Devil of the Highlands Chapter Nine

"We lost and 'tis all your fault."

Lady did not react to either her vexed mistress's comment or her irritated scowl, The horse merely waited patiently for her to decide which way to go. Evelinde made a face at the animal's lack of concern and glanced around the woods.

It really was the mare's fault they were now deep in the woods in the valley at the base of the hill Donnachaidh sat on. Evelinde had never intended to enter the woods, but Lady had had other ideas. She supposed it was her own fault for giving the mare her head. Though, to be fair, doing so had never been a problem at d'Aumesbery. Donnachaidh was another matter entirely. And not knowing where she was going had not stopped Lady from charging down the hill and into the woods.

Evelinde had tried to stop the mare at the bottom of the hill, but Lady would not be stopped and had run into the woods like a wild thing. By the time she'd managed even to slow the beast, they were well into the forest.

She hadn't thought it a problem at first. Evelinde had assumed that if she just turned the mare back the way they'd come, they'd canter happily out of there. Only they'd been cantering for more than two hours now without finding their way out of the woods. Obviously, they'd got turned around somehow and headed in the wrong direction, but Evelinde didn't know how that had happened.

Shifting on her mare, she again glanced around the woods surrounding them. It was a sunny day outside the forest, but the trees in here grew so close together, the cover overhead might as well have been a stone wall. Very little sunlight was getting through, and it felt like early evening in the heart of the small forest.

Or perhaps it was early evening, Evelinde thought anxiously, wondering if she'd underestimated the time that had passed as she'd tried to find her way back out of the valley. She hoped not, as Evelinde had no desire to spend the night there.

The crunch of leaves and twigs being trampled underfoot reached her ears, and she glanced sharply to the side as Lady shifted nervously, but there was no one there, and the sound wasn't repeated. Still, both she and Lady had heard something so Evelinde waited, slowly scanning the woods, the skin on the back of her neck creeping all the way down her spine.

It was enough to make her decide she didn't wish to sit there any longer trying to think of a way to resolve the problem. It seemed to her that moving—even in the wrong direction—was better than staying in one place.

Turning Lady away from the direction the sound had seemed to come from, Evelinde urged her forward, resisting the urge to look back.

"It was probably just a rabbit or vole," she said, running a soothing hand down the mare's neck. "Certainly not a wolf or anything of that ilk."

Whether Lady was reassured or not Evelinde didn't know, but she wasn't feeling much better herself. Her back was still creeping, and her body had tensed up, waiting for some ferocious animal or other to leap out at them at any moment.

Trying to ignore the anxiety slipping through her, Evelinde slid her gaze over the way ahead, looking both to the left and the right, hoping to spot a break in the trees that would speak to their nearing the edge of the woods. She just hoped it wouldn't be the wrong side.

That thought made Evelinde rein in again. The ride through the valley the night they'd arrived hadn't seemed to take as long as this ride was. Of course, it could just seem like a long time because she was lost, but…

It would be very upsetting finally to find her way out of the woods only to discover she was on the wrong side of the valley and had to travel back through the woods again to get to the castle side.

If only she could see the castle…

But, of course, she couldn't, the trees were in the way.

Evelinde glanced upward at the foliage overhead. If she were to climb one of the taller trees until the foliage thinned out, she might be able to see the castle. Then she would know which direction she needed to go to get there.

Once the thought had taken hold, nothing could have stopped Evelinde from making the attempt. Patting Lady's neck soothingly, she slid off her mare and dropped to the ground. She then propped her hands on her hips and peered upward as she turned in a slow circle on the spot, trying to judge which tree was the largest and likely to get her high enough to see the castle, yet had branches low enough that she could reach them to start her climb.

After deciding on a tree, Evelinde moved to stand at its base. She paused there, her gaze sliding between the tree and her skirt, then she bent and reached under the front hem to catch the beck hemline of the skirt and draw it forward between her legs and up as she'd done to wade in the river. Recalling the problems it had caused when the skirt had slipped free of her belt the last time, Evelinde put extra care into making sure it was well affixed, then approached the tree she'd chosen.

