Authors: Whisper of Roses
Not trusting himself to carry her to the bed and let her sleep undisturbed, he lifted her in his arms, then sat, cradling her against his chest like a child. She nuzzled her cheek against his plaid, sighing with contentment.
He rubbed his chin against her hair. “I’ll make you proud, lass. As God is my witness, I swear I will.” Then he gently kissed her brow and whispered the words she’d waited more than half her life to hear.
Sabrina swore as a dense cloud of soot smacked her in the face. Dropping her broom, she backed out of the grate on hands and knees, coughing and wiping her eyes. Pugsley retreated beneath the bed, wheezing as if each breath would be his last. The chamber door swung open.
Morgan blinked down at her. “Pardon me. I was looking for my wife.”
“Morgan!” Her annoyed cry stilled his retreating feet.
He crossed the chamber and hauled her to her feet, panic flaring in his eyes. “For God’s sake, woman! Your father’s expected at any moment. Do you want him to think I’ve made a charwoman of you?”
She rested her hands on her hips. “If you’d trouble to clean your chimney every century or so, I wouldn’t be in this predicament.”
They glowered at each other, both aware that this day would prove whether or not their newfound feelings could survive the past enmity of their clans. Then Morgan’s stony lips began to twitch. Sabrina snatched up the hand mirror and glared at her reflection. Except for the angry blue sparkle of her eyes, her face was tinted solid black. Her pristine nightdress was streaked with filth.
A giggle escaped her. Still studying her reflection, she mopped her face with a wet cloth, washing away the worst of it. “I’ve a better idea. I’m going to tell him you’ve kept me manacled in your dungeon to ravish at your leisure.”
“Don’t think I haven’t been tempted.” He arched a wicked eyebrow. “Perhaps after he takes his leave …”
Sabrina tilted the mirror to peruse her husband’s length, her heart quickening. His plaid was freshly laundered and draped in elegant ceremonial folds. He’d even donned a scuffed pair of boots for the occasion, having polished them to a dull sheen. She was touched both by his masculine vanity and his obvious desire to impress her father.
Their eyes met in the mirror. “Do I have your approval?” he said lightly.
If Sabrina had learned one lesson from her husband, it was that sometimes actions were more succinct than words. She threw herself into his arms, tumbling him back into a chair. She was melting against him, preparing to show him just how much she approved, when a sharp rap sounded on the door.
Morgan jumped to his feet, practically dumping her out of his lap, and jerked his plaid straight. “Sweet Christ, the rascal can’t be here already.”
But it was only Ranald who poked his hair around the door. His dark hair stood out in nervous tufts. His swarthy complexion had gone pallid. “There’s trouble in the fold, Morgan. One o’ them hardheaded sheep o’ yers has wandered off and fallen through the ice on the loch. I got a rope ’round her, but I canna pull her out.”
Sabrina wondered if it was her imagination or if Ranald was acting more twitchy than usual. Perhaps it was only her earlier hints that it was his duty to petition her papa for Enid’s hand that was making him squirm.
“Damn it all!” Open dismay colored Morgan’s eyes. “I wanted to be here when your father arrived, not wrestlin’ with some witless sheep.”
Ranald’s words rushed out in a flood. He inched toward the door. “She was bleatin’ somethin’ turrible. I think ye’d better come quick. I’ll try to keep her wee head above the ice until ye get there.”
As Ranald fled, Morgan ran a distracted hand through his hair. Distress at the thought of an animal suffering was etched on his features.
“Go,” Sabrina commanded, laying a soothing
hand on his arm. “If Papa arrives before you return, I’ll simply explain. He’s always been a firm believer in rescuing lost sheep.”
“Are you sure? I know how much this means to you.” His gaze searched her face. She hoped her bright smile erased any traces of disappointment.
“Go,” she insisted, giving his immobile chest a push. “After all, we MacDonnells take care of our own.”
She had hoped for one of the tender grins that had taken to cracking his stony features. She was unprepared for the intensity of his somber gaze.
He cupped her nape in his palm and crushed her mouth beneath his in a fervent kiss. “Aye, lass. And don’t you ever forget it.”
“Not likely, my love,” she whispered after he was gone.
Sabrina knew she should sweep the hearth, and dress, but she couldn’t resist stealing a moment to savor her happiness. Lured by the harsh, glittering beauty of the world beyond the window, she studied the narrow ribbon of road and wondered if she might be the first to sound the joyous cry of “Cameron comin’!” Frigid cold seeped around the warped panes, but she was warmed by the secret gifts she carried in her heart.
