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Authors: Jackie Ivie

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BOOK: Knight Everlasting
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“What?” she asked.
“Aidan MacKetryck. Aidan Niall MacKetryck. 'Tis my name.”
“Oh,” Juliana replied. She'd been right. He was a Highlander from Clan MacKetryck. She played the name through her mind. She'd heard of them, but didn't know much more than that.
He blew a sigh over her, gaining her attention back. She didn't need to know how that felt either!
“Is that all?” he asked.
“Aye,” she answered.
He must have finished maneuvering himself back into place atop her, because she was supporting a massive amount of his brawn and volume, and other things she wasn't going to acknowledge. She watched the plaid material fan back out with his movement.
“What if I want to hear . . . more?” He'd added a slight bit of voice to his whisper, making the last word a deep throb of sound.
“The soldiers . . .” She didn't know what the rest of her sentence would be as it just trailed off, taking her wits with it.
He huffed what was probably amusement. “They've gone.”
Juliana narrowed her eyes and moved her glance back to him, settling on the spot between his eyebrows. It was safer. “How do you know?”
He adjusted a shoulder up and then back against her, moving her shift with it. “I gave our position away. I still have my head. Simple.”
“Then, heave off.”
He wasn't just smiling this time. It had to be a grin if the way his eyebrows lifted was an indication. She didn't dare check. With his visage and what happened to her every time she looked, it was safer this way.
“Na' yet.”
She flitted her eyes to his, cursed the impulse in the same instant, and did her best to ignore how her heart stumbled. “Why not?” she tried to command, but it sounded more like a plea. She decided the roof of plaid atop his head was safer and moved her eyes there again.
“I deserve a reward,” he said finally.
“Reward? You near got me killed,” Juliana replied.
“Oh nae. I just rescued you,” he countered.
“Near got me killed. Along with you,” she replied.
He shook his head, dragging locks of hair along her face. Juliana had to close her eyes for a moment while she forced the horrid tingling sensation down.
“I saved you. Along with me.”
He was waiting until she opened her eyes and looked at him again. It was getting slightly easier to ignore the reaction to him, including the way his belly shoved against her with every breath, the length of him weighing her down, as well as how all of her tingled with the prolonged contact. His argumentative nature made it a bit easier, but not by much.
“Do you always argue?” she asked.
His lips twisted as if considering it. Then he shook his head. And then he grinned. She'd been right. It was devastating. Her vision flew back to the plaid.
“Nae need, lass. I always win.”
The words were said close to skin if his breath was any indication. And then she knew how close he was as a quick jerk of her head had his lips hovering above her nose rather than her mouth, where he'd aimed.
“Not this again.” She sighed, and if she could get her hands freed from where he'd pinioned them at her side, she'd be putting up more of a struggle than simply moving her head side to side in denial.
“Why na'?” He'd lifted from her enough to ask it and watch her while she answered at the same time. It was too much of an impact and she was exactly certain that he knew it.
“You haven't . . . asked.” The words limped out. Juliana was breathless. She hoped it wasn't apparent in her voice, although it was probably visual everywhere else. This Aidan fellow knew very well the effect he had on her. He probably had it on every lass. He was used to wielding it. All of which was clear and apparent, and making her squirm with what she hoped was embarrassment.
“Verra well. I'm asking.” His voice dropped, as did his head. Juliana managed a gasp before he had his nose lined up against hers and was running it up and down, and tickling the tip of her lip with the slight growth of whiskers on his upper lip each time.
“No.” The word didn't make much sound as she opened her lips slightly for air and received just a bit of space dividing his mouth from hers. She was still wondering how she managed to say something that was so patently different from everywhere else as his neck flexed, lowering his mouth to hers. Everything about her reacted, and not just where his kiss touched, sparked, flashed, and sent a burst of effervescent prickling roving about her that nobody had warned her of. Everywhere.
“Aidan! MacKetryck!”
