And yet here she sat, before him, his heart in her hands.
He leaned in once more and kissed her softly. He traced the hair from her face. Coarse and thick at his fingertips.
Tucking it behind her ear he said, “Come, lass. Come with me.”
He hesitated at her bedroom door. Then, holding his chest high, Scrymgeour entered. His courage was rewarded by a tremulous smile from Jean. Warmth suffused his chest, and he couldn't help but beam at her in return.
He recalled his purpose and grew somber. Their enemy was close, and he had to take her away. At once.
“I've come to see if there's aught I can do. If I might be of help packing your things… ” He couldn't help but snag his eyes in wonder at the fine edge of transparent lace that bordered her nightgown, which lay neatly folded at the foot of the bed on loan from one of his family's old trunks.
He abruptly jammed a hand in his pocket. Renegade imaginings of her creamy skin in such a gauzy delicacy was more than his male body could endure.
“Though… ” he stammered. “Though I suppose there's not much for you to bring.” He rambled on, self-consciously, “Not much you have in the world at all, is there?”
Jean turned to him, silent, her gaze locking with his. Scrymgeour realized he'd struck at the heart of it. A young woman like her should have trunks filled with finery. Not a transient life in which she relied on the charity of strangers for something so simple as a nightgown.
“Is there more you might need?” he asked. “You'll be wanting a good cloak.” He couldn't help roving his eyes the length of her, thinking there wasn't a cloak made in the world that would be bonny enough for her.
So lovely she was. And perhaps most of all because she didn't realize it. Her time in the Campbell dungeon left Jean whippet-thin, but rather than seeming gaunt, she was ever more the delicate flower, long and pale, with hair like a spill of gleaming night sky.
It was impossible for him to look at her and not be overtaken by the urge to protect her. To take Jean in his care.
“I… No,” she said. “You've shared so much with me already.”
She trembled, wavering for a moment, as if undone by his kindness.
“Oh Jean, lass.” Scrymgeour went to her side, easing her down on the edge of the bed. “All that you had has been taken from you. I never told you… I've wanted to tell you… how sorry I am. For your loss. To lose a husband so young-”
Her hands knotted in her lap. “Donald was a good man.” She looked down and added quietly, “Though he was still but a stranger to me.”
“The loss no less devastating for it,” he assured her grandly.
They sat speechless for a time. Scrymgeour considered how there was no clear place for her to turn. Many of her MacDonald clan folk had been exiled to Ireland. Though MacColla's immediate family had found safe haven on Kintyre, it wasn't their true place.
“The bloody Campbell,” he muttered. The same man had torn both her home and her husband from her. Campbell.
And now he was near.
Scrymgeour began to reach his hand out to take hers. He glanced up and his eyes were drawn to the mirror on her table. He caught sight of himself in the reflection, and the man who stared back had flesh at his belly. He saw a man with a weak chin that required reinforcement from a thick bush of brown whiskers grown about his mouth. A man with plain hair and unremarkable carriage.
The image was like a cold spill of water at his breast, and he remembered himself.
“But what if he comes for us?”
It took him a moment to register her words. It was the Campbell, of course, whom she spoke of. She'd been traumatized by her experience, and no wonder. Kidnap and imprisonment weren't something a young woman readily forgot.
“No, lass.” He used the excuse to finally take her hand in his. He gave it a slight squeeze, reluctantly let her go. “He'll not get you. Ever again.”
“But he… he was here.” She fluttered her hands, gesturing to the room around them, then abruptly brought them down to wring at her skirts as if that could still their trembling. “He took Haley.”
“Aye, there was likely a Campbell here, who took the woman. And your brother will save her, just as he saved you.”
Her gaze rose to his, tears bright in her wide brown eyes.
And Scrymgeour knew the exact moment his heart broke.
Without thinking, he took her in his arms.
Jean tensed at the inappropriate closeness. She'd yearned for this. She had been so long alone.
Scared. Deprived. Wanting for food and light for so long in Campbell's cellars. But more profoundly, she'd been deprived for so long of the feeling of protection. Of care. Of love.
She'd ached for someone's kind touch. For John's touch, most of all.
The velvet of his coat was soft at her cheek. It was dark blue, like his eyes, deeper and calmer than any loch.
She gradually relaxed. Grew aware of the thrumming of his heart beneath her hand.
