“Alasdair!” the other woman screeched.
The attackers' attention momentary faltered, and Haley saw her opportunity.
The one choking him then.
Haley was crouched in the grass, clinging tight to her stone, its sharp point jutting from her fist like an arrowhead. She sprang, landing with a thud on th e man's back, wrapping one arm tight around his neck as she brought her other down hard, slamming the rock into his temple.
“Alasdair!” the other woman screamed again, this time with a sound like hope in her voice.
She loves him.
Haley didn't have a moment to contemplate the import of that last thought. She felt the ground whooshing from the balls of her feet as the man bobbled to standing and began to thrash her arms with fierce blows.
Haley threw down her rock and hung on to her attacker, trying despe rately to gouge his eyes, wrapping her legs around his waist to slam her heels down at his groin.
Alasdair had recovered quickly and was locked in a hand-to-hand battle with the one who'd been kneeling over him. Fragments of his fight pierced her consciousness. The whistle of steel slashing down to his neck. His left arm jutting over, catching his enemy's blade arm. His right swinging up, cracking the man's arm at the elbow. A grotesque wet snap sounded, and the blade flew to the ground.
The man Haley rode spun and slammed her hard to the ground. Her breath came out in a sharp squeal, and she forgot Alasdair. The man turned, pinning her, yet the only thought she could spare was the desperate desire to pull air into her lungs.
Something very wrong had happened to her ribs. The man over her seemed merely a nuisance now; pure bodily survival had become the far more acute crisis. She fought to breathe, feeling as if each inhale sucked shards of glass into her chest.
Time slowed. Darkness nagged at her, as Haley came to, then went dim, and then roused once again. And still the man was over her, until it seemed he'd always been over her, trapping her hands, grabbing at her breasts, fumbling his knees between her own.
And then, suddenly, he was gone. He'd just disappeared from over her, as if more than merely pulled away, the man had simply been eradicated from being.
She lay in the grass panting shallowly, each breath a shocking, nauseating stab. Haley brought a trembling hand up, wiping cold tears and warm snot from her face. The movement was fresh agony.
Ribs. She fought to dampen the fresh spike of adrenalin.
Something was gravely wrong. Broken?
She tuned her senses outward. What was happening?
She tried to slow her breathing and her teeth ground together, biting through the shrill keening that escaped her with each exhale.
Can't breathe. A fresh spill of tears was hot on her cheeks.
She tried moving. Was able to shift, ever so slightly. Not broken. Fresh nausea roiled through her, and she parted her lips to breathe through clenched teeth. Something…torn.
A dull scuffling sounded at her feet. Clipped grunts. And then silence.
Haley braced, wondering if she had any fight left in her, fearing more than anything the resignation that beckoned. She didn't have to find out what had happened, where she was or with whom, when darkness was teasing her with such promise of stillness and peace.
There was movement again. She stiffened, readying herself for the inevitable.
But the hands that picked her up were gentle. She hated the whimper of pain that escaped her.
It was the black- haired man, his face close in the moonlight. And this time his eyes were soft as he looked at her.
“Alasdair… ” Her voice was hoarse, his name neither a question nor an address on her tongue.
“Aye. I am called MacColla.”
Her eyes shot open to gawk at this man who had taken then left her, only to turn around and save her. A fierce savage of a man.
A man who claimed the same name as a hero of old.
Delusions about Alasdair MacColla? Haley's dissertation must be getting to her, thinking she'd somehow landed in old Scotland with James Graham's friend MacColla. Either that or she'd injured more than just her ribs. She blinked her eyes shut tight to expel the thought.
“Should we… should we leave her?” Jean's hushed voice washed over Haley where she lay, dazed, in the grass.
MacColla had somehow gotten his hands on two ponies, and they'd ridden hard through the night, with Haley doubled up in front of him.
When he finally stopped at dawn. Haley had slid gratefully to the ground, hand clutched tight to her side. She was hungry and she was dying of thirst, but all she could do for the moment was lie there.
Rather than feeling open and wide above, the sky seemed to press down on her, gradually lightening but never warming beyond monochromatic shades of gun -metal. Damp seeped into the fabric of her dress, its chill clutching her, snaking up and around her aching sides like an embrace from the grave. Her toes had lost feeling, and the mud-soaked leather of her boots shrank tight over her feet.
