Surrender to Me Page 2

The highwaymen frowned over the meager sum, exchanging questioning looks. Clearly they expected to find more plunder from the occupants of such a fine carriage. They snapped at one another in Gaelic, motioning to her as they did so.

Coral’s fingers dug through Astrid’s cloak and gown, bruising her hips. She reached behind and clasped one of Coral’s tight fists, attempting to ease her clawlike grip.

“A dove like you,” the ringleader snorted, his lips undetectable through a thick reddish beard.

“Riding in such a fine carriage…” his voice faded as he stepped closer and pressed his pistol against her cheek. Astrid tried to scoot back, but the clinging maid prevented her.

Cocking his head, he lifted his arm high and dug the cold metal barrel against her cheek, grinding the inside of her mouth against her teeth. The coppery taste of blood flooded her tongue and a whimper of breath escaped through her nose.

Coral made a strangled sound behind her, as if the gun were pressed on her face and not Astrid’s.

“Would be a shame to ruin such a bonny face. Now be a good lass and hand over your valuables before I spill your blood all over this road.”

“The carriage belongs to a friend,” Astrid gritted through clenched teeth. “I haven’t anything else.” She lifted her hands and splayed her fingers wide. “Do you see any jewels?”

“Nay,” he said slowly, his gaze moving from her hands back to her face. “No jewels.”

He scoured her from head to toe then, his eyes hard and considering beneath thick brows. “You have something else, though.”

“What would that be?” she asked breathlessly, the air seizing in her too-tight chest, afraid she already knew his answer.

One side of his ratty mustache twitched in a semblance of a smile. “What women have bartered since time began.”

His free hand lifted, a great paw moving toward her.

She watched that hand with dirt-encrusted nails moving, drifting closer. He grabbed the collar of her cloak and, with no care that it was tied at her throat, yanked brutally, attempting to tear it free.

“Now see here.” The coachman, a grandfatherly sort that had been with the Earl of St. Claire’s family for years, stepped forward in objection.

One of the highwaymen brought his pistol down against his head in a swift arc. Astrid watched in horror as John crumpled to the road. Still. Lifeless. No help to her or himself.

Everything happened quickly then.

One of the men yanked Coral from behind Astrid. The girl screamed, the sound shrill and terrified, echoing through the gully that sheltered them, sending the birds from the treetops in a flap of wings and startled squawks.

Heart hammering fiercely in her chest, Astrid watched their fluttering wings take them far into the gray sky with a strange sort of detachment, wishing she, too, could take to the skies and flee with such ease.

Instead, she felt the ties cutting into the tender flesh of her throat finally give and snap as she was flung down.

Griffin Shaw turned his face to the skies and shivered at the bite of cold in the air. The clouds moved swiftly overhead, patches of dirty wool drifting through the sky. With a curse, he pulled up the collar of his jacket. No wonder his parents had emigrated. The damnable weather was reason enough.

Soon he would be home, he reminded himself, even as he tried not to think too hard on what had brought him halfway across the world—the foolish urge that had seized him following his father’s recent death to investigate the deathbed ramblings of his mother three years past.

His horse blew heavily against the fierce wind, pulling him from thoughts and questions he could never quite answer…a gut need that drew him to Scotland he could not understand.

He scanned the craggy horizon. Unremitting rock, broken up by wild gorse, heather, and leafless trees that shook in the wind like n**ed gnarled old men, stared back starkly.

Reaching down, he patted his horse’s neck. “Beats the heat back home, Waya,” he offered.

Griffin would take a little chill over the sweltering heat of south Texas any day.

Waya blew out harshly through his nose, his breath a frothy cloud on the air, and Griffin wasn’t certain whether to take that as agreement or not from the Appaloosa.

At that moment another sound pierced the graying skies. Shrill. Chilling. The hairs on his arms tingled.

Waya’s ears flattened and he neighed in agitation, dancing sideways at the sound. A woman’s screams strongly resembled the cry of a mountain lion.

Griffin slid his rifle free of his saddle and urged his mount ahead with a squeeze of his thighs and dig of his heels. His parents had instilled a streak of chivalry in him that even good sense could not suppress. If a woman was in jeopardy, he could not stop from investigating, and helping, if need be.

Rounding the bend, his eyes surveyed the scene at once: the idle carriage, the man crumpled in the road, the two females fighting off an unsavory-looking pair of men while a third watched, cheering on his cohorts and shouting lewd suggestions.


He’d been warned of their prevalence. Especially with Scotland caught in the throes of a famine.

Desperate times brought out the worst in men. He knew this firsthand. A grassy blood-soaked plain flashed across his mind as testament to that.

A shrieking, dark-haired woman flailed in the mud as one of the bastards cut open her dress and hacked at her corset with an ugly-looking blade. Intent on their foul business, none took note of his approach.

Griffin lifted the rifle to his shoulder, closed one eye, and fired. He watched in grim satisfaction as the man collapsed atop the dark-haired girl. Her shrieks only increased as she fumbled beneath the dead man’s weight.

Wincing over the racket, he turned his attention to the remaining two men.

A grisly red-bearded Scot whirled off the other female, one as fair as her companion was dark.

In a blur of movement, her attacker flung a blade through the air, sending it whistling on the wind in Griffin’s direction.

