Lured to the night (the brotherhood series book 4) (page 2)

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Isla inhaled deeply. To spend an hour alone in his company would be as torturous as being strapped to the rack for a week. To hear him speak fondly of his time in Edinburgh would be as painful as a spear piercing her heart.

She heard the oak door creak open, heard Douglas’ muttered words. But she did not look up until the clip of booted footsteps echoed through the room.

“Miss Maclean.” Lachlan’s rich drawl caused her stomach to perform a range of flips and somersaults.

“There’s no need for formalities, Lachlan.” She gripped the arms of the chair and came to her feet, daring to meet his gaze. “We’ve been friends all our lives after all.” Trying to disguise her trembling fingers, she waved at the chair opposite. “Won’t you sit?”

Offering a curt nod, he waited for her to take a seat before dropping into the chair with languid grace. As she suspected, his long muscular legs made the space between them feel much smaller, more intimate. Perhaps she should be grateful he’d not worn a kilt. The sight of his sinewy limbs would be her undoing.

“I’m told I owe you an apology.” Despite her best effort, she could not help but convey an air of hauteur in her tone.

His bright blue eyes narrowed as he studied her face. “You owe me an apology only ifyoufeel you should give one.”

Her traitorous gaze dropped to the full lips responsible for forming the words. She remembered how soft they were; she remembered the earthy aroma of his skin. “I-I behaved like a hoyden last night.” She shook her head and blinked away the memory of his breath breezing across her cheek. “I goaded you, prodded and poked until you had no choice but to retaliate. All the strange talk in the village had set me on edge. But that is no excuse to be rude to a friend I have not seen for three years.”

The corners of his mouth curled up into a sinful smile. Sweet Jesus. No wonder the ladies in Edinburgh fawned over him.

“Then I accept your apology.”

An uncomfortable silence filled the air, forcing her to speak. “So, I hear you’ve not come home to stay.” Douglas had told her of his plans to return to Edinburgh, of his desire to marry. “Perhaps there are too many temptations drawing you back to the city.”

“Isla.” He stared at her, and she tried to ignore the warmth in his voice when he spoke her name.

She shrugged. “What?”

“I’ve not come to banter with you.”

“I didn’t mean anything by it. I just meant it can be quite dull and uninspiring here.”

He sat back in the chair and rubbed his chin in thoughtful contemplation. “There are plenty of reasons why a man would want to come home. And there is certainly nothing here I find dull or uninspiring.” The corners of his mouth curled up slightly. “I see you still hold that mischievous glint in your eye. The room still radiates with an undeniable vitality when you’re in it.”

She felt her face flush but resisted the urge to fan her cheeks. She thought of making a light-hearted comment but could not prevent the honest words from falling from her lips. “I’m not the same woman you remember. Many things have changed.” Namely, she drank blood and could not eat food. She shrivelled in the sunlight; bore the evil curse of a foreign devil.

“Aye. Neither of us is as innocent and naive as we once were.”

His comment tore at her heart. He was supposed to have been the one she married, the first and only one to claim her body and soul. She was supposed to have been the one who bore his sons. The sudden pain of loss almost choked her, and she put her hand to her mouth as she coughed.

“Are you alright?” He sat forward. “Do you need water?”

“No. I shall be fine.” She gulped a breath as she struggled to understand how it had all gone so terribly wrong. “Perhaps I’m coming down with a chill.”

“Well, if you will go racing off into the forest at night, what do you expect?”

She forced a smile. “Do you not know that’s what witches do? They dance naked under the full moon, chant their spells and lure unsuspecting gentlemen to commit a whole host of wicked deeds.”

Lachlan rubbed his hands down his powerful thighs. “You make the art of witchcraft sound so appealing. Is that what you do every night when you’re not terrorising the village livestock?”

Isla tore her gaze away from his large hands and sighed. “How could they think me capable of such devilish deeds? I’ve grown up with these people, known them all my life. I just pray they find an explanation, and soon.”

