Authors: Marie Laval
Rose paused at the edge of the forest. No wonder they called this place Fairy Wood. It was truly an enchanted place in an enchanted dawn which in a strange way reminded her of early morning at Bou Saada, even if snow covered the ground instead of golden sand. The sky glowed with delicate shades of violet, mauve and pinks mixed with translucent greys and blues. Further down the valley two mountains covered with pine forests and tipped with snow rose like sleepy giants standing guard. At the edge of the woods a stream sang a pure, crystalline song as it cascaded over rocks. Perhaps fairies hid behind the tall, dark firs, or behind those rocks shiny with frost and ice.
She left the path and walked across the field, her boots sinking into the pristine, thick and fluffy snow. She dropped the tin pot and dirty cups she'd brought from the cottage for washing down on the river bank, knelt down and stared into her distorted reflection.
What a sorry sight she was, with her matted hair, her eyes gritty and swollen from the lack of sleep, her face pale and blotchy. It was no wonder really, considering she had spent yet another sleepless night. This time, it wasn't Lord McGunn's illness which had kept her awake but the maddening questions swirling inside her head, over and over again. Did Cameron deceive her, and if so, why?
As she lay on the grimy straw mattress, she had replayed every moment of their three-week whirlwind courtship, culminating with Cameron proposing to her in the Jardin d'Essai one balmy evening, as stars reflected in the dark surface of the sea in the bay and a silver moon watched over them. She had dissected their wedding day hour by hour, minute by minute, to find any clues indicating that it had been a clever deception. She found none.
The evening ceremony in the chapel at the back of the British Embassy had been a little rushed because Reverend Thompson had been at the bedside of a dying British merchant all day and needed to return to the grieving family for the wake. After the ceremony, they had gone to the Excelsior Hotel, but instead of going to her room, she had sneaked into Cameron's suite in secret, since nobody was to know about the wedding. After uncorking a bottle of champagne, they'd toasted their union. He'd taken her in his arms and they'd waltzed across the room. How happy, giddy and excited she had felt!
After that everything had gone terribly wrong, which had all been her faultâ¦
With a heavy sigh, she grabbed hold of a pebble and threw it as hard as she could into the stream. It hit a rock, bounced off and landed with a loud plop. Half a dozen ravens flew off from a nearby tree, making hoarse crowing calls which broke the perfect silence of the morning.
Why would Cameron have played such a cruel trick on her? Lord McGunn was wrong. He had to be.
She swallowed. Bruce McGunn. He was the other reason she had been awake all night.
She whispered his name and her chest tightened so much it hurt. What was it about him that made her angry and weak all at once, that filled her with longing, heat and need in a way no other man, even Cameron, ever had? He was a harsh, brutal, unpleasant man â the exact opposite of Cameron in everything â and she disliked him with a frightening intensity.
Yet she'd all but melted in his arms the evening before. Her body craved his touch, his caresses. Her heart ached and swelled up for him every time she recalled the anguished, haunted look in his eyes when he spoke of Ferozeshah and what he called his curse. Nothing made sense anymore, least of all her own feelings.
Her fingers scooped a little snow and moulded it into a ball she threw into the stream. Dipping her fingers in the water, she cupped a little icy water into her hands and washed her face until her cheeks tingled and her mind felt sharper. She rinsed out the cups, filled the tin pot with fresh water and started back towards the village just as the winter sun, a huge ball of blood-red fire, was rising between the mountains, turning the sky into a riot of fiery colours that painted the snow red and orange.
Lost in her thoughts she didn't see the beast until it was too late. It stood a few feet away only, magnificent and tall with its huge antlers and thick brownish coat. By Old Ibrahim's Beard, what was that? She'd never seen such an animal before. It was huge, and looked deadly.
For a second it seemed as unsure as herself as to what to do. Then it shook its antlers, beat the ground with its foreleg, let out a series of grunts which echoed in the silence, as if poised to charge.
A squeal of terror echoed behind her and she swirled round. The youngest McKenzie girl stood still, her eyes opened wide in fright, her face as pale as snow.
