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Son of the Morning (Chapter 24)

THE NEXT DAY DAWNED COOL AND RAINY, THE MOUNTAINTOPS to the east lost in mist. There was no hot bath waiting for Grace that morning, only a basin of cold water and a hasty scrubbing in front of the fire. Breakfast was porridge again, and thenAlice swept her up in another whirlwind of activity. Then men trained in the courtyard despite the rain -"Lord Niall says trouble doesna wait for a fair day,"Alice explained – and clotted the rushes with mud when they all tromped in, soaking wet and grousing.

Alicewarmed them up from the inside withcocannon, a cabbage stew, and the men occupied themselves with games of dice, flirting with the serving women, sharpening their swords and daggers, and swapping tales that grew both louder and taller. Not all the men were there; Niall and ten others patrolled around Creag Dhu.

The rain dripped monotonously, and the dark gray sky made torches necessary for light. Grace yawned, thinking that a rainy day was better suited for napping in front of a fire than anything else. She wasn't the only one yawning; a few of the men sought the darker corners and nodded off. Others' thoughts turned to bed for a different reason. Grace saw hairy masculine arms wrapping about plump waists here and there, and soon there were noticeably fewer women going about their work.

They were all startled by the shouts from the gate, the sudden alarm. Sim hadAlice on his knee, teasingly pinching her bottom and trying to cajole her away from her work; he jumped upright at the shouts, dumpingAlice on the floor. His hand closed over his sword and he was running before his plaid had settled around his knees.

Alicescrambled up and ran to the huge ten-foot-high double doors that opened into the great hall. Her heart in her throat, Grace ran too. Niall was outside the safety of the gates; had something happened to him?

The scene was chaotic, confusing. A crowd of people rushed toward the gates, yelling in alarm, their heads covered against the pelting rain. Behind them was the sullen red glow of burning huts. "The Hay!" they howled. "The Hay!" Men surged on horseback, waving axes and swords.

"Open the gates!" Sim yelled. Men roughly pushed Alice and Grace aside as they rushed to their posts in a well-ordered drill, some going to the top of the walls with their crossbows, some to the stable to get the horses, others falling in behind Sim.

Grace ran into the courtyard, heedless of the rain. The Hays were attacking, and Niall was somewhere outside. Had he and his men been attacked by a much larger force? Her chest clenched, panic welling. No.No! She couldn't bear it again, couldn't lose.

Alicegrabbed her arm, jerking her around. "Come inside! Arrows-"

The gates were open, the pounding crowd only yards away. Grace gave them an agonized look asAlice dragged her toward the doors, and her gaze fell on the beefy man who ran in front of all the others, his plaid pulled over his head. She saw him grin suddenly, saw his rotted teeth, and she jerked away fromAlice , running forward as she screamed, "Close the gates! It's a trick!"

Sim's head jerked around and he gaped at her, then her words sank in and he spun back toward the gates. "Close the gates!" he roared, rushing forward. The guards began pushing the massive doors closed but it was too late. The Hays poured into the narrow gatehouse, shoving the gates open. Swords and axes were pulled from beneath plaids, and the "victims" attacked.

"Run!"Alice screamed, pulling on Grace's arm again and hauling her back inside the great hall. Women were screaming and rushing about, excited dogs barking and leaping about their feet, getting in the way. "The doors!"Alice gasped, and she and Grace turned to throw their weight against them, closing them so the massive bar could be dropped in place.Alice outweighed Grace by fifty pounds or more, and she got the right door closed first, then darted over to aid Grace. They almost made it.

Heavy bodies thudded against the doors, bursting them wide, and the fighting spilled into the hall. The impact knocked Grace to the floor.Alice ducked under a slashing blade and grabbed Grace again, bodily lifting her and shoving her down the hallway toward the kitchens. "Run!" she screamed again, and Grace lifted her skirts and ran.

From in front of them came thundering feet and the rattle of metal. Grace skidded to a halt just outside the larder. "They're in here, too!" she yelled, trying to reverse her direction. Then the door to the larder slammed open and Niall came through it at a dead run, claymore in hand, black hair flying around his head and his eyes like murder. He was followed by the ten men who had been on patrol with him.

