Authors: Paula Quinn
“Not just yet,” Alex called out, catching a sword from a Lowland onlooker.
“Dinna’ be a fool,” Tristan warned. “Choose to quit while ye can still hold up yer head.”
Alex swung the blade around in front of him, looking quite awkward and out of practice. Tristan looked heavenward and shook his head.
Isobel’s brother did not come at him with fury the way Lord Hollingsworth had. His swings were slower, but the weapon gave him the boldness to advance. Callum tossed him his sword, and when Tristan scooped it off the ground he heard Isobel cry out his name. He had no intention of killing the fool. She would
forgive him for that. He only meant to stop Alex before he was injured.
Unlike his competitor’s, Tristan’s blade danced in his hands and flashed beneath the sun. They both swung at the same time, and Alex lost his balance at the force of Tristan’s strike. Patiently, Tristan waited for him to straighten and ready himself again. The moment he did, Tristan brought his claymore down in a chopping, grinding blow that sent sparks through the air. Over and over, Alex found no defense against him. A dozen times, Tristan could have easily cut him, but not once did he do so. Instead, he sent Alex to his knees before him, metal tangled in metal, until with one swift twist of his wrist, Tristan disengaged the hilt from Alex’s fingers and the sword fell harmlessly to the grass.
The crowd cheered, while some called out to him to finish the deed with blood. Tristan found Isobel’s gaze and bowed slightly, letting her know his mercy was for her sake.
He left the enclosure and handed his father back his sword.
“Well done,” the Chief said, smacking him on the back. Tristan was pleased and a bit surprised that his father was not among those calling for blood.
His eyes found Isobel across the perimeter, standing with her bloody-nosed brother. He couldn’t hear what it was she was telling him, but she looked angry enough to set his nose and then break it again herself. She sent him
off with her brother Cameron and then turned to meet Tristan’s gaze. She tipped her head to him as if offering him thanks for not hurting Alex, then left the fence.
“There is Lady Hartley,” Tristan told his kin and hurried off before anyone had a chance to look.
He kept his pace steady until Isobel reached the line of trees in the garden. He caught up with her quickly once they were out of sight of either of their families.
Her steps were quick and light, her cool green gaze fixed straight ahead, with no intention of sparing him the briefest glance.
He wasn’t about to have that. “Greetings, Miss Fergusson.” He stepped into her path, blocking her from moving forward. “I was afraid ye had left this morn withoot biddin’ me farewell.”
When she looked around at him, his gaze dipped to the heavy rise and fall of her bosom beneath her kirtle, her creamy flesh pulsing with the rhythm of his checked breath. He wanted to taste her there.
“My brothers are expecting me. Let me by, please.”
He looked up unrepentantly and moved aside. “Are ye still angry aboot me kissin’ ye, then?” he asked, picking up his pace beside her. “I only did it to—”
“Ye have my gratitude for not killing my foolish brother, but never speak of kissing me again or it will be
fist in yer face.”
“Hell, I didna’ think ’twas
vile.” He held back the smile trying to creep over his lips when she stopped and turned to him, green eyes blazing.
“Exactly how vile did ye think it was?”
Ah, there was the fire he was after. A lesser, more cowardly man would have politely bowed out of the battle he’d foolishly entered. But Tristan forged ahead, driven toward
her like a parched traveler who’d discovered a garden in the arid dunes. “I’m thinkin’ ’twas yer first time, so ’twas understandable that it might be lackin’ just a wee bit.”
She tilted her chin up at him, her plump, shapely lips drawing in a shallow breath that flared her nostrils and stiffened her shoulders. She reminded Tristan of an untamed mare that would never tire, and he drenched his vision in the glorious sight of her. “I’d find it a pleasure, quite possibly beyond what I could endure, to help ye become better at it.”
She was about to slap his face, mayhap keep her word and punch it if the crimson of her cheeks was any indication. “I would rather be hurled into a vat of hot tar than ever have yer mouth on mine again. I hated it, just as I hate ye, MacGregor.”
“My name is Tristan,” he said, wanting her to see the man she had seen in the garden when they first met. “And if we had no’ been interrupted the other night, I would have told ye that I dinna’ approve of what our kin have done.”
She laughed, but the sound of it left only anger drifting across the damp courtyard. “Ye are the son of the Devil.”
“But I was reared by another man.”
She did not hear him, or mayhap she did and she didn’t care. Her lips hooked into a knowing sneer. “Whatever dark purpose ye have in trying to win my favor, let us be clear here and now; ye will never succeed.”
Tristan guessed she was correct. It would take more time than they had at Whitehall to woo her to his bed. He understood now why he wanted her there so badly. He wanted to feel her passion beneath him, hostile and hot atop him, purring with delight while she rode him.
His dark purpose? Indeed, it was always his ultimate goal when he saw a desirable lass. Isobel was no different.
But she was. She hated him for who he was, not for who he was whispered to be. For the first time he wasn’t certain he could change someone’s opinion of him, but he was determined to try.
“Isobel”—he closed his fingers around her wrist, stopping her when she turned to go—“is wantin’ to convince ye that I’m no’ the savage ye think I am a dark purpose?”
“It is when I ask myself why ye would want to convince me of anything at all,” she shot back. “We are enemies. Nothing ye say or do will ever change that truth.”
“Mayhap it will,” he argued, the words spilling from his mouth before he had time to consider them; “mayhap you and I are the ones who can finally bring an end to all the hatred and pain.”
She eyed him with a quizzical quirk of her brow and one corner of her mouth. “Ye offer yer aid, yet again.”
“Aye,” he vowed.