She'd thought the branches of this tree were low enough to make it easy, but Evelinde had never climbed a tree before and hadn't a clue how hard it would be. Honestly, she'd seen children at d'Aumesbery shinny up with what appeared to be little effort, but it wasn't as easy as they made it look.

The lowest branch on the tree she'd chosen was low enough that she could hook her arms over it, which she did at once. Evelinde then tried to lift her leg to the branch, but her leg apparently didn't go that high. Grimacing, she moved farther along the branch until she was closer to the tree, then planted one foot on the trunk of the tree and sort of walked up it while hanging from her arms. Evelinde was quite proud of herself when she managed to get her legs hooked around the branch, too, but then hung there, uncertain how to get herself from hanging under it to perched on top.

After she dangled there for several moments, trying to work it out, Evelinde's muscles began to protest, and she let her legs drop and released the tree to stand on the forest floor again. She simply stood there, hands propped on her hips, glaring at the tree until Lady walked up next to her and nudged her in the shoulder. Evelinde immediately turned her scowl to the mare, knowing the creature probably wanted water after her run. She'd always taken Lady to the river by d'Aumesbery after her wild runs there. Unfortunately, while on first arriving at Donnachaidh they had crossed a river on the way through the valley, Evelinde had no idea where it was.

"I would take you for a drink if I could—" she began, then paused as an idea occurred to her. Smiling as the idea blossomed in her mind, Evelinde moved to the mare's side and climbed back into the saddle.

"I promise do you help me get up this tree, I shall soon have you drinking water," Evelinde told the mare as she urged her closer to the tree she'd decided to climb, then added, "Hopefully in the stables of Donnachaidh."

Once Evelinde had got the mare as close as she could to the branch, she released her reins and patted her neck soothingly as she whispered, "Pray, do not move."

Straightening in the saddle, Evelinde grabbed the branch next to her and used it to steady herself as she climbed carefully to stand on the mare's back.

Much to her relief, the mare stood perfectly still, and Evelinde was able to get herself to a standing position and simply step onto the branch of the tree. Unfortunately, her slippers were not made for such endeavors and had she not been holding on with both hands to the branch above, she surely would have slipped off.

"Thanks," Evelinde muttered to the mare when she finally felt stable enough to look around and saw that the horse had backed up several steps to get out of the way should she fall. "Nice to know I have your support in this endeavor to rescue us both."

Lady's response was to bend her head to the ground and begin nosing at twigs on the dirt.

Shaking her head, Evelinde leaned against the trunk and held on with one hand while she lifted first one foot, then the other to remove her slippers, dropping each to the ground.

She felt much more confident after that and turned her attention to the serious business of climbing. It was something of a learning experience. Truly, Evelinde had never realized how difficult a task it would be. The branches grew out in all directions, some too close together, some too far apart to make it anything resembling easy. Still, determination pushed her on despite being scratched repeatedly, and scraping an elbow here, and a knee there, along the way.

Evelinde paused when she thought she must be halfway up the tree. She then glanced first up, then down, disappointed to realize that she wasn't anywhere near halfway. It was then she decided that her brilliant idea had not been so brilliant after all.

Sighing, she examined the branches above, trying to decide which would be the best to reach for, and had just settled on one when the snap of a twig made her pause and glance around. Had she been climbing at the time, Evelinde probably would not have heard the small sound. However, she did hear it, and so did Lady she noted, as the mare did the same nervous sideways dance she had earlier and looked in the direction the sound had seemed to come from.

The earlier creeping sensation returning, Evelinde surveyed the trees surrounding them; but no matter how hard she squinted into the dim woods, she couldn't see what had made the sound. After a moment, she reluctantly gave up and glanced back up the tree. If she could just get high enough to see which direction they had to go, they would soon be out of these woods.

