Highlander’s Cursed Fate Preview

A Historical Scottish Romance Novel

About the book

He would protect her, even if it meant war between two nations...

Trying to escape her seemingly unavoidable fate at the hands of her Lady, Willow Barr escapes in the dead of the night to find refuge on a Highlander’s boat. And in his arms, it’s the first time she feels safe ever since she lost her family and her titles…

Keith Cooper is a Laird in all but name. Fulfilling the position his brother has left unattended, he has to protect the clan from the English. But a Lady sweeter than honey steals his heart; even though everyone tells him she is naught but a spy.

The war between the Scots and the English is too formidable, and Willow and Keith’s union is not blessed by anyone. Even though family bonds are the strongest, sometimes family will turn their back on you, if blinded by love…and hatred.


Chapter One


“So, yer plannin’ on leavin’ without sayin’ goodbye, are ye?” Keith spun around to find his mother standing gracefully with her hands folded on the steps of the grand staircase. Her silver-gray hair shimmered in the candlelight. There was no trace of grief on her face as Keith walked up to her.

“Donnae tell me he’s here, I ken he’s run off again, but there is nay stoppin’ a boy that has a roamin’ spirit. We’ve tried to tell him to stay. Yet, the lad just willnae do it. Best just leave him be.” 

“Maither? What are ye doin’ down here?” Keith asked as he helped her down the last step. Gently, she placed her hand on his and patted him lovingly.

“I have seen yer faither off on many outings. Did ye nae think I’d do the same wit’ ye?” she said with a faint smile.

“Ye shouldnae have come down,” he said.

“Why? Will ye chose nae to go now that I am here?” There was a spark in her eyes as she shifted her head side to side. Keith opened his mouth, only to close it quickly again.

“As I thought,” she said. “There is nay stoppin’ ye when ye’ve made yer mind up. Besides, there is only so much gossip one can take.”

“And what sort of things are the servants whisperin’ about this time?” Keith asked as he rolled his eyes.

“They say all sorts of things. Although, I suspect nae everythin’ they tell me is the truth,” she said as she carefully stepped down.

“That’s what they do. But what is it they’re sayin’ this time around that ye donnae believe?” Keith asked, raising his eyebrow. “Ye ken, it seems we pay them more to spread gossip than they do to handle the affairs around the state.”

“Mind yer tongue. Ye must remember that those people are the ones who make yer bed and grow the food. They are just as much of a Scot as you are. Just because ye were born to privilege doesnae mean that ye have the right to act in such a way or show cruelty to them. The last thin’ I need is for ye to end up like yer braither. I will nae see ye be as disrespectful to the family as he is.” Keith’s mother glanced around the open room, and he didn’t need to ask who she was hoping to see.

“By the way, where is yer braither? I haven’t seen him in three days,” she said as she quickly raised a hand. “Never ye mind. I donnae want to ken. But tell me, is he well?”

“Aye, I believe so. Ye ken he disappears when he meets someone new and becomes a wee bit infatuated wit’ them,” Keith said, trying not to flinch under the weight of his mother’s words.

“So, how many men are ye takin’ wit’ ye to go south?” Leah tilted her head and gazed into Keith’s eyes. He knew better than to keep information from his mother. Yet, in his heart of hearts, he couldn’t bring himself to tell her of Alex’s plight.

“Come now,” Leah said, holding her stern gaze on him. “Ye donnae really think I do nae ken what happens under my own roof? Nae to mention what happens wit’ my own family. I ken yer cousin Alex is in dire trouble. I read the correspondence and hear the chatterin’ of the servants. That is why ye’re goin’, is it nae?”

Keith dropped his shoulders and pulled in a deep breath.

“I couldnae wait for Arthur’s approval.”

“Nor should ye,” Leah said. “Yer braither goes off missin’ when things go a bit sour have ye noticed?”

“Aye, he is a slippery one, he is,” Keith said as he glanced over his shoulder to find the war chief, Harris drawing the horses around to the front of the castle.

