Battle cries and the clash of swords on armour resounded through the bailey. A burst of nerves surged through her. Catriona peered out of the window of the round castle and her stomach roiled. For three days, they’d kept the Norsemen at bay with boiling resin and molten lead but their efforts were for nothing. With strong shields, the invaders protected themselves and hacked away at the new ramparts.
“They will break through at any moment,” Catriona whispered to herself.
Her father had only begun erecting the keep some fifteen summers past a while after he took the isle from the Norse. But now they were back at the walls, determined to take back the land for themselves.
Swiping clammy hands over her skirts, she inhaled slowly. Bute Keep would fall to the Norse soon enough and there would be little hope for her—a mere woman.
A chunk of stone pinged through the open window as an arrow struck not far from her viewing point. She darted inside and scanned her sister’s chambers, nose wrinkled. The smell of death clung to the air, even though it had been four sennights since she had passed. Catriona pressed her lips together. While her sister had never been kind, Catriona would not wish the ravages of dysentery on anyone. It was a strange sight—her twin wasting away, devoured by sickness. She wrapped her arms about herself. Mayhap it was better Katelyn had died. Should the Norse have got their hands on her, she knew not what they would have done.
A shiver tripped down her spine.
She would fare just as badly.
She needed to escape. But how? The keep was surrounded, the fighting fierce. She risked death by stepping outside the upper chambers. Her father had told her to remain inside. Catriona swallowed the knot in her throat. She’d heard enough tales of Norse barbarity. Rapes, pillaging. Was this what they were to expect? Would she die this day?
With a final glance around the room, she made her decision. She would not die here, cowering and quivering, with the acrid scent of death in her nostrils as night fell around them. Hurrying to the door, she twisted the handle, grimacing as the iron squeaked. She peered through the small gap. A whistle of air. The sounds of dying men and crumbling masonry. But no enemy.
Skirts in hand, she scurried along the corridor and followed the spiral steps down to the hall. No one paid any heed to her but Catriona saw everything she needed to. The men-at-arms had retreated into the castle and were busy shoring up the defences of the hall. Laird Malcolm, her father, directed the men to place strong wooden beams across the entrance.
Catriona shook her head. For all the good it would do them. Those doors were not strong enough to hold back a horde of Norsemen—or Vikings as the men referred to them. Slippers crunching across the rushes, she made her way to the kitchen stairs and descended. A few men and women cowered behind the large oak table.
“Lady Catriona,” the cook hissed, standing and weighing a cooking knife in his hand. “Come, lass, and hide.”
“Nay, I’ll no’ stay here. The enemy will break through at any moment.”
The big ruddy man snorted. “And where shall ye go, wee Catriona? Ye’ll no’ survive out there.” He motioned with his knife out of the small rear door.
“I’ll seek shelter with the villagers.”
“If ye can even reach them. Ye’ll be spotted by a Viking for sure. Dinnae be foolish. A lass like ye is a fine prize for a lusty Viking.”
She stiffened at this, aware her looks had brought her much unwanted attention over the years. Since she had come of age many men had tried to sway her into bed. While her sister relished the attention, she did not. She would not give herself up so readily to a Norseman.
“Pray come with me,” she implored as crashing sounded above and several women released sounds of distress.
“Nay. ‘Tis guaranteed death to go out there. Here, we stand a chance.”
Catriona suppressed a frustrated curse. Did they not see it was better to at least try? Mayhap they would be well, she told herself as she spun away.
“Good luck to ye, lass,” Cook murmured behind her.
Pressing through the door, she blew out a heavy breath. She refused to cower and await death. The men-at-arms had been talking of what might happen should the Norse break through—some of them cruelly teasing her with tales. A few whom she had declined took particular delight in describing how a Viking planned to take his pleasure with her.
Catriona closed the door and flattened her back against it, willing her imaginings away. Hopefully the servants would remain unharmed but a lass like herself… she'd had troubles enough over her years. She would not stay to discover if the tales were true.
Her father would be furious to find her gone, but she cared little what he thought. He only wanted her to continue their ruse. The household knew of their plan and she had been playing at being Lady Katelyn for any visitors to Bute since her sister’s death, while they waited for word from Katelyn’s betrothed. Until the Norse landed on their shores, that was.
