The Chief

It was a perfect night for a raid—dark and misty, with nary a sliver of moon to betray them. Darkness would be their first weapon, speed and surprise their second. Strike fast and hard was the motto of all pirate raiders. No chivalry, no rules.

Tor and the team waited in the woods behind the small motte-and-bailey castle, biding their time until the wee hours of the night, all the while keeping a watchful eye on the movements of the English soldiers.

After the long sea journey from northern Skye to Galloway in the southwest corner of Scotland, it was torturous having to wait, knowing that his wife was only a few hundred feet away. He didn’t want to think about what she might be enduring right now. Nor would he allow himself to consider that she might not be alive. He had to focus on the task at hand. Taking a castle occupied by an entire English garrison was no simple proposition.

But it could be done.

Wallace had famously taken the English garrison at Ardrossan Castle in Ayr by surprise, and Tor decided to use a similar approach. With roughly a score of men and no siege engines, storming the gates was out of the question, so they would need to use stealth and distraction.

They had to assume that Christina was being held in the stone peel tower house located on the top of the forty-foot earthen motte. To reach her they would need to breech the two layers of defense offered by a motte-and-bailey fortification: the ditch surrounding the entire complex and the wooden palisade on the other side.

He would lead eight of Bruce’s team over the ditch and palisade at the rear of the castle opposite the outer drawbridge. Once inside they would break into two groups. His team would search for Christina, while the others would prepare for their escape. MacRuairi was certain he could get her out of the tower house once they were inside, no matter where they were holding her. One look at his expression and Tor was inclined to believe him. Seton and Boyd would also come with him. He needed men skilled in close combat who could kill silently—with dirks and by hand.

They would have a half hour to find her and kill the guards before Gordon and the rest of the team provided their distraction to get out. MacSorley would be waiting outside with his MacLeod guardsmen when the drawbridge came down.

The light in the tower had dimmed to almost nothing. The English soldiers’ movements had slowed. Only the occasional sound of an animal or leaves rustling in the wind pierced the silence. It was time.

He knelt in the dirt and leaves, the team circling round him, to give the men their final instructions. “You know what to do, Hawk?” he asked MacSorley, who would be leading the MacLeod clansmen. Tor had risked bringing additional warriors but had been careful not to use the team members’ names as an added precaution. Boyd had given him the idea of war names when he’d used MacSorley’s nickname for him to Christina.

The big Norseman grinned, his teeth flashing white in a face otherwise absorbed by darkness. “Aye, captain. Fetch your lass and we’ll give these bloody Englishmen a night to remember.”

By any rational estimation, a score of men against a garrison of a hundred English soldiers sounded like a suicide mission. But he was confident it could be done. The skill of Bruce’s elite force had exceeded even his own expectations. Together they were a force to be reckoned with. He felt like he was standing on the edge of something momentous. As if history were about to be made. The dawn of a new age of warrior harkened—the dawn of the Highlander.

The damned English wouldn’t know what hit them.

Attacking an English garrison would make them all traitors in Edward’s eyes, but they’d all known that when they answered Bruce’s call. Whether Lamberton and Bruce would approve of their precipitous rogue operation, Tor didn’t consider. Christina’s life was at stake; he would do whatever he had to do.

Tor and the eight of Bruce’s guard accompanying him crept soundlessly through the dark toward the ditch surrounding the motte. Using hand signals, he directed them to get on their stomachs and stay low to the ground. When they reached the edge of the earthen ditch, they waited to make sure the castle guard at the top of the motte couldn’t see them before descending. Because it was winter, the deep ditch was filled with a few feet of water—or rather, cold, black sludge that had the boggy stench of rotting vegetables. Taking care to protect Gordon’s powder, they sledged through muck and climbed up the other side to reach the spiked wooden palisade enclosure.

This was the most precarious part of their mission. They would have to climb over the ten-foot wooden posts without being seen by the guards on the motte above them or the soldier patrolling this section of the enclosure. They’d chosen a section of the wall that was blocked by a large outer building in the bailey—probably the kitchens, judging by the amount of smoke they’d seen earlier—but there would still be a dangerous few minutes when they were visible.

Tor went first. Using a rope fixed with a grappling hook, he tossed it between two posts and pulled until it caught.

