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1782, St. Augustine, Florida
The heat of the October day made Elaine Hawthorn wilt as tears blurred her eyes. She choked back a sob as men shoveled the dirt onto her mother's and father's coffins. Never again would she see her mother's bright smile or her father's raised brow when she did something he thought was not quite ladylike. Never again would she feel her mother's and father's warm embraces, or hear them telling her how much they loved her. A fateful carriage accident had brought them to this.
Barely an hour later, her uncles Tobias and Samson pulled her away from the reception to speak with her privately. From their weary expressions-and the way Kelly Rafferty, a pirating wolf himself, had leered at her at the funeral-she was in for more dire news.
"Lass, you must have a mate," Uncle Tobias said, towering over her like an Irishman ready to do battle. He was a seasoned fighter, sailor, and pirate-or as he often reminded her, a privateer, like his twin brother. Tobias never took any guff from his men. He and his brother had been born while their parents were crossing the Irish Sea from Ireland to Scotland so she believed seawater ran in their veins. They were also shape-shifting gray wolves.
In her presence, her uncles always seemed uncomfortable, fidgeting and avoiding speaking with her as if she didn't exist. Now, they were forced to do something with her. Neither had children of his own, or at least not any that either of them acknowledged.
"He has the right of it, Elaine." Uncle Samson lifted his grizzled, tanned hands in an appeasing way. "At sixteen, you need a mate. Kelly Rafferty has the only viable wolf pack in the area and has asked for you to be his mate. We have concurred."
The air rushed out of her lungs, and she felt light-headed. She grasped the side table to steady herself. Gathering her wits, she responded with outrage. "You did not even ask me! I will not marry that arrogant, conceited wolf! He has never been interested in me. Never! Not until he thought he might gain my parents' properties!"
That made her wonder if he'd had anything to do with her parents' carriage accident. Wasn't it a little too convenient? Her family had been in competition in the pirating business with Kelly Rafferty all these years-and suddenly her parents die when Elaine is old enough that Kelly can mate with her and take over her parents' estates?
"Your father should have ensured you were already mated by this time, Elaine," Tobias said, half annoyed, half gruffly as if this business was now his to deal with, and he was going to do it however he saw fit.
Expediently. From what she'd heard, Rafferty was nearly two decades older than she was and ruthless besides.
"My father would never have forced me to mate someone I did not care for! What if Rafferty was responsible for my parents' death?"
Uncle Tobias folded his arms, looking at her like she'd make up anything to get out of taking a mate. Now that Rafferty had offered for her, no other wolf in his right mind would ask for her hand. Not if he wanted to live long.
"Take me with you. Let me see the world first. Then when we return to St. Augustine, if I have not found my own wolf mate by then, we will see if Mr. Rafferty is still interested."
Over her dead body.
After much arguing with her uncles, Elaine convinced them to allow her this one boon. With great reluctance, they arranged to have her estates managed until she returned.
Two days into the ocean voyage, Elaine heaved the contents of her belly into a bucket while attempting to rest in the captain's quarters, sicker than she had ever been.
Everything went from bad to worse as soon as they arrived at the port city of St. Andrews, Scotland. The ship carried a new name and her uncles dressed as respectable merchants, but someone must have recognized them for who they truly were.
Word soon reached the authorities that the notorious, pirating Hawthorn brothers had returned. As armed men hurried toward them, her Uncle Tobias signaled to one of his sailors, who shoved her to the cobblestones as if she was in their way.
Men grabbed her uncles and several of their crew, led them away in chains, and tried them with barely any representation. To her horror, her uncles were hanged in the town square at the behest of Lord Harold Whittington who owned a fleet of merchant ships and claimed her uncles had plundered three of them.
Scared to death that someone would see her, believe she was part of her uncles' crew, and hang her, too, she hastily wiped away the tears rolling freely down her cheeks and tried to slip away unnoticed in the chilly breeze. Her best hope was to return to Florida and her family's estates.
As she started to steal away, she spied a broad- shouldered man observing her. He was wearing a predominantly blue and green kilt, the plaid gathered over his shoulder and pinned, a sporran at his belt, and a sword at his back- and he looked fierce. Her heart did a tumble.
She had dressed as plainly as she could in a dark-green muslin gown with a fitted jacket and a petticoat of the same color. With a cloak covering these and the hood up over her head, she had hoped to be shielded from the view of the men and women milling about. She thought she had been obscure in the crowd.
Elaine slipped away with the crowd as several men headed for the pubs to celebrate the hanging. She glanced over her shoulder. Curiosity etched on his warrior face, the man was still watching her. He appeared to be a Highland warrior of old, someone who had fought in ruthless clan battles and come out a survivor. Maybe a loyal friend of Lord Whittington who would want a noose around her neck, too.
