Son of the Morning (Chapter 23)

IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE TO DO ANY SEARCHING AT ALL.ALICE WAS with her every moment of the day, except when she used the garderobe. Rather than intensify Niall's suspicions, Grace willingly followed in Alice's busy footsteps, listening to the chatter and increasing her understanding of both the Scots dialect and a little of Gaelic, as her mind began to associate pronunciation of a few words with the spelling she knew.

The advantage of being withAlice was that the woman's duties carried her allover the castle. Without having to sneak about, Grace quickly became familiar with the different rooms. She tried to think where the most secure hiding place for the Treasure would be; Creag Dhu had a dungeon, much larger than the one at Hay Keep, but the dungeon was such an obvious choice she doubted it would be correct. Nevertheless she would have liked to inspect it, but could hardly askAlice for a tour.

The wine cellar was an interesting possibility, dark and cool, with casks and racks that could conceal a hiding place.

"Are there any hidden tunnels?" she askedAlice . "A way to escape if the castle is under attack?"

"Aye,"Alice said readily enough. "There's a passage leads to the sea, should it be needed, but my thinking is that 'tis safer in the castle than without. Lord Niall has built the best defenses inScotland ," she boasted. "We could withstand a siege for a year or more."

As she followedAlice about, Grace was struck by how natural everything seemed. Of course, she had the advantage of her education in medieval languages and culture so that she was at least technically familiar with much about the normal lifestyle, but not even when she first awoke was she disoriented. It was as if her mind had neatly slotted itself into the time. Why, yes, of course meat was salted for preservation, and milk had to be churned, and herbs had to be scattered on the floor rushes to keep them sweet smelling. Her taste buds had adjusted immediately to the plain fare, accepting that there was little seasoning to be had. WhenAlice sat her down with a needle and a linen sheet that needed mending, Grace didn't even think of how easy it would be to go to a department store and simply buy new sheets instead of mending the old ones. Instead she took pains to make tiny, even stitches.

She had made a mistake in her clothing, she realized. Cotton wouldn't make an appearance inEurope for quite some time, and velvet was reserved for royalty. No wonder Huwe had been impressed by her velvet gown! He had probably thought her a foreign princess, and anticipated a huge ransom for her return. Luckily her cotton kirtle was unbleached and the finish wasn't shiny, so at least it didn't look rich. Since Grace obviously wasn't a Scot, her strange clothing hadn't elicited any suspicion from Alice, who had taken the garment to be washed, or from the woman who washed it. She would keep the velvet surcoat hidden, though. She wanted to check her hiding place and make certain the bag was still safely tucked away, but she reasoned that if it had been found she would have beard, and it was more likely to remain hidden if she didn't attract attention to the area.

Niall trained with his men all day, or hunted, or patrolled the area around the castle. If he returned for anoon meal, Grace didn't see him. She heard the clash of swords in the courtyard but didn't go to watch.

The sight of his muscled body, sweaty and half naked, would not help shore her resolve.

She hadn't known lust could be so powerful, so consuming. Even thoughAlice kept her busy, her thoughts went time and again to that expert, devilishly knowing touch on her neck, to his kiss, the silky brush of his long hair against her face. He was so wonderfully barbaric and untamed, yet astonishingly well educated and sophisticated. She managed in his time with prior knowledge and training; she suspected he would manage as well in hers without those benefits, by the sheer determination of his character and the force of his intellect.

She tried to think of Ford, but he seemed so far away. A year had passed, a year in which she had had none of his things to touch and hold and weep over. She hadn't dared let herself think of him too much, and now when she needed to she couldn't quite capture his face, or the quality of his voice.

It had been easier before she came back, as if the distance of time was a veil that blurred her other life now, making it seem like a dream.This was real,now was real. Niall was all too real, too vital and dominating. Everyone in the castle bowed to his wishes, obeyed his slightest command.

