And she couldnt.
The mighty Black Stag of Kintailhad
kept a watchful eye on the MacLeods in recent years, his far-reaching shadow and reputation enough to prevent the rival clan from making all too frequent use of their nefarious underwater chain.
The MacLeods Girt of Strength, Hugh was fond of calling the chain whenever his affinity for drink put him in a boasting mood. Or, more often still, the prattle-mongers insisted, when his voracious appetite for light-skirted lasses left him desiring to impress.
To be sure, with its far end secured and hidden by a great cairn of stones, the heavy-linked chain could be raised and lowered at will from Hughs castles gatehouse. Only a fool thought to slip past Castle Uisdean without rendering a tribute for the privilege.
A fool, or a shipmaster who stood in high favor with the Black Stag of Kintailfor all galleys bearing the MacKenzie banner were left to pass in peace.
Linnet shifted on the hard seat of her chair, struggled to ignore the unpleasant tingles erupting along the nape of her neck.
Sir Marmaduke leaned close. If the gossip in the glens can be believed these days, Hugh has grown too weak and addled to keep his many mistresses well-tended, much less raise and lower his dread water-chain, he said, slapping the flat of his palm on the table. Fore God, a bit of good swordery would be all the lout needed to be put back in his place should suchlike be requirednot the marriage of his shrewish get to our own Robbie. The lad needs a bold-eyed, high-colored lass with curves a-plenty to warm him, I say!
Linnet looked at him sidelong. There have been other difficulties with the MacLeods, she said, hoping the smoothness of her tone would ease his irritation. Little things, to be sure, but . . . annoying.
Precisely, Sir Marmaduke agreed. Countless trivialities that could all be addressed without saddling Robbie with a pinched-face maid lacking the charms to challenge even the least discriminating mans masculine susceptibilities.
You surprise me, Sir Marmaduke. Linnet raised her brows. Neer have I heard you speak so harshly of a woman.
He had the good grace to appear chagrined . . . but only for a moment. Then perchance you have spent too little time around me when I see those I love sinking into a bog of their own digging.
Linnet made no response.
She could not tell him of the fine flame-haired lass shed glimpsed in the hearth fire. For meant to be or nay, in the end, a soul must choose its own freely followed path. She could only pray Robbie would choose his hearts path and not the road paved by duty.
Linnets scar-faced champion of old gave something like a sigh.
I crave your pardon, lady, he said, sounding anything but contrite. Tis only that in earlier times, Duncan would have never tolerated such deep-reaching changes to his household.
He made a great sweeping gesture with his arm, drew her attention to the cold stone floor, now swept free of the thick layer of rushes so crucial to lending warmth and comfort. A necessity, too, in absorbing the worst of the halls ceaseless din.
Nay, nay, nay, I say you, in days past, he would have stormed through here bellowing rage like a goaded bull. He looked at her. And the worse for any who may have tried to stop him. Yet now, on my soul
My lord only wishes the best for his son. And Kintail. His people, Linnet broke in, her fingers tightening on her wine cup. And mayhap, too, he has simply grown weary of strife.
She looked toward the hearth again, stared at the small flames yet curling along the bottom of the fire log.
He is not overly concerned because I have assured him all will be well with Robbies marriagedespite Lady Euphemias tight-lipped scowls. She slanted a glance at her friend. Can you not trust me as well?
Sir Marmaduke drew a deep breath, pulled down a hand over his mouth. I should have faith when, by Gods good graces, you and all within these walls seem bent on allowing this keep to be turned into a castle of gloom?
He leaned close again, so near this time that his breath hushed against her cheek. Dear lady, even your husbands precious hounds have been banished from the dais. Think you Robbie will not notice that change alone? You know how he favors dogs.
Och, to be sure and I do, Linnet agreed, remembering Robbies childhood devotion to old Mauger, the grandsire of nigh every dog within Eilean Creags stout castle walls. And mayhap a goodly number beyond!
