Reluctantly, Braden led them out of the forest, toward a small village, brimming with activity. The wattle and daub huts were uninviting, and there was a large Celtic Cross in the center of the small village.
As they approached the unfamiliar people, Braden glanced down at Sin’s legs. True to Sin’s prediction, they had actually darkened up to where they were no longer so obviously white.
Maggie’s still looked a bit too womanly for his tastes, but with any luck no one would notice that, and if they did happen to glance her way, they would merely attribute it to youth.
As he watched her, he saw the fear and trepidation settle on her face as she darted her gaze about the people and tightened her grip on the pack. He hated to see her scared. She had nothing to fear, not so long as he was there. He would never let any harm come to her.
So, he sought a way to make her smile.
“I wonder if there’s a bed to be found here,” he whispered teasingly in her ear.
Her face turned bright red at his words. “I’m sure there’s nothing more promising than a stable,” she mumbled under her breath.
Sin opened his mouth to speak, but Braden caught him on the arm. “Not a word, brother. We’re no longer on MacAllister lands, and in this area, that English accent of yours will quickly get our throats cut.”
Sin shot him an arrogant look that spoke loudly, “let them try it.”
However, Braden wasn’t in the mood to fight, and luckily Sin glared at him, but kept his lips in a tight, grim line.
Braden moved ahead of them, and approached a man who was loading hay into his wagon. About two score years in age, the man had hard lines around his face and a full gray beard laced with just a hint of brown. Though the man appeared clean and well kept, his brown and yellow plaid was ragged around the edges.
“Good day to you, sir,” Braden said to the man.
The man paused in his loading and eyed him suspiciously. “Who are you?”
Braden answered without hesitation. “My name’s Sean.”
“And who do you follow?”
“Ewan of the clan MacLucas.”
The man’s silvery eyes narrowed even more. “I never heard of him.”
“We’re from the isles,” Braden said. “My brothers and I are on our way to MacDouglas lands to see our sister and her new babe. I was wondering if there might be a place we could spend the night?”
The old man accepted his words with a laugh. “MacDouglas lands, you say? You’ll not have a happy time there, I’ll wager.”
The old man scratched his beard. “My sister married a MacDouglas, and I heard from my brother-in-law that she and the rest of the clan’s women have taken over the castle from the men. They’re standing the battlements like a group of Amazons and have threatened to tar any man dumb enough to venture near them until the MacDouglas ends the feud with the MacAllister.”
Braden feigned disbelief. “You don’t say?”
The man’s visage turned dark. “Aye. ‘Tis an evil, demonic thing that has possessed the women. I heard the MacDouglas has petitioned the bishop for an exorcism.”
“To be sure,” Braden said, then dared an amused glance to Maggie whose cheeks seemed to be a shade or two redder than they’d been a few minutes ago. “Imagine a woman not wanting her man. Saints preserve us.”
The man nodded gravely, then his mood seemed to lighten a degree. He returned to loading his hay. “Old Seamus rents to strangers. Damn fool he. You’ll find his place down near the stable.”
“My thanks,” Braden said, then turned and led Maggie and Sin toward the south end of the village where the stable lay.
“Sean?” Maggie whispered as he drew near her.
“I didn’t want to chance the name Braden, lest it jog someone’s memory.”
“Quick thinking,” she agreed.
As they drew near the stable, Braden had to force himself not to curl his lip. Old Seamus’s home was about as clean as a sty.
Still, it would keep them out of the rain, and the last thing any of them needed was to catch their death before the MacDouglas had a chance to kill them.
He found Seamus outside his house, fetching water from a well. The old man paused at their approach and eyed them with great reservation.
“I don’t have beds for three strapping lads,” he said after Braden had asked him for a place to stay. “But I do have the stable if you’re of a mind to use it.”
Maggie cast him a smug “I told you so” look.
“It’s not fancy,” Seamus continued, “but it comes with a meal, and it’ll keep the coming rain off your heads.”
It would do. And judging from the smell of the man, the stable would be preferable anyway.
“How much?” Braden asked.
