About the book
A medallion dipped in the betrayal of a lost father…
Elena McIan would rather die than get married to a man she doesn’t know. Fleeing to avoid her own doom, she lands herself right in the clutches of a group of hardened bandits. And a very handsome member who seems not to quite fit in.
With a loveless marriage on the horizon of his future, Grant Flanagan, son of the Laird of MacDonald, takes matters into his own hands: he escapes. Fate seems to have other ideas, though, when his group’s most recent hunt earns him unexpected spoils: the love of his life.
Determined to stay together, Elena and Grant come up with a plan to return to their families and marry. A plan that is completely ruined when Elena goes mysteriously missing. Desperate to reclaim her, Grant’s sole clue is a medallion depicting a deadly emblem he knows all too well.
Branches cracked her under her foot, but Elena had long since stopped caring. The light from a dying sun sifted through the cracks in the overhead foliage, but she could hardly see her way forward. She stumbled, righted herself, and kept going. The tears on her cheeks had long since dried her face stiff.
She refused to cry any longer but knew that it would take very little to start again. All she had to do was think about her father. The tall, broad-faced man who had those warm, crinkly eyes. The man she’d viewed as her haven in that large castle, the man she would run to ever since she was a child. She only needed to imagine his usually smiling face stricken with sadness, and the tears would begin flowing once again.
But Elena would not let that stop her. She shuffled forward with all the strength in her limbs, even though she was fast growing weary. She had been walking for days, so deep within the forest, that she no longer understood her bearings. She’d never ventured this far away from the castle. But then again, she’d never run away from the castle either. Elena had spent all her life enclosed within the comfort of those massive stone walls, surrounded by her family, so she never found the need to.
Not until tonight.
Nay, I willnae think about it. I cannae cry. If I cry, then I daenae ken how much longer I will be able to go.
Elena knew she needed to be strong, but it was difficult. She kept a tight grip on the skirt of her dress, her earsaid slipping from the top of her head. She knew she must have been quite a sight, trampling through the forest that was steadily growing denser.
Is there nae end in sight? I cannae do this any longer.
She wanted to sleep and eat. But first, she had to leave everything behind. Elena had to remember that she was doing this for her good. She knew she wouldn’t have gone had she been given any choice. Her father shouldn’t be sad; he couldn’t. He knew his daughter, and so he should know that she would never stand for this.
Tears pricked her eyes again. Elena stopped, putting her hand to eyes to keep them at bay. Crying only made her feel week, and she couldn’t afford any of that right now.
As if to warn her even further, she heard a cry from deep within the forest. The sound echoed around her, making her gasp aloud. She couldn’t ascertain what sort of cry it was if it was man or animal. Elena didn’t want to linger to find out.
Clutching the small satchel filled with food that she’d stolen from the castle scullery before leaving, Elena pushed ahead. She ignored the prickle of the stones beneath her feet. She kept going even when the hem of her dress snagged on a prickly vine.
She flinched when she heard that cry again, more confident now that it was an animal, but she didn’t falter. Elena kept going, mostly because she knew there was no turning back. She couldn’t face what awaited her at home, and so she would take her chance with the uncertainty of her hazy, dark future.
And then she saw it: a spot of light. A smile fluttered over her face. Elena started forward with more fervor, not taking as much care as she first did. She didn’t see the long-hanging branch before her, so focused was she on the spot of light, and so it smacked her in the face. Elena shook it off and kept going, but misjudged the position of a tree and rammed half her body into it. Again, she didn’t stop. Just caught her breath and continued.
Aye, there is a break in the trees! I willnae have to sleep in the forest after all.
Elena smiled fully as she stepped through the break, finding herself facing what looked like a small town. Since night had long since fallen, the town was quiet. Elena drew neared, noticing that the spot of light she’d seen was just the collection of many candlelit cottages, the townsfolk already preparing for bed.
She whispered a silent thank you that the streets of the town seemed mostly bare. A few chickens trotted by her, and she wondered briefly if they had escaped from their owners or if they had free range to walk around like this. She tugged her earsaid closer to her body, fighting against the chilly breeze that wafted by. She had to find an inn quickly.
“An inn, an inn, an inn,” she whispered to herself, her eyes scanning the straw-covered buildings she went by. Elena knew it was much too unsafe to be out here for long, but the shadows of the night made it difficult to see. She kept her eyes focused on the front of the buildings, but while she passed an apothecary, a blacksmith, and a few cottages, she saw no inn.
“An inn, an inn,” she continued to whisper. It helped her focus and distract herself from the chill that was fast beginning to settle into her bones. She was concentrating so hard on finding that inn that she didn’t see the man before her until she nearly ran right into him.
