Authors: April Holthaus
Washed and relaxed, she sat near the fire allowing her hair to dry. Wrapped in a towel, she stared into the flames of the fire, burning brightly inside the large hearth. She wondered what Ian and his men were doing at that very moment. Perhaps,
they too were able to bathe and don fresh clothing. She did not know how much longer she could tolerate their stench, though she kept quiet about their unpleasant bodily odor.
Her thoughts went to Ian, who invaded her mind as of late. She didn’t know why she cared that he was leaving except that she did not like being left behind; not to mention being left in the dark about what was really going on. She knew there was more to Ian and his story than what he was telling her. As he proved to be the most stubborn man in the Highlands, she knew she wasn’t going to get much information out of him, but perhaps she could persuade Leland to tell her. Keira knew that when a man was deep in his cups, there was no telling what he would say. She would set her plan in motion this very night. If she knew why Ian was so desperate to reach Linlithgow, perhaps even more truths would be revealed.
After a bath, a change of clothes, and a much needed shave, Ian entered the busy hall. Finding his brother and Rylan already sitting and enjoying their meal, he went to sit near them.
“Leland, I need to speak to ye,” Ian quietly said, not wanting to draw attention from the others in the overcrowded room.
Leland sat up and followed Ian into the long hall. Passing several servants, they stopped in front of a windowless alcove, so that no one else could hear their conversation.
“Leland, ye are a Protector and I need ye to be that now. I wish fer ye to stay here and watch o’er Keira. Make sure she is safe. With Laird MacKenzie no’ here, I dinna trust any of the locals. Rylan and I will continue our journey to Linlithgow. Tell no one of our destination. Once I meet with our Laird, I will hurry back. Can ye do that?”
“Aye, of course. Ye dinna think something will happen to her here, do ye?”
“I dinna know, but I am no’ taking any chances. Dinna let her leave yer sight!”
Ian and Leland returned to the hall. As Leland continued filling his face, Ian paced back and forth near the doorway, waiting for Keira to join them. He would have journeyed up the stairs to find her, but was assured by the maid that the lass would be down shortly. He convinced himself that the only reason he cared was that he felt honor-bound to protect her. He’d made a vow; one he was not going to break. It was the only reason; the only logical explanation he had; to explain these feelings toward her. For now, she was
mission. And like all of his missions, he would see to it until the end.
From the corner of his eye, he spotted the lovely lass dressed in a soft yellow gown that reminded him of spring daisies. Her red locks were loosely braided across one shoulder and a few loose curls had escaped their confinement. Those tempting tendrils gave a bounce as she walked. She was an image that took a man’s breath away.
Ian waited as she descended the stairs. He couldn’t help but notice the way her hips swayed side to side as she walked, nor could he ignore the way her chest rose and fell with each breath. She was a vision. As Keira reached the bottom of the stairs, she glanced around the room, but paid no heed to Ian who stood directly across from her. Ian’s brows furrowed, and he stepped toward her.
“My lady,” he said holding his arm out to her.
For a moment, she looked at him with uncertainty as one would look at a stranger. It was not the look Ian had hoped for. He had hoped to see her smile.
Keira’s eyes widened at the Highlander who stood before her. She had not recognized him at first;
his clean shaven appearance, his hair slicked back, his formal dress attire, but his eyes were familiar; the perfect shade of blue.
Keira was left speechless. With a clean face, a proper bath, and hair tied back, he looked as if he could actually pass for a gentleman. And she had to admit, he was rather handsome.
He did not look as she imagined. Hidden underneath his thick heavy beard, his jaw was strong and angular. His lips, full and plump; no longer covered by an overgrown mustache. For a man, he was beautiful, and not nearly as intimidating as when she had first seen him. He had completely transformed.
“Lady Keira, yer presence lightens this room as bright as stars on a clear night,” he said, holding his arm out to her.
She took it, but felt her cheeks blush at his compliment.
“Ye look quite presentable, yerself, if I may say so. I must say, I am pleasantly surprised,” she admitted, hoping he would not take her words as an insult.
Ian smiled at her compliment. Stopping in mid-stride, he turned to face her.
“After ye eat, will ye join me fer a walk? I heard Castle Leod has quite the garden.”
Keira chewed her bottom lip at his question. According to the rules of decorum, she should not be alone with him. But perhaps this was her chance to get the information she needed.
“Aye, I will join ye.”
Ian led Keira to the table where Leland and Rylan were seated, enjoying their meal. In front of two empty chairs were trenchers full of food. Keira sat next to Ian and eagerly began eating. The moist, juicy lamb practically melted in her mouth. As she had spent the past two days eating nothing but apples, Keira did not think she would ever want to look at another apple again!
“I hope the food meets with your satisfaction,” Lady MacKenzie said.
“Tis more than generous, my Lady. After eating nothing but cold, spoiled meat, apples and stale oatcakes, ye could have fed me the dog and I’d be a satisfied mon,” Ian joked.
“I have heard many great things your young King has accomplished. I heard he will soon be taking a French bride. It will prove to be a good match, for Scotland and France.”
“Aye! Though I know little of politics, my Lady, living only by my sword, I do hear rumors.”
“As a Highlander, surely you must know about the rebellion against James?”
“Aye. I have heard talk,” Ian added.
“Between you and me, I think the rise of the rebellion will soon be coming to an end.”
“And why is that, my Lady?”
“My husband just received his last arrest warrants for several Highland chiefs who are believed to be involved. It should be a great victory for the King of Scotland!”
“Ye are a wealth of information, my Lady.”
