Passion – Tarah Scott

NOT ONE MAN remained on the battlefield. Not even the dead. After nearly a fortnight away from home, and a three-day-long battle, they were going home. But this was not a day to rejoice. Seventy of the two hundred MacLeod warriors who’d fought would be brought to their final resting place within Dunvegan’s chapel cemetery. Another thirty-five would be buried at their respective homes, scattered across MacLeod land. “It’ll take a week to bury them,” Tommen muttered as he rode alongside Caeleb. Caeleb’s chest tightened. A week of unbridled sorrow. The taste of defeat rose like bile, and for the thousandth time he envisioned the missive Tommen had delivered to him only hours before the Donalds attacked. The Donalds plan to attack Laird MacLeod on his return from MacKinnon territory. A Friend No one had seen this friend. The message, discovered on a table in the great hall, had plagued Caeleb since Tommen met him and his men with another hundred and fifty warriors only hours before the attack. Who was this friend—how did they have such easy access to Dunvegan—and how had they known the Donalds would attack? In the two years since Caeleb had been laird, he’d stood ready to defend the MacLeods against the Donalds—just as the MacKenzies did and even the MacKinnons, for they were allied with the MacKenzies here on Skye, and the Donalds hated them for it. The discord between the Donalds and the other clans had existed since before Caeleb’s birth.

But, in his arrogance, he’d thought he could avoid an all-out war with the Donalds. Damn ye, Kaden, he silently cursed his cousin. Kaden was to have taken his father’s place as chief, but when the old chief had hanged Kaden’s brother for treason, Kaden had disappeared, forcing Caeleb to step in as laird. “I should have sent for more men to meet us,” Tommen said, his tone flat. “They wouldnae reached us in time.” “I should—” “Nae,” Caeleb cut in. “Ye did the right thing. You couldn’t leave Dunvegan unprotected.” “Even another fifty men would have turned the tide in our favor,” Tommen whispered. “They outnumbered us, and we sent them running with their tails between their legs,” Caeleb said.

Tommen looked at him. “At what cost?” Caeleb’s gut twisted when another cart filled with the dead rumbled past. At what cost, indeed? Bodies lay stacked like logs on a pyre, covered by plaids. His heart lurched at recognition of the unruly, dark red hair visible beneath three larger bodies. Royce. God help him. The boy was but sixteen. Caeleb had ridden to a pre-arranged meeting with the MacKinnon chief. Royce had accompanied them to visit his sister in Pitmorth. None of them had expected to see battle on the journey home.

“It matters not how long it takes to bury them,” he murmured. “We will give them a Christian burial, one and all.” “They will not stop,” Tommen said. Caeleb fixed his gaze on the cart bearing their dead. “I will stop them.” AT LAST, the towers of Dunvegan Castle came into view. The silence that had fallen upon them since leaving the battlefield had grown so heavy, Caeleb nearly bowed under the weight. Even the injured hadn’t uttered so much as a moan. They understood too well their good fortune. They would live another day to right recent wrongs.

Another day to cry, to love, and even forgive. To fight, if the need arose. And the need would arise. They reached the village, Caeleb in the lead, the dead between him and the remaining warriors. Many villagers ran out to greet them. Cries of joy and wails of sorrow filled the air. Hugs, kisses, and tears were shared amongst the returning warriors. Caeleb envisioned Royce, and he couldn’t help but scan the crowd for the boy’s mother. To his shame, he was relieved not to see her. He would visit her, but not today.

Caeleb continued up the hill to the castle, Tommen at his side, the warriors who resided in the castle close behind. “When we arrive, close the gates,” Caeleb told Tommen. “Spread it about that we want to secure the castle against attack.” “That isnae the case?” Tommen asked. “Aye, it is. But, just as important, I want to know who comes and goes. Pick a dozen of our most trusted men. Gregory, Angus, Jonathan and Henry can lead them. Send them immediately to patrol the borders. They are to tell no one they are going.

Ground the monks’ birds. I don’t want a single hawk leaving the falconry until we find out who this friend is. I will talk with Jon. No horses leave the stables without your or my say so, and put a watch on the boats. Tommen nodded, and they fell silent again. Moments later, they passed through the gate. Tommen and the other warriors stopped for the throng that had gathered to welcome them home, but Caeleb urged his horse toward the stables. The hum of voices grew quieter as he left the courtyard behind. Jon, the stable master, emerged from the stables when he neared. “‘Tis good to have ye safely home, laird,” he said as Caeleb brought his horse to a halt beside him.

