Soon enough, Cameron and her father appeared at the entryway and one of Cameron’s men came forward to assist her from her horse. When her feet hit the ground, her knees nearly buckled, but by sheer force of will she remained standing and allowed her horse to be led away.
“ ’Tis an interesting tale you spin, mistress,” Cameron said as he stared at her. “You have my attention.”
Rionna looked at her father, wondering if he was too cowed by Cameron to offer words of his own. He stared back, his expression flat, and his eyes glittered with suspicion.
“Is he dead yet?” she demanded.
Finally Cameron shook his head and she went weak with relief. “Nay, not yet. He’s only just arrived. Tell me, how did you come so quickly?”
“When my men bore me the tale of what occurred, I refused to believe my good fortune until I laid eyes on him myself. If ’tis true that my father captured Caelen McCabe, then ’tis my thanks I must offer.”
“What is this nonsense, daughter?” Gregor finally demanded.
Cameron held up his hand. “ ’Tis only one way to solve this riddle. Come, my lady. ’Tis cold and you’ve traveled a great distance.”
Rionna slid her hand through Cameron’s outstretched arm and smiled gratefully up at him. “My thanks, Laird Cameron. ’Tis the truth I’m weary, but my relief was so great, I would not stop until I begged sanctuary at your door.”
“Sanctuary? My dear lady, what would make you cry sanctuary?” he asked, as he guided her through the courtyard and up the steps to the keep.
A warm blast of air hit her as did the stench. Her nose curled and it took everything she had to keep her stomach from rebelling.
The tunic she wore disguised the swell of her belly and she wasn’t far gone enough for her condition to be evident. The last thing she wanted was to reveal that she was carrying Caelen’s child.
“Aye, sanctuary. Think you that I would be safe from Ewan McCabe once it was learned a McDonald took his brother?”
“Why do you want to kill your husband?” Cameron asked bluntly.
He gestured for her to sit in one of the chairs in front of the fire, and it was with great relief she did so. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could remain standing.
“Does it matter?” she asked in a level voice.
“I find it hard to believe you left the protection of your clan in the dead of winter so that you could be the one to kill a man who is for all practical purposes already a dead man.”
“I hate him,” Rionna spat. “I hate all of the McCabes. They have run roughshod over my clan. ’Tis the truth, I had no great love for the leadership of my father, but at least he was a McDonald. I have been humiliated by the McCabes at every turn. If you won’t allow me to do the killing, I would at least like to witness it. And I would seek your protection until this matter with the McCabes is done.”
“You are an odd woman, Rionna McDonald. Or should I say McCabe?”
Rionna bolted to her feet, drew her sword, and leveled it at Cameron in a show of bravado she hoped impressed him or further convinced him she was just daft enough to want her husband dead. She was so desperate at this point, she was grasping for straws and she well knew it.
“I’ll not be called by that name,” she hissed.
He pushed aside the blade of her sword as if it were nothing more than a pesky fly. “And I’ll not have a female brandishing her sword at me in my own home.”
He motioned her back to her seat and then turned to glance at Gregor McDonald, who stood on Rionna’s other side.
“You have me curious, Rionna. What did Caelen McCabe do to draw your ire?”
She glanced at her father, knowing that it was here that he would be convinced and he would lend credibility to her tale, no matter how absurd it sounded to Cameron.
“He insisted I act and dress as a female. He took my sword from me and forbade me to pick it back up. He mocked and humiliated me at every turn. He … He sorely abused me.”
Cameron chuckled and then glanced at her father. “What manner of woman did you raise, Gregor?”
“She thinks herself a lad,” Gregor said in disgust. “Nothing I ever did made her act and dress as she should. I washed my hands of her years ago. ’Tis the truth he probably bedded her and this is the source of his ‘abuse.’ ”
Cameron’s gaze swept lingeringly over her body in a manner that made her grateful she’d bound her breasts. He looked for sign that she was indeed womanly, but in her current manner of dress, she looked lean and shapeless, just as a young lad would.
She shivered at the lust in his eyes. In spite of, or perhaps because of, her eccentricities, Cameron looked upon her like he’d like nothing more than to tumble her to the ground for a quick rut. Or perhaps ’twas because he coveted what Caelen had already had. Trying to discern the mind of a man was impossible.
But he turned instead and waved an arrogant hand to one of his men. “Bring Caelen McCabe up from the dungeon. His wife seeks a reunion.”
The knot in her belly grew and fear nearly paralyzed her. She would have to act quick in order to convince Cameron and her father that all she’d said was true. It hurt her to do what she must. It would be the hardest thing she’d ever do, but she had to convince Caelen that she loathed the very sight of him and wanted his death.
All the while she waited, she steeled herself for the sight of her husband. She knew he was injured. He might be near death even now. She couldn’t react, not as a horrified wife.
Rionna wanted to weep. She was beyond exhausted and she was more afraid than she’d ever been in her life.
When they shoved Caelen into the hall, he fell to his knees and she could see his hands were secured behind his back. Before he could look up, she was on her feet. She stalked across the room but just as she reached him, he lifted his gaze to her.
Shock registered in his eyes and he parted his mouth as if about to speak. So she did the only thing she knew to silence him.
She reared back and slapped him as hard as she could across one cheek.
Caelen’s neck snapped back and he barely managed to stay on his knees. He whipped his head back around to stare at his wife. His wife. She stood before him, her eyes spitting fury, while Cameron and Gregor stood behind her looking faintly amused.
“Are you mad?” he demanded. “What are you doing?”
“I’m here to see you die,” she hissed. “If God is willing and with Laird Cameron’s permission, I aim to do the killing myself. ’Twould give me great pleasure to rid myself of you, Caelen McCabe.”
