Copyright © 2013 by Olivia Stocum
All rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without the written permission of the author, except where permitted by law. Reviewers may quote brief excerpts in connection with a review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidences are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is coincidental.
Cover Design by Stephanie White
“Olivia has crafted an adventurous love story with two unforgettable characters. Her vivid descriptions paint an epic journey of boundless love between two souls who must become one. Her tender and poetic prose reminded me of the book, Cold Mountain.”
~Stan Bednarz, award winning author of Miracle on Snowbird Lake.
“What do you get when you add the beautiful 1600s Scottish countryside, men in kilts, and the women who love them to a story that features a virile, cloaked defender known only as Blackhawk? An exciting, captivating page-turner by Olivia Stocum, that’s what! DAWNING has a home on my ‘keepers’ shelf!”
~ Loree Lough, bestselling author of 100 award-winning books, including the A Child to Love series from Harlequin’s new Heartwarming line.
To my real-life hero, for soaking my tears on his shoulders.
If that isn’t true love, then it doesn’t exist.
“Aren’t you going to spar with me?” Triona MacAlastair lowered her dagger to her side. Russet skirts skimmed cobblestones as she shifted from one foot to the other.
Every afternoon, weather permitting, Ronan gave her a lesson in self-defense, but today he had something else in mind, and it didn’t involve the wooden practice sword in his hand. He squinted into the sun while topiaries shaped like dancing centaurs mocked him. Male sparrows darted from shrub to shrub, their females following them and chirping as if giving Ronan advice. Tossing aside the wooden sword, he took a deep breath and tried to force his pulse down.
She lifted her brows. “What is it?”
“We need to talk.”
“About?” She sheathed her dagger at her hip and caught up her hair, smoothing her hands over the blonde waves trailing past her waist.
How could he explain himself to her? He’d gone over it a thousand times, reciting the perfect words to his horse, Goliath, until he had them memorized. Now he couldn’t remember them at all. His head ached and he rubbed his temples.
“I am leaving the clan.” Nay, that wasn’t the way he’d planned it at all. Think, Ronan. “I am leaving . . . because I wish to see you properly provided for. I will make my way as a mercenary.” Blast it, now he remembered. He was going to sit her down and pledge his devotion on bended knee. “You have a way of addling me.”
“I know.” She plucked a hard, green apple off a tree, throwing it at another tree, splitting it in two with a crack.
Ronan looked over her head at the stone towers of MacAlastair Hall, looming beyond the garden wall, banners snapping in the breeze. Men in green plaids with blue stripes labored over a section of the roof. It was a drafty, leaky, outdated castle, but in the Highlands, one learned to make do.
He wanted more for her. Maybe they would never make it out of the Highlands, he doubted he could convince her to leave anyway, but he could make sure the children they would one day have never starved.
“I’m not sure about this talk of leaving.” She toed a pebble. “But I will marry you, even if you did not actually propose.”
She always had a way of seeing through his idiocy. “I meant to.”
“I know. I overheard you in the stable proposing to Goliath months ago. What took you so long?”
It wasn’t the proposal so much as his plans to leave her. He knew she wouldn’t take them well. “I was going to ask you right there.” He pointed to a stone bench hedged in by yellow roses.
“What would you have said?”
“I would have sat you down.” Catching her hand, he led her toward the bench.
She tucked her skirts under her as she settled herself on the granite seat. “And then?”
He came down on one knee. “And then I would have said, Triona MacAlastair, would you do me the honor of being my wife?”
She squeezed his hand. “And I would have accepted.” Standing, she pulled him up with her. “When will you ask my father about our betrothal?”
“Today.” He tucked his arms around her. Triona’s hands slid to his forearms. His sleeves were pushed back and her fingers fanned over his skin. Ronan took in her scent of heather and primroses.
She tilted her face back. “I don’t need money. Just stay here, with me.”
By the saints, but he was tempted. “I wish I could.” He leaned in and kissed her. It wasn’t their first kiss. Ronan had been happy to take advantage of a stolen moment in the garden, or a secluded niche. And she’d been willing to oblige him.
Groaning, he urged her back. “I cannot stay.” He brushed her hair away from her face. “We will both regret it if I do.”
“What is out there that you canna have here?”
“All that I canna give you now, as your father’s man.”
“Not just his man, you are Clan Champion. There is a difference.”
“Aye.” It gave him the leverage he needed to marry her. “But you still lower yourself.”
“I dinna wish to hear anything about your parents, not ever again. Your father could have been the Devil and your mother fey, and I wouldna care.”
“Ronan? Triona?” It was her cousin, William, coming down the path. A breeze rustled the young man’s green and blue plaid. At first glance, Ronan and William could have been brothers. They dressed the same, and they both carried a sword and a pistol, and had dark, shoulder-length hair. But within their veins coursed different blood. William’s of a noble line. Ronan’s from illegitimate origins. Unlike Ronan, William could secure Triona’s place among her clan for life. And all he would have to do was marry her.
“Ronan thinks he’s leaving us,” she said. “Can you believe it?”
“But why?” William asked.
“He wants more than we can offer.”
“Och, that isna true,” William said, looking at Ronan with a warning in his gray eyes.
William was protective of his little cousin. Too protective. It made Ronan want to take Triona somewhere far away, where no other man could be near her. A tower, perhaps. He smiled to himself. With eunuchs for guards.
Ronan took Triona’s hand. “Give us a moment,” he told William. “We will catch up with you shortly.”
“But I just found you.” William glanced from between them. “How long do your lessons . . .” He cleared his throat and rubbed the back of his neck. “I will be nearby. Dinna tarry.” He disappeared behind an evergreen hedgerow.
Triona pulled her hand free from Ronan’s. Her eyes were accusing. “What has gotten into you? He only wanted to spend some time with us. Did you see his face? You have hurt his feelings.”
Ronan laughed. “Feelings? If he canna stomach rejection, then it’s past time he learned how.” He ran his hands through his hair. “Come here.”
She eyed him. “Was that a command?”
He blew out a breath. “It was a request.”
The wind tossed her hair and she gathered it in her hands. “I’m still angry with you.”
“Angry enough that you will not get the kiss you think you need.”
“Then I will settle for a hug.” He held out his arms.
She smiled and tucked herself against him. “You better be glad you are worth all the trouble.”
He snorted. “Doubtful.”
Pressing her cheek against his neck, she shushed him. “No more of it. And no more talk of leaving.”
Ronan wished he could stay, wanted nothing more, but he couldn’t take the risk. He knew what it was like, to be a child barefoot in the snow. He must provide for her, and he knew this was the only way.
Ronan sank down on the creaky wooden stool before the desk in his laird’s study. Through an open window came shouts from the training field, as well as occasional ping of a hammer from the roof. Despite the soft breeze, a faint hint of mold met his nose.
“I don’t suppose anything I do will change your mind,” Laird Douglas MacAlastair said.
Ronan wondered what Triona had told her father? He should have warned her not to say anything. He resisted the urge to squirm under his laird’s steely gray-eyed gaze.
“And aye, my daughter was here earlier.” Laird Douglas leaned back in his padded chair. “She told me you would ask for leave.”
Of course she had. “I would prefer to leave with your blessing, my laird.”
“I know, lad. I’ve always believed freedom is a gift. When I was your age, Brian and I . . . You do remind me so much of my step-brother.” He unlocked a drawer in his desk. Taking out a leather pouch, he tossed it at Ronan.
Coins chinked as he caught it.
“Your wages,” Laird Douglas said. “No more and no less than what you have coming. I will have Mark take your place until you return.”
Replaced. Years of risking his hide, and he was replaced in the blink of an eye. “Thank you.” Ronan closed his hand around the supple calfskin, disappointment souring in his stomach. Of course, he wanted permission to take leave, but he had no idea it would be so easy. The pouch seemed heavier than he’d expected. He opened his mouth to question it when Laird Douglas leaned over his scarred chestnut desk.
“Now say what else is on your mind, and do it with haste,” Laird Douglas said. “This is no easier for me than it is for you.”
Acid worked upward from Ronan’s stomach and burned the back of his throat. He tightened his grip around the coin pouch. “Triona told you about us.”
Laird Douglas shook his head. “She did not have to. I’d have to be blind not to know.”
Ronan considered his lessons with Triona in the garden, their glances across the great hall. The dark alcoves that shielded their activities from view. Aye, he’d stolen everything save her virginity, told her about things he had no right to until their wedding night. He should have been more careful. “My laird-”
“Just say it.”
“When I return,” Ronan’s voice sounded more confident than he felt, so he pressed on, “I will marry her.” Sweet Lord, but he was the village idiot. “That is if you are willing, my laird.”
Laird Douglas’s gaze hardened. Ronan waited, his fingernails digging into the leather pouch. Then Laird Douglas smiled and unlaced his fingers. “Agreed, on one condition. My daughter will be yours the moment I am ready to give her away. Not a moment sooner. She may be eighteen, but she is still too young in so many ways.”
Based on the way she kissed, Ronan begged to differ. She was very much grown. Maybe too grown. He shifted and the blasted stool creaked.
“Two years,” Laird Douglas said. “Then you may marry her.”
Ronan had two years to gather his fortune. “I understand. I shall return two summers hence.” Perhaps it would be best if he left as soon as possible. The sooner he could return to Triona, the better. “I would like to leave tomorrow.”
“She willna be pleased with you.”
“She will be unhappy either way.”
He chuckled. “Aye, she will. Verra well.” He rose from his seat and straightened the swath of plaid across his barrel chest. “I will not detain you. You are your own man, son.”
Ronan stood. “Aye, my laird.”
“Watch your back. Guard you soul.” Laird Douglas clamped a hand on his shoulder, his weathered face crinkling. “You are well trained. Your steed is fine and your sword sharp and I . . .” He dropped his hand to his side and turned away. “Go now. This is finished.”
Ronan hesitated. “My laird?”
“Go now.” Laird Douglas stood before the window, fingers clamped around the casing. He cleared his throat.
Ronan turned. Aye, if a whoreson with little more to his name than a sword and his horse came asking for his daughter’s hand, he’d want to be rid of him too.
He opened the door and Triona spilled onto the wooden floor, arms spread out to catch her fall. She gaped at Ronan, her hooped skirts billowed out around her. A blush stained her cheeks and she backpedaled on her hands and knees until she sat on her rump. She had changed for supper and was immersed in a sea of blue wool, a green arisaid with wide blue stripes pinned at her shoulder. Her hair was braided and hung down her back.
Ronan shot a glance at her accomplice, William. “Listening through key holes, are we?”
William rubbed the back of his neck. “Not the entire time.”
Triona clamped her hands on her thighs to keep the hoops in her skirts down. William reached out to help her to her feet, then stiffened and backed away. Gaze fixed on the ceiling, he whistled a battle march.
“How can you leave? Think about this,” Triona said. “Think about what you are doing.”
As appropriate as William’s tune was, it was also annoying. Ronan glared at him and he stopped, lips puckered for a moment before releasing. Ronan lifted Triona up by the elbow, her skirts swinging back and brushing the skin between his plaid and the top of his boots. He looked her over. “Did you hurt yourself?”
“Nay.” Triona’s gaze flicked to her father, then back to Ronan. He squeezed her arm and hoped she wouldn’t cause any trouble for her father.
“Father, talk some sense into him.” She pulled away, the scent of heather and primroses lingering behind her. She grasped her father’s sleeve. “Order him to stay.”
Laird Douglas placed a hand on either of her shoulders and looked her in the face. He spoke in a whisper, but Ronan heard the words, “Accept it.” Her father turned her around.
She clamped her teeth over her lower lip, her eyes moist. It made Ronan’s stomach ache. He wanted to comfort her, but the only way he could think of involved his hands, and he wasn’t about to touch her like that in front of her father.
“Why do you not take this into the corridor,” Laird Douglas said, hooking his thumb in the swath of plaid across his torso. He couldn’t have had better timing.
Triona brushed past Ronan and into the hallway, her chin lifted and her lip red from biting it. Ronan followed and closed the door. William stood across from them, shifting from foot to foot as if he wasn’t sure whether to stay or leave.
“Dinna fight with me about this,” Ronan said.
She turned to William. “Talk to him, cousin.”
“I canna stop him.” William averted his eyes.
Triona groaned. Ronan often admired her stubbornness, it made her strong, but there were times when he would rather do without it.
“How could you?” she asked.
“We have already been through this.”
William cleared his throat. “I am going with you.” His voice echoed in the corridor. A door slammed.
Why would William want to accompany him? “Stay here where you belong,” Ronan said. He moved past William, Triona following along close to his shoulder. Late afternoon sun screened through arched windows. The scent of roasted fowl, onions, and oat bread drifted up the narrow stairwell, but he felt no hunger.
“You willna leave without me,” William said.
Ronan turned, Triona slamming into his chest. He took her by the upper arms. “Are you-”
She held up her hand. “I will be fine.” She wiggled her nose. “All things considered.”
“We have always watched each other’s backs,” William said, as if he’d rehearsed the line.
“Do not leave at all.” Triona glared.
Ronan rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. He had plans. He’d hire himself out to the highest bidder, then when he had enough money—hopefully within two years—he’d return and marry her. Why couldn’t they trust him? “You are heir apparent. Do not do this.”
“We trained together. We fight together.” William’s jaw worked.
They’d known each other since they were both callow lads with wooden practice swords and big dreams. William had even distracted Triona’s father once so Ronan wouldn’t be caught curled up with her in an alcove. But Triona still thought of William as her best friend, and it made Ronan uncomfortable.
On second thought, maybe it would be best not to leave William behind with her.
“I am going with you,” William said.
His face fell. “Need you ask?”
Triona cleared her throat and Ronan looked at her. “He is your friend,” she mouthed.
He shifted on his feet, his chest tight. He’d known William for too long to allow a woman to come between them. “Aye. I suppose it would be all right, assuming your uncle will spare you.”
Triona tucked her fingers into Ronan’s hand. “I need to talk to you.”
“No more arguments.”
She closed her eyes, took a breath, then opened them again. “No arguments.”
“Leave us for a moment,” he told William.
“Aye.” William turned down the corridor, sat on a stone bench, and held his hands over his ears.
Ronan nodded and turned back to Triona. “What did you want to tell me?”
She walked to an arrow-slit window and rested her hand on the stone wall. “There is the matter of women and fidelity.”
He had to move closer so he could hear her. Was she saying what he thought she was saying? He grinned. “Are you asking me to save myself for you?”
She blew out a loud breath. “By the saints.”
Ronan tugged on the end of her braid.
She turned, green eyes searching his. “Tell me I do not ask too much.”
“Are you testing me?” He wanted to pull her into his arms and kiss her senseless. But William was there. All Ronan had to work with were his words. Which were rarely enough. “Aye,” he said. “I will wait for you.”
“I’ll brush my own hair tonight,” Triona said.
“Sweetling?” Fanny’s brown eyes were sympathetic and her graying curls disheveled around her face. Triona’s stomach pricked with guilt. Fanny had all but raised her after her mother died. The woman just wanted to make sure she would be all right.
She took Fanny’s hand. “Don’t mind me. I need some time to myself. I never expected this. How could he leave?”
“Men put us through such grief.” Fanny pulled out a handkerchief and pushed it into Triona’s hand. “Have a good cry then. If you need anything, do be sure and send for me.”
The door closed and Triona slid into the chair before her dressing table. Her tears flowed hot on her skin. Sobs rose from her chest and shook her body as she cradled her face in her hands.
“Lord, be with him. I will not love another. I swear I will not.” A hiccup contracted her diaphragm. “Unless it is your will for me to be an old maid, then you need to bring him back to me. He is a daft lad who knows not what is best for him.” She nodded. “Me. I am best for him.” She set the handkerchief on her table, determined to be strong, the way she was after her mother died.
Triona unwound the cord from her braid.
She stopped and stared at her rope of hair, her heart climbing in her throat. Her sheathed dagger was on the table and it beckoned her. Her father found Ronan three months after the ague claimed her mother. Ronan had been twelve at the time, and she ten. She pulled the weapon free and lifted it to her plait of hair. She’d poured everything, her broken heart, unfulfilled expectations, into that orphaned boy. She squeezed her eyes shut and cut through her locks.
Trapped in her hair were years of memories.
Ronan could take them with him, and maybe, maybe, they would help guide him home.
She crossed the room and opened her pine chest, then rummaged through scraps of material until she found a satchel with her initials embroidered on it. She would give her hair to Ronan in the morning. Tucking it inside, she walked back to her dressing table and left it there.
Triona ran a hand over the back of her head and grimaced when her fingers found the jagged ends of her shorn hair. She let her hand drop to her side. It was done now, no putting it back.
She blew out the candles in their sconces on the walls. The smell of extinguished wicks and melted sheep tallow hovered in the air as she padded across the floor in her chemise. Peat smoldered in the hearth and gave the room an orange glow.
She felt for her sheepskin and worsted wool blanket, then peeled them back and slipped into bed. The heather Fanny tucked inside her mattress smelled fresh and green. Triona stared at the outline of her bed curtains. What a jest, to try and sleep whilst her life crumbled into pieces around her. She tossed back the covers and stood, then patted the hooks on the wall for her arisaid. She pulled the swath of wool down and wrapped it over her chemise, careful to arrange the excess fabric into a hood to hide her hair. Pinning it into place, she put on her leather latchet shoes and attached the buckles.
Her door creaked when she opened it. Closing it with care, she made her way down the corridor. Damp air bathed her as she drew near a window. Beyond the village, with its squat stone cottages, the moor lumped. Heather was washed gray by the long gloaming.
She wasn’t sure what she was doing, but she couldn’t sleep, couldn’t remain in her chamber where she’d be tempted back into tears. Maybe she could sit by the fire in the great hall, and fill the emptiness in the pit of her stomach with a mug of mulled wine.
Blast it. Could she not walk down a dark corridor with her head covered and not be noticed?
“Connor.” She turned to face her second cousin. “Return to your post. I am only going to the great hall.”
“I will escort ye.” He nodded, a dark blond curl flopping onto his forehead.
“What could possibly happen to me? Come now, really.” She kept her voice down and backed into the shadows closer to the wall. If he saw her hair he would tell her father.
“Well . . .”
“There is always a kitchen maid there at night. I willna be alone.”
He scratched his jaw. “My lady.”
“And ’tis only down the stairs from here. Goodnight.” She backed up another step.
“But, my lady.”
“I order you to remain at your post.”
His chin lifted. “I will notify yer father of your excursion. And why are we whispering?”
She smiled, careful to make it look genuine. “Go ahead and tell him, but be sure to wait until morning. He told me he did not wish to be disturbed tonight. That is why I am whispering.”
Triona turned and walked away. She checked to see if Connor followed and saw only the normal shadows cast by torchlight. She took the stairwell, her pace slowing as she passed the junction at the second floor. “What does it take to get some peace around here?”
“You tell me.”
She halted. Her mouth ran dry and she swallowed out of reflex. Her fingers felt along the rough wall as she turned on the step to face him. He stood above her, silhouetted by a torch behind him. His arms were crossed over a broad chest and he leaned with his shoulder butted against the wall. She must have walked past him. She pulled her makeshift hood tight against her chin to hide her hair.
He pushed from the wall and started down the stairs toward her, passed through darkness, then entered the circle of light cast by the torch above her head.
The empty spot inside her went away the moment his blue eyes came into view.
“Couldn’t sleep?” Ronan asked, his words reverberating off stone. His dark hair fell in waves around his shoulders.
He was, by far, the bonniest lad she’d ever seen. In the lists he was fierce. When he met with her in the garden for her lesson he was gentle. She clung to his every touch, often pretending she didn’t understand a particular move with her dagger so he would stand behind her with his hand over hers and his warm chest pressed against her back. Even his smell, leather mixed with steel, was perfect. She breathed him in.
“Shouldn’t you?” she asked.
“Then why are you up?”
“I heard your voice.”
She fingered the hem of her arisaid. “I was whispering.”
“Tracking.” He tapped his ear. “I can hear a mouse in a wall three rooms away.”
“Must be hard to sleep.” She smiled. “You knew my voice from so far away?”
He shrugged, then held out his calloused hand. “I will escort you below, my lady.”
If she had known she was going to run into him, she would have waited until morning to cut her hair.
He wiggled his fingers. “Unless you do not trust me in the dark.” He flashed her a lazy grin.
Her stomach fluttered.
“It will be warmer by the fire.” He removed his hand and tugged at her hood.
Triona clutched at the densely woven fabric. “We could stay right here.”
“On the stairs?”
“Aye, on the stairs.” Without thought she reached up and gripped his ivory colored shirt in her fingers. She tugged and he ducked his head to hers. “Kiss me?”
“Was that an order, my lady? Because I was under the impression you were angry with me.”
“It’s an order.”
He laughed and her heart memorized the sound. Then his arm scooped around her waist and urged her into him. He was solid against her softer body.
“I’ve never cared overly much for taking orders,” he said. “I take them, but I’ve never liked it.”
“Not from anyone?”
He brushed his knuckles against her jaw. “It all depends.”
She wasn’t the sort to get weak in the knees, but she was tempted to start, just for him. His hand slipped under her hood. Then stopped. He pulled her hood down.
Triona jerked backward, slipping off the step and he caught her, her chest colliding into him. She coughed from the impact.
Ronan smoothed her hair down. “What happened?”
“I didna want you to know yet.”
“Know what? Why are you shorn?”
“I cut off my braid and I put it in a satchel, and I was going to give it to you tomorrow, and now you have gone and ruined it all.” She bit the back of her fist so she wouldn’t cry.
It took him an eternity to answer. A cat mewled, followed by a faint squeak.
“Thank you,” he said.
She almost didn’t hear him. She lowered her hand. “Thank you?”
“Aye. You know how much I love your hair. I will honor your sacrifice.”
She opened her mouth to tell him why she’d cut it, but one look into his steady gaze robbed her of words. “I have nothing to say.”
“Then say nothing.” Ronan lowered his dark head and kissed her. He was slow and gentle. His lips studied hers. It was a kiss goodbye. But she needed to persuade him to stay. The air around them flared like it was on fire. His hair brushed her face. Triona wove her fingers through the heavy ebony strands, and breathed in his scent. Breathe.
She pressed into him as if she could mold him into the hole inside her. She couldn’t let him leave. Her father could not expect them to wait two years. It was ridiculous. Was this not the Highlands? No one could decide when they were ready to marry, save themselves. Ronan lifted his head and let her slide to the step below him.
The hole inside her throbbed. “I would marry you now, if you asked,” she said.
His gaze flickered from her eyes, to her mouth, then onto her throat. His fingers closed over her arms. “What you are saying?”
Heat flooded her face. “I . . . That is to say, some couples do make their vows in private.” She clamped her mouth shut.
Ronan backed away and almost tripped over the step. He caught himself on the wall, buckles on his sword harness scraping. “Nay.” He closed his eyes. “I canna. Go to your chamber now, please.”
Sick to her stomach, she squeezed by him, his breath catching at the brief contact. She ran up the stairs, down the corridor, and into her room, then closed the door and stood there. Her hands clutched the lonely ache in her middle.
Triona counted the thuds of her heart as they echoed inside her. “Come, Ronan. Follow me.”
Don’t let him leave me, tomorrow. Don’t let him leave.
A sigh heaved from outside her chamber. Her heart skipped as the lever lifted. The door opened with a squeak and Ronan stood bathed in shadows. “Maybe you should have locked it,” he said.
“I could not.”
He hesitated and she thought he would leave. Then he stepped through the archway and into her chamber. Ronan closed and barred the door behind him.
Triona took a step closer. “Make a vow with me?”
“We shouldn’t, your father . . .”
She’d spent more than one rainy afternoon ensconced in a dark corner with Ronan. She knew about his weaknesses. When Fanny wouldn’t tell her about men and women, she went to Ronan. There was so much he didn’t want to tell her, but she coaxed it from him anyway, then giggled and teased him afterwards.
She knew there was one way to make him stay.
“You are wrong for leaving when my father has already given you my hand.”
“In two years.”
“We need not heed it.”
“I will return for you. I swear I will.”
“Just stay. Be my husband. Handfast with me tonight.”
Ronan closed his eyes. She wondered if he weighed cost against need.
“I know you want to,” she said. “As if you could hide it from me.” Triona lifted her right hand. She kissed the tip of her thumb and held it out to him. He repeated the motion and pressed the palm of his hand against hers. She heard him swallow. He lowered his hand.
He would be hers for a year and a day. But time mattered not, because she knew he loved her. He would stay with her forever.
Ronan loosened the broach at her shoulder and they both watched her arisaid fall limp at her feet. She unbuckled her shoes and tossed them aside. Her hands were damp and she wiped them on her linen chemise.
For all her bluff, she had no idea what to do next.
He pulled off his boots, then unsheathed his sword and left it beside her bed, propped against the wall. He unbuckled his baldric and set it aside. She watched, her heart in her throat, as he peeled out of his shirt and unbelted his plaid.
What was she getting herself into? Triona swallowed and hoped she didn’t look as scared as she felt.
He caught her sleeve, urging her closer. “I dinna want to hurt you,” he whispered.
“Can it be helped?”
“I’ll be all right.” She nodded in attempt to reassure him.
Ronan scooped her into his arms. “I always meant to tell you . . . you’re my angel.”
Triona lay spent amongst her crumpled sheets as the morning sun pressed through her shutters. “You dinna have to leave.”
He slid his claymore into place in the harness on his back. “Aye, I do.” He settled his pistol more securely into its holster.
She held the sheet against her breastbone and sat up. “Ronan, please.”
His shoulders rose and fell in a sigh, then he sat next to her, the mattress giving beneath his weight and edging her body into his. He laid his palm against her cheek. “I swear I will return.”
She rubbed her face into his hand. “Please.”
His fingers brushed her cheek, then he pulled away.
“Dinna make this any harder than it already is.”
“Could it be any worse?” She shifted so she sat on the edge of the bed.
His eyes widened. “It is worse.”
She followed his gaze until she found the bloodstain on her sheets. Her skin burned. “I had no idea I’d . . . I knew there would be some blood, but I . . .”
He swore under his breath. “I shouldn’t have. I need to leave.”
Triona scrambled out of bed. She took the sheet with her, then changed her mind and tossed it aside. Let him see what he was walking out on. “Do not forget my favor.” She grabbed the satchel with her hair in it and stood before him, as bold as Aphrodite. He took it from her hand, his gaze averted.
“Do I shame you now, husband?”
“Nay.” He turned for the door.
“Then look at me.”
His face turned, then his shoulders jerked. A moment later he fully faced her.
“Hold me,” she said.
“Angel, I canna. I have to go. We already talked about his.”
“That was before.” She had to think fast, or she was still going to lose him. “You dinna want to go, do you?” She lowered her voice like the tavern wenches did when they were trying to coax men off the street. Her hand shook as she ran it through her shorn hair. “Stay a little longer. Fanny willna come to wake me just yet.”
He made a strangled sound, then crossed the chamber and crushed her into his chest, buckles biting into her bare skin. Ronan bent and kissed her hard. She wound her arms around his neck.
“Stop.” He pushed against her arms, but she held on tighter, knowing he wouldn’t want to use force, for fear he’d hurt her.
“Stay. Love me tomorrow, and the day after.” She blinked back tears. “You can stay, but you do not want to.”
“’Tis not true.”
“Then prove it to me now. Prove to me I am enough, and you are not ashamed of me.”
Ronan swept her into his arms. She was sore from last night, but it wasn’t anything she couldn’t tolerate. She’d expected it. It was the natural way of things, was it not? In time her body would adjust to being a wife.
He halted at her bed. She knew he was repulsed by her blood. Triona wiggled out of his embrace and tossed a blanket over the sheet. “Forget about it.”
“I canna. Triona, I need to leave. This will be no life for you otherwise. You have to let me go.”
“You canna go. Not now.” She pressed against him until his stiff muscles dissolved into clay. He ran kisses down her shoulder as she undid the buckles on his baldric.
Ronan dressed and left before Fanny came for her. Triona didn’t care if Fanny saw the evidence of her handfast. She knew it bothered him though, so she burned the sheet and replaced it with a fresh one. Sweet boar of a man. As if he really thought he could be her first man and not make her bleed.
Triona fell onto her bed in her chemise and stretched sore muscles. The mattress smelled like heather and Ronan. She smiled at the ceiling. It was the best night of her life, and today the best morning.
“Ye are in better spirits this morn, my lady.” Fanny frowned at Triona’s shorn hair, then sighed and tucked a mother-of-pearl comb into it. “This way it willna hang in your face.”
“I have no reason not to be.” She didn’t care about her hair. It would grow back. Ronan was worth the sacrifice.
“That’s my lass. You will see. Two years will be but the blink of an eye, compared to the rest of your lives.”
“Even less.” By now Ronan would have gone to her father and told him they took their vows in private. It wasn’t as if there was any taking it back. Ronan would have to stay. It would be a good life for him. One day they would sit around the fire with their children, and he’d thank her.
Fanny tucked a second comb into place and backed away. “This is all I can do for you.”
“It is fine.” Triona stood. She smoothed her hands over her pale green gown, then turned and swept up her arisaid. She hugged Fanny. “I am going directly below to wait for Ronan.”
“Perhaps he will kiss you goodbye.”
She laughed. “Perhaps.”
Triona made her way down the stairway. Her face flushed when she remembered how forward she’d been on those very stairs the night before. No matter. It had to be done. Ronan was such a stubborn lad. She scanned the great hall for him.
A woman brushed against her shoulder. “Och, I am sorry, my lady. I didna wish to be late.” She fanned her face.
“Katie? Late for what?”
“To see the champion and the young laird off.” Her nose scrunched as she took note of Triona’s hair.
Triona cleared her throat. “Ronan and William?”
She nodded. “Will you give them each a favor? Ye should kiss them off. It will bring them luck.”
“But there must be some mistake. Ronan is not leaving.” William perhaps, but not Ronan.
Katie’s blonde brows drew together. “My husband said the champion was riding out this morn.”
“As of last night he was, but I daresay you will find there has been a change of plans.”
“Well then.” Her gaze swept past the great hall, toward the doors, as if she begged without words to be released.
Triona sighed and took Katie’s arm. “Come, let us see what all the fuss is about.”
“Aye, my lady.”
Katie set the pace, Triona laughing as the young woman dragged her down the front steps. Half the clan was gathered in the courtyard. They gave a cheer, but all she could see was Connor’s back. Triona tugged on his sleeve.
Connor turned, then his brown eyes widened. “What are ye doing, my lady? You should be up front where they can see you.”
They? Surely he meant William. “I would, if I could swim through this sea of people.”
He grinned. “I can aid ye there, my lady.” Connor lifted his fingers to his mouth and gave a shrill whistle. The crowd silenced. “Make way for Herself!”
The sea parted and she stepped through, Connor behind her. When she reached the edge of the crowd she saw William leading his charcoal stallion from the stable into the courtyard. Triona wished she had a gift to see him off with. She’d been so preoccupied with Ronan she had neglected her cousin. Clansmen cheered again. Connor bellowed near her ear and she winced.
Then she saw Ronan leading his black warhorse.
Nay, there had to be some mistake. Her head swirled and she clutched at her arisaid. Maybe Ronan had decided to ride with William to the edge of clan territory. There had to be some reason, other than the one Katie believed.
William stopped before her. “Ronan told me you cut your hair for us.”
“I-I have no favor for you. I am sorry.” Maybe she should have set aside a few locks for William.
He passed his stallion off to a lad, then came forward and rubbed her arms. “Do not fear. I will be fine without it.”
“You better be. Please, be careful. My father needs you.”
“I always am.” He gave her arm a squeeze. “Is he the only one who needs me?”
She faked a smile as guilty sensations from the night before flooded her. Ronan’s scent, the heat of his smooth skin against hers, and her hands studying the planes of his body in the dark.
“Och, of course not. Come home,” she told him.
“I will. I promise.” He pulled away and mounted. Some clansmen followed him down the street. Some hung back to see Ronan off.
She turned to face her lover.
Ronan looked away and fear etched up her spine.
“I thought you would stay.”
He shifted closer, then bent his head toward hers. “Do not do this.”
She kept her voice down. “How could you leave now?”
He lifted his face. She begged him with her eyes, but his expression hardened. He had made his choice and it wasn’t her.
“This canna be happening.” She pressed one hand against her rib cage. “Nay, you love me. I know you do.”
He caught her sleeve. “Listen to me.”
The rest of the world swirled around his head. All she saw was his face.
“You are going to be fine without me.”
“Kiss him goodbye!” a man shouted. The crowd laughed.
Ronan shook his head. “Someone should silence him.”
“Maybe you should just kiss me.” Maybe, if she could coax him into kissing her with passion before the clan, then one of the men would confront him.
His eyes darkened, then he nodded and kissed her chastely, his mouth barely grazing hers. Triona reached for him, but he backed away.
Swinging into the saddle, he set heel to his stallion. Dirt kicked up behind him and hit her. A stone flew over her shoulder. The crowd ran after him, cheering him on.
Triona stood alone in the middle of the street.
Triona stood on the highest tower watching twisted scrub oak and brown ferns sway in the wind. Strands of hair escaped her braid and whipped against her face, stinging her cheeks.
“I hope they will be here today,” Fanny said from beside her.
Triona took a deep breath, the crisp autumn air biting her nose. “As do I.” She ran her thumb over the feathered edges of the sheet of foolscap in her hand. “Soon. Maybe today or tomorrow.”
“I will be needin’ a chair.” Fanny’s eyes were serious, then her lips twitched and she laughed.
“Go on below,” Triona said. “I will be down in plenty of time to serve ale to the men.”
Fanny’s expression hardened. “You should sit with yer father.”
“I require the distraction.” She rubbed the empty space in her middle, the one that had ached since Ronan left.
“But a lady serving . . .” Fanny sighed. “I should not complain. Once Ronan returns we will be busy with other matters.” She held her arms against herself as if she rocked a baby.
Triona swallowed, a vice clamped around her heart. With no babe to seal them, her handfasted marriage ended over a year ago. Not that anyone knew about it to begin with. “Off with you.” Triona pointed to the nearest turret.
“Aye.” Fanny disappeared through the stone archway, singing to herself.
Triona tried to tell Fanny about the handfast, but she just couldn’t admit to it. Shame burned her face, despite the cold air. She bit her lip and looked at the letter in her hand. It was three pages long with only a few lines from Ronan. The rest was written by William. She sifted through the pages until she came to his scroll. It was less stylized than William’s. Scribbled, really. As if he had better things to do.
Ronan tried so hard at first. She’d received entire missives from him. He even composed a poem for her. William must have helped him; her cousin had better literary skills. Then Ronan began to scratch out sporadic messages at the end of William’s letters.
Triona closed her eyes and remembered Ronan’s smell, his arms around her, and the taste of his mouth like wine and something so right she wanted to kiss him forever. Och, how she’d been mad at him when he left, but the letters he wrote her that first year were so tender, so loving, that she knew he would come back for her as soon as he could.
She even imagined what it would be like when he did. He would charge into the castle, inky-black hair flowing around his shoulders and his blue eyes intense. He would demand that her father hand her over at once. And nay, he would not wait until tomorrow. He would have his wife, and have her now.
She sighed and ran her finger over the last few lines he wrote, picturing him beside a campfire, ink bottle set crooked on the lumpy ground. His scroll told her they’d abandoned service in Sweden, where William was forced into convalescence by a sword wound to his right shoulder. They were coming home because William needed to. Not because it had been two years, three months, and twelve days, since they left.
The wind stung her eyes and Triona wiped her sleeve across her face. She straightened her shoulders, willing the tears away. She had to be strong. William would need her in the upcoming months. He had a difficult road ahead of him. He could still lead as laird, but he was in line for the chieftainship, and if he had any hope of earning the office, he needed to make a full recovery. Only a warrior would be trusted in the Highlands.
The outline of a warhorse appeared in the hazy mist. Her heart hammered and she closed her eyes. “Please be real. Please be real.” She opened them. He was real. A lone rider who carried himself like an experienced horseman.
Triona gripped the weathered railing. She ticked off ten heartbeats before she could take no more. Shoving her letter into her sleeve, she turned away. Her apricot wool skirt rustled around an ivory kirtle, and her striped arisaid trailed over her shoulder.
“Connor.” She dragged her second-cousin from his post at the wall. “We are going out to meet him.” Triona pointed in the direction of the rider.
“Now Connor. I will tell my father.”
He widened his stance and became a wall. She tugged, but he was solid muscle and wouldn’t budge. Stubborn man.
Unwilling to waste time on him, she let go and ran into the turret, then down the steps, sliding to a halt at her father’s study, hand splayed across her rib cage, the stays in her bodice pinching her. “Father.”
He looked up over his desk, quill in hand.
“I am riding out with Connor.” At least she hoped Connor would follow her.
“’Tis Ronan. I am riding out to meet him.” Stars danced around the edges of her vision. She took a couple of breaths, then left her father and raced down the stairs. Her shoes skidded over smooth stone pavers in the great hall. She brushed by a clansman at the front door.
“Excuse me, Charlie.” Triona took the granite steps two at a time, then gripped her skirts and ran across the courtyard. “My mount. No time for a saddle.”
She tapped her foot and waited for Angus to ready her gelding. His red curls were wild around his young face as he settled a bridle over her horse’s ears. “Where go ye, my lady?”
“Out.” Triona looked over her shoulder for Connor. She would leave without him if she had to.
“Connor goes with me, now hand me Murdock.” Triona grabbed her gelding’s reins and led the animal into the courtyard.
Angus followed. “I canna allow ye leave.”
“Without an escort.” She pulled herself onto her horse by a fistful of mane and adjusted her skirts, glad she rarely wore her farthingale since Ronan left. “Connor will be here. He is right behind me.” She still didn’t see the blasted man.
Angus reached for her horse’s reins, but Triona gave her gelding a squeeze with her legs and bolted off.
“My lady, come back.”
“Tell Connor to follow, and quickly.”
What if the man she’d seen wasn’t Ronan? She set her teeth. She would not consider it. In minutes Ronan would vault from his stallion and haul her into his arms. He’d place her atop his proud black steed and they would ride double back to the hall. Och, and there, he would take her by the hand, storm into her father’s study, and demand they be allowed to make public vows at once. For he would die if she could not be his.
She sighed. Aye, tonight she would be with him. And he would be hers. Forever.
A quick glance behind her showed Connor on her heels, his warhorse unsaddled. He scowled at her, dark blond curls bouncing around his face. Triona faced forward and clucked to Murdock to pick up his pace. A speckled pheasant startled from the scrub grass, shrieking in alarm as it winged across her path. Her braid unraveled and her hair blew around her shoulders.
And then William reined his charcoal stallion to a stop.
Her stomach heaved around the empty place inside her. Her hair fell over her face as Murdock came to a violent halt. She looked at her hands bunched in the reins and realized she’d yanked on them.
She shook her hair out of her face as the clouds gave way and a ray of sun showered William. His gray eyes sparkled. His plaid streamed behind him in the breeze. Triona slid to her feet and clutched her horse’s neck. How could it not be Ronan? How?
William’s dismount was stiff. A wince crossed his tanned skin. Faint, weathered lines traced his eyes and a new beard graced his jaw. His dark hair waved around his shoulders, longer than before.
Triona pushed way from Murdock. “William.” She acknowledged him with a curtsy.
He shook his head, then grinned hard. “You are a sight. Riding out to greet me.” William pulled her into him, her cheek against his chest. The air whooshed out of her and she caught his upper arms. He was taut and warm against her. William urged her away, assessing her. “Your hair has grown back.”
“Some.” Her cheeks stung.
“You are as beautiful as I remembered.” He studied her eyes, her nose, and her mouth. His gaze flicked down the rest of her, then back to her face.
She ducked her head. How could William make her blush?
“I am so sorry,” she said. “Your injury. ’Tis my fault. I gave you no parting gift.”
He sighed and rubbed her arms. “It’s not your fault. ’Tis only a superstition anyway.”
William never gave any thought to them. But Triona wasn’t willing to give up all the old ways. What if she really had caused his injury? She didn’t want to take any more chances. Next time he had to leave the clan, he would leave with a favor from her.
William looped his arm over her shoulder and greeted Connor with a handshake. With his left hand. He was heavy as he leaned against her and she steadied her legs and her face so Connor wouldn’t know William’s weakness. Aye, she would do all she could to keep the clan from knowing about it. As far as they were concerned, he was completely healed. He had always been there for her when she needed a friend and deserved no less in return.
While the two men spoke, she looked for Ronan.
William turned back to her. “He is not coming.”
“What do you mean? The missive said he was well.”
“He is well.” William pulled away to retrieve his horse. The stallion snorted as William urged his head, grass hanging out of his mouth at odd angles.
“Then where is he?” Her hand closed around her skirt.
“He received an offer of temporary employment here in the Highlands.” William slid a hand over his stallion’s front leg as if checking for swellings. Was it a distraction? What was William hiding from her?
Triona blew out a breath and watched it steam in the air. “The missive stated that you were both coming home.”
“It was a good offer.” William shrugged his left shoulder. “I would not have turned it down, if it weren’t for my injury.”
When would she learn to be more considerate? Triona lowered her voice so Connor wouldn’t overhear. “How bad is it?”
William watched her from under his brow. “Bad enough.”
“I will have a look at it. There is something I can give you to help soften the scar.”
Gray eyes met hers, and he smiled. “Aye.” He set his arm over her shoulder. “Let us be off. I must look abominable, and probably smell no better.”
“I do not care.” She listened to the creak of his leather armor and the jingle of harness buckles. She pretended he was Ronan. Then she wrinkled her nose. There was something more than the scent of leather and steel in the air around him. “Perhaps you should bathe.”
He laughed. “I expected as much.”
“When do you think Ronan will return?”
“I don’t know. He is restless.” His arm tightened over her shoulder, pinching her.
“Wasn’t that why he left?” She repositioned her shoulder.
“More so than he was before.”
More? She walked the rest of the way back to the hall with him, wondering why she wasn’t enough for Ronan. Her stomach ached. By the time they reached the courtyard William was out of breath. It was unlike him and it scared her. When would she feel like she was living life again? All she wanted was Ronan in her arms and William happy and whole. Was it too much to ask for?HHHH
William sat before the largest hearth in the great hall, swirling the burgundy spiced wine in his mug. His booted feet were propped on a stool before him. He was clean, wore fresh clothes, and had a warm meal in his stomach. He sighed and flexed the muscles in his legs.
Triona dragged a stool over stone pavers. He lifted a brow at her. She had an all too familiar look of determination in her eyes.
“You said you would allow me to see to your wound.”
Over the last two years he’d penned many letters in the light of a campfire, ink spilled on pages and words smudged by intermittent rain. Triona’s delicate scroll had given him the strength he needed to survive.
He learned the open road was no place for him. William drank from his cup, watching her over the rim.
“The room is empty.” Triona waved her hand. “Now is as good a time as ever.”
Evening was his favorite time. One could be still before the fire and forget the pain of the day.
“Well?” Triona cocked her hip out. Her gown was loose, as if she cared not to show her figure. She wore an apron stained with ale. William frowned.
Her eyes tightened. “What is it?”
“When I left, you were little more than a bairn trying so hard to be a woman. Now you are a woman who hides behind loose hair and wool.”
She blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Why do you dress like that?”
Her eyes widened. “I have no desire to be a courtier. Perhaps frippery is what you have grown accustomed to in a lady?”
“Not at all.” William gave her a slow smile. “You are a beautiful woman. And a man likes to have something bonny to look at.”
“’Tis admiration. There is a difference.”
“So you say.” Triona sighed and ran her finger over a spot on her apron. “I had to do something whilst the two of you were away.”
“What do you mean?” He’d watched her serve ale to the men earlier. What other menial tasks had she lowered herself to?
She shrugged. “I try and keep myself busy.”
“Pouring out ale now and then to show your appreciation is one thing, but you canna forget your station.”
“But there is not enough occupation in the world.”
William allowed his gaze to linger over her. He wanted to see her in a gown that hugged her. “I understand. I missed you too.”
Her lips pressed flat. “I did no such thing.”
“Aye, you missed Ronan. But you missed me too.” He smiled. “You have known me longer.”
“Do not remind me.” She rolled her eyes.
He laughed and remembered a time when he would wrestle in the dirt with her and let her win. They climbed trees and fell and scraped their knees together. But that was all before Ronan came to live with them. Then she braided her hair and tucked flowers behind her ears.
“Your wound?” she asked.
“How can I refuse?” It had been too long since he’d had a woman look after him. William set his cup on a side table and pulled his shirt over his head. He forced himself not to wince when pain radiated down his arm.
She reached out, then recoiled at the sight of his fresh scar.
“Has anyone held up a mirror so you can see it better?”
“I would rather not see it better.”
“I understand.” She drew her stool closer to the back of his chair. He watched her brow furrowing in concentration.
“Ronan cauterized it.”
Her throat rose and fell as she swallowed, then she smiled through tight lips.
“Do not pretend for my sake.”
Triona blew out a breath, nodded, then reached out to touch the gnarled flesh of his shoulder. William stiffened before he could stop himself.
“Must hurt.” She rested her hand on his bare forearm. “Can you flex it? How is your mobility?”
“Poor.” He was glad there were no men in the room. Weakness was not something he cared to admit. His weakness of body. His weakness for her.
