/ Language: English / Genre:antique,

In Bed with a Highlander

Maya Banks


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“Will you tell me what it is I want to know now?” he asked. To be fair—and he was a fair man—he wanted to give her the opportunity to confide her identity before he related his own knowledge.

She thrust her chin upward in the show of defiance he now expected from her and shook her head. “Nay. I will not. You cannot order me to trust you. Why, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

He sensed she was warming up for a full-length diatribe, so he did the one thing he knew would silence her.

He rapidly closed the distance between them, curled his hands around her upper arms, and hauled her upward. His lips found hers in a heated rush, her gasp of outrage swallowed up by his mouth.

She went rigid against him, her hands shoving between them in an attempt to push him away. He brushed his tongue over her lips, tasting her sweetness, demanding entrance into her mouth.

Her second gasp came out more as a sigh. Her lips parted and she melted into his chest like warm honey. She was soft all over, and she fit him like his sword fit his hand. Perfectly.

He pushed inward, sliding his tongue over hers. She went rigid again, and her fingers curled into his chest like tiny daggers. He closed his eyes and imagined them digging into his back as he thrust between her thighs.

Lord, but she was sweet. Nay, bedding her would be no hardship at all. The image of her swollen with his child flickered through his mind, and he found himself very pleased with the image. Very pleased indeed.

When he finally pulled away, her eyes were glazed, her lips deliciously swollen, and she swayed like a sapling in the wind.

She blinked several times and then frowned sharply. “Why did you do that?”

“It was the only way to silence you.”

She bristled with outrage. “Silence me? You took liberties with my … my … my lips in order to silence me? That was very impertinent of you, Laird. I won’t allow you to do it again.”

He smiled and folded his arms over his chest. “Aye, you will.”

Her mouth gaped open in astonishment and then worked up and down as she struggled to speak. “I assure you I won’t.”

“I assure you that you will.”

In Bed with a Highlander is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

A Ballantine Books Mass Market Original

Copyright © 2011 by Maya Banks

Excerpt from Seduction of a Highland Lass copyright © 2011 by Maya Banks

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

BALLANTINE and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming book Seduction of a Highland Lass by Maya Banks. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.

eISBN: 978-0-345-51948-1

Cover design: Lynn Andreozzi

Cover illustration: Alan Ayers

www.ballantinebooks.com

v3.1

For Kim Whalen, who believed in this book from the very beginning and who told me she would absolutely find a home for it. You did just that.

For Lillie, who is such an invaluable support in so many ways. You make my reader heart so very happy with our book dishing, and you’re unwavering support of my stories is something I’ll always be grateful for.

To Fatin, who is like a mama lion. You take such good care of me. I love you for that!

And finally to my family for trekking all over Scotland with me. For the missed trains, the ridiculous roundabouts, the horrible food, and one of the best times of my life. Love you all so much.

Contents

Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Excerpt from Seduction of a Highland Lass

CHAPTER 1

Mairin Stuart knelt on the stone floor beside her pallet and bowed her head in her evening prayer. Her hand slipped to the small wooden cross hanging from a bit of leather around her neck, and her thumb rubbed a familiar path over the now smooth surface.

For several long minutes, she whispered the words she’d recited since she was a child, and then she ended it as she always did. Please, God. Don’t let them find me.

She pushed herself from the floor, her knees scraping the uneven stones. The plain, brown garb she wore signaled her place along the other novices. Though she’d been here far longer than the others, she’d never taken the vows that would complete her spiritual journey. It was never her intention.

She went to the basin in the corner and poured from the pitcher of water. She smiled as she dampened her cloth, and Mother Serenity’s words came floating to mind. Cleanliness is next to Godliness.

She wiped her face and started to remove her gown to extend her wash when she heard a terrible crash. Startled, she dropped the cloth and whirled around to stare at her closed door. Then galvanized to action, she ran and flung it open, racing into the hall.

Around her, the other nuns also filled the hall, their dismayed murmurs rising. A loud bellow echoed down the corridor from the abbey’s front entrance. A cry of pain followed the bellow, and Mairin’s heart froze. Mother Serenity.

Mairin and the rest of the sisters ran toward the sound, some lagging back while others shoved determinedly ahead. When they reached the chapel, Mairin drew up short, paralyzed by the sight before her.

Warriors were everywhere. There were at least twenty, all dressed in battle gear, their faces unwashed, sweat drenching their hair and clothing. But no blood. They hadn’t come for sanctuary or aid. The leader held Mother Serenity by the arm, and even from a distance, Mairin could see the abbess’s face drawn in pain.

“Where is she?” the man demanded in a cold voice.

Mairin took a step back. He was a fierce-looking man. Evil. Rage coiled in his eyes like a snake waiting to strike. He shook Mother Serenity when she didn’t respond, and she warbled in his grasp like a rag doll.

Mairin crossed herself and whispered an urgent prayer. The nuns around her gathered in a close ball and also offered their prayers.

“She is not here,” Mother Serenity gasped out. “I’ve told you the woman you seek is not here.”

“You lie!” he roared.

He looked toward the group of nuns, his gaze flickering coldly over them.

“Mairin Stuart. Tell me where she is.”

Mairin went cold, fear rising to a boil in her stomach. How had he found her? After all this time. Her nightmare wasn’t over. It was, indeed, just beginning.

Her hands shook so badly that she had to hide them in the folds of her dress. Sweat gathered on her brow, and her gut lurched. She swallowed, willing herself not to be sick.

When no answer was forthcoming, the man smiled, and it sent a chill straight down Mairin’s spine. Still staring at them, he lifted Mother Serenity’s arm so that it was in plain sight. Callously, he bent her index finger until Mairin heard the betraying pop of bone.

One of the nuns shrieked and ran forward only to be backhanded down by one of the soldiers. The rest of the nuns gasped at the bold outrage.

“This is God’s house,” Mother Serenity said in a reedy voice. “You sin greatly by bringing violence onto holy ground.”

“Shut up, old woman,” the man snapped. “Tell me where Mairin Stuart is or I’ll kill every last one of you.”

Mairin sucked in her breath and curled her fingers into balls at her sides. She believed him. There was too much evil, too much desperation, in his eyes. He had been sent on a devil’s errand, and he wouldn’t be denied.

He grasped Mother Serenity’s middle finger, and Mairin rushed forward.

“Charity, nay!” Mother Serenity cried.

Mairin ignored her. “I’m Mairin Stuart. Now let her go!”

The man dropped Mother Serenity’s hand then shoved the woman back. He stared at Mairin with interest, then let his gaze wander suggestively down her body and back up again. Mairin’s cheeks flamed at the blatant disrespect, but she gave no quarter, staring back at the man with as much defiance as she dared.

p height=eight="0em" width="1em" align="justify">He snapped his fingers, and two men advanced on Mairin, grabbing her before she could think to run. They had her on the floor in a split second, their hands fumbling with the hem of her gown.

She kicked wildly, flailing her arms, but she was no match for their strength. Would they rape her here on the chapel floor? Tears gathered in her eyes as they shoved her clothing up over her hips.

They turned her to the right and fingers touched her hip, right where the mark rested.

Oh nay.

She bowed her head as tears of defeat slipped down her cheeks.

“ ’Tis her!” one of them said excitedly.

He was instantly shoved aside as the leader bent over to examine the mark for himself.

He, too, touched it, outlining the royal crest of Alexander. Issuing a grunt of satisfaction, he curled his hand around her chin and yanked until she faced him.

His smile revolted her.

“We’ve been looking for you a long time, Mairin Stuart.”

“Go to hell,” she spat.

Instead of striking her, his grin broadened. “Tsk-tsk, such blasphemy in the house of God.”

He stood rapidly, and before Mairin could blink, she was hauled over a man’s shoulder, and the soldiers filed out of the abbey and into the cool night.

They wasted no time getting onto their horses. Mairin was gagged then trussed hand and foot and tossed over the saddle in front of one of the men. They were away, the thunder of hooves echoing across the still night, before she had time to react. They were as precise as they were ruthless.

The saddle dug into her belly, and she bounced up and down until she was sure she was going to throw up. She moaned, afraid she’d choke with the gag so securely around her mouth.

When they finally stopped, she was nearly unconscious. A hand gripped her nape, the fingers easily circling the slim column. She was hauled upward and dropped unceremoniously to the ground.

Around her, they made camp while she lay shivering in the damp air. Finally she heard one say, “You best be seeing to the lass, Finn. Laird Cameron won’t be happy if she dies of exposure.”

An irritated grunt followed, but a minute later, she was untied and the gag removed. Finn, the apparent leader of this abduction, leaned down over her, his eyes gleaming in the light of the fire.

“There’s no one to hear you scream, and if you utter a sound, I’ll rattle your jaw.”

She nodded her understanding and crawled to an upright position. He nudged her backside with his boot and chuckled when she whirled around in outrage.

“There’s a blanket by the fire. Get on it and get some sleep. We leave at first light.”

She curled gratefully into the warmth of the blanket, uncaring that the stones and sticks on the ground dug into her skin. Laird Cameron. She’d heard talk of him from the soldiers who drifted in and out of the abbey. He was a ruthless man. Greedy and eager to add to his growing power. It was rumored that his army was one of the largest in all of Scotland and that David, the Scottish king, feared him.

Malcolm, bastard son of Alexander—and her half brother—had already led one revolt against David in a bid for the throne. Were Malcolm and Duncan Cameron to ally, they would be a near unstoppable force.

She swallowed and closed her eyes. The possession of Neamh Álainn would render Cameron invincible.

“Dear God, help me,” she whispered.

She couldn’t allow him to gain control of Neamh Álainn. It was her legacy, the only thing of her father’s that she had.

It was impossible to sleep, and so she lay there huddled in the blanket, her hand curled around the wooden cross as she prayed for strength and guidance. Some of the soldiers slept while others kept careful watch. She wasn’t fool enough to think she’d be given any opportunity to escape. Not when she was worth more than her weight in gold.

But they wouldn’t kill her either, which granted her an advantage. She had nothing to fear by trying to escape and everything to gain.

An hour into her vigil of prayer, a commotion behind her had her sitting straight up and staring into the darkness. Around her, the sleeping soldiers stumbled upward, their hands on their swords when a child’s cry rent the night.

One of the men hauled a kicking, wiggling child into the circle around the fire and dropped him on the ground. The child crouched and looked around wildly while the men laughed uproariously.

“What is this?” Finn demanded.

“Caught him trying to sneak one of the horses,” the child’s captor said.

Anger slanted Finn’s features into those of the devil, made more demonic by the light of the fire. The boy, who couldn’t be more than seven or eight years old, tilted his chin up defiantly as if daring the man to do his worst.

“Why you insolent little pup,” Finn roared.

He raised his hand, and Mairin flew across the ground, throwing herself in front of the child as the fist swung and clipped her cheek.

She went reeling but recovered and quickly threw herself back over the child, gathering him close so she could cover as much of him as possible.

The boy struggled wildly under her, screeching obscenities in Gaelic. His head connected with her already aching jaw, and she saw stars.

“Hush now,” she told him in his own language. “Be still. I won’t let them hurt you.”

“Get off him!” Finn roared.

She tightened around the little boy who finally stopped kicking and flailing. Finn reached down and curled his hand into her hair, yanking brutally upward, but she refused to let go of her charge.

“You’ll have to kill me first,” she said cooly when he forced her to look at him.

He dropped her hair with a curse then reared back and kicked her in the ribs. She hunched over in pain but was careful to keep the child shielded from the maniacal brute.

“Finn, enough,” one man barked. “The laird wants her in one piece.”

Muttering a curse, he backed away. “Let her keep the dirty beggar. She’ll have to turn loose of him soon enough.”

Mairin snapped her neck up to glare into Finn’s eyes. “You touch this boy even once and I’ll slit my own throat.”

Finn’s laughter cracked the night. “That’s one crazy bluff, lass. If you’re going to try to negotiate, you need to learn to be believable.”

Slowly she rose until she stood a foot away from the much larger man. She stared up at him until his eyes flickered and he looked away.

“Bluff?” she said softly. “I don’t think so. In fact, if I were you, I’d be guarding any and all sharp objects from me. Think you that I don’t know what my fate is? To be bedded by that brute laird of yours until my belly swells with child and he can claim Neamh Álainn. I’d rather die.”

Finn’s eyes narrowed. “You’re daft!”

“Aye, that might be so, and in that case I’d be worried one of those sharp objects might find its way between your ribs.”

He waved his hand. “You keep the boy. The laird will deal with him and you. We don’t take kindly to horse thieves.”

Mairin ignored him and turned back to the boy who huddled on the ground, staring at her with a mixture of fear and worship.

“Come,” she said gently. “If we snuggle up tight enough, there’s plenty of blanket for the both of us.”

He went eagerly to her, tucking his smaller body flush against hers.

“Where is your home?” she asked when he had settled against her.

“I don’t know,” he said mournfully. “It must be a ways from here. At least two days.”

“Shh,” she said soothingly. “How did you come to be here?”

“I got lost. My papa said I was nevr to leave the keep without his men, but I was tired of being treated like a baby. I’m not, you know.”

She smiled. “Aye, I know. So you left the keep?”

He nodded. “I took a horse. I only meant to go meet Uncle Alaric. He was due back and I thought to wait near the border to greet him.”

“Border?”

“Of our lands.”

“And who is your papa, little one?”

“My name is Crispen, not ‘little one.’ ” The distaste was evident in his voice, and she smiled again.

“Crispen is a fine name. Now continue with your story.”

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Mairin,” she answered softly.

“My papa is Laird Ewan McCabe.”

Mairin struggled to place the name, but there were so many clans she had no knowledge of. Her home was in the highlands, but she hadn’t seen God’s country in ten long years.

“So you went to meet your uncle. Then what happened?”

“I got lost,” he said mournfully. “Then a McDonald soldier found me and intended to take me to his laird to ransom, but I couldn’t let that happen. It would dishonor my papa, and he can’t afford to ransom me. It would cripple our clan.”

Mairin stroked his hair as his warm breath blew over her breast. He sounded so much older than his tender years. And so proud.

“I escaped and hid in the cart of a traveling merchant. I rode for a day before he discovered me.” He tilted his head up, bumping her sore jaw again. “Where are we, Mairin?” he whispered. “Are we very far from home?”

“I’m not sure where your home is,” she said ruefully. “But we are in the lowlands, and I would wager we’re at least a two days’ ride from your keep.”

“The lowlands,” he spat. “Are you a lowlander?”

She smiled at his vehemence. “Nay, Crispen. I’m a highlander.”

“Then what are you doing here?” he persisted. “Did they steal you from your home?”

She sighed. “ ’Tis a long story. One that began before you were born.”

When he tensed for another question, she hushed him with a gentle squeeze. “Go to sleep now, Crispen. We must keep our strength up if we are to escape.”

“We’re going to escape?” he whispered.x201Div height="0em">

“Aye, of course. That’s what prisoners do,” she said in a cheerful tone. The fear in his voice made her ache for him. How terrifying it must be for him to be so far from home and the ones who love him.

“Will you take me back home to my papa? I’ll make him protect you from Laird Cameron.”

She smiled at the fierceness in his voice. “Of course, I’ll see to it that you get home.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.”*  *  *

“Find my son!”

Ewan McCabe’s roar could be heard over the entire courtyard. His men all stood at attention, their expressions solemn. Some were creased in sympathy. They believed Crispen to be dead, though no one dared to utter that possibility to Ewan.

It wasn’t something Ewan hadn’t contemplated himself, but he would not rest until his son was found—dead or alive.

Ewan turned to his brothers, Alaric and Caelen. “I cannot afford to send every man in search of Crispen,” he said in a low voice. “To do so would leave us vulnerable. I trust you two with my life—with my son’s life. I want you each to take a contingent of men and ride in different directions. Bring him home to me.”

Alaric, the second oldest of the McCabe brothers, nodded. “You know we won’t rest until he is found.”

“Aye, I know,” Ewan said.

Ewan watched as the two strode off, shouting orders to their men. He closed his eyes and curled his fingers into fists of rage. Who dared take his son? For three days he’d waited for a ransom demand, only none had been forthcoming. For three days he’d scoured every inch of McCabe land and beyond.

Was this a precursor to an attack? Were his enemies plotting to hit him when he was weak? When every available soldier would be involved in the search?

His jaw hardened as he gazed around his crumbling keep. For eight years he’d struggled to keep his clan alive and strong. The McCabe name had always been synonymous with power and pride. Eight years ago they’d withstood a crippling attack. Betrayed by the woman Caelen loved. Ewan’s father and young wife had been killed, their child surviving only because he’d been hidden by one of the servants.

Almost nothing had been left when he and his brothers had returned. Just a hulking mass of ruins, his people scattered to the winds, his army nearly decimated.

There had been nothing for Ewan to take over when he became laird.

It had taken this long to rebuild. His soldiers were the best trained in the highlands. He and his brothers worked brutal hours to make sure there was food for the oldting ork, the women, and the children. Many times the men went without. And silently they grew, adding to their numbers until, finally, Ewan had begun to turn their struggling clan around.

Soon, his thoughts could turn to revenge. Nay, that wasn’t accurate. Revenge had been all that sustained him for these past eight years. There wasn’t a day he hadn’t thought about it.

“Laird, I bring news of your son.”

Ewan whipped around to see one of his soldiers hurrying up to him, his tunic dusty as though he’d just gotten off his horse.

“Speak,” he commanded.

“One of the McDonalds came upon your son three days ago along the northern border of your land. He took him, intending to deliver him to their laird so he could ransom the boy. Only, the boy escaped. No one has seen him since.”

Ewan trembled with rage. “Take eight soldiers and ride to McDonald. Deliver him this message. He will present the soldier who took my son to the entrance of my keep or he signs his own death warrant. If he doesn’t comply, I will come for him myself. I will kill him. And it won’t be quick. Do not leave a word out of my message.”

The soldier bowed. “Aye, Laird.”

He turned and hurried off, leaving Ewan with a mix of relief and rage. Crispen was alive, or at least he had been. McDonald was a fool for breaching their tacit peace agreement. Though the two clans could hardly be considered allies, McDonald wasn’t stupid enough to incite the wrath of Ewan McCabe. His keep might be crumbling, and his people might not be the best-fed clan, but his might had been restored twofold.

His soldiers were a deadly fighting force to be reckoned with, and those close enough to Ewan’s holdings realized it. But Ewan’s sights weren’t on his neighbors. They were on Duncan Cameron. Ewan wouldn’t be happy until the whole of Scotland dripped with Cameron’s blood.

CHAPTER 2

Mairin gazed wearily at the looming keep as they rode through the final stone skirt and into the courtyard. Thoughts of escape deteriorated as she stared helplessly at the massive holding. It was impenetrable.

Men were everywhere, most of them training, some tending to repairs on portions of the inner wall, others taking a rest and drinking water from a pail close to the steps of the keep.

As if sensing her fatalistic thoughts, Crispen looked up, his green eyes bright with fear. Her arms were looped around his body, her hands tied together in front of him, and she squeezed him to try to reassure him. But ’twas God’s truth, she was shaking like the last leaf in autumn.

The soldier leading her horse pulled up, and she had to fight to stay in the saddle. Crispen steadied them by grabbing onto the horse’s mane.

Finn rode up beside them and yanked Mairin from the horse. Crispen came with her, screeching his surprise as he tumbled from her grasp to the ground.

Finn lowered her down, his fingers bruising her arm with his grip. She wrenched away and reached with her bound hands to help Crispen stand.

All around them, activity ceased as everyone stopped to take stock of the new arrival. A few of the keep’s women stared curiously at her from a distance, whispering behind their hands.

She knew she must look a fright, but she was more concerned with what would happen when Laird Cameron arrived to view his captive. God help her then.

And then she saw him. He appeared at the top of the steps leading into the keep, his gaze sharp as he sought her out. The rumors of his greed, of his ruthlessness and ambition, led her to expect the very image of the devil. To her surprise, he was an exceedingly handsome man.

His clothing was immaculate, as though it had never seen a day on the battlefield. She knew better. She’d mended too many soldiers who’d crossed paths with him. Soft leather trews and a dark green tunic with boots that looked too new. At his side, his sword gleamed in the sunlight, the blade honed to a deadly sharpness.

Her hands automatically went to her throat, and she swallowed rapidly against the knot forming.

“You found her?” Duncan Cameron called from the top of the steps.

“Aye, Laird.” Finn thrust her forward, shaking her like a rag doll. “This be Mairin Stuart.”

Duncan’s eyes narrowed, and he frowned as though he’d suffered disappointment in the past. Had he been looking for her for so long? She shivered and tried not to allow her fear to overwhelm her.

“Show me,” Duncan barked.

Crispen moved toward her just as Finn hauled her against him. She slammed into his chest with enough force to knock the breath from her. Another soldier appeared at his side, and to her utter humiliation, they tossed up the hem of her dress.

Duncan descended the steps, his face creased in concentration as he neared. Something feral sparked in his eyes, and they lighted in triumph.

His finger caressed the outline of the brand, and he broke into a broad grin. “The royal crest of Alexander,” he whispered. “All this time you were thought dead, Neamh Álainn lost forever. Now you are both mine.”

“Never,” she gritted out.

He looked startled for a moment and then he stepped back, scowling at Finn. “Cover her.”

Finn yanked down her clothing and released her arm. Crispen was back at her side immediately.

“Who is this?” Duncan thundered when he laid eyes on Crispen. “Is this her brat? Does she claim him? It cannot be!”

“Nay, Laird,” Finn was quick to say. “The child is not hers. We caught him trying to steal one of our horses. She champions him. Nothing else.”

“Get rid of him.”

Mairin wrapped both arms around Crispen and stared at Duncan with all the force of her hatred. “You touch him and you’ll regret the day you were born.”

Duncan blinked in surprise and then rage suffused his face, flushing it to near purple. “You dare, you dare to threaten me?”

“Go ahead, kill me,” she said calmly. “That would serve your purpose well.”

He lashed out and backhanded her across the cheek. She fell to the ground, her hand snapping up to cup her jaw.

“Leave her alone!” Crispen cried.

She lunged for him, pulling him down until he was cradled in her arms. “Shhh,” she cautioned. “Do nothing to anger him further.”

“I see you have regained your senses,” Duncan said. “See to it they don’t leave you again.”

She said nothing, just lay there on the ground, holding Crispen as she stared at Duncan’s unmarred boots. He must never work, she thought. Even his hand was soft against her cheek. How could a man who rose to power on the broken backs of others have such strength?

“Take her inside and give her to the women to bathe,” Duncan said in disgust.

“Stay near me,” she whispered to Crispen. She didn’t trust Finn not to hurt him.

Finn hauled her to her feet and half dragged, half carried her inside the keep. Though the outside gleamed, the inside was dirty and musty and smelled of days-old ale. Dogs barked excitedly, and she curled her nose as the odor of feces assaulted her nostrils.

“Upstairs with you,” Finn snarled, as he shoved her toward the stairs. “And don’t be trying anything. I’ll have guards posted outside your door. Make it quick. You don’t want to keep the laird waiting.”

The two women given the task of seeing to Mairin’s bath viewed her with a mixture of sympathy and curiosity as they briskly washed her hair.

“Do you be wanting the lad to bathe as well?” one asked.

“Nay!” Crispen exclaimed from his perch on the bed.

“Nay,” Mairin echoed softly. “Leave him be.”

After they rinsed the soap from Mairin’s hair, they helped her from the tub and soon had her dressed in a beautiful blue gown with elaborate embroidery around the neck and sleeves and again at the hem. She didn’t miss the significance of being dressed in Duncan’s colors. How easily heconsidered her his conquest.

When the two women offered to arrange her hair, Mairin shook her head. As soon as it was dry she’d braid it.

With a shrug, the women departed the room, leaving her to await her summons from Duncan.

She sat down on the bed next to Crispen, and he snuggled into the crook of her arm.

“I’m getting you dirty,” he whispered.

“I don’t care.”

“What are we going to do, Mairin?”

His voice shook with fear, and she kissed the top of his head.

“We’ll think of something, Crispen. We’ll think of something.”

The door flew open, and Mairin instinctively shoved Crispen behind her. Finn stood there in the doorway, his gaze triumphant.

“The laird wants you.”

She turned to Crispen and cupped his chin until he looked directly into her eyes. “Stay here,” she whispered. “Don’t come out of this room. Promise me.”

He nodded, his eyes wide with fright.

She rose and went to where Finn stood. When he reached for her arm, she yanked it away. “I’m capable of walking unaided.”

“Uppity bitch,” he bit out.

She preceded him down the stairs, her dread growing with each passing second. When she saw the priest standing next to the fire in the great hall, she knew that Duncan was taking no chances. He’d marry her, bed her, and seal her fate and that of Neamh Álainn.

As Finn shoved her forward, she prayed for strength and courage for what she must do.

“There’s my bride now,” Duncan said, as he turned from his conversation with the priest.

His smile didn’t reach his eyes, and he studied her intently, almost as if he were warning her of the consequences if she refused.

God, help me.

The priest cleared his throat and focused his attention on Mairin. “Are you willing, lass?”

Silence fell as all awaited her response. Then slowly, she shook her head. The priest swung his gaze to Duncan, a look of accusation in his eyes.

“What is this, Laird? You told me you both wished this marriage.”

The look on Duncan’s face had the priest backtracking. The priest hastily crossed himself and positioned himself a safe distance from Duncan.

Then Duncan turned to her, and her blood ran cd. For such a handsome man, he was, in that moment, very ugly.

He stepped toward her, grasping her arm above the elbow, squeezing until she feared her bone would snap.

“I’ll ask this only once more,” he said in a deceptively soft voice. “Are you willing?”

She knew. She knew that when she uttered her denial, he would retaliate. He might even kill her if he saw his path to Neamh Álainn shattered. But she hadn’t stayed sequestered all these years only to yield at the first sign of adversity. Somehow, someway, she must find a way out of this mess.

She lifted her shoulders, infusing the steel of a broadsword into her spine. In a clear, distinct voice, she uttered her denial. “Nay.”

His roar of rage nearly shattered her ears. His fist sent her flying several feet, and she huddled into a ball, gasping for breath. He’d hit her so hard in the ribs that she couldn’t squeeze breath into her lungs.

She raised her shocked and unfocused gaze up to see him towering over her, his anger a tangible, terrible thing. In that moment, she knew she’d chosen right. Even if he killed her in his frenzy, what would her life be like as his wife? After she bore him the necessary heir to Neamh Álainn, he’d have no further use for her anyway, and he’d just rid himself of her then.

“Yield,” he demanded, his fist raised in warning.

“Nay.”

Her voice didn’t come out as strong as before. It came out more of a breathy exhalation than anything, and her lips trembled. But she made herself heard.

In the great hall, the murmurs rose, and Duncan’s face swelled, his cheeks purpling until she thought he might well explode.

That shiny boot kicked out, connecting with her body. Her cry of pain was muted by the next blow. Over and over, he kicked, and then he yanked her up and drove his fist into her side.

“Laird, you’ll kill her!”

She was barely conscious. She had no idea who uttered the warning. She hung in his grasp, every breath causing her unbearable pain.

Duncan dropped her in disgust. “Lock her in her chambers. No one is to give her any food or water. Nor that brat of hers. We’ll see how soon it takes her to yield when he starts whining of hunger.”

Again, she was hauled upward with no regard to her injuries. Each step up the stairs was agony as she bounced against the hard stone. The door to her chamber opened, and Finn threw her inside.

She hit the floor, battling for consciousness with every breath.

“Mairin!”

Crispen huddled over her, his little hands gripping her painfully.

“Nay, don’t touch m” she whispered hoarsely. If he touched her, she was sure she’d faint.

“You must get to the bed,” he said desperately. “I’ll help you. Please, Mairin.”

He was near tears, and it was only the thought of how he’d survive in Duncan’s hands if she died that prevented her from closing her eyes and praying for peace.

She roused herself enough to crawl toward the bed, each movement sending a scream down her spine. Crispen bore as much of her weight as he could, and together they managed to haul her over the edge of the bed.

She melted into the straw mattress, hot tears slipping down her cheeks. Breathing hurt. Crispen settled next to her, his warm, sweet body seeking comfort she couldn’t offer.

Instead, his arms went around her, and he hugged her to his little body. “Please don’t die, Mairin,” he begged softly. “I’m scared.”

“Lady. My lady, wake up. You must wake up.”

The urgent whisper roused Mairin from unconsciousness, and as soon as she turned, seeking the annoyance that disturbed her, agony flashed through her body until she gasped for breath.

“I’m sorry,” the woman said anxiously. “I know you’re badly injured, but you must hurry.”

“Hurry?”

Mairin’s voice was slurred, and her brain was a mass of cobwebs. Beside her, Crispen stirred and gave a start of fright when he saw the shadow standing over the bed.

“Aye, hurry,” the impatient voice came again.

“Who are you?” Mairin managed to ask.

“We haven’t time to talk, Lady. The laird is in a drunken sleep. He’ll think you too badly hurt to escape. We have to go now if you are to make it. He plans to kill the child if you don’t yield.”

At the word escape, some of the cobwebs vanished. She tried to sit up but nearly cried out when pain knifed through her side.

“Here, let me help you. You too, lad,” the woman said to Crispen. “Help me with your lady.”

Crispen scrambled over the bed and slid off the edge.

“Why are you doing this?” Mairin asked when they both helped her sit up.

“What he did was a disgrace,” the woman murmured. “To beat a lass as he did you. He’s mad. You’ve been his obsession. I fear for your life no matter whether you yield or not. He’ll kill the boy.”

Mairin squeezed her hand with the little strength she had. “Thank you.”

“We must hurry. There is a bolt-hole in the next chaber. You’ll have to leave alone. I can’t risk taking you. At the end, Fergus waits for you with a horse. He’ll put you and the lad on it. It’ll pain you, aye, but you’ll have to endure. ’Tis your only way out.”

Mairin nodded her acceptance. Escape in agony or die in comfort. Didn’t seem like such a difficult decision.

The serving woman cracked open the door of the chamber, turned back to Mairin, and put a finger to her lips. She motioned to the left to let Mairin know the guard was there.

Crispen slid his hand into hers, and again she squeezed to comfort him. Inch by breathless inch, they crept by the sleeping guard in the darkness of the hall. Mairin held her breath the entire way, afraid if she let out so much as a puff, the guard would wake and alert the keep.

Finally they reached the next chamber. Dust flew and curled around her nose as they stepped within, and she had to squeeze her nostrils to keep from sneezing.

“Over here,” the woman whispered in the darkness.

Mairin followed the sound of her voice until she felt the chill emanating from the stone wall.

“God be with you,” the serving woman said as she ushered Mairin and Crispen into the small tunnel.

Mairin stopped only long enough to squeeze her hand in a quick thank-you, and then she urged Crispen into the narrow passageway.

Each step sent a fresh wave of agony through Mairin. She feared her ribs were broken, but there was naught that could be done about it now.

They hurried through the darkness, Mairin all but dragging Crispen behind her.

“Who goes there?”

Mairin halted at the man’s voice but remembered that the woman had said Fergus awaited them.

“Fergus?” she called softly. “ ’Tis I, Mairin Stuart.”

“Come, Lady,” he urged.

She rushed to the end and stepped onto the cold, damp ground, wincing when her bare feet made contact with rough pebbles. She gazed at their surroundings and saw that the bolt-hole exited the back of the keep where there was only a skirt between the keep and the hillside that jutted skyward.

Wordlessly, Fergus melted into the darkness, and Mairin ran to catch up to him. They moved along the bottom of the hillside and headed for the dense population of trees at the perimeter of Duncan’s holding.

A horse was tied to one of the trees, and Fergus quickly freed him, gathering the reins as he turned to Mairin.

“I’ll lift you up first and then the lad.” He pointed into the distance. “That way is north. God be with you.”

Without another word, he lifted her, all but tossing her into the saddle. If the s all she could do not to fall off. Tears crushed her eyes and she doubled over, fighting unconsciousness.

Help me please, God.

Fergus lifted Crispen, who settled in front of her. She was glad he wasn’t riding behind her because, God’s truth, she needed something to hang on to.

“Can you manage the reins?” she whispered to Crispen as she leaned into him.

