About the book
She was a love he’d cross oceans for.
Losing her husband was Grace Smith’s greatest sorrow in life. That, and trying to avoid betrothals to men she would never love, to save her life. Until a mysterious Highlander rescues her from damnation.
Alec MacNeil’s only love in life is the sea. A notorious pirate all across Scotland, he never keeps a penny he steals for himself. On his mission to steal the Viscount of Fortershire’s wealth, he ends up stealing something more: the heart of a beautiful Sassenach.
However, their dreams for a shared future are crushed when a letter arrives. A letter that not only calls for Alec to honor an old agreement for marriage but also gives him an ultimatum: his life or his entire clan. His home is under siege and the attackers won’t settle for anything less than killing everyone Alec loves.
Alec never felt as free as he did when he was standing at the helm of the Blazing Fire, sailing across the open waters of the sea. He breathed deeply and smiled, savoring the heavy salty scent of the ocean air. He leaned back against the aft railing and turned his face up to the sky, admiring the stars twinkling in the heavens above. He thought they looked like chips of diamonds nestled among the black velvet of the sky.
The moon sat high in the sky, climbing inexorably toward its zenith. It was nearly full, and its silver light sparkled off the surface of the sea, making the small whitecaps around them glow as if with an inner light. He thought it was beautiful. Magical. And it never failed to fill him with awe. With wonder.
Whenever he was out on the water, Alec loved looking at the stars in the sky above him. The heavens were so vast and so seemingly endless; it made him feel so small. But Alec often imagined himself one day sailing away, chasing the stars. When he was on his ship, he felt so free that Alec sometimes pictured himself letting the tide take him to where the stars eventually ran out.
“Tis a peaceful night.”
Alec turned to find his best friend and first mate, Rory Bathgate, ascending the stairs from the main deck to where he stood at the helm. Rory handed him a mug of mead and Alec watched the steam wafting off the surface, drifting upward to join the stars above them.
“Aye,” Alec replied. “‘Tis a soft, steady wind blowin’ us right along.”
“We should make Fortershire in thae small hours,” Rory said. “Should I wake thae lads’n get ‘em tae work?”
Alec shook his head. “Nay. Nae yet,” he replied. “Let ‘em sleep a wee bit longer.”
Rory leaned against the aft rail beside him and Alec raised his mug in appreciation. Together, they stood in silence, reveling in the night air. Alec had been friends with Rory for more years than he could remember. It seemed to him there wasn’t a time in his life he didn’t recall his oldest friend being around.
Rory was loyal and one of the best men Alec knew. And he appreciated the man’s friendship more than he could say. There weren’t many who saw Alec for who he was rather than for his position. Rory was one of the few exceptions.
“Why Fortershire?” Rory asked.
“Thae Viscount of Fortershire,” Alec replied. “He’s a cold, cruel man. Been wantin’ tae ‘it ‘im for a while now.”
“Is he wealthy?”
“Aye. Wouldnae be sailin’ intae Fortershire if he wasnae,” Alec grinned.
“Seems like ye’re takin’ a big risk.”
“Big risk comes with big rewards, lad.”
Rory chuckled. “Is this ye doin’ one more big mission b’fore ye settle down intae ye’re Lairdship then?”
Alec looked over at him and snorted as he rolled his eyes. He scratched at his thick red beard then turned his face back out to the endless sea stretched out before him.
“Nay,” Alec said softly. “I’ll keep sailin’ as long as I can. I’ll sail for’ver if I can.”
“But ye ken ye cannae sail for’ver,” Rory reminds him. “Ye’ve duties back ‘ome.”
Alec sighed. He thought of the letter from his faither that was sitting atop the desk in his cabin—the letter imploring him to come home. As the only son of the Laird of Herlay, Alec had responsibilities at home. He would eventually inherit the title of Laird and the duty that went along with it.
But he wanted to put it off as long as he could. He wanted to live his life as he wanted, out on the open ocean. Free from the restrictions he knew would come with his life as the Laird of Herlay. Alec was not ready for it. Not yet.
“Daenae remind me,” he said. “Ye should get a bit of rest. We’ll make Fortershire b’fore long.”
