Unraveled by the Rebel
â€œHe killed him.â€ Paul Fraser’s voice was flat, holding a lifetime of pain in those three words. â€œThe Sassenach bastard hanged my father.â€
He looked half-wild with grief and anger, and Juliette Andrews’s heart broke for him. Never before had she seen Paul this upset. His cropped black hair was matted, his blue eyes shadowed, as if he hadn’t slept in days. Perhaps he hadn’t eaten, either.
The air seemed to leave her lungs, and she demanded, â€œWhat do you mean, they hanged him? Why?â€
â€œNo’ here.â€ Paul took her palm as he guided her across the glen and toward the hillside. A small copse of pine trees would hide them from the open view, and she followed him into the shadow of the woods. Juliette held on to her skirts, stepping carefully over fallen logs and past the underbrush. Though her family would be furious with her for stealing away alone with him, she didn’t care. In her eyes, there was no harm in it. Paul was seventeen, while she was only fourteen.
From the day she’d arrived in Scotland a few months ago, she’d been fascinated by the handsome Highlander. Paul had taken her out exploring near the foothills of Ben Nevis, showing her the beauty of this wild land. It was a forbidden thrill to take his hand and climb high above the valley, with a boy who made her heartbeat quicken.
And now, her blood ran cold at the thought of something happening to him.
â€œI swear to you, I didna steal anything. I tried to stop Malcolm from taking a sheep.â€ The story came spilling out-of the raid gone bad and how Paul’s friend had defended himself with a blade, only to be shot afterwards. â€œThey died, Malcolm and Lord Strathland’s factor. I couldna save them, and I-I ran.â€ His eyes glittered as he tried to hold back the turbulent emotions. â€œStrathland’s men followed me home, saying I’d murdered the factor. Da tried to talk to them, and they took him in my place.â€
He fell silent for a time, and she knew what he was about to say next. â€œThey left his body on the noose,â€ he finished. â€œAt Eiloch Hill, as an example to the others.â€ Paul swallowed hard, his eyes filled with fury. â€œHe’s dead because of me.â€ His hand tightened into a fist, and before she could stop him, he rammed it into a tree. When he punched the trunk a second time, he drew back bloody knuckles. He didn’t weep, as she would have done. The raw pain in his voice went deeper than any physical pain.
She wanted to say something. Anything to tell him how sorry she was. But words would mean nothing to him. Words wouldn’t bring his father back.
Juliette hardly realized she was crying for him until he was in her arms, holding her with a desperate need. Leaning up against the tree, she let him take comfort from the embrace, her tears dampening his cheeks.
This was what he needed from her now. His posture was stiff, his body so tense, he was nearly trembling with rage. And yet, he never let go, as if she were the single strand holding his life together.
â€œIt’s not your fault,â€ she whispered, stroking the back of his hair. Paul didn’t answer, but from his slumped shoulders, she could tell he didn’t believe her. The only sign that he’d heard was a tightening of his arms around her.
For long moments, they stood together, their bodies pressed close. Although they had spent countless hours together, this was the first time she’d sensed the ground of friendship shifting between them. Her skin grew more sensitive to him, his body hard and strong against her own softness.
It was wrong to let him hold her like this. He was a poor crofter’s son and she, the daughter of an officer. Her parents expected her to wed a knight or a baronet one day. Perhaps even a peer, since her uncle was a Baron. Although a quarrel between her father and his brother had brought them to this small estate in northwest Scotland, she hadn’t minded leaving her home in London. Here, she had a freedom she’d never known before. Her heart was pounding as she closed her eyes, fighting against the unbidden response to his touch.
â€œI’m leaving Ballaloch,â€ he said at last. â€œMy mother is sending me away to Edinburgh, to live with my uncle.â€
The words sank into her like a blade, though she knew he had to go. They might have hanged Kenneth for the raid, but it was only a matter of time before they came after Paul. â€œIt will be safer for you there.â€
â€œMy mother doesna wish to look upon my face anymore,â€ he said, his eyes staring off into the distance. â€œNo’ after what I did.â€
His words were laden with grief, and she squeezed his palm, wishing she knew what to say to him. â€œIt will be all right.â€
â€œNo. No it won’t.â€ He let go of her hand, resting his elbows on his knees. â€œI don’t ken when I’ll be able to come home again.â€
A lifetime of pain hung within his voice, and she drew up to her knees, reaching to touch his face. â€œYour mother likely wants to protect you from the men who did this. You’re the only son she has left.â€
â€œIt should’ve been me swinging on those gallows.â€
â€œDon’t say it.â€ She touched her forehead to his, and he covered her hands, bringing both her palms to his face. â€œI know you grieve for him.â€
â€œI just . . . can no’ believe any of it happened. I keep thinking that I’ll wake up and he’ll be with us again.â€ His midnight blue eyes grew shadowed, and he closed them as if to push back the grief. In the filtered light of the trees, the outside world slipped away until it was only Paul and herself.
