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Rebellion, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  "You're the only MacGregor I know." Before Coll could begin an oration on his clan, Brigham asked quickly, "What of your family, Coll?

  You'll be pleased to see them again."

  "It's been a long year. Not that I haven't enjoyed the sights of Rome and Paris, but when a man's born in the Highlands, he prefers to die there." Coll drank deeply, thinking of purple moors and deep blue locks. "I know the family is well from the last letter my mother sent me, but I'll feel better seeing for myself. Malcolm will be nigh on ten now, and a hellion, I'm told." He grinned, full of pride. "Then so are we all."

  "You told me your sister was an angel."

  "Gwen." The tenderness invaded his voice. "Little Gwen. So she is, sweet-tempered, patient, pretty as new cream."

  "I'm looking forward to meeting her."

  "And still in the schoolroom," Coll told him. "I'll be around to see you don't forget it." A little hazy with ale, Brigham tilted back in his chair. "You've another sister."

  "Serena." Coll jiggled the dice box in his palm. "God knows the lass was misnamed. A wildcat she is, and I've the scars to prove it. Serena MacGregor has the devil's own temper and a quick fist."

  "But is she pretty?"

  "She's not hard to look at," said her brother. "My mother tells me the boys have started courting this past year, and Serena sends them off with boxed ears, scrambling for cover."

  "Perhaps they have yet to find the, ah, proper way to court her."

  "Hah! I crossed her once, and she grabbed my grandfather's claymore from the wall and chased me into the forest." The pride came through, if not the tenderness. "I pity the man who sets his sights on her."

  "An amazon." Brigham pictured a strapping, ruddy-cheeked girl with Coll's broad features and wild red hair. Healthy as a milkmaid, he imagined, and just as sassy. "I prefer the milder sort."

  "Isn't a mild bone in her body, but she's true." The ale was swimming in Coll's head, but that didn't stop him from lifting the tankard again. "I told you about the night the dragoons came to Glenroe."


  Coll's eyes darkened with the memory. "After they'd finished shaming my mother and firing roofs, Serena nursed her. She was hardly more than a bairn herself, but she got my mother into bed and tended her and the children until we returned. There was a braise on her face where that black bastard had knocked her aside, but she didn't cry. She sat, dry-eyed, and told us the whole." Brigham laid a hand over his friend's. "The time's past for revenge, Coll, but not for justice."

  "I'll take both," Coll murmured, and tossed the dice again.

  They started out early the next morning. Brigham's head ached, but the cold, blustery air soon cleared it. They went on horseback, allowing the coach to follow at a sedate pace.

  Now they were truly in the land he'd been told of as a child. It was wild and rough, with crags rising high and moors spread out and desolate. Prominent peaks pierced the milky gray of the sky, sometimes cut through with tumbling waterfalls and icy rivers thick with fish. In other places rocks were tumbled as though they had been dice rolled by a careless hand. It seemed an ancient place, one for gods and fairies, yet he saw an occasional cottage, smoke belching from the central opening in the thatch. The ground was heaped with snow, and the wind blew it in sheets across the road. At times they were nearly blinded by it as Coll led the way up the rising, rut-filled hills. Caves opened out of rock. Here and there were signs that shelter had been taken in them. Lakes, their waters a dark, dangerous blue, were crusted at the edges with ice. The effects of the ale were whisked away by a damp cold that stung the air and penetrated even the layers of a greatcoat.

  They rode hard when the land permitted, then picked their way through snowdrifts as high as a man's waist. Cautious, they bypassed the forts the English had built and avoided the hospitality that would have been given unhesitatingly at any cottage. Hospitality, Coll had warned Brigham, would include questions about every aspect of their journey, their families and their destination. Strangers were rare in the Highlands, and prized for their news as much as their company.

