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Chapter 20

"No!" Emily shouted.

"Stay out of it, Emily," Lachlan said.

"I won't. Don't you see how ridiculous this is?" They were like two cocks trying to establish dominance over the roost, but there was no need. They each had their own roost, darn it. "It's clear that Ulf has been manipulating everyone. Trying to kill each other is not going to undo the damage he has done."

Lachlan did not remove his gaze from Talorc, but a muscle in his jaw twitched. "Take Emily back to the castle, Cait. We will discuss how you got out later."

Emily crossed her arms over her chest and looked down her nose at both men. It was quite a feat because she was shorter than them, but she'd learned a few useful tricks under Sybil's tutelage. "I'm not going anywhere."

Cait imitated her actions. "Me, either."

"Drustan," Lachlan said.

The first-in-command came out of the trees on silent feet. It should not have surprised Emily to see him, but it did. Of course, she'd had no idea Lachlan was there until he showed himself either. These Highland men were sneaky as thieves in their movements.

"Escort our women back to the keep."

Drustan nodded and went to grab Cait's arm, but she evaded his touch. "I'm returning to the Sinclair hold," she said, her voice filled with pain. "I do not belong with the Balmorals."

Drustan flinched as if struck.

Emily opened her mouth to deny her friend's words but then snapped it shut again. First, because she thought that was something Drustan should do, and second, because she thought he might already be doing it. He and Cait were looking at each other as if communicating without words.

Were they mindspeaking? What was that like? Did it sound just like a voice, or were there simply thoughts images like a dream? But a dream wasn't necessarily speaking, was it? And Cait had said it was talking in another person's head. How very curious.

Talorc swore, his startling blue eyes lit with amusement if Emily could allow herself to believe it. "He's bloody well true-mated my sister, hasn't he?"

"Yes," Emily answered because it looked like no one else was going to.

Cait was crying now and shaking her head at Drustan. "You don't love me. You called me a murderer."

"I was wrong," he said out loud. "Please don't leave me."

Cait gasped. "You would plead with me?"

"I will do whatever it takes to keep you. You're my sacred mate, you're my wife you're everything to me."

Emily smiled mistily, but both Lachlan and Talorc appeared pained. Cait, however, was looking at Drustan as if he were the sun, the moon and the stars all rolled into one magnificent male.

She gave him a blinding smile through her tears. "I do love you."

"I love you as well. Never doubt it again," he said, sounding quite harsh, but Cait didn't seem to mind.

Whatever she said in his head made him smile, and his reply had her looking all dreamy-eyed. Emily sighed contentedly. She was very glad to see her friend so happy and things finally settled between the married couple. It was as plain as the nose on her face that those two belonged together, no matter how providence had chosen to make that happen.

Drustan nodded as if accepting something Cait had said, though of course she hadn't said anything. "Now, we return to the keep."

"Not yet," Talorc said. "There are things that need to be discussed. As my sister's mate and Susannah's brother, you need to hear them as well."

Drustan looked to Lachlan for permission to stay and it was granted with a slight nod.

That gesture seemed to signal something between all three men because the tension surrounding them all decreased considerably. Lachlan even looked bored, though Emily could not believe it of him. He was being tricky again, she would swear it, but she was equally certain the threat of imminent violence had passed.

His feet planted firmly apart, Talorc crossed his arms over his chest, which was not exactly a conciliatory stance, but it was not a fighting one either. "In my desire to discover my sister's circumstances, I have trespassed on your island without permission, but my soldier did not. Magnus did not kidnap Susannah from Balmoral land."

The fact that he wore no plaid did not minimize his commanding presence one tiny bit. Perhaps because the man showed absolutely no concern that he was naked. Despite the seriousness of the matter at hand, Emily found such a lack of self-consciousness fascinating.

"Magnus?" Lachlan clarified, clearly as unbothered by the other laird's lack of clothes as he was.

She wished she could be so unaffected, but she had only ever seen one other nude man before. Lachlan. Emily chewed her lip, trying to look at Talorc unobtrusively, but she was too curious to ignore his lack of clothing altogether.

"The laird's brother, Ulf, told Susannah that she had permission to hunt on the mainland at the last full moon," he was saying, "but he did not bother to tell her that it was hunting ground for another pack."

"Ulf told her this?" Drustan asked, his arm dropping around Cait's shoulder since she had sidled close to him. "But he had no such authority."

"Susannah was not aware of that. She believed he spoke for your laird."

"When did she tell you this?" Drustan demanded.

"She did not. Magnus reported the details of what led to her hunting on our lands when he informed me he had taken a mate in the fur. Susannah was in heat. Ulf had to know she would end up mated to a Sinclair. He withheld the truth that he was the one who had sent her to our lands, did he not?"

