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Michelle Willingham

Warriors in Winter

Warriors in Winter

Series: The MacEgan Brothers - Book #7


Click here to read Chapter 1

I’ll cast a spell for you, Cousin. And on the winter solstice, I promise you’ll find love.

Rhiannon MacEgan highly doubted that a twelve-year-old girl could conjure up a man, particularly one who would fall in love with her. But Alanna firmly believed in the Old Ways. Perhaps Druid blood ran within her veins, or perhaps her uncle Trahern had told her too many faerie stories. Regardless, there was no harm in walking out to the stone dolmen that lay halfway between Laochre Castle and Gall Tír, the Viking settlement. Her cousin could cast whatever enchantments she wanted, and Rhiannon wouldn’t stop her. 

The sky brooded with heavy clouds, and the air was so cold, her breath hung in misty circles. Frost crunched beneath her feet, and she drew her cloak tighter as she neared the dolmen. It resembled an ancient altar with two parallel stones at the base and a slanted stone table. Alanna waited near the Druid burial site, while beside her stood Cavan MacEgan. He looked annoyed at having to shadow his younger sister.

When Rhiannon reached them, Cavan sent her a dark look. “I cannot believe you agreed to her foolish superstitions. It’s freezing and about to snow.”

“It’s not foolishness,” Alanna protested. “I promise this will work.”

Cavan rolled his eyes, but Rhiannon sent the girl an encouraging smile. “What must I do?”

“I’ll need a lock of your hair.” The girl produced a bundle containing a blend of birch bark, and herbs, while Rhiannon used her knife to cut a small lock from the underside of her hair. Alanna wound the dark hair around the bundle and set it upon the dolmen. “Now we’ll light a fire, and I’ll cast the spell.” 

Cavan withdrew flint and held it out to Rhiannon. She hesitated. “Perhaps you should light it. I’m not very good with striking a spark.”

“No,” Alanna protested. “If he does, then the love spell will fall upon him.”

“And we wouldn’t want that,” her cousin commented dryly. Rhiannon took the flint, holding it over the bundle of herbs.

“As you strike the flint, clear your mind and I shall conjure up the face of the man you will come to love. We’ll burn the charm and you’ll inhale the smoke.”

“Burning hair smells terrible,” Cavan pointed out. “She’ll probably choke.”

His younger sister sent him a furious look, but he only grinned, standing back with his nose pinched. “Go on, then, Rhiannon.”

It took several tries, but finally she managed to get a spark to land upon the small pile. It died instantly, sending up a tiny flare of smoke.

“Quick, breathe it in,” Alanna commanded. 

Rhiannon gave a sniff, laughing as she did. “You’re right, Cavan. It does smell awful.”

“I think we should go back to Laochre for a hot drink,” her cousin suggested, glancing up at the clouded sky. “Before we’re buried in snow.”

“Not until I’ve finished.” Alanna squared her shoulders and commanded. “You must burn the love charm. And don’t forget to think of your lover’s face. It’s important.”

Rhiannon bit her lip to hold back the laughter. It was silly, but she understood that this meant something to Alanna. So many of the others had made fun of the awkward girl, teasing her about her beliefs. And she knew from her own experience, how painful it was to be ridiculed. 

The young men avoided Rhiannon as if she had leprosy, because of her overprotective father. She’d never been kissed, nor had she enjoyed any suitors at all. Connor MacEgan had sworn to kill them if they so much as looked at her. And when one friend had dared to hold her hand during the feast of Bealtaine, her father had raged at the young man, threatening to cut off his fingers.

Though Rhiannon had more than enough female friends, she’d watched them marry, one by one. She’d left her home in the west of Éireann and had traveled to her uncle’s castle at Laochre, hoping to find a husband. But although a few had smiled at her, none had dared to court her. Her father’s interference continued to shadow her, and though she didn’t believe in love charms, she was running out of other ideas.

