Scottish Highlands, 1410
Euan Brodie hauled on the sail and fought the wind as if his life depended on it. His did—his and his crew’s.
They were nearing home. Though the Moray Firth was in a fine temper, he thought they could make port before nightfall. Then the wind shifted and began to howl, driving them northward, away from safe harbor. By staying out so late, they’d made a mistake—perhaps a fatal one. The fishing had been good, and they’d hoped to bring the joy of full bellies to their families. In this storm, they’d be the most fortunate of men to get home at all.
Wind whipped the sail, and rough rigging tore through his hands, stripping flesh he could not feel. Icy water sprayed over the Tangie’s bow as she fought her way into a swell toward the nearer shore.
“We’re no’ going to make it!” Eduard shouted, frustration pitching his voice high and ragged.
Euan grimaced as the others gaped, wide-eyed, at the normally steady first mate.
“Aye, we are,” he insisted, commanding their attention and forcing confidence into his tone despite having to shout into a howling storm. They had to make it. Had to. “Haul that sheet tight and hang on. We’ll soon reach the shore break. The tide will do the rest for us, and we’ll take down the bloody sail.”
Suddenly, lightning cracked, deafening Euan even over the tumult of the storm. He turned his head away as the freshening squall blew icy pellets into his face. Almost there. If they could hang on a few more minutes, they’d beach the Tangie and be safe until the storm blew itself out.
The wind shifted suddenly, from south to east. Too fast to save her, the Tangie heeled over, dipping the edge of the sail into the firth. It was more than she could take. For a moment, she lifted and hung, trying to roll herself upright, icy seawater dripping from the canvas. Euan shouted for the men to throw their weight to the high side, hoping to right her, but it was too little, too late. The wind gusted again, and the Tangie settled onto her low side, her pale sail a phantom carpet on the surface of the choppy sea.
Euan dangled for a moment from the rope in his hands, hearing the others cry out as the tide took the ship and pushed them shoreward. They should reach the shallows soon, he realized.
“Swim away!” he shouted and let go of the rope, sliding down the deck and into the icy water. He came up spluttering between the deck and the sail, the canvas now slowing sinking as rough seas sloshed over its surface. It would pull the Tangie down, and suck the men with it if they didna get clear. The others still hung from the upper side, frozen with indecision. “Dinna get caught under the sail!”
He swam for clear water. Once he was out of danger from his vessel, he searched the surface for his men. “Eduard! Dugal! Calum! Can ye hear me? James, where are ye, lad? Swim, ye fools!” A barrel floated nearby. He forced his numb fingers around the ends and hung on, the icy water making his body feel leaden. It seemed like hours while he searched the roiling surface and waited for an answering shout, but he knew it was only minutes. The crashing surf and cracks of splintering wood were all he heard as waves shoved the Tangie onto rocks. The men, and young James, barely twelve winters old, were gone.
With a heavy heart, he let go of the barrel and fought his way toward shore. He could let the waves push the barrel, and him with it, but if he lost consciousness from the cold, he’d sink below the surface and never be seen again. Better to swim. Though his mind was muzzy, he could recall an old sailor telling him the effort would warm him and might save his life. Waves crashed all around him, threatening to pull him under and keep him there. He gasped for air every time his head broke the surface, concentrated on moving arms and legs leaden with cold, and kept going. Eventually, something hard scraped his knees and he shook his head to clear his eyes of saltwater. The rocky beach beckoned, mere yards ahead. Somehow, he got his feet under him, but couldn’t stay on them in the pounding waves, so he let the surf push him shoreward and fought against the undertow threatening to tug him away. In moments the waves propelled him onto a gritty beach. He dug in his elbows and crawled out of the water.
He lay there, panting, gripping pebbles and coarse sand in both hands, then gathered the last vestiges of strength in his frozen body and hauled himself to his feet. Shuddering, he swore through chattering teeth, too tense with cold to summon the howl of rage and despair he wanted to unleash. The Tangie’s sailing days were done. She was gone, sunk below the angry sea—a loss Brodie could scarce afford. He’d wrecked the first ship he’d been allowed to captain, and likely killed the crew. One more thing gone wrong in his life, the latest—and worst—in a long list.
He should have gone down with them.
Rolling waves and sheets of wind-driven rain confounded him, but he refused to accept that his men and young James were gone as well. He called, again and again until his throat was raw. Nothing answered but the shrieking wind and the crash of waves. He was alone, half-drowned, in enemy territory.
Muireall Munro came awake to the sound of men shouting. She rubbed sleep from her eyes and rolled from her cot with a yawn. Disappointment nearly sent her back again. These were excited shouts, not battle cries, so this was not the rescue she prayed for.
She recognized the voices of some of the men from the Ross village. Donas, the chief, for one, and Teague, who had forced her fellow captive, Tira into marriage on the trip back to Ross from Munro.
Curious, Muireall threw her cloak around her shoulders and stepped outside the small cot she once shared with the other Munro captive, her friend Ella, but now had to herself. The pale pearl glow of early morning did not yet reveal the men, but she could hear them coming up the path from the cove.
Muireall joined the other women already gathered nearby as the chief’s wife, Silas, spoke.
“I’ve nay idea,” Silas was saying as her husband crested the hill with Teague, both soaked through. Between them, they carried hewn lumber.
“Shipwreck!” Donas announced, grinning. “We dragged as much as we could get to onshore. The incoming tide will carry more onto the beach during the day.”
Thomas, who had recently taken Ella as his wife, arrived on their heels with others carrying loops of rope. “There’s plenty more o’ this, too heavy to carry. We’ll leave it below to dry out for a day or two. Sailcloth, as well.”
“And the sailors?” That from sweet Ella, answered quickly with hoots and laughter.
“Looking for a new man, are ye?” Silas asked with a grin. “Have ye worn out puir Thomas already?”
“Nay, but…” Ella blushed and dropped her gaze to her feet.
Muireall cringed, embarrassed for her friend by the coarse comments directed at her.
“Nay men,” Thomas spat with a frown at his pretty new wife. “Must be dead.”
Muireall hid a shudder. Had she been cursed with the kind of beauty Ella possessed, she might be the unlucky one under Thomas every night. As it was, no Ross had chosen her—yet. They awaited her next moonblood, to prove she carried no other man’s babe before one of them got about putting theirs in her. If she’d counted correctly, she didn’t have much longer to wait before she bled again. Then she’d be doomed.
“Bodies’ll wash ashore in a day or two,” Donas interjected, “and we’ll see if they’ve got anything of value on them.”
Muireall gave a grim nod to that pronouncement. Aye, they would. She’d heard these men boast around the evening fires about what they’d done when unpredictable winter storms pushed an unwary ship their way. There might be coin, or leather goods, even weapons worth the salvage, along with the ship itself, or what was left of it, not lying on the bottom of the sea.
“Come on, lasses, let’s see what the lads missed,” Silas ordered. Wed to their chief, her word was as much law as his. The women would look for food, crates of fish, metal implements—anything useful in the village, while the men focused on the ship, weapons, and dealing with survivors. Allies got escorted to the village. Enemies went back into the sea, throats cut for being foolish enough to live through a shipwreck onto Donas Ross’s land.
Muireall’s neck prickled at the thought of desperate strangers on the beach below, but Thomas had said there were none, so the women would be safe enough heading down to the cove.
