Scot Under the Mistletoe – Caroline Lee

Nessa frowned down at the sword in her hands. It was so heavy. How in the world was one supposed to wield it using only two hands? Of course, if one had more than two hands, things might be awkward, wouldn’t they? But imagine what I could accomplish with three or four hands! For one thing, her embroidery would be a hell of a lot easier! Focus, lassie. Oh, aye. She wasn’t supposed to be down in the armory and needed to get on with her business before one of her brothers caught her. ‘Twas not the first time she’d snuck down here to investigate weaponry, but what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. Now, if she hoisted the sword like this, and held it like this… Nessa did her best to mimic the stances she’d seen as she watched her brother Rocque lead the Oliphant men in their sparring. The damnable blade was heavy, aye, but she managed an approximation. Then she slid her right foot forward, shifted her weight, and swung the sword over her head. The blade slammed into a stand of pikes, catching in the wood of the handles, and causing one to topple sideways. “Oh, shite!” she muttered, jumping forward to catch it from knocking into the others. Of course, she forgot about the sword she was carrying, which got tangled in her skirts. She tripped and slammed into the pike stand and even more of the long poles began to clatter into one another on their way down. And that’s when the door behind her opened. The rush of cold air, as someone pushed in from the inner bailey, had her whirling around.

Behind her, the pikes slowly completed their cacophonous topple, and she winced when the last one made a sort of boing sound against the floor. She plastered on an innocent grin, kicked the sword off to one side, and clasped her hands behind her back, hoping ‘twas not one of her brothers coming in from the December cold. “Nessa?” Damnation. ‘Twas not one of her brothers. ‘Twas Brohn. Which was much, much worse. She held her smile as the large warrior pushed the door shut and hurried over to her. Brohn was her brother Rocque’s second-in-command, and one of her brothers’ best friends to boot. As far as anyone knew, there were six of them—her brothers—three sets of illegitimate twins, all born the same year, and sometimes, they could be a right pain in the arse. Especially when it came to Nessa and what she should be allowed to do.

But Brohn…? Brohn was the worst. Not because he judged her for her pastimes or had opinions about what she wanted to learn…but because he didn’t. He’d never judged her. He’d just loved her for who she was, and who she wanted to be. And then he’d broken her heart. “Nessa! What in damnation are ye doing, lass?” He peered over her shoulder, at what she suspected, was a messy pile of broken blades. Behind her back, her fingers tightened around one another, and she tried for an innocent blink. It didn’t work, judging from his scowl. “Are ye aright, lass?” That disconcerting blue gaze searched her face, as if expecting to find some kind of injury. “Is someone here with ye?” Nessa managed to shake her head, her breath quickening at the caring—damn him!— she saw in his expression.

Slowly, his lips eased into a lazy grin. “Then, if ‘twasnae an assailant, were there elephants, Nessa? A stampeding herd of cattle, mayhap? Did a demon manifest here, within a circle, and lay waste to all he could reach?” He was teasing her? Well, she remembered how to handle that. Nessa pursed her lips and tapped at them with one long finger. “Um…aye. That last one.” Brohn’s grin grew. “Demon, eh? Would Father Ambrose be interested in hearing about this new habit of summoning demons, and on Christ’s birthday, nae less?” She clucked her tongue and rolled her eyes, content to play this game with him. “Father Ambrose would likely spout some bit of non-Scripture about washing yer hands before attempting an exorcism or some such. Besides, Christ’s Mass is tomorrow, ye great oaf. ‘Tis fine to summon demons on the day before—” “Nay, Nessa, dinnae tease about such things.

” His grin turned rueful as he glanced past her shoulder. “I ken ‘twas nae demon, and ye shouldnae joke about the Devil. But I also ken if I asked ye what happened here, I’d get nae simple answer.” Why no’? she wanted to shout. Why would I lie to ye? But whatever openness and honesty they’d once had between them had long since disappeared. Right around the time her father betrothed her to someone else. For the first time. She blew out a breath, prepared to explain about her research, when she noticed him clenching his hands into fists, then releasing them and shaking them out. For the first time, she realized there was still snow on the shoulders of his cloak, though slowly melting into the strands of dark blonde hair atop his head. He must have noticed her gaze, thereby used it as an excuse to change the subject.

