Emily thought she had been prepared for anything in this Highland country, but she hadn't been ready for this. If someone had told her the day before that there were warriors more intimidating than the Sinclairs, she would have laughed in the person's face. She wasn't laughing now.
Nay. She was too busy praying.
The giant men rode toward her and Cait, their fierce scowls made even more menacing by the blue war paint. It was not so much that they were bigger than the Sinclair warriors as that they carried themselves as if they owned the world and all that was in it. Considering they were on another clan's territory, that said something. She'd never seen such arrogance and she'd been raised by one ox England's most ruthless barons and was now betrothed to the formidable Sinclair laird.
The sound of Cait's frightened intake of breath reminded Emily she was not alone in facing the menace. Relief turned to chagrin in the space of a second. Emily didn't want her friend hurt… or frightened. She turned to Cait, whose face had drained of color. She was looking with terror at the warriors on horseback.
Emily tried to smile reassuringly. "Don't be frightened, Cait. It's only some friends of your brother, I'm thinking."
They looked mean enough to be friends to the Sinclair laird.
Cait shook her head slowly, her eyes never leaving the approaching warriors. "Friends? Nay, Emily. These are Balmoral soldiers and they have already killed Everett," she said, speaking of the boy sent to guard Emily, "or they would not be here."
Emily turned eyes filled with fury to the warrior closest to her. "Surely, not. You did not kill that boy. For it would be a sin for a grown man to kill a child… even here in the Highlands."
The warrior she addressed, a redheaded demon with eyes the color of grass, raised his brows but did not answer. He watched her silently, causing her to nervously twist and untwist the folds of her dress. She felt goaded into speaking again.
"Do you not know it is impolite to ignore a lady when she is speaking to you?" She'd been using Gaelic the whole time, so she knew the heathen monsters had to understand her.
A warrior from her left spoke. He could have been the first one's twin but for his brown eyes. "We did not kill the boy."
Emily turned back to her friend. "There now. Do you see? These are merciful men. I'm sure we have nothing to fear."
She prayed God would forgive her for the lie, but she hated the look of dread in Cait's eyes.
Cait's snort of disbelief turned into a scream as the green-eyed warrior swiftly rode forward and swung her onto his horse. He disarmed her in a move too quick for Emily to see, but she saw the small knife fall to the ground. Forgetting anything resembling ladylike decorum, she dove for it.
Grasping it in her hand, she scrambled to her feet and went for the warrior's unprotected calf.
The horse backed up and the knife swished uselessly through air. She lurched forward to try again, but was caught from behind by an arm as big as a pine tree. At least that was how it felt ramming into her stomach and knocking out her breath as she was lifted off her feet and dropped into a totally indecent position in front of one of the Balmorals.
She couldn't even scream, but she could bite and that's what she did, turning and sinking her teeth into the shoulder not covered by the warrior's plaid.
She bit down harder and tried to stab him in the thigh with the knife. Suddenly, instead of the arm being around her waist, it was wrapped around both her arms, holding them tight to her sides. The thumb from his free hand pressed against her wrist and her hand released the knife of its own volition.
The horse beneath them started moving and the warrior growled in her ear. "Stop trying to eat me, woman. I dinna think even the English infidels practiced cannibalism."
Emily tasted blood and yanked her mouth away from the huge Warrior's shoulder. She spit to get the taste from her mouth and then turned to glare at her captor, but her attention was caught by Cait's wildly flailing body.
The other woman fought desperately, trying to free herself. The warrior holding her wasn't working too hard to subdue her, but was concentrating on protecting her from the tree branches as they rode swiftly through the forest.
Unconcerned about her own plight for the moment, Emily yelled, "Stop fighting, Cait. You'll hurt the baby."
"We can't let them take us!" Cait cried back. "If we do, it will mean war between the Sinclairs and the Balmorals."
Emily didn't see why that should be so upsetting to Cait. From what she had heard, the Highland clans were always at war with each other.
"If your brother did not want war, he should not have allowed his warrior to keep one of my clanswomen," the warrior holding Emily said.
