The fine drizzle of rain that had fallen steadily all morning suited the solemnity of the occasion. As the funeral mass finally came to an end and people began to slowly file out of the kirk, Margaret lingered for a moment beside the coffin of her dead lover. Although she and Niall, one of the MacDonnell clan’s finest warriors, had not been wed, all those around her knew of their close bond and showed her the respect that would be owed to his widow. She was not sure she deserved their kindness. In recent weeks, her eye had been drawn to another man, one whose desire for her had been plain to see, and she had betrayed the man she loved in thought, if not in deed.
Trying to shake off the guilt over her attraction to Lord Iain de Moray, she laid a hand on the plain wooden coffin that sat before the altar. It seemed too small, somehow, to contain the body of a man of Niall’s great stature. He had been large, not only physically, but in personality and he would be greatly missed. Soon, he would be interred in his tomb within the chapel and a carved stone effigy had already been commissioned to mark the spot where he would lie in eternal repose. The clan chief, Alexander de Moray, had wanted to demonstrate his respect for Niall by having him placed close to where his wife Ailis’ most illustrious ancestors were buried. Margaret wished they could have thrown convention to the wind and followed some ancient, pagan custom instead. She’d heard of a ritual where a warrior’s body was laid upon a pyre atop a wooden raft and set out to sea. Before the raft drifted too far from land, flaming arrows would be fired at it to set the whole thing alight. The body would be burned to ash and whatever remained would be taken by the sea. That seemed a more fitting end for a man like Niall. It hardly bore thinking about that he should be shut away for eternity in a dark chasm within the chapel walls. How could his spirit ever settle in such a place? It would surely yearn to be free.
A familiar voice brought her out of her despairing thoughts.
“My lord,” she acknowledged the presence of Iain de Moray.
“May I escort you to the hall?” he asked, his tone gentler than she had ever heard it.
Where before there had been a burning desire in his eyes each time he looked at her, Margaret could see only compassion now. Iain de Moray was a hard man, but one whose heart seemed to be in the right place. She had been attracted to him despite her deep attachment to Niall and she knew that when her mind was less numb, she would feel a terrible guilt about that. Right now, however, she knew she could rely on his strength to see her through the ordeal of the wake.
All the important members of the MacDonnell clan were assembled here to mark Niall’s passing with the customary feast. The bard would recite the story of his life and people would exchange tales about their encounters with him. There would be a lot of talk, no doubt, about how he had fallen defending the castle from an attack by Gregor MacDonnell, the man who’d felt he was the rightful laird here. Niall’s bravery would be lauded, and Margaret would smile and nod, even though she felt her heart had been torn in two.
“My lady?” Iain prompted when she offered no response.
“Yes, my lord,” she replied quietly, “you may accompany me.”
Margaret placed her hand on the arm Iain offered her and allowed him to lead her out into the courtyard. The rain was still falling, and the sky was grey, but a glimmer of sunshine peeked out from behind the cloud. As they made their way toward the building that housed the Great Hall, Margaret felt a sense of panic. She could not go in there among all those people. Seized by dread, she stopped dead in her tracks.
“Are you ill, my lady?” Iain asked, his normally harsh expression softening to show concern. “Should I fetch my brother’s wife?”
That he was willing to go and speak to Ailis, a woman whose downfall he’d seemed to wish for from the moment he first laid eyes on her, was evidence of how worried he was. Margaret smiled softly and shook her head.
“No, my lord, I have no need of her,” Margaret replied. “I am just not ready to join the others yet.”
“Then where do you wish to go?”
Margaret gestured to the battlements at the top of the high wall that surrounded the castle complex. She saw the frown pass across Iain’s face before he nodded, apparently choosing not to question her strange choice. Although it was a miserable day, she knew the ramparts were the one place she might find a little comfort. Often, she and Niall had stolen moments alone up there.
“Very well, but I must insist upon accompanying you.”
Margaret acquiesced immediately, realizing he would not let her go if she refused. He probably imagined if she went up there alone, she would hurl herself onto the rocks below out of despair for her lost love. She was sad about Niall, of course, but she would never be driven to harm herself.