Grace flattened herself against the wall to keep from being smashed to the floor. Niall didn't even glance at her as he ran past but he barked toAlice , "Get to safety!" Then with a roar he ran into the hall and threw himself into the battle, pushing Hays back a few steps with the sheer force of his size and the swing of his blade. Screaming, his men followed him.

"Come!"Alice screamed to make herself heard over the din of battle, and she dashed into the kitchen without looking behind her.

Grace started to follow, then looked at the larder. That had to be the secret passageway, for otherwise how could Niall and his men have gotten back into the castle? She hesitated only a second, and plunged into the cool, dark room. There was a small store of candles just inside the door and she grabbed one, her hands shaking as she took up the stone and flint lying beside the candles and struck a spark to light the candle. When the small flame flickered to life, she hastily shut the larder door and looked around.

A whole section of the back wall had been swung open. Blackness yawned beyond the opening.

Her breath came in quick spurts as she approached the open section. This might lead to the Treasure's hiding place; it might not. But this was the first time she had been alone to search, and in the chaos of battle it would be some time before she was missed. She thought of Niall hurling himself into the fight with terrifying abandon and she bit her bottom lip until blood welled. He might be hurt, even killed.

And there was nothing she could do. Here was her chance, likely her only chance, to accomplish what she had come to Creag Dhu for.

The deafening roar of battle was only slightly mulled in here. Men screamed, in fury and in agony, sword clashed on sword, wood splintered. She had come into this time in the middle of a battle; perhaps she was meant to leave during one, too.

Niall.Her heart whispered the name, and her hands shook, making the candle flame dance. Then she thought of Ford and closed her eyes, trying to see his face. The only image that came to mind was the last one, his eyes blank in death as he toppled over.

A wordless sound of pain vibrated in her throat, and she stepped through the opening.

The air was immediately colder, danker, and had a faint smell of salt water. Steep, narrow stairs plunged straight down into complete darkness. She took them cautiously, guarding her candle so the flame didn't go out.

Everyone knew of the secret passage, she thought. Was it likely Niall would hide the Treasure there?

But where there was one passageway, perhaps there were others.

She reached the bottom of the stairway and found herself in a narrow, rock-lined tunnel. The smell of the sea was stronger there, and she could hear the muted thunder of crashing waves. The passageway was a short one, then, leading straight out to the rocky shoreline.

Her supposition was right. Though she moved slowly, she reached the end of the tunnel within two minutes. A jumble of boulders before her almost completely filled the opening, so that only a sliver of gray, rain-washed light filtered through.

No Treasure there. She retraced her steps, and began to climb the treacherous stairs. She held the candle in her right hand and put her left against the wall to steady herself. She had never had claustrophobia, but the inky darkness seemed to clutch at her feet, trying to pull her down. She shivered and moved closer to the wall, and her fingers slid over a section of rock that jutted out a quarter inch from the other stones.

She stopped, lifting the candle higher to enlarge the pool of light. She could hear her own breath eerily echo as she examined the section that was out of alignment. Could there be a secret passage within a secret passage?

She pressed around the edges of the rock, feeling foolish but doing it anyway. Nothing happened. She held the candle nearer to see if there was a minute seam in the mortar, or if she was wasting her time.

The mortar was cracked, but when she examined the rock around that particular section she found hairline cracks in that mortar, too. There were no hinges that she could see, no way of opening the door-if it was a door.

Archaeology and translations had taught her to approach the unknown logically. If this were a hidden door, there had to be an easy way to open it, easy because a method that took a lot of time or trouble would increase one's chances of being discovered in the act of opening it. A hidden door would be silent and fast.

The easiest method would be to put an opening mechanism behind one of the other stones, but given the steepness and narrowness of the steps, it stood to reason almost anyone going up or down them would put a balancing hand against the wall, making it too likely a hidden door would be opened by accident.

She climbed a few steps and surveyed the section of rock from above. Yes, a rectangular section definitely jutted out a fraction of an inch. Where could a mechanism be hidden? It had to be someplace accessible, easily reached.

