Authors: Jessi Gage
Anya’s been a bad girl. A vindictive plot against one of her clansmen backfired, resulting in her grave injury. Now scarred and crippled, her selfish ambition has turned into bitter self-loathing. She finds nothing lovely about herself, and doesn’t expect anyone else to either. But when a magical wishing box sends her to another dimension, she becomes the most valuable prize imaginable.
While hunting a rare marbled boar, Riggs, a trapper in Marann’s western forest, hears a strange cry. Distracted from the hunt, he loses the sow but finds instead something more valuable than a whole cart packed with marbled boar skins. A woman. She is delicate, her teeth are small and flat, and her skin is curiously hairless. She is not wolfkind. Maybe she is the miracle his people have been hoping for.
Riggs must bring Anya to King Magnus, because breeding rights belong first and foremost to His Majesty, who needs an heir. But the female calls to a primal part of him. He longs to keep her in secret and take her as his mate. But if he gives in to the temptation, he could single handedly bring about the end of civilization.
He rushed to the woman’s side. Instantly, her scent overwhelmed him. Sweet flowers, hyssop, and woman’s musk. She also smelled of horses and leather tack, of damp wool and mist. Glossy chestnut hair fell across her face, obscuring it.
Don’t be dead.
He crouched and reached a hand toward her. Pulled it back. She was so small. He was afraid to touch her.
He observed her instead, his gaze going to her back. It rose and fell with steady breaths. She was alive.
By the moon. He was in custody of a woman.
The tight coil of fury in his chest turned to wonder. It lasted only a moment before turning into a heavy weight of responsibility.
Shite. He was in custody of a woman.
The Wolf and the Highlander
By Jessi Gage
To my mom
Thank you to Julie Brannagh and Amy Raby, my faithful friends and critique partners. I look forward to seeing you both each and every week. Thank you to Shane for your love and support. I couldn’t do this without you. That goes for you too, Mom. Between babysitting, brainstorming, help with the housework, and just listening when I need to talk, you make it possible for me to follow my dream. Thank you to Kim Killion for your beautiful cover art. Thank you to Joanne Wadsworth and Shiboney Dumo, my wonderful beta readers. And thank you to Piper Denna for editing this manuscript. You all helped me make this finished product the best it can be.
Frigid wind whipped the mist. Icy particles scraped Anya’s cheeks like a demon’s kiss as she gazed across the wide valley of farmland
toward the village she’d been exiled from more than a year ago. Ackergill. Another hour’s ride and she’d be home. By sunrise, she’d most likely be dead.
“Best get it over with,” she muttered to Leah, the pony Gravois had given her.
“Chi-Yuen tells me your legs are fully healed,”
the leader of the tinker camp had told her two days ago near Inverness.
“There is no more she can do for you.”
Are ye trying to get rid of me?”
She’d made light of Gravois’ not so subtle hint, but in truth, her stomach had shriveled with fear at his words. After five months of traveling with his camp, she’d come to feel a mild sort of belonging with the mysterious tink and his magical misfits.
Never, mademoiselle. But your destiny lies elsewhere.”
She’d learned not to argue with him when he claimed to ken such impossible things. Spurning the impossible seemed to be a specialty of Gravois’. She should have died after she’d fallen into a
crevice in a remote patch of rocky terrain and broken both her legs, but Gravois, a stranger at the time, had miraculously found her. She should never have been able to walk again, but Chi-Yuen’s medicines had healed her to the point she could bear her own weight for short periods. If he thought she had a destiny waiting for her, mayhap she ought to listen.
Gravois had said, holding out a polished amethyst gemstone the likes of which a common lass like her would never dream of possessing.
“It will guide you to the place you are meant to go. Embrace your destiny, and I will consider your debt for the last five months paid.”
She’d grudgingly taken the gemstone and ridden Leah to Inverness, despairing over having nowhere to go and intending to sell both pony and gemstone. If she were lucky, she’d make enough off them to eke out a few years’ miserly existence. But, curse the barmy tink, he’d been right again. Over the course of the ride, she’d recognized a restlessness in herself. Once she paid it heed, she’d realized where she must ride. And now here she was.
She touched her heels to Leah’s sides, and the pony started down the gentle slope into Ackergill’s farming valley. Hooves clopped over the hard ground as they followed the wagon-rutted road. In the distance, Big Darcy’s windmills stood atop the cliffs like pieces on a chessboard. To the left of the mills, squat and brooding, hunkered Ackergill Keep. Crofters’ cottages dotted the slope rising from the valley to the cliffs. At the familiar sight of her clan’s land, her restlessness lifted. She felt peace.
’Twas right she should come home. She’d done much wrong to her clan. She’d heard Big Darcy walked with a limp because of her, and he likely would forevermore. Fortunately no lasting harm had come to Ginneleah, the wife Laird Steafan had chosen over her. In her jealousy, Anya had sent Ginneleah doctored oils under a false name. She’d claimed the oils would aid conception when in truth the mixture was one Anya herself used to prevent catching a bairn. Big Darcy’s wife had been the one to discover Anya’s plot. Aodhan had exiled her for her treachery, and shortly after, she’d heard Ginneleah had gotten with child, the child Anya had wanted to give her laird. Hearing the news had so enraged her, she’d slipped Darcy and his wife an apple s
ack with a poisonous viper inside. The viper had bitten Darcy’s foot. He’d nearly died.
That very day, she’d fallen from her horse and into the
She’d thought being scarred and utterly broken from her fall
were just deserts for the treachery she’d dealt. But no. She bore her punishment in dishonor, having never faced those she’d wronged. ’Twas not the Keith way. It had taken a meddling tinker to make her realize it. Whether Gravois’ gemstone or her conscience had led her here, she was grateful. ’Twas time to balance the scales in full.
