The Chieftain

Chapter 6


Ilysa went up to her chamber to be alone to think. She groaned when she opened the door to find Deirdre there, being dressed by her maid.
"Have this laundered." Deirdre stepped out of her gown and tossed it to Ilysa, without actually looking at her, as if she were a common servant. "It has a tear that needs mending."
Ilysa could guess how it had torn. Her stomach hurt.
"Your mistress and I must speak in private," she told the maid.
Deirdre's fine eyebrows went up an inch, but Ilysa waited to explain until the door closed behind the maid.
"Are ye aware that your brother is negotiating a marriage contract between you and my chieftain?"
"I am." Deirdre shrugged. Then, watching herself in the mirror, she tugged a strand of hair loose from her braid to make a fetching curl at the side of her face.
"Is this what ye want?" Ilysa asked.
"Your clan is not as powerful as my father's, so Connor is a bit beneath me," Deirdre said, wrinkling her nose. "But he is undeniably handsome."
"He is more than that," Ilysa said. "He is an honorable man, and he'll be a devoted husband. Can ye promise him the same?"
"My, you are surprising, but 'tis not your place to question me." Deirdre waved her hand as if she were batting away a fly. "Do see about having that gown mended."
"Is there something ye ought to tell Connor before entering into this marriage?" Ilysa persisted.
Deirdre turned and leveled a hard look at Ilysa. Suddenly Ilysa understood. Deirdre was with child.
"Ye must tell your brother that ye cannot wed Connor," Ilysa said.
"It was my brother who suggested the marriage." Deirdre placed her hand on one shapely hip and smiled. "Connor wants the alliance. And he wants me."
"But ye love someone else," Ilysa said.
"Love?" Deirdre gave an amused laugh. "I'd hardly call it that."
Clearly, Deirdre was not going to put a stop to this. As for Connor, he could not see beyond the alliance and Deirdre's overflowing attributes. Yet when Deirdre had a child in six months - and later took a lover, as Ilysa suspected she would - it would tear Connor's pride to shreds.
Tearlag had told Ilysa she must trust her instincts and protect Connor. She made up her mind what to do.
"As ye say, 'tis not my place." Ilysa heaved what she hoped sounded like a resigned sigh and began gathering her medicines. She picked up a few at random and put them into her basket. "I have other duties. A woman in a nearby cottage is having a babe and sent for me."
"Isn't it dangerous to leave the castle?" Deirdre asked, narrowing her lovely blue eyes at Ilysa. "And why would you be the one to go?"
"As anyone will tell ye, I'm a healer," Ilysa said and lifted her cloak from the peg by the door. "There's no telling when I'll be back. A first babe can take hours and hours."
Outside the door, Ilysa leaned against the cold stone wall. Before she did this, she must set aside her feelings for Connor and be sure she was doing this because it was best for him and for the clan. Even without Tearlag's warning that Connor would not be happy if he wed before Beltane, Ilysa knew in her heart that Connor would suffer if Deirdre were his wife. As for the clan, any weakening of Connor's authority would make his tasks even more difficult.
This marriage must be thwarted.
It was nearly time for supper. Instead of leaving the castle as she had told Deirdre, she headed for the kitchens.
"I can't be seen in the hall," Ilysa said in a low voice to Cook as she joined him at the worktable, "but I must know the moment Deirdre leaves the table."
Cook raised an eyebrow, but she shook her head to let him know she could not tell him why.
"I'll tell one of the serving maids to keep an eye on her," he said, pitching his voice below the noise of the kitchen. "I'll invent a reason."
Ilysa was relieved that he understood she did not want anyone else to know the request came from her.
"You're a good friend," she whispered and squeezed his arm. Then realization dawned, and she turned to face him. "What do ye know?"
"I have a suspicion about the lass's interest in a certain warrior," Cook whispered, "and I'm no the only one."
That meant half the castle was abuzz about Deirdre's clandestine meetings with her lover. If Ilysa had any doubts before about the need to take action, they were gone.
"I'll wait in the wine cellar," Ilysa said.
Supper seemed to take an eternity, but at last Cook stuck his head through the door. "The lady's excused herself to retire early again."
Ilysa picked up her skirts and raced out. She stopped on the dim-lit stairs where she could see into the hall without being seen, her heart pounding. She did not have to wait long before Connor and James left the hall for the adjoining building.
Hurry, hurry, she chanted in her head as she fixed her eyes on Deirdre's lover. When he finally left the hall and disappeared into the stairwell that led to the upper floors of the keep, Ilysa realized that her plan might actually work.
She did not know how long to wait. Would Deirdre and her lover talk first? Ilysa recalled how the pair behaved in the storeroom and decided that, if they did talk, it probably would not be for long.
Once they actually started, how long did it take to fornicate? From all the remarks Ilysa had heard from other women, the time varied considerably. She did not want to act too soon, before it all began. On the other hand, if she waited too long, it could all be over and the man gone.
Ach, this would drive her mad. Ilysa took a deep breath and decided it was time.
* * *
"My sister has a sweet, biddable nature that would please any man," James said as the two of them sat at the small table in Connor's private chamber.
"Aye, she has," Connor said because it was expected, though Deirdre did not strike him as either sweet or biddable.
"I can tell that her beauty has charmed ye as well," James said, smiling.
Deirdre was undeniably attractive.
Over the last week, Connor had thought on it long and hard and concluded that he could do no better for his clan than make this alliance. Alexander of Dunivaig had the warriors and galleys Connor needed to fight the MacLeods, and he was offering an extremely generous tochar, or dowry, which Connor's beleaguered clan could sorely use.
And yet, Ilysa's caution about Deirdre not being the right wife nagged at him. He was still annoyed with her for suggesting Deirdre would embarrass him.
"There are two things that are essential to me when I take a wife," Connor said.
"Beauty and what else?" James said with a laugh.
"My first requirement is that her clan commit to fight the MacLeods with mine," Connor said. "Your father cannot fight for Trotternish while battling the Crown's forces elsewhere, and I cannot risk an alliance that could draw me into the rebellion."
"As I said before, I believe my father is very close to accepting the Crown's terms," James said. "Very close, indeed."
Close was not good enough, but Connor needed this alliance, and he needed it as quickly as possible.
"My other requirement," Connor said, "is that I have my wife's absolute loyalty."
James bristled, but it had to be said.
"I've heard about your mother, of course, so I won't take that remark as an insult," James said in a stiff voice. "You've nothing to fear in that quarter. My sister comes to her wedding as an untouched virgin, and she will be a virtuous wife."
"In exchange for her loyalty, I will give her mine," Connor said. "We will have the usual trial marriage for a year to assure that she can bear children. But so long as she is my wife, I will take no other woman to my bed."
"I won't hold ye to that," James said with a wink.
Connor would hold himself to it, however. Thanks be to heaven that Deirdre was beautiful, for she was dull as dirt. He quickly chided himself for disparaging the woman who would be his wife. She deserved his respect, and he was determined to be content with her.
Bedding her would certainly be no chore. Ach, he had been celibate for far, far too long. He thought of her long legs wrapped around his waist, and his hands...
"I'm glad we have matters settled," James said. "If ye don't have your own clerk, I brought one with me who can prepare the marriage contract."
Before Connor could reply, the door burst open.