How he could straddle the fires of hell and the pleasures of the sweetest angel, he didn’t know. Perhaps he was betwixt the two worlds and it was as of yet undecided which direction he would venture.
“Thirsty,” he said hoarsely. He slid his tongue over his dry, cracked lips, craving the soothing balm of water.
“Aye, but just a bit. I’ll not have you retching all over my floor,” the angel said.
She tucked her arm underneath his neck and lifted his head. It shamed him that he was as weak as a newborn kitten. He’d have never been able to hold himself up if it weren’t for her firm grip.
The rim of a goblet pressed to his lips, and he drank greedily, nearly inhaling the cool water. It was a shock to his system, so cold and refreshing, that a shiver stole over his body. The contrast was nearly painful. Ice to the fires that burned over his flesh.
“There,” the angel soothed. “ ’Tis enough for now. I know you suffer. I’ll make a tisane for the pain and ’twill make you sleep a little easier.”
But he didn’t want to sleep. He wanted to remain there in her arms, cradled to her bosom. ’Twas a very nice bosom. Pillowy and plump, just as a woman should be. He turned, nuzzling into her softness. He inhaled her sweet scent and felt the fires of hell recede. Peace surrounded him. Ah. He’d taken a step toward heaven surely.
“Tell me your name,” he ordered. Did angels have names?
“Keeley, warrior. My name is Keeley. Hush now. You must rest so you can regain your strength. I’ve not worked this hard for you to be arbitrary and die on me.”
Nay, he wouldn’t die. There were important things he must do, though at the moment his bruised mind couldn’t grasp exactly what it was that was so pressing.
Maybe she was right. He should rest for a while. Perhaps when he next awakened, he’d know the right of things.
He inhaled deeply again and let himself go limp. He was vaguely aware of his angel lowering his head. He inhaled one last time, absorbing her scent. It was like drinking the sweetest of wines. A warm, soothing buzz flowed through his veins and lulled him.
He stopped fighting. His angel wouldn’t allow him to die.
“Nay, warrior. I won’t allow you to die.”
Soft lips brushed over his brow, lingering at his temple. He turned his face, wanting her mouth on his own. He thought he might die if she didn’t kiss him again.
There was hesitation, what felt to him like an eternity, before finally, her mouth touched his. Just a simple, innocent gesture that a child might bestow.
He growled low in his throat. Damn if he wanted a simple peck.
“Kiss me, angel.”
He felt more than heard her sound of exasperation, but then her breathing hitched and it blew warm over his mouth. He could smell her. He could feel her vibrating against him. The tiny puff of air signaled that she was close. So very close.
It took all his strength, but he lifted his arm and delved his hand into her hair, gripping her nape to hold her in place. He raised his head and their lips met in a breathless, heated kiss.
Lord, but she was sweet. Her taste filled his mouth, slid over his tongue like smooth honey. He pushed impatiently at her lips, demanding her to open to him. With a sigh she gave him what he wanted. Her lips parted and he delved inside, probing and tasting every part of her mouth.
Aye, ’twas heaven. Because, if this was hell, there wasn’t a man in the whole of Scotland who’d ever tread the path of righteousness.
His strength gone, he slumped back, his head hitting the pillow with a thud.
“You’ve overtaxed yourself, warrior,” she reprimanded in a husky voice.
“ ’Twas worth it,” he whispered.
He thought she smiled, but the room was so blurred around him that he couldn’t be sure. He was vaguely aware of her leaving, but he didn’t have the strength to protest. A moment later, she returned and pressed a goblet to his lips again.
The brew was bitter and he coughed, but she didn’t relent. She poured the liquid into his mouth until he had no choice but to swallow or choke.
When she was done, she lowered his head once more to the pillow and brushed her fingers over his brow.
“Sleep now, warrior.”
“Stay by me, angel. I find it doesn’t hurt so much when you’re near.”
There was faint rustling and then she pressed into his uninjured side, her body soft and so warm, a shield against the chill that gripped him more with each passing moment.
Her scent surrounded him. The feel of her against him soothed the savage fires. He breathed easier as peace enveloped him. Aye, she was his own sweet angel come to guard him from the gates of hell.
Just in case she thought to leave him, he wrapped his arm around her, pulling her in tighter to his side. He turned his head to the side until her hair tickled his nose. He inhaled deeply and gave in to the darkness creeping over him.
Keeley was in a predicament. Aye, she was trapped against her warrior, his arm like a band of steel surrounding her waist. She’d been there for hours, hoping after he fell asleep that his hold would loosen, but she was melded tight against him.
She could feel every tremor of his body. Every time he shook with the chill from his fever. Several times he mumbled in his sleep and she swept her hand over his chest, up to his face in an effort to soothe him.
She whispered words of nonsense, pitching her tone low so as to offer comfort. Each time she spoke, he seemed to settle and relax once more.
She pillowed her head in the crook of his arm and rested her cheek against his broad chest. ’Twas sinful how much enjoyment she gained from lying against him, but there was no one to see it, and surely God would forgive her if she managed to save the warrior’s life.
A glance at her window had her grimacing. Dusk was upon them and it was growing chillier with each passing minute. She needed to get up to cover the window and she also needed to stoke the fire if they were to be warm the night through.
There was also the matter of the warrior’s horse, if the animal hadn’t already ambled off. Few things would make a man angrier than to have his horse neglected. He’d probably sooner forgive her neglecting his injuries before forgiving insult to his horse. Men had their priorities, after all.
With a sigh of regret, she set about extricating herself from the warrior’s grasp. No simple feat when he seemed just as determined that she stay.
He frowned in his sleep and even mumbled a few words that pinkened her cheeks and scorched her ears. But in the end, she won out and managed to slip underneath his arm and roll free.
