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Authors: Jackie Ivie

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BOOK: Knight Everlasting
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“What's your name?” he asked.
“Juliana,” she answered, and then sucked in the curse. Poor crofters didn't have fancy names. It was the first thing she'd altered. He nodded to her throat, although he looked to have skimmed her frame before returning there.
“I'm taking you into my tent, Juliana.”
“Why?”
“I'd na' wish a fight over it.”
“Again . . . why?” she responded.
He touched her eyes for a moment, taking her breath with the contact, before he shied away. If she wasn't mistaken, he'd flushed about the lower jaw and it was moving into his cheeks. Juliana narrowed her eyes. He looked to be blushing, but the rain could have affected her vision as it was everything else.
He took a deep breath. “I'm going to carry you now.”
Juliana looked down to where mud and wet foliage appeared to be devouring his booted feet. “Very well,” she replied.
“You'll come without issue?”
“I've no fondness for the elements,” she replied.
“You're to keep your woman wiles to yourself,” he informed her.
“My—”
Her voice stopped, clogging her throat as he plucked her from the saddle. The cloak slid from her head onto her shoulders at the move, because she couldn't hold on to it and his shoulders at the same time. It didn't truly matter. Rain added to the damp of her hair, turning it into a riot of red spirals that stuck everywhere they reached.
He held her close enough she could hear his heart beating. That was offset by the experience of his soaked form against hers, and then he added the rush of his released breath to the mix. All of which was terrible. And odd. And troublesome.
“Wiles,” he answered her through closed lips, and then he started walking.
He called them
her
wiles when he held her so tightly it might as well be an embrace. The mist of drops that made it through the canopy of trees didn't mute the sensation of heat radiating through him and making everything on her even hotter . . . wetter, more alert and tense, until it became a condition near feverish. Juliana hadn't any experience with such a thing. Being held and carried while he negotiated safe footing brought a delicate throbbing sensation to her most sensitive areas, making her thighs shiver, and there was no hiding the tight pinpricks of her nipples, without pulling at the clinging material. The moment she did so, she watched his glance flicker to where she was holding the cloak away from her breast, then he looked at her, and then he moved his gaze beyond her head while his lips tightened.
“You're to cease that as well,” he muttered.
“Put me down.”
“'Tis muddy and slick.” He punctuated that statement with a slip, gripping her even tighter while he regained his footing.
“I'm not afraid of mud . . . or slick,” she informed him, and pushed at him with the hand he'd trapped between them against a chest that she already knew wasn't malleable.
“Na' until we reach my tent. And safety.”
“I'll be safe there?” Juliana asked.
“Aye.”
Her luck wasn't changing for the good. His tent was the smaller one behind the other two. She realized it as they passed between the larger structures.
“From you?” she added.
“Of course. I've na' ravished you.”
Juliana narrowed her eyes and considered him. He had a flush of color coming through his throat and into his cheeks again. She nearly smiled.
“I mean . . . na' entirely,” he finished, sounding slightly apologetic. If he hadn't chosen that moment to lock glances with her, she'd have been able to answer him instead of look at him wide-eyed and witless. She forgot how to breathe as well.
And then her back slapped high up against one of the anchor ropes, showing they would have been in the door flap if he hadn't been watching her with an unblinking look from unfathomable eyes, while his feet were still moving. A shower of wet dripped all about them, chilling and yet burning at the same time. Juliana licked at a stray drop on her upper lip.
“I warn you, lass.”
He'd lowered his voice, making a trickle of shivers flow along her back.
“Jul—” she whispered back, making a pout from her mouth and not realizing what that signified until he moved his glance there and back. Twice.
He pulled his head back a bit and regarded her. Juliana gave him the same level look, although the sparkle of continuing rainfall on his features turned him into a fantasy creature she'd have dreamed of . . . if she'd have known he existed. She very nearly sighed.
“Women.”
He muttered it at the same time he gripped her more securely than before, this time with just one arm. She didn't know it was to have an arm available for opening his door flap until he did it. She didn't care. She was trying to assimilate and ignore how being shoved against the hard mounds of his chest had ignited the flesh of her own bosom. She didn't know how to hide it. She guessed he'd noticed it, since he flicked a look to her cleavage and swallowed. Heavily.
“You doona' follow the slightest instruction, do you?” he asked.
“What?”
His words came with breath that gave her shivers. Or the closeness of rain-soaked male was responsible. Either way, it was difficult to listen and force the trembling away at the same time. It proved impossible the longer she tried it.
“Your wiles. And their use on me.”
“I'm not using wiles on you.”
