Aulay noted the horror in his youngest brother's voice and felt his mouth twist with bitter humor. But, continuing toward the door to the hunting lodge, he merely growled. "That's what I said, Alick—fishing. I told ye I was coming here to relax."
"Aye, but I thought ye meant . . . relax, like . . . relaxing."
"Ye mean drinking and wenching and such," Aulay suggested dryly.
"Aye," Alick agreed eagerly.
"Nay." Aulay opened the door, allowing sunshine to cascade into the room. He then turned to face his brother, and drew away the long length of hair that he usually let drape over the ruined side of his face. He wasn't surprised when Alick swallowed and shifted his gaze away from him to the room at large. Aulay was sure the bright glare of sunlight merely highlighted the ugly scar that cleaved that side of his face.
"I'm no' interested in an aching head from drinking, or the irritation o' giggly bar wenches who shriek like babies when they see me face," he growled as he let the hair fall back into place. "I came to relax. Fishing relaxes me. 'Tis why I had the hunting lodge rebuilt close to the ocean after the fire, instead of where the original stood." Shifting his feet, he glanced out the door and then back before saying, "You're welcome to come do ye wish it. Otherwise, ye may as well return to Buchanan. For there will be no wenching or drinking here."
Alick didn't bother to hide his disappointment, but shook his head. "Fine, fishing it is then." Starting forward, he added, "But I'm no' staying the full two weeks with ye if all we're doing is fishing. A couple o' days, mayhap."
"As ye like," Aulay said with feigned disinterest as he headed out of the lodge. But, in truth, he was glad the lad didn't plan to stay long. He'd wanted to come on his own anyway. He always preferred to be alone when his black moods struck, and they always overtook him this time of year. Tomorrow was the anniversary of the battle that had taken his twin brother's life, and gifted him with the scar that had ruined his own. Aulay knew from experience that melancholy would soon drop over him like a cloak, and hang on him for a good week or two. It was why he'd planned this trip. He preferred to be alone to deal with his dark humors. His family tended to interfere and try to make him feel better. But, all they really managed to do was add to his misery by making him feel guilty for causing them worry.
"Fine. Where are we going fishing then?" Alick muttered, following him out of the lodge.
"The ocean," Aulay said dryly. "Where the devil do ye think I'd take ye to fish?"
"Oh. Right," Alick murmured.
"Right," Aulay agreed, and shook his head as he walked to where his horse was tethered with his fishing gear already waiting. He'd gathered fishing rods, nets and the other items they'd need and affixed them to his saddle while waiting for Alick to wake.
Any other time of year, Aulay would have walked to the beach. It wasn't that far. The new lodge was nestled in a clearing in a well-treed valley, so that it would be sheltered from the cold winter winds off the ocean. It made it a fair walk to the beach, but not far enough to necessitate riding a horse there . . . unless one found themselves exhausted at the very thought of traipsing that distance, lugging his net and fishing gear along with him, as he did now.
It was a quick jaunt by horseback and Aulay and Alick were soon in the small boat he kept on the beach and rowing away from shore.
"How far out are we going?" Alick asked after a few minutes.
"Not far," Aulay responded patiently.
Alick was silent for barely the count of ten before asking, "Are we nearly there?"
Aulay rolled his eyes, but then stopped rowing and raised his oars as he spotted something in the distance. Gaze narrowing, he peered past his brother's shoulder, trying to identify what he was seeing.
"What?" Alick asked, noting where his attention had gone and glancing over his shoulder to the water beyond the bow of the small craft. "There's something floating in the water."
"Aye." Aulay started to row again. He couldn't tell what they were looking at. It was large. At least, part of it was. Part of it was narrow too.
"What is it?" Alick asked, turning right around on his bench seat now, to face forward and better see what lay ahead.
"I'm no' sure," Aulay admitted.
They both squinted into the distance as the boat moved through the water, and then Alick said, "I think 'tis a ship's mast."
Aulay grunted, able now to see for himself that the large thing sticking out of the water was part of a crow's nest. It was on its side, with one half of it submerged, and the other half above water.
They both fell silent as he propelled them toward it and then Alick said, "I think there's a body laying across the far end. A woman."
