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Inverness—Fourteen years later
New Year's Eve
Danielle zipped up her boots that reached to her knees and rose from the bed to stare into the full-length mirror on the back of her door. She turned to one side then the other looking at the slinky black dress that hugged her curves.
"Definitely need to work out more," she mumbled as she frowned at her reflection and sucked in her stomach.
Her door pushed open and Whitney, one of her flatmates, poked her dark head through the door. "Wow, Dani. You look amazing."
"Sure you won't come with me?" Danielle asked for the tenth time. They had all planned to spend New Year's together with another group of friends two months ago, but now Dani would end up alone with Mitchell. It wasn't that Mitchell was a bad sort, just someone who didn't get the hint that she didn't want to date him.
Whitney laughed and shook her head. "Not on your life. Joe says he has something he wants to talk to me about. I'm hoping he's finally going to ask me to marry him. I've been waiting for months!"
Danielle smiled and hugged Whitney. She was happy for her friend, but it was just another reminder she was alone. Again.
"I want you to call me as soon as he proposes. Well, after you say yes, of course," Danielle said with a laugh.
"I will. I promise. Listen, I came to ask if I could borrow your black heels. The new ones you bought this week?"
Danielle hurried to her closet and opened the Kate Spade box. "Yes, you need to look your best. You know Clair's pearls would look great with your dress."
"I've already asked to borrow them," Whitney said as she took the shoes. "I have the most wonderful friends in the world."
Danielle grinned as she leaned her hand on the doorknob. "I'm just thankful we all wear about the same size. It's saved me a lot of money over the years."
As Whitney walked to her room, Danielle closed the door and her smile faded. So much for a rowdy group of friends to party with. Not that Danielle was a party girl. She was the opposite actually. It had been all of them who had talked her into going out on New Year's. And wouldn't you know everyone else would have something planned with their boyfriends?
Danielle sighed and looked at the clock on her nightstand. It was just after five o'clock. She had enough time to run some errands before she met up with Mitchell and they headed to Blink's. Blink was the newest, hippest nightclub in Inverness, and they were putting on one hell of a party tonight.
After one more look in the mirror, Danielle reached for the bangle bracelets on her bureau and left her room. She liked the clink of the silver bracelets as she slid her arms into her coat.
"I'm leaving," Danielle called out.
"Be careful!" Whitney shouted through her door. "A snowstorm has been forecast for tonight!"
Danielle inwardly groaned while wrapping her scarf around her neck before she tugged on her gloves. "Just what I need."
She grabbed her purse and keys and left the flat. A blast of cold wind hit her as she pulled the door closed and hurried down the stairs to her car waiting at the curb.
The car, a mid-1970s Mini, had been her aunt Josie's. When Josie had gotten too sick to drive it, she'd given it to Danielle. Danielle loved the car, even if it had gotten more unreliable than not.
She unlocked her door and slid into the driver's seat. As usual, the car didn't start on the first try.
"Come on," Danielle whispered as she turned the key once more.
There was a flare of life, and then nothing.
Danielle rubbed the car's dashboard slowly. "I know you can do this," she told the car. "Don't let me down tonight."
On the third try, the Mini roared to life.
Danielle sat back with a smile on her face and fastened her seat belt. She pushed in the clutch and put the car in first before pulling out into the road.
She drove slowly through the icy, snow-covered streets as the sun sank below the horizon. Danielle would have preferred to get her errands done earlier, but she'd had to stay later at her job than usual.
Wouldn't you know the boss-from-Hell had wanted to clear her desk so she could take the next week off? Danielle was supposed to have left the office at noon, but Isabella had other ideas.
Danielle mentally checked off the places in her mind as she ran errand after errand. Finally, she pulled up to the cemetery and turned off the car. She reached for the single pink rose on the passenger seat and got out of the car.
The snow that had fallen overnight was deep as Danielle meandered her way to the back of the cemetery and the Buchanan plot.
