A Highlander Bound by Oath (Preview)
England, Musgrave Castle
Six years earlier…
The mask on his face was itchy and uncomfortable, so he shifted it to the side. Owen Elliott passed through the window overlooking the hot and loud ball, watching the guests. He knew he shouldn’t have come, but his curiosity had gotten the best of him. Far too many people at the ball could have recognized him with his distinct Elliott features. But because the night was long and most people were drunk, he had the advantage of disguise.
He crouched down as he peered through a window facing the great hall. The guests were laughing and having the time of their lives. Ducking quickly, Owen hid behind a shrub when one man glanced in his direction. His heart pounded in his chest from the fear of being caught.
Why in the blazes did I come here? He scolded himself for the hundredth time that night. He could have been in the village pub with one of the ladies warming his bed in the room he kept upstairs. But, instead, he was hiding in the shadows, hiding from people who wanted him dead. People that wanted his whole family buried.
When Owen came to glimpse the Musgraves, the rival family that almost murdered both his parents, he didn’t expect to stumble upon a gathering, let alone the engagement between Isabella Musgrave and Hamish MacBryde, whose kin betrayed all highland clans when they allied with the English.
Owen stepped into the air of the empty yard, the cool night breeze delicately caressing his hot skin. He pulled his mask just an inch. The garden was deserted and dark, with just a few torches lighting the way.
Perhaps coming here was a mistake. He thought to himself after such a close call. Nae, it was a mistake. The clans would surely be at war again if anyone recognized who he was. Shaking his head, he reached for the mask to cool himself down. His hand froze on the strap as a nearby scream pierced the air, drawing his attention to the left.
“No, don’t touch me!” the feminine voice was filled with panic and fear. “My father will hear about this.”
Fixing his mask, Owen quickly walked in the scream’s direction, hunkering beside a cart of hay just as he caught sight of the group. Four large men had cornered a girl at the back of the yard, so closely surrounding her that Owen almost couldn’t see her. She was petite, with long blonde hair that hung down her back. The men’s intentions were obvious to anyone who watched, and Owen felt his blood boil.
That’s nae right.
“You won’t dare tell your father, little mouse,” the tallest of the men laughed as he reached for the hem of her dress. His voice was deep, vicious and thick, making Owen’s stomach churn with disgust.
“Stop it!” the girl cried again. She tried her best to make herself as small as she could against the side of a tree while pushing them back, clutching at her dress. Fear painted her face as she sought an escape.
Looking around, Owen swore under his breath. The castle guests, along with the guards, were all too drunk to notice their surroundings. So, he weighed his options. I have tae dae something now, but what? He clenched his jaw. The English bastards outnumbered him four to one. He’d have to be cunning and think of a plan that wouldn’t end in a fight he had no chance of winning.
“It’s just a little fun; nobody will ever have to know, darling,” one of the other men laughed as he quickly grabbed her wrists and pinned them above her head with a single hand.
She began to cry and then he used his other hand to stifle her screams. Her struggle was no match for the older men. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen.
Quickly spotting a nearby torch, Owen crept over to the wall and lifted the wood from the sconce before creeping back to the edge of the cart. Just a minor diversion for the girl tae getaway, Owen thought as he used the torch to ignite a small piece of hay.
The corner of the stack smoked as red embers appeared. Growing impatient, Owen blew on the section to help the fire along. He took a step back and watched as flames jumped forth and crackled. Yet still, the men did not turn. They will hurt her. Swearing under his breath, he tossed the torch into the hay.
“Please! Don’t!” the girl sobbed even louder, fear and panic creeping into her voice. One man tore her dress down the side, and the sound of ripped silk made Owen’s skin prickle.
Sick bastards! I’ll kill them with me bare hands!
Flames shot up as the entire stack of hay caught fire, sending a cloud of billowing smoke into the air.
“Fire!” The tallest of the men, who watched from the side how the other three touched the lass’ milky skin, screamed. Two of them ran for the castle before Owen, while the other two stayed behind to see if they could find the cause of the fire.
