Bowen put his hand on her arm. She tried to shrug away, but he persisted, drawing her closer to him with firm but gentle hands. It was obvious he made a concerted effort not to hurt her in any way. His palms smoothed up her arms to rest at her shoulders and he gave each a reassuring squeeze.
“I won’t allow you to go.”
She couldn’t help the dismay that overcame her. Disappointment—and gut wrenching fear—choked her, robbing her of breath. How cruel was the promise of freedom only to have it yanked away.
He sighed, and his features softened. There was a hint of sorrow—and regret—in his eyes, and that puzzled her.
“You’ll not remain as a prisoner, Genevieve. Never that. You’ll be well cared for and will act as an honored guest. No one will harm you. You answer to no one save me. I’ll send word to your family, but until they arrive, you’ll be treated with the utmost regard. I’ll have the head of anyone who dares cross me on this matter.”
“Nay!” she shouted hoarsely, ripping her arms from his grasp. “Nay, do not!”
His brows furrowed and he stared at her in clear confusion. “I do not understand.”
Her breath sputtered erratically from frozen lips. She was so panicked that she could barely force the words from her throat.
“You’ll not send word to my family.”
There was a note of hysteria in her voice that even she was cognizant of.
“Why the hell not?” Bowen demanded. “They must be sick with worry.”
Genevieve shook her head, tears filling her eyes. A sob welled in her throat, and she couldn’t call back the tears as they slid down her cheeks. It made her furious that this man could bring her to tears when Ian McHugh had never done so. She’d never allowed it. Wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.
“They believe me dead. That I perished with the rest of my escort a year ago.”
Bowen stared agape at her. “Then surely you would want to send word to them at once so they don’t linger under such a misapprehension any longer.”
She shook her head even more vehemently and felt the frayed threads holding her together start to break. Perhaps she was finally going mad.
“’Tis better that they think me dead. If they knew all…”
She broke off, shaking her head and looking away, no longer able to look Bowen in the eye.
She dare not admit everything to him. She didn’t think she could bear to see the pity and disgust in his eyes. Nor could she bear to hear the cold recitation of the facts from her own lips.
“’Tis better this way,” she said again. “I would never have them know the whole of it. My shame is too great for them to bear. I would forever be a burden to them. There would be naught for me to do save return home and live in seclusion under my father’s care for the rest of my days and for my family to bear my shame for all time.”
Bowen’s lips tightened. She knew he likely thought her daft. Or extremely selfish. ‘Twas not her pride preventing her from sending word to her family. She had none left. The knowledge of what had happened to Genevieve would destroy her mother and the rest of her kin. She could never live with herself for causing them so much pain. She would die before bringing dishonor to her father’s name.
“I have already brought dishonor to my clan,” she said in a quiet, pained voice. “I despise myself for what I approached you with earlier. Only a person without hope or honor would do such a thing and ‘tis clear I have neither. How could my clan ever welcome me back with open arms when I’ve done so much to bring shame to the people who loved me most?”
Bowen stepped forward, his hand pushing away the hood of her cloak to cup her scarred cheek. The action startled her so much that she stood frozen, staring at him wide-eyed.
He caressed the mangled flesh, her distress increasing with every second his fingers touched her with such gentleness.
“I propose that we both forget about what occurred in your chamber earlier. I acted reprehensibly.”
She shook her head, trying to free her cheek from his hand, but he palmed her jaw, holding his hand firmly in position.
“You reacted in disgust, just as you should have. Who could blame you? What does a woman like me have to offer a man such as you? You’re beautiful,” she blurted out. “You could have any lass you crooked your finger at.”
Aye, ‘twas true. The man was simply divine to look at. Not a single imperfection marred his body—or at least what she could see of it. He was so beautiful to look at that she was sure many a lass had sighed upon setting eyes on him. She was just grateful he hadn’t laughed outright at her outrageous proposition and had spared her pride at least that humiliation.
“I was once fair to look upon,” she whispered. “And now I am ruined.” She touched her face just above where his fingers rested and then offered a hoarse laugh that was abrasive in the still air. “Ruined in more ways than one. No part of me has survived Ian McHugh’s possession. I’ll never be whole again.”
There was blackness in Bowen’s expression that should have frightened her. Perhaps if she had anything left to lose, she would have been more afraid. As it was, she looked at him bleakly, resignation whispering through her veins.
“’Tis not your dishonor you wear,” he said darkly. “’Tis no shame for bearing what is done to you and working to preserve your dignity.”
She laughed again. “Dignity? I have none. None was allowed me. I have proven that none remains when I offered to whore myself to you.”
She closed her eyes against a fresh surge of tears, humiliation chanting an awful litany in her head.
“You can’t imagine how it feels to have no other choice or to believe that all you’re worth is what you can offer a man through your body. I used to think I’d reached my absolute lowest point and that I couldn’t possibly debase myself any more than I already had. I was wrong. ‘Tis when I willingly offered my…s-s-services…to you that I realized I’d sunk as low as was possible. And yet I was so desperate for freedom that I was willing to debase myself. Was willing to face you with no shame or pride. I hate myself for that.”
She choked out the words, her anger and grief swelling with every passing second. She wanted to rage against the world. Wanted to scream at the helplessness of her situation and the unfairness of it all.
Bowen’s eyes glittered. He was furious. She couldn’t blame him.
“I wish with all my heart and soul that my brother hadn’t killed Ian McHugh,” Bowen growled.
Her eyes widened and her lips quivered. “Why would you want him to live?”
He pulled her in close to him, until she was pressed to his body, his heat wrapping around her like the warmest fur in winter. He caressed her scarred cheek with a touch so tender that it was a physical ache in her soul.
His head lowered until his mouth was but mere inches from her own. His eyes were fierce and yet when he spoke, his voice was quiet and resolute.
“So that I could kill him now for all he has done to you.”