Authors: Bride of a Scottish Warrior
“Does she now?” Decision made, Ewan pulled up on the reins. He swung off his horse, then lifted James down. “Well, we shall have to catch a few of those fat hares to make yer aunt happy.”
Grace stayed on her mare while Ewan and the boys gathered the supplies needed to set several snares. From the leather bag tied to his horse, Ewan produced a sturdy length of thin rope, which he pronounced would be perfect for a snare. With the boys practically yapping at his heels, Ewan searched for an appropriate spot to set the trap.
Eager to help, Malcolm and James dogged his steps and copied his every movement, making the task twice as long to accomplish. Yet Ewan didn’t seem to mind overmuch. Grace was impressed by the patience he showed toward her nephews, the way he skillfully ceased their bickering and allowed each boy a chance to perform a task. Before long, several snares had been placed. All they need do was to return when the rabbits had been caught.
“James has found the perfect place to hide while we wait fer the rabbits to reappear,” Ewan said with a smile.
He offered his hand up to her. Grace ignored it. “Could we not ride on and check the traps upon our return?” she asked, looking down at him in dismay.
“Nay, ’tis best if we stay close, to make certain another hungry animal does not steal our catch. The lads would be sorely disappointed to find the snares empty.”
Their gazes locked and Grace smiled wanly. The tension that had plagued her for most of the night returned as her thoughts ran faster than a melting river. The very last thing she wanted was to be strolling through the area with Ewan at her side. It was too secluded, too private, too intimate. Well, at least she had Malcolm and James as an escort; their boisterous presence would prevent her from being completely alone with this handsome knight.
Seeing no other possibility, Grace placed her hand in the one Ewan offered. She slid from the back of her horse, grateful she was wearing leather gloves and thus could avoid contact with his bare flesh.
Once on the ground, Ewan gripped her arm to draw her attention. Her heart gave an odd lift at the amused glimmer in his eye and she braced for more of his attention.
But he didn’t speak. Instead, he walked calmly beside her, taking care that the path they trod was not too narrow, making certain she avoided tripping on any large tree roots. Malcolm and James ran ahead, their feet crunching through the underbrush.
Eventually they exited the grove of trees and entered a small valley. A stream flowed through the middle, while around them fields of heather were beginning to bloom, the spicy scent bringing a familiar sense of comfort.
Ewan suddenly halted and turned toward her. Grace tried stepping around him, but he blocked her path.
“The lads,” she said lamely.
“Are within our sight and hearing,” Ewan insisted.
“If they aren’t careful, they’ll end up in that water in the blink of an eye,” Grace warned. “And trust me, they are very seldom careful.”
“Then I’ll fish them out,” Ewan replied. “I’m a strong swimmer.”
“Naturally. Is there anything ye dinnae do well?”
His sharp gaze swung over her. “I’m a sore loser, Grace. Especially when I’m denied something I truly want.”
His voice was edged with determination. It sent a shiver down her back, yet at the same time stiffened her resolve. She would not relent.
She bit her lip in frustration. Ewan was not easily dissuaded. His need must be dire, to be trying so hard. Most Highlanders would be humiliated at the notion of wooing a reluctant lass; they did not take kindly to having a woman doing what she wanted.
Grace let out a long, audible sigh. “I cling to the hope that ye’ll soon grow as tired of hearing the same words of refusal as I am to say them.”
In spite of her adamant words, Grace felt a sudden loneliness assaulting her. If only circumstances were different, she might be listening to Ewan’s seductive words with an open mind. He seemed a genuine sort, doing his best to be honest while presenting a flattering portrait of himself and the life he could offer her.
“If ye are weary of refusing me, then say something else. Say yes.”
Her reply was lost in the wind. James yelled and Malcolm laughed. Grace turned to look, but Ewan suddenly grasped her arm and swung her toward him. Without warning, he pulled her close and kissed her, his tongue slipping between her lips. Grace’s body froze.
Saints alive, what is he doing? Alastair never kissed me this way.
Emotions in turmoil, Grace tried to move away, but Ewan clearly had other ideas. His left hand grasped the nape of her neck and held her in place, while the right dropped to her hip, slipped around and cupped her buttocks. His arms felt strong and sure. His body was harder than hers, but she found security and secret enjoyment as her soft breasts pressed against his strong chest.
