The Highlander’s Sweet Surrender (Preview)
Foyers, Scotland, near Loch Ness, 1644
“Shite,” Cory Chattan muttered under his breath as he ran down the long passageway to the Council Room.
He was perpetually late, but it surprised him to be late that morning. That was the morning they were to read his father, Laird Gregor Chattan’s, will, and he was going to have an enormous responsibility on his shoulders soon enough.
Ye can dae this. Ye can be Laird of yer clan.
It was something he’d told himself as soon as his father had been found dead suddenly in his study just a few days ago. It had been odd to see him so cold and… gone, yet his eyes were open, and he’d worn a look of surprise that death had come for him so soon. Cory had been surprised as well. His father had always been hale and hearty, a loud, aggressive presence in Cory’s life ever since he could remember. As he rushed, he tried to tell himself again that he could do this, even though his father had hardly taught him anything about it and neglected him in the past few years. It had been Ruairidh, his cousin, who had been his father Gregor’s favorite, but now they could at least be united in their grief.
He slipped inside the sizeable oaken door of the Council Room, his boots making loud sounds on the stone floor, which might have been hidden if the room was not so silent.
“Forgive me, Council members,” Cory announced, nodding his head at the line of old men at the table in the front of the room, all looking solemn and fatigued.
When he sat down next to his beady-eyed cousin, he let out his breath and faced the council. When he was a child, his father had brought him to a few meetings, and he’d thought then that the men were older than life itself, but even now, years later, they seemed positively ancient. At twenty-two, however, perhaps all men with white hair and beards seemed older to him. He wondered if they had ever cracked a smile in the whole of their lives.
The man in the center, the most frightening and oldest of all, narrowed his steely-eyed gaze at Cory. “Now that we are all together, we might begin the reading of the will. Let it be noted that it is nae like a future laird tae be late when there is so much at stake.” If it was possible, the old man’s gaze narrowed even more.
“Forgive me, Elder McCreary.” Cory nodded and gave the man a brief smile, which was not returned.
He sat up in his chair and looked around the room. The other servants and soldiers of his father’s castle were there, and they all stared stonily ahead. Only a few glanced his way, and it was with pity, he realized. Everyone undoubtedly believed that his heart was sunken in grief, when it was much more with surprise and fear. When he turned back, Ruairidh nudged him.
“Listen, ye dobber. Ye are about tae hear of the fate of yer clan,” his cousin whispered in his ear. “Nae a surprise that ye would show up late.”
His whole life, Cory had thought of it as his father’s clan, feeling like an outsider even though he was a laird’s son. And now, it would all be turned over to him. People would look his way, expecting him to know what to do in times of battle. He folded his hands together on his lap and leaned forward, eager to hear what the old men had to say. The oldest man cleared his throat, unrolled a scroll, and read.
It began with minor details, discussing his father’s plans of what to do for the servants and soldiers of the clan. Cory felt his mind wandering to what he’d been doing that morning as Elder McCreary drifted on and on, his voice not changing as he divided Laird Chattan’s wealth.
Only half an hour before, Cory had been stood out by his father’s grave, a thing he thought he’d not be doing for years and years. He’d watched it with a sort of distance. He and his father had not been close for many years, and he knew his father disapproved of him in many ways.
After leaving the grave, he had to see Millie again before the will was read. Her green eyes, red hair, plump lips, and her way of looking at things made life so much easier to bear. He knew she would know what to say, and so he’d hurried off to her home in the village, but Millie had been waiting for him on the edge of the graveyard.
“All will be well,” she had said, allowing him to kiss her lips and pull her close, breathing in her familiar scent.
They were to be married soon, and he couldn’t wait. He’d been in love with her ever since the day he’d laid eyes on her. But then, his father died, and now there was this burden of the future upon him. Could he possibly take over a clan and be a new husband?
When the old man cleared his throat again, Cory’s mind jumped back to the matter at hand. “And now we will read who is tae take ownership of Clan Chattan and become the laird. Because Cory and his cousin, Ruairidh, were raised by the laird, and they are the same age, it was up tae Laird Chattan who would take over the clan once he passed.”
Cory nodded, but he could feel an icy chill over his skin. His father would never have believed he could take the clan, but who else could have? He was the man’s blood heir, his rightful son, and he even looked just like him with dark red curls, a light reddish-brown beard, and blue eyes. Even though Ruairidh had come to live with them long ago and had been considered family, Cory was certain that his blood would win out in the end. As the old man took a breath to read his next lines, Cory reached up to touch the golden chain around his neck, which held a pendant from his father. It was the shape of a C, with a pointed V at the bottom edge. He’d been given it years ago in a rare show of affection from his father.
