Lured to the night (the brotherhood series book 4) (page 3)

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Invisible hands squeezed his chest, tighter, tighter, forcing all the air from his lungs. Resentment bubbled away inside. He wanted to lash out at nothing, punch at the wind as it whistled through the trees, a virulent assault on fate, on coincidence, on whatever mystical force had seen fit to rob him of the only thing he’d ever wanted. It took every effort not to roar fiercely at the heavens: a warrior’s battle cry, something aggressive, inarticulate.

“You don’t love him, yet you married him.” He tried to suppress the venom in his tone. “It does not make any sense.”

“It doesn’t make much sense to me either.” Isla glanced down, slid her booted foot back and forth over the dead leaves. “It’s complicated. There is much you do not understand.”

He touched her then. He could not help himself.

Taking her chin between his finger and thumb, he forced her to look at him. Her skin felt warm and soft despite the crisp chill in the air. While the perfume of pine swirled around them, his head was filled with the unique womanly scent that clung to her hair, clothes and skin: a smell so potent he inhaled deeply.

“Tell me you had no choice.” His gaze settled on her mouth and he brushed the pad of his thumb once over her bottom lip. “Tell me there was nothing I could have done to prevent him from marrying you.”

She visibly shivered as he dropped his hand. “There is nothing either of us could have done.” She sighed; her deep, sorrowful exhale mimicked his thoughts. “Douglas said he remembered Nikolai coming here years ago when I was just a girl. He came with another man, a scholar. While Nikolai was not suffering from the blood affliction, the older man explained how his skin was sensitive to the sun. They persuaded my father to grant them access to the mine and to the chambered cairn on the ancient Pictish site that borders our land.”

Curiosity flared. “Do you know what they were looking for?”

“Douglas said he remembered the scholar carrying an old leather book. He mentioned that his ancestors were from these parts. Apparently, the proof lay in a carved symbol.” She rubbed her hip as she spoke. “They took samples from the well near the cairn and a selection of rocks from the mine.”

Lachlan struggled to understand how all the events were connected. “If Nikolai came back to gain access to the mine, that still does not explain why he married you. Or why he left here less than a week later.”

Isla shook her head. “All I know is I felt an overwhelming desire to protect the mine. I would often venture out in the dead of night to check that nothing had been disturbed. Then one night, two years ago, my mind became free of the burden. Suddenly it became unimportant, and I’ve not thought about it since.”

“Perhaps we should go down into the mine and see if we can discover what was so appealing.” Lachlan knew if he could understand Nikolai’s motives then it would help him to make more sense of it all. “I think we should visit the cairn too.”

Isla took a step closer. She put a trembling hand to his cheek. “Why? It will not change anything. No matter what we find, I will still be the wife of another man. I will still be the woman who made false promises.”

Lachlan closed his eyes, relishing her touch. Her comments were insightful, as though she had the power to slip into his mind and access his innermost thoughts. “We could have been happy together.” He had spoken before he opened his eyes. “I don’t believe he loved you and the thought makes the fiery flames of anger burn brightly in my chest.”

“Let go of the past, Lachlan.” Her hand slipped from his cheek with a soft caress. She stood on the tips of her toes and brushed her lips against the place still warm from the imprint of her fingers, lingered there for far too long just to torture him. “Let us try and salvage something of our friendship.”

Lust, pure and hot, raced through his veins. He wanted her, and he didn’t know how to suppress it. Edinburgh was not far away enough for him to forget about her this time. His mind was torn between taking her in his arms to plunder her sweet mouth, and jumping on his horse and galloping away as fast as the stallion’s legs could manage.

“I don’t know if that is possible,” he said honestly as he took a few steps back. He was as physically strong as three men. His mental agility and skill for strategy were renowned. Yet this woman, this beguiling enchantress, made him feel weak, dare he say, vulnerable. “I don’t know if I can remain in your company, pass pleasantries, drink wine, knowing what we could have been to each other.”

