Craving the Highlander’s Touch

Scotland, 1306

Finian MacLachor was slowly freezing to death. Stripped of his outer garments, he wore nothing but his trews, for his clothing had been taken from him. The Baron of Harkirk, Robert Fitzroy, had ordered him whipped, and now Finian was imprisoned within the storage chamber, his back raw and bleeding. The heavy manacles enclosed his wrists, the thick chains impossible to escape.

At dawn, he would die.

He knew the Baron would not make it a quick death. They would make an example of him, to terrify the other Scots who dared to rise up against the English garrisons.

But just as the freezing air had seeped into his skin, slowly taking away his ability to feel, his mind had settled into calm.
You don’t deserve to live. Because of you, most of the MacLachors are dead.

Including his own daughter.

Finian closed his eyes, the tight knot strangling his heart. He’d been too late to save her. His hands curled against the chains, gripping them hard as he tried to rip them from the stone wall. Had Iliana died, believing he’d forgotten about her? She’d just turned ten years old.

On his knees, he uttered a prayer for her soul. He doubted he would live long enough to avenge her death, but he wasn’t going to die quietly. God willing, he would kill Harkirk before that happened.

The sound of footsteps approaching made him wonder if it was already dawn. He rose to his feet and kept his head low, waiting. When the hooded figure emerged, he realized it was a woman. Now why would she enter a place such as this? What did she want?

Finian lowered his head, behaving as though he hadn’t seen her. It was easier to learn about an enemy if the person believed he was unaware. She was still standing upon the stairs, and he angled his peripheral vision to see her better.
Her light brown hair held glints of gold within it, and she seemed taken aback at the sight of him. Finian said nothing, waiting for her to speak. Her eyes rested upon his chains, and she reached for the keys.

Was she planning to free him? He doubted if a stranger would show such mercy. She stood with them in her palm for a moment, almost uncertain of what to do now.

He waited for her to leave, for this was no place for a woman. Instead, her footsteps drew nearer, down the stone steps. Finian remained motionless, and the longer she stood before him, the more he grew conscious of his trembling. The chains shook, despite his clenched fists. Although he’d stopped bleeding, his skin throbbed with a fiery pain.

“If I release you, will you promise not to harm me?” she asked quietly.

He jerked his head up, hope flaring inside. Had she truly offered to set him free? He blinked, and saw her steady green eyes watching him. Like an ethereal angel, her presence seemed conjured from his imagination.

“Who are you?” His voice was rough, edged with cold.

“Alys Fitzroy, Lady of Harkirk.” She shivered, and in her hands she held the key to unlock his manacles. “Don’t even think of using me as a hostage. I want to leave this place, just as you do.”

Strange, to think that his angel of mercy came in the form of the devil’s wife. She wouldn’t dream of releasing him if she knew he intended to kill her husband.

But what did she mean, she wanted to leave this place? Finian stared at her, unable to understand why. But there was genuine unhappiness on her face, which he hadn’t expected.

Her hand touched his wrist, and the sensation of her fingers was warm, like a healing balm. In the darkness, her breath formed clouds, and Finian could smell a light herbal fragrance from her skin. Almost as if she’d bathed last night with petals scattered upon the water, dipping against her breasts.

Against his will, he found himself noticing her as a woman. Likely, it was only the years of celibacy-any man would respond to a beautiful woman touching him. Her features were delicate, with a small nose and lips that held a slight frown. Her hands were shaking as she struggled to unlock the first manacle.

A minute later, the heavy chain struck the ground at his feet. His wrist was raw, but he held steady, waiting for her to release his other hand.

“What is your name?” she asked, as she unfastened the second iron band.

“Finian,” he answered. “I’m the MacLachor chief. Or . . . I was, before this.” There were hardly any MacLachors left now. Perhaps a dozen or fewer, after they’d attempted to attack Harkirk’s fortress. So many of his men had died . . . and he should have been among them.

Lady Harkirk folded her hands in her skirts and retreated. “If you follow me, I’ll show you a way outside the fortress. That’s all I can do for you. You’ll have to make your own escape.”

“Why would you offer me help?” Finian asked. He struggled to his feet, wincing at the pain as he took one step, then another. “Surely Harkirk would be furious.”

“I’ve been his prisoner for four years now. I don’t need anyone else to endure what I have.” She swallowed hard. “If I could free the others, I would. But he keeps them locked away, nearer to his soldiers. I don’t know why he put you here.”

“Because they caught me trying to escape last night. He intends to make an example of me.” The MacKinloch chief had cut him free, but physical weakness had prevented Finian from getting very far. Even now, the fierce cold made it hard to move. His limbs felt as though they were wooden, and he couldn’t stop himself from trembling as he rested his hand against the wall.

Lady Harkirk removed her cloak and set it around his shoulders. Finian stared at her, unable to understand her kindness. They were strangers, for God’s sake. He was going to kill the man she’d pledged her life to. But she was looking at him with uncertainty, as though she saw something good within him. As if he were someone worth saving.

She was wrong. There was nothing left of his blackened soul.

“I can’t accept this,” he said, holding out her cloak.

“You need it more than I do.” And with that, she fled. Before she could reach the exit, he caught up to her, blocking her way.

“Why me?” he demanded. “I’m the last person who deserves this.”

She didn’t speak, keeping her gaze to the floor. Her skin was pale, her hands trembling. Finian’s hand curled against the wall. She had to know that he was unworthy of her mercy. “It’s my fault. This battle . . . the loss of my men’s lives.” He pressed the cloak at her, as though it were on fire. “If the MacKinloch’s daughter dies, it will be on my soul.”

Alys started to speak, but held her tongue. In her eyes, he saw the quiet condemnation. Had she not already freed him, he guessed she would have left him in chains.

“Then make amends for what you did.” She touched his chest, moving away. “Or go, if that’s your wish.”

She spoke as if she expected him to walk away from his crime.

Make amends. He doubted if there was anything he could do. His body was so cold, his limbs felt as though they were sinking in mud. If he dared to rise up against Harkirk for the sake of the young girl, he wouldn’t survive.

He raised his eyes to Lady Harkirk. “I deserve to die.”

She held out the cloak again. “That’s not for me to decide.”
Finian held her gaze for a long moment. She’d offered him the cloak off her back. A heaviness encircled his heart, for she was right. He could make amends. He could sacrifice himself up for the sins he’d committed and try to save the MacKinloch child.

He took the cloak and wrapped it around his frigid skin. The garment held the warmth of her body and the faint scent of herbs, almost as if she were holding him in an embrace.

By God, it had been so long since his wife Gillian had died. He hadn’t touched a woman in years. The harsh loneliness gripped him, and he held the cloak tightly against his broken, bleeding body.

“If you’re truly sorry for what you did, you could help them,” Lady Harkirk said quietly. Without waiting for his reply, she led him up the staircase and showed him the chamber where her husband’s weapons were stored. Finian stared at the array of shields and blades, wondering if there was any hope at all of saving the girl. She was hardly more than a baby, not even two years of age.

Lady Harkirk turned to him, her face tight. “Will you atone for what you did? Or will you turn your back on those who are suffering?”

From the novella “Craving the Highlander’s Touch”
Copyright © 2011 by Michelle Willingham
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The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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