Rory gave him a small smile and nodded before leaving the helm and going below, leaving Alec alone with the salty scent of the sea he loved so well.
They had anchored near the mouth of a sheltered cove that was close to the harbor of the English county of Fortershire. A thick cover of clouds had moved in from the west, blotting out the moonlight and providing them with cover as they took the longboats from the ship into the harbor.
Alec looked over at the other two boats; a total of thirty men were coming ashore with him. They were hardy, rugged men who could be counted on in a fight. They had been with Alec through more scraps than he could count, and the Crown in England wanted most of them for a variety of crimes. Despite what some might consider hard upbringings and checkered pasts, though, these were good men. Alec trusted them with his life, and he never thought twice about taking them on as crew.
“Soldiers,” Rory whispered in his ear, “two on thae dock.”
“Bows,” Alec ordered quietly.
He watched as two men in the bow of each boat rose to their knees and nocked an arrow. They all drew back, pulling their arrows, sighted their targets, and held, waiting for Alec’s command.
“Hold,” he whispered urgently. “Hold.”
The torches hanging on the pillars of the pier illuminated the soldiers perfectly. They had their backs turned to the harbor and the flickering torchlight glinted off the bottle they were passing back and forth between them.
For bein’ thae men who protect thae ‘arbor, they’re doin’ a shite job of it.
The tension of the moment tied a knot in Alec’s gut and filled his veins with a feeling like liquid fire. He lived for moments like this. Lived for the excitement of a fight. Little else in this world made him feel so alive.
The longboats drew closer to the docks, moving under the cover of darkness, the gentle splash of the oars quiet but Alec knew the sound would become obvious soon enough.
“Fire,” he ordered.
The soft twang of the bows sounded in his ears and a moment later, he watched the two soldiers on the dock twitch and jerk, silently falling into the water below.
“Thae dock is ours,” Rory grinned.
The men rowed the boats to the dock and quickly jumped out, tying the lines to the posts to secure them. Once that was done, the men all climbed out of the boats and secured their weapons to their belts and bodies, getting themselves ready for the coming fight.
Alec looked around, smiling at the grim determination on the faces of his men. They were set and they were ready to take the fight to the Viscount.
“All right, lads,” Alec said. “Let’s go see thae Viscount.”
And with that, they set off. They moved swiftly and quietly through the streets of the town. At one point, Alec split off, leading a group of ten toward the marshes that surrounded the town while Rory took the rest of their fighters toward the main gates of the Viscount’s manor.
The plan was for Rory and his men to stay hidden, out of sight of the soldiers who manned the walls that surrounded the large manor until Alec gave them the signal. Alec was moving through the marsh and forest to the east of the walls. Because of the natural features of the land, Alec knew that side of the Viscount’s manor was not heavily guarded–nobody would march an army through that slop.
Nay, nae an army. But a group of ten? Aye.
It took them nearly half an hour to get through the soft, squishy ground of the marshes, and Alec brought his men to a stop at the edge of the forest. He glanced up at the parapet at the top of the walls, watching the glow of a torch moving behind the crenellations.
“Soldier on patrol,” Alec said. “He’ll be gone soon.”
He watched until he saw the flames from the torch disappear from view, plunging that section of the wall into darkness once more. He turned to his men and grinned.
“Come on,” he said. “‘tis time.”
Ten men dashed across the hundred yards of open ground between the edge of the forest and the wall of the manor. They pressed themselves flat against the stone to keep from being seen should a soldier happen by above them.
Alec edged along the stone until he came to one of the turrets built into the wall. He’d had a dalliance with one of the chambermaids a couple of months back and had gotten the information he needed to stage a raid on the Viscount’s manor–including the location of a secret door. The door was an escape route should the manor look like it was about to fall. It provided the Viscount with a safe exit. Except for tonight, it would prove to be his undoing.
Alec felt around the edges of the stone, looking for the trigger she said would be there. He didn’t find it at first and was beginning to worry she had deceived him. But then his fingers brushed the edge of a flat, smooth rock that seemed unnatural. He pushed on it and heard the distinct click of a latch giving way and the scrape of stone. A moment later, light showed around the edges of the hidden doorway, and he let out a soft sigh of relief.
