Allissaid MacFarlane glanced up from the tunic she was darning as her younger sister Annis suddenly dropped into the chair next to hers in front of the fire in the great hall. Eyebrows rising slightly at her sister’s troubled expression, Allissaid asked, “What is it, love?”
Annis hesitated briefly, but then queried, “Now that Claray has married and moved to Deagh Fhortan with her husband, will you be taking over the running of MacFarlane?”
Allissaid stared at Annis blankly for a moment, her mind slow to comprehend what she was suggesting. But then, she’d been having trouble coming to grips with the sudden change in their lives since waking that morning to learn that their eldest sister, Claray, had married her betrothed, Bryson MacDonald, and left for her new husband’s home.
Apparently, it had all taken place while Allissaid and the rest of her siblings had slept. Claray, who had been off visiting their cousins the Kerrs, had been brought home by her betrothed after the castle had settled down for the night. The servants had been woken for the wedding and celebration that followed, but Allissaid and her brother and sisters had not. They’d simply woken to the news that their sister had returned home, married and left at the break of dawn without seeing any of them.
There had been a bit of an uproar as Allissaid and the others burst into question, which shouldn’t have been surprising. They’d been told their whole lives that Claray’s betrothed had been murdered along with his parents, almost before the ink was dry on the betrothal contract between the pair. But her father had not answered most of the questions they’d shot at him. He’d merely explained that the tale of Bryson’s death had been a lie to protect the boy from his parents’ murderer while growing up. But MacNaughton’s antics had forced the situation.
Allissaid sighed at the thought of MacNaughton. The man was their neighbor, and was causing them no end of troubles. It had started a couple of years ago with his petitioning to marry Claray, the only daughter of the house who had appeared to be without a betrothed. Of course, Allissaid understood now why her parents had refused the offered marriage contract. But at the time, she had thought it terribly unfair of them to refuse it and leave Claray unmarried. Until Allissaid had met MacNaughton on one of his visits. The man wasn’t more than ten years older than Claray, and was handsome as could be. He was even polite and somewhat charming in his address, but . . .
Allissaid even now couldn’t put her finger on what it had been about him that had troubled her. But she hadn’t liked him at all, and had sensed that he was dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. His persistence in trying to get her father to agree to the marriage by using everything from bribery to threats had only confirmed those instincts. But it appeared he’d given up on gaining his permission and moved on to trying to force the issue. It was his following Claray to Kerr and convincing their uncle to aid him in forcing a marriage on Claray that had moved Bryson MacDonald to give up the lie that he was dead and claim her to wife.
Their father had admitted that this morning. He’d also said there was even more to MacNaughton’s plan. That he had intended to force the marriage and then kill the rest of them all and claim MacFarlane as part of MacNaughton. MacFarlane was apparently all he was really after. He wanted the extra land, soldiers and power. Marrying any of the daughters would help him achieve that so long as the rest of the family died and couldn’t lay claim to it. MacNaughton had planned to bring about those deaths the moment he had Claray to wife.
Her father, Gannon MacFarlane, had explained all of this as briefly as he could before announcing that none of them were to leave the keep until the matter was resolved. MacNaughton was too much of a threat to risk one of them being taken by the man and forced into marriage. Their father had followed that up by assuring them that he was looking into ways to handle this problem, but he needed them all to remain safely in the keep until he had taken care of it.
Allissaid had spent the hours since learning this news trying to come to grips with the threat they were under, but Annis’s question now brought up the other changes Claray’s marriage had brought about. The main one being that she’d probably now be expected to take over the running of MacFarlane. A large undertaking she wasn’t sure she was ready for. Claray had always managed that.
“Ooh! Aye! But no’ fer long!”
Allissaid barely got her sewing out of the way before her younger sister Cairstane suddenly dropped into her lap to hug her excitedly. As usual, they hadn’t even heard the girl approach. But Cairstane was sneaky like that. She’d probably followed Annis to her and lurked about behind them to listen to her question.
