The Chieftain (Chapter 30)

Connor and Ilysa had formed the habit of talking over the day's events and business of the castle when they met at night. Usually, they made love first, but the matter Connor had to discuss with her tonight should not wait. When she came to his chamber, he pulled her onto his lap and sat with her before the brazier.

"I saw ye speaking with Lachlan outside today." This was not what he needed to discuss with her, but the words came out of his mouth.

"Aye." Ilysa's face lit with a smile that was like a needle in his heart. "Have ye thought any more about making him captain of your guard?"

"For now, I need him to travel around the peninsula gathering information," Connor said.

"He said he's going off to look for Hugh's new camp."

"That's what I told him to do," Connor said. "Who knows if that's what he'll actually be doing."

"I'm certain he is." Ilysa drew her brows together and searched his face.

"I thought ye didn't like the idea of me making him captain," Connor said, keeping his own gaze on the burning peat logs. "Ye didn't trust him."

"I don't recall saying that," she said.

"What ye said was that something troubled Lachlan, and ye wish ye knew what it was." Connor turned and fixed his gaze on her face. "I take it ye found out."

Ilysa fussed with her sleeve and did not respond.

"I see that ye don't want to tell me," he said.

"I do," she said. "But it's no my secret."

Connor did not like the idea of Ilysa and closemouthed Lachlan sharing secrets. "Why would he tell you?"

"He didn't, precisely. He just gave me a general idea of the sort of secret it was," Ilysa said, looking decidedly uncomfortable. "He thinks Hugh has a spy in the castle."

If Lachlan was the spy, that is exactly what he would say to divert suspicion.

"So now that ye know – in a general sort of way – what troubles Lachlan," Connor said, "what is your opinion of the man?"

"I believe ye can trust him," she said, meeting his gaze dead-on now, "and that he's the best choice to be your captain."

"What about Sorely?" Connor asked, just because he was feeling sour.

"Ye said yourself that Sorely is no good at training the younger men." She paused. "And I don't like him."

"Perhaps if he told ye his troubles like Lachlan does, you'd feel differently about him."

The hurt on Ilysa's face made Connor regret the words as soon as they were out of his mouth. She removed his arm from around her waist and slid off his lap. Then she stood before him, hands folded in front of her, looking at him with her doe eyes and making him feel like dirt.

"Why are ye speaking to me this way?" she asked.

"Ach, I'm sorry." Connor went to the window and stared out at the black sea and sky. "I see ye with Lachlan and know he could give ye all the things I wish I could, and I'm so jealous I can't think straight."

He heard Ilysa's soft steps as she crossed the room to him. He felt the venom go out of him as she put her arms around his waist from behind and leaned against his back. Her kindness was a gift he did not deserve.

"Don't talk like that," she said. "What could anyone give me that I'd want more than being with you?"

I can't even give her that for much longer. Though it was true that he had suffered a bout of jealousy when he saw her with Lachlan in a quiet corner of the castle yard, it was the message from MacIain that made his jealousy so sharp that he lashed out at her.

Connor turned around to face her. There was no avoiding it any longer. He had to tell her. What would she do?

She would leave him.

"Come to bed," Ilysa said and took his hand – and he put off telling her a little longer.

They prepared for bed like he imagined a young married couple would. After helping her off with her gown, he watched her cross the room in her chemise to drape it neatly over a chair. He dropped his own clothes by the bed. He left the candles burning because he liked to see her and crawled in beside her.

As he held her to him, he closed his eyes, but he could not prevent the words of the message from blazing across his mind. It would be wrong not to tell her before they made love in case it changed her mind about wanting to be in his bed. But he was tempted.

"Mo chroi." He brushed the hair back from her face and kissed her forehead. "I have news I must tell you."

He felt her body tense in his arms, and she said, "I don't want to hear it."

"Niall brought a message from the MacIain chieftain," Connor said. "He writes that the Crown will look favorably upon a marriage between me and his granddaughter."

