Emily's thoughts buzzed inside her head like a hive of bees upset by someone trying to harvest the honey.
There were so many of them that she could not make sense of even one. Images and words tumbled together in an incomprehensible mass more daunting than her first Latin primer. She wished she had the abbess here to help her decipher her current situation as she had helped Emily understand the language of the Church.
The stone walls of her room felt like they were closing in on her and she jumped to her feet. She needed to get out of the keep, to breathe some fresh air. Her thoughts began to settle as she was forced to focus on her step so she did not trip climbing down the circular stairs.
Of all things, the first real image she could hold on to was that of the monster werewolves her father's housekeeper had told her about so many nights beside the kitchen fire. The Scotswoman had used words to draw the monsters in vivid detail for her audience until some nights, Emily had dreamed about them. And when she was small, she could remember wishing she could be as powerful as the fabled creatures so she would not be so afraid anymore.
Not of water. Not of her papa. Not of Sybil's disapproval. Not of the monster Death, which had claimed her beloved mama. Not of anything.
But she had never in her wildest fantasies dreamed she would ever meet someone who claimed to be one. Only Cait claimed to be a femwolf. She said that Lachlan was a werewolf. The small hairs on the back of Emily's neck rose and goose bumps chased themselves up and down her arms at the thought.
She found exquisite pleasure in his kisses and craved more of his touch, but if Cait's claims were true… Emily wanted the caresses of an animal. Did that make her depraved? But he wasn't an animal… not wholly. He was a man who could take animal form. That was not the same, was it? Cait did not act like an animal; she acted like a woman and Emily was sure her friend was not depraved, but she obviously was content in her marriage bed. Of course, she was part animal, too.
On another burst of confusion, Emily reached the bottom of the stairs. She was happy to discover the door leading to the outside was not closed. It was heavy and when she had tried to open it earlier today, Cait had gently pushed her aside to do it herself. Emily had surmised at the time that there was a trick to it that she did not know. Now she had to wonder if the door had been easier for her friend because of Cait's femwolf strength.
With that disturbing thought, Emily nodded at a group of soldiers coming up the steps. She peered intently at them, trying to guess which were werewolves and which were human. She couldn't see any discernible differences. Was there a way to tell? How had Cait determined that Ulf was human? The soldiers gave her some odd looks as they passed and she had to fight a blush as she realized it looked as if she were ogling them.
Sybil would have pitched a fit if Emily had done anything of the sort to her father's soldiers.
She averted her eyes, but was soon studying everyone around her with more than her usual interest again. Cait had said that only a small portion of the clan were shape-changers, but Emily didn't see any way of telling who was and who wasn't. Did that mean they were all human? Even if that was the most logical conclusion, Emily was far from convinced it was the case.
Lachlan had said so many things that implied he saw himself as more than human and if he was a werewolf, that made sense. He was naturally arrogant, but even so… his attitude and actions did seem to imply it was more than the mere conceit of the powerful leader a clan. Hadn't he referred to his beast within more than once? Plus, his sense of hearing was astounding. To say nothing of his sense of smell.
She stopped and chatted with some children playing near the kitchens. Try as she might, she could see no differences between the children. They were all curious about England though, and were delighted she spoke Gaelic.
"So, are there monsters in England who eat bad children?" a tiny girl asked.
Emily laughed. "I believe some parents tell their children this, but I've never seen one."
"Were you bad as a child?" a little boy asked.
"Then, you wouldn't have seen them, would you?" he asked with, irrefutable child's logic.
"Our cook's son was certainly bad. He liked to jump out of dark corners and scare people, especially children smaller than he was. He never got eaten by a monster."
"Maybe the cook made something else for the monster to eat."
Emily laughed. "Are there monsters here in the Highlands?"
The little girl wrinkled her nose. "I think there are giant serpents in the lochs, but Mum says there aren't. She says I shouldn't be afraid to bathe because I might get eaten."
Emily dropped to her haunches and cupped the wee girl's cheek. "I think your mother is right."
"We've got lots of wild animals and they're scary as monsters," one boy boasted.
"Aye. Our wolves are bigger than any you'll find elsewhere and the wild boars can kill even a warrior with their big tusks."
Emily gave an exaggerated shiver. "I shall avoid them at all possible costs then."
The children laughed and one of the boys said, "You don't need to worry, English lady, our warriors protect the clan and no one can beat a Balmoral warrior."
"You'll be one someday, won't you?" she asked with a smile.
The boy nodded self-importantly. "I won't never let no serpent eat my little sister."