He lifted his head at the dim shout, pulling her lips awry at the move. Juliana hadn't time to gasp before he'd gone to a full-length push-up, and then shoved from it to his feet. If she hadn't just seen him move that quickly, she'd have had trouble believing it.
The morn had lengthened as they'd lain hidden, although she had no concept of how. Or how long. Or anything. Juliana blinked up at the image of this MacKetryck fellow, flipping his kilt band over his shoulder as he adjusted his
feile breacan
back into place. Then he was rolling his head about on his shoulders and doing twists of motion that had cracking sounds happening throughout his body. Then he stopped and stretched. His entire frame was encased in morning sunlight that dappled every nuance of him into masculine strength and prowess, showing that God had been heavy-handed with those blessings as well. This Aidan was beautifully formed . . . and brawny. All of it was displayed perfectly in the sun, before getting shadowed. Dark fingers blocked the sun. The fog was gone. And then the smell reached her.
“Something . . . burns? What?”
Aidan ignored her question just as he did her move to sit up. He didn't bother to assist her. Juliana set her lips and swallowed the scorn away. He was a MacKetryck and a Highlander. A barbarian. They probably didn't know of chivalry and honor and valor. It didn't truly matter. The battle for the Scot throne had taken it all away anyway.
It took some time to feel her lower legs and feet since they were just coming alive from where he'd lain atop her. That hurt, and made getting to her knees difficult. Her cloak was on the ground beneath her, while the ribbon tie of her hair covering was askew. Her skirts looked like she'd taken a tumble into a loch and just let them dry wrinkled, except they weren't faded nor were they clean. There were spots of mud and mulch and more than one rotten leaf attached to her attire. She picked at them as she surreptitiously watched him. He didn't look at her again nor did he help her reach her feet and stand beside him, waiting.
The man was just as immense as he'd felt while atop her. Juliana stood at midchest height to him. She stood a bit taller. Maybe she reached his brooch clip.
She'd just decided it when he lifted his jaw and sniffed.
“Aidan! There you are. Thank the saints! Unharmed? And safe.”
Two large-sized, redheaded men shoved through forest greenery and took giant-sized steps to reach them. Only one of them was speaking.
“Will you look there, Kerr MacGorrick. The laird's safe, unharmed . . . and he's found a bonny lass to attend. And here we thought him in danger.”
Juliana looked to the ground, bit her tongue, and longed for deafness.
“How he manages such, I canna' fathom. Nor do I wish to try. Aidan.”
The men were slapping shoulders in turn and ignoring her. S
hortly, Juliana,
she counseled herself. Soon now, these two brawny Highlanders and this Aidan fellow would leave her life exactly as they'd entered—without warning. After that, she'd make her way back to the croft. Then she was going to put him where he belonged . . . in her memory.
“It's na' how it looks,” Aidan told them, sounding slightly sheepish.
Juliana slanted a glance up at him and then colored when she caught his wink.
“Well, it looks plenty. But we've nae time to hear it. We canna' stand about, waiting for our own cleaving.”
The one who'd spoken turned away. The other man followed suit. Juliana wasn't given the choice as the MacKetryck grabbed her arm and started pulling her along with him.
“I'm not going with you.” She hissed it, but it didn't seem to do much.
“You are,” he countered.
Fallen, marshy ground muck was getting dragged before her boots since she wasn't walking and he didn't seem to care.
“Am not.” She tried again.
“You're na' safe here!”
“I live here,” Juliana informed him.
“See that?” He gestured to the black cloud moving in chunks of shadow into the sky. “That's the village. There's naught left. You ken?”
“No.” Juliana shook her head. He was wrong.
“Ewan!” MacKetryck turned from her and said it to the farther redhead, the one who'd been talking.
“Aye?”
“Where's Beathan?”
“With his maker,” the man announced grimly.
“Gavin?”
“Dead.”
“Iain?”
“Dead.”
Juliana's eyes got wider, her belly got heavier, and the listing just kept going.
“Rory?”
“Aye. Rory, too. And looks to be Filib and Duff as well. Dead. Unburied. We only found parts of them.”