The old man stroked his chin thoughtfully as he swept them with a measuring gaze. “Free, if you lads don’t mind doing some chores for me.”
Braden noted the strained look on Sin’s face. He could tell his brother would sooner brave the rain than do anything menial for a Highlander. Indeed, knowing Sin it was a wonder his brother didn’t turn berserker and start laying waste to the entire village.
He would make it up to Sin later. For now, they had to be practical.
“Sounds good,” Braden said. “What can we do for you?”
“There’s a pile of wood in the back that needs chopping, and a fence that needs repair.”
Braden clapped Sin on the back and headed toward the area.
“We’ll get busy, then,” Braden said to Seamus as he led them off.
“Hey, lad?” Seamus asked, stopping him mid stride.
Braden turned to look back.
“What are your names?”
“I’m Sean, and this,” he gestured to Maggie, “is my brother James,” and in turn he indicated Sin, “and Durbhan.”
Seamus eyed them cautiously. “They don’t talk much do they?”
“Not much to say,” Braden said.
He seemed to accept that. “Fine then, but I do warn the three of you to keep your hands off me daughters. I may be an old man, but I’ve got a bow and a shovel, and no one here would care what I did with the lot of you.”
“Yes, sir,” Braden said, trying his best not to laugh at the warning. Sin would never lay hands to one of his daughters and Maggie…
He’d best not even think of that lest it make him laugh.
“Shall we chop wood first?” Braden asked them as he led them to the small yard behind the house.
“Chop wood, my arse,” Sin sneered in a low tone. “I’d soonerÃ¢â‚¬””
“It strikes me,” Braden said, interrupting him, “that you’re supposed to be mute.” He looked at Maggie. “Have you ever met a mute who spoke more?”
Maggie didn’t look one tiny bit amused. She said nothing as Braden dropped his pack, then grabbed the axe from the stump where the old farmer had embedded it.
Fury smoldered on Sin’s face as he picked up another axe from the ground and glared at Braden who half expected his brother to lob the axe at his head.
Instead, Sin turned on his heel and cleaved a large log in twain with one angry whack.
Shaking his head at Sin, Braden grabbed another limb and set to work on it.
Maggie stood back as they started breaking the large pieces of tree into fire logs. Her heart ached as she remembered the farmer’s warning about his daughters.
Why, oh why, couldn’t the man have sons?
Maybe, they’re ugly.
Maggie paused at the thought. Aye, maybe they were toothless like the farmer, and large, heavy-set women with warts and pock marks who wouldn’t tempt Braden at all.
Seizing that hope, she moved to lift one of the large logs, but Braden stopped her. “You can get the kindling, let us take the larger ones.”
Without a word, Maggie set the log back down and picked up the smaller bits, then took them to the wood pile next to the wattle and daub house.
Turning back toward Braden and Sin, she paused to watch the men in awe as they hefted the heavy axes and broke the logs with ease. A fine sheen already covered their bodies and she couldn’t help but stare at the way Braden’s shirt drew taut over his muscles every time he brought the axe back.
Mesmerized, she clenched her hands into fists as she fought the urge to touch the bulging muscles of his arm. Or wipe his damp black hair back from his forehead.
Och now, but the man was glorious and disturbing to her well being.
Desire coiled through her in a way she’d never before known. Now that she had a taste of Braden, she was like some possessed drunkard craving more ale. For the first time in her life, she understood obsession. Understood true desire for a man.
And heaven help her, but she wanted him more than she ever had before.
Just as she was certain she could stand no more, she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. A chill of foreboding ran down her spine.
Someone was watching them. She was sure of it.
Half expecting to find the thieves, Maggie looked up to see an attractive girl of about a score of years, watching the three of them intently.
When the girl realized Maggie had noticed her, she smiled widely, displaying a full set of perfectly white teeth, and toyed with her long blonde braid, giving Maggie a come hither stare that would have made any man puff his chest out in prideful interest.
Damn her luck! The girl was more than just attractive, she was downright beautiful.
