Devil of the Highlands Chapter Ten

Cullen pressed a kiss to the top of Evelinde's head, then began to slide out from under her to get out of bed.

"Are you getting up already?"

He heard the disappointment in Evelinde's voice and merely smiled to himself as he found his plaid and laid it out to work folds into the strip of cloth in preparation of donning it. While it was early morning, it was not as early as it had been when he'd woken her with kisses and caresses and made love to her. The memory drew his gaze back to his wife, and he found himself transfixed as she stretched in the bed with a feline grace.

"Are you disappointed?"

Cullen glanced to her face as she drew the linens up, covering herself. "In what?"

"I am not as buxom, or big, or tall as little Maggie," she pointed out quietly.

He almost laughed, but then realized she was serious. Women were a strange breed, Cullen decided. The truth was he liked her body. He'd liked Maggie's, too. They were both beautiful in their own ways. Evelinde's was slim and graceful like a rosebud rising out of the earth. Maggie had been full and ripe like a rose in full bloom. Both were roses and both beautiful.

"Well?" Evelinde asked, the worry in her voice growing more pronounced.

"I'm no disappointed," Cullen answered. When that did not seem to reassure her, he recalled his duty, and frowned. "I like yer body. Yer short, but please me."

"Short?" she squawked, appearing affronted.

"Aye. Yer like to make me a gnarled old man with a twisted back having to stoop to kiss ye all the time, but 'tis worth it," he teased.

Evelinde's expression was priceless. Her mouth opened and closed several times, then she grumbled under her breath, but her cheeks were flushed from her exertions, and her expression was not the troubled and unhappy look he'd become used to. She looked satisfied and at peace.

And all it had taken was giving her a tumble and a compliment or two, Cullen thought with a shake of the head. He'd ridden for three days without sleep to get her away from her stepmother, but she hadn't seemed to appreciate that. Yet he said a couple of words of praise and bedded her—definitely not an effort—and she was happy.

He would never understand women, Cullen thought as he donned his plaid. His gaze slid back to his wife as he drew the end of the plaid over his shoulder to fasten it in front, and he paused when he saw the way she was watching him.

"Stop that, or I shall never get out of this room," he growled, feeling his body respond to the hunger in her eyes. When she just smiled, Cullen shook his head, and forced his attention to finding the broach that he used to fasten his plaid. A frown claimed his lips when he couldn't find it in the rushes by where the plaid had lain.

"What are you looking for?" Evelinde asked curiously.

"Me pin," he muttered, and shrugged impatiently and moved to his chest. He had another there and would find the missing one later. Cullen had knelt and opened the chest when Evelinde suddenly cried, "Here it is!"

Pausing, he glanced toward the bed to see her grab something off the bedside table and scoot off the bed.

Cullen straightened as she rushed over to offer it to him, his eyes moving over her. When Evelinde paused in front of him—instead of taking the pin—he used his free hand to sweep her against his chest and lowered his head to kiss her soundly. He squeezed her behind and urged her closer as he did, but then Evelinde moaned and wiggled against him, and he felt his body responding. Cullen immediately set her away and took the pin from her before temptation could become irresistible.

"Pack a picnic for the nooning," he ordered, temptation nagging at him as he fastened the plaid in place with the pin.


He glanced to the surprised expression on her face, but merely said, "I've a mind to return to the clearing with ye."

Cullen heard her draw in an excited breath as he turned away and smiled to himself as he walked out of the room. He was now very much looking forward to the midday meal.

Evelinde watched her husband go, a slow smile curving her lips and her toes curling into the rushes beneath her as she considered why he might wish to take her back to the clearing. The smile faded, however, as she glanced down at the open chest beside her.

What with one thing and another, Evelinde had quite forgotten all about losing his pin until Cullen had gone in search of it. She was thinking of it now, however, and knew she had to find it, which meant a trip down to the paddocks. Evelinde grimaced at the thought, but it was either that or telling her husband she'd lost it.

Finding it was definitely the preferred option, Evelinde decided and straightened her shoulders with determination as she moved to the basin on the table for a quick wash before getting dressed. She had her chemise on and was just picking up the gown she'd decided to wear that day when Mildrede arrived.

The maid helped her, chattering on about her impressions of Donnachaidh as she did. Distracted with her worry about finding the pin, Evelinde wasn't really paying much attention until Mildrede said, "I could hardly believe it when she said the men go about their swordplay while the women do all the real work around here."

