The hours of endurance had given her much time to contemplate disastrous scenarios – broken ribs, a smashed spleen… Clearing her throat, she spat lightly into her palm and studied it. Clear.
Part of her feared the sun might bring to light the grisly pale pink of mingled blood. But however much her ribs might feel like ragged blades in her chest, she knew there was no way anything was broken.
She wouldn't be able to ride, or even move, if somethin g had been.
She wiped her palm on her dress, her movements slow and deliberate. In that moment, a torn something seemed no less painful to her than a broken something.
The sound of their voices gradually reemerged from the trees, coalescing into coherent snippets of conversation. Though at first their whispers had been a dense and rapidly flowing Gaelic, MacColla and Jean spoke increasingly in English.
She couldn't begin to guess who these people were or what it could mean that they spoke perfect Gaelic. Their English threw her too. It was thick and strangely accented, like no Scottish brogue she'd ever heard. Islanders, perhaps?
Just more confusing items to add to her growing list. She needed to figure out who the hell they were. At the very least, it might help her when she felt fit enough to make her escape.
Haley put her hand to her belly. Willing her diaphragm to rise, she breathed in as deeply as she could, nudging at the edges of her pain. Its acuteness had crested, dulling into something her body could reasonably handle.
“But who is she then?” he asked. “You can't be certain there wasn't another prisoner-”
“I was the only one, Alasdair.”
Bickering lovers? Haley mused about the peculiar pair, wondering how a simpering girl could inspire the love of such a commanding force as this man.
She felt another small twinge of jealousy. Where were all the suitors lining up to take care of Haley?
And where did a girl like that meet a man like him anyway? A helpless waif and a man calling himself Alasdair MacColla. Gooseflesh pebbled her skin. Why that name?
And why had they taken her?
Haley retraced her steps. She'd been contemplating a gun she'd suspected had belonged to James Graham. It was a far-fetched theory, but she couldn't deny the certainty she felt in her gut. She'd discovered a weapon that could rock history as everyone knew it. Something that would prove Graham didn't really die when the history books said he did.
And then she gets abducted by a man claiming the name of none other than Graham 's famous compatriot, the warrior
The two events had to be linked somehow.
A rival academic? Who else would speak such perfect Gaelic? She couldn't tamp down a shiver of excitement, thinking that this MacColla's interest only corroborated her theory.
Sensing him near, Haley turned, and was taken aback at his closeness. She mustered as great a dare in her gaze as she could, despite needing to tilt her chin up to meet his eyes.
He was handsome in the light, and it was off-putting. It'd been easy to imagine him as some mangy beast in the dark, with his soiled kilt and wild hair. The caricature had made him easy to size up, easy to place.
But the day had brought to light strong features. Large, brown eyes. A wide mouth. A rugged, square jaw. His thick, dark eyebrows exaggerated a high forehead. Wild hair hung loose from either side of a ragged part, coming to rest on wide shoulders.
He looked so… big. The rough weave of his shirt strained over biceps and shoulders, doing nothing to conceal the solid wall of muscle beneath. Heat surged to her cheeks, and Haley hated the traitorous and irrational response to such a conspicuous show of maleness.
To spite her own response, she forced an indifference she didn't feel, and allowed her eyes to rove the rest of him, taking in his tremendous brawn, the barrel chest and thickly knotted calves that emerged from his kilt.
Rival academic? Yeah, right. Talk about a crazy professor type.
“Do you really need to dress up like Alasdair MacColla?”
She eyed his tartan. The muted dark greens, blues, and black had seen better days. It appeared he took a left turn at the seventeenth century and didn't look back. “Don't tell me. You're a student at Brown, aren't you?”
MacColla stared blankly. “You're a wee daftie of a lass.”
“Okay, I give up.” She could play along with the crazy reenactor guy. He clearly spent his weekends tossing cabers and eating venison he'd skinned with his own hands. Talk about taking his scholarship seriously. “Why a
MacColla costume? I mean, everyone knows James Graham was the one you'd want to dress up as. He was the great hero.”
The man bristled, so she just bit back a grin and went with it. “But you, you were just kind of a sidekick, right? Graham was the handsome, smart one. Weren't you more of the brawn- not-brains variety? Although” – she scanned her eyes up and down his body – ”you do have the right look. You've got kind of a big-lug thing going on. I can't see you in the fancy velvet waistcoats.”
She met his gaze again and something looking like satisfaction played on his features. He couldn't possibly think she was checking him out, right?
