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She was not the usual type of woman to catch his eye, but she had.
Aidan MacLerie decided to stop and quench his thirst at the well in the middle of the village on his way back to the keep. His men had continued on up the hill to the wives and families who awaited their return while Aidan paused. This place was one of his favourites for finding companionship of the female kind and he'd rarely been disappointed.
He dipped into the bucket and watched her approach over the rim of the cup as he drank from it. She did not walk as much as saunter, her lush hips swaying as she crossed from the path to the well. She carried a bucket in her arms, pressing against breasts he imagined were as shapely as her hips. From the kerchief she wore to cover her hair, he knew she was a married woman, or mayhap his other favourite-a widow.
Widows were fair game for his attentions. And they were experienced in lovemaking and the way of the world around them, so they held no illusions about the place any affair held in his life. She glanced up and smiled softly at him, making his body harden and ready itself for pleasure.
Oh, aye, she would be different from his usual bed-mates, but pleasure would be theirs. She would be his.
'Good day,' he said, smiling back at her and standing as she moved closer to the well. 'Here-' he reached out for the bucket '-allow me to fill that for you.'
'Thank you, my lord,' she said in a voice that sent spirals of desire through him. Feminine with earthy, lush tones that matched the rest of her. She would cry out his name in that voice soon as he filled her and as he led her to reach her own release. He distracted himself by tossing the well's bucket down and then pulling it up when it filled.
'You know who I am?' he asked. Aidan did not remember ever meeting this woman before.
'Aye, my lord,' she said, taking the now full bucket from him. 'You are the earl's eldest son.'
'Aidan,' he said. He needed to hear his name spoken by her mouth. His cock stood, his flesh tingled and his blood seethed in anticipation. 'My name is Aidan.'
'Aye, my lord,' she said. She began to back away, nodding in courtesy, but he had no intention of allowing her to escape before he discovered her identity.
'You have me at a disadvantage, mistress. You know who I am, yet I do not remember meeting you.'
'We have never met, my lord. I am Catriona MacKenzie,' she answered. She met his gaze and he took note that she was older than he'd first thought, possibly older than he.
'How did a MacKenzie come to be in Lairig Dubh?' The MacKenzies had been adversaries of the MacLeries for a long time until Aidan's brother-by-marriage, Rob Matheson, had forced both clans to negotiations that eased the tensions between the two most powerful clans in the Highlands.
'I married Gowan MacLerie.' Simple and direct and it might have dashed a lesser man's hopes. But not his.
Gowan was one of Rurik's men and a good deal older than both Aidan and his wife. And he was a skillful trainer of warriors who was often away from Lairig Dubh at the earl's other holdings. He smiled then, the possibilities expanding with every moment. Not willing to let her get away yet, he stepped closer and took the bucket from her and motioned for her to lead him.
'Allow me to carry this for you,' he said.
She looked as though she would argue for her lovely mouth pursed and her deep-blue eyes flashed like ice. But after a very short hesitation, she turned and led him down one of the smaller paths that headed towards a cluster of cottages. And Aidan took advantage to study Mistress Catriona MacKenzie as she walked in front of him.
Wisps of dark brown hair escaped her kerchief and Aidan fought the urge to pull it free. He wondered if her hair would fall below that beautiful arse of hers and sway as she walked. Reaching down and using the bucket to cover his actions, he tugged his trews loose to allow for the erection that was not going to ease. At least not until he'd found a way to get Mistress MacKenzie in his bed, naked and writhing and open to his touch.
She turned down a path to their left and stopped before the last cottage. Glancing around, he listened for any sign that others were nearby. Although he did not usually seek out married women, he did not ignore them either and this was one he'd decided to pursue. He would be discreet and not embarrass her or her husband unnecessarily, but he would have her.
She turned to face him, holding out her hands to take the bucket. Instead, he put it down and took one of her outstretched hands in his, lifting it to his mouth. A slight tug gave away her nervousness, then she acquiesced.
