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READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Beyond the Shore and Shadows




A Merrow with a Choice

A Man Who Loved Her

And an Evil that could destroy them both

The Sea Is Calling...


Lena is a merrow in possession of the Magiske Skal—the shell once owned by the Queen of the merrows. And now, Lord Jarl knows her secret and wants it for himself.


After running away from the Lundby-Wyatt Inn, leaving behind everything she was familiar with, Lena finds herself in the company of the warm and kind Soren Emil.


When the villagers turn against her and Soren, they’re forced to leave the burning Bror Boghandel behind and escape to a forgotten cottage on the edge of the shore, where no one will find them. Lena knows she must get the shell back to the sea and destroy it, before it falls into the hands of Lord Jarl—or worse, his apprentice, Jace Wyatt.


With the help of some unruly pirates, Lena and Soren journey to a place Lena never thought she’d return: the sea. There, she will have to face not only the Sea King’s army, the Fosse-Søfolk, but the impossible choice to sacrifice her own life, or the life of the man she loves.


What will Lena choose?



Dive deep into the Skagerrak Sea alongside Lena in this anticipated sequel, BEYOND THE SHORE AND SHADOWS by Chantal Gadoury—out next Tuesday, May eleventh. Pre-order your copy NOW!


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CHAPTER ONE


“TELL ME EVERYTHING, LENA. TELL ME EVERYTHING…”


Soren Emil’s words echoed through Lena’s mind as she lay in the still darkness of night. Curled under several quilts on Soren’s soft, small bed, Lena tried to close her eyes. Even as she tucked her legs closer to her chest and slid her face further into the nearby pillow, there was nothing she could do to wipe the memory of Edwin’s face from her mind as the light left his eyes. Beneath her eyelids, she could still see Lord Jarl holding the pillow against Edwin’s face; his body desperately twisting for air as he grappled at his attacker. Her throat tightened as her heart ached for the loss of her friend. Edwin had come to mean so much to her, and he’d died because of her. His death was on her hands.


Lena moved her hand to her chest, where her fingers met the coolness of the conch shell tied on a small strand of kelp around her neck: the magiske skal. A single tear rolled down her cheek as she remembered Edwin—Edwin with his kind smile and his gentle touch as he would reach for her hand. Edwin, who had accepted her, knew her secret, and yet did what he could to protect her. He’d been her friend—her first friend. The makeshift ‘home’ that had been created in the Lundby-Wyatt Inn was gone. Her chest swelled, and a small whimper rose from her throat as she shifted under the blankets in the darkness.


From across the room, she heard Soren’s voice break the silence. “Lena?” His voice was soft and full of concern. She could imagine why he was concerned. Lena had run here as fast as her unsteady legs could carry her in the middle of the night, only then to wake him up.


Lena shifted on the small bed, pulling the blankets around her more tightly as she hoped he would call for her again. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to feign sleep. She didn’t know how late the hour was, but surely the sun would be rising soon. Soren would need to run the Bror Boghandel for the village. He needed his sleep.


She heard him shift under his own pile of blankets, until his feet pressed onto the creaking floorboards. As he crossed the room to her, she gave up and slowly rose onto her elbow. Her violet eyes scanned over his shadowed figure, seeing that he was dressed in only his trousers and an open, white pullover shirt. His hair was disheveled from his pillow.


“Can’t sleep either?” he asked gently as he sat down on the edge of the bed. Shaking her head, she tugged one of the spare blankets around her tightly as Soren slid his hand to rest against one of her legs.


“Would you like some tea?”


In the short time that Lena had come to know Soren, he seemingly found tea to be a comforting resource. She bobbed her chin upwards, nodding slightly. “Yes, please.”


Soren rose from the bed and crossed back to the fireplace. Lena studied him as he crouched and slid a selection of small logs onto the lingering red coals. Placing his kettle over the heat, they waited. She felt foolish for having woken him up. They both had been up for much of the night already. Even from behind, Soren appeared tired; his silhouette highlighted his slumped shoulders and tousled hair. Lena noticed his slow and careful movements as he tended to make their tea. She tried to hold off the tears that threatened to well in her eyes as she fought the anxiety tying knots in her stomach.


