Highlander Ever After: Excerpt
by Jennifer Ashley
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From Chapter One
Ullapool, Scotland, 1820
Zarabeth woke to incredible warmth. She cracked open her eyes, then shut them again because even her eyelids hurt. She lay under heavy quilts in a prickly bed with a thin pillow. Her breath hurt, but she lay in splendid comfort and felt no signs of fever.
The thought trickled through her brain that she was no longer clinging to sharp rocks in a stormy sea. She nearly wept with relief, forgiving the mattress its prickles and the pillow for being flat. For a time she lay still, eyes closed, and enjoyed life and safety.
After a while, she realized several more things--first, she had no idea where she was and second, she was not alone in the bed. A warm bulk lay next to her, long and strong and protecting her like a wall. It was also snoring.
She pried open her eyes. It did not hurt as much this time, and she was able to see Egan MacDonald lying on his side next to her, his head pillowed on his bent arm.
She nearly stopped breathing. The man she’d dreamed about for five years—in intense, deeply erotic dreams—lay under the covers with her. When she’d last seen him he’d been devastating--hair rumpled, brown eyes half closed, lazy smile as he’d murmured, “What is it ye wanted to tell me, lass?”
If anything he looked stronger and more solid, his skin darkened by sun and wind. The lazy smile had been replaced by a little frown in his sleep, and his eyes were closed, dark lashes resting against his cheek.
His large hand had spread out on the coverlet as though he’d been reaching for something but fallen asleep in midway there. Misty sunlight picked out gold strands in his hair, light-brown weaving through darker brown.
She’d always loved his wild hair and how the colors were variegated, had always longed to touch it. She indulged herself now, sliding a finger through the twisting curl that rested against his cheek.
The hand on the quilt moved, and his lips curved in a half smile. He still slept, but he turned his head to nestle his cheek into her palm.
Zarabeth moved the pad of her thumb across his cheekbone, back and forth, feeling the burn of unshaved whiskers. His smile faded as he drew a long breath, and his hand on her hip grew heavy as he drifted into deeper sleep.
Zarabeth continued to rub the rough of his whiskers until her own eyelids drooped and she fell into dreamless, contented slumber.
She awoke facing the edge of the bed. Her body was spooned to Egan’s, his chest to her back, his strong arm flung around her waist. She realized this time that they were both unclothed.
A fold of blanket had wedged between them, but she felt every line of his body burrowed into hers, including the thick arousal that nudged her through the fabric. A silver armband encircled his bicep, the metal cool against her skin.
She still had no idea where she was. The room was tiny and whitewashed, filled mostly with the large bed. A fire flickered on the small hearth, and early sunlight leaked through the half-shuttered window.
She tried to slide out from under Egan’s arm, but he murmured in his sleep and tightened his clasp. One hand came up to rest on her breast, his palm cupping it through the blanket.
“Egan,” she whispered.
“Mmm.” He nuzzled her ear; then his lips touched her hair, so warm. “Hush, love.”
Love? For a moment she pretended he meant her. She liked the thought of him kissing her and calling her love.
“Egan, it is Zarabeth.”
He went still a moment, then jerked awake. He wrenched himself up with unflattering speed and landed on his feet, snatching a length of tartan to wrap his lower body.
Zarabeth sat up, pulling the blankets to her shoulders. Egan made a delectable picture, his hips hugged by the plaid, the cloth dipping to reveal a hint of dark hair below his navel. His skin was tanned by the sun--he’d been dark since his army days--and his tight arms were marked with narrow, white scars, the intricately patterned armband glinting on it.
Dark hair hung in tangles to his shoulders, unruly as ever, and unshaved whiskers stubbled his face and jaw. His chest was sculpted with muscle like the rest of him and dusted with dark hair. Flat, copper-colored nipples drew to tight points as he regarded her almost fiercely.
Her blood heated at the sight--her Highlander tall and very male.
“’Twas only to get you warm, lass,” he said gruffly. “Nothing more.”
Zarabeth couldn’t stop gazing at him. “I’d say that I was warm.”
“I meant to leave ye, but I fell asleep.”
If only he didn’t look so repulsed to have awakened pressed against her. Out of habit, she slid into her brisk society-hostess voice. No one out-eleganced no-nonsense Zarabeth of Nvengaria. “Very well, we can pretend you left when I slept.”
His eyes narrowed. She could never fool him, and he knew it. Egan could always see through her, no matter that she never had any idea what was going on behind his hard gaze.
He made himself lean over the bed and rest his hand on her forehead. “No fever. Good. I got ye out in time.”
Flashes came back to her, the storm, the breaking ship, the wild and terrified thoughts of the sailors and crew, the despair of the first officer as he flailed away from her, and his last fading thought—I’m sorry. The freezing, greedy sea that tried to pull her from the rocks to her death.
Egan touched her cheek. “Are ye all right?”
She gasped and looked up to find his face an inch from hers. She’d always loved his eyes, deep brown flecked with gold.
She remembered the first time he’d opened those eyes and looked at her. That had been after she’d found him in a ditch by the side of the road, half-dead. Her father had taken him home to be nursed back to health. When Egan had finally awakened, Zarabeth had been sitting by his bedside reading fairy tales to him in Nvengarian. He’d stared at her in confusion before demanding to know in his luscious Scots accent where he was.
She tried to keep her voice from shaking as she answered. “I am well.”
He stood up again, holding the tartan closed with one tight fist. “Good. I’ll tell the landlord to get ye breakfast.”
“Where are we?”
“An inn up the coast from Ullapool. Closest thing I could find--couldn’t risk dragging ye all the way back to Castle MacDonald with you that wet and cold.”
She shivered again but only from the bewildering memories of the wreck. “We are even then, you and I. I rescued you from a ditch, and you pulled me from the sea.”
Egan’s brows raised the slightest bit. “No, lass, you and I will ever be even.”
What did that mean? She peered into his eyes, but could see nothing behind them, as usual. The only man she’d ever loved, and she couldn’t read him. Egan turned to stir up the fire, lifting another log onto it one-handed. She enjoyed watching his hips move against his plaid.
“How did you find me?” she asked him.
“I heard ye calling out. Even over the storm, I heard ye calling from the rocks below. Good thing I did. I climbed down, and there ye were, clinging to the Devil’s Teeth, fainted dead away.”
He snatched a much-wrinkled gown from the rack near the fire and tossed it onto the bed. “Dress yourself, and I’ll have them bring a meal to ye.”
He took up a large linen shirt and woolen stockings from the bottom of the bed without letting loose his grip on the tartan. “Keep warm,” he admonished. Then he banged out the door and was gone.
Zarabeth sank down into the bed, hugging her knees to her chest. A few tears leaked from her eyes, and she quickly wiped them away. She’d grown too accustomed to being constantly watched to let her emotions show. So many people watched her for so many different reasons.
One thought in her jumbled mind stood out from the rest. Egan had said he’d heard her call out, but she hadn’t, not in words. She’d been too exhausted to shout for help with her voice, needing all her strength to hold on to the rock.
She’d only called out with her mind, and Egan had heard her.