She breathed a little easier when she saw it was simply a neighboring crofter. That is, until she remembered the warrior’s huge horse that had taken up residence on the side of her cottage.
She stepped outside with a smile and glanced left and right, frowning when she saw no sign of the animal. Where had the beast gone? The warrior surely wouldn’t be pleased if he’d lost such a fine animal. Perhaps the horse had even been stolen. It wasn’t as if all her attention hadn’t been consumed by caring for the warrior. Guarding a contrary animal wasn’t part of her duties.
“I’m sorry to be bothering you, Keeley, on such a cold day at that,” Jane McNab began.
Keeley snapped her attention back to Jane and forced a smile to her lips. “ ’Tis no problem at all. I just ask you keep your distance. I find I’m ailing, and I wouldn’t want you to be similarly plagued.”
The other woman’s eyes rounded and she took a hasty step back. At least now she wouldn’t expect Keeley to invite her inside her cottage.
“I wondered if I could trouble you for some salve for Angus’s chest. He’s coughing something fierce. Happens every time there’s a turn in the weather.”
“Of course,” Keeley said. “I made a fresh batch just two days ago. Wait here and I’ll fetch it.”
She hurried inside and rummaged in the corner where she kept her mixtures and potions. She’d made an extra supply of the thick paste Angus used because she had several regulars who suffered the same affliction. Using one of her cracked cups, she portioned out enough of the concoction to last a week and then brought it back out to where Jane shivered in the cold.
“Thank you, Keeley. I’ll pray you are back to rights soon,” Jane said. She pressed a coin into Keeley’s palm and before Keeley could protest, Jane turned and hurried off.
With a shrug, Keeley went back inside and secured the coin in the knotted piece of linen where she kept the rest of her meager funds. With the coming winter, she’d have need of all the coin she could rummage for when the food supplies ran low.
Her warrior was quiet and seemed to be resting even if fitfully. He twitched and stirred in his sleep, but he’d ceased his ramblings. She heaved a sigh of relief. ’Twas the truth she hadn’t had to fake the weary, half-sick look to convince Jane that she was ailing. She was exhausted. Probably looked on the verge of death herself, and she’d give anything for a restful night.
She knelt by the warrior and laid her palm over his brow, frowning at how dry and hot his skin was to the touch. He gave a light shiver and his muscles coiled and tensed as if trying to ward off the cold.
She eyed the hearth and knew she’d have to venture out once more to replenish the wood stock for the night ahead. Already the wind howled and whistled by her window, ruffling the skin covering the opening.
Knowing it was better to have done with it so she could spend the rest of the night in the warmth of her cottage, she pulled her shawl around her tightly and ventured out to collect another armful of wood.
By the time she returned, her shawl had ripped away from her and blew in the wind, held only by one corner. She shoved inside, dumped the wood on the floor by the hearth, and set about stoking the fire until the blaze licked high up the chimney.
She was hungry but was simply too tired to eat. All she wanted was to lie down and close her eyes. She surveyed the sleeping warrior and pondered the likelihood of getting a sleeping draught down his throat.
Thrashing about did his injury no good, and neither of them got much-needed rest when he flopped around in the throes of God knew what kind of delusion.
Wondering if she’d ever take her bed this night, she mixed the draught and knelt back down, curling her arm underneath the warrior’s neck. She hoisted him as far up as she could muster and held the cup to his lips.
“Drink now,” she said in a soothing voice. “ ’Twill set things to right for this night. You have need of a peaceful sleep.”
And so do I.
He drank it down docilely, grimacing only as the last washed down his throat. Blowing out her breath, she lowered him back down, arranged a fur over him to keep him warm, and then settled beside him, her head resting in the crook of his arm.
It wasn’t the most modest of accommodations. If anyone saw her, they’d be scandalized and she’d be labeled a whore all over again. But no one was here to judge her, and she’d be damned if she allowed it under her own roof. She’d given up her warm bedding for the warrior. The least he could do was share his body heat.
Some of this trembling eased as she melded closer to his body. He even gave a sigh of contentment and turned blindly, his arm sliding over her waist. He smoothed his hand up her back until his palm was splayed wide between her shoulder blades. Then he simply tucked her into the shelter of his body and pulled her head into the hollow of his neck.
It was like being surrounded by a blazing fire. Heat seeped into her flesh until her muscles were bathed in it. She was careful not to touch his side, though she longed to throw her own arm possessively over his side as he was holding her. She contented herself instead with tucking her hand between their chests, feeling his heart thud against her palm.
“You are a beautiful man, warrior,” she whispered. “I know not where you hail from or whether you are friend or foe, but you are the most beautiful man I’ve ever encountered.”
As she drifted into a blissful sleep, warmth surrounding her like a blanket, the warrior smiled in the darkness.
An uneasy prickle skittered over Keeley’s skin a bare moment before she opened her eyes. She gasped and would have screamed, but a huge hand clamped over her mouth.
Terror swept through her when she took in the warriors gathered around where she and the injured warrior lay. They didn’t look at all pleased.
They wore fierce scowls, and it dimly registered that two of them bore a striking resemblance to her warrior.
She didn’t have time to give it much more thought before she was hauled to her feet by a man wielding a sword easily capable of cleaving her in two.
She was about to demand what they were about when the warrior fixed her with a glare so fierce, she promptly swallowed and clamped her lips shut.
It appeared the warrior had questions of his own.
“Who are you and what have you done to him?” he demanded as he pointed to where her warrior lay on the floor.
She gaped, unable to call back her gasp of indignation. “Do? I’ve done nothing, good sir. Well, except save his life, but I suppose that’s paltry.”
