Selah Kilbrid may descend from the goddess Brigid, but her heart beats–and breaks–the same as any human. Yet enduring the scorn of London’s most noble lords and ladies is a small price to pay for a chance at true happiness. Selah would endure much more for love, and her betrothed, Lord Henry Fitzalan, is prepared to challenge anyone foolish enough to stand in their way, even another goddess born.
But when a captivating young gentleman draws Selah into a world shadowed by secrets, she is forced to confront her darkest fears. What if some differences are too great to overcome and a future with Henry is doomed from the start? With these doubts threatening her impending marriage, a violent attack on an innocent child pushes Selah to the very edge of her power. She must find a way to cross into the Otherworld and regain her strength, or forfeit the streets of London to death and disease.
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And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free romance excerpt:
Pennsylvania, August 1730
The knife felt good in my hand. The smooth bone handle curved into my palm, covering the tang and separating my fingers from the long metal blade. Etched into the burnished steel were the Gaelic words Brigid Buadach.
Brigid Victorious. The smith god Goibniu had forged the knife for the high goddess Brigid on the eve of battle against the Fomorians. It was a formidable weapon, perfectly balanced and sharp enough to remove a man’s fingers in a single stroke. Or his head if need be. The enchanted steel served one purpose—to defeat the enemy.
I tightened my grip and pushed the knife into my own enemy, lying inert on the table in my apothecary. By no means a Fomorian warrior, the mound of feverfew leaves easily submitted to Goibniu’s steel. Each downward thrust bit deeper into the pile, smearing the wooden table with green blood and filling the air with a strong, bitter scent. Sweat beaded my forehead, both from the exertion and the fire that burned in the hearth at my back. The door, leading outside to the herb garden, had been left open for what little relief could be found on such a hot August day.
Though Brigid’s direct descendant and thus rightful heir to her knife, I was feeling far from victorious in my fight against the feverfew. A score of Fomorians would have been a welcome sight if it meant a reprieve from the seemingly endless piles of flora that had fallen beneath my blade these past few weeks. But that race had vanished from Ireland long ago, assuming they ever existed at all. No longer a child, I knew such tales of invading armies and ancient battles contained more fancy than fact, especially in light of the irrefutable evidence clenched in my right hand—in the past six years, I had nicked myself countless times with Brigid’s blade and had yet to lose a finger.
Since no Fomorians were forthcoming, I would have gladly settled for the magistrate who had sent Henry back to England without me. Lord Henry Goderic Fitzalan to be more accurate, the man I loved and planned to marry—the man who was halfway across the Atlantic by now while I was stuck in Pennsylvania chopping leaves.
Angered by these thoughts, I quickened my pace, decimating the feverfew as I reduced the pile to a fraction of its original size. Then wiping a finger along the side of the blade, I distributed the shredded pieces among a dozen glass jars, and filled each one to the top with whiskey. In a few weeks the tincture would be an effective remedy for headaches.
Late afternoon sun spilled into my apothecary, and I still needed to finish the various concoctions brewing in the hearth. No matter what the townsfolk might say about my sham marriage to Henry, they could never speak against my devotion as a healer. The room was scorching hot and my body ached from working non-stop since dawn. Reaching up, I used a sleeve to mop the sweat from my forehead.
In mid-motion, a sudden chill passed along my spine. My damp skin puckered in response, and I snapped my head up to find a man standing just inside the doorway, watching me. Sunlight haloed his long body, and a broad-brimmed hat cast deep shadows over his face. Peering closer, I glimpsed solid black eyes, so bulbous and misshapen they couldn’t possibly be human. With a gasp, I stepped back toward the fire.
The man said nothing, just continued to stare at me, his eyes glittering like an enormous beetle. A shower of white hair fell to his shoulders, framing his near-white skin and large pale mouth. He slanted forward and lifted his nose to sniff the air.
“Who are you?” I demanded. “What do you want?”
My questions went unanswered as he sniffed once more before moving farther into the room. Already backed against the fire, my only escape was through the door leading to the servants’ quarters.
On the verge of bolting, I watched the man reach up and pull off his eyes. Heavens Above! My knees swayed beneath me and I nearly screamed from the sight. Two thin metal arms appeared on either side of the bulging pupils—much like a pair of spectacles.