“I have to go,” Keith said. “We will be back soon enough,” Keith said as Harris walked through the main entry and paused the instant he saw Keith with his mother. Keith leaned in and pressed his lips to his mother’s forehead before stepping back.

“I cannot lose ye. Not when I ken that yer the one holdin’ yer faither’s oath instead of yer braither,” Leah said as she cupped her hands around Keith’s face and drew him to her. He felt her lips on his forehead briefly before she released.

“Life has a funny way of workin’ things out, maither, ye ken? But rest easy. We are only goin’ south to get an idea of what is happenin’, nothin’ more. We arenae goin’ to start a war.”

“What if that is precisely what will happen?” she asked as Keith heard Harris clear his throat. Keith glanced over his shoulder to see Harris lean against the wall and cross his arms over his chest.

“Be at peace, maither. We will return a wee bit wiser, but nay harm will come our way. And if it does, we’ll be prepared for it.”

“I see so much of yer faither in ye. Ye both understood the true meanin’ of family and what it was to be a Scot. Ye truly have grown up to be a brave and courageous man.”

Keith flashed his mother a smile and gave her a quick bow. His heart ached for her as he turned to walk away. There was truth in his mother’s words that he knew all too well. Keith was left with the burden of running the estate and making sure that the clan’s business was taken care of due to his brother’s spending habits and lack of attention to the estate.

Keith stopped short of Harris as the burly man pushed off the side of the wall and stood straight.

No words were needed to be spoken between the two of them. Keith could tell it was time to leave by the sternness in his gaze and didn’t hesitate. Keith glanced over his shoulder to steal one last glimpse of his mother and followed Harris down the corridor to the side door that led to the barn.

“We’ll ride together as far as the river,” Harris said as several stable boys brought horses out of the barn fully saddled and stocked with provisions.

“I figured once we reach the shore, ye and yer group of men can head down the river while we ride on through the trails. We’ll meet at the Ruth’s Inn in Lanarkshire near the openin’ of the river,” Harrison said as he slapped Keith hard on the shoulder and glared at him with complete seriousness.

“We’ll be there,” Keith promised as he noticed Harris glancing around him to catch a glimpse of his mother.

“What did ye tell yer maither?” Harris asked as Keith slipped his foot into the holster and pulled himself up onto the saddle.

“I told her nae to worry,” Keith said

“Do ye think she pays any heed to yer words?” Harris asked as he gathered the reins into his hands and shifted his weight to get comfortable in the saddle.

Keith chuckled as he shook his head. “Nay, I donnae believe she does. But I’ll be damned if I donnae try to come back unscathed.”

“Yer a good lad,” Harris said. “However, if yer wantin’ to get to the border before mornin’ ye lads best be on yer way. There’s a storm brewin’,” Harris said, looking to the sky. “I can feel it rumblin’ in me bones.”

“Aye, we will nae dally or waste time. Scotland and our very lives depend on it,” Keith said as he gave a stern nod.

Harris kicked his heels into the side of the horse and took off. Keith glanced to the other men accompanying him. He knew his oldest and most loyal friend would be at his side. Keith couldn’t go anywhere without Kai.

Kai rolled his shoulders back and squeezed his legs. The black stallion needed no further instruction to begin trotting. Kai maneuvered the horse with the slightest touch of the reins, a skill that always impressed Keith each time he rode with Kai.

“Is this a rescue mission, or are we just there to stir the pot?” Kai asked as Jared rode to Keith’s left side. A great weight dropped onto Keith’s shoulders as he looked at his companions.

“I cannae make promises I donnae intend to keep,” Keith said. “But I can say that the road will nae be easy. There’s no tellin’ what lies ahead.”

“So, certain death, is it? Well, ye both ken how I feel about that,” Jared said, tossing his head.

