Highlander Most Wanted eBook: Page2

Maya Banks (2013)

Page 2

 

  “Your mum was right,” Teague muttered.

  Fear flashed in the lad’s eyes. “Many are gone. There aren’t so many of us left. We don’t want war and would pray that you are merciful in your dealings. ”

  He kept his gaze averted, his head bowed in a subservient manner, but Bowen could see the lad’s hands trembling and it angered him that this child would be sent into harm’s way.

  “Ansel! Ansel!”

  A woman’s voice rang strongly through the courtyard. It resonated with anger—and fear. And then a slight figure adorned in a cape that completely obscured her features from sight appeared through the gates.

  She ran to the child and grasped his arm, quickly pulling him into the folds of her cape until he was hidden from view. Only his feet stuck out.

  “Who sent you on this fool’s errand?” she demanded, looking down in the direction of the child’s head.

  It was a question Bowen would very much have liked to know the answer to as well.

  “Corwen,” the child said, his voice muffled by her cloak.

  The only thing visible on the lass were her hands peeking from the long sleeves of the cape. Bowen studied them with interest as they gripped the child so tightly that they went white at the tips.

  Young hands. Smooth. Nary a wrinkle in sight. The nails were elegantly fashioned and rounded at the tips, and the fingers were long and slender, pale, as if they hadn’t ever been kissed by the sun.

  ’Twas evident this was not one who worked in the fields. Or in the keep cleaning, either.

  “Cowardly bastard,” she spat, startling all four of the men with her vehemence—and the base language. Not that any disagreed with her assessment.

  “ ’Tis the lass who directed us to the dungeon where Eveline was being held,” Brodie said in a low enough voice not to be overheard.

  The hairs at Bowen’s nape prickled and stood on end. Aye, ’twas so. When Graeme had despaired of uncovering his wife’s whereabouts, the shadowy, caped figure had appeared at the stairs and directed them below, where they’d indeed discovered where Eveline was being held prisoner.

  “Is what the lad saying true?” Bowen directed at the lass. “Has Patrick McHugh fled, leaving his clan and his keep to fall as they may?”

  The lass went still, her hands leaving the lad to curl into tight fists at her sides. If her body language was any indication, she was furious.

  “Aye,” she said coldly. “All that is left are the women and children, those who are old and cannot travel, and the warriors who have wives and children they refused to leave. The others left at dawn. ”

  “And where are those who remained?” Brodie persisted.

  “Inside the keep. Huddled in the great hall, wondering if each breath will be their last,” she said in a disdainful voice.

  Something about the lass’s tone rubbed Brodie the wrong way, and it irritated him fully that she was hiding her face from him.

  “Remove the hood, lass,” he ordered. “I’d know who it is I speak with. ”

  She froze, her hands lowering to her sides until they pressed against the skirts of her dress. Did she dare openly defy him in front of his men and the Armstrongs as well?

  His expression darkened and his lips thinned. “Do as I have ordered,” he snapped.

  With shaking hands, she pushed the lad behind her and then slowly lifted her fingers to the edges of the hood. She was turned so that her right side was presented to him and his men, and as she lowered the hood from over her head a gasp went up behind Brodie.

  Jesu, but the woman was beautiful. Perhaps the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen in his life. Her features were rendered with perfection.

  Long brown hair fell in waves over her shoulders. There were varying shades mixed in and, with the sunlight beating down on her, the different colors were highlighted in a dazzling array. He’d thought the lass had raven hair the first time he’d seen her. She’d been in the darkness of the keep and only the barest strands had peeked from her cape. But here, in the full glory of the sun, it was evident that her hair was not simply plain black. Nay, it was a magnificent mane of hair that seemed to change color depending on the way she moved and the source of light.

  Her bone structure was small and delicate, her cheek high and her jawline firm, leading to a perfect bow of a mouth. A dark eyebrow arched, and long eyelashes heavily fringed the vivid wash of green.

