The Chieftain (Chapter 17)

Ach, you're as adorable as a puppy," Moira said, stepping back to take a look at her handiwork.

Adorable? Ilysa stifled a sigh of disappointment. First a doe, now a puppy. After all Moira had done to her, she had hoped, if not for pretty, then at least for attractive or appealing.

They were in a chamber in the West Tower of Mingary Castle that had been set aside for the few highborn women who had come to the gathering with their men. For what seemed like hours, Moira wove tiny flowers into a loose braid down her back. Then she fixed a headdress to the crown of Ilysa's head that was so delicate, it was more ornamentation than head covering. Finally, Moira laced her into this immodest gown that made Ilysa fear that if she breathed too deeply, her breasts would pop out.

"Ready?" Moira asked, and opened the door without waiting for an answer. As they went down the stairs, Moira took her arm. "Now ye will enjoy yourself, or you'll answer to me."

Duncan and Niall were waiting in the courtyard just outside the tower door.

"Ach, ye look lovely," Niall said, sounding breathless, after gaping at Ilysa openmouthed for a long moment.

The look her brother gave her, a mix of alarm and disapproval, was even more reassuring. All the same, Ilysa's stomach tightened as she took Niall's arm and they started across the courtyard to the keep.

"Has Connor arrived?" she asked him in a low voice.

"I haven't seen him yet."

As they passed through the arched entrance that led into the Great Hall of Mingary Castle, the noise of a hundred conversations filled Ilysa's ears. There were so many people! In her low-cut gown and with her hair hanging down her back, she felt exposed, as if she had walked into this huge room full of strangers in her nightshift.

She instinctively touched her mother's jeweled brooch, which hung on a silver chain at her throat. Ilysa had no idea how her mother came to own such an extravagant piece of jewelry, but she was glad to have something of her mother's to wear.

"Is this young warrior the lucky man who is your husband?"

Ilysa turned to find a handsome man with graying temples standing next to her.

"Who, Niall?" she asked and laughed. "Poor Niall has been forced to serve as my protector at this gathering, but he's been spared the task of being my husband."

"A task any man with an eye for beauty would gladly take," the man said.

Good heavens. If she was not mistaken, he was flirting with her. To Ilysa's surprise, she found it pleasing.

"I am Alan, cousin to the Campbell chieftain," he said, then took her hand and kissed it just the way she had heard courtiers did.

As Ilysa introduced herself, she glanced sideways at Niall and found him glaring at Alan as if he would prefer to see him at the end of his sword.

"It takes a brave man to approach Duncan MacDonald's sister, which can be the only explanation for why such a gem is yet unclaimed." Alan Campbell's eyes twinkled as he added, "I am a brave man."

Niall coughed. When she glanced at him again, he gave his head a slight shake. Clearly, this Campbell man did not have Niall's approval.

"Excuse us," Niall said and steered her into the crowd.

"Why did ye do that?" she asked. "I was enjoying myself."

"Ye know what they say, As long as there are trees in the woods, there will be treachery in the Campbells," Niall said. "And that particular Campbell is no looking for a wife."

"He seemed interested in me," she said.

"He is interested," Niall hissed in her ear, "in getting ye under the blankets."

"Truly?" Ilysa said, pressing her hand to her chest. Other lasses were always talking about men attempting to do this, but they never tried with her. "That's exciting. Do ye suppose other men here will try as well?"

"Ilysa!" Niall looked so shocked that she burst out laughing.

"Will ye share the jest with me, lass?" This time, the man who spoke was tall, fair-haired, and wore the most elegant tunic Ilysa had ever seen.

Judging by Niall's frown, he did not think well of this one, either. Ilysa, however, found the man's crooked smile quite charming.

* * *

Mingary Castle came into view not long after Connor's galley rounded the tip of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, the westernmost point of the mainland. The castle was large, consisting of several buildings surrounded by an irregular, six-sided wall, and strategically located to guard the sea routes into the Sound of Mull and Loch Sunart. As they sailed closer, Connor noted the burned tree stumps, remnants of the rebels' latest attack.

Large as the castle was, it could not accommodate so many guests, and camps had been set up along the shore on either side of the castle. Connor smiled to himself when he saw that Duncan, who detested such gatherings, had chosen the spot farthest from the castle and closest to home. After leaving his galley and men with their clansmen, Connor went up to the castle.

A short time later, he stood inside the Great Hall, scanning the crowd. Before the gathering ended, he would have an agreement to marry the daughter or sister of one of the Highland chieftains in this room. The only question was which one.

"Ah, the elusive Connor MacDonald has finally made an appearance."

Connor turned to see an extremely attractive, fair-haired woman wearing a high, elaborate headdress and an equally low bodice.

"Lady Philippa?" he said.

"You remembered," she said, giving him a dazzling smile.

Connor doubted many men forgot Philippa. When his cousin Ian was young and foolish, he was so enthralled with her that he planned to ask for her hand. Fortunately, Ian had been forced to wed S��leas instead. Philippa had her good qualities, but fidelity was not one of them.

"Why do ye say I'm elusive?" he asked.

"Because you've deftly avoided the chieftains with marriageable daughters up until now," she said, with an amused expression. "With your appearance today, you may as well sound the trumpets and shout, The handsome chieftain of the MacDonalds of Sleat is prepared to take a wife!"

Connor chuckled despite himself.

"So who is the lucky lass?" Philippa asked taking his arm and leaning close. "I want to be the first to know."

"I haven't picked her out yet," he said. "Who would ye suggest?"

Philippa was a court creature and would know who was out of favor with the Crown and who was on the rise. She would not waste his time pretending that he could choose a bride based on her beauty and charm.

