Authors: Bride of a Scottish Warrior
Ewan pulled alongside the small river, dismounted, then casually held the reins while allowing his horse to drink. They had traveled a fair distance this day and the animal deserved a reward. As he waited for the stallion to drink his fill, Ewan lifted his face toward the late afternoon sun and closed his eyes. After all the constant activity and noise at the castle, the silence around him was soothing.
He took a deep breath. The faint hint of heather in the air foretold of the coming spring and the familiar, comforting scent buoyed his spirits.
Somehow they had survived the first winter at Tiree with only a few deaths—three villagers to old age and two of his guardsmen to a mysterious sweating sickness. Food had not always been plentiful, yet Ewan felt a sense of pride that none had died from starvation or exposure to the harsh winter cold. He had worked hard to do all that he promised, providing food and shelter for everyone, but he also acknowledged they had been lucky.
Spring would bring the rebirth of the land, summer milder weather, and hopefully in the fall, a bountiful harvest. Yet it was essential that they now plant as many fields as possible, hunt as much game as they could find, and store away an abundance of food and fuel in anticipation of the next winter. A man’s luck, as Ewan knew all too well, did not last indefinitely.
He heard the sound of footsteps approaching, but didn’t bother to open his eyes. He was safe enough on his own land, especially this close to the keep.
My own land. Will I ever get used to saying that, I wonder?
“I overheard Margaret and Colleen talking in the kitchen this morning,” a female voice announced. “They remarked with the snow starting to melt, the priest should arrive earlier than usual, most likely in a few weeks’ time.”
With an ironic smile, Ewan turned to his mother. “Have ye a burning need to make yer confession and seek absolution fer yer sins? Is that why ye are so anxious to see a priest, Mother?”
Lady Moira drew in a still breath. She had fared well through the harsh winter, losing none of her strength or edge. “I’ve little use fer men of the cloth, as ye well know. I was referring to yer needs.”
Ewan scrutinized his mother in puzzlement. “I’m not in need of a confessor or a priest.”
“I never thought ye were.” Moira glanced away, looking out at the budding greenery. “But ye need to seriously think about taking a wife, Ewan, and saying yer vows when the priest arrives. It might be as long as a year before he returns. If ye wait much longer, all the good women will be taken.”
“All of them?” Ewan answered with a teasing smile, but Lady Moira was not amused. The furrow between her brows, which seemed to be a permanent fixture on her forehead ever since he could remember, deepened.
“Ye can scoff at my blunt tongue as much as ye like, but I’ll not soften the truth. Ye need an heir to carry forth yer legacy, and fer that, ye need a wife.”
Though he fought against it, Ewan felt his heart start to pound. ’Twas irritating enough having a lecture from his mother; ’twas worse when she was right. He did need a wife and for more than a broodmare.
Since arriving at the keep, he had worked beside his men from dawn till dusk, rebuilding his castle, protecting his lands, and providing for the villagers. Exhausted, he fell into his cold, lonely bed each night, wondering why the sense of accomplishment and pride he felt wasn’t enough. Would all of this mean more if there was someone to appreciate his efforts, to benefit from his success, to share in his good fortune?
It seemed such a ridiculous notion, yet alone in the darkness he acknowledged that was what he needed, he wanted. A female companion who would sit at his side in front of the evening fire, listening to his stories with admiration shining in her eyes. A willing lass who would warm his bed and laugh at his jokes. A kind woman who would offer her opinions when asked, and hold her tongue when required. Who would bare his children and mother their bairns with love and tenderness.
In short, he wanted a woman to share his life.
Shaking his head, Ewan nearly burst out laughing. Ever since he had been old enough to fondle and bed a woman, he had avoided emotional entanglements and commitments. Yet now it seemed as though he thought of little else.
Peacetime must addle a man’s brain,
“A wife would be useful,” he said cautiously. “Yet it is neither a decision I’ll make hastily nor an obligation I’ll take lightly.”
His mother nodded with approval. “I’ll not have a son of mine treat any woman with disrespect. ’Tis part of the reason I encouraged ye to order yer men not to force any of the village women into their beds.”
“That decree has hastened several marriage proposals.”
