She snuggled into his arms and pressed her face into his chest, sighing at how deliciously warm he felt. He smelled good, too. A mixture of wood, smoke, and his own natural scent. It was an intoxicating blend.
A groan of raw pleasure escaped her lips. He stiffened and then cursed softly under his breath. She frowned, unsure of what she’d done to gain his displeasure.
“Caelen? Is something amiss?”
“Nay, Rionna. Go to sleep. We’ll make McDonald keep by afternoon if we leave early.”
“My hands are still cold,” she said softly.
He reached between them, gathered her hands and then guided them underneath his tunic over his belly to the warm, hair-roughened wall of muscle.
She knew her hands to be like ice, but he didn’t so much as flinch as she pressed her palms into his flesh. The sensation was so … intimate. Cozy.
She sighed and rubbed her cheeks along his shoulder, her eyelids growing heavy the warmer she became.
The slight rasp of hair tickled her fingers and she tentatively moved one hand, enjoying the hard ridge of muscle in his chest. Her eyes widened when she felt the puckered line of a scar.
Then she reached the flat of his nipple and the taut bud and she stroked her finger absently over it.
“Rionna,” Caelen growled.
She raised her head so fast that she caught him underneath the chin, which set him off to cursing again. She gulped. “Sorry!”
He heaved out a long-suffering sigh. “Go to sleep.”
She settled back against him and slipped her hands back under his tunic. She liked touching him. Aside from the wondrous heat he produced, there was something infinitely fascinating about his body.
Again she rested her palms over the flat of his chest but then she lowered them, sliding to his taut belly and the line of hair that trailed downward.
“For God’s sake,” Caelen muttered.
He pulled her hands from his tunic, tucked them between their bodies and pulled her so tightly against him that she couldn’t move.
He wrapped his arms around her and lay his chin on top of her head. Their legs were tangled up and she was effectively trapped. She couldn’t move a muscle.
She yawned broadly, deciding she didn’t mind the makeshift prison when she was so wonderfully warm. As she drifted off, it occurred to her that she hadn’t indulged in more kissing with her husband.
Such a shame. She decided she quite liked kissing. Maybe on the morrow when Caelen wasn’t so gruff and impatient. Aye, ’twas a good plan.
“Tomorrow,” she murmured.
“Tomorrow what, lass?”
Her lips moved but her eyes stayed close as she drifted between consciousness and the heavy veil of sleep. “I’ll kiss you. Tomorrow. Aye, ’tis a promise.”
His low chuckle drifted through her ears. “Aye, lass, you’ll kiss me all right. You’ll do a lot more by the time we’re done.”
“Mmm. Can’t wait.”
Caelen loosened his hold on Rionna only to see her head loll to the side. Her mouth was open and she was fast asleep. She was, perhaps, the most indelicate sleeper he’d ever witnessed. The sight amused him and he decided she was … cute. Aye. Cute.
Then he shook his head. All this talk of kissing and cuteness was going to drive him daft. He should be thinking of training and fighting. The woman was going to be the death of him and they hadn’t been married two days yet.
It was mid-afternoon the next day when they neared the gates of McDonald keep. It was important to Rionna for her to ride to greet her people under her own power. It seemed just as important to Caelen that she appear the hapless female under his rule.
She sat before him in the saddle, cradled in his arms, as she’d ridden the entire day. He’d declared she’d ride with him since she wasn’t adequately protected from the cold.
Rionna had insisted on returning to her own mount when they were a short distance from her keep, but he’d ignored her and kept riding.
’Twas the truth she dreaded facing her people. Much had changed since she’d departed some weeks before. She was returning with a different McCabe brother and without her father. And now she’d be introducing her clan to their new laird.
A shout went up as soon as the guard in the watch-tower spotted them approaching. Caelen frowned and glanced sideways at Gannon.
“What?” Rionna demanded, frowning at their silent communication.
“ ’Tis disgraceful that we got this close to the keep before we were spotted,” Caelen said in disgust. “If Duncan Cameron gets this close, it will be too late to sound the battle cry.”
“Perhaps ’tis best if you greet your new clan before you criticize them.”
“I’m not worried about their feelings,” Caelen snapped. “I’m more concerned over their safety. And yours.”
Rionna turned as best she could when the gate began to swing open. As she’d feared, most of the clan had assembled in the courtyard, their curiosity great over Rionna’s new husband.
“Put me down so that I may introduce you,” she ordered in a low voice.
His grip tightened around her but he didn’t look at her. He kept his gaze focused on the gathered men and women. He pulled up the reins when he was but a few feet away and then, without a word, he dismounted, his hand going up to steady Rionna so she didn’t tumble from the horse.
“See to my wife,” he ordered Gannon.
See to his wife? See to his wife?
Rionna gaped at Caelen as he turned away from her to address her clan. Her clan, damn it. Gannon dismounted then reached up and plucked Rionna from the saddle as easily as if she weighed naught.
He promptly wrapped her in a fur and stood back from Caelen, his hand at her shoulder to keep her in place.
“My name is Caelen McCabe,” Caelen said in a calm, direct voice. “I’m Rionna’s husband and your new laird.”
There were gasps of surprise, exclamations rose, and then everyone began talking at once.
“Quiet!” Caelen roared.
“What happened to Gregor?” Nate McDonald called from the middle of the gathered clansmen.
Several others chimed in. “Aye, what happened?”
Caelen leveled a stare at the crowd. “He is no longer laird. That is all you need concern yourself with. From this day forward you will swear allegiance and loyalty to me or you’ll leave. My word is absolute. We have much work and training to do if we are to stand strong against the might of Duncan Cameron’s army. Our alliance with my brothers, Ewan and Alaric McCabe, as well as your neighboring clans will make us invincible. If you want to keep what is yours and raise your children in peace, then we must fight. And if we must fight, then we must be ready when the time comes.”