Breath held, the clatter of swords and footsteps grew close. The stickiness on her palms increased and she smoothed them over her gown. Her chest constricted. Someone approached down the narrow corridor leading out of the kitchen and to the rear of the keep. Her escape was blocked.
She clamped a hand over her mouth to stifle a cry. Shouts sent a shiver through her, the fear clawing up her throat making it almost impossible to breathe. Shadows slithered across the walls, distorted by the few lit torches. How had the Norsemen found the secret passage? Should she go back into the kitchen? Nay, if she did, she would lead them directly to the rest of the household. Her only choice was to confront the invaders.
Trembling, she edged away from the door and followed the curve of the passageway. It seemed to Catriona that a wild, brawling mass of limbs and armour had plunged into the small space. She no longer had trouble breathing but her body failed her—left her frozen. She stood as still as prey beneath a hawk while the stench of sweat and blood assaulted her.
His foreign appearance, the long hair and unusual clothing startled her and a hand clenched around her arm, snapping her out of her daze. A squeak escaped her, a noise that should have been a scream should her throat have cooperated. Body shaking, she dragged her gaze fearfully up to meet the cold blue of the Norseman’s eyes. Was it horror playing with her mind or was he truly the size of a giant?
He thrust her against the wall, causing her head to crack against the stone while he muttered something in his foreign tongue. Catriona noted the blood on his hands had transferred to her gown. The blood of the soldiers of Bute. How bad had the slaughter been?
His blood slickened hand travelled up to her face to curl around her cheek. A cry threatened to spill from her mouth but she held it at bay. She failed to supress her shudder as his rancid breath washed over her. Reluctantly, she dragged her gaze to his. Mayhap if she begged…? But, nay, the frigidness still lingered in his eyes. She only hoped he ravished her and left her be. She steeled her resolve. The sea of nausea in her stomach ebbed.
“Do what ye will,” she whispered, closing her eyes.
The clang of his sword on stone rang in her ears, the rattle echoing against the walls—and through her mind. The Norseman rubbed his thumb over her cheek. Catriona felt the smear of blood from his hand and whimpered. He thrust his other hand under her hair and held it tight, forcing her head back and sending shooting pains through her scalp.
“Du er vakker,” he growled and she drew open her lids.
Her breaths grew ragged as her mind whirled. Was there any way to get away from the huge man? She had no weapons, no great fighting skill. If she could just catch him at a vulnerable moment, could she escape? She wriggled against the hold on her hair and winced as he yanked it harder. Nay, there was no escaping him now. She had to wait. The attention she garnered had always made her uncomfortable but she knew well how to fend off advances with teasing and bold words. If she played the temptress, mayhap there would be opportunity for escape.
This thought—this idea that she could be in control—sent up a wall around her heart, but would it give way as softly as the stone of Bute Keep? Her fear drained away. Was this what warriors felt before war? Warmth entered her limbs, her bones may have been made of steel. She stood strong and met his gaze.
A grin twitched on his lips. “You would like a Viking between your thighs, nei?”
Catriona only managed to nod slowly, not trusting her voice to work. She clenched her hands into fists, barely concealing a tremor, as he pressed his lips to her neck. Dampness trailed over her skin, unwelcome hands clutched her gown, the odour of sweat and pungent breath reeled about her.
In and out. She focused on breathing. In and out. Coarse fingers came to the neckline of her gown and tugged. When the Norseman kissed the curve of her breast, her breaths quickened. The brush of prickly beard and the sight of his fair head upon her chest began to chip away at the wall. Slowly her defences were crumbling—like that of the castle. The realisation that she could not survive this raider invading her body made her palms damp, her blood soar through her veins. The pounding of alarm through her urged her to flee or fight.
She managed to rein in her terror long enough for him to drop to his knees and hoist her skirts. Those blood-tinged fingers pinched the flesh of her thighs as they slithered their way to her juncture. Unable to bear it any longer—and silently praying this moment would be her salvation—she brought her knee up into his face with all the strength her panic-ridden limbs could muster.
A sharp shout came from the man—a word that sounded like a curse, and he dropped back and clutched his nose. Catriona flitted her gaze desperately around while blood seeped from between his fingers and his eyes hardened. She could not flee until the man was rendered senseless. He still stood between herself and escape. But she had nothing with which to defend herself.