Thank God this worked or this’d been all for naught.
The excitement flowing through him doubled as he gripped the edges of the door and pulled it open. He crossed the ground floor of the turret, looking warily at the staircase that wound upward to the parapets. Not hearing anything, he moved to the door and pulled it open a couple of inches. Alec pressed his eye to the gap and scanned the yard.
“What d’ye see, Cap’n?” whispered one of his men.
“A whole lotta gold just waitin’ for us tae take it,” Alec grinned.
The stone wall surrounded the manor with a turret stationed at each corner. Stables ran along the bottom of the wall to his left and, across the yard on the other side, were what looked to be booths housing a smithy, a fletcher, and an armorer, among other things. Against the wall behind the manor sat what looked like housing for the Viscount’s troops.
The manor sat in the center of the yard, large and imposing. It was built of a combination of light and dark stones and stood higher than the curtain wall itself, the top floors looking down upon the ramparts. The roof of the manor was flat and crenelated like the parapet that sat atop walls that surrounded the manor. Narrow windows and arrow slits were set in the walls and the main door was made of a thick oak reinforced with steel bars.
“What nou, Cap’n?”
“Nou we slip inside’n relieve thae good Viscount of all his treasures.”
Quiet, muffled, but excited laughter sounded behind him. Alec knew from experience that most of the manors these minor nobles built were the same; he never credited the English lords with a lot of originality or creativity. Common areas, reception chambers, kitchens, and servant’s quarters usually occupied the ground floor. Offices and guest chambers made up the second floor, and the Lord of the Manor had his apartments on the top floor.
Alec led his men out of the turret door and single file they hugged the curtain wall, moving past the stables. The one weakness he’d found in most all English manors they’d raided over the years was that most of them had a servant’s entrance near the rear. It was rarely guarded and always easily accessible. Alec had never credited the English lords with a lot in the way of smarts either.
Still in the shadow of the curtain wall, Alec cast a wary eye to the ramparts. There were but a few soldiers in sight but they stood with their backs to Alec and his men. They had their eyes trained toward the village, guarding against an attack from without, never anticipating the enemy to be already inside.
“Colin, ye’re on thae doors lad,” Alec whispered. “Go quick’n go quiet.”
A young man–barely more than a boy really–darted away from the group, moving from shadow to shadow. He was the swiftest and smallest among them, so his job was to lock the soldiers into their dormitory and keep them from reinforcing the household guards. A protracted and bloody fight was the last thing Alec wanted.
He watched as Colin swiftly threaded the rope through the pull handles on all three doors. He then took the rope and tied it to a stationary post, essentially locking all of the soldiers inside their dormitory, save for the ones manning the walls, of course.
Alec grinned to himself. The idea had stemmed from a jest Rory had played on him when they were younger. He had been trapped in that outbuilding with a pile of fresh manure as tall as he was for more than an hour before Rory let him out.
Willnae hold ‘em forev’r, but should dae thae trick lon’ enough.
Alec and his men watched Colin do his job quickly and efficiently and then he gave them the sign to move. With one last look to the ramparts, Alec slid his sword from the sheath on his belt and darted to the servant’s door in the back of the house. His heart thundering in his chest, he reached out and unlatched the door and gave it a gentle push.
The door swung inward on surprisingly well-oiled hinges and didn’t make a sound. Alec held his breath and listened but heard nothing in the lower levels of the manor. Everything was still and silent. He crossed the threshold and found himself in the kitchens. The fires in the ovens had been banked but still smoldered, filling the room with warmth.
He smiled, then turned and waved for his men to join him. The house was theirs. Once his last man crossed the threshold, he gathered them around.
“All right,” he started in a low voice. “First things first. Gather up all thae servants but they are nae tae be ‘armed. ‘Tis nae their fault they work for a right arse. Gather them ‘ere in the kitchens. Go nou.”
As his men moved out, he grabbed Colin by the arm. The younger man looked at him with wide, eager eyes and a rueful grin touched Alec’s lips. Colin was barely past his fifteenth summer but already had a sentence of death hanging over his head, courtesy of the English Crown. He’d been an orphaned boy, hungry and desperate, and had been beset upon by an English lord who beat him within an inch of the boy’s life.