She struggled to her feet, stretching her stiff muscles, before heading to the window to pull down the covering and secure the sides. The wind had picked up and whistled through her thatched ceiling. If it didn’t snow soon, she’d be surprised.
After fetching her shawl and wrapping it securely around her, she stepped outside and looked for the horse. To her surprise, he was right outside the window, as if he’d been checking in on his master.
She patted his neck. “I’ve no doubt you’re used to better care than I can offer, but ’tis the truth I have no place to shelter you. Think you that you’ll weather the night out here?”
The horse snorted and bobbed his head up and down, blowing warm air out his nostrils. He was a huge animal and surely he’d dealt with worse before. At any rate, she could hardly board the animal in her cottage.
With one last pat, she left the horse and went to fetch more wood for the fire. Her pile was dwindling, and in the morning she’d need to chop some more if she was to keep her fire ablaze.
She shivered when the wind howled over her, picking up the ends of her shawl and pulling as if trying to upset her balance. She hurried inside and stacked the wood by the hearth. After making sure the door and the window were both secure, she added more logs to the fire and poked until the blaze burned high and bright.
Her stomach growled, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten since she’d broken her fast before dawn. Settling on a piece of salted fish and a leftover heel of bread, she sat cross-legged by the sleeping warrior and ate by the warmth of the fire.
As she absently chewed, she stared down at his features, illuminated by the orange glow of the flames. Ever fanciful, her mind began to paint images. Pleasing images. She sighed as she imagined belonging to this man. The two of them eating after a hard day’s work. Or perhaps her welcoming him home after a fierce battle. He would have, of course, been victorious, and she would have given him a hero’s welcome.
He would be glad to see her. He’d sweep her into his arms and kiss her until she was breathless. He’d tell her he missed her and thought of her often in his absence.
A faint smile brought on by distant memories made her chest ache. She and Rionna had daydreamed as girls about the day they’d marry their warriors. That dream had been cruelly torn away from Keeley, and the friendship that had meant so much to her had gone by the wayside.
There wasn’t much chance of Keeley ever making a match. She was taboo to the McDonald clan, and Keeley had never traveled beyond her cottage.
Still, a handsome warrior falling at her doorstep had to be a sign, right? Maybe this was her one chance. Or maybe he was just fodder for more flights of fancy until he became well enough to leave again. Whatever the case, Keeley decided she was going to enjoy her dreams. Even if they were foolish and a waste of time. Sometimes dreams were all that sustained her.
She smiled again. He’d called her an angel. He thought her beautiful. Oh, so his mind was clouded by fever. It still made her chest swell just a bit that such a handsome, fit warrior insisted on kissing her at great cost to himself.
She touched her fingers to her lips, still able to conjure the tingling warmth from his kiss. ’Twas the truth that she’d made no effort to avoid his affection, and maybe that made her the whore the McDonalds had branded her. But she refused to feel guilt. There was no one left to think good of her anyway, so it wasn’t as if she could fall any further in esteem.
Put that way, her sudden wickedness didn’t feel quite so sinful. A mischievous grin widened her mouth.
Who was to know anyway? A few stolen kisses and a head full of girlish dreams wouldn’t hurt anyone. She was tired of always telling herself to put away her silly notions of love. She’d do her duty and nurse the warrior back to health. And if he chose to steal a kiss or two in the process …
Wiping her hands down her skirts, she eyed the sleeping warrior and then decided that the best way to monitor his condition was to sleep right where she’d done so before.
She gently moved his arm aside and crawled against his side. Immediately his arm clamped around her and he turned his head as if seeking her.
It warmed her to her toes when he murmured, “Angel.”
She smiled and snuggled a little closer to his warmth. “Aye,” she whispered. “Your angel has returned.”
How quickly the angel became the devil. As the warrior’s fever raged throughout the next day, he alternated cursing Keeley as the devil’s handmaiden sent to drag him into the bowels of hell and believing she was the sweetest of angels.
She was exhausted and was never quite sure from one moment to the next if he’d try to kiss her senseless or try to cast her as far from his side as he was able. She could only give thanks to God that he was so weakened from his injury and the fever that he wasn’t able to do much more than flail his arm at her.
She felt bad for him. She truly did. She soothed. She wiped his brow. She murmured over and over, stroking his hair and even pressing kisses to his brow. He liked the kisses.
Once he moved his mouth up and caught hers in a hot, lusty kiss that stole her breath completely away. The man surely had a hearty appetite for loving because when he wasn’t cursing her, he spent all his time trying to kiss her senseless.
To her shame, she didn’t try to dissuade him. He was, after all, a very sick man. That was the excuse she used, and she refused to countenance any other reason for her tolerance of his affections.
As the afternoon got on, she separated some broth from the venison stew she prepared. She’d been extremely pleased when a grateful recipient of her healing had left half of a venison carcass at her door. It would feed her for days to come and feed her well.
Carrying the broth in a small cracked cup, she knelt by the warrior’s side and went about the arduous task of getting him to sip the warm liquid.
Thankfully he wasn’t in a combative mood and was back to thinking her the sweetest of angels. He sipped the offering as if it were ambrosia offered by God himself. And maybe in the warrior’s fever-riddled mind it was.
She nearly spilt the broth all over his chin when a knock sounded at her door. Fear gripped her stomach as she hastily looked around for some way to hide the warrior. Hide such a man? He took up her entire floor.
She laid the cup aside and put a soothing hand on the warrior’s forehead, hoping he wouldn’t choose now to start muttering blasphemies. Then she rose and hurried toward the door.
She opened it just a crack and peered out. It was nearly sunset. The sun was barely visible over the distant mountaintop. She shivered as the wretched cold wind blew over her.