TWENTY-SIX

Hayden fought against venturing to the tower for as long as he could. He told himself he was just going to wander the castle as he did many nights. He liked to scale the outside, to get different vantage points than others.

Somehow he wasn’t surprised when he reached Isla’s tower that he found himself at her window. He tried not to look inside, and yet, he did just that.

Hayden expected to see Isla in bed, or maybe combing her hair. What he didn’t foresee was an empty tower. He frowned, wondering where she was, wondering if she was safe.

His gaze swept the round chamber before he jumped from the window. He shouldn’t be in there, but he couldn’t help himself. And with Isla gone, it gave him the excuse he needed to be in her domain.

Her snow and wild pansy scent teased his senses. He glanced at the large bed, remembering taking her, making her his.

His cock thickened just recalling Isla with her black hair spread around her and her lovely lips parted on a scream as she peaked.

He recalled her small waist, the flare of her hips, her trim thighs parted so he could see her black curls that hid her sex. She had been stunning, one of the most beautiful sights he had ever seen.

Hayden ran his hand over the pillow. He sank onto the bed and laid back. It was folly, but he would stay until he heard her on the stairs. She’d never know he was there, but he would know that she was all right.

He hadn’t asked if she was injured from earlier. He’d been so enraged at Ian that his only thought had been to kill. It had come upon him quickly, consuming him.

The bloodlust had been the most severe he had ever felt. After the first time when his family had been killed, he’d made sure to keep himself under tight control. Normally that wasn’t a problem. Why it should be now didn’t make sense to him.

In the deepest recesses of his soul, he knew it had to do with Isla, yet he wasn’t ready to admit that even to himself.

He threw an arm over his eyes and let himself doze. His superior hearing would alert him to Isla’s approach.

Isla nestled herself in a corner of the cottage. For hours she stared into the darkness trying to think of nothing and failing. Her thoughts returned to Hayden time and again, of the passion he brought out in her, of the desire his presence caused her.

She had kept herself alone, not befriending anyone in Cairn Toul. Now, she was surrounded by those who wanted to be her companion. It would — had been — so easy to let down her guard and allow herself to be friends.

But more had happened. Hayden had happened, and Isla hadn’t been prepared for what he did to her body much less her heart. He touched a part of her no one else had, and her heart and soul trembled because of it.

Her chest still ached at seeing him so close to the edge while he had been fighting Ian. What she had witnessed that day she was sure is what had occurred with the original Warriors who had fought the Romans.

If Hayden went over the edge, he’d never be able to pull himself back to the man he was. Hayden was needed by the MacLeods. He was a warrior whose loyalty would never waiver, a warrior who would fight to the death. A warrior who would give his own life so that others would survive.

Isla’s mind was full of Hayden. She couldn’t get him out of her thoughts no matter what she did, just as her body couldn’t forget what it felt like to have his hands on her. She rubbed the heel of her hands into her eyes and gritted her teeth.

It felt so good to close her eyes. She was so tired. All she wanted to do was to sleep. Not the naps she gave into, but a deep, dreamless sleep that would permit her to feel refreshed and ready to face anything.

She dropped her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. The sun would be up in just a few hours. Time enough for her to have one of her short naps, just enough to regain her strength, but not long enough for the nightmares to take hold.

Hayden came awake with a start, jerking upright in the bed and glancing around him. Dawn streaked the sky pink and purple and brought him to awareness.

He’d fallen asleep in Isla’s bed, slept better than he had in weeks. More disturbing than that was that Isla had never returned to her chamber.

Hayden leapt from the bed. In three strides he was at the window. With barely a thought he jumped up, his hands on either side of the windowsill. His gaze scanned the castle surroundings. Everything seemed normal.

He knew Isla’s shield was still in place since he could feel her magic. It wasn’t as strong as when she herself wielded it, but there was a distinct feel to the shield’s magic. So much so that Hayden would know her magic anywhere.

His thoughts turned to finding her. He vaulted from the window. The wind howled around him as he held his arms out to his side and waited to alight on the battlements below.

He landed with his knees bent and his head down. Hayden didn’t pause before he straightened and turned to the door that led inside the castle.

Hayden rarely slept in his own chamber, so it wouldn’t be odd for anyone to see him enter the great hall from the battlements.

Hayden paused at the landing and peered down into the hall. The MacLeods were present, as was Ramsey, Camdyn, Arran, and Duncan. Malcolm, Broc, and Ian were missing, though.

He was hungry, but Hayden couldn’t concentrate on food when Isla was nowhere to be found. It was ridiculous, this need of his to find her, to know that she was all right and unharmed. He wasn’t the one following Isla anymore.

That stopped him in his tracks. Had the MacLeods given that duty to someone else? Hayden fisted his hands. It was a thought, one that wouldn’t go away even as the moments passed. Despite his curiosity, his most pressing concern was finding Isla.

He knew she wasn’t in danger. No one at MacLeod Castle would harm her, and even if they did, she would survive.

