Scottish Heritage Series, Vol. 1
By Dorice Nelson
To become chief of his clan, Gerek Gunn must wed before his 30th birthday, an arranged marriage, but that was how things were done—or so Gerek thought until he met his bride.
Catronia has no desire to wed any man and certainly not one known as the "Beast of Battle."
In disguise, Catronia flees, only to find herself sharing a crofter's hut with the very man she ran from.
ISBN 978-1-59431-190-0 Historical Romance /Suspense /Action Adventure
Cover Art by Maggie Dix
Two days after his twelfth birthday, his mother died of a sudden stomach ailment and took with her the last thin thread of his identity. Now, the day of her funeral, he sat stiffly on a stout oak chair in the library at Killearnan. His companion since cradle days, Dubh, a huge, dark gray Scottish deerhound, lay stretched at Gerek Gunn’s feet, large head upon paws, and gazed at his master’s face. Gerek patted the dog for comfort.
The candlelight surrounding the wooden casket shimmered and swayed. The light reflected off the room’s stone walls but did not soften the angles and planes of his mother’s bold Scottish face. He looked at the shrouded woman, pale and motionless against the white cotton lining. She no longer resembled the spirited woman he knew. Alone, he grieved but did not weep over his mother’s passing.
What was he to do? Where could he go? Back to the desolate hut at the edge of the keep? Fearful of the future, he ground his teeth and cried out to his inert mother. “How could you leave? You never told me about my father as you promised. I’m not ready to be in this world without you.”
He drew in a powerful breath. It burst from him in a torrent of words. “Who was he? This father who was never father to me?” A single tear slipped to nestle at the edge of his mouth. He flicked the wetness with the tip of his tongue. He tried to halt the emotions raging through him, but her death had abandoned him. Her silence about his father had betrayed him. How could she leave him without a father, or even the name of one? He forced himself to breathe slowly. Somehow he’d get through this day, and the next. But never would he allow another woman to deceive him. His lanky body shook with despair. Trust a woman? Never!
Taps by a booted foot against the door scattered his thoughts. Dubh uttered a low growl. Gerek wiped his nose on the sleeve of his only clean shirt. “Enter.”
A serving girl whom he didn’t know slunk into the room without looking at him. With fitful movements, she put a cloth-covered tray on the table near the door and bobbed a curtsy.
“There’s nourishment for ye. To break yer fast.”
She skittered out the door and slammed it shut.
The smell of food turned his stomach. He went to the table where he removed the cloth, set the tray on the floor and gestured to the dog. “This shouldn’t go to waste. Go ahead, Dubh. You eat,” he said, moving to the tall windows of the cavernous room.
Dubh dashed to the tray and devoured the food. Just as the great dog finished and was licking his lips, he sank to the floor, thrashing in silent spasms of agony. Within seconds, the hound convulsed and lay still.
Gerek raced across the room. He stopped in mid-step. “Dubh. Dubh. Get up. No silly tricks today.” When the animal did not move, Gerek knelt and whispered, “Dubh, please. Get up.”
Nothing moved on the great dog. Gerek touched the deerhound’s neck. His friend was dead. He clasped the head and thick shoulders in his arms and dragged the body over his knees. Cradling the animal, Gerek rocked back and forth, consumed by sobs.
* * *
A day later, Harald Gunn, chief of Clan Gunn, summoned his grandson to the library. When the boy entered, Harald watched as Gerek’s eyes searched the room as if looking for his dog. The lad’s dark features and sturdy physique, the pure Norse stature, gave proof his grandson would surpass his own six feet. He smiled in welcome and motioned the lad toward a carved chair close to the fire.
Gerek slumped into the seat, asking, “Grandda, do you know who my father was?”
Harald hid his surprise. His self-restrained grandson suffered few trappings of polite society. “I’ll answer ye true, child. I have suspicions but dinna’ know for sure. Because of clan business, I never knew yer mother as well as I might have. After yer grandmother died, I could not deal with either of me daughters. Yer mother was wild, willful, with many secret yearnings.”
