But he knew where it was. It was right there, a kind of . . . shiver . . . in the air, and when he stared at it, he had a feeling in the back of his mind like pretty sparkly things, like sun on the sea and the way a candle flame looked when it shone through a ruby, but he knew he wasn’t really seeing anything like that.
It went all the way across the tunnel, and up to the high roof, too, he could tell. But it wasn’t thick at all; it was thin as air.
He guessed that was why it hadn’t swallowed him like the thing in the rocks on Ocracoke had. At least . . . he thought it hadn’t and, for an instant, worried that maybe he’d gone sometime else. But he didn’t think so. The tunnel felt just the same, and so did he, now that his skin had stopped jumping. When they’d done it, on Ocracoke, he’d known right away it was different.
He stood there for a minute, just looking and thinking, and then shook his head and turned around, feeling with his foot for the track. He wasn’t going back through that, no matter what. He’d just have to hope the door wasn’t locked.
The laird’s study,
BRIANNA’S HAND closed on the letter opener, but even as she calculated the distance involved, the obstacle of the desk between Rob Cameron and herself, and the flimsiness of the wooden blade, she was reluctantly concluding that she couldn’t kill the bastard. Not yet.
“Where’s my son?”
She stood up suddenly, and he jerked a little in reflex. His face flushed and he hardened his expression.
“He’d bloody well better be okay,” she snapped. “I said, where is he?”
“Oh, no, hen,” he said, rocking back on his heels, affecting nonchalance. “That’s no how we’re playing it. Not tonight.”
God, why didn’t Roger keep a hammer or a chisel or something useful in his desk drawer? Did he expect her to staple this jerk? She braced herself, both hands flat on the desk, to keep from leaping over it and going for his throat.
“I’m not playing,” she said through her teeth. “And neither are you. Where’s Jemmy?”
He leveled a long finger at her.
“You’re no longer the boss lady, Ms. MacKenzie. I call the shots now.”
“Oh, you think so, do you?” she asked, as mildly as she could. Her thoughts were slipping past like grains of sand in an hourglass, a slithering cascade of what if, how, shall I, no, yes . . .
“I do, aye.” His color, already high, rose higher, and he licked his lips. “Ye’re gonna find out what it’s like to be on the bottom, hen.”
Cameron’s eyes were very bright, and his hair was clipped so short that she could see beads of sweat glittering above his ears. Was he high on something? She thought not. He was wearing track pants, and his fingers flicked unconsciously across the front, where a substantial bulge was beginning to show. Her lips tightened at the sight.
Not on your life, buddy.
She widened her gaze as much as possible, to take him in without letting his eyes move from hers. She didn’t think he was armed, though the pockets of his jacket had stuff in them. He really thought he could make her have sex with him, without a set of manacles and a sledgehammer?
He twirled his finger, pointing to the floor in front of him.
“Come round here, hen,” he said softly. “And take your jeans down. Might do ye good to learn what it’s like to take it up the arse regularly. Ye’ve done it to me for months—fair’s fair, isn’t it?”
Very slowly, she came around the desk but stopped well short of him, keeping out of reach. She fumbled cold-fingered at the button of her fly, unwilling to look down, unwilling to take her eyes off him. Her heart was beating so hard in her ears that she could barely hear his heavy breathing.
The tip of his tongue showed briefly, involuntarily, as she pushed the jeans down over her hips, and he swallowed.
“The knickers, too,” he said, half breathless. “Take them off.”
“You don’t rape people very often, do you?” she said rudely, stepping out of the puddled jeans. “What’s your rush?” She bent and picked the heavy denim pants up, shook out the legs, and turned as though to lay them on the desk. Then whipped back, clutching the jeans at the ankle, and lashed them as hard as she could at his head.
The heavy cloth with its zipper and brass fly button struck him full in the face, and he staggered back with a grunt of surprise, clutching at the jeans. She let go of them instantly, leapt onto the desk, and launched herself at him, shoulder-first.
They fell together with a crash that shook the hardwood floor, but she landed on top, kneed him hard in the belly, and then grabbed him by both ears and thumped his head on the floor as hard as she could. He let out a cry of pain, reached for her wrists, and she promptly let go of his ears, leaned backward, and grabbed for his crotch.
