About the book
His hands set her on fire, and they cannot avoid the flames of their passion…
Lady Cleopatra Wood has been the subject of her father’s ire and punishments for many years. And she is certain her day would have ended with another lecture. Had she not been taken hostage by a brutish but dangerously handsome Highlander, that is.
Jude Anderson, Laird of Hanvale, is hellbent on getting his son back from the people who kidnapped him. However, he didn’t count one thing: the fear in the faerie-like eyes of the Englishwoman, or the feelings it would ignite in his heart.
Yet, as happy as he feels with Cleopatra in his arms, Jude’s mind never strays from his ultimate goal: keeping his son safe. An undertaking that seems almost impossible when assassins move through the walls. Because it's an eye for an eye, a child lost for a lost child...
The crashing of footsteps on the hard-wood floors bounced off the stone walls of the manor. Glancing over her shoulder, fear rippled through Cleopatra as she raced down the deserted hallway. With each step she took, the braver she became, knowing her salvation was just beyond the hard oak door.
The door and her freedom were within her grasp, but she knew one mistake would cost her dearly. A distant clatter of voices caused her to pause.
Darting to the nearby door, she stepped into the nook and pressed herself against the wall as far as she could go. Holding her breath, she waited for the sounds to die down before peaking around the door frame. She knew if she were caught, she’d find herself once again locked in the tower for days on end, but the risk was worth it. Even if all she got to see were the pale blue skies and soft white clouds drifting by, she could endure the weeks of solitude if she were discovered.
With her heart pounding against her ribs, she slowly slipped out of her hiding spot. Hugging the wall, she tiptoed further down the hallway, praying for a chance to see the outside world.
It wasn’t her escape that was such a grievous offense, but the deed she had done. For in her clammy little hand, she clung to a book she had swiped from her father’s library. If he caught her with such an item it would be the end for her.
“What are you telling me?” her father’s voice boomed down the hall. She froze against the wall and squeezed her eyes tight. Every nerve sparked like little flames that would soon turn into a raging inferno. Her palms moistened as she chomped down on her lips. “I know the Clan is planning something and I would like to know what it is.”
“Yes, right away, Sire,” a meek voice answered back. Cleopatra knew instantly the sound of Allen Welch. He had been her father’s councilman for decades. His whiny voice made even the servants cringe. She paused as her ears perked.
Please don’t come this way. Turn and go to the study. That is where you need to go. Not down this way.
With nowhere to hide, Cleopatra knew she could easily be exposed, out in the open. With the door an arm’s length away, she decided to make a run for it. Rising to her toes, she scampered to the door. It moaned under protest as she pushed it open. Stealing one last glimpse over her shoulder, she slipped through the narrow crack undetected.
Exhaling, Cleopatra raced across the open yard toward the distant trees. Her legs burned as her lungs begged for air, but she wasn’t about to stop, not until she reached the shadows of the trees where she would be safe.
The wind whipped her face as she ran through the misty yard. Her only hope was that the morning’s fog was still thick enough to shroud her. The instant her hand grazed over the rough bark, she stopped and circled around it. A shrill of delight escaped her lips as she gasped for air.
With the tree at her back, she twisted around. The oak door was sealed shut and with no signs of her father or his councilmen charging out for her, she knew she was safe. A smile spread across her face as she turned her attention to the bounty in her hand. The thick, leather-bound book with brown edges was hers.
She lifted her face to the canopy and took in the cool morning air. The scent of moss and musk filled her nose and senses. Drawing the book to her bosom, she pushed off the tree and began her journey through the thick woods.
“Fine day is it not, Mr. Rabbit?” she said as a furry white bunny scampered across her path. The sweet sound of birds chirping high in the boughs delighted her in ways she couldn’t express. Although she lived in Wintersmith, her heart belonged to the forest and all that dwelt within its sacred trees.
Cleopatra skipped along the unmarked trail until the forest opened up for her. In the clearing a small, withered cottage rested near the trees on the other side of the green meadow. To anyone passing by they would have thought it to be in ruins, but Cleopatra didn’t mind the holey thatched ceiling or the crumbling stone walls. It was her sanctuary, the only place in the whole world her father refused to go.
“Ah, home sweet home,” she said crossing the threshold. An old moldy door hanging by a single hinge laid against the inner wall of the cottage. Carefully, she stepped over the door and moved through the dank living space. Although nature had reclaimed the house, she didn’t mind. At least here she was free to say and do whatever she pleased.
Weaving through the tall grass sprouting up from the stone floors, she found her favorite spot near the broken window. Over the years she had built up the nook with her favorite things to make the home cozy. She plucked a pillow out of the grass and set it beside the window as the golden rays of light poured through the window. The warm sunlight caressed her face as she made herself comfortable and opened the book.
Just as she started to read, a murmur of voices caught her attention. Her head whipped up as she ducked down. Fear gripped her as she peered over the windowsill.
Who is that? No one knows of this place and Father does not come out this far from the manor.
The snapping of twigs caused her ears to perk as her breathing grew shallow. Shadows shifted between the trees as she tried to get a clear view of what was coming.
Cleopatra heard the low, deep voice. Ducking her head down, she clasped her hand over her mouth. With wide eyes, she tried to keep her curiosity in check. It took all she had not to look up again as heavy footsteps fell near the window.