Something inside Colin had snapped and he defended himself. He ended up accidentally killing the lord and, thus, forfeiting his own life. He’d been twelve. When Alec had heard the boy’s story in a tavern one night, he’d set a plan to rescue him. Alec did not think it was right or just that a boy who had simply been defending himself from a beating should be put to death for it because the other man had been a noble.
Alec and his men had staged a raid, freed the boy, and had taken him under their protective wing. They were his family now and Colin held a special place in Alec’s heart. But he was still just a boy and not ready for the dangers his men faced.
“Nay lad,” Alec said gently. “Nae yet.”
Alec saw the flash of disappointment in the boy’s eyes as he looked down at the dagger in his hand. It glittered coldly in the dim ambient light. Alec cupped the back of the boy’s neck and made him look up at him, his expression sober and intense.
“There’ll come a day when ye’re leadin’ thae charge,” he said softly. “But ‘til then, it’s me duty tae keep ye safe. Tae keep ye out of ‘arms way.”
“But I can fight,” he argued. “I wantae fight.”
“I ken ye can. And I ken ye dae,” he replied. “But not yet, lad. Ye still got much tae learn and I’ll nae ‘ave ye get yer guts split open b’cause ye werenae ready.”
Colin sighed and sheathed his dagger with frustration painted upon his face. Alec laughed softly. He admired the spirit of the boy. But he was still unwilling to put him in any unnecessary danger.
“Nou go’n get thae gates open and give Rory thae signal,” Alec said. “We daenae wantae be caught with our breeches down ‘ere.”
Colin nodded and Alec tousled his hair, giving the boy a fond smile before ushering him out the back door to complete his task. Elsewhere in the house, chaos erupted as the servants, pulled from sleep by large, hard men with blades, were being herded into the kitchen. In all, fifty servants in their nightclothes stood huddled together, trembling, pale, their faces etched with fear.
Alec heard the ring of steel on steel and knew the fight was engaged and that time was short.
“Is this all of them?” Alec asked.
A tall dark-haired man named Lamond nodded. “Aye Cap’n,” he said.
“Good,” he replied. “Let’s get ‘em secured, lads.”
Alec nodded and looked at the group as his men started to tie them up. That gave rise to fearful murmurs and the sound of the women sobbing with fright.
“Let’s nae ‘ave any undue fussin’,” Alec intoned. “We’re nae ‘ere tae ‘urt any of ye. And we’re nae ‘ere for anythin’ of yers, so settle yerselves down nou.”
The room fell silent, and the women wiped away their tears, quietly sniffing, but Alec saw that none of them looked reassured. But nothing could be done for that. He nodded to the men holding the ropes that bound the servants and called for one of his most trusted swordsmen, Albus, to join him.
Together, they ascended the stairs, encountering no resistance. He had expected to encounter more than a dozen house guards. But his men had dispatched them quickly and there did not appear to be more inside the manor. Which told Alec the main body of the Viscount’s force was either up on the walls or in the dormitory.
‘Tis a bit of good news and somethin’ goin’ right for us for a change.
He and Albus made it to the third-floor landing and stopped just outside the door to the Viscount’s apartment. Alec reached out and tried the latch, but when he tried to push the door inward, it did not move–bolted from the inside. As they stood there, a noise drew Alec’s attention and he exchanged an expression of disbelief with Albus.
“The bleedin’ arse slept through thae whole thang,” he laughed softly.
“Good news for us,” Albus shrugged.
“Aye,” Alec grinned, enjoying their sudden reversal of fortunes.
Albus moved to the side as Alec positioned himself before the door. He raised his foot and mustering all of the strength in his body, drove it forward. The door crashed inward with a mighty roar, coming loose at one of its hinges, making it hang awkwardly. Wood splintered and cracked, exploding into the room as if a barrel of black powder had been ignited.
