Promised to a Highland Beast (Preview)
“Well done, Alec love.”
Alec smiled, pleased with both his work results and his mother’s praise. At thirteen winters, he’d agreed to become a scribe and record-keeper for the family holdings. His mother, Sioned MacMahon, had been teaching him both the neat record-keeping script she favored and the more flowing, ornate style of writing used for formal missives and copying religious texts.
For all that he loved learning the sword and bow, the latter being his favorite weapon thus far, these were the lessons he loved best. He was at his happiest here with her, away from the cold indifference of his father and the unpredictable violence of his elder brother. He’d always wondered why his father didn’t love him. Nonetheless, Sioned’s affection and attention more than compensated for it and his brother Gilroy’s temper.
The door to the room slammed open, revealing one of the very people he’d been thinking of and one of the two souls in the keep he was least interested in seeing.
Gilroy stood in the doorway, lip curling in a sneer as he spotted the two of them. Still not a man, yet already burly with thick muscles and a heavy, petulant jaw. His brows were knotted in a glower. “Mother, what are ye doing with Alec? I thought ye were going tae be making the midday meal by now.”
And then Alec felt it: a horrible, smothering miasma of anger that completely drowned out the warm presence his mother always seemed to radiate.
He sensed a seething stew of anger and hatred from his brother that hung in the air like an oppressive storm cloud.
He reeled and knocked over his stool, overwhelmed by the pressure of Gilroy’s heavy and violent emotions that sucked the air from the room in an instant.
His mother was at his side immediately. “Breathe, Alec. Breathe. There’s nothing tae fret over. Just breathe until ye can control it. Remember the things I taught ye about managing yer gift.”
He breathed, fighting through the oppressive morass to control himself and shut off his awareness of Gilroy’s temper. His gift, sensing people’s emotions as if they were his, was killing Alec slowly. If he didn’t manage to suppress it as well as his mother did, he would go mad. He was sure of it.
His mother stepped toward his brother. “Gilroy, ‘tis sorry I am. I dinnae ken how I lost track o’ time. I’ll be getting tae the kitchen now.” She reached up to give her older son an embrace.
“Ye are always paying Alec more attention! Ye are always forgetting about me!” Gilroy flung his arm out, shoving Sioned roughly.
Everything seemed to happen in slow motion; Gilroy’s beefy hand impacting his mother’s shoulder, her stumbling back, losing her footing.
Alec gasped as she stumbled backward, arms outstretched, her head slamming into the corner of the heavy oak table they’d been working on, her neck bending at an awkward angle as she slid down to the stone floor.
“Mother!” Alec scrambled around the table, for once entirely unaware of Gilroy’s emotions due to the chaotic strength of his own—not that it mattered, with Gilroy fumbling to the ground with him, shock, hurt and fear on his face.
Beneath Sioned’s’s long, silky hair, a growing puddle of viscous red liquid spread, the scent of iron sharp in his nose. Worse, the warm light his mother emanated seemed to be fading, growing distant as if she was walking away from him, though she hadn’t moved.
“Mother!” He shook her shoulder gently, patting her face, stroking her hands. Nothing garnered any response, only a growing pool of blood as the color faded from her face, and her breathing grew weaker.
“‘Tis yer fault!” Gilroy exploded into motion, backhanding him on the cheek. “‘Tis yer fault. If ye werenae always in the way, always taking her attention… if she’d paid proper attention tae me, instead o’ having tae baby ye, this wouldnae have happened!”
With that, his brother surged to his feet and stormed out the door.
It isnae my fault. It isnae. But Alec couldn’t do anything to help. He felt small and powerless, the same way he did in the face of Gilroy’s emotional storm.
Then, he realized Sioned’s skin was growing colder. Her chest no longer rose and fell. When he placed his head atop it, there was no steady thump of a reassuring heartbeat. He strained the emotional sense that was the gift of his mother’s blood, seeking even the smallest spark of her familiar warmth, but there was nothing, not even the slight glow in the back of his mind that he had often experienced when one or both of them were traveling and separated by more than a day’s journey.
She was gone.
Sobs wracked his frame as he wrapped his arms around his mother’s still body. “Mother!”