"A woman?" Aulay asked dubiously and hoped it wasn't. Whatever lay ahead wasn't moving or crying out for help. Finding the bloated body of a dead woman floating in the water wasn't like to improve his mood any.
"I think I see bosoms," Alick explained.
"Of course ye do. Only you could make out bosoms from a hundred feet away," Aulay said acerbically, but as he rowed the boat closer, he could see what his brother was talking about. In the center at the far end of the mast, there did appear to be what could be bosoms pointing skyward.
"It is a woman," Alick said with certainty.
Aulay didn't comment. His attention was on the cloth of the sails he could see lying across the mast and floating in the water around it as they moved past the crow's nest. He shifted direction a bit to avoid getting caught up in it.
"A ship must have sunk," Alick said in a hushed voice as he moved forward in the small boat to get a better view. "But—"
"But what?" Aulay asked, putting more effort into the oars.
Alick leaned out over the bow, hanging far enough forward in an attempt to see that Aulay worried he'd fall out. Finally, Alick said, "She's tied to the mast. Why the devil would they tie her to the mast? Row faster, Aulay!"
"I am rowing as fast as I can," Aulay grunted, but dipped only one oar in the water this time to turn the boat slightly so he could get a better look at the angle of their approach and see how far they now were from the dead woman. He had no desire to ram into her.
"Was it to keep her from falling overboard in the storm, do ye think?" Alick asked.
Aulay was able to see the woman strapped to the far end of the mast now. He quickly scanned the surrounding water, but didn't see anything else floating nearby.
"It must have gone down in last night's storm," Alick commented.
Aulay nodded silently. The storm had started just after they'd arrived at the lodge. The wind had battered and torn at the log building so violently, he'd worried about losing the roof. That hadn't happened, but the storm had raged furiously for hours and he hadn't slept until it had ended.
His gaze skimmed the water around them again, but there was nothing to see. If a ship did sink, everything but this one mast with it's sail had gone down . . . which didn't seem likely. There should be kegs floating, or crates, something. Not just a lone mast with a dead woman on it.
"Take us to the left a bit, Aulay," Alick said suddenly. "I won't be able to reach her and we'll just float right past her at this angle."
Aulay raised the right oar out of the water, and sank the left one in for a hard pull.
"Good, good, just a little closer and I'll be able to reach her," Alick said, his upper body disappearing from sight as he bent over the front of the boat.
Aulay gave one more pull on the oars, and then lifted them out of the water. Resting them inside the boat, he stood to move to the bow to help his brother, arriving just as the younger man cursed.
"What is it?" Aulay asked.
"Do you have a knife? I can't get the ropes untied. They're tight as the devil and must be knotted somewhere under the water."
Aulay leaned over the side of the boat to survey the situation. They were next to the woman. But Alick was right. The start of the rope was nowhere in sight. There would be no untying her. She'd have to be cut free.
"Move," he ordered, retrieving his dirk.
Alick shifted quickly out of the way and Aulay took his spot. He bent over to peer at the woman and paused, his eyes widening. She had been a beautiful lass, her face a pale white, her hair a deep, shiny black. The gown she wore was torn and tattered, presumably by the storm. It left the better part of her upper legs on display before they bent at the knee and disappeared over the end of the mast and into the water. She must have slid down the mast after the ship sank, he supposed, and then shifted his gaze to her upper body and the barely covered, and very generous bosoms Alick had noticed. The cloth there was as tattered as it was on her lower legs, leaving most of her on display. Everything else, however, was covered by rope that started under her breasts and was wrapped around and around her all the way down past her hips.
"I think she's alive," Alick said suddenly, sounding as shocked as Aulay felt at the suggestion when his brother pointed out, "Her breasts are rising and falling."
"Stop looking at her breasts," Aulay growled with disgust. "The lass needs help, not to have some young pillock ogling her breasts and—"
Aulay's words died abruptly when the woman opened her eyes, revealing that she was indeed alive. He stared into her sparkling bright green eyes, waiting for her to take fright at the sight of his scarred face and start in screaming, but she merely stared at him with dead calm. Finally, he said, "'Tis all right, lass. Ye're safe. We'll get ye off that mast and to shore quick as we can."
Her eyes widened then, and he took the time to notice that there was a circle of golden flecks floating in the green around each pupil, and then she breathed, "Angel."
