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Authors: Temple Hogan

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BOOK: The Laird's Daughter
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Her gaze was like green fire moving over him. She made no effort to hide herself from him, not even to cover her breasts. She simply sat and stared into his eyes and he was struck dumb, spellbound by such beautiful perfection. He could scarce draw a breath.

“Rafe, is all well?” Gare shouted.

He couldn’t answer his friend, then the shout came again and the spell was broken.

“Aye, there’s naught to fear,” he called, glancing over his shoulder.

Gare had advanced a few feet. Apprehensive that two of them appearing so suddenly would frighten the woman, he turned to wave Gare off. When he turned back to the woman by the pond, she was gone.

He stood gaping, unable to comprehend how she could have disappeared in a heartbeat. The air was undisturbed as if she’d never existed—no leaf trembled from her passage. She must be a wood sprite or fairy queen, to have such magic. Then his wonder was replaced with a great sense of loss.

“Wait,” he called, running to the rock where she’d rested. “Wait. I wish to know your name?”

No one answered. The woods were silent.

* * * *

“You’ve gone daft, man,” Gare said under his breath to a scowling Rafe, but his laughter spilled out for all the table where they supped with the rest of their men.

Archibald Campbell raised his head and gazed at them, obviously trying to divine their conversation.

“You’re mooning about like a man who’s never seen a maiden,” Gare continued, nudging Rafe good-naturedly with his shoulder. “She must be a wood sprite, for truly you’ve become enchanted by what you saw.”

“Who do you malign now, sirs?” Archibald asked, no longer willing to be excluded from their camaraderie. Beneath the table, Rafe gave his friend a hard kick on the ankle.

“Enough of your jest, friend, if you value your life,” he said in an undertone, then raised his voice so the rest of the table might hear. “Gare doesn’t approve of the changes I’ve proposed for the outer borders,” he said, by way of changing the subject. “Have you heard anything of Baen and his defectors?”

Instantly, Archibald’s good humor vanished. “Aye, word’s come that they’ve gone as far east as the MacGregors, a broken clan like the MacDougalls. Like as not, he’ll manage to gather some disgruntled men who’ll ride with him. It will take him more than a fortnight, maybe two, to gather enough fighting men and in the meantime, I’ve sent to the Campbells in the south for more reinforcements.”

“’Tis good, Uncle.” Rafe nodded in approval. “I’ve left some of my men on the western borders with instructions to keep a close eye. Is Macarill of the MacIntyres still allied with the Campbells?”

“Aye, although we had a bit of a falling out last fall over some cattle. Baen and the men raided Macarill’s herd in retaliation.”

“Damn,” Rafe said, slamming his fist against the table. “Did the man not think to keep your alliances in good repair? He didn’t serve you well, Uncle.”

“Aye, I see that now,” Archibald replied. “That’s why I sent for you, lad. Could I now mend fences with Macarill? Send him some cattle or a bag of gold for those he lost?”

“That might have eased his temper, had ye done it right away last fall, but now…‘twould look as though we seek to renew your alliance only for his help. ‘Tis a position of weakness to go with hat in hand under such circumstances.” Rafe thought for a moment, then shrugged. “There’s naught for it, then. I must ride to Castle Bacansor to talk to Macarill, myself.”

“Oh, must ye go again so soon?” Dianne asked, pouting seductively. “You’ve just returned and—” She paused. “You’ve been missed.”

“Prettily said, lass,” Archibald guffawed. “I’d swear the gal has taken a fancy to you, Rafe. Take care she doesn’t steal your heart.”

Dianne allowed a glimpse of her blushes before hiding them behind her hand. Her bold gaze caught Rafe’s and held. One soft hand reached for his arm and fell below the table to fondle his thigh. She’d made her feelings clear, taking great care to sit beside him at the table. Now her questing hand roamed dangerously close to his groin. Rafe returned her smile and, taking hold of her hand, placed it back in plain view on the table.

Archibald laughed again. “You’ve your work cut out for you, lass. Have you no taste for the lassies, Rafe? We’ve plenty a bonnie lad for your pleasure.”

Rafe ignored the jibe, but Gare’s face darkened.

“The lassies please Rafe well enough, but more importantly, he pleases them. I fear you’ve competition, Dianne. A spell was laid on him during our return by a beautiful, singing wood sprite.”

“A wood sprite?” Archibald roared, grinning in delight at this new information.

