Anne knew she was about to be dinner. Then, the wildcat’s gaze shifted to a point past her shoulder. It hissed and crouched with an angry growl.
From behind her, a voice as deep as Mephistopheles’ said, “Don’t move.”
Anne’s heart stopped.
So. Who stood behind?
She turned and found herself looking–not at Todd’s ghost but at something more startling. Less than an arm’s length behind her stood a mythic Celtic warrior, over six feet tall and with shoulders so broad they blocked the sun.
He wore a kilt of forest green cloth, rough suede boots, and nothing else. Muscles banded his chest. His legs appeared carved of solid oak. Bits of leaves and twigs clung to his dark shaggy hair that hung down to his shoulders. But most frightening of all was the vivid blue paint covering his face and the sharp, wicked knife in his hand.
Anne screamed at the same moment the cat attacked.
“Bloody hell,” the warrior said and unceremoniously pushed Anne to the ground.
The wildcat leaped past her and sank its claws into the Celt’s shoulder. Real blood appeared. She could smell it. He was no ghost but flesh and bone.
For a second, man and animal struggled over her head and then his hand holding the knife lifted and he buried it into the animal’s back. The wildcat jerk spasmodically, but continued to fight. They fell to the ground, mere feet from her head, and battled to the death.
Terrified, she watched, not knowing which she wanted to win. The scene reminded her of a picture she’d once seen of the mighty Hercules fighting a lion. The very earth seemed to shake from their struggle.
Again, the knife blade appeared and the warrior stabbed the writhing cat over and over until at last the animal went still.
Anne released the breath she’d been holding. She was crying. Silly. She never cried. And yet, she’d been doing it without realizing it. She swiped her eyes. The warrior moved. He turned his head and looked right at her. In the evening light, the features of his face were hidden in shadow but his eyes burned brightly. They assessed her critically and Anne had one clear thought: now might be a good time to leave.
Carefully, awkwardly, she got to her feet. He rose with her, his movements easy, almost graceful for such a large man. He lifted the knife.
Anne froze expecting him to plunge it into her heart. Instead, he bent to wipe the blood off his blade against the cat’s fur.
Her gaze on his bowed back, Anne edged one step away and then the other. He turned to her and she stopped, her feet suddenly glued to the ground.
“Are you all right?”
She took a full minute to comprehend he’d spoken to her and she couldn’t reply. Her mouth refused to form words. Even if he was human, such a man could be capable of anything. She took another step in the direction of the coach.
“I’ve been hunting this animal for hours,” he explained as if she’d asked the question. “A sheep killer. A cat like this is too dangerous to leave free.”
He spoke the king’s English with a trace of a brogue but she wasn’t going to chitchat with him about it. Instead, she hiked her skirts and took off running for the shelter and sanity of the coach. Maybe all of this including Todd’s death was a bad dream. Maybe if she reached the coach she would wake up.
“Wait!” he shouted.
From the shadows surrounding the overturned vehicle stepped two men dressed in the same half-naked, blue-faced fashion of the warrior. They weren’t as huge or powerful but they appeared just as disreputable.
She skidded to a halt. Were they men? Or devils?
Anne didn’t think, she reacted, swerving away from them. Her foot almost tripped over a piece of wood broken off from the coach’s crash. She scooped it up, hefting its weight in her hand.
“What is the matter with you, lass?” the shorter of the two warriors asked. His was the strong lilting brogue she’d come to expect from the highlanders.
“Don’t come any closer,” she warned them, holding her stick like a club.
“And who are you, lass, to be threatening us?” the older one of them demanded belligerently. The carrot-red of his hair and sparse beard was a comical contrast to the blue paint. His clean-shaven companion was much younger with brown curling hair covering not only his head but his chest and back. It was all very unnerving.
Before Anne could answer she heard a step behind her. The warrior. He’d moved with such stealth she hadn’t been aware of his approach.
“Here now,” he said reaching for her makeshift weapon.
Anne whirled to defend herself, swinging her club with all her might and whacked him hard right across the mid- section.
Unfortunately, he moved at the same time and she hit him a bit lower than she’d planned.
His response was immediate. The air left his body with a “whoosh.” He doubled over, falling to his knees right in front of her.
Anne took a step back. She hadn’t known she was so strong.
The brown haired man winced in sympathy. “Och, right in the bloody bollocks. Did you see that, Deacon? The lass neutered Tiebauld.”
Anne dropped the club, her mind numb with horror. “You are Lord Tiebauld?”
The warrior couldn’t speak. He wheezed something which the man called Deacon interpreted, “He says he is.” Deacon’s voice was laced with lazy humor.
“He may never be the same,” the brown-haired companion predicted.
“Aye,” Deacon agreed. “Tis a pity. The lasses will have to turn to us for comfort, Hugh.”