“Stay here. I will be right back.” Triona pulled away, the smell of heather and primroses wafting behind her. Golden hair hung down her shoulders in waves.
Over the last two years he’d allowed himself to see her as more than a friend. He imagined what it would be like, to be near her again, to have her face light up when she saw him. He never told Ronan. He had to keep his misery to himself.
Because it was wrong to feel the way he did about Ronan’s woman. So wrong.
He didn’t mean for it to happen. Her letters had drawn him in. Maybe his feelings for her were there all along, and it was her correspondence that brought them to the surface.
Triona walked back across the hall. “This is the last of it. But I can make more.” She opened a squat clay jar and scooped thick paste onto her fingers.
He smelled mint. “Looks like something I would put on my horse.”
She eyed him as one might an errant schoolboy, then shrugged. “I have used it on Murdock, but it has other uses as well. It will help soften the scar so you can move again, unless you enjoy pain. Perhaps ’tis more manly to live with it?” She tucked her chin.
“Do what you feel you must.”
“I thought you would see reason.” She spread a layer of paste over his scar. The mint made his skin tingle, then go numb.
Triona wiped her hands off on her apron. She topped the jar and handed it to him. “Twice a day should suffice.”
“Thank you.” His fingers brushed hers.
“You are more than welcome.” Her brow furrowed as he pulled away. She cleared her throat. “Recovery willna be easy.”
“I am aware.”
“The men will want to . . .”
William ground his molars. “Pity me. I know.”
She watched her hands in her lap. “If you would like, we can train in the garden together, in private. I know I am not as much of a challenge as the men, but at least you can rebuild your mobility.”
William’s chest tightened with an emotion he couldn’t define. It went beyond friendship, but it wasn’t desire. “I would appreciate it.”
“Good. I did not mean to harm your ego.”
She knew him all too well. He shifted in his seat. A draft worked down the chimney and peat smoke clouded them. William took up his shirt and pulled it over his head. “I have missed you.” He was careful not to let his tone give too much away.
“No more of this madness. You belong here.”
“I know.” Aye, he knew.
She brushed her hair back. “I have to ask you something about Ronan.”
He turned to retrieve his cup. He needed a distraction, so he finished it in three gulps and turned to fetch a lass.
“I will fill it.” Triona snagged the mug from his hand.
William stared into the fire. When she returned she would ask him questions he didn’t know how to answer. Ronan’s sights were set high. Fame, fortune, reputation. He was determined, too. How could William explain it to her without breaking her heart?
Then again, it could work to his advantage. Who better to help mend her heart than himself?
Nay, he couldn’t. Could he?
She returned with his cup and he took it with a strained smile. She sat next to him, frowning, her gaze cast downward. It made her look insecure.
“He still cares for me, does he not?” she asked.
“Aye.” His mouth formed the word, but it was said without feeling. “He does.”
“Then why does he not write?” Her hair spilled over her shoulder and hid her face.
“You know Ronan.” His fingers itched to gather her hair into his hands.
“I was hoping he would be with you today.”
“He needs more time.”
“More time? Time for what?”
“’Tis not something you would understand.” Truth be told, neither did he.
“I tire of men telling me I canna understand. I will scream if I hear it again.”
The corner of his mouth twitched into a smile. “Fair enough. Speak and I will listen, but I may not have all the answers you seek.”
“Then, by the saints, tell me you do not know. Dinna tell me I will not understand.” She sighed and tucked her hair behind her ear. “Ronan left because he wanted more for himself. He wanted more in life than to be my father’s man, or yours, for that matter. I never told you, because I thought he would outgrow such daft thoughts.”
William knew Ronan never liked taking orders. His stubbornness stewed just beneath the surface, waiting for an excuse to defy authority. “I know. I never thought of him that way though.”
“Does he know how you feel about him?”
“It is not the sort of subject men have speech on.”
“Well, women do, and I think he knows I believe in him.” Her face fell. “Perhaps I should not have . . . I did try to convince him to stay.” She shifted. Her scent enveloped him. “Nay, ’tis not true, I tried to force him to stay. Perhaps a man does not like to be forced, especially by a woman.”
William cleared his throat. His flesh worked its damage and he wanted to tell her she was welcome to force him to do anything she wanted. Triona went to the fire, wrapping her arms around herself.
“Lass.” He set aside his mug and went to her. Tell her you love her. “I am sure he knows how you feel.” Coward.
She looked at him from beneath fair lashes. “Ronan once told me I was the reason he was clan champion. I wonder sometimes if he believes I want wealth. I told him otherwise, but he never listens to me.”
“What drives him is within him.”
“He will be here soon. I can speak with him then.”
She needed a man who was satisfied with his lot in life, a man who knew who he was, like himself. He took a deep breath, then lifted her face toward his with a finger. Her creamy skin flushed. He leaned closer, his mouth near her ear. Strands of her hair slid across his shaven skin. “Just remember, you are not alone.”
Her gaze drew to his. William didn’t look away. Her breath was on his face, sporadic.
“I should leave now.” Triona pulled back and ran off, apricot skirt swaying behind her. She disappeared under the archway into the stairwell.
William’s chest tightened. “Aye. You should leave now.”
He rolled his mangled shoulder. The dull ache brought him back to reality. She was not his. How do I change my heart? Maybe he couldn’t change it. Maybe he would have to learn to live with it.
Ronan rubbed the sweat from his stallion’s black coat with an old shirt, then released him. Goliath, trained to keep within sight of Ronan, trotted a short distance away, then lowered his head and tore up grass between his teeth.
“Sir?” Graham, the tall Highlander who acted as Ronan’s right-hand, approached. The edges of his plaid were frayed and his shirt patched by his own careless hand. He shook back his long blond braids, beads of metal, shell, and wood rattling together. “A missive from Laird Andrew.”
“Thank you.” Ronan took the sealed parchment. “I am not to be disturbed tonight.”
“Aye, sir.” He walked off, heath crunching underfoot.
Ronan tucked the missive into a saddlebag. He would deal with business later. The moon was in its quarter, and a light fog nestled the ground. Not enough light for the task at hand. Ronan built a fire. Once he’d nursed it to life with kindling almost too damp to burn, he pulled out a fresh sheet of foolscap, a quill, and a bottle of ink. He sat on the lumpy ground and spread the paper over his leg, then dipped the tip of the quill. Ronan considered what he was about to do.
Triona, he wrote, then stopped. William was a regular fountain, but Ronan could think of nothing. He considered the weather, but that wouldn’t do. Or the stale oat and barley cakes he’d choked down for his evening meal. It made his stomach churn. Ronan tried to picture Triona’s face, but only saw blurred images with vague green eyes. He tossed the quill and paper into the fire. As the flames devoured them, his head began to ache.
She didn’t need missives. He slept on the cold ground for her. He lived by his sword. What more did she need? What more did he need? His desires were dreams long forgotten. He stood and whistled for Goliath. The stallion puffed out his stomach when Ronan went to saddle him. Ronan alternated poking him in the side and tightening the girth strap until Goliath let out his breath.
“Just a short ride.”
He cantered Goliath up to a stone stable with a thatched roof, took what he didn’t dare leave with his horse, then flipped the stable lad a coin to care for the beast.
Orange torchlight bathed Ronan as he made his way down the cobbled street to the tavern. When he opened the heavy slab of a door, peat and pipe smoke curled into the night air around him. Ronan nodded to the man behind the bar wearing a grease-stained long-shirt, snug around his middle.
“Ronan,” the man said with a toothless grin. He wiped his hands off on a towel. “I thought ye had left.”
“Aye.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “On the morrow.”
His stomach growled. “Aye.”
Ronan made his way toward the back of the tavern, away from the light. He ignored men in travel-worn shirts and plaids. He ignored the wenches perched on knees, aware of their gazes following him. He sat on a stool alone in a corner, set his elbows on the scarred table, and his head in his hands. When he closed his eyes, he remembered the great hall back home. He was one of the privileged few who ate the same meal as his laird. Being clan champion had its advantages. He could almost smell the savory roasted meats, and fresh oatcakes eaten with caboc. But he still couldn’t see Triona’s face.
His head throbbed.
“Sir.” The serving wench put a bowl of fish stew and a mug of ale in front of him. Then she pulled up a stool, sitting close to his elbow.
“Maggie,” Ronan said, recognizing her. She wore a green arisaid with red stripes tucked around a bodice and kirtle. Her long cinnamon-brown hair complimented doe eyes. He took up his cup. He and his men had returned to Scotland as soon as William was well enough to sail. Maggie noticed him from the first moment he stepped into the tavern, yet made no move to solicit him. Several of Ronan’s men had taken advantage of her finest services though.
He ate while she watched, then Ronan pushed his bowl aside. “I am a man of few words.”
“I am aware.” Her brown eyes were soft with need. Whatever she needed, it wasn’t a bedding. She had that every day, whether she wanted it or not. She fingered the hem of her course woolen sleeve and glanced at Harry. Harry shook his head at her and wiped the bar.
Unexpected tenderness pricked Ronan.
“Ye are a man of influence,” she said. By influence, she meant he had lined pockets. She leaned closer. Ronan smelled lavender. “Take me from here and I will stay with you.” The edge of her bodice creased into her pale skin.
“Why are you here?”
“To ask ye-”
He held up his hand. “Nay, why are you here?”
Maggie looked at the tabletop and swallowed. “My parents owed a debt. There is nowhere for me now.” She shrugged. “I earn a living.”
Acid stung the back of his throat. He preferred to keep his nose out of other people’s business.
He allowed himself to consider how he would react if Triona were sold to a brothel. It would never happen since she was a lady, but it twisted in his gut nonetheless. Ronan had the means to free Maggie strapped to the inside of his sword harness. The price for her life would make no more than a dent in his total hoard.
He raked a hand through his hair and sighed. “I should not do this.”
She straightened. “Then you will help me?”
“Go around back.”
Her eyes brightened and she nodded.
“I will settle things with Harry and meet you there.”
“Thank you.” Maggie leaned forward. “Ye willna regret it.” The smooth flesh of her breasts pressed against his forearm as she kissed him on the mouth. Her lavender-scented hair caught on stubble when she backed away. Awareness threatened his resolve and buried needs ebbed close to the surface. Ronan worked his jaw while she scurried away on bare feet.
He pushed himself up and went to Harry, his legs like lead. He told the man he wanted to buy the lass. The words caught in the back of his throat. He hated it, but there was no other way. Harry was on to her plans and already had a price in mind. Ronan considered the possibility he was being taken advantage of, then paid Harry anyway. The man hummed to himself as Ronan left.
Goliath was retrieved. Ronan now owned another person. Nay, he was only trying to help her. Maggie stood in the shadows behind the tavern as heated male voices rose from down the alley. A drunk in a plaid, his shirt-tails hanging loose on one side, felt his way in the dark and stumbled under Goliath’s hooves, the warhorse sidestepping to avoid him. Ronan helped Maggie up, all too aware of her hands on his waist as she sat behind him. She brought nothing with her.
They left at a canter, Ronan’s meal sloshing in his stomach. When they arrived at the same place where he’d burned his last sheet of paper he gave Maggie a hand down. With a deep breath he slid off Goliath and removed the horse’s tack.
Ronan looked at Maggie standing with her hands clasped before her. There would be no hiding her from his men come morning. Some of them had already known her. He would have no choice but to tell them she was for him. Otherwise they might try and take advantage of her presence.
“May I?” She pointed to Ronan’s bags.
He grunted an affirmative and she lifted the saddlebags, staggered, then settled on dragging them to the fire. She picked around in her bare feet for more wood.
“She may come in handy,” he told Goliath.
The horse stomped a front hoof.
“I know. I dinna like it either, but we all work for our keep.” Goliath shook himself and nudged Ronan with his huge black head. “Go on.” He pushed him away and the stallion trotted off.
Maggie laid out his bedroll for him. He frowned as she sat back on her heels in the heather. Her face was bathed in firelight, her outline soft.
“Who is she?” Maggie held up a linen pouch, the one with Triona’s initials on it.
Ronan snagged it from her.
“I am sorry. I shouldna have.”
“You did not know.” Ronan tucked Triona’s hair into his deerskin pouch.
“Ye can talk about it if you want. I hear it all.”
He was sure she did.
“You would be surprised how much talking a man can do when there is an ear to hear him.”
Ronan tossed his sheepskin bedroll at her, then sat by the fire with his knees bent. She laid it back out, her hair slithering over her shoulder and her hip pressing against cheep wool. She settled down on her side.
“She is my wife.” He pulled his cloak around him as if it could hide his soul. He didn’t talk about Triona. She was a part of him he did not share. He would leave Maggie at the next village with enough coin to feed her until she could find some decent employment. And never see her again. Maybe it was ambiguous enough.
“She must care for you a great deal.” Maggie gestured with her fingers across her hair.
“Who is she, besides your wife?”
He tossed a stick into the fire. “A lady.”
“Mmm.” She rested her hand on her hip. “You miss her?”
“Aye.” It was more of a grunt than a word.
She sat up, remained silent, then inched closer on hands and knees. “I am accustomed to that as well.”
Numbness inside Ronan flickered to life. Tiny flames licked at his consciousness and reminded him how much it hurt to feel things like loneliness and desire.
“I willna try and replace her. I know I could not anyway. I just need a place to sleep.” Maggie brushed her loose hair from her face with slender fingers. “I can be loyal. I swear I can.”
He was sure she could too. As long as his coin held out. She touched his hair, fingers weaving through to his scalp. Ronan closed his eyes. His fortune would see them settled comfortably. Maggie shifted closer, pushed his knee out of her way. The flames inside him screamed for release, screamed to live again. She didn’t miss a beat as her fingers unbuckled his sword harness. Numbness gave way to sheer pain. Pain was too hard to live with so he forced it aside again. He could pretend she was Triona. His sword harness slid free, the weight of the weapon too heavy for a lass Maggie’s size. Ronan let it thump to the ground behind him. Maggie leaned into his chest, her brown hair enveloping the both of them. She kissed him and her lips melded into his. They could fit as easily to anyone’s, even Harry’s, and he was sure they had.
Then there was Triona, who had given him everything she had in their one night together. Bloodstained sheets and all. It cut into him like a knife and drew its own kind of blood. Ronan took Maggie by the shoulders, pushing her back and looking her in the face. There was no flush in her skin and her breath was even. Was she even attracted to him? Or was he a means to an end?
She blinked. “What?”
“What am I to you?”
Ronan pulled away from her. Maggie had to catch herself, hands spread before her, hair cast around her face. He stood, looking at his scarred hands and considering the work he’d done over the last two years. He’d sold himself to so many masters in the name of freedom that he’d lost count of them.
“You are not ready,” Maggie said. “I understand. I will be here when you are.” Heath crunched as she moved away.
Ronan stumbled in the darkness until his hands caught the rough bark of a pine. Triona deserved more than his tough hide and a fortune that would only dwindle over time. He needed to work harder, make himself into something no woman could refuse.
Ronan held out his hand to her. Maggie slipped her cold fingers in his and he helped her up behind him on Goliath.
“Did you sleep well?” she asked.
She cleared her throat. “Where now, my lord?”
“Away from here.” Ronan heeled his stallion into a canter and Maggie clung to his back. When they reached his band of mercenaries, Graham smirked, then wiped it from his bearded face with the back of his hand.
“Move out,” Ronan ordered his men. “Graham,” he called. The man came forward, his mouth still twitching. Ronan flexed his jaw. “Warn the men that our guest is not for their enjoyment.”
“Aye. I will tell them she is fer yours.” Graham pretended to study his nails.
“That will do.” Ronan reined Goliath around and set heels into him. He wanted to create some distance between Maggie and his men. She caught his shoulders to steady herself.
“How gallant,” she said.
“Are you angry with me? Do you love her verra much?” Her fingers gripped his shoulders. “I can be anyone. I have before.”
Ronan pulled Goliath to a halt. Maggie slid into him, her arms wrapped around his waist and her soft body pressed against his back. “Stop this,” he said.
She loosened her embrace. “I only want to help. Look at you.” She lifted her chin. “How long have you been away from her?”
He rubbed his hand over his face. “Too long.”
“Then let me help you.”
He stiffened. “I canna.”
“Because . . .” I belong to her. Ronan twisted in the saddle, looped his arm around Maggie’s rib cage and lowered her to the ground. He dismounted behind her. “We will walk.” He’d have to trust Graham to keep the men back.
“You are not like other men. You paid good money for me, and now you will not allow me to reimburse you.”
“Good?” He half-laughed. “It’s blood money. I’m a swordsman. I kill for a living.”
“’Tis all the same. Is what ye do so different from what I do?”
“You use what skills you have, and I use what skills I have.”
“I freed you and that is all.” He flexed muscles in his arms as guilt soured his stomach. “I will help you find employment, then be on my way.”
“Employment?” Maggie laughed until her eyes watered. She slapped her thighs. “From where? I would rather serve one master than many.” She wiped her face with the edge of her arisaid.
Ronan halted. His stallion stepped on his foot and Ronan shoved him aside. “You will not find what you’re looking for with me, lassie.”
Maggie waved him off. “Leave me at a village, but leave me with enough to feed me until you return, and when you do, I will be waiting for you.” She tilted her face and smiled. “Is it so bad to have a woman waiting for you?”
“I already have one.” He walked again.
She swung her arms back and forth. “A wife willna give you what a mistress can.”
He lifted his chin to the sky and laughed.
Maggie’s eyes widened. “Or perhaps she can.”
Triona was almost more woman than any man could handle. “You have not seen mine.”
“This quest you are on, will there be anything left of you when ’tis finished?”
“You are bold.” Ronan eyed her.
“I learned early on when to speak and when to hold my tongue, and I believe I am in no danger of being struck by ye.”
He ran a hand through his hair. “Sakes, why would I hit you?”
She lifted her brows. She was about the same height as Triona, but there was less substance to her. Maggie would have no chance against a man. Unlike his wife, whom he’d trained himself in the art of self-defense.
“I see,” he said.
“Your mother taught you well.”
“I never knew my mother.”
“Someone taught you.”
She was too curious. He gave her what she wanted. “I was raised by my laird.”
Her loose hair slid over her shoulder. “And this lady of yours would be . . . ?”
“You seek to prove yourself then. Obviously you have already won her, so it must be her father you wish to impress.”
“I need not prove myself to anyone.”
“Your secrets are safe with me. I understand you. I am good at understanding.”
Maybe she was. Maybe she wasn’t. But Ronan didn’t care. He smiled to himself. It drove him mad when Triona didn’t understand him.
Maggie brushed her hair back. “What? Does your wife annoy you?”
“Constantly, and it drives me to madness.”
“Blackhawk must enjoy vexation.”
“Harry calls you Blackhawk. You have not heard? It seems your reputation moves faster than you do.”
“Interesting.” Blackhawk. A new name, one created through sweat and skill. And blood.
“It seems to fit, my lord.”
His hand tightened around the reins. “Please do not call me that. I am not anyone’s lord.”
“But you would be, if things were different.”
“It would take a lot. I have no idea who my parents are. But they did not want me.” Goliath nudged him. “By the silence surrounding my origin, I am left to suspect the worst of my mother. My laird found me kneeling over the grave of a dead woman. I remember the woman, she cared for me as a child, but she was not my mother.” Goliath nudged Ronan again and he pushed the horse away.
“Illegitimate then? Ye are in good company. There are many of your kind walking the roads every day.” Maggie shook her head when he narrowed his gaze. “Ye did not think you were alone in your misery, did you?”
He ignored her.
“It remains that you will not have me, so I’ve no choice but to accept my fate. What do you suppose I do with myself now?”
“You must have some skills.”
She lifted her brows.
“I mean other skills.”
She looked at the stony road. “I might have, many moons ago.”
“You canna be older than I.”
“I was sold at thirteen.”
Ronan’s breath caught. He steadied his face, and then nodded so she knew he’d heard her.
He couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for her, especially at the beginning. Ronan hated that he’d caused Triona pain when he took her, even though he’d tried so hard not to. All Maggie knew were hardened men, who probably showed her little mercy.
“I dinna want your pity.” Her lips pressed flat.
“Just promise me my coin will not go to waste.”
“What if I have no other choice?”
“You can put the past behind you.”
“As you have done?” She clasped her hands.
“You are intuitive. There must be some way to put the skill to use.”
The sun showered her delicate nose and smooth cheekbones. “I am at your mercy, Blackhawk. My future rests with you.”
His chest tightened. “You give me too much.”
“And you take yourself too seriously. I know when I am defeated. It does not happen oft, but it has happened before. Not all men are so easily had. Some canna be had at all. It is rare, but true.” She swung her arms like the child she no longer was.
“Have you all of mankind before your mind’s eye?”
“Not all, but much. It comes from years of observation.” She smiled. “I surprise you.”
“I had not thought about what you would be like.”
“Do not feel poorly about it. Most men do not consider who I might be, aside from what I can offer them.”
“Do you ever cease with your chatter?” Ronan wasn’t used to the company of women anymore. Did they all talk this much?
“I do now.”
Triona sat before her dressing table frowning at her reflection in the mirror. Her hair was a mess. A long ride with William pulled loose the coif she’d so carefully created so she would look nice for him. Triona tilted her face, along with her mouth, until her frown became a smile. Was it wrong for William to make her laugh?
She wished she could erase Ronan from her past. He’d abandoned her and it was high time she moved on. Gathering her tangled hair into her hands, she piled it on top of her head and smiled again. William thought she was beautiful. He stopped telling her a while ago, but it showed in his eyes. At first his attention embarrassed her, then she began looking forward to it.
She dropped her hair and eased her hands over her yellow bodice. It had been so long since she’d been loved by a man. It seemed like a distant memory.
A knock sounded at the door and Triona jerked.
“Do I disturb you?”
She cleared her throat. “Nay, of course not, Fanny. You may enter.”
“What a sight ye are.” Fanny clucked her tongue. “You look as if you were caught in a gale. Did ye enjoy your ride?” She picked up a brush and began working it through Triona’s hair.
“Aye.” Triona took a deep breath. “I need to ask you something.”
“What do you think of William?” Her voice cracked when she said his name. She winced.
“I love him, as I love you.” Fanny paused, then began brushing again.
Triona’s head tilted as the bristles hit a tangle and snagged. “But I mean . . .”
Fanny set the brush down, then drew closer, her hands on Triona’s shoulders. “William is your father’s heir, and well on his way to being elected clan chieftain.”
Triona closed her eyes, her heart racing. “If I told William I loved him, what do you think he would say?”
“I think he would fall on his knees and kiss your feet.”
Triona opened her eyes and pursed her lips at the mirror.
Fanny laughed. “Am I mistaken?”
“I’ve led him on a merry dance over the last two years, haven’t I?”
“These things are never easy.” Fanny fingered through Triona’s hair, frowned, then picked up a cord and began to plait it anyway.
“Should I tell him?”
Her brows knit. “Do ye love him?”
She could. It thrilled and frightened her at the same time. “I am on the edge. He is handsome, and he came back when Ronan didn’t.”
Fanny ran her fingers across Triona’s chin. “Ronan’s road has never been an easy one.”
“It could have. If he had not believed he needed more than me.” She frowned and looked away.
“’Twas never you.”
As much as she wanted to forget him, a part of her would always love Ronan. He was there for her after her mother died, fitting into the holes of her life like no one else. He’d always be her first man. There was no changing that. What would William think? She rubbed her forehead, pain developing behind her eyes. She’d have to tell him. He deserved to know what he would be getting.
Fanny remained quiet.
“William is loyal and patient,” Triona said. She tilted her face until her cheek brushed her shoulder. “He makes me forget.”
She shrugged. “Ronan.”
Fanny secured the end of her braid with a set of brass India bells her father had gifted to her. Triona stood, straightening her shoulders. “Just because Ronan broke his promise does not mean I have to let it ruin my life.”
Fanny’s eyes were moist.
“I will speak with William tonight.”
“You should think about this before you do anything.” Fanny neatened the folds of Triona’s arisaid where it cascaded over her shoulder.
She frowned across the room. “I’ve done too much thinking as it is.” A striped cat slipped from out of the open doors of her wardrobe, stretching. Triona shook herself. “We should go below now.”
They walked the long corridor to the stairs, then down to the great hall. The meaty scent of supper wafted over her, but she wasn’t hungry. Fanny squeezed Triona’s arm, then left her at the high table. Hearty laughter bounced off stone walls and fat candles dripped onto the floor from overhead chandeliers.
Triona scanned the room and saw William. He had recovered from his injury and carried himself well. She knew his shoulder hadn’t healed in its entirety. He told her it still caused him pain. Despite his hardship, his smile was infectious, and he wore it daily.
The serving lasses turned to watch him as he passed, but he was looking at her. His smile brightened, making her pulse leap in her throat. All she had to do was let William into her heart. Set Ronan aside and move on.
William took the three steps up the dais as one. His tall form shadowed hers, then his brow furrowed and he ducked to see her face better. “Are you well?”
He smelled like leather and spice. He was clean-shaven, and his hair fell in dark waves around his broad shoulders.
And he was in love with her.
What could she do but give in?
“William,” a man called.
He didn’t move.
He waved a hand in dismissal, gaze trained on her. “We rode too hard today. You are overtired.”
“Nay. I wanted to ask you if I could . . .” Just say it. “Sit next to you tonight.” Her face grew hot.
What was she thinking?
“Of course,” he said, voice as smooth as velvet.
Her fingers trembled and she laced them together. William glanced at her father, who was speaking with a clansman, his gray head bobbing in agreement with the man.
William turned back to her and reached out. She jumped, but he wasn’t fazed by her nerves. His calloused fingers touched her chin and tilted her face up. Concern merged with need in his steel gray eyes. His need was too much. Her need was too much.
He leaned in, his masculine warmth sending tremors down her spine. “You look scared. Why?”
She shrugged, his hand sliding away from her face.
“What are you afraid of?”
Triona swiped her fingers over her eyes. Was she crying? She pulled her hand back and found it wet.
“Of us?” he asked.
Blast the man for seeing through her. But was she afraid of them, or of the needs she could no longer ignore?
“Walk with me. We should get away from here.”
“I canna breathe, much less walk.” She wished she could say what had to be said. Three words would do. I. Love. You. William would take care of the rest. And her, forever.
William frowned, then slipped his arm around her waist and led her outside.
The cool night air hit her hot face and sent a shiver over her skin. William pulled away once they reached the garden. High stone walls muffled the sound of voices within. Torches frightened shadows into corners and behind fruit trees.
“Talk to me,” he said.
“I cannot.” Triona edged against a pear tree, her head bowed.
“Then I will wait all night if I have to.” Torchlight flicked over his bronzed face.
“I am betrothed. Or I was.” She winced and turned away. Tears slid down her cheeks.
William’s fingers curled around her upper arm. “This is no easier for me. Triona, please dinna shake before me.” He ran his free hand through his hair and his grip tightened on her arm. “I canna stand it.”
His was a painful love.
She understood agony in love. It had become her closest companion.
Triona took a staggered breath. “I dinna know what is wrong with me.” Aye she did. Four years had passed since she’d been in a man’s arms. But she didn’t dare say it out loud. “Could you hold me? You never do.”
He sighed, his warm breath caressing her face. Then his arms came around her and he enveloped her into his chest. He held her against his solid mass while she bit the back of her fist. The studs on his leather jerkin pressed through her gown and her stays dug into her hips, but she didn’t care.
A hooting owl ticked off the passage of time. She removed her teeth from her knuckles, wincing, then felt down his leather-clad shoulder and twisted her fingers into his sleeve.
He pressed his lips against the top of her head, but asked for no more. His patience was killing her. It drew her in, promising security Ronan never gave.
Triona paced outside the door to her father’s study. She’d lain awake all night, wondering what to do about William. In the end, it was still her father’s decision whether or not she married, so she gathered what remained of her wits and went to his study.
The door was closed. He only closed the door when he was in a meeting.
She sat on a stone bench, plopped her chin on her fists, and waited.
The door creaked opened. William stepped out. Triona came to her feet wondering if they were talking about her. Had William asked for her hand? Or maybe they were discussing clan affairs and it had nothing at all to do with her.
“Give me a moment,” her father said from within his study.
A gentle breeze from the window moved William’s dark hair. Doubt twisted her stomach. Triona wondered if she was really ready for this. William’s jaw worked, but he remained silent.
Turning, she walked down the corridor. When she came to an alcove, she slipped inside and stood before a narrow window. Outside, the craggy granite moor lumped into pale mountains beyond. She wanted William to follow her, yet at the same time, she didn’t want him to. She heard the creak of leather. Her pulse thrummed in her throat. William touched her arm and Triona turned, finding his gaze on her.
William ran a hand through his hair. “We need to talk about this.”
“About what?” She shrugged one shoulder and watched a spider weave a web in the corner.
“About last night.” His voice was strained. “I waited a long time to hold you.”
She closed her eyes and swallowed. Find your voice, Triona. Then she took a breath and looked at him. “How long have you waited?”
He blinked as if he hadn’t expected her to respond. “You are asking me how long I have been in love with you?” He shifted closer. “I canna pinpoint an exact moment. Sometime whilst I was away.”
Her brow furrowed in question. His smell surrounded her and Triona ached to be in his strong arms. Was she really falling in love with him? Or were her needs overwhelming her?
His eyes widened and his gaze flicked to her mouth. She rested her palm against his chest. Leather was warm clear to the surface. She felt his heart pound and heard the sound of their breaths echoing off stone.
She could do it. She could jump in without looking back. The past was behind her, a distant memory.
His fingers trailed over her cheek, turning to cradle the back of her head. She lost herself in his eyes. Before she had time to process what he was doing, his warm lips closed over hers.
Triona slid her arms around his shoulders.
She’d forgotten this feeling, how potent it was. He backed her against the wall and searched her mouth with his. Triona didn’t care about the hard stone behind her, or his fingers digging a little too hard into her waist. His desire for her made her feel beautiful and loved.
He laughed and kissed her face. “I shouldn’t be doing this.”
“Triona,” he mouthed against her temple.
She closed her eyes and soaked him in. He wasn’t Ronan, but he cared about her. Her fingers cupped his face, trailing over his rough jaw. She felt for his mouth and traced his moist lower lip with her thumb. William nipped at her fingers, making her stomach tighten in anticipation of things she should not have been aware of yet.
Oh, Lord, she would have to tell him she wasn’t pure.
William lowered his head, resting it on her shoulder, holding her close with his face tucked against her breasts. His ragged breath bathed her skin. “I hadn’t meant to come between you and Ronan.”
“He left me.” She twined her fingers in his hair. It was thick and dark, so much like Ronan’s.
He held her tighter for a blissful moment, then let go. “I . . . I’m sorry.” He backed away.
Triona watched the floor between them. Tears burned her eyes and she wrapped her arms around herself, empty inside. “What is there to be sorry for?”
He laughed. “Myself.”
“Ronan is gone,” she whispered.
“He saved my life when he cauterized my shoulder. I trained with him as a lad and we have fought side by side more times than I can count. I canna forget it.” There was an edge in his voice.
Her heart sank. “Maybe I shouldn’t have kissed you like that.”
“It was my doing.”
“It’s been so long since I’ve . . . been kissed.” Looking away, she went to the window.
He blew out a loud breath. “I wish it didn’t have to be like this. Ronan gone, and me . . .”
Her fingers smoothed over cold stone. “It’s not your fault.”
He laughed. “Och, but it is. I swore to myself I wouldn’t sway you.”
Triona turned to face him. “You have done nothing wrong.”
Nay, not you, William. You never do anything wrong.
“Triona.” Her father called her.
William looked over his shoulder. His Adam’s apple rose and fell as he swallowed. “Go to your father, lass.”
“Nay.” He tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear. “I will see you later, now go before your father comes looking.” He lifted his brows.
The last thing either of them wanted was her father walking in on them. Triona made her way down the corridor, hoping she didn’t look flushed. She entered her father’s study and the door closed behind her.
“Triona?” His graying brows were creased.
Och, nay. What did he know?
He gestured with one weathered hand for her to sit.
“I need to go.” Her voice cracked, betraying her.
She heard his sigh, and stopped.
“What did you want to talk to me about?”
She shrugged. “Nothing.”
He hooked his thumb in the swath of plaid across his chest. “Torturing your kinsman will bring pain to you both.”
Shame burned through her. “I’m not trying to hurt anyone.”
“He’s in love with you. He has been for some time.”
She felt her way to the chair behind the desk and sat. She buried her face in her hands. A chair rumbled as it slid over the floor and he sat next to her.
“I have failed you in so many ways,” he said.
She lifted her blurry eyes. “Nay, you haven’t.”
“A battle-hardened warrior has no right raising a lass without the guidance of a wife.” He looked at his knobby fingers. “Sometimes, I think I should have remarried.”
Triona still remembered her mother’s smell. Roses and heather. Her voice was sweet as she sung lullabies. “I miss her.”
“As do I.” His throat sounded tight.
“I am afraid of being alone.”
“You would never be alone.”
“An old maid, I mean.”
“And you see William as a means to an end?”
It was more than that. “Nay.” Triona wiped her fingers over her eyes. “Of course not. I would never treat him thusly. But Ronan isn’t coming back, and I canna wait forever.”
“I have let you down.”
She shook her head.
“Aye, I have.” He stood and went to the window, gazing over the training field. He shifted. A loose board in the floor creaked. “The hair ornaments you wear are not from me.”
She glanced at the jewel-flecked bells in her hair. Her father had presented them to her four days ago. “Who were they from?”
“I swore to him I would not tell you. It was his wish.”
Triona stood. “Not William?”
“Nay, not William.”
“Then who-” Her fingernails bit into the edge of the desk and her chest felt tight. It was hard to breathe. Nay. It couldn’t be. “Ronan?”
Relief flooded her, then guilt. What about William?
“Sweet Lord. Why did Ronan not want me to know?” Her knees gave way and she sank into the chair. She could smell William, his scent clinging to her. She caught her braid in her hand.
“He has his reasons.”
“Reasons?” Her fingers closed over the bells. “What reasons?” She stood and crossed the room to her father.
He placed his hands on her shoulders. “It is not up to me to reveal.”
“Well, Ronan is not.”
“I canna. I am sorry.”
She pressed her hand against her rib cage. “Och, William. What am I going do about him?”
“Dinna worry. I will take care of everything.”
What did that mean? Her stomach twisted until she wanted to retch.
“Ronan’s a stubborn lad. He always has been. He reminds me so much of my step-brother.” He bent and kissed her forehead. “You will marry. You’ve naught to fear.”
She sniffed, tears filling her eyes again. “But who will I marry?”
He chuckled. “There are worse fates than yours. I remember having to fight for your mother. And she was worth it. So are you.” He wrapped his arms around her.
She pressed her cheek against his chest. “You haven’t failed me,” she whispered. If anyone had failed her, it was Ronan. She didn’t know what to think anymore. Maybe it was better to let William, Ronan, and her father work it out. Two years ago, when William returned, all she wanted was for him to recover from his injury and Ronan to come home and make permanent vows with her.
Now she knew the three of them would never be together again. At least not like they were before. Her heart ached. “Why did I have to grow up?”
Her father laughed. “I have asked myself the same question many times.”
Ronan flipped the stable boy a coin. The lad’s eager hands tucked it inside a patched long-shirt. Ronan ruffled his dark curls. “Take good care of Goliath, and there will be a bonus for you.”
The lad’s eyes widened as his dirty fingers wrapped around the reins. “Aye, sir.”
Ronan hitched his saddlebags over his shoulder and proceeded down the street. Shadows stretched taut as the summer sun moved along the horizon. A torch burned outside the tavern door. He’d promised a friend he would meet her here tonight.
He pulled open the slab of a door, a spiral of peat and pipe smoke bathing over him. He wove through the crowded space. The scent of unwashed bodies lingered in air laced with ale and roasted meat. A wench leaned against the bar, skirts gathered in one hand, showcasing a curvaceous thigh. She twirled a dark curl in her other hand.
“There be a handsome gent,” she said in an English accent to the blonde next to her, perched on a stool.
The flaxen-haired woman leaned forward, elbows on her knees. Her ample breasts escaped a tight bodice like two rolls of bread dough left in the sun too long. Fair brows lifted. “Lookin’ for company, beautiful?”
“Another time, ladies,” Ronan told them with a slight nod in their direction.
He heard them twittering behind him. Patrons straightened as he passed. Dressed all in black, with ebony hair, travel-darkened skin, and a custom-made sword on his back, Ronan knew he was the picture of intimidation. He liked it. Men left him alone. Wenches were not as easily deterred. They saw him as a challenge and enjoyed trying to garner his attention.
Ronan reached a secluded corner. Two men with ale-drizzled beards stood and shuffled out of his way, pints in hand. He let his saddlebags slide to a packed dirt floor strewn with rushes, then freed his claymore from his back and propped it against the table. Snagging a stool with the toe of his boot, he dragged it into position and sat with his feet propped on a second stool. Ankles crossed, he waited.
Ronan hadn’t seen her in more than a year. He couldn’t be sure she would remember to meet him. Ribald comments filtered through the murky air. A woman’s voice chided the men. They laughed and more vulgar suggestions carried, only to be parried aside. Ronan stood and cleared his throat. Hushed silence settled as he held his right hand over the pommel of his claymore. He didn’t have to lift his sword. He didn’t even have to touch it. The crowd parted without argument for a slender young woman in a gray cloak. She made her way straight toward him.
“We should not meet in a place like this,” he said. “You do not belong here.”
One brown brow arched. “Can a silk purse be made of a sow’s ear?”
“You are no sow.”
“I take it you approve, Blackhawk?” Maggie spun in a circle for him. Her hair was pinned back. Fine tendrils of cinnamon brown framed her face and a russet gown peeked from under her cloak.
He smiled. “Aye, I approve.”
Maggie caught his hands and gave them a squeeze before stepping back.
“You are beautiful.”
“Thank you.” She grinned, her eyes bright.
They sat and were served by the blonde wench. Her watery blue gaze assessed Maggie before she turned away.
Ronan took a pull from his mug. “Next time we meet it will not be here.”
Maggie laughed. “Give a man something worth protecting and he will protect it, aye?”
He feigned a shiver. “There is nothing more terrifying than a woman who knows what she’s about.” He saluted her with his mug.
“When you left me with Lady MacDuffee, I feared I would disappoint her, but she asks for so little. Only someone to humor an old woman. ’Tis easily done. I like her. I still dinna know how you managed it.”
Even her speech had changed, was more refined. “Her son owed me a favor,” he said. “Besides, she liked you from the start.”
“I think it was your influence more than mine. My lady and I are inseparable.” She fingered the hem of her embroidered sleeve. “She told me her guard is in love with me.”
It didn’t surprise him. She was beautiful before, in her bare feet and unkempt hair. Now she truly was worth fighting for. “I am sure he is not the only one.”
Maggie shrugged and watched him from under her lashes. “My lady tells me he makes a fair wage, and that if we wish to marry, she will give us her blessing. As long as I promise to keep up with my duties at the hall that is.”
“Has he asked you?”
“Nay.” She frowned, then shook herself. “What of you? You look like a shadow in the night. How long has it been since you last cut your hair?” Maggie eyed him.
“I do not remember.” Ronan ran a hand over the back of his head.
“But you shave. ’Tis odd, yet perhaps there is a reason for it.”
“You attempt to read me already.”
“’Tis what I do. Lady MacDuffee loves it.”
“With your abilities, I am surprised you don’t know if the guard loves you.”
Maggie blushed. “Well, I . . .”
“I dare not hope, all things considered.”
“Go ahead and hope. It suits you.”
She cocked her head. “Do you know how much you are loved?”
Ronan eyed her.
“Hear me out, please. I have been thinking about you.”
He lifted his brows.
She smiled. “Not like that. I think you need to go back to your wife.”
He curled his hand around his wooden mug. “I will return when I am ready.”
“Clearly you love her.” She leaned forward. “I have never met a man like you. I dinna understand why you torture yourself like this. Go home, let yourself love her.”
“Lassie, you and I, we know what it means to go without. I willna allow Triona to.”
She flattened her lips. “Did she ask all this of you?”
“Of course not. She is an angel, too kind for her own good. I never deserved her.” He sighed. “Triona’s mother died a few months before her father found me. She annoyed me at first, following me around like a mother hen.”
“Then, I dinna know what happened. We grew up. One day she was watching me train, and I realized I was fighting for her.”
“What if you have been gone so long she claims abandonment? It has happened to more than one man.”
“Not her.” But even as he said the words his head began to throb. “She always keeps her promises.”
“Very well, Blackhawk. Let me ask you this. Will she know you when she sees you again?”
He had considered the same, and it was the very reason he stayed away, even though he wanted to be with her. Ronan downed his ale.
“I see,” she said.
He banged his mug on the tabletop with such force it splintered. “Why do I aggravate myself thusly?” Ronan brushed the broken shards aside.
“Because you like it. Others tell you what they think you want to hear. I speak the truth.”
“You better be glad you’re a woman.”
She lowered her voice. “I am kindred to you, a sister, aye?”
“I suppose . . .”
“Then I shall press on.” Her brown eyes were soft, as if she attempted to tame him. “Do you like the respect Blackhawk brings to you?”
“What man wouldna?”
“Ronan.” She reached over the table and touched his hand. He looked at her small fingers on his. He hadn’t heard his given name in a long time. “Go home. Love your wife, should she yet wait for you. Have faith in yourself.”
His gaze slid over the room. Ronan noted all the people who tried hard not to look at him. None of this would impress Triona. Ronan stood, then took up his sword and bags, and made his way out of the tavern. The crowd parted around him as if he were the plague itself.
Maggie followed him onto the street. “Please, look at me.” She grasped at his sleeve.
He turned to face her worried eyes. “Go back to your man. Decide if you love him, and then tell him so. If he is worth having, then he will marry you as soon as he knows how you feel.” He sheathed his sword. “Do not try and solve my problems.”
“I do not. I canna anyhow, but I am worried about you. You changed my life. Don’t expect me not to worry about you.”
Ronan lifted her hood tenderly over her coiled hair. Tendrils brushed his fingers as he pulled away. She smelled like lavender. “I will take you home.”
She looked over her shoulder, light brown curls catching on the edges of her hood. A tall, dark-haired man, well-built, with a sword on his back, stood across the street watching them. Maggie turned to Ronan. “I did not come by myself. I asked him to wait so I could speak with you alone.”
He nodded. “Then you are safe. Have your man take you home. I will see you again.”
Ronan turned without a backward glance. He retrieved Goliath and tipped the lad. If it wasn’t for the boy’s wide-eyed look he would have forgotten about his promise. He rode hard out of the village with no destination in mind. Hours later, MacAlastair Hall rose out of the dewy moor. Early morning fog hugged every stone gray tower, every peek of the multi-tiered roof.
He’d returned home, like some migratory bird. Impatient, Goliath dug ruts in the ground, metal chinking. Ronan reined him toward the south, hesitated, then turned him again to face the castle.
Raking a hand over his face, he groaned. “I need some sleep.”
He dismounted and led Goliath into a copse of trees.
Triona stood alone atop the highest tower. The morning air was cold and moist, but it didn’t faze her. Her hair hung loose, streaming around her. She closed her eyes and prayed. “Watch over Ronan, Lord, wherever he is.”
The breeze picked up, blowing her hair around her face. She gathered it into her hands as she watched the heath ripple beyond the village. Then she looked at her hair. It had grown out to her hips in four years. She lifted the ends. Ronan was with her when that hair skimmed her shoulders. Her dagger was on her belt and she pulled it free.
“I love you, Ronan,” she told the wind. “I will always love you.” Triona cut through her hair, leaving enough to cover her shoulders. She pulled her bells out of her cloak and braided the cut hair, tying off both ends. She shook it, jingling the gift Ronan had sent her.
“I don’t know if you want me. But William does, and I won’t allow him to suffer as I have. It’s too hard. It hurts too much. If I can ease his pain by becoming his wife, then I will.”
She turned away from the stone wall, made her way through the arched entrance of the turret, and down the spiral stairs. The memories in her hair belonged to Ronan. She needed to make sure he got them.
She ran into Fanny on her way to her father’s chamber.
“I will see you below. I have to do something.” Triona gave her a quick hug.
“I am fine. I promise.” She went to her father’s chamber and knocked on the wide door. “Father, it is I.”
The latch clicked open. “’Tis early, lass. What is it?” He pinned his clan badge into place at his shoulder.
She held out the hair, bells jingling. “I assume you plan to see Ronan. When you do, I need you to give him this.”
He looked up, sighed, then accepted it from her, his knuckles white around the braid. “What have you done?”
“It will grow back. I am not shorn.” She showed him the rest of her hair. “That hair.” She pointed. “It belongs to him.” Her gift to Ronan. A parting gift, or a wedding present, she didn’t know. If he still wanted her, then she would reconcile with the man she gave her virtue to. If not, then she would willingly accept her friend as her lover, and give the rest of her days to William.
“I will be sure he gets it,” he told her.
“Shut the door behind you and have a seat.” Laird Douglas gestured.
William ignored the little stool before the desk and picked up a hard-backed chair instead.
“You noticed her hair?” Laird Douglas asked.
William set the chair next to the stool and sat. He always noticed her, whether he wanted to or not. “Aye.”
Laird Douglas pulled out her braid and placed it on the desk between them.
