Excerpt From Surrender
It seemed to Annie she'd just fallen asleep, when Iain nudged her awake again. Her body achy, her mind dulled by fatigue and hunger, she sat up and saw that it was not long past dawn. Had she ever been this tired? What she wouldn't give for just one more hour of sleep! Or a hot bath. Or porridge and a cup of tea.
How could Iain look so alert and vigorous when she felt listless and painfully weary? They were alive only because of his labors. 'Twas he who'd borne her through the forest on his back, he who'd rowed the boat through two dark nights, he who'd kept watch while she'd slept. 'Twas he who should be worn with fatigue.
Humbled by her own weakness, she sat up straighter, tried to force the cobwebs from her mind. The least she could do was to press herself as hard as he pressed himself and to endure without complaint. She was no squeamish, spiritless lass, and although she might not have been born to this rugged life, she had her wits and at least some courage.
If she'd understood him, they had most of a day's journey before them over land to Fort Elizabeth. She could endure another day.
Iain handed her the leather pouch of cornmeal. "Bide here a wee."
Then he headed off toward the lake with the tin bucket in his hand.
She took a handful of cornmeal, chewed it, and washed it into her empty stomach with a mouthful of cold water from his water skin.
It had been a long night. Wary after their encounter with the French ships the night before and determined not to fail Iain again, she'd made certain to stay awake and had watched the darkness glide past, reluctant even to breathe.
Yet, he'd seemed angry, his voice gruff the few times he'd spoken, his face hard. Perhaps he was in a temper over the things she'd said earlier about Culloden and the war. Or maybe he was still vexed with her for giving them away to the French on the ship. Or perhaps it was the poisoned rum, though that certainly had not been her fault.
You take more lookin' after than a bairn.
She'd wanted to be helpful and had offered to take up the other set of oars and row, but he'd shaken his head.
"A pair of oars in your hands would make a bloody din."
She'd felt ashamed to know he was likely right. And so the perilous, long watch of the night had passed in frosty silence, with Annie feeling useless and angry and afraid.
Oh, how he confused her! One moment he held her and comforted her to help her nightmares pass. The next he belittled her, humiliated her.
At least he hadn't kissed her again.
Why hadn't he kissed her again?
Each time she thought of it, her heart seemed to trip. The hot feel of his lips against hers. The scorching shock of his tongue in her mouth. The hard press of his body.
Oh, Annie, I knew you would taste sweet.
The memory of his words made her breath catch in her throat, and she realized she'd taken pleasure in it. She'd taken pleasure in his kiss.
Even as the truth of it came to her, she rejected it. She'd been asleep and caught up in a dream when he'd stolen that kiss from her. 'Twas a deception of her dream that she'd enjoyed it. How could she, who'd been raised a lady, find any pleasure in kissing a traitor, a rough Ranger, a Highland barbarian?
She looked up and saw the man who bedeviled her thoughts walking toward her. The shadow of beard on his chin had grown thicker and darker, and his black hair still hung, long and unbound, lending him a wild appearance. His shirt had come open at the throat, revealing a wedge of dark curls. She remembered what he'd looked like without his shirt, how it had felt to be held against that chest, and her breath caught again.
He moved almost silently, his motions sure, agile and smooth despite his size. He was, she realized, quite graceful. The very idea surprised her. Male grace was a quality she'd never thought of beyond the ballroom; either a man could dance a quadrille with skill and without stepping on her feet or he could not. But here was another kind of grace altogether — an untrained grace, an instinctive grace, an animal grace.
He set the bucket down before her, then knelt beside his pack and took out the soap and cloth she'd seen yesterday, together with the little jar of salve. "The cold water will soothe your feet. Wash them if you like and put on more salve."
Surprised by his thoughtfulness, Annie took the cloth from his hand. "Thank you."
"Be quick about it. I'm goin' scoutin'." He rose and strode silently into the forest.
She felt the water with her fingers, found it ice cold. She removed the moccasins, exposing her battered feet. Then she dipped the cloth in the water, squeezed it out and rubbed the soap against it. Although she had every intention of washing her feet, she found herself pressing the cloth to her face instead.
