About the book
He loved her to the point of oblivion…
When Ella-Rose learns that she is to marry an old and abusive man, her only option is to disguise herself as a man and escape. Her disguise proves better than she thought, when the rogue Highlander she meets on her journey helps her slip past the guards.
The moment he rescues that village boy, Dominic White instantly knows that he is actually a woman. Knowing he can’t leave her alone to fend for herself, which leaves him with no choice but to tell her his secret: in reality, he is the son of the Laird of McEwan.
Despite the rocky start and the hidden truths, Ella-Rose and Dominic find their true love in each other. However, it all goes downhill when someone appears determined to end Dominic’s life, and everyone thinks it’s Ella-Rose’s family trying to get her back. Nobody dares look closer, for the past is dead; or so they think...
“Nae, dinna cut it!” Ella-Rose clutched at her head, shielding her hair from her sister’s shears, not that it did any good. Snip! A mahogany lock graced the hearthstone. Ella-Rose shrieked and ducked, wresting the shears from Kendall’s fingers, and flinging them across the chamber where they clattered against the wall.
“Do ye want to be passing for a lad or nae?” Kendall asked, cross now, her hands fisted on her hips as she confronted her sister with all the fierceness she could muster. Had she not looked so much like their father’s rat dog, Ella-Rose might have taken such a look as a challenge. As it was, it was all Ella-Rose could do to keep from laughing.
Besides, ‘twas hardly a laughing matter, was it? In dismay, Ella-Rose bent, snagging the lock of hair, and holding it for a moment before tossing it into the fire with a mournful shake of the head. An acrid smell filled the chamber.
“Have ye nae seen the men around Faither’s table?” Ella-Rose shot back as she turned to face the vandal. “Some of them have longer hair than the two of us together, and I’m only a year shy of twenty.” She turned and bundled her hair up on her head where her sister couldn’t get to it. “And a few of them spend more time styling it!”
“Aye!” Kendall’s hands danced, expressing in gesture the frustration which also laced her every word. “But they’re nae a peasant farmer’s boy. Ye are!”
Well, she had a point. Ella-Rose hugged her sister fiercely, deciding there and then to forgive her. She was leaving, after all. “I’ll miss ye. Are ye sure ye’ll be all right?”
Kendall brushed off the concern, though Ella-Rose could see she was touched by it. “Dinnae worry about me. Faither cannae sell me off, I’m still too young and by the time I am ready, the old fool McLinnok will have died of apoplexy. He does get red faced.”
Ella-Rose giggled, though in the back of her mind she still worried. It seemed a cowardly thing to be leaving. She finished pinning the locks out of the way and turned her attention to her wardrobe. “Now, forget the hair, make this tighter.” She handed the two ends of the cloth to her sister. Kendall shot her a dubious look, but dutifully returned to Ella-Rose’s back and began pulling at the bands of cloth, twisting them around her sister’s body.
“Tighter! I’m supposed to be a boy! Boys dinnae have breasts,” Ella-Rose panted as the fabric wound about her until she wondered if she might snap in two.
“Ye never seen the baker’s son then!” Kendall grunted as she placed a knee between her sister’s shoulder blades and heaved. “Do boys need to breathe?”
“Oh, hush ye. It’s nae so different than a corset and ye ken it.”
Kendall tucked the end of the cloth beneath the previous row, anchoring it in place, and stepped back. Ella-Rose lifted her arms and tried to see herself. Kendall held up a finger and fished around in her skirts.
“Where did you get that?” Ella-Rose recoiled from the slim dagger which appeared in her sister’s hand.
“Stole it.” Kendall’s reply was bright and sweet like butter wouldn’t dare melt in her mouth. “Stole it for ye, I might add. Ye shall have need of it. If only for spreading yer jam.”
“Kendall!” It was an astonishingly sweet gesture yet horrifying all the same. The punishment for theft would be brutal if the girl was found out. “Ye must have a care! When I am gone ye cannae go about taking whatever suits yer needs!”
“And!” Kendall wasn’t chastised, she barely slowed down. “Look!” She pulled the blade from the sheath and held it up proudly.
Ella-Rose crossed her arms over her somewhat flattened chest. “I see naught but a shiny blade ye stole!”
“Don’t look at the blade, silly. Look at yerself looking at the blade.”
“Wha—?” To her surprise, Ella-Rose realized that indeed she could see herself after a fashion in the blade. Not that the ability to do so was surprising so much as what she saw within the dancing lights playing along the edge of the blade. She was staring at a rather pretty girl with striking green eyes and dark hair. There was a bit of the latter missing. “Ye wondrous thief!” She grabbed the hilt carefully and examined herself in the reflection.