Alec rushed forward, his sword bare, and Albus right behind him. He may not have heard the commotion downstairs, but the Viscount heard his door blowing inward, sat bolt upright, face blanching, and a look of absolute terror etched upon his features. He looked at them, his eyes wide, lips quivering. But he sat up straighter as he tried to muster some sense of dignity and control.
“What is this about?” he demanded. “Who are you and what are you doing in my home?”
“Time tae pay thae piper, Viscount Blandford,” Alec growled.
“Get out thae bed,” Albus added.
The Viscount hesitated, so Alec raised his sword, pointing the tip at the English lord’s throat.
“I daenae want tae kill ye in yer bed,” he said, his voice low and menacing. “But I will if I ‘ave tae.”
The Viscount slipped out of bed and while Alec kept his sword on him, Albus moved quickly to tie the man’s hands securely behind his back. With their prisoner bound, they marched him downstairs and into the kitchens where the rest of his staff, who still huddled together in a far corner of the room. Alec pushed the Viscount up against a wall with the tip of his sword pressed the hollow of the man’s throat.
“B’hold, Viscount Hector Blandford, beater of women, starver of children,” Alec leaned closer so his face was mere inches from the English lord’s. “Murderer and coward.”
“I am well within my rights as a noble and member of the King’s Court to punish ne’er-do-wells as I see fit,” Blandford huffed.
“Ye are, are ye?”
“Quite right. Furthermore, you and your men have forfeited your lives by your actions this night.”
“Is that so?”
Alec looked around the room and chuckled. His men glared hard at the Viscount, all of them making a display of brandishing their blades. Lord Blandford trembled and seemed to visibly shrink as Alec turned his eyes back to the man. But the Viscount sniffed loudly and lifted his chin defiantly, doing his best to put on a brave face.
“However, were you to free me and my household staff–unharmed, of course–and leave my manor, I would be willing to grant you and your men leniency,” Lord Blandford said, his voice quavering.
Alec and his men laughed. Blandford’s household staff had stopped crying and looked on in fascination, some of them with hope in their eyes that he actually would run Blandford through. It told Alec all he needed to know about the man.
“‘Tis a mighty gen’rous offer, Me Lord,” Alec spat, putting a sarcastic edge to the honorific. “But I could just kill ye and be done with it.”
“And what do you imagine will happen when my soldiers outside–”
His words were cut off by the sound of the front door to the manor, crashing inward. Heavy bootsteps sounded on the hard wooden floor and Alec grinned at Rory, who entered with the rest of his men. He noticed a couple of red stains on Rory’s tunic.
“Ye all right, lad?” Alec asked.
Rory nodded. “Aye. He ‘ad some stubborn mules for soldiers but they been dealt with,” he replied.
Alec turned his eyes back to the Viscount. “Ye were sayin’ what ‘bout yer soldiers?”
Lord Blandford swallowed hard and licked his lips nervously but said nothing. Alec cast a grin at him.
“This ‘im then?” Rory asked.
Alec nodded. “Aye. This is thae bleedin’ piece of filth we came ‘ere for.”
“Gonna cut ‘is throat?”
“I daenae,” Alec replied. “I ken maybe dippin’ ‘im in boilin’ oil might be more fittin’.”
“How ‘bout ye tie ‘im to a post outside’n set ‘im on fire?”
“Oh, nou, there’s a fine idea. I hadnae ken that b’fore.”
“Well, I am thae one who comes up with all thae ideas.”
“Aye. That’s true.”
As they bantered with each other, Alec’s crew chuckled while the Viscount paled visibly. His eyes widened and though he did his best to contain it, Lord Blandford could not stop the expression of fear that stretched across his face.
“I ken, though, we should just be quick ‘bout it and be done with it,” Alec said.
“Not as fun,” Rory chimed in. “But aye, we are pressed for time.”
Alec flashed him a malevolent grin as he drew his sword arm back and the Viscount’s eyes grew impossibly wide.
“Please, no,” he shouted, “do not–”
Lord Blandford squeezed his eyes shut as Alec thrust his sword forward. The Viscount’s screams filled the kitchens. Everything was still and silent for a long moment and then Lord Blandford opened his eyes, igniting a chorus of booming laughter from Alec and his men. His eyes cut to his left, where the point of Alec’s sword was stuck into the wood pillar beside his head.