The green all about them was melting, turning into a wash with black and red at the center. There was the loudest, most prolonged humming note in her ears as well, throbbing into a cacophony of sound that should have muffled the men's words. She put her attention to stopping it and swayed a bit while she pondered the green mash of ground at their feet. She might have fallen without the grip on her arm. The gray was back in her vision, but with it came a strange numb sensation about her nose. Juliana fought it. She'd never fainted. She refused to faint now. Not in the grip of a MacKetryck and with two more Highlanders between her and safety.
“How many are left?” The man holding her asked it.
“Counting us?” Both redheads stopped and turned to face him.
“Aye.” There wasn't a bit of joviality anywhere about any of them.
“Three. If we tarry more, they'll be adding us to the dirt as well. Now come. Bring the wench if you must, but come.”
The branches slapped back into place as they turned and disappeared into them. Juliana quit fighting it and welcomed the bite of tension in Aidan's fingers about her arm. She kept blinking, and breathing, and walking as she followed him. She didn't faint.
Chapter 2
Aidan Niall MacKetryck was rash and reckless. Always. He'd been cursed with it at birth by the clan seer, Lileth Fallaine-Dumphat. Despite the teachings and warnings and years spent practicing at patience, he'd done nothing to alter it. He wasn't just rash, he was also thoughtless, just as the seer had predicted before the laird MacKetryck had her silenced with a stay in his dungeon.
His father hadn't done it soon enough, Aidan decided, shoving his way through a last thicket and receiving more scratches for his trouble. They'd finally reached a meadow, making the walk easier. It was about time. Aidan sneered at the waist-high grasses, tipping to one side with wind that didn't cease. If he wasn't mistaken, the breeze coming toward them had a bite to it, too. It wasn't raining, but it probably would soon enough. To punish him even more.
Aidan sucked in a breath and let it out, doing his best to ignore the ache that had started with the slaughter this morn and just kept growing. It made his chest heavy and tight and that made his frown deepen. Anyone looking at him would probably dub him the “Black MacKetryck,” although that title belonged to his uncle, Dugald. Seer Lileth Fallaine-Dumphat hadn't cursed the laird's firstborn with foul moods and a sour disposition. Those were an aftereffect of rash actions he continually suffered.
Dead clansmen and a morn of walking did nothing to change anything, including his mood. The sidelong glances the lass gave him occasionally didn't help either. Aidan consciously avoided meeting any of her looks. He practiced at ignoring her, except to guarantee she stayed between him and Ewan Blaine's back.
Saving the lass had been another impulsive act. Attempting ravishment of her during the rescue was another. For the life of him, he didn't know why either. She may be bonny and have a lush woman-shape that she'd swaddled in a dark cloak, but she was also an encumbrance. A responsibility. And from the looks of her, he probably wouldn't gain any ransom—if there was anyone left to send the demand to. He didn't know her name, her clan, or even her station in life. She could be a serf with the manners of a swineherd for all he knew.
Aidan sighed, ignored how she looked over at him, since he'd nearly overtaken her with his strides. He'd rather look at the backside of Kerr MacGorrick, who'd assumed the lead.
Aidan didn't dare look to her. It invited thoughts and actions and impulses that no MacKetryck laird in the midst of battle ought to have to deal with. He pulled in another deep breath and barely escaped it being labeled a sigh. The lass had bottomless, clear bluish-green eyes, the color of Loch Buchyn in sunlight. Meeting her gaze had stunned him. It probably still would . . . if he allowed himself to look.
“You should na' have camped so far away . . . nor left the horses.”
It was Kerr MacGorrick, turning and walking backward across the meadow as he announced it over Ewan's head.
Aidan ignored him. Ewan wasn't as smart.
“He already kens it,” the other redhead answered.
MacGorrick grunted. “It dinna' do what it was set to.”
“He kens that as well.”
Ewan was still answering for him. It was just as well. Aidan was practicing at keeping his words in check. MacGorrick's taunts meant little. Any fool was granted perfect hindsight about what should have been done.