In the manor, she was able to keep hidden and unseen. She had rooms and nooks that masked her from those around her, but here, in this small cottage beyond her father’s house, she only had the tall grass to hide in.
Cleopatra laid on her belly and crawled away from the window trying not to make a sound. Coming to the broken door, she slipped behind it and peaked through the narrow crack.
Four large men moved quietly through the shadows and stepped out into the sun’s rays. Without the trees and shadows to hide them, she noticed they were not from her father’s realm. They wore the darker green trews with the crowned lion pin.
Now what are they doing here? And why would a Scot come this far into England?
Cleopatra’s heart raced.
They should not be here.
“Well, well, look what we have here.”
Cleopatra glanced up to find sea-foam green eyes staring at her through the top of the crack in the door. For a single heartbeat, there was silence around her. Something within her stirred as if seeing this ruggish handsome stranger mesmerized her. Reality came crashing around her like a cannonball careening into the dirt. Peeling her eyes off the stranger she realized just what was happening.
She was no longer safe in the ruins of the cottage resting on the grassy floor, for these men had come for a reason and she saw the fires of vengeance roaring in the man’s eyes. She pushed back as she gasped and felt the hard cold slap of danger vibrating through her. Trying with all her might to get away, the brute rushed into the cottage and snatched her by the foot.
“Let me go,” she wailed as she kicked with all her might to get him off her.
The man laughed as he dragged her over the tall grass and leaned down. His strong fingers curled around her wrist and yanked her to her feet.
“Ye got some spirit in ye,” he said drawing her to his face. Cleopatra couldn’t help but notice his scruffy cheeks and strong jawline. His lips were full and when he spoke, they barely moved.
“Unhand me, brute!” Cleopatra demanded as she jerked her arm back only to have him hold onto her tighter.
“Where’s the Earl?” the man demanded as three others came around the house. Cleopatra glared at him, refusing to answer. His thick eyebrows arched as he pulled her out of the cottage and into the clearing.
“Answer me,” he said as Cleopatra scanned the other men circling her. Outnumbered, and with no place to run to, she glared defiantly at them.
“Release me and I’ll tell you,” she said in a near growl.
“Tell me and I’ll release ye,” he countered as the men around them chuckled.
“She’s got spirit,” the man to Cleopatra’s left said with a chuckle. “Those are always the best to tame.”
“Silence, Ronan,” the man said. “We came here for one thing, and I’ll be damned if I daenae get it,” Cleopatra’s captor said.
“I know you,” Cleopatra said. “You’re the Laird of Hanvale. What are you doing out this far?”
“That is a matter for the Earl,” he said with a smirk.
“What do you want from me?” Cleopatra asked as fear caused her blood to run cold.
“Ye? Nothin’. It is the Earl we want,” the Laird said. “Now, where is he?”
“In the manor, like he always is,” Cleopatra answered as the Laird eased his grip.
“Can she be trusted?” another man said slipping out from the shadows of the forest.
Cleopatra swallowed hard as she turned her attention to the new arrival.
“Are ye lyin’ to me lass?” the Laird asked with a rough shake.
“Why would I lie?”
“There are many reasons a person lies,” the other man said stepping closer as his fingers curled around the hilt of his sword.
“You don’t scare me,” Cleopatra said defiantly.
“Oh, really?” the Laird said as his smirk grew across his lips. “Ronan,” the Laird didn’t look to the men but held his gaze on Cleopatra. “Hold her. Wait for me signal. If I daenae come out in an hour, come for me. But one way or another, I’m gettin’ me son back.”
Ronan reached out and snagged Cleopatra from the Laird’s grip. Her mouth popped open as her eyes widened. Ronan’s glare was nerve racking. His dark brown eyes glared at her with an intensity she had only seen in her father. Ronan’s round face didn’t intimidate her despite his nostrils flaring.
“Please, run,” Ronan whispered. “I could use some entertainin’.” He tossed Cleopatra to the ground and towered over her.
“She’s nae to be harmed,” the Laird ordered. “Nae yet at least.”
“I’ll be waitin’ for yer signal,” Ronan said as Cleopatra turned her head to watch the Laird strut through the clearing, like he owned the place. The other men followed with the Laird leaving Cleopatra alone with Ronan.
“Please tell me what is going on here? Why have you come here?” Cleopatra asked as she scooted back. Ronan stepped closer and crossed his arms over his chest.
“At least tell me what my father has done to deserve your wrath,” Cleopatra asked, resting against the stone wall of the cottage.
“So many questions,” Ronan said rolling his eyes.
“Are you going to answer me?”
Cleopatra scanned Ronan from the top of his shaggy brown hair down to his toes. There was no doubt he was a warrior, through and through. Her heart pumped harder as she shook her head.
“Your Laird is going to be highly disappointed. My father will not give him what he wants. He is a stubborn man and will only see this as a threat. He bows to no man.”
“He’ll bow to us,” Ronan answered in his rough voice.
“No, he won’t. You do not know my father the way I do. This mission of yours is doomed. You should have never come here.” Cleopatra said as she glanced inside the cottage. Her father’s book rested in the tall grass like a stone. Shifting her weight, she inched closer to the cottage door.
