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Chapter 15

Once again, Lachlan insisted on Emily sitting by his side for the evening meal. Cait and Drustan were absent, so Ulf sat on the other side of the laird and monopolized Lachlan's attention. Emily could not be sure the soldier cut her out of the conversation on purpose, but she suspected that was the case. Ulf really did not like her.

He might be Lachlan's brother, but she wasn't overly fond of him either.

She picked at her food, her attention on the warriors in the hall. Angus was Chrechte. So was Lachlan, but she didn't know about any others. It was easier to watch Angus and look for differences in his demeanor than to watch the laird by her side, but Emily tried to do it covertly.

"Why do you keep looking at my soldier, English?"

So much for subtlety. "Was I?"

"Maybe she prefers his company," Ulf said from the other side of Lachlan.

Emily frowned at him. The man was a troublemaker and that was that.

Lachlan looked down at her. "Is it true? Would you rather sit at his table?" He didn't sound particularly worried by the possibility, but he did look puzzled.

"Would it matter if I did?" He certainly hadn't hesitated to insist she leave Angus's table to join him at the nooning meal.

"No."

Just as she'd thought. "So, why bother to ask?"

"I want to know."

Ulf made a disparaging sound.

Emily leaned around Lachlan to give his brother a good glare. "Must you always be so rude?"

He surged to his feet and the look he gave her and then his brother made Emily's glare feel like a smile. "I suppose you expect me to tolerate this insult as well?"

"If you find truth such an insult, perhaps you should change your behavior so you cannot be called to account for it," she said before Lachlan could open his mouth.

"Are all English women so sharp-tongued?" Lachlan asked while his brother spluttered more displeasure.

Emily's face heated, embarrassed by the accusation inherent in his words. "No. My stepmother would be appalled at my plain-speaking." But what bothered her most was knowing Lachlan had the same opinion. How long before he started to see her as an unpleasant nuisance just as Sybil had done? Or did he already? She sighed and met Ulf's glowering gaze. "I am sorry that my words caused offense."

He did not acknowledge her apology, but he did return to his seat and proceeded to eat with gusto.

Upset by the confrontation, Emily gave up trying to eat altogether. She let her gaze flit around the great hall, lighting on first one soldier then another. The only place she did not allow it to go was to the man beside her. She did not want to see the same look of disgust on his face that so often marked Sybil's countenance when she talked to Emily. Just as painful would be to see that he was ignoring her altogether.

By not glancing at him, she could avoid both possibilities.

"If I did not know better, I would think you were spying on my men with the intent to report to the Sinclair." Amusement laced Lachlan's voice.

Emily could not dredge up a corresponding smile as she forced herself to meet his gaze. "I am a captive, not a spy."

"Certainly you would find reporting your discoveries to Talorc a great challenge."

Thinking it would be all too easy to go back to the lake and talk to the wolf as Cait had done, Emily choked on the wine she'd been trying to drink.

Lachlan's eyes narrowed as the man to Emily's left started pounding her back. She coughed and then wheezed in a great breath of air before turning to thank the soldier.

She turned back to Lachlan to find him staring at her speculatively. "You are innocent. You are not mated to him, I am sure of it. You cannot be his spy."

"Do we have to have this discussion here?"

"You are skittish for a woman with a tongue as plain-spoken as yours."

"I may not be as much of a lady as my stepmother would have liked, but I am not totally lacking in decorum. And I do not wish to discuss my most personal business in front of your soldiers."

"What is your preoccupation with my soldiers?" he demanded.

She could hardly tell him she was trying to figure out if some of them really were werewolves. "I'm curious about the Balmoral people. That is all."

"You spent a great deal of time in the bailey today."

She was not surprised he knew how she'd spent her day. He was the kind of man who would keep a close watch over all things to do with his holding, but especially an English captive. "It was a pleasure meeting so many of the clan. You were right. No one but Ulf treats me like the enemy."

"He is fiercely protective of the clan."

"And I insulted you."

"Yes."

"Oh." She couldn't apologize when she still thought it was wrong for them to have sought their revenge in kidnapping an innocent woman. She and Ulf were simply not destined to be friends, but at least the rest of the clan was nice to her.

"Angus does not hold my words against me."

Lachlan frowned. "You have a high opinion of my soldier."

She shrugged. "He has been kind."

"As you feel Ulf and I have not been."

"I did not mean that. Indeed, your desire to teach me to swim is kindness itself."

"I am not a kind man, English."

She did not agree, but she saw that if she argued, he would be insulted. Contrary man. First he was insulted because she thought Angus was kind and not him, and then it annoyed him that she believed he was compassionate. "I appreciate your generosity all the same."