Blood was pumping through his veins. Senses flared, he waited for just the right moment. When the soldier made his pass, he pulled himself up the rope and over the posts, dropping down safely on the other side.

He was in.

The next time the soldier passed, his back met the steel of MacKay’s special dagger fashioned just for this purpose. The blade was thick at the hilt and narrowed to a fine point, piercing through the habergeon of mail to his lungs. The soldier slumped to Tor’s feet without making a sound. MacRuairi called it a “silent kill” and had trained the men to locate just the right place to plunge their blades. It was a highly effective technique in covert situations like this, where the slightest sound could make the difference.

One down, ninety-nine to go—give or take.

A few more minutes later and the other eight men were standing beside him, all safely over the palisade.

He nodded to Gordon, giving him the signal, and the team split up—MacRuairi, Seton, and Boyd coming with him; MacGregor, MacLean, Lamont, and MacKay going with Gordon.

Tor led his team around the back side of the earthen motte. To access the keep, they were going to have to slither up the hill without being seen. Rather than follow one after the other, they spaced themselves apart, so that when they reached the top they’d be in position to take out the guards. But timing was everything. They had to reach the top of the hill and silence the two guards circling the perimeter before they alerted the guards stationed at the entry of the tower house.

The dirt and dried grass were slick and muddy as they worked their way up the hill, using their knees and forearms to inch up. A few feet from the top they stopped, signalling around from man to man. Tor held up his hand: five, four, three, two …

They leapt out of the darkness on the unsuspecting guards like phantom wraiths, knives plunging in deadly surprise. The guards stationed at the outer entry to the keep went next. Ninety-five. Tor felt the rush of battle surge through him with each moment as he moved closer and closer to his bride. This was going to work.

The hall of sleeping soldiers was next. He wanted nothing more than to slaughter the lot of them, but that would have to wait. First he had to get Christina out of there. They were just about to enter the tower house when he heard a cry go up from the bailey below that chilled his blood.

He swore, knowing that their chance of success had just gone from good to bad in the space of a heartbeat. Their cover of darkness and surprise had just been blown. He hoped to hell it wasn’t one of his men.

Now to get Christina out of the castle, they were going to have to fight through the garrison of soldiers sleeping in the hall a few feet away. The castle was already stirring as the commotion grew below. There was no time to waste.

He was about to order the men inside when out of the corner of his eye he saw something that made him stop.

MacRuairi had noticed it, too. “It looks like a lass, captain,” he whispered.

Tor frowned, studying the cloaked figure struggling with the guard near the gate. His pulse spiked and his heart took a sudden lurch against his ribs. Not just any lass, his lass. It seemed his wee wife had decided not to wait for a rescue. Why wasn’t he surprised?

He cursed and took off running down the stairs that led to the bailey below. With both hands, he reached behind him and pulled the sword from the scabbard at his back. A fierce war cry tore from his lungs, stunning the soldiers below.

A moment later, Gordon answered his call with one of his own.

•    •    •

Christina was fortunate that English soldiers liked their drink.

She’d almost made it past the hall when a soldier she’d thought had passed out in a drunken stupor grabbed her as she was walking by the table and spun her onto his lap. She wiped her mouth, still tasting the disgusting kiss on her lips. But she supposed escape was worth suffering through a drunken groping. She’d laughed and swatted him away playfully and handed him another goblet of wine before slipping off his lap, murmuring that she had duties to attend to.

She winced, thinking about the servant’s clothing that she wore. She hoped she hadn’t hit the girl too hard, but Christina had to make sure she didn’t wake up for a while. When the serving girl had opened the door to bring her the evening meal, Christina had surprised her with a candlestick to the back of the head. She’d “borrowed” the cotte and brat, hoping that no one would notice how the skirt dragged three inches too long, and then tied strips of sheeting around the girl’s mouth, hands, and feet. If she did wake, she wouldn’t be able to alert anyone.

Never considering the possibility that a woman would attempt to escape, Lord Seagrave thought the bar on the door sufficient and hadn’t posted a guard. It was an oversight he would regret.