“I’ll protect you,” Crispen said fiercely. “Hold on to me, Mairin. I’ll take us home, I swear it.”

She smiled at the determination in his voice. “I know you will.”

Fergus gave the horse a slap, and it started forward. Mairin bit her lip against the scream of pain that battled to erupt. She would never make it even a mile.

Alaric McCabe drew up his horse and held his fist up to halt his men. They’d ridden all morning, searching endless trails, tracking hoofprints to no avail. All were dead ends. He slid from the saddle and strode forward to view the disturbance in the soil. Kneeling, he touched the faint hoofprints and the flattened grass to the side. It looked as though someone took a fall from a horse. Recently.

He scanned the immediate area and saw a footprint in a patch of bare soil a few feet away, then lifted his gaze toward the area the person had headed. Slowly he rose, drew his sword, and motioned for his men to spread out and circle the area.

Carefully, he stepped through the trees, watching warily for any sign of ambush. He saw the horse first, grazing a short distance away, the reins hanging, the saddle askew. He frowned. Such disregard for the care of a horse was surely a sin.

A slight rustle to his right swung him around, and he found himself staring at a small woman, her back wedged against a huge tree. Her skirts jumped like she had a litter of kittens hidden underneath, and her wide blue eyes were full of fear—and fury.

Her long black hair hung in disarray to her waist, and it was then he noticed the colors of her tunic and the coat of arms embroidered at the hem.

Rage temporarily blinded him, and he advanced, his sword held in an arc over his head.

She flung an arm behind her, shoving something farther between her and the tree. Her skirts wriggled again, and it was then he realized she shielded a person. A child.

“Stay behind me,” she hissed.

“But Mair—”

Alaric froze. He knew that voice. His fingers shook, for the first time in his life his hand unsteady around the hilt. Hell would be a cold place indeed before he ever allowed a Cameron hand on his kin.

With a snarl of rage, he charged forward, grasped the woman by the shoulder, and hurled her aside. Crispen stood against the tree, his mouth open. Then he saw Alaric and all but leapt into his arms.

The sword fell to the ground—another sin of neglect—but in that moment Alaric didn’t care. Sweet relief staggered him.

“Crispen,” he said hoarsely, as he hugged the boy to him.

A shriek of rage assaulted his ears just as he was hit by a flying bundle of woman. So surprised was he, that he stumbled backward, his hold on Crispen loosening.

She wedged herself between him and Crispen and landed a knee to his groin. He doubled over, cursing as agony washed over him. He fell to one knee and grabbed his sword just as he whistled for his men. The woman was demented.

Through the haze of pain, he saw her grab a resisting Crispen and try to run. Several things happened at once. Two of his men stepped in front of her. She halted, causing Crispen to slam into her back. When she started in the opposite direction, Gannon raised his arm to stop her.

To Alaric’s astonishment, she swiveled, grabbed Crispen, and fell to the ground, her body huddled protectively over him.

Gannon and Cormac froze and looked to Alaric just as the rest of his men burst through the trees.

To further confuse the hell out of all of them, Crispen finally wiggled out from underneath her and threw himself on top of her, scowling ferociously the entire time at Gannon.

“Don’t you hit her!” he bellowed.

Every one of his men blinked in surprise at Crispen’s ferocity.

“Lad, I wasn’t going to hit the lass,” Gannon said. “I was trying to prevent her from fleeing. With you. God’s teeth, we’ve been searching for you for days. The laird is worried sick over you.”

Alaric strode over to Crispen and plucked him off the huddled woman. When he reached down to haul her upright, Crispen exploded again, shoving him back.

Alaric stared at his nephew with an open mouth.

“Don’t touch her,” Crispen said. “She’s badly hurt, Uncle Alaric.”

Crispen chewed his bottom lip, and it looked for the world like the lad was going to break down and cry. Whoever the woman was, it was obvious Crispen didn’t fear her.

“I won’t hurt her, lad,” Alaric said softly.

He knelt down and brushed aside the hair from her face and realized she was unconscious. There was a bruise on one cheek, but otherwise she didn’t look injured.

“Where is she hurt?” he asked Crispen.

Tears filled Crispen’s eyes, and he wiped hastily at them with the back of his grubby hand.

“Her stomach. And her back. It hurts her fierce if anyone touches her.”

Carefully, so as no to alarm the boy, Alaric pulled at her clothing. When her abdomen and back came into view, he sucked in his breath. Around him, his men alternately cursed and murmured their pity for the slight lass.

“God in heaven, what happened to her?” Alaric asked.

Her entire rib cage was purple, and ugly bruises marred her smooth back. He could swear one of them was in the shape of a man’s boot.

“He beat her,” Crispen choked out. “Take us home, Uncle Alaric. I want my papa.”

Not wanting the boy to lose his composure in front of the other men, Alaric nodded and patted him on the arm. There would be plenty of time to get the story from Crispen later. Ewan would want to hear it all.

He stared down at the unconscious woman and frowned. She had offered her body for Crispen’s, and yet she wore the colors of Duncan Cameron. Ewan would be beyond control if Cameron had any involvement in Crispen’s disappearance.

War. At long last, war would be declared.

He motioned for Cormac to tend to the lass, and he reached for Crispen, intending that the boy ride with him. There were several questions he wanted answered on the ride home.

Crispen shook his head adamantly. “Nay, you take her, Uncle Alaric. She has to ride with you. I promised her that Papa would keep her safe, but he’s not here so you have to do it. You have to.”

Alaric sighed. There was no reasoning with the boy, and right now he was so glad he was alive, he’d cede to his ridiculous demands. Later he’d bend the brat’s ear about not questioning authority.

“I want to ride with you, too,” Crispen said, his gaze nervously going to the woman.

He inched closer to her as if he couldn’t stand the idea of being separated from her.

Alaric looked skyward. Ewan hadn’t taken a firm enough hand with the boy. That was all there was to it.

And so Alaric found himself astride his horse with the woman draped across the saddle in front of him, her body shielded in the crook of one arm, while Crispen sat on his other leg, his head nestled against her bosom.

He glared at his men, daring even one of them to laugh. Hell, he had to relinquish his sword for the duty of carrying the two extra persons, never mind their weight didn’t equal that of a single warrior.

Ewan just better be damn grateful. He could decide what was to be done with the woman just as soon as Alaric dumped her into Ewan’s lap.

CHAPTER 3

As soon as they crossed over the border onto McCabe land, a shout went up that echoed through the hills, and in the distance, Mairin heard the cry taken up and relayed. Soon, the laird would know of his son’s return.

She twisted the reins nervously in her fingers as Crispen all but bounced off the saddle in his excitement.

“If you keep gathering those reins, lass, you and the horse are going to end up back where you came from.”

She glanced guiltily up at Alaric McCabe, who rode to her right. His admonishment had come out as a tease, but God’s truth, the man scared her. He looked savage with his unkempt, long dark hair and the braids dangling on each side of his temples.

When she’d awakened in his arms, she’d nearly tossed them both out of the saddle in her haste to escape. He’d been forced to pry both her and Crispen from their perch against him, and he’d put them both on the ground until the entire thing could be sorted out.

He hadn’t been pleased by her stubbornness, but she had Crispen solidly on her side, and having extracted a promise from Crispen to tell no one her name, they’d both stood mute when Alaric demanded answers.

Oh, he’d blustered and waved his arms. Even threatened to choke the both of them, and in the end he’d muttered blasphemies against women and children before resuming their journey to bring Crispen home.

Alaric had then insisted she ride with him at least another day, because he said, in no uncertain terms, the likelihood of her sitting a horse by herself in her condition was nil, and it was a sin to abuse a good horse with an inept mount.

The journey that would normally last two days took them three, thanks to Alaric’s consideration of her condition and their stopping frequently to rest. She knew Alaric was considerate because he told her. Numerous times.

After the first day, she was determined to ride without Alaric’s assistance, if for no other reason than to wipe the smugness from his expression. He obviously had no patience for women, and, she suspected, with the exception of his nephew, whom he obviously loved, he had even less patience with children.

Still, given the fact that he knew nothing about her, only that Crispen championed her, he had treated her well, and his men had been politely respectful.

Now that they neared Laird McCabe’s stronghold, fear fluttered in her throat. She would no longer be able to keep silent. The laird would demand answers, and she would be obligated to give them.

She leaned down to whisper close to Crispen’s ear. “Do you remember your promise to me, Crispen?”

“Aye,” he whispered back. “I’m not to tell anyone your name.”

She nodded, feeling guilty for asking such a thing from the boy, but if she could pretend to be of no importance, just someone who happened upon Crispen and saw him safely back to his father, perhaps he would be grateful enough to provide a horse and maybe some food, and she could be on her way.

“Not even your father,ȝ she pressed.

Crispen nodded solemnly. “I’ll only tell him you saved me.”

She squeezed his arm with her free hand. “Thank you. I could ask for no better champion.”

He turned his head back to grin broadly at her, his back puffing with pride.

“What are the two of you whispering about?” Alaric demanded irritably.

She glanced over to see the warrior watching her, his eyes narrow with suspicion.

“If I wanted you to know, I’d have spoken louder,” she said calmly.

He turned away muttering what she was sure were more blasphemies about annoying females.

“You must make the priest weary with the length of your confessions,” she said.

He raised one eyebrow. “Who says I confess anything?”

She shook her head. The arrogant man probably thought his path to heaven was already assured, and that he acted in accordance to God’s will just by breathing.

“Look, there it is!” Crispen shouted as he pointed eagerly ahead.

They topped the hill and looked down at the stone keep nestled into the side of the next hill.

The skirt was crumbled in several places, and there was a detail of men working steadily, replacing the stones at the wall. What she could see of the keep above the outer walls looked blackened by an old fire.

The loch spread out to the right of the keep, the water glistening in the sunlight. One of the fingers meandered around the front of the keep, providing a natural barrier to the front gate. The bridge across it, however, sagged precariously in the middle. A temporary, narrow path over the water had been fashioned to the side, and it would only allow one horse at a time into the keep.

Despite the obvious state of disrepair to the keep, the land was beautiful. Scattered across the valley to the left of the keep, sheep grazed, herded by an older man flanked by two dogs. Occasionally one of the dogs raced out to herd the sheep back into the imaginary boundary, and then he’d return to his master to receive an approving pat on the head.

She turned to Alaric, who’d pulled to a stop beside her. “What happened here?”

But he didn’t answer. A deep scowl creased his face, and his eyes went nearly black. She gripped the reins a little tighter and shivered under the intensity of his hatred. Aye, hatred. There could be no other term for what she saw in his eyes.

Alaric spurred his horse, and hers followed automatically, leaving her to grab onto Crispen to make sure neither of them fell.

Down the hill they rode, Alaric’s men flanking her protectively on all sides. Crispen fidgeted so hard in the saddle that she had to grip hisarm so he wouldn’t jump out of his skin.

When they reached the temporary crossing, Alaric halted to wait on her.

“I’ll go in first. You follow directly behind me.”

She nodded her understanding. It wasn’t as if she wanted to be the first into the keep anyway. In some ways, this was more frightening to her than arriving at Duncan Cameron’s keep because she didn’t know her fate here. She certainly knew what Cameron had in mind for her.

They rode over the bridge and through the wide, arched entryway into the courtyard. A great shout went up, and it took her a moment to realize that it was Alaric who’d made the sound. She looked over to see him still astride his horse, his fist held high in the air.

All around her, soldiers—and there were hundreds—thrust their swords skyward and took up the cry, raising and lowering their blades in celebration.

A man entered the courtyard at a dead run, his hair flying behind him as his stride ate up the ground below him.

“Papa!” Crispen cried, and scrambled out of the saddle before she could prevent him.

He hit the ground running, and Mairin stared in fascination at the man she assumed was Crispen’s father. Her stomach knotted, and she swallowed, trying not to allow herself to panic all over again.

The man was huge, and just as mean looking as Alaric, and she didn’t know how she could think it, when there was so much joy on his face as he swung Crispen into his arms, but he frightened her in a way that Alaric did not.

The brothers were very similar in build and stature. Both had dark hair that fell below their shoulders, and both wore braids. As she looked around, though, it became apparent that all his men wore their hair the same way. Long, wild, and savage looking.

“I’m so glad to see you, lad,” his father choked out.

Crispen clung to the laird with his small arms, reminding Mairin of a burr stubbornly clinging to her skirts.

Over Crispen’s head, his gaze met Mairin’s, and his eyes immediately hardened. He took in every detail about her, she was sure, and she twisted uncomfortably, feeling horribly picked apart under his scrutiny.

She started to get down from her horse because she felt a little silly when everyone around her was dismounting, but Alaric was there, his hands reaching up to effortlessly pluck her from the horse and set her down on the ground.

“Easy, lass,” he cautioned. “You’re healing well, but you need to take care.”

He sounded almost concerned, but when she looked up at him, he wore the same scowl he always wore when he looked at her. Irritated, she scowled right back. He blinked in surprise, then pushed her toward the waiting laird.

Ewan McCabe looked a lot more threatening now that Crispen was out of his arms and back on the ground. She found herself backing up a step only to collide with the mountain that was Alaric.

Ewan looked first at Alaric, bypassing her as if she were invisible, which was just fine with her.

“You have my thanks for bringing my son home. I had every confidence in you and Caelen.”

Alaric cleared his throat and nudged Mairin forward.

“You have the lass to thank for Crispen’s return. I merely provided the escort.”

Ewan’s eyes narrowed as he studied her further. To her astonishment, his eyes weren’t the dark, fierce orbs she’d thought, but rather they were an odd pale green. When he scowled, though, his face darkened to a thundercloud, and who could possibly think his eyes were anything but a matching black?

Startled by this revelation—and if she were avoiding the inevitable confrontation with the laird, who could blame her?—she turned abruptly and stared up into Alaric’s eyes. He blinked then glared at her like he thought she was daft—and she was pretty sure he did think so.

“Your eyes are green, too,” she muttered.

Alaric’s scowl turned into a look of concern. “Are you sure you didn’t suffer a blow to the head you didn’t tell me about?”

“You will look at me,” Ewan roared.

She jumped and whirled around, taking an instinctive step back and landing once again against Alaric.

He muttered an expletive and hunched over, but she was too worried about Ewan to see what Alaric was cursing over.

Her courage had run out, and her determination not to feel pain, not to allow her spine to wither, promptly died a brutal death.

Her legs shook, her hands shook, and pain speared through her sides, making her gasp softly with each breath. Sweat beaded her forehead, but she wouldn’t allow herself to back down any further.

The laird was angry—at her—and for the life of her she couldn’t discern why. Shouldn’t he be grateful to her for saving his son? Not that she’d really done anything heroic, but he didn’t know that. For all he knew, she could have battled ten men on Crispen’s behalf.

It wasn’t until he stared back at her in astonishment that she realized she’d babbled her entire thought process aloud. The entire courtyard had gone silent and looked at her as if she’d pronounced a curse on all of them.

“Alaric?” she murmured, not turning away from the laird’s gaze.

“Aye, lass?”

“Will you catch me if I faint? I don’t think a fall to the ground would be good for my injuries.”

To her surprise, he grasped both of her shoulders and held her tightly. His hands trembled the slightest amount, and he made the weirdest sound. Was he laughing at her?

Ewan advanced, his astonishment replaced by that dark scowl again. Did no one in the McCabe clan ever smile?

“Nay, we don’t,” Alaric said in amusement.

She snapped her lips shut, determined she wouldn’t say another word, and prepared herself for the laird’s censure.

Ewan stopped a single foot in front of her, forcing her to crane her neck upward to meet his stare. It was hard to be brave when she was sandwiched between two hulking warriors, but her pride wouldn’t allow her to throw herself at his feet and beg for mercy. Even if she currently thought it was the best idea. Nay, she’d faced down Duncan Cameron and survived. This warrior was bigger and meaner, and he could probably squash her like a bug, but she wouldn’t die like a coward. She wouldn’t die at all if she had anything to say about it.

“You will tell me who you are, why you’re wearing Duncan Cameron’s colors, and how the hell my son came into your possession.”

She shook her head, backed up against Alaric, only to hear him curse again as she stepped all over his feet, and then quickly stepped forward again, remembering, belatedly, her vow to be courageous.

Ewan frowned even harder, if that was possible. “You defy me?”

There was a note of incredulity in his voice that she might find amusing if she weren’t bathed in pain and about to shake right out of the gown that offended the laird so.

Her stomach boiled, and she prayed she wouldn’t throw up on his boots. They weren’t new and shiny like Duncan’s, but somehow she thought he’d take great offense anyway.

“I don’t defy you, Laird,” she said in an even voice that made her proud.

“Then give me the information I seek. And do it now,” he added in a deadly soft voice.

“I …”

Her voice cracked like ice, and she swallowed back the nausea that rose in her throat.

She was saved by Crispen, who could obviously stand still no longer. He burst forward, inserting himself between her and his father, and wrapped his arms around her legs, burying his face in her bruised abdomen.

A low moan escaped her, and she reflexively put her arms around Crispen to pull him away from her ribs. She would have slithered straight to the ground if not for Alaric grasping her arms to steady her again.

Crispen turned in her grasp and stared up at his father who looked to be battling extreme shock and burning impatience.

“Leave her alone!” Crispen exclaimed. “She’s hurt, and I promised you’d protect her, Papa. I promised. A McCabe never breaks his word. You told me.”

Ewan looked down at his son in astonishment, his mouth working up and down as the veins in his neck bulged.

“The lad is right, Ewan. The lass is sorely in need of a bed. A hot bath wouldn’t be remiss.”

Surprised by Alaric’s support, but more grateful than she could possibly express, she chanced another look at the laird only to see him gape incredulously at Alaric.

“Bed? Bath? My son has been returned to me by a woman wearing the colors of a man I loathe more than life, and all anyone can suggest is that I give her a bath and a bed?”

The laird looked precariously close to exploding. She stepped back, and this time, Alaric accommodated her by moving aside so she could put distance between her and Ewan.

“She did save his life,” Alaric said evenly.

“She took a beating for me,” Crispen shouted.

Ewan’s expression wavered, and he stared again at her as if trying to see for himself the extent of her injuries. He looked torn, as if he really wanted to demand that she cooperate, but with both Crispen and Alaric staring expectantly at him, he snapped his lips shut and took a step back himself.

His muscles bulged in his arms and neck, and he took several breaths as if he were working to keep his patience. She felt sympathy for him, she truly did. If it were her child, she’d demand, just as he had, every detail. And if it were true—and Ewan had no reason to lie—that Duncan Cameron was his mortal enemy, she could well understand why he looked at her with such mistrust and hatred. Aye, she understood well his dilemma. It didn’t mean she was suddenly going to cooperate, however.

Gathering her nerve, and hoping she didn’t sound boastful, she looked the laird in the eye. “I did save your son, Laird. I would be most appreciative of what aid you could provide. I won’t ask for much. A horse and maybe some food. I’ll be on my way and no longer a bother.”

Ewan no longer stared at her. Nay, he turned his face heavenward as if praying for either patience or deliverance. Maybe both.

“A horse. Food.”

He said the words, still looking up at the sky. Then he slowly lowered his head until those green eyes scorched the breath right out of her.

“You aren’t going anywhere, lass.”

CHAPTER 4

Ewan stared at the woman before him, and it was all he could do not to shake her senseless. The little chit had audacity, he’d hand her that. He didn’t know what hold she had on his son, but he’d soon get to the bottom of it.

Even Alaric seemed under her spell, and while he could understand it, because Lord, the lass was bonnie, it annoyed him that his brother sought to defend her against him.

She turned her chin up farther in defiance and the light caught her eyes. Blue. Not just blue but a brilliant hue that reminded him of the sky in spring just before summer took hold.

Her hair was bedraggled but the curls hung all the way down to her waist, a waist he could span with his hands. Aye, his hands would fit nicely in the curve between her hips and her breasts, and if he slid his hands up just a bit, he’d cup the generous swell of her bosom.

She was beautiful. And she was trouble.

She was also in pain. She hadn’t faked that.

Her eyes dimmed and he got a better view of the shadows that surrounded them. She was trying valiantly to hide her discomfort, but it radiated from her in almost discernible waves.

Her questioning would have to wait.

He raised his hand and motioned toward one of the women gathered on the perimeter.

“See to her needs,” he ordered. “Have a bath drawn. See that Gertie prepares her a plate of food. And for God’s sake, give her something other than Cameron’s colors to wear.”

Two of the McCabe women hurried forward and each took an arm of the woman still standing by Alaric.

“Careful now,” Alaric cautioned. “Her injuries are still paining her.”

The women removed their hands and instead gestured toward her to precede them into the keep. She looked nervously around, and it was clear she had no desire to go in. She tucked her bottom lip between her teeth until Ewan was sure she’d draw blood if she didn’t cease.

Ewan sighed. “I’m not ordering your death, lass. You asked for a bath and food. Are you questioning my hospitality now?”

She frowned, and her eyes narrowed as she gazed sharply at him. “I asked for a horse and food. I’ve no need of your hospitality. I’d prefer to be on my way as soon as possible.”

“I’ve no horses to spare, and furthermore, you aren’t going anywhere until I’ve sorted this entire matter out. If you have no wish for a bath, I’m sure the women would be happy to show you into the kitchens so you can eat.”

He finished with a shrug that signaled he didn’t care whether she bathed or not. That had been Alaric’s idea, but didn’t all women jump at the chance to wallow in a tub of hot water?

She pursed her lips as if to argue but evidently decided restraint was a better idea. “I’d like a bath.”

He nodded. “Then I suggest you follow the women upstairs before I change my mind.”

She turned, muttering something under her breath that he didn’t catch. His eyes narrowed. The contrary lass was sorely trying his patience.

He looked around for his son only to see him running behind the women toward the keep.

“Crispen,” he called.

Crispen turned around, anxiety over being kept from the woman etched on his small brow.

“Come here, son.”

After another moment’s hesitation, he launched himself toward Ewan, and Ewan caught him up in his arms once more.

His heart raced frantically as the sheer relief of holding his son again overwhelmed him. “You frightened ten years off me, lad. Don’t ever scare your father like this again.”

Crispen clung to Ewan’s shoulders and burrowed his face into Ewan’s neck.

“I won’t, Papa. I promise.”

Ewan hung on to him far longer than necessary, until Crispen wiggled to be set free. He hadn’t thought to see his son again, and if Alaric was to be believed, he had the woman to thank for it.

He looked over Crispen’s head to Alaric, demanding answers from his silent brother. Alaric shrugged.

“If you’re wanting answers from me, you’re looking to the wrong person.” He gestured impatiently at Crispen. “He and the lass refused to tell me anything. The cheeky little brat demanded I return them both to you so that you could protect her.”

Ewan frowned and looked Crispen in the eyes. “Is this true, son?”

Crispen looked decidedly guilty, but determination sparked in his green eyes. His lips twisted mutinously, and he tensed as if he expected Ewan to launch into a tirade.

“I gave my word,” Crispen said stubbornly. “You said a McCabe never breaks his word.”

Ewan shook his head wearily. “I’m beginning to regret telling you of things a McCabe doesn’t do. Come, let’s sit in the hall so you can tell me of these adventures of yours.”

He leveled a glance at Alaric, silently commanding his presence as well. Then he turned to Gannon. “Take your men and ride north to find Caelan. Tell him Alaric has returned Crispen home. Return as quickly as you can.”

Gannon bowed and hurried away, shouting orders as he went.

Ewan set Crispen down but kept a firm grip on his shoulder as he herded him into the keep. They walked into the hall amid a chorus of cries and exclamations. Crispen was soundly hugged by every passing woman and slapped on the back by the men of the clan. Finally Ewan waved them away so they were left alone in the hall.

Ewan sat at the table and patted the space next to him. Crispen hopped onto the bench while Alaric sat across the table from them.

“Now tell me what happened,” Ewan commanded.

Crispen looked down at his hands, his shoulders drooping.

“Crispen,” Ewan began gently. “What else did I tell you McCabes always do?”

“Tell the truth,” Crispen said grudgingly.

Ewan smiled. “Indeed. Now begin your tale.”

Crispen sighed dramatically before saying, “I snuck out to meet Uncle Alaric. I thought I’d wait at the border and surprise him when he came home.”

Alaric glared across the table at Crispen, but Ewan held up his hand.

“Let him continue.”

“I must have gone too far. One of the McDonald soldiers took me and said he was going to take me back to his laird to ransom me.”

He turned pleading eyes on Ewan. “I couldn’t let him do that, Papa. It would shame you, and our clan can’t afford a ransom. So I escaped and hid in the cart of a traveling merchant.”

Ewan tensed in rage at the McDonald soldier, and his heart clenched at the pride in his son’s voice.

“You could never shame me, Crispen,” Ewan said quietly. “Now go on with your story. What happened next?”

“The merchant discovered me after a day and he chased me out. I didn’t know where I was. I tried to steal a horse from men who were camping but they caught me. M—I mean she saved me.”

“Who saved you?” Ewan demanded.

She saved me.”

Ewan swallowed his impatience. “Who is she?”

Crispen fidgeted uncomfortably. “I can’t tell you. I promised.”

Ewan and Alaric exchanged frustrated glances, and Alaric raised one eyebrow as if to say I told you so.

“All right, Crispen, what exactly did you promise?”

“That I wouldn’t tell you who she was,” Crispen blurted. “I’m sorry, Papa.”

“I see. What else did you promise?”

Crispen looked puzzled for a moment, and across the table, Alaric smiled as he caught on to the direction Ewan was headed.

“I just promised I wouldn’t tell you her name.”

Ewan stifled his grin. “All right, so continue with your story. The lady saved you. How did she do this? Was she camping with the men you tried to steal the horse from? Were they escorting her to a destination?”

Crispen’s brow creased as he struggled with whether he could divulge such information without breaking his promise.

“I won’t ask her name again,” Ewan said solemnly.

Looking relieved, Crispen pursed his lips and then said, “The men took her from the abbey. She didn’t want to be with them. I saw them bring her into the camp.”

“God’s teeth, she’s a nun?” Ewan exclaimed.

Alaric shook his head adamantly. “If that woman is a nun, then I’m a monk.”

“Can you marry a nun?” Crispen asked.

“Why on earth would you ask a question like that?” Ewan demanded.

“Duncan Cameron wanted to marry her. If she’s a nun, he can’t, can he?”

Ewan straightened and shot Alaric a fierce look. Then he turned to Crispen, trying to keep his reaction calm so that he didn’t frighten his son.

“The men you tried to steal the horse from. Were they Cameron soldiers? Were they the ones who took the woman from the abbey?”

Crispen nodded solemnly. “They took us to Laird Cameron. He tried to make … her … marry him, but she refused. When she did, he beat her badly.”

Tears welled in his eyes, and he made a fierce expression to hold them back.

Again, Ewan glanced over at Alaric to judge his reaction to the news. Who could this woman be that Duncan Cameron wanted her badly enough to steal her from an abbey? Was she an heiress sequestered there until her marriage?

“What happened after he beat her?” Ewan prompted.

Crispen swiped at his face, leaving a trail of dirt over his cheek.

“When she came back to the room, she could barely hold herself up. I had to help her to the bed. Later a woman woke us and said that the laird was in a drunken sleep and that he planned to threaten me to make her do what he wanted. She said we had to escape before he awoke. The lady was afraid but promised me she’d protect me. And so I promised her that I would take us here to you so that you could protect her. You won’t let Duncan Cameron marry her, will you, Papa? You won’t let him hurt her again?”

He gazed anxiously up at Ewan, his eyes so earnest and serious. He looked so much older than his eight years in that moment, as if he’d taken on a great responsibility, one far greater than his age warranted, but one he was determined to follow through with.

“Nay, son. I won’t allow Duncan Cameron to harm the lass.”

Relief flooded Crispen9;s expression and suddenly he looked extremely weary. He swayed in his chair and leaned over on Ewan’s arm.

For a long moment, Ewan stared down at his son’s head, resisting the urge to run his fingers through the unruly tresses. Ewan couldn’t help but feel a surge of pride at the way Crispen had fought for the woman who’d saved him. According to Alaric, Crispen had bullied Alaric and his men the entire way back to the McCabe keep. And now he was bullying Ewan into keeping a promise Crispen had made in the McCabe name.

“He’s asleep,” Alaric murmured.

Ewan carefully ran his hand over his son’s head and held him solidly against his side.

“Who is this woman, Alaric? What is she to Cameron?”

Alaric made a sound of frustration. “I wish I could tell you. The lass wouldn’t say a word to me the entire time she was with me. She and Crispen were as tight-lipped as two monks with vows of silence. All I know is that when I found her, she was severely beaten. I’ve never seen a lass abused as she was. It turned my stomach, Ewan. There’s no excuse for a man to ever treat a woman such as he did. And yet, as badly injured as she was, she took on me and my men when she thought we were a threat to Crispen.”

“She said nothing the entire time she was with you? Let nothing slip? Think, Alaric. She had to have said something. It simply isn’t a woman’s nature to be silent for prolonged periods of time.”

Alaric grunted. “Someone should tell her that. I’m telling you, Ewan, she said nothing. She stared at me like I was some kind of toad. Worse, she had Crispen acting like I was the enemy. The two whispered like conspirators and glared at me when I dared intervene.”

Ewan frowned and drummed his fingers on the solid wood of the table. “What could Cameron want with her? Furthermore, what was a highland lass doing in a lowland abbey? Highlanders guard their daughters as jealously as gold. I can’t see a daughter being packed off to an abbey days away.”

“Unless the lass was being punished,” Alaric pointed out. “Maybe she was caught out in an indiscretion. More than one lass has been wooed between the sheets outside the sanctity of marriage.”

“Or maybe she was a difficult harridan her father despaired of,” Ewan murmured, as he remembered how difficult and recalcitrant she’d been just moments ago. That scenario he could believe. But again, she would have had to have committed an egregious sin for a father to send her so far away.

Alaric chuckled. “She’s spirited all right.” Then he sobered. “But she protected Crispen well. She put her body between him and others more than once, and she suffered greatly for it.”

Ewan mulled on that truth for a long moment. Then he looked up at Alaric again. “You saw these injuries?”

Alaric nodded. “I did. Ewan, the bastard kicked her. There were imprints of a boot on her back.”

p height="0em" width="1em" align="justify">Ewan cursed, the sound echoing across the hall. “I wish I knew what her connection to Cameron was. And why he wants her badly enough to abduct her from an abbey and beat her senseless when she refused to marry him. Why he’d then think to use my son to sway her.”

“It would have worked, too,” Alaric said in a grim voice. “The lass is very protective of Crispen. If Cameron had threatened him, she would have consented. I’m positive of that.”

“This presents a problem for me,” Ewan said quietly. “Cameron wants her. My son wants me to protect her. The lass only wants to be gone. And then there is the mystery of who she is.”

“If Cameron discovers her whereabouts, he’ll come for her,” Alaric warned.

Ewan nodded. “So he will.”

The brothers’ gazes met and held. Alaric nodded his acceptance of Ewan’s silent declaration. If Cameron wanted a fight, the McCabes would be more than willing to give him one.

“What about the lass?” Alaric finally asked.

“I’ll make that determination once I’ve heard the whole story from her,” Ewan said.

He was confident that he could be a reasonable man, and once she saw how reasonable, she’d cooperate fully.

CHAPTER 5

Mairin awoke with the knowledge that she wasn’t alone in the tiny chamber she’d been sleeping in. Her nape prickled and she carefully opened one eye to see Ewan McCabe standing in the doorway.

Sunlight peeked through the window, penetrating the gap in the furs. The light somehow made him more ominous than if he stood cloaked in darkness. In the light, she could see how big he was. He made a menacing portrait, framed by the doorway he barely fit through.

“Pardon the intrusion,” Ewan said in a gruff voice. “I was trying to locate my son.”

It was then, as she followed his gaze to the bundle beside her, that she realized Crispen had crawled into her bed during the night. He was snuggled firmly into her side, the covers pulled tight to his neck.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize …,” she began.

“Since I tucked him into my bed last night, I’m sure you didn’t realize,” he said dryly. “ ’Tis apparent he made the move during the night.”

