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Her Savage Scot First Three Chapters

Chapter 1

Kingdom of Dal Riada, Pictland. Spring, 843

Connor MacKenzie stifled the irrational urge to flinch as Maeve Balfour, possibly the most beautiful woman in the great hall that evening, drifted her fingers across his. He attempted without success to ignore the blatant invite in her seductive hazel eyes and instead downed his tankard of ale. God, he was tired. All he wanted was for this victory feast to end so he could fall into oblivion in his bed.

Alone.

Lies. What he wanted was to sink into Maeve’s welcoming heat, feel her arms around him and forget for a few precious moments the bloodied images imprinted in his brain.

But their liaison could no longer continue.

“You look tense, my love.” Maeve offered him a smile that during the last year had never failed to rouse his interest. Tonight was no different, except tonight everything was different. “Come to my chambers later,” she whispered as she raised her goblet to her lips. “There’s no chance of MacDougall catching us now.”

Corrosive guilt cramped his gut and strangled the heated lust that threatened to override good sense. “The man’s not cold in his grave yet, Maeve.” The hypocrisy of his words choked him. He’d held Iain MacDougall in contempt during his life. Why did death suddenly elevate his status?

He’d been a bastard to every soul he owned. His wife included.

A blush heated Maeve’s aristocratic cheeks. “Aye. And I won’t pretend despair when all that fills my heart is relief. You know how it was, Connor. He lost my respect long ago.”

“I know.” Briefly he squeezed her fingers and recalled how hard Maeve, as a young bride six years ago, had tried to win the love of her arrogant lord. How MacDougall had abused her. Had continued to fuck any female unlucky enough to catch his salacious eye. “But I saw him fall.” Saw the Norsemen behead him. No matter how much he’d despised the man, no warrior deserved such a barbaric fate. “He was still my countryman. And I failed to save him.”

Maeve studied the cut of lamb she’d barely touched before picking it up between thumb and forefinger and slinging it to the prowling dogs. “Does this change things between us?”

Appetite lost, he shoved his plate aside. The raucous laughter and jeers around the long table hammered into his brain. The stink of ale and sweat and canine drenched his senses.

The memory of Maeve in his arms haunted his twisted conscience.

“How can it not?” He glanced across the table at his half-brother Fergus who was stuffing his mouth with one hand and fondling a dull-eyed slave girl with the other. “You know it does.”

He turned to the young woman by his side, but from the corner of his eye saw Fergus stumble to his feet and drag the reluctant girl from the hall. Weary disgust roiled Connor’s stomach. There were women aplenty who’d share Fergus’ bed, yet he found more pleasure in taking those who had no rights of denial.

“Aye.” Maeve’s voice was soft, as if it were no great revelation to her. “But I hoped—I prayed—it wouldn’t.” She offered him a smile that magnified his guilt, illuminated his self-loathing. “You honored me with fidelity this last year. That’s more than my husband ever did. I can wait until you’re ready.”

Aye, he’d been faithful to his mistress. But Maeve had given him what he needed. A warm body to slake his need. Pleasing conversation to soothe his mind.

And the safety of knowing she would never—could never—demand any more from him.

He had no more he could give.

* * *

The chill night air of the keep was a welcome respite after the stuffy confines of the crowded hall. He dragged in a great breath, filling his lungs, clearing his head. Dunadd, the royal stronghold of Dal Riada, and the center of existence for its surrounding chattels and farmsteads dominated the hilltop. For three hundred years, the stronghold’s formidable ramparts had repelled enemy attacks from both the Northumbrians in the south and the Picts to the northeast. But now they faced a new invader. One who dared to stake their claim on the Scots’ islands heritage, who dared to look across the firth of Lorn to the heart of their kingdom.

Light spilled from the narrow window slits behind him, illuminating Fergus as he dropped a couple of coins into the girl’s hand and staggered back. She curled her fingers against her breast and huddled against the stone wall, making her way back toward the massive timber doors.

Then she stilled, like a rabbit sensing a predatory fox, as she became aware of Connor’s presence. Biting back a curse, he stepped away from the wall to allow her unimpeded access, but she remained frozen, obviously expecting him to take his turn with her. And even though it had been weeks since he’d lain with Maeve, the thought of slaking his pent-up lust with an intimidated slave was enough to cool any ardor that still heated his blood.

“Get back to the kitchens.” His voice was unintentionally gruff and she flinched, sinking into the shadows of the ancient stone. And who was he to tell her what to do? She’d obey her master. And if serving the warriors’ every need was her order, then she had no choice in the matter.

He waited until she scurried away before striding toward Fergus who turned and offered a welcoming leer.

“Alone, little brother? You need to learn how to enjoy life more.” He adjusted his plaid then rolled his shoulders, clearly well satisfied.

“We have different definitions of enjoyment.” Connor narrowed his eyes as he stared down from their mighty hill toward the firth and beyond, where the Isle of Iona braved the western ocean. Where the Scots had so recently beaten back the Norse invaders who cast their shadow across the outer islands like a hell-borne plague.

Fergus slapped his shoulder and attempted to pull him into a bear hug. The drunker Fergus became, the more inclined to familial intimacy he became. It didn’t mean much when Connor still bore the scars from his brother’s childhood beatings.

But, after all, Fergus was his only brother. Buried deep inside, somewhere, lay the tattered remains of his boyhood hero-worship. And it had been thirteen years since Fergus had dared lay hands on him in anger.

“If you can’t find pleasure in fucking every beautiful woman you come across, then you might as well tether your balls in another marriage.”

Connor grunted, disinclined to discuss such matters. Fergus didn’t take the hint.

“Not that a wife would keep my cock leashed.” Fergus grinned at his wit and aimed a less-than-steady punch at Connor’s chest. “But such unnatural chastity comes easily to you.” He staggered and steadied himself against Connor’s shoulder. “Tell me. How many whores have you had these last four years?”

“None.” Connor shoved his brother upright. He and Maeve had been scrupulous in their efforts to keep their affair private. Neither had wanted to arouse MacDougall’s suspicion. Not because he feared the other man’s fury, but because he had no intention of allowing such knowledge to besmirch Maeve’s reputation.

MacDougall would have dragged her naked by her hair through the filth of the middens had he discovered her infidelity. And in the challenge to avenge her honor, Connor would have run his sword through the bastard’s heart.

And marriage to the widow would have been the inevitable conclusion.

“Then it’s a wonder,” Fergus said, “how you manage to lift your sword, considering the exercise you must inflict upon your wrist in pursuit of self-gratification.”