Cowardice bastards. Ducking back as quickly as he could, Owen hid from the two men as they made their way past him. The flames scorched his sleeve as he hid, causing him to wince. He needed to get away as quickly as he could, but not until he made sure that the girl had escaped.
Everyone was moving in a hurry, giving him a chance to look at the other two were frantically searching for a way to put out the fire when his blood grew cold. Straightening his legs, he realized the extent of the mistake he’d just made.
The fire could not be tamed.
And now the girl was caught in the middle of a towering blaze—the wagon he’d set fire to had only been one of ten, all of them parked in a semi-circle around the yard, and igniting at an unstoppable pace.
He was about to charge into the flames when a voice halted his steps.
“Charlotte!” an older man screamed.
But it was too late. Owen’s eyes locked with the girl’s as she sought the voice.
Damn it, she saw me. Owen cursed under his breath. He needed to leave now because the risk of an even greater ordeal was too real. There is someone to save her now. Turning to run, his legs wouldn’t move. Not until she was safe from scorching chaos.
“Charlotte! Charlotte!” The man’s voice called again, more anxious this time. He was about to turn back when a sudden force stopped him in his tracks.
And then all was hazy.
His vision blurred as an imposing wall of flames met his body and a scuffle ensued as flesh collided with flesh. Everything around him was so foggy, like hot breath blowing on a window. Looking down, he saw blood on his hands and then he dropped to his knees on the ground. He could hear the monstrous roar of the flames resounding in his ears and all around him, when the world grew more still, all in a moment. Coughing, he squinted his eyes through the smoke and struggled to escape, stumbling to a nearby trough. Taking a deep breath, he splashed his face with the bloodied water, desperate to soothe the searing pain.
Then, he heard it. Amidst the violent waves of the frenzied fire, suddenly, all he could hear was the sobbing of the girl. Charlotte. The scent of ash and flesh aflame washed over him, plunging him into an even deeper daze, intoxicating him with the suffocating fumes and the adrenalin coursing through his body.
Fists flying through the air.
A heavy thud of a body collapsing on the crimson ground.
A torturing nightmare with no end.
There was no turning back now. The deed was done. After what seemed like an eternity, Owen Elliot finally found his way out of the castle grounds, his mask torn and his once white shirt, now scarlet from the blood.
With one last look behind, he ran home toward the border with Scotland, sure of one thing.
He would never be the same ever again.
Present Day, Spring 1601
Charlotte Routledge sighed as she eased her fingers over the scar that ran the length of her thigh. There was no excruciating pain anymore, at least not physically. But her heart still ached at the sight of it.
Holding the hem of her dress, she examined herself in front of the floor-length mirror, recalling the day she’d gotten the mark. The wound was an ugly reminder of a time she’d rather forget. The night when she lost everything that mattered to her. She had lost her father. The life that she had always known had perished in that blaze.
The wind blew her long blonde hair about her face as her light green eyes filled with tears. Charlotte looked so much like her mother, with her delicate features and pale white skin. They had spent hours together taking care of her hair. My child, hair is a woman’s crowning glory; you should always look after it.
Looking to the side, she glanced at the open window where her mother used to sit. Her uncle had given her the room where her mother had died, forcing Charlotte to coexist with the heartbreaking memories. Catherine had fallen to her death, but nobody knew exactly what had happened. Fifteen years had passed since the day. But still, the pain remained. Nothing and no one could bring back her parents.
Charlotte sighed heavily as she walked to the window and leaned out, staring at the patch of grass where her mother’s body had been found. What happened, mama? Her heart whispered as a single tear fell on the top of her hand. Secretly, Charlotte had always wondered whether her death had been an act of foul play or if she wanted to die. Her mother’s past was covered in a veil, her own daughter filled with questions about it.