“Aye, that’s why I’m pressing ye to make yer choice,” Lady Moira exclaimed. “Besides, the castle needs a woman to run it properly.”
Ewan was surprised by that revelation, for his mother seemed to relish taking charge of his household. After decades of being treated as a disgraced, fallen woman, Lady Moira was finally being given the respect she was due and she appeared to relish the role. How would she truly feel if a younger woman replaced her?
“I’ve no complaints with the job ye’re doing,” Ewan said.
“I’ve earned a rest,” Moira snapped. “’Tis yer wife who should be running yer household and seeing to the welfare of yer people, not yer mother.”
Knowing he shouldn’t encourage her, yet unable to stop himself, Ewan asked, “I suppose ye’ve already decided which woman I should marry.”
Moira’s face brightened. “There are many worthy women in the village, but I’ve noticed that Margaret often gives ye special looks.”
Ewan shook his head. “Margaret gives all my men special looks.”
Moira shrugged. “Aye, I had noticed that she can be a bit bold at times. How about Deirdre? She’s not afraid of hard work and seems to be a natural leader among the other women.”
“Deirdre is a fine lass, but surely ye’ve noticed how Alec cannae keep his eyes from straying toward her every time she walks into a room.”
Moira waved her hand dismissively. “No matter. Ye’re the laird of these lands, the leader of all who reside here. If ye want her, then ye should have her. I’d wager she’d much prefer her position as yer wife than Alec’s.”
Ewan jerked his head toward his mother. “I’ve too much respect fer Alec to take something he wants from under his nose. Especially since she means little to me and a great deal to him.”
Ewan heard his mother sigh. “If not the fair Deirdre, then who?” she asked.
Ewan squashed the urge to turn and stomp away. ’Twas none of his mother’s business who and when he married, but he would have to be a blind fool to miss the hard determination shining in his mother’s eyes. Moira Gilroy was not going to be denied; she intended to discuss the matter here and now.
“I plan to travel south to find my bride.”
Lady Moira shook her head. “It will be hard fer a village lass to be accepted here. Many willnae want to leave their families, either, no matter how much ye sweet talk them.”
“I’m flattered by yer confidence in my abilities to charm a woman. The truth is I’m going to search fer a female who expects to leave her home.”
His mother’s deepening frown of confusion forced Ewan to elaborate—something he had hoped to avoid. “I’m going to wed a woman raised to be a lady.”
“None will have ye.”
Ewan glanced at her in irritation. Honestly, should he have expected anything less than her full censure? “Class lines have been a bit blurred with the war. I’m a knight, trusted by my king, and a man of property.”
“Ye are a bastard, first, last, and always. No chief or laird will offer ye anything but the dregs, the impure, unfit females in his family, those that no others will have or want.”
As much as he longed to deny it, Ewan knew there was some truth to his mother’s cruel words. Yet he refused to believe the situation was so dire. Standing in the valley, surveying the land he now owned, Ewan renewed his resolve to achieve all that he desired, all that he dared to dream.
Including a noble wife.
Alec approached on horseback. Ewan noticed him pull back on the reins and slow his mount when he caught sight of Lady Moira. His mother must have also seen Alec approaching, for she let out a most unfeminine snort and began walking away.
After a few steps she halted, then turned to face Ewan. “I’m feeling desperate enough over the matter that I’d even considered asking Alec to talk some sense into ye, but I know it would be a waste of my breath. He only echoes yer opinions and never expresses his own.”
“Perhaps in this instance his opinion is in agreement with mine,” Ewan replied.
Lady Moira let out an even louder snort, then turned and walked away. Expression puzzled, Alec dismounted and came to stand beside Ewan.
“I believe I’ve just been insulted by yer mother,” he said. “Again.”
“Pay it no mind.” Ewan snatched a flat rock from the riverbed and flung it into the water. “My mother and I have been discussing my future wife.”
“Yer scowl tells me it wasnae a pleasant conversation.”
“Is it ever?” Ewan picked up a second rock and let it fly. “I must make a match with a woman who possesses a substantial dowry. We need seeds, grain, livestock, and coin in order to survive another winter.”
“Aye. But does it have to be a bride bringing it all to ye?”
“Ye could ask the earl fer a loan,” Alec suggested.
