About the book
Protecting her became his second priority; the first was loving her…
When her father’s debt leaves her family desolate, Lady Autumn Montgomery decides to accept quite a dangerous job offer. She has to tutor the brother of the most infamous and dangerous Laird of Scotland.
Laird Flynn MacLennan, the so-called Beast of Ettrick, has to fend off attacks on multiple fronts: both the English, as well as other warring clans that wish to usurp his lands. Yet, the most important battle is the one to stop himself from falling for the bewitching Englishwoman hired to teach his brother.
Forbidden yet uncontrollable, fiery love merges with passion and engulfs them. A fire that promises more sorrow than happiness when Autumn discovers that Flynn is betrothed and the woman he must marry marches with her soldiers right inside the castle. For true danger hides in plain sight wearing the most innocent of faces…
Autumn Montgomery did not know when she had crossed the border into Scotland, for she had been too busy following the way markers that would lead her to MacLennan Castle, just outside Ettrick Forest. She had expected to feel the change between the countries, but everything looked much the same in the gloaming of the early morning hours.
Indeed, the only difference appeared to be the light snowfall that fluttered down from the swollen clouds overhead, like blossoms in the springtime. She wrapped her cloak tighter about herself, praying the cold weather would keep any miscreants away from the roads.
It cannot be too much further… I have been riding for hours.
She had guessed that it would take her until just after sunrise, perhaps ten o’clock at the latest, to reach her destination. But she could not yet see the first inky haze of dawn, though she hoped it was not far away. Either the snow clouds were prolonging the night, or she had not been riding for as long as she thought.
Lolling forward in the saddle of her fine palomino mare, Seashell, and feeling utterly exhausted, Autumn’s eyelids closed against the darkness that surrounded her. Every few seconds, she jolted awake again, knowing she could not afford to fall from the saddle and injure herself, but sleep pulled her back in, time and again.
Stay awake… You must stay awake!
“Now then, what do we have here?” A thin, reedy voice startled her out of her latest slumber.
Autumn’s eyes snapped open and she swung her lantern frantically ahead of her, trying to light up as much of the road as possible. Her insides lurched as she noticed what appeared to be a blockade, a short distance ahead. It was hard to discern how many men were standing there, but they were armed, cloaked, and staring right at her.
These must be the Scotsmen my brother warned me about!
Her body stiffened in panic, for she had thought her brother, Orwell, was being overly cautious when he had given the warning prior to her departure. Of course she had known it was unsafe to ride alone, in the dark, with no entourage or chaperone. But with the journey being relatively short, she had hoped for an uneventful ride.
Swallowing past the lump in her throat, she fumbled to free her dagger from its sheath. “You will let me pass!” she roared at the men, trying to hide the tremble in her voice. “I have no quarrel with you.”
“Who said anything about a quarrel?” one of the men replied, leering at her from beneath the hood of his cloak. She could see the flash of browned teeth, pocked skin, and mean, thin lips in the glow of her lantern.
A second man nodded. “Aye, we’re wanting to be friends with you, Miss. No quarrel here.”
Wait a moment… They do not sound Scottish.
She knew little of Scottish brogue, but these men sounded distinctly English. Narrowing her eyes and shining her lantern further ahead, she spied the glint of brass buttons, and the fleeting flash of red and white beneath their cloaks. The colors of the English Army. She noticed a few in tricorn hats, which she had mistaken for hoods.
“Who are you?” she asked, freeing the dagger from the sheath.
A third man grinned. “Just a few lonely gentlemen, looking for some entertainment.”
Fear ricocheted between her ribs, setting her heart to a thundering drumbeat. She might not have been particularly world-wise, but she understood their meaning all too well.
“Tell me, why are so many soldiers from the English Army out here without a superior officer in sight?” Autumn questioned, struggling to stop the dagger hilt from slipping in her clammy palm.
Thanks to Orwell, she knew enough about the English Army to be able to wield that knowledge as a weapon against these men. She was not sure the dagger would do much good in her hands.
Orwell should have taught me how to use it! I may as well have a stick in my clutches. Especially as these men would surely be armed with far more than a meager blade.
