THERE ARE things in this world some say are invaluable. Time, happiness, and love being among the most sought after. But to Helena, the gift of story was the greatest gift of all. Stories, legends…fables, live forever. And in the darkest hours, they might even change one’s life. The snow-covered ground reflected a dazzling glow against the sun. For hours, Helena had walked without a village or a croft in sight. The sun as her guide, she kept a northerly course. When a rainbow of iridescent colors painted the darkening sky, flickering stars appeared and still, she encountered not a single soul. A bitter, westerly wind brought with it freezing snow. Pulling her fur cloak tighter about her, Helena clutched close the satchel she carried and trudged forward, head down, blocking her frozen cheeks from the squalls of heavy falling snow that made it impossible to see more than twenty feet in front of her. With each step, regret and sorrow weighed more heavily on her shoulders. But stopping or turning back would strip her of her dignity. Everything she had done, everything she believed in would stand for nothing. No matter what happened, she would live the rest of her life with the knowledge that she’d changed her fate and had fought for her freedom.
The snow tapered off and Helena slowed. Despite her determination, her legs felt as if she slogged through mud and her back ached with fatigue. Her toes—never mind her toes. She’d stopped feeling them two hours ago. The distinct scent of burning wood stopped her in her tracks. Her heart began to pound. Where was the smell coming from? She whirled in an effort to locate the source. A stronger whiff stopped her. She turned left and started walking. Soon, the trees thinned and, across a flat, snow-covered field, she spotted a flicker of light amongst trees that bordered the far side of the field.
Bless the saints! Helena quickened her pace. The flickering light grew in intensity. Please, she prayed, be kind to a stranger. She neared the trees and discerned the shadow of the small cottage where shone the light. Helena abruptly skidded. She flailed, found her balance, and stopped. She looked over her shoulder at the snow-covered expanse. Nae, it couldn’t be. Carefully, Helena took one step, then another. A loud crack sounded beneath her.
She froze. Sweet God, this was no field. She stood on ice. Helena glanced at the trees. Given the distance of trees and the steady slopes encircling around her, she’d crossed half a mile of the frozen loch. Her heart thundered. Trees were thirty feet away. The shore would be closer than the trees. If she trod carefully, she might make it back safely. Slowly, she inched toward shore.
Frigid air curled in front of her with each labored breath. She halted, heart pounding. “Just a little farther,” she whispered. Suddenly, the world flew above her as the frozen ground tilted. Helena shouted. Then the cold swallowed her. CHA PTE R 2 KADEN PULLED ASİDE the fur curtain and gazed out the window of the croft. Yesterday’s storm, which had left them covered in snow, had begun again. Tall drifts had accumulated in spots around the small croft. Just his good fortune.
The snowfall was the worst he recalled in his lifetime. After being gone for two years, what had induced him to return? He knew the answer. The ambush of his clansmen four months ago by the Donalds. But the men were no longer his men. His cousin Caeleb had taken Kaden’s place as leader of the MacLeod clan two years ago. Which is why returning had been foolish. He was no longer a member of the MacLeod clan—much less their leader. Never again would he stand with the men he’d grown up with or fight alongside them. Especially those who’d died at the hands of the Donald dogs. Anger flared, as it did too easily these days.
Had Jacob MacKinnon betrayed them to the Donalds? Did Caeleb suspect the MacKinnon? Why hadn’t Caeleb retaliated? The questions bounced off the inside of Kaden’s skull. So many questions and too few answers. None of it was his business anymore. He’d given up the right to demand answers the day he’d betrayed his brother. Curse his father for hanging his youngest son, Kaden’s only brother. Curse this damn feud that had embroiled the clans of Skye for an entire generation. And curse this bloody storm. Once the story ended, he would leave. Isn’t that what he did best? Leave, when things became difficult? A fierce down-draft blasted through the chimney, causing the fire to dance wildly on the logs. Kaden released the curtain and turned back toward the room.
His gaze caught on the sparse stack of logs stacked in the corner. The wood wouldn’t last the night. Kaden grabbed his boots from near the hearth and sat on the bench. He laced them, donned his fur, then piled on more fur to cover his head and neck. Like a large beastly bear, he pushed open the door and stepped outside. He waded through knee-high snow around the building to the shed in the back. He pulled the cart from within the shed, then slung the rope over his shoulder and continued toward the trees. Thankfully, his brother had long ago replaced the cart’s wheels with wooden slats. With care, Kaden kept between the frozen shore of Loch Haven and tree line of the forest as he pulled the cart to where he’d stacked a load of wood. The remaining wood in the cottage was the last of that which he’d stacked near the shed.