Sometimes it was easier to agree than argue when Fergus floundered in ale-induced stupidity. Especially when Connor had no intention of enlightening him as to the error of his convictions. “Aye.”

* * *

The sharp tang of salt from the sea flavored the westerly breeze as Connor strode toward the stables the following morning. Clouds scudded across the pale-blue sky and rain threatened on the horizon, but it would take more than a spring thunderstorm to prevent him from leaving.

His hillfort in the east of Dal Riada, small as it was, had been neglected too long.

“Connor.” Ewan MacKinnon, fellow warrior, lifelong friend and the only one aware of his attachment to Maeve, hailed him from the stronghold. Connor turned, raised a hand in greeting and waited until Ewan reached his side. “The king wants to see us.”

“Do you know why?” Connor abandoned the stables to fall into step beside his friend as they returned to the stronghold. God, he hoped the king didn’t have another imminent battle plan in mind. He’d die for his king, but he’d like a short respite first. The thought of returning to the killing fields without so much as a week of peace knotted his guts.

Treacherous thoughts. Ones he would never utter. But still they polluted his mind.

Ewan shrugged and looked as grim as Connor felt. “Can’t be the Norse back already. Probably the Picts this time.”

Slaves were clearing the great hall of the remnants of the previous night’s feast, and a couple of dogs fought a bloody battle under the high table as he and Ewan passed through on their way to the king’s inner sanctum. A couple of older warriors, eyes hard, expressions of stone, emerged from the sanctum as Connor and Ewan approached. An aura of secrecy and intrigue clung to them as palpable as the mist that obscured the hilltops at dawn.

Through the open door, their king waved them in. As Connor went down on one knee and bowed his head, he knew he wouldn’t be returning this day to the place he called home. The war room vibrated with scarcely concealed anticipation.

“Connor. Ewan.” Kenneth MacAlpin, King of the Scots, flicked his hand in an impatient gesture, ordering them to rise. Four of the king’s advisers flanked him, staring at Connor and Ewan as if they were cockroaches they’d like to crush beneath their heels.

They probably would. None of them had forgotten that, until four years ago, both Connor’s and Ewan’s fathers had been MacAlpin’s most trusted of intimates. But along with so many others during that bloodied battle of ’39, their lives had been lost defending their king. And their noble positions had been filled with those less scrupulous.

The king folded his arms and leaned back against his heavy timber desk. “If we want continued success against the Norsemen, we need the Picts’ allegiance.”

Connor refrained from glancing at Ewan, but only just. Of all the things he’d expected the king to say, it hadn’t been this.

“I can’t see them deferring to a Scot.” Especially since they didn’t even formally recognize MacAlpin’s kingship of Dal Riada. “Why should they offer us their trust?”

“Wrad is dead,” the king said.

Connor waited, but it appeared MacAlpin considered that explanation enough.

“Why does the death of their high king affect us?” Ewan said, clearly as much in the dark as Connor. “Their heathen tribes will only fight among themselves again until they elevate another to the position.”

The king bared his teeth in a feral smile. “They won’t. Because in accordance with their customs of inheritance, the kingship of Fortriu now belongs to me.”

This time Connor did catch Ewan’s eye. “I can’t see the Picts agreeing without bloodshed.”

“They don’t have a choice.” The king strolled around his desk and glanced at the map that covered its surface. “My birthright is unchallenged through the bloodline of my royal mother.”

“And claiming Fortriu will secure the loyalty of all the Pictish clans?” Ewan didn’t sound convinced and Connor agreed. While there had been intermittent peace between the two peoples over the last three hundred years, trust had never taken root. And to mean anything, loyalty had to be freely given not extracted by brutality.

He caught the guarded look that passed among the king’s advisers. As if they knew how the king intended to exact such loyalty. Connor’s gaze sharpened on the king, who appeared absorbed in studying the borderlines of the seven Pictish kingdoms that swallowed up the land northeast of Dal Riada.

There was more at stake here than the claiming of a matrilineal heritage.

“Marriage will claim their loyalty.” The king finally looked up, iron purpose glinting in his eyes. “Their daughters and our warriors. And a Scot ruling the supreme kingdom uncontested.”

Aye, he could see that working. In theory. In practice he doubted the Picts would so easily give up their royal daughters. “But what if they don’t want such an alliance?”

The king tapped his finger on the map and Connor and Ewan dutifully stepped forward. “The northernmost clans are most affected by the Norse. Fidach is weak and relies on the neighboring Ce.” He jabbed his finger at the relevant clan territories. “Rex Bredei mac Lutin of Ce has at least two if not more daughters. He’s the one we need as our ally. Assure him of our undivided support against the barbaric Norsemen in return for political favor. Once we’ve secured his eldest daughter in marriage, our hold on the north strengthens.”

“Who does my liege consider worthy of such marriage?”

“A man,” the king said, “who will beget heirs without delay.”

Unease trickled along Connor’s spine at the piercing glare MacAlpin arrowed his way. Surely the king wasn’t suggesting he was to be married to this foreign princess? Connor’s ties to the king were absolute, by virtue of his heritage and personal actions.

But he didn’t possess royal blood. Why would any Pict king agree to such a union for his daughter?

“It’s a pity,” the king said, never taking his eyes from Connor, “the eldest Princess Devorgilla of Ce has a reputation as a cantankerous shrew. She’s also reclusive and, I fear, has the countenance of a belligerent hag.”

And MacAlpin expected him to impregnate her?

The king continued, apparently deriving perverse pleasure from cataloging every possible fault he could. “It’s likely her first husband welcomed death with open arms as a chance to escape her scolding tongue.”

“How old is the princess?” Ewan sounded horrified, as if convinced he might be the recipient of such a foul bedfellow.

The king gestured and one of his advisers stepped forward. “She’s no longer young. She’s been widowed many years now. But our sources reliably inform us she is not yet past childbearing.”

The information didn’t alleviate the unsavory image forming in Connor’s mind. His own lady mother was not yet past childbearing age.

“As two of my most trusted warriors,” the king said, “I charge you with the task of delivering this proposition to mac Lutin.” He held out his hand and an adviser passed him a scroll, the scarlet wax proudly displaying the elaborate royal seal. “It’s doubtful whether he can read, but he’ll recognize the authenticity of my credential.”

Connor took the proffered scroll. “If mac Lutin accepts the terms.” And of course he would accept the terms. What man wouldn’t want to rid himself of a daughter past her prime, a daughter with a reputation that would repel most suitors? A daughter who, far from spending the rest of her life as a drain on his resources, would give him legitimate reason to call on the Scots as allies in time of war? “Do you want the marriage undertaken at Ce?”

