“Take you where, sweeting?”
“To place … where we said … good-bye. Where you last … kissed me.”
He buried his face against her neck and wept.
Oh, God, he didn’t want her to beg. The pleading in her voice completely undid him.
“Aye, Keeley, I’ll take you. I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”
She smiled faintly and her eyes closed, as if the few words she’d spoken had completely spent her.
He gently gathered her in his arms and lifted her. He held her against his chest and pressed his lips to the top of her head. Tears slipped unchecked down his cheeks as he strode down the hall. No one tried to stop him. Mairin and Rionna openly wept as he passed. Maddie wore a stricken look and Gannon bowed his head in grief. At the top of the staircase, Caelen stood, his fingers curled into tight fists at his sides.
Then slowly he put his hand out to touch Keeley’s hair and let his fingers slide over her cheek. He leaned down and brushed his lips over her forehead in a tender gesture. It was the first time Alaric had seen him show any open affection or regard for a woman since the woman he’d loved betrayed him so many years ago.
“Be at peace,” Caelen whispered.
Then he backed up and strode away, his jaw clenched tight.
The entire clan gathered as Alaric bore Keeley through the courtyard and around to where the loch spread out to the east. He walked through the trees where he’d waited for her just a week earlier. He stopped at the water’s edge and lowered himself to sit on one of the boulders.
“We’re here, Keeley. Can you feel the breeze on your face? Can you smell the fresh air?”
Her eyelids fluttered weakly and she took in a deep breath. The action caused her immediate pain and a wicked spasm crossed her face. For several long moments she lay in his arms, her chest working up and down with exertion.
“Aye,” she said finally. “ ’Tis wondrous to feel the sun on my skin. I’m tired, Alaric. I’ve tried so hard to fight.”
He could hear the ache in her voice, the grief over the knowledge that she was dying.
“I want you to know that I’ll die happy. All … all I ever wanted … was to be yours. Your … wife. Even if for a while. You are mine and I am yours.”
Alaric stared up at the sky, sorrow crushing down on him with the weight of a boulder. “You’ve always been mine, Keeley. From the moment you took me into your cottage. There’s never been another woman who captured me, body and soul, the way you did. There’ll never be another. I should have been willing to give you what was rightly yours before now. I tried to do what was right and in the end, none of it matters if I lose you.”
“Hold me,” she whispered. “Stay here with me and hold me until the time has come for me to go away. I can feel myself growing weaker. I don’t think ’tis a long time.”
A raw, gut-wrenching sound of agony ripped from Alaric’s throat. His chest burned as if he’d swallowed fire. His hands shook so badly that he worried he’d let her fall.
“Aye, I’ll hold you, Keeley. I won’t let you go alone. We’ll stay here together and watch the sun go down over the loch and I’ll tell you every dream I ever had of our life together.”
She smiled and shivered against him. She went completely limp in his arms as if she’d expended all her remaining strength to say what she needed. For a long moment she lay there until she roused herself, seeming to have one last thing that she needed him to hear.
“You’re my dream, Alaric McCabe. And I love you. I’ve loved you from the moment your horse dumped you at my cottage. I spent so much time being resentful and lamenting the circumstances of my life, but ’tis true that I wouldn’t change a single thing because then I would have never known your love.”
He cupped her face in his hands and lowered his mouth to hers. Their tears mingled and the salt slipped onto their tongues as Alaric tenderly kissed her lips.
He closed his eyes and rocked her back and forth in his arms. The day faded to dusk and the evening grew colder. Gannon came out with furs and quietly wrapped them around Alaric and Keeley before leaving the two alone again.
The keep was already preparing to mourn. No one expected Keeley to live through the night.
Alaric settled into the furs and made himself as comfortable as possible on the face of the rock where he sat. He began to tell Keeley of all the things he loved most about her. How she made him laugh with her temper and her sharp wit. How she didn’t back down from either of his brothers.
He told her of his dreams of their children and how he wanted girls as beautiful and as fierce as she was and boys with her fire and courage.
Night settled in and the stars popped overhead. The moon splashed onto the loch, illuminating the pair as Alaric hung on tightly, willing Keeley not to slip away from him.
She grew quieter. He could literally feel the change in her as she grew weaker. The pain was too much for him to bear.
He laid his head atop hers and closed his eyes, wanting a brief moment of peace. When next he opened his eyes, the sky had paled with dawn’s imminent approach.
Panic stabbed through his chest. How long had he slept? He was afraid to look down. He was afraid to focus in on Keeley. What if she’d died in his arms while he slept? How could he ever forgive himself?
“Keeley?” he whispered as he shifted on the rock.
To his amazement, she moaned and moved fretfully against him. Her forehead gleamed with … sweat. With shaking fingers he touched her clammy skin and felt the sticky moisture that signaled the end of her fever.
Oh, God, he couldn’t function. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t process. He should get her back to the keep so that Ewan could look at her, but ’Twas God’s truth if he tried to stand now, he’d fall flat on his face.
He touched her face, her cheek, her eyelids even. “Keeley, Keeley, lass, wake up and look at me. Say something. Anything.”
Her lips parted the barest amount and it was obvious she tried to say something but lacked the strength. Her eyes opened a crack but she couldn’t keep them open.
“It doesn’t matter,” he soothed. “Your fever has broken. Do you hear me? Your fever has broken. ’Tis a good sign, Keeley. You’ll not die on me now, do you hear? You’ve fought this hard and long and I refuse to let you die now that you’ve given me hope.”
She whispered something he couldn’t hear. He leaned down and placed his ear next to her lips. “What did you say?”
“Brute,” she muttered.
