"Why, you clumsy oaf! Look what you've gone and done now!"
Morgan's gaze automatically dropped to his hands. A jagged shard of glass protruded from his palm. Warm blood trickled down his wrist and forearm to puddle on one of Elizabeth Cameron's precious rugs. Before he could quench it, the old shame flared. Shame for being a MacDonnell. Shame for being such a crude ox. Just as quickly on its heels followed rage--the crushing rage that shielded his tattered pride from every blow. But before he could unleash it on the hapless girl, she dropped the sword and rushed to his side.
Tossing the splintered remains of the rose away, she cradled his hand in hers and dabbed at the wound with a wad of her nightdress. Her hand was warm, soft, and silky-smooth beneath his own.
"You really should take more care," she chided him. "Had you struck your wrist, you might have bled to death."
Morgan was too dumbfounded to point out her illogic. Had she cut off his head, he most certainly would have bled to death. Still scowling over his hand, she dragged him toward the pale arc of light at the window.
"Be very still," she commanded. "I'm going to fish out this piece of glass. It's bound to be painful. You may scream if you like. I shan't think any less of you."
Since she'd never thought much of him to begin with, Morgan wasn't concerned. He didn't even flinch when she pressed his palm with her thumb and snagged the sliver of glass between the polished crescents of her fingernails.
Thoroughly bemused, Morgan studied her in the moonlight. The top of her head barely came to his breastbone. The spiral curls he used to yank with such relish now tumbled down her back in inky waves. Her skin was fair except for the faintest hint of color, as if God had brushed rose petals across her cheeks and lips. A fringe of ebony silk shuttered her eyes.
Her scent filled his nostrils. He was shocked to feel his throat tighten with a primal hunger. She smelled like her mother, but fresher, sweeter somehow. Some primitive male instinct warned him this was a bloom still on the vine, fragrant and tender and ripe. He scowled. She might be nectar to another man, but to a MacDonnell, Dougal Cameron's daughter would be more deadly than nightshade.
Her teeth cut into her lower lip as if to bite back a cry of her own as she drew forth the shard of glass and staunched the bleeding with another wad of her nightdress. Morgan feared there might soon be more of it twined around his arm than around her body. But an intriguing glimpse of a slender calf silenced his protest.
Grimacing, she laid the bloody splinter on the windowsill before glancing up at him. His hand was in moonlight, but shadows still hid his face. "A rather ignoble end to the Belmont Rose, wasn't it? Perhaps when King James gave it to my English grandfather for his loyal service, he intended it as a weapon, not a trinket. If he'd have realized it would end up in a Highlander's hands, I'm sure he would have tipped the thorns with poison rather than gold."
Sabrina Cameron's baby fat might have melted and realigned in a very enticing manner, but one thing hadn't changed. She still loved to chatter.
A low chuckle rumbled from his throat.
Sabrina frowned. The sound was unfamiliar to her--rich and deep, a mere octave above a growl. Yet if she were a cat, every hair on her head would have bristled in warning.
At that moment he cocked his head to the side, giving her an unobstructed view of his face. Moonlight melted over its harsh planes and angles, etching its alien virility in ruthless lines. He was a stranger, yet so hauntingly familiar she couldn't stop her hand from lifting, her fingertips from brushing the stubborn jut of his jaw. His eyes were guarded like the forest at dusk.
"Hello, brat," he said.
Sabrina felt that old familiar kick in her stomach and realized she was standing face-to-face in the moonlit tower with Morgan MacDonnell, his boyish promise of masculine beauty come to devastating fruition.
Mortified by her boldness, she snatched back her hand, remembering the first time she had touched him in tenderness and been rebuked in anger.
A wry grin quirked his lips. "I suppose if you'd have known it was me, you'd have let me bleed to death."
Terrified that she was going to revert to a stammering six-year-old, she snapped, "I'd say not. You were dripping all over Mama's Flemish rug."
