Elias MacPherson, a warrior suffering the consequences of war falls in love with the compassionate heart and warm smiles of a lass who is a healing balm for his troubled soul. But she is a lass he can never have. Lily Bennett is a forbidden woman who will not budge in her loyalty, though her heart is being swept away by the handsome Highlander who has come to save her world and make her laugh again. The Black Death, a force like nothing the earth has ever known, will bring them together and make them face their greatest fears. Will they find themselves in the light that the other shines in the darkness? Or will an enemy, even more resilient than the plague, destroy them both?
Release date: February 13, 2020
Publisher: Dragonblade Publishing
Print pages: 258
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Elias moved slowly around the vine-covered wall of a small shed and looked toward the apothecary shop at the end of the market village of Sevenoaks. He set his steady gaze on the beautiful lass inside the shop, busy with a customer. The sight of her made him want to smile. He didn’t know her. He’d never met her before, but just looking at her made him feel good, refreshed, hopeful.
“Let us just go inside and speak to her, Eli!” his closest friend, Brother Simon of the Carmelite order, urged quietly. “I’m weary and the sun is hot on my head. I want to go to the inn and eat and rest. You did not say anything about visiting here, or about this lass when you asked me to come on this pilgrimage with you.”
Elias had stopped listening soon after the brother started speaking. Which was often.
“She is not divine, Eli.”
“How can ye be so sure, Simon?” Elias whispered without taking his eyes off her. “Does she not remind ye of an angel? Look at the kindness in her eyes, the genuine concern she shows to that woman. Look at her elegant hands, her graceful movements.”
Instead of going in and asking her for what he needed, Elias watched her from outside like a fool, Eli the Lion Heart afraid to go talk to a lass. But she was unlike any woman he’d ever seen before.
In the midst of a forest of plants hanging all around her, she was slight of frame, not terribly tall, and a bit too thin. Her bosom was humble and her flaxen hair was straight, falling around her heart-shaped face. He wasn’t sure if it was her sapphire blue eyes, kind and compassionate toward her customer, or her smile, genuine and beguiling, tempting him to join her from his hiding place.
His eyes followed the course of her fingers to the customer’s shoulder where she gave a little squeeze.
“Can I help you, my lord?” A male’s voice shattered his thoughts of her. Elias looked toward the doorway of the shed and faced an old man carrying an armful of plants in their pots. His dark brown eyes looked around Elias to Simon. “Father?”
“Brother,” the bald brother corrected with a friendly smile on his scarred face. The longest scar went from his right ear to the top of his mouth and turned a bit pink when he smiled. Another, on the other side, was a bit deeper from his left temple to under the middle of his left eye. The last was smaller beneath his lower lip. “My companion here is—”
“I…” Elias stepped forward, finishing for himself. “I was just…ehm…d’ye need aid with those plants?” He reached for the pots and the old man let him take them.
“What is it you need?”
Many things. Elias wasn’t truly sure. When he had returned home from fighting in King David II’s army two years ago, he sought peace and quiet and became one of the seven shepherds of the MacPherson’s sheep. Each herded their flock and kept to themselves. Which was exactly what he wanted. His days were good but, in the night, he’d suffered many afflictions of war: nightmares, battles replaying over and over in his head, darkness, and gloom. Terrible things that he had faced head on and without fear now made him tremble and cry out in the night. Many mornings found him sprawled out on the floor because he couldn’t fit under the bed.
“I have trouble sleepin’,” Elias told him.
“Terrible trouble,” Simon added.
Elias shrugged one shoulder and turned to give Simon a little glare. He didn’t need all of England knowing that darkness and his dreams stripped him of his courage, and starved him of sleep.
“Go on, then.” The man pointed toward the apothecary shop. “Lily, will get you what you need.”
Lily. Elias almost repeated it out loud. It sounded beautiful in his head. He gritted his teeth. He didn’t want to go in yet. But he needed help. And this was the only village for fifty leagues with a market with an apothecary shop.
Presently though, he’d prefer fighting rather than walking into this shop, to talk to this lass. What the hell was the matter with him? He’d spoken to lasses before. Many of them were more beautiful than this one. But Lily appeared as a soothing balm for his troubled, weary soul.
