In Bed with a Highlander Page 7


“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.

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“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.”

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