The Chieftain

Chapter 19


Feels like we've been here a month," Duncan said when Connor found him at their camp near evening on the second day. "When can we leave?"
"As soon as I get this business of a wife settled."
All day, Connor had had careful conversations with other chieftains about their marriageable daughters and sisters without committing himself, which had tested his skills and made him sweat. Now it was time to enter into serious negotiations with one of them.
His near mistake with Deirdre made Connor realize that, if the circumstances allowed, he ought to consider the nature of the lass as well as the strength of her clan. Unfortunately, his own judgment had proved fallible when it came to prospective brides. It was a shame Alex was not here, because Alex knew women. Duncan was useless on the subject, and Moira let her emotions rule her judgment.
"Who's that with Ilysa?" Connor asked when he saw her strolling along the shore with a man. "I'm surprised ye let her walk alone with him this far from the castle."
"That's the MacNeil," Duncan said, which explained why he was not concerned. Alex's father-in-law could be trusted to keep Ilysa safe.
"That's good," Connor said. "With all the men I've seen following her, she needs watching over."
He suddenly realized he had failed to tell her he wanted her to return to Trotternish and decided to do it now.
* * *
Ilysa was grateful to the MacNeil chieftain for taking her outside the crowded castle to enjoy the spring air. Despite his gruff manner, he was easy to talk to.
"Connor isn't the only man who came to the gathering looking for a wife," he said after a while. "As ye know, mine died giving birth a short time ago."
The poor man. "I am sorry," she said and ventured to touch his arm.
"I have both the new babe and a second young son," he said. "Of course, I have a nursemaid for the boys, but they need a mother."
"Mmm," Ilysa murmured to show she was listening. She wondered why he was sharing this with her, but thought perhaps he wanted her advice.
"And I have three foolish daughters," he said, "who are badly in need of a sensible woman like you to guide them."
"Like me?" Ilysa came to an abrupt halt and turned to face him. Could he mean what she thought he did?
"Glynis's mother is the only woman who had my heart," he said. "Still, I did my best to be a good husband to my second wife, as I will do with my next one."
Was this the best she could hope for? Could no man love her? She told herself not to be foolish. MacNeil was a good man and a far better match than she had reason to expect.
"I..." Ilysa faltered, unable to make herself say the words.
"No need to make a hasty decision," the MacNeil said, putting his hand up. "I can see ye need to think on it."
Before Ilysa could get her bearings, she saw Connor striding toward them. He walked with the unconscious grace of a warrior who trained hard every day. And he was so handsome with his steel-blue eyes and his black hair brushing his shoulders that when he fixed his gaze on her face, Ilysa found it difficult to draw air into her lungs.
"Young men don't know what to look for in a wife," the MacNeil said, but she barely heard him. "I know a prize when I see one."
With the wind blowing Connor's hair and the sunset ablaze behind him, he looked like an ancient Celtic god.
"Connor," the MacNeil greeted him, reminding her of his presence. "Ilysa, I'll leave ye with your chieftain."
"Come," Connor said and took her arm as soon as the MacNeil turned around to head back to the castle. "I must speak with ye."
Ilysa's heart beat too fast as he led her down the empty beach. The heat of his muscles beneath her fingers traveled up her arm and through her body to unexpected places. Connor helped her over a rocky stretch of the beach and continued down the shore until they reached a quiet spot shielded by low trees.
The clouds still held the pink and purples of sunset, but the light was fading rapidly. Ilysa had no idea why Connor had brought her here but suspected it had something to do with her locking him in the dungeon. After all the times he had looked through her and not seen her, now that she had his full attention, she could not force words from her mouth.
"The wind has come up. Ye must be cold." He unfastened the brooch at his shoulder and, in one fluid movement, swung his plaid from his shoulders and around hers. A sigh escaped her as she was enfolded in the warmth and smell of him.
For a long moment, Connor held the plaid together under her chin and stared into her eyes. She was afraid to breathe. Anticipation sang through her. Finally he released the plaid, but he still did not step back.