Dianne drew back, her dark brows drawn together, her lips thinned into a hard line. Then, Rafe noted her face cleared, and she smiled although for anyone noticing such things, the gaiety didn’t reach her eyes.

The drunken banter turned to others and grew coarser, and Rafe saw a small figure rise from the corner and hobble to the door. The goose girl, he thought and his eyes narrowed. Quickly, he rose from the table and crossed the hall after her. She hurried outside the castle, but he caught up with her in the bailey.

“Lass,” he called, having momentarily forgotten her name.

He reached out to settle a hand on her slim shoulder. She turned, one foot slashing out with some force against his kneecap. With a surprised roar of pain, he fell to his good knee and rubbed the injury to body and pride.

The girl turned to flee, then hesitated a few feet from him. Silently, she watched as he rose again and flexed his knee. Finally, he grinned at her.

“You’ve the kick of a stallion, lass,” he said good-naturedly. “I should have you ride with me and my men against our enemies. I vow they’d fall quickly enough beneath your kick.”

The girl put a hand to her mouth as if in distress, but he had a sudden thought she was laughing at him. Surely not, but her eyes had sparkled with light before she ducked her head in a show of shyness.

“I’m sorry to have scared you like that. You’re Annie, are you not?”

Gazing at him through shaggy hair, she nodded.

“I came after you to thank you for giving me the claymore the day I fought with Baen. You likely saved my life.”

She remained silent but drew back a few steps.

“Don’t go yet,” he said quickly. “I want you to know I think of you as a friend, and if you ever need my help or protection, I’ll give it.” He paused, reminding himself that she couldn’t speak, possibly she didn’t even have enough sense to know what he was offering, but then he remembered how quickly she’d sprang forward with the claymore and how she’d helped them the first day they came. He’d wager she had far more intelligence than people gave her credit.

“I’ll spread the word that you’re under my protection,” he said. “Will that show you my good intentions?”

She shook her head, so her fine hair flew about her head, reflecting the light of a nearby lantern like filaments of spun gold. For a moment, he was mesmerized by the shimmering beauty as memories of the woman by the pond returned to him. Her hair had been of such color. Was she a distant kinswoman of this poor, ragged creature? He meant to ask, but suddenly Annie turned and with surprising speed for one so crippled, disappeared into the dark shadows of the walls.

When she was sure she was out of sight, Annie paused and rested against the stone bailey wall. Her heart hammered in her chest and she had trouble dragging a breath of air between her lips. For some absurd reason, tears stung her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. With trembling hands, she brushed them away and, when she was calm again, walked heavily back to the hut she shared with Father Cowan. Tomorrow, her clansmen would meet, and there were many things she had to say to them—things they wouldn’t like to hear.

* * * *

“I tell you, we must kill as many of the Campbells as we can,” Bryce said, punctuating his words with the ring of his hammer against iron. The afternoon was warm and he’d stripped away his tunic. His stocky body was slick with sweat.

“’Tis not a wise course,” Annie said in a low voice, glancing over her shoulder to be sure no one heard.

“But you said Archibald’s sent for more of the buggers,” the blacksmith said. “We’ll never be rid of them unless we set ourselves to killing off as many as we can. I say we attack tomorrow.”

“And I say we wait,” Annie raised her voice in exasperation, then immediately lowered it. “Think, man, if we kill Campbell men at this time and Baen and his band attack, who’s to protect us? And who do you want to hold the yoke over our heads? Baen or Archibald and Rafe?”

“Rafe?” Bryce glared at her. “Aye, so that’s the way of it, then. You’ve a fancy for a cursed Campbell. No wonder you’ve been content to moon around like some love-struck maiden, waiting for her true love to claim her. I’ll not stand down while you act like an addle-pated arse over the likes of our enemies. And in the meantime, the Campbells increase their forces.”

“You’ll not rush out and attack unless you wish to watch Baen and his lawless gang of broken clansmen destroy our villages, rape our women, and steal what little we have left. Do you have a wish to see your children’s bellies swell with hunger this winter?” Bryce wouldn’t meet her eyes. “At least Rafe is seeing to the planting of fields again and the fattening of cattle. At least he’s trying to protect our borders from attacks.”

“Our borders!” Bryce made a dismissive sound. “They’re not our borders. They’re Campbell borders and Campbell lands, which they stole from the MacDougalls because they kissed the arse of Robert the Bruce.”

His voice rang around the stable yard. She rushed to his side to calm him.

