C1 Chapter One
The air smelt of rain and lightning. Isla drew her cloak further over her head, holding it fast against the wind with a fist beneath her chin. Fat raindrops pelted her face anyway, driven almost sideways by a particularly fierce gust, plastering a few stray strands of her fiery red hair against her fair cheek. Water flew into her moss-green eyes, causing her to blink against the sting. She cursed under her breath as her horse plodded on, its ears laid flat against its skull. She hadn’t expected foul weather. There had been no sign of an impending storm earlier that morning when she’d ridden from home. Sign or no, her skirts clung to her legs, soaked, as she rode onwards across the rain-swept highlands without hope of shelter. Should she turn around and begin the journey home?
No. She was too close, and it might be weeks or even months before she had another chance to abandon her home and chores for half a day. Her father had gone to his brother’s farm to help him with the breaking of a particularly feisty colt, intending to stay at least two days. In preparation, she had doubled her efforts around their modest home and fields over the past couple of days to ensure this trip wouldn’t cause her to fall noticeably behind on her work. Her hands were raw from it—even holding the leather reins stung her fingers. She could only hope no one would come calling and find their cottage empty, or recognise her riding across the countryside and mention it to her father. He would demand an explanation for her dalliance, and what would she tell him? Certainly not the truth. She shoved the thought from her mind and focused instead on the road ahead, which had turned rapidly from a dirt path winding through the heather to a sticky ribbon of mud. She eyed the field to her left and the forest to her right in turn. She hadn’t come far enough yet to want to enter the woods. The heather, however, would make for better footing than the thick mud. She tightened a rein and pressed a leg against her mount’s side, urging him off the road.
The horse—a stout little bay gelding she called Briar—turned his head slightly to the left and lurched suddenly, plummeting beneath Isla. She bobbed in the saddle, caught unawares by his stumble. Briar struggled to right himself, heaving beneath her as an ominously sticky, wet sound came from below. She swung out of the saddle and landed in the mud, in which she found his front left hoof entrenched. It was hard to tell exactly where his leg ended and the earth began, because his coat was naturally the colour of mud, but it was obvious he’d sunk in well past his fetlock. He snorted and pulled, pawing the mud with his free foot. She placed a hand against his damp neck and attempted to calm him, fearing the sound of snapping bone would soon join the noise of sloshing mud and pelting rain to create a symphony of doom.
“Shh…” She stroked Briar’s neck with one hand while she felt her way steadily down his leg with the other.
Briar snorted and gave one last pull just as Isla’s fingertips brushed his soiled knee. His foot came lose with a loud pop and he slid a little in the mud, caught off balance. Something gleamed silver in the churned earth—a horseshoe. Isla groaned, placed a palm flat against Briar’s grime-splattered chest and pushed, urging him backwards, away from the treacherous pool of churned, wet earth that had robbed him of his shoe. He complied, his hooves splashing in the layer of rainwater that glazed the surface of the saturated ground. She pulled him into the heather, patting his neck and eyeing the lost horseshoe with regret. What would her father say? She’d better grab the shoe and tuck it into her saddlebag so she could take it home, toss it into the paddock and pretend it had been lost there.
“Hold still, now, Briar.” She relinquished her hold on his reins and stepped back out onto the road.
He stared at her complacently with large, dark eyes, any sense of adventure or mischievousness cowed by the driving rain.
Isla experienced one fleeting moment of shelter from the downpour as she bent to pluck the horseshoe from the road, her hood falling forward to hide her face as she eyed the muddied, upturned earth. And then the rain was back, cold and biting against her cheek as she rose and tucked the shoe into a fold in her cloak. A distant flash of movement in the corner of her eye caught her attention as she slogged forward to reach for Briar’s hanging reins. She turned and squinted against the downpour, barely able to make out a figure approaching on horseback.
Her heart leapt and her mouth went suddenly dry. Who could the rider be? Even from this distance, she could see the rider was so large it had to be a man. He couldn’t be her father—not coming this way, anyway, unless… Unless he’d returned early, found her missing and set out to search for her. She began to shift into a panic as the possibility, unlikely as it was, occurred to her and took root in her mind like a fast-growing weed. She clutched the reins tightly and leaned against Briar’s shoulder, peering from beneath her hood at the approaching horse and rider. When he came close enough for her to recognise, she realised she didn’t know who he was. The momentary relief that followed this revelation was quickly overpowered by a second wave of desperate speculation. Who was he, and why—oh, why—did he have to be riding here and now? His blue and green hunting tartan was woven in a pattern popular in the region, so he probably hailed from nearby. Isla knew she’d ridden far enough from home towards Gordon lands for there to be a strong possibility the stranger was indeed a Gordon man.