Cait turned and glared at him, still struggling to be released, but not thrashing as wildly. "She was outside your holding… hunting on our land. Her loss is your own responsibility."
The man holding Cait said something to her. Emily could not understand the words, but his harsh tone was unmistakable. Cait said a word that Emily didn't know and the warrior's profile hardened with anger. Emily's own captor stiffened with affront, indicating he knew just what the word meant and it wasn't good.
Apparently there were worse things than being likened to a goat.
Suddenly the horses picked up their pace. There was no chance to speak for the next several minutes as the men rode hard. Emily worriedly watched Cait and was glad to note her friend no longer struggled for release. She must have realized a fall from a galloping horse could make her lose the babe.
They came to a clearing and stopped as suddenly as they had begun.
Her captor swung down from his horse, taking her with him, and then turned her to face him. Standing, he was huge and she had to tilt her head back to see his face.
Dark brown eyes encircled by gold stared down at her, no softness in evidence. They were wolf's eyes, but instead of making her shiver, they made her burn in places she could give no name. She could not believe she was noticing something so shameful, especially in her current predicament, but the man was altogether too much for her senses to remain unaffected.
"Leave her alone," Cait yelled.
Emily's gaze skittered to her friend. Her redheaded captor had a more effective hold on her now and Cait's arms were pinned to her sides much the same as Emily's had been.
Her own captor's hands squeezed her shoulders in a demand for her whole attention. "Tell the laird we are keeping his sister and the babe in her. 'Tis fitting retribution for Susannah."
She stared at him in horror. "You can't mean that. Please, you mustn't take her away."
He didn't bother to reply and she hadn't expected him to. After all, why should he care for her pleas? The man's mind was obviously made up to do this heinous deed.
Still, her mouth opened to argue further, but he squeezed her shoulders again, this time his thumbs brushing along her collarbone. She gasped, no words making it past her suddenly tied tongue. She couldn't think. Not with him touching her in that inappropriate manner. She wanted to tell him to stop, but something about him mesmerized her.
He had not hurt her.
It was a puzzle, but even more so was the question of why he stood staring down at her, saying nothing.
He was frowning, but he didn't look particularly angry.
Didn't the men in the Highlands ever smile? What a foolish thought. Was he waiting for her to agree to be his messenger? If so, he would be waiting a long time.
"You cannot mean to take Cait on an arduous journey on horseback. Surely you have noticed she is with child."
He said nothing, giving her a glare meant to intimidate and it worked.
He was the most daunting man she'd come across in her life. He was also the most appealing one. The blue paint on his face could not disguise the masculine beauty of his features. Hair like shining obsidian hung past his massive shoulders and even the intricate tattoo around his bicep added to his appeal. It looked like a blue armband and none of the other soldiers had one.
Not that she would have seen any such thing on the Sinclair warriors. They had the decency to cover their upper torsos with saffron shirts under their plaids. Not so with these barbarians. His chest and one shoulder were bare. She could see a purplish bruise forming where she'd bit him as well as a smear of blood.
She winced, pained that she'd done that to another person.
His face held an impassive stare, yet she felt as if he were reading her every thought. She did not know how she was going to stop him from taking her friend, but stop him she must.
She pulled a handkerchief from where she had it tucked in her kirtle and wiped gently at the blood on his chest, not completely aware of what she was doing because her mind was spinning so furiously. She had to protect Cait.
"The journey could hurt the babe," she pointed out.
"Balmorals do not hurt women. Drustan is keeping her, but she and the bairn will not be harmed."
Emily pressed the cloth over the small wound she had inflicted. "Would not taking the laird's wife give you more revenge?" she asked, a desperate plan forming in her mind.
The warrior's eyes narrowed. "He is not married."
"Well, that was true a few days ago, but it isn't anymore."
At her friend's quick intake of breath at her lie, Emily silenced her with a look.
"Where is this wife then?" asked the warrior, in spite of himself.
He did not know why he hesitated and was actually listening to the Englishwoman. She was lovely, but he had never been swayed by a beautiful woman before. Perhaps it was her courage, or the way she tended the wound she had inflicted. The contradictory behavior intrigued him.