'My thanks for your assistance, my lord,' she said, trying to put a distance between them that his grasp made impossible.
'Until we next meet, mistress,' Aidan whispered.
He kissed the top of her hand and then turned it over and placed his mouth on her wrist. He met her gaze and slowly touched the tip of his tongue to the place where her pulse beat close beneath the skin there. Her surprised gasp echoed in the stillness around them.
Aidan released her hand, trying not to stare at her breasts as he noticed the way her nipples had tightened and were visible through the fabric of her gown. He smiled and did not hide it, as she crossed her arms over her chest and drew her shawl up on to her shoulders to cover herself.
Turning without another word to her, he strode back along the path towards the well, memorising the way as he went. Aidan could read the excitement in her body and hear it in the way her breathing became shallow and quick. His next visit would be under the cover of darkness, so he paid attention to the number of paths and cottages and other details. By the time he arrived back at the keep and reported to his father, his plans for this newest seduction were set.
Mistress Catriona MacKenzie would be warming his bed, or he would warm hers, very, very soon.
Cat stood like a statue, unable to move or to look away as the young lord strode down the path. The skin of her wrist was warm and moist from the touch of his mouth and tongue. Bold and brash, Aidan MacLerie had kissed her as though she was a young girl and as though she wanted his attentions.
Which she did not.
Still, she watched until he passed out of her view and a wicked part of her hoped he'd turn back to look at her once more. Those cat-like amber eyes of his never wavered while he studied her. She'd seen the earl one day and now she knew that his son had inherited the father's good looks and colouring, especially those eyes. She shivered now, but feared examining the reason too closely.
Cat lifted the bucket from where he'd left it and carried it inside. Tossing her shawl aside, she poured some of the water in the waiting jug on the table and the rest into the waiting cauldron in the hearth. She moved about the room, gathering together the ingredients for the stew she would make for their evening meal, trying all the time to ignore the feelings that pulsed within her. Once the meat and vegetables were in the pot, she tugged off her kerchief and laughed.
Boredom must have driven him to flirt with her at the well. Boredom plain and simple. For, truly, what other reason could explain it? She was older than he was-almost six years stood between them if she had heard correctly. She was married to one of his father's men. And, no matter if her body trembled and her skin and blood seemed on fire from his attentions, she was an honourable woman who took her promised vows seriously.
Cat laughed again and shook her head, deciding to just accept that it was the nonsensical flirtation of a young man with nothing better to do. Gowan was away and would return on the morrow, but she still had to prepare a meal for his son, Munro.
She carried out her daily chores and enjoyed a quiet meal at day's end. It wasn't until she lay on her pallet waiting for sleep to take its hold that she allowed herself to enjoy the impossible attentions of a younger man that would come to nothing more than the few minutes of excitement it had been.
Her life was not harder than most others who lived in Lairig Dubh. Gowan had offered her marriage and that had taken her from the terrible circumstances of her early years and given her an honourable place. He did not require much of her and she did not begrudge him anything he wanted from her. Being ten years older than her, he did not expect more children and he'd also long since stopped seeking her bed. With a son raised and part of the laird's warriors, Gowan was a simple man who made few demands on her.
So, the playful flirting of one young man meant nothing, but it had made her smile. And she felt a pang of bittersweet loss, too, for it reminded her of the subtle joys of courting that she'd missed in her life. As she drifted off to sleep, it was not her husband's face that filled her dreams, but that of Aidan MacLerie.
Yet those dreams were so heated and so filled with passionate bedplay that guilt filled her as she heard Gowan's voice call out as he approached their cottage the next day. How could such a small, innocent encounter affect her so much?
Gowan's return brought her normal life back and, over the next sennight, she could almost forget the way the earl's son had looked at this soldier's wife.
* * *
'What do you think of this, Aidan?'