Silas frowned at her and gestured, clearly giving her no time to dress. Obedient, she gathered her cloak about her and followed the other women down the cliff path. Now the roar of last night’s storm was over, waves lapped at the shore. The men had not exaggerated. They’d reap a good, if grim, harvest from this wreck. From what she could see, there might be enough left of the birlinn to rebuild it without too much work. The men aboard her must have drowned, sucked below the waves in the darkness.
This morning, the sun pierced between remnants of leaden clouds. Shafts of brilliance danced on the crests of bigger waves out in the firth. The sea had yet to settle, so Donas could be right and more from this doomed ship might wash ashore over the next day or two.
Muireall headed downwind, in the direction the tide should have carried more of the wreck. Ella quickly joined her and the two walked the shoreline, happy to get away from the other women. They searched for small items in the cove and splashed along the water’s edge, hoping to find something of value that would win Silas’s and Donas’s favor. Muireall expected the sea had carried the smaller, lighter things farther down the coast. The women she and Ella left behind might find little of use staying close to the wreck.
“They willna worry about us?” Ella fretted, looking back over her shoulder.
Muireall snorted. “Of course no’. There’s nowhere to go from here.” She pointed. Cliffs lining the next cove extended into deep water on the far side, blocking access to the northward coastline from the beach.
“I see Tira is sticking close to Silas.”
Ella’s frown was an expression Muireall had seen her wear all too often since they’d been taken, and more so since Thomas had claimed her.
“She’s making the best of a bad situation, I suppose,” Ella continued, charitably, which was more like the Ella Muireall knew.
“Teague aspires to Donas’s inner circle,” Muireall reminded her. “Tira must think gaining Silas’s favor will help.”
“It might, aye.”
“And what about Thomas?”
“He seems more interested in enjoying his new bride than currying favor with Donas.”
Ella’s bleak tone made Muireall glance sharply her way. Her lips were pressed together and her fists clenched. Muireall took her friend’s fist in her hand and tucked her fingers under Ella’s. “I wish there was something we could do to get away from here.”
“There is naught to do but learn to live the life we’ve been given,” Ella replied. “At least for Tira and me. There’s still hope for ye.”
Muireall shook her head and kept walking, trying to put the Rosses out of her mind. She knew several of the men had their eye on her. She just didn’t know which one Donas would award her to.
“Hope? The only hope I have is to die before one of them can claim me.”
Ella stopped walking and tugged Muireall’s hand. “Ach, Muireall, dinna say that. Dinna even think it. ’Tis no’ so bad, truly. Thomas is kind enough…at least when he’s no’ around the other men. I just miss my family.”
Muireall heard the lie in Ella’s voice. She missed more than her family. She missed the life they’d had, and the prospect of marrying the man she loved, a future now lost to her. He’d think her dead, and if he ever found out what had happened to her, he’d wish it so.
“And ye ken I worry for Georgie,” Muireall told her. “’Twas a selfish thing for me to say. I do so want to get back to him…” She let go of Ella’s hand and turned away.
“Ye have tried. And suffered for it. Twice.” Ella put a hand on her arm, stopping her. “Ye must give up trying to escape. Georgie is being cared for, I dinna doubt it.”
Muireall thought of the nearly healed stripes on her back and stiffened her spine. “Nay, I’ll never give up.” The first time she’d snuck away, she’d been confined to the cot without food and little water for three days, a guard posted at the door. The second time, she’d run and been caught before she got out of sight of the Ross village. For that, Donas had given her three lashes, while stripped to her shift. It could have been worse—he’d threatened to strip her of the meager protection the shift provided, but Silas had intervened, so he’d told her the next time she would suffer more lashes. But she’d learned her lesson. The next time she ran, she’d be better prepared. Until then, she did everything she could to appear meek and cowed, unlikely to defy the Ross chief ever again.
She glanced back at the women blocking the climb to the village—and to the next cove behind them. That way lay home, just not today. “I canna escape from here this day, so let’s make the best of our walk so we can get back to a warm fire.”
Before long, she found a cook pot tumbling in the surf, and both she and Ella got soaked to the thighs retrieving it. They dragged it above the high tide line and set it in a depression in the sand to collect on the way back. If they were lucky, none of the others would have looked up from the beach at their feet to see them retrieve it. She hoped they would not notice it in the sand if they came this far, and claim the find for their own.
They moved back to the waterline. Then Ella went after something higher on the beach. Muireall, eager for solitude after their conversation, walked on, gaze darting from sand to surf and back again while memories of her life at Munro plagued her and filled her eyes with tears.
She was around the curve of the cove and well into the next beach before she realized how far she’d come. The cove was shallow, with a narrow strip of sand and rocks tumbled against the cliffs as if pushed there by the relentless tides. A glance behind her proved she was out of sight of the rest of the women. She kept going, enjoying the illusion of freedom the unexpected solitude gave her. When she saw a length of rope tossing in the surf, she waded out until the water was up to her hips, grabbed what she could reach and pulled it onto the sand. The men always wanted more rope.
By the time she noticed the tide encroaching on the footsteps she’d left in the scattered patches of sand, she’d collected an empty crate and a net bag. The canvas-wrapped package containing mushy, waterlogged bread she abandoned to the sea birds.
Suddenly, a memory of a tale told around the fire one evening chilled her. In the tale, this cove flooded to its walls. She looked back the way she’d come. The sliver of beach bordering the cliff dividing the coves was no wider than her foot, and shrinking fast. She was in danger of being cut off by the rising tide, and until the tide fell again, there was no exit from this cove save the one she’d just traversed.
Euan watched the lone woman walk the beach, searching, no doubt, for anything useful from the remains of the Tangie. Early on, when he’d heard the men approaching as the early morning gloaming lit the storm clouds, he’d retreated around a projecting bluff to the next cove. The cove where the Tangie foundered boasted sand, gravel and water-rounded pebbles all the way to the cliff face, with nowhere to hide. Tumbled rocks that gave him good cover lined this one. If he was not mistaken, its steep cliffs also boasted a sea cave or two he had yet to try to explore. If he could make the climb to them with his injured hands. One could serve as shelter for a few days, especially if it hid a spring or trapped rainwater. He’d be able to stay alive and undetected long enough to determine the fate of each of his men. Hope made him linger. He would delay as long as he could and risk capture rather than leave too soon and abandon them. Should any remain alive, once he found them, he’d steal a skiff or find another way for him and any survivors to make their way home. With luck on his side, they’d soon be back with families and friends.
The lass didn’t look threatening, wrapped in a woolen cloak. Pretty enough, aye, but sad. Perhaps with her mind on the fate of the men on the wreck, having a heart good enough to mourn the loss of sailors she didn’t even know. Or perhaps she was just wet and cold.
Don’t be daft, he chided himself. This is Ross territory. Let the lass know a Brodie observed her and she’d start screaming out her lungs before he could reach her. Instead, he watched her slowly make her way across the cove, her attention on the waterline. Her cheeks were ruddy from the cold, her lips in contrast, pale. He could not see the color of her eyes, but they were framed by delicate brows that furrowed and slanted as she searched, signaling her excitement as she spotted something in the surf, then disappointment if she rejected it. The storm had tossed up plenty of sea grass and other odds and ends, little of use. Her cloak gaped as she squatted to go through a pile of detritus, and Euan realized she wore only her shift. The thin fabric, transparent from shapely thighs to hem from the wet, clung to her legs. Her feet bare, she’d been dragged from slumber to assist in the search, with no time to properly dress. What sort of laird led these Rosses?