Among heathens. But since he had nothing but loyalty for his king invested in this marriage, what did it matter where the ceremony took place?

A frown slashed the king’s brow. “How the hell can it be undertaken in Ce? Your task is to win mac Lutin’s favor, secure the princess as our bride and bring the entire royal family back with you. I’ll not trust the Picts to supervise a marriage of this import.”

“The entire royal family?”

“Aye.” The king’s sharp-eyed gaze bored into him. “We’ll be celebrating more than a wedding. It will also be the ideal opportunity to discuss my coronation at Fortriu. I doubt any of the minor kings will want to miss that.”

A politically sensitive wedding, a potentially contentious coronation and obviously MacAlpin was inviting the other Pictish royal clans as witnesses. A suffocating weight compressed his lungs. Far from serving out the remainder of his days fighting for his country’s freedom and receiving comfort from the arms of an undemanding mistress, he was to become a stud for his king’s machinations.

“When do you want us to leave?” He hoped his revulsion wasn’t apparent in either his expression or voice, but the king’s eyes narrowed.

“You disapprove the plan?”

“No, my liege.” Just because he personally found it abhorrent didn’t blind him to the potential gains they could make in forging such strong connections with the mighty clan of Ce. “In principle we stand to gain a great deal by such an alliance.” And then he chanced voicing his dissent. “But I have reservations the King of Ce will accept my offer.”

Seconds passed, the air thick with distrust. Then the king’s frown faded, and he laughed, a short bark of amusement that appeared to flummox his advisers as much as Connor.

“God Almighty, boy,” the king said, flattening his palms on the map and leaning across the desk. “You didn’t think I had you in mind for this marriage, did you?”

It had been many years since anyone had dared call Connor boy without risking a bloodied nose. MacAlpin might be seventeen years his senior but that hardly qualified him to utter such term of abuse.

His status, however, gave him the authority to say whatever he wished.

Connor mentally gritted his teeth and ignored the scarcely concealed sneers crawling across the advisers’ smug faces. His king was above censure. The same couldn’t be said for the fawning minions he now surrounded himself with.

“So that was the reason for your reticence.” It wasn’t a question. It sounded like a revelation, and a welcome one at that. Connor glowered, yet instead of striking him for such insolence it only made the king laugh again. “And what of you, Ewan?” The king finally transferred his attention to the other man. “Did you think you might have been chosen for a royal bride?”

Connor didn’t have to look at his friend to know compressed anger simmered beneath his surface. He could feel it vibrating in tightly repressed waves.

“My liege,” Ewan said. It sounded as though he forced the words between gritted teeth.

The king shoved himself upright. “I have no doubt either one of you could charm even Princess Devorgilla of Ce into your bed if you so much as smiled at her. Alas, it takes more than the famed Scots charm and a hard warrior body to tempt a king to part with a daughter.” Again, amusement flared across his face. Amusement and… something else. Something so fleeting, so bizarre he had to be mistaken.

Relief?

“To hook a king, we have to offer royal blood.” Once more MacAlpin’s attention focused on Connor. “Your half-brother, Fergus.”

“Fergus?” He’d watched his brother escape matrimony countless times over the years. But no amount of charm or bargaining would release him from this duty.

His brother could be a bastard, but he didn’t deserve to be shackled to a heathen shrew. Then again, Fergus didn’t believe in fidelity. It was unlikely this marriage would change his mind.

“His mother’s connection to me through our grandfather gives him enough royal prestige.” The king let out a breath. “And by God, he’s sired enough bastards to prove his virility.”

Connor ignored the dull ache that knotted his chest at the king’s careless comment. Fergus produced bairns as easily as he changed bed partners and didn’t give a damn about any of them.

If nothing else, he would soon ensure the Pictish princess was with child.

Chapter 2

The Kingdom of Ce, Pictland

Aila, Princess Devorgilla of Ce, shivered in the early morning chill and pulled her woolen cloak more securely across her body. Once, long ago, she hadn’t needed any protection against the harsh Highland elements. But the frost that had entered her heart nine years ago had never truly thawed. And the remnants flowed through her veins, stealing any hope of warmth even on the most glorious summer day.

And although it wasn’t yet summer, today was certainly beautiful. Drun, her elderly deerhound, leaned heavily against her thigh and absently she draped an arm around his neck as she inhaled a great breath, savoring the scents of spring grass and fresh earth, her face turned toward the sun. With her eyes closed, she listened as the morning chorus of blackbird, song thrush, wren and chaffinch filled the air; the faint bleating of lambs echoed in the distance and the bark of the hunting dogs sank into her consciousness.

Familiar. Safe. Her home, where nothing fundamental had changed for more than two hundred years.

She opened her eyes and glanced into the far glen. The palace of Ce-eviot, the royal stronghold of the land of Ce, commanded an unparalleled view of the surrounding countryside. No enemy could advance unseen nor breach the mighty hill’s ramparts without detection.

Yet a faint tremor of unease fluttered through the pit of her stomach. Frowning, she turned and, shielding her eyes against the early morning sun, looked south, where in the far distance the twin mountains of the mythical Earth goddess dominated the landscape.

Nothing. What had she expected? Not only was Ce-eviot protected by its elevated position but also by the two dozen or so outlying hillforts. Their defenses were legendary. Next to Fortriu, they possessed the most impenetrable palace in Pictland.

But the strange disquiet lingered. A haunting, unwelcome sensation that reminded her of other times when such intangible intuition had attacked without warning.

Shivering, and this time not from the brisk spring breeze, she turned to make her way down the slope toward the tranquil stone monastery. As always, no matter how she tried to ignore them, her glance snagged on the nearest ancient standing stone that formed part of the massive circle surrounding the holy sanctuary. Her ancestors had used the heathen power of the stones as a conduit to the old gods. And when she was a girl so had she. The recollection of what she used to believe in, who she had once been, caused her to stumble on the uneven ground. Without thinking, she steadied herself on the immense boulder that towered three times her height, the boulder that displayed sacred carvings that predated the origins of their palace by more than two thousand years.

Instantly the comforting mountains, glens and woodlands vanished, sucked into a vicious vortex of screaming wind and howling rage. Breath choked her throat and tears stung her eyes, but she couldn’t drag her hand away from the intricate symbols etched over the entirety of the stone.

Her heart hammered and terror snaked deadly tendrils into her paralyzed brain. Why had she touched the cursed symbols? Images of slaughtered warriors slashed across her mind, crimson blood spraying, the stink of decay twisting her stomach.

Primeval warning pounded through every beat, every breath, a warning she didn’t understand, couldn’t understand, didn’t believe in.

