The Chieftain (Chapter 33)

Connor was in hell.

He glanced down the head table at Ilysa, but she would not meet his eyes. When would this interminable meal be over so he could talk with her? He'd had no opportunity to forewarn her of his bride's arrival. He did not like how pale Ilysa looked, and it did not appear that she had touched her food.

"Must we come to this place often after we're wed?" Jane asked, her Scots harsh in his ear.

"Trotternish Castle is my home." Connor took another long swallow of whiskey. "This is where I stay."

"But we will spend a good deal of time at court," she persisted. "My grandfather promised me."

"I only go to court when commanded to appear," Connor said, then added, "and not always then."

"Not go to court?" Jane said and made that irritating gasp that had him reaching for his whiskey again.

Good God, the lass was going to turn him into a drunkard. He rubbed his forehead and reminded himself how badly he needed MacIain's warriors. Marriage for a chieftain was a political arrangement, and he had no cause to complain. He glanced sideways at her. Jane looked strong and healthy, and she was pretty – just not his kind of pretty.

How many times would he have to bed her to fulfill his duty to get her with child? The thought of bedding her made him feel dirty when his heart was elsewhere. Men did it all the time. Certainly his father had without it ever troubling him.

Connor's gaze returned to Ilysa. Niall appeared to be telling her quite a tale, judging from his wild gestures. Perhaps she would retell it to him later, when they were in bed…

"Is that your mistress?"

The question startled Connor out of his reverie. When he turned to Jane, she was looking down the table at Ilysa with narrowed eyes. Had she really asked him that, in the midst of supper? He hoped no one sitting near them understood Scots.

"I must say, she doesn't look the sort," Jane added.

The sort? That was such a Lowlander way of thinking. Since there was nothing polite Connor could possibly say in response, he poured himself more whiskey.

"My mother says Highland men are…demanding, and that I should be glad if you keep another woman," Jane said, making Connor choke on his drink.

"Keep your voice down, lass." After taking a deep breath, he decided he may as well ask, as long as she raised the subject. "And what do you say about it?"

Jane shrugged. "Why should I care?"

Though Connor had felt guilty at the prospect of hurting his wife's feelings, the idea of her being wholly indifferent to his bedding another woman did not sit well with him, either.

"So long as she knows her place," Jane added.

Knows her place? "So, you're looking forward to managing a large household?" he asked, deciding to take her statement in the least offensive way possible.

"Oh yes," Jane said, her eyes lighting up with the first spark of interest since her arrival. "To start with, there is so much I'd want to change in this hall."

"What, in particular, would ye wish to change in my hall?" Connor asked, speaking slowly. Someone who knew him better would take heed from the dead-calm of his tone, but not Jane.

"I'd buy all new tapestries and replace the paneling as well," she said, turning her head from side to side as she glared at his walls. "And I'd love to have one of those elaborate ceilings with rows of carved paterae, like I've heard the English king has in his palaces."

By the saints, Connor had to nip this in the bud. There was so much he objected to that he hardly knew where to begin.

"We Highlanders do not emulate the filthy English," he explained in a calm, reasonable voice, and he even managed to call the English filthy rather than what Highlanders usually called them, "most especially their king, who is responsible for the deaths of a great many Scottish warriors."

"I could be content with the French style – " Jane began.

"My clansmen have suffered great hardship," Connor said, cutting her off. "As chieftain, it is my duty to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves before spending coin redecorating my perfectly good hall."

Tears filled Jane's eyes, and she abruptly fled the room in a rustle of fine silks. He was so relieved to have her gone that he could not even feel guilty for driving her from the table. Perhaps she would take her next meal upstairs with her mother, who had refused to come down at all.

And he had thought he had no romantic notions about marriage just because he did not expect love. Ha. His hope of a quiet, companionable partnership – a friendship even – in which they fulfilled their respective duties to the clan with consideration and respect for each other now seemed like a foolish dream.