“I doubt there is an animal roaming these parts that is equipped to cause such fatal injuries. It doesn’t help that you’ve only been seen out at night these last few years. Such odd behaviour is sure to make them suspicious.” His words brimmed with curiosity, and she knew it was his polite way of asking her why.

The need to justify her actions pushed to the fore. “It is only odd if you fail to understand the circumstances.” She took a deep breath. “What I tell you now must not be repeated to another soul.” After disguising his initial look of shock, he nodded. Isla cleared her throat and continued. “Nikolai suffers from an allergy to the sun. There is a problem with his blood, and so it seems that he has infected me with the disease too.” She would trust Lachlan with her life, but that’s as much as she could say without revealing the true horror of her condition.

His face took on a deathlike pallor. “Are you telling me you’re ill?”

“Aye.”

His frantic gaze raced over her body. He reached out, perhaps contemplated touching her, before dropping his hand. “You’re not … you’re—”

“I’m not going to die.” She gave a weak chuckle. “Well, not unless the villagers decide to burn me on a pyre or bind my legs together and plunge me headfirst into the River Earn.”

“Is it contagious? Is that why you hide away here?”

Isla shook her head. “It is passed through contaminated blood, as in open cuts or wounds.” She could not tell him Nikolai had punctured her neck with his sharp fangs and drank from her until she could no longer stand.

He sat back in the chair, his broad shoulders sagging. “I wouldn’t worry about the villagers. They’re just superstitious folk. Have you not thought to tell them about your condition?”

Isla scrunched her nose in response. They would not accept her explanation. “What, and tell them I’m suffering from a strange affliction, one they’ve never heard talk of before? Then they’re sure to believe I’m cursed.” She gave a dismissive wave. Simply talking about her affliction roused painful memories. “But you did not venture out on a cold night just to hear my tales of woe. I hear you’re interested in renting the mine.”

“If the price suits my purse.”

There was something contrived about his choice of words. His pursed lips and tense shoulders revealed a certain discomfort. Incoherent fragments of his thoughts drifted into her mind. She sensed doubt, apprehension, felt the racing pulse that accompanies deceit. It struck her that he had no interest in the mine at all.

“You’ve never lied to me, Lachlan. Please, do not start now.” She caught a flicker of recognition in his eyes. It was enough to confirm her suspicions. “I do not need your charity.”

Like the last breath taken before leaving this world, his long, deep sigh expressed resignation. “Douglas told me that Nikolai left you with no means to fend for yourself.”

Isla saw pity in his eyes. When his gaze drifted over her dress and lingered on the frayed hem, he muttered a curse.

Once he had admired her, stood in awe. She had felt as rich and as respected as a queen. But now she had been reduced to the role of blind beggar sitting on the dirty streets pleading for scraps.

“Douglas frets over nothing.” The lie fell easily from her lips. But then what use did she have for money? If she had to feed naturally, so be it. Indeed, many people committed abhorrent acts to survive. Nikolai had supped from her neck — a few lost memories of the night had returned to her suddenly two years ago — although hunger had not been his motive.

“Douglas is a proud man. He would not have approached me had your situation not been dire.”

Her situation was dire; disaster had struck, but there wasn’t a damn thing anyone could do about it. She rubbed her hip, suddenly conscious of the branding mark scorched into her skin. The deviltruly had marked her as his own.

“I’ll not keep you any longer.” She stood in a bid to banish all thoughts of him staying. The more time she spent in his company, the more chance there was of him discovering the truth. “You are not responsible for me, Lachlan. I gave that right to another man. Go back to Edinburgh and find a wife of your own.” She tried not to wince at the harsh edge to her tone. Her words would be enough to rouse his temper, sufficient to send him charging out into the night, perhaps never to return.

He jumped to his feet, stepped closer until she could smell the potent scent that clung to his skin. Her knees almost buckled. She squared her shoulders and stared deeply into his piercing blue eyes, expecting him to offer a rebuke.