Evelinde scowled, recalling her intention to talk to Cullen about the unfair division of labor at Donnachaidh. Perhaps she should do so this evening, or while they were on their picnic. This evening, she decided, not wishing to ruin the afternoon's outing and discourage her husband if he wished to once again show her that he "liked" her. Evelinde quite liked being liked. It was turning out to be the best part of marriage so far.

"Ugh," Mildrede muttered as she followed her out of the chamber a moment later. "How anyone can see in this light, I don't know. I am like to do myself an injury do we not get some light in this hall."

"Aye." Evelinde sighed, taking her arm to lead her to the stairs. "I shall talk to Cullen about it this evening."

Mildrede grunted her approval and continued her earlier chatter as they descended the stairs.

Evelinde tried to leave the keep at once to go start her search for the lost pin, but Mildrede wouldn't hear of her leaving without seeing she first broke her fast. The maid had her sit at the table while she fetched her some mead and one of Biddy's delicious pasties, then sat and told her she thought Biddy was a love while she watched Evelinde eat.

Evelinde listened with amusement and affection, glad to have the woman with her again and grateful to her husband for it. Cullen really was very considerate, she acknowledged. And now that he was speaking to her a little, she was beginning to think everything might be all right after all. Evelinde did not think they would ever have deep and long-winded conversations, but perhaps that wasn't important. She wasn't sure.

Once Evelinde had finished eating, Mildrede rushed off to see to straightening the bedchamber, and Evelinde was finally able to slip out of the keep.

She didn't see her husband as she made her way to the paddock, and was glad for it. Did he ask her where she was headed, Evelinde would not feel she could lie outright and would have had to tell the truth. Something she'd rather not have to do. She would not mind explaining that it had been briefly lost after she found it, but would rather Cullen not know until she'd found it again.

Evelinde started her search where she'd left off the day the Comyns had arrived, on the path she thought they'd taken when leaving the area. She followed that path all the way to where Cullen had hauled her out of the paddock but had no success.

Sighing unhappily when she reached the fence without finding it, Evelinde got back to her feet and peered into the paddock. She didn't see Angus, but had learned her lesson from her last walk through the enclosure. Evelinde followed the fence all the way to the end to check the entire area. The paddock ran alongside the one where Cullen had been breaking his horse with just a ten-foot span between the two, then turned and ran along the back of it to a small barn with doors both in front, opening into the horses' paddock, and another on the side, opening into Angus's paddock.

The door to Angus's paddock was presently closed, and there was no sign of the bull. This was probably the best time to search the paddock for the pin if she was going to do it, Evelinde realized, and cast one last glance toward the closed door before hurrying back along the fence to where Cullen had pulled her out.

Hitching up her skirt, she quickly climbed the fence and dropped into the paddock. Evelinde then paused to glance around one more time to be sure Angus was still inside the barn before dropping to her hands and knees to begin searching the grass in the enclosure. She moved much more quickly here, just running her hands over the grass in search of the pin, then moving on to the next spot and doing it again. She didn't wish to be in the paddock any longer than necessary. She also wished to avoid being seen at her search. Evelinde had no doubt that Cullen would be furious if he caught her in here, and that was without even knowing that she'd lost his pin.

She was halfway across the paddock when she spotted the missing broach. Giving a happy cry, Evelinde snatched it up and sat back on her heels to examine it, releasing a small sigh of relief when she saw it was undamaged. She was just getting to her feet thinking she'd been very fortunate to come when the paddock was empty as well as to actually find the pin when the thunder of hooves drew her head around. Her eyes widened at the sight of an angry Angus charging down the paddock toward her.

For one moment, Evelinde was frozen, then she broke into a run, Cullen's pin clutched in her hand like a talisman.

"Ye'll manage?" Cullen asked Mac as he led his mount out of the stables. He'd just finished giving the man a tour of the stables and introduced him as the new stable master to Scatchy and his daughter, Loa.

Scatchy appeared happy enough with the new arrangement. Cullen wasn't surprised. The man had told him more than once that he was getting too old to be sitting up all night with ailing or birthing horses.

Much to Cullen's surprise, however, Loa didn't appear to be taking the new arrangement well at all. She'd been grim and stiff ever since he'd introduced Mac and explained his new position. Cullen would have expected the woman to be relieved to have someone remove the burden from her. Scatchy had been little help the last few years, and the task of managing the stables had fallen on her shoulders.

He glanced to the woman now to find her standing in the shadows of the stable doors, glaring out at them.

"Shell settle," Mac said.

Cullen turned back to see that Mac was watching her, too.

"She just needs a little handling," the stable master added mildly. When Cullen raised his eyebrows, he shrugged. "Women are like horses; keep them fed and watered, rub them down of a night, and whisper a sweet word or two in their ear, and they'll follow ye anywhere."