“We just observe and see what kind of trouble my cousin is in before we do anything rash. Last thing we need is the English this far North. Best we keep things as inconspicuous as possible,” Keith answered as his back straightened. He knew he couldn’t give orders to send men to their deaths. That was Harris and Arthur’s role. Still, that was precisely what he was doing, and in the back of his mind, he wondered if they would make it back.

What if everything my cousin said in his letters is true? What if there is a hostile takeover from England? And we are walkin’ into a trap?

Cousin has always been one to over exaggerate. But still

Keith glanced to the gray clouds that blocked the sun. The day was warm enough, but he couldn’t shake the dread that crashed like wild waves at the corner of his mind.

“Are ye comin’? Or nae?” Harris snapped as he rode hard to make it back to Keith.

“Aye, we’re comin’.” Keith gave the men at his side one last glance before ramming his heel hard into the horse’s ribs and riding hard across the moors. It would take them four days to reach Keith’s cousin no matter which route they took.

“Remember, we’re to meet up at the Ruth’s Inn. That’s downstream nearly a two-day trip. Think ye can manage?” Harris asked as they reached the bank of the shore. Kai, Jared, and Keith slipped off their horses and handed the reins to Harris.

“We’ll manage,” Keith assured him. “Godspeed.”

“And ye as well. I’d hate to have to explain to yer maither what happened to ye should things go wrong.”

“I will never lay that burden on yer shoulders,” Keith promised.

“Ye shouldnae make promises ye cannae keep,” Harris warned as Keith stuck out his hand. Harris glanced down from his saddle and took Keith’s hand.

“Yer a better man than yer braither. Ye ken the meanin’ of family and riskin’ yer life to uphold justice is somethin’ yer faither valued above all else.”

“That’s what maither said to me,” replied Keith, squeezing his fingers tightly around Harris’s forearm.

“Aye, well, she’s a smart woman. Now go, before ye lose the tide. And keep an eye out tonight. Foul weather is coming our way.”

“That’s the best news I’ve heard all day,” Keith said with a grin. “At least we’ll have cover, nay?”

“Get goin’,” Harris said, jerking his hand away and shooing Keith away like an annoying gnat buzzing about his face.

Keith, Kai, and Jared moved to the boat filled with burlap sacks and pushed off. They slipped into the vessel one at a time until they were all in and Kai was paddling first.

“How long do ye think it will take us to get to England?” Kai asked as the boat drifted down the stream. Keith kept his eyes on Harris, Jacob, and Matthew until the forest engulfed them.

“We should be there by the mornin’ from what Harris said. But judgin’ the current, we might get there sooner,” Jared answered. “So best save yer strength and let the current do most of the work. It’s gettin’ back upriver that’s going to be a struggle. Goin’ against this current.” Jared shook his head. “That will be the real test of strength. It’ll probably take us twice as long to get home.”

“That’s nae good,” Kai grumbled. “I do have other things to do durin’ the day than makin’ sure ye both see another day.”

Keith and Jared turned their attention to Kai and glared at him before the boat began rocking from their laughter. Although a heaviness lingered in Keith’s mind, he knew to appreciate the moments when they came. After all, there were no other men in all of Scotland he would rather be with on this trip. Even if it meant dying with them at his side, he was proud to have them there.

 


Chapter Two


The springs of the mattress squeaked and moaned as Willow tossed in her bed, trying to get comfortable. The lumps in the mattress felt like rocks to her sore muscles and aching back. Yet, no matter which way she shifted or turned, a new muscle ached. The pain seared through her body, causing her to jolt awake despite how tired she was.

Of course, it didn’t help that the wind had kicked up, causing the branches of the old pear tree to scratch against a window. Willow threw the pillow over her head to block out the sound. She moaned as every little sound echoed in her ears.

Frustrated, Willow pulled herself up carefully and looked out the dark window. Her shoulders dropped as she sat up to stretch out her sore back. She struck her mattress, trying to beat down the lumps before lowering herself down once again.