Hoping to avoid another amorous soldier, Christina grabbed a tray and an empty flagon and pretended to be clearing the tables as she walked right past the guards at the entry, down the stairs, and over the bridge into the bailey below. After getting rid of her props, she hid in the shadows behind the stables near the gate, waiting for an opportunity to slip out with the villagers. But the guard closed the gate not long after she arrived. She tried not to despair, knowing it would not open again until morning.

How long before they realized she was gone? Would someone miss the serving girl? Had she tied the bindings tight enough?

So many things could go wrong. She prayed for a miracle.

Instead, a few hours later—thanks to an inquisitive kitten with the loudest meow she’d ever heard—she was discovered. She kept trying to shoo the pesky ball of fluff away, but it kept coming back. A soldier saw it and decided to investigate when the kitten refused to heed his bidding.

Wrenched from her hiding place, she found herself facing a young knight. Short and broad-shouldered, he had a flat face and crude features, but his eyes gleamed with intelligence. Unfortunately, he hadn’t drunk nearly enough wine.

“What are you doing, hiding in the dark?” he demanded.

She struggled to come up with a plausible explanation while her heart was pounding in her throat. “I …” She forced an innocent smile to her lips and batted her lashes. “I’m meeting someone.”

The feminine ploy failed miserably. His gaze sharpened. “Who?”

“Edward,” she said quickly. Surely, there had to be an Edward? People always named their children after kings, and Edward Plantagenet had been king for more than thirty years.

“Edward who?”

Nettles! Of course there had to be more than one. When she hesitated, he dragged her out to the torchlight and called out to the three other soldiers stationed at the gate. “Do any of you know this lass?”

One of them did. A soldier who’d been on the galley with her said, “She’s the lass we captured. Fraser’s gel.”

No! She’d come this close; she couldn’t bear to think that she wasn’t going to make it. This was her only chance. Next time, her keepers wouldn’t be so lax. She tried to pull away, but the soldier’s hand was like a vice.

“Please,” she begged, “I need to get back to my duties—”

A terrifying cry pierced the blistery night air. They all turned in the direction of the motte and tower house.

She sucked in her breath.

The soldier dropped her arm.

But she moved back toward him, instinctively shirking something far more terrifying than English soldiers.

Hell had opened its gates and unleashed a demon army. The four warrior wraiths descending on them were the fodder of nightmares. Covered head to toe in black to blend into the night, supernaturally tall and muscular, they tore down the stairs, swords raised, ready to wield the devil’s own fury with each swing of the fearsome blade.

Instead of tabards and mail they wore black war coats and dark plaids belted around them in a strange fashion. Even their faces beneath the ghastly nasal helms were covered, not in the blue woad war paint of the ancient Gael, but in ash. Only a flash of white pierced the darkness.

Dear God, the fiends are smiling!

Her gaze was riveted on the fearsome warrior leading the lightning charge. There was something …

A whisper of awareness slid down her spine. He was virtually unrecognizable, but she knew him. Her husband had come for her.

The English didn’t know what to do. The soldiers stood there stunned, as Christina, mindful of the danger, slid out of the way of the charging warriors. She’d barely taken a few steps before pandemonium exploded around them—literally.

A series of loud booms shattered the night, horrible sounds that struck terror in their wake. She’d never heard anything like it. It sounded like thunder and lightning, but the sky was perfectly clear.

She heard the whiz of arrows fired over her head, and the four soldiers guarding the gate fell in quick succession. A moment later a warrior with a bow slung over his back jumped from the stable roof, the gate was opened, the drawbridge was down, and more of her husband’s men were storming into the chaotic bailey.

Men were running everywhere, pouring out of the barracks and tower house above to see what was happening. Tor and his warriors fought like men possessed, cutting down all who stood in their path. The speed and ferocity of the attack was incredible. The stunned Englishmen didn’t stand a chance.

Christina saw the cruel captain who’d killed Tor’s men and captured her nearly cut in two by one powerful slash of her husband’s great sword.

She turned away, having no stomach for death even when it was warranted.

The sky lit up as fires broke out all around them. Animals joined the human menagerie looking for escape. She was very nearly trampled by a horse, but a firm hand plucked her out of harm’s way.

Tor. Before she could throw herself into his arms, he spun her to the side and with one hand hacked down a soldier who’d come up behind her.