Easily reached. Grace's eyes widened. In this time, she was of average height for a woman, with most of the men she had seen in the range of five-five to five-eight, with very few taller than five-ten. Sim was a large man, perhaps reaching six feet; only Niall was taller. Niall was six-foot four. He could reach higher than anyone else in the castle.

She looked up. If this was a door, and there was a mechanism to open it hidden behind one of these rocks, logically it would be behind one of the higher rocks, one that only Niall could comfortably reach.

She stretched on tiptoe, pressing every rock she could reach. The rectangular section remained stubbornly stationary and rocklike. There was a flat stone that looked promising, being slightly smoother than those surrounding it, but it was half a foot out of her reach. She climbed another step and leaned to the side, balancing precariously on the edge of the step as she stretched, her fingers scrabbling on the rock, trying to pull herself just a fraction of an inch farther. She almost lost her balance and quickly flattened herself against the wall, gasping in fright. A fall down these steps would break her neck. Cautiously she lifted herself on her toes again, perched on the very edge of the step. Her extended fingers couldn't quite brush the edge of the rock.

Swearing in frustration under her breath, Grace sat down on the step and removed her left shoe. Once more she stood on tiptoe, stretching outward, and she slapped her shoe against the flat rock.

Silently the rectangular section slid inward, leaving a black hole in the wall.

Holding the candle before her, she leaned in, not setting a foot inside that hole until she knew what was in there.

The blackness was Stygian, swallowing the feeble light of her small candle. She could see a solid stone floor, and nothing else, not even walls.

She stepped inside, squeezing past the stone door. She waited, ready to throw herself back through the opening if the door began to close on its own, but it remained reassuringly open. Probably there was another mechanism on this side of the wall that one had to press to close the door, which she had no intention of doing.

Warily she moved forward a few feet. and made out a wall three or four yards in front of her. She turned to her left, squinting her eyes at a darker patch. She went closer, and saw that it was another door, this one made of a very dark wood, and the bar that lay through the brackets was attached like a lever on one end so it could be lifted up and swung over to unbar the door, but not removed.

A breeze from somewhere made her candle flicker, and she quickly cupped her hand around the flame to steady it. She glanced over her shoulder at the opening in the wall, but the breeze didn't seem to be coming from there. It was coming from the direction of that dark, closed door, which didn't make sense. The air must be coming in through the rock opening and swirling around the antechamber, confusing her.

Grace approached the door and tried to lift the bar, but though it was a small bar compared to the massive ones in other parts of Creag Dhu, it was heavier than it looked and she couldn't manage it with one hand. She set the candle on the floor, and seized the lever with both hands. By bracing her weight below the bar and shoving, she slowly inched it upward. The pivoting connection was smooth, but the action was incredibly difficult for so slender a bar. There was a definite mechanical click when she forced the bar straight up, and it locked in the upright position.

The door itself swung silently inward, and more stairs yawned at her feet, a stone wall on one side and black emptiness on the other. The breeze was more pronounced now, and the candle flickered wildly, almost going out. Grace crouched and cupped her hands around the flame again until it steadied, picked up the candle, and stood with one hand still held in front of it.

How much time had passed? she wondered as she went down the stairs into nothingness. Had the battle ended? Was Niall unhurt? The compulsion to turn around and return to the upper reaches of the castle stopped her with one foot poised to take another step downward.Niall, she thought in despair, terrified for him. He was a fearsome warrior; she had seen him fighting in skirmishes and in pitched battles, and understood why his name had struck terror into the hearts of his foes, but still he was human. He bled if cut, he bruised if struck. He could be overwhelmed, as he had been when Huwe's men had captured him.

There was nothing she could do to affect the outcome of the battle overhead. If she found the Treasure, then according to the documents for which Parrish was so willing to kill, she could affect the outcome of events in her own time. Her choice was simple, but more difficult than she had ever imagined. She had been in this time less than a week; how could Niall have so quickly become important to her?

Because she had known him much longer than a week, her inner soul whispered. She had known him for a year, through the documents given into her safekeeping, and she had been fascinated, obsessed, beguiled by him even before her world had been destroyed by two bullets. If she hadn't been so anxious to have her modem repaired so she could access files and learn more about Niall, she would have been at home when Parrish and his men came, and she too would be dead now.