Just as she had made herself comfortable between the lumps, her ears pricked up at the sound of things scratching and tumbling behind her. She jumped up and looked back at the blank wall beside her bed.

“Good Lord, what was that? I cannot think there are rats in the walls here.” Willow sprang to her feet and stumbled back from the pain that racked her bones and muscles. Keeping her eyes locked on the wall, she watched as the bed rumbled as thumps rocked her bed away from the wall.

As fear gripped her, she dared to steal a step toward her bed. In the darkness, she heard a husky, muffled voice that caused her blood to run cold. A lump formed in her throat, silencing the scream that had bellowed up in her chest.

I don’t believe in ghosts.

Willow paused by the side of her bed and carefully placed her hand on the wall. She held her breath as she waited for something to happen. When she felt the vibration rattle her palm, Willow pulled her hand back and darted to her bedroom door.

The hallway candles were still lit and gave off a soft orange glow to light her path down the corridor. Although, she was uncertain of where she wanted to go. All she knew was that she had to leave her room.

Carefully, she plucked a candle from one of the placeholders in the wall. She moved like smoke down the hallway until she came upon the kitchen door. The sounds that haunted her in her room ceased, and for a split moment, she couldn’t help but wonder if she had let her imagination best her.

“A cup of warm milk will settle my nerves. Surely, I must be so tired that I dreamed it all up,” she said to the darkness as she pushed through the kitchen door. Willow reached for the brass doorknob and turned it. The door moaned as she pushed it open, and to her surprise, the room was half-lit.

Oh, I should’ve woken someone up. I should’ve woken someone up

The sound of a woman giggling settled her nerves faster than any bolt of lightning streaking across the sky.

Tiptoeing, Willow slipped into the kitchen. If she could give an accurate description of who the intruder was, then she would. But the fear that had been brewing in the pit of her stomach vanished. Her heart stopped as she stood still.

“And just what in God’s name do you think you’re doing? I should wake the house,” Willow threatened as she quickly turned her head away from the sight before her.

“But you won’t,” Aaron growled as he turned his head to look over his shoulder at her. Willow pressed her lips into a tight line as she noticed Meghan’s body curled around Aaron’s as her dress was hiked over her knees. “Because then your virtue will be compromised as well. Besides, who will believe a housemaid over one of Luke’s footmen? Surely, you can see that it is you who are the intruder here, not us.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Willow hissed, turning her attention back to Aaron. A wicked grin replaced the shock on his face.

“Won’t I?” Aaron threatened as Willow tried not to let her eyes shift to the bare flesh of Aaron’s body popping out from his trousers. Willow knew exactly what the two of them had been doing. She found herself a bit surprised to find the rumors that floated about the manor were true for once. But she had never expected to catch them in the act.

“I think it’s about time I left,” Meghan said as she drew the hem of her skirt back down to her ankles, trying not to kick the pots and pans that they had pulled from the shelves during their escapades.

“You can’t leave. I still need you,” Aaron cried out as Meghan squirmed out of his grasp and fluttered out of the kitchen, leaving Willow alone with Aaron. Suddenly Willow felt very vulnerable. She realized that she was in nothing but her nightgown and should anyone catch them in such a state, her reputation would be ruined.

“You know, it’s not nice to interrupt a man. It causes great pain and even death for some to be left in such a state,” Aaron said as his eyes burned with desire. His lips curled mischievously as he reached for her.

Willow gasped and shook her head as she stumbled back, trying to keep the distance between them. She moved around the table as he leaned toward her. Whisky lingered on his breath.

“Do you remember what I told you the last time we met?” Aaron asked. Chills ran through Willow’s body as her mind played back the conversation from before.

Willow shook her head as fear rumbled through her body like thunder. “I am a lady.”

“You were a lady once,” he said. “Now, you’re just a maid with no say in your fate. Of course, that could change.” Aaron wagged his eyebrows at her as he ran his hand down the length of his penis.