“ Whatever, Mister Alasdair MacColla.” She rolled her eyes.
“Why don't you just tell me where you're taking me?”
Her mind whirred. She needed to figure out what was going on. He had to be another Celtic scholar, but what was he playing at? “Come on, tell me. What's your dissertation on?”
He'd surely seen the gun. She'd put money on it. “Look, if this is about the gun, we can claim the find together. Just let me go.”
His eyes narrowed.
That's it. He'd seen the gun, dated it, realized it belonged to Graham, and, putting two and two together, had decided to scare her out of the equation. Anyone who'd take the name of such a famous – and famously brutal – hero of old had to be all kinds of crazy with his obsessions.
Haley rubbed her side, playing up her injury. “I think I need a doctor.” Maybe that would scare him into freeing her.
Standing completely still, he simply stared, scrutinizing her.
“I won't let you have it.” she finally stated baldly.
“I take whatever I want, you wee hellcat.” He roved his eyes over her, giving his words a double meaning.
A shiver ran up her spine.
“It was my discovery,” she replied quickly. “It's mine you know. The weapon is mine.”
“I know you've no weapon. Unless you've hidden it.” Before she could dodge him, MacColla grabbed her close, reaching around and patting her on the rump to frisk her.
She let out a sharp squeal and watched as the light drained from MacColla's eyes. He abruptly let her go.
“Och.” A hiss of breath escaped him as he visibly gathered himself. “Stop with the games, lass.”
His voice grew stern. “Campbell is at our backs and I need to get Jean to safety.”
She glowered. This business about Campbell again.
“Is Robert the Bruce after us too?”
“Would that it were so,” he countered with a sudden laugh. “Now, if I have the right of it, Jean's safety is your safety. So if you've a mind to your own hide, you'll get back up on that pony and ride.”
She stared, speechless. She was going to get the hell away from them as soon as she could, of that she had no doubt.
Ride. The thought of more riding filled her with a dread so vast it felt like a physical weight in her belly.
She must've made some face, because he let out a low chuckle.
Before Haley could give him what for, MacColla surprised her by asking, “What's your name, lass?”
He was the one who'd taken her – wouldn't he know that already?
“Haley… ” she hesitated.
“I see your pain, Haley.” His tone was unnervingly gentle, his voice slowing to pronounce her name with care. “You need your wind back. If you're to ride anymore this day, we'll need to bind you.”
“But didn't you just say we had to get out of here?”
“Aye.” he smiled and cocked a brow, “I ken what I said. 'Twill take but a moment. I've no doctor at my disposal, but I myself have bound many a man.”
“I'll just bet you have,” she said under her breath, and he surprised her once more with a laugh.
“But,” he added gravely, “I 'll have your word you'll not try to claw me while I do so, my wee caile bhorb.”
The peculiar nickname caught her off guard. A wee what girl? Fierce?
A wry smile cocked her lips before she could give it a thought. Her, a wee savage. A wisp of a laugh esc aped her nostrils. Wouldn't her brothers have loved that one?
“I won't claw you,” she said grudgingly, thinking what a relief it would be to have her ribs bound.
Skeptical, he raised his brows, questioning.
“You have my word.” She was growing impatient with these suddenly amiable efforts. Who did he think he was to kidnap her, then think to bust out the burly charms? “Just get on with it, okay?”
He looked at her quizzically. Just when she thought he didn't understand what she said, the man unsheathed his dirk and, biting it between his teeth, proceeded to unbuckle, take off his belt, loosen his tartan, and drop the entire heavy swath of wool into a puddle on the ground. All he wore was an enormous shirt that reached to the middle of his thighs.
“What the ”-
The sun was approaching midafternoon now, and it cut across the valley at MacColla's back. The sharp angle lit him from behind, making the thin linen of his shirt glow with light.
It also made it see – through.
Haley gasped, seeing the size of him through the gauzy stretch of fabric. She turned away quickly, feeling her cheeks blaze red.
She told herself she'd seen a naked man before. Her first-year college boyfriend, to be precise. And it certainly hadn't been cause for any fireworks. If there was no magic to be had then, why should she shy away from the sight now?
Misunderstanding her uneasiness, he took the blade from his mouth and explained. “I'll need something to bind you, aye? Or were you of a mind to shred your own frock into ribbons?” Sticking the knife back between bared teeth, he unfurled the yards and yards of dingy plaid wool.