“Never take this off, no matter what. One day it may give ye all the answers ye need ,” his father had told him, his blue eyes bright with urgency.
The Elder continued. “And Laird Chattan had specific and perhaps unique wishes for the transfer of ownership of Clan Chattan.” Cory glanced at his cousin, who was leaning back in his chair, arms crossed.
“The lairdship of Clan Chattan will go to Ruairidh Chattan, son of Arya Chattan, sister to Laird Gregor, raised by Laird Gregor Chattan and now Laird of Clan Chattan.”
For a moment, everything was still. No one spoke after the elder councilman spoke the last words, and Cory felt like he’d been submerged in an icy loch. No, it couldn’t possibly be true. How could his father have chosen his cousin to be the laird? Cory was his own rightful heir. He tried to breathe, but the air would not enter his lungs. He felt as though he’d been punched in the gut. At the same time, his veins filled with ice.
Ruairidh slowly rose, and Cory realized this was all a reality. He had been pushed aside for his cousin. His rude, angry, and cruel cousin who had not shown Cory one moment of kindness in all their years together.
“Yer father had always approved more of me, ye ken.” Ruairidh gave Cory a thin smile. “It is only natural that I should be chosen. I thank ye, council members,” he said louder. “I will lead this clan with honor as me uncle did.”
Cory sat there, amazed, a silent room behind him until they all rose to give their allegiance. While he felt himself dragged to his feet, his mind raced. If he was not the laird, then what in God’s name was he supposed to do?
1650, six years later
Helen Ridley pulled at the bodice of her work-worn woolen gown, adjusting it so that her cleavage was just a little more pronounced than usual. Once it was settled, she stared at the tavern in front of her and grimaced a little. One of the best places in the country to get information about each side during a war was the tavern, but after so many taverns, Helen was never eager to set foot inside one. Men’s eyes felt like they were undressing her with each moment, and more than once, she’d felt a rough hand on her backside as she walked around to seek just the right man.
I suppose I cannot complain too much. I am attempting to play a lady of the night, after all.
With another deep breath, she stepped forward, ensuring her cloak was open enough to reveal her bosoms on display. She hesitated only once outside in the breeze of a March night, pushing aside a dark blond curl that had sprung free. Biting her lip a few times to give them more color, she pulled open the door, and the loud sounds of merry men, drinking songs, and perhaps a little arguing filled her ears. So did the smells. The wheat of the ale, the savory warmth of the food, and the scent of about fifty male bodies all cramped into a small space after a long day of work.
She walked in; head held high. One must always portray confidence in every situation. Helen had learned that over the past year. People responded to confidence and courage. It was why so many foolish men were in power when they should not be, including her brother, Anthony. He never faltered, and he never backed down, even when he was making terrible and sometimes cruel decisions.
Noticing a few eyes watching her, she made her way to the center of the activity, a long wooden counter stretching nearly the entire room. Chairs were lined up against it, and she sat on one, pulling a letter out of her pocket and placing it on the wood surface in front of her.
“Whisky, please,” she said to the oily barkeeper, who only grunted at her before pouring her a glass.
“Here,” he grunted, and he pushed it towards her.
She looked up at him with her bright green eyes and flashed him a smile, tilting her head slightly. In a moment, as she expected, the man colored, and his stern expression melted.
“Thank ye,” she said, and he nodded, looking a little more flustered but less grumpy than before.
It always helped to make alliances when one could, especially in a place like this. That was why she was always polite, if possible, and why she would use her Scottish accent that she’d learned from her mother rather than her true English one. No better way to remain hidden in Scotland as an English lass than to speak the brogue as much as possible. As she spun the whisky glass in her hand, her eyes glancing down at the letter, she watched things out of the corner of her eye. Men were looking her way, and that was a good thing. It meant she would find some secrets out that night. It would also mean she would have to listen to the terrible flirtations of old, drunken highlanders who thought little of the care of their own bodies but wished their women to be pristine.
But none yet approached her, so she had time to reread the letter in front of her for the hundredth time.
