Devil of the Highlands Chapter One

Northern England


"My lady!"

That anxious cry made Evelinde pause in what she was saying to Cook and glance around. Her maid was rushing across the kitchens toward her, expression both angry and worried. It was a combination usually only engendered by Edda's actions. Wondering what her stepmother had got up to now, Evelinde quickly promised Cook they would finish their discussion of menus later, and went to meet her maid.

Mildrede caught her hands the moment they reached each other. Her mouth turned down grimly as she announced, "Your stepmother is calling for you."

Evelinde grimaced. Edda only sent for her when she was in one of her foul moods and wished to cheer herself by abusing her unfortunate stepdaughter. For one moment, Evelinde considered ignoring the summons and finding a task away from the keep for the rest of the day. However, that would only make the woman's mood—and the subsequent abuses—worse.

"I had best go see what she wants then," Evelinde said and squeezed Mildrede's hands reassuringly before moving past her.

"She's smiling," Mildrede warned, following on her heels.

Evelinde paused with her hand on the door to the great hall, trepidation running through her. A smiling Edda was not a good thing. It usually meant Evelinde was about to suffer. Not that the woman ever dared hit her, but there were worse things, tasks so unpleasant one would almost prefer a beating. Biting her lip with worry, she asked, "Do you know what has set her off this time?"

"Nay," Mildrede said apologetically. "She was railing at Mac for not pampering her mare properly when a messenger arrived from the king. She read the message, smiled, and called for you."

"Oh," Evelinde breathed faintly, but then forced her shoulders straight, raised her head, and pushed through the door. It was the only thing she could do … That and pray that someday, she would be free of her stepmother's control and abuses.

"Ah, Evelinde!" Edda was indeed smiling—a very wide, beaming smile that really didn't bode well.

"I was told you wished to speak with me?" Evelinde said quietly, aware of Mildrede hovering at her back. The woman always offered her support during Edda's little attacks.

"Aye." Edda continued to flash a wide, toothy smile, although toothless would have been as good a description. The woman was missing half her teeth, and those remaining were brown and crooked. Edda rarely smiled, and certainly never widely enough to show off the state of her mouth. Her doing so now made Evelinde's anxiety increase tenfold.

"Since your father's death, seeing to your welfare has fallen to me, and I have been most concerned about your future and well-being, my dear," Edda began.

Evelinde managed not to sneer at the claim of concern. Her father, James d'Aumesbery, had been a good man and a faithful baron to their king. When Henry III had requested he marry the troublesome Edda and remove her from court, where she was making a nuisance of herself, her father had bowed to the task gracefully. Edda had not. She'd resented being tied to a man who held only a barony and had seemed to take an instant dislike to Evelinde on reaching d'Aumesbery.

It hadn't been so bad at first. With the presence of Evelinde's father and her brother, Alexander, Edda had at least behaved cordially to her. However, Alexander had ridden off to join the Crusades with Prince Edward three years earlier. While the prince had since returned and been crowned king on his father's death, Alexander was still in Tunis. Worse yet, no sooner had he left than their father died of a chest complaint.

James d'Aumesbery hadn't even been placed in the family crypt before Edda dropped any pretense at civility and let her true feelings show. These last three years had been a hell Evelinde feared she would never escape. Her only hope was to await her brother's homecoming so that he might see her married and settled far away from the woman. Unfortunately, Alexander seemed in no rush to return.

"I have decided 'tis well past time you married," Edda announced, "and the king agrees with me."

"She means the king decided you should marry, and she was forced to agree," Mildrede muttered behind her, low enough that Edda couldn't hear. "You don't think she'd willingly give up tormenting you. It's her favorite pastime."

Evelinde barely heard her maid, she was too busy trying to absorb what Edda was saying. Part of her feared it was simply a cruel attempt on Edda's part to get her hopes up, then dash them.

