nly by using the intensity of her will did Isabel force out a few sounds to convince the man thrusting into her body that she enjoyed his touch and having his body in hers. Moaning again and tossing her head from side to side seemed to work, for he paused, holding his massive body still for a moment before she felt the hot spray of his seed within her. He collapsed on her, his weight forcing the breath from her lungs, but she waited before moving.
If she moved away too quickly, he might see her distaste and her need to leave. If she moved too slowly, he would fall asleep on her as he had before. When a few minutes had passed, she eased out from under him, the sweat on their skin making it possible to escape. Isabel slid to the edge of the pallet and dropped her legs over it to touch the floor. She tried to ignore the way they trembled and the bruises that formed in the shape of a man’s large handprint on her thigh as she reached for the remnants of her shift. Allowing herself to believe she could get away before he stirred, she made the biggest mistake—she hurried.
“Ah, sweetling,” he whispered as he placed his hand on her neck, tugging her back against him. “Your stepfather told no false tales when describing your skills.”
Isabel sat completely still, waiting for the man’s next word or action.
“Come back.” He pulled her to face him. “He is a man of his word.”
Seeing the proof of his arousal before her eyes, Isabel accepted the inevitable and let out a long breath, masking it as one of deep appreciation for the size of his maleness. “Lord Malcolm, I did not wish to disturb your rest.”
“Rest?” he asked, laughing in his deep voice as he pulled her face to his and kissed her. “I will rest when I am dead.”
Isabel began the silent ritual that allowed her to leave her body behind and hide behind a wall in her mind. He gave her no chance to resist or to stop, so she just let go, allowing her body to react as it would until he finished with her.
As the sun rose over Duntulm Keep, he finally slept soundly and Isabel dragged her body from his. Tugging her gown on and leaving behind the torn pieces of her chemise, she walked barefoot from the chamber, down the steps, and out through the back door, nodding to the guards who recognized her and allowed her through the gate.
Following the path to the south, she continued until she reached the narrow strip of beach below the walls of the keep. Though the sun’s light crawled up the sides of the keep, illuminating the flecks of quartz within the dark stones, the beach would remain shadowed for some time.
Time enough for her.
She dropped her shoes and stockings on the sand and pulled the gown and undertunic over her head. She tossed them down before she walked into the icy water. Only when she’d scrubbed the feel and smell of him from her skin would Isabel retreat from the icy water and return home.
Nay, not home, but the place where she lived now.
Home was the distant memories that kept her separate and her soul safe while her body was used to satisfy the desires of the men who fed the ambitions of her stepfather.
Home was where she had lived with her mother and younger sister, safe from the machinations of those who used anyone for their own success.
She sank under the surface, the cold water stinging her skin, until she could hold her breath no longer. She rose and then dipped once more, waiting for the icy chill to penetrate her limbs and remove all memory of the causes of her pain. The third time was the worst, for there was always a moment when her soul urged her to stay beneath the water and seek the comfort that its depths offered. Isabel could almost leave everything behind to seek that comfort, if not for the knowledge that the fate of her sister lay in her hands.
When that happened as it always did, she burst up from below, gasping and pulling air into lungs constricted by the freezing grasp of the water. Then, covered in gooseflesh but no longer Malcolm’s scent, she struggled back to the beach on legs so deadened by the cold they did not move easily. She was shivering so much that every breath was a fight. Shaking and shuddering with every step, Isabel wrung out her hair, tied it with a strip of leather and pulled her clothes over her trembling limbs.
Her stepfather would be waiting, ready to punish her sister for every moment Isabel delayed. He would demand the details of the tryst, his eyes smoldering with an unholy need as he poked and prodded until everything that had happened was laid bare before him. Any attempt to avoid his questions or hold back a detail would find him making threats about Thora’s future.
She is safe and well cared for, for now. . . .
When he was satisfied he knew all, he would nod and then go off to plan his next conquest, deciding to whom he would pimp out his whore of a stepdaughter as a token of appreciation or esteem, and she would be left to continue to live out the nightmare.
Isabel gathered her control, and put her hand on the latch. Letting out her breath, she searched for and found the sense of calm she needed when facing down the man who’d turned her life into hell on earth. Bowing her head as she entered, she never realized that someone watched her from high above on the ramparts of the keep’s tower.
An t-Eilean Sgitheanach (Isle of Skye) or
Skíô (as it was called by the Norse), 1098 AD
uncan, son of none, watched the storm grow from the window of his chambers at the very top of Duntulm Keep. It rushed across the Minch from the outer islands of Lewis and Harris toward those who lived on the rocky cliffside. They would all seek cover from the dangerous winds and lightning.
But he would not.
As the storm grew in size and ferocity, Duncan left his room and climbed to the roof, bracing himself against the stone wall that encircled the tower, and waited. The rumbling thunder warned him of the strength of the worsening storm and the first rain, blown by those winds, began to pelt him with drops as sharp as daggers.
