Originally published: 07/02/13
Chrechte wolf shifter Caelis turned his back on his human lover Shona so that he could remain loyal to his pack. Six years later, he thinks she’s dead. He’s wrong…
After being rejected by Caelis, Shona was forced to marry an English baron. Now she’s on the run from the deceased baron’s heir. Determined to protect her children, she heads north to Balmoral Island, to the only family she has left. And runs into the one man she never wants to see again—and the only one who might be able to save her.
As powerful and charismatic as ever, Caelis has been charged with saving his pack from the corrupt laird ruling them. This time, however, he refuses to abandon his sacred mate. He lost Shona once and swears he will never be separated from her again. Passion and love urge Shona to join him. But she has to wonder if she truly comes before the pack, or if nothing has changed at all…
“Fast-paced and sensual.” —Booklist
“A Perfect 10!” —Romance Reviews Today
“Monroe draws stunningly evocative images…This engaging tale is utterly captivating from start to finish.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Longtime fans of Monroe’s Children of the Moon novels will be transported to a familiar world in this fifth installment.”
—RT Book Reviews
“It is a great story about a lost love that is found again. Ms. Monroe weaves a world that is filled with different types of shifters with humans none the wiser.”
—4.5/5 reviewer top pick Night Owl Reviews
To abandon one’s sacred mate is to abandon one’s very soul. – Chrechte Sacred Law, from the oral traditions.
Sinclair Holding, Highlands of Scotland
1150, Reign of Dabíd mac Maíl Choluim, King of Scots
“Mummy, they’re giants!”
It wasn’t her son’s excited shout that sent a shard of pain spiking through Shona’s head, but the sight of soldiers wearing the Sinclair colors approaching at speed on horses every bit as oversized as they were.
And not a one of them was smiling in welcome either.
The headache had arrived with the large brown wolf that had paced them for the better part of the morning. Only the pounding in her head hadn’t left when the beast did.
Terrified the animal would attack, she’d ridden tense in her saddle with a dagger to the ready. However, it had maintained its distance, finally running off just before the noon sun cast its shadow.
Her mind and senses already stretched to the point of exhaustion with what had come before this journey, the appearance of the wolf had pushed Shona that much nearer collapse.
But she would not give up. Her children’s lives and those of two loyal friends depended on Shona maintaining both sanity and composure.
So, she had taken her daughter back onto her horse from where little Marjory had ridden with Shona’s companion, Audrey, and continued on.
Shona had hoped her luck would hold, as it had miraculously for nearly two sennights of their mad dash north, but it was not to be.
They’d reached Sinclair land late the night before, managing somehow to both evade anyone her stepson may have sent after them and avoid the inhabitants of the clan territories she and her small band had passed through.
She had no trouble understanding how her five year old son had mistaken the approaching soldiers for giants. Like some of the men from her former clan, these Highlanders would easily stand a head taller, and half again as wide, as any knight who had sworn allegiance to her dead husband.
Considering what was behind her, Shona could wish that these men were of the clan she’d come north to seek refuge with, but she had no friends or family among the Sinclairs. And they weren’t likely to take kindly to what they would perceive as an Englishwoman trespassing without leave on their land.
Perhaps the laird would approve safe passage through his lands, if only to get rid of her and her companions. She could but hope.
She had to make her way to Balmoral Isle.
It was the only chance they had at safety, her one hope to preserve her son’s life and her own virtue. Or what was left of it.
There, she had family, at least. Though the relation was somewhat distant and she’d no doubts her arrival would come as something of a shock. She could but pray it was not a wholly unwelcome one.
“They’re not giants, sweeting, merely warriors of the clan that makes these lands their home.” Shona tried to infuse confidence in her tone, while her own mind screamed with warnings and worries.
“Really?” Eadan asked, eyes the same gentian blue of his father’s filled with awe.
“These are Highland warriors?” Audrey asked before Shona had the chance to affirm her assertion to her son. “They’re huge.”
“‘Tis the way of the Highlands, I suppose.” And some among the clans that bordered the Highlands as well, like the one in which she’d grown up.