Cullen released a bark of laughter, but then tried to smother it as Scatchy came out of the stables. The old man walked toward them with a smile that turned into a perplexed expression as he glanced at something to his left.

"Is that not yer lady playing with Angus again, me laird?" the old man asked as he reached them.

Cullen glanced sharply toward the paddocks, his heart lodging itself in his throat when he saw Evelinde in her red gown, running willy-nilly around the field trying to outrun the bull, which was almost on top of her.

Cursing, he leapt onto his mount and spurred him into a dead run. Cullen knew he'd never make it even as he charged toward the enclosure. Evelinde didn't have a chance at outrunning the beast, he thought, but quickly realized he'd underestimated her. While she might not have been faster or stronger than the bull, she was definitely smarter. Just when Cullen thought she would be caught up in the bull's horns and tossed through the air, Evelinde suddenly dove to the side, throwing herself to the ground.

Unprepared for the action, Angus stamped past her a good distance before managing to bring himself to a halt and turn back. By that time, Evelinde had already rolled back to her feet and was again racing toward the nearest fence. Angus was immediately after her again, her red gown drawing him on.

Cullen leaned low over his mount's back and steered him straight at the fence. His horse was leaping the top rail when Evelinde next threw herself to the side to avoid being gored. Angus was more prepared this time, however, and managed to stop and turn much more quickly. But Evelinde had nearly reached the fence when she threw herself to the ground and rather than get up and race the last few steps and try to climb it as he feared—which would have seen her gored ere he could reach her—his clever wife simply rolled several times, rolling herself right under the fence to safety.

Angus came to a halt at once, furiously puffing air from his nostrils as he glared at the woman staring back at him from safety. Cullen's heart was just starting to slow with relief that she was safe when Angus suddenly swiveled his head to glare his way.

Realizing he was now the one in danger, Cullen immediately jerked his mount to the side, heading for the fence and safety as Angus started to charge him. Should the bull take out the horse before they got out of the paddock, Cullen knew they were both in trouble. He dug his heels into the animal's side, demanding more speed, but needn't have bothered.

The horse had no interest in being gored. His mount managed a speed Cullen had never seen from him before, seeming nearly to fly the short distance to the fence.

Even so, Cullen wasn't sure they would make it. The bull's huffing was loud in his ears, and he was sure the beast was about to impale his mount, when the animal suddenly made a leap for the fence. Cullen lowered himself to the beast's neck as they sailed through the air. In his fear, the animal had made the leap early and he suspected they barely cleared the fence, but barely was enough. They came down hard on the other side even as Angus crashed into it from inside with a fearsome force that made the fence shudder visibly. But the fence held, leaving the beast glaring at them and snorting its rage.

Cullen was off his horse and rushing to Evelinde's side almost before his horse stopped.

"Are ye injured?" he asked, anxiously drawing her to her feet.

"Nay. I am fine," Evelinde assured him breathlessly, watching the bull with wide, wary eyes as if she feared he might still get out and come after them.

Cullen closed his eyes briefly with relief and shook his head, thinking that the woman would be the death of him. She was forever getting herself into trouble and scaring the life out of him. One of these times she was going to get herself killed with her foolish stunts, he thought, his relief giving way to anger. The next thing he knew he was bellowing, "What were ye doing, ye daft woman?"

Evelinde turned wide eyes to him, opened her mouth, closed it again, then clucked her tongue irritably and pushed herself away to march toward the path.

Cullen immediately chased after her. He had never been so furious in his life. Half of him wanted to beat her for her stupidity, and the other half wanted to throw her to the ground, pull her skirt up, and love her until she didn't have the strength to try to get herself killed again. He couldn't do either, of course, so he simply caught her by the arm, and swung her around to face him as he repeated, "What were ye doing?"

Evelinde blew her breath upward on a sigh, sending the tendrils of hair that had escaped her bun flying and then muttered, "Where have I heard that question before?"

"Wife," he growled, his temper barely controlled.

"I borrowed your pin the other day to help keep little Maggie's blue gown from gaping."

Cullen frowned at her with confusion, unsure what that had to do with anything until he recalled how she'd been searching the back of her skirt for something when one of the men on the wall had called out to him that a party was approaching. The pin, obviously, he thought.

"But when I climbed the fence it came undone and fell out in the paddock. That is what I was doing when you and the Comyns found me on my hands and knees that day," she explained. "I fear I forgot about it until this morning when you were looking for it. I came down after breaking my fast to find it. And I did," she added brightly, holding it out in her hand. "I had just found it when I realized Angus was charging on me."