William watched it like one might a poisonous snake. The jewel-flecked bells screamed at him. Traitor. You owe Ronan a blood debt, and this is how you repay him?
It was his fault she’d cut her hair. William knew he’d pushed her too far, asked for too much. She’d sat next to him that morning while they broke their fast, quiet, but determined. Her smile lacked any real joy, yet she met his eye several times and held it like a woman who wasn’t ashamed of what they’d shared in the alcove. He hadn’t decided what to make of it. But he knew things between himself and Ronan needed to be resolved.
“Both you and Ronan are like sons to me. Nothing will change that.” Laird Douglas steepled his fingers. “Unfortunately, I can have only one son-in-law.”
William blew out a breath.
“Ronan goes by an alias now. He calls himself Blackhawk.”
“I have heard about the dark mercenary. I assumed it to be Ronan by descriptions of his men.” Graham, Ronan’s tall blond warrior for one, was hard to miss.
Laird Douglas nodded. “Since Blackhawk is a man of business, I believe the best way to approach him would be to make him an offer for services rendered. What I have to ask of you willna be easy. But for her sake, I hope you will agree to it.” He picked up the braid and tucked it into a coin pouch.
William was ready to agree to almost anything. He couldn’t continue as he was, seeing Triona day after day, knowing the only way for them to be together was to steal her from his friend.
Ronan stared into the green canopy above him, watching starlings dart from branch to branch. He’d meant to sleep, with the hope it would clear his head, but his mind whirled. He shoved his worsted wool blanket aside and stood. Ronan ran his hands through his long hair, then took a good look at the way he was dressed. When he first took on the role of Blackhawk, he decided he would need to look the part. He had a black cloak, jerkin, black trews, and boots made. He hired a sword smith who custom-crafted his claymore, and he purchased a fine scroll-butt pistol for himself.
Ronan pulled out a small mirror he used to shave by, studying his reflection. His eyes were as blue as ever, his skin darker than ever, and his hair well below his shoulders. It gave him the overall appearance of a highwayman. Maggie was wrong, though. Triona would recognize him. She would know him anywhere.
Unless she failed to recognize what was on the inside. He scowled and shoved the mirror away.
Aye, he’d made quite the reputation for himself. He looked over his bags and tack spread out before him. His few things, his small band of mercenaries, plus the currency Laird Douglas held for him, was all he had to his name. It was a hundred fold what he’d left with, but was it enough? His reputation would help. Bards told tales of his otherworldly powers in battle. Ronan laughed to himself. Let them believe as they willed, as long as it worked to his advantage. He had connections among the nobility now, who would help him gain an audience with the king. If he succeeded, he would make himself like her. Titled.
Ronan slipped into his sword harness, then sheathed his weapon and gathered his gear. “Goliath,” he said. The animal walked toward him, blowing hot air in his face. “Let’s go.”
It was time he called in a few favors, and proved to Triona that he kept his promises.
The clash of metal on metal and the tap of wood on wood filled the training field. It had rained earlier and her clansmen dripped with moisture. The bench she sat on was wet and she’d tucked the train of her wool arisaid under her to keep her dry. She smiled. Aye, she could find joy in life, even without Ronan. Clouds smattered the sky. The sun broke from between two gray mounds as a misty breeze carried the scent of moist heath over her.
William was training young lads today and his patience made her smile even wider. He picked up a dropped practice sword and handed it to a boy.
Then her father strode across the field toward William, his air of authority nearly tangible. Every man and boy on the field stood taller, fought harder, when her father was present. William gave the lad he was instructing one last suggestion, then sent him off with three others to continue his practice.
Her father spoke with William, his hands moving. Then he turned and looked at her.
She smoothed her palms over her blue wool skirt. What were they up to? She stood, dusted stray water droplets off her arisaid, and made her way across the soggy field, ducking when a lad accidentally aimed his wooden sword at her head.
“My lady? Apologies.” He looked at the ground. “I didna see you.”
“Carry on, Braden. A woman on the training field learns to dodge.”
“Thank you, my lady.” He stood still until she’d passed, then swung his sword in a pattern passed down from her father, to William, and now to the boy.
Triona lifted her chin at her father. “Well then, have with it. What are you about?”
“There is aught we need to discuss. Come let us walk.” He offered his arm.
William shook the rain from his hair and fell in line behind them. Triona questioned him with raised brows. “Patience,” William mouthed.
Blasted man. He knew her too well. “What is it?” she asked anyway. “You both might as well just tell me. Is something wrong?”
They started down the path leading to the gardens. “William and I must attend to some business. We willna be long.” Her father squeezed her arm.
“And it isn’t about Ronan?”
“I would rather not burden you with more than you need to know.” He sighed at her glare. “Let’s just say, I have received a threat from an old enemy.”
One person came to mind. She softened her voice, because she knew his name pained her father. “George McAllan?”
“Nay.” He waved his hand. “It comes from elsewhere. My priority right now is to make certain you are safe.” He met her gaze, gray eyes steady.
He was scaring her. “Dinna say such things.”
“I plan to hire a guard for you.”
She half-laughed. “Why would you need to hire a guard when there are men here who can protect me?”
“Because I need as many of them with me as possible.”
She rubbed her forehead. This couldn’t be happening right now.
“I will be with you,” William said. “And Fanny.”
“With me? Wait.” She held up her hand. “Where am I going?”
“’Tis best it be kept secret,” her father said.
“I will tell no one.”
He kissed her forehead. “Can you trust me, daughter?”
Her shoulders withered. She wanted to take him at his word, but she hated being left in the dark. “Aye, of course I can.”
“Thank you. William and I leave on the morrow, and expect to return within a se’nnight. Be ready to travel when we do.”
“A little more notice would have been nice.”
He glanced at her, then turned and made his way back down the path. His silence meant he was not in a mood to argue with her. She spun to face William. “What do you think of this? Why is he sending me away?”
William ducked his face, then smiled, his eyes soft. “He is sending you away because he loves you. Once he knows you are safe, he can deal with whatever else comes his way.” He straightened.
She tucked strands of hair loosened by the wind behind her ears. “You are going with me.”
“Aye.” His voice was velvet. “I will go with you.”
Triona kicked a pebble. It skidded over cobblestones and bounced off the trunk of an apple tree. “How do you do it? Me. My father knowing about us. Having to settle things with Ronan.”
He caught her arm and she looked up. “I just do. I have to.” William ran his knuckles across her cheek.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
“We both do a lot of apologizing for something that canna be helped.” He gestured with a nod of his head toward the stables. “Come for a ride with me. Just a ride, I promise.” He smiled from under his brow.
Her cheeks burned. Triona tasted air laced with damp soil, rose petals, and William. She blinked away tears, hating her vulnerability.
“Nay, dinna cry, lassie, all will be well.” He drew her closer. Without thinking, she leaned against him. He kissed her temple. She wished she believed everything would be fine. And she wished she knew what her father was up against. So many things she wished for, but weren’t coming true.
They inquired about Blackhawk, careful to keep their identities secret. Those who knew him said they would have to wait for Blackhawk to find them.
William rolled his shoulder. It had rained all day. His wound was healed and his muscles toned around the ugly scar, but it ached, especially when he was tired, cold, and wet. Laird Douglas sat straight in the saddle like a man twenty years younger than he really was. William wondered if MacAlastair pride fueled him. There were days when pride was all William had. Nay, that wasn’t true. He had his clan.
A third rider appeared on the road before them like a shadow in the foggy night. Steel glinted from his hand as his warhorse thumped over the stony dirt road, kicking up mud behind him. William moved into position in front of his laird and drew his sword.
“You try too hard,” the stranger said. “Anyone could find you.” He lowered his sword, but he didn’t sheath it. Then he pulled back his hood and Ronan’s blue eyes streaked out at them.
Both William and Douglas kept their hoods in place, waiting for the right moment to reveal themselves. William lowered his weapon, but kept it bared as Ronan did. Divided, William prayed Ronan passed this test, because he was his friend. He also prayed Ronan didn’t, so William could go home and comfort Triona. Either way, it had to be settled, once and for all.
“Off the road.” Ronan gestured with the tip of his blade. William and Laird Douglas moved into the forest, Ronan following close behind. “Far enough. Now dismount.”
William swung off and stood before his laird in a protective gesture. His gut clenched with guilt. He playacted, he told himself. It wasn’t that he mistrusted Ronan. He had to make it look good, that was all.
Ronan dismounted and sheathed his sword. He glanced at William, then shrugged and turned to Laird Douglas. William sheathed his claymore as well.
“I have other business,” Ronan said, “so make your request known.” He folded his arms over his chest.
“My only child is at risk.” Laird Douglas spoke into his hood to disguise his voice. “I would like you to protect her whilst I put an end to this threat. I heard you can read?” Laird Douglas pulled out a rolled slip of foolscap and handed it to him.
Ronan nodded and took it.
“I need you to see her to this location. You will find an abandoned cottage. Keep her there until I can send for her.”
Ronan eyed Laird Douglas, then William. He laughed. “As I said, I have other business.” One dark brow quirked in arrogance.
“’Tis of utmost importance,” Laird Douglas said. “I am willing to pay extra for any inconvenience.”
“I am no wet nurse.” Ronan rested his hand on the scroll-butt pistol at his hip. His hair hung past his shoulders and he looked like the sort of man William would prefer to keep far away from Triona.
“She is grown, and her maid will accompany her, along with her guard.” Laird Douglas gestured toward William.
Ronan pressed his lips together.
“I need my daughter to disappear without a trace, and you are the one man who can make it happen.”
“I dinna cater to women, especially for an indeterminate amount of time. Save yourself the trouble and have her guard do his duty. Unless you do not believe him up to the task.” He smiled.
William ignored Ronan’s goading.
Laird Douglas lifted his chin, his face still shrouded. “As I said, I am willing to make it worth your time.” He pulled out a coin pouch and tossed it at Ronan.
He caught it with the crisp chink of metal, weighing it in his hand. His lips twitched and he shook his head as he untied the thongs.
“You will receive the remainder of your payment when she is safely returned to me.”
Ronan reached into the pouch, and then stopped. He pulled out Triona’s braid, tied off with the brass bells. All the color drained from his face.
Laird Douglas pulled back his hood. “Now you know.”
Ronan bowed his head. “My laird.”
“I need your aid.”
Ronan’s gloved hand tightened around the braid.
“William and Fanny will accompany you.”
William pulled back his hood. He took a deep breath and met Ronan’s gaze. Blue eyes watched him for several heartbeats, then broke the connection. With reverent hands Ronan folded the hair and tucked it within his cloak. He tossed the coins back to Laird Douglas.
“I will protect her, but not for money.”
“For your trouble.”
“I willna take payment to protect her.” Ronan’s fingers flexed.
“I am indebted to you.”
“You owe me nothing.”
He nodded. “Verra well, lad. Meet us outside the village gates, three days hence, at midnight.” Laird Douglas turned for his horse, then stopped. “Just to warn you, she has no idea you are Blackhawk.”
“I told her I would hire a guard for her protection. And that is all I will tell her.” He swung onto his horse.
“Then why did she cut her hair?”
“All she told me was that it belonged to you. She wanted me to make sure you got it.”
William mounted and they rode out, Ronan left behind. William wanted to hate him, yet he couldn’t. Beneath the arrogant exterior was the lad he grew up with. The man who saved his life on the battlefield.
And judging by his reaction to her hair, the man who still loved Triona.
William’s fingers twisted in the reins. What if Triona took one look at Ronan and forgot all about him? What if Ronan was no longer worthy of her?
What if he was?
William loved her enough to follow her anywhere, through anything. But did he love her enough to let her go?
Ronan watched William and Laird Douglas disappear from sight. From next to him, Goliath snorted and stomped a front hoof. Ronan scratched him behind the ear. He wondered what kind of danger Triona was in. It didn’t matter. Laird Douglas was right, no one could protect her as he could.
Was there any way to keep her from recognizing him? He could keep his face covered, then maybe she wouldn’t know.
Ronan’s fingers closed around Goliath’s mane. The things she must have heard about Blackhawk. His face burned. She would never trust him again. He pulled out her braid, the bells he’d purchased for her tinkling. He lifted it to his face, smelling heather and primroses. He ran her hair across his jaw and the texture made his pulse beat behind his eyes.
He tucked the braid away inside his cloak and breathed until his head cleared.
If only he could’ve proven himself to her with a title. Ronan picked up a rock and threw it at a tree. Thump.
“I promised I would come for her.” He picked up another rock. Thump. Goliath snorted. Ronan looked into the maze of branches above him. “I had no choice but to do this. It is the only way to take care of her.”
Ronan threw another rock, heard the thud, felt the futility of it all.
He heaved a sigh and pulled himself together. The best place for Triona was at his side. Aye, he would protect her. But he wouldn’t show her his face.
“I dinna feel right about this,” Fanny said.
Triona folded her rust-red wool skirt and placed it on top of the pile in her trunk. “I am no more satisfied than you, but ’tis my father’s wish.”
“How can we be safer away from the castle?”
“Perhaps he fears an enemy from within.”
Fanny’s fingers froze around Triona’s chemise. Triona wished she’d been more careful with her words. She crossed the room to her. “There is naught to do but what he says.”
Triona took the undergarment from Fanny’s hands and added it to the trunk. She took a step back and surveyed her pile. “We will need a horse and cart.” She looked at Fanny. The woman shrugged. “We should travel light. Take only what we can fit in our saddlebags. The fewer horses we have, the less evidence we will leave behind.”
Ronan had taught her that.
Triona knelt and sorted through her trunk. He spent half their time together on the subjects of war, scouting, and self-defense. “One spare gown and a comb,” she said, her throat raw. “No farthingale. I canna ride in one anyway. No mirrors. We do not need them.” She looked up at Fanny.
The woman stood exactly where Triona had left her, fingers twisted in her apron strings.
“I can live on the essentials.”
“Of course you can, sweetling.” Fanny knelt on the wooden floor next to her, wincing. “’Tis that man. The one your father hired. I have heard things about him.”
“As have I.” Triona picked up her yellow skirt, then set it aside and frowned at it.
“They say he is ruthless.”
“Some would say the same of William. The McAllan’s would say the same of our entire clan.” Triona sat back on her heels. “I have also heard he keeps his word, and he is a very private man. Why would he threaten me? I am nothing to him save the coin my father has paid him.”
“He keeps a mistress. She is the handmaiden of Lady MacDuffee, and he comes to her whenever he passes through.”
“Many men keep mistresses.” Triona wondered who Ronan was spending his nights with. She gave Fanny’s hand a squeeze. “William will be with us. Dinna be anxious.”
“Aye.” Fanny struggled to her feet, Triona helping her up. “My knees hurt. I hoped I would be your children’s nanny one day.”
Children? Would they be William’s children? Not that she had any right to complain. He was a good man, he was attractive, and she knew he would be loyal to her. She bit her lip until her eyes stopped burning. He had one thing against him.
He wasn’t Ronan.
“You have only begun,” Triona said, turning back to her clothing. “Let us finish this. We need to sleep.” I need to be alone so I can cry.
“Sweetling?” Fanny asked softly.
“I do not wish to talk about it.” Triona wiped her eyes.
They packed Triona’s bags in silence. She would wear her dark green cloak on the morrow.
“Get some rest,” she said when they finished.
“Aye.” Fanny turned away with a well-timed yawn. The door closed behind her.
Triona’s trunk sat in the middle of her chamber, the top open. The rest of her clothing lay cast about on the floor. She scooped up the latter and shoved them into the trunk and closed the lid. They’d be a rumpled mess upon her return, but she’d deal with it later.
Crossing her room, she stopped before the window. Triona moved to close the shutters, but the gloaming caught her attention. Outside the village, the sun slid across the horizon. The moor was cast in shades of mist. She wrapped her arms around herself. Her memories were vivid in the quiet hours of the night. She saw his smile, heard his voice. She could almost smell him. Leather and the tang of steel.
Triona shook herself. Why couldn’t she get him out of her head? She needed to let go. So, she’d given him her heart, her body. Even her hair. She wasn’t the first woman to give herself to a man, only to lose herself in him. With a sigh, she closed the shutters.
“Take it back,” she whispered. “Take your heart back. What is wrong with you, Triona? Take it and be done with it.”
Going to her bed, she pulled back her worsted wool blanket and sheepskin covering, and climbed in. Her memories haunted her. She was ten when Ronan was first brought to the hall. He was twelve. She’d wanted to take care of him, but he wouldn’t let her. Triona teased him when he struggled with the reading lessons her father required of him. She braided her hair, tucked flowers behind her ears, and hoped Ronan would notice.
Then one day she donned her new coral gown. She’d embroidered it herself with Celtic knots. They were a tad uneven, but she did the best she could. Fanny laced her bodice up. It wasn’t tight enough, so she contorted her arms until they throbbed and tightened it further so Ronan could see the woman she had become. She was fifteen at the time. She walked out to the training field.
And stood there.
The sun filtered through gray clouds and fell on Ronan’s braw form. His dark hair brushed his bare shoulders. His skin was tanned to a deep gold. He took her breath away. He looked up, then away, then up again. He was so surprised by her that the lad he sparred with hit him across the stomach with the flat of his sword. Ronan bent double coughing from the blow.
Triona wiped away tears as they blurred her eyes. Her imagination had gotten the best of her after that. She knew how many children they’d have, and what their life together would be like.
Reality had faded her perfect visions. Dreams weren’t easy to recover from.
Triona blew out the candles by her bed and pulled the covers up to her chin. Nay, she would never recover. A piece of her inside would always be missing, no matter how she ached to take it back.
The days passed faster than he ever thought they could. Ronan found himself waiting outside the village for her, he and Goliath blending as one into the gloom of the long twilight. He wrapped his black cloak around his shoulders and pulled his hood up to hide his face. He forced everything from his head save one thought.
Because nothing else mattered.
He remembered her at the age of fifteen, watching him from under the pavilion at the edge of the lists. Ronan’s chest tightened just like it had then. She had no idea what a single look had done to him. He knew she wanted him to see it in her, the look of a woman. Yet she’d blushed to a bright red afterward and sat on a bench with her hands folded on her lap.
She made him better. Made him fight harder. Ronan had worked his way through the ranks and became the clan’s most fearsome warrior in a few short years. He knew he was faster and stronger than most men. He took advantage of every opportunity to ask questions, to learn all he could, from anyone he could. While other men drank and wenched, he spent his time training.
Three riders emerged from behind the squat stone huts of the village, each cloaked. Ronan recognized Triona on her gelding, Murdock. Even though the horse was her long-time pet, Ronan would’ve known her by the way she rode. Confident, yet with a feminine grace all of her own. Her slender fingers reined Murdock around a rut in the road.
He could do it, hide his identity from her. Then when they parted ways, he’d call in every favor owed to him, and finally win his land.
Ronan ignored an ache in his head and nudged Goliath into motion. He communicated to William in familiar hand gestures Laird Douglas had taught all three of them, then cursed himself for his carelessness. Triona fell in line between himself and William without a word of direction, Fanny following her lead. Maybe, if he was fortunate, she would assume her father had made him aware of the signals ahead of time.
He needed to be more careful.
When the sun rose he led them off the road. The stony, wind-combed moorland faded by degrees into forest. It would take most of the day to reach the cottage where he would keep her. He’d already been there, scouted out the countryside, and chosen their route. What he hadn’t done, was enter the small abandoned cottage. He’d let the women deal with that. It had a chimney, as opposed to the crofter huts with their open fires. He wondered who built it, and why. Perhaps he would ask Laird Douglas one day. The thatched roof was in a sorry state. Ronan decided he would fix it, clean the chimney, provide meat for the table, and protection. He would have to maintain some distance from Triona though.
Ronan pulled away from the others. He wanted to make certain they weren’t being followed. He cantered Goliath back the way they’d come, then urged his stallion up a jagged swell. Hooves scraped against stone, metal horseshoes casting sparks as they climbed. At the top Ronan turned Goliath in a slow circle while he checked the forest. Clouds billowed in from the north. Good. The rain would cover their tracks.
Birds twittered. A hare leapt out of a thicket and scampered into a briar patch. He closed his eyes. His hearing was as acute as ever, despite the countless battle cries bellowed in his ears over the years. Angry sparrows fought off a raven above him. He heard nothing out of the ordinary for a forest though.
Then he heard Triona cooing to her horse, and jerked.
Goliath stomped a hoof. “Easy.” Ronan scratched his neck. “Let’s go back now.” He followed the ridge until he could see the others below. He allowed his gaze to drift over Triona as she reached out and squeezed Fanny’s hand, showing a rust-red sleeve beneath her cloak.
William signaled for them to have rest, and Ronan signaled back that it would be fine. Ronan didn’t join them, but stood guard and watched like a hired hand. Frustration boiled under his skin. Protect her. Just protect her. Anything more would have to wait.
Triona took a bota from one of the saddles and Fanny carried a bundle wrapped up in cloth. The women stretched out a blanket. William tossed himself on it like a lazy dog and grinned at Triona. Ronan knew all too well how close the two were. His gloved fingers clenched around the reins. William wouldn’t lure Triona away from him. Would he? What if she came on her own? Ronan couldn’t expect the man to resist. If anything bloomed between Triona and William, it was his own fault.
It didn’t mean he had to like it.
Triona pulled back her hood, making Ronan’s pulse race. Her golden hair was braided and tucked into her cloak. Even in the muted light it glowed. How long had her hair grown in the last four years, that she could cut it and still have enough length for a braid? Her features were leaner, more distinct, but not harsh. Her smile was strained. He didn’t care. He wished she would smile in his direction. Goliath shifted, sensing Ronan’s loss of composure.
She ate, then rose to check on her mount. She felt along her gelding’s legs, then pried a stone out of one of his hooves. Ronan smiled. After brushing her palms off on her cloak, she returned to William and Fanny, her rust-red gown flashing from within the folds of her cloak. Ronan could make out little of her figure through all the fabric. It would have to wait. But he was used to waiting, and anticipation brought its own satisfaction. She knelt and sat back on her heels.
Then she looked up at him.
He froze. Did she know? His warhorse sucked a loud breath. Sweat broke out on Ronan’s brow.
Triona turned and spoke to William. Ronan closed his eyes so he could focus on her voice.
“I should take him some food.”
“Sweetling, is it safe?” Fanny asked.
Ronan pursed his lips.
“’Tis safe enough,” William said. “I will be watching. Go ahead.”
Safe enough? Ronan opened his eyes.
Triona wrapped salted herring and oatcakes in cloth, then filled a mug from the goatskin bota. She came to her feet and made her way toward him.
Why would she serve him? Either she knew who he was, and despised him for it, or she did not, and feared Blackhawk as so many others did.
She clutched her skirts in one hand and felt her way over a tree root with a black shoe. Ronan swallowed, then swung off Goliath and started toward her. He took the wooden mug from her hand, careful not to touch her and to keep his face averted. A brief glance at her full lips flooded memories to the surface of his awareness.
“I know you are at your post, but you need to eat.” Her voice was deeper than he remembered. “There.” She pointed to an almost flat place along the ridge.
He followed her, ashamed to admit he was no better than a half-starved hound after a leg of lamb. But he wasn’t hungry for food anymore.
Triona spread out his meal, then stood and picked bits of leaf off her cloak. “I will leave you in peace.” She turned away, wavered, then faced him again. The air carried her familiar scent. Moss green eyes flashed.
His jaw ticked and he prepared himself for battle. The worst kind. Man to woman.
She drew a breath, her shoulders set. “I have a question.” Above them, a raven squawked, followed by angry chirps.
“Your horse? Where did you come by him?”
His head pounded.
“He looks like an animal that belonged to someone I once knew.”
Goliath tossed his head and tested the wind in her direction. Although horses had excellent memories, he didn’t call out. He was a warhorse.
And Ronan was an idiot. Of course she would recognize his horse.
“But he could not.” She fingered the hem of her sleeve. “Unless you acquired him from my friend?”
Friend? He flexed muscles in his arms and shoulders. Friend. He was her husband!
Ronan lowered his head and fought for control. “I acquired him long ago.” He would not lie to her. Hide, aye, but not lie.
She cleared her throat and flipped a leaf over with the toe of her shoe. “I thank you, anyway.” She sounded disappointed. Triona made her way back down the ridge. The image of her face burned into him. Peach complexion, high cheekbones, and lips he alone was meant to kiss. How could he have forgotten what she looked like?
How could he stay away from her? But he had to.
Soon, all the waiting would be over, he would acquire everything they ever needed, and then convince her that she was still his.
Triona slid off her gelding, her legs stiff. She smoothed her hand over Murdock’s neck. He wasn’t as young as he used to be, and she was beginning to second guess bringing the animal. He turned his head, watching her with one big brown eye. “That’s a good lad,” she whispered.
Fanny moaned. “Heavens, but I am not cut out for this.”
“Will you be all right?” Triona asked, helping Fanny off her horse.
“Och, I will be fine, sweetling, once the ground stops its infernal spinning.” Fanny lost her balance and knocked Triona backward into the heath. It crunched under her, bits of reed poking through her cloak and gown. “I am so sorry, sweetling.” Fanny clutched her horse’s mane.
She was just glad Fanny hadn’t fallen on top of her. The dense grass may have broken her fall, but Fanny outweighed her. “Nay, don’t be. I am tired is all.” She didn’t want to get up. Sore muscles begged for rest.
A gloved hand appeared before her face. Triona’s gaze followed over his dark sleeve. His wide shoulder. His hood. Only the line of his square jaw was visible. Dark stubble coated it. He wiggled his fingers. With a dry swallow she placed her hand in his. He was being polite. It was appropriate to let him help her. Wasn’t it? Firm fingers covered in deerskin closed over hers, then lifted her up. The top of her head came to his shoulder.
“Thank you.” She forced the words past her lips. Blackhawk nodded and backed away, his hand sliding away from hers. Triona flattened her palm against her rib cage and waited for her breath to even out.
“Dark soon.” William lifted the saddle from her gelding with a tightlipped smile. She wasn’t sure what was wrong with him. Perhaps he was worried about her father.
Her gaze returned to Blackhawk. His tall stallion bumped him in the middle of his chest and he rubbed the animal’s soot-black ears.
“We should take a look at the cottage.” Fanny touched her arm.
Triona dragged her gaze away from Blackhawk, looping her arm through Fanny’s. “Of course.”
“Plenty of water.”
A creek gurgled though the tiny, private glen. Triona hadn’t heard it until Fanny mentioned water.
“I do hope the roof holds out.” Fanny looked at the sky.
Triona looked at the cottage, smelling rain on the air. “What roof?”
“I’ll see what I can do about it,” William said from around the horses.
“Nay, I will,” Blackhawk said.
The deep timbre of her hired guard vibrated through her and goose bumps erupted on her skin. Triona blinked and tried to figure out what was wrong with her.
“See to the women and the horses,” Blackhawk told William. He handed his stallion’s reins over. “I will take care of the roof.”
She watched him walk away, his cloak flowing around him.
“Sweetling?” Fanny questioned.
“I’m fine.” Triona reached for the cottage door, but it stuck. She let go of Fanny’s arm and jiggled it with both hands. Teeth gritted, she gave it one hard pull.
It burst open and they both jumped out of the way as it fell off rotted hinges. Triona looked up at William.
“I will fix the door,” he said, brushing a lock of hair off his forehead.
He shrugged. “’Tis what I’m here for.”
“You are here for more than that.”
He bowed his head, gray-eyed gaze catching hers as he straightened. Her skin warmed and she turned away, following Fanny into the one roomed cottage. She stood before the hearth on a hard-packed dirt floor and tried to sort through her emotions. The conclusion she came to frightened her. She was needy. William’s attention was heaven, even a little attention from her mysterious guard made her breath catch.
“We are not sleeping in here tonight,” Fanny said.
Triona blew out a breath. “You will change your mind once the rain comes.” Thunder rumbled in the distance and she looked through the rotten roof. “Maybe. Help me clear a place for us to sleep?” Triona righted a chair covered in cobwebs, then pointed to one corner. The remnant of a thatched roof hung for dear life by a live vine twisted through it. “We can sleep there.”
“What will the men do?”
“I daresay the rain willna harm them.”
“I wish ye would keep your distance from that rogue.”
“I am only trying to be civil.” Triona bent and gathered bits of broken pottery into a pile. She cleared her throat, her face turned away from Fanny so the woman wouldn’t see her blush. “We should ask him for some roofing straw so we can make a broom.” She always did have a weakness for tall and dark. Triona shook herself. She had to stop. Ladies weren’t supposed to think like that, to have those sorts of needs.
“What do you think makes him so secretive?” Fanny asked. “Why will he not show us his face?”
“I don’t know.” Triona sat back on her heels.
“You dinna suppose he is scarred?”
“Perhaps.” From what she saw of his jaw line, she doubted it.
William stuck his head in and looked around. “You will be busy.”
“And so will you,” Triona said as she came to her feet.
He splayed one hand across his chest. “I only agreed to fix the door.” He turned his face away, and his voice softened to velvet. “And to keep an eye on you.”
Heat simmered in her stomach.
William snagged the chair she’d righted and placed it before the empty hearth, then sank into it. He laced his fingers behind his head. Aged wood creaked.
“Dinna break my chairs or I shall be forced to . . .” Her wits were quickly escaping her. “To remove you from my home.”
He came to his feet, smiling. “I think I will stand, then.”
The storm came as dusk settled. Triona and Fanny stood huddled under their cloaks, rain pelting wool, while Blackhawk thatched a section of the roof so they could sleep under it. Lightning struck and her gaze drew toward the heather-coated hills. Her thoughts turned to her father and she prayed for him, that he would be stronger than whatever challenge was before him.
“If ye be praying, sweetling, pray he finishes quickly with the roof.”
Triona snuggled closer to Fanny. “I will.”
Blackhawk set the last bundle in place, then vaulted down, landing with a squish on the sodden ground. He was agile for his size.
“Thank the heavens,” Fanny said. “I am too old for this.”
“You go ahead. I will be along in a moment.” Triona watched him, her heart beating faster. Stop it. She could be polite to him without—
Her gaze slid over him. She couldn’t see his face, but he had a deep chest and his legs were well-defined beneath black leather trews.
“Go Fanny. I am in no danger. I just want to thank him.”
Fanny sighed. “As you wish, but do be careful.”
Fanny veered around a puddle and stepped into the cottage. Triona moved forward, Blackhawk watching her approach. “I wanted to thank you.” She pointed at the roof. Her finger shook and she withdrew it. She wanted to believe she was shaking from the cold, but she wasn’t. He scared her, awed her.
Did something heady to her insides.
Rain ran in rivulets over his hood and down his shoulders. He was the same height as William, but wider. Thunder boomed and the ground quaked beneath her feet.
Triona’s mind drew a blank. Lightning flashed in a jagged blue line over the hills behind him and washed them both in eerie light. She smiled like the fool she was. “Are you not worried lightning will strike you?”
He shifted. “Why?”
“Your sword.” His cloak was fashioned so the hilt of his claymore jutted through it.
He chuckled. “Nay, my lady, I am not.”
She was such a goose. The ground shook again and she gathered her skirts in hand. “Goodnight,” she said, and squished away.
“Goodnight, my lady.”
His voice chased her into the cottage. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
“I am almost finished,” William said from the doorway.
“Thank you.” She shook out her cloak and pretended she wasn’t unsettled. It didn’t work. “No hope for a fire, is there?” she asked. Breathlessly. Triona wanted to kick herself.
William’s hair dripped and he averted his face from her. “The chimney is blocked and any kindling we’d gather is wet.”
“I should have known.” She hesitated, then stepped back into the rain. William’s hands froze. She leaned up and kissed his cheek. The rain made his spicy scent more potent. His jaw was rough against her lips.
His eyes questioned hers.
“Thank you.” She turned away and caught Fanny watching her. Triona shook her head, then crossed back to the corner and sat down on the sheepskins Fanny had spread out for them. She pulled off her shoes and tucked her cloak around herself. The brushed wool of the sheepskin was warm and soft against her cheek. She pretended to sleep.
Ronan watched from the shadows, always from the shadows. God, how he wanted to touch her. Triona came up on her toes and kissed William’s face. Ronan’s chest tightened and his hand closed around her braided hair in his cloak. He tore off his glove and felt the soft strands against his skin. Was the hair her way of saying goodbye? She’d asked about his horse and sounded disappointed when he couldn’t help her find . . . himself. Ronan frowned.
William lifted the door into place and Ronan pulled on his glove then went to help him. Had she already given her devotion to her cousin? Could he win it back again if she had? Would William fight him every step of the way?
William said nothing as Ronan held the door so he could attach the tough rawhide strips serving as makeshift hinges. When he finished, William heaved a sigh and walked away.
Ronan sat on a stump near the cottage. Rain soaked through wool, ran into spaces between leather and linen. It dripped off his hair and his face. He was accustomed to inclement weather. But tonight he felt colder than he should have. He shivered.
Triona blinked at the empty section of the roof. Sunlight screened through thin clouds. The air smelled of wet earth. Triona stretched aching muscles and pushed her blanket away. She thought she might mildew if she didn’t change into some dry clothes. Fanny had spread their cloaks over chairs during the night in attempt to dry them. Triona pulled on her damp shoes and checked on their progress.
They were as damp as her shoes. She took the cloaks up and pulled her shoes back off, then crept outside, letting Fanny sleep. She made her way down to the creek barefoot. The purple and green hills were laced with morning mist. A stag startled and sprung into the forest.
She set her shoes down, then spread the cloaks over the bank and hoped it wouldn’t rain again until at least that afternoon. She looked around for the men and found the glen empty save for the grazing horses. William and Blackhawk had to be somewhere nearby. William wouldn’t leave her unprotected, and her guard’s reputation—as mysterious as it might have been—showed him to be the sort of man who finished a job.
Returning to the cottage, she closed the door, moved away from the two windows it boasted, unlaced her damp gown, and removed it. With a quick glance at the door and a wince, she shrugged out of her petticoat, chemise, and stockings, then pulled on new underclothes.
Her under-bodice was damp and it was the only one she’d brought. She bit her lip, then sighed and left it with her wet things. She would make do without it until it dried. No sense in getting herself sick when everyone was trying to keep her safe.
She laced together her teal gown with practiced fingers. How many times had she laced herself impossibly tight before meeting Ronan in the garden for their lessons? Silly twit that she was, wanting to tease Ronan, hoping their lesson would end behind a hedgerow, Triona giggling about how much power she had over him, and Ronan practically shaking from the fire she’d kindled.
Curse her, but she longed for those days.
She tied a white apron around her waist and tucked her arisaid around her shoulders to hide her lack of stays.
Fanny groaned and rolled onto her back. “Sweetling?” Her voice was hoarse from sleep.
“I am here. Rest. Unless you would like me to wash your clothes.”
Fanny pushed herself into a sitting position. She tilted her head from side to side and rolled her shoulders. “I will see to me own washin’.”
Triona smiled. “I am sore this morn, are you?”
Fanny eased off the ground and wrapped her arisaid around herself. “Just a wee bit.”
“Rest some more. I will be back.”
Fanny sat again, on a chair. “I will be along soon.” She waved a hand, then used it to catch a yawn with.
Triona took up her clothes and a bar of soap, and went back outside. William was there, arranging kindling for a fire. Two limp rabbits lay at his side.
“I wondered where you had gone,” she said.
His gray eyes were at home with the morning fog. “I would like to take credit, but Blackhawk bested me.” He spread his arms. “I returned empty handed.”
“Sword not up to the task?” She blinked in attempt to look innocent.
“It seems our friend left traps behind when he came through a few days ago. All he had to do was bait them.” He tapped his steel striker against flint, then blew at the kindling until it smoldered and sprung to life.
The smell of smoke alone was enough to make her stomach clench with hunger. “How unsporting of him. I brought my bow, perhaps I should go forth and bring back our next meal.”
William glared and she grinned back at him. It was nice to tease him like she used to.
Her gaze drifted to Blackhawk’s horse, grazing with the others. “Where is he?”
“Checking the forest to keep it safe for you.” William took up one rabbit.
“You have seen Ronan more recently than I. Did he sell Goliath?”
William pulled out his knife. “Not that I am aware of.”
She stared at the tall warhorse, then sighed. “I am doing the wash. Do you have anything?”
He was partway through the first rabbit. “I will shortly.”
She made a face, glad to let him do the dirty work.
“But I was going to have you skin the other one.”
“Nay,” she called. Not paying attention, she ran smack into the black tower of her guard. Hard muscle formed a wall before her. He was damp, yet radiated heat.
He caught her arms. “Sorry. Are you hurt?”
Triona swallowed, her eyes trained on his leather-clad chest. “Aye.” His grip tightened and her heart jerked in her throat. “Nay, I mean, I am not hurt.” Did her wits addle the moment he came into view?
He reached for her face with a bare hand and she backed away.
“Are you certain?” he asked, lowering his arm to his side. His hands were crisscrossed with scars. His thumb nail was bruised over, and the tip of one finger crooked, as if it had been broken and never set right.
“Aye, certain,” she said. Certain she was losing her mind. “Thank you for the rabbits.”
“Aye.” Deep rumble.
She focused on the ground. A cricket jumped over her bare feet. When he didn’t walk away, her gaze drifted slowly upward. He was watching her from under his hood, chin lifted.
She looked away, then noticed the corner of her bodice peeking from between her skirt and stockings. Bundling the clothing into a tight ball, she clutched them close. “I am going to do the wash.” She walked by him, then stopped. “If you have any, I can take it.”
He straightened with an intake of breath. Triona didn’t know what to do next. What was she thinking? Asking a stranger if she could wash his clothing. Or maybe the problem was that she wasn’t thinking at all. Her cheeks burned. “Excuse me,” she said.
His fingers closed over her forearm. “Thank you, you are most kind.” He let her go.
Triona held her bundle against her chest, her unbound chest, and wove her bare toes into the heath, wondering what kind of lady Blackhawk thought she was.
“I will clear the chimney today,” he said. “And continue thatching the roof.”
“Och, thank you. We appreciate it.”
She glanced at William, but he looked away. No aid from that front, it seemed.
Triona nodded in dismissal at Blackhawk, her pulse beating in her ears. She was an idiot, plain and simple. Resisting the urge to glance at Blackhawk from over her shoulder, she made her way down to the creek.
He knew he should work on the roof, but he indulged himself instead. Ronan sat on a boulder with his damp cloak spread around him, watching her.
He smiled. Being near her did that to him, changed him somehow. Maybe she was the better part of himself.
“She has waited for you,” William said. He bent over his makeshift spit, both rabbits roasting over the fire. “Glad I managed to find some dry wood.” He sighed. “You are as a brother to me.”
Ronan knew William never could keep his mouth shut for long. “Aye?” Ronan said.
“Will you listen to what I have to say?”
Ronan rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Do I have any choice?”
“Apologize to her, then wed her before . . . Just do it.”
He already had, but William didn’t need to know about the handfast. “Tell me one thing.”
William’s jaw twitched.
“Do you love her?”
William tensed, which said more than words.
“I see,” Ronan said.
“It is not what you think.” William ran a hand through his hair and glared at the fire.
“I understand more than you realize. Believe me. If I were in your position, I would be tempted.”
“I would not betray our friendship. What is left of it anyway.” He rolled his shoulder.
Ronan winced. They’d trained together, fought together, traveled together. It was Ronan’s heated knife that cauterized William’s shoulder. “I tried to write.”
“You did not try hard enough.” He tossed himself in the heath by the fire, picked up a stick, and jammed it into the coals.
“I assumed that both of you would know my thoughts.”
“If it were not for Triona, I would have left you for dead.”
Ronan didn’t believe him, there was too much venom in his voice. A man that angry was wounded. Unsure how to respond, Ronan let it go. “I had plans. I did not want her to know them yet.” He flexed his fingers. They’d been broken so many times over the last four years that they hurt. “Now my plans will be set back, and I do not know how long I can hide myself from her. She drives me mad.”
“Your fault. She needs to know.”
“If I don’t think about our future, we will have none. She will have none.”
William blew out a breath and tore his hands through his hair. “She is already yours, you blighted bastard.”
Ronan stiffened. Bastard? That it was true, made it sting no less.
William’s eyes widened and he lifted his hands. “I didna mean anything by it.”
“Then why did you say it?” Perhaps it was because they were both men who solved differences with clashing blades instead of words.
“You have never been aware of your own value,” William said. “And I was not thinking about your background when I said it.”
“I am well aware of the value of a man.”
“Och, aye. That is why I left.” Ronan watched Triona wring out her chemise. He couldn’t help the vision of her in her undershirt. Or the one where he took her out of it. The damage was already done, and his body more than happy to remind him he’d already known her. “Her willingness to work makes what I offer her possible.” Ronan’s throat tightened.
“Care to share?”
“My influence will procure for me a title. What I do now is a means to an end. Walls do not come by accident. They must be won, especially for a man like me.”
“Dinna sell yourself to King James. You are better off as you are.”
“She needs a home.”
“She has one,” William said. “You both do.”
“Then I suggest you have a son or two by her quickly.” William winced. “The king will make you pay for your land with your life, and then gladly force her to marry another man, one who will not see her as a person, but as an object to be acquired.”
Ronan’s head ached. He rubbed it, wishing he could toss back his damp hood.
“Is that what you want?”
“Nay, or course not.”
“You can trade your skill and the skill of your men for land, but all King James wants is your sword. You will see very little of her. Not that you see her now, but it would kill her. She needs . . .” William’s voice wavered.
William was far too aware of what Triona needed.
The smell of roasting meat made Ronan’s stomach growl. It would bring both women to the fire and he didn’t want to be there when they came. “You are still my brother,” Ronan said. “And she could have made a worse choice than you.”
William poked at the fire. “I dinna know what you’re talking about.”
“Could have fooled me.” Ronan stood and walked away.
Triona had finished hanging out her laundry and walked over to her gelding. She stroked Murdock’s face, her affection drawing Ronan until he found himself standing behind her. “He is a fine steed,” he said.
She turned, then flipped her braid over her shoulder in a gesture so familiar it caused him physical pain.
“He would be better if my father had not gelded him.” Her face colored and she looked at the ground.
“You surprise me,” he said.
“To see a lady work with her hands. Aside from her needlework.”
“I prefer to be occupied.” She lifted her chin. It sent more images of the past racing through his mind. Ronan wanted to stare unabashed, but he didn’t dare expose too much of his face. He watched her peripherally instead.
“I am sure you have other things you could occupy yourself with,” he said.
“I canna sit still for long.”
“Dinna tell me you never play, my lady.”
She stiffened. “Not in some time. Please excuse me, I should see to my maid.”
Ronan watched her walk away. What happened to the carefree lass he once knew? Where was her innocence? He knew the answer to his own question. He had her innocence. Under his skin.
Burning a hole through him.
Triona glanced over her shoulder as Blackhawk disappeared into the forest. Like it or not, he drew her. She wondered if she was just beginning to understand the full ramifications of what she’d begun with Ronan. Maybe, if she’d never let him kiss her so many times—bed her—she wouldn’t be so acutely aware of what she was missing. Kissing William didn’t help things either. She ran her hand over her braid. She missed the gentle tinkle of her bells and the length she’d cut off the end.
Sighing, she opened the cottage door.
“Fanny?” The woman sat motionless in her chair. Triona touched her shoulder. Fanny jerked against the chair back. Then she tucked her chin against her chest, snoring.
With a relieved smile, Triona backed out of the cottage and closed the door with an easy creak. She joined William at the fire. The sun had dissipated the gray mist and she blinked into it. Her gaze flicked to the space between two rowan trees where Blackhawk had disappeared. Triona wiped her hands over her apron. Were her palms sweaty?
William met her with a smile and hot meat. She sat with a chunk between her fingers and blew on it, her empty stomach growling.
“No hope for oatcakes?” William asked.
“With two mighty hunters, what do we need oatcakes for?”
“And that means you and Fanny care not to make any?”
She eyed him. “We will make some later.” Her gaze wandered toward the forest again. “So he . . .”
“I saw him go, but I thought he might rejoin us.” She shrugged to ward off suspicion.
“Why?” Suspicion laced his tone.
Triona took a large bite of hot meat so she wouldn’t be able to speak right away. It must have been a young rabbit. It was tender. She swallowed. “Take me to look for mushrooms.”
“Are you asking, or telling?” William handed her a mug of ale.
“Please.” She squinted over the rim.
“Aye, my lady. Fanny?”
“She fell back asleep. We should leave her. She and I have to clean the cottage out later.”
“I will help.”
“You have a chimney to clean.”
“Your guard can see to it.”
“And the roof?”
“I suppose you want it all done today.” He handed her another chunk of meat and frowned like he wished she would shove it all in her mouth.
She set aside her ale, working the wooden mug into the grass until it stood upright. “I want a fire.”
“Some ladies are not demanding.”
“I am not making demands.” She took a bite of rabbit, warm juices coating her fingers. William shook his head, and she smiled as she chewed. She looked at the cottage with its rotten roof and missing shutters. Dressing had been uncomfortable. “You should put some shutters on the windows.”
“Fanny and I need our privacy.” She chewed her last bite of meat.
“If you are finished?” He offered his hand. She wiped her fingers on the grass and he pulled her up. His hand drew her attention, her mind making comparisons. He was scarred, but less so than Blackhawk, and all of his fingers were straight. Triona pulled her hand away.