Audrey gave her twin brother a sideways look. “Perhaps you’ve got more growing to do, but I don’t think you’ll reach their stature, even so.”
Thomas looked chagrined. “You don’t know that.”
Shona couldn’t imagine why they were speculating at all. Thomas was English, just like his sister, children of a lesser baron whose holding bordered her dead husband’s on the west and only a few miles from land claimed by Scotland’s king.
Audrey and Thomas no longer had a home to return to, not since their eldest brother had taken over the barony.
Shona’s sleeping daughter stirred in her arms and she looked down to see pretty green eyes surrounded by a halo of red curls a match to her own blinking up at her. “Mama, is there giants?”
At three, Marjory was as different as night from day from her five year old brother. Petite like Shona and quite spoken (which was not so much like her mother at all), Marjory adored the older brother who was big for his age and confident to the point of brashness.
So like his father it made Shona’s heart ache, though she’d never let them see it.
“They’re the laird’s guard come to greet us,” she claimed, her voice maintaining a shocking steadiness despite the blatant lie she’d just told.
One look from her two adult companions left her in no doubt they weren’t fooled by her words. But neither of her children were frightened and that was what mattered.
Shona simply had to believe that the Sinclair was a better man than some that had been in her life. His reputation as a fierce but fair leader even as far south as England had led to her choice to travel on his lands instead of taking a more circuitous route to her final destination.
They rode for another ten minutes before meeting up with the Sinclair warriors.
Shona halted her horse and the rest of her party followed suit.
“Who are you and what are you doing on our land?” Though the big warrior’s words were abrupt and his demeanor nothing less than fierce, Shona felt no fear.
Something about the man speaking made her think he would not hurt them. Perhaps it was the flash of concern in his eyes when he looked at her children. The Sinclair soldier would have been devastatingly handsome but for the garish scar on his cheek, but Shona felt no draw to him.
She had only ever wanted one man in her life, despite having been married to another. And that had not changed. Nor did she believe it ever would. However, she did not lament her lack of interest in the opposite sex.
They could not be trusted and she was better off keeping what was left of her heart for her children and her children alone.
“I am Shona, Lady Heronshire, seeking safe passage through your laird’s lands to visit my family on Balmoral Isle.” The words were formal, but she spoke them in flawless Gaelic…her native tongue.
“Did you get that scar in a fight?” Eadan asked before the warrior had an opportunity to reply to Shona’s words.
Audrey gasped, but Shona just sighed. Her son had no cork for the things that came out of his mouth.
The fierce warrior’s attention moved to her five-year-old and he studied Eadan closely for several long moments, with Shona growing increasingly nervous with each passing one. Why such an interest in her son?
Surprise flared briefly in his grey gaze before it narrowed in inexplicable speculation. “I did. Do you ride as protector of your mother?”
Shona didn’t understand the man’s reaction to her son, unless it was to the fact that such a small English child spoke Gaelic so well. She’d spoken to both her children in her native tongue since their births and they each communicated equally well in Gaelic and English.
Just as she did.
Her son mayhap even better than she did as his grasp of English exceeded her own, despite her years living in that country.
Eadan puffed up his little boy chest and did his best to frown like the warriors in front of them. “I do.”
“You sound like a Scot, lad, but you dress like a Sassenach.”
“What’s a sassy patch?” Marjory whispered from her perch in Shona’s lap.
“An Englishman,” the big warrior answered, with a barely there smile for her daughter’s interesting pronunciation of the word, proving he’d heard the quietly uttered question.
“Oh.” Pop, Marjory’s thumb went into her mouth. It was a habit Shona and Audrey had worked hard to break her of, but the little girl still sucked her thumb when she was overly tired or nervous.
After two weeks of grueling travel and coming upon men who looked more like giants than soldiers, the tot was no doubt both. Shona sighed again.
This brought the big man’s attention back to her. “I am Niall, second-in-command to the Sinclair laird. My men and I will accompany you to the keep.”
“Thank you.” What Shona really wanted to say was, thank you but no.