“I ken ‘e wet ‘imself lads,” Rory laughed hysterically.
Lord Blandford’s face darkened and he looked away, a sour, rage-filled expression crossing his face.
“Take everythin’ nae nailed down, lads,” Alec called. “Find somethin’ nice for yerselves and daenae leave this bleedin’ fool a chamberpot tae relieve ‘imself in.”
With a roar of approval, Alec’s men spread out through the house to plunder and reave as he and Rory remained in the kitchen to guard the prisoners.
Grace Smith sat at her table, frantically sewing and stitching by the guttering light of the candles. Once upon a time, Grace usually did not work so late into the night. But that had been a different life. A happier life when she was married to an amazing man. It had been going on two years now when she’d laid him down after he had battled with the sweating sickness Two years since she’d returned him to the earth beside his parents. He’d died and everything had changed for her and late nights were becoming the norm.
Grace had fallen behind on some of her orders–something that also seemed to be becoming the norm–and needed to get caught up. There were certain advantages to being the only seamstress in all of Fortershire, but it came with certain downsides as well. Such as having too many projects to feasibly handle at any one time.
But it was not like she could afford to turn away work. Ever since her husband died, Grace had to take on as many customers as she could to keep a roof over her head and food in her belly. In one sense, it was good since the increased workload took her mind off her sad state of affairs. Keeping busy kept her from dwelling too much that she was a widow at such a young age.
But it also means working long hours into the night for demanding customers who all want their things yesterday.
She had dreamed of one day moving to the countryside in Fortershire and raising a family with her husband, Daniel. She had wanted a boy and a girl, a modest cottage not far from town, and a garden to grow, not just vegetables for the family table, but also beautiful flowers.
Oh, how I wanted that garden. I wanted it as much as I wanted anything.
She leaned close to the table, working her needle ceaselessly through the fabric as she stitched together a new shirt for one of the local merchants. She sat back and blinked, rubbing at her watering eyes, the strain of such close work taking a toll on her.
“What I need is some sleep,” she muttered to herself.
She took a sip of her tea and gave herself a minute to relax. She rubbed her temples and closed her eyes for a moment, trying to stave off the dull thumping inside her head. Behind her closed eyes, though, images of her dead husband flashed, drawing a pained but soft yelp from her.
Daniel had been tall, trim, and with his high cheekbones, dark hair, and even darker eyes, he had been the most handsome man Grace had ever seen. He was kind, compassionate, earnest, and sincere. He had a keen mind for business, and between his skills and her talent for sewing, they were going to open a dress and clothing shop there in Fortershire. It had been his passion to help her succeed, and Grace had loved him for it.
They had met shortly after he moved to Fortershire from London. He’d said he wanted to get out of the viper’s nest of politics that saturated the city. He longed to live a quiet, happy life, he’d said. Grace had been captivated by him almost immediately, and they married less than a year after their first meeting. The two years they’d spent as husband and wife had been the happiest of her life and losing him had been the most devastating blow she could have ever suffered.
She’d lived in mourning since the day she’d gotten word of his death, working nearly around the clock to keep herself occupied. Grace knew that if she stopped working, stopped to take the time to properly grieve, that once she started to cry, she would never stop. And so she worked.
She was resigned to working in the same cottage she lived within the town of Fortershire. And without Daniel there to help keep it up, her cottage was starting to look worn and threadbare itself, instead of a prosperous dress and clothing shop.
It was more or less all her parents had left her when they died half-a-dozen winters ago now. They had been good, hardworking people, and she missed them as much as she missed Daniel. Grace often despaired, her life felt like nothing as much as a series of tragedies, one death after another.
A soft knock sounded at the door. Surprised and startled, she jumped and nearly dropped her mug of tea.
“Who is calling at this time of night?” she muttered to herself.
She got up on her feet, and moved to the door, and stood before it with her hand on the latch. A flutter in her belly gave her pause and she withdrew her hand.
“Wh…who’s there?” she asked.
“Grace, it’s Kyle,” he said. “Kyle Herdeson.”
