Highland Hope Excerpt

Book 1 > Of Mist and Mountains

Durham, England


Eve Sotherby wasn’t sure whom she loathed more, her husband for his cruelty or herself for her inability to discern a way to escape him.

She picked up her looking glass and stared at her battered reflection. Her stomach knotted and tears blurred her vision as she carefully touched her swollen, cracked lip and then moved upward to run her fingers lightly over the bluish bruise under her right eye. She hissed at the contact and blinked when pain flowered from the spot to spread under her skin. Liquid spilled over her lower lashes and tracked hot down her cheeks, rolling to the edge of her chin and then dropping onto the marble surface of her washstand.

She set the looking glass down, then picked up the small dagger her stepmother had given her as a wedding present. The memory made Eve’s nostrils flare, and her mouth filled with bitterness that curdled in her stomach just as strongly as it had on her wedding night when she’d realized the truth of what sort of man her husband was—and that her stepmother and father had known. They’d known, and they’d wed her to him anyway. Still, the memory made her ache. They’d sent her like a lamb to the slaughter for a piece of land. That was her only worth to her father.

Eve squeezed the dagger, her blood throbbing at the tips of her fingertips and pumping hard in her heart. She slid her thumb over the cool, gleaming edge, considering her options, as she did every night before she was to appear before her husband at the reckoning hour, as he called it. She couldn’t flee because she had nowhere to escape to. No one would be willing to take her in, no friend to even aid her in simply disappearing. Her husband had seen to that. Frederick had made it clear the day he’d brought her to his home, Thistle Castle, that no one was to befriend her, which meant she’d have to pay for aid in her escape.

But it would take a great amount of coin to persuade anyone in this castle or village to risk doing something that might incur the wrath of her husband or, worse yet, her powerful father-in-law. Of course, she had no coin and no way obtain it. Yet another thing her husband had seen to. It was the same endless circle that led to no solution.

Trembling, she squeezed her eyes shut. Two hard knocks at her bedchamber startled them back open.

“Lady Sotherby, it’s time.”

“A moment,” she called, as she did every night to the guard her husband sent to collect her. She looked down at the dagger still clutched in her hand. She could hide it in the folds of her gown and then plunge it into Frederick’s heart if he hit her again. Sighing, she rose on shaking legs that didn’t feel capable of holding her. They bent and quivered, but she forced them straight and took several deep breaths before setting the dagger on her washstand.

If she killed him, Frederick’s father would certainly kill her, and she wasn’t ready to die. Running her fingers over the hilt of the weapon, she made herself turn away. The guard, Alban, greeted her with a quick bow of his silver-streaked head, then cast his dark eyes away from her, as everyone here did, and they walked in silence down the dark, drafty corridor lined with ornate furniture that her husband collected. The only sound in this area of the castle—the bedchamber wing—was that of her slippers lightly tapping against the stone. She’d never known silence could be so deafening until she’d moved here.

When they reached the halfway point in the passage, someone called out from behind them. “Alban!”

Alban stopped, catching her by the forearm to halt her. They both turned to see who’d called him. It was one of the guards under Alban. “There are Ceàrdannan in the village, and they’ve caused a stir by predicting one of the castle inhabitants would die this night. What would you have me do?”

“God’s blood,” Alban muttered, then looked between Eve and the direction of Frederick’s bedchamber. She understood his dilemma immediately. As the head of Frederick’s guards, he needed to see to the problem himself, but he also had been ordered to see her to Frederick’s bedchamber personally and wait there until she was sent back to her own bedchamber.

“See to the Summer Walkers,” she urged Alban. “I give you my vow to go directly to my bedchamber after Frederick dismisses me.”

Once she had tried to flee. Only once. It had been winter, and she’d almost paid for it with her life when no one would aid her in the freezing cold. She’d been found nearly frozen by the east bank of the River Wear in the village, begging a ship captain to allow her on board. He’d refused, of course. It had taught her that if she were ever going to escape Frederick, she needed somewhere to flee to and someone to help her get there.

