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A Highland and Hearts Novel
By Heather McCollum, Libby Murphy, Irena Rea
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Heather McCollum
All rights reserved.
North of London - March 1536
Ewan Brody swayed in the wagon seat, the reins loose in his hands. He glanced at his companion. "That is why you should never even twitch when a lass's girth is mentioned," he said with a serious nod.
Searc Munro's sober features broke into a grin. He leaned against the seat back, his eyebrows raised.
"Do you think I jest?" Ewan asked as they rolled south on the old North Road into England. He rubbed his jaw as if remembering the pain of the lass's meaty fist, and Searc laughed.
"I think I'll just stay away from the lasses," Searc said and shook head, scattering his brown hair about his ears.
"Good strategy." Ewan nodded. "Don't pant after them and they'll flock to you, especially when you finish filling out your shirts." Searc was only sixteen years old, but it was obvious from his handsome features that the lasses would be after him once his Munro build kicked in. Then he'd attract the lasses like ... well, like Ewan did.
The two of them swayed side by side on the wagon seat behind their horses. Ewan's black horse, Gaoth, tossed his head, unhappy to be shackled to a cart. If he was made to be miserable, he made it obvious that Ewan should also be miserable. No laughing allowed.
"I feel your pain, Gaoth." Ewan scanned the budding spring woodland on either side. "None of us wants to be here." He glanced at Searc. "We'll drop our load and quit England as soon as possible. And we'll leave the cart with good King Henry. I prefer riding free."
Searc nodded, having grown grim, and rested his hand on his sword hilt. Aye, he was growing up to be a fine warrior. "England makes me jumpy," he murmured, his gaze scanning along his side of the road.
As second in command of Druim Castle and cousin to the chief, Caden Macbain, Ewan had volunteered to haul their cargo down to London. They'd switched from Highland kilts to English traveling garb at the border to blend in. If anyone was near they switched from Gaelic to English, although their brogue announced their heritage as if they were blowing the bagpipes. Not that he'd mind slicing through a few English idiots, but he had a mission to complete posthaste. Nothing besides protecting his clan would cause him to dirty his boots with English soil again.
The wind shifted and Searc coughed as the stench of thawing flesh washed over them. Aye, their cargo was one decomposing, evil bastard with a royal summons. Even dead, Rowland Boswell would be tried for treason in London. It didn't matter that he was a rotting corpse. King Henry VIII would exact his rage on the traitor who'd conspired to take over his kingdom.
"Bloody heat," Ewan swore and rolled his sleeves higher. Even though it was spring, it was still freezing up in Scotland at Druim where they'd kept the body preserved all winter. As they rode south, the ice keeping Boswell fresh was quickly releasing its hold. He had died trying to kill Caden's bride, Meg, a lovely English lass with the magical ability to heal. Everyone, including Meg and Boswell, had thought Boswell was her father, though he thankfully wasn't. She was too sweet and honorable to have his vile blood running in her veins. Meg was Searc's cousin and shared a direct bloodline with Searc's mother, who had the same magical ability. As with most families, the lines were convoluted.
"Aren't we nearing Boswell's estate?" Searc asked and nodded up ahead where a church spire broke through the unfurling trees. Thunder rumbled through the countryside, warning of rain. They planned to stay overnight at Rosewood Manor, wash, and journey on to London's Hampton Court where Henry was in residence. Hopefully the crown hadn't confiscated Boswell's manor yet or he and Searc would be sleeping another night under the corpse-laden wagon. There was something bloody disturbing about sleeping with a dead man putrefying above you.
"Aye, Rosewood should be the next town." Ewan pulled the missive Meg had written, giving them permission to stay in her ancestral home in Swindon. She'd only lived there for five years before Boswell had her mother killed for witchcraft. Since no one in England knew that Meg wasn't actually Boswell's daughter, her permission should be enough for an overnight stay, although the townspeople may not even notice their stop. They could have stayed in York where Meg's Uncle Harold had a farm, but he and Meg's aunt were still in Scotland and Swindon was much closer to London.
Ewan rubbed his rough jaw as he surveyed the thinning trees and a few thatched cottages up ahead. They rolled along, the wooden wheels creaking under them. Smoke dissipated on a breeze as it snaked up from the first house. He caught sight of a local woman staring at them from her stoop.
"And Searc," he said low. "Rumor has it King Henry is ready to get rid of his former queen, but Anne Boleyn has been signing death warrants against priests. Catholics are being burned just like witches. Bloody dangerous country. I don't care if your father thinks you need exposure to the world — I should have left you in Scotland."
It still amazed him that Meg had made it out of England alive. Even though she was born in this land, she had the courage of a Scottish lass, as did her mother before she was killed by Boswell's accusations. Boswell had been part of a plot to assassinate King Henry VIII and his young daughter, Mary. Meg's mother had prevented it and secreted the proof of his treasonous plans up into Scotland for Meg to find. Searc grunted, interrupting Ewan's grim thoughts. "I'm here to keep you breathing."
"Meg told me not to let you break the hearts of English lasses while down here. That you would find yourself wed or hung. Either is a death sentence."