Striking another spark, she coaxed it to life with the warmth of her breath. The malodorous blend of herbs burned brightly until it died to coals and finally ashes.

“There. It’s done now,” Alanna pronounced. “Did you see the face of your lover?”

“Yes,” Rhiannon lied, though she hadn’t thought of anyone. The wind tore into her cloak, making her shiver. “Let’s go back and we’ll see if it worked.”

Her cousin appeared troubled. “Of course it will work. But only if you believe in it.” 

The weather shifted, and the first few flakes of snow drifted from the sky. It was growing darker, and Cavan took his sister’s hand. “We should go back while it’s still light.” They started to run, racing one another, while Rhiannon followed behind at a walk. They had to cross through another forest, and she wanted a few moments to herself.

But as the minutes passed, the storm worsened. Blinding white flakes swirled, and she pulled her cloak tighter, her eyes stinging from the wind. Cavan and Alanna had run so far ahead of her, she could no longer see them.

She held fast to her cloak, hurrying toward her cousins, but the clouded darkness made it impossible to see more than an arm’s length in front of her. Though she knew the direction of Laochre, the forest stretched out for half a mile. The trees did little to cut through the wind, and the ground quickly transformed from dark brown into snowy white.

Leaning against the wind, she kept her head down for the next mile. At any moment, she hoped to catch up to them. But as time stretched on, the coldness sinking into her skin went beyond the frigid storm—it was a darkening fear that she might not find them. What if they became lost while the frozen night descended?

Her teeth began to chatter, and she picked up her skirts, running hard. “Cavan!” she shouted into the storm. “Alanna!” When there came no answer, her heart quickened. Were they hurt? Or had they run so far ahead that they couldn’t hear her?

The pragmatic side to her tried to remain calm. Her uncle’s castle was only a few miles away—less than an hour’s walk. If she made it through these trees, surely she would see the clearing that led the way toward Laochre Castle. She might even see torches gleaming to light her way.

She scanned the snow for her cousins’ footprints, but the rapidly falling snow masked any trace of them. What if you don’t find them? came the voice of fear. Though she tried to dispel the thought, it taunted her mind with a tangible threat. You could die in this storm without shelter.

Again, Rhiannon quickened her pace, but a hidden tree root caught her footing, and she stumbled to the frozen ground. Her hands sank into several inches of snow, and she grimaced. The furious blizzard swirled around her, making her disoriented. 

Just keep walking. She stood up and brushed herself off, trying to ignore the rise of tears in her eyes. Being afraid and cold wasn’t going to get her home any faster. Once again, she called out to her cousins. And still, there was no reply. 

Rhiannon sent up a silent prayer for their safety. Never had she seen a storm like this, not in all her years of living in Eíreann. She stopped walking and turned around to reassess her whereabouts. She bit her lip hard, forcing back the rise of panic as she left the trees and entered the open clearing.

As soon as she saw it, her heart sank. It wasn’t the long stretch of land leading toward Laochre. Instead, it was a hilly terrain that curved southeast, a few miles away from the Lochlannach settlement of Gall Tír. 

Somehow, when she’d had her head down against the wind, she’d gone the wrong way. Frustration welled up inside her, and she made her way back into the forest. Why hadn’t she kept her head up? Why hadn’t she paid more attention? Now she had to walk all the way back in the opposite direction.

Her hands were starting to go numb, for she hadn’t brought any hand coverings. Rhiannon tried to cover her hands with her cloak, but her feet, too, were starting to lose feeling. As a healer, she knew what that meant. She couldn’t risk the walk back home or even to Gall Tír. She needed to find shelter until the storm ceased. Even if she couldn’t build a fire, she could at least massage some warmth back into her hands and feet.

Right now, she was wishing she hadn’t given Cavan back the flint. What she wouldn’t give for the warmth of a fire and dry clothes. Through the trees she walked, shivering hard as she searched for something. Anything to shelter her from the storm. But there were only endless rows of trees, the snow rising higher above her ankles until she could no longer feel her feet. 

