Authors: Bride of a Scottish Warrior
“That’s ’cause he’s the biggest bairn of all,” Aileen said.
“’Tis true—and ye love me fer it, lass.” Brian grinned unapologetically.
Aileen slapped her husband on the shoulder. Brian reached out, snaking his arm around her rounded waist, pulling her forcefully against his chest. Aileen made a great show of resisting, until Brian leaned down and whispered in her ear.
Aileen’s lips parted in a radiant smile. The mother of three, with another on the way, she glowed with a special inner beauty. Yet it always seemed to shine brightest when her husband was near.
“He thinks to sweet talk me into letting them continue with their play,” Aileen said wryly.
“Aye, ’tis how a proper husband acts, right, Grace? And something that I know ye’ll be sorely missing if ye keep to yer plan to return to the convent.”
Grace worked hard to keep her face impassive. It was hardly the first time she had heard a similar comment from Brian. With her mourning ending, her brother often made reference to the delights of marrying again.
Grace swallowed hard. Brian and Aileen had done so much for her. The last thing she wanted was to insult or offend them. But marriage? Never again.
“We’ve agreed that Grace will make the decision about her future when she is ready,” Aileen lectured, glancing pointedly at her husband.
“Ye heard me.”
“I dinnae agree to allow Grace to make the decision all on her own,” Brian insisted.
“Aye, ye did.”
“I’ve changed my mind.”
“Ye cannae,” Aileen huffed. “And that’s final.”
Brian tilted his head and stared at his wife until she broke into a slow grin. The love between them was so open and tangible it filled the room. Grace quickly lowered her chin, feeling as though she was spying on something private, intimate. She fought the tightness in her throat, suppressing the envy she felt.
No man had ever looked at her that way. And no man ever would.
The matter of Grace marrying again was dropped. The debate over whether or not the children should continue with their boisterous play took its place, until they were interrupted by a soldier entering the great hall. “Riders approach.”
Brian’s entire demeanor instantly changed. Gone was the carefree father amusing his children and in its place was the forceful leader. “Can ye see their colors?”
The soldier shook his head. “They’re too far away. The sun’s at their backs and in our eyes.”
“Raise the portcullis and have our best archers posted on the battlements.”
Grace felt her heart accelerate and she chastised herself for being foolish. Her brother would keep them safe. The McKenna Castle was well fortified, well armed, and filled with some of the fiercest warriors in the Highlands.
“Are ye expecting a visit from yer father or any of yer kin?” Brian asked his wife.
“Nay. They know I’ll send word once the babe is born and that willnae be fer at least another month.” Aileen looked at Grace. “Perhaps it’s one of yer brothers-in-law? ’Twould be a fitting show of respect if Douglas or Roderick came to see how ye’re faring, Grace.”
Grace’s heart froze at Aileen’s innocent remark, and a sharp sense of foreboding ran through her. She had said nothing to her brother or sister-in-law about the nature of Alastair’s death. An unexpected appearance by either Douglas or Roderick could only mean trouble for all of them.
“We shall hope that it is a friend and not an enemy approaching,” Brian said. “But until I know fer certain, I want both of ye and the bairns to stay in the third-floor solar.”
“No arguments, Aileen,” Brian admonished. Softening, he touched her cheek with the back of his finger. “I’ll send word as soon as I know ’tis safe.”
Heavy broadsword in hand, he gave his wife a swift kiss on her brow and hastened from the room.
The sunshine bathed Ewan’s head in pleasant warmth, almost as though it were trying to offer him comfort against the effects of the cool wind blowing through his body. Looking over his shoulder, he glanced down the line at the mounted men who rode behind him, their expressions tired and bored. They were a rather sorry-looking group, yet he could not fault them for their lethargy. He had never imagined his quest south to find a bride would have taken so long—and been so fruitless.
Oh, he had been received with courtesy, if not enthusiasm, at each castle he visited. But the friendly welcome quickly turned to mistrust when he declared his intentions to wed, and one by one the female relations of the family became mysteriously absent. A few of his noble hosts had made the effort to avoid insulting him directly, but the message was clear—his suit was not looked upon with favor or enthusiasm.