Ewan chuckled. "Nay, I know better than to woo any complicated English wenches. And I am not the wedding type anyway." He gave a cocky grin, one he'd been practicing since he was a lad. "Nay, just simple maids who like a bit of fun for a night or so. That's for me. Especially if they can bake me sweet cakes like my ma's."
His mouth watered at the memory of the small loaves with wild raspberry syrup on top, still warm from sitting on the sunny windowsill.
Searc laughed. "'Tis a good thing you train so hard then."
Ewan's grin faded as he looked out over Gaoth's head at the winding road. No people were about, the road eerily quiet. Wildflowers sat in small clumps along the sides, growing in the ruts. He used to pick wildflowers for his mother. "I haven't had her cakes for a very long while."
Searc's laughter ended abruptly. "Sorry, Ewan. My father told me ... about your mother, what happened ... well, with your father."
Ewan found his grin easily as he ignored the tightening in his chest every time someone brought up his father. His smile, so obviously opposite his father's stern grimace, proved that he wasn't the devil who sired him.
"No sorry needed," he said. "She died a long time ago ... but I still miss those treats."
"Perhaps when you find a lass who can make them, you'll know she's the one," Searc suggested, and turned to watch a couple of sparrows swoop through the trees. The lad certainly loved animals.
"There is no one for me. No one I need to get tangled up with." He looked askance to Searc. "Your cousin, Meg, is a lovely woman, but Caden has his work cut out for him dealing with her ... abilities. People come from miles around now to seek her healing. One fool even thought to steal her away for her magic. Och, Caden's always having to protect her from one mishap or another." Ewan frowned as the knot in his stomach rose to his chest at the thought of having to guard a lass. "Nay, I like uncomplicated lasses who don't need caring for."
Searc shrugged. "The lasses like a strong man to protect them."
"If a lass is in danger, of course I'll jump in." Ewan huffed. "But I'm not tying myself to one that needs looking after all the time. I have more important work to do for Druim, like taking this load down to London. I don't need troublesome women." He grinned then. "And they like me anyway, even without being responsible for hauling them out of trouble all the time."
Searc laughed and looked heavenward. The two rumbled down the pebbled dirt road into the modest town. Quiet. Everything was quiet. They rattled past the smithy where smoke sifted up out of the central chimney, but no smithy seemed present. The church door stood open, but a quick glance showed it vacant. Searc shrugged and Ewan frowned, a shiver going across his shoulders.
A long stone wall ran the length of the road after the church. Two tall iron gates in the wall held climbing roses and stood ajar.
"Look." Searc pointed to a sign hung on two square nail heads hammered into the rock. Rosewood Manor. But what narrowed Ewan's eyes was the parchment pinned to the sign that curled and blew in the growing wind. The script was difficult to read from the distance, and it kept twisting as if trying to break free.
CHARGED WITH CONSORTING WITH THE DEVIL
Ewan frowned. Bloody hell! Had someone formally charged Meg with witchery? Someone other than Boswell? Boswell had wanted her dead because she had the proof that he had conspired against King Henry. With the man's death, the threat to Meg should be dead as well.
"The gate, Searc, and the notice."
Searc dismounted and pushed open the gates to allow the cart to pass. He yanked the parchment down and handed it up to Ewan. Ewan scanned the page and released his breath when he fell on a name. Not Meg Boswell or Meg Macbain. Unfortunately, it didn't say Rowland Boswell, either. He could have saved the witch hunters the trouble of killing him.
Pandora Wyatt? Never heard of her, but an atrocity nonetheless. She could be another sweet, innocent woman like Meg. He examined the paper, his peripheral glance taking in the scattered puddles in the bailey. The slanted script still sat fresh along the lines of the verdict. It must have been nailed there this morning.
He tapped the horses and they rumbled into the walled bailey decorated with gardens and a central fountain filled with wet, dead leaves. Ivy climbed the rough stone blocks creating the large, stately manor house. Who was Pandora Wyatt? And why post the notice on Boswell's gate? Was she staying here?
Searc jogged down the steps from the door. "No one answers."
"Maybe the servants vacated when Boswell stopped sending wages," Ewan suggested and hopped out of the cart. He handed the proclamation to Searc. "Ever heard of her?" He unhitched the horses and rubbed Gaoth's chin and muzzle.
Ewan scanned the deserted road beyond the gate. "Strange how quiet the town is. Not even the smithy was working."
"As if everyone was at an event," Searc added with a dark frown.
Ewan caught the slight tang of wood smoke on the breeze. He threw a saddle onto Gaoth's back. "Aye, like a witch burning."
* * *
Stupid, ungrateful villagers! Dory Wyatt squeezed her eyes shut and swore beneath her breath as she felt blood drip between her bound fingers.
Bartholomew Wyatt's voice seemed to yell in her head. Don't be showy. Amazing. Her father could rebuke her for letting someone see her magic even when he was miles away shackled in London's infamous tower. Blast, she missed him.
