from Highland Burn: Graham
Copyright © Sarah McCarty 2011. All rights reserved.
Hang on was all she could do as the rapids tossed them like insignificant flotsam, up and down, round and round, spinning them like tops. Her heart pounded in a suffocating rhythm as every time she gasped for a breath, water filled her mouth in a lethal kiss. She endured myriad, horrifying impressions of choppy waves crashing over their heads, jagged edges of rocks rushing up to meet them, and tree limbs wind-milling through the chaos like blades before she closed her eyes. They couldn’t survive this. No one could. After saying her mental goodbye to her family, Mary sought refuge in a familiar prayer, repeating it over and over, desperation gathering momentum with every verse. The eighth, and most heartfelt rendition, was interrupted when the arm around her waist yanked her up so hard she bent double plunging her head back into the cold water. Her long hair swirled about her face in a blinding cloud, blocking out light and hope. Another strong yank and she was hauled up to her feet. She sucked in a huge drought of air, coughing as it hit her lungs, struggling for another before that one was even finished. She’d never appreciated the sheer beauty of breathing until that moment. As she stood there, a branch from a passing log caught in her kirtle and dragged her back toward the ravenous river. She flailed wildly, reaching for Graham. Looking for safety.
“God’s balls, lass,” Graham ordered as his arm wrapped about her waist. “Be about helping me here!”
She opened her eyes at the command. Twisting, she saw the shore was a few feet away. Just as she got her feet under her, a wave struck and Graham’s grip slipped. She went under again, only to be hauled right back up. Pain shot outward from her ribs, he held her so tightly. She didn’t mind.
“Hold on, damn ye.”
Coughing and wiping the water from her eyes with one hand, she grabbed his forearm with the other, sinking her nails deep. “What do you think I’m doing?”
He grunted and shifted his grip to her hand. “Flopping about, from the looks of it.”
She glared at him. “And here I thought I was merely drowning.”
His lips twitched. Tugging her toward the rocky shore, he had the gall to say, “I agree it was a good try you were giving it.”
Tossing her dripping hair back over her shoulder, she growled, “I told you I couldn’t swim well.”
He stopped and turned. There was a cut on his upper lip and a swelling over his right eye and she was forced to remember how many times she’d felt the jolt of impact go through his body to hers. And forced to admit that it was because of his sacrifice that none of that debris had ever struck her. Damn him. She hated being beholden to anyone, especially him.
“Well, can you at least stand?” he asked.
The sarcastic tone killed her budding gratitude.
“That would depend.” Her foot slipped on a rock.
Graham steadied her as she stumbled back a step. “On what?”
Pushing her hair off her face, she sighed. Cold water dripped onto her chest. She glanced back at the raging river. “On whether you’re done trying to drown us for the day.”
Another twitch of his lips as he released her. “I might be. For now.”
The scar pulled his lip up into that illusion of a smile that gave the impression of an arrogant sneer. Except that arrogance wasn’t an illusion cast by an old wound. This was the Black Raider. A man who would challenge the devil and laugh in the aftermath. She should have known Graham was the Black Raider when he’d snatched her from the pool. Only someone as braw and bold as the legendary Black Raider would have the audacity to kidnap a MacKintosh heiress from under her father’s nose. Mary took another step back. She might be in more trouble than she could finagle herself out of this time.
The blade of a wicked looking knife flashed in the sun. Mary gasped and then immediately felt foolish as Douglas used it to pry open a barrel. Taking something from inside he tossed it to Graham. Graham held out the bundle of her wet clothes.
“You might be wanting to put these on.”
The only thing putting on more wet clothes would accomplish would be to make her more chilled. It’d be better to let the sun dry her kirtle and heat her skin before donning the likely sodden shirt and skirt. “I’ll carry them.”
Graham looked at her again and his lips twitched. There was no mistaking the amusement bringing back that could-mean-anything smile/sneer. “Please yourself.”
From behind her, Douglas laughed and tossed another bundle to Graham. Douglas wasn’t looking at her face. She followed the direction of his gaze. Her shift was torn down the side, leaving half her breast exposed, the material clinging to the hard nipple. The fragile material trembled in the breeze as if all it would take was the slightest increase in pressure to send it sliding off, leaving her totally exposed. Dear heavens!
Mary snatched the bundle out of Graham’s hands and clutched it to her chest. Turning her back, she ran smack into Douglas’s mocking gaze. She turned a quarter more until she was facing the forest. Mortification started at her toes and burned its way up. Their tunics and hose offered them privacy her more finely woven garments didn’t.
“’Tis not decent of you to stare!”
“Who the hell said I was decent?” Douglas muttered, retrieving the men’s weapons from another barrel.