He had a thousand memories of Ilysa quietly and efficiently bringing order to his household – decorating the hall with wildflowers, cajoling the servants with an encouraging word here and a firm suggestion there, and winning over the obstreperous cook. Without flinching, she bandaged wounds, helped babes into the world, and prepared the dead for burial.

Connor could not imagine his bride-to-be doing any of that. Jane was utterly useless. He was even more grateful, if that was possible, that Ilysa had decided to stay. Perhaps she could keep him from murdering his wife.

* * *

Ilysa made herself as small as possible and lay as close to the edge of the bed as she could without falling out. Jane and her mother breathed too loudly and flopped around like beached fish. While it had been a luxury to have a bedchamber to herself as the only highborn female in the castle, Ilysa was accustomed to it.

Or to sleeping with Connor in his bed.

Unfortunately, the other chambers in the keep either lacked beds or were in need of repair, due to the MacLeod occupancy and the castle changing hands twice through violence. Regardless, Ilysa intended to have her things moved to one of the smaller chambers first thing in the morning.

A lass could only take so much, and sharing a bed with Connor's bride – and the bride's mother – was more than Ilysa could bear.

The moment she saw Jane enter the hall on Connor's arm, she felt as if she had been struck in the heart with one of Lachlan's arrows. All day, the wound festered, spreading poison through every vein. She went about her duties, seeing that a fine meal was prepared for their guests, all the while enduring looks of sympathy from everyone. If she had any doubts before, it was clear that every man, woman, and child in the castle knew about her and Connor – and pitied her now.

Ilysa had hoped Connor's bride would be a duplicitous creature like her grandfather so she could hate her and not feel guilty about what she and Connor did. Instead, Jane was a guileless lass.

What was she going to do? Ilysa already knew. The decision had taken hold in the back of her mind, but she could not yet face it.

"Ilysa," Jane whispered, ruining Ilysa's hope that she was asleep. "Is the chieftain always so frightening?"

"Frightening?" Ilysa asked.

"When he came down the cliff to meet us, he was streaked with mud like a barbarian, and he was carrying that enormous sword." Ilysa heard a thump as Jane slapped her hand to her bosom. "Truly, I feared for my life."

"Connor would never harm a woman or a child," Ilysa assured her.

"Hmm." Jane did not sound convinced.

"I imagine this is a harsh place compared with what you're accustomed to," Ilysa said. "Here, you'll be glad to have a husband who can protect ye so well."

"Without the mud, he is no doubt handsome, though he's a bit large," Jane said. "I just wish Highlanders were not such barbarians."

Ilysa refrained from pointing out that, despite her diminutive size, she was a Highlander. Eventually, Jane's breathing grew even, and Ilysa believed she was finally asleep.

She heard a soft knock on the door. As a healer, she was often awakened in the night to tend to someone. She quickly slipped out of bed, wrapped a plaid around her shoulders, and went to see who it was.

When she cracked the door, she saw Connor in the torchlight from the stairs. He did not speak a word until she slipped out and closed the door behind her. Then he enfolded her in his arms like a dying man clinging to life and said her name into her hair. He held her for a long, long time before he spoke another word.

"I couldn't wait any longer for ye to come to me," he said. "I need ye so much."

How could she resist him? When he lifted her in his arms to carry her to his chamber, she buried her face in his neck. He smelled of sea air and peat smoke – and Connor.

After he closed the door to his chamber, he pressed her against it. His kisses were demanding, urgent, desperate.

"I know what you're thinking," he said, his mouth against her ear. "But ye can't leave me. Ye can't."

When he hiked up her nightshift, the roughness of his shirt against her breasts sent tingles of awareness through her. She felt the familiar soft scratch of the calluses on his palms as he ran his hand up her side and over her back.

Tomorrow, she would think it all through, but right now she just wanted to be with him. Tonight, he was still hers. She wanted to touch him, to feel his warm skin and strong muscles under her hands, to be surrounded by his heat and passion.

