This was worse than anything she could have imagined. Mary’s lungs were already burning from the chilly air as she tore across the enclosed courtyard. She rushed madly toward the gate she’d been brought through, knowing even as she did so, her efforts were vain, silly even.
What small strategy she’d had was in tatters.
After her devastating visit from Celeste, she’d had the foresight to hide her UpLink bracelet under a loose stone in the floor of the room, realizing that it would be even harder to explain than her clothing. She’d told herself that when she didn’t return to the lab, there’d be an inquiry, that someone would investigate, would bring her home. She’d wait a few days in hopes that another scientist—suspicious of Celeste’s applying for her position—would figure it all out and attempt her return transport. She’d have to keep checking on the bracelet until that happened.
In the meantime, she’d keep her wits about her. This man who had taken her held a position of authority within the clan. She could not risk confusing him with the truth, so she’d thought to feign amnesia. The less said, after all, the better. And she’d employ reason and set limits, asserting herself as a strong, educated woman on the hopes he’d treat her differently than he treated other women in his world.
But as soon as she’d seen him, her mind had become muddled. He was so different than what she was used to. There was something feral about Alastair McDonald, something so masculine and intimidating that threw her off balance. He filled the room with his presence. His eyes were keen as they studied her, almost… hungry. And he was strong, so strong. She knew with little effort he could snap her in two, could easily bend her to his will, could take her in any way he wanted.
Mary had thought he’d assert that will when he’d taken her over his knee.
Her panties had saved her, specifically nylon panties with an elastic waistband. The only sting she’d felt was the snap of that elastic against her lower back. But she knew now as Alastair McDonald bore down on her that something much worse was in store.
“Oh, no, ye don’t.” It was like being caught in a vise. Mary felt the breath go out of her as he lifted her around the waist and swung her up in his arms. It would have been less humiliating, she decided, if he’d slung her over his shoulder like the caveman she told herself he was. But McDonalds’ chieftain was cradling her like a small child, his hold firm but not hurtful.
There were stable lads in the yard. Mary could see them looking with mild curiosity as she was borne past, as if the manhandling of a woman was commonplace here, which it was.
Once inside the sprawling stone cottage, Alastair McDonald slammed the door with his foot and bore Mary to the room where she’d been locked away.
“Strip,” he said when he put her back on her feet.
She shook her head, crossing her hands across her chest. “Oh, no,” she said with more bravery than she felt. “I’ll not be so easily raped.”
“Raped?” The chieftain’s face contorted in angry indignation. “D’ya think me so dishonorable to force myself on an unwilling woman? Believe me, when I take a woman, she’s always more than wet and ready. Now strip. Ye’ve already got a good hiding coming for running away, and now another for suggesting that I’m a defiler of women. Cross me once more and I’ll tan your pretty arse. Now strip.”
“As I said. The clothes must be burnt. Ye can’t answer for them. And neither can I. Shall I tell ye what happens to women found guilty of the dark arts, lass? Have ye ever heard the screams of one burned alive? Smelled the scorching flesh?”
Mary needed to hear no more. Face heating with embarrassment, she reached to her side and pulled down the zipper, loosening the dress enough so she could remove it. There was a moment of blessed darkness as she pulled it over her head. But when the garment was off, she realized as she held it out to her captor that he was staring hard at her chest. At first she felt angry, certain that he was fixated on her breasts. But that was not the case. It was her bra that had his attention.
“What manner of garment is that? Tis neither bodice nor chemise.”
“It’s a brassiere,” she said quietly, and held her breath as she prayed he’d not press her for details.
“Take it off,” he said. “The wee pants, too.”
Wee pants? In any other circumstance, Mary realized she’d have laughed at how he referred to her panties. But this was no laughing matter. He expected her to disrobe, and she had no choice.
It wasn’t the first time she’d disrobed in front of a man. There had been five lovers in Mary’s life, three one-night stands and two steady boyfriends. They’d all been products of the social environment she’d left behind—her equals in every way. They were nothing like the large, fearsome man now demanding she doff her clothing.
Mary turned her back to Alastair as she reached around to unhook her bra. She shrugged it off and then took a deep breath before lowering her panties, pushing them aside with her foot as they fell to the floor. She stood silent and then gave a gasp when she felt Alastair move her hair aside and touch her on the shoulder.
“What is this?”