She had been admired for the fullness of her curves. In truth, she would have been happier without them. The womanly form she had taken in the last year only served to get her into trouble, first with her lecherous father, who seemed to watch her too closely at times, to the tottering old pervert McLinnok.
Which brought up another question. Were there any truths to the rumors he might prefer his young bride be dressed as a boy? She said as much to her sister and was relieved at the firm shake of the younger girl’s head.
“Ye shall be safe enough. Else why would we have gone to so much trouble to help you leave in such a way? We have no intention of setting a sheep among the wolves.”
“Not without a guid wolfskin to deceive them anyway,” Ella-Rose murmured, angling the blade to look at herself again. Perhaps she could pass for a boy after all. At least long enough to leave any lands already known to her.
Kendall laughed. “And why is it, do ye think, that we all gathered to assure your freedom? I dinna care how much your bride price may be.”
“Gregor won’t like this one bit either,” Ella-Rose murmured, thinking of the brother who was nowhere near a man but tried so hard to be one all the same.
“Dinnae worry about our brother.” Kendall tossed a plain homespun shirt to Ella-Rose who nearly dropped it. “Where do you think we got this…costume?”
Ella-Rose fumbled the shirt after all. She bent to catch it as it fell toward the floor. “Gregor?”
Kendall nodded. “Aye. Seems he’s taken a shine to his big sister. Well, ye must know just how much he defies our faither to set you free tonight. Dinnae let him down now. When you leave, dinna be looking back or worrying for us.”
Ella-Rose buried her face in the coarse fabric. Such was easier said than done. “Please, thank him for me.”
“I shall most assuredly not!” Kendall looked horrified at the thought. For one who was barely four-and-ten, she sometimes seemed like the oldest of them, rather than the middle child. “He’s risking his inheritance. If our faither ever found out he was helping ye defy him, he’d as soon name another as Laird when Gregor reaches his majority—”
“Faither! I wouldnae be in this mess if ‘twere not for him.” Ella-Rose made a rude noise and pulled the shirt over her head.
“Ye’re already sounding like a boy.” Kendall’s tone expressed her intense disapproval of that development.
There. She was done. With her hair bound and stuffed under a cloth hat, half-breeches and shoes were added to the outfit as was a long sleeveless vest to help hide the curves the binder couldn’t alter.
All too soon, Ella-Rose was looking at herself again in the reflection of the knife. Now, she saw a young boy, not yet grown into his beard, lanky and lean in the way of young men on the eve of filling out. All in all, it seemed a very effective disguise.
“You havenae said where ’tis ye think ye shall go,” Kendall gently chastised her sister, holding the blade as her mother’s ladies held the rare and precious mirror they used when they were done dressing her.
“I dinnae ken where.”
“Ye think ye shall run around in the heather and eat honey and bread brought to you by tweeting birds?” Kendall slammed the blade into the leather sheath and handed it to her sister, pommel first, the gesture expressing the fear and frustration the little girl sought so bravely to hide.
Ella-Rose’s heart went out to the girl. Here she was, trying to do great grown-up things when she should have been tucked abed an hour ago. Realizing it was up to her to reassure the girl, Ella-Rose forced a grin in response and went to the wardrobe in the corner. She pulled out a small satchel and hefted it for weight. “Me sister steals weapons. Me? I hoard coin. I might have been saving up fer this fer years.”
Well, not quite years. She’d made an art of her petty thievery since she’d heard her father’s plans to marry her to the old pervert. To be fair, she’d tried expressing her concerns about the union to both her parents, but neither had listened, telling her to accept what every other young lass of her age seemed to without question: that she would be called upon to wed whom they bid. Her wishes had little to do with it.
The bag clanked as she set it upon the table. To her way of thinking, taking coin from laggards who slept in drunken stupors after the evening meal was fair game. If they held any intent upon keeping their wealth, then they should mind their purses better.
Kendall poked at the bag, eyes wide, and laughed. The satchel was not large and held a few other oddments besides, but there was enough there to be impressive. Or so she hoped. She picked up the bag and was ready to go.
There followed a long and poignant silence as both sisters realized this might be the last time they would meet. As one, they turned to stare at one another. Ella-Rose swallowed hard, blinking back tears.
It was Kendall who broke the silence. She threw herself into her sister’s arms, wrapping around her tight enough to steal the breath the binding about Ella-Rose’s chest did not. “I shall miss you terribly.”
