On the run from a dangerous man, Ava Sutton flees to the Isle of Mull off the coast of Scotland. Masquerading as a titled, English lady, Ava must convince the cynical and darkly handsome chief of the Macleans of Aros to wed her before the devil tracks her down.
Tor Maclean, the new chief of Aros Castle, has sworn off marriage after his first wife tricked him into it. Despite his efforts to scare away the Englishwoman, his father arranged for him to wed, Tor is drawn to her fire, courage, and beauty. But when truths are revealed, and hearts as well as lives are on the dagger's edge, Tor doesn't know if he can forgive or if he will truly become the solitary Beast of Aros Castle...
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The Beast of Aros Castle
Highland Isles Series
By Heather McCollum, Alethea Spiridon
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 Heather McCollum
All rights reserved.
1522 AD, York, Northern England
Aveline Sutton pressed a hand against her pounding heart as she caught the lethal glare of her friend's half brother through the coach window. But Vincent Ellington couldn't hear her heart ricocheting through her chest from his spot on the manor steps, so Ava kept her eyes trained on him as they neared, subdued victory in her gaze. Her rash plan had worked. She was escaping Somerset Manor.
"God's teeth," Grace Ellington, Ava's mistress and best friend, said, leaning to peer out next to her. "Is he fondling himself?" As the hired carriage passed the front of the manor house, Vincent leered, his hand adjusting the evident bulge in his fitted hose. It was a wonder Ava had managed to escape still a maiden, what with that monster back at Somerset.
"Disgusting." Grace turned away.
Vincent was sending Ava off with a reminder of his warning. She could almost smell his sour breath as he leaned into her last night outside Lord Somerset's sickroom. Run away to Scotland, lovely Ava, but you are mine. And what is mine, stays mine.
She let her eyes move past him to the manicured holly bushes, ignoring him, forcing herself to look past his stalking these past weeks, purposely kindling panic inside her. He is nothing.
"I can't believe we are leaving Somerset and my father," Grace said from the opposite seat. Her voice shook slightly, drawing Ava's gaze back inside the red-lined interior of the hired coach. "I've lived here my entire life. I know nothing of Scotland and its barbaric people." She puffed out her cheeks. "We may not survive this time."
Ava reached to squeeze Grace's gloved hand. "Leaving is the only way we will survive. And I always find a way for us to endure." As the older of the two girls by eighteen months, Ava had naturally taken charge of their adventures and subsequent rescues. Pulling Grace from the river when the branch they'd balanced on broke. Keeping them from freezing to death when Ava had taken Grace on an adventurous picnic in a blizzard. Learning the right salves to use when Grace had fallen onto a wasp nest while chasing Ava up a mountainside. But this danger went far beyond normal catastrophes. Guilt tightened Ava's stomach and made her fingers curl into her palms.
"You're always so calm," Grace said, narrowing her eyes to peer through Ava's serene facade into her guarded thoughts. But Ava's years of donning a mask of courage kept her friend out. Grace sighed and leaned back into the cushions, adjusting her lap blanket. She shook her head, sending her perfectly coiffed, tawny curls dancing around her cheeks. "I wish I had your courage and strength."
"You have more than you give yourself credit for, Grace," Ava said. "You've bravely said good-bye to your ailing father."
"We were hardly close," Grace said about Edgar Ellington, the second Earl of Somerset.
"But who kept me going when your mother died?" Ava asked. "I fell to pieces. It was you who pulled me from bed and perpetual melancholy."
Grace's parents had taken Ava in as a newly born baby when Ava's unwed mother had died in childbirth. The lovely Countess of Somerset, Marjorie Ellington, had raised Ava alongside Grace, acting as her mother. When Marjorie lay dying of influenza two years ago, she pulled a promise from her husband, the Earl of Somerset, to look after Ava like she too was an Ellington. When the grand lady took her last shallow breath, Ava had shattered. She'd been a despondent mop of a girl when Vincent had rushed back from London with his lists of what Ava would need to repay the Somerset estate before she could consider leaving.