She tried to press past him but strong hands wrapped around her waist and hauled her back against the wall. A fist to her face sent the world spinning and fiery pain flared through her cheek.
His leather armour squeaked while he positioned himself, forcing her thighs apart with a painful grip. Somehow Catriona muffled her scream while she fought and thrashed against the giant. Tears dripped freely down the sides of her face. Rape—maybe death—was all that awaited her now.
One hand pinned her wrists above her head, while the other concentrated on yanking up her heavy skirts. Still she whipped about. Whatever he took, he would not take easily. Defeat beat heavily in her breast but she refused to give up yet.
Her attacker pressed back briefly to free himself and something warm splattered across her chest. The grip on her wrists loosened and Catriona blinked as the Viking’s wrathful expression turned to one of confusion. He made a gargling sound as more liquid spilled onto her and the tip of a sword burst from his chest. Holding back the scream that tore from her throat proved impossible this time as the point hovered close to her own chest. The Viking fell away and clutched the wound as the blade withdrew. Scrabbling away, she looked on in horror as his head dropped and he collapsed to the floor. Any relief she may have felt was replaced with shaking terror when a larger Viking took his place. He sheathed his sword and eyed her.
“Who are ye?” he demanded.
His brogue confused her. A native of one of the western isles perhaps?
“I-I am Lady Katelyn.” The words tumbled out before she considered it. Why keep up the lie for this Viking? Yet, she could not let the truth out, not even to her enemy. Not when Gillean, Katelyn’s betrothed, might add to Bute’s troubles.
Catriona tried not to sob. All her fighting had been for nothing. She would never hold off this man. His blue gaze flicked over her and he lunged forward and snatched her into his hold.
“Come with me,” he ordered before throwing her over his shoulder.
The pain in her cheek muddled her thoughts but she still fought his grip. Catriona clawed at his back, fingernails cracking against his leather armour. His shoulder winded her as he hefted her into a firmer hold, strong arm clamped tightly around her. Desperation seared through her while her kicks weakened. The blow to her face must have done more damage than she thought. Vision blurred, her stomach lurched and blood pounded into her face. She was weakening. Who knew what would happen now? The Viking was already carrying her out of the rear of the castle. Everything passed in a haze. Shouts and the scrape of swords were distant now and she realised she was losing her senses. Where was he taking her?
Time slipped by in ebbs. It seemed that suddenly they were far from the keep, the lush green of the island grass shooting past her. Her kidnapper’s gait was fast and sure but at times it felt as if she were suspended in time, her thoughts growing more confused, limbs becoming weak. If she could only fight the brute of a man. Grey rocks appeared to come too close to her head as he descended the slowly rolling hills. Catriona suspected they were headed toward the coast.
To return to Norway?
Once, a long time ago, the Norsemen kidnapped Scots women and took them to their homeland, never to be seen again. Mayhap she was to be a prize of war.
Shingle crunched under his boots. They were by the sea. The man stopped and her heart tripped. Suddenly the arm around her loosened and she plummeted down. Rough wood met her rear and she scrabbled to right herself. Sitting in the damp bottom of a small boat, Catriona glanced fearfully around at the men surrounding her, all sat on benches and ready to row. Her throat grew dry and tight, and she considered screaming. For what though? No aid would come.
He climbed into the boat and Catriona blinked up at him. The huge fair warrior barely glanced at her as he stepped over the benches and shouted to the men in his unusually fluent Gaelic.
“We must away—with haste. Dusk will be upon us soon.”
When he faced her, Catriona was unable to prevent herself from scurrying back, nearly knocking into one of the other men’s bare leg. But instead of grabbing her or threatening her, he simply smiled. His strong features lit with the grin.
Gaze skipping from man to man as the grey light of dusk settled over them, she rose and peered over the edge of the boat. They were not yet away from the beach. Another man had jumped out to push the boat from the shoal. There was still a chance for escape.
Catriona stood abruptly, making the vessel rock and prepared to jump overboard.
Finn glanced behind him, noting the hazy flicker of light on the hills. Either a fire had been lit in an attempt to burn out the defenders or the Norse had taken the keep and were in full command now, lighting the torches and readying to claim the island as theirs.