“Ye would have me believe that ye truly care about such a thing?”
He did care, and for more reasons than he could ever tell her. “Ye
believe it if ye give me a chance to prove it to ye.”
She laughed and tugged her wrist loose. “By becoming lovers?”
This time, he let her pass him. “By becoming friends.”
She stopped, and as she turned, Tristan didn’t know what reaction to expect from her. Mentally, he prepared himself for whatever was coming.
In the golden light filtering through the trees, she stood draped in waves of burnished fire and flushed
cheeks. But this living flame had a core carved of ice. “That would require trust, and ye will never gain mine. In fact”—she took a step toward him, her hands fisted at her sides—“I find the idea that ye think ye can offensive. It proves to me that ye have no understanding of what yer kin have taken from mine.” When he opened his mouth to speak, she cut him off. “Ye speak of hatred and pain, but ye did not have to watch yer brother dig a hole big enough to lay yer father in. Yer sister never had to worry over what her siblings would eat from meal to meal, or lie awake at night afraid fer their safety because yer clan abandoned them after they were left with a boy as their Chieftain. How many times do rival clans who know ye have no defense attack yer home and destroy what yer hands have bled over? Yer kin did not take my father’s life alone. They robbed me of mine and of my brothers’, as well. How much more do ye want?”
His reply was immediate and spoken with a sincerity he had offered to only a few before her. “Fergive me. My intentions are no’ to trivialize the loss ye suffered, but to prove to ye that there’s a MacGregor who thinks another way.”
She stepped back as he moved toward her, the smolder of her eyes fading into cool disregard. “If ye speak the truth, than ye betray yer clan in a far deeper way than by speaking to me. Why would I want a ‘friend’ who holds no allegiance to his own kin?”
She didn’t wait for his answer but turned and left him alone and staring after her as she hiked up her skirts and stormed all the way back to the stairs of the upper gallery.
For the first time in Tristan’s life, words escaped him; right ones, wrong ones, any words at all. How the hell
had he just become the scum on the soles of her shoes? Not that he wasn’t already. He wanted to go after her, to tell her she was wrong about him. He was not betraying his clan. If anyone, he was betraying himself by always trying to deny who he had been born to become.
He wanted to strip her of this image she had of him slashing away at the helpless, laughing as his victims’ lifeblood soaked the ground. He was not that man. His kin were not those men. He could convince her if he had a few more weeks with her, mayhap a month. It would be difficult, Tristan knew, and he smiled up at the gallery. What quest for honor was ever easy?
nstead of going directly to her brother’s chamber, Isobel entered the Banqueting House. Let Alex tend to himself. This time, he had gone too far. Was he trying to get more of their small family killed? Oh, wait until she told Patrick what he had done. Should she even tell Patrick? He had enough to do at home without worrying over their rash, reckless brother. She was busy cursing Alex when she walked straight into a thick muscular arm.
“Ye’re Patrick Fergusson’s sister, aye?”
Isobel looked up into a pair of bloodshot eyes and a red bushy beard speckled with bits of food. His thick chest blocked her view of a third of the king’s guests.
“I am John Douglas,” he said, looping his beefy forearm around her shoulder and herding her to a less crowded area. “I’ve seen ye with Patrick at the market in Dumfries. Is he here?”
“I regret, he is not.” Isobel smiled politely and slipped away from his grasp. “But my other—”
“Duncan!” the husky Lowlander called out, capturing
her elbow in his palm to stop her. “Have a look at who just dropped into my arms.” As his friend approached, his grin as wide as the gaping holes in his mouth, John Douglas tossed his arm around her again and dipped his face to hers. “Best tell Duncan yer name, lass. He’ll be wantin’ to recall it tomorrow, I’m certain.”
Isobel coughed at the stench of ale saturating Mister Douglas’s breath as it fell over her. The hair along her nape rose as his arm snaked tighter around her, keeping her close. A sense of danger swept over her. Instinctively, she looked around for help. None of the king’s other guests looked overly interested in her predicament, and even if they were, Isobel didn’t think any one of them would risk a fight with these two. Douglas and his companion might be too soused to wield a sword with any precision, but they were big, and a swinging fist could likely break a jaw.
“Speak up now, little one.” Duncan inched toward her. “We won’t bite.”
Isobel glared at his toothless leer. Truly, she didn’t want to start something her brothers might have to finish, but she wasn’t about to let these two ill-bred swine see her squirm. “I’ve nae doubt about that.” Plucking Douglas’s arm from her shoulder, she stepped away. “If ye will pardon me…”
Fingers closed around her wrist, stopping her yet again. This time, though, she was yanked rather forcefully back into John Douglas’s chest. “Nae, I don’t think I will. How about ye, Duncan?” he asked, turning to his companion. “Will ye pardon the bonnie Miss Fergusson?”
Duncan shook his head, his hungry gaze spilling over the swell of her breasts. “Mayhap we can persuade her to come back to our chambers.”
Isobel’s captor swung around, bringing her with him to meet Tristan’s amiable smile.
Isobel wasn’t sure if she was happy to see him. She didn’t want to be. She wanted to continue hating him, but it was proving more difficult each time he came to her rescue. She’d lost too much because of his family, and it angered her that he believed that if they became friends, all crimes could be forgiven. His kiss that night in the garden had nearly swayed her opinion of him. But she’d put away all memories of his mouth on hers. Or at least, she had tried to. Tristan MacGregor’s mouth was not an easy thing to forget. The supple fullness of his lips as they fell against hers, the hunger of his tongue, dashing her resolve to pieces with the barest lick.