About the book
For those who love, time is eternal…
In retrospect, Margaret Higgins decides that insulting the handsome Highlander who saved her from an earthquake was not her brightest moment. Especially when it is later revealed that he is none other than her own Laird.
After his brother’s mysterious disappearance, Laird Alastair Mullen takes on the responsibilities of a Lairdship he never wanted. His days in the castle feel lonely, until Margaret and her family appear and uproot his whole life.
Alastair’s love for Margaret is the only thing that sustains him after his brother’s death. But when reports come in about a man who looks exactly like his dead brother, Alistair knows that someone is trying to manipulate him. Because dead men tell no tales…
The stag pawed at the underbrush, unaware of the predator lurking in the camouflage of nearby bushes.
Come on… a few steps forward—
Alastair crouched low between two bramble bushes. His knuckles whitened upon his bow string, pulled back to his jaw. With both eyes open, he peered down the line of his nocked arrow, knowing it would fly true. Yet there was a thick oak in the way, and if the arrowhead caught the trunk instead of sailing past, the stag would bolt.
There’s naught to fear. I’ll honor ye in death, Lad, and that’s all any of us can ask for. So, come on out where I can see ye properly—
The thrill of the hunt coursed through Alastair’s veins as the stag seemed to obey, stepping out from behind the thick oak and clearing the arrow’s path of any obstacles. All Alastair had to do was take a steadying breath and let loose.
At the same second that Alastair loosed his arrow, the stag lunged forward into a panicked sprint, charging away through the trees with a mass of birds following their woodland king.
“Damn me eyes, man!” Alastair hissed, though he quickly fell silent as more birds erupted from their hideaway branches and nests, and took off with a frantic flap of wings.
What’s the meanin’ of this, eh?
He was certain he had not made a noise before letting loose his arrow, yet the stag had moved as though startled. And the birds never followed their majestic monarch like this, as though they were on an unspoken exodus. Something was definitely wrong. Alastair could feel it in the air’s tension, like the world around him had also pulled a bow string taut and was waiting for the moment to let loose.
To confirm his fears, Alastair’s mount, Claymore, came barreling through the trees. The hulking, gray-coated war horse halted nearby and whinnied a warning.
Seconds later, a tremor shivered through the ground beneath Alastair, as though giants were on their march to battle. The leaves in the trees shook violently, and the winged stragglers took flight, leaving an eerie quiet behind. Though a low, malevolent rumble soon swept away that silence.
Is that thunder? Is a storm comin’?
Alastair jumped up and slung his bow over his shoulder. If this was a storm, it was unlike any he had ever witnessed. Namely, because there were only a few rainclouds in the sky, and he had never seen the forest wildlife so terrified of a bit of rain and lightning.
Heaving himself up into the saddle, he urged Claymore through the undergrowth, lurching straight from a lope to a gallop. Inside his broad chest, his heart pounded with worry.
To make matters worse, that first tremor was building in intensity. The entire forest seemed to be trembling, and his ears pricked at the sound of wood splitting, his eyes darting left and right in case a tree fell in front of him. Even in the saddle, he could feel the violent vibrations.
I cannae make it back to the Castle. I’ll have to find an open space where I willnae have to fret about trees fallin’.
Claymore stumbled as the rumbling ground threatened to down them both. But he was a war horse and had been trained to withstand almost anything. And so, miraculously staying upright, the horse sailed over a rotting log, and kept right on galloping.
As they burst out of the tree line a few minutes later, Alastair had never been more relieved to see the open expanse of fields. In the distance, sheep were running hither and thither, clearly petrified, while a small cluster of cows had taken refuge beneath an oak tree. Evidently, they did not know how to react to this strange event. Alastair was not faring much better, for he had not experienced an earthquake since his childhood.
He would have raced on to the center of the field and remained there until the anger of the old gods subsided, but a sight caught his sharp eyes. A stone farmhouse stood nearby, the slate tiles of the roof cascading down to the ground and shattering on impact. The windows had already smashed from the vibrations and, despite the gap between Alastair and the building, he could see that the whole thing was shaking apart.
“Margie! Margie!” A tiny voice pierced the air, revealing an equally tiny little boy who lay flat on the grass not far from the farmhouse. “Margie!”
Wheeling Claymore around, Alastair raced for the small child. On approach, Alastair jumped down from the saddle and ran the rest of the way to the boy. Just then, an older girl of, perhaps, twelve, rushed out of the farmhouse. Her face was pale, her eyes wide, and when she spotted Alastair, she just pointed back at the building with a shaky finger.