She wanted to go back. Instead she went forward, step by cautious step.

"Ahhhhh!" Mouth open, screaming, Huwe rushed at Niall, claymore held over his head with both hands. For a split-second Niall jerked his attention away from the Hay clansman on the other end of his sword; Huwe was behind him, the other in front, and he had only one more second in which to keep Huwe from splitting him from gullet to arse. He ducked under the swinging sword of the Hay clansman, grabbed him by the arm, and slung him into Huwe's path. Huwe's great sword was already arcing down and it bit deep into his clansman's shoulder and neck. A great spray of blood drenched his clothes, but Huwe kept coming, his small eyes mad with rage.

"Bastard!" he howled. "Bastard!" He lifted the sword again and brought it whistling down, intent on separating Niall's head from his shoulders.

Niall parried the blow with his axe, the force of it numbing his arm. He went in low with his own sword but Huwe was more nimble than he expected, jerking away from the long blade. "Ye kilt my son," he roared. "Ye bastard, I'll have yer head!"

Niall didn't waste his breath on speech; aye, he had killed Morvan, and would again had he the opportunity. He was filled with a cold, merciless rage, that the Hay filth had dared invade Creag Dhu, his home. Not only was the Treasure endangered, but Grace; he remembered the terror plain on her face as he raced by her, and he knew the fate that would befall her, and all the women of Creag Dhu, if he and his men failed to repel the invaders.

He would not allow that to happen. He seized the offensive, attacking with silent ferocity, the steel of his sword clanging as it met Huwe's. He advanced steadily, axe and sword swinging, driving Huwe before them. A Hay clansman ran screaming at him from the left and he hurled the axe, burying it in the man's chest. The man gave a strange gurgle and dropped like a stone, his heart stilled by the massive blade that had cleaved it in two.

Niall had only the sword now, but he hadn't dared let the man engage him. He gripped the hilt with both hands to better balance himself, holding the weight centered with his body. Huwe rushed forward, heartened by Niall's loss of the axe. Niall parried the downward arc of Huwe's sword, steel sliding along steel with a hissing sound, disengaging, slashing in from his left and burying the blade deep in Huwe's right side, in the kidney. Huwe jerked, his face turning gray. His sword clattered to the floor. He rose on his toes, convulsing as his body reacted to the massiveness of the injury. Niall jerked his blade free and struck again, straight into the heart, a death stroke.

A howl rose above the roar of battle as Huwe's clansmen saw their chieftain slain. Disconcerted for a moment, it was a moment that cost them dearly, for Niall's men took swift advantage, their training bringing the struggle to a swift finish.

Niall leaned on his bloody sword, panting. Slowly he surveyed the ruin of his great hall, noting which of his men lay sprawled in death. There was a moment of eerie silence; then moans began to rise, the sobs and curses of wounded men. Here and there he saw a tangle of longer skirts, gently rounded limbs, and he knew some of the women had not found safety.

What of Grace? She had been withAlice , fleeing to the kitchens.

Sim slowly walked toward him, his face so covered with gore Niall almost didn't recognize him. The big man limped, his entire left hip wet with blood. "What do we do with the Hays who live?" he asked.

Niall's first impulse was to kill them all, but he stilled it. 'Twould cause Robert difficulty if he destroyed the clan. There were Hay women and children, too; they would need what men survived. The clan would not recover for many years of Huwe's stubborn stupidity. "Turn them out," he said.

The women were creeping from their hiding places. There were tears, of both joy and sorrow, as they identified both the survivors and the dead, and then as women do they set about restoring order, tending to the wounded, laying out the dead, bringing drink for those who wanted it, sweeping out the bloodstained rushes.Alice took charge, her manner brisk and capable, though her cheeks were still pale with fright.

Niall's black gaze darted from one woman to another, searching for a dainty form, a long, thick fall of hair. He listened, but could not catch that voice with its strange accent, the emphasis on all the wrong syllables. "Alice!" he called. "Where's the lass?"

Alicehad no doubt which lass he meant. She looked around in puzzlement, but reached the same conclusion as had he. Grace was not there.

