NINE

Isla didn’t know why she found herself staring at Hayden. His obvious dislike for her should have made her keep her distance.

Instead, she found him fascinating. Addictive.

Captivating.

He was a proud man, a loyal Warrior. He was the tallest among them, standing head and shoulders above the others. But it was more than just his height that made him stand out. It was his manner, his attitude of “I can do anything and you can’t stop me.”

Isla imagined he could do anything he set his mind to. Men like Hayden were few.

She allowed herself to look him over at her leisure as he spoke with Quinn. While Quinn and the other Warriors were well formed, Hayden’s arms and shoulders bulged with muscles.

The way the material of his kilt hung over his left shoulder only accentuated the shapely form of his upper body. His wide chest narrowed into a vee, and his kilt wrapped lean hips.

He stood with his feet shoulder width apart, his arms crossed over his chest, and his jaw set. A Warrior waiting to defend those he cared for.

Isla had gotten a glimpse of a muscular thigh when Hayden bent over earlier. She had to wonder if there was a place on his body that wasn’t corded with muscle.

And then his black eyes turned to her.

She almost took a step back. She held her stance and returned his stare. He might intrigue her, but he also stirred a measure of fear. She wasn’t sure why, but there was something about him that seemed almost … familiar. It quickly faded as her blood heated under his intense gaze.

“Thank you,” Fallon said, drawing her attention — and her gaze — from Hayden.

Isla bowed her head as she faced the leader. “I don’t know how long the shield will last once Deirdre realizes what I’ve done. She will try to use me, but the shield will make it difficult for her magic, now dimmed, to penetrate.”

“But it could happen?” Cara asked.

As much as Isla wanted to lie to them, she knew she couldn’t. “Aye.” She then turned to Fallon. “The shield won’t keep Deirdre out forever. She will eventually find me. When that happens, you must kill me.”

“Isla,” Fallon began.

She shook her head. “Your word, Fallon MacLeod. If you do not give me your word, I will leave now. I won’t endanger everyone here.”

Fallon closed his eyes and let out a ragged sigh. When he opened his eyes, she saw the resolve there.

“You have my word,” Fallon pledged. “I pray it does not come to that. The more people we have to fight Deirdre the better.”

Isla didn’t bother to state her argument against her being able to fight Deirdre again. It had been said enough. “Let us hope you are correct, laird.”

He smiled at her use of his title. “I never thought to hear anyone call me that. I thank you.”

“May I leave the castle?”

“Of course.”

Marcail stepped forward and took Isla’s hand. She was surprised the Druid would so easily touch her.

“Thank you,” Marcail said. “You didn’t have to stay or shield us.”

Isla forced a smile. “Thank me when it’s over.”

She wasn’t used to people being so pleasant to her. It was a welcome reprieve, but after five centuries with nothing but evil surrounding her, Isla wasn’t sure how to act.

Isla extracted her hand and walked down the steps to the bailey. The Warriors parted for her as she continued to the gatehouse and the gate that stood ajar. The light from the many torches danced on the ground and played at her feet.

She felt Hayden’s eyes on her, and knew if she turned her head she would find him watching her. But she wouldn’t turn. He might see the confusion inside her and think it a weakness.

It is a weakness.

A failing she had to hide. Whenever she was perplexed she tended to make the wrong choices, and these Druids and Warriors had asked for her help. She didn’t want to think she had made the wrong decision to help them, but deep down, she feared she had.

Once she was through the gate, Isla turned toward the cliffs. She didn’t stop until she reached the edge. A look down showed her just how high up they were as the razorbills found their nests for the night in the walls of rock.

She lifted her face to the sky and the setting sun and basked in its remaining warmth and light. The smell of the salt on the wind tickled her nose, but it was the sound of the sea as the waves rolled in that calmed her racing heart.

Isla opened her eyes and looked at the sea as it stretched far into the horizon and beyond. The gray and brown rock of the cliffs clashed beautifully with the dark blue waters and bright green grass beneath her feet. It was almost as if she had entered another world, a world she had thought dead to her.

