He listened tothe soft sound of slippered feet at the door. Then a hesitant knock before heheard her enter the tiny room. He let his head rest on the back of the tub,planning the next steps to winning over Elice Weld.
"I have bath sheets for you." Her voice was unsure and Micha didn't like the vulnerability he heard.
"Come in," he said. If you have the courage to confront the man you love.
The silence that followed unnerved him. He'd wanted so badly to pick up the pieces from where they'd left off five long years ago. He'd been a fool to think picking up the pieces would be remotely possible. A long campaign would only wear her down. The skirmishes would not make her love him, nor would it regain her trust in him.
The door creaked open. The creak was one of a long list of things to do to help Elice with the upkeep of her home. He'd already set his men repairing fences as well as the land for spring planting. He'd talked to them for a long time about the work, and the men he'd brought with him were all willing to help out before they traveled home. Some said it was a hell of a lot better than fighting.
"I'll put them on the shelves here. Don't let me bother you." She stared openly at him for a half-second before flushing crimson and turning her back on him. But she didn't leave the room.
Do you like what you see? he wanted to ask. "You would never bother me. You can stay," he told her. "Wash my back."
"When pigs fly."
He grinned. That held shades of the woman he loved. "You don't have any," he said. "So that's hardly fair."
Her shoulders stiffened and the steel rod in her spine couldn't get any straighter. He needed to find a way to bring back the woman he once knew without changing the indomitable courage that seemed to have become her calling card.
Buck naked he rose from the bath, water sluicing from his skin. He heard her slight gasp, and he wondered if he had just made a huge mistake. She'd seen him naked before. Inwardly, he sighed. One step backward and two steps forwards sometimes worked. He stepped from the tub. He wondered if the wounds on his body upset her. She didn't look upset just curious.
"Could you hand me a bath sheet," he asked nonchalantly.
Her beautiful azure eyes were huge. He watched her swallow then lift her chin a notch. She unfolded a sheet and walked to him, holding it out. He didn't mean to make this too easy for her. But he also didn't want to scare her away. He let her get within a few inches before taking the sheet from her. He wrapped it around his waist and grabbed another sheet from the counter where she'd set the rest of them. He towel dried his hair and chest then sat down on a chair near the tub.
"I'm ready anytime you are. Do you want to change your mind?"
"I'm not afraid of a Yankee soldier, if that's what you're asking," she said as she put the scissors and the razor on a table near the chair where he sat.
"Maybe you should be."
She ignored him. "Scoot the chair out so I can get around the back," she said, the tone in her voice told him her courage returned full force.
He obliged with a smile and a nod. At the moment, teasing her didn't seem like a great idea so he rested his hands in his lap and let her work her magic. When she ran her fingers through his hair, he closed his eyes and clenched his fists, wishing for things that couldn't be right now. Beneath his ribs his heart thundered as loud as stampeding horses. When she smoothed the soap across his jaw and upper lip, he hardened. When she moved in front of him, his legs spread wide to let her stand between them. He understood a need so great he'd do everything in his power to convince Elice Weld he deserved another chance.
She paused, the razor hovering near his upper lip. "Are you all right?" she asked.
"Just dandy," he said, wondering why he'd wanted to torture himself. One of his men could have done this.
Ah, but not as well as Elice and not with her breasts an inch away from his mouth, not with the scent of vanilla lingering and swirling around him, enticing every sense he possessed.
"Do you want me to take off the mustache?"
"Yes," he choked out. When he made love to her, he wanted to feel every soft and gentle touch of her finger tips.
Thinking about making love brought an unconscious reaction from him. Without giving it a second thought, he brought his hands to her hips. His fingers tightened, his thumbs and hands exploring while he still had the chance.
Startled, the razor nicked his cheek. "That's probably not such a good idea," she whispered.
"What?" he asked, knowing full well of what she spoke.
"Touch me," she whispered raggedly.
"I thought you would never ask," he said smoothly but let his hands drop to lap once again.
