The Chieftain (Chapter 5)

Are ye any closer to choosing a new captain?" Ilysa ventured to ask.

Even after a week of dressing Connor's wound, Ilysa could not claim she was unaffected by being so close to him when he was bare-chested. But she was able to maintain at least an outward calm, and they usually fell into easy conversation. Today, however, Connor seemed distracted.

"Tait is a good fighter and loyal," he said. "But I fear he's no leader."

"That's for certain," Ilysa said, which earned her a smile.

"Ian's brother Niall will make an outstanding captain in a few years, but I need one now," Connor said. "The others are fine warriors, or will be with some training, but none is as good as a captain ought to be."

"Hmm," she murmured as she unwound the linen strips from around his chest.

"I've been watching the men every day, and I haven't seen one who has what it takes."

"What qualities are ye looking for?" she asked.

"He should be the strongest warrior, the most loyal man, and a leader the others respect enough to follow without question," Connor said.

"Ye can't expect to find someone who can replace my brother or your cousins," she said in a soft voice. "The four of ye trained and fought together all your lives."

"Aye." Connor's chest rose and fell under her fingers as he took a deep breath and blew it out. "I'd settle for one man who stands above the others."

Ilysa had raised the subject purposefully. Still, she hesitated, unsure of how Connor would take a suggestion from her on a subject so far from her knowledge.

"I may have to choose Sorely, for lack of someone better," Connor said, his gaze fixed on the sea out the window. "He's a strong warrior, and I know he's loyal."

"I've heard of someone who may be worthy of your consideration."

"Who?" Connor said, turning to fix steely-blue eyes on her.

Sometimes the shift in his manner from disarming friendliness to chieftain was startling. Ilysa forced her breathing to remain steady as she told him what she knew about the man Cook had described.

"I hope this Lachlan is all that you've heard," Connor said. "I'll send for him. Someone in the castle will know where to find him."

Ilysa smiled to herself, having accomplished one of the two tasks she had set for herself before coming into the room. Now for the second one.

"The wound on your chest is healing well, but I haven't seen the one on your leg since I removed the arrow," she said, praying her cheeks were not turning pink. "Ye should let me look at it."

Despite her embarrassment, she was faintly disappointed when he pulled his tunic on. She helped him, as usual, so that he would not ruin the bandaging she had just done. When he started unfastening his trews, she spun around. She could almost hear him chuckle.

"Wish me well," he said while her back was to him.

"Why?" she asked.

"I'm negotiating a marriage contract tonight."

Ilysa slowly turned around. "A marriage contract? For who?"

"For me," Connor said with a sudden, blinding smile.

"Who are ye marrying?" Her mind was moving slowly, as if she had thick mud in her head. "Is it…Deirdre?"

"Aye," he said. "She's a fair lass, isn't she?"

"She is that." Ilysa's heart pounded in her ears. She had to tell him about Deirdre and her lover, but how?

"Is something wrong, Ilysa? Ye look pale."

He startled her by grasping her around her waist and lifting her onto the stool he had been sitting on earlier. Oh my. That had not helped calm her at all. He leaned down until his face was inches from hers and scrutinized her with narrowed eyes, which set her heart beating harder still.

"I know it's not my place to say this" – she paused to lick her lips – "but I like to think we're friends."

"Of course we are." He straightened and looked impossibly tall standing above her. "I've known ye since ye were a babe in your mother's arms."

"Ye mustn't marry Deirdre," she said. "She isn't the right wife for ye."

"Her clan can help us defeat the MacLeods," he said, the concern in his eyes evaporating, "and that makes her right for me."

Ach, Ilysa did not want to tell him what she had seen in the storeroom. And that was not all. When she saw the man Deirdre had been with again, she realized he was one of James's warriors. All week, Ilysa had watched him leave the hall, time and again, shortly after Deirdre.

"If ye intend to bandage my leg, you'd best be about it," Connor said.

"I fear Deirdre will make ye unhappy," Ilysa said, dropping her gaze to her hands, which were folded in her lap, "and embarrass ye."

When he did not speak for a long moment, she glanced up at him. His eyes were so cold that she swallowed. What had she done?

"Like my mother embarrassed my father? Is that what you're saying?" Connor said. "You assume that being beautiful makes her untrustworthy?"

Ilysa had not given his mother a thought.

"You're quick to judge the poor lass," he said. "That is unkind of ye."

"I did not mean – "

"I have much to do," he said. "Ye may go."

"But your leg?" she asked.

"I said, ye may go."

It was a clear dismissal, but she must tell him. Deirdre could already be carrying another man's child. A chieftain, even more than most men, had to know that his heir was of his own blood.

"Connor, I must tell – "

"My close bond with your brother has made ye forget that I am your chieftain," he said, his voice like the deadly calm before a storm. "A marriage alliance is a complex matter. I asked for your good wishes, not your advice."

"But – "

"Go!" he thundered and pointed to the door.

* * *

"Connor is still alive," Hugh said. "Ye failed to kill him."

Lachlan had suspected as much. He shrugged and glanced around the abandoned house Hugh was using as his base. It stank of dogs, unwashed men, and moldy rushes.

"And they say you're the best," Hugh said, his voice dripping sarcasm.

Lachlan met Hugh's glare without showing any reaction. He had not done it for Hugh, and he did not give a damn what Hugh thought of him. A common enemy made them allies, but that did not mean he liked the man.

"Ye said ye got two arrows in him, yet I'm told he's walking around as if nothing happened," Hugh said.

"You're perilously close to calling me a liar," Lachlan said, moving a step closer. "Unless you're certain that you're better with a blade than I am, I suggest ye don't."

Hugh's men, a motley bunch of clanless scum, began reaching for their weapons but stopped when Hugh threw his head back and laughed. What in the hell was amusing? Hugh's unpredictability was one of the traits that made Lachlan mistrust him.

"You're a tough son of a bitch." Hugh tucked his thumbs in his belt and rocked back on his heels. "That's what I like about ye."

Hugh's woman, Rhona, a curvy lass with dark hair, sauntered over and put her arm around Hugh's neck. That lass was trouble, and no better than Hugh deserved. Whenever she thought Hugh was not looking, she gave Lachlan the eye. Rhona underestimated Hugh, a mistake Lachlan did not make. Hugh had a sly cleverness, and he did not miss much.

"Don't worry, you'll have another chance at Connor," Hugh said. "Go to Trotternish Castle and offer him your sword."

Lachlan nodded because he had already decided to do exactly that.

What troubled him was that the chieftain would require Lachlan to give his oath of loyalty, and it went against who he was to give a false oath. But sacrifices must be made. Killing the chieftain was a debt of honor, and this time he would complete the task.

"We'll get rid of him together," Hugh said, his eyes gleaming cold like a snake's.

"I'll tell ye again so that you're sure to understand me." Lachlan grabbed Hugh by the front of his tunic and pulled him up until they were nose-to-nose. "My dispute is with Connor, and Connor alone. I will do nothing that harms the clan."

Lachlan felt the prick of Hugh's dirk against his stomach.

"Keep your goddamned hands off me if ye want to leave here alive," Hugh said.

Lachlan had made his point and released him.

"Give me warning when Connor is outside the safety of the castle walls," Hugh said, "and my men will see to it that he never returns."

"It had better be your men, such as they are," Lachlan said, throwing a scathing glance at them before returning his gaze to Hugh. "If I find you're dealing with the MacLeods, you and I will be enemies. I am not a good enemy to have."

"Connor's your enemy, not me," Hugh said. "Deliver him, and we'll both have justice."