Read an Excerpt
PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF ROWAN KEATS
ALSO BY ROWAN KEATS
The Red Mountains, Scotland
As the last rays of the setting sun gave way to purple dusk, Morag Cameron stared up at the roof of her cottage, where Magnus was replacing a section of straw thatching that had slipped away during the winter storms. “Surely you can’t see much in the gloaming. Are you not coming in to sup?”
“Aye,” he said, as he combed the bundles of straw with a stick driven with iron nails, ensuring the thatch was even and clear of debris. “I’ll be but a few moments longer. Would you fetch me the hazel spars?”
She gathered up the thin strips of hazel wood he’d split earlier and climbed the ladder.
He took them from her with a quick smile. “Thank you, lass.”
Leaning on the rungs of the ladder, Morag watched him work. Despite the coolness of the early March evening, he had shed his lèine from his upper body. His arms and chest were completely bare, and she was treated to a display of rippling muscles as he deftly twisted each of the hazel spars into thatch pins. He hammered the pins deep into the straw, securing the thatch, and then looked at her.
“Shall we eat?”
She nodded and descended.
He followed, hopping the last three rungs to the ground. The ropy contours of his back glistened with sweat, and she admired him when he stopped at the water barrel to wash straw dust from his hands and face. As water sluiced over his handsome face and trickled down the hard planes of his chest, Morag swallowed tightly. These were the hardest moments. The ones that wrung her gut with a mixture of longing and guilt. She and Magnus lived like a married couple—mending the bothy, living off the land, sharing every chore—but they were not wed. Magnus was not hers.
Indeed, he was not Magnus at all. He was Wulf MacCurran, a renowned warrior and cousin to the laird. Rather than eating bawd bree with her, he should be supping at Dunstoras Castle with his kin, dining on venison, haggis, and fine wine.
Had he not lost his memories in a fierce battle last November, he surely would be.
Magnus shook off the excess water and slipped his arms back into his lèine. The loose linen tunic properly covered his flesh, belted at the waist, but did nothing to disguise the magnificence of his form. There was no hiding his broad shoulders and brawny chest, and the cream-colored cloth tunic ended at his knees, so his powerful legs remained exposed to her gaze.
He opened the bothy door and ushered Morag ahead of him.
The bothy was small—a single room just big enough to hold a wood-framed bed, a central cooking fire, Morag’s upright loom, and a small table for preparing food—but it was tall enough to allow Magnus to walk about without grazing the roof, and it was a welcome warmth during cold winter nights.
She ladled stew into two wooden bowls, and they sat side by side on the edge of the bed as they ate.
Frowning, Magnus peered into his bowl. “You’ve made a fine meal, as always, but there’s little here to sustain a man. I’ll go hunting tomorrow. My work on the roof can wait until we add more meat to the stew.”
Morag eyed the bucket in the middle of the room. “So long as the hole is repaired before the next heavy rain, I’ll be content.”
He shifted on the bed, his heavy leg pressing briefly against hers, and Morag’s pulse leapt. A vision of him bearing her to the mattress, his lips locked on hers, sprang into her thoughts. She quickly buried the image, but not before her cheeks bloomed with heat.
It was an impossible vision. Not once in the four months he had lived with her had Magnus done more than kiss her. And even that kiss had happened only once. Five weeks ago, before he set out on a mission to aid a strange woman who’d knocked upon their door, he’d swooped in, given Morag the kiss of a lifetime, and then walked out.
Morag had spent the next few days pondering the deeper meaning of that kiss, wondering where it might lead. But when Magnus returned, everything had changed. He’d been withdrawn and thoughtful, consumed by what he had discovered on his journey. He’d found his kin while he was away, and learned the heartrending truth about the night he’d nearly died—that his wife and son had been slain by a murderer. One mere kiss meant nothing in the face of all that.
Morag was ashamed that she continued to dwell upon it.
But it had been a truly memorable kiss. Hot and passionate and full of sweet promise.
Magnus took the bowl and spoon from Morag’s hands and stood. He washed the bowls in a mix of sand and water, then rinsed them and put them away. “I know it’s your intent to work on your weaving at first light. Shall we retire for the night?”
Morag avoided his gaze. Better that he never know the direction of her thoughts . . . which at the moment had naught to do with weaving. “Aye.”
