By Dawn Halliday
Aileen smiled. “Do you remember the tree stump?”
“Aye. How could I forget?”
Whenever either of them had seen Munro in one of his rages, they’d lay a piece of heather over the stump of a fallen birch tree in the bailey to warn the other to stay clear of Munro that day. Her warnings had saved Niall from beatings at least a dozen times.
“The stump is gone,” he mused. Upon riding through the castle gates, he’d been assailed by memories of his time here, and he’d looked for the stump, only to find smooth ground where it had once been.
She nodded. “’Twas dug up a few years ago. I miss it. It saved me many times.”
“Aye,” he said gruffly. “Me too.”
The reminiscent look on her face called to him. His body resonated with the urge to draw her lush body into his arms, to hold her, comfort her…make love to her…
He shook himself free of that thought. “’Tis good I have been gone so long. Otherwise, I dinna think…” I could have kept my hands off you.
“Is that why you went away?” she asked. “You felt you couldna protect me from him?” She laughed, a soft, smooth sound that slipped under his skin like a warm caress. “If you defended the honor of every wife whose husband took a mistress, you’d be occupied every minute of the day.”
“I’ve no desire to defend every wife,” he said. “Only you.”
Her gaze strayed away, and she didn’t speak. Instead, she took his hand and drew him toward the fire. The gold glow of the lantern light caught the subtle sheen of tears in her eyes before she knelt at his feet to remove his shoes.
Niall stiffened at the gesture. This was inappropriate. He touched his fingers to the top of her head. “Please dinna kneel.”
She bowed her head. “Let me help you prepare for your bath, Niall. ’Twill me great pleasure.”
“I’m your servant, milady.” He’d do anything she asked of him. Even watch her bow at his feet when he ought to be bowing before her.
His fingers itched to stroke her head, to touch that sleek black fall of hair, to caress the gentle slope of her cheekbone. But the Mackenzie had sent Niall here to fetch his sister, to accompany her to Ellandonan as her protector, not to seduce her. To touch her would be to betray his oath to the laird.
There would be no way to hide his arousal when she undressed him. He would shame himself.
As her deft fingers worked the laces on his boots, he tried to think of anything but the thought of her hands on his body. He forced his mind to saddling a temperamental horse. To the puffed cheeks of a man playing the bagpipes. To haggis…
She moved behind him and with skilled precision untied his belt, which she placed on the table beside the bed. Niall helped her to lift off his mail shirt and unwrap his plaid. Her fingertips skimmed over the side of his arse as she worked it off him. Just like that, all thoughts of haggis and everything else fled, until there was only Aileen and her touch. Niall gritted his teeth so hard his jaw ached.
Was her touch deliberate? An invitation?
Of course it wasn’t. The mail shirt and plaid dropped to the planked floor. Still standing behind him, she reached down to clasp the bottom of his shirt. In one motion, she pulled it over his head.
He stood naked, his arousal painfully thrust out. Thankfully, she didn’t move from behind him.
“You must be weary,” she said quietly, touching the back of his shoulder with gentle fingers. “One of your men told me how hard you rode from Ellandonan. I…” Her voice caught. “Please,” she whispered. “The bath is ready.”
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