"Yes."

"I think he wanted your laird to believe we had insulted the Balmorals so he would try to exact a personal revenge. I have experience with the cunning betrayal of power-hungry humans. I suspect he planned to betray the Balmoral to me so that he would be killed."

"As he believes he betrayed our laird now?" Drustan asked.

"Yes. He told me to wait here and that he would see to it that the Balmoral came after me alone."

"Emily," Lachlan barked.

She jerked and blushed as everyone's attention first went to him and then to her. She met Lachlan's gaze. "Yes?"

He was not smiling. "Come here."

His tone did not suggest she argue and, for once, she didn't. When she was less than a foot from him, he tilted her chin up with his hand. "You belong to me."

"Is this a discussion we need to have now?" she asked.

Rather than answer, he asked, "Do you want me to challenge Talorc?"

They had just gotten past that, hadn't they? "No."

"Then look only at me."

He knew she'd been peeking.

Her blush heated and went to the roots of her hair. "I was merely curious."

"I will satisfy your curiosity another time." He pushed her behind him and then looked at Talorc. "I have only your word that my brother is a betrayer."

"And the evidence of your own logic. If I wanted to kill you, I would have done it when I saw you in the water with the Englishwoman. You had no other guards with you. I did. She would have been easy enough to dispose of."

The coldness of those words made Emily shiver. She moved closer to Lachlan until she was almost touching him, and the heat of his body reached out to wrap around her comfortingly.

"You would have had to kill me first."

For no reason she could discern, her throat tightened with tears. She knew he meant it. No matter what he had accused her of earlier, Lachlan would not have let Talorc harm her that day at the lake. He would have protected her with his life. What did that mean? Perhaps it was part of his warrior's honor.

"The point is," Talorc drawled out, "I did not try."

Lachlan shrugged.

"As I said, I came to your island to discover my sister's circumstances."

"The Sinclair guard we left behind when we took the women would have told you she was to wed Drustan," Lachlan said.

"He told me, and I know enough of you to know that if you said that was your plan, it would come to pass, but I had to make sure Cait was not mistreated, that she was not a prisoner."

"And she told you she was content with her marriage," Drustan said, revealing that he must have allowed Cait to tell him at least that much of her exchange with his brother during their initial confrontation.

"Yes," Talorc said. "Just as your sister is."

Drustan nodded and Cait smiled up at him.

"But Ulf told me she was not. He said that Cait had been forced to mate with Drustan against her will." Talorc's voice vibrated with the rage such a thought evoked in him, even knowing it was not true. "He said that she wanted to return to our clan, but that she was being kept here as a prisoner."

"But I'm not!" Cait exclaimed.

"Aren't you?" Talorc asked. "Did you come to this island of your own free will as Susannah came to our hunting lands?"

Drustan stepped in front of Cait. "I acknowledge that she was brought against her will, but she has not been mistreated and she is now my wife and content to be so."

"I don't want to leave," she added from behind him. "I am a Balmoral now."

"So you said." Talorc's voice gave no hint as to how he felt about that. "I will not apologize for not observing ancient pack law. Susannah acted on your brother's word, Balmoral, and you retaliated without all the facts. You should have realized he was a threat to the pack. You are at fault."

Cait gasped, her face going pale. Drustan looked ready to go for Talorc's throat.

But Lachlan merely sighed. It was a sad, rather weary sound, and Emily laid her hand on his back in comfort.

He looked over his shoulder at her, his dark eyes searching for something, but she had no idea what. Then he turned back to face Talorc and the others. "I should have seen his discontent, his greed for power. He hid it well, but there were clues if I had been willing to see them."

Emily was proud of Lachlan's ability to admit he was in the wrong. It showed a strength of character few men in his position possessed. Nevertheless, the reason he had been wrong was of grave concern to her. For if he did not acknowledge it and change his thinking, Ulf's threat could be renewed from a different source. Perhaps the next time it would go unnoticed until it was too late to change the outcome like it had been with MacAlpin.

"You dismissed the threat Ulf represented because he is fully human. You did not think he was as powerful as a Chrechte, or capable of deceiving you, but you were wrong."

"Thank you for pointing that out, Emily," Lachlan said dryly.

"In believing so fully in your superiority, you put yourself and your clan at risk," she pressed.

Talorc laughed. "She's sharp-tongued, isn't she?"

"Plain-spoken, but she is right." Lachlan sighed. "She often is."

