Kieran of Hawkesmere sat on a rocky ledge overlooking the sea, ignoring the drunken celebration of his kinsmen a hundred yards inland. The small group of men, led by his older brother Hugh, had made camp for the night in a sheltering grove of trees. They were in high spirits, having successfully kidnapped their enemy's daughter in a midnight raid. Hugh meant to take the girl as his wife, thereby ensuring a cessation of the escalating violence between the two clans.
They'd ridden hard all day, stopping late this afternoon when Hugh had judged them safe from pursuit. But while the others drank and made merry, Kieran scanned the sea below, unable to relax his vigilance.
The six years he'd spent on Crusade had marked him, left him wary and tense, apart from Hawkesmere and its people in a way that went far beyond the distance from the cliff to the trees. Though he'd been home for several months, he still felt a stranger in the very keep where he'd been born.
A salty breeze brushed Kieran's skin. He took a deep breath, trying to erase the scent of death that lingered deep in his lungs. Only three men had died during the night, a paltry number to a man who'd participated in the slaughter of thousands, yet Kieran felt those losses keenly.
Would he never find peace? He feared Hugh would pull him unwillingly into one battle after another until his luck ran out, and he lay cold and forgotten, the victim of some insignificant raid.
A shudder ran through him. He pulled his heavy cloak tighter around the chafing weight of his armor, wishing for a warm hearth. Unfortunately, Hawkesmere laid two day's ride inland, and he didn't crave warmth enough to endure the stares and questions of those near the fire.
He gave the camp an annoyed glance over his shoulder, wondering if anyone would be sober enough to fight should Lady Anna's brother make use of the skiff Kieran had seen anchored below their keep and try to rescue her by water.
With a heavy sigh, he turned his attention back toward the choppy sea that crashed against the deserted beach thirty feet below. Perhaps his fears were irrational. Lady Anna had been betrothed to Hugh from the cradle. Despite Hugh's bloody method of claiming his bride, it was doubtful her brother would attempt to take her back.
Still, he couldn't help but feel that something was amiss.
The shadows lengthened, tendrils of magenta and gold darkening the horizon. Kieran's tired gaze drifted over a rocky islet some fifty feet from shore, then snapped back, caught by a metallic glimmer. He sprang to his feet, hand on his sword.
Standing at the edge of the cliff, he scanned the cluster of rocks. They rose sharply out of the crashing surf, creating a natural shield. He gauged the distance and height of the rocks. Did the Cameron's skiff anchor unseen on the other side? If so, how could it have gotten so close without drawing his attention?
A distinctly human form stepped into his line of sight. He froze and then blinked, sure the lovely, dark-haired nymph who dove into the sea and started swimming toward shore must be a figment of his imagination.
"What do you see?" Hugh's concerned voice came from mere feet behind him, startling Kieran from his reverie. He whirled to face his brother, stunned that he'd been so bewitched Hugh had managed to sneak up on him.
Hugh's blue eyes were bloodshot, his face flushed from the quantity of whiskey he'd already consumed. Kieran instinctively angled his body to block his brother's view.
"'Twas nothing," Kieran murmured with a dismissive shrug. "A seal, swimming in the surf."
Hugh laughed, poking Kieran's shoulder with drunken good humor. "Sure it wasn't a Selkie, lad? P'rhaps you need a wife, as well. You've been far too maudlin of late."
A Selkie? Kieran had grown up with the stories of seals that shed their skins to frolic as lovely young women on the beach. 'Twas said if you caught one before she returned to her skin, you could take the enchanted creature to wife.
Superstitious nonsense, of course. Still, he couldn't resist another quick peek.
The girl had made it to shore. She stood upon the rocky sand, wringing water out of her long, dark hair while she gazed at the sunset. She was garbed in some sort of thin, black fabric, which clung to the luscious curves of her body as though it were in truth a seal's skin.
Before Kieran could tear his gaze away, the girl began peeling the cloth from her shoulders, revealing an expanse of pearly skin. Unfortunately, Hugh chose that moment to peer over the side of the cliff.
"Holy Mother of God." Hugh crossed himself, backing away, his eyes wide with shock. "It is a Selkie."
"No." Kieran had no idea where the girl had come from, or why she was so strangely garbed, but he knew she wasn't some mythical creature. "She's just a lass, Hugh. Let her be."