The small girl who had first voiced that fear looked on with awe and adoration and Emily could not hide her own smile in response. "I'm sure you won't."
"I still say there are monsters in England. They don't have any Chrechte to slay them."
"Chrechte?" Emily asked, her breath stilling in her chest.
"Our fiercest warriors."
"My dad's a fine warrior and he's not Chrechte," another boy said.
It looked like a fight would break out and Emily intervened. "I'm sure both your fathers are fierce."
The Chrechte boy nodded, but there was an expression in his eyes that said he knew something the others didn't. Maybe it was all her imagination, but it seemed to Emily that he carried himself with an arrogance a lot like Lachlan's.
Her mind whirled as the children went back to their play. Their certainty that a creature did not have to be seen to exist reminded her that many things in life had to be taken on faith. She'd never seen the king in person, but she knew he was a real man. Because her father and others had seen him and told her. She'd never seen God, but she didn't doubt his existence. She crossed herself quickly.
No, she knew her Maker was real. She knew her king was real and she knew her mother waited in Heaven to be reunited with her one day. Cait had told Emily that werewolves were real and she could accept that on faith, or continue to doubt until she had irrefutable proof. She had some evidence already, if she chose to interpret the odd behavior of the Highlanders in a certain way.
Was her trust in her dear friend enough to convince her of an impossible truth?
Not certain of her answer, she went into the kitchens and asked if she could help with anything, only to be shooed out again, but not until Emily had made the acquaintance of the other women who helped with the cooking. They were not overly friendly, but they were not unkind either and they seemed pleased she'd made the effort to learn their names and compliment them on the nooning meal.
She saw the priest from a distance when she came out, but he did not notice her. She wanted to ask him if there were werewolves in the clan. She was sure he knew, but she could not risk exposing Cait to censure. The possibility that sharing the clan's secrets had put the Scotswoman at risk made Emily's stomach cramp with worry.
She could not stand the prospect of something bad happening to her friend. Which must be how Cait felt about her brother. The truth was that while he was surly, he was probably no more annoyingly arrogant than Lachlan. Only she had not felt the strange erotic feelings toward Talorc that she did with the Balmoral laird. Cait loved Talorc, though, and must be beside herself with worry over his fate.
Whatever her doubts regarding the werewolves of the clan, Emily must keep her promise to do all she could to prevent Lachlan from going to the lake the following day. With that thought firmly in mind, she helped some children get water from the well in the lower bailey before going back to the keep with the intention of tidying herself before the evening meal.
Cait sat on one of the benches, brushing her hair and waiting for Drustan's return to their chambers.
She had thought when he had requested her presence earlier that he might have intended to make love again. Now that she knew Emily was relatively safe and unharmed, she had not been averse to the idea. She had craved the closeness they shared the night before, especially in the face of her knowledge that Talorc was nearby and possibly intent on wreaking havoc.
Only she had arrived to find a coldly implacable husband and the housekeeper waiting for her. He had informed Cait that her new duties were to include overseeing the running of the household in the keep since the laird had no wife. He then introduced her to the housekeeper and left.
Marta had given Cait a tour of the keep from tower to cellar. It was more than twice the size of her brother's keep, which she found disconcerting. Not only did over two dozen soldiers have their quarters in the barracks below her and Drustan's rooms, but the housekeeper and her husband and their two children lived in quarters off the great hall. The laird's quarters were above the great hall along with a solar that the voluble Marta informed Cait was never used. Not since the laird's mother's day.
An image had risen in Cait's mind of Emily and her in the solar, surrounded by children. It had seemed so real, she'd had to blink her eyes to dispel it before attending to what Marta had been saying. But the image had come back to haunt her again and again and she could not stop herself from wondering if God had brought Emily to the Highlands, not for her brother… but for the Balmoral laird.
It was probably just wishful thinking, but she'd dreamed of it when she laid down for a rest after the housekeeper left Cait once again in her own quarters. She'd gotten very little sleep the night before and her pregnancy dictated she required more rest than usual anyway. She'd woken a while ago, both disturbed and intrigued by her dreams.
Drustan had still not returned.
Emily had remarked that Lachlan had said that he did not expect to see Drustan for a couple of days, which meant her husband had been released from his duties for that much time at least in celebration of their marriage. Apparently, he had decided after the lack of enthusiasm she had shown for remaining in his company that such a dismissal of his duties was unnecessary. Why that truth should make her teary-eyed she could not imagine, but she did her best to think of something else.