Now, the fifteen-year-old hugged Allissaid happily and crowed, “Aye, ye’ll run MacFarlane until father can arrange yer marriage, and Annis and Arabella’s too. Then once the three o’ ye are off and married, I’ll be runnin’ the keep and Cristane, Islay and I’ll each have our own bedchamber instead of havin’ to share one!”
Allissaid pushed her sister’s clinging arms away with exasperation. “Nice to ken yer so eager to see us go. But I’d no’ get too excited if I was you. Ye ken me marrying is no likely to happen anytime soon. Nor Annis and Arabella either. Da has been putting off me betrothed fer years now, and he sent Annis’s betrothed away just two months ago. He’s no’ likely to—”
“He’s sent messengers out to all three men to come take ye three away to be their wives,” Cairstane interrupted her to announce.
“What?” Allissaid asked with shock.
“Aye, what?” Annis echoed, her eyes wide.
Cairstane nodded. “’Tis true. I heard him talking about it to our cousins Aulay and Alick. He sent the messengers last night just ere the wedding. Since Graham is so close, he expects your betrothed to arrive this afternoon, Allissaid,” she said and then turned to Annis to add, “but he thinks the MacLaren and the MacLean should be no’ more than a day or two behind if they travel quickly as he requested.”
Allissaid stared at Cairstane blankly, her mind having trouble absorbing this news. Alban Graham, her betrothed since she was a wee child, had been trying to claim her to wife for more than three years, but her father had always refused to allow the wedding until he saw Claray married. But since Claray’s betrothed was, as far as they’d known, dead, and her father hadn’t seemed to be trying to arrange another, Allissaid had begun to think there might be something wrong with Alban Graham, and her father was trying to back out of the contract. She’d worried that, like Claray, she might never marry. Only that didn’t appear to be the case. It seemed she would be marrying him after all. And quite soon too.
“Are ye sure?” Annis asked, looking more concerned than excited at this news. Something Allissaid completely understood. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to marry and start having children of her own and a home to run, but this was all so sudden and—it was quite taking her breath away. She didn’t know how to think or feel and was sure Annis must be feeling much the same way.
“Aye,” Cairstane assured them. “I told ye. I heard them talking about it. Aulay was saying as how he thought it a good idea to get the three o’ ye married and away. ’Twould hamper the MacNaughton further, and might save everyone without the need to wage war against the ‘bastard MacNaughton.’”
“Well,” Annis frowned, her gaze dropping to the floor as expression after expression flickered across her face, and then she muttered, “It would ha’e been nice did he bother to tell us this news.”
“Aye,” Allissaid agreed on a sigh, and then stood abruptly, nearly dumping her younger sister on the floor. Fortunately, Cairstane had always been as quick on her feet as she was quiet and managed to save herself from landing in the rushes.
“Where are ye going?” Annis asked, standing as well.
“To pack,” Allissaid said grimly, heading for the stairs.
Much to her relief, Annis didn’t follow and neither did Cairstane. Instead, she heard the murmur of their voices as she started up the steps. No doubt they were discussing what Cairstane had heard, but she didn’t want to have to talk about any of it. She needed time alone to think. Everything was happening so swiftly. First Claray was married and gone which had been more than a shock. Allissaid and her older sister had been close, and she knew Claray had yearned to have a husband, a home and children of her own as all girls expected to do. She also knew Claray had resigned herself to never gaining any of that after all these years of their parents not arranging another betrothal for her, and that it had troubled her terribly. So Allissaid was happy that her older sister was now married with her own home and the chance to have children. But that didn’t change the fact that she would miss her terribly. And now she herself was to marry? When? Would it happen as soon as Alban arrived? Another rushed wedding like Claray’s had been? Or would they—
“Oh, m’lady, thank goodness!”
Allissaid pulled herself from her thoughts, and forced a smile for the maid rushing toward her.