To hide her consternation, she lowered her gaze back to his hand. Another mistake. She could not help staring, fascinated by the blunt size of his fingers, the warmth of his roughened skin, the rhythmic throb of his pulse beneath her thumb. She had the absurd thought that it must take a mighty heart indeed to fuel such a man.
"You've grown," she blurted out accusingly.
"So have you."
His low, amused tone warned her. She looked up to find his gaze taking a leisurely jaunt up her body, finally coming to rest with bold regard on her face. A splinter of anger twisted in her heart. She had yearned for so long that he might look at her with affection. Why did he have to choose now, when she sensed his admiration might be even more lethal than his enmity?
Hardly aware of her actions, she tore a strip of priceless Chinese silk from her mother's drapes and wrapped it around his palm. "So what were you doing up here? Plotting a massacre? Trying to find a way to lower the harpsichord out the window? Searching for a mouse to stuff into my bed?"
Lucky mouse, Morgan thought, but wisely refrained from saying so. "If you must know, lass, I was searchin' for a moment's peace."
"Ha!" She knotted the bandage with a crisp jerk that finally drew a flinch from him. "Peace and the MacDonnells hardly go hand in hand."
"Noble sentiments from a lass who just burst in here threatenin' to carry my head to her papa on a platter."
Sabrina could hardly argue with that.
He nodded toward the door. "Why aren't you down there with the rest of your kin, lordin' your noble gestures over the peasants?"
Morgan's size might have changed, but he still had the uncanny knack of making her feel ashamed of who she was. She snorted daintily. "Peasants indeed. Barefoot savages, the lot of them. Mama would have been better off serving them at a trough."
Morgan's voice was quiet, its very lack of emotion a rebuke. "If their table manners aren't to your likin', it might be because most of them won't see that much food again in their lifetimes. And their feet are bare because they're savin' the rotted soles of their boots for the cold winter months. They don't lose as many toes that way."
Shame buffeted Sabrina. Morgan had always brought out the worst in her. She dropped her gaze, then wished she hadn't as it fell on the stark lines of Morgan's bare feet. Golden hair dusted his muscular calves. His soles must be as tough as leather to bear the stony soil of the mountain without protection. Her own toes curled sheepishly into the plush cashmere of her stockings.
"If you must know, I begged Mama to let me join the festivities," she confessed.
"Why didn't you appeal to your dotin' papa? Are your pouts failin' you? As I recall, he never could resist a flutter of those ridiculously long lashes of yours."
Sabrina's gaze shot to his face. Morgan had never given her any indication that he'd noticed her lashes, or anything else about her. "Even Papa was adamant this time." A soft chuckle escaped her. "It seems your reputations for lechery preceded you. He was terrified one of you might hit me over the head and drag me off by my hair."
Morgan was silent for so long that she feared she'd offended him again. Then he reached down and lifted a skein of her hair into his uninjured hand, rubbing it between thumb and forefinger. A dreamy languor stole across his features. The cadence of Sabrina's heartbeat shifted in warning.
He let the stolen tendril ripple through his fingers in a cascade of midnight silk before turning the dusky heat of his gaze on her. "I can't say I blame him, lass. If you were mine, I'd probably lock you away too."
If you were mine...
The words hung suspended between them, far more awkward than the silence. In a breath of utter lunacy Sabrina wondered how it would feel to belong to a man like him, dared to ponder what came after being dragged off by her hair.
Caught in the same spell of moonlight and solitude, Morgan's gaze dropped to her parted lips. His starving senses reeled, intoxicated by the scent of roses that flared his nostrils and the cling of her hair against his callused knuckles. He'd long ago resigned himself to the harsh life of a Highland warrior. But this girl's softness awakened old hungers and weakened his resolve. He hadn't touched a drop of wine, yet he felt drunk, reckless. What harm could it do to steal one taste of that tender rosebud of a mouth? Resisting the temptation to plunge his tongue between her unwitting lips, he leaned down and touched his mouth to hers.
A Whisper of Roses