The men returned for the evening meal, disturbing the efficient peace of the castle with their boisterous, chaotic masculinity. There were shouts, curses, rumbling voices, the clang of swords and shields, the stomping of feet and excited barking of dogs, the sharp muskiness of male sweat. When Niall appeared all eyes went to him; he looked around and located Grace immediately, nodding his head toward the table where he sat.

She hesitated, andAlice gave her a nudge. "He wants ye to sit wi' him," the older woman said, stating the obvious. "Best do as he says."

Grace hadn't had any thought of disobeying, only a reluctance to be so close to him again. She wanted to, too much, and there was where the danger lay. With slow steps she walked across the great hall to where the head table was set. Niall stood beside his chair, waiting for her.

He had either dunked his head in a barrel of water or taken time to bathe, for his long hair was wet and sleeked back. His simple linen shirt was clean, his plaid belted about his lean waist. A knife was thrust into his belt, and another into his right boot. The huge claymore was slung in a scabbard over his back; he removed that, hanging it on the back of his chair. Even here, in his own hall, he kept his fearsome weapons to hand.

Looking around, Grace saw that all the men did. Niall had called them broken men and outlaws; they were hard men who had lived hard lives, yet they chose to be governed by Niall. They were the castoffs of clans alloverScotland , but here they had formed their own clan, with Niall the unelected but undisputed chieftain, and he had transformed them into a prime fighting unit with pride and discipline. These men would willingly die for him.

A smaller chair had been placed beside Niall's. Those were the only two chairs there; everyone else sat on benches. Grace was burningly aware of all the curious glances coming her way, especially from the men. The women of the household had gotten accustomed to her during the day; some oftheir glances were hostile.

Niall cupped her elbow as he seated her, his hand very warm on her bare arm. "Ye askedAlice about the escape tunnel," he said, his tone mild, his eyes sharp.

Grace blinked in amazement. She had been byAlice 's side almost every minute of the day; she was certain Niall had had no opportunity to speak to her since the morning. "Yes, I did, " she admitted without pause. "But how did you know?"

"I was displeased that ye managed to enter Creag Dhu on false pretenses, and no one questioned ye or even saw ye for the rest of the day. Nothing ye do now goes unobserved." He leaned back in his chair as the meal was set before him, roasted pork, turnips, fresh bread, cheese, and stewed apples. Taking the knife from his belt, he carved several slices of tender ham from the haunch and placed them on the trencher set on the table between him and Grace.

"Have ye a knife?" he asked Grace. She thought of the Swiss Army knife in the bag she had hidden, and shook her head. Niall drew the smaller daggerfrom his boot and surveyed it, then thrust it back into his boot. "I dinna think I trust ye with something so wicked sharp. I'll cut your meat for ye."

"I wouldn't stab you," she said, shocked.

One eyebrow lifted. "No? When first I met ye, ye were with the Hays."

"You know I was captured! You could hear what they were saying."

"It could have been arranged, aye? I was half smothered with plaids, as ye remember; I couldna see anything. Ye might have been captured, or ye might have been with them from the start. Ye released me from the dungeon, then followed me here to Creag Dhu, knowing I wouldna cast ye out. Now ye've asked about the tunnel. Do ye plan to tell the Hays, and let them into my castle to murder us in our beds?"

Furious, Grace turned on him. "Huwe already had you at his mercy. Why would he scheme to help you escape, when he could kill you and be done with it?"

"As to why, if Huwe wanted only to kill me then, aye, he could ha' done it then. But he wants Creag Dhu as well, and he kens well he couldna take it from without. To take the castle, he must find a way inside." Expertly he cut a small piece of meat and offered it to her.

She ignored it. "I only asked about a tunnel because I was curious. I didn't even ask where it is, as you should know since you've obviously had my every word reported to you!"

Niall eyed her flushed face, and saw that her eyes had gone as dark as a stormy sea. "And will continue to do so," he said. He offered the meat again. "Eat, lass. A good wind would blow ye away."