Mary swallowed hard. Damn. She’d forgotten her birthmark, small and heart-shaped and so nearly perfect that a couple of her friends thought it was a tattoo.
“Who marked ye?” he asked. His voice was hard, and it frightened her.
“No one. I was born with it.”
Mary suddenly found herself spun around. The Highlander loomed over her and for a moment he was silent as his eyes roamed her, halting for a moment on her small, pert breasts and then lower still to her pubic mound, fashionably hairless like her armpits and legs, thanks to permanent electrolysis treatments most young women took advantage of in their early teens.
“What are ye, Mary Malone?” he asked after a moment. “I’m giving ye a chance, lass, to be honest. I need to know.”
The truth was just behind her lips, but Mary knew nothing of this man and could see her death in any honest answer. She shuddered as she imagined ropes binding her, the first heat of the flames as they grew in the bundle of dried gorse under her feet.
“I’ve told you,” she said.
“Very well, lass,” he said. “But ye’ll talk, eventually. For now, I must go on what I know to be facts. Ye are in my home, under my protection, and ye have insulted me and broken my orders to stay put.” He paused. “Do ye remember what I said I’d do to ye for those things?”
She made to move away, but was suddenly, again, in his grip. Mary looked at his hand. It was so large encircling her thin arm. Her gaze traveled to his.
“Please,” she said as two large tears welled in her eyes and spilled over lower lids to course down her pale cheeks. “Please don’t hit me.”
“I don’t plan to hit ye, wee stranger,” he said. “Hitting is for men.” He sat down then and pulled her over his lap. “But a well-thrashed bum has set more than one disobedient female to rights, and I expect it will be no different with you, no matter where ye come from.”
Mary wasn’t expecting the comment to be followed by an immediate crack of his large hand. She was unprepared for the burning pain as the huge palm impacted her left buttock. She screamed from the sting of it, and would have flown off Alastair’s lap were it not for the powerful grip he had around her slim waist.
He gave her no reprieve, and began spanking her in earnest, the punishing smacks raining steadily down on her vulnerable, naked bottom. Embarrassment gave way to a feeling of intense self-preservation as she screamed for mercy and struggled to escape his hold. It hurt so badly, the sting penetrating deep into the skin of a bottom she knew was rapidly reddening.
Oh, God. How many times had she watched Aggie punished? It occurred to her that with her legs kicking so, the burly Highlander could see more than her enflamed bottom cheeks; he could also see what lay between them. Mary tried closing her legs, but could not. As Alastair’s steady spanks targeted the tender strip of skin where her bottom met her thighs, it was as if the lower half of her body developed a will of its own, gyrating from the pain as her splayed legs churned and kicked.
Mary was wailing incoherently when the punishment finally subsided. She’d never experienced this kind of pain in her life. Her bottom pulsated with an agonizing hurt, and when Alastair raised her back to standing, she found herself stamping from foot to foot in the same embarrassing dance she’d seen Aggie do after one of her punishments. That she—an educated, independent woman—had been reduced to such infantilism was mortifying. But the man before her did not seem to be gloating. Alastair McDonald allowed her to stamp and wail until her cries slowed to hitching sobs. Then he reached for the wrap that still lay on the bed and folded it around her nakedness.
“I’m putting you on the bed now,” he said. “And then I’m going to burn your clothes and fetch ye something else to wear and something to eat.”
She noted he was not asking her permission, but simply telling her what was going to happen next.
If I lived back in those days, and a man did that to me, I’d tell him to go fuck himself.
Her pronouncement to Celeste now sounded so ironic, so hollow, as she meekly allowed the man who’d spanked her to lay her down on the bed. He did not lock the door this time; she knew it was because he recognized what she didn’t want to acknowledge: he’d spanked the defiance right out of her.
But what would happen next? Her eyes traveled to the loose stone near the opposite wall. The UpLink lay beneath. What if someone had been trying to contact her? She did not hear the telltale pinging, but what if the lights were now blinking, indicating a message? She imagined rushing to the stone and retrieving the bracelet, and the rush of relief she’d feel upon keying in her code and returning to her world—relief so strong that it would not matter that she were naked with a cherry red bottom. Then she imagined the debriefing, the inquiry, and the sense of satisfaction she’d feel at seeing Celeste pay for what she’d done.
Celeste, how could you?