Taking a deep breath and exhaling the scent of the rain that lingered on the horizon, she pushed herself back up and walked to the mirror glass, where she examined the length of her scar again. I wish there were a way I could make you disappear…
Dropping her hem and taking a step back, Charlotte hurriedly fixed her dress as the door swung wide. “Don’t you know it’s rude to enter a Lady’s room without knocking, Uncle?” she quickly remarked as he stepped into the room.
“Don’t you dare talk to me like that,” he sneered, slapping her to the floor with the back of his hand. “You nasty little witch.”
Charlotte hit the wood with a sickening thud, feeling her lip splitting in two, and the iron taste of blood filling her mouth.
Alexander Routledge sniffed in disgust as he fixed his hair, slicking the dark tendrils back over his head with the bony hand he hit her with, the edge of the ring that collided with her flesh glinting. “If you’d finished your sewing and instead of feeding your vanity before that mirror, I wouldn’t have to discipline you like that,” he snickered. “After all these years… you still haven’t learned respect.”
Using her arms to push herself from the floor, Charlotte stood and glared at him, her fists balled at her sides. He treated her like a prisoner but she’d be damned if she would let him see her pain. Her pride was more potent than her will to survive. “I don’t see why I have to do the sewing,” Charlotte fired back. “You have plenty of maids in the castle to do your bidding.”
Alexander’s laugh was cruel and cold as he stared at her. “Because I own you, little niece. You are nothing without me,” he patted his pocket that held the key to her room. “You are to do what I say, whenever I say it.”
Her uncle had kept her under lock and key at the castle ever since her father had perished. Charlotte was a precious pawn to him, nothing more than a bargaining piece for his financial gain. She despised him with every ounce of loathe her soul could muster. Not once in her life had she hated someone until him. “Until you are married and I have my price, you will do as I say,” he repeated his words to get his point across.
Charlotte knew well that he was right. She would bolt if she ever got the chance. “The sewing will be done before the end of the day,” she gritted her teeth and bent to his will, knowing there was no other way out.
“It had better be,” Alexander smirked as she passed him on the way to the desk atop which the mountains of clothes sat waiting for her. Her room was set up with a simple bed and a single table and chair for all the sewing and mending needed. The curtains were removed from the room, saying she didn’t deserve the luxury of a good night’s sleep. But she knew this was not the reason: her mother had jumped off that window and he wanted to torture her by ensuring she would never forget it.
She made the mistake of rolling her eyes at his threat. Damn it, Charlotte!
As quick as a flash, Alexander slapped her again, sending her reeling back onto her bed, narrowly missing the mirror.
This time, she cried out in pain as her side connected with the wooden frame of the bed, digging into her ribs with a red-hot shock.
He was on her before she could move, with his one hand clutching her hair, taking the stands between his fingers. “You still haven’t learned your lesson, little pup,” his sour breath growled in her ear as he grossly caressed her cheek.
“I’ll show you exactly what will happen when you talk to me like that.”
Charlotte opened her eyes to see the flash of a blade as her uncle held a sharp dirk to her face. He’d always prized the Scottish blade, bragging of the men who’d met their ends at its tip. It gleamed in the light. “Please,” she whispered, nudging away as he grasped her hair.
“Oh?” he said with a menacing laugh. “We have changed our tune, have we?” “You deserve this, you little wench,” he hissed in her ear as the blade drew near, his nasty breath making her sick to her stomach.
Charlotte took a deep breath, squeezing her eyes shut as her skin began to perspire.
In one swift move, Alexander lifted the blade and sliced her hair, releasing her from his grip as she crumpled onto the bed.
Panicking, Charlotte gripped the back of her head, crying out as she felt for her hair. There was nothing left but uneven tufts that hung down her neck. “What did you do that for?” she sobbed. “That was the last piece of my mother I had left.”
Pulling his face in disgust, he flung the hair beside her on the bed. “Don’t talk to me about your mother,” he spat in anger. “She was just as useless a wretch as you are today. Good for nothing and no one. Why that simple brother of mine ever chose to make her his wife, I’ll never know.”