She blinked, batted her long lashes. “I understand.”

He wanted her to shout at him — to berate him for falling short of her expectations, too. He wanted her to drop to her knees, clasp his hands and beg him to reconsider, to tell him he was mistaken and that their friendship could be rich and beautiful, equally as fulfilling.

Hell and damnation. He didn’t know what he wanted.

A tense silence enveloped them, a shroud of doubt and uncertainty. She opened her mouth but snapped it shut. He cleared his throat but said nothing.

“I don’t blame you for feeling that way,” she eventually said. But he became aware of the restless movements in the field to his left: tails swishing, a couple of animals jumping to their feet.

“Shush.” He pointed to the meadow and then put his finger to his lips as the agitated snorts filled the air. “Something has scared the cattle.”

He saw a black figure creep out of the forest on the far left of the meadow. Walking on two legs, it was clearly a man not an animal or beast. Intent on mischief, the blackguard stopped and scanned his surroundings.

Isla shuffled towards Lachlan, their arms almost touching as she followed his narrowed gaze. Her eyes grew large and round and she sucked in a breath. “I doubt he’s come reiving. Do you think he intends to slaughter a cow?”

“We must assume so. Shall we go and find out?”

He turned to her and offered his hand. She stared at it before sliding her dainty hand into his. He gripped it tight as the warmth radiating from her palm spread through his body. The intimate gesture served purely as a means of keeping her safely by his side, he told himself. It was wrong to treat another man’s wife so affectionately. But touching Isla Maclean brought an element of calm to his chaotic thoughts. Touching Isla Maclean always soothed his soul.

 

 

Chapter 5

 

 

 

Isla’s heart pounded in her chest, the sound so loud it echoed in her ears. She clung to Lachlan’s hand as they pushed through bracken, the fern fronds brushing against her cape as they skirted stealthily around the perimeter of the field.

She gripped his hand tighter. Fear for the cattle and her safety had no bearing on the need to remain connected to him. In her mind, she imagined they were running away, far away from anything or anyone that would seek to keep them apart. There would be a small cabin, a cosy, isolated place where they could hide from the world, where no one would ever find them. Each night she would lie enveloped in his arms, relish the thought of his large body covering her, keeping her safe, keeping her warm.

But it was a foolish dream.

Sunrise would bring the realisation that she was no longer human. Any hope of spending her life with Lachlan had vanished the moment she had tasted Nikolai’s infected blood. A sob caught in her throat. Gulping down breaths was the only way to keep calm and quiet.

“We’re nearly there. I expect once he has carried out his evil deed, he will reenter the forest the same way he came.” Lachlan glanced down at her, his brows drawn together. “If you’re struggling to keep up I can carry you.”

“No.” Her heart fluttered at the prospect. Once, he had chased her along the banks of the burn, scooped her up into his muscular arms and twirled round and round until they were both dizzy. She had squealed and laughed until her sides ached. It was the day she lost her heart and soul to him. “No. It’s just difficult to keep up with your long strides.”

“Will it be easier if I let go of your hand?”

“No.” She wanted to hold on to him for a little while longer. The opportunity would never present itself again. Soon, he would leave for Edinburgh. She suspected he would leave for good. “Your firm grip is the only thing preventing me from tripping.”

He nodded, unaware of how she longed to rest her head against his bare chest, oblivious to the way her body cried out to be near him.

Lachlan stopped and bent his head. “We must be quiet now.” His gaze travelled over her face. “I want you to remain here. Should anything untoward happen, I want you to run home and alert Douglas.”

Panic flared.

He was strong, robust, a perfect specimen of a masculine warrior. What on earth could go wrong? “Do not do anything foolish, something you might later live to regret.”

He used the tips of his fingers to trace a line along her jaw. “I am already guilty of being foolish. I have committed one cowardly act that saw me lose the only thing dear to me. And so regret is something I have learnt to live with.”