He banked the fire and blew out the candle. Darkness settled over the room, relieved only by the golden glow of smoldering coals in the fire pit. She untied her boots, removed her overdress, and slipped under the blankets. Magnus waited until she was lying with her back to him; then she heard him remove his lèine and join her on the bed. Not touching. But near enough to sense each other’s warmth.
This was how all their evenings ended, sharing the dark together in silence. Morag wanted more, and under different circumstances she would have asked for it . . . but her respect for him held her back. He was the most honorable man she had ever known. If he needed time, then she would give it to him. And if he never showed an interest in another kiss, she would accept his decision. Sadly, but willingly.
Morag closed her eyes.
She owed that much to the man who’d once shown her more kindness than a shunned woman had the right to ask for. . . .
“Morag Cameron,” declared Laird Duncan, staring down at her from his high-backed chair on the dais, “you are hereby banished from the village of Dunstoras, never to return, save to trade your goods and buy supplies on faire days. You may gather whatever belongings you can carry on your back, but by evenfall you must be gone from these walls. Do you understand?”
Morag glanced across the crowded great hall at Peadar, still hoping he would break his silence and speak for her. The young blacksmith knew the truth—that Tomas had wooed her with tireless devotion, promising her the sun and the moon and eventually, a lifetime of happiness at her side. She’d given Tomas her maidenhead the night he’d whispered that vow in her ear, believing him to be a man of his word. How wrong she’d been. The next morning, Tomas had put her aside with callous disdain, denying he’d ever made such a vow. But Peadar had heard his brother’s promise to wed her—he had the power to put an end to this mad proceeding, if only he would tell the laird what he knew. But he did nothing. He stared at his hands, refusing to look up.
His silence was an unexpected knife in her gut.
She’d thought him a very different man.
In the months following Tomas’s betrayal, Peadar had proven himself an able friend, offering a sympathetic ear to her woes and a shoulder to cry on. They had become lovers only recently—after her heart had mended and the future once again held promise. He was kind to her, and respectful, and she had begun to believe that a marriage could be built on such a foundation. Until last Sabbath. That was when Tomas had discovered their alliance and accused her of seducing Peadar—as she had once seduced him. All lies, of course. But Peadar had not refuted his brother’s words.
Tears sprang to her eyes. What a fool she’d been.
She was no wiser than her mother, offering her heart to a faithless man. No one would speak for her. Her father was gone, her mother dead. She was a Cameron among MacCurrans, and without Peadar’s support, Tomas’s hateful words were taken as truth, even though they were merely jealous ranting.
She was alone.
Morag blinked rapidly to clear her eyes and faced the laird. She’d pled her case to him and Brother Francis as passionately as she could . . . to no avail. The testimony of Tomas and his friends had been too convincing. To them she was a fallen woman, a woman who incited brothers to lust over her and then fight over her. But she was not that woman.
She stood straight. “I understand.”
She turned toward the accusing faces of the villagers—faces she’d known all her life. There was not a kind eye to be found in the room. Struggling to hold her head up, she crossed the wooden floorboards to the door. The crowd parted to let her pass.
How would she survive outside the castle walls? It was summer now, thank God. The nights were warm and there would be berries to pluck. But come winter she would suffer badly.
When she reached the bothy she had once shared with her mother, Morag packed a bag with as many of her personal belongings as she could—clay pots, wooden bowls, steel spoons, and clothing—and stuffed another bag full of woolen spools. She slung one bag over each shoulder and then tried to pick up her loom. But it was heavier than she thought. And awkward.
Morag dragged the loom out of the bothy and down the lane, leaving a trail of twin grooves in the dirt. She headed toward the small wooden bridge that spanned the burn. Once she crossed, she would be out of the village. Unfortunately, it would not be an easy goal to reach—some thirty or forty villagers had lined up on either side of the lane, each with at least one rotted vegetable in hand. They meant to see her off with a vengeance.
Had she been willing to relinquish her loom, she could have made a dash for safety.
But weaving was all she knew. She had no skills to work the land; nor did she know how to make ale or uisge beatha. To have any hope of survival, she needed this loom. Morag stiffened her shoulders, bowed her head, and tightened her hold on the wooden frame. She would not leave it behind. No matter how difficult the trial.
As soon as she came within range, the villagers began calling her names and pelting her with their spoiled vegetables. Neeps and parsnips and onions, mostly. A few were soft, leaving juicy remains clinging to her clothing and face and hair, but most were hard at the core and delivered bruising blows. Not as brutal as a stoning, to be sure, but painful nonetheless.