“You won’t let him know I didn’t stay to attend you?” Alban asked, thick eyebrows raised and sable eyes narrowed.

She swallowed the fear that rose in her throat. Frederick would be enraged if he discovered she’d hidden such a thing from him, but it was worth the risk of what he might to do her. This was an opportunity to curry favor. If she kept Alban’s secret now, perhaps one day he’d simply turn his attention away if she ever found a way to flee Frederick.

“I will not,” she finally replied, holding the man’s cool gaze with her own.

Alban let out a long breath. “I’m indebted to you for your help.”

She bit her lower lip hard on the desire to grin, then nodded and moved past Alban in the direction of Frederick’s bedchamber. Moisture lay heavy in the air, and the chill that had settled with the deep snow made her breath come out in white rings. She rubbed at her arms as she climbed the stairs to Frederick’s bedchamber, but she paused at the small circular window that faced the river. That river, she was certain, would someday provide her the chance to disappear forever from this horrid place.

It was a direct walk from the castle to the village beyond, which butted up against the river, and in the distance, a dozen orange dots lit the dark night. The rain had stopped, and the Summer Walkers must have made camp down by the water, building fires to keep warm. She had once imagined herself wed and blissfully happy with children of her own and a castle to run, but now, staring across the dark sky toward those glowing lights, she would have given anything to be a traveler of the land like the Summer Walkers, beholden to no clan or king.

She remembered seeing them for the first time on the night she’d arrived here a year ago with Frederick. The Ceàrdannan had been traveling through to where they would settle for the winter, she’d overheard one of Frederick’s guards say. They’d set up camp down by the water for the night along their journey, and they’d been reading futures and fortunes. She could still picture the Summer Walker who’d asked to bestow a wedding gift upon Frederick and Eve. The woman had bright, violet eyes, the likes of which Eve had never seen, and she’d had hair the color of night. She had turned Eve’s palm over, ignoring the scars there, and traced the faint blue line just visible underneath her skin with her long bony finger. The Summer Walker’s crackling voice filled Eve’s ear, as if they were face-to-face once more.

Ye’ll find a love that the bards will sing of for years upon years to come.

Eve closed her eyes on a familiar wave of sadness that threatened to drown her. How wrong that woman had been!

And the Ceàrdannan had spewed even more nonsense with her prediction for Frederick: death will be coming for you long before you expect it. Eve could not help but hope that prediction came true, though she held little faith. She opened her eyes, and she stared once more into the night. Suddenly, bright light slashed across the sky, seeming to fall from the heavens. Eve’s mouth parted, and she pressed closer to the stained glass of the window, her nose touching the cold pane, but the light was gone as quickly as it had appeared. A falling star? She nibbled on her lip, sifting through her memories of what her companion, Florrie, used to tell her about such things. The older woman had been filled with fascinating stories and information that she’d relay to Eve to aid her in going to sleep.

Eve’s vision went blurry for a moment with tears and a longing to see her friend, who had not been allowed to come with Eve to her new home. Eve was glad for it, though. Florrie would have tried to intervene with Frederick and gotten herself killed. What was it she’d said about stars falling from the sky?

Oh yes! It was a harbinger of oncoming change!

Of course, Florrie had also told her tales that the Scots were barbaric beasts who barely wore any clothing, grunted instead of speaking, and joined with their women out of doors, and even on the ground, like animals, so Eve was quite sure the woman just liked to spin a good tale. Still, one never did know for certain. Florrie was part Scot, from somewhere in the Highlands before she was given by her father to Eve’s for payment of a debt, so she would have possessed some knowledge Eve supposed. What Eve did know for certain was that if she was too late arriving at Frederick’s bedchamber at the appointed time, he’d be crueler.

With that, she rushed the remaining way up the stairs and to his bedchamber, surprised to find the heavy wooden door cracked open. Frederick never left his door ajar. Voices came to her from inside, and when she leaned closer to the crack, she recognized the deep, distinct voice of Malbec, her husband’s right hand.