"And so I chose a husband for you, and the king negotiated a marriage contract," Edda announced grandly. "I have just received a message that 'tis all done. You will be married."

Evelinde simply waited, knowing there was more. Edda would either explain it was all a jest, or name some perfectly horrid, smelly old lord that Evelinde would surely be miserable with.

"Your betrothed is on his way here from his home even as we speak. He is the laird of Donnachaidh," she announced triumphantly, pronouncing it Don-o-kay.

Evelinde gasped. This was worse than a smelly old lord, this was—" the Devil of Donnachaidh? "

Edda's expression was full of evil glee. "Aye, and I wish you all the unhappiness in the world."

"Bitch," Mildrede hissed furiously from behind Evelinde.

Ignoring her maid, Evelinde managed to force away the horror and dismay and keep her features expressionless. She would not add to Edda's pleasure by revealing how deep this blow had struck. The Devil of Donnachaidh? The woman didn't just hate her, she despised her if she was willing to hand her over to that infamous Scottish laird.

"Now be gone," Edda said, apparently having had her fun. "I do not wish to look on you anymore."

Evelinde nodded stiffly and turned, catching Mildrede by the arm to lead her out of the great hall and the keep itself.

"Cow!" Mildrede snapped, as soon as the keep doors closed behind them.

Evelinde merely urged her quickly across the bailey toward the stables.

"Vile, ugly, cruel creature," Mildrede continued. "She has a heart of stone and a face to match. The Devil must have been laughing the day the king forced your father to marry that she-devil."

Evelinde flashed Mac, the stable master, a grateful smile when she urged Mildrede into the stables and saw her mount saddled and ready next to the reddish brown roan he favored.

"I saw the smile on Edda's face when she received her message," the stable master explained. "I figured ye might need a ride when she was done with ye."

"Aye. Thank you, Mac." Evelinde urged Mildrede up to the mare.

"Your father must be rolling in his grave," the maid snarled, as Evelinde boosted her up onto the mount.

With a little help from Mac, Evelinde swung herself up onto the horse behind the older woman as she continued her rant. "And your dear sainted mother must be frothing at the mouth, wishing she was still alive so she could tear the wench's hair out one mud brown strand at a time."

Evelinde put her heels to her mare to urge her into a canter, aware Mac had mounted and was following close behind.

"I should poison the nasty harpy's mead," Mildrede threatened, as they rode across the bailey at a sedate canter, heading for the gate and drawbridge. "Every single inhabitant of the keep would be grateful for it. She's the most unpleasant, grasping, coldhearted, mealy-wormed—Ack!"

Evelinde smiled faintly at her squawk. They'd reached the halfway point on the drawbridge, and she'd given Lady her head. The mare immediately tossed her mane with a whinny of joy and bolted into a dead run. Evelinde didn't bother to look behind to check on Mac; she knew he would be keeping up. Besides, her hands were full with keeping her seat and holding on to the reins as Mildrede began clawing at her as if she thought she might slide out of the saddle.

Only when Mildrede's grip began to weaken did Evelinde draw gently on her mare's reins. Lady responded at once, used to this routine. Every time Edda did something cruel or mean, Mildrede lost her temper, and Evelinde took her for a ride to prevent her from saying or doing something that might see her punished.

Once Lady slowed to a sedate canter again, Mac urged his own horse up beside them and raised an eyebrow, but Evelinde just shook her head. She had no desire to explain Edda's "happy news." It would just upset Mildrede all over again, and she was distressed enough herself. Rather than waste her time soothing her maid, she wished time to herself to think over the situation.

"You can turn around now," Mildrede said. "I'm calm. I'll not say or do anything to the vile creature. 'Tis a waste anyway. I'm sure the Devil has something special in store for her when she finally dies. Though 'twould be nicer for all of us did she do so soon."

Evelinde managed a faint smile but didn't have the energy to respond. Instead, she drew her horse to a stop and glanced toward the stable master. "Will you see her home, Mac?"