Her teeth chattered, and she kept walking through the woods. A strange scent caught her attention . . . something that seemed like smoke. Was it a fire? Or better, someone who could help her? She continued toward it, hurrying as fast as she could, until a feral growl stopped her in her tracks.

The gray wolf stalked her, his fur dark against the snow. A low snarl came from his muzzle, and he bared his teeth at her. 

Rhiannon froze in place, for any sudden movement might cause it to attack. She gazed around for an escape or a weapon of some sort. There was a fallen branch not too far away. But she feared that if she reached for it, the animal would spring upon her, tearing out her throat. 

She held her breath and stared at the animal, not knowing what to do. Its ears perked up, its body crouched low. One matter was certain—she couldn’t remain like this for much longer. Her heart was beating so fast, she could hardly bring herself to move. But there was no other choice.

Steadily, she inched toward the branch, hoping she could defend herself with it. Or at least have more time to run.

Another step . . . closer . . . 

“Who’s there?” a man’s voice demanded. The wolf growled toward the sound, and the distraction was just enough for her to seize the branch. A tall, shadowed man had emerged from the trees, a torch in one hand, a blade in the other. When the wolf darted toward him, Rhiannon cried out a warning. “Watch out!”

She didn’t think but ran after the wolf, cracking the branch against the animal’s head. It snarled, diving toward her in fury. 

She had no time to scream but threw up the branch to protect herself. Before it could sink its teeth into her, the man waved his torch at the animal, singeing its fur. She rolled away, unable to breathe when the wolf sprang up at the man. He let out a grunt of pain when the predator bit into his arm. Blood stained the white snow, and a moment later, the animal’s snarl was cut off as it dropped to the ground.

“Are you all right?” she whispered, stepping closer.

The man didn’t answer, but cleaned his weapon in the snow before drying it and sheathing it. His arm was raw and bleeding as he lifted the torch toward her. And when the light of his torch illuminated him, she saw a face she knew . . . the face of a murderer.

***

Kaall Hardrata could smell the woman standing there. Her scent was faintly feminine, like a blend of herbs he didn’t recognize. He didn’t know what had brought her here, but he wanted her gone so he could tend his wound. The beast he’d slain had dug its teeth into his arm, and he clenched his jaw against the pain.

“I’ve seen you before,” she murmured. “Last year, during the raid.” 

Then she was a MacEgan. Kaall gave no reply but stepped back four paces until he was near the hidden entrance of his cave. He shoved his sleeve down, hiding the bloody gash. “You should know better than to wander out alone,” he said in the Irish language. “Go back home to your family.”

“I was trying to. But the snow made it to difficult to see.”

A dark smile crossed his face with the irony of her words. “And you sought shelter with me?” Of all the places to go, his dwelling was the worst place for sanctuary. He might have defended her from one beast, but it didn’t atone for his past deeds. Most of the others believed he deserved to live away from the rest of the tribe.

She didn’t answer for a long moment, and he sensed her fear. “I don’t have much of a choice, do I?”

The snow was still falling rapidly, and the droplets struck his skin, melting against him. 

“You could stand out here and freeze to death.”

She said nothing, as if she were considering it. Then her quiet accusation struck. “You killed my cousin’s husband.”

Kaall let her words linger for a time, choosing his words with care. “So I did.” He didn’t apologize for it, nor did he offer any excuses. He hadn’t wanted to kill anyone and truthfully had questioned the wisdom of going to Laochre that day. He’d believed he could help his father stop the raid, but he’d failed in the attempt.

“Are you sorry for it?” she asked.

“Should I have stood there and let him kill me with his spear?” His words came out with the frustration he’d held inside over the last year. His soul was already damned, for because of that death, he’d lost everything of value to him. Not only his wealth, but his daughter. 

That had been the worst penalty of all—that the others had used his mistake as a means of taking the child from him. Despite everything that had happened, he was determined to get Emla back. He would prove himself to them . . . somehow.

