Read an ExcerptHighlander Ever After
By Jennifer Ashley
Copyright © 2008 Jennifer Ashley
All right reserved.
The Devil's Teeth
October 1820 Ullapool, the Western Highlands, Scotland
Egan barreled out of the tavern onto the dock. The news had to be a mistake.
A curtain of rain soaked the wooden pier and the stone buildings, heightening the fishy, briny smell of the harbor. Rowboats were just breaking through the rain and mist, a blue-coated captain standing in one's bow. To the west the harbor was closed in by a series of rolling hills, leaving a gap that led to the open sea and wind-whipped waves.
Egan frantically tried to make out the other passengers, desperate to find Zarabeth. He'd been told her ship had broken up offshore, but he refused to believe he'd failed her already. She would be on one of these boats pulling in, laughing that she had got wet, none the worse for wear.
He hadn't seen Zarabeth for five years but hadn't forgotten one strand of her black hair, her deep blue eyes, and her sweet face with its slightly pointed chin. She'd been a beautiful young woman when last he'd seen her, poised to take her world by storm.
So beautiful he'd forced himself to walk away.
Sailors leaped onto the docks from the rowboats, then reached back to haul out the drenched passengers. The boat with the captain contained three men in the garb of faraway Nvengaria, but no sign of Zarabeth.
Egan's blood ran cold as the captain approached him, his eyes weary in the rain. "Are ye himself?"
"I am Egan MacDonald. What happened, man? Tell me and be quick about it."
"We lost a mast, and the hull cracked open. I thought we could limp into harbor, but the ship broke up just outside. My first officer, he put the young lady into the first boat, but ..." He cleared his throat. "We lost sight of it in the mist. We searched...."
Pounding rain soaked Egan's bare head, but he scarcely felt it. "Where?" he shouted at the captain. "Where did ye go down?"
"By the Devil's Teeth."
Egan's heart lurched. The Devil's Teeth were razorsharp rocks below the mountain called Ben Duncraig. Ships or fishing boats that ran up on them were shredded into useless bits of lumber.
Egan turned away, calling for a horse. The captain tried to stop him. "There's no point, man. The boat will have been washed out to sea."
"If she were dead I'd know." Egan grabbed the bridle of the horse the hostler brought him and scrambled into the saddle.
A hand on his ankle stopped him. He looked down into the grim eyes of one of the Nvengarians, a man with a craggy face, black hair, and a hard mouth. "I will go with you," he said in heavily accented English. "I was sent to guard her."
"I can move faster on my own," Egan told him, squarely facing the man's intense gaze. "She saved my life once. I'll not leave her t' die."
Before the man could say more, Egan spurred the horse and charged from the docks for the road that ran along the shore.
I am here; please help me.
Zarabeth silently screamed the words as she clung to the black rocks, the pounding sea threatening to drag her back into its depths. Her rowboat had cracked in two, icy waves tossing the pieces far north of the harbor mouth.
She'd clung to what broken boards she could find until rocks had swirled out of the fog. Then she'd reached for them and grabbed on. The first officer had gone down and not come up, or at least Zarabeth had not been able to see him through the mist and rain. Either way, she could no longer sense his anguished thoughts and knew he was dead.
She was terrified at the same time she was furious. She'd traveled from her tiny country in the Balkans across the length of Europe, through the German states to the North Sea, and endured a hazardous ocean journey to land here on the west coast of Scotland. She'd come so close to safety, so close to seeing Egan MacDonald again. But now she would die.
What use was magic now? One of her charms, a piece of gold wire twisted over a stone, still hung between her breasts. It was supposed to ward off an enemy's physical attack-well, that had worked in the literal sense. The first officer had slipped when he'd tried to put his hands around her neck, and an instant later the ship had crumbled beneath them.
Too bad the charm did not also ward off sharp rocks or death by drowning.
I'll have to add that in next time.
Zarabeth was freezing-she'd die of cold and exposure even if she didn't drown-but she didn't regret what she'd done to bring herself here. Sebastian was a monster, and he'd made her life unbearable for the last five years. When she'd learned a few months ago that he was a traitor, she could no longer even pretend to be a loyal wife.
She'd crept away in the middle of the night and gone to her cousin Damien, imperial prince of Nvengaria. He'd helped her, had started divorce proceedings for her, and, when things got too dangerous, shipped her off to Scotland for safety.
Only she would not reach safety. Or Egan. She'd planned to apologize to him for being such a fool that night five years ago. The world had taught her that dreams and reality were vastly different, and she planned to tell him so.
Now her only regret was that she'd never again see his face or watch his hardest expression suddenly dissolve with his warm grin. She'd never again hear his rumbling voice that comforted her like nothing else could.
Egan MacDonald, the only person she'd ever met whose thoughts she could not read. She'd saved his life once, and he'd stayed with her family while recovering. When he came back years later for a visit, she thought he'd be her knight in shining armor like the legends of old; except he wore a kilt and rough leather boots. But he'd made it clear he still saw her as the little girl who'd helped pull him from a ditch. Even so, she'd waited for his rescue all these years.