Aulay tipped his head uncertainly. "Is that yer name, lass?"
"Nay." She shook her head on the mast, but then winced as if in horrible pain. Closing her eyes against it, she managed to get out, "You are the angel."
Aulay was sure she was delirious and nearly said, "Nay, I'm a highlander, no' an angel, when she added, "I thought sure I would die, but God sent you to save me."
He was just marveling over the words when Alick muttered, "Hmm, she must be delirious. Most ladies think ye a devil come straight out o' hell since—"
"Alick," Aulay growled as he slid his dirk under one of the strands of rope to begin sawing at it.
"Shut it," he snapped as the first rope gave way to his blade and he moved on to work it under another.
Alick obeyed the order for all of a minute, before saying, "She's lucky the mast didn't land with her face down in the water. She'd have drowned fer sure."
The words actually made Aulay pause briefly and frown at the thought of this lovely creature coming to such an end, but then he gave his head a shake and continued to cut at the rope. The woman neither moved, nor opened her eyes again, and Aulay was quite certain she'd lost consciousness. He had to slice through six or seven lengths of rope before it all suddenly unraveled and fell away from her. The woman immediately began to slide off the log she lay on. A moan of protest slipped from her lips as she went, and Aulay quickly caught her upper arm with his free hand to prevent her sinking into the water.
"'Tis all right, lass. I've got ye," he said reassuringly as he quickly slid his dirk back into its sheath. Aulay then pulled the woman closer to the boat, and leaned out to scoop her from the water. She moaned as he lifted her, and he staggered under her weight. The lass was wee, but heavier than he expected. He hadn't taken into account that what was left of her long gown was now waterlogged.
Aulay paused briefly to adjust to the weight, and then turned to sit on the bench Alick had previously occupied. Once he had her settled in his lap, leaning against one arm, he was able to free his other hand to brush the damp strands of hair away from her face.
"Lass, are ye all right?" he asked, and was relieved when her eyes opened again. Smiling, Aulay murmured, "Good day to ye, lass. What's yer name? Tell us yer name and who yer people are and we'll get ye home safe to them."
"Nay," she said with alarm and winced in pain as if her own voice hurt her. Squeezing her eyes closed, she muttered, "He'll kill me."
"Who?" Aulay asked with a frown. "Who will kill ye, lass?"
She groaned, and mumbled a couple of words. Something about a cat and betrothed and his killing some Lady White?
"Yer betrothed?" Aulay asked with a frown. "Yer betrothed killed Lady White and will kill ye?"
"Nay," she groaned and instinctively shook her head, only to cry out and clutch it in both hands. After a moment, she got out, "Not my betrothed . . . make me marry him . . . will kill me like first wife."
Aulay frowned as he watched her struggle with the pain. Her face was completely bloodless now, her lips tight as she fought the agony apparently tearing at her head.
"All right, lass," he said soothingly. Rocking her from side to side as if comforting a wailing child, he promised, "All will be well. We'll no' tell anyone we have ye. We'll keep ye safe and see ye get healthy and strong again ere we worry about that. 'Twill all be fine."
Much to his surprise, the lass forced her eyes open again then. She stared at him through a world of agony, and then moved one hand to gently touch the scar that divided his face.
"Thank you," she whispered. She closed her eyes on a little sigh and her hands dropped away from both his face and her own head. Her expression then slackened, the pain slipping away and leaving serenity in its place as her head fell limply back.
"Is she dead?" Alick asked with concern.
"Nay, just unconscious," Aulay said and shifted his hand under her head, intending to lift it so he could better see her face. But feeling the lumps and abrasions there, he paused and felt around, trying to count the bumps. There were a lot of them. Most of them felt huge.
"Blood," Alick said with concern when Aulay took his fingers away.
Mouth tightening, Aulay noted the blood on his hand and clenched it shut. "She's several bumps on her head."
"She must have been tossed around by the storm, her head pounding on the mast repeatedly. 'Tis lucky she's alive at all."
"Aye. Row us ashore, Alick. She'll need tending," Aulay growled.
Alick took Aulay's place at the oars without argument and quickly set them to water.
"Once we're ashore, I'll ride to Buchanan and bring back Rory," Alick said as he paddled them back toward the beach.