  Rather than risk the details of their journey being passed from village to village, they kept to the rougher roads and hills before stopping at a tavern to rest the horses and take their midday meal. The floors were dirt, the chimney no more than a hole in the roof that kept as much smoke in as it let out. The single cramped room smelled of its occupants and of yesterday's fish. It was hardly a spot the fourth earl of Ashburn would be likely to frequent, but the fire was hot and the meat almost fresh. Beneath the greatcoat, which now hung drying in front of the fire, Brigham wore dun-colored riding breeches and a shirt of fine lawn with his plainest riding coat. But though it might be plain, it fit without a wrinkle over his broad shoulders, and its buttons were silver. His boots had been dulled a bit by the weather but were unmistakably of good leather. His thick mane of hair was tied back with a riband, and on his narrow hands he wore his family seal and an emerald. He was hardly dressed in his best court attire, but nonetheless he drew stares and curious whispers.

  "They don't see the likes of you in this hole," Coll said. Comfortable in his kilt and bonnet, with the pine sprig of his clan tucked into the band, he dug hungrily into his meat pie.

  "Apparently." Brigham ate lazily, but his eyes, behind half-closed lids, remained alert. "Such admiration would delight my tailor."

  "Oh, it's only partly the clothes." Coll raised his bicker of ale to drain it, and thought pleasantly of the whiskey he would share with his father that night. "You would look like an earl if you wore rags." Anxious to be off, he tossed coins on the table. "The horses should be rested; let's be off. We're skirting Campbell country." Coll's manners were too polished to allow him to spit, but he would have liked to.

  "I'd prefer not to dally."

  Three men left the tavern before them, letting in a blast of cold and beautifully fresh air. It had become difficult for Coll to contain his impatience. Now that he was back in the Highlands, he wanted nothing so much as to see his own home, his own family. The road twisted and climbed, occasionally winding by a huddle of cottages and cattle grazing on the rough, uneven ground. Men living here would have to keep an eye out for wildcat and badgers. Though they had hours to ride, he could almost scent home—the forest, with its red deer and tawny owls. There would be a feast that night, and cups raised in toasts. London, with its crowded streets and fussy manners, was behind him. Trees were scarce, only the little junipers pushing through on the leeside of boulders. In Scotland, even the brush had a difficult time surviving. Now and then they rode by a rumbling river or stream, to be challenged by the eerie, consuming silence that followed. The skies had cleared to a hard, brilliant blue. Above, majestic and glorious, a golden eagle circled.


  Beside Coll, Brigham had suddenly gone rigid. Coll's horse reared as Brigham pulled out his sword. "Guard your flank," he shouted, then wheeled to face two riders who had burst out from behind a tumble of rock.

  They rode sturdy garrons, shaggy Scottish ponies, and though their tartans were dulled with age and dirt, the blades of their fighting swords shone in the midafternoon sun. Brigham had only time enough to note that the men who charged had been in the tavern before there was the crash of steel against steel.

  Beside him, Coll wielded his sword against two more. The high hills rang with the sounds of battle, the thunder of hooves against hard-packed ground. Gliding overhead, the eagle circled and waited.

  The attackers had misjudged their quarry in Brigham. His hands were narrow, his body slender as a dancer's, but his wrists were both wiry and supple. Using his knees to guide his mount, he fought with a sword in one hand and a dagger in the other. There might have been jewels on the hilts, but the blades were fashioned to kill.

  He heard Coll shout and swear. For himself, he fought in deadly silence. Steel scraped as he defended himself, crashed when he took the offensive, driving at one foe and outmaneuvering the other. His eyes, usually a calm, clear gra
y, had darkened and narrowed like those of a wolf that scents blood. He gave his opponent's sword one final, vicious parry and ran his own blade home. The Scot screamed, but the sound lasted no more than a heartbeat. Blood splattered the snow as the man fell. His pony, frightened by the smell of death, ran clattering up the rocks. The other man, wild-eyed, renewed his attack with more ferocity and fear than finesse. The violence of the advance nearly cut through Brigham's guard, and he felt the sting of the sword on his shoulder and the warm flow of blood where the point had ripped layers of clothing and found flesh. Brigham countered with swift, steady strokes, driving his quarry back and back, toward the rocks. His eyes stayed on his opponent's face, never flickering, never wavering. With cool-headed precision, he parried and thrust and pierced the heart. Before the man had nit the ground, he was swinging back toward Coll. It was one on one now, for another of the attackers lay dead behind Coll, and Brigham took time to draw a deep breath. Then he saw Coll's horse slip, nearly stumble. He saw the blade flash and was racing toward his friend. The last man of the band of attackers looked up to see the horse and rider bearing down on him. With his three comrades dead, he wheeled the pony and scrambled up the rocks.

