Authors: Paula Quinn
“In truth, ’twas ye who pointed oot my honesty.”
“I see,” she bristled, but she refused to get caught up in his articulate trap. “Why did ye mention my brothers’ sake when ye asked me to meet with ye? Our clans are sworn enemies. My name is spat with contempt from yer kin’s lips, as yers is from mine. My father is the man who killed yer uncle, and yer clan has had their revenge. There is nothing more. So, tell me why?”
Judging by the way he stared at her, as if he was finally at a loss for words, Isobel guessed that no woman had ever questioned his motives before. But then his gaze skimmed across her hair, over the bridge of her nose, softening on her lips.
“Ye’re a flame, Isobel,” he said, lifting his eyes to meet hers. “And a flame is more allurin’ than a pile of embers.”
Oh, he did not have to go in search of danger, Isobel told herself, willing her breath to slow. He was the epitome of it. Dear Father Almighty, keep her from sighing like a besotted fool. Poor, poor Lady Ashley, and every other lady this man set his sights on. His words were as enchanting as the hint of vulnerability beneath his rakish grin. If he wasn’t a MacGregor, she might be tempted to give in to his clever seduction all over again. It was that powerful. But he
a MacGregor, and she was not a besotted fool, so instead, she propped her hand on her hip and gave him a pointed look. “Ye are well-practiced at this.”
His smile broadened with something akin to astonishment—most likely at the fact that she was not swooning all over him. “In truth, I am,” he admitted, then shot out
his hand to stop her when she turned to walk away. “But I dinna’ usually care if anyone believes the things I tell them.”
Why did he care if she believed him? And why did she still find his candor so disarming… so damned likable? God help her. She needed to hasten this walk along so she could get back to her room and away from him.
“What of my brothers? Why did ye ask to speak to me fer their sakes?”
“I wanted to give ye my word that I did not betray yer trust with the things ye told me of Alex. When I explained to my faither that yer brother had gone simple-minded after falling from his horse a few years ago, he agreed no’ to take anything Alex says directly while he’s here. So ye have nae more to fret over if Alex stays behind.”
Isobel did her best to squelch the smile he was quite obviously after. To call Alex simple-minded was rude indeed, but if it would keep her brother safe, let the MacGregors think what they would. “Ye have my gratitude fer that.”
His smile softened on her. “Ye’re verra much welcome.”
Mastering control over her breathing, she pulled free of his hold. What part of him was more perilous? His innate magnetism, his seemingly genuine sincerity, or the levity with which he treated just about everything? She didn’t want to find out. “Well.” She motioned him along the path. “Ye requested a walk. Let us get it over with.”
“If ye’ll recall,” he answered, unaffected by her obvious rejection, “I requested a smile as well.”
Isobel would have laughed in his face if she trusted herself to look at him and not give in to one of his requests. “Ye will be getting neither.”
He shrugged, unconvinced as they walked. “ ’Tis a big garden.”
She knew she should leave right then, when she felt the smile creeping over her mouth. She should run back to her brothers, but she couldn’t seem to move her feet. Somewhere deep inside her, she wasn’t sure she wanted to.
“Now ye have
“Fer what?” Isobel granted him only half her attention and the rest to the lanterns lighting their path. “It was simply exasperation ye saw on my face. The way one might grimace while beseeching God to grant one patience. I am afraid ye mistook what ye saw fer something it was not.”
She could feel his eyes on her like brands, willing her to look at him. “Ye are so refreshin’ to me, Isobel. Ye are like no one I have ever met before, and I—”
She heard the footsteps to her left, but she hardly had time to register that they were no longer alone. She should have run. One moment, he was speaking to her as smoothly as the serpent spoke to Eve, and the next, she was in his arms, bent slightly backward over the crook of his elbow and gaping up at his face—his extremely close face. She drew back and opened her mouth to demand he release her, but her words were swallowed up by his lips covering hers. Horrified at first, Isobel tried to pummel his chest with her fists, but her attempts to break free of him only seemed to ignite his ardor. Pulling her closer, he crushed her to him, devouring her with a kiss that drew the breath from her trembling body. His lips molded and teased. His tongue stroked and tasted every inch of her until she felt her will to resist him abandon her. When he finally pulled back, Isobel’s breath came hard and heavy.
He smiled, looking quite pleased with himself despite his own labored breath and the smoky remnants of desire burning his eyes.
“That was clo—”
The remainder of his words were cut off by her swift slap across his face. But Isobel wasn’t satisfied and slapped him a second time. She stared at him while he lifted his fingers to the sting in his cheek. She didn’t trust herself to speak. She wasn’t even sure if her tingling lips could form the curses he deserved to hear.
She finally did run then, and she didn’t stop until she reached her chamber and bolted the door behind her.
Oh, dear God, he had kissed her. Tristan MacGregor had kissed her, and it was wonderful.
ristan left Lady Elizabeth Sutherland with a curse on his lips and headed across the court to the lawns. He was angry with himself, but he had Isobel to blame for his sudden—and a bit frightening—lack of interest in the fairer sex. It didn’t matter that she had avoided him like the plague since their kiss in the garden, completely ignoring him at the coronation yesterday. She haunted his every waking moment, and his dreams, as well. Why? Was it the refreshing resistance she offered to his most practiced advances that piqued his interest? Or the succulent flame of her tongue that left him aching for more?