She walked in silence, a little ahead of Iain, toward the west tower. No words passed between them as they climbed the stairs, but she was grateful for his presence anyway. As she came out into the open air at the top of the tower, she made her way along the wall walk to her favorite spot overlooking the sea. Peering down onto the rocks below, she shuddered. It was only a few days since her friend Edane’s body had been found down there. There was speculation that the woman had jumped to her death after betraying the clan and letting the enemy in through the castle gates. Although her actions had led to Niall being slain, Margaret could not find it within herself to hate the woman whose companion she’d been for more than two years. She had simply been trying to help her husband, Gregor, to reclaim what he felt was his.
“You were thinking about the MacDonnell woman?” Iain asked.
“I am thinking I have seen too much death of late,” Margaret replied.
Iain nodded and shot her a look that told her he understood exactly how she felt. Although he was a warrior, used to cutting men down in battle, she knew that he, too, had suffered a terrible loss when his own wife was murdered.
“I am also thinking that despite all that has happened, I will be sad to leave this place.”
“You intend to leave?” Iain asked.
“My father desires my return to his home.”
At the thought of going back to face her father’s disapproval, Margaret felt tears welling in her eyes. He would be furious when he learned the secret she’d been harboring these past few weeks, one that could not be hidden for much longer. She ran her hand over the gentle swell of her abdomen and a sob escaped her. As she felt Iain’s arm around her shoulder, the pain of Niall’s loss and all the worry she held for the future came flooding out. Resting her head against Iain’s chest, she accepted the comfort he wished to offer her. He muttered soothing words to her and rubbed her back. It felt strangely natural to be in his arms. Even though he was a virtual stranger, she felt protected, as if nothing bad could touch her. As she looked out over the raging sea below, she wondered if she would ever feel this safe again.
Stirling, Scotland, June 1314
The shrill sound of a woman screaming pierced through Iain de Moray’s restless slumber. He sat bolt upright, breathing heavily as he tried to shake the horror of those cries from his mind. Seven years had passed since the death of his poor, fragile wife, Isabella, yet he still dreamed of her sometimes. She’d been murdered while he was away from home, fighting for King Robert the Bruce. In his bleakest moments, he pictured her so vividly, reaching out to him, begging him to save her. He would give everything he possessed to be able to go back in time and protect her from those murderous thugs. He had failed to keep her safe, as was a husband’s duty, and the guilt haunted him daily.
It was odd that he couldn’t remember dreaming about her this time. Usually, he saw her face so vividly, her slender form and that gloriously red hair cascading down her back. He couldn’t recall seeing her in his dreams, but he had heard that scream as clear as a bell. Shaking his head, he laid back down to get a little more sleep. Morning was almost upon them, but he was exhausted in the aftermath of battle. There was still much to do, and he needed to be refreshed and ready. Although the English had been routed and their king had fled the field, he doubted the war was over.
Once a lasting peace had been secured, perhaps he would finally return home to see his young daughters. Not that they’d be that young anymore. It was at least six years since he’d seen them, and he doubted they would even recognize him after all this time apart. They had been mere babes when their mother was killed, and he’d thought it best to leave them in the care of a nursemaid. There were times when he wished he’d been a better father to them, but he could not dwell upon his many shortcomings now. He needed to rest.
The moment he closed his eyes, he heard another bone-chilling wail and realized there actually was a woman crying out for help. Diving from his bed, he landed on his feet. Grabbing his sword, he threw open the flap of the tent. The cold light of dawn greeted him and, as he looked around, he discovered that he was not the only one whose sleep had been disturbed. Right on the edge of camp, a crowd was gathering. As he made his way toward the scene of the commotion, he saw two soldiers engaged in a furious struggle with a woman.
She was more than likely one of the whores who followed the camp but, even so, Iain did not approve of the way they were handling her. Some women enjoyed a bit of rough treatment, he knew that from experience, but she was clearly in distress. With so many men around, she was also in real danger. Iain had seen even the most disciplined of soldiers forget themselves when their spirits were running high after victory in battle. He had to take charge of the situation.
“What the devil’s going on?” he demanded as he strode through the circle of men who’d gathered to watch this little sideshow.
Although these men were not under his command, they seemed to be aware of who he was, and none challenged his authority. When it came to situations like this, his reputation for violence and an uncanny ability to cheat death was extremely useful.