Ella-Rose held her little sister for a long moment, reminding herself this must be done. Truly there had been no other recourse. At the same time, if she succumbed to the girl’s mood, she would be lost and married to that old fool, little better than a rutting goat. Her misery would be inevitable. She must leave tonight or never.
“Hush, bairn. Dinna fash yerself so.” She tried to take a stern approach with her sister, but she too felt the sting of unshed tears. She kissed Kendall’s forehead and reached for the pack that she might adjust it to lay better across her shoulders. It was a nice leather satchel, good and travel ready.
In the end, she straightened her back, drawing herself up fully. “’Tis time,” she said and cracked the door enough to peer down the hall.
There were torches set in the niches where they were supposed to be. Where they had been placed all her life. The hallway was clean, the result of a lot of hard work from the maids. Somewhere, there was singing, a waft of fresh bread for tomorrow’s breakfast floated up from the kitchens below. The night was already half gone.
Ella-Rose took in a deep breath as if she wanted to memorize the smells of the castle, the familiarity, the comfort of home. Only, it was no longer hers to call home. Even if she followed her father’s wishes, this place was no longer hers. Once the ceremony was performed, her place would be at the McLinnok hearth, not here.
Which is where ye will still find yerself if ye dinnae hasten.
Oh, why could all of this not be easier? Marriage should have been the simplest of matters. Her father only needed to pick someone kind. Someone not old enough to be her grandfather—
She didn’t turn to see her little sister. It would have been too hard to bear. She could see the girl in her mind’s eye, standing confused and scared in the vast bedchamber that had been Ella-Rose’s since she left the nursery. She could not look at those forlorn, wide eyes, and still manage to leave. She slipped through the doorway without another word and slipped down the hallway, keeping to the shadows, breathing a sigh of relief to be on her way at last.
She got as far as the staircase before she was taken.
“What do ye think ye be doing? Sneaking around in the night, little thief?” A castle guard in full mail, sporting a serviceable sword at his side, had Ella-Rose’s arm in a grip that should have crushed bone and torn the arm from its socket. Ella-Rose wasn’t sure it hadn’t.
“Let me go!” It came from her mouth before she had a chance to think. In the scare of the moment, she forgot that she was supposed to be a boy and a poor one at that. Farm boys do not give orders to soldiers.
“I’ll let ye go all right. Into the gaol with ye and no loss. We shall see what the Laird has to say about ye thieving. There’s a treasure in that bag, eh?” He grabbed at the bag and she twisted, trying to keep the satchel from his hands.
Ella-Rose was not so much worried about the money she carried as the dagger Kendall had stolen. If they found that, she would be in great trouble, for a boy of such poor means had no reason to carry so fine a weapon.
Worse, what if they decided to search the boy, thinking to find additional treasure? She would have to reveal herself then, and her father would likely wall her alive in the attic until the nuptials, at least. Her intended would likely help with the masonry. She didn’t think McLinnok would mind if his bride was nearly dead from starvation so long as it made her more amenable when the time came to pledge her troth.
“Laddie!” Kendall’s voice echoed down the hallway. How she managed her father’s commanding presence and volume of speech from such a frail body or sweet face was anyone’s guess. Ella-Rose gaped at her sibling, shock and dismay pouring through veins gone to ice. Kendall stopped in front of them, hands upon her slender hips. “Why ye be dawdling?”
“D…dawdling?” It took a couple of tries to get out the word. Ella-Rose could not believe her sister would accuse her of such a thing when the soldier was right there, his hand on her upper arm.
“Begging yer pardon, Miss.” The guard touched his locks with respect for the Laird’s youngest daughter. “Ye ken this lad?”
Lad. Well at least so far, her disguise was holding. She sucked in her cheeks, hoping it gave her a stubborn and stupid look. Her sister had saved her or was in the process of doing so. The least Ella-Rose could do was to play her part thoroughly. For both their sakes.
“O’ course I ken the lad.” Kendall huffed, looking every inch one very put-out young lady. “Didnae I just tell him to take the rags in that satchel and dispose of them? Or am I to be reporting to you for every choice my maither makes in this castle?” She crossed her arms and glared up at the soldier. It was like watching a mouse staring down a wolf, but she was the Laird’s daughter and never more so than at that moment.
“It’s a very fancy container for a bunch of rags.” The guard chewed the end of his mustache as he examined his prisoner. Ella-Rose squirmed to hide just how hard she was shaking.
