The Chieftain (Chapter 32)

Connor was in his chamber when Lachlan stormed in and banged the door open with such force that it bounced against the wall.

"Next time, you'll knock and await permission before ye enter my chamber." Connor folded his arms and raised an eyebrow at Lachlan, who was seething over something, judging by his clenched hands and heaving chest. "I take it ye lost Hugh?"

At the end of the battle yesterday, Connor had sent Lachlan with a galley of men to follow Hugh's departing boats in the hope of discovering his new lair. After seeing how Lachlan fought against Hugh's men, he had decided Lachlan could not be his uncle's man. That did not mean Connor trusted him completely.

"Aye, I lost him," Lachlan bit out.

"Well, you're not the first. Hugh has a well-earned reputation for disappearing into the mists." When Lachlan did not relax his stance or offer an explanation, Connor asked, "Is there something else?"

"I thought ye were different from your father – better than him," Lachlan said. "But now that I see how you're taking advantage of that sweet, innocent lass, I know you're just the same."

Lachlan must have seen him kiss Ilysa in the midst of the battle. It was unlike Connor to forget himself like that, but his attempts to hide their relationship were probably futile anyway. In the close quarters of a castle household, that sort of secret was nearly impossible to keep.

"It wasn't enough that she takes care of your household, heals your wounds, and sees to your guests," Lachlan said, spreading his arms. "By God, that lass cares for ye – she threatened to kill me to protect ye. How could ye mistreat her?"

Connor did not defend himself, though he could have argued that he was not mistreating her. Chieftains took wives to make alliances, and they had mistresses and second "wives" to please themselves or to make other alliances. It was expected. Yet he knew in his heart that it was wrong to do this to Ilysa. She was meant to be a man's one and only.

"You're right. I should give her up." Connor sank into his chair and rested his head in his hands. "But I'm a weak man. I love her too much to let her go. At least not yet."

"Do ye mean that?" Lachlan asked. "That ye love her?"

Connor didn't bother lifting his head to answer.

"Then why don't ye make her your wife?" Lachlan said. "If a lass like Ilysa loved me, I'd do the right thing before she changed her mind."

The thought of Ilysa falling out of love with him hit him like a blow to the chest.

"I am chieftain," Connor said. "I must choose for the clan and not for myself."

"For such a clever man, Connor MacDonald," Lachlan said, "you're a damned idiot."

* * *

"Chieftain, we have visitors!"

They were practicing in the muddy field again, and Connor crossed it to take a look. From the top of the cliff, he watched as a single war galley drew into the bay. He narrowed his eyes, wondering whose it was. It was not one of the MacDonald's, and MacIain would be coming with half a dozen galleys.

The bad feeling in his gut turned sour when he saw two women, whose brightly colored gowns showed from beneath their capes as they were lifted out of the boat. For a moment, he thought perhaps MacNeil had come with a couple of his daughters, but Alex's father-in-law would not bring them here just days before the battle for Trotternish was to begin.

This was a poor time to entertain guests, but there was no exception to Highland hospitality. Connor took a deep breath and started down the steps. As he approached the group gathered on the beach, the two women clutched each other and stared at him as if in fear for their lives. What was wrong with them? He stood alone, while they had two dozen warriors to protect them, and no Highland chieftain would attack his guests.

The blade of Connor's claymore made the familiar whoosh as he swung it over his shoulder and slid it into the scabbard on his back. Unaccountably, the younger woman emitted a loud gasp and buried her face in the older woman's bosom.

"A thousand welcomes," Connor greeted the group. "I am Connor, son of Donald Gallach, and chieftain of the MacDonalds of Sleat."

This set off a flurry of excited whispers between the women. Connor felt sorry for the men who traveled with them. After a day at sea in the confines of a galley with them, Connor would be ready to drop over the side and drown himself.

An old warrior separated himself from the others and stepped forward. "I bring ye greetings from my chieftain, John MacIain of Ardnamurchan."

No, it could not be that MacIain had sent only one galley.

"Where is your chieftain and the rest of his warriors?" Connor demanded.

"They've been diverted for a short time."

"Diverted?" Connor asked, holding his temper with an effort.

"Aye, more trouble with the rebels," the man said, shrugging as if it were nothing. "My chieftain expects to be here within a couple of days with his fleet of galleys."

Connor's shoulders relaxed a fraction. He could not fight with promises, but if MacIain arrived with his warriors in two days, that should be soon enough. Alex, Ian, and Duncan would be here by then as well, and it would begin. Connor's thoughts went to the attack he planned to launch on Beltane night.

"While my chieftain is detained…" The old MacIain warrior cleared his throat, dragging Connor's attention back from his battle plans.