She started to move, but Ewan held up a hand. “Nay, don’t wake him. I’m sure you both need your rest. I’ll have Gertie hold the morning meal for you.”

“T—Thank you.ȝ

She stared helplessly up at him, unsure of what to do with his sudden kindness. Yesterday he’d been so fierce, his scowl had been enough to frighten a man out of his boots. After a short nod, he backed out of the room and closed the door behind him.

She frowned. She didn’t trust such an about-face. Then she glanced down at the sleeping boy next to her, and her frown eased. Gently, she touched his hair, marveling at how the limp curls framed his face. In time, it would be as long as his father’s.

Perhaps the laird had calmed in the face of his son’s safe return. Maybe he was even feeling grateful and was sorry for his gruffness.

Hope tightened her chest. He might be more amenable to giving her a mount and supplies. She had no good idea where to flee, but given that Duncan Cameron appeared to be Ewan McCabe’s sworn enemy, it wasn’t a good idea for her to remain there.

Sadness tugged at her heart and she squeezed Crispen closer to her. The abbey that had been her home for so long, and the comforting presence of the sisters, was no longer available to her. She was without a home and safe harbor.

Closing her eyes, she whispered a fervent prayer for God’s mercy and protection. Surely He would provide for her in her hour of need.

When she next awoke, Crispen was gone from her bed. She stretched and flexed her toes then immediately winced as pain snaked through her body. Even a hot bath and a comfortable bed hadn’t completely rid her of her discomfort. Still, she could move considerably better than she had the day before, and she was certainly well enough to sit a horse on her own.

Throwing aside the furs, she braced her feet on the stone floor and flinched at the chill. She rose and went to the window to throw back the covering to allow the sunlight to stream in.

The rays slid over her like liquid amber. She closed her eyes and turned her face into the sun, eagerly soaking up the warmth.

It was a beautiful day as only a spring day in the highlands could be. She stared over the hillsides, basking in the comfort of seeing home for the first time in many long years. In truth, there’d been many days when she’d despaired of ever seeing heaven again. Neamh Álainn. Beautiful heaven. One day she’d gaze upon her legacy—her child’s legacy. The only part of her father she’d ever have.

She curled her fingers into tight fists. “I will not fail,” she whispered.

Not wanting to waste any more time above stairs, she donned the simple gown one of the serving women had left for her. The neckline was embroidered with a feminine chain of flowers, and in the middle, in green and gold, was what she assumed was the McCabe coat of arms. Glad to be wearing something other than Duncan Cameron’s colors, she hurried toward the door.

When she neared the bottom of the stairs, she hesitated, feeling suddenly unsure of herself. She was saved from making an awkward entrance into the hall when one of the McCabe women saw her. The woman smiled and hurried over to greet her.

“Good afternoon. Are you feeling better today?”

Mairin winced. “Is it afternoon already? I didn’t mean to sleep the day away.”

“You needed the rest. You looked fair to dropping yesterday. My name is Christina, by the way. By what name do you call yourself?”

Mairin colored, feeling suddenly foolish. She wondered if she should make up a name, but she hated the idea of lying.

“I can’t tell you,” she murmured.

Christina’s eyebrows shot up, but to her credit she didn’t react further. Then she reached for Mairin’s arm and tucked it into hers.

“Well then, lady, let’s take you into the kitchens before Gertie feeds your meal to the hounds.”

Feeling relieved that Christina hadn’t pressed her, she allowed the girl to drag her into the kitchen where an older woman stood tending a fire in the pit. Mairin had expected a matronly woman, and why, she wasn’t sure. Shouldn’t women charged with the cooking be motherly?

Gertie was bone thin, and her gray hair was pulled into a tight knot at her nape. Strands escaped on all sides until they flew about her face, giving her a look of wildness. She pinned Mairin with a sharp glance that peeled back several layers of Mairin’s skin.

“About time you got up and around, lass. No one stays abed here for that long unless they’re dying. I don’t expect you’re dying since you’re standing before me looking hale and hearty. Don’t make a habit of it, or I won’t hold the morning meal for you again.”

Taken aback, Mairin’s first instinct was to laugh, but she wasn’t sure whether the other woman would take offense. Instead she folded her hands solemnly in front of her and promised never to do so again. A vow she felt comfortable making since she didn’t plan to spend another night in the McCabe keep.

“Have a seat then. There’s a stool in the corner. You can take your meal there. No sense messing up the table in the hall again for one person.”

Mairin meekly obeyed and made quick work of the trencher of food. Gertie and Christina watched as she ate, and Mairin could hear them whispering when they thought Mairin wasn’t looking.

“Wouldn’t tell you her name?” Gertie exclaimed loudly.

She turned in Mairin’s direction and uttered a hmmph. “When people won’t give their name, ’tis because they have something to hide. What are you hiding, lass? Don’t be thinking our laird won’t find out. He’s too precise to take such nonsense from a slip of a lass like yourself.”

“Then I’ll discuss the matter with your laird and only your laird,” Mairin said firmly. She hoped that by injecting enough strength into her voice she’d make the other woman back down. Gertie st rolled her eyes and resumed tending her fire.

“Can you take me to him?” Mairin asked Christina as she rose from the stool. “I really must speak to him right away.”

“Of course, Lady,” Christina said in her sweet voice. “I was instructed to take you to him the moment you finished eating.”

The food Mairin had just consumed swirled in her gut like sour ale.

“Are you nervous?” Christina asked as they descended the steps from the keep. “You have no reason to be. The laird seems gruff, and he can be stern when crossed, but he’s fair and very evenhanded with our clan.”

The part that Christina left out was that Mairin wasn’t part of the McCabe clan, which meant that any policies about fair and evenhanded didn’t apply. But she had saved Crispen, and it was obvious that the laird loved his son. She held on to that thought as they rounded the corner into the courtyard.

Mairin’s eyes widened at the site of so many men training. The clash of swords and shields nearly deafened her, and the afternoon sun striking the metal made her squint and wince. She blinked and focused her gaze away from the reflections dancing through the air. When she realized what she was seeing instead, she gasped.

Her hand fluttered to her chest, and her vision went a bit blurry. It wasn’t until her tortured lungs begged for mercy that she realized she was holding her breath. She sucked in a mouthful of air, but that didn’t help her light-headedness.

The laird was sparring with another soldier in only his boots and trews. His bare chest gleamed with a sheen of sweat, and a trickle of blood slid down his side.

Oh merciful heavens.

She watched in fascination, unable to make herself tear her gaze away, no matter that it was surely a sin to ogle in this fashion.

The laird was broad shouldered. His massive chest sported several scars. A man didn’t get to be his age without acquiring battle scars. Badges of honor to highlanders. A man without them was considered weak and without courage.

His hair clung damply to his back and his braids swung about him as he pivoted in the dirt to parry another thrust by his opponent. His muscles strained and bulged as he swung the heavy sword about his head and slashed downward. At the last moment, his opponent threw up his shield, but he still buckled under the blow.

The younger man went sprawling, his own sword clattering to the ground. He did have the presence of mind to cover himself with the shield as he lay there panting softly.

The laird frowned but extended his hand down to the younger soldier. “You lasted longer this time, Heath, but you’re still allowing emotion to rule your actions. Until you learn to control that temper of yours, you’ll prove an easy mark in battle.”

Heath scowled and didn’t look appreciative of his laird’s criticism. He ignored Ewan’s outstretched hand and scrambled to his feet, his face red with anger.

It was then that the laird looked up and saw Mairin standing there with Christina. His eyes narrowed and she felt pinned by the force of his stare. He motioned for his tunic, which Alaric tossed to him from the side. After hastily pulling it over his bare chest, he motioned for Mairin to come forward.

Feeling strangely disappointed that he’d put the tunic back on, she edged closer, all but dragging her heels in the dirt. It was silly. She was a grown woman, but in front of this man, she felt like an errant child about to be called to task.

Guilty conscience. A good confession would clear that up.

“Come walk with me, lass. We have much to discuss.”

She swallowed and snuck a peek at Christina, who performed a curtsy in the laird’s direction before turning and heading back the way they’d come.

His teeth flashed into a grin. “Come,” he said again. “I don’t bite.”

The flash of humor caught her unawares and she smiled broadly, quite unaware of its effect on the men who saw it.

“Very well, Laird. Since you’ve offered me such reassurance, I’ll take the risk and accompany you.”

They walked from the courtyard and took a path that led up the hillside that overlooked the loch. At the top, the laird stopped and stared out over the water.

“My son says I have much to thank you for.”

She folded her hands in front of her, gathering a bit of the material of her gown in her fingers. “He’s a good lad. He helped me as much as I helped him.”

The laird nodded. “So he told me. He brought you to me.”

Mairin didn’t like the way he said the last. There was too much possession in his voice.

“Laird, I must depart today. If you cannot spare a horse, I understand. I’ll leave on foot, though I would appreciate an escort to your border.”

He turned to her with an uplifted eyebrow. “On foot? You wouldn’t make it far, lass. You’d be tossed over someone’s saddle and spirited away the moment you left my land.”

She frowned. “Not if I’m careful.”

“As careful as you were when you got yourself abducted by Duncan Cameron’s men?”

Heat rose in her cheeks. “That’s different. I wasn’t expecting …”

Faint amusement glittered in his eyes. “Does anyone ever expect to be abducted?”

“Aye,” she whispered.

ȌTell me something, lass. You appear to be someone who firmly believes in a promise. I’d wager you expect people to remain true to their word.”

“Oh aye,” she said fervently.

“And you exacted a promise from my son, is this not so?”

She looked down. “Aye, I did.”

“And you expect him to keep that promise, do you not?”

She squirmed uncomfortably but nodded even as guilt filled her.

“As it turns out, Crispen also exacted a promise from me.”

“What promise?” she asked.

“To protect you.”

“Oh.”

She didn’t know what to say to that. Somehow she had just maneuvered herself into a trap. She knew it.

“I’d say ’tis hard to protect a lass if she’s out running all over the highlands on foot, wouldn’t you say?”

She scowled, unhappy with the direction this conversation was headed.

“I release you from his promise,” she declared.

He shook his head, a smile lifting the corners of his mouth. Shocked, she stared transfixed at the change such a gesture wrought on his features. My, but he was quite handsome. Really handsome. And he looked younger, not as hardened, though she’d seen the scars, so she knew he was anything but soft. Nay, he was a warrior. There was no telling how many men he’d killed in battle. Why, he could probably snap someone’s neck with his fingers. Certainly hers.

The thought had her reaching up to cover her throat.

“Only Crispen can release me from that promise, lass. As I’m sure he told you, a McCabe always keeps his word.”

Glumly, she remembered Crispen saying just that. She also remembered his vow to her that his father would protect her. She’d been too bent on self-preservation to really give thought to what that meant.

“Are you saying I can’t leave?” she whispered.

He seemed to consider her question for a moment, his gaze never straying from her. He stared until she squirmed under his scrutiny.

“If I knew you had a safe place to go, then of course I’d allow you to go. To your family perhaps?”

She wasn’t going to lie and say she had family, so she said nothing at all.

The laird sighed. “Tell me your name, lass. Tell me why Duncan Cameron was so adamant that you marry him. I’ve promised Crispen I’d protect you, and I will, but I can’t do so unless I have all the facts.”

Oh dear, he was going to get all gruff again when she refused to obey his command. He’d been ready to throttle her the day before. A night’s sleep probably hadn’t tempered the desire, no matter how patient he seemed to be at the moment.

Instead of openly defying him as she’d done yesterday, she stood mute, hands still folded in front of her.

“You realize, I’ll find out soon enough. It would be better on you if you simply told me what I want to know now. I don’t like to be kept waiting. I’m not a patient man. Particularly when those under my command defy me.”

“I’m not under your command,” she blurted before she could think better of it.

“The moment you stepped onto my land, you came under my command. My son’s promise put you solidly under my care and protection. My promise to my son solidified that. You will obey me.”

She raised her chin, staring directly into those piercing green eyes. “I survived at Duncan Cameron’s hands. I’ll survive at yours. You can’t make me tell you anything. Beat me if you must, but I will not tell you what you want to know.”

Outrage sparked in his eyes, and his mouth gaped open. “You think I’d beat you? Do you think me the same manner of man as Cameron?”

The fury in his voice had her stepping back. She’d struck a nerve, and anger rolled off the laird’s shoulders in thunderous waves. He all but snarled his question at her.

“I did not intend any insult. I do not know what manner of man you are. I’ve only made your acquaintance for a short time, and you must admit, our meeting has been less than amicable.”

The laird turned away, his hand going to his hair. She didn’t know if he intended to pull it in frustration or to prevent himself from wrapping those fingers around her neck.

When he turned around, his eyes blazed with purpose, and he advanced on her, closing the distance between them. She took another rapid step back, but he was there, looming over her, bristling with outrage.

“Never, never have I treated man or woman in the manner Cameron treated you. Dogs are treated with better regard than that. Never make the mistake of comparing me with him.”

“A—Aye, Laird.”

He raised his hand, and it was all she could do not to flinch. How she stood so stoic, she didn’t know, but it seemed important she didn’t show fear that he’d strike her. Instead, he touched a strand of her hair that whispered down her cheek.

“No one will hurt you here. You will trust me.”

“You can’t command someone to trust you!”

“Aye, I can, and you willngers ar9;m giving you until tomorrow to decide you trust me enough to tell me what I want to know. I am your laird, and you will obey me as everyone else here obeys me. Is that understood?”

“That … that’s ridiculous,” she sputtered, forgetting her fear of angering him further. “That’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard.”

She turned her back to him, telling him without words what she thought of his dictate. As she stomped away, she missed the amused smile that settled over Ewan’s face.

CHAPTER 6

Mairin spent the afternoon studying the keep’s defenses and looking for a possible escape route. The laird hadn’t given her any choice in the matter. While she kept a sharp eye peeled to the goings-on around her, she also considered the matter of just where she would travel.

Duncan would scour the other abbeys. That was too obvious a choice to make. Her mother’s people hailed from the western isles, but her mother had disassociated herself from her clan even before she’d become the king’s mistress.

And truthfully, she couldn’t count on them not knowing of Neamh Álainn. She’d find herself married off to the first man who had knowledge of her inheritance. She needed time. Time to consider the best course.

Mother Serenity had been working with Mairin to form a list of possible candidates for marriage. Mairin hadn’t wanted a warrior, but she’d recognized the need to have one as her husband. From the moment she claimed her legacy, her husband would have to spend the rest of his life defending it from greedy, power-hungry men.

Wasn’t that the way of the world, though? Only the strong survived, and the weak perished.

She frowned. Nay, that wasn’t true. God protected the weak. Perhaps that’s why he made warriors, so they could protect women and children. Which meant Duncan Cameron could only be of the devil.

With a sigh, she planted her hands down on the sun-warmed ground, intending to push herself to her feet so she could return to her room to best plot her escape. Before she could fully rise, she saw Crispen running up the hillside, waving his hand to her.

She sank back to the ground and waited for him to catch up to her. His face split into a wide grin and he flopped onto the ground beside her.

“Are you feeling more yourself today?” he asked politely.

“I feel much better. I’ve been moving about to work out the soreness.”

He snuggled into her side. “I’m glad. Did you speak to Papa?”

Mairin sighed. “I did.”

Crispen beamed up at her. “I told you he would ta care of everything.”

“Indeed you did,” she murmured.

“So are you staying?”

The hopeful expression on his face made her heart melt. She wrapped her arm around him and squeezed tight. “I can’t stay, Crispen. You must know that. There are men besides Duncan Cameron who would abduct me if they knew who I was.”

Crispen’s face crinkled until his nose twitched. “Why?”

“ ’Tis complicated,” she murmured. “I wish it were different, but Mother Serenity always told me we have to make the best with what we have.”

“When will you leave and where will you go? Will I see you again?”

Here she had to tread lightly. She couldn’t have Crispen running to his father with news of her departure. Now that she’d made the decision to leave on her own, she didn’t want the laird interfering with his demand to trust him. She nearly snorted at that notion. He might be able to command his clan to trust him, and she was sure it did, but a woman in her position couldn’t afford to trust anyone.

“I don’t know yet. Departures take planning.”

He turned his chin up so that he was looking up into her eyes. “Will you tell me before you leave so I can say good-bye?”

Her heart ached at the idea of leaving the lad she’d grown so fond of over the past days. But she wouldn’t lie and tell him she would when she knew well that she wouldn’t be announcing her departure to anyone.

“I can’t promise, Crispen. Perhaps we should say our good-byes now so that we’re sure to say everything we want to say.”

He rose up and flung his arms around her, nearly knocking her back to the ground.

“I love you,” he said fiercely. “I don’t want you to go.”

She hugged him to her and pressed a kiss to the top of his head. “I love you, too, dearling. I’ll always keep you close in my heart.”

“Promise?”

She smiled. “That I can promise, and I do.”

“Will you sit by me for the evening meal tonight?”

Since she didn’t plan to leave until everyone else was abed, his request was reasonable enough. She nodded, and he beamed back at her.

A shout went up from the courtyard that Mairin and Crispen heard all the way up the hillside. She turned in the direction of the noise to see a procession of soldiers on horses parading over the bridge and into the keep.

Crispen launched himself from her hold and ran several feet before stopping. “A0;’Tis Uncle Caelen! He’s back!”

“Then of course you must go greet him,” Mairin said with a smile.

He ran back to her and grabbed her hand, attempting to pull her up. “You come, too.”

She shook her head and pulled her hand away. “I’ll just stay here. You go ahead. I’ll be along in a little while.”

The last thing she needed was to make the acquaintance of yet another McCabe brother. She shuddered. He was probably just as infuriating as Ewan and Alaric.

Ewan arrived to greet Caelen just as Caelen slid from his horse and strode in Ewan’s direction.

“Is it true? Has Crispen been returned?” Caelen demanded.

“Aye, ’tis true. Alaric brought him home yesterday.”

“Well, where is the little brat?”

Ewan smiled just as Crispen tore through the courtyard shouting “Uncle Caelen” at the top of his lungs. Caelen went white and staggered backward before righting himself and catching the mass of wiggling boy that hurled himself into Caelen’s arms.

“God be praised,” Caelen breathed. “You’re alive.”

Crispen threw his arms around Caelen’s neck and hung on for dear life. “I’m sorry, Uncle Caelen. I didn’t mean to frighten you and Papa. But don’t worry, Mairin took good care of me.”

Ewan’s eyebrows went up. Beside him Alaric also took note of Crispen’s slip.

Caelen scowled over Crispen’s head at Ewan. “Who the hell is Mairin?”

Crispen went rigid in Caelen’s arms, and then he struggled until Caelen finally put him down. He turned stricken eyes toward Ewan, torment in his gaze.

“Oh nay, Papa, I broke my promise. I broke it!”

Ewan reached for his son and squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. “You didn’t mean to, son. If it’ll make you feel better, I’ll order Alaric and Caelen to forget it immediately.”

“And you, Papa?” Crispen asked anxiously. “Will you forget it as well?”

Ewan suppressed a chuckle and then glanced at his brothers. “We will all three endeavor to forget.”

“Will someone tell me what the blazes is going on?” Caelen demanded. “And does it have anything to do with the strange woman sitting on the hillside?”

Ewan followed Caelen’s gaze to where Mairin sat on the hill that overlooked the keep. Trust Caelen to have immediately observed a stranger in the keep. He was exceedingly cautious about who gained access. A lesson learned the hard way.

“She’s not staying,” Crispen said unhappily.

Ewan turned sharply toward his son. “Why do you say that?”

“She said she couldn’t.”

“Ewan? Am I going to have to beat the information from you?” Caelen asked.

Ewan held up his hand to silence Caelen. “Did she say anything else, Crispen?”

Crispen frowned and opened his mouth but then shut it promptly again, his lips forming a tight, mutinous line. “I already broke my promise,” he muttered. “I shouldn’t say anything else.”

Ewan sighed and shook his head. This whole bloody mess was enough to give him a giant ache in his temples. God save him from stubborn, secretive females. Worse, she’d completely won his son’s heart, and she couldn’t leave the keep fast enough.

He frowned at that thought. It wasn’t as though he wanted her to stay. He didn’t want Crispen hurt, but neither did he want the hassle of a difficult woman or the trouble she brought with her.

“Why don’t you run along so I can properly welcome your uncle home. I have much I need to discuss with Caelen and Alaric.”

Instead of looking offended, Crispen’s eyes glimmered with relief. He turned and headed straight back up the hill toward where Mairin had sat. Only now she was gone. Ewan glanced around for the direction she’d taken, but she was nowhere to be seen.

“Mairin? Who the hell is Mairin and what does she have to do with Crispen? Furthermore, what is she doing here?”

Ewan jerked his thumb in Alaric’s direction. “He brought her.”

As expected, Alaric immediately denied his part in the whole mess. Ewan held back his laughter at the weariness in Alaric’s voice.

Caelen was close to losing his patience, not that he had much, so Ewan told him everything he knew. Alaric filled in some of the information, and when they were done, Caelen looked at Ewan in disbelief.

“She would tell you nothing? And you allowed this?”

Ewan sighed. “What would you have me do, beat her as Cameron did? The lass will come around. I’ve given her until tomorrow to decide to trust me.”

“And what will you do when she refuses tomorrow?” Alaric smirked.

“She won’t refuse me.”

“The important thing is we have Crispen back,” Caelen said. “What the woman does or says is irrelevant. If Cameron comes looking for a fight, I’ll be more than happy to give him one and then we’ll send the woman on her way.”

“Come, ’tis getting dark and Gertie will have dinner waiting. She doesn’t like to serve a cold meal and well you know it,” Ewan said. “Leave the matter of Mairin to me. The two of you needn’t concern yourself over it.”

“As if we’d want to,” Caelen muttered, as he shouldered past Ewan.

CHAPTER 7

Mairin gathered her shawl closer around her body and crept over the crumbling wall of the stone skirt. She’d chosen the pathway closest to the loch because fewer guards were posted on that side. After all, an enemy could hardly come barging over the water to attack.

The spring air had a decided nip, and suddenly the decision to leave the warmth of her small chamber didn’t seem so wonderful.

The evening repast had been a stressful event. She’d taken one look at the laird’s youngest brother and thought better of her promise to sit next to Crispen at the table. He scowled at her, and it wasn’t as if she hadn’t been treated to scowls from the other McCabe brothers, but there was a darkness to Caelen’s frown that unnerved her.

She’d uttered an excuse about not feeling well and had immediately retreated above stairs. Undaunted by her departure, Crispen brought a plate of food to her door, and the two of them had sat cross-legged in front of the fire to eat.

Afterward, she pleaded fatigue and sent Crispen on his way. And she waited. For hours she listened for the sounds of the keep to diminish. When she was sure everyone was abed, or at least safely ensconced in their quarters, she snuck down the stairs and out the entrance that faced the loch.

She breathed easier when she entered the shelter of the trees that divided part of the loch from the keep. Here she could move with relative obscurity and follow the loch until she was away.

A great splash startled her, and she turned in the direction of the water. She went still, holding her breath as she peered through the trees toward the inky black water. There was barely a moon this night, and only a slim light was cast onto the rippling surface.

It was enough for her to see that three men were taking a late swim. It was also enough for her to see who was taking the swim. Ewan McCabe and his brothers were diving into the loch, and God have mercy on her, they didn’t have a stitch of clothing on.

She immediately covered her eyes with both hands, mortified beyond all measure that she’d just seen the backsides of three grown men. Were they mad? The loch had to be incredibly cold. She shivered at the mere thought of just how icy such a swim would be.

For several minutes she sat, hunkered down by a tree, hands covering her eyes until finally she eased them away only to see Ewan McCabe come walking from the water. Her eyes rounded in shock, and her hands hung limply at her sides as she stared, transfixed by the sight of a fully naked man. He stood, drying himself with acloth, and each stroke only drew attention to his muscled body. And … And … she couldn’t even bring herself to think about the area between his legs.

When she realized she was staring quite unabashedly at his … his … manhood, she promptly clapped both hands over her eyes again and sank her teeth into her bottom lip to stifle the squeak that threatened to spill out.

Her only hope was that they would finish their swim and go back to the keep. She couldn’t risk moving about in the trees and attracting attention, but neither did she want to sit here staring immodestly.

Heat suffused her cheeks, and though she kept her eyes firmly covered, the image of Ewan McCabe without clothing burned through her mind with astonishing clarity. No matter what she did, she couldn’t rid herself of the memory of him walking from the water—completely and utterly naked.

It would take at least three confessions to atone for this much sinning.

“You can look now. I assure you I am fully clothed.”

The laird’s dry voice slid with agonizing precision over her ears. Mortification billowed over her, and her cheeks grew so tight with humiliation that all she could think to do was sit there, hands still covering her eyes. Maybe if she wished really hard, when she opened her eyes, the laird would be far, far away.

“Not likely,” came the amused reply.

She dropped one hand to her mouth, which is where it should have been all along so nothing stupid slipped out, like the fact that she’d just wished the laird to be a great distance away.

Now that she had one eye uncovered, she chanced a look at him to see that he was indeed clothed. With that established, she let her other hand slip down as she looked nervously at the laird.

He stood, legs apart, arms crossed over his chest, and, predictably, he was scowling.

“Want to tell me what you’re doing skulking around in the dark?”

Her shoulders sagged. Apparently she couldn’t even muster a good escape. How was she to know he and his brothers liked taking idiotic swims so late?

“Do I have to answer that?” she mumbled.

The laird sighed. “What part of me telling you that you weren’t leaving my protection did you not understand? I don’t take kindly to those under my authority blatantly disregarding my orders. If you were one of my soldiers, I’d kill you.”

The last didn’t sound like a boast. He didn’t even say it with any flair, so she was sure it wasn’t said to impress her. Nay, it was God’s truth, and that served to scare her even more.

Some demon prompted her to deny his claim. “I’m not under your authority, Laird. I’m not sure how you came to that notion, but ’tis quite unue. I’m not under anyone’s authority, save God’s and my own.”

The laird smirked back at her, his teeth glinting in the low moonlight. “For a lass determined to make her own way, you’ve done a poor job of it.”

She sniffed. “That’s very uncharitable of you to say.”

“It doesn’t make it any less true. Now if we’re done with this conversation, I suggest we return to the keep, preferably before my son vacates my chambers and goes to seek you out in yours. He seems to have a certain affinity for sleeping with you. I don’t like to imagine his reaction when he finds your bed empty.”

Oh, that was simply unfair, and the laird well knew it. He was manipulating her emotions and striving to make her feel guilt for leaving Crispen. She frowned sharply at him to let him know of her displeasure, but he ignored her and took her arm in his strong fingers.

She had no choice but to allow him to herd her back in the direction of the keep. He marched her around the stone skirt and through the courtyard where he paused to issue a sharp command to his guard that she was not to be allowed to escape again. Then he proceeded into the keep, and to her further dismay, insisted on escorting her all the way back to her chamber.

He opened her door and thrust her inside. Then he stood in the doorway, glaring ferociously at her.

“If you intend to intimidate me with mean looks, you’re destined to fail,” she said airily.

His eyes went heavenward for a moment, and she could swear he was counting under his breath. He took a second, as if trying to collect his flagging patience, which amused her, considering he didn’t seem to possess any.

“If I have to bar the door, I will. I can be a very accommodating man, lass, but you’ve sorely tried my will. I’ve given you until tomorrow to trust me with whatever you’re hiding. After that, I can promise you won’t like my hospitality any longer.”

“I don’t like it now,” she said crossly. She waved her hand in his direction. “You can leave. I’ll only be going to bed now.”

His jaw ticked, and his fingers flexed at his sides. She wondered if he was imagining those fingers around her neck. He looked to be contemplating such a thing right that very moment.

Then, as if to contradict her command, he stalked forward until he loomed forbiddingly over her. His jaw still twitched, and his eyes narrowed as he stared down at her.

He touched his fingertip to the end of her nose. “You don’t make the rules here, lass. I do. It would be in your best interests to remember that.”

She swallowed, suddenly very overwhelmed by the sheer size of him. “I will endeavor to remember.”

The laird gave a short nod then turned on his heel and left the room, slamming the door with a bang.

Mairin flopped onto the straw mattress and sighed in disgust. That had not gone the way she intended. She was supposed to be well away from McCabe land by now, or at the very least to the border. Her plan had been to venture north, because there was nothing for her to the south.

Now she was stuck in the keep with an overbearing laird who thought he could command her trust as easily as he commanded his soldiers. He’d find out on the morrow that she wasn’t so easily bent to another’s will.

CHAPTER 8

“Laird! Laird!”

Ewan frowned and looked up from the table to see Maddie McCabe rush into the room, her face flushed with exertion.

“What is it, Maddie? I’m in talks here.”

Maddie ignored the reprimand and stopped just a few feet away. She was so agitated, she wrung her hands.

“With your permission, Laird, there is something I must tell you.” She glanced surreptitiously around and then confided in a low whisper, “Privately, Laird. ’Tis very important!”

An ache began in Ewan’s temples. So far, the morning had been filled with dramatics. The evening before as well, as he remembered his encounter with Mairin. The lass hadn’t showed herself as of yet, and he was sure she was being purposely difficult. As soon as he was finished with Alaric and Caelen, he planned to confront her and tell her that her time was up.

Ewan raised his hand and gestured for his men to leave. He caught Alaric’s and Caelen’s gazes and nodded for them to stay. Anything Maddie had to say could be said in front of them.

As soon as the rest of his soldiers filed out, Ewan returned his attention to Maddie.

“Now, what is so important that you’d interrupt a meeting with my men?”

“ ’Tis the lass,” she began, and Ewan groaned.

“What now? Has she refused to eat? Has she threatened to throw herself from her window? Or perhaps she’s disappeared?”

Maddie sent him a puzzled look. “Of course not, Laird. She’s above stairs in her chamber. I brought her morning meal myself.”

“Then what about her?” Ewan growled.

Maddie let out a breath as if she’d run the entire way. “May I sit, Laird? For truly, ’tis not a short tale I’ll be telling you.”

Caelen rolled his eyes while Alaric looked bored. Ewan gestured her to sit.

She settled down and pressed her hands into a single fist before setting it on the table before her.

“The lass is Mairin Stuart.”

She dropped the announcement as if she expected Ewan to react in some way.

“I know the lass’s name is Mairin. I hadn’t known her family name, but ’tis a common enough name in the highlands. The question is how did you gain this information? She’s refused to tell anyone who she is. If Crispen hadn’t let it slip, I wouldn’t have known myself.”

“Nay, she didn’t tell me. I knew, you see?”

“Nay, I don’t see. Perhaps you better tell me,” Ewan said patiently.

“When I went up to bring her meal, I came in on her dressing. It was all quite awkward, and I apologized of course, but before she covered herself, I saw the mark.”

Maddie’s voice rose again and she sat forward, her eyes gleaming with excitement.

Ewan stared expectantly at her, waiting for her to continue. Lord, but the woman did love a good story. His brothers sat back, resigned to Maddie’s colorful retelling.

“The lass is Mairin Stuart,” she said again. “She bears the royal crest of Alexander. I saw it, branded on her leg. She’s the heir to Neamh Álainn.”

Ewan shook his head. “That’s a bunch of nonsense, Maddie. ’Tis naught but a legend circulated on the tongues of bards.”

“What legend?” Alaric asked as he sat forward. “I’ve heard of no such legend.”

“That’s because you never listen to bards,” Caelen said dryly. “You’re much too busy during festive times tossing up the skirts of some wench.”

“And you listen to these poets and singers?” Alaric mocked.

Caelen shrugged. “ ’Tis a good way to keep abreast of the current gossip.”

Maddie’s eyes gleamed as she turned her attention to Alaric. “The story goes that King Alexander had a child after his marriage to Sybilla, a daughter. And that at her birth, he had his royal crest branded on her thigh so that her identity could never be questioned. Later, he bequeathed Neamh Álainn to her firstborn child.” She leaned forward and whispered, “ ’Tis said, he did so so that she would be sure to secure a good marriage since she was a bastard born child and her mother was baseborn.”

Alaric snorted. “ ’Tis a well-known fact that Alexander never sired a daughter. He had no legitimate children and only one bastard son. Malcolm.”