She bit her lip, unsure what to do. If she interrupted, Frederick would be irritated, but if she stood here outside the door, he’d likely accuse her of eavesdropping and he would be irritated by that, too, and would discover Alban wasn’t with her. She couldn’t let that happen, so she raised her fist to knock when Malbec said, “Frederick, you shouldn’t keep that list of names.” The man’s shaky tone stopped her. He was always harsh and never fearful.

Frederick chuckled. “You worry too much, Stephen. No one will ever look in this jeweled egg.”

“Yes, it does seem to be just a bauble, but still.”

“No. There’s no ‘but,’” Frederick said, his tone tight and words clipped. Eve wasn’t surprised. Frederick hated to be contradicted.

“If your father finds out you’re keeping a written list of the Lords Appellant, he’ll kill you.”

A bark of laughter from Frederick made Eve jerk. “You and I know very well my father won’t kill me. I’m his only heir, and he’ll bear what he must to ensure his name doesn’t die out. Now come here.”

“Careful, Freddy. You’ll push your father too far.”

You push me too far,” Frederick responded. Then footfalls thudded across the floor, followed by a moan that made Eve lean close once more, fearful that Malbec was being punished. A gasp escaped her at the sight of Frederick and the young, golden-headed warrior kissing.

Frederick broke the contact and snapped his head in Eve’s direction. She turned to flee, but her husband was fast. The door creaked behind her, and a breath later, his fingers gripped a handful of her hair and yanked her backward through the door, which he kicked shut behind them. Eve’s scalp stung with his treatment, and her eyes watered. He yanked her around to face Malbec, whose handsome face was flushed.

“Look what we have here, Stephen. My nosy wife has discovered our secret.”

Malbec’s blue gaze impaled her. “We have to kill her.”

The hair on the nape of Eve’s neck lifted. She fought with herself, trying not to raise her hands to the one Frederick used to grip her hair. That would anger him more. “I don’t care at all that the two of you are lovers,” she said. She truly didn’t. She loathed Frederick. He’d not touched her once in the year they’d been wed except to hit her, and now she understood why he had not bed her—and perhaps why he hated her. Perhaps he’d been made to wed her by his father.

“My wife has such a generous spirit,” Frederick said, yanking her to face him. His eyes, the green of a garden snake, narrowed on her and then he tapped her cheek with his open, sweaty palm. “She always has a kind word for the servants, despite the fact that they won’t even speak to her.” His taps on her face were growing harder, and her heartbeat increased until it roared in her ears.

“Frederick, let’s kill her,” Malbec pleaded, his blue gaze darting from her to the door.

Frederick glared at his right hand. “Don’t be such a fool. I cannot kill her. She’s the reason my father allows you to remain, even after discovering us. I’m to get her with child. That’s the bargain I made for your life. But if she dies, people might whisper, and then my father could discover you and I are still together. Besides, she wouldn’t dare tell our secret. Would you, Eve?”

She couldn’t speak. Her tongue was frozen in her mouth, but when Frederick’s hand connected with her cheek and sent her head flying to the right, she found her words. “I won’t tell. Ever. I swear it.”

“Do you believe her, Malbec?” he asked, his mouth taking on an unpleasant twist.

Eve willed the man to believe her. Malbec frowned. “I don’t know,” he said, smirking. Eve stiffened, and when Frederick shoved her forward toward Malbec, her stomach dropped to the floor.

“Show her what will happen, then, if she reveals our secret.”

The amusement on Frederick’s face and in his voice made Eve want to scream at him, but she pressed her lips together. She’d die before pleading or screaming. She’d already learned the painful lesson that neither did her any good.

In a flash, Malbec’s hand came to her neck, and the air was immediately cut off. She instinctively began to claw at his thick fingers that clutched her in a vise. It was useless. Spots danced before her eyes, and then darkness started to eat at the edges of the light. She dug her nails into Malbec’s flesh, but he only squeezed harder and brought his face so close to hers that their noses almost touched. “You will wish you were dead if you ever tell anyone of this. Do you understand me?” His words lashed her, even as his wine-drenched breath fell upon her.

