorway, and he weighed a freaking ton. Pushing and shoving, she wrangled him far enough inside to slam the door. She blew a soggy strand of stray hair off her face. Getting him to the couch—much less
on
it—would take all night.

She finally rolled him onto the braided entry rug and dragged it toward the stone fireplace, where embers still glowed. After pitching in more logs, she sprinted to the bedroom for blankets and pillows.

Her best friend Vanessa had stuck out nursing courses for six semesters before incurable sympathetic vomiting had scuttled those career plans. As Van’s college study buddy, Delaney had absorbed basic first aid. MacLachlan’s injuries didn’t appear fatal, but he might have a concussion. Shock combined with hypothermia could kill him.

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