Ewan frowned at the mention of his older half brother. “I’d rather eat my sword than go to Kirkland fer help,” he stated emphatically.
“Och, now dinnae be shy. Tell me what ye truly think of my advice.”
Ewan laughed appreciatively. “There’s no other way, Alec. I’ve thought long and hard about it and I know what needs to be done. ’Tis a wealthy bride I seek and I’ll not be complaining if she’s fair to look at and siren in my bed. Will ye accompany me on my quest?”
“Aye. I cannae miss the chance to see ye make an arse of yerself over a woman, now can I? When do we leave?”
The squeal of childish laughter rang through the solid timbers of the McKenna great hall and bounced off the stone walls. Malcolm McKenna, age six, oldest son of the laird and the acknowledged ringleader of his siblings, pressed his younger brother and sister closer behind his aunt’s skirts. Grace smiled down at the trio and obligingly moved into position, willingly acting as a human shield.
“Ye’ll never find us now, ye mighty dragon,” Malcolm called out with bravado, then tried unsuccessfully to hush his sister’s nervous giggles.
The mighty dragon—Sir Brian McKenna, chief of the clan, laird of these lands and father to this raucous brood—crouched low and let out a fiendish growl. “Ye cannae hide from me! I’m coming to get ye and woe to the first lad or lass I capture in my evil grip.”
More nervous giggles followed as Brian stomped about the great hall, slowly circling toward Grace. She could feel the back of her skirt being pulled by anxious little fists as the mighty dragon came nearer and nearer.
Baring his teeth, the dragon let out an exaggerated roar. At the fierce noise the children broke ranks and ran in three different directions. Brian winked at Grace before reaching out a long arm and scooping up his daughter. Katherine let out an ear-splitting squeal, causing Brian to roar louder, making the child burst into excited giggles.
The capture brought her brothers, along with two of the castle hounds, into the fray. Malcolm jumped on the dragon’s back, while James clasped his arms around the dragon’s leg, hanging on tightly even as the leg was lifted in the air and swung in a circle. One hound began barking, the other howled, and all three children screamed. The din was so loud several servants in the hall moved to cover their ears.
’Twas chaos, pure and simple. And Grace loved every minute of it.
The game continued. Brian released his prey and the children ran for cover, imploring Grace to save them. Smiling, she pointed to the best hiding spots, then stood in front of her brother and made a great show of trying to hold him back.
He neatly sidestepped her and soon had all three of his youngsters once again hanging off his solid frame, their screams and laughter filling the entire castle.
“Och, Brian McKenna, have ye lost what little sense the good Lord gave ye?” Lady Aileen asked as she entered the great hall, her protruding belly leading the way. “I thought ye were out on the practice field with yer men, but instead I find ye racing around the hall like a half-wit, screeching at the bairns until they are near to having fits. I ask ye, how are we ever going to get them to settle down fer an afternoon nap?”
“I’ll tire them out with play,” Brian answered.
“I’m too old fer naps,” Malcolm declared, poking his head out from behind his father’s shoulder.
“Me, too,” James piped up.
“Mind yer tongues when speaking to yer mother, lads,” Brian lectured, a trace of laughter in his voice.
Arms on her hips, Aileen McKenna glared at her husband and children. “Well now, we’ll see just how funny ye think this is when they’re whining through their evening meal and then they crowd into our bed in the middle of the night because nightmares about dragons are keeping them from a peaceful slumber.”
Brian’s expression sobered. He swung Malcolm off his back, then pried James from his leg and carefully set Katherine on her feet. Lining the trio up in size order, he glanced down at his children. “There’ll be no crying and no nightmares from any of ye tonight. Understood?”
The three little heads bobbed in unison. Grace moved her hand to her mouth to hide her grin. Brian turned toward his wife with a satisfied air, as if the matter had been neatly settled, but his victory was interrupted by his wife’s smirk.
“They’d agree to eat a dragon to keep the game going. Am I right, Grace?”
“Aye, Aileen.” In the six months that she had lived with her brother and his family, Grace had learned ’twas always best to agree with her sister-in-law. Brian McKenna might rule his men and his lands with a mighty fist and a strong will, but Aileen McKenna ruled her husband. “They’ll give any excuse to keep playing with their da.”