He put her down with an arm that trembled slightly. She stumbled momentarily on the suddenness of the move, but he'd stepped back the width of his tent and didn't seem to notice. He was also breathing heavily, lifting his frame with each one, and scoring her flesh with the rush of air. He folded his arms and regarded her with a stone-cast expression. All of it was visual, and exciting, and forbidden, and totally alien. Juliana wrapped both arms about her torso and worked at getting her body to cease plaguing her. She didn't know anything about what was wrong, and she didn't want to know . . . especially if it involved a Highlander.
“It's a reaction to the escape,” he informed her, although she wouldn't have asked, and without one bit of warning.
“Wh-What . . . reaction?” She wasn't feigning the confusion that was probably noticeable in more than her voice. She watched as nothing about him changed.
“To me.” He nodded, like he'd said something sage, and then he smiled, revealing wide white teeth. Then he elevated it by a wink.
Juliana gasped and swiveled sideways before more of her wits failed her. The man already knew he was handsome, and was probably noted for such a beauteous smile, and yet he did it with such abandon! Without one bit of care to how it probably affected women, and not just her.
“Being so near death has a way of changing things.”
His voice lowered again, and that caused such a tremor to go through her, she lurched. Fully and openly, and inescapably. She knew he saw it even before he chuckled. Juliana narrowed her eyes on the tent wall, silently cursed the body she couldn't control, and sneered with a dismay he wouldn't see.
“Makes one feel . . . more alive,” he continued, slowing the delivery of words until he might as well be growling them.
“I'm hungry,” she informed the wall.
He chuckled again, louder this time. Juliana stood straighter and added a bit of stiffness to her posture for good measure.
“Still,” she added.
“I'll see a platter fetched. Doona' move.”
Juliana frowned. She was hoping he'd fetch it himself and give her some time and space. “I'm not allowed to get warm?” she asked, turning her head back to him. “And . . . dry?”
“I meant you're to stay here,” he said finally.
“You'll see dry clothing fetched as well?”
He nodded.
“And something to wash it down? I'd take water. Ale?”
“When you've ceased ordering me about . . . perhaps.”
Juliana shrugged. “You're near a stream. I can fetch it myself.”
“It's na' safe.”
“There isn't an Englishman anywhere near your camp, MacKetryck. I'm certain you're aware of it.”
“I've nine clansmen alive still.”
“Seven,” she amended, before instantly regretting it. A simpleton was easily overlooked. That was how she'd managed for six months already—by using her wits . . . and hiding the extent of them.
Juliana swallowed, wondered if he'd caught it, and then knew he had. It was clear from the lifted eyebrow and sucked-in look to his cheeks as he evaluated and considered her. She nearly cursed and watched him note that as well.
“You have na' met Tavish and Stefan yet. They're guarding. No one enters. On my orders.”
“Oh.” It was all she could think to reply.
“Tavish noted and allowed our passage earlier. He's a good archer. Rarely misses.”
“I suppose he'd shoot anyone . . . leaving your camp as well?” she asked.
He nodded. “If you're lucky. As bonny as you are, he'd probably keep you screaming first.”
Juliana's face fell. And then it hardened. She felt and welcomed every bit of it.
“Are you going to see me fed or not, MacKetryck?” she asked finally, but the words were croaked-sounding and indistinct. It was the best she could manage.
His reply wasn't voiced, but it didn't need to be. He regarded her for some moments, while each breath she made got louder and harsher in her ears and he seemed to grow in stature as he stood there, blocking his door.
And then he nodded and left.
Chapter 4
He didn't know what was worse: the lass's argumentative nature and her skill at it; the dead clansmen he'd sent Kerr and Stefan back to gather under cover of nightfall; the disastrous turn of events that had started with reaving against the MacDonal clan; the question of how he'd bear word of the dead to the clan at Castle Ketryck; the cursed weather; the unpalatable, overcooked venison that required seemingly endless chewing in order to swallow; the knack this Juliana had for causing an itch in his loins that frustrated and annoyed him; or the fact that he was outside in an evening rain watching a fire that was sizzling and hissing with stray raindrops despite the woven thatch of hemp strands they'd erected as a roof above it, pondering over it all.
He didn't know why the lass argued her rescue so! He'd saved her. It wasn't open to question. He'd saved her, going against type, and she gave him nothing but grief ever since. What was wrong with the lass?
Aidan wasn't a chivalrous type by nature, at least he'd never been before, but he just couldn't have left her standing there oblivious to what was coming. Everyone knew what a Sassenach horde would do to Scot women—the same thing they'd done during the Welsh wars, back when he'd been a boy and told the tales while at his uncle's side. If a woman lived through the murder of her family, the ravage of her property, and then the brutality of her raping, she still had to face her future as an Englishman's property.
As winsome as that Juliana was, it wasn't difficult to guess what fate would be hers . . .
if
she lived through the first of it.
Aidan grunted slightly and moved into a crouch. There was a shadow passing through the light coming from the bottom of his tent door flap. He didn't think she'd truly try to escape back to the villages, but he wasn't taking the chance. Perhaps no one had told her of the horrors of life as an English whore. Aidan sighed. He'd already exchanged too many words with the lass. Somebody else could tell her.