“We’ll be forced to work twice as hard to please them,” Hugh answered.
Anne didn’t care about their problems. She had to make amends with her husband . . . before she could tell him he was her husband. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered, reaching to help him rise.
He pulled back, his arm staving her off. “It will be fine. Shortly.” His voice was hoarse from pain.
“Please, I-” She fell silent, seeing what she should have seen from the very beginning. Sharp blue eyes identical to Lady Waldo’s. The eyes in the miniature . . . . although the rest of him was now a far cry from Anne’s image of an idealistic scholar. Lord Tiebauld had filled out as a man. More than filled out-he seemed to have doubled in size.
The effect was intimidating, even when he was on his knees.
And then he stood up.
It hadn’t been her imagination–he was tall. And strong. Anne wiped her nervous palms against her skirts and stepped back. For the second time since being his company, words stuck in her throat.
A strand of hair had come loose from her braid. It blew across her face. He surprised her by pushing it back, a gentle gesture, a thoughtful one. Certainly not a threatening one from a man called the Madman of Scotland–
“Is the man on the hill your husband?”
Anne blinked, disoriented by the word husband. Then she understood he wasn’t speaking about himself. “Todd? No, he was my coachman.”
Now was the time to tell him.
She hesitated. Then, “How did you know I was married?”
Straight, even teeth flashed in the blue paint of his face. “That is a wedding ring on your finger, isn’t it?”
Anne had an unreasonable desire to hide her hand in the folds of her skirts. She clenched her fist. She wasn’t ready for the confession, not ready at all.
He misinterpreted her fears, his gaze softened. “Your husband will be happy to know you are safe after such a bad accident.”
“I hope he will,” she managed to say. Tell him, her inner voice urged. Now.
But Deacon had joined them. “Our faces probably frightened the wits out of her, Tiebauld.”
Her husband looked down at the way he was dressed and laughed in agreement. He had a melodic, carefree laugh for such a large man. Anne knew he would have a fine singing voice, too. And he didn’t sound mad at all.
“It’s a ritual Hugh, Deacon, and I have,” he explained with a touch of sheepishness over his peculiar dress. “Based on Celt customs. Well, actually, they are customs of our own. They make the sport more enjoyable. Adds to the game of the chase.”
“Aye, a little danger is a healthy thing.” He shrugged with a rueful grin, like a overgrown boy who couldn’t help himself from pulling prank.
Relief teetered inside her. Her husband didn’t sound raving mad-just unconventional. He had a reason for being blue. Of course, she didn’t know what to make of a man who considered it a game to fight a wildcat with his bare hands, a man who enjoyed danger, but then, this was Scotland.
And as long as he wasn’t howling at the moon, her marriage might work.
The notion made her feel wifely. She should nurse the scratches left by the cat’s claws. Simultaneously, she realized his chest didn’t have as much hair as his companions. Indeed, his chest could have been two of theirs.
The directions of her thoughts must have shown on her face because he crossed his arms making his muscles flex and tighten.
Heat rose in her own cheeks. She attempted to make her interest a purely medical one. “Perhaps someone should put a salve on those scratches.”
“They can wait.” He changed the subject. I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”
Here it was, the perfect opportunity. She had to tell him before courage deserted her. She opened her mouth just as Hugh cried out, “You are not going to believe what I’ve found!” They all turned to where his head poked out of the coach door. He waved the silver framed miniature in his hand.
“Is it money or a woman?” Deacon asked baldly.
“Then it can’t be of value,” Deacon replied dismissively.
Her husband prodded her introduction, “I’m sorry. You were saying?”
“It’s a picture of Tiebauld,” Hugh announced grandly, “when he was nothing more than a beardless youth. Remember when he first came here, Deacon, what a sad, sorry sight he was?”
Now he had her husband’s full attention. “A picture of me?”
Hugh climbed out of the coach and jumped to the ground. Her husband’s long legs ate up the distance to the coach. He grabbed the miniature from his friend.
“I know that picture. My sister had it.” He looked at Anne with new eyes. “Did you come from Alpina? Have you seen her?” A pause. “Is she fine?”
His voice held genuine concern. She answered honestly, “She is not well.”
“Tell me.” He walked back to her. No, he stomped back. A man of his size didn’t move quietly when angered.
“I don’t know much about her illness.” Anne lifted her chin, pretending a courage she didn’t feel. “She sent me to you.”
“For what purpose?”
Here it was. Anne could avoid the confrontation no longer. “She chose me for you. My name is Anne. I am your wife.” She held out her ring finger. Even in the fading light, the family heraldic badge could be seen etched in the gold. She was surprised he hadn’t noticed it before.
Hugh and Deacon gathered around for a look. Hugh made a low whistle. Deacon scowled.
Her husband’s response was more direct. “You lie.”