Morgan appeared below, wading through the drifts toward the meadow that bordered the road. He slid on an icy patch, nearly losing his balance, and Sabrina smiled, imagining the colorful oaths that were blistering the chill air. Unexpected tears burned her eyes. The man she loved wasn’t the civilized chieftain with his polished boots, but the surly giant who went grumbling off in the snow to rescue a stranded sheep.
As Morgan disappeared over a hill, her hungry gaze was drawn back to the road. The two men she loved most in the world were about to meet for a fresh beginning. To one of them she would give her heart. To the other, forgiveness. She had torn up a dozen letters to her papa in the past week, deciding it braver to look into those blue eyes that were so like her own and tell him she understood the difficult choice he had made.
He had not given his princess to a beast after all, but to a prince in beast’s clothing.
Suddenly eager to share their happiness, she flew into a frenzy of activity. She swept the hearth and laid a fresh fire on the grate. She scrubbed her hands and face and buttoned herself into a modest gown of ivory satin. Shaking out the skirts, she hoped her papa and brothers wouldn’t be too disgraced by her lack of petticoats and corset. Fergus might find himself with a rival when Brian caught his first glimpse of the shapely Alwyn wearing nothing but his sister’s discarded underwear.
Having given away her last ribbon, she decided to seek out Enid and see if her cousin had one to spare. Although Morgan loved to tangle his hands in her unbound hair, she felt a more dignified coif would suit a demure married woman such as herself. Grinning at the notion, she threw open the door.
Eve blocked her path, arms crossed and glee sparkling in her smoky eyes.
The very idea of a happy Eve terrified Sabrina. Without intending to, she took a cautious step backward, wishing even the toothless Pugsley were there to defend her. Eve pressed her advantage, stepping into the chamber.
Sabrina’s nose twitched at the musty smell of the woman’s plaid. Forcing herself to hold her ground, she tipped her head back to boldly meet the taller woman’s gaze. “I’ve neither the time nor the patience for your predictions of doom, Eve. Nor will I let you spoil this day for Morgan.”
Eve’s lips parted in a toothy grin. “Nothin’ could spoil this day for the MacDonnells. We’ll not see the likes of it again.”
“I’m glad we agree on something. You’re fortunate to have a man of Morgan’s vision to lead your clan into the future.”
“Aye, and a grand and glorious future ’twill be. If only Angus had lived to see it.” Her barren eyes reflected a more chilling emptiness of the soul.
Sabrina shivered at the sudden revelation. “Do
you know who killed him, Eve?” she asked softly, no longer able to bite back the question that had haunted her for weeks. What finer gift could she give both Morgan and her father than to see the Camerons absolved of blame?
Eve shrugged and began to pace the chamber, dragging her lame leg behind her. “ ’Twas an accident. A slip o’ me knife. Quick and clean. He never suffered.”
Sabrina swallowed a knot of queasiness. “Would you like me to tell Morgan for you?”
“Don’t you think he knows?” Eve snarled. “Didn’t you see his face when Angus fell? Was it truly surprise you saw or only shock that the wrong man took the blade? The blade meant for yer father. Open those innocent blue eyes o’ yers, lassie. Morgan’s the one with the vision in this clan. A terrible and wonderful vision. ’Twas his idea to kill the almighty laird of the Camerons, and he’s the man gone to finish the task today.”
The chamber reeled around Sabrina. She reached out a hand to steady herself, but there was nothing there. Nothing but four centuries of suspicion and betrayal. She had found Morgan in her mother’s solar minutes before Angus was killed. Had it truly been peace he was seeking or an alibi for his whereabouts while his clansmen murdered her father.
She remembered Ranald’s untimely interruption only moments before, his wildly darting gaze. She and Morgan had planned to greet her father in the courtyard, standing shoulder to shoulder as husband and wife. Now Morgan was gone, leaving her at Eve’s mercy.
We MacDonnells take care of our own
, she had teased him.
And don’t you ever forget it, lass
Had his words been a promise or a warning?
She could still taste the flavor of his lips on hers. Surely no Judas kiss could have been so sweet, so full of loving hunger. Her spine stiffened. Someone had to be the first to believe, the first to cast aside the prejudices
of the past and defend a future built on nothing more than the tenuous thread of blind faith.