Grinding her teeth together with determination, Evelinde started upward again and had climbed up to the next branch when something breezed past her and a soft thunk sounded to her left. Startled, Evelinde removed her left hand from the branch she held and started to turn to see what she'd heard, but the branch she stood on chose that moment to snap under her feet.

Crying out, Evelinde grabbed wildly with her free hand, her fingers catching at a very slim branch and holding on for dear life as she scrabbled to find purchase with her feet. Relief poured through her when she did, and she released a slow breath, and then hugged the tree, her cheek pressed against the rough surface as she waited for her heart to stop its mad thumping. Once it had, Evelinde glanced down toward Lady to see that the mare had moved back several more feet to get out of the way of the branch that had fallen and was now eyeing her with accusation.

"Do not look at me like that, this is all your fault," Evelinde muttered, then sighed and leaned her cheek against the tree again.

She would never enter these woods alone again, Evelinde silently vowed, then raised her head to glance up to the branch she'd grabbed hold of. Her heart, which had just slowed, now seemed to stop altogether as she realized she wasn't holding on to a branch at all, but the shaft of an arrow.

Evelinde was so startled at this realization that she unthinkingly released it at once, leaving her only holding on to the original branch with one hand. Panic reared up in her, and she swiftly grabbed for another branch, relief roaring through her until she heard, "Wife?"

After briefly closing her eyes, Evelinde dropped her head forward to peer down. Sure enough, her husband had found her. The man was even now scrambling off his mount, which he'd stopped beside Lady.

Brilliant, she thought unhappily. Why did he always find her at her worst?

"What are ye doing, ye daft woman?" Cullen roared as he moved to stand beneath her under the tree.

Where have I heard that before? Evelinde wondered, then cleared her throat, and said, "Oh, nothing, my lord. Just enjoying an afternoon out."

"Yer hanging in a tree, wife," he growled. "By yer hands."

"I am letting my legs rest," she responded promptly, then moved her legs about until she brushed against a branch. Setting first one foot on it, then the other, she released a little sigh of relief.

"Get down here!"

He sounded furious, she noted, looking about to see which branch would be safest to step down to next.

"Just let go. I shall catch ye," he ordered.

"Nay. I climbed up and can climb right back down," Evelinde assured him, and proceeded to do just that. Not too quickly, mind. She wasn't eager to face his wrath again and was hoping he would calm down did she give him time.

Evelinde had reached the last branch and dropped to sit on it, intending to push off and drop to the forest floor when she found herself caught in strong hands and eased to the ground instead.

"Thank you," she mumbled, as he set her on her feet.

"Yer welcome," Cullen growled, then snapped, "Now. What the devil did ye think ye were doing?"

Evelinde opened her mouth, closed it, cleared her throat, and said, "Climbing the tree."

"I could see that," he said impatiently. "Why?"

"Because I was lost," she admitted with disgust, and bent to collect her slippers before pushing past him to walk to Lady. "I thought I would climb a tree and see which direction the castle was in rather than wander these woods for the rest of my days like some stupid English ghost trapped in your bloody highlands."

A small silence followed her explanation, then Cullen cleared his throat, and said, "That was clever."

Evelinde stopped next to Lady and turned uncertainly, taking a step backward when she found that he'd followed. Peering up at him suspiciously, she asked, "It was?"

"Aye." Obviously he wasn't going to elaborate on the compliment, but there was nothing in his expression suggesting he was being sarcastic or mocking her.

Biting her lip, she glanced to his mount and back, and asked. "Was it you I heard in the woods then?"

"Probably," he said with a shrug.

Evelinde scowled at the scare he'd given her. "Well, why the devil did you not just call out and let me know 'twas you rather than following and scaring the devil out of me?"

"Following ye?" His eyebrows rose. "I have no been following ye. I just came upon yer mare on me way back to the castle, then spotted ye in the tree as I reined in."