"When I said your gown didn't look right, I only meant I was not accustomed to it." Connor ran his hand down her arm, sending another wave of warmth through her body, then quickly pulled his hand back. "Ye do look lovely, Ilysa. Very lovely."
She had gotten her wish. For once, Connor had looked at her and found her attractive. Yet no sooner was her wish granted than she realized it was not enough. She wanted more than a flash of desire in his eyes, more than a longing gaze.
She wanted him.
It made no difference that it was hopeless. He was the only one she wanted.
"I'd like ye to come back to Trotternish Castle," he said.
Ilysa closed her eyes for a brief moment and told herself not to cry. Connor wants me back.
"Does this mean you're not angry with me anymore?" she asked.
"I am not as angry as I was," he said, "but we must have a firm understanding that ye will not interfere in my decisions. Ye must respect me as chieftain."
"I do."
He narrowed his eyes at her. "If ye disobey me again, I will punish ye severely."
Ilysa kept quiet, rather than tell him she would disobey him only if she truly must.
"In truth, I haven't given you the respect ye deserved," Connor said. "I had no idea all that ye do to keep my household in order. Nothing is as it should be without you."
That warmed her heart. She smiled and said, "I'll be happy to return."
"The saints be praised," he said under his breath, and he took her hand. "I promise I won't impose on ye for long. It will only be until my bride arrives."
Disappointment crashed down on her like a great weight, and she had to swallow twice before she could get the words out. "Your bride?"
"I don't have it arranged quite yet," he said. "But I will wed soon."
* * *
Connor needed to get his marriage arranged quickly, and not just because he needed the alliance. He had been so long without a woman that he was losing his mind. Had he really been about to kiss Ilysa?
Aye, definitely.
What was his excuse for bringing her this far away from the castle? He had wanted to speak with her privately, but it had not been necessary to be quite this alone with her. He reminded himself that this was Ilysa, whom he had known as a babe and a wee girl. He should not have these urges toward her.
But urges he had. With darkness falling around them, he was finding it easier by the moment to imagine laying her down on the sand and having his wicked way with her - over and over. Ach, this was wrong.
"Let's head back," he said and started walking.
"Who have ye decided upon for a bride?" Ilysa asked.
"I'm considering John MacIain's granddaughter," he said. "She is the child of his eldest son, who died in battle while her mother was pregnant with her."
"Mmm," Ilysa murmured, and he noticed a slight tightening around her mouth.
"Why do ye disapprove?" Connor found that Ilysa's opinion of his future wife did matter to him. And she had seen through Deirdre.
"Let's hope the apple has fallen far from the tree," she said.
"Ye shouldn't judge her nature by her grandfather's," he said.
"And ye know her nature?"
"I haven't met her yet," he said.
"Hmmm." She was silent a moment, then she asked, "What are ye looking for in a wife, besides a clan alliance?"
"A quiet, respectful lass, who is loyal and doesn't interfere with my work," he said. "She should make my guests welcome and be a good mother." He wouldn't complain if she were pretty as well.
"Do you not hope for love?" Ilysa asked in a soft voice.
"Hell, no." Connor frowned. It was not like Ilysa to speak nonsense, which was one of the things he liked about her. She was a sensible, practical lass who could be counted on to do her duties and take pride in doing them well.
"Who are the others you're considering?" Ilysa asked.
They discussed each of them in turn, and Ilysa found some fault with every possible alliance.
"I can't help but think...," Ilysa said and turned her head to look off toward the dark sea.
"Ye told me never to question your judgment as chieftain," she said, still looking away from him.
"I asked for your opinion," he said. "That's different."
She turned and met his gaze. "Should ye risk tying yourself to either a wife or a clan ye can't be sure ye can trust?"
"I can't trust any of them," Connor said and gave a dry laugh. "I'll never get a wife if I listen to you."
"You're asking them to fight for Trotternish, but what will they want in return?" she asked. "Ye don't know the cost."