Caeleb swung his leg over the animal’s hindquarters and stepped from the saddle. Jon took the reins Caeleb handed him and said nothing about the battle as he ran a gentle hand along the horse’s neck. But Caeleb knew the question on the tongue of every MacLeod: how had a peaceful visit to the MacKinnons turned into a war? “I imagine all of Dunvegan knows that someone warned us about the attack,” Caeleb said. Jon grunted. “And probably half the MacLeod clan by now.” “That will make it harder to catch the traitor.” “Ye are sure they’re a traitor?” Jon asked. Caeleb released a breath. “I am no’ sure of anything. But this friend is privy to the Donalds’ goings on.

Who among the MacLeods can say that?” Jon’s frown deepened. “I admit, ‘tis strange.” Caeleb agreed and he didn’t like strange. “I suggest a feast tonight to honor our fallen,” Jon said. Caeleb started to disagree. “Dinnae be so quick to say no,” Jon said. “Our fallen should be honored, their stories of valor shared. Our friend will feel safer if he thinks we aren’t focused on him.” Caeleb placed a hand on Jon’s shoulder. “As always, ye are right” Minutes later, Caeleb pushed open the door into the castle’s kitchens.

He stopped short when two maids carrying a large bucket of water bumped into him. They cried out as the bucket cracked against the stone floor. The bustle in the room halted. Water splashed his boots and snaked along the stones’ mortar seams. “Forgive us.” Moira, the eldest of the girls, hurried to the counter where another servant stood, her fingers wrapped around the bread dough she’d been kneading on the flour-strewn table. Moira grabbed two cloths and returned to where Ana remained unmoving. As one, the servants resumed their work when Moira and Ana knelt and began soaking up water. Caeleb sidestepped the two maids and scanned the room. Gwen wasn’t among the women.

He glanced toward the small hallway leading to the scullery. Might she be there? “Where is Gwen?” he asked. Moira paused and looked up at him. “I havenae seen her since she went away.” “Away?” he blurted. His heart began to pound. “Where did she go?” The room again fell silent. “She went to visit Lana MacLeod in Eldaum,” said the maid working the bread dough. Eldaum. That was a day’s ride.

Fear lanced through him. She’d left him. From the corner of his eye, Caeleb glimpsed a small figure emerge from the scullery. She halted just inside the kitchen. Gwendolyn. Tendrils had escaped her long auburn braid. It took every ounce of will not to yank her into his arms and crush her close. “Morning, laird,” she said in a cool voice that gave away none of the intimacy they shared as lovers. “ ‘Tis good to have ye safely home.” “You have been away,” was all he could manage.

She nodded. “Lana MacLeod fell sick after the birth of her latest child. I took food for her and stayed with her for a day.” He wanted to demand why the women in Lana’s village couldn’t have tended to her, why Gwen had ridden half a day’s journey to help the woman, why she had refused his offer of marriage half a dozen times. The questions only died in his throat. Instead, he said, “Tonight, I wish to have a feast for the men.” It felt like years since he’d last touched her. She nodded again. “I will see to it. Will there be anything else?” He noted a slight flush in her cheeks.

“I am in need of a bath,” he said. “Please have water heated for my tub.” “Right away,” she said, but didn’t move. His heart thudded. Had she missed him as much as he’d missed her? Guilt stabbed. He still had a chance at love while those being buried didn’t. CHA PTE R 2 CAELEB CLİMBED the three flights of stairs to his chambers, his legs heavy, as if he slogged through calf-high mud. He opened the door and paused at sight of the low-burning fire in the hearth. He couldn’t help a tired smile. How many days had the fire been maintained in anticipation of his return? With a sigh, he closed the door and unbuckled his leather armor as he crossed to the bench before the hearth.

Caeleb sloughed the armor from his shoulders and laid it on the bench. He removed his gambeson, tossed it onto a nearby chair, then sat on the bench and removed his boots. An acrid smell wafted up. He grimaced before realizing the smell was him. Caeleb lifted a shoulder, sniffed his plaid, then choked at the stench. His clothing smelled worse than a wet dog. He pulled his sash off his shoulder. As he dragged his tunic over his head, a knock sounded at the door. “Enter,” he called, and tossed the shirt onto the floor. The door swung open and Gwendolyn entered, followed by two young lads carrying a large, round, wooden tub.