The men looked at each other, whispering something she could not hear.
“Who says we’re English soldiers?” one of them shot back.
Autumn sniffed, feigning confidence. “If you did not wish to be recognized, you should have dispensed with your uniforms.” Looking closer at their knee length boots, the billow of their breeches, and the embroidered bolts of gold that lined the front of their long red coats, she knew she was not mistaken. “Is your battalion nearby? Are you supposed to be on guard duty?”
If I call out, will their superior officer hear me?
The men took a step closer, and she heard the sound of muskets being drawn out from beneath their cloaks. Surely, they would not shoot her… would they? Judging by their grimaces, she was not certain any longer. Perhaps they had no superior officer.
“We answer to no one,” snarled the first man who had spoken. Autumn could see his pocked skin and thin lips from where she sat.
Understanding dawned, for there was no other reason these men should be here and appear so menacing. There was continual fighting between the English and the Scottish, not to mention battles on the Continent, which provided plenty of motivation for soldiers to desert once they had tired of taking orders.
“My brother is a captain in the English Army. He is following closely behind, so I suggest you move out of my path before he arrives and has you all court marshaled for your desertion!” Autumn knew it was a bold, and possibly foolish move, but she was desperate.
The pock-faced man snickered. “Then why’s he not riding at your side, Miss?” His grin widened. “Anyway, if he’s what you say he is, he wouldn’t be stupid enough to ride over that border without his battalion behind him. The Scots don’t care for English soldiers, riding alone.”
“Aye, the Beast of Ettrick will eat him for breakfast,” another man jeered, sending a bolt of terror through Autumn’s chest.
She had heard the nickname once before, referring to Laird MacLennan—the very person she was journeying to see. That first time, hearing him called “Beast,” she had shrugged it off as brotherly exaggeration. But there was a genuine fear beneath the jeering tone of this soldier’s voice that made her anxious.
Can Laird MacLennan really be so awful? If he is, should I turn back now, before I find myself in his clutches… or the clutches of these men?
She was about to turn Seashell around, in an attempt to race for safety, when she heard the hiss of a fuse being lit. Her head whipped back around in time to feel the burning kiss of a lead shot skimming her cheek.
All of a sudden, Seashell reared, sending Autumn tumbling backward. Her hands flailed to try and find purchase on the saddle, only to drop the dagger to the ground, before joining the weapon on the hard dirt. The air rushed out of her lungs as she hit the road with a jarring thud, but that was the least of her concerns.
“Seashell! Seashell!” she shouted helplessly as the palomino stomped and reared all around her. It appeared as though the mare had twenty hooves instead of four, as Autumn tried to roll and twist out of their way while wincing against the pain that cracked through her bones.
Another musket shot fired, sending Seashell into a panicked frenzy. Indeed, before Autumn could do anything to stop the mare, the beast had taken off through a gap in the nearside hedgerow, abandoning her rider to whatever these cretins had in their filthy minds.
Lying on the cold, snow-slushed ground, Autumn panted for breath as her hand scrabbled across the mud for the dagger she had dropped. If they thought they could take her without some kind of protest, they were sorely mistaken.
I would rather you killed a man than have a man hurt you or try to kill you. Those had been her brother’s words when he had gifted her the dagger, and though she had never expected to have to act on them, it seemed fate had possessed other ideas.
“Is this what you’re looking for?” One of the deserters stooped to pick the dagger off the ground and proceeded to pick some kind of gristle from between his two front teeth with the sharp point.
Autumn tried to sit up, only to feel a boot against her chest, pushing her back down. “You will release me,” she wheezed. “My brother will… be here… soon.”
Orwell, I know it is impossible, but… please say you followed me. Please say you will come for me.
“He isn’t coming, Miss. Don’t lie.” The same man finished picking the food from his teeth and leered down at her. “My, you’re a pretty one, ain’t you?”
The rest of his men clustered around him—ten in total, now that she could see them more clearly—and she flinched at the lusty glint in their collective gaze. There could only be one outcome, considering she was alone on the road, with no one coming to rescue her.
I should have departed in daylight. I should have stayed at the manor. I should have tried to gain employment with an English family. I should have… I should have… I should have…
But there was no use in wondering what she might have done differently, for it would not change what was about to happen to her.
