Scarlett’s hands shook as they adjusted the heavy wood-axe strapped across her back. It was a poor weapon against what she faced, but better than being completely unarmed. Her head held high, she walked with supreme confidence as she entered the clearing. Hopefully, that might hide the way her heart was pounding out of her chest and her knees were knocking beneath the long cloak.
There were maybe a dozen of them sprawled across the forest glade, all tall and well-built, clad in their clan colors; a tartan made up of black and the darkest greens, loose shirts or bare chests, hunting garb. It matched the weapons hanging from their sides or casually thrown on the ground nearby. Not that they needed manmade weapons.
Their leader was instantly recognisable, standing almost a full head above the others and exuding an aura of complete confidence. She had the uncomfortable feeling that his wasn’t faked. Thick dark hair hung in shaggy locks almost to his shoulders, framing a frighteningly masculine face and eyes that burned an odd amber colour. Abruptly they fixed on her, pinning her to the spot as her breath caught in her throat and it was all she could do not to stumble. It was as though he was seeing straight inside her, that in that instant he knew everything about her and it was obvious she had no chance.
Drawing in a ragged breath, Scarlett forced her feet to keep moving. The others were starting to stand up now, the clearing filling with a low muttering dispersed with terrifying growls, but she didn’t dare stop. If she did she would run screaming in the opposite direction. Her feet carried her to the spot right in front of him and he rose slowly, fluidly to his feet, towering over her now as she gulped. A lazy smile crossed his face, though instead of warming his expression if anything it made him more dangerous. Her stomach fluttered with something that had nothing to do with fear. Stupid. She was here for one reason only, and she was resigned to the fact that she probably wouldn’t make it back in one piece.
“Is there somethin’ I can help you with, lassie?” the lazy drawl sent a shiver down her spine and for a moment she struggled to answer. “Perhaps yer lost?” there was a spark of amusement in his tone and anger gave her the backbone she needed.
“Nae, I’m no lost! You, and yer pack here,” she gestured around her, “took an old woman fae a cottage on the outskirts of the village. I’m here tae get her back.”
For a moment surprise flashed across his face, then it was carefully back to the mask. “And what is she tae you?” he asked quietly, dangerously.
She debated lying, but he would probably know anyway, “My granny.”
He shrugged, and her hackles rose at the cavalier gesture. “If she was taken, she’s ours now. What makes you ken she’s even still alive?”
“It’s no the full moon ‘til tomorrow. I ken that’s when you normally kill them.”
Now he did look surprised, “No many people ken that about us.”
He paused as though expecting her to explain. Scarlett simply stood there silently. It was none of his business and besides, she didn’t want too think too closely on where her information had come from. When she didn’t reply, he added.
“Nae matter then. Besides, it is no’ always the case. Sometimes they get… carried away.”
Her stomach dropped, he was playing with her, she had to believe that. Her voice was tight as she asked. “Is she still alive or no?”
There was a long pause and just when she thought he wasn’t going to answer he nodded. “Fer now.”
Her eyes briefly closed in pure relief. “Please, let her go. She’s an old woman; she hasnae done anythin’ tae deserve bein’ harmed.”
He smiled, and it wasn’t a nice smile. “’Tis our way, as it has been fer generations.”
“People can change though!” she said, desperately, “You dinnae need tae do somethin’ just cause that’s how yer ancestors did it!”
He gazed at her a long moment. A shiver went down her spine, and it was only part fear.
“Even if I agreed with you, the old woman is pack property now. I hold this pack by force ‘n’ strength. We give nothin’ away fer free.”
Panic was setting in now. “Well, what if it wasnae fer free? What if I gave you somethin’ else instead?”
Something dark and dangerous flashed across his face and she took an involuntary step back. He smiled again and this time she saw the tips of his fangs peek out.
“You,” he said.
“Excuse me?” She blinked, her mind refusing to process.
“That is what I will take in exchange fer yer granny’s safety and release. You will take her place.”
Scarlett flinched, but she’d known what she was getting into when she’d come here. Her eyes squeezed shut as gave a brief nod in agreement. A light touch made her jump and as her eyes flew open he tilted her chin with one finger to meet that deep amber gaze.
“I want tae hear you say it.” There was a dangerous note in his voice and his eyes held her captive.
“I swear that if you let my granny go unharmed that I will take her place.”
He nodded once and released her so quickly that her knees sagged. She was vaguely aware of him shouting sharp commands and of the other men scurrying to follow them but she was struggling to focus past the rising terror of her own thoughts. This was how her life was going to end. She was never going to have her own home, or family, or see anything of the world outside of her little village. Granny would be furious at the choice she had made, but then she would have done the same thing if the situation had been reversed. Her arm was taken in a hard grip, and she knew who it was by the heat that coursed through her, a brand on her skin. Scarlett forced herself to raise her head, meet his gaze. She refused to die as a coward.
“When are you goin’ tae kill me?”
He smiled. “I dinae say anythin’ about killin’ you.”
Bewilderment filled her eyes as she stared at him and he leaned down, bending over her. His hot breath on her neck sent shivers running through her and his voice dropped until it was barely above a raspy growl.
“Yer mine now.”