Mary caught the motion of Graham’s hand at the edge of her gaze. “Hurry up, lass. There’s not much daylight left, and we’ve got a lot of distance to cover.”
The words were impersonal, but the touch on her shoulder wasn’t. Sympathy? From her enemy? Or worse yet, was it pity?
She shrugged off Graham’s hand and faced him. They would not pity her. With a lift of her chin, she ordered, “Turn your backs.”
“Not until you turn your backs.”
Graham shook his head in clear exasperation. “We’ve seen it all, lass.”
She lifted her chin higher, clinging to the bluff that was all the sop she had to offer her pride. “Not at my will. Now, turn your backs or you’ll be losing that much more daylight.”
There was a long silence. The roar of the rapids competed with a songbird’s trill. Mary stood unmoving, holding Graham’s gaze, refusing to back down. Clearly, the man had a will of steel, and clearly he expected her to bow before it. And lord help her, she was tempted to do just that as his right brow flicked up, but she wouldn’t. Not this time. The scuff of a foot on stone beside her made her jump.
Graham’s gaze shifted from determined to speculative. With a small nod, he ordered, “Turn yer back, Douglas.”
Mary let out her breath. Douglas snorted and turned. A look to her other side revealed that Graham had, too. She had all the privacy two very broad, muscular backs could provide. Yet, she didn’t undress. Her clothes were a damp ball against her stomach. The sun a warm caress on her spine. Her nose throbbed. The ache behind her eyes increased. And she stood there, helplessly paralyzed, stuck on the spin of possibilities as to what would happen once she did.
“You’ve got a minute or you’ll be going as you are,” Graham advised efficiently draping the dark wool cloak over his tunic before belting the middle.
That threat put the strength back into her knees. Mary unwrapped the bundle. Her slippers fell to the ground. Her stockings stuck to her skirt. Her shirt stuck to itself. Everything was a tangled mess. She looked back up the river. Home was so close. Probably not more than few hours walk. Yet it might as well be across the ocean. These men wouldn’t let her go two steps. She’d been dreading her wedding because it meant she’d lose the autonomy of her own home and the freedom her father gave her. Now, because of her recklessness, she’d not only lost both, but her station, too.
She’d been foolish, leaving the keep. A husband could be managed. But kidnappers? She glanced at the set of Graham’s square jaw. No scar marred this side of his face, and with a start she realized he’d been quite handsome before battle had left it’s legacy. She touched her hand to her nose. The pain was sharp and immediate. She remembered the ruthless efficiency with which he’d set her nose after the accident. He’d likely settle any rebellion on her part with the same decisiveness.
“Ready lass?” Graham asked tucking knife and tarn into his belt.
Graham turned, eyed the scattered clothes and asked, “Why not?”
Because she’d been panicking. Motioning to the mess, she said, “Everything is stuck together.”
His gaze narrowed. He set his sword down against a rotted log. She expected him to haul her along half naked as he’d promised. Instead, he took the skirt from her hands, shook it out, and dropped it over her head. “Dress.”
Her fingers fumbled on the ties, her normal coordination crumbling beneath fear. She was shaking. A MacKintosh shaking before her enemy? Her father would be horrified. Try as she might, though, Mary couldn’t suppress the spasms. After a minute, large hands brushed hers aside and finished the job with a deftness that made her want to scream. She didn’t look up as Graham grabbed her stockings and shoes. He bent and lifted her foot with the same impersonal touch, bringing those wide shoulders into her view, knocking her off balance. She didn’t have any choice but to put her hand on his back. His skin was warm, almost hot. Her palm tingled. Powerful muscle flexed beneath the smooth surface, a beguiling compliment to the heat. His fingers grazed the inside of her knee as he rolled up her stocking.
Mary blinked at the totally inappropriate whisper of attraction that coursed through her. She wasn’t a woman whose heart fluttered at the presence of a man, and certainly not the type to flutter at the man kidnapping her just because he was strong enough to prevent her from drowning in the course of some ill-thought-out plan. But here she was…fluttering.
After sliding on her slipper, Graham tapped her other ankle. She lifted her foot. Embarrassment burned a fiery path over her cheeks in a bright blush that Graham wouldn’t miss if he looked at her. He didn’t look at her as he repeated the procedure, just released her foot when he was done and turned to Douglas. “Ready?”
Douglas started walking. Graham’s hand in the middle of Mary’s back propelled her in his wake. He handed her her shirt.
The order grated. She tossed her hair back and shoved her hands into the wet sleeves. “And if I don’t?”
Graham shrugged. “Then we’ll be dragging you.”
He said that so easily. The arrogant bastard. The day hadn’t come when a lowly raider could drive a MacKintosh to surrender. Mary vowed she’d die before he’d see her quit. With a further lift of her chin, she fell in line.