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Warrior of the highlands, p.32
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       Warrior of the Highlands, p.32

         Part #3 of Highlands series by Veronica Wolff  
Page 32

 

  “Come. ” He put his hand at he r shoulder to guide her into the house. His touch, warm and steady, soothed her.

  “Och no, brother. ” Jean was quick to take her elbow, a playful challenge in her eyes. “We've need for women's time now. ”

  Jean gave her arm an encouraging squeeze. “Come, then. I'll do up a bath for you. Between my mother and me, we'll get you set to rights. ”

  Set to rights meant a small snack followed by a hip bath and getting dressed in fresh clothes on loan from MacColla's mother. Though the gown was a little long, Jean masterminded a way to roll it under at the waist to cinch into her apron.

  “Your hair, lass,” Jean tsked.

  “It's not too bad… ” Haley began to protest, then caught sight of herself in the mirror. What seemed like fistfuls of coarse hair had blown free from the braid she'd tucked into a makeshift bun that morning. Dark tendrils fanned around her face like a halo. “Ugh. It's like a rat's nest. ”

  “Och, no. ” She guided Haley to sit on a small three -legged stool. Though Jean had a straight face, Haley could see humor light her eyes. “More like something fit for a wee bird. ”

  A joke, she thought. Interesting.

  MacColla's sister worked in silence, tugging a comb through Haley's hair, pausing frequently to unsnarl knots with her fingers.

  Haley caught occasional glimpses of her in the mirror. Jean seemed looser now that she was near her family. There was color in her cheeks, and an ease in the way she held herself.

  Her hair was finally completely smoothed, and Jean raked her fingers through it one last time. Haley shivered. Not only could she use a proper shampoo and conditioner, her scalp was sore from having her hair pulled back tight all day. The feel of it loose down her back was a delicious relief.

  Jean began to separate it into thick chunks for braiding, and Haley startled them both when she abruptly said, “No. ”

  They caught each other's eyes in the mirror.

  “I mean, can I please just leave it down?” Haley asked.

  “Would that be all right?”

  Jean's face went blank. She shrugged. “As you like. ”

  Haley saw the girl glance at her own hair in the mirror, and she wondered if Jean just might be fantasizing about letting her own hair down.

  Jean opened the door to leave, and MacColla was standing there, poised to knock.

  “I… ” He looked past his sister, locking his eyes at once on Haley. “I'd thought we could move the legs a bit. We've had a long ride. And the lands around Kintyre are exceeding bonny. ”

  “I… Yes. ” Haley managed. He'd washed and changed as well, and the sight of him filling the doorway, so intent on her, emptied all rational thought from her mind.

  Jean gave a small shake of her head and ducked under his arm as she went out the door.

  “Not as bonny as you, though, leannan. ” he said the moment his sister left. “You are a vision, your hair gleaming at your back like a loch in the moonlight. ”

  He insisted on showing her the coastline around the Mull of Kintyre, hiking up a small cliff for a panoramic view. Though it had been a gentle rise to the top, Haley's heart lurched to see such a sharp drop over the other si de and down to the beach below.

  The wind whipped around them, carrying with it the smell of the sea, the cries of birds, and the faraway barking of seals.

  Regretting her decision to wear it down, she held her hair knotted in one fist. Haley soon forgot t he annoyance, though, when she took in the spectacular scenery around them.

  “That would be Dunaverty,” MacColla said, following her gaze to the castle in the distance. “A MacDonald stronghold,” he added, staring solemnly at the gray and black mass perched atop a monolithic rock formation.

  Almost completely surrounded by water, the gargantuan rock looked as if it'd been dropped from the sky to land at the edge of the sea.

  A double rampart defended the fortress by land, reinforced by a trench hacked deep in the rocky soil. On the other side was a sheer drop to rocks and water.

  The sight silenced her.

  The castle had been in ruins for centuries by the time she'd been born. None in her time had ever seen it. Not even a sketch of it.

  A gust of wind howled around them, prickling Haley's skin into goose bumps.

  “But look here,” he said after a time. MacColla guided her chin but a fraction, leading her gaze into the far distance.

  “And so there it is. ” MacColla leaned down to place his cheek next to hers. He pointed across the sea, to Ireland, a ghostly silhouette on the horizon. “Your homeland. ”

  Her breath was knocked from her. “Ire - ” she began, and the wind seemed to steal the rest of the word from her mouth. Ireland. Where MacColla dies.

  “Or rather, your father's homeland,” he amended, unaware of the anguish caused by the sight.

  She struggled to inhale, struggled to shake the morbid premonitions that clung in her mind like cobwebs, setting her skin to crawling.