Tears stained the mattress as Charlotte tried to clutch her hair, the golden strands slipping through her fingers like sand. She pulled herself up and crouched on the bed with her legs folded beneath her lap. Mama… she sobbed uncontrollably, gripping her hair in her fists and trying her best to hang onto the last remnants that she had.
“Besides,” Alexander mused after watching her for a while. “I had to do it; your future husband prefers girls with shorter hair.”
Her head shot up in shock as she stared at him. Did I hear him right? She knew her uncle wanted to marry her off, but she always hoped the day would not come.
“This way, you don’t want to look like that insipid woman my brother had the nerve to marry.”
“You sold me?” Charlotte hissed, feeling her blood boil.
“It was time, dear niece. I cannot take care of you forever.”
“Who is the man?” she tried her best to remain calm as her hands began to tremble.
Alexander smiled at her with one corner of his mouth raised. “I have it on good authority that you know the man.”
Charlotte frowned as her mind searched for a clue. There weren’t any potential suitors that she could think of. It wasn’t like her uncle ever let her leave the castle to meet anyone new.
“He made your acquaintance six years ago in the Musgrave Castle,” Alexander watched Charlotte’s face carefully as he spoke, wanting to inflict as much pain as he could with his words. “On that joyous night of the fire when my brother died.”
Her body ran cold as all the blood drained from her face. There were only a few men she had met that night. And three of them had died. It can’t possibly be…
“Yes. He said you would be shocked to learn that it was him. Apparently, you gave him the slip at the feast. He’d asked for a dance, but you refused like the little chit that you are. It’s only fitting that you should marry him now. You’ve always been a rude little wench.”
“What is his name?”
The name echoed in her mind like an avalanche of dread. She knew the name all too well. He hadn’t asked her for a dance. In fact, he’d used an entirely different approach to try to have his way with her. She could still feel the fabric of her dress ripping under his fingers. Her insides trembled at the memory of what he’d tried to do to her, along with the other men.
“Prepare yourself, little wench. For, in a few days, your new husband will be here to collect you.” He turned to leave before pausing at the door. “Make sure you clean up this mess,” he nodded to the hair on the bed and left, shutting the door behind him with a final click of the key.
Charlotte stared at the strands as unbelief and fear took hold of her soul.
William Dodd had been the only one who had survived the fire. She wished he had perished on many a day, but none more than now that he was close to getting what he wanted. He nearly had his way with her that night when he and his friends had cornered her at the feast. And now? Will he finally have me, even after six years?
She turned her head and looked out the window, away from the pain that mingled with her hair on the bed. How was her life once again falling to pieces? Have I not already lost all that I had?
There was only one other man she had ever wished dead, as much as William Dodd. The man who had set the fire at the feast. She hadn’t any evidence of what he had done or why. She could only recall the torch at his feet as the flames licked at her dress. He’s stood there with his mask, staring at her. Why hadn’t he done anything to help either of us? Her father had died, saving her life. But that man had stood there watching before she’d blacked out.
Shaking her head, Charlotte shook off the thoughts and turned her focus to the problem at hand. She needed to escape.
Marrying William Dodd would be a fate worse than death. Looking back at the window, she made up her mind. She needed to run, soon. Come hell or high water, William Dodd would never have his way with her.
Pushing herself up from the bed, Charlotte walked over to the desk and retrieved the bin she used for the snippets of cotton, recalling a happier time when her parents were alive. They’d loved her with every fiber of their beings. No girl alive could ever have been loved more than she had been. And now?
Now she was left alone to pick up the shattered pieces of her life. The last strands of hope she’d held onto were now being thrown into a bin. Discarded and forgotten, like all her dreams.
Sinking to her knees beside the bed, Charlotte sobbed hopelessly into the mattress. What am I going to do now? I’m alone in the world. She sniffed a few times, drying her eyes and recalling the words her father had said to her as a little girl.
There may come a day when you have no one else to rely on but yourself. Your mother and I will always do our best to be there, but you need to make sure that you look out for yourself.