“There are folks inside?” Alastair interpreted.
The girl nodded.
The boy answered, as it seemed the older girl could not. “Margie and Summer.”
“And Da!” the girl added, finding her voice. “He’s in the dairy barn.”
Wasting no time, Alastair ran through the low-linteled door of the farmhouse. He paused for a moment to observe the carnage: glass, paintings, plates, shelves, vases, and anything else that had not been nailed down, were strewn in fragments across the floor. Embers spilled from the fireplace, shaken loose by the tremors, and one was rolling perilously close to a rug.
Grabbing a pewter jug from a nearby table, he hurled the contents at the glowing embers and watched them extinguish. Only then did he turn his attention to whoever Margie and Summer were.
“Margie? Summer?” he shouted.
“Up here!” a voice replied.
Following the sound, Alastair leaped up a narrow set of wooden stairs to an upper floor, where three doors branched away from a landing. He threw open each one until he found the owner of that voice. Of course, they were in the very last room.
“Who are ye?” the young woman snapped, huffing a breath through exertion-reddened lips. Full and wide, as though they smiled often. Though, obviously, not right now. “Well, whoever ye are—are ye goin’ to stand there like a startled hare, or are ye goin’ to aid me?”
Spurring himself into action, Alastair hurried to the young woman’s side. “Are ye savin’ valuables or is there someone under there?” he asked. If it was the former, he would have no choice but to sling this woman over his shoulder and take her outside.
“It’s Summer.” The woman rolled her eyes at him, as though it had been a stupid question. “The damned thing fell on her, but the doors were open. If they hadn’ae been… I cannae even think of it.”
Alastair nudged her aside. “Let me.” Bracing his thighs and jamming his fingers into the slight gap that the woman had managed to make, he heaved with all the might in his arms, feeling the burn of the pull through his taut abdomen and across his puffed chest.
Unleashing a roar, he pushed the ridiculously heavy wardrobe back into a standing position and looked down to find a tiny girl curled up on the floor. A streak of red marked her pale face, suggesting she had not escaped entirely unscathed when the wardrobe fell.
He bent down to scoop the girl into one arm, and hurtled back across the room, calling over his shoulder: “Come on! I daenae ken how long this house is goin’ to stay standin’!”
He thought he heard the young woman’s footsteps behind him as he raced along the landing and powered down the stairs, but as he burst out of the front door and set the girl on the ground, no one else exited. Just then, a fearsome tremor seized the earth, almost toppling Alastair where he stood.
“Margie!” the little girl wailed. “Margie!”
Now, he had a name to put to the beautiful face of that woman, but if he did not act quickly, that name might become a memory.
“Stay here. I’ll fetch her for ye,” he ordered, casting a stern look at the three children who were safe. They likely did not understand the true danger that “Margie” was in, and he did not want them doing anything foolish.
Whirling back around, Alastair charged into the farmhouse once more. There, he understood why the young woman had not followed. The wooden staircase had apparently collapsed behind him, leaving her stranded on the landing with no way down.
He ran across the debris and held out his arms. “Jump, Lass!”
“Are ye half-crazed?” she shot back, shuffling away from the edge. “I cannae jump! If ye drop me, I’ll break me legs!”
He beckoned more insistently. “I will nae drop ye, Lass. Now—” A violent rumble shook the house, interrupting him. Masonry tumbled down from the ceiling, and the archway to the main room caved in, sending chunks of stone skittering across the floor. “Jump, Lass, for both our sakes!” he bellowed, not knowing how much time they had left.
Without warning, the young woman leaped off the edge of the landing. Alastair lunged forward to catch her, feeling the wrench in his arms as she landed safely in them. But he could suffer the aches that would come later, knowing he had rescued this breathtaking maiden.
He had just turned to exit, when another tremor tore through the farmhouse. The lintel of the front door collapsed, bringing a landslide of stone with it, blocking the way out.
“Och, ye bastard!” Alastair twisted around and noticed a small door up ahead, underneath where the staircase had been. Eyeing the structure around it, he reasoned the landing above would keep off most of the masonry, and the stone seemed sturdiest there.
Running for it, he threw open the door and ducked inside, slamming the door behind him. And not a moment too soon, for a final shock ripped through the farmhouse. From within the small space, which appeared to be a woodstore, he heard the dull thuds of rock and wood and stone caving all around. Instinctively, he clutched the woman tighter to him, and she did not seem to mind as she clung to him in return, clearly terrified.