“Set it near the hearth,” she ordered. The two lads placed the heavy tub near the hearth. Gwendolyn waited near the door, arms folded under her breasts, as additional lads carried in buckets of hot water and filled the tub. Once the tub was full, and a table was set nearby with a dish of soap and a drying cloth, she dismissed the lads. One boy paused in the doorway. “Do ye need more wood for the fire?” She shook her head. “Nae.” He nodded, then hurried from the room. “Stay, Gwen,” Caeleb said as he began unbuckling his belt. The door clicked shut.

Caeleb stripped off his breacan, then tossed it aside and stepped into the steaming water. No sound came from behind him, but he felt Gwen watching. He wetted his hair, then scooped a piece of the soft soap from the dish on the table and lathered the tangled mass. He ducked beneath the water. Warmth engulfed him. Eyes closed, Caeleb gave in to the weightlessness. Spending the extra coin to have the large tub built was one of the wisest choices he’d ever made. Unlike the decision to travel so near a valley that became a trap, forcing them into a life-or-death battle he’d had no intentions of fighting. His lungs began to tighten with the lack of air. Caeleb rubbed the soap from his hair and lifted his head from the water.

He raked hair from his face, draped his arms over the side of the tub, and waited. A long moment of silence passed. “Come scrub my back, Gwen,” he said. The faint rustle of skirts followed. He sensed her nearness an instant before she stretched an arm past him to the soap dish. Her fingers touched his shoulder and he allowed his head to fall forward as she washed his back. Stroke after stroke, his muscles relaxed beneath her familiar touch. His mind, however, replayed the memory of the sea of men bearing down upon them. Two years ago, he had been a young laird of twenty-three, newly arrived in Dunvegan to replace his uncle as laird. Though the title wasn’t intended to be his, the clan welcomed him as their new chief.

Where had his leadership been on his mission of peace…or when they’d been attacked? War strips a man to his core. Tests his strength, his courage and his will. When confronted by a sea of hostile faces, a man’s humanity no longer exists. He reacts on instinct. Like an animal. A savage. That is what their enemies had made of them. Now, Caeleb simply wished to never again step foot on another battlefield. But that wish was not to be. Not until he put to rights their betrayal.

Gwen sighed. The soft sound drew him back to the present. He’d thought of her every day he’d been away. The knowledge that she awaited his return had given him strength when his muscles burned with exhaustion from wielding his sword. For the first time in his life, he loved a woman. He wouldn’t let the Donald dogs take his life, not when he had a chance to love a woman like Gwen. Her hand slid lower. His bollocks tightened. Did she need him as much as he needed her? Her fingers stroked. His cock began to rise.

He’d been away from home too long. Caeleb slid down into the water to his shoulders, scrubbed the soap from his arms and back, then stood. Water cascaded off his body. He grabbed the drying cloth from the table, rubbed the dripping water from his hair, then stepped from the tub and faced Gwen. She still knelt. As she did when uncertain, she nibbled her bottom lip. Caeleb rubbed the cloth over his chest. Her eyes followed the action. His heart began to pound. He tossed aside the cloth, then grasped her hand and pulled her to her feet.

She threw her arms around his neck and he crushed her mouth beneath his. Caeleb reached behind her and yanked free the apron tie, then broke the kiss and made quick work of her dress. The garment pooled at her feet and she stood in her chemise. She pulled the sleeves down her arms and shimmied out of the garment. His cock further hardened. He swung her into his arms, carried her to the bed and fell with her onto the mattress. GOOSEFLESH RACED across Gwen’s arms when Caeleb lightly nipped her neck. She wrapped her arms around his neck. She’d lived these last weeks in fear that he wouldn’t return, in fear his death would be on her head. Wasn’t the death of his warriors on her head? She’d tried to find him.

If she had, she would have confessed all. Tears rushed to the surface. Now that he had returned safely, she would ensure his continued safety—then disappear. He kissed her, long, sweet and with a need that drove all other thoughts from her mind. She breathed in his scent. It was just as she remembered; clean and masculine. He thrust his member along her belly. She longed to feel him inside her. He broke the kiss and slid his mouth across her cheek to her ear. “Did ye miss me, lass?” the murmur of his velvety voice melted her insides.

“Aye,” she whispered. So much it still hurt. Two days ago, when rumors of the ambush at Daunlaby reached them, she’d been certain God would punish her by taking Caeleb in battle. Not until Caeleb’s warrior had arrived this morning with news of the battle—and assurances that he lived—had she known whether he lived or died. He hugged her so tightly, the air expelled from her lungs. She didn’t deserve to share his bed. But she couldn’t live without experiencing the warm strength of his arms around her one last time.

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