Still, these seemed like quaint discomforts compared to the agony she felt with each breath. Haley was relieved simply to lie there, momentarily lightening her body's pull on her rib cage. Curling into her pain, she was able to find the space in her torso for more than just shallow panting.
“Truly, Alasdair, we'll travel faster if ”-
“I can hear you.” Haley said to nobody in particular.
“Wheesht” He silenced her like a child. “Hush, Jean. The lass goes with us.”
Travel faster if… you leave me? That's right, girlie. Please do leave me.
Haley shut her eyes tight. If only.
She needed to get away from these people, but with such pain in her ribs, she'd never be able to outrun the man.
“Your rest is over.” His voice was close. She opened her eyes to see him standing above her. “Are you ready?”
“You sure are pushing hard.”
“Campbell won't rest. Nor will I.”
“Aren't you a charmer?” she mumbled.
She ignored his outstretched hand, and MacColla made a small grunting sound. Three quick pants of air and she sat up on a sharp exhale, biting back a groan. She struggled to her knees, then her feet, and made her way to the horses.
She studied them in the morning light. They were stout little beasts, one with a mane and tail so black, they seemed dyed compared to the lighter dun of its coat. The other was a shade of gray to match the drab sky.
“Where'd you get these nags anyway?” She rubbed her backside, dreading another minute of riding. Haley looked around, desperately trying to place where they could be. “I sure hope some Choate girl isn't missing her prized ponies.”
“If you can jest, you can ride.” he said, sweeping her up and onto the saddle.
It was the creak of leather beneath her that silenced Haley. She realized that even their horse was tacked up in period garb, with such an archaic saddle. As each step took them impossibly farther from civilization, she wondered what messed-up fantasy these two were reenacting.
Or what kind of nut job would pretend to be Alasdair MacColla. Haley glanced down at the thickly muscled legs jutting from behind her. The man sure was dressed for the part. He even had the six-foot long, two-handed sword MacColla was known for; one just like it had been tucked and waiting for him in a copse not far from that weird castle.
“Too bad,” she muttered. “If you were the real MacColla, you could probably tell me if James Graham were still alive.”
She felt the man grow still at her back.
“What did you say?” His voice was a menacing whisper in her ear.
Not the thing to say, apparently. “Nothing ,” she replied quickly, thinking she might not know what they were about, but she did know that these two were dead serious about their little performance.
Anxiety curdled her stomach as much as her pain did now, wondering where they were taking her, and whether she'd be ready to fight, then flee, when the time was right.
As the hours passed, Haley tried to formulate a plan. She studied every hill and valley as they rode, thinking surely they'd soon approach a town.
She'd at first tried to track their movements, but found it impossible to place where they could be. It was odd she hadn't seen any signs of life. No cars – not even any real roads, for that matter. They must've taken her some ways out of Boston. She knew parts of Massachusetts were quite rural, but she'd never understood just how extensive it was.
The sky grew brighter, and she was able to see the land around her more clearly now. It was strangely barren. The countryside just around Brimfield?
Making as if to stretch, she craned her neck to take in the endless stretch of land behind them.
No. Not even close.
She'd made that drive along the Mass Pike before, cutting through gently rolling hills whose charming farms were nowhere to be seen here.
Shifting made her realize just how stiff she was. Each step of the pony's short gait was agony. Though she refused to admit exhaustion to her captors, Haley was desperate to stop.
“Alasdair?” Though the girl's whisper was meek, it shattered what had been a slow and silent slog through the countryside.
“Jean.” There was a warning in his voice that piqued
“But I must,” she whispered.
Finally. Haley chuckled low, thinking the girl probably needed to pee as badly as she did.
“Jean, can you not make it a wee spot longer? There will be Campbells surely riding in our wake. I must get you to safety. And then I've a mind to turn about and have a taste of their anger without two lasses to h old me back.”
“Och, fine.” MacColla pulled the pony to an abrupt halt.
“We break, but just for a moment, aye?”
They dismounted, and she watched as the man escorted his companion to a small thicket. Haley sneered. Of course the girl was incapable of walking the thirty yards into the trees to do her business alone.
Haley took care of herself, then sank gratefully to the grass to take inventory of her various aches and pains, noting all those parts growing numb from the damp and cold. She shifted, nudging away from a stone jabbing sharp into her backside.