It was all she could do to nod, and then he released her. Before she could stagger away, the back of his hand connected with her cheek and sent her reeling to the ground. She hit the floor hard, the contact of her kneecaps to stone shooting piercing pain up her legs and stealing her breath.

A bell gonged in the distance, and above her Frederick said, “We’re going for a swim. Pick yourself up and leave my bedchamber. I suppose tomorrow night I’ll have to finally bed you. My father will be visiting. It seems there is an end to his tolerance for my excuses on why you’re not fat with child. Pity for both of us. He’s bringing his personal doctor to examine you, so…”

She had to swallow back the bile that filled her mouth. She stared at the ground, her head pulsing with each push of blood, and she did not move until Frederick’s and Malbec’s footsteps faded. And then she spat the blood from her mouth, wiped her hand across it, and stood on shaking legs. The sorrow that had long threatened to swallow her finally began to. The room tilted, and she squeezed her eyes shut, swaying where she stood. Her nostrils flared and her lungs burned in her effort to get enough air.

Slowly, her heartbeat calmed and the roaring in her ears quieted. She opened her eyes once more. She curled her hands into fists, her nails biting into her skin, and she looked around the empty bedchamber trying to decide what to do. She had to find a way to escape. She didn’t know how she was going to do it, but as she swept her gaze over the room once more, she paused on the bejeweled egg that sat on a table by her husband’s bed.

Silver, gold, and turquoise stones sparkled in the light from the crackling fire. Her stomach fluttered as she walked toward the egg. Her gut told her to take it. She had no idea why, but she had an instinct she could somehow use it in the future. Perhaps if Frederick came for her she could use the list as a bargaining tool? Perhaps she could use the egg itself to trade for help? Did she dare take it? She reached toward it, hand trembling, and picked it up. If she did this, she had to find a way to flee tonight. Frederick would notice the egg missing.

She turned the egg over several times, trying to figure out how to open it to no avail. Blowing out a breath as she darted her gaze toward the door, she made one last attempt, pressing on the single red stone among the multitude of jeweled stones that had been affixed to a surface of some sort of hard material to make up the shape of an egg. The egg sprang open at hinges into two halves, revealing a small, torn piece of rolled-up foolscap. It must have been the list they’d spoken of. She opened it quickly and read it, but she didn’t know the names of the men. It wasn’t surprising. Her father had never allowed her to be involved in any talks of politics, and Frederick didn’t, either. But deep within her, she had that same instinct that having a list that Frederick’s father would kill Frederick for might somehow aid her in the future. Maybe she would simply get it to Frederick’s father with a note that Frederick had kept it. That made her smirk. Her husband deserved no less than his father’s wrath. This could be a way for her to strike back at Frederick for all he’d done to her. All the hits. All the shame.

Looking down, she slipped it in the inner slit of her skirt, and just as she did a throat cleared from the area of the doorway. She jerked her head up, and her lips parted at the sight of Alban in the doorway with a busted nose. He arched his eyebrows at her, his gaze seeming to cling to her mouth. It was then that she noticed her throbbing lip. She brought her fingertips to it and touched the swollen surface. When she brought her hand away, blood stained her fingertips.

“Sotherby?” he asked, referring to Frederick by his last name.

She shook her head. “Malbec.”

He grimaced and stroked his throat. “Sotherby gave me mine. He was rather irritated that I didn’t wait for you. I’m to take you to your bedchamber.”

“You said you were indebted to me,” she blurted, her sudden boldness driven by the desperate knowledge that tomorrow Frederick would be coming to bed her.

His dark gaze widened. “I did, my lady. And how do you wish to collect?”

The only hope for escape she could think of was the Summer Walkers. They had no allegiance to Frederick or his father. They were healers and mystics—some here even whispered that the fae dwelled among them. Perhaps she could persuade them to aid her. The egg weighed heavy in her cape. Mayhap they’d take it as payment.