"That's true, but I have no choice," he said. "We must fight the MacLeods, and they are too strong for us to do it alone." What concerned Connor more was the risk that his bride's clan would find an excuse not to come to his aid when it was time to fight the MacLeods. Alliances were slippery.
"Perhaps ye should look for a clan that needs us as much as we need them," Ilysa said. After a long pause, she asked, "What about Torquil MacLeod of Lewis?"
If Torquil were not his half brother, Ilysa's suggestion would have been an astute one. They each needed help in ousting another clan from their lands. In a prior rebellion, the Crown had granted the traditional lands of Torquil's clan on the isle of Lewis to a rival, and then Torquil's father had lost possession of the island as well.
"Our mother left his father for mine," Connor said. "I have as much chance of making an alliance with Torquil as I do with his distant relation Alastair MacLeod."
"Ye don't know that," Ilysa said.
But Connor did know. Shortly before he left for the gathering, Sorely returned with the message that Torquil had refused his offer of friendship. As was so often the case with Connor's family, their blood tie, which was born of their mother's passion and disloyalty, separated rather than bound them.
* * *
Lachlan kept his eyes sharp and his hand on his dirk as he and his father approached the house in which Hugh had set up camp.
"I don't like coming back here, Father," Lachlan said in a low voice. "We shouldn't be putting our trust in a viper like Hugh."
"He's useful," his father said and repeated the old adage, "My enemy's enemy is my friend."
The filthy, foul-smelling men who sat on rocks and logs in front of the house continued their games of dice and bones as Lachlan and his father walked past. It made Lachlan feel unclean to be known by such men.
"We must avenge the wrong committed against our family," his father said under his breath, "for the sake of our honor."
"Honor?" Lachlan hissed. "What honor is there in consorting with the likes of these?"
"Never forget that you have a sacred duty to avenge your mother," his father said, his face hard. "Nothing but blood will satisfy it."
Sometimes Lachlan resented that his father had passed this duty to him because he had not succeeded in taking vengeance himself. When the former chieftain took Lachlan's mother into his bed, he banned Lachlan's father from the castle as a precaution. His father could never get near him. In those days, the MacDonalds were strong and the chieftain always well protected.
"We'll wait outside," Lachlan said when the man guarding the door stepped aside to let them in. "Tell Hugh we're here."
It went against Lachlan's instincts to be in an enclosed space with an unpredictable man he did not trust. Outside, they had a better chance of escape if things took an unexpected turn.
"Haven't seen ye for a long while," Hugh said in a surly voice when he appeared a few moments later.
"We're here now," Lachlan's father said.
"I hear Connor has gone to the gathering at Mingary Castle," Hugh said.
Lachlan grunted in the affirmative since Hugh already knew it. He had not given Hugh any information since he had made his oath to Connor. Although he had been careful to word it as a pledge of loyalty to the clan, and not to Connor personally, the difference between the two seemed a finer line all the time.
"'Twas no thanks to you that I learned my nephew went to Mingary," Hugh said, glaring at Lachlan. "You've brought me nothing."
Lachlan ignored him. Although Connor's departure would be common knowledge by now, Hugh always seemed to be aware of Connor's movements. Hugh must have someone else in the castle who fed him information, and Lachlan wondered who.
"My son is a warrior, not a gossip or a lad who runs errands for ye," his father said. "I trained him from the time he could swing a wooden sword, and now he's the best warrior in all of Trotternish. That is the reason ye want him."
"If your son is so damned good," Hugh said, "why hasn't he killed Connor yet?"
Lachlan was tempted to show Hugh just how good he was with a sword.
"It doesn't have to be Lachlan who kills him - I just want him dead," his father said. "Whether it's you or Lachlan, it must be done in such a way that no one discovers my son's role in it. I don't want him killed for taking the chieftain's life."
If it can be helped, Lachlan added in his head. He was not certain his father valued his life above vengeance. But that was the way in the Highlands.
"So tell us," his father said, "do ye have a new plan to kill Connor MacDonald or not?"