"She didna follow me,"Alice said slowly. "But she was there behind me when ye came from the larder. Perhaps she hid there." She paused. "The lass saved us, gave us warning. She recognized Huwe."

So she had not been in league with Huwe. The thought brought him relief, but another worry sent him striding rapidly from the great hall. Inside the escape passage was yet another passage, one that he had sworn to protect with his life. There was something mysterious about the lass, something she kept hidden. What if she were the most serious threatto the Treasure he had yet encountered? Could he keep his vow, if it meant killing her?

Cold sweat beaded on his brow as he took a candle and ducked into the escape passage. Halfway down the long, narrow stairs an area of the wall was even darker, as if a hole had been knocked in the stone. Niall felt his heart still, his skin going cold with dread. Then rage came, saving rage.

Silently he took his bloody sword and followed her.

The stairs ended. Grace lifted the candle but couldn't see anything except cold stone walls, made of the same dark rock as the rest of the castle. It was very cold down there, and she began shivering. An odd pulse hummed through the air, not a sound but a sensation, brushing against her skin.

Her skin prickled, but not from the cold. Slowly she paced around the walls, looking for any indication of a door. Blank stone was all that met her searching fingers.

The subtle pulsing was mildly disorienting. She must be below sea level, and what she felt was the force of waves battering against the rock.

Beneath the stairs was a deeper darkness. Her heart pounding in her throat, Grace stepped forward, and the frail light of her candle illuminated another opening, a black hole leading… where?

The pulsing was stronger. She could feel it on her face. It was coming from the dark opening.

She stopped, the small hairs on the back of her neck lifting. Dear God, what wasin there?

She could do this, she told herself. For Ford, and for Bryant, she could do anything. She had proven that to herself time and again during this past year of hell.

Bone-aching cold seeped from the stone straight through the thin soles of her shoes, crept beneath her skirts to curl its icy fingers around her legs. She had to act quickly, before the dangerous cold began to sap her strength. Her small candle wouldn't last much longer, and she didn't want to be caught down there without light. Calmer now, driven by necessity, she moved toward the black hole in the wall.

It engulfed her as soon as she stepped through, the darkness, the sensation of trembling on the edge of… something.

Was that warmth she felt? She went deeper, her candle fluttering madly. The light picked out the dim shape of what looked like a large chair… a throne? … carved with lions. A tattered banner, the sort carried into battle and woven with fire in the strands, hung over the throne and in it golden lion eyes shimmered in the candle's light. Beside the throne was something else, something she couldn't quite see, and she took another step forward.

"Ah, lass." The deep voice was low, regretful, controlled. It came from no more than a few feet behind her. "I dinna want to kill ye."

The fine hairs on her body lifted in sheer terror, and for a moment Grace felt herself sway as the blood left her head.

Blood. She could smell it now, hot and metallic. The blood of battle was on him, the fierceness of it singing through his veins, intensifying the rage she could feel blasting from him in waves.

He was going to kill her. She could feel his intent, the cold resolve that had guarded the Treasure all these years. Underlying that, however, was his barely restrained rage at … what? Her trickery? How close she had come to succeeding? It was the rage she felt most, a fire burning beneath ice, and it ignited her own rage.

She couldn't let him kill her. If she died now, then Parrish would win. There would be no vengeance for Ford, for Bryant; their courage in death would have been in vain. She would die knowing she had failed them, and that, more than anything, was unbearable.

Niall's hand closed on her shoulder, turning her, his fingers gripping like iron. Grace dropped the candle and it rolled away, its fragile flame glinting on the sword in his hand, wavering, almost extinguishing before flaring to renewed life. She turned into his grip, stepping closer, whirling. Warrior that he was, he began reacting even before she could complete the move, turning his hip to the side to catch the brunt of her knee. But it wasn't her knee she used, it was her elbow. She jabbed it hard into his midsection, aiming for his solar plexus. The impact with his hard stomach jarred her arm all the way to her shoulder. She missed her target but the force was enough to make him grunt and bend forward a little, his grip on her shoulder loosening for a fraction of a second.