His gaze narrowed and he pressed in closer to her, gripping her arm until she gave a small cry of pain.
“Leave off, Caelen,” the apparent leader barked.
Caelen scowled but eased his grip and shoved her a foot away so that she bumped into the chest of one of the other men. She turned, intending to scramble away, but he took over where Caelen had left off and grasped her arm, albeit much more gently.
The leader knelt by the sleeping warrior and concern darkened his features. He ran his palm over the warrior’s fevered brow and then over his chest and shoulders as if seeking the source of his illness.
“Alaric,” he called out, his voice enough to wake the dead.
Alaric? ’Twas a fine name for a warrior. But Alaric didn’t so much as flinch. The man kneeling over him turned his worried gaze toward Keeley and then his green eyes, so much like Alaric’s, turned cold and stormy.
“What has happened here? Why won’t he awaken?”
She turned and glanced pointedly at the warrior holding her arm and then down to where his hand clamped around her flesh until he got the message and released her. Then she hurried over to where Alaric lay, determined that whoever this man was, he wouldn’t bully Alaric while he lay so riddled with fever.
“ ’Tis a fever he’s taken,” she said huskily, trying to ward off the fear that surrounded her just as these men surrounded her.
“That much I can surmise on my own,” the warrior growled. “What happened?”
Keeley reached to push aside the remnants of Alaric’s tunic where she’d stitched his side. There were several quick intakes of breath and Caelen, who’d squeezed her arm so hard it had nearly broken, advanced to stand over Alaric as he looked down at the stitched wound.
“I don’t know what happened,” she said honestly. “His horse bore him here, and he fell onto the ground outside my door. It took all my wits to get him inside so that I could tend his wounds. ’Twas a nasty cut to his side. I stitched it the best I could and have tended him well and kept him warm ever since.”
“She did a fine job of stitching him,” Caelen said grudgingly.
Keeley bristled but held her tongue. What she’d like to do is give him a swift kick in his arse. Her arm still hurt where he’d gripped her.
“Aye, she did,” the leader said softly. “I only wish I knew what transpired for him to arrive so grievously injured.” He turned his seeking gaze on Keeley, probing, as if he considered whether she was being truthful with him.
“If I knew, I’d tell you,” she grumbled. “ ’Tis shameful. He must have been ambushed or fought unfairly. He seems fit enough to handle himself in a fight.”
The leader’s eyes glimmered for a moment and she swore he almost smiled.
“I am Laird McCabe and Alaric is my brother.”
Keeley cast her eyes downward and bobbed an awkward curtsy. He wasn’t her laird, but still, a man of his position commanded respect, and it wasn’t as if her laird was a man deserving of any.
“To whom do I speak?” he asked impatiently.
“Keeley,” she stammered out. “Keeley … Just Keeley.” It wasn’t as if the McDonalds claimed her as kin any longer.
“Well, just Keeley. It would appear I owe my brother’s life to you.”
Her cheeks pinched tight as heat gathered and pooled there. She shifted uncomfortably, unused to such praise.
Laird McCabe began issuing orders to his men about how to transport Alaric back to their lands. Aye, she knew they’d want him home, but she felt pressing sadness that her warrior would no longer occupy her hearth.
“His stupid horse left,” she blurted, not wanting the blame for not taking better care of his steed. “I did what I could.”
Again, something that looked remarkably close to a smile flickered over Laird McCabe’s features.
“That stupid horse alerted us that Alaric was in trouble,” he said dryly.
She listened idly as they made plans for immediate departure and almost missed the mention of her. Nay, there it was again. A distinct reference to her.
She whirled around, gaping at Caelen, who obviously had to be another McCabe brother. He looked nearly identical to Alaric, though to be honest, Alaric was more pleasing to look at. Caelen frowned so ferociously, that she couldn’t imagine a woman wanting to go anywhere near the man.
“I’m not going with you,” she protested, sure she’d heard incorrectly.
Caelen didn’t respond to her statement, nor did he look impressed with her ire. He simply plucked her up, threw her over his shoulder, and began walking from the house.
In her outrage, she was momentarily stunned. Speechless and motionless. By the time he got to his horse, she understood his purpose and she began to kick and fight.
Instead of forcing her onto his horse, he promptly dropped her onto the ground and then loomed over her with a look of sheer annoyance.
She reached underneath her skirts to rub her bruised behind and glared up at the warrior. “That hurt!”
Caelen rolled his eyes. “You have two choices. You can get yourself up off the ground and give in gracefully. Or I can tie you up, preferably with a gag, and throw you over my saddle.”
“I can’t just leave! Why on earth would you want me to? I’ve done nothing against your brother. I saved his life. Where is your gratitude? I have people who rely on my healing skills here.”
“We have more pressing need of a healer at McCabe keep,” Caelen calmly explained. “You did a fine job at stitching my brother and keeping him alive. You’ll continue to do so on McCabe land.”
She leveled a mutinous stare at him, though she had to crane her neck to do so. “I’ll not ride with you.” She crossed her arms stubbornly over her chest for emphasis.
He plucked her up off the ground and strode over to where one of his men had already mounted. She had no warning before she was literally tossed up for the other warrior to catch.
Caelen stared up at her. “Happy? You can ride with Gannon.”
Gannon didn’t look pleased with the task.
She scowled her own displeasure and then decided she’d inform Caelen just what she thought of him.
“I don’t like you. You’re a complete boor.”
He shrugged, clearly telling her he had no care whether she liked him or not, but she could swear she heard him utter “good” under his breath as he turned and stalked away to see to the litter that was being fashioned for Alaric.