Emily was gratified that he had corrected Talorc's description of her. She was also warm with pleasure at the fact that Lachlan thought she was often right, but that did not make up for the fact that he had accused her of being unchaste because of the passion he had quite deliberately provoked in her. The two lairds might accept a cessation of hostilities without an apology, but she wasn't going to. Lachlan was going to tell her he was sorry, and that was that.

"She said she'd rather be married to a goat than me. Are you the goat?" Talorc asked, his voice still laced heavily with amusement.

"I will be."

"No!"

"I am glad to hear you say so," Talorc said, ignoring Emily's denial. "Since she was sent to Scotland to wed me, she is my responsibility. I had no desire to marry her, but I could not allow her to be compromised without demanding suitable reparation either."

Unbelievably, Lachlan nodded his understanding, just as if Talorc wasn't talking drivel.

"I'm wanting to witness the marriage before returning to my holding." This time there was no humor in the daft man's voice and she wished there had been.

Emily rushed around Lachlan so she could look Talorc in the face when she shouted at him. "I will not marry him and that's that!"

"You want to marry me then?"

"You know I don't, and neither will you marry me."

"You would rather I declared war on the Balmorals?"

"Don't be ridiculous. You aren't going to war over me. I'm English, remember?"

"You are under my protection while you are in the Highlands. My honor is worth going to war over."

"No, Talorc," Cait said, sounding desperate. "They haven't mated."

"I saw him naked with her in the water."

"But that doesn't mean anything," Emily assured him. "You're naked now, but I'm not mating you."

Lachlan growled, the sound inhuman and frightening.

Talorc ignored it as he had ignored her protest a moment before. "I do not believe your father would feel the same."

"You aren't going to tell him?" Emily asked, horrified.

"I'm going to see you wed, or I'm going to war."

Emily looked wildly around her, but no one appeared ready to step in and aid her in dismissing Talorc's daft notion. Cait's worried and faintly sick expression said she knew he meant it and she was worried that Lachlan was going to refuse. Emily was more afraid he wouldn't.

"You don't want to marry me," she cried, facing him.

"Would you rather see our clans go to war?" he asked with interest.

"Of course not."

"Then you will marry me, English."

"No."

Emily was standing in front of a priest an hour later. She was still reeling from Lachlan's confrontation with Ulf upon their return to the keep, which was her excuse for getting this far in a wedding ceremony she was sure should not take place.

Talorc and his soldiers (there were four) had accompanied them back to the castle because he insisted on seeing Emily wed, and Lachlan, for reasons she could not fathom, had agreed to accommodate him. Her continued vehement denials and arguments about why the wedding should not take place were ignored by the two lairds walking side by side.

If she were Chrechte, she would turn into a wolf and bite someone. It was a lucky thing for them all she was ladylike enough not to do it anyway.

Thankfully, Talorc had plaids hidden on the island for him and his soldiers and they were now decently covered. Though Emily had to wonder if the Highland women would have been nearly as shocked by their nakedness as she had been.

Ulf's roar of fury from high on the wall walk splintered her thoughts in that moment and sent a chill skittering down Emily's spine. But when she looked up, she did not see him. She peeked sideways at Lachlan. He acted as if he hadn't even heard the war cry.

But she knew he had and her heart went out to him even though she doubted he would thank her for the concern. Learning his brother was a traitor and a murderer could not have been easy, but he had revealed no emotion at Talorc's revelations. And he didn't expose any now either.

Ulf was not so circumspect. His face twisted with rage, he was waiting for them in the lower bailey with several other soldiers when their parry crossed the bridge. "What the hell is this? You have brought our enemy inside our very gates.'"

Lachlan motioned for the rest of them to halt and approached his brother alone. He glared at the other soldiers until the men stepped back from Ulf.

"The only enemy to the Balmoral clan stands before me," Lachlan said when he stood less than two feet from his brother. "In your lust for power, you killed one of our soldiers in hopes of luring me into a trap. You do not even have the courage to fight your own battles."

"I have the courage," Ulf snarled, "but I promised our father I would not challenge you for the position of laird. He did not think I could lead the clan because I have no beast inside me to cloud my thinking. He believed you were his true son, but I am more like him than you ever will be!"

"You have his temper, but you lack his strength and his intelligence."

"That's a lie! I'm everything he could have wanted in a son, but he judged me on the way my body reacts to a full moon."

"Go to the great hall," Lachlan commanded. "You will explain your treachery to me there."

Ulf just sneered.

Moving so quickly, she almost missed it, Lachlan hit his brother straight on the chin, knocking him backward into the dirt and into an unnatural sleep in the process.

"Carry him to the great hall," he instructed two of the warriors that had been hidden in the trees with Drustan when Lachlan confronted Talorc by the lake.