"You were not afraid when you went to the loch with Cait?"

That was not a part of her day she wanted to discuss. "No, but being near the water is not what scares me. I just never go in very deep or I didn't before this morning."

"Why did you go? I did not give permission for you two to venture outside the castle walls."

"You gave us permission to explore the holding it stretches beyond the walls. And Cait wanted to see the lake."

He gave her an odd look. "It is not safe for you to go to the loch unaccompanied."

"Cait and I were together."

"With no warrior to guard you."

"But we did not need one. The lake is close to many of the cottages."

"Just as you did not need a guard when you ventured outside the Sinclair castle walls?"

"We had a guard, but your warriors overpowered him."

"I would not be so easy to overpower."

She did not doubt it. "But since we've already been kidnapped, what else could happen to us?" she asked logically.

"There are wild animals and, pregnant, Cait has no defense against them."

"W-wild animals?" she asked, thinking of Talorc and hoping it did not show on her face.

"Wild boar and wolves." Was he looking at her more keenly when he said that word? Or was that her imagination?

"Oh."

"I do not want you going to the loch without me again."

"All right."

His brows came together in obvious puzzlement. "I expected an argument."

"Did you?"

"Yes."

"Perhaps I am not as difficult as you believe."

"Mayhap you have another reason for being so acquiescent. You have already decided I am right."

Or she did not want to argue and betray what she had seen.

"Did you see any wild animals while you were at the loch today?" he asked, his dark gaze probing.

"Only if you consider a laird a wild animal," she sidestepped, not wanting to lie and hoping he would assume she was talking about him.

"Sometimes that is exactly what a laird is."

After Cait's revelations, Lachlan's words hit Emily with the force of a blow. She would drive herself daft trying to determine if everything he said had more than one meaning, but she could not dismiss his intensity when he uttered those words.

Ulf claimed Lachlan's attention again and soon Emily excused herself to go back to the tower. She had had an exhausting day and she intended to go to sleep early, but found herself strangely alert after brushing her hair and taking care of her other nightly ablutions. It was as if the air crackled with magical energy and she could not settle down to rest.

Donning her clothes again, she decided to go back to the great hall. The night had grown cold and maybe a fire had been built. She'd always found staring into the fire made her sleepy. At the very least, climbing the long spiraling staircase down and up again should tire her out sufficiently to rest.

When she reached the great hall, it was empty but for Ulf and Lachlan. They were arguing and did not notice her. She did not want to interrupt them, but she also didn't want to go back up the stairs so soon.

Perhaps if she waited in the shadows, they would leave and she could sit beside the fire that had indeed been built in the huge fireplace on the other side of the hall. She looked at it longingly as the cold from the stone wall she leaned against seeped into her bones.

Shivering, she sidled sideways, hoping to make it to the fireplace without being noticed. She stayed in the shadows and was as quiet as possible. Not that the two angry men were likely to notice her regardless.

"You do not believe the Sinclair means to do nothing in retaliation?" Ulf demanded sneeringly.

If she were Lachlan, she'd get plenty annoyed with the way his brother always questioned him and did it so provokingly.

"You do not think he believes I was right in gaining restitution through his sister?" Lachlan asked mildly.

"No. He plans war. I am sure of it."

"But our spies have seen no evidence of this."

"He is cunning."

"And you do not think I am equally cunning?" Lachlan asked.

"Not if you are so easily deceived."

"And if I have not been deceived?"

Ulf made that annoying snorting noise of his and Emily stopped her approach to the fire to glare at him. He, of course, did not notice. He didn't even know she was there.

"I say attack before we are attacked."

The words appalled Emily and it was all she could do not to shout a denial. Did the man truly not care how many Balmorals or Sinclairs died over this business?

Lachlan looked past Ulf, and Emily felt as if he were looking directly at her. But that could not be possible. She was in a very dark corner behind one of the stone arches supporting the ceiling of the room.

He said, "I chose a different form of retribution than war."

"It is not enough. We should take Susannah back and kill the blacksmith."

Emily's hand flew to her mouth.

Lachlan frowned. "You are bloodthirsty, Ulf."

"I am my father's son can the same be said of you?"

Instead of being furious, as Emily would have expected, Lachlan looked exasperated. "What would you have me do? Siege the castle?"

"Lead a raiding party over the walls. Effect your vengeance and leave."

"I rejected that suggestion the first time you made it."

"Because you prefer to avoid bloodshed?" Ulf spat.

"Because it is a stupid form of revenge and I liked my plan better." This time his voice was chilling and Emily thought Lachlan's patience had finally been exhausted.

