A 2015 RONE Award Winner!
Here’s what people are saying about A Jewel in the Vaults…
“A Powerful story of survival and love.”
“This book will tug at your heart and bring tears to your eyes.”
“This book left me Breathless…”
“The most touching story I’ve read this year!”
“This is one of my very favorite stories. I did not want to put this one down for even a minute.”
In 1802, Edinburgh’s poverty-ridden Old Town is rife with danger, but it is the only home Robbie MacKenzie has ever known. To safeguard herself against the worst villains of the street, Robbie conceals her femininity behind her shorn hair, dirt-smeared face, and tattered breeches. To all the world she is a lad, but beneath the ruse is a woman aching to break free.
Leaving his beloved Highlands behind in pursuit of his prodigal brother, Conall MacKay journeys to Edinburgh. There, he solicits the aid of a young street lad named Robbie. But Conall soon realizes that there is more to both Robbie and Edinburgh’s Old Town than meets the eye.
In a world where wickedness governs and darkness reigns, a savage struggle for dignity, survival, and love begins.
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Enjoy a sample read from A Jewel in the Vaults…
The might of the Highland wind struggled to compel Conall MacKay back from whence he had come. It whipped his long hair into a frenzy, obscuring the path before him and tempted his senses with the perfume of the sea and the heady scent of the damp earth. Still, he fought against the wind’s power and kept his southerly course, a course that would lead him away from the Highlands and everything good and green, toward land now marked by the black stain of industry and greed.
Too soon, the earth around him began to change. Rugged, wild moors, carved into pieces by jutting rocks, gave way to smooth fields and bustling villages. It was the land he had once described to his Aunt Agnes, who never strayed but a mile or two from home, as being tame. He shook his head in disgust as mining posts and iron mills rose up before him. This land was no longer tame. It was beaten.
The wind could not follow. Billowing black clouds of soot and smoke wrapped their fingers around the currents of clean air, smothering its magic. His hair now lay unmoving down his back. The wind had retreated. He would go on alone without the rush of air from the sea or the familiar scents of home.
For at least the tenth time that hour, Conall cursed his younger brother, Davis, for having left Cape Wrath in the first place. Conall would never understand his brother’s desire to flee their home on the north westerly tip of the Scottish mainland. He closed his eyes for a moment and pictured the rocky hills that gradually sloped down to the coast where beaches of white sand shone in the sun. Further down the coast, cliffs rose up from the waves, towering above the water.
His croft was nestled in a small valley between two steep bluffs. From the south, his house was hidden by the hills, but to the north, his land stretched out until a narrow cliff marked its abrupt end. In the evening, it was his practice to watch the sunset. He would leave his door and walk straight until his toes teetered on the edge of the cliff, and then he would wait patiently for the spectacle to begin. As the day drew to a close, the world would be dipped in gold and coated with jewels of light cast by the sun’s glow. He could not summon dreams of greater treasure or beauty than what awaited him just outside his door; however, the same could not be said of Davis.
Davis gathered impossible dreams like cherished keepsakes. He rejected the quiet beauty of the land to which he belonged and hungered instead for material abundance. Conall reminded Davis that such riches were possessed by only a few who lorded their wealth over many, but Davis would not be swayed. The life of a farmer was no life at all, he would say. Much to Conall’s dismay, Davis longed to trade the towering cliffs and storm-tossed seas of Cape Wrath for the stone buildings and bridges of Edinburgh, dirt roads for cobbled streets, space and air for the crowded and tainted. Only in a city where excess and depravity ruled could Davis have his heart’s desire: money, fine suits, cigars, and, of course, women.
Conall’s taste ran much simpler. Nothing pleased him more than the feel of cool earth sifting between his fingers or the satisfaction of a successful harvest. His croft was one of twenty on Cape Wrath, all home to families tied to the land, their devotion as steadfast as the cliffs themselves. Most could trace their lineage back to the days of the chieftains when the MacKay territory spanned out for miles.
Conall seldom considered the world beyond his croft. He traveled from his home fashioned of stone and thatch only when demand called him away, although it had not always been thus. Long ago, it seemed to him now, he had been married. When his wife, Mary, still lived, they would frequent the nearby village of Durness, but illness stole his young bride when he was not yet nineteen. Heartbroken, he gave his grief to the land and withdrew from village life. Now at twenty-six, he made peace with love lost and the resulting solitude. Unlike Davis, his life was a collection of simple pleasures and humble dreams. Conall tried his best to quell Davis’s baser inclinations with lessons in swordplay, animal husbandry, and fishing, but Davis merely scoffed at such honest pursuits. He craved excitement and always had. Several months ago, he had left Cape Wrath behind determined to join a Scottish regiment, or so he had claimed.
Two days ago, Conall was paid a visit by Gordon MacKay who resided in the village. He had encountered Davis in Edinburgh during a brief stay on his return from London, and his report was ill, indeed. He remarked on Davis’s lack of Scottish regimentals. Not only did Davis not appear to be a soldier, but judging by his mixed company, Gordon suspected Davis had found little other than trouble in Edinburgh. What worried Conall most was Gordon’s account that Davis had appeared frail and strangely agitated when Gordon had approached him. Only a few words were exchanged when Davis made excuses to leave, heading toward Cowgate, the lowliest part of the city.
As much as Conall wished to make light of Gordon’s report, the love he bore his brother would not be silenced. Davis had never been anything but trouble since he was a wee lad, but despite his follies, he had a kind and trusting nature. Besides, he was blood, and Conall was raised to honor blood ties above all others.
The irritating clacking of his horse’s hooves on the cobbled roads filled Conall’s ears as he rode toward Edinburgh. While still on the outskirts of the city, he closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. He searched the slight breeze for just a taste of the Highlands, but only the acrid scents of city life hung in the air.
