She pushed herself off his chest and glared down at him. “What? But I thought you hadn’t yet awakened. I thought you were dying. Keeley said you hadn’t yet awakened.”
“Aye, I hadn’t,” he said in an amused voice. “ ’Tis the truth it was late when I took to my bed and I only did so because Gannon threatened to knock me over the head to force me to sleep if I didn’t leave your bedside.”
Weak tears slid down her cheeks. She could barely breathe for the relief beating in her chest. “You weren’t dying. You’re going to be all right. You won’t die.”
“I have no intention of leaving you, lass.”
Then he fixed her with a stern scowl.
“You, however, are not so assured of glowing health. You should not be out of bed. ’Tis the truth you look like you’re but a few steps out of the grave.”
Even as he spoke, he ran trembling hands over her arms and then up to her face.
“How typical that you spring from your deathbed to prevent me from going to mine,” he murmured. “You worried me, lass. The last days have been the longest of my life.”
“I’ll not go back to that chamber,” she said stubbornly. “When I woke, I worried that you were still angry with me and that I’d been banished from our chamber. ’Tis not a feeling I ever want to experience again.”
His eyes went soft and he gently rolled her so that she lay beside him on the bed. He fussed and rearranged the furs, making sure she was comfortable and without pain. How could she think of pain when the husband she thought lay dying was staring at her with love in his eyes?
“If I have my way, we’ll never be separated again,” he said. “God’s teeth, Rionna. You frightened at least a decade from my life. I was so worried for you and our babe.”
Rionna’s hand went automatically to her stomach, her expression panicked.
Caelen laid his hand over hers and she calmed. “Aye, our bairn is still there, wedged in his mother’s womb. I’ve no doubt that he or she is every bit the fierce warrior that their mother is.”
“Tell me what happened,” she said, as he turned on his side next to her. “So much is a blur. I don’t remember much of the battle. I was so terrified.”
He stroked her hair and kissed her forehead as if he couldn’t bear not to touch her.
“You were magnificent. You saved me. ’Tis a fact I’ll not forget in this lifetime. You led our clan into battle. You were the fiercest warrior princess that ever was.”
She frowned and looked suspiciously up at him. “How came you by that term?”
He smiled. “Keeley told me of your childhood dreams. Aye, Rionna, you’re my warrior princess.”
Her heart melted and she sighed at the adoration in her warrior’s eyes.
“I’m ashamed that for so long I tried to mold you into someone else,” he said with a grimace. “But ’tis the truth, from the first day I saw you attired in those trews and a man’s tunic, wielding a sword as deftly as any warrior, I wanted you so badly I ached with it. I thought if I forced you to be something you were not, ’twould temper my fierce need for you.”
“Perhaps you recognized in me the mirror of yourself. Your other half,” she whispered.
“Aye, I did, but I fought it. But no more.”
“Then you’ll let me fight alongside you?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.
He leaned down to kiss her. His breath stuttered out unevenly and it took him a moment to respond. “I’ll not lie. ’Tis my wish to forever keep you here and under my protection. I died a thousand deaths watching you in battle. Part of me was so proud. I wanted to shout to the world, Look at her! She is mine! The other part of me wanted to drag you as far from danger as I could and keep you from harm all the days of your life. I can only promise not to be so rigid in the future. I’ll not ever be accepting of anything that puts you in danger.”
She smiled and laid her head on his shoulder. “ ’Tis enough you love me and accept what I am, faults and all.”
“I’ll love you well, lass. ’Tis one promise I can make and vow to keep. I’ll love you until I draw my last breath and beyond. You were made for me. I cannot imagine a more perfect mate.”
The door opened and Keeley stormed in, Gannon on her heels. Behind them, Alaric and Ewan crowded in.
“You’ve had long enough,” Keeley said. “ ’Tis time to return to your bed. You’re not well, Rionna.”
Caelen turned and smiled. “She’ll remain here where she belongs. Her fever has broken and I’ll be sure to keep the furs tight over the windows so no draft blows in.”
Ewan walked farther into the room and then came to stand over the bed where Rionna and Caelen lay.
“ ’Tis relieved I am to hear you’ve awakened, Rionna. For I would offer you my deepest gratitude before I return to Mairin and Isabel.”
Her brows knit together in confusion. Caelen chuckled softly.
“She doesn’t even realize all she has done. It would appear her sole aim was to save her husband’s worthless hide.”
“You have my thanks for saving my brother. He’s difficult and grumpy, but a more loyal man I’ll never find. He’s suffered for the sins of others for far too long.”
Rionna smiled as Ewan continued.
“And as much as I wanted the duty myself, I would also thank you for ridding the world of Duncan Cameron. I have it on good authority the king will bestow his gratitude on you personally. Without the support of Cameron, Malcolm’s rebellion is dead. He hasn’t the resources or the support to launch a bid for the throne. Indeed, the whole of the highlands is in your debt.”
“I wish I could say I thought of all that just before I thrust my sword through Cameron’s back, but ’tis the truth, my only aim was to prevent him from killing my husband,” she said ruefully.
The others laughed and Caelen squeezed her to him as he kissed her forehead. “You’ll rest now,” he murmured. “Here in my arms where I know you’re safe and I can watch over you and our babe.”
She sighed and closed her eyes. “Aye. ’Tis where I want to be most.”
Never looking away from his wife or moving his lips from her temple, he raised his hand and waved the others away.
Keeley’s gaze was misty as she stared at the two entwined on the bed. Alaric chuckled softly and pulled her into his side.
Even Gannon and Ewan wore soft smiles as they tiptoed quietly from the room.