But the chaos was dying down. Her husband and his men had already dispatched most of the soldiers in the bailey. A new wave of Englishmen tried to storm down the stairs from the tower house above, but as they crossed the bridge over the ditch, Tor’s men were waiting to cut them down one by one. Realizing what was happening, someone—probably Lord Seagrave—gave the order to retreat to the tower house. The men outside were left to their fate as the door to the peel closed behind them.

Christina threw her arms around her husband, burying her face against his chest, too relieved to care about the mud and grime covering him. “I wasn’t sure you’d come in time.”

He pulled her back, cupped her chin in his gauntleted hand, and gave her a kiss that was so fierce and desperate it left her breathless and momentarily stunned. She dare not allow herself to hope.

Breaking the kiss, he looked into her eyes. “I feared I’d be too late. Are you all right?”

She nodded, and tears sprang to her eyes. One look at him and it was as if all the fear, horror, and despair that she’d bottled up over the past few days broke free in one torrential storm. “It was horrible. Your men,” she choked, “the boat … all … dead.”

His mouth was grim beneath the steel mask. “I know. Shush,” he said, calming her. “You will tell me everything later.” He tilted her face to the light and swore, seeing the bruises around her cheek and eye. “Who did this to you? I’ll kill him.”

“You already did,” she said, pointing to the captain.

“I need to get you out of here. Can you ride?”

She nodded, her throat too hot and tight to speak.

“Good. I have a man gathering horses outside the gate; I will take you to him. You will be safe until we are done here.”

He meant to take the tower house as well. With what the English had done to his men, she knew there would be no mercy. “There isn’t time. You must take me to the Earl of Carrick right away. I only pray that he is at Lochmaben.”

“Bruce? What do you need with him?”

She told him about the documents she’d read, not needing to explain the implications.

“You’re sure about this?”

She nodded. “The messengers must be stopped before they reach Edward.”

“Did you see them leave?”

“I think so. Two men rode out not long after the midday meal.”

“English?”

She nodded. “They will travel easier than Comyn’s men once they reach the border.”

“I’ll take care of the messengers.” He went over to one of the black-clad warriors and said something to him. The man gathered three more warriors, jumped on horses, and left.

A few minutes later, she was on a horse, and they were riding hell-bent-for-leather to Lochmaben.

    Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick and Lord of Annandale, listened to Christina’s story with increasing incredulity, and then with barely repressed anger. That he didn’t question her tale was confirmation that such a dangerous document as the bond he’d signed with Comyn existed.

“I’ll kill him,” he said, his blue eyes black with rage. “I knew he could not be trusted.”

“Then why did you?” Tor asked. The lapse in judgment didn’t seem consistent with what he had seen so far of Scotland’s would-be king. Bruce had surprised him. Immediately, Tor recognized in him the one trait guaranteed to impress any Highlander—Bruce was a warrior. Unlike most Scottish noblemen, he looked like he would be just as comfortable on a battlefield as in parliament.

The earl had shrewd eyes and a blunt tongue—a rarity for any politician. Undeniably proud, he nonetheless seemed blessedly free of the trappings of his Lowland ilk, the fur-lined brat and heavy gold brooch around his neck the only visible signs of his wealth. If he’d noticed the dirt and grime covering Tor and his men, he hadn’t given any indication, welcoming them into the hall forthwith.

Bruce lowered his voice to answer Tor’s question. Though he’d assured them they could speak freely in the hall, it was better to be careful. “It would have been easier to defeat Edward with a united Scotland. I hoped to avoid a civil war as well. I didn’t think he’d dare confess his own treason to reveal mine. Comyn has more faith in Edward’s gratitude than I do.” He gave Tor a sharp look. “The men you sent after the messengers?”

“The best,” he answered. “Lamont is leading the team; they will be found.”

Bruce held his gaze, sensed his confidence, and nodded.

“What will you do, my lord?” Christina asked.

“I don’t know,” Bruce said solemnly. “But Comyn will answer for what he has attempted this day.” Ever the gallant knight, Bruce pushed aside his anger and bowed over her hand, pressing a chaste kiss on her knuckles. “I owe you a debt, Lady Christina, one that I can never hope to repay.” He glanced at Tor. “I hope your husband realizes what a fortunate man he is to not only have such a beautiful wife, but also one with unexpected—and very useful—talents. You’ve recounted the words of that document better than my own clerks.” His eyes twinkled. “Perhaps I should hire you.”