She wrung the leather reins, sending jolts of pain from her raw fingertips to her tired wrist. If her father was the worst man she could have met on the road, a Gordon was a close second. Her free hand twitched at her side as she remembered the knife she’d tucked into her boot, a bladed talisman against the danger that was approaching on horseback. She longed to reach for it, to feel its comforting weight against her palm.
The man in the hunting tartan became clearer and clearer as he neared Isla and Briar, revealing himself to be young and raven-haired, which made his vivid blue eyes that much more striking. His shirt clung to his well-muscled shoulders and chest, gone nearly translucent with moisture. Isla’s eyes widened a little as her gaze turned unbidden to his torso, where the lines of his muscles were clearly visible beneath the soaked fabric. One of his nipples showed from beneath it as a dark bud, the other obscured by the sash of his tartan. He might as well not have been wearing a shirt at all. She willed herself to turn her stare back to his face as heat began to creep across her cheeks. The rain had pulled several strands of dark hair free of the tail he’d tied it back into and plastered them against his jaw, which was slightly dark with stubble. He had a pair of full lips that were just beginning to turn up at the corners in a polite smile. She frowned at the sight, noting the dirk that hung at his waist, the handle and sheath gleaming with rainwater. He looked as if he’d been caught just as off guard by the rain as she had. That did not lessen her disdain. Neither did the sight of him sitting tall in the saddle despite the fact he was soaking to the skin and totally unprotected from the fierce rain. Well, not much, anyway. She glared from beneath the scant shelter of her hood as he reined his large, sorrel mount to a halt by the side of the road where she stood, still clutching Briar’s reins.
“Horse caught a stone in his hoof?” His voice was a pleasant burr, his tone surprisingly friendly.
“Nae,” Isla replied stiffly, “lost a shoe in the mud.”
“Is he lame?” the stranger asked, eyeing the way Briar was favouring his unshod foot with apparent concern.
She shrugged. “I amnae certain. I was only just about to look him over when ye interrupted.” She eyed him coldly. She was sure she’d never seen him before—he had the sort of appearance one wasn’t likely to forget, even over the course of a lifetime.
The blue eyed man looked mildly taken aback. Isla couldn’t bring herself to regret her rudeness. The man was riding towards Gordon estates, and if he was a Gordon she needed to get rid of him as quickly as possible. Panic flared in her belly but she pushed it down. Whatever she did, she needed to keep her cool. Gordon men could sense weakness as a hound scents blood, and she wasn’t about to become a victim. Not this time.
“I didnae ken that I was interruptin’ anythin’. I only saw a lass stranded alone by the side of the road in a fierce storm and thought she might need help.”
“There’s no help as you can give me.”
He eyed her curiously. “Surely ye—”
“That is to say,” she interrupted, “that I’d be damned before I took help from a stinking Gordon, if that’s what ye are.” She watched his face as she spoke, especially his bright blue eyes, and was disappointed not to see anger there. Could it be that he wasn’t a Gordon after all? Her cheeks flushed at the thought. Well, if that was the case, then perhaps he was a fellow Forbes—though that seemed unlikely—and would understand her behaviour. Their clans had been deadlocked in a blood feud for years, after all. Any Forbes would have been raised to understand that the Gordons were wicked bastards.
“Ye’ll be a Forbes lass, then?” he asked.
She nodded her confirmation. There had been a hint of animosity in his voice when he’d said ‘Forbes’, and it certainly hadn’t been lost on her. Her heart sank as she abandoned all hope of having met an unknown kinsman. “And ye’ll be a Gordon bastard?”
“Aye,” he said solemnly, neither flinching at the insult nor questioning the propriety of a woman speaking it. Isla was nearly overcome by a sudden, absurd urge to laugh at his seriousness and had to struggle briefly to keep a straight face before her anger resurfaced. Meanwhile, she settled instead for adjusting her hood so that it covered as much of her face as possible.