I hope you are not wasting your time gallivanting about on my coin. You always were the more frivolous of all three of us, but you will make it up to me with your service to the English. Since I know you are desperate to know, Cecily is fine. I have kept my word and have not married her off as I threatened. But I will not keep to that if you do not come back with information about the Scottish plans for their next moves. You have been away long enough. You need to return to England as soon as possible to avoid that. I never understood how you could never forget your Scottish mother and turn away from our father, but do your country justice now. Help the English side defeat those bastards, who are little more than creatures among the rocks in those dark Highlands. Send word.
Helen folded the letter quickly and took a breath before gulping down a large swallow of whisky.
One of these days, Anthony will receive his due. And I sure as hell hope it’s me who gets to give it to him.
She took another sip and let out a breath. She had never thought to find herself in this position, but it had been the only way in her mind to save Cecily from having to be married to a complete stranger by their half-brother, Anthony, now Lord Seton, an earl. Cecily was the one person who did not despise her for their shared the hot, Scottish blood of their mother, even though Cecily had favored their father, and she was far warmer and more tractable than Helen had ever learned to be. But at the same time, home had become insufferable since her father died. Her family hated her for what loyalty she held to her mother, especially now that the Scottish and the English were now at war.
War was a way of life between the two nations, and they’d been battling for years. But now, the Anglo-Scottish War was underway, and when Anthony suggested to help him get information about the English, she’d taken it. Just a little excitement about the dangers of it had made her heart beat faster. That she was constantly on the road and focused also helped to lessen the pain that she felt she had no real true home any longer.
Trying her best to calm her thoughts to focus on the matter at hand, she finished the whisky and put out her glass for another. A few drunken mumblings about war and position and the English caught her attention. She turned slightly to see a rough and tumble group of men bending over their cups, leaning close to each other, whispering.
One man, a round-headed balding man, looked up and saw her watching; he shooshed the others and then smoothed a hand over his shining head. Swallowing back her bile, Helen rose from her seat.
You know what to do. Think of it as finding another secret.
Swaying her hips just so, she took her newly filled glass of whisky and walked towards the table. It was four men, all soldiers in dirty uniforms, and they all gazed up at her with bleary-eyed drunken looks of lust.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” she said. “One of ye might be interested in an evening of company.” She gave them her charming smile as well, and all men’s eyes darkened with lust, and she sat down next to the balding one.
He slid a hand around her waist and pulled her close, smiling into her face. Helen tried to smile back, but she could feel the bile rising in her throat at the scent of the man. Sweat and ale and stale breath. His teeth were also filled with bits of food, and his clothes looked as though they had not been washed in an age.
“Just give me a minute or two, lass, and then ye and I can go.”
“Och, I am nae rush, lads. Why dae I nae join ye for a wee whisky first?” Helen lifted her glass and tried to slide away from the man, but he held tight.
“Very well. Now, Angus, get back tae what ye were talking about,” the balding man said. “About Clan Chattan.”
Helen smiled and looked down at her glass. It was the reason she played this role. No one believed that women of the night cared about anything and that they didn’t matter. They were consistently underestimated, as were women. But Helen could feel that she was right on the brink of finding out something good.
Cory Chattan stood on the battlements with Laird Grant, also known as Cam, and they stared out over the lands below. Cory had been Cam’s advisor for a year, but they had become more like friends and confidants. The man next to him was a good one, strong and true, with long blonde hair that often reminded people of a lion. And he loved his wife Ella dearly and their twins. There was so much to like and envy about the man, but Cory couldn’t help but feel only good things about him. It was evening and both cold and dark, but the moon was full, and Cory took a deep breath of icy air. His auburn hair was tied back, but he could still feel the tickle of a loose hair on the back of his neck.
“It will snow taenight,” he said. “I can feel it in the air. It hangs heavy.”
“Aye,” Cam said. “The village will need some help. The last time, too many rooves caved in. We tried tae rebuild, but we will see if these new rooves can handle the weight of this snow. Och, there it is, the first flake.”
Cam reached out a finger to catch a snowflake as it fell, and Cory smiled. “Aye, it seems we are tae be plagued with snow, even in the spring. Let us hope April brings us less trouble.”
“I hope so. Plus, it is too bloody cold of late. I cannae drink enough whisky or sit in front of enough fires tae warm me bones.”
“Och, but what of Ella?” Cory teased. “Surely that is a wife’s duty, is it nae? As it is a husband’s. Tae keep one another warm at night.”