He swallowed meat that was the consistency of an old saddle before tearing off another bite. The entire time he didn't take his eyes from the tent.
He hadn't wanted to rescue her, take her with him, and then continually work at keeping her safe. He had enough things to do already. Why . . . he'd have labeled her mad, if he hadn't been at the receiving end of her tongue enough all day that he knew how sharp it was. The lass had wits and wasn't afraid to use them. That was trouble. She also had the most winsome face he'd seen in many a season. And that made her double the trouble.
Aidan stopped chewing for a moment and cocked his head. Actually, she might be the most beauteous woman he'd yet seen. He had a very good notion of how womanly her frame was as well, and when he factored in the wealth of curls she'd hidden beneath her cloak, all in the reddish shade of a rowan tree berry, he was certain. This Juliana was definitely the most beautiful wench he'd ever seen. He scratched at his groin absently. He hadn't wanted to rescue her and bring her back with him.
Jesu'!
What fool would?
Beautiful women were always trouble. It seemed to follow them. Had his mum lived beyond Arran's birth, she'd have counseled her eldest son of it. Had his da, Grant Niall MacKetryck, lived to see Aidan into manhood, he'd have probably made certain his son knew the pitfalls of bonny women. Instead, Aidan had his uncle, Dugald MacKetryck, to thank for everything . . . including this latest foray onto land held by MacDonal clan.
Dugald MacKetryck was known as the “Black” MacKetryck because of his temperament and the darkness of his deeds. He'd taken over as regent upon his brother, Grant's death and shoved Aidan into adulthood, first by sending him against challenger after challenger in the lists for bouts of fighting; next by forcing his nephew to attend every session of his clan court and making him listen to every complaint and every issue; then adding lectures and book learning to the mix; and finally forcing a barely grown Aidan to a full battle that determined who was laird . . . and who was not.
But never once had Uncle Dugald brought up the subject of women. He'd let Aidan figure that out on his own.
Aidan swallowed another nonchewable bite of venison, pulled in a long draught of whiskey from his sporran to make certain he didn't choke, and when his head came back down, the shadow was moving beneath his tent flap again. He wondered if she was pacing.
As small as his tent was, that didn't give her but four steps each way. What a waste of time that would be. Aidan smiled slightly. He'd mistaken it. Sitting out in a rainfall, eating an unpleasant meal while he pondered the whys of everything, now
that
was a waste of time. He'd probably be better off pacing with the lass.
Aidan wasn't one for thinking over the whys and wherefores of fate, and not just due to his curse. Growing up under Dugald MacKetryck's tutelage had taught him one thing: things were what they were, not what they might be if given time and thought. Pondering was for old men like his uncle. The doing was for men like Aidan.
He spat at the fire, heard the instantaneous sizzle, and tore off another bite of meat to start chewing.
Action. That was what he liked and that was what he did. Reflex action was usually the best, too. He could almost sense where a claymore was going to be coming from next, the moment he'd knocked it aside with his own. Most of the time, being oriented on action worked to his betterment. Aidan was unbeatable at the castle list with any weapon chosen, and with bare hands as well. He acted, reacted, and moved, without taking time for thinking it through. It had saved his skin more than once.
As it had today.
The shadow crossed in front of the door flap again, and then it stopped before going to a large form that might mean she was on her knees. Perhaps the shock she must have suffered was finally coming to the fore. Perhaps she was grieving.
For a husband. And children.
She was probably wed—any lass her age should have been a wife for some years, and have nearly the same amount of bairns to her croft. But if she was wed, her husband must be the basest idiot born for letting her roam about the woods this morn, in predawn, with only an apron for a weapon.
Aidan sharpened his eyes on the shadow as it went dark and distinct for a moment, as if she was right at the door . . . maybe getting ready to shove the opening aside and creep away in what would be a failed escape attempt.
Foolish woman!
Aidan shifted, rising farther so he could forestall any such move. He wasn't allowing an escape! She was the only thing he'd done right today, and by thunder, he was not letting her go to her doom. He didn't care how much she argued. He was saving her, and he was going to keep her safe. That was just the way it was.
Aidan was more convinced about it now than he was before, but he'd decided to let the returning party with the dead clansmen speak for him. The only things waiting for her at that village were death and suffering. And pain.
He hoped she didn't have a spouse and children.
The shadow at his tent door shifted again, going back to an indistinct form before it moved away. Aidan did the same retreat, going back to the balls of his feet before turning his attention back to the fire and his meal.