They skimmed the edge of the forest, picking berries off bramble bushes as they went. Triona collected them into her apron.
The forest floor was cool and damp against the soles of her feet, but it didn’t bother her. She oft refused to wear her shoes as a child. The other children she played with didn’t have shoes, save William, and she didn’t like being different from them. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Aye.” He sounded unsure.
“This guard. Is there something . . .” Pathetic Triona. “Never mind.”
He spilled a handful of berries into her outstretched apron. “Try not to think about it too much.”
“I have not thought about him, that is to say I do not-” Triona scrutinized the berries in her apron. “We had better look for mushrooms now.”
William caught her elbow, guiding her over a tree root. “There they are.”
Triona knelt on the mossy ground beneath a beech tree and pulled up a fat mushroom. The fresh, earthy smell made her hungry all over again. “I will fry these with leftover rabbit meat.” She looked at William, then followed his gaze until she saw Blackhawk above them on a ridge. A breeze flipped the edges of his cloak as he stood at dark attention, arms crossed over his chest.
“I am going to check on Fanny.” William said. “You will be safe here.”
“What, wait?” She lurched to her feet, spilling some of her berries and mushrooms.
He turned back, smiling. It didn’t reach his eyes. “There is something I have to do. You will be all right.” He merged with the forest as he ducked behind a rowan tree, creamy white flowers on branches rustling.
“William?” He was gone. Triona blew out a breath. “Men.”
“And?” questioned her guard.
She jumped. “How did you . . . you were . . .” Her heart hammered.
“I didna mean to frighten you.” His tall form bent as he gathered her berries into his bare hands.
She held out her apron, her fingers trembling. She hoped he didn’t notice. He smelled of leather and steel. “Thank you.”
“You say that a lot.” Blackhawk pulled away before she could see his face, then he knelt and began to pull up mushrooms. He dusted and handed them to her one by one.
Speak, Triona. He might have information about Ronan. She would miss a perfect opportunity if she couldn’t work past his—whatever about him that made her mouth run dry.
“Tell me if I exhaust you with my questions, but my friend I spoke of earlier?” She watched the top of his hood. “We have not seen him in some time, and I wondered if perhaps you have.” Her cheeks were warm.
“Tell me his name.” His voice ran down her spine.
“R-Ronan.” Lord help her. “He has been away these four years.”
“What does he look like?”
“He has hair like the raven’s.” She stared into the forest. “It curls a bit, especially when he has been out in the rain. His eyes are deep blue, like the summer sky. He is tall and bonny, and an amazing swordsman. He was trained by my father.” She added the last words as an afterthought.
Triona dropped her gaze to his.
“I know of him,” he said.
“You do? Where? Have you seen him?”
“Aye, but first tell me why he left.”
She winced. “He is my betrothed.” It was painful to admit Ronan never returned for her. Only a fool of a woman would wait on a man as long as she had.
“Then he seeks to earn you.”
Her hands tightened around her apron. “He wanted to be a mercenary.”
Blackhawk sat back on his heels. “A man with skill can make a good living as a hired soldier.”
“I understand his motives. But I am ashamed.” She should have shut her mouth.
“Why?” His deep tenor lifted a couple of notches. “Of him?”
“Nay. Of myself. I tried to persuade him to stay, but I failed.” She wanted to cry. Her wounds were raw and they burned the back of her throat. Her fingers clenched into her apron until berry juice bled through the fabric.
“I am sure he only left because he had to.”
She needed to get away from him. “I am sorry. I should not be here with you like this. I shouldn’t have said those things.”
“My lady, wait.”
She kept walking.
“Your betrothed, he spoke of a lass who matched your description. He said she was his angel.”
Her toe caught in a root. She reached out to break her fall, her wrists jarring from the impact. Berries and mushrooms scattered.
“I should have waited to tell you,” Blackhawk said from next to her, his voice soft. “Perhaps until you were sitting down. Do you always fall this much?” He took her by the elbows and eased her up.
“Only around you.”
He laughed. “Let me see your wrists.”
She pulled her hands back, ashamed about how much she’d revealed to him.
“I just want to check the bones.”
“Why?” Triona narrowed her gaze at what little she could see of his face.
Wide shoulders rose and fell. “Because it was my fault.” He didn’t wait for her answer. He took her forearm in one hand and flexed her wrist with the other. “Hurt?”
“No more than I would expect.”
She caught a flash of white teeth. His fingers were careful as they examined the bones in her wrists. Triona tried to see his face again, but he angled it so she couldn’t. “I am fine. You do not have to do this.”
“Canna be too careful.” He let go, his chin lifted so he could see her from beneath the hood.
“Why do you wear that?” She searched the shadows.
He moved his face away. “’Tis a long story.”
“Of course. None of my business.” She frowned at her purple-spotted apron. “We should go.”
His continued closeness made her uncomfortable. She turned and walked away, watching for tree roots.
“Your mushrooms, my lady?”
“I will just drop them again.”
“I shall get them for you.”
“As you wish.”
Ronan picked up her mushrooms and followed. He was doing a lousy job at staying away from her. But he wanted badly to make her smile, to laugh. He wanted to make her blush with profusion underneath his gaze.
He’d gotten the latter, anyway.
The cottage loomed ahead. He needed time alone. His men never prattled like William. Triona went to the fire and wrapped her arms around herself, her brow furrowed. Ronan looked at the fat mushrooms in his hands. They were her favorite. She liked them sliced and fried with meat, venison to be specific. Perhaps a hunt was on the agenda. It would help clear his head.
Triona jumped when she saw him. He wished he could stop scaring her. Not that he blamed her. He’d made his own bed of intimidation. Depositing her mushrooms in the black kettle next to the fire, he left without a word. Then he took up his bow and quiver and walked into the forest.
“Wait.” It was William.
Ronan turned to face him. “Hills are ripe with stag.”
William’s brows lifted in question.
He sighed. “Did you need something?”
“Could not resist her, could you?”
“Nay.” He couldn’t resist her. Not for a moment. “Why did you leave us alone?”
William shrugged. “Perhaps I needed to. Come back to camp, worry about that later.” William gestured.
Ronan looked at the ash bow in his hand. “I need space.”
“You will get used to it again. To her.”
It was William he needed to get away from. Ronan’s fingers curled around his sturdy, leather-wrapped recurve bow. “Why are you doing this?”
William rolled his injured shoulder. “For her. Come back and work on the roof. You promised her.”
He did. And he’d already broken one promise, the most important one. He failed to come back for her. “Aye.” He turned and followed William to the cottage.
Triona was still by the fire in the meadow. Fanny was sitting in a rocking chair they must have salvaged from the cottage. Ronan gathered rushes from the pile he’d left out the night before. The green shafts were too fresh, too damp from rain, but they would have to do. His pride had prevented him from purchasing the appropriate materials ahead of time. A well-thatched roof took a lot of effort. This one would be functional at best.
Ronan handed a bundle off to William on the roof, then pulled out his knife and tapered the ends of young branches. He bent them to form long pins to hold the thatch into place. The work eased him, but he couldn’t hide behind it forever.
“I have enough for now,” William said after a time. “You can work on the chimney if you want.”
Ronan looked at the sun. Blast it if it wasn’t still morning. He didn’t need to scout the forest again until late afternoon. He grunted an acknowledgment and sheathed his knife. He pulled himself over the rafters. Then he looked into the chimney and sighed. Birds’ nests. Layers of them. A row of brown bats wiggled.
“Bad?” William asked.
“Bad enough.” Ronan pulled on his gloves and nudged one of the creatures awake. “Off with you.”
It stretched its mouth in a quaking yawn, delicate white teeth gleaming. Ronan sat back and counted five as they crawled one by one out of the stone chimney. Leathery wings stretched awake, then they flitted into the forest.
“About what I said earlier,” William said. “What I called you.”
Ronan rolled his eyes.
“I didna mean it.”
“They why speak of it?”
“Because it was a foolish thing to say.”
“Better to be free of family ties, anyway. Took me a long time to realize that.” Ronan pulled out a rotten nest.
“But you are not free of them, are you?”
“As much as I can be.”
“And who stores your fortune for you?”
“Her father.” As if William did not already know. “Laird Douglas respects my independence.”
“Aye, because he loves you like the son he never had.”
“Nay.” Ronan shifted his weight so he faced William square on. “He loves you like the son he never had.”
“He wanted you for his son. He only let you leave in the first place because he thought you would return a better man.”
“And I am not, aye? Is that what you are getting at?”
“I just want to know if you think of her at all?”
This was why he wanted to be in the forest, hunting. “She is all I have thought about these last four years. Nay, these last seven years.”
“Seven.” William’s eyes widened. “I had not realized.”
“I did not ask her to marry me on a whim. Even her father knew it.”
“It isn’t your fault you are blind.”
“I knew you two were . . .” He blew out a breath.
Hoping William would keep his mouth shut for a while, Ronan craned to check on Triona. She wasn’t with Fanny. He scanned the meadow and the creek. Still no Triona. “Where is she?”
William arched around. “She has to be here somewhere.”
Ronan swore under his breath and slipped from the roof. He hoped she hadn’t run off because he’d upset her. He whistled for Goliath. The stallion lifted his head and trotted toward him, ears pricked. Ronan took up his bridle and slipped it over Goliath’s head.
“What is wrong?” she asked from behind him.
His fingers froze. The world revolved slowly around him as he turned to face her. Goliath nudged the middle of his back. “Where were you?”
“I was gathering herbs for the mushrooms.” Triona unfolded her apron to show him the bits of leaves hidden within.
“Dinna leave without me. I canna guard you if you wander off.”
“But I didna wander. I was just over there.” She pointed across the glen.
He touched her arm, but she pulled away. He clenched his jaw. “From now on, make sure you tell me where you are going.”
She nodded, her eyes wide, then she turned and ran back to the fire, her braid swinging behind her.
He was a fool. Ronan lifted the bridle off Goliath, left it with the rest of his gear, and crossed back to the cottage.
William met him halfway. “Back off.”
Ronan blinked. “Excuse me?”
He planted a hand to the middle of Ronan’s chest. “You heard me.”
Ronan glanced at Triona. She flushed and looked away. He lowered his voice. “What are you doing?”
“Just stay away from her.” A nerve in William’s jaw ticked.
“What is wrong with you? You’re the one who left us alone.”
William grabbed him by his cloak, shaking him. “Woods. Now.”
“Gladly.” Ronan pulled free.
They crashed into the forest. “I had to do it,” William said.
William swatted a branch out of his way. “I told her the two of you were getting too friendly. Now you will have to go comfort her.”
“Are you tetched?”
“Do you think I like this? I made a promise to her father.”
Ronan took a hold of him, leather jerkin creased between his fingers. “What promise?” William’s steel eyes flashed and Ronan shook him. “Tell me!”
William yanked free and paced. Three steps in one direction. Three steps back. “It all started when I kissed her.”
Ronan stiffened. Then he steadied himself. He shouldn’t be surprised. “Is that all?”
“What more would there be?”
“Nothing.” He frowned. “Tell me what her response was.”
“Confusion, once she found out the bells were from you.”
Ronan pulled back his hood and shook out his hair. “And this promise?”
“I swore to her father I would give you a chance to win her back.” William turned away from Ronan. “Go tell her who you are,” he said from over his shoulder. “I need you to, before you both drive me daft.”
Ronan was sorry. He didn’t know how to say it though. “Thank you, for not taking advantage of her.”
“I never would have.” William took a deep breath, let it out. “Just go.” He flicked a hand toward the glen.
Ronan pinched the bridge of his nose. “I am not certain I should tell her just yet.”
William barreled him and Ronan hit the ground with a thud, the wind knocked from his lungs. “Go.” William twisted one hand in the collar of Ronan’s shirt. The other was raised in a fist. “Before I smash your nose in.”
Ronan lifted his hands in surrender. “I will go.” William backed away and Ronan peeled himself off the ground. “I never meant to do this to you. Either of you.”
“It was my fault as much as yours.” William sat back in the pine needles.
“I was the one who sent you home with her two years ago.”
He half-laughed and ran both hands through his hair. “There are other women.”
“For me there is not.”
The tension in William’s shoulders eased. “I just want . . .” He looked up.
Ronan understood. “I meant it when I called you my brother.” He lifted his hood back into place. “I have to break this to her slowly.” Ronan prayed for the first time in years. His pulse was thundering behind his eyes by the time he reached the glen.
Fanny jogged toward him, her face red.
Ronan tensed before she said a word. “She is gone,” he said.
Fanny nodded, her fingers knotted in her apron strings. “I tried to stop her, but she was upset.”
She pointed to the creek.
He picked up Triona’s trail. She’d broken so many branches a blind man could have followed her. He spotted her teal gown through a maze of willow. It took him a moment to prepare himself. He needed many moments, but he was out of time, and excuses.
She halted. Four pulses beat against his temples before she turned to face him. “I know I should not have wandered off, but I couldna stay.” She rubbed her forehead. It seemed he wasn’t the only one with a headache.
“I shouldn’t have been so rough with you earlier.”
“I understood your concern.” She looked at the ground. “William is not usually like this.”
“I spoke with him.”
She straightened. “You . . . did he tell you?”
“I made him.”
She pressed her hand against her rib cage. “You should not have.”
“Lass.” Ronan softened his voice and hoped she wouldn’t be afraid of him, or Blackhawk rather. He couldn’t just pull off his cloak and reveal himself. It would be too much of a shock. Think, Ronan. He took her carefully by the shoulders and turned her to face him. She wouldn’t look up. Was she afraid? Embarrassed? He couldn’t tell. “Dinna worry about what he thinks.”
“’Tis not that. It is, but it is not.” Triona lifted her head and searched his face. Ronan didn’t turn away. It was as if she touched his skin with her gaze and he liked it.
“In a way, he is right.”
He tipped his head to the side and wanted to burn the blasted cloak. “What do you mean?”
Triona pulled away and wrapped her arms around herself. “I am not sure.” She wiped her eyes. “We shouldn’t be here like this.”
She moved past him, but he caught her arm and brought her back. He ducked his head. Her scent assaulted him. He reached out and caught her braid in his other hand, lifting it to his face, smoothing it over his lips. “Why have you been so kind to me?”
She trembled and he loosened his hold. “You were selected by my father to protect me. He must have trusted you.”
“Is that all?”
“I had hoped you would know where Ronan was.”
He lowered his voice. “And there is no other reason? None at all?”
He heard her swallow. She closed her eyes. “Dinna do this to me.”
Ronan urged her closer, nuzzling her temple. It was cruel, he knew, to make her believe she was falling under the compulsion of a rogue. But what they had ran deeper than names and identity. Some part of her had to sense it was him.
Her fingers curled around the fabric of his cloak, and he pressed his lips against her jaw. Smooth skin, soft hair. Did her lips still taste the same?
“Tell me what I do to you,” he whispered.
“I canna.” Her fingers loosened, then she pressed her hand against his chest and pushed. Reluctantly, he back away.
She laughed. “I’m no angel. Do angels get angry, do they fear the unknown, do they need to be held and loved.” Tears welled in her eyes and she looked at him as if she expected something.
“Aye, they do.” He cupped her face in his hands and lowered his mouth over hers. Easy, don’t hurt her. She jerked away, looked into his eyes, then came up on her toes and kissed him back. Ronan pulled her flush and she moaned when she collided with his chest. “I’m sorry,” he breathed.
She shushed him. “I am not.” Snaking her hands around his neck, she pulled his face to hers. “Ronan,” she said against his lips.
He lifted her off the ground. Triona yanked his hood back and buried her hands in his hair. “I told myself it wasna you.”
“You suspected.” He tightened his hold on her, relishing in her curves beneath his hands. He’d waited so long for this.
“When I saw Goliath I thought maybe, but William persuaded me otherwise. Then I saw your eyes just now, and the way you kissed me . . . I could never forget.” Her gaze flicked to his mouth. She traced a thin scar on his jaw with her finger. Then she kissed him again, the length of her pressed into him, her hands cupping his face as if she was afraid to let go.
His hands shook and he set her down. “I don’t want to drop you.”
She shook her head, puzzled.
He held out his hands, showing her the way they trembled. “That is what you do to me.”
Tears welled in her eyes, but she was smiling through them. She took his hands in hers and kissed each palm. “I hate your cloak.”
“So do I.”
She fumbled with the pin, then unclasped it and pulled it off him. He felt as if a heavy weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Ronan caught her hand and lowered his head to hers.
“Wait,” she said.
He laughed. “For what?”
“I want to see you.”
He straightened as her gaze wandered over his face, then down his torso. He felt like he would explode if he couldn’t touch her. It seemed an eternity before she smiled and stepped into his arms.
He ran his hands down her waist. Then he grinned and loosened her arisaid.
“Ronan.” Her face colored and she grasped the end of the fabric.
“I like you like this. Without your stays.”
She buried her face against his shoulder.
He rocked her. “What if I told you I was not paid to guard you, that your hair was my fee?”
“You got it?” She lifted her head. “He gave it to you?”
“Aye, I got it.”
She ran the backs of her fingers over the stubble on his jaw. “Why did you not tell me it was you? Why did you pretend to be this Blackhawk?”
He winced. She didn’t know yet? He assumed she’d determined it for herself. Ronan held her closer. Would she accept him? “Angel, I am Blackhawk.”
Her fingers slipped away from his face. Triona wiggled against him. “Wait. Hear me out.”
“Let me go.”
“Not until you hear me.”
She made herself limp. Her body felt lifeless against his. It stung. She might as well have slapped him across the face. Her neck was arched back and he regretted having taught her that a limp woman was harder to carry than a stiff one. He loosened his arms. She wasn’t prepared and fell, squeaking when her rump hit the ground, her petticoats swimming around her.
“I didna mean it,” he said, reaching for her.
She waved him off and scrambled to her feet on her own power. “Do not touch me.”
He took a breath. He wanted her back, needed her back.
“Where is your plaid?”
“Why did you not contact me?”
“I tried. I am not good with missives. I never know what to write.”
“You could have let me know you lived and you still thought of me.” Her fingers clenched into fists and her voice trembled. “I didna know.”
“I assumed you would.” At least she was still talking to him. They could work this out. Soon she’d be back in his arms.
“Like many men, with many women before, you assumed wrong.” Her chin lifted and she crossed her arms over her rib cage.
Maybe he deserved that. He worked her arms free and took her hands. Her fingers were curled. He unfurled them one by one. “I have what we need now. It has taken so long, and I have worked very hard, but I have it.”
“Have what?” She eyed him from under her brows.
“What I need to procure our land.”
He needed to slow down, to give her time to adjust. “I knew I could secure myself a title, if I built enough of a reputation first.”
“Sell your freedom?” She said it like he planned to sell his soul to the devil. She said it like William had.
“’Tis how it is done.”
“You would lose too much.” Aye, just like William.
“I am willing.”
“Well, I am not.” She pulled her fingers free.
She was as stubborn as ever. “Then what do you suggest?” Blood pulsed behind his eyes. It was the same argument they had four years ago, and he was already sick of it. “All I care about is you.” It was true. He had no clan, no kin. There was only her. “My loyalty would never be with the king.”
She blew out a breath. “But you would have no choice. You need to think this through.”
“As long as you are behind a wall. My wall. I care not about anything else. Say aye.” He lowered his voice. “And I will see to everything else.”
She watched the ground, her eyes drifting back and forth as if she looked for answers in tree roots and moss.
“Angel.” Ronan tipped her chin up with one finger. When her gaze met his, a thousand questions screamed at him. He could only answer one. “I would do anything for you.”
Her jaw moved as if she wanted to form words.
“Just say aye.”
“Who are you? All the things I have heard.” There they were. The words she was looking for. “And you say ’tis all for me?”
“I knew you would hear things.” Ronan sighed. “I do what I am hired to do at the highest price offered me. I ask no questions, and expect no answers.”
“For all you know, you could have worked against us, against our clan.”
“We are our clan! What will it take for you to see?”
She took a step back. Ronan regretted his tone. She had the uncanny power to break down his every barrier.
“We are our clan,” he said with more control. “My men follow me without question.”
“Blackhawk, you mean.”
“Does it matter?”
“All my life I have lived among my own clansmen.” She fisted one hand at her chest. The veins in her neck stood in relief against her skin. “How am I supposed to feel about these strange men?”
“They would not allow one hair on your head to be harmed. I demand total allegiance from all who follow me.”
Her brows lifted. “Does that include me?”
“Of course not.”
“You are changed, and I do not know what to think of it.” She reached out and steadied herself against a tree. “This is too much. I need time.”
“Then you will have it.” He pushed her rejection into a box and closed the lid. All she needed was a little time. He’d waited this long. He could wait a little longer. “Do you want to be alone? I can make myself disappear.”
“Disappear? But you will be watching?”
He shrugged. “I have been paid to guard you.”
“With my hair.” She ran her hand over her braid.
“Aye, with your hair.”
Triona watched the shadow of a smile cross his face. It was as if time had ceased to exist. His touch was yesterday. She wanted to hide in the shelter of his arms, but there were too many unanswered questions. “Do not leave,” she said. “I canna promise I will be much company though.”
“And I have never been.”
“’Tis not true.”
“Only you would think so.” Ronan crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the tree opposite her. He was broader than she remembered. The last traces of youth had dissipated. He boasted a scar on his chin and earlier she’d noticed a broken finger on his right hand. Ronan wore his sword at his back and a pistol at his hip, as he always had. They were not the same weapons he left with. Corded muscles in his arms couldn’t hide beneath his charcoal shirt. She swallowed, unsure whether to be frightened, or impressed. His hair was longer, with curls amidst onyx waves. Blue eyes. Blue, blue eyes.
Now she understood her fascination with her hired guard. “What you did to me . . .”
His smile widened and he pushed off the tree. “I hadn’t meant to, but I couldn’t stay away from you.”
“I thought I was losing my mind.”
He ducked his head. “Is it so repulsive a thought, falling in love with me again?”
Her heart stopped, then beat again at full force. “I thought you were Blackhawk.” She frowned. “Which you are.”
She wanted to touch his hair. Her fingers moved without her permission, hovered, and then closed over a curl.
“I am still me.” A plea laced his tone and broke her inside. She wanted to believe him so badly it made her stomach ache. He caught her hand and brought it to the back of his head.
A whirlwind of memories assaulted her. She’d cut his hair for him once. It was uneven, but he never complained. Before he trained she would tie his waves back with a leather cord. “It was not supposed to be like this,” she said. “This is not what I wanted.”
“I changed your plans when I left.”
“You changed my life.”
“I changed your life the moment I came into it.”
She released his hair. “I can hardly believe you’re here. Do not do this to me again.”
“It is over. Almost. I need to leave long enough to secure our land.”
He didn’t understand. She should have known. He never understood her. She had to clear her throat before she could speak. “Nay.”
His eyes widened. “Nay?”
“I canna do this again.” She wanted to look him in the face and threaten him boldly, but in the end she couldn’t. She looked away. “If you leave, do not come back,” she whispered. “Just stay with me. We will work this out. Am I not enough for you?”
He rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Your clan, they are not my people.”
Why didn’t he answer her question? “So, you don’t know who your people are.” She swallowed through a tight throat. “You will always have a home with us.”
Her eyes stung and she wiped them. “Why do you have to do this?”
“I willna stay. If I do not return, it is because I died for us. There would be no other reason. Either you believe in me, or you do not.”
She didn’t. How could she? He’d left her. “I will not be married to Blackhawk.”
“You already are.” His gaze washed over her, then he flashed her a cocky grin.
“A handfast, Ronan. You abandoned me.”
“You were never forgotten.”
“For three years it has been over.”
“Nay, I . . . It’s not over.” His voice cracked and she felt her heart give a squeeze. She never could convince herself not to care about his feelings. “You are my wife.”
She brushed a tear from her cheek.
“I need Blackhawk.”
“Have you become two distinct people?”
“You canna expect men to fall in line behind Ronan.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. Then he dropped his hand and closed the gap between them. His face was dark, desperate, his fingers weaving through her braid at the back of her head. She knew she should move away, but she couldn’t find the willpower. He was going to kiss her again, and she was going to let him. His thumb stroked her jaw as he nuzzled her cheek.
Triona leaned into him. “Do you believe I would sacrifice my youth waiting on a man who was unworthy?” She struggled for air.
“You are nowhere near becoming an old maid.” He lifted his head, Adam’s apple rising and falling as he swallowed. “Not even close. You are more beautiful than I remembered.” He lowered his voice. “You always turned shades of pink when I looked at you.”
“People look at other people all the time.”
“Not like that, I hope.”
She closed her eyes against him, saw blue eyes and black hair anyway. God help me. “Let Blackhawk die. Please.”
“Not yet.” She felt his warmth as he descended on her. His muscles tensed, then loosened. “When the time is right, he can disappear as mysteriously as he came.”
“And until then?”
“He will remain.”
Ronan’s pride would be his downfall.
She curled her fingers in his sleeves. “I believe Ronan is worth following.”
He kissed the side of her neck.
“I will always believe in him.”
“Then you believe in me?” He looked at her, eyes bright.
She turned her face and pressed her cheek against his hard shoulder. His heat soaked through her, and even though they couldn’t agree, she longed for him.
“You do believe in me. I should have known you did.” He stroked her back. “We could make public vows if it makes you feel better. I can take you home right now. I will keep you safe there. I can keep you safe anywhere.”
Breathe, Triona. Breathe. “And then you would leave me.” The last thing she wanted was for history to repeat itself. It would break her.
“No longer than I have to.”
She had to hold her ground, despite the way her heart screamed in protest. “Nay.”
His hand pressed into the small of her back and he lowered his mouth over hers. Despite her better judgment, she surrendered, remembering everything about his scent, his taste, the feel of his lips on hers and his hands holding her against him. It was different than when she kissed William. William filled a need in her, physically, emotionally. But Ronan was the need in her. He always would be.
His jaw was rough and it made her lips sting, but she wasn’t willing to stop kissing him. She twined her fingers into his hair, gasping when he gently bit her lips.
“See,” he said, low, compelling. “I am still yours.”
He slipped her arisaid off her shoulders, then closed his hands around her waist. Slowly, he ran them upward, over her rib cage. She hadn’t meant to let him, but when he slipped his hands over her breasts she found she couldn’t protest.
He tucked his hands inside her bodice, then sighed and leaned his forehead against hers, not moving, barely even breathing; just pressing his hands against her bare skin like he’d die without it.
The rumors about his mistress brought her back to reality. Triona wondered how many women he’d conquered over the last four years. Had she done nothing but give him the confidence to seduce virgins? She’d never wanted to be one in a long line. Palms against his chest, she pushed until his hands slipped away.
“You canna do this,” she said. “It won’t work.”
“Aye,” echoed a voice. “And you have had all the time you need.” William came forward.
Heat rushed to her face. Triona readjusted her bodice, even as Ronan moved to stand in front of her. She glanced over his shoulder at William, then away, wanting to excuse herself for how easily she’d given in to Ronan. But she had no excuse. William hadn’t known she and Ronan had shared anything more than stolen kisses. She looked around for her arisaid. Ronan scooped it up and handed it to her. She caught his gaze and found no repentance whatsoever. She wrapped the swath of wool around her shoulders. Unbelievable.
Guilt tore her and she hated herself for what she’d done to William. She bit the inside of her cheek. How could she reconcile with him now? Would he cut himself out of her life because Ronan was back in it? Could she survive if he did?
She looked at the ground. “Did you know it was Ronan?”
“Aye. I knew all along.”
“My father hired him on purpose?”
“There was no better man for the job.” William’s words were strained. She looked up and saw him exchange a knowing glance with Ronan. Her stomach lurched. What had they talked about? What did William know? What did Ronan know?
She clutched her stomach. “I do not feel so well.”
William stepped forward, then froze. He let out a breath. “I will go on ahead, but Fanny is worried about you. Dinna take too long.” He disappeared from view.
Her breath came too fast, stars flicking across the edges of her vision. Ronan caught her. Bringing her against his chest, he rocked her. “Easy, lass.”
There was so much to be uneasy about. She had no idea where to begin. Ronan was a mercenary rogue with a sordid reputation and she had no idea if she could trust him. William walked in on Ronan touching her . . . She groaned in embarrassment. “What is he going to think?”
“It doesna matter what William thinks. You’ve done nothing wrong. You never do.”
Och, aye she did. So much of her was errant. She groaned again and pushed away from him. “I never told anyone about us. I couldn’t.”
He winced and she finally saw repentance in his eyes. “I will make it up to you. That night, the last four years, everything.” He kissed her forehead. “Do you need more time before we go?”
She needed a lot of time. Years perhaps. “I am as ready as I can be.”
He studied her. “Nay, you’re not.”
“We canna linger. What of Fanny?”
“I am more concerned about you.”
“Do not. I will be fine.” Maybe.
She almost wished he didn’t care about her. It would be so much easier if he had dismissed her from the start. Then she could go on with her life. Now she would lose William, and she had no idea if she would ever have her Ronan back. “L-let me talk to Fanny first. I will soften the blow.”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “Probably better that way.”
Triona dragged her gaze away from him. “Well then.” She tucked her arisaid more securely around her shoulders. “Here we go.”
He ran his hand over her braid as they walked, then settled it at the small of her back. He smiled, his gaze ripe with meaning.
He thought they were still married.
Nay, stop. Stop it now.
“Don’t look at me,” she said.
He laughed. “Do you expect me not to?”
She walked faster, not trusting herself alone with him. The sooner they were out of the forest, the better. Triona wondered why she gave in to him so easily. Because of what she’d already given him four years ago? Or was there something wrong with her? Was she supposed to feel like she did, like she couldn’t stand to spend another night alone? She wished she understood herself.
She stopped him as they reached the clearing. “Wait here.”
Fanny was standing before the fire with her apron strings twisted around her fingers. She looked up as Triona approached. “Thank the Lord they found you,” Fanny said.
“Aye, they found me.” Triona took her hands and squeezed them. “I found someone too.”
Triona let go and stepped off to the side. Ronan stood watching them, arms limp at his sides. Fanny’s eyes widened, then her fingers came to her mouth. “Ronan?” she questioned through them. “Mercy. It canna be.”
He came forward, Fanny reaching out to him, tears in her eyes. She was so small compared to his tall, dark form. Triona glanced around for William and found him watching from the edge of the forest.
“The Lord be praised.” Fanny looked Ronan over. “I dinna understand. Why did you pretend to be this other man?”
Ronan cleared his throat. “’Tis a long tale.”
“Please remember, not everything you hear is true,” Triona said. She hoped. Icy claws griped her insides. Four years was a long time. There were many things she didn’t know about Ronan.
Fanny sat in her chair by the fire and Ronan knelt in the grass at her feet. He took her hands in his as they spoke. Triona turned away. She couldn’t watch him with Fanny. His tenderness made him so hard to resist. She wanted to wrap her arms around him and promise him anything.
Bad. Very bad.
Triona walked along the creek, feeling the uneven rhythm of her heart in her throat. She wasn’t sure how long she’d wandered up and down the bank before Ronan’s shadow crossed her path.
“I was tactful, if you can believe it of me.”
She wiped her eyes and looked up. “She has always admired you. After you left, she couldn’t stop talking about how braw you were and how many bairns we would have.” Her throat closed.
“I am here now.”
Together, but not together. Pain. It was such familiar pain, she was surprised it could still hurt so much.
“Did she ask you about the rumors?”
“A few. Not all of them are bad. I have not heard them all myself. People do not talk about it to my face.” He smiled. “Unless, ’tis a bard, spinning a tale of my prowess in battle.”
Was that supposed to impress her?
She ran her hand over her braid. “I suppose I should thank you for guarding me.”
“There you go again, thanking me, but you do not have to.” Ronan moved closer.
“You need a haircut.”
“Perhaps you could do it.” His eyes grew a shade darker.
“I suppose I could get used to your hair the way it is. A plaid would be better than trews though.” They looked good on him, but he’d never worn them before, and she wasn’t used to it.
“It would be more comfortable.”
Her face warmed. He must have noticed her blush, because he grinned. She wished she could lock her need for him away, wished she could find it in her to hate him for leaving her. “I worried about you out there,” she said instead.
He nodded. “I could have written.”
“Or allowed my father to tell me.”
“I wanted to surprise you.” He shifted even closer. “Maybe I wanted to impress you.” He lifted his head, his blue eyes dark with longing. Och, aye, she’d seen that look before. Ronan took up her braid and wrapped it around his fist. There was enough length. Just enough. “Will you cut your hair every time I have to leave your side?” His voice was husky.
“It all depends.”
“I can make a rope out of it if I have to.”
“Let us hope neither of us hangs ourselves with it.”
“Or both of us.”
“’Twould likely be the case.”
Ronan leaned in until his forehead touched hers. Resist him. Back away. Now.
“I better check the perimeter,” he said. “And then I need to finish cleaning the chimney.”
Or perhaps he would be the one to resist her. Her heart dropped into her feet. “What?”
“I have to find some way to occupy myself,” he said against her ear. “As you can see, ’tis verra hard for me not to touch you.” He backed away and she watched him walk off with a swagger, so sure of his maleness.
She growled, her fingers clenched. “You . . . rogue!”
He laughed over his shoulder.
“Get anywhere?” William asked.
Triona jumped. “Och. William?”
“Aye.” He frowned. “Me.”
This day could not be happening. Feeling her way to a fallen tree, she plopped down on it.
“Ronan is as stubborn as ever,” he said. She was surprised by how calm William sounded.
She stood, then went to her laundry, rotating it. “We all are, in our own way.”
He tossed a rock into the creek with a plunk.
“What you said to me earlier, were you trying to antagonize Ronan?”
He looked at the ground. “I probably owe you an apology.”
Triona bit the inside of her cheek. He owed her an apology? “Nay, you do not.”
“I had to do something, or the fool would have hidden himself from you forever.”
“W-why did you do anything?”
He shrugged one shoulder. “Let’s say it was a test of character.” He smiled without feeling.
“I think I failed.”
“It wasna a test of your character, but of mine.”
“Perhaps it should have been.”
He looked away, his profile laced with frustration. “Things are as they should be.”
“Nay, they are not.” She wrapped her arms around herself. “I don’t know who Ronan is anymore.”
Triona sucked back a sob. William didn’t move to comfort her, not that she expected him to.
“We were not meant to be.” He bent, picking up another rock. He looked at it for a moment, then threw it into the water.
She closed her eyes and wished she knew how to fix everything. Ronan. William. Herself. “I am so sorry.” Aye, she was sorry for kissing him, for leading him on, for keeping secrets from him.
She heard him sigh. “I should have known when I kissed you. Maybe I did, but I wanted to deny that you had already given yourself to him.”
Triona flinched and opened her eyes.
There was no hiding the truth, although he glanced at her as if he hoped he was mistaken and she really was innocent. “I would have told you.” Her voice trembled. “I swear I would have.”
“I understand more than you think. There are things I have done that you know nothing about.”
What could be so bad William felt he had to hide it from her?
“It’s not my place to judge anyone,” he said. “In the end, we’re all fools.”
“Some of us are bigger fools than others.” Why couldn’t she have loved William first? It would have solved so much.
His gray eyes met hers, briefly, full of regret. Then he turned and walked away.
She trailed her fingers over the rough bark of an old willow. When she agreed to go on a walk with him, she wondered if she was asking for trouble, but he seemed more in control of himself than he was the day before.
“Thank you for thatching the roof and cleaning the chimney,” she said.
“It seems I am worth more than my sword arm, after all.” Ronan rubbed his chin. He’d shaved, and his dark hair was tied back with a strip of rawhide. “Perhaps I could change my vocation.”
“What? To that of a thatcher?”
He looked at her out of the corner of his eye. “Nay?”
“You are too big. I’m amazed you did not fall through the roof.”
“’Tis all about placement. I could show you sometime.” He grinned.
“Nay, I will take your word for it.”
He brushed a willow branch out of her way. She listened to the wind creak in the trees.
“I asked Fanny for permission to walk with you.”
“Did you? And what did she say?”
“She laughed and waved me on my way.” He made a shooing motion with his hands.
His return of manners impressed her. She wondered how long it would last.
The night before, she’d decided to make one of the best decisions she had in years—she retreated into the cottage, closing the door on his lost puppy-dog face. He slept alone. Triona smiled to herself. Maybe the person she wanted to be was inside her after all.
She cleared her throat and turned to face him. It was time to make another decision. “I have to tell you something about William.”
He lowered his voice. “Nay, you do not.”
William told him, she thought. Triona tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “I’m not sure what William said, but-”
He touched her arm, his gaze lifting to hers, void of judgment. “Tell me only if you really want to.”
“How much did he say?”
“Enough.” His thumb caressed the inside of her elbow.
“I kissed him.” The words shot past her lips. “It was completely my fault. I hurt him, and I do not know what I was thinking. Maybe I was afraid.”
He let go of her arm. “William told me he kissed you.”
“I think one could say it was mutual.”
Ronan rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Start with what you were afraid of.”
“Being alone.” She titled her head and rubbed her cheek against her shoulder.
A red squirrel raced down a tree, saw them, and then turned tail, chattering. “I see,” he said.
“I thought you would be angry, or hurt.” Why was he not hurt? Did it not bother him?
“So did I.”
He began to walk again and she moved to catch up with him. “Ronan?”
“Does it feel any better, to tell me about what happened between the two of you?”
Her skin burned. “It does not change my hurting him though. I’m sorry he had to find out about us the way he did.”
“I should have told him.”
“We both should have. Why didn’t you tell him?”
He looked past her. “For the same reason you told no one. I never meant to spend the night with you. You overwhelmed me.” He redirected his gaze onto her and smiled.
She looked away. “I was a foolish twit.”
“Och, nay,” he breathed. “You were perfect.”
The air leached out of her lungs. It was as if she could feel his hands on her, his breath on her skin, the warmth and glory of the moment when they became one. Her palms were sweaty and she wiped them on her skirt.
“I am fine.”
“You dinna sound fine.” He took her hand, calloused fingers weaving through hers, making it impossible for her to think straight.
She reminded herself of all she didn’t know about him. He’d kissed her senseless yesterday, not with the unpracticed touch of a man who had spent the last four years abstaining from women, but with the skill of a mighty conqueror.
Pulling her hand away, she crossed her arms over her rib cage. “I do not think you should touch me.”
“I was just holding your hand.”
“Perhaps I dinna want to hold your hand.”
He laughed, and she walked away, tears stinging her eyes.
“You are a cretin. Stay away from me.”
He caught her around the waist. She sputtered, trying to pull away from him, but his grip was too firm, his arm too strong.
“Tree root,” he said, lifting her up, then placing her down in a root-free patch of ground. “You have developed the habit of tripping around me. I am just trying to watch where you are going.”
She almost laughed out loud. She would have, if she wasn’t so close to tears. Using the edge of her arisaid, she wiped her eyes.
“Do I dare ask what I have done this time?”
She couldn’t get the words out. She couldn’t ask him about his lovers. Shaking her head, she walked away. “Never mind.”
He watched her perfect backside retreat and wanted to haul her into his arms, lay her out on a bed of moss, and remind her why he’d been unable to refuse her four years ago. He could understand her reluctance last night, what with Fanny not knowing. But he had hoped she would join him once Fanny was asleep. She didn’t. And then the rain came.
He didn’t sleep at all.
If she needed more security, then he would take vows with her before witnesses. He already had her ring. He would gladly give it to her as soon as she was ready to accept. Despite her insinuations, he didn’t want to leave her again. Maybe he could take her with him? It wasn’t safe. She was strong and healthy, though. If he gave his men express orders to protect her, they might be able to make it work.
Ronan caught up to her, pulling her against him in one smooth motion. “I did not come back, because I knew how hard it would be to leave you again.” She stiffened against him. He watched her face in attempt to understand why. “I almost didn’t manage it the last time. You dinna know how close I came to riding straight home.”
She wiggled. “Please do not say such things.”
“Marry me again.”
“We have to work this out first.”
He kissed her cheek, then tipped her chin up. “We can do that later. Four years is too long.” He cupped her face in his hand and ran his thumb over her cheek. He’d survived only because he learned to turn inward, to deny himself all but the most intrinsic of needs. Food. Drink. Clothing. Shelter was optional.
Triona pushed on his chest until he let go. “I canna marry you.”
“Why ever not? You did before.”
“I told you yesterday. I will not marry Blackhawk.”
He groaned. “Not this again. ’Tis a name, and nothing more.”
“But ’tis he who decides your fate for you. I want Ronan.”
“Why do you worry about it? I will take care of everything. All you have to do is share my bed, have my children . . .”
She made a strangled sound and turned away. Ronan caught her hand.
“Let me go.”
He kept his grip on her fingers. “Not yet.”
“Stop it. Just listen to me.”
“I once thought you cared about me. That you saw me as more than another woman to warm your sheets, but it seems I was wrong.”
One more woman? What? He let go of her hand and took a breath to clear his head. He tried to remember who they used to be, before he left her. Then he spread his arms open to her. “Come to me?”
She looked away. “It is not that I dinna want to.”
“Want to hold me?”
She kicked a stone. “Aye.”
His stomach tightened in anticipation. “Then why do you not?”
“Because I am angry with you.”
“If we wait for the day when we are not angry with each other, then we might as well give up now.”
She blew out a breath. “This is useless. When you left, you said you would return to the clan. Now you decide to change the course of my life for me.”
“Things have changed.” He tugged on her sleeve. “But all will be well. You will see.”
“Aye, they have changed aright. You have changed.” She pulled away. “If you insist on talking to me thusly, then do not expect to touch me.”
“If you need to lecture me, then go ahead. Just let me touch you whilst you do it.”
“Did you expect aught else after four years?”
She lifted her chin to him. “I expect some self-control.”
“I am the epitome of control.”
She rolled her eyes. “Och, I am certain you are.”
Whilst other men enjoyed harlots and mistresses, he slept alone. What did she want from him? Ronan looped an arm around her waist, but she was too stiff to make a comfortable companion. He turned her chin toward his. “Let me take care of you.”
“I do not know you. Not anymore. Or maybe I never did. Everything has been about you and what you can do.” She jerked her chin free, then pulled her body away and took a long step back. She wrapped her arms around herself.
“Nay, my lady, this is for you.” His pulse beat behind his eyes.
She shook her head at the sky and walked away. He’d hoped to convince her to respect his decisions. He’d failed, as usual.
Triona tucked her skirts under her and sat. Clear water gurgled in the creek. On the hill beyond stood a stag and his mate. She sighed and bent her knees to her chin, tears spilling over her lashes. She hated her weakness. At least no one was there to see her cry. William was hunting and Ronan was on the roof. She thought he’d finished thatching it, but perhaps he believed the rushes needed to be anchored more securely. Or he sought to avoid her.
She touched her lips, then ran her fingers down the side of her neck. How could she be such a fool? She had given herself to a lad who no longer existed. She closed her eyes. “Lord, what do I do? I’ve made such a mess of things. Please just tell me what to do.”
Her emotions couldn’t be trusted. They had prompted her to seduce Ronan in the first place. She opened her eyes and watched the deer on the hill. What was Ronan like with other women? Did he touch them like he did her, using the same low, compelling voice?
Triona stood, her stomach twisting. She wanted to run away, but there was no place to go. She paced along the creek bank.
“Sweetling?” It was Fanny.
Triona dragged her sleeve across her face.
Fanny came forward and tucked a wisp of hair behind Triona’s ear. “People change over time.” She smiled through moist eyes. It was hard for Fanny to see her cry.
Triona wished Fanny wasn’t so—she struggled for the right word—pure. Then she could tell Fanny all that troubled her. “Why did you never marry?”
Fanny wiped her hands over her apron and sighed. “There are many reasons.”
“Two. Me and William.”
“That was part of it, aye. But there is a third.”
Triona’s brow creased. Did she dare hope Fanny had been in love? “What is it?”
Fanny looked away and her cheeks colored. Had there been a man in her life? If only the virginal maid was not. It would be so much easier. Not that Triona wished her own mistakes on Fanny, but she needed someone who could understand her.
“Was there a man?” Triona asked.
“I should not.” She sighed and looked at her hands.
“Please tell me. I need to know.”
“I suppose you are old enough.” She winced. “The reason is yer father.”
Her father? She pressed the flat of her hand against her rib cage. “You and my father?”
“Will you judge me?”
Triona knew she was the last person who should judge another. But her father?
“I loved your mother,” Fanny said. “When she died, your father and I were consumed with ye. We tried to make up for your loss. We consulted each other often on how best to care for ye.”
The initial shock wore off. Triona’s shoulders relaxed. “And you bonded over us?”
“Aye.” Fanny smiled. “But we decided it was best not to pursue it.”
She lifted her brows and Triona was ashamed of her initial reaction.
“You never pursued it. Ever?”
Fanny colored. She lowered her voice. “There was a time, but not anymore.”
“Do you still love him?”
The look in her brown eyes was all the answer Triona needed.
She lifted her hand. “Dinna worry about me. I am more concerned about you.”
“You should tell him.”
She eyed Triona. “That is not why I told you. I told you because you are a grown woman now.” She smiled. “You have been for some time.”
If Fanny only knew how long. Triona felt for a log and sat.
“Your love for Ronan is pure. You will reconcile.”
She sighed and looked over her shoulder. They were anything but pure. Ronan was still on the roof. He’d taken his shirt off. The muscles in his back stretched as he moved.
Triona cleared her throat. “Sit with me?”