“Aye, true enough.” A look of pleasure passed over Cam’s eyes, but then he coughed, and his face turned a bit more serious. “Sorry tae ye for yer disappointment with Ada. I ken that ye were interested in her.”
Ada was Cam’s sister-in-law, who had just been visiting last year at the end of the year. She was bright, beautiful, and intelligent. She was feisty, and she fought, taking nothing she didn’t want to. For a brief time, Cory had flirted with the idea that perhaps she could be the woman for him. That he could finally forget about the past, his failures, and the way he’d lost his clan and family and move on. But it was not to be. Ada had been in love with her guard, Blair, right from the beginning,
“Och, it is nothing. It is nae as if I really expected anything tae happen.” Cory shrugged and shivered a bit when an icy breeze blew past him. “I suppose we ought tae go inside again. Maybe drink a dram or two ‘afore I set off again.”
Cam put his hand on Cory’s shoulder and faced him. “I can send the men, Cory. Ye are always doing too much, and ye donnae have tae. There are plenty a thing ye can dae here in the warmth, as me advisor.”
Cory smiled and laughed, but he knew he would not listen. He had to make himself feel useful.
He patted his stomach. “I could dae that, but then I fear I will get a bit longer around the waist.” He winked at Cam. “I have tae keep up me physique if I am going tae find another lady, one who is nae already in love with another.”
“Aye then.” Cam patted his shoulder, and the two of them headed down from the battlements to a door in the wall.
Once inside, the air was instantly warmer, and Cory could hear the whipping of the wind.
“The storm is comin’ fast,” he warned.
He always helped during storms and any other times the clan needed him, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t sometimes afraid of how a storm could turn into something ugly in moments. And just like Cam had said, it would take many whiskeys and many hours in front of the fire to warm his bones again once he returned.
“They always dae. I daenae have much use for God, but in storms, I find meself praying like a zealot.”
They went to Cam’s study and found that Lady Ella was already there, bringing in a pot of tea.
“Och, the two of ye,” she said, smiling up at them from a chair by the fire. “Come and sit. I heard ye were up on the battlements, and so I brought ye both some tea.” She stood and pointed to the pot, but Cam took her in his arms and kissed her.
Cory looked down and folded his hands in front of him. He had never seen a husband and wife so taken with one another, and even though it was unusual, he found he rather wanted that for himself. It made him think of Millie and what could have been.
Och, traitorous, heart-breaking Millie.
Once the announcement of Ruairidh’s ascension as Laird of the clan had been made, Millie pretended as if whatever she and Cory had had not existed. She’d claimed passionate love for Ruairidh instead, and they’d been married, making her Lady Chattan with all that went with it.
“Are ye cold, Cory?” Ella asked, and he looked up again to see her smiling at him.
“Nae. Thank ye. I am well. I will leave the two of ye.”
“Nonsense!” she cried, pulling herself out of her husband’s embrace, but he still held one hand on her waist. “Ye two have much tae discuss, I’m sure, with the storm coming. I was only passing by. A good evening tae ye.”
“Until later, love,” Cam said, kissing her again before she giggled and pushed his arms away, nodding at Cory before she went.
With a sigh, Cam sat down and poured each of them hot tea flavored with rich spices to warm the heart. He handed Cory one, and he lifted a brow.
“Ye look as though ye have something on yer mind. Besides the storm, of course.”
“Just thinking about ‘afore, I suppose.”
“Yer family?” Cam took a sip of tea and leaned back, his keen eyes watching him. Nothing seemed to get past the man, even though Cory had done his best not to share everything about his life. At least not the painful parts.
“Aye, something like that. Dae ye ken how me cousin fares as laird?”
Cam nodded, staring into the flames as he thought. “Aye, just a bit. We daenae have much dealings with one another as ye ken. But I hear he has strength in numbers, and he is a rather strong leader, nae always so focused on kindness and compassion.”
“That sounds just about right.” Cory drank a sip so fast that it burned his tongue, and he winced. The tea did, however, warm him a bit. When he finished, he put it down and stood. “I suppose I ought tae go.”
“Ye should get some food in ye ‘afore ye leave. Keep watch when yer out there,” Cam frowned. “There are always English soldiers about these days. Sometimes, they like tae use the storms tae take advantage of weak moments.”
“Aye, ye can be sure I will be on the watch. Thanks for the tea.”
“Cheers. Good luck tae ye.”
