The Chieftain

Chapter 4


Ilysa's face was burning from the heat in the kitchen. She wiped her forehead with her sleeve and then brushed her gown.
"I must go upstairs now," she told Cook and peered over her shoulder at the back of her skirts. "Have I spilled anything on me?"
The cook gave her a look that said no one would notice. Ilysa sighed.
When she entered the hall, Ilysa paused to give instructions and encouraging words to the servants before slipping into a seat at the end of the high table next to Niall, Ian's younger brother. Bowls and trays of food crowded the table, and the savory smells of the venison and stews filled her nose. She was relieved everything appeared to be in order.
When she glanced toward the center of the table, her breath caught at the sight of Connor. He looked so handsome and at ease in the ornately carved chieftain's chair. She recognized James, the eldest son of Alexander of Dunivaig, in the seat of honor to Connor's right. James must have come in his father's stead.
To Connor's left was a lass with golden hair woven into a thick braid that hung over her shoulder. Ilysa could not see her face, which was turned toward Connor, yet she could tell that the lass was beautiful. Her neck was long and graceful, her rich wine gown was perfection, and she had that aura of confidence that the most beautiful women had.
Ilysa's heart felt heavy as she heard the young woman's laugh above the noise in the hall and saw the light in Connor's eyes. When he shifted his gaze and met Ilysa's, she was embarrassed to be caught staring.
"'Tis not like you to be late for dinner," Connor called down the table to her. He made it sound as if she were a child who had been off playing instead of moving heaven and earth to put on a feast the day after her arrival. "This is Ilysa, my best friend's sister and the daughter of the good woman who had the misfortune to be my nursemaid."
Ilysa lowered her gaze and willed herself not to blush as all eyes were suddenly on her. Connor did not mean to embarrass her, but by introducing her without giving her father's name, he may as well stand on the table and shout that her father was unknown. Of course, no one knew her father's name, but why did Connor have to introduce her at all?
"You met James at Dunscaith," Connor said to her, "and this is his sister, Deirdre..."
Ilysa's heart dropped a little lower as Connor introduced the two tall, golden-haired guests. Deirdre looked like a Nordic princess with her full, red lips, high cheekbones, and wide blue eyes. At the moment, she was squinting those lovely eyes ever so slightly, as if she was curious why she was being introduced to the mouse at the end of table.
After Connor finished reciting Deirdre's lineage all the way back to the first Lord of the Isles, he and his guests fell into conversation again.
"Delicious dinner," Niall said as he speared another hunk of venison. "This smells like heaven and tastes even better."
Ilysa was proud of the meal and the honor it brought to the clan. Cook was a master. But her pleasure waned when she noticed how Connor's gaze kept returning to Deirdre. No wonder. While nothing could have hidden Deirdre's beauty, the wine-colored gown showed off her fair hair and voluptuous curves to great advantage.
Ilysa looked down at her own plain brown gown, not looking for spots this time, but truly seeing it. Normally, she gave her clothes little thought. Her mother had drilled into her from an early age to be inconspicuous, and it had always served her well. But just this once, she wished she had something pretty to wear.
Ach, as if a pretty gown could make Connor look at her with lust in his eyes as he was looking at Deirdre now.
* * *
"Has your father accepted the Crown's offer?" Connor asked James after they had withdrawn to his chamber for a private discussion.
"Not yet, but I'm certain he will," James said.
He would be a fool not to. The Crown had been remarkably generous, considering the prominent role James's father had taken in the rebellion. Like prodigal sons, the clans that had joined the rebellion were being treated better than some of the clans - such as Connor's - that had not fought against the Crown.
"With the rebellion behind us, or nearly so," James continued, "there is no reason our clans cannot renew the close friendship we had before."
Connor was pleased that James was the first to raise the subject. He paused to take a sip of his whiskey. He did not wish to appear to be as anxious as he was for the alliance.
"The Crown gave Alastair MacLeod a royal charter to my lands here on Trotternish for turning against his former allies," Connor said. "I take a commitment to an ally more seriously."
"As does my father." James drummed his fingers on the table, then stopped and raised an eyebrow. "I'd say your worst problem is not the charter, but that the MacLeods control your lands."
