Never love a highlander, p.16
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       Never Love a Highlander, p.16
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         Part #3 of McCabe Trilogy series by Maya Banks
Page 16

 

  “We cannot allow this,” James muttered.

  “Nay, we cannot,” Caelen agreed.

  “And what of Gregor? Where has he gone? Where does his loyalty lie?” Simon asked.

  Caelen turned his gaze on the older man. “That I do not know. He disappeared with many McDonald men. He was not content with the king’s decree. We must be wary, not only of Cameron but of Gregor as well. He may well try to take back what he believes is rightfully his. ”

  “We should have voted him out long since,” Simon said grimly. “ ’Tis as much our fault. Aye, he was a poor laird and he did much damage to our clan, but we allowed it and we must answer to God for our sins. ”

  “ ’Tis not too late to right the wrongs of the past,” Caelen said. “Once we have provided food for our clan, we must turn our focus to strengthening our men. We must send a message to our enemies. We are not an easy conquest. ”

  Simon leaned back and stared intently at Caelen. “ ’Tis the first time you’ve called it your clan, Laird. ”

  Caelen’s brows came together. “So it is. Perhaps ’tis settling well with me. ”

  The men nodded their satisfaction. There was still wariness in their gazes, but Caelen felt as though he’d scored much needed headway with the men he now commanded. His acceptance wouldn’t be overnight, but at least they weren’t ignoring him outright.

  Gannon put his hand on Caelen’s arm and put his finger to his lips. The men immediately went quiet. Not waiting to hear for himself what had alarmed his commander, Caelen got to his feet and drew his sword.

  The others followed suit, impressing Caelen with their speed and quiet. Perhaps they could be formed into skilled warriors yet.

  “Laird! Laird! Laird Caelen!”

  Hugh McDonald rode into the encampment, four men right behind him. ’Twas evident the horse had been ridden hard and without rest. Hugh slid from the saddle and staggered in Caelen’s direction.

  Caelen resheathed his sword and grabbed the much larger man by his tunic. “What is it, Hugh? What has happened?”

  “ ’Tis your wife, Laird. ”

  Caelen’s blood ran cold. “What mean you?”

  Hugh caught his breath. “She was set upon by intruders two days past. They came across the brook between the two lochs. From the forest. They were hiding in the trees. ”

  Caelen got into Hugh’s face, his pulse pounding harshly at his temples. “Is she all right? Was she hurt? What did they do to her?”

  “She was badly beaten, Laird. I know nothing more. I saw her when she crawled back to the courtyard, but I left soon after to pursue her attackers. When I lost their trail, I came directly to find you. ”

  Caelen thrust him away, his hands shaking as he attempted to collect his thoughts.

  “She is alive?”

  “Aye, Laird. She was alive when I left. I do not think the injuries were serious enough to cause her death. ”

  Caelen turned to Gannon. “You ride with me. ” Then he gestured at Simon. “You and the others pack the meat and return to the keep at once. ”

  Gannon strode swiftly to ready the horses and Caelen turned back to Hugh. “Who were they?” he asked in a deadly voice.

  “I know not that either, Laird. The lass barely spoke a word. I did not wait for her to relate the tale before I left in pursuit of the ones who launched the attack. ”

  “You did right, Hugh. ”

  Simon pushed forward, his expression serious. “Laird, I would ride back with you and Gannon. ’Tis not safe for two men alone. ”

  Caelen raised one eyebrow. “You seek to protect me?”

  Simon paused a moment before he finally answered. “You’re my laird. My duty is to watch your back at all times. I cannot do that if I am left behind. ”

  “Very well, Simon. I’ll be glad of your escort. Let us make haste so that I may see to my lady wife. ”

  CHAPTER 16

  The sun hadn’t yet risen when Caelen, Gannon, and Simon rode into the courtyard. Caelen was off his horse before it had fully stopped. Sarah met him at the bottom of the steps leading into the keep.

  “How is she?” he demanded.

