The Chieftain (Chapter 3)

TROTTERNISH CASTLE

Connor stood in his new bedchamber watching the men practicing with their claymores in the courtyard below. The room extended the full width of the two-story building that adjoined the old keep and skirted the edge of the sea cliff. He chose this chamber for its windows, which afforded him views in both directions from which an attack might come.

He raised his gaze beyond the castle walls to the green fields an enemy must cross to reach the castle by land. When he dropped his gaze to the men again, he sighed. They were sadly in need of training. Unfortunately, he did not see one good candidate to serve as captain of his guard. The best of them was Sorely, who had been one of his father's guards and was getting old for the task. What Connor would not give to find one man here who was the match of his cousins and Duncan. But then, they were matchless.

Despite the daunting challenges he faced, Connor could breathe here. His father had rarely brought him to this castle and never permitted him in this chamber, so Connor had no lingering memories.

He heard voices and turned toward the open door as two women entered with a wooden tub and buckets of steaming water.

"I can manage by myself," he said before one of them offered to wash him.

Being naked with any woman was far too dangerous in the state he was in, but the buxom lass with the chestnut hair had a gleam in her eyes that spelled temptation. As she poured a bucket of hot water into the tub, the rising steam enveloped her, sending dark, lusty thoughts swirling through Connor's head.

"Mind ye keep that door to the tower closed, Chieftain," the older woman said with a nervous glance at the small door at the far end of the chamber.

Connor had been warned not to take this chamber because the ghost of a nursemaid was rumored to haunt the tower. The nursemaid would not trouble him; he had left his own ghosts behind.

"So long as she stays in her tower," he said, with a wink at the old woman, "we'll get along fine."

The buxom lass laughed and gave him another look that led his imagination further astray. He was grateful – or at least he told himself he was – when the older woman pushed the tempting lass out the door before he changed his mind about needing help with his bath.

"Tell Sorely I want to see him when the men take a rest," Connor told the guard outside his door before he closed it.

After pulling his tunic over his head and tossing it on the bench, he unwound the strips of linen around his chest. He winced as he pulled off the last layers, which had become stuck to his wound. That was the price he paid for ignoring Ilysa's pleas to let her change the bandages during the journey from Dunscaith. Until he was certain he had rooted out Hugh's spies, he could not afford to appear weakened by injury in front of his men.

While the heat from the bathwater soaked into his muscles, Connor leaned his head back and rested his eyes. The wounds had taken more out of him than he had admitted to himself. When he awoke, the water had gone stone-cold.

He was drying himself when there was a knock at the door. Thinking it must be Sorely, he called out, "Come in!"

"I've come to see to your woun – "

Connor turned around. Jesu, 'tis Ilysa.

She made a high-pitched squeak, and the tray she was carrying fell from her hands with a crash. Her face went scarlet, and she dropped to the floor and scrambled to gather her things.

Though Ilysa probably got a good look at his bare backside, Connor had covered his essential parts with the drying cloth when he turned around. Her reaction seemed extreme for a lass who was both a skilled healer and a widow. He still found it difficult to believe Ilysa was old enough to have been wed. She was a tiny thing, and in the loose gowns she wore, he could not tell if she even had breasts.

"I'll come back later," Ilysa said as she frantically reached for rolling jars.

She squeaked again when he knelt to help her pick up the pieces of a broken clay pot.

"No need to go," he said. "Just let me pull on my trews, and ye can see to my wounds."

He stifled a laugh when she sprang to her feet and turned her back to him.

"'Tis safe," he told her once he had his trews on and had settled himself on a stool.

As soon as Ilysa leaned over to examine the arrow hole in his chest, her manner changed completely.

"Ach, ye should have let me do this sooner," she scolded. "The bandages were stuck fast to the wound, weren't they?"

He did not bother answering. Despite her annoyance, Ilysa's touch was gentle. In fact, her fingers felt like feathers over his skin.

Oh, God help him, even Ilysa aroused him. Ach, he felt like the worst sort of scoundrel.

