Lady Lindsay MacNeil bolted awake at the landing trumpet and her heart surged to pounding. A sleepy smile touched her lips, and it spread across her face as the thin, tinny notes reporting the arrival repeated, wafted from above by the sea wind. He’d come. Alasdair an Dubhar MacNeil, Earl of Cruachan and Laird of Eilean Aonarach, had returned, recognized by the castle watch who saw the arms painted on his sails. How had she missed the first sighting? She should have heard the trumpet long before now. She sat up in the enormous silk-dressed bed and peered toward the window at the far end of the room, a rectangle of small panes made bluish by the predawn light. Early yet; perhaps there had been no sighting in the darkness, or there had been fog. Perhaps the sentry had been asleep and not sounded the sighting call. Or maybe she herself had slept through the announcement of an approaching boat, and that shamed her.
In any case, she slipped from beneath the heavy bedcovers, hurried to poke the fire to life and feed it a log, then plucked a small, yellow spring wildflower from the arrangement of purple, white, and yellow sitting on the table near the window. She leaned into the deep stone sill and pulled open the glass to look out. It was a far reach across the thickness of wall in the slanted sill, the rough stone cold on her bare belly, and she shivered. But her heart lifted at the view of the barbican and quay below, and when she shivered again it was a thrill of joy.
Her husband’s ships stood at the quay, already unloading men and horses. Two large black dogs, lanky young animals that resembled what would one day be called a Scottish wolfhound, bounded up the steps to the keep at a gangly, playful lope. They were littermates, born the summer before, and had attached themselves to Alex. The earl had named them after his brothers back home: Carl and Pete. They went everywhere with him, had accompanied him to Cruachan, and now announced his presence with their barking and wrestling. His voice called to them, but in spite of their size they were still puppies at heart and they ignored him.
Alex’s figure below, familiar by his build and the way he moved hurrying up the steps to the keep, caught Lindsay’s eye, and she let the flower drop at just the right moment. She made it in time, and it floated gently downward, to land only a few feet ahead of Alex trotting up the steps. He slowed to pick it up, pushed his mail coif back from his head so it lay about his neck in a collar of metal, grinned at her, and put the tiny blossom to his nose. His hair was awry from the coif, and his chin bristled with dark stubble of several days, but his cheeks glowed pink with health. No sickness, no wounds while he’d been gone. Her heart lifted with joy for that. Then he resumed his hurry into the keep, surcoat flapping, spurs and chain mail jingling. Lindsay withdrew to the room, closed the window, and turned to wait for him.
He was but a moment. Alex came straight to the chamber, followed by the dogs, who bounded into the room and settled themselves in their accustomed spot atop sheepskins near the hearth. Pete sniffed and snuffled at the air, and Carl curled up immediately to sleep. Alex bolted the door behind him, a little breathless from the steep climb but his grin bright and steadfast. His eyes shone with the pleasure of seeing her, and she guessed it was because she wore not a stitch and it had been two months since he’d left for his other island, Cruachan. For a moment he regarded her, then said in modern English for the sake of privacy from the servants in the anteroom, “Saucy wench.”
Lindsay thought his American accent mellifluous. Exotic, and she treasured it the more because she was the only one to whom he spoke in it, for she was the only one in the household — and nearly the only human in this century — who could understand it.
She resisted a grin and went wide-eyed with feigned innocence. “O bold knight, you have misjudged me terribly. I am but a poor girl without proper attire—”
“Nor attire of any sort, it would seem.”
“Indeed.” She lowered her head as if ashamed of her situation, then peeked at him from under her eyelashes and continued, “I place myself at your mercy and pray you to be gentle.” Her hands went to the small of her back, and she shook her shoulders so her breasts would sway. His gaze went to them, and his grin widened. He licked his lips, then bit his lower one as he stared. She stepped closer to him. “Please do not ravish me too harshly. You are so large and strong, and I am but weak and mild.”
That brought a snort of amusement, for they both knew she was stronger than most men and might even beat him in a fair fight. She held in laughter of her own, and her chest jiggled with it.
With a theatrical swagger Alex unbuckled his sword belt, set the weapon against the side of the stone hearth, discarded his iron-plated leather gauntlets to the floor, then began untying the opening of his surcoat. It went straight to the floor in a mound of red and black silk.
Lindsay closed the distance between them and slipped her arms around his neck for a kiss. The mail was cold and bumpy against her skin, a hardness that excited her. Alex was warm and breathing inside the hauberk, flesh and blood and bone protected by the mesh of iron rings. He held her tightly, and the rings pinched a little. It gave her goose bumps. She murmured into his ear, “Take care, bold knight.”
“Beware, tender maiden. I cannot make promises, for my lust is too great.” His breaths came heavily with that genuine lust, and he pressed his mouth to her neck.
“Would you take me unfairly?”
“Would you offer yourself, then break your promise?” His eyelids drooped and his lips touched her forehead as she helped him remove his coif and hauberk, then let them slip to the floor. Off came his spurs and boots, and when the belt that held up his trews was unbuckled, they and his drawers also went to the floor, leaving him in nothing but his knee-length linen shirt. He took her in his arms and pressed himself against her, and she slipped her arms around his neck again. Warm and breathing. And whole.