“Bringing Claire Home” blurb:
A year ago, Paul took his sister Claire away to escape Lord Jeffrey’s attacks on the hamlets. Mitchell and Claire were in love, but Mitchell hadn’t asked her to marry him before she left. Now he aches for her, and goes in search of her to bring her back to his home as his bride. But no one has seen or heard of her, and the hamlet where she was to go is empty.
Finally Mitchell meets Ivan, who takes him into the forest where Claire and Paul, and Ivan himself, have been living for the past year. But Ivan loves Claire, too, and Claire owes him her life. Mitchell suggests he and Ivan share Claire. Can this possibly work—two men with no tie to each other and the one woman they both love? And can they survive a dangerous journey home?
Claire had adjusted to living in the forest, but she longed to be back at the stronghold, or even living in Paul’s little house in the hamlet. Winter was coming, and winter in the forest was horrible. Even though Paul and Ivan had dug down deep into the soil to keep the heat from the fire inside their shelter and covered their walls and roof with mud, and later, snow and ice, it was still much colder than inside a stone building with a huge fire. In the stronghold, they could always wrap themselves in a fur and sleep in the great hall when it was very cold. Here, the shelter was just big enough for them all to be inside. Her brother always hugged her to him to share his body heat, but the small fire, all they could afford to use as gathering fuel was a time-consuming task, never seemed warm enough to Claire.
From outside, the shelter was very low to the ground, easy to disguise, as the men had dug it a long pace deep, and she appreciated the enormous amount of work that had been, so the temperature inside would be more moderate, and the shelter itself much less obvious to anyone searching for them. But it was not, and never would be, home.
It was no use asking to go home. Paul was convinced that life with Lord Jeffrey on the rampage was much too dangerous. Even here, so far north in the valley, there were signs Lord Jeffrey had attacked people. Several hamlets were derelict, all the people gone. One had been burned to the ground.
Meeting Ivan had truly been a life-saving experience. He and Paul together had been able to kill some larger animals that provided them with plenty of meat and furs for warmth. When Paul was by himself, it was much too dangerous for him to tackle a larger animal because if he’d been hurt, Claire wouldn’t have been strong enough to carry him back to the campsite to care for him. But with the two of them, life had been easier, and the tiny shelter was built as well. Claire knew Paul wanted her to marry Ivan, and she was grateful to him, truly she was, but the man she loved was back at the stronghold. She loved Mitchell with all her heart, and gratitude to Ivan didn’t change her feelings for Mitchell at all.
“Before winter sets in, you really ought to visit some hamlets and find out what has been happening in the valley,” she said to Paul that evening as they at around a tiny fire.
“I don’t want people knowing where we are. It took a lot of effort to build that shelter, and it’s important no one learns where it is,” he said dismissively.
“You can go to a more distant hamlet, travel in a roundabout route. Your tracking skills are excellent. No one need know where you’ve come from,” she said coaxingly.
“It’s been almost a year. She’s right. It’s time for one of us to see what’s been happening. Only one of us need go. One person can hide their tracks much more easily than a group,” said Ivan.
“Do you think so? What can have changed? Lord Jeffrey is young and strong. He’s not a frail old man like Lord Ceadda.”
“In a year, anything may have happened. Possibly nothing’s changed, but I agree with Claire. It’d be good to know.”