He ripped open his tunic, baring his chest to the worst of it, waiting, praying he would feel the slicing rain cut his skin or sting his eyes.
He waited, not moving from the path of the rain and hail that tore at him. On and on it went, red welts appearing on his skin everywhere the hail or rain struck.
And still, he felt nothing.
The desperation he’d felt only weeks ago at the changes in his body and spirit was dull and he searched for the anger and pain that should be coursing through him. He found only a growing emptiness. Prepared to suffer the onslaught of the storm until he felt something, Duncan knew naught but someone with strong arms wrapped them around him and dragged him inside.
Though he could not feel the cold, it must have penetrated deep into his muscles, for he could neither resist nor help the efforts to get him out of the storm’s way. Soon he was flung onto a bed and his soaked garments were pulled from him.
His senses of pain, hunger, and any other feelings or needs were dulled, but his hearing was as good as ever. He heard every word and curse rained down on him by his manservant. Ornolf spared no insult to Duncan’s intelligence, his plans to kill himself, or his ability to follow instructions.
Duncan could not fight the strong trembling that shook his body—most likely from the cold. Ornolf fretted and fussed, pulling off the soaked layers of clothing and tossing them away, even as he layered blankets on top of his master.
“What did you hope to gain by that?” Ornolf asked his first actual question that had not been rhetorical.
Duncan tried to move, but his limbs refused to answer his mind’s commands. “I did not hope for anything, Ornolf. ’Twas simply a test.”
When Duncan did not explain more fully, Ornolf crossed his arms over his chest and glared down at him. “And, young master, what was the test?”
The ritual Duncan faced when the moon reached its fullest each month, allowed some unknown power to flow into him, to become him, and to heal those who were sick. He spent hours in agony as the cauterizing fire of the power burned out every feeling and sensation in his body, leaving him numb for days and days.
And he was . . . still.
He did not want to voice his purpose before he understood more about the changes happening within him. To put his fear into words made it real and he must find out the full extent of the changes before the next step could be taken.
But, even as he comprehended that the changes were dire ones, his body did not react with the customary rolling bile or nervousness. No, his heart continued to pump along at an even pace and his breathing changed not at all. Though he should feel frightened at the realization and wished he did, he was empty of all emotions.
Finally Ornolf gave up any attempt to get answers and went back to fussing and muttering under his breath. Duncan lay there empty of fear, empty of pain, completely empty, yet knowing he wanted to feel something.
. That had been the reason he’d stood out in the storm and let it inflict its worst on him.
It was hours before he could climb from the bed and hours more before his body stopped shaking. Ornolf shoved a bowl of steaming porridge into his hands, placed a cup of ale on the table, and left without another word. Tempted not to eat, for no hunger assailed him, Duncan realized another change as he scooped up a spoonful of the porridge.
Although he could taste every ingredient in the thick concoction, none of it appealed to him. The flavors of the oats, cream, butter, seasonings and even a dash of spirits rolled over his tongue with each spoonful, but it made no difference—he neither liked the taste nor disliked it. He drank from the cup—a well-aged ale, kept for his consumption as a gift from a wealthy benefactor, but it was nothing special, simply a liquid to wash down the thick porridge.
Had all his sensations been burned from him during the ritual? It seemed that when the fires in his body went out, everything else ceased, too. Would his senses return? Would he feel emotions again? Duncan realized he would have to wait. He would have to recuperate before he could discover the answer and the extent of the changes.
Days and nights marched on for nearly a week. Though the welts had long since disappeared, Duncan’s skin could not feel, his appetite had vanished completely, and the numbness in his soul and heart deepened.
When the moon reached half full, the familiar need returned. His scent poured out, bringing women to his door to fulfill some part of what he called “his curse.” Though no hot-blooded man would ever think having a never-ending stream of willing women at his beck and call was a bad thing, Duncan learned it was not necessarily a thing to be coveted. Endless need without satiation could lead to madness, and he feared that would be his fate.
Spring flowed into summer as the Norse king Magnus and his noblemen and warriors continued their travels throughout the western isles, fortifying their allies and smiting their enemies. When they moved south to deal with the Welsh and to bargain with the Scots king, Skye quieted. But those who held land, titles, or power all began planning anew, for the Norse would pass that way on their journey home and favor was to be gained.
Duncan’s arrangement with Lord Davin remained a secret few knew and fewer questioned. With the changes wrought in him the last months, Duncan knew the truth—he had no idea of his curse’s origin and less about its eventual end. He used his accumulated wealth to seek out knowledge, but there seemed none to be had.
Every possible space in the hall of Duntulm Keep was filled. Many of those who owned land in the surrounding areas attended the early autumn feast hosted by Davin to meet the men from Orkney and take their measure. Though invited to sit at table with him, Duncan declined Davin’s invitation, choosing to sit away from the guests so he could observe them. It seemed the fires of hell had left his sense of curiosity intact when they burned away all the rest, so he listened and learned much about the visitors from the north.