He drew in a sharp breath when she reached between them and ran her hand up his shaft through his clothes. While their tongues entwined in a slow, sensual kiss, he unfastened his trews. When she wrapped her hand around his freed shaft, he deepened their kiss and sucked on her tongue.

"I'm going to show ye that you're mine," he said in a ragged voice against her ear.

He dropped to his knees and covered her breasts with his hands. His breath was hot and moist on her skin as he kissed and ran his tongue along her breastbone. All the while, he rubbed her nipples between his fingers and thumbs, sending jolts of desire sparking through her and causing a throbbing ache between her legs.

She clenched her fingers in his long hair as he sank lower and encircled her thighs with his hands. Tension curled inside her like a spring as he teased her with his tongue and mouth, planting moist kisses across her abdomen and down her hip.

"Aye," she gasped when he finally dipped his tongue between her legs. Her breasts ached, and her breathing grew shallow as she watched him pleasure her. But then she dropped her head back against the door. She gave herself over to the sensations coursing through her body as he worked his magic, licking and circling and sucking, until her knees grew weak.

He gripped her buttocks, holding her up and pulling her harder against his mouth. When he slid a finger inside her, her vision went black behind her eyelids. She heard herself cry out as if from a distance as bursts of bright light sparked and shimmered through her in waves.

Connor rose to his feet and lifted her off hers. Her nipples were so sensitive that she gasped when they brushed against his chest.

"I need to be inside ye," he said between frantic kisses. "Now."

"Aye," burst from her throat as he thrust deep inside her in one stroke, and her body clenched around him in another spasm of pleasure. Before she could catch her breath, he thrust into her faster and harder. Her back was banging against the door, but she didn't care. She could never get enough of him, never. She held on to him more tightly as he moved against her, sending hot shards of pleasure darting through her that were almost painful. He shuddered, and she cried out again as he called her name and exploded inside her.

He rested his forehead on the door and held her up, which was good because she could not have stood on her own. They were both panting and sweaty. After a long while, he leaned back just far enough to look into her face with his silvery blue eyes.

"I love ye with all my heart," he said, rubbing his thumb across her cheek. "You're part of me, and I am part of you. We are two halves of one whole."

* * *

Connor turned to Ilysa again and again in the night, trying to persuade her with his body to stay, to show her how much he loved and needed her. As he watched the room in the eerie light of dawn, lack of sleep made him feel as if he were floating. And yet, he did not want to close his eyes for fear she would slip away from him while he slept.

She stirred, restless in her sleep. When she opened her eyes, he saw farewell in them.

No, I cannot let her go. He caught her tear with his finger, and then her arms came around his neck. He breathed in the familiar scent of lilies and held her.

"Make love to me as if it were the last time," she said.

He did as she asked.

He pressed his lips to her palm, then he laid her on her back and kissed every inch of her, starting with her toes. Though he already had her body embedded in his memory, he memorized it again as he traced the arch of her foot, her slender ankle, the softness on the back of her knee.

He let the gold and red strands of her hair slide through his fingers.

He knew her, knew how to make her sigh, knew what the slight hitch in her breath meant. He used it all against her, trying to convince the stubborn woman he loved that what was between them was all that mattered. That it was enough.

She was quivering with need before they finally joined.

"Ye belong to me," he told her. She did not argue, but with Ilysa that never meant agreement.

They made love with a desperate passion.

* * *

Ilysa held Connor to her a final time, then she forced herself to pry her arms loose and slide out of bed – and out of his reach. She slipped on her nightshift before she changed her mind.

"I thought I could do this," she said, swallowing back her tears. "But I've met her now, and I can't."

"Ilysa, please," Connor said but stopped when she held up her hand.

"I wish I could say it is only because I don't want to take your attention from her," she said. "But the truth is that she's far too pretty, too lively, too sweet."

"Sweet? She cares nothing about the welfare of my clan. She frets about silly things."

"Jane is just young," Ilysa said.

"She is the same age as you are."

"She hasn't had responsibilities and doesn't know any better, but she will learn," Ilysa said. "Ye will love her in time."