“Please…” she whispered desperately, "please, do not… hurt me.”
The leader of the deserters ignored her and knelt at her side. She could smell his sour breath and did not like the intent look in his eyes—meaner than those of the men around him. She flinched as he touched her, trailing his fingertips up her arm. As he did so, the other men loomed closer, a few of them crouching to join their leader.
Frantic now, her eyes searched for some kind of refuge within running distance; a farmhouse, or a cottage, or even a barn where she might be able to hide. The landscape, still swathed in shadow, showed nothing but black desolation. She thought she could see the rolling stretch of fields and hills through gaps in the hedgerow on either side of her, but nothing else.
“Oi! I see ye, ye wretched rats!” A booming bellow cut through the confusion that swirled in Autumn’s head. A crashing sound followed, as though someone had barreled through the congregation of deserters, taking them by surprise.
A moment later, she heard the grate of steel as swords were drawn. The deserters’ leader whirled around, eyes wide in alarm. At the same time, Autumn saw the shining blade of a broadsword sweep through the air… and the wretched man fell to the ground, unmoving.
She would have cheered and praised whoever had come to save her, if her mind and body had not collapsed and sent her into that dark oblivion that she had been fighting.
Autumn awoke abruptly to the violent sensation of strong hands shaking her. Her eyelids cracked open to meet the stern, black gaze of a stranger. Behind him, another stranger wielded a lantern, allowing Autumn to look upon the face of her savior.
“What were ye doin’, ridin’ alone on these roads?” her savior asked sharply, but Autumn was too stunned by his visage to respond immediately.
Though his dark eyes were somewhat frightening, they were framed with the longest eyelashes she had ever seen, giving them a distinct prettiness. And his lips, though set in a disapproving line, were luscious and full, with a deep bow at the top.
His nose was proud and somewhat Roman, and it suited the angular nature of his face, complementing his sharp cheekbones and the square cut of his jaw, which was grazed with stubble. Dark curls framed his remarkably handsome features and some of the tendrils flopped over his right eye, making her want to reach out and push them to the side so she could see him better.
He shook her again. “I asked ye a question. Do ye nae ken what can happen to lasses that ride alone?”
“I would not have done so if it were not necessary,” she replied, feeling a spark of defensiveness alight within her. Who was he to lecture her? He did not even know her, nor her reasoning for being here.
He frowned. “What do ye mean? Speak plain, lass.”
“I have important business to attend to that required me to ride alone, at night, upon these roads.” She pushed his hands away from her and strained to sit up of her own accord. “Of course I know the dangers, but one must do dangerous things when other lives are in peril. I am no dolt, if that is what you make of me.”
She glanced around, realizing that the deserters who had attacked her where nowhere to be seen. She was certain she had seen their leader fall to his demise, but perhaps he had managed to defy death and escape. He had appeared to be the sort that not even Death itself wanted to contend with.
His eyebrow arched upward. “What lives? I dinnae see anyone but ye… and that horse of yers, which one of me lads had to catch since ye couldnae keep control of it yerself.” He gestured to Seashell, who stood somberly a few steps away, held in place by a gruff-faced man.
“How would your horses fare if someone shot a musket at them? And before you reply that they are used to such things, Seashell is not a seasoned warhorse, used to the pepper of artillery, so you will forgive her for being understandably skittish,” Autumn retorted. This man may have been devilishly handsome, but his rudeness was beginning to make him appear uglier by the second.
The man gave a slight nod. “Aye, I guess ye’ve a point.” He paused. “But ye’ve still nae answered me question, lass.”
“And you have yet to give me a name, which would be the courteous thing to do,” she said brusquely.
I see the Scottish have gained their reputation for coarseness with due cause.
Although, it remained a surprise to her that Scotsmen had come to her aid, rescuing her from English soldiers. If anyone had told her such a thing would happen, she would have said they were mistaken, and they had gotten it the wrong way around.
The man sat back and ran a hand through his long, dark hair. “Flynn Duncan,” he replied. “Or Laird MacLennan, if ye prefer.”