She continued on her journey toward the fireplace, but realized she could not get as close to it as she wanted without revealing herself. Still, some of its heat reached her where she hung back in the shadows.

"You dare to call me stupid?"

"It was your plan I said was stupid, but I ask you now do you dare to challenge me?"

Ulf's jaw clenched, but he did not answer.

The air inside the great hall crackled and seethed with potential violence.

Emily crowded back into her hidden nook, hoping Ulf would not be that stupid. She agreed with Lachlan; his brother's suggestion for revenge was both stupid and horrible. It gained nothing but pain for either clan. Hearing the other option made Emily glad Lachlan had chosen the path he had taken.

Realizing the alternative, she could finally see that his choice to use Cait to effect the redress was not a matter of taking his anger out on an innocent woman. It was, in fact, his solution to a problem that would otherwise have resulted in bloodshed and much grief.

Cait and she were both better off among the Balmoral. Emily could admit that. Cait was either very close to being, or was already in love with her husband, and Emily grew nauseated at the thought of allowing Talorc to touch her the way Lachlan had done. From what Cait said, Susannah was very happy with Magnus. She would be devastated if he were killed by her former clan.

Lachlan had made a choice that embraced life rather than undervalued it. She did not know if her own father would have been as wise. Ulf certainly was not.

Neither he nor Lachlan had moved for the past several seconds. Emily held her breath in anticipation of what would come next.

Lachlan's hands settled on his hips and he seemed to tower over his brother even though they were close in height. "Show throat or fetch your sword."

"Wolves show throat; I am human."

Emily bit her lip.

"You are Chrechte. You are my brother."

Ulf gave a single jerk of his head and then tilted it sideways, exposing his throat.

Lachlan said something Emily did not understand. It did not sound Gaelic to her. Ulf replied, his words just as incomprehensible, spun on his heel and left the great hall.

Emily silently let out the breath she'd been holding and realized she was shaking violently.

Lachlan looked toward where she hid. "Come here, English."

And in that moment she knew Cait had told the truth, about everything. Ulf had not known she was there, she was sure of it, but Lachlan had known even though he had pretended not to notice. When she had thought he was looking at her, he had been. But most convincing of all was his demand that Ulf show throat. It was not a human tradition and yet it had placated him in the face of terrible fury.

Her father would have demanded a soldier kneel at his feet. Even then, he might have beaten him for his insubordination.

Knowing that she had no hope of hiding, she stepped into the glow cast by the candles lighting the hall. "Why didn't you say something?"

"The situation was volatile enough. You bring out the worst in my brother. I did not want him challenging me out of pricked pride."

"I do not mean to bring out the worst."

"I do not blame you."

"You don't? Even though I have a sharp tongue?"

"I like your sharp tongue, but Ulf is not so tolerant."

"Oh." She licked her lips. "So, I can be plainspoken with you and you will not be offended?"

"If you offend me, I will seek retribution, but not of the kind my brother would like to mete out."

For some reason, that promise made her want to offend him rather than fear doing so.

He smiled as if he knew.

She swallowed. "You do not want to kill your brother."

"Is that such a surprise to you, or do the English not balk at killing their family?" He crossed his arms over his chest, his expression relaxed, but there was a tension about him that the calm stance and expression could not hide.

"I thought you did not care who you hurt as long as you got your own way."

"Did you?"

She licked her lips. "I was wrong."

He gave her a questioning look.

"About the revenge you could have done far worse than to take Cait and see her mated to your first-in-command."

"Do you think?"

Irresistibly drawn by the intensity emanating off of him, she stepped closer until they were almost touching. "Yes, I do think. I also think that if you had wanted to hurt Talorc's pride and were as uncaring of the feelings of others as I accused you of being, you would have used me and then discarded me. But you did not."

In truth, he had not harmed her in any way.

"Only a weak man has to resort to using a woman."

"I don't think Ulf would agree, but that is why you were so sure Drustan would not hurt Cait, isn't it?"

"He is not weak."

"And neither are you."

"Ulf thinks I am."

"Ulf is hotheaded and bloodthirsty. He truly does not seem to care who gets hurt or ends up dead if his pride is satisfied. I don't think he would make a good leader. Your clan would constantly be at war."

"I agree."

"It is a blessing you were born first then." The urge to touch him grew with every passing breath.

"I wasn't. He was born two years before me."

"But you are laird."

"He did not challenge me when I stepped into my father's place upon his death."

"Because he knew he could not win against you."

"Yes. If he were truly stupid, that would not have mattered. He would have challenged me anyway."

"You admire him."

"In many ways."

"It hurts you that he criticizes your choices."

"A warrior is not so easily affected."

