With the exception of the cold winter months, she had been coming to this loch almost every week for nearly a year and not once had she seen anyone or even anything in the area that hinted someone had visited during her absence. The loch's guaranteed solitude was the main reason Adanel came. Constantly surrounded by the noise and stink of grungy dock workers, harbor men, licentious seamen, and overconfident want-to-be soldiers, she needed a weekly reprieve, and this secluded spot gave her the strength to endure another six more days. And while she coveted the peace and privacy the loch typically provided, this Highlander was a feast for any woman's eyes and Adanel was going to enjoy every second of looking at him before he disappeared.
After filling the bag, the soldier put back his waterskin and then, instead of remounting, he closed his eyes and took in a deep breath and held it. His chest expanded and Adanel had the urge to run her fingers across every bulge, from his arms, to his chest, to what she had no doubt were perfect abs, and then on to what was under his tartan. Crinkling her brow, Adanel studied the dark plaid of greens and blues that was accented with bright colors of gold, red, and burgundy.
"Mo chreach," she grumbled under her breath. The soldier was a McTiernay. She should not be surprised; after all she 'was' on McTiernay lands...though just barely. However, multiple nomadic families had made these hills their home and only a handful called themselves McTiernays.
A few years back, the majority of the locals who had been left clanless after years of fighting the English had banded together under McTiernay rule. Most had left this area to live closer to the protection of the closest McTiernay castle, Fàire Creachann, nestled on the edge of Loch Torridon. A few, however, had pledged their allegiance to the McTiernays, who had elected to continue making their living among these hills. Then there was the small handful who had outright declined to move or live under anyone's rule, which included the McTiernays'. The area was technically McTiernay land, but as long as they created no harm, the powerful clan's laird had let them be. Such generosity would not be extended to her. She was a Mackbaythe, the McTiernays' northern neighbor and enemy.
Her father had made his disgust clear when Cole McTiernay had been named laird of the area. Having lived his entire life in the region and already a laird, he thought he should have been the one to be placed in charge. Rumor was that he had not even been considered or even invited to the talks. As a result, her father had made sure only animosity was shared between their two clans. The last thing she needed was to get caught swimming in the nude on McTiernay lands.
Adanel did not fear the McTiernay soldier; she feared her father. Just the thought of what he might do made her cringe—especially if this Highlander saw her and got the notion to take her back himself. Devoid of any emotion that may have been perceived as kind, her father controlled everything of his with a ruthless, maniacal fist, and her younger brother Eògan longed to prove he was just like him.
It's time, saighdear, Adanel silently urged with a sigh. Get back on your horse and go back to wherever you came from. Forget this small slice of heaven. I need it far more than you.
Adanel had discovered the rocky path to the loch a little over a year ago during one of her weekly rides. The escape it afforded was only temporary, but she had grown to need these few hours away from her father and his enjoyment of the misery he liked to create on those around him.
Faden, her uncle and primary guard, had been quite agitated the day they had crossed onto McTiernay lands, but Adanel had felt compelled to ride as hard as she could and had not cared about borders and the potential acrimony her presence could cause. She had just needed to feel free from the confines of her life for a little and the lands belonging to her clan were too small to provide that sense of freedom. Besides, practically no one lived out this way. The northern side of the Torridon hills were cold, rocky, impossible to farm, and provided little grass for cattle to graze on. One needed to seek the valleys to find anyone.
She had been about to turn around and heed Faden's demands that they return back to Mackbaythe lands when a spear of sunlight from the ever-present clouds lit up the entrance to a partially hidden, narrow, rocky path. Adanel had decided God was beckoning her to see what mysteries He had created. Faden had disagreed, and Adanel had almost let him persuade her to leave for she had long learned to suppress any inquisitive thoughts or feelings due to fear of what her father might do if she learned or saw something she oughtn't. But something pressed her to shed her inhibitions and cave to her buried curious spirit.
The path was far too narrow and steep for a horse, so she had climbed. Though not a difficult ascent, it had been farther than she had anticipated, causing Faden to have grumbled ceaselessly. But when she had seen the pristine loch reflecting the clouds in the blue sky, she had been so glad to have persisted in the climb. Adanel felt as if she had found a little piece of heaven God had carved out just for her. Every fiber of her being had wanted to shed her clothes, jump into the waters, and enjoy the tranquility, even if only for a little while.