Autumn’s eyes flew wide. “Pardon?”
“Flynn Duncan, Laird of MacLennan. And who are ye?”
“Um… Autumn Montgomery. I mean, Miss Montgomery.” Autumn faltered, for this was not the wondrous first impression she had hoped to make on her future employer. Indeed, she rather thought she might have ruined her chance, for he would surely think her inappropriate as a tutor, after the tongue-lashing she had just delivered.
He peered at her expectantly. “Och, I’ll guess from yer face that ye’ve heard of me, then?” He shook his head and unleashed a sigh. “I amnae a “Beast” of any kind, as ye can see. There isnae fur growin’ out of me flesh, and I daenae have fangs in place of teeth.” He bared them, as if to prove the point. “There isnae a tail, neither, so ye daenae need to check.”
His soldiers, draped in cloaks, chuckled among themselves. Evidently, this was some kind of common jest for them.
“Well, it isnae ‘round the back, anyway,” one of them whispered, setting the rest of the men howling with laughter.
Flynn gave them a sharp look. “Och, ye’re nae helpin’ me cause, lads.”
“I apologize, Laird MacLennan; I did not know who I was speaking with,” Autumn said, chastened. “Indeed, if I had known, I would not have been so curt.”
Flynn eyed her. “And why’s that? Did ye think I’d eat ye alive if I dinnae like the sound of what ye were sayin’? Accordin’ to ye Sassenachs, I devour twelve bairns for me breakfast, and a whole horde of soldiers for me dinner.”
“Not at all!” Autumn stared at him, horrified. “Actually, you are the reason I was riding on these roads.”
So, perhaps you are marginally to blame for this turn of events…
She held her tongue, not wanting to make his opinion of her worse.
“Aye, and how’s that?” Flynn canted his head.
She hesitated. “I was coming to answer a notice I saw in my village. You were in need of a tutor for your brother.” She swallowed to moisten the dryness in her throat. “I realize I ought to have written first, but… there was no time to delay. You see, I am in dire need of this position, for my family is suffering some… um… difficulties, and I must seek work if I am to aid them.”
Difficulties that will see our manor taken from us, my little sister destitute, and might even cause my father to sell his title… as he has sold almost everything else.
It was fortunate she had managed to cling onto Seashell, though she knew that if she had delayed her departure and had not slipped away in the dead of night, leaving only a vague note to explain herself, her father might well have taken her horse, sooner rather than later.
At least I know he does not have the means to follow me, nor any notion of where I have gone, exactly.
For an age, Flynn said nothing. He simply looked at her with his intense, black gaze, as though he were trying to memorize every feature upon her face. Though she did not know why. Was he remembering her entirely, so he would know not to help her if he found her in trouble again?
“I’m guessin’ yer family wouldnae take kindly to the notion of their precious lass goin’ to work for a Scot, eh?” he said, at last. “Ye slipped out under cover of darkness, took yer horse, and off ye went afore they could argue. Is that what happened?”
Autumn nodded. “Mostly, yes. I, on the other hand, have no qualms about working for a Scot. Our nations may not always see eye-to-eye, but your people have never affected me personally, and I daresay I have never affected you personally.”
Aside from my brother, perhaps.
Orwell had certainly fought his fair share of Scottish soldiers, though she felt it prudent to keep that to herself. Although, she was quite certain that Orwell did not like fighting Scottish soldiers. He did not like fighting anyone, but he had no choice but to do as he was commanded, especially now that he was a Captain.
Flynn snorted. “I’ve holes in me castle walls and graves in me kirkyard that’d beg to differ.”
“I meant the singular “I,” that is usually inferred when someone says “I”. I cannot be held responsible for the actions of others, just as you cannot,” she grumbled before she could stop herself.
Fortunately, it elicited a wry smirk from Flynn, which seemed to light up his dark eyes. “How far from home are ye?”
“Several hours. I reside close to Bamburgh, if you know of it?” she replied, unable to gauge his reaction to her. Was he amused, or was he merely trying to decide how he ought to send her back from whence she came?
He nodded. “Aye, I ken it.” He turned to the soldier who had hold of Seashell. “Tie that mount to yers, Hendricks. She can ride back with me.”
