He couldn't do this. She didn't belong there, in such a brutal, uncertain time. He'd not ravage her in some tent on the eve of battle. He might be a man forever destroyed by her touch, but he'd not bring her down too.
"I must go." His voice was a hoarse whisper. James rose from her, had to turn his back to avoid seeing what was the most powerful temptation of his life. He knew if he were to look once more at her, see the invitation he knew he'd find in her eyes, there would be no going back. He'd not be able to stop himself again.
With a muttered oath, he wandered blindly away, to lose himself in the gray smoke of the soldiers' camp.
Even in her confusion, Magda's face flushed as she thought of James, of last night. His kiss had crashed over her, consumed her, his mouth urgent to taste every part of her. And she'd felt the same hunger. Magda had wanted to take him to her, to touch and taste away all the rest, to forget the world of the future, and the pall of death that hung like a physical thing over their present. His fingers had traced with unexpected gentleness along the curve of her cheek, down the slope of her neck. She'd longed for them to ease lower, sliding down the front of her dress, fantasized how it would feel for his roughened palm to chafe her breast and take her in hand.
They'd pulled apart reluctantly. James had rested his forehead on hers, murmuring words of adoration that, though entirely new to her, had felt familiar and right.
But then he'd left so abruptly, and she'd returned to the smells and din of the crofter's cottage, where she stayed with a few of the cooks and grooms not far from the soldiers. The bizarre transition from something so intimate to a situation so foreign left Magda feeling unreal. James had insisted on her privacy, and the embarrassment she felt at having an entire room to herself while the others made do on the floor in front of the hearth was only more isolating.
Adjusting her plaid shawl one last time, Magda stepped into the clearing before she lost her nerve. She'd left her room before dawn, knowing that if Napier saw h er, he'd never allow her to venture to the soldiers' camp. But she had slept fitfully the night before and wanted, needed, to see James before he was off. She had to find out what the kiss had meant to him. What she meant to him. Even if she discovered what they'd shared had been nothing more than a flare of lust, the knowledge of where she stood would be something solid to hold onto.
She heard James before she saw him. A broad laugh rising above the voices of others. He had clearly heard something that delighted him, and she had to smile at the sound of it. His easy pleasure was a constant surprise, reassuring, and welcome like a chance break in the clouds in an overcast sky.
"The sun, she rises." James snuck up behind her, his breath hot on her neck in the chill morning air, and traced his fingers lightly up and down her spine. Her body shivered, nipples pulling taut against the rough fabric of her dress.
She turned to look at him. Dawn was beginning to filter through the trees, and the shapes of things slowly appeared out of the fading dark. The early morning mist shrouded the camp in an unearthly haze, James a gray silhouette standing close by her side. A shiver crawled through her, terror of the coming battle like a spear in her belly, even as the sight of James—long and handsome, donning armored breastplate like some magnificent hero of old—made her feel like a woman undone.
"To what do we owe this honor?" His voice was suddenly formal. Then she spotted a stoic group of men who'd appeared and were heading toward them.
"I wanted to wish you good luck," she said, cursing the anxiety that seeped through in her voice.
"I cannot imagine a greater boon than your bonny self, hen. Though," he added with a laugh, "Napier will surely burst a vein to find you gone from your room."
"Come, I'd have you meet some of the newest men in my acquaintance." Winking, he added, "A learned sage once instructed, a stranger does not a good leader make."
Magda noticed at once that these men were dressed differently from the rest, in muted tartans, a few wearing low boots or leather shoes and hose, though most were barefoot. About a dozen of them carried dirks and small rounded shields, but there were also a few with hooked pikes, as well as two archers in the group.
"Have you ever met a true Highlander, lass?"
"I… I can't say that I have," she said nervously, instinctively tucking herself closer to James's side.
One man stepped to the front, locking his eyes with James so sternly that Magda might have laughed had he not looked so dangerous. He stood solidly, with feet apart and hands at his waist, an enormous claymore strapped to his back. Magda estimated he was still a teenager, despite his already great height and the deference the other soldiers seemed to pay him.
"This would be Ewe n Cameron, chief… rather, soon -to-be chief of his clan." The men exchanged nods.
"You Lowlanders tarry, even as the sun breaks the sky," the young warrior growled in a deep and thickly accented burr. "I'd be off while Aberdeen shire is still abed. Uncle"—Ewen nodded at an older, much grizzled man in his party—"did you scout the right flank?"