Her papa wouldn’t have chosen her for the task if he hadn’t believed her worthy.
She faced Eve squarely, her voice quiet but filled with firm conviction. “You’re lying. You and your cunning Angus might have plotted such treachery, but my husband wouldn’t stoop to stabbing a man in the back
ambushing him. If he wanted someone dead, he’d at least have the pride to look him in the eye while he killed him. He is a man of honor.”
“He is a fool!” At Eve’s bitter declaration, fierce triumph burned through Sabrina’s veins. The woman’s next words tempered it with fear. “Morgan’s simply blinded by what lies beneath those fancy skirts o’ yers. I’ve sacrificed too much for this clan to just hand it o’er to the bloody Camerons without a fight. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Some of us aren’t content to spend our lives tendin’ sheep and pluckin’ chickens. We were bred to fight, and if Morgan’s not man eno’ to go down fightin’, there are those of us who are. He can make his choice. To stand with our guns or fall beneath them.”
Sabrina dared a glance at the window. Her breath froze in her throat at the sight of a line of horses winding up the cliff road. Her father, her brothers, the Cameron party were no more than dark blots on the snowy horizon.
She flung herself at the door. But like the hapless Grant lassie before her, Sabrina was betrayed by the heavy fall of curls that had given her husband so much pleasure. Eve’s hand twisted in them like a vise, jerking her back. Tears of pain stung her eyes.
Still gripping her hair, Eve shoved her across the chamber and threw open the window. Icy wind buffeted them both. Eve gave her hair a harsh yank, trying to force her to her knees. Sabrina bit back a cry of pain. Her hands clenched on the windowsill. She refused to crumple before this vindictive creature.
“I want ye to watch, lassie. Watch yer dreams die before yer eyes as I’ve spent me own life don’.” Sabrina
clawed at the sill as Eve forced her forward. The cobblestones below seemed to loom up to meet her. Vertigo made her head spin. “ ’Twill be no surprise to Morgan that after witnessin’ the massacre of her family, his spineless bride chose to end her life rather than wait for him to return and murder her himself.”
Blinding calm flooded Sabrina. She pressed her eyes shut against the battering wind, knowing that Eve was mad. The woman’s accidental murder of Angus and her own twisted devotion to Clan MacDonnell had unhinged her. She was willing to sacrifice them all, even Morgan, for her vengeance against the Camerons.
Images assailed Sabrina with shattering clarity. Her papa twirling her high in the air. Brian tickling her. Alex buttoning her cloak when her chubby little hands had been too clumsy. Bloodstained corpses in the snow. Morgan caught in the terrible aftermath of Eve’s revenge. Morgan returning to find her body broken on the jagged cobblestones, believing in that black moment that she had doubted and feared him more than she loved him.
“No,” she whispered, opening her eyes.
Ignoring the rending pressure at the base of her skull, she bucked against Eve. Forced to release her or fall, Eve stumbled backward, flailing her arms in a vain search for her ruined balance. Sabrina shoved past her, not even glancing back when a chair splintered beneath Eve’s weight. The woman’s howl of thwarted rage floated after her.
Sabrina flew down the stairs. The stone walls layered with the blood and sweat of Morgan’s ancestors seemed to mock her frailty, her foolish optimism that one woman’s heart could make a difference when weighed against centuries of senseless violence.
A stabbing pain tore at her side. She sped through the hall, ignoring the puzzled shouts and cries of alarm that rose in her wake. None of Morgan’s clansmen could help her now. She had no way of knowing how many of them Eve had ensnared in her plot. There was no time to explain, and she wasn’t sure enough of their
fealty to know if they would believe her word against their own clanswoman’s.
She burst into the snowy courtyard, gasping for breath. She had to warn Morgan. He was the only one with the power to avert the disaster that was about to befall them all. Knowing she could reach the meadow more quickly by taking the road that bordered it instead of cutting through the woods as Morgan had done, she plunged toward the stables, abandoning her slippers in a stubborn drift. Her frantic hands wrenched open the stable doors.
The warm must of horseflesh spilled around her as she examined the line of horses with the speed of desperation. Their placid eyes blinked back at her. Ribs protruded against their dull coats, and she knew most of them had been underfed not out of cruelty, but out of harsh necessity. Morgan would starve himself before he starved a horse.