Copyright © 2015 by Elle Clouse
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Deceving the Bandit Lord, Chapter 1
Lachlan was finally king.
Aisling Murphy stared out the castle window overlooking the courtyard. The yard was vacant now. Brogan Fletcher’s departure the day before was the last of the guests to leave besides family. The coronation was over and her cousin Lachlan crowned king. After all the hullabaloo involving the first attempted coronation, the assassination attempt, the arson, and revelation that Lachlan was a wolfkin, Aisling was looking forward to a long quiet winter at home.
Lachlan’s condition was not a surprise. Their line was pocked with wolfkin. She and her older brother Connor were afflicted but not as severely as Lachlan. Their affliction wasn’t so strong it required years of isolation to regain their humanity. Aisling and Connor had complete control of their transformation and hid it from everyone. They watched their three younger brothers for signs of the wolf curse though.
She turned and a servant handed her a folded piece of parchment, her family crest pressed into wax to seal the document.
“This arrived for you today.”
Aisling took the letter; this wasn’t a social note.
“Thank you.” She returned her gaze to the window and waited until she heard the click of the door latching shut. The wax gave way and she opened the parchment to see her father’s handwriting. Skimming the script within confirmed her fears. Her father had made a decision regarding her latest offer for marriage.
She would wed Declan Blackling, Count of Dubhan, the following spring. It grated against the idea of a marriage she had when she was little. Whatever happened to love? She was staring down a contract, not a soul mate.
Her father arranged it all while she was away, unable to give her opinion. She left to attend the coronation the day the offer arrived, her father promised to hear her side before making a decision. She knew better than to trust him but had no choice. As her father, he made all the decisions for her well-being and happiness. How could anyone be happy to be handed off to the most well situated requestor?
Aisling grabbed the nearest throw pillow and buried her face in the embroidered velvet and screamed. The sound was muffled by the fabric but the release eased her frustration for the moment.
“What has upset you?”
She looked up and her brother stood in the door. She threw the missive at her brother. The air caught it and it drifted to the floor but the point was made. He grabbed the paper and read it over, making a disappointed hmmph sound when he was done.
“It’s a good match, Aisling.”
That was not what she wanted to hear.
“He is from a great family, has connections, lands and titles. You will be well cared for with Declan.”
“You sound like father,” Aisling quipped. “Like we are selling sheep, which we are not. This is my life, Connor. I didn’t even get a say in this.”
“What would you have me do? Father does not listen to me anymore, not since he discovered mother’s affliction. He treats us all like commodities now.” Connor kept his distance, as helpless as she was. “Asset to asset, Declan is your match.”
“There is something wrong with that man,” Aisling uttered, more to herself than to Connor. Declan set her nerves on edge, thinking about him made her skin prickle. “And he’s not my match, not anymore. The last letter from Caitlin hinted at money problems.”
“Caitlin wrote that?”
“Not directly.” Aisling didn’t want to explain how she gleaned the facts from the superfluous looking note between friends. It all started at Caitlin’s debut ball when she first met Brogan as Mr. Knightly.
“Declan spends half the year in Talesin City, Connor. I can’t risk the Dragai finding out what I am, what we are. How long do you think it will take for the capitol to hear about Lachlan’s first coronation?”
“What better place to hide than under their own noses?” Connor rubbed the back of his neck. “I understand your trepidation. I do, but we will not be able to break the engagement on an ill feeling and hinted financial ruin.”
“What would it take?” Aisling knew the answer, only a scandal would deter Declan from marrying her now. He was desperate for her assets.
Connor sighed but didn’t answer her question. “You need to reach Oakenhurst before the winter sets in, or you’ll be stuck here with the newlyweds.”
“They aren’t wed yet.” Insanely jealous that her cousin had made a love match, Aisling sighed. Her chance at a love connection now destroyed, she would assume any control of her fate.
“They might as well be,” Connor said. “They are so sickeningly sweet on one another it makes my teeth hurt.”
Kiera and Lachlan were smitten with one another. It was refreshing to see and gave her hope. Too many miserable people married out of responsibility to their title. Her mother was a casualty of an arranged marriage and her father turned on her.
“Ready the carriage then.” Aisling smiled, the same practiced smile she perfected over the years. Connor’s narrowed his eyes but said nothing.
Connor nodded and walked out into the hall, closing the door behind him. If she needed a scandal to free her from Declan, then she could find it on the road to Oakenhurst. Armanta Hill lay the farthest north of any of Cearbhall’s lands and along the road to take her home.
