With everyone so bloody happy around him, it was hard to make the argument that the right thing hadn’t been done. The only problem was that he and Rionna seemed to be the only ones not happy.
Ewan cast a glance in Caelen’s direction before turning back to the king. “Aye, we’ve done a good thing.”
“As soon as the babe is well enough to sustain the journey, you must make haste to claim Neamh Álainn. ’Tis important to secure the last link in our stronghold.”
The king turned to Caelen. “ ’Tis the truth a winter storm is nigh, but ’tis also important that you travel back to McDonald keep. The alliance has been made, but I do not trust the former laird not to stir up dissension. It will be your task to bring the McDonalds under control and to honor the alliance with the McCabes.”
Rionna stiffened at the insult, and her head jerked up as she shot daggers at the king. Caelen’s hand shot out to grasp hers and he squeezed a warning.
“Forget you that I am a McCabe? Think you I would betray my kin? My brother?” He fought to keep his own anger under control. He and Rionna were sacrificing much for the good of their clans. He wouldn’t allow the insult to pass. “Just because the McDonald laird is without honor does not mean that his people are lacking as well.”
Rionna eased back into her chair, her rigid shoulders sinking as she relaxed the tiniest bit. When she turned her liquid golden stare on Caelen, he saw gratitude for his defense. And grudging respect.
“I meant no disrespect,” David said. “ ’Tis the truth, you’ll not have an easy time of it. The McDonalds won’t readily accept you as their laird. You’ll have to be on guard at every turn. Duncan Cameron will use any means to weaken our alliance. He’s a viper who must be disposed of.”
“I have no doubt that my brother will do all that is necessary to shape the McDonalds into a formidable fighting force,” Ewan said. “He is largely responsible for the McCabes’ invincibility. ’Tis the truth I’ll be sorely disappointed to lose him even if by doing so I gain a strong ally.”
“You’ll not lose me, brother,” Caelen said with a smile. “We’ll be neighbors now.”
Alaric, who’d been silent until now, frowned and glanced between his two brothers. “What will you do, Ewan? You cannot be in two places at once. Neamh Álainn will have to be defended well and Mairin and Isabel must be protected at all costs. But neither can you neglect our keep. Our clan.”
Ewan smiled and exchanged conspiratorial glances with the king. “Nay, Alaric. ’Tis the truth you speak. You are the only McCabe without land and holdings to call your own now. It only seems fitting that you will defend McCabe keep when Mairin and I take up residence at Neamh Álainn.”
Alaric appeared stunned. He looked between his brothers and shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“I cannot be laird any longer,” Ewan murmured. He turned to Mairin, his eyes full of love. “Surely you see that. Upon the birth of Isabel, my destiny—all our destinies—changed as soon as she took her first breath. ’Tis my duty to protect my daughter’s legacy. I cannot split my duties between my clan and my wife and daughter and be fair to either. Which is why you’ll become laird. I cannot think of a better man for the duty.”
Alaric dragged a hand through his hair and stared at Ewan in disbelief. “I don’t even know what to say, Ewan. You’re the laird. Since our father died. It’s the way of things. I never considered that I would take over.”
The king arched an eyebrow. “Are you saying you have to think on it?”
“Of course not. I’ll do whatever is necessary to ensure the safety and future of my clan.”
“Except marry me, apparently,” Rionna muttered under her breath.
But Caelen heard and he glanced sharply at his wife. He hadn’t considered that perchance she harbored tender feelings for Alaric. Surely they hadn’t been together for long enough. But then how did anyone explain the workings of a woman’s mind?
Alaric wasn’t as cold as Caelen, and Caelen knew he could be unforgiving. Harsh even. Alaric seemed more in tune with the lasses. They adored him. Found him bonny.
Was she upset over the fact that she found herself married to the wrong McCabe? ’Twas something Caelen hadn’t considered, and now that he was he didn’t like the thought at all.
“ ’Tis settled then,” the king announced as he put down his goblet. “We’ll gather the lairds and Ewan can name his brother the new laird of the McCabe clan.”
“What of our men?” Alaric asked Ewan.
Caelen leaned forward, for he had need to hear this as well. The McCabes had an awesome fighting force, but it would have to be split, which benefitted no one.
Ewan grimaced. “I’ll take a large enough contingent with me to see to the protection of Mairin and Isabel. Once we’ve arrived at Neamh Álainn, I can afford to send some back provided I am well satisfied with the king’s guard there.”
He looked to Caelen. “I thought to leave Cormac here since he is newly married and ’twould be more difficult for him to relocate to the McDonald holding with a new wife. I can’t spare men to give to you but I can send Gannon with you to aid in the training of the McDonald soldiers.”
Caelen viewed his brother with surprise. “But Gannon is your most senior man, your most trusted. He has protected you and your wife and child faithfully.”
“It is why I would send him with you,” Ewan said quietly. “You’ll need an ally, someone you can trust without question.” He glanced apologetically at Rionna as he spoke.
Rionna stared stoically past the men to the tapestries hanging over the fireplace. You could have broken stone on her face. No hint of emotion. Her eyes were guarded, no betrayal of her thoughts.
Then she turned as if deigning to acknowledge the men sitting around her. She gave a delicate, feminine sniff, but somehow Caelen knew it had cost her not to let out a decidedly male snort.
“It’s a wonder you allowed yourself to consort with people such as the McDonalds. Why bother with an alliance when we’re so clearly inferior and untrustworthy?” Rionna said.
Caelen nearly crushed her hand in his. His nostrils flared and he would have chastised her for speaking to the king and his brother thusly, but something in her gaze held him back. It wasn’t so much the anger, but hurt lurked where before she’d allowed no hint of what she was feeling to show.