They were not yet out of danger. He couldn’t even be sure they would be safe on the mainland. The Norse boats were surely quicker than their small vessel and more heavily manned. Once they realised the lady of the keep was gone, they might look for her.
He scrubbed a hand over his face. How exactly had he become embroiled in all this? Oh, aye, his wee sister of course. A lady he could never deny. Under pressure from her brother by marriage to gather men and rescue his betrothed, she had asked for his aid. Ach, but Laird Gillean would never risk his own life for a lass, Finn thought bitterly. Originally the laird had planned to fetch Lady Katelyn off the isle himself but when it became apparent the Norse invasion was imminent, he was conveniently called away on business, leaving Lorna with few men to carry out such a duty. But how could a brother ignore the imploring missive of a sister?
He swivelled to glance over their precious bundle. The lass cowered and looked at him as if he were some strange creature. It was to be expected. No doubt her mind was somewhat addled after her experience. She clearly had no knowledge of warfare and no woman should have to go through near ravishment. Finn curled his fist at the memory of seeing that rancid excuse for a warrior mounting her. Ach, but at least he had the satisfaction of having drawn the man’s blood. Never again would he touch any of the fine Scottish lassies.
About to turn and take his seat, a movement caught his eye. He lunged forward as Katelyn stood and took a step over the side of the boat. They were still practically on the shore so she landed in the soft sand with ease, just out of Finn’s reach, water lapping at her thighs.
Calling her name, he leaned over the edge and cursed as the vessel rocked. The foolish lass was going to get them wet and not all the men were able to swim. Regardless of the depth, if there was a strong tide they’d be pulled out to sea. She darted a fearful glance at him and gripped her skirts. He saw the desire to run but why?
He readied himself to leap over but a sharp wave caught the boat, tossing him into the hull. Grumbling, he came to his feet once more only to see Lady Katelyn had vanished. He looked to the other men in the boat but they were still readying their oars and getting set for their journey.
“Curse ye, ye fools. The lady has gone overboard!”
The men swivelled, shouts of dismay falling from their lips and Finn shook his head. Shrugging out of his furs, he leaped nimbly over the side. The water bit at his feet through his leather boots and sloshed wildly around his legs. The push and pull of the waves tugged at him as they lapped at the island. With her heavy skirts, it was no wonder she had gone under.
He swung his gaze around, grateful the night had not yet swallowed them. A flash of green a few feet in front of him caught his eye. Hair swirling about her, gown waving like seaweed in the wash, she floated on the surface—knocked senseless.
With several strong strides, he caught up with her. The tide drew her away but it was not strong enough to defeat him. The sea now up to his hips, he dragged Katelyn into his arms. By God, her gown weighed her down. Even for a man of his strength, he felt as though he were carrying a heavy sack of grain rather than a sylph of a woman.
Wading to the boat, he hefted her out of the water and passed her to Logan. The man shook his head. “Sorry, Finn. We were concentrating on not getting tossed about in the wash. ‘Tisnae easy holding such a small vessel steady.”
“Aye, have no fear. ‘Twas my fault. The lass has clearly had a shock and I should have been watching her more closely.”
Logan laid her in the bow while Finn clambered in. He knelt by the lass and glanced up at Logan.
“She must have taken a hit to the head.”
“Aye, likely against the boat. Must have hit hard to render her senseless.”
Finn nodded. “Let us get on our way. We can do no good for her here.”
“Aye,” Logan agreed and backed away to help row the boat from the shoreline.
Leaning over her, Finn studied the gash on her forehead with a grimace. Poor lass. She’d have a mighty fine headache when she awoke. The steady rise and fall of her breasts against the soaked green wool assured him no permanent damage had been done.
“Ye’ll have to get her out of those wet garments,” Logan called out behind him.
Finn clenched his teeth. “Aye, thank ye, Logan. I’m aware o’ that.”
He ran his gaze over her. Damn his luck. He’d undressed many a fine woman but none had ever been out cold and an unwilling partner. No doubt the lady would be deeply ashamed he’d done as much. But he could hardly leave her to die from exposure. If anything, his sister would have his head.
