The Chieftain (Chapter 9)

Connor would not permit himself to limp in front of the men. He gritted his teeth and concentrated on keeping his stride even as another shooting pain ripped down his leg. Once he passed through the doorway into the adjoining building, he paused to take a deep breath before climbing the stairs.

Damn the arrow that struck his leg, and damn the man who shot it.

He was sweating by the time he reached the top and pushed the door open.

"Ilysa?" What in the hell was she doing kneeling on his floor? Why was she in his bedchamber at all?

Her brown eyes were huge as she looked up at him from the floor. Surprise gave way to what looked suspiciously like guilt, though Connor could not imagine what sweet Ilysa had to feel guilty about.

"I was just…," she murmured as she started to rise.

Connor lunged to help her and winced as hot needles of pain jabbed into his thigh.

"I warned ye that ye should let me take care of that wound in your leg," Ilysa scolded him. "Now you're going to set aside your pride, Connor MacDonald, and let me."

It was not pride that had kept Connor from sending for her, but the memory of her hands on his bare skin. As it was, he thought of that every time he saw her. He'd even had dreams of sweet, innocent Ilysa's featherlike fingers running over every inch of his body until he was groaning with need and – good God – begging her to take him in her mouth. It made him damned uncomfortable to be around her.

Because of his lascivious imagination, he had let the wound fester too long. Now he let her take his arm and pull him toward the bed.

"What's that smell?" he asked, sniffing. It was vaguely familiar, but he could not place it.

"I thought you'd like it."

"Good God, is that what ye were doing in my chamber?" he said as he hobbled over to the bed. "Making it smell sweet?" First lilies, now this.

"I was waiting here for ye so I could tend to your leg." She held up her basket. "See, I brought my medicines."

Ilysa was not a practiced liar. It struck him as odd that she would make up a story, but perhaps she was embarrassed about smelling up his chamber with that odd scent.

"I'll heat some water and mix up the poultice while ye make yourself ready," she said, by which she meant that he should take off his trews.

The blood had soaked through them and onto his shirt, so he took that off as well. He stretched out on the bed and pulled the bedclothes across his hips to cover his manly parts.

Ilysa kept her gaze on the basin of steaming water she carried as she walked toward him with a cloth over her shoulder. After setting her things on the stool next to the bed, she turned toward him and sucked in her breath.

"I am so angry with ye! It's full of pus," she said, glaring at the wound in his leg. "That was careless and irresponsible of ye, Connor MacDonald."

He snorted on a laugh, making the bed shake. No one ever called him careless and irresponsible. Ah, but he wished he could be sometimes. At the very top of his list would be making love to a woman until neither of them could walk. That was the second and the third thing on his list as well. In fact, there was nothing else on his list but rolling in the bedclothes, making love to a lass, over and over. Ach, he was as hard as a battering ram thinking about it.

"Ouch!" He was jolted from his thoughts by the hot, wet compress Ilysa laid on the wound. Jesu, it hurt.

"Ye deserve it," she snapped.

Her sharpness was out of character, and Connor realized she was worried about him.

"Don't fret. This is nothing," he said and covered her hand where it rested on the bed beside him.

The air vibrated between them, and his mouth went dry at the feel of her soft skin. Connor jerked his hand away. He should not be touching Ilysa – not even her hand – when he was lying naked in his bed thinking of endless rounds of hot, sweaty sex.

"Sorry," he said. "I'm a bit jumpy."

"I know it's painful," she said, drawing her brows together.

She had no idea how painful, and he did not mean the wound. He clenched his teeth and tried not to groan aloud as she rested her free hand lightly on his thigh and then – God, help me – on his stomach, while she wiped the wound clean and covered it with her poultice.

A little lower, please. He wanted to beg her to touch him, to wrap her hand around his cock and give him the relief he needed. Better yet, crawl into bed with him and let him…

If Ilysa knew what he was thinking, the poor lass's heart would give out. He looked at the delicate features of her kind face and then at her hideous gown and ugly head covering and wondered how he could be so depraved as to actually be thinking of seducing her.

Connor covered his face with his arm and commanded himself not to imagine what Ilysa looked like under that dreadful gown.

* * *

Connor MacDonald was not at all what Lachlan expected.

In the days since his arrival at the castle, Lachlan had watched the chieftain closely. Unlike Hugh, Connor met Lachlan's gaze directly and spoke to him with respect. Not once had he heard Connor make jokes at the expense of the lesser men or servants. In fact, his humor was self-deprecating, which Lachlan found disconcerting.

From everything his father had told him, he expected a man who carried the blood of the last chieftain to be a careless womanizer who was indifferent to the welfare of the lesser members of the clan. A chieftain had his choice of women, and Connor was undoubtedly handsome, judging by the way the women of the castle tripped over their feet watching him. The chieftain, however, did not appear to give any of them special attention.

Except for Ilysa.

Now, that was surprising. Ilysa was a funny, wee thing. Despite being highborn, she wore dull gowns that looked like hand-me-downs from an elderly relative twice her size. No, Ilysa did not look like a lass who would be sharing the chieftain's bed. If she were, Lachlan would have heard whispers about it by now.

And yet, there was something between them.

Lachlan watched Ilysa cross the hall, stopping on her way to say a kind word here and there and checking to see that all was well. Despite her youth and diminutive size, Ilysa controlled the household with a velvet glove. The servants would kill for her.

As she passed by, Lachlan put a hand on her arm. "You're always moving. Sit and rest a bit."

"I have a hundred things to do." She smiled as she made her excuse and started to move on, but then she halted and her smile faded.

There was always something in her eyes when she looked at him, as if she saw the blackness in his heart. Yet Lachlan never felt as if she condemned him for it.

After a moment, she perched herself on the bench beside him.

"Tell me why ye cover your prettiness," Lachlan said. "Is it the chieftain ye don't want to notice?"

Ilysa straightened her spine and blinked at him. "Mind your tongue, Lachlan. What a thing to say. And I'm not pretty."

Ilysa was a puzzle. When you really looked at her, you could see that her features were fair, but she tied that kerchief around her head so tightly it pulled her skin.

"What color is your hair under there?" he asked.

When he reached for her head covering, Ilysa slapped his hand away. "Stop it!"

He heard her gasp as a long blade flashed between them. Its point stopped an inch from Lachlan's throat. When he looked up the length of the blade, he saw Connor MacDonald at the other end of it.

"Is Lachlan bothering ye, Ilysa?" Connor's voice was as calm as the sea on a windless day, but his eyes were blue ice.

Lachlan did not move.

"No, he's not troubling me at all," Ilysa said.

"Ilysa is like a sister to me," Connor said. "If ye distress her, cause her even the tiniest bit of unease, you'll answer to me."

Like his sister, my arse.

"I don't want to leave any room for misunderstanding," Connor said, with the point of his blade pricking Lachlan's throat. "Have I been clear enough?"

"Aye, ye have," Lachlan said.

"I'm not certain I did right in defending ye to the chieftain," Ilysa said in a low voice after Connor walked away. "I want to trust ye, but you're hiding something."

"I spent the last two and a half years fighting the MacLeods," Lachlan said. "You've no right to question my loyalty."

"What have ye got against our chieftain?" she asked, undeterred.

"Nothing." Ach, she was as persistent as those wee dogs that bite at your heels.

"If ye endanger him, I'll kill ye myself." Ilysa got to her feet and looked down at him. "That's a promise, Lachlan."

Out of respect for her, he did not laugh. He had to admit that Connor MacDonald engendered loyalty from those who knew him well. That did not mean he deserved Lachlan's.

As his father so often told him, blood must be paid with blood.