My scream turned to a strangled laugh, and I forced a smile to help cover my embarrassment. Only a simpleton would have made such an error, no matter the spectacle’s bizarre shape and color. From what I could tell, the lenses were not made of glass, but precious stones that had been carved to the exact size of his eye sockets.
The man folded down the metal arms and tucked them into his coat pocket. “Good day,” he said politely. “Please forgive the intrusion. I am looking for Mrs. Sarah McBres. Do you know where I may find her?”
He had managed to surprise me yet again. “Sarah McBres?” I repeated, thinking I may have misheard him.
“Yes. Are you acquainted with her?” He came farther into the room until only the table stood between us, and I saw at once why he had been wearing the odd spectacles. An albino, his pink irises were no match for the bright summer sun.
“No…I mean yes,” I said, dragging my thoughts back to his question. “Sarah was my grandmother, but she died before I was born.”
He stared at me, his pale brow folded in thought. “We received no word of her death. Nor was there word of any offspring. Tell me, how many children did Sarah beget?”
“Just my mother.” The fire cracked behind me, and I stepped forward to avoid catching my gown on fire.
“Is your mother at home?”
His directness disconcerted me. Or maybe it was the unusual softness of his voice that sent another chill along my spine. “First, I would know your name, sir, and the nature of your business with my family.”
“You may call me Mr. Chubais. I have traveled a great distance to deliver an urgent message to Sarah McBres. Since she no longer lives, I desire to speak with her daughter.”
“Well, I’m afraid that’s impossible. My mother has been dead these past four years. I am Mistress of Brighmor now, and the last of my family in the Colonies. Any message will have to be delivered to me.”
He cocked his head to one side, causing the white hair to fall away from his face just enough to reveal a grossly disfigured ear. Thick scabs covered what looked like a bite mark on the bottom lobe. More blood crusted the tip where a large chunk of cartilage was missing. The inflamed sores stood out in sharp contrast against his pale skin.
“You’ve been hurt,” I said, nodding toward the ear.
“Yes, on the road from Philadelphia. A fellow traveler did not care for my company and set his hound upon me. The attack was limited to my ear.”
His story should have moved me, but for some reason it did little to provoke my sympathy. “You are indeed fortunate,” I said matter-of-factly. “Such creatures have been known to kill men.”
A low growl emanated from deep inside his throat. “The hound took me unaware. Otherwise it would never have survived long enough for even the one bite.”
The man unnerved me, and duty alone forced my next words. “I can tend to your wounds if you wish. An ointment should take care of the infection though there’s not much to be done for the missing cartilage.”
His direct gaze moved over my face, taking each feature in turn. “Your grandmother was a renowned healer in Ireland,” he said after a moment. “You have some of her look about you. Did you inherit her skill as well?”
“I don’t know,” I lied. “She died before I was born, as I’ve already told you.”
“Maybe someone more experienced would better serve my needs. Is there a doctor in the village?”
It was an effort not to laugh. Unlike any doctor, I could have grown him a new ear in less time than it took to boil a pot of water. A bit more effort, and I might have been able to restore the color in his skin. Not that I was about to display the full extent of my power when a well-concealed fragment would do. “The closest doctor is in Philadelphia, but those sores will be seeping by the time you make it back to the city.” I shrugged indifferently. “It’s your ear. Do as you please.”
“I see.” The man’s wide lips stretched to a queer smile, revealing sharp white teeth. “What is your name, child?”
“Selah Kilbrid.” I bit my tongue to keep from adding that I was no child.
“How curious,” he said. “How curious, indeed. A Kilbrid and a McBres together in the new world.” He leaned closer and drew in another deep breath. “I should have known sooner—the scent is undeniable.”
My skin turned to gooseflesh. Without thinking, I reached for the knife, curling my fingers around the handle. The movement caught his attention and I watched his pink eyes widen in surprise. “Brigid Buadach,” he said softly. “Brigid Victorious.”
Footsteps sounded in the hallway, followed by the appearance of Mr. James Roth, Henry’s personal secretary and my least favorite person. For the first time in a month, I was actually glad for his company.
“Mr. Roth!” I cried. “What an unexpected surprise.”
He looked from me to Mr. Chubais. “I require some remedies for the journey tomorrow. I will come back at another time when you are not engaged.”