"Ye'll no return then?" he asked with concern.

"Not right now. I should like a moment to myself first."

Mac hesitated, but then nodded and easily lifted Mildrede from Lady's back to place her on his own horse. The man was not very tall and had a wiry build, but he was surprisingly strong.

"Don't go much farther else ye might run into trouble," he warned. "And don't stay out here too long, or I'll come looking."

Evelinde nodded, then watched them head back toward the castle at a much more sedate pace than they'd taken riding out. The way he kept bending his head to Mildrede told her the woman was probably explaining what had taken place and what was still to occur.

Marriage. To the Devil of Donnachaidh.

Evelinde swallowed back the fear that immediately clawed its way up her throat. She turned her horse away, heading for a nearby clearing she favored. The spot was small and alongside an area of the river with a small waterfall. The fall was no taller than she but delightful just the same.

Evelinde urged Lady to the water's edge so the mare could drink, then slid off her back, running an absent hand along her mount's neck as she peered into the water.

She had always found this spot soothing. It was where she brought all her troubles and cares. Usually, the tinkle of the water and the mist in the air from the falls washed away her worries, and Evelinde left feeling better. She wasn't sure it would succeed very well this time, though. She suspected it would take a lot of water to wash this worry away.

Grimacing, Evelinde moved to sit on a large boulder at the water's edge and removed her slippers. She then bent and reached between her feet to catch the hem at the back of her gown, brought it forward between her legs, and tucked it into the front of the loose belt she wore over her gown. That accomplished, she moved back to the river's edge and daintily dipped one toe into the water, smiling at the cool rush of liquid over her flesh. Evelinde stayed like that for one moment before she stepped right in, a pleased sigh slipping from her lips as the water closed around her feet and halfway up to her knees.

Closing her eyes, she simply stood there, trying not to think about marrying the Devil of Donnachaidh. Evelinde wanted a few moments of peace and calm; then she would consider her future.

Her few moments didn't last, for the hem of her skirt unraveled and dropped around her feet in the water.

Crying out, Evelinde tried to hop back out of the river but got her feet tangled in the wet hem of the skirt and stumbled sideways. She threw herself forward at the last moment, arms outstretched, hoping to break her fall. However, her hand skimmed the side of a boulder before continuing on to the river bottom, then the boulder, rammed into her ribs and hip with a painful blow even as her head continued down, slamming the side of her jaw into another stone.

Evelinde gasped in pain and sucked in a mouthful of water as she was briefly submerged. She came back up at once, spitting water and coughing up what little bit had gone down her throat as she ignored the pain in her side and pushed herself to a sitting position in the water. Placing one hand to her ribs, Evelinde felt the tender spot, relieved to find that, while it ached, she didn't think she'd broken anything. Her hand then dropped to her sore hip as well, and she muttered a pained curse as exasperation overcame her.

Was not this perfect? Evelinde had never been the most graceful of women, but rarely did something as clumsy as this. It seemed luck had abandoned her this day.

Shaking her head, she dragged herself to her feet and staggered out of the river. Her mare, she noticed, had backed away and was now eyeing her balefully. Evelinde supposed she must have splashed the animal as she fell. She didn't bother apologizing but simply moved back to sit on the boulder, shivering.

The water had been nice on her toes, but her gown was now completely soaked and cold where it touched her skin, which was everywhere.

Grimacing, Evelinde tried to hold the skirt away from her legs but soon gave that up. She could hardly sit there holding the skirt away from her skin until it dried.

Muttering under her breath, she set to work on her laces, and struggled to get out of the gown. It was an almost impossible task. While the dress had slipped on easily enough when dry, it was a nightmare to remove when wet. Evelinde was flushed, breathless, and sweating by the time she got it off.