Goodness knew she had enough worries to occupy her mind. Not least of which was the fact that she had told a human the clan's secrets without asking her laird's permission. Should she tell Lachlan what she had done? If it were Talorc, she would, no matter how much she knew he might bellow. But she trusted her brother. She had yet to feel the same confidence in her new laird.
But should she tell Drustan anyway? If she did, he would no doubt tell his laird. Should she inform her husband about her brother at least? Her heart twisted at the prospect. Loyalty to her new clan dictated she do that very thing, but she couldn't. If she exposed Talorc's presence on the island, the pack warriors would go looking for him. If they found him on Balmoral land, they would kill him.
And if she did tell Drustan about her revelations to Emily, Cait would have to lie about why she had done it.
Was lying worse than withholding information? She didn't want to do either with her new husband and yet she felt she had no choice.
She was so intent on her chaotic thoughts that the first inkling she had of Drustan's presence was when her eyes focused enough to take in the fact that he was standing right in front of her.
She jumped with shock and her gaze flew to his. "Oh. You have returned."
He put his hands on her shoulders, his thumbs brushing her collarbones, his darkish red brows drawn together in concern. Green eyes probed her like fingers dipping into her soul. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," she rushed out, terrified he could somehow read her thoughts. "Why would you think otherwise?"
"You did not hear me enter."
"How do you know?"
His mouth twisted mockingly, but he did not answer. Of course it was obvious she had not heard him enter. She'd acted like a scalded cat when she realized he was in front of her. Little surprise he asked if anything was the matter. He had not read her mind, not that he could. Even if they were true mates, mindspeak did not include being able to see into the other person's thoughts, only an ability to hear them when they directed those thoughts at you.
And she and Drustan were not true-mated regardless. She was his vengeance wife. No more.
"I…" Her voice trailed off to nothing when she noticed a bloody gash on his chest, a bruise on his arm and dirt smudges on the rest of him. She jumped to her feet, knocking his hands from her shoulders. "What happened? Was there a fight?"
Had they found Talorc? Her throat closed tight as terror clenched at her insides.
Puzzlement creased his features, as if he could not understand her reaction to such minor wounds. "I was practicing with the soldiers."
"Oh." Relief flooded her, quickly followed by concern. "I will get a damp cloth and cleanse your wounds."
"Wound. There is only one cut, but you can wash the rest of me if you feel the need." The sexy intonation in his voice sent her nerves rioting.
His teasing and concern were a huge improvement over his coldness earlier.
She scooted around him to cross the room to the fresh pitcher of water. She was clumsy getting the cloth wet, sloshing water onto the table as she poured it into the large basin. "I would be happy to wash you… if you like."
"Would you? Is it perhaps less onerous to suffer touching me than to suffer my touch?"
She gasped and swung around to face him. No expression showed on his face, but his eyes were alive with something that made her melt deep down inside.
Her gaze locked with his. "I did not mean to imply this morning that I did not enjoy your touch."
"You did not imply anything. You said it outright." Crossing his arms over the bulging muscles of his chest, he leaned back against the wall, his stance relaxed.
"But I did not mean it that way."
One brow rose in lazy query. "What other way could you mean it?"
She crossed the room to stand in front of him and wiped at a smear of dirt on one of his cheeks. Her body reacted instantly to his nearness, but she continued what she was doing. "I was worried about my friend and hurt that you did not care how worried I was, that you were more interested in finding pleasure in my body than helping me to allay my fears."
"You consider it my responsibility to allay your fears?"
"When you can… yes." She bit her lip as she dabbed at the cut on his chest. It was not deep and the blood had already dried.
"Was Sean so considerate of your feelings?"
"I rarely shared my fears with him. The situation did not arise."
"Do you mean to tell me that this paragon of husbandly virtue and you were not as close as you implied this morning?"
"So you were not true-mated?"
She finished cleaning his chest and began wiping at the dirt on his arms. "No."
"Odd. I got the impression this morning that he was an impossible ideal to live up to."
"You are a Balmoral wolf. You do not believe that of any man."
She laughed, the sound husky and constrained from the feelings rioting through her as she touched his body with what should have been pure innocence. "No, you don't. You are even more arrogant than my brother."
He uncrossed his arms and settled his hands on her waist. "Is that a complaint?"
She licked her lips, her hand stilling in its task. "No."
"I did not intend to embarrass you in front of my mother."
"I know our marriage came about because of unusual circumstances, but it is still a marriage and it is important to me that she likes me."