You were schooled, fed, clothed, and housed like a lady, not a servant, he'd argued. A miscalculation of my stepmother's generous heart. You must repay the estate. You will remain a servant of Somerset until your debts are paid off.
Lord Somerset didn't openly agree nor disagree with his son on the matter, but forbid his son to have carnal relations with Ava or his half sister, Grace. Apparently, his protection did not span to the poor maids of the house who became mouselike during Vincent's few short visits to Somerset. The old man continued to provide for Ava as his dead wife had requested. Ava had pushed the worry of her debts aside until Vincent had arrived several weeks ago to watch his father slowly succumb to his own illness.
Grace smiled sadly at Ava. "We both miss Mother. She would never have let Vincent chase us so."
"Which is why I had to act." Ava glanced out the open window at the shrinking image of the man she'd deftly eluded by convincing Lord Somerset to marry Grace to the son of a business associate in Scotland. Somewhere far, far away from Vincent.
"How can you ever forgive me?" Ava asked for the hundredth time, turning back to her friend.
Grace blinked, her lips pursed in a weak imitation of anger. "As I've said, there is nothing to forgive. You had to think quickly. Marrying me off to someone far away, and me begging for you to come as my maid, was the only way we could leave. Mother has no other relatives who would provide us sanctuary, and Vincent made it perfectly clear that he considers us his property, me to marry off to the highest bidder and you to force himself upon." She shivered, pushing back into the button-embellished seat cushions.
Somerset estate was huge and manicured, but even in its richness, it felt sad and poor of spirit. Cursed by the Ellingtons, no doubt. Ava glanced out at the trees lining the deer park they rolled through. The leaves had begun to turn red and orange. "I will figure something out." Ava smoothed the parchment folded in her lap. She'd saved herself from Vincent's attacks. He had shown an incestuous interest in Grace, but probably due to Ava's servant position, he'd made it blatantly obvious that Ava was the one he desired most. The more she resisted, the more he tormented her. Had she acted just to save herself?
"I will get you out of this marriage," she said to Grace, tapping the hastily copied contract that had procured their momentary liberty. "We have two weeks of travel to reach Aros Castle on the Isle of Mull. That is plenty of time for me to devise a way to keep our freedom from Vincent as well as Torquil Maclean."
Grace offered her a confident grin. "By then, clever Ava will deduce another way to save us." She tipped her head coquettishly, her chin jutting upward. "If need be, I can climb mountains, sleep in caves, even run with wolves."
Ava felt a genuine smile crack through her mask of serenity. "I will keep your abilities in mind."
The coach pitched and creaked as they turned onto the North Road toward Scotland. Ava took a full cleansing breath to clear her worry. Two weeks. Surely by then she could figure out how to save Grace from marrying Torquil Maclean without them being returned to Somerset as the contract indicated.
Torquil Maclean was the son of the Maclean of Mull, someone with whom Lord Somerset had done business this past summer before his illness. The clan chief was searching for a way to tie his family to England to prevent King Henry's troops from harassing his people now that England had declared war on Scotland. Vincent had forced a kiss on Ava when she'd seen the missive from the Highland chief in Lord Somerset's post, asking for possibilities beyond business ventures. She'd quickly responded in Lord Somerset's name that a marriage contract might be a perfect solution. Ava was just a servant without family or fortune. She couldn't offer herself up for marriage. No, it had to be Grace in order to convince the Maclean chief to offer them sanctuary.
Grace closed her eyes. "At least the Isle of Mull is hundreds of miles away from Vincent."
With his father's serious illness, Vincent was expected to remain at Somerset to take over the estate when his father died. By then Ava had to have Grace and herself safely tucked away somewhere in Scotland. Otherwise, he would call Ava back once he took Somerset's reins, insisting she repay the generosity Marjorie Ellington had bestowed upon her. At the thought, chill bumps scattered up her body. She'd be nothing more than a helpless slave to Vincent's lust.
