Rionna waited until she was certain Alaric had risen before she went to Keeley’s chamber. Though all the McCabe warriors were notoriously early risers—they somehow functioned on but a few hours’ sleep every night—Alaric had devoted most of his time for the last weeks to Keeley’s bedside.
After she saw Alaric reenter his chamber with food for Keeley to break her fast, she waited a few moments and then knocked.
Alaric opened the door and Rionna straightened her shoulders. “I’d like to say my farewell to Keeley if she’s feeling well enough this morn.”
“Of course. Come in. She’s breaking her fast and grumbling about being held captive in her bedchamber.”
Rionna grinned at Alaric’s exasperated tone. She walked inside to see Keeley sitting up in bed, more color in her cheeks than had been there the day before.
“I’ve come to bid you farewell.”
Keeley’s lips turned down into an unhappy frown. “So soon? I had hoped to spend more time with you.”
Rionna perched on the edge of the bed, taking Keeley’s hand in hers and squeezing. “You’ll come to visit when you’re well. Perhaps I’ll come back to visit you. We’re married to brothers. We’ll see each other often. I still expect you to attend me when I bear my first child, so make sure you do nothing foolish like injuring yourself again.”
Keeley’s eyes danced with merriment. “How went it last night with Caelen?”
Rionna’s eyes narrowed. “I hate him. He has a wicked, silken tongue, but he turns into the worst sort of ass outside the bedchamber.”
Keeley sighed. “Give him time, Rionna. He’s a good man. You just have to dig below the surface to uncover that man.”
Rionna made a face. “I don’t have your faith, Keeley.”
“I want you to be happy. Promise me you’ll give him a chance.”
“I can only promise not to stick my dagger in his gut while he sleeps,” Rionna grumbled.
Keeley laughed. “ ’Tis all I can ask then. Be well, Rionna. And be happy. Send word when you’re established at McDonald keep and let me know you’ve arrived safely. I’ll be awaiting word on the news of your first child as well.”
Rionna rose then leaned down to kiss Keeley’s cheek. “ ’Tis the truth I’ll never bear a child if he doesn’t learn to close his mouth at the appropriate time.”
Keeley grinned. “ ’Tis a skill I don’t think any man has yet learned. But remember all I counseled you on. Use your skills as a woman and I guarantee he’ll shut his mouth, for a time at least.”
Rionna sat atop her horse surveying the line of McDonald men that was smaller than it had been when they’d arrived. Her chest ached for the men who’d chosen to side with her father. These were men she’d grown up around. Some of them were young and were probably swayed by her father’s talk of loyalty and distrust of the McCabes. The older warriors were likely outraged over the ousting of her father as laird and had followed him without coercion.
There was no telling what would happen when Rionna and Caelen returned to her keep and announced that Caelen was their new laird. Not that the people hadn’t been expecting Rionna to marry and for her husband to one day lead their clan, but it wasn’t supposed to happen overnight.
She shivered as the wind knifed through her. The fur she wore was threadbare and the clothes underneath weren’t suitable for traveling in such cold. When they’d made the trip to McCabe keep the weather had been unseasonably warm. That was no longer the case and she hadn’t the wardrobe to withstand being outdoors in the biting cold for any length of time.
Caelen and his commander led the way. Rionna hung several horse lengths back, surrounded by four McDonald soldiers as they trudged through the crisp snow.
He hadn’t once looked back, not that Rionna expected him to. She may as well not exist for all the mind he’d paid her since the journey began.
Apart from assisting her onto her horse, he hadn’t acknowledged her at all since she’d overheard his words to Gannon earlier that morn.
“I don’t like him, Rionna,” James muttered beside her.
She jerked her head up to make sure Caelen hadn’t overheard the disloyal remark and then she turned to the young warrior. Beside him, Simon, his father, nodded his agreement.
“I don’t like him either, lass. The king and the McCabes have given us a bad turn. ’Twasn’t right what they did to your father.”
Rionna clenched her jaw until it ached. She could hardly reveal her true feelings. She couldn’t very well say that she didn’t like her new laird either, but she wasn’t about to go as far as to defend her father.
“ ’Tis best to give him a chance,” she murmured in a low voice, all the while keeping her gaze on Caelen’s back. “He seems a good and fair man.”
“He doesn’t treat you with the respect you’re due,” Arthur said angrily from her other side.
Rionna turned in surprise and then surveyed all the men who rode back from Caelen and Gannon. None of them looked happy to have Caelen lead them back to their home. Their mouths were set in firm lines and their eyes were angry and hard.
“ ’Tis the truth neither of us wanted this marriage,” she said. ’Twill be an adjustment for the both of us. He never considered that he’d be laird of our clan. Think you how you would feel if you attended your brother’s wedding only to end up being saddled with his unwanted bride.”
The men winced and James nodded his commiseration.
“Still, he has no cause to treat you as he’s done,” Simon argued. “The McCabe warriors have a reputation for being fair. Fierce but fair. You bring him much through your marriage. He should treat you gently as he would any other gently bred lady.”
Rionna snorted. “Well, now, there’s the rub. I’m no gently bred lady, remember?”
The men laughed around her and Caelen turned to look over his shoulder at the sudden noise. For a moment his gaze connected with Rionna’s and she stared back, unwilling to let him cow her.
After a time, he let his gaze slide away and he turned away from her once more.
“He has to prove himself to us,” Simon said. “I care naught what the king has decreed. If he is to be laird of our clan, he’ll have to prove he’s worthy of the mantle of leadership.”
