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Warrior of the highlands, p.21
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       Warrior of the Highlands, p.21

         Part #3 of Highlands series by Veronica Wolff  
Page 21

  “There's… there's sugar in here,” she exclaimed over a mouth full of biscuit.

  “Aye, lass. ” He raised his brows, bemused. “Have you not had sugar?”

  “Well, yes, I've had sugar, but” - she paused - “where does it… ?”

  “Come from? The West Indies. ” He grazed his finger playfully under her chin. “We're not so barbaric after all. ”

  “Well, Scrymgeour isn't, at least. ”

  Her comment silenced him, until she caught his eye and gave him a broad grin. A great laugh erupted from MacColla, and something clicked inside her. The sound was rich and broad, and it made Haley want to make him laugh again.

  Though he swallowed his merriment so as not to wake the entire household, he continued to watch her, a wicked light in his eye.

  The history books had it all wrong, she realized. MacColla had been painted as a destroyer, a two- dimensional savage. But before her stood a man who did only what he needed to do. His anger and thirst for revenge were borne from a place of joy and love, his ferocity the more intense for the depth of those feelings.

  Shaking his head, MacColla took an enormous bite of biscuit, holding her gaze all the while.

  Haley's mouth went dry and she swallowed hard to finish her piece. Her mind blanked, and so she simply held her hand out for seconds. “How long does this keep, anyway?” she asked, anxious to fill the silence.

  “Keep?”

  “Yeah, you know, how long will this stuff be good for? It's delicious. ”

  “'Twill last months. Aye,” he said, to her incredulous look, “and when it gets too hard, Jean just breaks it up. With a hammer like. ”

  “A hammer?” Her tone was suspicious, but he seemed completely sincere.

  “Aye, a wee mallet like. ” He stared at her a moment. “You don't seem overly acquainted with the kitchen, lass. ”

  Haley decided she needed an immediate change of topic. “So, back to Jean. ” She took a big bite, chewed for a minute, then asked, “What happened? To her husband, I mean. ”

  And it was as if some inner light that had animated MacColla snuffed out.

  “He died because of me,” he told her gravely.

  “You killed your brother-in-law?”

  “Och, no, girl. He… ” MacColla surprised H aley by leaning next to her on the butcher block. “'Twas in battle. My sword broke, and ”-

  “You broke your sword?”

  “Aye lass. ” he responded with a grim little laugh, “it happens. On the battlefield. ”

  “Mm-hm. ” She looked at him skeptically, inadvertently grazing her eyes over the thick brawn of his arms. She didn't think there could be that many six-foot-long, twohanded swords snapping on the battlefield. “So what did you do?”

  “Not what I did. What he did. Donald. That was his name. ”

  MacColla studied the biscuit in his hand, and then tossed it back in the tin. “Donald saw my sword break. Gave me his. I'd no time to think. I was in the thick of it. Leading the men. My sword broke and then a new one appeared in my hand. I'd no time to think on it. ” he added quietly.

  “He died, of course, Donald did. ” MacColla picked the halfmoon -shaped shard of biscuit back up and put it in his mouth, chewing thoughtfully.

  “My Jean. ” He shook his head. “Poor lass. What she truly wants - what she should have, aye? - is a home of her own filled with more wee ones than she can handle. Were it not for my battles…” He scrubbed his hand over his face. “I fight for the clan, aye? For Jean, in a way. But were it not for my fighting, she'd mayhap have a home somewhere, with a husband in her bed and a drove of bairns at her feet. ”

  Haley imagined having kids at her own feet. She'd never considered it before, so intent was she on her academic work. Besides, she'd always figured her brothers would surely end up with over a dozen kids among the lot of them. For the first time, she thought something like that might indeed be nice, if it were with someone you loved.

  “But you fight for family,” she said, “and it's a good fight. Without it, Jean wouldn't have a home anyway. Not really. Not with the Campbell to contend with. ”

  MacColla gave her a small smile. “Are you trying to convince me?”

  “No. I know. ” She reached to him, without thinking, gripped the tartan at his chest. “I know it's a good fight. But… ”

  “But what, lass?”

  “But… ” She looked him in the eyes. They were warm and open, and Haley marveled how much had changed in a short time. She took in the whole of him then. He'd bathed earlier, and the smell of soap clung to him, mingling with the scent of his skin, something like leather and wool and musk.

  His face was scraped clean, and the dim firelight outlined his strong jaw with a golden glow. He'd washed his hair too, she could tell from the fullness of it, resting wavy and light along his shoulders.

