Bowen pulled his horse to a complete stop and let out a chuckle. “Well, now, I cannot say I blame you for the thoughts you’re having. Indeed, I can well see why you are.”
Graeme frowned and looked in the direction of Bowen’s gaze only to nearly swallow his tongue. His mouth flopped open and he shook his head, unable to believe what he was seeing.
Across the river, on the side of the keep, Eveline stood waist deep in the water, and she was putting soap to her hair.
“She looks completely normal to me, brother. And very appealing as well. She has the look of a woman grown, and God’s teeth, I’ve not seen such a finely formed woman in many a year. I think your guilt is misplaced and that you weigh heavy over something you should not.”
The amusement in Bowen’s voice yanked Graeme from his reverie.
“Be gone!” Graeme demanded. “Look not upon her again.”
Bowen laughed, but turned his horse and began to ride in the opposite direction. “Think on what I said, Graeme. The lass is certainly not a child, nor even a girl too young. She’s a woman full grown and the proof’s right in front of you.”
His chuckles carried back to Graeme as he rode farther away. Graeme’s attention snapped back to Eveline just in time to see her rinse her hands in the water. He sat forward on his saddle and bellowed her name across the river, full intending to tell her to leave the water and put her damn clothes on. Whatever was she thinking to take a bath in the middle of the day where anyone could happen upon her?
But she either didn’t hear him or she ignored him. She never even looked up but continued to wade into the water.
Unease gripped Graeme. The river was deep here and the current moved swiftly. Just downstream the water shallowed, but was still deep enough to carry a body swiftly and rocks jutted upward from the bed creating a harder rapid. If she lost her footing or went too deep, she could easily be carried away and dashed upon the rocks.
For a moment she closed her eyes and cocked her head back as if seeking the warmth of the sun. The movement jutted her br**sts forward and Graeme groaned. She was, indeed, very beautiful. And perhaps her unawareness or lack of pretension over her looks added to her beauty. He wasn’t sure what made her so appealing to him. Which was why he felt so damn guilty over lusting over her. He knew without a doubt that if she were any other woman who’d suffered what she’d suffered and her mental capacity was in question, he’d only feel pity for her. He certainly wouldn’t be thinking about bedding her.
Compassion was what she deserved. It was what she needed, but she found it in neither the members of his clan nor him.
Just as suddenly as she tilted her head back, she suddenly leaned forward and dove beneath the surface of the water. He urged his horse forward, his gaze rapidly scanning the surface as he waited for her to come back up.
He was at full gallop, his heart thumping when she remained under. He slid from his saddle while the horse was still moving and stumbled forward as he hurried toward the bank.
She still hadn’t surfaced.
He didn’t even try to remove his boots or any part of his clothing. He slid down the bank and dove headlong into the water.
The cold nearly made him gasp, but he managed to prevent himself from inhaling a mouthful of water as he powered downward, his arms flailing outward in an effort to feel her. But if she’d been caught in the current, she could already be well downstream by now.
He was about to come up for air and call for help, when he felt a hand in his hair pulling upward. When his head popped above the surface, he found himself face-to-face with Eveline, who looked concerned. For him.
She cocked her head, put her palm to his cheek, and frowned, her eyes clearly questioning his well-being. He had the sudden urge to strangle her.
“What in the world are you doing, woman?” he bellowed. “Have you any idea what I thought? I thought you were drowning, or that you didn’t know how to swim, or that you’d been swept downstream and would be killed on the rocks.”
She blinked as if none of those thoughts had ever occurred to her. He swore and frowned all the more fiercely at her. He was freezing his arse off and she was treading water next to him, staring at him as if he’d lost his mind.
She raised one arm, wiped her fingers along it, then wrinkled her nose in distaste. Then she put her fingers to her nose and pinched her nostrils.
“A bath,” he grumbled. “You wanted a bath. God’s teeth, and you think you stink?”
She nodded solemnly. Then she held up the wet ends of her hair as if to tell him she’d merely been rinsing it. He shook his head.
But he went completely still when she touched his chin. It was just a simple touch, but it was if he’d been pressed by a hot brand. Warmth traveled down his body, alleviating the cold numb that had begun to set in.
Her lips worked up and down almost as if she were trying to say something, but then she clamped them shut and instead gave him a sad look that could only be interpreted as an apology.
Then to his utter shock, she wrapped her arms around his neck to give herself leverage, and she lifted herself out of the water just enough that she could press her lips to his.
Several things happened at once.
Her full br**sts pressed against his chest. Her n**ples were hard and puckered from the cold, and he could feel the imprint on his skin. Her lips melted over his, warm and soft, and he was suddenly as heated as a man who’d been baked in the sun on the hottest summer day.
Ah but the lass was sweet. The sweetest mouth he’d ever tasted.
He gave in to the sinful urge to possess that delectable mouth and he returned her kiss in full measure. His tongue stroked over her lips, coaxing and enticing her to let him in.
She gave a breathy sigh and parted her mouth, allowing his tongue to push inside.
He liked kissing. Many a man didn’t have much patience for it. His men jested about kissing being a waste of time and was only for wooing the unwilling lasses. But if a lass was willing, they’d much rather move to the more rudimentary elements of coupling.
But to Graeme, kissing was almost as intimate as the act of lovemaking itself. It wasn’t something to be hurried or to be offered as a token to woo a reluctant lass. It was an expression of regard.
Eveline tentatively stroked her tongue over his. One quick brush against the tip of his and then she retreated, but as he deepened the kiss, she came back and soon she was exploring his mouth in the same manner he was exploring hers.