“Where are ye goin’?” Ronan hissed as he stepped closer to her.
“May I get my book?” Cleopatra asked pointing to the book in the cottage. Ronan’s eyes narrowed a moment and he nodded. Instantly, Cleopatra rushed into the cottage and snatched the book off the ground. She brushed the dirt from the cover and stared at it.
“You know,” Cleopatra said. “Your Laird is not coming back. My father will throw him in the stocks before he reaches the study.”
“They’ll be back,” Ronan said.
“My father will not let them,” Cleopatra said as her eyes shifted to the shadows of the forest around her. “Do you hear that?”
Ronan shifted his head to listen.
Cleopatra bolted to the trees. Before she could reach the shadows, strong arms curled around her torso and pulled her back. She screamed as her feet left the ground.
“Are ye quite finished?” Ronan asked as Cleopatra kicked and squirmed. He hoisted her over his shoulder with ease.
“Let me go,” she pleaded as Ronan walked back to the clearing.
“That’s enough out of ye,” Ronan said as he dropped her to the ground. He pulled a small cord from his satchel and bound her hands. Before she could protest, Ronan pushed a small wad of cloth into her mouth.
“There. Now try and get away.”
“What do we do now?”
Jude glanced over his shoulder as he pulled the low hanging branch down to get a clear shot of the manor. He could feel the tension rising as he scanned the three-story stone building. Gray smoke drifted into the sky from the chimney, and he wondered where in the manor his son resided.
“Adam,” Jude called. The stocky man rushed to his Laird’s side and peered over his shoulder.
“Go and demand the Earl release my son. Tell him we have his daughter and are willin’ to exchange.”
Adam patted him on the shoulder and stepped out onto the green fairway. With his head held high, Adam strolled to the main door. Jude’s heart pounded in his chest. All his prayers went to his son in hopes that the boy was still alive.
It had been nearly three weeks since Jude had seen Hugh. In the back of Jude’s mind, he could still hear Paige’s frantic voice explaining how strangers approached them on the banks of the river and how quickly they scooped Hugh up and stole the boy from her.
Pursing his lips into a tight line, Jude tried to purge the thought that Hugh might be dead from his mind. He could not believe that the men who stole Hugh would kill him, but still, after so many dead ends trying to find Hugh, he didn’t want to get his hopes up that his search would end this day.
Squinting his eyes, he watched as Adam stepped through the front door and entered the lion’s den. All Jude and his men could do now was wait.
“Easy,” Jude said as he heard the rustling of branches behind him. “Let Adam deliver the message.”
“And if the messenger is killed?” Felix asked.
“We storm the manor and take back what they have taken from me. I counted only a handful of servants and nae many soldiers. Could be the Earl isnae as well funded as we were led to believe. Pray we have luck on our side and it willnae come to that,” Jude said with a hint of disgust in his tone.
Jude’s mind raced with many possibilities. His eyes shifted to the side door and wondered how many men stood guard at the entrance. As he calculated his next move, he noticed in the corner of his eye Adam rushing out of the door.
Jude watched as Adam weaved around the courtyard until he made his way to Jude and the rest of the men. Panting and gasping for air, Adam held his hand up. Jude tapped his foot impatiently until Adam regained his breathing.
“What news?” Jude asked holding onto Adam by the shoulders. Adam looked up from his dark bushy eyebrows and pointed.
“The Earl…he’s wantin’ to meet with ye,” Adam said.
“And me son? Any word of him?” Jude asked shaking Adam aggressively. Adam shook his head as he stood straighter.
“Nay word,” Adam said, “but the Earl has stated he will only speak with ye.”
“Is that so?” Jude lifted his head and glared at the manor. He scanned the windows. With no sign of movement, he questioned the Earl’s motives.
“Stay put,” Jude said. “I go alone.”
“Ye cannae do that,” Felix said reaching his hand out to stop him. “What if he demands ye for yer son? Then where will we be?”
“It doesnae matter to me. Hugh is the only priority. If I trade places, then ensure he gets back to the castle safely.” Jude turned his head and stared at Felix. Arching an eyebrow, he paused. Felix’s shoulders dropped as he shook his head.
“M’Laird, what if the girl was right, though? What if this is all a trap? We cannae in good consciousness let ye enter there alone.”
Jude turned his attention to Adam. “What did the Earl say exactly?”
Adam shrugged. “Just that he would speak with ye about the matter.”
“Did he mention anythin’ about comin’ with men?” Jude asked.
“Nay,” Adam answered. “Nothin’ about seein’ ye alone.”
“Then we go,” Felix answered with great enthusiasm.
“Nay,” Jude said holding his hand out to stop his men from giving away their position. “Go back to Ronan and check on the girl. I’ll go alone.”
“And if ye daenae come back out? What do we do with her?” Adam asked, glancing to Felix. A wicked grin drifted over Felix’s lips as he tapped the hilt of his sword.
“Keep her,” Jude said. “She may be of some use to us later.”
Without further hesitation, Jude stepped out of the shadows of the forest. He cleared his throat as he walked towards the manor. With each step he took, he felt his chest tighten. Keeping his eyes peeled, he searched for any signs of danger.