Kaall clung to the thread of hope, even knowing how hopeless it was. 

Rhiannon let out a breath. “No, I suppose you had no choice but to defend yourself.” 

Though it was a grudging comment, at least they understood one another. 

He didn’t want the woman here, intruding upon his solitude. But the freezing air held the promise of continuing snow for the next few hours. Though he’d rather she left, she might die of exposure. He was a heartless bastard, but not that cruel. Beckoning for her to follow, he lifted aside the hide covering the hidden cave.

“I’m going back to the fire,” he informed her. “You can warm yourself for a few minutes and then go on your way.”

***

Entering a cave alone with a murderer wasn’t a good idea. Rhiannon knew it, but the alternative was worse. She kept her distance from the man, though she was glad the interior was warm from the fire and insulating stone walls. 

Had he told the truth, when he’d claimed to be defending himself? Or was it a lie, meant to lure her into trusting him? There was no way to know. For now, she would remain alert and pray that the storm would stop quickly.

She stepped closer to the fire, the heat almost painful against her freezing hands and feet. The scent of peat filled the space, the smoke rising toward the top where crevices allowed it to escape.

“My name is Rhiannon MacEgan,” she offered. 

The Lochlannach didn’t offer his own name, though she hadn’t expected him to. Instead, he moved behind her and closed the hide curtain that veiled the entrance of the cave. 

While she warmed herself, she saw the pain upon his face as he held pressure against his bleeding arm. The animal bite would likely fester and cause a fever. Perhaps worse.

Leave him alone. He killed Murtagh and isn’t worth your time.

Her cousin would say that, she knew. But this man had claimed he was only defending himself. Rhiannon didn’t know what to believe. 

In the light of the fire, the Viking’s dark gold hair gleamed. It hung past his broad shoulders, making him seem more like an ancient barbarian. He was so tall, she had to lean back to look at him, while his physical body was honed like a steel blade. And yet . . . she found him compelling beneath the fierceness. His stark blue eyes were unusual, like none she’d ever seen before. 

In many ways, he reminded her of a wounded predator. Being here with him wasn’t at all safe. She’d escaped from a wolf, only to end up in the lion’s den.

But this lion was in a great deal of pain because of her—and it was impossible for her to watch a man suffer without wanting to do something about it. A good healer treated every man— rich or poor, sinner or saint. It was part of who she was, and if nothing else, he had protected her from the wolf and granted her shelter. Even if he did terrify her, she owed him something for saving her life. 

Reluctantly, she took a step closer. Her gaze passed over his wounded arm as she considered what to do. Blood was seeping into his tunic, but the greater risk was that his blood would become poisoned from the bite. 

“How is your arm?” she asked.

“An animal tried to bite it off. How do you think it is?” Though his words held bitterness, she sensed he was trying to keep her at a distance. Whether it was pride or pain, it was working. She had no desire to go any closer. Fear and uncertainty heightened, her pulse pounding in her veins. 

“Don’t waste your breath on me, kjære.“ His low voice was rigid, without a trace of softness in it. “If the storm has stopped, and you’re warm enough, then leave.” 

“I should,” she admitted. “My family will be searching for me.” She desperately wanted to return home, where her family and friends would keep her safe. But an invisible hand seemed to hold her captive here. 

He gave a shrug, as if that didn’t surprise him. “Go, then.”

***

Kaall turned his back, waiting to hear the sound of her footsteps. As he’d expected, a moment later, he heard her lift back the heavy hide. She would leave, and he could then try to treat the festering wound. Right now he wanted to plunge his bare skin into the snow—anything to rid himself of the fiery ache. 

“The storm is worse,” she called out. “I can’t see anything but white.” The draft of cool air was sealed off when she lowered the drape once more. Regret coated her voice as she admitted, “I’ll have to stay longer.”

It wasn’t at all what he’d wanted to hear. The last thing he needed was to spend the night with a woman who loathed the sight of him.