Lady Mackenzie smiled proudly. Ian finished his meal quickly, anxious for his walk with Keira in the garden. The news Lady MacKenzie shared was not anything he had not already heard. He knew this rebellion was coming to an end, but it was bound to end up leading to something bigger.
Glancing over to Keira, he was surprised to see her plate completely clean. She rested her small hand on her knee under the table. Her fingers looked as if they would be soft to the touch. He desperately wanted to take her hand into his and entwine his fingers with hers.
, he was becoming an animal!
“Are ye ready fer our walk, my Lady?”
Ian stood, waiting for Keira to follow him. Side by side, they walked down the long hall towards the rear door. They walked in silence until they stepped out into an enchanting labyrinth of flowers. Rows of roses, hedges, and a wide variety of fragrant flowers decorated the scenic landscape around the castle. Cobblestone pavers and wooden benches decorated the pathways from one side of the garden to the other. In the middle, two geese and their goslings swam in a man-made lily pond.
“Tis beautiful,” she exclaimed.
“Aye, tis,” he replied, though he paid no attention to the garden and kept his gaze on her. “Shall we?” he asked as they stepped forward toward the large pond in the middle.
Arriving at the pond, they sat on a bench overlooking it. The sun was just about to set and Ian spotted the moon already high in the sky.
“Thank ye fer bringing me here. I have ne’er seen so many beautiful flowers.”
“Ian, does Laird Chisholm have anything to do with the rebellion of which Lady MacKenzie spoke? Is that why he is so dangerous?”
“Aye, one of many reasons, lass.”
“So, when ye came upon my carriage, was it him ye were trying to capture? To arrest him?”
“Something like that, aye!”
“So, when ye came upon me, ye thought to use me as ransom to find him. Dinna ye?”
“Aye,” he answered, unable to meet her eyes.
Keira nodded her head. Ian finally turned toward her, wanting to know what she was thinking. By the look in her eyes, she looked as if she were trying to process the information she had been given.
“I understand that ye must hate me fer what I have done,” he admitted.
Keira looked up at him.
“I dinna hate ye. I did at first, but not now. I do, however, think there is more to the story than what ye are sayin’ and I dinna know why ye wish to keep me in the dark.”
Ian noticed the pain and desperation in her eyes, though there was little he could say that would make her feel any better. His mission was to be kept secret and she knew too much as it was.
“In due time, Lassie, I promise to tell ye. But fer now ye are just going to have to trust me. Would ye care to go inside? I am sure ye need yer rest.”
“I am fine. Is it alright if we stay fer just a wee bit longer?”
Had she asked to stay for the entire night, he would have been happy to oblige! Inwardly, he smiled.
“Of course, Lassie.”
They sat in silence, watching the goslings play in the water like children playing follow the leader. Keira’s brief giggles were like music from heaven. Ian was surprised to find himself smiling, too. He kept glancing her way, not able to take his eyes off her. He wanted her, needed her, but damn if he could have her.
Keira fondly watched the young geese splash in the water. As the sun sank beneath the horizon, the orange sky began to fade, gradually replaced with dark blue. Behind her to the east, a few stars shone brightly as they twinkled in the sky. It would be only moments until the sky turned black, and was covered in stars.
Keira yawned. It was late, and the day had been long. Ian would leave tomorrow to complete his task, and soon he would return to take her home. In the meantime, she would offer her aid to Lady MacKenzie as payment for her hospitality.
“It’s late. I should probably head in. And where will ye and yer men be sleeping?” Keira asked.
“There is a guest house near the stables. If ye need anything, that’s where ye will find me.”
As he lowered his head, his gaze smoldered. Keira could almost feel the heat radiating from him. His proximity caused her heart to beat faster in her chest. She did not like the way he made her feel, but every nerve in her body was screaming at him to hold her the way he had when they were riding together.
Though she tried to resist him, she couldn’t stop herself from falling for his devilish charm. Only now did it occur to her that the day he ransacked the carriage he was actually rescuing her from a doomed future. He was a Highlander through and through; with honor as steadfast as stone and the ignorance of a mule.
“I am sure that I will no’ need yer help at this late hour,” she said as she scooted away.
Ian must have sensed her hesitation as he shifted toward her. She tried to look away, but Ian gently touched her chin, returning her gaze to his. She had not expected him to be gentle.
Could a beast be gentle
? Lifting his hand, he brushed a loose tendril of hair over her ear. Grazing his hand down her cheek, he touched her lips, then her chin, and raised her head up slightly so they were eye to eye. She knew he was going to kiss her.
; because if he did, she knew she would not resist. The way he touched her, looked at her, even spoke to her, made her feel soft and vulnerable. Even her thoughts were too addled to focus on anything other than him. She wanted to be kissed; to be touched; to be loved.
“Ye have bewitched me, lassie,” he said as he leaned toward her.
Panic, excitement, and anticipation coursed through her veins. Her breaths were labored as he gazed at her lips. Unconsciously, she licked them before biting her bottom lip. The world around her seemed to fade away. Keira opened her lips slightly and drew in a breath. Ian combed his fingers through her hair and pulled her toward him. Forcefully, he pressed his wet lips against hers.
At the moment his lips touched hers a fire grew in her belly and her skin tingled right down to the tips of her toes. His kiss was possessive and demanding but she was a willing partner. It was when Ian broke the kiss that Keira realized what she had done. She had enjoyed it immensely. Was that wrong?
She thought to blame the drink she had at supper for her foolish actions. But if that were true, why did she so desperately want him to kiss her again? Standing quickly, she bid him goodnight before embarrassment set in, and then took off at a near sprint back toward the keep.