Authors: Bride of a Scottish Warrior
God’s wounds, now he felt like a perfect arse.
Quickly recovering, Ewan leaned forward, smoothly insinuating his mouth beside her ear so that she’d be forced to acknowledge him.
“Will ye join us at the table, milady?” She pulled back, but he was prepared for that reaction, neatly taking her right hand and raising it to his lips. “ ’Twould be an honor.”
Her fingers were cold, although the room was stuffy and overly warm. She did not pull away from him, but stayed quiet and still. Her worried gaze slid to her brother.
The sight bothered Ewan, leaving him with the most ridiculous urge to put his arms around her and cradle her close. To assure her that all would be well, that he would protect her, honor her, cherish her, make her happy.
If only she’d allow him.
“Aye, join us, Sister.”
Her eyes opened wider. She stepped back from Ewan, but was still close enough that he could feel her warmth. Shooting a daggerlike glare at her brother, Lady Grace dipped into a low curtsy. “Ye must excuse me. I’ve duties to attend to that cannae be neglected.”
“They can wait,” Brian declared.
“Nay,” Lady Grace replied, her voice faint. “They cannae.”
Brian’s eyes narrowed with displeasure. As much as Ewan wanted the opportunity to converse with her, he sensed it would be a fruitless effort if she was forced into his company.
“’Tis an admirable quality to put duty first,” Ewan said smoothly. “I look forward to sitting beside ye at the evening meal. Ye will be joining us then?”
“Come evening, I’ll be in the great hall with the rest of the clan, Sir Ewan.” Lady Grace hesitated. She glanced again at her brother, then back at Ewan. Her mouth thinned into a tight line, resigned, as though she’d decided it was unwise to challenge her brother—and his famous temper—any further. “I shall leave it to Lady Aileen to decide where I’ll be sitting.”
With a pointed stare at her brother, Lady Grace turned and scuttled away. Brian shrugged, pretending to have no concern at her reply. But Ewan smiled.
Clearly, she had lived with them long enough to understand the extent of Aileen’s power over her husband.
A wave of sweet anticipation swept over Ewan, along with a deep sense of relief. Lady Grace was an intriguing female, possessing more desirable qualities in a wife than he had dared to hope he could find. The corners of his mouth lifted into a smile, while his mind imagined how it would feel to pull her into his arms, press her delicate body against his chest, and kiss her pouting lips.
Then, after he’d tasted those lips, he’d lay a sensual path of kisses down her graceful neck to her breasts, nuzzle his face between those soft globes, then feather kisses behind her delectable ears. When she had softened and relaxed, he would move back to her lips, coaxing them to open so he could taste her sweetness.
He’d move his thumb slowly over her nipple until she arched into his touch, a willing temptress who—
“Haven’t I fed ye enough?” the McKenna asked. “Ye’ve the expression of a starving man lining yer face.”
Interrupting the erotic image invading his mind, Ewan glanced at Brian, knowing the man would have his bollocks on a platter for such disrespectful thoughts about his sister.
“It’s been a grand feast, and I thank ye fer it, but I could eat some more,” Ewan replied, mustering a smile.
Though it tasted like straw in his mouth, Ewan enthusiastically chewed the course brown bread. As he swallowed, his mind whirled, his thoughts raced.
Brash confidence and charm would not be enough to win Lady Grace’s hand. It would take more and he had little time to discover exactly what
he would need. Yet he would not relent. Disappointments had been something Ewan had learned to accept at an early age, given his upbringing. But complete failure was never tolerated.
He needed a wife with a substantial dowry and a noble bearing. Grace McKenna Ferguson had both. She was also fair of face, appeared to possess above average intelligence and a quiet spirit. As Ewan had watched her glide across the room earlier he felt as though he’d been punched in the gut and handed his heart’s desire, both at the same time.
Now all he had to do was convince her to be his bride.
Grace closed her eyes and clenched her fists, the rounded fingernails digging into her palms. Mortification flooded through her, making her first hot and then cold. She concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, trying to shut down her mind so she could escape the hall with her dignity. Or what remained of it.
Her body tense, she went in search of her sister-in-law. She found Aileen in the solar, sitting in the faint sunlight, mending one of her husband’s shirts.
“Ye seem upset.”