“I shall tell my maither that ye don’ approve of her choices,” Kendall growled, a distinct warning in her words. “What other decisions of the Laird and Lady don’t meet with yer approval? If ye dinna mind telling me.” The smile she shot the man could have sliced meat.
The guard let Ella-Rose’s arm go free so abruptly, Ella-Rose staggered and nearly fell. Her arm shot out to steady herself against the wall. “Only doing my duty, Miss.” He nodded once, shot a glare at Ella-Rose, and took off in the other direction, as though he had a very important errand waiting somewhere else entirely.
“Be ye all right?” Kendall whispered as the guard disappeared out of sight around the corner. They could hear him clattering down the hallway into the distance until even those sounds faded away.
Ella-Rose could not bring herself to answer until she was positive the man was gone. “Ye were brilliant.” Ella-Rose looked at her little sister with dawning new respect. This sweet little thing with the angelic face seemed to be able to do what Ella-Rose had not been able to do thus far in her lifetime: she understood how to command and be obeyed.
While she wanted to hug her little sister once more, it was time to go. Kendall seemed to understand this as well, for she drew herself up and said loudly, “Well, go on then, boy! Get those out of here a’fore they overpower even yer foul smell.” With that she turned away, dismissing the rag boy with an imperious gesture. Evidently, a clandestine wink in a glistening eye was the only farewell she dared give her big sister.
She hefted the bag and was about to continue when the guard’s questioning replayed in her mind. What was it he had said about the bag being too fine?
Stifling a groan at overlooking something so obvious, Ella-Rose slipped the bag off of her shoulder and eyed it critically. This was a handsome bag, leather and richly made, thick, serviceable, and steady. It was also something no farmer’s boy could ever hope to afford. She should have thought of this sooner.
Moonlight glinted balefully on a puddle in front of her as she slipped out of the castle, water leaking from a nearby pigsty. Several of the pigs were laying in the filth, napping. To sacrifice the fine looks of the bag here would solve many problems, and keep anyone from coming too close, much less the guard.
She couldn’t bring herself to disgrace the bag to that extent, though. A handful of water from the horse trough and a little of the clay from between the bricks of the barn would have to be good enough cover. She reassured herself that the mud would wash off. In the meantime, the bag would pass a casual inspection fairly easily.
Kendall would keep the deception from being found out too soon. She would “sit with” Ella-Rose for as long as the ruse could be played out, claiming her older sister was still unwell and needed to be alone.
She said a silent prayer to whatever saint might be listening to a runaway woman and headed to the gatehouse, holding her breath with equal parts hope and trepidation.
The sun was about to broach the horizon, she could see the way the distant hills took a halo glow of morning and as she watched, it began to seep slowly, so slowly down the fields as if daylight were a liquid that flowed from hill to hill. As the sun broke free of the distance and began its painful climb into the sky, the guards at that gate stumbled wearily in their mail and slammed the latch with their fists.
Drowsy and worn out, these two would give little notice to one boy sent on an early morning errand. Or so she hoped.
Slowly, the front gate opened as if they needed to be to allow the sun into the castle. Indeed, that might have been the truth of it. Ella-Rose could little remember sunlight penetrating that dark, dreary place. She couldn’t picture it now without guttering candles and smoking torches. Her father preferred the rooms to be kept dark.
She breathed the morning air in great gasping gulps, suddenly convinced her entire life had been lived under the earth.
The neighboring farm folk, well accustomed to waking before the sun and being productive while the Castle slept, began filing in through the gates, some anxious for work, some to sell roots and fruits to the kitchens, others to pay their taxes and swear fealty to their Laird. Ella-Rose stood, her back straight, her eyes level as to not attract attention.
“Young Master.” A man paused as he stepped past her, doffing his hat as he would to one of the soldiers or her brother. Ella-Rose watched him travel on toward the castle proper, her feet still rooted to the spot, though she knew she must move soon lest she draw attention. The disguise wasn’t as effective as she’d hoped, though he’d not said “Miss.” Perhaps things would work out yet.
She turned to examine the people shuffling in and out through the gate proper. Each of them walked slightly stooped as if they toiled under some heavy burden. They walked slowly with a sort of resigned shuffle. Most of all, they didn’t meet anyone’s eyes, keeping their gaze downcast.
And none of them wore new, clean clothing.
Before she could talk herself out of it, Ella-Rose ducked into a dark passage and threw herself down on the ground. Quickly, she adjusted her clothing, that she might fit in better with the other travelers upon the road.
