The Highlander Series(8)By: Maya Banks
“I won’t ask her name again,” Ewan said solemnly.
Looking relieved, Crispen pursed his lips and then said, “The men took her from the abbey. She didn’t want to be with them. I saw them bring her into the camp.”
“God’s teeth, she’s a nun?” Ewan exclaimed.
Alaric shook his head adamantly. “If that woman is a nun, then I’m a monk.”
“Can you marry a nun?” Crispen asked.
“Why on earth would you ask a question like that?” Ewan demanded.
“Duncan Cameron wanted to marry her. If she’s a nun, he can’t, can he?”
Ewan straightened and shot Alaric a fierce look. Then he turned to Crispen, trying to keep his reaction calm so that he didn’t frighten his son.
“The men you tried to steal the horse from. Were they Cameron soldiers? Were they the ones who took the woman from the abbey?”
Crispen nodded solemnly. “They took us to Laird Cameron. He tried to make … her … marry him, but she refused. When she did, he beat her badly.”
Tears welled in his eyes, and he made a fierce expression to hold them back.
Again, Ewan glanced over at Alaric to judge his reaction to the news. Who could this woman be that Duncan Cameron wanted her badly enough to steal her from an abbey? Was she an heiress sequestered there until her marriage?
“What happened after he beat her?” Ewan prompted.
Crispen swiped at his face, leaving a trail of dirt over his cheek.
“When she came back to the room, she could barely hold herself up. I had to help her to the bed. Later a woman woke us and said that the laird was in a drunken sleep and that he planned to threaten me to make her do what he wanted. She said we had to escape before he awoke. The lady was afraid but promised me she’d protect me. And so I promised her that I would take us here to you so that you could protect her. You won’t let Duncan Cameron marry her, will you, Papa? You won’t let him hurt her again?”
He gazed anxiously up at Ewan, his eyes so earnest and serious. He looked so much older than his eight years in that moment, as if he’d taken on a great responsibility, one far greater than his age warranted, but one he was determined to follow through with.
“Nay, son. I won’t allow Duncan Cameron to harm the lass.”
Relief flooded Crispen’s expression and suddenly he looked extremely weary. He swayed in his chair and leaned over on Ewan’s arm.
For a long moment, Ewan stared down at his son’s head, resisting the urge to run his fingers through the unruly tresses. Ewan couldn’t help but feel a surge of pride at the way Crispen had fought for the woman who’d saved him. According to Alaric, Crispen had bullied Alaric and his men the entire way back to the McCabe keep. And now he was bullying Ewan into keeping a promise Crispen had made in the McCabe name.
“He’s asleep,” Alaric murmured.
Ewan carefully ran his hand over his son’s head and held him solidly against his side.
“Who is this woman, Alaric? What is she to Cameron?”
Alaric made a sound of frustration. “I wish I could tell you. The lass wouldn’t say a word to me the entire time she was with me. She and Crispen were as tight-lipped as two monks with vows of silence. All I know is that when I found her, she was severely beaten. I’ve never seen a lass abused as she was. It turned my stomach, Ewan. There’s no excuse for a man to ever treat a woman such as he did. And yet, as badly injured as she was, she took on me and my men when she thought we were a threat to Crispen.”
“She said nothing the entire time she was with you? Let nothing slip? Think, Alaric. She had to have said something. It simply isn’t a woman’s nature to be silent for prolonged periods of time.”
Alaric grunted. “Someone should tell her that. I’m telling you, Ewan, she said nothing. She stared at me like I was some kind of toad. Worse, she had Crispen acting like I was the enemy. The two whispered like conspirators and glared at me when I dared intervene.”
Ewan frowned and drummed his fingers on the solid wood of the table. “What could Cameron want with her? Furthermore, what was a highland lass doing in a lowland abbey? Highlanders guard their daughters as jealously as gold. I can’t see a daughter being packed off to an abbey days away.”
“Unless the lass was being punished,” Alaric pointed out. “Maybe she was caught out in an indiscretion. More than one lass has been wooed between the sheets outside the sanctity of marriage.”