He reached a tall, snow-covered mound and dug through to the logs, then filled the cart. At last, the cart full, Kaden grabbed the rope and began to retrace his steps. His teeth chattered, and his nose had long ago turned numb. A rumble, then a woman’s shriek broke the eerie silence. Kaden stopped. A woman? Out here? Impossible. Another scream was followed by a loud splash of water. Kaden dropped the rope, then ploughed through the snow like a battering ram against the knee-high wall of snow between him and the loch. An instant later, he spotted the break in the white surface of the snow-covered loch. His heart lurched.
It might already be too late. He halted at the cluster of saplings that marked the water’s edge, dropped to his knees, then onto his belly. Snow collapsed in around him. He fanned his hands out around him, as if swimming, and shoved aside the snow as he wiggled onto the ice. Twice, he looked up over the snow to ensure he was on course, snorting out snow when it filled his nose. The snow abruptly opened up to the break and he thought for one horrible instant he would slide into the dark water. He threw his hand out and caught his palm on the edge of the broken ice. His legs swung to the side, but then halted. Kaden plunged his arm into the frigid water. Cold pierced bone-deep.
His fingers closed around an arm. He dragged the woman up onto the ice and shimmied back toward the shore. God’s Teeth, her soaked fur cloak and thick skirts made her weigh as much as an ox. They reached the shore and he dragged her off the ice, his breath coming in labored gasps. Kaden shoved onto his knees and was startled when he glimpsed the woman’s curves. When he’d grasped her thin arm, he thought her a young girl. He pressed two fingers to the pulse point at the neck and cursed. No heartbeat. He placed an ear against her chest. Through the thick fabric of her bodice, a faint heartbeat thumped against his ear.
He whipped off his coat and quickly wrapped her in the coat. Stinging cold whipped across the exposed flesh of his neck. He lifted her limp body in his arms and started back toward the croft. By the time he reached the cottage he was shivering. He unclasped her cloak and let it drop to the floor, then hoisted her over his shoulder and threw back the blankets. Kaden started to lay her on the bed, then stopped. Her dress would soak the blankets. He had to remove the dress. Kaden hesitated, then shook off his worry. Her anger was preferable to her death.
He slid her down into his arms, sat on the bed, then fumbled with the laces of her bodice. He cursed. His large fingers couldn’t grasp the tiny, wet knots. He pulled his dagger from its sheath and cut the tight lacing. Her bodice expanded. He slid the knife back into its sheath, shimmied the skirt up her thighs then, careful to keep his gaze on her face, dragged the dress up and over her head. Eyes tightly closed, he grimaced at the press of her soft flesh against his fingers and cursed the pulse of his cock as he twisted and laid her on the bed. Kaden opened his eyes, glimpsed creamy white breasts in the instant before he yanked the blanket over her. Quickly, he covered her with several more blankets, then shed his furs and added enough logs to the fire that the room would soon be as warm as a midsummer’s day. He draped her dress and cloak across the bench near the hearth, then returned to the bed.
Her eyes remained closed. With a feathery touch, Kaden swept her long coppercolored hair from her face, then touched her cheek. Still too cold for his liking, and she’d begun to shiver. She shifted and her arm slipped from the bed and dangled over the side. Kaden grasped her wrist and noticed several dark purple and blue bruises along her forearm. Checking her other arm, he found the flesh also marred with bruises. He made a tight fist and noted how his fingers were aligned. Glancing back at the bruises, there was no doubt the bruises were made by a man’s fist. Anger shot through him. Only the worse sort of whoreson hit women.
Maybe that man was the reason she’d been alone and on foot in a snowstorm. That took courage. Or desperation. Kaden gently tucked both arms beneath the blanket, then rose and pulled sage and honey from a cupboard. He filled a small cauldron with water, then set it on the table. He retrieved his mother’s journal from the night table and settled in front of the fire. As the night wore on, his eyes grew heavy, but he forced himself to stay awake and checked on the lass twice before his gaze caught on the stack of wood. He sighed. He’d left the cart full of wood on the path.