"She already thinks you are wonderful."
Cait was not sure that was true, but it was kind of him to say. "Thank you."
"You were hurt when I said I wanted to go back to bed this morning?"
"I did not dismiss your worries. I told you that Lachlan would not harm the Englishwoman."
And he had expected her to believe him without a further word on the subject. She sighed. "I needed more. I needed to see her, to assure myself that was the case."
"And when you saw her, was Emily well?"
"Yes. Very well. Lachlan is truly teaching her to swim."
"Your fears were groundless. You should have trusted me."
"How could I know that?"
"I am your husband."
"What does that signify? I do not mean anything to you… not personally. I am just a means to an end. Your laird wanted vengeance for a perceived insult and keeping me was the way he chose to get it." She tried to tug away from Drustan's hold, but he would not let her go.
"I am the one keeping you and I have as much right to vengeance on the Sinclairs as Lachlan does."
"Which makes you my captor, not my husband, and I am nothing more than your instrument of revenge as well as the laird's."
"I am your husband," Drustan grated down at her.
She sighed, knowing he spoke the truth. For better or for worse, he was the man she would be mated to for a lifetime. "Yes, you are my husband. By the laws of the Church," she couldn't resist adding on.
"By your own vow and admission last night."
She refused to acknowledge that thrust. "But I am not someone you care for, am I?"
"Do you want me to care for you?"
"What woman wouldn't? I am your wife, after all. We have many years ahead to be together."
"You did not confide in Sean, but did he care for you?"
She really did not know. If he had, he had never said so. "He was considerate of me."
"And I am not?"
"You dismissed my concerns for Emily as if they did not matter."
"I told you they were groundless. Even knowing that, I agreed to speak with Lachlan at the nooning meal when I had at first planned not to leave our quarters until tomorrow at the earliest. That is not dismissing your concerns."
"You have no patience."
"I was afraid for Emily, can't you understand that?"
"If you trusted me, you would have no fear."
"How can I trust you?"
"I am your husband," he repeated, as if that single fact alone should set all her fears at rest.
"Because of vengeance."
"Does it matter why we married? You are now my wife. Not some woman who warms my bed when the occasion suits me. You will bear my children and be my companion into our old age."
"I want to trust you," she admitted. It would be so much easier if she could be certain her feelings and desires mattered to him, that he would act in her best interests.
"It is not that easy."
"It is if you let it be."
"You may end up killing my brother."
"Only if he declares war or tries to take you from me."
Which was no comfort at all. Both circumstances were all too likely. "What about my baby?"
One of Drustan's hands slid around to her stomach and settled possessively over the babe. "What about it?"
"Talorc will want it for the Sinclairs."
Drustan's face twisted with disgust. "It is wrong to separate a mother from her child."
"He won't care." She loved her brother, but Talorc could be single-minded to the point of pain at times. "Sean was Chrechte, the baby will be Chrechte."
"I will not let Talorc take the bairn."
She was equally comforted and frightened by the promise. "I don't want war."
"It is the way of our people."
"And we almost died out because of it. It is not the right way, Drustan."
"Would you have me dismiss an insult? Would you prefer I gave the babe over to your brother? Will you only be content when the Balmorals are crashed under the Sinclairs' heels?"
Then what do you bloody want, damn it?
Cait heard the words in a shout loud enough to fell a pine tree, but Drustan's lips had not moved.
Did you just speak in my mind? she asked with her thoughts directed at him.
His green eyes widened and then narrowed. Not intentionally. What did you hear?
"I heard you yell, Then what do you bloody want, damn it?" she said out loud. "Only it was inside my head."
His hand lifted to touch her face almost reverently. "We are true-mated."
Cait shook her head, unable to believe it. They could not be true mates. Not after only one night… not when their marriage had been the result of his desire for revenge against her former clan. Cold gripped her and she shivered, feeling woozy. The room grew very dark and Drustan's face swam before her eyes.
She woke lying on their bed with Drustan leaning over her.
He smiled, but his gaze was narrowed with concern. "I do not believe I have heard of a femwolf fainting from the news her husband was her sacred mate before."
Her heart squeezed at the ancient term. "But… isn't it impossible?" It had to be impossible.
"Why? Because you are a Sinclair and I am a Balmoral? We are both Chrechte."
She'd always thought that being a true mate would include loving her mate. Did it? Her feelings where he was concerned confused her. And what about him… did Drustan feel more than lust for her? He said he wanted her trust. Was that mere male posturing, or an expression of a deeper need he had not yet put into words? Or was true-mating as basic as going into heat? A very physical thing that she had always believed was more than physical.
