An Arranged Marriage. A Secret Plot. A Man Capable of Destroying Her Heart.

Gwen’s carefree life is about to be upturned, starting with the arrival of a sexy, black-haired man she is unknowingly engaged to. Her world erupts into turmoil as she falls in love with him, only to nearly lose him and have her trust destroyed.
Parker has no intention of marrying the irresistible beauty, that is until she charms her way deep into his heart. He is willing to risk everything for her, but will it be enough?
Can their new love survive treachery, warfare, and all the lies that stand between them and their happy ending?

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PROLOGUE – PARKER

“Father, I am all set to leave.” I announce as I walk into the main hall, interrupting his conversation with a group of local men.

“One second,” he says back to me, not bothering to turn away from his conversation. If I am lucky, it will be only a few minutes before he excuses the men. My father has a one-track mind and always gives one hundred percent of himself to whatever task he is working on. A trait I would admire if it didn’t usually result in me impatiently waiting. A fire would not be enough to deter him, so I know my desire to leave before it gets any later in the day would do nothing to speed him up.

I use the delay to look around the hall, trying to memorize the sights and smells. My father promises I won’t be gone for the full six-months, as he is planning his attack around the three-month mark, but I am still sad to be leaving. Nothing feels quite like home does and I do not look forward to being gone for even a short amount of time.

This isn’t my first extended trip from home, but this time feels different. Like somehow my leaving is tainted. I will be visiting Cliffden, a large village three days ride from here and the more I think about my trip, the more it turns my stomach.

I don’t see the need for this mission, but my father has convinced everyone that Cliffden is planning their own attack and are intent on destroying us. I wouldn’t believe him, if it wasn’t for Lord Cliffden’s reputation. I grew up hearing stories of his ruthlessness and effectiveness at eradicating shifters from the area. His mind for strategy and his bloodlust made him so deadly. If there is truth to his planning, going on the offense is the only way to save Westhaven.

This is where my mission deviates from my father’s. He wants me to use my time in Cliffden identifying weaknesses and uncovering their defense strategy, I want to use this time to decide if they actually are a threat.

My invite to Cliffden is the most unsettling part of the mission, it’s to meet my betrothed. I know the plan was never going to result in me marrying Gwen, but I feel guilty when I think of stringing the poor girl along. Her father says she is in her twenties and not married, I worry about the type of woman she would have to be to result in that. She should have everything stacked in her favor for finding a good match, being the only daughter of a prominent lord, so I really don’t understand how she isn’t already married with children.

I hate to think of being a part in something that will bring heartache to a woman who could already be hurting for some other reason.

Turning to my left, I see my cousin Theo approaching.

“Are you leaving today?” He asks.

I nod.

We stand silently next to each other while we wait for my father to finish his meeting. The silence is normal between us, we have never been close, and I don’t have anything to say to him, even conversationally.

Theo is not happy with my father’s decision to send me, even though I am the one who has a reason to be there. He has been trying to gain favor with my father our entire lives and he thinks he is more suited for this mission than I am. He isn’t, but I know what his goal is, he wants to replace me as heir. He has never gone so far as to admit this to me, but his actions tell me all I need to know. Our whole childhood he tried to prove he was better than me, spending most of his efforts sucking up to my father and being at his beck and call.

I have no doubt he believed that if he were the one to bring back critical information, it might finally be enough for my father to change the line of succession.

I hear shuffling and chairs being scraped along the floor, so I turn my attentions back to the group my father was meeting with. They all stand and say their goodbyes, then head past me towards the door. I nod to a few of them, acknowledging their presence and offering a quick greeting. My father lets them all leave before he approaches me and Theo.

“I just wanted to say goodbye,” I say when my father is close enough.

“Did you pack enough ink and paper?”

“Yes, of course I did.” I try to hold back the frustration from my voice, he is treating me like a child again.

“Good. Remember, I don’t know when the attack will be yet, so it is paramount you get as much information as you can, as soon as possible.”

“I know. I will pass on as much as I can. Anything else?”

“Don’t fail me, or else.”

I can see Theo smirk out of the corner of my eye, but I don’t let it affect me. I am used to my father’s threats, this is nothing new.

A sudden, sickening part of me wonders if my father has thought about the attack being a way to eliminate me, it would be all too easy. I have always been more of a disappointment to him than anything else.

“Lucky for me then, I won’t fail you.”

“I will be awaiting your first letter,” at this, he turns and walks away, not wasting any time to say goodbye.

Theo waits for my father to be out of earshot before saying, “Good luck with the girl, maybe you will have some fun before this is all over.”

“I doubt it. Goodbye, Theo.”