âDon't make a sound, don't move, until I tell you.' Rose willed her voice to remain calm, all the time glancing around for something she would use to make the beast go away. There was nothing which could serve as a weapon â nothing but snow. It wasn't much, but it would have to doâ¦
Dropping the pots to the ground, barely aware of the cold water splashing all over her skirt and boots, she bent down to scoop a handful of snow. She shaped a ball and threw it at the stag's chest. The animal jerked back in surprise.
âGo back to the cottage. Now!' She told the girl before bending down to make more snowballs and throw them in rapid succession at the animal.
The stag let out a loud snort, breathed out a cloud of steam and pawed at the snowy ground. It took a couple more minutes and several more snowballs for it to turn and run away in the woods.
âSnow balls against a stag? Now that was a bloody daft idea.' A man's deep voice scolded behind her.
Annoyed, she swung round to face Bruce McGunn. His face was hard, his grey eyes almost blue in the bright morning light. Like every time he was close, her heart drummed so fast and loud she found it hard to breathe.
âI had to think of something to give the little girl time to run away.'
âIt was completely irresponsible. Did you see the size of its antlers? It could have killed you both had it charged.'
There he was again, telling her off like a stupid, naughty child. Anger and hurt flooded inside her â a wild, mad torrent that made her voice shake and her face burn. She stamped her foot on the ground, grabbed hold of one of her remaining snowballs and pressed it hard between her hands until it was hard and compact.
âWell, it didn't charge, did it? What would you rather I had done? Climbed up a tree with the little girl on my back, or grabbed a stick and chased after it, or just stood there and screamed for help?'
He arched an eyebrow. âCalm down, sweetheart, I was justâ¦'
She stomped her foot on the ground again.
âDon't tell me to calm down, and don't tell me I am making a scene. And above all, don't call me sweetheart! I wish you'd stop talking to me as if I was five years old. I wish you'd leave me alone and I'd never see you again. But most of all I wish I'd never met you.'
âYou said that before,' he remarked coolly. âNow, if you've finished your little tantrum, it's time we went back to the cottageâ¦'
That did it. She didn't remember raising her arm and taking aim but the next thing she knew she threw the snowball at him. It hit his chin with a soft thud.
She let out a squeak, put her hand in front of her mouth and stepped back.
âYou need to improve your aim,' he said, deadly calm as he brushed the white powder off his dark beard. âIt was off target if you meant to get me on the nose,'
âI â I didn't mean to hit you.'
âYes, you did. Let me show you how it's done.'
He bent down to scoop some snow and threw a snowball at her. She was so surprised she didn't move and it caught her on the shoulder.
He tossed another snowball. This time she ducked and it landed behind her.
âWhat are you doing?' she asked.
âI thought it was obvious. We're having a snowball fight, aren't we?'
He gathered a handful of snow, and shaped it between his hands.
âCome on, what are you waiting for?' he called, a wide smile on his face.
It took her a split second to make up her mind. If Lord McGunn challenged her to a snowball fight, then she would show him what she was capable of. She bent down, packed some snow between her hands and threw a ball but he dodged it and it landed on the ground.
âIs that the best you can do?' The sunlight caught his eyes again, made them shine with silver sparkles.
She hurled the next ball straight at his head.
âI got you! I got you!' She cried out, jumping up and down when she caught him on the nose.
âNot bad, but a little weak.'
âWeak, you said? Then how do you find this one?'
She hurled another snowball at him. It hit him hard on the chin, peppering his dark beard with white.
âThat was pure chance. I wasn't concentrating. I bet you can't do that again.'
She moulded half a dozen more snowballs and pummelled him with them. Every time they hit their target with a satisfying thump, she jumped up and down and shrieked with delight. In contrast, his aim was so poor he almost always missed her. It was almost as if he was doing it on purpose.
âI won! Look at you, you're all white.' She laughed as she pointed at his hair, face and coat scattered with fresh snow.
Her foot caught a rock hidden under the snow and she stumbled forward, straight into his arms, making them both lose their balance. He swayed before falling backward and cushioning their fall with his body, and she found herself lying on top of him, his body hard and warm under her.
