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Chapter 9

Lachlan watched Emily eat, lascivious thoughts that would send her running if she could read them going through his mind. He wanted that mouth on him, not the spoon. When he had threatened to keep her in his bed the night before, he had known it would convince Cait to speak her vows. That did not mean he had not wished for the opposite outcome.

He did not pine for women, but he'd spent a good part of last night sleepless and aching. And it was all this Englishwoman's fault.

"I am not torturing you."

She was the one torturing him with his need to touch and taste when he knew he should do neither.

She finished her breakfast before saying, "I saw you shake your head at Marta. You wanted her to tell me she could not give me any chores to do when we both know there must be dozens in a keep this size."

He could not believe she was acting offended because of that. "You are not a servant in my household."

"I would rather be a servant than sit around all day doing nothing."

"Is that why your hands are chapped from work? Because you did not like doing nothing in your father's household?" He had noticed that yesterday and wondered at it.

She winced, tucking her hands into the folds of her skirt. "My hands are not unsightly."

"I did not say they were."

"You did."

He sighed. "Will you argue over everything I say?"

"I don't mean to."

"Then stop."

"You make me angry."

"I had noticed."

She cast him a disgruntled look. "Then why don't you stop?"

"I am laird."

"Is that your answer for everything?" She sounded so incensed, he had to bite back a smile.

"It is my answer when it is the right answer."

"Which seems to be all the time, in your opinion," she grumbled.

He stepped away from the bed. He had accomplished his purpose. She had eaten. Now, he had other more important duties to attend to.

She jumped up and grabbed his arm. "Please do not leave me here again with nothing to occupy my time."

"What would you have me do?" he asked out of curiosity.

"At the Sinclair holding, I helped Cait oversee the running of the keep. I did the same with my stepmother in my father's home as well as seeing to many chores myself. I am used to being busy."

"I have a housekeeper and women to help her."

Emily's face fell and her small hand dropped from his arm. "Very well. I will not keep you from your duties any longer with my unimportant problems."

"They are not unimportant," he denied, even though he had told himself that very thing only a second before. "I simply do not know what you would have me do to fix them. I will not have you treated as a servant and you must wait to see your friend until she and Drustan emerge from his quarters."

Which did not mean Lachlan could not think of anything to occupy Emily's time. He could, all too easily, but it had nothing to do with work and everything to do with getting her naked. He did not think she would appreciate his solution.

"At least let me stay in a room that is not a prison."

"You said you preferred to be kept from my people." She'd been adamant on that point.

"I was overwrought yesterday. I wasn't thinking clearly when I ran from you."

"Why?"

She looked at him as if she could not believe he had needed to ask. "I was kidnapped, then I discovered the only friend I have in the Highlands was to be forced into marriage to exact revenge on her brother, then you made me sit in that tiny boat to cross water so deep there is probably no bottom while your brother glared at me as if I were his worst enemy. When we landed on dry land, my emotions got the better of me."

"The water frightened you?" he asked, wondering if she would tell him the truth.

Knowing an opponent's fears made them vulnerable to you and she did not realize he knew hers already. He'd been shocked when he heard her and Cait talking about it. He had not smelled Emily's fear on the boat and he should have. Humans were not trained to mask their scent.

"Yes."

"Why?"

"I don't want to die by drowning."

"A sound plan, but that does not explain your concern when you were in a seaworthy boat."

"The boat could have tipped. A wave could have crashed over the bow and knocked me into the water."

"I would have pulled you out."

She stared at him, an odd expression on her face. Then she sighed. "I don't expect you to understand, but I don't like the water and the sea terrifies me."

"Why?"

She looked away, her face schooled into an impassive mask that impressed him all the more for the fact that her features were usually so expressive. "It does not matter."

"I will be the judge of that. Tell me."

"You are even more demanding than my father."

"Did your father instill the fear of water in you because he was afraid you would drown?" It was not such an uncommon practice, but it was a foolish one. Better to teach a child to swim than to teach them fear.

