"'Tis a fine view."
She jumped in her skin and spun about, heart pounding in her ears. The sight of his handsome face, gazing down at her with a guarded expression, did not calm the inner tumult. To her utter distress, Torin's presence had quite the opposite effect. Her heart raced faster, her stomach flipped and churned into an enormous knot and she found it difficult to breathe.
She stood alone, on one of the highest cliffs of all of Ireland with a man who some thought a murderer. But the only fear came from the thought that he might try to touch her and forever crumble the careful barrier she'd spent years forging around her heart. Alaina feared he might make her care, might make her hope for the one thing she may never have--a husband's love.
His eyes narrowed as she took a panicked step sideways. "I won't throw you off, if that's your worry."
For a moment his words, and the hurt behind them threw her into confusion. Then she realized what he must be thinking. "I know." She moved back toward him, eager to overcome her fear and banish some of the pain that lingered in his gaze. "I know you've never hurt any woman."
He searched her face, her eyes, like a man seeking the secrets of the universe. After a moment, he seemed satisfied with what he found. His shoulders dropped slightly beneath his heavy black coat, the tight lines around his mouth and eyes softened.
"Who told you?"
She shrugged, unsure if he'd be angry or relieved that she'd heard of the sordid business from his mother. "Maggie."
His brows rose and then he nodded. "Good. Then you heard the truth of it."
"I think so." She swallowed and moved a bit closer. "I'm sorry."
He frowned again. "For what?"
"For ... for what happened." She glanced at her folded hands and searched for the right words, all the while knowing anything would sound trite or inadequate. "It must have been terrible to lose someone you loved and then to be blamed for it. I can't begin to imagine the pain it must have caused."
His gaze flickered away from hers and he stared out at the water, but she knew it was the past that he saw. "I did love Brigit," he admitted. "But it was the affection of a boy. A boy long dead.
"She was a bonnie lass--had a fire in her soul that burned hot and fierce. But these cliffs ... they scared her so. I never understood how she took that last step. Or why." He swallowed hard. "I had nightmares for weeks thinking of her falling."
Alaina stood before him, speechless as his meaning sank in. "Are you sure she jumped?"
"'Tis the only explanation beyond me pushing her over."
It didn't make sense. "Is there ... did anyone else have a reason to hurt her?"
"Nay," he said as he quickly shrugged off the idea. He looked at her and smiled softly. "If she'd had your strength, things would have been so different."
She wondered what had brought on that observation. "But, how can you know anything of the sort about me? We just met and we barely know one another."
"Yet, you know I could never hurt a woman. How can that be, Alaina?" He took a step closer. "How can you know something so important about me? How can you trust a man such as me? Aren't you afraid I'll lose control and toss you over the side?"
His gaze bore into her as he sought the answers in her eyes. Alaina blinked and turned away, unable to stand his scrutiny and proximity for another moment.
"I see what you mean," she replied, head bowed. "You can sometimes discern things about people even those with whom you are not well acquainted."
"I mentioned that once before, but you didn't seem to agree. Tell me now, Alaina, are you such a good judge of character?"
He stood at her side, so close that she could smell the sweet turf smoke that lingered on his clothes. The wind swirled, changing direction until it tugged at her hair, pulling long streams of it across her face to lash about her cheeks. She reached up a hand to push it back out of her eyes just as he reached up. Whatever his intention, it caught her unaware and she gasped, then swiveled to face him. His nearness sent a wave of heat spiraling through her body. There were flecks of gray in his green eyes and his pupils grew larger as she watched his gaze slip to her lips.
A fire burned low in her belly, her body swayed toward him with the relentless push of the wind. His hands went to her waist as if to steady her, but then he leaned down until his mouth hovered a hairsbreadth from hers. She could smell the whiskey on his breath and tried to move. Her limbs would not obey. What power was this that kept her spellbound--watching and waiting, even wanting him to take what she feared to give?
He blinked and let go of her as if the touch burned. "Time to leave, I think."
She nodded up at him dumbly, her mind and body disconnected. But she couldn't move until he took her arm and turned her away from the sea. The wind whipped her skirts about her legs as her hair flew in every direction. Nothing could be content for long within mere mortal confines on the cliffs. A spark of divinity, an air of magic dwelt in every inch of Ireland.
"Where are we going?" she asked as he steered her down the slope, but turned in a slightly different direction than she had come.
"Home," he answered, but said no more.