She’d stopped his heart when he first saw her just a little while ago. He’d been mesmerized by her grace and beauty. And the more he looked, the more stricken he became. He had seen much in the wars with France and England; violent, ugly things he tried to forget.
But he hadn’t seen much compassion, or any genuinely kind gazes. Not like hers. It drew him.
He stepped inside the shop behind Simon and looked around…at everything but her. It was a cozy place with hundreds of different sized, variously painted clay jars set up on dozens of shelves. Candles hung from chains and sat bunched together on small tables. Boxes and sacks were pushed up against walls and plants grew everywhere.
“Set the pots down at your feet,” the man directed from outside, busy with something else. “I will be there in a moment.” Was he her father?
Elias did as instructed, and then straightened once again. He was ready to leave. He would go and never look back—if he could just go now. His eyes found her standing behind a long table staring back at him.
“What can I do for you today?”
It felt as if he were swallowing his heart when she smiled up at him. Her voice was like satin against his ears. Looking into her eyes close up made him a little lightheaded. He counted three different shades of blue when the candlelight hit at a certain angle.
“I…” he cleared his throat and began again. “I am havin’ trouble sleepin’.”
“You are a Scot,” she said softly and glanced at the old man as he entered the shop.
Hell. He’d forgotten to use his King’s English. He rarely used it anymore, and only in certain circumstances that would aid his Highland endeavors. “Aye. D’ye not serve Scots here?”
“Do not take offense at her words, kind sir,” the old man hurried forward. “Of course, we serve Scots. We serve whoever needs us. Pardon me, I am Richard Bennett, the village apothecary, and this is my wife, Lily. Lily, some chamomile tea for the stranger.”
Elias stared at him for one more moment then closed his mouth. His wife? Had he heard right? Did the old man say his wife?
He wondered why her true father would sentence her to this life. His gaze found her again, reaching for a blue jar high up on one of the shelves.
He went to her and reached over her to pluck the jar from the shelf. He handed it to her over her shoulder and looked into her eyes as she turned to thank him. He didn’t want her to be married. He was supposed to respect her vows—and he did. He was supposed to forget her and walk away—but he didn’t.
She turned, almost in his arms. He stepped away. What the hell was wrong with him? He turned to Simon and almost asked for help. Was he having a breakdown? He’d heard of such things happening to men of battle. Sleepless nights was one of the symptoms. That’s what he had come here for. Medicine. Not a woman. Especially not another man’s wife.
She weighed some of the herb on a scale and then folded the amount in a sheet of parchment.
He nodded when she instructed him on how to prepare the tea then pulled out his pouch of coins to pay and leave, but the man—her husband, stopped him.
“Are you staying in Sevenoaks or just passing through?”
“Both,” Elias answered. “We are passin’ through, but we are stayin’ fer a few days.”
“Where are you and your priest—"
“Brother,” Simon corrected again with a sigh. “Notice the brown robes, the bald head.”
The apothecary shrugged his sagging shoulders. “Where are you staying?”
“The Pheasant Inn.”
“Pah!” the old man breathed out emphatically. “The place is not fit for pigs. We have a bed in our home. You will stay there.”
“Nae.” Elias backed away. He couldn’t stay and ignore the apothecary’s wife. And what if he awoke tonight from one of his night terrors and she saw him? “We have already made—”
“Do you need me to speak to Estrid, the owner of the inn?” Richard the apothecary offered.
“Nae.” Elias laughed softly. “Dinna speak to anyone on my account.” He looked at Mrs. Lily Bennett and shook his head. She was forbidden. He needed to leave.
“Look,” said the old man. “You are strong and able bodied. I could use your help around here, stranger. Both of you. Stay for as many days as you have planned, free of charge.”
“God is good,” Simon said with a smile. “What do you need us to do?”
“Nae,” Elias interrupted, glaring at his friend. “We truly canna stay. I dinna mean to be rude, but I will—”
“You can start by telling us where you are from and your names.”
