The Highlander Series(3)By: Maya Banks
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 he considered 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 cold. 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.