“He did sire a daughter. A daughter named Mairin Stuart. And she’s just above stairs in her chamber,” Maddie insisted. “I’m telling you I saw the mark. I am not mistaken in this.”

Ewan remained silent as he mulled Maddie’s remarks and those of his brothers. He wasn’t entirely sure he believed any of this nonsense, but it would certainly explain why Duncan Cameron was so determined to marry the lass, and it would also explain why she was desperate to escape.

“Why not just acknowledge the lass?” Alaric argued. “A bastard of the king would have no trouble securing a sound marriage. Any number of men would line up, if for no other reason than to seek favor with the crown.”

“He didn’t want anyone to know,” Maddie said. “I can remember some years ago hearing the whispers that circulated. Alexander waited a full five years before making his bequest to the lass. He valued his marriage to Sybilla, and Malcolm was born before their marriage. It isn’t known how he explained the bequest, but soon after his death, rumors began going around about the existence of the lass.”

“With Malcolm still imprisoned, the existence of another descendent of Alexander could brew support for Malcolm’s followers,” Ewan said thoughtfully. “It could, in fact, be a large reason for Cameron’s determination to wed her. Taking over her inheritance would give him more power than he currently wields. Much more power. Scotland could be at war again, and David would face a renewed threat. With Alexander having sired not one, but two possible contenders to the throne, David’s position would be weakened. He can’t afford another lengthy war that will only divide Scotland once again.”

“A bastard cannot inherit,” Caelen reminded him. “This would never be accepted.”

“Think, Caelen. If Duncan Cameron had control of Neamh Álainn, he would be unstoppable. It would matter not the circumstances of Alexander’s children’s births. With that kind of wealth and power, if Cameron chose to ally himself with Malcolm, either could seize power.”

“Are you saying you believe this rubbish?” Alaric asked in astonishment.

“I’m not saying anything. Yet,” Ewan said calmly.

“Don’t you see, Laird?” Maddie burst in, excitement bubbling into her voice. “She’s the answer to our prayers. If you marry the lass, then your heir would inherit Neamh Álainn. ’Tis said she brings a rich dowry to her marriage in addition to the bequest of the lands for her firstborn.”

“Marry her?”

The question was all but shouted by all three brothers. Ewan’s mouth gaped open, and he stared at Maddie in astonishment.

Maddie nodded emphatically. “You have to admit, ’tis a sound plan. If you marry her, Duncan Cameron very well can’t.”

“There is that,” Caelen pointed out.

Alaric turned to Caelen, his expression questioning. “Now you’re going along with this madness?”

Ewan held up his hand to silence them. The throbbing in his head had escalated to a full-blown ache. He leveled a stare at Maddie, who had been listening to everything with rapt attention.

“You may go now, Maddie. I fully expect that everything that has been said here will remain strictly confidential. If gossip gets about the keep, I’ll know where it originated.”

Maddie rose and dropped a curtsy. “Of course, Laird.”

She hurried off and then Ewan turned to his brothers.

“Tell me you aren’t considering this madness,” Alaric cut in before Ewan could get a word out.

“What madness do you think I’m considering?” Ewan asked mildly.

“Marriage. Believing that the lass is the bastard daughter of Alexander, which makes her the niece of our current king. Not to mention half sister of the man who spent ten years trying to usurp David from the throne. And would do so again given the least opportunity.”

“What I believe is that the lass and I are due for a long conversation. I intend to see this mark for myself. Given the relationship between our father and Alexander, I’ve seen his royal seal on more than one occasion. I’d know if the mark on her leg is the true one.”

Caelen snorted. “And you think she’s going to lift her skirts for you to see this brand? She’s more likely to knee you in the testicles for the offense.”

“I can be persuasive when the situation calls for it,” Ewan drawled.

“This, I’d love to see,” Alaric said.

Ewan raised his eyebrows. “You’ll see nothing of the sort. If I catch you even looking like you want a glimpse under Mairin Stuart’s skirts, I’ll pin you to the wall with my broadsword.”

Alaric raised his hands in defense. “Forget I said anything. You’re awfully touchy about a lass you claim annoys you to no end.”

“If the lass is who Maddie says she is, I aim to marry her,” Ewan said grimly. “Our clan needs the coin her dowry would provide.”

Simultaneously, his brothers’ mouths dropped. Caelen cursed loudly and Alaric shook his head and sent his eyes heavenward.

“Think about what you’re saying,” Caelen said.

“I believe I’m the only one who is thinking,” Ewan returned. “If ’tis true that her firstborn inherits Neamh Álainn, think about what this would mean for our clan. We would control the choicest lands in the whole of Scotland. No longer would we sit here dreaming about the day we take our revenge on Duncan Cameron. We would decimate him and his name. He would be obliterated from history. Our name would be avenged. The McCabe clan would be second only to the king. No one, and I mean no one, would ever have the power to destroy us as Dunca Cameron nearly did eight years ago.”

His fist came down on the table, and his entire body trembled with rage.

“I made a vow on our father’s grave that I would not rest until our clan was restored to its full glory and that I would make Duncan Cameron pay for his crimes against us.”

Caelen’s face went cold, and Ewan could see the pain flare to light in his brother’s eyes. But he nodded, his lips set into a fine line. “In this we agree.”

“Neamh Álainn lies to the north with only McDonald between us. If we form a strong alliance with him, we would control a vast portion of this region.”

Excitement stirred in Ewan’s veins as the plans of the last eight years came to life in his mind. Finally he saw a way to fulfill his vow to his father.

“The lass is courageous and she’s fiercely protective of Crispen. She’d make him a fine mother, as well as the rest of the sons she’d bear me. In return, I’d give her my protection, and she’d never have to worry about Duncan Cameron again.”

“It isn’t us you have to convince,” Alaric said with a twist of his lips. “ ’Tis the lass you have to persuade. Caelen and I stand beside you always. You well know that. My loyalty is to you. Always. It extends to the woman you marry, no matter who she may be. She is a very courageous lass. I saw that for myself. And if she brings with her a dowry like Neamh Álainn, then I see no downside in marrying her.”

Caelen nodded, but he said nothing about Mairin. Ewan didn’t expect him to. It would surprise Ewan greatly if Caelen ever allowed himself to trust another woman again. If he ever sought to breed sons, Ewan felt pity for the woman Caelen would marry. Once, Caelen had given himself unreservedly. The folly of youth. He’d vowed never to do so again.

Ewan put his hands down on the table and pushed himself to his feet. “It would appear I have much to discuss with Mairin Stuart. Alaric, I want you to send out an escort for Father McElroy. He’s up at the McDonalds’ administering last rites to one of their sick. I’ll need him here to perform the wedding. If the lass is who Maddie says she is, I don’t want to delay. We’ll marry immediately.”

CHAPTER 9

Ewan stopped outside Mairin’s chamber and smiled at the proximity to his own private quarters. She probably wouldn’t be pleased if she knew how close he’d placed her. He knocked to be polite, but he didn’t wait for her answering summons before opening the door and entering the chamber.

Mairin whirled from her position at the window, her unbound hair flying about her shoulders. The furs were pulled aside to allow the sun to shine in, and she posed an enchanting portrait with the light reflecting the brilliant hue of her eyes.

Aye, she was indeed a bonnie lass, and it would be no hardship to marry her and get her with child. In fact, now that he’d decided on a course of action, he looked forward to the prospect of Mairin in his bed.

She looked indignant over his intrusion, but before she could launch the reprimand he was sure was forthcoming, he held up a hand. The lass had no respect for his authority over her, but that was a matter that would quickly change. When she was his wife, he’d take great delight in advising her of her duty to him and, most important, her obligation to obey him without question.

“Will you tell me now what it is I want to know?” he asked. To be fair—and he was a fair man—he wanted to give her the opportunity to confide her identity before he related his own knowledge.

She thrust her chin upward in the show of defiance he now expected from her and shook her head. “Nay. I will not. You cannot order me to trust you. Why that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

He sensed she was warming up for a full-length diatribe, so he did the one thing he knew would silence her.

He rapidly closed the distance between them, curled his hands around her upper arms, and hauled her upward. His lips found hers in a heated rush, her gasp of outrage swallowed up by his mouth.

She went rigid against him, her hands shoving between them in an attempt to push him away. He brushed his tongue over her lips, tasting her sweetness, demanding entrance into her mouth.

Her second gasp came out more as a sigh. Her lips parted and she melted into his chest like warm honey. She was soft all over, and she fit him like his sword fit his hand. Perfectly.

He pushed inward, sliding his tongue over hers. She went rigid again, and her fingers curled into his chest like tiny daggers. He closed his eyes and imagined them digging into his back as he thrust between her thighs.

Lord, but she was sweet. Nay, bedding her would be no hardship at all. The image of her swollen with his child flickered through his mind, and he found himself very pleased with the image. Very pleased indeed.

When he finally pulled away, her eyes were glazed, her lips deliciously swollen, and she swayed like a sapling in the wind.

She blinked several times and then frowned sharply. “Why did you do that?”

“It was the only way to silence you.”

She bristled with outrage. “Silence me? You took liberties with my … my … my lips in order to silence me? That was very impertinent of you, Laird. I won’t allow you to do it again.”

He smiled and folded his arms over his chest. “Aye, you will.”

Her mouth gaped open in astonishment and then worked up and down as she struggled to speak. “I assure you I won’t.”

“I assure you that ill.”

She stamped her foot, and he stifled his laughter at the fury in her eyes. “You’ve gone daft! Is this some trick? An attempt to seduce me into telling you who I am?”

“Not at all, Mairin Stuart.”

She recoiled in shock. If he had any doubts about the validity of Maddie’s claims, he didn’t now. Mairin’s reaction was too genuine. She was utterly horrified that he knew the truth.

She quickly came to the same realization that she’d given herself away, because she didn’t attempt to deny it. Tears welled in her eyes and she turned away, her fist going to her mouth.

An uncomfortable sensation knotted his chest. The sight of her distress unsettled him. The lass had suffered enough, and now she looked as though she was utterly defeated. The light had vanished from her eyes the moment he’d uttered her name.

“Mairin,” he began and gently touched her shoulder. She trembled underneath his touch, and he realized she shook with quiet sobs. “Lass, don’t cry. ’Tis not as bad as that.”

“Nay?” She sniffed and shrugged away from his hand, moving closer to the window again. She bowed her head and her hair fell over her face, obscuring it from his view.

He wasn’t any good with tears. They discomfited him. He was much more comfortable when he was inciting her anger. So he did the one thing he knew would infuriate her. He ordered her to stop crying.

As predicted, she turned on him, spitting like a cornered kitten.

“I’ll cry if I want to. You will cease ordering me about!”

He raised an eyebrow. “You dare to issue me orders?”

She flushed, but at least she wasn’t crying any longer.

“Now tell me about this brand on your thigh. Your father’s crest. I’d like to see it.”

She went crimson and she backed up a step until her back met with the ledge of the window. “I will not do something so indecent as to show you my leg!”

“When we’re married, I’ll see more than that,” he said mildly.

“Married? Married? I’m not marrying you, Laird. I’m not marrying anyone. Not yet anyway.”

It was the yet that intrigued Ewan. Clearly the lass hadn’t totally discounted the notion of marriage, and she seemed levelheaded enough, so she had to realize the importance of marrying. She could hardly bear an heir to Neamh Álainn if she never married.

He sat on the bed and stretched his legs outward. This might take awhile, and he might as well be comfortable.

“Tell me why not yet. Surely youve given thought to marriage.”

“Aye, I’ve given it thought. I’ve thought about little else over the years,” she blurted out. “Have you any idea how the last ten years have been for me? Living in fear, having to hide from men who’d force me to their will so that they’d gain from their marriage to me. Men who would plant their seed in my belly and discard me the moment I gave birth.

“I was but a child when I was forced into hiding. A child. I needed time to formulate a plan. Mother Serenity suggested I find a man, a warrior, with the strength to protect my heritage, but also a man with honor. Someone who would treat me well,” she whispered. “A man who would cherish the gift I would bring to our marriage. And me.”

He was struck by the vulnerability in her voice. The dreams of a young woman sounded strong in the tale she spun. It wasn’t practical, but when he looked at her, he understood that she’d been desperate and afraid, and she’d clung to the hope of finding such a man among all the ones who’d do just as she said. Marry her, impregnate her, and discard her when she no longer served a purpose.

He sighed. She wanted to be loved and cherished. He couldn’t offer her those things, but he could offer her his protection and his regard. It was far more than Duncan Cameron would give her.

“I’ll never hurt you, lass. You’ll have the respect due you as wife to the laird of the McCabe clan. I’ll protect you and any child you bear me. You wanted a man who had the strength to defend your legacy. I’m that man.”

She turned wounded eyes on him, skepticism bright in her gaze. “Not to offer insult, Laird, but your keep is crumbling around your ears. If you can’t defend your own, how can you expect to defend a holding such as Neamh Álainn?”

He stiffened at the insult, intended or not.

“You cannot be angry over such an observation,” she rushed to say. “ ’Tis my right to question the qualifications of the man I would marry and in whose hands I would place my life.”

“I have spent the last eight years fortifying my troops. There is not a larger, better-trained force in all of Scotland.”

“If that is correct, why then does your keep look as if it has sustained crippling damage in a battle?”

“It did,” he said bluntly. “Eight years ago. Since then my focus has been on keeping my clan fed and my men trained. Repairs to the keep have been a much lower priority.”

“I had not desired to marry anyone yet,” she said in a mournful voice.

“Aye, I can understand that. But it seems you no longer have a choice. You’ve been discovered, lass. If you think Duncan Cameron will give up when a holding such as Neamh Álainn is at stake, you’re daft.”

“There’s no need to be insulting,” she snapped. C;I’m not daft.”

He shrugged, growing impatient with the direction of the conversation. “The way I see it, you have two choices. Duncan Cameron. Or me.”

She paled and twisted her hands in agitation.

“Perhaps you should give it some thought. The priest should arrive within two days. I’ll expect an answer by then.”

Ignoring the dazed look in her eyes, he turned and walked from the chamber. He paused at the door and turned to pin her with a stare.

“Don’t think to try to escape again. You’ll find I have no patience for chasing disobedient lasses all over my lands.”

CHAPTER 10

Marry the laird. Mairin paced the interior of her chamber until she thought she might go mad. She stopped at the window and stared out, inhaling the soothing spring air. It was a warm afternoon with only a gentle bite of a chill.

Making a decision, she gathered her shawl and hurried from the room. No sooner had she stepped from the keep than one of the McCabe warriors fell into step beside her. She peeked cautiously up at him and remembered that he’d been one of the men with Alaric the day they’d found her and Crispen. She searched her memory for his name, but the whole event had been one big blur to her.

She smiled, thinking he only wanted to offer her greeting, but he continued in step with her as she rounded the corner of the keep and headed in the direction of the hole in the skirt.

Before she could lift her dress hem and climb over the crumbling rock face, the soldier gallantly took her hand and assisted her over the side.

She stopped and he nearly bumped into her, so close was he following behind. She whirled around and tilted her neck so she could look him in the eyes.

“Why are you following me?”

“Laird’s orders, my lady. ’Tis unsafe for you to walk about the keep unescorted. I am charged with your protection when the laird himself is not with you.”

She snorted and put one hand on her hip. “He fears me escaping again and you’ve been put to the task of making sure that doesn’t happen.”

The soldier didn’t so much as blink.

“I have no intention of leaving the keep. The laird has informed me of the consequences of such an action. I’m merely out for a walk and a bit of fresh air, so there’s no reason for you to leave your other duties to escort me.”

“My only duty is to your safety,” he said solemnly.

She gave a disgruntled sigh. She was sure the laird’s men wereevery bit as thickheaded and stubborn as he was. It was probably a requirement.

“Very well. By what name are you called?”

“Gannon, my lady.”

“Tell me, Gannon, are you my permanent watch guard?”

“I share the duty with Cormac and Diormid. Next to his brothers, we are the laird’s most senior men.”

She picked her way over the stones protruding from the ground as she made her way up the hillside toward the grazing sheep.

“I can’t imagine that’s a duty any of you would welcome,” she said wryly.

“ ’Tis an honor,” Gannon said gravely. “The laird’s confidence is great. He wouldn’t entrust the safety of the mistress of the keep to just any of his soldiers.”

She stopped and whirled around, clamping her lips shut to prevent the shriek from escaping. “I am not the mistress of this keep!”

“You will be in two days’ time, just as soon as the priest arrives.”

She closed her eyes and shook her head. She’d never been a drinker of spirits, but right now an entire tub of ale would be welcome.

“The laird does you a great honor,” Gannon said, as if sensing her disquiet.

“I’m thinking ’tis the other way around,” Mairin muttered.

“Mairin! Mairin!”

She turned to see Crispen running up the hill as fast as his legs would carry him. He shouted her name the entire way and nearly knocked her off her feet when he crashed into her. Only Gannon’s steadying hand prevented her fall.

“Careful, lad,” Gannon said with a smile. “You’ll knock the lass over if you aren’t careful.”

“Mairin, is it true? Is it true?”

Crispen positively wiggled in his excitement. His eyes shone like twin stars and he clutched at her arms, alternately hugging and squeezing her.

She grasped his shoulders and carefully pried him away from her. “Is what true, Crispen?”

“You’re marrying Papa? You’ll be my mother?”

Anger descended with breathtaking speed. How could he? How could the laird do this to Crispen? It would break his heart if she denied it. The laird’s manipulation shocked her. She’d thought him more honorable than that. Arrogant, aye. Even determined and focused. But she hadn’t imagined him acting so deceitful and stirring the emotions of a young child.

Furious, she rounded on Gannon. “Take me to the laird.”

“But, my lady, he’s with the men. He’s never to be disturbed during training unless ’tis a matter of great urgency.”

She advanced on him, thrusting her finger into his chest. She accentuated her words by poking him. He was forced to take a step backward, his gaze wary.

“You will take me to him at once or I’ll turn this entire keep upside down to find him. Believe me when I say, this is a matter of life and death. His life and death!”

When she saw the determined denial in Gannon’s eyes, she threw up her hands, let out a huge sigh of exasperation, and turned to head down the hill. She’d find the laird herself. If he was training with his men, it meant he was in the courtyard where such training took place.

Remembering Crispen, and that she had no wish for him to hear what it was she had to say to the laird, she turned and pointed her finger sharply at Gannon.

“You keep Crispen with you. Do you hear?”

His mouth gaped open at her command, and he stared alternately at her and at Crispen as if unsure what to do. He finally bent down, said something to Crispen, then pushed him in the direction of the sheep herder.

Mairin turned and stomped down the hill, angrier with each step. She nearly tripped over a rock and fell flat on her face, but Gannon caught her elbow.

“Slow down, my lady. You’re going to injure yourself!”

“Not myself,” she muttered. “Your laird, more likely.”

“Pardon? I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you.”

She bared her teeth and shrugged out of his grasp. She blazed around the corner of the keep and into the courtyard. The heavy clang of swords, mixed swear words, and the smell of sweat and blood rose sharp in her ears and nose. She surveyed the mass of training men until she finally found the source of her fury.

Before Gannon could stop her, she waded into the fray, her gaze focused solely on the laird. Around her, shouts went up. She thought one man fell as she passed, but she couldn’t be sure because she didn’t pause in her quest.

Halfway there, the laird stopped his activity and turned to stare. When he saw her, his brow creased and he scowled. Not just his usual show of displeasure. He was furious. Well, that was fine, because so was she.

Only when she stopped barely a foot in front of the laird did Gannon catch up to her. He was out of breath and looking at the laird like he feared for his life.

“Your pardon, Laird. I couldn’t stop her. She was determined—”

The laird’s angry gaze found Gannon and he arched an eyebrow in blatant disbelief. “You couldn’t stop one slip of a lass from marching across a courtyard where any one of my men could have killed her?”

Mairin snorted in disbelief but when she turned so she could survey the men who were now all standing in silence, she swallowed. Each carried a weapon, and if she’d stopped to think about it at the time, she’d have realized that going around the perimeter would have been a much better idea.

They were all scowling at her, proving her theory that the laird demanded surliness and pigheadedness from his men.

Determined to show no remorse for her mistake, she turned back to the laird and pinned him with the full force of her glare. He might be angry, but she was far more so.

“I have not given you an answer, Laird,” she all but yelled. “How could you? How could you do something so … so … underhanded and dishonorable?”

The scowl on his face morphed into an expression of complete astonishment. He gaped at her with such incredulity that she wondered if he’d perhaps misunderstood. So she hastened to inform him of precisely what she was so furious about.

“You told your son that I was going to be his mother.” She walked up to him, stabbing her finger into his chest. “You gave me two days. Until the priest arrived. Two days to make my decision, and yet you inform the entire keep that I’m going to be the new mistress.” By then, she was beating him solidly with her hand.

The laird glanced down at her fingers as if he were about to shoo an annoying insect. Then he looked back at her, his eyes so icy that she shivered.

“Are you quite finished?” he demanded.

She took a step back, the initial rush of her fury subsiding. Now that she’d vented her rage, the reality of what she’d done slapped her full in the face.

He advanced, giving her no opportunity to put any distance between them.

“Don’t you ever, ever question my honor. If you were a man, you’d already be dead. As it is, if you ever speak to me as you’ve done just now, I can guarantee you that you will not like the consequences. You are on my lands, and my word here is the law. You are under my protection. You will obey me without question.”

“Not bloody likely,” she muttered.

What? What did you say?” He roared the question at her.

She glanced serenely up at him, a bland smile on her face. “Nothing, Laird. Nothing at all.”

His gaze narrowed and she could see his hands twitching again like he’d love nothing more than to throttle her. She was beginning to think it was an affliction of his. Did he go around wanting to choke the life out of everyone or was she special in that regard?

“I’m afraid ’tis an urge that is entirely original to you,” the laird barked.

She clamped her mouth shut and closed her eyes. Mother Serenity had vowed one day Mairin would regret her propensity to blurt out her least little thought. Today just might be that day.

By now the scowls of his men had been replaced with looks of open amusement. She didn’t appreciate being the source of that amusement so she gave them a scowl of her own. It only served to make them twitch more as they battled their mirth.

“I will say this but once,” the laird said in a menacing voice. “I have spoken of our prospective marriage to no one save the men I sent to escort Father McElroy back to my lands and those I charged with your protection. I would give the priest a reason for ushering him here with such haste. You, however, have now broadcast our impending nuptials to my entire clan.”

She glanced uneasily around to see that quite a crowd had gathered. They stared upon her and the laird with undisguised interest. Indeed, they were hanging on every word.

She pinched her lips into a bow and stared unflinchingly up at the laird, who was still bristling with outrage.

“Then how does your son know? And why do I have an escort who informs me his duty is to see to the mistress of the keep?”

“Are you accusing me of speaking an untruth?”

His voice was deathly quiet, so low that no one save her could hear, but the tone sent a surge of fear straight to her toes.

“Nay,” she said hastily. “I would merely like to know how so many people know of a marriage that may or may not take place if you’ve told no one.”

His eyes narrowed. “First, the marriage will take place. Just as soon as you’ve regained your senses and realize that ’tis the only sensible option left to you.”

When she would have opened her mouth to dispute his assertion, he shocked her by clamping his hand over her mouth.

“You will be silent and allow me to finish. I have doubts that you’ve ever been able to hold your silence for more than a moment in your entire lifetime,” he grumbled.

She huffed but his hand tightened on her mouth.

“I can only assume that my son overheard me speaking to my men of our marriage. If you would have but cautioned him to hold his tongue, he would not have repeated it beyond his question to you. But now, you’ve announced our marriage to the entire clan. Some might even consider it a proposal. In which case, I accept.”

He finished with a grin and then stepped back, releasing his hold on her mouth.

“Why … you …,” she sputtered. She worked her mouth up and down but nothing would come out.

A cheer went up from the crowd assembled.

“A wedding!”

Congratulations were shouted. Sds were raised. Men beat on the backs of their shields with the hilts of their swords. Mairin winced from the noise level and stared helplessly up at the laird. He stared back, arms crossed over his chest, a satisfied smile carving his too-handsome face.

“I did not ask you to marry me!”

He was undaunted by her vehemence. “ ’Tis customary to seal a betrothal with a kiss.”

Before she could tell him what she thought of that daft idea, he hauled her against him. She hit his chest and would have bounced off if he hadn’t held her firmly in place.

“Open your mouth,” he demanded in a husky voice that sounded oddly tender given his degree of anger.

Her lips parted and he slid his tongue sensuously over hers. Her senses scattered in the wind. For a moment she quite forgot everything but the fact that he was kissing her and he had his tongue inside her mouth. Again.

And he’d just announced to his clan that they were marrying. Or maybe she had. Realizing that the longer he kissed her in front of God and everyone, the harder a time she’d have denying his claim, she gave him a mighty shove and nearly fell on her behind. To her mortification, Gannon caught her and held her up while she swiped at her mouth with the back of her arm.

Oh, but the laird looked smug now. He had a satisfied grin on his face as he watched her and waited.

“Kiss? I won’t kiss you. I want to hit you!”

She spun around and fled. The laird’s laughter followed her the entire way.

“Too late, lass! I already kissed you.”

Back in her chamber, which she should have never left, Mairin resumed her pacing in front of the window. The man was impossible. He would drive her daft inside a day. He was controlling, overbearing. Arrogant. Handsome. And he kissed like a dream.

She groaned and smacked a hand to her forehead. He didn’t kiss like a dream. He did it all wrong anyway. She was quite certain Mother Serenity had never said anything about tongues when kissing. Mother Serenity had been quite descriptive in her talks with Mairin. She hadn’t wanted her to go ignorant to her marriage bed, and above all things, Mairin would one day marry.

But tongues? Nay, Mother Serenity had nothing to say on the matter of tongues. Mairin would have remembered such a thing, surely.

Mairin had assumed that the first time the laird had kissed her it was an aberration. A mistake. After all, her mouth had been open. It stood to chance his tongue might slip inside if he, too, had his mouth open.

She frowned at the thought. Could Mother Serenity have been mistaken? Surely not. She was knowledgeable about all things. Mairin trusted her implicitly.

But the second time? It was no coincidence, because this time he’d commanded her to open her mouth, and like a simpleton, she’d gaped her mouth open and let him slide height over hers.

Just the memory had her shivering. It was …

It was undignified. That’s what it was. And she’d tell him so if he ever tried to do it again.

Feeling marginally better now that she had that matter squared away, she turned her thoughts to the pressing issue of marriage. Hers.

It was true that the laird filled a lot of the criteria that she and Mother Serenity had come up with. He was undoubtedly strong. He seemed awfully possessive of those he considered under his protection. It was true he had a large army. One had only to look at the numbers in the courtyard and how hard they trained.

The marriage would be equally, if not more, beneficial to him. Aye, she’d have his protection, and he had the might to defend a holding such as Neamh Álainn, but he gained wealth and land that was rivaled only by that of the king.

Did she trust him to hold such power?

She hadn’t meant to impugn his honor. She’d been angry, but she didn’t really believe that he was a dishonorable man. If she did, she’d be trying a lot harder to escape. Nay, she was giving serious consideration to his proposal. Or her proposal. Or whoever had issued it.

She hadn’t come into contact with many men in her lifetime. Only at an early age before she’d been taken to the abbey in the middle of the night and sequestered there for many years. But she remembered the fear and the absolute knowledge that her life would be immeasurably changed if she fell into the wrong hands.

She didn’t feel that fear with Ewan McCabe. Oh, she feared him, but she didn’t fear mistreatment from him. He’d had ample opportunity—and desire—to strangle her, and yet he’d held his temper each time. Even when he wasn’t convinced of her role in his son’s abduction and rescue, he hadn’t made a single move to harm her.

She was fast coming to the conclusion that he was all bluster.

The thought made her smile. The McCabe men did like to frown. But Alaric had stood with her even after muttering blasphemies against her and all women. Caelen … well, so far they had a mutual agreement to avoid each other. Now he frightened her. He didn’t much like her, and he didn’t care if she realized that or not.

Was she insane for considering marriage to the laird?

She stood by the window and watched as shadows darkened the rolling hills that surrounded the keep. In the distance, dogs barked as they brought in the sheep. The purple hue of dusk had settled over the land. Low to the ground, light fog rose, covering the hills like a mother tucking in her child for the night.

This would be her life. Her husband. Her keep. Her clan. No longer would she fear that at any moment she’d be found and forced to marry a brute of a man who cared naught for anything but the riches she’d bring with the birth of an heir.

She would have a life, one se’d nearly given up hope of ever having, and she’d have a family. Crispen. The laird. His brothers. His clan.

Oh, but the longing was fierce inside her.

She turned her eyes heavenward and whispered a fervent prayer. “Please, God. Let this be the right decision.”

CHAPTER 11

The lass was submerged in a full tub of water, head thrown back, eyes closed, and an expression of sheer bliss curved the contours of her face.

Ewan watched from the door, silent so he didn’t disturb her. He should make his presence known. But he didn’t. He was enjoying the unimpeded view far too much.

Her hair was pinned atop her head, but loose tendrils drifted down the slim column of her neck, clinging damply to her skin. His gaze drifted along the lines of those strands. He was particularly fascinated by the ones that rested on the curves of her breasts.

Bonny breasts she had. As bonny as the rest of her. She was all soft curves and lines, pleasing to the eye. She shifted, and for a moment he thought he was caught, but she never opened her eyes. She arched just enough that the pink tips of her nipples lifted through the water.

His mouth went dry. His cock went rigid and strained against his trews. He curled and uncurled his fingers, unsettled by the fierce reaction she stirred within him.

He was hard and aching. Want was fierce within him. There was nothing to prevent him from charging across the room, yanking her from the tub and laying her on the bed. She was his to take. From the moment she’d set foot on his lands, she was his. Whether she married him or not.

Still, the perverse part of his nature wanted her to come to him. He wanted her to accept her fate and bind herself to him of her own accord. Aye, the taking was far more satisfying when the lass was willing. Not that he couldn’t have her willing in a matter of seconds …

A frightened gasp echoed across the room. He frowned as he stared into her open eyes. He didn’t want the lass afraid of him.

She didn’t stay afraid for long.

Sparking with outrage, she bolted to her feet. Water sloshed over the side of the wooden tub and sluiced down her body, accentuating each of those delectable curves he had just been admiring.

“How dare you!”

She stood, trembling in the water, not a stitch of clothing to obstruct a complete view of her body. Ah, she was a delectable sight, spitting fury, her breasts thrust proudly out. Dark curls nestled at the apex of her legs, guarding the sweet mysteries that lay beneath.

And then, as if realizing she’d given him a lot more to look at by bolting to her feet, she let out a squeak and promptly dropped back into the tub. Both arms covered her chest and she hunched forward, hiding as much of herself as possible.

“Get out!” she roared.

He blinked in surprise and then grinned his appreciation of her bellow. She might be a slip of a thing, and she looked deceptively harmless, but she was a force to be reckoned with. Just ask his men, who were all understandably wary around her now.

She ordered Gannon, Diormid, and Cormac around relentlessly. At the end of the day he was treated to a list of complaints about their duties to guard—and placate—their mistress. Cormac had the idea that she should take over the training of their troops. Ewan thought she had a vicious streak and that she was merely retaliating over the fact that they’d been given the task of looking after her.

She was not above ordering around those who stumbled into her path either. And if questioned, she merely gave everyone that sweet, innocent smile and told them that according to their laird, she would soon be the mistress of the keep. Accordingly, it was their duty to take their instructions from her.

The problem was most of those instructions bordered on the absurd. She’d run everyone ragged for the last two days, and Ewan was here to tell her to cease. Father McElroy was due at any moment. One, she would give him her answer, and two, she would stop making his men look like haggard women by the end of the day.

It was shameful for warriors to whine as much as his men.

“I’ve already seen everything there is to see,” Ewan drawled.

A blush worked over her cheeks and she glared her disapproval at him.

“You shouldn’t have come in without knocking. ’Tisn’t proper.”

He lifted an eyebrow and continued to stare at her though he knew it discomfited her. The same demon that provoked her to drive his men to madness prompted him to give her a little of that back.

“You were sound asleep in the tub, lass. You weren’t going to hear an army if it passed through.”