"How old are ye?" he asked her.

"Nineteen," Ilysa said as she briskly mixed herbs into a paste.

Though she looked like she was twelve, Connor did not feel quite so disgusting for getting a throbbing erection from her touch.

"I'm nine years younger than you and my brother, same as I've always been," she added with her dry humor.

Of course, he knew that. He could still remember when Duncan's mother had returned pregnant after disappearing mysteriously for weeks. It had been the talk of the castle, but Anna had never enlightened any of them regarding where she had been or who fathered her babe. The ability to keep her own counsel was a trait Anna and her daughter had in common.

Ilysa's hands were on him again, spreading the poultice over his wound, and he could think of nothing else. Ach, he was a sorry man. When she leaned close, he felt her breath on his skin. He resisted the temptation to close his eyes and pretend a lass who was not his best friend's younger sister was touching him with a different purpose.

"Ye married young," he said. "Ye couldn't have been more than eleven when we left for France."

"Ye were gone a long time. Sixteen is not young to wed." She lifted his hand and placed it on the square of cloth that covered the poultice. "Hold that."

She commenced to wind a clean linen strip around his chest. She cupped his elbow and lifted it as she brought the strip under his arm, taking charge of his body with an assurance that both surprised and further aroused him. When she leaned forward, reaching around him to bring it behind his back and over his shoulder, her chest touched his. A jolt went through him as he discovered that Ilysa definitely did have breasts. Even through the thick layers of fabric, there was no mistaking the feel of the soft, rounded flesh.

He hoped to God Ilysa did not look down and see his shaft pressing against his trews. Considering how she had reacted to seeing his bare arse, he feared she would faint dead away.

"What made ye decide to wed M��chael?" he asked to distract himself. Her husband had been a few years younger than Connor. He had known him, but not well.

"My mother was dying, and she wished to see me settled," Ilysa said.

Ilysa was a practical, sensible lass. No need to worry about her losing her head and running off with the wrong sort of man.

When she circled her arms around him again, Connor sucked in his breath. A lass who looked like a boy and dressed like a grandmother should not smell so good.

"Water lilies?" he asked without thinking.

"Aye," she said and gave a light laugh. "I used the dried flowers in the poultice so it wouldn't smell so dreadful this time."

Christ, he was going to smell like lilies?

When he felt her breast against his arm, he made himself focus on the hideously ugly brown cloth that was wrapped tightly around her head and covered every bit of her hair. That helped, but not much.

"Now I'll bandage the wound on your thigh," she said. "I'm afraid you'll have to get on the bed and take those trews off for me."

Get on the bed and take my trews off? Sweet Ilysa had no idea what a provocative suggestion that was to make to a man in his condition.

"Leave your things. I can bandage my leg myself," he said.

She started to argue, but he ignored her. Something out the windows on the sea side caught his attention. When he crossed the room for a better look, he saw three galleys sailing straight for the bay next to the castle.

* * *

Ilysa could not tear her gaze away from Connor's tall, powerfully built frame outlined against the windows. Her cheeks grew hot as she watched the muscles of his back ripple beneath the neatly wrapped strips of linen. The white lines of his many battle scars only made him look more dangerous and fierce. Helpless to stop herself, she followed the long sinews down his back to the muscles of his buttocks, which were tantalizingly visible beneath his trews.

"Damn it, why has no one alerted me?"

Connor's angry words jolted her attention. She tried to collect her thoughts while he jerked on his boots.

"I wish to God your brother was here," he said and snapped up his shirt from the bench. "You can be sure the men would be keeping watch."

"Let me help with that," she said, fearing he'd dislodge the bandages.

While he pulled the shirt down over his chest, she held her hands inside it to keep it from rubbing against his wound. Ach, a lass could swoon standing this close to Connor with her hands under his shirt.

"What did ye see?" she asked, when she remembered there was cause for alarm.

"Three war galleys are about to land." Connor grabbed his claymore and started for the door.