She couldn’t very well confide that she wished to escape. “I wish to have my future told by the Summer Walkers,” she blurted.

“They’re packing up camp and leaving this night by my order.”

“Please,” she said, her chest constricting. “I doubt they can pack up that quickly, and I—Well, I wish to know if I’ll ever have Frederick’s child.” Her lips twitched with the lie. And as Alban’s own mouth twisted into a smirk, she was certain he knew she was lying.

His brows dipped, and his eyes narrowed. “I intended to find a wench tonight—”

“Certainly there must be wenches in the village,” she said, holding her breath for him to agree.

He grinned. “Certainly. Come along, then. My lord will be in his cups soon enough, which is lucky for you as I don’t have to worry about him calling upon me. Not that he calls when Malbec is at the castle. Very close, those two.” She bit her lip on showing any sign of understanding. “One future told and then back to the castle you go, and my debt to you is paid,” he finished.

“Yes, of course,” she agreed, though if things went as she hoped, she would be lying. If things went as she hoped, she’d never set foot in this castle again.

~ ~ ~

Eve had never been down to the waterfront village at night. It was quite different from the bustle of the daytime when the village was crowded with vendors hocking their wares. No shouts filled the air trying to get her to purchase something, and she wasn’t being constantly bumped into in the thick of the crowd.

The salt blew on the cool breeze from the water. She could taste it on her tongue, and a dampness still permeated the air, making her skin slick and her hair wave around her shoulders. She followed Alban down the cobbled street that danced with shadows cast from the moon and the candlelight that flooded out of the taverns as they passed. Bursts of noise—merry laughter, raucous singing, and the buzzing of voices raised in conversation—came from the multiple taverns, but Alban’s clipped pace did not allow her to catch a glimpse of the people inside.

His boots clopped on the cobblestones as they walked, and Eve found herself wishing she’d worn sturdier shoes than her thin slippers. The bottoms of her feet stung, but she did not fall behind. This could be her only chance to escape. Alban came to a sudden stop in front of a tavern on the corner across from the water. Music floated out of the establishment, as well as the smell of freshly baked bread. Eve’s stomach growled in response.

Alban pointed to the row of tents in the distance. “That’s the Summer Walkers’ camp.” People scurried in front of the six tents, and at the end of the row, it appeared that two shelters had already been dismantled to leave the area as Frederick had ordered. “The one on the end is the seer. That’s who you want.”

Eve glanced at the tent that sat slightly apart from the others. The flogging pole in front of it—where people were punished when they annoyed Frederick—obscured the view of the opening flap, but candlelight spilled from the shelter onto the cobbled path. Eve counted two people standing in line to undoubtedly have their fortunes read. “You’re not coming with me?” she asked, trying not to sound hopeful that he wouldn’t. If she was alone and they agreed to take the egg as payment to help her escape, then perhaps she could flee now if Alban was preoccupied.

When he shook his head, Eve pressed her lips together on the relieved breath she wanted to exhale and counted her blessings. “I don’t like seers,” he said. “So I’ll be right inside the Black Mule attending to my needs.”

She knew from his earlier comment about a wench what he meant, and she hoped he found one, so he’d forget Eve altogether. “Very well,” she said. She started to turn away, but his hand clasped around her wrist. When she faced him once more, he narrowed his eyes upon her.

“Return straight here after your reading, my lady. I don’t need to remind you of the one time you tried to escape, do I?”

She shook her head as a strong wind suddenly blew, as if to remind her of when she nearly froze to death. “No. I’m well aware I would freeze in this weather.”

“You would,” he confirmed, still clasping her wrist. “And in case you were inclined to chance your life, I feel snow coming.”

She frowned. “How can you feel snow coming?”