Fanny tucked her skirts under her and took her place on the log.
“I too have a confession to make.”
Triona’s tongue felt sluggish. “I . . . that is Ronan and I . . .” She looked at him and winced. “We were not chaste.” She waited, her breath stuck in the back of her throat.
Fanny slid her arm around her shoulders, holding her. “I know.”
Triona’s vision dimmed and she struggled to her feet. Her skirts caught on the toes of her shoes and she wrenched them out of the way. “How?”
“I saw him leave your chamber.”
“And you said nothing?”
“I knew if ye wanted to talk about it, you would.”
“And you did not tell my father? Please say you did not tell my father.”
“I didna tell your father.”
Triona dropped down before Fanny, stones digging through to her knees. “Ronan pledged himself to me that night. But he has abandoned me for so long.”
Fanny squeezed her hands. “I would advise you to make yer vows public this time. I love Ronan dearly, but he is a young man.”
“You do not have to remind me.” She gritted her teeth. “I have reason to believe he has not been faithful.” He was strong, agile. Virile. “Four years apart from me. What else could I expect?”
“I know you just found him, but have you taken the time to decide what it is you really want?”
She sat back on her heels. “Do I have any choice? My virtue is but a memory. We never even made the handfast public.”
“You have a choice. As Ronan chose to abandon his young wife.”
Triona winced. “I was not enough for him. I tried to be.”
“It was not your doing, sweetling. I didna mean it thusly.”
“I dinna wish to be alone for the remainder of my days.”
Fanny took her hands, her fingers firm. “Would you marry him, just for the comfort of a husband?”
“Aye.” Triona sniffed and looked away. “I mean nay.” She sobbed, powerless to stop it. “I still love him.”
“That is what I thought you would say.” Fanny’s fingers relaxed, but she kept Triona’s hands.
“He is not the man I once knew. I have no idea who he is.”
“But it does not mean you canna love each other still.”
Fanny smiled. “You learn about each other all over again.”
“And his occupation?”
“You will have to work that out between the two of you. Take your time. Decide what you both want, before you enter into a union with him.” Fanny gave her a leveled expression.
Triona lowered her voice. “And of the other women he has been with?”
“Something you need to discuss with him.”
“I know not how to bring it up. I am embarrassed.”
“It is too late for embarrassment, sweetling.”
Perhaps it was, but she still felt it. “But what if I am not the bold lass I once was?”
“You are. When you need to be.” Tears made Fanny’s eyes glow. “I want to see the two of you reconcile. You were meant to be.”
“Aye, he loves you too. But I daresay you are not good for him.”
Triona wiped her face with her arisaid. “You’ve never spoken truer words. I am going to ask Ronan if I can accompany him tomorrow morning whilst he makes his rounds in the forest. If he sincerely believes we have been married all this time, then I have the right to demand an accounting.”
“Too much meadow grass is making you fat, old man.” Ronan scratched Goliath’s neck. The black stallion tossed his head, metal clanking. Ronan looked over his shoulder at Triona. She sat astride her gelding in her teal gown. It was the same one she’d worn when he had revealed his identity to her. This time she wore her stays beneath it. He wondered how women managed to breathe in them.
She smiled, but he couldn’t return it. He was unsettled from the day before and assumed she accompanied him on his rounds only because she sought to sway him. He was no simpering fop, to give in to the wiles of a woman.
She tapped her gelding with her heels and moved alongside him. He should have denied her when she asked if she could accompany him, even if she had followed him over rocky hills, as easygoing as her little chestnut gelding. To the naked eye it was hard to believe a chasm spanned between them, but her mild temperament changed nothing. They could not see eye-to-eye on the one issue most important to him.
Her brow furrowed. She tucked her hair behind her ear. Bits and pieces of pale gold stuck out at angles along the length of her braid.
Ronan reined Goliath to a halt, then reached into a saddlebag and pulled out the length of hair she’d cut for him. He ran his palm over it. “Give me the cord in your hair,” he said.
She loosened and passed him the strip of leather. He brushed her hand on purpose. Frustrated or not, he would use any excuse to touch her. Triona held the end of her braid in one hand so it wouldn’t come unwound. Watching her from under his brow, he unwound the India bells off the cut braid by feel alone, her skin tingeing pink under his gaze. Ronan tied off the hair with the leather cord.
“This was a gift,” he said, passing the bells to her.
“Thank you.” Her fingers brushed across his palm as she pulled away. Triona tied the cords off, then flipped her braid over her shoulder. The bells tinkled.
“Better,” he said.
Her braid slid over the back of her neck as she turned to look at him. “Where did you come by the bells?”
“France, off a trader.”
She nodded. “You have been everywhere.”
“Nay, not even close.”
“I wish I’d known they were from you. You could’ve sent them directly to me instead of going through my . . .” She looked at him from under her lashes.
“What’s done is done.” Ronan scrubbed a hand over his face. “Why do we have to work so hard to be civil?”
She blew out her breath. “I do not know. But what a relief you have said it.”
He watched her face. He loved her more than life itself. It wasn’t about that. It was a matter of how to live with her. Part of him feared they might not make it. What if there was no way for them to be at peace, even if they had their own land? Maybe he ran from her out of fear. Maybe he was a coward.
Afraid of a woman, simply because he loved her.
They nudged their horses and descended a rocky swell.
“Quiet here,” she said.
“Good, aye? I wish I knew what my father faced. I assume he fears an enemy from within, or he would not have sent me away.”
“I have not decided what to think.” He urged Goliath over a felled tree, then turned back to watch her.
Triona leaned over her gelding’s neck, urging him with words and heels. Hooves landed safely. “Who would do this?” she asked. “Threaten from within our walls?”
He’d given it some thought the day before.
“Did he say the threat was against me?” She paled.
“Nay. Perhaps I should not have said anything.”
“I am glad you’re willing to confide in me.”
“’Tis good to have you to confide in.” Sun dappled through tree branches and caught gold flecks in her eyes. “You really are more beautiful than I remembered.” He reined Goliath to a standstill. His words didn’t say the half of it, but he wasn’t sure what else to tell her. And she wouldn’t let him show her. Frustration brewed under his skin.
She shrugged and neatened her horse’s mane.
He nudged Goliath until the animal stepped sideways. Ronan’s knee brushed hers. “I am finished with my rounds, but we need not ride directly back.”
She ran her fingers over braided leather reins. “Fanny expects us.”
“I will smooth things over with her.”
He watched her throat rise and fall as she swallowed. “We were talking about my father.”
Her words stung, but Ronan decided to let it go. “We will discuss him later.”
She smiled without feeling. “We could race, like we used to.”
Ronan nudged Goliath onward and Triona came alongside him. “Or I could show you how to disappear. It may come in handy one day.”
She sighed and rolled her eyes at the same time.
“I am attempting to teach you survival skills, my lady. You did not complain when I taught you how to use your dagger.”
Leather squeaked as she shifted in the saddle.
“’Twas a fine excuse to touch you,” he said. “Which I will never get enough of.”
“Stop saying such things.”
“Why? It is the truth.”
She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them. “Sometimes, I think about the first time I saw you.”
“I dinna know what anyone saw in me. I was a scrawny rat.”
Her dark look shut his mouth. He nodded for her to continue.
“More than long limbs and solid bones,” she said, brushing her hand across a tree branch, leaves ticking over her fingers. “My father saw the potential in you. So did I.”
“You were but a wee lass. What did you know of warfare?”
She blew out a breath. “I gauged you on your potential as a . . . Never mind.”
His neck warmed. “But we were children.”
“Watch your thoughts. I was going to say husband.”
“My mind would have come to the same conclusion anyway.” He cleared his throat.
“Why does it not surprise me?”
He watched her creased brow and her fingers twisting in the reins and thought about what he should say. “Maybe you waited four years for me out of a sense of obligation. Or maybe you waited because you knew one day I would come back for you.”
The sun bathed her face for a moment, then it was shaded again. She looked away. “I should have eaten more this morn.”
She should have eaten more? He gave her the best words his tongue could wrap around and that was all she had to say?
“I want to go back now.”
“I think I can at least manage to provide a meal for you,” he said, aware he sounded like an aggravated child.
She groaned. “Why do you have to turn everything I say around? I only came out with you to ask you about your-” Her jaw clamped tight. “Never mind. Now I do not want to be around you at all.”
“Aye, fine then, let’s go back.” He reined Goliath, leaving her behind. Guilt over his behavior stopped him though. Gritting his teeth, he turned his stallion back and kept an eye on her from a distance.
Triona ducked behind a moss-laden boulder, then shifted on her haunches to peer around it.
“You’ve a clear shot. Take it,” William said.
She could smell him, leather and spice. Pushing aside her guilt, she pulled an arrow from the quiver at her back and nocked it. Then she slipped from behind the boulder just far enough to pull back the bowstring and aim. She directed her shot at the stag’s heart, took a deep breath, and let it loose.
The animal shuttered, then stumbled and went down on one knee.
“Finish him,” William said.
She pulled a second arrow from the quiver and let fly. Then a third. The stag fell to his side.
“Well done.” William straightened.
Triona hooked her recurve bow over her shoulder and made her way toward the stag. William bent and worked the arrows free, then handed them to her. Good arrows were worth keeping. She wiped them clean on leaves then returned them to her quiver.
“So, huntsman, do you wish to carry this beast back to camp yourself?” he asked.
How did he do it? Look her in the eye and pretend they were all right. Her heart ached. William was so strong. He’d lost his parents when he was five. When her mother died and it became apparent she would never have a brother, he took on the role of heir. His injury still pained him, and now she pained him too.
His brows furrowed at the expression on her face. “I was jesting.”
She cleared her throat. At her feet, the stag’s blood soaked into pine needles on the forest floor. “Nay, ’tis all yours.”
“I suppose you will let me dress it as well. Out of the goodness of your heart.”
“I do believe ’tis in my heart to let you.”
He grunted as he hauled the stag onto his shoulders. William took a couple of smaller steps, then settled into a steady stride.
“Thank you, for taking me hunting. I needed a distraction.”
Triona brushed aside willow branches so they wouldn’t hit him in the face.
“The two of you were gone a long time yesterday. All morning.”
She winced. “It’s not what you think.”
“’Tis not that I really want to know, but your father isn’t here, and that makes you my responsibility.
She swallowed. “We just needed some time.”
“I am certain you did.”
“To talk.” Her temples pounded. Discussing private matters about her former husband, with the man who would have gladly become her future husband, made her head ache.
He hitched the limp beast into a better position on his shoulders.
“We should have brought a horse,” she said.
“Nay, I am fine.”
“Are you?” She looked at him from under her brow.
“I was speaking of the physical strain.”
She wiped her hands off on her skirt. “M-maybe you could persuade him to return home. Then I can remain with my father.”
He maneuvered between two trees. She caught up with him and swept aside a branch before it could whip back and hit him.
“I have no more sway on Ronan than I do the tide.”
“Neither do I.”
“You have more sway than you think.” He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “Just take my word for it.”
She looked straight ahead, into a tangle of lichen-coated branches. She could hear the creek. They weren’t far from the cottage. “Please just try.”
“I’d do almost anything for you lassie, but not that.”
Almost anything. Her skull pounded. “What do you and Ronan talk about when I am not present?”
“Nothing, in the last few days.”
Since he’d walked in on her and Ronan. She cringed. “Before that.”
“I willna tell you.”
“Have I completely ruined your friendship with him?”
He hissed out a breath through his teeth. “Not completely.”
But she had put an awful strain on it. Lesser men would not have tolerated it at all. Then again, William was not a lesser man. She yet wondered about Ronan.
When they reached the glen, he deposited the stag a distance from the fire. He still had to skin and gut it.
Fanny looked up from her kitting and smiled. “We feast tonight.”
“You can thank your lady for the venison,” he said.
Fanny eyed her, then sighed. “Thank you.” She returned to her kitting. Fanny had long ago accepted that Triona would have her freedom. It didn’t mean Fanny had to like it.
“I did have William with me,” Triona said, her attention turning to Ronan. He was putting his stallion through paces with training exercises. The ground vibrated as the massive warhorse thundered past.
“I need to work my horse,” William said. “He is getting fat.”
“Your stallion has always been fat,” she mumbled.
“Thank you, my lady.”
She slipped her bow off her shoulder, and set aside her quiver, then sat down in the grass. Ronan held his sword in one hand over his head, in combat with an invisible foe. He’d abandoned his shirt and the sun shone down on his tanned skin.
“He should keep his clothes on,” William said.
She recalled the feel of Ronan’s skin beneath her fingers, the hardness of his shoulders. “I have watched many men train without their shirts on.” They didn’t have the same effect on her as Ronan.
Ronan rode up to her, all glistening male muscle. He sheathed his sword at the harness he wore on his otherwise bare back.
“Care for a ride, my lady.”
She stood, brushing herself off. “I thought you were angry with me.”
He cringed. “I was. And I didna leave you yesterday.”
She tucked loose strands of hair behind her ear. “You were watching me?”
“All the way back.”
He looked repentant. But was that enough? She sighed. “I could use some mushrooms to go with the venison.”
“Put your shirt on,” William said.
Ronan ignored him and Triona accepted his outstretched hand.
“Use my foot as a step. You remember, aye?”
She nodded. They had ridden thusly before, the time she twisted her ankle and road home in his arms. Goodness, how getting on his horse had hurt, but they could think of no other way. Ronan was afraid he would dislocate her shoulder if he simply pulled her up with him. He lifted her by her hand as she set her foot in place. Then he looped his arm around her waist and settled her over his lap.
“I will probably get you wet.” He tucked her against his damp skin anyway. Triona brushed the back of her hand over her face and refused to look in William’s direction. Ronan reined Goliath around and they made their way out of the glen. He was like steel against her softer body. She looked into his face, at his firm, clean-shaven jaw.
And tried to remember what they’d talked about the day before. It was a knotted string in her head.
He looked at her, then looked again. “We better make sure we bring back mushrooms,” he said, then smiled until her breath caught.
“You had aught else in mind?”
“Always.” Ronan kissed her shoulder. “As if I could ever escape you.”
Her awareness of him was heightened and she had to take a deep breath to rein it back in.
“You wanted six children, aye?”
Her eyes widened.
“Ten?” He whistled. “Well then.”
“I never said such a thing.”
“You said you gauged my potential as a husband when you were but a child.” He halted Goliath. “Mushrooms.”
She did recall saying something to that extent. Her gaze dropped when he looped his arm around her, her hip sliding a path of heat against his leg as he eased her down. Triona took a few unsteady steps, then knelt in the moss and reached for a mushroom. Ronan knelt next to her. She watched him brush the dirt from them with his fingers, remembering the last time they did this, and how she poured her heart out to him.
“What did you think when I asked you all those questions about yourself? I mean when I did not know it was you.” Her tongue was turned around.
“I knew what you meant.” She held out her apron and he dropped mushrooms into it. “I wanted to see you smile for me.”
“Did you want to tell me who you were?”
Ronan caught her gaze. “Och, aye.”
She nodded and pulled up a mushroom. He took it from her hand and dusted it.
“I wanted to have everything in place for you.” He frowned.
“I just want you.”
“Nay, my lady, you want your clan.”
Same old argument. And she still hadn’t worked up the courage to ask him about his lovers. She took a deep breath. “I would like both you and them. Would you not accept them for me?”
“Would you not accept Blackhawk for me?”
His question hung in the air. It was cooler in the forest and the glisten was gone from his arms and chest. He had a number of surface scars that made her shiver. She wondered what his last four years had been like. There were so many things she would never know. Ronan handed her one last mushroom, then stood. He caught her arm and helped her to her feet, then mounted.
She held her apron against her, wondering how she would manage her skirts and her mushrooms at the same time. Ronan leaned down, scooped his arm around her, and lifted her up. Her stays bit into her and she winced.
“Sorry.” He blew out a breath, settling her onto his lap. She focused on the motion of the horse, trying to ignore the tears threatening to break over her lashes. It seemed all she and Ronan were good for was making each other angry. It made her wonder why they even bothered.
He pulled Goliath short. Triona lurched forward, grabbing a fistful of mane to steady herself. “What is it?”
“Shh.” His eyes narrowed, then scanned the forest.
She followed his gaze. “But what-”
He stopped her with a lifted finger. Turning Goliath at an angle, he drew his sword. Triona tightened her hold on the horse’s mane. So much for her mushrooms, she thought, as they tumbled to the ground. Perched on Ronan’s lap, she felt clumsy and helpless. Not to mention how much it would hurt if she should fall from his tall stallion.
“Come on out,” Ronan said. Triona stared down the length of his blade, from crosspiece to tip, then beyond. “I know you’re there.”
“’Tis only me, sir.” A giant of a man, taller than Ronan, spread his arms in submission. He had long golden-blond hair twisted into braids of various widths. Both his forearms boasted blue and green tattoos in swirling patterns.
Triona straightened. “Oh, my.”
Ronan sheathed his sword, then chuckled in her ear. “Should I be jealous?”
She shook her head and he laughed again.
“He is one of my men.”
“Take the reins.” Ronan swung down from his horse. The two men greeted each other with clasped hands while she frowned at the blond who looked like he ate puppies for his morning meal.
Said man scratched his bearded jaw and lifted one brow in Triona’s direction. “You do know how to pick them.”
“She is my charge,” Ronan said.
“Charge.” The man grinned. “Of course she is.”
His charge? Was that what she was? Triona wasn’t sure what to think. Or rather, she was sure, and it involved her fist in Ronan’s face.
“What did you need, Graham?”
“Is that the greeting I receive?” Graham blinked. “I am only doing my job. Watching your back.”
“You came all the way for that? I can take care of myself.”
“Then why did you tell me where you’d be?” Graham’s ice-blue gaze looked Triona up and down. “I can see who is taking care of whom.”
“That will be enough. She is under my protection.” Ronan’s tone deepened, sending a surge down her spine. “In every way.” He exchanged a look with the tall man.
Graham bowed. “Aye, sir.”
Ronan took the reins out of her hands. He hesitated, not looking at her. Then he sighed and swung up, leather creaking. He settled her onto his lap. Her face burned and she was hyper-aware of Graham’s presence, as well as Ronan’s bare skin.
“Camp is this way.” Ronan nodded toward the cottage. He glanced at Graham out of the corner of his eye. “You knew my latest mission involved a woman, and you wanted to see her for yourself.”
Graham looked at Triona, then immediately turned away. “Perhaps.”
“Where are you from, Graham?” she asked, smiling through her teeth.
Graham rubbed the back of his neck. “Och, here and there, lassie.”
“He prefers to disclose as little personal information as possible,” Ronan said.
“It seems to be the way of mercenaries.”
Graham didn’t dare look her in the eye. She had to admit, Ronan had no difficulty establishing his authority over the man.
She lifted her brows at Ronan. “I know a wee bit about mercenaries, do I not, sir?”
Ronan choked. Graham laughed, then tried to cover it with a cough.
Triona leaned close to Ronan’s ear. “What am I?”
He narrowed his deep blue eyes.
“Your charge?” she mouthed.
“Later,” he said through his teeth.
Ronan watched her from across the fire. Orange light played off her soft skin, ran in rivulets across her hair. Her brow creased. He wanted to talk to her alone and explain himself, but between William, Fanny, and Graham, it was next to impossible. He jammed a stick into the flames. Graham studied him, then his gaze shifted to Triona and back again. Graham smiled to himself as if he had come upon a revelation.
There were several reasons Ronan had told no one, save Maggie, about Triona. In part, it was because he didn’t want anyone believing they could use her against him. But it was also because he’d long-since learned to portray an image of himself contrary to the real man. If anyone wanted to believe he kept a mistress, then he went ahead and let them. It wasn’t easy to admit he had only been with one woman.
She stood and walked to one end of the circle of light, then turned on her heel and walked back again. She blew out her breath. “I am going within.”
Fanny followed, robbing Ronan of any opportunity to speak with her. He glared at Graham. It was his fault Triona was upset with him. Not that things were smooth between them before Graham arrived.
“What have I missed in the last two years?” William asked Graham. He stretched out on the ground, head on laced fingers. “Now that there are no ladies present.”
Graham laughed. “’Tis what ye get, for trading your freedom for a leash.” Graham looked at Ronan, then picked up a twig and tossed it at him. “Do we bore ye already?”
“Neither of you would be sufficient companionship for my horse.”
Graham rubbed his chin, his blue eyes narrowing. With a sigh, Ronan stood and gestured for Graham to follow him. They walked into the dark.
“I will have your word on this,” Ronan said.
“This is about the lass?”
“Aye.” As if Graham didn’t already know. “The lass.”
“And what am I promising?”
Ronan rubbed the back of his neck. “To protect her with your sword.”
“I see.” His gaze wandered toward the cottage again.
Ronan’s muscles tensed. “The one made of steel.”
“As if I would dare touch yer woman.”
Ronan relaxed. “I shouldn’t have insinuated.”
Graham shrugged it off.
“Just promise me you will make her safety your priority.”
“Your safety is my priority.”
Ronan wondered what he’d done to deserve Graham’s loyalty and friendship. “Then hers is as well.”
“You have my word.” Graham flashed him a crooked smile. “Are you considering more permanent employment with her father?”
“Nay, the woman goes where I go. Do not tell the men yet.” Ronan met his gaze. “Understood?”
Graham grunted an acknowledgement.
Ronan gestured toward the fire. “Keep William busy for me, will you?”
He smiled. “Gladly.”
Ronan ignored any implication his request left behind and made his way to Triona’s window, on the far side of the cottage away from the fire. William had lashed together sticks to make crude shutters. Ronan debated, then rapped quietly at one.
It opened a crack. Triona saw him and sighed. Then she shrugged and opened it the rest of the way. She was in her linen chemise. Her hair spilled over her shoulders and golden light poured around her from the fireplace, outlining her shape beneath the fabric. It took Ronan a moment to find his tongue. “I need to talk to you.”
She glanced over her shoulder. “Fanny just fell asleep. She is very tired.”
“Then come out.”
“William will see.” She folded her arms over her rib cage. Stubborn.
“Use the window.”
She shook her head.
Slender fingers lifted, kneading her temples. Then she picked up her arisaid, wrapping it around her shoulders. He bit his tongue before he could remark on how he liked her just the way she was.
“This had better be good.” She returned to the window and slid onto the casing. Ronan scooped her into his arms. He wasn’t wearing his jerkin and steeled himself against the warmth of her rounded body against his.
“You can put me down.” Her fingers twitched against his neck.
“I know.” He kept walking.
“We really shouldn’t do this. It is after dark, and I’m not dressed.” He couldn’t see her face, but he could feel the heat rising off her body.
“You have my word, I willna touch you.” Unless she wanted him to. In which case he was all hers.
“Nay, I suppose you would not need it anyway.”
He frowned, then plopped her to her feet. She grunted and grabbed his shoulders to hold herself upright.
“What did you say?”
She averted her face. “You heard what I said.” Triona pushed off his chest and took a few steps. Not too far. It was a dark after all.
“The last thing I need right now is to try and read your mind.” He rubbed his forehead. “So say what you need to say, and say it now.”
She looked at him from over her shoulder. “I am not one of your men to be ordered about.”
“I know, believe me. No one orders you to do anything.”
Triona turned to face him. “You dragged me out here. Why do you not speak?”
He clenched his teeth. “Fine. Graham is sworn to protect you.” He folded his arms over his chest. “You’ve naught to fear from him. He would sooner die than risk his honor as warrior.”
She tipped her face back. “What did you tell him?”
“I made him swear to protect you.”
“What did you tell him I am to you?”
“Does that not say it all?”
“Nay, it says nothing.”
Ronan shifted closer. “That my man would die for you? Are you so jaded, my lady, that a man’s life means nothing to you?”
Her shoulders withered. “I am honored by each and every man who has ever sworn fealty to me over the course of my life. What I want is to know what I am to you.” She moved closer.
He brushed a lock of hair off her face. “If I have been less than open about us, it is only because I seek to protect you.”
The darkness made it difficult to read her expression. “Protect me?”
“A man canna help but to have enemies. Your father has enemies.”
She was still, as if she studied his face, then she shivered.
He looked down. “Are your feet bare?”
“Well, aye. You were in such a state of haste.”
Ronan scooped her into his arms and started back to the cottage. “Think what you like, my lady, but sooner or later you will learn to trust me.”
“I will trust you, when you give me proof that I should.”
He propped her on the windowsill and planted one hand to either side of her. “I am trying, but you willna listen.”
“Trust is earned. You canna give me words and promises and expect me to fall into your arms.” She sniffed. “This is too big for me.”
“What is too big for you?”
“Us. Whatever we are, or were.”
Ronan cupped her face in his hands. “We are not too big for us.” His brow creased. “Never mind. Go to sleep.” He kissed her forehead, then turned her around and helped her inside.
Her fingers closed over his hand. “Why could you not have returned within the first year?”
“I did not abandon you.”
“You were mine. My husband.”
“I still am.”
“You better go before we do something foolish tonight.” She turned her face and a single tear flashed as it slid down her cheek. “You are a man. At least you can . . .”
“I can what?”
“Have other women.”
He blew out a breath, drew it back. “Did it occur to you that maybe I am more than the sum of my parts.”
She stiffened. “Of course it does. ’Tis what this is about.”
“Nay, this is about your unwillingness to let me take care of you. Now goodnight, my lady.”
Ronan turned the corner of the cottage, then stopped and sighed. Backtracking, he watched until she closed the shutters. He ignored Graham and William at the fire, took up his bedroll, and pretended to sleep.
Ronan sparred with both William and Graham at the same time while Triona sat in the grass with her knees tucked against her chest. The three of them had discarded their shirts, bronze muscles glowing from perspiration and brows furrowed. Graham stumbled backward as Ronan’s claymore sliced the air in front of his chest. He hit the ground, long blond hair flying out behind him.
William charged Ronan. The two clashed blades, styles so similar they danced, more than fought. Triona watched them for any sign of malice. If there was any, they hid it well. Graham took up his bota and pulled out the stopper, then sat near her. But not too near. His tattoos drew her attention until her gaze went fuzzy in the swirling patterns. He wore a faded brown and green plaid with frayed edges.
“Are you of the clan MacKinnon?” she asked, recognizing colors common to that area.
He took a swallow then laughed. She smelled ale. “Nay lassie, inherited my plaid from a man killed by a bolt straight through the heart.” He made a motion with his hand against his chest. “I fought beside him and he was a brave lad.” Graham shrugged. “He would have wanted me to have it.”
Her eyes widened. “Should he not have been buried in it?”
“I buried him myself, in his finest.” He frowned and stretched his long legs out before him.
Triona kept her mouth shut, lest she make too much of a fool out of herself.
“My boots came from Wales. They belonged to a friend.”
She shifted. “I am sorry.”
“I said they belonged to a friend. Not that he was dead. My sword came from Ireland. It once belonged to an ancient king.”
She eyed him.
“It did.” He held it up for her to examine. “See the runes.” He pointed to the archaic patterns etched into the blade.
“What do they mean?”
“I’ve no idea, lassie. I bought it off a man, who bought it off a man.”
Triona realized that she was in a casual conversation with the kind of man she’d been sheltered from all her life. A man who, as Ronan pointed out, would sooner die than allow any harm to come to her, all due to the warrior’s honor code. Had Graham even been aware of Ronan’s given name before yesterday? Did he care? She wondered if Ronan’s persona was as important to his authority as he believed it to be
“William is good,” Graham said, gesturing. “Too bad he is of the nobility. He made a fine mercenary.”
“He knows his place and is bothered not by it.”
“A dog on a chain.”
“A man with purpose.”
Ice blue eyes narrowed. “And what is your relationship with yer cousin, my lady?”
She straightened. “You are forward.” Her mind played out a plan of attack. First she would slam the heel of her hand into his nose, to stun him . . .
“My captain is my primary concern.” His face softened and she began to let her guard down. “I should not speak with ye thusly. I only wish to make certain he doesna expend his energy in the wrong places.”
Energy indeed. Triona looked at Ronan. His muscles flexed as he sparred William. Her fingers itched to touch him and she cleared her throat. “You have naught to fear.”
Graham’s gaze burned through the side of her face. “I see,” he said.
She looked at him. “You see what?”
“How long have you been in love with him?”
Her breath caught and her face burned. “You are very bold.” And observant. Too observant. Most men were not.
“I had a sister once. And she was in love.” His face pinched. “Once.” Graham took a drink from his bota. “Does he hoard his money for you?”
“Nay. Ronan hoards his money for him.” Triona gritted her teeth. “This is not some bard’s tale of a poor man attempting to earn a lady’s devotion.”
The sun appeared from between two dark clouds, Graham’s eyes glittering in it. “Is it not?”
“Nay. Because he has had it all along!”
Graham sat back and his smile widened. “Good.”
He was testing her, but she didn’t have to let him. She stood and brushed herself off. “And now, if you have had enough, sir? Because I have.”
“More than.” He came to his feet, towered over her for a second, then bowed his head. “I’m wishing ye both the best.”
“Graham.” Ronan’s voice made her jump. “Dinna annoy my lady.”
He laughed. “No fear. I was leaving. I will check the traps.” Graham lifted his brows and glanced from between the two of them.
Ronan nodded. “Take William with you.”
Triona tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear. She hadn’t spoken to Ronan since the night before. She’d made such an idiot of herself. Why did he keep coming back for more, when all she did was aggravate him?
Why did she?
Graham walked over to William and the two of them pulled their shirts on, tucking the ends of their plaids around their torsos. Graham handed William the bota and he drank as the two of them disappeared behind a pine tree.
“Your friend is interesting,” Triona said, her voice cracking.
Ronan shook his hair out of his face. “He is loyal, and he is skilled. I could not ask for more.”
“Where did you find him?”
He looked at the shirt in his hand, but didn’t seem interested in putting it on. “He found me. Graham was the first. Others followed one by one.”
“They all came to you?”
“I think I am impressed.”
He rolled his eyes. “Finally, she is impressed.” He ducked his face. “Did you sleep at all?”
She watched him from under her lashes, blood rushing anew to her cheeks. “Not much.”
“Neither did I. Go for a walk with me?”
“Should we leave Fanny?” Triona glanced over her shoulder. Fanny must have heard her name because she set her kitting in her lap. Triona shook her head and hoped Fanny would play along by pretending she was too afraid to be left alone in the meadow. Triona didn’t trust herself not to act like an addle-witted fool around Ronan.
“Ronan,” Fanny said. Her chair creaked as she rocked in the packed heath. “The berries are ripe and sweet, I would much appreciate it if you picked me some.”
Triona widened her eyes.
“Take Triona with ye.”
Ronan touched her sleeve. Triona pulled away.
“We should not leave you here alone.” She glared at Fanny.
“Nonsense. The men scour the forest twice a day. I am as safe here as anywhere.”
“Let’s go.” Ronan pulled his shirt on, then slid his fingers into hers and tugged. She gave in and walked away with him, her jaw cinched tight.
She pretended to look for ripe berries, wishing Ronan would understand her. How hard was it to stop hiding behind cloaks and names, to return to the home of his youth? The love of his youth. Was it so hard to limit himself to one woman for the rest of his life?
His calloused fingers in hers drove frustrated tingles up her arm. She blew out a breath and pulled her hand free.
“Aye, my lady?”
She scowled at him. “We are at an impasse.”
“Aye, we are.”
“Well, what are we supposed to do about it?”
“I already told you what I expect from you.”
She clenched her fingers into fists. “And I told you what I expect.”
His blue eyes took on a hard edge. “Thus the impasse.”
There they went again. Her head ached. “You do not have to be so difficult.”
He ran his hands through his hair and lowered his voice. “You are my woman, and yet I canna touch you. You drive me mad.”
She kicked a rut in the mossy soil. “Well, I have needs too.”
His fingers closed over her arm. “I know you do.” His eyes darkened as his thumb caressed the inside of her elbow.
She swallowed, lost in a memory.
“Now cease with this foolishness, before we both go daft.”
The dream shattered and she pulled away. “’Tis not foolishness. Ronan of the Raven Locks. Ronan of a Thousand Spears.” She threw her childhood nicknames at him like fodder.
He shook his head.
“Ronan the Unconquered.”
“Are you through, my lady?”
“The problem is that you are unconquerable.”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Did you want me otherwise? Dead perchance?”
“That is not what I meant.” She waved her hand. “Someday you will have to allow yourself to be used by someone other than yourself. Someday you will have to bow before someone other than Blackhawk.”
His brow tightened. “I have done a fair share of bowing in my day. More than you have.”
“And you hate it.” She grabbed his shoulders. She shook him, or tried to, but he didn’t budge.
“And you are still a spoiled bairn.”
She shoved him with both hands. At least this time he had the decency to take a step back instead of standing there like an unmovable wall.
“And furthermore, Mercenary.” She came up on her toes. “I will have your word that you will be faithful to me, no matter where you go.”
He caught her arm. “Enough.”
Triona ripped it away. Pain flashed through her wrist, but she kept her face straight.
“You do not even know what you’re talking about,” he said. “Bairn.”
She turned away. Her wrist throbbed and she rubbed it.
He sounded apologetic, but she didn’t care.
Catching her other arm, he turned her around.
Triona gave him her best glare. “Don’t you dare try and force me to listen to your nonsense.”
“Shh.” He placed a finger over her mouth. Then he took her wrist and felt along the bones.
“I am fine.”
“Nay, you are not. It begins to swell already. We should make a poultice.”
“I do not break so easily. You just think I do.”
“Is that not why you want the land and the walls? You think I will break if you do not put me in a cage.”
“Let’s go.” He didn’t wait for her to move. He scooped her up and carried her instead. She looped her arms around his neck, the feel of his chest and stomach against her side giving her goose bumps.
“’Tis my wrist, you fool. I can walk.” She focused on her breathing instead of his taut body.
“Not this time. You are too out of sorts.”
The goose bumps flew away. “Out of sorts. A man’s way of dismissing reality.”
He slid her to the ground, Triona grunting at the unexpected movement. Then he took her face in both hands and kissed her with a desperation that made fire boil in her veins. She couldn’t remember why she was angry. He released her face, only to slide his arms around her waist and draw her close into his chest, his mouth searching hers, his hands roving with more thoroughness than she should have allowed.
He lifted his head, his breath short, eyes unfocused. “Quiet,” he breathed.
She nodded. He began to lead her back to the cottage, his arm around her. As they walked, she realized what he had done. Triona twisted free, then drew back her fist and let it fly with all the strength she had. His eyes widened a second before she made contact. Then his nose issued forth a satisfying crack.
Pain radiated up her arm. “Don’t you ever try to manipulate me again,” she said.
He held his nose as blood seeped from between his fingers. She turned and left him, her jarred forearm cradled against her and tears blurring her eyes. She wouldn’t allow herself to be used for his pleasure again.
“Ladies first,” Graham said, gesturing with a sweep of his hand.
Ronan watched Triona sink into a chair before the hearth, her arm tucked close. The corner of Graham’s mouth twitched and he glanced at Ronan’s bloody nose. Ronan was glad Graham found it to his pleasure.
He would enjoy taking it out on him the next time they sparred.
“Where is Fanny?” she asked.
“Picking berries with your cousin.”
She scrunched up her face. “I guess she wanted them after all.”
Triona hissed as Graham straightened her arm.
Ronan leaned back against the rickety table, then changed his mind and straightened before he broke it. “She cracked a bone once in her third finger punching me. It was several years ago.”
She craned to look at him from over her shoulder. “You remember?”
“How could I not?”
Graham felt along her fingers. Ronan wanted to take care of her himself but—blood dripped through the handkerchief Triona had flicked at his face when they got back to the cottage—he could not.
“I heard his nose crack,” she said. “Just like it did then.”
“You two have been at this for some time?”
Ronan shifted. “You could say that.”
“Nothing broken,” Graham said. He let go of her arm. “It will be sore for a few days. I suggest you go down to the creek and soak it in the cool water.”
“Thank you.” She stood and walked out the door, her chin lifted.
The moment she was out of sight, Graham laughed so hard he bent double with it. Beads in his hair clacked together.
Ronan sat in the chair and scowled at him. “Are you finished?”
He shook his hair back. “For now. What did ye to her?”
“Kissed her when she wanted to spar.”
“Is that what happened the last time?” Graham removed the soaked handkerchief from Ronan’s nose.
His head pounded and he looked at his sticky hands. “Nay. I am not sure why she hit me the last time. It might be because I sparred with her when she wanted me to kiss her.”
Graham tossed the handkerchief into the fire. “Saucy wench. I daresay she is worth keeping, that one.”
Ronan winced when Graham touched his nose.
“Love hurts. What can I say?” Graham grinned, teeth flashing in the gloom of the cottage.
“And what do you know of love?”
“Not as much as you, perhaps, but I know enough.” Graham twisted the bridge of his nose into place. Ronan saw stars.
“Go clean yourself up. You look awful.”
Ronan stood, then took a breath and waited for his vision to clear. “Thank you so much for your ministrations. You have a wonderful bedside manner.”
Graham bowed, one hand over his heart. “I reserve the genteel side of my nature for the ladies.”
Ronan shook his head and left the cottage. He knew he should avoid Triona. She needed space. She was probably sick of him following her like a bleating lamb. But he didn’t avoid her. He made his way to the creek, instead, finding her standing in the water in her heavy wool gown. Her shoes were on the bank, her stockings stuffed inside.
He frowned. “What are you doing?”
Triona looked up, then away again. “What does it look like?”
He reminded himself not to raise his voice. “You shouldna be in the water with your gown on.”
“How convenient that would be for you.”
“’Tis not as if I have never seen you in your underclothes before,” he said from between his teeth.
“They will be soaked.”
“Like I said,” he came toward her, “nothing I have not seen before.”
She walked out of the water. “I am already wet.”
“The current is strong. All your layers must weigh as much as you do when soaked through. Not to mention the restriction of your bodice. Blasted contraption.”
She straightened. “I have worn one for years. I do believe I can manage my own life.”
What did life have to do with the restriction of her clothing? Ronan stripped out of his shirt. It needed to be washed. Triona fisted her good hand and glared at him. Ronan was prepared to block this time, in case she should take another swing at him. His nose had stopped bleeding and it would be nice to keep it that way.
She glanced at the cottage. “William and Fanny might be in the forest, but Graham is still up there.”
How careless of him. “I will be right back.”
Ronan jogged back to the cottage. Graham was in the chair before the fire, holding a sheet of foolscap in his hands, his head bowed over it. Big fingers caressed the page.
“A missive from your niece?” Ronan asked.
He frowned at the paper. “Aye.”
“Why did you not tell me?”
“You were busy.”
This was the real reason Graham had sought him out. “I will read it to you later.”
Graham looked up, then he shrugged as if it didn’t matter to him.
“I promise.” Ronan nodded. “For now, can you give us some privacy?”
“Aye, of course.” He stood.
“Nay.” Ronan waved him off. “Just stay in here.”
“If you want.” Graham sat down again, turning back to his letter.
Ronan tried not to take his literacy for granted. It was one of the greatest gifts Triona’s father could have given him. He tried to teach Graham once, but the man was proud. Ronan walked back to the creek.
Triona jumped, then let out a breath. “This makes me exceedingly uncomfortable. But I do see your point.” She had her sleeves off, but there was no way she could unlace her bodice with one hand.
He reached for her.
She pulled back. “I dress myself frequently.”
“With Fanny to reach the places you canna.”
“I have dressed myself plenty of times.”
“With one arm?”
Her face went blank, then she turned her back to him and moved her hair out of the way. “Should you do this to yourself?”
“Maybe it will prove to you that I have some self-control.” His words were laced with bitterness. He scrubbed his hand over his face. Find your control, Ronan.
He unlaced her bodice cover and tossed it aside. Then he frowned at a whole new set of laces beneath. He unknotted them, hoping he didn’t look like a bumbling idiot. She was as stiff as a marble statue as he tossed her stays and her skirt aside. Aching fingers gathered the folds of her petticoat.
“Do not,” she breathed. “I-I can get the rest, thank you.”
Ronan backed away. He wanted to take care of her. He also needed to earn her trust. She pulled out of her petticoat, her gaze drifting to his face, eyes innocent, and yet knowing at the same time.
“You wear no less than you did last night.”
“I had my arisaid.” She ran her hand over her ivory chemise. “And it was dark then.”
“It makes little difference to a man, love.” He smiled to himself. “I willna look. I will be here, washing the blood off my face and my shirt.”
Triona walked into the water. He splashed his face and took his time working crusted blood off stubble. He took up his shirt.
“Leave that. You will need a bar of soap. I can wash it later. It was my doing, anyway.”
He looked up, then away again. “I think I had better keep my eyes busy.”
Silence, then, “How long am I to soak my arm?”
He smiled. “Are you shivering?”
“Then you have had enough. I will put a poultice on it.”
She sloshed out of the water. “Can you get me some dry clothes from the cottage?”
He watched the hem of her dripping chemise. “I will be right back.”
He didn’t look at her.
He nodded and walked back to the cottage, then stopped at the doorway and frowned around the single room.
“You look lost,” Graham said.
Ronan scowled. “She is wet. I need to bring her spare clothing.” He found her saddlebag against the wall and opened it. Then he sighed and closed it, slinging the leather sack over his shoulder, taking it with him. She was sitting on the bank in the sun when he returned. Her back was to him. Good thing that. Ronan pushed the bag in her direction. She stood, then clutched it against her chest.
“Let me know when you are ready and I will lace you up.” His throat was tight. He turned his back to her.
“I still dinna understand why you are doing this?”
“You seem to be under the impression I have no control over myself.” Granted, said control was tenuous, but at least he hadn’t pulled her into his arms, carried her into the shelter of the forest, and made love to her. Stop it. Don’t think about it.
She sighed. “Well, go stand a wee bit off at least.”
Ronan pressed his molars together. “Either use me as your blind, or go behind that tree.” He pointed. “I willna have William or Graham seeing you.”
“Make a choice, woman.”
“You dinna have to sound so angry.”
She dripped off behind a willow. Ronan’s eyes took on a mind of their own and his gaze followed her. A slender arm showed from behind the trunk. Then her wet chemise hit the ground with a splat. He groaned and tore his gaze away. It took an insanely long time for her to dress. He curtailed the temptation to keep asking her if she was finished yet.
“I am ready,” she said. Finally.
He turned to face her in her chemise and petticoat.
“You did not have to do this.” She toed a stone with her bare foot. “I would have been fine.”
“I couldn’t risk your safety for the sake of propriety.” He locked gazes with her. “Let’s get you dressed now.”
She stepped forward as if he were a demon come to possess her soul.
Ronan laughed. It was the only way he could deal with the ridiculousness of it. Of them.
Her eyes narrowed and she stuck her chin in the air. “Am I so amusing?”
“You are a lot of things.” He frowned at her bag. “Where do we start?”
Triona sat cross-legged in the heath, her rust-red worsted wool skirt fanned around her. She plucked a sprig of heather, twirling it between her fingers as she looked over the glen from a nearby hill. Leave her clan and marry him. He’d said the words like they were the simplest in the world. She tossed aside the flower and sighed. It was tempting. But a marriage wouldn’t seal him to her. What was there to stop him from going on his merry way after the bridal period had ended? There was no telling who he might make merry with. It was easy for him to untie the laces on her clothing. Too easy. Aye, he was a man with practiced fingers, aright. She stood and brushed herself off.
Why did love have to hurt?
She looked at Ronan sitting on a boulder behind her, his elbows propped on his knees. He wore his black jerkin over a charcoal shirt. Trews clung to well-defined legs. His dark hair curled around his shoulders and stubble dusted his angular jaw. Ronan’s sapphire eyes were serious as he watched her. He had bruises beneath them from his broken nose.
She smoothed her hands over her gown. Her arm had recovered more quickly than his face. “We should head back soon. William feels responsible for my reputation.”
Triona tossed her braid behind her shoulder, listening to the familiar jingle of her India bells.
“You knew my hair had grown back when you purchased the bells for me.”
“It was not a conscious thought. Why did you cut your hair again?”
“I thought you should have it.” She shrugged. “Or maybe I was giving you more time.”
Ronan stood and took up Goliath’s bridle. They’d removed them earlier so the horses could graze. Triona lifted Murdock’s and placed the bit into his foamy green mouth. She tarried over buckles as Ronan mounted, his stallion pawing the ground. With a sigh, Triona pushed her hem out of the way and swung into the saddle.
She arranged her skirts around her. It was far from demure. “Sometimes I wonder if my parents should have allowed me to play with the boys.” She clucked Murdock into motion.
“Wrestling in the dirt and climbing trees. I am sorry I missed out on sharing it with you.” He grinned.
Triona flatted her lips.
“By the time your father found me, you had already outgrown it.” His gaze ran over her, astride her horse. “Almost.”
Ronan was the reason she’d outgrown it. But she had never told him as much. “I was becoming a young lady, and young ladies do not wrestle with lads.”
“You know very well why.”
His gaze lingered, and she looked away.
“What are they like?” She watched her hands on the reins. “The ladies of other lands.”
“Too laced up to breathe, much less ride, hunt, fight, or any other worthwhile occupation.”
She rolled her eyes. “Is there nothing more to life?” Her voice raised a full octave and she winced as it echoed off trees.
He leveled his gaze. “If it came between you and any other woman in a fair fight, you would beat her every time. As a matter of fact, you would beat her in an unfair fight.”