Dropping it on the ground with relief, she plopped herself back on the boulder again, but the heat she'd generated with her efforts soon faded, and Evelinde found herself once again shivering in her damp chemise. However, she wasn't going to remove that and sit there naked. While people rarely intruded on her favorite spot, they did on occasion, and she wasn't going to risk being caught in such a state.

Evelinde wasn't foolish enough to sit there shivering either. She needed to find a way to dry herself, her chemise and her gown—and quickly—else she might catch a chill.

Her gaze slid to her horse. Lady had given up glaring at her and was once again at the riverside, partaking of the crystal-clear water. Evelinde hesitated a moment, considering the practicalities of the idea that was tickling the edges of her mind, then stood, picked up her gown, and moved to the mare.

Cullen was the first to see her. The sight made him rein in so sharply, his horse reared in response. He tightened his thighs around his mount to help keep his seat, moving automatically to calm the animal, but he didn't take his eyes off the woman in the glen.

"God's teeth. What is she doing?" Fergus asked as he halted beside him.

Cullen didn't even glance to the tall, burly redhead who was his first. He merely shook his head silently, transfixed by the sight. The woman was riding back and forth across the clearing, sending her horse charging first one way, then the other and back. That in itself was odd, but what had put the hush in Fergus's voice and completely captured Cullen's tongue was the fact she was doing so in nothing but a transparent chemise while holding the reins of her mount in her teeth. Her hands were otherwise occupied. They were upraised and holding what appeared to be a cape in the air so it billowed out behind her above her streams of golden hair as she rode back and forth… back and forth… back and forth.

"Who do you think she is?" Rory's question was the only way Cullen knew the other men had caught up as well.

"I doona ken, but I could watch the lass all day," Tavis said, his voice sounding hungry. "Though there are other things I'd rather be doing to her all day."

Cullen found himself irritated by that remark. Tavis was his cousin, and the charmer among his men; fair-haired, handsome, and with a winning smile, it took little effort for him to woo women to his bed of a night. And the man took full advantage of the ability, charming his way under women's skirts at every opportunity. Were titles awarded by such an ability, Tavis would have been the king of Scotland.

"I'd first be wanting to ken why she's doing what she is," Fergus said slowly. "I've no desire to bed a wench who isna right in the head."

"It isna her head I'd be taking to me bed." Tavis laughed.

"Aye," Gillie said, his voice sounding almost dreamy.

Cullen turned a hard glare on his men. "Ride on. I'll catch up to ye."

There was a moment of silence as eyebrows rose and glances were exchanged, then all five men took up their reins.

"Ride around the meadow," Cullen instructed, when they started to move forward.

There was another exchange of glances, but the men followed the tree line around the meadow.

Cullen waited until they had disappeared from sight, then turned back to the woman. His eyes followed her back and forth several times before he urged his mount forward.

It hadn't appeared so from the edge of the meadow, but the woman was actually moving at high speed on her beast, slowing only to make the turn before spurring her horse into a dead run toward the other side. The mare didn't seem to mind. If anything, the animal seemed to think it was some sort of game and threw herself into each run with an impressive burst of speed.

Cullen rode up beside the mare, but the woman didn't immediately notice him. Her attention was shifting between the path ahead and the cloth in her upraised hands. When she finally did glimpse him out of the corner of her eye, he wasn't at all prepared for her reaction.

The lass's eyes widened, and her head jerked back with a start, unintentionally yanking on the reins she clenched in her teeth. The mare suddenly jerked to a halt and reared. The lass immediately dropped her hands to grab for the reins and the cloth she'd been holding swung around and slapped—heavy and wet—across Cullen's face. It both stung and briefly blinded him, making him jerk on his own reins in surprise, and suddenly his own mount was turning away and rearing as well.

Cullen found himself tumbling to the ground, tangled in a length of wet cloth that did nothing to cushion his landing. Pain slammed through his back, knocking the wind out of him, but it positively exploded through his head, a jagged blade of agony that actually made him briefly lose consciousness.