As did she. Her obvious concern for Talorc's sister confused ton. He would have expected no less from another member of the Sinclair clan, but this woman was not a Sinclair. She was English. Unmistakably so from the way she was dressed and spoke their tongue with the accent of their southern foe.
English or not, he liked watching her. She tried so hard to hide her fear from him, but her trembling gave her away. Despite her nervousness, purple eyes shot fire at him and this amused him. She looked ready to go to battle. Against him.
And she was not even a femwolf.
Where had the Sinclairs found a jewel such as this?
"I am his wife."
The words hung in the air, slicing through his pleasure in her company. This jewel belonged to the Sinclair? He would not believe it.
He shook his head.
She nodded emphatically.
He turned to the Sinclair woman. "Your brother chose an English mate?"
Lachlan tilted the woman's chin up so she had to meet his gaze. "I do not like being lied to."
"I-I'm not lying."
"You say your friend is a liar?" he asked in a voice that had sent grown warriors running.
"No, of course not. Talorc did not choose me. Your king did it for him."
"You won't convince me that he married an Englander." The other man's hatred of the English was too strong. He'd lost a father and a brother to a greedy English baron and his cohort, the English woman who betrayed the Sinclair clan.
"Talorc hates the English more than he hates the MacDonalds," Drustan said, echoing Lachlan's thoughts.
"I know Talorc hates the English and it has not been a happy relationship." There was too much truth in her tone for Lachlan to continue to dismiss her claim. "But I am his wife. Your king and my king ordered it and my dowry was substantial."
He did not think Talorc would be moved by any amount of money, but he could not guess at the workings of the other clan chief's mind.
"Why aren't you wearing his plaid?" he asked, while his mind latched on to the ease with which his revenge could be enhanced in this fortuitous circumstance.
"His willingness to marry did not extend to having an Englishwoman wearing his plaid. He is not entirely reconciled to this marriage."
Lachlan had no trouble believing that. Looking at the all-too-innocent expression in the woman's eyes, he could not help wondering if that lack of reconciliation meant the marriage had not yet been consummated.
"If you are his wife, he would only thank the Balmorals for ridding himself of you," Ulf said from behind them.
Hurt flared briefly in her eyes and then she shielded them with her lashes, shrugging. "His pride would not like it, even if his emotions found only relief."
Curiously, her hurt feelings moved Lachlan and he turned, glaring his brother into silence.
Ulf's eyes widened, but he said nothing, merely frowned.
Lachlan did not understand the fury coursing through him or the profound disappointment on finding that this unique and lovely woman was the wife of his enemy. However, he did understand that it would be cruel indeed to leave her to face Talorc's wrath when he learned of his sister's capture.
He focused on the woman. She had regained her composure and was speaking again.
"Even if I am English," Emily added under her breath, inexplicably hurt by the Balmoral soldier's cruel words.
She should not care what any of these barbarians thought.
Her captor heard her and smiled. Her heart almost stopped. An enemy's smile should not look so heavenly, particularly in a face painted for war.
Without another word, he grabbed her and swung up on his horse again, dropping her in the same embarrassing perch she'd been before. Her legs straddled the horse and her backside sat against his hard thighs. She gave a gasp of surprise, but otherwise tried to hide her fear now that her plan had worked.
She turned to her friend and said, "You must not concern yourself for me, Cait. I shall be fine. You can see that these warriors are kind and honorable."
Cait simply shook her head, apparently struck dumb.
Emily tried to smile, but didn't quite make it. "Goodbye, Cait."
At that moment the horses started moving, but the warrior her captor had called Drustan did not release Cait.
"You must let Cait go now that you have me."
Her captor said nothing.
She pinched at his thigh, but it was like trying to pinch a stone. "I said, you've got to let my friend go."
"I will not be silenced. Let her go, or I'll start screaming so loudly, they're bound to hear me all the way back at the keep."
"One sound like that and I will gag you."
His hold on her tightened… a warning squeeze she wasn't about to ignore. She had no desire to be gagged.