Although she didn’t know the particulars of Brogan’s involvement in Declan’s ruin, Caitlin was certain of his participation. Caitlin assured her Brogan was not malicious. Ailsing could sense intentions in people, a rare gift from her wolfkin curse. Brogan was not an evil man but not one to turn down a questionable opportunity.
She returned to the window to overlook the courtyard. A glance at the sky revealed cold and blusterous gray storm clouds. Her twenty years of northern winters told her it would be severe. They wouldn’t make it past Armanta.
Her suite door opened and her nanny entered with a servant girl in tow. Miss Cotton instructed the girl on how to properly pack their trunks for the trip home. That would give Aisling just enough time to write and post a letter to Caitlin.
~ * ~ * ~
Brogan Fletcher knew what was in store when he accepted Armanta Hill. When the previous lord’s line ended, the barony reverted back into the care of royal family. Princes Ian and Ayden in turn ignored the barony to usurp their father’s throne. So the upkeep of the manor and lands fell to a loyal steward and a few tenants.
Brogan crested the last hill and pulled his horse to a stop. Phelan pulled the supply wagon to a halt beside him. The road continued on down to the stone manor nestled in the northern river valley.
“Well this is it, home sweet home.” He sighed. The great house needed a new roof, half the windows needed new glass, walls needed repair, and the garden engulfed the entire lodge.
“Looks like a dump.”
“Well, it’s our dump.” Although Brogan didn’t mind an honest day’s labor, he didn’t want to spend dusk until dawn on repairs. The barony lay in much worse condition than Lachlan lead him to believe.
“Yours. It’s all yours.” Phelan scratched the side of his head as he peered down on the estate, a smug grin on his face.
“It just needs a little work.”
“This is a clean start, my friend. No more lies, no more gambling, no more wondering if the debt collectors will come calling for their cut.” Brogan’s chest constricted at the idea of such freedom. “No more running.”
“It’ll be a cold day in hell when you pass over a bet.”
Phelan knew him too well. Every scheme they ever ran was a gamble and in his downtime he frequented the betting houses. But no more, on the cusp of civilization there was no place to give into his compulsion. By the looks of the manor, he’d be too busy with repairs to think about cards or dice.
Brogan kicked his steed to a trot and approached his new beginning. Through dumb luck and his stubborn cousin Kiera, Brogan had his land and title. He was the farthest north he could get without leaving Northam and that was as far from his past as he could get.
Brogan and Phelan settled their horses in the rundown stable and approached the servant entrance where the thin line of smoke trailed into the sky. Whomever still dwelled within kept the path from the stable and well clear of debris. A well tended garden lay beside the path and a massive pile of chopped logs beyond. The wood door rattled on its hinges when Brogan knocked.
A dark haired man pulled the door open and looked between Brogan and Phelan with knit brows. He couldn’t be past his twenties, even with his skin baked by laboring in the summer sun.
“I’m Brogan Fletcher, new Lord of Armanta Hill.” He extended his hand to shake but the other made no motion to take it. Instead he kept his hand behind him from view. “And this is Phelan Aran. The king sent word of my coming?”
“If the king sent you, then you must have the deed?” The man’s eyes narrowed.
Brogan patted his shirt where he tucked the document away, then pulled it out. He handed it over but again the man did not move to take it. Brogan opened the folded paper to reveal his cousin’s calligraphy deeding the property to him and the king’s seal and signature.
“Lord Fletcher, I do apologize, I did not anticipate your arrival so soon.” The man opened the door wide and set a concealed garden shovel aside. Then he put forth his hand for a shake. “I am your steward, Glenn Woods, as my father before me and my grandfather before him. Please come in.”
Glenn stood in a sizable mud room with walls lined with hooks and cabinets winter gear. Beyond was a large mess hall for servants but now reduced to the living chambers.
“Do you normally greet your guests brandishing garden tools?”
Glenn sighed. “When you live this far North and the crown turns a blind eye, bandits waste no time to make a visit.”
No wonder the manor looked so run down, the grounds were picked through by thieves yet Glenn remained despite it all. “What remains of the original staff?”
“No one else remains.” Glenn closed the door behind Phelan and returned to his cot where a book lay open. Although threadbare and mismatched, Glenn made a cozy little space for himself. The long dining table pushed against the far wall set with dinnerware and various repair projects, a cook pot over the fire, a cozy chair, and a cot covered in woven blankets. “With the king newly coronated, I’m surprised Armanta Hill was on his mind at all.”
Brogan chuckled. Although the king was busy, the soon-to-be queen insisted Brogan tend to his barony and forgo the winter season at court. He had all but been thrown out.
“What of the tenants?” Brogan shrugged out of his fur trimmed cloak and strung it from one of the wall hooks. Phelan followed suit but didn’t venture out of the mud room.