“The air is heavier tonight, the wind sharper. Snow will be upon us by morning. Get your reading and return. I’m granting you this favor, but don’t mistake it for friendship. I’m your guard, and if you disappeared, mine would be the head my lord would be inclined to remove. So be certain, I’d pursue you to keep my life, and you’d need to run so far and disappear so completely that you’d never be found. Because if you were found, I’d bring you back.”

She got the strangest feeling he almost wanted her to try to escape and was warning her what she would need to do to prevent him or one of Frederick’s other men from finding her, but that was ridiculous. Why would he want to aid her now? She licked her lips. “I’ll return straight after my reading.”

Alban nodded. “I had a sister,” he said suddenly. “She died not two days ago.”

“I’m so sorry,” Eve said.

“You reminded me of her when I came upon you in my lord’s room. She had hair the same moonbeam color as yours, and Malbec beat her, as well.”

“Was your sister wed to Malbec?”

“She was. And she wasn’t blessed with a child, either.” Alban eyed her knowingly and released her wrist. He reached up to his neck, unclasped his heavy cloak, and settled it on her shoulders. “So you don’t catch a chill while we’re out here.”

Her jaw slackened at the undeniable truth then. He was trying to aid her in escaping, and tears pricked her eyes. She’d been alone in a land of cruel strangers for so long, and here, on the very night she was hoping to flee, she’d found kindness. “Alban, I—”

“Make haste, my lady. I’ll be here waiting for you.”

She nodded. Undoubtedly, it was better if he knew nothing for certain of what she was going to attempt to do. That way, if he was questioned, which he would surely be, he could truthfully say he had no knowledge. She left him there, pulling his much heavier cloak around her to ward off the bite of cold that was already overcoming her. As she made her way to the seer’s tent, she touched the egg inside her skirts, then paused at the flogging poll where the line stopped. Announcements from villagers selling things were pinned there with nails, which wasn’t uncommon. When she had arrived at Frederick’s on her wedding night, the pole had been covered with bits of foolscap, but by the next day, they had been cleared because Frederick had ordered someone whipped to death. He’d made Eve watch, and she had wondered why, but later she realized it was because he’d wanted her to see how merciless he could be.

The wind gusted again, fluttering a piece of the foolscap off the pole and to her feet. She bent down and picked it up, squinting at the words in the darkness, but it wasn’t until someone exited the tent and she was able to move closer to the light that she could make out the words. As she read, her breath caught and her pulse spiked.

Wanted: Companion for two near angels. Twin girls. Perfectly divine. Aged eleven summers.

Eve snorted at the beginning of the posting. Whoever had written this was likely blind to their daughters’ faults. She recalled the children of the servants from her parents’ home, and she wouldn’t have labeled a single one of them “near angels” or “perfectly divine.” Watering pots would have been a more apt label for the cook’s daughters. They always seemed to be crying over something; of course, if they weren’t crying, they were squabbling. But the listing was intriguing, and with nothing better to do as she waited her turn, she read on.

Requirements: Must not have any family.

Well that certainly fit Eve. A large lump lodged in her throat. She would not feel sorry for herself.

Must love the cold.

Eve shivered. Was there a person who existed who truly loved the cold? Eve much preferred the warm days of summer. What an odd requirement. Why must the companion love the cold simply to watch over two girls?

Must know the healing arts.

Eve smiled. Perhaps the companion had to know the healing arts because the girls were giving their parents aching heads. Eve didn’t know a thing about the healing arts, but how hard could learning them be? She frowned at the errant thought, but then her pulse truly began to race. This could be the answer she had been searching for.

She hurried to read the rest of the post.

Position is on Isle of Skye, Dunvegan Castle. Companion will answer to the laird of the MacLeod clan. All inquiries must be made in person directly to Brus MacLeod.

Eve bit her lip as she looked toward the vast expanse of dark water. The Isle of Skye might as well have been on the other side of the world, it was that far. The only way there would be by birlinn, and the Summer Walkers had come here by horse, which meant they could not take her to the Isle of Skye. Even if she could find her way to Dunvegan Castle, was it wise to? Florrie had put a young Eve to bed many a night with stories about the barbaric Highlanders.