“Found her sneaking about the camp, my lord,” one of the two soldiers who were holding onto the woman said. “She had this on her.”
He held up a vicious-looking dagger. Its blade was sharp, lethal, but its handle was ornate. This expensive, bejeweled weapon was not something a camp whore would be carrying unless she’d stolen it.
“Whose blood is on it?” Iain could not help noticing the glistening red sheen on the tip of the dagger.
“Young Kenneth’s,” the man replied. “She tried to stab him.”
Iain’s brows shot up. As he looked at the woman, studying her carefully, he could tell she was no common harlot and she seemed an unlikely murderess. This was a woman of some refinement. There was something in her bearing that told him she was a lady, but it was not just her posture that gave it away. Her dress had been torn at the neck, presumably in the scuffle with the guards. It allowed him a glimpse of the palest white skin. She had clearly never spent a day toiling in the fields. Then there was her hair. The color of an autumn sun, it looked soft, silky, as though she took care of it in a way a working woman would not have time to do. For a moment, as she glanced up at him, Iain saw a flash of something familiar, but he quickly shrugged off the notion that he knew her. He rarely associated with women, far less those of the nobility. Generally, he found their attempts to net themselves a well-connected husband a complete bore.
“Is he badly hurt?” Iain asked as he took the dagger from the soldier and inspected it closely. It really was a very fine weapon. The craftsmanship was exceptional. He stuck the knife in his own belt, intending to keep it until he could decide what to do with it.
“He’ll live,” the second of the two soldiers responded.
Iain grunted and nodded his head.
“Did this Kenneth person try to hurt you?” Iain asked the woman as he tried to make sense of what had happened.
“He confronted her, nothing more,” the first soldier replied when it became clear from her sullen silence that the woman would not speak. “She was trying to free one of the prisoners.”
“Is that so?” Iain’s curiosity was piqued now. “Which prisoner?”
As both men shrugged, their captive took advantage of their sudden lapse in focus and twisted around. Wrenching herself free from the grasp of the soldier on the left, she kneed him right in the balls. As the man bent double, cursing and moaning, she whirled around and struck the other hard in the throat, leaving him gasping for breath. Then she took off running. Even in her long skirts, she was fast. Unfortunately for her, Iain was faster. Within seconds, he was on her.
Lifting her from her feet, he flung her over his shoulder and marched off toward his tent. Some of his own men were milling about now and, although several gave him a wry look of amusement, nobody made a move to stop him. None who had heard the stories about him would dare.
The little hellcat hissed and spit, kicking out at him as he took long strides across the field. Once inside his tent, Iain wasted no time on pleasantries. He sat on the low stool in the corner and pulled the woman down over his lap. Without hesitation, he flipped her skirts up around her waist and began to deliver a series of hard smacks to her beautiful, peachy bottom. She struggled for all she was worth, but Iain simply put a hand at the small of her back to hold her still as he continued to beat out a steady rhythm on her gloriously rounded buttocks. Despite her protests, there was a tell-tale glistening between her thighs. Iain couldn’t suppress a smile. This little wildcat was enjoying being over his knee and at his mercy.
As she wriggled against him, her moans and cries made his cock stiffen. There was something about this woman he found incredibly appealing.
“Oh, you pig, Iain de Moray!” she shrieked, no doubt in response to his massive erection prodding at her side.
Iain instantly stopped spanking her. He hadn’t told the lass his name, of that he was certain. So, how did she know who he was? Drawing the hair back from her face, he stared at her for several long seconds, wondering why she was so familiar. As she glared up at him, realization finally struck.
“Aye,” the woman confirmed.
Shock hit Iain so hard, he immediately leapt to his feet and the woman who’d been draped over his knee fell to the floor with a thud. She rolled over, onto her back, her eyes flashing anger at him.
“I did not recognize you,” Iain said, still in a state of complete bewilderment. What on earth was Lady Margaret Baillie, a friend of his brother’s wife, Ailis, doing here?
“Perhaps you should spend more time looking at a woman’s face and less staring at her arse, you bastard son of a whore!”
Iain shook his head, more in dismay than anything. The sweet and gentle Lady Margaret he remembered from his time at Castle Donnell would never have used such coarse language. Then again, the woman he’d known would not have had reason to be creeping around an armed camp in the wee hours of the morning either.