He dodged to the side, missing what would have been a clean hit to the heart.

“Shit,” he swore as he righted himself back in his saddle.

Lifting his rifle with one hand, he propped it against his shoulder, and squeezed the trigger. Red-beard fell back into the road, his expression forever locked in shock.

The third Scot grappled for his pistol and raised it the precise moment Griffin swung his rifle in his direction.

Everything slowed then.

The squeeze of his finger on the trigger felt like an eternity. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed movement, a flash of color in the otherwise brown landscape.

It was the girl. The fair-haired one.

She flung herself at the man, shoving him off balance. He went down with a burning oath, struggling in the road for his fallen pistol. But it was enough. All the time Griffin needed.

He squeezed the trigger.

The Scot jerked once. And yet his hand still grappled in the road, foraging for some type of weapon. His fingers closed around a large rock littering the road. Too late, Griffin realized his intent.

Pain exploded in his head. His hands tightened on his reins to keep from sliding off his mount.

His vision blurred, and he brought one hand to his forehead, feeling the slipperiness of his own blood on his fingertips.

Blood pouring from the wound in his chest, the Scot fell back in the road, a damn fool grin of triumph on his face as he expired, his life’s blood feeding the earth.

The woman rose to her feet, staring down at the fallen highwayman, her posture stiff and dignified despite her mussed appearance. A long pale strand of hair hung in her face that several swipes of her hand did nothing to remedy.

The sleeve of her dress was torn from elbow to wrist, revealing a strip of creamy flesh, a stark contrast to the dark blue of her gown that covered her from hem to neck.

Blood marked her mouth, vivid and obscene on rose-pink lips. That mouth was the only hint of softness in her rather severe appearance. The blood there seemed wrong, upsetting and offensive somehow. Another face flashed across his mind. Another woman with dark, obsidian eyes, whose blood ran freely. A woman he failed to save. The years could not chase her memory from his head…or rid him of his guilt.

A deep, primitive satisfaction swelled inside Griffin that the men who harmed this woman were dead. That he had managed to save her.

She broke from her trancelike state with a ragged breath. Her gaze lifted from the dead man and caught his.

Pressing a hand to his throbbing skull, he nodded once in acknowledgment. He never would have thought a wisp of a woman, one who looked as though she could use an extra meal or two, could possess the mettle to save his life.

She stared at him with dark brown eyes, an unusual contrast against her fair hair. Her mouth firmed into a hard line, until all softness vanished from those lips. She returned his nod with a brisk one of her own. And instantly he knew she rarely smiled, rarely surrendered to emotion.

While the other female wailed on the ground three feet from her, she stood composed, remote as a queen, as if the ugliness that had just occurred failed to touch her.

She wiped the blood from her lip with the back of her hand, and it was as if that motion alone freed her of the day’s events.

God, she was a cool one.

Those dark enigmatic eyes moved to his head. “Are you all right?” she asked, shoving at that strand of hair again.

“Fine,” he replied even as a languid sensation stole over him, like he was perhaps slipping away from himself, drowning, sinking.

She pointed a slim finger to his face just as a slow dribble of blood trickled past his eyebrow into his eye. “You’re bleeding.”

He nodded. The movement added to his lightheadedness, making him feel suddenly, damnably ill.

Waya danced sideways, no doubt scenting his blood.

Griffin swayed in the saddle. One of his hands dove to his pommel for support. A hiss of air escaped him as he fought against an increasing wave of dizziness.

The edges of his vision blurred and he heard himself curse again, but to his ears his voice sounded disembodied, as if it belonged to someone else.

“Sir?” He heard her feminine voice ask, refined, clipped and soft, like rum swirling in his stomach, in his blood. “Sir, are you all right?”

Leaning forward, he slid his hands along Waya’s neck, tangling his fingers in the coarse mane of hair, knowing he was dangerously close to losing consciousness.

His gaze narrowed on the face looking up at him, on the expression both concerned and imposing, as if his _not _ being well was strictly forbidden.

Bones and muscle suddenly fluid as water, he pitched forward off his mount and fell with a hard thud to the ground.

“Hell,” he muttered, staring up at the gray clouds moving overhead. Felled by a rock. It was damn humiliating.

Again, her face emerged, looming over him and blocking out the sky. That pale lock of hair fluttered in the wind and, absurdly, he wondered if it felt as soft as it looked.

Her lips moved quickly, speaking. And yet he could hear nothing beyond the roaring in his head, the pulse of cold unyielding earth beneath his back.

She might have been an angel with her flawless skin and fair hair. And yet those demon dark eyes void of emotion, and her hard unforgiving mouth, proclaimed the opposite.

 _A fallen angel, _ he mused.

One of God’s banished.

And he was at her mercy.

Chapter 3

Astrid studied the man at her feet, cringing as a knot the size of an egg swelled upon his forehead. Biting her lip, she considered her options. A quick glance around her revealed what she already knew.

Three Scotsmen lay dead—and for that she could not summon a scrap of remorse, not even for the human lives lost. She still tasted the fetid kiss Red-beard had forced on her, felt the coppery tang of her own blood as his teeth mashed against her own, felt his filthy hands foraging at her skirts. A shudder rushed through her. She could not regret the end to his life if it meant saving her from the depravity he would have forced on her.

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