“Only a few farmers remain. You will find the rents in that box less manor expenses.” Glenn pointed to a nondescript wooden box on the mantle. “There’s a vacant smithy, a carpenters shop, several homesteads to let out, ample acreage for felling trees, and excellent hunting grounds to the north.”
Brogan took the rent coffer from the mantle, surprised it was so light. He heard the clink of a couple coins within. He set the box back where he plucked it. Glenn watched his every move, glancing back to Phelan now and then. The steward held himself stiff as a board, ready to spring at any moment.
“What state are the farms? Do they need any repairs?”
Glenn’s brows shot up at the unusual question. Brogan couldn’t work with a steward who distrusted him. Brogan would have to gain his respect.
“The Patrick’s have been complaining of a leaking roof…”
Brogan glanced back at Phelan, who shrugged.
“Well I can patch a roof?” The best way to endear himself to his tenants was to prove he wouldn’t mistreat them.
“Will you lead the way to the Patrick’s farm to we can repair the roof?” Brogan returned to his cloak and put it on. “I brought supplies from Cearbhall and there are tools we can use to patch a roof. Plus whatever else needs fixing on the farms.”
Phelan donned his cloak while Brogan grabbed the last remaining threadbare cloak and handed it to Glenn.
“You would repair the Patrick’s farm before starting repairs on your own home?” Glenn accepted his cloak but held it at his side instead of swinging it around his shoulders. “Wouldn’t you rather hire a carpenter?
“The estate is nothing without its tenants and there can’t be more than a few pence in that coffer.” Brogan motion to the box of rents on the mantle. “There’s no money to hire someone and I see three able bodied men right here.”
Glenn regarded him a moment, then swung his cloak around to rest on his shoulder. “The Patrick’s farm is half a mile south of here.”
~ * ~ * ~
Brogan stood and methodically stretched every muscle along his back and shoulders. The previous days had been rough, he pushed himself to repair the Patrick’s roof, the Rafferty’s fence, and dug a new well for the Morans. Glenn and Phelan worked beside him, rarely complaining but showing similar strain at the end of the day. Each night, they hit their cots and fell asleep only to be awoken just before dawn by a lone rooster and start again.
Their work paid off. In two days the farmsteads were back to working order and the tenants happy. Brogan’s motivation for repairing the farms first paid off as the able bodied sons arrived the next day to help repair the manor. The roof was repaired. The windows were replaced or shuttered closed until they could hire a glass smith. All debris, overgrown plants, and were wildlife removed. The entire manor was accessible again, with the great hall fireplace was the last to be repaired. Brogan looked forward to being able to sleep in the master suite for the first time.
His last task before turning in for the evening was chopping wood for the hearth. The years of neglect allowed trees to grow back close to the house. They worked on felling trees to reclaim the yard and store logs for winter. Brogan reserved a bottle of brandy for a little celebration now the heaviest labor was done.
As he rounded the manor house, he couldn’t help notice the sky. He’d never seen a sky so gray or angry. The storms in the capital region lost bluster by crossing the country lands, he was about to experience one unfettered. No better way to test their roof repairs than with a storm.
Brogan fell into a rhythm as he swung the axe, splitting the logs into manageable sizes. His pulled off his shirt from the heat of the exertion. He enjoyed the solitary work, it cleared his mind and let him process his thoughts.
Kiera had everything she ever wanted. She was in a position to do real good in the world and unlimited access to books. She had her soulmate and a lifetime to enjoy it.
Armanta was his saving grace and he should thank the gods things fell into place. In the wilderness, no one knew his previous misdeeds. He could live out his days in peace and carve out some luxury. It was much prefered to the dungeon he deserved.
Ardhor Laelithaar, Kiera’s elven half brother, would arrive in a few more days for magic lessons. Although Brogan thought it was nonsense, he couldn’t convince the elf he didn’t have magical powers. Just because his aunt had been a prodigy didn’t mean it flowed in his veins. His aunt’s use of magic had been under extreme duress and to protect her family while living in the capital. Magic was banned in Northam but enforcement was left to each sovereign. Bordering the Wylderlands was the safest place to practice and Cearbhall was ruled by a wolfkin, Lachlan wouldn’t persecute.
Brogan balanced the last log of the evening on the chopping block and lifted the ax over his head.
He let his axe fall, shattering the log in two and burying the axe head into the stump beneath. Brogan turned; a young woman stood at the corner of the house with a small little smirk on her pert lips. He admired the king’s cousin from afar in Cearbhall but knew better than to even approach. Now she stood on his lawn ogling his state of undress.