Itwas enough. She jerked backward, wrenching herself from his grasp. His fingers caught in the cloth of her bodice and a seam gave, the ripping sound almost unbearably loud in this deep, silent sepulcher. The fabric tore loose and she stumbled at the sudden release, going down almost to her knees before literally throwing herself back to her feet, panic lending her strength. She pulled her skirts high and raced into the darkness beyond the candlelight, instinct guiding her to the stairs.

Her chances of outdistancing him were slim, and getting out of the castle even more unlikely. Still, she had to try. The soles of her shoes slipped on the stones and she banged into the wall, hard. The light of the candle behind her was no more than a faint glimmer, of no use in finding her way, but now she had the wall for guidance. She put one hand on it and ran.

She tripped on the bottom stair and fell, hard. Instantly she bounded up, knowing he was right behind her,feeling his presence even though she couldn't see him, couldn't hear him over the thunder of her own heartbeat, the harsh gasps of her breathing. He was close, that terrible bloody sword in his powerful hand, his rage pulsing through him.

Grace ran up the stairs, hurling herself upward into the inky darkness. If she missed one step she would plunge off the side, down onto the stone floor, maiming if not killing herself outright. If she faltered, he would be on her. There was certain death behind her, possible death waiting at every step. She could do nothing but throw herself forward, hoping she had that one extra step on him that would allow her to gain the top of the stairs and bar the door before he could reach it.

Just one extra step. She had barely been able to move the bar, but she would manage, somehow. If she could get the bar in place, she would make it. Niall would hack his way through but that would take time, time enough that she could flee the castle. One step.

No. She couldn't flee, not now, not when she was so close. She would have to hide… and return.

There were no more stairs. She staggered off balance when her lifted foot came down hard on a level surface. She reached desperately for the door.

And she heard him, heard his breath, felt it hot on her neck. ' " No time for the door.

Her scrabbling hands had barely closed on the frame when his weight hit her in the back, overwhelming her, driving her forward and down and crushing her beneath him.

Grace put out her hands to break her fall but still landed heavily. Stunned, she lay helplessly beneath him, her cheek ground into the grit covering the cold stone floor. He was so heavy she could barely breathe, and so big that he surrounded her, his heat burning her back, scorching through her clothing. His hot breath stirred her hair. She inhaled his pungent scent, the hot, mingled odors of sweat and blood and man, primitive and dangerous. The smell of him filled her, warming her within as his body warmed her without.

Caught. Captured. This was the end, then. He could snap her neck with one hand, and perhaps he would, for she could feel the great rage seething within him. She was down, and helpless. He would kill her now.

He didn't move, didn't lift his heavy weight from her. She couldn't see him; the darkness was almost total. Far away there seemed to be some lessening of the darkness, perhaps a torch set in a sconce on the outer stairs, but it was too dim to be of use. He didn't speak. All she could do was feel him, his body stretched on top of hers, his iron-muscled limbs controlling her. She could feel his chest move with his controlled breathing, feel the strong thudding of his heartbeat against her back. He wasn't even winded, damn him. She wanted to scream at him, claw at him in her own frustrated rage, but all she could do was press her face against the icy stone and wait.

The silence grew as they lay there, and then she felt the prod of his stiffened penis against her buttocks, the slow and deliberate movement of his legs, pushing between hers.

Grace's breath stopped. She had known great emotions; she had thrilled to love, been devastated by grief, ridden the sharp blade of hatred. The riptide of lust that seized her body now went beyond the force of even those things, smashing through her barriers as if they had never existed, sweeping everything away in the sudden, blindingly intense need for him that overtook her. She had known she was weak where he was concerned; the first time he kissed her, her lonely, yearning flesh had exploded into climax at his touch. He aroused her as no other man ever had, ever could, aroused her to a response so overwhelming she couldn't control it.

He wasn't Ford… he wasn't Ford! How could she want him so much, this big, violent man who held the key to her desperate quest in his powerful hands? He was sworn to protect the Treasure, he had killed in its defense, and he would kill her… afterward. For now, lying there on the cold stone floor in the darkness, there was only the sound of his breathing, and hers, coming faster and harsher as his rage transmuted itself into lust.

A low moan slipped past her lips, a husky, helpless sound of want.Yes. Oh, God; yes. Even if he killed her afterward, before she died she wanted to feel him within her, absorb his driving force, cool this insane, inexorable fever that burned in her flesh for him.