Then she looked behind her, jumped to her feet, and started to run back the way she’d come. Her sopping garments tangled between her knees and slowed her down until she grasped handfuls of cloth and freed her legs.
The day revealed what the night had hidden from him. Waves crashed against rocks where she had crossed into the cove. The tide blocked her escape around the cliffs to the cove holding the Tangie’s remains. She was trapped.
And so was he.
Worried now, he searched for the high tide line and found it on the cliff wall, several feet above his head. Damn. And worse, the lass was attempting the surf, trying to make her way back to her kin. In the rushing seawater, her cloak and skirts tangled around her legs and brought her splashing down. She got to her knees, but not for long. A wave dragged her under the surface before she had a chance to scream for help.
With an oath, Euan broke cover and ran for the lass.
Muireall awoke on her side, coughing and sputtering, gasping for air between blows to her back. All she could see was the surf a few yards in front of her. Dear God, she’d been dragged under. The last thing she remembered, besides the sting of seawater in her nose and throat, was the certainty she was going to drown and thinking it might be a better fate than the one that awaited her at the hands of the Rosses. But someone had pulled her out. She’d made it around the cliffs! She shuddered as she dragged in another ragged breath, not just from the cold and wet. She’d never before truly understood how good air felt in her lungs.
But she feared she would regret being saved.
A man knelt beside her, pounding on her back and muttering, “Spit it out, lass. Breathe. Ye are well.” She thought she’d met all of her captors, but she didn’t recognize his voice. She didn’t want to owe any of the Ross men her life. That would seal her fate to his. Donas would give her to this man.
Grit clung to her face as she pushed up onto her hands and knees, still coughing up seawater. Her hair hung in damp tendrils to the sand, blocking her view of her savior, and his of her. At least he had ceased pounding on her when she’d moved. Her coughing eased.
Her wet cloak clung to her back and draped down her sides like a tent, but her shift, now soaked, was nearly transparent where it stuck to her skin. She sank onto her heels, gathered her sopping cloak around her for cover, if not for warmth, then scooped her hair out of her face and took her first clear breath.
The man sat back and regarded her with sea green eyes under russet brows. A stranger!
Muireall’s gasp set her to coughing again, but she held up a hand to stop him when he reached for her back. “Nay!” she hissed, then got her breath back. “Give me a minute afore ye pound me back into the sand.” She thought she’d seen every man in the Ross village. She hadn’t seen this one. She would have noticed him. Even features, broad shoulders, and kindness in the glinting green depths of his eyes. He looked at her with care, not as if he wanted to rend her sopping garments and take her here on the beach.
A grin split his face, revealing even white teeth. “Arguing with yer leech so soon after he saves ye? Ye are well, then.”
The man was possessed of a sense of humor, too.
She glanced around while she heaved another breath. Ach, nay! She was still trapped in the far cove with a rising tide. And a stranger. “Who are ye?”
The grin fled his face.
In that instant, she knew. “Ye are from that wrecked birlinn, aye?”
Hope started to slowly unfurl in her chest. He was not a Ross! When she next opened her mouth to speak, he clapped a hand over it and grabbed her around the shoulders with the other.
“Dinna scream,” he warned. “I willna hurt ye. I just saved ye, for the love of God. We need to be finding a way above the high tide line or we’ll both drown.” He loosened the hand on her shoulder to gesture at the cliff face with one finger. “Will ye help?”
She gave a curt nod. One was all it took for him to let her go. As he moved his hand away from her mouth, she saw how raw and scraped it was, from wrist to fingertips. “That must hurt,” she told him, softly.
He shrugged. “Least of my problems.”
“Who are ye?”
“No one ye need fear, lass.”
His eyes were kind, and he had just saved her from drowning. “Ye must have a name. I’m Muireall.” She left it at that, certain he would refuse to reveal his clan.
“Euan, then.” His grin flashed, then disappeared as fast as a lightning bolt from last night’s storm as he glanced beyond her. “Are yer clan liable to put out to sea to search for ye? Surely they’ll have missed ye by now.”
“No’ yet, I think. Given the chance, I’m apt to wander off on my own, so until the lasses gather what they’ve found to take back up the cliff path, they willna notice I’m gone.” Or care. Unless they spotted the pot she and Ella left above the high tide line. Aye, the storm might have tossed it so far. Maybe. But Ella knew she’d gone in this direction and if she knew about this cove, she’d fear Muireall was trapped and might well beg for help. How soon would she raise the alarm? Would the Rosses bother to save a lass stolen from another clan nearly a month before?
The man gestured at the high tide line on the cliff face. “They ken this cove floods?”
“Then we’d best be about finding shelter. Ye may wish to be found, but I dinna.” He stood and offered one of his damaged hands.
Instead of clasping his palm, she grasped his forearm and let him haul her to her feet. His nod acknowledged her care. He tensed when she glanced toward the cove where her captors salvaged his ship, but she shook her head and stepped around him, toward the sea cliff behind them. Off to the side, she saw his shoulders drop. In relief? Perhaps. Or resignation. He thought she was one of theirs, and he was stuck with her until the tide went out—or until Ross warriors came searching for her and found him, too.
After that? Should she betray him to the clan in the hopes of gaining their favor, or let him go? Or help him go? She owed him the debt of her life, after all. Muireall shook her head and led the way into the rocks. She owed this man, this Euan, what help she could give him.
“Look, there,” he said and pointed.
His voice so close behind her made her jump. She took a breath and looked along his index finger at a cleft in the rock nearly half a man’s height above Euan’s head.
“Is that a cave, do ye think?”
“I dinna ken. And how would we get up there to find out?”
“I could lift ye.”
“Nay, ye couldna. Yer hands.”
“’Tis the lowest of the two I’ve found that might shelter us. It is…barely…above last night’s high tide. And if ye’ll climb onto my shoulders, ye might be able to pull yerself inside.”
“What about ye?”
“If ye say there’s room, and if ye find a place to tie off that rope ye salvaged, I’ll climb up. At worst, I’ll wait for the tide to lift me.”
“And if it doesna rise so high tonight? The storm drove it hard onshore last night, if ye recall.”
His lips compressed into a thin line, making Muireall berate herself for a fool. Of course he recalled. His ship, and his men, had foundered in that storm. She’d hurt him with her thoughtless comment, and regretted it instantly. “I’m sorry…” she began.
“I’ll manage, dinna fash.” His response was curt, his jaw tight. He studied the rocks around them rather than meet her gaze. “Step up there, and there,” he said, indicating the erstwhile rocky stair steps he’d chosen. “Then, ye can easily stand on my shoulders.”
“And fall off just as easily.”
“I’ll hold yer legs. All I have to do is take a step or two toward the cliff and ye’ll be able to see whether that cut in the rock leads anywhere.”
Muireall pursed her lips, dubious his injured hands could hold her. But this man had survived the wreck of his ship and loss of his crew. He’d avoided the Ross men and wisely taken shelter away from the shipwreck cove. Somehow, she knew he’d do what he set his mind to, what he promised. Still, “Why not wait for the tide to lift us both?”
“Ye nearly drowned once today. Do ye wish to do it again? We need to ken, now, before ’tis too late, whether we can get in there. Whether there’s room for both of us. Whether it leads anywhere. Once the water gets that high, if ’tis simply a crack in the wall, we willna have time to find another way to save ourselves.”
“Verra well. But if ye drop me, I’ll no’ give ye another chance.”
