In Bed with a Highlander, Page 2Maya Banks
Mairin stroked his hair as his warm breath blew over her breast. He sounded so much older than his tender years. And so proud.
“I escaped and hid in the cart of a traveling merchant. I rode for a day before he discovered me. ” He tilted his head up, bumping her sore jaw again. “Where are we, Mairin?” he whispered. “Are we very far from home?”
“I’m not sure where your home is,” she said ruefully. “But we are in the lowlands, and I would wager we’re at least a two days’ ride from your keep. ”
“The lowlands,” he spat. “Are you a lowlander?”
She smiled at his vehemence. “Nay, Crispen. I’m a highlander. ”
“Then what are you doing here?” he persisted. “Did they steal you from your home?”
She sighed. “ ’Tis a long story. One that began before you were born. ”
When he tensed for another question, she hushed him with a gentle squeeze. “Go to sleep now, Crispen. We must keep our strength up if we are to escape. ”
“We’re going to escape?” he whispered. x201Div height="0em">
“Aye, of course. That’s what prisoners do,” she said in a cheerful tone. The fear in his voice made her ache for him. How terrifying it must be for him to be so far from home and the ones who love him.
“Will you take me back home to my papa? I’ll make him protect you from Laird Cameron. ”
She smiled at the fierceness in his voice. “Of course, I’ll see to it that you get home. ”
“I promise. ”
* * *
“Find my son!”
Ewan McCabe’s roar could be heard over the entire courtyard. His men all stood at attention, their expressions solemn. Some were creased in sympathy. They believed Crispen to be dead, though no one dared to utter that possibility to Ewan.
It wasn’t something Ewan hadn’t contemplated himself, but he would not rest until his son was found—dead or alive.
Ewan turned to his brothers, Alaric and Caelen. “I cannot afford to send every man in search of Crispen,” he said in a low voice. “To do so would leave us vulnerable. I trust you two with my life—with my son’s life. I want you each to take a contingent of men and ride in different directions. Bring him home to me. ”
Alaric, the second oldest of the McCabe brothers, nodded. “You know we won’t rest until he is found. ”
“Aye, I know,” Ewan said.
Ewan watched as the two strode off, shouting orders to their men. He closed his eyes and curled his fingers into fists of rage. Who dared take his son? For three days he’d waited for a ransom demand, only none had been forthcoming. For three days he’d scoured every inch of McCabe land and beyond.
Was this a precursor to an attack? Were his enemies plotting to hit him when he was weak? When every available soldier would be involved in the search?
His jaw hardened as he gazed around his crumbling keep. For eight years he’d struggled to keep his clan alive and strong. The McCabe name had always been synonymous with power and pride. Eight years ago they’d withstood a crippling attack. Betrayed by the woman Caelen loved. Ewan’s father and young wife had been killed, their child surviving only because he’d been hidden by one of the servants.
Almost nothing had been left when he and his brothers had returned. Just a hulking mass of ruins, his people scattered to the winds, his army nearly decimated.
There had been nothing for Ewan to take over when he became laird.
It had taken this long to rebuild. His soldiers were the best trained in the highlands. He and his brothers worked brutal hours to make sure there was food for the oldting ork, the women, and the children. Many times the men went without. And silently they grew, adding to their numbers until, finally, Ewan had begun to turn their struggling clan around.
Soon, his thoughts could turn to revenge. Nay, that wasn’t accurate. Revenge had been all that sustained him for these past eight years. There wasn’t a day he hadn’t thought about it.
“Laird, I bring news of your son. ”
Ewan whipped around to see one of his soldiers hurrying up to him, his tunic dusty as though he’d just gotten off his horse.
“Speak,” he commanded.
“One of the McDonalds came upon your son three days ago along the northern border of your land. He took him, intending to deliver him to their laird so he could ransom the boy. Only, the boy escaped. No one has seen him since. ”
Ewan trembled with rage. “Take eight soldiers and ride to McDonald. Deliver him this message. He will present the soldier who took my son to the entrance of my keep or he signs his own death warrant. If he doesn’t comply, I will come for him myself. I will kill him. And it won’t be quick. Do not leave a word out of my message. ”
The soldier bowed. “Aye, Laird. ”
He turned and hurried off, leaving Ewan with a mix of relief and rage. Crispen was alive, or at least he had been. McDonald was a fool for breaching their tacit peace agreement. Though the two clans could hardly be considered allies, McDonald wasn’t stupid enough to incite the wrath of Ewan McCabe. His keep might be crumbling, and his people might not be the best-fed clan, but his might had been restored twofold.
His soldiers were a deadly fighting force to be reckoned with, and those close enough to Ewan’s holdings realized it. But Ewan’s sights weren’t on his neighbors. They were on Duncan Cameron. Ewan wouldn’t be happy until the whole of Scotland dripped with Cameron’s blood.
Mairin gazed wearily at the looming keep as they rode through the final stone skirt and into the courtyard. Thoughts of escape deteriorated as she stared helplessly at the massive holding. It was impenetrable.
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 heconsidered 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.