"I don’t know where you’ve been,” Angus began when Hamish and Annis appeared. He glanced at Annis. “And I don’t want to.”
Annis blushed. Did their manner somehow reveal what they had done together? The night had been a revelation. Hamish had been an enthusiastic and attentive lover, and Annis understood that what she had done with Malcolm had been for his pleasure alone.
She had been clear to Hamish that there had been no expectations, but now her heart was heavy with melancholy that no laird would marry a woman with such a past as hers. She would spend the rest of her days reminding herself that at least she had experienced true lovemaking once in her life.
Hamish clasped Angus’ shoulder. “This is Annis. You met her in the blacksmith’s house.”
To his credit, Angus barely blinked.
“A lassie? Ye need to find a use for your talent of discovery, Hamish.”
Hamish and Annis shared a look of amusement behind his back. They gathered in the courtyard to hear Douglas MacNeish explain the final event. Only five men had been chosen, Hamish and Malcolm included.
“Row around the three distant rocks. Be warned, the current is strong and the whirlpool that lies in the strait has claimed many lives.”
A murmur rippled through the courtyard. Annis clutched Hamish’s hand and he squeezed it back.
“I’m a strong rower,” he assured her, answering the fear she hadn’t expressed aloud.
She kissed his cheek. “Be safe.”
“You aren’t going to beg me not to go?” he asked.
“I would never ask you to do something you wouldn’t be happy agreeing to.”
But she had, hadn’t she? In begging him to beat Malcolm, she’d committed him to the possibility of a marriage he didn’t want and now the prospect of death.
She hugged him. “You don’t have to go for my sake.”
“I know. But I will.” He touched her cheek and walked away.
Angus coughed. “You had better stay by me, lass. There’s men who would relieve you of your virtue.”
He appeared to be sincere and Annis’ spirits lifted. There was no outward evidence of her disgrace. She could leave and start fresh where no one knew her past.
They followed the crowds to the beach where five small boats were tied. The five men stripped to their braies and walked barefoot through the cheering crowd. Annis called Malcolm’s name. He scowled as he recognised her.
“Do you have no shame trailing me here?”
“My only shame is that I thought a man such as you was worth heartbreak,” she sneered.
She stepped past him to where Hamish was standing and kissed him with feeling, ignoring the whooping and catcalls of the crowd.
At a shout from MacNeish the men began rowing. Annis bit her lip, barely able to watch as they battled against the waves, growing smaller. It was hard to tell who was in front, but she caught a glimpse of Malcolm’s red hair as the boats turned towards the strait, disappearing behind the rocks.
She gripped Angus’ hand, hoping against hope that Hamish would survive.
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