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26.12.2018

They were closing in on the Mull of Kintyre, the scenery growing more breathtaking with eve ry step.

And Haley was freaking out. All that natural beauty was impossible to appreciate when all she could think was, in minutes, she'd meet those people most important in MacColla's life.

Just one last stretch of lush valley separated them from his family's cottage, visible in the distance, tidy and painted a cheery white amidst so much green.

She was about to meet Colkitto. The Colkitto. Now there was a dissertation topic, she thought, incredulous.

“Breathe, leannan” MacColla chuckled. “You look like a wee badger with your face screwed so. If I didn't ken better, I'd think you were in pain.”

She turned to see MacColla smiling wide at her. He might be amused, but she was not.

“Go ahead, laugh,” she snapped. “I just wish there were some way I could subject you to my family.”

A sudden twinge stabbed her throat. My family.

What would they make of MacColla? Would she ever see them again? What could she ever tell them of this experience if she did?

She realized it would no longer be a simple thing to leave. Could she turn her back on MacColla forever? And if not, would she really choose never again to see her family?

He'd changed her. Her life would never be the same. She knew she could never take another lover now that she'd been kissed by Alasdair MacColla.

“You'll be fine, lass,” he told her, mistaking the lines on her brow. He reached over and smoothed her cheek with the back of his fingers. He smiled.

His voice once again in high spirits, he added, “Though if it's Colkitto you want to win over, you might consider a wee scrap with the old man. You can show him that trick you do throwing your blade.” MacColla laughed outright then, and Haley leaned over to slap the rump of his pony.

Unfortunately that sped the beast into a grudging trot, only hastening their arrival.

The door opened as they approached. A tall woman filled the doorway. She wore a simple, ruddy-colored dress, covered by an apron from the waist down. Her head was bare, and the sun shone on her gray hair. Some streaks of black remained, marbling the tight bun at the nape of her neck.

Haley drew in her breath. “Is that your-” she began, but MacColla answered her question when he leapt to the ground and, in two great strides, had the woman swept in his arms.

“Mother,” she mumbled under her breath. Haley's mouth was set in a grim line. “Well, here goes nothing.”

She slid from the pony. Busying herself for a minute, she stretched the life back into her legs, and then, not knowing what else to do, took and held the horses' reins, standing dumbly, waiting for it to be made clear just what she should do or where she should go.

She watched avidly as MacColla's mother held his face in her hands, chattering and exclaiming in Gaelic too rapid for her to understand. Haley spared a smile for the sight of the warrior who, despite his size and ferocity, was this mother's son.

His sister ducked out of the house from behind the two of them and headed straight for Haley. Wiping her hands on her apron, Jean gave her a nod and a surprisingly open smile.

“Welcome,” she said in a muted voice. “I'm well pleased to see you. You gave my brother a fright. I'm fair certain the hounds of hell couldn't have caught him, so fast did he race from Fincharn.”

Her comment gave Haley an unexpected little jag of warmth in her chest. MacColla had raced after her.

“I knew he'd find you,” Jean added. “And I'm glad of it. I know what the Campbell is capable of,” she added quietly.

It was a grave statement, and Haley wondered at what the poor girl had undergone in the cellars of Campbell's grim tower house.

An awkward silence fell between them, then Jean appeared to brighten. “But what am I thinking of?” Taking the reins from Haley's hands, she swung them back over the ponies' heads to knot them high on their necks.

“Come with me.” She held out her hand. Mistaking the reason for Haley's anxiety, she added, “Don't fash yourself over the mounts. This is men's work. My brother manages the battles, let him tend the beasts as well.” She gave a sly smile.

Haley took her arm, and Jean gave her a reassuring pat.

“You'll be wanting to bathe. And we've a bed for you too.”

It struck Haley how much of a luxury that would be.

“You'll sleep with me,” Jean added, “but 'tis just the two of us.”

MacColla's mother was intent on her son, and just when Haley thought she'd temporarily dodged introduction, an elegant voice announced, “Don't think you've escaped me. I'd meet the lass who's got my son in such a fankle.”

She felt a firm hand on her shoulder and turned to face

Mary MacDonald. Though her warm smile put Haley at ease, it was clear her sharp eyes missed nothing.

“Oh, I… ” She wracked her mind for how it was one actually politely introduced themselves in the seventeenth century. Phrases like well-met seemed a little too Shakespearean . She finally settled on saying, “I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“Ah” – Mary raised her brows and shot a quick look at her son – “such fine English. No wonder my son tells me I'm not to speak to you in our own tongue.”