Turning slowly, he slid his gaze to her. Lena could see the lines of concern cross his brow. There was a moment of silence between them before Soren sighed.


“You’re safe here, Lena,” Soren began. Shaking her head, Lena lowered her chin, darting her gaze away from his.


“Lord Jarl…” Lena murmured, breaking the silence after a moment.


“I promise you,” Soren continued. While she feared Lord Jarl finding her at the Bror Boghandel, she feared more of what Soren Emil thought of her; of what he thought of her story of being a merrow. She had done exactly as he had asked her mere hours ago.


“Tell me everything, Lena. Tell me everything…”


Lena had not spared a single detail in her journey of coming to the shore. She spoke of what happened to her brother Javelin, as he had been killed in her attempt of going to the surface. She described her transformation from merrow to human in all that she could recall from the pain she experienced. She couldn’t help but look at the quilt that now covered her legs. Her knees and feet made the blanket stick up in places. It felt like she had been back in the sea with her fins just yesterday, yet it also felt like an eternity ago. Part of her longed to have her fins back.


This is what you wanted. Lena had to remind herself. Everything that had happened—her brother’s death, leaving the sea, even Edwin’s death—it all had been her fault, and it happened because she had wanted to see the surface. Something that merrows were forbidden to do.


Lena remembered the twinge of sadness that tightened in her chest as she told of how Jace Wyatt had found her on the sandy shore and had carried her back to his family inn after figuring out she didn’t know how to use her new legs. A few tears rolled down her cheeks as she finally described what had happened to Edwin; what Lord Jarl had done to him, and that Jarl was now after her.


“I believe you,” he’d said reassuringly when silence fell between them. He reached for her hand and brushed over the curve of her palm with his thumb. He hadn’t asked the questions she’d expected to hear. Perhaps he knew it hadn’t been the time.


Now, from across the room, Lena wondered if he had changed his mind. In the few hours that had passed, did he still find himself believing her and her story?


What would it mean if he no longer trusted her? Would she be forced to flee from him as well? Where would she go? The Fosse-Søfolk would never let her return to the sea. If she was forced to flee from Soren, Lena only feared what that could possibly mean for her.


The sound of water being poured into the teacups pulled Lena from her thoughts. She watched as Soren lowered the kettle into the dying embers once more before lifting the porcelain cups. Crossing the room, he offered her a blue chipped cup and sat down beside her again with his own. Gently blowing a steady stream of cool air on the beverage, he peeked a glance at her.


Lena didn’t know what to do in this strange, new silence. She felt tense and afraid, despite his easy disposition. She held the cup between her trembling fingers, before glancing at him.


“Soren?”


He lifted his gaze from his tea, meeting her eyes. His green eyes were filled with such gentleness. “Hmm?”


“D—do you still believe me?”


“Do you doubt that I do?” Soren raised a brow, watching her intently. “Do you think your story is so unbelievable?”


“Don’t you?”


Soren set his cup down on the floor with a sigh. As he adjusted himself, she nervously held her breath.


His green gaze raked over her figure. “I don’t find it so unbelievable, no. If there is one thing that I have learned in my years of knowing Edwin, it is that anything is possible. In knowing the truth of my mother…what she was, I suppose it was only a matter of time I would find myself face to face with a merrow as well.”


Lena allowed his words to settle between them before she continued, pressing her fingers against the glass in her hands.


“What do you suppose will happen to me now? With Edwin…” His death. “Surely Jace…Mrs. Wyatt…” Would they think the worst of her? Would they imagine that it was she who had harmed him?


“You’re afraid of them coming to look for you?” he filled in, raising a brow. Lena nodded. Soren pursed his lips before slowly nodding in understanding. “I imagine Mrs. Wyatt will worry about your whereabouts. It will only be a matter of time until Jace Wyatt comes looking for you,” he agreed.


“Lord Jarl as well,” she added in a whisper. His words echoed in her ears as she remembered his mouth raking over the scratch on her arm. Her violet gaze moved to look at her pierced skin.