  "Coll! Are you hurt?"

  "Aye, by God. Bloody Campbell." He struggled not to slump in the saddle. His side, where the sword had pierced it, was on fire. Brigham sheathed his sword. "Let me see to it."

  "No time. That jackal may come back with more." Coll took out a handkerchief and pressed it to the wound, then brought his gloved hand back. It was sticky but steady. "I'm not done yet." His eyes, still bright from battle, met Brigham's. "We'll be home by dusk." With that, he sent his horse into a gallop.

  They rode hard, with Brigham keeping one eye out for another ambush and the other on Coll. The big Scot was pale, but his pace never faltered. Only once, at Brigham's insistence, did they stop so that the wound could be bound more satisfactorily. Brigham didn't like what he saw. The wound was deep, and Coll had lost far too much blood. Still, his friend was in a fever to reach Glenroe and his family, and Brigham would not have known where else to find help. Coll accepted the flask Brigham put to his lips and drank deeply. When the color seeped back into his face, Brigham helped him into the saddle. They dropped down out of the hills into the forest at dusk, when the shadows were long and wavering. It smelled of pine and snow, with a faint wisp of smoke from a cottage farther on. A hare dashed across the path, then crashed through the brush. Behind it, like a flash, came a merlin. Winter berries, as big as thumbs, clung to thorny limbs.

  Brigham knew Coll's strength was flagging, and he paused long enough to make him drink again.

  "I ran through this forest as a child," Coll rasped. His breathing came quickly, but the brandy eased the pain. He'd be damned if he would die before the true fighting began. "Hunted in it, stole my first kiss in it. For the life of me, I can't think why I ever left it."

  "To come back a hero," Brigham said as he corked the flask.

  Coll gave a laugh that turned into a cough. "Aye. There's been a MacGregor in the Highlands since God put us here, and here we stay." He turned to Brigham with a hint of the old arrogance. "You may be an earl, but my race is royal."

  "And you're shedding your royal blood all over the forest. To home, Coll."

  They rode at an easy canter. When they passed the first cottages, cries went out. Out of houses, some fashioned from wood and stone, others built out of no more than mud and grass, people came. Though the pain was streaking up his side, Coll saluted. They crested a hill, and both men saw MacGregor House.

  There was smoke winding out of the chimneys. Behind the glazed windows lamps, just lighted, were glowing. The sky to the west was ablaze with the last lights of the sun, and the blue slate glowed and seemed to turn to silver. It rose four stories, graced with turrets and towers, a house fashioned as much for war as for comfort. The roofs were of varying height, strung together in a confused yet somehow charming style.

  There was a barn in the clearing, along with other outbuildings and grazing cattle. From somewhere came the hollow barking of a dog. Behind them more people had come out of their homes. Out of one ran a woman, her basket empty. Brigham heard her shout and turned. And stared.

  She was wrapped in a plaid like a mantle. In one hand she held a basket that swung wildly as she ran; the other hand held the hem of her skirt, and he could see the flash of petticoats and long legs. She was laughing as she ran, and her scarf fell down around her shoulders, leaving hair the color of the sunset flying behind her.

  Her skin was like alabaster, though flushed now from delight and cold. Her features had been carved with a delicate hand, but the mouth was full and rich. Brigham could only stare and think of the shepherdess he had loved and admired as a child.

  "Coll!" Her voice was low, filled with the music of laughter, rich with the burr of Scotland. Ignoring the horse's dancing impatience, she gripped the bridle and turned up a face that made Brigham's mouth turn dry. "I've had the fidgets all day and should have known you were the cause. We had no word you were coming. Did you forget how to write or were you too lazy?"

  "A fine way to greet your brother." Coll would have bent down to kiss her, but her face was swimming in front of his eyes. "The least you can do is show some manners to my friend. Brigham Langston, Lord Ashburn, my sister, Serena." Not hard to look at? For once, Brigham thought, Coll hadn't exaggerated. Far from it. "Miss MacGregor." But Serena didn't spare him a glance. "Coll, what is it? You're hurt." Even as she reached for him he slid from the saddle to her feet.