But in truth, shed scarce heard her friends words for her attention had drifted . . . elsewhere. Cold sweat beginning to trickle between her breasts, she pressed her feet against the unyielding stone of the now-bare dais floor and focused on connecting herself to her surroundings. Anything to distract her from the increasingly persistent chills and tingles.
The unsettling drone of approaching bees.
Is aught amiss, lady? Sir Marmaduke laid a hand on her arm, the friendly contact pulling her back from the loud-buzzing abyss.
I am . . . well, she lied, not wishing to alarm himnor hearing a word of his concerned response.
The buzzing noise would just not go away.
Refusing to tremble, she managed a glance to the far end of the hall where her two daughters lay sprawled across the twin-facing benches of a deep window embrasure. They, too, sometimes possessed the power to call her back, her love for them strong enough to stave off the dread visitations before they could manifest.
If she could focus well enough.
Something she hadnt been able to do in recent days.
Hoping desperately that she could now, she peered deep into the window alcove. The flickering glow of a nearby pitch-pine torch cast sparse illumination into the arched recess. Not much light, to be sure, but enough to gild the sleeping forms of her daughters.
But her two precious girls were not alone.
A closer look revealed that nigh every four-legged beast to populate Eilean Creag had deigned to join them!
Linnets heart lifted at the sight and, at once, the droning buzz of bees withdrew from her ears, and even the chills sliding up and down her back began to recede. And beneath the table, the tensed muscles of her feet and legs slowly relaxed.
She drew a shaky breath. This night, at least, the flame-haired beauty she knew could only be Robbies meant-to-be bride would not be making an appearance.
Nor would any other harbingers her gift might have attempted to visit upon her.
Sighing with inward relief, warmth flooded her as she stared at her slumbering girls.
They, too, had kept a long vigil, waiting in vain for their brothers return. The older lass, raven-haired Arabella staring morosely at the halls massive, iron-shod door the whole night through. And the younger Gelis, a lively girl with the same bright coloring as her mother, had forgone her supper in favor of brisk, ceaseless pacing.
Untiring and determined, shed turned deaf ears on all pleas to return to the dais and had stubbornly made one circuitous sweep of the hall after the other, until the lateness of the hour finally wore down even her quick-thrumming exuberance.
They have their hearts in the right place, Sir Marmaduke said, following her gaze. You will not punish them?
Punish them? She laid a deliberate lightness to her tone. Chide them for staying below? For seeking and giving warmth and comfort when, of late, such . . .disquiet
has surged into their world?
Picking up a horn-handled table knife, she shook her head as she cut herself a thick slab of brown bread, smeared it with sweet, heather-flavored honey.
Nay, I shall not chastise them, nor shoo them to their bed. I would sooner toss plaiding oer the lot of them and scatter handfuls of comfits for them to find upon waking.
Reward for their fortitude?
Aye, that would be the way of it, she admitted, touching the rim of her wine cup to her friends.
Truth be told, shed ordered the girls abovestairs hours beforebut to no avail. Should she waken them now, theyd simply claim theydhad
to stay where theyd fallen asleep.
To move would have meant disturbing the equally slumbering canines and hadnt the poor beasties been trod upon enough of late?
And Linnet would not have been able to argue otherwise.
Besides, she, too, would relish snuggling in the cozy confines of one of the halls deep window embrasures, a brace of soft, embroidered pillows and warm, adoring-eyed dogs to shelter and soothe her into a good nights sleep.
Something shed missed in recent days with her lord husband spending his nights stalking the ramparts, no doubt repeatedly scanning Loch Duichs eastern shore and the enclosing, hills rising so close behind the lochs long-curving, shingled strand.
Your stepson will show no less fortitude than your bonnie daughters, Sir Marmaduke said into the stillness, his deep voice so soft Linnet wasnt certain shed caught the words aright.
Beg pardon? She blinked, hoping shed misheard the ill ease in his tone.