Aulay nodded. Rory was the second youngest of the Buchanan brothers. He'd trained in healing for years and was quickly becoming known as the best damned healer in Scotland. If anyone could help the lass, Rory could. Aulay dropped his gaze to the woman in his arms, and then said, "Bring Conran, Geordie and Uncle Acair too. But do no' mention the lass to anyone else."
Aulay trusted his uncle, as well as his brothers Conran and Geordie, to keep their mouths shut, but wouldn't risk news of the lass getting out by telling anyone else of her presence.
"Right," Alick agreed firmly as he rowed.
Aulay continued to stare at the woman in his lap. She was so pale and fragile . . . and beautiful. He wished she'd open her eyes again and speak to him. She hadn't shown the least bit of fear on seeing his face. He'd expected her to scream her head off as most women did when they saw him. Instead, she'd caressed his scar and called him an angel. He could still feel her touch on his skin and wanted to feel it again. She gave him hope that he too could have a wife and partner who wouldn't shrink from him and—
The boat gave a jolt as the bottom ran up against the sand and was brought to an abrupt halt. Aulay waited a moment for it to settle and then stood with the woman in his arms, moved up to the front of the boat and stepped out. The minute he did, the boat rose in the water and slid off the sand. Alick quickly scrambled out after him, and pulled it up onto the beach a ways.
"Pull it right out," Aulay growled. "Back to where it was when we arrived, else the tide will take it."
Nodding, Alick put his back into the effort and Aulay watched until he managed the feat, before turning to walk to their horses. Once there though, he paused and glanced from the woman in his arms to his saddle.
"I'll hold her while ye mount."
Aulay glanced around to see Alick approaching. Nodding, he waited for the younger man to reach him and then handed the woman over, quickly mounted and then leaned down to take her back.
"Will you be all right getting her back to the lodge alone?" Alick asked as he mounted his own horse.
"Aye," Aulay answered. "Ride to Buchanan and fetch the boys."
"I'll bring them back quick as I can," Alick assured him as he turned his horse and headed off.
Aulay watched until horse and man disappeared into the trees, and then turned to survey the coast. The mast seemed closer. It appeared to be slowly making its own way to shore. By his guess, she would have drifted up onto the beach by some time that afternoon, but there was still no sign of anything else left over from a shipwreck.
He shifted his gaze down to the woman in his arms and frowned. It would take a while for Alick to fetch Rory back, but he needed to get the woman to the lodge, replace her wet clothes with dry ones and put her in bed. He'd have to tend her head wounds too as best he could until Rory arrived. He'd clean away the blood at least.
Pressing the woman close to his chest, Aulay turned his horse and headed for the lodge. Moments later he was sliding from his mount. He held the lass high and tight in an effort to minimize her jostling as he landed, but it was a difficult task and he winced and glanced to her anxiously as he hit the ground with a jolt, but the lass didn't even stir. Worried about that, he carried her quickly inside and straight up to the bedroom on the second floor.
The layout of the new lodge was much the same as the lodge that had burned down in an attempt to murder his sister-in-law, Murine, two years earlier. He'd had it built a little larger though, and had two bedrooms put on the upper floor rather than just the one. Despite that spare room, Aulay carried the lass to his bedchamber. It was the nicer of the two, and larger. It was also the only one properly set up with furniture just yet. The other held only a small bed, while his room had a larger one with bedside tables, and a small dining table and chairs set up by the fire.
Pausing beside the bed, he peered down at the woman in his arms and hesitated. She was still soaking wet, her gown dripping on the floor with each step he took. He really should have thought to remove the dress before bringing her inside, he supposed. It would have saved his having to clean up the mess he'd just trailed through the house.
Grimacing, Aulay turned and carried her to the table instead and sat her on it. Supporting her back with one hand so that she remained upright, he began to tug at her gown with the other, and soon realized that was not going to work. Wet as it was, the damned thing was clinging to her like a second skin, and, apparently, he had lost all dexterity at undressing a woman. There was a time he would have made short work of it. He used to get a lot of practice, but that had stopped some years ago.
