With the death of her beloved father, Meghan Moresworth's sheltered life collapses into hell, when she is forced into marriage and abuse. She finally escapes to find safety and unexpected passion in the arms of Galen Thorne. She grows to love the man who thinks she’s a runaway servant and fears her deep, dark secrets will destroy them both. Galen never expected to discover that the little waif he rescued would turn into a woman who could tempt him to the breaking point...and steal his heart. When the secrets of Meghan’s past are revealed, will Galen keep her as his own, or is she destined for the gallows?
Lungs burning from holding his breath, Galen Thorne broke the surface of the lake. Taking in a great breath of air, he raked his fingers through his hair and laughed. When was the last time he had taken a day for nothing more than pleasure?
“You were gone so long, I had thought you drowned.”
Galen waded to shore and dropped down on the sun-warmed grass next to his brother. “Aye, worry plagues you.”
“I have not seen you so relaxed in ages,” Royce said with a chuckle. “It is good that you still know how to play like a child.”
Stacking his hands behind his head and squinting up at the brilliant blue sky, Galen sighed. “It has been years since I felt like a child.”
Royce grunted an agreement. “Your responsibility is much.”
Too much at times, but that was the life he lived. There was no choice in the matter. He had his land, and his people to feed and protect. And a brother he did not always know what to do with. He grinned and closed his eyes. “How about the Lady Beatrice?”
Galen chuckled. “Lady Selina? She is a beauty. Tall, dark, rich as sin itself.”
“You marry her!”
Galen opened his eyes as Royce pushed to his feet in a rush. “Why must you joke about this matter? You know what I want—who I want. Yet you delay. It is not fair.”
His lips twitching with mirth, Galen turned his head toward Royce. “Lady Erica? She is—”
“Enough!” Royce grabbed up his clothing. “It is not a joke how I feel about Martha. I will not marry some blooded lady just so you do not have to marry at all. You are the older brother. You must provide the heir to the Thorne family, not I.” Shoving his arms into his shirt, he growled. “You told me I must wait. I will wait.”
Royce’s normally jovial countenance did not carry over while discussing the woman he wished to wed. A peasant. An escaped slave Galen had taken in several years earlier. And Royce was correct; Galen was the one responsible for carrying on the Thorne name. It was his duty to produce an heir. He did not wish to ever marry, but the papers had been signed. He was a plighted man.
Galen sat up and stretched his shoulders. “I jest with you, baby brother. I have promised to release Martha to you in due time, and I shall.”
“Hmph.” Royce tossed himself back to the ground. “Love is no jest, brother. I wish you would learn that.”
“Love is for fools and young men who know no better.”
“I am not so young,” Royce said as he handed Galen a hunk of dark bread and cheese.
Galen laughed. “Then are you a fool?”
Royce slugged his shoulder a little too hard to be playful. “You are the fool for not seeing that—”
Galen held up his hand to stop Royce’s words. Reaching for his sword, he slowly came to his feet, his eyes focused on the bushes farther down the grassy beach of the lake where he had heard the crackle of footsteps on dried leaves.
Just as silently, Royce hefted his sword and rolled to his feet. Galen wondered where his guard was.
A child, clothed in a filthy russet dress, stumbled out of the bushes toward the lake. A hood covered the head. Dirty bare feet poked from beneath the hem. Galen heard a cry of pain as it fell to its knees. It reached for the water with one hand, seemed to lose its balance, and toppled over face-first into the water.
Dropping his sword to the grass, Galen ran to the child and yanked it out of the water, hefting the negligible weight in his arms. The hood fell away to reveal a mass of tangled, soiled hair and a face swollen with deep bruises, cuts and scrapes. “Dear Lord above.” Galen sent up the prayer as he went to his knees, cradling the girl in his arms. His stomach twisted in fury at the devil who had beaten a child.
Still carrying his sword, checking the bushes for anyone who may have followed the child, Royce neared Galen. “What is it?”
“A girl.” Galen pushed the knotted hair away from her face. Her skin burned with fever. She whimpered in pain, yet did not awaken. Swallowing back the vile curses that ached to be set free, he raised his head and let out one short, ear-piercing whistle.
Three men emerged, silent as shadows, from the surrounding forest.
“Gilford,” Galen said to one of the three knights who guarded him. “You ride ahead with Royce. Royce, see that Martha prepares the room across from mine and has supplies ready to treat this child. Randolph, Severn, ride with me.”
“Aye, my lord,” Gilford said as he slipped silently back into the trees to retrieve his horse.
“You’re taking her home?” Royce asked, astonishment clear on his face.
Barely holding his temper in check, Galen asked, “You wish me to leave her here to die?”
“You do not know who she belongs to, why she was beaten. Perhaps—”
“Enough!” The child in his arms whimpered and made a feeble attempt to push his hand away. “Shh,” Galen whispered. “You are safe.” Keeping his voice low, he glared at Royce and said, “Do as I say, little brother.”
With an impatient shrug, Royce shook his head. “Yes, my lord.” The edge of sarcasm was unmistakable.
“May I?” Severn, another of the guard said as he held out his arms for the child. “I will hold her while you dress, my lord.”
Careful not to cause more pain to the girl, Galen passed her over to his most trusted friend.