“Oh, forgive me,” she said quickly, trying to step around him. She kept her eyes on the ground, grateful that her earsaid covered most of her face.
He stepped back into her path, sending Elena’s heart into her throat. “Are ye lookin’ for an inn?” he asked, his voice husky. Elena didn’t have to lift her head to smell the stink ale on his breath.
She nodded without saying a word, not lifting her head.
“I ken where it is,” the man’s words were slurred, and he staggered slightly to the side. “I can take ye there.”
“There’s no need,” she began to say. “I’m certain I can find it mese—”
“Nonsense.” A heavy hand landed on her shoulder, and it took everything in her not to flinch. She looked up in alarm. The man grinned down at her, showing two missing teeth and eerily small eyes. He was quite large, she noticed, his hand big and hairy. “I’ll take ye. Ye daenae seem to ken where ye’re goin’.”
“I—” He didn’t give her much time to formulate a response. Despite his large size and apparent intoxication, he positioned himself behind her before she knew it and began steering her down the street.
Elena bit her lip, her anxiousness growing. She didn’t want this man touching her or helping her. But she didn’t know how to say it to him.
“I can do it on me own,” she pressed, trying to step away. But he grabbed ahold of her shoulders with both hands.
“How can ye when he daenae even ken where it is?” He hiccupped and belched. The scent threatened to bring her to her knees. “I ken a very easy way of getting’ there. Ye daenae have to worry.”
Her anxiety only grew. “Nay, ye daenae have to worry. I can move about just fine.”
He only laughed. Darkness was beginning to shroud the street, one she noticed that was bare. She wished there was someone else around, someone she could latch on to escape this horrid man. But with his vice-like grip and his insistence, Elena was afraid it would take more than just words to get him to leave.
Suddenly, they were plunged into darkness. He’d led her down a narrow street, the two buildings on either side casting a dark shadow over their path. Elena’s heart began to pound.
“Thank ye, Sir,” she said, jerking so hard out of his hold that she nearly twisted her foot. “But I think I will be able to travel the rest of the way from here.”
“Will ye?” He was upon her, giving her little time to respond. Elena could feel the coldness of a wall behind her, could feel her heart pounding in her throat.
She had a dirk in her sporran. Elena’s mind was whirring. Suddenly, she couldn’t remember which side it was, or if she had to reach to her left or right if he did something. She didn’t know how to use it, how to stab him, where to drive the blade without killing him. So many things rushed through her mind as the man stepped closer, forcing her against the wall, but her hands moved without thought. Her fingers touched the top of her dirk.
“Aye, ye are a bonnie one,” he said with a chuckle, and Elena held her breath. “I ken it even though I saw ye from behind. But ye arenae very smart are ye?”
She finally pulled her dirk from her sporran, gripping it tightly in her hand. She’d never had a reason to use it before—never learned how to. But at that moment, she didn’t care.
The man ran his gaze down her length while she instantly wanted to drive the blade into his eye. She bit her lip as battling waves of fear and repulsion rose within her. For a moment, she wished she’d never left the comfort and safety of her home.
“Nay one is here,” the man murmured, bringing his lips close to her ear. “How about I used ye once, and then I can sell ye off to the next man?”
A chill skittered down her spine. He didn’t seem to notice the way she shivered.
“It isnae me fault that ye are here,” he said. “Ye shouldnae have been walkin’ around by yerself at nightfall. Ye were askin’ for this.”
“Leave me alone, or I’ll hurt ye,” she tried to say bravely, but her words only came out as a whisper.
He heard it, however, and pulled away for her. “Hurt me?” he barked a laugh. “What do ye…what do ye think ye can do?”
She hid her dirk behind her, saying nothing. Perhaps she wouldn’t need to stab him. Perhaps, if she got him to stand far enough away from her, she could try to run away.
“I was just tryin’ to help ye!” the man hissed, spittle flying from his thin lips. “And all I wanted was a little taste of ye. Is that how ye repay someone who gives ye their…” he trailed off, stumbling back, before he found his words again, “their help to ye?”
Elena was biting down too hard on her lip that she was afraid she might draw blood. The man laughed again, but this one was much more terrifying. He took a step back as if preparing to do something, and Elena took that as her chance.
Gripping the dirk tightly in her fist, she picked up her skirts and ran off to the right of her. She heard the man curse behind her, and she didn’t get very far. Pain lanced her head when he grabbed ahold of her braid and yanked her back. Elena cried out, trying to pull out of his hold. She whirled to face him, bracing the pain of his grip, and lifted her dirk.