“No, no, please don’t go.” I hurried from around the table to James’s side, the knife still clamped in my hand. “I believe our business is concluded, Mr. Chubais, unless you have any further questions for me?”
There was no trace of his earlier smile. “Our conversation has been most illuminating. I thank you for your time, Miss Kilbrid.” He bowed and turned to leave.
Just then I remembered the reason for his visit. “Mr. Chubias,” I called, stopping him at the door. In my panic, I had nearly let him leave without delivering the contents of his urgent message. “Did you wish to tell me something?”
Mr. Chubais half-turned and looked at me. He studied my face once more before his gaze traveled to the knife in my hand. “The heat has made me weary and the exact phrasing has slipped my mind. I shall remember later and send you word.” He reached into his coat pocket for the dark spectacles and placed them over his eyes. “Good day, Miss Kilbrid.”
I stared at the empty doorway, unsure what to make of my short interview with the albino. No doubt, he knew about Brigid’s descendants or he never would have understood the significance of my parents’ marriage, the marriage of a McBres and a Kilbrid. And what did he mean that the scent was undeniable?
James cleared his throat. “An acquaintance of yours?” he asked, with open disdain for the albino. Not that I expected otherwise—he had yet to approve of anything about my life, me included.
I shook my head. “This is the first time I have ever seen him. He inquired about my grandmother, and by the way he spoke, he seemed to have known her from before she came to the Colonies. I’m not sure how though as she left Ireland more than forty years ago.”
“Oh, yes,” James said. “I almost forgot about your unfortunate connection to that godforsaken land. The king, I’m sure, will not be so negligent once he learns how you’ve stolen his nephew’s attention from Princess Amelia.”
Amnesia could not have caused James to “forget” my Irish roots as he now claimed. Nor would he miss an opportunity to remind me that Henry was currently betrothed to the king’s second daughter. Against his will, albeit, but betrothed all the same.
A dozen heated retorts jumped to my throat. I forced them back, determined to remain civil. “You require a remedy, I believe. Something for the journey.”
“Quite right,” he said. “On the voyage from England I suffered severe seasickness. I was hoping you might have something that would make the return voyage more tolerable.”
For a brief moment I debated giving him a bottle of senna root that I had brewed as a laxative for Old Nan. One teaspoon twice a day wasn’t enough to cause him too much inconvenience, though it would do absolutely nothing to cure his real ailment. By my humble estimation, seasickness and an occasional loose bowel were the least he deserved in return for his awful behavior towards me this past month.
I shot a furtive look at the bottles. Passing one onto James would be easy enough. Getting away with it would prove more difficult. He had asked for my help, and to deny him was a serious breach of my gift. If Brigid learned that I had purposefully harmed another person, I would be cut off from the Otherworld and the very source of my power. No human was worth the risk, least of all James Roth.
I took a jar of powdered ginger from the shelf instead. “This should help. Brew one teaspoon in a cup of hot water four times a day. You may add some sugar to help with the taste.”
James nodded and took the jar. “Thank you, Miss Kilbrid.” Without so much as a smile, he turned and left the room.
My pleasure, Mr. Roth. And may the devil take you before the morning.
Such luck had eluded me of late, and for about the millionth time I cursed the circumstances that kept me in the Colonies a month longer than Henry and, by his insistence, in James’s daily company. To be sure, I had bristled at the idea of a protector, but Henry had stood firm and refused to sail unless I agreed to let James stay, regardless of the magistrate’s threat to have him flogged.
I now had nine more weeks to tolerate that insufferable man—one to travel to Philadelphia and secure passage to England, and another eight at sea. I only needed to be patient awhile longer. Then Henry could deal with James, though it was probably too much to hope that he would be dismissed from service as the two men happened to be the best of friends.
Alone once more, I returned to the hearth to stir the liquid simmering in one of the large black pots. Steam rose up, bathing my skin and chasing away the last of the chill left by Mr. Chubais. Based solely on our conversation, I failed to understand his connection to the goddess born. Yet what his words did not clearly disclose, I felt confirmed a hundred times in my core—the man could not be trusted.