It was then the girl was joined by four more equally attractive lasses, ranging in age Maggie guessed from ten-and- three to just over a score of years.
Maggie went cold.
Oh bother, they were in trouble now, she realized. She knew the look on the lasses’ faces.
Maggie gulped in fear. The last thing she needed was for one of those lasses to come groping on her body and discover they had a lot more in common than any of the girls could suspect.
Worse, as Maggie looked at them, she knew without a doubt where Braden would be spending the night. And it surely wouldn’t be as her pillow.
Her sight dulling at the thought, Maggie grabbed the small stack of kindling and moved to pile it with the rest.
“Beg pardon,” the eldest lass said as she brazenly approached them. Her light blonde hair shined even in the murky daylight, and her bodily proportions were the type Maggie’s brother’s often fantasized about. “Me sisters and I thought you might be wanting a drink.”
The girls giggled as they came forward to hand each of them a cup of ale. Maggie took the cup and quickly put a few feet between herself and the lass who had handed it to her.
The girl poked her lips out in an obviously practiced pout, but Maggie couldn’t care less as she turned her attention toward Braden.
He took a cup from the eldest. The buxom lass rested her hip against the stump nearest Braden as she fondled the axe handle in a suggestive manner, and stared hungrily up at him.
“I was just telling me sisters how nice it is to have such strong…” The blonde’s gaze dipped to Braden’s chest where his saffron shirt was damp with perspiration. “…Men around to help with chores.”
Braden’s eyes darkened speculatively and worse, he smiled. “And what be your name?”
“Tara,” she said, purring her name.
Maggie had the sudden urge to wrench every strand of blond hair from the young woman’s head.
“I’m making a special hotchpotch tonight,” Tara continued, “just for you.” She reached out to touch Braden’s chest.
Braden cast a quick glance at Maggie who glared at him with the full weight of her displeasure.
The smile faded from his lips, and then he removed Tara’s hand from his chest. “I’m sure, we’ll enjoy it.”
Still, Maggie’s heart ached as she wondered if he’d have bothered removing Tara’s hand if she weren’t standing right there, watching them.
Tara pulled her hand back to rub it slowly along her collarbone as she trailed her gaze over Braden’s body, pausing it briefly at the area where his thighs met.
“I’m sure you’ll enjoy it,” she said, her voice conveying a thick double entendre.
Maggie turned her back on the two of them, unable to stand any more.
Let him have the harlot. Maggie had more important things to do, like gather up this stupid firewood so that she and Sin could have a roof over their heads while Braden gallivanted with that strumpet.
Maggie dumped the kindling in her arms, loudly, then turned to gather more.
She caught Braden’s gaze. Tension sizzled between them as they stared at one another for a long minute, motionless.
“Here now!” Seamus shouted as he came around the side of the house and broke their unspoken exchange. “What are you girls doing out here? I told you you were to stay inside while the lads be working.”
“But Da,” Tara said, stepping away from Braden. “We just thoughtÃ¢â‚¬””
“I know what you be thinking, and you’d best be getting back inside. You might be grown, but you’re still me daughters and I’ve a good strap for your backsides if you don’t listen to me.”
Tara poked her bottom lip out, then reluctantly did as her father ordered.
Seamus cast a malevolent glare at them until he saw the wood pile. “That should carry me through the winter!” he said gleefully. “Now, if you’ll see about that fence, I’ll see about your food.”
Braden didn’t move until Seamus left them.
At least he had the good grace to look ashamed as he approached her. “MaggieÃ¢â‚¬””
“Don’t,” she said, cutting him off. He didn’t have to explain it to her. She knew.
Bock, bock. She heard the cruel, taunting laughs of the boys from her clan as they mocked her. Women who looked like her didn’t turn the heads of men who looked like Braden.
At least, nowhere other than in her dreams.
“There’s work to do,” she said, stepping around him.
He sighed, then led the way to the broken fence.
Sin frowned at her as she walked past him.
“What?” she asked.
Sin started to speak, then locked his jaw and followed after Braden.