“Brother Simon,” Simon said pointing at himself, and then at Elias, completely ignoring his friend’s scowl. “Elias MacPherson of Invergarry, a commander in—”
“We arena stayin’ long.” Elias glanced at the apothecary’s wife and found her sizing him up.
She creased her delicate brow at him and turned away, looking rather disappointed.
Elias wanted to defend his curtness and his stubborn refusal to stay, but he remained quiet.
“We have supper three hours after sunset,” Richard told them. “My wife will not serve you if you are late. Please come inside before midnight so we know the door to our home is locked.
“Now, please go with Lily so she can show you where we live. After that, you can return here and move those sacks against the wall out to the back shed.”
Go with Lily. His wife.
Elias hated that she was married. He didn’t care what she thought of him, whether she disapproved of his behavior or not. How was he being led into this? How was Simon helping? He would ask his friend when they were alone.
For now, he watched the shape of her, the rhythm of her movements as she walked ahead of them and led them outside.
“’Tis the house there, beyond the church. The one with the red roof.” She pointed to a small two-story house nestled within a vale about a half-mile off the road. “Come, I will show you the easiest route to it.”
Elias reluctantly followed her, quietly swearing at Simon’s back. The brother was supposed to be protecting him from dangers such as another man’s wife!
He never considered taking a wife of his own. He’d had no time for love. He wasn’t always sure he would live to see the next day. Why make a woman a widow? But now, now that he was drawn to a lass, she had to be married?
They passed a large mill to the right of the road and then the church to the left. They walked through the shallow vale and approached the house. Elias noted that it was a longhouse, a certain type of construction some merchants used to keep their shops and their homes attached.
Simon seemed to read his mind—which, irritatingly, he did often—and asked the question. “Why did your husband not build your shop into the house?”
“He owns both properties,” she replied. “He wanted the house to be a bit more private. His workshop is within and he needs quiet most times.”
Aye, the house was private, tucked away in the trees and ferns, he thought, as they came upon one of the tall, triangular frames of the house, made of oak. This frame was one of three pairs. There was a large, open-shuttered window and a smaller window above it built into walls made of stone and wattle and daub. He could tell this was the side of the house. He couldn’t see the front from here, for lavender and herbs, vines and plants grew as high as the first window, bursting in colors of purple, white, and green on either side of him. They followed a narrow dirt path surrounded by flora and herbs to the side door, where Lily let them inside.
Her home. The door opened into a kitchen. The room was neat and stocked with fruit and various leaves hanging from the high oak frames and rafters to dry. Some leaves dried above a heavy oak table set in the center with two chairs around it.
For her and her husband. Elias grimaced at the arrow it shot at him.
Like the shop, there were plants everywhere. A lean, gray cat sat on the floor and meowed when they entered.
“Ehm...” Simon leaped back into the doorway. “I do not like cats.”
Lily smiled as she passed him. “You need not worry, Brother. Pip does not like people. She will stay out of your way.”
Elias grinned when he, too, passed him and followed his hostess out of the kitchen and into a sitting room bathed in sunlight from the large open windows. There were chairs and stools, and even a small place for books. Plants hung from the rafters and from two long, separate, wooden railings across the second landing. The floors were made of cobblestone and clay.
So much greenery in the house felt warm and fresh to Elias. The way she made him feel.
“That archway leads to Richard’s workshop.” She pointed the opposite way, to a small, open doorway. She didn’t move toward it. “If you wish to look inside, you will have to ask my husband.”
Another dart, though this one was cushioned by the loyalty she showed toward the man to whom she was married. A good trait to have, that.
A narrow stairway led to the second landing, where two bedrooms sat side by side. The only wall between them was a colorfully painted curtain that was draped open so the inhabitants of the beds could see each other. He thought of lying in bed looking at her. He would rather have her in his bed. More hanging plants. Was one her bed, and one her husband’s?
Elias liked the house. It was warm. Like her.
She ascended the stairs and showed them to one of the bedrooms. Hers. He could smell her scent more on this side of the partition. He and Simon would have to sleep together. Elias didn’t care. He cared about the other bed. The bed where she would have to sleep with her husband.
“This is where you will sleep.”