Fiery pain catapulted through her fingers as she wrenched her hand from the stone and cradled it with her other. Such a spiteful punishment from a redundant goddess who Aila had long since discarded. Teeth clenched, she concentrated on regulating her heartbeat and calming her erratic breath, as Drun whined in sympathy and pressed his great head against her waist.

It was only a memory of the cursed Vikings. Yet the thought lacked conviction. With loathing, she glared at the serpent, symbol of the goddess Bride, as it coiled around the cauldron carved deep into the face of the boulder.

I don’t need you anymore, Bride. The thought glowed with impotent fury and smothered anguish. You failed me. What use were warnings when they came too late? What use were visions from the ancients when they did nothing but torment the living with impossible dreams? Dreams she would do anything to see fulfilled but that were now forever beyond her reach.

Bride was dead to her. Still cradling her stinging hand, Aila stamped down the slope toward the monastery, where Bride had been reincarnated as a mortal. Fallible and as such, more easily understood.

More easily tamed into the tapestry of the new religion.

Aila pushed open the timber door and entered the tranquil sanctum, but before the familiar peace could soothe her soul, a discordant thought pierced her mind.

The blood-soaked warriors had not been Vikings.

* * *

The dark stranger, his face obscured by swirling shadows, came to Aila again that night. Somewhere deep in her mind she knew this was a dream, the same way she always knew these were dreams. And, as always, she didn’t try to resist no matter how much she knew she should.

He cradled her face between his calloused palms, his touch gentle but assured. They were no longer in her bedchamber but somewhere she had never been before, not even in her previous dreams. A secluded glen, and the last rays of the setting sun turned the mountains a fiery crimson, as orange sparks glittered across the rippling surface of the nearby loch.

She flattened her hands against his naked chest and the heat from his skin warmed her in a way she had never been warm in the real world for too many years. His heart thudded beneath her palm and the vibration echoed through her blood, fanning the embers that glowed deep within her.

He trailed his fingers along the column of her throat. Erotic tingles of desire rippled over her exposed flesh, causing tremors across her shoulders and along her arms. His teeth flashed in the twilight at her reaction, but still she couldn’t see his face.

She had never seen his face in all the months he had come to her.

“Who are you?” she whispered, but the words were only in her mind because she didn’t want to know who he was. Her secret lover was but a figment of her dark pagan imagination.

In the black of night, she did not care.

Again, he smiled as if he could hear her thoughts after all. But he didn’t reply. He had never said a word and although a part of her longed to hear his voice, mostly she was relieved. Talking to a dream-lover was one step too close to the edge of madness.

Slowly he unbraided her plaits until her hair cascaded over her shoulders and covered her breasts. He slipped her gown over her arms and her hair brushed against her nipples in a tantalizing caress.

He held her hands and tugged her to the ground. The grasses were soft, like shredded silk, and as he laid her on her back, the softness embraced her as though she sank into the downiest of feathers.

As he loomed over her, his fists planted in the grass beside her shoulders and his calves scarcely touching her thighs, she speared her fingers through his black hair. But even as she pushed his hair back, hoping for a glimpse of his face, he lowered his head and drifted kisses along her throat.

She buried her fingers in his hair, cradling his head, as his lips worked their dark magic. His hot breath teased her sensitized skin and delicious quivers spiraled from wherever his mouth touched, wherever his breath grazed.

He shifted lower, keeping a whisper of distance between them, and his mouth ensnared her nipple. She gasped, reared up, but still couldn’t feel the hard ridges of his chest against her. Instead, she felt him smile against her breast, and sharp darts of pleasure arrowed straight to her core.

Restlessly she shifted. She wanted to wrap her legs around him, but he kept her trapped between his thighs. But he didn’t smother her with his hard, warrior-toned body, didn’t crowd her with his need. She couldn’t escape him, but she wasn’t his prisoner. He existed only to pleasure her, and her hands fell to his shoulders, her nails clawing his unyielding flesh.

His tongue flicked across her sensitive peak, a wondrous torture. He cupped her other breast, his thumb mimicking his tongue. She wanted to tell him to suck harder, to pinch her nipple, but the words locked in her throat.

He relinquished her breasts and they throbbed with unfulfilled need as he slid farther down her restless body. His breath singed her belly and his fingers teased her waist and hip, trailing seductive ribbons of fire across her trembling skin.

Feverishly she reached for his face. She wanted to kiss him. Kiss him properly on the mouth but he resisted her efforts as he always did. Burning frustration tore through her, but only for an instant as he lowered his head and sprinkled kisses along the seam of her thigh.

He parted her slick folds and slid a finger against her swollen clitoris. Her hands fisted in the grass, her eyes closed, but she couldn’t contain the throaty moan that escaped. He circled her sensitive bud, the pressure mounting, unbearable, his uneven breath a sensuous whisper across her damp cleft.

The tip of his tongue glided over her clit. Wet flesh, hot breath and the shocking graze of teeth caused sharp tremors of desire deep inside her. She gripped his hair and tried to pull him up, but he was as immovable as rock and his tongue continued to tease and torture without mercy.

She wanted more. The frenzied thought pounded through her mind and deep in her dream, deep in this secret world that wasn’t real, she faced the truth. She wanted him inside her.

With one last blaze of fiery orange, the sun sank behind the mountains and the grass swirled around her in myriad tiny whirlwinds. Her heart slammed against her ribs in denial, but she couldn’t hold on to her secret lover. Couldn’t hold on to the dream any longer.

The time for dreams is over.

The feminine voice floated through her mind and Aila clenched her teeth in a desperate effort to reclaim the moment, but it faded farther from her grasp with every frenzied heartbeat. Consciousness and cold reality beckoned her and biting her lip to prevent any sound from escaping, she opened her eyes.

The first pink tendrils of dawn slid through the timber shutters, illuminating the sleeping figure of her cousin beside her. Raw frustration rampaged through Aila’s blood, no matter how she tried to dampen the lust sizzling between her thighs. A scorching reminder that her wicked dreams, while already fading, affected her just as wantonly in the waking world as in that nighttime cocoon.

She clutched at the tangled bed linen and tried to regulate her erratic breathing and racing pulse. Although the details of her dream were as insubstantial as the early morning mist that gathered in Highland glens, she longed to be back in her mysterious dream-lover’s embrace.

Perhaps he would come to her again this night. His visits had become more frequent of late and although she knew it was wrong to wish for those dreams, it made no difference.

No one would ever know of them.

It’s time to awaken. The voice was inside her mind yet was surely not her thought. An eerie shiver crawled over her exposed arms and she hastily pulled her furs up to her chin. Perhaps she wasn’t as fully awake as she imagined. And then the voice whispered through her mind again, as ethereal as a half-forgotten dream. A new day awaits.