Evelinde frowned and glanced back up to where she thought she'd been perched in the tree. She could not see the arrow from the ground but knew it was there. Her gaze then shifted to his mount to see that there was no bow and arrow on the animal. Cullen also wasn't holding one, she noted. Her husband hadn't loosed the arrow. If it had been loosed at all today, she thought. It was wholly possible that the arrow had sat in the tree for years or longer, and the sound she'd heard had been another branch or even a bird's nest falling from one of the upper branches as her climbing shook the tree.

Unfortunately, Evelinde hadn't got a good look at the arrow and couldn't say if it had looked weathered or not. She'd barely realized what it was before releasing it, then had been preoccupied trying not to fall.

"Why are ye in the woods?" Cullen asked.

"I thought to take Lady for a ride," Evelinde answered absently, her gaze now moving around the woods surrounding them, but there was no one there that she could see. Still, she turned to him, and said, "There was an arrow in the tree."

He shrugged. "There are probably many in these woods, arrows gone astray during a hunt."

"Aye," Evelinde muttered, but then felt it necessary to add. "I did not notice the arrow ere grabbing it while climbing."

Cullen smiled faintly. "I am not surprised. Come."

Evelinde's eyes widened, but she didn't protest when he grabbed Lady's reins in one hand and her arm in the other and urged her over to his mount. He stopped there and released Lady to catch Evelinde by the waist, then paused before applying the pressure necessary to lift her. "How sore are ye still?"

"I am not sore at all. The bruises were mostly healed by the time we reached Donnachaidh. 'Twas mostly my muscles bothering me then, but Biddy's salve and your massage seem to have done the trick," Evelinde admitted, blushing as she recalled what had followed the massage.

Cullen nodded and lifted her onto his mount, then caught Lady's reins again and mounted behind her. Evelinde expected that he'd return them to the castle then, so was somewhat startled when they broke out into a clearing beside a river.

"Ye'll no want to wade here like ye did in England," he announced as he slid off his mount and helped her down. They walked to the riverside and peered at the water.

"Why?" Evelinde asked, her eyes moving over the clear water bubbling past.

"The water runs off the mountains and is cold."

"Oh," she said, but didn't really mind. The clearing was small and the river narrower than the one at d'Aumesbery. There also was no waterfall here, but it was pretty just the same. It would be a nice spot to relax when she needed a moment to herself.

"Yer no to leave the castle alone in future," Cullen announced, turning her by the shoulders and reaching for the laces of her gown.

Evelinde reached for his hands, unsure what he was doing, but then paused and frowned as she realized what he'd said. She wasn't to come here alone? Seeing her vision of peaceful moments alone slipping away, she forgot about what he was doing and lifted a frown to him to ask, "Why?"

"I like ye," Cullen announced, quickly undoing her laces and beginning to ease her gown off her shoulders.

"I cannot come here alone because you like me?" she asked with confusion, wondering a bit distractedly what he was doing and catching her gown to keep it from slipping off her arms.

"Nay, well aye," he corrected himself. "Ye canna come here alone because 'tis no safe… and I like ye," he added, giving up on her gown and raising his hands to begin unpinning her hair from the bun she'd place it in on the back of her head that morning.

"Why is it not safe? And what are you doing?" Evelinde asked, trying to swat his hands away from her hair.

"I like ye," he repeated.

Evelinde opened her mouth, then closed it again as his words sank in. He liked her. Her husband liked her. Well, that was just… She didn't know how to feel or even what to think. And then his hands returned to trying to remove her gown, and she repeated, "What are you doing?"

"I like ye," was all he said, and it reminded her of his repeating that he was the Duncan the first day they'd met. She hadn't understood what he'd meant then and no better understood him now. Obviously 'I like ye' was some code, but she hadn't a clue for what, then he said, "I've told ye, now I'm going to show ye. Ye said ye wanted both, and so I shall give ye both."

Evelinde blinked as sudden understanding set in. He meant to—

"Here?" she gasped with amazement.

"Aye. Here, in our bed, on the fur before the fire… There are a lot of places I've imagined showing ye, and now that yer no sore, I can."