Casey pushed on the green grass, trying to unwind herself from the man beneath her, but fell again. All right, Casey lass, you're in a heap of trouble right now with no way out. You are seeing the earth whirl and tumble around and you're on top of a brute of a man--a Protestant.
"All right, lads, we'll meet here next Sunday, same place, same time," her brother's voice filtered through the air as if it floated in the fog that surrounded Casey.
Once again she pushed on the damp grass and didn't seem to make headway, her arms feeling as if they'd changed to soggy twine. Don't you abandon me, Patrick O'Connell. You know I have the Devil's own luck. If you leave me here, I'll never forgive you.
"What about Casey?" one of her brother's friend asked. "She looks a little worse for the encounter."
"Do you think we should leave her here--with Kelly?"
"He's a right stand-up guy. Of course you can leave her here. We'll see her home," a Shaunasey said.
"Well, Kelly is a fine bloke. He won't hurt her. In fact with my feisty lil' sister involved, I fear for him--not her," Patrick said laughing. "She'll do as she pleases. She always does. How can I control her when father cannot? She does not need a second father." He shrugged his shoulder and looked behind him at his little sister as he strolled down the hill.
"She's hurt," another friend called after Patrick. "What kind of brother are you?"
"One who is tired of looking after an accident prone little lass. She has to take responsibility for herself sometime, does she not?"
"She is that," one commented. "You rescue her night and day."
~ * ~
"You should have blessed her with a wee bit o'Irish coordination," Oran said dryly as he flew to a hovering position near the girl.
"And you should remember what our blessed mother told us, 'if you cannot say anythin' nice, don't say anything at all'." Moya rose above the flower petal, her wings buzzing with her anger toward her brother.
"I didn't say anything that wasn't the truth." Oran whistled out of tune for a moment. "We could kidnap them."
"And that is your solution to everything?" Moya pointed one finger at him and shook it. "Why, Oran, I believe you may fancy the lass for yourself. I will not have it. Go play your tricks on someone else's charge. She is mine to see to safety and long life. And don't be forgettin' the lad is yours to watch over."
"You best stem your anger, Moya. You're wings have turned golden," Oran said with a hearty chuckle.
~ * ~
"Let Kelly handle her," Casey's brother said with a light chuckle. "He lost and so he must deal with the object of that loss and assume the consequences. It's only fair."
"Hey!" Kelly said, "Don't leave me here with your sister. It will be hell to pay. She's a little girl. What will your father say?"
The others laughed. "Just don't take too long to decide what to do with her. Little girl or not, father will come after you with his pistol."
I just turned eighteen years old--little girl--how dare he…
"Bloody hell, Patrick. What are you thinking?" Kelly cried out.
"I'm thinking the Catholics won this fight. What are you thinking?" Patrick turned his back on the pair and whistled a jaunty tune as he strolled down the hill.
"Revenge will be sweet. Next Sunday…" Kelly shook his fist at the departing back of Casey's brother.
From what seemed like a great distance Casey heard the moan emanating from inside her battered and bruised body. She squished her eyes together, wishing her head didn't pound so fiercely, and the ground spin so wildly. "Who are you?" she whispered next to the man's chest while a soft spring breeze whispered against her heated face.
"Who am I?" the man chuckled. "Lass, you are the one who landed atop me. I should be inquiring into who you are? Only I know." His hands rested around her waist and squeezed as if he were testing--perhaps exploring--entirely inappropriate. Yet for some strange reason, Casey didn't mind the supposed to be unwanted attention. "And I don't think your brother should have left you here with the likes of me. I'm afraid I've landed myself in a dangerous predicament. And I'm thinkin' one that will be very hard to explain."
"Shame on you," Casey said. "You take liberties." The words stole her breath and she had to lean on Kelly once more in order to minimize the pounding of her head and the strange feelings emanating from where his hands were.
"I only want to remove you from--my--ah--person. And if I were taking liberties with you, lass, you'd be near swooning with passion."