Cullen stared at the pin in the palm of her hand with amazement. "Ye braved the bull for me pin?"

"Aye. Nay," Evelinde corrected, then sighed, and said, "He was not in the paddock."

Cullen realized then that he had never explained to her that the paddock was L-shaped. Fergus had mentioned it the other day to calm him, but the man had spoken so low he doubted she'd heard it. Evelinde must have glanced the length of the stables and not seen the beast before and thought the paddock empty, he realized. This was an instance when his lack of talking was definitely detrimental, he thought grimly and began to explain what he should have at the time. "The paddock is L-shaped, wife. He was probably—"

"I checked the entire paddock, Cullen." She interrupted. "Angus was not outside, and the door leading from the barn to his paddock was closed when I climbed in."

"She's right, me laird. Angus should have been in his pen."

Cullen glanced around at that announcement to see an older man approaching in a hopping limp. The man was Hamish, who was in charge of these paddocks, and the limp was from an old injury, a gift from Angus some years back.

"I hadn't yet let him out today," the man said once he'd reached them. "Angus went in to eat when the sun was setting last night, and I closed the door and dropped the bar. I have yet to let him out today. He shouldna have been in the paddock."

"Well someone let him out," Cullen said grimly.

The man nodded slowly. "Aye, it would seem so."

Cullen frowned, then both men turned to peer at Evelinde. She stiffened under their gazes and then impatiently. "Well, I can assure you it was not I."

"Then it was someone else," Cullen growled, anger stirring in him. Whoever it was had nearly got his wife killed. A soft touch on his arm drew his gaze down to see that Evelinde was patting his arm soothingly.

"I am sure whoever let him loose simply did not see me in the paddock," she said, then explained, "I was on my hands and knees searching through the grass for your pin just before I realized he was charging. I am sure it was an accident."

"Aye," he agreed, but was still bothered by the whole incident.

"Well," his wife said with a forced smile. "I shall just go put this back in your chest where I found it."

Evelinde hurried away before he could stop her.

Cullen watched her go, his eyebrows drawn together with worry.

"It was no accident, me laird," Hamish murmured quietly, drawing his gaze away from his wife. "No one ever deals with Angus but me. No one would have a reason to open the door… unless they saw yer lady wife in the paddock and wanted to loose him on her."

Cullen stared at the man for one long moment, then asked, "Why would anyone wish to do that?"

Hamish shrugged. "Why would anyone kill your uncle, father, or first lady wife?"

"Those were accidents," Cullen said coldly, though he wasn't at all certain they were. However, he'd never been able to find out for sure one way or the other so had been forced to accept that they were accidents and move on.

"And this would have appeared to be an accident, too," Hamish pointed out.

Cullen stiffened, his head jerking up at the words as if under a blow.

"Just something to think about," Hamish pointed out, and turned to walk along the paddock toward the barn.

Cullen watched him go, his mind crowding with thoughts. His uncle Darach had been the first questionable accident. An arrow to the back had taken him while hunting. No one had ever admitted to loosing the arrow, but it was thought at the time that the individual might not have known he did it. Cullen had been fourteen and on his first hunt when it happened. They'd been hunting wild boar and come upon a family of them. There had been at least twenty men. When the two adult boars had charged, trying to protect the younger ones, every one of those men had scattered, each heading in a different direction to get out of the way. Boars were vicious when provoked.

Arrows had flown from every direction that day as the boars had gone after anything that moved, chasing one way, then another, hardly seeming to notice the arrows that soon stuck out of them until they resembled oversized hedgehogs. It wasn't until both boars were down that anyone realized that Darach, their laird, was not there to help collect their prizes and carry them back to the keep. A search had started, and the laird of Donnachaidh had been found lying in the bushes, an arrow through his back. Darach had still been alive, and told them that he'd fallen from his mount when one of the boars charged him sending his horse rearing. It was while tumbling into the bushes that he'd felt the arrow pierce him. He'd thought it an accident, that he'd fallen into the path of the already loosed arrow, and everyone had accepted that. When he died three days later with fever from his infected wound, all the keep had thought it a tragic accident.

Cullen's father, Liam, had then become laird and brought peace and prosperity to their people for ten years until the day he'd been found at the base of the cliffs that backed Donnachaidh. The hill that sloped away from the front gates of the outer wall ran along three sides of the castle, but at the very back it dropped away as if God had sliced away the gentle incline, leaving a very steep drop of rocky cliffs. This was where his father had taken the fall that had killed him. Cullen had been at Comyns the day it happened. Tralin and he had grown up friends and often visited each other, and that was where he'd been.