When he’d heard the footsteps in the garden that night and had seen who it was, he’d pulled her into his arms and kissed her to keep her hidden from her brother’s eyes. He would have told her so if she hadn’t slapped him. His face pained him for two days, but tasting her was worth it.
Mayhap it was the long-forgotten path he saw in her eyes, tempting him toward it once again. She had
pointed out virtues he hadn’t realized he possessed until now—wee remnants of his once-longed-for destination that were so ingrained in him, they came as second nature. It was why he didn’t pick up his blade unless he was forced to, why he always spoke the truth, unless it was cruel to do so, and why he always found himself offering his aid to a lass, in whatever capacity she required.
His bonnie Iseult had shown him a path that led to honor. But did he still want it? Could he still attain it? He tried not to think on it too much.
Instead, he found himself smiling often during the day, recalling the trouble Isobel had in fathoming why he had sought her out above all the lasses in attendance for a walk in the garden. Hell, she’d accused him of every reason but the correct one. It was as if she wasn’t aware of how delightful she was—which only made him want to tell her, show her, all the more.
His thoughts of Isobel shattered at the high-pitched voice rushing his way.
“Lady FitzSimmons.” Tristan smiled, his boots clicking past her as he hurried onward.
“Where are ye off to?” she cooed, capturing him by the arm, her batting black lashes offering more than just her company.
“To the tilting yard,” he said, trying to disengage himself from her and wondering what the hell was wrong with him. “My kin await me there.”
“Oh?” She looked up at him with renewed interest. “Are you competing then? I’ve never seen a Highlander fight before.”
“Nae, just observin’.”
“I am heading that way myself. You may escort me, if you wish.”
“Of course.” He offered her a bland smile, wishing to be rid of her sooner, rather than later.
The walk across Whitehall’s vast grounds proved to be every bit as tedious in Lady FitzSimmons’s company as Tristan had feared. She was familiar with most of the people strolling about and shared with him their names and every bit of gossip she’d heard of them. Which, disturbingly, was a lot. He was glad when he finally found his kin watching the competition from just beyond the short fence. He broke away from his admirer’s talons with a hasty farewell.
“Lady Hollingsworth was lookin’ fer ye,” Mairi said, making room for him between her and her father. “That is her husband on the field.” She pointed over the fence to the man Tristan already knew, leaning against a post and sharpening his blade.
Tristan threw his sister a dry scowl. “Yer concern fer me is touchin’, Mairi. But I have nae interest in Lady Hollingsworth or in who her husband is.”
“Tristan, why don’t you compete?” His mother smiled at him across the span of her husband’s chest. “Graham already gave his mark.”
“And ye, faither?” Tristan asked, glancing at him. “Ye’re no’ takin’ this opportunity to smash a few English skulls?”
“If the right head presents itself, I might.”
“You absolutely will not!” Kate MacGregor pinched her husband’s arm. “This is a friendly competition and you, my dearest beloved, do not know how to fight cordially.”
Tristan turned back to the field and the two challengers readying to fight. Without the rage of finding his wife
in the arms of another man, Lord Hollingsworth was a bit clumsy with his sword. Eventually though, the force behind his blows wore down his opponent.
Tristan’s eyes scanned the many faces encircling the field; more than half of them smiled back. He could have almost any woman in attendance with the right amount of charm, the carefully chosen words that came to him on pure instinct alone. But since he met Isobel, every coy smile cast his way by the ladies he had previously found so appealing blended into the same powdery, lifeless face. Saints help him, but how could he find pleasure in the bland when he’d had a sample of such alluring spice? Worse, how could wanting one lass keep him from wanting any others?
The next competitors were announced, and when he heard his sister mutter an oath, he returned his attention to the field.
Alex Fergusson stared at him from the large enclosure, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows and murder in his eyes. “I have a request!” he shouted, holding up his hands to silence the crowd. “I wish to call to the field someone other than my opponent.”
Immediately, Tristan closed his eyes, knowing what was coming next.
“Tristan MacGregor! Let us finish here, on a fair stage, what ye once began.”
Was he drunk? Tristan smiled coolly and shook his head. “We already finished it, Alex. Ye won. Ye broke my nose.” From the corner of his eye, he saw Isobel shoving her way to the perimeter of the fence. Hell.
“And I will break it again if you have the courage to step inside.”
“Alex!” she shouted at him. His only acknowledgment was a swift, dark warning for her to remain silent.
“Come on, ye coward. Or should I call your murdering father to fight me? Let us see how skilled he is without his claymore.”
Tristan stepped forward before his father did. “I have it,” he said, turning to him and thinking how quickly Alex would find himself down and possibly dead if Tristan let them fight.
He stepped into the enclosure and met Isobel’s terrified gaze. Damn Alex for putting her through this. “No swords,” he called out to the officials, then looked across the field at his opponent. “We will end it the same way we started it.”
Alex nodded and came at him, fists flying. Tristan blocked three punches with relative ease and ducked to avoid a fourth. They separated for a moment and then Alex rushed forward again. Tristan could fight with any weapon, thanks to his father’s careful training, but it was his uncle who had taught him to fight with his hands—and his elbows. He brought one into Alex’s nose now with cracking authority and watched, mildly satisfied, as blood shot forth in every direction.
His father cheered. Isobel covered her face in her hands. It was over. “Ye have my thanks fer lettin’ me even the score, Alex,” Tristan told him and began to turn away.