She lay still a moment, forcing herself not to scream when something scuttled across her hand. Then hurriedly, she ground her back into the dirt, rolled over, and tried to coat her new clothing with as much of the dust as she could manage, even slapping at the material to make her costume more convincing.
See only a peasant. Another farmer’s boy on an errand. Nothing more.
The words became a litany in her head as she eased out of the passage and headed a second time for the gate. None too soon either, for she saw the fresh guards appearing in the doorway. Maybe this would provide a welcome distraction in the end. Both sets of guards would have their attention focused upon the other as she passed through. No one need see her at all.
She pulled her hat down low over her eyes and stared at the ground. Slinging her bag over her back as though it were an unimaginable burden, she adapted her gait to the halting walk of those she saw around her. Not that any of those entering or leaving paid any mind. Not one of them so much as looked in her general direction.
Heartened, she stepped boldly through the gate, grabbing the brim of her hat in greeting to the guards who paid her no more heed than they did to the rest of the peasantry who slipped in and out of the Castle on small business.
To her credit, she didn’t begin to run until she was at least a furlong away.
The child really was most intriguing.
Dominic had been watching the figure dart along the verge for some time now. The lad would run apace then slow apace, likely to catch his breath before once again setting fire to his feet, and near to flying down the dusty road. His progress was easy to mark by the cloud of dust he raised, little use, Dominic was sure, in the concealing of his location.
‘The way the boy darted into the undergrowth every time another traveler came into sight; it was clear he was desperately trying to go unnoticed and failing dismally.
Hiding a grin from where he lounged at the top of a nearby hill, Dominic glanced over to his mount, cheerfully cropping at the grass and rather ignoring the drama playing out in the valley below
“What say ye, Nebuchadnezzar?” he asked the auld gelding who shot him a baleful glance and shifted apace to keep grazing, only slightly further out of his master’s reach. Dominic accepted this small betrayal with equanimity, and turned his attention to the road below again, his eyes searching until they saw the small figure again.
A swish of the tail gave a reply which might be taken one of several ways. Dominic gave the beast a laconic grin and moved to tie the pack in place behind the saddle. The horse groaned wearily though it had carried much heavier burdens. The animal was simply loathsome to hard work, which had made him a poor choice indeed for this particular journey.
Of course, had it been his own horse he was riding, the animal would have been much more amenable. Or so he told himself as he mounted.
Soon enough they were ambling down the steep trail he’d followed to the peak of the short mountain only the night before.
The boy…if a boy it truly was…was nowhere in sight by the time they reached the road.
The sound of rushing water in the distance decided him. Anyone who had put forth that much energy to remain unseen was likely quite thirsty by now. Whatever stream slipped over the nearby rocks would be an alluring temptation indeed. The child was quite likely quenching a thirst even now.
Dominic clucked to the horse who had a similar opinion of the rushing water and took the lead, eager enough to carry them where Dominic wanted them to go. Contrary beast.
“Ye were a mistake,” he muttered, sawing at the reins when he clearly saw no one upon the bank of the stream and wished to travel along it further rather than pause here to drink. The fool horse snorted and blew and twisted around in a tight circle three times before consenting to the maltreatment and trotted downstream, ears back and tail swishing dangerously.
He saw the lad long before he reached him. The slight figure waded among the weeds, pants hiked up to show a trim ankle and a calf more womanly in shape than any man could grow. A lass indeed. The maid appeared to be delighting at the chill water tumbling down from the mountains above and kicked almost joyously at what he assumed were the fish darting around her delicate toes.
Not that he meant to wax poetic, but these were his own thoughts he was entertaining, and if there was a place to enjoy a moment of raw and unbridled lust, it was within the sanctity of one’s own head. The girl had even tilted her head back, then clutched wildly at her hat, even as she danced in the sunshine, a wood nymph in the rather improper attire of a young boy. At two-and-twenty, he had seen many of his younger friends marry, but he was still looking. He chuckled to himself. A woman in men’s clothing? Perhaps he was starting to look in the wrong places.
Dominic was starting to see why the priest nattered on so about the abomination of women wearing the attire of men, for her breeches hugged the curve of her backside in ways no clothing ought to caress as she bent to splash water on her face and arms. Dominic swallowed hard and opened his mouth to call out, to let this lass know she was no longer alone.
As it turned out he did not need to. The man, descending upon her in the Lord’s own livery, preceded two others and none of them bothered to hide their arrival.