“Little pearl…you can’t run away from me…your blood sings to me now. Now that I’ve had a taste of you…”


“I won’t let him within a foot of the Bror Boghandel,” Soren affirmed and shook his head.


“Won’t the villagers talk if they see me here? What will they say about—”


“I’m not worried about what the villagers say about me,” Soren snorted. “It’s nothing that I’m not already used to.”


“I just wouldn’t want my presence to be a hindrance to the Bror Boghandel. And to you…”


He shook his head again, his eyes looking down into his tea as he let out a soft sigh. “Your presence will never be a hindrance, Lena.”


She wanted to believe him—she wanted his words to be true. But how could she believe anything she is told, especially after Jace betrayed her? Lena sank back into the pillows, pulling her knees up to her chest as she took a small sip of the hot tea. The warmth began to spread throughout her body, filling her with some comfort.


“If you are truly worried about the reputation of the Bror Boghandel,” he bemused, “I could always say that I have hired you.”


“A girl who cannot read?” she reminded him.


“Which will be remedied with time,” he added gently as he lifted his cup back into his hands to sip upon. “No one need know you cannot read.”


Lena bit her bottom lip, building the courage to ask the lingering question in her mind. “What of Mrs. Wyatt?”


Soren nodded slowly. “Yes, we must think of Mrs. Wyatt,” Soren replied as he lowered his empty teacup to the floor. “She has lost Jace and now Edwin. The loss of you will be hard to miss. I’m sure she’ll ask about your whereabouts to anyone in the village.”


“Don’t you think she’ll come to you?”


Soren reached for her teacup and placed hers beside his on the floor as he nodded.


“I’m sure she will. However, I think it would be better if you keep your distance from the Lundby-Wyatt Inn. Lord Jarl has killed Edwin. He is now after you; remaining hidden and staying away from the inn is likely in your best interest, Lena.” Soren spoke gently.


“To stay here, in your back rooms?” she asked, her eyes growing wide. Lena had never stayed in such a small space for a long period of time. She had always had so much space under the sea. There had always been so much wide, open space. Even at the inn…there were several rooms she had access to and was able to explore. But here…hiding in the back room of Soren’s little home—how long would she be able to withstand being confined as such?


“If need be,” he replied. “If only for a short amount of time.”


As Soren looked to her, she found herself nodding in a silent reply. He was offering her shelter; an unspoken invitation to stay. He was willing to protect her—hide her from Lord Jarl, and the village. It would be strange, to be forced to stay inside, unable to go to the sea as freely as she wished.


“Lord Jarl will no doubt come after you for the shell he desires,” Soren muttered. “I can only imagine that would involve sending Jace after you as well. If you remain unseen by the villagers…”


“He said my blood sings to him,” she interjected, biting her lip. “Lord Jarl must have some way of knowing where I am,” she reminded him, tucking herself deeper into the blanket around her shoulders.


“Perhaps,” he said with a shrug. “They can’t know for certain until they come to the Bror Boghandel themselves.”


A jolt of fear twisted in her stomach as she imagined what Soren was suggesting. Lord Jarl, perhaps even Jace coming here—if only to find and kill her. Lord Jarl had already killed Edwin to get to her…what about Soren? Her heart pounded in her chest as scenarios whirled through her mind. “What if he does come? What if Jace comes to the shop tomorrow?”


“Do you fear that I would turn you out?”


His gaze locked on hers. Lena pondered his question for a moment. Was it that she feared Soren would hand her over to Jace, or was it the fear of Jace leaving Soren no choice?


“Edwin Wyatt sent you to me,” Soren murmured. “He told you that the Bror Boghandel and I would provide you safety, yes?”


“Yes,” she said quietly.


“If Jace comes through my doors, then I’ll do my best to treat him as I would any customer,” he reassured softly, “but I would cease my hospitality if I deemed it necessary. I will do what I can to protect you.”


Lena wondered what exactly would cause Soren to close his doors to Jace. Would it be a simple threat? Would it come at the demand of Soren handing her over to him? With a shiver, she pushed the thought from her mind. She hoped she’d never have to find out.


“Cold?”