  It felt as though someone had punched him solidly in the gut, for he could not draw breath. His men were no less affected as they gaped at the sheer perfection before them.

  Why on earth had she taken such pains to hide her beauty?

  Then she turned to face him, her mouth set into a firm line, her eyes wounded and guarded, as though preparing herself for further reaction.

  Another gasp—this time of horror—echoed harshly through the air. Bowen recoiled, as though he’d been struck and he hadn’t been prepared for the blow.

  The other side of the lass’s face was … ruined.

  A jagged scar ran the length of her face, starting at her temple and ending at the corner of her mouth. ’Twas obvious no care had been taken in the stitching of it. There was no smoothness to the scar and it was equally obvious that the wound had not been inflicted so very long ago.

  He saw her flinch at the reaction of his men—at his own reaction—and it shamed him. But close on the heels of regret came … rage. Already furious at the turn of events and all that he’d learned since his arrival, he grew even angrier as he stared upon the lass.

  “What the hell happened to your face, lass?” he demanded.

  Chapter 3

  Color suffused the side of her face that wasn’t scarred. Humiliation dulled her eyes, and Bowen felt a twinge of regret for so baldly stating his demand for information.

  She was quite possibly the most fascinating female Bowen had ever laid eyes on. One side of her face was impossibly perfect. The other was a complete tragedy.

  Curiosity burned in his veins, making him impatient and edgy. He wanted to demand the whole of it. Whether it was an accident or done apurpose. The shame in her eyes hinted at something as dark and sinister as the scar itself, and it made him all the more determined to ferret out the truth.

  “By what name are you called?” Bowen asked, switching tactics when it became obvious that no reply was forthcoming.

  ’Twas obvious that she wasn’t comfortable on the topic of her scar, and there was plenty more information he needed in light of the developments within the McHugh clan.

  “Genevieve,” she answered softly.

  It was as beautiful a name as the one side of her face was. A name to match the woman she surely must have been before the other side of her face was flayed open by a blade.

  “Genevieve McHugh?”

  Her chin came up, her eyes glazing over, becoming unreadable.

  “Just Genevieve. Who I was is of no import, for I am that woman no longer. ”

  Teague’s eyebrows went up at the cryptic statement. Brodie and Aiden were equally taken aback.

  “Well then Genevieve, it would appear as though you are acting as the spokesman for your clan. Take us within to meet the remainder of the McHugh clan, so I can decide what is to be done with them. ”

  Genevieve’s lips twisted in scorn, her eyes sparking with anger.

  “Your arrogance is misplaced, good sir. These people had naught to do with the mistreatment of Eveline Montgomery. They are as much a victim of Ian’s and Patrick’s cowardice as Eveline herself. ”

  Brodie stepped forward, his lips curled into a snarl. “I doubt they were imprisoned in a dungeon and tormented with their fate. My sister was ill-used by Ian McHugh for years. He has long acted as her tormentor. ”

  Genevieve eyed Brodie with a level gaze. “There are many kinds of torment, sir. Nay, the clansmen were not imprisoned in a dungeon. Nay, they weren’t threatened or subjected to the kind of abuse Eveline was
. I am sorry for her. I would not wish Ian McHugh on my worst enemy. ”

  Her face flashed with pain and a sorrow so deep and gut-wrenching that it bathed Bowen with discomfort. Her distress radiated like a beacon, and it was instinctive to comfort her in some way.

  He extended his hand, his intention to touch her arm, but she shied instantly away and stared warily at him as she put careful distance between herself and him.

  “Never think they have not suffered, though,” Genevieve continued. “They have long endured without a strong leader. Patrick was laird in name only. Ian was a bully who thrived on making others fear him. His own father feared him. Anyone who dared to speak out or disagree with Ian suffered dearly for the perceived slight. ”

  “Aye, I believe it,” Teague said grimly. “ ’Tis not a pretty picture that has been painted over the last while. We learned of his character from Eveline. Anyone who would torment a sweet, young lass at such a tender age is a monster who should be consigned to hell. ”

  “I have every confidence that is where he resides even now,” Genevieve said with quiet conviction.