“I’ve never seen you look so scared.” His husky whisper was like a flame to her icy composure. “You have lied to me before. You once pledged your heart, and yet you gave it to another. I believed your lies then. But I do not believe them now.”

Isla closed her eyes briefly, shocked to find the deep ache in her chest could still pain her so easily after all this time. “Despite what you might think or how you may have interpreted my actions, I have never lied to you, Lachlan. And you’re right. I am scared.”

She was scared of living alone with her terrifying affliction. She was scared of being an outcast amongst her own people. Most of all, she feared Lachlan’s desire to marry another woman would cause him to forget her. Selfishly, she wanted him to love her forever. In truth, she wished she did know of an ancient spell or potion capable of turning back time. She would settle for one night lying in Lachlan’s arms rather than a lifetime with any other man.

“Then let me help you.” His hesitant fingers reached out to touch her cheek. “Let me share the burden.”

Isla held her breath. If he touched her, she would not have the strength to protest.

The sound of their laboured breathing permeated the air. His fingers were close, so close she could feel the heat radiating from them, the little sparks of energy that contained the essence of his life force.

Malmuirie's distant screech captured their attention. Disappointment flooded her chest as he lowered his hand, the sensation far more profound than she had expected.

The door flew open. Her maid-of-all-work scurried into the room despite Douglas trying his best to hold her back.

“We’re all doomed.” The middle-aged woman put her hand to her freckled brow but made no apology for her unwelcome interruption. She rushed over, grasped Isla’s hands and shook them as she spoke. “It is terrible. They’ll not rest until they drive us all out. They think it was you. They think you’re the Devil’s disciple.”

“Mind what ye say here, woman,” Douglas snapped as he followed her into the room.

Lachlan stared at Douglas. “Do you understand her blethering? Do you know why she speaks in riddles?”

“Aye. Stewart Ramsey lost a couple of cattle last night.” Judging by the anxious look on Douglas’ face, Isla suspected she had a right to be worried. “There’s talk the drovers will find another route to Crieff if they can’t catch the culprit. They think Isla’s to blame.”

“Tell her.” Malmuirie shook her head, strands of copper curls whipping her face. “Tell her about the baobhan sith. Tell her about the traveller.”

“Crivens! Will ye have a care and hold yer tongue, woman.” Douglas’ eyes grew wide. “It’s nae a conversation to have in front of guests.”

Isla cleared her throat. “Let Lachlan hear what the villagers have to say.” Even in her agitated state, Isla knew Malmuirie would not reveal the horrifying extent of her affliction. “Perhaps when he hears their ridiculous stories he will speak up for me.”

Lachlan’s concerned gaze settled on her. “I do not need to hear their stories to know they are lies.”

After all the hurt she had caused him, his faith in her robbed all words from her throat.

Douglas mumbled a curse. “They say a man came into the alehouse, his shirt torn and splattered with blood. The scar running down his cheek was fresh, the surrounding skin red and raised—”

“She cut him down with her talon,” Malmuirie interrupted.

“Be quiet, woman.” Douglas cast a reproachful glare. “He says a beautiful temptress lured him into the forest. That she forced him to dance with her over and over until—”

“They’re saying you’re a baobhan sith.” Malmuirie clutched her hands so tight Isla knew her fingernails were sure to leave a permanent imprint. “They’re saying you’re the beauty who bewitches men with your evil charms just to drain their blood.”

Douglas threw his hands in the air. “There’s nae point asking me to tell the story if yer determined to keep babbling.”

Lachlan gave a mocking snort. “The baobhan sith are creatures of myth and legend. I’ll warrant Hendry has put something in the villagers’ ale to keep them supping until their heads are full of nonsense. A man would have to be in his cups to believe there’s a woman roaming the forest intent on puncturing a man’s neck just to drink his blood.”

They all fell silent, and Lachlan simply stared.