Cory left the room and shut the door, focusing on the night ahead. Hopefully, no one would be in need of too much help so that he could soon return home and sit in the warmth of his fire.
1650, six years later
Helen tried her best to sip her whisky slowly as she leaned in to hear the mumbled and slurring words of the old soldiers.
“Aye, that new laird is a right blaigeard,” the one called Angus said. “Only put in place six years ago, and he is nae even the son! He has taken the clan and made it strong, but I heard tell. Of his evil around. That he is so cruel, even the devil himself would nae wish tae face him.”
“Och, but what of their loyalties? Ye think they want Scottish independence?” Helen’s bald man asked.
Angus shook his head, his dark eyes narrowing as he put two fists on the table. “Nay. All he cares about is money, so he does.” He leaned in, as did the others, and Helen did so as well, as slowly and softly as possible. The stench of the group was a little unbearable, but she breathed into her mouth as she listened in. “I heard that he is selling weapons tae the English, and giving them space on their lands tae camp, prepare, and even give them some insight intae what other clans are doing. I ken those English blaigeards are planning the attack soon enough. They daenae like the king we’ve chosen.”
“Nay, they daenae,” a ruddy-faced man at the far end of the table said. “I ken ye had always better keep a close eye on an English lad or lass. Cunning is in their blood.” All eyes turned to Helen, and she pulled back quickly, showing the men her bright smile again.
“’Tis a good thing we have a proper Scottish lass here among us.” The bald man put his arm around her again and kissed her cheek. “Come then, lass, shall we go have us a good time.”
He let go of her long enough for her to slide away, and he rummaged in his pocket for a few coins to put on the table. The other men did the same, standing up and not looking at her any longer. Helen’s breath came quickly. She could deal with one man, but more than one would be more difficult to handle, even if they were drunk off their feet. With them being soldiers, even if they were older, she knew they would still be strong.
“Come along then, lass.”
“Aye,” she said, again trying to muster a bright smile.
Stop being afraid. You have done this many times, and you can do it again.
Now that she had some interesting information, she wanted to start making her plans immediately, but she had to deal with this man first.
“What is yer name, then?” she asked, sliding a hand through his arm to act as if she was eager to go. “I think ye should be the man tae pay me bill at the bar.”
“Och, is that so?” He winked at her before producing another coin and slapping it onto the counter, making the barkeeper jump slightly.
He pulled on Helen’s arm, and she followed confidently, swaying her hips once more, catching the eyes of a few men on her way out.
Just play the part.
“Come with me,” she said to the man once they left the tavern.
Thankfully, the other men had not followed them, so she’d only have this man to deal with. Pulling him towards the alley, he chuckled and stumbled along drunkenly after her. This would be easy enough.
“Eager are ye then, lass? Havenae had a real lad in some time, is that it?”
“Of course. Surely ye can rectify that, sir.”
“I certainly can.” His eyes darkened, and once they were in the alley’s shadow, he drew closer, his breath hot on her cheek.
“Just a moment,” she said, giving her best feminine giggle as she pushed against him. “Turn around for a moment. I want tae undress a bit for ye.”
“Och, ye dae ken how tae entice a man.” Slowly, the man turned around, and her girlish smile fell instantly as she raised her hand and made it fall hard against his neck, hitting the vein in just the right spot.
As she hoped, he crumpled to the ground like a sack of potatoes, and she breathed a quick sigh of relief. “Thanks be to God.”
Hurrying away, she took one more look behind her in the alley, where she saw the shadow of the slumped man. She put up the hood of her cloak, buttoned up the front over her bodice and continued on.
An evening’s work done. Now to find the Chattan Castle and get there before they give too much information to the English. Can’t have Scotland getting too much of the short end of things.
She smiled at herself as she hurried off into the night. She noticed the snowflakes falling around her and cursed aloud, searching one way and then the other. It wasn’t safe to stay in an inn, not when she’d just made an impression like that. Her eyes moved to the far woods.
Perhaps the snow will not be so bad. I could wait it out until the worst is over. Then no one would be out and about as I return to my room to gather my belongings.
Convincing herself of her choice, she trotted toward the woods as the wind blew harder, and the snow came faster. Once inside the woods, the wind abated somewhat, and she wrapped her cloak a little tighter about herself. She wished she’d eaten a morsel or two at the tavern instead of only drinking two drams of whisky. But that would keep her bones warm, at least.