Pushing the thought away, Aulay pulled out his dirk, slipped it carefully under the neckline of the gown and quickly sliced the front wide open. A surprised grunt slid from his lips when the dress gaped, leaving a display of pale flesh. The lass was white as a swan and covered in goose bumps from her time in the ocean and the wet clothes. The only splashes of color he noted were the two round, cinnamon nipples that were presently puckered and hard, also from being cold. Although he imagined they would look much the same from passion too.
Swallowing, Aulay forced his gaze away from her body and peered at her face as he began to work the gown off first one arm and then the other.
"My apologies, lass, but there are no ladies here to tend ye at the moment," he murmured, working quickly at her sleeves. Much to his relief, they came off relatively quickly and the top of the gown dropped away to gather around her waist. That was when he saw the bruising that started just below her breasts and continued down to disappear under the gown. They were marks left by the rope that had bound her to the mast. The dark lines ran around her stomach and sides, while her back was one large bruise, he saw when he leaned forward to look at it. A result of being cast about on the ocean waves while tied to the mast, he supposed. Grasping her by the waist just above the cloth of her ruined gown, he lifted her off the table. The tattered dress dropped off at once to land on the floor with a wet slap.
"There, that was no' so bad, was it? I expected more o' a fight to get it off and— Oh, Christ," Aulay ended on a mutter as he turned his attention from the wet cloth on the floor to the woman he held and noted that he'd lifted her high enough that her breasts were now directly in front of his mouth. Aulay closed his eyes at once and counted to ten . . . twice . . . and then again. It had been far too long since he'd enjoyed the company of a woman and this was just . . . well, it was like a starving man having the finest ale waved before his nose.
"Control yerself, ye idgit," he muttered to himself. "Just put her in the bed."
Aulay peeked one eye open to look around to see where the bed was in relation to where they stood. He then started toward it, still with just the one eye open. He had crossed half the distance when it occurred to him that he could lower the woman and remove the temptation presently waving in front of his salivating mouth. She was nearly a foot shorter than him after all, and he was presently holding her a good two feet off the floor. He didn't need to hold her that high.
Rolling his eyes at his own stupidity, Aulay lowered her several inches and then allowed his second eye to open as he navigated his way to the bed. He quickly laid her in it, and tried not to look at her as he swiftly pulled the linen and furs up to cover her.
"There!" he said, straightening with relief once he'd finished the task. Aulay then looked down at her with a satisfaction that quickly turned to a frown as he noted her perfect white and bare shoulders above the fur. Bending, he pulled the furs all the way to her chin and straightened again, but then considered the lass. Rory would want to examine her, of course. He'd come in, pull the furs down and—
Muttering under his breath, Aulay hurried to his chest and retrieved the spare white linen shirt he'd brought with him. It was a little wrinkled, but freshly laundered. Returning with it to the bed, he reached for the furs and then hesitated. As ashamed as he was to admit it, Aulay didn't think he could look at all that perfect white flesh and those hard nipples again without touching and possibly tasting them as he dressed her. There was only so much temptation a man could handle and the devil in him was already arguing that it would not hurt to just give them a quick lick or suckle. She'd never know.
It really had been a long time since he'd lain with a woman. Too long if he was having thoughts like this, Aulay decided with self-disgust.
Setting his jaw, he bent to reach for the top of the furs again, and then paused as he had an idea. Smiling at his own cleverness, he left the furs where they were for now and instead worked at getting her head into the shirt, a much more difficult task than you'd think. Or perhaps he did it wrong. He started with the hem, lifting her up slightly, furs and all, and pulling the hem of the shirt over her head and then tugging and tugging the material down until her head finally cleared the neck hole.
Easing her back to lay flat again, Aulay carefully withdrew one of her arms from under the furs and then the other. Leaving them lying on the furs that now reached just to her armpits, he quickly found one of the sleeves and then stuck the nearer arm into it, feeding the limb in with one hand, and pulling it out with the other. After doing the same with the other arm, he grasped the hem of the shirt in both hands, then gathered the top of the furs in each as well with the cloth and simply pulled downward, covering her with the linen shirt even as he withdrew the furs.
Aulay was just congratulating himself for his ingenuity and was pulling the furs back up when he noticed that the shirt was backward on her. Even worse, while the cloth on top covered her from neck to past her knees, the back was still up by her shoulders, leaving the shirt covering only most of her. He briefly considered righting the shirt and making sure the back went all the way down too, but then shook his head and pulled the furs up to her chin again. Nay. He'd managed to strip and dress the woman without doing anything to shame himself, and wasn't risking mucking it up now.