“Are we goin’ to be buried alive in here?” she whispered in a breathy voice that made Alastair’s skin tingle, her heaving bosom rising and falling against his chest as she nestled deeper into him, her arms around his neck. A first embrace that she evidently thought might be her last.
He swallowed thickly. “Nay, Lass.”
As the house continued to crumble around them, and dust and small stones rained down over their heads, however, he began to wonder if he had made the wrong choice by diving in here.
For the gloomy darkness and pine wood scent of this cramped woodstore felt an awful lot like a casket, and the falling debris seemed identical to dirt being shoveled into a grave.
At just turned four-and-twenty, Margaret Higgins was not ready for her life to be over. Being cradled in the arms of a strikingly handsome hero, and feeling the warmth of his masculine, muscular body against hers served as a further reminder that there was so much more she wanted to do with her existence.
I’ve been a surrogate ma for so long, I think I forgot I’m a lass first—
“Are any of those bairns outside yers?” the mysterious man asked. The brunt of the earthquake had ceased a short while ago, but there was always a risk that more tremors could strike. As such, Margaret was not entirely at ease in a tiny room where one of those tremors could make the world collapse.
She chuckled against his corded neck, grateful for the distraction of his husky, pleasing voice, even if his question was somewhat insulting. “Och, do I look old enough to be the ma of a lass who’s almost four-and-ten?”
“Nay!” he replied quickly. “I would’ve been more surprised to find out ye were their ma.”
“Ye’re just sayin’ that.” Having never been so close to any man before, she was curious to find that she did not feel awkward in his arms. Nevertheless, she found herself gingerly investigating the unexplored terrain of being so close to the opposite sex.
A slight shift of her fingertips against his shoulder blades discovered the rippling muscle of his back, and she could feel the hard contours of his chest against her. The carved lines felt as though they should be hewn from stone, but they were not uncomfortable to be pressed against, for there was an undeniable, almost sweltering warmth to him that radiated invitingly.
Meanwhile, though he had been holding her for some time, he did not seem bothered in the slightest. His arms were steady and secure: his sculpted biceps practically the size of her head. Whenever she saw soldiers passing through her father’s farmland, their height, strength, and scale tended to perturb her, making her hurry her siblings into a windowless room so they would not be seen, but not with this man. He felt safe.
“They’re me two sisters and me brother,” she explained, realizing she had not said who they were. “The eldest of ‘em is Isobel, and the two small ones are Callen and Summer. Twins of five-years-old, though they daenae look too much alike. They act alike, though, and that’s the trouble. Menaces, the pair of ‘em.” She smiled against his shoulder, trying to fight off her gathering concern that she would not see them again.
The man laughed: the sound soothing. “Ye should get rid of that wardrobe when ye get out of this woodstore. I wouldnae want it crushin’ anyone.”
It was a small encouragement that they would, indeed, escape, and it was greatly appreciated.
“I daenae even ken yer name,” Margaret said, hoping he would not put her down. At least for a short while longer.
“Alastair,” he replied simply, prompting her to chuckle.
“Do ye nae have a family name to go with that?”
He shrugged. “Aye. It’s Mullen.”
The name sounded familiar to Margaret, but she did not know why. Then again, Mullens were fairly common around Scotland, and finding an Alastair was akin to finding a white-fleeced sheep in a flock. As such, she did not think any more of it.
“I’m Margaret Higgins. Margie to me brother and sisters, Mags to me friends—if I had any.” Her fingertips snuck up to the nape of his neck, and felt the soft, dark hair there. Indeed, she had thought it rather odd that he wore his hair short at the sides and back, with a braid down the center. For a moment, upon the threshold of the bedchamber where Summer had trapped herself beneath the wardrobe, Margaret had mistaken this man for a bygone Viking.
“What would ye have me call ye?” His voice sounded peculiar, as though he had something lodged in his throat.
Am I gettin’ too heavy for him?
She rested her head on his shoulder, her face turned toward his neck. “Maggie.”
No one called her that anymore, and she thought it might be nice to have someone call her it again. Why not Alastair, when they would likely part ways after this ordeal was over?
“Are ye hurt, Maggie?” Gently, he set her down on a pile of logs and kneeled in front of her. She would have preferred to stay in his arms a while longer, but she was not about to argue. Besides, hearing him speak her name in that deep, gravelly voice more than made up for the absence of his embrace.