That was the God's truth. Connor shrugged noncommittally, though they both knew he needed a strong ally like James's father to push the MacLeods out of Trotternish.
"'Tis a shame ye have this new trouble as well," James said.
Connor kept his face blank, though he had no notion what new trouble James was referring to. Whatever it was, it had made James confident.
"Your uncle Hugh has done the same as Alastair MacLeod," James said. "He captured two other pirate leaders and turned them over to the Crown."
Connor resisted the urge to throw his cup against the wall and took a slow sip of his whiskey instead. "Did he now?"
"Hugh pledged to quit pirating - or at least to stop plundering lands belonging to the Crown's allies."
"And who would be foolish enough to trust Hugh's pledge?" Connor asked.
"The regent and the council," James said. "From what I hear, the Campbell chieftain, as the Crown's deputy here in the west, is less inclined to bring Hugh into the fold. Still, this can't be good news for you."
Connor had intended to seek a marriage alliance at the gathering, which was only a few weeks away. In light of this news, he might do better to take advantage of the opportunity before him.
"My father has been approached by several chieftains seeking a marriage to my sister." James paused and smiled. "I suspect her beauty rivals my father's fleet of war galleys in fueling their desire for an alliance with us."
Deirdre had lush curves and the kind of overt sensuality that caught a man's attention like a ten-foot wave. In the days before Connor had become chieftain, when women came easy, he had preferred lasses with more delicate looks and subtle attraction. A sprinkling of freckles or an escaped curl played on a man's imagination. But in his current state of unrelenting need, Connor fully appreciated Deirdre's blatant appeal.
"I am considering marriage," Connor said, carefully approaching the subject as he would a pit of writhing snakes, "though I am in no hurry."
That was a lie, of course. The sooner he obtained a strong ally, the sooner he could take back Trotternish. And if Deirdre's father was leaving the rebellion, this would be an excellent match.
"My father thinks well of ye and gave me permission to negotiate a marriage contract on his behalf," James said. "As long as I'm here, why wait?"
Why, indeed? In addition to his legitimate reasons for rushing the marriage, the plain truth was that Connor was tired of sleeping alone and damned tired of his own hand on his shaft. For the sake of the clan, he would have settled for a wife far less attractive than Deirdre.
She was not the sort of woman he dreamed of in those weak moments when he was weary enough to let himself daydream. In his secret heart, Connor had hoped for a lass who could be a friend as well as a lover, someone who would ease the sense of aloneness he felt as chieftain. Deirdre would never be that. She was vain and self-centered and had little to say.
But in this harsh life, he longed for a woman's softness at the end of the day.
* * *
The kitchen was noisy with the sound of pots and pans being washed as Ilysa came through the door.
"What do ye want now?" Cook demanded and pointed a large wooden spoon at her. "If they have complaints, I don't want to hear them."
"I'm so proud of all of ye." Ilysa's voice hitched as tears suddenly stung the back of her eyes. "Everything was perfect. Ye did our clan and our chieftain proud." Whether Connor realized it or not.
Cook's sour expression gave way to a crooked smile. "Thank ye, lass. Now shouldn't ye be upstairs conversing with our important guests?"
"Connor and James have gone to talk in private, and the lady wished to retire early." The saints be praised for that. "I think we each deserve a wee cup of the good wine, don't you?"
In a twinkling Cook and his helpers cleared the worktable and pulled up stools. Ilysa poured the wine, and they toasted themselves and had a fine chat. Eventually, the others left to find their beds, but Ilysa and Cook stayed.
"I worked in this kitchen for twenty years before the damned MacLeods threw us out," he said. "You're not like any of the other mistresses of the castle. They'd never lend a hand nor share a cup with me."
"I enjoy being useful," Ilysa said, then added, "and I was dead set on winning ye over."
Cook laughed. "You're a determined lass."
"Will we be friends then?" she asked.
"Aye." He lifted his cup to hers. "Ye remind me of a ripe plum, soft and sweet, but with a pit at the center hard enough to break a tooth."
It was Ilysa's turn to laugh.
"I hear the chieftain was displeased with our warriors today," the cook said. "Can't say I blame him. 'Tis nothing like it was in the days of his father, when our warriors on Trotternish struck fear in the hearts of the MacLeods."