He pushed his tongue in farther, circling, stroking, teasing. Her heart nearly stopped as sensations filled her. Unfamiliar, yet exciting. A strange restlessness. The intoxicating taste of him, the sensual feel, the aching closeness. It was too much to comprehend, too much to understand. So she shut her mind to it and for a moment, a single, wicked, stolen moment, Grace allowed the experience to flow over her, engulf her.
Something primal beat through her body. Ewan swept his tongue across her teeth insistently, nudging her into a response. Her head was spinning as her body filled with a deep yearning, an incredible need. She was alive—painfully alive—and aware of every sensation coursing through her.
This is passion, desire.
He moaned. The low, throaty sound vibrated through her soul, sparking a well of temptation. She could feel the heat of him through the layers of their clothes. He was hard and muscular, a solid strength to her softer curves. She laced her fingers through his hair, feeling the soft, silky strands, tasting and teasing him with her tongue and mouth until she could no longer catch her breath.
With another low-throated growl, Ewan pulled away and Grace stumbled. They were both breathing heavily. He moved to embrace her again, but Grace put out her hand, holding him at arm’s length.
Yet the distance failed to break the intimacy. Ewan looked at her as though he were trying to see into her mind. To decipher the secrets of her heart and learn her true feelings about their kisses. An unwelcome blush crept into her cheeks at the notion that he would discover how much she truly enjoyed it.
No doubt he had kissed dozens of women, nay, probably hundreds. And there would be many more after her. Abruptly, she turned away. Needing to occupy her hands, Grace stooped to pull a wildflower. Feeling the weight of Ewan’s stare, she tore a petal from the flower and tossed it to the wind.
“Ye are destined to be mine, lass,” he said. “Those kisses prove it. A wise woman would admit defeat and accept her fate calmly.”
His wife. His woman. Sharing his life. And his bed.
Her mind spun with the memory of his lips upon hers, distracting her in ways she dared not contemplate. Grace closed her eyes briefly to gain courage and willed herself to ignore the wicked thoughts that raced through her mind.
This was not the moment to weaken. Ewan’s kisses—as pleasant and delightful as they were—meant nothing, changed nothing.
“Rabbits! We caught the rabbits!” James shouted.
Grace sagged with relief at the distraction. Sparing a brief glance at Ewan, she hurried to her nephews. Having no other choice, Ewan followed. When they arrived at the traps, the boys were fairly dancing with excitement.
Grace sighed with gratitude when Ewan turned his full attention to the hares. As the four of them mounted their horses, Grace felt more at ease and composed, confident she had successfully put the heated encounter firmly from her mind.
Indeed, by the time they arrived back at the keep, she’d convinced herself those afternoon kisses were all but forgotten.
Well, nearly forgotten.
Ewan kept stealing glances at Grace throughout the evening meal. If she noticed, she gave no sign. Instead, she sat with an almost regal stillness, her shoulders square, her head erect, her gaze sharp as a falcon hunting its prey, never once glancing his way.
When asked a direct question, which he did as often as possible, Grace was forced to speak. Yet she achieved her revenge by keeping her manner annoyingly formal and distant, as though she were holding herself apart from the very air surrounding her.
None of which boded well for him. The kisses in the glen should have made a difference. As much as she might protest the contrary, Ewan knew she enjoyed them. Yet it had not softened her attitude toward him, nor opened her mind to his proposal. She was as determined to deny him as he was determined to possess her.
Worst of all, his time was running out. Spring planting was starting. If he did not return home soon—with seeds to spare—many in his village would starve this winter.
At first pleased to discover that Grace was no sheep to meekly follow where she was led, Ewan now wished for a more pliable maiden. One who succumbed easily to flattery and admiration. One who did not hold her emotions so tightly. Aye, he wanted badly to break through her composure, to unlock the fire he believed burnt beneath her calm control.
“Today we hunted rabbits.” Ewan glanced sideways at Grace, staring hard until she was compelled to look at him. “Tomorrow we’ll go fishing.”
Wide-eyed, Grace stared at him. “I dinnae know how to fish.”
“No matter. I’ll teach ye.”