He was trying to get a reaction out of me, trying to find some way to make a scene so he could be a last-minute replacement after my father decides I am too much of a disappointment to risk this whole mission on, but I won’t let him lead me into an argument. So, instead of waiting for him to say anything else, I turn and leave the main hall, heading towards my already packed horse.

I am pleased when Theo doesn’t follow me, and I start a steady pace away from my home. As I ride away, I realize I am not going to miss it as much as I thought it would, after all, there is no one I care about waiting for me back there. It would be different if my mother was still alive, but her warmth has been gone from my home for years.

My thoughts start to drift to the strained relationship I have with my father. He has always been cold to me and though I am used to it, it still hurts. It is because he sees me as weak and disobedient. I have always questioned him, never blindly following orders or taking what he said as fact. I have a questioning nature and always wanted to know the reasons behind his actions. He doesn’t like it. I don’t understand why not. To me, a great leader would be someone able to think of themselves and make sound decisions based on actual observations.

Each time I ask, “Why,” I can see his resentment towards me grow a little more, but no amount of beating could break me of that habit, nor will I ever change just because it makes him uncomfortable.

He tried his hardest to change me and my youth was filled with brutal attacks, though he was clever and never hit me outright. How it would work, I would speak up about something and the next day I would be paired with a sparring partner twice my size. My partner always had me on the ground and would mercilessly hit me, the brutality not stopping until father deemed my punishment to be sufficient.

Those attacks did the opposite of intended and they only strengthened me. Instead of laying down and taking it, I spent even more energy to perfect my fighting skills and soon, I surpassed all those around me. He could no longer find anyone capable, nor willing to beat me senseless.

More than my physical strength, he grew my confidence, and this completed the circle of resentment in our relationship, as my progress only made him more disappointed with me.

Despite all of this, I still love and admire my father. He is a remarkable leader; our town is prosperous and safe, and I know I still have much to learn from him.

He just isn’t a good parent.

I nudge at my horse, Powder, to begin our trot forward, starting my three-day journey to Cliffden. The long journey will give my mind plenty of time to determine my next moves. The only thing I know for certainty is I will do whatever it takes to ensure there is still a Westhaven for me to inherit one day.

ONE – GWEN

Parker is set to arrive today.

His impending arrival shouldn’t bother me as much as it does, but I can’t help it, I worry there is something going on. It’s impossible to explain why I feel this way, but I am certain I am only a pawn in someone’s plan, though everyone says I am being delusional about it.

I am trying not to dwell on the implications if my so-called ‘delusions’ prove to be correct. The only way to do that is to try and have the most normal and busy day possible.

I woke today with a fresh determination to have a good day and so help me, I will do just that.

Everyone in my family has sworn there is no plan for me to marry Parker, but I am not so easily fooled. There has to be something going on, it is the only thing that makes sense. I doubt Lord Westhaven would be willing to send his adult son and heir to another village for six months, unless it was for something important, like marriage.

My brothers are trying to convince me that it is an olive branch – an opportunity for Parker to visit Cliffden, as Grant had done a few years back for Westhaven. I don’t buy it. There are much less risky or time-consuming ways to spread peace. If he were only coming for a couple of weeks, I would buy their explanation, but six-months? What could he possibly find to do in that time, when he should be home, learning all he can to follow in his father’s footsteps.

If my brother, Gregory, is an example of how busy an heir is, I don’t understand how Parker can be away from his home for as long as he is planning.

The only possible reason could be a courtship and marriage.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, nothing they say or do will compel me to marry that man. I will not be forced into a match.

I want love.

That is the only reason I haven’t married yet. It’s not that I haven’t had offers, I just haven’t found anyone I connect with. My mother has mentioned more than once that I am starting to get older and I need to settle down, but she should understand more than anyone how important love is in a relationship, after all, my parents were the ones who set that expectation for me. They should be content with my desire to wait for the right man to come alone.

If this morning is any indication of what my thoughts are going to trail to today, I am more than pleased I scheduled myself such a busy day, not leaving myself any downtime for stray ideas to sneak their way in.

I will spend the first part of my morning with a classroom filled with young girls from town, something I started doing a little over a year ago. Officially, I am teaching them skills a lady should know, like penmanship, dancing, and poetry. At home, they are already learning how to cook, clean, sew and other homesteading tasks. So those, with the skills they are learning in my class should allow them to secure better matches and that is the only reason their parents let them attend and take time away from their chores.

In truth, I am showing them so much more than that. I still teach them the basics of what the syllabus says, but most of our time is spent on reading, writing, math, and philosophy, things that will allow them to have more freedom and control over their lives. Skills that might allow them to get jobs outside of just being a wife and mother on a farm.

The class will last until early afternoon. It is only scheduled for two hours, but I tend to be there for about four. Most days a few girls will stay after to get a little more practice in or work on something that has been troubling them. Today I will happily stay as long as I am needed.