“You there! Boy!” The first man clambered down from his horse, proving he was indeed a graceless lout. A fierce bristle of red hair stuck out around the edges of his head, the top bold and bare in the sun when he swept off his hat to mop at his brow.
Dominic took a second glance at the water nymph and wondered at the oaf who couldn’t see the girl under all those clothes. For her part, she froze where she was, in the middle of the stream. Presumably, the fish continued tickling her feet, but the sight of the men robbed her of her ability to move.
“Tend these horses, Boy!” The first man didn’t so much as ask as ordered while his mount went to take a deep drink. The girl didn’t move, she was rooted in place. “ARE YOU DEAF, BOY?” Spittle flew from the first man’s mouth. He gave the reins to his companion, apparently deciding to make an example of the peasant so bold as to ignore him. He headed straight for the girl, his hands clenched into fists, thick leather gloves creaking under the strain of his ire.
That did it. Dominic had held back, not liking the odds over much, but it was clear to him as it was the sun was shining today that this idiot had no idea that he was dealing with an untutored girl who, from her expression, had no idea what was being asked of her.
“I’m thinking it’s customary, is it nae, to tip a stable boy.” Dominic rode out of the trees and came to a stop a rod or two from the grouping. He slid off his mount and let the mare head to the stream. The girl moved back from both of them, eyes wide, stumbling as she trailed further into the water.
“And who might you be?” The man’s two friends were suddenly alert. They seemed willing to allow their leader to have the honors, but that wouldn’t last long.
“Me?” Dominic threw the man his best smile. “I own the stream. For that matter, I own the water too.” The man’s horse lifted its tail and left a large comment on the edge of the stream. “That’s yers though, and ye can take it with you.”
The man looked back and began to laugh. He threw his head back and roared with mirth until Dominic couldn’t help but be caught up in the moment. He began to laugh as well.
All the same, when the roundhouse punch came, he was ready.
He blocked the easy swing with his left arm and his right shot out fast and hard. Despite the leather the other man wore, he wasn’t dressed for battle on such a warm day, they were dressed for riding. Dominic did not hold back on his punches, however, and the strike got through the man’s livery, and he doubled over with the force of the blow.
He swung an uppercut while still favoring his left side and though he only struck a glancing blow, it was enough to make Dominic see a few colorful lights before his vision cleared. At that moment, the man shot his fist into Dominic’s ribs. Dominic turned with the blow, catching the man’s hand and pulling him off balance.
He stumbled and splashed in the water, turning and catching his balance. The girl shouted and fled the combatants. Dominic brought his fist down like an ax splitting wood and connected with the unarmored chin. With a loud slap of skin on skin, the blow twisted the armored man’s head and he fell into the soft loam at the edge of the stream. Dominic watched him for a moment, saw the man still breathing, and turned to the two companions.
They came on him warily but with swords drawn. Dominic reached for his and then remembered that it was still hanging from his saddle and that wretch of a horse was probably in England by now, selling the sword for a pail of fresh oats.
One of the men rushed him, swinging the sword like a club. The other hung back trying to judge a way to get close, but not too close. With a wary glance over to the girl, Dominic stepped into the swing and brought his fist up under the man’s chin. The blade fell from numbed fingers and he rose a half foot in the air under Dominic’s swing, landing on his back in the water.
The third man bounced the sword in his hand as though he were checking its weight. He sneered at Dominic and after a moment’s thought, during which he eyed his downed companions, he turned instead. He scrambled onto one of the horses, climbing it like a tree and barely settling into the saddle before he set his heels to the beast’s flanks.
Dominic watched the man bend low over his horse’s neck, riding recklessly away and shook his head. If he did have to lose his horse and sword, he did have his choice of the two other mounts if he could catch them before their owners woke.
He turned to see where they had gone and to his surprise, his contrary gelding was quiet, tied to a nearby tree. Of the girl, there was no sign, but his tack seemed undisturbed. Blinking in surprise, he missed what he should have seen.
Behind him, something moved. He twisted, moving too slow. In vague wonder, he noted the tree limb as it began its arc, descending upon his head with such swiftness there was no time to move. Wood connected with his skull. The resounding clunk sent him down to one knee, ears ringing.
The girl, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly so agile on her feet. She skittered backward, nearly dropping the stick while flailing her arms madly to keep her balance. Not that it helped. She tumbled down, landing hard in the stream with enough force that he winced in sympathy even as he nursed the knot on the back of his head.
“Wellna, me lordling, that seems right unnecessary,” he said, wincing and tenderly touching the bump where she’d connected. “Most would have just said thank you.”
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