Sighing, Aulay straightened to peer at her. His mouth tightened when he noted the blood on the pillow. From her head wound, he realized, and there was a lot of it. He'd meant to take a look and clean away the blood while he waited for Rory, but had forgotten all about it after getting her gown off.
Turning, Aulay hurried from the room to fetch water and fresh linens to cut into bandages. Within moments he had her upright, slumped against his chest as he leaned over her and gently cleaned the wounds on the back of her head. It was a difficult task with her hair in the way. Aulay could barely see what he was trying to clean through the long, thick strands, and what he could see looked pretty nasty. So he was more than relieved when he heard the pounding of horse hooves approaching the lodge.
After easing her back onto the bed, Aulay balled up the scrap of linen with which he'd been trying to clean away the blood. Tossing it into the bowl of now red water on the bedside table, he then stood to walk to the window.
"Thank God," Aulay muttered when he spotted his uncle and brothers riding up to the lodge. He watched them dismount and tether their horses before he moved out of the room to watch from the landing as they entered below.
"Aulay," Rory said, sounding relieved when he spotted him. "Alick scared the devil out of us. He rushed us all out here without even slowing long enough to explain what was amiss. I thought ye must be direly wounded or some such to account for the urgency."
"Me too," Conran said grimly, glowering at their youngest brother.
"Ye said no' to let anyone else ken what was happening, and they were in the practice field at Buchanan with soldiers everywhere," Alick explained when Aulay glanced to him. "Each one o' them was fighting a Buchanan soldier, and I did no' think I should take the time to take each one o' them aside to explain what had happened. The lass looked to need help quickly."
"Aye," Aulay agreed solemnly.
"Lass?" Uncle Acair asked, glancing curiously from Alick to Aulay.
Turning away from the rail, Aulay merely waved for them to ascend and moved back into the room where the woman rested. The lodge was immediately filled with the sound of pounding feet as his brothers and uncle rushed upstairs to join him. When the sound stopped abruptly, Aulay glanced back to see that Uncle Acair and Rory had stumbled to a halt just inside the door as they spotted the woman in his bed. They were presently preventing everyone else from entering.
"Move, man! The lass needs help," Aulay growled impatiently, and the words had Rory continuing forward again at once.
"What's wrong with her?" Rory asked as he hurried around the bed.
"The back o' her head took a terrible beating," Aulay explained as Rory sat on the edge of the bed and leaned over her to lift her eyelids.
"Who is she?"
"Who beat her?"
"Is that blood?"
"What happened to her dress?"
Aulay turned at those questions from his brothers and uncle as they fanned out in the room, examining anything and everything they could find, including the woman in the bed.
When he noted the way his uncle was scowling as he examined the wet dress he'd picked up, Aulay ignored the other questions and answered his first. "I had to cut off her dress."
"Is that blood?" Geordie asked again, moving closer to the bed to get a better look.
"Aye," Aulay grunted, noting that blood now stained both the pillow and linens. "She took some terrible injuries to her head. I suspect from it bouncing off the mast we found her strapped to when we headed out fishing. The storm last night was fierce."
"Did she wake again after I left?" Alick asked as he stepped up beside him to peer down at her pale face.
Aulay shook his head.
"So we do no' ken who she is?" Alick asked.
"Nay," he admitted, watching Rory pull the furs down so that he could turn the woman onto her side away from them. The position made it much easier for him to examine her head, Aulay noted, and shook his head at himself for not thinking to do that himself when he was trying to clean the wound.
"She was awake when ye found her?" Rory asked sharply, his gaze moving from Aulay to Alick and back.
"Aye," they answered together, and then Aulay rumbled, "She spoke a bit ere passing out."
Shaking his head, Rory turned to poke and prod at the back of the lass's head. "I am amazed she was awake, let alone spoke. Dear God, she took a beating."
"Aye," Aulay agreed. What he'd been able to see had seemed bad.
"And this is from her head hitting the mast?" Rory asked with disbelief.
"As far as we ken," Aulay answered.
"It was a pretty bad storm here," Alick said, and then told Aulay, "Apparently, it mostly bypassed Buchanan keep. All they got there was a bit o' wind and some drizzle."