Ilysa seemed to fold in on herself. Though he understood why she was withdrawing from him, he hated it.

"What do ye intend to do?" she asked in a small voice.

"I sought this match," Connor made himself say. "Our clan needs the alliance."

He had racked his brain since reading the message, trying to think of a way to avoid the marriage. No matter how he looked at it, his clan could not defeat the MacLeods without the help of an ally, and his warriors' lives would be sacrificed for naught. As chieftain, Connor did not have the right to put his own happiness, or even Ilysa's, above the lives of his warriors or the recapture of their rightful lands.

"Does that mean it is settled?" Ilysa asked, and the slight catch in her voice plucked at his heart.

"MacIain is on his way now," he said. "He'll be here in a few days – with his granddaughter."

As the silence stretched out, Connor wished just this once that Ilysa was the sort of lass who yelled and threw things. Anything would be better than this terrible stillness that made him feel as if she were slipping away from him moment by moment.

"I have no choice," he said, "I must enter into this marriage for the good of the clan."

But you're the one I want. Connor did not say the words aloud. He had caused enough harm without begging her to stay and be his lover.

In her methodical way, Ilysa folded the bedclothes back in neat turns and sat up, leaving his arms empty of her warmth. The candlelight picked up gold and red in her hair as she sat on the edge of the bed with her back to him.

"If ye want to leave, I'll send ye home to Dunscaith tomorrow," Connor said, though he prayed she would not go.

He loved her so much.

* * *

Was her happiness to end this quickly? Connor called Dunscaith her home, but it could never be that without him. She had no home.

"What do you want me to do, Connor?" Ilysa managed to keep her voice calm, though she felt as if her life hung in the balance. It was easier with her back to him.

"I'm trying to do the right thing, if belatedly, by you and by…my future wife," he said. "I swore I would have but one woman as chieftain. If you remain here, I won't be able to keep that pledge."

"I didn't ask what ye thought was right or what ye feel your duty is," she said, speaking carefully. "I asked what ye want me to do."

"I want ye to stay here more than anything I've ever wanted," he said, his voice rough. "I need ye at my side every day and in my bed each night – but I can't ask that of ye."

Ilysa swallowed against the surge of emotion that closed her throat. Connor still wanted her.

"You don't have a wife yet," she said. "I'll stay until ye do."

And after that? She could feel his unspoken question, but she was not ready to answer it.

Connor moved to sit behind her, sliding his long legs on either side of hers and wrapping his arms around her in a protective cocoon.

"I'll cherish every hour we have together," he said and kissed the side of her neck.

"I have one condition," Ilysa said, remembering Tearlag's warning. Our chieftain can only find happiness if he weds the lass who chooses him on Beltane night.

"What is it?" he asked, his breath warm on her skin.

"Promise ye won't wed before Beltane."

"Is that all?" he asked. "I doubt there would be time to wed before then, even if I wanted to."

"Promise," she insisted.

"I promise."

Why had Tearlag not said Connor must wait to find his bride until the summer solstice – or better yet, Lamas, when August arrived warm and golden?

Beltane was only a week away.

* * *

Connor awoke abruptly and sat up. It was dark, but he sensed morning was not far off. He held very still, listening for the sound again.

"What is it?" Ilysa asked in a sleepy voice.

"Did ye hear that?"

"Hear what?" she asked.

He could not say what precisely had roused him from a deep sleep, but his warrior instincts had been alerted by a sound that should not have been there. He threw back the bedclothes and walked naked to the windows. He peered out into the darkness, looking for movement, first on the sea side and then from the windows overlooking the courtyard.

"I can't see well enough from here," he said. "I'm going to the tower."

He opened the small door at the end of his chamber and ran up the three steps to the tiny tower room. In addition to the ghost who supposedly dwelled here, the tower had a single large window. Connor opened it and leaned out. He heard nothing but the wind and the crash of the waves against the cliff.

Then he saw them, a line of dark figures coming up the steps.