She didn’t get the chance to bring it back down. Elena heard a thunk and the man went still. She froze, staring at the man’s face, watching as his jaw grew slack, and his eyes rolled into the back of his head. He fell to the ground.
“Are ye all right?”
Dazed, Elena looked up to see the most handsome man she’d ever laid eyes on. He was tall, with curling brown hair that brushed the top of his ears. He had a strong jaw, a large hand that he held out toward her. Even in the dim lighting, she could see that his eyes were a brilliant green, like the lush plains that had surrounded her castle.
He took another step toward her, dropping the big chunk of wood he had used to hit the man. “Can ye hear me? I asked if ye were all right.”
Elena couldn’t find her voice, but she didn’t know if it was because of the lingering fear, the adrenaline, or the fact that she could not take her eyes off him. His brows were bushy, dipping into a worried frown as he leaned closer to peer at her. “Ye seemed to be quite shocked.”
Aye, I am.
She’d meant to say the words aloud, but she didn’t get the chance when her knees buckled beneath her.
The girl was terrified. Grant rushed forward to catch her before she fell to the floor and could feel her limbs trembling uncontrollably in his arms. But she hadn’t fallen unconscious.
“I daenae ken many times I can ask this,” he said to her. “But are ye certain ye’re all right?”
She swallowed harshly. Grant could see her face clearly, even in the dim light. He didn’t know how, but she seemed to radiate light. Her soft hair shifted through his fingers as he held her, the color as brown as freshly tilled earth. She blinked a few times, but when she looked up at him, her eyes were dark, too dark for him to know what color they were. Instantly, he was hit with a wave of determination to find out, his chest growing tight at her beauty.
What is a bonnie girl like this doing in this town on her own?
“I am fine,” she murmured. Her voice was soft, shaky. She glanced at the man who had been assaulting her earlier and blinked rapidly. “Is he…”
“Dead? Nay. I dinnae hit him quite that hard, although perhaps I should have.” He had happened upon the scene by chance. He shouldn’t have been going this way. He should have been heading back to the camp, knowing that the others were waiting for him. But, for some reason, Grant had wanted to revel in the time he had alone for a little longer and so had taken the longer route.
When he had been passing by, he saw them from the corner of his eye. He had nearly continued along, not caring what a man and woman wanted to do in the privacy of the lonely street, but then he’d seen when she had tried to make her escape.
He had acted on pure instinct after that. As if put there by fate, there had been a cluster of wood nearby, saved for the winter, and he’d grabbed the one on the very top. He’d stalked forward as the girl cried out, feeling a rush of intense anger when the man had grabbed her by the hair. Yes, perhaps he should have hit him a little harder now that he thought about it.
The girl slowly nodded as if she were trying to absorb what he’d just told her. It took her a moment to drag her eyes away from the man’s still body. And then she went still herself, her eyes flying up to him. He couldn’t determine what color they were.
Grant let go of her instantly when the girl jerked her way out of his hold. She clutched her earsaid tightly, pulling it close to her body as she eyed him. Grant rose, looking at the silver dirk she held in her grip.
“It seems ye dinnae need me help in the first place.” Grant lifted a brow as she looked at him. She glanced down at her dirk and looked back up at him.
“I dinnae think I had any choice but to use it,” she tried to explain.
“Perhaps next time, ye shouldnae hesitate.”
That took her by surprise. Grant mentally cursed himself for saying such rough words. She was still shaken and telling her she should have been violent wasn’t the best route to take.
“I’m sorry holding on to ye like that,” he said slowly, jerking a thumb behind him. She looked wary, and he didn’t want to scare her any more than she already was. “I dinnae want ye hittin’ your head when ye fell to the floor.”
“I said I was fine.”
“Aye, ye did.” He wasn’t going to argue. “Where are ye headed?”
She took a step back. He watched as she slipped her dirk back into her sporran and met his eyes. There was a quiet strength behind them. She even pulled her shoulders back, lifting her chin. “Ye daenae need to ken,” she said. “Thank ye for helpin’ me, but I will be leavin’ now.”
“I see. I see.” He said nothing more and felt a tickle of amusement when she frowned lightly. She had been expecting more.
Her pink tongue darted out to lick her lips. The move was quick but mesmerizing, and when she turned away from him, Grant found himself following her without realizing it.
She made it a few steps before she stopped and looked over her shoulder at him. “I said, I was fine,” she muttered.
“I ken,” he said simply. “But I daenae feel comfortable lettin’ ye walk about this town by yerself. There’re more people like him, ye see.”