“I’ve no wish to learn.” She cleared her throat, then tilted her head and cast him an innocent smile. “But I’ll wager that Malcolm and James would relish the adventure. I’ll tell them ye’ll be taking them tomorrow before they go to bed. Though I fear they will be so excited they might not sleep much and that could make them a wee cranky come morning.”
Ewan grinned, not bothering to suppress his laughter. He could well imagine what a handful the lads would be if they lacked proper rest. “There’ll be no chaperones this time, Grace. We’ll be alone. So I can woo ye properly, as is fitting fer a courting couple.”
Grace turned an interesting shade of red, the blush starting on her chest and rushing upward. “Do ye never let it rest?”
“Never. I’m told ’tis part of my charm.”
“Fie, I dinnae believe that for an instant.”
“’Tis true. Lasses throughout the land clamor for my attention.”
“Then it will not be hard fer ye to find a bride,” she said in a prim tone.
“I’ve already found her,” he said, allowing the huskiness to linger in his tone.
Grace let out an exasperated sigh and turned her attention to her trencher. She speared a small chunk of meat with the tip of her table knife and plunked it into her mouth. His gaze fixated on her lips as she chewed. They were plump and full, teasingly inviting a man to kiss them.
Tension coiled in his gut and whirled through his limbs, bringing on a reckless desire. Ewan watched her delicate fingers wrapped securely around the stem of her wine goblet, imagining them on his body. Curling into his tunic and pulling him closer. Caressing his shoulders and chest, then moving lower, across his stomach and upper thighs before reaching for the hardness between his legs.
For an instant, Ewan allowed his imagination to take him on an erotic fantasy, but the mood was shattered by the banging of tankards on the wooden tables as the men demanded more ale. When the servants hurried to appease the soldiers, Ewan turned to Grace.
“I’d like to propose a truce,” he stated formally.
She looked at him as though he had two heads. “I was unaware that we were at war.”
“We are trapped on opposite sides.”
“And shall forever remain that way.” Her expression darkened. “Our lives are not meant to intertwine.”
“No one fated to live out their days locked away in a convent kisses the way you do, Grace.”
She had the conscience to blush and look away, but refused to engage in further conversation. Ewan turned to his tankard and slowly drank. He knew better than to underestimate her. She was a worthy opponent. Thankfully, there were few in this world who could best him when it came to hard bargaining.
Grace was remarkably, at her core, a reasonable woman. What he needed to do was discover what she wanted out of a marriage. Quickly.
And then pray to God he could provide it to her.
Knowing it was wise to avoid Ewan, Grace broke her fast the next morning standing in a corner of the kitchen, munching on oatcakes and hard cheese. The bustling servants barely spared her a glance as they hurried to set out the meal in the great hall.
Hunger appeased, Grace retreated to the women’s solar, the one place she knew Ewan would not be able to find her. Like many others, Aileen was protective of her female domain—no male entered her solar uninvited, including her husband. It was a comfortable and welcome retreat, reflecting the thought and care that had gone into creating it.
Grace’s feet were cushioned as she walked across the patterned carpet positioned in the center of the chamber. One of the maids had opened the shutters and brisk air circulated throughout the room. Grace sat upon a bench set beneath the window, moving the soft cushion to the side. Tucking her legs under her, she gazed out at the newly sowed fields and the picturesque hills in the distance.
Her thoughts drifted as she looked at the landscape, wondering what lay beyond the mountains. What would it feel like to ride out into the wilderness? To explore a world previously unknown, to journey to a place she had never been. To make a new life for herself... with Ewan.
Grace frowned. Where had that ridiculous thought been hiding? ’Twas foolish to dwell on things that could never be. Aye, foolish and a complete waste of time. Shaking off her unexpected melancholy, Grace reached for the box that held her sewing tools and the half-sewn tunic resting on top. Last week she had started making it for Malcolm and now seemed like the ideal time to finish it.
In due time Aileen arrived, her daughter, Katherine, trailing on her heels. Grace gave her niece a hug, her sister-in-law a warm greeting, then bowed her head attentively to the sewing she held in her lap. If luck was with her this morning, Aileen would take the hint that Grace preferred silence. The very last thing she wanted to discuss was Ewan Gilroy, especially with her thoughts and emotions so jumbled in her mind.