She snorted and shook her head in denial. “I never sleep in the tub. Why, I could drown. That would be stupid, and I am never stupid, Laird.”

He grinned again but didn’t argue the fact that she had been soundly asleep when he’d entered the chamber. He cleared his throat and went on to the matter at hand.

“We need to speak, lass. ’Tis high time you give me an answer. The priest should be here at any moment. You’ve done enough mischief. ’Tis a serious matter we’ve to decide.”

“I’ll not speak to you until I’m out of the tub and dressed,” she said with a sniff.

“I could help you with the matter,” he said, without so much as flinching.

“That’s very considerate …” She ght off as she became aware of what he’d offered. Her eyes narrowed and she hugged her arms tighter around her legs. “I won’t budge until you leave this room.”

He sighed more to stifle the laughter that threatened than to show exasperation. “You have but a moment before I return. I suggest you make haste. You’ve kept me waiting long enough.”

He could swear she growled as he turned to walk out the door. He grinned again. She was proving to be a worthy bride and mistress to the McCabe clan. He might have expected a woman in her circumstances to be a frightened mouse, but she was as fierce as one of his warriors. He was looking forward to peeling back the many diverse layers she’d presented and getting to the woman underneath. The very beautiful, soft lass that he’d already seen glistening and wet.

Lord, but she was beautiful. And damn if he wasn’t eager to get her in front of the priest.

Mairin lunged from the tub and wrapped one of the furs tightly around her. Casting furtive glances over her shoulder, she stood in front of the fire as she hastened to dry herself enough that she could put her gown back on. It would be just like the laird to walk back in before she finished dressing.

Her hair still quite wet, she pulled her clothing on and then sat in front of the fire to dry and comb her hair. She shivered when the window fur fluttered against a particularly stiff burst of wind and the cooler air blew over her damp hair.

When the knock sounded, though she’d expected the laird, she jumped and turned to see the door open to admit him. His eyes raked over her like hot coals, and suddenly she didn’t feel a chill at all. In fact, it was decidedly warmer in her chamber now.

She stared silently, mouth dry, and, for the first time, without words. There was something different about him, and she wasn’t sure what, or that she wanted to know. He studied her—nay he wasn’t studying her. He was devouring her with his eyes. Like he was a hungry wolf closing in on a kill.

She swallowed at the image that thought invoked, and she covered her neck with her hand as if to protect her from his teeth.

He didn’t miss the gesture and amusement gleamed brightly in his eyes. “Why are you afraid of me now, lass? You’ve shown no fear of me from the beginning. I can’t imagine that I’ve done anything now to change that.”

“ ’Tis over,” she said quietly.

He cocked his head to the side and then he moved closer to her, settling his large frame on the small bench in front of the fire.

“What’s over, lass?”

“Time,” she muttered. “I’ve run out of time. I was a fool for not being better prepared. I waited too long, ’tis God’s truth. I should have selected a husband long before now, but it was so peaceful at the abbey. I was lured into a false sense of security. Mother Serenity and I always spoke of the future, but with each passing day, the future loomed ever nearer.”

eight="0em" width="1em" align="justify">He shook his head and she glanced down at him, puzzled by his refusal.

“You did just right, Mairin. You waited.”

Confused, she wrinkled her nose and asked, “What did I wait for, Laird?”

He smiled then, and she saw the arrogance etched in every facet of his face. “You waited for me.”

Oh, but the man knew how to ruin her mood. ’Twas the truth, she thought he did it apurpose. She sighed, for it did her little good to continue to deny his suit. She knew and he knew that she’d marry him. There was no other choice. But he wanted the words, so she’d give him the words.

“I’ll marry you.”

His eyes gleamed in triumph. She thought he’d tease her some more, perhaps tell her it was high time she’d come to her senses. But he did none of those things. He kissed her.

One moment he was a respectable distance away. The next he was so close that she was enveloped by his scent.

He took her chin and tipped it up so he could fit his mouth to hers. Warm—nay, hot—and getting hotter with each passing second, his lips moved over hers like velvet.

It was an impressive feat that he could kiss her and all her senses fled. For a man who was constantly reminding her to come to hers, he seemed to take great delight in making them flee again.

His tongue rasped across her lips, and when she kept them tightly closed, he turned light and coaxing. He teased the seam of her mouth, licking and then nibbling. This time he didn’t order her to open her mouth, and despite her determination not to do so, she found herself sighing in utter bliss.

As soon as her lips parted, his tongue slipped inside, probing and stroking with delicate precision. Each caress incited a deep response, one that she was at a loss to explain. How could kissing make her breasts go tight and other parts of her body tingle and swell until she felt near pain?

He evoked a restless, cagey feeling that made her want to squirm right out of her skin. And when he raised his hands to slide them up her arms, she shivered, trembling all the way down to her toes.

When he pulled away, she was dazed and she stared at him in absolute confusion.

“Ah, lass, what you do to me,” he whispered.

She blinked rapidly as she attempted to gather herself. This was a time when she needed to be solemn and sage. Offer something about how their marriage would be strong and based on mutual respect.

But none of those things would form in her mind. Quite simply, his kisses reduced her to a blithering idiot.

“You don’t kiss the correct way,” she blurted out.

Mortified that this was all she could manage to say, she closed her eyes and prepared herself for his censure.

When she reopened them, all she saw was deep amusement. The man looked fair to laughing. Her eyes narrowed. It was obvious he needed instruction on the matter.

“And what, pray tell, is the correct way?”

“You must keep your mouth closed.”

“I see.”

She nodded to reinforce her statement. “Aye, there are no tongues involved in kissing. ’Tis undignified.”

“Undignified?”

Again she nodded. This was going better than she imagined. He was taking her instructions quite well.

“Mother Serenity told me that kisses are for the cheek or the mouth, but only in very intimate situations. And they shouldn’t last overlong. Just enough to convey the proper emotion. She never mentioned anything about a tongue. It can’t be proper for you to kiss me and stick your tongue inside my mouth.”

His lips twitched in a suspicious manner. He even put a hand to his mouth and rubbed firmly for several moments before he lowered it and said, “And your Mother Serenity is an authority on kissing, is she?”

She nodded vigorously. “Oh aye. She told me everything I needed to know for the eventuality of my marriage. She took her duty very seriously.”

“Perhaps you should instruct me personally on this kissing matter,” he said. “You could show me the way of it.”

She frowned but then remembered this was the man she was taking as her husband. In that case, she supposed it was entirely proper, and even expected, that she should offer instruction in the matter of loving. It was very decent of him to be so understanding and to offer to correct the matter immediately. Why, they were going to get along quite well.

Feeling much better about her impending nuptials, she leaned forward and pursed her lips, prepared to show him the way of it.

As soon as her lips touched his, he grasped her shoulders and hauled her even closer.

She felt swallowed up. Consumed. Like he was absorbing her very essence.

And despite her stern lecture and patient instruction, he used his tongue.

CHAPTER 12

“Wake up, my lady! ’Tis your wedding day.”

Mairin pried open her eyes and groaned at the sight of the women crowding into her small chamber. She was exhausted. Her late-night escape attempts and the time spent pacing her chamber had caught up to her. After last night’s conversation with the laird, she’d fallen into a deep sleep.

One of the women threw aside the furs covering the window, and sunlight speared through Mairin’s eyeballs with razor-sharp clarity.

Her moan was louder this time and it set off a titter of laughter through the room.

“Our mistress doesn’t sound excited to be marrying our laird.”

“Christina, is that you?” Mairin grunted out.

“Aye, lady. ’Tis I. We’re having hot water brought up for a bath.”

“I bathed last evening,” Mairin said. Perhaps it would gain her an extra hour of sleep.

“Oh, but a bath on your wedding morning is a must. We’ll wash your hair and work sweet-smelling oils into your skin. Maddie makes them herself and they smell divine. The laird will be most appreciative.”

The laird wasn’t uppermost on her mind this morning. Sleep was.

Another giggle raced around the room, and Mairin realized that once again, she’d given voice to her thoughts.

“And we’ve brought you a gown to be married in,” another of the women said.

Mairin looked over, trying to remember the name of the young woman who was beaming excitedly at her. Mary? Margaret?

“Fiona, my lady.”

Mairin sighed. “Sorry. There are so many of you.”

“I took no offense,” Fiona said cheerfully. “Now would you like to see the gown we’ve fashioned for you?”

Mairin shoved herself up to her elbow and stared through bleary eyes at the assembled women. “Gown? You sewed a gown? But I agreed to marry the laird only last evening.”

Maddie didn’t look the least bit apologetic. She smiled broadly at Mairin as they held up the gown for her to see. “Oh, we knew it was only a matter of time before he persuaded you, lass. Aren’t you glad we began sewing? It took two solid days of round-the-clock sewing, but I think you’ll be happy with the result.”

Mairin stared at the beautiful creation in front of her. Tears crowded to the surface, and she blinked to keep them at bay. “ ’Tis beautiful.” And it was. It was rich green brocade and velvet with gold-trimmed sleeves and hem. Around the bodice were intricately embroidered designs with gold threads that shone in the sunlight.

“I’ve never seen anything to rival it,” she said.

The three women beamed back at her. Then Maddie went over to the bed and yanked the covers back. “You don’t want to keep the laird waiting. The priest arrived at dawn this morning, and the laird is quite impatient to have the ceremony done.”

For the next hour, the women washed, scrubbed, and rubbed Mairin from head to toe. By the time she was done with the bath and laid out on the bed for them to work in the scented oils, Mairin was perilously close to falling into unconsciousness.

They’d washed and dried her hair and then brushed it until it crackled and shined. It fanned over her back, satiny fine. Mairin had to admit, the women knew how to make a woman feel her best on her wedding day.

“All done,” Christina announced. “ ’Tis time for the dress and then you’re off to your wedding.”

Just then a knock sounded on the door and Gannon’s voice boomed through the heavy wood.

“The laird wants to know how much longer.”

Maddie rolled her eyes and then went to yank open the door, though she kept her body between Gannon and the inside of the room so he wouldn’t look on Mairin’s nakedness.

“You tell the laird we’ll have her down as soon as we can. These things can’t be rushed! Would you have the lass not looking her best on her wedding day?”

Gannon muttered an apology and then backed away, promising he’d relay the news to the laird.

“Now then,” Maddie said as she returned to Mairin. “Let’s get this gown on you and then downstairs to the laird.”

“They’ve been at it for hours,” Ewan muttered. “What could possibly take so long?”

“They’re women,” Alaric said, as if that explained everything.

Caelen nodded and turned up his mug to drain the last of his ale.

Ewan sat in his high-backed chair and shook his head. His wedding day. There was a marked difference in this day and the day he’d wed his first wife.

He hadn’t thought of Celia except in passing for quite some time now. Some days he had difficulty conjuring the image of his young wife to mind. The years had passed, and with each year, she’d faded more from his memory.

He’d been a much younger man when he’d wed Celia. She, too, had been young. Vibrant. He remembered that much. She always had a ready smile. He’d considered her a friend. They’d been childhood playmates before training had become his life. Years later, their fathers had seen fit to ally themselves and marriage between the clans made sense.

She’d borne him a child in their second year of marriage. By the time the third year rolled around, she was dead, his keep was in ruins, and his clan nearly decimated.

Aye, their wedding day had been a joyous occasion. They’d feasted and celebrated for three days. Her face had been alight with joy, and she’d ed the entire time.

Would Mairin smile? Or would she come to their marriage with those same wounded eyes she’d had when she arrived?

“Where is she, Papa?” Crispen whispered beside him. “Do you think she changed her mind?”

Ewan turned to smile at his son. He stroked his hand over the lad’s hair in a reassuring manner. “She’s just getting dressed, son. She’ll be here. She gave her word, and as you know, she puts great store in keeping her word. Women like to look their best on their wedding day.”

“But she’s beautiful already,” Crispen protested.

“That’s true,” Ewan said. And it was. The lass wasn’t just beautiful, she was enchanting. “But they like to look extra special for just such occasions.”

“Does she have flowers? She should have flowers.”

Ewan almost laughed at the look of consternation on Crispen’s face. His son was more nervous than he. Ewan wasn’t nervous. Nay, he was just impatient and ready to have it done with.

“You don’t have flowers?” Crispen asked.

Ewan looked down at his son. Crispen looked so appalled that Ewan frowned.

“I didn’t give flowers any thoughts. But perhaps you’re right. Why don’t you go take up the matter with Cormac.”

Across the room, Cormac had evidently been listening in on the conversation. He looked as appalled as Crispen had, and he hastily took a step back. But Crispen was too fast and was immediately in front of the man, demanding that they go collect flowers for Mairin.

He shot Ewan a disgruntled look as he allowed himself to be tugged from the great hall.

“What the hell is taking them so long?” Caelen demanded. He shifted restlessly in his chair and spread out his long legs as he slouched lower. “This is a waste of a good training day.”

Ewan chuckled. “I wouldn’t consider my wedding day to be a waste of time.”

“Of course you wouldn’t,” Alaric said. “While the rest of us are out sweating, you’ll be enjoying a warm, sweet lass.”

“He’ll be sweating,” Caelen said slyly. “Just not in the way the rest of us are.”

Ewan held up his hand to staunch the bawdy talk before it caught on with the rest of the men. The last thing he needed was his prospective bride to walk in and be embarrassed to her toes.

Just then Maddie burst in, her cheeks rosy and her chest heaving as she tried to catch her breath.

“She’s coming, laird!”

Ewan glanced over at the priest, who was enjoying a mug of ale, and motioned him up. As Mairin rounded the corner, the entire hall stood in acknowledgment of her presence.

Ewan was momentarily struck dumb. The lass wasn’t just beautiful. She was utterly magnificent. Gone was the shy, somewhat awkward young woman and in her place was a lady with all the bearing of a descendent of royalty. She looked just like the princess she was.

She swept into the room, head held high, a look of serene calm on her face. Her hair was partially pulled into a knot just above her nape and the rest hung loose to her waist.

There was such a regal air about her presence, that Ewan suddenly felt unworthy.

Crispen burst into the room holding a wad of flowers so tightly that the stems were already limp and the flowers wilting as he flopped them about. He ran to Mairin and thrust them into her hands, petals scattering to the floor.

Her expression completely changed. Gone was the super-composed, cool woman. Her eyes warmed and she smiled tenderly down at his son. She leaned down to brush a kiss across his brow.

“Thank you, Crispen. They’re absolutely beautiful.”

Something twisted in the region of Ewan’s heart.

He stepped forward until he was just behind Crispen. He reached down to frame his hands over his son’s shoulders as he stared into Mairin’s blue eyes.

“The priest is waiting, lass,” he said gruffly.

She nodded then glanced down at Crispen. “Will you come with us, Crispen? After all, you’re very much a part of this ceremony.”

Crispen puffed out his chest until Ewan thought he might burst. Then he slipped his hand into Mairin’s. Ewan reached for the other, and she handed her flowers off to Maddie before sliding her fingers through his.

It felt right. Here was his family. His son and the woman who would be mother to him. He tugged her toward the waiting priest, as his two brothers came forward to flank Ewan and Mairin.

There in the protective hold of his family, he and Mairin exchanged their vows. She never wavered. Never gave any hint that she was anything but willing. She stared the priest in the eyes and then turned to look into Ewan’s, as she recited her promise to honor and obey.

When the priest declared them married, Ewan leaned in to seal their troth with a kiss. She hesitated a mere moment and then whispered, “You will not use your tongue!”

His laughter rang out over the hall. His clan looked eagerly for the source of his laughter, but he had eyes only for his new bride.

He found her lips, so sweet and warm, and took his time as he ravaged her mouth. And, oh aye, he used his tongue.

When he broke away, she glared ferociously up at him. He grinned and reached for her hand, pulling her against him as they turned to face his clan. Then he held her hand high in the air and presented her as the new mistress of the keep.

The roar of his clan echoed so loudly in the hall that Mairin winced. But she stood proudly beside Ewan, a delighted smile curving her lips.

One by one, his men came to kneel and offer their pledge to their new mistress. At first, Mairin looked baffled by the show of loyalty. She twitched as if she would have liked to disappear through the flooring.

Ewan smiled as he watched her come to terms with her new position. She’d led a sequestered life. Now, for the first time, she was stepping into her destiny.

When the last soldier bowed before Mairin, Ewan took her elbow to guide her toward the table where Gertie and the kitchen maids were busy setting out the trenchers for the wedding feast. In the corner, a small group of talented musicians gathered to play a set of lively tunes. After the feast there would be dancing and merriment until the bedding ceremony at sundown.

Ewan shared his place at the head of the table with Mairin. He wanted her seated beside him in a position of honor.

He called for a chair to be placed adjacent to his, and when the trenchers were laid and the first course served, he offered her the choicest bites from his serving.

Seemingly delighted by his regard, she allowed him to offer her tender bites of meat from his dagger. She smiled up at him so dazzlingly that for a moment he forgot to breathe. Shaken by the effect she had on him, he nearly knocked over the mug containing ale.

Alaric and Caelen sat on either side of Ewan and Mairin. After the last of the people sitting at the main table had been served, Alaric rose from his seat and asked for silence. Then he held up his goblet and glanced down at Ewan and Mairin.

“To the laird and his lady!” he called. “May their marriage be blessed with health and many sons.”

“Or daughters,” Mairin muttered so low that Ewan almost didn’t catch it.

His mouth twitched as he listened to the rest of his clan roar agreement. He raised his goblet and inclined his head in Alaric’s direction.

“And may our daughters all be as beautiful as their mother.”

Mairin gasped softly and turned shining eyes on Ewan. Her smile lit up the entire room. To his utter shock, she suddenly bolted up, grabbed his face between her hands, and gave him a lusty kiss that curled his toes.

The room erupted in a chorus of cheers. Even Caelen looked amused. When Mairin pulled away, Ewan was hard-pressed to remember his own name.

She scooted closer to him, pressing her soft curves to his side. His body reacted immediately. He was instantly hard, and his current position prevented him from shifting to alleviate the growing discomfort. If he adjusted, he would unseat Mairin, and he didn’t want her to move away from him.

So he sat and grew more uncomfortable bupted inment.

Midway through the feast, the flute player began a particularly merry tune. It was lively and fast and dozens of feet began a rhythmic tapping on the floor. Mairin clapped her hands together and let out a sound of pure delight.

“Do you dance, lass?” Ewan asked.

She gave a wistful shake. “Nay, there was never dancing in the abbey. I’m probably clumsy at it.”

“I’m not exceedingly graceful myself,” Ewan said. “We’ll muddle through it together.”

She gifted him with another smile and impulsively squeezed his hand. He made a sudden vow that no matter how foolish he looked, he would dance with her as long as she wished it.

“Laird, Laird!”

One of his watchmen ran into the hall, sword drawn. He searched Ewan out and immediately set out for the end of the table. Ewan rose, his hand automatically going to Mairin’s shoulder in a protective gesture.

The soldier was out of breath when he came to a halting stop a mere foot from where Ewan stood. Alaric and Caelen shot up from their seats and waited for the news.

“An army approaches, Laird. I received word but a moment ago. They carry Duncan Cameron’s banner. They come from the south and were two hours from our border at last report.”

CHAPTER 13

Ewan cursed long and hard. Alaric’s and Caelen’s expressions grew stormy, but something else glimmered in their eyes. Anticipation.

Ewan found Mairin’s hand again and gripped it so tight that she winced from the pain of it.

“Gather the troops. Assemble in the courtyard. Wait for me,” Ewan commanded.

He started to drag Mairin from the table when Alaric called out. “Where in the hell are you going, Ewan?”

“I have a marriage to consummate.”

Openmouthed, Mairin found herself hauled toward the stairs. Ewan bounded up the steps, and she was forced to run to keep pace, or be dragged behind him.

He shoved her into his chamber and slammed the door behind him. She watched in befuddlement as he began stripping out of his clothing.

“Take off your dress, lass,” he said, as he tossed aside his tunic.

Completely bewildered, Mairin sagged onto the edge of the bed. He wanted her to undress? He was busy pulling his boots off, but it was her duty to undress him. He didn’t have the right of it at all.

Thinking to instruct him on his error, she rose and hurried over to stay his progress. For a moment, he halted and stared at her as if she were daft.

“ ’Tis my duty to undress you, Laird. ’Tis the wife’s duty,” she corrected. “We’re married now. I should undress you in our chambers.”

Ewan’s gaze softened and he reached out to cup her cheek. “Forgive me, lass. This time will be different. Duncan Cameron’s army approaches. I don’t have the time to woo you with sweet words and a soft touch.” His forehead creased and he grimaced. “It will have to be a quick bedding.”

She looked up at him in confusion. Before she could question him further, he began tugging at the laces on her dress. When he didn’t immediately have the bodice undone, he pulled impatiently.

“Laird, what are you doing?” she stammered out.

She gasped in surprise when the material ripped and fell over her shoulders. She tried to lift the dress back up, but Ewan pushed downward, leaving her in only her undergarments.

“Laird,” she began, but Ewan hushed her by taking her shoulders and pressing his lips to hers. As he maneuvered her to the bed, he managed to divest her of the rest of her clothing.

His trews hit the floor, and she felt something hot and hard brush against her belly. When she looked down and saw what it was, her mouth gaped open and she stared in horror at the jutting appendage.

He captured her chin and directed her gaze upward again. As his mouth covered hers, he lowered her to the bed until she lay on her back and he hovered just above her, his arm pushed into the bedding to prevent his full weight from bearing down on her.

“Spread your legs, Mairin,” he rasped against her lips.

Confounded by the entire experience, she relaxed her thighs and then squeaked in dismay when Ewan’s hand slipped between her legs and stroked his thumb through the delicate folds.

His mouth slipped down the side of her neck. Chill bumps raced over her shoulders and to her breasts as his lips fastened against the flesh just below her ear. It was oddly exciting and it stirred breathless feelings of … she wasn’t sure how to describe any of it. But she liked it.

“I’m sorry, lass.” His voice was heavy with regret. “I’m so damned sorry.”

She frowned as she gripped his shoulders. His body moved over hers, covering her with his heat and hardness. What was he sorry for? It didn’t seem appropriate to offer apology in the middle of loving.

She felt him, hard as steel, as he probed between her thighs. It took a moment for her to realize what he was probing with. Her eyes flew open and her fingers dug into his skin.

“Ewan!”

“Forgive me,” he whispered.

He thrust forward, and the hazy euphoria she’d experienced just moments before disappeared as pain tore her in half when he ripped through her body.

She cried out and pounded his shoulders with clenched fists. Tears slipped down her cheeks and he swept them away with his mouth as he rained kisses over her face.

“Shhh, lass,” he crooned.

“It hurts!”

“I’m sorry,” he said again. “I’m so sorry, Mairin. But I can’t stop. We must finish this.”

He moved tentatively, and she hit him again. He’d torn her in two. There was no other explanation for it.

“I haven’t torn you apart,” he said gruffly. “Be still a moment. The pain will go away.”

He withdrew, and she flinched as her body tugged tightly at him. Then he pushed forward again, and she whimpered at the fullness.

A shout in the hallway made her go rigid. Ewan cursed and then began moving again. She lay there in shock, unable to process or put a name to the uncomfortable sensation that welled within.

Once, twice, and once again he pushed into her, and then he tensed against her and held himself so still that she could hear the violent thud of his heartbeat.

Just as suddenly, he rolled away, and she felt sticky wetness between her legs. Not having any idea what it was she was supposed to do next, she lay there trembling as her husband hurried to dress.

After he pulled on his boots, he returned to the bed and slipped his arms underneath her. Maybe now he would offer the tender words a husband was supposed to say after loving. But he simply picked her up and cradled her in his arms for a moment. Then he carried her to the bench in front of the fire and set her down.

She blinked and watched as he stripped the linen from the bed and examined the bloodstain in the middle. Curling it into his hand, he glanced over at her, his eyes brimming with apology.

“I must go, lass. I’ll send one of the women to tend you.”

He left the chamber, shutting the door behind him, and Mairin stared after him in complete disbelief over what had just transpired.

A moment later, Maddie bustled in, sympathy burning bright in her eyes.

“There, there, lass,” Maddie said, as she gathered Mairin in her arms. “You look too pale, and your eyes are much too wide. I’ll have hot water brought up to you. ’Twill soothe your aches and pains.”

Mairin was too mortified to ask Maddie any of the questions swirling around her mind. She sat there, numb to her toes, while the battle cry rose from the courtyard and then the sound of hundreds of horses thundering across the land drowned out everything else.

Then her gaze flickered across the discarded dres on the floor. He’d torn her dress. Her wedding dress. After every other bewildering thing that had occurred this day, the dress shouldn’t have upset her so. But tears welled in her eyes, and before she could call them back, warm trails trickled down her cheeks.

Maddie left her to replace the linens on the bed. She bustled around the chamber, though it was clear she had no task to do.

“Please,” she whispered to Maddie. “I just want to be alone.”

Maddie eyed her dubiously, but when Mairin reinforced her request, Maddie reluctantly turned away and left the chamber. Mairin stayed on the bench for a long moment, her knees huddled to her chest as she stared into the dwindling fire. Then she got up to wash the stickiness from her body. When she was done, she crawled onto the bed and huddled underneath the clean linens, too tired and distraught to worry over Duncan Cameron’s army.

Ewan led his men over the hilltops and down the steep southern boundary of their lands, his two brothers flanking him. Another rider had ridden furiously to give Ewan an update. Cameron’s men were approaching without delay.

There would be no time to stage a surprise attack, and in truth, Ewan had no desire for one. He rode with the might of his entire army, save only a contingent that remained behind to guard the keep. There was no doubt they’d be outnumbered, but the McCabe soldiers made up in might what they lacked in numbers.

“They’re just over the next hilltop, Laird,” Gannon said as he drew up his horse in front of Ewan.

Ewan smiled. Revenge was at hand.

“Let’s greet Cameron on the next rise,” Ewan said to his brothers.

Alaric and Caelen raised their swords into the air. Around them, the shouts of their men echoed sharply across the land. Ewan spurred his horse and they raced down the hill and began the climb to the next. When they topped the rise, Ewan called a halt as they stared down at the assembled might of the Cameron army.

Ewan scanned the Cameron soldiers until finally his gaze lighted on his prey. Duncan Cameron sat high in his saddle, dressed in full battle regalia.

“Cameron is mine,” he shouted to his men. Then he glanced sideways at his brothers. “ ’Tis time to deliver a message.”

“Kill them all?” Alaric asked mildly.

Ewan’s nostrils flared. “Every last one.”

Caelen rotated his sword in his hand. “Then let it be done.”

Ewan gave the battle cry and urged his horse down the hill. Around him, his men took up the cry and soon the valley echoed with the thunder of horses. The McCabes descended like avenging hellfire, their savage cries enough to frighten the souls of the dead.

After a faltering hesitation, when it wasn’t clear whether they meant to attack or run, Cameron’s men surged forward. divmet in a clash of swords at the bottom of the hill. Ewan slashed through the first two men he encountered with a deft swing of his sword. He could see the surprise—and the fear—in the eyes of Cameron’s men. They hadn’t expected to encounter a fighting force such as Ewan’s, and Ewan derived unholy satisfaction from that fact.

He glanced quickly to check on his men. He needn’t have worried. Caelen and Alaric were cutting a swath through Cameron’s men while the rest of his soldiers dispatched their foes with expert speed and agility.

Ewan set his sights on Cameron, who still hadn’t dismounted his horse. He stood back, watching his men and barking orders. Ewan single-mindedly cut a path through Cameron’s men until only two soldiers stood between him and Cameron.

He dispatched the first with a slice through the man’s chest. Blood gleamed crimson on his sword as he swung it around to meet the last obstacle to his goal. The soldier glanced warily at Ewan and then back at Cameron. He raised his sword as if to meet Ewan’s advance, but at the last moment he turned and fled.

Ewan’s lips curled into a satisfied smile at the sudden fear in Cameron’s eyes.

“Get off your horse, Cameron. I’d hate to spill the blood of a steed as fine as he.”

Cameron raised his sword, gathered the reins in his other hand, and kicked his horse forward. He charged at Ewan, letting out a bloodcurdling cry.

Ewan deflected the blow and twisted his sword, lifting Cameron’s right out of his hands. It went sailing through the air and landed with a sickening thud into one of the fallen bodies a short distance away.

Ewan spun to meet the next charge, but Cameron never slowed. He spurred his horse to faster speeds and raced across the terrain. Away from his men and from the battle.

As Ewan turned to battle another foe, he snapped his teeth together in fury. Coward. Bloody coward. He’d deserted his men and left them all to die while saving his own arse.

Ewan gave the order for his men to finish it, and he began working his way back toward his brothers. The Cameron soldiers were woefully outmatched.

The remaining commander of Cameron’s ill-fated army evidently came to the same conclusion. He yelled retreat, and his men didn’t just retreat. They fled.

The commander, unlike Cameron, wasn’t a coward. He didn’t flee. He urged his men to beat a hasty retreat and he fought valiantly at their rear, offering his protection—as pathetic as it was—so they could escape to safety.

Ewan signaled his men to give chase, and he turned his sights on the commander.

When Ewan bore down on him, he saw the resignation on the older man’s face. Ewan raised his sword and stalked forward. The commander took one step back, then brought his sword up, prepared to battle to the death.

Ewan swung his sword in a great arch and the blades met with a rounding clang. The older man was weakening. He already had a wound and he was losing blood. On Ewan’s second strike, he knocked the sword from his opponent’s hand and it hit the ground with a clatter.

Death stared back at Ewan from the depths of the man’s eyes. The commander knew it and accepted it as only a warrior could. He sank to his knees and bowed his head in front of Ewan, in acknowledgment of defeat.

Ewan stared down at him, his throat working against the anger that swirled so fierce within him. Had this been what his father had done just before Cameron cut him down? Had his father fought to the bitter end? Or had he known, as this man knew, that defeat was inevitable?

For a long moment, Ewan held his sword above his head, and then he slowly lowered it and looked around at the dying battle. Cameron’s men were scattered across the landscape. Some dead. Some dying. Some fleeing on foot, while others ran their horses into the ground to escape Ewan’s soldiers.

He whistled for his horse, and the commander looked up, surprise glittering in the eyes that had just been shadowed by imminent death.

When Ewan’s horse obediently stopped a mere foot away, Ewan reached back for the sheet bearing Mairin’s virgin blood. He spread it out like a banner, the ends blowing in the wind. Then he wadded it into his hand and thrust it into the commander’s face.

“You will take this back to Cameron,” Ewan said through gritted teeth. “And you will bear my message.”

The commander slowly took the linen and then nodded his acceptance of Ewan’s dictate.

“You will tell Duncan Cameron that Mairin Stuart is now Mairin McCabe. She is my wife. The marriage has been consummated. Tell him that Neamh Álainn will never be his.”

CHAPTER 14

By the time Ewan and his men rode back into the courtyard, it was well past midnight. They were dirty, bloody, tired, but jubilant over such an easy victory.

A celebration would ensue, but Ewan didn’t feel like celebrating. Duncan Cameron had escaped Ewan’s retribution and it burned like sour ale in his belly. He wanted the bastard on the end of his sword, now not only because of what he’d done eight years before, but because of what he’d done to Mairin.

He gave orders to his men to increase the watch. There was much to be done in light of his marriage to Mairin. The keep’s defenses would have to be strengthened, and new alliances, such as one with the McDonalds, were more important than ever.

Even with all of that weighing down on him, his primary thought lay with Mairin. He regretted the haste in which he’d bedded her. He didn’t like guilt. Guilt was for men who made mistakes. Ewan didn’t like the idea of making mistakes or admitting his failures. Aye, but he’d failed the lass and he was at a loss as to how to make it to her.

He took the time to bathe in the loch with the other men. If it weren’t for the fact that a sweet lass lay in his bed, he’d have crawled beneath the covers in his boots and not worried over the mess until morning.

After washing the dirt and blood from his body, he quickly dried and mounted the steps to his chamber. Eagerness drove him. Not only did he want to show the lass a little tenderness, but he burned for her. Before, he’d only tasted of her sweetness. Now he wanted to feast on it.

