Linlithgow, Scotland – 1740
Brittle bones snapped beneath Catirona’s boots. A tingle scurried up her spine with each crack, her footfall echoing in the rocky cavern trapping her. A sliver of moonlight thrust corpse-like fingers through the mossy grate above.
“She below?” A baritone bellowed, distorting as it crashed against the wet cavern walls.
Catirona snatched the dirk from her boot. Stripped of arasaid and skirt, her flimsy shift ruffled in the swirling breeze from the grate. Muscles tense, she waited.
“Yes.” The guard squeaked.
Her arms prickled with images of the brute as he’d ripped off her outer clothing before throwing her to her fate. Bile threatened to spill.
Where is Finley? His face seared in her mind. The nuzzle of his chin on hers before propelling her from the wagon into the dense forest. A diversion gone awry.
“Ye were my father’s best warrior,” she muttered. Before this nightmare. Before being captured.
“Let me down. I am to finish delivering her to Clelland.”
Ice froze her legs. Dirk clutched with a steady hand, she crouched like a tiger, ready to pounce. The metal grate chafed against the stone and rained filth on her hair.
His sporran swung against his legs as he descended into the dank cave. Shadows enveloped Catirona’s body. She probed for a face; a sign of who now controlled her. Rigid muscles rippled on his legs divulging his strength. Darkness, an unstable comfort against the hunter cloaked in shadows.
“Where are you, you filthy wretch?”
Recognition of the voice coursed through her. Finley? The vehemence of his utterance crushed her from within. Her mind raced to his last words. I love you, Cat. Now run.
“Once more. Where are you?” His voice roared against the craggy rocks.
“Here.” She trembled and scuffled into the pool of moonlight. His face a merging of shadowy puddles, a sharp contrast to the glisten of his sword.
“Come closer.” Words she’d long to hear mere hours before, now crumpled her innards.
“What do you want?” Her breath ragged compared to his steady stream.
“To take you. You ken where you are going.” His arms gripped her shoulders, crushing them inward as he tugged her into the starlight spilling through the grate. “And drop that.”
A clatter to the stones below. Her only weapon vanished. Did I imagine the words he whispered earlier in my desperation to hear them uttered from his lips?
“Where are you taking me?”
His lean, muscular form brushed against her arms, his hands still firm, dug into her shoulders. “That, you dinna need to worry about.”
Had she imagined it, or had his fingers dug deeper into her shoulders at the utterance of his name?
“I do not know a Finley.”
Catirona felt goosebumps prickle his forearm, pressing her further into the pile of bones littered beneath them.
This isn’t what I imagined it would be like when he touched me. Instead of heat, cold bristled through her.
“Are you not Finley?” She spoke beneath her breath. Recognition pulsated through the arms that seized her.
“Name is Alexander. Though it means little to you, lass.” His breath hot on her cheek, he shoved her towards the rope ladder.
She gripped it with swollen hands, the hemp fibers dug into her palms. His presence behind made her quiver, a serpent like slithering.
“And do not dare run when we reach the top. I was told to deliver you to the chief alive, but given no specifics to your condition.”
His words thundered within her. Step after step, she pushed upward on wobbly legs. How did I so misjudge him?
Wet grass clumped beneath her nails as she hoisted herself into the mud. Her shift, little help against the pelting rain. He yanked Catirona to her feet and pulled her toward him. Everything in her revolted and arched away.
“Do not make this hard, lass.”
She froze. Isn’t that what he had told her before dumping her in the forest? At the time she thought it was to save her, but now the full meaning of his words barraged her.
“A feisty one, she is,” the mousy guard said. His beady weasel eyes glared.
“Aye. If she knows what is good for her, she will hold still.” Finley’s cold, blue eyes roved her face, searching.
Fists plummeted to her side in utter rigidness. “Dinna you worry. I will cooperate.”
She thrust her palms out. His hands slinked over her wrists as he bound them with rope.
“I ken.” He plopped her on his mare, swung up behind her, and galloped into the inky forest. His heart thudded against her back.
Two emotions battled within her. This was the man who hours before pledged his life to save her from the clan threatening her land. Her love. Also, a man whose eyes appeared to rove over her like a piece of meat at the market. With each jolt, her knuckles turned red against the pommel she grasped.
“Why did ye lie to me? I thought ye loved me?” She shifted in the saddle. The words sliced the silence between them. She felt him drag in a long breath.
He halted and plucked her off the horse, hands over hers in a firm grasp. “Cat.” He tugged her to an outcropping of trees. A canopy covered them in the shadows. A spike of fear tingled her already numb fingers. He unbuttoned his waistcoat and flung it over her shoulders. “I love ye. I came to rescue you.”
“Aye?” Realization dripped in her veins. With a flick of his sword, he cut the bind encircling her hands and cocooned her in his arms, her head against his chest. The scent of tangy fir trees and sweat hung in the air.
A slight grin rested on his face before he brushed her neck with his lips. “Aye. I will tell you all about my love for you later, if you can stop from being captured again.”
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