He must think the worst is over if he feels safe enough to move around— The notion brought her some comfort as she replied with a shake of her head: “I daenae think so.”
“I wish I could see somethin’,” he grumbled, but Maggie was quite content to stay in darkness. There was something thrilling about not knowing where he was looking, or where she was looking, or what part of his muscular torso she might accidentally touch.
“Should we nae wait until we’re sure the quake has ceased?” she asked anxiously, listening to him fumble around.
“Ye can feel that it has,” he replied. “As long as we stay in the center here and daenae touch anythin’ that might be holdin’ somethin’ up, we’ll be well enough until help comes, or I can figure us a way to get out.”
She heard him fumbling around some more and tried not to feel too disappointed when the strike of flint stood out against the dull peppering of the still-crumbling masonry. A spark shot out and, a moment later, a flame rose from a tinderbox. Taking the flame on the end of a thin taper, Alastair touched it to the wick of a candle that Maggie’s family always kept in the woodstore.
“That’s better.” He sighed in relief, lifting the candle up to Maggie. “Now I can properly see who I’m talkin’ to.” His dark eyes observed her closely, and she noticed them linger a moment too long upon her lips. Heat flushed her cheeks as she bowed her head.
This is why I preferred the darkness. I daenae ken how to act with ye, when we can see each other, so close together.
The woodstore was not large, by any stretch, and there was only a small rectangle of unoccupied space in the center. Everywhere else was taken up by logs and chopped pieces of wood. Even with him kneeling and her sitting on a stack of logs, there was barely a forearm’s length between them.
Sparing her from her embarrassment, a cry echoed through whatever was left of the farmhouse.
“Margie! Margie!” The familiar voice belonged to her father, and she felt gratitude wash over her. He must have escaped the dairy barn unharmed.
“Da!” she shouted back.
“Och, thank the Heavens!” came is desperate response. “Where are ye?”
She heard her father swear and knew the situation must be dire. “Are ye injured?” he asked, once the expletives had subsided.
“I’m goin’ to walk to the village to fetch help!” her father yelled. “I’ll take the bairns with me and get someone to watch ‘em while we’re diggin’ ye out! I’ll be as quick as I can, so daenae fret!” There was a pregnant pause. “Does the roof above the woodstore feel… uh… sturdy?”
Maggie gulped. “Aye, Da! Daenae worry! Go and fetch help—we’ll be fine!”
“We?” her father shouted back. “Who else have ye got there?”
Maggie cast an apologetic look at Alastair, who seemed amused. “The lad who saved me and Summer!”
She could picture her father’s unimpressed face. Since coming of age, barely a year had gone by when there had not been a carousel of suitors at the farmhouse door, pleading to be gifted Maggie’s hand in marriage. All had been refused, though Maggie had not always been given the chance to see them first. Most of the time, her father had already chased them away before she could get a peek.
I’ll be a wrinkled crone by the time me da will give me permission to find a husband.
She snuck a glance at Alastair, taking in his rugged handsomeness: strong brow, wide nose, angular cheekbones, square jaw framed by a neatly trimmed, short beard, and the most enchanting eyes she had ever seen. They had an honest quality to them that she could not describe, with thick lashes that made her envious. Further down, a small, thin scar slightly marred the bow at the top of his full lips, but she found it rather endearing. A flaw to his otherwise immaculate face.
“If he lays a hand on ye, tell him I’ll have me ax waitin’!” her father barked, clearly reluctant to abandon his eldest daughter to a cramped space with a strange man.
“I wouldnae do such a thing!” Alastair replied: a flicker of annoyance pinching his brows together. “When ye get to the village, go to the outpost and ask for Fletcher Todd, or whoever is on duty. Tell ‘em that “The Stag” is in trouble and they’ll follow ye directly!”
Maggie arched an eyebrow. “Is that yer nickname?”
“One of ‘em,” Alastair replied, with a grin.
“There are plenty bodies who’ll help me if I ask ‘em!” Maggie’s father shouted back somewhat churlishly, making her cringe.
Alastair groaned under his breath. “At least take me horse! Ye’ll get there quicker!”
“I daenae need hooves when I’ve got me own two feet!” came the sharp response.
“Daenae be a fool!” Alastair called emphatically, but there was no reply. Either Maggie’s father was ignoring the fellow, or he had already begun his stubborn walk to Bormir Village—forty minutes to the east of the farmhouse, and that was at a swift pace. With the three children in tow, it would surely take her father over an hour to get there.