Evelinde's eyes had widened at his words as she realized that while she'd been sitting about fearing he didn't want her at all, he'd been sitting about imagining all these places to—


"Wife," Cullen interrupted with a sigh. "Ye may think I speak too little, but ye tend to speak too much. Shut up and let me love ye."

Evelinde stilled at the order, then gasped as he suddenly gave up on her gown and bent to kiss her.

Shut up and let me love ye. The words rang in her ears, and she sighed as his lips urged hers apart, wishing that it was love. Heir husband liked her and enjoyed bedding her, but she didn't think it was love… not on his part. As for her… Well, in truth, Evelinde was confused about her own feelings. She found the man exasperating, frustrating, considerate, attractive, sweet… and dear God when he kissed her with the hunger he was showing her now, he made her very toes curl. How could a man be so many conflicting things at once, she wondered, then gave up trying to think and slid her arms around his neck.

The man really was a very good kisser, Evelinde acknowledged as excitement began to build in her. She felt his hands return to her gown, but this time did not try to hamper his efforts to remove it, even lowering her arms so he could slide it off. When it dropped to pool around her feet, leaving her in nothing but her chemise, she slid her hands up over his chest, searching blindly for the pin that held his plaid in place. Evelinde managed to poke herself once with the tip as she struggled to undo it but finally got it loose. She sighed into his mouth as his plaid slid away, joining her gown on the ground.

She then broke the kiss long enough to glance down and drop the pin on the plaid before tugging his shirt up to remove it as well. Evelinde had barely removed the garment when Cullen swept her up into his arms, his mouth claiming hers. With him kissing her, she couldn't see where he was heading, but smiled against his mouth when he sat on what she presumed was a boulder or fallen log, settling her sideways in his lap. It reminded her of their first meeting and her regret at the time that she'd had to end their embrace. This time she need not. They were married.

"Yer smiling," Cullen murmured, his lips moving across her cheek.

"Aye. Because I like you, too," she said simply, and he raised his head to peer at her and kissed her again. He was more demanding this time, one hand tangled in her hair, positioning her head where he wanted it as he plundered her mouth. He kissed her until she moaned and arched, kissing him back with an eagerness and hunger that she would have been embarrassed by had she been able to think at that moment.

His hand slid up over her ribs to one breast, and Evelinde gasped encouragement and pressed into the touch as he kneaded the flesh through her chemise. A disappointed groan slid from her mouth into his when his hand slid away, but then she realized that he was tugging impatiently at the collar of her shift, trying to get it out of the way.

Evelinde immediately moved to help him, shimmying free of the shift until it dropped away to pool around her waist. Cullen's hand immediately covered one breast, squeezing briefly before his fingers concentrated on her nipple, plucking and rolling it between his fingers, drawing a deep moan from Evelinde and making her own kisses a little frantic until he lifted his mouth away and dropped his head to catch her nipple between his lips.

Evelinde slid her fingers through his hair and curled them, catching several strands in hand as he caught the nipple gently between his teeth and rasped his tongue over it. It sent pleasure shooting through her and had her wiggling in his lap, her bottom grinding against the hardness she could feel growing there.

This time, when she felt his hand sliding up her leg, she did not break free and tumble from his lap. Instead, Evelinde opened her legs for him, her breathing becoming fast and shallow and her body stilling in his lap in anticipation. When his fingers reached the top of her thighs and brushed gently over the curls there, she gasped and groaned as he began to caress her. Cullen soon had her almost sobbing with need, her body weeping for him as she writhed in his lap.

Only then did he leave off touching her and lift her from his lap. Evelinde was a little confused as to why he'd stopped when he set her on her feet before him, and shivered when he tugged her chemise over her hips to drop to the ground. He then turned her to face him and caught her by the hip with one hand to draw her closer even as the other urged her legs apart.

Evelinde bit her lip and caught at his head for balance, unsure what he was doing, but then his hand slid between her legs again, and he once more began to caress her.