He quietly opened his chamber door and stepped inside. The room was cloaked in darkness. Only the coals from the fire gave light as he crossed to the bed. She was nestled in the middle of the bed, her hair spread out like a veil of silk. He slid one knee onto the bed and leaned over her, prepared to wake her, when he saw the lump on the other side of her.

Frowning, he peeled back the cover to see Crispen nestled in her arms, his head laying on her bosom. A smile eased his frown when he saw how she had both arms wrapped protectively around him. The lass had taken her role as Crispen’s new mother very seriously. They were tucked in as tight as two kittens on a cold night.

With a sigh, he eased down beside her, resigning himself to the fact that he wouldn’t awaken his wife with kisses or touches this night.

He moved in close until her back was cradled against his chest. Then he curled one arm around both her and Crispen, as he buried his face in Mairin’s sweet-smelling hair.

It was the fastest he’d ever fallen asleep in his life.

He was careful not to wake Mairin or Crispen when he rose just a few hours later. He dressed in the darkness and got his boot caught on something as he tried to walk toward the door. He reached down and picked up the offending material and realized it was Mairin’s dress that she’d worn when she wed him.

Remembering that he’d torn it in his haste to bed her, he stared down at it for a long moment. The image of Mairin’s wide, shocked eyes and the hurt reflected in them made him frown.

It was just a dress.

Curling it in his hand, he took it with him as he made his way below stairs. Even at the early hour, the keep was already stirring with activity. Caelen and Alaric were just finishing eating and looked up when Ewan entered the hall.

“Marriage has turned you into a slugabed,” Caelen drawled. “We’ve both been up for an hour.”

Ignoring his brother’s jibe, Ewan took his seat at the head of the table. One of the serving women hurried out with a trencher of food and set it in front of Ewan.

“What the hell are you holding, Ewan?” Alaric asked.

Ewan glanced down to see he was still carrying Mairin’s dress tightly clenched in his hand. Instead of answering Alaric, he called the serving girl back.

“Is Maddie about yet?”>

“Aye, Laird. Would you like me to fetch her?”

“At once.”

She dipped a curtsy and hurried out to do his bidding. Mere moments later, Maddie hurried in.

“You called for me, Laird?”

Ewan nodded. “Aye.” He thrust the dress toward the woman, and with a surprised look, she took it. “Can you repair it?”

Maddie turned the material over in her hands, examining the place where the material had rent.

“Aye, Laird. ’Twill only take a needle and thread. I could have it done in no time.”

“See that you do. I’d like for your mistress to have it whole again.”

Maddie smiled, and her eyes sparkled with a knowing look that annoyed him. He scowled at her and motioned her away. Still grinning, she tucked the dress under her arm and left the hall.

“You tore her wedding dress?” Caelen smirked.

“You certainly have a way with the wenches,” Alaric said, shaking his head. “You haul her up the stairs for perhaps what was the fastest consummation on record, and you tear her wedding dress in the process.”

Ewan’s nostrils flared. “She’s not a wench. She’s your sister now and you should speak of her with respect as your mistress and wife to your laird.”

Alaric held up his hands in surrender and leaned back in his chair. “No offense was intended.”

“Touchy, isn’t he?” Caelen said.

Ewan’s glare silenced his youngest brother. “We have much to do today. Alaric, I need you to be my emissary to McDonald.”

Both Alaric and Caelen shot forward in their seats, incredulity etched on their faces.

“What? Ewan, the bastard tried to abduct your son,” Alaric growled.

“He denies knowledge of his soldier’s actions and vows that his soldier acted on his own accord. The soldier is dead now,” Ewan said flatly. “He won’t be a threat to my son ever again. McDonald wants an alliance. ’Tis to his advantage to call us friend. I’ve denied him until now. But his lands would join ours to Neamh Álainn. I want you to make it happen, Alaric.”

“So be it,” Alaric said. “I’ll leave within the hour.”

Alaric strode from the hall to prepare for his journey. Ewan quickly finished his meal and then he and Caelen quit the hall and went to where his men were training.

They stood in the courtyard, watching as the other soldiers sparred and went through ttraining exercises.

“ ’Tis imperative that Mairin be under constant guard,” Ewan said in a low voice to Caelen. “Duncan Cameron won’t give up just because I’ve wed her. There is much to be done, and Mairin must remain inside the keep under careful watch.”

Caelen shot Ewan a wary glance. “Don’t think to saddle me with such a chore. She’s your wife.”

“She’s the future of our clan,” Ewan said in a dangerously soft voice. “You would do well to bear that in mind when you tell me what you will and won’t do. I expect your loyalty to me to extend to her.”

“But a nursemaid, Ewan?” Caelen asked in a pained voice.

“All you have to do is keep her safe. How hard can that be?” Ewan asked. He motioned to his senior commanders when they finished the current round of sparring.

He instructed Gannon, Cormac, and Diormid on his expectations that Mairin be watched over at all times.

“As you wish, Laird. She won’t like it much,” Gannon said.

“I’m not concerned with what she won’t like,” Ewan countered. “My concern is keeping her safe and with me.”

The men nodded their agreement.

“There’s no need to alarm her. I don’t want her to feel unsafe on my land. I want her guarded well but I want it to appear that ’tis just the way of things.”

“You can count on us to keep Lady McCabe safe, Laird,” Cormac vowed.

Satisfied that his men understood the importance of keeping close watch on Mairin, Ewan summoned his messenger and penned a missive to the king informing him of his marriage to Mairin and requesting the release of her dowry.

For the first time in many years, hope beat a steady rhythm in his chest. Not for vengeance. Nay, he’d always known that the day would come when he would repay the wrongs done to his clan. With Mairin’s dowry his clan would prosper once again. Food would be plentiful. Supplies would be on hand. They would cease eking out their existence under spartan conditions.

Despite Ewan’s intention to spare a moment to speak with Mairin—he wasn’t entirely sure about what—the day passed in a blur of activity. He’d thought to gauge her mood and offer reassurance that Duncan Cameron’s men had been dispatched. Aye, she’d feel better and more secure, and she damn sure wouldn’t doubt his ability to protect her or his keep any longer.

An incident with his men prevented Ewan from dining with Mairin, and by the time he trudged up the stairs to his chamber, he was tired, but at least he was clean after a dip in the loch.

He nudged the door open to see that she was already abed, her soft, even breathing signaling her slumber. He started forward, intent on waking her, when h saw that once again, Crispen was snuggled against her. He sighed. Tomorrow he would make it a point to tell her that Crispen was to sleep in his own chambers across the hall.

He never got the chance to make his point. From the moment Mairin awoke, he never seemed to gain the opportunity to speak with her. Toward afternoon, he grew impatient and issued a direct summons for her to appear before him.

When it went unanswered, he sent Cormac to fetch her, since Diormid was guarding her. Cormac returned with the news that Mairin was visiting the cottages of the other women and would speak to her laird later.

Ewan scowled, and Cormac seemed uncomfortable telling his laird that his bride had refused him.

Clearly they were going to have to discuss matters far more important than where his son slept. Namely, the idea that she had the right to refuse a direct order from Ewan.

He made it a point to eat dinner with Mairin that evening. She looked tired and nervous. Her gaze kept darting toward him when she thought he wasn’t looking, as though she feared him lunging across the table and hauling her to his chamber.

He sighed. He supposed it wasn’t an unreasonable fear given what had occurred on their wedding day. Some of his irritation fell away. The lass was skittish. It was up to him to allay her fears and soothe her worries.

Protection was something he could readily offer. His loyalty to the woman he called wife would be unwavering. She’d never want for anything he could provide as long as he lived. Those were things that the warrior in him readily embraced. But things like tenderness and understanding? Sweet words meant to soothe away worries? The mere idea appalled him beyond measure.

His thoughts must have been expressed on his face because Mairin sent him a startled look and then she immediately rose and excused herself from the table. Without waiting for his permission to leave, she murmured something to Crispen. The lad stuffed his mouth full of food and hastily shoved away from the table. He took her hand and they left the hall in the direction of the stairs.

Ewan’s eyes narrowed as he realized just what it was she was doing. She was purposely taking Crispen into their bed in an effort to avoid Ewan. If he weren’t so annoyed, he might have been impressed by her craftiness.

He himself pushed away from the table and rose with a nod to Caelen. He’d rather go off to war than go up those stairs and face a situation with his new wife that he had no inkling of how to resolve.

A good start would be to issue a stern lecture on obeying his orders. After that, he would simply command her to cease being so skittish around him.

Feeling confident about his plan of action, he went up to his chamber and opened the door. Mairin whipped around, surprise written in her eyes.

“Is there something you need, Laird?”

He lifted an eyebrow. “Can I not retire to my own chamber?”

She flushed and gathered ng pen to her skirts. “Aye, of course. You don’t usually come to bed so early. That is, I hadn’t expected you to …”

She trailed off, her blush deepening. She pressed her lips firmly together as if refusing to say another word.

He couldn’t resist teasing her. “I hadn’t realized you were so familiar with my sleep habits, lass.”

Her blush disappeared and she glared her displeasure.

Determined to set her straight on several issues, he crooked his finger at Crispen, and when he grudgingly separated himself from Mairin and approached his father, Ewan put his hands on Crispen’s shoulders.

“Tonight you’ll sleep in your own chamber.”

When Mairin would have protested, he silenced her with a stern look. Crispen also wanted to argue, but he was too disciplined for that. Most of the time.

“Aye, Papa. May I kiss Mama good night?”

Ewan smiled. “Of course.”

Crispen hurried back over to Mairin and allowed her to sweep him into a hug. She kissed the top of his head and then squeezed him tight. Crispen returned and stood solemnly in front of Ewan.

“Good night, Papa.”

“Good night, son.”

Ewan waited until his son had left the room before turning back to Mairin. Her chin went up and defiance sparked in her eyes. She was preparing for battle. The thought amused him but he smothered the smile that threatened. It was God’s truth, he’d smiled more since her arrival than he had in his life.

“When I issue you a summons, I expect you to heed it,” he said. “I expect—nay, I demand—obedience. I won’t accept defiance from you.”

Her mouth took on a pinched look. At first he thought he’d frightened her again, but on second look, he saw she was furious.

“Even when your demands are ridiculous?” she asked with a sniff.

He raised an eyebrow at that. “My asking you to present yourself to me is ridiculous? I had matters to discuss with you. My time is valuable.”

She opened her mouth and then promptly shut it again. But she muttered something under her breath that he didn’t catch.

“Now that we have that matter resolved, while I appreciate your devotion to my son, he has his own chamber that he shares with other children of the keep.”

“He should sleep with his mother and father,” she blurted.

“Aye, there will be times when that is indeed the case,” Ewan agreed. “But right after our marriage is not one of them.”

“I fail to see what being newly married has to do with it,” she muttered.

He sighed and tried to rein in his impatience. The lass was going to be the death of him.

“ ’Tis hard to bed my wife if my son is sharing the bed with us,” he drawled.

She looked away and twisted her hands in front of her. “If ’tis all the same to you, I’d rather not have you … bed me.”

“And how do you plan to become pregnant, lass?”

Her nose wrinkled and she cast him a cautious but hopeful look. “Perhaps your seed has already taken root. We should wait to see if that is the case. ’Tis truth you’ve no skill at loving, and ’tis obvious I’ve none as well.”

Ewan’s mouth gaped open. He was sure he hadn’t heard correctly. No skill? His mouth closed then fell open and then he snapped it shut with the force of his incredulity.

She shrugged. “ ’Tis a well-known fact that a man is either skilled in matters of loving or matters of war. ’Tis obvious that fighting is your skill.”

Ewan winced. The little wench was shredding his manhood. His cock positively shriveled under her criticism. Anger warred with exasperation until he saw the tremble of her lower lip and the trepidation in her eyes.

He sighed. “Ah, lass, ’tis true I bedded you with all the skill of a stable boy with his first woman.”

Her cheeks flushed a delicate pink, and he kicked himself for his coarseness. He dug his fingers into his hair.

“You were a virgin. ’Tis unlikely anything I could have done would have made it good, but there is a lot I could have done to make it more pleasant.”

“I would have liked pleasant,” she said wistfully.

He cursed. How badly had he hurt her? He knew he hadn’t given her the pleasure or patience she deserved. At the time, all he’d known was that he had to consummate the marriage with all haste. There hadn’t been time to seduce a shy virgin. Only now his shy virgin had turned into a stubborn, unwilling wife.

“Mairin, the marriage wasn’t valid until I bedded you. I couldn’t risk having something happen before I had the chance to bed you. If you’d been captured, Cameron could have taken you and petitioned to have our marriage set aside. He would have bedded you and got you with child to strengthen his claim.”

Her lip trembled and she cast her eyes downward to where her fingers twisted nervously at her skirts.

He took advantage of her momentary distraction and closed in. He reached down and took her hands in his. She was small and soft. Delicate. The idea that he’d been too rough, that he’d hurt her, unsettled him.

He should suffer no guilt for taking his wife. Her duty was to provide him pleasure, however he saw fit to take it. But the memory of her tear-filled eyes was a fist to his gut.

“It won’t be like that from now on.”

She raised her eyes to his and her brow wrinkled in confusion. “It won’t?”

“Nay, it won’t.”

“Why?”

He tempered his irritation and reminded himself that she needed a gentle hand right now.

“Because I’m quite skilled in loving,” he said. “And I plan to show you.”

Her eyes widened. “You do?”

“I do.”

Her mouth rounded, and she tried to take a step back. He held her hands tightly in his and pulled her back until she bumped into his chest.

“In fact, I intend to show you how very skilled I am.”

“You do?”

“I do.”

She swallowed and stared into his eyes, her own, wide and confused. “When do you plan to do this, Laird?”

He bent and swept his mouth over hers. “Right now.”

CHAPTER 15

Mairin put her hands on Ewan’s chest to steady herself, else she would have fallen under his relentless assault on her senses. She sighed and leaned farther into his kiss, not even protesting when his tongue slid sensuously over her bottom lip as he coaxed her to open.

The man might not be skilled in loving, but she could drown in his kisses. Maybe he’d be amenable to continue kissing and forego the rest.

“Kiss me back,” he murmured. “Open your mouth. Let me taste you.”

His words slid like velvet over her skin. She shivered as her breasts plumped and swelled. An ache began deep in her body, in parts that didn’t bear mentioning. How was he able to incite such a response when all he was doing was kissing her?

His palms glided up her waist and then up over her shoulders and up her neck until he framed her face. The heat from his touch branded her. It felt as though she’d have permanent marks on her cheeks from his fingers, and yet he was exquisitely gentle, the tips glancing over her skin like tiny winged creatures.

Unable to deny the probing of his tongue, she relaxed her mouth and allowed him to slide inside. Warm and rough. So very sinful. It was a decadent senson, one she was certain she should deny herself, but she couldn’t.

The temptation to taste him back was strong. So strong that it beat an incessant rhythm at her temples, in her mind, at her very core. Shyly she brushed her tongue over his lips. He groaned and she immediately pulled back, afraid she’d done something wrong.

He hauled her right back and captured her mouth once again in a ravenous fashion that left her breathless.

“Do it again,” he whispered. “Taste me.”

From the sound of it, he hadn’t disliked her touching him with her tongue. Tentatively she licked over his lip again. He relaxed his mouth against hers, opening so she had access.

Feeling braver, she boldly pushed forward, hot and wet. She shivered from the sheer carnality of something so simple as a kiss. She felt naked and vulnerable, as if she was spread out and underneath him as he slaked his lust over and over. Only this time she burned for him. She wanted him over her, his body covering hers. She felt twitchy and anxious, like her skin was too tight.

“This time I’ll undress you as I should,” he whispered, as he walked her back toward the bed.

Her mind was dim and she was slow sorting through her muddled thoughts. She frowned, knowing he didn’t have the right of it again. Was she forever going to have to instruct him?

“I should undress you. ’Tis my duty,” she said.

He grinned. “ ’Tis only your duty when I say it is. Tonight I fully intend to undress you and enjoy every moment. You deserve a slow wooing, lass. This will be your wedding night all over again. If I could go back and do it all differently, I would. But I’ll give you the next best thing. I’ll give you tonight.”

The promise in his voice shook her to her toes. She blinked as he lowered her dress over one shoulder and then followed a line down her neck and over the curve of her arm with his lips.

Each inch of her skin he uncovered, he kissed, sliding downward until her dress fell away, leaving her nearly bare under his gaze. Each layer pooled at her feet, until she was naked.

“You’re beautiful,” he husked, his warm breath whispering over the chill bumps that dotted her flesh.

He cupped one breast, palming it so the pale globe plumped upward. Her nipple contracted and beaded so tight that it sent tiny shards of lightning through her belly.

Then he bent and flicked his tongue over the erect nub, and her knees promptly buckled. She landed on the bed with a soft bounce, and he chuckled lightly as he followed her down.

With a gentle nudge, he had her on her back and he loomed over her, so big and strong. He stared so unabashedly at her nakedness that she reached for the covers, something, anything, to make her not feel so vulnerable.

He stayed her hand with his, his gaze tender as he met hers. 0em"y, don’t cover yourself, lass. You’re an exquisite sight. Unrivaled by any woman I’ve ever seen.” He trailed a finger over the curve of her waist to her hip and then back up again until he rubbed over her taut nipples. “You’re skin is as soft as the finest silk. And your breasts … they remind me of ripe melons just waiting to be tasted.”

She tried to suck in air but her lungs burned from the effort. Each breath felt tight. She panted shallowly, feeling more light-headed by the minute.

He backed away from the bed, and for a moment, she panicked. Where was he going? But he began shedding his clothing in a much more impatient manner than he’d divested her of hers. He kicked off his boots and then ripped off his tunic and trews, tossing them across the room.

Looking at him was inevitable. She couldn’t have glanced away if she wanted. There was something intensely mesmerizing about the rugged, work-honed contours of his body. Scars, some old, some much newer, traced paths over his flesh. There wasn’t a single bit of spare flesh to be seen. Muscles tightened his chest and even his abdomen, where so many men went soft with age. Not her warrior. This was a man honed in the fires of battle.

With a nervous swallow, she dropped her gaze to the juncture of his legs, curious to see the part of him that had caused her such pain before. Her eyes widened at the sight of him jutting so hard and … big. She began backing up toward the bed before she even realized what she was doing.

“Don’t be frightened,” he murmured, as he lowered himself over her. “I won’t hurt you this time, Mairin.”

“You won’t?”

He smiled. “I won’t. You’re going to like it.”

“I will?”

“Aye, lass, you will.”

“All right,” she whispered.

He kissed her lips, warm and so tender. It was a ridiculous notion, but he made her feel so very protected and cherished. She now had two very conflicting views on loving because this … this was very nice.

He continued to kiss her, sliding his mouth down the line of her jaw and then lower to her neck and the tender flesh just below her ear. He paused a moment and sucked wetly before grazing his teeth over her pulse point.

“Oh!”

She felt him smile against her neck, but he never removed his mouth. Instead he trailed lower to her chest until he was precariously close to her breasts. Remembering her reaction when he put his tongue on her nipple, she found herself arching into him.

He didn’t tease, and for that she was thankful. She was strung so tight that she feared what was going to happen to her. His lips closed around one nipple and he sucked hard. Her back bowed and her hands flew to grip his hair. Oh saints, but this was a wondrous sensation.

He suckled, in turns hard, and then gentle and rhythmic. His tongue circled sensitive flesh, and his teeth nipped ever so lightly, coaxing the bud to an even harder point.

“Sweet. So sweet,” he said, as he moved his mouth to her other breast.

She sighed, though the sound came out more as a garbled utterance than a breathy exclamation. The chill of the chamber no longer bothered her. She felt rather like she’d been lying in a meadow on a warm summer day, allowing the sun’s rays to melt her to her bones.

Aye, boneless was an apt description.

As he suckled at her breast, his fingers glided down her belly, caressing for a moment before he carefully worked his way down to the juncture of her thighs. The moment his finger slid through her folds, she tensed.

“Shhh, lass. Relax. I’m only going to bring you pleasure.”

His finger found a particularly sensitive spot and he began to rub lightly and then rotate in a circular motion. She gasped and then squeezed her eyes shut as she was bombarded by the most intense pleasure. Just as he’d promised.

There was a curious tightening as her body drew up. Her muscles clenched. Precarious. That’s how she felt. Like she was about to fall off a very high peak.

“Ewan!”

His name fell from her lips, and in the recesses of her blurry mind, she realized this was the first time she’d used it.

He released her nipple and her hand tightened in his hair. The she realized she was still clutching his head with a death grip. She let go and let her hands fall to the bed. But she needed to grab something.

He pressed his tongue to her midline and slowly worked a damp trail to her belly. Her stomach heaved as her breaths came faster. He traced a lazy trail around her navel and then to her utter shock, he went lower, moving his body down the bed as he worked ever closer to the place where his fingers had caressed.

He wouldn’t. Surely such a thing wasn’t at all decent.

Oh, but he did.…

His mouth found her heat in a lusty, carnal kiss that made every muscle in her body twitch and convulse as if she’d been struck by lightning.

She should tell him he shouldn’t. She should tell him he couldn’t. She should offer instruction on the proper way to do things, but dear heaven, she couldn’t think anything at all beyond don’t stop.

Please don’t stop.

“I won’t, lass,” he murmured against her most intimate flesh.

Her legs had gone stiff and unyielding around him, and he gently forced them back apart.

“Relax.”

She tried. Oh, but she tried, but his mouth was making her daft. And then his tongue found her, so hot and erotic. A wash of indescribable pleasure soared through her belly as he lapped at her entrance. Her vision blurred and she twisted her fingers into the covers until they were bloodless and all sensation fled.

She had no control of her body any longer. She arched mindlessly, and her legs shook, the tremors working to her thighs until she was a mass of quaking flesh.

“Ah, you’re ready for me, lass.”

His voice deepened to a hoarse, almost desperate tone. She chanced a look down to see him staring at her, his eyes bright and savage looking.

“I am?” she breathed.

“Aye, you are.”

He moved up her body with speed that surprised her. He cupped her bottom with one hand and settled his body between her legs. She could feel him, hot and unbelievably hard, nestled against her opening.

Then he leaned down and fused his mouth to hers. This time she didn’t hesitate, nor did she think to instruct him on the proper way of kissing. She opened her mouth and devoured him before he ever had the opportunity to demand she did so.

“Hold on to me,” he rasped out between hot, open-mouthed kisses.

She wrapped her arms around his broad shoulders and dug her fingers into his back. She kissed him. She tasted him. She absorbed him, breathing him in with each gasp for air.

Before she even realized he had moved, he had lifted his hips and slid inside her the barest of inches. She stretched to accommodate him and then wondered how she’d been able to do so.

He kissed her again and then rested his forehead to hers, their eyes so close, all she could see was the thin ring of green that surrounded the dark pupils.

“Relax,” he said again. “I won’t hurt you.”

She raised her lips to meet his. This time their mouths met in a delicate dance, the tenderest of touches. “I know.”

And she did know. Somehow, she knew that this was different. There was no rush. No unpleasant shock to her senses. Her body melded to his, surrendering to his power and his need. To her need.

His hips moved forward with infinitesimal slowness. She opened around him as he slid deeper. The fullness overwhelmed her, but it wasn’t pain or surprise that rocked her body.

“Almost there,” he whispered.

Her eyes widened as he went even farther and then he stopped, lodged so deeply within her that she couldn’t breathe. He surrounded her, gathering her in his arms, holding her close as he began moving, a slow, seductive rhythm that had her mad with want.

The muscles in his back rippled and bulged. Her fingers danced across his flesh in a fr, seducc pattern as she sought purchase. Something to anchor herself with when she was adrift in a storm.

His movements increased, faster and more forceful. Their sighs caught and mingled in the air heavy with the scent of their loving.

“Wrap your legs around me,” he directed. “Hold me tight, lass.”

She wrapped her entire body around him until she was sure they were so inexorably entwined that they’d never come apart.

The burning sensation increased until she stirred restlessly, frantic for … release. Breathing hurt, so she didn’t, and her chest protested, but she held on, reaching for something she had no sense of.

And then she came apart, unraveling like the threads in an unfinished tapestry. She screamed, or tried to, but Ewan’s mouth closed over hers, and he swallowed her frantic cry.

She had no control of her body. She couldn’t think. Could only feel, helpless to do anything but lie in Ewan’s arms as he murmured soft words against her ears.

Utterly bewildered by what had occurred, she fixed unfocused eyes on her husband as an expression of agony creased his face. He gave one more mighty thrust, seating himself deeply within her body. Then he slumped over her, pressing her into the mattress as he gave her his seed.

She nestled her face into the hollow of his throat, so sated and completely boneless that she considered staying in bed for the next year. Ewan rested over her for a long moment before finally easing his weight from her and rolling to the side.

He gathered her into his arms and stroked her hair. Then he pressed a kiss to her temple and let his cheek rest against the side of her head.

Her befuddled mind couldn’t make sense of what had just happened. Only one thing struck strongly in her mind.

“Ewan?” she whispered.

It took him a moment to respond. “Aye, lass?”

“I was wrong.”

He stirred, rubbing his face against her cheek. “What were you wrong about?”

“You’re very skilled at loving.”

He chuckled and then hugged her tighter to him. Yawning broadly, she snuggled deeper into his arms and closed her eyes.

CHAPTER 16

When Mairin awoke, she was momentarily disoriented. She blinked away the fuzziness. Her head still felt muggy but her body, while only a little stiff and sore from her bruises, was surprisingly warm and sated. Limp, like she’d enjoyed a prolonged soak in a steaming tub of water.

Light perced through the window that no longer had the fur covering it, and the sun’s height told her she’d slept far later than she’d intended.

Gertie wouldn’t be pleased, and Mairin would have to wait for the noon meal. For that matter, it might be noon already.

The night came back to her in a rush. Heat centered low in her abdomen and scorched higher until her cheeks were flaming. She sat up, then realized she was completely nude. She grabbed the bed coverings and clutched them to her chin, then dropped them in disgust.

She was alone in the bedchamber. No one was going to see her. Still, she scrambled from the bed and hastily donned her clothing.

Her hair was in disarray and a quick feel of her cheeks told of the flush that was still there. She probably looked like a hot coal.

She’d actually told the laird that he wasn’t skilled at loving. Aye, he’d showed her differently. He’d done things that she hadn’t imagined two people ever doing. His mouth … and his tongue.

She flushed all over again and closed her eyes in mortification. How could she ever face him again?

Mairin adored Mother Serenity. She trusted her above all others. The abbess had been good to Mairin. And patient. Aye, she’d had the patience of Job when it came to instructing Mairin and answering all the questions Mairin had plied her with. But it was becoming increasingly clear that perhaps the abbess had left out a lot about loving. And kissing.

Mairin frowned as she pondered just how different the teachings of the older woman had been from the startling reality of bedding. If the abbess had been wrong about kissing … and loving … what else could she be wrong about? Mairin felt suddenly ignorant and woefully uninformed.

Never one to stew in her own ignorance, she decided that she would just have to seek out instruction on the matter. Christina … well, she was too young. And unmarried. Gertie frightened Mairin with her sharp retorts. Besides, she’d probably just laugh at Mairin and shoo her out of the kitchens. Which left Maddie. She was older and certainly more worldly. Plus, she had a husband, so surely she could offer insight into loving and who had the wrong of it.

Feeling better about her plan, she brushed the tangles out of her hair and braided it so she didn’t look like she’d just spent the night indulging in loving. Then she headed out of her chamber and descended the stairs.

To her chagrin, Cormac was waiting in the hall. As soon as she entered, he rose and fell in step beside her. She shot him a disgruntled look, but he merely smiled and offered her greeting.

Deciding not to offer him any encouragement, she instead pretended he wasn’t there and went toward the kitchens to brave Gertie’s wrath. When she got to the doorway, the ruckus within made her pause.

There was an awful clanging and banging of pots and Gertie’s voice rose above the din as she screeched her displeasure at one of the kitchen maids.

Maybe it wasn’t the time to try to cajole a late breakfast from the cranky cook.

“Uh, Cormac?”

“Aye, my lady.”

“Is it close to time for the noon meal? I confess I slept over late this morning. I didn’t at all sleep well last night,” she rushed to say. She didn’t want to give Cormac the idea that her lateness was due to anything else.

He smothered a smile with the back of his hand and then summoned a more serious expression. She glared at him for his thoughts were plainly written in his smug look.

“He probably boasted to everyone,” she muttered.

“Your pardon, my lady?” Cormac said as he leaned forward.

“Nothing.”

“ ’Tis approaching the noon meal. Perhaps another hour at most. If you like, I’ll ask Gertie for a plate if you’re hungry now.”

Her stomach growled at the suggestion of food, but a wary glance at the kitchen when another crash sounded decided the matter for her.

“Nay, I can wait. I have other things to do.”

She set off at a determined pace, hoping Cormac would take the hint and leave off. But he dogged her steps, keeping pace with her as she descended the steps of the keep.

She was greeted by a blast of sunshine that warmed her despite the chill. She hadn’t remembered the shawl that Maddie had left for her, and she was loath to go back up the stairs to fetch it. Unless …

She turned and gifted Cormac with a sweet smile. “I left my shawl in the laird’s chamber and there is still a chill to the air. Would you mind ever so much fetching it for me?”

“Of course not, my lady. It wouldn’t do for you to take a chill. The laird would be most unhappy. Wait right here and I’ll have it for you in just a moment.”

She stood demurely until the moment he disappeared back into the keep and then she set off at a brisk walk, careful to avoid the courtyard. On the way, she stopped two women and asked if they knew where she could find Maddie. After being told that Maddie was in her cottage after her morning duties, Mairin hurried toward the row of neat cottages that lined the left side of the keep.

When she reached Maddie’s door, she took a deep breath and knocked. A moment later, Maddie opened the door and seemed surprised to see Mairin standing there.

“My lady! Is there something I can help you with?”

Mairin glanced over her shoulder to make sure Cormac wasn’t breathing down her neck.

“There is. That is, I hoped there is something you could instruct me on,” Mairin said a low voice. “In private.”

Maddie stepped back and motioned Mairin inside. “Of course. Do come in. Would you like refreshment? I was warming some rabbit stew over the fire. My husband does like a nice hot bowl of stew for his luncheon, but he won’t be here to eat for a little while yet.”

Remembering her missed breakfast and her rumbling belly, Mairin sniffed appreciatively of the air and the wonderful smell emanating from Maddie’s kitchen.

“If ’tis not too much trouble. I did oversleep this morning,” Mairin said mournfully. Maddie smiled and gestured for Mairin to follow her into the small area that housed the hearth for cooking. “I heard Gertie was in quite a temper this morning.”

Mairin nodded. “ ’Tis the truth I feared for my life if I ventured in after missing the morning meal.”

Maddie pulled out a chair and ushered Mairin into it and then set about dishing up some of the stew into a bowl. She handed it to Mairin and then took her own seat across the table.

“Now, my lady, what is it you would like me to instruct you on?”

Before Mairin could open her mouth, a knock sounded at the front door. Maddie frowned but got up to see about the summons. A moment later she returned with Christina and Bertha, whose eyes rounded when they saw Mairin sitting at Maddie’s table.

“Oh, my lady,” Christina exclaimed. “We were just coming to see if Maddie knew of your whereabouts. Cormac has the entire keep in an uproar trying to find you.”

Mairin let out a sigh. “I persuaded him to fetch my shawl so I could seek Maddie’s advice about something. ’Tis a private matter, you see, and not appropriate for Cormac’s ears.”

Bertha grinned broadly. “Then we needn’t tell him where you are.”

Mairin nodded her appreciation and fully expected the two women to depart, but both sat down at Maddie’s table, and Bertha leaned forward in interest.

“What is it you wish instruction on, my lady? We’re all willing to help. You’re our mistress now.”

“Our lady said it was a private matter,” Maddie scolded.

Mairin nodded. “Aye. A delicate matter, indeed.”

Warmth traveled into her cheeks and she was sure her face was afire.

“Ah, a woman’s matter,” Bertha said knowingly. “You can tell us, lass. We’re very discreet.”

Maddie nodded her agreement while Christina looked on in puzzlement.

