Caelen scowled. “I have no wish for you to die, Keeley. ’Tis not well done of you to suggest so.”
She raised an eyebrow.
Alaric cut in impatiently. “A witch? And they believed this nonsense?”
“Aye, well, I’d already caused them considerable pain. I fought them, allowing Crispen to run free. I bit the one who held me before him on his horse. He was already half convinced I was a demon from hell when I threatened to curse him.”
Caelen chuckled. “You’re an ingenious lass. ’Tis amazing you were able to think so quick on your feet. The men likely ran for their lives.”
She snuggled farther into Alaric’s arms, her eyes closing.
“Nay, lass, you must stay awake,” Alaric said in alarm. He glanced frantically at Caelen. “Argue with her. Tease her or make her angry. She cannot fall asleep until we’ve warmed her and tended to her wounds.”
Concern shadowed Caelen’s eyes. He leaned over to where Keeley lay nestled in Alaric’s arms. “ ’Tis the truth I’m sorry I was nice to you, Keeley. You grow all soft and womanly on me given a bit of kindness. And here I thought you a much fiercer lass.”
She cracked one eye open and stared balefully up at him. “I have no intention of dying, Caelen, so you may save your insults. ’Tis the truth, though, I prefer you surly, for I know not this man before me. Perhaps ’tis proof I have died and just don’t have the sense to realize it yet.”
Caelen threw back his head and laughed. “Aye, you’re much too ornery to die, lass. I guess that much we have in common.”
“God help me,” Alaric muttered. “ ’Tis the last thing I have need of. Two Caelens.”
“Do you have plans to be nicer to me now?” Keeley murmured sleepily.
“Only if you stay awake and cease to worry my brother,” he returned. “Alaric looks like a worried mother.”
“Don’t be nice. It has me thinking I’m dying.”
Her voice was growing fainter and it worried Alaric. Where were the serving women with the hot water? The warm broth? More blankets and dry clothing?
Caelen and Alaric exchanged concerned glances, and then Caelen abruptly stood and strode to the door. He bellowed down the hallway, making Keeley flinch in Alaric’s arms.
A moment later, Maddie hurried in with Christina, Bertha, and Mairin on her heels.
“Mairin,” Alaric reproached. “You shouldn’t be up and about. Leave Keeley’s care to the rest of us.”
She pointed a finger. “You hush, Alaric McCabe. Keeley is my friend and she saved my son. I’ll see to her needs until I’m satisfied all is well.”
The tub and pails of water were borne into the room. Soon the tub was filled and the women began to shoo the men from the room.
Reluctantly Alaric rose. He didn’t want to leave her, but his presence would only raise questions and make things uncomfortable for Keeley.
Still, he positioned himself outside the door and refused to budge while Keeley was being cared for. Caelen remained with him and soon Ewan joined the two men.
“I assume my wife is within,” Ewan said in resignation.
“Aye, they’re warming Keeley in the tub,” Alaric said.
“Our watch has been doubled and the children have been forbidden to go beyond the first skirt. None of the women are to leave the keep unescorted.”
Caelen nodded his agreement. “The sooner spring arrives and our alliances are sealed, the sooner we can turn our eyes to destroying Cameron. Our clan will never know peace while he’s alive.”
Alaric swallowed and leaned his head back against the wall. Aye, he knew there was urgent need of his marriage to Rionna McDonald. The sooner the better. And yet he dreaded her arrival with everything within him. He prayed for a harsh winter and frequent snows. Anything that would keep the McDonalds within their walls.
Keeley’s door opened and Mairin stepped outside. Ewan’s arm instantly wrapped around her, and she lay her head on his shoulder.
But it was Alaric she looked at when she spoke. “Keeley is doing well. We’ve warmed her and she’s abed. There was a wound to her head where one of her attackers struck her, but ’tisn’t a serious injury. It won’t even require stitching.”
Alaric’s chest collapsed in relief. He watched as the other women filed by him and ignored the inquiring look that Maddie sent his way. As soon as everyone had left the room, he turned to go in.
At the door he paused and looked back at his brothers. “See that we aren’t disturbed.”
Keeley opened her eyes to see Alaric standing by the bed, his expression brooding and inquisitive.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Warm. Finally warm.”
But even as she spoke, a shiver rolled over her body, setting off another round of uncontrollable chills.
With a muttered curse, he slid onto the bed next to her and pulled her into his arms.
He was heaven. Like a stone warmed in an oven. She pushed every part of her body into his and absorbed his heat to her bones. It was so exquisite that she moaned.
“Are you in pain?” he asked quickly.
“Nay. ’Tis a wondrous sensation. You are so warm. I may never want to move.”
He kissed her brow and soothed a hand over her face. “If ’twas my choice, you never would.”
“Can I sleep now? Maddie said the injury to my head wasn’t serious. I find myself unable to hold my eyes open.”
“Aye, Keeley, sleep. I’ll remain ever near to watch over you.”
His promise gladdened her heart and spread warmth into areas still numb with the cold. Although she knew he shouldn’t be here, she hadn’t the power—or the desire—to turn him away.
She rubbed her cheek over his broad chest and sighed in contentment. The night was hers, and she’d not spend a single moment lamenting what couldn’t be changed. Instead she’d enjoy whatever she could have, while she could have it, and tomorrow would take care of itself.
During the night, Alaric was awakened by Keeley’s restless movements. It took him a moment in his deep sleep to realize that she was still asleep herself.
Rousing himself, he studied her in the dim light as she twisted fretfully next to him. Fear took hold and he cupped a hand over her forehead.
He cursed as he registered the warmth radiating from her.
“ ’Tis cold,” she said in a small voice. “I can’t get warm. Please, the fire, I need the fire.”