She had to hide after what she’d just done. They would not notice for a while, but the men inside, drunk as they were, were sure to come after their friend soon enough, and then they might think something of her. Helen could not afford to arouse suspicion. When she’d walked far enough into the woods, she came across a large boulder facing away from the wind, and gleefully, she sat down against it, protected from the wind much more now. Slowly, she watched as the snow fell softly around her. No one would find her there, and she could rest peacefully for a few hours. But her eyes fell. The whisky and the rush of what she’d just done hit her now. Protected from the wind, she felt a little warm and cozy, and she fell right asleep.
“God in Heaven.” Cory’s teeth chattered as he rode back to the castle on a lone, wintry road.
The storm had taken a turn, and quickly, snow was piling up on the edges of the road, and the villages were getting covered. He was just on his way home from securing one of the newly built rooves in the closest village, and everything in his body was cold. It felt as if his very veins were made of ice, but he tried to stay focused as he rode home in the dark, clucking and saying soothing words to his horse, Maitheanas.
“Come now, lad. We can dae this.” Cory clucked and nudged against the poor steed’s icy sides, hoping to encourage the horse to continue.
“Jesus, it’s feckin’ cold,” his friend and soldier, Tobias, said at his elbow. “I cannae believe anythin’ could survive this.”
In the silence of the night, it felt as if they were the only three beings in the world. When he and Tobias blew out their breath, it swirled around them like twin clouds, making Cory dream of whisky and fireplaces.
And perhaps a warm body tae come home tae.
Where in God’s name had that thought come from? He blinked in surprise at the train of his thoughts and encouraged Maitheanas to ride faster to get home all the quicker. He had not thought of being with anyone in such a long time. Not in that way, the way that meant he would return home to them night after night. For so long, it had only been Millie in his mind: her lovely mouth, warm, smooth body, and the way she’d always screamed her pleasure for him as if he was the only one who could give it to her.
All a lie. She had cared nae a whit for me.
But after that evening’s conversation with Cam, Cory had thought of it again. The thought that perhaps one day, there could be someone he could return home to. Who would smile at him, embrace him, and lead him to bed?
“Cory? Ye all right?” Tobias asked, his teeth chattering loudly.
“Aye, just thinkin.’ I hope that roof holds, but we may have tae think of somethin’ else once the snow melts if it doesnae.”
“Aye. We will. The family was thrilled tae have us come. I am sure of it. I hope the other soldiers sent out were all right on their way back. The snow has calmed a bit, but it came in a big rush there for a while.” A twig cracked in the woods on one side of the road, and both their heads jerked in that direction. “What is that? Dear God, if it is wolves, then I will warm up soon enough, rushin’ back tae the castle.”
Cory chuckled, glad for the distraction from his earlier uncomfortable thoughts, full of longing and desire. “Nay, I doubt it. But the fight would certainly warm our bodies up a bit.” He narrowed his eyes at the woods, where he saw a boulder and some figure slumped underneath it. “Better go and take a look, though. Go on ahead. I can dae this on me own.”
“Thanks be tae God,” Tobias said, riding off, and Cory turned his curious gaze back to the trees.
He turned Maitheanas towards the woods, and the horse diligently obeyed. He stopped at the edge and jumped down, patting the stallion’s flank for comfort.
“Just a wee while more, lad. Just tae check on this.”
He trudged forward, his hand hovering above his dirk in case it was something dangerous. The moon was high and full enough to give a haunting light to the dark trees, bouncing off the snow, painting everything around it the same color: black. When he got close enough, he saw that the slumped figure was not an animal but a person, and he hurried forward to reach them when the figure suddenly gasped, stood up, and Cory, bewildered, found himself on his back in the snow.
“What?” he cried in shock. No one had ever moved that quickly before or had bested him with hardly an effort.
But when he looked up, a young woman stared down at him, her hair falling about her, and her cloak hood fell back. Her hands were on his shoulders, and she was straddling him. He was so surprised by what had just happened that it took him a few seconds to realize that an icy blade was at his throat.
“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” she breathed, her white teeth bared in a sort of grimace.
Her thighs gripped his sides tightly, and he knew that if she had slung them around his neck instead, he would have choked in a matter of seconds. It was such a stark difference from the usual young ladies he met in his life among the clan villages, who batted their eyelashes at him and pretended to faint or feel ill so that he or another young man would have to catch them.