It was likely he wouldn't come now, and she'd be dead and unable to scold him for it.
Help me, Egan.
Over the pounding of the surf against rock, she thought she heard hoofbeats on the hard road. She raised her head but could see nothing through the spray and rain and mist.
Then out of the dark loomed a knight gleaming from head to foot in armor, his mighty warhorse pawing the ground, sparks flying from his hooves.
The knight flung himself off the horse and descended the treacherous rocks toward her. His figure resolved itself into a Scotsman in a dark blue and green; then suddenly he blurred and vanished.
A dream, she thought dimly, and everything went black.
Egan hauled Zarabeth's limp body up from the rocks, cradling her against his chest. Her skin was clammy and cold, and so wet. The damned rain wouldn't stop.
Her black hair hung in tangles, her hands cut and bloody from clinging to the rocks. Her dress was torn, revealing the white of her breasts, a strange piece of jewelry glinting gold on her pale skin.
Get her warm. The thought pounded through his brain. He wrapped her well in his cloak, but she was too cold, too lifeless. He'd never get her back to Castle MacDonald before she froze-it was too far, and night was falling.
He laid her across his saddle and mounted behind her, cradling her against his chest. He turned the horse back up the road to Ullapool, knowing an inn lay at a crossroads not far from there. It was not much of an inn, but there he could get Zarabeth warm and dry.
When he reached the inn, the proprietor and his wife quickly acquiesced to his demands-they'd never refuse anything to a MacDonald. Soon he had Zarabeth in a private bedroom with a roaring fire in the hearth.
Egan helped the innkeeper's wife peel off Zarabeth's clothes, feeling sick as he saw the bruises on her pale body. She was so cold, shivering, and she would not wake up.
The innkeeper's wife rubbed Zarabeth vigorously with towels and blankets. Then Egan laid her in the bed, piling on the quilts. The woman hung Zarabeth's sodden dress and underclothes in front of the fire, shaking her head at the gashes in the fine cotton.
After the woman had finished and was gone, Egan sat down on the bed beside Zarabeth. Damn, she was still too cold. The room had already filled with warmth, but none of it seemed to touch her.
Egan stripped out of his coat and kilt and peeled off his wet shirt, his own body warm despite the wet. He spread his clothes in front of the fire to dry, then slid under the covers. He spooned himself against Zarabeth's cold, limp body,worried that she lay so lifeless.
"Take my warmth, love," he whispered. "Take all ye need."
If she heard him she made no response. Egan pressed a kiss to her hair, remembering the Zarabeth who had kissed him so sweetly in her father's house five years ago. Her lips had warmed him, her smile welcoming.
He'd been drunk and enchanted and ready to take her on the floor. That night he'd realized that the twelve-year-old hellion Zarabeth who used to take him fishing and endlessly taunt him had become a woman-a beautiful, charming woman he wanted with every breath.
Her lips had tasted of warmth and spice, and his hands had sought the curve of her hips. She'd been wearing a dress that bared most of her bosom, a pendant similar to what she wore now hanging in the shadow between her breasts. He'd wanted to catch the pendant in his teeth, lick the salt of her skin. Itched to pull the dress down to bare the sweet darkness of her nipples.
Leaving her had been the hardest thing he'd done in his life. He hadn't spoken to her or seen her or even had a letter from her from that day to this. And now here he was in bed with her.
I'll stay until she's warm, then go.
His mind said that. His body knew that he'd ridden hard in the cold rain and dragged Zarabeth to safety and was exhausted from chill and worry.
He fell asleep.
Zarabeth woke to incredible warmth. She cracked open her eyes, then shut them again because even her eyelids hurt.
She lay under heavy quilts in a prickly bed with a thin pillow. Breathing hurt, but she lay in splendid comfort and felt no signs of fever.
The thought trickled through her brain that she was no longer clinging to sharp rocks in a stormy sea. She nearly wept with relief, forgiving the mattress its prickles and the pillow for being flat. For a time she lay still, eyes closed, and enjoyed life and safety.
After a while, she realized several more things-first, she had no idea where she was, and second, she was not alone in the bed. A warm bulk lay next to her, long and strong and protecting her like a wall. It was also snoring.
She pried open her eyes. It did not hurt as much this time, and she was able to see Egan MacDonald lying on his side next to her, his head pillowed on his bent arm.
She nearly stopped breathing. The man she'd dreamed about for five years-in intense, deeply erotic dreams-lay under the covers with her. When she'd last seen him he'd been devastating-hair rumpled, brown eyes half-closed, lazy smile as he'd murmured, "What is it ye wanted to tell me, lass?"
If anything he looked stronger and more solid, his skin darkened by sun and wind. The lazy smile had been replaced by a little frown in his sleep, and his eyes were closed, dark lashes resting against his cheek.