Greeted as cousins, they were related to Davin through the marriage of their grandparents or some other ancestor, and the welcome he gave was warm. Foodstuffs and ale were plentiful and everyone ate and drank their fill. Ornolf placed a bowl and cup before Duncan, bothering him every so often so he would eat and drink. The smoke grew thick as the fires burned lower, offering heat but not much light. The torches and rush-lights added what they could, but Duncan could see clearly through the dimness and the haze.
It was a strange effect he’d noticed the last few months, and served him well in his attempts to watch and learn. He was studying the similarities in appearance between Davin and the one called Ragnar when the woman arrived. The room suddenly grew brighter and the chatter lessened as though everyone wanted to see her at once.
Nothing she wore was ostentatious, but the cut of her gown drew every man’s eyes to her body. He could not identify the material of it, but it draped her curves as though painted over her flesh instead of being a garment. Duncan noticed the tightened nipples of her very full breasts as the gown molded to them and the way it fell into the junction of her thighs. When she turned to sit down, he and every other man noted the way it hugged her arse, flowing into the indentation of the cleft and outlining her strong legs. Watching her move in it, he did not have to imagine what her body was like—he could see it.
He let his gaze wander over her, waiting for her to be seated so he could see her face.
Something he had not felt in months coursed through him in the moment their eyes met. A heat, a need, a wanting made him ache. Her eyes widened as though she knew her effect, but she looked away when someone spoke her name.
Who was she?
What was she?
How could she cause him to feel the blood heating and rushing through his body when he’d thought himself empty of such things? Duncan shifted in his chair and continued to watch as the attention of those gathered began to drift back to the honored guests. But he realized every man eventually turned back to watch Isabel.
She’d gathered and arranged her hair in a way that made her look well bedded. Its black waves accentuated every move she made and framed the creaminess of her skin perfectly. It was her mouth that sent waves of heat through him; her lips were bow-shaped and red as though well kissed. The blush in her cheeks added to the display—one he could tell was orchestrated carefully for its effect. Tearing his gaze from her, Duncan looked at the people she had followed into the feast.
The man and younger woman she’d walked behind had taken seats much closer to their host, while she remained farther away. Was she the girl’s maid? Neither of the women resembled the man in any way for he was as light as they were dark in hair and eye coloring. Duncan thought the women might be related based on the frequent glances they shared, cousins probably, though mayhap even sisters.
But, if sisters, why did they so clearly separate themselves at table?
The meal continued and Duncan resumed his perusal, watching her as she ate the food placed before her, and as she spoke to others, seeming to watch every move made by the man with whom she’d entered. It was only when she lifted her chin, gazed up at the ceiling of the chamber and closed her eyes that Duncan realized he’d seen her before. Searching his memory, he finally remembered where and when.
In the early hours just as the sun rose, when unable to sleep, he would walk the battlements of the keep, gazing down at the sea and the village outside the walls. Several times in the last months he’d noticed her leaving the keep just before dawn, and walking to the south beach.
With nothing more than curiosity to keep his attention, Duncan would watch as she took off her clothes and flung herself into the water. Her practice was the same each time he’d watched—dipping twice under the surface of the water and scrubbing her skin as she did. Then she would plunge down and remain in the freezing waters until he thought she’d perished. He remembered several times when he began counting how long she stayed under the water, wondering if she would rise from it at all.
Over the months he’d witnessed her behavior, the changes within him making any tension he felt as he counted out the seconds lessen until he’d watched in complete disinterest, no matter how much he knew he should be concerned.
Watching the way she tilted her head, he was reminded of the way she looked up at the sun as she walked, sometimes struggling, out of the waves. In the earlier times he’d seen her, he’d thought she might be a selkie or water spirit. But, lately, he observed her actions from an emotional and physical distance—until she lowered her head and gazed at him through her lashes.
That heat seared him again, letting him feel things he’d not felt in months. Was she a selkie risen from the sea or some otherworldly creature capable of giving him back all he’d lost? His moments of disinterested watchfulness were over, for his body and his soul knew she was more than she appeared, and his mind knew he must discover her secrets and their link to his own. Standing, his feet moved before he could think on what words to say or what he wanted. All he knew was that he wanted . . . her.
Unable to understand or explain what was between them, Duncan stood in front of her, his gaze never wavering from hers. He did not stop when the entire crowd noticed and quieted. He continued even when she tore her gaze from his for the slightest moment, then met it again. He did not let the fact that every eye in the room fell on their encounter concern him at all.
“Who are you?” he asked, unable to form his thoughts and the newly-returned needs into anything more complex.
She looked away, turning her head and her eyes, and he followed the direction of her gaze. The man with whom she’d arrived frowned at her, then looked over at Duncan, assessing him before nodding to her.
“I am called Isabel, my lord,” she said in a voice that sent chills through his numb body. She bowed her head as she spoke.
“Isabel,” he whispered, savoring the sound and feel of it on his lips—something not possible just minutes ago.