“Never in a million years would I lay with someone like you,” Willow said, her eyes flickering to the door as she judged how far she could run before he caught her. Willow took a chance and darted towards the open door, but Aaron was faster, and she knew it. He flung his body into the open doorway causing Willow to crash into his arms which curled around her like vices of a bear trap.

“Let go of me,” she demanded as she kicked and squirmed, trying to free herself. Aaron’s laughter filled her ears, and she knew it would be a sound that would haunt her for the rest of her life if she couldn’t get free of him.

“You know I certainly think that you and I will have beautiful children. Of course, I did say that to Meghan, but she doesn’t have your jaw structure and is a bit too heavy for my liking.”

“I will not let you do this,” Willow said, kicking. She jabbed her knee up into his inner thigh; his eyes narrowed on her as he stopped moving and shook his head.

“I was going to be gentle with you. But now…” Aaron slammed Willow’s body down onto the kitchen table, throwing her nightgown up over her knees and exposing her bare legs. With the air knocked out of Willow, she found her view speckled with bright lights of various colors.

The world spun for a moment and wobbled as it tried to right itself. Mustering all her strength, Willow focused on one thing - Aaron’s face. It was the one thing in Willow’s sight that didn’t sway. She held his gaze as she drew her legs back to her chest and kicked them out as hard as she could.

Aaron tumbled back from the blow, giving Willow enough time to scramble off the kitchen table. There was more than one way to get out of the kitchen. Willow’s eyes shifted to the side door that led to the garden. Hope bubbled in her as she darted to the door. Aaron recovered faster than she had hoped and realized she’d need to be clever if she were to escape unscathed.

“Leave me be or so help me; I will kill you,” she threatened.

“Oh, Willow, do you really think that a small, petite thing such as yourself could ever kill me? You don’t have it in you. You’re too soft and far too weak. But don’t worry, a few nights with me, and you’ll learn what it means to be tough,” Aaron said as he collected himself and swallowed hard.

He tucked his manhood back into his pants and fastened them. Willow couldn’t help but notice his white shirt, dingy and half hanging out from his pants. His vest was unbuttoned, and he looked like a dire man with nothing else to lose.

Aaron flashed a crooked grin. He lunged for Willow and threw his arms out like a net, ready to catch her. Willow screamed as she turned to the stove and grabbed the first thing her fingers curled around. With a mighty swing, she crashed the cast iron skillet over Aaron’s head. Blood trickled from the open wound on his forehead.

Instantly, she dropped the skillet, cupped her hands to her mouth to stifle the scream brewing in her throat. Her eyes shifted to the side door as Aaron stumbled and fell into the kitchen table.

“You’ll hang for this,” Aaron growled as he cupped his hand to his forehead and pulled it back to see the blood lingering on his fingertips.

“You did it to yourself,” she said as she stole the chance to flee. Darting to the side door, she fumbled with the lock until she finally got the door open. Cool air cleared her head and steadied her nerves.

I will not hang for his immoral behavior. The executioner will have to catch me first.

Willow stepped out into her salvation and sprinted as fast as her legs could carry her. The wind ripped through the trees as flashes of light lit up the gray clouds above her head. Her heart pounded as she heard Aaron scream out her name. The soft black soil squished between her toes as she darted through the garden and out across the open yard as she headed to the trees. She didn’t know where she would go, but she knew she would never go back to that horrid place.

“Go ahead and run, little rabbit. I’ll get you. Luke is the best hunter in this God-forsaken province. He’ll find you sooner or later.”

Willow raced through the open field, only finding salvation when her hand touched the trees lining the Flemming’s property. Relief came over her as she climbed over the roots of the trees and the boulders. Willow tried to put as much distance from that wretched house and herself as she could.

Aaron’s cries lingered in her ears as she trekked onward, not knowing where she was going or where she’d end up. All she knew was to keep moving. With her lungs burning, she paused by a hollow tree to catch her breath. The bark scratched her arms as she wiggled herself into the narrow split in the tree. 