She played along. Some things about Ronan would never change. “French women?”
“Without a doubt.”
“What of their complexions?”
“I try not to notice.”
She frowned and ran her thumbs over the braided leather reins as they moved with her gelding’s head. “Tell me what they look like.”
Were they more interesting than her?
“I canna tell you what their gowns were made of, or how they fashioned them. I had other things on my mind.” His mouth was tight. A tree came between them.
Aye, like how to part them from their gowns. He appeared again, all the lines of his face tense. She griped the reins. Why did he have to make things so difficult? “Their faces. Their figures!” She winced, looking at the ground as it moved beneath her.
Ronan’s hand came over hers. He pulled back the reins, halting both horses. “What is this about?”
“I just want to know if they’re handsome.”
He was silent. She looked up. His gaze caught hers and held on, questioning.
She hissed out a breath. “Forget I said anything.”
“They are not like you.”
Was that good or bad?
“Was there anything else you wanted to know?”
“Of course not.”
“Are you sure? Because you have been hinting for days.”
“Four years is a long time for any man.” She bit the end of her tongue and wanted to kick herself.
He nodded. Then he rubbed his forehead and sighed. “I knew you would have heard things about me, and I knew you would ask me sooner or later.” He didn’t sound pleased, but he labored on. “I should have said something earlier. ’Tis not the easiest matter to discuss with you.”
Wasn’t that the truth. When did the air turn sour? She couldn’t breathe.
“I admit, I have done some things I am less than proud of, but I did them for us.”
His viewpoint, but it was not a good time to argue with him, so she nodded.
“I have no mistress, as the rumors tell. And I have never taken one.”
She sat up straight, leather creaking. “No mistress?”
“Nay.” His voice resonated in the space between them.
“No mistress, but . . .”
She swallowed. “Never, but . . .”
“I have not.” Through clenched teeth.
“Not?” Surely he misunderstood her.
He scowled. “Not once.”
Her stomach clenched. “Ronan, I mean-”
“I ken you, lassie.”
She couldn’t get her head straight. The ground spun beneath her. It would be just like her to fall off her horse at a time like that. “You mean not since we were together.”
He sighed and rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Never, but with you. Only you. How else do you want me to phrase it?” His hand fell to his thigh with a thump. “Do you think me an adulterer?”
“But we are not-”
His face darkened.
“Och.” Sweet Lord, how could she not have known? She pressed one hand against her rib cage. “Then when you, when we . . .”
He nodded. “Aye. I didna want to scare you. I thought it better for you to believe I was practiced.” Goliath shifted to one side. Ronan reined him back in.
“I believed it,” she whispered. “And thank you.” She smiled through blurry eyes. That such a beautiful man could be all hers blew her away. His mouth drew her attention. “Where did you learn to kiss like you do?”
He narrowed his eyes.
“Never mind. I do not want to know.”
“The woman they say is my mistress does exist. And aye, I see her on occasion.”
Triona screwed up her face.
“She is only a friend.”
“Of course she is.” She looked away. Didn’t he have the right to a friend? She had William. Then again, William was a bad example.
Ronan leaned toward her. His sword-nicked hand snaked around and cupped the back of her head. He tilted her face until she looked at him. Her breath ran short. “There were moments. I willna pretend there were not.”
“I know.” She cleared her throat. “I mean, I understand.”
“I should have written you more.” His thumb stroked her cheekbone. “Told you that you are my angel. I should have said a lot of things. I should have . . .” He leaned in and kissed her. Slowly, his scent, his taste, teased into her. Tears streamed down her cheeks and she wanted him to crush her against his chest, but they were both still mounted. Her fingers curled into his shirt sleeves. He wrapped his strong arms around her and pulled her down with him until they stood in a breathless embrace between their horses.
She couldn’t believe she never knew. “Why did you not tell me before?”
“And how was I supposed to bring it up in a conversation?”
“You could’ve just said the words.” Ronan’s brows narrowed and she sighed. “Aye, I know.”
He tilted her face, kissing her neck. Triona’s resistance was low. He told her he would take responsibility for her. It would mean another handfast between them, unless they came to share a child, or could be more permanently wed. Then again, so many marriages in Scotland began the same way. Did it matter?
But if she withheld herself from him, she had leverage against Blackhawk. It was the only leverage she had. He ran his hands down her lower back, shudders rolling through her. She had to find the strength. She couldn’t allow him to sell himself to King James for something she’d never wanted. Triona pressed her palms into his chest and pried herself away. Her skirt caught under her shoes and she stumbled, falling to her knees. A rock pressed through her clothing. She couldn’t look at him. It was too dangerous.
Ronan knelt beside her. “I became carried away.”
“Aye.” Triona looked at the lichen under her fingers, focusing on the cool, green blanket. He lurched to his feet, then took her hand and pulled her up with him. “Ride with me.”
Ronan tied her gelding’s reins to his saddle, then swung onto Goliath. He reached down and helped her up with him. Triona pressed her cheek against his hard shoulder and indulged in a little daydreaming. Not the one where Ronan kissed her senseless, then fell on his knees before her and pledged the remainder of his days to naught but her pleasure. Nay, in this daydream, she imagined shoving a dark, cloaked man off a cliff.
“Feel better now?” Triona asked, scissoring thread with her teeth.
William rolled his scarred shoulder. “Well enough. Is it bad?”
She sat before the hearth with William’s torn shirt on her lap. “Only torn at the seam. It willna take long.” She knotted the end of the thread. “You and Ronan seemed in good spirits walking back from the forest.”
“After he tore my shirt, gave me a black eye-”
“’Tis not even swollen.”
“It will be by morning.” He crossed his arms over his bare chest. It bothered him not to show his skin before her, but when Ronan did so, William keened like an angry rooster.
“I bet he hardly made contact,” she said.
Triona stuck the needle into his shirt.
“Maybe I missed sparring with him these past two years,” he said.
Triona smiled, glad their fight wasn’t malicious. She was used to the men of her clan hitting each other for fun. “You did?”
William shrugged. “Do your outings with him help any?”
“Aye.” Her neck warmed just thinking about what she and Ronan had talked about. “He and I still need to work through a few issues though.”
“Then marry him, and have as long as you need.” His words were strained.
“’Tis not so simple.”
“I worry about you.” He lowered his voice. She watched his quiet profile as he stared into the fire. “I want to know you’re provided for. Your father willna live forever. And eventually I will have to marry.”
He would need an heir. She nodded slowly.
“Either you will have to forsake Ronan, so you can remain the lady of your own home, or you will have to step down, and let my future bride take your place.”
Was he saying he would still have her, if she wanted him? Triona’s throat closed around a lump. William was enough to make any woman want to put herself in danger so he could rescue her. Repeatedly. There would always be a part of her that wouldn’t understand why she hadn’t fallen in love with him.
“You will always have a home, of course, but if something should happen to me, you’d have no sons to protect you. Ronan’s a good man, and stubborn or not, I would rather see you under his protection than miserable with me.”
Her eyes widened and she let his shirt drop to her lap. “Miserable? Never.”
His chest rose and fell as he breathed.
“Talk to me.”
“I am.” He shifted.
“Part of me will always regret not having fallen in love with you.” Triona clamped her jaw shut. She hadn’t meant to say it out loud.
William’s mouth tightened.
“I never meant to love Ronan. I just do.” Triona placed her hand over his. His fingers were like stone. “I never meant to come between you and Ronan either. Please believe me.”
“It could not be helped.” He watched her hand over his, then with aching tenderness, turned his palm up, so his fingers faced hers. She bit back a sob when he rubbed the inside of her wrist with his thumb.
Triona made sure she took a moment to think before she spoke. “Aside from my father, you and Ronan are the two most important men in my life.”
He smiled, but it didn’t touch the rest of his face. “Three is not a good number, love.”
She took a deep breath. Words. I need words. “I do not know who your lady is, but I know she is out there. And I know she needs you more than I do.” Triona paused, frowning to herself. Where did that come from?
His gray eyes questioned hers, then he pulled his hand away and ran it through his hair. “This is why men avoid such confrontations with women.”
“’Tis called conversation. Dinna avoid it.”
“You cannot avoid Ronan.”
“I am not avoiding him. We spent all morning together.”
“You know of what I speak. What could be so powerful it stops you from being with him?”
“You know what, or rather who. I canna marry a man like Blackhawk.”
He sighed, and then nodded.
She turned back to her sewing. “Ronan wants to imprison me behind a wall of his own making.” She laughed. “He already does. He does not realize it. I feel trapped by his insanity.” She plunged the needle into linen.
William rubbed the back of his neck. “He knows what it would do to him if anything should happen to you.”
“So he leaves me to grow old without him.” She pulled the thread back.
“You have to see it from his perspective.”
“Do enlighten me.”
“Once you’re his responsibility, it all falls on him. You will become his life. More so than now. I do not know how to describe it, but any man worth his salt would easily die for his wife.” He frowned and his hands fell to his lap. “And a part of him would die with her, should he not be capable of protecting her.”
She wondered how her father felt when her mother died. He could not have prevented it. The ague paid no favors. Perhaps he blamed himself anyway. “So Ronan would sooner be separated from me?”
“Stubborn.” She poked in the needle. “Ouch!” Triona pulled her finger back.
“Careful,” William said.
She stuck her finger in her mouth and spoke around it. “Thank you for your warning. It was very helpful.”
She sighed. “What do I do?”
He stretched his legs out before him, fingers laced over his rippled stomach. “Marry him. Then bring him around to your way of thinking. Your father willna want to see him sell himself either. Perhaps he can convince Ronan of how much he is needed within the clan.”
“Can I take such a chance? Once I marry him, he will go insane trying to protect me. I know he will.”
William smiled. “He is tetched anyway.”
“Worse than now, I mean.”
“It could get worse. Let your example bring him around.”
“I don’t know.” She couldn’t convince herself to let go of her only leverage. She rubbed her forehead. “I canna keep doing this with him. I will be as tetched as he is soon.”
“No one is as tetched as Ronan.”
She shook her head.
Triona needed to get away. Life in the glen was slow and quiet, so unlike the constant buzz of activity at MacAlastair Hall, and it was beginning to get on her nerves. Sighing, she stepped into the cottage.
“Such low spirits, my lady.”
She scanned the dim interior. “Ronan?”
He straightened from behind the table. “Your table leg no longer wobbles.”
“How long have you been there?”
“Longer than you have.” He smiled.
“I did not know you’d gotten back from the forest.”
“You were engaged.” He leaned against the table, which did not wobble, and crossed his arms over his chest. His size shouldn’t have surprised her, but somehow it still did. “Graham was spinning a tale for you.”
“You didna wish to hear it?” She brushed her braid behind her shoulder.
“I already have. Four times.”
“Thank you for fixing my table.” She rested her hand on the back of a chair, her fingers curling around it. Knowing he’d remained celibate made her all the more aware of him. Ronan’s smile turned lazy and Triona’s nails tightened over the wood.
“I think we should come back here again.”
“Aye.” He tilted his face. “Next time, let’s leave the entourage behind.”
Triona turned away, teeth clamped over her bottom lip. Her heart bounced about in her chest. She knelt and stirred embers in the fireplace, dallying as long as she could before rising to her feet.
Wood creaked when Ronan sat in a chair before the hearth. He wasn’t wearing a shirt. He and William reminded her of a couple of male peacocks. Graham was the only one who had the decency to keep his clothes on. Usually.
“I need to do something,” he said.
“Aye. Something.” She stumbled into a second chair next to him. “I understand completely.” Triona gave her breath a moment to catch up with the rest of her. “You fixed the table.” She wanted him to kiss her, even though she knew it was a bad idea. “You, William, and Graham spar daily.”
“Aye.” He shrugged. Then he smiled. “Maybe you and I should go for a turn? I’d like to see how much you remember.”
“Enough to break your nose.”
He fingered the bruised appendage. “Second time you broke it. Will you try for a third?”
“It could happen.” Triona watched his face. “Is it too quiet for you here?”
“’Tis, and will continue to be.” His dark brows furrowed.
“What are you thinking?”
“You do not want to know.”
Her stomach clenched. “My father?”
“He is fine.” Ronan turned to face her. Triona could smell him. Leather and steel. “Have you not wondered?”
“What if this is about us?”
What was he talking about?
“’Tis too quiet.” He leaned toward her. “William is lax in his rounds, as if there is no threat to scout the forest for.”
She ran her hands over her braid. Was that the real reason her father wouldn’t tell her why she was being sent away? “Nay. They would not have deceived us thusly, would they?”
He lowered his voice, his eyes apologetic. “Perhaps deceive is too strong a word. Maybe they just wanted to bring us together.” He moved his chair closer to hers.
“Maybe my father wants you to come home.”
He eyed her as if she’d been in the sun too long and it had impaired her judgment.
“He does.” She nodded.
“Assuming we’re right, and I believe we are, we have two choices.”
She pursed her lips at the way he changed the subject.
“Either we wait it out. Sooner or later your father will send for us. Or we reveal to William that we already know the truth.”
“And then leave.” Fear sliced through her stomach. “Y-You are staying with me, aye?”
“Aye, I will go with you. Your father has my fortune.”
“Of course.” Why else would he accompany her?
He brushed his knuckles over her cheek. “I need to speak to your father.”
“About gold.” She scowled.
“About you.” He touched the back of her neck, urging her closer. “I want to ask for his permission to take you away with me.”
There was only one thing she wanted. And it was a swift death to Blackhawk. She backed away.
“I have to send for my men. I hope your father is willing to harbor us for a time.” He eyed her as if he attempted to determine why she’d moved away. “I need to call in a few favors before I can gain an audience with the king.”
“You would have us remain at the hall?”
“Temporarily, aye. ’Tis for the best. I hate to take you with me, because the road is no place for you, but I also hate to leave you behind.” He leaned closer and tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear. “Say nothing to Fanny or William about what I told you.”
“I willna.” He planned to take her with him? He hated to leave her? But he still sought to seek audience with the king. She took a deep breath. “I suppose William and my father have some serious explaining to do when we get home.”
“They knew there was only one way to get my attention. Bait.”
“I being the bait.” She rolled her eyes.
“And what bait you are.” He stood and lifted Triona to her feet, looked at her for a moment, then lowered his head and kissed her. She instinctively leaned into him, but her heart screamed. Back away. Don’t give him what he wants.
He must have sensed her hesitance, because he lifted his head. Sapphire eyes questioned hers.
“I canna go with you, because it isn’t what I want for us.” Her fingers shook. She twisted them into his sleeves.
Ronan tensed against her.
“Please let’s go home now. Talk to my father. He really does want you back. You belong with the clan. Ronan, please, come home. We can be happy there, you’ll see.” Was she begging? Triona bit the inside of her cheek. Nay, she couldn’t beg. It had gotten her nowhere when he walked out on her four years ago. She loosened her fingers from his sleeves.
“Not everything is about you, my lady.” His voice was edged and he shoved her away. She nearly toppled over a chair before regaining her balance. “I never absolved our marriage in the first place. You did.”
She choked on tears. They dripped from her chin.
He sighed and touched her face. Calloused fingers brushed her tears away. “Don’t,” he whispered. “Let me take care of you. Can you not believe in me?”
She was out of words. His behavior confused her. She knew he’d always been searching for a better hand than life originally dealt him, but she used to be able to depend on him. And he’d never used his strength against her before. Oh, God. She wanted her Ronan back.
He searched her face, blue eyes soft now. “Say aye.”
She closed her eyes against him. He was trying to manipulate her. Stay strong. Stay strong.
Do not look at him.
Ronan pulled away. She heard his boots on the hard-packed dirt floor. The door closed behind him.
Ronan walked back to the glen with a headache. Why did he continue to scour the forest day after day when there was no threat? He wasted his time. He had more important things to do, like ensconce Triona behind a wall with his name all over it. A sharp pain shot through his left temple, making him wince.
He tossed two fat hares before the fire.
“You look terrible.” Graham picked one up and pulled out his knife.
William tossed more wood on the fire. “Is there a problem?”
Ronan gritted his teeth at the smug look on William’s face. “Graham. Swords. Now.”
Graham shrugged and handed the hare over to William. “Need to work out a wee bit of tension there?”
Ronan walked deeper into the glen, Graham following. Ronan drew his claymore. “Just fight me.”
“I am at your disposal.” Graham drew his Irish sword.
They clashed blades, danced around each other, feinted.
Graham grinned over his blade. “Should I have a talk with her?”
Ronan scowled. “Nay.”
He laughed. “She trips over her own feet whenever she is near you. She is obsessed with ye. Count yourself blessed, she’s a beautiful woman.”
“As if you didna know.”
Ronan backed off, his sword at his side. “Obsessed?”
Why would she be obsessed with him? The rat of a boy who washed up on her doorstep all those years ago.
He may not have understood the cause, but he could understand how she felt after he spent the night with her, and then left. She’d seared herself into him that night, and he never forgot.
Neither had she.
“Or perhaps you didna know.” Graham set his sword tip down and folded his hands over the pommel.
Ronan swore under his breath. “I misused her. We handfasted four years ago and I never even told her father. I abandoned her instead.”
Graham rubbed his jaw. “She means more to ye than any other woman, aye?”
“Then marry her. It canna be so bad.” He shook his braids back. “I have considered it myself. I wouldna mind a few sons to pass my skills off to.”
“Neither would I. But she wishes for me to give up Blackhawk. To be Ronan once more.”
“’Tis only a name.”
Ronan’s hand tightened around the leather-bound grip of his sword. “A name I made for myself.”
“Which has served its purpose.”
“She wants me to work for her father,” Ronan muttered.
Graham laughed. “Then it seems you do have a problem. What is it she dislikes about Blackhawk?”
“’Tis my reputation. She believes it to be unsavory.”
“Women. She will come around.”
Triona? Come around? “She is powerfully stubborn. She may not.”
“Well, then you may need to choose.”
Ronan couldn’t live without her. He’d done that for four years. It was no longer an option. But could he live without his reputation? Was he brave enough to take a chance on . . . himself? He sheathed his sword.
“Off with ye then,” Graham said. He gestured with the tip of his sword. “And stop making me tell you what to do.”
Ronan narrowed his gaze. “If you were not my friend, I would take that last comment out of your hide.”
He assumed Triona was in the cottage. The door was propped open with a rock and Fanny was in her chair outside, kitting. He started slowly forward. The very air of his lungs revolved around his woman, and all he asked for in return was that she believe in him.
But she couldn’t.
Because she wanted him to work for her father.
Or maybe she wanted him to stop living a lie. He wasn’t Blackhawk. He was Ronan. A simple swordsman in love with his laird’s daughter.
Ronan winced as pain bore through his temples. A smashed nose did not mix well with personal stress. He rolled his shoulders beneath the weight of his claymore. It had always been difficult for him to slip out from under the sword. Mentally.
He stepped into the cottage and gave his eyes a moment to adjust. Triona sat at the table slicing mushrooms. She tossed a handful into a cast-iron pot, then looked at him and set the knife aside. He was thankful. If he made an idiot out of himself, she might be tempted to use it on him.
He had no idea how to begin. “’Tis time to take you home.”
She flinched, then took a deep breath. Ronan pulled his claymore from the harness at his back and tested its weight in his hand. With a sigh, he set it propped against the wall and walked over to her.
“I canna remain here any longer.” Good. He sounded almost calm. “I need to send for my men.”
“I have not agreed to your plans for our future.” She ran her hands over her hair. It was pulled into a tail at the nape of her neck and tied off with the bells.
Ronan considered his words. He came down on his haunches next her. “We are bound by more than a handfast.”
She closed her eyes, then opened them again and looked at him. “I know. But it changes nothing.”
“Aye, it does.” He was about to learn the hardest lesson of his life. How to mend his lady’s heart once he’d broken it.
She unbound her hair and shook it out so it hung over one shoulder, blocking his view.
Ronan raked a hand over his face. “I willna leave you again. You have my word as a warrior, as a man, and as a lover.”
“And how about Blackhawk? Do I have his word as well?”
“Blackhawk does not exist. ’Tis a name and nothing more.” His temples throbbed with each beat of his heart. “How many times must we do this?” He might be willing to lower himself to working for her father, but he could not give up his reputation.
Her chin lifted.
“Will you please look at me.”
She wiped her eyes and met his gaze. Her forehead was creased. She looked like she had a headache.
He softened his voice. “I canna stop being what I am.”
“How about being what you were? I am grateful for the sacrifices you have made for us. But you are changed and I canna do this.” Triona stood and brushed by him, then left the cottage.
Ronan glared after her. Only a weak man would give in to a woman’s every wish. He stepped out of the cottage, blinking into the sky.
“What happened?” William asked.
Always, there was William. Ronan couldn’t escape him. He flexed his fingers and glanced around for Triona. “Did she leave?”
“Aye, ran off.”
“Why did you not stop her? Then again, it is not as if she’s in any danger.” He pushed past William, then remembered his sword and went back for it. He sheathed it at his back. Love had its place. But love could never replace cold hard steel in his hand. What good would love be if he had to defend their lives? Only steel could save them.
Aye, the only time a man’s sword could truly be set aside was when he had absolutely no use for it. Like when he shared his body with her four years ago, all defenses stripped away. As soon as he’d taken the sword’s weight upon him again, he knew what he had to do. He had to leave. He did it for them.
It didn’t take long for him to find her. She bent to pick up a stone and tossed in into the creek. “Lass.”
He heard her sigh, then she turned to face him, her lashes tinged with tears. “I’m sorry,” she said.
He shook his head but she lifted a hand to stop him.
“I was wrong about you four years ago. I’ve been wrong these last few weeks. Maybe you’re not the man I hoped you were.”
She drove the knife home, but he expected it, was prepared for her venom.
“I want to be that man.”
He wanted to feel her in his arms, as if that alone could make them right. He knew only one way to express himself to her, but if her response in the cottage yesterday was any indication, then she wasn’t interested in being touched by him.
“We’re not going to make it, are we?”
“There’s always William.” His throat closed.
“Nay. He deserves to be with a woman who is free to love him.”
“Which you are not?”
Her lower lip trembled, and he had to remind himself not to touch her.
“And I will never be.”
He blinked against the emotion stinging behind his eyes. Blast it, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d cried. “We’ll make it.” But he doubted.
She must have read past his words because her face paled. He fought for some way to reassure her, and floundered like a drowning man.
He shook himself. She inched closer and he reached out and pulled her into him. Sun dappled over her face as he cupped the back of her head in one hand. Her soft strands of hair caught on his calloused fingers. He bent and kissed her, unsure whether or not she would let him. She slid her hands up his neck and held his face, responsive, but lacking her usual abandon.
He was ready to promise her anything, just to feel her surrender in his arms.
He pulled away. Triona blinked as if trying to figure out why he’d stopped kissing her.
“Blackhawk dies today,” he heard himself say, his voice raspy
Her lips moved but she said nothing.
He kissed her again. It took her a moment to respond, then her fingers curled in his hair. He lifted his head and braced one hand on either side of her shoulders. Her face was tipped back. She lowered her gaze to his mouth, then snapped it to his eyes.
“I need to go,” he said.
“Don’t you dare.”
Ronan took a deep breath. “I need to speak with your father, but I swear to God I will be there waiting for you when William brings you home.” He met her gaze and prayed she would believe him.
“Speak to him about what?”
He smoothed his hands over her mussed hair, then he stepped back and assessed her slowly from head to foot. “I have to ask him for permission to marry you.”
“Sit.” Laird Douglas gestured toward the stool before his desk. Then he took another look at Ronan and changed his mind. Ronan had put on a good deal of mass since he’d left, and had no hope of fitting on the stool anymore. “Maybe I should retire this. Triona is the only one who can still fit on it.” He pulled up a hard-backed chair. “Try this one.”
It creaked when Ronan sat on it. Douglas’s mind turned back through time. Twenty-five years ago, Douglas’s step-brother, Brian, paced back and forth under a crescent moon, afraid his new wife would not make it to their secret rendezvous. Would she change her mind? Did she get safely away? Douglas was there when Brian had begged her to let one of them come for her, but she said it was too dangerous. She’d escaped to see Brain before. She was sure she could do it again.
Ronan shifted. The chair protested. Ronan squirmed, then tugged his sword free and rested it tip down between his feet so it wouldn’t scrape against the back of the chair. Douglas sat behind his desk, then looked into familiar blue eyes and found it difficult to contain his emotions.
Ronan looked so much like Brian.
They watched each other while men shouted below them in the lists.
“I was angry about the deception,” Ronan said.
“I expected you would be.”
“Now I feel I should thank you.” Ronan’s jaw ticked. “But I had to stay away, because I knew if I saw her again-”
Douglas held up his hand. “Aye.”
“Then you know why I’m here.”
“And you should already know the answer to your question. But before I can consent, I must speak with my daughter alone.”
Ronan’s hands tightened over the pommel of his sword.
“No young man has yet perished whilst waiting on his father-in-law.” Douglas smiled. “Humor me in one other matter. Ride out with me this afternoon, so I can show you something.”
Ronan eyed him. “What?”
“You will know soon enough.” Douglas pretended to scan a sheet of parchment on his desk. “I have a few things to take care of, and then I will meet you below.” He picked up his quill.
“Aye, my laird.” Ronan stood, sheathing his sword.
Douglas released the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. It was too painful to revisit the past. And yet, he had no choice. Sooner or later he would have to tell Ronan the truth.
It was awkward. Ronan was no longer in charge of his own destiny and he didn’t like it. He swung the saddle over Goliath’s back. He assumed Laird Douglas had his and Triona’s best interests in mind. Ronan also hoped Laird Douglas understood that four years was long enough for any betrothal.
The man had conspired to throw the two of them together, so he must have known Ronan was still in love with her. And he must have known Ronan would return for his fortune and his wife.
He cinched up the girth, bridled Goliath, and walked the horse out of the stable. Laird Douglas strode across the courtyard, head up and shoulders straight, not showing his age, even though he had to ache from various strains and wounds over the years. A stable boy brought Laird Douglas’s horse to him and the man swung onto the dapple-gray.
“Ready, laddie?” he asked.
“Aye.” Ronan mounted as Laird Douglas set heels, cantering away.
As they rode, Ronan knew they neared the ruins of the original MacAlastair castle. They halted in a wide glen enclosed on every side by hills spotted with granite boulders. The tallest of the hills cast its shadow over the glen, looking for all the world like a giant fist punching out of the ground. Perched atop were the broken remains of an ancient castle.
Goliath shifted and pawed the ground. Ronan smiled over memories. Triona had tripped in the cairns beyond the castle and sprained her ankle. He’d carried her to his horse and rode double with her all the way home, Fanny tottering on her mare behind them. Triona fell asleep in his arms about half way, her face peaceful. She’d trusted him without question.
Laird Douglas urged his horse forward and Ronan followed. They scaled the rocky mound, hooves scraping on stone coated with moist lichen. Once on level ground, Ronan scanned the hilltop. The broken castle walls seemed less impressive than he remembered. Either the past several years had further disintegrated them, or his perspective had changed. Recesses that were once dragon lairs looked no larger than badger holes.
They left their horses, then continued on foot.
Ronan, William, and Triona had been kings and queens here. Knights and damsels. They were anything they wanted to be. “She had her whole life planned,” Ronan said. He climbed the stairs of the one remaining tower. Until I destroyed her dreams. They stood at the top and stared over the loch beyond. A cool breeze blew in gusts over them.
“She’s still young. You both are.” Laird Douglas sighed. “I didna bring you here to remind you of your childhood, but of the futility of man.”
Ronan studied Laird Douglas’s profile. The man’s skin was as weathered as the stones he stood on. Lines etched every angle of his face. Gray streaked heavily through his shoulder length hair.
“This castle took generations to build,” Laird Douglas said. He turned to look at Ronan. Eyes the very color of William’s flashed. He waved his hand. “And here it sits, almost forgotten.” He gestured for Ronan to return below. “I want to show you something in particular.”
They walked behind the shattered castle, then across the overgrown yard, and beyond. To the cairns. Swallows swarmed the manmade stone mountains, warning them with chirps. A rat poked his pointed nose out of the grass, then skittered into a dark recess between stones.
“This is where my ancestors rest,” Laird Douglas said. “One day I will join them. Not exactly here, but you understand my meaning.”
The edges of Laird Douglas’s plaid whipped in the breeze. “We all end here no matter how we enter the world. There are few things in life that really matter.” He propped one boot on a boulder. “I’m not talking about land, fortune, and title. I’m talking about the lives you’ve touched. The people you love and the love you leave behind for them. It doesna matter how you were born. It doesna matter what kind of fortune you leave behind.” He paused, gray eyes gentle with the sort of look Ronan had seen him give Triona.
Ronan’s chest clenched. Nay, he had to be seeing things. He looked again, but only saw the same loving expression.
“Your children and your children’s children will only spend your money frivolously anyway.” Laird Douglas smiled.
“I understand.” Ronan clasped his hands behind him.
“You need an accounting of my actions these four years.”
“Nay.” He waved his hand. “’Tis not why I brought you here.”
“Then why did you?”
“You remind me of someone I once knew.” He turned and walked away before Ronan could question him. “You can ride back with me, or you can remain behind if you like. I understand if you want some time to yourself.”
Ronan followed. “What is it you need to discuss with Triona?”
“Does it matter?”
“Aye, it does.” He had a right to know. Didn’t he?
“Why?” Laird Douglas turned to face him, his chin lifted because Ronan was taller.
Ronan hoped all the stories he’d heard about in-laws weren’t true. “Because whatever concerns her concerns me. That is why.”
“Not yet, it doesn’t.” He lifted his brows, amused, and ready for any challenge Ronan wanted to bring to the table.
If there was one man in the world Ronan wouldn’t challenge, it was Laird Douglas. He bowed his head. “Understood.”
“Believe it or not, your determination is reassuring.” Laird Douglas turned away.
“If I were in your shoes, I would have called it something else.”
Laird Douglas laughed.
Ronan spent the ride home regretting a lot of choices he’d made, and trying not to let guilt overwhelm him. If he could change his identity once, then he could change it again; back to the man he once was. Or rather, the man he should have been all along. Laird Douglas’s shoes would be impossible to fill, and Ronan knew he would wind up letting Triona down far too many times, no matter how hard he tried not to. But the worst let down, would be to force her into a life she didn’t want.
So he wouldn’t. He’d keep his promise, and bring an end to Blackhawk.
Triona sat. Then she stood. Then she sat again.
Fanny looked over her knitting needles. “He will come.”
“Of course he will. My father is with him.” She frowned. “How do I look?”
William turned his head from where he sat at his favorite spot by the fire in the great hall, his feet propped on a stool, and a mug of mulled wine in one hand. He lifted a brow at her, as if he was sure she’d just lost her mind.
“Do not say a word.” She clenched her teeth. “Where is he?”
William swirled his wine. “Mayhap my uncle dispatched with Ronan once and for all.”
Ignoring him, Triona rubbed her aching temples. “It is well past the evening meal. What could they possibly be about?”
The door opened and she stood. Her father’s stout outline filled the archway. She looked past him, but didn’t see Ronan. “Good evening, Father. Where’s Ronan?”
“I have not seen you in a fortnight, and this is all the welcome I receive?” He crossed the rectangular room toward her.
She shook her head and met him half way. “I am sorry.” She embraced him, peeking over his shoulder at the door.
“Already, I have lost her,” he said.
Trion rolled her eyes at the rafters and backed away. “Please tell me Ronan is right behind you.”
“He is right behind me.” Her father rocked back on his heels. “A fortnight. And then you can be married.”
Her pulse echoed inside her head. “So you think we do the right thing?”
“Are you having second thoughts?”
If he only knew everything involved in her decision. But he wasn’t going to know, because she would die from embarrassment if he did. Triona shrugged. “He has changed. Surely you noticed.”
“Aye, I noticed.” He kissed her forehead. “We can discuss this in my study tomorrow.”
She let out a breath and nodded.
“Fanny, can you manage a meal for me,” her father said. “I seem to have missed mine.”
“Of course, my laird.” He offered Fanny his arm and she laid her hand on it as they walked away. Fanny smiled up at him, her eyes dancing.
How could Triona have been so blind that she didn’t see the bond between them? She wondered if Fanny would find the courage to tell him she still loved him. Then the door opened again and Ronan crossed the hall.
And she had no wits left to think with. An idiot in yellow linen was she. Why did any room seem smaller when Ronan was in it?
He ran a hand through his inky-black hair.
“For goodness sake,” she said, and forced her limbs to move forward. She swallowed, hoping he would speak first, because she couldn’t.
He smiled. “You are here.”
“I am here. And so are you.”
“It seems anything is possible.”
She’d thought she would never see him standing in her father’s great hall again. She blinked blurry eyes. “I promise someday I will stop crying.” Wiping her eyes with the edge of her arisaid, she searched for more to say. “Where did you go?”
“To the ruins. Your father wanted to show me something.” His blue eyes reflected in the soft orange light. The shadow of a beard was stippled across his jaw. His hair curled at the ends. Ronan held out his hand and she placed her fingers in his. “Walk with me, unless you are too tired.”
Tired? Who could be tired? She was getting married, at least she thought she was, in a fortnight. How could she sleep? They walked the perimeter of the room.
“I will give my men a choice. Either they can stay with me.” He looked at her out of the corner of his eye. “And we will work for your father, or they can be free to go on their way.”
“But can you be happy here?”
His fingers tightened around hers. “Aye.”
She watched his profile, trying to decide if he was being completely honest or not. “Ronan?”
He turned to face her. “I had some time to think today, as we rode, and I dinna want a title, or land. The price is too high.” He leaned in and kissed her. “Thank you,” he whispered.
“For everything you’ve put up with.” He took both her hands and laced fingers with her. “The man you need is still here. Just be patient with him. Can you?”
Wasn’t she always, whether she wanted to or not? She studied the sincere look on his face. This time she wanted to be patient, because she believed him. “Aye, of course.”
Triona stuck her head into her father’s study. “Are you busy?”
He looked up from his correspondence. “Nay. Come on in.”
She pushed the heavy portal closed then sat before the desk. “He’s promised me he has put Blackhawk behind him. And I believe him.” Her heart gave a little squeeze. Aye, the pain Ronan had caused her left behind a scar, but if he was willing to set aside their past and move on, then she was willing to let him.
Her father’s face was tight. “Is something wrong?”
He nodded. “I had an ulterior motive when I said we should discuss your marriage to Ronan.”
Triona shifted in her seat. “What?”
“I have kept something from the two of you.” He flexed the fingers on his right hand. “At the time I felt it was best for all of us, especially Ronan.”
Watching her father’s troubled eyes made her headache return. She winced and rubbed her forehead. What more could there be? Was there some dark force out to keep her and Ronan apart? “Go on. I am listening.”
He unlocked a drawer in his desk and pulled out a leather-bound document, then pushed the bundle toward her. “’Tis better if you read.”
She untied the thongs and unfolded deerskin flaps, then spread the parchment before her. “This is my dowry.” She looked over her modest entitlement. She was to receive some currency, enough to buy her own clothing materials with for many years, as long as she was economical. There were a couple of items that had belonged to her mother, consisting of a full-length mirror and a harp from the Holy Land. A final item graced the bottom of the page. It was conditioned. She was to receive it only upon her marriage to Ronan MacBlayne, born May 12, 1579.
Her gaze snapped to her father’s.
“Please read on, before I attempt to explain.”
She shook her head, but the square set of her father’s jaw drove her attention back to the document for answers. Triona turned the page and found a larger sheet beneath, folded into quarters. She opened it and saw a land survey. “But this is the land the ruins sit on.”
“It will take a long time, and his entire fortune.”
“Building your hall.”
The air receded form her lungs. She flipped back to the first page to reread Ronan’s birth date. Triona checked the date at the top of the page. The document was drawn up soon after her own birth. “Father?” Her fingers worked the parchment. “We did not even know Ronan.”
“You did not. I did.”
She pushed the papers onto his desk and stood. “I need air.” Triona moved to the open window and let the breeze wash over her.
She heard his chair scrape against the floor, then he came up beside her and they both stared at the moor beyond the village.
“I knew of him before his birth.”
Shivering, she wrapped her arms around herself. “How?”
“He is Brian’s son.”
She turned to face him. “Your step-brother?”
“Brian MacBlayne.” His jaw shifted.
“But he . . .”
“Died before Ronan was born.” He hooked his thumb into the swath of plaid across his torso. “I hid Ronan’s mother at her request, but the strain was too much for her. She lived long enough to place Ronan in my arms and beg me to protect him.”
Triona moved away from the window. “You never told him? Why?” She turned on her heel. “It would have changed so many things.”
“It would have.” Douglas pulled his chair out from behind his desk so it faced hers. “Sit. There is more.”
She wasn’t sure how much more she could take. Triona sat and waited for her father, fingers working her temples.
“Years ago, I told you how Brian was shot in the back by George McAllan.” He waited for her to nod before he continued. “I dinna condone George’s actions, but his motives are another issue entirely.” He ran his hands through salt-and-pepper hair. “Brian married Heather McAllan, George’s sister, in secret.”
She knew that much. The two clans had been at odds for generations and the young couple feared their marriage would make things worse.
“Brian planned to take her away. I didna agree with their leaving, but I understood. And I helped. When Heather came to meet Brian the night they were to leave the Highlands, none of us realized her brother had followed her.” His shoulders tightened. “Brian never knew about the babe. Heather didn’t even know she was carrying. But more importantly, George never knew, and I promised Heather it would remain that way.”
“Brian was more than a step-brother to me,” her father said. “He was my closest friend. After Ronan was born, I hid him in the countryside with a woman whose children were already grown, allowing him to live as a peasant to keep him safe. I never told her who Ronan was, only that I would send for him in time. As soon as I heard of her death I rode out to retrieve Ronan. I never told either of you, because I sought to protect you from the truth.”
“I understand. I think.”
She watched his knobby hands. One day Ronan’s hands would look like that. Toughened by layered scars and crooked from broken fingers.
“But can you forgive me for waiting so long to tell you? It was so hard to revisit the memories, and the longer I waited, the harder it became.”
She wanted to be angry, but considering all the mistakes she and Ronan had made, she couldn’t bring herself to despise her father. “Of course you are forgiven, but am I the one you really need to ask?”
The skin at the corners of his eyes drew taut. “Sometimes knowing your heritage is worse than not knowing your heritage.”
“Ronan needs to be told.” She wrapped her smaller hands around his. “You may have lost Brian, but you do have his son.”
“Not a day has passed that I have not thanked God for it.”
How would she keep this knowledge from Ronan when all he’d ever wanted was to feel like he belonged? “Please tell him soon,” she said. “I dinna know how long I can keep it from him.”
The rich smell of rain-soaked earth permeated the air and metal crashed against metal. Men shouted, laughed, and taunted each other in the training field.
Triona tucked her embroidery into her satchel and set it aside. For over an hour she’d sat on a wooden bench getting nothing accomplished. She would rather stare across the field and wait for Ronan to look up. Every time he saw her, he smiled.
Her stomach clenched as she considered the task ahead. The men would soon break for a meal on the field. Her father planned to take Ronan and William aside and speak with both of them about Ronan’s parents. He had considered doing it after supper, but she told him such an announcement was best made earlier in the day, so Ronan and William would have time to process it before bed. Knowing them, it would mean another turn in the lists, until they’d completely exhausted themselves.
William whistled and motioned the men off the field. Graham was with them. He and William were two old friends reunited. Triona wondered what she had missed while Ronan and William were away. Not that she had any desire to pose as a mercenary herself, but it was a part of their lives she never shared with them. The servants arrived with oatcakes and boiled eggs, flagons of ale, and fish. She might manage a few bites, if her turbulent stomach would let her.
Her father nodded as he came off the field. She stood, ready to meet him, but Ronan was on a direct path toward her and his swagger gave her pause. His easy grin was so good to see, but the secrets she harbored about him turned to lead in her limbs. Once revealed, they could evoke any number of responses. He could be angry, disappointed, or relieved. He could feel all of those things. She did.
Triona forced herself into motion, smiling at Ronan.
His gaze turned quizzical. “What is it?” he asked as they crossed paths. She turned and walked back with him.
He offered his arm and she took it. His skin was damp. “You need to speak with my father,” she said.
“I already did.” He met her gaze and her face warmed. He wore a plaid, and his hair was wet from rain and sweat. He smelled of steel and wool. Triona sat with him while he ate, demolishing her oatcakes into a crumbled pile.
He bumped her shoulder with his. “Not hungry?”
He eyed her.
She pushed her tray aside and looked for her father. He caught her gaze and motioned to her. “Excuse me,” she said, standing. “I will be right back.”
Ronan’s brows furrowed, but his mouth remained shut. Triona walked out to meet her father.
“Now?” she asked him.
He handed over the document. “Take him to the gardens and show it to him. William and I will meet you there.”
She flatted her lips. Strange, how men could be so fierce in battle, yet spineless when it came to emotional matters. “We will be waiting for you.” Triona cut back through the men, her leather bundle tucked under one arm. Ronan stood as she neared.
“What is it?” His dark brows converged into one.
“You’ll see. Come with me.”
“Alone?” He took her hand, walking behind her. She glanced over her shoulder and found him grinning like a dog with a bone.
Shaking her head, she tugged him onto the cobblestone path leading into the garden. She found a secluded place between the rosemary and the fennel, then gestured to a stone bench. “Sit.”
He watched her from under his brows as he sank his huge form onto the bench. The hint of something more suggestive clung to him. She sat and forced her heart to slow down. It didn’t work. He ran a hand over her hair. She had to shake herself back on track and pass him the papers before he distracted her too much. The last thing she wanted was for her father and William to walk in on them—she cleared her throat—indulging. Which for them, could start a fire there in the middle of the garden.
“This is for you,” she said. By the saints, but her voice had taken on a breathless note.
He heard it, and smiled as he took the bundle. “I suppose I can wait.” He untied the thongs. “What is this?”
He stopped, scarred fingers halting over leather. Ronan passed it back to her and she took it out of reflex.
“I dinna care,” he said. “’Tis yours.”
His words were precious to her, but he didn’t make things any easier. “Not all of it. ’Tis yours too. Please open it.” She pushed it at him.
He shook his head, but took it from her anyway. “If it’s so important to you.” He was humoring her. It was just as well with Triona, as long as he opened it. She glanced down the path and saw no sign of her father or William.
Ronan spread the papers over his leg. An earthy gust forced him to hold the parchment down so it wouldn’t blow away. Triona watched him note the date, then skim the first page. When he came to the bottom his hand hovered before he tucked the first sheet beneath the second. She imagined his sapphire eyes were very dark.
“’Tis completely binding,” she said. “My father made sure of it.”
He flipped between pages, shaking his head. “Is this me?” He looked up. His eyes weren’t dark at all, but sparked with curiosity.
She smiled at the innocent tone in his voice. “Aye, ’tis you.”
Triona took a deep breath and willed her father to join them before she spilled the entire story to Ronan herself.
“Your father did not find me until years later,” he said.
“He knew you before the rest of us did. He held you in his arms the day you were born.”
Ronan stared at the papers.
“The woman you lived with took you in on his request.” She glanced down the path, then back to Ronan.
His coal-black waves blocked his profile. “He paid her?” Fingers gripped the parchment.
She hadn’t considered how this might affect the memories he had of the woman who had cared for him when he was but a wee bairn. “Nay, it wasna like that. My father swore to your mother that he would keep your identity secret. You were wanted. You were loved.”
Ronan stood, shoving the papers at her. Triona secured the ties so the wind wouldn’t disturb them, then left it on the bench.
“He knew my mother?” Ronan ran a hand through his hair.
She stood behind him, her arms wrapped around herself, unsure whether or not she should touch him. “And your father.”
He turned, his eyes searching hers.
Triona took a step closer. “I only just found out myself.” She kept her tone soft. “He has a lot of explaining to do, but he wants to be forgiven by you for any deception.”
“He wants to be forgiven by me?”
Triona loosened her arms and let them rest at her sides. “We have our own land. And my father planned to bring you to us all along.”
“Do you know who my father is?”
“He told me yesterday. But I canna be the one to reveal it. He has to.”
“Aye.” She heard her father’s voice behind her. She turned and saw William with him. William’s mouth opened, as if a question formed on his lips. She signaled for him to be patient.
The most important men in her life faced each other. One searching for answers, the other unsure how to disclose them. And then there was William. It was difficult to determine where he fit into the picture, but he did. He always would.
“You knew my father?” Ronan asked.
Triona’s gaze flicked to William’s face. His gray eyes widened. “What?” he mouthed.
“I had planned to reveal the truth to you upon your marriage to my daughter.” Her father gestured to the documents on the bench. “I never told the two of you of my plans, at first because of the expectations it would have created.” He smiled. “By the time she was fifteen I knew there would be no argument from either of you. I never told you about the land because I knew how important it was for you to find your own path. I hoped you would find your purpose out there, and that it would drive you into a deeper understanding of the importance of family. I had not anticipated your being gone for so long.” His gaze fell on Triona, and she nodded her approval to him.
“Who is my father?” Ronan asked. “Why do you hide his identity from me?”
“’Tis not what you think. He was a good man. It was your uncle. He murdered your father, shot him in the back. I was there and I saw it all.”
“But who was he?”