"Aye?" Connor asked when he tired of waiting for the man to continue.

"He gave me the great honor of delivering his granddaughter to ye."

* * *

Ilysa watched for an opportunity to speak with Lachlan while Connor was busy elsewhere. She did not want to raise Connor's suspicions unnecessarily. After Lachlan left the keep, she waited a bit and then followed him outside with her basket over her arm. She caught a glimpse of him as he went into the armory. Perfect.

Rather than go directly, she took the long way around the courtyard. She went into one of the storerooms, pretending she needed something there, before circling around to the armory. When she tugged open the heavy, wooden door, she found Lachlan sitting on the long bench that ran the length of the room while sharpening his dirks with a whetstone.

"Ilysa in the armory?" he said, in lieu of a greeting. "Looking for a new axe?"

Despite the dry humor, his eyes were wary. This time, Lachlan's perpetual mistrust was well founded.

"No," she said. "I'm looking for a lighter weapon."

"Ye shouldn't be going into places like this alone," he said. "Our spy has killed two men. If I were him, you'd be dead now."

Connor had given her a similar lecture. "I am careful," she said, though her reason for following Lachlan into the armory belied that.

"Hmmph."

When Lachlan went back to sharpening his blade, Ilysa snatched an arrow from the quiver that lay beside him on the bench. As she stared at the distinctive, jagged tip, she felt as if the ground were tilting under her feet. It was a perfect match for the arrows she had cut out of Connor's chest and thigh.

Truly, she had not expected this. After watching Lachlan shoot with such skill during the battle, the idea that he could be the archer who'd tried to murder Connor had come into her head. She had only wanted to assure herself that it could not be true.

Ilysa's eyes blurred with tears at the memory of Connor's head slumped forward while Alex and Ian half carried him into Dunscaith. Then tears, this time of bitter disappointment, slid down her face because it was Lachlan, her friend, who had done it.

Her hands shook as she held the arrow out to him, her gesture an accusation. The tension between them was like a taut rope. Lachlan did not pretend he did not understand; nor did he try to rip the evidence from her hands.

"How could ye do it, Lachlan?"

* * *

Connor was furious.

He had been absolutely clear that his willingness to enter the marriage was wholly dependent upon MacIain's joining the fight against the MacLeods for Trotternish. Given that understanding, MacIain should not have sent his granddaughter ahead of his war galleys.

In the event that MacIain failed to arrive in time to participate in the battle, Connor would be in the awkward position of returning a bride. On the other hand, Connor would probably lose the battle and be dead, so any awkwardness would be short-lived.

It was a complex situation, and he would have liked to have Ilysa's advice. Of course, she was the last person he could discuss this with. How would Ilysa react when she learned that MacIain's granddaughter was here?

By the saints, how was he going to live with two women? He suspected that removing the MacLeods from Trotternish would be the easier task.

Connor hid his growing despair as he approached the two women. He assumed they were mother and daughter, for they were twenty years apart and looked very much alike. They were tall, dark-haired, pretty women with heart-shaped faces and meat on their bones. Their fashionable headdresses and delicate slippers had not fared well on the sea journey in an open boat.

"This is Lady Eleanor, widow of our chieftain's first son, and her daughter, Jane," the old warrior said.

"Welcome, ladies," Connor said and gestured toward the steps. "I'm sure ye would like to get out of the wind and rain."

The two women continued staring at him without budging.

"I hope ye speak Scots or English," the old warrior said. "Neither of them have the Gaelic."

MacIain's granddaughter did not speak the Highland language? Connor was beginning to understand why MacIain had not allowed him to meet the lass sooner. Still, he told himself she could learn Gaelic. But one thing was certain – this lass sure as hell had not chosen him. MacIain had lied about his granddaughter wanting him for her husband.

"Mind the steps." Connor spoke in Scots because it was slightly less distasteful to him than English. "They can be slippery when they're wet – and they're always wet."

The old warrior laughed, but neither woman showed any sign that she appreciated his jest. Connor stifled a sigh and held out his arm to the older woman, but she took the old warrior's arm and indicated he should help her daughter.

Connor's bride-to-be leaned her head back to look up the cliff. "I can't go up those steps! What if I fall?"

"Take care that ye don't," Connor said, struggling for patience. "I live on top of the cliff. There's no other way to get there from here."

When he offered his hand, she looked at it as if it were a poisonous snake. In the end, he had to heft the lass up the steps on his back. He found it hard to believe that such a helpless creature had any Highland blood in her at all. Between her cloying perfume and her arms clenched around his neck, she choked him all the way up the steps.