“Pardon?” Autumn gaped at him in shock. “I do not think that would be very appropriate, Laird MacLennan. I have a perfectly good horse, and perfectly good legs with which to ride said horse.”
His smirk returned. “Aye, but those legs are goin’ to be shaky and weak, and I daenae want ye tumblin’ off like ye did back there.”
“If you saw that, then why did you allow those beasts to crowd around me, and let me fear I was going to be… I will not say what!” Outrage flooded her, preventing her from maintaining any air of politeness.
He looked startled for a moment. “I dinnae see it, lass. I dinnae need to. I amnae daft, lass. Ye said yer horse was skittish, and since ye’re nae sat astride it nay more, I guessed ye’d fallen off when it reared at the musket shot.”
“Oh…” Heat pulsated in her cheeks.
“And ye keep wincin’, and yer arms are covered in scrapes and scratches, so it’s obvious ye’ve hurt yerself,” he added pointedly. “If ye daenae want me help, all ye have to do is say, and I can send ye back to Bamburgh.”
Autumn shook her head apologetically. “No, thank you. I… um… misspoke.”
“Ye misjudged, ye mean.” He clicked his tongue. “Ye wouldnae be the first Sassenach to do that, and ye willnae be the last.”
She flinched with embarrassment. “I am not making a particularly impressive first impression, am I? If I may, I would like to blame the shock of everything that is happened. My tongue, unlike my horse, appears to be woefully unbridled.”
“Och, I havenae made a proper opinion of ye yet.” A soft laugh escaped his throat, washing over her like a warm embrace. “But ye’ve wit, and I can see merit in that.”
Gently, he pulled her to her feet, where she finally got a measure of his formidable height and breadth. His shoulders were twice as wide as her, and though she was tall for her sex, she had to crane her neck to look up at him, standing a good head or two taller than her. And through his shirt, dampened by the snowfall, she could see the defined lines of a broad, sculpted chest that inspired a feeling of protection within her.
Taking her by the arm, he led her toward an enormous warhorse, with a hide as white as Laird MacLennan’s hair was black. There, he grasped her about the waist and hoisted her up onto the saddle, where she swung her leg over instinctively.
“I thought ye Sassenach lasses did that thing with yer legs crossed?” he remarked.
Autumn raised an eyebrow. “I thought you did not want me tumbling off?”
Still chuckling lightly, as his soldiers snorted in amusement, Flynn pulled himself up into the saddle and positioned himself behind her. She stiffened at his closeness, for she had never been in such intimate proximity with a strange man before.
Indeed, there was no distance between them whatsoever, as he turned his horse around and led it through the gap in the hedgerow, back onto the road. Against her spine, she could feel every ridge of a hardened, muscular abdomen, and the strength of his powerful arms as they encircled her, keeping her within their safety. Meanwhile, thick, solid thighs provided support for her own slender ones.
However, she noticed as he shuffled back slightly, to prevent what rested between his thighs from pushing against the swell of her buttocks. It was a small gesture, but one she appreciated after what she had just endured. For that was not something she ever wanted to imagine, knowing what might have been done to her.
“Thank you,” she murmured.
He smiled. “So, ye daenae think me to be a beast, then?”
“I have not made a proper opinion of you yet,” she replied, in jest.
He laughed. “Aye… I reckon I deserved that.”
As they headed down the road, toward MacLennan Castle, Autumn wondered if this had been a peculiar twist of fate, or if she had just missed her last opportunity to turn around and go home, putting this risky plan behind her.
A beast does not always show his true form right away. This may just be another lure, and I have just taken the bait.
Settling into the rhythm of his mount, Frost, named for the icy sheen of the beast’s hide, Flynn tried his best to keep a polite distance between his body and Autumn’s. He had decided to have her ride with him, so she could relax and feel secure after her ordeal, but he was beginning to wonder if he had made the wrong choice.
How could she feel safe, after those snakes were clawin’ at her like animals? I amnae the culprit, but I’m a man, and that might be bad enough.