That was what had finally convinced her she must go. She could neither bear to be the reason Connor did not fall in love with his wife, nor watch him fall in love with her.

"I've told ye that no one else will ever have my heart," he said.

"I can't share ye. I just can't do it." Ilysa briskly re-braided her hair out of habit and to calm herself. "I want something of my own. A home, a family, a husband."

Connor got out of bed and clasped his hands around hers.

"We can have children," he said. "Your sons will have chieftain's blood, and the same chance to be chosen chieftain as my other sons."

"Isn't that precisely what ye feared?" She looked away from him so he would not see the tears that threatened to spill from her eyes.

"That doesn't matter to me now, and it's too late anyway," he said. "Ye could be carrying my child already."

"I'm not." At least, there was no sign of it yet. "I'm a healer. I would know."

"But I want to have children with you," Connor said.

She closed her eyes against the answering surge of longing in her heart. How she would love to have Connor's children, to have a son with his fine looks and stalwart heart. But that was not to be.

"While we were at the gathering, I had an offer of marriage," Ilysa said. "I plan to take it."

Connor straightened and stared at her. She tried not to be insulted or hurt that he was so shocked, but she was.

* * *

Connor felt as if he had been kicked in the stomach.

"Ye didn't mention it before," he said through his teeth. "Who is he?"

"I know ye thought no chieftain would want to wed me because I'm not important enough," she began.

"I never said ye were not important – you're everything to me," Connor said, wondering if she were deliberately misunderstanding him. "I only meant that ye don't bring a clan's power and warriors to a marriage."

"Regardless of all I lack," Ilysa said, "the MacNeil chieftain said he wants to wed me."

"Glynis's father?" Connor said. "Ye can't want to marry him. Why, he's an old man."

"He's not old," she said. "He's a fine man, and I like him."

"He has all those children, that's why he asked ye," Connor said, raising his arms. "He wants a wife to mother his children."

Ilysa turned and fixed her direct gaze on him. "Is that the only reason ye believe a man would want me for his wife?"

"Of course not, but he doesn't love ye as I do." He tried pulling her into his arms, but she pushed him away.

"Mothering his children appeals to me," she said. "I like children. Perhaps we'll be blessed with more. I know that would please him as well as me."

The thought of Ilysa having any man's child but his made Connor feel physically ill.

"I want a family. I want to be mistress of my own home. I want a man I can call husband, who will take a vow to be faithful and keep it," she said, relentlessly ticking off the things he could not give her. "I believe marriage to Gilleonan MacNeil will provide me with all that."

"But will ye love him?" Connor asked, hating the desperation in his voice.

"I will feel useful and valued." She wrapped her plaid around her shoulders and tied the corners together with a snap. "I will be content."

"It sounds as though you've given this a great deal of thought." Just how long had she been planning to leave him?

"I have," she said.

"Who else did ye consider in all this thinking ye did? Lachlan of Lealt perhaps?" Connor asked. "Ye seem to have developed a true fondness for him."

"Lachlan?" Her face showed surprise, and he wondered if she was feigning it. "I'd never wed a MacDonald now, especially one who would keep me here on Trotternish. I'm going where I won't ever see ye again."

Never see him again? Could she mean it? His anger drained out of him, leaving only emptiness in its place.

"I'll tell the MacNeil when he comes here to join the battle against the MacLeods." She busied herself adjusting the plaid over her nightshift and avoided looking at him as she spoke.

"If you'll be happy with him, then I shall be content as well." Connor made himself say it, though it was a lie. "But there's no need for ye to make a hasty decision."

"If the MacNeil still wants me, I'll leave with him as soon as the battle's done."

That gave Connor almost no time to persuade her to change her mind.

"Remember, ye promised not to wed before Beltane," Ilysa said. "Ye owe me that."

"Does it matter now?" he asked.

She finally looked at him, and in her eyes he saw the deep sorrow that she had tried to hide behind her brusque manner.

"Aye," she said softly, "it still matters."