"Whose are they?" she asked as she followed behind him.

"They belong to Alexander of Dunivaig and the Glens."

"Is he attacking us?"

"I don't believe so," Connor said as he pounded down the stairs in front of her. "I invited him."

* * *

Men! Why did Connor not think to warn her that he had invited an important chieftain to the castle? Good heavens, what would she feed their guests? They had only just arrived themselves. At least she had set some of the servants to cleaning the hall and the bedchambers first thing.

She had not even had time to visit the kitchens yet. As the MacLeods controlled most of the countryside surrounding the castle, she suspected they barely had enough food to feed themselves. Three galleys full of warriors could clean out their stores in no time.

"When did ye invite him?" Ilysa asked as she ran to keep up with him.

"I told his son James when he visited Dunscaith a few weeks ago."

"But this castle was still in the hands of the MacLeods then," she said.

"I had confidence we would take it."

Clearly. "But why did ye invite him?" she asked as she followed him through the door that connected the newer building to the keep.

Connor turned and raised an eyebrow at her before pushing through the door that led out into the courtyard. Apparently, the chieftain viewed that as one question too many.

Ilysa crossed the hall to another set of steps that led down to the undercroft. This was not how she wanted to do this. Her plan had been to tread softly and take her time winning over the servants of the castle, particularly the fearsome cook in charge of the kitchens. She'd heard murmurs since her arrival that he was the devil himself.

Though Ilysa had been only seventeen when she began managing the castle household at Dunscaith, everyone there knew her and had known her mother before her. For the most part, they had accepted her authority easily enough. Her Trotternish clansmen may know her brother and may have seen her at gatherings when she was a child, but that would not gain her much.

The cook, a sour-looking man in his fifties, glared at her the moment she came through the doorway to the kitchens.

"What is your name?" she asked.

"I'm called Cook," he said as if he expected an argument.

"Cook, I fear we find ourselves in a desperate situation," she said, standing before him with her hands folded. "The reputation of the clan depends upon you."

That brought a snide laugh from him. "The reputation of the clan depends on my oatcakes?"

"Alexander of Dunivaig and a hundred of his warriors are about to land," she said. "Ye know very well that a chieftain is judged by how lavish a host he is, so we require a grand feast."

The cook let out a long string of oaths, which Ilysa let pass without comment.

"'Tis important we not embarrass our chieftain," she said.

"'Tis no my fault," he said, raising his hands into the air, "that I don't have the supplies I need to create dishes to impress an important guest."

"As I'm sure you're aware, the MacLeods are waiting to pounce on us and take back this castle," she said, keeping her tone calm. "The safety of the clan is at stake. We must do our part to make our clan appear stronger than we are."

"I'd need the help of the faeries to make that kind of feast," he sputtered.

"Tell me what ye need, and I'll see what I can do," she said.

His face grew redder still as he attempted to stare her down. After a long moment, he appeared to accept that she was not giving up or leaving.

"I have venison, oysters, and fish," he said, giving a calculating glance around the kitchen, "but I have no spices to make fancy sauces."

"I brought spices with me from Dunscaith."

The cook broke into a smile that seemed to surprise him even more than it did her.

"What else do ye need?" she asked.

"I can't cook a special feast without more help." He glared at two young girls stirring pots that hung over the huge kitchen hearth. "I only have these two, and they're useless."

"They're MacDonald lasses, so I'm sure they're hard workers," she said, casting an encouraging smile at them.

The castle had just been taken from the MacLeods three weeks ago. Former servants were drifting back day by day, but with no one in charge of the household, they were left to make their own choices. Ilysa suspected Cook had no other help because he was unpleasant to work with.

"I'll find ye some help, but ye must promise ye won't scare them off."

She did not wait to hear his response. A quarter of an hour later, she returned with four helpers and her precious store of spices. The cook, who was slicing venison with such speed that his knife was a blur, looked up and gave her a curt nod.

Her first victory, and an important one.