He did not wait for her to pass comment and without another word turned and marched towards the clearing. Hunching his back to stoop forward, he crept out into the open air. Isla clung to a tree trunk as she watched his measured movements. The hair at her nape prickled to attention; the muscles in her stomach grew hard as she waited for him to confront the scoundrel.

In the dark, it was difficult to distinguish one black shadow from another. Lachlan had blown out the candle in her lamp and so there had been no point carrying it. All she could do was attempt to use the predatory skills that were a consequence of her blood affliction. Could she pick up traces of the villain’s thoughts in order to establish motive and minimise the risk? Could she convey those messages to Lachlan?

In refusing to accept the nature of her affliction, she had avoided listening to other people’s thoughts. Consequently, she lacked the skill needed to focus fully on the task. When it came to thinking about the man she should have married, her wild imagination often concocted wonderful scenarios that served to stifle her concentration.

Staring out across the meadow as Lachlan drew nearer to his prey, she watched as the figure suddenly shot around. She witnessed their quarry’s animated gestures, saw a glint of metal, a brief flash of light swiping the air. The frightened cattle darted in between the two men, desperate to be clear of the threat.

Nikolai’s ominous whispers rushed through her mind.

You could be sliced with a sword or shot with a pistol, and still you will not die.

Was there any truth to his words?

Without another thought, she picked up her skirt and ran out from her woodland shelter. It did not occur to her that her untimely presence would distract Lachlan from his task. Indeed, as he turned to urge her to return to the sanctuary of her hiding place, their prey took the opportunity to flee into the forest.

Torn between waiting for her to reach him and chasing after the scoundrel, Lachlan’s head shot frantically back and forth.

“Hurry,” he yelled as the cattle darted to a safer part of the meadow. She sprinted the last few steps. He grabbed her hand and pulled her in the direction of their quarry. “You should have stayed in the forest.”

“He has a blade.” She panted the words as she tried to keep up with his fast pace. “Did you see his face? Do you know who it is?”

“No. It’s too dark. He’s wearing a woman’s cape, has covered the lower part of his face with fabric or material of some sort.”

“But you’re certain it’s a man?”

“Without a doubt. His shoulders are too broad. His stance lacks the necessary elegance or refinement. And I’ve never seen a woman wield a weapon in such a way.”

Isla shivered. What would he say if he saw her pointed fangs hanging over her bottom lip, or if he heard the devilish hiss that resonated from the back of her throat? In that instance, she wielded a weapon far more lethal than a blade. When in monstrous form she lacked feminine grace and resembled a wild animal with no compassion for her victim.

They entered the forest through a narrow gap in the trees, managed to duck beneath the low branches to follow the overgrown path. The terrain proved uneven. Unstable. She tripped over a protruding root, and he grasped her elbow to help her back to her feet. The shafts of moonlight streaking through the trees did little to illuminate their way. Random gruff curses, mingled with the crunching noise underfoot, assisted them in tracking the blackguard’s movements.

“He’s heading for the village.” Lachlan’s tone conveyed confidence in his assessment. “We’ll struggle to find him once he leaves the forest.”

“I’m slowing you down. Go on ahead.”

Lachlan gripped her hand. “I’ll not leave you.”

As soon as they left the forest to follow the path that bordered Samuel Ramsey’s field they realised their assailant had vanished. Like a ghostly apparition, he had simply disappeared into the night. Isla noticed a sudden flurry of activity to her right. Numerous lights sparked in the blackness, the glowing amber lanterns swinging back and forth like the fiery eyes of a pack of wild dogs searching for their prey.

She heard shouts and loud jeers. “There she is. She’d see us all starve.”

“Bloody hell.” Lachlan stiffened at her side, the curse bursting from his lips in a breath of white mist against the cold night air. “We need to leave. We need to leave now. There’ll be no talking sense to them tonight.” With a firm grip of her hand, they backed away slowly. “As soon as we reach the forest we need to run.”

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