Catarina ground her teeth as she pressed her thumb tight to her palm in an effort to pull her hand free of the rope that held her in place. Sweat was dripping down from her brow, making her nose itch, but she didn’t dare swipe at it. Time was too precious for that.
Any moment her kidnappers would return.
How she despised them for their deeds and wished a festering pox on every part of their bodies, especially that part which men valued most.
The coarse rope burned against her skin, chafing it as she worked to free herself. Not that she cared. All that mattered was her freedom.
And when she had it, she would make all of them pay for taking her from the ones she loved. How dare they!
She snatched her hand again and again against the prickly rope, trying to free it. Then she dipped her head in an effort to loosen the massive knot with her teeth. Instead of loosening the knot, it felt more like she was only loosening her teeth. Cursing, she closed her eyes and prayed as she tugged against the rope with all of her might.
She felt the skin breaking as the hemp scratched her flesh. Even so, she didn’t let up and in one painful slip, her hand came free.
If she were the crying type, Cat would weep in relief, but tears had been something she’d forsaken years ago. Wiping her brow finally, she took a deep breath then blew air across her hand to alleviate some of the throbbing as she looked about the sparse room for a weapon.
There was nothing…
Except the fire. She narrowed her gaze on the burning logs as an idea occurred to her. Reaching beneath her gown, she tore at her chemise until she had enough of it to pad her hands before she reached into the fire.
“Think you she’s ready to give us no more trouble?”
Her heart leapt at the sound of men approaching her room. Stepping back from the makeshift hearth, she gripped the limb tightly in both hands. She moved to stand behind the door where they wouldn’t be able to see her until after it was too late.
“Anymore trouble from her and I say we thrash her soundly, orders or no orders.”
“Good luck at that. My eye still throbs from its last encounter with her fist. I swear the bitch hits like a man.”
They swung open the door.
Cat held her breath until they were inside the room with her. Her gaze never wavering, she swung with the whole of her strength against the second man’s head.
He yelped, then fell against the first. Her heart hammering, she lobbed the limb against the first man, clubbing him thrice, then grabbed her skirts and ran as swiftly as she could.
She ducked out of the tack room and ran for the stable’s opening. The men called out for her to stop, but she refused.
Nothing short of death would make her surrender to them.
Cat hesitated outside as she saw the number of people in the small village. Many turned to stare at her as she ran for a saddled horse at the edge of town. To steal such would mean her head if she were caught. But truthfully she’d rather die than meet the future those men would carry her off to.
“Stop her!” One of the men shouted. “Twenty gold francs to whoever catches her.”
Cat winced as the crowd looked on her with new interest. A large burly man stepped in front of her. She pulled up short, then kicked him as hard as she could between his legs. He doubled over, but before she could maneuver past him, another man caught her from behind.
She rammed her head back to slam it into his face. He cursed as she spun from his hands, her own skull aching from the blow. Another tried to capture her. She ran her shoulder into his middle and shoved him back, causing him to fall into the dirt.
But before she could straighten, someone else ran at her and knocked her to the ground, flat on her back. She gasped as the breath left her lungs. Still, she wasn’t defeated. Rolling over, she shot to her feet only to be knocked down again.
Desperate, she scrambled on the ground, trying to escape only to be find her way blocked by a pair of scuffed black leather boots. She glared at them with hatred burning deep inside her.
Refusing to cower, she looked up defiantly at the man blocking her path, then gaped at the sight of the face that met her eyes.
It couldn’t be…
Time stopped as she met the crystal blue gaze of a man she’d never thought to see again. The last time they’d met, he’d been immaculately coifed. Regal and stern. He’d seemed larger than life, but that vision paled to how he appeared this day.
Now he looked rugged and powerful. Dangerous. Determined and feral. His golden blond hair was windblown and his cheeks dusted with several days growth of beard. And there was no missing the lethal chill in his eyes as he took in her predicament.
“Are you injured, lass?” Lochlan asked in that deep Scottish brogue before he held one large, strong hand out to her.
Cat could do nothing more than shake her head as she reached for his hand. To her relief, he pulled her to her feet, then placed himself between her and her pursuers.
She couldn’t believe her luck as she brushed at the dirt on her gown. Nor could she believe Lochlan would be willing to protect her when no one else had stepped forward.
As her captors neared, Lochlan pulled his sword from its sheath.
“Stand down,” the largest guard sneered at him, not knowing that this was one of the most powerful lairds in Scotland. “This be the king’s business.”
Lochlan scoffed at the man’s commanding tone. “King’s business, my arse. I don’t see the man here and if you have issue with the woman, then you have issue with me.”
Cat smiled for the first time in days. She couldn’t believe someone was finally taking up for her… and it was Lochlan MacAllister no less. He was nothing if not a man who lived his entire life by the rules. She’d never dreamed he would protect her like this.
The shorter guard took a step forward.
Lochlan swung the sword around his body, preparing to engage him.