“Ouch!” Rionna yelped when Mairin stuck another pin in her hair. She tried to rub at the spot, but Keeley grabbed her hand and forced it away from her hair.
“ ’Tis important you look perfect this day,” Mairin said.
“I don’t see why,” Rionna muttered. “If the king wanted to thank me, a private word would be sufficient. All this pomp makes me nervous.”
Keeley and Mairin exchanged conspiratorial glances and Rionna was quick to latch on.
“What? What mischief are you two brewing? I saw that look.”
Keeley rolled her eyes. “We just want you to look stunning. Your recovery has been long. The weather is beautiful today. You should shine as marvelously as the sun.”
“You’ve a silver tongue, Keeley McCabe. I see your aim. Ply me with flattery so I’ll forget that look between the two of you.”
Mairin laughed. “Oh, Rionna, do stop. Now let me look at you.”
She stepped back and Rionna ran a nervous hand over the burgeoning swell of her belly. Keeley and Mairin had worked to let out the waist so that it wouldn’t be too constricting. The result, Rionna had to admit, was wonderful.
The dress flowed to her ankles and hid the evidence of her pregnancy. Only a slight distension at the waist hinted at her condition. And the dress itself was a masterpiece. Rionna could scarcely believe such a creation belonged to her.
Miles and miles of amber velvet trimmed with golden threads and russet embroidery. It was a tribute to her hair and all the varying shades of the sunset it embodied.
For all her grumblings, Rionna wanted to look stunning. Aye, she wanted her husband to look upon her and see naught else. It hadn’t occurred to her to be nervous over the king’s visit or his tribute to her. Nay, she worried only over her husband’s reaction to her appearance.
“ ’Tis time,” Mairin said.
“ ’Tis time for what?” Rionna asked in exasperation. “The two of you are acting so secretive.”
Keeley smiled mysteriously and took Rionna’s arm to guide her from the chamber. “We are to deliver you to the balcony overlooking the courtyard.”
The two women tucked their arms through Rionna’s and walked her out of the chamber and to the doorway leading outside to the balcony.
Rionna squinted at the sudden wash of sunshine but then closed her eyes and allowed the warmth to pour over her. It felt so good to be outside again. She inhaled deeply the sweet-scented air. Spring had at long last arrived and the earth burst with green, the snows long since melted and replaced by vibrant carpets of color.
She opened her eyes and glanced down to see all the McDonald warriors assembled in the courtyard. To the right, Caelen’s two brothers stood and beside them was seated the king, surrounded by his guard.
Rionna looked back to comment to Mairin and Keeley but found them gone. Befuddled, she turned her attention back to the courtyard in time to see her husband stride out to stand in front of the assembled men.
But it wasn’t them he faced or them he addressed. He turned and stared up at her. Quiet descended on the courtyard and Rionna swallowed, suddenly nervous and unsure of what was happening.
And then Caelen’s voice rang out over the courtyard: “Rionna McDonald, I stand here today because you assembled your warriors and came for me with a plan so crazed that it was brilliant. You risked your life because you loved me. I have not a gesture so grand as yours to prove my love and regard. You once told me you demanded the words and you demanded the part of my heart you swore I locked away from you. ’Tis the truth that no part of me was safe from your possession.”
Rionna gripped the stone edge of the curved balcony wall and leaned forward as she drank in her husband’s appearance and let his words slide like silk over her ears.
“Nay, my gesture is not as grand as yours. You were willing to sacrifice all because you considered me yours and were unwilling to let me go.
“I once made the mistake of trying to change who you were. I tried to take a bold, courageous woman and make her into a meek, mild-mannered genteel lady because I thought I would be safe from her. ’Twas the biggest mistake I’ve ever made and one I’ll regret all my days.
“I offer you the words now, wife. I love you. I love my warrior princess. I say it in front of my king, my clan. Our clan. So that you’ll know how very loved and cherished you are.”
A roar of approval went up from the men. They raised their swords and whoops and whistles rose sharply through the air.
She pressed her fist to her mouth so she wouldn’t embarrass herself or Caelen by bursting into tears. “I love you, too, my gruff warrior,” she whispered.
“I gathered my king and my family today to rectify a wrong,” Caelen continued when the cheers diminished. He turned then, partly to include the McDonald men in his address. “The McDonalds deserve to have their name live on. ’Tis a noble and courageous thing they did for the laird who bore not their name and for the king who divided their clan.”
Slowly he raised his gaze once more to find Rionna’s. His love was a tangible warmth crowding his clear green eyes.
“Henceforth I will no longer be known as Caelen McCabe. From this day forward I take the name of Caelen McDonald. May our clan live long, and the glory of the day a golden-haired warrior princess led them into battle be retold for many years to come.”
Rionna’s mouth dropped open. Stunned silence settled over the courtyard as the warriors all stared at Caelen. The women who’d gathered to hear the address put their hands to their mouths. Some openly wept and others brought their aprons to their eyes.
Ewan stared at his brother with pride while Mairin, who’d gone to join her husband, wiped tears from her face.
And then Rionna was running. She flew into the keep and down the stairs, grasping her skirts in tight fists so she didn’t fall. She burst out of the door of the keep and there was Caelen, standing before her, the king, his brothers, and their clan.
She stopped before she hurled herself into his arms, remembering his admonishment so many months earlier about showing affection in front of his men.
“If you wait any longer to come to me, I’ll tackle you here in front of everyone,” Caelen said in a low voice.
With a cry she launched herself into his arms and he caught her against him as she fused her mouth to his in a kiss that her clansmen would talk about years later.
He spun her around and around as her laughter filled the air. Around them their clan gathered, joyous and celebrating. When he finally lowered her to the ground, he kept her pressed to his chest as he stared into her eyes.