She'd merely been helping a young bride make her wedding day perfect. The girl had cried when the rain started pelting the guests, and Dory hated tears on anybody. The bride had invited Dory to the wedding in passing, and Dory went in hopes of discovering more about her missing father from the villagers. She hadn't been careful enough, and the bride had seen her blow the storm clouds away. Doing things for people. Wasn't that the way to make allies? And right now, she was desperate for an ally.
She blinked and spotted the bride toward the back of the grim- faced crowd. The silly nit was blubbering again. Dory's eyes stung from the smoke curling up from the dry grass the local boys had jammed under the wood as the preacher instructed them to blow on the kindling. Her heart pounded.
Hell, think! Time to get out of here!
She glanced down at the sticks and logs pyramided around her. How was she going to save her father when she was constantly having to save herself? She exhaled with gusto and the wind whisked over the flames, making them leap up from the grass to catch the thin sticks. Her stomach tightened and she forced herself to breathe normally. Dark clouds gathered over the tree-framed opening.
Out! Out! She must put the fires out.
She sucked in a large breath, despite the smoke tickling her throat. The spring air was full of moisture, heavy with dew. The clouds above deepened and cast shadows around the crowded square. Several people glanced around nervously at the sudden eclipse.
She concentrated on the tiny particles of moisture in the air above her, tapping and persuading them together into a cloud.
"Do not suffer a witch to live!" the preacher yelled. Hatred and fear bubbled up on nods and "ayes" from the watchers along with a few "burn the witch" fist jabs. Some spat, some prayed, some waved the sign of the cross about.
She tried to block the jeers but they beat at her composure. They had no idea who she was, what she could do. She didn't know herself. All these years she'd been trying to figure out who she was, why she'd been branded with an oddly shaped birthmark, why she could make particles of air move, and why she could light a room or heal people with a little ball of light. Maybe she was a witch. Nausea rolled through her middle and she gagged on a cough.
Keep your wits, you twit.
She pulled in another swallow of air as the flames caught on the splintered logs. The wood smoke clogged and gagged her as it spiraled into her lungs. She felt the birthmark on her wrist tingle as the magic loosed through her body The strange mark helped her focus the flood of power.
Heavy, wet drops formed spheres above. Splat. Tap. Tap. The flames hissed. Faster the drops came, until the staccato hitting the newly unfurled leaves blended into a roar of water.
She opened her mouth to catch the deluge and spit out the taste of burnt oak. The villagers covered their heads as the rain pelted them with drenching force. The flame sizzled with angry hisses as its natural enemy attacked. Rain versus fire. The battle of the elements commenced around her, sending up plumes of steam, creating a curtain of sooty mist.
Villagers shouted over the roar of the downpour, abandoning her just like she'd hoped. They ran toward the meeting house where they'd passed judgment against her. In the chaos, Dory's heart pounded and she fought against the ropes biting into her wrists. She had to escape before they returned.
The thud of hooves came from behind as Dory struggled to work the bindings at her wrists. Her breath drew in shallow puffs as her heart nearly flew out of her chest, making it difficult to concentrate on the rope fibers cutting her skin. How long would the rain deter the gnarly old preacher from rallying the cross-wielding, murderous troops?
Dory barely had time to gasp as a large body flew toward her through the air, catching the hewn tree trunk she was tied to above her head. Steel, cold and wet, pressed against her wrists and then ... freedom! The man ducked and sliced the bindings at her feet. Before she could even wiggle an ankle to return the circulation, the man engulfed her, smashing her nose into his chest. He smelled of fresh air.
"Hold on," he called, hugged her to him, and leapt across the space.
"Bloody hell!" Dory screamed. Her thighs hit the giant horse's side, and she doubled over the saddle, her stomach against the hard leather. For a moment she couldn't draw a breath, and the man didn't give her a chance to try.
"Siuthad!" he yelled and the horse leapt away from the pyre. She blew her recovered breath out in a long scream. The horse's hooves churned under her face where she hung as they raced through the mud. She clenched her eyes shut. The man cursed when she began to slip from the balanced position across the horse's back and clamped his hand on her buttocks to keep her from falling off.
"By the devil, get me down from here!" she shouted, but every time she tried to raise her head, she'd start to slide off and the man's hand found her buttocks again. Dory drew in ragged, fitful breaths as she slammed over and over against the horse charging through the continued rain. She'd have to mend bruised ribs if they galloped much longer. Mud splattered up from the road, speckling her face and hair that hung halfway to the ground.
I'm going to fall! Damn, I'll be trampled!
"Stop! Let me down!" she managed to yell between jounces, but the legs kept churning up mud. Dory spit some of the dirt from her mouth. A pebble flew up and hit her forehead. "Ugh!"
After a few minutes the rider slowed and guided them off the road into the forest. The horse's sides heaved in and out as it stood still, hooves rooted to the ground. "Let me up," Dory demanded between her teeth and arched her back to lift her head. Once again the man's hand pushed against her rump. "And get your hand off my arse."
Excerpted from Tangled Hearts by Heather McCollum, Libby Murphy, Irena Rea. Copyright © 2014 Heather McCollum. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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