Smile fading as she noted the anxiety clear on the girl’s face, Allissaid asked with concern, “What is it, Moire?”
“It’s yer brother, m’lady,” Moire gasped, stopping before her and grasping her hands anxiously. “I fear Eachann— Well, I caught him trying to sneak out o’ the keep. He was wantin’ to go to the river. O’ course, I reminded him that ’twas no’ allowed, and he said he understood and was going to his room. But I just checked and he’s no’ there and I fear he may ha’e . . .”
“Snuck out and gone anyway,” Allissaid finished grimly. Her brother had a tendency to take off to the river every chance he got, but even he should have known better than to go out right now. Their father had been most clear on the danger they were all in at the moment. But he was still young at eleven, and impetuous at the best of times.
“Aye,” the servant said unhappily, drawing her from her thoughts. “And ’tis all me fault. I should ha’e kept a closer eye on him, or told yer father then. But if he finds out now, he might blame me for no’ telling him what Eachann was up to at the time, and—”
“Da will no’ find out. I’ll go fetch Eachann back,” Allissaid interrupted soothingly, thinking she’d drag her brother back by the ear to get the point across that leaving the castle was off limits.
“Truly?” Moire asked with relief.
“Aye,” Allissaid murmured, turning to the door to the room she shared with Annis. “Go wait below. I’ll bring him down to the great hall with me the minute we return.”
“Aye, m’lady. Thank ye, m’lady,” Moire murmured, backing away as Allissaid slid into her room.
Allissaid closed the door softly, and then moved quickly to the fireplace. With the twist of one stone and a push of another, she opened the entrance to the secret passage and took a step inside, only to stop and turn back for a candle. She then stepped briefly into the hall to light it from one of the torches there before returning to her room and heading into the passage again.
Nose wrinkling at the stale air, Allissaid let the entrance close behind her and started forward. While Eachann loved the secret tunnels and passages and had used them regularly since he’d been told about them at ten, she had never much cared for them herself. The dark, the smell, the spiderwebs, and the skitter of little creatures that she was quite sure would make her scream if she could see them were all enough to put her off the dark corridors and make her move swiftly. But none of it was enough to distract her from her irritation with her brother. Her father had been quite clear on the matter of leaving the castle and Eachann wouldn’t normally disobey him like this, but her brother had been difficult of late. Most boys would have been sent off to train by now. Unfortunately, their mother’s illness and then death had delayed that and after . . . Well, life simply hadn’t gone back to normal since. It had been hard on them all, but Eachann appeared to be taking it the hardest if his acting out was anything to go by.
Allissaid sighed at the thought of how life at MacFarlane had changed since her mother’s death and how it was continuing to change. She then pushed those thoughts away and grabbed up her skirts with her free hand to lift them slightly as she started down the stairs hewn into the stone. They were steep and long, leading all the way down to a tunnel that ran under the bailey and outside the curtain wall.
Despite not liking the passages, Allissaid had used them on several occasions, usually chasing after her brother. Eachann liked to use them as a shortcut to the river where he went to swim and fish or just paddle about on most of the warmer days. He shouldn’t be using it now though with the threat of MacNaughton hanging over them. Something she fully intended to blister her brother’s ears over once she found him.
What she would say to him kept her nicely distracted for the walk through the tunnel. There were several exits from it, but she took the passage all the way to the end and the set of steps that led up to a trapdoor. Pushing it open, she scrambled up the last few stairs and out, then let the wooden door ease back into place in the ground, and turned to survey the bushes surrounding her. They were tall and dense and had to be cut back twice a year to ensure they didn’t cover the trapdoor.
After a quick peek through the bushes to be sure the area was clear, Allissaid pushed her way through them and into the woods beyond. She paused there to brush down her skirts to remove the few leaves that had caught on the cloth, and then headed for the river. It was a short walk, and Allissaid reached the clearing quickly, only to find it empty. No Eachann.