He'd long ago given the report of the results of his latest assignment to those here, so Aidan's thoughts had drifted from whatever was the matter at hand to the lush figure of the woman he desired most. Glancing around at the clan elders and his father's other counsellors, he had no intention of revealing his thoughts, though if he stood now the matter would be quite clear to everyone there.
Aidan tried to remember what the discussion had been when he caught Rurik's eye. His father's most loyal friend and the leader of all his warriors gave him a knowing wink. Also his godfather, Rurik knew of Aidan's love of the fairer sex and Aidan had sought his advice several times when asking his father would have been too difficult or embarrassing. Rurik took it in his stride and, apparently, kept his eye on Aidan's activities. Finally remembering the last topic, he looked at his father.
'I think you should gather the newer soldiers together in one place and let some of the experienced commanders train them,' he said, hoping his suggestion sounded like a reasonable one.
His father raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Tempted to say something, anything, to break the silence, he knew better than that. Connor MacLerie would consider his words and weigh the merits and disadvantages of any plan, whether his first-born son's or his most trusted advisor's. Aidan watched as his father met the gazes of one after another of his counsellors and then turned back and spoke to him again.
'And who should I assign to this task?' he asked.
Aidan rose then and went to fill his cup before speaking. Several names came to mind-all experienced, capable warriors-and he offered them. 'Black Rob. Iain. Calum,' he said.
'Micheil,' Rurik offered. 'And we will need one more to work with the number of new soldiers we have, Connor.'
'Gowan.' The name escaped Aidan's mouth before he truly thought it through, but it was right for so many reasons that he repeated it. 'Gowan should be there.'
Aidan held his breath, waiting for his father's decision. This task would take several weeks, if not almost two months, and it would keep Gowan far enough away that he could not interfere with Aidan's plans for Catri-ona. It would give him uninterrupted weeks to follow her, weaken any resistance or hesitation she might have and seduce her and make her his. A smile threatened, one which would be hard to explain, so he took a deep swallow of his wine instead.
'Rurik, what think you of Aidan's choices?' his father asked.
Rurik crossed his arms over his chest and frowned. A good sign or bad, Rurik gave no sign of his opinion for several moments. Then, with a nod, he confirmed them.
'Give the orders and make the arrangements,' his father said, putting down his cup and nodding to several of the men there.
Aidan held his breath, not daring to believe his luck in this. Within a day, two at the most, Gowan would be gone from Lairig Dubh and he could pursue the fair and lovely Catriona without interference. He watched as the men left and his father remained with Duncan and Rurik. A discussion about several upcoming visits by various noblemen in Scotland who wanted to be in the good graces of the Earl of Douran. It was nothing new for his father or for him-people who valued them only for their name, their connections or the power and influence they wielded.
A short time passed and Aidan listened without interest to who was coming or going, caring not as long as Gowan was gone from Lairig Dubh. Then his father nodded at his closest advisors and they left.
'Send for Jocelyn, Rurik,' he called out as the men walked to the steps leading down from this tower chamber.
Aidan took a deep swallow from his cup, now puzzled over what was to come. His father alone would not be of concern, but calling his mother here meant trouble was coming his way. They passed the minute or so of time waiting for her arrival in silence with Aidan fighting the urge to ask the reason. Soon, he could hear his mother's footsteps approaching the top of the stairs and he rose to greet her.
Being forced to marry the Beast of the Highlands to save her family had brought Jocelyn MacCallum to Lairig Dubh. Capturing the heart of a man most thought did not have one had turned that marriage into a long and happy one. No matter whatever else happened, Aidan knew his father loved his mother with every bit of his heart and soul. It was there every time one glanced at the other, through good times and contentious ones.
Not that he ever expected to find such a thing as they'd found-he was more practical than that. But he did understand that his parents' marriage and relationship was not the customary one in this time or place.
'So, why did you summon Mother?' he finally asked, wanting some kind of hint about the probably discussion ahead.
His father put his cup down and stood, walking over to the door, awaiting his mother's arrival there. 'To discuss your upcoming marriage.'