It was too late. Hugh was already turning away, mumbling excitedly beneath his breath. "We have to find a way down to the beach and hide her skin before she can return to it."
With a private groan, Kieran hurried after his brother, his earlier apathy burned away by a pressing need to undo the damage he'd unwittingly caused. He hadn't been able to stop Hugh from taking Anna, but perhaps he could somehow protect this innocent lass from the same fate.
While Hugh went back to camp to rouse the rest of the lads, Kieran headed down the treacherous trail that led to the beach. The prospect of a beautiful, naked woman, Selkie or no, was bound to send the men running. He purposely slid on the loose rocks, hoping the racket would give the lass time to escape, but the crash of the surf obscured the sound of his approach.
He blamed himself for this regrettable turn of events. If she hadn't mesmerized him so, Hugh would never have seen her.
If she didn't escape, there were only two possible outcomes. He'd either be forced to stand by and watch as his brother and the rest of the men violated her, or he'd have to step forward and claim his right as the Laird's brother to take her as his own.
Kieran found neither option palatable.
But he could never live with himself if he didn't at least attempt to offer her whatever protection he could. Reaching the beach, he glanced behind him, relieved to see Hugh and the rest of the men had barely started down the trail.
The lass was now less than a dozen yards away. The dark fabric lay in a puddle at her feet, and she was bent at the waist, rummaging in some sort of satchel. The last rays of the sun lined the pale curves of her naked back and buttocks with an amber glow, and her long, dark hair clung to the full silhouette of one pale breast.
Kieran had been unable to keep his eyes off her even at a distance, but up close, she was breathtaking. Unconscious grace filled her every movement. If not for the shivers that wracked her slim frame, he'd have thought she spent all her time frolicking naked in the sea.
Blood rushed to his groin, surprising him. He hadn't felt desire since he'd returned from Jerusalem. The thought of taking her for his own suddenly didn't seem such a sacrifice.
"Don't move, lass." Hugh's gruff voice rang out from above, echoing against the cliff. "We mean you no harm."
She let out a startled cry and whirled to face them, her green eyes wide in a fey, expressive face. She scanned the stream of men clambering down the trail, her gaze locking on Kieran, who was closest. Shaking her head, she picked up her satchel and sprinted down the beach in the opposite direction.
Kieran frowned as he saw Hugh send two of their most ruthless comrades, Arlo and Murtagh, along the rim of the cliff to head her off. Cursing, Kieran raced to retrieve the garment she'd left behind. The fabric squished in his hand, unlike anything he'd ever touched. He didn't believe she was truly a Selkie, but the foreign feel of it took him a little aback.
"I have her skin." Preying on his men's suspicions, he held it above his head for all to see. "The Selkie is mine."
Hugh skidded to a stop, his eyes wide with surprise. "You wish to claim her for your own, lad?"
Kieran nodded, his gaze fixed on the lass, who was now several yards away and picking up speed. "Call off your men, Hugh."
He knew Hugh was torn between the thrill of the chase and his loyalty to his only brother, who had never asked him for anything until now. He held his breath, wondering why he cared. Why had he set himself against his brother's wishes for the sake of a woman he didn't even know?
"The Selkie belongs to Kieran," Hugh declared at last, with only the slightest hint of reluctance. "Let them be, men. Head back to camp."
Ignoring the angry rumble which followed his brother's pronouncement, Kieran set out after the girl, hampered a bit by the weight of his armor. His feet sank in the sand, and he was disconcerted to realize he was falling behind. He'd never seen a lass so fleet of foot.
Knowing he had to catch her before Arlo and Murtagh made it down to the beach, he poured all his strength into an extra burst of speed. "It's all right. I won't hurt you."
She glanced over her shoulder, terror streaking across her face as she lost her footing. Crying out, she hit the ground hard.
He sank to his knees beside her, unfastened his cloak and draped it over her shoulders, shielding her beautiful naked body. "Don't be afraid. I mean you no harm."
She drew his cloak tighter around her, scooting toward the water. "Please. Let me go." Her voice was oddly accented, shaking with fear.
"Ah, lass. I wish I could." He raked a hand through his hair, his gaze riveted down the beach to where Arlo and Murtagh rushed toward them. "Listen quickly. I won't hurt you, but there are those in my party who would. If you wish to remain untouched, you must do as I say."