"I'm sure they're good men who only lack for training," Ilysa said. "Connor will remedy that, though he can't do it all himself. He needs a new captain of his guard."
"Everyone here knows that the man the chieftain needs is Lachlan of Lealt."
"Who's he?"
"Lachlan is a hero in these parts for fighting the MacLeods when others fled," Cook said. "He's led raid after raid, and the MacLeods can't catch him. After he attacks, he slips away like an eel."
"This Lachlan sounds impressive," Ilysa said.
"Ach, women love a mysterious man," Cook said, waggling his bushy, gray eyebrows at her. "Lachlan is tall and fair-haired besides."
"Surely, he has no time for women between all that raiding and slipping away?" Ilysa asked with a smile. "If this Lachlan is loyal, he ought to come to the castle now that our chieftain is here."
"I expect he'll arrive soon," Cook said. "I heard he was visiting his father, who is in poor health."
"Truly," Ilysa said, leaning forward, "ye believe this Lachlan would make the best captain?"
"Aye, he has the respect of all the men here," Cook said. "They owe their allegiance to the chieftain, of course, but they don't know him. Most haven't laid eyes on him since he was a young lad. They'll be more willing to risk their lives to fight at his side if they see Lachlan there."
"I appreciate your telling me," Ilysa said.
"Ye should go to bed, lass," Cook said, stifling a yawn. "Ye worked harder than any of us, and ye look tired."
"You go on," she said. "I'd like to sit here in the quiet and finish my cup of wine."
Despite running all day, or perhaps because of it, Ilysa felt too edgy to sleep. Besides, she would be sharing a bed with Deirdre, and she was not in a hurry.
Tomorrow would be another long day, but it would be easier because she had won a key ally. Cook was obstreperous, but he could work miracles in the kitchen with a little help and encouragement.
When she could not keep her eyes open anymore, Ilysa got up and lit a candle in the hearth fire to light her way to her chamber. As she left the kitchen, she heard something and paused before starting up the stairs.
Was that a light under the door to one of the storage rooms? She went to investigate. The last door did have a sliver of light under it. Leaving a candle or torch unattended overnight was dangerous. Tomorrow, she would find out who was responsible and speak to them. In the meantime, she would put it out.
She pushed the door open with her hip and then sucked in her breath. She was too stunned to move. In the warm glow of the torch in the wall bracket, she saw a pair coupling on the narrow wooden table.
"Aye! Aye!" the woman moaned as the table rocked with the rhythmic thrusts of the man standing between her legs.
The woman's bodice was pushed down to reveal ample, rosy-tipped breasts, and her golden hair spilled over the sides of the table. Rich, wine-colored skirts fell from the long, slender legs she had wrapped around her partner's waist.
O shluagh! The woman on the table was Deirdre.
The couple's obvious enjoyment brought a flood of unwelcome memories of Ilysa's brief marriage - the humiliation of her husband's awkward attempts, his limp member pressing against her.
So this was what it was supposed to be like. Ilysa's breathing went shallow as she watched how the man gripped Deirdre's hips while he thrust deep inside her. Slowly, she moved her gaze up the man's bare chest. When she reached his face, she started. His gaze was on her, and he had a wicked grin on his face.
He was laughing at her. Heat drenched her as she backed out and quietly closed the door.
When Ilysa reached her bedchamber, she undressed in the dark. Her care was unnecessary. There was no one else in the bed, confirming that the lass she had seen in the storeroom was, indeed, Deirdre.
Ilysa would be relieved when their guests departed. It was not that she begrudged Deirdre her lover or the attention of all the men in the hall. No, there was only one man whose regard she envied. When she recalled how Connor had looked at Deirdre, she wanted to weep.
Exhausted as she was, Ilysa stared up into the darkness. She had been so busy in the hours since she had gone to Connor's chamber to dress his wounds that she had succeeded in pushing the image of him naked from her mind. But now, as she lay alone in the dark, it would not leave her. It merged in her mind with the couple in the storeroom.
What would it be like to have Connor touch her like that? To have him look at her with smoldering passion in his eyes as he ran his hands over her skin?