Christina delighted at the praise, blushing with pleasure at the honest admiration in the earl’s face—a handsome face, so it was said. But it wouldn’t stay that way if he didn’t release her hand. Perhaps this chivalry had its merits. “He does,” Tor said through clenched teeth. “And Christina’s talents, I’m afraid, are reserved for her husband.”

He spoke sharply and Christina frowned, not understanding the source of his annoyance. Bruce, however, did. He laughed and released her hand. “I thank you for your service this day, lass, and if you ever need anything, you have only to ask.”

Christina flushed a little pinker and returned his smile. “If you don’t mind, I should ask you for that boon right now. A bath would be lovely.”

“It shall be arranged at once.”

She looked at Tor questioningly. “Go,” he said. “I will join you soon.”

She nodded and followed the serving woman out of the Hall. Both men watched her go.

“Our bargain has worked out well for you,” Bruce said slyly.

It had, but Tor didn’t need to tell him that. “Well enough.”

“You’ve decided to accept the command.”

“With a few understandings.” They’d been speaking in French when Christina was there, but had unconsciously switched to Gaelic when she left—another point in Bruce’s favor.

The earl eyed him warily. “What kind of understandings?”

“We will follow your orders, but I must be in charge of the team. For a guard like this to work, I must have autonomy and complete authority in the field.”

Bruce considered him for a long time, not looking pleased by his demands. “So I tell you what I need and you decide how it is to be done?”

Tor shrugged. That was one way of looking at it.

After a few more minutes, Bruce reluctantly nodded in agreement. “Not that I’m not impressed with what you and your men did, but next time try to let me know before you decide to attack an English garrison.”

Tor smiled. “I’ll do my best, but there wasn’t time. The English had something very precious to me.”

“Anything else?”

“My men and I may not be bound by your knightly code—and will do your dirty work—but I won’t be ordered to kill women or children.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Bruce said wryly. “You will be called upon for dangerous and unpleasant tasks, but you have my word that I will not ask you to do anything I won’t do myself.”

Surprisingly, Tor could see that he meant it. His estimation of the lauded knight had just increased twofold. Initially, Tor’s decision to lead the team was not so much about joining Bruce as it was about defeating Edward. But the young earl had made an impression on him. Robert Bruce was no weak lordling, but a noble warrior determined to take back a kingdom. Unlike most of his chivalric brethren, Bruce was not afraid to get his hands dirty. It was a quality he would need if they were to have any hope of success. To win this war, he was going to get filthy.

Tor met his gaze. “And Comyn? Shall I take care of him?”

Bruce did not pretend to misunderstand the question. His path to the throne was not blocked by just King Edward, but also by the Red Comyn—arguably the most powerful noble in the land. “Nay. I shall deal with Comyn myself.”

Tor nodded, knowing the first strike in a long war was about to be felt.

“Go,” Bruce said, “see to your wife.” He smiled. “Though I would suggest a good dunking and a change of clothes first.”

Tor’s mouth twisted. “A wise suggestion.” He might have more success convincing his wife to forgive him if he didn’t reek of a bog.

“And MacLeod?” Tor turned, and Bruce gave him a hard, meaningful look. “Be ready.”

“Aye, my lord,” Tor said with a bow of his head. “At your command.”

    The relaxing lull of her bath had vanished by the time the water was taken away, and Christina was dressed in a fresh chemise and cotte borrowed from Bruce’s wife, Lady Elizabeth De Burgh. Barely noticing the luxurious furnishings surrounding her, she waited anxiously in a chair by the fireplace, drying her hair, not sure what to expect when her husband finally joined her.

He’d seemed so relieved to see her. But she knew he had to be furious with her for leaving. She hoped she could make him see why it was the only thing that she could do. Why they would both be better off apart. She knew it had been cowardly, leaving him like that without explanation. But saying good-bye the first time had been hard enough; she wasn’t looking forward to doing it face to face.

What was keeping him?

When the door finally opened a few minutes later, the reason for delay was obvious. She sucked in her breath, her chest tightened to burning. Like her, he’d bathed. His damp golden-brown hair glistened in the firelight and the fresh scent of soap wafted through the sultry air.