“What are you doing here, my lady?” he asked softly, hoping to coax some answers from her.
“That is not your concern.”
“It is when I’ve just rescued you from two soldiers who would have shown no hesitation in raping you.”
“And what about you?” she snarled. “Will you show hesitation?”
Iain snorted in disgust at the very suggestion he would force himself on her. When they had known one another at Castle Donnell, he’d desired her. In truth, he still wanted her now, but he would have her in his bed willing, or not at all.
“I have no plans to rape you, Margaret.”
“Then let me go.”
She struggled to get to her feet and stood, with her arms folded in front of her, a defiant pose that made him want to pull her back down over his lap.
“You know I can’t do that, lass. You were caught skulking about near the prisoners.” He studied her expression, trying to get some idea what she was thinking. “Were you trying to free someone?”
“What business is it of yours if I was?” Her tone was hostile.
Iain arched a brow at her. Did she not realize that she was going to be in trouble with more important men than him for trying to get close to the prisoners in the early hours of the morning? As if that wasn’t bad enough, she’d stabbed one of the guards. That she’d not done him any real harm would mean little to the king.
“I am trying to help you, lass.”
“Shove your help up your arse, de Moray.”
Iain almost laughed at the words that sounded so unnatural coming from her sweet pink lips. She was trying to look brave but her aggressive stance did little to mask her fear.
“Mind your manners, my lady,” he cautioned.
The challenge in her eyes was too great for him to ignore. She had put herself in a dangerous situation and adopting this combative stance with the one person who could help her was unacceptable. Giving her no time to react, he reached out and took hold of her arm. Spinning her around, he pushed her down over the table at the center of the tent and pulled her dress up to bare her bottom to him once more.
“What are you doing?” she screeched as she tried to get up.
“I am going to finish giving you the spanking you are begging for,” Iain said, pushing her back down. “Don’t even think about trying to fight me, because if you do, I will have you held down while I thrash your bottom. Do you understand?”
Margaret gasped and then, seeming to realize he was serious, gave a slight nod of her head. It was not enough confirmation for Iain. He gave her backside a swat that made her squeal in surprise.
“I said, do you understand, my lady?”
“Yes,” she replied, her voice quiet now. “I understand, my lord.”
Iain smiled as she stretched her arms up over her head to grasp the edge of the table and pushed her bottom out. Without being asked, she had got herself into the perfect position. Her submission made this all the sweeter. As he drew his belt from around his waist, he felt his cock stirring. He was going to enjoy this.
Words of protest floated through Margaret’s mind as she waited for the first blow to fall. She really shouldn’t allow this to happen, but she kept her mouth shut. She believed Iain when he said he would bring his men in to hold her while he beat her, and she couldn’t bear the thought of that. Provoking him more than she’d already done was not a good idea. She would have to take whatever punishment he dished out with as much dignity as she could manage and hope he would leave her be when he was done.
“You will receive ten lashes from my belt,” Iain said from behind her. “I will not go easy, but there will be no real harm done. Your beautiful bottom will ache for a time but hopefully this spanking will teach you to moderate your tone.”
“Yes, my lord.” Margaret was amazed that he’d warned her what to expect. Knowing what was going to happen eased her mind a little and ten strokes across her bottom did not seem so bad. She was used to far worse beatings at the hands of the man her father had forced her to marry.
Although Iain was about to punish her, she sensed he was doing it out of concern rather than anger. He was calm and steady when he spoke, completely in control of himself. She was sure that he would deliver the measure of discipline he deemed necessary but would not abuse her.
There was a hint of amusement in his voice as he replied, “I doubt you’ll be thanking me in a minute, lass.”
Almost immediately, Margaret heard the thick leather strap whooshing through the air to land with a startlingly loud crack across her bottom. It hurt, and a sharp breath hissed out of her, but she maintained her position. Humiliating as it was to stand there, bare to the gaze of a man she didn’t really know, she determined to take each lash of the belt with grace. She didn’t want to risk angering Iain by wriggling about too much.
The belt began to fall in a steady rhythm, the blows landing on one buttock and then the other. Pain steadily built and, by the time she counted the eighth stroke, she felt the impact much more keenly. Her flesh heated unbearably, and her skin prickled uncomfortably. Still, she held herself in check.