Tears poured down his cheeks. Nothing existed except grief and the desperate desire to turn back time, to do something, anything, to save her.
Thudding footsteps interrupted his unthinking grief, along with a swirling maelstrom of emotions not his own.
A mixture of grief, blinding fury, and choking pain was coming down the hallway towards him.
It was all the warning he had before the door slammed open, and his father, Laird MacMahon, stormed into the room, brow drawn into a thunderous scowl.
Dark, storm-gray eyes touched Sioned’s lifeless body, then Alec himself, blood-smeared and tear-stained.
He had no time to rise, no time to do anything, before his father seized his collar and heaved him forward, tearing him from his mother’s body and flinging him roughly to his knees in the hall. “What have ye done, ye miserable brat?”
“I… I didnae do anything. ‘Twas an argument with Gilroy, but it wasnae my fault. I didnae hurt her.”
The stunning blow across his jaw silenced him and sent him crashing to the floor. “Ye didnae hurt her? Dinnae try tae speak false tae me! Yer brother already told me that ye argued and that ye shoved yer mother when she tried tae calm ye. Ye shoved her and made her hit her head, and she perished because o’ yer bad temper, ye misbegotten whelp!”
“Wha—that isnae what happened.” His head was spinning, overwhelmed with emotions and everything happening too quickly. He struggled up onto one knee, looking at the furious, flushed face above him. “Father, it wasnae like that.”
Rough hands seized him and dragged him upward with less care than a scullery maid might use with a pail of trash destined for the midden. “Dinnae call me Father, ye worthless, good-for-nothing little bastard. I’ll nae hear such a title from the thankless wretch that killed my wife.”
His father slung him away to land with bruising force on the stones, scraping elbows and making his back feel raw. Even the usual cold indifference was gone in a sneer of utter loathing. “Yer nae son o’ mine and nae welcome under my roof. ‘Tis half a candlemark I’ll give ye tae gather yer things and get out o’ my keep.”
Alec already felt like the world had been ripped away. But this was too much. Would he not even get the chance to attend his mother’s funeral and mourn her death? “Father…”
“GET OUT!” The words were a roar of sound, accompanied by a brutal wave of rage and hatred that near knocked him senseless. “I’ve only one son, and his name is Gilroy MacMahon! Get ye gone, or I’ll have yer head and leave the rest o’ ye in a gully for the birds tae feast on, if any’d touch ye! ‘Twould be better than ye deserve! Out o’ my sight and out o’ my home!”
The combined savagery of the words and the emotions that came with them was more than he could bear. He scrambled to his feet, running, running, running…
Ten years later…
A boot prodded him in the ribs, and Alec MacMahon blinked open his weary eyes, half-heartedly lashing out as he lurched into a sitting position.
“I’m awake. Leave me be, or I’ll take yer boots and shove them up yer arse.” He grumbled as he stretched and fumbled for his own gear, looking around him as he did so.
The large cave was rough, but the haphazard structure built at the entrance to hide it from prying eyes kept the wind and rain out well enough. In the morning haze, men dressed, ate, gathered their gear, and tended to their weapons, bored, sleepy, or excited in turns.
The Campbell Clan raiders were his saviors and his companions. Alec felt his lip curl, his mood worsened by the dream he’d so recently emerged from.
So many years had passed, nearly ten summers, and still the memory was a raw wound in his mind. He shook his head to banish old regrets and ancient hurts, then rose, stepped into his boots, and strapped on his quiver. He was careful to keep his eyes from meeting the others’.
In ten years, he’d learned to control his wayward emotion-sensing gift, more or less. He’d learned to mute it to a dull hum in his mind, so long as he never met anyone’s eyes. Eye contact would tell him what another was feeling, whether he wanted it to or not.
It was a useful skill at times, enabling him to stay alive by reading the moods of his more volatile companions, but an unwelcome one nonetheless.
“Alec.” Elias, the bandit leader, dragged him from his thoughts.
“Ye are tae be going with Murray’s group.”
“As ye like.” It was all the same to him what roads he was assigned to watch or whom Elias set him to work with.
He hated it. And yet, he couldn’t leave. He was beholden to the men who had found him and saved his life all those years ago and to the laird they answered to, for the Campbell clan was a powerful one.