He flashed that grin and her heart tumbled over, shocking her. She was in no position to be taken in by an appealing grin. Saints forfend, she’d just hinted to Ella she’d rather die than let a man force her. Now she was trapped with one. One who’d saved her life, aye, but if he thought that gave him the right to more of her, she swore she’d run for the surf.
“I willna drop ye. Now, up ye go.”
She gathered her composure and did as he bade, stepping from rock to rock and onto his shoulders, praying he didn’t look up. Her cloak gaped and her shift clung to her legs, but she needed her hands for more than holding her cloak closed over it. Arms outstretched, she fought to keep her balance. He shifted his stance as she wobbled. But he held her fast and moved her closer to the cleft without complaint, despite how the salt-water soaked fabric under his hands must sting his wounds.
She was able to get a hand on the lip and steadied herself. “It looks deep,” she reported. “Big enough for both of us. I canna see where it leads, but it might serve.”
“Can ye pull yourself in?”
Careful of her balance, she reached, trying to hook an arm over the ledge. “Maybe.”
“Get ready. I’ll lift ye…”
“Are ye certain?” Muireall tensed. Could he stand grinding the sand on her feet into his wounds? She reached in again, searching for something to hold onto.
In answer, Euan wedged his hands under her feet and pushed her upward.
She squeaked, clamping down on the shriek she’d nearly released. It would have been sure to call attention to them. But with the lift, she got her torso into the narrow passage and wiggled her hips, clawing with her hands and elbows, until her legs were in, too. With a sigh of relief, she glanced around. Then she got to her feet, gathered her cloak, and leaned out. Euan’s worried gaze met hers, his brows drawn down into a hopeful, wide-eyed frown. His hands, curled at his side, were dusted with sand and streaked with blood. Her gut clenched at how that lift must have pained him. “Aye, we’ll fit. I’m going to see where it leads. There’s a little light leaking in from somewhere above.”
“Let’s get the rope tied off first. Then wait for me to climb up.”
Euan studied the lass, Muireall, as she peered down at him from out of the cleft in the cliff, her face guileless and full of promise, her arms hugging herself and keeping the cloak closed over her wet shift. She needn’t have bothered. When he’d pulled her from the waves, he saw all there was to see. And what he’d seen was nice. Very nice. He couldn’t get the creamy pink tips of her pleasingly rounded breasts or the dark triangle at the apex of her thighs out of his mind. Fair of face, slender, and curved in all his favorite places. But her body was not where his mind should be right now.
Could he believe her? His life depended on her actions. If she found a way up through the caves and onto the clifftop, she could betray him to her clan. Or she might stumble into an unseen pit and lie there until help came…if it ever did. If the rising tide didn’t lift him far enough to reach the cave, he’d drown, assuming he wasn’t pounded to death against the cliff first. And no one would know where she was unless someone chanced to hear her scream. Everything he pictured was bad, worse and even worse. But really, what choice did he have? Either she was trustworthy and would aid him, or he’d die in the coming hours, one way or the other. Between drowning and torture by the Rosses, he’d prefer drowning, but he wouldn’t give in just yet.
He uncoiled the rope, ignoring the sting from the salt and rough texture, thanking his lucky stars she’d found a manageable length washed up near the beach and had sense enough to pull it ashore. He tied a knot in one end to give it more stability for his throw. “Are ye ready?”
“Aye. Dinna look at me,” she warned as she freed her arms.
Of course, the cloak would not remain closed, and she knew her wet garment would not shield her body from his view.
“I’ll do my best,” he told her and locked his gaze on the rock above her head. “Dinna try to catch the knot. Grab it anywhere ye can.” The length he gathered felt like lead in his arms. Still wet, damn it. “’Twill be heavier than ye think, so dinna lean out too far. Ye’ll fall.”
She nodded. “I’ll do my best.”
He would have laughed at the spunk she showed, echoing his words, but nothing about this situation was amusing. He didn’t like feeling his life lay in another’s hands, especially the small, weak hands of a woman. A woman who would grab the rope but also wrestle with her cloak at the same time. He’d be lucky if she didn’t fall at his feet.
But as he was all too aware, he had little choice in the matter. He gauged the distance, knowing he had to keep the rope as close to the cliff wall as he could without hitting it. If it were possible, he’d toss the bloody thing into the cave, but nay, Muireall must catch it and secure it…somewhere.
“Here it comes,” he warned. With that, he tossed the knot, aiming for a point a few feet above her head. If she didn’t catch it on the way up, she’d have a chance as it fell back to him.
But the lass was quick. She got it on the first try, pulling the rope to her chest with one hand and forearm, stifling a cry as she wrapped the other arm across it and backed up a few paces. Then she turned so the cloak on her back faced him.
“Good lass!” Euan kept his voice down, but put all the approval he could muster into his tone. “Do ye see somewhere to tie it off?”
She disappeared from view, dragging the rope with her. As it slithered up the cliff face, the opposite end trailed past his feet and started climbing the wall. It paused at his waist, then started up again. Euan watched grimly. Was there nothing for her to tie it to? Or was she playing an evil game, making him watch while she took away his best chance at life? It was nearly out of his reach, and still moving. He debated grabbing it, but he needed to trust her—didn’t he? In moments, the end of the rope disappeared over the lip of the cave into its darkness.
Euan’s knees gave way, and he sat down hard on one of the stepping stones Muireall had used to gain his shoulders. God damn it! He was a fool. The rope was gone, and so, probably, was she.
She lived here. Likely she knew these caves and had known all along she could escape through them, if only she had a way up into them. A way he had provided.
And then he’d handed her the only tool that might save his life, not that he’d yet figured out how to use it by himself. Still, she’d taken the rope. Even if he tried to ride the rising tide, he was in danger of being dashed against the rocks or sucked back out to sea by an undertow.
He dropped his wet head into his hands and growled at the sting. At least there, his spirit would join those of his men, with the tangies his ship had been named for, sea sprites or kelpies, depending on which old tales you believed.
Hearing a slithering sound, he looked up, then jumped to his feet. The rope hung down the wall, swinging slightly in smaller and smaller arcs. She hadn’t abandoned him! In another moment, Muireall peered down at him, arms wrapped around her middle, her cloak securely shielding her body from his view.
“I couldna find anything to tie it to. I wedged the knot in a fissure between some rocks. I hope it will hold ye.”
Euan huffed out a breath. “I thought ye’d made off with it.”
“What? Nay!” Muireall fisted her cloak and frowned down at him. “I didna want the rope to fall out of the cave until I secured it, so I pulled it all in. I’ve tugged as hard as I can.”
Euan nodded, grabbed the rope and gave it a few tugs, ignoring the sting in his hands. It held. If his grip would also hold, he might survive the next high tide.
He clenched his teeth and climbed.
In moments, he was over the lip of the cave. He lay there, breathing hard and forcing his tortured hands to unclench. He left bright red streaks on the rope’s rough surface, and the stench of copper filled his nose for a moment, cutting through the smells of sea and dank rock. Muireall, one hand clutching her cloak and the other over her mouth, watched him from a few paces further into the narrow cave, concern written in her pretty frown. No time for that, dammit! He hooked the rope with his elbow, rolled to his feet and pulled the dangling end in after him. “No sense advertising our presence,” he told her, ignoring the way her gaze tracked the crimson blood smeared onto the cave floor’s dull stone. “We may need it to get down again when the tide goes out.”
Muireall gathered her damp cloak more tightly around her. “The cave is narrow, but it leads upward toward the back. Daylight is getting in somewhere.”