Her heart lurched. Did he have to make it so hard by looking so ridiculously handsome all the time?

Their gazes caught. She opened her mouth to apologize, but was stunned to find herself swept up in a fierce embrace.

“Jesu, Christina, you scared the life out of me.” He kissed the top of her head and squeezed her a little tighter. “I thought I’d lost you.”

He sounded different. His voice seemed softer, thick with emotion. Wishful thinking. Nothing had changed. He’d come for her—rescued her—but he’d done so before. This time she would not let her romantic fantasies carry her away. It did not mean he loved her.

She inhaled deeply, wanting to hold on to his warm, masculine scent, then forced herself to push away from him. “I know you must want to know what happened to your men,” she said. “It was so horrible.” Tears gathered in her eyes. “All gone …”

His mouth fell in a grim line. “They died doing what they were trained for, Christina. What they loved. Highlanders live to die in battle. To a warrior it is the greatest honor.”

Christina would never understand it. Warriors were a different breed.

“Tell me what happened,” he said gently.

She explained how the boats had followed them, then attacked without provocation. He listened to her story without interruption, smiling when he heard how his men had circled her and protected her with their bodies. “Maybe if I hadn’t—”

“Nay,” he stopped her. “They would have died whether you were there are not. No one could have foreseen what happened. My men make that journey a few times a month; attacks at sea are very rare. I can only guess that the MacDougalls recognized my banner and thought to continue in their efforts to destroy me.”

“It was the MacDougalls behind the attacks?”

He nodded.

That meant … “You caught Brother John before he could pass on what he learned.”

“We did.” Thank God. At least she would not be responsible for that. “Turns out my new clerk was John of Lorne’s nephew, and my previous clerk did not meet with an accident.”

How horrible! She bit her lip, still struggling with the realization that her friend had betrayed them. She felt Tor’s gaze on her face and lifted her eyes to his. “And when you left him?”

He held her gaze. “He’d seen us.”

Christina nodded in understanding. It could be no other way. The clerk had known what he’d risked, what would happen if he were caught. But still, her heart filled with sadness to know of his death.

Sensing her distress, Tor swept a lock of hair from her face, lingering to caress her bruised cheek with the back of his finger. “He did not suffer. And I believe he truly regretted your part in his treachery. He genuinely cared for you.”

The tenderness of the caress confused her—as did his kind words. Did he have to make this so difficult? She just wanted to get it over with. Turning her face from his hand, she took a step away from him. “I should not have left you the way I did.”

“Nay, you shouldn’t have.”

“It was cowardly not to say good-bye. But … I … I didn’t know if I’d have the strength.”

“Why did you leave me, Tina?”

Something in his voice made her heart catch. No. She would not allow herself to imagine feelings where none existed. She didn’t look at him when she answered. “Because I could not bear a lifetime of living with someone who could never love me. Who would not allow me to share in his life because he did not care for me or value me.”

“I see,” he said evenly. “If that were true, then you had every cause to leave.”

I did? Her gaze shot to his, his expression unreadable. Of course she did. He must have recognized the futility of their marriage as well. Her insides burned. Why did the truth have to hurt so much? Couldn’t he pretend to care just a little bit? She lowered her gaze, not wanting him to see the tears in her eyes. Somehow she got the words out, though each felt stuck in her throat. “If you could take me to Iona on your journey back, I will not bother you again.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” he said softly.

Pain welled up inside her like a hot sear of iron on raw flesh. “Of course you will be busy with your team and the earl. Perhaps you might arrange a boat to take me—”

“Nay.”

The definitiveness of the refusal finally made her look at him.

“You aren’t going to Iona,” he said.

She didn’t understand. “But you swore that if I ever wished to leave, you would allow me to retire to Iona with my sister.”

He shrugged. “I’ve changed my mind.”

“But you can’t do that. You made a vow.”

He grinned at her outraged expression. The sight was so unexpected considering the circumstances that she didn’t know what to do. How could he be so cruel as to taunt her like this? But then she looked into his eyes, and what she saw there stopped her heart.

Taking advantage of her confusion, he slid his arm around her waist and pulled her against him, molding her body to his. He kissed her. Gently. Tenderly. With almost reverent emotion. “I will do whatever I must to keep you by my side,” he said.