* * *

The following afternoon Aila flexed her aching fingers and stared idly through the large arched window as one of the resident peacocks strutted across the grass, displaying his magnificent feathers to his adoring harem.

Two hours earlier one of the monks, Uuen, an incurable gossip, had informed both her and her young noble students of the arrival of a band of Scots. Flanked by a dozen of their own warriors from an outlying hillfort, the Scots were now being entertained at the palace to await the king’s return.

As she watched her little sister Finella skip across the grass toward the monastery Aila’s mind drifted back to the Scots’ unexpected arrival. Doubtless it was connected to the death of King Wrad, whose demise was the cause of her father and younger brother’s absence. Did the Scots think to take advantage of the loss of their high king? To try to drive a wedge between the remaining kingdoms?

If so, they would be disappointed. The Picts learned from their mistakes. And fighting each other when their numbers were so depleted was no longer a viable option.

Finella finally reached the window and indicated, by a series of urgent hand gestures, that she wanted Aila to come outside. Aila glanced at her young charges and wished, not for the first time, that her sister displayed some talent for illumination. But Finella couldn’t draw or paint to save her skin. Her artistic skills centered on exquisite needlework and with a small smile, Aila trailed her fingertips over the elaborate threadwork of her gown.

“Dismissed,” she told her students, who heaved a collective sigh of relief. She only taught those with talent, those who showed eagerness to learn the intricacies of artistry. But if they wished to remain under her charge, she required absolute diligence from them. She stood for no foolishness during her lessons.

Stepping outside, she drew her cloak around her and watched Finella as she raced toward her, dressed in nothing more than her brightly colored gown. As always, her sister had managed to elude her appointed companions.

“Aila.” Finella spun to a halt, grabbing hold of Aila’s arm to stop herself from toppling over the peacock that ruffled his feathers in clear annoyance. “Did you hear? The Scots have arrived!”

“I heard.” She wrapped her arm around Finella’s shoulders, and they strolled toward the copse which was a good distance beyond the bronze-smith’s forge, a favorite place of hers from childhood. Drun, her faithful shadow, hobbled by her side. “And are they the hairy savages you’ve always imagined?”

“Oh no.” Finella’s green eyes widened in awestruck astonishment. “Truly the men are quite beautiful. Although they dress a little oddly and speak with a strange accent, they’re scarcely savages. Why would Mamma say such things?”

Finella took everything said to her as the literal truth. Aila smothered a sigh. Had she ever been this naive at ten? They all knew the Scots were savages and the Vikings were devils. It didn’t mean they necessarily looked any different from the most noble of Picts.

“A handsome face can hide a corrupt heart. Remember that, Finella.” And then her curiosity got the better of her. “What do they want, do you know?”

Her sister shrugged. “Mamma is not inclined to be civil since they refuse to state their business to her. They’re here to see Papa.” She glanced up. “Mamma is so irate, she plans a great feast this eve to show them.” Finella raised her eyebrows, clearly not quite understanding their mother’s logic. “Will you be there, Aila?”

“No.” Her mother didn’t need her support, not with her own mother and various visiting relations as allies. If the Scots believed they could bully the queen, they were going to be gratifyingly slaughtered this night by feminine Pictish wit.

That would be worth seeing. She’d watch from the hidden staircase.

Finella heaved a sigh. “I can’t stay. I only wanted to tell you about the Scots. I had to pretend I needed the garderobe. Mamma won’t let me out of her sight.” Her eyes widened in obvious excitement. “She’s afraid the Scots will steal me away.” The possibility didn’t appear to worry her in the least.

Aila didn’t blame their mother for her concern. What honor did foreign Scots possess? As a Princess Devorgilla of Ce, Finella always needed to be protected, within the ramparts of the palace and beyond.

“Then you should return.” She wheeled around and pointed her sister in the direction of the palace. There were many peasants who toiled at various tasks in the immediate vicinity. Aila knew Finella would come to no harm before she was once again safely within the palace walls and under the protective mantle of her ladies. But she would take no chances. She beckoned one of the men over with orders to accompany her sister back home.

Only when Finella disappeared inside did she turn and make her way toward the secluded copse tended for its vital supply of timber. None of the Picts’ round houses or forges intruded in the area. With a sigh, she sat by the edge of the nearby stream and wrapped one arm around her knees and the other around Drun.

She hoped the Scots didn’t intend on staying long after her father and brother returned. But they were not expected home for at least a week. Could she avoid their unwelcome guests for that length of time?

Drun, his head in her lap, thumped his tail on the lush grass and awareness trickled along her spine. She was no longer alone. The certainty gripped her, as tangible as the rough fur beneath her fingers.

She had been so concerned about ensuring Finella’s safety from the Scots it hadn’t occurred to her she should also consider her own. It had been years since she, as befit her status, had her every step shadowed. There was no need when she spent her days teaching in the monastery. And since none of her people would ever dare to creep upon her unawares, that left only one scenario.

Stiffening her already rigid back, she flung a haughty glance over her shoulder, a look designed to intimidate. Instead her breath caught in her throat as an eerie shiver of familiarity prickled her skin and for one dizzying second her heart ceased beating.

He stood on a ridge just a few feet from her, a huge, towering Scot, dark hair whipping across his face in the fresh breeze. A great swathe of blue, green, and black plaid wrapped around his waist and hung over his left shoulder and a broadsword was attached to his leather belt.

A foreign savage from his wild hair to his unadorned boots. And she couldn’t move a muscle to defend her territorial rights.

“Forgive me.” He spoke in Pictish and his deep voice with its beguiling accent shattered her paralysis as her eyes widened at his breach of protocol in addressing her without invitation. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Then perhaps you shouldn’t approach with such stealth.” Irritated by the way her heart refused to calm its erratic flutter, she angled her jaw in an unmistakable gesture of disdain.

He didn’t retreat. Instead he began to descend and even though he kept his distance, her heart kicked painfully against her ribs.

She was simply irked that he dared to approach her. But no matter how hard she tried to make herself believe that, she couldn’t ignore the sudden constriction in her breasts. It was unnerving, unexpected, and not entirely… unpleasant.

“I didn’t know you were here until I almost fell over you.” He shot her a disarming smile. For one unbelievable second her lips almost curved upward in response, before she remembered who he was. Who she was. And sent him a frosty glare instead.

That didn’t appear to touch him. “Do you have any objection if I join you? I could do with a few moments of quiet.”