It was that question that kept her rooted to the bed. She knew that she wasn’t due back yet, and even when she was, it was Celeste’s job to guide her home. But Celeste had broken communication. Mary would have to wait.
She could hear voices on the other side of the door. Alastair McDonald was talking to another man. Mary strained her ears and recognized Ewan as the other speaker. They were talking about her.
“…skelped her good,” Alastair was saying. There was more conversation she didn’t understand and then footfalls. Ewan was asking what Alastair had thrown in the fire, and the chieftain was casually answering that it was just her dress, that she’d fallen in cattle dung and it reeked. He was lying to his right-hand man, no doubt to protect her.
The conversation turned low and earnest and Mary could no longer hear what was being said. After a few moments the door opened and Alastair walked in with a wooden bowl containing some fragrant stew and a chunk of hard bread. He set it on a nearby table and handed her a small cup.
“Have ye ever had strong drink, lass?”
She wasn’t sure how to answer and found herself nodding.
“Tis just a dram, but on an empty stomach it may make you feel a bit off-kilter, so just sip.”
Mary took the small cup and downed its contents in one gulp. At that moment, ‘off kilter’ seemed better than reality.
“I said ‘sip.’” Alastair’s disapproving tone sent a shudder through Mary, who glanced up as she pulled the coverlet close to her naked breasts. “Sorry,” she replied.
“Here.” He handed her the food. “Eat this.”
As the smell of the food reached her, she realized that she was actually hungry despite her fear, her embarrassment, and the tenderness of her bottom. Dipping the bread in the stew, she tore off a sodden bite. Alastair said nothing, but simply regarded her as she ate. After a few moments, he took the empty bowl and set it aside.
“Ewan was here. He’s my second in command.”
“I know.” She’d not meant to comment, but the whiskey had relaxed her. Perhaps a bit too much, she realized when she glanced up to see the chieftain’s expression grow even more wary than it had been.
“You know a lot,” he said. “More than ye should. And now that I ken what ye look like naked, I fear you are in more danger than ever come the assize.”
Her mouth went dry with fear. “So there’s going to be an assize after all?”
“I can’t say, lass. Ewan says that Maura and Duncan have their neighbors in an uproar. If it spreads, I can nae protect ye. It will be up to you to prove ye are not a witch. A lass as wee as ye are, with that odd mark on your back, hairless as a babe?” He rubbed his chin and shook his head, and she understood the gravity of her predicament, and his limits. Women were stripped naked as part of a witch trial; that she knew. She would not be able to explain her small, smooth body that would no doubt look otherworldly to them. Nor could she explain the birthmark, which would be interpreted as a witch’s mark.
“Will they…” She fought to say the words. “Will they… burn me?”
“Aye. They will.” He paused for a moment, staring at her. “I need the truth from ye, lass. I ken you know more than you’re sayin’. Out with it.”
“Or what? You’ll spank me again?”
He scoffed, but his face was sad even as he did so. “Should that be the only worry, I’d be a happy man. But the truth is, Mary Malone, with only part of your story, I canna save ye. And while ye may see me as a brute, know this: I don’t share in the witch-fear of my kin, nor do I agree with the bloodlust. But I can nae stop it, either. Other clans have burned women; I’ve seen it and heard it. Tell me the truth, lass, that I may save you.”
Mary drew her legs up, hugging her knees to her chin under the thin wrap. Her punished bottom burned and itched beneath her, but suddenly the discomfort seemed nothing compared to the threat of what she faced.
“You wouldn’t believe me,” she said. “Or if you did, you may burn me yourself. Or turn me over to those who would.”
He shook his head. “I promise ye, lass, I won’t.” He took hold of her arms, his face earnest. “Tell me.”
“I’m a traveler.” She couldn’t look at him as she spoke. “I’m from London. I didn’t lie about that. But I’m from a different London—one from the future.”
“I don’t ken…”
“I’m an historian,” she continued. “A scholar. I’m from the year 2647. For months now I’ve been studying here, but unseen.”
“So it’s magic?” The concern was evident in his voice. So was the doubt.
“It’s science,” she replied. “But to your people, I supposed it’s a lot like magic. In my world there is running water and lights that come on in a room at the sound of your voice. And travel… people can travel between cities and countries without horses, and between times within seconds.”
She looked at him now. “You don’t believe me.”
Alastair stood and began pacing the room, clearly agitated. “Nae,” he said angrily. “This is… daft.”