Maggie felt like throwing her hands up in defeat. Sin’s look had been accusatory. Though why he would accuse her of anything, she couldn’t imagine. She hadn’t done anything wrong.
Braden was the one who needed to be chastised. His behavior was deplorable.
Oh, bother anyway. They would soon reach the MacDouglas and then she wouldn’t have to worry over it any more. Then, she could go back home, and Braden would be free to make lustful eyes at all the pretty lasses who caught his fancy.
Besides, she didn’t need a man. She’d never in her life needed one. All they did was gulp down food without so much as a thank you, belch and sniff.
Why, she’d be better off with a pet pig.
And yet, deep in her heart, she didn’t believe her words. For it was there, she knew the truth. And not even the harshness of her thoughts could protect her from caring. Because she did care. She wanted Braden for herself and the thought that he could just dismiss her and claim another woman, cut her to her soul.
Saddened, Maggie joined the men at the fence and they worked in silence.
Once the post had been mended, Seamus brought their food.
They barely made it into the stable with their platters before the storm broke. Sin shut the door as thunder clapped, and hard raindrops pattered against the wood.
Maggie paused and looked around the dim interior as Braden lit two lanterns.
Inside, the stable’s worn wood was faded to a light tan, but the structure appeared sound. Two cows mooed from their stalls to her right, as an old nag chomped at its hay on her left. There were four nicer horses huddled in a large stall to the back of the stable.
Braden led them to the center of the building where bales of hay could provide makeshift tables and chairs. He sat on the one closest to the door while Sin sat to his left. Maggie took the smallest bale, farthest from the door, and set her platter on it.
As they ate quietly, the rain pelted the roof and more thunder rumbled.
“‘Tis a good thing we stopped here,” Sin said after a few minutes.
“Aye,” Braden agreed. “It would have been a miserable night otherwise.”
To Maggie, it already was.
When they finished eating, Braden gathered up their platters and cups. “I’ll return these to Seamus.”
Maggie narrowed her eyes on him, and the lie he was spilling. Did he honestly think she was too stupid to know what he had planned?
“What?” Braden asked innocently as he caught her glare.
Averting her gaze, she said nothing as he shook his head at her and walked off. If he were that dense, then she truly had nothing to say to him.
Still, she fumed. Did he honestly think she didn’t know what he was going to do? He wouldn’t give those dishes to Seamus, it was Tara he was aiming for.
“Why don’t you hit him and get it over with?” Sin asked as soon as they were alone.
Maggie looked up to see him reclining on his own bale of hay. “I beg your pardon?”
Sin tugged his boots off and stretched his legs out. “If looks could kill, Braden would be smeared all over yon wall.”
“That’s right,” she said churlishly, “side with your brother. After all, ’tis the right of your gender to strut around after anything in a skirt.”
In a royal tiff, Maggie ignored Sin as she pulled her sleeping plaid from her pack. She struggled to make a pallet and as she worked, her pain over Braden built until tears gathered in her eyes and fell down her cheeks.
Angrily, she wiped them away.
“Maggie,” Sin said with a tenderness in his voice that she wouldn’t have thought him capable of. “Why don’t you tell Braden how you feel?”
“Why,” she asked, her voice breaking on a sob, “so he can laugh? Or worse, I could have him for a night or two, but then so could any woman. Don’t you understand?”
Tossing his boots aside, Sin laughed bitterly. “You ask a man who has never known love or kindness whether or not he understands your need to feel special? Of course, I do. But while you condemn Braden for what he might do, let me ask you this. Have you ever really known him?”
Maggie sniffed and looked at him as if he were daft. “Of course. I’ve known him all my life.”
Sin snorted. “No, you haven’t. You may have seen him all your life, but you’ve never known the real him. If you had, you would know just how foolish your fears are.”
“What do you mean?”
Sin’s gaze intensified. “If you truly knew Braden, then you would know Braden would sooner gut himself than hurt someone he loves.”
“What has that to doÃ¢â‚¬””
“Think about it, Maggie.”
She did, but at the moment, she felt completely stupid, for she had no idea what he was talking about.