"Ah, it seems you are a wee bit arrogant," she opened her eyes and gazed into the bluest eyes she'd ever seen. "The color of a summer sky," she whispered to him, still feeling woozy and not quite sure what he'd just told her--but thinking at the moment something besides the fall caused the earth to spin and the sky to tilt with a crazy, wild abandon.
"What is, lass?"
"Your eyes," she said, struggling against him and finally rolling to the side so she lay sprawled on the grass, staring into the sky she'd referred to a moment earlier and watching a white billowy cloud float past. "I'm not a little girl," she told him. "Don't ever call me that again."
"Then you want me to tell lies?" he asked with a lazy half-smile that stole Casey's heart and left her floundering. "I dinna think I can do that."
"It isn't a lie," she said, trying to sound indignant, yet frustrated beyond anything she'd ever felt before.
"Look, Tia," Reagan said as she pointed toward a nearby hill.
"What is it?"
"A handsome stranger," Reagan giggled, instantly transfixed by the man. "Coming to dance around the May Pole?" Reagan looked a little more closely. "Oh, it's the Laird of Sterling Castle. Why is he on foot?"
"You are not thinking what I think," Tia said. "You dinnae know who he is. He looks like the laird but then he doesn't."
"How do I look?" Regan asked, ignoring Tia and smoothing her skirts then hoping she looked beautiful enough to snare this man. She wanted to sweep the laird off his feet. This might be her one and only chance.
She heard the celebration in the background and watched as all eyes rose to meet the Laird's. Her brother William's eyes were startled then guarded and thoughtful. Tia's were intrigued. Some of the others gazes were wary and distrustful. They were a superstitious lot here in the Highlands. But even as she watched the people around her, she could not fully keep her attention from the Laird who had never attended this celebration before.
She felt a curious draw as she met his piercing gaze. She had only once before seen the man. He was an illusive creature, usually keeping inside the walls of his castle. Rumor had it the castle was haunted and the ghost was a woman who kept him from finding true love or happiness.
"Who do you think he is and where did he come from?" Tia asked peering intently at the man. "I really don't think it's the Laird. No one has spoken to the man in years. He is so withdrawn. A few months ago people were saying he had died."
The man possessed a calm air as if he knew and recognized all the people in front of him. His dark gaze was mysterious, and when he stopped walking, he stood as still as a rock, striking and in clothes she had never seen anyone wear before. She had thought then, though, it would not have mattered what he wore.
Reagan could not draw her eyes from his and felt her flesh grow warm. The way he stared at her was unnerving. Her heart thundered beneath her chest. It seemed as if she knew this man from some long ago time.
But that wasn't possible.
It was May Day. The very air was filled with such excitement, and now this man was here as if sent for her and her alone. In the meadow maids and youths already danced around the Maypole. A man with a bear had the animal dancing circles upon his hind feet, and a marionette show was in progress. A flutist played in honor of King James, a group of Highlanders played the bagpipes. Noise and confusion flourished. The day was bright, clear blue, and so very beautiful.
She saw a strange gold dusting swirling and dancing in the air around her. Instantly, she felt compelled toward the stranger. For a moment she thought someone spoke to her, encouraging her onward.
Reagan was grateful she'd taken so much time with her clothes. Her hose were white silk, and her little leather slippers were blue decorated with glass stones. Next to her flesh she wore a soft silk shift and over it a binding corset and three different petticoats. The dress was blue brocade, with stomachers in velvet, low-cut bodices, and half sleeves with scores of blue lace. Her facemask was covered with feathers and plumes. Her golden hair was done in ringlets, tied through with blue satin ribbons. When she'd looked at herself in the mirror, she had been quite pleased with the results.
So lost in thought, she had lost track of the man.
Until he stood next to her.
"A...hi," he said. "I'm Sean Michael Sterling." He stared at her with dark dangerous brown eyes as he crossed his arms on his chest.