“Or maybe she was a difficult harridan her father despaired of,” Ewan murmured, as he remembered how difficult and recalcitrant she’d been just moments ago. That scenario he could believe. But again, she would have had to have committed an egregious sin for a father to send her so far away.
Alaric chuckled. “She’s spirited all right.” Then he sobered. “But she protected Crispen well. She put her body between him and others more than once, and she suffered greatly for it.”
Ewan mulled on that truth for a long moment. Then he looked up at Alaric again. “You saw these injuries?”
Alaric nodded. “I did. Ewan, the bastard kicked her. There were imprints of a boot on her back.”
Ewan cursed, the sound echoing across the hall. “I wish I knew what her connection to Cameron was. And why he wants her badly enough to abduct her from an abbey and beat her senseless when she refused to marry him. Why he’d then think to use my son to sway her.”
“It would have worked, too,” Alaric said in a grim voice. “The lass is very protective of Crispen. If Cameron had threatened him, she would have consented. I’m positive of that.”
“This presents a problem for me,” Ewan said quietly. “Cameron wants her. My son wants me to protect her. The lass only wants to be gone. And then there is the mystery of who she is.”
“If Cameron discovers her whereabouts, he’ll come for her,” Alaric warned.
Ewan nodded. “So he will.”
The brothers’ gazes met and held. Alaric nodded his acceptance of Ewan’s silent declaration. If Cameron wanted a fight, the McCabes would be more than willing to give him one.
“What about the lass?” Alaric finally asked.
“I’ll make that determination once I’ve heard the whole story from her,” Ewan said.
He was confident that he could be a reasonable man, and once she saw how reasonable, she’d cooperate fully.
Mairin awoke with the knowledge that she wasn’t alone in the tiny chamber she’d been sleeping in. Her nape prickled and she carefully opened one eye to see Ewan McCabe standing in the doorway.
Sunlight peeked through the window, penetrating the gap in the furs. The light somehow made him more ominous than if he stood cloaked in darkness. In the light, she could see how big he was. He made a menacing portrait, framed by the doorway he barely fit through.
“Pardon the intrusion,” Ewan said in a gruff voice. “I was trying to locate my son.”
It was then, as she followed his gaze to the bundle beside her, that she realized Crispen had crawled into her bed during the night. He was snuggled firmly into her side, the covers pulled tight to his neck.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize …,” she began.
“Since I tucked him into my bed last night, I’m sure you didn’t realize,” he said dryly. “ ’Tis apparent he made the move during the night.”
She started to move, but Ewan held up a hand. “Nay, don’t wake him. I’m sure you both need your rest. I’ll have Gertie hold the morning meal for you.”
She stared helplessly up at him, unsure of what to do with his sudden kindness. Yesterday he’d been so fierce, his scowl had been enough to frighten a man out of his boots. After a short nod, he backed out of the room and closed the door behind him.
She frowned. She didn’t trust such an about-face. Then she glanced down at the sleeping boy next to her, and her frown eased. Gently, she touched his hair, marveling at how the limp curls framed his face. In time, it would be as long as his father’s.
Perhaps the laird had calmed in the face of his son’s safe return. Maybe he was even feeling grateful and was sorry for his gruffness.
Hope tightened her chest. He might be more amenable to giving her a mount and supplies. She had no good idea where to flee, but given that Duncan Cameron appeared to be Ewan McCabe’s sworn enemy, it wasn’t a good idea for her to remain there.
Sadness tugged at her heart and she squeezed Crispen closer to her. The abbey that had been her home for so long, and the comforting presence of the sisters, was no longer available to her. She was without a home and safe harbor.
Closing her eyes, she whispered a fervent prayer for God’s mercy and protection. Surely He would provide for her in her hour of need.
When she next awoke, Crispen was gone from her bed. She stretched and flexed her toes then immediately winced as pain snaked through her body. Even a hot bath and a comfortable bed hadn’t completely rid her of her discomfort. Still, she could move considerably better than she had the day before, and she was certainly well enough to sit a horse on her own.
Throwing aside the furs, she braced her feet on the stone floor and flinched at the chill. She rose and went to the window to throw back the covering to allow the sunlight to stream in.