Gasping, she tangled her fingers in his hair as he began to trail kisses across her hip, then held on to keep from tumbling when he suddenly lifted her right leg to rest her foot on the log he sat on. When he then withdrew his hand to clasp her buttocks and leaned forward to press his mouth to where his hand had been, Evelinde cried out in shock and startled pleasure and found it difficult to stay on her feet. In fact, she wasn't sure she would have been able to had his hands not shifted to her hips to steady her as he ministered to her.

While Evelinde found this most enjoyable, some of her pleasure was tempered by guilt as her mind pointed out that while he was giving her pleasure, she was neither touching nor caressing him but simply clutching at his hair desperately as his mouth moved over her. She tried to move away from her husband then and perhaps take the opportunity to kiss and caress him some, but his hold on her was firm, and he held her in place. Redoubling his efforts, he washed the guilt from her mind with his tongue and drove her up onto the toes of the one foot on the ground.

"Cullen," she pleaded, unconsciously pressing his head closer as her body strained for release. She was vaguely aware when one hand left her hip, but was definitely aware when it joined his tongue. Evelinde cried out at the surge that went through her body as she felt his finger slide inside her even as he continued to suckle at the core of her pleasure, then the passion that had been building inside her exploded and Evelinde threw her head back and screamed as her body convulsed.

Only then did Cullen stop what he was doing and release her hip. When he eased her foot back off the log so that she was standing between his legs, Evelinde sank weakly to her knees before him.

Eyes closed, she hugged his knee as he ran a soothing hand through her hair, waiting for her to catch her breath, then her eyes opened and she found herself staring at his erection waving gently before her with his movements. She eyed it curiously, recalling the pleasure she'd felt when they'd consummated the marriage and he'd plunged it into her, and, without thinking, Evelinde reached out to catch it in hand.

Her eyes shot upward when Cullen groaned at the light touch, and she saw that his eyes had closed, and his expression had tightened. Watching his face, Evelinde drew her hand along its length, a sense of power creeping over her as she felt his fingers tighten in her hair and knew he was experiencing a pleasure similar to that he had given her.

Similar, but not the same, Evelinde thought, and leaned forward to press a kiss to the tip of the shaft, watching him as she did. Cullen's eyes shot open at once, and they were now wide with both surprise and what appeared to be hope. It was the hope that made her kiss him again, but curiosity was what made her slip her tongue out to lick the spot she'd kissed. She wanted to taste him and thought it a strange want, so had rather hoped that did she do it quick enough he might not notice the flick of her tongue. However, Cullen did notice, and his reaction was startling. The man bucked his hips, his hold on her hair becoming almost painful in his excitement.

Evelinde thought she must have discovered something then, and licked him again, the movement slower and covering more area. This time, Cullen cried out, his expression becoming almost pained, she noted, and was inspired to take him into her mouth. The man nearly leapt off the log in response and suddenly dragged her off her knees.

"I did it wrong," Evelinde said with both regret and apology as he drew her onto his lap facing him.

"Nay," he growled, reaching between their bodies to grasp himself with one hand as he urged her body up off his legs so that she stood with her legs on either side of his. "Ye did it right. Too right."

"Then why—?" Evelinde began, but her words ended on a gasp as he urged her back down and slid into her.

"Ye talk too much, wife," Cullen muttered, then his mouth covered hers and he began to urge her to raise and lower herself on him. The moment he had her doing so at a pace he was satisfied with, his hands shifted around to clasp her breasts, squeezing and kneading as he kissed her most thoroughly.

Evelinde was unsure of herself at first, not quite prepared to be in control, but soon found a rhythm and speed she was comfortable with and was just beginning to enjoy it when he suddenly shifted. Pushing himself off the log, Cullen took her with him as he knelt in the grass, then he carried her down to the ground, their bodies still joined at hip and mouth.

When Cullen caught her hands in both of his and pressed them down into the cool grass on either side of her head, holding her there as he thrust into her, Evelinde groaned and arched into the action, her body moving to meet him as he drove them both toward the explosion of pleasure waiting at the end.

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