Alastair sat back, resting up against another stack of logs. “Is yer da always like that?”
“When there are other men around, aye. He disnae like to feel like he’s bein’ told what to do,” Maggie explained, wishing she could somehow knock some sense into her beloved father. She adored the bones of him, but his stubborn streak often got him into trouble, especially when selling at the markets. Moreover, it had filtered down into his youngest offspring, who were as obstinate as mules when they wanted to be.
To her surprise, Alastair laughed. “Aye, I ken a few of them meself. Me brother was pigheaded as anythin’. Once he got somethin’ in his mind, he wouldnae sway from it, nay matter how foolish.” He paused, sounding suddenly sad. “He had scars all over from the dangerous things he did, after someone bet him he couldnae. I watched him jump straight off the edge of a waterfall ‘cause his friend said he was too scared. Clipped his head on a rock and walked out of the water with this huge grin while there’s blood runnin’ down the side of his face.”
“Sounds like he’d be firm friends with me da.” Maggie canted her head, sensing the unspoken sentiment in his words. “He isnae around anymore, is he?”
Alastair shook his head. “Nay.”
“Same as me ma.” She felt it was only right to share, but not without bringing some levity back to the woodstore. “Though she wasnae leapin’ off waterfalls. I would’ve paid good coin to see that, mind. She’d have howled like a banshee the whole way down. Hated anythin’ scary, me ma. Hated water even more, so that would’ve been her nightmare. Me—I think I was a fish in me past life. Cannae get me out the water once I’m in.”
Alastair smirked, as Maggie had hoped he would. “Have ye got scales under yer shift?”
“Och aye, but daenae tell anyone or they’ll come after me with torches and swords.” She flashed him a wink and lifted a finger to her lips.
Having never flirted with anyone before, she did not know if she was doing it properly. Although, she was rather pleased by his witty comment, even if it was a touch more brazen than she had expected. Looking as he did, she suspected he was well versed in the art of flirtation.
Alastair cackled in delight. “Ye’re sharp as a fresh-whetted blade.”
“Would a wet blade nae be duller? Slippery, at least,” she quipped.
His eyes twinkled in the candlelight, brimming with amusement. “In the wrong hands, aye, but I daenae think anythin’ could rust or dull yer edges, Maggie. I havenae met a lass stuck in a tumblin’ down house who could still make a jest.” He rubbed his short beard. “I think ye might be a rarity, Lass.”
“Och aye, that’s why me da keeps me locked up in an outbuilding,” she teased, wafting a dismissive hand at him. “If the lads hereabouts were to find out I’m funny, I’d have to beat ‘em away with a stick.”
Alastair chuckled. “I’d wager ye already do.”
“Who told ye?” Maggie leaned forward, feigning outrage. “I thought I’d sworn everyone to secrecy.”
His expression turned serious for a moment, and somewhat sultry. “Who could stay away, knowin’ there’s a lass like ye here? Beauty and humor, together with a carin’ heart and a natural grace.”
“Said by someone who hasnae seen me dance,” she fired back, trying to suppress the giddy, bubbly feeling that spread across her chest and up her throat. “If ye had, ye’d wonder if I was born with one foot put on backward. As for the carin’ heart—the twins wouldnae agree with ye. They think I’m an ogre who’s ‘so unfair’ all the time.”
He shook his head. “Bairns daenae cry out so desperately for someone they daenae adore with all their hearts. And yer littlest sister dinnae even whimper when she was under that wardrobe—do ye want to ken why?”
“Why?” She pressed a hand to her heart, to try and urge it to stop thumping so hard.
“She knew ye’d get her out, nay matter what, ‘cause ye’re her beloved sister. There isnae another bond like it.” His eyes lit up with something akin to admiration, though they once more lingered upon her lips, making her feel warm and tingly. “Me brother was like that with me.”
Curiosity got the better of Maggie. Or maybe she was just eager to change the subject, so she could find a moment to catch her breath. “What happened to him, if ye daenae mind me askin’?”
“He… vanished.” Alastair furrowed his strong brow. “Went out huntin’ one day, never came back. There were wolf tracks close to his favorite spot, and… blood. A lot of it. We never found his body, but it disnae take a prodigy to figure out what happened.”
Maggie’s stomach tightened with sorrow, as she wished she had never asked. “I’m sorry.”
“Aye.” He dipped his chin to his chest, robbing her of his enchanting gaze.