"The regent is exceedingly grateful to Shaggy Maclean and Alastair MacLeod for capturing the brothers of Donald Gallda," she said, referring to the rebel leader.

"Hmmph."

"Well then, a connection with the Campbells is always worth considering. Or," Philippa said, turning her gaze meaningfully to a well-dressed, dark-haired man with a pointed beard, "if you are willing to take a risk, marriage to a Douglas could pay off very nicely."

Connor eyed the handsome and overly ambitious Douglas chieftain, the Earl of Angus, who had wed the queen soon after the king's death. Everyone, except the queen, realized he had married her in the hope of ruling Scotland in her young son's name. Their marriage, however, had given the council the excuse they needed to take the regency – and the royal children – from the queen, whose brother was Scotland's greatest enemy, Henry VIII of England.

When the council called John Stewart, the Duke of Albany, home from France to be the new regent, there were rumors that the queen planned to abscond with the Scottish heir to England. If that was her intent, she did not act quickly enough. Albany arrived and persuaded her to hand over the royal children by laying siege to Stirling Castle.

"I'm surprised to see the Douglas here," Connor said. "Last I heard, the queen had fled to England, and her husband was lying low at his estates, hoping to avoid a charge of treason."

"The Douglas has made peace with Albany." Philippa gave Connor a mischievous look over her fan. "I fear he will find it far more difficult to reconcile with his wife, though I would never count the Douglas out."

"Why?" Connor asked.

"He's taken up with a former lover and is living openly with the woman on the queen's money." Philippa leaned closer, giving Connor a waft of delicate perfume and what he guessed was an intentional look down the front of her bodice. "I've heard a whisper that Albany will return to France soon and that the queen intends to cross into Scotland the moment he sets foot on the ship. Life at court should be interesting."

With a young child on the throne, the factional fighting was unending. The queen had made a bad situation worse, however, by allowing herself to be blinded by passion and marrying foolishly.

"The rest of us can't change spouses whenever we wish, as you Highlanders do," Philippa said with a smile. "Whether the queen likes it or not, the Douglas remains her husband, and he may rule in his stepson's name yet – which is why I suggest you consider wedding a Douglas."

Connor could not make himself consider a match with either the Douglases or the Campbells. They always had their eyes on other clans' lands and viewed marriage alliances as one more means to acquire them, even if they had to wait a generation.

Which other treacherous chieftains should he consider? As if in answer to his question, he saw his host, the MacIain, coming toward him through the crowd.

"I hear John MacIain has a granddaughter of an age to wed," Philippa whispered, touching his arm again. "I'll leave you to your business."

* * *

"Ye should have a wife by now," John MacIain said after they had exchanged the usual greetings and traded opinions on how much longer the rebellion would last.

When the MacIain put a hand on Connor's shoulder, Connor forced himself not to remove it by thinking of MacIain's hundreds of well-trained warriors.

Connor needed those warriors.

"At eight and twenty," MacIain continued, "I had two strong sons and three daughters."

"You were fortunate in your choice of wife," Connor said, more because MacIain's wife was a Campbell than because of the number of children she gave him.

An additional benefit of wedding MacIain's granddaughter was that it would give Connor a connection to the Campbells without actually having to marry one.

Moira cut their conversation short when she appeared through the crowd, leaving every man she passed staring after her.

"How is my favorite sister?" Connor said and kissed her cheek.

"Is that smoke I smell?" Moira gave a delicate sniff.

Connor closed his eyes at her reference to the recent burning of MacIain's castle.

"I'll leave ye to your charming sister," MacIain said. "We'll speak again later."

"Moira!" Connor chastised her after MacIain stalked off. Though Connor was chieftain, he did not fool himself that he could control his sister. He wished Duncan good luck with that.

"I had to do something to get rid of him," Moira said, giving MacIain's back a sour look. "What were ye discussing with that devil before I rescued you?"

"Clan business," he said. "Where's Duncan?"

"Ye know how he hates crowds," she said. "He's gone back to the camp."

"Tell me the news from Dunscaith." Connor hoped she would mention Ilysa without his having to ask. When she failed to, he had a sneaking suspicion it was intentional. Finally, he gave up. "How is Ilysa?"

"Why, do ye have an apology to make?" Moira asked, narrowing her violet eyes at him.

"Did Ilysa say something to make ye believe I do?" Connor asked.

"I couldn't pry it out of her – Ilysa is far too loyal to say a word against ye," Moira said. "But ye must have done something truly dreadful for her to leave."

"I've done nothing to apologize for." In fact, he had punished Ilysa far less than she deserved. Now he was prepared to forgive all and allow her to return. "How is Ilysa?"

"Have ye not seen her yet?" Moira asked.

"Ilysa is here?" Connor asked, turning to look for her in the crowded hall. Why in the hell would she be here? Regardless, it should not be difficult to spot her drab gown in this room full of lasses dressed like brightly colored birds.

"I'm fortunate to have a sister-in-law I'm so fond of," Moira said as she gazed across the room with a soft smile. "I see I'm not the only one to appreciate what a delight she is."

Connor followed his sister's gaze, but instead of finding Ilysa, he saw a lass surrounded by a group of men. Her back was to him so all he could see of her was a slim outline and lovely reddish-blond hair that fell in a thick braid to her waist and was ornamented with tiny blue flowers.

"I don't see Ilysa," Connor said, though in truth he had stopped looking for her.

He could not seem to drag his gaze away from the lass with hair the color of summer sunlight. When she spoke to the man next to her, he caught a bit of her profile. Then she tilted her head back and laughed, exposing the graceful line of her throat, and his pulse skipped.

"Ilysa is right in front of your eyes," his sister said with a smile in her voice. "Perhaps you're having trouble because of all the men blocking your view."

Men blocking his view? They were talking about Ilysa.