“Does he now?” MacGorrick mused. He was directing his words to Ewan, but his attention was fully on Aidan.
“Reaving requires sneaking about. You canna' go reaving with horses. They'll give it away.”
“Well, we should have hobbled them closer, then. Horses would have helped with the odds. Barring that, they'd have helped with this walk.”
“How was the laird to ken Sassenach murderers were about?”
MacGorrick swore. They were still heading into a breeze heralding an oncoming storm. Aidan started hoping for it. Rainfall might muffle their words.
“Any man knows better than to take on English soldiers without assist . . . especially when they're mounted on horseback and fully armed. Laird MacKetryck knew it. Everyone does.”
“They were doing the devil's work! You saw it! You heard the screams.”
“I saw and heard MacKetryck clan getting killed. That's what I witnessed!”
“You heard the screams. You know why he did it.”
“Aye, I ken. Aidan MacKetryck decided to take on more mounted Englishmen than any man should. And for what? To stop them from their devil work and save those villagers? Fool's bane. No one can stop a Sassenach horde bent on destruction.”
“You only say that because we hid our sorry arses in the bushes. 'Twas a coward's move, MacGorrick.”
“Cowardly? I'll have your tongue, you whelp!”
The leading man shoved at the younger, but missed since Ewan Blaine was the quicker of the two and sidestepped it. Aidan sucked in on his cheeks as he considered it. They'd both been hiding. That explained how they'd survived.
“'Twas cowardly.”
“You're alive, are na' you?”
“Aye, I'm alive. And now I'm a coward. My thanks.”
Ewan flipped a hand through the taller stalks beside him, scattering seeds and particles into the air. Aidan squinted his eyes against the onslaught as it passed by.
“Nae, man. You're alive. There is nae such thing as a brave dead man.”
“What of the laird? Look at him! Just look. He's alive. Unharmed. And he even saved one of them. He's brave.”
“Nae, Ewan,” Aidan interrupted their banter. “Your laird was na' brave. I was lucky.”
Kerr MacGorrick met his eye and nodded. “Aye,” he replied. “That you were.” He swiveled back around.
The lass was plucking at the plants they were walking through. She didn't slow them or break stride to do it. She'd tied her skirt front into a basket shape and was busy filling it with the grass. That was interesting and took his mind from his clansmen's words.
“What is it you do?” He moved a half-step forward to ask it.
“I'm hungry.” She glanced at him, interrupted a breath again with the impact of her eyes, and then looked away. She also continued her gathering. Aidan was left with walking beside her and waiting for her to make eye contact with him again. That wasn't typical. Most lasses found him pleasing to look at and tried to catch his eye. At least, that was what they'd always told him.
“This grass . . . 'tis good to eat?”
She put the end of one to her mouth, bit off the bulb at the tip, and chewed. Then she handed him one.
“What is it?” he asked.
She waited until she'd swallowed to reply, giving some answer to his question about her manners. “Millet,” she told him.
Aidan grunted, twirled the stalk in his fingers before gesturing to the forest at the end of the meadow where the shadow of cloud cover made it a faint gray color about the trunks. “See there? Those trees?”
She nodded.
“That's where we left our horses. Afore eve, we'll be at camp. My camp.”
She shrugged. “So?” she replied.
Aidan pulled his head back at her insolent tone. “We pulled down a deer yesterday. There's food a-plenty.”
“Well . . . there isn't any here now. Is there?”
She ate another plant tip. Aidan bit at his to mute the instant ire and stay his retort. He wasn't used to being treated with what sounded and felt like disdain and contempt. He didn't like it. The millet stalk was hard to chew and not worth the effort. He spit it out.
“You'll find venison far tastier,” he informed her. He might as well be talking to the wind, since she ignored him and added more grasses to her pile. “Dinna' you hear me?”
She shrugged again. He felt the heat from a flush overtaking his chest and neck and sucked on both cheeks as he forced the reaction down. The lass needed a birch taken to her. That was what she needed. That shrug gesture of hers was offensive and dismissive and meant to be.