Grace took the meat with her fingers and neatly popped it into her mouth, then deliberately turned her head from him to watch the others. He paid no attention to her ire or her efforts to ignore him. He fed himself and her, alternating between the two of them, and patiently holding each bite until she took it. She could see people watching them, and good manners prompted her not to make a public scene.

His consideration undermined her efforts to remain angry. He didn't try to force her to talk, didn't belabor his point; having made it, he was content. She knew now how closely she was watched, which had been his intention.

His leg pressed against hers. Instantly she moved away, then glanced at him to see if the contact had been deliberate. It was. He was watching her, his gaze steady. He took a drink of spiced wine, then put the cup in her hand so she too could drink. "Do ye remember a time," he said in a low voice, "when I was sitting on a stool, and ye came to me, and I lifted ye astride-"

Her hand shook, and she hastily set the cup down before she spilled the wine. She didn't reply, but the hot color in her cheeks gave him his answer.

"How can it be?" he wondered. She shook her head, and whispered, "I don't know." "At times I wasna asleep, and still I could feel ye watching me." He lifted her hand, holding it in his palm and tracing his fingertip over the slender bones that fanned in the back of her hand.

"Sometimes when I was awake, I thought I heard you speaking." She couldn't look at him as she made the confession. The words felt tom out of her, a reluctant acknowledgment of the awareness between them that had tormented her for months, and tempted her now. It would be so easy to turn her hand in his, lace their fingers together. He would know what she wanted. He wouldn't ask any questions, simply lead her up the stairs to his chamber.

She stared at the saltcellar. She had once had this unspoken intimacy with Ford; they had known each other, so well that a lot of times words hadn't been needed. When he died, she thought that wonder, that sense of belonging, had died with him and she would never know it again. How could it be duplicated? They had forged that mutual knowledge during years of dating and marriage, of making love, of quiet talks in the darkness as they lay together, of working and laughing and worrying, ofliving together.

She couldn't feel it now, with Niall. Her imagination was, working overtime again, making her think the link was there when it couldn't be. From the moment he had walked out of that dungeon cell until now, the total time she had spent with him was less than two hours. He couldn't possibly know what she wanted, nor could she predict what he would do.

"All ye have to do is take my hand," he murmured, watching her, drawing her gaze. "My bed is big, and warm, and ye won't be alone."

A chill ran over her, and her eyes went blank with shock. No. It wasn't possible.

"Such big, sad eyes. What do ye see, lass, when ye look through me as if I'm not here, when ye go away in your mind? Does Huwe hold someone ye love, a child perhaps? Does he force ye to do his bidding?"

Her throat felt tight. "No," she managed. "I have no one, and I'm not in league with Huwe."

An expression passed over his face, tightening his flesh over the chiseled bone structure, giving him a remote, austere expression as old as the one in his eyes. So must the ancient saints have looked, stripped down to the essentials of character by the burdens they had borne. "Tell me," he said. "And I will aid ye."

How matter-of-fact he was about assuming yet another responsibility! His friends had been tortured and burned to death, he was excommunicated and under a death sentence should he venture outsideScotland ; as a young man he had been made Guardian of the Treasure, his entire life dedicated to and dominated by the burden he had accepted. He had created a disciplined fighting force out of loners and misfits and outlaws, then extended his protection to the crofters and villagers living around Creag Dhu. The burdens he had accepted onto those broad shoulders would have crushed most men, but not even knowing how he could help her, he offered to assume responsibility for her, too. Her throat tightened even more, this time with unshed tears. Silently she shook her head.

He sighed as he stood, lifting her to her feet too. "Ye will tell me," he assured her, walking with her to the stairs. At a nod from him, two men rose from their benches and followed. "Ye will tell me, willingly or no. Ye'll come to my bed, too, and lie soft and yielding beneath me. I'm a verra patient man, lass, but never forget I hold all the power here."