“Me ma passed giving birth to the twins,” Maggie confessed, feeling obliged. “In many ways, ye were right to ask if I was their ma, since they havenae known any other ma but me. And me da dinnae ken the first thing about raisin’ bairns, so I’ve been mother hen ever since. Do ye like me plumage?” She pretended to ruffle feathers, wanting him to look at her again.
He lifted his head, wearing another charming smile. “Aye, I do. Lovely, silky feathers. Though I bet yer beak is as sharp as yer wit.”
“Och, ye have no idea.” She feigned pecking, until the woodstore filled with contented laughter. Apparently, this flirting business was not as difficult as it appeared. All one had to do was pretend to be a chicken, make thinly veiled compliments about another’s looks, and the giddy feeling came flooding back.
Indeed, they might have continued in their joyful encounter, if a sudden cascade of masonry had not tumbled from the ceiling at that moment. Lightning fast, Alastair sprang for Maggie, using his formidable body as a human shield as the stones pummeled down. His arms encircled her, and his chest curved over the top of her head, bearing the brunt with only a few muffled grunts of pain.
As the crumbling ebbed, Alastair pulled back, tousling the stone dust from his dark hair. “I guess the house disnae like us laughin’.”
“Och, what a misery,” she joked, though she was truly concerned that the rockfall might have caused him some injury. “Are ye sure that wasnae a tremor?”
“Aye, there wasnae a rumblin’. It’s just what’s left of the farmhouse shiftin’.” He went back to his spot on the ground and beckoned for Maggie. “Ye should come here. I ken it isnae a polite suggestion, but if ye’d sit in me lap, I can protect ye quicker if that happens again.” He glanced up at the ceiling. “I daenae like to be a cynic, but I amnae sure that’s as sturdy as we’d like it to be.”
“Remember, me da said he’d be waitin’ with his ax, so we’ll have to keep this between the two of us.” Maggie flashed him a nervous smile as she went to him and settled down into the dip between his crossed legs. Unlike his chest, the thigh that supported the base of her spine truly was as hard as rock, but she was not going to be picky when the roof could collapse at any moment.
Tentatively, his arms slipped around her, pulling her closer to him until she was cradled against his chest, as she had been before. His shoulders were slightly hunched forward, already braced in the right position to keep her safe if more masonry fell. Even with such a threat looming over them, she could not remember feeling this secure in all her life.
I daenae want to die, but if it has to be in the arms of a handsome bear of a man, I’d be wearin’ a grin on me way to Heaven—
As a flurry of stone dust spattered down, it served as a reminder not to get carried away. While there was still every chance of the roof caving in, she would not tempt fate.
“It will nae budge.” Alastair stepped away from the woodstore door, which he had been trying to force open. There were few things that could beat him when it came to strength, but he was conscious of not pushing too hard, in case it brought everything crashing down on top of them.
Maggie shrugged, seeming surprisingly unbothered that they were still trapped after what had felt like hours. “Me da will bring men, and they can haul us out. Just like ye said about me sister—I’ve got faith me da will rescue us.”
Alastair observed her for a moment, in the glow of the meagre candlelight. Possessed of long, chestnut hair, which she kept sweeping off a beautiful face, with an almost feline nose, a narrow chin, flushed plump cheeks, and desperate, cat-like green eyes that flashed in Alastair’s direction, she was breathtaking even in the gloom.
Not to mention the slender figure that was likely more exposed than it ought to have been, thanks to her loose hemp shirt slipping down over her chest and shoulders, revealing sun-warmed skin and the slight swell of small breasts, confined by her stays.
Realizing he had been looking too long, Alastair sat back down and urged Maggie back into the safety of his lap. There had not been a dusting of masonry for a long while, suggesting the house had finished falling apart, but he did not want to take any chances.
And I like the way she feels in me arms—
He did not even mind the numbness that crept into his legs, after lengthy spells in the same position, for it was worth enduring for the sake of keeping Maggie close to him. He could not explain it, and perhaps it was the stifling air of the woodstore getting to him, but her proximity—body to body—made him feel invincible. As if he could make them both survive the roof caving in, as long as he was holding her.
“Those lads would be here by now, if he’d taken me horse,” Alastair grumbled, secretly relishing in the way her petite buttocks rested perfectly in his lap. Several times, when she had shifted around for comfort, he had been forced to count backwards from one hundred to stop the friction from awakening a fire in his loins.