Clucking her tongue with irritation, she turned to start searching some of his other favorite places, only to freeze as several men slid out of the woods to surround her. Their sudden appearance was such a shock that it took a moment for her to recognize the man at the front of the group. Her eyes widened with alarm when she did, but before she could say anything, pain exploded in the back of her head.
“Bloody MacNaughton. One o’ these days the bastard’ll go too far and get his comeuppance.”
Calan Campbell grunted in agreement with his cousin’s irritated words, and then shifted in his saddle to glance briefly back the way they’d come. He then scanned the woods on either side of them too, but there was nothing to see. The prickling of hair at the back of his neck that made him think they were being watched must just be a result of weariness after being roused from his bed in the middle of the night. What he needed was a dip in the loch to wake himself up and wash away his exhaustion, Calan thought as he settled in the saddle again.
“Did he really think we’d believe his men’s lies about crossing onto Campbell land in search o’ his lost bride?” Gille growled with disgust. “He should ken we’d have our ear to the ground and ha’e heard about his attempt to force the eldest MacFarlane daughter into marriage,” he said, and then added heavily, “And that he failed.”
“Hmm,” Calan muttered, mouth tightening at the thought of that mess. It was bad enough that MacNaughton had made the attempt, but that the lass’s uncle, Gilchrist Kerr, had conspired with the bastard to get the deed done just made it all that much worse. He’d been glad to hear that the lass had been rescued and returned home.
“Especially with the Wolf involved,” Gille added now. “His intervention was enough to ensure all of Scotland heard o’ the debacle ere MacFarlane’s daughter was even returned home to him.”
“Aye,” Calan agreed solemnly. While they hadn’t heard the particulars, they had learned that the renowned mercenary called the Wolf had got the lass away from Kerr, returning her to her father, Gannon MacFarlane, just the day before last . . . and all without the necessity of battle. It was something Calan suspected few could have managed. But the Wolf’s reputation would be enough to scare most men into submission. Her uncle would not have wanted the Wolf and his warriors laying siege to Kerr Castle. The mercenary was not known for being merciful to his enemy. And he never lost.
“Ye ken that lost bride business was all lies to cover for the fact that he and his men were intending on running more raids on Campbell land,” Gille said with anger, and before Calan could respond, added, “I can no’ believe the bastard’s up to his old tricks. I thought we’d taught him a lesson the last time he tried this nonsense. He certainly came sniveling to Kilcairn afterward.” He snorted. “Though that business o’ tryin’ to convince ye to let him marry Inghinn was a surprise. The man certainly has some huge bollucks on him. I would no’ doubt yer refusal is the reason he went after Claray MacFarlane afterward.”
“Most like,” Calan said grimly.
“Aye. Which makes it surprising he’d try raiding again.”
Calan didn’t bother to respond, and wasn’t surprised when Gille smiled grimly and continued, “But we sent the bastard and his men packing. His men’ll think twice ere crossing onto Campbell land again.”
“Aye,” Calan murmured. Gregor, his first, had woken him in the middle of the night with the news that a party of six MacNaughton soldiers had crossed onto Campbell land and had been confronted by a group of his own men patrolling the border. He’d dressed and headed out at once with Gille, Gregor and two dozen warriors to ride to where the battle was taking place. But by the time they’d arrived, it was over. Two MacNaughtons were dead, three seriously injured, and one was on his knees with several swords at his throat when Calan had entered the clearing where the confrontation had taken place.
He’d taken a moment to check on his own men, none of whom had more than a paltry wound here or there. Even so, Calan had sent his wounded soldiers back to the castle for tending because even paltry wounds could kill a man if they got infected. He’d then questioned the last MacNaughton capable of answering. The man had insisted they weren’t there to raid, but to find their laird’s new wife who had “got lost.” He’d said that men had been sent in all directions to try to find her. Most, he’d said, had gone east, but his party had been sent north to Campbell in case she’d “wandered” that way.