If Florrie was to be believed, which Eve assumed she must, Highlanders ran around in skirts with nothing under them, killed men with their bare hands, had the manners of hounds, and rutted like beasts. Eve pursed her lips. Of course, she was wed to a beast who would soon want to bed her, and that thought alone made up her mind. This posting was the answer to the prayer she’d been saying every night since the day she’d discovered just how horrid Frederick was. If she could find her way to Dunvegan Castle and gain the position, she could disappear within the clan, become someone else, and never be beaten or belittled by Frederick again. There would be no man who would ever love her and no children to call her own, married as she was to Frederick, but that was sacrifice she would gladly make to claim the freedom that had never been hers.

The line moved again, and the woman in front of her went into the tent as a tall, large-bellied priest stumbled out. The shelter opening closed behind him, and he staggered past Eve, grumbling as he went. She turned, following his progress toward the water as bits of his words floated on the chilled night air to her.

“Devil’s bargain,” he muttered, dropping a wine skin as he walked. He stopped and bent over to retrieve it, then tipped forward, somehow landing on his bottom.

Eve hurried to him and squatted to help him. “Father, are you injured?”

“Aye!” he bellowed. “My pride’s black and blue, and I know it’s a sin to be prideful, but I kinnae help it. ’Tis disgraceful to be blackmailed by one of yer own clanspeople.”

Before Eve could respond to that, a deep male voice seemed to come from the water. “Father Murdoch!” Light blossomed in the blackness, illuminating a man cloaked in shadow holding a burning torch at the front of a birlinn. “Move yer arse, John. I’ve been waiting for ye all afternoon. I told ye we had to leave before nightfall. Where the devil have ye been?”

“You should be ashamed to talk to a man of God in such a way!” Eve protested as she offered a hand to Father Murdoch to aid him in standing.

“He’s nae been a man of God in years!” the man in the birlinn said. “He worships the mead, nae the lord!”

Father Murdoch grunted as he struggled to his feet. “I’m a man of God!” he bellowed.

“Come on with ye,” the man on the boat growled. “The crew is ready, and MacLeod will be sorely vexed with me if I do nae return on schedule.”

MacLeod! Eve glanced down at the foolscap clutched in her hand as the impatient man spoke again. “And I’ll be telling him ye hid on my boat and delayed me if it comes to saving my hide.”

“A pox on ye,” the priest grumbled before turning to her. “Thank ye for yer kindness.” He started to pull away from her, but she clutched him, hope rising on the wind.

“Father, does the MacLeod have two children?”

The priest’s eyes widened. “Aye. Ye know the MacLeod?”

“No. But I saw this posting…” She held up the foolscap in her hand. “And—”

He leaned toward her and gripped her by the forearms. “Ye wish to fill the position?”

She nodded.

“Thanks be to God!” the priest exclaimed and hugged her to him. He was warm and squishy and smelled not only of mead but bread. Her stomach gave a rumble again. “My prayers have been answered!” He thrust her away as quickly as he’d pulled her to him, and he eyed her. “Ye do nae have family that will come for ye or miss ye, do ye? Ye’re nae wed, are ye? Brus will be verra vexed with me if I muck this up.”

She wasn’t certain why it mattered if she had family. Perhaps this Brus assumed that whoever was employed would stay longer if they had no family. No matter. It suited her that no one ever know about her family or Frederick. When she left here, she would bury who she was. “I’m not wed. I have no family. I’m just passing through this village and saw the post. I need a place to live.”

“What’s yer name, lass?” Father Murdoch asked.

Eve stilled, unprepared for the question.

“Abigail,” a woman answered from behind Eve.