Her hips lifted the scant inch they could, instinctively pushing upward against him, grinding her buttocks harder against his rigid shaft. Just that, a slight movement at best, but it sent shards of pleasure spearing through her. Her breasts hardened in painful need of his touch, her loins moistened and clenched, aching with desire and frustration and emptiness.

"Damn you," she whispered into the silence, almost weeping. Damn him for being a man like no other, for being hard and ruthless, for being more dominant in the flesh than she could have ever imagined. Other men paled beside him; he was too vital, the force of his personality and the strength of his sword arm smashing any resistance to his will. And damn herself, for how could she resist him, when he had only to touch her and her weak, traitorous body instantly began preparing itself to yield to him?

"Damn me, then, if ye must," he murmured against her hair, accepting her despair. Subtle, instinctive bastard that he was, he knew she was his for the taking now, all resistance gone, and he moved to claim her willing flesh.

He slid her skirts up, bunching the fabric on her back, and the cold air washed over her bare legs and bottom. Her skirts were still caught under the pressure of his knees, anchoring her in place. Grace quivered, fear and desire twisting sharply together until she couldn't separate them. The coarse wool of his kilted plaid scratched the tender backs of her thighs. His hand moved between them, pulling his plaid up and to the side, and his naked flesh was suddenly against her own, thighs to thighs, groin to buttocks. His heat was startling, almost unbearable, as if she touched fire.

He slid his right arm under her, curving around her belly, and lifted her up and back, onto her knees, raising her hips and positioning her for him. Grace squeezed her eyelids tightly shut as she struggled with the abrupt, startling exposure and vulnerability of her sex. His rigid penis stabbed at her soft folds but he wasn't trying to enter her, not yet. Her loins pulsed, throbbing as she waited in paralyzed agony for the thrust that would carry him deep inside her, and at last this terrible need would be eased.

His sustaining arm slipped from around her but she maintained her position, on her knees with her bottom lifted. Her fingers scraped against the icy stone, trying to sink into it. Why was he waiting? Why didn't he just do it, before she went mad?

He touched her then, his warm palm shaping itself over the curves of her buttocks, learning her. His hand slid between her legs and he cupped her sex, his hard fingers opening the closed, secretive folds. He searched out her small, exquisitely firm nub, pushing back the protective hood of flesh and exposing her to the rasp of his callused fingertips. A soft cry exploded from her, and her hips writhed. Oh, God, another touch and she would explode, just as she had before. But he didn't give her that touch. Those damnably knowing fingers withdrew after the brief caress, dragging through her swollen folds to find and stroke the entrance to her body. He circled her soft opening with one finger, spreading her moisture but not probing inside her even though he had to feel the convulsive clench of her loins. He touched between her buttocks, exploring, and murmured a soft reassurance when her entire body jolted in shock.

He bent forward, his entire body covering hers, his weight supported on his left elbow and forearm. "Lay your head on my arm, lass," he whispered, and blindly she did so, pressing her forehead against the hard muscles of his forearm, her right hand entwining and clinging to his while her left hand curled around the iron swell of his biceps, anchoring herself against what she knew was to come. With his free hand he guided his jutting penis to her prepared opening, and slowly pressed within.

Grace couldn't prevent her sudden intake of breath, her involuntary whimper of feminine distress. She had known he was big; she had seen him naked. But until she felt him pushing into her, her body hadn't known the true measure of him. He was thick, and hot, and so hard she felt bruised by the inexorable advance of his shaft into her. He wasn't brutal, just relentless. Her hips undulated, instinctively trying to ease her clasp of him as inch by slow inch he completed his penetration.

Her fingers dug into his biceps, and she pressed her forehead harder against his arm. Surely she couldn't take any more; he was too big, he was hurting her, and helpless little cries broke from her throat. But he continued to push, and her hips rocked back and forth, adjusting, taking. Then he was in her to the hilt, seated hard, his pubic hair coarse against her bottom, his heavy testicles swaying between her spread legs and brushing against the burning nub he had exposed.