"I don't know," she said finally.
"You were not true-mated with Sean." He sounded very pleased by that fact.
"No, of course not. I already told you, but how could I be and be true-mated to you anyway?"
He brushed her hair back from her face. "I have heard of Chrechte being blessed with more than one true mate in their lifetime."
"Is it a blessing… for you?"
"Yes. No matter why we mated, I want our marriage to be strong. I want you to be happy, Cait."
"You do?" Had Sean wanted her to be happy? She'd always had the impression that her brother's gratification was more important than her own to her first husband.
"Oh. That's nice."
Drustan smiled. "You are still a little befuddled by your faint, aren't you? It must be a pregnancy thing."
"What about me?"
"What about you?"
"Do you want me to be happy, too?"
His happiness should not matter to her. She had not wed him by choice or by duty, but because of coercion. That was why she found it so peculiar that he wanted her to be content in their marriage. Her feelings did matter to him, if only just a little, but she did not understand why.
Unless it was his duty as a husband prompting him to be solicitous.
Regardless of why he felt as he did, she, too, cared if he was satisfied with her as his mate. Very much. "Yes, I want you to be happy."
"Then we will be."
"I will not be happy if you kill my brother," she warned.
His glare was ferocious enough to make her flinch. "Do not try to use our bond to manipulate me. I will do what I must do as a warrior."
"So, you lied?" she asked, trying to get away from the circle of his arms without success. "You only want me to be happy if it means you doing what you want?"
"A warrior does not always have the luxury of doing what he wants… he does what he must."
"But if you would just talk to Talorc, instead of fighting him… you would find out that there is no reason for war between our clans."
"I do not think he would agree."
"The babe is not born yet. God willing, we will have arrived at an agreement that will not tear my heart out before that, but that is not the immediate issue."
Drustan sighed and rolled onto his back. "Lachlan would never have given Susannah leave to hunt alone and my sister would not lie. Ever."
Perversely, she missed his surrounding warmth, but the implication of his words was even more chilling. "So, you are saying I am lying?" I'm not, she cried into his mind.
He rolled back toward her and pulled her close. "I do not wish to discuss this now."
She avoided his lips while her own ached for the contact. But this was too important to dismiss with physical need. "Because you don't want to admit that you are wrong, but just stop and think. What if Susannah went across the water believing it was her best hope for making it through the full moon unmated? Then she ends up mated to Magnus and she doesn't want him to think she is disloyal or disobedient, so she…"
"Lied? My sister is not such a weak woman."
"Please, Drustan, just consider the possibility."
He shook his head and kissed her, but she refused to respond. It was hard. Harder than anything she'd ever done, but she could not give herself to a man who thought she was a liar.
"What is the matter?" he demanded, lifting his head.
"You think I'm a liar."
He took a deep breath, his chest filling up and hard muscles pressing against her side. "I do not think you are a liar."
"But you do. Either Susannah is lying, or I am." Or Lachlan, but she thought Emily's point of view on that was sound. The man was too arrogant to think he needed to lie.
"I have known Susannah her whole life. She does not lie."
"And you have only known me two days and one night, but I don't lie either." Her heart was cracking in her chest and she didn't know why. She should be offended by his lack of trust, not hurt. What was the matter with her?
"Perhaps Magnus convinced my sister to tell the story."
"For what purpose? He is not so shy he would have balked at asking for her hand and since chances were she was pregnant, that request would have been granted… no matter how she came to be in his keeping."
"But if he took her, Lachlan might still have declared war."
"And convincing her to tell that lie to our people wouldn't have prevented that. No, he had no reason to request such a thing of her."
"So, you want me to denounce my sister as a liar?"
"No. I want you to talk to her… talk to Talorc. Please."
"How do you propose I do this?"
"You could go to the Sinclair holding in open parley."
"And I suppose you would expect me to take you along?"
"He might listen to me more readily than he would you, but no… not if you don't think it is best." She'd been dealing with prickly soldiers all her life. She knew when to push and when to retreat.
"And if I refuse, do you plan to deny me access to your body?"
She did, letting go of all of her worries and embracing the pleasure she found in his arms. Emily thought she did not understand her decision to allow Lachlan to touch her, but Cait did. Too well. She needed the intimacy of two bodies coming together with her husband. She needed to feel connected to him, even if it was an illusion.
But how much of an illusion… when they were sacred mates?