Alaric blinked and then glared at Caelen for intruding so rudely on his thoughts.

“What the hell do you want?”

“For you to pay attention. ’Tis important matters we discuss and you’re busy mooning over the lass.”

Alaric curled his fingers into a fist but didn’t respond to Caelen’s ribbing.

Ewan frowned as he stared between the brothers. “I was saying that I received a missive from Laird McDonald. He sorely regrets that your travel was interrupted. He sought to seal our alliance as quickly as possible. He grows more uneasy over the idea of Cameron taking over his borders. There is much unrest among our neighbors. They all fear Cameron’s might and are looking to us for aid and support.”

Alaric glanced at his brother, unease growing in his chest.

“He doesn’t want to wait until spring to join our clans through marriage. He also knows I refuse to leave the keep with Mairin’s time so close nor will I leave thereafter. He has offered to travel with Rionna after Mairin’s babe is born and have the wedding ceremony here.”

Alaric forced himself not to outwardly react. He went completely still until he could hear his heart beat against his chest. He wouldn’t look at Keeley. He wouldn’t think of what he wanted when the future of his clan rested in his hands.

“Alaric? What say you?” Ewan asked.

“ ’Tis good he is willing to travel here,” Alaric said evenly. “We can’t afford to leave the keep unguarded nor can we afford to split our defenses by sending a contingent with me. We’ve already lost a dozen good men.”

Ewan stared thoughtfully at Alaric. “So you are willing still to go through with the marriage?”

“I’ve never said anything to make you think differently.”

“It’s not what you’ve said or not said,” Ewan said quietly, as his gaze lifted from Alaric and went beyond to where the women sat. “I know you want her.”

Alaric refused to turn and follow the direction of Ewan’s stare. “What I want is inconsequential. I agreed to the match. I won’t go back on my word.”

Regret briefly flickered over Ewan’s face before he schooled his features and dropped his stare. He faced his two brothers. “ ’Tis done then. I’ll respond to McDonald’s message and let him know that we’ll receive him after my son or daughter is born. ’Tis likely you and your new bride will have to spend the winter here. The McDonalds’ travel here will be arduous enough. ’Tis no reason to risk a return trip until the snows thaw.”

The idea of marrying Rionna left a sour enough feeling in his belly but having her here, living as man and wife and him having to see Keeley on a daily basis, was unbearable.

“I’ll send her away as soon as she’s safely delivered Mairin’s babe,” Ewan murmured.

Alaric’s head snapped up. “Nay! You’ll not turn her out in the midst of the winter with no place to go and no home to call her own. I vowed to her that you would provide for her. Swear to me that she’ll have a home here for as long as she desires.”

Ewan sighed. “Aye, then. I swear it.”

“You torture yourself needlessly, brother,” Caelen hissed. “Have the lass. Take her and rid yourself of this obsession. Sate yourself and by the time the McDonalds arrive, your blood will be rid of this need.”

Alaric stared bleakly at his brother. “Nay, Caelen. I fear I’ll never be rid of my need of her. It runs too deep and too hot. And I’ll not use her thus. She deserves my respect. She saved my life.”

Caelen shook his head but didn’t argue further. He drained the rest of his ale and muttered under his breath as he stared into the fire that blazed in the hearth.

Across the room, Mairin rose and instantly put her hand to her back. She looked tired, something that didn’t go unnoticed by Ewan. He frowned and quickly stood up. He was across the room in a moment, and leaned down to murmur in her ear. She smiled up at him, and soon Ewan was walking her toward the stairs leading to their chamber.

Alaric gripped his goblet and stared at the swirl of ale still left. He set it down on the table, unable to stomach the thought of swilling more of the stout brew.

“I hate seeing you like this,” Caelen muttered. “Go have a tumble with one of the women more than willing to warm your bed. You’ll forget the healer. ’Tis unseemly to allow a woman so much power over you.”

Alaric smiled faintly. “Clearly you’ve never wanted a woman in the way I want Keeley.”

Caelen’s expression darkened and Alaric immediately wished he could call back the ill-spoken words. ’Twas the truth that years ago Caelen had been thoroughly besotted by a woman. He’d declared his love openly for her. He would have died for her. Instead, she betrayed them to Duncan Cameron and their clan lost all, Ewan’s young wife and their father. Caelen had never allowed himself to fall under the spell of a woman again. Alaric wasn’t even sure if Caelen ever bedded a woman. If he did, he was extremely discreet.

“I’m sorry. That wasn’t well done of me,” Alaric said.

Caelen raised his goblet to his mouth and stared stonily toward the fire. “ ’Tis no matter. My mistakes should serve as a warning to you never to allow a woman to lead you about by the cock.”

Alaric sighed. “Not all women are of Elsepeth’s ilk. Look at Mairin. She serves Ewan well. She is loyal and steadfast. She is a good mother to Crispen and would die for Ewan.”

“Mairin is a woman above others,” Caelen said stubbornly. “Ewan is fortunate. Most men go a lifetime and will never find a woman who places her husband and clan above herself.”

“And Keeley did none of those things by caring for me? How was she to know I wasn’t some monster who’d rape and abuse her? She was abducted from her home and brought to live with strangers and yet she still tended me to exhaustion.”

Caelen made a sound of annoyance. “ ’Tis clear you’re besotted, and nothing I saw will sway you on the matter. Take my advice, brother. Stay away from the healer. You’ll have a wife before winter’s over. Nothing good can come of your dalliance with another woman. These are precarious times. You cannot afford to offend McDonald. Too much depends on strong alliances so that Duncan Cameron can be wiped from the face of the earth. As strong as we are, we cannot go after him alone with Mairin close to her time. Once she is safely delivered of the heir to Neamh Álainn, our thoughts and efforts can turn to ridding us of his threat. We need our neighboring clans to unite with us into a formidable force. We may not face just the threat of Duncan Cameron but of Malcolm as well, should Duncan join forces with him to oust David from the throne.”