“Well,” Mairin began reluctantly. “Perhaps it would be better to gain more than one perspective on the matter. ’Tis the truth I’m a bit confused at the coflicting information. You see, Mother Serenity instructed me on the ways of loving.”

“Oh dear Lord,” Bertha muttered. “Lass, tell me you didn’t receive all your instructions from an aging abbess.”

Startled, Mairin stared back at the other woman. “Why aye, Mother Serenity is knowledgeable in all things. She wouldn’t lie to me. I think perhaps I may have confused some of her instructions. There were so many, you see.”

Maddie shook her head and made a tsking sound through her teeth.

“Tell us what you want to know, child. I can assure you that your Mother Serenity, while well intentioned, couldn’t possibly have told you the whole of it.”

“Well, she instructed me on kissing, and the laird—” She broke off, mortified at the idea of saying aloud what was in her thoughts.

“Go on.” This time Christina piped in and leaned forward, her eyes round with curiosity.

“Well, he used his tongue. Mother Serenity never said anything about the use of one’s tongue in kissing. She was quite explicit in the matter.”

Maddie and Bertha chuckled and exchanged knowing glances.

“Tell me, lass, did you enjoy the laird’s kisses?” Maddie asked.

Mairin nodded. “ ’Tis the truth I did, and I have to admit, I used my own. It was quite … breathless. I don’t understand it at all.”

“Kissing with tongues?” Christina’s eyes went wide.

Maddie frowned at Christina and then made a shooing motion with her hands. “Lass, you’re far too young for this conversation. Why don’t you go stand outside and keep watch for Cormac.”

Mairin noted Christina’s crestfallen look but she didn’t argue. Christina stood and left the room. Only when the sound of the front door closing reached them did Bertha and Maddie return their attention to Mairin.

“Is that all you were wanting to know?” Maddie asked.

Mairin shifted in her seat and wondered if she shouldn’t abandon the entire notion and return to the keep so Cormac could lecture her for her desertion.

“There now, lass,” Bertha said in a kindly voice. “Ask us what you want. We won’t be telling tales on you.”

Mairin cleared her throat. “Well, I might have told the laird that he was unskilled at loving.”

Both women looked so appalled that Mairin regretted blurting out that tidbit. Then they burst into laughter. They laughed so long and hard that they wiped tears streaming down their cheeks.

“And how did the laird take tis?” Maddie gasped out between wheezes.

“Not very well,” Mairin grumbled. “I did later tell him I was wrong.”

Bertha grinned. “Ah, you were, were you?”

Maddie nodded approvingly. “Proved you wrong, did he? You can’t hold your wedding day against him, lass. It was your first time. Not much he could have done would have helped in that regard. Better to get it done with and over, I say.”

“But he …”

“He what?” Bertha asked.

“It was indecent,” Mairin muttered.

Maddie stifled her laughter with a hand, but her eyes danced merrily. “But you liked it, aye?”

“Aye,” Mairin admitted. “He did things.…”

“What sort of things?”

“Well, he used his mouth.” Mairen leaned forward and whispered, “Down there. And on my …”

“Your breasts?” Bertha asked.

Mairin closed her eyes in mortification and nodded.

Both women chuckled and leaned back in their chairs.

“Sounds like the laddie has the right of it then,” Maddie said, approval firm in her voice. “You’re a lucky lass to have a skilled man in your bed. Not every woman does.”

Mairin frowned. “They don’t?”

Bertha shook her head. “Now don’t be telling anyone I told you so, but my Michael, well, it took him a few years before he developed any skill. If it weren’t for a few discussions with some ladies older than I, I’m not sure we would have ever gotten it right.”

“Oh, aye, ’twas the same with my Ranold,” Maddie said. “He was always in such a hurry. It wasn’t until I threatened to withhold my charms that he made an effort to work on his skills.”

Mairin’s head was spinning at the women’s chatter. Such intimate matters didn’t seem to bother the other two women whatsoever. Mairin on the other hand was ready for the earth to swallow her up.

Maddie reached across the table and put her hand over Mairin’s. She squeezed and offered Mairin a smile. “Let me give you some advice, lass. If you don’t mind an old woman offering it.”

Mairin slowly nodded.

“ ’Tis not enough for your man to be skilled in matters of loving. You need to have some skills yourself.”

Bertha nodded vehemently. “Aye, ȁtis the truth. If you keep your man satisfied in the bed chamber, he won’t have any cause to stray.”

Stray? Mairin looked at them in horror. “Are you suggesting that the laird wouldn’t be faithful?”

“Nay, of course we wouldn’t disparage the laird. But ’tis a fact, ’tis better to be safe than sorry. You want your laird to be well satisfied. Men are far more amenable when they’re sated from loving.”

Maddie slapped Bertha on the shoulder and laughed. “Aye, now that’s the truth. The best time to ask a boon is just after a rousing bout of loving.”

Amenable was good. Mairin liked the idea of that. And now that the disturbing thought of Ewan’s fidelity had entered her head, she couldn’t shake it. Surely he wouldn’t?

“What things should I know?” Mairin asked.

“Well, you said he used his mouth. You know, down there,” Bertha said with a twinkle in her eyes. “You can do the same to him, lass. ’Tis guaranteed to drive him wild.”

Mairin was sure her absolute ignorance was reflected in her expression. And her horror. She started to say something, but the image of what Bertha was describing hit her square between the eyes and she couldn’t shake it.

“How …?” She couldn’t even finish the question. What was she supposed to ask?

“You’ve shocked the lass,” Maddie said reproachfully.

Bertha shrugged. “No point in dillydallying around the point. The lass has to learn from someone. Her Mother Serenity certainly didn’t do her any favors.”

Maddie put her hand back over Mairin’s. “What Bertha means is that a man likes being kissed … down there. On his cock.”

Bertha snorted. “Tell her right, Maddie. A man likes to be suckled.”

Mairin was sure the blood leeched right out of her cheeks. Kissed? Suckled?

“You liked it well enough, didn’t you, lass?” Bertha asked. “A man is no different. He likes to be touched and caressed with a lass’s hands, mouth, and tongue.”

It was true enough that Mairin did enjoy Ewan’s touches. And his kisses. He was skilled with his tongue. Aye, she liked his tongue, even if he did indecent things with it.

“Putting my … my … mouth on his …” She couldn’t bring herself to say the word. “ ’Tisn’t decent, surely!”

Bertha rolled her eyes and Maddie laughed.

“There’s little decency to good loving,” Maddie said sagely. “If ’tis decent, it isn’t much fn.”

Bertha nodded, her lips compressed as her head bobbed up and down. “Nothing wrong with a nice, dirty romp.”

Mairin could scarcely believe what she was hearing. She was going to have to think on this matter. Before she could thank Maddie and Bertha and be on her way, a pounding on the door startled the women.

Maddie rose and went to the door, Mairin and Bertha right behind her. Mairin had a very good idea who was at the door, but when Maddie opened it, it was worse than Mairin had feared.

It wasn’t Cormac waiting to lecture her. Ewan stood with Caelen, arms crossed over his chest, a scowl darkening his features. Christina stood to the side, her eyes apologetic.

“Care to explain yourself?” Ewan demanded.

CHAPTER 17

Instead of answering her husband, Mairin turned to Maddie and Bertha and offered a polite curtsy. “Thank you both for your counsel.”

When she turned around again, Ewan was still glaring holes in her while Caelen looked annoyed that he’d been summoned on the errand to locate Mairin. She tried to walk past Ewan as she exited Maddie’s cottage, but he didn’t budge. She shoved but he was an immovable object.

Finally she stepped back. “You wished to speak with me, Laird?”

Ewan emitted a loud sigh and then took her arm in his not-so-gentle grasp. Mairin offered a wave to the women as Ewan hauled her along beside him. She stumbled and had to run to keep up, else she’d find herself dragged across the ground by her fuming husband.

She glanced over her shoulder to see Caelen following close behind. She shot him a disgruntled look in the hopes he’d disappear, but he didn’t look impressed with her silent demand for privacy.

Finally Ewan halted some distance from the cottages. He loomed over her like some avenging warrior out for blood. Though she tried to face him bravely, some part of her shrunk to a ridiculous size. He was angry. Nay, angry didn’t aptly describe his mood. He was furious.

It took him a few moments and repeated attempts before he was able to get his reprimand out. His mouth opened and snapped shut several times and he looked away as if collecting his temper.

She waited demurely, her hands folded together, and she stared up at him with wide eyes.

“Don’t even look at me with those doe eyes,” Ewan growled. “You disobeyed me. Again. I’ve half a mind to lock you in our chamber. Forever.”

When she didn’t respond to that threat, Ewan blew out his breath.

“Well? What explanation would you like to offer for sending Cormac on an erran and then promptly leaving his escort?”

“I needed to speak with Maddie,” Mairin said.

Ewan stared at her for a long moment. “That’s it? You disregarded not only my order but acted in complete disregard for your safety because you needed to speak to Maddie?”

“ ’Twas a delicate matter,” Mairin defended.

Ewan closed his eyes and his lips moved in silence. Was he counting? It made no sense to practice mathematics at such a time.

“And you couldn’t have had Cormac walk you to Maddie’s cottage?”

She looked at him in horror. “Nay! Of course not. It wasn’t a matter for a man to hear. ’Twas a private issue and one I had no wish to discuss in front of others.”

Ewan’s eyes rolled heavenward. “He could have waited outside the cottage.”

“He might have overheard through the window,” Mairin countered.

“My time is too valuable to spend scouring the keep every time you decide you need to have a private word with one of the women,” Ewan declared. “From now on, you’ll either have the escort of one of my brothers or my commanders. If you persist in your actions, you’ll be confined to your chamber. Is that understood?”

Caelen didn’t look any more pleased with Ewan’s dictate than she was. It was apparent he was appalled by the duty Ewan had charged him with.

“I said, is that understood?”

Mairin reluctantly nodded.

Ewan turned and pointed at Caelen. “You stay with Mairin. I have immediate matters to attend to.”

The annoyed look on Caelen’s face didn’t sit well with Mairin, so she stuck out her tongue at him as Ewan strode away in the direction of the courtyard.

Caelen crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Mairin. “Perhaps it would be best if you return to the hall for the noon meal.”

“Oh, but I’m not hungry anymore,” Mairin said cheerfully. “Maddie was kind enough to provide me with a bowl of delicious rabbit stew.”

Caelen scowled. “Then perhaps you should go up to your chamber and take a nap. A long nap.”

“Mairin! Mairin!”

Mairin turned in the direction of Crispen’s voice to see him running toward her with three other children trailing him.

“Mairin, come play with us,” Crispen said, tugging at her hand. “We’re having races and we need you to judge.”

She smiled and allowith.

Caelen sighed loudly and lengthened his stride to keep up with them, but Mairin didn’t pay him any attention. If he must watch over her at every turn, she would do her best to pretend he wasn’t there.

She laughed softly at the idea of pretending a man of Caelen’s size could possibly be overlooked. He was as fierce and as muscled as any of Ewan’s warriors, and he loomed over her like a giant tree.

Nay, she wouldn’t be successful in pretending he wasn’t following her, but she could ignore him at least.

A peek at his harried expression made unwanted guilt surge inside her chest. She frowned. She didn’t want to feel guilty. Not for wanting a bit of freedom now that she was away from the abbey.

But still, the guilt grew until she was wringing her hands in front of her as she followed Crispen and the other children to an area adjacent to the keep.

She stopped abruptly and whirled around, causing Caelen to nearly run into her. “I’ve decided to cooperate and allow you to escort me about the keep.”

Caelen merely raised an eyebrow in disbelief. “You expect me to believe you’re going to meekly submit to Ewan’s wishes?”

She shook her head mournfully. “I’ve been unfair. I offer my apologies. It isn’t your fault your laird is unreasonable. Nay, the fault lies with him. You’re only doing your duty. I should endeavor to make it easier and not harder for you. I’m well aware of the burden he has given you.”

If she expected him to refute the idea that she was a burden, she was sorely disappointed. He merely gazed at her with a bored expression.

“At any rate, I give my word that I won’t resort to trickery again,” she said solemnly.

She turned back to the children who were arguing over who got to race first. She waded into the fray, laughing and fending off overeager hands.

An hour later, she was exhausted. Who knew children could drain the life right out of a body? Mairin stopped in her pursuit of Crispen and bent over as she gasped for air in a decidedly unladylike fashion.

The screaming children surrounded her and she turned to find Caelen surveying the goings-on with something that looked very much like a grimace.

“I should make you chase them,” she called. “You’re supposed to be guarding me.”

“Guarding, not herding children,” came Caelen’s terse reply.

“I think we should attack him,” Mairin muttered.

“Oh, let’s do!” Crispen whispered.

“Aye, aye!” the children surrounding them chanted.

Mairin smiled as the evil thought coalesced. The image of the warrior on the ground begging for mercy would be a sight to behold.

“All right,” she whispered back. “But we must be stealthy about it.”

“Like warriors!” Robbie exclaimed.

“Aye, like warriors. Like your fathers,” she added.

The boys puffed out their chests, but the few girls who had assembled looked disgruntled.

“What about us, Mairin?” Gretchen, a girl of eight years, asked. “Girls can be warriors, too.”

“Nay, they can’t!” Crispen said in an appalled voice. “Fighting is for men. Girls are to be protected. My papa said so.”

The looks in the girls’ eyes were murderous, so to prevent a civil war among the children, Mairin gathered them all close. “Aye, girls can be warriors, too, Gretchen. Here’s what we must do.”

The huddled together and she whispered her instructions.

The boys weren’t happy with their role in the attack. The girls were delighted with theirs. After a quick recounting of their instructions, the girls broke away and skipped toward the keep. As soon as they were past Caelen, they halted and turned back to sneak up on him from behind. Caelen was too distracted by the crowd of rowdy boys approaching him from the front.

He looked suspiciously at Crispen and then over his head to Mairin. She smiled innocently and waited.

Caelen never knew what hit him. Screaming like banshees, the girls hit him from behind. They leapt on Caelen’s back and swarmed over him like a horde of locusts.

Shouting his surprise, Caelen went down amid a tangle of arms and legs and squeals of delight. The boys, not to be outdone, added their own war cries and leapt onto the pile.

After his initial surprise and much hollering and shouting, Caelen took his attack with grace. He laughed and wrestled with the children but was finally forced to cry mercy when the girls pinned him to the ground and demanded he surrender.

Caelen threw his arms up and laughingly offered his surrender. Mairin was astounded by the change in the warrior. She wasn’t sure she’d ever seen him smile, much less laugh with obvious enjoyment as he tussled with the children. She stared at the goings-on with an open mouth, shaking her head at how good Caelen was with the children. She’d imagined that she’d have to step in rather quickly to defend them against his anger.

The girls were quick to cry victory while the boys protested that they had been the ones to gain Caelen’s acquiescence.

“Caelen, Crispen said girls can’t be warriors, that ’tis the boys’ duty to be warriors and protect the girls,” Gretcen said in disgust. “But Mairin said that girls can be warriors, too. Who has the right of it?”

Caelen chuckled. “Crispen is right in that ’tis a warrior’s duty to protect his lady and those weaker. However, your mistress makes a very good case for a woman warrior. She may have us all begging for mercy before the month is out.”

“I think you speak the truth, brother.”

Mairin whirled around to see Ewan and his commanders standing a short distance away, looking in amusement at Caelen’s sound defeat at the children’s hands.

She swallowed nervously, sure she was about to be handed another stern lecture about her duties, but Ewan walked forward to pick up one of the children and give him a sound dusting off.

Gretchen beamed at Mairin as she sat on Caelen’s broad chest. “I want to be a warrior like our laird. Why, I beat up Robbie just last week.”

“Did not!” Robbie roared.

“Did so.”

To Mairin’s horror, Robbie flew at Gretchen, toppling her from Caelen’s chest. She needn’t have worried, however. The lass obviously hadn’t boasted in vain. She flipped Robbie over and was soon straddling him and holding his arms to the ground.

Mairin sighed and went to prevent an all-out war between the girls and the boys. Ewan got there at the same time she did and reached for Robbie as she bent over to pluck Gretchen off the struggling boy.

Pain seared through her side, and then to her shock, an arrow hit the ground right beside the children and embedded deeply into the soil. Why, it had passed just between her and Ewan!

She stared aghast, appalled at how close it had come to hitting one of the children. She whirled around to locate the offending archer but found herself toppled to the ground as Caelen dove over her.

“Leave off!” she exclaimed, as she beat at Caelen’s shoulder. “What on earth are you doing? See to the children.”

“Quiet!” he barked. “Ewan is seeing to the children’s safety.”

“This is inexcusable!” Mairin exclaimed. “How could they be so careless? The children could have been killed!”

Caelen covered her mouth and slowly moved his body from hers. He looked around and Mairin could see only Ewan with his arms full of children, as he, too, surveyed the area with sharp eyes. Gannon and Cormac each had a position over the remaining children and they lay still, awaiting their laird’s command.

Ewan cursed, and Mairin frowned at him for uttering blasphemies in front of the children. It was another thing she’d take up with him at first opportunity.

Ewan raised his head and bellowed an order. Soon the area swarmed with his men. The children were hustled back toward the kp under heavy guard, as Ewan stood and looked down at Mairin.

Caelen picked himself up from the ground and he and Ewan reached a hand down to slip under her arms. She was hoisted to her feet and she slapped at her skirts, shaking the dust off in a cloud.

Before one of them could do so, she reached down and yanked the arrow from the ground. Then she slapped it against Ewan’s chest, her fright giving way to fury.

“How could your men be so careless? They could have killed one of the children!”

CHAPTER 18

Ewan was every bit as furious over the incident as his wife, but he wasn’t about to allow her to chastise him in front of his men.

“You will be silent.”

Her eyes widened and she took a step back. Good, she was finally realizing her place. But then her eyes narrowed and she scowled ferociously at him.

“I won’t be silent,” she said in a low voice. “You must have a safe place for the children to play and run free. It won’t do for them to be this close to the courtyard if your men can’t control their aim.”

He took the arrow from her and examined the markings on it. Then he looked up at her again. “Until I know who is responsible, you will cease insulting my men, and me, by thinking we would allow such a thing to happen. You may return to the keep to see to the children. Cormac will escort you.”

Hurt flashed in her eyes, but she whirled around and hurried away, her skirts swinging in her haste.

He turned to Gannon, furious over the mishap. “You will find the man who shot this arrow and you’ll bring him to me. Not only could he have killed a child, he could have killed my wife.”

His fingers curled into a fist at the memory of how close the arrow had come to Mairin and himself. Though the arrow hadn’t struck high enough to have done serious damage to himself, to a lass Mairin’s size, it would have been deadly.

His gaze dropped to the ground where Mairin had stood just moments ago. He frowned and dropped to his knee, touching the soil with his fingers. His throat closed in and his heart began to pound. Blood darkened the dirt right next to her footprints. As he followed Mairin’s path away, he saw more drops.

“Sweet Jesu,” he murmured.

“What is it, Ewan?” Caelen asked sharply.

“Blood.”

He shot to his feet and stared after his wife’s retreating back. “Mairin!”

Mairin was nearly to the steps leading into the keep when Ewan’s roar stopped her ad in her tracks. She winced and turned around. The only problem was the world didn’t stop turning when she did.

She swayed precariously and blinked to try to bring everything back to rights. Odd, but her knees shook and felt suspiciously jamlike. Before she knew it, she found herself kneeling on the ground, looking at her husband bearing down on her like an avenging angel.

“Oh dear,” she murmured. “I’ve really angered him now.”

But he didn’t look angry. He looked … worried. He rushed to her and sank to his knees in front of her. Gannon stood just behind the laird, and he, too, looked very concerned. Even Caelen wore something other than his usual look of boredom. His brows were knit together, and he stared at her as if expecting her to react.

“Why are we kneeling on the ground, Laird?” she whispered.

“I need to take you up to our chamber, lass,” he said in a tone he might use with a child.

Her brow crinkled about the time pain stabbed through her side as if someone had prodded her with a hot iron. She clutched at her side and bobbled, but the laird caught her by the shoulders with gentle hands.

“But why? Surely you can’t …” She leaned forward and whispered urgently, “ ’Tis not the time for loving, Ewan. ’Tis broad daylight. Why, it isn’t much past the noon hour.”

He ignored her and then leaned forward and plucked her right off the ground. She landed with a thud against him, which sent another shard of pain through her side. She gasped and the world went a little watery as tears welled in her eyes.

“I’m sorry, lass,” he said gruffly. “I did not mean to hurt you.”

Perhaps it wasn’t a bad idea that he was taking her up to their chamber because it was God’s truth she was suddenly so tired that it was quite a task to keep her eyes open.

“If you would stop your shouting, I could go to sleep,” she said crossly.

“Nay, lass, don’t go to sleep. Not yet. I need you to stay awake until I can assess your injuries.”

He then shouted again, this time for someone to fetch the healer. Healer? She didn’t need a healer. What she needed was a nice long nap. And she told the laird so.

He ignored her and carried her into their chamber, where he laid her on the bed. She was prepared to close her eyes when he began tugging at her clothing.

Her eyes flew open and she smacked his hands. “What are you doing?”

Ewan looked grim as he stared down at her. “You’ve been hurt. Now let me take your clothing off so I can see where.”

She blinked. “Hurt?” Well, actually, there was a bad pain in her side.

“The arrow must have hit you,” he said. “There was blood on the ground where you stood. Do you hurt anywhere?”

“My side. It does ache something fierce, now that you mention it.”

When he moved his fingers up her side, she let out a whimper. He grimaced. “Bear with me. I’m sorry, but I have to see what we’re dealing with here.”

He took a knife from his belt and sliced a large opening in the side of her dress.

“You’re forever ruining my clothing,” she said mournfully. “Before long, I’ll have nothing to wear but my nightdress.”

“I’ll have a new dress fashioned for you,” he muttered.

That cheered her considerably as he made quick work of her clothing with his knife.

He rolled her to the side that wasn’t hurting and she felt him tense against her.

“Ah, lass, you’ve gone and gotten yourself shot by an arrow.”

She went rigid. And then she sputtered. “Gotten myself shot? More like one of your men shot me. I’d like to know who it is. I’ve a mind to take one of Gertie’s pots to his backside.”

Ewan chuckled. “ ’Tis not so bad, but you’re still bleeding. You’ll need stitching.”

She went completely still. “Ewan?”

“Aye, lass?”

“Don’t let them take a needle to me. Please. You said it wasn’t so bad. Can’t you clean it and bandage it?”

She hated the pleading in her voice. She sounded weak and silly, but the idea of a needle being plunged into her flesh was worse than an arrow slicing through her skin.

Ewan pressed his mouth to her shoulder and kept it there for a long moment. “I’m sorry, lass, but it has to be done. The cut is too deep and too open for bandaging. The wound needs to be cleaned and closed.”

“Will you … Will you stay with me?”

He stroked his hand down her arm and then back up and over her shoulder to her cheek. He pushed her hair away from her face and then his hand cupped her nape.

“I’ll be here, Mairin.”

CHAPTER 19

“What do you mean the healer isn’t here?” Ewan asked in disbelief.

Cormac had no lovfor telling his laird that the healer couldn’t be fetched. The dread was there to read on his face.

“Find our healer and bring her here,” Ewan said through clenched teeth.

“I cannot, Laird,” Cormac said with a heavy sigh. “The MacLaurens lost their healer and Lorna went to help deliver the laird’s babe. You gave her permission yourself.”

Ewan blew out his breath in frustration. Of course he had. Lorna was a skilled midwife and MacLauren had sent a frantic appeal to Ewan for help when his laboring wife had failed to bring forth a babe in a timely manner. At the time, he’d considered that if any of the McCabes needed the services of a healer, he himself would tend to the need.

Only now his wife needed stitching and it was God’s truth he had no liking for the chore.

“Bring me ale, as strong as you can find,” he murmured to Cormac. “You might need to ask Gertie where she stocks the blend we keep on hand for injuries and sedation. I need water, needle and thread, and something to bind her wound with. Be quick about it.”

When Cormac left, Ewan turned back to Mairin, who lay on the bed, her eyes closed. She was unnaturally pale and it lent an even more delicate look to her features.

He shook his head at the direction of his thoughts. The wound wasn’t serious. Certainly nothing she’d die of. Provided he could prevent her from taking a fever.

Gannon and Diormid stood close to the bed, hovering anxiously. While Ewan waited for Cormac to bring the supplies, he turned to his men and spoke in low tones.

“I want every person in the keep questioned. Someone must have seen something. I refuse to believe this was an accident. My men are far too careful. Find out who was practicing with bows and arrows.”

“You think someone tried to harm the lass?” Gannon asked in disbelief.

“That’s what I’d like to find out,” Ewan said.

“I’m sure no one meant to kill me,” Mairin said in a bleary voice. “ ’Twas an accident, that’s all. You may tell your men I forgive them.”

“What do you want me to do, Ewan?” Caelen asked, his features drawn into a tight line.

“Remain with me. I’ll need help holding her.”

Cormac rushed in, his arms full and his fingers clamped tight around a flask of ale. Ewan took the items from Cormac and set them next to the bed.

He didn’t want anyone touching Mairin, but he also recognized the impossibility of him being able to do everything. If he was going to do the stitching—and if the healer wasn’t able to, no one else was going to do it but him—then he’d need one of the others to hold her steady and make sure he didn’t do more damage than good.

He looked up at Cormac. “Go make sure the children are all right. Make sure that Crispen is attended to. He’ll worry when he hears what happened to Mairin. Have Maddie and the other women keep him below stairs until I am done.”

Cormac bowed and hurried from the chamber, leaving Ewan and Caelen with Mairin.

Taking the flask in hand, Ewan sat on the bed close to Mairin’s head and trailed a finger over her cheek.

“Lass, I need you to open your eyes and drink this.”

Her eyelids fluttered and her unfocused eyes found his. He helped her lean up enough so that she could put her lips to the opening. As soon as the liquid hit her mouth, she flinched away, her face drawn into an expression of intense dislike.

“Are you poisoning me?” she demanded.

He held back the chuckle and put the flask close to her mouth again. “ ’Tis ale. You’ll need it to help relax you. It will also help the pain.”

She bit her lips and turned worried eyes back to him.

“Pain?”

He sighed. “Aye, lass. Pain. I wish it weren’t so, but the stitching up will cause you pain. If you drink this down, you won’t feel as much. I promise.”

“You likely won’t feel anything at all after a good taste of that stuff,” Caelen muttered.

She wrinkled up her nose and sighed fatalistically as she allowed Ewan to put the ale to her mouth again. To her credit, she drank it down with only minimal gagging and choking. When he lowered the flask, her skin had a greenish hue that made him worry the ale would come back up with the least provocation.

“Deep breaths,” he said. “In through your nose. Let it settle.”

She flopped back onto the pillow and promptly let out a very unladylike belch followed by a series of hiccups.

“You didn’t hear that,” she said.

Caelen arched an eyebrow and shot Ewan a look of amusement. “Hear what?”

“You’re a good man, Caelen,” she said dramatically. “You aren’t near as fierce as you look, though if you’d smile on occasion, you’d be quite handsome.”

Caelen scowled at that.

Ewan waited several minutes and then leaned over to stare down at Mairin. “How do you feel, lass?”

“Wonderful. Ewan, why are there two of you? I can assure you that one is entirely enough.”

Ewan smiled. “You’re ready.”

“Am I? What am I ready for?”

Ewan dipped one of the cloths into a basin of warm water that Cormac had prepared. After wringing it out, he carefully wiped the now drying blood from Mairin’s side. It was only a graze, and in fact, it looked as though the arrow went right between her arm and her side as there was a bloody crease on the inside of her arm as well.

The arrow cut through more of her side, and it was that flesh that needed stitching.

He motioned for Caelen to take position on Mairin’s other side. Caelen walked around the bed and carefully pulled her arm away so that her side was bared to Ewan.

“You’ll have to hold her,” Ewan said patiently. “I don’t want her moving when I put the needle to her flesh.”

Reluctantly, Caelen anchored her more firmly against his body and held her wrist so that she couldn’t flail her arm.

Mairin roused and stared dumbly up at Caelen. “Caelen, your laird will not be pleased to find you in his bed.”

Caelen rolled his eyes. “I think he’ll understand this time.”

“Well, I don’t,” she said crossly. “It isn’t decent. No one should see me in bed except the laird. Do you know what I told him?”

Ewan raised one eyebrow. “Perhaps ’tis best if you keep such matters to yourself, lass.”

She ignored him and rambled on. “I told him that he was unskilled at loving. I don’t think he was pleased with that statement.”

Despite Ewan’s glare, Caelen burst into laughter.

“Oh, it isn’t polite to laugh at your laird,” Mairin said in a solemn voice. “Besides, ’tis not true. I was quite wrong.”

Ewan moved a hand to cover her mouth so she wouldn’t blurt out anything else in her drunken state. “I think you’ve said enough.”

He ignored Caelen’s amused look and signaled that he was ready to begin.

Caelen grimaced, and something remarkably like sympathy flashed in his eyes when Mairin jumped at the first prick of the needle.

A whimper escaped from Mairin when he set the second stitch.

“Hurry,” she whispered.

“I will, lass, I will.”

In battle his hand never shook. It remained steady around the sword. It had never failed him. Not once. Yet here, doing such a simple task as setting needle to skin, he had to call on every bit of his control to keep his fingers precise.

By the time he tightened the final stitch, Mairin shook uncontrollably beneath his hand. Caelen’s fingers were white from the pressure he exerted on her shoulder, and y">Ewas sure she’d wear bruises.

“Let her go,” Ewan said in a quiet voice. “I’m finished.”

Caelen released her shoulder and Ewan waved him from the chamber. After Caelen closed the door behind him, Ewan reached down to touch Mairin’s cheek only to find it wet with tears.

“I’m sorry, lass. I’m sorry it was necessary to hurt you.”

She opened her tightly closed eyes, and tears shimmered in the blue depths. “It didn’t hurt overly much.”

She was lying but he felt a surge of pride at her bravado.

“Why don’t you get some rest now? I’ll have Maddie bring you a tisane for the pain.”

“Thank you, Ewan,” she whispered.

He leaned down and brushed a kiss across her brow. He waited until she’d closed her eyes before he backed away and retreated from the chamber.

Outside the door, his demeanor swiftly changed from caretaker to warrior.

He went in search of Maddie first and gave her instructions not to leave Mairin’s bedside. Then he found Cormac, Diormid, and Gannon in the courtyard questioning his men.

“Have you found anything yet?” he asked.

“We still have the majority of the men to question, Laird. It’ll take some time,” Gannon said. “There were many men practicing archery, but no one can account for the errant shot.”

“This is unacceptable. Someone struck Lady McCabe whether by accident or intent. I want that man.” He turned to Diormid. “Were you not supervising the archery? Can you not account for your men?”

Diormid bowed his head. “Aye, Laird, I take full responsibility. Every one under me will be questioned at length. I will find the man responsible.”

Ewan shook his head grimly. “I will not have the children of this keep unprotected. ’Tis as Mairin says. They should have a safe place to play and be children without their mothers worrying that they’ll be killed by a stray arrow. From now on, the children will play behind the keep on the hillside, far away from where the men train.”

“Where they play now is plenty distant from the courtyard,” Cormac said with a fierce frown. “What happened today should not have occurred.”

“Aye, but it did,” Ewan bit back. “I don’t want it to ever happen again. You will gather the men after the questioning. I want to address them.”

It was well past midnight before Ewan trudged wearily up to his chamber. They’d questioned every single clansman, even the children, and no one could recall seeing anything untoward. The men practicing archery swore that none of them was responsible, and yet the arrow had been a McCabe arrow. There was no doubt about that. Afterward, he’d given his men a dressing down about being more careful in their training. If they couldn’t keep the people of their own clan safe from themselves, how were they to protect them from outside threats?

Ewan let himself into his room, and Maddie stirred from her position by the fire.

“How is she?” Ewan asked in hushed tones.

Maddie rose and crept silently to stand in front of Ewan. “She’s resting better now. She was in pain before, but after I gave her the tisane, she calmed and was able to rest better. I changed her dressing an hour past. The bleeding has stopped. You did a fine job stitching her, Laird.”

