How had that blue-eyed she-devil gotten inside the keep? Why now? Alex tried to collect himself, but simply couldn’t. He left the great hall—unwilling to show even the slightest crack in his impenetrable façade. Once abovestairs in the laird’s solar, he let out the frustrated growl he’d been holding in. So much had happened in the two days he’d been back in the Highlands. If he’d trusted his instincts in the first place, he would have never turned around when he heard the horsemen arrive on the beach. But no, the part of him still in love with his homeland—the side that still swelled with pride whenever he spotted a scrap of blue and green MacKay plaid—overruled the battle-hardened mercenary. He’d willingly go to Hades before he’d let a Sutherland destroy his family.
“Is she the woman you spoke of?”
Alex eyed the olive-skinned scholar he’d hired five years ago in Italy to accompany him to Constantinople as an interpreter. The man spoke seven languages, including Gaelic. “Aye,” he reluctantly admitted. “What were ye doing in the hall? I asked ye to stay here and cull through the ledgers.”
Petro gave him a sad smile. “I cannot fight against my own nature,” he said. “I follow the excitement.”
“Did ye find what ye wanted belowstairs?”
“I discovered the truth,” Petro said. “Now that you have possession of the woman you lost so long ago, what will you do with her?”
Alex raked his fingers through his hair. “Hang her.”
Petro’s eyebrows shot up. “Is she a spy for these Sutherlands?”
Nothing made sense to Alex. Though the same thought had crossed his mind when he saw Keely. What better way to gather intelligence on yer sworn enemy than to send the very woman who nearly became Lady MacKay? But would she sink to such treachery? Why would she align herself with the Sutherlands against her own clan, the Oliphants? To his knowledge, Keely had always shared a loving relationship with her sire. So the reason she sought refuge with the Sutherlands remained a mystery.“I doona think her capable of such a thing.”
“Then she is not the Jezebel you described.”
Alex frowned. “I spoke out of anger.”
“You spoke like a man still in love.”
There was no room in Alex’s life for love. “I love no one.”
“Stated by a man whose soul leapt from his body the minute he saw his woman.”
“Doona try to guess what I’m feeling, old friend. I am flesh and bone like any other man. Of course I feel something deep inside for the girl. But tis not love.”
Petro clicked his tongue. “Love is all there is, milord. But who am I to question you? I will return to what I do best.” He moved to the table and sat down. “Will you go see her now?”
“Aye,” he said. “I canna keep her locked up for no reason.”
As soon as Alex descended into the underbelly of the keep, his mood changed with the dismal surroundings. The dungeon was dark and damp. Wall torches provided the only light. The captured Sutherland soldiers, eight in total, occupied the first two cells, while Keely had been put in the last one. Hugh and Bruce were still with her.
Hugh bowed. “She claims innocence, sir.”
“Of course she does,” Alex said. “Leave us.”
The guards departed.
“Alexander?” Keely appeared from the shadows, gripping the thick metal bars. “Why did ye have me thrown down here like a common criminal?”
The moment he’d dreamt of for five long years was happening. A second chance with the lass he’d always loved. But time changed everything. There would be no sweet words exchanged, no kisses, and surely no lovemaking. He met her gaze. “I will ask the questions, Keely Oliphant.”
“Where is John? I demand an audience with my husband.”
Alex laughed bitterly. “Husband? How can ye claim that right when ye only fulfilled half of yer matrimonial duties? Did ye not leave him in the middle of the night before he had a chance to sample what pleasures ye had to offer?” His gaze swept over her curvaceous body, taking in every inch of her creamy skin and beautiful face. Time had changed her, too, for the better.
“Tis nothing for ye to worry about.”
“Oh, but it is,” he disagreed. “Ye’ve spent these last five years ensconced in the kind of luxury only the Sutherlands can offer. And now the earl has murdered twenty of my clansmen, and eight are still missing.”
She sniffled, then reached through the bars.
Alex stepped back. “Doona touch me,” he rebuked. “Those fingers weave nothing but misery. I’d sooner feel the icy grip of death.”
She gasped then, her tears visible in the flickering light. “No crueler words have ever been spoken.”
“I deserve yer mockery, Alexander. And I’m prepared to answer whatever questions ye have. Only…”
“Only, what, lass? Did ye think I’d open up my loving arms and take ye back?” His mirthless laughter echoed around them. “I despise everything ye represent. And my brother got little better. He’s blood, so I had no choice but to spend time with him.” His heart squeezed a little as he observed her reaction to his scathing words. The tears in her eyes, her defeated posture. Everything about the way she looked and acted demonstrated true remorse. But Alex would leave forgiveness to God. He didn’t have time or the desire to exercise mercy. “Ye mean nothing to me or Clan MacKay.”
“I don’t believe ye, Alex.”
He edged closer to the bars. “What would it take to convince ye?”
“L-let me touch ye.” She reached between the bars again, her slim fingers inches from his face.
Long ago those fingertips worked magic on his body and soul. Enough to make him want her forever. Enough for him to bend his knee and beg for her hand in marriage. Shaking off what had become a dark memory that constantly plagued him, he pressed against the cold steel bars and encircled her wrist with his hand, tugging her as close as she could get. “Go ahead, lass, touch me where ye will. I am no longer the man ye knew. No longer affected by a pretty face or honeyed words spoken in the heat of passion. Women serve only one purpose for me, and tis not what’s between yer ears that interests me anymore.”