“A little,” she whispered. Soren pushed himself to his feet and crossed the room. In a large chest, where earlier he had gathered blankets to make his own bed on the floor, he grabbed another quilt and moved back to her. Lena watched him drape the blanket over her legs.


Soren studied her closely; his emerald eyes searching her face.


“I believe you have been through something remarkable, Lena,” he murmured. “Something that perhaps not very many would believe. To have lost your home beneath the sea…your brother, and your father. To have come to this strange land… and to be facing what you are…” He trailed off.


Her eyes felt heavy with unshed tears as she lifted her violet gaze to meet his eyes.


“I will do what I can to keep you safe,” he said softly, extending his hand out to grasp hers. “I promise.”


Lena shivered at the memory of Lord Jarl’s tongue gliding over her pierced, bleeding skin. Her stomach knotted. Lena knew Soren Emil would not be able to protect her against him, no matter how determined he might be. It was the magiske skal he wanted…and he would stop at nothing to possess it.


Soren tilted his chin toward the bed, gesturing with his hand for her to lay back down. “Come now, we should get some sleep.”


Lena nodded silently as he lifted the cups from the floor and meandered back to the table, leaving them to clean later. As Lena laid back into the softness of the bed, she watched as he crossed to the fireplace. He moved one more log onto the warm coals; the small flicker of flames erupting immediately around the wood.


Tugging the blankets around her tightly, Lena did what she could to keep the cold fear from washing over her. She silently stared at Soren until he turned and knelt to the floor, pulling himself back into his own make-shift bed.


He turned away to sleep, leaving Lena to fight off the nightmare of Lord Jarl alone


 

CHAPTER TWO


HER MORTAL LEGS ACHED AS SHE RACED DOWN THE STAIRS OF the inn. The wooden boards creaked underneath the soles of her feet. She reached desperately for the banister. Her heart wildly racing, she glanced over her shoulder. Lord Jarl’s silhouette lingered just behind her; a long, dark shadow, reaching out to grab her. No matter how quickly she moved, the stairs seemed never to end. A whimper emerged !om her lips, but she willed herself to keep going. Lord Jarl’s voice echoed behind her as she stumbled down the final set of steps.


“I will find you, my little pearl,” he snarled. Upon turning to look at him again, she could see her blood dribbling down the corner of his mouth to his chin. The inn was still all around her, despite his chase of her. The only sound echoing !om the darkened rooms, was the hard rain hitting against the glass windows.


She had to escape. She had to get away from him before it was too late. Throwing the door open, Lena chanced a final look behind her. Lord Jarl was a breath away—his cold fingers coiled around her forearm like a snake. He squeezed tightly, pulling her closer to his lips.


“Your merrow blood sings so sweetly to me,” he cooed. “I will always find you, little pearl.” Lena screamed and tried to pull her arm back. Suddenly, another arm snaked around her waist, startling her and cutting off her cry. Slowly turning her tear-filled eyes to glance over her shoulder, she was met by Soren’s hardened face, also with a stream of dribbling blood from the corner of his mouth. He smiled, cold and stern, before leaning forward toward her, mouth widening.

***

Lena awoke to the sound of a door shutting.


Jerking upright, Lena darted her gaze around the room. Her heart was pounding in her chest; the dream had been so vivid. She found Soren standing by the closed door; he seemed almost to grimace as their gazes locked. Lowering a few cloth bags, he released a sigh.


“I apologize,” he said softly as he slowly straightened. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”


“It’s alright,” she replied breathlessly. Lifting a hand to her forehead, she swept a bead of sweat from her brow.


Her hands trembled, though she tried to calm herself. The nightmare she’d had felt too real. She couldn’t forget the look on Lord Jarl’s face; the way he reached for her; the hunger in his eyes. Even more, she couldn’t stop seeing the image of Soren’s gaze locked with hers. He’d wanted to harm her. He’d wanted her for her merrow blood. A shiver trailed down the length of her spine; she tried to calm her wildly beating heart, to no avail.


“I went to market this morning,” Soren explained as he turned back toward his bags and gathered a few of them to bring to her. He rounded the side of the bed, took a seat, and offered one of them to her. “I found this for you,” he explained. Lena stared at the dark brown cloth bag hesitantly, before arching her brow.