  "Oh, God, what's this?" She pushed aside his coat and found the hastily bound wound.

  "It's opened again." Brigham knelt beside her. "We should get him inside." Serena's head shot up as she raked Brigham with rapier-sharp green eyes. It wasn't fear in them, but fury. "Take your hands off him, English swine." She shoved him aside and cradled her brother against her breast. With her own plaid she pressed against the wound to slow the bleeding. "How is it my brother comes home near death and you ride in with your fine sword sheathed and nary a scratch?" Coll might have underplayed her beauty, Brigham decided as his mouth set, but not her temperament. "I think that's best explained after Coll's seen to."

  "Take your explanations back to London." When he gathered Coll up to carry him, she all but pounced on him. "Leave him be, damn you. I won't have you touching what's mine."

  He let his gaze run up and down her until her cheeks glowed. "Believe me, madam," he said, stiffly polite, "I've no desire to. If you'll see to the horses, Miss MacGregor, I'll take your brother in."

  She started to speak again, but one look at Coll's white face had her biting back the words. With his greatcoat flapping around him and Coll in his arms, Brigham started toward the house.

  Serena remembered the last time an Englishman had walked into her home. Snatching the reins of both horses, she hurried after Brigham, cursing him.

  Chapter Two

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  There was little time for introductions. Brigham was greeted at the door by a gangly black-haired serving girl who ran off wringing her hands and shouting for Lady MacGregor. Fiona came in, her cheeks flushed from the kitchen fire. At the sight of her son unconscious in the arms of a stranger, she went pale.

  "Coll. Is he—"

  "No, my lady, but the wound's severe."

  With one very slender hand, she touched her son's face. "Please, if you'd bring him upstairs." She went ahead, calling out orders for water and bandages. "In here." After pushing open a door, she looked over Brigham's shoulder. "Gwen, thank God. Coll's been wounded."

  Gwen, smaller and more delicately built than her mother and sister, hurried into the room. "Light the lamps, Molly," she told the serving girl. "I'll need plenty of light." She was already pressing a hand to her brother's brow. "He's feverish." His blood stained his plaid and ran red on the linen. "Can you help me off with his clothes?"

  With a nod, Brigham began to work with her. She coolly s
ent for medicines and bowls of water, stacks of linen were rushed in. The young girl didn't swoon at the sword wound as Brigham had feared, but competently began to clean and treat it. Even under her gentle hands, Coll began to mutter and thrash.

  "Hold this, if you please." Gwen gestured for Brigham to hold the pad she'd made against the wound while she poured syrup of poppies into a wooden cup. Fiona supported her son's head while Gwen eased the potion past his lips. She murmured to him as she sat again and stitched up the wound without flinching.

  "He's lost a lot of blood," she told her mother as she worked. "We'll have to mind the fever." Already Fiona was bathing her son's head with a cool cloth.

  "He's strong. We won't lose him now." Fiona straightened and brushed at the hair that had fallen around her face. "I'm grateful to you for bringing him," she told Brigham. "Will you tell me what happened?"

  "We were attacked a few miles south of here. Coll believes it was Campbells."

  "I see." Her lips tightened, but her voice remained calm. "I must apologize for not even offering you a chair or a hot drink. I'm Coll's mother, Fiona MacGregor."

  "I'm Coll's friend, Brigham Langston."

  Fiona managed a smile but kept her son's limp hand in hers. "The earl of Ashburn, of course. Coll wrote of you. Please, let me have Molly take your coat and fetch you some refreshment."

  "He's English." Serena stood in the doorway. She'd taken off her plaid. All she wore now was a simple homespun dress of dark blue wool.

  "I'm aware of that, Serena." Fiona turned her strained smile back to Brigham. "Your coat, Lord Ashburn. You've had a long journey. I'm sure you'll want a hot meal and some rest." When he drew off his coat, Fiona's gaze went to his shoulder. "Oh, you're wounded."

  "Not badly."

  "A scratch," Serena said as she flicked her gaze over it. She would have moved past him to her brother, but a look from Fiona stopped her.

  "Take our guest down to the kitchen and tend to his hurts."

  "I'd sooner bandage a rat."

  "You'll do as I say, and you'll show the proper courtesy to a guest in our home." The steel came into her voice. "Once his wounds are tended, see that he has a proper meal."