Calan hadn’t believed a word of it, especially when the men had refused to give the name of this supposed bride. Still, he hadn’t seen any reason to keep the men. They’d paid dearly for their trespass. While only two were dead, the three who were wounded had taken injuries so severe they weren’t likely to survive. He’d escorted the group back to the border with a warning to pass on to MacNaughton. That if he valued the lives of his men, he’d not send them onto Campbell land again without first dispatching a messenger to ask permission. For the next time a group of armed MacNaughtons crossed the border unexpectedly, no one would be alive to return their dead.
Calan and his men had then watched the uninjured man lead the horses carrying his injured and dead comrades back into MacNaughton territory.
He supposed he could have returned to the castle and his bed then to indulge in at least a couple more hours of sleep. But his blood had been up after the abrupt waking and confrontation, and Calan had known sleep was unlikely in that state. He’d decided to stay with his men and joined them on patrol for the last couple of hours of night. But once the sky began to lighten, a prelude to the sun’s rising, he’d decided to head back to the keep. Calan hadn’t been surprised when Gille had opted to join him.
“If we hurry, we might yet get in a short nap ere everyone wakes up,” Gille said suddenly, stifling a yawn that tried to claim him at the end of this suggestion.
Calan had to fight a sudden urge to yawn himself, but shook his head and reined in as they broke from the trees into a clearing along the loch. “Nay. I’ve a full day planned. A nap would do little but make me grumpy at this point. You go ahead and find yer bed though, do ye wish.”
Gille drew his own mount to a halt and turned in the saddle to frown at him as he asked, “Ye’re no’ going to swim, are ye?”
Calan glanced around the small, secluded bay they were stopped in. “’Twill wake me up to face the day.”
Gille shook his head. “Yer a mad bastard, cousin. The loch is bitter cold fer swimming.”
“Aye, ’tis,” Calan agreed mildly. “But I’ll no’ go out deep or stay long. Just a quick dip and I’ll follow ye back.”
Gille did not look reassured. “Mayhap I should join ye fer the swim. Just in case ye-”
“Nay,” Calan interrupted with a snap, and then took a deep breath to regain control of his sudden temper. Letting it out slowly, he forced a smile. “I appreciate yer concern, cousin, but I’m fine. And I’d rather ye stop fussing o’er me.”
“I’m no’ fussing,” Gille argued at once.
“Aye, ye are,” Calan countered dryly. “Ye’re worse than me mother in playing the nursemaid. Next ye’ll be trying to shove a teat in me mouth.”
“Well since I do no’ have teats, that’s unlikely,” Gille snapped, and then sighed and said solemnly, “Ye can hardly blame us fer worrying, cousin. We near to lost ye just two weeks past. Ye’re still recovering and are no’ the sort to rest and allow yer body to heal like ye should. And frankly ye could do with a nursemaid,” he added, getting testy now as well, “A big mean one who’ll make ye stay abed so ye can recuperate properly.”
“Ye’d ha’e better luck keeping me abed did ye find a sweet young thing with lots o’ curves,” Cal told him with amusement. “And if yer looking, keep in mind I prefer blondes.”
“A fat lot o’ rest ye’d get that way,” Gille groused, and then shook his head with resignation. “Fine, go swimming then. But do no’ blame me if yer wound becomes infected and ye end up abed with a fever.”
“I promise to no’ blame ye,” Calan said mildly. “Now ride back and when me mother rises, let her ken all is well and I’m fine so she does no’ send a search party to hunt me down.”
“’Tis no’ a joke. She’ll probably do exactly that if she gets up and finds ye absent,” Gille said sharply. “What am I supposed to say when she asks where ye are?”
“If she rises before I get there, just tell her no’ to worry and I should be back directly.”
Gille scowled at the words, but then huffed out a breath and said, “Fine. But ye ken as well as I do that if ye get yerself drown in this godforsaken loch, yer mother’ll blame me. She’ll make me life a misery. And if that happens, I shall curse ye every day to hell fer it.”