When she finally broke away, she was panting. Her cheeks were colored and her eyes glowed. She had the look of someone who’d drunk a little too much ale. And she looked up at him with such an expression that his entire body raged with arousal and sharp lust. So much so that he wanted to take her onto the riverbank and possess her with the sun warming the both of them.
She touched his lip and then touched hers, her finger lingering over her bottom one that was swollen from the force and longevity of their kiss. Then she smiled and something melted inside him.
“You’re going to freeze,” he muttered, taking note of the chill bumps that danced across her shoulders and arms.
He hauled her into his arms and carried her to the opposite bank, away from his mount. He turned and whistled and the horse obediently forded the stream.
He saw that Eveline’s clothing was folded neatly and on a nearby rock, but she also had a blanket, which was good because now that they were out of the water, she was shivering.
He put her down long enough to reach for the blanket, and then he wrapped it around her, covering her from head to toe. He even made certain her head was covered.
She stared up at him, her eyes gleaming in amusement as she tried to move. He’d swaddled her in the blanket so she couldn’t even move her arms, much less walk back to the keep.
He glanced at his horse, knowing it was the easiest way to return, but he saw her follow his gaze and noted the panic in her eyes. Her father hadn’t lied. The idea of mounting a horse terrified her.
He cupped her cheek, and she looked back up at him.
“I’ll not make you do something that frightens you, Eveline.”
She relaxed and then leaned her cheek against his palm. To his surprise, she turned just enough to kiss the inside of his hand. It was such a simple thing and yet he felt it all the way to his soul.
He reached down and lifted her into his arms. The walk to the keep wasn’t long and he’d need to put on dry clothing himself. And he liked her in his arms. It felt natural for him to be holding her thus.
As if agreeing completely, she snuggled into his embrace, turning her face into his neck.
Whistling for his horse, he set off for the keep. As he cleared the row of trees that shielded the particular spot where Eveline had chosen to take her swim, he saw Rorie sitting on the ground a short distance away. Her head was down, and as he approached, he realized she was napping. Behind her in the distance were two of his warriors on horseback conversing.
He almost laughed. Clearly Rorie was supposed to have been Eveline’s guard and she’d fallen asleep while on duty. At least his men had kept watch, though Eveline could have drowned and they never would have known. But neither did he want them looking on while she swam in the nude.
“Rorie,” he called out.
Rorie jerked upward, her eyes wide as she stared around. When her gaze finally locked on her brother and the fact that Eveline was in his arms, she scrambled to her feet.
“What happened? What’s wrong?” she demanded.
“Nothing is the matter,” Graeme said calmly. “Run ahead and prepare a fire in my chamber. Put out something for her to wear and perhaps place one of the furs from the bed by the hearth so the flames will warm it. Then instruct one of the men to return for Eveline’s clothing.”
Rorie’s brow wrinkled and she looked as though she’d argue, but Graeme sent her a dark look that suggested she wouldn’t like the consequences.
“Go,” he said again, and she took off across the meadow toward the guard’s tower.
Eveline sighed in utter contentment as Graeme carried her through the courtyard and into the keep. She kept her eyes closed, because she was determined that nothing would ruin this moment. No stares from her clansmen. No cutting remarks. No insults.
He carried her into the keep and then up the stairs, and only then did she open her eyes as he bore her down the hall to his chamber.
Rorie was adding wood to the fire when Graeme entered the room. She scrambled up and then gestured toward the bed.
“I put a dress out for her to wear and there’s a fur warming by the fire as you requested.”
Eveline didn’t rear back so she could see Graeme’s response, but it rumbled out of his chest. She could feel the vibration, not only in her ears, but against her skin.
She loved the sound and the feel of his voice. It made her long to be able to hear, so she could do nothing but listen to him speak. He had to have the most wonderful voice in the world. Why else would it feel so delicious in her ears?
Rorie gave Eveline a small wave and a look that said, “You’re on your own” before she departed the chamber. Not that Eveline minded at all. She loved having her husband to herself when he would speak directly to her and there were no others to intrude or do things like pour ale all over Eveline.
She was quite liking the idea of Graeme as her husband, if only they could progress beyond the awkwardness wrought by her own past deceptions. She knew she must at some point, reveal herself fully to him, but when? And would it ruin any tenderness he felt toward her? Or did he in fact only feel tenderness because she was an object of pity?
It made her gut knot, because it could all go really wonderfully, but it could also go very, very wrong, and any protection she currently enjoyed because she was viewed as deficient could evaporate if the truth were known.
Graeme set her down in front of the fire, and then he held up the fur that Rorie had set out to warm. She glanced quickly up, not wanting to miss a single thing that Graeme said.
“I’ll hold up the fur and you can unwrap the blanket from you and then wrap yourself in this until you’re dry and warm enough to dress.”
She could see the discomfort in his face and it made her curious. Did he not view her as a woman? That couldn’t be the issue at all. He’d kissed her. He’d responded to her as a man does a woman. She’d seen her parents kiss. She’d seen others in her clan exchange passionate embraces. What she and Graeme had shared had certainly rocked her to her bones.
Perhaps he didn’t want to see her as a woman. Perhaps he didn’t even want her as a wife. There was no perhaps there. It was obvious he hadn’t wanted a wife and he likely hadn’t changed his mind on that account.
But neither of them had been given a choice in the matter and in Eveline’s mind it was better to make the best of a bad situation. She liked Graeme. The more time she spent in his presence, the more she grew to like and even respect the man he was.
He’d been kind to her and he’d shown her understanding. Any man who could do that with the daughter of his most hated enemy was not an evil man.