The Highlander Series(6)

By: Maya Banks

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 his arm 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.

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