She’d rather head directly for the island. She was tired of traveling and she wasn’t going to feel safe until she’d gotten the Balmoral laird’s promise of protection for her and her small band.
However, to refuse the hospitality of the other laird would not only be considered rude, but she’d no doubt they would end up traveling to the keep no matter what she might say on the matter.
She’d learned long ago that some things were beyond her control.
The keep was a fortress, far superior to that of the MacLeod holding where she’d grown up and even more formidable than that of her deceased husband. The high wall surrounding the laird’s home and guard towers was stone, though the buildings within were crafted mostly from wood.
The keep itself was on top of a motte, the manmade hill only accessible by a narrow path she just knew Niall was going to tell her they could not take their horses on. Even from this distance the keep looked big enough to easily accommodate fifty or more in the great hall. The imposing nature of the holding made her wish her family was of the Sinclair clan. She could do naught but hope the Balmorals lived equally as secure.
The bailey was busy with warriors and clanspeople alike, many of whom seemed interested in the new arrivals. And slightly suspicious, if the frowns she and her companion were receiving were anything to go by, but the overt hostility she might have expected toward those garbed as the English was surprisingly absent.
Niall stopped his horse and the warriors with him did as well. Shona guided her tired mare to a halt, so fatigued herself she was not absolutely sure she would make it off the horse without sending both herself and Marjory tumbling.
“Should we dismount then?” Audrey asked, her tone showing no more enthusiasm for the prospect than Shona felt.
Shona opened her mouth to answer, only to lose any hope she had of speaking as her gaze fell upon a warrior standing near the open area in front of the blacksmith’s. The man who was easily as tall and as broad as Niall, wore her former clan’s colors with no shirt beneath the MacLeod plaid to give him any hint of civility.
His back to them, his lack of interest in the English strangers was more than obvious.
But she could not claim the same apathy.
Not when every inch of his arrogant stance was as familiar to her as the mane on her mare’s head after a sennight spent in the saddle.
His black hair a little longer than it had been six years ago, the blue tattoos covering his left shoulder and arm a new addition, his muscles more bulging, but she had absolutely no doubt about the identity of the MacLeod soldier standing so confidently among the Sinclairs.
Caelis. Her beloved. Her betrayer.
Even the sound of his name in her own thinking made her heart beat faster and her hands tighten into fists.
Deceiver, screamed that voice in her mind that had never gone fully silent though she’d been forced to marry another man. Mine, cried the heart that had learned that neither love nor a lover could be trusted at this man’s feet.
She’d given him her love and her innocence.
He had repaid those gifts with false promises and ultimately repudiation.
She’d thought never to see him again, been certain that even her return to Scotland would not cause their paths to cross.
After all, she hadn’t gone home to her former clan and she’d been careful to avoid their lands in the journey northward. She’d no desire to come into contact with her former laird and even less her former swain.
How cruel of fate to dictate differently. To ensure that this man be in this place the one day out of time she would ever spend in the Sinclair keep.
The head of Shona’s mare jerked against her tightened hold on the reins and she knew gratitude that they were no longer moving. Holding the reins like that was one way guaranteed to get tossed from even a loyal horse’s back.
Marjory slept on, oblivious to the near miss, their new surroundings and to the cataclysm happening inside her mother.
As if Caelis could feel the weight of Shona’s regard, he turned. Slowly and with no evidence of curiosity, his gentian gaze slid over her, his expression dismissive as he took in her English clothing.
She could tell the moment he recognized her though, the very second he realized she was not just an Englishwoman, but a woman from his past.
He went rigid, his eyes widening with a shock so complete it would have been amusing if she were not so devastated at his appearance in her already turbulent life.
He went as if to take a step and stumbled.
How odd. He was a surefooted man. Perhaps one of the other warriors had tripped him. Men played games with each other like that.
Even as the nonsensical thoughts floated through her mind, fear screamed through her body. Caelis could not see Eadan. Her son could never know the man who had denied his very existence and rejected the woman he had professed to love.