She glanced down at the man and swallowed visibly. When she looked back at Grant, her bravado slipped. “So ye will follow me?”
“If ye tell me where ye’re goin’, I could even lead ye there.”
She made a show of thinking about it first. Grant didn’t say anything while she did. It was clear she didn’t trust him that much, and why should she? He might have saved her, but that shouldn’t stop her from assuming he might have nefarious reasons for doing such a thing.
But he could see her warming to the idea as she sized him up. And he did the same. Her earsaid was in the clan colors of orange and yellow, her dress a dark blue that seemed black in the coming nightfall. Despite the layers she wore, Grant could tell that she had a curvaceous figure, despite her tall stature. Her hair fell to her waist, soft and light enough to drift around her with every gust of wind.
She is so bonnie; he couldn’t help but think. She is like an angel among humans.
“Very well, then.” Her words broke through his thoughts. “I am tryin’ to find the inn of this town. I take it ye ken where it is?”
“I do,” he responded with a nod. He took slow steps forward, not wanting to frighten her. No doubt, she was still thrumming with the anxious energy of her earlier encounter. “And I take it ye trust me enough nae to flinch every time I come near ye?”
To his surprise, she flushed. “I cannae help meself. I’m still a bit on edge.”
“Aye, I understand.” Grant had to look away. If he stared at her for too long, he might say something foolish. “Unfortunately, there are a lot more men like him lurking around this town, so I daenae think it is a good idea for you to walk by yerself. Especially at night.”
She nodded, turned, and began walking. Grant kept up easily. He was taller than her, he noticed.
Silence fell over them. She seemed to have regained enough of her courage to send him curious glances as they walked, but he didn’t look back at her. After a while, he said, “What is yer name?”
“Elena,” she told him. Grant nearly stopped in his tracks.
Elena…nay, it couldnae be the same person. Many women possess that same name.
Grant looked over at the girl by her side. She was but a traveler. The Elena he knew would not be in a town like this, with torn, dirty clothing and unkempt hair.
“I’m Grant,” he told her after a while. “But if ye wish, ye may call me yer savior.”
“I daenae wish,” she said without hesitation.
Grant huffed a silent laugh. “Very well then. What are ye doing here in the middle of the night, Elena?”
“I could ask the same of ye,” she murmured.
“Ye could, but ye wouldnae be receivin’ a very interestin’ answer.”
“Then ye could say the same of me answer to ye.”
She’s very secretive, I see. I wonder why.
Elena kept her head forward when she spoke to him, but when she didn’t, she kept glancing at him. Grant found it difficult to keep from smiling. She seemed like a child in those moments, unable to keep her wide-eyed curiosity to herself.
“Do ye live in this town?” she asked him.
Grant shook his head. “I daenae, but I pass through it often enough to ken meself around. I’ve stayed at the inn a few times already. Ye should be comfortable there if ye daenae mind the innkeeper pestering ye with her questions.”
“She sounds quite meddlesome.” Elena’s voice was daunted, and it made Grant smile.
“She’s a kind woman, but she cannae keep her nose to herself. Ye should take care.”
“Thank ye for tellin’ me. Ye seem quite kind.”
“A few of us do exist,” he told her with a smile.
She nearly returned it. They were nearing the inn now; long shadows stretched out before its entrance. Grant knew the inside well, having spent a few days there instead of at camp before. He knew that when they went inside, he would find the overweight woman sitting in a chair by the window, humming to herself. She would jump to her feet and rush over to them the moment they set foot inside and would inquire about payment before anything else.
But they wouldn’t get a chance to see that. Elena faltered to a stop when she noticed the men standing out before the inn. They were all drunk, still drinking deeply from tankards. They hadn’t noticed them standing a short distance away.
Elena took a step back. Her eyes were darting from one man to the other; her lips parted as she began to breathe heavily. Grant watched her steadily, wondering if she realized that she was already reaching for her dirk.
“Ye daenae have to do that,” he murmured.
Elena looked up at him. Her eyes were a bit dazed. She seemed surprised to see him still standing there as if her mind had drifted far past where they stood. She frowned at him, not bothering to voice her question.
“If ye are too scared to remain here,” he told her. “Then ye can always come with me.”
“Come with ye?” she echoed. She turned to face him, her brows furrowing deeply. “To yer home?”
“Somethin’ like that.” He was trying to be as honest as he could, but he didn’t think telling her the full truth would make her feel any safer at the moment. It would be better if she saw for herself.
His cryptic words had her narrowing her eyes. But when she glanced back over her shoulder at the men crowding the inn’s entrance, she shivered. She faced Grant, looking sternly at him.