Grace opened her eyes. "We could keep riding past Mull into the wilds of Scotland. We can live on my dowry for a while. I could learn a trade or even join a nunnery, if I must. I'd rather wed God than some ruthless Highlander." She'd apparently already categorized the Maclean's son as ruthless. Grace didn't even know yet that her husband-to-be was called The Beast of Aros, or at least that was what Vincent had called him when he'd cornered Ava the night before. Known as the great Beast of Aros Castle. A rutting beast for pure little Grace, he'd laughed cruelly.
"Give me the week," Ava said, tugging the window curtain shut. She wouldn't abandon Grace to a rutting beast, but running away was easier in thought than reality. Without witnesses and a copy of a parish registry showing that Grace had married or that they both were, in fact, dead, Vincent would hunt them down. Since King Henry had decided Scotland was too hospitable to France, he'd sent troops throughout the neighboring country. It wouldn't take long for Vincent, as the new Earl of Somerset, to have every English soldier looking for two lone women with obvious English accents. "A week, Grace. I'll have it figured out, and my plan won't involve running up mountains or battling wolves."
Grace snorted softly. "You have a penchant for running us up mountains, Ava."
"Very well, but I promise — no wolves."
* * *
"Have ye no fear of your da's ghost then?" Joan Maclean asked, chasing her son down the twisting, chiseled steps to the great hall below.
"Of course not," Tor Maclean answered his mother.
"He will haunt ye. Ye swore to wed the Somerset lass. It was your da's dying wish."
Tor turned at the bottom so he could stare level with his mother, three steps higher. "He asked me to swear, but I did not."
"His dying wish, Tor," she pleaded.
Tor rested his hands on her small, strong shoulders. Would she never relent? "I can't be held responsible for what someone wishes with their last breath. He could wish for King Henry to surrender unconditionally to our lad of a king, James, but it won't happen with a wish or a prayer or even a blood curse."
"But marrying the Englishwoman will protect our island," his mother insisted. "King Henry won't bother with us if there is a tie to an English noble. It is a dutiful match, Tor. Like your sister wed, to strengthen and protect the clan."
He frowned, thinking of the anguish on his sister's face as she rode away, tied to an old man she did not love. She had bent to their father's wishes, but their father was gone, rest his soul, and Tor was now in charge.
"I will protect our island, just like all the other Macleans before me." Tor pivoted and strode into the hall that had been the seat of the Macleans of Mull for centuries. Walls built of gray stone rose high into soaring arches of exposed wooden beams. Sconces burned with oiled wicks, scenting the air with the familiar bitter tang, and tapestries hung on the walls, depicting Maclean alliances and victories. He traipsed across the hewn wood floor toward his men at the hearth.
Joan stomped her foot behind him. "All by your bloody self?"
"He's got a few others to pitch in," Hamish, his second-in-command, called and used his boot to kick at an unburnt cut of peat. The flames caught the material and crackled. Duky, an aging rascal who'd fought with the Macleans for the last few years and earned himself a spot at his father's table, leaned against the wall, his arms crossed. Gavin, a young, promising warrior, nodded in support of his new chief.
"But with an English title," Joan continued, "we'd go unnoticed by King Henry's troops. They creep higher into the Highlands every day." She shook her graying head.
Tor exhaled slowly. "Cullen is now the MacDonald of Islay. He's coming in a fortnight and will work with us to devise a plan to keep English soldiers off our island. A way that doesn't bind me to a meek waif of a girl with an English tongue, who would probably die her first winter here, anyway."
"From what the messenger told me," Hamish said, rubbing his full beard, "the lass smiles more than she talks. Mayhap ye won't have to hear her English tongue."
"I won't hear it at all because ye are riding out to meet her carriage to tell them the wedding was not agreed to," Tor said. "Gavin, Duky, and ye will return her to Lord Ellington of Somerset. I have no need for his gold, nor his daughter."
Joan snorted and threw her hands up in the air. "God save us."