That knowledge further soured his feelings. Disowned or not, he was MacMahon blood and born, and the Campbells, with their support of the English King William of Orange, were no allies of his clan. For all his flaws, his father was a proud Highlander, and if he hadn’t already hated him, he’d spit in the face of what Alec had become—regardless of the fact that he’d thrown him out, only recanting enough to have him escorted under guard to his half-brother Donovan.
As if sending me tae my uncle, Donovan Blackthorn, would have turned out any better. His temper was twice as bad as Gilroy’s, and I’d have likely died or worse ‘afore a season was out. Alec once again ruthlessly suppressed the fleeting idea that such might have been his father’s intention, turning his attention to the meager meal he’d managed to gather as a distraction.
He ate his breakfast in silence as quickly as he could and followed the others out into the spring sunlight, bow heavy in his hand.
The bow was his favorite weapon still, even though he hated every arrow he sent flying and every kill he made with it. He still had a dirk and a short sword, as well as a brace of knives, but he avoided hand-to-hand combat when he could.
Murray’s group was quiet as they traced their rambling pattern through the trees, talking in low voices. He edged closer, took a deep breath, and eased the tight controls on his gift. Murray and his men were some of the more unpredictable of his companions, and he couldn’t afford to ignore their moods.
“Where will we be working today?”
“The road between Robertson Keep and the village.” Murray’s voice was low and rough, and the edge of emotion that colored his words felt like oily greed and something uglier. “With that English king moving against the clan, there’s more folk traveling between the keep and the village for supplies.”
“And richer ones.” Murray laughed. “There’ll be men carrying purses tae buy supplies—women too, if we’re fair lucky. There’ll be plenty tae go around, in fun and gold.”
The ugly feeling crystallized, flowing back and forth among the men. Alec felt his stomach clench.
“Are ye thinking we’ll be having some sport today?” One of the men snickered.
“Aye. There’s bound tae be at least one likely-looking lass on the road today. And if there’s nae any lasses on the road, there’s always a farmer’s daughter, if ye ken my meaning…” Murray trailed off with a lecherous smirk.
“Aye. Money in our pocket and the laird’s and then a bit o’ fun with a warm body. ‘Tis a fine way tae pass the day.”
“‘Tis a traveler I’m hoping for. We can take our time with a woman on the road,” Murray leered, and the rest of the men laughed.
Alec felt his stomach lurch unpleasantly. Thieving was bad enough, but it was money and food in everyone’s pocket. He could accept that, no matter how little he liked participating in ambushes and robbing honest folk of their belongings. Many of the raiders, like Elias, were pragmatic and did what was considered needful and naught more.
But this sounded different. The words passing between the men and the feeling in the air, heavy and sour, made him feel vaguely sick.
He’d sensed this emotion in others once before, and the memory of that day was easily the most shameful experience he’d ever had. As a result, the name Annabel was forever burned into his mind, a brand of dishonor no less sharp than the lack of clan colors he wore.
For Heaven’s sake, please dinnae let it happen again. I cannae let it happen again.
There was no point in addressing the matter to his compatriots or even letting them know he’d heard them talking. It wasn’t as if any of them would care for his protests anyway.
Soon enough, they’d reached the road, and Murray scouted a spot for them to wait. The woods were slightly thicker along that stretch of the path, a hill on one side and a gully on the other making the terrain uncertain if one went off the road.
Alec set himself partway up the hill in the lower branches of a tree where his presence would be masked, but his line of sight to any target on the road was unimpeded. He checked his bow, quiver, and arrows, then adjusted the long dark coat and lightweight leather mask that was the uniform for all of the marauders.
They each wore a dark coat to mask body shape and size, with a cowl-like hood to obscure hair and facial features and a mask to further hide one’s identity. There was no clan tartan on any part of the outfit, neither the overcoat nor the breeches and tunic he wore underneath. The only identifying mark he wore was the small metal cloak pin of two crossed arrows, so his fellow raiders might identify him as the archer of the group.
For all that he profited off their activities, Murdo Campbell was far too canny to allow himself to be overtly associated with the gang. Alec understood it, but even after so many years, being without a clan tartan or a formal clan of his own felt wrong.