“Any sign of fever?”

“Not yet. She’s cool to the touch, just restless. I think she’ll be just fine.”

“Thank you, Maddie. You can retire to your cottage now. I appreciate you sitting with Mairin.”

“I was glad to do it, Laird. If you have need of anything else, send for me at once.”

She bobbed a curtsy and then walked by him and out the door.

Ewan undressed and slipped into bed beside Mairin, careful not to jar her. As soon as his body touched hers, she stirred and snuggled into his arms like a warm kitten on a cold night. She uttered a deep sigh against his neck and proceeded to wrap her legs around his while throwing one arm over his body.

He smiled. She was a possessive thing in bed. She considered his body her territory and she had no compunction about laying claim whenever he got near. Not that he minded. In truth, there was something about having a warm, sweet lass wrapped around him that appealed to him more than he’d ever thought possible.

He touched one strand of hair, allowing it to curl around the tip of his finger. He wasn’t a man ruled by fear, but when he’d realized that Mairin had been shot, he’d experienced a wash of terror unlike anything he’d ever known. The idea that he could have lost her didn’t sit well with him.

He could make a lot of excuses, including the biggest, that if she died, Neamh Álainn would never be his. His clan would never be rebuilt. Revenge would never be his. All of those things were true. But the simplest truth was that he hadn’t wanted to lose her. None of the other things had even crossed his mind when he’d frantically examined her injuries.

Aye, the lass was getting under his skin. He’d been right about her from the moment he’d first laid eyes on her. She was definitely trouble.

CHAPTER 20

When Mairin awoke, the pain in her head overshadowed the pain in her side. She licked over her cracked lips but it wasn’t enough to rid herselfe horrible taste in her mouth.

What on earth had the laird done to her? All she remembered was him ordering her to drink some foul liquid and having to choke it down. Even the memory made her stomach lurch precariously.

She rolled, testing the tenderness in her side, but ran into a warm, snuggly body. She smiled and curled her arm around Crispen and hugged him tight.

He opened his eyes and snuggled closer to her bosom. “Are you all right, Mama?”

“Aye, dearling, I’m perfectly well. I hardly feel a pinch. ’Twas just a little cut.”

“I was scared.”

His voice wavered and her heart squeezed at the uncertainty in his voice. “I’m sorry you were afraid.”

“Did it hurt? Maddie told me that Papa had to stitch you up. I would think that would hurt a lot.”

“Aye, it did, but not overmuch. Your father had a good, steady hand and he was quick about it.”

“Papa is the best,” Crispen said, with all the confidence a young boy has in his father. “I knew he’d take care of you.”

Mairin smiled and kissed the top of his head. “I have need to get out of this bed. I’ve lain here so long that my muscles are all stiff and sore. Would you like to help me?”

Crispen scrambled from the bed and then made a big show of aiding Mairin to her feet.

“You should go to your chamber and dress for the day. I’ll meet you below stairs. Perhaps Gertie will have food for the both of us.”

He gave her a huge grin and then scampered off, slamming the door behind him.

Mairin stretched as soon as he was gone, and winced. It truly wasn’t bad. She hadn’t told a lie. Just a twinge or two when she moved wrong. It certainly wasn’t enough to keep her abed.

She turned to retrieve a gown from her wardrobe, when a flash of color caught her eye. Her gaze was drawn to the small table sitting near the window. On top of it lay a neatly folded pile of fabric.

It was her wedding dress. Forgetting all about her injury, she hurried over and delved her fingers into the sumptuous fabric. Then she yanked it upward and allowed the dress to unfold. Why, it was as good as new. There was no evidence of the rend.

She hugged the material to her chin and closed her eyes in delight. It was silly to be so emotional over a dress, but a woman only got married once, didn’t she? She frowned. Well, most of the time. She wouldn’t think on such matters as the laird dying and leaving her a widow.

She stroked the dress one last time, enjoying the softness as it glided over her fingers. Then she carefully put it away so it would keep until the next time she had an occasion to wear it.

em">Eager to leave her chamber, she went about pulling her gown on, her gestures awkward as she tried to arrange the dress with as little movement on her left side as possible.

As best she could, she brushed out her hair and left it down, since braiding it was going to be an impossibility one-handed. When she was satisfied that she didn’t look quite so haggard, she left the chamber, hoping she wasn’t too late for the morning meal.

And it was high time she saw to her duties as mistress of the keep. Surely that would keep her out of trouble with Ewan.

The days since her wedding had passed in a blur, and other than making the acquaintance of other women in the clan, Mairin hadn’t done much of anything besides trying to avoid her faithful watchdogs.

Well, enough of all that. It was time to take things in hand. After taking an arrow in the side, she wasn’t enthused about venturing out of the keep anyway.

When she entered the hall, she was greeted with looks of horror from her clansmen. Gannon and Cormac were involved in a heated debate, but when they saw her, they broke off and stared as if she’d grown two heads. Maddie, who was passing through as Mairin made her entrance, immediately threw up her hands and rushed over to where Mairin stood.

“My lady, you should still be abed,” Gannon exclaimed as he and Cormac also hurried over.

“Aye,” Maddie agreed. “You shouldn’t be up. I was about to bring up a tray for you to eat in bed.”

Mairin raised her hands to silence them. “I appreciate your concern. Truly, I do. But I’m perfectly fine. Staying abed serves no purpose except to drive me daft.”

“The laird won’t like this,” Cormac muttered.

“What has the laird to do with it?” Mairin demanded. “He should be relieved to know I’m back on my feet and ready to take on my duties as mistress of this keep.”

“You should rest, lass,” Maddie said soothingly, as she turned Mairin back in the direction of the stairs. “You wouldn’t want to aggravate your injury.”

Mairin shook off Maddie’s hand and turned back to the hall, only to run into Gannon.

“Now, my lady, you should be abed,” he said firmly.

“I’m fine,” she insisted. “Why, I don’t feel a bit of pain. Well, maybe a twinge or two,” she added when Cormac shot her a disbelieving look. “But ’tis no reason to stay in bed on such a fine day. I’ll even allow you to accompany me,” she said to both Gannon and Cormac.

“You’ll allow?” Gannon asked with a scowl.

She nodded and smiled serenely. “Aye, I will. I’ll be no trouble. You’ll see.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” Cormac muttered.

“Maddie, I’ve need of your assistance if you’re willing to give it.”

Maddie looked confused. “Of course I’ll help you, my lady, but I still think you should go above stairs and lie down. Perhaps you can tell me what it is you need assistance with, while you eat your meal in bed.”

Mairin faced them all down and let her displeasure show. “There is absolutely no reason for me to go to bed.”

“There is every reason, wife.”

Cormac’s and Gannon’s shoulders sagged in relief while Maddie let out a sigh. Mairin turned to see her husband standing behind her, a look of mild annoyance on his face.

“Why is it I can’t expect even the least bit of cooperation from you?”

Mairin’s mouth fell open. “That’s … That’s … well, that’s quite a rude thing to say, Laird. You’re implying I’m difficult. I’m not difficult.” She whirled back around to face the others. “Am I?”

Cormac looked like he’d swallowed a bug while Gannon found something on the wall to study. Maddie didn’t bother trying to be circumspect. She laughed outright.

“Why aren’t you in bed, Mairin?” Ewan asked.

She turned back around to face him. “I’m quite well. I’m feeling much more myself today. Well, except for the headache. What was it you made me drink?”

“Something to make you more amenable. I’m tempted to have Gertie prepare you another flask.”

She had no response to that.

“Come above stairs with me so I can redress your wound,” Ewan said, as he directed her toward the stairs. “But … but I was about to—”

Ewan propelled her up the steps. “Whatever it was you were about to do can wait until I’ve seen to your injury. If I’m satisfied that you’re truly well enough to be up and around, I’ll reconsider your confinement.”

“My confinement? That’s the most ridiculous—”

Ewan stopped and before she could finish her tirade, he planted his mouth over hers in a scorching, toe-curling kiss. It wasn’t a tender gesture. It was demanding … and passionate, and Lord, she didn’t want him to stop.

When he pulled away she had a hard time regaining her senses. They were … outside their chamber? She blinked as she tried to remember what brought them here.

“What was that you were saying, lass?”

Her brow furrowed. She opened her mouth then shut it again. “I don’t remember.”

He grinned and opened the door, pulling her inside the room. He started tugging at her dress and she batted his hands away.

“I won’t have you tearing another dress,” she muttered.

Ewan sighed. “I had Maddie repair your gown. It was an accident.”

Her eyes widened. “You had my dress sewn?”

His lips formed a thin line and he looked away, ignoring her question.

“Laird, you saw to the repair of my dress?”

“Of course not,” he said gruffly. “ ’Tis a woman’s matter. Men don’t concern themselves with women’s fripperies.”

Mairin smiled and then threw herself against Ewan’s chest before he could ward her off with his hand. “Thank you,” she said, as she wrapped her arms around his waist.

Ewan let out a deep breath and pulled her away from his body, his gaze reproachful. “Lass, when are you going to demonstrate some restraint? You’re going to upset your wound again, throwing yourself around like that.”

She smiled at his stern face and then leaned up and palmed his face between her hands. Then she pulled him down into a breathless kiss that had her panting and gasping for air within seconds.

She wasn’t sure who was more affected. She or he. His eyes glowed, and his nostrils flared as she rocked back onto her feet.

“I’m really quite well, Ewan,” she whispered. “Mother Serenity used to avow that God’s hand was ever guiding me because no matter how hard I fell or how badly I hurt myself, I always bounced back with amazing speed. My side pains me, aye, but not overly much. ’Tis more of a nuisance than a true pain. There’s no reason for me to stay in bed the entire day.”

“Remove your dress, Mairin. I’d like to see for myself how you’re healing.”

With a disgruntled sigh, she loosened the strings of her bodice and carefully peeled away the material. From the corner of her eye, she saw Ewan’s expression grow tight as he stared at her bare shoulders.

Fascinated by his intense regard, she took a little more time than necessary to ease the dress down her body. Her hair fell down her back and forward over her breasts. Just the nipples peeked through the strands, and Ewan’s gaze was fixed on them.

“Shall I lie down?” she asked softly.

Ewan cleared his throat. “Aye. That’s fine. Make yourself comfortable. This won’t take but a minute.”

She eased down on the bed but watched Ewan from underneath her lashes. While he was thon changing the dressing on her wound, his heated gaze dragged over the rest of her body, so tangible that it was like the brush of his hand over her skin.

She stirred restlessly as he finished tying the strip of cloth around her side. The action thrust her breasts forward, brushing against his arm. Her nipples immediately puckered, the rasp of hair over the sensitive tips sending a warm flood of pleasure deep into her body.

“Lass, ’tis not the time for loving,” he whispered. “But you tempt me. Aye, you tempt me like no other.”

She circled his neck with her arms and they stared at each other for a long, silent moment. His eyes were beautiful and they reminded her of the highland hills in the spring. So green and alive with life.

He lowered his mouth to hers, gently at first, just a simple pressing of mouths together. A gentle smooching sound, flesh meeting flesh. He kissed the corner of her mouth then returned to the middle and then over to catch the other corner.

“You taste of sunshine.”

Her chest tightened, and pleasure at the sweet words filled her to bursting.

She could feel him between her legs, hard and pulsing. He strained at his trews, pushing impatiently. She wanted him. Aye, she wanted him badly.

“Ewan,” she whispered. “Are you sure ’tis not the time for loving?”

He groaned low in his throat. “Aye, you’re a temptress all right.”

She lifted her body to fit it to his, unsure of what she was doing, but it felt right. She was hot and flushed and she needed something she was sure only he could give her.

“Kiss me,” she murmured.

“Oh, aye, I’ll kiss you, lass. I’ll kiss you until you beg me to stop.”

His lips closed around one taut nipple and pulled as he sucked it farther into his mouth. His hands stroked her body and she arched like a contented cat seeking more of its master’s touch.

“Easy, lass,” he murmured. “I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”

Hurt herself? She was going to hurt him if he didn’t continue kissing her.

He slipped his hands between her thighs and thumbed through the tight curls guarding her sensitive flesh. He brushed over the quivering point even as his fingers sought her moist opening. Despite his warning, she arched helplessly, unable to control her frantic response.

Fire stoked deep within her body and fanned rapidly through her groin, tightening each time his fingers stroked inside. This wasn’t how it was done, was it?

She didn’t care. Whatever he was doing felt so wondrous that she wanted to beg him never to stop. And she did. Over and over, the words spilling out between fractured sobs.

t="0em">

He sucked at each breast, alternating as he drove her mindless with his fingers. She was hot and slick around him and she was fast building to an explosive end.

She whimpered and gripped his shoulders as she raised her hips, wanting more. He added a second finger to her sheath at the precise moment his thumb exerted more pressure.

She would have screamed—she did scream—but he raised his mouth from her breast to capture her mouth just as she did and swallowed the savage cry as she came apart in his arms.

Forgotten was her wound, the bandage, any pain or discomfort. There was only wave after wave of intense pleasure until she sagged onto the bed, too limp and weak to do anything more than gasp for air.

He rolled to the side and carefully pulled her into his arms. His lips brushed over her hair and he stroked the tresses with one hand. He caressed and petted every inch of her skin until a wonderful haze surrounded her and enfolded her in its warm glow.

“Sleep, lass,” he murmured. “You need your rest.”

Too fuzzy and sated to argue, she closed her eyes before she even realized she’d done so. Her last coherent thought was that he was far superior to ale as a sleeping drought.

CHAPTER 21

Mairin let out a lusty yawn and stretched her arms over her head. She was so limber from her bout of loving with Ewan that her side didn’t even pain her.

Then she realized that despite her determination to be out and about, she’d spent half the day in her chamber. With a frown, she rose, grumbling under her breath about husbands and trickery.

He’d done it apurpose, she was convinced of it. He’d taken her to their chamber on the pretext of tending her wound and then distracted her with loving. And to think she’d ever thought he wasn’t skilled in such matters.

He was too skilled by far.

This time when she left her chamber, Gannon met her directly outside her door. She looked at him in astonishment as he picked himself up off the floor.

“Have you been outside my door all afternoon?”

“Aye, my lady. ’Tis my duty to see to your safety. You have a habit of disappearing, so Cormac and I drew straws to see who would safeguard the chamber door.”

She frowned, not liking the idea that she was such a distasteful duty that they were forced to draw straws over the unpleasant task.

She headed toward the stairs, determined to see Maddie without any interference from her husband or her watch guards.

Cormac was in the hall sharing a tankard of ale with a few of the older men of the clan.

“Have you seen Crispen about?” she called to Cormac.

“Nay, my lady. Last I knew of him, he was out playing with the other children. Would you like me to fetch him?”

“Oh nay, let him play. I have no need of him at the moment.”

Cormac rose and started in Mairin and Gannon’s direction, but she held up her hand. “I am only going to see Maddie. Gannon can escort me. Can’t you, Gannon?”

“Aye, my lady. If ’tis all you’re planning.”

“Of course. ’Tis getting on into the afternoon. ’Twill be dark soon enough.”

Gannon relaxed. He nodded in Cormac’s direction and then gestured for Mairin to precede him from the hall.

Mairin set out at a brisk pace, determined for anyone who saw her to think she was fully recovered from her accident. By the time she reached Maddie’s cottage, she was winded and she leaned against the door for support as she sucked in air.

After recovering her breath, she knocked politely on the door and waited. She frowned when no response was forthcoming.

“Maddie isn’t in her cottage, my lady,” one of the women sang out from one cottage down. “She’s helping Gertie in the kitchens.”

“Thank you,” Mairin called.

“Would you like to go to the kitchens?” Gannon asked politely.

The thought of encountering Gertie was enough to persuade Mairin she could wait to speak to Maddie. It wasn’t as if she could do much of anything today anyway.

She turned in the direction of the keep and came to a stop and stared at the ruckus right in the middle of the path that split the cottages. Two older men were carrying on quite a spirited conversation, complete with shaking fists and fiercely worded threats.

“What on earth are they arguing about, Gannon?”

“Oh ’tis nothing you need to worry over, my lady,” Gannon said. “ ’Tis only Arthur and Magnus.”

He tried to steer her down the path, but she remained rooted to her spot as the men’s voices grew louder.

“Quit yer shouting you old goats!”

Mairin blinked in surprise at the woman leaning out her window hollering at the two men. Arthur and Magnus paid her no mind and continued their argument. It quickly became clear to Mairin that the dispute centered around the mare that stood between the two men, looking quite unimpressed with the goings-on.

“Who does the mare belong to?” Mairin whispered. “And why do they argue so fiercely over it?ȝ

Gannon sighed. “ ’Tis an old argument, my lady. And they do enjoy a good argument. If it wasn’t the mare, it would be something else.”

One of the men turned and started to stomp down the path, shouting all the way that he was going straight to the laird.

Thinking quickly, Mairin stepped in his way and he pulled up just short of running right over her.

“Watch where you’re going, lass! Now step aside, if you please. I have business with the laird.”

“You’ll be respectful and mind your tongue, Arthur,” Gannon growled. “ ’Tis your mistress you address.”

Arthur narrowed his eyes and then cocked his head to the side. “Aye, so it is. Shouldn’t you be abed after your mishap?”

Mairin heaved a sigh. The news was all over the keep, no doubt. She had no desire to appear weak when she assumed her duties as mistress. She was already mentally calculating all that needed to be done. With or without Maddie’s aid, it was time she stepped into the running of the keep.

“Step aside,” Magnus declared. “You have the manners of a jackass, Arthur.”

He smiled at Mairin then and offered a sweeping bow. “We haven’t been properly introduced. My name’s Magnus McCabe.”

Mairin returned his smile and was sure to include Arthur, lest he use that as an excuse to start another argument.

“I couldn’t help but overhear you arguing over the mare,” she began hesitantly.

Arthur snorted. “That’s because Magnus has a mouth the size of a mountain.”

Mairin held up a hand. “Rather than trouble your laird over such an inconsequential matter, perhaps I can be of help.”

Magnus rubbed his hands together and cast a triumphant glance in Athur’s direction. “There, you see? The lass will determine who has the right of it.”

Arthur rolled his eyes and didn’t look impressed with Mairin’s offer.

“There is no right or wrong of it,” Arthur said matter-of-factly. “The mare is mine. Always has been. Gannon knows.”

Gannon closed his eyes and shook his head.

“I see,” Mairin said. Then she looked at Magnus. “You dispute Arthur’s claim to the mare?”

“I do,” he said emphatically. “Two months past, he became enraged because the mare bit him on the—”

“There is no need to say where she bit me,” Arthur hastily broke in. “ ’Tis sufficient to say she bit me. Th in Athur&2019;s all that’s important.”

Magnus leaned in and whispered. “She bit him on the arse, my lady.”

Her eyes went wide. Gannon issued a sharp reprimand to Magnus for speaking to his mistress in such an indelicate fashion, but Magnus didn’t look the least repentant.

“Anyway, once the mare bit Arthur, he became so enraged that he turned her loose, slapped her on the flanks, and told the ungrateful …” He stopped and cleared his throat. “Well, he told her not to bother ever returning. It was cold out and raining, you see. I took the mare in, dried her, and gave her some oats. So you see, the mare belongs to me. Arthur relinquished all claim to her.”

“My lady, the laird has already heard their complaint,” Gannon whispered to her.

“And what did the laird decide?” she whispered back.

“He told them to work it out between themselves.”

Mairin made a sound of exasperation. “That wasn’t particularly helpful.”

This would be as good a starting point as any to assert her authority and show her clan that she was a worthy mate to their laird. Ewan was a busy man, and matters such as this should be settled without pulling him into a petty argument.

She turned back to the men, who’d begun bickering again. She held up her hands for silence, and when that didn’t work, she put her fingers between her lips and issued a sharp whistle.

Both men flinched and turned to stare at her in astonishment.

“A lady doesn’t whistle,” Arthur reprimanded.

“Aye, he’s right, my lady.”

“Oh, so now the two of you are prepared to agree on something,” Mairin muttered. “It was the only way to quiet you.”

“You wanted something?” Magnus asked.

She folded her hands neatly in front of her, satisfied that she had the perfect plan to solve the argument.

“I’ll have Gannon cut the mare in half and give you each an equal portion. ’Tis the only fair way to go about it.”

Arthur and Magnus stared at her then looked at each other. Gannon closed his eyes again and didn’t say a word.

“She’s daft,” Arthur said.

Magnus nodded. “The poor laird. He must have been tricked. He’s married a daft lass.”

Mairin put her hands on her hips. “I am not daft!”

Arthur shook his head, a light of sympathy in his eyes. “Maybe daft is too strong a word. Addled. Aye, maybe ee addled. Did you suffer an injury to your head recently?”

“Nay, I did not!”

“As a child then?” Magnus asked.

“I am in perfect command of my faculties,” she snapped.

“Then why in God’s name did you suggest we cut the mare in two?” Arthur demanded. “That’s the most daft thing I’ve ever heard of.”

“It worked for King Solomon,” she muttered.

“King Solomon ordered a horse cut in half?” Magnus asked in a confused voice.

“Who is King Solomon? He’s not our king. I bet he’s English. ’Twould be a very English thing to do,” Arthur said.

Magnus nodded in agreement. “Aye, all English are daft.” Then he turned to Mairin. “Be you English, lass?”

“Nay! Why on earth would you ask something like that?”

“Maybe she has some English blood,” Arthur said. “ ’Twould explain things.”

She gripped her head and felt the sudden, violent urge to pull out her hair by the roots.

“King Solomon suggested a baby be cut in half when two women both claimed to be its mother.”

Even Gannon looked appalled. Magnus and Arthur gaped at her and then shook their heads.

“And the English claim we’re barbarians,” Arthur grumbled.

“King Solomon wasn’t English,” she said patiently. “And the point was that the real mother would be so horrified over the thought of her baby being killed that she would give the baby to the other mother to spare the child’s life.”

She looked pointedly at them, hoping they’d understand the moral, but they still stared at her as if she’d spewed a litany of blasphemies.

“Oh, never mind,” she snapped. She stalked forward, grabbed the reins from an astonished Magnus, and pulled the hapless mare along as she headed back toward the keep.

“My lady, what are you doing?” Gannon hissed, as he jogged to keep up with her.

“Hey, she’s stealing our horse!” Magnus cried.

“Our horse? ’Tis my horse, you dolt.”

She ignored the two men as they began bickering all over again.

“ ’Tis clear that neither one of them deserves the poor horse,” Mairin said. “I’ll take her to Ewan. He’ll know what to do.”

Gannon’s expression told her he had no love of taking the horse to his laird. “Don’t worry, Gannon. I’ll tell him you tried to stop me.”

“You will?”

The hopeful tone in his voice amused her.

She stopped in the middle of the courtyard, suddenly aware that there were no men training and no sign of Ewan.

“Well, where is he?” she asked in exasperation. “Oh, never mind,” she said when Gannon failed to immediately respond. “I’ll take the horse to your stable master. You do have a stable master, don’t you?”

“Aye, my lady, we most certainly do, but—”

“Point me in the direction of the stables then,” she said before he could continue. “I really should have familiarized myself with everything on the McCabe lands by now. I’ve been around the keep and to the women’s cottages but beyond that I’m frightfully ignorant. Tomorrow we’ll rectify that.”

Gannon blinked. “We will?”

“Aye, we will. Now, the stables?”

Gannon sighed and pointed across the courtyard to a pathway leading beyond the stone skirt that sheltered the courtyard. Mairin set off again, leading the mare past the wall.

She followed the worn path until she reached the far side of the keep where she saw an old structure that she assumed must be the stables. There was new wood framing the doorway, but there were also places that looked scorched by an old fire. The roof had been patched and looked to be sturdy enough to hold out the rain and snow.

She was annoyed to see Magnus and Arthur standing in front of the archway that led into the area where the laird’s horses were cared for. They watched her warily as she approached, and she scowled to show them the full force of her displeasure.

“You’re not getting the horse back,” she bellowed. “I’m giving the horse to the stable master so she’ll be cared for appropriately.”

“I am the stable master, you daft lass,” Arthur bellowed back.

“You will address your mistress with respect,” Gannon roared.

Mairin gaped at Arthur and then turned to Gannon. “Stable master? This … This … cretin is the stable master?”

Gannon sighed. “I tried to tell you, my lady.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Mairin sputtered. “He has as much business running a stable as I do.”

“I do a fine job,” Arthur snapped. “And I’d do it a lot better if I wasn’t having to chase down people who steal my horse.”

“You’re relieved of duty, sir.”

“You can’t relieve me of duty!” Arthur screeched. “Only the laird can do that.”

“I’m the mistress of this keep and I say you’ve been relieved,” Mairin said belligerently. She turned to Gannon. “Tell him.”

Gannon looked a little uncertain, but he stood behind his mistress. She nodded approvingly as Gannon informed the older man that he’d indeed been relieved of duty.

Arthur stomped away muttering all manner of blasphemies while Magnus looked on with a smug smile.

“Is it any wonder the horse bit him on the arse?” Mairin muttered as Arthur disappeared.

She handed the reins to Gannon. “Will you put her into a stall and make sure she’s fed?”

Ignoring Gannon’s disgruntled look, she turned to head back in the direction of the keep. She was quite pleased with herself. She’d not only managed to escape the confines of the keep without running into her husband, but she’d also handled a difficult situation. Her first duty as mistress of the keep. She smiled and hurried up the steps and entered the great hall.

She waved at Cormac on her way through. “I’m just going up to change for the evening meal. Gannon will be along shortly. He’s taking care of a horse for me.”

Cormac rose, his brow creased in confusion. “A horse?”

Mairin fairly skipped up the stairs. The day hadn’t been a complete waste. In fact, it had been quite lovely. And she was making strides in her bid to take an active part in the keep’s activities. Why, she’d made a decision and hadn’t even bothered Ewan over such a trivial matter. It was the least she could do. He had many important duties and the more she could smooth things for him, the more he’d be able to concentrate on those duties.

She splashed water on her face and brushed the dust from her dress. Aye, it had been a good day, and her wound wasn’t even paining her.

“Mairin!”

She flinched as the laird’s roar carried all the way up the stairs and through her chamber door. He bellowed loud enough to shake the rafters.

With a shake of her head, she picked up her brush and made quick work of the tangles in her hair. If maneuvering her left arm didn’t prick at her side, she’d take the time to braid her hair. Maybe by morning.

“Mairin, present yourself at once!”

She dropped her brush and scowled. Lord, but the man was impatient. After one more pat of her dress she headed down the stairs. When she rounded the corner into the hall, she saw Ewan standing in the middle of the room, arms crossed over his chest, a deep scowl etched around his mouth.

To the side stood Arthur and Magnus along with Gannon and Caelen. A few of Ewan’s men tarried around the tables, having taken a keen interest in the fuss.

She came to a stop in front of Ewan and smiled demurely up at him. “You summoned me, Laird?”

Ewan’s scowl deepened. Then he ran a hand through his hair and looked heavenward. “In the course of the last hour, you’ve stolen a man’s horse and somehow managed to leave me without a stable master. Would you care to explain yourself, lass?”

“I settled a dispute,” she said. “And when I discovered that this odious man who clearly abuses his horses was responsible for your horses, Laird, I remedied the situation.”

“You had no authority to do either,” Ewan said tightly. “Your duties are quite simple. Obey me and don’t interfere with the running of this keep.”

Hurt squeezed her chest. Humiliation tightened her cheeks as she looked from man to man. She saw sympathy in Gannon’s expression, but in Caelen’s she saw agreement.

Not trusting that she wouldn’t further humiliate herself, she turned away and walked rigidly back out of the hall.

“Mairin!” Ewan roared.

She ignored him and increased her pace. She bypassed the stairs and slipped out of one of the doorways leading to the outside.

Odious, impossible, infuritating. All of them. They accused her of being daft, but this was the daftest clan she’d ever come across.

Tears burned her eyes, and she angrily dashed them away. Dusk had fallen over the keep, blanketing it in hues of lavender and gray. The chill nipped at her but she paid no heed, as she hurried across the empty courtyard.

One of the guards on the wall called a warning to her but she waved him off and told him she had no intention of going far. She just needed to be away. Away from Ewan’s roaring and the censure in his eyes.

She kept in line with the wall of the keep, making sure to remain inside the stone skirt. There had to be a place somewhere that afforded privacy while still offering safety.

Her solution came in the form of the old bathhouses in the rear of the keep. There was even a bench in the shell of the stone walls. She ducked under a sagging doorway and settled herself on the bench that lined the only wall still standing in its entirety.

Finally, a place away from the rest of the clan where she could have a private weep and lament her husband’s disgraceful behavior.

CHAPTER 22

It was important that Ewan not go chasing after his wife, especially in front of his men. It was obvious the lass had no idea what she’d gottenself into. He’d give her time to cool down and then he would instruct her on the way of things.

He turned back to the men who stood behind him. Gertie was already putting the evening meal on the table, and judging by the smell, it had been a good hunting day for the men assigned to bring fresh meat into the keep.

“Do I have my position back, Laird?” Arthur asked.

Ewan nodded wearily. “Aye, Arthur. You’ve a fine hand with the horses. However, I’ve had enough of your incessant bickering with Magnus, and ’tis obvious that it upsets your mistress.”

Arthur didn’t look happy but he nodded and hurried away to take his seat. Magnus looked as though he wanted to make a jibe at Arthur but Ewan’s fierce scowl stopped him. He, too, took his seat—at a table over from where Arthur had sat.

Ewan took his seat and was followed by his men. When Maddie made her way by to fill his trencher, he stopped her.

“When you are finished serving the men, take a tray up to your mistress. She’s in her chamber, and I don’t want her to miss the evening meal.”

“Aye, Laird, I’ll see to it immediately.”

Satisified that his wife wouldn’t go hungry and that, for the moment, all arguing was done, he dove into his portion, savoring the taste of the fresh venison.

By letting Mairin get over her upset, chances were that by the time he retired to their chamber, the initial storm would be over. He congratulated himself for his brilliant analysis and had a second helping of the stew.

A half hour later, however, when Maddie hurried into the hall to tell him that his wife was not in their chamber, he realized that his mistake was believing anything would be simple when it came to his impulsive wife.

She made him feel incompetent, and that his efforts to keep her safe were haphazard at best. None of that was true, but it raised his ire because he hadn’t felt a moment of self-doubt since he was a lad. He could train and lead an entire army. He could win a battle when he was outnumbered five to one. But he couldn’t keep a slip of a lass under control. It defied all reason and was making him daft in the process.

He pushed away from the table and stalked in the direction that Mairin had left. It was obvious she hadn’t gone up the stairs, so he continued past to the doorway leading outside the keep.

“Have you seen your mistress?” he called to Rodrick who was up on the wall.

“Aye, Laird. She came by half hour past.”

“And where is she now?”

“She’s in the bathhouses. Gregory and Alain are watching over her. She’s having a good cry, but otherwise, she is well.”

Ewan winced and heaved a sigh. He much preferred her spitting like an angry kitten "0em">female tears and even less experience in dealing with them.

He went in the direction of the bathhouses. Gregory and Alain were standing outside one of the walls and they looked vastly relieved when Ewan strode up.

“Thank goodness you’re here, Laird. You must make her stop. She’s going to take ill with so much crying,” Alain said.

Gregory frowned. “It isn’t right for a lass to cry so much. Whatever it is you have to promise her, please do so. She’s going to drown herself!”

Ewan held up a hand. “Thank you for your protection. You can go now. I’ll see to your mistress.”

They did a sorry job of hiding their obvious relief. As they left, Ewan heard the light sniffles that came from the inside of the bathhouses. Damn, but he hated the idea of her crying.

He stepped inside the dark interior and glanced around, blinking to adjust to the darkness. He followed the sounds of the sniffling until he found her sitting on a bench along the far wall. She was partially silhouetted by a sliver of moonlight that crept in through the narrow window carved into the stone, and he could see that her head was bowed, her shoulders slumped forward.

“Go away.” Her muffled voice filtered through the crumbling bathhouse.

“Ah, lass,” he said as he sat beside her on the bench. “Don’t cry.”

“I’m not crying,” she said in a voice that clearly indicated she was.<