She most certainly did object. It was bad enough he had invaded her solitude. That her treacherous body found his company enticing. Words of dismissal trembled on the tip of her tongue as, for the first time, she caught his gaze.

The words faded, forgotten. His eyes were beautiful, a strangely captivating gray that reminded her of stormy Highland skies.

Disoriented by such a fanciful notion she watched as he sat on the bank of the stream, clearly having taken her silence as acquiescence.

Did he truly not know who she was? Was that even possible? Her fingers toyed with the delicate fringe of her silken veil. Once again, she had forgotten to secure it with one of her gold circlets and the material had long since slipped from her head to drape around her shoulders. The Scot likely did not even realize she was a widow, never mind the eldest Princess Devorgilla of Ce.

Everything she believed in demanded she end this encounter instantly. But what did it matter if she stayed here for just a little longer or kept her identity from him? Never before had she come across someone—a man—who wasn’t fully aware of her rank. It might be… interesting to pretend, for a few short minutes, that she was an ordinary noblewoman.

She didn’t intend to join in any festivities her mother planned for their guests. He would never discover her deception.

Unnerved by the strange turn of her thoughts she buried her warm face in Drun’s rough fur. But even severing eye contact with the Scot didn’t serve to change her mind.

* * *

Connor watched the young woman nuzzle her dog and somehow couldn’t drag his fascinated gaze away. He’d told her the truth. He hadn’t known until a moment ago that she’d settled by the stream. But he had seen her vanish over the ridge. And had decided to follow her with the sole intention of making her acquaintance.

To hell with that. He was interested in more than mere conversation with this woman, although he wasn’t sure why. Several noblewomen had already made their interest in the Scots plain. Ewan was, even now, enjoying the delights of two eager young ladies. If all Connor wanted was a quick tumble, there was no need to seek out yet another woman—who might not even be searching for extramarital intrigue.

But even the veiled offers and sexually charged flirting of four of the queen’s ladies hadn’t managed to diminish the oppressive atmosphere of the royal household, and so he’d made his excuses and left. There would be plenty of time that evening during the feast the queen intended to hold to choose a willing bed partner.

God knew, he needed relief.

Yet for now, he’d wanted a moment of solitude. But something about this lone woman and her injured dog had snagged his interest in a way nothing had come close to in too many years.

So he had followed her, unaccountably more aroused by her cloak-swathed figure than any of the queen’s magnificently gowned ladies.

Forearm resting across his knee, he allowed his gaze to roam over her striking hair. He’d never seen anything like it before. An intriguing blend that looked dark gold from one angle and light auburn from another, loosely braided in two long plaits that fell over her shoulders. A vibrant green length of silk concealed her neck and the richly woven cloak wrapped around her body as if they were in the midst of winter instead of an unseasonably warm spring.

She was obviously of the aristocracy. And undoubtedly married, even if she didn’t wear the traditional veil over her head as the women of Dal Riada did.

But was she loyal to her husband? Or, like many noblewomen of his acquaintance, looking for illicit excitement outside the shackles of a loveless marriage?

Yet she gave him no encouragement. No sign she was aware of why he’d followed her, why he now sat beside her. Why he waited for her response.

Had he stumbled across one of the few women at Ce-eviot uninterested in enjoying a brief affair with a visiting Scot? And then she raised her head and looked at him.

Eyes as green as her silk regarded him in frank assessment, as if far from being a reticent wife she fully reciprocated his interest. His doubt vanished as a surge of lust speared through his groin.

God, he’d not been so instantly aroused by a woman since he’d been a raw youth.

“My name’s Connor MacKenzie of Dunbrae.” He offered her a half-smile, a clear indication of his interest but not too overt to startle should he, by some grievous mischance, have misread the signs. And if that was the case, he could only hope the weight of his plaid disguised his unabashed erection, since if this woman wasn’t offering what he imagined, then she’d likely swoon in horror.

Unlike his brother, he wasn’t used to seducing complete strangers. If Fergus was in his place, then this woman would be in no doubt of his intentions. And, most likely, would already be in his brother’s arms whether she was married or not.

Bizarrely, the notion irritated him. And the woman still hadn’t responded.

Neither had she looked away. Unaccountably fascinated by her open regard he stared back, noting the dark lashes that framed her exceptional eyes, the delicate features of her face, and the oddly fragile air that emanated from her heavily swathed figure.

“Aila,” she said at last. She no longer sounded aggrieved. “Of Ce.”

It was hardly an invitation to share her bed, but it was, at least, encouraging. “Do you live at the palace?” Although to his mind it was nothing but a glorified stronghold. “I didn’t see you there this afternoon.” There had been a dozen or more of the queen’s ladies, who all apparently had urgent need to be in her presence at the Scots’ arrival.

“No, I wasn’t there.” Her lips twitched. Clearly, she was fully aware of his line of thought and found amusement at her peers’ salacious curiosity. “I teach in the monastery.”

Her casual words, so unexpected, staggered him. Everyone knew the Picts held on to the old pagan ways, despite their outward show of support for Christianity. He’d seen the stone monastery and had briefly wondered at its purpose in this far-flung heathen land. Could they have been mistaken? Had the Picts abandoned their old gods in favor of the only God?

And Aila taught in their monastery? How could a woman teach in a monastery? They were sanctuaries of learning, but no matter how intelligent she was, a woman did not teach.

A thought so horrific punched through his mind that his lust instantly evaporated. Was Aila a holy bride? Wedded to the church? Had he been contemplating seducing a virgin of the Lord?

Then she smiled at him, and it wasn’t the smile of a woman who had turned her back on the world of earthly pleasures. It illuminated her pale face, caused her eyes to sparkle with secret mirth. As if she had guessed his trail of thoughts and found them amusing.

He wished he could say the same. Her smile caused his blood to heat with renewed lust, and unwarranted anticipation thundered through him. But he still couldn’t straighten out in his mind the thought of a noblewoman teaching in a monastery. And he certainly couldn’t wrap his brain around the possibility that she was a bride of Christ.

“And your husband doesn’t object?” It was blunt. But at least it would clear up his confusion. Because no matter how desirable Aila of Ce was, he wouldn’t risk his immortal soul if she was, indeed, beyond the touch of any mortal man. Even if his damn cock had other ideas.

Her lashes swept down, hiding her eyes and the dog whined, nudging his great head against her waist. Again, her hair captured his attention and he imagined loosening the shining tresses from their bindings, spearing his fingers through the auburn-gold silk, and burying his shaft in her welcoming warmth.

He stealthily shifted on the uncomfortable ground. But his erection refused to diminish. Hell beckoned if Aila was, after all, wedded to the church.

And this time he wasn’t thinking only of his immortal soul.