“Aye,” she echoed, “we’ll ye’d best be on your way, then.” She pointedly turned her back on the Gordon and stared into Briar’s sopping mane. The flush that had warmed her cheeks still lingered, and its heat flared alarmingly when the stranger’s voice sounded behind her. It was deep and slightly rough, though he’d tamed its pitch and tone into a close semblance of politeness. She buried an eyetooth in the soft flesh of her lower lip, tasting blood and hoping the colour had drained from her cheeks along with the heat. This was no time to be blushing over a handsome face, or even a voice that made her—absurdly, she thought—want to find out whether its owner’s fingertips would feel as rough against her skin as his tones sounded. She shouldn’t even be thinking of the handsome bastard as a man. He was a Gordon—a dog.
“I dinnae see anyone else for miles,” he said, “neither Gordon nor Forbes. So if ye’d like, I could take a wee look at your horse’s foot, and no one would be any the wiser.”
Isla said nothing.
“Some say as I’ve a magic touch with horses,” he added.
She turned to mutter an angry reply just as lightning flashed overhead, bathing the landscape in metallic light that made the heather look as if it had been cast in silver. Thunder followed almost immediately, so loud that it was nearly deafening. The acrid scent of lightning teased her nostrils, stronger than ever. From the sound of it, one of the trees in the nearby forest had been struck. Briar snorted and reared, whinnying as Isla pulled on his reins. He crashed back down to the ground, and she shrieked as one of his hooves landed on her left foot. She jerked the reins desperately in an attempt to back him off her, but he buried his muzzle in her chest, sending tendrils of her hair flying as he snorted in terror, pushing her off balance. A flash of dark tartan flared above her as she fell, and a much larger hand jerked the reins from her fist, a hint of roughness brushing the back of her fingers. Then the pressure lifted from her foot and her back collided with the ground, expelling the air from her lungs in a great burst.
“Get back, ye daft beast!” the Gordon cried, urging Briar to reverse, moving him away from the fallen Isla. His own horse stood obediently still a couple of yards away, unfazed by the thunder and lightning.
Suddenly, the Gordon was leaning over Isla, crouched by her side. “Are ye hurt?” he asked. There was real concern in his voice. Isla cursed him in her mind and struggled futilely to curse him out loud. Her mouth moved soundlessly and her lungs just didn’t seem to work. She must not have lost any blood though, for she felt it blooming plentifully in her cheeks as she met those blue Gordon eyes, damnable though they were.
“I’m fine ,” she wheezed when she finally managed to gulp enough air to speak. It wasn’t true. Her foot felt full of broken glass where Briar had stepped on it, and her vision doubled temporarily as her head throbbed, causing her to see two Gordons staring down at her with two sets of bright blue eyes. “Now get away from me, ye—”
Suddenly, the Gordon leant down and pressed his mouth over Isla’s, silencing her. His lips were pleasantly warm and surprisingly soft, and as her eyes bulged with indignation, she managed to draw in enough air to shout.
“Da—” she got half a syllable out before he kissed her again, forcing the taste of his rain-slick mouth into hers. This time, his blood pulsed hard through his lips, a rhythmic thrumming against her own. Something damp and faintly sweet tasting entered her mouth.
His tongue .
The realisation made her quiver, whether from sheer indignation or forbidden excitement, she wasn’t completely sure. When he pulled away, she seethed silently for a moment, struggling to find words sufficient to express her rage. She parted her tingling lips, noting with wonder how swollen they suddenly seemed to be, and prepared to assault him with her most vicious words. Surely, doing so would make up for the fact that when he’d stopped kissing her she’d been on the verge of opening her mouth wider, of letting her own tongue rise to meet his.
“Dinnae go yellin’ at me,” he said evenly. “‘Twas no more than ye deserved.”
Isla felt her eyes bulge again and her cheeks flush with angry, embarrassed heat. “What do you mean ye—”
“A woman shouldnae use such language,” he said, “and that was the kindest way I could think of to shut ye up before ye cursed again.” His blue gaze bored into hers. “Ye taste much sweeter than ye sound.”
There was a hint of a smile on his lips, and she was seized by the sudden urge to strike it away with her hand. Even as she imagined it, she remembered his touch, how it had brushed her hand in passing when he’d saved her from Briar’s panic.
She shoved the thought from her mind just as quickly as it had dared to voice itself. Gordons were not saviours. They were tormentors, fiends and evil bastards, the lot of them!