  “Take us to the others,” Bowen cut in, impatient to be done with the matter. “After meeting with your kin, I’ll decide what is to be done. ”

  “They are not my kin,” she said softly. “But I would see them treated fairly all the same. ”

  Perplexed by the mystery of Genevieve—just Genevieve—Bowen gestured toward the courtyard, indicating that Genevieve should proceed.

  Ansel fled from Genevieve’s skirts and didn’t stop, disappearing into the keep up the steps from the courtyard.

  Genevieve walked in a measured, unhurried pace, head held high, her dignity gathered round her like a cloak in winter. There was a serenity to her stance that seemed far too practiced, as though this were a defense mechanism, one with which she was well acquainted.

  She was too calm, considering that she was facing an enemy army with vengeance and the thirst for blood on their minds. Most women—and men—would be terrified and likely pleading for mercy.

  Not this woman.

  She was regal and poised, almost as if she were the one granting them a favor by escorting them within. Bowen couldn’t detect a single quiver. Was she truly so unaffected, or was she merely a master at masking her emotions? Had her injury so numbed her to the judgment and reactions of others that she simply didn’t register all that went on around her?

  Nay, he’d seen her initial response when he and his men had reacted to the shock of her scarred face. Though she’d quickly masked it, she’d been hurt and embarrassed by the collective horror that had arced through the assembled men.

  It shamed him that he and his men had demonstrated such disrespect for a woman who was obviously gently born and bred. But the damage was done, and he couldn’t call back the reactions of himself or Teague and Eveline’s brothers.

  The courtyard was barren. No sounds could be heard, not even in the distance. The wind kicked up, blowing cool where the sun had beat down on their heads.

  When they mounted the steps into the keep, a nervous buzz could be heard from within. There was quiet weeping, and the low rumble of masculine voices offering words of comfort. But there was an edge, even in the men’s words, that couldn’t be mistaken.

  They all awaited their fate.

  Bowen stepped into the hall behind Genevieve, his expression grim and a sense of sadness gripping him. He had no desire to visit death and destruction upon the innocent. For the first time in a history steeped in violence, the future looked peaceful.

  The Montgomerys had achieved at least a temporary truce with the Armstrongs—a genuine truce—sealed by Graeme’s marriage, and his love for Eveline Armstrong.

  And the truth of it was that Bowen could find no fault with the Armstrongs for wanting only to protect Eveline. Tavis Armstrong seemed a fair, just man, as much as it pained Bowen to admit such.

  When the McHugh clansmen caught sight of Genevieve, and then of the four men who strode in behind her, there was an instant barrage of noise. Babbling, the weeping intensified. Dark scowls adorned the men’s faces, and there were accusing glares from some of the women.

  All directed at … Genevieve?

  Bowen frowned in puzzlement, but before he could say anything two women launched a harsh accusation in Genevieve’s direction.

  “How you must be gloating now,” one hissed. “Are you here to witness our murder? Did you offer to whore yourself to the enemy so that your position would be secure?”

  “How could you?” the other demanded. “There are children here. Aye, mostly women and children and our husbands who remained behind, knowing their lives would surely be forfeit. ”

  More stepped forward as if to add their own condemnation, but Bowen took his own step forward, planting himself between Genevieve and the others.

  Teague’s brows drew together and he moved to Genevieve’s side, but she seemed unruffled by the animosity directed at her. Her expression was passive and unreadable. No emotion shone in her eyes, and she stared ahead, her features set in stone.

  Was the woman inhuman? No man or woman alive could stand by and suffer the insults thrown her way without some reaction. And yet Genevieve seemed impervious to it all.