Grace rolled her eyes, the fear that had been churning in her belly suddenly fading away, quickly replaced by the acidic burn of irritation. It was a sensation that had becoming increasingly familiar to her over the months since her Daniel had passed.
“Kyle, it is not proper for you to be at my door at this time of the night,” she said. “Now kindly remove yourself and if you wish to speak, you can do so at a decent time of day.”
“I just–I need to speak with you, Grace. It’s really important,” he urged. “I realized something and I wish to share it with you.”
“You can share it with me at an appropriate time.”
“Please, Grace, it is truly important.”
“Nothing can be so important as to come to my door at such an indecent hour,” she snapped. “Now goodnight, Mr. Herdeson.”
She turned and walked back to her table and sat down. Her hands trembled too hard for her to pick up her needle again. Grace let out a long breath and tried to gather her wits about her.
The presumptuousness of that man. To think he can come calling at all hours of the night.
That, too, had been a truly disturbing after-effect of Daniel’s death–the constant stream of men who would not stop trying to woo her. Kyle was just one more in a long list of men who promised they would take care of her, give her a comfortable life, and a happy home. Some took her rejection and left her alone. Others were more persistent about trying to earn her affection.
And then there is Kyle, who is something else altogether.
Grace stood and stoked the fire in the hearth. The chill in the air was deepening, and she still had many hours of work left ahead of her. Grace knew she would probably not sleep.
It seems that’s becoming more and more commonplace these days.
The minute she sat back down, the rapping on her door sounded again, this time more insistent.
“Mr. Herdeson, please leave,” she called out. “This is highly inappropriate and–”
She bit off her words as her door crashed inward. Grace leapt to her feet, searching her immediate area for something to defend herself with. Kyle Herdeson stood just inside the threshold, his eyes glassy, an unhealthy, waxy pallor to his skin. He looked unfocused and swayed unsteadily on his feet.
Recognizing that Kyle was deep in his cups, Grace swallowed hard and licked lips that had suddenly gone bone dry. Her heart was jolted by a lightning bolt of fear and threatened to beat out of her chest. She tried to remain calm and in control of herself. It was the only way she was going to get through this.
“Mr. Herdeson,” she started, her voice even. “It seems you have had a bit too much to drink. I think it is time for you to go home and–”
“I love you, Grace,” he said with a slight slur in his words. “That’s what I realized today. I am in love with you.”
“Yes, well, perhaps you will feel differently once you have had a chance to rest–”
He shook his head violently. “Listen to me. I am in love with you,” he spat, “have been for a long time now. And I think your Daniel dyin’ was God’s way of telling us we need to be together.”
His words drove a white-hot spike of rage straight through her, driving away some of her fear. That he would dare mention Daniel’s name to justify his relentless and unwanted pursuit of her enraged Grace well past the point of reason.
“Get out of my house, Mr. Herdeson,” she hissed. “Leave now.”
“No, you need to hear what I have to say,” he says. “You’re going to listen to me.”
“I most certainly am not!”
He staggered forward, looming over her. A crazed light shone in his eyes, and the fear that had been pushed to the back of her mind flared up again, overwhelming the anger that had taken hold just a moment ago. He reached out and grabbed her arm, a sneer on his face that chilled Grace to the core.
“I love you, Grace. And it’s time you stop this mourning you’re in,” he hissed. “I can provide you with a good home. I can–”
“I do not love you, Mr. Herdeson,” Grace spat. “Now, please leave my home.”
His grip on her arm tightened, and the fear in her belly spread, making her entire body tingle and tremble with it. He leaned closer, trying to kiss her, and Grace turned her face, trying to pull away from him, but she could not break his grip on her. He shook her like a rag doll, screaming at her, an incomprehensible string of words streaming from his mouth.
Grace groped at the table, nearly crying out in relief when her hands fell upon the fabric shears. She fumbled with them before getting a grip on them. Kyle was still screaming and shaking her violently when she swung the shears blindly. He cursed and stumbled backward, a bright red line on his cheek. She watched in grim fascination as crimson rivulets raced down his cheek.