A neep hit her in the face, and Morag stumbled.
Her fingers slipped, and she lost hold of the loom, the frame slamming to the ground. Fearful that a vindictive soul would stomp on the wood and break it, she scrambled to regain hold of it. Her pause allowed a volley of projectiles to hit her from every side, and Morag had to bite her lip to stop from crying out. Her legs wobbled, and her resolve took a beating. She was about to drop to her knees in the dirt when she felt a sturdy hand grab her elbow. Suddenly there were no more vegetables, and the crowd’s jeers fell silent.
Morag looked up at her savior.
It was Wulf MacCurran, the laird’s most formidable warrior. Taller than all those around him by a full head, the laird’s nephew commanded respect by his very size. He’d clearly been out hunting—two fat capercaillies hung from his belt, and he carried a long ash bow in his free hand. He likely didn’t know she’d been banished.
“You ought not to aid me,” she said quietly to her protector.
“She’s been cast out,” said Tomas, pushing through the crowd to the front.
“Aye,” Wulf said. “That I can see. But the lass will face difficulty enough on her own. There’s no need to punish her further. Get along home, now, the lot of you.”
The big warrior did not often involve himself in village disputes—he spent most of his time training in the lists and providing for his young wife and bairns—so his words this day carried a great deal of weight. With disgruntled expressions but nary a complaint, the crowd dissipated. Even Tomas dared not contest Wulf’s judgment. In no time, Morag stood alone with Wulf in the lane.
“Thank you,” she said. “You’ve eased my lot considerably.”
He slung the bow over his shoulder, then took one of her bags and the loom from her hands. “There’s a clearing in the forest a league from here that would make a fine spot for a bothy. If you work hard, you can build it before the heavy frosts come.” He led the way across the bridge.
Morag stared after him in stunned disbelief. Build a bothy? By herself?
An image of a wee bothy in the woods lept into her mind, and hope sweetened the air in her chest. Why not? She scrambled to follow the big warrior. She was able enough. And the supplies necessary lay freely around her. All she needed was a small room with a fire pit—she could expand it over time, if that was her desire.
Wulf shortened his strides to allow Morag to catch up.
“Why are you aiding me?” she asked warily. There had to be a reason.
He shrugged. “A man does not stand to watch a woman suffer.”
“Even a woman branded a harlot?”
He halted and looked down at her. His eyes were a brilliant shade of blue that stood out against his sun-darkened skin. “You can live your life as others see you, lass, or you can live your life as you see yourself. Are you a harlot?”
She shook her head. “I am a weaver.”
“Then be a weaver,” he said, marching forward through the bracken.
Morag followed him. “That is certainly my intent. But who will buy cloth woven by a harlot?”
“’Twill not be easy to make your way,” he acknowledged. “You may need to trade farther afield. But if you craft the finest cloth in the glen, even those who vilify you will eventually come ’round.”
“I already craft the finest cloth in the glen,” Morag said matter-of-factly.
He smiled as he helped her over a moss-covered fallen log. “Then make your cloth impossible to resist.”
Morag chewed her bottom lip. When her father—also a weaver—had walked out, never to return, he’d left behind almost everything he possessed. Including his notes on creating dyes. Her mother had kept them, convinced they would eventually draw her husband back to her. An unrequited longing. The notes lay in a bundle at the bottom of Morag’s bag, still tied with a yellow ribbon. But they need not remain that way. Her father’s cloth had been renowned throughout the Red Mountains, the colors unparalleled. If her cloth came close to matching his . . . ?
They trudged in silence for a while, wending a path up rocky hills, down grassy gullies, and through the thickest part of the forest. When they broke from the trees into a wee meadow filled with wildflowers, Wulf stopped and set her loom down.
“This is it,” he proclaimed. “The loch is over yon brae, and the auld broch is a half league to the east.”
Morag slowly spun around. Her imagination built a bothy with a pretty thatched roof and a painted door. It was perfect. “Thank you.”
“I’ll be by every other Sunday to do the heavier chores,” he said. “Until you’re settled.”
“I’m grateful for your aid,” she said. “But do not risk your uncle’s wrath on my account.”
Wulf shrugged. “Laird Duncan often has opinions that do not match my own. I follow my honor.”
“And your wife? Would she not be concerned to hear you offering your services to me?”