Her father shifted. “Brian MacBlayne. Your mother was Heather McAllan, the sister of our clan enemy.” Her father scrubbed his face with a hand. “I should have told you sooner, but I did not want for you to live under the burden of it.”
“He lived with it nonetheless,” William said. “Not knowing who his parents were, always expecting the worst.”
Triona shook her head and William shut his mouth.
“MacBlayne.” Ronan watched the ground as he tested out the name.
“When my father remarried, his new wife already had a boy my age,” her father said. “Her first husband was Henry MacBlayne. He was killed in battle not long after my mother passed away, leaving them both with young children. It was a marriage of convenience, but they were good parents to me, my younger brother, and to Brian. Brian became my closest companion.”
“MacBlayne,” Ronan repeated.
Triona slipped her fingers into Ronan’s. They closed around hers as if in automatic response.
“Dinna forget your mother,” Triona said. She looked at her father.
“Brian and Heather were married in secret.”
Ronan glanced at Triona. “My parents were married?”
She nodded, watching the myriad of emotions cross his face. Surprise, shock, relief.
“And what of my uncle?” he asked.
Her father winced, and Triona’s heart ached for him. “He murdered Brian in cold blood. Shot him in the back the night he attempted to leave the Highlands with Heather. Your mother was such a sweet lass. The stress was too much for her. In the end, she didna make it.”
“What do you mean, did not make it?” Ronan’s voice hardened.
“She died shortly after your birth.”
Ronan’s hand tightened around hers.
“It wasna your fault,” she whispered.
“If anything, it was your uncle’s doing,” her father said. “Heather made me promise to hide you from her brother.” He looked away. “I would never have allowed you to be taken away from me anyway.” His shoulders shook.
Ronan stood frowning while her father took deep breaths. Ronan pulled away, his back to them. He ran his hands through his hair and sighed. Hot salt touched Triona’s lips and she was caught between wanting to comfort him, and needing to give him space. When Ronan turned around, his face was void of emotion.
Her father nodded with a short jerk of his chin. Then he sighed and stepped forward to embrace Ronan. “Son.”
Ronan stiffened first, then his muscles released. “Father.”
William clasped his hands behind his back, his eyes stormy. Triona tugged on his sleeve and smiled. He released his breath, not quite smiling, but she could tell he was trying.
“What think you?”
Her forehead creased. “Of what?”
Murdock tossed his head.
“I agree with your horse,” Ronan said. “You are too easily distracted today.”
“’Tis the day before my wedding. I should be home, seeing to the preparations, not examining a pile of rocks.”
“No respect for your history?” He followed it with a smile. She did. She was just preoccupied.
“Of course I do, but this is not a good time.”
He allowed his gaze to wash over her until she shifted in the saddle. Her yellow gown outlined her shape. He liked it when she didn’t wear a farthingale. He didn’t understand why a woman would wish to manipulate the natural beauty God gifted her with.
“I leave too much to be done by Fanny,” she said. “I should be-”
She kept her lips sealed.
“We will be back late.” She leaned over her horse’s neck to face Ronan. “I willna get enough sleep.”
He sighed. “And when I see you in the morn, I shall refuse you due to the circles under your eyes.”
Her gaze narrowed.
“Humor me. Besides, it’s never too early to start.”
“Planning,” Ronan said.
“Planning is dangerous. Look where it got us before?”
“Not this kind. We need to design our new home.”
“Could we not have done this after our sojourn.” She looked at him from under her lashes. “We will go away by ourselves, aye?”
His pulse picked up. The thought of being anywhere alone with her did that to him. “We could come here,” he said with as straight a face as possible. “So we can further examine stones.” He watched her out of the corner of his eye. “I am good at thatching. I can come up with some sort of shelter for us.”
“Ronan!” Her green eyes sparked.
“Is he showing his true colors again?” William asked.
She leaned past Ronan to see her cousin on his dark gray stallion. “No more than usual.”
“At least with Ronan, you pretty much get what you see.”
Ronan let William have his fun. He would take it out on his sword arm later. “Bored perchance?”
William shrugged, and then nodded. “Wretchedly. Are we there yet?”
Triona laughed. “Just like when we were children.”
“I never used to say anything of the sort.” William straightened in the saddle as if offended, but the corners of his mouth twitched. Ronan was glad to see him smile, although Triona told him she sensed William’s loneliness, lingering just under the surface.
“Aye, we are almost there,” Ronan said. “But you already knew it.”
Triona dug heel and thundered over the hill. Ronan followed, keeping Goliath in check so he didn’t best her gelding. By too much. William did the same. They passed her father who trotted along at a dignified pace.
Ronan watched Triona scrape loose bits of blonde hair from her face.
She caught him staring and her nose scrunched. “What is it?”
“I’m enjoying the view.”
“The view is there.” She pointed to the ruins.
“Nay, my lady, ’tis not.”
She glanced away. Then she looked at him again. “Agreed, my laird.” She smiled like an imp and kicked her gelding. The rocky fields in the glen that was soon to be his were dotted with sheep, shepherds, and their shaggy dogs. The wind blew heath into a rippled ocean.
“You’re not going to cry, are you?” William called.
Ronan ignored him.
Sheep brayed and ran out of the way as they passed. The shepherds bowed their heads to them. Triona and William nodded. Ronan squirmed. He was accustomed to respect, awe, fear even. As Blackhawk. Anything more would take some getting used to.
Ronan wanted to ignore the trepidation in his gut. He was a new man in so many ways, so why did the same old thoughts continue to seep into his consciousness? He wondered if he was prepared for this gift Laird Douglas had so freely given him.
“Is it too late for an old man to steal a few moments with a beautiful young woman?”
Triona smiled at the sound of her father’s voice. “Of course not.” She turned to face him. “I have neglected you.”
“I expected it. ’Tis as it should be.” He looked away, his gaze settling over the loch. “If you climbed the tower to be alone . . .”
“Nay.” Why did she leave the others? “You three were intent on walls and foundations. I believed I would not be missed.” She smiled.
He returned her expression. “’Tis not every day a man builds himself a hall.”
“Aye, you are all alight of it, and will be for years to come.”
He laughed. “Perhaps. But you know he does not marry you for the land.”
“Aye, but I am glad it will be his. I feel like I’m in a dream. That you would even think to do this amazes me.”
His face fell. “It was wrong of me not to tell your mother, but I wanted to keep my promise to Heather.”
“Dinna keep things from each other, you and Ronan. ’Tis more painful to hide secrets, than to reveal them.”
“I will remember.” She leaned into him, her cheek against his shoulder, absorbing the warmth and the safety of her father’s strength. She despised the day when those arms were no longer strong. She couldn’t imagine him any other way. It was just too hard.
“Should we leave?” Ronan stage-whispered from behind them.
Triona looked up at his smile. She hadn’t realized he and William had joined them. She pushed away from her father, glancing back as she moved. Her father nodded. William sighed.
“We should walk the grounds, nephew,” he said.
Triona could only guess at the mixed emotions brewing beneath William’s steadfast eyes. She smiled in attempt to comfort him. “We will rejoin you shortly. I promise.” William was right when he told her three wasn’t a good number. He and her father disappeared beneath the archway.
“He’ll be all right,” Ronan said.
She fingered the edges of his leather baldric. “I hope so. This. Us. Changes things for him.”
Ronan took a long breath, his eyes soft. “I know.”
“It doesn’t bother you that I worry about William?”
“Should it?” He spoke again before she could answer. “I worry about him too.”
She rested her forehead against Ronan’s chest and soaked him in. His smell, the sound of his voice, the feel of his muscled body near hers was like coming home. She prayed that William would find someone to share his life with.
Ronan urged her closer, until she was pressed against him, until heat pulsed through her veins. Low laughter rumbled in his chest.
“What?” She looked up at him.
“This.” He cupped the back of her head in his hand and kissed her.
Triona held him against her, fingers twined in his dark hair. He laughed again and reached back to free his hair from her grip. “You are too tempting.” He urged her away. “You shouldn’t do that. Although I did ask for it.”
“Do what exactly?” She set her fists on her hips.
“Kiss me like you couldn’t get enough.” He brushed his rough fingers over her mouth. “One more day.” Then he gave her a slow grin. “I think we should dedicate this tower.”
“How about a silent dedication.” She cleared her throat.
“Och, nay, let’s shout it from the rooftops.” He lifted her off her feet and swung her around. She laughed. How many times had she dreamt about it? Him satisfied in his own skin, and her in his arms?
“You are impossible,” she said.
Thank you, thank you.
He set her down, then backed her against stone, trapping her between his arms. “I know.”
She recognized the look in his eyes. “I thought I was too much temptation?”
“I am a man accustomed to danger.” He kissed her all over again.
Fanny tucked a flower into Triona’s loose hair. Technically, she had no right to wear her hair down on her wedding day, since it signified a level of purity she’d left behind, but she and Ronan were starting over, so she decided to wear it down.
Fanny pulled out a handkerchief and blew her nose.
“Dinna cry,” Triona said.
“I’m sorry. ’Tis just I thought, well we thought . . .”
“This day would never come?” Triona scrunched her nose and rearranged a sprig of heather. “You can say it. We certainly thought it enough times.” She blinked at Fanny and willed herself not to weep. “You need to stop crying for me.” She drew in a breath and gave Fanny a quick hug. “I hear music in the courtyard. We need to finish and go below, aye?”
Fanny straightened her shoulders, then tucked a fresh handkerchief into her sleeve. “One more flower, sweetling.”
Triona turned to face the full-length mirror that had once belonged to her mother, while Fanny tucked one more flower into place. Her hair hung down both sides of her face. White and purple heather was tucked into an heirloom silver circlet crowning her head. It was the same circlet her mother had worn on her wedding day. And her grandmother before her.
“I wish my mother were here,” Triona said to her reflection. She reached toward the mirror with one hand as if she could touch her on the other side of the glass.
“As do I.” Fanny cleared her throat, then turned to fuss with Triona’s heavy green gown.
Triona let her hand fall empty to her side. Her fingers ran over her wool skirt. It had taken the entire fortnight for her, Fanny, and a number of other women to embroider the bodice and sleeves with flower patterns. Primroses, bluebells, heather, and thistles, their stems weaving into Celtic knots. Her skirt boasted a tapestry trim with back-to-back trinity knots. An ivory kirtle showed through the space between her paneled skirts, creating a triangle with the point at the middle of her waist.
Drums beat louder in the courtyard and pipers droned.
“They will come for us if we dinna go soon.” Triona glanced at herself once more in the mirror. She was tempted to pinch her cheeks, hesitated, then did it anyway. “I wish I was younger. Why do men age better than women?”
Fanny laughed. “Ye are but a babe. And ’tis only perceived thusly. Men think little about how they look.”
The music grew more insistent. Fanny tossed aside her apron and smoothed down her light blue gown.
“You are perfect,” Triona told her.
Her eyes crinkled as she smiled. “Ye should have asked a younger woman to do this.”
“Now who is complaining about her age. Nay. You were with my mother on her wedding day. I want you with me now.”
Fanny nodded, sniffing, then patted herself for a handkerchief.
Triona took deep breaths and promised herself not to cry. “We better leave.” She cleared her throat.
She wanted to glance over her shoulder as they walked down the corridor, but didn’t. It was a sign that she did not look forward to her future. A silly tradition, but not one she was willing to overlook.
Villagers had gathered in the courtyard, tankards in hand. Lairds and ladies from allied clans came to pay tribute, each dressed in their finest. Her father met her at the top of the steps wearing his best plaid and a new linen shirt. His hair was neatly combed and tied back.
Triona took his arm as they made their way down the stairs and into the courtyard.
“You look like your mother,” he said.
She blinked. “I do? Thank you. I needed to hear that.” She brushed her hair behind her shoulder. “I need to know she’s still with us in some way.”
Young girls tossed daisy petals before her and giggled. She lifted her eyes and watched the crowd part around them as they walked through. Priests were hard to come by, so her father would give her to Ronan. As they neared the middle of the courtyard, Connor, Graham, and William stood at attention, blocking her view of her groom.
She lifted her chin. “What are the three of you about?”
“We’ve a gift for ye,” Graham said, his smile wide and crooked.
Triona laughed at him. “Why could you not have given it to me later?”
Graham shrugged and pulled a rolled pelt from behind his back, then shook it out. It was thick and large and brown. She reached out and carefully ran her fingers over the glowing fur. She looked up at Graham.
“Bear,” he said. “Hunted them in Sweden, for the extra coin.”
“’Tis fer yer marriage bed!” a man shouted. Others laughed and backs were slapped, as well as ale slopped. Triona cleared her throat and glared at the crowd, although she wasn’t sure who had said it.
Graham rolled the pelt back up. He looked at her from under his brow. “I didna intend for it to embarrass you, my lady.”
“’Tis not your fault.”
He nodded and backed away, as did Connor and William. She glanced at her cousin’s face, but he wouldn’t look at her. He would be all right, given enough time. She wondered how many times she would have to tell herself that before she believed it. Then Ronan appeared and she could think of naught at all.
He looked just like she imagined, in his fresh plaid and shiny silver clan pin. He wore his charcoal shirt, the one that made him look roguish. Her father nodded to Ronan, then turned and kissed her forehead. The look of pride and love in her father’s face made the tears she fought so hard to keep at bay sting her eyes.
He placed her hand into Ronan’s.
She looked into sapphire blue eyes, and sobbed. What happened to the woman who never cried in public? It seemed she was long gone. Fanny came up beside her and tucked a handkerchief into her free hand.
Ronan smiled. “Easy lassie.”
“I canna be easy.” She sniffed. “I am a fool.”
He ducked his face. “Nay, you are beautiful.”
The music stopped and her father read her dowry for the guests to witness the transaction. There were surprised murmurs as Ronan’s surname was revealed, as well as the finer details of her dowry. Ronan’s hand stiffened against hers as if he were ready for them to refute her father’s claims. But they didn’t. They quieted completely when her father announced it was time for Ronan to present her with his token.
Token? She looked up at him and he grinned. What token? He slipped a sapphire ring onto her finger. Her gaze snapped to his, then back to the ring.
“Think I would offer you no gift?”
“I had not thought about it.” She gazed at the large sapphire surrounded by pearls. She’d never seen anything like it, had never owned such an expensive bobble in her life. “Ronan, ’tis too much. When did you purchase it?”
“I had it all along.”
“What do you mean by all along?”
He sighed. “For some time now.” Ronan lowered his head. “You are holding up progress, love. Now, tell me you like it.”
“I do. ’Tis beautiful.” She watched the sapphire sparkle in a ray of sunlight. It reminded her of Ronan’s eyes. She bit down on her lip.
“Are you all right?”
She closed her eyes. “I am trying not to cry. Please do not speak to me right now.”
He laughed. “If you need to cry, then cry. But look at me.”
She lifted her face to his.
“Thank you for waiting for me.”
“What else could I do?”
“You had other options.”
She closed her fingers around his. “Nay, there was only one.” She was aware of William nearby. There was someone better for William than she would’ve been. She had to believe it, or life wouldn’t feel fair.
They were asked to face their witnesses, and her father announced them man and wife. Guests cheered and Connor called out for Ronan to kiss her. He leaned in and pressed his lips over hers. She stiffened, and he pulled back.
“What?” he asked.
She had to give her reluctance some thought. Connor yelled for them to exchange a more meaningful kiss and she felt her face warm.
He squeezed her hand. “You can go break his nose if you want.”
Was she embarrassed to kiss Ronan because of all the witnesses? It seemed ludicrous. Yet so much of their relationship had been hidden from public view. It might take her some time to adjust.
“There’s just too many people,” she said.
He eyed her, then nodded and settled for the meager kiss he’d already gotten.
Ronan pushed back his chair and crooked a finger. “Come.”
Triona’s green eyes flicked around them. The courtyard was filled with people. She shifted away and her face colored.
“No one will say a word.” He shrugged. “Well, they might, but it willna matter.”
Triona shook her head.
“No one is watching.” He held out his hand. Wincing, she put her fingers into his. He pulled her closer, then onto his lap. “You smell like heather.” Ronan wrapped his arms around her waist, trapping her there.
“Do we have to do this?” She wiggled. “In front of everyone?”
“You feel good.” He grinned into her hair. “Might as well get used to it now. I will hold you in our own hall, and I dinna care who sees.”
Her lips tightened. “I should have known.”
Fanny rushed up to the table. “My laird, my lady, ’tis time ye present yourself to the guests.”
“You need to sit and rest,” Ronan said.
“But there is so much to be done.” Fanny waved her hand before her face
“I believe my lady has informed me that her maid’s fealty comes with my lady’s hand?” He glanced at Triona.
“It does.” Triona smiled.
Fanny sighed. “Aye, my laird. I shall sit. For a wee bit.”
He reached over Triona and pulled out a chair. Fanny plopped down on it.
“Graham, would you pour her a drink?” Triona asked.
Graham lifted a flagon. “I will remain with her.” He winked at the older woman. “Make certain she complies.”
Fanny blushed. “Really though, I should not.”
Ronan eyed her.
“I will have a rest.”
Graham handed her a cup.
Triona took advantage of Ronan’s divided attention and slipped off his lap. He frowned at her as she took a long step back. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked.
“We need to see to our guests. ’Tis impolite not to.”
“Go without me?” He folded his arms over his chest.
Her hands formed into fists and her brow furrowed. Ronan knew danger when he saw it.
“Duty calls,” he said, standing. “I dinna look forward to being paraded before every laird and lady this side of the Highlands.”
“Not all, only our allies.” She tucked her chin. “Your allies, my laird.”
“Better you than me.” Graham lifted his mug. Then he turned to Fanny. “Ye need a splash more ale in your cup.”
She laughed. “Och, nay.”
Triona turned to face Ronan. She touched his arm. “You will grow accustomed to it.”
He drew closer. “I do not feel like a laird.”
“And you will not, until you are willing to believe it.” She held out her hand. He wrapped his fingers around hers. “It comes with me. It has been your destiny all along.”
Sunlight split the clouds and made her hair shine in golden ripples. “You could almost say the true risk is in accepting me, and the real prize the land.”
“You know it is not true.”
“And I am glad.” She looked at him from under her lashes. “And now . . . it is etiquette.”
He gritted his teeth and moved toward certain doom. “We’ll have no such etiquette at our own hall.”
“You probably already know them all.”
“It does not aid me any. I worked for most of them, as another man.”
“Maybe they will not recognize you in a plaid?”
He shook his head.
“Never mind.” Her brow furrowed. “Perhaps I should have cut your hair?” Triona stopped, halting him with her. “I suppose it will always be a part of you. Your past. It is not as if we can erase it entirely.”
Ronan smiled with confidence. Deep inside he struggled to feel worthy of all he’d been blessed with. “Perhaps you can get an annulment.” He meant it in jest—mostly.
She flattened her lips. He caught her sleeve and urged her closer.
“People are watching.”
“And you dinna like it?”
“I need time.” She pressed one hand against his chest. “Most of our relationship has been in secret.”
“Aye, I know. Fool that I am.”
Triona’s fingers closed around the fabric of his shirt. “Stop that kind of talk right now.”
He kissed her forehead and let her go.
Ronan hitched his shoulder, his skill with the sword had always given him purpose, but he was sure his battle-skill would not aid him before the nobles. Wasn’t this what he’d wanted though? Land and leadership. Triona his. So why did he feel so ill-prepared?
“I am a man of war,” he decided out loud. “Not some fop fresh from court.”
“Neither are they. You will be fine.” She frowned. “I do hope we will not have any bloodshed.”
“You have my word.”
“Because I did not sharpen my dagger.” She glanced at him and the corners of her mouth twitched.
He laughed and kissed her face. “Have I told you I loved you today?”
“Why nay, my laird, you have not.”
“I love you.” He ducked his head. “And worry not, my lady. I sharpened your dagger for you.”
“Thank you.” She sniffed.
“And stop crying.”
She nodded and straightened her shoulders. “Aye, sir.”
Despite his every effort to delay, the high table loomed all too soon before them. Earlier, he’d remained long enough to take his meal. Then when Triona left to present herself to her people, he moved to sit with Graham. No one had the chance to speak more than a simple word of congratulations to him.
Now he stood before the table, staring at the raised dais. There was something about looking up at the nobles that irked him. Triona smiled brightly and curtsied.
“Your gown is lovely,” spoke a familiar voice. Lady MacDuffee. The frail, gray-haired woman’s hand shook as she grasped the back of her chair and pushed to her feet. Triona moved up the dais to help her, but another woman in a russet gown came forward first. Cinnamon tendrils framed her face.
Ronan wanted to greet her, to introduce Triona to her, but he stood there instead. Ronan watched Triona on one side of Lady MacDuffee and Maggie on the other. He considered the rumors he never bothered to squelch, and who might believe Maggie was his mistress.
He longed to be in the forest, to disappear into the shadows on Goliath.
Every lady at the table chirped at Triona. They touched her hair, her dress. They bade her to stretch out her hand so they could see her ring. The men turned to him. Roger MacBlayne, his father’s kinsman, watched, eyes narrowed, skin on his forehead creased.
Ronan lifted his chin and took the steps up the dais. Drew MacDuffee stood, then bowed his head in a formal greeting they’d never shared during their many business transactions. Ronan didn’t return the gesture. He would not give in to fripperies. Drew met his gaze, hazel eyes bright, his lips quirked. Then he reached for Ronan’s hand and clasped it in their usual way.
“Why did you not tell me about your betrothal?” he asked.
The truth is easier than a lie, Ronan reminded himself. “I chose to make my own path.” It was a simple explanation, and it was the truth.
“Understood.” Drew glanced at his mother. She was sitting again, with Triona next to her. Maggie stood behind them. “I dinna blame you for leaving all the fuss to take to the road as you did.” He sighed and ran a hand through his dark hair. “If I did not have so many other responsibilities, I would be tempted myself.”
Ronan almost forgot he and Drew were the same age. Ronan spent no time with him when they were adolescents. He had stayed as far away from the nobility as he could.
“The life of a hired sword is not as exotic as it may seem,” Ronan said.
“No doubt, but it would be nice to try it. But you dinna wish to hear about this.” He bowed, then laughed at the look Ronan gave him. “I wanted to offer you my congratulations, even if they are not sincere.”
Not sincere? Ronan prepared himself for the worst.
“I will no longer have to listen to my mother remind me over and over that I should court Triona.” Drew’s neck reddened under the collar of his linen shirt. “Not to say she is not lovely. I mean I never bothered to notice.” He frowned.
“You can climb out of your hole now. I understand.”
Drew glanced around the table. “You should probably see to your other guests.” His brows lifted. “Or you could accompany me to the stables to see my newest mare. I had her imported.”
How could Ronan resist the chance to escape? He hazarded a glance toward his kinsman, Roger MacBlayne. The man watched him with guarded eyes.
“Is she fast?” Ronan said to Drew. As they stepped off the dais, he glanced back for Triona. She waved him on. Apparently, he’d served his time, and she was happy enough with it.
“Aye, and remarkably agile,” Drew said. “I acquired three mares. Perhaps you and your lady might grace us with a visit, and then you could see them all.”
A lad in his late teens jogged up to them, his brown curls flopping around his head. “Dinna leave me now,” he said. “Not with a table full of matrons eager at the sight of another wedding.”
“You are welcome to join us,” Ronan said. He recognized the boy as Logan MacKinnon.
Logan grinned, a dimple showing in his right cheek. “I wanted to thank you anyway.” He ducked his head.
He’d done naught for the boy worthy of thanks. “For what?”
“For the service you provided my family with.” He blinked golden brown eyes.
Ronan blew out a breath from between his teeth. “I charged your father far too much for it, lad.”
“You saved my brother’s life. You canna put a price on that.” He looked at his feet. “I was particularly grateful, not only because he is my brother, but because I was not exactly prepared to take his place, should we have lost him.”
“Spare heir,” Drew said with a wave if his hand. “I wish I was one.”
Ronan glanced from Logan to Drew and back again. “Is it not more auspicious to be the heir?”
“Only if you want your entire life mapped out for you,” Logan said.
William had accepted his position as heir without question, despite the fact he was not born to it. It hadn’t occurred to Ronan that any man might wish for aught else. Ronan was surprised Laird Douglas let William leave four years ago. Then again, William now had his taste of the world, and a scar to prove it. He could settle into his life.
Or perhaps he was suited to his role to begin with, and only left because Ronan had. Ronan cringed under his skin. He never gave his friend the credit he deserved.
He remembered Triona and Maggie back at the feast and his head ached. Ronan was sure Maggie would have enough sense not to reveal herself to Triona in front of the other women, but what if one of the others took it upon themselves to warn her? He knew he should go back and check on her, but he took the coward’s way and remained with Drew and Logan instead.
Ronan looked up as Triona walked toward him, William next to her, her hand on his arm. Ronan moved away from the other men, ashamed of himself. William shouldn’t have to escort Triona around at her own wedding celebration.
“So this is where you’ve been hiding,” she said.
“I have stayed away too long.” Ronan looked at her from under his brow.
Bits of fine hair were in her face and she brushed them away. Her flowers had wilted. “I understand why. Besides, I heard there was new horseflesh on the premises, and I was hoping to catch a glimpse.”
“Of course, my lady.” Ronan took her hand, glancing at William. “Thank you,” Ronan said to him.
“Aye.” He nodded and backed away. He’d hardly said anything all day. It was unlike him, but Ronan was at a loss as to what to do about it.
“As I was saying.” Drew glanced at Ronan. “My roan mare would make a fine lady’s mount, but you will have to come and get her yourself. That is my stipulation.”
“What think you?” Ronan asked Triona. “She is this mare’s full sister.” He nodded toward the stall.
Triona looked over the door at the snow-white mare nosing around in her hay. “She is smaller than Goliath.”
His wife was determined to make her next mount a warhorse. The mare lifted her head and snorted in Triona’s direction.
“Well, you are,” she said to the animal. “She might be as tall as Murdock. Might.”
Drew crossed his arms over his chest. “I thought a woman with enough sense to wed the elusive Blackhawk-” Ronan lifted his brows and Drew changed his mind. “Such a renowned swordsman would know a good horse when she sees one.”
“Drew has offered us one of his mares as a wedding gift.” Ronan plucked a sprig of heather hanging out of her hair. “But first he insists we visit him at his home.”
Triona turned to Drew, her face polite. “Thank you for the invitation.” Her voice rang with the sort of cultured civility Ronan lacked. “And I did not mean to sound as if I believed your horses were not of value.”
Drew waved a hand. “You willna be disappointed with her. She is spirited, though.”
She smiled too brightly for Ronan’s comfort. “That will not stop me.”
Drew looked at Ronan.
“I will keep an eye on her whilst she handles the mare,” Ronan said, ignoring Triona’s glare.
She turned back to Drew. “How are you, my laird? I pray all finds you well?”
Ronan was amazed by her. She was versed in diplomacy, a skilled horsewoman, could handle a blade as well as most men, and she was a phenomenal kisser. Not to mention her right straight punch that had broken his nose. Twice.
“I am well,” Drew said. “Better now. My mother wanted me married yesterday.”
She laughed. “Perhaps it is for the best. I would have turned you down, anyhow.” Her green eyes glinted.
Drew glanced at Ronan, then back to Triona.
“No hard feelings, I hope,” she said.
Drew laughed. “Perhaps not.”
“Be thankful,” Logan said. He pushed away from the wall and looped an arm over Drew’s shoulders. He was half a hand taller than Drew, and had a good deal of filling out to do. “She did turn me down.”
Triona’s cheeks tinged pink.
“Truly?” Drew asked.
“Och, aye. Turned me right out she did.”
“I did not,” Triona said.
“You never told me.” Drew eyed Logan.
“I turned you down verra nicely.”
“It’s my age, isna it. If I were a few years older.”
“It had nothing to do with your age.”
“When was this?” Drew asked.
Ronan took Triona’s arm and pulled her aside. He left the men to discuss what may or may not have happened. William was leaning against a stall door as if he would rather be anywhere but there. Ronan winced. He would have to talk to William later. Or maybe it would be better if they went to the lists and worked it out there.
“Just how many offers have you had?” He wasn’t mad. He just wanted to take advantage of the chance to tease her.
She pursed her lips. “Lairds and their brothers are frequent guests of my father.” Her eyes grew distant. “But I could never have tolerated a man I didn’t know well.”
He smiled. “I was only jesting with you.” He glanced over his shoulder at Drew. “Would it bother you if we paid him a visit?”
“It is considered favorable to visit one’s allies after their wedding.”
He straightened. “Not all of them, I hope.”
She rose on the balls of her feet. “I had something else in mind, anyway.” Triona dropped back to her heels. “But we should pay him a visit. It seems you and Laird Drew already know each other well.” She leaned one shoulder against a stall door and watched him from under her lashes. “Ask me where I want to go.”
“Paris?” He wound a lock of her hair around his finger.
“I want to disappear. I know a man who can make it happen.”
Ronan ducked his head until his mouth was against her ear. “I hear he comes at a price.”
“I think I can afford it.” She turned her face so they were nose-to-nose.
“Are you sure?” He tucked his arm around her waist and pulled her closer.
“I will make him an offer he canna refuse.”
He laughed. “And what would that be?”
“How about a fallen castle?”
He tightened his hold on her. “How about you?”
“And I heard you were a hard man to bargain with.” Her voice was a full octave lower than the polite one she’d used with Drew.
“It all depends on who is doing the bargaining. And I think you’re worth more than a pile of stones.”
As he bent to kiss her William cleared his throat. She jerked back, banging her head on the wall. It took a lot of resolve not to slug William. Ronan hissed and pulled her closer, then shifted her away from anything else she might hurt herself on.
“Find someone else to torture.” Ronan gritted the words over his shoulder. Even as he said them, his insides pinched with guilt.
Triona fingered the back of her head. She must have forgotten anyone else was there, or she wouldn’t have allowed him to almost kiss her in front of them.
“I am sorry,” William said, bowing his head to her. “And for your information, I was going to inform you, that you two are making the rest of us sick to our stomachs, and we are going back to our feasting to try and counteract it.”
“Go then,” Triona said. She shooed them off.
William backed away, Drew and Logan leaving with him.
“And now we are alone,” Ronan said, grinning.
She blew out a breath. “I canna believe I forgot about them.”
“I did as well.”
Hooves clipping stall doors serenaded them.
“How long do you think this will last?” He tugged on her sleeve until she faced him. “Us, having a moment alone.”
“Never can tell.”
“How long do these feasts usually go on?”
“As long as the ale holds out.” She cocked her head. “My father will have guests for weeks. Some will leave, some will stay for a time, others will have to be asked to leave.”
“Let me guess, you could list them off by name.”
“I have my suspicions.”
“Then this will go on for some time.” He flexed muscles in his arms and shoulders.
She leaned close, teasing him with her smile. “We will leave before they do.”
“How about now?” He bent. The moment his mouth found hers, footsteps echoed off stone. A throat cleared behind him. “Better not be who I think it is,” he said, turning.
Ronan stopped when he saw a tall swordsman standing arm-in-arm with a doe-eyed woman. “Maggie?”
“Verra sorry to interrupt.” Her lips curled into a smirk and her brown eyes glowed.
The man next to her looked a little red under the collar. He bowed his head. “I wanted to thank you, my laird.”
“For what?” Ronan asked.
“We both wanted to thank you,” Maggie said. “This is Collin, my betrothed.”
“Congratulations,” Triona said from next to Ronan, ever polite, although she probably had no idea what she was getting herself into.
“We are to be wed after Christmas.” Maggie looked at Collin and smiled.
Their marriage would squelch any rumors. A colossal weight lifted from Ronan’s shoulders.
“Well met, Collin.” He held out his hand and the man shook it with a firm grip.
“And I you. I couldna possibly repay you for what you have given me.” Collin looked at Maggie, his expression gentle. Maggie beamed with life, with hope. “I couldna picture her the way you found her.”
Triona gasped, then tried to hide it by clearing her throat and waving her hand in front of her face like dust moats were irritating her. Ronan tucked his arm around her waist.
“I have all the thanks I need right now,” he said.
“Not many men would have freed her the way you did and then ask for nothing in return. I’m in your debt.”
Ronan was glad Maggie was in good hands. “Take care of her and we will be even. If ever you find yourself no longer in The MacDuffee’s employ, know that you will be welcome among us.”
“I shall, my laird.” Collin ducked his head. Ronan wished people would stop bowing to him. Triona elbowed him and he sighed. “You are dismissed.”
Collin bowed again, then he and Maggie walked down the length of the stable, her arm through his. Maggie glanced over her shoulder and smiled one last time.
“Is she the infamous mistress?” Triona ran a hand over her hair.
“She never was.”
“I know.” She pushed rushes around with her foot.
“And now, so will everyone else,” he said, more for himself than her. “Their wedding should put a stop to any rumors.”
“I am proud of you.” Triona cleared her throat. “A wee bit jealous, but proud, nonetheless.”
Ronan took her by the shoulders and turned her to face him. She hitched a shoulder, then looked up.
He ran his thumbs over her collarbones. “If I had never left you in the first place, I would never have met her, and would never have faced the temptation in the first place.”
“There are always temptations, but if you had never met her, you would never have changed her life. Saved it even.” She took a breath. “You are her hero.”
He ducked to look her in the eye. “And it irks you?”
She scrunched up her face. “Maybe I dinna like you being anyone else’s hero save mine.”
He brushed her hair away from her face, then removed a dying flower and tossed it aside. “I’m all yours.”
Her eyes studied his. “Did I judge you? Before, at the cottage?”
“You took what you knew of me, and came to the most logical conclusion. Anyone would have.”
“But did I judge you?”
He ran his knuckles across her chin. “You had every right to.”
She worked his sleeve between her fingertips. “You accepted what happened between me and William with so much grace. I take one look at Maggie, and all I can think about is how beautiful she is.”
“There’s no comparison. And I canna blame William for loving you.”
Her face brightened. “I will get right to work finding him a wife.”
Ronan laughed. “Maybe you should let him work on it himself.”
“But I can find him the perfect-”
He cut her off with his lips over hers. She wound her arms around his neck and leaned into him.
Ronan recognized Goliath’s distinctive snort. The stallion kicked at the stall door. Ronan wondered what the horse thought was so important. Reluctantly, he looked up, and saw a man, middle-aged and in excellent condition, striding down the corridor. Roger MacBlayne.
Ronan let go of Triona and resisted the urge to push her behind him. It would’ve been bad form, to say the least, but his fingers twitched nonetheless. Triona stood close by his side.
“There will be no trouble,” she said. Then she shifted. “Think you?”
“Nay, of course not.” He’d spent too many years in the company of mercenaries, and had forgotten how to interact with people in social situations.
Roger stopped and ducked his head. Ronan duplicated the gesture.
“You’re Brian’s son.”
“Brian was my cousin. You do look like him.” Roger glanced at Triona. “I see your father is full of mysteries.”
“He is.” Her sweet, diplomatic tone was back.
“I recall having seen you from a distance, years ago,” Roger said to Ronan. “I never noticed the resemblance then. Although now it seems to fit.”
Roger held out his hand and Ronan shook it.
“Leave it to Douglas to keep you a secret. Still, I canna blame him, after the way he lost Brian.” He let go of Ronan’s hand. “It is good to know my cousin’s line lives on.”
Triona smiled and curtsied in her well-trained manner.
Laird Roger grinned at both of them. “I willna bother the two of you any further. Carry on with what you were doing.” His grin widened and he left the stable.
Ronan wasted no time. He wrapped his arms around Triona, her gown rustling and her skirt pressing against his knees. “I think we should leave now.”
“We need to find Fanny first. She knows where our new chamber is.”
He groaned and kissed her forehead. “You have no idea where?”
“She and my father said it was a surprise.”
“There’s always my chamber.”
“We should find Fanny.” She pushed on his chest and he let her go.
Ronan scowled. “My chamber is not so untidy. It doesn’t even smell.” He thought about it. “Perhaps a mite like mold.”
“I just want this to be right.”
“It isna the room that will make it right.”
“I know.” She gazed at him for a moment, then her brows furrowed. “It will only take a moment to find her.”
He doubted it. “In a sea of people?”
“It willna take so long.” She pleaded with her eyes.
“Och, all right, but if we dinna find her soon . . .”
“We will go to your moldy chamber.”
“My Laird.” Connor slid from his mount, his chest heaving. His chestnut stallion was lathered with sweat. “The McAllans . . . three shepherds dead . . . flocks confiscated.”
Ronan’s hand tightened around Triona’s. She squeezed her eyes shut. Nay, not now. Her heart was frantic in her chest. Not now. They’d never revealed any information about Ronan until this morning. How could they have found out about him already?
“Connor,” her father said. “I want you to remain here. Have men at the walls. Close the gate behind us.”
“Aye, my laird.”
“William, gather the rest of the men. We ride out.”
She opened her eyes as William sprinted away.
Her father turned to them next, his gaze locked onto Ronan. “You are your own man now,” he said. “And I would not ask you to leave your bride like this, even if she were not my daughter.”
“I will ride with you,” Ronan said.
Of course he would. She expected no less. She counted her pulse in her throat.
Her father nodded and reached for her free hand. He squeezed it once, then turned and jogged away. Ronan took her by the shoulders and looked into her face, his eyes softening.
“Poor timing is all,” she said.
“I will return soon.”
“I should have let you take me to your chamber.”
He smiled, but it was stiffly given. “Angel.”
“Dinna say anything.” She sniffed. “Tears. I hate them. When I said I did not want you to leave me ever again, well, I know sometimes you have to.” She searched her sleeve for a handkerchief.
“’Tis here, I think.” Ronan ran his forefinger beneath her sleeve, along the inside of her wrist, and hooked her handkerchief, then tugged it out. He handed it to her.
He opened his mouth to speak.
“Do not.” She wiped her eyes. “Here.” She peeled back the edge of her gown and tore off a piece of her petticoat.
“I do not need a favor from you.”
“Take it, please.”
Ronan’s brow creased. Then he bent and cupped her face in one hand. He kissed her long and hard enough to send shivers down her spine. Then he pulled away, his smell and his warmth lingering. Her hand was empty. He’d taken the bit of cloth. By the time she looked up she couldn’t find him in the sea of people. Rushed shouts buzzed like useless noise in her ears.
Aye, there would be many men. Not good for the McAllans. This would be squelched with ease. Ronan would be with her tomorrow.
One more day.
She stood immobilized.
One more day.
Fanny came and took her hand, then led her into the hall. Triona hadn’t realized how late it had gotten until she found herself before a fire in the great hall, her wedding gift from Graham draped over her lap, and the other ladies tucked away into guest beds.
They tried to comfort her, the ladies, but they gave in soon enough. It seemed she was known for her pigheadedness.
“Ye should retire, sweetling,” Fanny said.
Triona looked away from the fire. Fanny had circles under her eyes.
“Where should I go?”
“To your new chambers of course. I will take ye to them.”
“How can I? It would not be right. And I canna go to my old chamber, and so many of the guest chambers are filled.”
Fanny pulled up a stool and sat with a sigh. She leaned one elbow on the arm of Triona’s chair and looked ready to fall into bed.
Triona knew she had to sleep somewhere. She couldn’t stay up all night in the hall. But to move out of her misery felt like too great a task. She wasn’t ready for it.
“There is always your father’s chamber,” Fanny said.
“My father’s chamber on my wedding night.” She almost laughed. “This is not what I imagined.”
“Perhaps not.” Fanny frowned. “If ye are to remain here, then I shall remain with you.”
Triona flattened her lips. Leave it to Fanny to find a way. “I canna let you.”
“And I willna leave you here.”
Triona pushed away the bearskin and stood. “I will sleep in my father’s chamber.” Her words sounded hollow. She frowned and rolled up the pelt, taking it with her. They started for the stairs. When they reached the third floor, her heart sank into her feet. “Wait. We need to go back down.”
“You canna stay up all night.”
“Nay. One flight down. I want to sleep in Ronan’s chamber.”
Fanny nodded. “Aye. Your husband’s chamber it is.”
They walked the empty wing where Ronan, William, Graham, and Connor kept chambers. “You will be alone,” Fanny said. “I’ll post a guard.”
Triona’s hand closed around the cold iron lever on the door, her bear hide under her other arm. With a long sigh she pushed the door open and entered the dark room. Fanny took a fat candle from the wall outside and lit more candles inside the room. Orange light flickered around the small stone chamber.
“I will start a fire,” Fanny said.
“Nay.” Triona touched her arm. “You have done too much today. Go. Take your rest. And if you do not sleep late on the morrow, I shall tell Ronan of it as soon as he returns.”
A weary smile touched Fanny’s face. “Aye. Rest well. I will send a lass to tend to ye.”
The door closed behind her. Loneliness settled over Triona like a shroud.
She prayed for Ronan and the other men’s safety, and for herself, that she wouldn’t worry all night long. There was no reason to. Ronan would be fine. All the things he had lived through. There was no reason to believe he would not return from this.
Triona gazed around the shadowed chamber. It was about half the size of hers. There wasn’t much in it, of course. He’d been gone four years. There was a trunk against one wall. Shutters hung closed over the only window. A simple oak side table stood near the bed with three empty wooden mugs waiting for a servant to take them.
She scrutinized the narrow bed, wondering how Ronan managed to fit in it. Then she unrolled the pelt over it and went to the hearth. There was kindling and peat blocks. Triona reached for her flint and steel, but she was still in her wedding gown. She had no such supplies at hand. She sat back on her heels and willed herself not to cry. It’s just a fire. Do not cry about it. She bit her lip and heaved to her feet. Her head swam away and it took her a moment to catch it. Triona came to the balls of her feet and felt around the mantel. All she found was a small box. She took it down and opened it, then smiled at the empty place where her ring had once sat.
Triona took the box back to bed and set it on the table. A lass would come soon enough. Then she would have a fire. She pulled back the covers and began to pluck the wilted flowers out of her hair. She removed the silver circlet and left it on top of the mantel. Laces were loosened next. She had to contort to do it. It would be wisest to wait for the lass, but she needed to occupy herself.
Ronan should have unlaced her. She smiled. It would have added to the moment; her cumbersome clothing removed bit by bit. Triona struggled out of her gown, kirtle, and bodice, laying them over the trunk. Her petticoat and farthingale followed. She looked down at her creamy linen chemise. She and Fanny had embroidered ancient knotwork designs into the sleeves. Presenting it to Ronan would just have to wait.
Triona slipped into bed and pulled the covers up to her chin. As she stared at the shadow-flicked ceiling she smelled him on the covers. With a groan she rolled onto her side. The pillow smelled like him too. She tucked her knees into her chest, her arms around them, and rocked herself.
A lass came. Triona didn’t move. She smelled smoke, heard a water pitcher and basin being deposited on the side table. The girl rustled around the room and Triona assumed fresh clothing was laid out for her, the wilted flowers, and dirty cups swept away. She smelled wax, and knew the candle was doused.
“Thank you,” she mouthed as the door closed.
Triona pulled the covers back to her chin. The heady smell and warmth of peat smoke seeped into her. The bearskin tickled her nose. At last, she dozed with her ring hand under her cheek.
Ronan shut Goliath in his stall. The stallion sniffed hay with pricked ears. In a fortnight Goliath had adapted to life in a stable. Could a mercenary adjust with the ease of his horse? William came up beside him. Catching Ronan’s gaze, he nodded. Ronan rubbed the back of his neck as they walked out of the stable.
“What a waste,” William said.
Most of the flock had been recovered, but the shepherds were another story. Women and children would wake up tomorrow with no man in the house.
At least it wasn’t the all-out war they’d assumed it would be. Aye, they’d swooped down on the renegade band of men and boys like the archangel Michael at Armageddon. The few who’d fought back were dispatched easily enough. The others surrendered.
Ronan wondered again if he was ready for the mantle of leadership. Being responsible for Triona, and maybe, a handful of children, sounded like more than enough for any man.
He considered how he’d lived his life. He would fail her if he died young. People wasted away due to broken hearts. His mother did. Triona would never really be alone, she would have her clan, but Ronan knew she would never be the same if she lost him.
“How do you do it?” Ronan asked. “All the people, the lives you’re responsible for?”
William shrugged. “I watched my uncle.” He looked up at Ronan in the dim light of the courtyard. Narrow windows cast bumpy slivers of light over cobblestones. “She will not return to her chamber. She’ll be anywhere but there.”
Ronan ran his hands through his hair. “Do I dare wake her at this point?”
“Do you dare not?” He frowned, then shook himself. “She will be impossible for all of us if you don’t.”
“Angrier than a stag with his antlers caught in a briar patch.” Ronan wanted to say more, to somehow make it up to William. But he couldn’t think of anything appropriate. They stood there for an awkward moment before continuing on to the great hall.
William nodded to Ronan. “Go on. I will wait for my uncle.”
Laird Douglas would have to decide what to do with the three lads that had surrendered. They were but children, and now their fate hung in the balance, based on one man’s decision. Would it be so bad if he and Triona remained at her father’s hall. The land could wait one more generation, couldn’t it?
Ronan was on the second floor before he realized he still had no idea where she was. “Forgive me, angel,” he whispered as he turned down the corridor to his chamber. “I will find you in the morning.”
He couldn’t bang on doors at random and ask for her. He stopped, frowning at young Angus on the floor outside his door, spiraled red head tilted to one side as he snored into his jerkin.
Ronan cleared his throat.
The lad jumped to attention. His sword came out of the sheath, curls bouncing around his freckled face. Ronan waited for the boy to wake up enough to recognize him.