“May he prove more worthy than my father,” Rionna whispered.
The others went silent, perhaps out of loyalty to the man they’d called laird for so many years. Rionna was through acting the dutiful daughter. She had plans for when she returned to her keep.
Whether her husband liked it or not, she intended to be a major force in the reshaping of her clan. For too long her people had suffered under the poor leadership of a greedy, belligerent fool.
Perhaps they’d traded one for another. She knew not yet. She hoped Caelen proved a good man and an even better warrior.
War was imminent. Ewan McCabe was preparing to fight Duncan Cameron and he was taking the whole of the highlands with him to battle.
Her clan wouldn’t be the sacrificial lamb on the battlefield, if she could help it.
It was nearing dark when Caelen called a halt to the procession. Rionna was so cold that she’d long since lost feeling in her hands and feet. Her cheeks were numb and she felt cold on the inside.
She was sure she’d never be warm again. The fires of hell would be welcome at the moment.
She pried her hands from the reins and tucked them under the fur, hoping to rub some feeling back into them. She dreaded dismounting. She had no wish to set her feet into the snow. She had no wish to do anything that required movement.
With a fortifying breath, she gripped the saddle and started to dismount. Caelen appeared by her horse and reached up to assist her.
She was so pathetically grateful that she nearly tumbled into his arms.
Somehow she managed to put her hands on his shoulders and allow him to lift her down. But when her feet made contact with the ground, her legs buckled and she went down into the snow.
Caelen immediately reached for her, but when his hands came into contact with her icy skin, he swore a string of blasphemies that singed her ears.
As he swung her into his arms, he barked out orders for fires to be built and for shelter to be constructed.
“Caelen, I’m quite well. Just c—cold.”
She slapped her lips together as the last stammered out. ’Twas the truth she was so cold she burned.
“You’re not well,” he said in a grim voice. “God’s teeth, woman, are you just trying to kill yourself? Why aren’t you dressed for the cold? And why the hell didn’t you tell me you were so miserable?”
She would have bitten her tongue off before complaining to him of anything.
As soon as the fires were laid and began to burn, Caelen carried her and perched on a log as close to the flames as he could without singeing their clothing.
He opened his fur and put her directly against his chest, where only his tunic and hers separated them. Then he wrapped her firmly into his embrace and allowed some of his warmth to seep into her body.
Oh ’twas wondrous. For a moment.
As soon as some of the numbing chill began to wear off, her skin began to prickle like a thousand ants were eating her flesh. She whimpered and struggled against him but he only held her tighter and wrapped his arms around her so that she was trapped.
“Aye, I know it does, and I’m sorry for it, but ’tis the feeling coming back into your body. Be grateful you can feel anything at all.”
“Don’t lecture me. Not now. At least wait until I’m not feeling as though my flesh is being torn from my bones.”
Caelen chuckled softly. “It must not be too bad if you still have your sharp tongue. I wouldn’t lecture you if you weren’t such a stubborn lass. If you didn’t have adequate clothing for the journey, you should have said something before we left. I wouldn’t have allowed you to travel in such bitter conditions without proper protection.”
“You’re lecturing again,” she grumbled even as she snuggled closer to his body so she could absorb more of his warmth.
As more heat seeped into her body, she began to shake. Her teeth clattered so violently that she was sure they’d fall right out of her head.
She burrowed her face into Caelen’s neck as she tried to still the shivers that quaked over her body. “C-cold. I c-can’t get w-warm.”
“Shh, lass. ’Twill be all right. Just sit still for a bit until I’ve warmed you.”
She all but crawled inside him. Her hands clutched at his tunic and she kept her face tucked beneath his chin as she breathed the warmer air at the hollow of his throat.
Eventually her shaking diminished to occasional muscle spasms and she lay limp and exhausted in Caelen’s arms.
“Are you warm enough to eat?” Caelen asked.
She nodded but the truth was she didn’t want to move.
Carefully he got up and left her sitting on the fallen log. He tugged his fur tighter around her, sealing the opening against the wind. After he was satisfied she wouldn’t teeter off her perch, he strode away, directing the men to finish erecting the shelters.
A few minutes later, he returned and offered her the heel of a bread loaf and a hunk of cheese. She stuck her fingers out of the fur and hunched over as she ate delicately at the offering.
She couldn’t taste it. She was just too cold. But it felt good in her belly and it bolstered her flagging energy. As she ate, she watched with detached interest as snow was cleared in a wide arc around the fire. The tents were raised and snow was packed around the bases for extra stability against the stiff winds.
Extra wood was put on the fire until the flames soared skyward and the entire area glowed orange.
After she finished the cheese, she extended her fingers toward the fire, delighting in the intense heat that licked the tips.
Then Caelen was there, standing in front of her. He didn’t speak. He simply hauled her up into his arms and carried her to the tent closest to the fire.
On the floor was a mound of furs made into a very comfortable-looking bed. He placed her in the middle of them and then pulled her boots off, frowning as he inspected them.
“These are a waste of good leather. It’s a wonder you haven’t lost your toes to frostbite. There are more holes than boot left.”
She was too tired and cold to argue with him.
“Tomorrow we have to do something about these,” he muttered. “You can’t go about in the dead of winter with these miserable excuses for boots.”
Still muttering under his breath, he crawled onto the furs beside her and lined his body up with hers so that she was flush against him. He rolled her to her side and then pulled the furs tight around them.
“Put your feet between my legs,” he instructed.
She slipped her bare feet between his thighs and slid them down, moaning at the instant warmth. The man was like a fire himself.