He smiled. “Nay. She’ll be of like mind to me. Elen is a practical lass. She’d see your loss as a loss for Dunstoras. There are too few weavers of any skill in the glen.” He pointed to the edge of the tree line. “Come. We’ll build a small shelter there to keep the rain off.”
It took them the better part of the day to fashion a lean-to that could weather a strong wind. By the time the sun slipped below the tops of the trees, Morag had a roof, a pallet, and a cooking pit. Wulf had given her plenty of advice on how to structure the bothy, and had even begun the task of gathering stones for the base.
“I must be off, lass,” he said, slinging his bow over his shoulder once more. “Will you fare well?”
Morag grabbed his hand. “Aye, I will. And I’ve you to thank for that. You’ve aided me more than you’ll ever know this day, and I doubt I’ll be able to return the gift.”
He gave her a serious look. “Survive, and that will be gift enough.”
Then he set off across the meadow.
Morag watched him until the verdant shadows of the woods swallowed him. He’d given his time and advice without asking for anything in return. He’d accepted her without judging. And he’d spoken of his wife with kindness and respect. What a truly intriguing man. Had he not already been wed, she might easily lose her heart to Wulf MacCurran.
* * *
Morag listened to the deep, even breaths of the man sleeping beside her in the bed. She had learned to call him Magnus—a necessary chore while Tormod MacPherson had held the glen, pledging to slay all MacCurrans—but in her heart, he was and always would be Wulf.
When she found him down by the loch, beaten and bloodied and near death, saving him had not been a conscious choice. Aye, the risks were great. But no greater than the risks he’d taken to support her when she’d been shunned. MacPherson’s men had stormed her bothy several times, never quite believing her tale of being wed to a lame farmer. Thanks to Wulf’s lost memories and the name he had assumed, that story had been impossible to dispute, and eventually the soldiers had ceased to bother them.
Morag sighed and rolled onto her back.
Wulf’s naked heat was only an inch away, a powerful temptation. She threaded her fingers together and laid her hands carefully—and safely—on her chest.
In some ways, things had been easier when MacPherson had commanded Dunstoras. Certainly she’d been less tormented by guilt. Healing Wulf and avoiding trouble had been all she worried about. But MacPherson and his army had vacated the glen a month ago, and the MacCurrans had returned to the castle, welcomed by the new owner, Lady Isabail Macintosh. Wulf ought to be living there now, surrounded by those who called him kin. But he’d chosen to stay with her, and no amount of discussion had thus far swayed him to change his mind.
She drew in a deep breath, savoring the warm, male scent that was uniquely Wulf. A mix of earth and spice that reminded her of sweet sage.
Perhaps she hadn’t tried hard enough. Lord knew, she dreaded the day he would depart. But she knew well that he wasn’t hers to hold. He never had been. All those Sundays when he’d stopped by to help her, he’d been nothing but respectful and friendly and eager to return home. It was she who had waited with anticipation for his arrival, she who had begged his opinion of her new cloth designs, she who had lain awake at night wishing she were Elen MacCurran.
Genuine sorrow pinched her nose tight. Terribly unfair, the fate of his wife.
A better woman would force Wulf to leave. Drive him away with cruel words—back to his kin. But she could not. Hurting him, even for his own good, was simply not possible. Not after all the kindness he’d shown her, not after all the counsel he’d given her.
Morag put her fingers to her lips.
Not if it meant losing a chance for one more kiss.
Morag sat back and studied the cloth taking shape on her vertical loom. She ran her fingers over the soft pattern of green, blue, black, and red threads. The hues were aligned in neat vertical and horizontal bands of varying widths, and the result was every bit as unique and lovely as the fine twill weaves her father had been renowned for.
She gave a low sound of satisfaction and resumed her task, wending the woof swiftly through the warp, lifting and lowering the four heddle sticks as needed. She wove four threads of black wool, then twenty threads of blue.
Wulf had left the bothy immediately after breaking their fast to snare a hare for their supper pot. A good thing, really. His presence wreaked havoc upon her concentration. Instead of carefully tracking the thread counts, she found herself dwelling on the faint curve of his smile, or the splendid contours of his manly shoulders, or the rasp and rumble of his deep male voice. But market day was fast approaching, and a half-finished cloth would not buy them oats for their bannock or candles to burn after dark. Fortunately, with him gone, the cloth on her loom called to her, daring her to bring it to life.