She did not answer and she did not move. There was a quality to her stillness that bothered him. It was too absolute. She was barely breathing.

"Emily?"

She looked at him then and her violet eyes were filled with an agony he could not stand.

Without considering his next actions, he sat beside her on the bed and then pulled her into his lap. It was a measure of her inner turmoil that she did not fight his hold, but burrowed against him as if hiding from her own thoughts.

It shamed him that while she was so obviously upset, his body reacted to her nearness with primitive intensity. He wanted her and his sex was soon rigid with the need to take her.

Forcing his thoughts to other paths, he repeated, "Tell me."

She shook her head.

"Why not?"

"It is long past."

"But haunts you like a specter of the night."

She shuddered. "Yes."

"Tell me and I will vanquish your ghost."

Emily marveled at his confidence. Did he really think it was that simple? "You are a man, not a magician."

"I am a laird."

"There you go again, thinking that's the answer to everything," she said teasingly, but her voice was not as light as she wanted it to be.

"It is." No doubts. No questions. Just absolute certainty in his own power.

Was he right? Could telling him cauterize the wound that had bled inside her for so long? She had never told anyone, not even Abigail, why she was so wretchedly afraid of the water.

"My mother died giving birth to a boy child who also died." Memories crowded her mind and she curled instinctively further into Lachlan's strength and heat. "Until then, my father loved me and called me his precious daughter. He was kind to me and smiled often. He loved my mother very much. His grief at her death was terrible. And his affection for me turned to hatred. He blamed me for being born a girl and for Mama's death in the attempt to give him a son and heir. He drank wine by the pitcherful the first months after her passing."

She could still remember the stench of it on his breath, his clothes. She'd been a small child, hurting and frightened by her mother's death and her father's withdrawal.

"One night, I went to him I wanted to comfort him. I wanted him to hold me and call me precious as he had before she died. But he did not want my comfort and he abhorred my touch. He started shouting at me, telling me how useless I was. He said that when animals give birth to useless offspring, the babies are drowned. That I should have been drowned at birth, I was so useless."

Her throat convulsed and she had to take several breaths before going on.

"He stumbled to his feet and grabbed me. He carried me like a sack of wheat, his big arm pushing into my stomach. It hurt. I was crying and begging him to let me go, but he acted like he didn't hear me. He kept muttering about drowning a useless pup. He carried me outside. It was dark and there was no one around. He took me to the small pond behind the keep. The water was dark and black. Terrifying. I started screaming, but no one came. He gave an anguished roar and threw me in."

Talking about it brought back the feeling of the cold water closing over her head, the terror as she realized she could not breathe. She'd flailed in the water, but could not swim and her head broke the surface only once. She'd been sure she was going to die, but then her father's hand had been there, grabbing her, pulling her into the cold night air.

She'd coughed and sputtered, throwing up water, sobbing so hard she could not breathe. He'd held her then, rubbing her back, telling her over and over again how sorry he was. He'd carried her back to the keep as if she were a baby, cuddling her close to his chest, trying to comfort her. But all she had wanted was to get away from him.

When they reached the keep, the housekeeper was there. With terror-based strength, Emily had torn herself from her father's arms and thrown herself at the housekeeper. She'd wrapped her arms around the woman's legs and sobbed and sobbed.

"Father told her to give me a hot bath and drink. Then he left. The next day, he found me in my room and I screamed when I saw him. He went away after that. When he came home, he had my stepmother Sybil with him and my two stepsisters."

Emily had needed her father's love, but had not been able to bear being close enough for him to touch her for years after that. Sybil had finished the separation his drunken rage had started, and by the time Emily was old enough to begin to understand her father's pain and drunken cruelty, she was too estranged from him for it to make a difference.

"He has never had a drop of wine since then that I know of, even when Sybil insisted he toast the birth of their first son. He drank water."