Despite his determination not to, Ewan was unable to dispel the sense of unworthiness that stirred within him. Would he never be judged as a man, on the strength of his merits? Would he always be tied to his illegitimate birth—examined and found wanting no matter how much he accomplished or how high he rose?
He didn’t know what annoyed him more—the fact that he had been rejected or the realization that he couldn’t easily disband the notion of wedding a lady from a good family. ’Twould truly be much easier if he followed his mother’s advice and married a simple village girl.
Ewan sighed. The truth was he might very well be doing just that if Brian McKenna could not provide him with an alternative. After the last disastrous attempt at making a match, Ewan decided to seek out his friend. He was hoping Brian might know of a clan with a marriageable female that would be amenable to forging an alliance with him. Hell, he was even willing to swallow his pride and ask the McKenna to broker the marriage if necessary.
Though another part of him was tempted to turn tail and run. To return home still unwed and think about getting married next year. Or the year after.
A faint ringing sound vibrated through the still air. Raising his head, Ewan caught sight of their destination on the horizon, a mammoth structure of stone towers, battlements, and protective walls.
“It appears that we have been sighted,” Alec commented, bringing his horse alongside Ewan’s. “And considered to be hostile, judging by the sound of those alarm bells.”
“I dinnae understand why. The castle is as well fortified as McKenna always bragged,” Ewan observed, his eyes trained upon the tall towers and high stone curtain wall, with a second wall behind it.
Ewan gave the order for his men to close ranks. He slowed their approach, but the warning bells continued to ring out. In fact, the ringing seemed to be spreading from one tower to the next, until a steady chime blanketed the land.
“The McKennas dinnae appear to be a friendly sort,” Alec commented as several archers took up positions on the battlements, their arrows already notched and ready to fly. “Having fought beside Brian McKenna for the king’s cause for many years, I willnae be surprised to discover they are the kind of warriors who will shoot an arrow first and ask questions later.”
For the first time that day, Ewan smiled. “We are a small group of men. I understand the need to be suspicious of strangers riding up to yer gates, yet ’tis clear we pose no grave threat. Even McKenna knows it will take far more than this sad lot to successfully storm his walls.”
Ewan’s words proved to be correct. After giving his name to the captain of the guard and requesting to speak with the McKenna, the thick oak drawbridge was slowly lowered. As they rode into the bustling bailey, Ewan spotted Brian McKenna standing in the arched doorway to his great hall. A tall, broad, heavily muscled warrior, the McKenna broke into a genuine grin when he recognized his friend.
“Have ye already grown tired of living among us, in the deepest part of the northern Highlands?” Brian asked.
“Aye. That’s why I’ve rode south, to see how soft and easy life is fer all of ye.”
“Och, ’tis the Lowlanders that live a life of ease, as ye well know. After all, that’s where ye were raised.”
Ewan smiled, taking the jest in the good humor it was intended. He swung himself over his horse and landed neatly on his feet. The men embraced, leaving Ewan surprised at how much seeing Brian lightened his dark mood.
“I’ve a warm hearth, plenty of ale, and a hearty meal to bid ye welcome,” Brian said as they entered the great hall.
“It sounds heavenly, but I need to ask if yer wife knows that it’s me who’s come calling.”
The question stopped Brian in his tracks. “I’d forgotten that ye’re acquainted with my Aileen.”
“I’d hardly call it an acquaintance, dear husband.” Aileen Sinclair McKenna emerged from the shadows, bristling with indignation. “Sir Ewan and I spent a most unpleasant afternoon together a very long time ago.”
Brian’s puzzled frown slowly cleared as comprehension dawned. “Aye, that’s right. I’d forgotten that as a wild young lad ye kidnapped my wife.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” Aileen bit out, coming to stand toe-to-toe with her unexpected guest.
Ewan barely managed to keep from fidgeting. It had been nearly eight years since he had last seen her, but time had been kind to Aileen. Her features were still as pretty, her complexion just as fair, her hair an enticing shade of red. Even heavy with child, she had a fresh, girlish way about her. Well, except for the sparkling eyes that were now shooting daggers at him.
“’Tis a delight to see ye, Lady Aileen,” Ewan drawled. “May I say ye are looking just as beautiful and radiant as I remember?”