  Haley truly looked at the man before her, and she felt a sharp stabbing in her chest, some untold emotion splintering her heart in two.

  She belonged at home. She missed her father and mother, her brothers. Ached with the uncertainty - of what had happened, what they were doing right now, what they must think. Most of all, she wondered just how, and when, she'd be able to go back to them once more.

  And yet, she wanted to be able to stay here, with MacColla too, just a little while longer.

  He watched her, waiting with those brown eyes t hat seemed to soften now for her, and she thought that this man had changed something deep inside her. She realized, in that moment, that he mattered to her.

  Though uncertain what to say, she had the bone -deep knowledge that she needed to say something. To tell him something.

  But what, and how much?

  She knew. MacColla was to die. She knew there would be a battle, that it was in Ireland. But she didn't know why or when.

  He'd die and leave behind so many people who depended on him.

  Would she still be there when it happened? Would he leave her behind?

  Urgency stabbed her, turning the biscuit to stone in her belly.

  She wished she remembered her history. Exactly what happened, exactly when. “Just be wary of Ireland,” she told him finally.

  “Of Ireland?” He looked taken aback. “What do you know of Ireland?”

  “I know that it's… dangerous. ”

  He laughed at her. “Dangerous?”

  “I'm serious. ” She deflated, sagging against the counter at her back. “I assume you're going back there?”

  “Aye, and soon. To gather more men for the fight. ”

  “Just… ” Haley wondered how to tell this man that she could predict his future, that she knew where he'd die.

  She felt suddenly, unutterably sad. The sense that there might be something she could do nagged at hen that there was something she needed to do, but she didn't know what it was.

  “Just… please. Please be careful, MacColla. ”

  * * *

  Haley fell at once into a deep and dreamless sleep. For the first time in days, she was sated, feeling full and warm and deliciously exhausted.

  She hadn't even had the wherewithal to fully undress. Or the desire. The hideous contraption that was her corset had the ironic effect of binding her injured muscles. When Jean had first laced her into it, Haley had been nearly lightheaded with relief.

  And so, after MacColla helped her back to her room, she'd crawled right into bed, corset and all, sighing straightaway into the mound of pillows, where she slept propped comfortably upright.

  But then she was suddenly awake again. A hand was clamped over her mouth, and for a single sleep -drenched moment, Haley thought, she hoped, that MacColla had come for her in the night.

  She roused to skim the surface of wakefulness.

  MacColla. It was a relief. He'd come to take her. He wanted her, and his wanting of her made Haley recognize how much she wanted him too.

  Her body loosened at the thought. She hadn't imagined his intent the night before, sitting and drinking with him, his large hands so gentle on her back, massaging her. She remembered the accidental brushes in sensitive spots. Not accidents after all.

  Alasdair MacColla. Come for her. It suddenly seemed the only way it could be.

  But then she heard the voice. Foreign, new, more nasal than MacColla's own husky burr. “Be silent or die, bitch,” the voice hissed.

  Her eyes flew open. And then she felt the blade. Cold and hard, like that blade from so long ago. She inhaled sharply. Cold steel on her throat. It was the one thing in the world with the capacity to still her. The one thing capable of robbing her of all control. Haley felt the blade at her throat and froze like a small and weak thing.

  Calm. Think. Two men were at her bedside, and her senses instantly startled to attention. Darkness. Middle of the night.

  Hands seemed to be all over her. An impossible number of hands. Clamped over her mouth, gripping her arms, holding the knife to her throat.

  Tears spilled, as she realized what was happening. Not MacColla at all. Strangers. And she was alone, her room far from the others. Scrymgeour had been so thoughtful , placing the women in rooms such a modest and decent distance from the men's.

  And that was going to be her downfall.

  Nobody would hear her moans, the shuffling of feet. Haley would disappear in the night, with none the wiser.

  Adrenalin dumped into her veins, spiking her heartbeat to a frenzied patter. She squealed and bit down hard. She heard a whispered curse and the hand at her mouth only clamped down harder.

  Fingers tangled roughly through her hair and her body torqued awkwardly as she was dragged up and out of bed. The stiff corset that had provided her such relief twisted and jabbed into her now. Pain seared through her chest, and her terror was subsumed by a blessed wash of fury.

  Haley wriggled like a mad thing then, her screams muffled by a hand that tasted satisfyingly metallic. She'd drawn blood. The thought gave her focus, and she scrambled more frantically, but the arms only grasped tighter, pulling her hard against the solid body at her back.
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