“I’m placing me trust in ye,” she told him earnestly. Now, it was Grant’s time to shiver. There was a hidden threat in her words, in her eyes. Somehow, she became even more beautiful.
“Ye willnae be disappointed, Elena, I promise ye.” He hoped.
She nodded decisively. Grant led the way, taking care not to have them pass by the inn. He’d made the offer in the spur of the moment. In truth, Grant didn’t know how well the others would take having a sudden newcomer sleep among them, but he couldn’t take it back. Nor did he want to.
“Why are we leaving town?”
Elena’s voice was a bit frantic, worry and fear setting deep within her. She stared into Grant’s broad back, trying to stop from admiring his long, even stride. She couldn’t believe she had trusted him so quickly and had allowed him to lead her so far away from the main areas of the town that now he could do anything he wished without a soul knowing.
Grant stopped to face her. He had been leading the way all this time, mostly in silence, but Elena didn’t mind very much. She didn’t have much to say to him, and she was quite enjoying watching him from behind. He had an easy saunter, which didn’t surprise her very much. It seemed fitting with his steady voice and his calm eyes.
“I would answer yer question,” he told her. “But I think it would be best if ye see for yerself.”
“See what for meself?” Grant had begun walking again, and she made sure not to be left behind. From the side, he was annoyingly handsome, his chiseled jaw was enough to make her forget what she was about to say.
“Daenae worry, Elena.” The sound of her name on his lips made her tremble. She told herself it had more to do with the cold than anything else. “I willnae hurt ye. If I wanted to, I would have done so a long time ago.”
“That doesnae make me feel any better. I hope ye ken.”
“Perhaps nae, but that is the most I will say on the matter.” He looked down at her, and his eyes were kind. “I willnae hurt ye. I promise ye that.”
That was why she followed him so readily. That was why she had accepted his offer to stay with him rather than go into the inn. That look he gave her, that small smile that disappeared within a second, was enough to make her willing to go anywhere. She’d told herself it was because he had saved her, but she wondered if it was more than that.
Elena fell silent, trying to quiet the chaos of emotions swirling within her. She needed sleep and something to eat. Elena already depleted the food stolen from the Castle, and her stomach was growling in pain. She couldn’t think straight, couldn’t sort through all the things she was feeling at once. Her trepidation, anxiety, uncertainty continued to linger and had her searching the quiet corners for other unruly men.
And now, this odd man was leading her somewhere outside of town. She didn’t feel as much suspicion as she should.
They were entering another forest, sparse trees allowing her to see ahead. Night had fallen entirely by now, the moonlight shining down on the path before them. Elena kept close to Grant, her eyes darting all over as she took in anything that moved. This forest was not as dense as the one she’d passed through earlier, but it still kept her on edge.
Before long, they came out into a wide clearing and what Elena saw had her drawing to a halt.
“This is—” she couldn’t even finish her words. A crackling fire stood in the very center of the clearing, and surrounding it were men. They sat on fallen logs, some on large stones. They were eating from earthen bowls, heavy laughter echoing along with the fire.
“Who are these people?” she asked, her voice drowned out by the loud chatter from the men before her. There were only four of them, who did not notice her and Grant standing nearby.
“I think ye can guess,” Grant said. “This is why I dinnae say anythin’ to ye before. Because I dinnae ken how ye would react.”
“Or” Elena’s voice was barely above a whisper, “ye ken that I would run away from ye, screamin’.”
To her surprise, Grant chuckled. “For some reason, I dinnae think ye would do that. Perhaps ye would have tried to stab me first.”
“I am considerin’ it.” She tried to say that under her breath, but she had a feeling, Grant heard that as well.
He was grinning from ear to ear as he swept his hand out before him. “Will ye stay and meet the rest of us?”
Elena was already seriously contemplating turning back. She didn’t need him to tell her that they were a group of bandits. It was clear from the way they dressed, the fact that they were making camp in the middle of a forest, and the horses she saw lingering on the outskirts of the clearing. It would only make sense for her to leave, not to put her fate into the hands of such men.
She met Grant’s eyes. He tilted his head curiously to the side, lifting his brows as he moved so elegantly and calculatingly. Though his clothes were as ratty as the men by the fire, he didn’t seem anything like them. Elena wondered if that was the reason she had trusted him so easily and if that was why she could feel a yes on the tip of her tongue.
Slowly, she nodded swallowing. She would try her best to be brave, but it was difficult when the cold was causing her to shake. She tried to keep her shivering to a minimum as she followed behind Grant.
