Caelen punched and then followed with another forceful punch with his left hand. He’d always been equally adept with either hand, not favoring one over the other as so many men did, but Seamus wasn’t fazed by either blow.
It soon became obvious after the third time Caelen picked himself up off the ground that direct methods weren’t going to work. Seamus was inhuman. He wasn’t fast. He lacked finesse, but what he possessed was brute strength and an ability to withstand any blow delivered. Caelen needed fifty more where he came from, and then maybe they’d stand a chance against Cameron.
Caelen wiped the blood from his mouth and circled Seamus, looking for his opportunity. Quickness would be a decided advantage if Caelen weren’t ready to fall over from exhaustion. The fight with the other McDonalds had taken its toll. While he’d dispatched each of them easily enough, no man could take on an entire army and come out victorious. But he was determined to give it his best try. Everything rode on this victory. The McDonalds hadn’t played fair by holding back their best man until Caelen was worn down and near defeat, but a wager was a wager and if Caelen lost, he’d be forced to step aside as laird and return home a failure.
He sucked in a deep breath. Failure wasn’t an option he would entertain.
He glanced at Rionna and saw the fire in her eyes. She urged him on with her gaze, infusing much needed strength into his muscles.
Drawing on reserves he didn’t think he had and bolstered by Rionna’s absolute faith that he’d win the day, he quickened his step and danced around Seamus until the larger man was looking left and right to keep pace with Caelen’s movements.
As soon as Seamus presented his back, Caelen leaped. He wrapped his arms around Seamus’s neck and held on with all his strength.
Seamus let out a roar to rival a wild beast and began to shake to and fro. When he didn’t loosen Caelen’s hold, he turned and ran toward the walls of the keep, Caelen holding on the entire way. At the last moment, Seamus turned and bashed Caelen into the wall.
Caelen grunted in pain but didn’t give even an inch. He dug his forearm into the front of Seamus’s throat and squeezed tighter until he felt the man begin to tremble and fight to draw breath.
Seamus threw himself into the wall again, trying to shake Caelen loose. But Caelen sensed victory now and strength flooded his veins.
Seamus grabbed at Caelen’s arms and tried to pry them loose. He staggered back toward the circle and then went down on one knee.
“Do you yield?” Caelen rasped out.
“Nay!” Seamus roared.
Caelen jerked his arm and tightened his hold.
Seamus went down to both knees and hunched over, Caelen still atop his back like a burr. Then Seamus simply pitched forward and landed with a thump on the ground.
Caelen pried his arms from beneath the fallen man and stood, dusting the snow from his tunic. The McDonald warriors stared with open mouths at Seamus, who was soundly unconscious on the ground. Then they lifted their gazes to Caelen, who regarded them with arms crossed over his chest.
“Now I’ll ask again. Who is with me?”
There was a long silence before one stepped forward.
“I am, Laird.”
Another moved from the crowd.
“And me, Laird.”
“Aye, I’m with you.”
Suddenly the entire crowd rumbled with agreement. The cries of “Aye!” echoed across the courtyard until the sound nearly deafened him.
Gannon came to stand beside Caelen, his grin wide as he clapped Caelen on the shoulder. But Caelen turned, looking for his wife in the madness.
She stood to the side, her smile as bright as the sun. She held up a fist and then pointed directly at Caelen. He motioned her over, suddenly eager to have her near.
She came at once, her skirts swinging as she made her way through the crowd. The men were solicitous of her, stepping out of her way. Some even offered their hand as she picked her way across the snow. Still others called for her to have caution now that she carried a babe.
She stopped in front of Caelen, her smile still wide and beautiful. Then she lifted her finger to wipe the blood trickling from the corner of his mouth.
“You bleed, husband.”
He pulled her to him, slid his hand behind her neck, and pressed his bloody mouth to hers. Around them, a roar went up and finally, finally, the McDonalds decided they had something to celebrate.
“The men improve,” Sarah said as she and Rionna watched from the balcony above the courtyard.
“Aye, they do. They have dedication now. ’Tis good, for the time to fight draws near.”
She rubbed the slight swell of her belly as she spoke. Battle was inevitable, but it troubled her still. She worried for Caelen, for her clan, for Caelen’s family. She worried for the future of her babe.
“You’re frowning, lass. Are you feeling poorly? Perhaps you should lie down a spell and rest.”
Rionna shook her head. Caelen worried endlessly and fussed over her night and day. He’d undertaken the task of ensuring that she rested and never lifted a finger so as not to overexert herself. Unfortunately, his obsession had bled over to Sarah as well.
“Tell me, Sarah, did you rest endlessly when you were pregnant with your bairns?”
Sarah frowned. “There was work to be done, lass. Of course I didn’t lay around.”
Then as if realizing what she’d said, she scowled and leveled a stare at Rionna.
“I was not pregnant with the next laird nor was I a slight lass like yourself. Your husband worries. You should accommodate his request that you be at ease during your confinement.”
“Confinement is right,” Rionna muttered. “ ’Tis most ridiculous. You are right about one thing. There is work to be done and we need all the hands we can manage and yet I’m pushed aside and told to rest. It makes no sense. I am healthy. I haven’t even been ill, not one day. The tiredness left me after my third month.”
“The laird is a determined man. It won’t be me who goes against his decree. The whole clan knows of his wishes for you, lass, so it’s not just me who’ll be reminding you of your duty.”
“If I don’t have something to do soon, I’ll go daft. I cannot stay inside the keep day after day moving from one chair to the next. I’ll grow fat and lazy and then what will happen? Caelen will set me aside for a prettier, fitter wife.”
Sarah laughed. “Come now, lass, you won’t be pregnant forever.”