Her mouth went dry. Was that a warning that he suspected she knew about the Treasure and wanted to find it? Her heart hammered painfully against her breastbone. She was struggling with him on both a personal and an impersonal plane, and uncannily he sensed it. Viewing him as a man, she desired him with a ferocity that terrified her; seeing him as the Guardian, she feared him. Defeat on either level could destroy her.

He opened the door to the small chamber where she had been locked the night before, and ushered her inside. She paused in surprise. Sometime during the day a small bed, not much more than a cot, had been moved into the chamber. A small fire crackled in the hearth, dispelling the chill, and two thick candles appeared to have been lit only moments before, for the tallow was only now beginning to melt down the columns. To her relief there was also a chamber pot, and a small basin and ewer of water.

"Thank you," she said, turning to him. The small chamber felt almost luxurious to her after some of the places she had slept in this past year.

"I dinna intend to freeze ye to death," he replied, his brows quirking in amusement. He smoothed his hand up her arm. "I like ye warm and tender."

He kissed her, his arms folding around her and molding her to his body. Grace gripped his biceps, concentrating on holding tight to her self-control even though she could feel the foundation of resolve crumbling beneath her. He slanted his firm mouth so that it fit perfectly to the soft contours of her lips, and despite her best intentions her mouth parted under the pressure. His tongue gently penetrated, cajoling rather than demanding.

Desire clawed at her, hot and sharp. She jerked her mouth from his and buried her face against his chest, breathing hard. The question of loyalty to Ford aside, how could she even consider making love with Niall? She intended to be in this time only for as long as it took her to find the Treasure and discover if she could somehow use the mysterious Power herself, to stop Parrish and the Foundation. If she could, she would steal the Treasure and return to her own time, leaving Niall behind.

Success or failure, she would not be staying. Any relationship she had with Niall would only be casual – God, she thought, could making love with Niall ever be consideredcasual? – and even were the circumstances different she wasn't a woman who had casual affairs. Perhaps he would be content with only sex, but she knew she wouldn't be; for her, making love was a commitment, something she couldn't make.

He cradled her so carefully in his arms, rocking slightly back and forth as he stroked her back, that she wanted to weep. She had never met a man like him before, and never would again; he was extraordinary in any century. Just for a moment she gave in to temptation and slid her hands around him, flattening her palms on his back and absorbing the vital heat and power of his body. His muscles subtly flexed with every breath he took, and his heart beat strong and steady under her ear.

"When a woman has been wed," he said low, into her hair, "she becomes accustomed to her man in bed beside her at night, and if aught happens to him, she loses not only her husband but that comfort of no being alone in the dark. I offer ye that, lass. I'll hold ye close against the dark and the chill, give ye the comfort of my body."

She almost groaned aloud against him, aching from temptation. To sleep with his arms around her, to wake and be able to reach out and touch him, stroke his hairy chest, slide her hand down the flatness of his belly, hold his penis while he slept and feel it soft in her hand-how had he known the way she hungered for that, for the intimacy that went beyond sex? He was in her mind again, reading her with uncanny accuracy.

"No," she whispered, and knew that she wanted to say yes.

His lips brushed her forehead. "I wish ye a good night, then. If ye decide ye need comforting in the night, ye've only to knock on the door, and the guards will bring ye to me."

When he was gone, Grace pressed her shaking hands to her lips. She was walking a tightrope between passion and danger, but the knowledge didn't lessen the need. If she gave in to him, would that incline him toward a greater indulgence than he would normally show, if he discovered her true aim?

No, it would not. She knew from the documents that Black Niall was ruthless in his protection of the Treasure. Perhaps he had merely meant he held all the authority here, but he had said "power," and that could be a warning. Being a woman, and moreover a woman he wanted to bed, wouldn't protect her if he should discover she was after the Treasure. He would kill her, and she knew it.