“Let’s go see.” Euan gestured for her to follow him. “Watch yer step.”
The passage was indeed narrow, but trended upward. Euan took care placing his feet—worried as much about what a turned ankle would do to his chances for escape as he was about falling into an unseen pit. Soon enough, the cave widened out and a thin shaft of light pierced the gloom and reflected around the space.
“That may be our best chance,” Euan said, pausing to study the cave’s ceiling and walls. They still gleamed wetly from last night’s storm, proof that water had created this space. “That crack is high on the wall rather than in the ceiling, which means there’s a hillside that slopes in that direction.” He gestured, sweeping one hand at an angle down the wall. “If I can reach that opening, I’ll be able to see how much rock is between us and the outside.”
“Leave it. If this doesna work, we’ll need to climb down at low tide.”
Muireall moved past him, farther into the cave. “This is the end.”
“Then let’s see if ’tis also our way out.” The rock face directly below the crack was too wet to provide reliable hand and footholds. He moved a few feet to the side and started up, grimacing as he left bloody fingerprints. When he reached the crack, he made a fist and forced his hand through. He could feel blades of grass outside. “The ground is thin here,” he reported. “But without tools…”
“If ye tug on it, will it cave in or hold?”
Euan stretched on his toes and got his arm through to the elbow. Bending it, he used his weight and forearm to pull. He felt something give. “I think there’s only a thin layer of scree held together by roots. It looks ready to crumble. Anyone walking above would likely fall into this cave.” He braced himself on one foot, held on and kicked at the wall with the other. He heard stones and gravel roll downhill. “’Tis breaking loose.”
“Be careful. What if someone sees?”
Shite. “Ye’re right,” Euan agreed and climbed down. “We’ll wait for the gloaming. I need a little light to see handholds. When I try this, I want ye back in the lower passage. If the hillside collapses, you’ll still be able to get down the rope at low tide.”
“We will, ye mean to say.”
“Aye, if I’m not up to my neck in rocks and mud.”
“If ye are, I’ll dig ye out.”
“If I am, I’ll dig myself out. Ye will go back around the cove to yer clan, where ye’ll be safe.”
He couldn’t decipher the bleak expression that crossed Muireall’s face at that moment, but it gave him a hollow sensation in his belly. “That is what ye want, is it no’?”
She turned and headed into the lower passage.
He followed. “Is it?” Her silence puzzled him. “What are ye no’ telling me, lass?”
“Nought ye’ll want to hear.” She kept walking until she reached the cave’s opening.
Over her shoulder, Euan could see sunlight dancing on the firth. Water sloshed against the cliff wall as the tide came up, with a low, rolling sound he could feel through the rock under his feet. The water had climbed another foot in the time they’d been at the upper end of the cave. “We’ve an hour until high tide,” he ventured. “Six hours more until the tide goes out far enough for ye to get around the headland. And nowhere to go until near dark. Ye could tell me what’s on yer mind. To pass the time, if nought else.”
“Should we no’ find a way to collect some of the rain water in the upper cave?”
“We’ll be away from here and ye’ll be back to yer clan before thirst becomes that much an issue. What we need is to stay warm and let our clothes dry. We’ve nought to build a fire, and smoke would give us away if we did. We’ll huddle somewhere out of the wind.”
Muireall nodded, shoulders dropping on a sigh.
“Come, lass. Let’s find a place to rest.”
Muireall wrapped her cloak tightly about her. Euan’s scrutiny made her uncomfortable. She wanted to tell him. She just wasn’t sure she should. After all, what did she know about him? Even though he’d saved her life and said he wouldn’t harm her, she couldn’t trust a man she barely knew. If he found out she had been stolen, he might use and abandon her when he escaped. Nay, she dared not tell him—not yet. She might be cut off from the Ross clan, but she was no nearer home. Instead, somehow, if they managed to avoid drowning this day, she had to convince him to take her with him.
She was full of foolish dreams.
But if Euan agreed, she’d be leaving Ella and Tira to their fate with the Ross men. Shame made her chest hollow and her eyes sting with unshed tears. Though she and Euan were still in trouble, she had hope. Ella did not, though Tira seemed happy with the man who’d taken her. Ella seemed resigned, aye. Happy, nay.
Why had their own clan not found them yet? That question tortured her every day. Had the surviving Munro men lost their trail? They’d been gone nearly a month. On the trip, with every mile further from home, she and the others had prayed for rescue. But no one had come for them. On the journey to Ross, Tira’s latest moon blood finished and she had been claimed by a man named Teague. A week after they arrived, Ellas’s latest moon blood did, too, and soon after, Thomas had taken her to his bed. Muireall knew her turn would come within days. Married, as the Ross clan counted it. She counted it taken against their wills. They’d all be ruined and lose all hope of rescue. Her father would be furious, if he still lived, to see his plans for her to make an alliance with clan Grant had been ruined by Ross raiders.
What would she do if Donas’s boast was true and her village had been destroyed?
Could she leave her friends behind? Save herself and convince Euan to return her to Munro to find out their fate? If her clan lived, would she be able to convince anyone to return for the other lasses? Come to that, if the worst had happened, would Euan? If her people were gone, what possible reason would he and his men have to fight for her clanswomen? They would be risking a war with Ross over women who meant nothing to them and a clan that no longer mattered to anyone but her.
She didn’t know anything about him. If she, Tira, and Ella were to have a chance of escape, she needed to find out which clan he belonged to, what he cared about, and what he might do. She resolved to use the time they spent waiting to good advantage and learn all she could.
Euan led her to a small inset in the rock she’d missed in the path to the upper cave. It was large enough for both of them yet small enough to hold some of their body heat.
“Get in,” he ordered. “Ye’ll be warmer on the inside.”
She didn’t like the thought of being trapped in the small space, his body between her and freedom. “I have my cloak. When it dries, I’ll be warmer. Ye should go first.”
“Nay, lass.” He tilted his head. “Ye think I’d corner ye in there?” His shoulders lifted and lowered as he glanced aside and clenched his jaw. “I told ye I wouldna harm ye.”
“I willna.” He waved a hand. “If I wanted to have my way with ye, I could do it right here. In the upper cave. Out by the rope. Hell, I couldha done it when I first pulled ye from the water, before ye woke up.”
“Somehow all of that fails to reassure me,” Muireall muttered. But he was right. He’d probably seen right through the front of her wet shift when he rescued her, and he’d made no advances. She huffed out a sigh. “Verra well.” She ducked in and settled herself, finding it more difficult than she expected to lean her back against the hard, cold rock.
Euan waited until she stilled, then joined her. Within moments, she realized having his body close by had a delicious benefit. He warmed her, and she fought the urge to snuggle closer.
“Tell me about yerself,” she said, keeping her tone neutral enough he’d hear it as a request, not a demand. “Where are ye from? Why were ye out in that storm?”
Euan eyed her, then shrugged. “The fishing was good. We overstayed the day and the storm came up—too fast.” He gestured with an open palm. “We raced for home, but the wind shifted, driving us toward the far coast—here. The wind…well, before we could get the sail down, the wind heeled us over. The Tangie capsized and went under and onto the rocks.”
“If none of my men have been seen, then…they went down with her.” He leaned his head against the rock behind him and closed his eyes. Little enough light penetrated to their sanctuary, but it allowed Muireall to see a muscle jumping in Euan’s jaw.
“Yer men. Ye were captain, then?”