"Aye, lad, there are wee shallows a ways downriver fit to cross."
"You can take the ponies," James suggested.
Ewen's uncle merely glowered, incredulous. "We're not traveling to England, lad. God gave Highlanders two feet, and we ken how to use them."
"Fine." James nodded. "They'll be paying mind only to the front line."
"Aye. My thought as well," Ewen said. "While you busy them with musket fire, we'll split them in two at their flank, and the battle is done, quick as you please."
"Do it," James ordered. "Leslie's hired men are eager to repay yesterday's humiliation. Let them. What they don't know of you Highlanders won't hurt them."
The Highlanders all nodded solemnly. "'Tis the greatest courage of all, sending men into battle," Ewen said, the gravity of his hushed words a contrast to his young age. "But you'd not kill a trout with a cannon, aye? The town's defenses demand stealth, and my Cameron men are unrivalled overland."
"What a pretty wee meeting." General Leslie appeared, approaching leisurely, wiping his teeth with a rag. "Is the lassie leading the charge now," he asked, his eyes, overfamiliar, roving down Magda's body, "or has she appeared just to muddle the men's minds?"
"Have a care," James growled slowly.
"The men are in formation and ready to march," Leslie said, disregarding the last remark. "You've not lost your stomach after yesterday, have you? I'd as soon test Aberdeenshire hospitality and bide my day with a warm lass on a soft bed, but it's your nobles who've called for the attack."
Ewen regarded the general, and his granite -still features narrowed to a scowl. " Tapadh leibh, Marquis" the Cameron said, turning slowly to face James. "We'll not let you down." "It seems you've been busy, lad." Leslie snarled after the Camerons disappeared into the trees. "What scheme have you set our enterprising Highlanders to?"
"I'm sending a small outfit downriver."
"Are you indeed?"
"Aye, Aberdeen will not expect a charge from her side. We'll hold the bridge, and the Camerons will deliver a surprise attack, effectively splitting their defenses."
Blood leached from Leslie's face, his lips pursed white with outrage. "What makes you think you've the authority to order my soldiers about?"
"Those Highlanders are Scotland's men, not yours," James warned, steel in his voice. "You are merely an opportunistic musket-for-hire with my coin in your purse. That is the source of my authority. You will just have to bear up, aye General?"
"You will sup by my side tonight, I'll wager" They stood not far from a cluster of readying soldiers, and James cast his voice for her ears alone.
Magda's mind raced. James was off for another day of battle, and she was unable to staunch the cascade of morbid scenarios that filled her head. Her brother had always been off trying to save the world, and here Magda was again, about to say good -bye to another who would live, and quite possibly die, doing the same.
She tried instead to commit the moment to memory. The mossy smell of the earth beneath the trees, birdsong growing louder with the dawn, the creak of the leather straps on James's armored breastplate. His near-black eyes and the steadying force of his presence. And the light dusting of stubble, bleached yellow from the sun, along his mouth and jaw.
"Something of interest, hen?"
"Excuse me?" She was startled back into the moment.
"You were staring at my mouth."
"Oh." Magda looked away, tears stinging her eyes.
James glanced around quickly, then, grabbing her arm, whisked her just within cover of the trees.
Hands on Magda's waist, he pushed her back up against a tree, his touch gentle as he slowly rubbed his hands up her side, thumbs grazing along the sides of her breasts, then stroking up her arms until he held her hands overhead. Pine filled the air, a green, astringent scent that cut like memories of another time. The tree was an ancient, magnificent thing, and Magda felt her hair catch in the deep furrows of its bark, thick and silvery brown in themorning light.
James eased close, then dipped his head to take a sudden kiss that stole Magda's breath, his mouth on hers snuffing all else out, filling her senses with the taste and smell of him. The freshness of woods on skin, a faint tang of sweat, and an amber, musky scent that clung lightly to him like a whisper of sex in the dark.
The sound of men calling his name echoed through the trees, and James pulled away reluctantly.
"Dawn has come and gone," he murmured, voice ragged. "It will happen fast now." James brought his hands down to cup her face and kissed Magda tenderly on each corner of her mouth, then lay one, chaste and lingering, full on her lips.
"You'll not fear for me. I will return to you unharmed, this very night, I swear it. How could I quit such a precious gift bestowed by the fates?" A smile lit his features for just a moment, then he was once again somber.