The Chieftain (Chapter 18)

The lass with the red-gold braid turned around. As their gazes met, Connor had the oddest sensation that he was seeing her through a swirling fog. The hall and all the sounds and people in it faded into the mist, and he saw only her.

The lass's eyes widened and her lips parted as if she recognized him before she turned away. Connor's heart lurched, and a terrible longing filled him, just as it had that night in the faery glen. An instant later, disappointment hit him like a fist to his chest because he knew this could not be his faery lass. He had long since realized that the loss of blood from his wounds that night had caused him to imagine her.

How strange that someone in the midst of this noisy, crowded hall had made him think of the faery glen and the ethereal lass who danced with such abandon in his imagination. He was never given to flights of fancy or romantic notions. Yet the fragility of her slender frame engendered an unexpected and powerful urge to protect her.

"Who is she?" he asked.

"Come, let's find out," Moira said and tucked her hand in the crook of his arm.

As they approached, the men surrounding the lass made room for Connor next to her. There were some advantages to being a chieftain.

"Take a stroll with me tomorrow and show me where ye found those wee blue flowers in your hair," one of the men said, which caused her cheeks to blush a pretty pink. "Say ye will, Ilysa."

"Ilysa?" Connor did not realize he had spoken the question aloud until the lass spun toward him.

Connor's mouth fell open. This close, he could see that this was indeed Ilysa, but she was so changed – wonderfully so – that his mind was slow to grasp it.

How had he failed to notice how truly lovely her brown eyes were? A man could get lost in them. His gaze dropped to her gown, and his throat tightened. All this time, she had hidden a lithe body beneath oversize gowns.

"I don't recall seeing your hair before," he said and reached out to touch a shining, red-gold strand that had come loose.

She stepped back from him. "Good evening to ye, Connor."

Connor started at the sound of her familiar, calm voice and dropped his hand. What was he thinking, touching her hair in front of a room full of people, as if he were a lover who could not keep his hands off her. How could Ilysa sound so serene when his pulse was pounding at his temples?

"What happened to ye?" he blurted out.

"Your sister and S��leas have been dressing me." She plucked the skirt of her gown between delicate fingers. "Do ye think the gown suits me? I'm not accustomed to it."

She should not have drawn his attention to it again. The gown was of the French style worn at court, with a tight-fitting, square-cut bodice that revealed the tops of her high, creamy breasts. From there, it fit snugly to her tiny waist, which he could span with his hands, and then flowed gracefully over her hips and down to the floor.

"No, it doesn't look right at all," he murmured to himself. This was not how Ilysa was supposed to look. The sight of her should make him feel comfortable and easy, like a pair of old boots, not send his pulse racing and muddle his thoughts.

Connor was vaguely aware that he had stared at her beguiling shape for far too long and dragged his attention upward, helplessly pausing at each appealing curve. Her shining braid had fallen forward over her breast. He followed it upward over flawless skin until he reached her face, which somehow was both familiar and unexpected.

Her lips looked soft. Her slightly upturned nose was fetching. But her best feature was her dark and luminous eyes, which were set off by her red-gold hair and matching threads of her headdress.

"Ye look exquisite," he said on an exhale, but she was already gone.

* * *

Ilysa ran down the steps and along the side of the keep. When she reached the corner, she ducked into a narrow gap between the buildings. She did not stop until she reached the castle wall at the very end, where she was certain she would be out of sight.

With her chest heaving, she leaned against the wall and closed her eyes. The cold from the stone seeped through her back, but it did nothing to cool her burning cheeks.

She was mortified. At first, when Connor stared at her, she thought he was admiring how she looked, as the other men had. How wrong she was.

What happened to ye? No, it doesn't look right at all.

Taking slow, deep breaths, she attempted to calm herself. She had survived worse humiliation with her husband, and she would survive this as well. The disappointment was harder to bear. Ilysa squeezed her eyes shut tighter to force back the tears that threatened.

She had deceived herself. Only now could she admit why she had let Moira and S��leas persuade her to change her appearance and come to the gathering. She had not done it to gain a marriage offer from a stranger. No, in her secret heart of hearts, she had hoped to make Connor look at her and for once see a desirable woman. Was that too much to ask?

Her pleasure in the attention from the other men evaporated like the mist on a hot day. They had only flocked around her because there were so few women here. Besides, what did it matter if they all thought she was pretty, when the one man she cared about did not find her so?