  Sarah wrung her hands, her face creased with worry. “Thank God you’ve come home, Laird. I don’t know what to do with her. She’s not left her chamber since the attack. She’s not herself. She won’t eat. She just sits and stares out her window. ”

  Caelen grasped Sarah’s arms, shaking her from her hysteria. “Is she well? How badly is she hurt?”

  Tears shimmered in Sarah’s eyes. “ ’Tis the truth I don’t know what all was done to her. Once she regained consciousness she was so quiet. She refuses any company. She won’t confide in me. ”

  “I’ll see to her,” Caelen said as he brushed past Sarah.

  Dread gripped him as he hurried up the stairs. He realized when he reached the door to his chamber that he was afraid. It was an odd sensation and even odder to admit such. He’d watched his brothers go through hell with the women they loved, but he hadn’t imagined he could feel that same fear that had gripped his brothers.

  He shook his head. He’d feel concern for any woman who’d been abused. And outrage that another man had dared to touch what was his.

  He stood in the hallway, his hand raised to knock when he realized what he was doing. He dropped his hand and then opened the door.

  He’d expected to find her asleep but when his gaze fell over the bed, it was empty. It didn’t look as though she’d slept in it recently. He turned his head, scanning the room to find her sitting by the fire, her head cocked to the side.

  His breath caught at the bruises shadowing her face. He could see only her profile, but her eye was swollen and even from across the room he could see fingerprints around her neck.

  Carefully he shut the door, not wanting to awaken her. Then he crossed the room so that he could look more closely at her.

  Sweet Jesu, but someone had sorely beat the lass. His hands tightened in rage as he stood over her. She looked so fragile. So delicate. How had she ever survived such brutality? Worse, just how much had been done to her?

  His stomach heaved as he imagined just what could have occurred. Sarah had said she had closed herself off in her chamber ever since the attack and would confide in no one. Had she been violated?

  His hand trembled as he reached out to caress her cheek. Dear God, he couldn’t stand the thought of someone touching her. Of hurting her. He had to sit down on the stone hearth before his legs gave way.

  She stirred when his hand left her face. Her eyelids blinked and then she squinted as if opening her right eye had caused her pain.

  “Caelen,” she whispered.

  “Aye, lass, ’tis me. Are you well? Do you hurt still?”

  She licked her lips and then raised a hand to massage her throat. The delicate movement only brought more attention to her fragility, and fury sizzled through him like a whip.

  “I’m sore, but I am well. ’Tis nothing serious. Was your hunt successful?”

  The formality of their conversation baffled Caelen. ’Twas as if nothing amiss had occurred during his absence and he’d come home to a polite greeting from his wife.

  The shadows around her eyes troubled him, for they went deeper than the bruises. The fragility that he’d already noted was more pronounced the longer she was awake. There was something off about her, and now he realized why Sarah was so concerned.

  “Rionna,” he began gently. “Can you tell me what happened to you? ’Tis important I know all. Take your time. ’Tis no hurry for ’tis just you and I alone in our chamber. There is naught you can’t tell me. ”

  Her eyes flickered dispassionately as her gaze rested on him. He wanted to touch her but, God’s teeth, he didn’t know where he could lay hand on her that wouldn’t hurt her.

  “I was standing at the brook. When I looked up, I saw men on horses across the water. I knew I would never be able to run up the hill before they c
aught me so I ran along the bank, but they quickly caught up to me. ”

  He slid his hand over the top of hers where it rested on her lap. He eased his fingers underneath hers and rubbed his thumb along her knuckles. Her hand was tiny in his, and he was reminded of how small and slight she was.

  “One knocked me to the ground and backhanded me. I put my fingers in his eyes and scratched him. ”

  “Good,” Caelen said gruffly.

  “I escaped a moment but was caught by another man. ”

  For the first time, her voice wavered, fringed with emotion as she broke off and fixed her stare into the fire.

  “ ’Twas naught I could do,” she whispered. “He hit me. He tore my clothing. He … touched me,” she choked out.

