She would take no chances. Cameron was an arrogant bastard of the first order. He believed that whatever he looked upon was his for the taking. She didn’t imagine for a moment that he was overcome by her beauty. She’d purposely downplayed her features and her body so that she looked like the lad she mimicked, but she’d seen the curiosity and lust in the laird’s eyes.
She lay back on the mattress still fully clothed and closed her eyes for a brief moment of rest. She willed the hours to pass so she could end this once and for all.
Even now, her men would be taking position along the walls. Waiting for her cry to arms.
She alternated pacing and resting on the various pieces of furniture in the chamber until the knock came at her door the next morning. She took her time and even called out that she’d be a moment, wanting to give the appearance that she’d slept and was now dressing.
She pulled back the furs and cast them this way and that and then pulled her hair over her shoulder to plait as she went to the door.
Shoving the chair to the side, she opened it to find her father standing in the hallway. She let her hands drop from the braid and stood there regarding him in silence.
“The laird bade you to come to the courtyard.”
She nodded and waited for him to precede her down the hallway but he hesitated and fixed her with his stare. “What did McCabe really do to gain your ire? You turned from me in favor of him, refusing to back me as laird and now you welcome me back with open arms?”
Knowing he wouldn’t believe a sudden change of heart, she instead spoke the truth.
“I would not have you as laird either. You, Caelen McCabe, ’tis a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils.”
Gregor McDonald’s gaze narrowed and he glared at his daughter. “You still haven’t learned to control your tongue or address your betters with a civil tongue.”
“ ’Tis not my better I address, and if you think to strike me as you did the last time we had this conversation, I’ll make good on my threat and the McDonalds will seek a new laird this day.”
“I’ll deal with you in time,” he warned.
She shrugged as if she didn’t place much importance on his threats.
As they stepped into the courtyard, she pulled her cloak tighter around her to ward off the chill. Her heart nearly stopped when she saw that Caelen was already tied to a stake in the center. Wood was stacked in a circle around him, surrounding him on all sides.
He looked even more battered than he had the night before. New bruising was evident on his face and fresh blood streamed down his side.
Her teeth ached from clenching her jaws and she blinked back tears of rage. Never had she hated someone as much as she hated her father and Duncan Cameron. ’Twould be so simple to draw her sword now and end her father’s miserable life, but she must be patient, for Caelen would be killed before her father fell to the ground.
Cameron stood several paces in front of Caelen, surrounded by his men, all bearing torches. When she neared Cameron, he reached for one of the torches and handed it to her.
“If you’ll do the honors,” he said. “Be quick about it. I find the smell of burning flesh to be distasteful and I’ve other matters to attend to.”
Her hand shook as she took the torch and turned to face her husband. She took a step forward, sucking in deep breaths as she mentally prepared herself for what was to come.
Their gazes met and held. His clear green eyes were pain-filled and dulled. He didn’t seem entirely aware of his surroundings. She silently cursed, for she needed her husband’s might this day.
Caelen watched as Rionna took the torch from Cameron’s hand. Pain whipped and coiled through his body. He was racked by chills and he burned with fever. But he kept his gaze on his wife as she stared into his eyes.
Something had bothered him the entire night as he’d lain awake, huddled on the wet, cold floor of the dungeon. It had bothered him ever since he’d seen the shadow cross her eyes when he’d been dragged away the evening before.
And now his gut was screaming at him that nothing was as it seemed. He battled with himself, for he’d vowed to never again doubt what stared him in the face. The evidence didn’t lie.
But. But, but, but, he couldn’t accept that Rionna had coldly betrayed him. In the heat of the moment, his surprise over seeing her and the shock of all that had transpired had rendered him unable to think.
But now when he thought back over the last months, he couldn’t accept that Rionna had turned against him. Too much didn’t make sense. She hated her father. She feared him. Why then would she support his return to her clan?
She’d stood with him against her kin. She’d supported him at the risk of alienating her people. Those were not the actions of a woman who’d lied about everything.
Nay, ’twas not possible. Even if it made him a fool for once again trusting his heart and not his head. This time … This time his heart wasn’t wrong. He’d wager his life on it.
Which meant that his wife was in a dangerous situation and he was helpless to protect her.
What was her aim? What purpose did this pretense of hers serve?
She gripped the torch and then he saw her free hand slide carefully into her cloak. And there, in her eyes, a plea. A plea for help. A plea for understanding. It was gone before he could blink but he hadn’t mistaken it. Or maybe ’twas what he wanted to see. But his pulse ratcheted up and he tensed in anticipation.
He wanted to yell at her to get the hell away, to protect herself and their bairn. He wanted to tell her that whatever she planned, it wasn’t worth her life. Not in trade for his.
But he remained silent, knowing his cry would mean her quick death.
Then she made her move. She turned abruptly and thrust the torch into Cameron’s face. His howl of pain was instantaneous. At the exact moment of his cry, Rionna let out a war cry that rivaled any Caelen had ever heard.
She drew her sword, tore off her cloak, and ran for the stake. Caelen stared in disbelief as McDonald soldiers swarmed over the walls, dropping down, swords in hands.
The wife and clan he’d vowed was not his own had come to save him.
“Are you strong enough to fight?” Rionna yelled as she slashed at the bonds securing him to the stake.
“Aye, I can fight.” He wasn’t dead yet and he’d be damned if he let his wife risk everything for naught.
She disappeared before he had fully loosened himself from the ropes. He caught sight of her engaged in battle a short distance away but before he could think to aid her, he dodged a sword and rolled away, barely surviving with his head.