It was the flap of wings that alerted her she was no longer alone. “Hello, Broc.”

He chuckled as he landed and folded his mighty wings behind him. “I should have known you would sense me.”

“I should have known I wouldn’t be allowed to be alone,” she said and turned to face him. His indigo skin shown in the sinking sun, and his Warrior eyes, eyes the same color as his skin, measured her. She had always wanted to ask if their eyesight changed when the god took over since the color took over their entire eye.

His brow furrowed at her words. He swiped at an errant strand of his fair hair caught in the wind and blowing in his eyes. “No one sent me. I came to see how you were before I left.”

“They don’t trust me, do they? Not that I blame them. I am drough.”

“Did you lie to us about what happened to you?”

Isla almost rolled her eyes. “Of course not.”

“Then they believe you, and they trust you enough to ask you to stay. Give them a chance.”

A chance. She probably shouldn’t, but she was. “Deirdre will sense you coming. Be careful.”

He looked at the castle over his shoulder. Isla saw a long figure standing on the battlements watching them. Sonya. Isla wondered if the Druid knew of Broc’s feelings, and if Sonya returned those feelings.

“I will return,” Broc promised. He turned back to Isla and smiled, showing his fangs. “They will take care of you here. They are good people.”

“I know.” She just hoped they didn’t pay the ultimate price for taking her in.

With a single nod, his leathery wings unfolded. A moment later, he was soaring in the sky with only breeches covering his body.

She was going to miss having Broc at the castle. He was the only one she really knew, her only ally. And now he was gone.

Isla stood on the edge of the cliffs, the breeze buffeting her, and for the first time in ages she let her mind drift back to the days before Deirdre when Grania had still been an innocent child and Lavena hadn’t been locked in the blue flames.

Isla waited for the stabbing pain that always came when she thought of her sister and niece, yet there was nothing but a hollow ache of regret for what could have been.

“Farewell, Lavena. May you find the peace you long sought,” Isla whispered into the wind. “Grania, my dear sweet Grania, may the purity that made you so special as a child return to you in death. Forgive me, both of you.”

*

Hayden flipped a dagger end over end as he leaned against a cottage. Rebuilding the village had begun again, but that’s not why he was there. His target stood on the cliffs, her gaze never wavering from the sea.

What was it about the water that held Isla so? She hadn’t moved from her spot since she had walked there after supper. Night had fallen and still she stood.

Arran walked from one of the cottages and dusted off his hands as he came toward Hayden. “What do you think she’s doing?”

Hayden shrugged and sheathed the dagger at his hip. “I doona know.”

“She’s as still as a stone. Larena said to leave her be, but Quinn thinks we should bring her inside.”

“Leave her,” Hayden said.

“I told you he’d say that,” Ian said with a chuckle.

Hayden glanced at Ian and his close cut hair. “Where is your twin?”

The smile on Ian’s face dropped. “Are you worried he’ll hurt Isla?”

Anger sliced through Hayden so quickly he almost didn’t tamp down his god in time to stop the transformation. “Did Isla ever harm either of you?”

“You know she didn’t,” Ian answered.

“Then why does he hate her so? You were the one who was tortured, not Duncan.”

Arran dropped his gaze to stare at the ground while Ian looked down the center road of the village.

Ian clenched his jaw. “Duncan blames himself for what happened to me.”

“Do you blame him?” Hayden wanted to know.

Ian shook his head. “Never. The only ones I do blame are Deirdre and William.”

“And William is dead,” Arran said.

The men exchanged looks, smiles of satisfaction on their faces.

Hayden pushed away from the cottage wall and looked once more at Isla. “I understand your brother’s anger, Ian. He needs something and someone to blame. Deirdre hasn’t been found yet, and until he’s seen her, that anger will transfer to Isla.”

“Why not Broc as well?” Arran asked.

Ian took in a long breath. “Because Broc fought with us. No one saw Isla. I’ll talk to him, Hayden.”

“It willna do any good,” Hayden said. “He needs time and proof that Deirdre is alive.”