Kyle cursed and held his hand to his face, his gaze narrowing malevolently as he stared at her in silence for a long moment. That crazed light in his eyes deepened and the fear that smoldered inside of Grace’s chest burst into a roaring bonfire.
He is going to kill me. I really think he is going to kill me.
As Grace moved to pull away from him, he reached for her, and her bodice ripped with a sound that filled her with a terror that nearly made her heart stop. She threw her hands up to cover herself, backing away from Kyle who seemed more emboldened after seeing her flesh exposed like that. His face flushed and his eyes were filled with a sense of lust that terrified Grace.
She swung the shears wildly again, but this time, Kyle managed to catch her arm. Grace let out a cry of pain as he wrenched it and the shears hit the ground with a loud clatter. She heard the sharp crack of flesh-meeting-flesh a moment before her head was rocked to the side, and her face felt like it had been set on fire.
Grace stumbled backward and tripped over the leg of her chair. She flailed, windmilling her arms as she tried to keep her balance, but Grace went down on her backside. Her head rapped hard against the wood floor and she saw bursts of light behind her eyes. Grace’s vision was blurry and her head throbbed painfully.
Suddenly Kyle was looming over her again, filling her entire field of blurred vision. He glared down at her malevolently but that light of lust still shone in his eyes. Belatedly, Grace covered her bare breast, trying to hold the torn pieces of fabric together.
“You are going to be mine, Grace,” he slurred.
She shook her head. “Please, Kyle, do not do this.”
“You are mine and I will take what I want from you.”
A shudder of fear and revulsion swept through her as she watched him lick his lips lasciviously.
“And right now,” he huffed, “I want to have you.”
Grace opened her mouth, a keening wail issuing from her throat as Kyle fell to his knees beside her. His hand were on her, groping, grabbing, pinching. He grabbed at the hem of her dress and tried to pull it up. Grace reached back and smacked him as hard as she was able. But it didn’t seem to faze Kyle as he merely gave her a wavering grin.
“You might as well stop fightin’ Grace,” he said. “It won’t do you any good.”
Grace screamed as she kicked and slapped at Kyle but it only seemed to excite him more. He grew more aggressive and laughed at her feeble attempts to push him away. This was all a game to him–a horrible, drunken game.
“Stop fighting me!” he roared.
But then he stopped. A look of confusion crossed his face–an expression that was mirrored on Grace’s as she watched a thin piece of what looked like steel burst from his shoulder. Grace screamed in horror as she realized it was a sword protruding from Kyle’s shoulder, staining the front of his tunic crimson.
She had never seen battle and had never seen a man be stabbed before. Fortershire was a quiet, prosperous town where murders were rare. The worst Grace had ever seen was a man being punched outside of a tavern and very little bloodshed.
The sword was withdrawn and a moment later, the butt of the hilt crashed on Kyle’s head with a sickening crunch. His eyes rolled up and his mouth fell open as he slumped to the side, falling off of her entirely.
He hit the ground with a wet, meaty thud and lay still, the blood from his shoulder pooling around the unconscious man. As terrified as she was and as much as she disliked Kyle, she never would have wished that upon him.
Standing before her, the tip of his sword red with Kyle’s blood was a man she had never seen before. He had a fearsome look about him that sent a wave of fear rolling through her. The man was tall and broad through the shoulders and chest. He had hair the color of flames and a thick, red beard to match. The stranger’s green eyes glittered in the firelight, looking like polished jade.
“Wh…who are you?” she asked, trembling as hard as her body could muster.
“Are ye all right, lass?” the man asked, his accent marking him out as Scottish.
Grace felt overwhelmed and overcome by fear and darkness danced at the edges of her vision.
He saved me. I don’t think he’s here to hurt me. But he looks so big and so terrifying. I’ve never seen a more frightful-looking man.
He was rugged, and though she did not know any Scots herself, she had heard they were brutal and vicious. Grace tried to cling to consciousness, fearful of what might happen if she gave into the darkness.
But then, she was not given much of a choice. The darkness reached up and latched onto her, pulling her down into its deep, warm embrace. And Grace gave herself over to it. The last thing she saw was the large, red-haired man kneeling next to her, a look of concern on his face.
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