His eyes fixed on the road ahead, where dawn’s purple light was bringing the landscape out of hiding. They would soon be at MacLennan Castle, where he would have chambers prepared and a healing woman sent for, so Autumn could find some semblance of peace. Until then, he would have to keep shifting his thighs backward, so as not to frighten her further.
“What are yer merits?” he asked, growing tired of the silence.
Autumn twisted her head back to look at him. A wariness sparked in her beautiful, enchanting blue eyes. “Whatever do you mean?”
She thinks I’m one of them. I can see it in her face. She doesnae trust me. Nor would I, if I’d been dragged through a hedge to face a grim fate.
“I mean, what are yer merits when it comes to teachin’ me brother?” He paused. “I want him to learn Latin, Greek, music, and everythin’ else ye fine Sassenach folks get to learn.”
He observed her as she visibly contemplated her reply. In all his seven-and-twenty years, he had never seen a woman so beautiful, nor one so fiery in character. Then again, he spent most of his time overseeing the running of his castle and his clan, and when he ventured away from the castle, it was never for leisurely pursuits. As such, he had no opportunity to meet new, intriguing young ladies, such as Autumn.
Indeed, it had been a rare chance that he was there to come to Autumn’s aid, for he had received word a couple of hours ago that there were skirmishers lurking in his territory. He had gone to investigate and, in doing so, had happened upon Autumn.
If I’d hesitated to give orders, or ventured elsewhere in my territory, I might’ve missed her. I daenae like to think what state I might’ve found her in, if I had.
“I am well versed in all of those, Laird MacLennan, as well as literature, poetry, mathematics, the sciences, and anything else you care to have thrown at your brother. I also have the experience of educating my younger sister, if that is of use to you?” Autumn finally replied. “We had no money for a tutor, in recent years, so I took on that mantle.”
Flynn nodded. “Is she of age, then? Is that why ye stopped educatin’ her?”
“Um… not exactly, but it was necessary for me to seek paid employment as a tutor,” she answered quietly, as though ashamed.
Flynn tilted his head so he could view her better, noting the dip of her neck as her chin touched her chest. He felt a sudden urge to trace the slight bump where her neck intersected her shoulder blades, but he resisted. Though he could see that her skin was smooth and inviting and would likely feel buttery soft to the touch.
“Ye must be from some kind of station?” he prompted.
She gave a small shrug. “My father is a baron.”
“Is his barony failin’ or is it somethin’ else?”
Flynn wanted to reach around and lift up her dainty chin, and brush his thumb across her plump bottom lip, in an attempt to coax her mouth into a smile. He had a feeling she would look all the more charming if she were to smile. Although, there was a beauty in her melancholy too, for it made her striking blue eyes shine and seemed fitting against the pale translucency of her skin.
If he were to dare to touch her, he could map out the lines of bluish veins that trailed down from the hairline of her long, wavy blonde hair, which had come undone from its bun during her ordeal, and down the rise of her rosy cheeks, before ending at the narrow vee of her jaw. They disappeared for a moment, underneath her chin, before resuming down the smooth line of her throat, which moved subtly with the occasional gulp.
“I suppose you could say it is failing,” she replied. “For many years, it has been crumbling, and this is the only way it may be remedied.”
He sighed. “That’s brave of ye. There are nae many barons' lasses who’d do that for their family. Ye must care for ‘em deeply.”
“I do.” Her breath hitched, making her shoulder rise against his chest.
Not wanting to push her, he let silence wash over them again. Clearly, she was suffering additional torment to the night’s events, and he felt he had no right to continue prying. At least, not yet.
Though, maybe if she stays, she’ll open up…
He kept the thought in his mind as MacLennan Castle appeared on the near horizon. An elegant structure, shaped in a square, with a turret at each corner and an inner courtyard that served as the beating heart of the castle’s life. He adored standing inside the western facing turret, so he could look out upon Ettrick Forest. Perhaps he would take Autumn there to admire the view, if she remained.
Perhaps not, if she found him to be the beast she feared he was… though he would not give her cause to. It was a nickname gained in times of war, and he was not at war. Unless she had an ulterior motive for being here.
Could ye be one of ‘em?
He eyed her. She did not look like a spy, but he supposed that was the point.
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