“It’s not,” she said. “And you wanted the truth and you’re getting it. I’ve seen you before, and I can prove it.”
“Ach…” He waved his hand at her dismissively, obviously agitated. “I’m stuck with a daft woman, and still no cause to explain!”
She was on her feet then, holding the wrap around her. “At the home of Aggie and Ewan. Remember the day you smelled peppermint? I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was when my problems began. The people in my time—the person charged with protecting me, keeping my activities hidden from you… she was betraying me even then, I think. She was testing the barrier between our worlds, and you were able to smell the mint on my breath. I heard the conversation that day. I know your sister fought with Aggie, and that you punished her and ordered Ewan to punish his wife.”
Alastair turned and advanced on her, taking Mary by the arms in a grip so tight it hurt her. But this time she did not cry out, nor did she drop her gaze.
“How do you know these things?”
“I told you,” she said evenly. “I’ve been watching them. I watched Ewan punish Aggie. I saw how she… liked it. Afterwards they had relations. You came in shortly afterwards and as I left, you commented on the mint on my breath. I went to get more before I was transported back to my time. That’s where I saw Duncan and his man, where I overheard them discussing the cattle. I knew from what you said to Ewan that you didn’t believe Duncan capable of theft, but Ewan did.”
He pushed her back and turned away, pacing again. “If ye were hiding, you could have seen the same thing. If you’d been skulking around…”
“We both know that’s not true,” she said. “And how could I have gotten here, and why?”
He turned back to her. She could sympathize with the obvious conflict between what he was hearing and what his world told him was possible and impossible.
“I can nae believe this,” he said, and Mary could hear the anger in his voice again. She looked toward the loose stone. She had to make him believe. She walked over and knelt, praying it was the right decision. Picking up the stone, she lifted out the UpLink. A small series of lights chased one another across the small screen, but there was no message signal, no indication that anyone had tried to reach her or bring her back. She held it out to her captor, answering the silent question he asked with his eyes as he took it.
“It’s a special bracelet. It’s called an UpLink,” she said. “It’s used to help me go back to my time. But the person who works it from the other side betrayed me. The last time she sent me here, she did so in a way that I could not hide, in a way that she knew would cause me to be seen.”
Alastair was turning the little bracelet over and over in his hand. “Why?”
“She was jealous,” Mary said. “She wanted to be a traveler, but I was chosen. She was angry. I didn’t realize it until too late.”
“So there’s no magic left?” He was looking at the lights. “If there is no magic, why do I see these stars?”
Mary found herself smiling. The little lights did look a bit like stars.
“They’re just… lights. If it were working there would be more—words and symbols.”
“We have to burn this,” he said, his tone worried. But she put her hand on his.
“No. Please. It’s my only way back. I don’t know if it will ever work again, but if it’s gone I’ll be stuck here forever with no hope.” She shook her head. “Besides, the alloy… the substance this bracelet is made of—will not burn. It’s harder than the steel you use to make your blades.”
She watched nervously as Alastair tested this theory, first biting the UpLink and then tapping it on the wall before trying to bend it. After a moment, he seemed satisfied that she was telling the truth.
“Do you believe me?” she finally asked.
He was staring at the bracelet. “Aye.” He shook the bracelet in front of her face. “But this would surely get you burnt, as would the story behind it. It must stay hidden, as you must.” He tucked the bracelet into the sporran at his waist and headed toward the door.
“Wait!” she cried. “Where are you going?”
“To make a deal to save ye, wee one,” he replied, turning back once he’d opened the door.
“Why?” she asked.
He grew quiet. “I don’t ken,” he replied to her surprise. “I just know I feel a strong need to protect ye.”
“How can you say that?” she asked, rubbing her bottom. “You punished me.”
“Aye. And I did it to protect ye. And if you’re indeed a scholar, then you’ll ken that obedience is now more than just about order. It’s a matter of life and death.”
Mary nodded, feeling suddenly very scared and very sober.
“Stay here,” he said, and she nodded but then stepped forward.
“Wait,” she said. “You didn’t tell me where you were going!”
He paused another moment in the doorway, his gray eyes fixed on her, as if trying to commit her to memory.
“No, lass, I didn’t,” he said. “Stay put. I won’t lock ye in, but I don’t have to tell ye that to flee now will mean your death.” He shut the door then and was gone.
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