Suddenly, Maggie did shift around once more, though not as she had done before. This time, she turned to face him, her thighs bending at either side of his waist. His eyes widened in surprise, as the fabric of her skirts gathered against his groin.
“I daenae want to be outlandish, but can I put me legs around ye instead? It’s gettin’ painful, sittin’ across yer thighs.” There was a sweet nervousness to her words that charmed him immeasurably. He could tell she was unaccustomed to such physical contact and wanted to reassure her that she was in honorable hands. If he had to count down from ten thousand until they were rescued, he would.
He smiled. “Aye, Lass, of course ye can.” He battled against the stirring desire within him as he shuffled forward, so she could wrap her legs around his waist. It had been many years since he had held a woman like this, or felt a woman’s arms around him, or felt a woman’s breath upon his skin. Truly, it was overwhelming, but in the nicest possible way. Besides, there was nothing else pleasant to concentrate on in this cramped woodstore.
“Och, I can feel me limbs again.” She sighed and arched backward, presumably in jest.
“Ye really cannae tell me da about this,” Maggie whispered, as she leaned forward again, resting her head on his shoulder and draping her arms down his back. “He wasnae kiddin’ about the ax. I’ve seen him chase lads for miles, wieldin’ that thing.”
He inhaled the woodsmoke scent of her hair, finer than any perfume. “He must worry for ye, as all fathers do when it comes to their daughters. But ye daenae have to worry about me, Maggie.” His throat constricted as she adjusted her position, bringing her hips closer to him. “I’m only here to protect ye.”
“I imagine ye wish ye hadn’ae come to help, eh?” She laughed against his shoulder, and the movement of her lips felt agonizingly like a kiss.
He kept his arms around her, conscious of not allowing his hands to slide too low. “It’s me duty to tend to those in need.”
Of course, there was no way she could understand the enormity behind that statement. He had wondered if she knew who he was, but after giving the name of “Alastair Mullen,” and seeing no recognition, he had found himself with a rare opportunity. Here was a beautiful, intelligent, amusing young woman who had no idea that he was the Laird of MacKinna.
“Do you have the Second Sight?” She pulled back, once again accidentally urging her hips forward while her hands braced against his shoulders.
He shook his head. “Nay, guess again.”
“Hm… let me have a look at ye.” She took his hand in hers and peered at it with comical closeness. “Rough hands, but nae so rough as some. And ye’ve callouses on yer two forefingers, so ye’re nae unfamiliar with a bow. I cannae see ye workin’ with aught delicate—pottery or whatnot—else ye’d squash it without meanin’ to. Aye, these bear paws are nae for delicate things.”
A laugh burst out of him. “Bear paws?”
“Look at ‘em!” She put his palm to her cheek. “Bigger than me head!”
“Maybe ye’ve a peculiarly small head,” he retorted playfully.
She tapped her temple with her knuckle. “There isnae anythin’ small about me head. I’ve got to fit all those wits in here, remember?” She let his hand fall, though he would have happily kept it on her cheek. “Whatever ye are, ye’ve been well fed. I reckon there are giants smaller than ye. So, ye’ve nae starved, and yer ma and da have taken fine care of ye, so ye could shoot up like a yew tree.”
“Am I a giant, a bear, or a yew tree?” Alastair admired the animation of her beautiful face. There was nothing bland about her whatsoever.
Maggie shrugged. “A giant tree bear, I suppose. Though I daenae ken what ye do for yer toil. Ye’re a difficult one to read.” She narrowed her striking green eyes, looking more cat-like than ever. “I’d have said ye were a soldier, but ye daenae have the right angry prickle about ye. And ye speak like ye’re educated, so I cannae figure ye out.”
“I’m a… merchant of sorts,” he replied, choosing his words carefully.
She canted her head. “A merchant, eh? Nae what I’d pictured.”
“I am told that often.” He smiled, thinking of all the business associates who stared, open-mouthed, when they came to meet with him for the first time, or when he went to meet them, all across the British Isles and upon the Continent.
“Ye must be educated, then.” An odd excitement flickered in her eyes. “I was only taught by me ma, but she used to be a fine lady. Married for love, the silly thing, and ended up in this farmhouse. Me da never let her want for anythin’, though, and I’ve done me best to educate me brother and sisters in her stead. Most of the time, it’s like wrangling greased rats, especially when the twins bite.”
Alastair’s eyebrows rose a quarter inch. “They bite?”
“Only when they’re really hungry.” She cast him a wicked grin, so he was not sure if she was teasing him or not.