“My husband died nine years ago.” There was a quiet pride to her voice and acidic disappointment seared his gut.

A widow. It made no difference, now, whether Aila returned his interest. He would as soon take an untouched maid to his bed as he would a widow, for either would expect more from him than he could give.

“I’m sorry for your loss.” More than she would ever know. But as she gazed toward the copse, he couldn’t help another glance. Couldn’t help but admire the delicate profile of her face. Couldn’t help but think she had been widowed while still a bride.

Why hadn’t her king arranged for a suitable remarriage? No Scotswoman of noble blood would be left unattached. It was unthinkable.

The Picts couldn’t be that indifferent to the security of their warriors’ widows. Or was that why she worked in the monastery? Because she had to earn her keep?

Chapter 3

Aila risked darting the silent Scot a glance. He was staring into the trees, seemingly lost in thought, a frown darkening his brow.

Her breath quickened as she dragged her heated gaze over his profile. He was too far away for her to reach out and touch, yet he was physically closer to her than any man, aside from her own kin, had been in nine years.

A savage Scot he might be, but he had been touched by the ancient gods when it came to beauty. Hair so black it reminded her of a raven’s wing, and although it was shorter than that of Pictish men—barely reaching his shoulders—the wind-tangled mass fascinated her.

Her fingers tightened in Drun’s fur as the outrageous notion of sliding those same fingers through the Scot’s—through Connor’s—hair whispered through her mind. And instead of strangling the thought in its infancy, she lingered over it, savoring the novel sensation. The realization that, unbelievably, the thought of touching another man no longer sent waves of revulsion plundering through her heart.

Acidic guilt speared through her, an ancient pain she’d lived with for more than a third of her life, yet now clouded by the passage of so many years. Involuntarily she sought the comforting weight of her cross. Was it so wrong to find another man intriguing? Connor would be gone soon. She would never see him again. Why shouldn’t she have a little fun while he remained? Practice her long unused skills of flirtation on him? At least he, unlike her shadowy dream-lover, would respond.

She clawed through her mind, trying to find a subject to engage his interest. At fifteen she’d had no problem talking to anyone, male or female, whatever their rank. For a second her younger self mocked her for the reclusive woman she had become. For the woman who couldn’t find a single thing to say to the man by her side.

The man who appeared more than content to remain staring into the copse. Had she misunderstood the heat of appreciation in his voice when he’d spoken to her? The gleam of approval in his eyes? Connor had told her he’d wanted quiet and she hadn’t believed him. But perhaps he’d told her the truth? Because he certainly gave the impression of a man wishing for nothing but his own company now.

The breeze rustled through the grass. If he wanted to be alone then he could leave. This was her special place and if she wished to talk—then she would. She drew in a quick breath and fancied she caught an elusive hint of wild Scot warrior on the breeze.

“How long are you staying in Ce?”

He turned to her and again she was entranced by his stormy eyes. The frown vanished and a half-smile tugged at his lips as if far from wishing to be alone he had only been waiting for her to resume the conversation.

Perhaps that was it. He’d offered his condolences on the death of her husband and had then assumed she no longer wished for his intrusion.

And up until this moment, that was exactly how she always felt.

“Until our business with your king is concluded.”

She dearly wanted to know what his business was, but if he refused to confide in her mother, the queen, he certainly wouldn’t confide in her—a woman whose rank he was entirely oblivious to.

No matter. Her father would tell them both upon his return.

“I hope,” she said, feeling daring and lightheaded and inexcusably young again, “you’re not here to provoke war, Connor.” How easily his name slipped from her tongue. How easy it was to slip back into the meaningless banter she’d so enjoyed before her premature widowhood.

His eyes crinkled, as if he found her banter equally enjoyable. “War is the last thing on my mind, Aila.” She liked the way he said her name in his strange accent. He made her name sound exotic—foreign. She tried without success to ignore the delicious tremors that quivered through her and spilled, like magical stardust, into her bloodstream. But it was hard to remember why such feelings were wrong when his deep voice, hypnotic eyes, and irresistible smile made her feel so right.

Had Scots always been so disarming in their manner? She’d been a child, younger than Finella, the last time any had visited Ce. And then the encounter between their two peoples had been anything but amicable.

“What is on your mind, then?” Reckless. What was she saying? But how exhilarating it felt to flirt with danger, to tease with words and a glance. Until this moment, she hadn’t even realized how much she’d missed such amusing interaction with a delectable-looking man.

Her ever-present guilt streaked through her heart. Reminding her that she was alive, and while she might no longer deserve death, she certainly didn’t deserve a second chance at happiness.

And for the second time that afternoon, she smothered the guilt. Time enough to repent for her moments of pleasure after Connor had left Ce.

For the first time in nine years, she was looking at a man who was looking at her with desire in his eyes. She knew her behavior was unforgivable. She should declare her status and shatter this enchanting spell, but the words lodged in her throat.

Because the truth was, she wanted to hear him say he desired her. Wanted unbiased proof that someone—a stranger—could look at her and see the woman beneath this chilly facade, the woman who yearned to live once more.

“What’s on my mind?” He repeated her question and the breath stilled in her breast as anticipation scrambled through her stomach. This was madness. She was behaving like a thirteen-year-old maid, yet she couldn’t help herself.

“Yes.” Was that really her voice? He would think her shameless. And she didn’t care. She had not enjoyed herself so much since—she couldn’t even recall.

Connor offered her a smile that looked more pained than passionate. “I’m wondering what it is you do in the monastery, Aila.”

She continued to stare at him until the meaning of his words lodged into her brain with the force of a newly crafted arrow. Heat rose in her cheeks, a humiliating burn that radiated throughout the rest of her body.

She had misinterpreted his interest. Mortification paralyzed her and the overwhelming desire to flee flooded her senses.

But she was a princess. With grim determination, she remained motionless, desperate not to show how badly her error had shaken her confidence. Pride, forged through countless generations and refined to an art form during the last few years, surged through her. Rescuing her and preventing any from seeing even a hint of her true thoughts.

Thoughts she had no right harboring in the first place. But that knowledge did nothing to soothe her wounded feelings.

“I’m an artist.” He would never guess the wretched turmoil beneath her calm facade. Obviously, she had been too long on her own, ensconced within the familiar love of her family, to judge with any accuracy a man’s intent.

While her mind imagined they had played a double-edged game of words, Connor had imagined no such thing.

* * *

Connor saw the fiery blush sweep her pale cheeks before it faded just as rapidly. It was the only indication she gave of understanding, in humiliating detail, the reason for his tactical withdrawal.