Fingers tentatively prying at the front of her bodice, he forced his gaze onto the wood just behind her head. But the wet fabric proved too hard to tug apart so he pressed his hands to her back and lifted her lifeless form. Icy skin and sumptuous curves flattened briefly to his chest as he fumbled with the ties at the back of her gown. By God, when had he ever blundered like a whelp when undressing a woman? But he had to admit, though he’d had little time to admire her and the swelling on her face did not reveal her features properly, the flash of creamy skin was tempting enough. In other circumstances—and had she been anyone other than a lady in distress—he’d have enjoyed such a sight.
He had her face pressed into his neck as he pulled her gown from her. Soft skin under his fingertips forced his breath to stilt. Only the grunts of men rowing reminded him he was meant to be helping the lass and not enjoying the moment.
Katelyn’s chemise and gown came away in one go and he peered behind him, narrowing his eyes at the men. “Keep yer eyes away,” he warned, “or I’ll be having yer heads.”
A rumble of chuckles rippled from them but they kept their gazes ahead while he pried the garments from her shoulders. He laid her down, fumbling for his fur to cover her. Unfortunately he failed to keep his gaze from straying briefly to her curves, so pale and lush in the dimming light. Finn thrust the furs over her as his body tightened. Working beneath the pelt, he hauled her gown down her stomach and hips. It should have made it easier—he didn’t have to resist temptation to stare at her—but it made him all the more aware of her shapely hips and delicate thighs. Gaze lifted to the heavens, he gritted his teeth, tugged the gown the rest of the way off and slung it aside.
He eyed her for a moment, breath held in his chest as he studied the dark hair as black as night splayed across the wood. Milky skin contrasted with the brown of the pelt. A more tempting sight he had never seen. And there was something familiar about her. Something that tugged at his gut. He’d never met Lady Katelyn and yet her fragrance and slightly husky voice, and mayhap even her body played in his mind, as though she were an old lover.
Rolling his eyes at himself, Finn tucked the fur around her. It had simply been too long since he’d had a satisfying tumble. From the time when his dream lass had begun to plague him, no other woman had been able to match her. Mayhap that was what struck him as familiar about this lass. Though the woman in his dreams always appeared hazy, he knew she had hair like a raven.
Ach, he needed to turn his thoughts away from tumbling lassies and concentrate on the task at hand—ensuring they made it safely to his sister’s keep. He sank heavily onto a seat and dragged off his boots, grunting with dissatisfaction as he tipped the water out of them. He drew off his trews, grateful to be rid of the clinging wet fabric and motioned for Logan to hand him his plaid and the rest of his garments. He changed while they started away from the coast. His heart still beat rapidly, aware the enemy might be upon them soon. Or was it from the memory of her skin beneath his fingers? They still tingled.
A shuffle and a tiny moan drew his attention. She clutched the pelt around her and fought to sit. “Pray, dinnae harm me. I will do whatever ye wish.”
Finn stood sharply, prepared for her to fall into a swoon once more. He propped his hands on his hips and furrowed his brow. Ach, but the lass was more confused than he’d realised. He’d been abrupt with her to be sure, but surely she understood he was here to help. Finn peered at his precious cargo and noted the woman’s shuddering. Curses, where were his manners? The actions of the Viking—and himself—had no doubt terrified the woman. Fiery bloodlust that had pushed him to run her attacker through now simmered to a gentle burn and remorse struck him.
“I’ve no intention of harming ye.” Tension made the statement come out sharper than he’d planned but he’d not expected to have to disguise himself and rescue her mid-siege. When he’d agreed to rescue the lady from the Isle of Bute, he’d intended to reach her before the Norse invaders arrived.
Unfortunately inclement weather and strong winds had brought the attackers across the sea sooner than they’d anticipated. Still, once they made it to his sister’s castle all would be well. As long as they survived the journey to the mainland and to Kilcree, he could consider this a successful rescue.
The spatter of the sea tickled his face and he glanced at the steadily disappearing shoreline. The journey to the mainland was a short one but these seas were unpredictable and they were losing light. If they were unlucky, they could be dashed upon the rocks as they came to shore or tossed from their boat.
Gingerly, he stepped forward. She yelped and tucked herself up into as tiny a shape as possible. Finn shook his head to himself. The poor lass. He crouched beside her. The swelling on her face disguised her features but her long dark hair spilled around her shoulders, like raven’s wings. A pang of something struck him sharp in the gut. Mayhap it was anger at her treatment, mayhap it was something else. He refused to dwell on it.