Stepping up to the oak door, he paused with his hand raised. Before he could crash his knuckles to the door, it opened for him. A stout man with beady eyes smiled at him and bowed.
“Laird of Hanvale, do come in,” the man said. “What brings you here this day?”
“Ye ken very well why I’m here,” Jude snapped. “Where’s me son?”
“The Earl is waiting for you in the study. Please follow me,” the servant said as he turned and walked through the grand entrance.
Jude’s eyes widened as he scanned the open space. His heart tightened as he looked about. Several servants peeked around the corners to get a look at him. Each had the same desperate expression on their face that caused Jude’s heart to quicken.
“Here we are,” the servant said opening double doors. Orange light spilled out of the room as Jude stepped in. The heat from the roaring fire slapped his face as he hesitated at the door. Shifting his eyes to the two large armchairs near the fire, he spotted the thin man with a hooked nose and gray hair.
Slowly, the man stood and arched an eyebrow as Jude entered. His footsteps echoed in the large room filled with books and a reddish-brown desk in the corner of the room.
“Ah, you must be the Laird of Hanvale,” the man said rising to his feet. “I’m the Earl of Wintersmith. What may I do for you today?”
“Where is he?” Jude demanded reaching for his sword. The Earl shook his head and extended his hand.
“And who are you speaking about?”
“Ye have me son, where is he?” Jude said as his fingers tightened around the hilt of his sword.
“There is no need for violence,” the Earl said. “I will give you what you asked for as soon as you tell me who your son is,” the Earl said.
“I was told ye have a young boy, nae older than nine. Are ye tellin’ me there’s nae such a person here?”
The Earl rubbed his chin as Jude watched the wheels turn in his head. “I see. There is such a boy in my care. I was told to protect him from his father. Clearly,” the Earl turned to face Jude, “you are now here to collect him. Well, I must confess, I’m pleased not to have to deal with him any longer. I could barely understand a word the boy spoke.”
“Excuse me?” Jude stepped back as if the Earl had struck him.
“Your son was found on my doorstep weeks ago,” the Earl explained as he moved closer to Jude. Stepping back, Jude refused to let the Earl get any closer to him.
“Me son was taken,” Jude scowled.
“Not by me,” the Earl gasped. “I have enough problems without having to care for another mouth to feed.”
“Then why did ye take him in?” Jude asked.
“I was told to protect him from his father,” the Earl answered. “But clearly, that information was false. If you want your son, then take him. It is of no consequence to me.”
The Earl snapped his finger as his attention shifted to the servant still standing in the doorway. The beady eyed man nodded once and took off in a flash. Jude’s heart raced as he waited. He didn’t dare get his hopes up as his men’s warnings seeped through the cracks of his mind.
Each moment that passed, Jude grew more and more impatient. He whipped his head around to face the Earl.
The Earl smiled at him and lifted a glass as Jude’s ears perked. The soft patter of feet racing down the hard wooden floors caused his heart to swell.
“Hugh?” Jude gasped as his son turned the corner and ran into his father’s arms.
“Faither,” the boy cried. Jude dropped to his knees and took the child into his arms.
“I cannae believe it,” Jude said as he squished his son to his chest. “Are ye all right? Did they hurt ye?”
“Nay, faither,” the boy said. Jude pulled away and stared into his son’s golden-brown eyes. Tears streamed down the boy’s cheeks as he curled his small arms around his father’s neck. With his son in his arms, Jude rose to his feet.
“Thank ye,” Jude said holding on tight to his son.
“Think nothing of it,” the Earl said with a wry smile.
“I shall have me men release yer daughter now,” Jude said turning his attention back to his son. Although the boy looked a bit under the weather, and disheveled, all seemed well with him.
“My daughter?” the Earl chuckled. “I was not aware she was missing. It matters not, keep her.”
“What?” Jude dropped his eyes from his son and stared at the Earl with his mouth open.
“You heard me,” the Earl said taking his seat in front of the fire. “She is a loathsome thing. A burden really.”
“Nay child is a burden,” Jude hissed as he cupped his hand around his son’s head and held him tighter.
“Once you have her long enough, you may see it differently. She is incapable of doing anything right. She is a waste of space. I would have put her out long ago, but I swore to keep her. But now, you can have her,” the Earl raised his glass to Jude. “I won’t even ask for payment for her. Mind you, she is a slick and cunning thing.”
“Why are ye tellin’ me this?” Jude asked, slowly lowering his son to the ground and taking his small hand in his.
“Does it really matter?” the Earl asked keeping his eyes locked on the fire burning and spitting in the fireplace. “She has outgrown her usefulness and I have no reason to keep her.”
“But she is yer daughter,” Jude said glancing to his son. The little boy looked up to him and raised his narrow eyebrows.
“Yes, but she is no longer my burden. Now leave,” the Earl said. “Go in peace, for I have no quarrels with you, sir.”
Jude tilted his head. He knew his mission: retrieve his son at all costs. Now that his young Hugh was safe with him, there was no reason to retaliate. Turning on his heels, Jude started toward the door with Hugh in tow.
“Faither?” Hugh whispered. “Are we goin’ home now?”