He left his horse at the livery stable near St James’s Square in the New Town and then walked the short distance to a narrow street where he hoped the Cummings Inn would have a room available. In the past five years, the business of settling first his parent’s accounts when they passed away and later his uncle’s had compelled him to visit Edinburgh. On both occasions he stayed at the same quiet inn. He knew he could count on Mrs. Cummings running a clean and respectable business. Her fine cooking and one of her comfortable rooms were crucial to maintaining his sanity while in the midst of Edinburgh’s noise and congestion.
It was early in the evening when he arrived at the inn. After a fine dinner, he thanked Mrs. Cummings and left the comforts of the inn behind. He knew where he had to go, Cowgate, but before he could face the inhumane conditions of Edinburgh’s Old Town, he first needed a guide—someone who knew the streets and would not raise immediate suspicion. A stranger could not enter Cowgate and expect a warm reception, especially a Highlander. He pushed aside the sudden voice in his head that warned all was for naught. Desperation and corruption strangled all hope from that dark street. Davis’s knavish appetites would attract the most crooked and unscrupulous villains that Cowgate had to offer. Conall prayed that he might find Davis before misfortune did.
Clinging to hope, he made his way to Prince’s Street. Affluence gleamed from every brick stacked with care to form the townhouses and shops, which served the wealthiest of Edinburgh’s citizens. Men in knee breeches with silk stockings, fine waistcoats, and top hats moved with leisure down the wide, clean cobbled street. Through narrow lids, they assessed everyone they passed with a haughty air of dominance. These were men used to their own way who served only themselves. Conall wished nothing more than to punch the smug expression from each of their faces.
On the other hand, the women seemed to move without a care. They lacked the strength and presence of Highland women. Like pretty snowflakes, they fluttered about in dresses of varying shades of white, some plain or embroidered with flowers, but otherwise they all looked the same. The dresses fell straight, close to their figures and cinched not at the waist but beneath their bosoms. Lace trimmings, attached at the low necklines, provided at least some modesty. In his mind, he could hear his Aunt Agnes tsking her disapproval.
The empire waist gowns were worn in his village as well, but they were made of sturdier fabrics. Although it was late spring, there was a chill in the evening air. Still, none of the lasses wore cloaks or jackets. He had to resist the urge to throw a shawl or blanket around a young woman’s shoulders who could not have been much older than thirteen. He held his tongue as he hurried passed, but much to his amusement, the lass, who gasped when she saw him, was not as capable as he at concealing her thoughts. He earned similar responses from four young women walking in his direction who suddenly stopped when they saw the large Highlander in their path. He almost laughed out loud when they hurried to cross the street, nearly tripping over themselves in their haste to keep their distance. He pretended not to notice as he turned on to St. David’s Street. Accustomed to the flurry of interest he incited upon entering Scotland’s southern cities, he was not at all surprised that he was quickly becoming the center of attention. To the typical lowlander, he was an uncommon sight.
At nearly six and a half feet in height he towered over most men. Current fashion demanded men trim their hair short around the ears and at the nape. His light brown hair fell free down his back. His legs were not burdened by breeches, nor did he carry a cane. He wore a kilt, belted at his hips, a linen shirt, and a plain wool jacket. Wool socks were folded at the knee and ended in a pair of deer hide shoes. His sporran completed his attire. He looked as foreign in his own country as he might in one of the distant colonies. He stopped to allow the passing of several carriages, the occupants of which all stared at him, the ladies hiding their interest behind their fans.
The stares of onlookers were forgotten as he crossed to the other side of the street, for someone had caught his attention, someone who appeared to belong in that place even less than he. A boy of no more than thirteen or fourteen years was slumped against a building, shielded by a fine carriage whose footman was occupied speaking with the proprietor of a dress shop. The boy stood out among the manicured trees and bushes and polished inhabitants of Edinburgh’s New Town with his bruised and dirt-smeared face, but no one seemed to note his presence, except for Conall. The lad’s quick darting eyes conveyed his dishonest intent. The young urchin was just the sort of person who might aid Conall on his quest to locate his brother.
He started toward the lad but then froze when the small, ragged body slunk back against the wall and held so still that he appeared to vanish into shadow. Meanwhile, two gentlemen passed by his hiding place. Conall noted with amusement that the pompous men noticed the lad no more than they would a smudge on the cobbles. And then something incredible happened. Conall could scarce believe his own eyes. The lad’s hand flashed out of his filth covered jacket, and with a touch, which must have been as soft as a sea breeze, he pinched a bag of coin from inside the nearest gentleman’s jacket. No sooner did the lad grab the purse than he dashed away and turned off down Thistle Street.
With a grin Conall followed. His long stride overtook the lad whom he grabbed by the back of the jacket and lifted into the air. “I am willing to bet ye thought ye’d made a fine escape,” Conall said, smiling.
~ * ~
Robbie’s feet lifted off the ground, sending the pit of her stomach in the opposite direction. Her heart pounded, and her breath fled her throat in a rush as she soared higher.
“Sweet Jesus,” she said, finding herself suddenly nose to nose with a giant of a man with hair so long and wild she might have thought he was the Devil himself, were it not for his gentle eyes. He was at once terrifying and strangely compelling.
And those eyes…
She could not utter another word as she met his gaze. She felt as though she was sinking below the surface of a pure blue sea. They shone crisp and clean, and in their depths, she glimpsed a fineness she had naught by which to compare. His eyes made her heart ache for goodness, for a place far from the lecherous demons of the streets and farther still from the worst demon of all—hunger. It was too much to bear. She lowered her gaze to escape the sweet possibilities she glimpsed in their depths. It was then she saw his kilt and sporran.
“You’re a savage from the north,” she blurted.