Something about him gave me the jitters. Upon deeper reflection, I knew it wasn’t his unusual appearance, the pasty white skin and pink eyes. As a healer, I had seen much worse and wasn’t bothered by such physical afflictions. His soft voice and tendency to sniff the air were disconcerting, but even these mannerisms could not explain my strong aversion to the man. Something else persisted, something much deeper than the eye could see. If not for the cryptic message, I would have preferred to never see him again, which could well be the case gauging by the lengthening shadows in my apothecary. At first light I was leaving for Philadelphia. The man had less than twelve hours to recover from the heat enough to send word. Message or no, my reunion with Henry would not be delayed by even a day.
Midnight came and went by the time I wiped the last pot clean and then looked around, satisfied with my work. The room was tidy, everything neat and in place just as my mother would have liked it. Before her death we had spent countless hours working together in this room, my mother teaching me the art of healing and the many secrets of our kind. I smiled from the memory when tears unexpectedly stung my eyes. Was I really going to walk away from this? From everything I had ever known?
Needing to clear my head, I crossed to the open door and inhaled a deep breath of the sweet, earthy scent of ripening wheat. The full moon cast a silvery glow as I stared toward the small family plot where my parents and maternal grandparents were buried. Beyond that, hidden deep in the forest stood the altar that served as a passageway into the Otherworld and the source of my power. For eighteen years Brighmor had been the center of my world in one form or another. Then Henry stepped off a ship and changed my life forever.
A pang of longing began to swell in my chest, and for the first time since he left, I felt apprehensive about leaving my home to travel halfway across the known world. What if I depleted all my power before I could cross into the Otherworld? Or if the ship sank and I ended up drowned at the bottom of the Atlantic? Or if I did make it to England only to learn that Henry had experienced a change of heart and agreed to marry Princess Amelia after all?
This last thought proved worse than the others put together. I shoved it aside, unwilling to even consider the possibility. My mind was decided, and I wasn’t about to throw away my only chance at happiness because I was too scared or nostalgic to leave Brighmor. These stone walls were sturdy. They would still be here when I returned—if I ever returned.
A gentle breeze stirred the night air, brushing the stray hair around my face and causing the candles to flicker on the table behind me. My new life would start tomorrow. Until then I needed to sleep, at least a few hours before the sun came up. I turned to go when something moved in the trees nearest my garden, a flash of white that disappeared in the blink of an eye. My nape prickled in warning, strong enough to make me shudder.
“Who’s there?” I called.
Silence followed and I took a cautious step back into the doorway.
A full minute passed while I waited for any sign of movement. Nothing appeared, and after another minute of watching, it became clear that exhaustion had finally gotten the best of me.
With a muttered curse, I closed the apothecary door and extinguished all the candles, save for one to navigate the darkened house. On a whim, I also picked up Brigid’s knife on my way out of the room. Certainly, such a blade would come in handy on the voyage.
From the servants’ wing, I passed through the kitchen, my meager light temporarily aided by the red embers glowing in the cooking hearth. Another door led to the main house, into a long hallway so black my candle did little to dispel the darkness. I continued toward the front stairs, thankful for the thin strip of moonlight that spilled across the hallway from the adjacent room.
I crossed through the light in two quick steps, when a faint scratching sound caused my feet to stutter. Darting a look into the room, I glimpsed a large shadow through the window as it ducked out of sight. I gasped and jerked back, inadvertently knocking the candle from the holder. In the pitch-black, I hurried down the hallway, the soft thump of my slippers breaking the heavy silence.
Nearly at the stairs, I came to a sudden stop when something scratched again, this time against the front door. A tentative rattle of the iron handle sent my heart flying straight into my sternum. Rather than run, I found myself rooted in place, staring toward the door as the rattling grew more determined.
The door refused to budge, having been bolted for the night by one of the servants. The room soon fell silent, and yet I waited, every muscle held taught, hardly even breathing so as not to give myself away. The silence pressed on until it appeared the would-be intruder had left, I hoped from Brighmor altogether, but quite possibly to look for another entrance. Whichever the case, I now had time to alert James of the situation. He, in turn, could wake the numerous field hands who slept above the carriage house, and together they could search the grounds.
I had just willed my feet to move when the door handle creaked sharply. The iron groaned under the strain, and the wooden jam splintered around the bolt. The commotion was over in seconds, the loud protests of metal and wood replaced by the sound of my ragged breath. Where the door had previously held fast, a sliver of silvery moonlight now cut through the darkness. Confusion clouded my head as the sliver continued to grow to a wide arc, and I found myself staring at the shrubberies that lined the front walkway. Then fear took me, stealing my voice and turning my first scream into a small, terrified squeak.