“Aye, son, we’re goin’ home,” Jude answered as he winked at his boy. With his heart filled with joy at having his son returned to him, Jude couldn’t help but wonder if this really was the last time that he would see the Earl. There was something that just didn’t sit right with him. Yet he knew, now was not the time to address such issues. He hoped and prayed it would be, but the nagging in the back of his mind wouldn’t let him rest.
With his heart overflowing with joy and love, he scooped Hugh up and walked out of the study.
Perhaps there is somethin’ more goin’ on here than meets the eye. Best keep me eye peeled. And what am I to tell the girl?
Jude’s happiness was quickly swept away as he thought of his prisoner. He didn’t know what he was going to do with her. It was apparent her father didn’t want her by his harsh words. Yet, there was something about her that pricked his heart.
She is a beauty for sure, but should I let her go back to such a man? What would that say about me?
Swallowing the lump forming in his throat, Jude gave a sharp nod. He knew exactly what he was going to do. Although, he wasn’t so sure how the girl was going to take it. Glancing to his son, he flashed a small smile.
“Everythin’ all right, faither?” Hugh asked as he looked up with his big puppy dog eyes. Jude nodded as they crossed the threshold and stepped out into the sunlight.
The fog from the morning had lifted and it seemed as if a brand-new day had quickly replaced the worry and fear with hope.
“Aye,” Jude said as they rushed to the tree line. Adam and Felix’s eyes widened as smiles drifted over their lips. They dropped to their knees and threw their arms around Hugh the moment the young boy was within reach.
“Thank the heavens for this,” Adam said. “Ye had us so worried.”
Hugh smiled at them and turned to glance back to Jude. Jude moved with purpose as he glanced at each of his men.
“We go,” Jude said. “And quickly, lest we spark the ire from the Earl. We are unprotected so far from the castle and we must make haste.”
Just a little bit more. Come on now…why is this not working?
Cleopatra glared at Ronan as she rubbed her wrists against the brittle boulder Ronan had set her against. Although she had no clue if her stunt would work, she knew she had to try everything in her power to get free. Her eyes flicked to the tree line and the sun kissed the canopy. It wasn’t even afternoon yet, but the sky seemed darker.
Little by little the rope around her wrists started to give. It was only a matter of moments before the line would snap, but she still didn’t have a plan in place of where to go. Ronan had already snatched her once before, proving he could outrun her. Cleopatra’s eyes shifted to the nook in the tree to her left. It wasn’t a big hole, but one she was certain she could fit in to hide from him if she needed to.
Cleopatra froze. She whipped her head round and peered through the trees.
The Laird and his men had pushed through the branches. Trailing behind them, Cleopatra noticed the young child. Her heart jumped for joy as she grunted and squirmed with delight, falling to her side. Ronan shifted his eyes to her for a second and shook his head.
“Stay put,” Ronan said as he walked to the others. “M’Laird,” he glanced to the boy. “I see ye found yer son. He looks well taken care of.”
“Aye, we were lucky,” the Laird said as he glanced over Ronan’s shoulder to find Cleopatra on the ground. “What happened here?”
“She tried to escape,” Ronan hissed.
“Untie her,” the Laird demanded. “Now.”
Ronan nodded sharply as he moved swiftly to Cleopatra. Pulling his sword from its sheath, he snapped the ropes around her wrists. Immediately, Cleopatra pulled the gag out of her mouth and gasped. She sat up and scooted back as Ronan glared at her. Rubbing her wrists, she looked to her captor.
“Ye have what ye came for, now let me go,” she said.
The Laird’s shoulders rose and fell as he took in a deep breath. She noticed the struggle in the Laird’s eyes. He cleared his throat and shook his head.
“Yer faither…” the Laird paused as he glanced to the boy before pausing. “Ye’re comin’ with us.”
“What?” Ronan and the others said in unison with Cleopatra. All eyes were on the Laird as tears began to pool in Cleopatra’s eyes.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “You got what you came for. Please, just let me go home.”
The Laird walked over to her. Towering over her, she tried not to reveal just how terrified she really was. In the back of her mind, she realized the only way to get free from them was to run away. She would have to wait. At the moment there were far too many of them surrounding her. Her heart sank as she glared up to the Laird.
“Get up,” he ordered. “We have a long journey ahead of us.”
Cleopatra crossed her arms over her chest and whipped her head away from him. If he were going to take her, she wouldn’t make it easy. The Laird reached down and grabbed her by the arm. His tight grip stung her arm as he hoisted her to her feet.
“Daenae make me force ye to go,” he warned. “Ye’re comin’ with us. But as long as ye corporate, nay harm will come to ye. On that ye have me word.”
“And how long will I be in your care?” Cleopatra asked as she felt her chest tighten.
“That is up to yer faither,” the Laird said. “But until he makes good on his promise, yer mine. And I expect ye to keep yer own.”
Cleopatra kept her eyes on him as the man named Ronan stepped closer to him. In hushed tones, Cleopatra could hear Ronan’s concern.
“Jude, are ye sure ye ken what ye’re doin’? The girl is of nay importance.”
“Aye,” Jude said shifting his eyes back to Cleopatra. She felt her heart flutter as Jude’s eyes fell on her. There was something about the way he held her gaze that rattled her. “And she will keep her own, willnae ye, lass?”
