The shores of Kinlochervie near Kinloch Keep
Northwest Highlands, Scotland
The morning after the storm...
Captain Lawrence MacLeod motioned to the man beside him to halt. The winds buffeted all around them on the small inlet beach as they stood under a sky that still had an eerie yellow and grey bruised look to it. The clouds raced above them, bringing deep shadows and sharp rays of sunlight as if the sky above was fighting for control back after the storm. The winds carried the damp and strong tang of sea salt as they whirled and blew chaotically around them, pelting their bare legs with sprays of sand.
The two of them had walked down the beach from the caves where they and some of the crew had started dragging crate after crate from off the wreck of the ship and out of the water. The night before, the captain had pulled his crew to safety, diving into the white-capped, turbulent waves, again and again, no matter the ferocity of the waves slamming into the rocks and his ship.
Lawrence stood there, his long sun-streaked brown hair blowing across his face as he surveyed the beach with narrowed, exhausted blue eyes. He saw a line of debris on the sand. The smell came strongly as he inhaled a tired breath and looked at the remains of the storm, thrown onto the beach as if by a giant’s cruel hand. There were seaweed, crushed and broken shells, dead fish, and hundreds of smashed pieces of wood—all wood from his wrecked ship, no doubt.
The debris was testimony to the terrible and fierce wrath of nature they had managed to survive the night before. It was a storm so vicious that it had violently pushed his ship, tossing it about in the waves like a plaything with such forcefulness that its wood had splintered and beams had come crashing down. The storm had then sent them ramming into the rocks that jutted sharply out of the water, just offshore, delivering the ship its final and violent death blow.
He shielded his eyes from the salt spray to look for the animals he had spotted far down the beach. They were from his ship. The captain was relieved to see that they were all together. It seemed that none had scattered or wandered off. They were gathered in a patch of the morning sunshine, free of the dark clouds above. He wondered at this gathering until he came closer.
There, in the middle of them all, lay a young woman.
She was lying on the sand sleeping or perhaps unconscious, just out of reach of the waves. Her long, dark hair was spread out in curling, tight tendrils in the pale sand under her head. It was incredibly long. So vera lang I would wager it reaches tae her waist, the captain thought. She could not be from my ship, he thought. I surely would have remembered seeing this woman.
The captain looked at the young woman’s face, and his eyes narrowed. Her long, full, black lashes fanned atop high cheekbones that were kissed by a perfect shaft of the sun as its rays fought through the grey clouds. But it was her lips that threatened to steal his breath for they were red and full and generous.
He caught himself wondering what her eyes looked like, but then shook his head. He must maintain control. He had always been able to have and then discard any woman he wanted. Easily. He did not want one now, not after last night’s wreck. He had not gotten any sleep, instead choosing to spend the night going back and forth to the ship until he knew for sure that all living creatures on the ship were safely ashore.
Most of his crew had spent the night sleeping in the shelter of the caves. Not him. He was exhausted. But he was not finished. Those of his crew who were alive were depending on him in the aftermath. He looked at the crates of chickens on the beach, the goats, and the cow with the golden-colored hide. They were needed. Desperately.
The storm the night before had indeed been intense, horrific, and indiscriminate with unimaginable calamities to the ship and its crew and passengers, for not all had survived. This woman, however, was not part of his crew or passengers. Still, he had been told that an unknown young woman had helped several of his people and the animals to shore.
That unknown woman had to be this female.
He looked around, assessing and counting the numbers. It appeared she had also managed to get all the horses out of the ship’s lower birth—as well as all of the goats, the cow and its calf, and every single one of the many crates of chickens.
An enormous black horse stood closest to her. It was eyeing the two men apprehensively. It had an unusually long forelock that fell past its nose and a mane that came down past its shoulders. That black mane was blowing wildly and dramatically about in the breeze coming off the sea.
The horse arched its neck high when he took a step towards the woman. It snorted sharply at him and stomped a substantial front hoof, sending the sand caught in the feathers around that hoof flying.
Lawrence eased back a step, keeping his eyes on the big horse’s dark, apprehensive eyes.
“Capitan, that mare is an angry one. Be careful, sir,” the man next to him whispered in his Castilian accent. “She is a madre protectora.”