Aulay merely nodded. That happened sometimes.
"It must have been more than pretty bad for her to take this much damage," Rory said grimly.
Aulay grunted. "The mast was probably bobbing around on the water like a cork in rapids."
"What the devil was she doing strapped to a mast?" Uncle Acair asked with disgust, moving up on the other side of the bed to peer at her.
"Mayhap to keep her from falling overboard in the storm," Alick said, repeating his earlier suggestion.
"Making her stay below deck would ha'e done the job just as well, and wouldn't have left her bobbing around the ocean with her head pounding on the wood over and over," Geordie pointed out with displeasure.
"Ye say she spoke when ye first found her?" Uncle Acair asked.
Aulay merely nodded. It was Alick who told them, "Aye, Aulay asked her name and said he'd send word to her family, but she did no' like that idea at all. She started jabbering on about cats and white ladies and someone trying to kill her. Aulay had to promise he would no' find her family until she was healthy and well again just to calm her."
That wasn't exactly true, but it was close enough for now, so Aulay didn't comment and simply shifted his attention to Rory as the man sighed and straightened.
"Well?" Aulay barked, not liking the grim expression on his brother's face. He'd seen it before, usually when Rory didn't expect a patient to survive whatever wound they'd taken.
"She's in a bad way, Aulay, but I'll do me best to help her," he said solemnly. "I'll need to cut away her hair to better see and clean the wound, and then I need boiled water, clean linens, and my medicinals."
"Did ye no' bring them?" Aulay asked with alarm.
"Aye, but I set them down on the table below when I saw ye were well. I did no' ken about the lass here."
"I'll get yer medicinals," Alick said, leaving the room.
"I'll start some water boiling and find some clean linens fer ye to use," Geordie offered, following Alick.
Silence fell in the room briefly, and then Uncle Acair glanced to him and commented, "So we've another lass on our hands with someone trying to kill her?"
"So it would seem," Aulay said with a shrug. It did appear to be becoming something of a habit with the Buchanan men. Two of his brothers now had married lasses whose lives had been in threat and whom they'd kept safe. He had to wonder if it would happen a third time, and if so, which brother would be lucky enough to win the beautiful lass in his bed. Shifting, he said, "'Twas hard to follow some o' what she said. But it sounded like she was being forced to marry someone who was no' her betrothed and who had killed his first wife, and she thought would kill her."
"And the cat and white lady?" Conran asked.
Aulay shrugged. "Mayhap her cat and a Lady White went down with the ship."
The men nodded as if that made sense, and then glanced back to the lass.
"If ye promised no' to find her family ere she was well again, we'll have to keep the promise," Uncle Acair said solemnly after a minute.
"Aye," Aulay said firmly. That was the only thing he was clear on here.
"But it should no' be too hard to find out what ship went down in the storm and learn who she is that way," Conran pointed out. "We need no' approach her family to find out at least that much."
"True," Aulay agreed, and then added sternly, "But no one learns that she is here and alive until I say so."
Conran nodded, and then they all glanced to the door as Alick rushed back in with Rory's bag o' weeds.
"Thank ye, Alick." Rory took the bag and then ordered, "All but Aulay can leave now."
When the other men nodded and turned to exit the room, Rory added, "Have Geordie bring the linens up with the water when 'tis boiled."
"Aye," was the answer from all three men.
Once they'd left, Aulay turned to Rory and raised his eyebrows. "What do ye want me to do?"
"Ye're going to help me shave her head."
He glanced to her beautiful black tresses with alarm.
"Just the back. I need to see the injuries to clean them. It'll grow back," Rory said as he retrieved a wicked-looking knife from his medicinals bag. Turning back to the lass, he added under his breath, "if she survives."
Aulay's chest tightened at that last part. It verified his earlier suspicion that Rory didn't think the lass had much of a chance. The thought made him turn his gaze to the wee, pale lass in the bed. She looked delicate and weak, but he was quite certain she wasn't. The pain she'd seemed to be suffering, and that she had withstood long enough to ensure he wouldn't deliver her to her family, suggested a woman with spirit and a good deal of inner strength. She'd survive, Aulay decided. He'd do everything in his power to make sure she did.