With her lip trembling, Cleopatra nodded sharply. Ronan moved to her and stood beside her as the Laird pushed through the shrubs. Ronan grunted and nodded to the dense forest. Twisting his head to face her once more, Ronan curled his arm around her waist.
“Let me be,” she screamed kicking and squirming to get free from his grip. Ronan struggled to restrain her, and she slipped out.
Cleopatra took off for the cottage. She knew she only had one shot at escaping, but as she glanced behind her to see where her captor was, her foot rammed hard against something. Losing her momentum, she plunged into the tall grass as a roar of laughter filled the space around her.
“Get up,” Ronan demanded as he moved to her. Towering over her, Cleopatra rolled onto her back and stared up at him. She shook her head.
“I said get on yer feet.” Ronan’s eyes narrowed as he leaned down and plucked her from the grass and tossed her like a bag of grain over his shoulder. Thrashing in his arms, she knew she wouldn’t get loose again. His arm tightened around her crushing the air from her lungs.
“Enough,” Jude said. “Ye willnae be doin’ that again.”
As Ronan carried her back to Jude over his shoulder, a plot began to form in her mind. It struck her like lightning, and she lifted her head trying to gaze the distance back to her father’s house unaware of the low hanging branch that crashed against her head.
The throbbing of her head was nothing compared to that of her heart. As her home slowly drifted out of view, she realized there would be no one coming for her.
If my Father made a deal with the Laird, surely, he will come for me. Perhaps waiting is the best option. But what if my Father does not come? What if he is letting me go to these brutes? Then what?
As different scenarios played out in her mind, Cleopatra felt the cold sting of tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Careful with her. Fetch the horses,” Jude said as Ronan swung Cleopatra around. Her eyes widened to see a group of men camped at the forest’s edge. “We leave at once.”
“Where will she ride?” Ronan asked, tilting his head to Cleopatra. Jude’s eyes narrowed.
“Bind her to my horse,” Jude said. “She can walk until she tires. Maybe then some of that fire will be put out.”
Ronan dropped her hard to the ground and secured her hands. Cleopatra couldn’t help but feel despair as she watched the men gather their supplies.
“Daenae go anywhere,” Ronan smirked as he tied the rope to the horse.
Suddenly, it was as if all the hope had drained from her body as they started on the journey. She looked up to Jude who had his son riding in front of him. The boy’s gaze was filled with pity, but she wouldn’t have a single ounce of it.
She whipped her head to the side as the horse pulled her arms, forcing her to walk. Trying not to give into her weariness, she stumbled along as they crossed the northern border of her father’s realm.
By the way the trees twisted from the wind and the chill in the air, she knew they had traveled further than she had ever dared to go.
“If ye were a lady, I might offer ye a horse, but I fear ye’d just take off with it and I cannae have that,” Jude said. His voice was muffled by the wind. “Yet if ye swear to me ye’ll behave, I’ll let ye ride for a wee bit,” Jude said.
For a moment, Cleopatra thought of not answering. In the core of her being she wished to make the journey as complicated for them as it was for her, yet her leg muscles burned, and her arms ached from being stretched out for so long. She didn’t know if she had it in her to keep going on in such a manner.
“Fine,” she grumbled.
“That is nae swearin’ to me, lass,” Jude said. “Ye’ve walked a long way already and I ken ye’re tired.”
“I swear,” she snapped. “Is that what you want to hear?”
“Aye, that will do,” Jude said as he pulled the reins of his horse. The caravan behind them eased to a stop.
“What is it?” Ronan asked riding hard to Jude’s side.
“Take Hugh,” Jude said helping his son off his horse. “The girl will ride with me.”
“Ye sure ye want to do that?” Ronan asked flashing a malicious glance to Cleopatra.
“The fire is out of her,” Jude said as he slipped off the horse and moved to Cleopatra. She glared at him as he took her by the wrists and walked her to the side of the horse.
“Up ye go,” Jude said helping Cleopatra onto the steed. Terror rippled through her as she clung to the horse’s mane. Jude slipped behind her with ease and took the reins. Her heart fluttered feeling Jude’s body heat pouring on to her back side.
She became very aware of Jude’s arms as they circled around her. Once Jude kicked his heel into the horse’s side, Cleopatra found her balance off.
“Easy there,” Jude said in her ear. “Wouldnae want ye fallin’ from this height. Ye might hurt yerself and then where would we be?”
“Why did you take me?” Cleopatra asked as she felt his hot breath on her neck.
“Ransom,” Jude answered.
“My father will not pay it, no matter how cheap the price,” she said. “He is not like you. He’d rather see my body in a ditch than pay for me to come home.”
“Are ye so certain of that lass?” Jude asked.
If only you knew my Father and knew what he was like, you wouldn’t ask or demand such things.
She lifted her head up and looked into the sky. The light baby blue sky had been masked with gray clouds. A chill in the wind caused her to shudder as she pulled her hand down. The company wasn’t far ahead, but she noticed the trail they were on weaved up the mountain.
“Are we going up there?” Cleopatra asked as fear began to solidify within her.
“Tis nae as bad as it seems,” Jude said as he looked past her.
Cleopatra shifted her attention to the company of men. They had stopped and were waiting for them to catch up. Pressing her lips into a tight line, Cleopatra felt the horse begin to climb the slope of the mountain. Her body pressed into Jude’s. Trying with all her might not to touch him, it became clear struggling was futile.