She scowled and narrowed her eyes to slits. “Well if it comes to that, I could tell ye more than a few things that aren’t right, and all of ‘em done by Gordons.”
His blue eyes narrowed almost enough to match hers, though a thin crescent of blue iris was still visible in each of them. It was a lovely colour, too pretty for the likes of a Gordon devil.
“And I can tell ye that you and your horse are both lame, and that puts ye at the mercy of a Gordon.”
Thunder clapped overhead again, shaking the ground. Briar startled as lightning flashed, and the Gordon threw himself over Isla, sheltering her with his body as the horse danced beside them. He was surprisingly warm. How could he be, soaked to the bone as he was? His muscles were rock-hard and smooth. Was he like a stone that absorbed the heat of the sun and held it for a while after it had set? Whatever the explanation, he was hot. The stark contrast to the chilly air was such a temptation that Isla had to keep herself from pushing her body against his, from allowing herself to mould to his form.
When Briar finally calmed, Alexander rose and wrapped his arms around her, remarkably strong and impossibly warm.
“What are ye doing?” she demanded, her heart speeding as he lifted her from the ground, though whether it was from alarm or excitement she wasn’t quite sure.
“Gettin’ ye out of the rain,” he answered stoically.
Isla winced as something small and hard hit the side of her head, followed by another, and another, and another…
Hail , as if it couldnae get any worse…
“Just put me on my horse,” she said in as commanding a tone as she could muster.
“Your horse is lame,” he replied, his voice as firm as his body.
Isla eyed Briar askance and saw that he pranced nervously on three of his feet, favouring the fourth that had lost its shoe. What had he done to it in that mud hole? Resolve-weakening heat radiated from the Gordon’s chest, even through his soaked shirt, as he carried her. He casually seized Briar’s reins and made a clicking sound to his own horse, and the great sorrel beast followed, ambling along beside him with its reins hanging free. Isla eyed it, impressed, and wished Briar could have behaved half so well and saved her this whole mess.
The Gordon finally lowered her to the ground when they’d crossed the treacherously muddy road and found shelter at the edge of the forest at its side. There, the boughs of pines, rowans and oaks deflected most of the hail. Isla watched curiously from where the Gordon had deposited her against the base of a pine as he tethered both of their horses to trees and began to strip small branches off a nearby aspen. When he’d gathered an armful, he started weaving them in and out of the branches that hung over her head, creating a thicker roof of foliage that sheltered her completely from the hail. She was reluctantly grateful as balls of ice glanced off his shoulders and bounced to the pine needles below. He didn’t flinch, even when they struck his face and angry red patches sprung up on his cheek where he’d been hit. But then, if he built the shelter a thousand times and was struck by lightning in the process, it still wouldn’t right the Gordons’ wrongs. She glared at him stubbornly as the coppery scent of blood teased her nostrils, a phantom that was gone as soon as she’d sensed it.
“So, what’s your name?” he asked, settling casually to the ground beside her when he’d finished.
She eyed him warily, pushing visions of bloodstained tartan from her mind. He was a bit too close for comfort—the heat that radiated from his body was warming her again, and highly disconcerting memories of his strong arms plagued her. But if she asked him to move any further away, he’d be exposed to the hail. She couldn’t ask him to do that—not when he’d built the shelter for her in the first place, even if he w as a Gordon. And not when she needed his body beside her own—for its heat, of course.
“It’s Isla. Isla Forbes .”
He nodded, sending droplets of water flying from a few stray, dark locks. “I’m Alexander,” was all he said. There was no need to add ‘Gordon’—Isla was anything but likely to forget his surname. An awkward silence stretched between them, during which Briar laid back his ears and pawed the ground as another loud peal of thunder sounded.
“And what are ye doin’ ridin’ out here on your own in a storm?” Alexander eventually asked.
“I didnae ken it was goin’ to storm,” she replied, eyeing his soaking shirt, which still clung to his lean, hard body like so much wet paper. “And ye didnae ken, either, from the looks of ye.”
He nodded. “Aye, it came quickly.”
More silence. He gazed at her curiously and she glared back at him. “It isnae a Gordon’s business where I’m ridin’ to.”
He eyed their surroundings and shrugged as if to say, ‘isn’t it?’