Her situation was dire enough. Her plan hadn't worked. Instead of releasing her friend, the warrior had kidnapped them both. What kind of man was this Highland laird that the prospect of stealing another laird's wife was not enough vengeance to take?
She had to make one last attempt to change his mind, as futile as it might be. "But if you don't leave one of us behind, who will tell Talorc that it was the Balmorals that did this thing?" she asked, desperately.
"The boy who was guarding you had opportunity to see our plaid before we knocked him asleep," the warrior said in a tone that discouraged further questions.
She didn't see what she had to lose. "You left that poor boy senseless? What if wild animals get him? Then who will tell? What if wild animals had gotten me on my way back to the holding if I had been your messenger? I suppose that wouldn't have mattered to you, me being English and all."
Her captor did not bother to answer. The horses gradually picked up speed until the war party was galloping away from Sinclair land at a speed that made Emily's head spin. She prayed for the safety of the unborn baby in her friend's womb and then prayed the man holding her would not drop her.
Several hours later, after riding rigidly in her captor's arms, she was praying for the strength to withstand just one more minute of this torture before disgracing herself and crying like a baby. When she thought she could not take another moment of the pain in her back from trying to sit away from the man carrying her, he raised his hand in a silent command to halt.
He swung down from his horse, bringing her with him. But he let her go immediately as if he could not stand to touch her. Foolishly offended by his rejection, she groaned in pain as she straightened her back, sure the moisture burning her eyes was from that pain alone. Truthfully, it was all she could do not to sink to her knees in weak relief. She walked gingerly, making her way to her friend's side to check on Cait's condition.
"Are you all right?" she asked with concern.
Cait smiled wearily. Emily was obviously in pain and trying to hide it. She was only human after all and the ride had been a punishing one… even for Cait. And she was a femwolf. "Yes. Drustan held me very gently and took care that I was not jostled by his horse."
The warrior's consideration made her feel strange. She knew their plan was to keep her in retaliation for Susannah, but he was not being cruel to her. In fact, he'd been more careful with her than her husband had ever been.
But if he could be so careful of her, why had the clan been so careless of Susannah? A femwolf left to hunt alone, especially when she was in heat, was fair game for an unmated werewolf and well they should know it.
"You on the other hand look as if you were forced to ride balancing on a mace," Cait added.
Emily grimaced, her heart-shaped face pinched and pale with exhaustion. "You are not far from the truth. The effort to sit forward and maintain my balance has left my back feeling like it will never straighten completely again."
"Why did you not relax against Lachlan? Surely he could withstand your weight if Drustan could withstand mine."
Emily looked askance at her. "Relax against him?" she asked incredulously.
Cait shook her head. Was it Emily's Englishness or the fact that she was a human that made her so prim? Cait would never have spent such a grueling ride trying to maintain propriety, but then she was a wolf and they were taught from the cradle to be more practical about their bodies than the human members of her clan tended to be.
"How did you know my captor's name?" Emily asked. "Have you seen him before?"
"No, but he's obviously the leader and he spoke possessively about Susannah, so I'm guessing he is the laird of the Balmoral clan… Lachlan. He could be her brother, but if I'm to be kept by Drustan, I can't help thinking he's Susannah's brother. He has not said." In fact, he hadn't said a single word since she'd called him that nasty name.
"Do you want me to ask if I am right?"
"No. I'm sure you are. It was a clever guess, but I was too busy trying to think of ways to escape to work it through. I should have figured out he was the laird anyway. It's obvious now that you say it."
Cait had to smile at her friend's chagrin. "Do not be too hard on yourself."
"I'm so smart I got both of us kidnapped. If I hadn't, I could have raised the alarm and gotten your brother's warriors in pursuit all the faster."
Cait felt badly that Emily had been kidnapped, too, but considering the way she and Talorc got along, Cait didn't think the other woman being left behind would have been an improvement. Especially if she didn't succeed at escape. And, in her condition, she had very little hope of doing so.
"By the time you had walked back to the keep, we would have been too fat ahead to do me any good. Remember, we had ridden a fair way before the laird was prepared to release you. As it is, Everett has raised the alarm, I'm sure."