The form of Tavish Findlay crossed in front of him before the man went to his buttocks beside Aidan. The man resembled a sapling in comparison to Aidan, lean to the point of looking frail. It was a lie. He could outwrestle half of them, outrun most of them, and easily outeat all of them. He had a thatch of brown-red hair that never looked groomed, even fresh from the loch, and sparse clumps of like-color beard he kept trying to grow. Aidan had the same issue. That was why he kept the whiskers scraped off with a skean. Tavish was also the best archer in the clan. Perhaps farther. Accurate and deadly. He was also fair with a slingshot, nearly as accurate and easily as deadly.
There was a companionable silence broken only by the sounds of a large quantity of wood burning in a bonfire amid a muted forest rain. It didn't last.
“Kerr tells us you hid well enough, the English should never have spotted you,” Tavish commented to the fire.
Aidan swallowed. “Kerr has an aversion to truth. 'Tis why he's gathering the dead with my brother, Stefan, and Heck.”
“You dinna' start it?”
Aidan shook his head. “'Twas Iain. With a whoop and a yell, and a charge, and then they took his head off. Foolish whelp. And damn me for being too far away to change any of it.”
“What help would that have done?”
Aidan huffed. “None . . . but I'd have repaid the man in kind, instead of sending a half-dozen others to their maker just for being in the way.”
“Kerr says you felled more than that. Near twice.”
“And as I said . . . he has trouble with truth.”
“Why don't you stay his tongue, then? You've taken men down for less. Many a time.”
“Because that's what he wants. Ewan, too.”
“They want you to hit them?”
“Nae. They want a full-out beating. I refuse.”
“Have you been at your whiskey long?” Tavish teased.
Aidan pulled in a large breath, sighed long and hard, and shook his head. It didn't help. It was still chill, wet, and dreary. And Tavish was still waiting. “They hid when they should've fought. 'Tis why they lived. It was also cowardly. They know it. And they want to be punished for it. To mute some of the guilt.”
“I'll hit them for you,” Tavish answered.
Aidan shook his head. “They want severe punishment. Fit to the deed. From me.”
“Why don't you give it to them, then?”
“I'd tell you it's due to pure joy that they lived, combined with my newly discovered meekness and compassion. But that would be a lie. Truth is . . . I'm guilty of the same transgress. I canna' punish them for hiding and then running. I did the same myself.”
“You had to save them, though! And the lass.”
“Doona' color it any other than it is, Tavish. Base cowardice. And we're all guilty.”
“You should have sent Ewan as well, then,” Tavish finally replied.
Aidan grunted. “Nae need. Ewan knows when to keep silent. He has na' taunted me.”
Tavish grunted a nonanswer and then started speaking again. “It'll take most of the night for them to gather our dead and return.”
“Longer than that. I also want word on the woodcarver. I expect them back tomorrow . . . near nightfall. We'll wait.” Aidan looked toward the tent and watched it until he saw the shadow pass again. It wouldn't do if the lass escaped while he was turned careless by the man supposedly guarding.
“I put Arran to guarding for a short span,” Tavish said, as if reading his mind. “He needed it. He's off-put by your denial.”
“He's more annoyed Alpin got to go. Speak true.”
Tavish chuckled and then sobered. “It might be dangerous. Sassenach may still be about, killing any that survived.”
Aidan pulled a dirk from his belt and started twirling it, looking it over for nicks, as if that was all he had to do for the evening. It was easier to talk to a blade. It was also easier to watch his door flap without looking like he was.
“Well?”
“They've still the castle to take. They'll put every man on that.”
“You think MacDonal still has Fyfen?”
Aidan turned to look at his man. “That clan plays with the devil for sport. You ever hear of a MacDonal giving anything up?”
“That's nae proof.”
Aidan sniffed and looked back to his tent. “I also heard his pipers. As we slunk away . . . leaving them to their fate. MacDonal clan was still defending the castle. They may still possess it. Kerr and Heck will have to be stealthy. Or deal with me.”
“What of your brother?”
“They've orders to keep him safe.”
“Nae wonder Arran's down in the pipes. You made it safe, and let his brother go . . . but na' him?”
“He already had a long day. And if he's true to type, he spent most of last eve awake. Doona' forget, the lad's young.”
“He's fifteen.”
Aidan's twirling of his knife paused.
Fifteen?
When had the lad grown up? “So . . . he is,” he replied finally.
“You were wed at fifteen.”
Aidan smirked. “True.”
The man shoved a large bite into his mouth and started chewing. Aidan almost stopped to warn him before deciding the man's silence would be appreciated for a spell. He watched the shadow pass the door again. She was still there, still awake.
Prowling . . .
He wondered what she'd look like in the clothing he'd sent her. He hadn't any intention of dealing with her again until she'd dressed in clothing that wasn't stuck to her with moisture, skimming curves he was having trouble ignoring, and not unless she had the near-unbelievable color and volume of her hair covered again, and definitely not until he had the whorl of lust banished and controlled.
BOOK: Knight Everlasting
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