Once he was comfortable, or as comfortable as he could be, he settled in to wait.
The first traveler was a man of middle years, driving a tinker’s cart. An arrow nicking the cart horse’s rump startled the beast into a wild, unpredictable plunge and distracted its owner. By the time the man even thought of getting his horse under control, there was another arrow in his shoulder, a third in his calf, and four bandits surrounding him.
Alec shouldered his bow and watched his companions rifle through the man’s belongings, taking his purse and what goods they fancied off the cart. He had no heart for plundering and had so often argued his need to remain on watch and in position that no one bothered to argue the point with him any longer.
At least this one hadn’t required a killing shot. Laird Campbell preferred as few deaths as possible, for dead men caused more trouble than victims of thieves. So long as no one could be identified, and the target did not put up too much of a fight, leaving them trussed up and wounded to eventually get free and continue on their way was good enough.
Eventually, the horse and cart, with the tinker bound and tossed rudely in the back of his wagon, were whipped on their way. They’d probably make it to the village eventually or be found by another traveler.
Hours passed. Two of the group broke away to wander the roads. Alec shifted on his perch and hoped there weren’t as many people on the road as Murray seemed to think there were going to be.
The sound of voices brought him out of the slight daze he’d drifted into. His gut clenched at the light soprano tones of a woman.
Seconds later, one of the men rounded the bend from the keep, a young woman at his side. Alec’s stomach tightened.
Her long blond hair cascaded down her shoulders and around her pale, pretty face in a waterfall of spun gold. Her dress was simple but well-made, and she wore the Robertson clan tartan. Judging by her appearance, she was probably a higher-ranking servant from the keep.
He didn’t need to see her face or hear her voice to sense how her emotions changed when the other four men stepped out of the undergrowth.
The deep fear she radiated was like a hammer blow to his mind, and he almost toppled from his perch. It took him precious moments to right himself and control his gift enough to focus on his surroundings.
The girl’s bag and pouch had already been yanked from her belt and shoulder and tossed to one man who stood to the side, grinning under his mask. The other four surrounded her, trying to pin her. The emotion of her fear was nearly overpowered by the nauseating sense of lust coming from the other five men.
They didn’t just want to rob her. A painful memory flashed before Alec’s eyes.
The bark of brutal laughter over shrill cries and sobs, ripping cloth, and desperate, unheard pleas rang in his ears. An overwhelming, sickening miasma of pain and terror contrasted with lust and cruel satisfaction mixed like a soupy midden inside his head, to the point where he’d nearly lost the contents of his stomach.
He couldn’t let it happen again.
He dropped from his perch and bulled his way forward, clamping iron walls around his gift to focus on the scene at hand.
The girl might be terrified, dress torn and badly outnumbered, but she wasn’t making it easy for her attackers. Murray had raw, bleeding scratches down his face, and one of the others had a bloody nose. The man who’d been holding her belongings had set them aside to help his compatriots, and he’d gotten a good kick in the side for his trouble.
She was still outnumbered five-to-one, but none of the men was the sort to be stopped by a few hard blows or scratches.
Alec managed to intercede just as one of the men grabbed at her wrists. “Och, what are ye doing?” He edged himself into the circle. “This isnae gonna serve the laird, and it’ll nae put anything in our pockets either.”
“Get out o’ the way, lad. If ye dinnae want tae enjoy the sport, then dinnae, but this is our business.” Murray’s voice was a rough growl.
“So ye say. But I dinnae ken how it’s nae my business. In any case, did ye nae see her clothes and her belongings? ‘Tis fair likely she’s well-placed in the Robertson clan, and harm tae her may well bring trouble on all our heads. Ye ken how little El—” He checked himself. “Ye ken how little the leader will like tae have trouble tracking any man’s steps.” He was trying to edge the girl out of the circle, and she wasn’t fighting him, though she was hardly going willingly. Even guarding himself as he was, he could sense her distress.
“We’ve ways o’ preventing that sort o’ trouble.” Murray’s voice was a low growl. “The last one dinnae send the hounds after us, did she now?”