Her clansmen exchange wary, suspicious glances. They looked at Caelen and then beyond to her as if they expected her to speak up. She would have, too, if for nothing else than to ease their fears, but Caelen turned and fixed her with a glare that momentarily kept her silent.
As he turned back, she pulled from Gannon’s grasp and hurried forward to address her clan.
“ ’Tis an alliance that pleases our king. He blessed our marriage himself. The agreement was always for whomever I married to take over as laird of our clan. Instead of at the birth of my first child, Caelen McCabe takes the mantle of leadership now. We need him. We need his direction if we are to prove victorious against those who take our land and homes from us.”
Caelen turned his furious stare on her but she calmly faced her clan, taking in their indecision and their confusion.
“My father was without honor,” she said in a clear voice devoid of emotion. “ ’Tis my hope that under the leadership of a new laird we will regain what was lost. We will hold our heads high as we defend our legacy.”
“You will be silent,” Caelen said in a low, dangerous voice. “Go into the keep. Now.”
The look in his eyes would have made a warrior tuck tail and run. But Rionna turned stiffly, her shoulders straight, and walked at a sedate pace toward the keep as if it had been her intention to do so all along after she finished with her speech.
As soon as she entered the keep, her legs sagged and she faltered her way into the hall. Sarah hurried to greet her, placing her gnarled hands on Rionna’s shoulders with a grip that made Rionna wince.
“Tell me all, lass. What’s this about you marrying Caelen McCabe and him replacing our laird? Where’s your father? And our men!”
Rionna carefully pulled Sarah’s hands away and then sank wearily into one of the chairs at the table. “ ’Tis a long story, Sarah.”
“Well now, seems to me I’ve got nothing better to do than listen if I’m to know what’s about here. How on earth did you find yourself married to Caelen McCabe? ’Tis common enough knowledge he’s foresworn to never marry. He was a young lad when he made the vow. Fresh after a betrayal by a lass he loved.”
Rionna emitted a gloomy sigh. Wonderful. Foresworn to never marry and yet he’d sacrificed himself for an emotion he had no use for. Love. Alaric’s and Keeley’s love.
Maybe he’d decided it mattered naught if he never had plans to give his heart to another woman.
“Do you know the story, Sarah? Why did his love betray him?”
“You’re supposed to be telling me a story, lass.”
“And I will,” Rionna cut in impatiently. “Right now I’m more interested in this vow my husband made and why.”
Sarah blew out her breath, then looked around. “All right. I’ll tell you what I know. Eight years ago Caelen McCabe fell in love with Elsepeth Cameron. ’Tis the truth she seduced him. She was a wee bit older than the lad. More worldly, if you know what I mean.”
Rionna didn’t but she wasn’t about to admit it.
“All along she was in league with her kinsman, Duncan Cameron. She drugged the soldiers and opened the gate for Cameron’s men. ’Twas a horrible massacre. Caelen lost his father in the attack and Ewan McCabe lost his young wife. The brothers were away at the time of the attack, and when they returned, they found the keep in ruins and their kin murdered. ’Twas a terrible thing.”
“Aye,” Rionna murmured. “So the dolt now believes all women are evil and has vowed never to open his heart to another.” She shook her head and rolled her eyes heavenward. “Why are men so stupid?”
Sarah threw back her head and laughed. “Well now, lass, that’s the question, isn’t it? You’ve a tough path ahead of you, but if anyone can convince the laddie that a woman’s heart is true and loyal, you can. There’s no more loyal or fierce a lass than yourself.”
Unfortunately, Caelen thought her to be the price he had to pay for his brother’s happiness and his clan’s welfare.
“Now tell me what transpired at the McCabes and why your father has not returned nor all of our men.”
Rionna quickly related all that had occurred while they had sojourned at the McCabes. Including Caelen’s demand that her father cede the leadership of his clan to him and her father’s subsequent departure.
“I wonder how many of the men would have chosen to follow my father had they not wives and children back home. The men who left with my father had no close kin to worry over seeing again.”
“ ’Tis more a concern what they are about now,” Sarah said carefully. “Your father is a vain man and not one to suffer insult lightly.”
“He’s a fool,” Rionna hissed. “A lecherous old fool who placed his wants and desires above his clan’s. He deserved to be removed as laird.”
Sarah patted Rionna’s hand comfortingly. “There, there, lass. No need to get worked up over a foolish old man. His time is over. ’Tis time to look to the future. The McCabes are a fierce clan. It took them long to rebuild but I believe Ewan to be honorable. I can only imagine his brothers would be the same. Perhaps Caelen is just what this clan needs if we are to survive the coming hard times.”
Rionna didn’t doubt that Caelen McCabe would be good for her clan. He was a fierce warrior with no equal on the battlefield. He commanded respect from the men around him. She knew the McDonald soldiers weren’t the fittest. Nor were they the worst. But she’d seen firsthand the might of the McCabe warriors and she wanted that for the McDonalds. Aye, Caelen was a better choice than even Alaric McCabe.
She just wished that she could be equally sure that he’d be a good husband and father to her children.
If he’d already closed his heart, what chance did Rionna have of opening it?
Rionna didn’t see her husband for the remainder of the day. He didn’t even come in to sup, and Rionna ate in the cold great hall alone.
She hated the feeling that she didn’t know her place among her own clan. She’d remained in the keep ever since he’d ordered her inside. Not because he’d told her to, but because she simply had no idea what to do or what to say to her clan.