“I am.” Grace sighed and unclenched her fist. “’Tis foolish, I know. I suppose I was merely caught off guard by my brother’s actions and have allowed it to rattle me.”
Aileen released a long-suffering sigh. “What’s my bullheaded husband gone and done now?”
“He told me that Sir Ewan is in search of a wife and that I would be a good choice,” Grace replied. She heard the annoyance in her voice, but couldn’t hold it at bay.
Aileen’s fingers went idle and she allowed the shirt to drop onto her lap. It draped her swollen belly like a banner, emphasizing the girth. “That is a surprise.”
“Ye knew nothing of this plan?”
“Nay.” Aileen took the jug of sweet wine from the table at her side and poured them each a goblet.
Grace accepted hers, yet felt too restless to drink. “Why did ye not warn me that Sir Ewan was coming?”
“I dinnae know either. Fie, I was struck near speechless when I saw the man standing in our hall. I know he and Brian fought together fer the king’s cause, but I never thought to see Ewan Gilroy under my roof.”
Aileen gave her a secretive smile. “Yer brother is a jealous, possessive man. I dinnae think he would look kindly upon a man who once kidnapped me.”
Grace rolled her eyes, assuming her sister-in-law was having a bit of fun at her expense. “Stop teasing, Aileen.”
“I’m not. Honest.” She got a thoughtful, faraway look on her face before adding, “I was, in truth, held captive by Ewan Gilroy. ’Twas a long time ago, and in the end all was put to rights. But it’s not something one easily forgets.”
“I should say not.”
Aileen smiled, then took a dainty sip of her wine. “Tell me, what was yer impression of Sir Ewan?”
“He’s very sure of himself,” Grace huffed.
“An admirable trait in a man.”
“Not always.” Grace fiddled with the goblet in her hand, then set it down. “I dinnae know what Brian was thinking, suggesting a match between us. He knows I willnae remarry. I only wish to be left in peace. Is that so very wrong?”
“Yer brother is well aware of yer feelings on the matter, but he willnae accept yer decision to remain unwed until ye have placed yerself behind convent walls,” Aileen said mildly. “Surely ye know that, for Sir Ewan is not the first man Brian has offered to ye.”
True. Yet somehow this time it felt different. Very different. Grace didn’t understand why she should feel such intense emotion. Aileen was right—Brian had proposed other possible matches to her before.
But never to a man as handsome and appealing as Sir Ewan Gilroy.
There was something undefinable about him, something that fairly knocked the breath out of her lungs when she stood near him. And it appalled her. She didn’t want to feel an attraction for him. And she was ashamed that she could be so easily impressed by a handsome face. Was she truly that shallow? That lonely?
Brian appeared. He stepped into the solar, sparing not a glance for Grace, but heading directly for his wife. Grace moved forward to intercept her brother. Enough was enough. If she did not find a way to exert some control over the situation, she’d find herself wed to Sir Ewan before the week was done.
“Ye ambushed me, Brian,” Grace said, quite loudly. “’Twas mortifying to have ye propose a match so publicly. It took a great effort to keep my composure.”
Brian’s back stiffened, yet he did not turn to face her until after he had properly kissed his wife. “My dear little sister,” he replied, his tone reproachful. “Is it so very wrong of me to want yer happiness?”
“We agreed it would be my decision.” Grace dragged in a deep breath. “Ye said it when the Macgregor made an offer and again when Sir Alfred broached the idea of an alliance between our clans. What makes things so different with Ewan Gilroy?”
Brian’s expression didn’t soften. “He’s a fine man. He’ll do right by ye.”
“He’s near as handsome as I remember him,” Aileen mused. “I bet there’s many a lass who sighs with longing the first time she sets eyes upon him.”
“Aye, and there appears to be plenty of charm to go along with those good looks,” Grace replied wryly. “It makes no difference. I’m not interested in having another husband.”
Grace noticed her brother’s brow tighten. She wondered if he had heard her, for his attention was centered utterly upon Aileen. “Ye think Gilroy handsome, wife?”
“I do. Though he cannae hold a candle to yer rugged appeal, milord,” Aileen replied, bestowing her husband with a saucy wink, successfully deflecting the temper brewing in his eyes. “Why are ye considering him as a husband fer Grace?”