“Ye may say whatever ye wish, but dinnae think yer winsome smile and blatant flattery will change my mind about ye, Ewan Gilroy. Ye’re a scoundrel and a rogue from the top of yer head to the tip of yer toes.”
For a moment Ewan didn’t reply. Then he took a step closer and cleared his throat. “Guilty as charged, milady. Yet ye must admit that ye came to no real harm when ye were in my uhm . . . care. In fact, one could say ye have me to thank fer yer current happy circumstance. Ye might very well have ended up married to my half brother if not fer my timely intervention.”
“Och, now dinnae be getting all full of yerself,” Aileen scoffed, returning his stare without flinching. “I’ve the brains and courage to find my own path in life and that never included being the wife of the Earl of Kirkland.”
Time, it appeared, had not dulled any of Lady Aileen’s spirit. Remembering all too well the experience of witnessing her temper, Ewan strove to change the direction of their conversation. “Aye, the McKenna are lucky indeed to have ye as their lady. While on campaign, Brian was near pitiful, complaining constantly of missing his beautiful wife.”
The edge of a smile crept onto Aileen’s face, though she tried to hide it. Seizing the moment, Ewan reached for her hand. Raising the back to his lips, he pressed against her knuckles in a courtly gesture of honor and respect.
“Ewan speaks the truth,” Brian said cheerfully, as he pointedly maneuvered himself between Ewan and his wife, effectively breaking their physical contact. “Though there were some who thought it unmanly to hear me pine fer my bride so openly, none dared to challenge the depth of my discomfort.”
Aileen raised a disbelieving eyebrow. “Enough. Both of ye. Sir Ewan is welcome in our home as long as he gives his word he will act with knightly honor.”
Ewan held up his hand. “I shall.”
“And I will make certain that he does,” Brian said as he put his arm around his wife.
Aileen’s expression softened and she leaned back into her husband’s embrace. He whispered something in her ear and she shook her head, then lowered her chin. Knowing Brian’s bawdy nature, along with the telltale blush on Aileen’s cheeks, left little doubt in Ewan’s mind that the comment had been sexual in nature. And most likely inappropriate.
Still blushing, Aileen left, promising to send in refreshments. At Brian’s urging, they climbed the dais and sat at the long wooden table. Though they had not seen each other for over a year, it took no time at all to reestablish their friendship. They spoke of shared memories and recollections of the men they fought with and exchanged information about the king.
As they talked, Ewan noticed two young boys sneaking peeks at him from behind a tapestry. Apparently, Brian did also.
“No need to be skittish, lads,” Brian bellowed. “’Tis not the damn English come to murder ye in yer beds, but Sir Ewan Gilroy, a knight brave and true and a favorite of King Robert. Come and meet him.”
With a familiar swagger that clearly labeled them Brian’s sons, the two youngsters approached. The pride in the McKenna’s voice was unmistakable as he introduced the lads, then sent them scampering off with orders to see what had happened to the promised refreshments. Obeying their father with worshipful enthusiasm, the boys nearly collided with the servants bringing in the trays as they left.
Trays piled high with food and pitchers of ale were placed in front of them. Ewan glanced at the opposite end of the great hall, pleased to see Alec and his men were also being served refreshments and were joined by a cordial-looking group of McKenna soldiers.
Ewan took a few minutes to consume a good portion of the simple fare, deciding that food eaten in the home of a friend had a far better taste and lay warm and comforting in his stomach. Feeling relaxed for the first time since starting his journey, he allowed himself to savor the restful feeling.
A log popped and shifted in the enormous fireplace, sending sparks flying. Ignoring the noise, Brian poured another tankard of ale for each of them.
“Why are ye not up in the north, freezing yer arse off at the keep the king gifted ye?” he asked. “What is it called? Tirra?”
“Tiree. ’Tis a fine piece of land, with a small village of folk and a strong, fortified keep. Well, fortified now that we’ve rebuilt most of the walls.” Ewan leaned back, sinking into the thick pillow that covered the seat of his chair. “I’m surprised to realize how much I miss it, but this journey is important. I’ve come south in search of a bride.”
Brian’s brow lifted in surprise. “As I remember, ye never had to go very far to find a willing lass, and that was only fer a dalliance. Dangle the prize of being yer wife and they’ll be lining up all the way down to the border.”