Twenty threads of black, twenty-four of green, four of red.
Each spool of wool that fed her loom was dyed by her own hand, using the tinctures her father had developed, and watching the vivid pattern emerge sent a wave of pure joy washing over her. There was nothing so rewarding as seeing the image in her head take shape on the rack.
With a sigh of contentment, she threw herself wholeheartedly into her weaving.
So lost in her design was she that when the door to the bothy crashed open, Morag fell off her stool.
Heart pounding, she scrambled to her feet and faced her intruders. Two armed strangers stood in the doorway, garbed in the tunics and trews of Lowlanders. She’d spied many such men in the glen when Tormod MacPherson had held Dunstoras Castle for the king, but his mercenaries had departed weeks ago, replaced by Highlanders loyal to Isabail Macintosh. Without taking her eyes off the intruders, she sent a quick prayer skyward. Now would be a fine time for Wulf to return.
“On what authority do you enter my home unbidden?” she demanded, doing her best to tame the quaver in her voice. Chances were poor that they held any authority at all, but she could hope.
The larger of the two men answered, “My own.”
Morag could see little of his features, just a halo of bright sunlight around the dark silhouette of his form. But there was no disguising the threat he posed. She tossed aside her shuttle and grabbed the long-handled broom leaning against the wall. Not the most intimidating of weapons, but it was the only thing within easy reach. “And who might you be?”
“My name matters not,” he said. “Yield and your life will be spared.”
Morag swallowed tightly, her throat suddenly dry. A cotter living off the land was rarely in possession of coin, so there was only one other thing these men might be seeking from a woman alone in the woods . . . and she wasn’t willing to give it over. But her hopes of besting two armed men in a battle of strength were slim.
She steadied her grip on the broom.
There was still a slight chance they could be persuaded to leave. “What is it you seek? I’ve no coin, but I’ll willingly give all the food and water that I have.”
The leader stepped closer, and his features surfaced out of the gloom. A pockmarked face, long tawny hair, and an ankle-length dove gray cloak. He carried his weapon with the unconscious ease of a hardened soldier, but it was the cold cruelty in his eyes that made Morag’s heart sink. In his mind, her fate was already sealed.
“We’ve no interest in your food,” he said. Signaling to his cohort to go left, he advanced another step.
“Food is all I’m prepared to give,” she said firmly. The bothy was small—a fact she often rued, but not today. The door was a mere four paces away, but the fire pit and a heavy iron cauldron lay between her and escape. “My husband will return anon. You’d best be away.”
He grinned. “Your husband? You mean the strapping lad with the lame leg?”
Her heart flopped. Dear Lord. Had they already encountered Wulf? Laid him low in some shadowed part of the wood? “You won’t want to vex him,” she said, her palms suddenly cold with sweat. “His tolerance for lackwits is low.”
A snort of laughter filled the bothy. “We watched him hobble up yon hill. He won’t be so difficult to best.”
Morag breathed a sigh of relief and banished the image of Wulf falling victim to a well-placed sword with the same determination with which she had built this bothy. Stone by stone. Thatch by thatch. Wulf had regained most of his strength these past four months. He was a far cry from the badly injured man she’d dragged home from the edge of the loch last November. While it was true that his left leg hadn’t fully recovered, he was yet a formidable warrior.
“Give me the broom,” the pockmarked man coaxed, stretching out his hand, palm open.
Morag slapped his fingertips. Hard.
“He’ll be sore enough to discover that you’ve given me a fright,” she warned. She would not be able to keep them at bay for much longer. If only she knew when Wulf would return. How long had he been gone? One hour? Two? “But if you harm me, he’ll not quit until he sees me avenged.”
Morag jabbed her stick toward the leader, urging him to step back. He held his ground. His eyes were not on the broom, but on her face, and Morag knew he was gauging his best moment to snatch the broom from her hands. She pulled back sharply, terrified of losing her weapon.
“Get thee gone,” she snarled.
Her only hope of escape was to run. Backward was not an option—the roof thatching was thick and firmly attached. Wulf had seen to that once he was on his feet. So it had to be forward. But was she sufficiently fleet of foot to round the fire pit and elude the two men?
And what would she do if she miraculously succeeded?
She had no plan for such an event. No hidden weapon, no place to hide.