What happened to his eldest daughter? She spent nights away even when the lad was in his cradle, forcing Harald to send a deerhound pup for protection. The lad remained quiet, composed, too controlled for twelve. Had he understood the answer? Harald shook his head. It was too late to sorrow over things.
The cracking voice of a twelve-year-old intruded on his thoughts. “How could my mother leave me not knowing the name of my father?”
“She did, laddie. There’s naught to be done for it now.” He hoped the brusque comment would end the conversation. “What’s important now is the danger for ye here with none but meself to protect ye. Ye have enemies who might wish ye dead.”
“Why? Why would anyone want me thus?” Gerek asked. “I’ve done nothing bad to anyone in the clan.”
“Aye, but what if yer father were someone of note? Would he somehow cause trouble for the Gunns? Our clansmen fear things they do not know.”
A wary expression furrowed Gerek’s brow. He slouched in his chair. “But Grandda….”
“I must speak with ye as if ye were full-grown. Yer uncles are dead. Only last week, we lost me youngest in a battle with the Keiths. Yer cousin Baen and ye are the last of the male line. One of ye must become Gunn or our line will die.”
Gerek’s mouth opened but he closed it. His gray eyes widened and he tilted his head toward Harald.
“Laddie, I canna’ keep constant watch over ye. Ye must leave here.”
Gerek flattened himself against the back of the chair. “What am I to do? Where am I to go?” His stomach muscles tightened. Sweat dampened his palms.
“Foster with a man who has recently gained his title. I’ve sent someone to make the arrangements.”
Gerek’s hands, slippery with sweat, were planted on the chair seat. He pushed himself upright and stared at his grandfather. Grandda didn’t look very well. His face was gray, and white hair mixed with black. His eyes were rimmed with sorrow. Why hadn’t he seen all this before? Grandda meant more to him than any other person.
“It pains me, laddie, but I will speak harsh words to ye. Ye came into this world a bastard. Ye’ll need to make yer way in this world. But ye’re brave and determined, a strong, towering lad for yer years. ‘Tis best ye become a warrior. Forge a reputation.”
Gerek scrutinized his grandda whose eyes were shiny from unshed tears, his shoulders bowed from worry. “A warrior?”
“’Tis not what I had in mind fer ye.” His grandda paused. “But if ye make yer name on the battlefield, bastard though ye be, ye’ll be welcomed everywhere in Scotland.” He placed a large hand on Gerek’s head and said softly, “’Tis time to leave, son, to find a place of yer own making. There’s none here can do it fer ye.”
Gerek cocked his head. “A warrior? Well, if you want me to be a warrior, then a warrior I’ll be. A brave one. Then I will be The Gunn.”
His grandfather nodded. “Also, ye are to marry before the end of yer thirtieth year. I’ve pledged with Angus MacFarr, the Earl of Crannog, whose wife we rescued from the Keiths.” He stood, stretched and walked to the windows.
“Marry?” Marrying meant nothing to Gerek. “I don’t understand.”
Glow from the departing sun streamed through the glass onto his grandda’s skin. “Ye dinna’ have to marry tomorrow, son. The child is newly born.” His grandfather smiled as he approached and grasped the back of a chair. “’Tis a promise I made with MacFarr when we rescued his wife this past week, the wee bairn in her arms. Gerek, ye know how I feel about promises. A man must honor them always.” His grandda’s gaze penetrated his own.
Gerek didn’t care about marrying. If he was to be a warrior, he might not live to marry anyone, or be Gunn either. Head down, he vowed, If I live, I will be chief of all the Gunns. Decision made, he laughed for the first time in weeks.
Grandda laughed with him. “Ye need not concern yerself with the pledge now, son. Make yer name and all will be well, I promise ye.”