Caelen paused in his training and looked up as if knowing he’d find Rionna there watching. A slight smile lifted his lips and he nodded his acknowledgment to her. It gave her a ridiculous thrill every time he looked her way. Even though she despaired of the fact that he was oversolicitous, at the same time, she took great joy in the fact that he was so mindful of her well-being.
He may not admit that he had any soft feelings for her, but ’twas obvious he hadn’t hardened his heart to her.
“Soon you’ll give me the words I want, husband,” she whispered fiercely.
“What’s that you say, lass?” Sarah asked.
“ ’Tis nothing. I was but talking to myself.”
“Come away. ’Tis starting to snow.”
Rionna allowed Sarah to pull her back inside the keep and the two women walked down to the great hall so Rionna could warm herself by the fire.
Despite Rionna’s earlier misgivings about learning the managing of the keep, after Caelen’s insistence that she remain inside, she had decided she needed something to occupy her time, so many a day had been spent by the fire as Sarah went over Rionna’s duties as mistress.
As Rionna stood by the fire, her mind wandered, as it often did when she was left alone with her thoughts. One of her duties as mistress was to ensure the comfort of her husband and to see to his care as surely as he did to hers.
Of late, he’d fussed endlessly over her. He pampered her and coddled her until she was positive she was going to be thoroughly spoiled by the process of bearing a child. Perhaps ’twas his aim in order to gain her agreement to have more in the future.
She smiled at the thought. He wouldn’t have to do much convincing.
Still, it only seemed fair that she reciprocate.
Deciding that an evening of pampering was in order for her husband, she had one of the large tubs delivered to her chamber and directed the women to be on standby with buckets of hot water when her husband retired to their chamber.
She laid out the plain soaps that had no scent and made sure she had clean bathing cloths. She bade Gannon to carry up wood since Caelen would suffer apoplexy if she were to do it herself. Then she laid a fire in the hearth and called for a flagon of ale and the evening meal to be served in their chamber.
Satisfied with her effort, she surveyed her handiwork and then went below stairs to await her husband’s arrival from the courtyard.
She fidgeted and paced while she waited. Finally, an hour later, the men began to filter into the hall, all ready for the evening meal. As soon as Caelen made his appearance, she hastened to greet him.
“I’ve arranged our meal to be served in our chamber,” she said in a low voice. “Come above stairs so that I may attend you.”
He gave her a puzzled look but allowed her to lead him toward the stairs. They were nearly run over by the women scurrying out of the chamber, buckets in hand, as they went below to fetch more hot water.
“What are you about, wife?” he asked when she sat him by the fire.
She pulled at his boots as he regarded her with lazy amusement.
“I’ve arranged for a hot bath followed by a hot meal. ’Twill soothe your aches and warm you through.”
He lifted one eyebrow as she tugged one boot free of his foot. “What is the occasion?”
She smiled and began work on the other boot. “ ’Tis no special occasion.”
A knock sounded and Rionna gave the call to enter. Four women came in bearing more water and added it to the already steaming tub. As the women left, Rionna trailed her fingers over the surface.
“I think ’tis ready.”
When Caelen would have begun undressing himself, she put her hand on his arm to stop him. Then she began pulling his clothing down until he was nude before her. She took his hand and guided him toward the tub. He stepped over the side and groaned softly as he sank into the hot water.
She let him sit there a moment with his eyes closed before she collected the washing cloth and soap and knelt by the tub. He opened his eyes to look at her as she pressed the cloth to his chest and began to wash.
“I am unsure of what I’ve done to deserve such attention, but you’ll not hear a single complaint cross my lips.”
“You have been working tirelessly without rest for weeks now,” she said softly. “You’ve insisted on my resting, but not your own. You indulge me and pamper me and yet no one does the same for you.”
He laughed. “I’m a warrior, Rionna. No one pampers warriors.”
“This wife does,” she defended. “An evening where you are waited on hand and foot will do you good.”
She began washing his back in lazy, sensual strokes. His muscles rippled underneath her touch and his breath caught and expelled in a jerky rush.
“I think you may just be right about that. I rather like the idea of my wife serving me in the privacy of our chamber. It opens up a lot of colorful possibilities.”
She leaned over and silenced him with a kiss. She dipped her hand into the water and trailed her fingers down his belly to his cock. Gently she rubbed up and down over his hardness.
“I must be sure to clean everywhere,” she murmured.
“Oh aye, you mustn’t miss a single spot,” he murmured back as he nibbled at her lips.
She leaned back and then went to collect the heavy pitcher from the washbasin. After directing him to scoot forward in the tub, she began to wash his hair.
She loved running her fingers through the long strands. She soaped and rinsed and dug her fingers through the thick pelt, massaging and stroking as she sought to give him comfort.
“Your hands are magic, lass,” he murmured. “ ’Tis the truth I’ve never had so much pleasure from something so simple as a washing of the hair.”
“If you stand by the fire, I’ll dry you,” she said as she rocked back on her heels.
“You’ll not have to ask me twice if I want another opportunity for your hands on my body.”
He stood, and water ran down his back, over his firm buttocks, and down his legs. He stepped from the tub and then turned to face her, his back to the fire. Her gaze was riveted to his body. Were she ninety, she’d never grow tired of looking at this man. He fascinated her. He appealed to her feminine senses in a way a man had never before appealed to her.
“If you continue looking at me so, you’ll find yourself on your back with me between your thighs,” he said gruffly.
She grinned then and stepped forward to began wiping the moisture from his body. She rose up on tiptoe to gather the strands of his hair and squeeze excess water away. When his hair no longer dripped, she began to rub down the rest of his body.