“What is it?”


“I suppose you’ll have to take a look,” he said amusedly, lowering it onto her lap. Lena drew open the folds to reveal a folded dark blue skirt. The color reminded her of the sea on a stormy night. The waist of the skirt was adorned with large cloth buttons roughly the size of coins. Turning the fabric in her hands, Lena found thinner strands of material finished at the back; enough to tie into a neat bow to keep the skirt from falling. Beneath the blue skirt was a starch white blouse, with rounded sleeves that appeared to billow at the wrists.


Lena lifted her curious gaze to him, tilting her head.


“You came only in your night dress,” he explained, sliding a hand over the back of his neck. “I didn’t feel it was proper to allow you to go through the day at the shop, without appropriate attire. Your ankles and such…” A small smirk grew on his lips.


“That was…kind of you,” she murmured. Inside the folds of the skirt, were a pair of off-white leggings, resembling the sort of trousers a man would wear. Wrinkling her nose, Lena studied the clothing curiously, unsure of what to make of them.


“It might be a little big,” he added. “It was all the tailors had available. Everything else is made with personalized measurements and I…” Lena could see a small hint of pink growing on his cheeks as he finished, “I didn’t know them.”


“Thank you,” she said with a reassuring nod, pushing the dress back into the cloth bag.


“You can dress in the bathing room,” he said, gesturing to the other side of the room. “I’ll keep my back turned.”


Lena bit her lip nervously and pushed herself up from the bed, doing as he suggested. In the corner stood a small partition, and beyond it, a small wooden tub. It was much different from what the Wyatts had in their inn, there were no knobs to turn to access water. How did he fill his bath when he wished to take one?


Pulling the strange-looking trousers from the folds of the skirt, Lena slid her legs into the pants and pulled them up around the waist of her nightdress. Were they to go on first? Wrinkling her nose, she pushed them down and tossed them to the side, feeling a little uncertain of the new attire he had obtained for her. Glancing over her shoulder to be sure she was shielded from Soren’s view; she slid her nightgown away from her body. The cool air brushed over the tips of her fingers and breasts, sending a slight shiver down her back. She felt too exposed, open to Soren’s gaze if he so chose to go back on his word of keeping his back turned. She knew Soren was a good man, but that didn’t stop the anxiety from swimming through her like a wave as she recalled her frightening nightmare; the way he’d gazed at her with the same gleam of desire as Lord Jarl. The desire to drink her blood.


Reaching for the fabric beside her, a spark of pain shot through Lena’s arm from the sudden movement. Turning her arm, she discovered markings on her skin, red and bruised from Lord Jarl’s assault.


She could still feel the warm graze of Lord Jarl’s tongue gliding over the bloodied wound on her arm; could still feel his fingers digging into her skin. “Run!” he had taunted, after Edwin had tried to urge her to leave. “Your merrow blood is singing to me.”


“Lena?” Soren’s voice startled her, drawing her away from the terrifying memory. “Are you alright?”


“Yes!” she replied quickly, tugging the blouse quickly over her head. With careful fingers, Lena swiftly pulled the blue skirt up around her waist and tightened the ties in the back the way Mrs. Wyatt had shown her.


“Do you need, uh…any assistance?” Soren asked, clearing his throat.


“No, no…” Lena managed, folding her nightgown and pushing the unused leggings back into the cloth bag. She emerged from behind the partition, sliding her fingers over the smooth blue fabric that now draped itself around her lower half.


“You can look now,” she said, releasing a small sigh. Soren turned, almost hesitantly, before his emerald gaze met hers. There was such kindness and concern lingering in his eyes as he stared at her.


“You look…lovely,” he replied with a small grin of approval brushing his lips.


Lena felt her cheeks begin to warm from the sound of his laugh and she wasn’t quite sure how to react. She rarely received compliments and reacting to them was still something she was learning.


Soren tucked his arms behind his back, his smile growing. “It suits you. Truly.”


“Thank you for your generosity.”


“Think nothing of it,” Soren remarked. “Now, let’s have our morning meal. I found quite a few things I thought you might like to try.”