They weren’t going to stop. Five-to-one was bad odds, and there was a large part of him that wanted very much to get out of the way or to make a half-hearted effort and step aside. But even if the memory of last time hadn’t been so heavy in his mind, the spikes of fear that managed to pierce his walls would have been enough to prevent him from walking away.
Murray, apparently tired of waiting for him to move, lunged. Alec swung a boot up into the older man’s gut, doubling him over, then whipped around and delivered a punishing blow to another man’s throat, just under the mask where he was vulnerable.
He grabbed the girl’s arm and threw her out of the now-broken circle, heaving her toward her belongings. “Get ye gone and back tae the keep! Now!”
She didn’t need telling twice, snatching up her bags and dashing down the path like the hounds of hell were on her heels.
Alec forewent his bow for his knives, lashing out and leaving deep cuts on two of the men before taking the legs out from the fifth and following up with a knife in the thigh. All of the men were injured. The ones he’d cut might recover, though the fast-flowing blood meant they’d need care soon. The one he’d hit in the throat was down and not moving.
Murray lurched at him, knife in hand and rage in his eyes. “Ye little…”
Alec dodged, blocked with his own blade, and hammered a fist into Murray’s chin with enough force to knock him completely off his feet.
The numbers were five-to-one, and if he didn’t want to leave five bodies, then he needed to leave. He turned and bolted into the underbrush, aiming for the hills and the wilder part of the woods where it’d be easier for him to get lost and for them to lose his trail.
It might have been smarter to kill them. But dead or alive, Murdo Campbell would want vengeance for his men. He would now be considered a traitor to the Campbell clan, and any man under their tartan who came across him would be ordered to treat him as such. And as for what Elias would do, it was better not to contemplate. The raider leader was not a man to cross lightly, despite being more level-headed than many of his compatriots.
Alec felt he could have done no differently, but knew he was in trouble. He was without a home or clan to support him, and he’d just made a dangerous enemy.
Grimly, he set off into the wilds, formulating plans that might help him survive.
Four more years later…
The road to Robertson Keep hadn’t changed much, though the circumstances had. Alec MacMahon studied the trees as he rode toward the keep and central holding of Clan Robertson, musing on the way his fortunes had turned.
Murdo Campbell had indeed been angry about his actions and set his men to hunting. For over three years, Alec had dashed from town to town, hiding out on the moors and the wilds for weeks at a time, living off the land. Many a time he’d considered aiming for the border to England or for the coast to take a ship, but he’d little enough money for passage. Besides, Murdo Campbell was no fool, and making for the harbors or the border was exactly the sort of thing he’d be expected to do.
It had been hell to be always on the move, unable to trust anyone. There was no way to rest when he was always watching for an attempt on his life, of which there’d been a fair few.
Then, not much more than a fortnight ago, he’d been found by men in the tartan of the MacMahon clan, and he’d thought it was over.
And it was, though not the way he’d expected. Gilroy was dead as a result of a battle against William of Orange and his allies, the Campbells. It almost made Alec think fondly of his brother.
His father might have hated Alec, but he was still MacMahon blood. His health had begun to decline, and the old laird was far too proud and traditional to see the title pass from the clan if it didn’t have to. He’d ordered his unwanted younger son found and brought home. Scouts and hunters of the MacMahon clan had been seeking news of him and following his trail for nearly a fortnight by the time they caught up to him.
A few days after Laird MacMahon passed, Alec arrived to fulfill his father’s final will and agreement with thoughts burning through his mind and the sour taste of irritation and frustration in the back of his throat.
Father had planned an alliance with the Robertson clan. The original contract had been a betrothal between Gilroy and Robertson Clan’s only female of marrying age, but with Gilroy dead, the contract fell to Alec. And even with his father dying and passing on his title, he was expected to uphold family honor and marry the lass chosen for him.
Alec wasn’t sure whether he thought worse of his father for the contract or his brother for being stupid enough to get himself killed before it was fulfilled. He wondered what kind of bride he was getting. From the report he’d had from his father’s retainers, she was hardly a promising one.
By all accounts, the late Laird Robertson had been a worse father than his own and possessed a temper even Gilroy might not have braved with his usual brashness. He was hot-tempered, cruel, and known for leaving bruises and worse on servants and kin alike. There’d been rumors that his youngest son had disappeared for some years and speculation as to whether he’d been taken by enemies or run to avoid the abuse heaped upon his mother and elder sibling.