“I’ve returned!” he bellowed, and all the men looked up at them.
Elena could see their faces in precise detail from the glow of the fire. The two men sitting on the fallen logs to the left had unruly black hair and eyes that appeared a caramel brown. They looked alike, perhaps siblings. The other two could not be any more different. One was beefy, with oversized fingers currently ripping cooked meat from a bone. The other was rather handsome in a roguish way, with a short beard and brown hair that brushed his shoulders. A golden medallion, one that looked oddly out of place considering how he was dressed, was slung around his neck.
“Eh?” one of the black-haired men greeted in a shrill voice. “Who’s this ye brought with ye?”
“A woman?” said the beefy one. He peered closer, but only for a second before he returned his eyes to his meal. He was the only one who hadn’t stopped eating. “Nay, a girl. What’s a girl doing with ye, Grant?”
“Daenae tell me she’s yers?” said the other black-haired man with a toothy grin. “And here I thought ye only had eyes for me.”
“Only in yer dreams, Henry,” Grant said. He sank onto one of the unoccupied logs and patted the spot beside him, looking at Elena. She skirted around the group of them, sitting next to him.
“Ye’ve decided to recruit someone new?” He was a handsome one. He was staring at Elena, his lips tilted up into a smile. “Ye daenae ken that is me job and nae yers?”
“Daenae worry, Marcus,” Grant told him quickly. “I’m nae trying to usurp ye, if that’s what yer thinkin’.”
“Of course, nae. Ye daenae have the guts to do somethin’ like that.”
“Ye are all scaring her,” came the shrill voice again. The black-haired man leaned closer; his eyes as wide as a deer’s. “Look at her. She’s tremblin’ like a leaf.”
Elena couldn’t find her voice. Grant got to his feet and made his way over to one of the horses. He pulled something dark from the satchel strapped to the horse’s back and came back to the fire. “Here,” he told her, wrapping a warm hide around her shoulders, “this should help ye.”
“Thank you,” she murmured. She couldn’t think of another thing to say. She could feel all their eyes on her, and she found it a bit difficult to meet them all.
“What a coincidence.” The man Grant had referred to as Marcus leaned closer, his grin spreading across his face. “I was just tellin’ the men that we should be lookin’ for something entertainin’ to do like ye were, considerin’ ye were takin’ so long to return. And here ye come bringin’ the entertainment to us.”
“That isnae why I brought her.” Grant’s voice was calm. He had picked up a few of the untouched bowls and was pulling one of the unidentifiable meats from the spit over the fire. “She needed somewhere to rest her head, and so I thought she would be safe here.”
“What about the inn?” asked the beefy man. He was finished with his food and was eyeing Grant as he separated a large chunk of meat into two separate bowls. “Why couldnae she stayed there?”
“Dinnae want to,” was all Grant said. He placed one of the bowls in Elena’s lap. “Introduce yerself,” he told her.
Elena could hardly find her voice. She couldn’t ascertain whether she was welcomed here or not. She didn’t hear outright animosity in their voice, mainly curiosity.
She cleared her throat, looking up and meeting the eyes of one of the black-haired men, the one Grant had called Henry. “Me name is Elena,” she said and made a mental note to talk up a bit more. She didn’t want them thinking she was timid, even if she felt that way right now.
“Henry Buchanan,” he said, flashing her a grin. “This one right here is me twin from another family, Peter Brown.” He patted a hand on the other black-haired man, earning him a deep scowl.
Peter brushed his handoff. “I can introduce meself ye ken.”
“Aye, if ye did, ye wouldnae introduce me as yer twin, and I couldnae have that.”
Peter only sighed. Elena got the impression that he dealt with that often.
“Boyle MacGill,” said the beefy man, who was putting the last chunk of meat in his bowl. He bit into it, leveling his eyes on Elena. “It’s a pleasure to meet ye.”
Elena was taken aback by his politeness. She nodded jerkily. “It’s—it’s a pleasure to meet ye too.”
The handsome man with the wide grin tilted his head to the side. He had not taken his eyes off Elena since he arrived. “I am the leader of this little band. Ye can call me Marcus Netherson.”
Grant snorted before Elena could say anything. “Why do ye insist on introducin’ yerself like that as if it isnae yer real name?”
“Do ye have a problem with it?” Marcus asked, his tone light.
Grant only shook his head. He was focused solely on eating, without a care in the world. “Nae really,” was all he said.
Marcus grunted in approval. He returned his attention to Elena. She hadn’t touched her meat. “Elena, ye said? Do ye nae have a last name?”