Though her parents were buried in America, there was a plaque with their names and the date they had been taken from her. Danielle wiped the snow from the plaque. She stared at their names and wondered how different her life would have been had they not gone out that fateful night.
It was a thought that haunted Danielle every year. Though the images of her parents had begun to fade in her mind, the memories she had of them would never leave her.
After a moment, she moved to her left and wiped the ice and snow from the large stone cross.
Josie had died on New Year's Eve five years earlier and Danielle came to her gravesite every year. No one was sure what had caused Josie's death. Each year she had grown weaker and weaker until her soul had left her body.
It had been painful to watch, but Danielle never left her side. They had spent countless hours together in the little time they had left. Josie had been the one Danielle had gone to with a problem, the one Danielle had gone to for answers.
And Josie had never let her down.
Josie had been the one who hadn't pushed her to talk, hadn't begged her to get on with her life. Josie simply let Danielle cope with the death of her parents as she needed.
She had warned Danielle that her time was about to end, but Danielle hadn't wanted to believe her. Until Josie's hand had gone slack in Danielle's grip.
"I miss you, Aunt Josie," Danielle said, and placed the pink rose at the base of the cross.
Josie had been true to her word when Danielle had first met her. She had shown Danielle the wondrous world of magic.
It had been glorious. The first time she felt her magic move within her, it had changed her life.
Until they learned just what her magic did.
Danielle bit her lip as she recalled the pain that would bend her in two when she would find an object and not want to return it to its owner.
Of all the magical ability Danielle could have received, she hated hers. She had no choice when it came to using her magic. It forced her to bring the object—whatever it might be—to its rightful owner or suffer unimaginable pain.
Danielle realized that she had been squatting next to the cross for some time and her legs had grown numb from the cold. A large, fat snowflake landed on the back of her gloved hand.
"You always did love the snow, Aunt Josie," Danielle mumbled. She kissed her fingers, then placed them on the cross. "Until next year."
Danielle rose and walked back to her car. The streetlights had already blinked on as the darkness grew. She shoved her hands in her pockets and did her best not to slip on the ice.
The icy wind managed to find a way up her skirt and take whatever warmth she might have had from her. Danielle shuddered and hurriedly got into her car.
To her surprise, the Mini started on the first try. Danielle waited for other cars to pass, then pulled in behind them. She was supposed to meet Mitchell at his flat so they could go to dinner.
If she didn't know her flatmates so well, she'd think they had set this up so she'd be left alone with Mitchell. It wasn't that Mitch wasn't a nice guy. He was.
He just wasn't a guy she was interested in.
Which didn't make sense. He was good-looking, had a great job, and she had gotten to know him well over the last year.
But there was no connection between them. No spark, no chemistry.
It would be so much easier if there were, because Danielle knew Mitch liked her a lot. She could have the husband she'd always wanted. She could have the family and kids—everything.
However, her parents had told her to never compromise, and Danielle never had. She certainly wasn't going to start now.
Just as Danielle expected, there were no places to park close to Mitchell's flat. She ended up parking down the street and walking to his place.
She now wished she had suggested meeting him at the restaurant instead of letting him drive her. That sounded too much like a date, and this was anything but a date.
Danielle walked up the steps to his door and knocked. Almost instantly it opened. Mitchell, his dark hair combed back away from his face, smiled, the corners of his blue eyes crinkling.
"I was getting worried," he said as he motioned for her to enter.
Danielle gratefully stepped in out of the cold. "I had to run some errands."
"I made reservations for dinner."
She didn't move farther inside when he put his hand on the small of her back. "Reservations? I thought we were eating at the pub as we agreed earlier."
"Well," Mitchell said as he ran a hand over his hair in a nervous gesture. "With it just being us two, I thought we could have a more … intimate dinner."
It was just what Danielle didn't want. She glanced at the floor, hating that she had to begin the evening like this. "Mitchell … I like you. A lot."
"And I like you, Danielle."
"But as a friend."
The smile slowly died on his face. "Why can you no' let this progress and see where it goes?"