Eve’s jaw slackened at hearing her middle name come from a stranger’s lips. She swirled around to find the Summer Walker she had met a year ago, the one who’d looked at her palm and spoke of the love she would find, standing in the slit of the shelter. Candles glimmered within, and smoke swirled out in a long white line. “I told ye, Father, if ye would be patient, the woman ye needed would come to ye.” Then the woman stepped to Eve and drew her away from the priest. She pressed her lips to Eve’s ear, and her warm breath raised the hairs on Eve’s neck. “Run, Abigail, before it’s too late. He’s coming for ye. I’ve seen it in a vision. What ye’ve taken, he will kill for.”

A horn blew then—the one that always announced Frederick. Alban’s voice suddenly split the night. “Lady Eve!”

Eve’s heart stopped, then started again at three times the pace. She grabbed the priest’s hand and tugged him toward the birlinn, almost dragging him behind her. To her right, light bobbed along the cobbled street she’d meandered down to find the Summer Walkers, and she was certain it was Alban coming to retrieve her. She reached the birlinn and clambered aboard with Father Murdoch behind her.

The man who’d been bellowing at the priest still stood aft holding the torch. “So, John, is this what ye hid in my boat for? A lady?”

The priest stared at her for so long, she was certain he had changed his mind about taking her. “Aye, Ragnar,” he finally said, and she expelled the breath she’d been holding.

“Ye’re nae trouble, are ye?” the man named Ragnar asked.

“I’m not trouble,” she replied, picking her way past the men who stared silently at her. She moved into the darkness at the back of the boat and sat, crouching low and pulling Alban’s cloak up around her face.

Father Murdoch sat beside her on the small bench, his shoulder brushing hers as he lowered himself. “’Tis something for the Lady of the Glen to know yer name, Abigail.”

Eve stiffened at the reminder that the seer had somehow known her middle name. “I’m no one important,” she said, and it was true. She had never been more than a bargaining chip for others to use to get what they wanted. “And I don’t know who the Lady of the Glen is,” Eve whispered, her attention rapt upon the cobbled street. Pricks of stinging pain swept her body as dozens of lights danced in the blackness in two neat rows. Guards. Frederick’s men. Frederick knew his egg was gone and, with it, the list.

“She’s a powerful seer, lass. And if she’s had a vision of ye, ye’re someone. But I’ll keep yer secret. I swear I will. Ye’re going to be my redemption.”

“Eve!” Frederick roared so loud the sound made Eve flinch. She sunk lower still, wishing to disappear. The vessel began to move backward, and oars swished through the water in a rhythmic sucking sound.

One row. Two. Three. At ten rows, when the birlinn could no longer be reached by a man jumping for it from land, Eve’s trembling subsided a bit, but then Frederick appeared at the edge of the embankment, a torch in each hand like Satan rising from the fiery depths of hell. She could just make out his outline. She did not need to see his expression to know his vexation. His rage vibrated the air, reaching for her like a poisonous vine.

“Eve!” he bellowed. “I will find you, and when I do, you’ll regret crossing me.”

“I feel mighty sorry for this Eve,” the priest said. “I hear Lord Sotherby’s a vile bastard.”

The comment floated between them unanswered as the village grew smaller, the wind whistled, and the first flakes of snow began to fall. Father Murdoch tilted up his wine skin, drank a long draft, then nudged it against Eve’s arm. The heat of his curious stare warmed her neck, but she did not turn to him until he said, “Take a drink. Ye’ll need it to survive the cold to come.”

She reached for the wine skin, and when she grasped it, their fingers brushed and their eyes locked. “Do ye know Lord Sotherby?” he asked.

She had to swallow several times to find her tongue. “No. I told you, I was only passing through.”

“Aye, that ye did,” the priest said and patted her arm. “Whatever yer problems are, at least ye’re nae the woman he hunts.”

“Yes,” she said, her hand trembling as she raised the wine skin to her mouth and took a drink. A strong, smoky flavor flooded her mouth and burned her throat, making her cough. The priest thumped her on the back, and over the sound of her hacking, her name, still being bellowed by Frederick, floated to her. She shivered and could not stop. Whether from the cold or fear, she was uncertain, but under her breath, she began to pray that Frederick would never find her and that the MacLeod would not turn her away.

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