“You must be patient,” she whispered. “We must wait and see what comes around. We dare not act hastily until we’ve gained strength in our own numbers.”

“We’ve men enough,” Bryce said, his voice and manner calmer now, but his eyes, red-rimmed and still wild, darted from her to the listening clansmen. He knew the dangers in speaking so openly like this. There were spies everywhere.

“We don’t have weapons enough or horses to ride in and out again,” she whispered urgently, shaking his arm. “A man on foot doesn’t stand a chance against a man on horseback. Do you want to see more of our clansmen killed? Do you want to have our numbers dwindle because we didn’t think this through wisely? Think first, Bryce. We can always act, but if we’re caught and destroyed, our clan will be forgotten, our children adopted into other clans until they don’t remember being a MacDougall. We will have condemned our clan to damnation.”

Bryce laid aside his hammer and turned to her, his barrel of a chest rising and falling as he warred within himself. “You’re right, Annie. In my head, I know that, but in my heart—”

“In my heart as well,” she said, staring into his eyes so he might see she spoke the truth.

He gazed at her, assessing her words and manner. “Your heart has not been swayed by the newcomer?” he asked insistently.

“Nay.” She knew she wasn’t being truthful, but she couldn’t speak to Bryce of her tangled feelings, of the loneliness that plagued her at night in her bed, of the tears that came with increasing frequency now—tears of frustration that she could not put aside her role and simply be a pretty maiden being courted by a man of her choosing. “Nay,” she repeated as much to reassure herself as him.

He nodded. “Then I’ll follow you, Annie. You’ve not led us wrong ‘til now.”

“And I will not, God willing,” she said and turned away.

For a few steps, she forgot to limp, and when she looked up to see if anyone had noticed, she found Rafe Campbell standing near the stable, his eyes narrowed and thoughtful. Instantly, she slumped into her customary pose and hobbled away. When she looked again, he was still watching her. He raised a hand and waved then mounted his stallion.

Moving more slowly, she made her way to her hut and sat before the fire, peeling turnips for Father Cowan’s stew. She refused to think of Rafe Campbell or his strong, broad-shouldered figure seated in his saddle. He was not for her, she told herself, while a part of her demanded why not. She was a laird’s daughter, a lady in her own right, every bit as good as he and Dianne.

She thought of the way Archibald’s niece had brazenly slid her hand along Rafe’s thigh. Such behavior was scandalous at best, and some innate part of Annie knew that, but part of her longed to do the same, to feel the ripple of muscles and the heat of the man beneath her hand.

“No,” she cried and threw the peeled turnip into the pot of water. “I will not think such things. He is our enemy.” Rising, she placed the pot on its hook and swung it over the fire, disregarding the hiss of steam as water sloshed against the coals from the hastiness of her actions. Rubbing her eyes against the resulting smoke, she bent to add seasonings and concentrated on each simple, mundane action as if those alone would occupy her mind against the wild imaginings that tormented her.

After that, she tidied the hut and hung Father Cowan’s spare tunic to air in the crisp spring wind, and when she was done with that, she weeded the tiny bit of a garden on the hillside behind their hut. When there was naught else for her to do, she sat in the sunshine and thought of Rafe Campbell.

Unable to bear her inner conflict a moment longer, she took her fresh tunic and walked to the pond. Once again she found solace in the cool, clear water and the sough of wind through the trees and the creatures stirring in the branches. She didn’t sing this day, her voice was still, but she picked a small nosegay of wildflowers then sat on her rock braiding them into a chain. While she worked, she thought of all Bryce had said. She must not give her heart to their enemy. She must remain whole and strong. Her clansmen depended on her. Only when she was about to leave, did she recognize that she was stalling in the hopes Rafe might once again come to the pool. Silent as a shadow, she walked away from her haven. A sound made her pause, head up, heart beating. Despite her resolve, she couldn’t resist hiding behind a tree.

Rafe rode into the clearing, an expectant look on his face, which quickly became crest-fallen when he saw the space was empty. Dismounting, he glanced about then walked to the flat rock where she’d sat and picked up the braided ring of wildflowers. Once again he glanced around, then buried his face in the wildflowers. Finally, tucking it into his bodice, he remounted and joined his men who were strangely silent and didn’t look at their leader. That night at supper, the men jested of Rafe’s visit to the pool and of the flowers he wore in his girdle. Seated in her customary corner, Annie heard and her heart leaped with joy.

BOOK: The Laird's Daughter
13.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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