“Aye, I am aware she is acting as a protective mother, Oger,” Lawrence said. “She is a beautiful horse, isnae she?” Lawrence spoke quietly with respect as he studied the magnificent horse.
Its black coat was shining glossily in the sunlight, and its thick, black tail dragged out behind it on the sand. He watched as the wind picked it up and blew it as it did its long mane.
“She guards the woman, si Capitan?” Oger whispered the question as he kept his eyes on the horse.
Lawrence nodded. “Aye, it seems she does.”
He then glanced at all the other animals. A little calf with the same golden hide as its mother gamboled over on unsteady legs and collapsed down beside the woman in the sand, sagging with exhaustion against her side. It lifted its tiny head to lay it on her abdomen and closed its eyes in contentment. It could not have been more than a week or two old.
Lawrence looked at the calf’s little head and then at the girl’s taut stomach. He could not help but notice her tiny waist, which was laced up in a pair of faded white cloth stays with slitted pockets for wooden busks. It flared out at the bottom sides over her very feminine hips.
His eyes strayed up to her pert breasts and stayed there for just a moment before his eyes traveled up her sleek, delicate neck. She was breathing. He relaxed as he saw this.
She wore only a colorless, long-sleeved shift and skirt under her stays that blended into the color of the sun-bleached sand. Her shoulders were pale and elegant, as well. The thin shoulder straps of her stays had delicate, pink feminine ribbons tied to them to attach the sleeves of an overdress. The ribbons drew his eyes back to her shoulders. They were dusted with tiny crystals of beach sand. It made her skin seem to sparkle in the sun.
Lawrence’s eyes caught a glimpse of dark, emerald-green up the beach. It was her overdress, laid on top of some bushes at the very top of the beach to dry. A pearl-encrusted french hood blew in the breeze beside it. She is nae a commoner, he thought.
Oger’s voice suddenly interrupted his thoughts, and he remembered where he was and what he was doing.
“Is she sleeping, Capitan, or dead?” Oger asked in a hushed voice.
Lawrence looked down at the man beside him. His hands fisted at his sides as he noted his crewman’s interested perusal of the woman. There was no time for that.
“Sleeping, I should think, Oger,” Lawrence said gruffly.
Oger looked closely at the woman as he moved closer until the black horse stomped again in warning.
“Oger! Take these crates of chickens back tae Falcun Ross and MacDuff Gunn. They will know where tae keep them.”
“Aye, Capitan!” Oger scrambled away, trodding barefoot through the hot sand as he gave furtive glances at the woman. The animals scattered out of his way as he moved towards the chickens. He hefted up one of the crates in his arms and gave the woman one last glance, but hurried off at his captain’s glare.
Lawrence watched as his crewman walked down the beach carrying the loud, squawking chickens. He was interested to see that the horse had relaxed and moved away from its mistress. It went in search of the coarse, short grass that had managed to combat the sea winds and was growing at the top of the beach.
Lawrence’s eyes went back to the girl. The chickens had not awakened her. She had not stirred. But then he saw a slight movement. His eyes strayed down her legs to her feminine, delicate feet and the barely perceptible twitch of her foot. She was barefoot, like the rest of them. His boots were laid out, drying in the sun back down the beach near the cave.
He put his hands on his hips as he stared down at her. He did not want this problem. And he knew she was a problem. He would bet all the gold on the ship that this girl meant trouble.
He nudged her with his big toe.
She laughed softly in her sleep and swished her hand lazily at her waist where he had nudged her.
Lawrence frowned and nudged her again, harder this time.
“Tommy, dejar de—stop it,” she murmured sleepily in a thick Castilian accent, refusing to open her eyes.
Lawrence cleared his throat loudly and waited, wondering who Tommy was.
Darling MacRae DeLeon slowly opened her eyes at the rough poking at her waist. She raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun and looked up to see a man towering over her. She sat up quickly as she eyed the huge man. Startled, she looked down at the weight in her lap to see the calf. She gently moved the sleeping young calf off her lap and set it carefully on the sand with a soft caress of her hand as she kept her eyes on the man. She assessed him quickly.
Not my mother’s murderer,her mind registered. Much too big and brawny.