Unable to stifle the desire any longer, she reached out and laid her hand against his chest, right over his heart. "I think a warrior is affected, but he does not show it."

Her body jolted in recognition of that slight connection, and that secret place between her legs that only he seemed to affect ached for something she could not name. It also grew moist and she pressed her legs together in private embarrassment and tried to assuage the ache.

Lachlan's nostrils flared and she could swear he knew her body's reaction to being so near him. "I am not so weak."

"Neither was my father, but when he lost my mother, he lost part of himself. Warriors feel, even when they don't want to."

"Your father was a bastard to you."

"He never hurt me again after that time at the pond."

"Physically maybe, but he hurt your tender heart."

"How can you know?" she asked in a whisper.

"He sent you to marry a Highland laird he knew nothing of. He was willing to let you go to pay for his own mistake. He did not value you as a father should value his daughter."

"I told you, I asked to be sent."

"Because you were terrified they would send your deaf sister."

"Yes."

"He forced your hand."

"Sybil did."

"You were wrong about more than my character, you know."

"What else was I wrong about?" she asked with a smile. His arrogance was starting to charm her.

"Abigail would not have been miserable here."

"I think you are right. Given time, I think even Talorc would have warmed to her. She is very sweet."

"Then you two must have a great deal in common."

Emily did not know what to say to that and stared into Lachlan's dark eyes with their intriguing golden rims for several silent moments.

He ran his fingertip over her lips, making her shiver. "You are a good friend to Cait."

"I care for her."

"She cares for you, too."

"Yes."

"Very much. She offended Drustan by insisting she be allowed to check on you."

"He thought she should have trusted him that I was unharmed?" she guessed. She was beginning to understand these Highland warriors.

"Yes."

"You are both so arrogant."

"But not cruel?"

"No. I do not think you are cruel."

"And Angus?"

Confused, she asked, "What about Angus? I never thought he was cruel, except maybe by association."

Lachlan didn't look pleased by that bit of news. "You show a preference for his company."

"Not over yours. I couldn't have."

"Couldn't?"

"No. It would be impossible for me to show a preference for his company because I prefer your company above all others." Perhaps she should not have told him, but part of her needed to let him know how important to her he had become.

Something shifted in his gaze. If she didn't know better, she would think it was relief. "That is good to know."

"Is it?"

"It shouldn't be."

She didn't ask why. She could guess and she didn't want to think about how impossible a future between them would be. "I may be wanton with you, but I am not a wanton. I do not feel for any other man what I feel for you."

"And Talorc?"

"I will ask him not to send me home, but I cannot marry him now. I do not think he will mind." As a werewolf, he would have even less desire to marry Emily than Lachlan did, for no fire of desire burned between the two of them.

"Because I have touched you?"

"Yes," she whispered, not adding that she wanted no other man's caresses. She had revealed enough.

"You are worried he will consider you soiled by my touch?"

"No."

"You do not want him to touch you the same way."

He saw too much, but she refused to answer.

"I have barely begun to touch you, Emily. There is so much more pleasure to be had between us without the breaking of your maidenhead. More intimacy than you can imagine."

Sometimes he was so crude and yet it did not offend her, merely embarrassed her because she could not hope to match his honesty in this matter. Not yet anyway. "I was naked with you," she reminded him. How much more intimate could it get?

"Learning to swim." Without warning he swept her up into his arms. "And now it is time I taught you something else."

He carried her to a chair beside the fire and sat down.

"Here?" she asked, shocked he had not taken her someplace more private.

The great hall was empty, but it might not stay that way.

"If I take you back to your room, I will bury myself inside you and damn the consequences," he admitted in a guttural voice that revealed a depth of feeling his stance and conversation had not hinted at.

"And you cannot do that."

"No."

She knew it to be the case. She even understood why, but it hurt. Terribly. Because werewolf or not, she loved the proud and strong but compassionate laird. It did not matter if the feeling made sense; it was there and she knew to the depths of her soul that from this point forward, it always would be. He possessed her heart, but all he wanted was her body.

She would give that to him, freely and without condition, for the sake of the long, lonely years ahead. She would at least have this.

She put her hands on either side of his face and kissed him, then spoke against his lips. "Make me forget."

"Forget what?"

"Everything."

And he did.

From the moment his mouth touched hers, Emily ceased to think of anything but Lachlan. She sat on his lap, but they did not actively touch anywhere else except their lips. His moved against hers with sensual expertise, but he could have sat there completely still, only pressing his mouth to hers, and she would still be drowning in the need he evoked in her.

Just to touch him was to crave everything he would give her.


Chapter 14 | Moon Awakening | Chapter 16