Authors: Lily Blackwood
Thank you for buying this
St. Martin's Press ebook.
To receive special offers, bonus content,
and info on new releases and other great reads,
sign up for our newsletters.
Or visit us online at
For email updates on the author, click
The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way.
Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author's copyright, please notify the publisher at:
For Mom and Dad
Good Job! Good Job!
I feel so very lucky to be able to publish this big, exciting love story about two amazing, larger-than-life characters. I'm even luckier to be surrounded by family, friends and colleagues who are just as exceptional. Writing experts warn against the overuse of adjectives in one's prose, but I'm pretty certain that advice doesn't apply to the writing of acknowledgmentsÂ â¦
To my agent, the sparkly-brilliant Kim Lionettiâthank you for being the first reader to fall in love with a tormented beast, with revenge burning in his heart, and the big-hearted heroine who saves him from all that hate. Thanks to everyone at Bookends Literary as well, for the feedback and suggestions and good-wishes.
And to my editor, the witty and astoundingly fabulous Elizabeth Poteet, thank you for your expert guidance in helping me bring Niall and Elspeth's story to life. I'm also thankful to everyone at St. Martin's Press for the stellar copy-editing, magnificent cover art (take another look at that arm!), meticulous productionÂ â¦ and that super-fun RWA cocktail party!
Cindy Miles, Lark Howard, Mary Lindsey, Nicole Flockton, Shana Galen and Sophie Jordan. Beautiful, talented authors, one and all. Thanks for the pep talks, the lunches, the brainstorming, the cover conferences and road-trips. Your friendship means everything to me. To the amazing Monica McCarty, thank you for reading this book and offering your endorsement.
Lastlyâbut most importantlyâwords can't describe how much I value my family's support. When the world goes crazy, you are my anchor and I love you for it, with all my heart.
Seventeen Years Before.
Flames arose outside the castle, reflecting off the stone walls of the tower room and the faces of the warriors crowded there. Some of the men cursed. Others prayed. Most remained silent. The clash of metal echoed in the night, along with the braying of distressed animals and screams.
Twelve-year-old Niall Braewick stood rigid, his hand clenched on the pommel of his sword. Being so young, he had never seen battle, but he was tall and strong for his age and had trained diligently with his weapons master. Tonight he would do whatever necessary to crush those who had betrayed his father's trustâand through trickery and deception, unleashed an unexpected attack against his
His father, Raghnall, the Laird of Kincaid, turned from the window, his expression grave. Like his Norse ancestors he stood taller than most men and had fair hairânow threaded with silverâthat fell to his shoulders. He wore no armor, only the tunic and
he had worn to the day's festival, a gathering intended to foster unity with two neighboring clans. Yet once night had fallen, the Kincaid's invitation of hospitality had been betrayed in the vilest way.
Without warning, the war-chieftains Alwyn and MacClarenâthe leaders of two smaller, once-faithful vassal clans to the more powerful Kincaidsâhad betrayed them, taking advantage of the laird's long-standing dispute with the king, David the Second, their ultimate goal to seize Kincaid lands.
When the laird spoke, his voice did not waver.
“There is no alternative,” he said. “I must surrender.”
The mere utterance of the word caused Niall's heart to stop beating. His father and his clan were renowned for their battle prowess. The histories of the Highlands were replete with tales of Kincaid valor, and their ancient and illustrious line often celebrated as the royalty of the north.
Surrender? His heart surged back to life, thudding proud and fierce in his chest.
Voices clamored all around him.
“No, my laird!” shouted the man beside him.
“We will fightâ” another roared.
“Let us show the Alwyn and MacClaren clans the road to hell!”
“We can defeat them!” Niall shouted, raising his sword.
Yet Raghnall raised his handâand all voices hushed.
“Perhaps that is so,” he said, his eyes bright with hate and fire. His gaze met Niall's for a long searing moment, before sweeping away, over his men. “Perhaps we could defeat them. But not in time to save our clanspeople.”
. The scores of villagers who had been captured and penned inside a large barn, just within sight of the castle. Old folk. Children. Women and babes. Those who had been unable to get safely from their village of Inverhaven and inside the castle walls before the gates closed. Thankfully Niall's mother, the Lady Kincaid, was safe inside the stronghold with his brothers, eight-year-old Faelan and five-year-old Cull. However, the wives and children and mothers and fathers of many Kincaid warriors faced certain death if the laird did not comply with his enemies' demands.
