The Chieftain (Chapter 21)

Alastair MacLeod insisted on escorting Ilysa back to the keep himself. At the entrance to the hall, he fixed his piercing eyes on her for a long moment, then gave her a stiff nod and left her. No sooner had he gone than Ilysa felt another set of eyes burning into her. She turned to see Connor striding toward her from across the room. He looked ready to do battle.

"I didn't expect to find Alastair MacLeod among your admirers," Connor said in his hard, chieftain's voice. "Why were ye talking to our enemy?"

"He doesn't seem like such a bad man to me," Ilysa said. "Alliances change all the time. Perhaps the two of ye could settle your differences."

"The only way the MacLeods and the MacDonalds will resolve our differences is by sword and blood."

"I liked him," she said, which made Connor's eyes flare.

"He's dangerous," Connor hissed. "Stay away from him."

Ilysa refrained from saying she had no plans to visit Dunvegan Castle, the famed MacLeod stronghold, since Connor did not appear to be in the mood for a jest.

"As your chieftain, 'tis my duty to give ye another warning," he said. "Ye must be careful of some of the men you're meeting here."

"None of the clans will raise trouble at the gathering," Ilysa said.

"That's no what I mean." Connor leaned closer. "Ye don't have experience with these sorts of men."

"And what sort is that?" Ilysa asked, though she thought she knew.

"Men of power and wealth."

"Ye mean chieftains?" Ilysa kept her voice pleasant, but she was not accustomed to being lectured about her behavior, which had always been so far above reproach as to be lamentably dull. She especially did not appreciate being lectured on this particular point by Connor.

"I'll speak plainly," he said. "If ye want a man and a home to yourself, don't look to any of these chieftains or their sons."

As if she did not know this. Connor's very being reminded her of it every day.

"Your brother could rise to be keeper of a castle through his skills as a warrior," he continued, apparently assuming her silence showed a feeble lack of comprehension. "You are highborn, but for a lass to be a chieftain's wife, she must bring power and property to the marriage."

"I appreciate your explaining my unworthiness so clearly." It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him about her marriage offer, but it was wiser to keep that to herself until she decided what she wanted to do.

"I did not say ye were unworthy." Connor spoke in a measured tone, as if she were slow-witted. "But ye must be on your guard with such men, for it's not marriage they seek."

"I have been watching out for myself since I was eleven," Ilysa said, biting out the words. "You were all gone, so I did it without your help or my brother's or anyone else's."

"I can see that it's fortunate we are leaving tomorrow," Connor said.

Ilysa never got angry when she argued. She had always found it far more effective to face opposition with perfect calm, but she was failing at that now. Luckily, they were interrupted before she resorted to raising her voice.

"Pardon me," a tall, curly-haired man said as he took her arm, "but this sweet lass made a promise to sit with me at supper."

Ilysa was inordinately pleased that he was not just the son of any clan chieftain, but the son of the Earl of Huntley.

"Thank ye kindly for your advice, Connor," she said over her shoulder.

* * *

"The MacLeod galleys are gone," Connor said when he met Duncan at their camp.

"Yours is loaded, and the men ready to set sail," Duncan said, anticipating that Connor would want to return to Trotternish at once.

"Unless I send word that the MacLeods have attacked earlier, come to Trotternish Castle on Beltane and be prepared to fight," Connor said.

"Hmmph," Duncan grunted in acknowledgment. Instead of looking at Connor, he folded his arms and stared out at the water.

"Bring all the warriors ye can spare and tell Ian to do the same," Connor continued. "I'll send word to Alex."

"Hmmph," Duncan grunted again.

Connor had failed to make a marriage alliance. His sister was barely speaking to him. He had made Ilysa angry, a monumental feat. And now, for the first time in his life, he felt discord between himself and Duncan, his best friend from the cradle.

"What's troubling ye?" he asked. "Come, Duncan, tell me."

"I don't like my sister living at Trotternish with ye," Duncan said, still staring out at the water.

"Why not?" Connor asked.

"People will talk."

"Talk?" Connor asked.

"They'll say she's warming your bed as well as keeping your household."

Ilysa warming my bed. Connor could not let himself think about that.

"Ilysa has kept my household since I became chieftain, and you've never mentioned this before," Connor said. "Besides, no one would think that Ilysa and I are…" It seemed too dangerous to say the words, but they blazed across his mind: lovers, bedmates.

"The men look at her differently now," Duncan said. "And they will think it."

"They wouldn't dare," Connor said. "Ilysa is your sister."

"Aye, she is." Duncan turned and met his gaze. "She thinks the world of ye, and you're her chieftain. It would be easy for ye to take advantage of her."

"By the saints, Duncan, I've been as celibate as a monk," Connor said. "It hasn't been easy, but ye know I've held out this long because I won't risk having a babe with any woman but my wife."

"Sometimes things happen between a man and woman, despite their intentions," Duncan said, his gaze still locked on Connor's. "See that they don't with my sister."