  "Lady MacGregor, it isn't necessary."

  "Forgive me, my lord, it's quite necessary. You'll forgive me for not tending to you myself." She picked up the cloth for Coll's head again.


  "Very well, Mother, for you." Serena turned, giving a very small and deliberately insulting curtsy. "If you please, Lord Ashburn." He followed her down through a house far smaller than Ashburn Manor, and neat as a pin. They wound around a hallway and down two narrow flights because she chose to take him down the back stairs. Still, he paid little notice as he watched Serena's stiff back. There were rich smells in the kitchen, spices, meat, from the kettle hung by a chain over the fire, the aroma of pies just baked. Serena indicated a small, spindle-legged chair.

  "Please be seated, my lord."

  He did, and only by the slightest flicker of his eyes did he express his feelings when she ripped the sleeve from his shirt. "I hope you don't faint at the sight of blood, Miss MacGregor."

  "It's more likely you will at the sight of your mutilated shirt, Lord Ashburn." She tossed the ruined sleeve aside and brought back a bowl of hot water and some clean cloths.

  It was more than a scratch. English though he might be, she felt a bit ashamed of herself. He'd obviously opened the wound when he'd carried Coll inside. As she stanched the blood that had begun to run freely, she saw that the cut measured six inches or more along a well-muscled forearm.

  His flesh was warm and smooth in her hands. He smelled not of perfumes and powders, as she imagined all Englishmen did, but of horses and sweat and blood. Oddly enough, it stirred something in her and made her fingers gentler than she'd intended. She had the face of an angel, he thought as she bent over him. And the soul of a witch. An interesting combination, Brigham decided as he caught a whiff of lavender. The kind of mouth made for kissing, paired with hostile eyes designed to tear holes in a man. How would her hair feel, bunched in a man's hands? He had an urge to stroke it, just to see her reaction. But one wound, he told himself, was enough for one day.

  She worked competently and in silence, cleaning the wound and dabbing on one of Gwen's herbal mixtures. The scent was pleasant, and made her think of the forest and flowers. Serena hardly noticed that his English blood was on her fingers. She reached for the bandages. He shifted. All at once they were face-to-face, as close as a man and woman can come without embracing. She felt his breath feather across her lips and was surprised by the quick flutter of her heart. She noticed his eyes were gray, darker than they had been when he'd coolly assessed her on the road. His mouth was beautiful, curved now with the beginnings of a smile that changed his sharp-featured aristocratic face into something approachable.

  She thought she felt his fingers on her hair but was certain she was mistaken. For a moment, perhaps two, her mind went blank and she could only look at him and wonder.

  "Will I live?" he murmured.

  There it was, that English voice, mocking, smug. She needed nothing else to drag her out of whatever spell his eyes had cast. She smiled at him and yanked the bandage tight enough to make him jerk.

  "Oh, pardon, my lord," she said with a flutter of lashes. "Have I hurt you?" He gave her a mild look and thought it would be satisfying to throttle her. "Pray don't regard it."

  "I will not." She rose to remove the bowl of bloodstained water. "Odd, isn't it, that English blood runs so thin?"

  "I hadn't noticed. The Scottish blood I shed today looked pale to me."

  She whirled back. "If it was Campbell blood, you rid the world of another badger, but I won't be grateful to you for that, or anything."

  "You cut me to the quick, my lady, when your gratitude is what I live for."

  She snatched up a wooden bowl—though her mother would have meant for her to use the delft or the china—and scooped out stew and slapped it down so that more than a little slopped over the sides. She poured him ale and tossed a couple of oatcakes on a platter. A pity they weren't stale.

  "Your supper, my lord. Have a care not to choke on it." He rose then, and for the first time she noticed that he was nearly as tall as her brother, though he carried less muscle and brawn. "Your brother warned me you were ill-tempered." She set her fist on her hip, eyeing him from under lashes shades darker than her tumbled hair. "That's fortunate for you, my lord, so you'll know better than to cross me."

  He stepped toward her. It couldn't be helped, given his temper and his penchant for fighting face-to-face. She tilted her chin as if braced, even anxious, for the bout. "If you've a mind to chase me into the wood with your