"Nay, mother," Tor said, raising his sword where the etched face of a wolf stared back at him from the black leather hilt. "The Beast of Aros will save us."
* * *
"Lean forward," Ava said. "Head between your knees. Breathe in, two, three, four. Breathe out, two, three, four. Slowly now." She stooped next to Grace where her friend sucked air through her nose, her face red and blotchy. Ava strummed a hand up and down Grace's back, trying to calm her. It had been a week and a half since they'd set out. With the blasted excellent weather, they had arrived too quickly in Oban, where notice of their appearance had been ferried to Mull. And still, Ava had not concocted a life-saving plan for her friend.
They couldn't continue alone in this rough country, not without weapon-laden escort. They'd fended off enough leers just from the driver of the coach and had been forced to outrun a set of bandits who'd only stopped chasing the coach when the driver had cut loose one of the two dowry trunks tied to the back.
"I can be a nun," Grace said between breaths. "Or we can run into the mountains. I'm ... really fine with running up a mountain. A dry cave ... would be ... quite adequate."
Grace wiped angrily at her cheeks. "I don't want to wed a beast, keep a castle for a beast, sleep with a beast." Before Ava had been able to gently tell Grace, the innkeeper had confirmed Torquil Maclean's nickname when they'd arrived.
"He's a man, Grace. The beast is only a title for him, one he probably gave himself to make himself feel braver in battle."
"I'll faint dead away. I swear," Grace said.
"Courage," Ava said, her eyes darting about the small room they'd been sharing, but no answers hid in the dusty corners. They had waited at the inn for days, trying to hire a coach with the seed packets and cloth in Grace's remaining dowry trunk. But now the Maclean escorts waited for them outside. "Courage," she repeated.
"I don't have any," Grace said. "That's you. Courageous and clever. You could stand up to the Beast of Aros, outwit him. Marry him to keep Vincent from dragging us back to Somerset, and then find us somewhere safe to go."
Ava's breath caught in her chest, her gaze sliding to her best friend. "What was that?"
Grace leaned forward, resting elbows on knees to cradle her head. "You wed the beast, and we run away under the protection of his name. If need be, I can ..." She gulped, wiping her nose on a cloth handkerchief. "I can become a nun, and you will request sanctuary from your husband. Isn't that something that's done all the time? I thought I'd heard —"
"But he's expecting to wed Grace Ellington," Ava said, her mind ticking through the details of the contract Lord Somerset's solicitor had finalized.
Grace sniffed, sitting up straight. "I don't know. We could say that's your name or maybe you are Grace but you prefer to be called Ava."
"But my family name —"
"I will swear you are an Ellington, the only daughter of the Earl of Somerset," Grace cut in, raising her right hand in the air as if giving an oath. "Mother practically adopted you into the family."
Could that work? Ava had struggled with the guilt of using her friend to run from Vincent. She just could not watch sweet Grace suffer at the hands of someone called Beast. "Grace Ellington," Ava said, "you're brilliant."
"Doubtful." Grace sat upright, apparently done with her rapid breathing. "You are the brilliant one who saves us," Grace said, wiping flat palms over her forehead and cheeks.
"Not this time." Ava smiled fully, even as her stomach flipped and rolled. She whisked to the trunk that held Grace's clothes. They were the same size and build, with similarly shaped faces. They'd been raised together, so Ava knew all about the Ellington family. Even the small portrait that was sent to Aros with the betrothal contract could have been of Ava instead of Grace. The eye color was off, but what man paid attention to the details of a lady's eyes? She grabbed Grace's blue traveling gown and held it along her front. Perfect.
Grace slowly stood. "You don't mean ..."
"I will be the Lady of Somerset, and you will be my maid," Ava announced.
"I thought yer name was Lady Grace Ellington of Somerset," the burly Highlander, with the scruffy beard, said as he stood before Ava, braced for battle.
Excerpted from The Beast of Aros Castle by Heather McCollum, Alethea Spiridon. Copyright © 2017 Heather McCollum. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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