She thought she heard a sigh from behind her and wondered whether Iain was disappointed in her behavior, even though she was sure it was exemplary. She didn’t have time to puzzle over it as the heavy leather strap cut across the entire width of her bottom. This time, the sting was so great, she couldn’t help but call out in pain. As she smothered any further sounds her whole body tensed up. She had no idea how Iain would react to her outburst. Experience had taught her not to fuss.
“Calm yourself, lass.” Iain’s tone was so gentle, it caught her completely off guard. A tear sprang to her eye. “Just one more.”
Margaret clenched her eyes shut but loosened the muscles in her bottom, knowing from bitter experience that it would be worse for her if she was tense. Her flesh burned but what really pained her was confusion about what was happening here. Was Iain trying to reassure her, to show her some kindness even as he thrashed her? She was not used to receiving even this small measure of concern. Not since her days at Castle Donnell had she known a hint of tenderness from a man. Back then, she had loved one of the MacDonnell clan’s fiercest warriors. His death had left her utterly alone and when she’d returned to her father’s home, it was in disgrace. Something about Iain’s manner reminded her of Niall and that confused her even more.
The belt landed again, and she yelped as fire lit her flesh. Both bottom cheeks throbbed unbearably, and silent tears ran down her face. The punishment had been painful and humiliating, but it was over mercifully quickly. She could comfort herself with the knowledge that she had, for the most part, remained calm and collected.
Her composure threatened to desert her as she felt Iain’s hand on her bottom. Gasping aloud in a combination of surprise and delight, she shifted on her toes. A fluttering sensation rippled along that place between her legs and she shook her head, amazed she was experiencing arousal at this moment.
Iain removed his hand from her body and she wanted to complain at the loss of contact, but she said nothing. Unsure of what to do, she just laid there, her reddened bottom exposed, as she waited for instruction. She was surprised when Iain grasped her arms carefully and helped her to stand. Grateful that her skirts had slid down into place to cover her completely, she turned to Iain. The look of concern he gave her when he saw her tears made her cry all the harder. Launching herself into his arms, she sobbed as though her heart would break.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she repeated through her tears.
“What the hell are you thanking me for, lass?”
Margaret had no answer to give. She had no idea why she felt such immense gratitude toward him in that moment. Perhaps it was for not beating her beyond her endurance. It might be for showing her a modicum of kindness. Whatever it was, for some reason she felt safe in Iain’s embrace. She instinctively knew that she could trust him, and it had been a long time since she’d been able to place her faith in anyone.
“Alright, lass,” Iain said as he steered her toward the bed and pushed gently on her shoulders to make her sit down. She winced as her bottom met the straw mattress and wriggled a little to get into a more comfortable position. Iain gave her an unfathomable look. “Rest here and I’ll find you some food. You look like you need it.”
Margaret nodded and watched as Iain walked to the opening of the tent. As he drew back the canvas flap, he turned and fixed her with a warning glare.
“Do not attempt to leave here, Margaret. You will not like the consequences if I have to chase you down.”
As Iain left, Margaret looked around. The tent was incredibly spacious, fitting for a warrior of his high social status. His armor was hung in the corner and by it was a tabard with his family crest. She could just imagine him riding into the fray at the head of a thousand men. She had no doubt he looked formidable when dressed for battle.
At the center of the tent there was, of course, the table he had bent her over when he tanned her backside. There were two chairs next to it and she pictured him sitting there to eat his meals. Then there was this surprisingly large and comfortable bed with a huge wooden trunk at the foot. He must surely have a manservant to attend to his needs but there had been nobody here when they came to the tent and he’d gone off to fetch food for himself rather than sending someone. It seemed typical of the down-to-earth, no-nonsense man she remembered from her time at Castle Donnell.
Sighing heavily as she tried to banish pangs of longing from her mind, she lay back on the bed and closed her eyes. It was odd considering Iain had just reddened her backside for her, but she felt safe here. That was something she had not experienced for as long as she could remember. She knew that Iain de Moray had once held affection for her and he had been kind to her at a time when she needed it. Perhaps he would help her now. She just had to come up with a way to persuade him.