His warmth spread through her. John smelled of his pipe.
Of woodsmoke and comfort.
Jean relaxed. She would let him bring her to Kintyre. But first, she would let John bring her peace.
“How did you do it?” MacColla's smile was wide as he swung his arm around her shoulder and pulled her tight. “How did you manage to clout the bearded one?”
She spied his chipped front tooth and felt an inexplicable rush of warmth in her belly. A thin triangular wedge, not immediately noticeable. She saw it and could think only that she'd kissed that mouth.
“My busk.” Haley gave him a coy smile.
“Your… what is it?”
“You know.” She patted her stomach. “From my corset.” She grabbed his hand and pulled him uphill. “Come on. I'll show you.”
Her eyes scanned the rocks all around. “Aha.” Haley bent down and picked up the buckskin – wrapped length of steel from where she'd dropped it to fire the gun. She studied it, ensuring there were no signs of blood.
MacColla stared in awe as she carefully plucked at the laces between her breasts, opening the thin pocket that held the busk in place. Then, locking eyes with him, she slid the rib back in.
“You wee wildcat!” He laughed broadly and clapped her into a sudden hug. “You are something, aye? Only you would find some use for your girl clothes as a weapon.” Shaking his head, he chuckled to himself.
“Now that you've reunited with your wee cudgel, we should be away from here.” He scanned the horizon. Loch Awe glittered, fringe d by low trees and snaking along the valley in the distance.
“I don't imagine Campbell will make the hike up,” MacColla said, as he turned to face the low mountains behind them. Peak after peak reached far beyond, back toward Inveraray. “But we can't be sure he'll not return with men who will.”
“But where are we going?” She shuffled to catch up to him in his sudden stride along the ridge. “What about Jean?”
He scanned along the hill he'd so wildly charged up, searching now for the best way back down. “I left Jean in Scrymgeour's care.”
“Oh.” She was suddenly very aware she'd been the cause of much turmoil. MacColla would've been reluctant to leave his sister. It couldn't have been an easy decision. “I'm sorry.”
“Sorry?” He stopped scanning and swung his face to her. “Och, lass, you've naught to be sorry for.” He was back by her side in two great strides. Tangling fingers through her hair, he rested his hand at her neck. “'Tis I who am the sorry one. I misjudged the Campbell. And I confess, I misjudged you. It wasn't until… Well, I didn't know. There was no way to know Campbell would be after you with as much piss and vinegar as he'd have for one of my own clan.
And for that I'm sorry.”
“Oh… ” She was silent for a moment, floored by the admission. Alasdair MacColla. She still couldn't get over it.
The Alasdair MacColla stood before her, apologizing.
“Well?” he asked with endearing vulnerability.
“Well do you accept my apology then?”
“No sorry needed.” She reached up to place her hands on his shoulders. Standing on her tiptoes, her face still couldn't reach his. “Just kiss me, MacColla.”
She felt his smile on her lips.
He pulled away. “Come, we must be off now. To Kintyre.”
He took her hand and led them diagonally down.
“Is that where you're from?” Haley asked, struggling to keep up with him while keeping her feet under her at the same time. He avoided the rockier spots in favor of a path that was coarse with brush, affording them thick hand and footholds.
“Kintyre? Och, no. Though it is traditionally Clan Donald land.”
MacColla was quiet for a moment, navigating a particularly steep spot. Once he was assured she had solid footing, he continued, “No, my father's home was on the isle of Colonsay. There lies the true land of my family, my Clan Iain Mor.”
“But I thought you were a MacDonald.”
“Aye.” He looked back at her as if she were daft. “I'm a MacDonald, and what else? And though Clan MacDonald has holdings in both Ireland and Scotland, our true land is here, on Scottish soil.”
“But… ” Haley looked perplexed, and he gave her a smile.
“But what, leannan?” Laughing, he let go her hand to give her chin a pinch. “Don't look so confounded, lass. In any event, 'tis not my family tree that needs discussing.” He raised his brows in challenge.
Taken aback, she lost her footing, and he spun to catch her. Only a short descent remained, and they made the rest of it in concentrated silence.
She'd need to tell him… something. What?
He hurtled straight down the rest of the slope, and turned to help her with her final steps.
She tried to walk on, but MacColIa stopped her, his hands on Haley's shoulders. “Who are you to be such a coveted prize for the Campbell?”