Taking a deep breath, Charlotte hugged her knees to her chest. That’s exactly what she would do now. She would find a way out of this mess. She turned her head to look out the window. I’ll find a way out of this mess if it’s the last thing I do.
Splashing the cool water over his face, Owen pulled the robes over his chest and straightened the sash. He hated the dark brown clothes that they’d given him to wear. But wear them, he did. His face was rugged and tired as he caught a glimpse of himself in the simple mirror adorning his dresser. Nightmares of flames and screams had kept him up all night. They seemed to worsen the more he tried to outrun his past. It was the nightmares that prompted him to act and seek resolution.
Placing the pouch of coins in his pocket, Owen patted them down and headed for the door. He only had a little time until his uncle returned to the monastery grounds, so he rushed to the door of the small chamber where he slept.
His scout was more than likely still waiting for him in the woods, hopefully, this time bearing answers. Being a monk was proving to be far more challenging than Owen had anticipated. He was hardly ever alone and always needed to work.
The monks at Lanercost Monastery worked harder than any laborers he knew. Even the workers at the castle back home didn’t have to contend with as many chores as he did. He grumbled under his breath and ensured everything was in order before leaving. The bed was tidy, and all his things had been packed into the single cupboard.
Hurrying, Owen quickly slipped into the corridor and made his way down the hall. Time was of the essence as he pressed on, his sandals slapping against the cold stone floor. He glimpsed at the dark sky, the sun lost between the stars.
Perfect, they all went tae bed, and there is nae on—
“Brother Owen,” an elderly monk called to his back. Damn it! “Where are you headed in such a rush?”
Thinking as fast as he could, Owen used his chance to slip behind a statue in the wall, pulling his hood over his head. His heart beat in his throat as he pressed himself against the stones. Maybe he will think it was another man.
“Brother Owen,” the monk repeated as he drew nearer at a steady and even pace. His hands were tucked into the sleeves of his robe, and a wooden cross hung from his neck.
“Please, nae now, please, nae now,” he whispered to himself and shut his eyes.
“Brother Owen,” the monk said in a firmer tone, stopping in front of the statue with one eyebrow raised.
Seeing that his fate had been sealed, he lowered his hood and slunk back into the light. “Apologies, brother Thomas. I didnae see ye there.”
“Is that so?” the man said with a knowing glance. “Because it looked to me as though you were very aware of my presence,” he gestured to the corridor with its paintings and statues of saints and monks. “One would even say you were trying to hide from me.”
“I would never hide from ye, brother Thomas,” Owen grinned sheepishly, feeling like a fool at his failed attempts to hide. Brother Thomas had the habit of sneaking up on a person at the best of times, even more so when you were trying to hide. It’s like the man kens whenever I’m out.
“Then why hiding behind the statue of Saint Francis of Assisi with your hood over your face? Looking for peace, perhaps? He was one of the world’s greatest peacemakers.” The older man dipped his hands back into the sleeves of his robe, waiting for an answer.
“Um… nae,” Owen searched his mind for a suitable response. “I-I was just chasing a spider. I ken how much ye hate the little beasts. And brother Angus, too. The creature was larger than me hand.” He held up his hand with his fingers stretched wide to illustrate his point. “The hood was because…”
“I had tae sneeze an’ I didnae want the spider tae flee,” he thought through his lie with regret. “On account of the noise, ye see. I was hoping the fabric of the hood would divert some of the noise.”
“Very thoughtful of you. Though, I was under the impression that spiders werenae particularly sensitive to sound,” Brother Thomas asked with a heavy note of sarcasm in his voice. Owen had become known around the monastery for his strange behavior. This fact made the older monk keep an even closer eye on him.
“Och, aye,” Owen rubbed the back of his neck, feeling the weight of his foolish lies. “Now, if ye would excuse me, brother Thomas. I-I need to take care of me needs, I drunk too much ale as of this morn,” he bowed and turned to leave as quickly as he could.
“Just a moment…” Brother Thomas’ voice called to him again, making him stop in his tracks.