“My laird,” Angus said. He rubbed his eyes with one hand and sheathed his weapon with the other. After three failed attempts he managed to slide the sword home. “Forgive me. ’Tis so quiet.”
Ronan waved a hand in dismissal. “What are you doing here?”
“Fanny. She bade me to sit at the door.”
The boy blinked at him. “To watch the lady.”
Ronan smiled. “Go Angus. Your services are no longer required.”
“But Fanny told me to sit here.”
“I do believe I can take over now.”
“Och, aye.” Angus reddened under his collar. Then he backed away with a low bow, turned on his heel, and ran.
Ronan shook his head and pushed open the door to his chamber, shutting it soundlessly. A fire burned in the hearth and the room was bathed in a warm glow. He made out the mass of her gown laid over his trunk and the glint of her silver circlet on the mantel.
Triona was in his bed, the exquisite curve of her hip drawing his focus.
Ronan unbuckled his baldric and set it aside. He unbuckled his leather jerkin and pulled off his boots. He didn’t want to wake her. How could he not wake her?
She was faced away from him, her hands tucked under her chin. Ronan sat on the edge of the bed and she rolled onto her back, eyes still closed, her chest rising and falling in even breaths. A pink indent marred her jaw where she must’ve fallen asleep with her ring under her face.
Pale hair spilled over the pillow around her. One arm, now out from under the covers, boasted a linen chemise. Her shoulder was bare. Tawny freckles graced pale skin.
He tucked his fingers into hers. Triona stretched, then her eyes opened. She sat up with a sharp gasp.
“It’s me,” he said.
“Ronan?” She brushed her hair out of her face. “But how?”
He gathered her waves into both hands. “’Twas only a rogue band. It’s over now.”
“With your father. He let her hair slip through his fingers. Then he planted his hands on the mattress, one to either side of her hips. “I should not have left you.”
“It was poor timing all around.” Heat rose on her cheeks.
“Perhaps.” Ronan leaned in and rubbed his forehead against hers. “As I rode out, and I saw the gate shut behind me, I felt it.” He closed his eyes and breathed in the scent of heather and primroses.
Her brow furrowed against his skin.
“I kept thinking about you. I have been drawn to the battle lust for far too long. It has been my wife.”
She was quiet for a few seconds before she spoke. “Look around you.” Her breath was warm and sweet against his skin. “It is as it is. How many men were present tonight, other than those on the walls?”
“But for me it has been more than duty.”
She leaned back against the simple oak headboard, breaking the contact between them. “If I thought for a moment you could not protect me, I would not have wed you. This is my life.” Her face was resigned. “I know it is not going to change.”
“What if we stayed here? I would not have as many responsibilities.” He searched her face and hoped she understood him. He felt so muddled sometimes. “I am not ready. Or maybe I dinna really want it after all.”
“I think you do. In time it will all come together.” Her eyes twinkled in the firelight. “Ronan MacBlayne.” She tilted her head. “Did you accompany me in your chamber to talk?”
“I did have something else in mind,” he said, then frowned at their bed.
“It is a small bed.”
“Too small.” He stood, then took the bearskin and spread it out before the fire.
She laughed. “What are you doing?”
“Making sure neither of us ends up on the floor.”
“But now we will both be on the floor.”
“Saucy wench.” He stripped off the blanket.
Triona squealed and hugged her knees to her chest. Her chemise had slipped off both shoulders and said shoulders screamed for attention. Ronan dropped the blanket like it was on fire and sat back down on the bed with her. Slowly, he moved her hair out of his way, then kissed both of her freckled shoulders. He’d wanted to do that for so long. Her palms slid up his arms. She unclasped his clan pin and set it aside.
“Let’s worry,” she said, struggling to pull his shirt over his head, “about where we belong,” he helped her off with it and tossed the garment across the room, “another day.” She glanced up at him. “Can you do that?”
“Aye, my lady, I can.” He scooped her into his arms.
“Just don’t leave me tomorrow,” she whispered, her grip tightening around the back of his neck.
He winced, knowing he deserved that. “I’ll be around for so long that you will find yourself sickened by the sight of me.” Laying her out on the bearskin, he gathered her close. She felt so good. As if he could leave her again!
“Promise?” Her green eyes searched his for the security he’d failed to give her before.
Triona floated into consciousness, gravitating by degrees into the warm, solid mass of her husband. This was what she’d missed four years ago—waking up in his arms knowing he hadn’t walked out on her. She smoothed her palm over his chest and shoulders, noting the sapphire ring on her finger. Ronan caught her hand and pressed his lips against the inside of her wrist. His jaw was shadowed with dark stubble and it scratched her tender skin. Triona smiled, cradling into him.
“Anything you want is yours,” he said
She laughed. “Anything?”
“Anything.” Ronan stretched, his body unyielding against hers.
Reaching up, she ran her fingers over one corded arm. She glanced at his face and saw his expression had turned quizzical, as if he couldn’t understand what the fascination with his arm could be. Embarrassed, she pulled her hand back.
“I should start a fire.” He kissed the top of her head.
She groaned and clutched against him. Her stomach growled and she told herself not to be hungry. The last thing she wanted was for either of them to get up. Granted, it was probably mid-day as it was, but she didn’t want it to end. He pulled out from under her, cold air raking her skin.
She absorbed the heat he left behind while he started a fire, then he crossed to the window and opened the shutters, light pouring in. Triona pulled the blanket over her head, trying not to laugh, and failing miserably.
“What?” he asked.
The combination of sudden yellow light and Ronan standing in it had stunned her eyes. She eased the blanket down, blinked until her eyes adjusted, then laughed again. “Put some clothes on.”
He squinted and rejoined her on the bearskin instead, scooping her against him. Triona kept the blanket with her.
“Unbelievable,” he said.
“What is?” She readjusted her blanket.
“You. Sometimes I have a hard time following your logic.”
She pressed her lips together. “Or lack thereof?”
“I said no such thing. What could posses you to be shy now, this morning?”
Why? She had to think about it. “It was dark last night. And you were not parading around the chamber.”
“Well, not quite parading.” She ran her hand up his arm.
“What am I supposed to do with you?”
She twirled a lock of his hair around her finger. “I have a few ideas, but you need to close the shutters first.”
He shook his head. “Food, before we both swoon.”
“I have never swooned in my life.”
“Neither have I. And I’d rather not start now.” He nudged her aside. “I should see what is to become of the McAllan lads.”
Her heart lurched and she clutched the blanket to her chest.
“Och, what did I do?”
“Nothing. You will need to know how to deal with such things, so you might as well start now.” She picked at a loose thread on the blanket.
“I have gotten the impression that nothing means something when you say it.” He retrieved his shirt and pulled it over his head.
“Whatever gave you that idea?”
He eyed her as he took up his plaid. “No pretenses in the bedchamber, please.”
“All right.” Her feet were peeking from under the tangled blanket. She wiggled her toes. “I just feel like being completely selfish. I want to keep you prisoner here in this chamber with me forever.”
“Hold that thought.” He leaned in and kissed her forehead. She lifted her chin in response. “Until after we leave the hall.” He kissed her mouth. “The sooner we are up, the sooner we can pack.”
He was more ambitious than she was, but packing did sound good, because it meant the two of them could disappear together. She grinned.
“Our cottage awaits us.”
“Our cottage? It is our cottage. It is on our land.”
“Aye.” Ronan lifted his brows as if she should have known that all along. “You have been a wee bit preoccupied, haven’t you?” Brows waggled.
Her eyes widened and her face warmed. “Rogue.” She pressed her hand against her flaming cheek. “I canna go below. The moment you look at me I will burst into flames.”
“I like the way you blush when I look at you.”
“But all our guests, loitering about the hall, the gardens, the lists. Everywhere.”
He laughed. “So?”
“So?” She plopped onto her back. “Fanny will come feed us.”
“As flattering as this is, I dinna think you will tackle me to the floor in the middle of the great hall. Not that I would argue if you did.” He paused. “In fact, tackling is encouraged.”
Triona, lips pursed, blanket wrapped around her, rose to her feet. A dizzy spell made her walk like she’d just stepped off a boat.
Ronan caught her. “You need to eat.”
“I need some time alone with you before we face the rest of the world. We waited so long to be together.”
He rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Aye. Remain here. I will bring back food. Then we will pack, then we will go. Does that please you, my lady?”
She pretended to think about it. “Och, I suppose it will do.”
He turned on the bottom step, his overfull tray balanced on one knee. “Aye, William?” Ronan tried not to sound annoyed. He wondered if there would always be tension between himself and William.
William looked at all the food. “Maybe you should have a lass take that up, might be too much for you.”
“Speak with haste and it willna be necessary.”
“My uncle wishes to see you in his study.” He smiled as if pleased with himself.
Ronan shifted. “Now?”
“I was asked to send you on the moment you showed yourself.”
“Verra well.” Ronan passed the food off to William, then second guessed his actions.
William eyed him from under his brow. “I do have some tact. I will have a couple of women take it to her.”
“Aye, I know.” He winced. “William-”
William turned away. “I will take it out on your sword arm later,” he said over his shoulder.
And perhaps that was the only way to deal with the tension. With a sigh, Ronan turned up the stairs, eager to be done with whatever Laird Douglas wanted so he could get back to Triona. The door to the study was open and Ronan stepped in. “You asked for me, my laird?”
Laird Douglas set aside his quill and waved him in. “Sit.”
Ronan clenched his jaw against what sounded like a command. It was an old reflex. He never liked taking orders. He took them. He just didn’t like it.
Laird Douglas pushed aside the foolscap in front of him and looked up. “I am giving you the McAllan lads.”
Ronan thumped his rump into the chair. “What?”
“They were on your land. Therefore they are your responsibility.”
Shock rolled through Ronan. He wasn’t ready for this. “Triona and I are leaving on the morrow.”
“Of course you are. I will have William take charge of them until your return.” His gray eyes glittered and he smiled like a man who knew exactly how to urge another man into seeing things his way.
“Aye, my laird,” Ronan said.
“Now you may leave.”
Ronan stood, his mind racing.
He turned back.
“I thought you might want to know, they are the three youngest sons of your uncle.”
Ronan couldn’t remember the walk back to his chamber. He stood before his door when it opened for him.
“My laird.” Annie curtsied on her way out.
He nodded, his chest tight. Dozens of servants in the hall would come with Triona. Most of them were young, hardly more than children.
“Ronan?” Triona questioned.
It took him a moment. “Aye.” He closed the door behind him.
“Are you well?”
He forced his attention onto Triona, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor before the fire, still in her chemise. Her hair was spilled loose around her. The tray of food sat before her and a bowl of gruel in her lap.
“We need a table and some chairs,” he said.
She set the bowl aside. “We’re not staying here, not for more than today anyhow.” She stood and padded toward him. “Fanny said you had to speak with my father. What happened?”
“’Tis the McAllan lads. He is turning them over to me. They were on our land.” He ran his hands through his hair and laughed at himself. “And there was a time when I thought I had it all mapped out.”
“Aye, well, we know how good those maps of ours are.” She shook her head. “McAllans. They are the bane of our existence.”
“They are my cousins.”
She scrunched her face up.
“Old enemies are the worst kind? They are the three youngest sons of my uncle. They are but bairns.”
She lifted her chin. “Be careful. They are also murderers.”
“Are they? These are the lads who surrendered last night without a fight.”
“You believe them to be innocent?”
“I have to consider the possibility that they are nothing more than boys led astray.”
She took a deep breath. “All right then, my laird. What shall we do with them?”
She sounded confident. Ronan hoped he wouldn’t let her down. “I will have to question them first.”
She pointed to the tray of food. “I don’t suppose you are in any mood to eat. You sent up a lot of food.” When he didn’t respond, she turned and filled a mug, then handed it to him. “If you want to speak with William about it, you can.”
The smell of food in the small space of his chamber made his stomach growl. “Let us eat, and then I will pay a visit to my prisoners.” He sighed. “And then I will find Fanny and get us into our chamber for tonight. We are still leaving tomorrow.”
She nodded. “I would like that.”
Ronan set aside the mug so he could wrap his arms around her. “Thank you.” He rubbed his chin against the top of her head, her hair catching on stubble. She always had a way of making him a better man. God knew he needed it.
He smiled. “You may have no idea, but I do.”
She backed up and looked at him, brows narrowed.
“Just take my word for it.”
Her head tilted. “Och, verra well, laddie.”
“When you bore with me at our cottage, we can pay Drew a visit.”
“I would like to ride his mare. From what he said, she sounds intriguing.” Her forehead creased and he kissed it.
“So are you.” He kissed her warm mouth, then blew out a breath and reminded himself they had years to make up for the four they’d lost. He set his hands on her shoulders and urged her back. “Eat, please.”
Malcolm. Randy. Danny.
They were lined up shoulder-to-shoulder in a cell in the prison tower. Dirty, torn long-shirts with rope belts, and bare feet. They reminded him of someone he once knew.
“Why did you leave your father?” Ronan asked. He crossed his arms over his chest, leather jerkin creaking.
Malcolm, the oldest at about fifteen, spoke for the other two. “He doesna know we are gone.”
“How could he not know?” Surely the child exaggerated. A man had to know where his children were.
“Look again,” Malcolm said, his adolescent voice cracking with bitterness. “Ye have the wrong sons. We are of Jocelyn.”
Ronan shrugged. The name meant nothing to him.
The boy shook his shaggy brown hair. “Our father’s mistress.”
Ronan wasn’t impressed with the boy’s attitude. He held the lad’s fate on the edge of a sword and expected more. Ronan wanted to give the boys a chance though, so he decided to hear him out.
“Mama’s gone.” The youngest, Danny, glanced at Malcolm as if he asked permission to continue.
“Da does not care.” Danny sniffed, then tightened his shoulders.
“We needed those sheep,” Randy said, “to sell.”
Ronan hooked a stool with the toe of his boot and dragged it over a stone floor littered with rushes. He sat. “Continue. I am listening.”
“To sell and to eat,” Malcolm said. “’Twill not be summer forever. If ye have to hang us, then be on with it.”
They had spirit, but did they possess the self-discipline it took to be swordsmen? He assessed all three boys. Malcolm’s long limbs and square shoulders held promise. The other two would catch up with their brother soon enough.
“I have something else in mind,” Ronan said. “But it is up to you.”
Malcolm nodded and stuck his scuffed chin in the air. “Let us hear it then.”
“You can go ahead and have the gallows if that is what you wish.” Ronan stood, pushing the stool away. He came to his full height and drew his sword, the familiar zip of steel filling the stale air.
The younger two lads backed off. Malcolm moved in front of them, hands spread in a protective gesture.
“Or you can have this.” Ronan weighed the claymore in his hand.
Malcolm swallowed. “Whatever is the least painful, my laird.” His voice broke and he cleared his throat. “S-speaking for the younger ones, of course.”
“The gallows would be far less painful.” Ronan paced before them, flat of his sword resting against his shoulder. “This will take hours a day, day after day, year after year. Blood sweat and tears will be spilled.” Ronan set his sword tip down on the floor, hands on the hilt. “However, should you succeed, and you prove yourself loyal to me, the rewards will be great.”
Malcolm shifted on bare feet.
“I offer you a way of life.” Ronan pretended to study his broken and bent forefinger. “I willna make it easy on you.”
The younger two looked at Malcolm. Malcolm brought them closer, his arms around their shoulders.
“You will live in the garrison, with my men, and they will watch you. Any attempt at escape will not be taken lightly. Any sign of disloyalty will be even worse. Do you accept? Or should I call for an executioner?” Ronan gestured toward the door.
Malcolm nodded. “We accept, my laird.”
Ronan sheathed his sword and held his hand out to Malcolm. The boy studied him, brow corrugated, then placed his small hand into Ronan’s.
“Graham,” Ronan called, releasing the lad’s hand.
The tall warrior stepped into the cell. All three boys backed against the wall.
“Take these three. Be sure they get baths, something to eat, and fresh clothing.”
“Aye, my laird.”
Ronan turned to leave, then stopped and looked at the lads from over his shoulder. “And have someone assigned to teach them to read. They will need it.”
Malcolm’s eyes widened. Ronan smiled and walked away.
“Well done,” Triona said. She was standing outside the cell, a solitary ray of light bathing her.
“You should not be here.”
“I have been here before.” She stepped forward, out of the light. “Besides, I couldna help it.”
“Thought I might need your aid?”
“I knew how proud it would make me to see you in action.”
Ronan tucked his arm around her waist. “Come, lass. Back to our lair.”
“But I just came out.”
“And now you will go back in.”
They left the tower and walked along the battlements. The air was cool and damp. A breeze worked bits of her hair free from the braid she’d bound it in and jingled her bells. Ronan caught the rope of it. “Those three lads back there will need a lady to admire. It will do them good.”
“I believe I can fill that role, sir.”
“I know you can.”
She gazed over the wall at the gardens below. “I will miss my home.” She cringed and back peddled. “I did not mean to say that I don’t wish to be with you.”
“Aye.” He hated how easily she tensed. Hopefully, one day, she would feel free to speak her mind with him without fear of him lashing out at her.
“You have already been away so much,” she said. “I have not.”
“I knew it would be difficult for you.”
She looped her arm around his waist and leaned her head against his shoulder. “You have made up your mind then?”
“I believe I have.”
Triona lifted her head, and then her brows. “You believe so? It seems as if you know so.”
“But what do you want?”
She found his hand and wound her fingers with his. “I want you to be the leader you were born to be.”
Triona wrapped her arisaid around her, then her cloak over it, pinning the wool garments into place. She scooped her braid out from under the green folds of her cloak and walked across the chambers she and Ronan shared. The bedchamber boasted two windows with built-in benches and a large hearth. The second room was half the size of the first and still contained the tiny bed she’d once slept in.
Her parents had occupied the rooms, but after her mother died, her father closed them off. It was his wish that she and Ronan live in them until their hall could be built.
There had been no action on the part of George McAllan. They were glad for it, but it made the entire clan live as if at the edge of a precipice, waiting for the moment when the wind would blow in their direction and try to push them off.
Triona made her way down the corridor and up a narrow stone stairway, the chill making her shiver. It seemed odd, to go up in order to go down, but from their chambers the fastest way to the lists was down the stairway along the south wall.
The wind hit her in a gush as she pushed open the outside door. Connor was at his post. He looked up at her and bowed his head. She smiled, tucking her hands inside her cloak. It was almost too cold to be out, but she’d promised Ronan’s three youngest trainees she would check their progress each day, and each day she would.
She breathed a sigh of relief when she reached the training field and the three-sided shelter off to the side of it. A fire burned in a circle of stones. She pulled out her hands and warmed them, scanning the field until she found Ronan. Steam rose off his body into the cold air. He glanced across the way and halted. Malcolm, Randy, and Danny all followed the line of his gaze. She waved. They waved. Triona took her preferred spot on a weathered bench by the fire and waited.
Ronan walked off the field with his familiar swagger. “’Tis too cold for you.”
“I have a promise to keep.”
“They will understand if you canna be out.” Ronan sat next to her, the bench creaking.
“Speaking of.” She squinted across the field. “What are they doing?”
“I told the lads they could sit with you after they ran two laps around the field.” Ronan stretched out his legs and crossed them at the ankles. “’Tis no more than your father would have asked of me.”
“I don’t remember you running laps to sit with me.” She grinned.
“Nay, I did a whole lot more.”
He was right. “Aye, you did.” Her breath plumed the air.
Ronan hooked his arm around her shoulders. “How are you?”
“I am fine.”
His dark brows pinched. She had the impression he attempted to decode her three simple words.
“I am as well as to be expected,” she said. “I will be grateful when I can eat again.”
“Aye.” He looked her over, even though all her layers made it useless. “You have thinned out. I dinna like it.”
“’Tis normal at this stage.”
“I do not have to like it.”
Triona studied the lines of worry on his face, and smiled. “Nay, I suppose you do not have to like it.”
She leaned against his shoulder and watched Malcolm, Randy, and Danny. The older two had passed the youngest. Danny ran with all his might though, his curls bouncing around his face and his little limbs pumping. Triona laughed. “Danny is so adorable sometimes.”
“Adorable? He has a will like iron.”
“That can be good, aye?”
“Depends on how he decides to use it.”
Malcolm heaved into the shelter, Randy short on his heels. They both stood with hands braced on knees, brown hair damp with sweat.
“I need to make you run more often,” Ronan said.
Malcolm straightened, breath puffed on the air. “My lady.” He greeted her with a wide smile.
“Malcolm, Randy.” She craned to see Danny, still a quarter of a lap behind. “You are both doing well. Randy, I think you grew.”
“I grew more,” Malcolm said. He elbowed his brother.
Randy shoved him. The larger boy was caught off guard and stumbled backward.
“Enough,” Ronan said.
The lads stood at attention, sending silent volleys to each other with their eyes. Danny careened into the shelter and ran into Randy.
Randy hissed. “Be careful, you dolt.”
“Ye were in my way.” Danny panted.
Ronan cleared his throat.
All three stood at attention, all in a row, with hands clasped behind them. Danny was almost too young to be on the field. He was but seven.
“Can Danny sit with me for a few minutes, sir?” Triona asked.
“Please.” Danny hopped up and down.
Ronan nodded. “Aye, as long as you promise to make up for it later.”
“I will, my laird.”
Danny plopped down on the bench and wrapped his arms around her for a hug. “He has had enough for today.” Triona cuddled the boy against her as she looked up at Ronan.
“I am not finished with him yet.” A smile marred Ronan’s otherwise perfect master-at-arms expression. “I will send them in for their lessons later.”
All three boys groaned in unison.
“After their lessons, they are all yours, my lady. Feel free to put them to any task you so desire. They could scrub floors. Or better yet, the privies.”
“We will continue our chess lessons.” She kissed Danny on his smooth cheek and let him go. “I will see you three soon enough.”
“Back to work, lads.” Ronan stood. He turned back to her once the boys were out of earshot. She closed her eyes when he ran his knuckles across her cheek. “Go within. ’Tis too cold for this.”
After she miscarried, twice, he was so careful.
“I will.” She lifted her chin, eyes still closed. He bent and caught her mouth under his. Her fingers working into his hair, she leaned into him. He laughed and backed away.
She watched him walk across the field with his swagger fully in place.
“What think you?”
“I think yer wife will break your nose,” Graham said.
Ronan leaned back in his chair. Empty mugs of ale were scattered before them as they sat around the table in Ronan’s study. Fat candles burned low.
“But I think you’re right,” William said.
“One of you needs to remain behind, for Triona’s sake.” Ronan looked at Graham.
Graham shook back his braids. “As the captain of your guard, I should be with ye.” He paused and rubbed his chin. “As a man sworn to protect all that is yours, I will choose to remain behind and guard your family.” He bowed his head.
A child squalled from outside the door. Ronan shook his head and stood. “Excuse me for a moment.”
He wasn’t surprised to find Triona on the other side. She startled when she saw him. Behind her, Annie held their son, bouncing him on her hip while he chewed on his fingers.
Ronan cocked his head toward Annie. “Take Brian to the nursery and put him to bed, please.”
She nodded her red head and left.
Triona placed both hands over her middle and looked at him from under her lashes. It had been a rough start for them, then she finally gave birth to Brian. Then she conceived again. The midwife said her body wasn’t ready before. Now it was.
“Walk with me.” Ronan took her hand.
“What are you three planning?”
“I would have told you everything. You did not need to spy.”
“I had no intentions of waiting.”
“I canna have you there.”
“Because you are with child, angel.”
She pulled her hand away. “You canna treat me like a bairn just because I carry one.”
“I am not-” He frowned.
They walked in silence until they reached the battlements. He could tell the baby pressed against her rib cage by the way she breathed. The moon was full and the air thick with mist swirling off the loch.
His loch. His battlements, unfinished as they were.
Ronan turned to face her. “The border has been compromised.”
“Again?” She ran her hands over her long braid. “Ever since we first occupied the hall. When will this end?”
“It ends now. I hope.”
She eyed him. “What will you do?”
“I will speak with my wife. And then I will go back to William and Graham to finalize our plans.”
“Tell me then. What is your manner of self-destruction?”
Her hands rested over her stomach and he placed his over hers. The baby shuffled and kicked them. Ronan hated himself. The last thing he wanted was to leave his family.
“I would like to send a message to George McAllan, asking him to meet me at the border.”
“Why?” Her voice was monotone.
Her fingers tightened against his. “He killed your father.”
“But you forget. I am also my mother’s child. And it’s possible my uncle thought Heather was being coerced. He is only a man. All men love someone, at some time. I’m willing to bet he loved his sister.”
“You mean to make peace by appealing to the heart of a killer.”
His jaw flexed. “I am well aware of what he is capable of.”
“And if he stages a trap?”
Ronan pulled his hands away. “The fighting has to stop. He needs to know the truth about his sister and my father.” His voice wavered with emotion he couldn’t hide. “I need to make amends with my uncle. Someone needs to set a new example.”
She kicked the stone battlement. “It is good to reconcile with kin.” She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. “You will take my father and William with you?”
“Aye. I will leave Graham behind.”
“But will he agree to it?”
“He volunteered.” Ronan slipped his arms around her from behind, her back against his chest. She was stiff. Ronan wasn’t pleased about the stress this was causing her. He sighed and rubbed his chin against the top of her head.
“If you do not return, I will be on my own.”
He jerked. “Please don’t.”
“I will still have my son.”
“Angel, stop.” He tightened his arms around her.
“Perhaps another son is on the way.”
Ronan turned her to face him, caught off guard again by the way her stomach got between them. “I willna leave you, not for a long time.” He looked at the murky sky. “It can wait until after the babe is born, if you wish.”
“Nay. Go soon. I willna sleep until it is finished.”
Triona stood on the highest wall watching the windswept glen. Her arisaid blew around her and she shivered. The sun dawned over the lumpy horizon, dissipating fog.
“Please bring them home,” she prayed. “Protect them in this daft scheme. They might as well have put apples atop their heads and begged George to shoot them all in a row.” She took a breath and began again. “Please just bring them back to me.”
She blinked against the orange ball, unwilling to look away. Triona shielded her eyes with one hand and thought she saw something.
Please be real.
Please be real.
Please, please be real.
One rider rose like a phantom out of the golden mist. One? She turned away from the stone wall.
“Graham, saddle my horse.” Triona didn’t wait for him. She would ride out alone if she had to.
“My lady?” She heard him from behind her.
“Rider,” she said, already out of breath, the pressure against her lungs slowing her down. She pressed one hand to her belly as she stopped for air.
“I will ride out,” he said.
“Not without me.”
He eyed her, blond brows narrowed. A spiraled tattoo jumped when muscles in his arm twitched. She eyed him back until he squirmed under her gaze. “Verra well,” he said. “But we go together.”
“Saddle the mare, she is faster.”
“I will saddle your gelding. He is safer.”
She blew out a breath. “Fine, but do be quick.”
Triona preceded him below. She received a much needed boost into the saddle by Malcolm, and they made their way at a safe pace, Graham towering over her on his warhorse. She glared at him, but he ignored her. Her mare was three times faster than her gelding and she was less than happy that Graham made her ride Murdock.
As they crossed the glen she squinted against the sun. Her eyes burned until they blurred and all she could do was ride on with her head down. Triona gave Murdock a squeeze. He grunted and picked up the pace. “Come on, old friend, I am not that heavy.”
Almost there. Triona shielded her eyes. The rider, tall and lithe, vaulted from his mount. “You should not be out here,” he said in a familiar, deep voice. Triona slipped from her horse’s back, Graham catching her elbow to make sure she landed in one piece. She took two steps and Ronan swept her into his arms, surrounding her in the scent of leather and steel.
“However, I am glad to see you.”
She looped her arms around his shoulders. “My father and William?”
“Behind me. I road ahead to warn you.” He kissed her face, trailing a line from the ridge of her cheekbone, down her jaw, and then one side of her neck. Unease crept over her. Warn her? He kissed her like he sought to distract her.
“Warn me of what?” Her words came in breathless gasps. Ronan was very distracting.
“My uncle and his eldest son will stay with us for a time.” He tipped her face so he could reach the other side of her neck.
Graham was near, but he was good at ignoring them, and Triona had gotten used to it.
Ronan looked at her, grinned, then lowered his head again. “I missed you.”
Triona gathered her wits into a pile and tried to organize them. “Your uncle and his son, they are staying here?”
“We will be careful. This is good, we made progress.”
His brow creased. “Progress.”
“Canna ask for too much, I suppose.”
“Ride with me.” He let go of her and mounted. “Graham?”
The tall warrior scooped Triona up and lifted her into Ronan’s arms.
“Och, thank you,” she told him, gripping Ronan’s shoulders.
“Should I ride on to meet the others?” Graham asked.
Ronan looked at her, blue eyes glittering in the rising sun. “Graham, you might want to make yourself scarce for a while. And do not be surprised if you don’t see us for the rest of the day.”
Triona felt her eyes widen.
“Aye, my laird.”
Olivia Stocum lives in upstate New York with her husband, three children, and their Jack Russell Terror (oh, sorry, Terrier). She’s been writing since she was first published at eight years old. The majority of her childhood was spent riding horses, playing with her dog, shooting her favorite recurve bow, and going on imaginary adventures with Robin Hood. One day she might decide to grow up (but probably not).
Contact Olivia at:
The Scottish Lowlands
Laird William MacAlastair swirled the spiced wine in his wooden mug as he sat alone before the hearth in Laird Geoffrey Buchanan’s dining hall. The earthy scent of peat smoke and ale permeated him. Gregarious male laughter echoed off cold stone walls.
He glanced over his shoulder at Laird Geoffrey sitting at his long table on a dais. Geoffrey shook back his blond curls, then hauled a wench onto his knee.
William was three years into his chieftainship, and had hoped to renew the alliances first created by his uncle, Douglas MacAlastair, but meetings with fickle Lowlanders, like Geoffrey, made William’s head pound like a snare drum.
He rolled his right shoulder. The dull ache from an old injury helped keep his head clear.
“A refill, my laird?” questioned a feminine trill. The wench smiled, her golden hair cascading in ringlets around her bare shoulders. She wore a too-tight bodice that would be better left to a woman with more modest endowments, and a rough wool skirt with no petticoat beneath it. The curve of her hip and thigh were outlined against the fire.
“Nay.” His tone held an undercurrent of dismissal.
She set aside her flagon of spiced wine, steam rolling off it, and leaned toward him. Her hair brushed William’s forearm and the scent of roses took precedence over ale and peat smoke.
“Geoffrey is otherwise engaged this eve.” She glanced at the raven-haired woman perched on Geoffrey’s lap, and then her eyes scanned William, sparkling as they took in his belted plaid and his warrior’s build. “I am at your disposal, my laird.” She bit her full lower lip as she waited for his response.
William gestured with one finger for her to come closer. She giggled when his mouth edged against her ear. “I dinna share my women with Geoffrey. In fact, I dinna share my women at all.”
Her laughter faded and she backed off, blue eyes dejected. Picking up the flagon, she lifted her chin to him and walked away.
The heavy oak doors at the far end of Laird Geoffrey’s hall clanged open. A draft flickered the fire. The golden wench startled, wine slopping out of the flagon. She gasped and shook hot liquid off her skin. Silence fell over the room as Geoffrey urged the brunette off his knee and banged down the steps of the dais.
A middle-aged man with a hawk nose stepped in. He was wearing rust-red breeches and a matching quilted doublet embroidered with—William had to take a second look—flowers. Hawknosed man flipped the edge of his fur-lined cloak over his arm.
Geoffrey smiled and clasped his hands together. “She has arrived safe and sound, then?”
“As sound as to be expected,” Hawknose said with an English accent. He flicked dust off his doublet, then turned and gestured toward the open doors.
An armed guard in a brown leather jerkin and functional wool breeches carried a young woman into the hall, slung over his shoulder like a sack of barley. Hair the color of merlot glowed as they passed under a torch.
The guard swung her off his shoulder and dropped her. Her knees gave way on impact, sending her down in a rumple of pale green linen, hair flung over her face and shoulders. She had such thick burgundy waves that William couldn’t see anything of her upper body through them. Her hands were bound with rope. She blew just enough hair out of her face to expose one eye.
William took up his sword where he’d left it propped against his chair, sheathing it in the harness at his back. His fingers flexed as he crossed the hall. It occurred to him that the burgundy lass could be a criminal. Even if she was, she was still a lassie.
Where he was from, you didn’t treat a woman like an animal.
“How can I look at her like this?” Geoffrey said to the guard. His eyes roved possessively over the woman. He licked his lips. “Untie her.”
William’s stomach sickened. Any helpless woman would’ve been enough to rub against the grain, but for some reason this one made him want to beat Geoffrey to a bloody pulp, and ask questions later.
As Geoffrey drooled over the glittering jewel like a thief over an unlocked treasure chest, William assessed the situation. He was standing in the middle of another man’s hall. A Lowlander’s hall. They didn’t even dress like him. William was the only one in a plaid. All of his men were in the garrison, so he had no one to back him up.
William gritted his teeth. So, the odds were not in his favor. It wouldn’t be the first time.
The guard pulled out a knife the length of a man’s forearm and bent toward the lass. Her eyes widened, the serrated blade hovering over her, glinting in torchlight. She pushed backward with her feet, gathering a pile of rushes behind her.
William caught the guard by the wrist and twisted until he dropped the knife with a clatter on the stone floor. William let go of him, hands lifted. He didn’t want any trouble. He just couldn’t let the man come at her with a knife. The guard shifted his weight and cocked back a fist.
“Do you really want to do that?” William kept his voice calm.
The man’s hand wavered, and then he swung at William anyway. William dodged, then elbowed him in the gut. The guard collapsed to the floor, wheezing.
“I did warn you.” William picked up the knife and tucked it into his belt. He glanced at Geoffrey.
Geoffrey flicked his hand at William to continue. William was a little surprised by the lack of protestation, but he wasn’t about to argue.
The woman’s hair still hung over her face and she peered through it at him. Her gaze started on his brown leather boots and worked upward. It slid past his plaid, hesitating slightly, then paused on the pistol at his side, and again on the pommel of his claymore jutting over his shoulder. She shifted her focus onto his face. And her eyes bored into his. They were green. Cat-green.
He came down on his knees, then with aching slowness, brushed her hair behind her shoulders. It was long enough to cover half her body. Oddly enough, it was soft and smooth, as if it had been recently brushed.
Impossible with her hands bound.
His breath caught at the sight of her face. She was uncommonly beautiful, with wide expressive eyes, high cheekbones, and full lips. But she was marred by bruises ranging in color from purple to yellow, mottling her face and neck, disappearing under the embroidered trim of her bodice. He didn’t take in the shape of her body. He was too disgusted by her injuries. Not wanting to alarm her by overreacting, William kept his face neutral.
He pulled a short knife out of his boot. “I’m just going to cut you free.” He splayed his hands, letting her see the knife. He suspected they’d tied her ankles too, although he couldn’t see them. “Did they bind your feet?”
He almost moved her skirts aside, but decided to free her hands first. That way she would have the comfort of knowing she could clout him over the head if she wanted to. He gestured and she lifted her hands. Her skin was raw, the scratchy ropes sticky with blood. He cut them free and tossed the rope aside.
William winced as she pulled her hands back, hissing and clutching them close to her body.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered.
Her gaze lifted to his face, then searched as if determining his motives.
He couldn’t tell her anything, not with Geoffrey watching. He reached for the hem of her gown, but she shifted backward. He held up his hands. “You do it.”
Her gaze on him, she lifted her skirt up to her ankle. Whatever she might be, she wasn’t a loose woman. He cut her feet free, his fingers wet with her blood. God help him, but he wanted to throttle both Geoffrey and Hawknose together. One in each hand.
The guard William had elbowed earlier struggled to his feet, took two uneven strides, then collapsed again and remained motionless.
Laird Geoffrey folded his arms over his chest, his lips quirked. It wouldn’t be the first time William was made the butt of one of Geoffrey’s jokes. He had the feeling he was being set up. Looking at the lass again, her brow furrowed as she watched him with a confused expression, William decided he didn’t care.
He tucked the knife in his boot and offered her a hand, but she ignored him and scrambled to her feet on her own power. Staggering, she reached for the wall and leaned against it.
Her gown didn’t fit. She wasn’t wearing the usual hoops under her skirts either, and they fell in limp folds around her hips and thighs. Either the gown wasn’t made for her, or she’d lost weight. William resisted the temptation to rest his hand on his pistol in warning to the other men not to touch her.
Geoffrey clapped his hands in slow, methodical beats, the sound echoing through the hall. “Well done. Do be sure that heart of yours doesna bleed all over my floor.”
William clenched his fingers.
Geoffrey stepped up to the woman. She stiffened and drew back against the wall, her eyes wide. Without thought William came forward, reaching for her arm.
Geoffrey lifted his palm. “Back off.”
William hated being at a disadvantage. He stepped aside, but not away.
The lassie’s eyes darkened when Geoffrey looked her over. “You are thin,” he said. He turned to the hawk-nosed man. “Reginald, have you not fed her?”
“She refuses to eat,” Reginald said. Heat flushed from under the man’s ruffed collar, and William knew he was lying. Had he actually tried starving her? What on earth for?
Geoffrey turned back to Rhiannon, shifting closer. William didn’t care if she were a criminal. Blast it, he didn’t care if she were a witch. Geoffrey had to be stopped.
“Meet my betrothed.” Geoffrey smiled at William. “The Lady Rhiannon of Hanover.”
Not a criminal.
Not a witch.
She was Geoffrey’s.
William felt as if he were seeing her again for the first time.
“My love.” Geoffrey took her by the chin and forced her to face William. “Look at the man. You already let him touch you. You might as well greet him politely.”
There were several reasons why a woman might be forced into marriage against her will. One, she’d been compromised. Gauging by the bruises peeking from under her gown, that was very much a possibility. Two, she was worth a good deal of money. Entirely possible, judging by the fine linen of her gown. Three, she made a good political pawn. Well, she was English, and an English bride would work to Geoffrey’s advantage.
Whatever the reason, she was still a woman. And William was one man against a roomful. The voice of reason warned him to stand down, but he decided he’d had enough of reason. He stepped between Geoffrey and Rhiannon instead.
Geoffrey lifted his blond brows. “Does this bother you?”
“What are you doing?” William asked under his breath.
“The woman belongs to me.”
William straightened to his full height, a good hand’s width taller than Geoffrey. Behind him, he heard the lass shift. She smelled like ginger root, and for some reason it clouded his judgment.
He wondered what her hair would feel like beneath his calloused palms.
Focus, you idiot.
“She is injured,” William said. “Leave her be. Unless you wish for her to become ill. What good will she be to you when she is overcome with a fever?”
Geoffrey’s dark brown eyes turned toward Reginald. “’Tis your fault. You are her cousin, couldna you at least feed the chit? She is but a shadow of her former glory.”
Geoffrey wrapped his hands around Rhiannon’s waist. William heard her intake of breath. She pushed against Geoffrey’s fingers.
“Pathetic,” Geoffrey said, sliding his hands upward.
Her hair fluttered as his breath fell over her. She blanched and turned her head away, braced against his hands. Geoffrey leaned in and pressed his body against hers. The veins in his arms stood out from the pressure he applied to her rib cage.
Rhiannon cried out.
Clamping his hand over Geoffrey’s shoulder, William pulled him off of her. The Lowlander hit the floor several paces away with a grunt.
Two guards approached William, swords drawn.
William took a deep breath, and then spoke before he thought his words through. “I’m challenging you.”
William’s head warned him to shut his mouth, but he continued anyway. “Duel me for the woman.”
Geoffrey’s eyes flashed as he peeled himself off the floor. “But she is already mine.”
“You canna force yourself on her.” William had suspected, based on her injuries, but part of him hoped his assumption was wrong.
Geoffrey’s jaw flexed.
“Meet me in the lists,” William said, loud enough for the entire room to hear. “If you draw first blood, then I will walk away. If I draw first blood, then I take the woman home with me.”
There was no way Geoffrey could turn William down and not lose face in the sight of his people.
Reginald watched them with curiosity. Men whispered to each other. The golden-haired wench who’d solicited William earlier looked Rhiannon up and down, then plopped herself on another man’s knee.
“Two days hence, I shall meet your challenge,” Geoffrey said.
What skill with the sword could Geoffrey acquire in two days? Unless he had aught else in mind. Two days might give Geoffrey the opportunity to defeat William in a less dignified manner. Judging by the way the man had treated Rhiannon, anything was possible.
But he had to free her from Geoffrey. “I agree, on one condition.”
Geoffrey nodded, a grin playing at the corners of his mouth. “And what would that be?”
“The lass will be under my protection until the duel decides her fate.”
“So you can have her?”
“You have my word, I willna touch her.”
Geoffrey looked him over. “And you probably won’t.” He laughed, his chin tipped to the rafters. “I’ve not seen you with a woman yet.” Geoffrey gestured toward William. “Lady Rhiannon, take your sweet little gelding here, and get out of my dining hall.”
“Her maid is above, waiting for her,” Reginald said. He took a closer look at William, and then stepped back, as if standing too close to a Highlander might sully him. “I assume you are some form of nobility. It is so hard to tell with you barbarians and your plaids.”
A nerve in William’s arm twitched. “I am both Laird and Chieftain.”
“Very well.” He waved his hand, unimpressed. “I will be discussing my cousin’s dowry with the winner.”
William hadn’t stopped to consider the full ramifications of what he’d agreed to. As a single man, he couldn’t assume responsibility for the lady in terms of a fosterage. He took note of her tall, slim body outlined in the gloom. She was too mature to be fostered, anyhow. William ran his hand through his hair.
“Second thoughts?” Geoffrey asked.
“Not at all.”
Geoffrey chuckled to himself, then retrieved the wench and the tankard of ale he’d abandoned earlier.
William had been dismissed.
He steeled himself and approached Rhiannon like one might a venomous snake. “Do you understand what just happened?” He wasn’t trying to insult her intelligence, but he knew firsthand how hard it was to think straight when your world was collapsing.
She nodded from the shadows, her hair skipping along her shoulders. A shiver stole over her and she rubbed her arms. By God, he wanted to gather her into his arms and warm her bruised body. His thoughts surprised him. She was a beautiful woman, but he should’ve been stronger than that.
“I will escort you to your chamber,” he said with more gruffness than he’d intended. He forced himself to smile past his disgust for what had been done to her and held out his hand.
She stepped into the light. Torches flickered over her discolored features and burnished her auburn hair. William kept his hand out. He knew it would take a miracle for her to accept it, but he had to try.
She eyed his peace offering, and looked away.
He reached out, hesitated, then laid his hand over her arm and led her up the stairs. Smoking torches lit the narrow, circular stairway. By the time his boots hit the fourth step her breath quickened and she tried to turn back, but his larger body filled the space, blocking her path.
Her fingers scrabbled over stone and she tried to squeeze between the wall and his shoulder.
“Easy.” William caught her as her shoes slipped off the step above him, her nose brushing his jaw.
“Y-you,” she hiccupped, “said you would not . . .”
“I will take you to your chamber, and then leave.” He set her on the step above him and attempted to rub heat into her upper arms. “Come, now. One step at a time.”
She turned, lifted her foot, then lost her balance and stumbled, catching herself with a whimper.
“Never mind walking. You’re too weak.” He hauled her into his arms.
“I am not weak.” She pressed on his chest, but there was no strength in her arms.
Scar tissue in his shoulder pulled as Rhiannon wiggled. Her hipbone pressed into his stomach.
“Stop,” he chided.
A petite lass with earth-brown hair stood in the corridor, her eyes widening when she saw them. She held a silver hairbrush in her hand.
“You’re the lady’s maid?” William asked.
She floundered, and then shook herself. “Yes, sir, I am.”
William nodded at the door. “Do you mind?”
She opened it and William carried Rhiannon across the tiny chamber. He settled her on the narrow bed. “Her wrists and ankles need tending.”
“I will see to it.”
He looked at Rhiannon on the bed, the curve of her hip teasing his imagination, making him wonder what she’d look like filled out to perfection.
“Thank you,” the maid said. She assessed him, as if attempting to determine his station, then curtseyed.
“Aye.” William ran a hand through his hair. “I will be outside, if you should need anything.”
“You will guard the door?”
He hadn’t planned on it. His mouth was speaking for him again. “I will guard the door. Bolt it though, just to be safe.”
“Thank you . . . my laird?”
He nodded and she curtseyed again. When he left the chamber, he heard the bolt slide home behind him.
He wasn’t prepared for this. Aside from his cousin, Triona, he was aware of only two kinds of women. Easy wenches, and snooty ladies. Rhiannon was neither.
William yanked his sword free and slid to the floor, his back against the door, harness buckles scraping. He set his sword over his lap. At sunrise he would slip out and have one of his men take his place.
Maybe, if he could put some distance between himself and Rhiannon, he would find his common sense.
Scotland, 1599 . . . He'd abandoned her. She had failed to be enough for him. The empty space he'd left behind hollowed out her heart, and she wondered what to do with the rest of her life. When Ronan leaves the clan to seek his fortune, Triona MacAlastair fears she will never see him again. Four years later, a threat against her life forces her to depend on a mysterious, cloaked rogue known as Blackhawk. She knows he is capable of protecting her, but what is he hiding? Why does he refuse to show his face?