Morag bit her lip. Foolish lass. She’d never truly worried about brigands and thieves. In the beginning, Wulf had kept a watchful eye upon her and ensured that her part of the forest was well protected. Under MacPherson’s rule, she’d been so occupied with Wulf’s recovery that escape had never crossed her mind. These days the glen was a quieter place, but Lady Macintosh’s men were too busy with repairs to the keep and the village blackhouses to be riding regular patrols.
Her gaze flickered to the open door, and back to the pockmarked man.
He smiled. “Too late for that, lass.”
Without further warning, he stepped toward her, grabbed the broom, and yanked it away, skinning her palms. Tossing the stick aside, he thrust a hand into her long black hair, snaring a sturdy hold. Then he pulled her to his chest with a forceful tug.
Tears sprang to her eyes, but she did not surrender her freedom willingly. Fighting with wild desperation, she raked her fingernails across his face and dug into his eyes with her thumbs. The mercenary loosened his hold on her. Morag bolted for the door.
Praying that Wulf was somewhere nearby, she screamed his name.
* * *
Wulf stared at his reflection in the calm, sunlit loch. It was a handsome enough face, pleasantly square and even. And it was familiar. Comfortingly so. But he struggled with the knowledge that it belonged to a man he didn’t really know. He’d adopted the name of Magnus when he’d awoken with no memories, but Wulf MacCurran was his true name. He was cousin to the laird and father to a fine lad, but four months after an attack that had left him near dead, he still could not remember one moment of the life he’d led before waking in Morag’s bed.
Dipping a hand, he scattered the image and scooped up some water.
The water was icy cold as it slid down his throat, despite the hint of spring in the air.
The Fates had reunited him with his clan last month, which should have brought peace to his lost soul. Instead, it had left him more unsettled than before. Nothing about Dunstoras was familiar, even though he’d been assured by all that he and his family had roomed there before the hateful night that stole his life away. So he had returned to Morag’s bothy. Chopping wood, hunting for food, and repairing her home gave him purpose—a purpose that seemed more in line with his inner beliefs than living in a castle.
Wulf abruptly pushed to his feet, his hands fisting. He attempted a smooth stand, but his left leg betrayed him, quivering in protest. The hare hanging from his belt swung wildly as he stumbled. It was a lean offering for Morag’s stew pot, but he’d been lucky to snare anything this close to the bothy after MacPherson’s army had decamped. Two hundred men trudging east toward MacPherson land had scattered the wildlife far and wide.
He stilled the swing of the hare and retraced his steps along the pebbled beach.
With his hunt complete, logic suggested he return promptly. The sooner the rabbit was in the stew, the more savory it would become. But of late, Morag had been staring at her loom with wistful intent. Cloth was her primary offering on market days, but the looks of longing he’d caught on her face told him weaving was more than simply a trade for her. She drew pleasure from it. If his presence caused her to forgo her weaving, she’d come to resent him in time. And resentment was not the emotion he wished to cultivate in his lovely, dark-haired benefactress.
But how long should he stay away?
He glanced up.
It was midday now, the sun high in the sky. Was the morning enough? It was hard to know. Although she rarely sat at the loom while he was present, when she did, she displayed an incredible talent he could barely fathom. Changing colored threads without pause, moving sticks up and down, and sliding the shuttle from one side of the loom to the other at blurring speed clearly required a quick mind and nimble fingers. The cloth that developed at the top was, to his mind, a miracle.
His feet turned in the direction of the bothy.
One peek inside the hut would settle the issue. If she was yet enthralled in her weaving, he’d grab a bannock and some cheese, and head back into the wilds.
At the bottom of a woodland hill, about two furlongs from the bothy, he paused and frowned. In the soft mud of the path, the print of a boot heel was clearly outlined. It was too small to be his boot heel and too big to be Morag’s. And given the heavy downpour of last eve, such a crisp print could only have been made that day.
Wulf’s gaze lifted.
There was no sign of movement in the trees, but his heartbeat quickened anyway. Morag was alone. And he’d left his sword hidden in the woodpile behind the bothy.
He set off at a run.
Or as close to a run as he could manage. His left leg proved uncooperative, wobbling with every stride and sending shards of excruciating pain to his hip with every attempt to hold his full weight. He was forced to slow to a hobbled jog, and even then the pain was biting. Still, he made it to the clearing in good time, pausing at the edge of the trees.
The door to the hut hung open, the interior a dark shadow.