He moved carefully within her, just a little, the sensation setting off tiny explosions in her nerve endings. "Here?" he asked softly, his deep voice rustling against her ear. "Or… here?" He moved again, his swollen shaft nudging a place inside her she hadn't known existed, and her wild, helpless cry gave him his answer.

Slowly he began moving, a subtle flexing of his hips that wasn't a thrust at all, but instead a tenderly ruthless internal stroking of that place deep inside her. Grace cried out again, her entire body clenching under the lash of a pleasure so intense she couldn't bear it. She shuddered convulsively, her loins shivering around the thick intrusion of his penis. Oh, God, she had climaxed before with less arousal than this, but somehow she couldn't quite reach that blessed relief. This was exquisite torment, paralyzing pleasure, and she couldn't fight it. She couldn't pump her hips faster to gain her peak, for his body too completely controlled hers. All she could do was quiver just short of fulfillment, each slow rub of his cock taking her almost there, but not quite. Low, rhythmic cries wrenched from her with each inward movement he made, and her arousal grew even more intense, until she thought she would faint. She heard herself pleading with him, wild, disjointed words of need. "Niall please!More – do it! Please… I can't-no!"

"No?" he panted softly in her ear, his voice low and raw. The next incremental movement tore a groan from him. "Ye'll bear it, lass, for I say ye must."

"I can't," she said again, moaning. She tried to move, tried to end this delicious torture, but he locked his right arm around her hips and held her still for yet another deep stroking. She strained against that warm, iron-muscled band, knowing it was useless, that his strength was far greater than her own. In this sensual battle she was helpless to take anything except what he gave her, her body too slight and delicate to resist being overwhelmed by a man who was a foot taller than she, and who had spent his life either in battle or training for battle, so that he was stronger than anyone she had ever known before.

Tiny red sparks exploded behind her closed eyelids. Her heart thundered, reverberating against her rib cage. She couldn't drag in enough air; her lungs strained, her entire body strained, and with a thin cry of despair, of pleasure taken beyond bearing, she turned her face into the crook of his arm and wildly sank her teeth into the bulge of his biceps. She heard his answering growl, and his big body flexed, a guttural sound rattling in his throat as his control shattered.

Like a stallion he set his teeth into the curve of her neck and shoulder, gripping the sensitive cord that ran there, and his hips plunged. She screamed, electrified by the primitive bite, the sudden hard thrust, and everything in her body gathered, concentrating, pushing, clamping down until she broke apart in cataclysmic upheaval. The sensual fury that seized her was so intense she was only dimly aware of the power of his own convulsions as he pumped violently into her, and the contractions went on and on, deep and hard, gripping him, shattering her.

The silence afterward was like death, black and complete. Perhaps she lost consciousness; she didn't know. Reality returned in bits and pieces, first the awareness of the cold, gritty stone floor beneath her, and the heat of his body above her. His arm was wet, from her bites and her tears. There was the smell of sex, sharp and musky, added to the other scents of man and battle. The cord in her neck throbbed, an echo of pleasure like the lingering pulse in her loins. She felt the wetness of his semen. He was still inside her, not as large or as hard as before, but still firm, stillthere. Her vagina contracted in a sated, gentle caress and he grunted, shifting a bit upon her as he dealt with his own final wave of orgasm.

Perhaps he would kill her now. The thought formed out of the nothingness of exhaustion. So be it. She couldn't fight him, couldn't even move.

Slowly he withdrew from her body, taking away his support, his warmth, leaving her sprawled half naked and exposed on the floor. She could hear the hard rush of his breathing, the scrape of steel as he picked up his sword, and she waited to feel the cold bite of death.

Then he picked her up too, standing her upright for the barest second before he dipped and set his left shoulder to her belly, then stood with her draped like a limp bundle of rags over that broad shelf. At least her skirts had fallen into their proper position, she thought vaguely, so that her bottom wasn't exposed as he carried her to… where?

He strode through the darkness, his step sure and strong as he effortlessly carried her on one shoulder and his huge sword in his other hand, climbing steps as easily as if he hadn't just fought a battle and then emptied his body's seed into her in a shatteringly intense coupling.

He was still furious. Not just angry, but raging. She could feel the force of it inside him, controlled but unabated, and she knew their personal battle wasn't over.

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