She leaned forward and closed her eyes. The only solace she had was knowing if the horse fell, she wouldn’t be the only one injured. Slowly the path before them leveled and Cleopatra exhaled the air she had trapped in her lungs.
“We will camp here tonight and lead the horses through the pass come first light,” Jude said over his shoulder. Cleopatra wasn’t sure if she was relieved to have stopped, or if it was merely that the first terror had passed and more was coming.
“Come now,” Jude said slipping off the horse. He reached his arms out to her. Hesitating, she released her grip on the horse’s mane and slid down into Jude’s outstretched arms.
As her foot touched the ground, she stumbled on a rock and her body flew into Jude. He stepped toward her and cradled her in his arms. Cleopatra gasped as she felt his warm body pressing so tightly against hers. She was not expecting him to be so strong, yet as her fingers pressed into his skin, she felt the firmness of his muscles. Her mouth parted as she gazed up at him feeling a flush of fire burning under her skin.
“Forgive me,” she said pushing away from him as her heart pounded relentlessly in her ears. Glancing down, she chewed her lower lip as she felt her nerves rattle deep within her. She wasn’t certain if she was more embarrassed by tripping and falling into him, or touching his firm chest and allowing herself to find pleasure in his embrace.
“Ye’re all right,” he said brushing her hair from her face. Cleopatra glanced up at him for a moment before lowering her eyes. “See?”
Cleopatra’s eyes widened as she scanned the area. Tall, mangled trees were scattered across the sloping plains. The yellow grass swayed in the wind as the clouds rolled over the top of the jagged mountains. A tiny stream cut through the grass and flowed from the base of the mountain.
“Here,” Jude said pushing a jug into Cleopatra’s hands. “Fetch water for me men.”
“But–” Cleopatra started only to have him turn his back on her before she could finish.
“Adam, go with her. Make sure she doesnae get into trouble,” Jude said as he snapped the branches from the ragged tree and tossed them to the ground.
“Keep yer eyes on her,” Ronan shouted. “She’s crafty. Wouldnae want her to slip out of yer hands.”
“We’re sleeping here?” Cleopatra asked looking around.
“Nay,” Adam said moving to her. “Over there.” He pointed to the boulders stacked behind her. Cleopatra’s eyes widened as she noticed the small nook between the rocks. “Now let’s fetch that water.”
Cleopatra moved carefully over the jagged rocks as she followed Adam to the river. The crashing of water against the bank of the river startled her. As soon as she was at the ledge, panic crushed her. What she thought was a smooth-running river was in fact raging and racing down the valley floor. Whitewash spit up at her. Wiping the cold water from her face, she glanced at Adam.
“How am I to do this?” Cleopatra asked, too scared to dip the jug in for fear of falling. She didn’t know how to swim and the thought of being slammed against the rocks wasn’t something she was looking forward to.
“Just dip the jug in,” Adam said shrugging. “Surely ye’ve fetched water before.”
“Yes, but in calmer waters,” Cleopatra said as she began chewing on her lower lip.
“Same thing nay matter where ye go,” Adam said as he extended his hand to her. “Here, let me show ye.”
Cleopatra handed him the jug and watched as Adam dropped to the ground and rested on his stomach. He reached the jug out and dunked it into the freezing waters. In a matter of seconds, he pulled the jug up and sat it on the bank next to him.
With a huge grin stretching over his lips, he got to his feet. “See? Nae so bad.”
“Looks easy enough,” Cleopatra said. Her mouth dropped and her eyes widened as she watched Adam dump the water from the jug back into the river.
“Now ye try,” he said handing her the empty jug.
“Why did you do that? It was full.”
“Aye, but how are ye to learn unless ye do it yerself? Now, give it a go. I’ll hold yer feet,” Adam said as Cleopatra moved the bank. She looked down at the raging waters. Slowly, she dropped the jug to the ground and knelt down. Glancing over her shoulder, she looked to Adam. He nodded as he smiled at her.
“Go on then,” he said. “The Laird is thirsty.”
Cleopatra stretched out onto her stomach and grabbed the jug from beside her. Holding onto the jug with all her might, she dunked it into the water. The jug filled in a matter of seconds and she struggled to keep her grip on it. Mustering all her strength, she pulled the jug out of the waters and sat it down beside her.
With her arm muscles burning, she dropped her head and sucked in the deep breaths.
“Well done,” Adam said clapping. “Now, let’s get this back to the Laird.”
Rising to her feet, Cleopatra reached down for the jug. Her arms shook as she carried the heavy jug back over the rocks. Dropping the jug at the foot of the cave, Cleopatra realized the cold didn’t bother her anymore. She peered into the cave. The men all looked to her with huge smiles.
“Well, are ye comin’ in?” Jude asked as he rose from the small fire and walked to her. He glanced at her and picked the jug up. “It will be dark soon and I wouldnae want to be out here unprotected.”
“If you’re trying to scare me, it will not work,” Cleopatra said. “There is nothing out here that can hurt me.”
“Ye say that now, but when ye see the beady eyes of the Kelpie, ye’ll be rushin’ in here for sure,” Jude said with a wink. Cleopatra glanced around. She had heard tales of the monstrous beast and her rational mind thought nothing of it, until that very moment. The light of the sun slowly faded as the clouds blocked out the light.