The open door was not, of itself, a bad omen. Morag might simply have chosen to partake of the sunshine and the unusually warm day. But he could not hear the clack-clack of the loom in operation; nor could he hear her humming, as she was wont to do when busy with a task.
He skirted the clearing until he reached the back of the bothy, then quietly dug between the stacked firewood for his long sword. Wrapped in several layers of burlap to protect it from the elements, the bronze-hilted weapon was exactly where he had left it. It settled into his palm with an ease that made his blood sing. Even in the absence of his memories, one thing remained true—he was born to be a warrior.
The sharp crack of wood on wood reverberated inside the bothy.
Wulf’s grip tightened on the sword. ’Twas not the sound of something falling, but the sound of something thrown with great force. But as ominous as that sound was, it did not prepare him for what he heard next.
His heart sank into his boots. The raw desperation in Morag’s voice could not be mistaken. She was in dire straits. Oblivious to the cramps that shot up his leg, Wulf ran for the cottage door at full speed. When he entered, it took precious long moments for his eyes to adjust to the dimness. Masking his inability to see well, he halted just inside the door, planted both feet wide, and challenged his opponent with cold, lethal intent.
* * *
Morag made it as far as the table before the smaller of the two mercenaries grabbed her skirts and whipped her off balance. She collided with the table, then spun sideways into the wall. Pain exploded in her skull, and black spots filled her vision. The dirt floor rose up to meet her and she hit it hard, all the air in her chest expelling with a low moan.
A guttural roar of fury came from the door of the bothy. Both mercenaries spun around at the sound, and Morag took advantage of their surprise. She rolled under the table. As she did so, she caught a glimpse of the mighty warrior filling the open doorway. Her heart leapt. Wulf. He’d come for her, just as she’d prayed. But this was a version of Wulf she hadn’t seen since the night he was attacked and left for dead—bristling with rage, every muscle pumped and ready. His lips were a grim slash on his face, his eyes dark with lethal fury.
Having drawn the mercenaries’ attention away from her, he wasted no time.
Wielding his bronze-hilted sword like it was an extension of his arms, he swung the huge blade with such speed that it hummed in the air. The first mercenary went down midstride, never having met Wulf’s steel with his own. The pockmarked leader had better luck. He parried Wulf’s next swing with his sturdy short sword, the sharp blades sliding along each other with sparks a-flying.
In terms of sheer power, Wulf had the edge. He delivered a series of heavy strikes that pounded his opponent’s defenses and forced the man back, leaving him less and less room to maneuver.
But the mercenary was aware of Wulf’s weak leg. His swings were calculated to extend Wulf on the left side, and eventually his strategy gained him the edge he needed—Wulf’s leg buckled slightly, allowing the mercenary to escape the torrent of blows. He ducked to the right and put the table between himself and Wulf.
Morag found herself staring at the man’s trew-clad legs.
Remembering the sharp yank on her hair, she felt for the wee knife she kept at her belt. A mere three inches long, and dull from cutting yarn, it was hardly a reliable weapon. But if she could aid Wulf at all, it would be worth the effort. Wrapping her fist firmly around the short handle, she drove the blade into the mercenary’s calf.
But instead of hopping away or pausing to pull the small blade free, as she expected, he shoved the table toward Wulf and grabbed for Morag. Hauling her to her feet, he yanked her to his shoulder and laid his sword blade along her throat.
“Stand down or she dies,” he said to Wulf.
Wulf did not lower his weapon. He slowly walked out from behind the table, keeping a wide gap between them, and studied the mercenary with icy calm. “Step away from her now, and I may be persuaded to spare your life.”
The mercenary snorted. “Let us not waste words. Whether the girl lives or dies is up to me. If you value her at all, you’ll lay down your weapon.”
Morag stared at Wulf. Although she knew there was a chance she would die, she did not dwell on it. Balancing her weight carefully on one leg, she lifted her other boot slightly to hint to Wulf what she was about to do. Then she kicked backward, aiming for the wood-handled knife she’d planted in the mercenary’s leg.
Wulf surged forward at precisely the same moment. When the mercenary flinched from the sudden jab in his leg, Wulf knocked the sword from the man’s loosened grip with a solid strike of his pommel, narrowly avoiding a cut to Morag’s throat. Morag ducked clear and darted for the farthest corner of the bothy.
That should have been the end, but the pockmarked man refused to yield.
He feinted to the right, picked up his fallen comrade’s weapon, and attacked Wulf anew.