Elena blinked at that. She didn’t want to say. If she did, things might begin to go south very quickly. So, she decided to lie. “Fletcher,” she said. “Me name is Elena Fletcher.”
“What are ye doin’ out here on yer own, Elena Fletcher?” asked Boyle. She looked at him in awe. He was a very speedy eater.
She knew she had to lie again. She couldn’t very well tell them that she had left her castle behind, that she had decided to turn her back on her all her riches. A group of bandits like this, no matter how non-threatening they appeared, might just do something terrible.
Looking at Grant, she couldn’t imagine him being so ruthless, however. Even if he had hit a man over the head with a large piece of wood and had stepped over him with very little remorse, Elena was having a difficult time imagining him trying to rob her or use her for ransom.
“I was runnin’ away from somethin’.” To distract herself, she bit into the meat. It might have been rabbit, but she couldn’t tell considering how unseasoned it was. “Me Faither had arranged a marriage for me.”
“An arranged marriage?” Henry leaned closer. He kept doing that, she noticed. Leaning back and forth as if he couldn’t keep himself still. Without thinking, she glanced at Grant again. He wasn’t looking at her, but she could tell that he was listening.
“Ye must be quite wealthy then,” Peter said, his tone thoughtful.
Elena quickly shook her head. That was the very last thing she wanted them to think. “The opposite, really,” she insisted. “It is because me Faither couldnae afford to take care of me any longer. Me family is quite big, ye see. There are so many of us, and since I’m the eldest daughter, he thought it was about time that I be married.”
“How old are ye then?” Marcus inquired. Elena watched as he picked up a dirk and a stick laying nearby. He began to whittle away at it, keeping his eyes on Elena.
“I am nineteen,” she said honestly. “I think I am too young to be married. I couldnae bear the thought, so I decided to leave home.”
“That’s very bold of ye,” Boyle said. “Ye daenae think ye Faither will be worried about ye? And the rest of yer family?”
She did. In fact, Elena didn’t think she would be able to sleep tonight, knowing just how pain she was causing them by leaving. She told herself that, in time, they would be fine. They would grow used to her absence, and they would continue with their lives. She would have her freedom, and so would they. But it wasn’t an easy thought to believe.
She shook her head, annoyed at the tears closing her throat. “They will be fine without me. It is only one less mouth to feed, after all.”
They all made various sounds of agreement. Elena forced herself to continue eating, even though her appetite was long gone. After a while, when she was sure her tears had dried, she looked back up. “What about ye all?” she asked.
Henry cocked his head to the side. “What about us all?” he echoed.
Elena tried not to look at Grant as he rested his empty bowl on the ground in front of the fire. “Will ye all nae tell me more about yerself? It would be incredibly unfair for me to be the only one talkin’ about me past.”
The men exchanged looks. Marcus, for one, seemed very amused by her words. In truth, Elena didn’t want to know about them as much as she wanted to know about the silent man sitting by her side.
Why is he so quiet? Have I said or done somethin’ wrong? Or perhaps, is he upset?
She glanced at him; he was gazing into the fire. If he noticed her constant looks, he wasn’t making it obvious.
“Very well, then,” Marcus spoke up. “It would only be fair, I suppose. I daenae have much of an interestin’ past. Me parents died when I was only ten and I spent the next twenty years of me life making a livin’ by stealin’. Rounded up this band of misfits as well.”
“Twenty years?” Elena gasped. She peered closely at him, unable to stop herself. “How can that be? Ye daenae look very old.”
“That is because I’m nae,” Marcus chuckled. “Being thirty-four years is hardly old, ye ken. But aye, I am the oldest one here. It would make sense for me to be the leader.”
“Ye never miss a chance to assert yer dominance,” Grant muttered, making Elena’s heart jump.
Marcus only laughed at that. He seemed to find everything humorous. “It’s because of hard-headed men like ye who keep tryin’ to recruit bonnie women that makes me do what I do.”
Grant only scoffed, but it wasn’t a rude or unhappy sound.
Marcus continued, “Peter here is an orphan himself, although just recently. Dinnae ken where to go and so he asked me to join. Told me he was poor, and I couldnae relate to anythin’ else more than that. The same could be said of Henry, but his parents are quite alive. I think he gets a rush out of takin’ things from others.”
Henry only shrugged, clearly not bothered by Marcus’ words.
“Boyle there,” Marcus went on, “is just like ye, Elena. He’s runnin’ away, but nae from a marriage. There are men who he wronged in the past, but he willnae tell us anything more than that.”
“Because ye daenae need to ken,” Boyle said gruffly.