Shivers wracked her body, and as hot as she felt to his touch, she seemed equally freezing on the inside.
“Shh, love. I’ll warm you.”
Even as he said the words, he recalled the knowledge that extra warmth only added to a fever. Was he supposed to strip her of the furs and her clothing and bathe her in cool water, or at least wipe her brow with a cool rag?
Helplessness gripped him. He hadn’t the skills to nurse someone with a fever. Battle was his skill. Killing and defense. Repairing wounds? He had no experience.
Gently he pried her body away from his and rolled from the heat of the furs. He was glad for the slight chill in the room, for Keeley burned with a fever, and where he’d warmed her earlier, she now had heat enough for the both of them.
He bent to brush his lips across her hot brow. “I’ll return in a moment. I promise.”
Her slight whimper tightened his chest, but he turned away and hurried out of the chamber. The hallway was dark and quiet. The keep was asleep. He walked all the way down to where Ewan’s chamber was located.
He knocked, knowing Ewan was a light sleeper, but he didn’t go in, not knowing what he’d interrupt between the laird and his wife if he did.
Only when he heard the gruff summons, did he crack the door and stick his head around.
“ ’Tis I,” Alaric whispered.
Ewan sat up in bed, careful to keep the furs covering Mairin.
“Alaric?” Mairin asked sleepily. “Is anything amiss? Is it Keeley?”
“Go back to sleep,” Ewan said gently. “You have need of your rest. I’ll see to the matter.”
“Nothing is amiss,” Alaric reassured. “I have need to speak with Ewan, ’tis all.”
Ewan hurriedly dressed and joined Alaric in the hallway.
“What is the matter?” Ewan demanded.
“I didn’t want to speak in front of Mairin because I knew she wouldn’t sleep this night. Keeley has taken a fever and I know naught of healing skills.”
“I’ll come have a look,” Ewan said.
The two men returned to Keeley’s chamber. When they entered, Alaric saw that Keeley had managed to kick all the furs from the bed and she tossed back and forth, small sounds of distress escaping her lips.
Ewan frowned and went to the bed. He bent over and placed his hand over her forehead and then down to her cheeks.
“She’s burning up,” he said grimly.
Fear knotted in Alaric’s throat. “How can such a thing be possible? She is unharmed for the most part. Just a small bump on the head. It didn’t even require stitching.”
“She lay in the snow for several hours,” Ewan pointed out. “ ’Tis enough to sicken even the stoutest warrior.”
“So ’tis a minor ailment.”
Ewan sighed. “I won’t offer false reassurance, Alaric. I have no idea how ill she is. Only time will tell. For now we need to try to cool her skin no matter how chilled she might feel. I’ll send down for a basin of water and some rags to bathe her forehead. ’Tis possible you’ll need to submerge her in a bath of water. Our father used to swear by the method, as strange as it may sound, to cure a high fever. I can remember a time when he ordered snow packed into a tub for a warrior who’d raged with fever for four straight days. ’Twas not a comfortable experience for the warrior, but it saved him. He lives to this day.”
“I’ll do whatever it takes to save her.”
Ewan nodded. “Aye, I know it. Stay with her. I’ll go belowstairs to see to the supplies. ’Twill be a long night, Alaric. It could last for days.”
“She nursed me through my worse,” Alaric said quietly. “I can do no less for her. She has no one. We are her family now. ’Tis our duty to see to her needs just as we would any other member of our clan.”
Ewan hesitated only a moment before nodding again. “I owe her a great debt for your life and now for my son. My debt will only grow if she sees Mairin through the delivery of our child. I can do no less than see to her every need.”
Relief coursed through Alaric’s blood. The last thing he wanted was to be in constant conflict with his brother. Keeley was important to him and even if any future between them was doomed, he would still do everything in his power to care for her.
Once Ewan departed the chamber, Alaric returned his attention to Keeley, who lay limply on the bed, quiet now and still.
He eased down beside her and smoothed his hand over her side and up to her neck. She turned into his caress, her flesh dry and hot. Even her lips were hot and cracked against his palm.
She burrowed under him and then entwined her legs with his as if seeking every bit of his body heat.
“Cold,” she murmured. “So cold.”
Cupping the back of her head in his palm, he drew her into his neck and kissed her temple. “I know, love. I know you’re cold. I’ll care for you, I swear it. Even when you curse me with every breath, I won’t waver.”
She sighed against his flesh, and it sent a shiver down his spine. Then she kissed him, her mouth hot and erotic against his pulse. His entire body tightened as she stirred restlessly against him.
The top of her leg rubbed enticingly over the juncture of his legs, and he cursed low and hard when his cock swelled in response.
“I love the way you taste,” she rasped out against his neck.
As if testing the veracity of her words, her tongue swept out and she licked against the thudding pulse that bumped even harder as her mouth closed wet and hot over the flesh of his neck.
Before he could extricate himself from her hold, she rose up and fused her mouth to his, so sweet and fiery that he couldn’t breathe. He didn’t want to move, so caught up in the feel of her, the smell of her.
Lusty and demanding. Hot, open-mouthed kisses that shattered every bit of his control. Surely God was testing him in this moment. He could feel the fires of hell licking at his ankles as he briefly contemplated sliding between her legs and giving them what they both so desperately wanted.
Not only would Ewan shortly return, but he simply wouldn’t allow himself to take advantage of Keeley in a reduced state of awareness.
Keeley was about climb atop him and continue to kiss him senseless when Ewan returned to the chamber bearing two pails of water and several rags.
“You’ll need to disrobe her and only use a light sheet as a covering. Nothing that will trap the heat within her body or create more.”
“I’ll look away,” Ewan muttered. “You forget I’m a man very devoted to my wife. I have no desire to see another woman’s body.”