If he had any sense of honor, he’d make some godforsaken excuse and leave. They both knew attraction sizzled between them. Both knew that, up until mere minutes ago, he would have acted on that attraction had she given him the slightest encouragement.

She had. And he, with as much finesse as a blundering ox, had retreated.

His arse remained rooted to the ground, as his gaze remained fixed on her averted face. And his cock, damn it, refused to accept she was forbidden fruit by virtue of her widowed status.

“An artist?” Why was he prolonging this torture? It was clear she wished him gone. Any woman would wish him gone after having rebuked so gentle an advance. He should seek out one of the married women in the palace, one whose warrior husband accompanied their king, and slake the fire in his blood. The lust-fueled fire that was blinding his good sense when it came to Aila.

She looked at him and inclined her head in a regal manner.

“An illuminator, to be precise.” There was no residual hint of breathlessness in her voice. No censure. She was coolly polite, as if the libidinous undercurrents of their previous conversation had existed only in his lascivious mind.

Her cloak slid down her arms to pool around her waist and her vibrant emerald gown exposed her slender frame. Without her protective cloak, the extent of her fragility was potently obvious. She looked as though one robust gust of the famed Highland wind could sweep her away.

Something tightened in his gut. Linked to the lust that still seethed through his blood and yet, somehow, apart.

He ignored it. With more success than he managed to ignore his cursed erection.

“An illuminator?” Mentally he cringed. Was he condemned to repeat every word she uttered? But not only was he finding it difficult to concentrate on her side of the conversation, what he did manage to focus on didn’t make sense.

Women, to his knowledge, simply did not undertake the craft of illumination. Clearly, they were at cross-purposes.

She offered him a tight smile that didn’t reach her eyes. Her stunning green eyes, that no longer sparkled with mirth.

“My husband taught me the art while I was still a child. I do what I can to ensure the memory of his many achievements lives on.”

He watched her as she absently caressed the dog, as her disinterested gaze shifted from him and focused on the trees on the far side of the stream.

Not for the first time her words confused him. Had she not been married to a warrior? The thought gnawed at him. It was scarcely comprehensible. She was of noble blood. She would, undoubtedly, have married one of similar status.

The art of illumination was a craft held sacred by learned monks. How, then, had she ended up with a man of the church? He’d heard of such couplings where husband and wife regarded each other as brother and sister. A marriage devoid of earthly passion, dedicated to the worship of pure, spiritual love.

Not only was she widowed, she was probably a virgin widow. Double the reason to make good his escape. Yet he remained, unable to tear his fascinated gaze from her.

“And you teach others this craft?” But why did she teach? And again, he couldn’t imagine why her father or king hadn’t arranged a more suitable second marriage for her.

Once more she inclined her head. As if she were a queen and he a lowly subject undeserving of verbal response.

It was glaringly obvious she wished him to leave. His gaze dropped to the dog, who was staring at him with glazed brown eyes. It began to slowly thump its tail on the ground, fully aware of Connor’s regard.

Aila gave a scarcely smothered sigh and flattened her hand on the dog’s head, clearly willing it to be still.

“Time to go, Drun,” she said and as the dog laboriously raised its great head and struggled to its feet, he rose and went toward her.

She stared at his proffered hand as if he offered her a writhing snake. After another second’s hesitation, she gripped the gaping edges of her cloak together in one hand and placed her other in his.

Her hand was small, fine-boned, her fingers slender and faintly stained by the tools of her trade. But as her skin brushed his palm, awareness sizzled in his blood and thundered through his chest. As if, instead of a touch as light as a butterfly, she had wrapped her naked body around him and knocked him forcefully to the ground.

Slowly he curled his fingers around hers. Never had his hand so utterly dwarfed that of a woman. His sun-darkened skin stood out in stark relief against the paleness of hers as though she rarely ventured into the outside world, never mind spent any time enjoying the warmth of the sun.

He risked glancing at her face as with utmost care he pulled her to her feet, but her lashes were lowered, shielding her eyes. She clasped her cloak about her at her breast and appeared not in the least affected by their touch.

“Thank you.” Her voice was cool as she withdrew her hand, and he flexed his fingers, trying to eradicate the lingering awareness that clung to his flesh.

“With your leave, I’ll escort you back.” Aye, because it made perfect sense to spend as much time as he could in the company of this woman. A woman who was not only out of bounds for a brief sexual fling but happened to arouse him to agonizing heights with the slightest touch of her hand.

She didn’t even glance at him. “As you wish.”

He stared at her retreating back as she made her way up the gentle slope. As dismissals went, it was blatantly clear. Why then was he compelled to follow her? After all, he was the one who no longer wished to continue with a liaison. Wasn’t he?

It was a good question, but he couldn’t answer it. And instead of turning in the opposite direction, which was the logical course of action, within a few strides he was by her side.

She shot him an oddly furtive glance. The confusion in her eyes, in that one fleeting second as their gazes meshed, sliced into him like a blade. It was obvious she found his continued presence inexplicable.

That made two of them. It wasn’t as if he enjoyed self-torture.

The silence screamed between them. He might not be a seasoned seducer of women, but he’d never been tongue-tied around one. He might have been thirteen years old again, and in the presence of a temptress from one of his night fevered fantasies.

Breath hissed between his teeth. Never had his fantasies involved a virgin widow. He’d be damned if he’d start now.

“Hey, boy.” He offered his fingers for the dog to sniff. Aila shot him another glance, but there was no confusion in her look this time. It was clearly disapproving. He ignored her obvious wish for him to remain mute. “He’s a great age for a deerhound.” He’d never seen a dog with so much gray fur and rubbed the creature behind his ears.

“Drun is eleven.” Aila glanced at his hand and frowned, clearly wishing Drun might savage him. “I’ve had him since he was eight weeks old.”

“And no doubt he was a great hunter until he retired.” He glanced at the dog’s ungainly back leg. It looked as if it had been broken in several places.

Aila sighed and one arm escaped her cloak to wrap with loving protection around the dog’s neck.

“He would have been the best.” She could have been speaking of a favored child, such was the heartbreaking pride in her voice. “But he was never given the chance.” She stopped walking and kissed the top of the dog’s head. “Were you, my love?” Her voice was soft, gentle, as though she spoke not to an animal but to her beloved.

With a stab of unease, he recalled how Maeve used to call him my love. And immediately wondered how it would feel to have Aila look at him with desire in her eyes, to hear her whisper those words as he held her in his arms.

This was madness. She had looked at him with desire. And he’d rejected her. He wasn’t so arrogant as to assume she would offer herself a second time. And even if she did, it would make no difference.

He only had liaisons with married women.

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