The crunching of the leaves behind her caused her blood to run cold. Willow tried to steady her breathing as she listened to the snapping of the twigs to her left that sounded like gunshots. She cupped her hands over her mouth and peered through the darkness. The rustling of the leaves, and the distant cries of owls calling to each other, sounded as if they were hiding in the nook beside her. Her ears perked as she heard a low mumble over the cicadas and crickets that sang to the night.

Is that water? Have I really made it all the way to the river?

Hope pushed aside the fear that bound her to that spot. Without wasting time, Willow sprinted towards the sound of the flowing water. In the distance, she could hear Aaron’s voice calling to her, taunting her. But she wasn’t about to stop. Not when she knew she was so close to never being dragged back to Chalmers Manor again.

Keep going. A few more steps. Willow whispered as she climbed and clawed her way through the trees and shrubs until she reached the water’s edge. Pausing at the edge of the trees, Willow stared down the rocky riverbank. The once blue waters that flowed and sparkled like crystals were as black as shadows.

In a flash, Willow thought of the great River Styx she had read about in a book and was convinced that the river she stared at was one and the same. Her heart fluttered as she swallowed hard. Lightning flickered above, giving her but a moment to see the river before it faded to black once more. She wished the moon would peek through the clouds. But as the rain came down, she wondered if Aaron would continue his pursuit.

“I know you’re out there, and I will find you. The longer you hide from me, the harsher your punishment will be,” Aaron growled; his voice carried to Willow’s ears just as she spotted a small boat anchored to the shore.

Salvation at last.

Willow raced along the tree line until she could no longer hide in its shadows. She would have to use speed to get to the boat and hide before Aaron spotted her.

With her heart racing, Willow bolted from the tree line and scrambled to the boat. She slipped into the very front of the boat and threw the burlap sacks over her head to hide her. She didn’t know whether Aaron had spotted her or not. All she could do was sit and pray huddled in her little nook.

Please don’t find me. Just walk on by and go back to your wretched master.

Willow’s ears strained as she stared into the pitch blackness. The burlap sacks caused the little space to grow hotter as she laid in the fetal position listening to the crunching of rocks. Suddenly the sound grew fainter until it completely disappeared and was replaced by the water lapping against the side of the boat.

Willow’s body was weak and in no condition to fight off the darkness lurking behind her eyelids. But she wouldn’t succumb to it. She wouldn’t fall asleep tonight, that much she promised herself.

Don’t fall asleep. No matter how calming that sound is or how the boat rocks against the water. Willow’s eyes fluttered as she fought to keep them open.

I can’t sleep. What if Aaron pulls the sacks off me and drags me back without me realizing it? Or what if the boat tips and I drown? No. I will not…The boat swayed in the current, rocking her ever so gently. Willow yawned as her body relaxed.

I will not



Chapter Three


“What was that?” Keith slid to a stop and ducked as close to the rocks as he could. His eyes darted to and fro, searching for any flashes of red he could see through the bushes and trees.

Kai shook his head as he patted his fingertips to his lips. Keith’s heart pounded in his chest as the sound of thunder rolled over his head. Flickering of silver light shot between the clouds. He couldn’t help but smile at the irony. Keith had wanted it to be stormy so as to hide their position better on the river. Yet, the hopes he had, faded the instant the rain began to fall.

“Come on,” Kai hissed. “The boat is just a little further.”

“Well,” Keith said with a bit of a chuckle. “We ken we’re nae in Scotland anymore.”

“Aye, we can squabble over manners later. But I donnae want to be spendin’ the rest of me life in a shallow grave,” Jared said as he hoisted himself over a fallen tree stump and darted between Keith and Kai. “Now get a move on before the English catch up.”

“Whose brilliant idea was it anyway to stop here?” Keith asked as he followed close behind Jared with Kai at his back.