His large hand had spread out on the coverlet, as though he'd been reaching for something but fallen asleep midway there. Misty sunlight picked out gold strands in his hair, light brown weaving through darker brown.
She'd always loved his wild hair and how the colors were variegated, had always longed to touch it. She indulged herself now, sliding a finger through the twisting curl that rested against his cheek.
The hand on the quilt moved, and his lips curved in a half smile. He still slept, but he turned his head to nestle his cheek into her palm.
Zarabeth moved the pad of her thumb across his cheekbone, back and forth, feeling the burn of unshaved whiskers. His smile faded as he drew a long breath, and his hand on her hip grew heavy as he drifted into deeper sleep.
Zarabeth continued to rub the roughness of his whiskers until her own eyelids drooped and she fell into dreamless, contented slumber.
She awoke facing the edge of the bed. Her body was spooned to Egan's, his chest to her back, his strong arm flung around her waist. She realized this time that they were both unclothed.
A fold of blanket had wedged between them, but she felt every line of his body burrowed into hers, including the thick arousal that nudged her through the fabric. A silver armband encircled his bicep, the metal cool against her skin.
She still had no idea where she was. The room was tiny and whitewashed, filled mostly with the large bed. A fire flickered in the small hearth, and early sunlight leaked through the half-shuttered window.
She tried to slide out from under Egan's arm, but he murmured in his sleep and tightened his clasp. One hand came up to rest on her breast, his palm cupping it through the blanket.
"Egan," she whispered.
"Mmm." He nuzzled her ear; then his lips touched her hair, so warm. "Hush, love."
Love? For a moment she pretended he meant her. She liked the thought of him kissing her and calling her love.
"Egan, it is Zarabeth."
He went still a moment, then jerked awake. He wrenched himself up with unflattering speed and landed on his feet, snatching a length of tartan to wrap around his lower body.
Zarabeth sat up, pulling the blankets to her shoulders. Egan made a delectable picture, his hips hugged by the plaid, the cloth dipping to reveal a hint of dark hair below his navel. His skin was tanned by the sun-he'd been dark since his army days-and his tight arms were marked with narrow white scars, the intricately patterned armband glinting on it.
Dark hair hung in tangles to his shoulders, unruly as ever, and unshaved whiskers stubbled his face and jaw. His chest was sculpted with muscle like the rest of him, and dusted with dark hair. Flat, copper-colored nipples drew to tight points as he regarded her almost fiercely.
Her blood heated at the sight-her Highlander, tall and very male.
"'Twas only to get you warm, lass," he said gruffly. "Nothing more."
Zarabeth couldn't stop gazing at him. "I'd say that I was warm."
"I meant to leave ye, but I fell asleep."
If only he didn't look so repulsed to have awakened pressed against her.
Out of habit, she slid into her brisk society-hostess voice. No one out-eleganced no-nonsense Zarabeth of Nvengaria. "Very well, we can pretend you left when I slept."
His eyes narrowed. She could never fool him, and he knew it. Egan could always see through her, no matter that she never had any idea what was going on behind his hard gaze.
He made himself lean over the bed and rest his hand on her forehead. "No fever. Good. I got ye out in time."
Flashes came back to her: the storm, the breaking ship, the wild and terrified thoughts of the sailors and crew, the despair of the first officer as he flailed away from her, and his last fading thought-I'm sorry. The freezing, greedy sea that tried to pull her from the rocks to her death.
Egan touched her cheek. "Are ye all right?"
She gasped and looked up to find his face an inch from hers. She'd always loved his eyes, deep brown flecked with gold.
She remembered the first time he'd opened those eyes and looked at her. That had been after she'd found him in a ditch by the side of the road, half-dead. Her father had taken him home to be nursed back to health. When Egan had finally awakened, Zarabeth had been sitting by his bedside reading fairy tales to him in Nvengarian. He'd stared at her in confusion before demanding to know in his luscious Scots accent where he was.
She tried to keep her voice from shaking now as she answered. "I am well."
He stood up again, holding the tartan closed with one tight fist. "Good. I'll tell the landlord to get ye breakfast."
"Where are we?"
"An inn up the coast from Ullapool. Closest thing I could find-couldn't risk dragging ye all the way back to Castle MacDonald with you that wet and cold."
She shivered again, but only from the bewildering memories of the wreck. "We are even then, you and I. I rescued you from a ditch, and you pulled me from the sea."
Egan's brows raised the slightest bit. "No, lass, you and I will never be even."
What did that mean? She peered into his eyes but could see nothing behind them, as usual. The only man she'd ever loved, and she couldn't read him.
Egan turned to stir up the fire, lifting another log onto it one-handed. She enjoyed watching his hips move against his plaid.
Excerpted from Highlander Ever After by Jennifer Ashley Copyright © 2008 by Jennifer Ashley. Excerpted by permission.
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