It was a pointless effort. Wulf was larger, stronger, and clearly angry. As their blade edges slid against each other, he hooked his quillon on his opponent’s crossguard and yanked the weapon free of the man’s grasp. It hit the iron cauldron with a loud clang and slid into the fire pit.
Even swordless, the pock-faced man’s resolve did not waver. He yanked his hunting knife from the sheath at his belt and took a slice at Wulf’s arm. The blow landed true, and blood bloomed on the sleeve of Wulf’s cream-colored lèine.
Wulf responded swiftly.
With a rueful but determined expression on his handsome face, he swung his sword one last time and took the man down. The wretch finally met his end. He stiffened under the blow, then collapsed, the light of life fading from his pockmarked face. As the fellow dropped to the ground, Wulf spun to face Morag. The look in his eyes was fierce, but protective, and her pulse fluttered.
“Are you injured?”
“Nay,” she said, easing away from the wall. Now that the danger was over, her arms and legs quivered like jelly.
He stepped over the two bodies and crossed the room with strong, purposeful strides. Fool that she was, she could not help but admire the play of muscles in his powerful legs as he gained on her. Few men were blessed with such a vigorous form.
Wulf halted in front of her, only inches away.
As serious as she’d ever seen him, he ran a callused thumb over the crest of her cheek.
Then he cupped her head in his large hands and slowly tugged her forward. His lips found hers in a passionate embrace that turned her world upside down. It was the kiss she had been longing for—hot and wild and dangerous—but it was also the kiss she knew should never happen. There was no chance for a life with Wulf. She was a woman branded as a harlot, and he was cousin to a laird and father to a bright young lad. His time with her would be brief; of that she was certain. Just long enough to break her heart, if she let him. But all her carefully reasoned thoughts took wing as his mouth slid roughly along hers. Instead, yearning mixed with wonder and breathlessness mingled with joy.
For a blissful moment, Morag simply surrendered to the sweet friction of their joined lips. There was nothing she wanted more than this man and this kiss. The sureness of his hands, the manly scent of his skin, and the sheer wonder of his firm lips on hers almost made her forget the two dead bodies lying on her floor.
With a soft moan of regret, she flattened both palms against the solid planes of his chest and pushed. Had it been a matter of strength, her efforts would have been for naught—Wulf’s power far exceeded hers. But the moment he felt her resistance, he broke off the kiss and stepped back.
Morag pointed to the fallen men. “Even mercenaries deserve a burial.”
Wulf shrugged. “Not when they prey on women.”
“Aye, even then. Take them outside.”
“For you, I will.” He reached for the body of the pockmarked man, then said, “This is a fine cloak for a simple soldier.”
“I noted the same myself. Perhaps he stole it from some other hapless soul.”
He unpinned the cloak from the man’s neck and handed her the cloth. “Or perhaps he’s no simple soldier.”
Morag took the cloak, eyeing it for bloodstains. There were several small ones, but overall the cloth was clean. It was a fine, tight weave, brushed to a smooth finish. Not made in Dunstoras, likely. There were only three skilled weavers in the glen, including herself, and none of them made such simple but elegant cloth. Morag folded the cloak and set it aside.
Wulf heaved the body over his shoulder and headed for the door.
“What’s that?” she asked sharply, as a black-and-gold crest bobbed in front of her eyes.
He stopped and turned around. “What is what?”
She darted forward, pointing to the man’s sark. “This sigil. I’ve seen it before. On the night you were nearly killed. One of the men who attacked you wore it.”
Wulf frowned and lowered the man to the ground. “Are you certain?”
“Aye. I’d forgotten it till now, but I saw it clearly in the moonlight as they rode away.”
He crouched and fingered the crest. “It’s not familiar to me.”
“Perhaps the laird would recognize it.”
Morag saw wariness creep over Wulf’s features. He returned to the castle every few days to visit with his son, Jamie, but save for that, he preferred to avoid his kin. “This is the first clue we’ve had to what happened that night,” she urged softly.
He took his knife and cut the crest from the dead man’s sark. “Aye, and I’ll follow it to its bitter end, have no doubt.”
“So you’ll go to Dunstoras?”
“Aye,” he said, pushing to his feet. “And you’ll come with me.”
“Nay,” she protested. “You know I’m not welcome there save on market day.”
He sent her a long, quiet look. “I cannot leave you here alone.”