Scottish Highlands, 1703
Even by the standards of a Highland summer it was a wild night. Eoin landed the little boat with relief on the tiny beach which was the island’s only safe anchorage. Hauling it clear of the foam-crested sea, he stood on the shingle, his heightened senses on full alert. Throwing back his head and closing his eyes, he tuned out the hiss of the breaking waves on the pebbles, the scrabbling and squeaking of the little night creatures, the lonesome cry of a far distant owl.
In the purplish gloaming light of a bruised sky, he was an impressive sight. Naked, save for the filleadh beg, his magnificent warrior’s body glistened with the ocean’s spray. Deeply tanned, his muscles clearly outlined under the sheen of moonlight on skin, rippling like the ebb and flow of the tide which pounded the beach, Eoin had about him an air of tightly-coiled power which signalled danger. His auburn hair, which fell in a wild tangle to his shoulders, gave him an untamed look. A smattering of darker hair covered the width of his chest, arrowing down in a thin path past the dip of his stomach to the broad leather belt with its jewelled buckle which kept his plaid in place. In the eerie light of the pending summer storm, his eyes, by daytime mossy green, had a iridescent, tawny hue.
Eoin breathed deeply and sniffed the air. He could detect them easily enough, the humans. Male. Overpoweringly male, that sharp, bitter scent. No trace of female. But then, if she was being held in some confined space, that was to be expected. He sincerely hoped she was on the island. It had been an arduous task, tracking his quarry clear across the Highlands, and it had taken longer than he had anticipated. Looking up at the night sky, he frowned. Only two more days until the full moon, which could prove a problem – but he would worry about that when he had her in his clutches.
The castle, no more than a tower and a few rough buildings enclosed by a perimeter wall, stood on the highest point of the island. Granite grey, the main keep was topped by battlements, though his razor sharp night vision could detect no lookout. Behind the castle stretched moorland, desolate and rust-coloured. A bleak place. No Highlander could possibly have traced her here. It was why Laird Ogilvie had commissioned him for the task in the first place. Eoin smiled to himself. They were not expecting anyone. They were assuredly not expecting one such as he.
Moving stealthily towards the castle, he heard the faint noises of the men in their guard room. Three, certainly no more than four of them. Laughing. Relaxed. No sound from the turret. Was she imprisoned there? It was the obvious location. He was about to find out. Unbuckling his belt, Eoin unravelled his plaid, placing it behind a large rock along with his claymore and his dirk. He had no need of weapons.
He arched his back and stretched, the movement lengthening his torso, showing off the supremely masculine line of his body, the span of his shoulders, the swell of his chest as his rib cage expanded, the narrow waist, taut buttocks, lithe, athletic legs.. He was also aroused. He was always aroused when upon the brink of change. For some, transformation was painful. For Eoin, it was invigorating in every way. His shaft jutted up, thick and potent against his belly. He stretched his arms higher, his eyes amber, glinting up at the moon, and threw back his head to summon his inner wolf.
His vision swam, bones cracking and reforming, his spine lengthening. The musky tang of his feral alter-ego filled the night air. Soft fur coated his body, his buttocks, his thighs, becoming tauter, the expanding muscles straining his skin painfully. A shiver of pure pleasure made his fur stand up in a ridge down his back. His heart felt as if it would burst as the familiar sparks shot like lightning bolts through his veins. He dropped down on to all fours, and it was over. Man had become wolf. With a vicious snarl, Eoin sprang forward towards the castle and his prey.
Freya Ogilvie woke from a troubled sleep. The straw pallet which comprised her bed was uncomfortable and lumpy, quite unlike the feather mattress she was used to at home. The filthy blanket which was her only covering stank of horse. She was chittering. Though it was August, the keep was icy cold, the flagstone floors and rough walls of the room in which she was being held damp and dank. As usual when she woke, her head ached. The fear and despair she hid from her captors manifested itself each night in a tightly-clenched jaw.
The single rush light had gone out. Getting to her feet, she felt her way around the curve of the wall to the narrow window which granted her the only view of this desolate island which had been her home for nearly two months. It must be nigh on three since she had first been taken. There had been two visits from her loathsome captor, the impoverished Earl of Tarbert. Twice she had refused to consider his dastardly proposal. The first time had been easy, as she had been imprisoned for barely a week. On the second occasion she’d rebuffed him again, though truth be told she’d expected to have been rescued by then. The earl had been furious. She’d feared he would violate her, but at the last minute he’d thought better of it. “I will not endanger the legality of our union by forcing myself on you, but you will pay for that little bit of defiance when we are wed,” he’d said ominously, righting his plaid. “And wed we will eventually be, whether you wish it or no.”
Freya shuddered at the memory. By day she could persuade herself she would never submit. At night, locked in the turret room, whose every stone she knew intimately, she doubted her resolve. How much longer must she rot here? She massaged her throbbing temples. Sometimes she wished he would come, just so that it would be over.
Stop thinking like that! Outside, the sky had a sullen, ominous look to it. The sea was angry. A summer storm brewing. A movement at the foot of the turret far below caught her attention. The glint of an eye. Standing on tiptoe, she strained to see. Was that dark shape a shadow, or something else? Her eyes widened as it moved with liquid stealth. A wolf. A huge wolf, a magnificent beast, crouched down on its mighty haunches. She could swear it was looking up at her. As if it was assessing her.
Her mouth dried. She held the animal’s gaze. Or it held hers. She could not tear her eyes away. Surely there were no wolves on this island? The moorland was too bleak. There was not a tree nor any other form of cover, save the castle. But wolf it was. Sleek, huge, beautiful. And savage. She could sense it, in the bunching of its muscles under that luxurious fur. Nature at its most perfect, and its most lethal. And its most enthralling.
Freya tried to haul herself up higher onto the window the better to see. Her calves ached with the effort. Being on the top floor of the keep, the window was not barred. As she leant out, the ground swooped up, making her dizzy. She closed her eyes until the dizziness stopped. When she looked down again, the wolf had gone.
She must have imagined it. A trick of the light, though it had seemed so palpably real. Then she heard the blood-curdling noises.
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