A chill ran up her spine causing her to shutter. She stepped into the cave to get out of the frosty breeze. It surprised her how much a small fire could heat the area. As she walked closer to the group, the men looked at her.
“Thank ye for fetchin’ the water,” Ronan said.
“Aye, thank ye,” the others said as the jug was passed around to each of them. Cleopatra moved to the outskirts of the circle and sat beside the cave wall. Although the fire warmed her a bit, she wished to be closer.
“There’s plenty of room by the fire,” Jude said as he tapped her on the shoulder. “Come sit with us.”
“You want me to sit with you?”
Jude shrugged and looked to the men. “Aye. It’ll be gettin’ colder and I daenae think ye’ll be wantin’ to get sick.”
Stunned by his request, Cleopatra shifted closer to them but kept her distance. She had always been the outcast in her father’s house. Never in all her years had her father asked her to sit with him or share the fire.
“Cleopatra?” A young voice caught her attention. She turned her head to find the boy sitting close to Jude.
“Yes?” she answered shifting her eyes to the men around her. The boy got up and moved to her. She scooted closer to the wall as she kept her eyes locked on him.
“I’m Hugh,” the boy said.
The name sounded familiar. She had heard of the servants speaking of a boy that had been brought into the manor, but never laid eyes on him before. After all, her father kept her hidden well away. Even when she managed to escape to the ruins and dashed through the manor, she never laid eyes on him. For all she knew, Hugh was nothing more than a bit of gossip. Although, she did harbor pity for the young boy. After all, he was as much a prisoner in her father’s house as she was.
Cleopatra looked to the small hand extended out to her. Hesitating, she waited for a clue as to what to do. She had been so used to not being paid any attention that to have someone come to sit with her frightened her.
“Ye ken ye can sit closer,” Hugh said with a little smile. “My faither may be rough, but he and his men daenae bite.”
“I hope not,” Cleopatra said as Hugh shifted his eyes to his hands.
“Ye ken, I’ve seen ye skirtin’ the shadows of yer faither’s house.”
“I’m afraid I did not see you,” Cleopatra said.
“Aye, they put me up as a servant. Suppose ye wouldnae have seen me much, if at all. But, ye daenae have to sit here all alone. Come, warm yerself by the fire.”
“I…I do not understand,” Cleopatra said.
“We arenae as bad as ye think. I promise.”
A small smile drifted over Cleopatra’s lips and she nodded. “No, I do not think you are.”
“But ye’re missin’ home, arenae ye?” Hugh asked finally bringing his eyes to meet hers. She nodded. Although she wasn’t welcomed at her home, it was the only place she had to go to. It was where she grew up and that kind of tie doesn’t snap easily.
“When I was taken, I too missed home. I thought I’d never see it again. But here I am, me faither came for me, just as I ken yer faither will come for ye.”
“Hugh,” Jude’s voice shocked the boy and he whipped his head around. “Ye need to rest. We all do. The day will come early and we still have a long way to go.”
“Aye, faither,” Hugh answered as he turned back to Cleopatra. With a smile, the boy patted Cleopatra on the shoulder. “Night then.”
“Good night, Hugh,” Cleopatra said as she turned her attention to the opening of the cave. Her heart sank as she realized they had traveled further from her home than she had expected.
Now how am I going to get back? I don’t even know which way to go. I should have paid better attention to the trail. But if I don’t go now, I’ll never be able to find my way back home.
No, it has to be tonight. No matter what, I know I’ll find my way home. I have to.
A clap of thunder rolled overhead as a flash of light streaked across the dark sky. Her heart sank as the sky opened and poured down water. All her brilliant plans to escape washed from her. She scooted to the ground and rolled over.
Across the burning coals, she noticed Jude’s eyes on her. Her heart quickened. For a moment she wished she could read his mind to know what he was thinking. Uncertainty filled her as she wondered if he could predict her next moves, though his gaze held no malice, it was more of a smolder that seemed to seep into her very soul.
She pulled in a quick gulp of air as the sparks of the fire flickered above the flames as though he were casting a spell on her. Swallowing the lump forming in her throat, she felt her cheeks begin to burn. Unsure if the flames came from within her, or if she felt flushed from the fire, she rolled over.
In the back of her mind, she knew Jude was still watching her. She could feel his eyes on her as she allowed a smile to play on her lips while watching the shadows dance on the wall.
With the rain pelting the cave, Cleopatra knew if she was to flee, this would be the time to do it. Although she wasn’t sure of the way back, she would at least have a chance. If she waited any longer, the way would be even more treacherous.
As the hours passed and the sound of the rain drew her to sleep, she fought to remain awake. She rolled over to the other side and scanned the faces of those around her. The low snores gave her the confidence she needed to move. Pulling in a deep breath, she inched her way to the opening.
The cold frigid rain pelted her face as she got to her feet. Stealing one last look at the cave and its inhabitants, she gathered her courage. Without further hesitation, she stepped out into the stormy night.
Did you like this preview? Please, don't forget to leave me a comment below!
Want to read how the story ends?
Highlander's Wicked Temptation is live on Amazon now!