A large beast stepped into the entry, its pale, canine body illuminated in the moonlight. The summer heat turned to ice around me and I started to shiver, overtaken by a tremendous chill. Partway in the room, the beast lifted its muzzle to sniff the air, each exhaled breath reappearing as a frosty puff.
Blood pounded through my heart. The beast was too big to fight single-handed. To survive, I had to run. Either back down the hallway to the servants’ quarters or up the stairs to my bedroom where Henry had insisted I keep a loaded pistol. I opted for the pistol, hoping a well-aimed shot to the head could stop a creature capable of breaking through solid wood doors and iron locks. Chancing a tentative step toward the stairs, I heard a snarl of warning. Another step, just the smallest movement, brought more snarls as the beast moved closer, cutting off my path.
Not daring to move again, I pressed my back into the wall, aware of one last option other than simply playing dead. I might lack the strength to kill the creature, but I could at least hurt it a little, or even scare it off for the few necessary seconds I needed to get up the stairs. Slowly lifting my left hand, I hurled the brass candleholder straight at the beast. There was a meaty thud, followed by a loud clatter as the candleholder hit the wood floor and rolled away. I tensed, ready to bolt.
It didn’t even flinch! I had hit the devil with all my strength, and it didn’t even flinch! Instead, it tilted its head to the side, the previous snarls replaced by an odd wheezing sound. At first I thought it might be whimpering when another thought flashed through my mind. The cursed thing was laughing at me!
By now I was too mad to try playing dead.
I stared at the beast, a strange fire stirring deep inside my chest, feeding my anger. “Stop laughing,” I hissed.
It wheezed some more, obviously amused by my words.
The fire surged inside me, white hot and deadly. “Get out of my house or…or… I’ll tear your blasted heart out!”
The beast snarled in response and edged another step closer. Then it lunged, its teeth flashing at my neck. I screamed, this time loud enough to wake the dead, and threw my hands up to protect myself.
It slammed into me, knocking my head hard against the plaster. My arms jolted painfully, pinned to my chest beneath its massive weight. A long hiss, like the sound of searing meat, came from between us and my nose filled with the scent of burnt fur and flesh. At once, the beast’s savage snarls turned to howls of pain, then fell silent. A bitter cold moved into my right hand, stinging my fingers before I remembered the smooth, bone handle clamped in my fist. I let go, and the beast sank to the ground, Brigid’s knife deep in its chest. The fire receded inside of me, sapping my strength along with the maddening rage.
Footsteps came pounding down the stairs. I turned to see James, a candle in one hand and sword drawn in the other. “What happened?” he demanded.
Unable to speak yet, I let my eyes fall toward the ground.
James followed with the candle, sucking in a hard breath when he saw the beast lying at my feet. “What is that?”
I stared down, at a loss what to tell him. Canine in form, its fur was completely white, except for the newly formed bloodstain around its heart.
James moved the candle closer. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “Could be a distant cousin to the wolf hound, though it’s larger by half. What was it doing in here?”
“I don’t know,” I said, finally recovering the use of my voice. “It broke through the door and attacked me.”
James poked the hound with the tip of his sword. “Is it dead?”
“I think so. I had the knife from my apothecary. The hound fell on the blade when it lunged at me.” I held back how the blade had slid into the creature’s chest, melting its flesh and bone like butter.
James leaned over for a better look. “This wasn’t its first fight.” He pointed towards the hound’s head, “Something has taken a bite out of its ear.”
My knees buckled and I braced myself against the wall to keep from falling. James was right. One ear looked severely mangled, a portion of cartilage gone and the remainder covered in a thick layer of scabs. The wound was unmistakable, as was the nature of Mr. Chubais’s urgent message—to kill the goddess born.
The body began to quiver and James jumped back. A blue flame sprang from the bloodstained chest, barely missing my skirts as it raced over the fur, encasing the hound in a blanket of icy fire. It was over in seconds, the carcass reduced to a pile of white ash.
“Merciful God!” James exclaimed.
His words mirrored my thoughts exactly.
Stooping, I picked up the knife from the ash, marveling at how good it felt in my hand. It was a formidable weapon, forged by the smith god for one purpose—to defeat the enemy.
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