Alaric’s lips twisted into a fierce snarl. Caelen acted as though Alaric was a senseless dolt. “You have no need to remind me what is at stake here, Caelen. I’m well aware of the implications of my marriage to Rionna McDonald. I’ve said I would do my duty. You insult me by suggesting anything less.”

Caelen nodded. “My apologies. I’ll not broach the subject again.”

“Good,” Alaric muttered.

He drained the rest of his ale anyway and promptly grimaced as it swirled and bubbled in his gut. He’d partaken too much and his head already ached. Unable to resist, he chanced another look over at Keeley just as she turned her head slightly in his direction.

Their gazes met and locked, and she froze like a doe about to bolt. Her eyes were wide and expressive, and for a moment he saw everything he knew she didn’t want him to see. The same longing he felt. The same desire. The same regret.

He dragged his gaze away and swore under his breath. Then he held up his goblet and signaled the serving woman to bring him more.

Suddenly he decided he hadn’t had enough to drink. He needed more and then maybe he wouldn’t feel the horrible ache that swelled in his belly and thrust upward into his chest.

Maybe he’d forget.


Keeley bundled the heavy fur cape around her as she trudged through the snow toward Maddie’s cottage. The afternoon sun was high overhead and glistened off the snow-covered landscape, casting a shine that hurt Keeley’s eyes.

Mairin had been ordered to remain inside the keep by the laird, a fact Mairin was none too happy about. Keeley felt disloyal but in this she agreed with the laird. Ewan was afraid that Mairin might fall on the ice and injure herself. She was large and ungainly with the babe and had already nearly fallen down the stairs twice, both times giving Cormac, who was attending her, failure of the heart.

As a result she was now forbidden to walk up or down the stairs without someone holding her arm.

And since Mairin was confined to the hall and about to go mad with boredom, Keeley was trekking across the snow to collect Maddie and Christina because Mairin wanted their company.

Keeley smiled. ’Twas no burden to summon the other women. ’Twas the truth that Keeley enjoyed their company and Mairin’s as well. They spent many a night in front of the fire, sewing, gossiping, and teasing Christina about her infatuation with Cormac. Thankfully no one had picked up on Keeley’s interest in Alaric or his interest in her, or if they had, they had the grace to remain silent, a favor Keeley was grateful for.

Cormac had increasingly made more excuses to remain in the hall at night, usually to drink ale with the men and discuss the day’s training, but his attention was focused on Christina. The two played a game of cat and mouse that amused Keeley. They weren’t as direct as she and Alaric had been, but then what had admitting their attraction gained Keeley and Alaric except heartache and regret?

She knocked on Maddie’s cottage door and then blew warm air onto her cold fingers. The door swung open and Maddie immediately exclaimed, “Keeley! Don’t stand there in the cold. Come warm yourself by the fire.”

“My thanks,” Keeley said as she pushed inside to stand by the hearth.

“What brings you out on a cold day such as this?”

Keeley grinned. “Mairin is at her wits’ end. She wishes for you and Christina to come sit with her and keep her company. The laird has forbidden her to leave the confines of the keep.”

“As well he should,” Maddie said with an approving nod. “In the snow and ice is no place for the lass to be walking in. She could fall and hurt the babe.”

“She offered no argument, but she’s not happy about it. She asked that if you weren’t busy with your own duties, would you mind sitting with her awhile?”

“Of course not. Let me get my shawl and my boots. We’ll stop by and collect Christina on our way back to the keep.”

In a few moments’ time, both women bundled back up and stepped into the biting wind.

“Have you all you need for the coming winter?” Maddie asked as they approached Christina’s parents’ cottage.

Keeley shook her head. “Nay. There are a few herbs I must look for. ’Twill require digging into the snow but I know what trees to look under. Many will come down with a cough and aching chest as it grows colder. Especially the children. There is a paste I make that eases the ache and helps with the cough. ’Twill be useful to have this winter.”

Maddie frowned. “When will you collect these herbs?”

Keeley grinned ruefully. “Not until it stops snowing and the wind dies down. ’Tis too cold to go digging about in the snow right now.”

“Aye, you’re right. Be sure to bring a man or two to help you. ’Tis no easy task for a lass to take on herself.”

“Now you sound like the laird with all his dictates,” Keeley teased.

Maddie stopped and knocked at Christina’s door. “The laird is a wise man. ’Tis no insult to be compared to him.”

Keeley rolled her eyes. “I was offering no insult.”

Christina opened the door and her face brightened when she saw Maddie and Keeley standing there. When they told her Mairin would like her to come to the keep, she pounced on the opportunity.

“I love my mother dearly,” Christina said as they hurried toward the keep. “But ’tis God’s truth, the woman is driving me daft. I can’t take being sequestered in the cottage with her any longer.”

Maddie chuckled. “Complaining about the weather, I imagine.”

“When doesn’t she complain?” Christina asked in exasperation. “If it’s not the weather, it’s my father, or me, or some imagined ailment. I was near to screaming before you knocked on my door.”

Keeley smiled and squeezed the young woman’s hand. “I’m sure the opportunity to see Cormac again never entered your mind.”

Christina blushed and Maddie hooted with laughter. “She has you there, lass.”

“Do you think he’ll ever try to kiss me?” Christina asked wistfully.

Maddie pursed her lips. “It seems to me that if he hasn’t been trying to kiss you then maybe you should take the matter into your own hands and kiss him.” Copyright 2016 - 2024