He closed his eyes and laughed helplessly. ’Twas such a wonderful, exquisite feeling that he threw back his head and laughed until tears of relief streamed down his cheeks.
“Alaric, what is it?” Ewan demanded as he ran toward his brother.
Alaric turned to see his brother halt a few steps away, his expression wary and sorrowful. He glanced down at Keeley’s still figure and then back up to the tears streaming down Alaric’s cheeks.
“I’m sorry, Alaric. I’m so damn sorry.”
Alaric grinned broadly. “She lives, Ewan. She lives! Her fever has broken and she just called me a brute. Surely ’tis a sign she has no intention of dying.”
A broad smile split Ewan’s face. “Aye, ’tis a good sign to be sure. Any lass who can muster the gumption to be contrary is surely not to die.”
“I can’t lift her, Ewan,” Alaric admitted. “ ’Tis God’s truth I’m so poleaxed that I lack the strength to stand.”
Ewan hurried forward and lifted Keeley from his arms. It took Alaric a moment, but he was able to rise on shaking legs and walk alongside his brother back to the keep.
“They all think she’s dead,” Ewan explained. “Word went through the keep that you brought her to the loch to die.”
“ ’Tis a miracle, Ewan. A miracle I can’t explain but I’m so damn grateful for. She was dying. I could feel her dying in my arms. I held her through the night and I talked to her endlessly, telling her of my dreams and the children we’d have. I went to sleep and when I awoke, her fever was gone and she was bathed in a sweat. She’s still weak as a kitten but the fever has left her.”
“I’ll have a look at her wound as soon as we get her to bed,” Ewan promised. “Then we must address the issue of what is to be done about the alliance with the McDonalds. The king awaits as do the lairds of the clans who gathered here for your wedding. We cannot hold them off any longer.”
Alaric looked at his brother with all the dread in his heart. Then he nodded, knowing he must face this issue or the result could be disaster for his clan.
“As soon as Keeley is settled, I’ll go with you to meet with our king,” Alaric said quietly.
Alaric left Keeley with Maddie and Christina, and Mairin checking in as many times as she could slip past Cormac, who guarded her doorway.
Maddie burst into tears when Alaric told her of Keeley’s fever breaking. “I’ll take good care of the lass, Alaric. Go do what must be done. I’ll have her washed and fed and well on her way to recovery by the time you return, I vow it.”
Alaric smiled. “I know you will, Maddie.”
He pressed one last kiss to Keeley’s lips before he eased out of her chamber and headed belowstairs to where the others waited in the hall. Caelen met him just as he stepped off the stairs.
“I heard Keeley is recovering.”
Alaric smiled. “Aye.”
“I want you to know, you can count on my support no matter what is decided this day.”
Alaric sobered. “That means a lot to me, Caelen. More than you’ll ever know.”
“Shall we go see what the king has to say then?”
Alaric walked in ahead of Caelen and the room immediately quieted. ’Twas quite an impressive gathering. At the high table sat Ewan and the king along with Laird McDonald and Rionna on his right.
The other lairds were seated at the two tables that flanked the high table in the middle of the room.
When the king saw Alaric enter, he rose and motioned for Alaric to come over.
“Your Highness,” Alaric murmured as he came to a stop in front of the older man.
“We have a situation, Alaric McCabe. One that we must remedy with all haste.”
Alaric stood legs wide apart, arms crossed over his chest as he waited for the king to continue.
“ ’Twas admirable that you offered a handfast to the woman you loved after she saved your life and lay dying in your arms. The problem now arises that I’ve heard she may recover.”
“She will recover,” Alaric corrected softly.
“Then you find yourself married to the wrong woman.”
Laird McDonald rose and thumped his fist onto the table. “This is an insult. ’Tis preposterous. The agreement was for him to marry my daughter, Rionna, not a whore who was cast out of the McDonald clan years ago.”
Alaric snarled and started for the laird but Caelen got there first. He grasped the fleshy neck of Laird McDonald and slammed him back into his seat. The laird immediately went silent and stared up at Caelen in fear.
Alaric frowned. What had transpired between the two that would push Caelen to such anger, and why would the laird fear Caelen so much?
“Be silent, McDonald,” the king reprimanded. “That whore you speak of saved Alaric’s life twice and cared for my niece and safely brought forth the heir to Neamh Álainn. She is owed a great debt and ’tis my intention to make sure she never wants for anything in her life.”
He turned his attention back to Alaric. “As I said, ’Twas honorable that you sought to wed with her, but you must set her aside so the marriage to Rionna McDonald can go forth. I have a dozen lairds of surrounding clans ready to swear their allegiance to the crown and ally themselves with the McCabes as soon as you marry and take over as laird of the McDonald clan.”
Alaric stared at the king, not believing that setting aside another so he could marry Rionna was so calmly suggested. He looked then to Ewan to see his response. His brother sat next to the king, his expression indecipherable. Did he too expect Alaric to set Keeley aside and go ahead with his marriage to Rionna?
He thought of all that rode on this marriage. The safety of his clan. His brothers. Mairin and her babe. Finally the ability to go to war and defeat Cameron.
And his marriage could do all that? He shook his head. “Nay. I’ll not set her aside.”
The king’s eyes widened and the hall dissolved into chaos. Voices were raised. Angry statements were thrown. Threats were made and Laird McDonald was nearly apoplectic in his fury.
Alaric roared out an order for calm. When the hall finally quieted, he swept the gathered men with his gaze. “Only a man without honor would set aside the woman he loved to marry another. Only a man without honor would desert his woman when she lay so close to death after saving his life. I cannot be that man. I love her. I owe her my loyalty and my allegiance. I owe her my protection and all the happiness I can bring her for the rest of her life.”