“Understood,” Calan said dryly.
Giving a “harrumph,” Gille shook his head, tightened his hands on his horse’s reins, and finally rode out of the clearing.
Calan watched until the other man was swallowed up by the trees, and then turned to survey the shoreline. Finally, he dismounted, tied the reins of his horse to the branch of the nearest tree, and ran his hand down the beast’s side before walking toward the water. Once on the sand and shingle beach, he stripped off his plaid and shirt, let both drop to the ground, and then waded, naked, into the water.
It was warmer in the shallows, retaining the last bits of heat from the sunny day before. But the shallows didn’t last long. Calan waded out until the water reached his thighs and then with the next step it was like walking off a cliff. If he hadn’t grown up here and known this loch, he might have been in trouble. But he was prepared for the sudden drop and was fanning his arms through the water to stay at the surface even as it happened. He was also ready for the bone deep cold that enveloped him.
Loch Awe was approximately twenty-five miles long, little more than half a mile wide, but one hundred to three hundred feet deep depending where you were in the lake. It made for very cold water. Drop too deep in this loch and the sudden plummet in temperature could be enough of a shock to the body that it could be fatal. Over the years, Calan had seen more than one or two corpses float up after such an encounter. But he wouldn’t be one himself.
He swam briefly in the deeper, colder section, allowing the brisk water to wash his exhaustion away, and then struck out again back toward the shallows. He’d just reached it and stood upright when movement onshore caught his attention. Stopping, he glanced around and spotted a pale figure racing away into the woods in the grey morning light. Calan stared blankly at the naked lad until he recognized the dark patch of cloth hanging over his shoulder as his own plaid, and then he began to move.
The water slowed him down as Calan waded out, but once free of the hampering liquid, he burst into a run. He quickly closed the distance between himself and the young thief, taking no more than a dozen long strides into the woods before he was able to tackle the smaller figure to the ground. The thief went down with a squawk of alarm that turned into a groan followed by silence.
Realizing the body beneath him had gone limp, Calan pushed himself up, and then shifted to kneel beside the thief and turn him over. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much light reaching them in the trees, just enough for him to make out their basic size and shape and guess that he was dealing with a lad of twelve or thereabouts. But the fact that there was any light at all, told him the sun must have risen a bit more than when he’d first stopped to take his swim. It made him worry about how much time had passed since he’d gone into the water. Calan hadn’t thought he’d been in the loch long, but he often lost track of time when swimming. The last thing he needed was for Gille or his mother to come searching for him like an errant child.
Sighing, he picked up his plaid, dropped it on the unconscious thief and then scooped him up, or tried to. Pain shooting through his chest as he started to lift, made him stop. Recalled to the injury he’d taken just two weeks earlier, he looked down at himself, but the poor light in the trees didn’t reveal much. Shaking his head, he shifted his gaze to the unconscious thief, considering just taking his plaid and going, but even he wasn’t heartless enough to leave an unconscious lad in the woods for wolves or some other animal to find. Thief or not.
Gritting his teeth, he tried again to lift the boy, this time ignoring the pain. He managed to get upright with his burden, and moved quickly back out of the trees to the clearing.
As Calan had suspected, the sun had made more of a showing in the time since he and Gille had stopped here. Rather than black, the sky was now a dark cerulean that lightened to a soft pastel blue as it neared the horizon where ribbons of yellow, orange and red were creeping upward. It wasn’t full daylight, but was bright enough for him to see the would-be thief he was carrying.
Calan’s feet halted when his gaze slid over a heart-shaped face, bee-stung, bow-shaped lips, long dark hair and a chest that wasn’t flat as it had seemed in the glimpse he’d got, but had two small mounds. His gaze shot instinctively to the groin, but his plaid had gathered there and was covering what would have been the ultimate proof that he was carrying a female. He didn’t really need it though. The breasts were small, but there. His would-be thief was a young lass.