“How was I to ken the river was faster than expected? I think it had to do wit’ the storm brewin’ about us,” Kai said as he fumbled over the tree roots and slammed into Keith. Keith steadied his friend as the barking of dogs roared behind them.

“Nay time for chit-chat lads, we’ve got company closin’ in,” Keith said, stealing a glance over his shoulder as Kai pulled himself over the boulders to get out of the ravine.

“I can see the boat,” Jared hissed as he stretched his hand down to help pluck Kai up to his feet. Kai turned and snagged Keith’s arm just as Jared snatched Keith’s other arm. The two of them hoisted Keith to the level ground, and they charged for the riverbank.

Scrambling over the lip of the boat, Keith pushed the vessel off the bank as Jared untied it from the rock, he had bound it to. Three massive dogs broke through the tree line and rushed toward them, baring their teeth and the hair on the back of their necks like spikes.

“Go,” Kai shouted, waving his hands for Jared to jump to him. The three of them were in the boat, paddles stabbing at the water to get the boat going, just as the dogs caught up to them.

With their arms burning from the exertion, they didn’t let up until they had made it around the bend and far enough down the river to know they were safe.

“Man, I wish I had a mirror,” Kai said, chuckling as Keith rowed the boat on the left as Jared rowed on the right.

“And why is that?” Keith asked, keeping his eyes trained on the riverbank, searching for any sign of trouble.

“Ye should have seen yer faces,” Kai said, slapping his knee with his hand. “Those dogs come barrelin’ down the bank, and I swear, the color drained from yer face. Had to look twice to make sure ye werenae a ghost.”

“Suppose it was the same expression ye had,” Jared retorted, straining his face. “That the way ye look when ye’ve had too much honey, aye?”

“Oh, ye would ken all about the way that looks, wouldnae? Been spyin’ on me again, have ye?” Kai asked as he thrust out his fist and rammed it into Jared’s arm. The three of them laughed until their sides hurt. The rain pelted them as they moved further up the river.

“What do you think Harris has found?” Kai asked as he steered the boat to avoid the rocks jaunting out of the placid waters.

“Much of the same, I suspect,” Keith answered. “Granted, if the English are as cunnin’ as we think they are, they may just be usin’ the river the way we are and nae wantin’ to let too many people ken what they’re doin’.”

“Are ye tellin’ me we’re havin’ all the fun then?” Jared asked as thunder cracked overhead.

“We willnae ken until we meet up wit’ the rest of the men in a few days. But we must keep our heads about us,” Keith said.

“Do ye really believe that?” Kai asked, arching his eyebrow. Keith’s chest and shoulders dropped.

“Nay, I donnae think that is the case. I think King Henry VIII is flexin’ his army and testin’ the Scots. As long as Scotland has ties to France, I donnae think King Henry will leave us be.”

“Ye might be right about that,” Jared said as the boat drifted further down the river as water poured down from the clouds.

“All right lads, it’s goin’ to be a soggy night, but we need to get some rest. I’ll take the first watch,” Keith said as he shifted over the bench in the center of the boat to take the rudder. Kai shimmied over Jared as he nestled down near the burlap sacks at the bow of the boat.

“Ouch.”

The men paused as they heard the moan. Their heads whipped to the front of the boat and stared at the pile of sacks. Keith wasn’t sure if he saw them move from the boat rocking on the water or if there was, in fact, something lurking under them.

Keith tapped Kai on the leg and motioned him to move back. Slowly, Kai shifted and pulled himself up to squeeze between Jared and Keith. Keith swallowed hard as he pulled his blade from the scabbard.

Keith showed three fingers before them and began dropping one finger at a time. The moment the last finger dropped into Keith’s palm, Kai lunged for the sack and tossed an arm full into the river as Jared’s hand struck out like a snake and snatched the first thing he could find.

“Let me go!”

Keith’s heart dropped into his chest. “What are ye doin’ in me boat?”

“Who are you people? You’re Scots, aren’t you? Don’t deny it, I can tell by that rough accent. Admit it!” the woman demanded as she clung to her chest to hide herself from their eyes.