All signs of laughter were gone, and she read uncertainty in his gaze.

But Tor was never uncertain.

“I don’t understand.”

This time he was the one to pull away. He raked his fingers through his still damp hair. It fell in delicious, rumpled waves just past his ears. “I’m not very good at this.”

She waited for him to continue, not sure what “this” was.

He drew a deep breath. “When I realized that I might lose you, it was as if something inside me shifted. As if everything I thought I knew had been suddenly turned around.”

He seemed to be in considerable agony, but she took no pity on him. “What do you mean?”

“Ever since my parents died and I became chief, I’ve thought I had to be different. That the only way to do my duty to my clan was to cut myself off from all emotion. But in doing so I forgot how to live. You brought warmth into my life,” he said, stroking her cheek with the back of his finger. “I thought I didn’t need anyone, but I was wrong. I need you, Tina. Without you in my life, there is only coldness.”

He paused, and Christina stared at him. “For someone who isn’t good at talking about your feelings you’re doing a fantastic job.”

He smiled with relief. “Then you’ve heard enough?”

She shook her head.

“I know I was an arse.” She didn’t disagree with him. “I said things that I have no right to ask you to forgive. I have no defense other than the belief that I had to do everything alone. I know you were only trying to help me. Nor were you the only one fooled by an unassuming clerk. I do value you. I always have, though I might not have known how much. I’ve never though of a woman for a clerk, but you proved me wrong. Rhuairi said your calculations were impeccable. And after what you did today … because of you, Bruce will live to fight tomorrow.” The pride in his gaze could not be feigned. “Forgive me, Tina. Come home with me and give me another chance.”

Her heart was near bursting. She wanted nothing more than to bury her head against his chest and surrender to the hope he was offering. But her head refused to allow her to be swayed so easily. She could not endure another cold retreat like last time.

“How do I know that you won’t do exactly the same thing the next time I do something to upset you?”

He gave her a wary look. “Are you planning on upsetting me a lot?”

She pursed her mouth and stuck up her chin. “I just might. I can’t be content only being your wife in the bedchamber. I’m afraid you might find me quite demanding.”

“How demanding?” he asked as if he were having a tooth pulled.

“Very. If I agree to come back, I’m afraid that things are going to be different.”

He gave her a pained look. “You aren’t going to make this easy, are you?”

“I’m afraid not.” He inclined his head for her to continue. “Occasionally, I might wish you to show me affection before your clansmen.”

Now he winced. “Surely, that isn’t necess—”

“A tender look, maybe a brief kiss. Nothing that should be too difficult.”

“You won’t be the one listening to MacSorley around the campfire.”

“I’m sure you are man enough to handle it,” she said unsympathetically. Fearsome warriors shouldn’t whine. “And at times I might wish to offer my opinion about subjects you are discussing.”

“As long as you agree with me.”

“Even when those opinions don’t agree with yours.”

His mouth twitched. “In private you may contradict me all you like.”

She nodded. “That seems reasonable.”

“Is that all?” he asked, looking like a man who was being walked to the executioner’s block.

She shook her head and gazed up at him, hoping she didn’t sound as vulnerable as she felt. “I must demand your heart as well.”

“You have it,” he said without hesitation. She forced herself not to move. He made a pained face. “I’m going to have to say it, aren’t I?” he asked.

She nodded. “Afraid so. I really must hear it if I am to believe it.”

“You are a cruel woman.”

“Not cruel. Ruthless.” She grinned impishly. “I learned from the best.”

Then he did something she’d never thought to see him do, something that she would never forget for the rest of her life. Her husband, the proud chief, king to his clan, the greatest warrior of his age, took her hand and knelt on one knee before her.

“I love you, Tina. I may not be the knight you wished for, but come back to me and I vow that I shall strive to prove my love to you every day for the rest of our lives.”

Tears streamed down her cheeks. “Do you mean it?”

A wry grin spread across his handsome face. “Considering my current position you have to ask?” He grinned. “Aye, love, I mean it. I love you with all my heart.” She knew he’d never said those words to anyone in his life. “Will you give me another chance?”

She nodded.

He let out a groan of relief, pulled her into his arms, and didn’t let go until he’d proved it to her. Over and over again.