"I hope you're right and that no wild animals got him."
"He is no unprotected human." Cait grimaced at her slip, but Emily didn't seem to notice.
She was too busy looking around her. "Why did we stop here, do you think?"
"To get in the boat."
"Boat?" Emily asked, going pale. "What boat?"
"The Balmoral clan live in a fortress on an island. Once we are in the boat, it will be much harder for my brother to rescue us."
"There will be no rescue, lass," Drustan called in a hard voice from a distance away.
Emily gasped in shock even as her whole body shook with fear at the prospect of being dragged onto a boat. "How did he know we were talking about that?"
"He could hear us."
But Emily shook her head. "We're too far away and we've been speaking in undertones. He must have made a clever, guess."
Cait looked as though she were going to argue. "Emily…"
Then Cait shook her head. "Never mind. Do you speak Latin?" she asked in that language in a bare whisper.
"I'm hoping they don't."
Emily understood immediately. In case one of them did have particularly good hearing, it wouldn't hurt if she and Cait spoke in a foreign tongue. She would ask another time how her friend had learned Latin. It wasn't an uncommon accomplishment for women of her status in England, but she'd always heard the Highlanders lived near barbarianism.
Though, so far, that belief had been shown up as a gross exaggeration.
"What are we going to do?"
"Keep pretending that you are debilitated by the ride."
"That should be easy," Emily said with a grimace, her sore muscles making it not much of a pretense.
"We have to steal some horses."
"But they will only follow us."
"Our one hope is to stay ahead of them long enough to meet up with my brother."
"If he is following."
"He is. Trust me. Do you notice how they are letting the horses drink without a guard?"
Emily looked to the water's edge where all five horses drank. The men were busy readying the boat Cait had mentioned and some kind of contraption that she thought might be for the horses. It looked like a floating raft, but with openings for the horses to be harnessed to it, so they could swim behind the boat, but be kept afloat? At least that is what it seemed to her.
"We need to get closer to the horses and when they have two of them harnessed for crossing the sea and are busy with the third one, we will grab the last two and run. We must be swift."
Emily nodded and then had an inspiration. "Laird?" she called.
He looked at her, his expression thoughtful.
"Cait and I need a moment of privacy."
His dark brow rose, the only indication he gave that he heard her.
She felt a blush climb her cheeks. "To, you know…"
Lachlan had to bite back a smile, which was a very different reaction for him. He wondered if he should tell the women he spoke Latin as well? Not yet.
Since he knew their plan was to try to steal horses, he wasn't concerned about allowing her the moment of privacy she asked for, but he did wonder what she thought it would gain her.
"Be quick," he barked.
She jumped, nodded and turned to hurry into the bushes. Cait was right behind her.
He listened to them as they left.
"He's awfully surly, isn't he?" the Englishwoman asked.
"He's laird," Cait replied.
"And that's his excuse for rudeness? I don't know why I'm surprised. It's your brother's as well."
Mention of her husband, the Sinclair laird, irritated him and Lachlan scowled.
"They're spirited lasses, aren't they?" Drustan asked from beside him.
"That is one way to put it," Lachlan growled.
"Cait called me a horse's backside."
Drustan laughed. "I'll have her apology tonight, along with other things."
Lachlan nodded. "Be gentle with her. She's carrying."
"The Balmorals don't hurt women."
"I know that."
"They don't bed other men's wives either."
A warning growl rumbled low in Lachlan's throat. "I know that as well. But if her husband has bedded her, I'll bury my claymore. She's too damn innocent."
"And that bothers you?"
"Yes," he bit out.
"Would it be easier to keep your hands off her if she weren't, do you think?"
Lachlan had no answer. He had never anticipated wanting an Englishwoman and would sooner tear out his own throat than bed another man's wife. But he wanted this purple-eyed spitfire… enough to make his body rigid with desire and his sex ache.
"I should have left her in the forest."
"You could still leave her. The Sinclair is probably only a couple of hours behind us."
"So, leave her."
"My thoughts exactly."
"If you kill him, she would be a widow," Drustan said helpfully.
"I'm still not convinced she is a wife."