Leah started up the slope into the village. Anya rode her to the stables, which were thankfully abandoned for the evening. She groomed the pony and gave her grain and a pat on the neck for her work. That done, she pulled the hood of her cloak over her head and hobbled off in search of Aodhan. As war chieftain
to the Keith, he would most likely be found at the keep.
The November cold nipped her nose. Wind buffeted her cloak. Her legs ached like someone was jabbing needles into her joints. The walk from the village to the keep had never taken her so long.
As she approached the fortress-like building, the sounds of a gathering filtered around from behind. She followed the fiddle and bagpipe music to the bailey behind the keep.
The oak doors from the great hall were thrown open to the chilly night. A bonfire in the center of the bailey threw sparks into the dark sky. Men sang loudly and sloshed their tankards. Women danced and laughed. A table strewn with scraps from a feast sat near the fire. In the center of the table was a carved out log. Without looking inside, she kent what that log
would contain. At one end would be a pile of dirt, at the other a pile of salt. The Keith were celebrating the life of a clansman or woman with a salt and earth ceremony.
Too bad someone had died, but bloody convenient for her since she needed to find Aodhan and he would certainly be in attendance. Steafan too. She hobbled into the shadow cast by the keep door and looked over the gathering, searching for their faces.
Across the bailey, a head of honey blond hair peeked above the rest. Big Darcy. Her stomach turned over. He wasn’t dancing but standing beyond the table, sipping ale and talking with another warrior. Could he dance anymore? Was it difficult for him to run his mills with his damaged leg?
if she’d never set upon her foolish course of vengeance, Darcy would be hale. She’d never have been exiled, never have fallen and become this twisted, broken wretch of a woman.
The musicians stopped as a broad shouldered man made his dignified way to the head of the table. Laird Steafan. She waited for the tug on her heart she always used to feel upon seeing him. It didn’t come. Strange. She’d always loved Steafan, ever since she was a wee ane. At least she’d thought so. Mayhap she’d only loved the position and privilege she’d hoped to find as his lady, or his mistress. At one time, she’d done everything in her power to secure a place in his bed. Tonight, she would go to his dungeon. If she was lucky
, she wouldn’t remain there long before he ended her misery. But if her laird chose to make her end slow, she’d not complain. She’d earned whatever punishment he rained down upon her.
Steafan waited for the revelers to attend to him. He smiled, showing his even teeth. ’Twas time to honor the dead by tossing the earth and salt into the fire, the earth to represent mortal flesh, the salt to represent eternal life.
Vaguely, she wondered who’d died, but mainly, she searched for Aodhan’s dark head. She didn’t see him. Mayhap she’d find him in the keep. She turned to go inside.
“Tonight, we gather to honor the passing of Fergus Douglass MacDougal Keith.” Steafan’s voice hit her in the chest like a sledgehammer.
The salt and earth ceremony was for her da.
“To Fergus,” one man shouted.
“To Fergus,” the revelers answered.
Her legs became weak. She leaned on the door.
Gone. They’re all gone.
Her mother had left when she and Seona had been small. Seona, her elder sister and dearest friend, had disappeared from the bawdyhouse in Thurson shortly before Anya had taken up a post there after her exile. She’d never stopped searching for Seona, not even after her fall. Everywhere Gravois brought the tinker camp, Anya would ask about to see if anyone had seen her sister. Nothing ever came of it.
Now her da was gone too. She hadn’t seen him since her exile, and they had never gotten on well, but he was still her da. Her heart recognized the lost connection with a deep pang of sadness.
Her courage fled. She no longer wanted to find Aodhan, no longer wished to pay for her sins. She wanted to climb on Leah and ride away and weep for all she’d lost. Was it too late to go back to Gravois and beg for a place in his camp?
Sniffing back tears, she limped from the keep. Behind her, she heard the hiss as Steafan threw the contents of the log on the fire. Her chest constricted. Her da’s spirit would have heard the hiss too and departed for Heaven’s peace.
He was really gone.
Christ, she felt so alone.
The crowd cheered. Their singing followed her all the way down to the cottages. Her feet led her to the dark alley she kent like the back of her hand. The cottage she’d shared with her da was just ahead, there beyond the hedgerow where the widow McAllister kept her ewes.
The slope of the thatched roof greeted her like an old friend. She limped to the front door. It was cracked open. A band of golden light peeked through the crack.
She stopped short.
Someone was inside.
How dare someone pillage her da’s cottage while his bonfire was still burning? She pushed open the creaky door to find a dark-haired man bent over her da’s shel
f of knickknacks, poking through the creations of seashells and driftwood her da had cobbled together to amuse himself.
The man straightened and spun around, nearly dropping the box
he’d just lifted from the shelf. A lantern on a nearby table lit his features. Aodhan.
* * * *
Riggs’s thighs burned as he raced through the forest. He pushed harder. Faster. He would not lose the quarry he’d tracked all night, all the way into the wilds of Larna. For one thing and one thing alone would he risk crossing paths with the barbarians who lived across the border from Marann. Marbled boar.
He could already taste the sow’s sweet meat melting on his tongue. Her hindquarters would make a fine breakfast. Then he’d make a bedcover from her hide to sell to a noble in
Chroina. Over the years, he’d saved up enough coin to buy ten lottery tickets. Now he needed to pad his purse enough that he could pamper the lady if he should happen to win one for a season. The take from a single marbled boar skin would bring him up to his goal.
The sow disappeared into a gully then reappeared as she made for a line of evergreens. He leapt the gully, gaining ground on her, but his boot skidded in the slick leaves on the far side. He windmilled his arms and had to put one hand to the ground to keep from falling. The boar disappeared past the line of trees.