It was gone so quickly he wondered if he’d imagined it.
The king chuckled while Ewan grimaced.
“I realize this isn’t easy for you to hear, Rionna. You have my apologies. I would not send my brother into a hostile environment without support.”
“He is more protected by being my husband than he is by your man,” she pointed out. “Perhaps you should concern yourself more with not insulting me.”
At that Ewan’s eyes narrowed. He was angry at the implied threat. Caelen was merely amused.
“Now, Rionna. You’ll have him worried you’re going to split my gullet while I sleep,” Caelen drawled.
He leaned over, wrapped his hand around her nape, and did what he’d been dying to do ever since she floated into the room. His lips mashed against hers. It was no kiss of seduction, accompanied by sweet gestures and honeyed words.
It was a command to be silent. To cede to his authority. It was a reminder of whom she belonged to.
The feisty little wench nipped at his lip. He tasted blood but he also tasted her sweetness. He didn’t rear back as she likely expected. He deepened the kiss until his blood was forced onto her tongue. When she tried to pull away, he hauled her against him until she was flat against his chest, her ample breasts straining at her bodice.
Only when she went slack against him and the fight leeched from her body did he pull slowly away. He wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand, all the while staring into her eyes.
“See, Ewan, she’s perfectly harmless. You just have to know how to handle her.”
She sprang to her feet, her eyes flashing furiously. “You are the worst sort of braying ass!”
He battled a grin as she turned and flounced dramatically from the room. She’d be insulted to know that her usual long, mannish stride was completely ruined by the yards of material flowing at her feet. She looked like a woman in a pique.
And wouldn’t that infuriate her.
“Jesu, Rionna, where did those come from?” Keeley exclaimed.
Rionna shut the chamber door with a scowl and then looked down as she realized what Keeley referred to.
“Well, I can see that. The question is how you grew them overnight.”
Rionna stared at Keeley for a moment and then burst into laughter. It was either that or cry, and she’d poke her own eye out before she let that happen.
Keeley’s eyes were full of mirth as Rionna walked over to collapse on the bed next to her.
“He’s a … He’s a …”
“Yes, Rionna? He’s a what?”
“He’s a dolt! A pompous, overstuffed … windbag!”
“I can see your education is sorely lacking in the area of insults,” Keeley said dryly.
“I was trying to be circumspect,” Rionna muttered.
“I assume you were referring to your new husband?”
Rionna sighed. “It’s never going to work, Keeley. I look at you and Alaric. I see how Ewan is with Mairin. And then I look at Caelen.”
Keeley’s face filled with sadness and worry. “Do you think you’ll be so very unhappy?”
Rionna felt immediate guilt. Here Keeley lay recovering from a terrible injury. She’d married the man Rionna was supposed to marry and she likely felt horrible that Rionna was unhappy.
“ ’Tis the truth I’d be miserable with either McCabe, so you needn’t feel guilty for marrying Alaric. At least one of us is happy and I’m delirious with joy that you have someone who loves you so very dearly.”
“How was last night?” Keeley asked carefully.
Rionna’s eyes narrowed. “I wouldn’t know. The last thing I remember is standing by your window. I woke up next to Caelen in naught but my underdress. Surely it couldn’t be so bad if I don’t even remember it?”
“You say you were still dressed?”
“Aye, well, I wasn’t completely naked if that’s what you’re asking.”
Keeley giggled. “Nothing happened, Rionna. He didn’t bed you. You were passed out in the chair over there. He came in, picked you up, and carried you out. He must have undressed you and put you to bed.”
Rionna gave a mournful sigh and her shoulders slumped. “ ’Tis the truth I’d hoped it was over and done with. Now I have to dread the deed all over again.”
Keeley patted Rionna on the hand. “You worry over much. ’Tis naught but a pinch and then it feels very nice.”
Rionna wasn’t convinced but she wasn’t going to argue.
“Now tell me why you suddenly have such a generous … bosom.”
Rionna rolled her eyes. “I’ve always bound them. ’Tis the truth that when I began to grow more womanly, my breasts got way ahead of the rest of me. I can’t wield a sword and dodge and be quick when I have these things bouncing at my chest. ’Tis obscene, to borrow Caelen’s word.”
Keeley gasped. “He said that?”
“He muttered something about covering myself and mentioned the word obscene. I’m inclined to agree with him.”
“You’re right. He’s a dolt.”
Rionna grinned and then sighed. “ ’Tis the truth this dress is driving me daft. I’m going to go change and maybe take in some fresh air. The walls of the keep are closing in on me.”
“You always were more comfortable outside,” Keeley said with a smile. “Go then. I’ll not tell Caelen I’ve seen you if he asks.”
Rionna leaned forward to kiss Keeley’s cheek. It was on the tip of her tongue to relate all that had been said below about Alaric being the new laird, but she wouldn’t ruin the news for Alaric. ’Twas the truth the new couple needed all the good moments they could manage. They’d been through hell already.
“I’ll come to see you later. Rest now, sister of my heart.”
Keeley shot her a mischievous grin. “When you return, I’ll tell you all I’ve learned about matters of the flesh. ’Tis the truth you can tame the gruffest of men with a few touches and a most inventive use of your mouth.”
Rionna’s face burst into flames. She clapped her hands over her ears with a groan.
Keeley leaned back into the pillows and smiled. “I’m so glad you’re here, Rionna. I missed you so.”
“I missed you, too.”
Rionna hurried down the hall to her chamber where she all but tore the frothy confection of a gown from her body. She embraced her anger because the alternative wasn’t bearable. What she really wanted was to curl into a ball on the bed and shut out her humiliation.