She looked up at Lachlan, wondering what he thought of her awful tale. His eyes were filled with banked rage and a compassion that touched her in places she could not afford to be touched. She scrambled off his lap and stood. He made no move to grab her back, but she felt the need for more space between them nevertheless and moved to the other side of the room.

She crossed her arms protectively over her heart. "Now you know."

"He was crazed with grief."

"Yes."

"But there is no excuse for what he did. I would kill a soldier who acted likewise."

She shivered, knowing he meant it. "I didn't want him killed. He was my father."

"He never touched you again?"

"No."

"But you are marked by his brutality."

"You could put it that way. My fear of the water is not usually a problem. I can hide it mostly. Other than kidnappings, I've never been forced into a boat."

He did not smile at her small jest. "You still cannot swim?"

Revulsion at the thought swept over her and she made no attempt to mask it. "No."

"I can."

"Oh." She did not know what else to say.

"To live on an island and not be able to swim would be foolish."

"I suppose so."

"I will teach you to swim as well."

Horrified, she shook her head vehemently and then said, "No," for good measure.

"It is necessary, both for your safety and to vanquish your ghost."

"It's a memory, not a ghost."

"Call it what you like, but I have promised to defeat it and I will."

"By teaching me to swim?" she asked incredulously.

"Yes."

"You're daft. I want to stay away from the water, not get into it."

He was right in front of her without her knowing how he'd gotten there again. Maybe the man was a magician. "Most lairds would not take kindly to being called daft," he told her in a mild voice.

She bit her lip. He was probably right.

He reached out and gently pulled her lip from her teeth with his thumb. "Do not do that, you will draw blood."

She jerked backward, his touch more provocative than her memories. "I'm sorry."

"For biting your lip?"

"For implying you are daft."

"Then you agree to learn to swim?"

She swallowed, her mind whirling. "You truly believe doing so will drive the memories away?"

"If I teach you, it will."

Of course he thought he was the only one who could do anything important. He was the laird after all. She had to clamp down on a hysterical giggle. There was nothing funny about this situation. But what if he was right? She hated her fear of the water, but even more she hated her fear of her father. She would most likely never see him again, but if she did she would like to be able to touch him without cringing.

There was also the fact that if she did not conquer her fear of the water, if she ever did find a way to escape, she would not have the ability to take it. She'd made the boat crossing to the island because she had no choice. She'd been physically forced to get in the boat. She did not think she had the fortitude to force herself to make the return journey.

"The lessons will keep you from getting bored," he said with sly persuasiveness.

"It will get me drowned."

He shook his head. "You have very little faith in me."

She should have no faith in him at all, and why she did was a mystery she could not fathom.

"I cannot trust you," she reminded herself as much as him.

She wondered if the words sounded as false to his ears as they did to hers. Because against her own best judgment, she could not deny that deep down inside, she did trust him. And knowing that made her furious with herself.

"You damn well can."

"You broke your promise to me." She should have remembered that truth before spilling her most secret memories all over him.

What was it about this man that sent her most logical thoughts scattering to the four winds? How could being with him make her feel safe when he had proven she was anything but secure in his company?

He looked mortally offended. "I have not."

"You have."

"How?"

"You promised not to hurt me, but you did very much," she added for good measure.

"What the hell are you talking about? I have not harmed you in any way." His voice came out more like a growl.

The man was very animal-like sometimes. It must be a Highlander trait because she had not seen anything like it amongst her father's soldiers. No matter how fierce, they never conjured images of predatory beasts.

"How can you say you have not harmed me? You kidnapped me! Before I told you I was married to Talorc, you were going to leave me in the forest to be eaten by a wild animal. You forced me to cross the sea in a boat. You kissed me just to see if I was lying. Then you told your brother I was so inept at it, I was most certainly innocent." Her anger grew as she enumerated his sins.

"The kidnapping saved you from having to marry Talorc. That is a gift and well you know it."

"That is entirely beside the point, since your intent was to harm me, and the fact that your actions indirectly benefited me in some small measure does not negate your many other sins."

"I am surprised your father did not settle you in a nunnery. You speak like an abbess."

