The Chieftain (Chapter 7)

God preserve me. Connor clenched his fists as Niall, who was one of the guards at his door this evening, escorted Ilysa into the center of the room.

"Niall, I told ye I was not to be interrupted for anything short of an attack," Connor said between his teeth.

Although Niall had just turned eighteen, no man could have gotten past him. He was, however, pliable as warm wax when it came to females. He trusted every last one of them, and he thought Ilysa, in particular, flew with the angels. If Ilysa said one word about Deirdre being the wrong wife, Connor was going to strangle her.

"Ilysa has something urgent to tell ye," Niall said with a painfully earnest expression.

"Ilysa, do not – " Connor started to order her.

"I apologize for interrupting, but I fear for your sister's safety," Ilysa said, looking at James. "I'm sure ye won't want the whole castle to know, but I saw a man sneak into the bedchamber I share with her."

Connor leaped to his feet, ready to charge out to protect his guest. When he noticed that James was considerably slower to get out of his seat, a bad feeling settled in the pit of his stomach.

"I heard her cry out, but the door is barred," Ilysa said, clenching her hands in front of her. "Ye must hurry. Please. Who knows what he's doing to her?"

"You two wait here," Connor ordered Ilysa and Niall as he pushed past them. "James and I will deal with this."

When he and James reached the hall, Connor slowed his pace so as not to draw attention.

"Ilysa must have been mistaken," James said in a low voice. "Surely, none of your men would harm a guest."

Connor ignored him and went up the stairs to the keep's bedchambers. Without pausing to knock, he rammed Ilysa's door with his shoulder. It was barred, so he stepped back and kicked it, tearing it off its hinges with a crack.

When he stepped inside, Deirdre stared at him from the bed with her mouth open. She did not have a stitch on, and she was sitting astride a man, who was struggling to sit up. As soon as Connor saw that it was not one of his own men, he turned around.

"She's your problem, not mine," Connor said to James, who had come in behind him.

James was glaring at his sister with murder in his eyes, clearly furious with her.

But he did not look shocked.

* * *

Connor never let his emotions rule his behavior, but he was so angry his vision blurred. He wanted to pound his fists into the stone wall and shake the building.

"Not a word of this to anyone," he hissed in Niall's ear as he held him by the back of his shirt and ushered him out of his chamber. "We shall speak of your role later."

He slammed the door shut and turned to Ilysa, who was perched on a stool. For once, she did not look serene in the face of danger.

"Ye knew Deirdre was in that bedchamber with a man," he shouted at her. "Ye embarrassed both me and my guests by what ye did."

"I tried to warn ye about her," Ilysa said in a soft voice.

"Ye led me to believe ye disliked the lass because ye were jealous of her," he said. "Ye did not tell me she was bedding one of her clansmen in my keep while her brother was negotiating a marriage contract with me!"

"I didn't know how else to stop ye."

"Ye came in here playing the innocent with that story about poor Deirdre being attacked," he said. "Ye deliberately deceived me and made fools of us all!"

Ilysa looked so small and pathetic sitting in her oversize gown that he felt like a monster for yelling at her. With an enormous effort, he forced himself to stop.

"A chieftain is judged by how he treats his guests," he said, though it was a ridiculous point and not the reason he was upset.

"They were not being very good guests," she murmured.

"I do not gauge my behavior by others," Connor said.

"I'm sorry for how I did it," Ilysa said, worrying her skirts in her hands. "But I had to do something before ye committed yourself."

Connor rubbed his neck and took a deep breath. "Ye should have simply told me what ye knew, instead of making vague remarks about her not being the right wife."

"All right," she said. "Next time I will."

Next time? God help him, there had better never be a next time.

"There is something more ye ought to know," she said in her quiet voice. "I think Deirdre is already with child."

Connor sank into his chair and rested his head in his hands. Of course Deirdre was pregnant. And of course her brother knew it. Connor felt like a failure to have been duped like that. By tradition, the clan chose a chieftain from among the men who carried chieftain's blood. To avoid strife, it was essential there be no question that Connor's sons were truly his.

Ilysa was right to stop him, though he wished to God she had chosen a less dramatic method. If he had signed a marriage contract, it would have been a disaster.

Deirdre's child would have been born too early and then Connor would have two choices, both of them bad. If he returned her in disgrace, he would risk war with her powerful father. If he kept her, he would lose the respect of his clan and the other clans. A chieftain who was not respected weakened his clan.

He should have been suspicious when James was so intent on rushing the marriage contract. Connor was in need of a quick alliance, but their clan was not. Why had he failed to be more cautious?

Connor could tell himself it was because he was desperate to gather forces to attack the MacLeods before they attacked him. But that was not the whole of it. He had wanted to bed that lass so badly it hampered his judgment.

Lust had made him hasty and careless. It was unforgivable. He would not allow himself to be so weak again.