“Och, aye, lass, ‘tis really coming down out there. I suspect Father Ambrose will no’ have the chance to celebrate Mass with the clan tomorrow, if we’re all to be trapped inside.” Well, it was impossible not to worry. She shifted around Brohn, as if she could see outside from where they stood at the far side of the dark armory. Frowning, she flicked her gaze between the door and her one-time-lover. “Is it really so bad out, we’ll need to cancel Christ’s Mass? Father Ambrose will be disappointed.” Brohn shrugged. “He can celebrate with the castle denizens. The consensus is ‘twill be a heavy snow with dangerous winds.” Blast.

“Will it warm up enough to—?” His fingers clenched and relaxed again as he blew out a laugh. “Nay, lass, ‘tis frigid out there.” He shook out his hands. And for the first time, Nessa realized how cold he must be. “Oh, Brohn!” It was likely because she was frazzled—frazzled by him standing so close to her, and the fool she’d made of herself, and the mess she’d left behind her. Frazzled by the way her heart was still slamming against her chest, and frazzled because she was having trouble breathing with him so near—but whatever the reason, she reached for his hands and pulled them up before she even realized what she’d done. They were like blocks of ice, and all she could think of was warming him. It wasn’t until she’d flattened his palms against the sides of her neck, pressing them against her warm skin, that she realized what she’d done. He’d stopped breathing; she was certain. His blue eyes were wide as they dropped to the place where his cold hands pressed against her bare skin, and she wondered if he could feel her pulse throbbing under his fingers.

When his lips parted, a breath of a sound escaped, and she wasn’t certain what he’d intended to say, so she tried for a nonchalant grin. “Ye’re near frozen, ye daft man.” His tongue flicked out over his lower lip, and she watched him drag in a breath. “So…” He cleared his throat and tried again. “So ye thought to warm me, Nessa?’ She wouldn’t be Nessa Oliphant if she didn’t seize the opportunity his opening provided. So she twined her fingers through his and pulled his hands around to the back of her neck, stepping closer to him with what she hoped was a saucy grin. “If I wanted to warm ye, Brohn, yer hands wouldnae be on my neck.” Nay, yer hands would be on my tits, and I would be pressed naked against ye. Moaning and pleading for ye to take me hard and fast. Again.

His eyes closed and his breath escaped him on a moan, which sounded as if he were pleading. “Nessa.” See, ye clot-heid? I can hurt ye too. No’ the same way ye hurt me, throwing me over that way, but I can make ye regret it, can I no’? “Aye, Brohn?” she asked sweetly. Eyes still closed, he dropped his head closer to her, until she thought he might kiss her. But nay, no’ Brohn. He had too much honor. “Nessa, ye’re betrothed.” She released his hands and stepped back. Of course, this meant she’d stepped on the damnable blade, which clattered under her foot, ruining the effect of her grand gesture.

His eyes flew open and he reached for her—to steady her?—but she shook off his hands and lifted her chin. “Dinnae worry about that, Brohn. We received word yesterday Henry of Skye is dead. Although mayhap he’s just faking to get out of a marriage to the Curse of the Oliphants.” Something flashed in his eyes as he pulled his hands back and hooked his thumbs in his sword belt. It looked a little like pity—something she was very much used to seeing in other’s expressions, thank ye verra much—but also…more. There was significantly more hope in his expression than she’d expected to see. “Aye.” Her jaw hardened mulishly. “My seventh betrothal, broken by his death.

Seventh. It seems the Ghostly Drummer of Oliphant Castle was wrong in this instance.” His eyes widened. “Ye’ve heard him, Nessa? Ye never told me— I mean, how long have ye been hearing him?” Everyone in the castle knew the legend. The drumming foretold doom to those who heard it—dooming them to fall in love. ‘Twas a silly superstition, but Nessa couldn’t deny she’d heard the damnable noise-maker. “I havenae heard him in many months,” she finally confessed, holding Brohn’s gaze. “But before then, I heard him all the time.” “Aye,” he breathed. “Me as well.