A tugging sensation woke him. Blinking his eyes open, he thought for one moment the blow to his head had blinded him, but then felt another tug and realized there was something over his face. The damp cloth, he recalled with relief. He wasn't blind. At least, he didn't think he was. He wouldn't know for sure until he got the cloth off.

Another tug came, but this was accompanied by a grunt and a good deal more strength. Enough that his head was actually jerked off the ground, bending his neck at an uncomfortable angle. Afraid that, at this rate, he'd end up with a broken neck after the fall, Cullen decided he'd best help with the effort to untangle himself from the cloth and lifted his hands toward his head, intending to grab for the clinging material. However, it seemed his tormentor was leaning over him, because he found himself grabbing at something else entirely. Two somethings… that were covered with a soft, damp cloth, were roundish in shape, soft yet firm at the same time, and had little pebble-like bumps in the center, he discovered, his fingers shifting about blindly. Absorbed as he was in sorting out all these details, he didn't at first hear the horrified gasps that were coming from beyond the cloth over his head.

"Sorry," Cullen muttered as he realized he was groping a woman's breasts. Forcing his hands away, he shifted them to the cloth on his head and immediately began tugging recklessly at the stuff, eager to get it off.

"Hold! Wait, sir, you will rip—" The warning ended on a groan as a rending sound cut through the air.

Cullen paused briefly, but then continued to tug at the material, this time without apologizing. He'd never been one to enjoy enclosed spaces and felt like he would surely smother to death if he did not get it off at once.

"Let me—I can—If you would just—"

The words barely registered with Cullen. They sounded like nothing more than witless chirping. He ignored them and continued battling the cloth, until—with another tearing sound—it fell away, and he could breathe again. Cullen closed his eyes and sucked in a deep breath with relief.

"Oh dear."

That soft, barely breathed moan made his eyes open and slip to the woman kneeling beside him. She was shifting the cloth through her hands, examining the damaged material with wide, dismayed eyes.

Cullen debated offering yet another apology, but he'd already given one, and it was more than he normally offered in a year. Before he'd made up his mind, the blonde from the horse stopped examining the cloth and turned alarmed eyes his way.

"You are bleeding!"

"What?" he asked with surprise.

"There is blood on my gown. You must have cut your head when you fell," she explained, leaning over him to examine his scalp. The position put her upper body inches above his face, and Cullen started getting that closed-in feeling again until he was distracted by the breasts jiggling before his eyes.

The chemise she wore was very thin and presently wet, he noted, which was no doubt what made it transparent. Cullen found himself staring at the beautiful, round orbs with fascination, shifting his eyes left and right and continuing to do so when she turned his head from side to side to search out the source of the blood.

Apparently finding no injury that could have bloodied her gown, she muttered, "It must be the back of your head," and suddenly lifted his head, pulling it up off the ground, presumably so she could examine the back of his skull. At least that was what he thought she must be doing when he found his face buried in those breasts he'd been watching with such interest.

"Aye, 'tis here. You must have hit your head on a rock or something when you fell," she announced with a combination of success and worry.

Cullen merely sighed and nuzzled into the breasts presently cuddling him. Really, damp though they were, they were quite lovely, and if a man had to be smothered to death, this was not a bad way to go. He felt something hard nudging his right cheek beside his mouth and realized her nipples had grown hard. She also suddenly stilled like prey sensing danger. Not wishing to send her running with fear, he opened his mouth and tried to turn his head to speak a word or two of reassurance to calm her.

"Calm yerself," was what he said. Cullen didn't believe in wasting words. However, it was doubtful if she understood what he said since his words came out muffled by the nipple suddenly filling his open mouth. Despite his intentions not to scare her, when he realized it was a nipple in his mouth, he couldn't resist closing his lips around it and flicking his tongue over the linen-covered bud.

In the next moment, he found pain shooting through his head once more as he was dropped back to the ground.

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