They needed to leave. Now. The laird of the Sinclairs would simply have to do without the pleasure of making their acquaintance, her panicked mind insisted.
That thought alone gave her the strength to break her gaze from Caelis as she jerked her head around, her gaze shifting frantically in search of Eadan.
He was already on the ground, his hand held in Niall’s giant paw, a smaller man standing quite near to the huge warrior, talking to them both with an engaging smile.
Shona wanted to scream at them to please put her son back on his horse and then get out of her way. But no words left her lips. She could neither move, nor speak, her panic freezing her as stiff as death.
Even as her unreasoning need to escape tore through her, she knew it to be hopeless.
Even if she could make herself move, to cry out for Niall’s assistance in getting her son back on his horse, she and her companions would not be allowed to leave the Sinclair holding without seeing the laird. It had already been decided.
And as had happened too often in her past, Shona knew she was subject to the whims of men who held authority over her. This time, only by her trespass on his land, but that would not matter to the Sinclair laird.
He was a man with power.
He would demand to be obeyed.
‘Twas the way of things.
Hopelessness washed over Shona near to drowning her.
The boy was out of Caelis’ line of sight, but that gave Shona little comfort.
The warrior was bound to see her child soon and when he did? He would know the truth, no matter how much he might like to deny it.
But what he would do with that truth, she could not guess at. Nothing good for her. She’d discovered in the past six years, that men rarely made choices to benefit women.
But most particularly her.
Caelis had only been the first man in a long list in her life to exhibit this truth.
She looked down and saw that both Audrey and Thomas were there, standing beside Shona’s mare. Audrey’s hands were upraised to take Marjory so Shona could dismount.
When had they gotten off their horses?
“Are you all right?” Thomas asked, his tone clearly worried. Both he and Audrey wore matching expressions of concern. “We’ve said your name three times.”
“I…no…” she answered with honesty before she thought to control her tongue.
“What is it?” Suddenly Niall was there, having moved very quickly. “Lady Heronshire, do you need help dismounting?”
He reached up as well. “Give me the babe.”
Dropping the horse’s reins, Shona wrapped her arms around her daughter in a reflexive move of protection.
“Do not touch her.” The snarl came from behind Niall and then Caelis was there, shoving the other warrior away from Shona’s horse.
Niall spun on the other man, knocking him back and shouting. “The hell!”
“She’s mine,” Caelis growled, his voice so animal-like the words were barely discernible.
“Calm yourself,” Niall snapped, sounding less angry for some reason, though he didn’t back away. “The Englishwoman—”
“She is not English.”
“Do ye see how she is dressed? She is a lady, Caelis. Stop and think.”
But Caelis appeared beyond reason, his aggression not lessening one iota. And Shona did not understand it. In no scenario of this moment she might ever have imagined would she have considered him laying claim to her…or was it her daughter?
None of this made any sense.
Marjory chose that moment to awaken, squirming to sit up. “Mama! Want down.”
Caelis jerked as if pierced by an arrow, his gaze landing on the little girl in Shona’s arms. Some great emotion twisted his features, and then his blue eyes, so like their son’s, locked with hers, the accusation in them unmistakable.
She stared back, defiant, furious like she had not been since the night he told her it was over.
All the fear she’d felt over the past months, the anger she’d experienced at the perfidy of men since his betrayal six years ago, followed by treachery of others – her own dear father included, bolstered that fury so that if it were possible she would have burned him to ash with her gaze.
His head snapped back, surprise again showing on his handsome features, this time mixed with confusion.
If possible, his surprise made her even more livid. Did he think she had forgotten the way he had used and discarded her? Did he think she would no longer hold it against him?
More the fool him, if so.
She would never forget. She spent each day with a living reminder.
And what Caelis had to be confused about she did not know. Did he think that just because he didn’t want her that no other man would ever want to wed her?
“Mummy?” Eadan’s worried voice rose from where he stood beside Niall.
She needed to tell her son all was well, but could not look away from Caelis’ face as he got his first look of the son they had made.
The child he had told her would never happen.
She’d been naïve and believed him. She would never make that mistake again.