” Brohn had heard him? Brohn was doomed to fall in love? Nessa scoffed and turned away, heading for the stairs which led up into the main hall. If Brohn was doomed to fall in love, the foolish oaf had squandered his opportunity. The two of them had found love, but he’d been the one too honorable to reach out and grab it. Unlike her. Who’d grabbed it—and a few other things—with both hands, her mouth, and in one memorable instance, even her feet. The memory dragged a grin from her, despite her irritation. She and Brohn had been lovers for a fortnight back in the spring, and in those few days, he’d introduced her to all sorts of delightfully new experiences. Experiences she now was determined to capture in her embroidery, along with her other scenes of— “Nessa!” She was almost to the top of the stairs when he caught her hand. Nessa wasn’t the most graceful of women—wasn’t even in the running, really—so when he tugged her off-balance, she was already turning, and one foot went in a completely different direction than she’d intended. And she slammed into his chest.

Pressed against him, her hands splayed across his firm chest, all sorts of things she might say flashed across her mind. Everything from, “We have to stop meeting like this,” to an eyebrow waggling, “My, how hard ye are,” to a coy, “Brohn, one might think ye’re following me.” But what came out was a sort of, “Glurbble?” Which was pretty much normal for her. She should’ve known he wouldn’t falter. Nay, he just braced one booted foot on the step above and adjusted his weight to accommodate both of them, while one cold hand came around to press into her lower back, steadying her. The sensation sent shivers of warmth through her. With his other hand, he reached up to push a tendril of hair away from her face. “Nessa,” he whispered again, “I’m sorry.” He was speaking words, wasn’t he? What was he saying? Her brain was having a hard time making sense of anything, what with the way his fingers were branding the skin at her temple. “Sorry?” she managed to gasp.

“About yer betrothed’s death. I’m sorry for all of them. I’m sorry ye’ve been forced to bear—” “Nay,” she choked, then closed her eyes. She was sorry they were dead, for certes. She’d never met them—not a single bloody one of the men her father had betrothed her to—but had never wished death on any of them, even though she had never wanted to marry a single one of them. But she couldn’t be sorry her betrothals had been broken. Brohn’s voice was gentle when he brushed his fingertips against her cheek. “I want only the best for ye, Nessa.” And apparently, the best…wasn’t him. Oh, she remembered his claim all those months ago.

When Da had betrothed her to t h e first Henry, Brohn had stepped back into the shadows where he claimed he’d belonged. She’d been hurt and angry, and had gone along with Da’s plan, because what was the alternative? But when Henry Ruthven had died, and Brohn hadn’t stepped forward, and Da had hurriedly made a contract with Henry of Elgin, she realized her dreams were never going to come true. Seven Henrys. One after the other, they’d died before they could step up to the altar with her— before they could even meet her. It was no wonder the Highlands in general, and Oliphant Castle in particular, was abuzz with whispers of the laird’s daughter, the Curse of the Oliphants. Who needs a bloody ghostly drummer when ye’ve got me? Mayhap the Ghostly Drummer of Oliphant Castle portended real doom? At least in her case anyway. Sighing, she pushed away from Brohn, forcing herself to focus on finding her balance. Of course, balance was difficult for her in the best of times, and even harder when she was near him. “Thank ye,” she whispered, not knowing what else to say. When she turned away from him, she could still feel his strong, warm presence behind her.

How could he manage to produce so much heat when it was so cold outside? Or was the heat coming from inside her, tingling on the tips of her breasts and pooling between her legs? She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to tamp down on those longings, and groped desperately for the handle to enter the great hall. The damnable door was so heavy, she often couldn’t move it herself, and ‘twas usually kept closed tight against the cold. “Allow me.” His voice—his breath—caressed the back of her neck, sending shivers across her skin. As he stepped up behind her, his hardness pressed against her back, and she swallowed down her frustrated moan. He reached one strong arm around her, and with a mere flick of his wrist, opened the door. She was in the process of thanking him again, when her eye was caught by a flash of green above. Tilting her head back, she caught sight of a withered and wrinkled bundle of leaves, hanging high above. She’d never seen it before, and she’d spent her entire life here in the castle. “What is that?” she asked, more to herself than to him.

But she heard the chuckle in his voice as he nudged her into the hall and pulled the door closed behind them. “ ’Tis mistletoe.

.

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