He wrapped his arms around her, so tightly she stopped breathing, and the world became a blur â the snow fields, the dark green forest and the sharp, crisp blue sky all melted into a kaleidoscope of colours. Underneath her, he was no longer smiling, but tense and hard as steel.
He slid her up along his body until their eyes, their mouths were level. Slipping one hand onto the nape of her neck, he pulled her down towards him, slowly, inexorably. Her heart drummed as hard as a
. She held her breath, waiting, willing for their lips to touch. Her mind shut down. Nothing existed, nothing mattered but him and the flame that danced and burned inside her, higher and stronger with every heartbeat.
, I want you and I don't care who you are,' he said in a hoarse voice before pulling her down and bringing her mouth to his in a hot, rough, impatient kiss.
The thick stubble on his cheeks rubbed against her skin. It was wet with melted snow, at once soft and bristly, and made her tingle and shiver all over. She lifted a hand to the side of his face and her fingers stroked his cheek in a timid caress.
His breathing quickened, tremors shook the steely arms that pinned her to him. Pressing one hand against the back of her neck, he forced her lips open with his mouth. His tongue slid inside her mouth and he kissed her long and deep. It was like being devoured alive, possessed by an irresistible force. And vanquished.
The world exploded in millions of tiny, bright, colourful pieces and then there was only stormy darkness, waves of desire, and an unbearable heat coiling and spreading inside her. Her hands slid along his chest and onto his shoulders and stayed there, clinging and gripping as he ravaged her mouth. More, she wanted more. She wanted him.
The sounds of voices nearby shattered the dark spell, and knocked her back to reality. She tore herself away from him, pressed her hands against his chest and pushed hard.
âSo what?' His eyes were a dark and stormy, his breathing fast and heavy, his heart thumped so hard she could feel it against hers.
Gripped by panic, she pushed harder.
âPlease. I don't want anybody to see meâ¦ to see us like this.'
He narrowed his eyes, hissed a breath and released her, and she scrambled to her feet.
âIt's only Garbhan and his family,' he remarked as he got up. âWhat does it matter if they see us having a tussle in the snow when they know we spent two nights alone in the cottage?'
âIt matters. Of course it matters,' she cried out. Gathering her skirts, she ran blindly up the forest track. She had to escape, far away from the man who played havoc with her mind, her bodyâ¦ and her heart.
âWatch out, Miss Rose,' Garbhan cried out as she bumped into him. âYou look all upset and flustered. Has the stag come back to give you another fright?'
Next to him his wife and the three children looked at her with undisguised curiosity. She forced a few deep breaths down before answering.
âNo, it fled into the woods.'
âWe came to say goodbye,' Garbhan began, âand to thank you for scaring that stag away. Our Lorna was so upset we couldn't make head nor tail of what she was saying. Lord McGunn was the first to understand what was happening and he shot out of the cottage. I never saw a man run as fast.'
He took hold of Rose's hand, squeezed it hard.
âThere was no need for me to run,' McGunn said behind her. âRose was doing fine on her own.'
He stepped beside her, his arms filled with the tumblers and pots she had dropped near the stream, and looked at Garbhan.
âSo it's agreed. I'll see you all at Wrath in a few days.'
Rose frowned. âWrath? I thought you were heading for Inverness.'
âLord McGunn made us an offer we couldn't refuse,' Garbhan said with a beaming smile. âWe will be forever grateful.'
âNonsense,' McGunn retorted. âYou're the one doing me a favour. I told you, I need more workers at the fisheries, and a couple of scullery maids at the Lodge.'
âGod bless you, Lord McGunn,' Alana said, her eyes full of tears. âI promise we'll work hard for you. You're a good man and what you're doing for us, well, it's wonderful.'
âIt's no big thing. There's no need to cry,' he interrupted in a gruff voice.
Rose wasn't fooled by his harsh response. He was preserving their pride as well as saving them from life in the slums. Her breath hitched in her throat, her heart felt so tight, so full, it hurt. She felt a tug at her skirt and looked down to find the youngest McKenzie girl smiling at her.