Cullen had returned home from the Comyns' to find his father dead and rumors being whispered that he himself had been seen near the spot where he died… and that perhaps it wasn't an accident.

It hadn't been long before people recalled that he'd been on the hunt when his uncle was killed, too. They began to wonder if that had really been an accident at all. It was suggested that Cullen could have loosed the arrow that had killed his uncle. Perhaps he had sought the title of laird even back then, , they'd murmured.

Despite the rumors, as Liam Duncan's son, Cullen had been named laird. Weighed down by his grief for a man who had been both a fair leader as well as a good father, and busy with his new position, Cullen had not addressed the rumors. He had tried to sort out whether his father's death really was an accident, but there was no way to know. Liam's horse had wandered back to the stables, a search had been started, and the laird had been found at the foot of the cliffs. There was nothing else to tell what had happened, and while the rumors had said someone had seen Cullen riding away from the spot, he had never been able to find out who the witness was supposed to be. No one seemed to know who it was, just that' "it was said"' someone saw him.

Knowing he hadn't been there, and how rumors started and grew and twisted as they traveled, Cullen had decided there really was no witness and gave up his search for the truth to concentrate on the task of running Donnachaidh. And then he'd married little Maggie, a betrothal his father had arranged when they were but children. She had been a fine woman, cheerful and kind, and he'd grown an easy affection for her. They would have passed a life of peace and contentment without the highs and lows brought on by his passion for and worry over Evelinde, but two years after fulfilling that contract, she, too, had been found at the foot of the same cliffs.

That had been beyond any possible coincidence for Cullen. Unfortunately, it had been too much for a lot of people at Donnachaidh, too, but while he was looking to them for the culprit, they were all looking to him. No answers were found.

Cullen sighed and ran one hand through his hair in weary frustration. While everything seemed fine on the surface at Donnachaidh, there was actually a division among the people. There were those who believed none of the three deaths was an accident, but that they were murders and that Cullen was responsible for them all. Then there were those who thought the "accidents" might have been murder but were sure he was not the culprit, and, finally, there were those who were not sure either way. It made leading his people a tricky business at times, for while they followed his orders, with some it was slowly and with resentment. Being laird for the two years since Maggie's death had been like being the captain of a ship on the brink of a mutiny.

Unable to prove his innocence, or even protest the unspoken accusations when they were mere rumor and whispers, Cullen had been forced to ignore them and hope they would fade in time. However, every time it appeared to be doing so, something or someone seemed to stir it up again. And then the marriage contract with Evelinde had been offered to him. Cullen needed a wife to bear his bairns, but he'd also hoped her presence would help people forget the past and let it lie. Instead, Evelinde was now having accidents, Cullen thought grimly, considering the events since meeting her. Her fall from the horse on the first meeting had definitely been an accident, as had her being given the wrong medicinal on their wedding day. He was even sure that her first adventure in Angus's paddock had been an accident. However, he was almost certain today's was not. Someone had opened the door and let Angus out while she was searching the paddock, and he had nearly lost a second wife.

Cullen frowned and glanced around the bailey, his gaze sliding over the people milling about. If the previous deaths and Evelinde's present accidents had been perpetrated by someone, it would have to be one of his own people, for a stranger could not move freely through the gates without his men stopping them. One of the people he was looking at right now may have tried to kill his wife, he realized… and, perhaps, not for the first time. That thought came as he recalled the incident when he'd come upon Evelinde in the woods on the way back from Comyns.

Cullen was suddenly recalling her mention of an arrow in the tree she was climbing. He'd assumed that it was an old arrow, but something about her troubled look as she'd said she hadn't noted it earlier was bothering him. And, he recalled, Evelinde had asked if he was the one who'd been following her and why hadn't he let his presence be known.

His mouth tightened grimly as the two points combined in his mind with this accident and Hamish's words regarding it to send fear creeping up his spine. He was beginning to suspect there was more to her comments on the arrow than he'd assumed at the time, and suddenly was very desirous of asking her about the incident.

Climbing back onto his mount's back, Cullen turned him to the path and headed for the keep. He would talk to Evelinde. And hold her. And warn her to stay close to the keep until he was sure all was well. Cullen had been sad when little Maggie had died. He had become used to the woman for wife and gained affection for her over their two-year marriage. But he knew without a doubt that his mild grief at her death would be nothing next to how he would feel should he lose Evelinde. His new lady wife had managed to burrow under his skin with her soft laugh, constant chatter, and welcoming body.

Cullen liked his wife. He might even more than like her, though he wasn't willing to explore that possibility at the moment. He just knew he wanted to keep this wife around.

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