  Ireland. It had always been a home for her. A place of warmth and smiling faces. Peat fires, flocks of cousins, and damp, green grass.

  Riding in small, boxy cars on the wrong side of the road.

  The smell of cigarettes and petrol.

  Getting jostled in crowded pubs, a pint of Guinness in hand. Hearing her father, sounding loud so near to her side, joining other voices in song.

  “My father's homeland,” she managed, agreeing. Her words were small in the wind.

  Crossing her arms tight at her chest, Haley forced the feeling to pass.

  Her dad's homeland. MacColla was referring to her story. They'd discussed it, discussed what to tell his family. She would rightly claim Ireland as her father's homeland. It hadn't taken long for them to agree they needed to keep the rest of her tale a secret.

  All anyone needed to know was that she hailed from Ireland. That and the fact that she was Catholic would be the only points of interest to Colkitto anyhow.

  She feared the questions they'd ask. Feared living in such close quarters with strangers. True strangers, around whom she had no notion of how to act, what to say, what to do.

  “'Tis Antrim we're looking at. My MacDonald kinsmen are yonder. ” Standing behind her, MacCoIla wrapped his arms around her. They brushed just under her breasts and for a moment all conscious thought fled as she felt his body against hers, warm and shielding her from the wind.

  Loosening, she eased her hand from her hair and relaxed her arms at her chest, savoring the feel of him.

  The strong, flat belly. Thick biceps framing her arms. He'd hunched slightly, to rest his chin on her head. She felt his sporran in the small of her back and shivered to think of what lay under that kilt.

  A pure, base wanting of him suffused her. She felt this man, so powerful and steady at her back, and she was desperate to keep him close. To take him, to absorb every part of him. To have him take her.

  Most of all, to keep him from Ireland, a place she suddenly hated more than anything she'd ever known.

  But instead they would sleep apart, she with Jean in a tiny loft at the top of a rickety spiral staircase, while he and the other men bedded downstairs, on the floor in front of the fire. The only other room another loft belonged to Colkitto and his wife.

  She didn't know what was to happen between them. They'd only shared a kiss. He'd pledged such astounding words of love, startled her with his unassuming affection, and yet she didn't know what to expect. What he'd expect of her.

  “Ist,” MacCoIla whispered, and she shivered at the feel of his breath in her ear. Wrapping his arms tighter, he nodded to a spot on the cliff face below. It was just a narrow crack in the rock, but the tan sprigs of old grass and debris drew the eye. “A nest, leannan. Do you see it?”

  Haley nodded. And then her eyes adjusted. She spotted a small bobbing head, white feathers gray in the shadows. “Wait, is that a… a puffin?”

  The bird froze, turned, showcasing a beak that looked comically like a bright orange nose.

  She was waiting for his answer, wondering what the bird might be called in Gaelic, when she felt his mouth on her neck.

  His tongue was hot, trailing slow, languorous kisses along her chilled skin.

  Her body thrummed to life. Breath came short and blood pumped close to her skin. Trembling, she gave more of her weight to him.

  “Are you mine, leannan?” His voice was a harsh whisper in the suddenly still air. He seemed a wild thing. Raw. Needful.

  Haley felt expansive, with a swollen ache between her legs to match the stab of longing in her heart. She nodded wordlessly.

  “Tonight. ” He smoothed aside her hair to nibble her gently, just at the base of her neck. “I will come for you. ”

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Haley spent dinner in a silent daze. Colkitto monopolized the conversation with talk of the king, of the Campbell, of Ireland. She knew she should be listening, but she was unable to focus. Her body was the only thing that claimed her attention, pushing the concerns of her mind to the far reaches of awareness.

  MacColla's gaze flicked constantly to her, continually drawn to her as if she were his lodestone. And her skin flushed crimson with every glance.

  He was tense, his knuckles white as he held the knife at his food. And yet MacColla wasn't still. His body seemed a cocked gun. Charged, dangerous. A weapon set to detonate.

  She retired to h er room. Laid awake for hours. Waiting.

  Anxious. For him.

  Haley was nervous that Jean might awaken. Nervous he'd change his mind.

  But she heard it, long after Jean had nodded off. A light scratching on the other side of the door.

  Haley slipped silently from her bed. Her nightgown glowed eerily white in the pale moonlight. She deliberated for a moment, then pulled a woolen wrapper around her shoulders.

  Her heart was pounding as she padded to the door and cautiously pulled the latch.

  MacColla stood there , a giant in the undersized doorway. He wore the same clothes, his faded tartan and shirt. His feet were bare and silent.

  He stood unmoving, like a ghost in the darkness. His face was in shadow, the ambient moonlight picking out only select features. The bridge of his nose. The hard line of his jaw.
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