She almost moaned. It felt wonderful. The cold water made her skin tingle, washed away the grime, brought her back to life. Careful not to waste a drop, she washed her face, then her throat, water running in icy rivulets down her neck and beneath her gown. Next, she washed her feet and ankles.
But it wasn't enough.
She glanced about her to make certain Iain was nowhere near. Then she sat up on her knees, let the bearskin coat fall to the ground and slipped her gown and shift down her shoulders to her waist. All she needed was a few moments.
She'd never been naked in the open air like this, and a part of her could scarce believe she was doing something so reckless. She dipped the cloth into the bucket, squeezed it, then stared in astonishment at her own body. Purple bruises stained her skin, caused by her tumble down the embankment. One of her breasts was scratched, and there was an angry red welt above her right hip. Death had made its mark on her.
Eager to put it all behind her, she washed quickly, first her breasts and belly, then her arms and shoulders. The breeze raised bumps on her wet skin, but the cold water soothed her bruises. As dirt and mud and dried blood washed away, she began to feel like herself again.
"You'd tempt a saint, lass. But I am no' a saint."
Annie gasped and covered her breasts with her arms.
He stood not ten feet away, the butt of his rifle resting on the ground, his hand around the barrel, his gaze sliding blatantly over her.
"Y-you ought no' be watchin'!"
"You ought no' be naked."
Iain was surprised he could speak. At his first sight of her kneeling bare-breasted and wet-skinned, the breath had rushed from his lungs. His thoughts had scattered like ashes in a gust of wind. He'd found himself rooted to the spot, his cock painfully hard, his anger and frustration from the past few days merging into sharp sexual need.
Even scratched and bruised, she was bonnie. Her cheeks glowed pink with shame, her apple-green eyes wide with a maid's innocent wariness. Her breasts were round and full, their rosy tips pinched from the cold. Her skin was creamy, her shoulders soft and curved.
Iain had been raised to treat women gently, but he did not feel gentle just now. His mother's Viking blood burned in him, ancient and hot, urging him to fist his hands in her hair and bear her onto her back, to claim her in the most primitive way a man could, to plant his seed inside her again and again, whether she consented or no.
One arm still shielding her breasts, she fumbled for her shift and gown.
"Leave them off."
She stared up at him, clearly alarmed, and reached again for her gown.
"I said leave them." He closed the distance between them, knelt down beside her, only one thought on his mind: He had to touch her.
Her breathing was ragged, and she trembled. Her eyes were huge and round.
He reached out, took her wrists in his hands, and drew them one at a time to his lips, exposing her. "Dinnae hide your loveliness from me, lass."
Then he feasted on the sight of her. Her creamy breasts rose and fell with each rapid breath, their weight enough to fill his hands. Her puckered nipples looked as if a man had already sucked them to tight, wet peaks. One was marred by an angry red scratch. Behind her breastbone, her heart beat fluttered like that of a wild bird.
Desire lanced through him, sent a bolt of heat to his already aching groin, made it hard for him to breathe. He wanted to cup the weight of her breasts in his hands, to taste her, to draw her nipples into his mouth and tease them with his tongue and teeth.
He ducked down, pressed his lips to the scratch, kissed it.
She gasped, and her body jerked as if his lips had been a brand. "P-please dinnae—"
Lust roared in his ears like the raging thrum of a heartbeat. His cock strained against the leather of his breeches, claiming the right to mate. "You've naugh' to fear from me, Annie."
'Twas an outright lie. If she knew what he was thinking, she'd likely slap him soundly—or scream and run.
You're a bastard, MacKinnon. Can you no' see the lass is an innocent and sore afraid?
Fighting to defeat his need for her, he released her wrists, picked up the cloth and dipped it in the bucket. "Turn 'round. I'll wash your back."
Covering her breasts again, she seemed to hesitate, then did as he asked.
He squeezed out the cloth, lifted the heavy weight of her tangled hair over her shoulder, and pressed the wet cloth to her skin. He heard her tiny intake of breath, felt her shiver, saw the rapid beating of her pulse against the column of her throat.
And the fire inside him grew hotter.
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