The Highlander Series(10)By: Maya Banks
“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.”
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.”
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 will. I’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.
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 take 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.”