He turned his attention to where he’d left the forgotten bags on the floor. Hoisting them up to the table, he began to pull what he had gathered from the market to place on display for her.


“Do you go to the market often?” Lena asked, glancing at the bag by his side.


Soren flashed a grin as he chuckled and nodded. “Of course. Though, I normally tend to only buy what I need. Would you like to see what I brought back?”


Lena gave him a small nod before crossing the room to stand beside the table.


“Sweet bread,” he said, lifting a large, round roll of bread from the bag. Laced between the dough layers looked to be a strange brown frosting. Lena lifted it to her nose to sniff and smiled with surprised delight.


“It smells sweet.”


“That’s because it is,” he said with a chuckle, reaching into the bag again. “As well, I brought us eggs…”


Soren lifted a small white oval for her to see. As he continued to place the items in front of her, Lena admired the unspoken excitement etched in his features.


“Grapes,” he continued as he lifted with another hand a small carton of purple circles. “An orange…” The sweet smelling ball made Lena curious. She lifted it gingerly from the table up to her nose.


“I know it’s not much. I thought I’d save the rest for our evening meal.”


Lena smiled, turning her attention back to the orange in her hand. She tried to bite into the fruit and a bitter, tangy taste filled her mouth. Wrinkling her nose, she slid it back to the table. The acrid taste reminded her of the time Javelin had brought a new, strange food home once from the market. Javelin had pulled from his bag small, pink round balls with tiny spikes all around them. He’d pierced it open with his dagger, tugging a small white, round pulp from the inside. Despite the beauty of the color of the strange food, the taste left little to be desired.


“No, no…” Soren explained with a chuckle as he reached for the fruit. “Like this.” Carefully, his fingers began to pull the orange skin away from the rest of the fruit. “You don’t eat the peel…”


“The peel?” she asked, wrinkling her nose. Soren lifted his gaze, meeting hers warmly.


“You really are from the sea, aren’t you?” Lena bit her bottom lip, nodding carefully. After a moment, Soren lifted the peel to her nose.


“Some people keep the peel to make their homes smell nice, or to start a fire, but I tend to just throw it away.” Lena carefully took the piece from his hand and continued to hold it to her nose. The sweet scent filled her with a strange comfort.


“It smells wondrous.”


“Do you like it?” he asked with a smile. “If you’d like, we could leave the peel out, to fill the room with the scent.”


“I’d like that,” she agreed, tucking her hair behind her ear. Lena eagerly continued to watch him pull the fruit into smaller pieces.


“Here,” he said, offering her a slice of the orange. Taking it, Lena slid the piece onto her tongue. The sweet, tangy flavor filled her mouth, and her eyes grew wide with wonderment. Chewing, Lena tried to savor each morsel.


“Do you like it?” Soren asked, watching her with amusement; the corner of his lips turned in a smile. “You can have more, Lena.”


He offered her more of the peeled pieces, taking only one for himself.


Lena eagerly devoured the rest of the fruit quickly, humming in pleasure at the last bite.


“So, you enjoy oranges,” Soren murmured as he began to boil the white eggs in a pot over the red coals in the hearth. Lena licked her fingertips, her cheeks beginning to warm.


“I’ve never had anything like it.”


“They’re rare, but delicious,” he agreed. “I used to only get them as a gift at Yule from my father.”


Lena looked at him inquisitively. “Yule?”


Soren meandered back to the table and lifted his brow. “Truly? Your people don’t celebrate Yule, Lena?”


“I don’t think so,” she replied, shaking her head. She had never heard the word until now…she doubted it was celebrated beyond the shore.


“Hmm,” Soren murmured. “That’s a shame.”


“What do you do at Yule?” Lena asked, tilting her head, curiously. Soren shrugged before lifting a small glass jar, filled with something that appeared to be deep red berries.


“Perhaps some toast with jam would go well with our meal,” Soren suggested with a raised brow. Lena nodded quickly as her stomach growled with hunger.


“Well…” Soren chuckled and began to slice through several pieces of the sweet bread on the table. “Yule is usually spent with family and friends. Usually there’s an exchange of gifts, a feast with delicious foods, and singing merry songs. For many, it’s a happy evening of dancing and drinking and…being with those you love.”