He heard her words. He saw the very real anger in her eyes. But he couldn’t make sense of any of it. Dread crept into his chest until it pained him more than the arrow wound in his back.
It couldn’t be happening again. He couldn’t countenance history repeating itself in such a bizarre manner.
Duncan Cameron came up behind Rionna and slid a hand over her shoulder. “Your wife is here to see you, Caelen. Isn’t that thoughtful of her? She says she wants to be your executioner. What think you of that?”
Before Caelen could muster a response—what could he possibly say to that?—Cameron turned Rionna, pulled her into his arms, and kissed her savagely.
Cold rage seared over Caelen’s body. He could no longer feel the pain of his wound. All he felt was overwhelming fury. His mind was muddled enough that he still couldn’t comprehend the whole of it, but what stared him in the face was betrayal.
Rionna yanked away from Cameron, slapped him soundly across the face as she’d done to Caelen, and then went for her sword. Cameron grabbed her arm and hauled her up close.
“I’ve already been abused by one man. I’ll not suffer it at the hands of another,” Rionna spat.
Caelen’s brows went up. “Abuse? Is that what you call it, wife?”
Rionna glanced at Caelen, her beautiful, deceitful eyes flashing scornfully. She looked back to Cameron and pulled at her arm. Then she stilled and stared intently into Cameron’s eyes. “You doubt me. ’Twas a test. You doubt that I’m here because I seek the death of the McCabe warrior.”
She wrested her arms from his grip and reached into the folds of her cloak to draw out a scroll. Even from where he knelt, Caelen could see two seals. One was his brother’s. The other belonged to the king.
“I brought this. Know you what this is, Laird Cameron? ’Tis a call to arms from Ewan McCabe. In it are likely detailed battle plans. All you need to know of the coming war. Would I give this to you if ’twas all a trick?”
“Nay!” Caelen roared.
He lunged forward but was restrained on both sides by two of Cameron’s men. He twisted and fought against their strength, but with his hands bound, he could do nothing.
Cameron took the scroll from her hand and turned it over, examining the seals. Without a word, he broke the wax and unrolled the parchment. It took him several minutes to read the contents and when he was done, he carefully rolled it back and then leveled a stare at Caelen.
“It would seem that your wife and clan no longer want you, McCabe.”
Caelen’s nostrils flared and his lip curled as he stared coldly at the woman standing before him. “I have no wife or clan save the McCabes.”
“I have no desire to look upon him any longer. Return him from whatever hole you dragged him from,” Rionna said in an equally cold voice.
“Well ’tis the matter of his death we need to speak on,” Cameron drawled. “ ’Twould seem war is imminent if this message from Ewan McCabe and the king is to be believed. I did hope they’d be more original in their planning, but ’twould appear they favor the straightforward method. I’ll give you a day, my lady. He dies in the morn, and then I must make my own plans in accordance with Ewan McCabe’s.”
Rionna drew her sword and walked slowly toward Caelen. He refused to meet her gaze, refused to acknowledge her at all. His mind was such a mass of rage and confusion that he couldn’t even process what played out before him.
When she reached him, she pressed the point of her blade to his neck, forcing him to look up or have his neck severed.
“I could kill you now,” she said in a voice devoid of emotion. She wore no expression, no indication of what she was thinking. She could be discussing something as mundane as the weather. Her demeanor chilled him to the bone, for ’twas a side of his wife he’d never seen. “But ’twould be too quick.”
“Why?” he demanded hoarsely. “You betray not only me but also those you called friend. You betray Mairin, who has only been kind to you, and her child, who is innocent. You would send those who have been loyal to you to their deaths, and for what? So a man without honor can reclaim leadership of a clan that was once his?”
She lowered the sword to his groin. “Be silent or I’ll remove your cods and feed them to the hounds.”
She turned then as if she could no longer bear to look upon him. To his everlasting shame, he wanted to call after her. He closed his eyes, for it would seem some lessons were never learned.
“Burn him at the stake at first light,” she said calmly. “ ’Tis a fitting end for one such as he.”
Even Cameron seemed taken aback by her ruthlessness, but there was also a glint of admiration in his eyes. Aye, the man would appreciate the same dishonorable qualities in others he himself possessed.
“Very well, my lady. His sentence will be carried out in the morn.”
He motioned his men to take Caelen away and then he turned back to Rionna. “Would you like refreshment? ’Tis a long way you’ve journeyed and you must be fatigued.”
As Caelen was pulled from the hall, he watched as his wife smiled up at the man he hated most in the world.
Rionna glanced up at the last moment and caught his gaze. A shadow crossed over her eyes and then she looked quickly away.
Rionna stood by the window of her chamber, staring out at the snow-covered landscape. She was exhausted to the bone, but she would not sleep this night. Not when she imagined Caelen below in the dungeon, enduring unspeakable conditions.
She closed her eyes and replayed the look on his face, his angry words, and finally his acceptance that she had betrayed him. More than ever she was determined not to fail in her quest, for she would not have her husband die thinking she’d played him false.
She cupped her hands over her belly and rubbed just as she felt a faint quickening deep in her womb. Tears sprang to her eyes as she realized that her babe had chosen this moment to move, as if reaffirming his mother’s vow that his father would be saved at all costs.
“You are my future, Caelen McCabe. The future of my clan. Our son or daughter’s future,” she whispered fiercely. “I’ll not let you die in some dark hole where you’re tethered like an animal.”
She retreated to her bed and sank down onto the edge. Cameron had provided her adequate accommodations. He’d even had one of his men lay a fire in the hearth. As soon as she was alone, though, she closed and barred the door with a heavy chair she dragged from the window.