After I leave, I am planning on getting lunch with one of my best girlfriends, Lucy, at Humble Pie, the town bakery. The food isn’t as good as it would be if we had lunch at Nash’s Tavern, but the atmosphere is so much better, with no drunk men and plenty of cushioned seats.

Usually that would be enough for any given day, but today I also volunteered to help watch Bethany’s children while she ran some errands. Bethany’s husband died a year ago, leaving her the entire farm, an inn in town, and three small children to care for. She is a tough woman and she works non-stop keeping everything running but she needs help every so often. I try and help as much as I am able. After all, that’s what we do here in Cliffden, we look out for each other.

I am likely to get in trouble with my mom from my final task, as watching Bethany’s children will keep me away from home far later than I should, missing Parker’s arrival. Something my mother made explicitly clear that none of us would miss.

I fight back the smile from my disobedience as I hurry to finish getting ready. I brush my hair out, but it takes longer than I wanted. My long blond locks are tangled from my restless night of sleeping. I grit through the pain of pulling the brush through, until finally it is smooth then I add a small braid to the crown of my head. Looking in the mirror, I give my hair a final look and deem it good enough.

I pass my mother on my way out of the house when her voice stops me, “Gwen. Where are you off to in such a hurry?”

“To my class,” I keep walking again, “I have to go, or I will be late.”

“Make sure you are home with enough time to get ready for our guest’s arrival. You know tonight is important.”

“I will,” I say, hoping she can’t hear the lie in my voice.

It is nearly a ten-minute walk from my house to the school. It’s on the other side of town, so to get there I have to walk through the center of town. Every step I take leads me through another comfortable area and all I see are friendly faces, the perks of living in the same place your whole life.

Cliffden isn’t a massive town, but we do have a couple inns, a big town square that is used for a daily market, which some stalls are constant and some change, two taverns and a few cottages for people who work in the town, not on their family’s farms. There has been so much progress in my lifetime, I have seen new people move here, new businesses were born, and our people have prospered. All things I am sure will continue as the years go on.

Despite the early hour, everything is already awake and bustling. The shops are open, the streets have people on them and there are the normal sounds of the town I love so much. Sounds of horses pulling carts, people haggling over goods, and the occasional shrieks of playing children.

I wave to a few of my friends as I pass by, but don’t have time to stop and chat, which is normal in the mornings and they know I am on my way to the school.

In a rush, I approach the two-room school building and there is a gathering of children outside. The boys are still present which means I beat the other teacher, Stacy, today. I breathe a sigh of relief, I thought I was running later than this. The children see me walk up and they stop their playing.

One of the older girls, Anne greets me, “Good morning, Miss Gwen.”

“Good Morning, Anne, everyone.” I smile at all the children, the boys and girls, then add, “ladies, shall we head inside for the lesson?”

A collective ‘yes ma’am’ goes through the crowd and we split to head in.

“And young men, you should head in and surprise Miss Stacy with your promptness and eagerness to learn.”

“Yes, Miss Gwen,” they respond, sounding far less thrilled than my girls.

I head the march as we enter the school house and watch the girls file into my room. There are eight girls here today, the typical number for summer time. Most of the parents in town cannot afford to let their school-age children be absent for a few hours in the morning, as they are needed on the farm or in the shop. It will pick back up again to about twenty-five after the fall harvest is complete.

They are an attentive group and the lot of them sat at the desks closest to the front. I start the day, as I always do and ask them, “What is something you have noticed since our last meeting?”

Jane goes first, “The bakery has a new ‘help wanted’ sign posted on the window. They are looking for a woman,” she held up a finger on her hand and pointed to it with the other, “someone who can make bread from scratch,” another finger, “she has to be at least fifteen…oh and there was one more, I don’t remember.”

Sara popped in, “She must be able to count. That was what I noticed too, Miss Gwen.”

I beam at them, “Wonderful job reading the job posting. See how important reading and numbers are, any one of you could do that job.”

They all look back at me with a mirror of smiles on their faces, filled with hope. We spend the next twenty minutes discussing different things that were noticed throughout town. This is my favorite lessons, as it trains them to be very aware of their surroundings.

The conversation starts to die down, so I move on to the writing portion of the lesson. These girls are all relatively advanced, so I give them a prompt and tell them to write a short story, one page in length about the day in the life of an animal. After the writing is complete, the girls will switch papers and take turns reading the stories out loud, giving them practice on reading as well.

Because the topic was so fun, the girls spend more time than they usually do on writing and the reading portion takes us to the end of class. We didn’t get to work on math today, but I still offer the same help when I excuse them, “Good job today, ladies. I will be around for a little while longer if anyone has any questions they need help with, otherwise you are all free to go.”

Five of them stay and they keep me plenty busy.

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