“They are your families,” his father said with a solemn nod. “They are my people.”
His captain, Fionnlagh, a barrel-chested warrior with grizzled red beard and braids, stepped forward and answered quietly. “But you are our laird.”
The Kincaid answered softly, but no less resolutely. “Which is why I must do this.”
Fionnlagh shook his head and implored, palms upward, “But my lordâ”
,” Raghnall bellowed. His voice echoed off the tower stones.
No one spoke. No one moved. Indeed, Niall felt certain no one dared breathe, including himself. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. His father would surrender. Niall's eyes blurred, stung with tears, but he blinked them away because warriors didn't cry.
The laird walked the line, pausing to peer into the face of each man. The ancient bronze brooch pinned to his plaid shone in the lamplight. The emerald eye of its wolf glimmered.
“Our clan has possessed these lands for centuries,” he said. “This night will not see the end of the Clan Kincaid.”
“Aye!” answered several men, their heads nodding. “
ThaÂ â¦ sinnÂ â¦ Kincaid,”
Raghnall said fiercely, turning back to walk before them again.
Niall's throat tightened, hearing the words.
We are Kincaid.
The laird lifted one fistâand pounded it against his chest. “
Tha sinn bhrÃ ithrean.”
We are brothers.
Tha sinn seo talamhâ¦”
We are this land.
His father recited the Kincaid vow of fealtyâand Niall did as well, his heart swollen with pride.
The men joined in. Their voices unified and grew louder as they repeated ancient words learned from their fathers, who had learned them from their fathers before them.
When they were finished, a long silence held the roomÂ â¦ until at last his father nodded to his captain. “Make the signal.”
At the window Fionnlagh unfurled a swath of white linen so that it hung down the outside wall, and he secured it there with a stone.
A loud cheer arose in the nightâfollowed by silence. Then came the rhythmic
of swords against wooden shields.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
The ominous sound chilled Niall's blood. He feared, more deeply than he had ever feared anything before, that this night would change the course of his life forever.
Fionnlagh approached the laird, as did several others, and their heads bent in counsel. Niall caught just a few of the words spoken between them.
“â¦ ensure survivalÂ â¦ of the clanâ¦”
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
“â¦ not much timeâ¦”
His father nodded, with a solemn glance toward Niall.
The room became a jumble of movement, with some assisting his father in donning ceremonial garb, while others fastened Niall into an overly large quilted leather jack and strapped a dirk to his hip, and another to his leg. His father touched the Kincaid sword, displayed on its ornate wooden stand, and then nodded, at which time it was folded into a dark cloth and carried away. Fionnlagh brought three tow-headed boys into the roomâone of them the captain's own son, Ian, a friend of Niall's. The other two boys were younger, and close to Faelan and Cull in age and size.
“Niall,” said Fionnlagh, without meeting Niall's eyes. “Be a good lad, and give Ian your brooch.”
Ian grinned at that. Of course he did. He did not
what was happening. Neither did Niall, exactly, but he knew he didn't like it. Something felt wrong here. Something worse, even, than surrender.
“Why?” He clenched his hand over the circular badge, a hard bump beneath the vest he wore.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
“Because you must.” Fionnlagh moved closer, scowling. “Just do it, boy.”
“No,” Niall refused, and stepped back. “I won't.”
His badge was special because of the emerald in the wolf's eye, just like his father's and his brothers'. It identified him as a son of the chief, and a descendant of two centuries of chiefs before him. One didn't just give that honor away.
Just then his brothers were brought into the room, sleepy-faced and confused, followed by his mother, her face pale with fear. Fionnlagh relieved Faelan and Cull of their brooches. Faelan complained of the loss to his mother. Young Cull was more interested in the warriors and their weapons. Niall watched as the badges were pinned on the other two boys who had been brought in moments before. Boys very similar to his brothers in age and appearance.
Now he understood. Ian was to take his place in the surrender. Ian would pretend to be him.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
“Come, Niall,” Fionnlagh urged sharply, his eyes intent beneath profuse eyebrows. “We haven't much time, now.”
“No,” Niall shouted, backing away. “I won't do it.”
“You will,” a deeper voice said, from behind. The Kincaid's shadow fell across Niall. “Because I command you to do so.”
Large, calloused hands turned him by the shoulders and worked the badge from beneath his jack and his hand.