She lifted her eyebrow. “Are you offering?”
He frowned deeper. “Aye. I know ’tis overwhelming and the talk will be of Alaric’s marriage on the morrow. But I don’t think you should spend the eve alone in your chamber.”
Her expression softened and she smiled up at him.
“For God’s sake, just don’t cry,” he grumbled.
She smothered her laughter. “I’d be happy for your escort.”
He held out his arm and stared pointedly at her.
The evening meal was noisy and boisterous, and it lasted long into the night. The high table was filled with lairds of surrounding clans, all jockeying for favor with the king.
Rionna looked bored and restless as she sat between Alaric and her father. Mairin looked as though she’d tip over at any moment, until Ewan put his arm around her and pulled her into his side, obviously uncaring of proprieties.
Caelen sat next to Keeley and quietly observed the hubbub around him. Though not talkative, he did lean in on more than one occasion and ask Keeley how she was faring.
His concern touched her. Beneath Caelen’s surly disposition lay a man steeped in honor and loyalty. She knew not what had made him such a wary and cautious man with his affections, but ’Twas equally evident that once earned, his devotion did not waver.
“I worry that this evening has been too much for Mairin,” Keeley whispered to Caelen. “She’ll not admit she’s overtired because she wants to remain by her husband’s side, especially with the king here.”
Caelen glanced in Mairin’s direction and frowned. “Ewan should have ordered her to bed an hour ago.”
“Perhaps I can intervene and say the babe has need of her.”
“I’ll go up with the both of you so Ewan does not have to leave the gathering,” Caelen said firmly.
Keeley smiled. “ ’Tis glad I am of your escort.”
“He’ll not have the chance to be alone with you again,” Caelen vowed as he stared pointedly at Laird McDonald.
Keeley rose without glancing in Laird McDonald’s direction, though she did find Rionna and offered a small smile. Her gaze flickered over Alaric but she looked quickly away, afraid that her face would betray her.
Caelen led her to the head of the table and Keeley offered a curtsy to the king before turning her attention to Laird McCabe.
“I would take Lady McCabe above stairs if you give your leave. I’m concerned that she overtaxes herself so soon after the birth of your daughter.”
The words were said for the benefit of the others seated close to Ewan and Mairin. Ewan shot her a grateful look and then rose to assist his wife to her feet.
Even Mairin looked thankful as she stepped to take Caelen’s proffered arm.
Keeley was about to turn away when the king held up his hand. Keeley froze, uncertain as to what to do. Had she offered insult by interrupting?
“Ewan tells me you are the healer who attended my niece during her pregnancy and at her birthing time.”
“Aye, Your Majesty.”
The words stuttered out so shaky, she was unsure that they were intelligible.
“He tells me you have great skill and that you also saved the life of Alaric McCabe.”
Keeley nodded, her discomfort growing as more people stopped eating to listen to the king’s words.
“The McCabes are fortunate to have you. If Ewan was not such a valued ally, I would take you to tend me personally.”
Her eyes widened and she gulped. “T-Thank you, Your Majesty. ’Tis a great honor to have you say so.”
He lifted his hand in dismissal. “Go now. My niece has need of her rest. I charge you with her health and that of her newborn babe.”
Keeley curtsied again, grateful she didn’t trip and disgrace herself. Then she hurried after Caelen and Mairin as they headed toward the stairs.
“How are you faring?” Mairin asked Keeley when they were alone in Mairin’s chamber.
Keeley’s eyes widened. “ ’Tis you I’m concerned about. You looked fair to exhausted at dinner.”
Mairin grimaced. “Aye, I was, and ’tis grateful I am for your rescue.”
Mairin sat and Keeley took the babe from the woman charged with her care and handed her to Mairin. Mairin dismissed the nurse and then turned her attention back to Keeley.
“Are you all right? I know this can’t be easy for you.”
Keeley forced a smile to her face. “I’m fine. Truly. I had a chance to speak with Rionna. She has suffered as much as I have over the years. She is the sister of my heart. I have no wish for her to suffer more pain.”
“And so you’ll suffer instead,” Mairin said in a low voice.
Keeley sighed. “I want her to be happy. I want Alaric to be happy. I believe she can make him so. She’s a good woman. She’ll be loyal and true to Alaric. She’ll give him strong sons and daughters. She is a worthy mate to a laird.”
“So are you, Keeley,” Mairin said quietly.
Keeley smiled crookedly. “Maybe one day I’ll find a laird of my own.” But even as she spoke, she knew that no one would ever take the place of Alaric in her heart.
“Stay with me,” Mairin invited. “Ewan will be late this night. It will surprise me if he finds his room before dawn.”
Keeley agreed, because the thought of enduring her chamber alone was more than she could bear. Somehow the company of good friends alleviated some of the pain in her heart and she found it didn’t hurt so much to smile.
A soft knock at her chamber door awakened Keeley. She rubbed her eyes and blinked in confusion. ’Twas not even dawn yet. She’d barely gotten to sleep after staying with Mairin through most of the night.
Hoping nothing was amiss, she rolled from the bed and went to crack her door.
When she saw Caelen there, she swung the door wider. “Caelen? Is something amiss?”
He held a finger to his lips. Then he leaned forward. “Alaric sent me to you. He’d like to see you. He didn’t want to chance coming to your bedchamber.”
Keeley swallowed. “Where?”
“Dress warmly. He’s down by the loch where Crispen skips his stones.”
“Give me a moment. I’ll be ready.”
She hurriedly dressed and went back out to where Caelen awaited her. Halfway down the stairs she stopped and frowned.
“You realize that if anyone were to see us, they’d assume that you and I—that we—were …”
“Aye,” Caelen said quietly. “I know it.”