“Aye.” He paused and swallowed. “My men, my ship, my fault.”
“Surely, ye dinna blame yerself for the storm?”
He lifted his head and looked at her. “Nay. But we shouldha run for home as soon as we spied dark clouds piling up on the horizon.”
“How could ye ken which way the storm would go?” she asked, shivering at the thought of how his men must have died, knowing they’d made a fatal mistake. “What’s done is done, and no’ yer fault.”
He didn’t react.
She tried a different approach. “Perhaps yer men made it ashore. Ye just dinna ken it yet.”
He nodded. “I pray for that, but dinna hold much hope. I barely made it myself. And one was just a lad.” He sighed and turned his hand over, studying the scrapes marring it.
Muireall winced. He had to be hurting, yet he’d done so much with those hands to save them, as if their wounds didn’t exist.
“What about ye, lass? What can ye tell me about yer clan?”
He wanted information about the Rosses, no doubt, not her own clan. Instead of answering, she countered, “Tell me about yers first.”
He shrugged. “Our laird is new this past year. And newly married. His wife, Annie, well, ye’d have to meet her to understand. She’s every inch the daughter of a laird—headstrong as all hell and into everyone’s business. No’ the sort of lass I’d ever want to wed.”
Muireall frowned. “That’s no’ very kind. So ye think all laird’s daughters are that way? And none could possibly suit ye?” His words cut her, though he had no idea.
“Ach, lass, but ye didna let me finish. On the other hand, she’s everyone’s friend. Hell of a rider and archer, too.”
“A lass can do that?”
“What? Aye. Useful skills, would ye no’ say?”
She nodded. “For a man, aye.”
He waved a hand. “Your turn. So yer lasses dinna ride or fight. Tell me more.”
If she were truly a Ross, what would she tell him? “What do ye wish to ken?”
Euan didn’t look at her. “Where does the clan keep its boats?”
That was easy to answer—he’d find them on his own quickly enough. “In the cove on the other side of where ye…where the Tangie…washed ashore.”
His shoulders stiffened and the hand he’d waved curled into a fist.
Instantly, she knew what he must be thinking. If he’d gone that way instead of this, he could have taken a boat, and he’d already be at sea, searching for his men along the coastline or headed home, not stuck in a cold, damp cave with a lass…who was not who he thought she was.
Dear God, she could not deal with his reaction to finding out she’d been stolen and needed his help. Not yet. Not now. If she gave him time, he’d think of reasons not to take her with him, and she couldn’t bear the thought of being left to the fate she dreaded at Ross.
“How many boats? What kind?”
His urgent question snapped her gaze to his. His green eyes had gone cold as winter sea spray. She quailed and lowered her lids, focusing on her hands instead of his. She had to look somewhere, anywhere, else. If she kept staring at him, at the evidence of efforts to save both of them, she’d blurt out the truth. “Five or six in all. I dinna ken what ye’d call all of them. One birlinn, the rest smaller.”
“Do they keep a guard at the cove?”
“Aye—a man to raise the alarm.” She thought about it for a moment and added, “They’re salvaging what they can from your wreck, so there might be more men about than usual.” Donas Ross had big plans, most of which meant raiding neighboring clans to steal their wealth and women. In many ways, he was a fool, but not in the strategy and tactics of war. He’d snuck onto Munro land and stolen three women without anyone being aware until it was too late—or ever. Since no one had come, Muireall suspected no one knew where to look once they realized the three lasses were missing. Muireall clutched her cloak more tightly about her and glanced aside at Euan. His frown told her he was considering his chances of escape and not liking them one bit.
And that was before she told him who she really was and begged him to take her with him. And the other women. Nay, he wouldn’t like that at all. But he was the first chance of getting help she’d had since she’d been taken. She’d wait for a better time to tell him. She just didn’t know when that time would be.
Euan woke with a jerk. His head hit the cave wall behind him, just hard enough to make him realize he’d dozed off. His chin had dropped to his chest, then snapped back. He blinked a few times to clear the fog from his mind and realized Muireall, asleep, wrapped tightly in her cloak, leaned against him, her head on his shoulder. His sudden movement had not disturbed her. She must truly be exhausted.
He took a moment to enjoy the warmth of her body next to his. Her scent filled his nostrils, something soft and sweet under the briny ocean and dank cave smell that surrounded them. Her pale skin caught the wavering light reflecting along the cave walls. Dark circles smudged the skin under her eyes. Aye, she was exhausted. And probably hungry and thirsty. At least, she would be somewhat warmed by leaning into him.
The light told him the day was waning, but it was not yet dark enough to try to escape from the upper cave. He’d let the lass sleep a while longer. Now that he knew where the Ross boats were kept, escape along the clifftop didn’t hold the appeal it once had. Having to avoid the Ross village would slow him. Making his way across the beach would be closer, and faster, than traversing the clifftop.
Low tide would happen soon, and with it, the narrow stretch of sand around the headland would be revealed. But in another two hours, it would be fully dark, and he might be able to make his way around the headland and across the next cove unseen if he hugged the cliff wall. He wanted one of those boats Muireall mentioned. Any that one man could drag into the water and sail on his own would do to get him home to Brodie. But first, he’d head down the coast. If a Ross boat followed, the men on it would not be able to guess his true destination. And it would give him a chance to see if any of his men had washed up on a beach nearby. Their families would want to know and give them a proper burial, if he could retrieve them.
He had to trust that Muireall would not send her clansmen after him, at least not right away. But once they got out, she’d have to explain where she’d been overnight and how she’d survived. Would a story that she’d made it into the cave on her own be believed? Or would he be better off to take her with him—willing or not—because no one would believe she’d survived alone?
Nay, he couldn’t. She’d slow him down, and as long as he didn’t need a hostage, he had no reason to take her from her people. Even if he did, he couldn’t countenance putting her in danger by forcing her to make a risky escape with him. His only concern was to get her safely to the next cove where she could make her way up the cliff path to her village. After that, his priority was staying free, and finding out what had become of his men.
That decided, Euan resolved to enjoy the woman’s soft warmth as long as she slept…or until it was time to go. Just then, Muireall’s head moved so slightly he thought he’d imagined it. Until it happened again.
“Nay, nay! Nay…”
Euan frowned down at the head on his shoulder, clearly tossing now with every mumbled word. Was she dreaming? Talking in her sleep?
“Muireall.” He shrugged his shoulder, hoping to wake her from her dream with a gentle movement.
“Nay, ye canna…leave us be…”
What? “Muireall, wake up. Ye’re dreaming. Ye are safe with me.”
“Nay…dinna take us…”
That came out as a wail, so Euan jostled her again and was reaching for her hand when she suddenly roused and sat up, then rubbed her face with both hands.
“I’m sorry. I didna mean to use ye as a pillow.”
“Wheest, lass, all is well. Ye were dreaming and talking in yer sleep. Ye seemed upset, so I thought it best to wake ye.”
“Talking…” Her expression went from muzzy to worried in the space of that one word, eyes widened under drawn-down brows. “What did I say?”
Her cheeks pinked as he watched. “Ye kept repeating “nay.” Then ye said “leave us be” and “ye canna take us.” I thought ye’d rest better away from such a dream.”
She nodded, refusing to meet his gaze.
That convinced him. “Or was it a memory? Is there something ye havena told me?”
Muireall heaved a heavy sigh and rubbed her face again, then fisted her hands over her cloak. “Aye.”