Keith had never seen a more enchanting woman in all his life. For a brief moment, he wondered if what he was seeing was real or just a figment of his imagination.

Keith dropped his blade and tilted his head. The woman’s dark hair flowed around her shoulders. Her green eyes glared at him with suspicion and fear.

“We are, madam,” Keith answered, withdrawing his blade from her as Kai and Jared remained rigid with their blades ready to strike her down. “But that still doesnae answer the question as to why yer in our boat and in yer nightgown nay less.”

The woman grappled for the burlap sacks to cover herself. But it was too late, Keith had seen her body through the thin wet fabric that clung to her, and he wanted her. A lump lodged into his throat as desire flowed through him.

I wonder if this is the feelin’ Arthur gets each time he sees a woman.

Surely, this is different. The fierceness in her eyes is stunning. Even if she is English, there is a spark to her. One, I ken me family will see too.

“Well, I…” she began to stutter as she glanced around. The fear in her eyes grew as she scrambled as far back into the sacks as she could go.

“She’s an English spy, nay doubt,” Kai hissed, poising his sword closer to her neck. “Best we end her here and now.”

“I’m no spy,” the woman protested.

“So, says ye,” Jared said, tilting his head a moment as his eyes shifted from the woman’s face to her bare knees. “That or a whore.”

“I am neither, thank you very much. Now I demand you bring me back to shore at once.”

“Did ye hear that, lads, she demands us to.” Kai chuckled as he shifted his attention to Keith.

“If you won’t let me off, then I’ll jump,” she said as she began to rise to her feet, causing the boat to sway and rock.

“I donnae think so,” Kai said, allowing his blade to drop to the bench as he grabbed her by the arms to hold her down. Keith watched as she struggled to free herself. In the tussle, Keith spotted a dark red mark on her arms.

“Let her go,” Keith ordered instantly. Kai shook his head and held on tighter as Keith moved to them and pulled down the fabric of her nightgown to her elbow.

“Please,” the woman begged. “All I have left is my virtue.”

Keith looked at her a moment and noticed that the water dripping off her cheeks wasn’t from the rain but tears spilling down her face. He skimmed his fingertips over her wet arm and pressed the markings. The red blotches didn’t resend under his touch.

“Who did this to ye?” Keith asked, pointing to the bruises forming on her arm. He shifted to study her other arm and found the same markings there too.

“Does it matter?” the woman said through clenched teeth.

“Let her go, Kai,” Keith ordered. Kai whipped his head around and shook it fiercely.

“Ye donnae use names,” he grumbled. Keith paid no mind to his friend as he tried to catch the woman’s gaze.

“What is yer name, lass?” Keith asked as he moved away from her and sat down on the bench.

The woman glared at Kai and pressed her lips into a tight line. She shook her head despite Kai’s menacing stare.

“Me name is Keith Cooper. The man to yer left is Jared, and the one clingin’ to ye as ye ken, is Kai.”

“Release me,” the woman said as her steel gaze remained locked on Keith’s face. He couldn’t help but wonder how far she’d go, but one thing he was certain of, she was no threat to them.

“Do as she asks,” Keith said. Kai begrudgingly peeled his fingers off the woman’s arms and sat down on the middle bench. The woman rubbed the pain from her arms as her lower lip trembled.

“I swear ye’ll nae be harmed by us,” Keith said, leaning forward to rest his elbows onto his knees. “Now tell us, who are ye?”

“My name is Willow Barr,” she answered finally, dropping her eyes to the ground. “I mean you no harm, truly. I just needed to go.”

“Go where?” Kai interjected as Willow clasped a sack to hide her shame.

 “It doesn’t matter where,” she said as she raked her wrist across her nose. “But I can see you don’t trust me. It would be best if you ended me here and now. I am no good to ransom and going back to where I came from is out of the question. I’d rather die free than go back to where I was.”

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