“Sweet Mother of God,” Severn whispered. “She is—” Severn’s eyes held all the pity and anger that Galen knew were in his own.
“Aye,” Galen said softly as he pulled on his leggings and shirt. “I have not seen such abuse since—”
“Your father,” Severn finished for him.
* * * * *
Throwing one leg over his destrier’s neck, Galen smoothly slid to the ground, careful not to jar his fragile package. When Severn stepped up to take her from him, Galen could not bring himself to let her go. “Take care of Zeus for me. I will handle the girl.”
Severn gave a quick nod of understanding as he gathered Zeus’ reins. He was the only man here who would understand, Galen thought as he made his way into the hall and up the winding staircase to the second level. Only Severn knew as well as he how severely Jack Thorne had abused his minions. Galen had no idea how many times the two of them had tended the young women of the household after one of his father’s hard-handed punishments.
Galen entered the chamber he had deemed to be the child’s. Martha was there with a bucket of warm water, towels, bandages, and some small containers of salve.
“Very good, Martha,” Galen said as he laid the sleeping girl on the bed. Whimpering, she clung to his shirtsleeve. As he pried her hand away, she pulled her knees up to her body, folding into herself.
“My lord,” Martha said. “Would you help me undress her so I might see how badly she is wounded?”
“It is bad,” Galen said as he tried to pull the stiff, dirty dress up. The child cried out at the movement.
“May I suggest your dagger?” Martha pointed to the small, lethal blade on his belt.
Galen used the knife to cut the ragged clothing from the child’s body.
Galen exhaled a sharp breath as he stared at her breasts. “Good Lord.” This chest belonged to no child.
Making a slow appraisal of her body from round, firm breasts to the tiny, wound-covered feet, then back to the mound of her womanhood covered in downy, dark blonde curls the exact shade of warmed honey, a killing rage ignited his blood.
“Royce said she was but a child,” Martha whispered.
“Tend her.” His voice was rough with suppressed fury. “Scrub her clean, wash her hair, bind her ribs and left wrist. Check for other broken bones. Put salve on her cuts.” Without another word, he left the room, unable to bear looking upon the tiny, broken body any longer.
Royce and Severn were waiting in the hall below, seated in front of the large unlit fireplace, drinking mugs of ale.
“How’s the child?” Severn asked, standing to greet Galen.
Galen took the mug from Severn and downed the contents in one long, deep swallow. Rage burned through him. A need to do violence. He threw the wooden cup against the hearth with strength born of fury. “That child is a full-grown woman.” He threw himself into the chair Severn had vacated. “By all that is holy,” he vowed, fists clenched, “I will kill the man who did this to her.”
“Calm yourself, brother,” Royce said as he leisurely drank. “She is obviously a run-away, probably nothing more than a slave. Perhaps she deserved the beating she received.”
Galen cast his brother a stony glare. “She is near death, her body is but one large wound, and you say she may have deserved it?” He stood up, his hands clenched in fists at his sides as he made his way across the hall to the stairs. “By God, man, we cannot be brothers.”
Royce had been too young to remember the beatings their father had bestowed on his servants. Galen had vowed never to treat any person, servant or otherwise, as his father had. He loathed any man who could be so cruel.
* * * * *
Lying in bed, Galen was unable to dispel the image of the woman’s battered body from his mind. When he heard her cry out, he pulled on his short dressing tunic and crossed the hall to her room. She thrashed in the bed, illuminated by nothing more than the flickering firelight in the hearth. Bandages covered her from waist to armpit. The heavy down quilt tangled around her legs. His gut clenched once again at the sight of her battered body. A bluish bump discolored her forehead, her slender neck was marred by dark bruises, her arms and legs were scratched and torn. And her slender, tiny feet were raw from walking God only knew how far with no protection.
He swore he could feel her pain as her soft sobs wrenched at his heart.
Galen dipped a cloth into the pottery bowl that held cool water on the bedside table and placed it gently on her forehead. Her words were mostly incoherent, though he heard her call for her father more than once.
Speaking in soft tones to her, he disentangled the quilt from her legs and gently laid it over her. “Hush, my sweet, you are safe.”
As his deep voice and gentle hands apparently slipped past her fevered terrors, she slowly calmed, her thrashing stilled, and her sobs subsided.
“You are safe,” he whispered again, brushing his palm over her silky hair.
She reached out and found his hand. Her grasp was surprisingly strong as she pulled it to her cheek. “Father,” she whispered, her voice hoarse as she looked at him through glazed eyes the color of the richest summer sky.
He wondered at the smallness of her. The back of the hand that held his was soft as downy feathers, yet the palm was rough from labor. “Hush, my little dove,” he whispered as he gently brushed thick locks of long golden hair away from her face. “You will be safe here.”
Her smile was distorted through her swollen features. “Father, I have missed you so.”
Galen’s throat tightened. He wished he could take the suffering from her. She was so fragile, so small, so alone. God help the beast who did this to her if he ever found him. Keeping the frustration from his voice, he whispered, “Shh. You must rest.”
Her eyes slowly closed. “Please do not leave.” She sighed. As her body began to relax, Galen tried to escape her grip, but she held fast.
Sitting on the soft wool mat next to the bed, he rested his head on the mattress near her. As sleep overtook him, he thought of all the ways he might avenge her.