“Then perhaps this is a good time for confession.”
Just then, Euan heard a man’s scream. Though agonized, the voice sounded familiar. He rolled out of their inset, stood and ran to the seaside entrance. There, he leaned out and listened. The wind was blowing their way. The next sound was another man’s shout, a demand if he judged the timbre correctly. Then a hoarse cry broke the stillness. It couldn’t be! This time, he recognized Calum’s voice, his cousin’s agonized tone.
As he grabbed for the rope he’d left coiled on the floor of the cave, Muireall came up behind him and placed a hand on his shoulder. He shook her off. Waves still broke against the headland between this cove and the next. Calum needed his help, and he couldn’t get to him without risking drowning as Muireall had. He’d never get there fast enough. Yet even if he could, without weapons, what could he do? Perhaps something the lass had collected before the tide came in would make do—and would still be on the sliver of beach starting to show below them.
Another hoarse cry cut off abruptly.
The silence that followed lasted long enough for Muireall to seize his fist and softly cry out at what she saw. “Ye’ve made it bleed again, ye daft man.”
“I need to get around that headland. One of my men survived. They’re torturing my cousin.”
Rough laughter blew in on the wind and Muireall’s shoulders dropped. “I ken that laugh. ’Tis Donas.” She clutched at her throat with one hand. “I’m so sorry. I fear yer cousin doesna need yer help any longer. They’ve killed him.”
“Nay!” Euan covered his mouth with his arm to muffle the sound and heard the cry as if it came from another. The wrenching pain in his chest confirmed it was his.
“Likely he was half drowned and couldna tell them what they wanted to know,” Muireall told him softly, then bit her lip and turned her gaze to the water and continued, “so they killed him and tossed him back into the firth.”
Furious heat rose from Euan’s chest to his face. His breath whistled through his nose as he grabbed Muireall’s shoulders and glared at her through a red haze, heedless of the pain in his hands. “Your people just killed my cousin.” He shook her, then let her go, leaving bloody prints behind on her cloak.
“Nay, no’ my peo.…” Her voice broke on a sob.
She denied what they’d both just heard? What she’d just described?
“Nay? No’ yer…what? Yer people?”
She shook her head, misery in her gaze.
How convenient. “Did ye make me think ye talked in yer sleep in case something like this happened?”
With a growl, he left her there and charged into the upper cave, grabbed the first hand-sized rock he found and climbed, then began chipping away the limestone imprisoning them, swearing with each blow against the pain in his hands and his heart.
Muireall was only moments behind him. “Stop!” she cried. “If there’s a patrol on the clifftop, they’ll hear you. Someone will see what ye are doing.” She tugged on his boot, unsettling him and making him lose his precarious hold on the wall.
He fell, knocking her down, and landing beside her on his knees and palms. He was too angry to feel the damage, though he could see blood dripping from his fingers as he straightened up. “See what ye have done!” He glared at her and stood.
She scooted away and got to her feet, clutching her damned cloak around her and wincing.
“I ken ye are angry, but ye must hear me. They are no’ my people. No’ my clan. I was stolen, nearly a month ago.”
“Ye lie. Ye’ll say anything to save yerself.” But the red haze dissipated a little. Was that why she’d been sent to scour the shoreline in her shift? And seemed less than eager to return to what he thought was her clan?
“Ye must believe me.” She grabbed his arm.
He twisted out of her grip and demanded, “Who’s Donas?” as she stumbled aside.
Whatever else she meant to say was lost to her cry as she fell. Then her head smacked against the cave wall and her eyes rolled back.
She went limp before he could catch her with his injured hands.
Horror filled him. What had he done? He’d only meant to break her grip on his arm, not to shove her into the rocky wall. He fell to his knees and gathered her up. “Muireall, nay. I’m sorry! I didna mean to harm ye.” Frantic now with regret and fear for her, he ran his bloody fingers through her hair and found the lump behind one temple. Then he bent and kissed her forehead. “Muireall, lass, wake up. I will no’ harm ye. I swear it.” For good measure, he kissed the lump on her head, too, then pulled her cloak together to cover her. Her shift was drying but still damp enough to reveal what lay beneath. She’d be angry about the lump on her head. Angrier still if she thought he took advantage of her and looked.
She stirred and muttered, “No’ your fault…ye didna mean to…”
“Ah, ye’re still with me.” He rocked her in his arms, then kissed her face as he would to comfort a child. “I’m so sorry,” he crooned, smoothing back her hair. “I didna mean to hurt ye.”
She yelped as his fingers again found the knot. Though her eyes remained closed, she lifted her hand to her head, frowned and tucked her face against his neck.
“I saved ye from the firth,” he murmured into her hair, thinking of how he’d pulled her to safety and wishing he could have done the same for his men. “I canna have killed ye, now.” Her breath warmed his throat and gave him a small measure of comfort as he stroked her head.
She gave a soft moan at the last, then pushed up until he helped her to sitting, then met his gaze. “Now will ye listen to reason? Ye canna fight the whole clan alone. We must escape.” She stopped talking to take a breath and blinked, then added, “I’ve tried twice and failed.”
He could scarce deny the resolute tone ringing in his ears. She’d meant what she said earlier. She was no Ross.
Her lips thinned. He attributed her pained expression to the lump on her head.
“I…we…need yer help. Then ye can return to take yer vengeance.”
“Aye.” She glanced down, then continued. “Let me tend yer hands. I’ll tell ye the tale while I do.”
Muireall told him all of it while she cleaned his wounds with rainwater from a shallow depression in the floor of the cave, dabbing at them with a wet strip torn from the hem of her shift. Then she wrapped his hands, covering the wounds and hoping to protect them long enough for him to return home to his own healer’s care. It hurt to relate how the raiders had come while she and the other two, Ella and Tira, were washing clothes at the burn, taking all three lasses away with them. Their captors left behind a village of ghosts, they were told, killing all they didn’t steal. Before she was done, tears streamed down her face, and she spoke around sobs that threatened to choke her. “Perhaps a few survived who were out hunting, or children playing in the woods away from the village. I canna ken.”
“Perhaps all survived. Have ye thought yer captors might have told ye such a tale to keep ye hopeless of rescue. Ye say ye’ve been here nearly a month. I’d say their tale did its job.”
She wanted to believe him. More than anything. For Georgie’s sake. “God, how I hope ye are right. But we’ve had nay chance to escape, though I tried…twice. And if our men live, why have they no’ come for us?” Because she and the others had been abandoned.
“Perhaps they looked, but lost the trail. Or never had it.”
“Or perhaps they are all dead.”
He traced her cheek with his fingertips, the only part of his hands not covered by strips of her shift.
Despite his injuries, his hands were strong. He’d abused them over and over in his determination to save them both. Euan’s looks pleased her, and she couldn’t deny his bravery. Nor could she help how she was growing to feel about him, though she knew she was beyond foolish even to imagine he could ever feel anything for her. She was a burden to him, nothing more.
“Once I discover the fate of my men, and return home with the news, I’ll take ye home.”
She thought about the way he’d wakened her with his frantic kisses. He cared for her at least a little. He felt responsible for her. Surely, she could convince him to do as she asked. “Where is home for ye?”
“Across the firth—clan Brodie.”
Hope made her bold. “Munro is closer. We should go there first. Our healer could tend to ye.”
Her face fell and her shoulders slumped.
“Ye ken why I canna,” he said as he took in her reaction to his refusal. “I must return to carry the news. My men had fathers and mothers, two had wives and children. They need to ken what happened to their men.”