Her hands moved up to his shoulders, and in a moment, she was in his arms again.
This is wrong. Move away, her conscience ordered.
He’s your closest friend, her heart argued back. Paul needed her, and she felt his pain as if it were her own. If her father had died in such a way, she couldn’t imagine the emptiness inside.
â€œYou can’t stay in Scotland,â€ she whispered, resting her cheek against his. â€œIt’s too dangerous.â€ The scent of his skin reminded her of the wild pine that grew in the Highlands. She inhaled it, trying to make a memory of him. â€œI want nothing to happen to you,â€ she insisted. â€œPromise me that you’ll do as your mother bade you and be safe.â€
â€œI want justice.â€ He cut her off, closing his eyes. â€œHow can I go to Edinburgh and turn my back on what Lord Strathland did to my father?â€
â€œWhen you return, perhaps things will change.â€ Juliette touched his cheek, and his hands moved to her waist, absently stroking her spine. A ripple of aching warmth flooded through her, and she shied away from the feelings she wasn’t ready to face.
His gaze grew distant, and he shook his head. â€œThe earl should suffer the same fate as my father.â€
Juliette said nothing, knowing he was speaking words born of suffering and fear. â€œLet it go, Paul,â€ she murmured. â€œLord Strathland is too powerful to fight against.â€
When he gave no reply, she sensed that if he stayed here, he would do something rash. She didn’t doubt that was another reason why his mother was sending him away. â€œPlease,â€ she repeated. â€œFor me.â€
â€œFor now,â€ he acceded. â€œBut his time will come.â€ From the dark look on his face, she saw the promise of vengeance. â€œSomeone has to hold Strathland to blame for the way he treats the clansmen. He’s earned his riches from their blood.â€
â€œIt doesn’t have to be you.â€ She wrapped a handkerchief around his knuckles, raising her eyes to his. â€œNot now, anyway.â€
His midnight blue eyes locked on to hers. â€œI won’t forget, Juliette.â€
â€œI hope you don’t,â€ she said. â€œNot everything, anyway.â€ A nervous energy rose up in her stomach from the way he was looking at her now. She let go of his hand, not knowing what to say to him.
His gaze centered on her face. â€œSome things canna be forgotten.â€
When his palm touched her cheek, she went utterly still. The look in his eyes was of a haunted man, one who saw her as far more than a friend. Although they were both too young, there was an undeniable bond with Paul Fraser. She couldn’t say what it was, but in his eyes, she glimpsed a pathway leading toward a forbidden life.
â€œCould I kiss you before I go?â€ he murmured.
Blood rushed to her face, for she’d never been kissed before. He flustered her, and she didn’t know what to say. But he took her silence for acquiescence. His mouth poised over hers, and at the touch of his lips, a thread of innocence bound them together. It was the barest whisper of a kiss, only a slight pressure upon her lips.
And yet, it held an unspoken promise. She’d never known that this sort of temptation existed, and without understanding it, she kissed him back. Warnings poured through her as his mouth moved upon hers, the heat awakening a rush of sensation. When his hands moved down her back, she felt a thrill of anticipation. Of wanting him, needing more.
Both of them gave in to the desire, the kiss opening, his tongue sliding within her mouth. She accepted him, her breath seizing in her lungs as she realized that there had always been more than friendship between them. Juliette clung to him, even knowing that this was wrong. Paul Fraser was a secret desire she could never, ever fulfill.
â€œI’ll write to you,â€ he said against her mouth.
She could hardly catch her breath, for her mind was spinning with the certainty of broken dreams. In her heart, she was afraid she would never see him again.
From the book Unraveled by the Rebel
Copyright Â© 2013 by Michelle Willingham
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The edition published by arrangement with Montlake Romance.