“As the youngest of five headstrong boys,” Sin continued, “Braden learned to negotiate peace between us. If you hit one of us, we’ll hit back instantly, without thought. If you raise a fist or sword to Braden what does he do?”
Maggie didn’t hesitate with her answer. “He tries to talk you out of using it.”
“Aye, but is he a coward?”
“Nay,” she snapped defensively. “I’ve never known him to shirk from a fight.”
“That’s right. And do you know why he’s like that?”
She shook her head.
“Unlike me, Braden doesn’t like to hurt anyone.”
Sin had yet to tell her anything she didn’t already know and none of that bore any importance on why she was angry at Braden. “What has this to do with his womanizing?”
Sin breathed as if exasperated with her. Although why he should be such, she couldn’t imagine. After all, he was the one being cryptic. She was merely trying to follow his logic.
“Tell me,” he said, “how many women do you think he’s been with?”
“By all accounts I’ve heard, nearly every woman in Kilgarigon, London, and pretty much any other place he’s ever visited.”
“By whose accounts?”
“The women who brag about him.”
“Have you never thought about how odd it is that he has been with all these women yet there are no bastards of his roaming about?”
Maggie froze while smoothing her plaid over the straw. She’d never noticed that. “But he has never denied it.”
“Of course, he hasn’t. He’s a man.”
She ran through her mind all the years she’d known him. The time she’d saved him from being mobbed by the girls of the village. Even today, the way Tara had gone after him.
Come to think of it, she seldom knew him to actively pursue a woman. Most of the time, he was running from them.
“Are you telling me he’s had no women?” she asked suspiciously.
Sin laughed. “Nay. I’m sure he’s had plenty, but I think some accounts are seriously exaggerated. Personally, I’ve only known him to take three women successfully.”
“Aye, due to his reputation, I’ve noticed that most brothers and fathers tend to keep a close eye on him and whatever woman he’s around. Most of his encounters were cut short before he could, shall we say, finish the transaction.”
Now that she thought about it, she knew a number of such events herself. Indeed, some of the juicier interruptions had kept the village gossip mongers happy for weeks on end.
“Why are you telling me this?” she asked.
Sin averted his gaze as he unstrapped his sword from his hips and laid it down by his side. “Because Braden likes you. More than I’ve ever seen him like anyone else, and I can’t stand to see him so misjudged. I think you owe it to both of you to give him a chance.”
He met her gaze. “You know, Maggie, Braden can’t help the way he looks, nor can he help the women who run after him. But he would sooner cut his arm off than hurt someone he loves.”
At last she understood what he’d meant earlier. “You’re saying he would never stray?”
“Not if he loved you. Believe me, I know my brother well enough to say, without doubt, that he would never leave a woman he truly loved for another.”
“But he doesn’t love me,” she said, her voice breaking.
“Are you sure of that?”
Maggie’s breath caught in her throat. Was he implying…
Surely not. Why on earth would Braden have any tender feelings for her?
“Are you saying he loves me?” she asked doubtfully.
“I’m not sure,” he answered honestly. “But I do know he’s a different man around you than he is other women.”
Sin shrugged. “It’s hard to explain exactly. He’s just more at ease with you. Teases you in ways I’ve never seen him tease anyone else.”
“And how would I know if he loved me?”
Sin gave another bitter laugh.
He looked up as if addressing the Lord, himself. “Again, she asks a man who has never known love,” he muttered, then louder he said, “How does anyone ever know if they’re truly loved or not? You just have to take a chance and see.”
He seared her with the intensity of his gaze. “But I can tell you this, if someone were after something I wanted, I wouldn’t stand in here weeping about it. I’d go take action on the matter.”
His raked her with a cold stare. “I thought you were a fighter. Or are you willing to just give up on your dreams?”
“I’m willing to fight,” she said.
Aye, that she was.
Stiffening her spine, she rose to her feet and went to find Braden and his strumpet.
Because if there was any truth to Sin’s words, then she might actually have a chance at the man of her dreams. And if that was true, then she wouldn’t stop until she had him at the altar.