The man must have come to his senses as he saw Lochlan’s obvious skill. He stepped back to a safer distance. “We are under royal orders to deliver her to Paris.”
Lochlan glanced at her over his shoulder. “Do you want to go to Paris, Catarina?”
“Not on their lives.”
He tsked at her guards. “Well now, the lady has spoken. If you truly have a royal decree, lad, I suggest you show it to me. Otherwise, step back and step down or you’ll be sitting on steel marks for the rest of your life.”
A tic worked in the guard’s jaw. “You’re making a deadly err.”
“Then you can play a giddy tune over me grave.” Lochlan gave a sharp whistle.
A tall gray horse neighed before it galloped over to him. Lochlan swung himself onto the saddle before he held his hand out to her while keeping his sword angled toward the men.
Cat took his hand and allowed him to pull her up behind him before he spurred his horse into a dead run. Wrapping her arms around his lean waist, she squeezed him tightly in gratitude. If not for the fact she hated the very air this man breathed, she’d kiss him for what he’d done for her.
“Thank you,” she said in his ear.
Lochlan didn’t speak as he looked behind him to see that the other two were running for their horses. Damn the luck. He’d have to fight them again, no doubt.
When he’d stopped in the village for supplies and to rest a bit, the last thing he’d expected to find had been the woman who was cousin to his sister-in-law Nora.
The last time he’d seen Catarina had been her brief visit to his castle after she and her family had saved his brother Ewan’s life. She’d driven him near mad with her stubborn insults and he’d gladly bidden her farewell and had hoped to never lay eyes on her again.
Apparently his luck hadn’t changed for the better in recent months.
Still, he owed this woman his brother’s life and as such he was determined to save her from whatever mess she’d gotten herself into.
“Why are those men after you?” he asked over his shoulder.
“My father, Lucifer roast his toes, sicced them on me.”
“Aye. There’s a man he wants me to marry. Be damned before I go quietly to that altar.”
Lochlan smiled in spite of their danger. He couldn’t agree more with the sentiment. “I feel for your situation, lass. Did he hire them to abduct you?”
“How did you know?”
“The fact there’s no Viktor or Bavel watching over you.” Her uncle and cousin were extremely protective of her. Wherever she went, they followed. The only way she could be here without them would have been for the men after them to have taken her.
“They kidnapped me from the inn where we were resting. I’m sure both of them are worried sick.”
No doubt. Personally, he’d be grateful for the peace her absence would bring. But that was another matter.
He felt her turning behind him. “They’re gaining on us.”
Cursing, he looked to verify the truth of her statement. “They are persistent.”
“Like worms after sunshine.”
Lochlan was bemused by her expression, creative though it was. “Just how much did your father pay them for your abduction?”
“I don’t think it’s the payment that spurs them on so much as the fear of his wrath.”
“And who is your father to warrant such terror?”
“Philip,” she said simply.
Lochlan frowned. “Philip who?”
She duplicated his scowl. “Were you not listening when they told you? Philip Capet.”
Lochlan froze as that name penetrated his mind. “King Philip of France?”
“Is there another?”
A sick feeling went through him. Lochlan had never felt more foolish in all his life, which considering the fact he’d often run herd on four wayward brothers said much for the moment. “Are you telling me that I have just abducted a princess of France from royal custody?”
“Nay, Lochlan MacAllister. You’ve just liberated a Moldavian princess from a man who thinks he can force her to marry against her will just because he says so.”
He ground his teeth in anger. “I thought you were a peasant.”
“That depends on whom you ask.”
A feeling of dread clenched him. “If I don’t receive a satisfactory answer from you, my lady, I’m going to slow down and ask the men who are following us exactly what they think.”
Cat growled at his words. No wonder she hated this man. He was inflexible and stringent. She doubted if ever he’d met a rule he didn’t absolutely love. “Fine then. My mother was the illegitimate daughter of a Moldavian prince and a peasant. Her father brought her to court when she was a young woman and there she met a man named Phillip who shared her love of horses… they shared other things as well and she soon found herself pregnant with me. Since Philip wasn’t free to marry her and she wanted no one else, she left her father’s court to live with her mother’s people. There I was raised until I was old enough for my father to see a political advantage to having a daughter tied to the Moldavian and Hungarian monarchiesÃ¢â‚¬â€œ even if I am illegitimate. And since that day of his sudden discovery, I have been on the move, trying my best to avoid any and all contact with him.”
“Did you not think this information might prove pertinent to me before I threatened your guards?”
“Of course not. Besides, I threatened them first and assaulted them as well.”
“Hmmm and shall that be your testimony on my behalf when your father demands my head?”
She scoffed at him. “You’re not really afraid of my father, are you?”
“For myself, nay, I fear nothing. However, I’m not merely a man, Catarina. I am the MacAllister, just as your father is France. Whatever actions I take effect the lives of every person who looks to me for leadership. And I will not see my people punished because you are willful and stubborn.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Simple. I’m taking you to your father.”