“Well?”
“I'm your captive. What makes me think you'll see me fed?”
If she hadn't flashed a look up toward him as she asked it, he'd have an easier time replying. And arguing. Aidan had to look aside while he calmed another rush of heat to his face. None of this was normal. He didn't know what was wrong with him.
“You're nae captive,” he replied finally. “I rescued you.”
“Stole me.”
Aidan turned back to her. He'd never met a more argumentative wench. “I rescued you. It was na' an easy feat. And then I kept you safe. I still do.”
A slight dimple puckered her cheek and then she sobered. “You stole me,” she replied finally.
“Rescued you.”
“Took me captive,” she replied as if he hadn't even spoken.
“You dare argue it?” Aidan asked.
“And then you make me go hungry,” she informed him.
“Chew more of your horse fodder. I've better things to warrant my time than bandying words with a disagreeable wench.”
“Such as . . . ?” she asked, drawing the last word out in order to force a reply. It was definitely a smile toying about her lips, he noted.
Aidan barely stopped the answering quirk on his own lips. “Such as pondering the why of a wench that loses her kin and her home . . . and yet shows naught in sorrow.”
“You wish me lamenting?” she asked, raising her brows with the question. “Perhaps a loud wailing while I drag my feet?”
“You've a fast tongue, haven't you?” Aidan replied.
She didn't answer him for a bit. He watched as she chewed on her bit of millet. “Perhaps you're looking for tears,” she said.
Aidan shook his head. “I'm na' looking for anything, lass.”
“Good. Keep it that way,” she replied.
Aidan's feet stopped and his bottom lip went slack while he waited for the surprise to dissipate. The wench dared give orders? What madness was this? He had to double his steps to a trot to catch up to her. He also had to bend and duck branches since they'd reached the tree line again and started climbing.
“Now, listen here, wench,” he said through gritted teeth as he went.
She cocked her head to one side but didn't slow her steps. She was still chewing her little bud, too. That was probably due to the hard and tasteless texture of them. They'd have to be sucked into an edible state before swallowing.
“Hear what?” she replied once he'd reached where she was standing, holding a branch aside in order to pass.
“I'll na' take brazen words from a wench I rescued.”
“Stole,” she argued.
He sighed heavily. “A wench I saved. And then rescued. And then continue to keep safe . . . regardless of her argumentative and strange nature.”
“Argumentative? Me?” she asked and actually pretended to be surprised.
“And strange.”
“I've no experience with how a captive acts. You call me strange and give no reason. You wish me fighting? Screaming? Wailing? What?”
The smile was gone from her face. Aidan's frown deepened, and a pounding in his head decided to join in. “Nae,” he replied.
“Good thing. I'm not certain I can affect them.”
“What?”
“To your . . . satisfaction, that is,” she amended.
“Your silence would be to my satisfaction,” he snapped.
She sighed. “You are a dense one, aren't you?”
Aidan pulled back, and the limb she'd been holding smacked him full in the chest, scattering more dust and seed and leaves about him, as well as stopping him again. His eyes were wide and nostrils were flared as he sucked for breath and forced the instant anger down. He didn't have to guess it. He could see it. He was called the Red MacKetryck for a reason.
Then Ewan Blaine added to the humiliation by chuckling.
“You find something amusing?” Aidan asked it after shoving through the branch and catching up to where the other three were standing, as if debating the path.
“Me?” Ewan asked and then shook his head. “Nae.”
Kerr MacGorrick answered for him. “He's thinking this wench will be a handful, my laird.”
“I can handle the lass.”
“It does na' sound like it, my laird,” Kerr replied.
“Aside of which, she's
my
wench. I rescued her and I'll decide what to do with her.”
They all waited. The wench didn't say a word of argument about it.
“True. We give you that. You rescued her. Near lost your own skin doing so, but you've gained another wench. As to the why you'd wish another one? We doona' ken, do we, Ewan?”
BOOK: Knight Everlasting
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