“Aye, aye, so ye’ve repeated time and time. And Grant—”
“I’m also like ye.” Elena’s heartbeat spiked. She looked up to see that Grant was staring at her, his eyes unreadable as orange flames flickered in the green. “I was a servant, but I committed a crime. I stole a few things that I shouldnae. The family I worked for is after me head, and so I decided to leave. Wouldnae do to die so early.”
“We all have things followin’ us,” Peter said, his tone solemn. “Whether it’s our wrongful deeds or our sad past. Ye will fit in well here.”
“She never said she would stay,” Boyle pointed out.
“Aye,” Marcus added. “We might have just scared her away.”
Grant was still looking at her. His gaze was so heavy on her that she was having a difficult time remembering how to move properly. Lifting her hand to her lips felt wrong and uncomfortable all of a sudden. “Do ye wish to stay with us, Elena?” Grant asked. “And I daenae mean for the night.”
She swallowed. It would be foolish to stay among such men—bandits, no less. Everything inside her screamed that it was a terrible idea that she couldn’t trust them.
But there was one single voice that stood out among the rest, the only voice she truly cared to listen to. Staring into Grant’s stormy eyes, she nodded.
He smiled slowly. Elena felt her smile tug at her lips.
“Wonderful,” Marcus’ voice cut in. “Ye should finish eatin’ then. Because we are plannin’ to snuff this fire out soon.”
Elena nodded. She was happy to find that her appetite had returned. She didn’t know why that was, and she didn’t bother to question it. She gobbled down her meal as quickly as she could, leaving the bones clean. If the men thought that was odd, they didn’t mention it. Their conversation sparked back up with such ease that it was like she’d a part of their group all along. They didn’t include her, but they tried to make her laugh with them when they laughed.
Elena could not laugh or smile with them. Every inch of her body was focused on Grant—who did not say much sitting next to her. A few times, she heard him laugh, her body would grow hot, the chill rushing from her bones. But he was mostly silent, and she spent the rest of her time there wondering about him.
Before she knew it, they were all rising. She had finished her meal, and so she stood with them. She watched as Boyle went about snuffing out the fire before Grant patted her on the shoulder.
“Follow me,” he said. He didn’t wait to see if she heeded his instructions.
She did so without question, even as he led her away from the center of the clearing. He pointed at a grassy spot that was near the horses. “Ye will sleep here,” he told her.
Elena’s heart sank; regret panged her. To think she had left her comfortable bed to sleep on the floor of a forest. But the moment the thought crossed her mind, she dismissed it. At least here, she didn’t have her father’s expectations looming over her head.
“I can tell ye’re disappointed,” Grant said, and she faced him. He was standing in a swath of shadows. “But this is the best we can offer.”
“Nay, I’m nae,” she said quickly. “I’m grateful ye’ve offered to take me with ye. I cannae help but thank ye for all that ye’re doin’ for me.”
And she meant it. She realized that being with these men might be better than fending on her own.
“Ye daenae need to thank me every chance ye get,” he told her. She could hear slight mirth in his voice. “But I will accept it all the same. Sleep well, Elena.”
He turned to walk away. Elena spoke without thinking. “Where will ye be sleepin’?” she asked.
Grant paused, then faced her. “Why do ye ask? Do ye want me to sleep next to ye?”
“I never said anythin’ like that,” she countered.
This time, she saw his lips tilt up. “I never said ye did. There’s nae need to be defensive.” Embarrassment washed Elena as he pointed to the side. “I will nae be far from ye. If ye need me, I’m only a shout away.”
“I willnae need ye,” she snipped. Her shame deepened when his grin widened.
“I believe ye. Sleep well, Elena,” he said again and then turned to leave.
Elena held her tongue this time, not wanting to call him again. She watched his figure walk away, then hunker down before a large tree. He rested the back of his head on the tree trunk, and she heard his heavy sigh even from a distance.
Elena looked down at the spot she would have to sleep on. At least the grass would make her makeshift bed a little softer. And the hide she wore would keep her a little warmer throughout the night. She clung to those small mercies as she lowered down to sleep.
The moment she closed her eyes, her fatigue set in deep. She thought it would lead her into a sweet, dreamless sleep, but sleep evaded her endlessly. She tossed, and she turned for what felt like hours before she finally slipped under.
Nightmares plagued her. She saw flashes of her siblings’ faces, of her dear sisters, and her little brother, along with the stricken pain across their features as they suffered from her absence. Her beautiful sister is preparing for a wedding to a brute while the others were learning how to care for themselves.
She saw their tears, and she didn’t know that as she slept, her tears slid past her cheeks.
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