And yet, for all the ill he’d heard of the previous Laird Robertson, it was said his son, Darach, who had taken the title after his death, was an even-tempered man, full of strength that he used carefully and well. Darach’s mother had been gentle and well-loved and ensured that their sons had grown up educated and well-mannered, though there were rumors that the youngest had only recently returned. The daughter and youngest child of the three had been sheltered by mother and brother both, guarded from the worst of her father’s temper, and by all accounts had been raised with all the love her siblings might have wished for.
In short, she’d been raised with everything Alec had learned not to take for granted: a loving family, a wealthy clan, food, shelter, warmth…
Like a princess in a winter’s tale, she’ll be. Gods above ken her brother’s put enough obstacles and demands in the contract tae satisfy any bard. And like as nae, she’ll be a naive little wench with bright eyes, expecting the world tae be full o’ good cheer, and an easy life with a happy ending and nae a problem in the world tae contend with.
He grimaced. The idea of being saddled with some foolish, pampered little brat was far from appealing, but if he wanted to retain his title and his clan, he’d have to make the best of it. Perhaps she’d at least be pretty enough to be easy on the eyes so that doing his husbandly duties wouldn’t be too much of a chore.
A soft yelping sound broke through his thoughts, and he pulled up short, listening carefully. After a moment, it came again—the sound of an animal in pain.
He was a full day earlier than he’d originally planned to be, so there was no reason not to investigate and see what might be done to help the poor beast. And in any case, it was a welcome distraction.
He dismounted, left his horse loosely tied to a tree branch, and started forward.
Lorna Robertson grimaced as she pushed her dripping hair from her face. The water was chilly but not unbearably so, and the coolness of it was refreshing, a balm to her rather troubled thoughts.
Tomorrow would be her wedding day, and she had no idea how she felt about it.
Most brides would be excited, but all she could feel was dread. That tired, soul-deep dread had been her companion since Darach had first announced her betrothal to the heir of the MacMahon clan.
She knew he would cancel the betrothal in a heartbeat if she but asked it of him. But the alliance was a sorely needed one. Without MacMahon’s support, they were vulnerable to the Campbell Clan and William of Orange, and it was a vulnerability they could not afford to have. They were already facing dangers on too many fronts.
The idea of being wedded to Gilroy MacMahon had repulsed her. His foul manners had been nauseating, and his foul temper had been terrifying. Despite her determination to support her clan in whatever way she could, she’d nearly asked Darach to break that betrothal.
And then Gilroy had been killed in battle, and she’d thought she was free, only to hear that Laird MacMahon had a second son, long absent from the clan and recently returned home. This son, Alec MacMahon, would honor the contract meant for his fallen brother.
Just the idea of him was far more terrifying than his brother. No one, not even Morven, knew anything about the man, other than the fact that fourteen years had passed since he’d vanished from his clan’s holdings.
Would he be violent, cruel, and hot-tempered or a slovenly drunkard like his brother?
What kind of wedding night could she expect from a man who’d vanished for so long, only to turn up now?
She sighed, then dragged herself from the water and pulled on the thin, sleeveless shift she’d left on the bank before lying back in a sun-warmed patch of grass. The sun would give her freckles, which she despised, but it was too fine to ignore, especially when she had no idea if her prospective husband would ever let her see the light of day.
She wanted to believe he would, but…
Her hand touched the top of her leg, absently caressing a spot as she bit her lip.
It was always the same. No matter how she tried, no matter how much she spoke to Aileen about married life or watched Darach with Jane, she couldn’t imagine a man giving her the same sort of tenderness her brothers showed their wives.
All she could imagine was rough hands and rougher actions and pain. There would just be pain inflicted with casual disregard for her existence as a person or as anything other than a broodmare for bearing heirs. All she could picture was a brutal, faceless man who used and hurt her and left her broken and wounded when he’d had his pleasure from her.
