The Highlander Series(9)

By: Maya Banks

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 just 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.

“Tell 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.”

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