The first order of business was to find a sword. Caelen dodged again when one of Cameron’s men slashed his blade mere inches from his face. Bending low, he rammed into the warrior’s legs, knocking them both to the ground.
The sword went sliding through the snow and Caelen slammed his fist into the man’s face until blood sprayed onto the snow. He rolled away and lunged for the sword. He gripped the hilt and yanked it to him just as another man appeared above him, sword over his hand as he slashed downward.
Caelen rolled, swinging his sword as he went. The blade cut through the warrior’s leg. Caelen jumped to his feet, his pain and fever forgotten. All that occupied his mind was finding his wife and hunting Duncan Cameron.
He fought his way to the wall, his gaze scanning left and right. Only by sheer will was he even standing. What he saw as he surveyed the courtyard made his heart sink.
While fighting valiantly and with more fire than he’d ever witnessed in the McDonald soldiers, they were vastly outnumbered, and they were tiring quickly.
He finally spotted Rionna again. She was backing a Cameron warrior to the wall. She quickly dispatched him by thrusting her sword in his chest, then yanked it away and turned, only to find another soldier in his place.
That was the problem. For every Cameron soldier felled, there was another right behind.
Caelen began to work his way in his wife’s direction, determined to get her to safety, when he heard a chilling war cry so achingly familiar that he nearly went to his knees in relief.
He rallied his strength, threw back his head, and uttered a harsh call in return. Then he shouted to the McDonald soldiers. “Reinforcements are here! Hold your ground!”
Caelen turned in time to see his brothers charge through the gates. Hundreds of McCabe warriors swarmed from every direction. ’Twas the most magnificent thing he’d ever viewed. If he lived to be a hundred, he’d never forget the sight.
The tide had swung decidedly in favor of the McDonalds. Where before they’d looked haggard and near the end of their strength, they suddenly began fighting as though God himself had given then renewed strength.
Ewan, who’d led the charge through the gate, slid from his horse a few feet from Caelen, sword in hand. Alaric rode up a moment later and did the same until Caelen was flanked by his brothers.
“How bad is it?” Ewan yelled as he looked at the blood running down his brother’s side.
The brothers cut a vicious path through Cameron warriors. They fought with determination, their attack fueled by rage and an overwhelming desire for revenge.
“Where’s Rionna?” Alaric shouted when they reached the middle of the courtyard.
Caelen glanced around before ducking a blow from an advancing warrior. “I know not. I lost sight of her when you came through the gates.”
“Your wife has lost her mind,” Ewan said as he cut through another soldier. “She has to be the most daft, infuriating, brave lass I’ve ever had the occasion to meet.”
“Aye, she is all that,” Caelen agreed. “And she’s mine.”
Alaric grinned then pivoted and delivered a death blow, his sword coming away bright with blood. “You’re a most fortunate man, Caelen. Clearly your wife is too stubborn to let you die.”
“Where is Cameron?” Ewan shouted in frustration. “I’ll not let that bastard escape me yet again.”
“Rionna thrust a torch in his face. I’ve not seen him since she freed me.”
They quieted as they greeted another onslaught of attacks. They came from every angle and it took all of Caelen’s skill and concentration to block the agonizing pain and focus on the matter at hand.
His concern wasn’t for Duncan Cameron. He searched for Rionna. He feared for her more than he’d feared anything else in his life.
“They’re running!” Hugh McDonald shouted. “Close in! Close in! Don’t let them escape!”
The courtyard was littered with bodies, and what was once a pristine covering of snow was now bathed in scarlet. The blood shone in the sun, stark against the white, and the acrid smell rose and scattered with the wind.
The ranks had thinned enough that Caelen could see more than a few paces and he frantically searched for sign of his wife. When he saw her, his blood froze in his veins.
She was battling her father, and the man fought wildly, with no discipline of a seasoned warrior. He fought like a man who knew he was going to die.
Her back was to Caelen, and she fought valiantly, holding off the frantic blows with her sword, but each forward attack backed her up and her strength was waning.
Caelen broke into a run, ignoring his own pain and overwhelming exhaustion. He was halfway across the courtyard when he caught sight of Duncan Cameron.
Typical of the coward he was, he’d positioned himself behind a wall of his men, but now most had fallen and he was vulnerable to attack.
The left side of his face was blistered and smeared with blood from the burn Rionna had inflicted on him. He had a sword in one hand and a dagger in the other.
Before Caelen realized what he was doing, Cameron took aim and hurled the dagger in Rionna’s direction.
“Nay!” Caelen roared.
But it was too late. Cameron’s aim was true and the dagger struck Rionna just inside her right shoulder blade. She staggered, deflected a blow delivered by her father, and then went down on one knee.
Gregor raised his sword again to deliver the killing blow when an arrow struck him in the chest. Caelen never turned to see who’d let the arrow fly. His focus was solely on Rionna.
Rage like he’d never known gave him the strength of a hundred men. He roared Cameron’s name and launched himself at the man who’d felled Rionna.
The two men met with a clash of swords, the sound of metal ringing throughout the courtyard. Caelen fought like a man possessed. He could taste Cameron’s blood. He wanted to bathe in it right after he carved the bastard’s heart from his chest.
But Cameron also fought like a man who knew he was marked for death. Much of the arrogance that Cameron wore like a cloak had disappeared. It was as if for the first time he sensed his own mortality and was desperate to survive.
Weakened by fever and blood loss and the ferocity of the battle thus far, Caelen stumbled back under the force of Cameron’s attack. He dug in his heels and met Cameron’s sword with his own, the impact jarring his shoulders.