He wore a large cotton tunic and breeks. The tunic was belted at his narrow hips and fell to mid-thigh. The sleeves were voluminous down to his wrists, where they were gathered tightly in a slight ruffle in contrast to his strong, tanned hands. The neckline was wide and open over his broad chest, with a single loose tie at his neck. Under the tunic, he wore a pair of breeks that came to his knees. They showed his muscular thighs and strong, tanned calves. He had a sword that was carried over his back in a belted leather baldric, with several smaller daggers and sgian dubhs in the wide leather belt he wore low around his hips.
She observed him as the man sighed and ran a large hand through his shoulder-length brown, wavy hair. His hair was not totally brown, for she could see it had a myriad of golden streaks all throughout it, probably from being out on the sea for so many years. He had a faint scar along the edge of his cheekbone and another over his temple, which was visible when the breeze blew his hair about. Something was intriguing about his features and within his eyes. Strong, tired, filled with exhaustion, and maybe a hint of worry. As if he carried the weight of the world on his broad shoulders.
He stared curiously back at her with those eyes. They were the brightest, most piercing blue eyes she had ever seen. They were under golden-brown eyebrows that were like a slash above his eyes, rimmed with dark lashes. She marveled that his eyes were made even bluer by his white teeth as he opened his mouth to speak to her, but then seemed to change his mind on what he wanted to say. Her eyes stayed on his mouth. He had full expressive lips that were now thinned in annoyance. He ran one large hand over his chin and jaw which were covered in a hint of dark stubble. She watched as he sighed again and turned his head away from her. His sharp blue eyes scanned the sea’s horizon, coming to rest on the wreckage of his ship, smashed against the rocks. His eyes narrowed to mere blue slits.
A group of dark clouds raced across the sky, blocking out the sun and bringing the winds up stronger. The man looked up at the clouds, shielding his eyes from the sand spray brought by the winds.
He turned back to pin her with his blue eyes. “Ye were on ma ship,” he stated in a soft burr.
Darling’s eyebrows rose. This is the captain! She knew this voice. He had kept his crew calm throughout the storm.
She slowly rose to her feet. She glanced down at herself, for she was clad only in her shift. She had taken her gown off and set it to dry, but it was at the top of the beach, too far to grab quickly and don. She covered her breasts with her arms as she looked at him.
“Si, Capitan,” she said in a husky voice. She raised her chin and smiled tightly as the sea winds blew her dark hair and whipped it out behind her. Her pale skirt snapped in the breeze and wrapped itself around her hips and thighs and curled between her calves. She tried unsuccessfully to pull her skirt free from between her legs, but the wind was too strong. She gave up with a huff and pushed her hair out of her face in annoyance. “I was on the San Gabriel. But it is not your ship” She took another breath as her mind raced with images of the storm, of her mother being killed, of the screaming horses, and the snapping of the wooden beams on the ship as it fought through the storm. His fault. All of it.
Lawrence narrowed his eyes. She had a mass of dark, long hair that the wind was happily playing with. Her large brown eyes flashed irately at him underneath delicately arched brows. Her face was tinged by the sun and her fervent anger. His eyes drifted down to her lips, which looked impossibly fuller now that she was awake. Her whole body was bristling with her fury. He looked down that body, noting how her skirt outlined the length of her long, shapely legs as the breeze blew her skirts about.
She saw where his eyes were and grabbed her skirt, flapping it angrily as she cleared her throat at him, waiting for a response with one eyebrow arched.
Lawrence shook himself. “Nae ma ship? What dae ye mean by that, lass?”
“Es el barco de mi padre!” She spoke in a heated flurry of Castilian as her eyes flashed angrily.
“Speak English, lass!”
She huffed and then took a calming, deep breath of the salty-tinged air. She straightened her spine as the wind came up stronger, whipping her hair out behind her and pushing the clouds faster in the bruised sky above. Sunshine flooded their patch of the beach as she pointed out to sea to the ship’s wreckage that was resting against the rocks just offshore.
She stood tall, looking at Lawrence in the eye.
“That is mi padre’s.” She paused and sighed as she tried to restrain her anger and spoke again, slower, and calmer this time. “The San Gabriel is my father’s ship. It is a Castilian ship. Not yours, Capitan. You are aScot.”