Cory held out his hands to the side. The lass was strong, but now that he had his wits about him, he hoped he could overpower her with a few quick moves, but he waited. The sight above him was mesmerizing, and he had no words for the moment. He wondered if he’d collapsed off his horse and knocked his head on the icy road, for it appeared a goddess straddled him with her strong thighs. Her every breath and slight movement radiated fire, strength, and courage. It was enviable, for he wasn’t sure he had ever looked as powerful as she did right then. Even in the darkness, he could tell that her eyes were fiery, and her voice was strong and confident. For a moment, he did not know what to say, and then he realized that if he didn’t speak soon, his back would become fused with the frozen ground beneath him, and then the both of them would be caught in the woods, freezing to death.
“Listen, lass,” he said, and he felt the blade press even closer, the chill of it making him gasp, only reminding him just how close the point was to his throat.
“I am no mere lass,” she growled at him.
If it was possible, her fiery eyes showed even more sparks.
Ye certainly are nae.
“I—” he started yet again, but then out of nowhere, she sneezed.
The movement was such a stark difference from the one she had started with, her gloved finger moving up to brush against her nose as she turned away daintily to sneeze. The blade loosened on his throat as the sneezes wracked her body. Two more came soon after, and as her body vibrated with the motion, Cory laughed. His goddess was entirely real, it seemed. And much more of a proper lady than she’d wished him to notice, making sure that she did not sneeze all over her prey.
“How dare you laugh?” she cried, looking as if she was about to sneeze again, when Cory reached up, grasped her wrist, and he spun them around until she was now pressed underneath him. Her hand, still holding the knife, was now held above her head, and she was looking up at him wide-eyed in surprise, her red nose pointed in his direction.
For a moment, Cory paused. In those fateful few seconds, the cold was no longer seeping into his bones. The breeze above had blown aside a few of the bare branches of the trees, and the moonlight could now cast light more fully onto her face. He sucked in a breath, wondering if he had ever seen a bonnier lass than the one he was looking at right then. Her lips were parted, and her eyes met his with a confidence he had never seen before in a young woman, except perhaps both Lady Ada and Lady Ella. And with her pressed beneath him, his hips between her legs, his mind had no trouble in immediately thinking of another situation in which he might find himself like this.
But he was a gentleman. He was not his cousin, who had no care for the permission of young ladies and took pleasure where he found it. Clearing his throat, he furrowed his brow and tried to focus. She was no goddess but a woman, and he had to figure out a way to get out of there so that they both did not end up dead.
“By God, woman, we are goin’ tae both freeze tae death if ye daenae come with me. All I wanted tae do was help ye, so daenae fash but move quicker tae my horse and let’s get going.” He squeezed the wrist that held the knife, and she let it go, muttering something under her breath that he thought sounded like “bloody scoundrel.”
He stood, pulling her up with him, and she ripped out of his grasp as quickly as she could, but not before he could reach down and pick up her dirk, pushing it into his boot. He gave her a quick smile.
“In case ye are thinkin’ about stabbin’ yer rescuer again.”
The way her eyes widened and her mouth gaped open made Cory want to laugh again. “That is the last thing I would ever think to call you, you…brute!” she cried indignantly even though she stomped after him out of the woods towards his waiting horse. “More like someone who is keen to interrupt one’s peaceful slumber!”
He grinned, spinning around to face her once he reached the tree around which the reins had been hastily tied. “Och, the peaceful slumber of a lass who is slowly freezin’ tae death. Ye’re right. How dare I dae such a thing?”
She had no response to that except for an angry huff, and Cory tried to stifle another chuckle. He was surprised. He was freezing his arse off, and yet the young woman had made him laugh three times in the span of their brief yet very interesting encounter. And forget the fact that it was bloody cold.
He patted Maitheanas’ gray sides, noting just how cold the horse was. “Listen lass, come with me for the night, and I will give shelter, and ye can go yer way tomorrow. I cannae just leave ye here, but I daenae want tae stay in the cold tae protect ye from the wolves.”
He stared at her for a few seconds while she thought about it, looking him up and down. “I do not care for your smugness. It’s a very unattractive quality.” She tapped angrily with her foot. “You know that I could just put you down on the ground again. You caught me in a moment of weakness with that sneeze.”
“Of course, I ken that. But I think there are other more important matters at hand, such as getting warm and finding food. So? What dae ye say? Will ye come with me?”
She took a breath, and then taking a step forward, she did the last thing he thought she would do. She crumpled into his arms.
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