When they moved to obey, he asked the other soldiers if they stood with Ulf or with him. The men went to their knees and knelt before him, one going so far as to explain they had just been called from their duties by Ulf to help protect their laird. As a strong, chilling wind, portent of things to come, whipped around them, the soldier's story was confirmed by others and they were dismissed.

Lachlan went to the great hall and then made sure that no one but Chrechte and Emily and Ulf were in the keep before instructing that the door be shut and guarded by a Chrechte soldier on the other side. And she understood why he had insisted on having the confrontation at the keep. He was protecting the pack's secrets as Chrechte leaders had been doing within the clans since joining them the century before.

Ulf was awake and fuming by the fireplace when Lachlan allowed the rest of them into the great hall a few minutes later.

She and Cait stood between Drustan and Angus, with the Sinclair Chrechte behind them. There were two other Balmoral Chrechte on either side of Ulf. He glared at her and Cait, and then at Lachlan, "What are the women doing here?"

"Your treachery affected their lives. They will hear what you have to say for yourself."

"I need not explain myself to you."

"Like it or not, I am your laird. You will explain."

"Only because our father protected you by demanding that promise."

Lachlan shook his head. "Our father was protecting you from death when he made you promise not to challenge me. But you did not care. You chose to try to take control of the clan through devious means anyway. What honor is there in trying to negate your father's will, or in trying to get the Sinclair to kill me for you?"

"More honor than there is in a younger brother taking my rightful place of laird."

"Our father dictated I be his successor. It was his right."

"He made the wrong choice. It was my right to lead!"

"To what end? What could you have done for the clan I have not done?"

Ulf just glared.

"You are guilty of murder."

"You believe the word of your enemy over your brother?"

"You did not deny your treachery."

"I knew it was useless when I saw the two of you from the wall walk. I knew you would stand together as werewolf brothers even though you and I are blood brothers."

A spasm crossed Lachlan's face. "Are you saying now that you deny you plotted to get me killed? That you did not kill that young soldier?"

"Would you believe me if I did?"

"No." The absolute finality of that word could not be lost on anyone in the hall. "I know too much to believe your denial."

"Then why should I attempt one?" Ulf stood proud and erect, his expression filled with contempt and hatred. "You deserved to die just like that soldier. He would have had a position of leadership one day, just as Drustan does, but what of me your brother?"

"You turned down the position of first-in-command."

"It should have been you as my first, not the other way around. Why should I agree to serve you?"

"So, you believe you a murderer and a liar should be laird?"

Ulf was unfazed by the accusations, as if he truly saw nothing wrong with his actions. "I am a Balmoral, son of our father, just as you are."

"If I challenge you, does that negate the promise you made to our father?"

"On what grounds would you challenge me?" Ulf asked sneeringly.

"You murdered one of my soldiers."

"Prove it."

"I don't have to."

"You do if you want the clan to stand behind you."

"You are a fool to believe that."

"Am I?" Ulf asked, his expression taunting. "There is also your own honor, which would not be satisfied unless you can be absolutely sure I had done the deed."

"But I am."

Ulf just shrugged.

"There are also the many insults, heard by witnesses, you have subjected my mate to."

"You are not mated."

"I soon will be. Emily is my betrothed."

Ulf staggered as if Lachlan had landed him another blow. "You are going to marry a human?"

"Yes."

"I thought you were afraid of having human children like our father."

"If they are as fierce and loyal as their mother, it won't matter if they are werewolves."

Warmth suffused Emily despite the tension of the situation.

"She has tricked you with your lust."

"I'm not so easily deceived. I have told you this. You should have listened."

"Aren't you? You believed me about Susannah."

"I believed the evidence of my own eyes. Susannah was married to Magnus and I knew I had not given her permission to leave the island. Therefore I believed she had been taken without the permission of her clan."

"Now you know I sent her to Sinclair land."

"Why?"

"I wanted you to declare war on the Sinclairs. I could have led you into a trap. It's what our father would have done, but you are not enough like him. You're too soft."

"You're a fool if you believe that. You are the weak one and Father saw the lack in you. He knew you craved power but did not have the character to lead. He should have banished you, or sent you to serve under another laird, but he was too soft-hearted toward you. He loved you too much to let you go. You are my brother, but I am strong enough to see you get the punishment your crimes deserve. You were a fool to believe you could manipulate me."

"I wasn't. I had it all under control. If those two whores had not gotten out of the keep, you would not be playing ally with the Sinclair now."

Lachlan backhanded Ulf and the other man slammed against the wall beside the fireplace.


Chapter 19 | Moon Awakening | Chapter 21