Unless they take her head. As she asked you to do.

Hayden turned on his heel and began his search in the castle. It would have been easier to ask someone, anyone if they had seen her, but that would mean they knew he was looking for her.

It would be better if he kept this to himself so he wouldn’t have to answer any questions he wasn’t yet ready to face himself.

It didn’t take him long to conclude she wasn’t in the castle. He even walked through Cara’s garden and peered into the kitchens, but Isla wasn’t there.

He looked on the beach next. The sun had risen higher, its golden light brightening the sky and glinting off the water. The sea beckoned, urging him to her shores. A swim would help chase away his dark mood, help to calm his anxiety. First, he needed to find Isla.

Hayden turned his attention to the village. He was halfway there when he saw Ian walking with purpose toward the back of the village, to the very cottage Hayden had picked for himself.

He halted, something telling Hayden to wait, to be patient and he would find what he needed. It was just a few moments later that Isla walked from the cottage, Ian behind her.

The twin laughed at something Isla said. Isla herself had a small smile on her face, something Hayden had seen so rarely. It wasn’t until that moment that he realized he hadn’t heard her laugh.

That caused his chest to constrict and his lungs to seize up, but it was nothing compared to the annoyance that rose up in him. Isla had a new watcher now — Ian.

And Hayden didn’t like it.

*

Isla heard the laughter, the shrill, evil laughter that was Deirdre’s alone. She knew before she opened her eyes she was in Cairn Toul.

The smell of malevolence and death surrounded her. Evil lived and breathed in the depths of the mountain. It was as if the very stones gave birth to the wickedness that seeped into the ground.

Or was it that the mountain hid a doorway into hell itself?

Isla shivered. She didn’t want to open her eyes. She had been taken from Cairn Toul. Hayden had carried her broken and bloodied body away. She was at MacLeod Castle. Safe. For a while anyway.

What had happened?

She forced open her eyes and nearly gave in to the urge to weep when she saw her familiar and hated chamber in Cairn Toul. The plain stone walls, the small bed, the single chair.

“Nay,” she whispered. “Nay.”

Deirdre’s face appeared before her. It was so sheer Isla could see through it, but there was no mistaking the white hair and eyes. There was emptiness in Deirdre’s gaze, emptiness and rage.

Isla waited for her to speak, waited to hear that Deirdre planned to torture her yet again. Or maybe, finally, give her death.

But Deirdre didn’t speak. She just stared at Isla with those cold, cruel eyes.

“Isla.”

She came awake with a start, her heart pounding so loud she feared it might burst from her chest. Her hands were braced on the wall at either side of her as her body shook.

“Isla?”

She looked up to find Ian standing over her. His brow was puckered and his brown eyes watched her with worry and a hint of alarm.

It took her a moment to realize she was in the cottage on MacLeod land. It had been a dream. As soon as Isla recognized that she breathed a sigh of relief and dropped her head into her hands. She couldn’t stop trembling, though. It had all been so real.

The sound of Ian moving and bending next to her filled the silence. “Bad dreams?”

“Always,” she said. She raised her head and tried to steady her heart. Nightmares had plagued her ever since Deirdre had taken them captive. But this one had been different.

“I thought you were given the north tower as yours?” Ian asked.

“I was. I came out here last night to think, and I must have fallen asleep.”

The way Ian watched her she knew he didn’t believe a word she said, but he didn’t press the issue. He straightened and held out his hand. “It is time to break our fast.”

She took his hand and let him pull her to her feet. Her body ached from being in the same position for so long, but anything was better than her nightmare. She led the way out of the cottage surprised to find the sun higher than she anticipated.

“Fallon asked that I escort you from now on. That is, if it’s all right with you.”

She glanced up at him and smiled, the urge to tease overtaking her. “I think you’re the perfect person. After all, you have already attacked me.”

He threw back his head and laughed heartily. Isla inhaled the fresh Highland sea air, grateful that she was no longer at Cairn Toul.

“I didn’t see you in time,” Ian said when he stopped chuckling. “I was focused on the wyrran.”

“I know.” And she did. She didn’t hold it against him. “Are you in favor of being my shadow?”

He shrugged. “I’m not averse to it, if that’s what you mean.”

“Did Fallon tell you everything?”

Ian glanced at her, no hint of laughter on his face. “He told me you requested death if Deirdre does take your mind.”

She halted and turned to face him. “You’ll know if it happens. The pain is overwhelming. I have a few moments before she takes over where I know what’s going on. You’ll have to do it as soon as I tell you.”

“I understand.”

“Good.” She let out a sigh.

They had begun walking again when Ian asked, “How does Hayden feel about me taking his place?”

The mention of Hayden brought back the ache that had been with her most of the night. “I’m confident he could care less.”

“I’m not so sure. You didn’t see his face when he attacked me.”

“I saw it,” she interrupted him. She’d seen it all too well.

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