  Caelen went completely still. He tried to swallow but couldn’t manage it. “Did he rape you?”

  She turned her gaze back on him, her eyes wide and startled. “Nay. He groped my breasts. He bruised me and humiliated me. He gave me a message for you. ”

  Relief that she hadn’t been molested was tempered by the fact that she’d still been sorely abused. And now it appeared as though it had all happened because someone wanted to hurt what was his.

  “Tell me his message. ”

  “He said that no McCabe is safe from Duncan Cameron. Not Mairin. Not Isabel. Not anyone who a McCabe calls dear. He said to tell you that my face is a token of Cameron’s esteem. ”

  He ground his teeth together so hard that he feared breaking them. His jaw ached as he tried valiantly to keep his rage at bay. His wife needed gentleness and understanding from him. Not a warrior bent on killing everyone in his path.

  “What then, Rionna?” he asked gently.

  Her eyes found his again, so dark and troubled. There was shame and pain in the golden depths. She looked … beaten. Not just in body, but in spirit. It was like a dagger to his gut.

  “They left and I crawled up the hill to the courtyard. I don’t remember much else. ”

  His chest hurt. His stomach heaved. The idea that his proud, spirited wife was beaten so badly that she had to crawl on the ground like an animal. Crawl.

  It was too much for him to bear.

  He stood abruptly and turned away so she wouldn’t see the ugly rage on his face. It took him a moment before he could breathe normally again. Then he turned back to see Rionna staring into the fire, so still and rigid.

  He went back and knelt beside her, touching her chin until she turned to look at him. “Have you slept?”

  She was confused by his question. Her eyes became cloudy. The fact that she couldn’t answer told him that she likely hadn’t slept at all beyond brief moments by the fire.

  Not waiting longer for her to respond, he carefully looped his arms underneath her body and lifted her as gently as he was able. He held her close to his chest and rested his lips atop her head as he carried her to the bed.

  He settled her onto the mattress and pulled the furs over her body so that she’d be warm. “I want you to rest. You have need of your sleep, Rionna. I’m here now. Nothing will hurt you. ”

  She dutifully closed her eyes, but she was still tense. He leaned down and brushed his lips across her brow. “Sleep now, lass. I’ll be here when you awaken. ”

  At his words, she relaxed a bit and seemed to sink deeper into the bed. Some of the strain around her eyes and mouth eased and she let out a tiny sigh.

  He stroked a hand over her hair until she seemed at ease and then he rose and backed from the bed. Her eyes opened and she locked her gaze with his.

  “Be at ease, Rionna. I won’t leave. I have need to speak with my men and to see to your care. Sarah says you’ve refused food. ”

  She didn’t respond but the look in her eyes suggested she still had no desire to eat.

  “You have to keep your strength up. I’m going to bring up some broth, something that won’t hurt your mouth or jaw to chew. You’ll eat it. ”

  He expected sparks in her eyes at his command. He’d never issued one yet that hadn’t elicited a scowl or outright defiance on her part. But her eyes remained dull, and she turned into her pillow, closing her eyes. He’d all but been dismissed.

  Cursing under his breath, he turned to the door to find Gannon standing against the wall just outside. Gannon straightened when Caelen softly closed the door behind him.

  “How is she?” Gannon asked.

  “They beat the hell out of her,” Caelen bit out.

  “Who?”

  “Cameron’s men. They gave her a message to give to me. The sons of bitches brutalized her. There isn’t a part of her face or neck that isn’t bruised. ”

  Anger glittered in Gannon’s eyes. “Cameron has no compunction about waging war against women. But why now? Why Rionna? What is the point? Why not just attack? They obviously knew you’d gone out on the hunt. ”

  “He wants to draw me out,” Caelen said grimly. “He wants to make me angry enough that I do something foolish like charge after him in the dead of winter with inferior warriors, where if we survive the cold and starvation, we’d be easily defeated once we confront him at his holding. ”

 
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