He lifted his nose and appeared to take a deep breath, as if he was trying to scent the wind. As if he was trying to smell her. Which immediately made her think of a wolf. Her skin prickled with unease.
His eyes widened and he headed in her direction, a few other men following him. The force of powerful males made her heart trip over itself as she strove to get away but at the same time make it look as though she wasn't trying to evade him.
Her heart pumped wildly as she tried to reach an alleyway, thinking she had gotten away. She was slipping down the narrow brick alleyway when a large hand grabbed her arm and effectively stopped her.
Barely able to catch her breath, she bit back a scream.
"Lass," the man said with a distinctive Highland burr, his voice low, "where are you going in such a hurry?"
His dark brown eyes were narrowed, focused on her, yet a small smile curved his lips, as if he was amused that she thought she could evade a wolf. Because that was just what he was.
A gray wolf, tall, muscularly built, but more wiry than bulky. His hand was holding her still, not bruising her but with enough pressure that she knew he was not about to let her go. He was handsome as the devil, the crinkle lines beneath his eyes telling her he was a man who liked to smile, his masculine lips likewise not thin and mean like Kelly Rafferty's, but pleasingly full with a curve that made her think he enjoyed life in a jovial rather than a cruel way.
His wind-tussled hair was an earthy shade of dark brown with streaks of red, and he had no hint of facial hair as if he had just shaved. He was lean and hard, not an ounce of fat, and determined, his jaw set, his brows raised a little now as he examined her more closely. He was taking a good long look, not in a leering way but taking in her distinctive appearance.
The three men who had been trailing behind him were now immersed in a brawl outside the alley, fists swinging.
"Are you here alone, lass?" the man asked, his voice seductively low. He was an alpha, in charge, wanting answers.
"Let... me... go," she growled. She was trying not to make a scene.
"Come with me and my brothers, and I will protect you," he offered.
A shiver stole up her spine. He must know she was related to the hanged men. The fight was growing closer-she could hear men's shouts and cries of pain, scuffling, and thuds as some went down.
She tried to wriggle loose of his strong grip, tried to peel his powerful fingers off her arm, but to no avail. He seemed mildly amused that she'd try.
"Let... me... go," she repeated, scowling up at him.
"If Lord Whittington learns you were one of the Hawthorns' kin, it willna go well for you," the man said. "My name is Cearnach MacNeill, and those behind me..." He glanced over his shoulder, then turned back to her, and amended, "Who were following me are my brothers. We will see you to safety."
If he was not kin, why should he and his family wish to aid her? She didn't trust his motives.
She shook her head. "You are mistaken about me, sir. Release me at once."
He did not seem inclined to do so, but a beefy half-drunken man came up behind him, skirted around the Highlander, and slugged Cearnach in the jaw. He immediately released Elaine so that he was free to pelt the drunk.
She darted down the alleyway, glancing back to see Cearnach struggling to rid himself of the brigand. He took a swing at the drunk, and when he had knocked him back several steps, Cearnach looked for her and spied her getting away. Her heart did a flip. He appeared both troubled and exasperated.
She ran out of the alley, dashed down the street until she found another alley, and ducked down it. She would find a ship and return home on her own.
Somehow she had to figure out a way to deal with Kelly Rafferty next.
Cearnach MacNeill swore as another lout smashed him in the jaw with a mighty punch. By the time he'd laid the man out with a couple of smashes in the face, Cearnach had lost sight of the she-wolf in the crowd. He suspected she was related to the Hawthorn brothers, which was the only way they would have taken her aboard their ship. He was almost certain that the only reason they had docked in St. Andrews was to gather their stolen goods and squirrel them away in some other location.
Did the lass know where the brothers had hidden the goods?
All he should have cared about was retrieving his family's stolen property from the now-dead brigands. When he'd looked into the girl's stricken face, he'd felt a deep regret that she'd just lost her family and now he intended to use her to reclaim his clan's goods. He was sincere about keeping her safe. At least until he could secure passage for her and send her home.
He'd seen the uncertainty in her dark brown eyes, the guarded hope he might rescue her from this nightmare. He'd felt a twinge of need-to protect her.
He picked up her wolf scent and headed for the wharves. Then he saw Robert Kilpatrick and the McKinley brothers and overheard Robert saying, "We have to get her before Whittington does."
Were they kin to the Hawthorn brothers? Most likely they wanted the same information from her as Cearnach did: where was the stolen property the Hawthorn brothers had hidden in Scotland?
She didn't stand a chance unless Cearnach could reach her first.