Robbie did not spend all these years away to return a spineless cockerel. He will do his duty by the MacLeod maid, seeing himself honorbound to marry her, he said, looking at her. And that, dear lady, is what plagues me this night.
And those very concerns trouble me, too,
Linnets heart cried in response.
simply nodded and gave him her most sincere smile of commiseration.
Twas the best she could do.
That, and pin all her hopes on the maid of flame.
Robbies first real glimpse of Eilean Creag Castle lanced his soul. His heart slammed hard against his ribs and for one startled, disbelieving moment he wondered what dastard had dared deliver such a ferocious, knock-the-wind-from-him blow to his chest.
But then he knew.
Twas only all the wonder hed been feeling earlier, spiraling back to enchant him anew.
His most intimate and beloved corner of Kintail welcoming him, with arms flung wide. Breathing deep of the damp, gorse-scented air, he tightened his hands on the reins, hot emotion pulsing through every inch of him.
Soon he would sit at his own fireside and the sweetness of that prospect possessed him, as did the incredible panorama of deeply-indented coastline and wide horizons spread before him.
Eer a wild country of sea lochs, broad heather slopes, and high mist-filled corries, Kintail with its rugged peaks so oft hidden by swirling clouds had always held his heart. Mayhap even since beyond the reaches of time, so great was his passion for this land. But tonight, histrue
home, this lonesome stretch of Loch Duich, squeezed the very breath from him.
Drawing up on a high, boulder-strewn knoll, he stared out across the black-frowning water, his gaze stretching past a scatter of kelp-strewn islets to the great loch-girted stronghold that had consumed his every waking and sleeping hour for more years than he wished to count.
Moonlight gilded the long stone causeway leading out to the island fortress. Looking at it, Robbie swallowed hard, a whirl of soul-deep longing welling inside him.
Saints, just the silhouette of Eilean Creag etched dark against the hills thickened his throat so fiercely he doubted he could speak if his life depended on it.
And to his manly shame, or mayhap not, red-hot fire needles jabbed into the backs of his eyes, making them sting and blur until he accepted the tears for what they were and used a fold of his plaid to swipe the telltale dampness from his cheek.
Aye, twas a night of magic.
A night filled with beauty and sparkling crystal starsthe brightest, loveliest of them all melted so softly against him in her sleep. He leaned down and pressed a light kiss to the top of her head, let his lips graze her sunfire hair.
A liberty that would surely have cost him atrue
fist to his gut were she awake.
Mayhap even worse if she realized how very much he relished the simple liberty of just breathing in her fresh, heathery scent.
Unthinkable if she suspected how often, since leaving the lochan, hed remembered the musky tang of her womanhood. How that one wee whiff of her most intimate femininity had fired his blood. Sweeter than any rose, her scent intoxicated him beyond all good bounds of knightly restraintand made him burn for more.
He looked down at her, his gaze focusing on her thick, shining braids and fought against a raw need that wound tighter with each pounding beat of his heart. Knowing himself lost, he pulled in another great, lung-filling breath of the damp night air and let it out slowly.
Saints, but shed bewitched him. Her hair alone held him in thrall, the gleaming red-gold plaits shining gloriously bright even in the pale moonlight of the windswept knoll.
Increasingly aware of bestirrings of a most ungallant and demanding sort, he cast a deep sigh and adjusted his hold on her. Just a slight shifting of her warm weight in his armsenough so that, should she waken, she wouldnt be shocked by his . . .condition.
Though, in truth, he doubted anything would astound the lass. He knew without question that she was made of a finer, stronger metal than most.
Still, he did not want to unduly trouble her.
At least not until hed figured out a way to keep her,have
her, and do so without shaming her.
A hearts desire his honor alone declared an impossibility.
Emotion surging through him, he looked back out across the loch. The night-bound waters gleamed black as rare, polished glass and the moon spilled a rippling path of molten silver to the farthest shore, to Eilean Creag and . . . home.