So close. He inwardly cringed. He just knew that he would be paying for his antics later. Whether through penance or prayer, the older monk would surely have something to say.
“We havenae been seeing you at evening prayers of late. Is everything well with your soul? Is there something we should be concerned about? Ye ken, this is a communal monastery; we are here to offer support to one another.”
“Nae, I have just been busy. I am on garden duty, so this takes a lot of me time,” he told the same lie he’d been telling since he’d come to Lanercost as a monk.
“You seem to always have far too many chores whenever there are prayers,” Thomas said in the way of an accusation rather than a question. “We can always relieve your of your duties should you wish to pray.”
“I like tae dae me praying alone in me chambers, gives me time tae focus me mind on what matters.”
“Very well then,” Brother Thomas nodded. “Be on your way, then. But we’d love to see you there soon. Solace can often be found in prayer with a friend and nae just on yer own.”
“I’ll keep that in mind but, right now, I have all the solace that I need,” Owen turned to leave with a burst of speed, almost running away from the man.
“Ye will be in my prayers, young man,” the monk called to him as he left.
Owen waved over his shoulder as he left. “Thank ye, Brother Thomas!”
Brother Thomas had an uncanny habit of prying into people’s affairs if given the opportunity to speak. When the opportunity arose, it was best to keep him at bay.
Owen hadn’t spoken to any of the monks since he arrived for a very good reason. He wasn’t a monk. And lying to them hurt his heart. How could he pray when his heart was filled with devilish sins? That would be wrong and disrespectful to all those pure-hearted men. His uncle had taken pity on him and given him a second chance, bringing him into the monastery as a traveling monk. Duncan McGinn had once suggested that Owen make a change for good, but he could never truly be a monk.
They’d send him packing for the hills if anyone else found out what he’d done. Owen felt he was far too bad of a man to live a holy life; the sins of the past would never let him be.
He looked down at his hands, his mind instantly filling with screams and towering flames. His blood spilling into the trough from his hands. The focus abruptly shifting to an image of a man punching and punching until tiny hands tried to pull him away, screaming for help. As he recalled the event, his vision swam in and out of focus.
There is nae point in any of that now, Owen reminded himself as he picked up the pace, the coins jingling in his pocket and spurring him on. There was nothing he could do about anything that was done in the past. The fact that his father had drawn his last breath before finding out what he had done was his only relief. Fraser Elliott would have been crushed if he had known what Owen had done. Not only had he ended the lives of prominent lords, but… No, he couldn’t think about it.
His only hope of staying here was to track down the wretched man, the sole survivor of the fire. He’d later learned that his name was William Dodd—a fearless bastard of a man that wreaked havoc wherever he went. Many a Lady had been left in ruins once they’d seen his face.
Owen’s blood boiled in his veins as he thought of the night he’d happened upon the group at the castle. They were trying to have their way with the lass and probably would have succeeded if he hadn’t come along.
He spent all the money he had left and later earned as a monk on hiring a scout to keep tabs on the man. He’d have his revenge one day. The only other soul that had seen him that night was the beautiful girl with long golden blonde hair, but she was a matter all on her own. She knew too much. Her light green eyes still haunted his dreams.
Reaching for the gates, he checked to see if the coast was clear before leaving the grounds. Hopefully, his scout would have good news for him. He needed a plan now to stave off the sleepless nights.
“I’ll see ye get the end ye deserve,” he cursed under his breath as he set off at a run. “Mark me words, ‘afore I draw me final breath, ye will be dead, William Dodd.”
He jogged the rest of the way to the edge of the forest before looking back at the monastery gates. The high peak of the tall steeple loomed on in the distance as though the building itself were keeping an eye on him. No matter how far or fast he ran, Owen couldn’t escape the past.
The blood-curdling screams from that fateful night chased him down like a hunter following a deer. His only hope of absolution would come when he laid William Dodd to rest. He’d outrun the girl to the ends of the earth if he had to.
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