Soren carefully moved back to the hearth with the sliced bread.


“If my father had a bout of luck,” Soren continued, “we’d have a roast goose for dinner, and Edwin would generously bring us potatoes and bread from the inn.”


The room quickly began to fill with the most delicious scent of toasted bread as he removed them from the fire.


“Edwin was so good to you,” Lena replied.


Soren nodded thoughtfully before releasing a sigh. “He was good to everyone.”


When Soren finally handed Lena a piece of toasted bread slathered with a red berry jam, she couldn’t help but stare at it in awe. Of course, Mrs. Wyatt had dazzled her with the strange food she had served at the inn, but there was something so comforting and simple and bright about the piece of toast that Lena was about to indulge in.


“I’m glad to see you’re hungry,” Soren said, watching her eat the toast fervently. She could feel her cheeks begin to warm, and she slowly moved the toast away from her lips.


“It’s…delicious.”


“It is delicious,” Soren agreed, lifting his own toast to his lips and taking a bite. Lena watched him with curious delight; watched the way his jaw tightened and relaxed as he chewed. He was one of the most fascinating men she’d ever met, short of her own brother. She watched the way his curious eyes flickered from his plate and then back to her. She took another bite of her own, feeling a sudden peace fill her. Perhaps, eventually, everything would be alright.


“Lena?” Soren broke the silence, drawing her gaze away from the warmed bread in her hands. He pointed to the corner of his mouth with a laugh. “You have some jam, just here.”


She quickly darted her hand, brushing the back of her hand against her lips just as Soren chuckled.


“Here.”


Slowly, he leaned across the table, brushing his thumb where the dab of jam was smeared. Their gazes met; the soft, warm tips of his fingers swept across the corner of her lips. Her heart began to pound in her chest as she stared up at him. He was a beautiful man; she’d had that thought more than once already. Each time her gaze met his, she found herself completely captivated by him. By his kindness…


“Th-thank you,” Lena responded, cheeks glowing. Soren pulled his hand away and carefully, eased back into his seat, clearing his throat. He drew his attention to a small, round contraption he’d pulled from his pocket and grazed a hand through his disheveled hair.


“The eggs should be finished,” he murmured as he stumbled from his seat, toward the pot, hovering over the red coals of the fire. Pulling it from the heat, he carefully dropped the two eggs into a small bowl.


“These should cool before we eat them,” he explained. “I need to go open the Bror Boghandel.”


Soren crossed the distance of the room, pulling open the room’s door, revealing the quiet bookshop on the other side in a hurried jumble. Lena eased a finger over the place where the jam had been on her face. The warmth of his touch still vibrated through her. Had he been just as affected as she’d been from the simple touch?


Peering from the room, she watched Soren move along the hall, opening the front door to the village street. Sunlight filled the space, illuminating all of the bookshelves. She watched the way he trailed his fingers along the spines of the books when he walked by them; the way he leaned from the doorway, just enough to glance along the village road. As he turned on his heel, Lena scurried back to her seat, lifting the white egg from the bowl. It was hot to the touch, but Lena could not resist her own curiosity. “I think it would be best for me to go to the inn today,” Soren said as he reappeared at the door. “To offer my condolences to Mrs. Wyatt. Edwin’s passing should be well known to the village by now…”


Lena shifted her gaze away from the egg in her hand and looked up at him. A part of her yearned to go with him, to see Mrs. Wyatt, to go back to the familiar place that she’d come to call her home. Yet she knew the place she had learned to love and call home was gone. What would Mrs. Wyatt say? How could she explain what had happened to Edwin? How was she to explain why she had fled? She wanted to warn Mrs. Wyatt of Lord Jarl and the danger Jace was in.


As if reading her thoughts, Soren took a step toward her and shook his head.


“I think it’s best for now that you wait here. I think it might be…too much for you.”


“Too much?”


“To see Edwin,” he explained. “Mrs. Wyatt would have had the doctor come by the inn by now. He’ll be laid out and…I don’t believe it would be the way he’d wish for you to remember…”


The