“You can share my shelter,” he said in a low voice, stepping back, “but stay away from me.”

“Believe me, I’d rather not stay, either,” she told him. “I wish I knew what happened to my cousins. If they’re out there . . . “ Her voice broke off, as if she couldn’t bear to think of it.

“There’s nothing you can do,” he told her. 

“I know you’re right. But it doesn’t make it any easier.” She approached him, and he stiffened, wondering why she would want to come nearer. His arm was burning with pain, and he wanted to be left alone.

“If I have to stay here, then at least let me look at your arm,” she insisted. “It was my fault you were hurt.”

He backed away until his shoulders rested against the wall. The idea of her touching him, even to treat a wound, brought a warning flare through him. Her soft scent held the sweetness of youth and the maturity of a woman unawakened. It had been years since he’d had a woman, and his mind filled up with unholy images. 

“Leave it.” The words came out half in a growl, but instead of obeying him, she pulled back his sleeve. 

Stubborn, wasn’t she? When her fingers reached his arm, Kaall reversed their positions, pressing her back against the stone cave. She was at his mercy, trapped within his arms. He wanted to frighten her away, so he chose words deliberately intended to wound.

“You don’t understand, do you, søtnos? I’m not a good man, like your MacEgan cousins, who will watch over you. Touch me again, and I’ll take far more than you’re offering.“ His hands moved up her ribcage as he anticipated her flight. She would tremble with fear, and the moment he released her, she would go to the farthest corner of the cave, leaving him alone. She’d be glad to be rid of him in the morning.

The familiar coldness slipped within him, freezing out all emotions. He knew what he was. Why no woman wanted him. This woman would be no different from the others who had kept their distance.

Instead, her hands came up to touch his arm. “Stop trying to frighten me. I can see that you’re in pain, and you’re too proud to ask for help.”

He cut off her words, taking her face between his palms. Her hair, like dark silk against his fingertips, held a hint of curl. Her breath warmed his fingers, and he sensed the goose bumps upon her flesh.

“Run away, little girl,” he warned. 

“I-I’m not a little girl,” she whispered. In her voice, he heard the tremulous fear.

He moved his hands on either side of her, against the wall. “If you stay here in my arms,” he murmured, “I’m going to kiss you.” 

The threat was meant to push her away, to send her back to the other side of the cave where she would count the minutes until she could go. He didn’t want her sympathy or worse, her pity.

At last, she shoved her way past him. Good. If she had any sense at all, she’d leave him alone. He heard the slight rustle of her movement nearby and turned toward the warmth of the fire. Before he could sit, her hand caught his in a firm grip while she pushed back his sleeve. 

A soft cloth wiped his forearm, gently stanching the blood flow. Kaall froze in place, as Rhiannon wrapped the linen over him, forming a bandage.

“There,” she breathed. “I really need to clean it, but at least the bleeding will slow.”

The act of compassion angered him. She’d called his bluff, not believing he would act upon his threat. So be it.

“You were warned.” Then he leaned in, his mouth seeking hers.

Summary:

Enjoy a collection of three holiday stories featuring second-generation characters from the MacEgan Brothers series!

IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER
After Brianna MacEgan’s husband was killed by a Viking, she will stop at nothing to avenge his death—even if she must wield the sword herself. But when the handsome Arturo de Manzano offers to train her to fight, the Spaniard slowly begins to melt the ice around her heart …

THE HOLLY AND THE VIKING
After being caught in a snowstorm, Rhiannon MacEgan seeks shelter with a fierce Viking. She’s intrigued by the handsome warrior Kaall, but he’s holding a terrible secret. Not only is Kaall blind, he’s also her cousin’s greatest enemy…

A SEASON TO FORGIVE
Adriana de Manzano is betrothed to Liam MacEgan, a man who rescued her from captivity, but she’s hiding the darkness of her past. To save Liam’s life, she was forced to betray him. If she tells this proud Irish warrior the truth, will he ever forgive her?
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