“What did yer ma teach ye?” He was expecting the most rudimentary education, such as learning to read and write, so it came as a surprise when she rattled off her accomplishments.
“I’m literate, to start. I also speak, read and write French and reasonable Spanish, and I speak Greek though I could never, for the life of me, figure out the letters. Ironic, considerin’ “alphabet” has its roots in Greek. I also speak some Latin, though it bored me rigid. I’m versed in the sciences, mathematics, literature, music—though I cannae sing and ye’d stuff wax in yer ears if ye heard me play the harpsichord—and I’m fairly effective with a brush in me hand, to paint a nice picture when I feel inclined.”
Alastair gaped at her. “Goodness.”
“Och, ye dinnae happen upon just any farmer’s daughter when ye came chargin’ into the house to save me and me sister.” Her coy expression softened. “I cannae tell ye how grateful I am for what ye did, by the way. The roof would’ve collapsed while I was still tryin’ to lift that wardrobe, if ye hadn’ae. So… thank ye, from the bottom of me heart. It isnae just anyone who’d nearly sacrifice himself for a stranger and her family.”
Alastair laughed quietly. “The lads from the village are nae here yet. It might be a sacrifice after all, but I’ll still protect ye ‘til the end.”
“Why?” She adopted a quizzical gaze. “If ye’re a merchant, I’d wager ye’ve a lot to lose. Why did ye put yerself in harm’s way for someone ye dinnae ken?”
It was a question he would have asked himself, eight years ago, before his brother’s death altered him irrevocably. He had been twenty then and, with Eric as heir to the MacKinna Lairdship, he had lived as most second sons did—carefree, wanton, indulging in pleasures and leisurely pursuits with no thoughts for the future. When he suddenly became the heir, and his father passed three years later, making him the Laird, he no longer had the liberty of acting only for himself.
There isnae anythin’ I wouldnae do for me Clan, and ye’re within me territory, so ye’re one of me people… but I cannae tell ye that yet. I like that ye daenae ken who I am.
“I was taught to believe that nay one person is above another, and I should do all in me power to help people wherever I can,” he explained, instead. “I heard yer brother screamin’ for ye. If I hadn’ae stopped, I would never have forgiven meself. Why, do I nae look like someone who’d do somethin’ for another?”
She sat back in his lap, her palms absently moving down to his chest. “Ye daenae look like a fool, so nay.”
“Och, ye’d have done the same,” he replied, trying not to think about her hands against his racing heart.
She laughed. “Aye, but if I had, in that situation, everyone would’ve been doomed.” Grinning, she drew her hands from his chest and pulled up her right sleeve, before flexing her bicep. “Look at these twiglets. Nay good for anythin’ but scoldin’ wayward bairns and stirrin’ hearty stews. Even then, they get tired.”
Unable to resist, he reached out and gave her upper arm a gentle squeeze. “Seems strong to me.” He had a strange urge to lean forward and kiss that bare skin, for it looked so smooth and inviting, and he knew his lips would follow a natural path across her shoulder and down her chest to her now-concealed bosom. Fortunately, he held back.
Ye’d frighten the poor lass!
“I wonder where me da is.” Maggie turned her face away shyly, as though he had tried to kiss her soft skin. “How long do ye think has passed since he left?”
Alastair sat back against the stack of logs and tried not to sigh contentedly as she relaxed back into him, draping her arms down his back and settling her head on his shoulder once more. “Do ye hear that sound?”
The woodstore fell silent as they both listened out for the noise. It came, a minute or so later: an ugly screech that cut through the quiet. The cry was returned shortly after, with an equally horrible scream.
“Foxes?” Maggie murmured into his shoulder.
He nodded. “So I’d say it’s evenin’. If we hear an owl hootin’, then we’ll ken for sure.”
“Evening?” she sounded horrified. “They should’ve been back by now.”
He discreetly tightened his hold around her. “Aye, but they’re nae. If they’re still nae back in a few hours, I’ll use all me weight against that door.”
“Why nae do it now?” Her hands clawed lightly at his back.
“I daenae want everythin’ fallin’ in on us. I have to be sure nay soul is comin’ until I try that,” he said, though he had other reasons. Namely, he was not yet ready to emerge from this darkened world, where she would discover who he really was.
For once, he just wanted to be Alastair.
That’s what Eric said… and then he was snatched by some vile beast.
As a Mullen, he guessed he had to be careful what he wished for.
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