Keeley bit her lips and resumed the trek down the stairs. Caelen hovered protectively as they exited the keep and walked toward the loch in darkness. They entered the small grove of trees and came out by the shore of the loch where several boulders jutted outward from the banks.
“Thank you, Caelen,” Alaric said as he stepped forward.
“I’ll wait for Keeley through the trees,” Caelen said as he retreated.
Keeley turned nervously to Alaric. It felt as though it had been forever since they’d seen each other. Since they’d touched or kissed.
Alaric reached for her hands and grasped them gently in his. “I had to see you this night. One more time before I say my vows tomorrow. Once spoken, I’ll never break them. I’d not betray my wife or my clan.”
Tears shimmered in Keeley’s eyes as she gazed upon the man she loved more than life. “Aye, I know it.”
He raised her hands to his lips and pressed them to his trembling mouth. “I want you to know that I love you, Keeley McCabe. I’ll always love you. I want you to find happiness. I want you to find a man who’ll love you as I have loved you and who’ll give you the family you deserve.”
Tears ran unchecked down her cheeks. “I want you to be happy, too, Alaric. Rionna is a good woman. She’ll make you a good wife. Try to love her. She deserves to be loved.”
Alaric pulled her into his arms and held her tightly, his head rested atop hers. “I’ll do anything you ask of me, Keeley.”
“Then be happy,” she whispered. “Remember me with fondness. I’ll never forget our time together. I’ll hold it to my heart always. You are a wonderful man and proud warrior. The McDonald clan will be all the more great with you as laird.”
Alaric slowly pulled away, and she knew that the time had come to let him go. Her chest hurt so badly that each breath was agony. She steeled herself, determined that she’d be brave and would bear the parting with dignity and grace. Alaric deserved that much. The last thing he needed was a hysterical ex-lover on the eve of his wedding to another.
She reached up to touch his face and traced the lines of his strong jaw and the angles of his cheekbone.
“Live long and be happy, my love.”
He caught her hand and pressed a kiss to her palm. When she pulled her hand back, it came away damp with his tears. ’Twas more than she could bear, the thought of her warrior grieving for what was not to be.
She turned and walked briskly toward the woods. “Caelen,” she called softly.
“I’m here,” he said as he stepped from the shadows.
“Please take me back,” she said in as level a voice as she could manage.
Caelen took her arm and guided her toward the keep. With each step, the pain became so unbearable that she thought she might die.
They returned to the keep in silence. Caelen escorted her to her chamber and opened the door. For a long moment she stood, so numb she wasn’t sure if she could even manage the short distance to her bed.
“Are you all right?” Caelen asked gently.
When she didn’t answer, he led her into the chamber and closed the door behind them. Then he pulled her into his arms and hugged her tightly.
“There, there, lass. Cry if you’d like. No one will hear you but me.”
She buried her face in his tunic as the tears began to fall.
“Keeley, you must hurry! The priest is going to wed me and Cormac in the hall before he weds Alaric and Rionna in the courtyard at the noon hour,” Christina said.
Keeley rubbed some of the weariness from her eyes and hoped that they didn’t look red and swollen. She’d gotten no sleep after her meeting with Alaric, and ’Twas the truth she had no desire to leave her chamber.
But she didn’t want to dampen Christina’s happiness. The girl was so excited for her wedding to Cormac that she was about to bounce right out of the beautifully sewn dress that Maddie and Bertha had gifted her.
She looked over at Christina and smiled. “You look beautiful, lass.”
And she did. Her face was a wreath of happiness and her cheeks glowed. She hadn’t stopped smiling the entire morning.
“Thank you,” Christina said. “Now hurry! I don’t want to keep Cormac waiting.”
Christina reached for Keeley’s hand and all but dragged her toward the stairs. Keeley had dressed with care and had even arranged her hair in a coiled braid for the occasion. She wanted no one to suspect that she was dying on the inside.
Indeed, Cormac was waiting for Christina, and the relief that crossed his face when she entered the room made Keeley smile. Ewan stood as witness for Cormac, and Christina pulled Keeley along.
“Mairin is resting before Alaric and Rionna’s wedding so I wanted you to stand for me,” Christina whispered.
Keeley squeezed the girl’s hand. “Of course I will.”
Christina shyly approached Cormac and his face lit up as he took her hand. They turned to the priest to exchange their vows. Keeley listened to the sacred words that bound them together as husband and wife. Their love for each other was evident as they stared into each other’s eyes. No one else existed for the couple.
When finally Cormac leaned over to kiss Christina, the room erupted in cheers. Color bloomed in Christina’s cheeks as they turned to face the gathered onlookers.
Keeley hesitated a moment to allow Christina and Cormac to step into the group of people waiting to congratulate them and then she skirted the perimeter, intent on escaping back to her chamber.
“Keeley, a word please,” Ewan said as she passed.
He motioned her into the alcove behind the hall.
She looked questioningly at him and waited for the purpose of his command.
“Caelen told me of what occurred between you and Laird McDonald.”
Keeley froze. “He shouldn’t have.”
“Aye, he should have. I’m sorry that it happened. I’m appalled that someone under my care was treated thusly. The laird will never be welcome into my keep again.”
Keeley nodded. “Thank you.”
“I also want to thank you for not going to Alaric,” he said in a sober voice. “I know he cares deeply for you. This marriage is important. Caelen says you begged him not to tell Alaric because you knew it could possibly ruin the alliance between our clans.”
Keeley swallowed and nodded.
“You have courage, lass. Perhaps the most courage I’ve ever witnessed in a lass so young. You have become dear to my wife—nay, to the entire clan. If there is anything I can do to ensure your happiness here, you have only to name it.”