Brian folded his arms. “He is a worthy man. Grace would be blessed to have such a husband. Though I expect him to know his place and be respectful of other men’s wives.”
Grace could not contain a small smile as she watched her proud brother refuse to acknowledge his jealousy. Whatever this past relationship was between Aileen and Sir Ewan, it still had the power to rankle her brother. It wasn’t much, but ’twas the only weapon she had at her disposal and Grace had no hesitation using it.
“Though I know not all the details, I find that I must question the honor of a man who resorts to kidnapping innocent females, no matter how worthy ye believe him to be,” Grace said pointedly.
Brian favored her with a reproving frown, but it was Aileen who answered. “The incident occurred years ago, before Brian and I married. Sir Ewan seized an opportunity and I was caught in the middle. Yet when danger presented itself, he fought bravely to keep me safe, and thus I must agree that he would be a good match fer ye to consider.”
A sharp slice of betrayal cut through Grace’s heart. She had always believed that Aileen was on her side in the matter of a remarriage. It was an unhappy surprise to hear that Aileen, an independent thinker and an outspoken woman, would agree with her husband.
“Ye are to give him a chance, Grace,” Brian commanded.
“To state his case and win yer hand.”
Grace felt her back bow with indignation, yet what could she say? ’Twas not an unreasonable request. As it was, Brian was allowing her far more power than most women of her station were awarded.
And if circumstances were different, perhaps she would look more kindly upon the notion of having Sir Ewan for a husband. But it could never happen. The actions of her past defined her future. Grace had accepted it, had tried to embrace it with as much dignity as she could muster.
She must atone for her role in Alastair’s death. She must devote the rest of her life to prayer and servitude to God in hopes that would be enough to forgive her sin. For she carried no remorse or regret over the deed, knowing deep in her heart, that given the chance, she wouldn’t hesitate to do the same again. No living creature deserved such a harsh, painful fate, such an agonizing death.
Grace closed her eyes, willing her fluttering heart to cease tightening in her chest. Oh, how she wished she could confess her deed to Brian and Aileen! But that was impossible. A large part of the burden of her sin was the necessity of carrying it alone.
“Chin up, Grace,” Aileen admonished with a sly grin. “There are far worse things than being courted by a handsome rogue.”
Grace refused to smile. As a vision of Sir Ewan’s sensual grin and sparkling eyes appeared in her mind, ’twas very difficult for her to think of any.
“What will ye wear this evening, milady?” Edna asked. “The blue silk? Or perhaps the red? The blue deepens the color of yer eyes. But the red brings out the bloom in yer cheeks.”
Grace turned to her maid in astonishment. “Why would I change my gown?”
“For Sir Ewan. I’ve yet to cast eyes upon him myself, but two of the kitchen maids could not stop talking of his handsome face and form.”
“Saints preserve us, not ye too, Edna.” Grace drew in a deep sigh. “’Tis bad enough I have to listen to Brian and Aileen sing his praises.”
Edna’s lip curled. “Perhaps ye should take heed of their words. Ye might like what ye discover.”
Grace heaved a deep breath. “The very last thing I desire is to encourage Sir Ewan—not that much is required on that front. I swear he’d have me as his bride even if I possessed two heads and the temperament of a shrew.”
Sadness glistened in Edna’s eyes. “Will ye not at least consider him? Ye deserve a chance at happiness.”
“I cannae marry him, Edna. I cannae marry any man.”
Regret flared across Edna’s face, followed quickly by resignation. Slowly, she placed the two gowns on the bed. She remained silent as she poured water from the pitcher into the washing bowl and brought it to Grace.
Grateful for the quiet, Grace washed her hands, face, and neck, then sat patiently while Edna loosened the pins in her hair and brushed it. For just a moment, Grace closed her eyes, enjoying the feel of the brush gliding through her long tresses, easing the tension in her neck and shoulders.
It felt heavenly.
Edna moved away, but Grace kept her eyes closed a moment longer, savoring the peace. When she opened them, Edna once again stood before her, holding up the red and blue gowns.
“It might lift yer spirits if ye wear something pretty,” the maid said temptingly.
Feeling too languid to scold, Grace merely shook her head. “The only way to lift my spirits is to find a way out of this mess.”
“The laird willnae force ye to wed.”