“Just as I need to ken what happened to mine. And if they still live, to tell them what happened to us.” She dropped her head into her hands. “I’ve hoped and despaired for so long. Yer people have only had a day to wonder…”
Euan rocked back on his heels, and Muireall feared she’d pushed too hard. It was within his power to leave her here, after all.
He pressed his hands together and winced as if he’d forgotten his wounds. Then he said the thing she most feared. “I should leave ye here with the Rosses, where at least ye’d be safe. I could return for ye in a few days. Ye could meet me…”
“What makes ye think I’d be safe here? In a few days, Donas Ross could give me to one of his men. I’d be ruined and never be able to leave. Or ye could decide once ye are gone that I’m no’ worth the trouble to retrieve.” She shook her head. “I canna risk that. Ye must see why.”
“Aye, I suppose I do. What about yer friends?”
“They are both married now. Tira seems happy. I’m no’ certain about Ella. If I could, I’d ask her if she would like to come with us.”
“That ye canna do—ye risk her telling her husband. It will be dangerous and hard enough for two of us, much less with a third who is no’ certain she wants to leave.”
“That’s just it. I think she would, if she could. If we could find a way…”
“Forget it, lass. I’m sorry.”
She studied the floor, lips pressed together to hold back the pleas he would only ignore. “I’m sorry, too.”
At low tide, Euan stood at the cave’s mouth and watched Muireall dunk herself in the surf and go around the headland alone. They’d argued while the surf retreated, until a thin strip of sand appeared there and began to widen. She feared her captors would be on the other side, waiting for the chance to discover if she yet lived, or to retrieve her body, had it not been swept out to sea.
“If ye go with me, ye would be captured and all hope would be lost,” she’d told him. “I’ve thought about what ye said. ’Tis better I go alone. If no one waits, I can come back to tell ye.”
He fought the idea, preferring both of them to wait a while in the cave and see if anyone came looking for her, but the more he thought about it, the more he saw what she said made sense. Time was not on their side. Not if any more of his men were alive to save. They had to get out before the next high tide or be trapped again, without food or water, for long hours more.
“They willna have any reason to search this cove if I return,” she’d argued. “Ye’ll have a chance to steal a boat and get away. I could still go to the beach in a day or two.”
“I couldna leave without seeing ye were safe, lass.” He’d known it was foolish even to say, but he’d come to care for her.”
“Nay, that’s too dangerous. We have agreed ye must go if ye are to search for yer men.”
“Once I see ye are safe, I’ll go. But I’ll keep sailing back until ye appear on the beach, alone, or with yer friend Ella,” he swore, meaning every foolish word. He didn’t want to be saddled with a lass—his duty to Brodie drove him to find out what happened to his men. But he owed her. She’d helped save both of them from the incoming tide. “No matter what happens to ye, I willna abandon ye.” He didn’t want her to take the risk, but he couldn’t see another option that might save them both—and any of his men he chanced to find.
Somewhere in the midst of their argument, she’d also made him swear that if another week went by and she didn’t appear on the beach, he’d cease risking himself and forget about her. She was sure by then Donas would have given her to one of his men and her fate would be sealed. He swore to himself he’d free her before that happened.
Just before dark, when she ran out of sight around the widening strip of sand, Euan prayed as he never had before. She had to appear eager to reach safety with the clan, if indeed they waited on the other side. He stood in the cave mouth, rope pulled up out of sight, watching and ready to duck back in case she returned with an escort demanding to know how she’d survived. She planned to make use of climbing the rocky steps to stand on his shoulders and say she’d managed to pull herself up onto a rock, and each time the tide rose, she swam to a higher one. The only thing she couldn’t explain is why no one had heard her scream for help.
Returning alone to her captors was perhaps the bravest thing he’d ever seen anyone do. She couldn’t be certain he’d return for her, despite what he’d promised.
Seconds dragged into long, breathless minutes, then even more, yet still she did not return. He forced himself to practice patience he did not feel, and fought the growing urge to climb down and go after her. That would be foolhardy in the extreme—and a waste of her sacrifice. Where was she? Why had she not returned for him? He couldn’t believe they’d harm her. They’d stolen her for a reason—for a life that would be much the same with the Rosses as any lasses’ would be with any clan, married and raising a family. Aye, if he had any sense, he’d leave her to make her future here.
But he knew he would not abandon her. A sweet face and pleasing form could catch his eye, and she had that. But rarely would a lass hold his interest for more than that moment of appreciation. Muireall, though, had begun to fill his thoughts. He’d never met a more valiant lass—or one more desperate, he supposed. But desperation did nothing to negate the spirit she showed him with every word she spoke and everything she’d done to help them both survive since he’d pulled her from the surf. A strange sensation—respect for a lass he barely knew—filled him at the thought.
The sea was clear of boats for as far as he could see. No one waited offshore, looking for movement in the nearby coves, ready to signal to warriors where to pick up survivors of the wreck. That was what he would have done, but perhaps the Rosses figured it was too late for anyone lost at sea the night before.
If he waited until the tide started coming back in, he’d be trapped for another twelve hours. After a night and a day with no water and no food, another night would leave him too weak to save himself, much less Muireall or any of his men who might remain alive and free. It was time to take action. Yet, the fact Muireall seemed to have disappeared without a sound troubled him. He should have heard voices, glad cries or an argument…something to let him know she’d been met and would be taken back to the Ross village.
“I may be the biggest fool yet born,” Euan muttered as he kicked the rope over the side. He kept an eye on the headland, knowing with his luck, now the rope was down, a group of her captors would cross the narrow strip of beach and spot him. “But the devil hasna taken me, yet.” He sat at the cave opening, grabbed the rope in sore, stiff hands, levered himself over the side, and clung to it as he dropped down. For a moment, he debated whether he should toss the rope into the cave, but feared he’d need it again, so he’d have to accept the possibility of it being discovered hanging down the cliff face.
To his relief and worry, he was still alone on the beach. Showing himself had not signaled a horde of Rosses to come pelting down on him. So where was Muireall?
Despite the sense of inevitable doom that hung over him, he made his way quietly to the thin strand of beach that marked the way to safety—or death. Nearby clifftops were empty.
Had Muireall gone back to the village and left him to make his way home? Nay, she wanted to escape as much as he. If she’d found the shipwreck cove empty, she would not have chosen to climb to the village. She would have come back for him. Which meant she’d been taken, without a chance to make a sound to warn him.
They had her. Now, he had to get her back.
You’ve Been Reading His Highland Heart
Title: His Highland Heart
Series: His Highland Heart #1
Shipwrecked in enemy territory, Euan Brodie fears the rest of his crew are at the bottom of the Moray Firth. While he searches for his crew, the youngest barely twelve years old, he must evade Clan Ross warriors. Yet when he sees a lass about to drown in the incoming tide, he risks capture to save her.
Along with two other Munro lasses, Muireall Munro was taken by Clan Ross raiders nearly a month ago. She’s yet to be claimed as a Ross bride. Still, after two failed escape attempts, her hope is waning of ever seeing her home and the younger brother she was raising. But the stranger who pulls her from the surf will change her life forever.
If Muireall reveals who she really is, the delicious man who just saved her life will want nothing further to do with her—yet she needs him if she is ever to escape her Ross captors. If Euan reveals who he really is to the woman he saved, he risks not only his life, but his clan. Left with no choice, can they save each other while they fall in love?