His gaze moved over her face again, and a frown began to pull at his lips as he took in not only the bleeding wound on her forehead, but dark red bruising both under one eye and on her jaw. The headwound he could believe she’d gained when he’d tackled her. His guess would be her head slammed into a rock or branch in the woods as she went down, but the bruises were too dark a red to be new. They weren’t old either though. He’d guess they were caused no more than a handful of hours ago. So were the ones on her neck, he noted, his gaze moving downward. It looked like someone had choked her. There was red bruising on her upper arms and breasts too, and one on her calf, he realized, his gaze skipping over the woolen cloth covering her lower stomach and groin, to find her legs.
Cursing, Calan knelt and laid her on the ground, then removed his plaid so that he could examine her more fully. He winced when he saw the dark red bruising forming on her stomach. Someone had beat the hell out of her, and the finger-shaped red marks on her thighs made him suspect that she’d been raped too.
His gaze slid back up her body to her face and he sat back on his haunches with a sigh and then stiffened as his gaze landed on a ring on one of her fingers. Leaning forward, he took her hand in his and raised it to examine the ring. It was fine gold with an amethyst gem. Something a lady would wear. Frowning, he slid it off and examined the pale indent left on her finger where it had rested. She’d obviously worn that ring for years. It was hers, not something she’d stolen.
Mouth tightening, Calan replaced the ring and then took a moment to consider what he should do. Finally, he stood and walked down to the beach to retrieve his shirt from where he’d left it when he’d stripped to swim. He carried it back and laid it over the lass, and then quickly laid out and pleated his plaid. Once he’d donned it, he turned his attention to dressing the lass in his shirt.
Calan had never tried to dress an unconscious woman before, and decided there and then that it wasn’t something he wanted to do again. The lass was as limp as an asparagus stalk that had been boiled too long. It made it hard to maneuver her into his shirt. Trying to get the material over her head one-handed while holding her in a seated position with the other was damned near impossible. But only damned near. He did eventually accomplish it, but was sweating with the effort as he reached inside the shirt to shove her hands and arms into the sleeves.
Once that was done, Calan tugged the shirt down to cover her breasts, stomach and back before easing her to lie on the ground as he lifted her bottom and tugged the shirt down to cover her lower body as much as possible too. A shirt, even a shirt that belonged to a big man like him, was not the same as a gown, however, and he scowled when he saw that it barely reached halfway down her thighs, leaving a lot of leg on display. Unfortunately, there was nothing he could do about that. It wasn’t like he carried women’s dresses around with him in case he ran into naked ladies in need.
Shaking his head at the very thought, Calan now tried to pick her up again, intending to carry her to his horse, but he’d barely started the effort when a bellow made him pause and glance around with surprise to see his cousin, Gille, dismounting almost right beside him.
“What the devil are ye doing, Cal? Ye’re in no shape to be picking up- Who the hell is this?” Gille interrupted himself to ask as he reached his side and stared at the woman on the ground.
“Where did ye find her? And what the devil did ye do to her?” he snapped, walking around to the other side of the lass and dropping to his haunches to examine her headwound and the bruises on her face.
“I did nothing to her,” Calan growled, exhausted and more than a little insulted that his own cousin would think he’d hurt a wee lass. Mouth twisting guiltily, he admitted, “Well, I think she hit her head when I tackled her, so I may be responsible fer the headwound.”
“Which one?” Gille asked grimly.
“What?” Calan barked with surprise.
Gille turned her face toward Calan so he could see the opposite side of her head. He then brushed some hair out of the way so that a second headwound in the hairline at her temple was more visible.
“Damn,” Calan breathed.
Gille sat back and arched an eyebrow at him. “Ye say ye tackled her?”
“Aye,” he said, sinking wearily onto his haunches again. “She tried to steal me plaid while I was swimming. I chased after her and tackled her to get it back. As I said, I think she hit her head when she went down, but all the other marks on her were there when I examined her. They can no’ be more than a couple or six hours old.”