There were five men in a ring, their faces hidden in dark masks and featureless cloaks, save for small pins on the shoulders that meant nothing to her eyes. She heard their cruel jeers as they’d shoved her off balance and torn at her clothing, ripping her dress as they tried to pin her and violate her in ways far worse than the rough, painful hands that grabbed her….
She shoved the memory aside. It had been awful, but she’d escaped. She’d gotten away after all, unscathed but for torn, dirty clothing and some bruises which she’d told Darach were the result of a mishap in the woods. She’d always be thankful to the man that saved her life, whoever he might be, even though he’d been dressed like the others and was no random traveler come to her aid.
A cracking in the underbrush drew her attention, and for a moment she tensed, fear making her body rigid even as she eyed the knives tucked into her discarded belt and the water nearby, calculating the best course of action.
If there were predators out there again, they’d not find her easy to take a second time.
Then she heard a low, faint whine, the sound of an animal in pain. The knots in her shoulders and back loosened in relief. After a moment, she rose to her feet and moved toward the sound, hoping there was something she could do for the poor, injured beast.
The animal turned out to be a dog which lay panting in a small clearing just off the road. The beast had once been a handsome hunting dog, Alec thought, but now the hound had a graying muzzle and the thin look of an animal who had not eaten well for a long time.
It also looked as if the beast had suffered a bad fall. Its coat was muddied with splotches of dried blood and traces of various wounds decorating and scoring through the fur. Alec felt his stomach clench in sympathy.
He could hazard a guess as to what had happened. The dog had become too old to supply the table with game in the manner that was expected of it. Likely, the owners hadn’t seen fit to feed the poor beast properly when it stopped being able to efficiently hunt its own food. Perhaps they had expected the hound to sicken and die. When that had taken longer than they liked, they had brought the dog to the woods to dispose of.
Perhaps it was human hands that had done the damage. Though, it was just as possible that the dog had tried to prove its worth, met with a bad accident, then been left to perish. Or it might have tangled with one of the beasts of the forest and been left for dead.
In any case, there was little Alec could do for it. He was no mender of animals and knew not how to tend an ailing beast. There was little chance such a dog would accept his touch, either too afraid or too loyal to its previous masters. He’d no wish to turn up to his own wedding half-mauled by a panicked animal.
Beyond that, not even the greatest of healers, be they of men or beasts, could undo the ravages of time. Even could the hound be healed, it was unlikely to live much longer.
He could leave it, or he could give the aging hound the mercy of a quick end. It need not languish in pain or know it had been betrayed by the humans it had so faithfully served. An arrow through the skull would give a death so swift there would be no time for the animal to feel pain.
The idea left a sour taste in his mouth, but his hands were already reaching for the bow strapped to his back, drawing the string taut with smooth, practiced motions and plucking an arrow from his quiver. He set the arrow to the string and sighted along it, aiming for a shot that would make the death instant and painless.
It felt wrong. After a moment, he breathed deep and whispered an old prayer his mother had once taught him, “Rest ye safe, and rest ye well. May the gods take ye gently home.”
He had just pulled back the arrow, ready to let fly when something hard and heavy crashed into the back of his head and sent him tumbling forward. He stumbled with a curse and just managed to not shoot himself in the foot as the arrow slipped on the bow.
“Gods blast ye, what the devil was that?” He spun around on his heel, prepared to give his attacker a piece of his mind, and froze.
His attacker was a beautiful woman with long, honey-colored hair, wet as if she’d recently come from bathing. She was clothed only in a thin shift and brandishing a stout branch. Alec blinked hard, but the image in front of him didn’t change.
Who in the world…? And what in all the realms o’ Heaven and Earth is she doing out here dressed like that?
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Oh wow, I am so looking forward to reading your new book about Alec.
Thank you so much for your kind words, my dear Ann! ❤️
What a thrilling beginning for Alec and Lorna! Let the fireworks begin! It’ll be entertaining to watch these two “dance around” each other and watch their feelings grow. Super start, Fiona 🙂
Thank you so much for your kind words, my dear Young at Heart! I’m so glad you enjoyed the first taste! ❤️
Looks to be a great read.
Thank you so much for your kind words, my dear Melord! I’m so glad you enjoyed the preview! ❤️
Would love to get the full story.
Just a few hours more, my dear Karen… ❤️