"Because that would only cause you pain. I don't want that."
Mitchell put his hands on his hips and turned partially away from Danielle. "I had hoped when you agreed to still go out without the others that it was a sign you wanted more."
"I told you I didn't."
"I thought you were being coy," Mitchell said with a shake of his head. "I've waited over a year for you, Dani."
"A year when you could have found someone else. I wish I felt the same for you as you do for me, but I won't lie to myself or you."
Silence filled the small entry as Mitchell refused to look at her. Danielle shifted from foot to foot, unsure of what to do next. She had hurt him, the very thing she hadn't wanted to do.
"I cannot do this," Mitchell said softly. "I cannot go with you tonight and pretend we're just friends and that everything is all right when it's no'."
Danielle nodded. "I understand. I wish you the best, Mitchell."
He still didn't look at her when she opened the door to leave. With one last glance at him, Danielle stepped back into the cold.
The door closed with a loud click behind her as she looked over the snow-covered city. How had her life gotten so messed up? At twenty-six she had thought she'd be married by now.
Instead, she was alone.
She'd always been alone. Since the night her parents died in that awful car crash and she had been brought to Scotland she had been alone.
Danielle raised her chin and squared her shoulders. Alone or not, she was going to Blink to ring in the New Year. It would be so crowded no one would know she hadn't come with friends.
She carefully walked down the icy steps and onto the sidewalk. About halfway to her car she heard a door open and turned to watch Mitchell leave his flat, get into his car, and drive away.
It was good that he wasn't staying inside. He needed to get out and find someone.
Danielle was nearly to her car when a group of young boys came running down the sidewalk. She tried to get out of the way, but one of them slammed into her shoulder, sending her spinning around.
The heel of her stiletto boots slid on a patch of ice and her feet flew out from underneath her. Danielle landed hard on her side, her arm trapped beneath her.
"Bloody Hell," she murmured.
She took a moment to get her bearings and make sure nothing was broken. Her skirt had rucked up, leaving a section of her bare thigh exposed and touching the snow and ice.
Danielle would be lucky if she got out of this without catching a cold. She knew she shouldn't have worn the black dress in this weather, but it wasn't as if she had expected to spend a lot of time in the snow.
She pushed up on her elbow and blinked her eyes. She must have hit her head because everything was spinning. When she was able to open her eyes without feeling dizzy, Danielle found herself at the edge of the sidewalk next to a tire.
It was the flash of something shiny that grabbed her attention.
A shiver of trepidation raced down her spine, and though every fiber of her body told her to pretend she didn't see it, she knew she couldn't.
Hesitantly, Danielle reached into the snow, brushing it aside. In the dirt, grime, and ice, next to the curb was a key. A very old key by the look of it.
Danielle took a deep breath before she picked it up. Instantly, a vision of a castle at the edge of a cliff slammed into her.
"MacLeod Castle," a voice inside her head said.
With her hand fisted around the key, Danielle climbed to her feet and leaned with her other hand against the car next to her.
"Tomorrow. I will bring you to this MacLeod Castle tomorrow."
The pain curled up from the base of her spine, slowly at first, and then grew until Danielle bent over with her arm wrapped around her stomach.
"Now. I will go now," she bit out urgently.
When an object was in a rush to get to its destination, it meant it was of great importance. It had been over a year and a half since Danielle's magic had found something.
She wished she hadn't discovered the key. Because deep down inside, she knew nothing good could come of this. Because somehow she knew her life would be changed forever.
With Danielle's capitulation the pain ebbed until it dissipated completely. And just as before, Danielle's magic told her where to take the key.
"East I go," she mumbled with sarcasm. "I'm so glad I didn't have plans."
She carefully picked her way to her car, and once behind the wheel, she put the key in her coat pocket.
"East. Go east. To MacLeod Castle," the voice repeated over and over in her mind.
"So much for my night of celebrating."
And wouldn't you know the car started on the second try.
Copyright © 2012 by Donna Grant