Moving her hand to Haley's cheek, Mary studied her closely. “He also says that though your father is Irish, you have the mettle of a Highland woman.” She patted her cheek as if she'd test Haley's spirit then and there.

MacColla nodded to someone in greeting, and they turned to see Scrymgeour approaching. She watched as he stole a glance at Jean, his gaze automatically drawn to her. His eyes flicked quickly away, and Haley wondered if anyone else had noticed.

The greeting he and MacColla shared was more reserved than their last had been. Haley glanced to Jean and back again, realizing that MacColla, at least, was aware of Scrymgeour's interest in her.

“What news of Gillespie have you?” MacColla asked.

Haley held her breath. She'd been so nervous about meeting his parents, she 'd forgotten that a brother would likely turn up as well. She wasn't entirely certain she was prepared for it.

“No word as yet,” Mary replied, her voice tight.

“Gillespie travels south even now,” Scrymgeour was quick to reassure her. “I'm certain we'll s ee the wayward lad any day.”

Haley was suddenly grateful for Scrymgeour's presence. He was polite, proper, and thoughtful as ever. She studied him while the men talked. Although he was just shy of what one would call stout, it wasn't his size that had initially struck her. He had a pleasant face, warm and open. Trustworthy.

She noticed Jean watching him too, and realized she wasn't the only one grateful for the man.

“As I understand it, you travel with Alasdair now.”

It took Haley a moment to register that Mary had directed the comment to her.

“ Uh, yes,” Haley said, looking to MacColla for reassurance.

“Then you'll be soon returning to your homeland,” Mary noted. “To Ireland.”

Haley felt the warmth leach from her eyes. To Ireland. She worked to keep her lips wrenched in a smile. Where he'll meet his death.

“I imagine you long to see your country again.”

“I- Yes.”

“It's been a long journey, mother.” MacColla's voice broke in, saving her. He was at Haley's side in an instant, his arm protectively at her back. “And I'm straight to the kitchen. I'd have some of whatever my sister has in the pot.”

“She's made a fine cock-a-leekie ”-

Haley heard a brief rustle from behind. MacColla's hand disappeared from her back, and she felt rather than saw him spin aside, just in time to dodge an old man leaping in to bear tackle him. Meeting air instead, the man stumbled forward, and MacColla turned to catch him before he hit the ground.

Colkitto, she presumed.

The old man stood, and showing off a mouthful of raggedteeth, bellowed with laughter.

“You're too slow for me, old man.” MacColla clapped his father on the back.

This time, he was unable to dodge the quick jab Colkitto landed on his shoulder. “I'm not dead yet, boy.” He glanced at Haley and back again, adding, “I see you're not either, eh?”

MacColla's father turned his full attention to her. “So you'd be the lass calling herself Fitzpatrick.”

Anxiety prickled the nape of her neck. She knew there was a right way to answer that question, she just wasn't surewhat that would be. She simply stated, “I am.”

“You are,” he muttered, repeating her. “Not a talkative one either, eh?” He eyed her up and down, nodding his approval, and Haley noticed MacColla stiffen out of the corner of her eye.

“Well, son, you've found yourself a bonny, rosy-cheeked

Irish lass.”

Colkitto gave her a flat stare, letting his eyes lock with hers for what felt like a very long few seconds.

Haley realized then that she'd need to do more than a knife-throwing trick to win this man over.

“They're not as feisty as the Highland lassies.” Colkitto added.

“With all due respect, sir.” Haley put her shoulders back to stand as straight as she could. “You've not yet met me.”

Colkitto exploded into laughter, exuberantly shaking his head, and slapping his approval on MacColla's back. “Not met her,” he mumbled, with another burst of laughter.

Haley wasn't sure what to think, though she figured it could've gone worse. Gathering herself, she shuddered an accidental sigh, and the tang of the sea filled her lungs. It drew her eyes, so vast and powerful, stretching serene across the horizon. Light winked over the peaks and valleys of its surface, calmly pitching and bobbing with no regard for any of her inner turmoil.

“Leannan” MacColla whispered. It had been meant for her ears alone, but she sensed Colkitto's eyes cut to her at the sound of the word. Its meaning wouldn't be lost on him. MacColla's family would know they were together. What would they think of that, of her?