Shuffling closer, Finn inched his fingers under hers and brought her hand to his lips. He smirked. Too late to be playing the gentleman but he would try. Her tiny gasp as he brushed his lips over her cold, slender fingers did something to his chest. It felt as if someone danced a merry jig over his heart. He wanted to hear the sound again. But when he moved nearer still, her eyes widened and she released a long breath as her body fell limp. He barely caught her as she swooned sideways. With a muttered curse, he laid her back down and tucked her in once more.
Finn stared at the woman, retreated and rubbed the back of his neck with his hand. He hadn’t expected that reaction. Christ, her ordeal had taken its toll more than he realised. He glanced at Logan, who rowed just behind him, and Logan shrugged. This was unchartered territory for them.
Finn eased himself to his feet and brushed his hands down his plaid. Just went to show how much he knew about lasses.
“How goes it?” Logan asked.
Finn turned to the dark-haired man—and his sister’s most trusted aide. “She is fatigued mostly I think. We should allow her to rest now. We still have many miles to cross.”
“This was a fool’s errand, Finn. Yer lucky ye werenae spotted and killed.”
“Ach, I’ve been told time and again I could pass for a Norseman. ‘Twas time to put such looks to use.”
“Aye, but going in on yer own... Yer sister would have had my head had ye come to harm.” Logan pulled a strong stroke, as if expelling his anger over such a thought.
“Alas none of ye have the looks of anyone but a highlander. And all is well.” He slapped a hand to Logan’s shoulder.
“’Twas a near thing, Finn, and ye know it.”
“Dinnae dwell on what could have happened, Logan. We have done well here this night.” Finn let slip a smile. Since the death of Lorna’s husband, Logan had practically taken on the role of laird, not that his sister acknowledged it. Yet he still worried for everyone under his care. Particularly Lorna.
As did they all. His headstrong sister had determinedly continued to run the keep without a man at her side. Thankfully Lorna had the wit of any man and more backbone than most, and though her husband’s brother was not a man of much character, he would protect the keep in which she resided.
Finn eyed their progress with satisfaction. The seas remained calm and no unusual weather looked to be headed in their direction. Now their only worry was the lack of light. The moon shone weakly down on them but would not provide enough light for a safe landing if they made it to the wrong part of the shore.
Finn glanced at Katelyn and noted she shook in her slumber. From cold or fear? He hesitated before coming down beside her. Something about this woman made him uncertain of himself, something he had not felt for a long time. But he refused to see a lass suffer. Dropping fully to his knees, he shuffled closer and pressed a tentative finger to her forehead. She did not awaken and her skin froze his fingertips. He stifled the uncomfortable sensation deep in his chest and flexed a hand.
Gaze averted, he moved close to Katelyn and flattened his palm against the rise of one breast. Though her skin still chilled his hand, a rising heat rushed through him. Underneath the silky skin lay the steady beat of her heart and he allowed his shoulders to relax. She needed rest, nothing more. After such an experience he should not be surprised but she’d shown such courage and determination in trying to escape him and her attacker, he had not thought she’d fall back into a swoon.
Lining himself up with her, he scooted close until her fur wrapped legs were aligned with the crook of his thighs. When he peered up, he saw Logan raise an eyebrow but the man said nothing. Finn draped an arm over the pelt and settled against the uncomfortable wood of the boat.
A mumble dropped from her lips and he lifted his head to see her eyelids flutter. She made no attempt to wriggle from his hold so he dropped his head and held her tight. Katelyn must have been very cold not to fight him on this. She’d already shown such determination. He couldn’t fight the grin of admiration spreading across his face. What a lass.
“Forgive me, my lady, ye need body warmth.”
She responded with a small sigh, one that had his gut twisting and his body responding to her once more. Ach, but he was in a precarious position. Let her freeze to death or risk frightening her further with his inappropriate behaviour.
“All will be well, lass,” he soothed. Her body relaxed further into him and his grin expanded. “We’ll have ye to safety soon, never fear. Finn mac Chaluim willnae let any harm come to ye, I swear it.”
The sound of gentle breaths somehow broke through the slosh of waves and creak of wood. He nodded with satisfaction. Aye, he must have assured her now. With luck, she’d be singing his praises to Lorna and the lassies always loved a hero.