"How would you know that?" she asked deridingly.

"Knowledge of the world is necessary to keep my clan safe, so I acquire it."

"Humph."

His eyebrows rose at that and then that tempting gleam was back in his wolflike eyes. "I would not have allowed you to be eaten by wild animals."

"And how would you have stopped it? You intended for me to return to the keep on my own."

"My soldiers would have watched over you."

"A likely story. When you dropped me off your horse with the intent of sending me back to Talorc as message bearer, your soldiers were going with you."

"I left behind two warriors you never saw."

"What? Why?"

"They are watching the Sinclairs."

"You left spies behind?"

"Yes."

"And you expected them to watch over me when I traveled back to the Sinclair holding?"

"Yes."

"Oh." So, she hadn't been an expendable pawn. She wasn't sure why, but that knowledge made her feel much better.

"You still forced me to cross the water in your small boat."

"It's a very sturdy craft and I did not know of your fear of the water when I decided to take you."

"Would it have mattered?"

He shrugged. "I might have knocked you out so you would not be unduly distressed."

"You think knocking me asleep would have been an improvement?" she demanded in outrage.

"Over you spending more than an hour locked in terror, yes."

She shook her head, unable to think of a single thing to say to that audacious comment.

"I have kept my promise to you and I will have you admit as much. Now, English," he added when she said nothing.

"You did hurt me with your kiss." Far more than kidnapping her from a clan she did not wish to belong to.

"I did not. I was gentle." His voice suggested he'd made a major concession.

She didn't remember much gentleness only heat and pleasure and then terrible shame. "You humiliated me and in front of your brother, too."

"I did not humiliate you."

"Must you disagree with everything I say?"

"If you are wrong, yes."

"But you did humiliate me. You made me enjoy it. You made me kiss you back, but all you were doing was testing me." Could he truly not fathom how horrible that would be for a woman, to believe she was wanted and discover belatedly, after exposing her own inappropriate desire, that it was all a stratagem? "I acted like a wanton and it was nothing but a horrible, rotten test on your part," she whispered, her head down because she could not stand to look in his face when she said it.

"You are upset you responded to me?"

Were all men so ignorant of the way a woman thought, or just this one? "Yes."

"Then it is not my fault you were embarrassed, but your own."

She looked up at that, unable to believe he had said something so cruel.

"My fault? I did not invite your kiss."

"You had lied to me. I had no choice but to test the veracity of your claims. And by your own admission, it was not my kiss that caused you to be hurt, but your response to it." He sounded like he was terribly proud of that logic.

She was stunned because he was right of course. Oh, he had hurt her all right, but she could see where his male reasoning had led him to believe it was the only course of action. Had she not responded to his kiss, Emily would only have been angered by his boorish behavior, not humiliated. It was her own weak behavior that had hurt her the most.

A lump formed in her throat. Why did life have to be so painful? She could look back over her years and see a pattern that shredded the very depths of her soul. It was her reaction to her father's visit the day after he tried to drown her that had sent him off to find Sybil. It was her inability to warm to her stepmother and be the lady Sybil wanted her to be that had kept a mother's love far out of Emily's grasp.

She had ruined her own chances with Talorc by responding with temper instead of understanding to his impatience and rude behavior. She had ruined her chances of effecting a rescue for Cait by getting herself kidnapped as well with her lies, and she had sown the seeds of her own humiliation when she had responded to Lachlan's kiss.

A small voice in her head said she was painting too dark a picture, but at that moment she could not see beyond her misery. She seemed to invite rejection like an old friend wherever she went and whatever she did.

A sob escaped before she pushed her fist into her mouth to prevent another sound coming out.

"Emily?" Lachlan sounded worried.

He probably thought she was going to succumb to another bout of ill humor again, but she was not that weak. Unutterably foolish sometimes, but not hopelessly weak.

She swiped at her tears. "I am s-sure y-you are right." She hated the way her voice broke, but she could not help it.

However, her tears did not mean she was going to lose control again.