She crossed her arms beneath her breasts and said nothing as she wished her cloak were dry. Alexander’s heat, significant as it was, didn’t quite penetrate the damp wool that covered her shoulders.
Alexander rose from beneath the shelter of branches and began to walk away. Isla stared after him. Was he leaving? The idea made her feel strangely lonely, and it shamed her. She should be glad to watch a Gordon leave.
He stopped a few yards away. When he reached the place where he’d tethered the horses, and she breathed a small sigh of relief as he bent to feel Briar’s leg. He caressed the joints and tendons with his large hands, feeling with visible tenderness for signs of injury. Though his callused fingertips were rough, his touch was clearly not. After several moments, he stood and turned again towards the shelter. Isla tried to ignore the relief that surged through her when he sat beside her, warming the space between them with his body heat.
“I dinnae think he’s broken anythin’,” Alexander said. “It’s likely just a sprain.”
She nodded. “Och, that’s good.” Still, she frowned. ‘Just a sprain’ or not, she couldn’t expect Briar to recover within two days. What would she tell her father when he returned? She’d have to stick with her original plan of telling him the beast had hurt himself out at pasture and hope he’d believe it.
“What about your foot?” Alexander asked. “How’s it feel?”
“Like it’s full of shattered glass.”
Alexander frowned, his full lips turning down at the corners while his dark brows plunged between his blue eyes. The beginnings of panic struck Isla as his gaze came to rest on her foot. “I dinnae think it’s broken!” she lied.
“I wouldnae be surprised if it was. That horse came down hard on it.” He reached for her foot.
Isla jerked her leg away and gasped as white-hot pain flared in the top of her foot, as if her boot were on fire. She was afraid to move it again, and the fresh memory of agony kept her still when Alexander began to gently pry off her boot, though she was frightened then, too. When it was off, he peeled away her stocking and grasped her ankle, holding her foot slightly aloft so he could inspect it without actually touching it. Heat crept up her leg, all the way to the juncture of her thighs, as she eyed her carefully removed stocking and tried to focus on anything but the feel of his pleasantly rough fingertips against her skin. Fortunately, the throbbing pain that lit every inch of flesh below her ankle proved a rather effective distraction.
“Now,” he said, hovering his hand over her toes, “just tell me where it hurts.” He placed his fingertips on the top of her foot and began moving them slowly, gently pressing against her bones, feeling for a break.
“Ahh!” Isla cried. “There! Stop!” Pain flared white-hot again as Alexander bore down lightly on one of the long bones that stretched from her ankle to her toes.
He removed his exploring hand while still holding her foot aloft and bare in the chilly air.
“Dinnae touch me any more!” she cried, gripping her ankle in an attempt to pull it from his grasp in the least painful manner possible.
“I fear it’s broken,” he said, brushing her hand aside and lowering her foot gently to the ground.
“Aye,” Isla breathed, leaning back against the tree and inhaling deeply, her face surely paper-white as she turned it up to the roof of pine boughs above. “Maybe it is.”
And I thought it couldnae get worse than when I found he was a Gordon…
“Dinnae fash yourself,” he said, “I’ll help ye get where you’re goin’.”
“No,” she said, “ye mustnae do that.”
“I dinnae want any more help!”
He scowled at her, his blue eyes burning. She glared back.
“I’ll be damned if you’re not the most stubborn lass I’ve ever met,” he declared. “A Forbes to the bone, to be sure.”
“And I’ll be damned if you’re not—”
“Dinnae make me shut ye up again!”
“Och, how I wish my foot wasnae broken, for then I’d use it to give ye a good kick in the—”
Thunder crashed, obscuring the final word of her would-be threat. The angry gleam in Alexander’s eyes said he’d got the message regardless.
“Well, fine,” he said, rising. “I’ll leave ye and your lame nag here, and if ye die of the cold or get eaten by a wild beast, then hell slap it intae ye!” He stalked away, taking long, purposeful strides towards his horse.
The hail had turned back to rain and was quickly re-soaking his shirt and tartan. The muscles of his back tightened slightly beneath the pathetic cover, tight with obvious agitation. She tried not to admire the way they shifted, or how smooth his stride was. She was no more successful in that than she was in quelling the unease that twisted her stomach as Alexander untied his sorrel stallion, led it out of the trees and mounted, heeling it into a trot that was rendered risky by the weather.