Elias smiled at the sound of her dulcet voice and angled his head to look at her. “I…” He couldn’t stay here. Seeing her all the time would be difficult. Did he want to put himself through it? “We dinna mean to put ye oot.”
“You are not putting me out,” she reassured with a delicate smile that hit him like a kick to the guts, knocking the breath out of him. “And please call me Lily. We are like a family here.”
“Lily.” It fell from his lips on a soft whisper. He moved without thinking and bumped his calves into her bed. He smiled again, feeling like a peach-faced babe for the first time in years.
“Lily,” Simon’s voice broke through the spell he was falling under. “I am curious—”
“About my marriage?” she asked, interrupting, her smile intact.
No! Elias’ smile vanished. It would make her feel uncomfortable in her own home. They were strangers. It wasn’t their place to know.
“Aye,” Simon answered mercilessly. “What is your age, my dear?”
“Brother Simon,” Elias tried to stop him. “I think we should be gettin’ back to the shop. Richard needs us.”
“Aye,” his soon-to-be friend-no-more said, “but I’m sure another moment or two will not hurt.”
It would hurt Simon!
“I do not mind answering,” Lily told Simon, dipping her chin to her chest while her gaze fell back to Elias. “I am a score and one.”
“And your husband?” Simon pushed.
Elias wanted to strike him. Did one go to hell for striking a man of God?
“He is sixty and eight.”
Simon cringed and Elias sat back onto the bed, more stunned than he thought he would be.
“Why were you bound to an old man?”
Elias closed his eyes and ran his hand down his face. “Simon, must ye—”
“I once belonged to a man named Bertram Chisholm, a relative on his Scot’s mother’s side, or was it his English father’s side?” She threw up her hands not sure which it was. “To the Bishop of Oxford, Louis Edmundson.”
Elias stopped her by putting the tips of his fingers to her arm. “What do ye mean ye belonged to him? Ye were his wife?”
She shook her head no. “He took me from my father while we visited the market in Hastings. I was ten and two.”
Elias listened with a dark scowl and fury twisting his belly.
“Did he do the worst to you, lass?” Simon asked.
Elias buried his head in his hands.
“No,” she answered coolly and on the barest whisper.
Elias almost didn’t hear her and lifted his head.
“By God’s divine grace, Bertram suffered a terrible wound to his nethers. It did not kill him, but it made him angry…very angry at me.”
Elias wanted to sink even lower or bound up off the bed and gather her in his arms and comfort her, though she didn’t seem to need comforting.
“Lily” Simon said, “I was once a slave, beaten often by my master until Eli’s father saved me. I truly understand some of your horrors. How did you escape him?”
“We came here two years ago and the people of the village saw that I was a mistreated slave. They tried to help me but he wounded many of them.
“My father was an apothecary like Richard. It made Richard and me friends, for he reminded me of my father. Against Bertram’s orders not to, I escaped his overseeing eyes at night and helped Richard tend to the people Bertram had hurt. I pleaded with them not to test Bertram further. But Richard did not give up. He brought Father Benedict to my door in the dead of night and married me there and then. Then he threatened to get the church and the bishop after Bertram if he harassed us any further. The beast finally left me alone. He soon became bored of being here, and left without a word.”
“And ye stayed with Richard,” Elias said, not realizing he’d spoken aloud until she looked at him.
“What would you have done, Mr. MacPherson?”
“Elias, please,” he insisted with a swallow. “In truth, I dinna know what I would have done. I could only hope that I would remain, but I have never had to make such a decision, so I dinna know fer certain. But I will tell ye this, lass, ye are more worthy of heaven than anyone I know.” As if he’d just realized how utterly pitiful he sounded, he coughed into his hand. He caught Simon staring at him, slack jawed. “What I mean is—”
“Thank you,” she said meaningfully. “That is very kind to my ears.”
“Aye, to mine, as well,” Simon said, still gaping at him. After an instant, he grinned and patted Elias on the back. “We should go see about speaking to Estrid.”
“Who?” Elias asked.
“Come on, then,” his friend said, pulling him toward the stairs. “I think you need some air.”
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