There was a loud crash in one of the nearby cottages followed by a bellow, then a curse, the voice belonging to Camdyn. Hayden waited for Camdyn to exit the cottage, and when he did the Warrior was covered in ash.

Hayden bit the inside of his mouth so he wouldn’t smile at the sight before him.

Arran let out a bark of laughter while Ian quickly turned away to hide his own smile.

“Damned beam,” Camdyn cursed and began brushing the ash from his long black hair. “It cracked in two before I had time to brace it. The fire took more of it than I first thought.”

Hayden couldn’t stop the smile this time. “You don’t say?”

“Verra funny, Hayden,” Camdyn said. “Next time you be the one to go check the sturdiness of the cottages.”

“Another complete rebuild?” Hayden asked.

Camdyn nodded. “I’m afraid so. The fire didn’t take the entire cottage, but the initial structure is so damaged that it would be better if it was rebuilt.”

Hayden made a mental note, adding the tally for how many cottages could be salvaged.

“Is that Isla still out there?” Camdyn asked.

Arran nodded. “It seems Malcolm will have company tonight.”

Hayden didn’t need to look far down the edge of the cliffs to find Larena’s cousin and the only human male at the castle — Malcolm Monroe.

He had risked his own life in helping Larena stay hidden from Deirdre. Deirdre had taken a special interest in Larena as a female Warrior.

Everyone had hoped Deirdre would forget Malcolm’s involvement, but she hadn’t. Her Warriors had attacked and nearly killed him. Broc had found him in time to kill Malcolm’s attackers, but not in time to save Malcolm’s arm from being ruined.

Not even Sonya’s magic could heal Malcolm’s arm. The slashes on Malcolm’s face had healed quickly, but they left scars he would bear forever. Hayden thought them a badge of courage, but he knew Malcolm didn’t agree.

With Malcolm’s right arm all but useless, he felt less than a man. Malcolm was next in line to be laird of the Monroe clan, but he declined to return to his people. As much as Hayden hated to admit it, the clan wouldn’t accept Malcolm as he was now.

Which was why Fallon had made room for Malcolm among them. Hayden liked him, though Malcolm kept to himself, rarely talking to anyone. Malcolm walked the cliffs at night, a lone soul among the rocky outcroppings.

Except now, Isla was there as well.

“Would you have killed her?”

Hayden jerked his head to find Duncan beside him and the others gone. The twin stared at him with cold brown eyes. “What are you talking about?”

“When Isla asked you to take her head. Were you going to do it?”

“Would you have done it?”

Duncan nodded. “Aye.”

That was Hayden’s thought as well. He still didn’t understand why he’d hesitated.

“Answer me,” Duncan demanded.

“The pain that sits in your gut and festers willna ever go away, Duncan, no matter how many people you kill.”

Duncan snorted. “And how would you know?”

Hayden faced the twin and caught his gaze. “I know. You can blame everyone you want, but the blame lies with only one person.”

“Me.”

“Nay. Deirdre. Would you blame Ian if it had been you taken?”

Duncan’s face contorted. “Nay.”

“Then doona fault yourself. There will be plenty of chances to fight Deirdre in the coming days. Save your anger for her.”

“Is that what you’ve done? Saved your anger for her?”

Hayden shook his head. “I did the opposite, though I wish I’d had someone tell me what I’ve shared with you. I let my rage fester inside me until I’ve become a monster in every sense of the word. Is that what you want to become? Is that what you want Ian to see every time he looks into your face?”

Duncan sighed and ran a hand through his long hair. “He suffered, and I could do nothing. Even when we shared the same pain, Marcail took that from me in her effort to help.”

“At least your brother is alive.”

“And yours isn’t?”

Hayden had said too much already. It wasn’t like him to give out advice, but he saw the road Duncan was headed down since he had traveled that same path himself. It wasn’t an easy one.

But then what path ever was?

“Hayden?” Duncan said.

“Nay, but it doesna matter,” Hayden replied. “It was a long time ago.”

Too damn long, yet it felt as if no time had passed since discovering his family murdered.

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