Had she been able to get a decent grip on his balls through the soft fabric, she would have crushed them. As it was, she managed a glancing squeeze but one hard enough to make him yelp and convulse, nearly dislodging her from her perch.
She couldn’t win a fistfight. Couldn’t let him hit her. She scrambled to her feet, looking wildly round the office for something heavy to hit him with, seized the wooden letter box, and smashed it over his head as he started to rise. He didn’t fall down but bobbed his head, dazed amongst the cascade of letters, and she kicked him in the jaw as hard as she could, her own teeth clenched. It was a sliding, sweaty impact, but she’d hurt him.
She’d hurt herself, too, had kicked him with her heel, as much as she could, but she felt a burst of pain in the middle of her foot; she’d torn or broken something, but it didn’t matter.
Cameron shook his head violently, trying to clear it. He was on his hands and knees now, crawling toward her, reaching for her leg, and she backed up against the desk. With a banshee shriek, she kneed him in the face, squirmed out of his grasp, and ran for the hall, limping heavily.
There were weapons on the walls of the foyer, a few targes and broadswords kept for ornament, but all hung high, to be out of the children’s reach. There was a better one easily to hand, though. She reached behind the coat rack and grabbed Jem’s cricket bat.
You can’t kill him, she kept thinking, dimly surprised at the fact that her mind was still working. Don’t kill him. Not yet. Not ’til he says where Jemmy is.
“Fucking . . . bitch!” He was nearly on her, panting, half blinded by blood running down his forehead, half sobbing through the blood pouring from his nose. “Fuck you, split you open, f**k you up the—”
“Caisteal DOOON!” she bellowed, and, stepping out from behind the coat rack, swung the bat in a scything arc that caught him in the ribs. He made a gurgling noise and folded, arms across his middle. She took a deep breath, swung the bat as high as she could, and brought it down with all her strength on the crown of his head.
The shock of it vibrated up her arms to her shoulders and she dropped the bat with a clunk and stood there gasping, trembling and drenched with sweat.
“Mummy?” said a tiny, quavering voice from the foot of the stair. “Why is you not got pants on, Mummy?”
THANK GOD FOR instinct was her first coherent thought. She’d crossed the length of the foyer, snatched Mandy up in her arms, and was patting her comfortingly before any sort of conscious decision to move had been made.
“Pants?” she said, eyeing the limp form of Rob Cameron. He hadn’t twitched since he’d fallen, but she didn’t think she’d killed him. She’d have to take more-certain steps to neutralize him, and fast. “Oh, pants. I was just getting ready for bed when this naughty man showed up.”
“Oh.” Mandy leaned out of her arms, peering at Cameron. “Iss Mr. Rob! Iss a burglar? Iss a bad man?”
“Yes, both,” Brianna said, deliberately casual. Mandy’s speech showed the sibilance it had when she got excited or upset, but the little girl seemed to be recovering pretty fast from the shock of seeing her mother crown a burglar in the front hall while wearing only a T-shirt and underpants. The thought made her want to stomp on Cameron’s balls, but she choked it back. No time for that.
Mandy clung to her neck, but Brianna set her firmly on the stairs.
“Mummy wants you to stay here, a ghraidh. I have to put Mr. Rob someplace safe, where he can’t do anything bad.”
“No!” Mandy cried, seeing her mother head toward the crumpled Cameron, but Brianna waved in what she hoped was a reassuring manner, picked up the cricket bat as insurance, and nudged her prisoner in the ribs with a cautious toe. He wobbled but didn’t stir. Just in case, she moved round behind him and prodded him rudely between the bu**ocks with the cricket bat, which made Mandy giggle. He didn’t move, and she drew a deep breath for the first time in what seemed like hours.
Going back to the stairs, she gave Mandy the bat to hold and smiled at her. She pushed a strand of sweaty hair behind her ear.
“Okay. We’re going to put Mr. Rob in the priest’s hole. You go and open the door for Mummy, all right?”
“I hit him?” Mandy asked hopefully, clutching the bat.