Ilysa felt someone's presence and snapped her eyes open. O shluagh! None other than Alastair MacLeod stood not two feet away, staring down at her. He was huge.

Though she had never seen the famed chieftain of her enemy clan before, she had heard stories about him all her life. She recognized him by his maimed shoulder, which was caused by a MacDonald axe and figured in the tales as often as the slaughters of her clan.

Sweat broke out on her palms. The MacLeod chieftain towered over her, and she could not get by him in the narrow gap between buildings. She was trapped.

"I am Alastair MacLeod," he said in a voice so deep she could feel it through her feet. "No matter what you've heard, I don't eat captured MacDonald children for breakfast."

Ilysa was caught off guard by his jest and assumed, or at least hoped, it meant he did not intend to harm her. Despite his age and disfigured shoulder, he was unexpectedly handsome. None of the stories had mentioned that.

"I'm honored to meet ye," she said to be courteous, though she could not quite believe she was conversing with the MacLeod chieftain. "How do ye know I'm a MacDonald?"

"I saw ye come into the hall with your clansmen," he said. "What's your name, lass?"

"Ilysa," she said, her voice unnaturally high.

"A lovely name," he said. "It suits ye."

She did not know what to say to that. She was still reeling from his admission that he had watched her enter the hall.

"Did you follow me out?" she asked.

"No," he said. "I was out here enjoying the quiet when I saw ye burst out of the keep like a lamb chased by a wolf."

Ilysa wondered if he was speaking the truth. Remarkably, she was no longer afraid of him. At least not much.

"'Tis growing dark, and there are a great many men here," he continued. "Ye should know better than to wander outside the hall without one of your clansmen to protect you."

"My brother would not be pleased if he knew," she said and gave a humorless laugh. It did not bear thinking about what Duncan would do if he learned she was alone in a secluded corner of the castle with the man her clan called the Scourge of Skye. And that was the nicest name they called him.

"That's an unusual brooch you're wearing," he said.

"It was my mother's," Ilysa said, looking down at it. The brooch was distinctive with its unusual pattern of interlocking leaves surrounding a deep red stone.

"I'm sorry, has your mother passed?" he asked in a surprisingly soft voice.

Ilysa felt a sting at the back of her eyes and nodded. Ridiculous as it seemed, Ilysa felt as though the MacLeod chieftain understood her sadness.

"She died three years ago, when I was sixteen." Ilysa ran her fingertip over the slippery surface of the brooch's red stone. "She dressed plainly and always wore it under her gown where no one could see it."

"Were ye named for her?" he asked.

"No. Her name was Anna."

After a moment, he said, "I hope ye still have your father to look after ye."

"Ach, I never had him, whoever he was." When she looked up, Alastair MacLeod's eyes had that hollow look of someone for whom pain is a constant companion, and her heart went out to him. "Does your shoulder pain ye a great deal?"

"What?" he said, his tone sharp as a blade. His earlier kindness had made her forget who he was, but he was all chieftain now, huge and intimidating.

"I meant no offense," she said quickly. "I'm a healer, and it troubles me to see that ye suffer because your injury was not looked after properly at the time."

"We were a long way from home," he said, glaring down at her, "and no one was concerned about how the shoulder was set because they didn't expect me to live."

"That's a poor excuse," Ilysa said. "Unfortunately, there's nothing I can do to repair it now, but I can make ye a salve that will soothe it."

"I don't mind the pain," he said. "It serves to remind me who my enemies are."

* * *

After working his way around the hall, Connor was once again attempting to have a conversation with the MacIain about his granddaughter when Ilysa caught his eye. The arched entrance was just behind her, framing her like a painting. It was a mystery to him how she could look like herself and yet so achingly lovely at the same time.

His muscles tensed when he noticed that Alastair MacLeod was next to her. It was a testament to how shocked he was by Ilysa's transformation that he did not see the MacLeod chieftain first. He could not bear for her to be so close to their enemy. When he took a step toward them, MacIain stopped him with a hand on his arm.

"I'll have no trouble between you and the MacLeod here," his host warned.

Connor relaxed as the MacLeod moved away from Ilysa and into the crowded hall. Suddenly, the man turned and met his gaze, as if he had been aware of Connor watching him all along. The animosity that burned between them could have set the hall on fire.