"Do not cry. I forbid it."

"I'm not" She sucked in air so she could talk without stuttering. "I'm not crying."

He said a word she did not recognize. It didn't sound Gaelic, but it might have been. She was not totally fluent, especially when it came to curses and the like.

"Responding to my kiss should not embarrass you," he informed her.

She almost laughed at that, but she was too busy trying to control the tears she had denied. "I should not have blamed you for my lack. I'm no better than a strumpet," she admitted.

"Strumpets have a lot more experience."

"Is that supposed to comfort me?" she demanded, glaring at him. Bad enough to behave like a woman of ill repute, but to have him tell her she wasn't very good at it was hardly flattering.

"Do you want me to comfort you?" he asked, looking slightly green at the prospect.

"Why not? There is no one else here to do it." Though she'd spent most of her life without someone there to comfort her. Abigail tried, but Emily had always been careful not to visit her worries on her younger sister.

The girl had enough of her own with her hearing affliction.

"I am a laird, not a nursemaid."

"I would not have known that if you hadn't told me so." She'd meant the words to come out mocking, but they ended on a sob and she turned from him, desperately wanting to get her feelings under control.

He pulled her back around and into an embrace that should have been awkward, but was not. It felt so natural she had to remind herself that he was the enemy. She fit against him as if their bodies had been made to be pressed together in just such a fashion and his arms felt secure around her.

It was comfort when she needed it most and she could not turn away, though her logical mind told her she should.

Wasn't she proving her weakness to him yet again?

His hand smoothed down her back. "Tell me why you are so upset. I do not understand."

"You kissed me and I liked it." She sighed. "I thought you liked it, too, but then I realized you didn't that it was simply a test. You weren't affected by our embrace, but I was. That must mean I'm a true wanton. Even when you pulled away, I did not want you to stop."

He smiled down at her, his eyes warm with something she did not understand. "You are no wanton."

"I am. I know it, though I appreciate you trying to comfort me." She sighed. "Perhaps marriage to Talorc will not be so bad after all."

Lachlan went absolutely rigid and the hand rubbing her back now grabbed her shoulder with bruising bite. "What the hell are you talking about?"

She had no idea why he was so upset. Surely she was the one who should feel out of sorts for being forced to see a side of her nature she would rather have remained in ignorance of. "If I am wanton, I will find some solace in the marriage bed."

"You are not a wanton. Your response was for me, not the other laird." He looked ready to do violence.

But she did not feel any fear in the circle of his arms. Still, she had allowed the liberty of his holding her long enough. She needed to start acting like a lady if she wanted to believe herself to be one. She would never live up to Sybil's exacting standards, but Emily had her own code of honor and would not compromise it further.

She pushed out of his arms and indicated the door with the sweep of her hand. "You have other, more important matters to attend to, I am sure."

"You do not dismiss your laird. You wait for him to dismiss you," he growled, as if instructing a child in basic manners.

She rolled her eyes. "I cannot go anywhere, therefore I cannot be dismissed."

"Which means you wait for me to leave."

She bit back another frustrated sigh. No doubt he was right, but she wanted him to leave now. "I wish for a moment of privacy."

"You dare to order me?"

"I am not trying to offend you. I did not order you, if you will remember but merely spoke my opinion. That is allowed, surely?"

"I did not ask for it."

"I must always wait until you do?"

His jaw looked hewn from granite and she wondered at his apparent anger.

"Lachlan?" she prompted in a soft voice.

"You do not have to wait for me to ask for your opinion to give it in private," he said as if making a major concession.

"Thank you," she replied, though she personally thought she should not need his permission to do so. She was smart enough to refrain from saying so, however. No doubt Sybil would have agreed with him. She had certainly never encouraged Emily to speak her mind. "Well"

"What?"

"Are you going to leave now?" she asked, trying not to sound overeager and offend him again.

"Not yet."

"Why not?"

"There is something I must do first."


Chapter 8 | Moon Awakening | Chapter 10