“No, I don’t think you need to do that, darling. Just open the door.”
Her work tote was hanging from the coat rack, the big roll of duct tape easily to hand. She trussed Cameron’s ankles and wrists, a dozen turns each, then bent and, clutching him by the ankles, dragged him toward the swinging baize door at the far end of the hall, which separated the kitchen from the rest of the house.
He began to stir as they negotiated the big table in the kitchen, and she dropped his feet.
“Mandy,” she said, keeping her voice as calm as possible. “I need to have a grown-up talk with Mr. Rob. Give me the bat. Then you go right on out to the mudroom and wait for me there, okay?”
“Mummy . . .” Mandy was shrinking back against the sink cabinet, eyes huge and fixed on the moaning Cameron.
“Go, Mandy. Right now. Mummy will be there before you can count to a hundred. Start counting now. One . . . two . . . three . . .” She moved between Cameron and Mandy, motioning firmly with her free hand.
Reluctantly, Mandy moved, murmuring, “Four . . . five . . . six . . . seven . . .” and disappeared through the back kitchen door. The kitchen was warm from the Aga, and despite her lack of clothes, Bree was still streaming with sweat. She could smell herself, feral and acrid, and found that it made her feel stronger. She wasn’t sure she’d ever truly understood the term “bloodthirsty” before, but she did now.
“Where’s my son?” she said to Cameron, keeping a wary distance in case he tried to roll at her. “Answer me, you piece of crap, or I’ll beat the shit out of you and then call the police.”
“Yeah?” He rolled slowly onto his side, groaning. “And tell them what, exactly? That I took your boy? What proof of that d’ye have?” His words were slurred; his lip was puffed out on one side, where she’d kicked him.
“Fine,” she snapped. “I’ll just beat the shit out of you.”
“What, beat a helpless man? Fine example for your wee lassie.” He rolled onto his back with a muffled grunt.
“As for the police, I can tell them you broke into my house and assaulted me.” She pointed one foot at him, so he could see the livid scratches on her leg. “You’ll have my skin cells under your fingernails. And while I’d rather not have Mandy go through it all again, she’d certainly tell them what you were saying in the hallway.” She would, too, Bree thought. Mandy was a very faithful tape recorder, especially where bad language was concerned.
“Nng.” Cameron had closed his eyes, grimacing against the light over the sink, but now opened them again. He was less dazed; she could see the light of calculation back in his eyes. Like most men, she thought, he was probably smarter when he wasn’t sexually aroused—and she’d taken care of that.
“Aye. And I tell them it was just a wee sex game that got out of hand, and you say it wasn’t, and they say, ‘Aye, fine, missus, and where’s your husband, then?’” The undamaged side of his mouth twisted up. “You’re not that swift tonight, hen. But, then, ye’re not usually.”
His mention of Roger made the blood surge in her ears. She didn’t reply but grabbed him by the feet and pulled him roughly through the kitchen and into the back passageway. The grating that covered the priest’s hole was hidden by a bench and several boxes of milk bottles, bits of farm equipment awaiting repair, and other items that didn’t go anywhere else. She dropped Rob’s feet, shoved the bench and boxes aside, and pulled up the grating. There was a ladder leading down into the shadowy space; she pulled this up and slid it behind the bench. That little amenity wouldn’t be needed.
“Hey!” Rob’s eyes widened. Either he hadn’t known there really was a priest’s hole in the house or he hadn’t thought she’d do it. Without a word, she seized him under the arms, dragged him to the hole, and shoved him in. Feetfirst, because if he broke his neck, he couldn’t tell her where Jem was.
He fell with a shriek, which was cut short by a heavy thump. Before she could worry that he’d managed to land on his head after all, she heard him moaning and a rustle as he started to stir. A muttering of very bad language further reassured her that he was in good enough shape to answer questions. She fetched the big flashlight from the kitchen drawer and shone it down into the hole. Cameron’s face, congested and streaked with blood, glared up at her. He curled up and with some difficulty managed to wriggle into a sitting position.
“You’ve broken my leg, you f**king bitch!”
“Good,” she said coldly, though she doubted it. “Once I get Jem back, I’ll take you to a doctor.”